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Disclaimer: Sadly, Dick Grayson isn't owned by me. DC has that privilege. DC owns most of the characters in this story. All I own is the distinctive way the story unfolds, the specific dialogue and unique situations. (g) No money is being made from this. Please don't sue. It wouldn't be worth your while.
WARNING: There are a number of spelling, grammar and punctuation differences between Australia and the USA... please forgive me for writing with an accent. (g)
Another Halloween Night
Nightwing entered the cave from the outside entrance and made his way down the long, dark tunnel that led to the inner sanctum. His mind was turning over all of the information Superman had given him. While logic told him it was more than possible for Batman to be infiltrated just like anyone else, something deep down within him refused to believe it. Perhaps it was the little boy who dwelled within him who still believed that Batman could do anything... certainly fight off some slug.
Logic returned. If Batman was on to something and he wasn’t sure who to trust in the JLA, he’d have come here to work alone -- so that fit. Dick had a five step plan. He prayed he wouldn’t need to employ steps four or five.
Above, bats flapped, disturbed by Nightwing’s presence. Another, much larger Bat, was about to be.
Nightwing exited the passageway and entered the huge cavern he had christened the ‘Batcave’ so many years before. He paused and looked across to the computer platform above the rest of the cave and there, with his back to him, was Batman. Nightwing knew his presence wasn’t any secret. The sensors would have warned Batman to the ‘intruder.’
As there was no greeting, Nightwing strode silently toward his former mentor, climbed the stairs, but stopped the instructed six feet away. The words, ‘honey, I’m home’ flashed in his mind. “Batman.”
No response. Of course, that wasn’t out of the ordinary.
“Batman,” Nightwing repeated with more volume.
“We need to talk.”
“Nice weather we’re having. Wasn’t it great that the Bludhaven Cowboys smashed Gotham last night? Okay, so much for the small talk. As you seem to be busy, I’ll get straight to the point. I can’t keep dropping everything in Bludhaven each time you think you need me here in Gotham to handle mundane tasks that the police force are more than capable of dealing with.”
“Would you turn around so we can discuss this?”
Slowly, the chair swivelled until Batman’s eyes pierced through Dick. He’d always had the ability to do that. In a stoney voice, devoid of emotion, the Dark Knight stated, “I don’t have time for this.”
“Tough bickies. I’ve decided I need to review my focus and Gotham no longer figures in my calculations. I have my own city these days, not to mention other responsibilities… which we’ll discuss in a minute. To tell you the truth, I’m sick and tired having to run back here at the drop of a hat just because you can’t handle your own city. I’m not your junior partner any more and it’s about time I stopped acting like it or taking your crap.”
Nothing. Nightwing moved to phase two.
“While I’ve got your attention, I may as well fill you in on everything. I’m leaving the Titans. Like you, they’re a part of my junior years.”
A grunt, but no discernable emotion.
“I’m going take up an offer from Superman to join the JLA. They need a detective. Unfortunately, because you run back to Gotham at the drop of a hat, you’re hardly ever around these days. I’m moving forward, Batman. I’m seeing things much clearer, thanks to Roy. He’s right. You’ve never wanted me to be a part of the JLA because then you’d have to acknowledge me as an equal. That starts today!”
Dick waited. Bruce had never wanted him to be a member. Dick didn’t understand why. They’d actually had several heated arguments over it in the past.
“Fine.” The word echoed in the cavern and then Batman spun around and returned to what he was doing.
That was it? The acid in Dick’s stomach began to burn. There should have been more of a reaction than that. Was Superman right? It wasn’t possible, was it?
Phase three. “I’m also getting married.”
“To Roy. I’m gay. I’m sick of hiding the truth from you and from the world.”
Dick cursed inwardly. He’d hoped that something so off the wall would have jolted at least a dismissive reaction. The, ‘I know you better than you know yourself, Dick’, types of superior responses. But there had been nothing. No a thing. And yet…was Batman just... Whatever the reason, it was time to bite the bullet. Time was of the essence. Dick had to trust his instincts… prove what he felt to be true.
