FOLLOWING ORDERS

DISCLAIMER: I do not own any of the characters. Nightwing and all of his friends belongs to DC comics. I'd be a happy woman if Dick belonged to me...but no such luck. I have not made any profit out of writing this, so please don't sue me. It would not be worth your while.

Author Comment: Thank you to my wonderful beta, Jean whose comments force me to examine my writing. There are a number of spelling, grammar and punctuation differences between Australia and the USA... please forgive me for writing with an accent. (g)

Special Thanks: Thank you to all those people who have left such wonderful feedback. Some of you haven't left your e-mail addresses so I haven't been able to thank you. I just want you to know that your kind words mean so much.


Part One

Batman regained consciousness gradually. As awareness settled, he registered the pain throbbing through his chest. With great effort, Gotham's vigilante opened his eyes. His vision faded in and out of focus leading to galloping nausea in his stomach. Far above him he could see a gaping hole in the ceiling of the deserted factory he'd followed his leads to. The exposed iron girders gave the appearance of a maze above, but there was a gap up there. One of the girders was missing.

The Dark Knight drew in a deeper breath and full consciousness returned accompanied by the salty taste of blood in his mouth. His breathing was restricted and so he lifted his chin to investigate, discovering both the reason for his struggle to fully inflate his lungs and the location of the missing girder. The huge 500 kilogram iron beam was lying across his chest along with other debris.

Batman attempted to flex his chest muscles but a groan of discomfort echoed out of him. Several ribs were definitely broken, but he could feel his legs which meant his spine had not suffered major damage; incredible considering the distance he had fallen. Then again, he had been taught to fall by the best.

"Ahhh, you're awake." The voice came from the pinned crusader's right - a rasping voice Batman knew only too well. He twisted his head in search of the speaker.

The Joker's pasty white face lit with a smile of triumph. "You played right into my hands, Batman."

"What makes you think that?" Batman asked without emotion. Speaking wasn't easy and left him panting as he tried to draw enough oxygen into his constrained lungs to keep himself conscious and speak at the same time.

"I laid that trail for you, Bats." The Joker walked forward, the unnatural smile deepening. "Do you want to know why?"

"You were bored?" Batman asked. His mind began to process the situation meticulously, his eyes flicking down to study the debris on top of him. The girder was across his chest and should have crushed him but for the fact that it was resting precariously on some tiles from the collapsed section of the roof. Batman tried to move his right arm, but it was wedged under him. His left arm was handcuffed to the girder itself. Clearly, he had been unconscious for more than a few seconds for he could see that he wasn't the only thing attached to the beam.

In the back of the Dark Knight's mind he vaguely remembered activating his homer as he had fallen. Oracle would know he was in trouble and would have dispatched Robin by now.

The Joker stopped walking and leered down at his captive. "Bored? I am on a mission to exterminate all bird life in Gotham City."

Batman's eyes narrowed as he assimilated the words. The Joker's deformed smile became wider. "That's right, Bats. I'm using you as live bait to catch me a Robin."

"He won't come. He's out of the city," Batman replied in a deadpan voice. "You've wasted your time."

The Joker laughed. "Good try, Bats, but you don't lie well. He'll come. They always do. Each and every one of the annoying bird boys. This is number three and I'll kill him like I did the first two." Robin was a child, perhaps that was the greatest embarrassment and why the Joker was fixated on Batman's junior partner. Many years earlier, it had been Robin who had foiled what the Joker believed was his greatest plan. Since then, Robin had continued to 'ruin' things. A mere slip of a brat who plagued the Joker's dreams. The crown prince of crime had gone out of his way to eliminate the child, but Robin kept returning.

Batman worked hard to keep his reaction buried, but an image of Jason lying broken and bleeding filled his mind and leaked out onto his face. His cheek twitched with rage. He prayed Tim wasn't coming.

The Joker saw the response, crouched and lowered his face so that it was only inches from Batman's. "You have a front row seat, Bats. You are going to get to watch the third bird boy die." His sunken eyes flashed with madness as he produced Batman's communicator. "I'm going to call him here."

