Disclaimer: Batverse, not mine. CATverse co-owned.
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 "Surprise!" by Twinings.
For a man with his level of education, Jonathan Crane certainly wasn't very bright.
Especially when it came to the subject of alleyways.
Now you would think, considering all the other unfortunate encounters he'd had in those little out of the way alcoves, he would have learned to avoid them by now. Really.
Most people would have given up using alleys as shortcuts after the first time they were beaten to a pulp in one, but The Scarecrow was decidedly not 'most people'.
If it was pride that kept him from admitting that he'd rather not use alleyways, no one would ever know, but the excuse he gave himself for this particular excursion down this particular slender passage between two buildings was that if he didn't get away from the happy, singing, inebriated masses currently occupying Gotham Square as soon as possible, he would surely lose what little of his sanity remained.
He snorted derisively at the words that were floating on the breeze and picked up his pace, intent on putting as much space between himself and the drunken dolts in the Square.
"Auld Lang Sine" indeed.
Damned annoying, that's what it was. Ruining a perfectly good, quiet, peaceful night with that awful out of tune racket…
(It was not depressing to hear the words 'Should old acquaintance be forgot')
Was it any wonder he was so desperate to get away from it that he darted for the nearest alley, despite the possible consequences?
Never mind the fact his thoughts were a million miles away at that precise moment.
Never mind that he should have been paying closer attention to his surroundings, rather than thinking so hard he was giving himself a headache.
Never mind the fact he was coming from a short walk that found him at the top of the steepest hill at the foot of three identical graves in the middle of Gotham Central Cemetery.
None of that was important.
None of that had any bearing on why he was in an alleyway in the middle of the night, not paying any heed to the big burly shadow that loomed in the darkness behind him.
He had a lot to think on, that's all…and none of it had anything at all to do with three irritating henchgirls who had somehow managed to gain a sort of grudging (very grudging) respect from him for their audacity and ability to endure despite the unfavorable odds.
Although, apparently they hadn't endured…those headstones and the fact they had yet to come out of hiding since the publication of 'Diary Of A Henchgirl' strengthened his resolve that they were indeed dead and gone.
Even the whole Thanksgiving/Birthday incident could be explained away...it wasn't the first time that someone had delivered something to his doorstep in his henchgirls' stead.
(Though that particular 'gift' just reeked of them.)
He wasn't sorry about it. No, he wasn't. Not at all. He didn't feel bad that he no longer had them by his side twenty four seven and he certainly didn't...miss them.
And damn it, he was not thinking about them! There were so many more important things to dwell on!
Like the mugger who had just leapt out of nowhere and directly into his path, for instance.
Correction, the mugger who had him by the throat.
Now why does this scenario seem familiar?
"Your money or your life!" The mugger shook Crane violently back and forth, his feet leaving the pavement at one point.
Though Crane didn't know it at first, the man with his meaty hand currently wrapped around his neck had quite the reputation around Gotham. It wasn't until the mugger forcefully brought himself face to face with Crane that recognition passed over both their faces. Though Jonathan's jaw went slack and his eyes bugged out of his head at the sight of a man who was known around town as 'Nosey Joe' (a derogatory nickname due to the fact that a large chunk of his nose was missing) it wasn't his reputation for being a ruffian that bothered Crane.
Rather, it was the fact that the two of them had crossed paths not so long ago...with Nosey ending up the victor of the battle.
Crane's mouth went dry and his heart rate increased so much he thought it comparable to the speed of a hummingbird's wings.
Nosey Joe's reaction was the complete opposite of his captive. Rather than panicking at the memory of his last meeting with the Scarecrow, he was filled with elation, remembering just how easily this spindly man had folded under his attentions.
In fact, it was because of the little pipsqueak in his grasp that Nosey Joe got his nickname. After all, those...whatever they were that attacked him (he never did see what they were, they'd ambushed him so effectively) were responsible for the scars that covered most of his body; and they had claimed (what little he could remember through the blood red haze of that long, torturous day) that they were avenging his actions on a friend of theirs.
The very man in front of Nosey now.
A ruthless smile spread across Nosey's face, transforming his ordinarily ugly mug into something that bordered on the grotesque, like some sort of grinning gargoyle you'd find on the roof of a classically built cathedral; showing a couple of gaps in his smile where teeth had been knocked out (again, courtesy of those self appointed unknown protectors of the Scarecrow).
"We meet again, eh old buddy?" With all the care of a cat swatting a mouse it had in its clutches, Nosey smacked Crane open handed across the face, dislodging his spectacles in the process. "Still haven't learned to stay out of alleyways, I see."
Another careless slap, more about being a show of physical strength and an intimidation tactic than doing actual damage, echoed louder than Crane thought possible, leaving his jaw stinging with the force of the blow.