“Clark thinks that your mind has been taken over by some slug trying to infiltrate the JLA. Me, I think it must have happened years ago. Of course, you didn’t trust me enough to let me know about the Mantla last time. I had a right to know. I was the leader of the Titans if nothing else. The JLA and Titans are supposed to have an open policy on sharing information.”
In the reflection of the computer screen, Nightwing saw Batman’s expression tighten. Could he consider that a reaction?
“Well, Batman? Is there a slug in your head?”
“You live in a fantasy world, Nightwing.”
“This coming from a man who thinks it’s Halloween every night.”
“This has nothing to do with you. Leave it.”
Grayson’s chest tightened. “Well, that’s certainly in character. Nothing to do with you is ever anything to do with me these days, is it?” His emotions were threatening to distract him. Perhaps he should allow them to? After all, every conversation in the last two years had ended up with he and Batman at each other’s throats. None of those had needed careful planning to evoke an emotional response.
“You need to leave,” Batman instructed.
“That’s your answer to everything, isn’t it? Just push ‘the problem’ aside or steamroll over it. What the hell happened to you, Bruce? There was a time when I believed that… that you gave a damn about me.” His tone had dropped to little more than a whisper. “Was it always this way? Are my childhood memories just delusions?”
Dick stopped, realizing he was allowing the situation to get to him and so he counteracted. “I’m okay, by the way. I’m sure Oracle told you about the explosion last night. I appreciated your hospital visit and the flowers were lovely,” he finished sarcastically.
Still nothing. Not a damn thing!
“YOU’RE A REAL PIECE OF WORK, YOU KNOW THAT, BRUCE!” Dick clutched at his side, the effort of shouting causing the injured muscles to pinch. “Go to hell, Batman,” he spun quickly, his hand sliding down to his tender abdomen. “Superman’s on his own,” the young man grumbled. “Call me if you want to talk about any of the changes in my life. Not that anything in my life…” His breath caught in his throat and he held it waiting for the pain to subside. “...is of any…” He released the air in his lungs with control and his voice became breathy “…interest to you.” Dick grimaced. “It ends here. I’m not going to bother…” as he arrived at the tunnel, he reached out for the wall to steady himself. “… not going to bother any more.”
Nightwing sensed Batman’s approach. Superman’s warning echoed in his mind, yet he felt no fear. The flutters of doubt didn’t change the fact that Dick was still certain. Besides, he had to get close to know.
“Calm down. Were you released from hospital or did you release yourself?” No emotion. It was an order followed by a simple request for information.
“None of your damn business.” And then Nightwing spun violently, yelling, “YOU DON’T EVER...” Dick’s body folded in and he gulped, his body shuddering.
Batman grabbed him and without a word, guided the panting man back to a chair. Nightwing was still doubled over as Batman removed a glove. The Dark Knight placed a hand on the younger man’s brow and scrutinized the bruising at the side of his face. Then, he eased Dick upright. Grayson’s gaze lifted to meet two eyes of blue staring down at him… concern radiating from them. Real emotion. The tension left Dick’s body as he thought happily, ‘Gotcha.’
Batman pulled his cowl back. “You must be bleeding internally again.” Bruce paused and his eyes grew wide. “You were testing me?”
Dick sat up. The initial pinching had been real, but it had jolted his mind back to the task and given him the opportunity to implement phase five. Perhaps he couldn’t annoy, shock or anger Batman enough to make him lose his temper, but Dick knew one sure fire way to make Bruce react. It had been a low blow by anyone’s standards, which was why he’d decided to use it only if nothing else worked. “I had to know. Sorry.”
Bruce’s eyes blazed and then he yanked his cowl down into place. “You know where the door is, Nightwing, use it.” He spun on his heels, his cape flying out behind him as he started back up the stairs to the computer platform.
“So, why the act? Why act as though you’re a puppet of the Mantla?” Grayson paused. “Even in front of me?”
“Damn it, Batman. Why don’t you trust me any more?”
“While everyone focuses their investigations on me, the Mantla will believe it is safe and continue to carry out its mission. It is the only chance we have of catching it.”
Dick rose and followed. “And if Superman decided to follow the same course of action as you did last time? Kill the slug while it was still inside the host? I was told that the last host didn’t survive.” Grayson rounded on Batman so they were face to face. “They could have killed you.”