The Dark Knight fought for control. His breathing rate had increased and was causing him to gasp in an effort to get the air he needed. The Joker smiled and lifted the communicator to his cherry-red lips. "Calling all cars. Calling all cars. This is a message for Birdboy. If he ever wants to see Daddy Bat again, he needs to come and find me. He's got two hours or the Bat fries."

Batman glared up at the madman as he rose to his feet.

"Get ready, boys. Robin will be on his way. No one kills him but me... is that clear?"

VVVVVVVVVV

Oracle bit down on her bottom lip. It was an annoying habit she had developed as a teenager. The young woman had alerted Robin to the fact that Batman had activated his homer and the teenager was heading across town to investigate.

Less than ten minutes later, she had received the Joker's call. Her hand hovered over the computer keyboard as she tried to decide what to do. She should call Robin. He was already en route. Robin was more than capable in every situation... except perhaps this one. The Joker was no ordinary foe and his fixation with Robin was well known to Barbara. Something deep down inside Oracle was screaming. The Joker wanted Robin. He was trying to lure the teenager into a trap that much she was sure of and if there was one thing the former Batgirl had learned through years facing the psychopath, it was that giving the Joker what he wanted wasn't the way to respond.

Her decision made, Barbara typed on her keyboard. Her screen changed and she waited. For a split second it went blank and then Nightwing's image filled it. "Hey, pretty lady."

"Nightwing, we have a situation in Gotham."

The smile left his face. "Go on."

"I've just received a message from the Joker."

"I didn't know he was out again."

"Escaped last night."

"What has he got to say for himself?"

"Ten minutes ago Batman activated his homer. Seconds ago, I received a message from the Joker on Batman's communicator." She watched as Dick's eyes grew wide with surprise and then darkened.

"He has Batman? Is he alive?" Unlike Bruce, who could ask such a question without the slightest trace of emotion, Dick's voice was strained.

"I don't know. The Joker said that if Robin wanted to see Batman again he needed to find him in the next two hours."

"Robin?" Dick's face darkened further. Now it was falling into place.

"I have a location on Batman and Robin is en route but..."

"No," Dick ordered. She could tell he was now on the move.... on his way. "No, don't bring Robin into it. It's a trap set for him."

"That's what I thought. Two hours. Can you be here in time?"

"Yes." It was said with such certainty.

"Should I contact Robin and let him know what's going on?"

"No. I'll contact him. I need to call him off and explain why he can't be a part of this."

"If he thinks Batman is in trouble..."

"He'll listen to me. Nightwing, out."

The screen in front of Barbara went blank. She drew in a deep breath and released it slowly. "Good luck."

VVVVVVVVVV

Robin activated his beeping communicator as he sped across town. "Receiving."

"Robin, Nightwing. I know the situation. I need you to abort."

Robin frowned, pulled his motorcycle to the curb and waited for the explanation that would follow. Unlike Batman, Nightwing didn't expect blind obedience. Dick treated Tim as an equal. That meant a lot to the teenager. Robin had earned his stripes in Nightwing's eyes and was treated accordingly.

"The Joker has laid a trap specifically for you."

"For me? Ohhh." Tim had been warned more than once of the Joker's fixation with the persona he had taken on. "But Batman set off his homer. He's in trouble."

"I know. We've had a message from the Joker. Said we've got two hours to find him."

"My ETA is only about fifteen minutes."

"Mine is about an hour and 50 minutes. I'm asking you to leave this to me."

"Nightwing, you're too far away. We can't cut it that fine. I can handle it."

"Robin, the Joker has laid this trap for you. He is expecting you which gives him the advantage. The only way to defeat the Joker is to do the last thing he expects. He isn't expecting me."

Robin licked his lips. "Nightwing, I can't just sit around twiddling my thumbs. He's got Batman. God knows what he's doing to him."

"You're assuming that Batman is still alive. You can't afford to make those sort of assumptions with the Joker, Robin."

"You think he's dead?" the teenager asked, horrified.

