Author: Lael Adair PM
J'onn's voice dropped. "I know something terrible has recently befallen you. I know you are aggrieved, I can feel you are in pain, and as someone who seems to take offense from it, I extend my deepest apologies." -JL/Return of Joker, complete-Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama/Angst - Chapters: 8 - Words: 48,852 - Reviews: 90 - Favs: 63 - Follows: 7 - Updated: 07-11-05 - Published: 10-02-04 - Status: Complete - id: 2079383
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
This fanfiction takes place during and directly after the events described in the flashback in Return of the Joker which is actually a Batman Beyond movie.
I'm not sure if this timeline is correct. I don't know if Batman was in the Justice League when all of this happened. He probably wasn't. But even if that's the case, I think this idea is neat and works really well. It makes a good "what if" scenario.
I'm assuming that the JL episodes highlight spaced events in the League's chronology. In plain English, that means I highly doubt there's some large scale emergency every night that the League must deal with. More likely, the events in "Secret Origins" happen one day and then maybe a month later "In Blackest Night" happens, etc. This fanfiction takes place between "Wild Cards" and "Starcrossed." (No "Starcrossed" in this guys, sorry. It aired while the fic was already done and going through it's cleanup stage.) Therefore, since that's 49 episodes marking some 24 or so different events, that should put us at least a year into the League, maybe two or three.
Beyond that, I don't know exactly where this fits in chronologically. I think I'm just going to let the writing flow and we'll see where we end up.
For those of you that don't know the Return of the Joker story, I'll explain a little.
The Joker suddenly shows up in the Batman Beyond universe after being dead for several years. Bruce Wayne makes it clear to Terry that he doesn't want him tackling the Joker at all. Curious as to why, Terry sets out to find the answer. He meets with commissioner Gordon (aka the former Batgirl) and she takes him through the tale:
Back in the good 'ol days when Robin (Tim Drake), Batgirl, and Batman were a team, Robin was on a solo patrol at night and the Joker snagged him. For three weeks Batman and Batgirl tried to hunt the Joker down, find where Tim was being held, but it was like Robin had vanished. There was no trace of him. Finally, the Joker sends a message of sorts and they go to Arkham (which is abandoned at this point in time) to pick Tim up.
Instead of Tim, they find a Joker Jr. in his place. The Joker had mercilessly tortured him until he broke. Then the Joker worked to rebuild the shattered pieces of Tim's mind into his own image. He half succeeded.
After it was over, they got a psychologist, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, to work steadily with Tim and get him back to normal. Gordon said it took a year.
Ta daaa! See, that wasn't so bad. For anyone who hasn't seen the movie, I recommend watching it. It's just awesome.
Anyway, assuming that Batman was with the Justice League when all of this happened, my story deals with how Batman balanced his JL duties with this tragedy...if he made an attempt at all. It's also going to focus on the other characters as well, so there's a little bit for everyone.
In addition, I don't read comic books. Therefore, everything in here is only from the cartoon shows. Any references, similarities, or contradictions to the comic books are purely coincidental/inconsequential.
(For those curious, the bold text is for people who are skimming.)
These characters aren't mine. I use them merely out of respect for what the talented people at WB have done. Way to go, guys. You deserve a cookie.
-------------------- Deep Within --------------------
Written By: Lael Adair
"What I give form to in daylight is only one percent of what I have seen in darkness."
- M.C. Escher
The streets of New York were dim in the shadows of the night. The lamps lining their sides, while well intentioned, did little to banish the darkness save for the single bright circle around each of their bases. A steady wind whipped through the streets, a lingering reminder of the fading cold season. As a consequence the air was a paradox of temperatures, warm on its own but chilled by winter's begrudging farewell kiss. Had Superman not been otherwise occupied he might have stopped to admire this touching metaphor. At the moment, however, he was more concerned with wrestling a giant stuffed alligator.
If Metropolis' poster boy had been told twenty minutes ago that he would soon be in a toy store fighting a war against a myriad of rogue-turned toys, he'd have given some serious consideration to having said-messenger committed. In tribute to the age-old proverb, seeing was believing.
Superman grunted as his heels dug backwards into the checkered floor of the EOG Toy Store. He could hear the tile cracking underneath his feet and almost laughed when he realized what that meant. He was losing to a stuffed animal.
The beast was reared on its hind legs in front of him, stuffed teeth and glassy eyes flashing as it struggled to take a bite out of whatever body part was most convenient. For a creature made entirely of tenderized cotton it was incredibly strong. Superman had his hands firmly wedged between the reptile's jaws, keeping the powerful mandibles from closing down on any other part of his clothing. He had quickly found out that while they looked fake, this alligator's teeth were most decidedly real. He had the rips in his costume to prove it. The beast snarled, lashing its sinuous tail like a whip, and snapped its head sideways out of Superman's grasp. Its gleaming fangs immediately clamped down onto his left arm like a vice. Even the strongest of metals could not have pierced the Kryptonian's tough hide, but the razor-sharp teeth slashed his sleeve to pieces. Countering quickly, Superman ducked to the right and slammed a heavy fist straight into the alligator's skull...or, where its skull would have been if it was actually alive. Pieces of white stuffing flew into the air as his fists hit the creature again and again, driving it back across the room. The fluffy cotton flying from the split seams in the alligator's head almost made Superman sick. Technically the material was the creature's innards. One final blow sent the alligator flying across the room and slamming into a shelf full of toys.
