Sympathy for The Devil
“Do you know how a falcon is trained, my dear? Her eyes are sewn shut. Blinded temporarily, she suffers the whims of her God patiently, until her will is submerged and she learns to serve.” —Vicente Price The Masquerade of the Red Death (1964)
The drive from Ohio took most of the day and was completed in a little over 8 hours. It was around 4pm when the three arrived in Gotham, the city streets filled with their usual chaos and swarms. The traffic was heavy and it took an extra hour just to reach the motel where Dick and Raven would be staying.
Dick watched as the city went by in lost reels of old memories, the years passing him by. The smell of the city air seeped in through the cracked windows, filled with exhaust and the stink of the warm pavement. The music of the city sang high with cacophonous sound of scattered voices and the hum of automobiles, clashing together in a symphony of white noise. It was so different than Jump. It had so much history and prestige attached to it, Gotham truly was a city steeped power, but it also has its darkness.
Dick noticed the glint in Raven’s eyes as she peered up in awe at monstrous buildings that had stood for decades. She’d never been to Gotham before, there was never any need for her to go. But now as she looked on at its vintage aesthetic, Dick could see her captivation at the cityscape, its dark character alluring to her smoky exterior.
“So this where you grew up,” she said softly.
“Yeah, for a while at least. Closest thing I ever came to a hometown.”
Dick looked over to his right where he noticed a tall structure, proudly standing off in the distance, its legacy high in the lowering sun.
His eyes laid firmly on the building as it stood watch over the city like some sort of mighty guardian. Raven looked back at him through the mirror, noticing the faraway look caught in his gaze. She followed his line of sight to the towering building, realizing what it meant to him. She remained silent however, not wanting to dig deep into his already gaping wound.
With time, the beauty and power of the city began to vanish. The powerful structures and artful stone work, being slowly replaced by smaller, less cared for monuments. The people began to look less and less put together, and more misplaced and forgotten. Cars lost their shine, and in its place wore dirt and rust. The grandeur that Gotham possessed eventually fell from existence, and the melancholy that fed off those who couldn’t obtain such a thing became its keeper.
This was the rougher part of town, the part that people went out of their way to avoid. The part that people didn’t care about. It was the city’s dirty secret, where the poor, the sick, and the unwanted dwelled. The East End was the part of Gotham where people went to be forgotten.
Dick had told Raven about this part of the city, but seeing it left a far deeper impression on her.
Red X eventually pulled into a motel parking lot, its seedy exterior reeking of countless misdeeds and cruelties. He reached into the center console of the car and from it, removed a room key.
“Here,” he said tiredly, “you’re in 101. Get some sleep, I’ll be back here to get you at 12. The plan moves forward from there.”
Dick took the key and looked down at it indecisively, “Is there anything we should be aware of before tonight?”
“Only that it’s not too late,” X sighed tiredly.
“I know,” Dick replied ruefully, “But that doesn’t change what I have to do.”
“I’ll be sure to chisel that on your tombstone,” X replied with stale cynicism.
“Make sure you add, this coming from a stubborn prick,” Raven added, swinging her door open.
“You know, Sunshine, for all of our differences over the years, I’m really starting to like you.”
“The feeling’s not mutual,” she shot back, getting ready to close the door.
The door slammed with a roll of the dark girl’s eye. Her ex-leader taking in the sound with a little humor cracking in his throat. The thief looked over at him, a content look fresh on the hero’s face.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” Dick said opening his door, “it’s just funny whenever Rae reads someone to filth.”
Red X smiled and freed a subtle laugh, “You should know, Chuckles. You’re usually on the other end of it.”
Dick stepped out of the car and looked back at the smug blonde thief, “Yeah, but she actually likes me,” the young hero added slamming the door.
Dick looked up to see a ruffled expression on the boy’s face and an astringent finger presented in his direction.
“Oh that’s really nice, X,” he grumbled, knowing that the boy couldn’t really hear him.
He turned to Raven, who seemed amused by the childish gesture as she waited under the feeble motel overhang. Dick shook his head at her and motioned in her direction.
“So did you two figure out who’s the bigger man?” Raven asked as he approached.
Dick rolled his eyes at her, and her colorful remark. “You are,” he replied, sardonically passing her.
She laughed and followed behind him as he unlocked the weary door and opened it. The room itself wasn’t very clean and was even worse than the one they’d stayed in out west. This one reeked of cigarette smoke, to the point that of it provoking the eyes to water, the carpet scared with all sorts of questionable stains.
“Well I’m confident a murder took place here,” Raven said, looking at the dirt and neglect.
“One? Try multiple murders,” Dick said placing his bag down. “This place has always been a beacon for the unspeakable.”
“Which I’m guessing is why Red X put us here?”
“That would be correct. No one sees anything here, it’s a good place to disappear.”
Raven reluctantly placed her bag down on the bed, looking up at the smoke stained ceiling and discolored wallpaper. “So do you wanna go over the plan?”
Dick peered up at her as he opened his bag, her eyes spilling with worry. “It’s simple; we go in, we rough up Joker, we get what Jason wants, and we leave.” He took out a few thing, including bag filled containing sealed bottles. “You’re still good with not using you’re powers, right? If the League finds out about this, I don’t know what they’ll do.”
Raven rolled her eyes and stepped forward, letting her finger blindly tap along the end table. “Probably hit us with their moral high horse, like Polonius and his rules to live by.” Dick smiled at cynicism as she continued, “But yes; no powers, no toys, nothing that could lead anyone back use, I got it—but what if it’s not that easy?”
“It will be,” Dick reassured, taking out the old gloves Bruce had given him, “it has to be.”
Raven looked away for a moment, biting her lip, but just couldn’t keep her tongue pinned, “We don’t even know what it is Jason wants?”
