Jason Todd set two glasses on the surface of the card table, and Dick Grayson looked up. Jason pushed aside the items that Dick had set out to prepare for patrol with a half empty bottle of scotch.
"Swan Queen won't come out of the lab, and the little devil is with his old man, so it's just the two of us," Jason told Dick. "Thought we could do a little celebrating."
Narrowing his eyes, Dick glanced down at the glasses. "Where did you find this? Does the 'old man' know you have it?" He again looked up at his brother, leaning back in his chair. The dim light in the room cast a shadow over Jason's strong features as he took his Red Hood helmet off, and he placed it on the table as he sat in the chair across from Dick. He still wore his mask underneath his helmet, a habit he'd picked up.
"The almighty Bat doesn't need to know everything." Jason poured a measure into each glass. "You don't have to drink it if you don't want it. I'm not wasting this on someone who isn't going to appreciate it."
"Oh I can appreciate it," Dick laughed a little, putting down the tranquilizer gun that he'd been cleaning and taking a glass, examining it in his hands. He didn't have to ask what they were celebrating. Every citizen in Gotham had kept tallies on their walls as the days went past.
Today marked three hundred and sixty-five.
"One year and we're not dead," Jason raised his glass, "although I'm not sure if that's actually a good thing."
"It's a good thing," Dick reassured them both quietly, tapping his glass to Jason's, the glasses clinking quietly before he took a sip and grimaced, nodding a bit. "Good scotch, too," he chuckled.
"Well it's had time to age." Jason shrugged before taking another swig from his own glass. They sat in silence in the large room, once an executive office of some kind with placid beige walls and floor to ceiling panoramic windows. The sparse furniture- a queen sized bed with nothing but a comforter and a couple of pillows on it, the card table and chairs where the two men sat, and a large mahogany desk pushed against the far wall- made the wide office seem as empty as the room of a dollhouse.
"It feels like longer than a year," Dick said quietly.
"It looks like more than a year, Gramps," Jason taunted, smirking.
"Shut up," Dick laughed. "Have you seen Bruce? He's rocking the hairline gray," he finished off his scotch, replacing the glass on the table.
"I'm sure Selina would be too," Jason added, "but I'm willing to bet she has a connection on supply run for hair dye."
"Yeah, Selina looks as good as ever. Bruce is a lucky guy." Dick looked up at the ceiling, and then back down at the watch on his wrist. "We've got time," he sighed, glancing at the door.
"I'm patrolling Downtown today. What's your gig?" Jason asked as he finished off his drink. His previous shift had come in early, so he'd stopped in to visit Dick on the end of his break.
"Arkham duty, in Uptown," Dick replied, crossing his arms and staring at the table. "With Kate and Damian."
"That's sure to be a lively party," Jason snorted. "I'm with Batgirl, Jr., but I'm also with that police officer." Jason nodded at him.
"Oh?" Dick raised an eyebrow, smiling.
"I'm not on bridge duty, but maybe I can build one." He smirked.
"Hell, I say go for it," Dick stood and stretched, turning to the panoramic windows. The sun was rising steadily over Gotham City outside, sparkling on the water surrounding the island. "Why would she turn you down? You're more of a hero to the people now than you ever were. We all are," he laughed. The only light in the room was provided by the sunrise outside, painting the walls and surfaces amber. The room's emptiness was only emphasized by the lone folding table and chairs in the center of it.
Jason smiled bitterly. "What's the point of being a hero in a city you can't save?"
"The idea is to be a hero to the people you can save," Dick looked at him pointedly, his deep, clear blue eyes contrasted sharply against the orange backdrop. "We can't save everyone, but what we do matters to the people we can save."
"Well as long as one of them's that police officer, I'm fine with that. And you never know," Jason stretched, "I could not make it through to tomorrow. Although… it would be really embarrassing if one of you had to put me down," he mused.
"We don't-" Dick cut himself off, running his hand through his hair. "Never mind. We'll be fine. You'll be fine, just don't go charging off into battle, okay?" he laughed, shaking his head. "Not without me."
"I won't go now, but I am on city patrol remember? You are getting old, Gramps. Do we need to take you out of rotation?"
"Jason, I'm only twenty-seven!" Dick laughed. "You're not exactly the kid you once were, either," he pointed out, picking up his tranquilizer gun and holstering it at his left hip.
"I know," Jason mock sighed, "dying will do that to you."
"At least now you can legally drink that scotch."
Jason rolled his eyes. "Say hi to Barbara for me." He kicked his legs up onto the table and saluted. Dick smiled a little as he put his mask on, tucked away everything that he had scattered across the table in their rightful pockets, and then walked out into the hall of Wayne Tower. He still remembered strolling through this building when it was bustling with life and scored with the sounds of telephones ringing and people talking. Working. Now it remained eerily silent as he walked down the long hallway to the elevator and got on. It was little things like that that he missed. The conversation and thrum of life, hearing a radio in the background; the traffic outside of the building. All gone now. As the elevator dropped and opened on the first of the underground floors where Barbara worked in the Research and Development labs, Dick shoved his hands in his pockets and thought about a year ago. It hadn't been so quiet then, and it had annoyed him. Now he'd give anything to hear a jet engine as it left the Gotham airport, or the thunder of the trains through the city. Still, he couldn't complain.
