A limp, lifeless-looking, ashen body lies listlessly at rest at the bottom of the cold porcelain ball-and-claw footed bathtub, tiny oxygen bubbles streaming from partially opened lips. The tub is filled to within an inch of capacity, and the icy cold water is as still as the small frame which lies beneath the water line. This silent scene is shattered by the sudden shriek of a man gone berserk with rage, revulsion and fear. "Oh, my word! Master Richard! Master Richard! What have you DONE?!"
As the butler's scream awakens me this strange morning, I'm immediately aware that I'll have to come up with a good explanation for my behavior. With the sound of a gurgling aquarium pump in the background, and, in my room, the cloak and dagger goings on of a few hours ago, the events of the last day almost seem like a dream. Of course, it doesn't help that I only went to sleep four hours ago, a fact which explains why my mind is the human equivalent of mush right about now. If Alfred's accent were Cuban instead of English, I could only expect that his next words would be "Dicky---you've got some 'xplaining to do!"
Alfred, the world's most "veddy veddy English" butler, always summons me for breakfast by 7:30am if I don't show up at the table by then to have breakfast with my guardian. But, like I said, I only just went to bed a couple of hours ago, so I'm pretty tired and not thinking about food, and I sure didn't set my alarm. And I was having such a lovely dream, too, but then the dream was a continuation of my great adventure from the previous day and especially from the night which followed it. I want to pinch myself for a reality check as I recall how all of this started, for I barely believe it---and I lived it. Funny as it all seems now, it sure didn't start out that way, but then I guess that's how a lot of great stories begin.
It was one of the biggest, messiest skirmishes I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of them. Not that I've been at this all that long; heck, I'm only thirteen! But acting as aid and partner to Batman for a couple of years has exposed me to some pretty insane situations, about as insane as a lot of the crims we corral and send back to either Stonegate Prison, or, if they belong to that whacked-out fraternity of freaks, back to Arkham Asylum. But this...this was something other than else, man.
There we were on a small island in the Bay, due south of Stryker's Island, outside of Metropolis, and there was debris and huge hunks of metal strewn all over the sand. An army of tripod-legged robots under the control of Brainiac---a computer entity who is one of Superman's losers---had been on the attack, and it took the combined might of members of the Justice League of America and numerous other heroes to put them down. These fantastic heroes had drawn the fight to this island to avoid any civilian casualties, for if the onslaught could be repelled out there, the robot raiders would never breech the shores of the coastal USA. It was amazing to be in their company, what with the combined forces of the Man Of Steel, the Green Lantern and that amazing ring of his, Aquaman---the man from Atlantis, The Flash---fastest man alive, and the Green Arrow, the world's finest archer, all of them ready for action. Don't get me wrong---this isn't the first time I've been able to work with so many of these marvels, but it was the first time that I wasn't the only person under 5' 5" fighting along side of so many of them!
To my amazement, there was a boy who could travel just as fast as The Flash. He was a streak of yellow and red, accented by an ample-sized bouncing swatch of red hair to match his costume, and I heard him referred to as "Kid Flash." During the fight, I heard him bantering back and forth with his mentor, though I didn't understand a word of it, for only they, and apparently Superman as well, can understand the pitch and timbre of a high-velocity voice while in motion. It made me want to get to know that boy---if we survived the mania of this encounter, of course. It sure impressed me that another kid would want to put his life on the line to fight for justice. And then, there were three of us.
The other boy was so intriguing to me that he had my keen detective senses tingling right away. He was a little shorter than I am, and a little thin---but not to the point of being too frail-looking. With an olive complexion dotted by tiny freckles across his cheeks, and that set off with jet black curly hair, he made for a striking vision. Kind of reminded me of me, sans the freckles; maybe, like me, he's of Romany stock, producing that swarthy, southern European look. Unlike Kid Flash, he was silent throughout almost the entire encounter, so quiet that at first I couldn't figure out just who he was there in tandem with. And that "near-frail" look to him? That was as deceptive as the mask I wear, something he, unlike most costumed heroes, didn't sport. That kid had a punch that could have kayoed a pro boxer with one hit. Pound for pound, this boy managed to hold his own against a couple of those tin monsters, and that was without any weapon other than his hands. I wanted to get to know him as well, and even though I'd fought beside him for more than an hour, I still didn't know his name. It took a while before I noticed the gold "A" on his belt; it matched the one I knew Aquaman to wear. This boy was an Atlantean too. Whoa.