“We will. It’s probably money, or something Joker got his hands on before he could.”
She sat down on the bed a little uncomfortable, the lines growing deeper in her face. “Has it ever crossed your mind that maybe Jason…” she paused and bit her lip again, too uncertain to finish her sentence.
“Nothing, just forget it.”
Dick could see by her drifting eyes that he couldn’t, and neither could she. “No, what were you going to say?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does if you were going to say it.” He held the gloves in his hand, his grip on them firm as he looked down at her discomfort. “Just say it, I won’t be mad.”
Raven looked up at him again, this time her eyes cloudy and bleak. She knew he’d take issue with her words and he should, but her concerns were still valid.
“What if this is just Jason’s way of getting you out of the way?”
Dick’s eyes fell on her with a look that reaffirmed her statement, like the thought had crossed his mind a time or two.
“I know that’s a possibility,” he replied mournfully, “but this is how we prove he can trust us.”
“But what if we’re wrong? What if this is some sort of trap?”
“Then we know we can’t trust him.”
Dick looked down at the black leather gloves still tight in his hand. He recalled the last time he ever placed his trust in Jason, the odd parallel leaving him bitter with irony. It had been years; Jason was still very much a child then. That was his excuse—then. He didn’t know better, but what was his excuse now—being the product of an unfortunate miracle?
Dick tried to push the unpleasant memory away, though its unsavory nature left a foul taste in mouth. Still, as much as it lingered, he couldn’t let it get the better of him. Not tonight—and not—with the Joker.
Hours had passed, leaving the two some time to prepare and get some well needed rest (not that Dick slept). He thought about what Raven said, though part of him wanted to believe that Jason would never be so vindictive. But as Bruce (so honestly) pointed out, “death changes people,” and not for the better.
By now the two birds had begun to go over some last minute details, which included a backup plan and an “insurance policy.” Dick always had a contingency plan, this time would be no different, especially if Jason’s loyalty lied elsewhere.
“So you have a contingency plan?” Raven asked leaning over to lace up her boots.
“Actually, I have two,” Dick replied, glancing in her direction, “one to prevent us from dying, and the other’s in place if we die anyway.”
Raven laughed, “So what’s gonna happen if we bite it?”
Dick smiled and looked down as he pondered whether to wear the gloves or not. “I gave Roy a file that has everything on it about Slade, Red X, the letter from Jason, and the lab results from the krokodil. I told him if anything happens to us, to give it to Bruce. He’ll send it via mail.”
“That’s smart, I guess,” Raven replied, pulling her long, bottle-black, hair into a loose braid.
“He’s gonna send it tomorrow morning if he doesn’t hear form me by then.”
His eyes still remained on the worn gloves, his hands still hesitant to pull them on. Part of him couldn’t bear to don them, especially after everything he’d done, and had not done. But there was a part of him that wanted to wear them in spite, to insult every expectation Dick was ever saddled with. To diminish the standard he just couldn’t reach. But there was one more part, and that was the part that wanted to live up to those expectations, the part that felt he should.
His eyes remained upon them with division. All three prerogatives fighting to prevail in what the gloves would, or would not represent. Yet somehow, when he looked at them, he only saw that little boy wearing his father’s gloves. Dick was hit with a faint sense of pride, coupled with an everlasting defeat he had not yet overcome. A confliction of his ego, and his heart.
“So do you really think Jason might betray you?” Raven asked, pulling his cumbersome focus from his hands.
“I honestly don’t know,” he said, “I think it all depends on whether he thinks there’s something to gain by getting rid of me.”
Dick paused as his eyes drifted to Raven. She’d just finishing braiding her hair, her back turned to him as she peered through the mirror. He noticed something black peeking out from under the strap of her black tank top. He could only see half of the shaded image, and recalled the outstretched wings of a raven perched on her shoulder blade. She turned to him with concern as his face held inquiry. As far as he knew, he’d done nothing to Jason personally, or intentionally, but he also knew that in Jason’s eyes, pictures never quite looked the same. And as far as Dick and Jason’s relationship was concerned, it was very complicated—on both their ends.
“Only Jason can really answer that.”
Dick paused again, and took out two masks similar to his Nightwing cover, but these not quite as deliberate.
“Here,” he said handing one to Raven. “So on one figures out who we are.”
She took it, noticing his gloves still in hand. Normally, she would have thought nothing of them, but the fact he seemed to hold them with hostility was hard to ignore.
“You gonna wear those?”
Dick looked down at them painfully, his grip bitter as the leather rested tight beneath his fist. “I don’t know yet?”
The car ride was mostly quiet with only the soft roll of the engine humming reliably beneath the hood. Dick still held the gloves in disquisition, their dispute evocative and hard to ignore. The car soon came to a stop in an old alleyway, its darkness leaving them covered and hard to spot. Red X turned to face Dick with a small bag and a file in his hand, his mask keeping his face tucked away.
“This is where you’ll find the Joker. I’ve been casing the place. There are usually only about five people in the building at this time, including Joker and Quinn. The others are known as Tiny, Stitches and Hugo.”
“I remember Hugo,” Dick said as X flipped open the file, categorizing each painted face.
“Yeah, he hasn’t changed much,” Red X replied, pointing to the next photo, “As you can see, Tiny’s not so tiny. He’s pretty strong, so don’t let him hit you. He’s not that smart though, so you can use that to your advantage. Stitches, however, is kinda creepy. I think he might even be a serial killer? He’s got a thing for knives, that’s basically his niche. So watch out for that. He’s also not as stupid as he looks, there’s a reason Joker keeps him around. As for Joker and Quinn, they’re just as crazy as ever. However, Harley has changed up her look so she’s a litter edgier now… What?”
