Paper Hearts, part 28

by Chicago

Disclaimers in "part 0"

Alfred smoothly guided the car over the bridge. The GCPD had been very accomodating when the illusion of Bruce Wayne insisted he wanted to go home. Ready to break their protective custody anyway, they had even decoyed the press by taking charge of the limo and driving it around to the front entrance of the building. While the lingering reporters and cameramen buzzed and jostled, hoping for a glimpse of the harried billionaire, Alfred Pennyworth had made his untroubled way to the garage level and quietly driven off in the Town Car.

It wasn't his favorite car to drive, but it was unobtrusive enough for the drive to Leslie's clinic and then on to the Manor. It was also on hand, and making use of it freed J'onn from the chore of projecting the image of a cranky Bruce Wayne into the minds of everyone in the vicinity of the penthouse. The Martian hadn't complained - really hadn't even hinted that the effort even qualified as an inconvenience - but in the past few months, Alfred had noted that J'onn's capacity for stoicism made Batman seem expressive.

He passed a trundling newspaper van - early morning traffic was already making the city streets relatively active. Thankfully, traffic wasn't dense enough yet to bottleneck at the construction throughout the Bowery and Crime Alley, but in another hour or so? Four million Gothamites would begin their days, oblivious to the horrors they had been spared in the night.

Alfred sighed, turning up the street that led to Leslie's clinic. He'd had worse nights - he truly had. There had been the night that Bane had broken Bruce's back, when it seemed so possible that it would all end there. Before that, the night Jason had died, and the night Barbara had been shot. The quake - that seemed more like one long nightmare.

They'd survived it all, and they'd survived tonight.

He pulled the Town Car up to the curb, just past the freshly repainted yellow of the ambulance unloading zone. The luxury car wouldn't raise so many eyebrows here as it might have before No Man's Land - the neighborhood was changing. A good thing, he supposed, although it wouldn't be long - five years, perhaps? - before the upwardly mobile residents would begin to look askance at the free clinic bringing undesirables into their neighborhood. Resentful eyes would begin to notice that the clinic blurred the line between clinic and hospital, would press officials to look closer, open the blind eye, and challenge the legality of Leslie's operation. Or they would work more subtly through politicians, re-zoning the area so that Leslie would have to close up and move elsewhere.

But not yet.

Now, the clinic was a needful thing, the only place where many still in the neighborhood and the surrounding area could come for healthcare.

He walked up to the front door of the clinic and pressed the night bell.

It took a couple of minutes, but eventually the door did open.

"Mr. Pennyworth! Doc Leslie said you might stop by."

A large black man stepped clear of the door, inviting him in. "Good morning, Giorgio," Alfred greeted, giving the man a heartfelt smile. Giorgio had been with Leslie during No Man's Land, had stayed with her when Gotham reopened. He was one of four doctors and nurses who had Leslie's unquestioned trust - even with issues of the Bat. They didn't know who wore the masks they sometimes treated, and they remained confidently incurious, bound by a code that had developed into a steely hardness under the pressures of practicing medicine cut off from supplies and support.

"Here for Sasha, is it? She's up and about. We were just playing gin rummy." Giorgio led Alfred into the staff lounge as he talked. "You want some coffee?"

Alfred shook his head. "I'm supposed to return home directly," he explained, his eyes catching sight of Sasha.

She looked blearily at him, dark circles under her eyes. "Hi, Alfred." She sounded subdued.

"Good morning, Ms. Bordeaux," he replied, inspecting her worn jeans and baggy sweater - clearly salvaged from Leslie's collection of donated clothes. It was likely that Giorgio had not seen her as the cover, knew only that Bruce Wayne's bodyguard had managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not that it mattered - he wasn't going to talk about it.

"Time to go home?" Sasha asked.

Alfred nodded. "Do you have a coat?"

"I'll get her one," Giorgio offered, disappearing down the hall.

Sasha stood and walked listlessly toward Alfred, not meeting his eyes. "The news said he got them," she noted dully.

"Yes," Alfred confirmed, unwilling to share the details until they returned to the car. Still, his mind flashed back over the story J'onn had mentally shared with him of all that had happened, the twists and turns of independent plots that might well have been unstoppable had the players been acting in concert.

