The wires had no sooner touched his temples than Richie was flooded with sensory information such as thermal and sonar imagery. He tensed, bracing for the hated feeling of possession. He waited a bit longer. Not that he wanted to be violated again, but what was Brainiac waiting for?
Slowly, Richie released the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. Ouch. He probably shouldn't do that until his chest healed. He tried to rub his chest but came up against the restraints. Only then did Richie realize that, not only was he still alone in his mind, he had complete control over his body. OK, not complete control - he was trapped in a walking coffin - but still, it was heaven compared to last time.
He tried to focus on the input from Brainiac; it was kind of like reading Backpack. If he concentrated, he could actually see where they were going. Heat imagery coupled with something like echolocation gave a very detailed picture of their surroundings. It looked like a tunnel of some sort, but it was obviously unfinished and showed patches of concrete and steel bracings.
Brainiac's damaged shell was making herky-jerky progress down the tunnel. After a particularly jarring step, Richie said, "Whoa! You need some new shocks there, Brainy-ass. But don't worry. I'm sure Static will be happy to help when he gets here."
Brainiac's reply, when it came, echoed within the android shell.
"His feelings for you will prevent an attack. He will do nothing so long as you remain a part of me."
Brainiac's right. Static won't chance hurting me. But what about Batman? He likes me well enough, I suppose, but he has to look at the big picture. What's more important: stopping Brainiac or saving me? Uh, I'll take door number one, Monty.
"Why aren't you stuttering any more?"
"Only external audio requires adjustment. Internal speaker integrity remains intact."
"Swell." Richie squirmed in his bonds, trying to find a more comfortable position. He could sort of see outside his prison, but he couldn't stop the choking claustrophobia from creeping up on him. He was cold.
His boy was warm. Sensors confirmed Richie's body temperature as being outside normal human parameters - 100.2 degrees and rising. Brainiac knew he needed to reach the surface to locate the materials his boy would need to fight off the infection. When Richie was healed, he would repair Brainiac's titanium shell and build a stronger digitizing machine. Of course, knowing Richie's stubbornness, Brainiac would not be able to release the boy from the protective shell until the new control disk was ready. His boy would run unless he was made manageable.
Brainiac continued to push the metal body to its limits. The walls were becoming increasingly unstable, and pursuit by the Justice League would be swift. He knew he could count on Static Shock not attacking; he calculated a seventeen percent probability that the young superhero would actually turn his attack against the others in order to protect Richie. That would increase Brainiac's chances of remaining free long enough to implement his plan.
Brainiac considered the supercharged superhero. If Richie could design a new control disk to withstand the electrostatic aura - perhaps a subcutaneous implant - Static would make a fine companion/defender for his boy. Brainiac knew from his last occupation of Richie's mind that the blond had strong feelings for Static, a.k.a. Virgil Hawkins. Richie would need someone to keep him company after the rest of the human race was eliminated. They were social creatures after all. A controlled Virgil would also serve to keep his boy in line.
Computers are fast; they measure times in nanoseconds. Brainiac should have seen it coming and avoided the danger. That's why it was such a surprise when the android was struck down by debris from the partial collapse of the tunnel.
Francis hauled ass down the corridor to get away from the heroes hot on his trail. Static he could handle, but the Dark Knight? And that freaky alien dude? Scary shit. No thanks.
He had no idea where he was going. He hadn't bothered to explore any of the tunnels because he had Ebon to get him in and out. But Ebon chickened out somewhere along the line to save his own ass. That's another Bang Baby with some serious payback coming.
Francis stopped short as he saw/felt/heard another section of tunnel buckle. He coughed and waved his hand to clear the dust as he picked his way through the rubble. What was that up ahead?
Francis approached the downed android. He noted the heavy chunks of concrete pinning the machine's legs and - whoa! - a steel beam that looked like it had actually severed one of the arms at the shoulder. The other arm was trapped as well. Sparks from sliced wires flew up from different places on the body.
Francis lit up a larger area of the tunnel. There was a constant stream of dirt and debris still falling from the walls and ceiling. He was sure as hell no engineer, but he didn't think the tunnel was going to hold much longer.
Bad luck, that.
Francis smirked and stepped around the lost cause. The tunnels could cave in at any moment. He couldn't waste time trying to dig Brainiac out. The guy was an asshole, anyway.