“It was a chance I had to take.”
Dick was startled by the trepidation he could so clearly read in Batman’s usually expressionless face and his thoughts returned to Superman’s referral to a massacre. “The Mantla are that bad?”
For several seconds, Batman didn’t speak. When he did, his voice was low, hushed and actually trembled ever so slightly. “If they were to invade, I would personally take the lives of all those I care about.”
Dick felt the hair rise on the back of his neck. “Bruce?”
“They don’t just kill, Nightwing, they… Death is long and painfully cruel. They enter the body and feed from the inside out. First the eyes and then… the victim is aware throughout. Mantla secrete a hormone to stop massive bleeding. They like their kill fresh. I estimate that death takes approximately seventy-two hours. The victim feels everything but the Mantla prevent movement – paralysis with pain. The victim can’t even take his own life. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Nightwing swallowed. It was all starting to make sense. This was why Bruce had refused to tell the Titans and others. Such knowledge would certainly have caused panic if it had got out.
“So, have you eliminated anyone?”
“He’s waiting for me. What do you want me to tell him?”
Dick raised an eyebrow.
“I need time.” Batman flicked his attention to one of the computer screens which was counting down. He had seven hours and thirty-six minutes to go. “He will only distract me and I can’t afford to be distracted at the moment.”
“Okay. So you want me to avoid Superman for a couple of hours? Not going to be easy.”
“How busy are you at the moment?”
Nightwing’s eyebrows drew down, curiously. Was Batman asking for help? “Nothing pressing. Something I can help with?”
“No. You can hide from Superman here.”
Dick rolled his eyes. “Clark knows where the cave is. If I don’t contact him, he’ll come looking. He’s pretty rattled and suspects you… which is your plan,” Nightwing acknowledged. Right now he had to trust Batman… not that that had ever been an issue. “Superman won’t leave it. He was afraid for my safety.”
“Yet.. he.. sent.. you.” Each and every syllable rolled around in the back of Batman’s constricted throat and resonated with anger. His blazing eyes met Nightwing’s and a blinding flash of realization smashed Dick. His mind whirred at the speed of light. That wasn’t anger… it was… Dick blinked. He’d seen it before on Roy’s face - paternal rage. Nightwing was floored. Why hadn’t he seen it before? If he was a member of the JLA, Batman would be forced to accept him as an equal and the older man’s ability to shelter Dick would be gone forever.
Dick opened his mouth to speak, but the abrupt comprehension had winded him. All these years, Batman’s opposition to his membership in the JLA was a result of his paternal instincts – the security of knowing that when the worst of the worst happened, he was in a position to give Dick orders… orders that ultimately enabled him to protect his child as he saw fit. Superman had violated that.
“Did he warn you of the dangers?” An emotionless snarl.
Clark was in the deepest of deep shit. “Of course.”
“But you came.”
“No damn slug would be able to take over your head, Batman.” Batman and Nightwing stared at each other for a long time.
“It could.” The words were said gently… more gently than Batman had spoken to Nightwing in years. Batman’s eyes flashed a silent moment of affection, but it disappeared so quickly that Nightwing questioned if he’d imagined it. No, it had been there. The tone of the next phrase was harsh. “You tested me.”
“I had to be sure,” Nightwing growled. He needed to climb above the emotion and set aside his own feelings for the sake of the mission... just as Batman had taught him. “You didn’t train a fool.”
Batman’s voice dropped. “You knew exactly how to force me to react.”
“You may be an emotionless bastard, Bruce, but whether you like it or not, you care. So, what can I do to help?”
“I don’t need your help.” The words were ground out as Batman shouldered past the younger man and moved back to his chair.
“No, what you mean is, you don’t want my help. There’s a difference. We were partners once. The best. I can help you, if you let me.”
Batman glared at Nightwing.
“It must have just about killed you holding your temper before.”
Batman snorted and returned to staring at the screens in front of him.
“Fine, then I’ll just hang around here under foot, order pizza, tell jokes and generally be annoying. So, have you heard the one about the Irish man who turned his back on his partner when he needed him most?”
