Paper Hearts, part 19

by Chicago

Disclaimers in "part 0"



He felt J'onn in his mind, helping him sublimate the rush of anxious guilt that threatened to overwhelm him as Sasha's screams echoed through the halls. Stay in my shadow, he projected at Canary, dashing toward the sound. He didn't bother to check if she obeyed; Dinah knew her job.

It was difficult to isolate how far away Sasha might be; the screams echoed crazily through the catacomb-like maze of half-rebuilt dressing rooms and scenery store rooms. A motion caught his eye as he careened around a corner.

Batman! Canary called. She had seen it, too.

I see him, he answered. I'm pursuing. Find the cover.

She will, J'onn reassured, maintaining his quiet presence in Bruce's consciousness.

A disorienting cackle filled the air. "Keep chasing, Batman," Crane's voice echoed. "I'm sure blondie won't mind death by hallucinogenic overdose."

His already hammering heart seemed to skip a beat. Why had he felt he should bring Sasha into this? The idea of keeping her in the dark about J'onn seemed such a minor concern in hindsight. He reached into his belt. No more anti-toxin, but that wouldn't help now anyway. His hand unerringly found the first aid kit, stocked for just this kind of emergency. One swift motion sent the metal box sailing behind him. Canary! he warned. Heads up! Upper right compartment. He didn't pause in his pursuit. FIND HER!

Straw crunched under his feet, and the continuing laughter seemed nearer. Scarecrow was not getting away with this.

Another corner turned; the screams still splitting the air suddenly concentrated to his left. Canary would notice. He had to keep on. A twist in the hall and double doors flew open at the force of his forward rush.

It was dark here, a cavernously ruined scene shop, directly under the stage. Canary's voice entered his mind. I've got her.

Batman engaged his Starlite lenses, haste replaced with caution as he scanned the rubble. A far wall was partially collapsed, a yawning gap beyond fallen timber and crumbled brick. A steel post stood in the middle of the gap, shoring up the structure. He crossed to the spot, narrowing his eyes as he noted a strip of burlap caught in the broken wood. Behind him, Sasha's screams abruptly stopped.

A cold fear that gripped him was quickly eased by J'onn's report. I've got a lock on her. I'm shifting her out of the hallucination. Batman?

He stepped forward into the tunnel past the broken wall, and a sudden howl greeted his ears. Closing in, he answered, focusing in on the sound.

"NOOOO!" Crane cried. "This isn't how it plays! You don't let your people die. You don't. I know your mind."

Batman took another step forward, looming over the hiding place Crane had appropriated. Arrogant, Batman judged, too eager to see his plan work out to take advantage of the route to the sewers that stretched beyond the alcove Crane occupied.

Careful, J'onn admonished. He's still-

With a sudden surge, Crane launched himself forward, aiming his fists for Batman's chest. "Damn you! You were supposed to try to save her. That's your character. I know your fear. I KNOW - oof!"

The slam of Batman's fist into his gut cut off his words. "Enough," Batman intoned, following his first blow with an uppercut to Crane's chin. The Scarecrow's head snapped back under the force of strike, and he dropped to the ground.

You've got him, J'onn pointed out, checking Batman's desire to add an extra punch to the unconscious man. Sasha's going to be okay. Bring him in.

I know what I'm doing, Batman snapped, his fists clenching at his sides for a moment.

Yes, you do, J'onn acknowledged, his tone carefully neutral.

Batman shook himself and reached down, dragging Crane up to throw over his shoulder. He shouldn't take it out on J'onn, he chided himself, but he sensed his lover's mind was focused elsewhere rather than reading the thought. He started to retrace his route. I'm joining you, he projected at Canary. I've got Crane.

She didn't acknowledge, but that was fair. She undoubtedly had her hands full with Sasha. Doing her job. He frowned at himself, realizing how ready he had been to pound Scarecrow bloody. He could blame the lingering traces of fear toxin in his system, or the string of disasters that marked the night, keeping him on edge. He could, but he wouldn't. He should be in control, always. He picked his way through the ruined scene shop, forced to slow his pace as he balanced Crane's weight. As he moved, he sent a thought to J'onn. I'm sorry.

