Night's Defenders

by Constance "Eilonwy" Cochran

There are two legal disclaimers necessary. One is that Disney owns gargoyles and related characters. Borrowed without permission, with affection and respect. Two is at the end, because putting it here might ruin the effect I want. If you can name the narrator without being told, e-mail me, we'll chat :)

Manhattan at night sometimes looks like a faery realm, or a fantastic city of light on some alien planet. There's a shine on it, especially in late fall, when the cold air makes everything sharper, more alive. The strings of lights on the bridges in the distance are breathtaking; below, even in the dead of night, the streets teem with life.

But there's a taint beneath the shine. There's wonder and beauty, families, laughter, and music here, but darkness and fear, crooks, dark alleys, and corruption too.

I know that all too well. And not just in New York City, although I did live here for a short while...once. But I've known it in other places. Each city is beautiful in its own way. Yet the corruption, after a while, starts to have a familiar feel to it, no matter where you choose to take up the vigil. The same theme, different variations.

The wind tugs at me, as if trying to pull me from my perch at the edge of a rooftop of an old building. The street is fifteen stories down; but a moment ago, I could have dozed. I walked the high wire when I was eight years old. The wind and height doesn't worry me.

There's a thermos of hot chocolate on the tar surface beside my boot. So ordinary, hot chocolate. And I'm so glad to have it during the watch. The streets below twist and turn, the cobblestones breaking through like the past demanding its city back; downtown. Mostly unfamiliar, although I spent the afternoon studying street maps, walking the routes, preparing myself. I know all the best roosting places now.

The case had led me on a merry chase through two cities, and the trail ends in this one. At moments, it almost seemed beyond what I could handle alone. But I'm close now, very close. It's only a matter of waiting; in a few hours, they'll show up at the warehouse across the street, unaware. I hope. And then I'll have them.

On a rooftop to the north, lower than mine, a shadow moves. Broad-shouldered, visible only in silhouette, the face a square outline, the body streamlined by the flow of a blanket or cape. All dark, with no color.

The plastic mug of hot chocolate jerks in my hand, sloshing liquid onto the roof. Hastily, I put it down and keeping low, move to the north end.

The figure is still there, now crouching, watching over the city. The way his body is poised, tense yet completely at ease in the surroundings, blending with the height and the darkness, is familiar. Sudden resentment flashes through me, an instantaneous response, before I can think.

"What's _he_ doing here?" I demand aloud, but under my breath. Of course, it could be coincidental. He could be on another case, totally unrelated to mine. Right. On the same streetcorner in the most confusing part of town. He could be checking up on me; he's done it before. I don't know whether I view his shadow as a welcome protection or as a stifling device anymore.

Before I can decide what to do, the figure moves. Stands. Lifts its face to the wind. And then the cape spreads, and I see it's no cape at all, but wings, of a span of about ten feet. These are not the canvas pieces of a glider; these are honest, genuine wings. The figure leaps from the roof and catches an updraft, and I catch the flicker of a tail. The being has humanoid shape but with sharp edges humans don't have, strange yet somehow beautiful.

A curse escapes me. What on earth? idea of what it could be flits through my mind, a memory of some case I was told about once during a quiet stakeout years ago. Another genetic alteration? A man-bat? But judging by the silhouette, the clothing (what little of it) that hangs from its form, is not tattered. In that brief glimpse, it looks like a waistcloth, a tunic.

There's time yet to zero hour. I have to know. I have to know whether or not it's _him_ after all, although I'm almost certain now my first reaction was definitely wrong. And if it's not him, I want to know what that thing _is_.

I pull out the lightweight grappling gun, aim at the eaves of another building, and fire.

It feels so natural, the night wind whistling around me, as I follow the distant, shadowy form of that shape in the sky. It's fast. But so am I, raised to do this, to fly with the aid of ropes and metal. Trained by the best there ever was, or ever will be.

Landing on the roof of a turn-of-the-century brownstone, reeling in the jump line, I turn and see the winged, purple thing alighting on the spire of a old stone church. There's something noble about the creature's bearing; for some reason I have the impression that it's thinking its own brooding thoughts as it looks out over the city, clinging to the stone, wings cloaked. Its long, black hair stirs in the wind as Wings turns towards my perch. I duck down into the shadows.