For several seconds Batman didn’t react and then Nightwing heard a sigh of defeat from the older man. “You’re joining the JLA and you and Roy are getting married. You thought I’d believe that?” he asked, glancing sideways.
Dick grinned. “Yeah, well, it was worth a try. I wanted something you’d question and something you’d reject immediately. I thought that swinging from one to the other may… Five step plan. Criticize, annoy, shock, strike and appeal.”
Batman nodded, his eyes still reflecting the slightest trace of concern.
“For what it’s worth, I enjoy the trips back to the Gotham. The JLA don’t laugh at my jokes… the Titans do.” Batman’s face actually relaxed and Dick smiled. He’d been right. Again, the realization shook him to his core. “But, hey, I do like red heads,” he finished, bouncing his eyebrows.
“She’s looking for you.”
Dick grimaced. “Sarah called Oracle? Man, I’m dead. I told Babs I’d wait to be released. Maybe you could lie and tell her you released me?”
Batman inclined his head to a microscope. “That’s a piece of the slug’s skin. I haven’t had time to properly analyse it. I should have a year ago but…”
“Don’t. If you’d physically had time you would have,” Nightwing whispered.
Batman gazed at him and the side of his mouth rose slightly. Dick’s loyalty was complete. Batman no longer had the right to expect it and while he understood that Nightwing’s beginning tirade had been an act, he realized that ‘dropping everything’ was exactly what Nightwing did every time. “See if you can find something… anything that could point to a way to defeat the creature. We found it impervious to our earlier efforts. It doesn’t require air, or water. Can’t be contained by Green Lantern. While a living being, it doesn’t appear to feel pain. The only thing identified was a reaction to sound.”
Nightwing focused the instrument and examined the cell structure. “Wow.”
“Exactly,” Batman growled, returning to the computer screen in front of him.
“It reminds me of something,” Dick murmured.
Batman grunted. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” He’d only looked at it for a couple of seconds, but then, usually that was long enough.
“I have. Not the same but…I just… I can’t remember.”
Nightwing readjusted the focus. His mind zapped through all his stored memories. “Hang on. Of course. Elastic Man.”
Batman’s head snapped toward him. “What?”
“It’s similar to Elastic Man’s cell structure. I mean it is different, from what I can remember. Each of the slug’s cells are thicker and the hexagonal shape provides greater strength, but the structure itself has similar components.”
Batman rose slowly to his feet. “How do you…?”
“Don’t you remember?” Dick asked, straightening. “When you were training me to identify substances, you threw in a slide with Elastic Man’s cells on it. Living rubber. I couldn’t identify it. You refused to tell me and it took me weeks and weeks to narrow it down. In the end you had to tell me what it was.”
Batman continued to stare at Nightwing and then crossed and checked the slide himself. “It’s different, but… you’re right there are enough similarities. However, it is much stronger. Living rubber,” he muttered, using Dick’s phrase. “That’s why the bullets didn’t penetrate it. They literally bounced off. So, we try to stretch it until it reaches its critical length?
Nightwing’s face lit with an idea. “What happens when you freeze rubber?”
“It becomes brittle,” Batman agreed, following Nightwing’s line of thinking. “Super freeze it and…”
“Theoretically, it’ll shatter. Bingo. Do we still have Mr Freeze’s big cannon?”
“In the vault.”
“But will it be strong enough?” Nightwing asked.
“We hook it into the nuclear reactor that powers the Batmobile and we could freeze the United States. Test it. There are further samples of the slug’s cells in the drawer.” Batman strode back to his computer.
Moments later Nightwing walked up and stood beside him.
“Shattered like glass.”
A rush of breath showed Batman’s relief. “Risk factor to those facing the Mantla has just dropped from about 95% to 10%. Well done.”
“But we’re only half-way. We have a way to defeat it if we can find it and coax it out of its host. What else can I do?”
Batman paused and turned to his partner. Dick had been right. They worked off each other, sparking ideas and complementing one another perfectly. “I found a file hidden on the JLA computers... created only a day ago. It contained over one thousand map co-ordinates. Nothing special about any except they are evenly spread all over the globe. Yesterday, twenty-four drums of Vixan 24 disappeared from Lex Corp.”
“Lex Luthor’s involved?”
