The Apprentice, part 11
Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"
The phone rang again.
His right arm still wouldn't obey him, so he rolled with a groan to reach across with his left hand to fumble in the blankets for the handset. His fingers closed on the plastic and he lifted it in front of his face to find the talk button. The handset gave a beep as he successfully answered the call and brought the receiver to his ear. "nmhello?" he mumbled.
"Dick? It's Bruce."
The muzziness instantly cleared from his brain at the familiar voice. His right arm was a little slower on the wake up; pins and needles began up and down its length, prompting a grimace. "Hey. What's up?"
"I woke you." The observation was entirely uninflected, almost cautious.
"Heh," Dick agreed, flexing the fingers of his tingling arm. "Yeah. Amy and I got an early AM call. Trouble on our beat. Just got in -" He sat up to look at the clock. 3 pm. "-two hours ago." Had he been sleeping on his arm that whole time? Good thing Bruce called.
"What kind of trouble?" Bruce's tone was alert, and now definitely cautious.
Dick stood up and crossed to the hidden access panel to DeFledermaus' apartment. "Finally got a break on a drug ring in Caernaervon. Perps kept going on about this Nightwing we keep hearing about."
He could hear Bruce taking the cue. "Were you able to get clean arrests with the vigilante involvement?"
"Reported vigilante," Dick corrected, springing open the panel and slipping into the crawlspace between the apartments. "Yeah, they were fingering each other. Got confessions from a half dozen. Hold on a sec."
Dick reached into the backpack he had dumped by his supply closet and dug out the scrambler from the gauntlet of his Nightwing suit. He popped open a panel on the phone and slipped the scrambler into place before bringing the receiver back to his ear. "Sorry about that," he apologized. "I forgot to restock scramblers after crunching a couple on that Titans' case. I'll have to stop by the Cave sometime in the next couple of days."
"Tonight?" Bruce suggested.
Dick blinked, half-surprised at the apparent invitation in Bruce's voice given the intelligence he'd gotten from Oracle. "No can do," he answered regretfully. "I've got a new power vacuum to deal with. Unless you need me-?"
There was the barest hesitation, then, "Maybe not yet."
"Break in the Du Bois case?"
"Not exactly," Bruce informed him. "I checked in with Crane last night."
"He thought I was Du Bois. I did not see fit to disabuse him of that idea."
"That had to have been interesting," Dick remarked, settling onto a locker bench and beginning to unpack the backpack.
"Yes," Bruce agreed. "He seemed... frightened of his former protégé."
Dick paused, straightening with his boots in his hand. "Frightened?"
"Surprisingly so. He seemed unaware of what Du Bois might be there for."
"Any chance he was playing you?" Dick began systematically checking each compartment in his boots.
"Unlikely." Pure Bat speaking there, and when the Bat found something unlikely?
Dick reached for a clipboard hanging in the supply closet and set it on the bench beside him. "What suggested Crane was frightened of Du Bois?"
"General tone, for a start." Bruce paused. "An effort to send Du Bois to Bludhaven."
Dick aborted a reach into his supply of 'rangs. "Send him here."
"The 'haven isn't that scary," Dick remarked wryly, pulling down a half dozen 'rangs and marking them off his inventory sheet before stowing them in his boots.
"He wanted Du Bois to face you."
Dick forced a little chuckle. "I'm not that scary either. Compared to ... well..."
"Crane did not tell Du Bois about you when they were working together. Or not everything about you. I believe he had a reason."
"Other than there was not a good reason to mention what was doing in Gotham's poor step-sister city?"
"Crane saw Du Bois as parallel to my ... he used the word acolytes."
"It's a popular choice," Dick commented, stowing his boots and moving on to his gauntlets.
"When I stopped Crane last February, he was furious that I was not acting by the plan. That the situation he had put the cover in was not sufficient to stop me."
Dick stopped his inventory and sat back on his bench. There was a rare kind of tension in Bruce's voice. "He just didn't realize you have a team," he said softly.