Gotham was better off than the rest of the world.
He knocked on the frosted glass door before entering his code into the keypad and stepping into the lab.
"Batgirl?" he called quietly, glancing around at the other scientists working in silence around the wide room. Fluorescent lights in the ceiling illuminated the metal tables and scientific instruments in an unnaturally pure white glow.
"Just a second." Barbara Gordon held up one finger, not looking away from her computer. Dick waited patiently as he leaned against her desk. When she finally looked up he smiled, his eyes hidden behind the lenses of his mask. "Are you getting ready for patrol?" she asked and glanced at the clock before smiling back. The black bulletproof Batgirl cowl over her face didn't detract from her beauty, her red hair tumbling over her shoulder from under the mask. Her white regulation lab coat was over her black and violet Batgirl jacket, and she wore jeans and boots. They all dressed more casually than they used to. It was substance over style nowadays, and none of them could argue.
"Yeah, guard duty tonight, patrol tomorrow, and then supply. I thought I'd come say goodbye to you first." He pulled a chair away from a table nearby and turned it around, sitting down and resting his arms on the back. "How's it coming?"
"The same as always," she sighed as she leaned back in her chair, "too slow."
"Explain it to me. Maybe that will make it seem less slow. You have to have made advances by now," he quietly reassured her, resting his chin on his arms.
"What do you want me to explain?" she asked in frustration. "That we can't figure out how to make the cure? That people are dying, and we're not any closer to helping them than we were a year ago?" She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her desk, rubbing her eyes. "I'm sorry."
"Hey." She felt his hand on her back. "Don't be sorry. You're doing what you can."
"Dick," she breathed, "it's been a year. A whole year since the outbreak. We know where it came from, why, and what causes it, but we can't cure it. Do you know how frustrating that is?"
"I know. Yet, from your perspective, working on a cure… I can't imagine. I'm sorry, Babs," he whispered, smoothing the red hair falling down her back from her cowl. "All we can do is keep trying."
"Yeah." After a second, she seemed to mentally shake herself. "So how is it out in the streets? Has the horror improved?" she asked sarcastically.
"Not by much. But the sunrise was gorgeous today." Dick smiled at her, cocking his head a bit.
"At least when anything could happen, we can count on the sun rising and making you turn gushy." She pinched his cheek and laughed. Dick laughed as well, and a couple of the scientists looked up at them before continuing on with their work. The brightly lit, unnaturally clean lab was a stark difference from the gritty world outside, but no less unsettling.
"Always," he agreed, and then glanced at his watch. "Damn. I'm running out of time." Looking back up at Barbara, he sighed. "I never want to go to work, but when I'm there I don't mind it. It's just the ticking down to the time comes that is awful."
"Speak for yourself," she smiled, "I hate my job. Wanna trade?"
He laughed. "You know I'd never be able to do your job. I'd get bored here. Not that you don't..." he looked around her desk at the hand-taken notes and carefully catalogued samples. "They'd kick me out of here before I touched anything."
"They did tell me they were petitioning for a sign to be made showing your face with an 'X' through it," she laughed.
"I know, because I break things and I distract you," he snorted, watching her laugh. He was glad that he could still make her laugh. Some things never do change, Dick thought.
"They hide all the samples when you come in. You may be able to do a triple flip, but they think you're going to trip and fall all over everything." Barbara shot him a glance, smiling.
"Quadruple flip. And tell you what," Dick smiled broadly, "next time, you come see me." He ran a hand through his dark hair falling down to his shoulders.
"You mean leave the hole I've dug for myself here? Impossible. They'd steal my stash of gummy worms." Barbara smiled at him.
"Are you running low? I could grab more next time I go on supply run," he grinned, pulling open the drawer where she kept the bag of candy to take a piece.
"No, but you know to keep an eye out for Kit-Kats. I've been out since the day you brought the last of them to me."
"Promise," he agreed, standing up and shoving a gummy worm in his mouth. "I'd better get going. See you in a few days," he sighed, taking his gloves out of his pockets and pulling them on.
"And I'll dumb all this science stuff down for you," she told him. "So don't die or I won't get to make you feel stupid."
"How can I die when I don't know the secret of the science stuff?" he joked, and then in one swift motion he'd pulled her out of her chair and hugged her tight. "Keep at it, Babs. You'll get it."
"I will as long as you promise to come home." She hugged him back. Dick kissed her cheek, and Barbara smiled.
"Promise. I'm going to say a quick hello to Tim, and I'll see you in a couple of days," Dick smiled reassuringly, and then hesitated beside her desk. "And Batgirl?"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, Boy Wonder, I know," she smiled, rolling her eyes. "Now get out of here."
