Disclaimer: I do not own DC. Alright. Aquaman. Come on DC. Give me something to like. You did good with Wonder Woman, then you let me down with Justice League. Do the guy from the deep blue some good... and also because Jason Momoa is awesome and should be in an awesome movie.
Chapter 25: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
When night fell, the decent people ducked their heads and hid, and the scum of Gotham City came out onto the streets. The thieves, killers, and lunatics alike treated the place as their undisputed playground. That had been the rule for as long as there had been a Gotham City, and there were plenty of willing participants in the time-honored tradition after the breakout at Arkham Asylum.
It had been a long time since the heroes that fought for the safety of regular folk had this much to contend with. A who's who of villainy were back on the streets, and the police were being pushed to their limits. Only a select few had the capacity to lend a hand, a much needed hand, and even they were working themselves to the bone trying to keep up.
Nightwing had to be called in from Blüdhaven, not that he minded. Gotham City had been his home first. Bruce was his mentor and adopted father. It was his pleasure to do his part to clean things up. That being said, it was exhausting work.
His Wingcycle pulled into the Batcave after hours of patrol and coordinated search and destroy for criminal elements looking to reestablish themselves in Gotham's hierarchy. While it was hard work, it was also the best time to strike at many of these bad guys; while they were trying to gather resources and put themselves back together on the outside.
Upon his arrival, he saw Robin preparing to head back out, presumably after a quick break or more likely after dropping off some evidence, "Tim."
"Hey, Dick," Robin sounded and looked just as tired as Nightwing imagined he was. While Nightwing was one of the heroes called in for support, Robin had been trying to stem the tide from the very beginning. The influx of enemies had to be taking its toll, on him and the rest.
Nightwing looked around to find that Robin had been the only one present upon his arrival, "Where's Bruce and Barbara?"
"They're still out," Tim explained, "She's following a lead on Two-Face establishing a new crew, and Bruce? He's not coming back to base until after dawn unless he has to."
"I know," Nightwing muttered with a frown, walking over to the evidence computer, set to upload something new, "He's going to kill himself trying to put all of those guys back inside... but it looks like we're getting some help that we didn't ask for."
Robin spared a moment to head over and take a look at what Dick had just brought back. The scenes he saw were nothing new. A safehouse of some sort, hit with a typhoon of violence. The entire place had been shot up. It was a sight he was unfortunately becoming more used to seeing, "Damn it. Who's behind this one? And what do you mean, help we didn't ask for?" He only had more questions when the next image was show, "...What is that?"
Nightwing stood back and let Robin take over checking what he'd found, "You should know. After all, it's your insignia."
Emblazoned on one of the walls was a massive 'R' inside of a circle.
Tim's hand moved to his chest, right over his heart where the symbol of his costume rested, "'R' for Robin?"
Was this an individual calling him or Dick, the former Robin, out? Or was it a message of some other kind? Either way, the person behind it was violent and capable. And unfortunately, there wasn't a better place on Earth to nurture those two traits.
Max was in a rut.
He had found himself lacking drive and desire to do anything more than just get up and exist. He would go to school, but his head wasn't in it. He would go to work at Selina's club on his designated nights, but his heart wasn't in it. And when it came to being Null? Forget about it.
He didn't need money. He had plenty. Without the necessity to suit up and hit the streets as Null, he just didn't. And it was a good thing that he didn't either.
He knew the breakout at Arkham Asylum would create an overflow of trouble on the streets, and from what he heard on the news every night and morning, it was a jungle out there. Killings every night. Armed thefts, people attacked, police spread thin all over the place just trying to keep up. It wasn't the time or the place for someone like him to be active; someone without his head in the game.
Sitting in class, Max's attention turned to the window for a moment as sirens sounded past for the umpteenth time that day. It was only for a moment though. He couldn't be bothered to care any longer than that. While other kids in the class chattered to themselves about all of the police commotion passing by their school, Max accidentally let out a loud yawn. That got most of the room to stop and look at him, something that he noticed.
"...What?" Max asked, shrinking in on himself somewhat self-consciously.
The bell rang, saving Max from the awkwardness as everyone found it more pressing to get out of the classroom. Max lingered behind, not particularly in any hurry to get anywhere. He was stopped by a tap on his shoulder as he stood to leave.
Turning around, he found Barbara, fixing him with a concerned look, "Are you alright?" She asked, "It's just that you've seemed off for a week or two now. I'm just wondering if everything is okay."
"I'm good, I guess. Just dealing with some personal stuff up here," Max admitted, without letting any details slip. Instead, he tried to change the subject, or at least the subject's target, "What about you though? You don't look so great."
Barbara drew herself away, an eyebrow raised expecting more detail... or else, "Excuse me?"
Mouth, insert foot. Max felt he really must have been off his game to say something like that, "I didn't mean you don't look good. I'm saying you look tired. Really tired. Like, more tired than usual, tired," He said, trying to recover.