When I finally saw that golden "A," it was from the ground up, while lying on my back on the warm sand. Having come so close to death just a few moments before that, I needed a breather and a moment to get my head together. And I owed someone a big "thank you." The shadow of death, as personified by those cyber-robots, loomed over me, one in front of me, one behind me, but at the time, the Tinman in front of me had my attention. A well-placed batarang had done major damage to what I assumed to be a hydraulic cable, yet this hulking ton of metal was still advancing toward me.
A scarlet streak had begun to circle around the legs of the robot before me, and in a glance I knew that The Flashes had things under control. With the two of them running at lightning speed around the base of this behemoth, they created a vortex which sent this monstrosity falling backward onto the beach. Meanwhile, behind me, a second metal giant was beginning to reel from the drubbing it received from the combined blows of a dainty yet dangerous flying girl, the Atlantean boy and the Green Arrow, who had used a lariat arrow to tangle the robot's legs. I had seen the shadow of the girl on the sand as she came between me and the sun, and the boy from the sea had run past me to join the attack, but I didn't find out about the Green Arrow's work until these events were recounted to me later in the day. His well-placed arrow was effective in helping to topple the giant; unfortunately, between the listing robot and the ground on which it would fall stood this little Robin who was preoccupied with that robot's kin in front of me.
As the shadow created by the falling robot grew all around me, I was lifted off of my feet and pushed clear of the soon-to-be-wreckage; I tumbled and rolled sideways, getting wrapped up in my cape. A bit of an embarrassment if you're meant to be a professional at this game, because handling your cape is learned on day one of the job. As I finally came to rest on my back, the sun shut my eyes for me. Bringing my hand up as a shield, I looked around to see who my benefactor had been and prayed it wasn't Batman. There's surely nothing worse than having your boss, partner and mentor find you laid out on the ground during a take-down. Really ruins any shred of self-confidence a junior partner might have developed; take it from me, 'cause I've got first hand knowledge of this and then some.
The clouds above rolled in and provided a light relief to all below, but not before the sun betrayed the hero standing next to me, for the rapidly departing sunlight glinted off of the metal symbol on his belt. "Thanks for the save. Aqua...boy, I presume?" I fumbled for a name as I panted, still short of breath. He simply stared at me with a mild look of concern on his face. Then a second shadow joined his, much taller and far more imposing. "It's AquaLAD, actually. Now get up; there's still work to do." Oh great. It's that familiar low grumble of a voice that always reminds me of what my stomach sounds like when I'm really hungry, the same voice which always reminds me of what more I could do and how much better I could do it if I "really" tried. As if I don't "really" try. It just had to be the Batman, didn't it?
He stalked off without another look at me, almost as if he couldn't stomach another look at me, but not before he gave an approving pat on the shoulder to the "lad." My face must have shown my self-loathing, because it, in turn, evoked a grief-stricken look on the boy's face. That didn't last long, though. This kid had a certain something about him---a kindness, a gentle nature...I don't know what to call it, but I could see it plainly right away. And then he proved it. A blue gloved hand extended down to me, then a second one, and he took my hands in his own and pulled me to my feet. I was about to thank him again when he suddenly turned with a start toward the beach. A screeching sound of metal hitting metal caught the attention of most everyone on the shore, and, out in the water, the orange and green garbed Aquaman seemed to be getting the worst end of a tangle with yet another of the metal beasts.
