phone was ringing as Dick Grayson stepped into the apartment. He wearily
dropped his bags and trudged toward the phone when it registered he was
hearing Her ring. The lethargy fell away as he hurdled his sofa to
get to the computer equipment in the next room.
"Answer", he called out and the small screen flared to life illuminating the alcove. It glowed into the features Dick knew so well.
"Babs, what's up? Already missing your favorite patient?"
"You wish, Conceited Wonder", she replied. Though she kept the poker face in place, there was a glint of amusement in her eyes. "Sorry, but it's business."
"Aw, you've got to be kidding! I was hoping to ease back into Blüdhaven life. You know, a few car-jackings, some burglaries, light stuff. Every time you have "business" for me, it means heavy hitting."
Though he complained, he smiled into those lovely green eyes. She knew him better than anyone alive, knew he lived for the "heavy hitting". Their recent time together while he healed from the Blackgate operation had brought them even closer if that was possible.
"This is no exception, whiner", she retorted, pulling into her Oracle persona. "One of your friends from Blackgate may be calling on you."
Dick rolled his eyes. That narrowed it down to a couple of dozen mooks he'd danced with a few weeks ago. Of those, only a couple had the brains and ability to get out of the hell that was Blackgate Prison.
"Which one"? he asked, guessing the answer and dreading the confirmation.
"KGBeast. They pumped him full of sedatives and tried to remove the blade from his left arm. Three dead and two in intensive care. That was without the blade and drugged."
"Why do you think he's headed this way?" Dick called over his shoulder as he pulled on his "working clothes".
"I have nothing that indicates that, but the Boss said it was something the Beast growled as he left the examination room."
"And how would he know what was said?" Dick grumbled, deducing that answer as well and he felt hot with anger.
"From the tapes. He placed surveillance equipment throughout the admin complex so he could keep an eye on Lockup and the Boys while they ran the prison."
"So," he whispered, "he saw, heard, or both, everything that I went through in that hellhole and did nothing!" As suddenly as the anger came, it was replaced by a genuine smile. "That's so cool!"
"Oh yeah, Barbara. It means he trusted me, believed in me enough to leave me alone. He let me take care of myself without swooping to the rescue. That means he's finally starting to treat me like an equal."
"Equal to Batman? I think you're looking at the whole apples and oranges thing there. He knows you've got abilities he'll never have and respects that. You're the only one who hasn't figured that out", she lectured. "If he gave over the mantle to you tomorrow, you'd never be the "same" Batman Bruce is. I personally thank God for that."
"Shut up, Grayson. We've still got business. The Boss is sending some help on this one."
"I thought Tim was in hot water with his dad " Dick began.
"He sent Azrael", she interrupted bluntly.
The anger came back in a flash and his face burned with it. Deep inside him, Nightwing still smarted from Batman choosing another to take up the mantle when he was injured. That Jean Paul went out of control later and had to be taken down was irrelevant to the former teen wonder. Whenever he saw Azrael, it brought up those old feelings of inadequacy and that made him angrier. Now Bruce was sending him here, to Blüdhaven. To his town. To say he did not like the idea was like saying Superman was a "little" tough.
"Why?" was all he could get through his gritted teeth.
"The Beast once beat Bruce badly and he thought the two of you could take him down much easier than by yourself. He also thinks the Beast has a personal thing for you now because of how easily you got past him several times at Blackgate and made a fool of him."
"Easy? There wasn't anything remotely "easy" about my outing to that place. I was just trying to stay alive."
"I saw the aftermath so you don't have to convince me, but I'm not the KGBeast. There's also the chance he'll have help when he gets there", she added, biting her lip.
"Desmond", Dick spat. Blockbuster's existence was a constant reminder of everything wrong with the Haven.
"Bruce says the Beast still thinks like a soviet and will try to get to the ranking person to get permission to wreak chaos in Blüdhaven. That would be Roland Desmond."
Placing his mask on, Dick Grayson was replaced by Nightwing and he smiled grimly at the computer screen. "If Jean Paul calls in, tell him to listen for sirens and head that way."
"You're not waiting for him?" It was more statement than question.
"Talk to you soon", he answered and switched off the monitor.
