Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   
Choices Chapters
1: Prologue

2: Robin & Huntress

3: The JSA

4: The JLA

5: Starfire, Robin & Batman

6: New Members of the Family

7: At The Manor

8: The Stake-Out

9: New Friendships

10: The Titans

11: Facing The Past

12: Shattered

13: Confrontations

14: Flying

15: Conversations

16: Hitting the Streets

17: On the Trail

18: Face To Face

End of Summer
 

Choices

Chapter 17: On the Trail

by Marilee Stephens

Dick quickly followed Batman back to the alley where the Batmobile was parked. Climbing in, he wanted to ask Batman about the people they were off to meet, but he didn’t have a chance. Instead, Batman, without taking his eyes off the road, asked Dick something before he could open his mouth.

"You seemed quite ready to jump into that group of men that were hassling Ms. Richmond."


"Nightwing" by Erik Burnham

For some reason, the older man’s tone of voice made Dick feel like squirming in his seat a little bit, though he managed to prevent himself from doing so. After a short pause, he conceded, "I suppose I was."

"Why?"

"’Why?’" Dick was a bit taken aback by the question. To him, it was sort of obvious as to why he had wanted to jump into the fray. "They were causing Kate more than a little bit of trouble. That’s enough of a reason for me."

"So your first instinct was to just jump in without taking the time to properly assess the situation?"

"No, of course not!" Dick realized that he was sounding a bit defensive, but wasn’t sure why. Surely Batman wasn’t berating him for his actions. "But Kate… Ms. Richmond was obviously in trouble. I just wanted to get her out of there."

Taking his focus off the road for one quick moment, Batman’s eyes moved over Dick’s face in a slightly questioning manner. "And that was the only reason for your… enthusiasm?"

Dick’s mouth turned down and his eyes lowered to contemplate the clasped set of hands in front of him. After a long moment and a deep sigh, he confessed, "No. No it wasn’t. I needed…"

"You ‘needed’?"

"Okay, I wanted to bash something. Those idiots…"

"Were almost too handy."

A very small, rueful instead of humorous, smile etched itself on Dick’s mouth, though it didn’t reach his eyes. "Yeah, they were ‘handy’."

A hand reached over to grip his shoulder tightly. "It’s okay, Wing. Everyone needs to let off steam once in awhile."

"If it’s okay, how come you sounded almost disapproving a minute ago?"

"Did I? Hhhmmm… I guess it’s just because I think you have to pick when, who and how you ‘let off steam’ on. And that situation wasn’t a very smart one to pick."

"Huh? Why would you say that? It’s not like I couldn’t have handled them."

"Could you handle them… sure. But frankly, what would be the advantage of using all that energy, and taking the possibility of being hurt, if only in a minor fashion, if one of them got in a lucky blow."

"That wasn’t likely to happen", Dick replied confidently.

"Okay. Maybe not. Still, what would have been the point? It obviously was easy enough to talk them out the situation. Would have inflicting physical injury on them really been worth it? They were a bunch of drunk party-goers, not a gang of hoods or mob-henchmen or such. They weren’t armed, and as you implied, they really weren’t in any shape to do much damage to you."

Dick knew that Batman was right, even if he didn’t want to admit it. "But they were obviously terrifying Kate. Doesn’t that make a difference."

"Of course. Maybe it’s just me. With time, I’ve had to adapt to the effects of growing older. Guess I don’t rely as much on my physical fighting skills as I used to. I just found it odd that you were ready to throw yourself to a fight like that. I thought there must have been another reason behind it."

"C’mon. Sure, you might have changed your tactics over the years, but you must have used fists in the past on that type of situation." Dick was sure that the older man was just pulling his chain at this point, though God knew why? His Batman was more then ready to plow into gang of armed crooks if he felt it was necessary.

But this Batman shook his head a bit slowly, even as he concentrated on his driving. "I guess so. Usually only if I was attacked by several goons at once. I’ve always tried to keep the actual physical confrontations short and sweet. A good left hook, a right jab and some judo throws always seemed to be enough. And it was easier on the body that way. Looking over the clues, trying to get into the heads of the culprits and then setting up traps for them, that’s more along how I always did it. Taking on a huge group of men at once time just seemed too risky for the most part. Not that I wasn’t capable of doing it, if I needed to. But in a lot of cases, it just didn’t seem worth it."

Dick was surprised at Batman’s explanation. Not the approach his own Batman would take a lot of the time. But then, as had hit him in the past, that Batman and this Batman were obviously not the same person, at least not in a number of ways.

He didn’t have time to comment on that through before Batman drew the car to a stop in a another deserted alley. This one was located on the edge of the more seedy part of Gotham. Dick copied Batman’s example of climbing out of the car and then followed him over towards a manhole. Batman quickly removed the cover and indicated for Dick to lower himself down. After Dick did so, he followed suit, replacing the manhole cover as he did so, and then switched on his flashlight. He quickly swept the light over the cavern of the sewer tunnel, revealing that there were no other beings around, except for a few rats. Leading the way, Batman walked a few short steps over to the wall of the sewer and placed his palm against one spot on the wall. Dick watched as a hidden control panel slid open. Batman quickly keyed in a code and further along the wall, a concrete slab rotated 90 degrees, revealing a passageway that led away from the sewer. After the two men slipped through, Batman keyed in another code on an identical control panel just a few feet along the passage. The concrete slab moved back into place, fitting so tightly that Dick knew that anyone who didn’t know it was there would never find the entrance to this tunnel.

