by Starsky Hutch 76, Dan Swanson and Immortalwildcat
Rachel Levine grumbled to herself as she exited the side doorway of the Gotham City Dance Conservatory. Her mind had hardly been on practice, and she had made a lot of stupid mistakes. She worried that it would cause the other dancers to talk. She wanted them to feel that she was there because she deserved to be, not because she was some spoiled brat who was only there because her family was one of the major benefactors of the dance company. As a consequence, she probably trained even harder than the rest of the dancers ever did.
She was snapped out of her morose train of thought by the sound of a high-pitched scream. She turned in the direction of the scream and saw, on the sidewalk leading from the conservatory, one of the other dancers on her knees. Two rough-looking young men who were running off with her purse had knocked her down.
“Sherilyn! Are you OK?” Rachel asked, running to her side.
“I’m OK,” she moaned, “but they took my new Luis Viton handbag!” Rachel took off running after the two men. “What are you doing?!” Sherilyn exclaimed.
“I’m not going to let them get away with this!” Rachel called back over her shoulder. She had seen this sort of thing too many times during her travels with the dance company — hoods hanging around waiting to prey on the delicate-looking dancers as they left for the night. Well, tonight she wasn’t in the mood to put up with it.
One of the two fleeing hoods looked over his shoulder, nudged his friend, and the two dived into an alley. She quickly followed, hot on their heels.
When she entered the alley, she saw that the two had stopped running. They were turned in her direction, waiting with savage leers upon their faces.
“Looks like tonight’s gonna be even more fun than we thought,” one of them said.
“Give me the purse,” Rachel growled.
“What’chu gonna do for us?” the second one growled.
“Let you keep all your teeth?” Rachel said quickly.
This made the two hoods break into peels of laughter. A fierce look crossed Rachel’s face that made the first hood stop laughing.
“S-say, why don’tcha just run along before you get hurt, lady?” he said.
“Wha? What’chu talking about? You said we was gonna have fun with her!” the second hood exclaimed.
“Give me back the purse!” Rachel demanded.
“Watch out, man. Her eyes… I think it’s the Huntress!”
“It’s not the freaking Huntress, you superstitious coward! It’s just some crazy chick with a death wish!” the second hood said, launching himself at her. Rachel deftly dodged his attack, grabbing his arm and sending him flying into a row of garbage cans.
The first hood gathered his courage and tried to grab her from behind. She grabbed his arm and executed a perfect judo flip, sending him flying.
“You are so dead, bitch!” the second hood bellowed, running at her. Rachel launched herself into the air, doing a flying roundhouse kick. Her heel connected with his head, knocking him unconscious.
“OK, that’s it!” the first hood suddenly screamed, charging at her. Her leg launched up in a front snap kick, connecting with his face and leaving him with a stunned, bewildered expression. He barely had time to blink as she continued her offensive.
“Kee-yaah!” Rachel screamed, launching a series of double-punches to his face. His knees buckled, and he fell to the ground unconscious.
“Rachel! Omigod!” Sherilyn screamed from the entrance to the alleyway, seeing Rachel still in a judo position standing over the fallen forms of the two hoods.
“What are you doing here?!” Rachel exclaimed.
“I — I came to see if you needed help,” Sherilyn said, stunned at the sight in front of her.
“You could’ve gotten hurt,” Rachel chided.
“I — I was gonna tell you the same thing, but…”
“Yeah, well, we’d better keep this to ourselves,” Rachel said, picking up her purse and handing it to her. “The guys in our troupe… Well, men seem to react differently to women they know can kick their butts.”
“Nort Chucklis is a friend of my dad’s and my godfather,” Rachel said.
“The action film star?!” Sherilyn exclaimed.
“Yeah,” Rachel said smiling. “He’s been teaching me everything he knows since I was this high,” she said, gesturing with her hand at waist level.
“Wow,” Sherilyn said. “You think you could teach me some of those moves?”
“Sure,” Rachel said. “If you can excel at ballet, you can certainly learn the martial arts.” She gestured ahead for them to leave the alley. “Let me walk you to your car, just in case there are any more goons like this out tonight.”
As she walked with her fellow dancer, she wondered if dancing or even martial arts weren’t abilities that she had inherited from her real father. It was certainly not something Maury or Rachel had shown any skill or interest in. Maury told her that Dick Grayson had been a member of the Flying Graysons, an acrobatic troupe, until his parents had been killed and he had ended up as a ward of Bruce Wayne. It made her wonder what he might have been like if he had grown up with them instead of ending up being raised by a man with a reputation as a playboy. It seemed like a sad loss of potential. It made her reconsider writing him off totally as she had wanted to, so she could see what he was really like or could have been like. And maybe in doing so, she could learn a little bit about herself as well.
Richard Grayson — wearing his Red Robin costume — with the hood thrown back — and his fiancée Karen Starr, AKA Power Girl, were preparing invitations from the guest list and performing various other wedding tasks that needed to be done before their upcoming wedding, which was now only three weeks away. They had been working in silence for the past half hour or so and were shocked out of their trances by the soft voice of their butler, Alfred Beagle. Alfred was normally hale, hearty and self-assured, but his current subdued tone was almost more shocking than the sudden noise.
