Paper Hearts, part 11

by Chicago

Disclaimers in "part 0"



Batman was five minutes due east of the Monarch when the tap came across his comlink indicating Nightwing was in position. He glanced back at the cover, settling with something less than perfect silence on the roof beside him. Not surprising - it was the reason he had taken them so far out of their way. Frustrating, but he had to work within the cover's limitations if they were going to survive the night. He sent an answering tap to Nightwing, then shot out a new jumpline.

Nightwing's reply clicked over the whistle of wind - the Monarch was definitely involved somehow, and Dick was checking it out. Batman resisted the urge to tell him to wait; Nightwing knew what he was doing, and Batman recognized that the events of the night had heightened his usual anxiety for his team. He could not afford that worry now, not against Crane. He tapped out an acknowledgment as he touched down on another rooftop, then was off again.

Two more jumps, and they were across the street from the front of the Monarch, shielded from view by a roof top resevoir. He keyed that information to Nightwing and turned his attention to the half-rebuilt theatre.

The building was dark, its derelict facade lit by recently installed street lamps that did much to dispel the usual gloom of Crime Alley. Gentrification was beginning, and he pushed his ambivalence about it to the back of his mind. Better that the streets were safer. Better that the taint of a double-murder be forgotten by the city, even if he could never forget.

"Nightwing!" Oracle suddenly hissed, and Batman tensed as a series of pointed taps came over the line.

She ignored the implied message, urgency in her tone. "You don't need to answer, just listen. I've just got a report from Bludhaven."

Batman grimaced. If she was breaking into the mission, it could not be good.

"Torque has taken hostages in the West Exeter Apartments," she was saying. "He is threatening to kill one an hour until you show - and he means it. They've already got one dead."

There was the faintest of pauses before Nightwing tapped out a swift reply. He wanted advice.

For a second, Batman considered telling him to stay. Storming a potential criminal headquarters with only the cover was not impossible, but it would be tricky. And he had long harbored bad feelings about Torque - the man was too cagey, too dangerous. But there were lives at stake, and there was only one right answer to the situation. "Nightwing, go."

He could hear the uncertainty in the question that tapped through in response, and a part of him smiled to recognize that the younger man was echoing his thoughts. He did not allow himself to reflect too closely on the grim sort of pride he felt, instead giving his voice a commanding tone. "We've got this. Go."

He watched the shadows carefully until he saw a flicker of dark on dark - invisible unless a person knew exactly what to look for. He felt a touch on his arm and turned to see the cover giving him an inquiring look.

Better, he thought. "Nightwing is needed elsewhere," he whispered to her. "His actions and position suggest there is at least one guard around back."

"One in front, too," she pointed out softly, gesturing toward the glow of a cigarette briefly visible under the shelter of the marquee.

Batman nodded and scanned the building. Scarecrow and company were likely in the basement level, inhabiting the old dressing rooms and scene shop, but he wanted to be sure. The jutting rise of the fly space over the theatre roof would be the safest access, allowing a view of the stage at least. Less easy was the fire escape from the balcony level, above the level of the street light but not enough that an entering body would not be partially backlit, never mind the difficulty of landing silently on the iron apparatus. He considered. Dropping the guards now would have them out of the way later, but it might alert Scarecrow of their presence. No. Better to enter unobserved - keep the element of surprise and potentially catch the guards from the direction they weren't looking, namely the building they were supposedly watching.

He turned his attention back to the cover, noting the pinched expression on her face as she watched him carefully. Fear was natural, he reminded himself - could even be useful. Still, best to try to minimize any opportunity for Scarecrow to get to her.

"On my signal, swing over to the theatre roof," he ordered quietly. "Go to the fly system. They should not have begun replacing the fire traps yet so at least one or two should be tripped open. Case the stage from that position, and don't let yourself be seen. I will check the auditorium and signal you when I want you to move."

She nodded and moved into position to jump. Batman stared down intently at the smoking guard, waiting until he turned to move more fully under the marquee and then waving the cover across.

She moved with alacrity, tumbling onto the rooftop and slipping through the shadows to the fly system. He watched her, then heard her voice come urgently over her isolated channel. "People on stage. Appear unconscious."

"Hold," he ordered, cursing to himself. This raised the stakes. Could he free hostages, protect the cover, and take down Crane.

"Batman," Oracle's voice cut in, "I'm sending Canary."

She must have been monitoring the cover's line. He hadn't ordered that, but Oracle didn't need to wait for orders to do something. Sometimes wouldn't wait even when he wanted her to. But she, like Nightwing, knew her job.

