Notes: Partly inspired by a paranormal romance short story I read (the things we have to put up with to get inspiration T_T ) and partly because of a line I thought of and haven't used until now.
Twin sets of angry footsteps stomped in separate directions across the hall. The sound echoed loud enough to reach the foyer where Dick sighed and stared at the grand staircase leading to the upper floors. He had just arrived at the Manor and already he could feel the tension in the air.
Two months ago he'd deliberately kept himself busy to force those two into mending their relationship without him acting as buffer. He'd hoped he could come home to father and son being a little more than civil to each other...but it looks like he'd hoped wrong.
"I'm afraid it's the same argument all over again, Master Dick," even Alfred's clipped tone sounded weary behind him. Dick knew things were getting bad enough if the unflappable butler was showing signs of frustration. "You've come at a good time to mediate."
Dick sighed again and ran a hand through his hair. "Any chance I could skip that and get help with my case instead?"
The butler smiled but shook his head. "Any help you receive may become more a hindrance than not. Too many knocks to the head produce a harder cranium, as you well know."
"I'll talk to them," Dick promised, jogging up the stairs and wishing for the nth time that father and son would work out their issues without one throwing a tantrum. He paused by the stairs' upper landing and debated which one to talk to first: Damian had a tendency to bring his anger onto inanimate objects while Bruce would brood in the study or in the Cave, pretending that he lived in a vacuum. Both would usually listen to him but both were also stubborn enough that he had to quadruple every effort he spends in reconciling them. And that was not to mention how much pride Dick had to knock down with those two.
Eventually, Dick decided to talk to Damian first - hopefully he could still save whatever spare furnishings are there in his youngest brother's room. Alfred doesn't like having to replace furniture even though Bruce could afford them a hundred times over.
And besides, Dick was bound to talk to Bruce anyway to ask for help. Maybe he could use that later as a bargaining chip with the head of the Wayne family.
"He doesn't trust me." Damian complained after a half hour's worth of Dick coaxing, telling lame jokes, and being a general annoying chatterbox. If there was one sure thing Dick's youngest brother inherited from his father, it was his stubbornness. Too bad Dick had learned early on how to wiggle his way past that stubborn wall.
"He refused to involve me in his current case," Damian explained, his voice sullen as he folded his arms across his chest. Dick had found him sitting on the edge of the bed and scowling at the wall. "I have faced some of his most notorious villains, a highly trained covert agent, and even my grandfather's army of ninjas; yet he still ordered me to stay in the Manor while he investigates this new case." He huffed and glared at Dick as he demanded, "If he doesn't want me as his partner, then why doesn't he say so?"
Dick winced, already remembering the echoes of a similar argument between a much younger him and Bruce. Even with him, Bruce had constantly pulled the 'I'm Batman and I know better' card to keep him off patrol. How often Dick had been kept at home was just not so obvious since most of the time when Batman's presence was somehow caught on film, Robin was there too.
"Damie," Dick soothed, taking a step close and putting a hand on his brother's shoulder. "I'm sure Bruce was just looking out for you. You're his son; he just wants you safe."
Damian shoved the hand off his shoulder and his glare turned accusing. "You're his son too and yet I don't see him treating you like an amateur."
"That's because I grew up and saw through his angry Bat-grunts. But when I was your age, he did the same thing to me. Lots of times."
The glare lessened in intensity. "What did you do to make him stop?"
"I called him on it." Dick shrugged, feeling the faded echoes of Bruce and his screaming matches all over the Manor. "I told him that he can't expect me to learn if he kept me cooped up all the time."
Damian looked at him skeptically. "Did it work?"
"Sometimes. Still doesn't make it hurt any less each time it happened though." Dick shrugged again, firmly shutting away his memories of the past as he focused on the present. "So, tell me what case Bruce is working on now?"
For an answer, Damian looked away.
"Damie?" Dick asked, surprised that his youngest brother would actually refuse to meet his gaze. Damian was like a cat at times; he met each and every stare at him as though it was a challenge. To have him look away means...
Dick crouched to be on eye-level with his brother, his voice soft as he said, "Whatever it is, you can tell me, Damie. I promise I'll think about it first before I react." It was not the best persuasive argument someone would give to another, but Dick knew - as they had been Batman and Robin for months - that Damian valued honesty above being comforted with lies. And that was the most honest statement Dick could give his little brother without knowing all the facts. Damian had been lied to enough while growing up with his grandfather.
Damian slowly turned to face him before tilting his head upwards to stare into the space above Dick's head. It was obvious the boy was still reluctant to tell the truth but had resolved to be honest, at least to Dick. "Father didn't allow me any access to his current files."
