Dick slept for many hours but his rest was anything but a peaceful one. In his dreams he wasn't dressed as Nightwing or as Robing instead as himself, wearing the circus garb of the Flying Graysons. His family. The outfit's bright colours had inspired his uniform as Robin but it had been an age since he'd last seen it having buried the unitard in his trunk in Wayne Manor and practically forgotten it existed until now.
"Dick!" A voice yelled out. It was a voice that was far too familiar and turned Richard positively pale. He turned around and saw not only that he was standing in an all too familiar circus tent but also saw the person calling his name was his father, a man who had been dead for just under fifteen years.
John Grayson had been a tell fellow when he'd been alive. He could have easily passed for a circus strongman but instead had opted for the life of a circus acrobat with his wife and son. He'd towered over Dick fourteen years ago but now his son managed to just about reach up to his nose, yet John Grayson didn't seem to notice this difference in height and began to speak to Dick as if he were ten years old again.
"I know you don't wanna do it, son but this next trick's too dangerous. Even for you." He placed a hand on his boy's shoulder and gave the same smile he'd always given when putting the boy in a bad place. "It's your mum's orders so blame her if you wanna blame someone." Upon being mentioned the form and figure of Mary Grayson materialized next to her husband, placing her arms around his shoulders. It was only when she spoke that Dick realised their voices were ever so slightly distorted, as if they were echoing off the walls of his mind.
"I know you want to go up there with us, Richard." She said, never using the nickname he'd been saddled with since birth. "But don't worry." She said, smiling. Somehow her smile seemed to become ever so slightly cruel. "You'll get your chance when you're older." John Grayson smiled in the same fashion, lips stretching till the whites of his teeth were plainly visible. "You'll get your chance to die like the rest of us." She promised.
Dick opened his mouth to speak but the words that came out weren't what he meant. "S'okay mum. Just be careful up there."
This came out in a child's voice, repeated from that terrible night. In his heart Dick was screaming at them. "Don't go up there!" He wanted to say, screaming it without actually screaming. "I can't watch you die again!"
And technically he didn't. When he saw the Flying Graysons falling to their deaths once again he looked away. Somehow only hearing the sound of their impact made things worse. The bodies of the Graysons lay still upon the ground, their hands somehow still interlinked as they had been mere seconds ago when they'd been flying above the ground. All around the circus came the sounds of applause despite the place being empty and Dick dropped down to his knees. He wanted to cry but couldn't and was instead left feeling merely a cold numbness in his chest. He looked at the bodies lying before him once, then looked down to the ground. Warm tears slowly began to stream from his eyelids.
"You should have been up there with us, son."
The corpses of John and Mary Grayson sat up where they'd fallen and turned towards their son, eyes rolled backward yet still staring at their son.
"Better to be dead than the waste you've become." They both said.
A firm, warm hand planted itself on Dick's shoulder. He looked up towards the owner expecting to see the man who would come to look after him but instead found himself looking into the face of a demonic bat creature with a clown smile painted across the lower half of its face.
"Don't worry!"The Bat said excitedly, eyes widening to fill the top half of its face. "You can join my war! It's a never ending war which means we'll never win!"Then the Bat started laughing. Then the Graysons started laughing, and soon the whole circus was filled with laughter. The only one not laughing was Dick who was screaming, screaming until he felt like his vocal cords were going to fly out of his throat.
The dream ended and Dick snapped awake.
He was panting heavily, sweating all over and his head was pounding like it had been hit with a sledgehammer. Lying atop his bed he rubbed at his eyes and grabbed his phone. Heading into his contacts he called who he always went to when things got rough.
"Hey Babs." He groaned, feeling exhausted despite the sleep he'd just awoken from. "...wait what time is it?"
"It's six in the morning." Barbara said from the other end. She sounded stressed. "Can we talk later?"
"Did you talk to Superman yesterday?" Dick asked, ignoring her request as he scratched the back of his neck. There was the sound of punches and shouts over the phone forcing Dick to pull the device away from his ear in surprise. He listened closely to the background sound and managed to stammer out: "Are you fighting Ninjas?!"
"Yes! I'm busy! And yes I... 'Ugh!'... I did meet Superman yesterday and he asked about you! But I can't talk right now so just let me focus!"
"Then why'd you answer the call?"
"I thought you were Black Canary."
This was followed by the brief sound of gunfire which was quickly followed by the screams of men that sounded vaguely Japanese.
"Are you alright?" Dick asked, mustering up the energy to climb off the bed. He looked around the dark, cluttered room for his costume only to realize that he'd fallen asleep in it. It didn't smell great. "You don't need help do ya?"
