The Game

Chapter Five: That's What Friends Are For

It had been nearly two months since Dick's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Two months and he had yet to retaliate. Though he could attribute that to the sudden influx of demands for his nighttime persona. Blüdhaven was a jealous mistress of late, and she left him with precious little time to do more than collapse onto his uneven mattress for a few moments of respite. The docks had been inundated with nightly visitors and rumors swirled that they were unloading more than just crates of fish. That coupled with the surge of robberies, assaults, and every other vicious crime which threatened to overrun the 'haven had pretty much left even Dick's seemingly endless vitality tapped out. Nightwing had barely found time to do little more than breathe, let alone plan a spectacular move that would send Batman's queen tumbling and a shout of checkmate! from his lips in their little game of one-upmanship.

Until today, that is.

"Peroxide in his shampoo?"

Dick wrinkled his nose and gave one quick shake of his head. A ray of the sunlight danced against his dark hair before disappearing once again into the shadows.

"Nah." He finally voiced before taking a gulp of chocolate milk. "Too pedestrian."

The sharp quirk of an eyebrow was his answer. "Pedestrian?"

"What?" Dick teased, his incredulity nearly genuine. "You think I'm just a pretty face?"

"I know you're smart, Dick." Tim replied, a quiet sincerity laced within his voice. "It's just that….well….you normally don't speak like—"

"Alfred"

"Yeah." The teen agreed with a smile. "Alfred."

"Don't worry, Timbo." The older one teased before reaching across the table for the nearly empty box of sugar-coated cereal. "I don't think Bruce will be replacing Alfred with me anytime soon. I sorely lack his incredible talent for cooking."

Tim nodded in agreement as he watched Dick empty the remaining cereal in his bowl and then drown it in a wave of chocolate milk. "Yeah…cooking." He murmured before casting a deliberate glance around the tiny apartment. Piles of crumpled clothes and empty cartoons of Kung-Pao shrimp littered his view. Cereal bowls seemed to have spawned a minion army around the kitchen that had slowly advanced towards the couch. A couch Tim thought he had distinctly seen parked downstairs by the garbage dump during his last visit. An involuntary shudder ran through the boy as he made a mental note never to sit on it, even if protected by the heavy Kevlar of the Robin costume. "Among other things."

Dick huffed playfully before shoving a big spoonful of chocolate-saturated cereal into his mouth. "Are you implying something about my housekeeping skills?"

"Of course not." Tim quipped with a smile. "I thought I was doing more than implying."

"I like the lived-in look myself."

"That's one way of putting it."

Dick shook his head as his blue eyes sparkled with amusement. He set his now empty bowl down and leaned back, balancing his chair on two legs. "Now who's sounding like Alfred?"

Tim held up his hands, palms facing forward in a gesture of apology. "Point taken."

A wide grin was his answer. Tim felt a sense of relief wash through him as he looked across the table at the young man he considered to be his brother. Dick was dressed in faded jeans and a t-shirt with the logo of Hogan's emblazoned across the chest. Though his bright eyes had distinct dark circles shadowing them, Tim could see the usual mischievousness sparkling behind them. He had been worried lately. Dick had been slow to return calls and messages, slow to initiate contact on his own. Something that was out of character for the young man who thrived on being around others. And something that had not gone unnoticed by him alone.

"What?"

The simple question jolted Tim out of his somber musings. He furrowed his dark brows and drew his eyes to the frown on his older brother's face.

"Hm?"

Dick gave an over-exaggerated sigh before pushing forward and causing his chair to land against the dingy linoleum floor with a thud.

"What caused that look?"

"What look?"

"That look." Dick replied, leaning across the table to gently tap the boy on his forehead. "The frown. The furrowed brows. The Timmy's-giving-brooding-Bats-a-run-for-his-money-l ook."

"I do not brood."

Dick snorted. "Whatever you say."

"Hmmf."

"Well…?"

Tim shrugged. "You haven't been returning your calls lately."

Dick was quiet for a few seconds before he stood. "Been busy." He simply replied. Tim watched as he grabbed the milk cartoon and took one last swig before depositing it back into the refrigerator.

"Yeah, busy." Tim repeated in a tone that let the older hero know he wasn't convinced that was the entire reason for Dick's silence. He watched curiously as Dick impatiently tapped his fingers against the countertop, a tell that betrayed the older one's uncharacteristic nervousness. "Dick—"

"You can't tell him."