Dick nodded, expecting as much from Bruce's habit of hoarding information to himself. "And?"
"When Father abandoned me to investigate on his own, I snuck a tracer underneath his cape."
Dick's eyes widened. He, Tim, and even Jason had tried to plant a tracer or two on Batman at least once during their run as Robin. It was almost a rite of passage for the Robins; to see whether they could put one over on the Bat. They'd place the tracer somewhere on the Batmobile, Bruce's utility belt, sometimes even on the files he brings with him. None of them though, had ever tried to plant it on the suit itself; not only it was wired with several security measures - Bruce usually caught them attempting to stick one thanks to his aversion to touch - but there was a bigger chance of the tracer being wrecked during a fight, and a good chance that Bruce might feel any extra weight on something he wore on a nightly basis.
But Damian did. He went past the security measures, past Bruce's aversion, and he placed it where the tracer wouldn't be easily reached. But did he succeed?
"He was watching the Lunden Apartments in Burnley."
Dick's eyes widened further. He could hardly believe it, but his youngest brother had succeeded where the three previous Robins had failed. It was either the early years of assassin training had come in handy or (and this worried Dick even more for Bruce) Bruce was too preoccupied to notice the fine details.
But most of all though, Dick was shocked at Damian's information because the Lunden Apartments was on the list of four buildings Dick was planning to stake out.
He really needed to talk to Bruce yesterday.
"So," Dick announced as he took the last step into the Batcave, "what are the chances of you and me casing out the Lunden Apartments for a case at the same time?"
Bruce grunted without turning from the monitors to look at him. "I don't believe in coincidences."
Dick smiled as he crossed the cement flooring to lean on the back of Bruce's chair, similarly staring up into the Crays. "Thought you might say that. The name Paul Millar sound familiar to you?"
Bruce made a noncommittal hum but his fingers typed the name into the Crays and cross-referenced it with his current casefile.
"Paul Millar," the eldest Wayne read from the information scrolling on the screen, "arrested for assault and kidnapping but was never charged. His cases were dismissed due to lack of evidence..." Bruce's blue eyes squinted in a frown. "...He had the witnesses killed."
"Yep," Dick agreed, bending over to type more names into the Crays. "All three witnesses, all claimed to have seen him manhandle Jill McMillan into his car on the night she was reported missing, and all dead with a bullet hole in their head and heart. Whoever killed them left no evidence behind and Paul never had contact with anyone from the outside when he was in jail."
"Hired assassins. Highly trained ones." Bruce assessed, his eyes scanning through the files of the three witnesses as well as the kidnapped victim. "He must have a lot of funding to hire professionals and-"
"-he's not the only mastermind in this operation." Dick finished for him. He typed in the four locations on his to-do list and said, "My informant told me that in two of these four are the kidnapped victims and two are where Millar does his business and meets with his customers. I've checked out the roach motel on the East End and found out Millar's only using it when he has a deal to make."
"And the other three?" Bruce asked.
"I haven't had time to check them. I got intel that Millar's shipping out his latest batch by tomorrow night and I can't be in three places at once."
"I'll send Red Robin-"
"Tim's busy with the Titans." Dick interrupted.
Bruce raised an eyebrow. "Batgirl?"
"Birds of Prey."
"Investigating Intergang." Dick sighed and gave his adoptive father a look. "You've got one operative available up here, you know."
It was Dick's turn to raise an eyebrow. Bruce usually remained silent when he was presented with an option to consider. A curt reply meant that he'd already made his decision on it and nothing was going to change his mind. But it wasn't enough for Dick to have Bruce keep Damian on the sidelines; he wanted to know why. "Bruce, Robin's capable and-"
"Robin will not be assisting in this case. End of discussion."
Dick sighed again and threw his hands up in the air in exasperation. When Bruce was this stubborn, nothing will sway him. It was a good thing the Bat only got this stubborn when civilian lives were on the line or when he was protecting someone... Dick frowned and asked, "Okay, I'll bite. Why don't you want Damian joining us?"
Bruce dropped his head to rub at his temple with his fingers. "Paul Millar's partner. His name is Toby Masley."
Dick stared at his adoptive father as the implications hit him. Toby Masley was a known pedophile and if he was partner to a known kidnapper with a lot of illegal funding... "They're selling kids too?"
Batman's lips thinned into a straight line. He didn't need to nod or say anything, but Dick knew the answer.
Children were being taken and sold along with kidnapped teens and runaways. And considering Damian's reaction when he and Dick had found those dead kids victimized by Zsasz, Dick realized that Bruce was protecting his son not because he didn't want Damian hurt, but because he didn't want Damian traumatized.