"More tired than usual?" Barbara repeated. Though her tone seemed as though she were cutting Max some slack.
He took the opportunity to dig himself out of a hole and ran with it, "Yeah. I mean, it's never really bad, but you always look kind of wiped out," He smirked in the midst of explaining himself, "I work third shift all the time. I know what it looks like when you don't get regular sleep at night."
Barbara's eyes went wide momentarily. Of course, Max was the one kid in class that could recognize someone who was burning the midnight oil, because he did it himself with his night jobs. That thought gave her a measure of concern for him, "You should probably try and get that changed, or take some time off if you can. It's really bad out there these days. I'd feel awful if you got hurt while you were out at your job."
"I wouldn't worry about that," Max said, trying to offset some anxiety. It wasn't as if he was so much as going out as Null these days either, "Trust me, after the kind of stuff I've dealt with, I think I have a healthily developed survival instinct. I don't plan on getting caught up in anything else."
As much as Barbara wished that hearing this meant something, it really didn't. Not the way things currently were in Gotham City, "It might not matter. The way my uncle is talking, nobody's safe, anywhere," She spared a worried glance in the direction where we could hear more sirens sounding out, "Even during the day."
If it had been obvious to him before that Barbara was dealing with some serious stress, it was crystal clear now. She must have been worried. Her uncle Commissioner Gordon was the man who had to deal with all of the criminals that were now out and about running amok. He had to have been working nearly nonstop since the Arkham Asylum breakout.
The thought made Max feel slightly bad. Not because of any sympathy for the commissioner himself, but because he knew Barbara. She was a good person, and she worked hard. She got on his case a little too much sometimes, but it wasn't without good reason. He was a criminal, after all. The nagging came from a good place. It was better than no one caring at all.
"...Do you want a hug?" Max suddenly blurted out, immediately regretting it.
It felt just as weird for Barbara to hear as it was for Max to say, "What?"
When in doubt, double down. Never show weakness in times of uncertainty, "You look like you're dealing with some stuff too, or you're worried about Commissioner Gordon," Max said, "You don't have to tell me anything. I just don't know what to say or how to make you feel better."
Barbara found it in her to laugh at the goofy gesture. Despite how awkward it had been, at least it had been earnest, "I'll be fine without the hug, thank you. Just make sure you take care of yourself," She asked before gathering her things and moving on, "I've got to get to my next class. I'll see you tomorrow, Max."
"See you tomorrow, Barbara," Max said as she departed. Once she was gone and the class was empty, he felt like kicking a desk. What kind of foolishness had that been? "A hug? Seriously? What was that, you fucking moron."
He was not reaching out for some kind of interaction after Rose skipped town. He hadn't for the weeks he had been without her. He hadn't begged for some kind of contact with other people... even though he had spent way more time at Selina's bar since Rose left.
He definitely needed more friends that he didn't have to be Null to go see.
(Brideshead – Tin Roof Club)
Selina didn't know what to expect when she kept getting calls forwarded to her cell phone from her bar... mostly because the calls came from the bar's phone. When she finally picked up, the person on the other end of the line got her to immediately speed over, hours before she normally headed in to prepare to open.
It was with great urgency that she swung open the front door and slammed it shut before anyone might have been able to get a look inside.
That was because there was a wanted and very dangerous criminal inside, digging through the list of songs on the jukebox near the back. Selina approached carefully, letting her heeled footsteps be heard on the floor, "...Harley..." She said carefully.
A head of long blonde hair popped up from the jukebox search, wheeling around to place bright blue eyes on Selina. The already smiling face of the woman in question seemed to stretch wider by three sizes, "Hey there, Kitty-Cat! Did you miss me?"
That was certainly a way to put it, "You could say that," Selina said, looking around for anything unsavory, "I figured you were on the list of people who got out when Arkham Asylum was opened up," She didn't think she'd see her again so soon, or by herself for that matter, which was why she was looking around.
If the usual company Harley Quinn tended to keep was somewhere around the premises, Selina needed to get away, come up with a plan, or do something. This meant one of two people in particular, for different reasons.
Harley bounced over and gave Selina a hug, sort of unwelcome from how sudden it was, but Selina eventually pat her on the back, "Yep. I've got no idea what I did to actually get sprung loose, but I ain't about to ask any questions I don't care about. I've just been out and about, getting the lay of the land these days, securing some essentials. You know, that whole song and dance."
"What are you doing here, though?" Selina asked, opting to cut to the heart of the matter.
Harley's smile turned more nervous. Clearly, she hadn't come to catch up. It was just a matter of what she wanted, "Well... I kinda need a place to stay for a while."
Selina's eyes went wide and she immediately put distance between Harley and herself, "Oh no. Not a chance. There's no way in hell I'm risking that. You can't stay at my place," For multiple reasons. Not just because she wasn't up for having a roommate, no matter how temporary.
