10

It took nearly an hour to sort out the mess left at the Power Plant. Batman struggled with the generator, going as far as running power cables out to the Batmobile to keep it stabilized. Robin sat to the side, handing Batman any requested tools between frequent checks to his gauntlet. Finally, an older backup was fixed up as a temporary patch until the battery could be recovered.

Part of the grid was still overloaded, though, leave the financial district without power. Commissioner Gordon was dispatching officers to patrol the affected streets when the heroes made it outside to disconnect the Batmobile.

"Thanks, Batman," Gordon said, pocketing his radio. "The workers said the grid should be back to normal in about an hour and no one was seriously hurt. One of the guards has a bump on the head but should make a full recovery in a few days."

Batman gave a curt nod. "Good. It'll be better once we bring Hatter in."

"My boys will keep an eye out for him. I doubt he'll try anything else tonight."

"Probably not. We'll track his van and see if anything turns up. We think he might have a hostage of sorts so tell your men to be cautious."

Gordon frowned. "A hostage?"

Batman and Robin shared a grim look. "We're looking into it. They may not be in danger now but it could get complicated."

"Alright," the Commissioner nodded. "Just let me know if I can do anything."

"We will."

The heroes made a quick exit to the Batmobile, leaving the cops to take care of the rest.

The drive back to the city was silent and tense, only the quiet bleep of the tracking map filing the inside of the car.

"Robin," Batman suddenly spoke. Robin flinched and glanced at his mentor. Batman was still staring ahead, barely glancing at the map as the car left the quiet suburbs and crossed the bridge into downtown Gotham. "Are you okay?" He asked still keeping his eyes on the road straight ahead.

Robin glanced down at the video before shifting his gaze out the window where buildings and lights flashed by at a dizzying pace. "Yeah... I guess."

"It's okay to be upset." Batman replied as he steered the Batmobile into a sharp left, cutting through the financial district with eerily dark and silent speed.

"I just…" he trailed off, tugging his cape around him as he fought to keep his voice calm. "I don't see why she would turn to crime."

"Why does anybody turn to crime?" Batman countered with a knowing look. "It can be complicated but it's still a decision she made."

"What if we're wrong and it's not her?" Robin tried to argue but a blank stare from the Bat killed his resolve. "Maybe she has a good reason."

"Breaking the law never has a good reason."

"But…"

"Robin." He snapped his mouth shut, turning away to cross his arms. Batman sighed wearily. "Whatever the situation is, we'll figure it out. Just…don't get too close, okay?"

Robin sat silently, refusing to glace at either the video or the tracker. Finally, he nodded.

"Good. Looks like they stopped in the Narrows." Robin finally spared a glance to see the blinking light at a standstill across the city. Taking a hard right, the Batmobile sped down the street towards the getaway van.

wvw

"I do believe congratulations are in order," Hatter cheered, throwing an arm over Anne's shoulder. Anne tried to pull away but found little room wedged in the backseat between him and Ed. Her brother had purposefully turned away, contemplating out the window without a word.

"Color me impressed, you successfully pull off two thefts! You've proven yourself to be a noble member of our cause. Welcome aboard, Answer; you're one of us now!"

Hatter's words made Anne's blood run cold and her stomach churn violently.

"Does that mean we're almost done with your plan?" she asked cautiously, keeping her eyes forward as the arm around her tensed.

"Tsk tsk," Hatter chided with a grin, "So impatient, dear Annie. We have a few pieces yet to retrieve. But rest assured, when we're through, you and your brother will be granted your earned reprieve. For now, let us head back and enjoy the spoils. The night is young and Eddie has much to toil."

Ed shot a cold glare in Hatter's direction before returning to his silent study of the passing city. Anne considered kicking him for a moment but doubted there was enough leg room to make it count.

The car lurched left, nearly tumbling Hatter's top hat as everyone scrambled to stay upright. Hatter righted the hat back on his head with a tight frown. "No, you idiots! To the hideout! We've already lost Batbrain and Birdboy, I don't want to spend all night driving in circles!"

His arm disappeared and Anne was suddenly shoved to the other side of the car as Hatter all but crawled into the front seat to start barking directions. She ended up against Ed, a more familiar arm wrapped around her shoulders to keep her steady. Anne scowled at him, receiving a guilty frown in return. With a sigh, Anne gave into fatigue and leaned against his side, a gentle shoulder squeeze giving her the slightest bit of comfort she needed.

"Ah finally!" The car turned one last time and quickly came to a stop, nearly throwing everyone out of their seats. "Let's make this quick, gentlemen. I want this car at the bottom of the harbor in half an hour."

The doors opened and Anne piled out with the others. She glanced around, taking in her surroundings now that a blindfold wasn't involved.

They were parked by a line of warehouses balanced precariously on the edge of the docks. Each were run down and covered in rust, a few already collapsed from years of neglect. Dark, murky water swirled under the wooden walkway, filling the air with the stench of rotten fish and salt.

"Dee, Dum, please take our prize inside so Eddie can get to work."

The two men opened the hatch and carefully shuffled the battery out of the car. Hatter led the way to a half decent building marked with an eight and shoved the door open with a metallic shriek.

"Ladies first," he said, taking his hat off and bowing. Anne resisted the urge to roll her eyes and stepped into the dark building, the faint scent of gas and dust stifling in the enclosed space.

