Notes and disclaimers: This is probably not compatible with the Batman Beyond comics, since I haven't read them, or the crossover episodes from other series (especially since I don't agree with what happened in the Justice League Unlimited, it's just too farfetched). Some locations are cheerfully stolen from Arkham City, but the game itself has nothing to do with this story. Too many different events. I own nothing at all; sue me and you get my student loan debt. Reviews are appreciated, though.
Dana Tan kicked at random stones as she marched down the street. She was pissed as usual, though this time her anger wasn't focused on her boyfriend—though Terry had stood her up again three days ago, the twip. No, this time her parents had managed to earn her wrath.
Could they be any less understanding? If they weren't scoffing at her choice of boyfriend (okay, she could kind of understand that) or chastising her for making a B in math (it was still a good grade, and in a subject that she hated), they were planning her future for her and ignoring her desires entirely. Tonight was a good example.
They had decided to take her out to dinner to celebrate all the colleges that had accepted her applications. That in itself was fine for Dana; she was pretty proud of herself. Most of the ones she had seriously considered (GCU, New York State, Metropolis) had let her in, but the big surprise was the more prestigious schools her parents had insisted that she try. Places like Brown, Duke, and Vanderbilt. Today she had gotten the letter from Yale. She was on their waiting list, but that was still technically an acceptance. Thus the impromptu celebration at one of the more upscale restaurants in Gotham.
Then, halfway through dinner, her parents had turned the conversation to her plans for the future. And she had been stupid enough to tell them what she wanted to do.
"I mean, I know that it's just a waitlist and competition is fierce, but just imagine if you get into Yale!" Mrs. Tan gushed. She had barely touched her meal of grilled chicken and truffles in pomegranate sauce for all her talking. "It has one of the best law schools in the country. My daughter the lawyer. The Attorney General!"
My mom, the social climber, Dana thought. She wisely kept her mouth shut.
Her father laughed. "Getting a little ahead of yourself there, darling. She's not officially in Yale yet."
"True, but there's still Brown," her mother continued. "That's an excellent medical school from what I read. Dana could well be on her way to being a neurosurgeon. Or an engineer. That may not be such a glamorous degree, but there are so many opportunities for engineers! Not to mention the chances of getting into a good graduate school."
"Mom, please," Dana protested, holding up a hand. "It's too early to think about that. Besides, you act like Yale and Brown are my only options. I did get accepted to a lot of other schools."
"Honey, those two are Ivy League. They're the best of the best. Getting an education at Brown or Yale will put the whole world at your fingertips. Why wouldn't you choose one of them?"
"Because they don't offer what I want," Dana replied. She thought then that she might be making a mistake, but it was too late to back down. Both her parents were looking at her in anticipation, waiting to hear their brilliant daughter's grand career choice.
"Well?" Mr. Tan prompted. "What have you decided on? Remember, you can change majors later if you discover that you don't like whatever you've chosen."
"And I'm sure Brown will have whatever classes you need," Mrs. Tan pressed.
"It doesn't," Dana told her. She looked down and pushed her delicately seasoned chick peas around her plate for a minute, trying to decide the best way to say it. "You have to understand, I've put a lot of thought and research into this," she began at last. "A lot has happened over the last couple of years, and it's made me think about more than just what I want to do, but also about who I want to be, and, well—" She could feel herself beginning to blush. "I sent an application to Bay Center Community College's EMT program. I want to be a paramedic."
Her parents had stared at her for a full two minutes. Then the recriminations had begun.
It was a nobody job. It didn't make enough money. It was for those not smart enough to be doctors. It was too dangerous. There was no opportunity for advancement. She would have to deal with society's dregs. Wasn't she tired of being in ambulances and hospitals? Did that McGinnis boy plant this crazy idea in her head?
That last one was what had made her blow up and storm out, leaving behind overly expensive filet mignon and merlot that she couldn't even drink. Her parents' constant derision of Terry had that effect on her, especially when it happened to be unfounded.
She had confided in him first. Scared of what he would say, sure that she was in fact crazy for thinking about it, and still determined that this was what she wanted to do.