The reptile had barely hit the ground when a sudden cloud of shiny black smoke descended upon the Man of Steel. Superman thrashed his arms in an attempt to see, deafened by the awful roar of what sounded like a thousand bees. Something small and sharp hit him deftly on the side of the face like a kamikaze pilot. Glancing down, he realized the cloud was not a swarm of bees. It was a swarm of action figures, and he had just been assaulted by a tiny model of the Green Lantern. Grunting at the annoying prickles of plastic striking his skin, Superman swung one of his powerful arms into the mass. The figures merely parted, allowing his fist to glide through them without resistance. He was just about to switch to heat vision when as suddenly as they had appeared, the figures parted, retreating back to the ceiling where presumably they had been hovering before. It did not take Superman long to find out why.
The ground gave a terrible shake as something extremely heavy dropped from the higher floors. Superman felt a massive hand wrap around the back of his neck, and then saw a succession of ceiling and floor as he was picked up and slammed, face down, into the black and white checkered tile. A second deft jerk brought him up from the ground and face-to-face with the plastic yellow mug of a very big Lego man.
"You gotta be kidding me."
The abomination somehow roared without a mouth, and threw Superman as hard as it could into the cash registers. One of the machine's sharp corners caught him directly in the small of his back as he hit it and landed on his knees behind the counter. He was up on his feet almost instantly, flying towards the giant with both fists in front of him like a battering ram. The Lego man spread his legs to center his weight, intending to catch the charge. He received a nasty surprise. At the last second Superman pulled up from the glide and slammed a fist into his enemy's jaw. The large yellow head slipped off effortlessly and even made a hole in the ceiling on its way into orbit. A second punch landed directly into the behemoth's chest, sending Legos skittering all over the floor. Superman threw himself deeper into his target, swinging again and again and again and again....
And then the air around him began to break.
It was the strangest sensation, strange enough to make the Man of Steel stop his charge. Had he not seen it with his own eyes he never would have believed it. Everything was literally rippling, as if the entire world was a pond that had just been disturbed by a massive pebble. While Superman stood blinking, trying to fix what he thought was a problem with his vision, all that he had perceived as truth faded away to another reality. Where the 'alligator' had fallen was nothing more than a mutilated pile of what had once been stuffed kittens. Their heads and bodies were in several states of disarray all over the floor. The ceiling held no trace of the action figures Superman could have sworn were there only seconds ago. The only thing that had seemingly been real was the pile of Legos at his feet--a once very skillfully arranged castle that had heralded the front of the store's Lego section. Wide-eyed and slack-jawed, he stared blankly at the destruction around him. And then realization hit.
He had just spent the last twenty minutes fighting illusions.
Enraged, the Kryptonian used his x-ray vision to scan the area for the criminal responsible. There was nobody there. The Mad Hatter had escaped.
A sudden voice cut through his head, startling him out of his angry search. He hated when J'onn did that. It was creepy.
I'm sorry, but your communicator is off.
"That's because I was a little busy!" he snapped.
There was a pause. Is something wrong?
Superman rubbed his temple. "No. It's nothing. What do you need, J'onn?"
Clayface is coming your way. You'd better get ready.
Hawkgirl shifted her heavy mace impatiently in her hands. "Did you contact him?"
"Yes" J'onn answered. His glowing eyes reverted to their normal state.
Green Lantern stepped up from behind the two, limbering up his wrists for action. "Which way are Flash and Wonder Woman chasing him?"
"Towards the subway entrance on Eighth Street. We should be able to trap him in the station."
Lantern grunted and lifted himself into the air. "Fine. Let's get this over with."
J'onn glanced hopelessly after Lantern's receding form. Beside him Hawkgirl was scowling, though the Martian already knew it was not at Green Lantern. Batman's unprecedented absence was beginning to wear thin on all of them.
It seemed an unusual number of Gotham villains had been leaking into the surrounding cities as of late, which explained the League's presence in New York tonight. Batman's absent expertise with his own crowd was making it increasingly hard to quell the disturbances. As a perfect example, Clayface had been giving Wonder Woman and Flash the run-a-round for well over half an hour. Hopefully with all six of them there they would finally be able to contain him. J'onn wasn't so sure he could say as much for the tempers brewing underneath the surface of the League.
A dull ache rippled through the front of his head, causing the Martian to grimace and raise a hand to his temple. He'd been getting a number of headaches lately. They had started off just as minor annoyances, but as the weeks went on they were steadily growing worse. J'onn was almost to the point where he was considering giving those human 'pain killers' a try. He really didn't understand why he'd be getting them now of all times. He had never gotten them before, but the others didn't seem too concerned. They jokingly told him that headaches were part of the superhero job package.
A familiar sensation suddenly flashed through J'onn, causing him to start in surprise. His psychic foresight was alerting him to an approaching friend, but the person was almost on top of him. It should have picked them up a few yards back. Surprised, he turned quickly to greet the new arrival.
He stopped. No one was there.
"You see something?" Hawkgirl asked absently. She was pretending to fiddle with her mace while she waited for J'onn to hurry up. As always, the Thanagarian was eager to get into battle.
J'onn scanned the streets for the person his psychic abilities insisted was right in front of him. The feeling began to slip from his concentration. Puzzled, he struggled to hold onto it but it filtered through his fingers like sand. Within seconds it was completely gone. He frowned and cast out his mind to try and seek the target himself. There was nothing. The individual was most definitely out of his psychic range, a distance of about five miles in every direction.