We'll talk later, J'onn answered. We've still got felons on the loose, and Sasha needs treatment.

Batman's stomach clenched. Hatter?

There was a pause. Batgirl's found his transmitter and Oracle's got GCPD alerted.

He-

I'm fine, Bruce. Just one thing at a time.

Batman knew that. He did. He forced himself to remember it as he picked up his pace through the halls. J'onn-

His thought was interrupted by the sound of Dinah's voice asking a question. "He had someone else working with him? Just now?"

Sasha answered weakly. "He said - student -"

Batman entered into the room, mentally cursing himself. Oracle had reported Batgirl's evidence of an accomplice. Why hadn't he considered? J'onn? he asked, seeking confirmation of Sasha's report.

I'm scanning - her memory says there was someone else here, although she didn't hear or see who it was. But Scarecrow mentioned it.

Batman exchanged a look with Canary, but before he could say anything, new voices echoed down to them. "Looks like they came this way."

"The cops," Dinah identified.

Batman felt himself kicking into automatic pilot, dropping Crane and collecting Sasha, then leading Canary away from both the scene shop and their original point of entrance. He kicked a trigger as he rounded a corner, opening a wall panel that led into the steam tunnels beneath the building adjacent to the Monarch. The long abandoned underground tunnels extended through the block to link up with the cave network he had established after Bane, and he traveled unerringly to the half-hidden door at the far end of the block.

His mind was not occupied with his flight, however, but with the Scarecrow's accomplice. Stupid of him not to realize that Crane was providing a distraction, allowing his partner in crime to sneak out through the sewer system, his loud complaints enough to provide warning to keep moving. J'onn, he projected, get Oracle to call Robin.

There was reluctance in the answer as Batman set the cover down and pulled out his lockpicks. Not an option.

J'onn, I know you're - The lock snicked back, and he found the passkey in his belt.

It's not that - he's not available.

Batman put his frustration on hold for a moment to turn to Canary and explain what he wanted her to do. She nodded as she accepted the passkey. "Got it."

He turned away from her to approach the cover. He had been trying not to notice her clinging hold and desperate sobs, to ignore the weight of his responsibility for her state. Now her eyes were searching his face, still tear damp and fearful, as he asked, "Can you stand?"

She tried. Whatever else he had thought of her this night, she was trying. Had been trying. What had he been thinking? How had he not noticed how much she wanted to do the right thing, how unready she was to take on a mission like this? His mind flashed unbidden to Jason - also too stubborn to listen when Batman grounded him. He never should have started her on this path. She started herself, J'onn reminded him, sending a clear note of disapproval at Batman's self-approbation.

Batman ignored J'onn, setting his hand on Sasha's and stopping her effort. "Never mind. Canary will carry you. You were a good soldier today."

He couldn't bear to look in her eyes, to see her sense of crushed failure. He gave way easily as Canary pushed him aside, briskly cheerful as she took charge of Sasha. He slipped back into the shadows, caught only for a moment by Dinah's question: "And you, Batman?"

"I'm finding Crane's accomplice," he promised, his voice pitched to hiss through the shadows.

If the sound chilled Black Canary, she gave no sign, her promise to "catch him on the flipside" echoing after him as he retraced his path. He turned his thoughts coldly to his pursuit, considering his options. Where's Robin? he asked J'onn.

En route to Bludhaven, came the reply, and Batman felt something scream inside him.

Nightwing needed backup?

He's not answering. Oracle sent Robin.

Not this. Not tonight. Not Dick, too. Bad enough they had shot J'onn, had poisoned Sasha. Bad things come in threes, he heard himself thinking, then scowled and picked up his pace back to the theatre. Superstition. J'onn was fine. Sasha would heal. There were dozens of reasons why Nightwing would go silent without warning. And Batman had his own mission to attend to.

He paused at the access panel between the steam tunnels and the theatre, listening for signs of the police. Silence. Not surprising that they would not go further than discovering Scarecrow's unconscious form - likely they'd also gotten doses of the toxin. The dark hallways would not be welcome sites of investigation.