“No, I don’t believe so. However, he is the only one who still makes Vixan 24, which…”
“Is a paralysis gas.” Dick’s eyes grew with understanding. “Keeps the body alive but prevents movement.”
“Just the way Mantla like it. The file also contained one other thing. A time. 1:55.”
“Five minutes before the impending communication. It’s going to set the gas free at 1:55 from 1000 different spots across the globe,” Dick muttered. “Paralyse the world’s population ready for its peers to come and feast.”
“That’s my guess.”
“So shouldn’t we contact Superman and get him to go to each of the co-ordinates and…”
“And we tip off the Mantla immediately. Vixan 24 is so potent that ten drums would do the job. The Mantla is intelligent. It would know that.”
“It has a back up plan,” Nighwing breathed.
“We have to trap and destroy it before it can carry out its mission.”
“And to do that, we need to know who it’s in.”
“Yes. There’s a file open on that computer. Read it and see if you can find anything out of place. I’ve read it a dozen times and don’t see anything. Maybe fresh eyes are what’s needed.”
“Sure, what is it?” Nighwing asked, slipping into ‘his’ chair. When he’d been young, he’d always sat here.
“It’s my report on the day we encountered the meteorite -- the time I think one of us were compromised. There’s got to be something there that will point to who.”
“You got it. What are you doing?”
“I’m using a satellite to watch all members of the JLA apart from Superman. I cleared him hours ago.”
“You aren’t going to be popular,” Dick murmured. Batman made no response.
For ten minutes there was silence. Finally Dick sat back and shook his head. “Nothing. Will the host be acting out of character at the moment?”
“Not necessarily… but it’s all we’ve got.” Batman glanced up at the clock and his jaw clenched.
Nightwing rose and strode across the stand next to his partner. “I’ll take The Flash and Green Lantern,” Dick offered, referring to the monitors showing the heroes going about their lives. Wally was at home, making himself something to eat. Kyle was on a date. “This is one hell of a satellite.”
“New technology I’ve developed with the capacity to look directly through walls and to maintain focus on the subject selected.”
“How?” Dick asked, resting back on the armrest of Batman’s chair.
Dick glanced down at Batman. “DNA. Hell. Have you been watching me?”
“Concentrate,” Batman growled.
For several moments the two men did just that.
“At what time will you call the others in?”
“If we don’t identify the spy? Forty minutes from the communication deadline.”
“And we’ll…?” Dick asked.
“To save the planet, we will have to destroy all those we still suspect to be hosts. By then, I hope we’ve identified who it is.”
Dick nodded. He’d feared that would be the back-up plan. Unfortunately, he saw no other way himself.
“And if none of them contain the Mantla?”
There was a long pause before Batman replied. “We wait. At the first sign of invasion, we kill every living being on this planet as painlessly as possible.”
Nightwing tore his gaze from the computer monitors. “What? You’re not serious?! We can’t! Surely...” It was inconceivable.
The older man looked up at Nightwing and his Adam’s apple jumped. Dick saw something he’d never seen before… and he didn’t like it. Batman looked vulnerable.
Instinctively, Dick placed his hand on Bruce’s shoulder. Even through the kevlar suit, he felt Bruce’s muscles twist.
“With Superman’s help, we flood the Earth with carbon monoxide. Everyone simply goes to sleep… permanently.” Batman paused and his face shadowed with doubt. “Do I have the right to be making these decisions?” he whispered.
Dick swallowed. “If half of what you’ve told me about the Mantla is true, a painless death is all any of us could hope for by that stage, but… we fight until the last possible moment.”
Nightwing watched the weakness pass and Batman inclined his back to the monitors. “Keep watching. We have to identify who it is.”
“What if I call the Titans together and we track down the Vixan 24.”
“Would you keep it all in one spot?”
“No,” Dick admitted.
“The Mantla won’t either. It will have it stashed it all over the globe until it needs to shift it to the coordinates its sectioned for the attack. Find and remove one and we’ve warned it.”
“We know how to defeat it, so why not just call the JLA together and test each for an emotional response?”
“The Mantla won’t come at this late stage. It’ll go into hiding and then we won’t be able to stop it. We have to find out who it’s in and then take it by surprise.”
