And in my heart, I can't contain it,
The anthem won't explain it,
And while that sends you reeling,
From decimated dreams,
Your misery and hate will kill us all,
So paint it black and take it back,
Let's shout out loud and clear,
Defiant to the end we hear the call,
To carry on, we'll carry on.
– "Welcome to the Black Parade", My Chemical Romance.
"That's completely unacceptable!" I roared as entered our base, kicking aside a chair that dared to be in my way in the midst of my fury. Rococo, sensing my distress, stuck closer to my side and growled threateningly at anyone we passed.
"I don't understand it, Maestro. We've upgraded the scanners again, they should have been able to track the bomb," Jazz tried to placate as the rest of my spy network trailed in behind us, sans Scout, who was still following the trucks relentlessly. It was all she did anymore, waiting for the bomb to rotate cars so she could pursue them visually. The trouble was, they were trucks, and she was a twelve-year-old girl on foot, so they kept evading her.
It had been two months, two months, since my meeting with Fox and Tate, and we hadn't had a lick of success on locating the bomb. Three days after I had talked with the Wayne Enterprise executives, the trucks had vanished from the streets for an entire week. When they returned, our radiation scanners were no longer picking up anything, rendering them, and our plan, useless. Since then, we had upgraded the scanners twice, risking more each time to steal them, and they still detected nothing. Gordon suspected Bane had ordered the trucks to be lined with lead as a countermeasure, and unfortunately it worked.
But I was suspicious. A mere three days after I enlist help from Fox in the event the bomb was located, the trucks are taken off the streets to be reinforced with something that could prevent that from happening. I didn't believe in coincidences, I never have, but I did believe in my gut, and right then it was warning me of the possibility of another mole. The concept was terrifying because I didn't have time to hunt them down.
Now, we were in the fifth and final month of the bomb's timer, and since no one was having any success with anything, my nerves and patience were shot. Everybody else was feeling the same pressure, of course, but as the leader I was a bit more... vocal about it.
"That's not good enough, Jazz. Get me stronger scanners, and this time, make sure they work!" I yelled, storming towards the stairs as rebels leaped out of my way, Jazz, Savvy and Coco hot on my heels.
"Oh yeah sure, Maestro, I'll just snap my fingers and make them appear out of thin air, silly me. There isn't anything stronger that we can get a hold of!"
I whirled, about to snarl back a nasty reply when Savvy, who had been listening quietly the entire time, stepped between us. "Hey hey guys, take it easy," she shot me a disparaging look, "Maestro, Gordon told you he was expecting someone to come in on the relief shipments today. Maybe they can help."
I turned to continue stomping up to the second floor. "I doubt it. It took them four months to figure out how to get in this godforsaken place, which tells me all I need to know about how helpful they're going to be."
Savvy blinked at me in exasperation. "You just live to be the most difficult, distrustful person on the planet, don't you? Does this mean you aren't going to the meeting?"
I scoffed at her as I entered one of the back offices. "Of course I'm going, don't be ridiculous. I want to know what idiocy the cops are getting themselves involved in."
"You mean you're worried about John Blake getting caught in the crossfire if it goes south," Jazz grinned knowingly, despite his irritation with me.
I shot him a glare, attempting to ignore the rising blush on my face. John and I had been working together more and more the last few weeks, and it hadn't gone unnoticed by my rebels. "No, I'm worried Gordon may agree to something stupid that puts the Young at risk. Don't you have better scanners to be locating?" I snapped, crossing my arms.
He scowled darkly before storming off, and I felt guilt rise in my chest. I was so tired of fighting, everyone was, and the exhaustion manifested itself in ill tempers and harsh words.
"He's trying, you know," Savvy murmured quietly, and I braced my hands on the desk wearily.
"I know, Savvy."
"He hasn't slept in two days because he's been scrambling for a solution. Yelling doesn't help."
"I know, Savvy."
She peered at me in a way that suggested she was looking directly into my soul. "How long's it been since you've slept? I don't mean those 90-minute catnaps you take, I mean an actual full night's sleep."
