The Apprentice, part 13

by Chicago

Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"

Leslie Thompkins moved steadily down the hall toward her office, forcing herself to rein her conflicting emotions and keep an open mind. Her ambivalence toward Bruce's crusade always spiked when his young charges found themselves in the line of fire, but a part of her had to admit her own culpability. She had never truly approved of the Bat, but...

She took a measured breath. She was angry, and she was worried. Both emotions were fair, but she knew that she could not lay either response at the feet of the man she knew waited for her. Maybe later she would talk to Alfred, but for now, she put one foot in front of the other.

By the time she opened the door to her office, she was almost calm. Nonetheless, she could hear a hint of her own disapproval in her voice as she reached into the pocket of her lab coat and set a vial of blood on her desk. "I thought you might want to run your own analysis of this."

There was no discernable movement from the deep shadow behind her desk, but a quiet voice asked, "How is he?"

She kept her voice carefully professional. "The paralysis is wearing off. He's calling his father now to offer some excuse so I can keep him overnight for observation."

"And the stab wound?"

"Superficial, as you know. Four stitches. Probably won't even leave an appreciable scar."

She paused, sensing a palpable relief emanating from the shadow. "You should talk to him," she suggested.

That drew a sigh and a rustle from the shadow. She waited, and after a few minutes, a black gauntlet reached forward to claim the vial of blood, disappearing it somewhere within the shadow.

"Bruce," she chided.

An unexpected creak sounded from her chair, and suddenly the uncowled face of Bruce Wayne leaned forward to rest into cupped palms. "I don't trust myself," he confessed.

Leslie blinked, surprised at the confession and at his move into the faint ambient light leaking in from the hallway. She hitched her hip onto the desk and reached a hand to touch one of his wrists. "Bruce?"

Troubled blue eyes turned up to meet hers, and she felt her worry push her anger to one side. "I want to tell him he can't go out there again," he confessed.

Leslie rubbed her thumb over the gauntleted wrist, knowing the touch could not be felt but needing to make the gesture. "Would that be so bad?" she asked gently.

"It would hurt him," Bruce said succinctly, conviction clear in his tone. "And it wouldn't do any good." He nodded as if to himself. "It was easier to make myself believe that with Spoiler."

Leslie stilled her hand and gave a light squeeze to Bruce's wrist. She had had the same debate with herself countless times regarding Bruce, had discussed it at length with Alfred. Ultimately, she had come to the same conclusions, but it surprised her to see Bruce replicating her thinking.

"I made that mistake with Dick, and with Jason. I tried to will them out of danger. When that didn't work, I tried to will you all away from me, so you wouldn't be hurt."

Bruce glanced at her as he said this before letting his gaze fall unfocused into the middle distance, clearly deep in thought. She continued to hold his wrist, letting the silence stretch.

RINNNNNNG

Leslie suppressed a scowl and was surprised to feel Bruce start slightly at the shrillness of the phone by his elbow. She wanted to just turn off the ringer or tell whoever it was to go away, but she was still a doctor with a job to do.

She picked up the receiver. "Dr. Thompkins."

The voice that answered her surprised her. "Hello, Doctor. It's J'onn."

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Hi."

"Bruce is with you."

She glanced at the unmasked Batman sitting at her desk, still apparently caught in his own thoughts. "Yes," she confirmed. The word brought Bruce's attention to her.

"He is... distressed?"

Another glance at Bruce, who was now watching her narrowly. "Yes."

"I will defer to your judgment," the Martian's baritone stated. "Is there some way that I might help?"

Leslie met Bruce's eyes, reading the suspicion that had flooded over his self-doubt. "Robin was injured," she reported, noting a glower beginning on Bruce's face. "He'll be fine."

"Robin will be," J'onn clarified.

"Yes."

"Bruce didn't call me," J'onn explained. "I will let him be if you think..."

"Just a minute," Leslie decided, and she took the phone from her ear to hold it mutely in Bruce's direction.

He glared at her for a moment, his hands resting palm down on the desk and his expression stormy.

She met his eyes calmly, the phone still held out toward him. "It's J'onn," she finally revealed.

The glare broke, replaced fleetingly by surprise before an unreadable mask seemed to slam over his features.. Another moment passed, and Bruce reached up to claim the receiver and bring it to his ear. "J'onn," he said without inflection.

Leslie watched him listen for a moment before his stern face began to waver.

"Yeah," he admitted after what must have been either a long explanation or a very patient silence on J'onn's part. A heavy sigh shook his frame. "Yeah," he said again.

Bruce's voice was getting softer, more private, and Leslie could swear he was almost shaking a little as he listened again to something from J'onn.

"You're needed where you are," Bruce decided after another long pause. "We'll be okay here."

Leslie bit her tongue against a retort that no, they would not be okay, that Bruce wasn't okay. It occurred to her that J'onn must know that to have called, and she was aware of an odd jealousy growing in her. She internally squashed the unexpected emotion as she watched Bruce's face soften, his eyes appear to grow tear-glassy for a split second. Here was the comfort she had never been able to give, the "talking sense" that Bruce would refuse to listen to so adamantly from Leslie.

Or at least, that was what she imagined. Bruce was giving no clues, only listening to the phone.

After another couple of minutes, Bruce took in a deep breath. "Okay," he agreed to some unknown proposal. "Yeah, you're right."

Another pause.

"You too. Thanks."

With these last words, Bruce took the phone from his ear and replaced it softly in its cradle. He rose to his feet, then, reaching his hands up to pull his cowl back into place. As suddenly as he had appeared, the vulnerable Bruce Wayne was gone, replaced by the Bat.

"Thank you, Leslie," he said formally. "Please tell Robin I will be by later this evening."

Leslie nodded, turning away a little. "I will."

When she turned back, he was gone.

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