Batman then set off down the long passageway. Low level lighting had come on with their entrance into the tunnel, which followed a straight path from several hundred yards. At the far end, Batman keyed in another code on yet another panel. A steel door slid aside, uncovering the cabin to a small elevator.

Stepping in, Dick turned questioningly to look at Batman. Without him having to say anything, Batman knew what thoughts had entered in his head. "I had the entrance from the sewer and the passage built after the Wayne foundation modified an old warehouse into a number of apartments and lofts for some of the homeless to move into. It allows me to get in and out of the building, such that I can meet with some of my ‘informants’, without alerting anyone else to my presence. It’s one of the methods I’ve adopted for protecting the knowledge of their… association with me from the surrounding community."

"I see."

"I’m sure you do." With that, Batman pushed the sole button on the elevator control panel. It was marked "PH".

"We’re off to see whoever’s living in the penthouse?"

"Technically, it’s just the top floor of the building. It’s where Bess lives with a few of her… ‘strays’."

"’Strays’? As in stray cats and dogs?"

"No. You’ll see."

Dick felt the elevator come to a stop. As the door slid open, he saw what appeared to be a wall directly in front of them. However, Batman moved to place his right eye up near a sensor plate and the wall slid aside to reveal what was apparently some sort of storage room. Batman exited the elevator and moved to open the door. Dick could hear the low hum of several voices coming from just down the hall.

Following Batman into a large living room, Dick quickly cased the room and saw that there were seven people standing or sitting around. The one person he recognized was Shamrock, the man he had met earlier that morning. He was talking to two other men, an older one with a beard and mustache and the look of an intellectual, and one in his mid-thirties or so, who looked like he should be sitting behind some sort of business desk. A very pale-skinned, dark-haired, slightly haunted-looking woman, who also looked to be in her mid-thirties, was perched uneasily at the end of one of the two couches in the room. On the other couch sat a girl that looked to be in her mid-teens, wearing a pair of ragged jeans, a tee shirt decorated with a psychedelic-colored skull, and a pair of untied sneakers. Her lank brown hair was hanging in a haphazard manner about her face, but Dick noticed a pair of observant hazel eyes peer out at him from under the untidy bangs drooping across her forehead. Just beside her sat a young man, about Dick’s age, with obvious Latin influence in his ancestry. While dressed in a neater manner than the girl, there was a suspicious yet protective gleam in his eyes, as if he didn’t fully agree with him or any of the others being there. In the far corner, sitting back in a large, comfortable looking, was an elderly, somewhat heavy-set woman, which had to be the "Bess" that Batman had mentioned, though Dick really couldn’t tell if she was in her fifties or her eighties. While wrinkles lined her face, Dick wasn’t sure if they were due to age or if they were caused by the time she had apparently spent on the streets. And there was a certain air of liveliness about her that made her seem young.

Rising slightly from her chair, "Bess" raised her hands to grasp Batman’s as he headed across the room to greet her, drawing everyone’s attention with him. After he dropped a quick peck on her cheek, a sight that again caused a start in Dick, she lowered herself back into the chair. Before Batman had a chance to say anything, she came out and asked, in a manner that almost seemed like it should have belonged to royalty, even if of the Cockney sort, "What do yer have need of us for, luv? And who’s the ‘andsome looking chap you’ve brung to meet us?"

Dick moved forward when Batman’s hand waved him over. Everyone else listened intently as Batman made the introduction. "Bess, this is a young friend of mine. You can call him ‘Wing’. Wing, this is our own ‘Queen Bess’. She sort of ‘rules the roost’ here, you might say."

"Aye, that she does. And a fine job she does of it too." Shamrock moved closer to the small group the others in the room were concentrating on.

"You remember Shamrock?" Batman inquired. With Dick’s nod and smile in the Irishman’s direction, Batman continued with the introductions. "This is Poet," he said as the older man with the beard leaned forward to grasp Dick’s hand. "And this is ‘Calculator’," Batman added, as a small dimple emerged at the corner of his mouth.

At the introduction, the man in his thirties grinned in an abashed manner before shaking Dick hand and adding, "Please, call me Dylan. Calculator’s the street name these guys gave me when I hooked up with them after I lost my job and home and had to start living in a shelter."

"Why?" Dick wondered.

"Because I’m an accountant and good with numbers."

"’Tis a good name… Calculator. ‘Tis a strong name that denotes intelligence."

"Or makes me sound like a damn computer, Poet."

Dick broke into the two men’s back-and-forth. "No. I meant why did you lose your job?"

"Oh… that. I was the newest employee back at the firm I was working for when the recession hit back in the late 80’s. ‘First hired, first fired’, as they say. And finding another job at that time was next to impossible."

"But Calculator… he’s workin’ over at Wayne Tech now. And doing a luverly job of it too."

"Mr. Wayne’s been great, that’s for sure."

"Ahem," Batman interrupted. If he wasn’t mistaken, Dick was almost sure that he was a touch embarrassed by the direction the conversation was taking. "Maybe we should continue with the introductions." Turning to the pale woman seated on the one couch, he said, "Wing, this is Shady."

"’Shady’?"

The pale woman nodded as Dylan added in a soft tone. "Yes, because she’s our ‘shady lady’. Never has given us her real name, but she’s amazing at getting information."