Terry had listened to her whole explanation without interrupting. She talked about how the city had been falling apart for years. How when she was a child it had been dangerous to even step outside her front door. Then came the reappearance of the Batman a year ago, and all that had changed. Maybe Gotham still wasn't the ideal place to live, but it was turning around. People were rallying behind the hope that the dark knight represented. Sure, there was trouble, and she had experienced her share: being taken to the sewers by Patrick and the Jokerz attack at the nightclub were prime examples. But those events had also been good for her, in a way; she had gotten to know the paramedics that had helped her, and they had in turn helped shaped her ideas for the future. She wanted to be like them. Part of the solution. One of the people who were helping Batman put this city back together.
So you're really sure about this? Terry had asked once she finished.
Yes, she had answered.
Then go for it.
She had remembered then why she loved him.
Dana looked back to see her father running to catch up with her. That, she wouldn't allow. They would only get back into the same argument, and she couldn't handle any more of it tonight. Speeding up, she turned the corner and saw the sign for a convenient subway station two blocks down.
She had just reached the steps when Mr. Tan's voice called to her again. "Honey, please! It's not safe."
"Got that much right," she muttered. Then she skipped down the steps.
There was a train already at the nearest platform. Dana pulled a cred card out of her purse, swiped it at the turnstile, and ran to make it to the train. The doors began to close just as she crossed the threshold. Turning, she saw her father make it through the turnstile just as the train began to move, and she resisted the temptation to stick her tongue out at him just before she was carried out of his sight.
The train bounced as it picked up speed. Dana sat in the seat closest to the door, looking around. It was getting late in the evening, and only four other passengers were scattered around this car. The digital strip near the ceiling told her that this was the southbound red line. She grimaced; the route would take her farther from home, not that any of the subway lines came close to her neighborhood. She would have to call a taxi when she got off the train. Or maybe she could call Terry. A ride on his motorbike might be good for cooling her head.
…Well, maybe not, but the thought was too enticing. Dana pulled out her phone and hit the speed dial.
Ten rings later, she tossed the phone back into her purse in disgust. Of course he wouldn't pick up. That crazy billionaire probably had him working at all hours of the night again, if he was even really at his job. Sometimes Dana wondered.
She had thought that she couldn't get any madder, but as usual Terry McGinnis lit a new fire under her. Really, she knew that he had to help support his family, and having a job with Bruce Wayne was a big fragging deal, but did he have to work quite so much? What could he possibly be doing that required him to work all night, every night? He could never make plans in advance, and the few dates they had managed to have, he often slept through. If he were any other guy Dana would have thought he was cheating on her—and still the thought crossed her mind every once in a while—but though he had been a punk and a convict in his day, he had never been a player. Besides that, Wayne often showed up personally to haul Terry away.
And then there were the bruises. Dana found them more worrying than anything else. What could he be doing that hurt him so often? Every time she asked questions about it, he would play it off with a joke or offer a vague explanation of some accident. She soon stopped asking, but she never stopped wondering.
The train slowed and then jerked to a stop. The strip announced that they had arrived at Hill Square Station—not the worst part of town, but certainly not the best. The next stop was Amusement Mile, where there were more people about. Dana decided to wait until that station and get a taxi there. The fare would be high, but she had enough cred cards for it.
For people hurtled across the platform and jumped into the train just as the doors began to close, whooping at the top of their lungs. They wore a colorful array of clothing, including wigs and face paint: Jokerz. Dana huffed and scooted further back in her seat. The Jokerz gang had lost much of their respect on the streets since that incident a couple months ago involving the supposed return of the "real" Joker. The police had begun a crackdown, obtaining court orders to break into known Jokerz hideouts and busting up gang circles wherever they were found. There were hardly enough Jokerz left to cause trouble, and none of them could be called anything more than irritating. Still, it was best to keep out of their way as much as possible and not give them any reason to think you're smiling at any of their wretched jokes. Dana put her head down to facilitate that.
"Hello, boys and girls!" the tallest one yelled as the train started moving. Presumably he was the leader; he wore a bright purple suit and had a red grin painted across his face. "We are your subway entertainment for tonight. The new and improved Jokerz! Let's have a hand, shall we?" He and his cronies started to clap.
Dana and the other passengers didn't join them, and soon the pathetic applause dwindled into a silence broken only by the grinding of the train' wheels on the rails. Dana's purse buzzed, and she took out her phone to find a text message from her mother.
We're going home, and we expect to see you when we get there.
Dana rolled her eyes, deleted the message, and began thumbing through her games.