"I didn't say that." Tim noted the unreal calm in Dick's voice. Grayson was worried, but he knew how to control the emotion. "If Batman is alive, then the Joker will want him to witness your death and... I can't let that happen, Robin."

Tim squeezed his eyes shut. He knew what Dick was saying made sense. He knew Nightwing didn't doubt his ability... they had been through too much together for that, but Batman was in trouble.

"If it were anyone else, I wouldn't be making the trip, Robin. This is the Joker. It's a different situation. He has successfully struck us down too many times to be ignored. We need an advantage going into this. He's expecting you. My turning up may provide us with the edge we need to rescue Batman."

Tim licked his lips. It all make perfect sense. "Rescue aborted. I... what do you want me to do?"

"Wait about a block away. I'll call you in the moment I need you; I give you my word. But no matter what happens... no matter what you see or hear, you are not, I repeat, not to confront the Joker."

"Understood. Nightwing... be careful."

"I will partner. Nightwing out."

VVVVVVVVVV

"What is taking him so long?" the Joker shouted, his voice echoing in the huge open space. He was pacing with pronounced long strides, his face twitching unnaturally. His men looked at each other nervously. Many had worked with the Joker before and recognised the signs. Their boss was losing it again. The dozen who had only joined the madman in the last few hours watched him with great caution.

Batman, on the other hand, had relaxed. If Robin had been coming he would have arrived by now. He guessed that Oracle had had the sense to order the boy off. Barbara would have realized the entire situation was a trap set for Robin. She had always had good instincts. Of course, if Robin wasn't coming, Batman was on his own and he needed to try and formulate a way to escape. Unfortunately, he was well and truly pinned. The girder was far too heavy to shift on his own and even if Robin had arrived, moving it would not have been easy. At the moment, the only thing stopping the Dark Knight from being crushed were a few concrete tiles. If they were to shift...

"What is taking him soooooooooooo long?" the Joker bellowed again. His eyes darted to the timer attached to the electricity power box on the wall. He had started it after he had sent the ultimatum via Batman's communicator. "It's been one hour and fifty-two minutes. He's only got eight more minutes! He's going to miss it!"

"He's not coming, Joker," Batman called.

"HE'LL COME! They always turn up to ruin things. They can't help themselves," the Joker argued.

"He's not coming," Batman repeated.

"He's right," a voice called from the shadows of the roof. All heads snapped up. Batman's heart lifted. He knew that voice as well as he knew his own. He had heard that voice deepen over the years. A voice that had matured from that of a high-pitched eight-year-old to a calm twenty-three-year-old.

All watched as a figure dropped from the beams above. It somersaulted perfectly and landed in a crouch to the open mouthed stares of many on the ground. Only then did the blur come into focus.

"Nightwing!" the Joker cried.

Batman allowed himself to smile. No one could fall like Dick, the older man reflected proudly. At the age of eight, Dick had taught his mentor to 'fall'. Batman felt relief flood his aching system. Now he understood why Robin hadn't come.

The Joker glared at the Bludhaven vigilante as he rose to his feet. "No one invited you. Go away."

"Oh, come on, Joker. That's no way to greet an old friend." Nightwing scanned the area carefully. The concrete floor was covered in some sort of slippery foam. Flammable, the hero guessed. The Joker loved to add little 'party tricks' to all situations. The madman's thugs were spread out around the huge open room. About sixteen armed with clubs and crowbars - far more than Nightwing had anticipated.

Dick's gaze travelled to Batman. The Dark Knight's head bobbed once - acknowledgement that he was okay. Batman flicked his eyes to the girder, then to the thick electric cable attached to the beam and finally to a power-box mounted on the wall to Nightwing's right. Dick followed the silent cues, his attention stopping briefly on the timer attached to the box. So, that was what the Joker had meant by frying Batman. He had connected the giant beam to the electricity source of the building and set the power to be switched on in... Nightwing squinted... seven minutes. Thousands of volts of pure electricity would then be zapped through Batman's body.