“Please excuse me for interrupting your work, Master Richard, Ms. Karen, but I believe we have a visitor.” What could have caused that quiver in his voice? Who could have entered the Batcave without Karen hearing? Dick raised his head and was absolutely stunned to see the Spectre.
“Holy avngmphe smbheit, bmphmph!” he exclaimed, Karen’s hand choking off the later part of his exclamation. Dick couldn’t recall a past Batcave visit by the Spectre that had not heralded some emergency. Drat; they were hoping for a quiet evening.
“Greetings, my earthly friends.” Even when expressing a warm emotion such as friendship, there was nothing warm about the Spectre’s voice. Colder than the depths of space, colder even than death itself — no one who heard that voice could doubt that this was the incarnation of the spirit of vengeance. And yet, Dick could hear something different in that voice this time. In any other being, in any other voice, Dick might have thought it was diffidence, but from the Spectre?
Alfred, the consummate gentleman’s gentleman, was the first to speak. “Please excuse me, all. I will be back shortly with refreshments. I beg your pardon, sir.” He turned to the Spectre. “But we were not expecting guests this evening. Your pleasure, sir?”
This was the first time in his long existence that the Spectre had been offered refreshments. He didn’t need anything, of course, and he had no idea how to respond. A quick search through Jim Corrigan’s mind revealed an answer. “Thank you, Alfred. Could I trouble you for a Guinness stout?”
“Very good, sir. An excellent choice. My preferred tipple as well. Master Richard? Ms. Karen?”
“Make it three stouts, Alfred, and one for yourself. Thanks.” Dick had finally found his tongue again. As Alfred bustled away, he turned to the Spectre but didn’t put out his hand — nobody shook hands with the Spectre. “Good evening, Spectre. What brings you by this evening? Nothing fatal, I hope!” The attempted joke fell flat.
“Actually, I just…” The Spectre hesitated for a second. “…dropped by to…” He hesitated a little longer, almost as if searching for a word. “…to chat. If you have the time, that is.” Dick and Karen were astounded. The Spectre, one of the most powerful beings in the universe, dropping by to chat?
“We’ve plenty of time, Spectre!” Karen spoke up cheerfully. Being a nigh-omnipotent being herself, she was somewhat less awed by the presence of the Spectre than her fiancé, even though Dick had a much longer acquaintance. “What’s on your mind?”
Alfred was back with a tray of beer and snacks. They moved into the Batcave library, settling into the comfortable overstuffed chairs there. Alfred fussed with the fireplace.
“May I help you, Alfred?” the Spectre asked. Confused, Alfred stood up, and the Spectre twitched a finger. Several well-seasoned logs appeared, and they spontaneously ignited, producing a perfect fire.
“Very good, sir.” Alfred sat down and picked up his beer, as he wanted to hear this story, too.
“You are aware that I am a spirit of vengeance, but perhaps you have not given much thought to what that means.” And in fact, none of them had. “I am among the oldest of beings in this universe — older than life on this planet, and older, in fact, than this planet itself. I never had a living form, such as you now wear. I was created whole, much as you see me now.
“For most of my existence, I have been an independent entity. For ages — ages far longer than your young species has even existed, perhaps longer than your species will survive, the spirit of vengeance had no mission but vengeance. Vengeance I was created to serve, and vengeance I served. When a being, any being, no matter how great or small, cries ‘Vengeance,’ no matter where in the universe, in voice loud or small, I hear that cry. And what greater purpose could my existence have than to answer each and all? And so I did, for aeons beyond your imagining.
“Yet, with the mind my Creator gave to me, I began to wonder. I knew my purpose, and yet what did I accomplish? Yes, I helped many achieve vengeance, but rarely did I help them achieve satisfaction. And the successful achievement of vengeance is rarely an ending. It is most often a trigger for yet another cycle of vengeance, followed by another and yet another. Is there no mission for the spirit of vengeance other than sustaining vengeance itself? Is the universe a better place because I faithfully carry out my ancient mission?
“My Creator has sensed my growing discontent, my yearning to understand more, and has bound me to Jim Corrigan, that I may experience life as a human, living being, and perhaps gain a greater perspective. I have learned much during this binding — and not only from Jim Corrigan, but also through my observations of the life and growth of Bruce Wayne.”
He paused for a second to let this sink in. Alfred in particular picked up on this very quickly; he had, after all, been Bruce Wayne’s batman — his assistant — throughout most of Bruce’s adult life, and he himself had often pondered the lessons of his master’s life. “Ah, the human avatar of the spirit of vengeance! Yes, indeed — very perceptive, sir. And his evolution, his growth, you might say, into a champion of justice instead. Very good, sir, very good!”
“Thank you, Alfred.” There was no irony in his voice — he truly appreciated Alfred’s encouragement.