The woman spoke up in a low, husky voice as she gripped Dick’s hand in a grasp whose strength surprised him, given his initial assessment of her build. "Mainly because people never notice me in the area. Being quiet, listening intently and keeping a low profile allows me to pick up things and listen in on conversations that other people wouldn’t be able to. Everyone tends to ignore someone who doesn’t stand out."

"Yeah, I’ve used that trick in the past myself."

"Most of us have operated that way at some point in the past. Shady just has it down to an art. Course, it might be nice if she turned off the act when she’s with us", came from the other sofa.

"Angel me girl, ye may want to raise holy terror on occasion, but not every body has to."

Turning, Dick saw that the girl was leaning forward intently as if she was going to debate the point with the Irishman. However, before she had a chance, the young man seated next to her pulled her back.

"Ain’t the time or place for getting into this, Angel. Let’s just hear what the Bat-dude and his little pal want from us now so that we can get out of here and back to work." The young man’s tone seemed to indicate that maybe he wasn’t Batman’s biggest fan.

Batman scowled at the younger man’s tone before affecting a disinterested air to his own voice. "Wing, may I introduce Angelica and Rafael." Lowering his tone to a near whisper, he quickly added for Dick’s ears alone, "They’re two of the ‘strays’ I mentioned earlier." With a raised voice, he continued, "Rafe, I wouldn’t have bothered all of you if I didn’t think that you might be able to help me."

"And a great help we hope we may be," Poet assured Batman even as the older man cast a disciplinary look over at Rafe.

"Well, Poet, turns out you might be the one to give us the most help." Batman pulled the note out of his belt. "I got this late last night. It was delivered to police headquarters and was directed to me. See if you can get anything from it."

Poet quickly scanned the note, as a large grimace etched itself into his face. "Dreadful. Simply dreadful. No ear for rhythm at all."

"’Ear now, Poet, you read it to the rest of us bodies, why don’t you."

With that, Poet read the lines aloud. In his deep, yet lyrical voice, the poem, such as it was, almost sounded lovely, Dick thought.

Batman spoke at the end of Poet’s recitation. "I was hoping that any one of you might have heard something on the streets. Our best guess at the moment is that the poem was delivered to headquarters by a homeless person, or someone dressed up to look like one. Have any of you heard anything that could be remotely related to this. Or anything that might apply to the riddle it outlines."

As the others started to talk amongst themselves about the note, out of the corner of his eye, Dick saw a young woman in her early twenties enter the room. She must have come from what was the kitchen, as she was carrying a tray with a number of steaming cups and a teapot on it. As she set the tray down on the coffee table, Dick noted that she sent a very direct look to Batman, and then to a cup on the tray that was set the closest to him. Batman immediately picked up that one, with the others picking up cups afterwards. Dick didn’t have time to get one before they were all claimed.

"’Kina, we’re going to need another cuppa tea, dearie", Bess informed the young woman before even he had a chance to notice that they were one short. The woman may be old, but her eyes were obviously quite sharp. "Batman’s brung a young guest with him."

"As I see." Warm, deep brown eyes swept over Dick, taking in the entire length of his body. An impish smile swept over the young woman’s lips as she added, "A fine looking one too."

Dick managed to stop the red flush that was threatening to crawl up his neck and over his face before deciding that he should turn the tables on the woman. What’s good for the goose was good for the gander, after all. As such, he allowed his own gaze to travel over this Kina. He noted skin the color of coffee with a healthy dash of cream added, and hair that was a curly dark brown that matched her eyes, swept back into a ponytail that hung to her shoulders. Even though she was just of medium height and was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt with "Gotham U" slashed across the front, she carried herself with a air of grace and intelligence that made his think of nobility.

Batman must have noted their mutual inspection as he then interrupted. "Wing, this is Zakina McLean. She’s the one that prompted Bess to start taking young people in from off the streets. She’s now working on her social work degree at Gotham U. Kina, Wing here is helping me with a case. Have you heard of anything that could be related to this." Kina quickly scanned the sheet of paper that Batman handed to her.

After a few seconds, she mused, "Let me think about it while I go get another cup of…", <coffee> she mouthed in Batman’s direction, at which he smiled, before she stated out loud, "…tea for your young friend."

As Kina left the room, Rafe moved from the couch, and strutted over to stand in front of Batman. "Listen, I don’t know nothing about the whole poetry or riddle bit, but the ‘pairs’ bit… yeah, there’s something I’ve been meaning to mention to the others that ‘pairs’ makes me think of."

"You mean those kinky looking twosomes that been hanging around the area", Angel piped up.

"Yeah, them."

"’Kinky looking twosomes’?"

"Yeah, Batman. There’s been a lot of talk between the guys on the streets about these… I don’t know what to call them… ‘sets’ I guess, of people that have been out, checking things over and all that stuff."

"In what way are these ‘sets of people’ checking things out?"

"You know. Watching certain buildings, talking to certain people. They’ve been kind of harsh with a few of my boys, but they’re generally keeping down low. Not making too much noise."

"I see… And the ‘kinky looking’ part?"

Kina entered the room at that point and handed Dick a steaming cup. He took a sip of the hot liquid, the coffee black as he liked it, as she inquired, "You’re talking about those strange people that showed up on the streets recently, right?" When Rafe nodded, she added, "I’ve seen them. Very weird. It’s almost like each duo is together because they’re exact opposite of each other, at least in looks. And their clothes only promote that idea. But as far as I know, they haven’t done anything wrong."