Crane's back painfully connected with the nearest wall and he slid boneless to the ground.
He may have looked somewhere between defiant and terrified, but inside he was calming himself down more quickly than he ever thought possible. He was taking stock of the situation, weighing what options he currently had open and finding...
Things were marginally more promising for him than usual. He had several doses of fear toxin on him and he highly doubted that Nosey had filters up his nostrils (what was left of his nostrils, anyways); all the Scarecrow had to do was put his mask on and hurl a capsule at the thug and listen for the dulcet tones of his anguished screaming.
"I got a score ta settle with you, dishrag," Nosey advanced on Crane with huge lumbering steps, reaching out and hauling him up off the ground by the collar once more, not noticing that Crane was preparing himself to strike. After years of practice whipping that sack cloth mask on and off, he knew the precise amount of time it would take to slip it on and administer a fatal dose of toxin to his unattractive friend.
Within seconds, the mask was out and the toxin filled capsule had burst, leaving a huge cloud of milky green hanging in the air.
The hands on his collar didn't loosen; there was no slack given as the toxin slowly drained away and evaporated into the night before his eyes.
Rather than the expected cringing face of Nosey Joe, Crane was treated to the vision of his nemesis grinning mirthlessly, and when the last traces of toxin had disappeared, he blew out a foul breath that was so disgustingly rank the smell reached Crane's nostrils through his mask.
With a sudden jerk, one of Crane's arms was yanked upwards and he was spun face first into the wall, which he collided with so hard it caused his nose to break. Blood trickled down his face where the rough edges of the bricks punctured his skin and his glasses were twisted, leaving the lenses shattered beneath his mask.
"Nice try, dishrag." Nosey fumbled behind Crane's head, pulling off his mask and taking several strands of his hair with it before turning and pinning Crane to the wall by the throat.
Looking straight at the man he intended to beat to death with his bare hands, Nosey tapped the misshapen lump of flesh in the center of his face with his finger, keeping Crane pinned to the wall with one forearm. "Toxin's a neat trick...if you inhale it. Whoever you sent to fix me, old buddy, they fixed me real good. Can't breathe through my nose anymore...at all." Nosey gave Crane another nasty shark-like smile. "Pain in the ass to try and stop and smell the roses, but it has its advantages."
Crane was forced to cry out when something slammed down on his kneecap. A distinctly steel-toed-boot-like something.
"You owe me, Crane," Nosey said with glee as he pounded a fist into Crane's stomach, making him double over and gag. "I was only doin' my job, see?"
A punch to the face had Crane seeing stars as he slipped to the ground, listening to Nosey's smug voice, "It ain't my fault you couldn't take your beatin' like a man."
Crane was on his feet again…but not really. It was hard to tell with the darkness threatening to cut off his senses completely. He didn't have a firm grip on reality-or even a loose one-at the moment. His whole world was mind shattering pain. Whether it was a product of his current situation or because of the unpleasant addition of the flashbacks from the summer when he'd been almost beaten to death, he couldn't tell.
His disorientation felt like it lasted hours, rather than the scant seconds it took for Nosey Joe to drag him back to his feet and meet his eyes. Those watery brown orbs swam in the expanse of Crane's vision as the seconds ticked by and he regained his bearings.
"Still with me, dishrag?"
Crane didn't dare mutter or whimper; anything to acknowledge Nosey's dominance would have been wrong and would have robbed him of the one thing he still had:
He glared as strongly as he could, which to Crane's chagrin, only seemed to please Nosey.
"Good man," Nosey said conversationally, as if he were speaking to a friend over a pint and not beating a man to a pulp in an alleyway. "It's no fun if you ain't got any fight left in ya."
One more blow to his gut sent him reeling and back into a crumpled heap on the pavement, gasping for air that wasn't forthcoming, despite all evidence to support the fact that oxygen was plentiful. Once more, he was hauled up off the ground by his collar and watched as the behemoth drew his fist back, intent to strike.
Crane squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head away, the last resort of a desperate man who knew it wouldn't do him any good to try and fight back, and waited for the blow that would most likely kill him.
It never came.
Instead, there was a loud, commanding shout that made the hand around his collar go stiff.
"Drop the Squishykins!"
"He's with us."
Crane went rigid and his eyes popped open.
Down the alleyway, backlit by a streetlamp, casting shadows on the pavement and looking every bit the absolutely fierce visions of avenging angels, stood the Captain, Al and Techie.
The man who had Crane by the throat let out a menacing growl, "Get outta here, girlie, this ain't none 'a your concern."
"Excuse me? Did you just call me girlie? Buddy, I'm gonna be wearin' your guts for garters..."