It had been three days, but I didn't say that. We had weeks before the bomb went off, and I couldn't afford to waste my time sleeping. I was constantly out organizing raids and the rotation schedule for my kids to track the trucks, as well as making sure the supplies were still being run to the cops in the sewers and the families in hiding. Rest didn't factor into the equation. And in all this time, we had still accomplished very little in the way of removing Bane. The pressure was growing as the days dwindled mercilessly, and it had all boiled over today when those stupid scanners refused to cooperate.
I opened my mouth, prepared to either change the subject or lie shamelessly, but was saved by Scout appearing at the door, her youthful face grave. "Maestro, those guys from the mainland have made it into the city and they're gonna show up at the cafeteria soon. Gordon wants to know if you're coming."
I nodded and stood, pulling my hair back into a ponytail. "Yeah, I'm sure it'll be fun."
Savvy watched me, obviously still suspicious about my sleeping habits but unwilling to pester me about it in front of Scout. "Try to behave?" she pleaded, and I sighed.
"Savvy, I'm perfectly capable of having a mature, adult conversation without name-calling or sarcasm. I just choose not to."
"Just don't shut them down completely. At least listen to what they have to say."
I strode to the door, adjusting both the taser and the toxin on my belt. "I can't make any promises, you know that. But I'll try not to tear them apart until after I hear them out, fair enough? Oh, and watch Coco for me. I don't want to draw attention to the newbies; I get the feeling a moose would do it."
She rolled her eyes, exasperated as she always was by my antics, before waving me off. "Go on then, get out of my sight. And don't get killed on the way there."
My only response was a simple, sarcastic salute, and then Scout I left the building in silence.
Gordon met us outside the cafeteria, obviously waiting for Scout, and I tried to quell my instinctive irritation upon seeing him – somehow I didn't think I would ever really like him, despite the spy's insistence that he was a good man. But the violence on the streets had only escalated in the last two months, and I was grudgingly appreciative of the fact that he was concerned about the well-being of my head of recon.
"Glad you could make it, Maestro." he greeted, and I nodded at him before he turned to go inside. The men from the mainland were already there, it seemed, talking to Foley, and my annoyance with the situation shot up a notch.
"How can we trust you?" the deputy commissioner was saying as we entered, unknowingly asking the question that had been on my mind all morning. Before whoever he was talking to could respond, Gordon piped up from beside me.
"We don't have any choice."
There were only three of them, which was my first warning that this was going to end badly, and the one in front stepped forward to shake Gordon's hand.
"Commissioner Gordon. Captain Jones, Special Forces," he stated. I suppose he would have been considered handsome by anybody else: tall, dark and rugged-looking, not at all what you'd expect from the military. Then again, maybe that was the point.
"Glad to have you here," Gordon replied, and Jones merely pursed his lips.
"It's our job, sir. How many of you are there?"
The commissioner was about to answer when I caught his eye, shaking my head slightly. Jones noticed this with a small crease in his brow, but made no comment.
"Dozens," Gordon responded after a moment, "I'd rather not say exactly. The men underground number almost three thousand."
"What kind of condition are they in?"
"They've been getting food and water from Bane, and common necessities from the Young," Gordon nodded at me and Jones' eyes met mine, but I gave no response. I had no doubt that he knew about the Young's resistance, but just how much he knew about it was the question.
"Can we break them out?" he asked finally, and to my surprise, it was John who spoke up; I hadn't noticed him when I walked in earlier. And great, now I had butterflies.
"Yes sir. Take out the mercenaries guarding the outflow, blow the rubble, we can make a hole big enough for ten at a time. I'm in contact with my partner down there, they're just waiting for the day."
We had been over this plan before and would have done it sooner had Gordon not insisted on waiting for the mainlanders.
"Men who haven't seen daylight in three months," one of the men behind Jones spoke up doubtfully, and I rolled my eyes. Let the battle for dominance begin. I didn't feel the need to correct him that it had been four months since the police had been trapped, since that wouldn't have helped John's case much.
"Police who haven't seen daylight in three months," John responded, a touch coldly, though in my mind it didn't make much difference. Police, as evidenced clearly by this takeover, were fallible; I didn't see them as any stronger than the rest of the city.
"What about the bomb? We haven't picked up any radiation hotspots."