He glanced dazedly at Hawkgirl. "I...thought I felt someone behind me."
"I'm behind you."
"No. It was someone else."
She shrugged. "Maybe you're losing your touch" she teased, elbowing him playfully in the arm.
J'onn didn't share in the joke. Hawkgirl didn't understand. Martians didn't 'lose their touch.' Their psychic abilities were as much a part of them as a human's heart was to the body. If he had felt a presence and no one was there, then that meant someone had managed to penetrate his consciousness without his consent. But, as he had said before, that was impossible. Humans were incapable of manipulating psychic strands...and Batman was most definitely not nearby.
He had never thought it would come to this.
No. That was a lie. He had been a fool to think this would never happen. He had been a fool for taking in all those damn kids in the first place. And now one of them was missing, and Batman was faced with an enemy he had thought long dead: fear.
He extended his grappling hook up into the tangled mass of concrete buildings that made up the skyline of Gotham City. His aim was terrible. The dark, angular weight at the end of the line nearly missed its mark. The silent reminder of failure sent a streak of fresh frustration coursing through him. He knew his broken concentration was making his search inefficient. He was doing things wrong left and right, yet Bruce couldn't bring himself to care. Tim blocked out everything that used to matter.
He leapt gracefully off the building, his thoughts whirling uncontrollably in his head.
This was exactly why he had embarked on this path alone. He had no right to endanger the lives of others with this. They deserved better. They didn't understand. They didn't know what they were doing. They had things to lose that he didn't. He should have never agreed to any of this. And yet there was Barbara---Batgirl---swinging right beside him, rushing into battle for a cause that she only knew about but didn't feel. Rushing into something that, for her, was just a game. A chance to play hero and save the day.
Bruce forced the thoughts out of his mind angrily. He had to pay attention! There would be time to worry about that later. All that mattered now was saving Robin.
The logical voice in the back of Batman's head told him he was wasting his time. There was nothing left to save. Tim was dead. All he was really meeting the Joker for was to pick up a body.
He went anyway.
A page of last week's Gotham Tribune flipped lazily underneath the filmy light streaming from the ceiling. Years of growth and decay had eaten away at the electric bulbs, causing them to hang precariously by a handful of wires, but the Joker didn't care. He was too busy trying to focus his ADD-prone mind on the newspaper in front of him. A smile sat etched onto his lips. He could almost see the headlines scribbling themselves into the pages, echoing his thoughts.
Normally Gotham's most fearsome criminal wasn't much of a news-reader. If it wasn't about him or some expensive object he could steal, there was very little value he saw in it. Today, though, he was willing to do anything to pass the time. With little less than a half hour separating him from his greatest scheme ever, it was all he could do just to keep his eyes focused on the page. He was ready for Batman this time. He had the leverage, he had a plan, and most importantly, he had a name.
The Joker's hands cringed angrily for a moment against the sides of the sports section.
The name is what got to him. It wasn't about who it was. To his surprise, he had never done anything wrong to this person pre-Batman as far as he could tell. It was that the answer had been right in front of his face for so long and he had never even seen it. Of course, now that he knew, it made perfect sense. Who else would have had the time and leisure to pursue the criminals of Gotham at night? Who else would have had the motivation? The resources? The connections? The money? Only one person.
The newspaper began to tear.
How often had he been this close and never even realized who was standing there? God. Most times he had been near enough to smell the bastard's cologne. The irony was too thick for even his well-sharpened sense of humor to spare a chuckle.
Mercifully, the grip began to relax as it was brought under control, sparing the sports section from further torment.
In another time and another place, the Joker might very well have been angry. Or worse yet, he may have lost his sense of humor about all of it. But this wasn't another time or another place, and as he turned a second page in his newspaper he gave an even wider, content smile. In fact, things were quite the opposite. He hadn't been this happy in a long, long time.
The Joker had always pictured Batman as being some self-obsessed do-gooder. One that came home after a vigorous night of crime fighting to pat himself on the back and raise a celebratory glass of champagne. He had spent countless nights in jail or Arkham cursing that image and everything it stood for. One could only imagine his delight when he found out he had been wrong. It was all very interesting, ironic even, that this mysterious person who prowled the streets of Gotham at night had turned out to be anything but a stranger.
The symptoms would most likely be of the standard variety. He'd be fairly average looking with no discernible features that anyone would particularly remember. Schizoids almost always were since it defined the very essence of their existence. At nearly fifty years old he would still be alone with no wife or children, no family that anyone knew of, and no good friends that anyone could pinpoint. It would almost seem as if he didn't even exist unless it was necessary. This was because the person everyone saw was nothing more than a fraud. The real man underneath would be a pathetic nothing, an obsessive wretch of a human being who stayed locked within himself and his own little fabricated world. Contact with outside people would be minimal. He'd be withdrawn and secretive, quiet, and the few connections he did have with others would be short and impersonal. He probably went through women like toilet paper.
They had a name for people like that in Arkham, a really technical one: crazy.
Still smiling, the Joker flipped another page.
He wouldn't be meeting the Batman tonight. Tonight he'd be meeting an equal.