"Here you go," Giorgio announced, holding a coat for Sasha to shrug into.

She offered him a grateful smile. "Thank you, Giorgio."

"Hey, you made the shift go faster," he averred, returning her smile. He patted her arm. "Take care of yourself," he advised. "Maybe take a few days off. That Scarecrow toxin doesn't let go easily."

"I will," she promised. "Ready, Alfred?"

"After you, Ms. Bordeaux. And thank you, Giorgio."

"All in a night's work," he replied, watching them go.

Out at the car, Sasha ignored the back door Alfred opened and let herself into the passenger seat in front. She sank down into the seat, pulling on her seatbelt and slumping under it.

Alfred did not comment, merely closed the back door and took his place behind the wheel.

Neither spoke as he pulled away from the curb and began driving toward the expressway.

Sasha finally broke the silence. "So what happened? Were they all working together?"

"No," Alfred reassured. "Just coincidence. Hatter's technology compromised the Arkham grid, and the man who worked for Crane noticed it. Batgirl and Oracle nailed Hatter a little after Batman got Scarecrow."

"And Crane's student?"

"Batgirl caught him - he's in police custody, although there is not going to be enough evidence to hold him."

Sasha cursed under her breath. Then, "Batgirl got him - not Batman?"

"Batman was called away to Bludhaven."

A gasp came from Sasha. "Is Dick okay?" The raw fear in her voice was almost startling - she had never seemed so concerned with Dick before.

"He's a bit battered, but he is home and recovering. Torque and his accomplice are also in police custody." With their memories carefully wiped of a dangerous piece of intelligence, Alfred didn't add. J'onn had shared that detail cautiously, making it clear he hadn't told Bruce yet - that only Dick had reason to even suspect and would have his own reasons not to discuss it.

Sasha sighed and looked down at her hands. "Thank god," she breathed, then returned to her silence. Alfred wondered what visions had haunted her under Scarecrow's drugs, suspecting he knew and wishing he could take that pain from her. But wishing wouldn't help, he knew from long experience.

They were crossing the Robert Kane Bridge when she spoke again. "Alfred, I'm going to leave Bruce's employ." Her voice was choked.

He kept his face carefully neutral. "It has been a long night, Ms. Bordeaux. The situation may look different in a day or two."

She shook her head and turned to look out the window. "No," she disagreed. "It's like I'm seeing the situation for the first time. I don't belong out there."

Alfred stayed silent, letting her talk.

"I risked the mission tonight. I thought I was out there to protect him, to do my job." She sighed heavily. "And I really can't see just protecting Bruce - I'll still know _he's_ out there, even if I know I shouldn't be hindering him. That he's MY bodyguard on the rooftops." She let out a short, bitter laugh. "I just can't do it."

"You should talk to Mr. Wayne about this before you make a decision," Alfred encouraged.

"Already made," she contradicted. "But there'll have to be terms, I know. Given what I know."

Alfred turned the Town Car onto the winding driveway up to the Manor, lips pressing together thinly at evidence of a news crew waiting at the gate. They'd need to believe that Bruce was with him. "Ms. Bordeaux, if you will be kind enough to climb to the back seat, pull on the stocking cap and wrap up in the blanket you will find back there, and pretend to be sleeping across the seat?"

She glanced forward, realizing the source of his request, and swiftly obeyed as Alfred slowed the car to buy her time. When she was bundled sufficiently to be easily mistaken for anyone in the dark, Alfred sped up again and made his way to the gates. He had a curt exchange with the reporter who pounced upon him when he rolled down his window to enter his security code. A camera flash went off, and Alfred lifted his cell phone as if to make good his threat of calling the police.

The reporters backed off - obviously tired and happy enough to have even this little scoop, and Alfred drove through the Manor gates, watching sharply to make sure no one snuck through them before they closed. When they were well clear of the gates, he said, "It's okay, you can sit up."

Sasha did so, pale and trembling, her face haunted. Alfred kept his wince internal - she undoubtedly had flashed back to her capture. Perhaps she was right - it would be best for her to move on.

But that was not for him to say. He only needed to deliver her safely home and return to his duties. At least she felt she had the choice to walk away.

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