The Apprentice, part 5

by Chicago

Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"

A flying kick deflected the strike aimed at his head, and he spun, putting the force of his momentum behind his punch. There was an "oof" as his fist connected, and the dark that had blinded him began suddenly to yield, to reveal...

He felt hands grasp his wrist and he stared in horror as he realized he had not simply punched, he had impaled. Bat-razors, forgotten in their sheaths, deployed he knew not how, embedded deeply in the gut of...

Batgirl. She was suspended in mid-air, dangling from the blades sunk into her stomach at the end of his extended fist. Beneath the mask, he could see the plaintive confusion that crossed her face a moment before her head lolled back and her hands dropped their hold. The slackening of her body caused her to drop, to fall to the ground, to...

But it wasn't Batgirl who collapsed at his feet, spilling her blood and guts on the concrete floor. It was Barbara, belly blasted through to her spine, bleeding, dying...

He knelt beside her desperately, trying to staunch the flow of blood, but it wasn't Barbara anymore. The red hair was really blonde; it only looked red because of the pooling blood and...

Bruce Wayne opened his eyes and sucked in a gasp of air. A nightmare. An interrupted nightmare, to gauge from his own extensive catalogue of previous horrifying dreams. He had woken before he could start screaming, which begged the question of what had wakened him if his own screams hadn't.

He blinked up into the dark, then turned his head. 4:35 am. Barely an hour had passed since he had left Leslie's clinic, since he had heard Batgirl's report on her failure to track DuBois and sent her back to her own cave, since he had made a phone call from downstairs and talked to a machine...

Phone call.

As if on cue, the phone began to ring, and he scooped the handset from the cradle with a haste that would have impressed the Flash. He fell back into the pillows as he put the receiver to his ear and said, "J'onn."

He closed his eyes as his lover's soothing baritone washed over him. "Bruce. I was on a stake out."

"I thought as much. Any success?"

"Not yet." J'onn paused, then said again, "Bruce."

Bruce pressed his free hand to his forehead and thought for a moment. "Spoiler got hurt tonight," he finally explained.

"How serious?"

"Pretty bad. Broken arm, mild concussion. She never should have been out there."

"Bruce."

"She shouldn't have been. I should have been firmer about -"

"Bruce. What happened?"

"She stumbled on Du Bois - the man who was helping Scarecrow last February when-"

"I remember." J'onn's voice was quiet, calming. "And they fought?"

"No. No, he just got her with a fear gas. But it was just as she was hitting the jumplines and -"

"Ouch," J'onn reacted, saving Bruce the need to explain further.

"Batgirl was there in seconds, but too late to track Du Bois. And then we just needed to get Spoiler to Leslie."

"Of course." Another pause stretched between them. "Bruce," J'onn began gently, "what else?"

Bruce grimaced a little, feeling snappish that J'onn was making him talk rather than just reading his thoughts, but he spoke aloud anyway. "Stephanie's - Spoiler's - mother had to be notified."

"I should hope so," J'onn remarked. "A parent needs to know what's happening with their child."

Bruce winced. "I know. I do. But she was so upset-"

"With you," J'onn finished astutely, enough of a hint of sympathy in his tone to counter the defensiveness Bruce was mustering.

"Yes. She... blames me. Not just for tonight, but for Stephanie doing this at all. For condoning children in costume, in danger. For-"

"I think I can imagine the rest," J'onn cut him off. "And it seems you feel she has a point."

Bruce closed his eyes and let the mouthpiece of the phone fall below his chin to rest against his collar bone. He thought of Dick, hanging from a jumpline with Joker's bullet through his shoulder. Of Tim, fever ridden with the clench. Of Barbara, stuck forever in her chair. Of Cassandra, battered and bloodied from her battle with Shiva. Of Jason...

He lifted the receiver to his mouth. "Yes," he whispered.

The quiet distance hummed between them over the phone line, and Bruce felt a comforting mental touch cut through that distance. He clung to the soft reassurance it offered.

"Do you want me to come home?" J'onn asked.

Bruce's eyes few open. A part of him was screaming 'yes!,' but J'onn had his own work to attend to. Stubbornness flooded through him, as well, resisting the implied offer of help. He could handle his city, had handled it fine before he had learned to occasionally borrow the mental and physical strength of his lover. He would handle this.

"No," he finally answered. "No, you finish what you're working on in Denver." He hesitated. "I just wanted to hear your voice," he confessed.

"Anytime you need me," J'onn promised, and Bruce sensed the reminder that he could also use Ace to call, to get an instantaneous link.

"I know," Bruce acknowledged, knowing also why he had not availed himself of Ace this time and knowing J'onn also knew. "I love you," he murmured, partly in guilt over his half-unconscious need to deal with Gotham without J'onn's help.

"I love you, too, Bruce," J'onn replied, and his tone conveyed pure understanding. "You should get some sleep."

Bruce nodded, then remembered he was on the phone. "Yes," he agreed, trying to keep his thoughts from the nightmares awaiting him. "Good-bye, J'onn."

"Good-bye."

Bruce listened as J'onn hung up and the silence of the early morning was broken by the dial tone.

It sounded very lonely.

Sighing, he hung up the phone and curled back into the blankets, quietly drifting back to sleep.

back to previous partend part 5next part