This argument had just gotten very complicated.
This argument, has just passed complicated and is now somewhere in the light years of a 10-dimensional continuum.
"I do not need to be coddled!" Damian yelled in fury, his voice loud enough to disturb some of the returning bats. "I will join you in this investigation. I will not be cast aside like a child!"
"But Damie-" Dick started only to have the mini Batglare aimed at him.
"Do not. Start. Grayson. I will join you, and that is the end of the matter. Assign me a building."
"No." Bruce stepped in between the two brothers, his back to Dick and bearing his considerable height down on Damian. "I won't allow you to bully Dick into this and I'm still not allowing you to assist in this case."
"I do not need your permission-" the boy hissed but Dick decided that it was high time to stop things from going past the 10-dimensional continuum to the point of no return. He walked around Bruce with both hands up and facing both father and son.
"Whoa, whoa, okay, there's no need to get into that one again." He and Bruce had had that argument too, back in his Robin days. Jason must have gone there too, and maybe even Tim, that whole 'my house, my rules' dispute that usually had Dick storming off to do his own style of brooding. How many times had he heard that from Bruce?
"Damie," he offered, "you can have the one on Otisburg. Bruce has the East End, and I've got Burnley."
Like a switch of a theatrical mask, Damian's scowl quickly turned into a smug smirk. "Of course, Grayson. I will watch the apartment on Otisburg." Then he turned on his heel and left for his room.
As soon as his brother was gone, Dick sighed in relief before he took a deep breath and turned to face the Big Bad Bat.
Bruce's voice was dangerously low when he spoke. "I did not give you permission to assign-"
"Bruce, Bruce, listen," Dick held a hand up, halting the lecture, "the notation I left about the orphanage where we found those kids Zsasz cut up?"
"Damian threw up." Bruce said as though he was saying that the grass is green.
"That was only after he realized the kids were dead. And you know what happened next? He was furious enough to investigate on his own. What do you think he'll do if he finds out kids are being sold into slavery and you didn't include him?"
"He doesn't need to be traumatized at an early age."
"I agree; which is why I gave him Otisburg." He gave his adoptive father a smirk. "I scoped out the place before I got here. The apartment is small, but better-kept than the other locations. If I had to guess which one Millar was using as a front for his transactions, it would be that one."
Bruce's eyes narrowed. "And the other two?"
"The apartment on Burnley has an abandoned garage next door. The one on East End is a few blocks away from an unused warehouse." Dick had seen that both garage and warehouse were spacious enough to hold several people for days, if not a few weeks. The buildings' proximity to the apartments and the infrequently patrolled status of the area was ideal to the criminals involved. With these in mind, Dick had decided to give the most dangerous area to Bruce and the least to Damian. It was the best compromise he could come up with.
A satisfied smile formed on his adoptive father's lips. "Good work."
What was it they said about the best laid plans of mice and men? Dick thought to himself as he sped through the Gotham streets the next night, heading for Otisburg. Damian had somehow found out that he'd planned to keep him out of the action and demanded that they switch targets. To appease him, Dick had agreed to the switch just to make sure his youngest brother doesn't abandon his post too early and make his way to Dick's side.
Bruce wasn't happy.
Dick had to tell him that he wasn't really giving into his youngest brother's demands, but merely compromising; he'd made Damian promise that if something did happen in the location, Robin would immediately call either older hero and wait for backup. Dick had made it a condition for their switching assignments and Damian reluctantly agreed.
"You...have him well in hand," Batman grudgingly admitted.
"Hey, I mentored him when you were gone," Dick explained. "He's just more used to working with me."
"No, it's not that." And Batman cut off. He didn't even respond when Dick nagged him to explain further.
Dick sighed and shook his head. Like father, like son indeed - both still held the trophy for most stubborn people he'd ever known.
The Pioneer Parkway at this time of night was mostly filled with sleepy murmurs and lowered television volumes. Even the few people walking around on the streets were casually strolling under the bright street lights.
Nightwing made a careful sweep of his binocs from the streets surrounding the apartment building, to the entrance, and finally to the windows of the apartment he'd targeted. Two silhouettes were still standing on both sides of the one sitting by the couch. They'd been in the same position ever since Nightwing arrived, and he figured they were probably waiting for the buyers to come-
-Which they did that very minute if he was right about the arriving town car. Two well-muscled guys climbed out of the car; both taking a look around before one of them opened the door for a smaller man to climb out.
He was dwarfed by the two men flanking him, but his stature was by no means short. In fact, he carried himself with a confidence that only self-made millionaires could pull off. Any other man, and he would be an inspiration to others striving for their fortune; but not this one. This one had made his fortune in the illegal drug trade.