“What the…?” Dick muttered.
“You have something?” Batman demanded.
“Is that a spider?” he asked pointing to the creature that Wally had just swept off the bench so nonchalantly.
Batman gave the voice command, “Enhance screen seven, bottom left sector.”
The screen filled with an image of a spider scuttling across the floor. Dick started shaking his head. “Oh, no.“
“What is it?”
Grayson shut his eyes. “The Mantla inhibit emotional responses… in effect eliminating phobias. Wally’s arachnophobic. He can’t even get close enough to spray spiders without climbing up the walls.”
“The Flash.” Batman stood abruptly, knocking Nightwing sideways. “It fits. He has the speed to set off the gas at all locations at almost the same time. That’s why the Mantla chose him.” The Dark Knight descended the stairs, picked up Mr. Freeze’s huge laser cannon and then headed for the Batmobile.
“Hang on,” Nightwing cried. “What are you going to do?”
“Destroy the Mantla.”
“How?” When Batman didn’t answer, Nightwing jogged down from the computer platform and blocked his path. “How? By superfreezing the slug while it’s still in Wally? You’ll kill him.”
Batman said nothing, cradling the cannon across his chest.
“Let me call Star Labs and…”
“No. We can’t involve others.”
“The hell we can’t! We’re talking about Wally.” Batman stepped around his partner. Nightwing grabbed his arm. “I won’t let you risk his life without first investigating a way to save him.”
“I didn’t say I was going to.”
Batman shrugged free of Nightwing’s grip and placed the cannon in the car. “The Mantla respond to high powered sound waves. Last time we used them to make it leave Wonder Woman’s body.”
“Oh. And yet you…”
“We couldn’t kill it when it was outside of the host,” Batman finished, opening the driver’s side door and getting in. “Our only option was to destroy it within a host.”
“So who did you…”
“I have no intension of validating the decisions we made to save this planet.” The door slammed closed.
“I wasn’t asking you to. What’s the risk to Wally?”
“At best, burst eardrums. At worst, I’ll fail and he’ll die with everyone else.” Batman redirected his attention to his partner. The sting left his voice. “Risk factor of about 3 %. He’ll be alright,” he assured.
“And the risk to you?”
“Reduced significantly now that I have a weapon to kill it. The most dangerous time will be when the Mantla exits The Flash. It’ll grow as it falls and eject acid to protect itself. Avoiding that won’t be easy while I fire the cannon.”
“Which means you’ll have to fire the sound blaster and then pick up the cannon… precious seconds in between.”
“A risk factor of only about 10%.”
“And if there were two of us… one with the sound blaster and one ready with the freeze cannon? What’s the risk factor then? Less than 1%, I’d say.”
Nightwing realized he had no intention of insisting. That single moment he had recognized that Bruce had been angry with Clark for putting him in danger was in the forefront of his mind. Bruce, not Batman, had been livid… and the small boy who still lived in Dick celebrated the fact that his father had wanted to protect him. After all, protecting his child was every father's prerogative -- a right Dick knew couldn't be easy to relinquish. Batman, for everything he was and wasn’t, was no different.
Batman turned the key in the ignition. The engine sprang to life. He focused ahead of him. “I may not have found the answers needed without your help, Nightwing.”
“We make a pretty good team, wouldn’t you say?”
Batman’s chin dipped. Twenty-three minutes. With Nightwing’s help, it had taken only twenty-three minutes. Without his help… Batman didn’t want to think.
“Good luck, and be careful, Bruce,” Dick whispered.
“Aren’t you coming trick or treating with me?”
Nightwing didn’t need a second invitation. He flipped twice, sprang into the air and landed in the seat beside Batman.
The older man shook his head with happy disgust. Dick hadn’t changed since he was eight.
With the two of them working together the risk dropped to less than 1%. Together, they were that good and the Dark Knight was willing to admit, he needed his partner’s help to ensure the job was done.
“Just another Halloween night,” Batman murmured.
But what if Batman had been ‘infiltrated?’
Stay turned for Version two of Act 3.
© January 2006 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 and thank them sincerely for turning a blind eye so I can borrow them. (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.
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