"Yet. Still, it might not be anything related to the note. Okay, if it’s not too much trouble, can all of you keep your eyes and ears open for anything that might be remotely related to this poem. And if you hear anything that could answer the riddle, let us know about it. Or anything about a homeless man that might have been paid or made to deliver the note to police headquarters. Right now, any info would be helpful. Sham can get a hold of us." With that, Batman set down his empty cup. After a few deep gulps, which burned their way down to his stomach, Dick followed suit.

"We’ll get on it, laddie."

"Yeah, Bats. If anybody’s doin’ anything, or sayin’ anything, we’ll find out about it", Angel added in the overly confident tone that only a teenager, with their sense of immortality, could pull off.

"Angelica, I don’t want you getting into anything that you can’t get out of. I wouldn’t want to see you in the situation that I first found you in again."

The girl’s tone was a bit more subdued when she replied to Batman’s advice. "All right. I’ll only look and listen. I won’t touch."

"That way you won’t get burned."

Dick saw the smiles pass between Batman and the girl before he turned back to the others. "Thanks everyone. Any thing you can dig up really will be appreciated. Wing, we better be going now."

After a few moments of good-byes from the various members of the group, Batman and Dick reentered the elevator that had brought them up to the penthouse apartment. Descending, they made their way back through the passageway and the sewer until they were standing beside the Batmobile once again.

"Interesting group there", Dick finally commented as they stood beside the car.

"Yes, they are. But they’re also very good and have definitely been an asset in my information gathering circle."

A number of questions about the group had evolved in Dick’s mind over the course of the conversation, but he didn’t have a chance to ask any of them before Batman turned to the small bit of information they had just gotten.

"We need to find out more about these ‘twosomes’ that the others mentioned. I don’t know how they tie into the note, but it’s a large enough coincidence that I’m sure they must be related in some way."

"A hunch?"

"Partly, and partly deduction. While these pairings, from the vague descriptions that Rafe and Kina gave us don’t appear to be ‘damaged’ or ‘fixed’, they seem to be counterpoints to each other. There could easily be a relationship there."

A beeping sound interrupted their conversation. Batman pulled a small radio from his utility belt. "Batman here."

"And here I thought I was contacting that hottie, the Huntress", a mechanically enhanced voice came over the line. Even with the tinny resonance to it, Dick knew he could detect a teasing tone in it.

A weary grin evolved on Batman’s expression as he recognized the voice. "Good morning to you too, Prophet. And I wouldn’t be calling her that within her hearing range. She hasn’t taking the name ‘Huntress’ just because she liked the sound of it."

"Nah, I’m protected. Besides, it could be fun, if you know what I mean. Of course, you’ve got Kitty staying with you at the moment. You must know what I mean."

Batman threw a small, amused if slightly annoyed look over at Dick before he replied in a more serious tone. "Prophet, is this a social call, or do you have something for us."

Whatever sense of fun dropped from the other voice as it came back with, "I’ve checked out the names and addresses you sent me. All of them check out. Most listed are upstanding citizens that might have one or two traffic violations, if that. The others are small time, and aren’t associated with any major felons that we know of. Course, that leaves us with the ‘homeless person’ that you didn’t get any information on from the police. As for the search regarding pairs of things, the results were inconclusive."

"What do you mean, ‘inconclusive’?" Dick shot back.

"There’s obviously something going on, but it doesn’t point to any one particular person or group. But there’s been a lot of unrelated break-ins and such reported in the last 4 hours. They seem to be random occurrences, but the number of them is surprising. And they’re all occurring down by the docks and in the more slum parts of town. The one other unifying factor is that over 80% of the reports have that there were 2 people involved with each incident."

Batman exchanged an alerted look with Dick before continuing. "Any descriptions of the pairs involved in each incident?"

"Not totally clear ones. Generally what gender, some estimated heights… That sort of thing."

"Get all the information you can in that direction and get back to us. Did anything turn up on the computer search?"

"Did anything turn up with regards to pairs — yes. There’s a showing of a pair of matched nude statues at the Gotham museum of fine arts. There’s a pair of prize white lions being imported to the Gotham zoo. A pair of twins are appearing as soloists in a concert at the opera house. Those are the more high-profile ones. There’s some other less media-worthy duos showing up around the city. However, in none of those cases has the sets been damaged and then one repaired."

"You mentioned the fact that most of the incidents involved in this recent ‘crime spree’ involved two perps," Batman added with the break in Prophet’s report.

"Yeah, but from descriptions, the preps are anything but ‘matched sets’. And some of them were conducted by men, some by women and others by a man and a woman."

"Still, it does play into the ‘pairs’ theme and it goes along with some stuff we just got from some of our street contacts. Anything else?"

"Not right now. I’ll get back to you with that information about the perps’ appearances and anything else I can come up with. Prophet out."

Soft static from the radio indicated that the other end of the line had closed.

"So what do you want to do now?" Dick wanted to know.

"Well, we still need to check out the Riddler angle. Then there’s these ‘sightings’ of two people at a time creating some concern down by the docks and in the inner city. That could tie in with the pairs from note somehow. My gut tells me that we should be leaning more in that direction. And it ties into the feeling I’ve been having about who really could be behind this."

"Two-Face."