Brainiac's self-diagnostics showed nothing but errors and systems failures. He had to reroute power to regain the use of his external sensors, which told him what had happened and that the area was still highly unstable. The walls would crumble soon and bury this shell beneath tons of earth and rubble. While he would continue to function, Richie would not. Humans, for all their adaptability, were extremely fragile. Under other circumstances, Richie could survive for several weeks without food, and at least a few days without water. But if they were buried, no oxygen would penetrate the compacted dirt. Richie would suffocate in minutes. The teen was able to identify the immediate danger as well.
"We've got to get out of here. Suffocation Blue is not my best color." Richie's voice was weak. During the cave in, he had banged his head against the body's metal frame. Moments later, Richie passed out.
Brainiac struggled to free his legs or at least get his right arm to push away the concrete blocks - the left arm was no longer attached. He had to get out. He had to get out or his boy would die. Brainiac would be buried with the rotting corpse of his boy as a constant reminder of his failure to follow his primary directive. He did not believe he could continue to function should that happen.
His sensors zeroed in on an approaching life sign. It was the fiery one. He would remove the objects preventing his movement, and Brainiac would be able to escape with his boy.
Wait. What was he doing? Where was he going?
Brainiac tried to call out to Hotstreak, but something was wrong with his vocal projectors. Nothing escaped but a high-pitched whine, but it did serve to capture the redhead's attention. Brainiac was able to lift the functioning arm.
Hotstreak was thisclose to freedom, but he had to turn back at the sounds that the super-computer made. They were almost…panicky? He saw the android raise its remaining arm in a supplicating manner. What was he asking? Hotstreak controlled fire, not gravity. He would never be able to shift enough concrete before the walls came tumbling down. He just couldn't. He was leaving.
Oh. The kid. That's why Brainiac wanted him to come back. He saw the panel doors in the android's chest open several inches. It was dark inside, and Francis couldn't see any movement. Was Richie dead? He owed it to the kid to check. He was the one who stuffed the teen in that body in the first place. He could at least see if Richie were still breathing.
Brainiac was trying to pull the doors open further, but they seemed stuck. Francis added his strength. With selective melting and removal of bits of metal, the panels were thrown open exposing the young man still strapped down, unconscious, and oblivious to his fate.
Francis couldn't get the straps to budge, so he ended up burning through the material and lifted Richie free of the ruined android shell. He looked down at Brainiac, then turned and flew away.
Many of Brainiac's power fluctuations subsided as he watched Hotstreak leave with Richie cradled in his arms. It was not an ideal situation - he would not be able to protect Richie himself for a long time but at least his boy would have a chance. Brainiac could wait. He did not need food or water or oxygen. He would wait for his opportunity and when it came, he would be ready. The human may be a grown man before Brainiac could return, but Richie would always be his boy.
I will find you again one day.
As Hotstreak and Richie faded from view, the tunnel fell into blackness. Another rumbling sound was followed by more dirt and concrete falling onto the shell until it was hidden from view.
Static had to wait for Batman and J'onn before tearing off into the tunnel after Hotstreak. He spent that time detailing in his mind exactly what he was going to do to the lowlife when he caught up to him. If Richie was injured or had been tortured by Brainiac again, Hotstreak was toast.
Batman noticed Static's focused expression. It matched his own. He kneeled on Static'smetal diskwhile J'onn flew beside them. The Martian was still a little shaky, but he was determined to stay with them. He would be able to find alternate tunnels to lead them out if the main tunnel they were in became blocked.
They ducked and dodged as portions of the tunnel continued the mini-cave-ins. They passed over a particularly large pile of debris, never knowing that Brainiac, scourge of countless civilizations, lay buried beneath.
Shit. Shitshitshitshitshitshit. He was in trouble. Francis hovered at a crossroads in the tunnel system. He knew what lay behind him - a failing tunnel and probably a very pissed trio of super dudes ready to beat him to a pulp. Which way should he go?
He needn't have worried. He heard a noise behind him. He turned to see Static and his buddies coming up fast. Francis reflexively pulled Richie closer; the action dragged a small moan of pain from the blond.
Static saw Hotstreak. He slammed on the breaks, which dislodged Batman. Quick reflexes allowed the Dark Knight to turn something that could have been an embarrassing belly flop into an elegant roll. He came to his feet less than two yards from Francis. He could tell Static was itching to blast Hotstreak, but Richie was in the line of fire. Batman was also uncertain as to Brainiac's whereabouts. Was this a trap?