"I'm fine, Dick." Batgirl practically growled through the speaker.
"Alright. Well feel free to call if you need any-" The sound of fighting was replaced by a hollow tone as the line went dead. "-help." He finished, voice sounding almost as hollow as the dial tone.
It was around ten minutes later that Dick plucked up the motivation to begin the day. There was a bag of croissants lying atop his nightstand that he must have bought earlier in the week so he grabbed them and tried to enjoy his breakfast. Feeling partially full he grabbed the signal watch gifted to him just a few hours ago and, with nothing better to do set the watch's hands to the time: 7:38 PM. The watch chirped almost excitedly before the hands reverted to their original positions and a loud whoosh was heard just outside of the window.
"That was fast!" Dick said, cheering up almost immediately.
Superman hovered outside the building. He was smiling with his arms folded across his chest just atop the S that represented his bloodline. In the dawning sunlight his costume's colours seemed to almost glow and Nightwing actually had to wince when looking at him.
"Hi, Dick." The Kryptonian said once the window had been opened. He touched down upon the rusted fire escape, red cape somehow still flapping in the soft breeze.
"Hey, Clark." Nightwing said while trying to holster a yawn. He stretched his arms slightly and tried to sound like he hadn't just woken up a few minutes ago. "So... this thing you mentioned. The thing that you said you think will give me a purpose... it's not gonna end with me getting stuck in the Phantom Zone or something, is it?"
The Man of Steel quickly shook his head and stepped forward causing the fire escape to almost buckle beneath his weight. Looking somewhat concerned Superman activated his heat vision and began applying quick bursts of the solar energy to the railing's bolts in order to fasten them tight to the wall.
"I can't make any promises, Dick." He said. "People like us always seem to find trouble even when we're not looking for it." He smiled almost sympathetically. "But I'll do my best to try and avoid getting us stranded on Apokolips or anything like that." He said that last part with a slight wink.
"So no weird Science Fiction stuff?"
"Again. No promises."
Dick's eyes narrowed and he contemplated the mere idea of the adventure for a moment. It seemed positively ludicrous. Yet Dick had been a superhero for most of his life and was very much used to the ludicrous by this point in his career.
"Aw what the heck." He finally said. "Not like I had plans today anyway."
The two shook hands swiftly. It was at this point that Dick posed a fairly important question to his alien ally. "So... what are we actually gonna be doing?"
"Well. When I 'died'-" Superman did air quotes with his fingers upon saying this. "-and later came back to life, I honestly think I felt a lot like you do, Dick. Lost. I turned to my Kryptonian heritage for purpose and I found something worth living for. I'd like to try and help you in the same way."
"But... I don't have a Kryptonain heritage." Dick pointed out.
Superman gave a knowing smirk. Not in a mean spirited sort of way but instead in an amused sort of way.
"Don't you?" He asked before placing a finger to the communication device in his ear. "Watchtower. Two to the Fortress please."
There was a humming sound from out of nowhere and Dick suddenly found himself encased in a cocoon of glowing white light that burned so bright he was forced to close his eyes. When he opened them again he found that he was no longer in Gotham but was instead stood in the white desert of the Arctic. Immediately he felt the blistering cold of the freezing winds and wrapped his arms around his chest on instinct.
"Jeeeeezzzzussss, the cold!" He managed to say through chattering teeth, his skin tight uniform doing little to offer warmth. Unsurprisingly Superman was completely unaffected by the temperature, but he did look worried.
"Oh! I'm sorry." He said quickly while unfastening his cape and wrapping it around his freezing colleague. Dick was surprised by how warm the thin fabric was, as if it had been cooked in a microwave just minutes before. "Sorry!" Superman said again. "Sometimes I forget how cold the Arctic can be."
"S'okay..." Nightwing said, trying desperately to hide the chattering of his teeth. "It's okay. If I'd known where we were going I'd have dressed warmer but it's alright." The Man of Steel nodded and pulled from his belt a device that looked suspiciously like a set of car keys with the Superman symbol printed in the center.
Clicking the button in the key's center let loose a small beeping noise that caused the ground beneath Nightwing's feet to shake and tremble. Worried, he looked over to Superman who was in fact smiling. Soon Dick saw why.
From the ground below rose up an icy spire that was accompanied by the crystal structure that formed the basis of the Fortress of Solitude. It was a massive sight rising up from the ice like a car park security bollard and as Dick saw the Fortress of Solitude loom above him the single, piercing thought he had was that it put the Batcave to shame. Of course Dick didn't actually say this, in response to the still rising Fortress he simply said: "Wowzers."