Dick stated what had been slowly evolving subconsciously in the back of his mind, even if he hadn’t wanted to admit it to himself. Two-Face was still a sore spot with him, and probably always would be, much as he knew he should get past it. But he could still see in his mind what had happened, the face of the man he hadn’t been able to rescue. His gut tightened up every time he thought of the look on the still handsome side of Harvey Dent’s face at that awful moment when the man had died. Even as he admitted to himself that Two-Face was a very likely candidate for the source of the present troubles, he wanted to back off from the possibility.

"Yes, Two-Face. The ‘pair’ motif is right up his alley. But the damaged/undamaged aspect doesn’t make sense here. There’s something we’re missing. Still, it’s a strong possibility. We’ve got a lot to consider and a lot of ground to cover in as little time as possible."

"Maybe you could use a few extra hands then."

Dick whirled at the same time as Batman to see a trio of ladies land in the alley. Koriand’r alighted and set Helena on her feet, while Barbara let go of the line she had swung down with.

"What are you doing here?" he blurted out before he could stop himself.

"Nice to see you too, Wing", the Huntress commented lightly as Dick felt his cheeks being to burn. The other two women kept silent though Dick felt their questioning gazes fall upon him. Helena then turned towards Batman. "You were saying something about needing to do a bit of ‘hunting’. You know that’s my specialty", she added with a slightly humorous twist of her lips.

Batman’s head tipped once in agreement before he spoke. "Some help with our hunt would be very appreciated."

"We thought it might be", Starfire added softly.

"But you want to know why we’re the ones that came to your aid here as well, don’t you, Batman?" Batwoman added in a knowing tone.

"I didn’t say that."

"You don’t have to. Believe it or not, occasionally we can figure out what’s going on in that deep, dark mind of yours." Koriand’r exchanged knowing looks with the other women with her words.

Dick noticed Batman sigh and give a pleading look skyward, as if to say, "Lord help me."

"Fine, please explain…"

"We’re worried about the two of you." Starfire’s gaze moved to encompass both Batman and Dick even as her rather direct statement seemed to register with the two men.

"I don’t see why."

"Well, let’s see. Both of you disappear last night without informing anyone…"

"And I’ve never done that before, Starfire." Batman seemed almost amused by Koriand’r’s explanation.

Dick saw her eyes narrow. It was an expression he remembered from times past when her patience was reaching its limit. A thin smile crossed her face as she continued as if Batman hadn’t interrupted her. "… and you didn’t check in this morning. Considering how you’ve both been under some stress lately, we thought it would be wise to find out what was going."

Whoa! What did she mean? Ok, Dick admitted to himself that he had been a bit out-of-sorts, especially after the episode with Phobia, but Batman?!?

"Starfire… I think you had better…"

Koriand’r lifted her hand in a "stop" motion. Abruptly, Bruce’s voice ceased. Whatever he was about to stay was halted by her action. Dick noted that Koriand’r’s head jerked to the side, as if she wanted to talk to Batman alone. He, in turn, nodded once, with a grimly set expression on his face. They moved several feet away from Dick and the other two women. Dick was just starting to observe the rather terse discussion that seemed to be flowing between the two of them when Helena’s voice drew his attention back to her and Batwoman.

"So Wing, what have the two of you been up to."

Dick slowly removed his gaze from the far duo and focused on the Huntress. "The signal was lit up last night. I came out to see what was up, and so did Batman. We got the low-down from the police and have been following on some leads. I don’t know why…"

"You don’t know why we wouldn’t just contact you by radio to see what was going on?"

"Yeah, I guess."

Helena approached and laid her hand on his shoulder. "Believe it or not, we really are worried about you. You seemed a bit agitated last night, and when you couldn’t be found in the manor this morning…"

"They decided to find out what was up", Batwoman finished for the Huntress. "When Batman was also found to be gone, a call to Prophet explained everything."

"That doesn’t explain why the three of you are here."

The two women exchanged looks. "Hey, you’re a bit lucky there. My Robin and Nightwing were going to come too, but a call came in from the satellite and they went to check out what was going on there. Batwoman called the cave this morning to find out how you had been holding up since she met you, and we couldn’t find you. Since you were a bit upset when you left the kitchen last night, we decided we should come and track you down. Make sure for ourselves that you really were all right." The Huntress seemed to pause for a moment before she quietly added, "And frankly, Koriand’r is also concerned about Batman. She wanted to make sure he was okay."

Dick looked over at the pair standing several feet away from their small group of three. While they were keeping their voices down, they were obviously debating something fiercely. Dick immediately recognized both of the different postures and facial expressions each were affecting. Koriand’r was standing with her arms akimbo, her mouth slightly turned down as she argued a point. Batman was standing with his arms crossed and an impassive, slightly stony look to his face. Dick knew it to be his "stubborn" look, when he didn’t want to hear what was being said to him. If anything, Dick was slightly amazed that Koriand’r wasn’t affected by that look. Most people were. But then, his Kory probably wouldn’t have backed down either, if he thought about it. When it came to people she cared about, she would say or do whatever she had to so they would be all right. This Koriand’r appeared to be including this Batman in that group.

Still, this Koriand’r wasn’t acting as if she was concerned about Batman. It seemed like she was more into arguing with him.

"She doesn’t look like she’s too worried about him."

"Don’t let appearances fool you. She’s very worried about how all of this is affecting him", Batwoman commented.

"How this is affecting him?"