"Minnow! Minnow----get out here and take the other end of that net! What are you waiting on? HURRY! " The brawny blonde king of all the oceans barked his commands, sounding for all the word like a cross between an angry Russian sea captain and a New England fisherman, a curious accent indeed for someone who is supposed to be from the fabled sunken lands of the eastern Atlantic. He bellowed like the winds of a hurricane at that little boy, who seemed all the more small because of the litany of diminutive names leveled at him by his mentor. "Minnow." "Tadpole." "Sardine." "Squirt." "Shrimp?!" I didn't hear "Guppy" in the minutes which followed, but I certainly expected to. And, for his part, the Minnow did work equal to the force of a whale, thrashing away at the lower end of a metal monster, while his mentor bashed away at the head and shoulders. That lasted until the tin freak was able to maneuver a claw around the golden-haired hero and flung him to the sands of the beach.
Superman swooped in, moments too late to catch Aquaman but just in time to stop some hefty debris from finishing the job on him. Next, the Man Of Steel picked up the steel man that the king and his young page had been attacking and hurled it what seemed to be several miles out to sea. Even in his haste, he was careful to toss the giant far beyond the shipping lanes and the sportfishing areas and out into deep water. Always impressive to watch, the quiet dignity of Superman shown through all of his efforts. Before he flew off to another end of the battlefield, I saw him lift the aquatic boy out of the water, and, deftly holding him around the waist, the mighty man sailed him gently to the side of his fallen comrade. That kid fell to his knees next to his mentor in a vision of grief I hope never to have to equal with my own. He gave what comfort he could to his wounded friend in the midst of the mayhem all around them, and shielded him from the scorching sun, the heat from which caused them visible pain as their exposure to it continued. Maybe the other heroes would have done more to help them had the needs elsewhere not been so great. Sadly, these water marvels seemed to be on their own for the time being.
By the time the super-rumble ended, there were shreds of Spandex costumes and Kevlar capes in a myriad of colors littering the beach, and lying among the metallic lumps of smoldering robot parts were the limp forms of several heroes. With the defeat of the robot soldiers came a hushed silence. I took a few moments to survey the cost of the battle, scanning the glittering sands, taking stock in what remained of the afternoon's mayhem. The first area my eyes hit was a spot near the edgewater where two now familiar figures lingered. There, huddled together, the strikingly virile-looking Aquaman lay gasping in the sand, with the small boy who had come to aid him hunched over him, using his body to shield his friend from the sun. I saw him cupping his hands to gather water from the surf to pour it over his fallen mentor. It was such a sad scene, and it seemed of little comfort to either of them when Superman went over to examine Aquaman's injuries. I was suddenly hit with a great desire to stand near Batman, if only to reassure myself that I had survived...and so had he.
As I walked in the shadow of the wind-swept red cape of Superman, I bent down to the ear of the frightened boy as he leaned over his partner. "Don't worry," I said with as much hope as I could muster up, "he's going to be all right. I know it." As his head slowly turned to face me, I was startled beyond belief by his eyes---he had lilac-colored irises, of all things! My face never hides my emotions---something I've got to work on---and my feeling of shock must have been written all over it, like a graffiti artist covers the side of a building. As the boy faced me and he noted my expression, his eyes dropped and he lowered his head. I sure didn't expect that, and I felt ever so badly for staring. I put my hand on his shoulder, patting it gently as my mentor had done not so long ago. "If you need any help, I'm here, ok?" I reminded him, and he nodded without looking at me again. I could tell I'm not the only one who has freaked over those eyes, and I felt like a real rat for making him feel badly.
Before I could say anything more, Superman leaned down to me. "I'll see to Aqualad, Robin. Meanwhile, find Batman and ask him to contact S.T.A.R. Labs immediately. I'll be flying Aquaman in for observation within a few moments." "Check, Supes---I mean Superman...errr....sir!" I blurted out. Man, I've just got to check my mouth at the door before the next mega-rumble, but it's so hard to put a lid on it , what with what Batman says about his compatriots when we're alone. He always refers to this super-strong alien as "Supes," or "The Big Blue Boy Scout," and it's usually said with a scowl. Superman is hardly his favorite person, especially since they tend to clash on their theories of criminal justice. That's only to be expected, I suppose, since they deal with totally different kinds of felons, and their views of the world come from two completely different kinds of upbringing---farm boy vs. rich boy, "The Real McCoys" vs. "The Untouchables." Batman knows a lot about this secretive man; to Batman, no one is above suspicion, and everyone's past must be available for inspection. I don't know what Superman knows about Batman's alter ego, but there's not much about Superman that Batman hasn't managed to find out.