J'onn hated going into the subway. Martians were accustomed to vast plains and warm temperatures, not freezing transit tunnels. He found the musty atmosphere of the dank caverns too gloomy for his tastes. It was fortunate he was not claustrophobic like his colleague Hawkgirl. That fear would have been a very bad one on the repertoire of a shapeshifter required, at times, to squeeze through quarter-inch pipes. However, when given the option of places to work, this and the sewers were not his particular favorites.
"J'onn?" Superman's familiar tenor came floating over the communicator nestled within the Martian Manhunter's ear. At the moment it sounded slightly strained. "You find anything yet?"
He raised a hand up to the device to answer. His own calm voice seemed meek as it echoed between the massive architectural columns spread through the subway tunnels. "No, but I've only surveyed a portion of the area. It will take a bit more time. These tunnels are more expansive than I remember."
Returning his hand to his side, J'onn took a deep breath and returned his eyes to the search. He felt his teammates as they moved around him, passing in and out of his consciousness while they searched. With practiced grace he turned a blind eye to their minds, blocking out the information he was being fed.
By evolutionary design, Martians were born with powerful psychic shields that protected their minds. The body kept the blood and organs in one contained spot and regulated how they functioned. Similarly, the shield kept their powers in one unified place and gave them direction and purpose. Lining the outside of the shield were hundreds of psychic tentacles. These probes constantly reached out into the surrounding environment and collected information, much like a snake flicking its tongue, though the data brought back was more abstract. It would seek to gently test the psychic vibrations in the surrounding area and possibly glimpse into any minds that happened to be close. The action was done several dozen times per minute, requiring little more than a microscopic sliver of power and certainly no conscious direction. It was nothing more than a natural phenomenon of the Martian physiology, as well as Martian society. On Mars these psychic probes would have constantly bumped and touched those belonging to other Martians, bouncing harmlessly off of shields whenever they came too close. The longer any Martian spent around an individual, the more likely it was that their probes would connect, forming a deeper bond that tied their essences together. The humans had a similar emotion called "friendship." When a Martian's probe became entangled with another, that was "love," and the individual chosen became their one and only lifemate.
Unfortunately, J'onn was not on Mars, he was on Earth, and the inhabitants here possessed no protective shields. In fact J'onn had never met another creature, Earthling or not, that did. No species in the Universe that he knew of even came close to possessing the magnitude of psychic abilities he had. Because of this, J'onn's subconscious powers literally had free reign to invade any mind they chose. He was constantly being fed abstract information from the minds around him, his League teammates included. Most of the time it was not much of a problem. His species was, after all, designed to handle large quantities of extraneous information. But in situations such as this, where he had to find one mental signature out of many, it made for an annoying distraction.
Normally J'onn would have been performing a psychic scan to simply seek out the mind of his target and enter their thoughts. The circumstances, however, were not conductive to finding Clayface in that manner. Shapeshifters' minds were too malleable to enter safely.
Suddenly, about six hundred feet further down the tunnel, an unfamiliar signature flashed in the darkness. Someone was fast making their way along the subway tracks, their mind consumed with panicked thoughts of escape. Engaging his powers of flight J'onn took off like a shot after the receding villain.
"I've found him!" he called out to the others.
Farther down the tunnel Clayface heard the warning. Snarling with a sort of gurgled breath, he doubled his speed through the circular subway passage. The iron tracks underneath his feet made it hard to get his sludgy body over the numerous bumps and ridges. Panting heavily, he struggled to focus his concentration and turn into something with legs. A young child picked up running where Clayface had left off. He risked a glance behind him and gasped as he saw the Flash quickly gaining. Exhaling what little air was in his lungs, he dropped into a puddle on the floor and slid up a small pipe just as the speedster caught up with him.
"He's heading towards the surface!" Flash hollered. Immediately, Superman halted and angled himself ninety degrees to explode into the street above. Wonder Woman and the others quickly followed, leaving Flash to run back and take the stairs.
On the street level a shower of concrete and dirt flung into the air as Superman's massive fists pushed them aside. He halted a few feet off the ground and surveyed the people staring up at him with wide eyes. Running down the avenue not far away was a small child without any internal skeletal structure.
"There! The child!"
Hawkgirl leapt to the chase, mace crackling like an enormous bug zapper. "I see him!"
A thunderstorm raged outside as Batman extended his heel and violently kicked in the doors to Arkham Asylum. Long abandoned, the decrepit building was now nothing more than an eerie skeleton sitting on a darkened hill. A blackened perimeter fence that was direful even in the prime of its life snaked halfheartedly around the property.
Batman had sent hundreds of criminals here in the past. Though the walls were cracked and the floors decayed, he still knew its corridors and hallways well. Stepping inside was like revisiting an old friend...a friend that was better left forgotten. A bold streak of light sliced through the sky, projecting Batman's trademark silhouette on the cement floor. As the following crash of thunder echoed among the halls like a raging beast, it was softly accompanied by another sound. Someone was singing.
Hush little baby, don't say a word....
The lilting tune was usually a lullaby sung by mothers to send their children peacefully to sleep. When echoed among the decayed remains of an insane asylum, it assumed a perverted form. Acting without direction, Batman and Batgirl spread apart to search. They walked together down the long main corridor for a short time, searching all the rooms on either side of them. The doors to their rancid bellies hung open lazily by little more than a rusted hinge, revealing padded walls enshrouded with mold and roaches. The singing became louder and more distinct as they journeyed deeper into the stomach of the edifice. Batman knew it was Harley Quinn's voice. The Joker was leading him forward like a malevolent guardian, showing him where he needed to be. He was reminded briefly of Odysseus being lured to his death by the song of the sirens.