“If I may, sir, I had occasionally wondered why you selected Detective Corrigan, when Master Bruce seemed to be such a better fit. I understand, now — Detective Corrigan was selected for you and not Bruce, because binding you to Bruce would have guaranteed that neither of you had the opportunity to grow.”
“Ah, yes, Alfred Beagle, you have touched on the heart of it.”
Dick and Alfred rarely missed Bruce as much as they did at this instant. And yet, they had never before been as much at peace with his passing as they were. To hear this observation coming from the Spectre validated all Bruce had been, to them and the world, to his extended family and himself and his greater family — humanity.
Bruce had been a truly great man — an example of the best of humanity. Yet he had begun down a wrong path, for the path of vengeance is not the path to greatness. And he had learned, and he had found and followed a better path. And he had left markers along the way so that others could follow him if they chose.
The Spectre seemed to sense their feelings. He paused and took a sip of his beer. This had to be the single most astounding thing Dick had ever seen in his entire life. He was puzzled, though — he couldn’t figure out quite what this being was doing here.
“I beg your pardon, my friends, for running on so — it is most unlike me.” The Spectre paused again, almost as if he was working up his courage for what was to come. “Very well. Recently, I confronted a dilemma — a conundrum such as none I had faced before. And I contemplated and examined the problem from every point of view and with all the powers and experience at my disposal. And I was still unable to discover a solution. So I decided that I needed to do what I had never done before — ask my mortal acquaintances for advice.”
“Holy blmpsmph bmphmph!” Once again, Karen got her hand over his mouth before he could complete that phrase. Beyond that, he was completely at a loss for words.
“What Dick was going to say, Spectre, is how incredibly honored we are that you came to us. I’m not really sure that we have the cosmic breadth of view that you need, but we’ll give you the–”
The Spectre held up his hand, and she stopped. When he spoke again, his voice was unchanged — and yet, the three later swore there had been just the slightest tinge of amusement hidden away in those words.
“I beg your pardon for inadvertently misleading you. I’ve already obtained the advice I needed. As you have invited Jim Corrigan to your wedding, I will be unable to attend. So I would like to present you with your wedding present in advance. I hope you will find it appropriate.” He opened his hand, which had previously been empty, and displayed a small package exquisitely wrapped in something glittery and iridescent. “In fact, those I consulted with are also unable to attend, and they asked if they might go in on this gift with me.”
Karen was on her feet, a big smile on her face. “Why, thank you, Spectre. May we open it now?”
“I am unaware of the etiquette involved. Still, it would… please me, if you would.”
The wrapping wasn’t paper — it was more like solid magic. Inside was a framed photograph. The frame was hand-carved, the wood incredibly beautiful, the craftsmanship extraordinary. Still, it was the photograph that took their breath away.
It was a simple arrangement — five people sitting around a highly polished, wooden round table with a crystal ball in the middle of the table, set in a small library. But no one was looking at the setting.
Seated around this table, impossibly, were John and Mary Grayson, Bruce Wayne, and Zor-L and Allura. The three humans were too stunned to comment.
“Is something wrong, my friends? I apologize for the quality of the picture — I have no apparent talent for photography, but those pictured assured me it was more than adequate.”
At the bottom was an inscription, “Our blessings forever!” This was accompanied by five signatures and a post script in Kryptonese.
Blinking back tears, Dick responded. “It’s much more than adequate, Spectre — it’s impossibly magnificent.”
“My best wishes, my friends. I must take my leave. Jim Corrigan is suddenly needed to forward the cause of justice.” And he was gone.
Karen examined the picture more closely and laughed as she read the post script.
“What’s so funny?” Dick demanded. “Who’s it from?”
“It’s from my mother — a Kryptonian quip. There’s no exact translation, but it has the flavor of It’s about damn time!”
Dick could have sworn he saw the image of Bruce wink.
“I’m tellin’ ya, honey, she took them down just as nice as you please. Two muggers in a downtown alley, and little Miss Rachel Levine was just kickin’ their butts like she’d been coached by the Batman himself.”
“You didn’t say anything to Dick, did you?” Helena Wayne stood at the window, looking out as the sun set over Gotham City.
“Course not. You asked me to keep an eye on her, but I sorta figured that anything I saw was to be kept just between you ‘n’ me.” Bat Lash leaned against a door frame, sipping a glass of ginger ale. “And I figure that if you think Dick needs to know any of this, it’s better if he hears it from you, and that he doesn’t know I had anything to do with it.”
Helena turned toward him, and he smiled as the sunlight danced in her long, raven-black hair. “Yes, well, I don’t think Dick quite appreciates your charms the way I do,” she said with a wink.
“I don’t think Karen’s all that crazy about me, either. By the way, thank you for convincing her not to slap me the other night.”
“If I didn’t, we’d still be looking for your teeth.” Helena smiled and walked over to him. “Don’t worry, baby, they’ll come around,” she said as she ran her hand down his cheek and pulled him close. “But I do think we’d best keep a close eye on Miss Levine.”