Something else which separates them: Superman's rogues gallery can be from anywhere and do most anything, while the crims Batman and I end up chasing are mostly generic nuts without alien superpowers or anything. That doesn't make them any easier to apprehend---it just means they usually don't fly or shoot eye beams at us. Big deal. A rocket launcher aimed correctly does the same or worse damage, and we've sure seen our share of those.
As I walked across the sand to get to the Batboat anchored in the surf, a will-o-the-wisp sprang up on the sand in front of me, flinging the granules up and into the air to form a dusty cloud. I drew my arms up and covered my eyes to protect them, as, just then, the turbulent air suddenly came to a halt. The blur turned into hazy yellow and red, and then into the image of Kid Flash.
"Hey there!" he said, flashing a mouthful of pearly white teeth framed in a devilish smile. "You're..." "Robin," I volunteered before he could say it, and I offered my hand in friendship. "I saw you out there working with The Flash. That's amazing---I didn't know there's a 'world's fastest kid' as well." "Yep---and I'm it, kiddo," he laughed as he, to emphasize the point, ran circles around me faster than my eye could follow. I felt as if I were a cartoon character with my eyes rolling around in my head uncontrollably. As he at last came to rest in front of me, I put my hand out and grabbed his shoulder, mainly to steady myself from the dizzy feeling in my head he had induced. "Errrrr....don't do that ever again, Kid...Flash..." I warned him, and I tried, laboriously so, to walk away.
"Wally!" he called after me. "Excuse me?!" I asked, indignation causing my shoulders to go rigid. Feeling my adrenaline rise as I massaged my forehead, I readied my fists to belt him for name-calling. "The name's Wally, Wally West. Call me sometime and we'll get together, ok? I can be in Gotham City within a minute or two. You can get in touch with me through the JLA." Too dazed to turn around, I flung out an arm and waved back to him. "Yeah....I'll call you...Wally." I heard him suck his teeth as he giggled, "Huh? That's what I said. Call me Wally. Spaz."
"Dick!" I yelled as I continued away from him, and I turned slightly, only to see his fists clenching. A sudden gust of what at first seemed to be a breeze stopped abruptly behind me, nearly slamming into me; it was actually the red and scarlet streak of Wally West, covering more than thirty feet in a nanosecond. "Wha'd you say?" he grumbled. "It's ok, Fleet Feet!" a third voice entered the picture. "Dick's his name, Flasheroo," said a taller boy with Wally's same color scheme, only dressed like his senior archer, Green Arrow. I'd seen Speedy before today; we were recently involved in a caper with our two mentors, and I'd noted his amazing abilities with a bow and arrow, coupled with a rather surly demeanor and a wickedly clever tongue.
"My, my, we're being rather informal for a public display of super-hormones, aren't we Birdy Boy? Betcha Bats won't like that!" Speedy quipped, and of course Roy---as I knew his name to be---was quite right. He motioned in the general direction of the Batman and cocked his thumb. Winking his eye with bad boy flair, he mock-whispered in a loud manner, "If I tug on his cape, do you think he'd have a fit? It'd be lots of fun, huh, Dicky-boy?" I shook my head violently in disagreement, shooshing him to lower his voice---a lot. "Knock it off, Roy," I said, trying to be quiet, yet assertive, "I'll get it if he finds out you know who I am! And hands off his cape!" "Cool it, my four-sided brother," he drawled, using his index fingers to sketch out the shape of an invisible square in the air. "I won't blow it with your boss...I can keep your I.D. on the Q.T., A-OK, amigo. Besides, he's just creepy enough to rip my arm off an' feed it to me if I make like a moth on the cloth." Hanging around with Roy for even a few minutes, it was easy for me to guess why Batman always said the name Snapper Carr with such a scowl on his face...