Before the screen got a chance to cool, he darted through the bedroom closet and up into his "ready" room. He painstakingly checked his gauntlets and boots to make sure they were stocked and added an extra escrima stick to one boot. If KGBeast was half as dangerous as his rep, the hero would need every edge he could get. He then checked his jump lines and launchers for anything that could cause a malfunction that could end his life. Satisfied he was as ready as he could be, he shot back down into his apartment and froze.
Years of experience had honed a sense beyond the five he'd been born with. There was a Nightarang in one hand and a stick in the other as he scanned the darkness. It wasn't until he caught the movement near the dining room window that he let his breath escape and relaxed the grip on his weapons.
"You know", he began as he flipped the light switch, "you aren't Bruce. You could call or knock like normal people."
The figure near the window rose from a defensive crouch and regarded Nightwing with a curious look. Azrael, Agent of the Bat, still did not understand all the intricacies of sarcasm. That, and he did not call or knock on anyone's door.
"I am not widely known for being 'normal'", Jean Paul Valley answered. He stood at attention, not knowing how to act with one who daunted him in so many ways.
"Well, since you're here, let's go catch the bad guy."
"Where do we start?" Azrael asked, following the other young man through the skylight window.
"North. We have to pick up my wheels first. Then to an old buddy's house."
The two shadows moved across the rooftops until they entered a dilapidated warehouse. Dick paused only to disarm his deceptively simple security system. Once inside, Jean Paul looked around at several car bodies hanging around the cavernous building. He was doubly puzzled to watch Nightwing lower one body called a "muscle car" onto the frame of a powerful looking vehicle.
Noting the other man's questioning look, Nightwing explained, "Camouflage and speed. Everything a guy needs in his wheels. That, and bulletproofing. Get in!"
There was an uneasy silence as they raced north along Highway 61. Dick hated riding with someone without talking so he broke the silence.
"Built her myself", he began, "and she runs fast as the Batmobile, but nobody gives her a second glance. She's also pretty fun to drive. If you're lucky, I might let you behind the wheel after we bag this mook."
"No, thank you."
"I know it's not a rocket with wheels, but "
"I don't enjoy driving", Azrael whispered as he watched the landscape fly by his window. The Batmobile was the first vehicle I ever drove and it was a necessary evil because of where the Cave was located."
"Wow, I thought all guys liked cars."
"I wish I had been raised like 'all guys'. I did not see a car until I was old enough to drive. The Order did not see the need to train me in driving skills."
There was another silence as Dick digested the new information. He'd always thought being raised by fanatical monks must have been similar to the way he grew up with Bruce. He suddenly realized how much more "normal" his life had been in comparison. The jealousy he'd felt for Azrael was replaced by pity.
"You know where we are going?" Jean Paul asked as they swung around the curves where the terrain grew hilly.
"Right here!" Dick answered as he cut off the road through the brush and onto a small rise. To add to his passenger's confusion, Nightwing cut off the lights, activated engine baffles, and switched on his night lenses. Before Azrael could ask a question, his companion had stopped and was out the door. Activating his own lenses, he followed to the back of the car where Dick was taking something from the trunk.
"Listening gear?" he asked.
"Oh yeah. New toy I wanted to try out and this is a great field test."
Silently, the two heroes slid through the foliage. As they topped the hillock, Azrael looked to where his guide was pointing. Across the valley from the hill where they were was a palatial mansion built on the top and side of a cliff overlooking the ocean. Through his night lenses, he could make out several armed men patrolling the area around the mansion. He turned to his companion who was aiming what appeared to be a rifle at the building.
Answering any silent questions, Dick explained, "Next generation in stealth listening devices. Blockbuster has his place checked for bugs several times a day at irregular intervals. This baby fires a laser that turns the vibrations of the windows into a microphone. We can hear what they say with them being none the wiser."
"Nearly undetectable. It uses a band near the invisible range of the visual spectrum so it doesn't even leave the traditional red dot."
They sat there in the brush for fifteen minutes without a word or even a glance. Nightwing nudged the other man with his foot.
"Why'd you change costumes?" he whispered.
"Batman's idea. He felt I could operate easier without the costume of an accused murderer."
"Weren't you cleared of those charges?"