The Joker's smile twisted with annoyance. "We are waiting for Robin."

"Gonna be a long wait. He couldn't make it," Nightwing stated, easily. "Not allowed out on a school night. He sends his apologies." All the while his fertile mind considered and analyzed the situation. First he needed to deal with the thugs, then the powerbox and finally free Batman. Somewhere in between he'd have to take care of the Joker.

The Joker's face contorted with rage. It was a strange look that had always fascinated Dick. No matter what the emotion the madman felt, the demented smile remained.

"He will come. He always comes," the madman insisted.

"Not this time, Happy Jack. You lose."

'Careful, Nightwing,' Batman thought, silently. Taunting the Joker was a dangerous business.

The Joker's small eyes widened at the insult. "Get him! Damn it, get him before Robin gets here."

Nightwing's well-formed frame tensed as the Joker's mindless muscle moved in. Dick opened his stance, his eyes darting from left to right, waiting for the assault. He began to plot their positions in his mind, labeling each man according to a prominent characteristic - Red Head, Green Parka, Glasses etc. It was the first thing Batman had taught him. In hand to hand combat with more than one person, you had to ensure you knew where everyone was at all times. It wasn't going to be easy with so many. Six thugs, Nightwing could handle with ease. Eight at one time, at a push. Ten if he was able to remain uninjured during the battle. Sixteen...? Tonight he would find out.

"Say your prayers, " one of the men snarled. Three members of the mob attacked, the others hanging back believing the trio would be sufficient to handle the costumed freak.

Dick grabbed the arm of the first to reach him and hurled him into the path of the other two. The trio, unable to keep their footing in the slippery conditions, went down in a tangle of arms and legs. This sent the others into action. Three more lunged forward. Dick crouched and sent a fist into the stomach of one and then his leg snapped forward taking down the other two. Nightwing reacted instinctively to movement on his right, shoving his elbow back with practised precision. The approaching thug staggered backwards as his breath was forced from him in a gush.

"Get him," the Joker cried in frustration. "I want him dead before Robin gets here."

"He's not coming, laughing boy," Nightwing informed the Joker, scanning the group of thugs who were regrouping and collecting more weapons. Dick knew he needed help but he couldn't and wouldn't call on Robin. That would be playing into the Joker's hands.

VVVVVVVVVV

"Oracle, anything?" Tim asked. He was pacing beside his hidden motorcycle, one block away as Nightwing had suggested.

"Nothing. He went in about seven minutes ago."

"I'll give him ten."

"Robin..."

"Oracle, I'm not going to stand by and hope everything is okay. Ten minutes and I'm going over there."

"You can't confront the Joker," Oracle argued. Her voice wavered. Barbara had faced hundreds of the most evil and frightening people on the planet but the Joker had stolen so much from her... so much from so many people.

"I'm not going to confront the Joker. Nightwing was right about that, but there has to be something more I can do than just stand here!"

VVVVVVVVVV

One man raised the crowbar he held and hurled it at Nightwing's head. Hooking his foot under the edge of an old crate nearby, Nightwing jerked hard, sending the crate into the air just as the crowbar neared him. The two collided with a resounding crash dropping between Nightwing and his adversaries. The vigilante chanced a look at the timer.

Four minutes.

A group of six men rushed forward. Nightwing leapt straight up into the air and spinning at high speed he kicked out, downing them like dominoes. But still they came. Nightwing ducked another blow, but his footing slipped on the greasy surface and his momentum took him crashing into two others. Dick desperately fought to remain upright on the slippery concrete. He knew that if he went down, he was a dead man… and so was Bruce. Three short sharp blows allowed him to fight clear of his attackers.

"Give it up, Joker. They aren't good enough. Pack up your rent-a-army and take off."

Batman once again examined the girder, desperately trying to spot some way to free himself. He knew time was ticking away.

Two of the downed men at Nightwing's feet dragged themselves up. Nine were stunned or still down. Dick caught a quick glimpse of three men circling around behind him. The final two were nowhere to be found, a point that worried him far more than the fact that he was being encircled.