"That's because it isn't in one spot," Scout spoke up from the back as all eyes in the room turned to her. "They keep it on one of three trucks and move it twenty-four hours a day. We haven't been able to track it, probably lined with lead or something. The only thing we've noticed is that the routes stay pretty much the same for each truck."
"And you are?" Jones asked with a patronizing smile that made me bristle.
"Scout, the Young's head of recon." She lifted her chin with a sweet expression. So that's why everybody falls in love with her instantly.
Jones tossed Gordon a skeptical look. "You're leaving your spy detail to a kid?"
"As I recall, Captain, the kid currently knows more about the situation than you do. I would suggest you shut up and listen," I murmured, crossing my arms.
He fixed his gaze on me. "Maestro. We've heard a lot about you."
"I'll just bet you have," I replied evenly.
"Let's not do this now," Gordon muttered, and I scowled but fell silent. Jones turned back to the commissioner.
"What about the triggerman?"
"It's a bluff," I responded, even though I wasn't entirely convinced of it. "Bane's a control freak. He wouldn't hand over the trigger to somebody else."
"We can't take that chance. Until we have the triggerman, we just track the device," Jones stated authoritatively, and I rolled my eyes. To my left, John was looking distinctly unhappy.
"And... meanwhile, Gotham lives under a warlord, like some failed state?"
"Dial it back, officer, this situation is unprecedented. We can't afford to risk millions of lives," Jones replied, and his dismissal of John made my blood boil. The detective looked to me and Gordon, frustration evident in his frame.
"Are you gonna tell him what's really going on?"
I raised my hands and stepped back, not trusting myself to speak without doing something stupid. There would be a time to rip him apart, and now wasn't it. Thankfully, Gordon explained for me.
"Captain, the situation is more complicated than you think. There's someone you need to meet."
"Maestro and I can take you to him," John continued, and I shot him a surprised glare. He responded with a small grin, as if to say, C'mon, it'll be fun.
All eyes in the room turned to the two of us expectantly, and I decided to kill the detective for this when I got the chance. With a roll of my eyes, I brushed past the three mainlanders. "Fine, but if they get into trouble, I'm not saving them," I growled, exiting the building without waiting for them to follow me.
They did, walking with the determined, dead-giveaway stride of military personnel, and really, I would be surprised if they survived until sunset. John came up by my side, smirking a little, and I punched his arm hard enough to leave a bruise.
"Quit smiling like a doofus. You'll set off some sort of Goon Happiness Radar. They can smell anything that isn't miserable."
He rubbed his arm but kept smiling.
"Hey, lovebirds, bomb truck behind you," I glowered at the captain's voice but stepped into an alley, turning my face away to hide the mask. I heard the tumbler roll past on the street next to us, and then the clatter and clang of the larger truck as it came by. Jones removed a device from one of his pockets – one not unlike Jazz's radiation scanners – and aimed it at the truck, the needle on it flickering a moment before going still.
Jones shook his head at John. "Decoy."
I swore in frustration and removed a bit of chalk from my pocket, before drawing a crude bat on the wall next to me. At least we knew this route was a dead one. After making sure the truck had rounded the corner ahead of us, we kept walking, being more careful to stick close to side streets.
"You don't really think he's coming back, do you?" Jones asked skeptically, having seen the symbol, and even though I was ahead of him I could feel his eyes on the back of my head.
"Captain, I wouldn't –" John tried to intervene, but I had already stopped, my hands clenched white around the batons in my jacket.
"It doesn't matter what I think. He is coming back."
"You should put your faith in something a little more real," he replied, and I froze, disgust racing through my blood.
"What, like you?" I scoffed, whirling on him, "It's been four months, four months, since Bane took over the city, and you're only just now getting here with only two men. So forgive me, Captain, if I choose to put my faith in someone who's saved us before, rather than someone who hasn't saved us at all."
"We couldn't risk –"
"I've got kids out here losing everything, kids, and you couldn't risk?"
"Take care of my little sister. Take care of Scout. Promise me."
"Does it ever feel better?"
"...He's only got a couple of minutes at the most. We don't have the equipment to save him, and it's too far to the hospital."
"Her name was Violet..."