"See, this is the kind of disrespect that we're here to fix," the purple Joker said. "These past few weeks have been so boring. No one laughs anymore. No one pays us what we're owed. So me and my pals here, we decided to change that. Ladies and gentlemen, you are now on board the Jokerz' Fun Train!"
That proclamation was met with more silence. Dana chose a simple game of solitaire and started playing.
The thump of booted feet was the only warning she got before her phone was snatched from her hand. "Hey!" She snapped, making a grab for it.
The Joker who had taken it-the only girl, with a blue leotard under bright red shorts, green ponytails, and a ridiculous red foam nose-danced out of her reach. "Lookit this, boss," she said. "This bitch cares more about a silly game than us."
"Oh?" The leader plucked the phone from her hand and walked over to leer down at Dana. "Is that true? You don't like the Jokerz?"
When Dana was pissed, she tended to say whatever was on her mind. Sometimes that was a bad thing. "How could anyone like a pathetic band of ragtag losers so desperate for attention that they dress like clowns and run around whining at strangers?"
The Jokerz stared at her, and she glared back. Were they shocked? Angry? The face paint hid much, and she didn't care much anyway. The most they would do is take her money-and possibly her phone, but that had a GPS tracker even when it was turned off and would lead the police right to them. Sure, they could have the phone. Just for annoying her.
The purple Joker's face split into a real grin. He chuckled, escalating into a wild laugh as his companions began to snicker. Now Dana began to feel the first touch of nervousness.
"You're funny," he said. "Funny is just what we need. How about you join us?"
"How about no?" Dana said, but her reply was lost on the leader as he turned to face the rest of the train car.
"Here we have her, our first new recruit!" he said. "How about giving her a hand?"
"How about giving me my phone back and leaving us alone?" Dana snapped, but again she was ignored. Nervousness grew quickly into full-fledged fear.
"Would anyone else like to join?" the Joker asked, looking around.
Silence met his words as the couple on the far end and the older man near the middle huddled into their seats and looked away.
"No? That's shway with me. I mean, look at the prize we've already won!" He turned back to Dana and made a show of looking her over. "Fifi, see what you can do about that face, dear. Our new Joker needs something a little more...appropriate. "
Dana's eyes sought out the digital strip, which now showed the train's progress. They were nearing the Amusement Mile station. "I'm not putting on any clown makeup, and I'm not joining the Jokerz," she said. "Frag off and bother someone else." She stood up and pushed Fifi away as she stepped toward the door.
And froze as the leader pulled a gun out and put the barrel to her forehead. "Ah ah ah," he said. "That's not funny. Tell you what, I can work on your jokes while Fifi does your face. Slim, Jim, you guys see what our other guests have for us."
The other guys moved down the train to harass the other passengers. Dana kept her eyes fixed on the hand that held the gun to her head.
Guns. Jokerz with guns. Using them on normal people. Dana was sweating so much that she would have been surprised that the white gunk Fifi was smearing on her face stuck, if she could have spared a minute to think about it.
The Jokerz had always had guns. Everyone knew that. However, they had rarely used them on civilians. Innocents. They preferred stupid gags and their fists when they went around town assaulting people. The guns they reserved for shootouts with the cops or gang wars with the Ts. Dana focused her eyes on the Joker's face. Was he crazy? More than usual? Did he realize how many things could go wrong when a gun was brought into play? Did he even care?
Would he really shoot her?
She couldn't be sure. He waved the gun in the direction of a passenger who had started to beg loudly; Fifi took the opportunity to smear the last of her make-up on Dana's forehead. Then she pulled out a tube of bright red lipstick—and dropped it as the train jerked to a stop.
"Watch it!" the leader snapped as Fifi dove for the lipstick. Either the girl didn't hear him or she didn't care, for she bumped into his legs as she reached for the tube, and they both fell in a tangled heap. The gun fired a bright, screaming laser bolt.
Dana clapped her hands over her ringing ears and saw her phone skip away from the struggling Jokerz. She jumped onto the seats to avoid them and leaned down, grabbing the phone before it could slide out of reach. There was another door at the end of the car. If she could—
Slim and Jim were between her and there, and they looked angry. Dana backpedaled, jumping off the seat and out the door near Fifi and the leader. She had just enough time to register the fact that the terminal was empty before someone shoved her in the back. She fell to the ground in a graceless sprawl, somehow managing to keep a grip on her phone, and dialed 911 as she scrambled back to her knees.
"911 emergency, what's your location?"
