Disclaimer: Batverse, not mine. CATverse, co-owned. Kinda sorta.
This story is part of the CATverse, the story listing of which can be found at freewebs dot com slash catverse. It takes place in Arc Four, after my story "A Sense of Propriety."
WARNING: EXTREMELY GRATUITOUS VIOLENCE, followed by the somewhat less scary EXTREMELY GRATUITOUS FLUFF.
It was one of those things that everybody knew.
One of those inescapable, universal truths that everyone who'd lived in Gotham city for more than five minutes simply knew.
It was almost as if the moment you were in the city's limits, a big flashing sign appeared to let you know the most important of rules in Gotham City just in case you'd been living under a rock and didn't know already.
You did not piss off the Joker.
Not if you wanted to live and tell about it.
The Scarecrow, as a member of the criminal element that counted the Joker amongst it's numbers, knew better than most just the extent of how dangerous it could be to incur the Clown Prince's wrath.
That knowledge, however, didn't stop him from doing it.
Not that he did it on purpose.
Then again, no one, save Batman, ever did it on purpose.
But since the very nature of the Joker hinged on his unpredictability and instability, it was impossible to know at any given moment what would set him off and result in a massacre.
It could be that the wind wasn't blowing the way he wanted it to; it could be that his henchman had gone out for lunch and come back with the wrong kind of happy meal; it could be that someone had murdered the latest henchgirl underling that the Joker had taken a shine to…
While Crane had never been able to do anything about the weather, or concerned himself with the Joker's eating habits, the murdering of random girls who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time who just happened to be the Joker's new favorite was a subject he was intimately familiar with.
For the hundredth time, it had been an accident.
He couldn't be expected to keep track of every single henchgirl the Joker procured, nor every single stray bullet he fired whilst trying to escape the clutches of the police.
But try explaining that to the four thugs the Joker had sent to beat the stuffing out of him.
In retrospect, taking an alleyway he'd never taken before as a shortcut was a bad idea, but…he was the Scarecrow. The Master Of Fear.
He wasn't about to let a dark alley thwart him on his way to where he was going.
Halfway down the alleyway, he realized he probably should have let it thwart him.
The goons had appeared out of nowhere soundlessly, which was an absolute miracle considering their bulk. Two in front of him blocking his path and two behind, each of them the size of a linebacker.
Crane took stock of his situation and quickly ran through a variety of scenarios in his head.
Four big angry henchmen, both exits to the alley blocked, only one dose of fear toxin left on him…
The odds were not in his favor. He could probably take out one of them with the toxin, maybe two if they were standing close enough together to get a proper lungful, but that still left him two more to deal with.
However, it seemed as though they had a message to deliver before the beating was to begin, which he only half listened to because he was busy with trying to figure out which of them was the worst threat and therefore his biggest concern.
The brightest of the bunch (which was rather comparable to saying 'The sharpest of the spoons') recited with some difficulty the message that the Joker had entrusted him with.
Since they were both criminals and therefore comrades in the broadest sense, he would be given preferential treatment. The henchman had stressed how very rarely Joker gave anyone any mercy and made it clear that if Crane had been anyone else, he'd have been bludgeoned to death without a second's hesitation. It was only out of professional courtesy Joker would let him live and get away with just a severe beating
If that was as far as his 'preferential treatment' stretched, you'd have to excuse him for not being so thrilled with it.
Then they descended.
The Scarecrow's mask was on before they had taken two steps and the single dose of toxin he had in his possession hurled at the feet of the nearest one.
The hench kept coming anyway.
There was no effect.
None at all.
The beginnings of the thought that he was well and truly screwed flitted across his consciousness as he found himself violently grabbed by the collar and held up an inch off the street.
"That wasn't very nice," the goon who had him in his clutches said thickly, "Didja really think the boss woulda sent us out to put the hurt on you without preparin' us first?"
Oh no, of course not, because that would have given me a sporting chance. Silly me.
Crane balled up his fist and pulled back to swing at the hench; he might not have been a physical match for these tanks, but that didn't mean he was going to let them do whatever the hell they wanted to without fighting back.
He landed a good solid slam to the henchman's nose and cheered internally when it gushed forth with fresh blood and made a satisfying 'crack' noise.
Goon Number One hadn't expected the mark to fight back and the surprise hit caught him off guard, allowing Crane to slip from his grasp as he recoiled from his fist.
The second his feet touched solid ground, Crane gave a violent shove to the already off balance man in front of him. Goon Number One crashed backwards into Goon Number Four and they tumbled to the street in a tangle of limbs.