“Are you even taking this seriously?” Raven scolded, giving X a look to match.
“Yes, but I’m Irish. So naturally I deal shitty situations with humor. You understand, right Chuckles?”
“You wouldn’t know Irish humor if bit you in ass, X,” Dick snarled and took the file from X. “So what are we looking for? Did you even find out? Or were you too busy turning this situation into a joke?”
“Yeah,” X sighed and continued reluctantly. “Apparently Joker likes to take trophies off his kills. Jason wants you to get his.”
Dick stopped reading for a moment and held his breath, a little unsettled with the request, “What is it?”
“He doesn’t know, on account of… well you know.” Red X could feel the tension in the car grow as each mind grew vivid with their own morbid perception. So, he changed the subject, “So what are you gonna do to take everyone out?”
Dick looked up from the file after skimming through the information, “Chloroform.”
“Stupid question, but did—”
“I made it,” Dick replied cutting X off. “I bought the chemicals from different stores, in cash, in different states.”
“That’s pretty clever.”
“It’s actually not,” Dick replied not even looking up, “it just everything I was taught applied backwards.”
X shook his head a little off put, but tried not take the comment personally. He knew that the young hero was probably just trying to center himself and “get in the zone.” However, he questioned whether the attitude was a result of what he was about to do, as opposed to, what he’d normally do.
“It’s still not too late.”
“You keep saying that,” Dick replied arduously, handing X back the file.
“Cause it’s not.”
Dick looked over at X, the humor in his voice no longer present as his tone grew lower.
“That doesn’t matter, you know that,” the hero replied, noticing X pull something out of small bag.
“Here,” X said attempting to hand Dick a gun, “Jason told me to give this to you. Y’know, just in case.”
“I’m not gonna need that,” the ex-Titan refused, shoving the weapon away.
“You don’t need to use it, but you should have it as a backup. Especially if you’re going in, no toys, no powers.”
Dick shook his head, and opened the door, then stepped out of the vehicle, Raven beginning to follow behind. X quickly reached out, taking hold of her arm, her head shooting in his direction as he spoke.
“It’s not too late for you either, Raven.”
She looked back at him, her eyes becoming a little cloudy, “I know…”
Red X could see the storm taking form in the violet pools as they stared back at him over the miles between them. “Then why are you following him?”
“Because it’s my choice to.”
She pulled her arm free and stepped out of the car, placing her mask over her eyes. X opened his door, and pushed himself out of the driver’s seat before the pair could take off into the darkness.
“You know these streets, right Chuckles?”
“Yeah,” Dick replied throwing a black bag over his shoulder.
“Good, call me once you leave the location and I’ll meet up with you guys by the old steel yard.”
“You sure that’s a good idea?” Dick quarried with hesitance.
“Yeah,” X replied, “No one sees shit at the steel yard. Plus you two won’t be there long enough for anyone to even notice you.”
The young hero nodded in understanding, knowing that the thief was right. However, part of his accuracy came from the fact that not many people came back from a visit to the steel yard, especially after dark. Dick almost being one of them.
“Oh, and one more thing,” X called as the two turned to make their way to the Joker’s hideout. They turned to face the masked thief, staring back at them blindly. “Be careful, and don’t do anything stupid.”
The two birds looked at each other oddly, as though shocked to hear actual concern coming from the thief’s mouth.
“I didn’t think you cared,” Dick replied.
“I don’t,” X shrugged, “but I have a reputation to uphold, and I’ll damned if a couple of capes, who think they’re big and bad, ruin it.”
“Well we can’t have that now, can we?” Dick replied while Raven rolled her eyes at the selfish response. “Thanks, X.”
The thief shrugged and began to turn away.
“Oh and, X?” He turned around and face the two birds as Dick continued, “Is there anything else I should know—anything else Jason wants?”
The thief’s eyes drifted to the ground as he reflected on the words he was about to speak, “Yeah. Jason wanted me to tell you to… make the clown a punchline.”
There was an echo of chaos ringing through the old stone walls. A cacophonous blend of laughter and shouting, raging over an old recording of “With Every Passing Day” as it played on a loop in the background. A tall blonde dressed in black and red patterns sang along flamboyantly, every so often twirling in her torn stockings. She continued as the yelling ensued between two clowns, fighting over something that to most, would have been trivial. The scratched loop of the song continued. The blonde looking off to the corner where the object of her affections sat hunched, giving him a small, but menacing appearance. He’d been spending most of his nights plotting and strategizing how he’d best his opponent and bring the city to its knees once more. It was actually kind of ironic, how someone so chaotic could be so methodic, so cunning. Every detail being thought through properly, and each contingency being carefully considered with just a hint of madness.
The bickering was beginning to wear thin on her as she cared little for her fellow clowns. All she really wanted was love and approval of one, but his attention was always best kept by that of a legend. Still, she hoped that maybe he’d, for once, find her more inviting than another night of planning. He did need her after all, didn’t he? Why else would he keep her around?
‘But then again, he keeps the rest of these oafs around?’ She thought bitterly, her painted face showing the taste of her disgust.
She flinched as the song skipped on the old record player, but harshly started up again.
“Maybe someday I’ll get my happy ending,” she whispered, the lyrics rolling off the aged vinyl.
Her eyes caught another glimpse of the man still leaning over his plans, his shoulders bound by the purple fabric of his tailcoat. She began to walk toward him in time with the music, her feet feeling light beneath her. She began to hum the melody, knowing how fond her “Puddin’” was of Alexander Faris’s work. Why else would he play it on a loop?
She drew closer to his thin frame, the arches of his shoulders only rounded by the cut of his fine coat. She reached out, allowing her hands to enter her line of sight. They gently wrapped themselves around the sharp curves of his shoulders, detecting the bony ridges beneath.