Al grabbed Techie by the sleeve. "Down, Techie."
"Listen ta your friend, ya dumb broad." Nosey let out a bark of a laugh, completely cruel and lacking any genuine warmth. "This is man business."
The Captain tsked, shaking her head. "You know, we were going to let you live...provided you handed over The Scarecrow without a fight, but I don't think we'll be able to control our dear friend here after a remark like that."
Al gestured towards Nosey Joe grandly. "Techie, if you would?"
Techie clapped excitedly and bounced on the balls of her feet. "Oh, can I?"
"Flay him," the other two women said in unison.
Techie rubbed her hands together briskly and gave the most unsettling grin that Crane had ever seen her wear: it was equal parts child-like glee and homicidal mania.
A 'FLICK' noise echoed down the alleyway and a flash of silver glinted in the lamplight.
"Let's dance, big boy." She let out a primal roar and launched herself in Nosey's direction, giving him no choice but to release the Scarecrow and fend off her blows. He was already winded, and regardless of whether or not Crane knew she wasn't good for a fight longer than ten or fifteen minutes long (she said she was a sprinter, not a long distance runner), her seemingly relentless attacks threw Nosey for a loop.
None of that mattered to the other two women, though. They had rushed to Crane's side and knelt next to him on the ground, checking the wounds that he'd been given.
"Are you alright, Squishykins?"
"We tried to get to you faster…oh Squishykins!"
Even with the hubbub going on around him, he couldn't focus on anything other than the fact they were solid. The gentle hands ministering to his injuries were as real as he was-especially if the pain he felt when they touched certain areas was any indication.
They weren't a hallucination. They weren't a dream. They were really here, talking to him, touching him…
"Stop that!" He swatted their hands away drunkenly, barely registering the fact that Techie was walking up, wiping her switchblade on a rather dilapidated rag. She too dropped to her knees, smiling at him, though thankfully not in the unsettling way she had smiled at Nosey.
In what he would later claim to be a moment of true temporary insanity, he reached out and gingerly touched Al's hand.
Al stared at his hand resting on hers, looking almost as confused as Crane felt.
"You're not real." Crane blinked a few times, hoping to banish the phantoms he was seeing. After all…they couldn't be real. Never mind that they felt real. They'd felt real before but they'd been gone when he woke up.
"You're right, Squishykins. We're the ghosts of New Years Past, Present and Future," The Captain said, wriggling all ten of her fingers at a very confused Jonathan Crane.
There was a 'Shluck' noise that could only have been made by Techie running her tongue over her teeth in that way she did whenever she doubted something, "Work on that all day, did you?"
The Captain looked at Techie thoughtfully. "No...Originally I wanted to use it for when we popped up to see Eddums this last time at Christmas...but...well..."
Techie started giggling and Al smacked her on the arm reproachfully, adding to Crane's compounding confusion.
"What?" Techie asked through an unsuccessfully stifled snicker, "I can't help it. It's the first time I saw someone else get electrocuted."
"Yeah well, you make a habit of grabbing electric fences."
"Hey, twice isn't habitual," Techie defended. "The first time was 'I wonder what this'll feel like'."
"And the second time?"
"That was more along the lines of 'That felt neat! I wanna do it again!'."
Al looked between the Captain and Techie, as though searching for something. "Are you sure you two aren't related?"
Their bickering sounded authentic enough, even though they were shifting him into a sitting position up against one of the brick walls while they did it.
"How did you…" He couldn't complete the thought aloud. He couldn't even complete it silently.
"Well, you read my diary," Techie answered. "We had to get outta town by sundown, Brown."
"But while we were gone, the guy who put the contract on our heads croaked!" The Captain was grinning. "And we've redeemed ourselves with most of Gotham's criminal element."
"Well, I haven't," Techie said sourly, "Mister Freeze is still rather upset with me...even after I sent him a Slushie gift card. That man can hold a grudge."
"You're not real," Crane repeated, more to himself than anyone else, still not believing his eyes and the evidence.
"I am getting annoyed with you, Mister. Every single time we've come to you, you've been less than enthusiastic about it," Techie said impatiently. "You would think that you'd be glad to see us. Glad to have us back."
Another one of those 'genuine temporary moments of insanity' overtook Crane and he suddenly reached out and pulled all three of them to his chest, heedless of the pain it caused. He didn't care what it felt like, so long as he could make sure they really were solid...real and substantial-not shadows that would disappear with the dawn.
And though in the weeks, months and years to come he would vehemently deny it-not only to himself but to anyone and everyone who asked him-he was glad. He was relieved and glad. Hell, he was bordering on happy.
But they didn't need to know that, now did they?
For the next story in the series, and the beginning of arc five, check out my story "Vacation Slides: Culture Shock."