Dick grinned before walking across the room to a secluded desk in the corner, half separated by a single standing cubicle wall. He knocked on the desk, and when the figure bent over it didn't respond, Dick put his hand over the paper that his brother was scribbling on. Tim Drake looked up at him furiously.
"Oh, it's you," he relaxed a bit, and then pushed Dick's hand out of the way.
"I've missed you too, baby brother," Dick said enthusiastically, walking around the desk to look over his shoulder.
"What time is it?" Tim asked, rubbing the back of his neck. His dark hair stuck out of the bottom of his black mask, which covered the top of his head and tied in the back with cut out holes for the eyes.
"It's time for you to seriously eat something or you're going to die," Stephanie Brown declared as she marched around the cubicle wall. She dropped a covered plate onto his desk and then pulled the violet bandanna around her mouth down, her golden hair tumbling out of her hood as it too fell around her neck. "You better stop working long enough to eat it," she warned. Dick laughed.
"Aren't you supposed to be on patrol?" he asked, smiling at Stephanie.
"Aren't you?" She countered, grinning. "Now, I'm heading back out in five minutes," she told Tim. "Are you going to kiss me or not?" Dick laughed at her directness as Tim stood up and walked around his desk to kiss Stephanie goodbye.
Slipping around the two of them, Dick walked away again and passed Barbara's desk. He waved with a smile, and then continued on down the length of the room. When he emerged in the hallway, the fluorescent lights illuminated the white walls and floor as they had in the labs. Dick walked to the elevator and hit the lobby button, and then leaned against the wall as he pressed the button on his communicator in his ear, turning it on to listen to the morning shift change sound off.
"Nightwing, heading out to Uptown and Arkham City for perimeter guard. I'll arrive soon," he reported.
"Don't be late," Damian commed back.
"I'll be there," he assured him, switching the comm off. He lightly tapped the small plaque by the front door as he walked out, taking a moment to glance at Alfred's name etched into the metal. He could almost hear the old butler sighing 'be careful, Master Dick,' after him as he walked down the front steps of the Wayne Enterprises building, the ebony glass structure towering behind him in the bright morning sunshine of the street. Dick got onto his motorcycle and sped north toward Arkham City.
The abandoned streets were littered with cars, left by their owners and shoved to the sides when the laws had changed. Gasoline had to be spared. Even the bike he sat on was electric powered. Whatever fuel they had left- and if they ever found a fuel truck on the mainland, which was rare- went to emergency vehicles. Batman had long ago fitted his team's transportation with both electric and solar powered capabilities. It gave them and the police an advantage to be the only ones with vehicles. It left them in a position of power and helped keep the panicked masses in check. As he shot through the silent streets towards Uptown Gotham, Dick couldn't help but admire the bright sky, as well. Though he suspected that it wouldn't last long; clouds were already gathering around the city, waiting to close them in.
He shut his bike down at the threshold of the only bridge across the river to Uptown Gotham that hadn't been blown in the initial purge of the city, a full year ago today. Batwoman and Robin stood waiting for him.
"Took you long enough," Damian Wayne muttered, uncrossing his arms. His Robin mask and the scar over his lip gave the illusion of a permanent scowl on his face, shadowed by the hood over his head, and his Great Dane, Titus, stood at alert by his side. Dick scoffed.
"It took me less than five minutes! I tell you what, one thing I do not miss is the traffic," he lied, taking a deep breath. "Are we ready?"
"On your command," Kate Kane replied with a nod. Dick shrugged and led the way. They always went on foot for guard, it was much stealthier, and in turn, much safer that way. Batwoman nodded at the four policemen guarding the bridge as they passed.
"So who wants Grant and who wants North Point? I'll take South Point," Robin said.
"I'll take North Point," Kate replied.
"Looks like I'm left with Grant," Dick nodded as they crossed into Uptown Gotham.
Into enemy territory.
"Try not to get yourself killed," Damian told Dick. "I'd hate to have to come rescue you."
"In your sad little dreams," Dick smirked up at him. The boy had grown taller, in fact he could hardly be considered a boy anymore. At fifteen years old, he'd grown like a weed, already taller than Dick by a few inches and broad like his father. His massive dog trotted next to him; it's head at Damian's elbow. No matter what, the dog always accompanied him on patrol. It was well trained and smart, and loyal to its master to the end.
"Ha, if I have to leave my post to save your sorry ass, you'll have to explain it to my father," he retorted, smiling slightly. His speech, stiff and proper when he'd first come to them as a boy, had changed as well. Damian had adjusted to this new life in the past year. Better than the rest of them.
"Oh God, what would I do if I had to talk to Batman?" Dick cried loudly, and Kate punched him in the arm so hard he fell into Damian.
"Knock it off, bird-brain, or you will get us killed," she laughed.
"You're one to talk. Have you heard how far your laugh carries?" Damian asked before stepping away from the two of them. "Try not to get lost on the way to your post," he told Dick. "If your navigation skills are as poor as your punctuality, you may need to comm for help." He turned and jogged off, Titus following him. Dick and Kate walked in silence further North, until she broke into a run, headed for her section. Turning and heading west along the roads and empty alleyways, Dick finally met the high concrete walls of Arkham City.