“Hey there, Mista J,” she cooed in his ear, letting her chest fall on the hunch of his back. “You wanna dance with me?”
She could feel a deep huff of breath as it was pushed from his lungs in discord, his muscles growing tense.
“I don’t have time for dancing, Harley,” the clown growled. “Do we have to have this discussion every night?”
A delicate pout took form on Harley’s face while disappointment filled her voice, “But y’work every night, Puddin’. Can’t y’for once just take a night off? Y’know, kick y’shoes off, stop hitt’n the grind—”
“Shut up, Harley!” the angry clown shouted, taking the back of his hand to the young woman’s face.
The sound of his knuckles hitting her white painted flesh, cracked loudly, commanding everyone’s attention. The other three clowns looked away from their disagreement, and to the sudden, but not unlikely, commotion. Harley fell to the stone floor and looked up to the man who was less of a lover and more of an affliction.
“How many times do I have to tell you, Harley?”
“But Puddin’—” she squealed meekly in recoil.
The Joker looked up and noticed the three faces, their paint fading and cracked like decay. “What are you three insolent knuckle-draggers looking at?! Go make yourselves useful, and get out of my sight. Am I the only one with any work ethic around here?!”
He took Harley by the hair, pulling her limp frame off the floor like a rag doll and threw her into the wall. The other three left just as her face collided with crumbling brick. She could feel the chill of the stone press against her cheek, pain filling both flesh and bone. He snapped her around quickly, a light rush of fear running through her veins.
“I’m sorry, Mista J,” she whined as he slammed her back into the wall.
He took paused, as though he were perplexed by the apology, or maybe her audacity to ask for forgiveness.
“You’re sorry?” he wailed, his fingernails digging into her arms. “Sorry doesn’t even begin to cover your lack of discipline, and how little weight you pull! And believe me, there is a lot of dead weight around here!”
He administered another sharp slap to her face, causing her to cry out. He wrapped his thin cold fingers around her mouth like a vice, holding her face in place as he leaned in closely. She could feel the heat rolling off his breath, the scent of stale coffee filling her nose. Looking up, she found his green eyes filled with their haunting and burdensome madness, but also her static reflection, focusing in on her. She tried to mumble her reasoning and apology, but his grip tightened, his free hand lifting a knife.
“You look sad, Harley. Maybe I should carve you up a smile, hum?” He pressed the knife to her cheek, feeling her flinch at the cold blade. “Oh, you would like that now, wouldn’t you, my dear?”
He released her mouth just enough so that she could finally respond. “No Mista J,” she hesitated, the knife threating to sever her skin.
“Oh, but I think you would look so pretty with a crimson smile, it would be something to absolutely die for.”
A genuine panic filled her blue eyes as she stared into the pale, manic face of a madman. His demented smile once again empty and void of feeling for humanity and anything touched by it.
“Please don’t, Puddin’. I already wear enough red. You wouldn’t want me to look all gaudy now, would ya, Mista J?”
“Yes Mista J?”
The Joker began to cackle wickedly, Harley looking back at him less confident then she normally would, but slowly began to join him and giggled. The Joker wrapped his thin arm around the pretty clown as they shared a good, hardy laugh at Harley’s expense.
“But interrupt Daddy again, and I’ll cut out your tongue,” his voice immediately dropped from his light, quirky tone, to something deep and sinister.
Harley could hear the threat graveled deep in his throat and ceased her laughter, replacing it with a small squeal.
“Now why don’t you go be a good little Kitty, and go make sure the rest of the litter is behaving themselves—won’t you, Harley?”
Harley nodded, knowing the request was more of a demand, but spoken in a softer manner, “Yes Mista J.”
“Good girl,” he replied with his wide grin. “See, you’re not nearly as daft as you can come off.”
Her brow knit in disappointment for his comment, but words like that were nothing new to her ears, especially coming from his lips. She walked away with a wounded look accosting her lonely face, and opened the heavy door, exiting into the long hallway.
The Joker promptly turned, being rid of her, and made his way back to the desk, tucked deep in his dark corner.
“Finally, some peace and quiet,” he thought, taking the needle off the old record for a moment. “Well, as close to quiet as it gets with the voices…”
He laughed, giggling to himself creepily. His eyes filled with the splendor of his madness—his delightful burdened, but slowly dwindled down to nothing.
“It’s a little too quiet.”
The mad clown set his sights on the door he’d watched Harley exit from, his face filled with a gaping suspicion. As though he were driven by some manic instinct no sane person could ever understand. He pushed the door open and entered the dark hallway, the only light coming from the red emergency exit light shining overhead.
“We really ought to have these lights fixed. I’m sure I can make room in the budget if I cut Harley’s pay,” The Joker said colorfully, looking down the dark hall. “But, I do find the dark quite soothing, you never know what’s awaiting you in the shadows.”
His words filled with a dark delight, and erupted into a soft echo that carried like a threat through the dust and decay.
He stepped forward, holding the knife casually. His footsteps echoed off the cement floor, carrying a sound that seemed to be filled with how little he cared.
The Joker paused suddenly, his thin form draped in the dark cover of the musty hallway. He peered to the corner, where a figure lay hidden just within its darkness. A wicked smile flashed chipped teeth, crooked and discolored. A wild look, infesting the green character of his eyes.
“I know you’re here,” he said in a slick, but vile tone. “Come out, come out,” he moved closer to the figure, “wherever you are.” He was close now, and could just make out the hooded figure standing right in front of him, the knife gleaming in his hand. “Or I’ll stab you in the heart!”