Now then…to get away…
Fifteen feet or so to the end of the alley and awaiting freedom.
He could manage fifteen feet…
Goon Number Two, who much resembled Goon Number One (but really, didn't all henches look alike anyways?), lunged at him as he darted for the alley exit, but somehow Scarecrow managed to avoid getting caught by him; dodging just as his hands would have closed around the fabric of his sleeve.
He wasn't so lucky with Goon Number Three, who grabbed him by the back of the coat and tore off his mask as he spun the scrawny man so that they were face to face.
Alright, so getting away was going to be a little more difficult than originally anticipated.
Number Three brought up one big meaty fist and slammed it into Crane's jaw, his entire head turning to the left. For a second he thought his head might twist off and go flying across the alley, so severely did his neck twist with the strength of the blow.
Recovering quickly, Scarecrow kicked out hard, the heel of his shoe bashing into Number Three's thigh, which caused him to falter and once more the gaunt man slithered out of the iron grip of his tormentor.
He didn't even get to take a single step before his legs were swept out from under him and blinding pain exploded in his kneecaps.
Oh. Someone brought a tire iron…oh joy.
Something in his back made a snapping noise that did not sound telling of his continued chiropractic health as he hit the pavement and the air was forced from his lungs at the sudden impact. His spine was jostled, momentarily taking his mind off the throb in his kneecaps.
Then a little voice in his head reminded him of this thing called 'breathing' that he should really think about engaging in sometime soon.
Crane inhaled sharply, only to be struck in the ribs at the exact moment his lungs filled with precious oxygen.
And oh, wasn't that a pleasant feeling.
Like he was a balloon that had just been unceremoniously popped.
He rolled to one side, gasping for breath, before he was seized once more and dragged to his feet, only to be knocked across the face with a set of brass knuckles and-damn, it felt like a piece of his nose had tried to come off.
Crane could feel the liquid gushing from his nostrils and running down his lips; could taste the copper and iron that was his blood. An involuntary whimper escaped him when another strike caught him squarely in the teeth; he was treated to the sensation that the entire front of his face was going to cave in and his neck was going to break in half when his head snapped backwards.
He found himself being shaken like a rag doll before he was dropped back on the ground.
He didn't fall, his feet miraculously caught him and his knees only tried to buckle slightly, but all thought of using this to his advantage was pushed from his mind when one of his hands was suddenly yanked up and his arm was twisted behind his back.
He heard rather than felt his shoulder pop from it's socket and his wrist snapped under the attentions of the man behind him, making a sound much like that of a celery stalk would when you snapped it in half.
Crane was then slammed face first into the nearest brick wall, feeling like every bone in his body had simultaneously fractured as he crumpled to the ground in a graceless heap.
One arm limp and useless, he rocked ever so slightly so as to lessen the biting, piercing pain on that side and was granted a few exquisite moments of panting for air.
That didn't last.
Something came down brutally on one of his ankles and he hissed, squishing noises coming from the joint as it was sprained, if not broken.
A lighting quick tally formed in his head within a split second-
Bruised ribs, out of socket shoulder, busted jaw, sprained ankle, broken wrist, whiplash…
Wasn't the idea supposed to be to leave him alive? Didn't these idiots know how frail the human body was?
Lifted into the air once more and with stars dancing at the edges of his vision, something solid wrapped around his throat and squeezed, little crackling noises coming from his Adam's apple.
Painfully aware of just how limp his body was as he dangled from the outstretched arm of the hench, he clawed weakly at the hand that had itself closed around his throat with his good arm, but he knew he was fighting a losing battle.
Scratch that. A lost battle.
His air supply was cut off completely by the sausage like fingers that were around his neck and his struggles got more and more feeble.
Crane was suffocating; mouth working and trying to take in air that wasn't forthcoming. All he could taste was blood and dirt and-
Apparently one of his molars was trying to dislodge itself from it's rightful place to take up residence at the back of his throat.
The center of his chest was beginning to ache like there was a knife plunged in his sternum and his arms were starting to tingle oddly while his vision blurred and his eyes rolled back in his head.
It was in this state of oxygen deprivation that the most absurd thought occurred to him.
Usually, a man got to see his life flashing before his eyes when he was this close to death; where the only coherent thought that Jonathan Crane could form was how much he wished he still had underlings.
If he'd still had his own little merry band of minions, he wouldn't be taking such a beating.
If anything, these four would be begging for mercy by now.
Probably crying…literally pleading on their hands and knees.
Provided they still had hands and knees…
It was when he grinned internally at the image of his girls standing over the broken bodies of Henchmen One through Four, that Crane knew he'd been beaten positively senseless.