Up ahead the broad hallway dead-ended into a set of rusted metal doors. Sharing only a brief look, Batgirl turned right and ran up a nearby set of stairs. Batman kept going straight. The singing was directly ahead of him now, floating gently from the cracks in the doors. A crooked sign affixed to their front read 'Operating Theatre.' Beyond was the observation room the asylum had once used for demonstrative procedures.
Determined, Batman strode forward into the darkness and pushed the doors open with a forceful shove.
Harley Quinn was standing in the center of the large room, singing to herself as she placed a purple flower vase with white daisies on top of a blue plaid tablecloth. She didn't look surprised to see the Dark Knight in the doorway. "Puddin'!" she called sweetly over her shoulder. "Company!"
Up on a 'second floor' that was really more of a catwalk wrapping around the upper half of the room, the Joker put down a paper he was reading and stood. His eyes snapped animatedly towards the door. "Hello there!" He descended the stairs to the bottom floor in an easy saunter and cuddled next to Harley. "Welcome to our humble abode."
Batman had lost his patience for games a long time ago. He advanced, fists clenched solidly at his sides. "Where's Robin?!" he demanded.
Quinn and the Joker exchanged a puzzled look. "Robin?" the clown repeated. "There's no Robin here."
Batman didn't hear the rest. Eyeing a curtain off to the left he roughly shoved Harley to the side and headed towards it.
She gasped at the unexpected push and then recollected herself. "Ah ah" she chided, "No peeking!"
Batman barely got a few steps before he heard a shot behind him. Turning, he was hit square in the chest with an odd projectile. Somehow Harley Quinn had managed to produce an enormous bazooka from somewhere. She must have gotten it from a nearby table or cupboard since the gigantic weapon could, in no way, have fit inside her skintight body suit. The Dark Knight fell backwards to the ground as thick red bonds wrapped themselves around his chest and waist, pinning his arms tightly to his sides. The position gave him a clear view of the stands overlooking the room. Batgirl was huddled determinedly among the seats, waiting. She made as if to attack but Batman ordered her to stay put with a subtle motion of his hand.
Satisfied that he now had a captive audience, the Joker ambled forward, Harley in tow. "You know, Bats, we've been doing this little run around of ours for years. It's been loads of laughs, but the sad fact is none of us are getting any younger."
"That old clock's a tickin'!" Harley interjected, patting an area of her stomach that she obviously mistook for holding her heart.
The Joker grinned and shot an appreciative glance her way. "Quite right, poo---and Harley and I were thinking it was time to start a family, add a Joker Junior to our merry brood."
Harley made a face. "But rather than go through all the 'joy' of childbirth, we decided to adopt."
The two locked hands and began moving towards the curtain Batman had seen earlier. With their attention focused on their own devious plans they didn't notice the subtle move of the Dark Knight's left hand. As if by magic, a small silver folding knife leapt into his fingers and angled itself to begin sawing through his bonds.
The Joker stopped just to the right of the curtain. Harley took the left. "We couldn't do it legally" he continued, "but then we remembered you always had a few spare kids hanging around. So we borrowed one." The last statement had a distinctively sinister tint to it, announcing that the inner core of the Joker's personality was now in control.
Many people described the Joker as mad, but that was incorrect. To classify him as such was asserting that he was a slave to his insanity; that he didn't know right from wrong or up from down, and had no control over his cruel tendencies. In reality it was exactly the opposite. The Joker's madness and cruelty were slaves to him.
Madness had been given its time. Now it was cruelty's turn.
Grinning more wickedly now, the Joker and Harley pulled open the curtain. The grim outline of a laboratory emerged from the darkness beyond. The scene literally looked like something out of Frankenstein. Large tubes, wires, and panels flooded with gears and buttons framed the outer edge of the room. In the center, a massive metal operating table sat tilted at an angle, its bottom edge barely brushing the ground. Most of the slab was engulfed in darkness, but from where Batman was he could make out a small figure strapped to it---a figure that, although wearing a miniature rendition of the Joker's outfit, looked very familiar....
J'onn suddenly gasped, halting dead in midair as a convulsive stab of pain raced through his skull. He raised a hand to his head in a reflexive motion, trying to smother it beneath desperate fingers. The agony crescendoed. Patches of white began to engulf areas of his vision.
Unable to concentrate on flying or fighting, he was forced to land on the ground. Flashes of colors danced before his eyes so brilliantly that they felt as if they were burning themselves into his retinas. As a wave of nausea took him, his psychic powers slipped from his control, flailing violently in an attempt to lash out at the threat. It was fortunate J'onn was a good distance from the fight. Had any of his teammates been within range, his aggressive defense mechanism could have very well rendered any one of them brain dead. Unfortunately, for all their attempts J'onn's powers found no one to attack, no mind nearby to punish. After only seconds of resistance, the burden to function became too great, and they buckled underneath the weight of the terrible pain. Fear gripped him. Centuries of evolutionary programming, however dusty, could not be repressed, and J'onn's instincts were screaming at him that he had left his delicate psychic core wide open to attack. Of course, the idea was ludicrous. His species was dead. There wasn't any person or thing that could possibly front a psychic assault like this, here or anywhere else.
It wasn't until then that J'onn slowly became aware of a will within him, a personality, that was not his own. An icy blade of terror skewered his heart.
