The Apprentice, part 20

by Chicago

Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"

Bruce Wayne lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling because there was nothing else he could do. His shoulder, freshly stitched and bandaged, burned with pain, despite the careful propping of his body so the wound was not bearing his weight. It was a deep cut, and he was aware that it was only Ace's quick action that had saved him from serious blood loss. Leslie had been less than apologetic when she explained she didn't want to anesthetize the site at all while he had Du Bois's toxin in his system, and he sensed her aggravation with him in her tone.

It was appropriate penance, he supposed, remembering the reproach in Dick's eyes as he loaded Batman into the back of the car stashed in the Old Gotham lair. It was pain he would live with, although he was less thrilled that he had been deprived of a comlink on which he could at least listen in on what was happening in the hunt for Du Bois.

He knew the Scarecrow's former apprentice had escaped in a hail of gunfire, and he had been unable to communicate to an obviously upset Batgirl that he did not blame her, that he was only happy she was unhurt. He could only watch with unexpressed approval as Dick debriefed her, engaging her in building a string of deductions about who had been supporting Du Bois, where he might be.

They had already stripped his cowl by that point, so he did not know what words came over the comlink that snapped them both to attention and sent them back into the night. He had tried half-heartedly to teach Ace how to mimic the receiving portion of their communication system, but it had been hard to think through the haze of pain that accompanied the movements of Leslie's needles and thread as she drew layers of muscle and skin back together. He could school his own mind away from the hurt of his body, but Ace? Ace trembled on his wrist at every new assault, and he began to realize it was more important to soothe the little symbiote than force it to any further exertion.

Now Ace curled against his chest, a loop of its essence tossed around his neck in a securing hold. He could feel it measuring his pulse, drowsing inasmuch as a zo'ok could be said to drowse, and he did not want to disturb it.

Not that he could've, physically speaking.

His eyelids blinked to rewet his eyes, and he tried to repeat the move voluntarily. Still nothing.

He listened to the noise of the occasional passing car on the street below. He was in an isolated corner of Leslie's clinic, the staff kept carefully away. Leslie herself was making checks at half hour intervals, and he estimated 20 minutes had passed since he had last seen her. She had hrumphed at his lack of improvement on her last check, but had seemed relatively unconcerned. "You're getting old, Bruce," she had remarked. "You won't bounce back as fast as Tim did."

Old. Was that why he had made such mistakes on this case? He was letting himself settle into an older man's routine, no longer one man on a mission, risking no one save himself...

His thoughts were derailed as he heard a squeak in the hallway. He concentrated, forcing his eyes closed to listen better and suffering a moment's surprise that it had worked. He pushed that aside as he heard the doorknob turn, and his eyes reopened with less effort. He slid his gaze to the side, half surprised to see Barbara Gordon wheeling into his room.

"You must be feeling better. Your eyebrow twitched when you saw me roll in. I was going to send Tim, but it's easier for me to sneak out after midnight"

He stared at her and tried to force his tongue to work. His mouth opened a crack, and he managed to choke out, "Di-"

She moved briskly, grabbing a tissue from the nightstand and dabbing at the drool that trickled from his unresponsive lips. "Uh uhn, none of that. We didn't save you from certain death in order to have you choke on your own spit."

He glared at her, but she seemed immune. "That means no trying to talk. And Dick is out at Arkham with Cassandra." She tossed the tissue into the waste basket at the bedside. "Du Bois showed up there, pumped full of his own drugs and foaming at the mouth. Done up in batcuffs on top of that. But Agent Chase was there looking into some issue with Scarecrow and she's already reported that the cuffs were all wrong."

He parted his lips again, and she held up a hand. "I'm serious, Bruce. J'onn will be seriously peeved if I let you talk and that gets you pneumonia or something because your ability to swallow is impaired."

He let his lips close and gave her an irritated look.

"Oh, don't worry. We didn't report to him how close a shave you had. We'll let you explain that to him." There was a hint of danger in her tone.

"Anyway," she continued, "Arkham is trying to treat Du Bois, but it's a fair bet his mind is gone. Nightwing and Batgirl are trying to figure out who dumped him, but I suspect the trail's already cold. Might be best to let the DEO sort it out now that their suspicions are raised."

With a huge effort, Bruce managed to incline his head once in the affirmative.

"Glad to see you agree with me," she remarked, sitting back in her chair. "You should practice doing it more often."

He narrowed his eyes, but she seemed unconcerned about his anger. She met his eyes without wavering.

"This isn't all about you, you know," she said quietly. "I know you think it is, or think it isn't but feel like it is. Hell, I don't know how that messed up mind of yours works, but I know what you're doing, what you've been doing. And you need to stop. Right now."

He blinked, the action coming more easily than it had earlier, letting confusion show in his face.

"Don't play innocent, Bruce," she hissed. "We've played this game with you one too many times. This whole, 'my mission, my risk, you kids stay out of the way.' It's bullshit, and you know it."

He wanted to protest - no, he wanted to shut her down with a curt word and a pointed exit - but he didn't have those options.

She gave him a half-satisfied smile, as if she were reading his mind. "You have to listen to me now," she pointed out. "So I'm going to say what's on my mind."

He closed his eyes so he wasn't looking at her, but that didn't seem to make a difference. He heard her sigh.

"You are such an emotional fuck-up, Bruce. I know coming from me that's a bit of pot and kettle, but it's true.

"If Dick were here he'd have shut me up all ready - he coddles you, you know. Talk about codependence." She snorted. "And you are such an ass to him. To all of us.

"Why the hell didn't you let J'onn come to help with this? Why the hell didn't you let us help you with this? You think you're really so - so - I don't know what you think you are.

"But I do know this: whether you like it or not, you are the anchor of this family. And don't give me any of your looks, this is a family. You can hate it all you want, but we're going to go out on the streets and risk our necks and hack computer networks and fight crime any which way we can, with or without your approval. Because that's how you taught us. To do good. To do right, even if it's sideways and backwards to the law. Protect the innocent.

"Do you have any idea how hard that is to do when you're distracted by worrying about one of your own, all the time? When someone who trained you to use every available resource forgets his own damned rules and shuts you out?"

He thought her tone sounded choked, and he opened his eyes.

She wasn't looking at him. "I put up with a lot of shit from you, Bruce Wayne. Because no matter how I feel about you as a person, I believe in the Batman and what he does."

She turned back toward him, eyes fierce and glossy with unshed tears. "But so help me, you shut us out again, you drag us down that road one more time - I won't follow. We're done. Understand?"

He stared at her, caught between anger and confusion and unable to do anything to clarify or express himself. And, he realized, that might be a good thing.

She continued to glare at him, then suddenly reached for her ear. "Oracle," she said crisply, belying the anger and hurt on her face.

"Yeah, I figured as much... He's improving... Yeah... I'll tell him... Half an hour?... Okay... Love you... Oracle out."

She lowered her hand and returned her attention to Bruce. "That was Dick," she said unnecessarily. "They didn't find anything further on Du Bois. He'll be here in a half an hour."

Bruce again managed a nod, easier than his last.

She gave him a hard look. "Don't forget what I told you. I mean it."

She reached down to unbrake her chair. "I'm going to go talk to Leslie. You might think about calling J'onn, because I can't imagine he didn't get some sort of sense of what happened through whatever weird link you have." She turned brusquely and wheeled out of the room, leaving Bruce alone with his thoughts.

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