Just as darkness was about to close in on him completely, the pressure on his throat released and he dropped to the Earth, landing awkwardly on his face and knees.
The air felt cold that whispered in between his open lips, (which he fleetingly found to be odd since it was the middle of July). He was much too weak to actually make the effort to take a breath and it wouldn't have mattered much anyway, since his body tried to curl in on itself when three sets of steel toed boots were suddenly kicking him viciously.
Something was pooling beneath him, he could feel it, somewhere above his abdomen but below his shoulders and why he was aware of this wetness when the shattering of his ribs was barely fazing him, he couldn't understand.
Maybe his mind was suffering from sensory overload with the rush of adrenaline and endorphines and he was clutching at the only sensation that wasn't painful in order to cope.
The reprieve was all too brief as a fresh wave of hurt washed over him and he gave a spastic jerk, not knowing exactly what had happened, but knowing that it involved his back and felt like he'd been split in two.
Vaguely aware of a scream that was certainly torn from his own raw throat, he arched and twisted, his muscles contorting against his will, turning him on his side and causing another burst of agony as one of his fractured ribs cracked audibly in half.
Jesus H. Tap Dancing Christ.
That felt like a collapsed lung.
His eyes rolled around in his head for a few moments, taking in the play of shadow and light in the alley, watching the two mingle and melt into one another, taking indistinct clashing shapes that rose to meet each other; joining, rebounding and warring for supremacy in his field of warped vision.
And then unconsciousness claimed him as everything went mercifully black.
How long exactly it was that he swam in the inky darkness, briefly fading in and out of it's grasp and into the light here and there, he wasn't sure.
But now, the corporeal world was slowly returning to him. Thankfully, he still couldn't feel much, but the black that had engulfed him so completely was ebbing away and lifting, allowing his other senses to emerge.
His hearing came first, but that was nothing spectacular. Just a constant, low drone that dipped and rose every so often, accompanied by little electronic beeps that were steady in their pattern. Everything was still pretty muffled, like his ears were stuffed with cotton balls, but at least it was something.
It was his sense of smell that followed; a familiar, burning tang of alcohol and sterilization that stung his nostrils and made memories slam into the forefront of his mind that he hadn't thought of in years.
It was the smell of a hospital.
And not a hospital ward, either. He'd spent enough time in each to differentiate between the two.
Where an infirmary like that in Arkham Asylum always had a cloying, underlying scent beneath the layers of sterility that it just couldn't shake, the smell of a proper hospital was sharper.
It was a smell of latex and alcohol and soaps and disinfectants of all kinds.
A smell that had no personality at all.
He took a few slow, tentative, conscious breaths through his nose, uncertain about whether or not it could withstand the strain of inhalation, and found that it could.
So he could hear and he could smell (he still couldn't feel, but remembering what feeling actually felt like the last time he'd done it, he decided that the lack of that particular sense wasn't necessarily a bad thing.) eyesight, logically should come next.
And come it did.
Gradually at first, but then all at once and even though he was aware of the fact that his eyelids were closed, light took the place of the all encompassing darkness that had been there before.
He tried to open his eyes and found that one of them was swollen and crusted shut and refused to obey his commands.
The other wasn't faring much better, but after some effort, he managed to open it a crack.
There was a sudden pain in his temple and he blinked the still functional eye repeatedly, pretty sure that he could actually feel his pupil adjusting it's size based on the level of light in the room.
Not artificial light. Sunlight. Dusky orange like that which colored the sky when twilight approached.
He definitely wasn't in Arkham. There were no windows in Arkham.
If not Arkham, then where was he?
Well, staring at the ceiling certainly wasn't going to tell him anything…
Should he risk turning his head?
He recalled the feeling of Henchman Number Three batting his head to one side and thought better of it.
Better to try and see everything he could without moving before he attempted anything so ambitious as tilting his head.
His left eyeball swiveled inside it's socket as he looked down and straight ahead past his bed.
Well, no surprise there.
His gaze shifted to follow along the length of the wall all the way to it's corner and then back towards himself on it's adjoining side.
He reached the halfway point, passed it unseeingly and then snapped back to look at it again.
His gaze stayed riveted as he stared at what was to be found there.
Three absolutely exhausted looking people, squashed together onto one tiny loveseat that was more like a generously sized chair than a couch.
Three familiar people.
Three dead people.
The Captain, Al and Techie.
The henchgirls whose graves he had popped by to see once not so long ago.
(The ones he wandered past every few weeks, if he was being honest with himself…but he wasn't being honest with himself.)
He was so stunned that he just stared at them.