Tim shook his head, watching as Dick suddenly pulled a stack of papers out of one of the kitchen drawers. "Tell whom?" He asked, his alarm rising. "And what?"

A resigned sigh. A few more sharp taps against the countertop. "Your boss." Dick replied before tossing the stack of papers onto the kitchen table. "And this."

Sharp blue eyes narrowed then widened in shock at the logo that greeted them at the top of the first page. Blüdhaven PD. Tim's jaw dropped as he shook his head. Application for Employment.

"Dick….this is…."

"Yeah."

"A cop?"

"Yeah."

"Oh, man…..Bruce is going to be—"

"Yeah."

Dick slumped back down into his chair. He watched with a guarded expression as Tim studied the forms for a few heavy moments.

"I thought you said they're the most corrupt force this side of the Atlantic."

"They are." Dick solemnly agreed. "Which is why they need a good cop."

"You really think you can make a difference."

The older one nodded, taking a moment to brush a fallen strand of hair from his eyes. "From the inside." He confirmed.

"And Nightwing?"

"From the outside."

Tim pursed his lips together before meeting the curious stare being leveled at him. "You must really love Blüdhaven."

"She's my city."

"Your Gotham."

Dick grunted, oblivious to the fact of just how similar he sounded to his mentor. "My city." He quickly corrected. "She needs a good cop as much as she needs a masked vigilante on her rooftops."

"You know how he feels about guns."

Dick immediately knew the he. And immediately knew the answer to Tim's statement. It was one which had plagued his decision since the idea had burrowed beneath his skin and kept him awake at night. Too many nights.

"I know."

Tim pursed his lips together before finally handing the papers back to their rightful owner. "I think you'll make a great policeman, Dick."

Dick drew back, a sudden, bright smile crossing his lips. "You do?"

"Yeah, I do." Tim said, his own smile burgeoning. "Just….don't get yourself killed, okay? I kind of like having a big brother."

That earned the boy an exaggerated sigh and a ruffle of his hair.

"You do know he's going to find out?"

Dick's smile fell just a fraction. Just enough for someone who knew him well to notice.

"Mm."

Tim mentally reprimanded himself for pointing out an obvious sore-spot. He leaned back and rested his elbows on the back of his chair, adopting a deliberately casual pose.

"I guess that means you need to get him good before he does."

Dick snorted. "Mm-hm."

"I still can't believe you guys are doing this."

"Doing what?" The tone suggested pure ignorance but the gleam in the deep blue eyes told the younger boy that Dick knew exactly what he was talking about.

"This….this contest." Tim pointedly answered. "This game."

"I don't know if I'd call it a—"

"Bruce has a scorecard." Tim huffed, cutting off the older one. "I saw it on the consol of the computer. It has little detailed notes and everything."

Dick blinked. "He….has a scorecard?"

"And notes." Tim repeated. "Pages of notes. I think he has more on you than on the Joker."

"He…." Dick closed his mouth before snapping it shut only to open it once again. "Huh." There were a few moments of heavy, expectant silence which Tim allowed to settle between them. He knew Dick would break it soon enough. And he was right. "So, um…..what….what exactly—"

"Don't know." Tim cut off. He struggled to bury the fierce grin that was threatening to surface seeing the normally effusive man grasping for words. "He stuffed them into a drawer and mumbled something about necessary protégé intel before I could read them."

Dick smothered a disbelieving gasp with an awkward cough. "Necessary protégé intel?"

"Uh-huh." Tim smugly answered, knowing he now had Dick's full attention. "Pretty sure his file on me isn't nearly as comprehensive."

The older one stayed quiet for a few seconds, the slight downturn of his lips a sign that he was contemplating his words before he spoke. "Well, I'm sure…." Tim sat back and waited for what Dick thought he was sure of, an impish grin overtaking his normally stern features. He relished seeing this verbal impotence in Dick.

"You're sure….?" The teen carefully prompted.

"I, uh….I'm sure his files on all of us are pretty thorough." Dick replied, a strange tightening in his voice. "You know how he is."

Tim buried a burgeoning smile. "Hm."

Bright eyes narrowed sharply. "What is that supposed to mean?"

The smile couldn't help but escape that time. "It means hm." He succinctly answered. "Now, what are you planning for your revenge?"

Dick shrugged before clasping his hands behind his head. "Don't know." He honestly answered as he leaned back more comfortably in the rickety chair. "Has to be good, though. Really good."

"Yep." Tim agreed. "Especially since he wouldn't let me help him get you."