It had originally been built as a free-range prison, hundreds of city blocks- and Arkham Island- cut off from the world by massive, impenetrable walls, hundreds of feet high and at least one hundred feet wide. The prisoners from Blackgate and the dangerous criminals from Arkham Asylum had been released in it and the doors sealed, but when the outbreak had begun and Batman had to take over the city; the entirety of Uptown Gotham was left to the inmates and the murderers.
And the Infected, of course.
The criminals stayed mostly in Arkham City; it was their own safe haven in the section of Gotham that they had claimed as their own. Even Batman hadn't dared cross the wall. It was dangerous enough in Uptown, and Dick was glad that he had taken the Northwest point of the area. There, closer to the gates, the bolder criminals sometimes ventured out from Arkham City to scavenge in the abandoned buildings. The only way out of Uptown was the single bridge left into Midtown Gotham, but that was well guarded by what was left of the GCPD. Dick crept along the wall in the shadow of it's height; it was still dangerous to be here, but less so in the daylight. The Arkham and Blackgate inmates did still have the run of Uptown despite staying behind the Arkham City walls, and they weren't exactly welcoming if they saw any heroes.
Another advantage Dick was grateful for was the silence. No traffic. No life. That meant he heard every rustle, scuff, and movement in his surroundings.
That also meant that he heard the groaning behind him.
Dick pulled his tranquilizer gun out of it's holster and turned just as the figure emerged from the dark, empty doorway of a building. It wasn't fast; they never were.
Not at first.
Dick's heart beat faster, and he released a slow breath to calm himself.
Glassy white eyes shone from sunken sockets in a pale face as the sun emerged from behind the clouds and Dick stepped back, his gun raised. If there was one, there'd be more, and he didn't want to fire to attract their attention.
She was small. Her head cocked to the side with a cracking sound loud enough to make Dick's stomach turn; her mouth hung slightly ajar and dripped a thick yellow paste. Worst of all was the smell. Like decaying bodies. It hung in the air around her, and Dick's finger tightened on the trigger as she raised her hands- several fingernails missing and dry blood caked on her flaking skin- and she came forward.
He stepped back and fired.
At the crack of the gun the vacant face distorted in a murderous fury, and there it was- the unbelievable, sudden burst of speed- she was nearly on top of him before the tranquilizer did it's work and she collapsed, twitching like a broken automaton, the dart between her eyes. Always between the eyes; if they fired anywhere else, it wouldn't work. Dick let out a slow breath and holstered his gun, kneeling in the dirt and quickly drawing a blood sample from the crumpled figure at his feet. He carefully slipped it into the insulated pouch at his belt and stood.
"Ya know the worst thing about zombies," a voice spoke through the silence as Dick spun around to look for its source, "is the smell. I mean, they stink now, but have ya ever let one decay in the street?"
Harley Quinn was leaning against the Arkham wall and watching him. He straightened up, wiping the momentary look of surprise off of his face before the corner of his lips turned up a bit. It was unmistakably her; bleached white skin and two-tone black and red hair tied up in matching pigtails.
"Well look at you. Still alive? I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hoping that you'd all been Infected so I wouldn't have to deal with you anymore," Nightwing said, his hand hovering near his gun in its holster at his hip.
"Oh come on, ya'd miss us," Harley grinned. "What's a little zombie apocalypse without some chaotic backplot?"
"One hell of a boring story, I guess," Dick replied, cocking his head a bit. His raven hair was pulled back from his face in a loose ponytail at the base of his neck, the high collar of his jacket and a few flyaway strands framing his chiseled face. She hadn't attacked, and it only piqued his curiosity.
"So let's suss out some character development." She pushed forward off the wall that she was leaning against and clasped her hands behind her back. "Guns are more effective, bullets easier ta come by than tranq darts, but ya Bats are still opposed ta guns, huh?" Harley paced around him. Her red and black hair was pulled into low pigtails behind her ears, and she reached up to tuck the black bangs back. "You'll try an' be moral till the end won'tcha? Although, I guess the hair gets longer the tougher things get." She paused behind him, examining his ponytail. "Does the one wit' a helmet gotta rat tail peekin' out by now?"
Dick turned his head to watch her carefully over his shoulder, his lips pressed tightly together. He wasn't about to grace that question with an answer. She'd never seen his eyes behind his mask, just the vacant white lenses. Like the Infected.
"So what, a few walkers visit the city an' ya turn into Batman? I thought ya were the one wit' a personality? What a shame," she sighed, her ruby lips turning up at the corners. She stepped out of the shadow of the wall for a moment as she paced around him, her pale skin blinding white in the sunlight before she was back in shadow.
"So what, an epidemic breaks out and suddenly you don't attack me on sight?" He turned a bit, still wary of her behind him, his eyes locked on her. A pair of escrima sticks were strapped to his right thigh, easy enough to pull out should the need arise.