Huntress quickly nodded. "Wing, you showing up has affected everyone. Maybe not in the same way or to the same extent that you’ve obviously had to deal with, but we’ve still been affected. And some of the things you’ve told us about your world have got people questioning things on our own worlds. Considering some of the things you’ve told Batman about his counterpart on your world, he’s got to be wondering about some of his own actions."

Dick was a bit taken aback. Of course he had realized that he had thrown people for a loop with his appearance in these dimensions. But he hadn’t really thought about how much they might be reacting to him and things he had revealed about the way things were on his earth. Yet, when he thought about some of the knowledge he had reveal about his Batman and such, he started to realize that there might have been more repercussions than what he had expected.

But even as he was mulling this over, Batwoman picked up on what the Huntress has started, though she did so somewhat hesitantly. "It’s not just that, Huntress. I know you might not want to either see it or admit it, just because of the people involved, but having your… ‘aunt’ staying at the house isn’t really helping the situation. I think Starfire, as well as Nightwing, Robin and ‘the big A’, in fact almost everyone, are also as concerned about that and its effect on Batman as what Wing here has told us."

Dick, thinking back on the short bit of conversation that he had overheard last night before heading downstairs, had to agree. Helena, on the other hand, seemed a bit taken aback with Barbara’s statement.

"I know that they’ve things to work out…"

Batwoman reached over to wrap her arm around the Huntress’s upper body and give her a squeeze. "I know that you don’t mistake them for your parents. I’ve seen you interact with them too much to do that. But you do seem to have certain expectations when it comes to them." Helena looked like she was about to interrupt, but Barbara didn’t give her a chance. Instead, she rapidly continued, "And they know it too. You never saw how badly he was torn up inside when whatever happened between them happened. Regardless as to what went on then, I know that they do still care a lot about each other. But it’s that, and all the other emotions involved, that concern all of us when it comes to having her at the house. It’s a… distraction that on top of everything else… You have to know that there’s a tension between them…" Batwoman’s voice trailed off, as if she didn’t know how to continue with her line of thought.

Dick saw understanding dawn in Helena’s eyes as she considered Barbara’s words. At the same time, he realized that he really hadn’t been considering much past his own concerns. And as a result, he had overlooked a lot of the strain building in other people, as well as himself. No, that wasn’t quite right. He had known that tension was there, but he hadn’t really thought about what he could do to ease the others’ minds, as well as his own. Maybe it was due to the fact that he still felt like a bit of an outsider around the others. Or maybe it was because the others had spent more time reassuring him that he hadn’t thought about how he had to reassure them. But he decided that he would make an effort to be more understanding in that area. Maybe talk to each of them about how they were doing.

He turned back to look at the other couple. The scenario he saw surprised him. A few minutes before, there had seemed to be an extreme antagonism between them. Now, Koriand’r’s hands had reached out to grasp Batman’s upper arms and small smiles were passing between them. Batman then moved to encompass Starfire’s shoulders with one of his arms and gave her a quick sideways hug as they turned to move back to the trio of others. He was still finding that the more affectionate displays shown by this Batman a bit… weird. In this case, it seemed almost otherworldly. But then, this was another world. Maybe it was to be expected.

"Everything okay, you two?" Batwoman asked as the two rejoined their group.

"Yes. We’ve… cleared the air about some things", Batman said even as he looked towards Starfire for confirmation of his statement. She nodded once, and their expressions shifted, as if to indicate that the matter was not to be discussed anymore.

Picking up on the unspoken command, Dick decided that they needed to get back to the main reason for them being out here. "How do you want to proceed from here, Batman."

"Let’s fill the ladies in on all we know so far, Wing, and see if they have any ideas."

With that, the two of them outlined what had happened since the message that had been addressed to Batman had been delivered to the police station. This included the descriptions of the people the police sergeant had given them, as well as the information that might be relevant that they had got at the meeting with Bess and the others, and what Prophet had managed to dig up. All three women then took a moment to consider what they had been told.

Batwoman finally spoke up. "So who do you think could be a suspect so far.’

"Our first impression, given the wording of the poem, was that it might be Ed."

"I hope not. He’s done such a good job of turning his life around."

"I know. I just need to figure out a method of determining if he really could have switched back to following a life of crime?"

"Well, one of us could follow him. See just what he being doing the last few days."

"And we could always set up a tap on his phone. He must have needed a henchman or two to pull this off."

For a few minutes, Dick, Bruce, Barbara and Helena debated some of the surveillance techniques that could be used to monitor just what Edward Nigma was doing. As such, none of them were quite prepared for the question that the one silent one of the group put forth.

"Why don’t you just ask him?"

Dick and the others turned to look at Starfire with something like amazement. Dick knew that if she really was like his Kory, she would prefer the direct approach. But surely with time and experience, she would have learned that in some cases that wasn’t always the method to use.

This Koriand’r apparently had decided that this was not one of those times though. Taking a moment to study the faces of her companions and making out the slight disbelief that each of them must have been giving off, she slowly closed her eyes, and gave a very small shake of her head.

"Starfire, I’m not sure that would be wise…" Batman started to say.