The impossible had just happened.
With the press of a button in the Joker's hand, the table rolled forward. "He needed a little molding of course" he sighed. "What kid doesn't. But in time we came to love him as our own. Say hello, Jay Jay."
The figure on the table moved its head in the shadows towards Batman. Its manic eyes seemed to gleam like headlights, slicing through the choking darkness. It flashed a smile of pure white teeth and then leapt off the table into the light.
To call it Tim Drake would have been a perversion. Not even a shred of Robin remained within the crazed shell of the child that now stood before Bruce Wayne. All that was left was a contorted serpent of a boy, hunched over on himself, laughing emptily with spastic, curled fingers. He glanced behind him to the Joker ardently, like a son to a father, and that's when Bruce snapped.
Enraged, Batman pushed at the fabric binding his arms. The rope broke free underneath the strain, fluttering off of him in shreds. The world fell away. In an endless sea of darkness there were only two things: silence, and a single shaft of light centered on his enemy. Life was so clear staring through that tunnel. The Joker was there, he had a knife in his hand, and he wanted to see it embedded six inches into that bastard's skull.
The weapon left Batman's fingers without the aid of even a conscious thought. Thirty years of experience propelled it forward. One moment of human weakness kept it true.
Unfortunately, the Joker had been paying more attention during his storytelling than he'd let on. Smiling, pleased with himself, he ducked smoothly underneath the knife and beckoned with his fingers. Come get me.
Batman was already on his feet.
Hawkgirl skid to a stop in midair with a shout as the child suddenly formed into a massive column of rock and shot itself directly towards her. With a powerful heave of her muscular wings, she managed to just barely angle her body out of the way. Even so, Clayface's doughy body, now as hard as stone, caught her viciously on the shoulder. With an angered cry her mace flung out of her hand and went crashing into a building several hundred feet away. As she teetered in the air to regain her balance, Flash and Wonder Woman rushed Clayface. Green Lantern began to fly to her side but she shot him a look that convinced him to place the fight first. Screaming her patented war cry, Hawkgirl dove back into the fray with nothing but her fists to deal out punishment.
Clayface gave a cruel laugh in response to the challenge and reared up to his full height, revealing his true form. He looked very much like a gooey pile of cookie dough with a jack-o'-lantern for a head. His jagged teeth dripped down onto his lower jaw like melting icicles, and his black, beady eyes shone viciously within his face. Several thick tentacles shot out from his body and immediately began flailing in the air like the death-throws of an octopus. The thick goo was strong enough to smash holes in solid concrete if Clayface willed it to. Breaking bones was nothing more than child's play.
"I've had just about enough of this!" Green Lantern shouted as he slammed the villain with a mallet formed by his ring. "Isn't this Batman's department?!" The goo buckled under the weight of the blow and attempted to wrap around his head in a smothering trick Clayface was particularly fond of. Lantern dodged.
Wonder Woman flew in from above and landed a sturdy punch to the monster's face, causing the eyes to cave in on themselves. A pain-filled shriek soon followed. "Just pay attention! I'm sick of this wild goose chase." She met a swinging tentacle aiming for her back with a solid punch. The goo gave way and then trapped her fist within its folds, forcing her to kick it to release her hand.
Flash was busy throwing a flurry of punches into Clayface's column-like feet. "Try shocking him!" he called out to no one in particular. "That's how Bats beat him the first time!"
Above him Hawkgirl performed a daring somersault in the air and kicked at a nearby blob. "No he didn't" she called back. "He froze him!"
"No way! The first time he used electricity!"
"Stop being stupid, Flash! He used ice!"
"Flash! Look out!" Diana's warning came to late. With a massive swing of his arm, Clayface caught Flash square in the side and sent him smashing into the face of a building. A generous hole was left where the speedster contacted the heavy brick. Quickly, Wonder Woman rushed to cover him while he regained his bearings. She was lucky that Green Lantern beat her to it. If he hadn't, she never would have looked away and spotted J'onn.
Batman walked carefully among the rows of empty desks. He had chased the Joker deeper into the asylum before finally losing him. He was now standing in some sort of lecture hall that was probably built for the medical students that used to study here. An image of Tim sat burned in his mind's eye. The boy now looked and acted like a miniature Joker, all the way down to the mindless grin. It was as if he had been stripped of his identity and forced into a new one.
Batman clenched a fist. Whatever the Joker had done he was going to pay dearly.
"What's the matter, Batman?" the Joker taunted from above. The cement made his voice echo around the room, making it difficult to determine where he was. "No witty comeback? No threat? Then I'll provide the narration."
Batman's eyes narrowed as the lights suddenly flicked off and he heard a series of clicks. From somewhere in the room an ancient projector sputtered to life. Glancing up, he could see a black and white movie beginning to role on a screen just above him. A jovially scrawled sign held before the camera read "Our Family Memories."
Years of training with the best martial artists and criminal strategists in the world had given Batman a heightened sense of how best to proceed in questionable situations. The rule was always the same: wait and watch. Providing a gun was not cocked and at the ready, it was never a mistake to gather information before acting.
"I'll begin with how I peeled back the layers of the boy's mind" the Joker narrated.
On the screen the soundless movie showed a table full of chemical and medical supplies resting behind a smiling Joker. The camera switched to Tim, struggling against an operating table he was bound to by the wrists and ankles.
"Oh he bravely tried to fight it at first."