"That's not fair," she objected, pouting, "I always told a few jokes before attemptin' ta boil ya in oil, or feed ya to sharks, or something like that. Don't tell me ya forgot. I thought I was funny." She grinned as she stopped moving. Her pale skin almost glowed against the backdrop of the gray city in the dim sunlight of the slowly encroaching clouds. The bright morning sunlight was momentarily blocked.
"You were funny," he said calmly. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a job to be doing." In a panic Dick had realized that she could be distracting him. From what, he didn't know, but if something happened under his watch he'd never hear the end of it. He started walking forward, on full alert and listening closely to her behind him. Harley laughed and trailed after him.
"Not much of a job if they ain't payin' ya overtime." She pulled at the sleeves of her leather jacket in the brisk morning air. It had a red collar that continued along the top of her arms and chest, and down in a thin streak along the zipper. The black leather started high on her back and continued along the underside of the arms and across the chest in an arc. There were also black patches at her shoulders and elbows. It was over a tight corset with a characteristically low cut sweetheart neckline. It was two toned as well, with the inner right side up to the peak of the sweetheart curve red while the other half of her right side was black. It was the opposite on her left side, and the top ended just above her navel.
"I don't get paid at all," he muttered confusedly, glancing back at her, increasingly puzzled as to what her motive was for following him.
"Then it's more of a hobby." She nodded. "Ya lost, pretty boy? Ya keep lookin' around in confusion."
"Why are you following me?" He stopped and looked back at her as she stopped with him.
Dick took a few steps forward, and she followed. He stopped again.
"Who says I'm followin' ya?" she asked. "We could be goin' to the same place."
"I'm not going anywhere," he said in exasperation before shaking his head. "Wait wait wait- did you call me 'pretty boy'?!"
"Yeah. Wit' the hair an' the clothes." She gestured to his skintight Nightwing suit top with its blue streak across the chest that he wore under his heavy canvas jacket. "If the shoe fits."
"Well what if I don't like the shoe?" he snapped petulantly, and then mentally chided himself. What the hell are you doing. Shut up and move along. Do your job. Dick fell into a walk again, turning north towards the docks. Harley skipped to catch up to him, walking sideways beside him.
"Aw, don't go changin'. I like the shoe." She laughed.
Dick ignored her, his hand still close to his tranq gun in case this was a trick; it was starting to feel less hostile and more… playful? He glanced at her, opened his mouth to say something, and then continued on his way. A cold breeze came over the water towards them, blowing the dark hair away from his face.
"Can I ask ya a personal question?" She moved ahead a little to walk a bit in front of him, smiling back. "I always got the feelin' you had the hots for Batgirl. Is that a thing? Then again, I did also get the gay vibe. But that coulda just been the skin tight spandex."
"I'm not- it's aerodynamic," he snapped, flustered into answering. His cheeks flushed a bit under his mask. "There's nothing with Batgirl. Once, there could have been, but before all of this," he told her, and then shut his lips tight, blushing even redder. What the hell are you doing!? "Why are you interrogating me?" he snapped. "Don't you have somewhere to be? Or has the Joker let you off of your leash today?" Dick demanded, pushing past her as he pulled out an escrima stick.
"Touchy," she muttered before grinning as she kept following him. "An' technically speakin', you're on my side a' the bridge. So don't you got somewhere else ta be? Like your own turf? Or," she stopped in front of him forcing him to halt, "are ya here ta see someone?" She smiled up at him and winked as she laughed. Dick stared at her, his mouth hanging slightly open. He closed it again and she could see his brow furrow behind his mask. She couldn't help but wonder what he looked like without it.
"Okay, really. Why haven't you tried to whack me over the head and drag me back to the Joker? You're right, I am in your territory, and it would be completely understandable, so… why?" His voice had changed. He wasn't hostile so much as earnest and curious. He didn't push past her, but walked around her and continued on, fully expecting her to fall into step beside him, and she did. They'd reached the docks, and it was colder near the water. The sunlight diving in and out of the clouds illuminated the blue stripe on his chest under his coat. Walking slower so she could keep up, Dick replaced his escrima stick in the holster on his leg.
"Where's the fun in that?" she asked. She smiled at him before glancing across the water. "You usta be able ta see lights across the river. You can't see much a' anything anymore," she mused. "I can see someone left for zombie food any old day of the week," she glanced at him. "You guys walkin' around are kinda interestin' ta watch." She shrugged.
"You watch us?" he asked in surprise, though he didn't know why. They were in Arkham territory; of course they were being surveilled. And there wasn't much of anything else to do, anyway.
"Wha' did ya expect?" She crossed her arms across her chest, flashing him an amused grin. "Ya thought we didn't notice you guys?" Uptown may have been left open to the Arkham inmates, but they mostly stayed inside Arkham City behind the secrecy of the Arkham wall. Uptown had been thoroughly ransacked early on anyway, and it wasn't worth the effort to stop the Bats from patrolling it. That didn't stop the occasional person from making a trip outside the wall and into Uptown, and Harley had heard stories of a few encounters with the Bat patrols.
"Nah, we like to think we're stealthier than that," he answered, flashing her a gorgeous grin before resuming his stoic expression.