The memories of the kids that I'd lost, and the ones that had lost everything, echoed in my mind with perfect clarity. After a second, I stood back and looked at the man in front of me, really looked, and was repelled by what I saw. Without another word, I turned on my heel and strode away, hearing John murmur something to the men before they resumed following me.
Nobody said another word after that.
When we got to Wayne Tower, I stopped at the back entrance. "Go on in. I'll keep watch."
John looked at me, concern in his dark blue eyes. "You sure?"
"Positive. Take Die Hard and his pals to the top and I'll meet you out here."
John nodded, still looking wary, and opened the door for the men. "Be careful."
"No promises," I quipped, inadvertently remembering the last time I'd said that to him, right before the night of fire and blood and a kiss that never should have happened.
I had seen Crane only once in the last two months, completely by chance on the street. It was dark and he had been leaving the Court to go to his penthouse, and I was simply patrolling, having been randomly overcome with the urge for the first time in a long while.
He'd seen me, of course, and instead of vanishing into the darkness like instinct told me to, I'd just stopped, a streetlight flickering above my head, and nodded at him. He'd given me a superior smirk and returned it before walking on, but the memory haunted me just the same.
He still haunted me. And so did that kiss.
I was snapped out of my musings by Jones stopping in front of me, John and the other two military guys already in the building. "Ma'am, I –"
I held up a hand. "I don't have the time or energy to care what you have to say. It's not me you have to make your scripted excuses to, it's the forty kids I've lost. Now go in and stop wasting more of everyone's time."
His gaze grew hard, and he pursed his lips before stepping away and going inside.
I was grateful for his absence and sat down against the marble wall of the building, taking down my ponytail to better conceal my face and hoping I looked like a junkie to any passers-by – not that there were any.
It felt good to sit there for a moment, to just be alone and let the cold air settle around me. We had been fighting for so long, I had almost forgotten was peace was, and even now I was only getting the briefest taste of it. Absently, I toyed with the hose of the fear canister, tucked as usual into the sleeve of my jacket. We had made several successful raids with the toxin, gathering supplies and taking out entire patrols of Goons when we weren't busy with the trucks, which was nearly always, but we had yet to use it on a large scale as I had originally hoped. Still, with us finally having entered the fifth month of Bane's occupation, I had a feeling the opportunity to do so was coming, and soon.
Suddenly tired, I leaned my head back against the wall behind me and closed my eyes, choosing to think of nothing. I would hear someone coming long before they saw me, so I supposed it couldn't hurt to relax a bit.
I couldn't say how long I rested there, waiting for John and the others, but I did know it was long enough for the tips of my fingers and toes to go numb. Sneezing, I wrapped arms tighter around my knees to preserve some warmth and wondered what was taking John so long.
And then I heard it, distantly at first and steadily coming closer: the mechanical, tell-tale hissing of Bane's mask, accompanied by the determined thudding of dozens of advancing Goons. And they were headed straight for Wayne Tower.
With a string of furious curses I sprang to my feet and sprinted inside, adrenaline coursing wildly through my limbs with every beat of my heart. "Bane's coming!" I shouted to the refugees in the lobby, "Everybody out, Bane's coming!"
There was a mad scramble for the doors as cries of terror echoed off the marble, but I didn't stop as I ran for the stairs, I couldn't stop because I had to find John –
Time seemed to move in slow motion as I watched Jones and his companions step off the elevator on the second floor, still unaware of the immediate danger they were in. I was about to call out, to warn them because despite my earlier words nobody deserved to die at Bane's hand, and then everything began to spiral out of control.
The first gunshot rang out as soon as my boots touched the second floor, and the soldier to Jones' right was dead before he hit the ground. I clutched the ear that had been facing the blast, dropping into a crouch on instinct. I would never get used to the way the noise made my ears ring for a good half hour, but at the moment I had bigger problems, like the fact that Goons were now swarming the building and the two living mainlanders were pinned down behind a pair of columns on the other side of the atrium.
There was another cry as Jones' last companion fell, and I didn't have time to move in to help because I'd been spotted by a pair of Bane's men. I wasn't stupid. They weren't gonna take me back to the Court again, not after I'd survived it twice. No, if they were successful I wasn't going to leave this building alive.
It was a good thing I'd always been excellent at screwing up other people's plans.
Quick as a wink, I followed Jones' lead and dove behind a marble pillar, scrambling for my taser.