"Why not?" she countered. Turning slightly to face him, she lowered her voice such that only those in the nearest vicinity could hear. "Look… Bruce… I realize that it might not be the way you’re really used to dealing with situations like this. But think about it." She then began to present her thoughts, ticking off each point on her long fingers as she made them. "One, the poem makes it clear that there’s going to be some sort of damage carried out. I don’t know if it’s on a thing or a living creature, but can we really take the time and the chance on trying to sniff how if he’s behind this. What if he’s not? Two, you don’t want it to be Ed Nigma behind this. I know Nightwing’s been amazed at the progress he’s made in his life in the last few years. I don’t see why he would even want to turn back to his old life. He’s been much happier, at least as I understand it, in his new one. Three, as I understand from his past, he’s always been a bit of an egoist about the riddles he sent. He wanted to you to know he was behind them and was challenging you. Why would he have worded this so obscurely if he truly is challenging you. And four, I’m not saying you go up and say right out, ‘Edward Nigma, are you behind this?’ From what I’ve read about him, he’s excellent at figuring out these sorts of word plays and such. He might be a huge help in figuring out just who is. This way, you show him the trust you put in him and if anything, pump up his ego a bit."

The others seemed to be mulling over her words. But after a few seconds, Dick couldn’t resist challenging her assumptions on one very basic point. "But what if he is the one behind all this?"

Koriand’r turned to face him at that point. "I think Batman is a good enough judge of character to know if he was lying to him. As well, like I said, from what I know about him, if he has turned his back on following the straight and narrow, he would be more likely to tell Batman that that was the case when he was asked. His ego would demand acknowledgement of that fact. Even if he did try to hide it, he would slip up at some point. He wouldn’t be able to help himself."

Batwoman nodded at that. "Yes, Eddie would take the credit if he could. I think Starfire might be right about this situation. Someone should go and talk to him about this."

Batman thought about it for a bit more, but then nodded abruptly. "You’re right. I’ll go. But since this is your idea, you’re coming with me, Starfire. If anything, with your knack about interpreting people’s emotions from their actions, you might pick up on something I miss."

"That’s fine with me."

While the idea might have been fine with Starfire, Dick was taken aback by it. "Is that wise?"

"Why wouldn’t it be?’

Dick very slightly felt himself reddening under the others’ inquiring gazes. "It’s just, well, wouldn’t it make him suspicious."

"Suspicious of what?"

"Of just who you might be that you would be bringing her with you."

"You think bringing Starfire, my teammate from the JLA who is occasionally in the city with her family visiting her ‘father-in-law’ and as a result I sometimes call in for assistance on a case, with me would compromise my identity?" Batman seemed a tiny bit amused by the thought. But he quickly added in a more serious tone. "It’s okay, Wing. Thanks for worrying about me. But there’s been enough stories about me working with various different super-heroes out there that me and Kory showing up together won’t set off Ed’s radar."

Dick realized that he still wasn’t totally used to the idea that this Batman led a more "public" life than his own did. "I’m sorry… I guess I’m still in adjustment mode. Some things still just seem too strange to me."

"I’m sure. But you’ll either be unlucky enough that you’ll have to get used to it, or lucky enough that you won’t have to deal with it much longer."

"That’s true."

"Batman, what should we be doing while you’re off talking to Ed."

Dick broke in with the Huntress’s question. "I think we should maybe start looking for those weird sets of "twosomes" that Rafael and Kina mentioned. They may not be related to this, but they seem to be up to something, and they are ‘pairs’, so there’s a good chance that they could be involved."

"Sounds like a plan to me. Speaking of ‘pairs’ and to get this discussion back to who could be a suspect, have the two of you considered the fact that Two-Face might be behind this?" Batwoman directed her question at Dick, even though her eyes also sought out Batman’s.

"Yes, we have." The stern line of Batman’s mouth turned down at the edges. "And he’s another strong possibility. It would be stronger if the information Prophet passed on showed anything about the perfect/damage pair mentioned in the poem, let alone implicate Harvey."

"But I thought Prophet’s search didn’t bring up anything period about the damaged/fixed pair. And we are dealing with a ‘pair’ of things. That’s classic Two-Face M.O.", Batwoman countered.

"I know. It’s just that I have no idea where to even start looking for Harvey. It’s been two years since we’ve heard anything from or about him."

"Which would make it a perfect time for him to reappear."

Silence reigned for a moment as all of them absorbed the past few facts. Finally Batman spoke again. "Of course, you’re right. He’s definitely a strong possibility. While Starfire and I go to talk to Ed, if only to rule him out, you three should work on whether you can turn up anything to do with Two-Face, pairs, doubles or related matters. We’ll get back to you after we’ve seen Ed."

With that, Starfire wrapped her arms under Batman’s and lifted him up in the air. They took off, a fiery trial following in their wake.

The other three then turned to each other. "So, how do you want to run this?" Batwoman asked of the others.

"We should probably separate for now, but keep our radios handy. If any of us sees something suspicious, summon the other two before going in", Huntress outlined.

"Makes the most sense. Prophet said there were a lot of incidents occurring around the docks and in the scummier sections of town. How about I hit the docks while you two split the other sections. We’ll cover much more ground that way." Dick waited for the two women to nod before reaching for his own swing line.

Flinging the line out, he crawled up the side of the building. Within a few minutes, he was landing on the roof of a warehouse down by one of the loading docks. For several minutes, he cruised from building to building, looking for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. The area was getting busy, as several stevedores were busy bringing cargo loads off a number of different ships. Shouts were echoing along from one pier to another, mixed in with the calls of a number of different birds who inhabited the region, looking for scraps of food. Dick moved silently from roof-top to roof-top, sticking to shadows as to not alert anyone of his presence, and occasionally descended into one of the variety of alleys and lanes between the buildings. He was determined to see if he could come across anything that might give him a lead on what was going on.