He suddenly plunged the knife onto the shadow, the thrill of bloodletting untamed in his eyes, but this was short lived, and replaced quickly by inquiry.
“What?” he questioned, the figure now gone, “Were the hell did you go?”
He didn’t notice the other shadow slip out of the darkness.
A dark hand quickly wrapped around his face, pressing a sweet, but sickeningly scented rag over his mouth and nose. The Joker immediately recognized the smell as chloroform, and burst into action before the chemical could take its full effect.
In a woozy daze, he shot his elbow out, hitting his assailant in the ribs. The grip of the figure’s hand was loosened as he threw him back and heard him hit the wall. He turned quickly to face who’d attacked him, but was unable to see his face. The tainted rag had fallen to the floor, his eyes catching it only a few feet away.
“Trying to put me down, are we?” Joker growled, approaching his assailant and raising the knife, high over his head. “Let me show you how it’s really done, kid.”
The Joker lurched forward, ready to delve the knife deep into the stranger’s flesh in vengeance. The hooded figure’s eye shot up from their downcast view, and up to the Joker’s crazed expression. In defense, the hoodman swung into action, catching the mad clown’s knife wielding hand. He shot his free fist in Joker’s jaw and made a cross, knocking his feet from beneath him.
The Joker dropped the weapon and fell to one knee, taking a hit to his rigid back. It looked like, for a moment, he was actually done, but taking down the Clown Prince of Crime just isn’t that easy. Joker ripped the flower from his lapel and jammed the needling through the dark pair of leather gloves, piercing the delicate flesh below. The hoodman cried out, and unwillingly freed the rabid clown.
The Joker shot up and threw his fist across the man’s face and caught him by the throat. But before he could strangle the life out of the masked assailant, he was once again greeted by that sickening smell. This time however, the hand that wrapped around his face was smaller, and not nearly as strong. Leading him to the conclusion that this new hand belonged to a woman. Still, he could feel this person was putting everything they had into keeping him still.
The Joker shot himself back into the wall, in an attempt to knock this new assailant free. He could feel her body being crushed between him and the stone, a loud crash echoing behind her. He pulled himself forward, the girl immediately falling to the floor unable to hold her grip.
The young man winced at the sound, but quickly freed himself from the Joker’s deadly clutches. And delivered a swift kick to the man’s gut and crashing the sharp tip of his elbow into his collar bone. He watched as the Joker bit down in pain, but refused to give in. He looked down at the young woman, who was only now beginning to pull herself up. He couldn’t reach the rag, though he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to smother Joker with it long enough for it to take effect. If he was going to take Joker down, he was gonna have to it the old fashion way—Batman’s way.
He glanced down at his gloved hands, the black leather taking their form as he balled them into fists.
‘If this is what it takes, then this is what it takes…’
He lunged at the Joker, giving him a powerful blow to the jaw that dazed the wicked man, and hit him with another. Blood spat from the clown’s mouth as he staggered on his uncoordinated feet. He was met by another blow from his masked assailant, this time hitting the wall from the force behind it. Joker’s skull smacked into the thick brick, a harsh sound following the collision.
However, the clown didn’t want to stay down, like there was something so primal driving him. The young man could feel his frustration boil, unable to understand why the madman remained standing. He readied himself for one final hit, promising himself that this one would put him down for good. But before he could make good on his promise, he saw her once again grab the Joker, forcing the tainted rag to his face. He watched as Joker looked up at him, clawing and fighting the urge to drift off, until his will was submerged, and his eyes grew dim.
She waited a few more second, making sure he was truly out cold, then released him as they both fell to the floor.
“That was way too fucking hard,” she huffed, pulling off her hood for air.
“Jesus Christ, Rae, are you okay?” the masked man said kneeling down, placing his hand on the back of her head.
“I’m fine, Grayson,” she sighed, “just have a splitting headache, is all.”
Dick removed his hand, but noticed something dark and sticky on his glove, “You’re bleeding.”
“No shit,” Raven said, the pain ripping through her scalp, “I’m fine though, I’m already starting to heal.”
He looked back at her questionably as though he didn’t believe her in the slightest.
“Really, I’m fine,” she knew he was worried, but they didn’t have time for that. “What about you, Boy Blunder? You good?”
He looked down at his gloved hands, as if he thought they might have the answers, “Yeah, I’m fine. I’ve definitely been hit a lot harder.”
Dick helped Raven up to her feet, a slight look of pain gripping her features.
“Well, we better get to it; something tells me the clown isn’t gonna say down long.”
“You’re probably right?” Dick replied. “Let’s get to work.”
Everything had gone dark. That was the last thing he could recall as he began to stir from his dreamless sleep. His head ached wildly, a dull throb echoing in his mind. He slowly tried to open his heavy eyes, but found everything foggy and out of focus. He couldn’t hear Harley calling out to him, which struck him as odd. However, there were two foreign voices, distant and faint, like they were but miles away.
“He’s waking up,” he heard the female say urgently, her texture low and raspy as it sang, unlike his little clown’s, hers shrill and high.
He could hear footsteps approaching, most likely a man’s, judging by how much weight he put in his firm steps. In both curiosity, and necessity, Joker lifted his head, letting it fall back a moment in fatigue. His jaw fell slack, taking in a deep, much needed, breath.
“I’m not sure he’s all there?” said who he assumed was the young man he’d sparred with earlier. He looked down at the Joker, whose head still remained reclined, “Let’s give him a few more minutes and then—”
“And then you’ll what?” The clown began to cackle and rolled his head upright, “Kill me? Cause that’s the only way you’re leaving this place, I promise you that.”
Dick looked over at Raven, knowing that if the Joker had his way, he’d make good on his promise.
“You have something I want and we’re not leaving here until we get it.”