"Careful," one Goon murmured to his partner in a volume that would have been inaudible to anyone but me in this chaos, "Bane wants to kill her himself."
I heard them advance towards my pillar, thinking their footsteps were covered by the sound of gunfire going on across the room, and I stifled a laugh at their stupidity. As soon as I estimated they were close enough – coming on either side of me, really? – I whirled out to the right, toxin hissing, and the closest one dropped, screaming and clawing at his face, to the ground. The second one had a taser in his chest before he could react, and I admired his twitching form by my boots for a moment before stepping over him – and taking special care to kick him in the head as I did.
My moment of triumph was short lived as I raised my eyes to where Jones had been pinned, just in time to see him leave his hiding spot and attempt to shoot his way out.
It was seven against one and it would never have worked. He fell, and I stifled a curse and dropped into a crouch behind the bannister that overlooked the first floor as Bane came into view. I was fortunate that they'd seemed to be after Jones specifically, otherwise a lot more Goons would have noticed me by now. As it was, all of them – except for the one behind me whose cries were drowned out by the chaos below us – were solely focused on Jones and the residents of the building. I knew what that meant, of course, because I'd seen these signs before. Somebody had sold us out. I stifled a hiss of fury under my breath. I'm getting really sick of this.
Cautiously, I peeked between the bars of the railing to the other side, where Jones was lying on the ground and staring up at the hulking monster that had taken over my city. It was hard to make out what they were saying above the noise from the first floor, but it sounded like Jones was showing a backbone. Bane was obviously unruffled by it, because in the next second he was kneeling on the captain's throat. My entire form tensed and outrage gave a ferocious roar in my chest, because there was nothing I could do but watch.
Jones struggled, his face turning red from the effort, and I could swear that just for a second our eyes met and my heart gave a furious wrench. Mother in heaven... But I had no prayer for her this time.
And then the full weight of the terrorist's body collapsed the captain's windpipe, and he was gone.
For long moments, I was paralyzed with rage, because regardless of the contempt I'd felt for him, he hadn't deserved to die that way. None of them had. It wasn't until I heard Bane's order to round up the refugees for judgement that I snapped out of it, but instead of using the distraction to flee, I did something really, really stupid.
I felt along my belt for the only toxin grenade I had on me, grasped it, and leaped onto the bannister. "Bane!" I shouted, my voice echoing off through the room, and his cold gaze locked with my own. Before anyone could move, I had pulled the pin and tossed it across the room, as far and as hard as I could, and it came to a rest right at the terrorist's boots.
For a terrible moment, nothing happened, and the men were raising their guns to fire, and there I was, tall and furious and unafraid on that railing, a perfect target. And then the gas released with a pressurized bang and five Goons were too close, and while the toxin didn't effect Bane because of the mask, the smoke still clouded his vision and I chose that moment to make my escape.
Unfortunately I wasn't fast enough, because something like ten mercenaries were now hot on my tail. Bullets ricocheted off the marble around me and my ears were ringing with the noise but I only ran faster, hoping and praying that John had somehow made it to safety.
The Goons pursued me all the way out of the building and down the street, my only advantage being that it was almost impossible to run and fire a machine gun at the same time. They were fast and I was sleep-deprived, and as I whirled around corners, attempting every trick I knew to evade them, I could feel myself losing momentum. Yeah, so this is very not good.
Somehow I doubted Bane was incredibly picky about killing me himself anymore. He'd probably just settle for examining my bullet-ridden corpse to ensure that I was dead. The thought spurred me on further, but I could only keep doing this for so long. They were going to catch up to me eventually if I didn't lose them, and the drainpipes were out of the question because I'd be a sitting duck.
On sheer impulse, I took a sharp right and then a left, and suddenly I recognized the area. I was about a block away from Crane's penthouse building. And if he was at the courthouse and still hadn't gotten that basement window fixed...
I lunged forward with a fresh burst of speed, desperate to put some more distance between myself and the Goons. If I could just outrun them long enough, I might have a chance. Mother in heaven, help me to fly.
My chest and legs ached, and I couldn't get enough air but I pressed on, hearing them pursue me relentlessly. I was almost to the alley behind the building, I just needed to run a little farther. Please don't let him have fixed that window.