Smiling broadly, the film Joker removed a pair of massive alligator clamps from beneath the lid of an outdoor grill and clacked them together experimentally. Electricity sparked between the clips' massive metal jaws.
"You would have been proud to see him so strong."
The clamps were attached to the metal table, the camera zooming back out to show Tim. Smiling broader than ever, the Joker flicked a switch on one of the nearby consoles.
The silent film spared Batman from having to listen to Tim scream, though the sight alone was enough to make him pull back in horror.
"But all too soon the serums and the shocks took their toll" the Joker said with mock sympathy. "And the dear lad began to share such secrets with me---secrets that are mine alone to know....Bruce."
The name echoed in the warehouse like a mournful bell. In that second, Bruce Wayne's entire world turned completely upside down. He had dreamed about this happening. He had even mused over what the name would sound like. He wasn't prepared for the eeriness of it, for the crushing weight of reality that slammed down upon him. The Joker knew. From this point on there would be no salvation. There would be no rests anymore, no sleeping during the day or night, no haven for those he cared about. At no point in the rest of his life would he ever be safe...unless it ended tonight....
"It's true, Batsy" the Joker persisted triumphantly from the projection booth above. "I know everything. And kind of like the kid that peeks at his Christmas present, I must to admit it's sadly anticlimactic. Behind all the Sturm and Batarangs you're just a little boy in a play suit cryingfor mommy and daddy. It'd be funny if it weren't so pathetic." The Joker paused. "Oh what the heck, I'll laugh anyway!"
The sick laughter echoed mercilessly around the cement room, bouncing off of itself to amplify the effect. And with that final push the last of Bruce Wayne's training went right out the window. Coming as close to rage as the Batman had ever gotten, Bruce exploded through the window framing the booth above him like Death himself. Shards of glass and framework spiraled inward as if from an explosion, coating a somewhat surprised Joker in a shower of glittering rain. The villain staggered backwards with his arms flailing to get away from the window. Batman's hands flew to the criminal's collar and before the Joker could blink he was instantly blinded by a savage backhand. A punch soon followed, driving like a jackhammer deep into his gut. He made no effort to fight back, delighting in reducing the Batman to unbridled rage. With one of Batman's powerful fists clenched firmly at his collar, the Joker was lifted clean off the ground by his gaudy purple coat. "If you don't like the movie" he sneered, blood trickling from his mouth, "I've got slides."
Batman growled and, with the aid of a second hand, viciously flung his nemesis out of the projection booth to the hard concrete below. The Joker bounced off of a metal catwalk, slammed into a wooden crate, and landed stomach-down on a pile of boxes. He groaned more in annoyance than pain and then risked a glance over his shoulder.
Without thinking, Bruce Wayne wrapped his hand around the Joker's throat and lifted him upright, slamming his back hard into a convenient wall. His grip was so tight he could feel the life-giving pulse beating against his palm. "I'll break you in two" he hissed poisonously.
The fact that the Joker was not afraid in the slightest was evidence of his insanity, or tribute to his knowledge of the enemy. Paying no mind to the arm pulled back like a pile driver aimed at his face, he grinned. "Batman" he said, speaking as if to an old college roommate. "If you had the guts for that kind of fun you would have done it years ago. I, on the other hand...."
The Joker raised his right hand in an elegant flourish. Batman's eyes instantly flicked toward it, wary of a weapon. He never even saw the knife appear.
In a flash of silver, the Joker whipped the blade in his left hand across Batman's chest with more finesse than any clown was capable of. He allowed himself a petty moment and dug his wrist deep into the slice. Let him try to cover that up tomorrow beneath his suit and tie and goddamned cologne.
The Dark Knight pulled back with a cry, barely aware that the weapon was raising for another strike. He saw the knife descend in slow motion and then imbed itself deep into his left thigh just above the knee. With a sickening thwack, muscle, tendon, and bone gave way underneath the slick blade with a terrible shriek of pain.
With that final strike on top of so many, Batman fell face forward to the ground below, defeated.
"You've lost, Batman."
Bruce heard the Joker's voice float forth from an eerie abyss. He was vaguely aware that the man was kneeling over him, taunting to the very last. Tim stood a few feet away, watching the scene with delighted, maddened eyes.
"Robin is mine" the Joker cooed. "The last sound you hear will be our laughter."
Bruce was barely listening. Distantly, he felt a hand grab the cape covering his left shoulder.
The Joker picked up a gun that had fallen from his jacket during the scuffle and threw it behind him to Tim. "Here you go, sonny boy."
Bruce felt the Joker pull him from the floor, exposing his chest for a clean shot. He couldn't bring himself to move. It was too much.
"Make daddy proud" the Joker beamed. He gestured a hand in the direction of Batman's chest. "Deliver the punch line."
Tim raised the gun, laughing. He pulled the trigger once and a metal rod with a colored BANG! banner emerged from the oversized barrel. Bruce knew the second shot would send that rod sinking straight into his heart. He looked up at his former partner...his charge...his family....
Everything hurt. His chest was bleeding, a six inch dagger sat imbedded to the bone of his left knee, the Joker had him by the collar of his neck, and he was left staring straight into the crazed, desperate eyes of yet another person he had failed to save---a child that had trusted him to do what was right.
A child he had used.
With effort he managed to speak. His eyes were saddened, pleading. "Tim."