The older one chuckled. "No surprise there." Dick watched as the younger boy crossed his arms and leaned forward to rest them on the table. "You know how receptive he is to help."

Tim huffed a low sigh. "It's like that bust from last night." He started to explain. "Instead of calling for back-up, he went in by himself."

"Yep."

"It's like he despises having to rely on anyone else. He has partners, you know, but he doesn't seem to want—"

"Wait…what did you say?"

Tim blinked. "About what?"

"He despises …yeah, you know what? I've got to go, Tim. Thanks for stopping by!"

"Wait—what—"

"See you later, kid!"

Dick was out the door before Tim could even draw his next breath. The young vigilante sighed before shaking his head. Guess he would be out of the loop on Dick's plot for revenge, too. Oh, well. It wasn't something he was entirely unused to when it came to those two.

x.X.x

Despite the sunset being marred by the threat of dark clouds, the night had settled in with clear skies. Through the glare of too many skyscrapers and flashing towers, the faint glow of distant stars could be seen. The commonplace sounds of a regular Friday night filtered through the air, up from the alleys below. Sharp eyes hidden behind white lenses scanned the cityscape. It was a quiet night crime-wise in Gotham, but that didn't mean the city wasn't restless.

Nor the man sworn to protect it.

"Clark."

The figure behind him paused mid-step before a rueful smile crossed its handsome face. "Never can figure out how you do that."

"I smelled hay."

"Hay?"

"Hay. Horses. Whatever else you farm boys are around."

Superman snorted. "You know, I haven't been to Kan—"

"What do you want?"

The slightly taller frame shifted and took a hesitant step closer. "I…." Clark? Hi—it's Dick. Do you have a minute? I wanted to talk to you about Bruce. "I need your help with something."

A short grunt was his answer. "Figures."

You see, he was staking out a lab the other night. There was this explosion and….well, I think he may have sustained some injuries.

"I was doing a routine background check on the subject of an article and found something interesting."

You know how he is….he won't admit if he's hurting…

The other man stood very still, his intimidating nature seemingly taming the wind for him as his cape stilled and fell flat around his tall frame. He said nothing, his gaze focused somewhere in the streets below.

Yeah….Robin thinks his hearing is pretty much shot right now because of the blast.

Superman gingerly made his way in front of the other man, standing squarely in front of him. "I said that I was doing a background check on an article." He made sure to annunciate each word precisely, moving his lips slowly so that the other man could follow. "And I ran across something interesting."

Bruce cringed as he drew back a bit. "Is there a particular reason you decided to inform all of Gotham about that just now?"

He'll act like nothing is wrong. He'll deny it. You know how he refuses to show any weakness, Clark.

Alright, then. Perhaps shouting wasn't the best option. From the way Bruce's jaw clenched tightly beneath the cowl, Superman figured he'd have to take a different approach. Maybe…sign language? Yes, that could work. If he could just make it look natural. "I found out that Lex" A slow curve of his palm over his head to indicate a shiny, bald top "just bought" two fingers rubbed against each other as if feeling the crispness of new bills "a warehouse" arms formed a large rectangle "here in Gotham." He ended by grandly gesturing to the cityscape behind them.

An eyebrow quirked up beneath the white lenses. "Are you having some kind of alien seizure?"

Superman laughed and shook his head. Slowly. Very slowly. "No." He assured.

"Do you mean the warehouse I've been watching for the better part of an hour?"

An emphatic nod as his answer. "Yes, we should check" He gestured in the shape of a large checkmark. "on it."

Bruce just stared hard at the man before sighing. Alien idiosyncrasies. He doubted he would ever get used to them. He reached down to grab his zipline, frowning as his gauntlet-covered fingers couldn't feel it. He knew he had snapped a new one in place two days ago when he did his regular suit checks.

I think he's having trouble with vertigo, too. Robin mentioned he was hesitating before he launched his line. I worry about the strain of jumping—he is only human after all.

Before Batman could reach back for his spare, he was suddenly picked up and cradled against Superman's strong chest. Clark then launched them both into the air, cape rippling behind them as he descended to the alley below. When they landed just beside a rusting dumpster, Superman gingerly set the other hero on his feet and stood back. Then he felt a well-aimed right hook land squarely on his jaw.

Which wasn't entirely unexpected, come to think of it.

"Sorry." Clark said as he rubbed his chin. "I just thought it would be more efficient if I…."