Jean Paul nodded slightly.
"Then why not go back to your old costume? I mean, if you want to instill fear in the hearts of criminals, that suit did the job. The mask, the flaming blade, it had it all."
"Thank you. I have not felt comfortable since I donned this one. But Batman seems to know better than me "
"Jean Paul, he knows a ton of things, but he doesn't and never will know how you feel. Do what you have to do to make your own way."
"You sound like Dr. Thompkins."
"Wow, that's a complement. Shhh. I'm getting something."
Without a word, Dick passed him a twin of the earphone in the hero's ear. They sat back and listened.
"Why come to me? Though I have no love for the rodent's progeny, I've found it counter productive to actively seek to snuff him out", a gravelly, deep voice purred. Azrael decided it must be the Blockbuster he had heard of.
"With respect, I am being told you rule this city like the czars of old. I wish only to be left alone while I hunt", a heavily accented man replied. "The authorities would slow me and distract me from the prey. I am hoping this would benefit you and you would, in return, clear the path so to speak."
There was a silence and the two heroes glanced at each other.
"I will call Chief Redhorn and tell him to take the appropriate inactions. I will need to tell him a part of town to avoid."
"Where are there many innocents who no one will miss?" the Beast chortled.
Before he could be answered, another voice interrupted, "Sir! We thought you'd want to see this."
"Plan Raze", was all the behemoth known as Roland Desmond said.
Dick put binoculars to his eyes and saw Blockbuster come to the window, smile, and pull the curtains. He turned to Azrael and whispered, "We're about to have serious company. I need you to take care of them until Rollie gives the Beast a place to play."
With that creepy voice Jean Paul got when the Azrael persona was in full control, he replied, "Done." Then he disappeared into the brush.
Though Dick concentrated on listening for any clues Blockbuster and KGBeast might drop during their conversation, he couldn't help but smile grimly at the sounds of combat in the distance. Jean Paul's speed, power, and sheer ferocity made him a dangerous opponent. Of the two, he knew Azrael was the better fighter, but also knew it was the combination of genetic tampering and psychological conditioning that tipped the scales. It also made Jean Paul reckless at times. He hoped tonight wouldn't be one of those times. The movement out of the corner of his eye confirmed his companion's safety as well as his abilities. Without a word, the blonde man dropped four unconscious thugs at the edge of the clearing.
Nightwing couldn't help but admire how simply the other man worked. No quips. No complaints or boasts. He saw why Bruce would give the guy the cowl. The two had a lot in common in the obsession and focus department.
"Anything?" Jean Paul whispered. "There will be more."
"Not a sound, but they " he trailed off as a voice came over the surveillance gear.
"Mr. Desmond, Sector seventeen has not reported any contact."
"Have they reported anything?"
"Purge the area."
Pause. "Yes, Mr. Desmond."
Dick dropped the laser and ran for the knocked out guards. "Time to go. Grab a mook and run for the car."
Azrael mirrored the younger man's actions and the duo crashed through the forest toward the vehicle. Gone was an attempt at stealth. Nightwing raced as if he thought someone was giving chase. They were half the distance to the car when they heard the helicopters.
"Damn it!" he shouted over the din. "We're still too close." He glanced around quickly taking in the terrain. Then he spotted a sight that warmed his heart.
"Jean Paul, toss them into that drainage pipe down there fast, then get in there too."
"What about you?"
"I'm right behind you. Turn off your night lenses." At the other man's double take, he added, "Unless you like blindness."
As the last unconscious killer was thrown into the pipe, a roar shook the ground and the hilltop above them lit as if it was daylight. Without a word, moving as one, the two heroes dove into the shelter as a wall of heat washed over the drainage pipe. It took both men's breath with it as the terrain beyond the pipe's mouth flashed and burned. Nightwing and Azrael covered Blockbuster's men with their own bodies, hoping the insulation of the costumes would save them all from being cooked.
Just as suddenly as it started, it was over. While there were fires burning throughout the forest, the cause had burned itself out. Gingerly, as if testing to make sure their limbs worked, the two young men lifted themselves off their unconscious charges. Dick noted Jean Paul was checking their throats for a pulse. That small act of concern brought a smile to his face. The guy was changing.