The Clown Prince looked at the masked man and raised a crooked eyebrow, “I can assure you that the only thing I have to offer you is a box, in which, you’ll be buried.” he let out a sinister, yet coy chuckle, “But who am I to ruin the fun, hum? I am more than happy to play this little game with you, especially when the stakes are so high.”
“This isn’t a game,” Raven said, stepping toward him.
“Tell that to the hungry cat, my dear,” the Joker replied. “But maybe you don’t have the scrap it takes to play? But no matter; you will when I’m done with you.”
Both Raven and Dick looked at one another, wearily, knowing that at heart, his words were more than madness. In Joker’s mind, he was always the one dealing the cards.
“So who the hell are two anyway?”
“A friend of a friend,” Dick replied coldly.
“And who might this friend be?”
“The kind that wants you dead.”
“That’s a very long list, my boy. You may want to be more specific.”
“I know,” Dick said, stepping close enough to look him in the eye, “I’m on that list.”
The Joker’s face lit up with a smile as he hissed with laughter, “Then let the games begin!”
Dick peered back at the crooked man, the look in his eyes glowing with wicked madness, like a sickness that could never be cured. The grin on his face was wide—gleaming, but strangely broken all the same. The Joker wouldn’t be easy to break as he’d been broken a long time ago. An unfixable mirror image of the man he once possibly was. However, Dick found the thought odd—the Joker actually once being human.
Still, he had to find a weak spot, an Achelle’s Heel that could topple his ego and his legend. But what did the Joker really have to lose? Or better yet, what did he have to gain?
Dick turned from the glaring man, feeling his piercing stare, lancing right through him, testing his metal. He looked over to Raven, who’d watched the interaction unfold before her, letting her prodigious intuition guide her perception. Dick approached her, taking her by the arm and turning her from the clown.
“So what do you think?”
“I think he’s testing you,” she replied coarsely.
“Yeah, I got that, but what do you think we should do?”
“That all depends; do you want an answer, or do you him to pay.” Dick turned his head away from her uncomfortably, but she continued regardless. “Richard, don’t act like I don’t know, he’s the one who shot you… He’s the one that made Bruce—”
“Doubt me—yeah… Or at least he’s part of it,” Dick concluded with haste, a fire burning at the tip of his tongue. But there was so much more to that story, so much he honestly wanted tried to forget. “But that’s not what I came here to do.”
Raven let out a rough breath, the heat of his repressed anger, beating in her chest, “I know, but that’s what you want now, whether you want to admit it or not.”
“There’s so much more to it than that,” Dick said letting his arms fall from his chest, “he’s hurt so many people, and what he did to Jason…” He paused with an abruptness, and steadied himself. “It’s all so unforgivable.”
“Listen, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t exact some of that revenge, but you also need to remember why you came here in the first place.”
“You’re right,” Dick began softly, getting a hold of himself. “You’re always right—”
“You know, it’s rude for the host to ignore his guests and have a private conversation with them still present at the table,” Joker mocked properly. “What awful manners, you must have been raised in a barn!”
“More like a belfry,“ Dick said patronizingly and rolled his eyes. Then returned to his private conversation. “So what do you think we should do, Rae?”
She peered over at the Joker with an astringent look and glanced back at Dick, “We ignore him,” she said evenly, “he doesn’t like being dismissed, it’s his only weakness. In the meantime, let’s pay extra special attention to someone with a much bigger weakness.”
“Yep, she might talk if we play our cards right.”
The two turned back toward the Joker whose eyes lit up as they motioned toward him and grinned ear to ear.
“I hope you enjoyed your little chat. Now back to the… matter,” he paused a moment as both hooded figures completely passed by him, “at… hand...? Wait! Where the hell do you two thing you’re going?!”
Dick and Raven didn’t respond, they’d didn’t even look back at the clown as he whined. Dick opened a door, where several strange looking clown characters awaited, bound and gagged. He looked down where he saw their target sitting, trying to loosen her duct tape bounds. Dick reached down and grabbed her arm in a forceful fashion. He pulled her to her feet without a second thought and ripped the tape from her mouth—which he’d quickly regret.
“You son of a bitch! You betta not hurt my Puddin’!” She shouted bitterly in the young hero’s face. She looked over to see her “Puddin’” glaring back at her, her heart plummeting from her chest. “Mista J!”
“What on Earth do you want with Harley?”
Neither replied, Dick just held on to the hysterical woman while she struggled, and threw about her obsolete threats.
“Why I outta—”
“Outta what, Harley?” Raven said rolling a chair up behind her and forcing her down.
Harley only stared up at Dick, her face beating with a scolding and fiery look—smoldering. Dick felt little from the glare, he was too wrapped up in accomplishing the mission. And the fact he didn’t hate Harley, nearly as much as Joker, actually made focusing much easier. He leaned in, meeting her eyes through his mask. Her eye makeup was running down her face, mixing with the lily-white cast on her skin. She didn’t seem intimidated, but he could tell by the look Raven shot him that could change.
“Listen Harley, I don’t wanna hurt you, or Joker,” that was a lie, “I just want one thing. Can you tell me where I can find it?”
“Don’t you dare, Harley!” The Joker growled, shooting his head as far in her direction as possible.
Her breath grew tight, and the scolding look broke for a minute; she was afraid of losing the Joker’s trust.
“I ain’t got nothing to say to you! I don’t care whatcha do t’me!”
Dick looked at Raven, who was now finished binding the pretty clown to her chair. She rose from the stone floor and shook her head, stepping in front of Dick. She gave him one sorry look, then turned to Harley and balled her fist. Before Dick realized it, Raven smacked Harley across the face so hard, the sound actually startled him. Harley let out a cry as her head shot to the left from the force of the blow. Raven quickly grabbed her by the jaw, and forced the blonde to look at her, her nails actually digging into Harley’s skin.
