11 Days Later, Gotham City
"Oracle to Batman."
The Batman finished his descent to a nearby rooftop and activated his communicator. "Go ahead."
"We've got a gang raid at the Great Buy Electronics on Freemont. I have two on the way, but they may need backup," Oracle said.
"Two on the way? Who…," Batman began.
"Black Canary is calling in, Batman. I have to go. Play nice," Oracle interrupted with an air of humor in her voice.
As Batman traversed the rooftops on the mile-long trip to the crime scene, he wondered which two costumed vigilantes Oracle had traipsing around his city this week. Her tacit approval of Black Canary and The Huntress over the last several months had led to a growing roster of her operatives interfering with his patrols. In the last six weeks alone, he'd run into Gypsy, Vixen, and Katana, and there was no guessing how many others he may have missed.
It was beginning to annoy him.
The Dark Knight landed on a building across from the Great Buy shopping center and surveyed the area. A group of about thirty local gang members, The Blades according to their colors, were carrying several boxed televisions out of the store's loading area and putting them into the beds of four pickup trucks.
Batman scanned the perimeter for his unwelcome counterparts, only to see Batgirl and Nightwing launch their attack.
Though he would never admit it, Batman was surprised to see Batgirl back in Gotham so soon. He had "visited" Bludhaven a few nights after Cassandra's departure, and what he'd seen of her newfound partnership with Nightwing did not impress him…
Nightwing's usual patrol was abandoned as he sought out the types of encounters that would test Batgirl's use of teamwork in the field. While Batman did notice some minor improvements in her willingness to follow orders as he spied from afar, she still had a very long way to go.
Too often she would overstep her task and interfere with Nightwing's opponents, causing him to swing at empty space, throwing him off balance, not unlike what she'd done with him back in the Wharf the night she left. To Nightwing's credit, he was making every effort to teach her the consequences of her actions. He would slow his remaining attacks and endure some costly blows to emphasize the hesitation her distractions caused.
But when their fight ended and they returned to the rooftops, Nightwing didn't appear to take Cassandra to task for her mistakes. He spoke to her for a few minutes, and when they left the rooftop to resume their patrol, Batman could have sworn he saw the shape of a smile beneath Batgirl's mask.
It had been two days at that point, and Batgirl had made no visible progress worth noting. Now here it was just over a week later, and Nightwing was already bringing her back to Gotham? Had he given up?
Batman turned his attention back to the fight and prepared to provide the assistance he felt would be inevitable. He activated his communicator again and tuned in to Nightwing's frequency…
Nightwing charged headlong into the fight with Batgirl right on his heels. The loading area in the rear of the store was a wide open space. Batman could see right away that they were sacrificing the flanking position. It would be too easy for their opponents to scatter and make easy targets of them, approaching from the outside middle as they were.
"Batgirl, topside," Nightwing called out as he forced himself into a powerful forward somersault. Nightwing's raised voice caught the attention of the gang, who turned almost in unison to face the charging vigilantes.
Batgirl responded with a simple forward flip of her own, seeming to land with both feet on Nightwing's hands in the middle of his turn. As he came up and completed his rotation, he launched Batgirl high into the air. Nightwing turned another quick somersault and came up, throwing a batarang with each hand, taking out two thugs, the rest of whom were still transfixed on Batgirl's sudden flight.
Batman blinked twice. Batgirl would land directly in the center of the gang, playing to her superior strength in close combat, leaving the perimeter to Nightwing, allowing him maximum space and maneuverability. The gang was instantly flanked and contained, unless they retreated to the inside of the building.
As Batgirl descended, she launched a batarang of her own, connecting squarely with the loading door's electronic control, causing the door to close.
Batgirl landed pat amid daunting odds and went straight to work, lashing out with a series of strikes that floored five men in as many seconds.
Not to be outdone, Nightwing entered the fray from the outside, forcing their opponents inward. From Batman's distant perspective, the ploy was obvious. Nightwing was essentially feeding Batgirl's attack by driving more men into her combat range. Where she would typically drive them away or force them to flee with her flair for savage precision, she now had them coming to her. Without having to give chase, Batgirl was dropping thug after thug like a machine.
Batman could see that the true beauty of the tactic was the sheer lack of ego. Nightwing had no qualms playing the support role, setting them up as quickly as Batgirl could knock them down. The plan itself admitted her battle superiority, and Nightwing seemed to take great pleasure in making her as efficient as she'd ever been.
Brilliant as it was, they were still only a duo. Even with Nightwing's ability to dominate the perimeter in a wide arc, given the ground he can cover with his lightning reflexes and unmatchable acrobatics, the last men standing would still have the opportunity to break ranks and run.
Batman readied a decel line to assist as six men broke off, three in each open direction.
As Nightwing made short work of their remaining targets, Batgirl fired a jumpline high over the heads of one of the fleeing groups. The line caught and held, and Batgirl pulled the line tight just as Nightwing ran up beside her.
"Going up?" she asked, handing the grapnel launcher off to her senior partner.
"Don't mind if I do. Be right back," Nightwing replied as he lifted his weight and let the line pull him into the air at top speed.
Batman hesitated as he saw the plan begin to take shape. The remaining three were running at top speed, right into an alley with no outlet. Batgirl began her pursuit.