Simon McCray had been dealing ever since he was a teen. His slight build and soft face had gotten him out of scrapes with the authorities time and time again; that and his sharp mind for hiding evidence. He'd gone on from being a small-time dealer up to running his own empire. And he'd never once been reported as being involved in human trafficking.
So why was he here?
Dick didn't like it. It was one thing for unscrupulous people to get into any and all illegal trades out there, and another for a consistent man like McCray to suddenly get his hands dirty in the slave trade. He sent out a message to Batman and Robin as he tracked the three men into the building and up towards the apartment he was watching.
'I've got McCray meeting up with Millar,' he said quietly, 'looks like McCray's the buyer.'
There was a crackle of static before Batman replied, 'McCray isn't known to involve himself in human trafficking.'
'I don't like it either. He and Millar are getting a little too cozy with those files on the table for my liking.'
'The ones that look like...' Dick zoomed in on the papers Millar had spread on the table between him and McCray, '...they look like pictures of the two students reported missing couple of days ago. And...crap.' he cursed softly when he skimmed over the pictures.
'What is it?' Batman's voice was concerned when he responded.
'The pictures. Half of them are of kids!'
'I will be there in fifteen minutes,' Robin's voice chimed in, as business-like as his father.
'No, Robin,' Nightwing quickly told him. 'Stay at your post. This might be nothing but a distraction. And it looks like they're moving out. I'll follow them and keep you posted.'
'Be careful, Grayson.'
Dick had to pause at that. His youngest brother was seldom one to show concern about others; that he would be worried about Dick was a surprise. Or Damian was only thinking that if something happened to Nightwing, neither he nor Batman would be able to help him in saving the kids victimized by these criminals.
'Always, Robin,' he called back before switching his comms off.
He shot a line onto the building's roof and swung to the left of his target's window where there was hardly any light. The men had shut the lights off before leaving the apartment, but Dick didn't want to chance that they'd shut off the light to see better outside the window. He barely had enough space on the window ledge and any sudden movement would send him falling off the building.
But his luck was holding; the six men had left the apartment's living room with only the bare traces of their heat signatures behind. Nightwing followed the signatures with his infrared lenses, keeping himself to the shadows. The men had walked from the living room and into one of the two bedrooms - but the bed was unused and had a light layer of dust. But the trail didn't stop there though; it went on past an open doorway built on one side of the bedroom.
Dick thought back to his mental blueprint of the apartment building and realized this apartment was connected to its neighbor where the six men went. Millar must be paying rent for both apartments. With a tightening feeling in his gut, he followed the trail again.
This apartment, unlike the first, looked barely lived in. There was dust everywhere except for the lone path the men walked. The apartment only had a handful of furniture and they bore the signs of heavy wear. But Dick didn't pay them any heed in favor of the trail's end: a pair of steel doors with a small panel beside it. The panel had only one button; an arrow pointing down.
The tight feeling in his gut was becoming tighter. He was obviously looking at a pair of doors that hid an elevator shaft, but where did it lead? And how far down does the shaft go?
He relayed his location to Bruce and shut off the comms when he was done. He couldn't wait for backup on this one - not if it would save a kid from losing his innocence or worse, his life, in the place at the end of the elevator shaft. Dick was sure he was near the place where Millar and Masley kept their victims, and where the real bargaining happens. He was sure that before the night is over, there will be at least one more person sold against his will for the sick pleasures of the buyer.
The elevator doors weren't hard to open. Nightwing took a glance down the lightless shaft to make sure there was no opening at the other end or curious onlooker. His lens calculated the distance of the shaft against the building's blueprints, telling him that he was looking at a direct route to an unpublicized basement.
He shot a grapple to the top of the shaft and carefully slid down until he reached the elevator itself. The elevator car's hidden opening gave way to his laser cutter and he peeked down to make sure it was clear before dropping into the car.
But the moment his feet landed, the elevator doors slid open and Nightwing found himself facing dozens of guns aimed at him.
"You have to admit," he recognized the man speaking behind a pair of armed brutes as Millar, "it's a good set-up to trap us a bat, isn't it?"
The good thing about the Nightwing suit, his bat-gadgetry wasn't hidden in pouches at his waist but rather, in his gauntlets and boots. This way, he didn't have to reach that far down to grab a handful of smoke bombs and release them into the room full of armed thugs. Then it was easy for him to disappear into the smoke and take out the thugs while avoiding their fire.
The first shot whizzing past his nose was nothing. But the second shot burned a path through his upper arm. And when the third shot landed on his lower thigh, near the knee, he realized three things: Millar's people were expecting him - and they'd prepared night-vision goggles. And the third thing was, they were aiming to kill him; there was no taking him hostage, no torture, just one bullet to the head.