I whirled around the last corner, seeing the dumpster from before and knowing the window lay just beyond. Come on come on come on...
I almost gasped in relief when I saw it: a tarp had been stretched across the inside of the window but there wasn't any glass, and without hesitation I slid to my knees, pushing the material away from where it was taped around the frame. I shimmied inside just in time; the moment I managed to wrestle the tarp back over the opening I heard the sound of boots furiously drumming past, and then fierce cursing when they realized I was gone.
"Search the area! Check alleys, empty buildings, rooftops, she's here!" I bit back an oath when I recognized Barsad's voice. Go away, go away, please go away...
Panting heavily and my body burning, I re-stuck the duct tape on the tarp back to the wall and stepped away from the window, the table I had used in my escape last time giving a sharp creak under my weight. I winced and froze, but the Goons outside didn't have my hearing ability and didn't notice. I gingerly stepped off the table and looked around the place where I had once been confined. It seemed so long ago now, but everything was just as I remembered, the only noticeable changes being the fixed kitchen drawer and the lock on the lab door. I would have smirked at the sight of it if I hadn't been in such agony.
Carefully, I moved to the cot, still in the same place from the last time I was here, and sat down, needing to rest my aching body. It was still early in the day; Crane would be at the courthouse until dark and the Goons would be out there for quite a while. I could rest here until they left and my body recuperated.
What I didn't count on was how comfortable the cot felt and how utterly exhausted and emotionally spent I was, or my own inability to remain upright. I slid down until I was curled on the thin mattress, my eyes slipping closed of their own accord. No, have to... stay... awake...
My last thought before darkness took me was a prayer that John was safe.
There were three bodies dangling from the bridge.
It didn't matter who they were – though Bruce Wayne was certain the newscaster was about to cover it – what mattered was that they were dead by Bane's hand and displayed for the world to see and he wasn't there to save his dying, decaying city –
He didn't even realize he'd thrown the rock until the screen shattered and went dark.
It had been a long time since he'd last attempted to escape; after he had injured his already fragile back he had waited until he was certain he could physically handle another try. But he couldn't afford to wait anymore, he had to get out, because all would be lost if he didn't. So he beat his body into submission once more, pushing it hour after hour, day after day.
"This is the leap of freedom. It's not about strength," murmured the blind man in the cell next to him, his accent coarse and gravelly with age. I can't die in here.
"My body makes the jump," Bruce retorted breathlessly as he continued to lower and raise his aching spine in a series of crunches.
"Survival is spirit, the soul," the older man replied.
It was becoming apparent that he wasn't going to be able to have this conversation and continue to train, so he stopped and allowed himself a moment to breathe. "My soul is as ready to escape as my body." He was getting very tired of rhetoric.
"Fear is why you fail."
Bruce only paused a moment, searching himself. The last time he had dealt with the League of Shadows, he had worked desperately to overcome his fears, and he saw no trace of it in himself now. "No, I'm not afraid," he growled, continuing his crunches, "I'm angry."
And he was. Angry at what Bane had reduced his city to, angry at his own weakness, angry at the world for believing he was dead. And that anger would help him fly.
He was determined this time, all but running to the rope that would help him escape from the pit. The prisoners that had gathered to watch were chanting again, and again he didn't care what they were saying, because he was rising, rising, rising, and he could feel the strength and the complete and utter lack of fear in his veins. I can't die in here.
His hand slipped from the wall before he even made it to the crucial jump, and the pain that tore through his spine tore through his chest as well; the cries that left his lips were broken, and angry, and laced with the sudden terror that his city would burn without him.
And everything went black.
The angel was brilliant.
Light exploded from her center, chasing away every shadow that dared get too close. When she smiled, it was a gentle, luminous white arc, and every demon and monster in the world shrieked and fell to ash. Her blonde hair cascaded to her waist and seemed to dance in the fierce wind; a glowing dress fell to bare toes that didn't touch the ground. The wings on her back were as pale white as the moon and stretched so high and so wide that I could not see their end.
I covered my face at the sight of her because she was too bright to look at directly; the darkness that had taken hold of me was writhing painfully in her presence.