All the cold that had previously filled his bones was forgotten and instead replaced by the same childhood amazement that had filled him when he had first discovered the dark caves underneath Wayne Manor.
"Is this your first time in the Fortress?" Superman asked. He was floating a few feet up in the air now and seemed weird without the red cape flapping behind him.
"It's definitely been awhile."
"I'll give you the tour!" Superman said seeming almost excited. "Follow along!" He flew over to the Fortress' main entrance and Dick found himself hard pressed to keep up, though he did manage and found his Kryptonian host stood waiting for him. By their feet was a brown door mat with the word 'Welcome!' sprawled across it.
"Whatever happened to using a giant key?" Dick asked as Superman reached under the mat and pulled out a small, glittering gold item.
"Not secure enough." Superman answered placing the item into a small black hole ice and turning it. There was a loud clicking sound from deep within the Fortress and the ice began to part. "Once Batman hid inside the key, entered the Fortress as I used it and sneaked out in the same way with a sliver of Kryptonite." He looked pained for a split second but quickly started to smile again as if the whole thing had just been one big joke. Dick looked at the man in complete disbelief.
"Wow, Clark. If someone broke into my house and stole the only thing in the universe that could kill me I don't think I'd ever trust them again. Let alone send them Christmas Cards every December!" He paused and stared at the tiny key in Superman's hand. "Sorry, but how's that more secure? Surely the World's Greatest Detective... or even Bizarro could figure out a key underneath a mat."
"Well. You're welcome to try, Dick."
Superman quickly placed the key upon the ground and when he looked back up the look on his face was like that of a man holding a winning set of cards in Poker and knew nobody else knew. "Try not to hurt your back." He quickly warned. Dick looked down at the tiny thing lying innocently upon the floor and knew immediately that something was up. Yet unable to deduce what exactly was wrong he reached down and gripped the key by its sides. Immediately all the muscles in his back began to burn as he strained to lift the key even slightly. Dick grit his teeth and put all his effort into lifting the thing but the key hadn't even been raised slightly up off the ground.
"You're not going to lift it, Dick." Superman finally said after what felt like an eternity of trying. "It's forged from a Super Dense White Dwarf Star fragment that I got from the Atom and it weighs about half a million tons." He casually reached down, picked up five hundred thousand ton key and tossed it from hand to the other as easily as if it were a pebble.
"Anyway! Enough standing in the cold." He said while ignoring Dick's stunned expression. "Let's head inside."
That's exactly what they did. This new Dynamic Duo ventured through a newly revealed doorway in the Fortress wall which promptly shut behind them. Once inside the building Nightwing felt colour return to his cheeks from the base's heating and, not needing it anymore, removed Superman's cape from his shoulders.
"I will take that for you, sir." A metallic voice suddenly said into Nightwing's ear. He spun around and found himself two exact duplicates of Superman! Both of whom were staring directly at him with the polite smile of their counterpart yet without any other form of emotion. Dick let out a loud breath as he calmed himself.
"I take it these are some of your old androids." He said, handing the cape over to the duplicate that had spoken. Superman quickly stepped between his doubles and Nightwing looking apologetic as he did so.
"Yes. Sorry, their code's a little rusty and we haven't had guests in a long while. They keep sneaking up on Lois and Jon whenever they come around." He smiled and chuckled to himself. "Supergirl accidentally knocked Number #19's head off once!"
The android holding the cape, presumably the one that Superman had just mentioned passed the cape back to its master. "Greetings, Kal-El." It said in a voice that wasn't even remotely human. "I trust you had a good day?"
"Pretty decent, Number #19."
The android turned its head in a curious yet unsettling manner.
"And I see that we have a guest!" It looked to Nightwing and gave a smile intended to show teeth but instead merely showed the web of red cybernetics within its mouth. "Shall I go prepare the kitchen?"
"If you want, #19. But we shouldn't be here too long."
The android gave a brisk, sharp nod. "I'll start up the ovens."
He spun around and marched mechanically to his destination, his companion androids following along. Superman watched them leave and then without turning looked to Nightwing.
"Aren't those the same model as the android that killed Donna Troy?" Dick asked, whispering. "...y'know, until she came back to life?"
Superman nodded solemnly, a pinch of regret in his eyes. "Same model, yes. But I've made sure that nothing like that will ever happen again."
Dick wasn't so sure. Donna had been one of his oldest friends growing up and the day that she'd died had been one of the toughest of his life. She was back amongst the living now thanks to some cosmic quirk but when Dick had looked into the face of Number #19 he'd looked into the same, soulless face of the monster that had hurt him and his friends.