Techie was seated in the middle, a book held lazily in front of her face with one hand, while the Captain's head lay on her shoulder, a little puddle of drool gathered on the fabric there and her limbs curled up into a ball by the other woman's side. Al was on the opposite side of Techie, also sleeping, but her torso was draped over the arm of the tiny loveseat with her legs tucked under her, toes in Techie's lap.
Crane was forcibly reminded of kittens curled together in a basket and the word 'endearing' flittered fleetingly across his mind before he chased it away.
The Captain shifted and slothfully poked Techie in the side, murmuring dully, "'Nother one."
The book dropped a quarter of an inch and he saw Techie look down at the Captain with a long suffering sigh, "Don't see why I'm bothering. You're sleeping anyways…"
"M'not asleep…restin' m' eyes," came the sleepy and slightly muffled reply.
A slightly more forceful poke that was still rather weak was forced into Techie's side, "Read."
He saw Techie shake her head but she relented and began reading, "A long, long sleep…a famous sleep, that makes no show for dawn-"
There was a contented noise from the Captain that sounded something like 'Muhhum.' and she burrowed her head more deeply in Techie's t-shirt.
"By stretch of limb or stir of lid, an independent one."
Recognition flashed in the brain of the man on the bed.
"Was ever idleness like this?"
That was the same unidentified noise that he awoke to. The one that rose and fell and was only a drone before.
"Within a hut of stone-"
She'd been reading aloud?
"To bask the centuries away-"
She'd been reading Dickinson aloud?
"Nor once look up for noon?"
The Captain was snoring softly now and Techie laid the book in her lap as she yawned. She reached behind her glasses and scrubbed at her eyes tiredly, careful not to wake the slumbering women on either side of her.
When she dropped her hands, he could see that she was looking at him, but seeing nothing in particular.
He could practically hear the sluggishly moving gears in her head grind to a halt as she actually saw him.
Saw him seeing her.
He didn't think eyes could go that wide without risking falling out of their sockets.
She blinked in shock seven times.
(He actually counted the blinks to pass the time.)
She looked at her companions and he could see the flash of conflicting emotions that passed across her face and then looked back at him.
"Good morning," she said quietly, almost as though she was afraid that saying something to him would kill him.
Actually he wagered she was more worried about waking the two girls pressed in on either side of her.
He didn't reply, still trying to decide if she was a hallucination or not.
She got up, carefully maneuvering herself out of the clump on the couch so that the Captain was now laying against Al, and timidly approached his bedside.
He watched her every careful move with suspicion as she stepped up near his head to look at him.
"You scared us awfully bad, Jonathan," she whispered, reaching out to gently trace his brow with a fingertip, barely brushing his face for fear of hurting him.
He could see the fear in those black eyes. If there was one thing that he could identify, even on his death bed…
Where ordinarily, he would've basked in that fear, for some unidentified reason his eyes drifted away from hers to rest in the book that was still clutched in her hand beneath white knuckles.
"I take comfort in the fact that neither of them are cognizant enough to know what I was reading," she answered when he looked back up at her in silent question, "Me reading poetry? They'd never let me live it down…"
He moved his lips to try and form sound, but found them unwilling to do so. They were chapped and split; he could feel it, his voice was all but gone from lack of use and the soreness of his throat.
She silently reached over to his bedside, out of his line of vision and when her hand came back into sight, it held a cup with a straw poking out of the top of it.
He choked down a little bit of the water and licked his bottom lip.
It was rather refreshing, considering the fact that it was obviously all part of some elaborate mirage.
Because it was then he decided for certain that she was an illusion.
They all were.
They had to be.
(He pointedly ignored the fact that he hadn't corrected himself for calling them 'his girls', like he usually did. He decided it had something to do with the fact he was clearly strung out of his mind on pain medications and God only knows what else.)
-didn't look like this. Drawn and tired and deathly pale with purple shadows under their eyes like they hadn't slept in weeks.
His girls didn't act like this. Gentle and tentative and quiet.
His girls were brash and daring and forceful and relentless.
So clearly, this was all a conjuring of his heavily sedated mind.
But he didn't believe in that sort of thing, surely…
He moved his lips again, this time forcing a little croak of, "Dead."
She looked alarmed and rushed to reassure him, "No, no, you're not dead."
Techie interoperated the look she gave him perfectly and reacted accordingly.
A little flash of anger, but only a tiny, tired spark crossed her features, "And I'm insulted by the fact that you seem to think eternal damnation would be me at your bedside."
Alright, so she had a point…it would probably be something more along the lines of Al at his bedside…
Kissing him and hugging him and calling him Squishy and-
Oh, well, if he wasn't sure Techie was a hallucination before, he was absolutely convinced now.