“Listen bitch, your “Puddin’” doesn’t give a damn about what happens to you. If I killed you, he’d be okay with that, as long as you keep your mouth shut. Doesn’t that bother you, even just a little?”
Dick could see Harley’s eyes wince at the accusation, their pain reminding him of Cyndi and how many times she’d been on the receiving end of her lover’s fist. Raven got ready to strike the girl again, but this time, Dick couldn’t let her.
He caught Raven by the wrist, the girl’s head shooting back him in confusion. “Don’t,” he whispered, unable to see the sight again.
Raven’s face fell when she saw the pain that dwelled within his stormy blue eyes, and a little shame grew in hers.
A sudden cackling began to stir from behind them, growing with a wicked charm and amusement.
“I knew you didn’t have what it takes to play this game!” Joker hissed. “You’re too damn weak!”
The Joker continued to laughed, bound and taped as though he weren’t even fazed by any of it. Raven could see Dick’s face grow darker, even through his mask. He turned from her and slowly approached the insane man, who still laughed like the hyena he embodied—like a wild animal. Dick stood just behind him with a blank expression, Joker not even acknowledging him. Dick looked over at a nearby table, and noticed a thin, aluminum pipe. He picked it up, it wasn’t every heavy and wouldn’t cause a lot of damage, but it would hurt like hell. And that’s exactly what Dick wanted.
“Hahaha—Ahhhh!” the Joker cried out, as the pipe hit him across the back of the head, pain throbbing against his skull.
Dick grabbed him by the back of his florescent hair, and forced his head back, to look down into the eyes of a madman (shock actually present for a change).
“You know what’s really weak, Joker?” Dick said calmly. “Using your girlfriend as a pawn, and as a punching bag. You treat her like you treat a punchline.”
The man furrowed his brow as he stared up at the young man, whose metal he questioned. Maybe he did indeed, “have the scrap?”
Dick let go of the man’s green mane, and looked back at Raven, who he could tell was a little off put by the sight, but pushed it away.
“You’re gonna pay for that,” the man growled, his voice swallowing the agony.
“Shut up!” Dick commanded, “If anyone around here is gonna pay, it’s you, Joker. You’ve taken a lot from too many people, and I think it’s time that someone finally collected that debt.”
The Joker only gave Dick a sinister half smile, as though for a moment, the crazed man actually believed him. “Coming for the souls of the wicked, are we?” He glanced over at Raven a moment, his voice almost charming, “How righteous of him, he thinks he’s the cure?”
“Didn’t I tell you to shut up,” Dick growled, trying to limit Joker’s control, when a thought crossed his mind. “Here’s an idea,” Dick said passively, and looked at Raven, “why don’t I take Harley and have a little chat, in private?”
“She won’t talk,” Joker drawled, still fighting the pain that ached in his head, “And if she does, then—Ahhh!” the Joker cried as Dick struck him across the jaw, Harley crying out to him.
“Then nothing,” Dick replied darkly, patting the clown’s cheek with a smug hand, leaving him practically speechless from the pain.
Dick walked over to Raven and Harley, Raven keeping her arms crossed, “You good with Joker?” he asked, Raven nodding sternly in acceptance, “Okay, call me if you need anything.”
“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Raven said, walking to the Joker, “wont we, Mista J?” She looked at Harley, and placed her hand on his bony shoulder, gripping it tight.
Harley immediately began to protest, shouting things like, “get your filthy mitts off my Puddin’!” and, “I swear, you’re as good as dead! You hear me, you floozy!”
Raven only looked back as Dick rolled his eyes and began carting the clown girl off to another room, not far from where he stood. Raven watched, not really amused or impressed by the threats, as she had far better taste in men (or at least she’d like to think she did). She pulled up a chair, and placed it right in front of the bound Clown Prince, taking a seat across from him.
“So that’s your girlfriend?”
The Joker let his eyes peer up at her, as she glared back him coolly, and shrugged, “She crazy about me.”
“That’s a good word for it.”
Dick closed the door and turned to Harley who stared back at him threateningly.
“I don’t care what cha do t’me, I’m not gonna talk!” she spat as Dick leaned against the door.
He expected that kind of response, and wasn’t fazed by it one bit. “I’m not gonna do anything to you,” Dick replied.
She stopped her flailing a moment, and cocked her quirky head to the side, raising one eyebrow, “Y’not?”
“Then why’d y’bring me back here? Isn’t this the part where y’do some unspeakable thing t’me?” She was genuinely confused.
Dick shook his head and began to walk toward her. “That’s not really my style, and I have a feeling you’ve seen more than your fair share of unspeakable things?”
“What’d y’want?” The pretty clown asked her masked captor.
“I just want you to tell me where Joker keeps his trophies, that’s all.”
“That’s not gonna happen, hot stuff,” she quipped, “I’m not gonna do that to my Puddin’.”
Dick wasn’t shocked by her response, in fact, he expected it. “Harley, can I ask you something?”
The blonde shrugged with little resistance, she had feeling he’d ask anyway.
“How can you be so loyal to someone that shows you so little compassion?”
Her head perked up, she’d never truly been asked that question before. Harley looked over at the masked man, his voice sounding almost saddened by her ordeal, like he truly felt for her.
Harley attempted to answer question, but found it difficult to convey. “I don’t know, I guess cause I love him?”
“How can you?”
The blonde sighed with frustration, annoyed that she had to explain herself, especially because she didn’t have a good answer. “That’s none of y’business, Bub.”
“It’s a simple question,” Dick replied, “maybe it’s just not a simple answer?”
“Noth’n’s ever simple—love isn’t simple!” she spat.