A groan from Batman distracted Nightwing and he glanced over at his partner. A punch glanced off Dick's hip. Nightwing reacted, kicking out in that direction. A second blow connected with his back and Nightwing catapulted forward. One of the crowbars crashed against his shoulder with a sickening thud. Dick cried out in agony, pivoting and taking down the man who had wielded it.

Batman's jaw tightened. He'd seen the blow and knew it had done some damage. How much, he couldn't be sure.

Three minutes.

"Back off," the younger vigilante cried. "If that timer goes off and electrifies the beam, the entire floor could come alive through the foam." It was a bluff but it appeared to work. Several of his attackers paused, considered the information and then turned and ran.

Dick spotted another crowbar descending toward his head at the same time as the two missing men were launching at him from differing directions. Nightwing swerved sideways, sweeping the legs out from under the one wielding the deadly weapon. The crowbar swiped by his head with only a hair's width to spare. The other two thugs' blows connected, both with his injured shoulder. The pain was excruciating but Dick was able to maintain his concentration and dispense with the two men. Maintaining focus was the key when injured. He couldn't allow the pain to enter his mind.

"Kill him!" the Joker screamed, ghoulish delight deforming his face. Like Batman, he could tell by the way Nightwing's arm was hanging that he was hurt... and so did the thugs who were now targeting that shoulder.

Baman watched helplessly. His partner was doing well, but he was outnumbered and time wasn't on his side.

One member of the murderous mob took a broad horizontal swipe at Nightwing with his retrieved crowbar. Dick realized he no longer had a choice. His mindset changed. If he was to save Batman's life he needed to aim for maximum damage without actually killing anyone. The solider inside Dick took control. He needed to take these men down and he needed to do it now. Ducking beneath the deadly weapon aimed at him, Nightwing flowed forward with unnatural velocity, getting close to the thug and burying his nunchaku in the soft stomach of his attacker.

Two minutes.

Letting out a roar of pain, the thug stumbled backward, clawing at the midsection desperately as Nightwing whirled around to take on the next person. The wounded man stared at Nightwing, his eyes wide, but before he could say anything, his legs buckled. The other members of the mob froze. Their mood changed as they watched their colleague writhe on the ground in agony.

Nightwing's eyes darted to the timer...

80 seconds.

"Get the bastard!" They charged Nightwing as one. Dick's mind emptied of thought and he allowed that small part of him that was beyond conscious awareness to take over completely. His nunchaku became an extension of his being and flicked with deadly accuracy, but still they came. A crowbar crashed down on Dick's arm and his weapon was jarred loose. Nightwing dived toward it, but realized halfway through the air he wasn't going to make it, so he arced to the right, scooped up a discarded crowbar and came to his feet, holding it out in front of him. His shoulder was burning and numbness was gradually travelling down his arm. He needed to end this quickly before the lack of sensation reached his fingers.

"The foam is going to act like a conductor," Dick growled. "You've got about sixty seconds to get out of here."

There were only three of his adversaries left standing. The others were littering the ground tending to their injuries.

The Joker squealed like a wounded puppy. "No! He's not allowed to win. Damn you. Change of plans. Bane!"

"What?" Nightwing cried, horrified. He spun around and spotted the huge man appear from the corridor next to the Joker. For a split second the young vigilante allowed his attention to sweep to Batman. Their eyes brushed... their souls touched.

Bruce… The odds, which had been against them from the beginning had just moved beyond reach. If Dick had been fresh and could have worn his opponent down, that would have been one thing, but he only had forty seconds.

Batman knew the battle was now lost for him, but not his partner. No, Dick. "Get out of here, Nightwing" he called firmly. "That's an order." His voice didn't waver. Nightwing and Batman continued to stare at each other. Behind the masks, father and son spoke silently.

Go, son. Bruce communicated through his intense stare.

No. There were no words, but then, they rarely needed them in situations like this. Some may call it telepathy. Batman and Nightwing knew it was simply that they had been working together for more years than either cared to count and therefore could predict the other's thoughts and reactions in most circumstances.