A light flickered on as the others followed her inside, the same room from before coming into view, the half-finished machine still shoved to the side.

"Watch it, Frank," one of the thugs grunted, pausing to keep the battery from tipping over.

"You watch it," the other grunted back, readjusting his grip.

"Both of you watch it," Hatter shouted at them as they shuffled towards the machine. "If that battery gets even one scratch, you'll wish I had fed you to the Bandersnatch!"

"Sure thing boss!" Frank called, immediately lowering his voice to ask, "Earl, what's that supposed to mean?"

"How should I know?" Earl whispered back as the battery was gingerly lowered to the floor.

They shot a questioning look at Anne hovering near the machine. Ed had already started back on his work and was oblivious to the conversation going on around him.

Anne shrugged as she hopped up onto her usual crate. "Don't look at me."

"I thought you read the book the boss was talking about," Earl said.

"To be honest, that book is weird and nothing about Wonderland is supposed to make sense. One character is called 'The Mad Hatter' for a reason," Anne admitted. The three of them glanced at the real Hatter fidgeting with a kettle across the warehouse, muttering and laughing to himself all the while.

Frank sighed. "That explains a lot."

"No kidding," Earl added.

"So…" Anne started, trying to bite back a smile. "Who's Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum?"

They both scowled. "Quit smirking, girlie," Earl grunted. "The boss keeps calling us that. At this point, we just go along with it."

Anne put her hands up in peace. "Hey, better than 'The Answer'. What about your other friend?"

"Luke's scouting out our next hit," Frank explained. "Boss calls him White Rabbit or something. Better than Twirling Bee and Dumb or whatever. I don't even know who they're supposed to be."

"I think they told a poem or something," Anne mused for a moment. "I can always check and see if I still have my copy of Alice in Wonderland at home."

"Speaking of home!" another voice spoke, cutting the conversation short. Hatter appeared between them, sipping tea from a delicate china cup. "I do apologize, dear Annie. I would invite you to stay for tea but it's getting late and I'm sure you could use your rest." He turned to the thugs with a chilling glare. "Please escort the lady back to her apartment and ditch the car on the way back. We'll need to procure another vehicle before dawn so I suggest you get moving."

Earl and Frank nodded, quickly heading out of the warehouse. Hatter turned back to Anne with a smile. "Here you are." He fished a folded piece of paper from his coat pocket and handed it to her. "I've noted the time and place. It's becoming precarious for us to chauffeur you to and from so meet us there and please be punctual."

"Sure," Anne answered stiffly, tucking the paper in her belt and hopping off the crate. She glanced at her brother, busy running wires from the different parts to the newly provided battery. "The machine, what is it supposed to do, exactly?"

Hatter laughed, too forced and cold to be cheerful. "Curiouser and curiouser aren't we? Don't you worry you're pretty little head, Answer. All will be revealed in good time. Now, shall we?"

As Anne turned to leave, she paused, darting back to throw her arms around Ed. He kept his eyes on the machine but one arm wrapped around her shoulders in a brief half hug before retreating back to work. Anne blinked back tears, giving a final squeeze before pulling away.

"How very sweet," Hatter crooned, his grin bitter. He looped an arm through hers in a mock escort and ushered her towards the door. "Do hurry, though. My boys are on a tight schedule and time waits for no man!"

The car was already running with Earl and Frank in the front seat, the back door open and waiting. Hatter all but shoved her in, calling a quick, "Good night, Allie!" before slamming the door shut.

wvw

"Another dead end," Batman said, glowering at the van abandoned in the alley.

"They must have had another car waiting," Robin muttered, scanning the street for any clues.

"We already know the first van made a detour at the docks so they must be trying to throw us off." Batman opened the back to find the inside empty. "Check the front seat, I'll look back here."

Robin nodded and disappeared around the van. Batman scanned the back hatch, noticing a strap trailing from under one of the benches. He grabbed it and tugged out a gym bag, a quick search finding basic clothes and tennis shoes.

"Find anything?" Batman asked as he exited the van. Robin appeared, handing over a clear film in his gloved hands.

"Some fingerprints on the door handles and steering wheel."

Batman nodded. "Good, we can run it through the computer and try to find some matches."

"What about you?"

"A bag with some clothes, not much else." Batman held the bag out to Robin with a knowing stare. "Look familiar?"

Robin took it, his surprise shifting to anger as he recognized the bag. Unzipping it, he took note of the items inside.

"Well?" Batman asked after a moment.

"It's hers," Robin admitted with a sigh. He shouldered the bag and marched towards the Batmobile, Batman only a few steps behind. Flinging the evidence in the back, Robin slumped in his seat, watching as the hatch slid shut.

"I'm sorry, Dick," Batman spoke, quiet but sincere. "We'll still help if she needs it but we can't make excepts."

"Can we just…go home?" Robin huffed, turning away to glare out the tinted window.

Batman frowned but nodded, setting the auto pilot for the cave as he examined the fingerprints and patched in a call to Gordon.

Dick tuned out the conversation, distracted by endless questions and the blur of the passing buildings. Out of habit, he glanced at his gauntlet, the apartment still unchanged on the screen. A mix of anger, disappointment, and confusion flared in his chest and he yanked the gauntlet from his arm and tossed it on the floor, kicking his cape over it so it was out of sight.