He shook his head and mentally chastised himself. He should have known. He had gone too far in trying to help his friend that he wounded the man's pride even more. He needed to be more subtle in his actions.

"So…what's our plan of attack?"

"Our plan?" Batman growled as he shook out his hand and flexed his bruised fingers.

Clark crossed his arms over his chest and drummed his fingers against his hard bicep. "I could really use your help."

The cowled vigilante was quiet for a few tense moments before he acquiesced with a small grunt. "Alright." He agreed. He turned and surveyed the building in front of them. "Clark?"

"Hm?"

"No matter what my coordinates anywhere on this planet are, it would take less than eight minutes for me to procure a piece of Kryptonite."

"I don't doubt that."

Batman nodded once. "Good." He absently scratched at his chest armor before gesturing towards a window near the fire escape. "Let's go."

The warehouse was dark and quiet, so much so that it would have lulled anyone else into a false sense of security. But Gotham's Dark Knight and Metropolis' Man of Steel weren't just anyone. They made a potently formidable pair. This was primarily a recon mission. Despite the extensive attempts to hide the paper trail, Bruce had discovered Luther's purchase a week ago. This was the first time he had to check it out.

It was a mission he had intended on completing alone.

Until—

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.

The cowled vigilante stilled mid-step at the five thwacks against his arm in rapid succession. He drew his eyes to the taller man, watching as Clark held up his hand.

"What?"

"There are five men in the corner."

"I know." Bruce hissed.

Superman nodded then pointed to a crate behind them. One covered in a film of grime and dust. Clear eyes narrowed sharply as they watched a finger begin drawing in the dust. First he made the outline of a diamond with a 'S' in the middle. Superman then gestured to himself and pointed at the 'S'. Then he drew a circle with…pointed ears? Superman nodded solemnly as he pointed to Bruce. Next came five crudely-drawn stick figures with 'Bad Guys' scrawled out beneath them. He was in the middle of an elaborate series of dotted lines and crisscrossed patterns when Superman felt the iron grip of a gauntlet on his wrist, staying his movements.

"Oh, for the love of…." Bruce centered himself and drew in a deep breath. Why was Clark drawing out a plan of attack like he was a high school football coach teaching the team a new play? This is why he worked alone. Right here. This. Or at least had partners that knew how to read his mind. That operated with him like a well-oiled machine. One who knew when to stay quiet and when to lighten the mood with a ridiculous pun or two. One with bright eyes and a brighter smile. "Just follow my lead."

With that, the Bat threw a handful of smoke bombs into the middle of the room. Superman quickly adjusted to the limited vision as he struggled to keep up with his caped cohort.

Oh, one more thing—if you do run into any trouble, could you make sure to cover his left side? That's where he's most vulnerable. Thanks, Supes! You're a true friend!

One thing about Batman—he moved fast. Fast and with deadly precision. He had four of them down and zip-tied before Superman even knew where he was. But the last one was proving to be more difficult. Clark had moved ahead to scout out the rest of the bottom floor, but kept zipping back to the cowled hero's side at the most inopportune moments. Each time the last goon looked as if he was about to land a punch, Clark was there, blocking the way. Then he would fly off again before hovering back moments later. Bruce just breathed out a long suffering sigh before he finally knocked the final hired hand out with a fierce head-butt right smack to the middle of his forehead.

Maybe a bit too hard.

He jerked his head to the side when he felt his left arm being lifted. Fierce blue eyes were scanning him, looking for any signs of injury.

"You seemed a little stiff on your left side." Superman explained, trying in vain to force a nonchalance into his voice.

The other man yanked his arm away from the probing grip and nodded towards one of the crates. "This is why we're here." He tersely explained, eying the large wooden container. He reached up and scratched at his chest plate, squirming a little to relieve the growing itch that was making itself known beneath it. He grabbed a hold of the edges and pried open a corner. Inside they could see tightly wound bricks stacked on top of one another.

"Narcotics?"

Batman frowned. "Too much work went into hiding this to be regular street drugs." He argued as he pulled a small knife and baggie from his utility belt. With deft hands, he cut open one of the bricks and scooted a portion of the crystallized powder into the bag. "I'll have to run an analysis back at the Cave."

"Right." Clark agreed with a hearty nod. "So…are you…do you need a lift, or…?"

Batman took a very noticeable step back. "I have a car." He bluntly reminded.

"Right. Right. And it has autopilot in case..." The other man seemed to murmur something to himself. "So, meet you back at the Cave?"