"Wait, wait." She beamed. "What was that? Was that a smile?" She laughed. "Or was that just a trick a' the light?"
"What? I smile on occasion," he said nonchalantly. Dick stopped and sighed, looking out over the water. They'd reached the northernmost point of his designated patrol region. He did a mental checklist in his head. Arkham wall secure. Docks empty, island perimeter still intact… he didn't want to check the cameras, since they were relatively recent additions to the list and as far as they knew, none of the criminals were aware of them, but he'd glanced at them when they walked past each one to make sure it hadn't been tampered with. He didn't see why they would have been, they were only there to catch anyone leaving or coming to the city without authorization. As soon as he lost Harley Quinn, he would check them more thoroughly.
"There's a storm comin'," Harley watched the clouds over the cliffside of the mainland, dark thunderheads growing on the horizon. Dick could just spot Wayne Manor on the cliffs. He shook his head.
"Well we've still got time." They stood in silence for a while longer, listening to the sound of thunder rolling over the water. "That's my job done," Dick finally sighed, and then gave Harley Quinn a sidelong glance. "So why'd you follow me all the way out here?"
"What? Walkin's good for ya," she mimicked. "Why'd ya let me follow ya all the way here?" Dick thought for a moment, walking back along the docks and starting down the alley back to the street.
"I don't know, honestly. Maybe it's because you've never been this docile before. I don't think-" he cried out as he was thrown into her, accidentally groping her as he tried to catch himself. He whirled to face the man stepping out of the shadows who had hit him, his cheeks flushed and his teeth grit in anger.
"This cape botherin' you, pigtails?" The man grinned, a gold tooth glinting in his mouth as he slung a baseball bat over his shoulder. Two other criminals stepped out from behind him, and Dick moved back warily when he saw that one of them had an outbreak victim on a dog trapper's pole, straining against the cord on it's throat. The vacant eyes stared at Dick, and he could hear the sickening sound of it's teeth grinding together.
He slowly drew his escrima sticks.
"You know you can't take those outta the wall," Harley told the men, looking at the zombie with distaste. "Bossman's not gonna be pleased you're disobeyin' orders."
"This'n was caught out here," he sneered. "Yer 'voidin ma question. I don' think bossman'd like you hangin round a cape, neither." The zombie suddenly lunged forward with blinding speed, making a horrible snarling sound. Dick leapt lithely back away from it.
"Who says I'm not out here gatherin' intel," she shrugged, "you're askin' questions above your pay grade." She crossed her arms as she stared down the man holding the zombie back. Dick stared at her for a moment before turning his attention back to the threat.
"Ain't no pay grade if there ain't no pay. An' the clown prince may treat ya like a princess, but y'all ain't royalty. And we ain't peasants," the burly man snapped, grabbing Harley's arm and squeezing. Before she could even react to the pain, Nightwing's escrima stick came down on the man's wrist, and she heard the bone snap as he cried out and released her. The towering thug furiously glanced at the man holding the zombie back, still struggling against the pole, and he grinned and let go.
The outbreak victim shot forward so fast that Dick scarcely had time to raise an escrima stick before it hit him and they tumbled away into the alley. Dick struggled to keep the face of the hissing zombie away from him. Its vacant eyes stared at him as drool dripped down from its snapping jaws. Suddenly it was yanked away from him.
Harley held the zombie back from him by the pole. With an annoyed look, she placed her gun to its temple and pulled the trigger. She turned her head with distaste at the splatter of black blood; she released the pole, and the gruesome, twitching figure fell to the ground.
"Now," Harley stepped back toward the men, cocking her revolver and placing it against the first thug's forehead, "what was it we were talkin' about? I think we were in the middle of something. Oh yeah," she grabbed the man's arm and twisted it hard behind his back. She kept the gun pressed against his head. "You wanna repeat what ya said? I think I wanna hear it one more time."
"Ya heard what I said, princess. I'm not gonna kneel ta you," he hissed through his teeth as Dick stood up, carefully wiping the zombie drool off of his face.
"Oh no, I heard ya. I just wanted to make sure ya wanted that ta be the last thing ya said."
"Don't," Dick warned darkly.
"Ya gonna stop me?" she taunted.
"Yes." He stepped closer to her.
"Well I'd like ta see how." Harley rested her elbows on the man's shoulders, the gun still pointed lazily at his head. "But what's even more interesting than that, is a super's tryin' ta help ya while your friends aren't." She cocked her head and glanced at two men who had been tentatively backing away from the confrontation.
"It's what I do," Dick said quietly, his eyes no longer on her, but the gun in her hand. As her finger pulled the trigger the gun was wrenched back, exploding as the wingding embedded in it caused it to backfire, spinning away into the street. She hadn't even seen him throw it, but Nightwing lowered his hand slowly. The man took advantage of her momentary distraction and wrenched his arm free, escaping with his friends.
"Aw! Look what ya did," Harley complained, rubbing her hand where the gun had clipped it. "Now I'm gonna hafta hunt him and his buddies down."