Nightwing was already well ahead of, and two stories above, his fleeing bandits. He landed directly in their path and caught the first one in a clothesline before the thug fully registered his arrival. The other two were brought down with a single roundhouse, and Nightwing immediately fired his own jumpline and headed back in the direction of the loading dock.
It appeared to Batman that Cassandra's pursuit was half-hearted at best. Once the gang members realized they were being herded into an alley with no means of escape, they had no choice but to turn on their heels and charge at Batgirl in unison.
Batgirl turned as well, making her way back toward the street.
"Wing-Swing!" she shouted into her communicator as Nightwing landed at the alley entrance. He nodded as she approached.
Batgirl dove head-first to Nightwing's left, and he reached out and grabbed her wrists as she passed. Now her anchor, Nightwing followed her momentum and swung her in a broad circle, wiping out the three gang members, who were several yards behind a moment before, with one sweeping kick at eye level.
Nightwing continued the swing, arched upward, and released. Batman counted three aerial somersaults before Batgirl landed.
"Almost," Nightwing laughed.
Batgirl seemed perturbed. "Four next time," she said.
"Baby steps, Cass. It took me a whole year to throw four. You haven't even been at it two weeks," Nightwing replied as he walked up along side her and gave her shoulder an encouraging squeeze.
"One year?" Cassandra asked, perplexed. "In one year, I do FIVE."
Nightwing laughed aloud, then saw that she wasn't kidding. Given what she'd learned in just ten days, he almost didn't doubt it. "You ready?"
"Back to Bludhaven?" Batgirl asked somewhat sadly.
"Afraid so, kiddo. I'll truss up these three; you head back and start on the rest."
Batgirl pulled a bundle of plastic ties from her utility belt. "Lots there. You help."
"Don't worry, Cass. You'll have help. I'll see you in a few days. Okay, partner?" Nightwing asked with a smile.
"Okay, partner," she replied as she made her way back to the loading dock.
Nightwing waited until she was out of earshot, then activated his communicator. "You'll help her with the cleanup, right?"
Batman knew better than to be surprised that his presence was no mystery to his former protégé. "I will. You need to head back right away?"
Nightwing shook his head. "No, but there's this pretty redhead a few blocks away I've been meaning to visit. Plus it'll give you and Cass a chance to talk."
A moment's silence. "She seems…happy," Batman said, the last word sounding forced.
"Imagine that," Nightwing laughed in response. "Twice a week, Bruce. You should patrol with her twice a week. She needs to know she's not in this alone. I know you're going through some things right now, but you should know that she compared you to David Cain a lot while she was with me. Your crusade's a lot different than his, but it feels the same to her. You can't want that."
Though he knew Dick couldn't see him, Batman hung is head with a show of regret. "Of course not," he replied. "My trust…issues…lately… I don't want any of you to feel that way."
Nightwing made his way back to the rooftops. "Listen, Bruce. I get it. Even if you don't, I get it. Jason? Jean Paul? Harold? You've been burned a few times, and it cut you deep. I feel it, too. But you can't just stop trusting everyone, big guy. Especially not Cassandra, because she just doesn't understand. If you don't let her in, we'll lose her."
"She can take care of herself."
Dick sighed in frustration. "That's not what I mean, Batman. That girl is looking for a path to follow. She was lost without Cain, and if you can't offer her more guidance than he did, she might just follow the first one to show a true interest. I hope it's you or me, but what if it's Shiva? What if Cain gets out and really reaches out to her? She's so impressionable, Bruce. Don't think this whole thing with me and her was about training…"
"I know. It's the first time she's ever reached out. For what it's worth, I'm glad she came to you. What you did tonight… She obviously learned a lot," Batman said.
"Thanks for that," Dick replied sincerely. "That girl… I swear, Bruce, if you take an active interest in her training and really encourage her? She'll be better than all of us. Combined. By, like, next Thursday."
Batman allowed himself a small smile. "Keen observation."
"Was that a joke?" Nightwing laughed. "Did you see her there at the end?"
"She almost threw four," Batman stated simply.
"Yeah! And I'm not sure it was her fault she didn't."
"The throw looked a little weak from here," Batman replied.
"That sounded like another joke," Dick said, feigning exasperation.
"My apologies. Can I ask you one thing, Nightwing?" Batman's tone sounded sincere.
"Of course. Anything."
"You're a regular Don Rickles now, huh? Batgirl named it, I just designed it. Wait, let me record this, Mr. Funny Man."
The connection closed.
Cassandra stopped securing unconscious gang members long enough to turn and acknowledge The Bat.
"I saw your work this evening. You both did a great job. You should be proud of yourself," Batman offered sincerely.
"I am," she replied curtly, obviously still angry.
Batman shifted uncomfortably. "I am, too," he said, albeit quietly.
Batgirl looked up at him. "You am what?" she demanded.
"Proud, Cassandra," he responded. "I'm proud of you. Of both of you."
She regarded him for a long moment. "Partner?"
Batman nodded. "We'll work on it. Together."
"It's been…quite a while since I worked with a partner, Batgirl. So yes, I'll need your help to refresh my memory," Bruce admitted.
"Okay. First lesson…" Batgirl said as she reached toward Batman and removed the cellular phone from his utility belt.
She flipped it open and offered it up to The Dark Knight.