"Amusement Mile subway station," she gasped. "A bunch of Jokerz—"
A blow to her head sent her phone flying again. Dana slumped back to the ground with a moan and grabbed her temple; it felt warm and sticky. She let go and put her hand on the ground, staring in dull fascination at the red smudge it left there.
"Calling the cops, huh?" said someone above her. "That's just not funny."
Two more spots of red joined the handprint on the ground. There was a loud crunch, and the smashed pieces of her phone fell alongside them.
"Hey J-man, if the cops are coming, shouldn't we get out of here?" one of the guys said.
The voice above her spoke again. "Of course we are, idiot. Come one, new recruit." A hand grabbed Dana's hair and pulled, forcing her to her feet. She found herself staring at the leader's face, his gun now tucked under her chin. "We really should think of a name for you," he continued.
She was fragged anyway, so Dana spit in his face.
To her surprise, J-man just giggled as he wiped it away. "Spittle! What a good choice. Hey everyone! Let's welcome Spittle to our gang!"
The others whooped as Dana just stared. She must have gotten a concussion, because this had to be a dream. A horrible, head injury induced nightmare. Fifi squealed and actually hugged her while Slim and Jim slapped her on the back and J-man's gun stayed level with her head. "All right, now let's get out of here," the leader growled.
The train was rumbling away from the station. The Jokerz waited until it was gone, and then they jumped down to the tracks. J-man put the gun to Dana's back and gave her a little push, indicating that she should follow. More blood ran down her face as she knelt at the edge of the platform, dripping onto the yellow boundary line.
Blood, she thought. Blood trail.
It was something the police could use to find her. If the Jokerz didn't catch on.
They took her back toward the Hill Square station, pulling out flashlights as they left the platform behind (Fifi's was pink). A train thundered by on the other side of the tunnel, and the Jokerz laughed and shouted and hopped over to that side when it was gone. Dana thought that they must have worked out the timing of the trains so they could move around the subway system. She prayed that none of them deviated from their schedule. Every so often she pressed her hand to her head as if the pain were overwhelming her (only partly an act) and flicked the blood to the ground.
"Hey now, you're ruining your makeup," said Slim-or was it Jim? He tried to pull Dana's hand away from her face, but J-man slapped him on the back of the head.
"Leave it," he said. "I rather like all the blood. It gives Spittle some character."
Dana suppressed the urge to spit on him again. "Where are you taking me?"
"To our secret hideout, of course!" Fifi replied. "Wait till you see it. J-man found it when the cops started raiding all our old hangouts. It was my idea to run into the subway, and once we figured out how to dodge the trains-"
"Shut it, Fifi," J-man growled.
The girl squeaked and went quiet. Dana let more blood dribble to the ground. Another train rumbled by, and the group ran back over to the other side of the tunnel. "See, here we are," J-man proclaimed, gesturing to a hole in the wall. "Home sweet home."
Dana stared. The crack was barely big enough to crawl through and pitch black on the other side. "I'm not going in there."
"Sure you are," J-man replied. "In fact, you're going in first."
She looked from the gun in his hand to the featureless hole. Fear of certain death warred with fear of the unknown, coming to a truce as Slim and Jim sidled closer to her. She asked, "Can I have a flashlight?"
J-man just laughed. Jim (or Slim?) grabbed her and pushed her at the hole. Dana stumbled and hit the wall beside it instead, but Fifi was there to nudge her in the right direction. She toppled into the darkness with a shriek that echoed.
The Jokerz' laughter echoed as well, creating a cacophony that sounded as if a hundred Jokerz were standing around, laughing at her. Another train passed, and she clapped her hands over her ears to muffle the roar.
Someone kicked her. She rolled over in an attempt to escape, nearly falling over a drop-off. Dana flailed and grabbed at the grate that formed the ground, and the Jokerz laughed at her again.
"Better be careful, Spittle," J-man said. "This place is dangerous." His flashlight beam played over her and then beyond to the edge that she lay along. Dana got a good view of a very long drop, with a glimmer that suggested water just at the limit of the beam. She scrambled back, bumped into someone's legs, and fell to the side. Laughter echoed all around her.
Fifi reached down and pulled her to her feet. "You walk where I walk, otherwise it's bye-bye Spittle!" she said.
"My name is Dana," Dana snapped in reply.