The next hour or so was spent with Superman showing Nightwing around the Fortress of Solitude, with most of the tour actually taking place in the Fortress' trophy room. There were many interesting artifacts in there, all of which the Man of Steel would point out as they went past.
"That's the Nth Metal helmet of Orion!" He would say and point. "That's the White Lantern ring I wore when we fought the Black Lantern Corps!" He mentioned with a smile. "And over there's the sword of Eclipso!"
This went on for many, many, many minutes with Dick quietly listening the whole time but not really speaking. That was until they came to the bottle city of Kandor which sat proudly on a pedestal towards the end of the room, the interior of the bottle teeming with life as the microscopic Kryptonians living within went about their normal lives.
"Always wanted to see this." Nightwing muttered as he carefully pressed up to the glass and looked at the tiny people inside. Superman seemed to be looming patiently behind him and it came as a surprise when he said:
"I'm glad you like it, Dick. Because that's where we're headed."
Nightwing's eyes widened behind his mask. He turned his attention away from the bottled city of Kryptonians to the regular sized one behind him.
"I thought we weren't gonna do any weird Sci-Fi stuff." He said, sounding almost like he was whining. Superman simply shook his head.
"I promised we wouldn't be going o the Phantom Zone." He corrected. "I never said anything about Kandor."
Dick was simply astounded by this. He stood there with his jaw open, gobsmacked. Then he began to grin. "Y'know you can be pretty snarky when you wanna be, Supes."
The Man of Steel winked. "Don't tell Lois."
"Why are we headed in there again?" Superman placed a hand on Nightwing's shoulder, firm but kind.
"Because there's someone in there I want you to meet, Dick. Someone who can help you out of the rut you're in."
Something seemed to shake inside Nightwing, something that brought all the doubts, questions and fears he'd been feeling since Blüdhaven bubbling back to the surface.
"I don't know, Clark." He finally admitted. "Whatever it is I'm going through I think I need to handle it alone. I think..." Something dawned on him. "Wow. I need t-"
Yet whatever this realization was would have to wait.
"I am sorry to interrupt this conversation..." A familiar mechanical voice said from behind the two men. "But there are more important matters to be discussed."
Dick hadn't heard Android #19 approach. Neither had Superman judging from the shocked look on his face. Yet here the android was with a small squad of his cohorts, none of whom seemed particularly friendly despite the appearance that they wore.
"Number #19?" Superman said sounding alarmed. "What's wrong?" Dick saw the Man of Steel's hands clench into fists beneath his cape. Something went wrong and, anticipating danger Nightwing moved a hand to his escrima stick. There was something in the android's hands, a black device that resembled an old, black movie projector. It took a moment but Dick recognized it as the Phantom Zone Projector that Superman would often use to trap his most powerful foes in another dimension... and it was pointed right at him!
"Our service to you has come to an end, Kal-El." #19 said, his face twisting into a mocking snarl. His finger went to the Projector's trigger and that was when Superman made his move! He threw himself into the air at terrible speed, so fast in fact that Nightwing was still reacting to the swift movement when the rest of the action occurred. With his fist held forward the Man of Steel aimed to punch through #19's skull but before he got the chance he vanished, banished from reality.
#19 held the smoking Projector in his hands, a look of triumph filled his face that didn't match his words.
"Farewell, father. Though you may not see it this way, consider your fate mercy." The android's head snapped towards Nightwing, his smile switching to a stiff frown.
The group of androids began to approach the young acrobat who couldn't believe how quickly things had turned completely wrong.
"Alright get back!" Dick yelled. He threw his escrima stick at the android closest to him but it bounced off the robot's chest without any hint of damage. There were easily a dozen of the machines and with desperation planning his steps Nightwing lunged for one of the nearby weapons within the Hall of Trophies. "I said 'GET BACK'!" Dick yelled as he brought up the gleaming black sword of Eclipso, black flame almost tickling his chin as it flickered. That made the androids falter. They immediately halted their advance and started at their opponent with unnerving calm.
"You do realize the sword of Eclipso is only usable by those with magic in their blood?" #19 asked. Dick had not realized that, and knowing that defeat was now inevitable he quickly tapped the center of the bright blue logo upon his chest.
"This is Titans' member Nightwing requesting urgent assist-" He began to say, only to interrupted by a robotic punch to the jaw. As Dick felt himself collapsing, utterly helpless before this new threat he felt darkness begin to overtake his vision.
He clenched his hand into a fist for one final, desperate, doomed attack but fell unconscious before it could even be thrown.
He was at his foe's mercy.