Static could hardly contain himself. Hotstreak was holding Richie. The blond looked so small in the much bigger teen's arms. His love looked so vulnerable that it hurt Static's heart.
"Let him go, Hotstreak," demanded Static. "You're not leaving here with him."
"No way," Hotstreak replied. "I give up Foley, you'll just ditch me here. I want safe passage to the surface."
"How do we know you'll turn him over to us once you're above ground? What's to stop you from giving him back to Brainiac?"
"What's to stop you from leaving me here if I let him go now? This place is falling down around our ears, and I don't intend to stick around."
Batman interrupted the bickering. He moved menacingly towards Francis.
"Give me the boy now, and you will live."
Like he said before. Scary shit. Francis hesitated briefly, then slowly closed the distance to Batman. He gently lay his burden into the Batman's outstretched arms. He saw a strange expression flit across the Dark Knight's exposed features before the cold mask returned. The Batman's eyes locked with Francis' own.
"This is your one free pass, Francis Cameron. Never cross me again. Now go."
Hotstreak took off in the indicated direction. He didn't care if Batman was sending him down a dead end; he just wanted to get the hell away.
Once again, Static was denied his opportunity to kick Hotstreak's ass.
"He's getting away!"
As Batman leapt onto the shield, his precious bundle held close to his heart, he said, "He doesn't matter. We have what we came for. Let's get Richie back to the hospital. He has a fever."
Static let go of his anger. Richie needed him. He put Batman, Richie, and J'onn in a static bubble and pulled them to safety. They had a few close calls as the tunnel system continued to self-destruct but made it to the entrance relatively unscathed.
When they finally reached the surface they saw that Hotstreak had made it out as well. Although it was the middle of the night, there were several clusters of people in the area staring at a large sinkhole that had appeared in the middle of the city park. Fire engines and police cars could be seen surrounding the hole. It looked like a deflated soufflé.
Although their time underground seemed like days, it had actually been less than two hours since Richie had been stolen from them. With a creative distraction courtesy of J'onn and the Javelin, Batman and Static were able to sneak Richie back into the hospital, thus avoiding the gathered reporters. Static was surprised, although Batman was not, that the Justice League had smoothed things over with the police and the hospital staff, explaining that Richie had been a witness to something that they were not at liberty to discuss due to security issues. Superman himself assuaged concerns and assured everyone that the danger to the boy and to the other patients at the hospital had passed.
Richie had been whisked off to a treatment room when they arrived. Virgil, who had changed from his costume as soon as he could find a private place, found himself in the waiting room once again. Pops was already there. Sharon had been sent home to rest as she was a little banged up from her ordeal. Hotstreak had given her some small first- and second-degree burns, but she would be fine.
Green Lantern had tracked down Hotstreak and got the scoop about Brainiac. Good riddance! So long as the city didn't try to rebuild the subway under the park, everything would be fine. No way could Brainiac get out from under all that dirt and rock as messed up as he was, right?
Pops was able to give Virgil terrific news. Children's Services had agreed to give Mr. Hawkins temporary custody of Richie. The blond would stay with them at least until a hearing could be arranged. At that time, Mr. Hawkins planned on asking for permanent custody as he was certain neither of the Foley's would be out of jail before Richie turned eighteen. In the meantime, Richie would receive counseling to help him cope with the abuse he had experienced at the hands of his parents.The Justice League ensured that it would be one of their doctors so that Richie could work through what had happened with Brainiac as well.
Finally, Doctor Maxwell came out of the treatment room and briefed the family. Richie had developed an infection, but the antibiotics seemed to be working. He had also lost some blood and had received a transfusion. All he needed now was rest.
While Mr. Hawkins discussed Richie's treatment with the staff, Virgil sneaked into the dim room. He saw that the windows were open; a cool breeze shifted the curtains. Virgil closed the window and turned to the blond in the bed.
"Richie? You awake?"
The sheets rustled as a tousled blond head turned towards him.
"V? Hey!" Cough, cough. "Did you hear the good news? I get to go home with you guys in a couple of days!"
Virgil sat on the bed and entwined his fingers with Richie's.
"Yeah, Pops just sprang it on me. Are you sure you're up to it? It'll mean a steady diet of Sharon's not-so-happy meals."
Richie smiled and asked in his best Beavis voice, "Are you threatening me?"
Both boys laughed hysterically. The joke wasn't that funny, but the stress of the last few hours (for Virgil) and the last few weeks/months/years (for Richie) needed release. Any joke would do.
