The Apprentice, part 6

by Chicago

Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"

Argent lowered her teammates to the ground outside the holographic projection over the entrance to the Titan's lair, landing beside them a second later. She rolled her head, seeking to stretch her neck muscles. "I vote no more weird dimensional portals for at least a month," she complained.

"D'oh. Now one's going to open up before we even get inside," Arsenal teased, heading into the low bunker that held the elevator to the lower levels.

"Not funny, Arsenal," Nightwing shot back, although his tone held a hint of tired amusement.

"No, that would be just our luck," Troia threw in. "Although if it's a portal to some tropical island resort with a good spa-"

"Now you're talkin' my language," Roy grinned.

"Daddy!" a little voice called as the elevator doors opened and Lian Harper dashed toward her father's arms.

"Hello, munchkin. You have fun with Uncle Garth?"

"We watched the fishies dance," Lian confirmed, giggling as Roy tickled her ribs after releasing her from a tight hug.

"Sounds like fun," Nightwing commented, giving the little girl a quick grin that faded as Tempest rounded the corner. "What's up, Garth?" he asked.

The other man's serious expression eased a little toward perplexity. "I'm not sure. Oracle left a message for you."

Nightwing cocked his head expectantly. "Urgent?"

"Not exactly - it was left a while ago, but Oracle said I didn't need to deliver it until you came back."

"And?"

"Oracle just said to call Gotham."

Donna gave Nightwing a worried glance. "Did everything seem okay?"

Garth shrugged. "Oracle seemed distracted, but that was all the message. I've got to figure it wasn't a super emergency, but-"

Nightwing glanced at Roy.

"I'll handle the debrief," Arsenal offered, understanding the implied request. "Go find out what's up."

"Thanks," Nightwing said, turning to stride toward his quarters.

Once the soundproof door was safely closed behind him, he tapped his comlink.

And waited.

Just when he was beginning to feel he should be alarmed, Barbara's voice came on line. "Dick, sorry. Had my hands full."

"I just got your message. What's going on?"

A sigh came over the line. "The short version? Du Bois is back. He caught Spoiler last night and she's pretty banged up. Robin's an emotional mess and the big guy is in another one of his phases, made worse by Spoiler's mom. Du Bois is still at large and Batgirl was unable to track him after Spoiler was attacked. In unrelated news, Dinah has finally managed to get on a transport out of Mendoza and Kord Industries has just offered me a seat on the board of directors."

Nightwing blinked. "Really? Are you going to take it?"

A moment's startled pause was followed by a weary chuckle. "I don't know."

Nightwing peeled off his mask with a sigh. "Okay, so start this over from the beginning. Du Bois - that was the guy who was working with Scarecrow that we couldn't prove anything on last February, right?"

"Yeah."

"Any idea why he's resurfaced?" Dick rubbed at the spirit gum stuck in his eyebrows, wincing as it pulled at the little hairs.

"Nada. Zip. Just last night he was up on the rooftops dressed in Robin's colors. Tim thinks there's a chance it was a targeted attack on Spoiler, although I can't figure the motive."

"Beyond getting back at her allies? Doesn't follow for me, either, although he wouldn't be the first nutcase to adopt a lookalike costume to deke us out. So no obvious scheme going down that we know of beyond possibly looking to hit anything Bat related." Dick began stripping off his Nightwing costume. "How is Spoiler?"

"She's at Leslie's now recovering from surgery to reduce a compound fracture of the wrist." Barbara ignored Dick's sympathetic hiss. "Her mom's there, too, on Leslie's insistence."

"Batman's gotta hate that."

"Well, that's another issue. Steph's mom gave him the what-for for having her little girl out in the line of fire, and-"

Dick crossed into his bathroom as she spoke, holding his comlink to one ear and reaching in with the other hand to turn on the shower. "And probably didn't realize he was already giving himself that lecture. Did he fire her?"

"Spoiler? No. Not yet, anyway. Hasn't said boo to anyone beyond basic case-related orders. And even that is minimal."

Dick grunted. "He's withdrawing again."

"Classic bat symptom."

"And Tim? You said he's -"

"His girlfriend was nearly killed last night. It shook him pretty badly, even though he's not saying much about it. I think he feels responsible."

"Wonder where he gets that from?" Dick muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose and closing his eyes against a growing headache. "Man, it's getting so a guy can't leave the dimension for a couple of days."

"Ha ha."

"I'm trying. I take it that there's nothing I can do about any of this right at the moment."

"Yes, you have time to take a shower and call me back."

"It'll have to be from the road. I've got to be back in Bludhaven in four hours. My shift ends at midnight, so I can be in Gotham by-"

"You can be in your bed by 1," Barbara said firmly. Before he could muster a protest she added, "Do you really want to add fuel to Batman's desire to go this alone by showing up overtired and trying to help?"

Dick considered for a moment. "You're right."

"Of course I'm right. I'll tell you if something changes, but right now-"

"Right now you're just making sure I know before I shoot my mouth off and inadvertently make things worse." He leaned his bare backside against the sink vanity and shut the bathroom door to contain the steam. "Has anyone called J'onn?" he asked hesitantly.

"J'onn's working a case in Denver," she answered quietly, her tone implying that she had had a conversation with the Martian. "He's needed there."

Dick frowned a little but decided to heed the reluctance he sensed in Barbara's voice to discuss J'onn any further. "Okay. Let me shower and then take care of some stuff here, then I'll be heading back to the 'Haven. Tim at school?"

"Until 3:30."

"Right. So I'll leave him a message to call me at the station. I assume Bruce knows I'm back?"

"Has he ever not kept a signal open for your tracer?"

"Point. And if he's having one of those moods..."

"Yeah."

"All right. I'll drop him an email of my schedule and let him call me if he needs me. Good or bad idea to send Steph flowers?"

"Um, bad. Her mom is on a tear and that would stir up the hornet's nest again. Do an e-card."

"Got it. Babs?"

"Yeah?"

"When was the last time you slept?"

There was a silence for a moment. "More recently than you."

"That isn't saying much."

"Dick-"

"Babs. I'm guessing the boss man will be patrolling late tonight, and probably wanting lots of searches run."

"Fine. I'll crash this afternoon. And does that Tower have an infinite hot water supply that you can stand outside your shower for this long?"

Dick smiled at the undercurrent of irritation in her voice. "Something like that. I love you, Babs."

Her snort echoed over the comlink. "Right back at you, former boy wonder. Now hang up and hop in that shower before I die of jealousy listening to the water run."

He chuckled. "Yes ma'am. And Babs? For what it's worth, I think Kord Industries would be lucky to have you officially."

"So I quit hacking them?"

"Because you're good. Bye, beautiful." He severed the connection before she could sputter a response, smiling as he set down the comlink. The smile faded a little as he contemplated dealing with the rest of his family, but he knew from experience that all he could do was deal with things as they came. He held that resolve firmly in mind and stepped into the shower.

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