Paper Hearts, part 13

by Chicago

Disclaimers in "part 0"

Consciousness returned with an ineffectual jerk and the sound of sepulchral laughter. Bound. And blindfolded. How-?

Memory returned in a rush, treating the hostages, then the unexpected flight of Batman, the reach for her jumpline and - darkness. Scarecrow had caught her - and still he was laughing, a stark contrast to the stuttering man she had seen at Multigon. And the laughter seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, disorienting her.

She grimaced, testing her bonds. She was tied to a chair; each ankle secured to a different chair leg, her arms pulled straight down to the other two legs, where they were tied at the wrist. Straps across her chest and thighs kept her from arching up, kept her firmly attached to the unforgiving wood. Not inescapable - at least, she had seen Batman handle more difficult. But her fingers were already numb, and there was no give in her bonds.

She gave an experimental lunge.

The chair didn't budge, but the laughter intensified.

She gritted her teeth in annoyance. "How long you been practicing that laugh, Crane?" she spat.

That quieted him a little, or at least replaced the laughter with words. "Such defiance! But do not mistake such bravery. Courage is a response to fear." There was a brush of burlap across her jawline, and she fought a shudder to lunge uselessly toward the contact, prompting a menacing chuckle. "You see? You can almost smell it."

"He's coming for you," she threatened, hoping it was true.

Another laugh. "Oh, I count on it, my dear. Although who would have believed my trap would yield such valuable bait?"

There were hands on her arm, pushing up the kevlar sleeve. She clenched her muscles, trying to struggle.

"This is a new one in his little army. What motivates her, do you think? Some fear. And we will find it, my student."

She gasped at the pinch and burn of a needle entering her flesh. Fight it, she told herself, rationalizing it was only her imagination that she could feel something searing through her veins, forcing her heart to beat faster.

"Yes," Crane's voice hissed. "Taste her fear. She will tell herself that the antitoxin the Bat has given her will protect her, or she will use his little mental tricks to steady her mind, but she will fail."

She swallowed hard, seeking the mental center that Batman had drilled her to cultivate. She hated those lessons, the implication that all her discipline learned before his employ was inadequate.

And now she couldn't do it. He didn't want her death on his conscious. He said it all the time, every time she argued for a greater roll in his crusade, a better angle from which to protect him...

"Ahh." Another brush of burlap over her forehead, blending beads of sweat into a damp smear, cold and chilling. "You can see he hasn't had her long. Already cracks in the armor he gives his disciples."

Disciples. She wasn't Batman's disciple. She was his bodyguard, the cover.

"Why did he leave her, I wonder? Maybe she knows."

"He'll get you," she ground out, mentally cursing the waver in her tone. Why did he leave her? Because of her failure to save Alana? No, that wasn't right. Alana was alive, and he didn't operate that way. Not about vengeance, he insisted.

He didn't leave her, she decided. He wouldn't. But he counted on her to respond when he flashed away - trusted her just once to act without orders. What she wanted him to do. And she failed.

"There is something about this place for our Batman," Scarecrow continued. "What is it that makes him run and abandon one of his own? What fear is at his heart?"

"He's not afraid," she contradicted, but doubt stirred in her mind. All the cryptic comments about Scarecrow calling Batman out. About the possibility of a trap. He was right, and now...

Scarecrow would kill her, she knew with cold certainty. Kill her to break Batman, if that's what it took. To break him so he could kill him, leave him cold and dead and a victim not of Scarecrow, but of Sasha Bordeaux, too stubbornly stupid to understand that at every step she was making him vulnerable.

She couldn't let him know. Couldn't let Scarecrow have the ammunition...

"He knows your game," she warned. "He won't-" She stopped herself. She would make it worse. Better to stay silent.

But Crane was laughing again. "Oh, she is very new," he crowed. "Such misplaced and misunderstood faith. She has not seen how he writhes when you threaten his underlings. Remember this is his Achilles' heel. Study it, and understand how it will not be our weakness."

Our. Sasha blinked beneath the blindfold. Earlier he had spoken to his "student." She cursed her lack of perception. She had thought he was addressing her, his curious speech pattern one of madness. But no, there was someone else with them.

"What's your name?" she asked, listening intently to isolate where the other person might be.

"You have already addressed me by it, my dear," Crane pointed out loftily.

"Not you. The other one. Your student."