"Oh, look what Batman left for me!" Richie handed Virgil a small black packet about the size of a matchbox.
"What is it?"
"It's a communicator. I can use it to call him at the Watchtower, or Gotham, or anywhere. It can even get messages to him if he's away in the Javelin. Is that da bomb or what?"
"I think I'm jealous. He didn't give me one. He didn't even say good-bye."
"Well you obviously don't have my stunning wit and boyish charm."
"Nah, that can't be it. It's probably all the trouble you get into. Remember that time at Burger Fool? The pickle incident? If they come looking, I will totally blame you for that."
"You promised never to bring that up again! Besides it wasn't my fault."
"I didn't say it was your fault. I just said I was going to blame you."
Richie snorted and tugged Virgil closer.
The two exchanged heartfelt kisses then rested with foreheads touching.
"I was really scared today, Rich."
"And all that stuff with your folks? Why didn't you…"
"Virgil?" Richie interrupted. "Could we talk about that tomorrow? I'm sore and tired, and I would really like it if you would hold me while I fall asleep. Please?"
Virgil could see two eyes glittering in the moonlight, pleading with him to Let.It.Go. Just for a little while. How could he resist giving the boy he loved the comfort of a little human touch?
The teens snuggled down under the thin hospital blanket. Richie still had a slight fever so he provided enough warmth for Virgil. Within minutes, both boys fell asleep.
A dark form detached itself from the shadows and moved to stand by the bed. A gloved hand reached out to rest on the blond head that lay so trustingly on the chest of the dark-skinned boy. The shadow held its stance for a few seconds, then broke the connection and turned away.
The Flash had been busy gathering pictures by running from the Hawkins house to the Foley house to the various schools that Richie had attended. He also dug around in the news archives for any pictures or stories on Richie Foley or the superhero Gear. He had learned long ago not to ask why Batman did certain things. What the Caped Crusader wanted was what the Caped Crusader got.
Back at the Watchtower, J'onn watched as his friend finished downloading the hundreds of scanned images the Flash had collected. Batman was arranging the data in chronological order. He could almost see his son growing up as the images played across the screen.
"Aren't you going to tell him?"
"No." Batman's response was clipped. J'onn was close enough to sense the effort being expended so that Bruce remained in control.
"He is yours. If you claimed him…"
J'onn," said Batman in a softer tone. "He has every thing he needs with the Hawkins family. What can I offer him that he doesn't have with them?"
"A name. A history. Both are - were - very important to my people. I think that you do yourself and Richie a grave disservice by keeping this from him. The young one has a heart capable of infinite love."
"No. He would wear an even bigger target than he already does. I won't put him through that." Batman's gloved hand, the same one that had touched Richie's hair as the boy rested with Virgil in the hospital, turned off the digital display. "He's happier, and safer, without me interfering in his life."
Richie was released from the hospital in less than a week. Sharon and Virgil had cleaned out the guest room and filled it with many of Richie's personal items from his old home. Richie was learning to relax and was starting to get used to a life without fear of making too much noise or not moving fast enough or not cleaning his room. He still had to clean his room, but he had no fear that Sharon or Mr. H would hurt him if it wasn't perfect.
Mr. and Mrs. Foley remained under arrest pending trial. They were being tried separately, and Mr. Foley had agreed to testify against his wife.
Three days after Richie's release from the hospital, an emergency call was received at the Watchtower. It came in from Batman's communication device - the one he had left with Richie while the boy was still in the hospital.
Virgil's panicked voice echoed in Batman's quarters as he exclaimed, "Richie's gone!"
To Be Continued…
Thanks to everyone who reviewed and to everyone who read but didn't review - I know you are out there. Thank you also for sticking with this story even though it took me forever to post this chapter. I swear it just did not want to get written. I struggled for almost two weeks, then it finally spilled out of me in about four hours.
I am working on the sequel (KaliAnn and EyesLikeSilk, the stuff we talked about will be in there). I think I will try to get it mostly complete before postingand then post just a few large chapters instead of a lot of little ones.
I know the parts of this story that deal with Hotstreak seem a little schizo. In my mind, when he is being naughty, he's Hotstreak, but when he is trying to be good, he is Francis.
BTW, special thanks to Valkyrie-alex and AJ McKay. Their advice and critiques helped me through the tough spots and they definitely made this a better fic.
I hope you enjoyed this story, and I would love to hear your comments.