He was cursing inwardly as he stumbled backwards into the elevator car. His leg was radiating waves of pain that stabbed right into his chest with every movement. His ears rang with the sound of gunfire punching holes into the back of the elevator. He scrunched himself as small as possible in one corner where the bullets couldn't reach. The elevator car wasn't moving, neither were its doors. He figured Millar or his partner must have rigged the car to be operated remotely; making the whole situation rapidly becoming a shooting game with him as the sitting duck.
He knew of only one way to bring down surprise and buy himself some time to escape.
His leg almost gave him away. The knee was weak; the bullet buried so close to the joint he had a hard time flexing it. He scrambled his brain for the meditation technique Bruce taught him to moderate pain but his heart was racing to resupply the blood he was losing and his leg was throbbing.
Then the muzzle of a rifle poked through the elevator doors. He waited for half a second as the men scrambled into the elevator car, and then he let go.
Two men fell to the ground under his weight. But the jolting pain from his leg turned his vision white.
Bad idea, he told himself as he struggled to move, to think, to breathe. Any moment now and he'd be feeling bullets tearing through him but he couldn't see, couldn't hear.
It took a second for his vision to clear - it felt like an hour had passed - and his hearing followed soon after. He couldn't make sense of what his eyes and ears were telling him at first, but when he realized he was actually seeing Robin's canary-yellow cape streaking to and fro, all he could do was gasp in relief.
"Robin," his voice had hardly any breath in it but his little brother heard him.
Robin spared a half-second to send him a furious glare before heading back out of the elevator. The men who'd come in after Nightwing were now out cold on the floor, and the rest outside were likely having their butts handed to them courtesy of one angry bird.
Dick pushed himself up using the elevator car doors. He waited until the noise outside had settled down before taking a peek.
There were a lot of unconscious thugs lying all over the now bright room. Dick realized half the lights had been killed when he went in but now all of them had been switched on, rendering the thug's night-vision goggles useless and blind for the few seconds they needed to take off the goggles. And those few seconds were all Robin - and Batman, for there was no mistaking the dark presence crouched right beside the now-revealed Masley - needed.
The lights also revealed another entrance, yawning open across the elevator shaft.
"The apartment building was connected to the adjacent building through an underground tunnel," Batman explained, catching Dick's look at the second entrance. "Satellite scans showed the tunnel, and Robin found the missing victims."
"He did?" Dick turned to his little brother but he quickly became concerned when he saw the blood running down Damian's side.
"A flesh wound," Robin told him with a glare sent to Batman. "I would have dodged it had he not pushed me."
"There was another aiming for you." Batman growled, slowly coming to a stand. And just then, Dick realized Bruce hadn't come out unscathed either as the taller man stood with his back slightly bent.
"Busted rib?" Dick asked.
"One." Bruce nodded to Dick's leg. "You should be off that leg."
"I can handle it-"
"No, you obviously could not!" Damian was suddenly in front of him, blocking his view of Bruce. "You liar! You made me promise to wait for backup while you go off alone without verifying the location first. Do you consider yourself to be above that condition because you are an adult?"
"Of course not! I was only thinking-"
"No, you were not thinking at all! Why should you be able to handle things on your own while I could not? I thought you trusted me!"
"I do trust you!" Dick burst out, one hand running through his hair in frustration. His leg still hadn't stopped throbbing and the blood loss was starting to make him light-headed. "It's just...I've gotten too used to doing things solo. At the heat of the moment..." he shrugged, and then winced at the sting from the bullet graze on his arm.
Damian opened his mouth to protest further but was stilled by Bruce's hand on his shoulder.
"Enough, Robin," Batman said in a weary tone, "I think we've all learned something here." He said the last with a meaningful glance at Nightwing, and Dick immediately realized what the older man meant.
Bruce and Damian had been arguing because Bruce was being too protective and Damian was chomping at the bit. But Dick had shown, with his rush to confront Millar and McCray, exactly what happens when one rushes off without telling the others and what happens when one tries to keep the other inside a protective bubble. There had to be mutual trust in between partners for the relationship to work; for both partners to know when to shoot ahead and when to back down. And both Bruce and Damian still had to work on that.
"Back to the Cave, both of you," Batman ordered, stepping close to wrap Dick's arm around his shoulders. His voice was low as he said, "Thank you, Nightwing."
Dick grinned, the two of them following after Robin as he headed for the entrance across the elevator. "Hey, glad to know I can still count on you to bail me out of trouble."
Bruce grunted in reply, "Force of habit."