Her penthouse was her sanctum. It was a safe place. It was where the bullshit that happened on the streets of Gotham City were too far down to touch her, her possessions, and the life she'd worked to build up from the gutter. You didn't invite yourself to Selina's place, she invited you. And next to no one received that. Definitely not to the degree that they could stay over.
Despite Selina's rejection, Harley didn't lose any steam in trying to secure somewhere to stay, "That's fine! I wasn't thinking about your place anyway. You've probably got a lotta expensive, hoity-toity crap over there. Too easy to break for my tastes," At that, she gestured to their immediate surroundings, "This place ain't bad. I really like it here. This would work, right?"
Selina placed a hand up to her forehead. She could feel a migraine coming on, slowly but surely, "You can't stay here," She resolutely said, "You can't. This is my business."
Harley gave her a patronizing look "It's just a front, Kitty-Cat. But it's adorable that you think you can convince me otherwise," She wasn't dumb. She came off like an airhead a lot of the time, but it wasn't for a lack of practical intelligence.
'Yeah, but if you're here, there's no way I'm letting Max here. Which means I have to be here every night,' Selina thought to herself, crossing her arms over her chest. She knew that if Harley was really set on this, talking her down and keeping things nonviolent would be a challenge, "That's not the point. Don't you have anywhere else you can go? Where's Ivy?"
Harley rocked back and forth on her heels as she explained her circumstances, "Red hasn't popped up yet. I'm expectin' some overgrown Garden of Eden from hell to spring up somewhere sooner or later."
Fair enough. Poison Ivy wouldn't stay underground for long. Her desire to take back all urbanized territory for 'The Green' meant that she would launch some eco-terrorist plot once the mood took her.
"It's weird how excited about that you sound," Selina muttered. Since they were talking about Harley's choices in the company she kept, there was a need to address the elephant in the room, "What about... Joker?"
Harley's smile fell completely, replaced with a scowl, "What about him?"
That was a good sign. A great one actually, "Oh. You're still on the outs from the last time you got arrested?"
"He threw me out of a movin' car!" Harley cried, as though it were obvious she wouldn't be very pleased with the Clown Prince of Crime after such a thing.
Selina had no sense of pity for Harley's reaction to her skepticism, "He's done worse than that to you and you stuck around no problem. Not that I'm saying you should go back to him or anything," She made sure to emphasize, just in case Harley was on the fence.
No one needed that kind of ruin in their lives.
"Goody! So I can crash here, right?" Harley requested again, bouncing excitedly in place. Selina was still not onboard with the idea, "Come on. I can work for rent... so long as that comes with free booze."
"Two drinks a night, and nothing top-shelf," Selina shot back immediately as a counter, "Wait, why am I negotiating? Can you even bartend?" Harley never stopped smiling as Selina conversed with herself, "Why am I still asking questions? No."
"Come on~~," Harley needled, now sensing weakness. She just needed to push a little harder, "Without the makeup and the costume, nobody' who comes to this dump'll even recognize me."
Selina bit back a comment at having someone refer to her bar as a dump, choosing instead to focus on the matter at hand, "I have another person who works here. A kid. What am I going to do about him?"
Harley placed a hand over her heart and the other up at her side, "I'll be on my best behavior. No funny business in the bar. Scout's honor."
Selina stared her down for several seconds, displeasure evident on her face, "...You're lucky I like you, Harley," The woman in question let out a cheer. Selina rolled her eyes and tried to get stern, "You go back on that, and I'll kick you the fuck out of here."
Harley stopped celebrating and wagged a finger to chide her, "Ah-ah-ah. Can't go around callin' me that if ya want me to fly under the radar longer than a night."
"Right," They wouldn't need anything elaborate. She would be serving alcohol at a place that was a step above a dive, not working at city hall, "We'll work on that before we introduce you to your coworker."
Newly enthused, Harley's eyes shone at the thought of meeting a new person, "Ooh, what are they like? Is she cool? Is he cute?"
"He's a kid. I told you that already," Selina said, waving off the questions before stopping to actually answer, "…Also, yes, he is. Don't touch him. He's just a baby."
(Later That Night)
When Max walked into the Tin Roof Club that night for his shift, he expected to only have to barely interact with the normal crowd of lushes that came to his mentor's bar.
"What is this Mickey Mouse bullshit I see before my very eyes?" Max exclaimed upon seeing a new employee standing with Selina, "Who is this?"
The new woman's face crinkled in amusement at his reaction, "I'm the new bartender. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, junior," She said, extending her hand in greeting.
Selina rolled her eyes and went to introduce them, "Max, this is-."
"-Just call me 'Q', junior," The unfamiliar blonde interrupted, wanting to make her own first impression, "Me and Selina go waaaaay back."