"Don't be afraid," she whispered in a voice that I knew, the voice that had named me, "don't be afraid."
"How!?" I all but screamed, my face still buried in my hands, "How can I be brave if I can't save anyone?"
"Don't be afraid," she was whispering still but I could hear her over the hurricane-force winds that her beating wings created, swirling around us and roaring in my ears.
"I'm not strong enough," I could barely speak because of my fear, because of the death that surrounded me at every turn.
She bent down, her hands sliding over my own and pulling them away from my face until I met her eyes. They were blinding: beautiful and bright as the sun, and the purest blue I had ever seen.
"Don't be afraid," Her voice ghosted over my mind, healing the memories of destruction and blood, "You need to wake up now."
"But I want to stay with you!"
"Wake up, angel."
Someone was prodding my shoulder. My eyes snapped open to lock with icy blue ones set in a pale face, and for a moment I was still in my dream. And then I noticed the glasses and the cheekbones sharp enough to cut diamond, and recoiled immediately.
"If you wanted to sleep in my bed, all you had to do was ask," Crane remarked dryly, stepping away from the cot I was lying on and handing me a cup of water. I blushed furiously and accepted it, too thirsty to refuse even as I wondered at his motives. This felt like an oddly civil way to behave after how our last meeting had ended, and nope I'm not going down that road any further – And now I couldn't get my stupid blush to go away. Fantastic.
"In your dreams, Doc. I had a few Goons I couldn't shake on my tail. Not my fault you didn't fix the window." A sudden thought occurred to me. "What time is it?"
He didn't glance at his watch, instead keeping that unnerving gaze on me. "Six in the evening."
I swore and sprang from the bed, prepared to sprint back to my base because my lieutenants would be frantic, only to gasp at the agony in my limbs and sink back down again. Crane watched me with something like amusement. "You've overtaxed your body. Again. It's amazing you've managed to survive this long."
My ears were ringing, and I tugged at them irritably even though I knew it wouldn't help. "I leave it to sheer dumb luck. How long have you been back from the courthouse?"
"About an hour."
"And how long have you been watching me sleep like that one creepy guy from Twilight?"
He didn't bother answering, instead turning away from me and picking up a remote control for the ancient-looking TV on the kitchen counter. I wondered if he came down here immediately after returning home every day, or if he went to his penthouse and did normal things like eating or napping or showering – nope nope nope, definitely not going there.
The screen came to life with a high pitched click and a lot of static, and I frowned. "What are you doing?"
"There's something I think you should see." That couldn't be good. I stood up, more carefully this time, and moved next to him, rubbing sleep out of my eyes.
As soon as he found the channel he was looking for, he stepped back, and that was the last thing I noticed outside of my blinding fury. It was a newscast from the mainland, a helicopter shot hovering around the last intact bridge in the city, and three bodies were handing from the support beams.
Three bodies that I recognized immediately.
"That bastard," I whispered.
The whole world was seeing the evidence of our failure, was getting a mere taste of the chaos and terror that Gotham lived in every day. They probably saw it as a miracle Bane hadn't set the bomb off for the offense, but I knew differently. Bane wanted to wait until the time ran out, to give everyone outside our island hope that maybe one day he'd relent, or get bored, or be killed by the resistance. And then at the end of the month when the bomb went off, the world would be paralyzed by the weight of that same futile hope crashing around them. That, it seemed, was his real weapon.
I glanced at the tarp on the window, seeing the lack of light filtering through, which meant that night had fallen completely. Since the footage on the screen had been taken while the sun was setting, I estimated the bodies had only been hanging for an hour or so, maybe a little longer.
"You knew those men." It wasn't a question.
"I didn't know them. They came into the city to assess the situation and they met up with Gordon. I was there when it happened." Not a lie, but not quite the truth either. I wasn't fully prepared to trust him with exactly what they had been looking into when they died.
"You were at Wayne Tower today." This wasn't a question either, and I pulled my eyes from the television to meet his.
"How did you know that?"
He took a step forward, and I took one back, finding myself pinned against the counter. "Because Bane sent for me," he spat the words, "to demand to know how you got your hands on a toxin that operates with remarkable similarity to my own."
I winced. "What did you tell him?"