"Or you could just let them be," he cried in exasperation, straightening up. He walked over to the gun and pulled out the wingding. "Ugh. Scuffed it…" He tried to use his jacket to rub the mark away before pushing it back into spring loaded holster clipped around his wrist.
"Oh I'm sorry your little dingaling got a scratch when ya hurled it at my gun," Harley snapped. She checked over her revolver. "These things ain't exactly abundant in Arkham."
"Yeah, well neither are these. And they're called wingdings," he muttered, his eyes narrowing behind his mask in anger. "I wouldn't have scuffed it if you hadn't tried to kill that guy. I'm glad I took out your gun."
"You're really sticking with wingding huh?" She slid the gun into its holster. "And ya didn't seem ta mind the gun so much when it was saving your life," she reminded him.
"You saved my life by murdering an innocent man. These people aren't monsters, they're sick and they need help!" he retorted, marching up to her until they were nose to nose. Thunder rumbled in the darkening sky. "The more that stay alive, the more we can save later. And yes, just because that comment bothered me- I am sticking with 'wingding'. I'll tell you what I tell everyone; I picked it myself, and I've stuck with it for years, and I'm not about to stop now!" he snapped, his thin lips twisted in a furious frown.
"Jeez," she held her hands up in surrender, "big male ego. I get it."
"It's not an ego," he said quietly, stepping away from her. "It's all I have left from before the outbreak. From that life." He unsheathed an escrima stick and didn't look back at her as he fired the grappling hook in the end into the building above him. His thumb glanced over the button and he was pulled upward, disappearing over the ledge.
"Oh and Wonder Boy," she called after him; she knew he was listening, "next time ya wanna cop a feel, just ask." She laughed before continuing along back towards the wall.
Harley hummed as she walked in the Arkham wall's shadow. The graying city was silent around her, so the noise echoed forward off of the empty streets. She trailed her fingers along the wall as she went, tapping her fingers against it. She wasn't worried about anyone hearing her. Those few men were probably the only people outside of Arkham aside from the Bats, and she actually enjoyed the idea of them finding her again. Anyone else wouldn't be stupid enough to try and attack her anyway.
Eventually she made it back to where she'd watched Nightwing take down the Infected victim. She could smell the rotting flesh. A little ways past that, and she made it to the door.
It was the only way in or out of Arkham City. All the other doors were still sealed shut, but this one was slid halfway open. The door stretched to the top of the wall, making it look like a gaping fissure wide enough to fit a car. When she passed through it, Harley tilted her head up to peer at the top of the wall a whole building's height above her.
Once inside, there was finally noise. Doors slamming, drifting conversations, shouting, scuffing feet in the distance. Harley wove her way through the city, still humming. She walked down a street with enough pot holes to make it impossible to traverse by car.
The closer she got to her destination, the more noise there was even though it was almost just as lonely and desolate. Only a few candles stood burned down and extinguished in dirty windows. Arkham City had been without power since before the regular civilians had evacuated Uptown.
Every building was powerless but one.
The Warden's Tower seemed to cast its own shadow no matter how dark or light it was. It was the tallest building in Arkham City. The building had been used by Hugo Strange to keep an eye over everything in the early days of Arkham. Now, it was the central keep of the city.
Harley walked right up to the door. There were no guards; no one who wasn't welcome would dare enter the building. The thick door stuck a little as she shoved it in. A single bare bulb was shining from the ceiling, powered by the tower's makeshift generator in the basement. Harley blinked to try and adjust her eyes to the dimmer light as she passed the old security checkpoint and offices, long deserted. She lifted the cage door in the freight elevator and stepped in. Pulling it closed, she pushed the top floor button. The noises of the elevator creaking and rumbling up the shaft drowned out her humming until it reached the top.
"Puddin, I'm home," she called as she pushed up the door and stepped out.
"Haaaaaaaaaarley," a voice droned from the darker side of the wide, spacious room. "I hadn't noticed you'd gone out. Lovely morning for a walk, though," the Joker came out of the shadows and smiled darkly. "Was it?"
"Yeah." Harley flopped onto the battered couch in the sparsely decorated living room. "One a' the herolings was out n' about." She'd been keeping a basic surveillance of the patrols along the walls for him to relieve the boredom of a year's worth of being trapped in Arkham, though today was the first time she'd had any interaction with them.
"Oh! Which one!? Was it Batman!?" he cried, his eyes flashing for a moment, such a brilliant green that they stood out starkly against his white face.
"Nah, the first Robin." Harley leaned her head back over the armrest and looked at him upside down. She put her fingers around her eyes like a fake mask. "Nightwing."
"Oh. And bird boy number four?" Joker rubbed a puckered scar on his throat. "Didn't you say they're always out together?" He dropped down into an armchair beside the couch and sighed, plucking at the fraying fabric on the arm. Joker sighed again.
"He musta been patrollin' a different section." She shrugged before turning over and smiling at him. "How are things around the madhouse?"