"Let's get out of here before he nukes the city," Nightwing told the other man, patting his shoulder.
The gesture of camaraderie did not go unnoticed by Azrael. He scrutinized his companion as they pulled the thugs from the pipe. That was the first time one of the Bat's people showed him anything other than coldness. Despite being fully into the Azrael persona, a slight smile curved Jean Paul Valley's mouth.
"Was that napalm?" he asked as they ran down the hill to the car.
"Yeah. Rollie must want me bad to draw this kind of attention."
"How do you know he was after you?"
"We have an understanding. I screw with him and mess up his operations and he tries to kill me." Seeing the incredulous stare of the other man, he added, "Hey, it's a living."
"We leave these mooks at the side of the road and we get back to the Haven."
"But we don't know where KGBeast will strike."
"I know. We'll hang out in the Melville section of town. From there, we can get to several possible targets fast. I have a bad feeling I know where he's going. The comment about disposable people could only be a couple of places."
The ride back into the city was a silent one. Both men were wrapped in their own thoughts.
The cold winter winds whipped around the two shadows pressed to the side of the building overlooking Melville Park. Neither moved. They had remained motionless for two hours now, both listening to police band announcements. Alternating, they each scanned the area with their binoculars. Occasionally, Jean Paul would ask a question about a part of town or something from the police band. Dick made a mental note that the guy was trying to learn the thinking part of the "Game" as well as the kick butt side. He patiently answered all the questions and tutored the other man in deductive reasoning just as he'd done with Tim Drake when he first became Robin. He found that, despite his own feelings and their bumpy history, he was beginning to like Azrael and Jean Paul.
Suddenly, Dick stepped from the shadows and fired a jump line to the northwest. As he swung out, Azrael followed suit and asked, "Are we heading to the Phraim Moore Housing Projects?"
Nightwing allowed himself a grin, impressed by the other man. "Yeah. How'd you know?"
"The lack of police activity in that area. KGBeast said he wanted no interference and people living in those projects could be construed as being "disposable".
"Very nice," Dick laughed as they moved over Halyard Street. "The thing that clinched it for me was something that happened while Superman was in town."
"Superman was here?" Jean Paul asked anxiously.
"Yeah. He was passing through. Anyway, Rollie was trying to evict everyone who lived in the Zees and Superman "convinced" him not to do it. Anybody the Beast kills is in Desmond's best interest."
The two young heroes had cleared the last building between them and the housing project when screams filtered up to them. Atop one of the apartment buildings was KGBeast. Around him were the scattered remains of several gang members and their girlfriends. He was brandishing his bloody blade and had a teenage girl in the other. He swung her out over the thirty-seven floors to get her to scream even louder. It worked. She struggled harder when she caught sight of the two men swinging toward the building. Seeing two prey instead of the one he'd anticipated, the KGBeast did something to trim the odds. He tossed the girl in a high arc over the streets below.
"I got the girl!" Dick shouted as he pushed off the side of the building downward. He knew he'd have the only chance of getting to the falling girl, but that meant Jean Paul would have to face the Beast by himself. As his fingers gripped the ankle below him, he prayed Azrael could handle him until he could get back up there.
The angelic figure vaulted the fallen gangbangers and landed a double kick to the murderer's chest. He rolled clear of the backswing of the blade the Russian wielded, noting he had hit softer brick walls. Jean Paul decided to pull out all the stops on such a dangerous opponent and leaped to the attack. He struck the slower man with a flurry of blows and kicks that would have crippled another while evading the deadly blade and powerful counter blows. He put his full strength and weight behind one blow and was rewarded to feel the nose's bones crunch. Then he made his mistake.
When Azrael paused to see what effect the injury had, the Russian headbutted him. Then Jean Paul received several blows that he fought to lessen until he could escape and regroup. Before he could retreat, a kick like none he'd felt before crashed into his chest. Pain blazed throughout his body as the breath hissed past gritted teeth. He knew at least three ribs gave way under the blow. His eyes focused in time to see the blade raised over him and the other hand grip his throat.
"You are not him, but killing you I am," the Beast grunted through the blood streaming from his broken nose.