He narrowed his eyes. "That the police had a version of my formula from the first time the League of Shadows attacked the city, and that in their desperation they managed to recreate it." He scoffed. "As if it would be that easy."
I gave a quiet sigh of relief, but he continued. "He then attempted to order me to concoct an antidote."
"You can't!" I blurted without thinking, "That would ruin everything!"
He glared at me. "You don't think I know that, stupid girl? I informed him that without an exact sample of the toxin you were using, I couldn't counteract the hallucinogen, and that even if I could, by the time the affected men were brought to me, their minds were already lost."
"So what's the problem?" I snapped, now irritated.
"The problem, Songbird, is that he is now more suspicious of my involvement with you than ever before. I was under the impression you would be using my formula on his men during your raids, not throwing it directly at the man who took over the city. He was supposed to remain completely baffled as to what was taking out his men." Okay, so in hindsight I had been pretty stupid.
"Yeah, well, we've got less than a month before all of this comes to a fiery conclusion. I don't care what he knows at this point, so long as he can't stop it," I muttered, trying to play it off like I wasn't a complete moron. Crane didn't look like he bought it. He was quiet for a moment, studying me, and the only sound in the room was the news reporter on the TV at my back.
"What were you doing at Wayne Tower today?"
I chewed my lip, deciding to answer without really answering. "Nothing that should have attracted Bane's immediate attention, that's for sure. I think we've got another mole somewhere." My eyes brightened as I was suddenly struck with another idea.
"Can you keep an eye out? Tell me if you see or hear anything that doesn't quite fit? I mean you don't have to specifically go looking, but if you were to notice... something..." I trailed off, knowing that if I kept rambling I ran the risk of irritating him into not helping. He didn't roll his eyes, exactly, but I could tell he wanted to, and I took it as a sign of agreement.
"Thanks Doc. Now if you'll excuse me, my Young probably think I'm dead, so I've got to get back."
I turned to get on his table to climb out the window when he caught my arm and pulled me closer. Flashbacks of The Incident immediately began playing in a loop in my head, and my breath quickened involuntarily.
"You can't dance around this forever," he murmured, and I knew exactly what he was talking about, "I'll play along for now, because it amuses me to watch you struggle, but everything has a price, Songbird. And eventually you're going to need something from me, and this time you'll have to pay up to get it. You'll have to choose."
I swallowed, trying to think of a witty comeback and finding nothing. His breath was hot by my ear, and please don't kiss me, please kiss me, please don't kiss me, please kiss me – (If he asked me my name I was going to break his nose.)
For a moment, he just stared at me and I was lost, but then he let go, and I was out the window as fast as I could move, ignoring the fierce, burning panic in my chest.
A thousand backup plans and countermeasures rushed into my mind, preparation for the moment when Crane made good on his threat, and underneath it all was the underlying question of whether or not I should tell John what had happened here. For a long time I just stood in that alleyway, conflicted about the universe in general.
Mother in heaven, what's wrong with me? The prayer to my mother triggered the memory of my dream. Those hadn't featured her in a long time. She'd told me not to be afraid, but never once had she made a mention of the two men I had somehow found myself caught between.
It didn't matter, I realized, it couldn't. I needed to be strong for the city. I couldn't do that if I was wrestling with my affections for John or my whirlwind of emotions for Crane. They were background noise, and the rebellion was the symphony. I had to devote my whole focus to it, or it wouldn't be played properly. I couldn't let them, or even Bane, get in my head; I had a war to win.
Biting my lip, I looked down at the hose peeking out of my jacket sleeve. Now that Bane knew about our little scheme, I didn't see why we shouldn't flaunt it. After the day I'd had, I felt like scaring the sanity out of a couple of Goons.
But first things first, I had to get back to my Young, assure them that I wasn't dead, and come up with a plan of attack for the rest of the month. The mainlanders may have been dead, but we still had their trackers, strong enough to get the job done, and I felt the first dangerous stirrings of hope awaken somewhere in my chest.
I left the alley and didn't look back.
A/N: I don't own DKR, but I do own Maestro and any OCs. The recommended song for the chapter is "Welcome to the Black Parade" by My Chemical Romance.
Special thanks to my beta, Amai-chan1993, the greatest person to ever exist.
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