"Can't wait," he growled in reply, determining his next move.

The fire escape was newly installed for the construction workers, and the doorway into the theatre was hung with plastic to keep out the chill. A hint of breeze revealed it was not tacked down - or rather, it probably had been before construction had halted and squatters had returned to the old theatre.

He readied a jumpline, watching the guard below carefully for the right moment...

His swing carried him silently through the air, brushing him through the plastic and low onto the balcony floor. He froze there, waiting for any sign that his entrance had been observed.

Silence.

He rose slowly, clicking his lenses to infrared and creeping forward to survey the auditorium and stage below.

Deserted.

Deserted save for three bodies on the stage, stretched rigid but alive. Likely homeless, dosed with Scarecrow's toxin and rendered catatonic rather than violent or panicked. He gauged the distance to the ground and shifted until he was over an aisle before dropping to the floor below. "Clear," he whispered into his comlink as he rushed forward onto the stage. "Come down."

He was already reaching for the anti-toxin when he reached the first victim, pulling out one of the modified bee-sting kits in his belt. Even well stocked, he only had two one-use syringes, and the cover would have two more. Another time he might dispense an oral dose of the anti-toxin, but who knew how long these people had lain here in paroxysms of fear? No, they had to go with the fastest delivery system or risk -

A soft thump beside him, and he looked up at the cover. She was scrubbing her hands across her face in a vaguely irritated way. "Cobwebs," she explained, stilling the gesture at his hard look. He turned his attention back to the woman lying closest to him, preparing the anti-toxin, then realizing to his horror that she was no longer breathing. He plunged the needle into her arm, and her mouth stretched open in a silent suffocating scream, dying right in front of him just like -

"Omigod, get it off me!" the cover suddenly gasped, her voice low and urgent. "Nooo, there's hundreds..." She was backing up, her hands thrust in front of her.

Damn! They were already exposed.

He didn't let himself think, pushing through the fog of growing fear adamantly. "Cover!" he snapped, freezing her in her tracks. She stood trembling, staring at him desperately as he swiftly pulled out a new syringe and injected the anti-toxin into her body. She shuddered as he held her for a minute, fighting his own delusion that her heart was on the verge of stopping. "It's the toxin," he said. "In the air or - in the cobwebs." Or on the plastic hung over the door that had brushed across his face as he swung in.

He reached into his belt for an oral dose of the anti-toxin. He'd have to fight through until it took effect, but given his options?

"Inject the other two victims," he ordered the cover. "I'm going after Crane."

He released her as soon as she nodded, slipping back into the wings to the staging area, where he knew there was a long forgotten trap to a storage room. He swallowed hard against his racing heart, forcing himself to calmness as he pressed his ear to the trap door.

A radio played below, its chatter making it difficult to determine how many people were with Crane. The Scarecrow's voice was obvious enough, and at least one more man, and...

"...aking news from Gotham City. Police report a second attempt on the life of billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne has been successful. A shocked press watched as police wheeled a..."

J'onn!

He felt his stomach knot uncontrollably as he surged to his feet. Not J'onn. Please not J'onn...

He launched a jumpline up through the fly space, pulling himself with inhuman speed up into the night. J'onn couldn't die. He wouldn't. He...

BRUCE! J'onn's voice, calm but firm.

Bruce dropped onto a rooftop, panting and sweating. J'onn? What happened? Are you-?

Bruce, calm down. I can feel the toxin working in you. Deep breaths.

Of course. Deep breaths. J'onn was okay. It was just the toxin. So they didn't try again?

They did, but that's not what you should be worried about right now.

J'onn. Batman's cool calm began to reign again in Bruce's mind, aided by the reassuring touch of his lover's thoughts. J'onn was okay. He was okay. He was on a rooftop, the anti-toxin taking hold and...

The cover.

She hadn't followed him out.

"Damn!" he cursed, grabbing his binoculars from his belt and scanning the roofs between him and the Monarch. No sign.

There was a soft touch of boots behind him, and he whirled defensively at a figure who deftly dodged his strike. "Whoa, Batman - save it for the bad guys."

"Canary," Batman growled.

"You okay? You don't-"

"We're going to the Monarch. Direct approach; they already know we're around. You've got anti-toxin?"

Canary nodded, her face taking a grimness to match his tone.

"Good." Batman readied a jumpline and stared out over the intervening rooftops toward the site of his failure. "We've got at least three hostages," he reported, "and one of our own."



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