Still. J'onn - can you check?

You're clear, J'onn confirmed. No one immediately near you.

Batman slid the panel and closed it behind him, retracing his path back to the sewer entrance exposed at the far end of the scene shop.

The gap stretching off beyond Crane's hiding place was deceptive, not so deep as the darkness made it appear. It narrowed down, constricting to a space barely large enough for Batman to squeeze through. Several of the bricks around that entrance showed palely upturned surfaces, free from the grimy discoloration which was characteristic of the fallen debris in this alcove. A closer look revealed scuff marks in the soft, decaying masonry.

That was enough. Batman dropped down through the space, splashing softly to the sewer floor.

He stayed still for a long moment, listening. There was enough motion in the sluggish water to muffle all but the closest splashing. No sound of breathing, of awkward sneaking around. Crane's accomplice had not stuck around to discover his mentor's fate.

But he had left a trail. The walkway along the edge of sewer tunnel still glistened damply in the wake of a body pulling itself up out of the knee deep water.

J'onn, I'm tracking, Batman notified, not waiting for an acknowledgment as he focused in on his pursuit.

Wet footprints trailed off, spaced at running speed, feet up on toes. Must have a flashlight at least, in this dark, to maintain the pace. Likely a man, from the size of the prints - and not a particularly small one.

A fork in the sewer, and the damp footprints suddenly left the walkway. Batman nodded appreciatively - the man was showing some smarts, suffering the discomfort of the cold water to throw off pursuit. How long would he stand it? Batman stared down each branching tunnel, scanning for any sign of where his prey had emerged again from the icily brackish stream.

A coin flip, except...

The left hand tunnel curved - enough that there was not so long a line of sight. In the absence of other clues, he veered off in that direction.

It was the right choice. The man had braved the water longer than Batman would have anticipated, but beyond the gentle curve of the south flowing fork, he had emerged again. His trailing prints were wetter here. Batman was gaining.

Bruce.

Not now, J'onn, Batman objected. He needed his focus.

Bruce.

Batman frowned. It wasn't like J'onn to push, unless...

What's wrong?

An atypical pause, and Batman slowed.

J'onn?

There was strain in the answer. I think you are needed in Bludhaven.

He felt himself gasp in spite of himself, and he unconsciously picked up his pace. Situation?

Oracle has lost Nightwing's signal.

And? Batman was in a full run now, no longer in pursuit of anyone, but rather heading toward the next intersection that would lead back to another hidden accessway to his city caves.

He could feel J'onn curling into his mind, ready to offer support. There was an explosion.

Batman tried to close his brain to what he was hearing, focusing on making his way to the Bowery cave. He's alive, he argued.

He expected J'onn to prepare him for the worst, to coax him to accept the possibility that Dick was gone. Instead, there was intense silence - not of absence, but of J'onn mutely there.

Details, he prompted, seeking to control his wildly spinning imagination.

He negotiated the release of all but one of the hostages, trading himself for the last two. The hostages reported that Torque had a large explosive device connected to a deadman switch, and he'd already set off a bomb on the 14th floor. The police were held up from storming Torque's position by another bomb set on the 12th floor, and they had just defused it when the penthouse went up. Oracle had not been able to raise Nightwing since he entered the apartment, and his signal showed him still there when it blew.

Batman careened around a corner as J'onn tersely reported the facts, loosening his gauntlet to pull it from his hand. Dick was alive. He had to be. How long was he out of touch?

About twenty-five minutes. Robin arrived on scene just before the explosion. He was clear of it, he quickly noted, arresting a new pang that crossed Bruce's consciousness.

Batman began calculating, letting J'onn hold his worry. Find him, he ordered, his eyes ranging over the sewer walls as he ran. The access panel appeared, dimly visible beneath dripping pipes.

If I can, I will, J'onn promised.

Batman smashed his palm against the lock, slipping through the opening as soon as it was large enough to admit him and triggering it closed before it was fully open, entirely unaware of a watching pair of eyes.



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