"Dull, Harley; they're dull." Joker looked away, biting his fingernails. His hands were just as white as the black-tie gloves he wore, which had grown stained a bit from age and use; the fingertips cut off at the knuckle. "Some things are interesting, I suppose. Through his experimenting, I think Scarecrow has made some progress."
"Exciting." Harley grinned before her lips puckered. "Some thugs found a zombie outside the city but they got on my nerves." She sighed. "Unfortunately they got away, but huntin' 'em down will gimme something ta do today." She brushed at some blood she saw splattered on her jacket sleeve.
Joker waved his hand dismissively and then returned it to his lips, again biting his fingernails.
"Ya look stressed, Puddin." Harley sat up. "Anything I can do ta help?"
"Oh, I don't know, dear," his head twitched a bit as if he was listening to something. A rustling sounded in the shadowy corner of the room, and he ignored it. "I am stressed. Caged here, penned up in Arkham like some animal- we've lost plenty of our own, too, and Batman locks us away here!?" He shot to his feet, the tails of his grungy purple coat whipping behind him. "It's inhumane. It's criminal," he laughed a bit, and then grinned. "I miss the good old days. A slaughter, a fight, then the Bat'd throw me in Arkham and it'd start all over again."
"It's okay, Mistah J," Harley jumped to her feet and put a hand on his shoulder. "The heroes are workin' on a cure. Eventually things'll go back ta how they were."
"A cure?!" Joker whirled on her, grabbing her wrist. "How do you know this?! How far are they?!" He released her and paced away, lost in thought and muttering to himself. His fist clenched and unclenched at his side.
"I dunno know." Harley furrowed her brow. "They're always talkin' about helpin' the Infected, and I've seen 'em take blood samples. I don't know how far they are, just that they're workin' on it." She watched the Joker pace. "An' that's bad?" she asked carefully.
"Of course! Completely counterproductive to my work. We're doing a fine job- learning to control them. Harley, the old way is dead. But that doesn't mean that we have to stay here in this prison, surrounded by the corpses of inmates and zombies... We ought to take the fight to Batman." He grinned gleefully and let out a wheezing laugh, rising into a mad cackle. The Joker wrung his hands a bit and muttered again, an animalistic growling coming from the dark corner. Joker looked up. "Harley dear, could you feed Nygma for me? I think a plan may be hatching. I think…" he trailed off, crossing to the desk by the windows. Below them, the entirety of Arkham City and beyond that- Arkham Asylum- could be seen and surveilled clearly.
"What plan, Puddin?" She went into the kitchen quick and came back with a bucket. She tossed it toward the Riddler in the corner, and he attacked the raw meat that spilled out with a series of snarls. "Do ya have ta keep your pets up here? The smell is overwhelmin'." She wrinkled her nose in disgust. She often wished the Warden had had a wife or someone because his former living quarters were as bleak as he'd been. But Harley could handle the dingy space attached to the Warden's office; it fit the city and occurrences well. The zombie in the corner, she couldn't handle.
"Plan? Of course I've got a plan," he cackled, his eyes gleaming. He thought for a moment longer. "The plan is to become Batman."
"Be Batman?!" Harley cried incredulously, her brow furrowed in confusion. "I thought you always wanted to kill 'im?"
"I'll get to that, but for now- riddle me this!" he cried as he crossed the room, grabbing Edward Nygma's face. The zombie snapped and snarled at him, chained around the neck as Joker nuzzled his nose, laughing. "He's so cute! Who's my good boy?! You are!" he cried, laughing harder as he released the gnashing jaws and ruffled Nygma's hair. He leaned on the zombie's head and turned back to Harley. "How is Gotham still standing?"
"About the same." She shrugged. "Patrols are consistent, guards on the bridge. Wayne Tower still has power." She would have moved closer to him while she was talking, but her disgust for the zombie won out. She couldn't understand the Joker's fascination with them.
"No, Harley, how is it still standing?! Why?! The entirety of this plague was brought on by the Justice League, and yet, they were powerless to stop it. The world devolved into a ruin of these mindless... Well zombies," he laughed, a long green hair flying in his face. Pushing his hair back, Joker grinned at her. "So why is Gotham, of all places, still a safe haven? I mean, the citizens remain peaceful and docile, living simple lives growing their own food and livestock and living off of whatever was left in the city when this utter tragedy struck- why this city?"
"Because of Batman?" she guessed.
"Exactly. Batman took up the reins and ruled the city with an iron fist- he feeds the refugees, keeps them docile and calm; keeps them from panicking. He gets them everything they need and protects them- keeps the peace- I need to become. Batman. Rally the people. Our people. He locked us away in Arkham with these vermin-" he kicked Nygma, and the zombie let out a howl of panic and scurried away into the dark corner. "We are nothing to him. Not a priority, anyway. We're just as vile and useless as these bags of ooze that Hollywood warned us so often about- We're monsters. But what if we could be more? Yes..." the Joker strode towards her and took her hand, grinning wildly, his eyes shining as she smiled back at his excitement. "We can be so much more."
He let out a wild, hysterical laugh, echoing in the empty room and tapering off into the darkness.