This brought a cackle from Scarecrow. "Good," he declared. "You see how his followers are smart. I had wondered for a moment if he had misjudged, but intelligence is a useful thing. So much more potential fear."

"He's mad, you know," she continued, feeling stronger. "What lies has he told you? That fear is our teacher? That knowing how your brain cannot separate fantasy from reality gives you power?"

"You know my work," Crane preened. She felt him lean in closer, straw pricking at her ear and catching in her hair. "And you know I'm right. You can feel it, can't you? He abandoned you, perhaps as part of a game plan he wouldn't trust you with. I know him you see." His voice dropped to a whisper. "I know how his head works - better than you do, it seems. He has begun to train your mind, but he hasn't finished, has he? He would never be so foolish to think that I would take an acolyte without studying his methods. He knows not to underestimate me."

She felt the pressure of a hand on her knee, her heart accelerating again as his words wormed into her skull.

"Do you know what it means to be one of his? You are his bulwark against total social isolation, but he takes you into his dark world with him. Even here, where I know his fear is rooted. Oh, you don't have to tell me. I've known for a long time. But he won't even trust you with that. If he did, you would be acting differently now, so don't deny it. He has begun severing you from the world in which you know the rules, but how much more that makes you dependent on him."

Sasha swallowed hard, feeling tears gloss over her eyes. She demanded to join his crusade. It was her choice. She forced it on him, and he had warned her over and over. She couldn't protect him. She could only hinder him. Why hadn't she realized? She could be useful to Bruce Wayne. She could be where the Bat had to hide. But Batman? She was wrong about Batman. She thought of him only as Bruce Wayne, still vulnerable inside the suit. But she had it wrong. Even Bruce Wayne wasn't vulnerable. Just... amenable. Aware. Conscious of social convention.

She was going to get him killed.

He chest felt constricted, moreso than the bonds could account for. She remembered the look on Bruce's face as Alana collapsed, bleeding, onto the table of Chez Ambrose. And if Alana had not stood when she did?

Her mind replayed the incident, saw the bullet rip into Bruce's skull. Because she couldn't fire. Because he would rather die than see another human being mowed down, and she knew it. And all the years of training in the world, the thing that made her who she was...

She would never work again, but that was not the worst of it. Even dying would not be the worst of it. The worst would be...

She squeezed her eyes shut, battling the tear fall, trying unsuccessfully to steady her breathing. Sweat trickled down her body as her heart pounded in her too tight chest, and the scenes unrolled in her mind. Again and again, Batman found himself at the heart of a succession of horrible deaths; stabbed, shot, strangled, beaten, gutted, drawn and quartered, whipped, burned... and everytime the mask slipped, the cowl pulled or cut or melted free to reveal the anguished face of Bruce Wayne, staring out at her with accusation in his eyes, recognizing her as his killer...

A strangled sound escaped her, and the Scarecrow's hideous laugh echoed around her over the sound of screams...

"Our work here is done," she heard him say, and she felt the blindfold ripped away...

She forced herself to open her eyes, to see her tormentors...

But they weren't there. There was only a twisted, kevlar clothed body, legs at impossible angles, costume shredded above the waist where deep cuts could not compete with the gaping, sucking wound in his chest, blasted open to reveal the heart pumping only to spray blood onto the floor and slowing as she watched in horror. The wet sound of desperate breathing overwhelmed the Scarecrow's laughter as blood-streaming mouth gulped at air that would never fill lungs. And above that mouth the broken nose and shattered cheekbones of a beaten face, somehow not beaten enough to swell the eyes completely shut.

And the eyes. The whites were lost to burst blood vessels, but the blue remained. Deep piercing blue. Blue that was riveted on her - no, past her - anguished beyond the pain of his body.

She turned her head, made herself look away for an instant to follow his gaze.

Her cheek bumped a hand in which her blindfold dangled from limp fingers.

Limp fingers that belonged to an arm hanging down clad in black and blue.

An arm that connected to a body suspended from the ceiling above by a meat hook driven through its ankles.

A body that barely retained a head, thoroughly doused in blood from the spine deep cut to its throat.

Nightwing. Trying to rescue her even as he died. Bruce's son.


She turned back to him to see his broken eyes had found her face, now found her eyes, not even accusing - just lost. Because of her.

One more burbling gasp and she realized the blood arcing from his chest had become a trickle, and the heart in the yawning cavern that used to be his chest... stopped. Dead.

Sasha strained against her bonds and screamed.

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