"Not anymore," Fifi cackled. She led the way along the ledge, pink flashlight playing over the grate walkway and sometimes up the concrete wall, revealing rust, mildew, and several lengths of pipe that ran from the unseen ceiling into the darkness below. After several yards they reached another wall, the walkway angling to run to a doorway. Fifi stepped through without stopping, so Dana followed her—into what appeared to be an abandoned house. The floor was made of wooden boards that creaked under their steps; the walls were molded drywall with wallpaper too peeled and faded to discern a pattern. A cracked mirror rested against one wall, and heaps of trash and debris lay scattered around. A faded paper caught Dana's eye as someone's flashlight ran over it, announcing something about Wonder City in large letters.
"What is this place?" she asked as Fifi crossed to another doorway.
"I dunno, but it's pretty shway," one of the Slim Jims said. "It's like a whole city underneath Gotham—" He cut off with a squawk as J-man hit him.
"It's ours," the leader said. "Get moving."
Dana hurried to catch up with Fifi.
The door led to a platform made of wooden boards that would have terrified her if she had stopped to think about it. As it was, the thugs at her back were crowding her forward, and she merely jumped the ten foot gap to the house across the way.
They continued through the buried houses for several minutes, winding their way down until they reached an area where the streets had not collapsed. Dana was dismayed as they turned to walk the maze of buildings without a linear path; her head had stopped bleeding enough for her to leave a trail. That was probably just as well, since she was beginning to feel light-headed and she feared it was due more to blood loss than to the head injury. However, she now worried that the police wouldn't find her before something worse happened. Time to drop the smart comments and focus on survival.
"Here we are!" Fifi announced as they reached a building at an intersection. It looked to have once been a store, though its sign had been covered with bright green and pink spray paint. The same paint covered the walls and windows, proclaiming it to be the Jokerz' home.
Maybe she didn't have to worry about the police finding her after all.
The inside of the shop housed a couple of moldy couches, a rickety table, and an ancient television. A generator in the corner provided electricity. J-man pushed Dana onto one of the couches and sat down beside her, putting his arm around her and letting the cold length of the gun press into her arm.
"All right, kiddies, we have a new member to induct into our little gang," he said. "Any ideas on how we should celebrate this occasion?"
"With a beer?" one of the Slim Jims said. The other hit him across the back of the head.
J-man laughed. "No, no, that sounds like a good start. Beers all around! Fifi, if you would."
The girl disappeared through a door in the back and returned a minute later with her arms full of beer cans. She passed them around—even giving one to Dana—before plopping onto the couch on the other side of J-man. As one, the thugs popped open their cans and chugged the contents. Dana opened hers as well, but she only sniffed it, grimaced, and set it in her lap. None of the Jokerz seemed to notice.
"That's good," J-man said as he wiped his mouth. "But we need something bigger to celebrate. Someone everyone can enjoy!" He looked at Dana with a grin. "Any ideas, Spittle?"
Dana stared down at her beer and remained silent. She was sure that if she opened her mouth, whatever came out would get her killed.
"How about we blow something up?" Slim or Jim asked after a long stretch of silence.
Fifi snorted. "With what? Our minds?"
J-man giggled, a high-pitched sound that grated on Dana's ears. "It's not a bad idea, though. Why don't we go rob a few stores? We can pick up everything we need to make a bomb! Spittle, since it's your induction ceremony, what would you like to blow up? The mall? The school, maybe? Your own house?" He burst into a fresh round of laughter.
Dana stared at him. "You're insane," she whispered.
"Finally! She's back in a joking mood," J-man said, and the Jokerz all howled with laughter.
Dana stood up and backed away from them, dropping her drink to the floor. "You're all insane. Have you even begun to think of how many people you could hurt?"
"Sure, that's what makes it fun," Fifi replied.
Dana could only stare at her in speechless horror.
"Don't worry, Spittle, you'll see how fun it is," J-man said. "Maybe we should blow up your home. It would be fitting."
"No." Dana shook her head. "I won't be part of this. I won't let you hurt anyone." She whirled and ran out the door.
Into complete darkness. There was no light in the underground city except in the Jokerz' shop. She skidded to a halt in the middle of the intersection and then shrieked as a bolt of laserfire screamed past her.
"Where are you going to go, Spittle?" J-man called. "It's a little dark out here, and you know these streets. They're just crumbling."