The other man failed to suppress a rising groan of frustration. All he wanted to do was find out what Luther was doing in his city. Then he wanted to get out of his damn costume so he could relieve the now burning itch that was blossoming across his entire chest. While the heavy Kevlar was vital to his line of work, it was very inconvenient at times. Times like this. "Do I have a choice?"

Superman grinned. "See you there!"

The Batmobile was a fast machine. Faster than any police car. Faster than any expensive European sports car. But not faster than a goofy-grinning farm boy from Kansas who was flying just to the side of it. No matter what sharp curves it roared around or what (admittedly unnecessary) tunnels it zipped through, Superman clung close like a fly on horse sh—well, damn close. Bruce breathed an audible sigh of relief when he at last pulled into the familiar confines of his cavernous refuge.

Before the mechanism that closed the canopy of the Batmobile whirred to life, Bruce had jumped out and was storming towards the computer consol. He pushed back his cowl before reaching into his belt and fishing out the small bag that contained the crystallized powder. He had barely flung it next to the array of humming machines when he rushed into the changing room to rid himself of that constricting armor.

Bruce reemerged a few minutes later, now clad only in the bottom half of his costume. Even without the chest armor and cowl he looked intimidating as hell, but Clark seemed irritatingly immune to that.

"The analysis will take an hour." He brusquely informed. "I'm sure Metropolis needs you back before then."

He braced himself for the inevitable protest as was the norm when the Man of Steel was so summarily dismissed, but silence greeted him instead. Bruce frowned as he turned around wondering if he had already left. But he hadn't. He was standing there, eyes locked in a wide-eyed stare and jaw slightly dropped. Bruce stopped scratching his chest and followed the other man's gaze, looking down to see what had warranted such an expression.

He looked down and he blinked. Then he blinked again. His hand hovered awkwardly in the air as tried to comprehend what he was looking at.

There, on his chest, some sort of allergic reaction had caused his skin to flush a deep red and raise up in angry welts. Welts that were connected together in a familiar pattern. A diamond pattern with a very clear, stylized S in the center of it.

"Uh…"

Bruce snapped his head up as the other man's stunted attempt at conversation died in the hollow caverns of the cave. Clark looked equal parts embarrassed and amused. The pieces began to click into place fairly quickly after that. Bruce shook his head and quickly grabbed a robe from the chair behind him.

"Nightwing."

"What?"

"Clark…did you receive a call from Dick by any chance?" Bruce asked, his voice deceptively even.

The play of emotions across the other man's face would have been humorous if Bruce hadn't been seething on the inside. He could tell that Dick must have asked him to keep their little conversation private and being the good, honest soldier that he was, Clark didn't want to betray him. But he also didn't want to lie to his friend. The billionaire vigilante just shook his head.

"Go home, Boy Scout."

"Bruce, I—"

"I'll call you when the analysis is done." He said, throwing the robe over his shoulders. Damn the kid had gotten him good.

Superman stood there awkwardly for a few minutes before he finally nodded. He had no idea what was going on between those two, but if the quick and almost missed smile that curled across the other man's lips as he turned around was any indication, Clark had nothing to worry about.

x.X.x

Dick was enjoying a lazy morning sleeping in—something he hadn't had the benefit of appreciating in weeks. His eyes were closed, his hands tucked behind his head beneath his very comfortable albeit lumpy pillow. He was just starting to be lulled back into his dreams when he heard it. A rustle just outside his fire-escape. A sigh escaped his lips as he debated on checking it out. More than likely it was Tim, wanting an update on his latest—and greatest, if he did say so himself—move. A wide smile suddenly lit up his handsome face as he threw back the covers. What the heck…a little gloating wasn't too bad, was it?

But when he opened the window, he quickly realized it wasn't Tim who had disturbed his sleep. Instead of the boy's flashing eyes and all-knowing smile, he found a box.

A box of… something very decadent smelling. Dick frowned as he slid the note tied to the top free.

Heard somewhere that cops like donuts.

Nice round. The Superman emblem earns you an extra point.

~B

Dick just shook his head and opened the box, fishing out a delicious looking jelly-filled concoction. So he knew about the application to the police department. Of course he did, Dick thought as a blob of jelly dripped down his chin. But if this was his reaction, then maybe…maybe he wasn't as upset as Dick had feared.

Maybe Bruce was beginning to see him as his own man.

Dick smiled as he shoved the rest of the donut into his mouth and reached for another. Somehow, they were the sweetest tasting things he had eaten in a very long time.

TBC…