Then a blob that looked like a wad of bubble gum struck the former KGB operative in the eyes. As he tore at it, Nightwing gave him a double strike with the escrima sticks across the forehead. Staggered and enraged, the mass of muscle fell backward as his attacker pulled Azrael away. Helping him behind an air conditioning unit, Dick patted his companion's shoulder.
"Tag," he whispered to Jean Paul and backflipped across the roof. By the time he'd landed and pulled two of the razor-wings, the big Russian had gotten to his feet and had torn the obstruction from his eyes. He deflected one of the flying wings off his blade as the other sunk into his shoulder. He roared with rage and tore it out.
"Wow, that's gotta smart," Nightwing laughed. He leaped out and swung around a pole holding a security light to land within a few feet of the killer. "Didn't we do this dance already? You try to stop me and I sort of just slip out of your fingers. I don't see why Batman thought you were tough."
The KGBeast dipped a finger into the rivulets of blood from his shoulder and touched it to his tongue. His neck cracked as he rolled it, stepping toward the much smaller man. "You will be long time dying, little man. Relishing your pain I will as I break you."
"You need to do something about your anger issues," Dick replied.
With a growl, the Russian hurled himself at Nightwing. The hero seemed to barely stay out of reach of the powerhouse pursuing him. Punches, kicks, and blade thrusts met only air as the younger man whirled, flipped, and bounced away from the blows. Jean Paul watched the battle as he used his cape to wrap the broken ribs. He was confused by Dick's tactics. Nightwing could easily stay out of the bigger man's reach, but he stayed close, inviting attacks. The former Robin moved with a fluid grace that made every movement blend into the next. For all his power and skill, Azrael wished he had that kind of acrobatic ability. Even in the midst of fighting for his life, it looked like Dick Grayson was having fun.
Each missed shot enraged the Beast more and the speed and power of his attack increased. His blade finally met solid resistance. Nightwing looked down at the slice across his chest that cut through his uniform and nicked the skin underneath. The Russian backhanded him against the security light pole behind him. The hero swayed, dazed by the ferocity of the attacks.
"Now," KGBeast breathed, "it ends. Restore my honor your blood will."
With that, the huge Russian lunged his blade forward with all his strength to pin the hero to the pole. Just as the blade approached his chest, Nightwing dropped and thrust both palms upward into his opponent's arm, redirecting the killing blow over his head.. The blade met empty air until it struck the junction box on the pole as the hero planned.
Dick dove for cover as sparks showered the rooftop coupled with the screams of rage/pain from the KGBeast. As planned, the blade attached to the killer's arm made a great conductor for the building's power. When the circuit breakers kicked in, Nightwing was on his feet with two concussion grenades palmed from his gauntlets and ready to use. The Beast stepped from the junction box, the blade attached to his arm melted, twisted, and useless. His skin smoldered and the smell of burned hair filled the air. He took three steps toward his enemy when he fell and did not move again. As a precaution, Dick tied the big man with three lines. He did not want to fight this bruiser again for a long time.
"So he arrived safely?" Dick asked the image on the computer monitor in front of him. The young woman on the other end of the conversation smiled.
"Blackgate's new staff has devoted a "special" cell for him complete with logging chain and automatic sedatives. The types of sedatives are even rotated weekly so he won't build a tolerance to them."
"Sounds like they respect him more now."
"Killing several of your coworkers will do that. How's Jean Paul?"
Dick Grayson looked across the room at his houseguest. The man known as Azrael, the Avenging Angel was reading his host's collection of Calvin & Hobbes books. Chuckles and snorts erupted occasionally from the "stoic" hero. His ribs were wrapped, but seemed to cause him no discomfort. Dick smiled at the sight of the older man wearing his bunny slippers.
"He's healing slowly, Babs. Tell Bruce not to worry about him though. I've got him scheduled for some serious physical therapy. Talk to you again soon."
Switching off the computer, he spun in the chair to face his guest and asked, "Ready for therapy?"
The other man smiled genuinely and retorted, "Do I get to drive again?"
Thinking of the dents to the taxi frame of his car, Dick replied, "Once we get out in the country away from traffic."
"Cool!" the Avenging Angel shouted as he bounded after his host, his friend, and out the door.
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