Max shook her hand, seeing no reason not to at least be cordial, despite his mood, "Huh, Q. Like the dude from James Bond," He said to himself, accepting this before turning to Selina, "Did I miss something? When did this happen?"
Selina distracted Max from asking too many questions by wisecracking him with shots to the ego, "Right around the time you weren't paying much attention to the world around you because of all your moping."
It worked like a charm. Max's bout of teenage angst was focused squarely on her instead of questioning changes to his surroundings, "I was not moping. I might have been sulking, but it definitely wasn't moping," He then noticed that 'Q' was making no illusion that she was listening intently, "Do we really have to have this talk in front of the new chick?"
Q reached out and threw a friendly arm around Selina, "Yeah, leave some dirt for me to dig up myself! I've got all night hangin' around with this kid!"
Max gave the two women an incredulous look, "Say what?"
Selina shrugged and confirmed D's remark, "Yeah, you're training her tonight."
"The fuck I am," Max could think of no way he would rather not spend his shift, "What more do I have to teach her how to do other than get these jerks a beer, or something?"
Said jerks (paying customers) did not respond, mostly because they all knew Max well enough to tolerate his mouth by now.
"You actually know how to make drinks, Maxie," Selina reasoned back, prompting him to avoid meeting her eyes, "Don't act like you aren't actually good at this."
Max had legitimate training. Selina had made sure he knew what he was doing with portions, ingredients, names for drinks, everything that went into mixology. At first, it was just for fun, to pass time during slow nights. But later, it was because he could have realistically found a use for that knowledge. With subtle application of his powers, he could also pour like a fancy bartender at an upscale club. Max could make real mixes, he just never needed to, something he readily pointed out.
Max gestured to the entirety of the club, "No one in this place ever orders actual drinks. The fanciest thing anyone orders is beer from a bottle instead of the tap. Maybe with a lime or a goddamn orange slice. You want me to show her how a bottle opener works?" He quipped sarcastically.
Selina flicked his ear, not taking his brand of snark lying down, "You still have to do it. That, or you can take your miserable ass home," She saw his eyes widen at the ultimatum. It was a bluff, as she really didn't want to be stuck with Harley all night, but she also knew that Max wasn't keen on sitting alone in his big townhouse, "You can be by yourself all night if you don't want to be useful here."
Realizing that he had been checked by his boss, Max responded the only way he knew how, "Uuuuugh..." He groaned, dropping his head down on the bar.
"You making that dying calf noise isn't going to change anything," Selina deadpanned, reaching out to scratch Max's head, "Don't worry. You can handle it. It's all a part of seniority."
And it wasn't like she wasn't going to keep an eye on the place while she was out and about. There were cameras all over. She could check in on them from anywhere. If Harley was really going to be up to no good, she wasn't going to do it while Selina was there. She had to make herself scarce to goad Harley into maybe doing something bad.
Granted, it was going to be harder than normal to enjoy an evening out while she was tuning in and out of a nanny cam the entire time, but if anything too weird came up, Max could deal with it. He'd probably notice something off before anything even happened.
And so, she left. She left Max to make sure the 'new hire' knew enough to be an asset at work.
To Max's surprise, he didn't have to do much. Q knew what she was doing. From cleaning, to serving drinks, even actually mixing. He didn't have to teach her how to do anything. In fact, most of his shift consisted of sitting back while she proved she could handle herself.
"Man, having someone else around here is weird," Max said, trying to keep busy by replacing clean glasses while Q attended to seemingly everything else, "I mean, this really isn't a two-person job. You're pretty good at this."
"I used to do this a bit back in college," Q commented, taking pride in Max's complement, "Guess that means you can get some more nights off now, huh?"
The thought of sitting at home by himself with nothing but his homework to occupy or stimulate him did nothing for Max, "I already get enough nights off. I'll work three nights a week usually. I just don't want to sit around doing nothing," He sighed and shook his head, "...I don't have a lot going on."
Q laughed and took a seat at one of the empty stools in front of the bar, "So, time to get to know each other a bit. How'd ya end up workin' here, junior? A little young to be slingin' booze, ain'tcha?" She said, elbows on the surface, chin set in her hands.
"I was damn near down and out, and Selina gave me a chance," Max said succinctly. As much as they butted heads, he hadn't regretted coming across her even once, "She's cool sometimes. She's gotten me into some trouble, but she's helped me too. She taught me a lot of stuff."
"You wanna be like her or somethin'?"
That was a good question. There was a time when he looked at what Selina had and felt like he wanted it all for himself. But things had changed somewhat, "I thought I did, once. Now I'm not sure what I want," He said, looking down as he tried to really think about his answer, "I mean, what do I really know? I thought I had something that I wanted, but that feeling wasn't mutual, I guess."
He hadn't meant to let any bitterness seep into his tone, but there was only so much propping himself up he could do.
Q easily noticed the young man's mood. He'd been having similar lapses all night when he thought no one was watching, "Hm. You know, I'm a really good listener. You wanna talk about it?"