Dana covered her ears, but she couldn't block out the chorus of laughter. She was sure that she would never again be able to listen to laughter. Fifi's pink flashlight clicked on and played across the ground, and Dana scrambled to avoid the beam. She tripped, however, and the sound of her tumble brought the light right to her.
"Stop trying to run, Spittle," J-man said, striding toward her even as she scooted back in an effort to get away. "Don't you see? Your future is with us!"
"You have no future."
The voice came from the darkness. The voice was the darkness.
The Jokerz shouted as one, and Dana huddled against the ground as J-man started firing wildly into the shadows. He never came close to the shadow that hit him in the face and knocked the gun from his hand.
What came next was a confusing series of thuds, grunts, and screams from a fight that Dana could barely see. The only light came from Fifi's thin pink beam, and the girl had backed away from the battle, trying to focus the light on the moving shadow and screaming for the others to hit it, kill it, beat it down. However, the shadow always seemed to slide away from, and soon something small and dark zipped from the middle of the battle, shattering the flashlight. Fifi screamed.
Dana looked around wildly, terror rising in her at the sudden lack of light. The sounds of the fight ended with a final thud, and then there was only the sound of running footsteps and heavy breathing. The steps didn't get far before they too ended in a chocked scream as the shadow caught up to Fifi.
Silence. Only the low moans of one of the men and the sound of her own thudding heart broke it. Dana pressed herself to the ground, trying not to breathe, trying to make no sound that would draw the shadow that had so easily beaten the Jokerz. Whatever it was, it wasn't the police. She remembered her experience with Patrick and the giant rats, and she wondered what other mutated thing could be living under Gotham. What she could have brought on herself with her oh-so-clever blood trail.
Silence. No shuffle of footsteps. Where had the shadow gone? Dana dared to sit up.
A light clicked on three feet from her, and she screamed, shielding her eyes from the sudden glare. The light lowered until it was just below her face level. "You're hurt," said the shadow.
Dana lowered her hand enough to squint over her fingers. The shadow, she now saw, was a man, crouching in front of her with the light attached to his waist. The black fabric he wore absorbed most of it, so that he seemed truly a shadow except for the faint glow of his eyes and the blood red symbol across his chest.
Batman. It was Batman. Dana let out a shaky sigh of relief, but she didn't completely relax. It wasn't the first time Batman had saved her, but it was the first she had enough time to process the fact that he was here, crouching in front of her. The first rescue had been hectic; all she remembered was Batman showing up in time to fly her away from a massive explosion. All she had felt was grateful.
Now she had to see him, to look at him face to face, and even though she knew he was there to help, she still felt afraid. She felt she was seeing him the way criminals saw him.
Vengeance. The night.
The Jokerz truly were insane to do anything to draw this man's attention.
A gloved hand reached out to touch her forehead. Dana flinched away. "I'm fine," she said. "It's just a bump."
"Just a bleeding bump," Batman corrected. "Did they hurt you anywhere else? Can you walk?"
"No, I'm not hurt, and I can walk." Dana pushed herself to her feet, ignoring the hand that was offered. "Can you get me out of here?"
"Easily." Batman stepped past her. "Stay close to me. This place is dangerous."
"I know of noticed," Dana replied. She looked back, but she couldn't see the gang members. "What about them?" she asked anyway.
"The cops will take care of them," he replied. He was already moving away—and taking the light with him—so Dana hastened to catch up.
"How did you find me?" she asked, since he seemed willing to talk.
"You left quite a trail." He even sounded amused. It was strangely familiar.
"No, I don't mean that." She stepped ahead of him just as they reached the end of the streets, halting their progress. "I mean, how did you even know I was down here?"
"I monitor the emergency dispatch channels. When I heard your call come in, I knew there was trouble that I could get to faster than the cops."
That made sense…sort of. "But don't you have better things to do? Not that I'm not grateful…"
"Better than beating up Jokerz?"
That was familiar enough that Dana smiled. It disappeared quickly however; the mask that was Batman's face allowed for little expression, and none of it cheerful. Looking away, Dana stepped to the side and let him continue.
"Tell me what happened," he said as he resumed the lead.
Dana told him her story as they picked their way back through the buried city. He listened without interruption, but he gave no comment when she fell silent. Not wanting to test his patience, she kept quiet as well.
They continued in that way until they reached the last house before the grated walkway, where Batman paused and held out an arm.
"What is it?" Dana asked.