From somewhere nearby it comes, faint but unmistakable, rough voices, another one protesting, the sound of a blow. It's almost like something doesn't want me to get back to the warehouse on time. Already I'm turning towards the sound, and see a group of shadowy figures on a rooftop two buildings away.

It's just a short, easy leap across the gap, then a silent dart, keeping my head low, to the far end of the roof.

Now I see there are four of them. They're just kids, maybe 18 or 19, in the garb of the streets, in gang colors. They have chains and pieces of wood like clubs. One of them is bigger than me. Piece of cake.

A fifth is among them, another boy, a bit smaller. He's crouched down, his arms over his head in a protective gesture. He, too, wears the colors. I don't know why the others have turned on him; but then as I get closer one of them--the one bigger than me, with curly blond hair--is saying that he doesn't like guys who rat out on them.

"Listen," the smaller kid protests. "John's my brother. He could have died; I had to call the police!"

Blondie doesn't go in for weapons, apparently. Still, as he strikes the smaller kid I wince; it looks like a hard blow.

Time to make my move. I leap across the space between the buildings, the wind whistling in my ears for a second, then land right among them. Use the element of surprise when outnumbered, move swiftly and silently. Lesson number twenty-seven, drummed into my head. I punch one of them in the chin and spin around, catching another with a flying kick before they even figure out I'm there.

"What the--" One of them curses.

"What, you had a party and didn't invite me? I'm hurt!" The quip rolls out, from habit. I've been told to stop doing that, that it upsets concentration, that it creates the wrong impression. But it's my own way with dealing with the tension--let's face it, the fear-- every time the battles begin. I couldn't stop even if I wanted to.

The smaller kid is huddled over on the rooftop, clutching his stomach. I think he's bleeding.

A blow I don't see coming catches me in the side; one of the gang has hit me with a chain. My ribs will ache later; make it that much harder at the warehouse.

"Man, look at the freak job!" Blondie says heartily, snickering.

"You want to see a freak job, look in a mirror, pal." He stops laughing, and I knock two of his compatriot's heads together. They stagger but don't go down, howling like idiots.

"That's it!" the leader yells.

It's like a signal. I'm not as heavy as they are, but faster and lighter on my feet. The odds, as I mentioned before, are rotten. Two jump on me from behind, while the other two start punching anywhere they can reach. I heave one over my shoulder, throwing him, and almost shake off another. But then a boot contacts with my face. Bright flashes of light dance in my vision as I sink to my knees.

There's a thud beside me, a roar. My vision clears.

It's Wings. And he looks _real_ pissed off. His eyes are glowing white-hot, some kind of phosphorescence, the wings unfurled to their full span. As if they weigh no more than newspaper, he picks up two of the hoods and tosses them aside. They land on the roof and go limp.

Slowly, aware of several painful spots I'm ignoring, I push myself to my feet. It's time to intervene. Those closest to me have had trouble with this type; the ones that fight on the side of the light, but will burn the forest to save the trees. Who would take a life to keep order.

Never take a life. That's how I was taught.

As Wings picks up blondie by the collar of his leather jacket, I say, "Wait! Don't kill him!"

The creature turns to me in surprise. The white-hot glow in his eyes flickers. "I wasn't going to kill him," he says softly. There's a quiet rationality and compassion in the voice.

Blondie lets out a shrill, animal cry of fear, dangling from the lavender creature's talons.

When Wings landed, I'd seen it in their faces: a raw, superstitious fear. It's an expression I've seen on the faces of the guilty hundreds of times. But not directed at me--maybe someday I'll get it down, I'll figure out what that indefinable quality is that can stop crooks cold in their tracks, make them run for their lives even though I haven't lifted a hand.

Wings drops the punk. The kid's eyes roll back into his head and he faints. I realize that if Wings had wanted to hurt them badly, he could have, but chose not to; the way he moves suggests incredible, frightening power. But controlled power, graceful.

The last punk is scrambling for the roof-access door. I turn to go after him, but as I move, I see the small, huddled figure on the roof. He's wearing ripped jeans, whether for effect or because he has to is hard to tell, a white t-shirt, brown jacket, and heavy black boots. A child in the garb of a street soldier. His left ear is pierced, the earing a tiny silver skull.