J'onn's second hand went up to clutch his skull. He doubled over on the floor, eyes and teeth screwed tightly shut. Fragments of feelings and thoughts that were not his own flashed through his mind, blinking within the blizzard of splitting agony but refusing to make any kind of picture. He was left helpless, unable to think or see or even breathe. The Martian suddenly had a very unpleasant image of his head exploding like a balloon. A cry escaped his lips.
Diana had long ago flown to his side. She kept scanning him for physical injury, hopelessly searching for what was wrong. There was nothing. "What's wrong?!" she shouted urgently. "Where are you hit?!"
Curled in a near-fetal position, J'onn could only manage to hiss out one word. "Pain...."
The gun began to fall in Tim's hands. For the first time, his insane eyes showed a bit of emotion: reluctance.
"Do it!" the Joker snapped.
Raising the gun once more Tim closed one eye to aim, tilted, and shot.
The Joker flew backwards with a startled cry. Somehow, the shot intended for Batman had ended up skewering his heart instead. "That's not funny...." he sputtered, "That's not...."
With those last words hovering on his lips, the Joker fell to the ground and lay still, never to laugh again.
Slowly, the gun slipped from Tim's delicate fingers. His laughter seamlessly turned to sobs, the sobs faded away to tears. The child sunk to his knees, large eyes staring off into nothing, and he just cried.
Bruce seemed to sink with him. His body felt like lead. With a deep sigh he let his head slump against the cold cement. He lay there for what seemed like an eternity, waiting for the adrenaline to empty out of his veins, waiting for the pain in his leg to subside, waiting for the terrible ache in the core of his chest to go away. Waiting for so many things....
Barbara had arrived at some point and was at Tim's side, her maternal instincts taking over despite her young age. Bruce could hear her consoling him in the background.
"It's okay, Tim...it's ok...."
He had heard those words himself once upon a time. Now, as then, he wanted desperately to believe them. It would be so easy to just sink beneath that hypnotic assurance....
Bruce's voice echoed vacantly inside his head. He didn't move. He didn't want to move.
Clenching his teeth against the pain shooting up his thigh, Batman brought his arms underneath him and dragged himself to his knees---the mighty hero.
The pain finally began to recede. Breathing heavily, J'onn moved to sit up. A wave of nausea kept him from getting any farther than leaning meekly on his elbow.
Diana had her hands on his shoulders. "Are you all right?" she asked. Her voice sounded odd and J'onn couldn't seem to focus his vision on her. With effort, he waved her away. "I'm fine" he lied smoothly. It was hard to keep his voice from shaking. "Go help the others."
Nodding, Wonder Woman flew back into the battle.
Clayface was quickly wearing down. Where once he had seven tentacles slashing around in all directions, now he only had two. A little longer and the Justice League wouldn't have to do anything. He would pass out from exhaustion.
As Diana flew forward to assist, she could hear Flash and Hawkgirl's ongoing debate.
"It was electricity!" Flash was arguing.
Hawgirl slammed a fist into Clayface. "Ice!" she hollered back.
"All right, you wanna bet?! Twenty bucks says it was shock therapy!"
"Let's just use them both!" Superman snapped crossly. Before joining in the fight he had taken the liberty of making a quick stop. He now arrived on the scene with Hawgirl's trusty mace in hand. Using only a fraction of his strength, the Man of Steel threw the weapon towards its owner and watched her catch it easily. With barely more than a mutual look, Hawkgirl charged up her mace and Superman took a deep breath. As the other League members hurried to get out of the way, they both rushed Clayface's hulking form and unleashed their attacks, driving both elements deep into the villain's mushy gut. An inhuman shriek pierced the air and then the gooey form began to lose shape. Within seconds all that remained of the mutated criminal was a mud-colored puddle, which Green Lantern wasted no time in containing.
The threat over, the heroes convened on the ground to form the framework of a group. J'onn fought to keep himself steady on his legs as he moved to join them. They were all out of breath.
"That was unacceptable!" Green Lantern shouted, slicing the air with his hand for emphasis. "An entire hourto catch one criminal?!"
"Clayface is not a normal criminal" Wonder Woman answered patiently. "Besides, none of us know that much about him."
"Which is my point exactly! I'm getting sick of certain members not pulling their weight around here!"
"You're wasting your breath" Superman remarked tiredly, walking up with a scowl. "The person you want to talk to isn't here. Besides, Batman usually has a reason for doing the things he does."
"So you think we should just let this go, then, huh?! Like you let everything he does go!"
Superman squared off against Green Lantern, his already sour mood quickly growing worse. "It's not my responsibility to watch over all of you. I'm not the group's keeper."
"Could have fooled me."
"Just cool it!" Flash snapped. They were all tired. They were worn, they were battered, and they were overworked. It was no surprise that they were all in bad moods, even the notoriously buoyant Flash. "What's the big deal?! We beat the guy."
No one seemed to pay him any attention. In fact, Hawkgirl nearly spoke over him. "I'm with Lantern. Batman answers to the same rules the rest of us do, and I'm just about fed up. That's at least the fifth criminal from Gotham we've put away on top of all the usuals."
"Then you go deal with him" Superman retorted. Without waiting for a reply he took off from the ground to head back to the watchtower--home, for the moment.
Hawkgirl glanced after him dourly, muttering under her breath. "I would if I knew where to look."
With that the group broke up to follow Superman back to the Javelin. The others did not fail to notice that Wonder Woman had remained silent after Batman's name was brought up.