He turned his head long enough to put a finger to his mouth, so she shut up. She waited, listening to the distant trip of water, before she realized that that wasn't the only sound. Voices. She could hear voices.
"Stay here," Batman hissed, dropping to a crouch. He turned his belt light off, and Dana froze. She was perfectly happy to stay right here in the pitch black and not move a muscle.
The voices came closer, but she still couldn't make out what they were saying. Dana clutched her arms and shivered, hoping that they weren't more Jokerz coming to join their friends. Sure, Batman had beaten the others with astonishing ease, but he had plenty of room to fight back there. Here, with so many obstacles, where one misstep could send him falling to his death…
He can fly, idiot, Dana told herself. Why was she so worried about him, anyway? He was Batman. She pressed a hand to her head, trying to will her headache away. It was making her thoughts fuzzy around the edges.
The belt light reappeared just outside the, and Dana jumped. "It's the police," Batman said as he stepped inside. "They've stopped the trains until they could find you and the Jokerz. They're going to lead you out while I take a squad back to the gang."
Dana nodded as several cops followed him into the room. "Thank you," she said.
He said nothing, but looked back at her once before leading most of the officers back into the underground city.
Dana followed her assigned escort out of the ruins and through the tunnels to the subway station, once again repeating her tale when the police prompted her. When they arrived, she was shocked to see the platform crawling with officers. "All this just for me?" she asked.
"It's the Jokerz," her escort explained. "The Commissioner has been chasing the last few groups of them for the last month, but they've kept disappearing into the underground. Now that we know where they've gone, though, we might be able to root them all out. Keep them from getting a foothold in the streets again. Not that you aren't important, too."
Dana smiled to let him know that she wasn't offended. He led her to an ambulance crew by the stairs and left her to their care.
She was adamant about not going to the hospital, much to the paramedic's annoyance, but she did allow them to use three full bottles of sterile water in an attempt to wash the blood and makeup off her face. Another police officer came over to take her statement while they worked.
"Are you sure you don't want to go to the hospital?" the medic asked as the cop finished and left. He wiped away the last bit of moisture and taped a square of gauze across her forehead.
"I just want to go home," Dana replied, watching as the squad of policemen and Batman emerged from the tunnel, dragging along four dazed Jokerz. "Besides, I think they need medical attention more than I do."
"Batman is our job security," the medic replied cheerfully. "Just let me get your information for my report."
Dana dutifully answered his questions, but her eyes stayed on Batman. He left the Jokerz to the police and walked over to talk to the older woman who seemed to be running the show. He also kept glancing in her direction.
"Hey, pay attention, this is important," the paramedic said.
Dana looked back at him.
"As long as you understand that you could have a brain injury that you might not know about that could worsen until you die, you can refuse transport to the hospital by our service," he continued.
"I'll take my chances." She signed the offered computer screen, stood up, and was immediately caught by another policeman. He gave her a case card and explained that she should come down to the station the next day to officially press charges. Dana agreed without really listening; her headache had worsened and her thoughts were getting fuzzier. Somewhere along the way, she had lost track of Batman. That was just as well. She couldn't decide if his presence was comforting or unnerving, and the confusion didn't help her head.
The same officer who had brought her out of the tunnels also escorted her up to the streets. "You sure you don't want to go to the hospital?" he asked. "I bet the Commissioner would let me take you there if you're just looking to avoid an ambulance bill."
Dana was getting sick of the question. "Thanks, but all I need is some rest in my own bed," she replied, amazed at how civil she sounded. And not to have to call my parents from a hospital and listen to them whine about how this proves that my career choice is too dangerous. Never mind that this proved her own point instead—simply living in Gotham City was dangerous.
"All right then," the cop said. "If you need us, you know our number." He turned and went back down the steps to the subway station.
Dana turned and looked down the street. People had gathered outside a barrier beyond several police cars, curious to see what was going on. A few who had microphones waved and called to her, and she turned away in disgust. The media were the last people she wanted to deal with now. The other end of the road had just as many onlookers, but none were working for news outlets, so she was able to slip through them with nothing more than a few curious stares.
The neon lights from the numerous clubs and casinos that made up Amusement Mile were harsh after the darkness of the buried city and dim lights of the station. They cut through her eyes and straight into her brain. Dana grimaced against the pain and walked down the road, hoping to find a taxi quickly.
"You should be going to the hospital."
Dana jumped right out of her skin. "Stop doing that!" she snapped, turning to face the alley the voice had come from.