Max's eyes snapped up, wide open, "I... can't think of anything I'd rather not do more right now," The thought of bellyaching to anyone, especially a complete stranger, didn't sit well with him.
Q rolled her eyes, kicking her feet anxiously, "Oh, come on. What do you care what I think? You don't even know me," She said, before offering a reason to take her up on the offer, "Believe it or not, I've got a PhD in psychiatry."
Max looked her up and down. Between the cut-off top, the tiny shorts, and the boots she wore, he didn't take her as someone with that high a level of education. Never judge a book by its cover, it seemed, "What the hell are you doing tending bar in this hole then?"
"No deflectin'," Q said, keeping things on topic instead of letting Max try to turn things onto her, "You've had yourself a little heartbreak, haven'tcha? I do happen to have a little experience there, and in my expert opinion, gettin' it off your chest will help you feel better than just suckin' it up."
"I haven't talked to anyone about it," Max muttered, feeling his mind change by the second. He really wanted to say something to someone, "...Okay, but when I want to stop, I'm stopping."
Q didn't try to argue, instead, leaning forward over the bar with a big smile, patiently waiting on him to begin his tale. It took him a moment to figure out what he wanted to tell, what he wanted to omit, what to do about names he didn't want to mention. But eventually, he came up with an edited enough version of the thing with Rose to tell. Enough for Q to get the gist of what had really stuck in his craw about the entire situation.
After absorbing all that Max had to offer in his explanation, Q finally began to give her own input, "Mmm. Sounds like you two had somethin' toxic goin' on," In response to Max's glare, her smile only grew wider, "I know a little somethin' about that too."
Max couldn't muster up any kind of anger. She wasn't being judgmental, and it wasn't like he hadn't come to the same conclusion himself, "Maybe. But it felt good," He said, "She was bad for me. She told me as much right at the end, and I know that. I knew it the whole time. But I'd never had so much fun."
"I think you were lucky though," Q said from her position of detached observation, "From the sounds of things, it could've been a lot worse."
"Yeah, that too," Max could admit that much. Between the trouble that came with Rose and her homicidal family, there were plenty of landmines to dodge when it came to her. Q seemed to know a fair bit about these matters, "From what you said before, what kind of problems with love could you possibly have? You seem awesome."
"Aw, you're sweet!"
"No, I mean it. Seriously, what is someone like you doing here?"
"Sometimes you gotta be apart from somebody for a while. Maybe you'll realize you're better off without 'em, maybe you'll see you can't live without 'em. Who knows?" Q said, sounding more reserved than she had since Max had met her. She still sounded more energetic than 90% of people, "That's why I'm here. Just wanted to be by myself for a bit."
"Wow. I thought adults had everything figured out."
"You never stop figuring things out, junior," Q said with a laugh, "You get the answer to one of your burnin' questions, and the next mornin' you wake up there are three new ones that'll take you five more years to solve!"
Max blinked and started to look at his own situation with a bit more gravity, "Growing up sucks."
"I think your shift ended fifteen minutes ago," Q pointed out, much to Max's surprise, "See? Talkin' wasn't so bad. It helped the shift fly by, didn't it?"
It hadn't been bad at all. That night hadn't been quite as irksome as he'd expected it to be, "Thanks for listening. And sorry for being an ass. Maybe next time you can spill your guts to me instead?"
"Ha! Dream on!" Q slapped him on the back with a rag as he left the bar, "Try and get over your sensitive, baby, teenager feelings. Maybe next time, we can have some fun in this place!"
That sounded good. Getting the chance to enjoy himself again while spending time working at the Tin Roof Club would be great. Just that shift alone had him feeling more like himself. His mood had improved significantly over the course of five hours. Now to head home and grab a measure of shuteye before school in the morning.
"Alright," Max said in bright spirits, making his way to the lot where he had left his car, "Now to drive home and... where's my car?" He asked aloud, stopping dead in his tracks once he saw that not only was his car not where he'd left it, a different car had taken its spot after it had been stolen, "No. Nope. No."
The more he thought about it, the more upset he got. Yes, he stole from others, but that didn't mean he couldn't get angry when someone stole from him. If anyone caught up to him and tried to give him his comeuppance for his thefts, he would understand.
...This was why when he came to collect his car, and his pound of flesh, from those who had absconded with it, he didn't want to hear any complaints.
"Oh, you dirty motherfuckers!" Max shouted to the open air. He quickly pulled out his primary phone and went to activate the tracker he hid in his ride, "No, no, not tonight."
Null hadn't been sighted in weeks, because he hadn't been active in weeks. There hadn't been a reason for the man under the hood to suit up, and it had been far too much activity for him to do it for no gain. There was nothing that could change his mind on that matter quite like taking back the things that he knew were his.