There's blood on the t-shirt. As the access door bangs open, and closes again, marking the last punk's escape, I kneel beside the boy and put a gloved hand on his shoulder. "Hey. Hey, kid, you okay?"

He looks sick. I think the blood is coming from the vicinity of his nose, but he's also clutching his side, having trouble breathing. "It'll be okay," I tell him. "We'll call an ambulance."

"No..." he whispers. "N-no, c-cops..." Carefully, I pull off his jacket, lie him down on the rooftop, and put the jacket over his shoulders to keep him warm.

A step falls beside me: Wings. The huge being also kneels, and now I know he's on the right side, the look on his face as he watches the boy says it all.

The kid looks up at us, dark eyes wide and frightened, as if he can't decide whether we're angels or demons. I reach into my belt and remove the palm-sized phone. I'm not one for gadgets; prefer to rely on my own speed and agility. But some come in handy; got this gadget after a close one that was too close. You never know when you might need backup.

Wings and I stand up as I give the location to the 911 dispatcher. She asks for my name. "Bob Jones," I say.

Wings looks at me. "Are you all right?"

Man, his kind must have sharp vision. I'd been breathing shallowly to ease discomfort; how did he catch that?

"Yeah, sure," I shrug.

"You...fought with me," he says slowly. "You tried to help the boy as well. You...are not a Hunter, yet you wear a mask."

He says the word with a capital "H." As if it's a bad thing.

"No, I'm...uh...a detective. Of sorts."

"A...detective. Ah. Yes." He looks me up and down, curious. "You don't look like the other...detectives...I know."

"That's because I'm not like them."

"I thought only the wicked hide their face behind a mask."

I don't know what to say to this. He has a point; but how can you explain something to someone else that you don't even understand fully yourself?

"It's a protection." I grope for words.

He seems about to say something in return, but then the wail of a siren rises out of the streets. We both turn to look, tensing. Apparently neither of us likes dealing with official channels.

Time to go. He apprently thinks so too; one big foot is poised on the raised roof edge as if he is about to glide off.

"Wait," I say suddenly. He turns back, questioningly. "Who...who are you? _What_ are you? Are you the only one?"

"I am a gargoyle," he says simply. "I...protect."

He hasn't answered all of my questions. Suspicious type. Reserved. Remote. Like someone else I know.

I want to ask him more, but he leaps. The wind surges under his wings, he rises with it, and is gone, nothing but a winged silhouette against the sky.

On the street below, the ambulance has stopped, the red light pulsing upwards from the street. The EMS team will be up here in minutes. Before I go, I kneel by the kid again. He's still conscious; I think he'll be okay.

"You tell them everything. Don't be afraid."

He nods, but the chances that he will actually come forward are small. He's too scared; he can't do it by himself.

"Hey, what's your name?" I ask.

He tells me.

The next afternoon, I will look for him. And he'll be gone; a nurse will explain that he ran away as soon as he was strong enough to stand. She won't sound surprised. I won't be either, but that doesn't make the disappointment less.

It doesn't take long to get back to the warehouse. It's not too late. I find my thermos, the hot chocolate cold now, where I left it.


Wait, aren't those decorations on gothic buildings? Drain spouts? Am I supposed to believe that some stone beast with wings and talons comes to life and watches over the city, a guardian in a loin cloth who busts up crooks and sounds as though he spends his off-time reading Shakespeare?

How about believing there's a man who once upon a time lost everything but still led a fairy-tale life style; and instead of letting the grief break him, he fought back, by dressing up in a bat costume? How about another guy, younger, who also once had everything he cared about ripped away, who longs for a "normal" life more than anything else in the world, yet put on a bright costume and a mask to fight in another's shadow.

I wonder if wings ever lost something precious to him, if that's the reason he exists.

It's a solitary battle. It wasn't until I left and tried it on my own, in a new costume, with a new name, that I came to understand how important I'd always been to him. Until I'd fought alone.

Crouching on the building in the cold fall night, I wonder if I'm crazy--if I imagined that fantastic being of myth who swooped down, lantern-eyed, to stop a gang beating.

But if I'm not going nuts...I smile.

Suddenly, the night seems much less lonely.

Nightwing and related characters from the Batman universe belong to DC Comics, all rights reserved. Borrowed without permission, with affection and respect.

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