Batman stood half in darkness, the harsh neon glow of the bar sign almost seeming reluctant to touch him. Even his eyes were dimmed; only the bat symbol stood out, shimmering red. "I didn't mean to startle you," he said, his gentle tone at odds with his ominous appearance.
"Why are you still here?" she asked. "Are you stalking me now?"
"I'm looking out for you," he replied. "Not many girls would go wandering the streets after being kidnapped by Jokerz."
"I'm not wandering the streets, I'm looking for a taxi," she shot back. "And for the final time, I don't need a hospital. I just need to go home and rest."
"You say that now." His face was expressionless, but a touch of amusement once again colored his voice. "When you're the paramedic begging someone to go get checked out, you'll remember this and think about you really should have gone yourself."
Dana stared at him, a chill creeping down her back and settling in her stomach. "How did you know I plan to be a paramedic?"
He stiffened. It was subtle, but the movement was there; the line of his shoulders sharpened, making him stand out from the shadows just a little more. After a minute, he answered. "You mentioned it earlier."
"I didn't. I've only told three people, and I know they wouldn't say anything."
"You did." His tone left no room for argument, even if Dana was sure (well, fairly sure) that he was lying. He turned, jerking his head back toward the alley. "Come on. If I can't talk sense into your concussed head, at least let me take you home. It's safer and cheaper than a taxi ride."
Despite all her reservations and the unease Batman inspired, Dana took barely ten seconds to consider the offer before nodding and joining him. He was right, it would be safer and cheaper, and no doubt quicker as well. But one thought above all pierced the pain fog in Dana's head: she was being offered a ride in the Batmobile. Wait until Max and Chelsea heard about this!
Batman led her to a shabby, forgotten courtyard closed in by an old apartment and two clubs. Nothing seemed to be there at first, but as they approached, the Batmobile appeared, all sleek lines and glistening black armor. It was almost enough to make Dana forget about her headache. Almost.
Batman popped open the cockpit and leaped up to its side. Turning, he held out a hand to Dana. This time she took the help, scrambling into the small space behind the pilot's chair. Clearly the craft was built for a single occupant, but that was no problem. She could still see out the canopy as Batman closed it and settled into the seat. The hovercar started with a hum, and Dana gripped the back of the seat as it rose into the air, determined to not miss a second of this once in a lifetime ride.
To her chagrin, however, she found that she was too tired to enjoy the trip. Her headache returned full force as the novelty of the flight grew thin, and the hum of the ship soothed her into relaxing. She tried to watch as they flew through the city, but exhaustion soon took hold, and Dana leaned back and closed her eyes.
She had just begun to doze off when the Batmobile dipped ever so slightly. Dana sat up and looked out to see the familiar streetlights and lit windows of her neighborhood. Batman angled the craft down to the street and landed it in front of her house.
"You sure you're okay?" he asked.
Dana scowled as she saw her father look out the front door. "Not anymore," she said. She hadn't even considered how her parents would react when their daughter came home escorted by Batman himself. So much for explaining away the lump on her forehead.
Batman stood up. "If you want, I can explain—"
"Oh no," Dana interrupted. "That'll just make it worse. Trust me, I can handle my parents."
"I believe you." Again there was that familiar amused tone. Batman helped her down, and then waited as she paused, looking back at him.
"Thanks for the ride," she said. "And for saving my life."
He said nothing, but she could have sworn that one corner of his mouth quirked up in a smile. The canopy lowered, cutting off her view, and the Batmobile rose into the air, vanishing as her father joined her at the end of the walk.
"Dana, what happened? Are you all right? Was that Batman?" He fired out all the questions in one breath and stopped to heave for air.
"It's a long story, I'm shway, and yes," she replied. Then she turned and hugged him.
Some of the anger left his face. "Well, as long as you're safe and home," he said. "Don't think this gets you out of trouble, though. You have a lot of explaining to do, young lady. And what possessed you to tell Batman exactly where you live?"
Dana froze, and then she pulled away, painting a smile on her face as she lied through her teeth. "I can't exactly say no if Batman offers me a ride, Dad. How else was he going to get me here?"
The chill from earlier had returned, and she barely heard her father speaking as they walked back to the house together.
So many little moments, little gestures that seemed familiar. And knowledge that he shouldn't have. How does Batman know my plans for the future?
How does he know where I live?