Unlike my rampant, Bat-induced paranoia, Kid Flash was simply bursting with self-assuredness; he's so proud of his high-velocity abilities that I could see him strutting into school for "Show And Tell" in that junior-Mercury get up. I gave him my phone number as we left the beach after our encounter and he called me almost immediately after returning home; he left five messages with Alfred within ten minutes! I guess he forgot that it would take me much longer to get home than the six or seven minutes it took him to run from the East Coast to the mid-west. And I was amazed to find that he talked almost as fast as he runs! I knew more about him after five minutesof conversation than I'd have thought possible, and he kept talking so rapidly that I felt slightly dizzy and was tempted to attach my language translator to the phone receiver!
Wally's certainly a happy-go-lucky sort, though he didn't mention having lots of friends or activities to keep him busy way back there in Blue Valley, Nebraska. Still, it would figure a kid like him from a small town would have to keep quiet about a sudden change from "normal" and "average" to being a meta-human. People have funny ideas about things like that, and no kid on Earth wants to be thought of as a freak. It must have been so cool to one day be the president of The Flash Fan Club and then the next day find out that not only can you do the things your hero can do but that he's also your own uncle. Wow; that's some luck! They referred to each other as "Flash" and "Kid" or "Kid Flash" while in the presence of the other heroes, but I did hear Wally slip once, referring to The Flash as "Uncle Barry." They seemed so close and caring of each other that it made me envious.
Not so for the Green Arrow and Speedy, sad to say, for they seemed far more independent of each other than any mentor/junior partner tandem I'd ever witnessed. That's not to say that they aren't close, by any means---just that they don't necessarily rely on each other's abilities to be good at what they do. They do have similiar personalities, though, with Roy acting so much like his guardian that he's pretty much a "GA Lite." The blonde and dashing Green Arrow comes off like the brash, boisterous, reckless type, just like a 1930s movie matinee idol, while the redheaded, cocky and wildly arrogant Roy seems to worship the ground his mentor walks on. Despite their similar behavior, they appeared to me to be two people simply pushed together by the luck of the draw due to having the same yet unique skills, and I recall noticing that they never even spoke to each other during the fight. That surprised me, since the other seniors like Batman and Aquaman were endlessly giving us juniors direction, shouting orders or, in the case of The Flash, passing along encouragement and motivation. That man always seems to have a smile for Wally, and for everyone; nice to meet a hero who isn't as serious as a crutch for a change.
Roy, for all his posturing, is pretty tight-lipped about his non-hero life, at least from what I'd witnessed in our previous encounter, though I'd gotten the impression that his mentor was not all that secretive about his own dual nature, at least among his heroic peers. I'd heard Speedy was brought up by Native Americans, though I don't know why that was since his appearance screams red-Irishman. His upbringing showed in some of the things he said---not so much a matter of an accent , though I detected a slight one, but more in the way he had of putting things into an earthy, humanistic perspective. 'Course that was whenever he wasn't shooting off his mouth bragging about his dead-eye aim or his prized set of Pearl drums, the ones his guardian "paid a fortune for." On this occasion, he seemed to be on the loud side at all the wrong times, which visibly irritated Batman to no end. Strangely though, at times when he was quiet he seemed very much to be a loner, almost to the point of brooding; he seemed starved for attention. I recall noticing when we first met that his expressive, cat-like greenish-blue eyes appeared to be clouded by some kind of inner demon, as if he tried desperately to be happy on the outside but hid something tragic behind them. He wears what my mother used to refer to as a "please like me" expression on his face, yet he unwittingly gives the impression of being a little boy who's cognizant of being lost.
As for me, my mentor would probably kill me if he had any idea that I'd told either of these guys my real name. The Batman has no sense of humor and detests familiarity, and I'd doubt that any member of the JLA no matter how mighty would ever think of calling him "Bruce!" Bruce Wayne is a character he plays by day; Batman is his 24/7 reality.
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