This makes no sense – girls aren’t supposed to look at Dick because at school, Dick’s just Richard Grayson, boring orphan. He’s not Robin, he’s even toned down the Flying Grayson on Bruce’s request. But she’s looking at him, and sometimes, sometimes he really wants to show off. Just a little backflip, a slam-dunk at basketball. That would be okay, right?
Yeah, Dick knows he can’t. He’s got to be boring Richard Grayson at school. He’s got to be boring Richard Grayson at boring Bruce Wayne’s boring reception for visiting dignitaries from Rheelasia. He’s got to wear ridiculous tailored tuxedos and have his cheeks pinched and put up with Bruce’s ‘playboy’ act. All for the sheer joy, the sheer exhilaration of flying on a line above the city later that night, as he does every night, and is what makes his life worth living.
Worth every single boring daylight second.
It sucks, though, that Dick’s fun has got to be tied into someone else’s misery. For every bad guy he beats up, there’s got to be a victim of the bad guy. And even though patrol is amazing, there’s always a reason for the batsignal.
Like eight girls being kidnapped. And in the newspaper the next day:
NINE GIRLS MISSING
… and a picture of Jenny.
For a second, Dick feels the world opening out underneath him again. Watches someone else falling. His stomach drops, his face flushes cold, he feels so helpless.
Just for a second.
Until Bruce reminds him of the mission. That he can DO something.
He goes to school – boring Richard Grayson. He offers to help the Vice Principal track some devious spitball miscreants. This leaves him sitting outside Mr Rooney’s office while Jenny’s best friend Claire tells a policeman about how they left school together yesterday, and how they passed a Zony electronics giveaway stall, with a man in an oversized baseball cap giving away free radio headsets. Claire tells the cop that hers didn’t do anything, but how Jen just… wandered off listening to hers.
And then she didn’t see her again.
Dick catches Claire up after school.
He tracks the last walk she made with Jenny. He watches another girl put on the radio headset and just… wander off dreamlike into a van.
The van drives off, and Dick tries to follow, but there’s only so far you can chase a vehicle on foot.
He needs Robin.
He needs Bruce, but when he phones the Manor, Alfred tells him that Bruce is on a dinner cruise with the president of Rheelasia. He could call him on the boat…
…but this guy in the hat has just abducted TEN girls of Dick’s age and he has a lead.
They were radios, not tape players. That means a broadcast. That means that if he gets Alfred to drive him around while he uses his own radio to try and find the right signal, to figure out what the girls were listening to.
It’s music. “Awaken and Obey,” say the lyrics. (Like THAT’s not creepy.)
They track it to a warehouse in the docks. Fully Robin’ed up, Dick leaves Alfred in the car and heads to check it out.
He finds the radio equipment. He finds a table set for… a freaking tea party with chine cups and everything, and he finds a generic bad guy goon with a machine gun. (Whups)
“The Hatter don’t like snoops!”
(Dick’s read that book. Now the tea party makes sense.)
It takes no time at all to dance around until the idiot’s out of bullets, to draw him up onto a girder above the warehouse floor, to catch him in a batarang and hang him by his ankles.
“Where do I find this Hatter guy?”
There’s a boat sailing out of Gotham Harbor, a party on the boat. Dick ‘borrows’ a jet ski and invites himself to the party – or at least the store rooms under the party. There, he finds creepy radio seller, wearing a giant hat and muttering something about not being invited to the party. Elsewhere in the hold, is a sealed room in which Dick finds all ten missing girls, dressed up like…
(His stomach lurches)
…like Alice. They’re in blonde wigs and blue dresses like freaking Alice, and they’re listening to their radios and they won’t wake up. Jenny won’t wake up. He takes off her headset, he shines a light in her eyes, all she can say is “Is it tea-time, Mr. Tetch?” and Dick wants to throw up.
He wants to run.
He wants to hit something.
Fortunately, Gotham has great timing, as the crate behind him shatters with a gunshot, and the little man in the big hat – the Hatter, appears at the doorway. Dick moves twice – once to batarang the gun out of his hand, and again to dive at him, throwing him off his feet and knock the hat to the ground, pinning him to the floor.
“Tell me how to wake them up!”
“SiLly bOy. I’lL roUse tHem iF yoU likE…” He presses something on the microphone in his hand and the entire room changes – the girls stand up, all in unison.
“We hear and obey…”
They reach out for Dick, round on him. “Girls! GIRLS! Wake up!”
“RemEmbEr, soN, it’S noT niCe tO hIt a lAdy.” Tetch is putting his hat back on - prioritising that rather than the microphone, or his escape.
“I’m not going…” the only way is up, to a pipe just above Dick’s head, where the girls can’t reach him. “…to hit them!” He whips a batarang out and sends it flying at the hat, knocking it off Tetch’s head.
The quiet is instantaneous, and heavy as the whir of the radio and the obedient muttering disappears. And then the girls are suddenly shaking themselves, speaking all at once.
“What’s going on?”
It’s not over yet, though. The door opens, and Tetch’s employer bursts in, only to get a pair of pixie boots to the chest. Dick runs, drawing the fire of both men out and away from the girls, right towards another pip, which when hit by bullets releases steam right over them. Dick takes advantage of the visibility, and with two well placed strikes, knocks them both out.
He leaves them.
It sounds like the police have arrived on deck, and Dick creeps up through a pipe, to where the well dressed party guests are standing around, watching the kidnapped girls being questioned by police. At the back of the crowd, standing a little way back from the others, is…
“Bruce! Pssst! Bruce!”
“Is Jenny all right?”
“All the girls are safe.”
“I’m sorry that I had to…”
“This isn’t the time.” Bruce’s face hardens a touch, shows more Batman than Bruce Wayne usually shows, “but we will talk about this at home You can count on it.”
Dick’s heart sinks as he returns to the cave.
He was stupid, he knows. He was crazy, and reckless, and put himself in danger, he knows. But Bruce was away, and he had to follow those girls. He had to. If he’d waited, they’d have been shipped out.
But he should have waited.
He curls up in a blanket in front of the batcomputer, and consoles himself with watching the news coverage of the girls being returned to their families. Braces himself against the coming storm of Bruce’s disapproval.
Eventually Bruce returns from the party and…
“Well done,” he says. “I couldn’t have done it better myself. You did the spade work. You put the clues together. And when the crunch was on and I was unavailable, you acted on your own.
“I’m proud of you, Robin.”
It’s the best thing Dick’s heard all night.