"Go," Bruce growled in frustration. Dick's head snapped to the timer.

Thirty-five seconds.

"Move in but stay outside and collect the strays," Nightwing barked into the communicator in his glove.

"Already here and bagged myself a few," Robin replied.

"Well done." Nightwing focused on Bane. "We're all going to fry," he snarled, facing the approaching man mountain.

"So be it," Bane stated. "Never again will I have another chance like this. You have fought well, but you are injured. Today I get to see the death of both Batman and Nightwing and I will snap Robin in two just like I did to his mentor."

Dick's face shadowed with rage. So the Joker had been intending to have Bane break Robin's back, just as he had done to Batman.

"Today, the three of you die," Bane boomed.

"Wrong. Today, it's your turn," Nightwing snarled, again glancing across at the timer. He needed to manoeuvre closer to the power box. "Why do you want me dead, Bane?" Dick asked, playing for time. His arm was gradually losing feeling and he would need that arm if his plan was to succeed.

"Nightwing, abort. That's an order!" Batman shouted. His frustration and fear were growing rapidly. He couldn't and wouldn't watch this. Nightwing was in no condition to be facing someone like Bane.

The Joker started clapping his hands with glee. This was better than he could have hoped for. "He's not listening, Bats. Looks like Bane gets to break a lot of backs today!"

"Nightwing! Abort. Abort, now!" Batman struggled with the beam all the while watching his partner moving slowly to the left.

"Why, Bane? Why me?" Dick repeated, inching his way across the room.

"I don't ask questions," Bane replied. "I just do as I'm told."

"So do Labradors," Nightwing snorted.

The huge man grinned as he bent and picked up one of the discarded crowbars. He winked and then with a roar he pulled his arm back and sent the crowbar crashing down with animal ferocity. Whipping his own weapon up over his head, Dick channelled all the energy he could muster into his arms. Batman had taught him that mental energy could be used to support physical strength when injured. The steel bar struck his with incredible force, but surprisingly Nightwing's body didn't move. He withstood the initial blow much to the surprise of his adversary. They stepped apart, both panting.

"You can't win. I'm bigger, stronger and I've defeated Batman in the past."

"I'm smaller, faster and better looking than Batman could ever be," Dick muttered. However, his adversary had a valid point. He would wear Nightwing down and Dick's shoulder wasn't going to hold much longer... mental energy or not. It was clear to Nightwing that he couldn't take Bane on, on these terms.

Twenty seconds

Time to change things. Dick threw the crowbar down. Bane's face shadowed with suspicion.

Batman stopped his struggles to watch. "No. Nightwing, abort. Damn it, abort. That's an order! I'm giving you a direct order!!"

"You're giving up?" Bane asked.

Nightwing summed up his energy and ignoring the ache reverberating through his battered and weary shoulder, he charged the other man, slamming him backwards into the wall of the building. Dick reached up and repeatedly smashed the enforcer's hand against the brick wall, trying to jar the weapon loose. However, the powerful fingers of the assassin refused to release the crowbar.

Something popped into Dick's mind in that instant - an invaluable piece of advice from Barbara. 'The bigger they are, the more easy they are to target'. Nightwing rammed his knee into Bane's groin. His adversary sank down into a half crouch, gasping in pain. The crowbar dropped from his numb fingers and clattered to the foam-covered concrete. Nightwing pounced on the opening, following through with a side-kick to the enforcer's head. The huge man remained upright for a few seconds before toppling to the side and lying still.

Dick's own knees buckled and he fell forward onto them panting. Gingerly, he reached for his shoulder. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the timer.

Seven seconds... six... five...

FINAL PART COMING SOON

I would really love to know what you thought.

© June 2004 Aussie Nightwriter. : This relates only to the creative property in this story. The distinctive way the story unfolds, the specific dialogue and unique situations are mine. I acknowledge that some of the characters and settings belong to DC comics. (g) No infrigement of copyright was intended and no profit has been made from this story... so, please don't sue me. It wouldn't be worth your while.