She hadn't called him Squishums once.
He narrowed his eyes at her appraisingly and tried to speak again, ready to tell this mirage exactly where she could go.
The lubrication of the little taste of water she'd given him before was gone and all he managed was a little exhale of breath.
Another, larger gulp of water later, and he croaked the word, "Go."
"Go?" she asked in a quiet hiss, "I go to all the trouble of coming back from the dead just to see you and you want me to go?"
Wait a second…
"Well I guess I didn't miss you either, Mister He Who Needs No One But Himself."
Back from the dead?
"And here I thought I was your favorite." She made a face as she amended, "Well…the one you detested the least."
Another laborious croak, "Back?"
She worked her jaw, opening it and closing it, unable to figure out what to say.
A voice from across the room saved her the trouble, "Well you certainly didn't think we were going to leave you to your own devices forever did you?"
And then suddenly all three of them were standing before him.
"I knew I wouldn't get to keep you to myself for very long," Techie said sourly with a resigned sigh.
She turned to stare at the women who had come up next to her, "The least you could've done was have the decency to stay unconscious until I'd gotten all the mushy stuff out of the way so I could save face."
"No face to save," Al smiled.
"We know you're gooey on the inside already," Captain said brightly.
"How're you feeling, Squish face?" Al asked, turning her attention fully on the Scarecrow.
He glared at her with his one good eye.
"I think that means he's better," Techie supplied.
"But don't think that will save those nasty henchmen from their avenge-y fates," Captain said resolutely.
"Yes…they will regret what they did to The Scarecrow with the regretting of a thousand regretful regretters."
How was it they managed to give him a massive headache within such a short amount of time?
Or maybe it was the drugs…'cause he was starting to feel drowsy in addition to the little bit of a throb at his temple that was developing.
Their demeanors changed abruptly from friendly banter to concern for his well being.
"What did you do to him to wear him out?" Captain asked, turning to Techie.
"Don't look at me like that, I didn't molest him."
"He's being pumped full of morphine," Al reminded, "This is the most activity he's had in over a week. You'd be tired too."
And it was very sudden, too, the darkness trying to pull him back into it's embrace forcefully.
His eyelid drooped but he fought back the fatigue.
He didn't know why; God knew it would have been nice to be in the quiet again where these three weren't at.
(He refused to believe it was because he didn't want the illusion to end, because it was kind of…nice, to have them there watching over him. Not that he would ever admit that. Ever. Not even under threat of torture or maiming.)
Their voices started to blend into one another until he could barely discern which was which.
"Guess this means we should say goodbye, yeah?"
"Yeah…but I don't want to."
"We've got to. We can't stay. We're dead, remember?"
His eye drifted shut and he started slipping back into oblivion.
"I don't suppose either of you have any Earth shatteringly poignant, cinematically beautiful goodbyes prepared that would fit this situation, do you?"
"Um…Here's looking at you kid?"
"Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn?"
"Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die?"
"Hasta La Vista, Baby?"
"Hopeless…the both of you," That was Techie, the way she pronounced her 'Os' in that Midwestern way gave it away, "I've got one."
She took a breath, "'I have been, and ever shall be, your friend.'"
There was silence as things started getting dark again and the last thing he heard before he was gone completely was and awed, "I've always wanted to say that."
When he awoke again, they were gone.
Actually, everything was gone.
He was in a different room than the one he remembered.
Much less…pristine. Much more…Gotham like.
Probably one of those free clinics where someone had dropped him off after finding him half dead in an alley; his face was probably so disfigured by the swelling, he was just another John Doe to everyone there and anyone who did recognize him didn't want to be the one to turn him in.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
His original assessment had been right; it had all been a hallucination brought on by his mind being too fractured with agony to deal with reality.
(He told himself he wasn't disappointed.)
They were dead. Close to a year now and he had come to terms with it.
He suddenly heard a few desperate shouts from somewhere outside his 'room' (which was just a little curtained off area around a bed), and distinctly made out a fear muffled screams.
"They've been gutted like fish!"
Crane listened a little more intently.
"Who would do something like this?"
"What kind of sick, sadistic monster would beat someone to this extent?"
A twisted little smirk tried to play on his lips as he pictured whatever carnage had taken place and then-
"Four grown men, all of them beaten this badly? How? Why?"
Surely it was a coincidence.
They were dead…
It couldn't possibly be…
"Hey…aren't these…aren't these some of the Joker's guys?"
Wondering what happens next? Read my story "Shoo Flu, Don't Bother Me" to find out!