"He apparently said in Sasha's hearing that he was not making the same mistake with Du Bois. That there wasn't the same kind of loyalty at play in their relationship."
"I wasn't aware that you debriefed Sasha that thoroughly," Dick observed.
"Crane's whole paradigm from what he said last night seems to be based on mastery, that the master only remains master as long as the student still needs him."
"That's not you, Bruce," Dick pointed out gently.
There was a hesitation. "I know that."
"He withheld information about you as one of his bits of mastery. Dick, I remember that Crane's run in with you in Bludhaven ended in his defeat. I didn't press for details then, but..."
"Yeah." Dick set down his gauntlets and thought for a minute. "He had me going for a while," he admitted. "It wasn't pleasant."
"Dealing with Crane's drug cocktails never is."
Dick bit back the urge to ask what Batman had experienced of them. He could guess. "He was trying to trigger a named phobia; I remember him commenting to Blockbuster on it. Then I went under again and he almost had me, he wanted to open up my head and know what fear I was staring in the face."
"And?" Bruce prompted after a moment of silence.
"He did me a favor. It was a baseless fear. I didn't realize it until that moment, but..." Dick considered for a moment telling Bruce, how he had feared failing Bruce, of becoming another Jason to add to Bruce's overwhelming sense of guilt. Another time, he decided, remembering how fresh those guilt issues would be in Bruce's mind with Stephanie's injury.
"Anyway, when he got me to that point, I snapped out of it and turned on him. I had him telling me everything about Blockbuster and Soames. Then I trussed him up in nothing flat, tied in a room to face Soames, to confess his own failure."
"He wanted Du Bois to suffer the same humiliation," Bruce pronounced, and Dick could hear the detective wheels spinning as Bruce spoke. "He suggested that Du Bois use you as a hostage against me - as a better hostage against me," he added.
"A better hostage? Wait, this means Robin's theory might not be so farfetched. Du Bois might have targeted Spoiler to get at you."
"He was with Crane when they took down the cover. He knew Crane's rationale was to keepme busy."
"But Du Bois didn't take Spoiler. He just gassed her, right?"
"And Crane didn't know that."
Dick began inventorying again, checking each gauntlet compartment and restocking each in turn. "So we still don't have Du Bois's motive. Beyond potentially trying to get to you."
"Which wouldn't make sense from Crane's perspective, which is that either of a heist or a rescue. But it would make sense if Du Bois is operating under a different agenda than Crane knows about."
"The operative theory," Dick remembered suddenly from his previous night's conversation with Oracle. "You think he's hooked in to our beloved commander-in-chief?"
"There's too wide a field of possibilities there," Bruce noted. "Checkmate has been way too active locally for my comfort, but this kind of tactic..."
"He could be rogue. Or borderline. An experiment maybe - hook up an operative with one of the freaks, get inside the Gotham underground."
"Without realizing the danger in that kind of plan. Typical lack of foresight. Hmm."
"I don't know yet. Although just because he doesn't have information on you from Scarecrow doesn't mean he doesn't have you in his sights."
"Noted. What about the others?"
"I've had Oracle give Huntress and Azrael the head's up. Batgirl and Robin will be running joint patrols until we bag Du Bois."
"And you?" Dick asked carefully.
"I think I can be as tough as you," Bruce replied, a hint of unexpected humor in his tone.
Dick tucked his gauntlets into their storage space. "Sure you don't need a refresher course?" The last word was interrupted by a sudden yawn.
"Dick." It was the Voice, but something in it was more teasing than angry.
"Sorry," Dick apologized sheepishly. He stood up and stretched. "I should probably go back and crash so I can finish clean up here tonight. My shift tomorrow ends at 8 if you want me to swing on up there."
"Yes," Bruce decided.
Dick crossed back to the entrance to his apartment. "I'll see you then. Did you need anything else?"
"No. Get some sleep."
"Yes, sir," Dick answered. "You should, too," he added more seriously.
"Fine. Good bye."
Dick clicked off the talk button and flopped back down on his bed. This time he made sure he wasn't lying on his arm before he fell asleep.