Dick was just about to move slightly inland from the docks when a beep notified him that one of the others had come across something.

"Nightwing here."

A mere whisper emerged through the receiver. "Wing, it’s Batwoman. I’m at Sprang and Adams. I think I’ve come across one of our sets of ‘pairs’ of perps."

"On my way."

Quickly making his way to the intersection that Barbara mentioned, Dick tracked her to the roof of a 5-story apartment complex that was obviously had been or was in the stages of being condemned. Huntress must have arrived slightly before him and both women were peering down through a broken sky light. Raising a finger to her lips, Batwoman indicated for him to come closer but not make a sound.

He silently crept over to them and peered down through the light. Inside, he could see three people. However, there must have been another person in the large room with them that Dick hadn’t located yet, as one of them was directing a question in a direction away from the others.

"Has the boss gotten a hold of you two yet with further instructions," the large man asked the unseen person. He was tall, broad shouldered, and had as black a skin-tone that Dick had ever seen. But his hair was bleached a stark white. He looked like he could be formidable in a fight, if it came to that. Seated in a chair not 3 feet away from him was another man, but he appeared to be very slight in scale, with pale, almost dead white skin and jet-black hair. In fact, the two men’s coloring were almost photo-negatives of each other’s. And their clothing mirrored that, with the dark man being dressed in white, and the pale man being dressed in black. The smaller man was apparently cleaning his nails with some sort of switchblade. They had to one of the "kinky-looking twosomes" that Angel had mentioned.

Not far from either man stood a woman. She, like the speaker, was tall, with an almost Amazonian physique. Her hair was a deep copper red, and her skin tone was the pale, if slightly ruddy color associated with a Celtic heritage. She was wearing a hunter-green cat suit that only emphasized her curves. But around her hips was slung a belt that appeared to have a number of different martial arts weapons attached.

A feminine voice floated up to the trio on the roof from some unseen corner of the room. "No, he hasn’t. But I’m sure he will. I still don’t understand what he wants though. It’s almost has if by having us and the others do all those jobs at once that he wants to draw attention to this area of town."

The seated man spoke up then. "Yeah, and I don’t like it. He’s just asking for the Bat-guy to come pay us a visit."

"The boss must have a plan to handle Batman if he shows up. I want to know what’s up with that old geezer and family that he nabbed." The red head picked up a package of cigarettes as she spoke and lit one. She took a long draw on it before continuing. "By the way he’s acting, you’d think they were important, but I don’t recognize them."

Dick motioned for the Huntress and Batwoman to move away from the skylight and over to one side of the roof.

Talking quietly, Dick got right to the point. "Okay, these guys are obviously involved with the break-ins. Do you recognize any of these people?" When both women shook their heads, he took another tack. "Fill me in on what happened before I got here, Batwoman."

"I saw the two guys walking down Schwartz Avenue about 30 minutes ago. Something about them didn’t feel right. From their movements, I could tell that they were trying to keep a low profile. When they entered this old, supposedly abandoned apartment building, I decided to contact the two of you. The women didn’t show up until just a minute or two before you two got here. They seem to be comparing what heists they were sent out on and if any problems had cropped up, but they haven’t gotten all that much into it. And no clue who their ‘boss’ is yet."

"Seems like these break-ins aren’t the only thing going on here. There’s also a kidnapping involved from the sounds of it", Helena interjected. "And we don’t know if this problem has anything to do with the note that Batman got sent."

"You’re right. But we need to concentrate on what are we going to do about getting at the bottom of this situation." With that, the two women started throwing out some ideas about how they could make the most of the opportunity presented to them.

Dick thought for a minute. If it was related, the poem had made it seem that something, or someone was going to be damaged or hurt. Starfire had pointed out that time could be of the essence and while what they had done so far was methodical and had resulted in some leads, every minute that passed was a minute less that they had to work with. And apparently whoever this boss was, he was holding a few people hostage. They could be in very deep danger. Taking a cue from Koriand’r methods, he thought the direct approach might be a quicker way to get to the heart of the matter. So while the other two debated what they could do to find out what was going on, he quickly decided himself on how they were going to handle it. He knew the two women wouldn’t like it, but given everything they had found out, it might be the best means to get answers quickly.

As such, he rose and indicated with a quick movement of his hand that the Huntress and Batwoman should quiet. They both looked askance upon him for his rather imperious manner, but he didn’t take the time to apologize.

"I know what we’re going to do", he stated in a manner that brooked no discussion.

The two women exchanged a wary look at each other as they caught the inflection in his voice. Something about it obviously alerted them that they might not like what he was about to tell them. But they didn’t say anything. Instead, they waited to hear what type of plan he had devised.

"We’re going to attack them, and after enough of a battle that they know just what we’re capable of, and we know what they’re capable of, Huntress, you’re going to pretend to be rather seriously injured. At that point, Batwoman, I want you to remove Huntress from the fight."

"Oh… really. And you’re confident that you can manage the four of them by yourself?" Batwoman said in a skeptical tone.

"Nope."

"Than what’s the point of us leaving?"

"I’m not going to ‘manage’ them all by myself." Dick saw startled looks cross both women’s faces as they clued into what he was implying. But he decided to spell it out anyway, to make sure that there was no confusion on anyone’s part.

"I’m going to let them catch me!"

… to be continued.

 
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