She was right, love wasn’t simple. He knew all too well what a complex emotion it was, how deep it could go, and how much it hurt. And even after 26 years—he still didn’t quite know what love meant.
“Believe me, I know love his complicated—l’ve lived it. But Joker shows you no gratitude, and he has no problem punishing you for his shortcomings. He doesn’t feel anything but madness. Why willingly put yourself through all that for such little reward?”
He could see Harley becoming agitated by his words, the words speaking such raw truths, she couldn’t quite defend them. So she said the only thing she truly believed, “Cause I need him, okay!”
While this was taking place, Raven and Joker continued their own poignant conversation.
“So you’re not even just a little bit afraid of me?” Joker asked a disinterested Raven.
“And why is that?” he replied curiously, almost delighted.
She shrugged looking down, then peered up from her minimal distraction and said, “Because my dad’s the devil,” cracking a cynical grin, one the Joker could appreciate.
He laughed satirically, a little venom spilling from his vocal cords, “Aren’t all fathers, really?” He noticed her glance down, a slight raise of the brow as she did so. “So what did your father do to you?”
“It’s not what he did, it’s who he is, actually” she replied statically.
“Aw, can’t live up to Daddy’s expectations, can we?”
Raven leaned forward and smiled smugly, “More like I don’t want to live up to them. He doesn’t like that.”
“Then what does your Daddy like?”
Raven pulled back, a little sickened by the man’s implication, but knew he was only trying to get to her. He could see it on her face, faintly—the disgust. She may not have liked, or even felt any love for her father, but the thought of such vile accusations still angered her.
“So since we’re on the subject,” Raven said, crossing her arms, “what did your “Daddy” do to you?”
He giggled, the lines in his face growing deep from amusement, “What didn’t my father do, is the better question, my dear. Hell! Ask me that question, it’s a much shorter list!”
“You hate your father too.”
“Hate is a very strong word,” the Joker reasoned, a glint of superiority filling the hue of his eyes, “I prefer to say that I—strongly dislike the man—that’s why I killed him, of course.”
Raven let her eyes fall from his gaze, a feeling of dark hatred and pure insanity running cold through her blood.
“And what about you, my dear? You ever think of killing your father?”
She made the mistake of glancing up at him, but replied anyway, “No.”
“Well now, we both know that’s a lie!” he sang in a joyous tone. “I can practically smell the hatred on you, the distaste for your own blood—it’s written all over your face!”
The words hit her hard, like a bullet in the heart. The memory of Slade delivering a similarly, sinister speech. She bit her tongue, nearly drawing the metallic taste of blood, but she knew her burden flashed in her eyes. That need she couldn’t help but feel, but she couldn’t let it free, not now.
“What’s the matter, darling? Lost your bark?” the Joker teased. “Or did your Daddy teach you not to bite?”
“No, actually, he’d be really proud of me if I ripped your throat out.” Her face was flat, completely even, but that flame still burned in her eyes—that darkness.
Joker grinned, he was really in her head now. “Then why don’t you? Why not be Daddy’s little girl?”
“Because “Daddy’s little girl” is not who I am,” Raven insisted.
“No, I think it’s exactly who you are.”
“You need him?” Dick questioned, continuing his conversation with Harley.
Again he wasn’t shocked by this answer. He just couldn’t bring himself to understand how someone as strong as Harley (someone who was actually quite intelligent) could come to the conclusion that she needed someone so toxic? Joker’s hold on her was one of a serpent’s, tightening every time Harley tried to pull away, suffocating her will. But Dick wondered if this misplaced loyalty could be used to his advantage.
“What about being used and beaten do you need?”
Harley’s brow furrowed defensively, her blue eyes filled with a steely color of bitterness, “It’s not like that.”
“Enlighten me then?”
“Y’won’t understand,” she replied with a pout and an eye roll.
Harley looked up at the young man, his stance dismissive and light, something she was never really accustomed to. She didn’t owe this person an answer, yet for some reason, she felt like she did. Or at least try to.
“I can’t put it into words. I guess it’s a fascination, almost? Like if I look hard enough, I’ll find the answer, but the riddle’s constantly chang’n. But if I had to explain it, I guess. I’d say that when it comes to Mista J, that I’m the only person who’s gotten close enough to see him for what he truly is at heart—a horrible thing—but he’s my horrible thing. I’m the closest thing he’ll ever know to love, the closest he’ll ever come to actually caring for someone! And, I guess that makes me feel special. Say whatcha want about the Joker, and think what you will. But you’ll never know what that means to be me! Because in this huge world of belligerent fuckery—I never belonged! I know y’can’t understand that. All y’see when y’look at me is a victim, everyone does. My Puddin’s the only one who don’t.”
The notion hit the hero harder than she meant it to, and she wasn’t wrong. Dick always saw Harley as a victim of the Joker’s “charms” (if you will) but he never really thought about how much she resented that pity.
“So what are y’gonna do?” She asked looking up at him, less threatening now.
“I won’t do anything, just tell me where the joker keeps his trophies.”
“I’m not gonna tell ya—I can’t… I won’t.”
Dick looked down at her pitifully, not even realizing what an unwanted charity it was. “Has it ever occurred to you that maybe the Joker needs you more than you need him?”
She looked up at him with painful eyes, the black and red makeup, leaving a lovely mess upon her delicate face, “He does, and that’s why I’m not spill’n. I’m all my Puddin’s got.”
Dick shook his head in disapproval for her plight. Though, he could now understand (at least to some degree) that Harley’s loyalty came from a place of love (though mad). However, he still had a mission to complete.
He took the back of the chair, and pulled her along as he opened the door.
“Where we go’n?”
“To settle a score.”