(Northeast Gotham City – Robbinsville)
Just because Null hadn't been out and about since the Arkham Asylum breakout didn't mean he hadn't kept himself in the loop as much as possible. Many things could change over the course of a few weeks, and walking out into the open with no idea what he was getting into was as good as a death sentence.
That being said, the criminal element that got their hands on his ride weren't recent escapees. They weren't some new players in Gotham City. That didn't make them any less dangerous though.
The Odessa Mob were an outfit of Ukrainian gangsters with their hands in just about every illicit activity there was to offer for profit. Prostitution, drugs, human trafficking, you name it. And as the most brutal of the organized crime organizations, they would establish their dominion in these endeavors violently.
Perhaps it wasn't worth the effort it would take to run them down and take back his car? After all, Null had the money to replace it. But a kid like Max couldn't go around spending money like that whenever he wanted to if he wanted to keep trying to fly under the radar.
Also, he had a lot of pent-up emotions that he hadn't gotten to let out. Talking to Q at the Tin Roof Club had helped, but there was nothing like a physical outlet in some cases. He wanted the adrenaline. He wanted the danger. He wanted to have to think about saving his own hide. It would keep his mind off of other things.
Focused on getting back his property, Null followed the signal from the tracker he'd left in his car to a chop shop on Gotham's west side. He would get his car back and take whatever he could get and leave with on-foot as recompense for his time and emotional distress.
His anger rose when he strolled into the junkyard that served as the nighttime place where cars were stripped, repainted, fake papers were made... the works. It was how business was done. And those conducting it would be very protective over that business. Null probably could have done things the stealthy way, but he didn't want to. He wanted it loud. He wanted to make a mess.
Unfortunately, the farther he ventured into the junkyard, the more it seemed like he was too late.
The first dead body he saw shocked him straight out of his appetite for chaos. A man lying in a pool of his own blood, eyes wide open staring at the sky. His throat had been slashed wide open, "Oh shit," He whispered to himself, feeling his mouth water with the oncoming feeling of nausea.
Gunshots attracted his attention closer to the main building that served as the garage of the junkyard. His first thought was that his car might have been in the crossfire of whatever damned fool gang warfare was taking place. That in mind, he took off to rescue his baby from the harsh clutches of the Odessa Mob and whoever they were in a shootout with.
There were no sentries rushing toward the garage. The man he had found dead on the ground must have been one, which likely meant the others had been similarly silenced before the main attack took place. That was top notch work, and Null knew this because he was a thief and had co-habitated with an assassin for the last several months. They'd had many discussions over how to handle security. Whoever this was, they were clearly in the Rose Wilson camp of letting God sort their enemies out.
Only… they just so happened to be a single person.
Null could only stand and watch. The open garage door gave him a view as though he were looking at a stage show. Men ducking and hiding, firing blindly at what could only be described as a force of nature with military-grade hardware.
Whatever firepower the Odessa Mob possessed, it paled in comparison. Gangsters fell from gunfire, were blown away by explosives. They could take no angle on him that put them in a better position despite their numbers. He had the initiative and took full advantage of it. The attacker cared nothing about collateral damage. He wasn't there to take anything other than lives, and he harvested plenty.
Bodies hit the floor, riddled with bullets, but one man stood tall despite this. Other than the fact that he was cutting through one of the most violent crime families like a hot knife through butter, there was nothing spectacular about his appearance.
He wore a leather motorcycle jacket, a t-shirt, jeans, and boots. Most distinguishing about him was the metallic red helmet that fit snugly on his head and face.
The mobsters were all gunned down to a man. It felt like it had taken forever, but in reality, from the time Null heard the first shot to the last one, it had been under two minutes. A man with a plan had come in and blitzed the place.
Numb to the swift display of violence, Null wandered into the garage and looked around. The guns had fallen silent, but it felt as if he could still feel and hear the echoes of the shootout, "Jesus," Null said out loud, knowing the perpetrator could hear him, "These guys must have really pissed you off."
The fact that the man before him hadn't already fired on him emboldened Null enough to approach, even to mouth off. There was a moment of tension before the red-crowned killer said anything, "Tch. The lightest offender of all the bottom-feeders, the petty thief," He said, insulting Null, "If it isn't Gotham City's half-assed Robin Hood."
Null took the insult in stride, "Well, Robin Hood gave to the poor. I just give to myself."
"That's why I called you half-assed," The man said, before jerking his head to the side, "Buzz off. Now."
Null wanted absolutely no problems with an unidentifiable crazy, "Sure, just let me get one thing first and I'll be right out of your hair."
He was not given the option to do such a thing so easily by said unidentifiable crazy, "Tell me something. When you planned on ripping this place off, what did you know about it?"
Null paused for a moment to contemplate his answer, "That the Odessa Mob does stuff out of this place, like strip cars," He said, trying to cover his own tracks on wanting to get his car back, "I never had a reason to find out more. I like not getting shot at."
