The Apprentice, part 18

by Chicago

Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"

Under different circumstances, Nightwing might have allowed himself a moment's pleasure at the way that Batgirl swung unquestioningly after him into the night. It felt... like old times, part of a well-oiled machine. But in old times, he hadn't been the one in the lead. He spoke to Oracle through his comlink: "Keep on it, see if there's anything else."

The answer came back tinnily in his ear: "Will do. Oracle out."

He heard the click of the comlink going to standby and he refocused his attention outward, mentally mapping the most direct route through the city to the financial district.

Old Gotham had no shortage of tall buildings of mismatched height, but there was a weird residential zone between Old Gotham and the City Hall District just north of their destination in the Financial District. He reengaged his comlink, this time to Batgirl, staying just far enough back that they could not be targeted as a unit, but close enough that he did not lose her from his peripheral vision. "Gotham rail?"

"9:50."

He activated the head's up display in his mask as he transferred to a new jumpline. It was currently 9:20. They would be over the rail line in five minutes at most. Too early. "Damn."

"New construction at Latrobe," Batgirl's voice came back. "72 stories. Can swing half block, get in range of Sauerbeck Building."

"Perfect," Nightwing complimented, angling his next jump more southward. These were Batgirl's patrol routes now, much changed by the quake and new construction. The days when Dick Grayson had known downtown Gotham better than the palm of his hand were long gone.

But he knew Latrobe Street, and the new construction Batgirl had mentioned appeared as promised. He came kitty-corner to it to take advantage of one of the taller structures nearby and secure a jumpline as high as he could among the steel girders. The sense of desperate urgency that had gripped him since he had discovered that Batman had gone was increasing, and he forced himself not to rush his jump. Haste would not get them to Wall Street any faster, and...

He tucked into a roll as he released his jumpline and strove to gain an extra quarter block on his swing. His body took three rolls and almost the entire length of the grocery store roof to come to a halt, and behind him he heard Cassandra mimicking his move to a fault. He pulled a pneumatic launcher from his gauntlet and was readying it toward the Sauerbeck when a sudden sense of wrongness gripped him.

He froze.

"Nightwing?"

He held up a silencing hand and carefully turned on the rooftop. A sudden new surge of adrenaline had hit his system, and he felt something close to panic that he fought down with an effort. As he turned toward the southeast, he felt a pull on his consciousness, urging himto come. J'onn? he projected, expecting to feel the Martian's mental touch.

No answer. Or rather, just an intensification of a desperate mental howl.

He opened his comlink as he shot his line back across to the other side of Latrobe Street. "He's at HomeMaster."

"What? Are you sure?" Oracle asked.

The screaming in Dick's head grew more urgent, and he wondered if Batgirl heard it, too, the way she shadowed him without question. "He's there," Nightwing repeated, touching down on a rooftop at a dead run and shooting off a new line just in time to take him airborne again. The howl was getting louder, more insistent.

Ace. It had to be Ace.

And if Ace was shrilling a distress call?

The head's up display had clicked off two minutes. Nightwing could feel the headache developing in answer to the wailing in his head as he crashed down on a rooftop three blocks from HomeMaster. He staggered as he regained his feet, shaking off the concerned hand that Batgirl placed on his shoulder. Ten seconds to the next roof. Another ten and he was under two blocks away. Ten more... fifteen...

He crashed through the loading bay doors, sending wood and fiberglass splintering in all directions from his boots. A corner of his mind made note of the property damage and heard the sudden blare of an alarm, but his focus was on Ace's homing call, drawing his eyes to a flashlight lit corner...

He had a batarang in his hand before he had rolled to his feet, and he released it with perfect accuracy at the blade just beginning its vicious descent toward Batman's still body. A sudden howl joined the clamor of the alarm as Du Bois - it had to be Du Bois - snatched his hand back to his chest and the knife clattered away against the concrete. In Nightwing's head, Ace's siren call suddenly stopped.

Batgirl was already racing forward as Nightwing began to move, but before either could reach him, Du Bois had sprung up and disappeared through a door. They split up in unconscious agreement, Batgirl taking off after Du Bois, and Nightwing skidding to a halt beside Batman.

His heart leapt into his throat as he dropped to his knees beside Batman's unmoving form. There was blood pooling beneath him, and there was no flicker of response. "Batman!" he yelled, trying to make himself heard over the alarm. They would need to get moving before the police arrived.

Nightwing fought panic as Batman failed to respond. Du Bois had a paralysis inducing toxin. Robin had explained to him how it had left him conscious but completely without voluntary muscle control. He opened his comlink as he stripped off one of his own gauntlets and slipped his fingers under the edge of the cowl seeking a pulse. "Oracle, we found him. Batgirl's after Du Bois." A deep relief flooded Nightwing as he felt the steady beat of Bruce's heart through his carotid artery. "We need to get Batman out of here."

"Best option is down," Barbara replied in controlled tones. "How is he moving?"

Nightwing was rolling Batman carefully onto his side to figure out where the blood was coming from. "He's not," he reported, blinking at the long slice across the back of the armor, though which he could see ... a bandage? He felt a tickle against his mind in response to his confusion. Ace.

Barbara's voice was back, edged with worry. "How serious-?"

Nightwing let Batman roll back onto his back and moved to his shoulders to sit him up. "He's hurt, and I think he's got some of Du Bois's toxin. Call Leslie. And -" he grunted as he lifted Batman over his shoulder into a fireman's carry and staggered a little for balance - "down where?"

The sound of approaching sirens was beginning to cut through the alarm, and ... was that the sound of helicopters? He shut the distraction out of his mind, listening to Oracle's voice. "About 30 feet from you, there should be a cage elevator that goes to the basement."

Nightwing scanned the dimly lit loading bay. "Got it." He was already at a half run toward the cage, moving as quickly as he could under Batman's weight. The sirens were closer. He was hitting the down button of the cage elevator almost before he was completely in it. "We're going down. Then what?"

"There'll be a door into the boiler room about 10 feet to the left and six feet behind the elevator entrance. Off the boiler room is a janitor's closet that abuts the sewers. If this has been Du Bois' hideout-"

"It will connect," Nightwing acknowledged, craning his neck to find the boiler room door as the cage lowered enough for him to see. "I see the door. I'll-"

His words were cut off by the sound of distant gunfire. "Batgirl, report!" he barked.

Through the comlink, the din of helicopters was deafening. "Du Bois have back up. Going-"

"Batgirl. Batgirl!"

"I've lost her feed but her signal's still moving," Oracle's voice cut in, managing the illusion of reassurance. "You need to get moving unless you want to deal with the GCPD."

Nightwing flung open the cage elevator door and resecured his hold on Batman over his shoulder before he stepped out and sent the cage back to the first floor. "Oracle, find a way to get Batgirl out of there," he ordered tersely, pushing his way into the boiler room and scanning for the door of the janitor's closet. "I don't care if you have to call Superman. We're not losing any more to him."

"On it," Oracle replied, her signal clicking off.

Nightwing entered the janitor's closet and scanned the space. A cement spattered industrial sink sat low in one corner, a protective surround built into the wall, and Nightwing's practiced eye picked out the telltale scuff marks and smooth edges of a panel door. Now to figure out how to trip it. He lowered Batman onto the cot that took up one wall and crossed to lock the closet door. He paused by the cot on his way back to the sink, eyes meeting those of his unmoving mentor. "I won't let us lose anymore," he promised.

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