"Did you also know they also use this place as a checkpoint for their human trafficking," The homicidal maksed biker asked rhetorically, "It took me two days of surveillance to figure that out, and one night to come up with a plan and execute it."
'Emphasis on execution,' Null thought to himself, looking around at the bodies, "So… uh, are you new in town?"
The biker chuckled and tapped the shotgun in his hand off of his shoulder, "Not so new. Let's just say I've been away for a while. A long time, in fact," He said cryptically, "I'd say it's good to be home, but this place only became more of a cesspool while I was gone."
"True," That comment resulted in the shotgun being levelled at Null, "What? I was agreeing with you!"
"Like you're not part of the problem" The gun-toting biker said, "I know who you are, Null. What you've been doing. Who you've been running around with," Null's eyes went wide underneath his hood. How much did this person really know? The two stood off for a moment before one thought better of the confrontation, "…Nah. Not worth the bullets. Maybe later. I've got more personal matters to see to before I start cleaning up this city."
Null was still prepared with a magnetic response, just in case the trigger was pulled. It wasn't needed though. As the gunman lowered the shotgun and started to walk away, only one question persisted, "Who are you?"
"The Red Hood," He said, pointing sternly at Null, "You get one warning, because you're not a murderer, a rapist, a drug lord, or that particular level of scum. But you are still a crook, and you will be dealt with."
A threat for the future. Null figured that if this Red Hood knew as much as he thought he did, he knew that shooting at Null would be less than effective. That was probably why he was pulling back for the time being, "Well why don't I just deal with you now then?" Null replied, "If you want trouble, let's get it over with," While he had the likely advantage.
Red Hood didn't answer, instead touching at his wrist underneath the sleeve of his jacket.
Null's teeth rattled from the force of the explosion in the lot behind the garage. Smoke billowed into the sky as an orange glow lit the dark junkyard. Null turned back to Red Hood only to see that he had taken the few seconds offered to him to leave.
The metahuman thief remained on his guard, anticipating a sniper's bullet or something else unpleasant coming his way any second. He only lowered his guard when he remembered what he had originally come for, and that a mess of cars had just been blown to kingdom come, "Nooooo!"
As quickly as his feet could carry him, Null sprinted to the back where he saw a fiery mess of wrecked cars that had been set to be processed and/or stripped that night.
If his fortunes held true to form, it was guaranteed that his stolen car had been placed amongst the ruined ones. The young man fell to his knees and pounded the ground, "Goddamn it! Why couldn't I just have the car? I didn't even want anything else this time!"
Apparently, Null just wasn't allowed to have nice things.
Red Hood observed the handiwork of his parting explosion from a rooftop within sight of the junkyard. The blast had been designed to burn in the pattern of an 'R' inside of a circle. He wanted it to be seen. He wanted them to see it.
…He wanted him to see it.
He wanted the questions to burn inside of them. He wanted them to need the answers. To need to seek him out. That was when he would settle things. And then, he would protect Gotham City the way it needed to be protected.
His task complete, he dropped down to an alleyway and prepared to depart.
Red Hood tensed, but let go of that tension when he realized that the person he really wanted hadn't come to confront him. Turning around to find Nightwing, he prepared himself for conflict, 'Well, you'll do,' "Wow. I remember you having a big mouth," Red Hood said, "I guess Batman's lessons on when to shut it did take hold. Wonder how many years that took."
Nightwing's brow quirked in interest. This person did know them, "You're sure in the loop, aren't you? Guess you couldn't run off before anyone else got here this time."
"The kid distracted me," Red Hood said, "Put me off my time table by a few minutes, not that I'm complaining."
"I guess I should buy him a steak or something," Nightwing remarked "I'm not thinking you're gonna come quietly, are you?"
Red Hood chuckled to himself, "I think you would be disappointed if I did. Do you really want to put in all the effort of finding me just for that?" He didn't give Nightwing time to retort, pulling out a pair of handguns. Nightwing moved to evade the moment he saw the flash of steel, taking cover behind a dumpster to avoid a hail of bullets.
Nightwing knew better than to try and wait out the attack, proactively hunkering down to push the heavy receptacle, moving it with great effort in Red Hood's direction. Red Hood charged past the dumpster and turned to riddle Nightwing with bullets, only to find Nightwing had jumped onto the dumpster and off into the air.
Before Red Hood could raise his guns and take aim, Nighwing shot a cable that wrapped around one of Red Hood's guns and his arm. Dropping that weapon, he pulled out a small device in one hand and a jagged blade in another. Attaching the device, he then cut himself free and activated it.
An electric shock stunned Nightwing until he dropped the grappling device, retaliating with a swift throw of his personalized shuriken.
"Crap," Red Hood winced as one of Nightwing's Wing-Dings clipped his leg. Ignoring the paltry wound, he moved forward to slash at him with his blade. Nightwing pulled out his Eskrima sticks and engaged him hand-to-hand, using one to block and the other to try and knock him unconscious.
Red Hood protected himself by stopping Nightwing's swing at the man's forearm. With the same arm he used to do so, he hit Nightwing in the face with a harsh palm strike that knocked him back against a wall, "Come on. You can do better than that!" Red Hood spun the knife in his hand around and lunged forward to stab the cornered Nightwing.
Acting quickly, Nightwing threw more of his Wing-Dings, but this time up instead of out. The weapons hit the ladder of a fire escape that dropped down, creating a temporary barrier between himself and Red Hood that stopped his attack. Surprised by the move, this left Red Hood open for Nightwing to punch him through one of the rungs.
Propelling himself by swinging around the ladder, Nightwing continued his onslaught with a flying kick that smashed into Red Hood's chest, taking the air out of his lungs. Nightwing landed on top of him and attempted to pin him down, but Red Hood rolled and fought bitterly for freedom.
In the ensuing scuffle, Red Hood's jagged knife nicked Nightwing's face. The acrobatic hero recoiled harshly from the sharp tip of the blade cutting his flesh, and in a snap reaction kicked it out of Red Hood's grasp.
The two men found themselves at a heated stalemate. Nightwing's brain was moving a mile a minute. Whoever this guy was, he was good. He was agile. He didn't stop and consider whatever move he was going to make next, he just made it.
He was trained; well. Not only that, but there was something familiar about how he fought. Nightwing couldn't quite put his finger on it though. It wasn't like he had the time to dwell on it anyway, "Who are you? What are you here for?"
Red Hood avoided the subject, "Still all about that flippy shit, aren't you?"
"Answer the question, already!" Nightwing bellowed, "You wanted my attention? Well, here I am! You've got it!"
Red Hood shook his head, "No, it's not just about you. It's not even mostly about you. You are what you are, Nightwing. You and Batman," He said, cryptically, "…And what I'll be."
"Which is what?" Nightwing spat.
Red Hood said, reaching up to point at his enemy, "You. I'll be the you that you so-called heroes are supposed to be," His tone then became more biting; more bitter, "If he had killed the ones who needed to die, the ones like Joker… you know full well what kind of hell he would have saved this city, this world."
A vendetta, against Batman and those who stood with him. Admittedly, this wasn't something unheard of, but there was something that felt personal about this. There was a closer connection here than others who had something against the protector of Gotham City.
Nightwing scoffed, "And you're the one that gets to pick who lives and who dies, huh? The only one who gets to be judge, jury, and executioner?"
"Death will come to those who deserve death, and death may come to those who stand in my way of doing what's right," Red Hood reasoned, "Ever since you were a boy, you fought to save Gotham. Save her from herself. But you never, ever understood her. She's evil. And you have to fight her where she lives."
"No, you won't," Nightwing said, "Not a chance. These streets see enough bloodshed without you upping the body count."
Killing off the criminals in Gotham City was an exercise in futility. After all, they did a good enough job doing that to themselves and it had never stemmed the tide of those engaging in illegal acts. All it did was make them take more drastic measures to obtain power and security.
Every time Red Hood slaughtered scores of mobsters and other crooks, they would simply find replacements, or someone else would show up to fill the void. Those replacements would be more paranoid, more heavily armed, and quicker to lash out in order to keep anyone from doing the same to them.
And yet, Red Hood knew nothing he said would change the mind of the determined hero before him, "Believe whatever you want to, Dick," Nightwing's eyes went wide at the use of his name, "…I'll make you see that fear isn't a good enough weapon to win the war," Red Hood dropped explosive pellets from the inside of his jacket.
'Those are just like-!' He didn't have time to finish his thought before the explosives went up. Nightwing dashed inside of the dumpster he had utilized as cover earlier. The metal was able to protect him from the worst of the blast. When the dust settled, he raised himself out, only to find no sign of his adversary, 'Those are just like the ones Bruce carries.'
There were many things that needed to be looked into. Nightwing's eyes strayed over to the Wing-Ding that had cut Red Hood earlier. His blood, his tissue was still on it. Maybe out of all the answers they needed, they could start there?
But did they have time? More than anything else, tonight proved that they were stretched thin.
"Bruce is gonna be pissed about it, but I think we need some backup."
The Red Hood is in Gotham, at a time when cleanup is needed most and the heroes are under pressure. Batman and the usual crew are overtaxed. And Max has a new co-worker... but no car. Poor guy. How will the various freaks who come out at night in Gotham City affect his immediate future? After all, you never know who else might have made it out of Arkham. It's going to be a fun ride to try and write though. Let's see what we can get into.
Now if you'll excuse me, I recently found that my Super Nintendo still works. Now I need to test all of my games and controllers. My weekend is about to be tight. It's about time I beat Mega Man X again.
Until the next chapter, Kenchi out.