Disclaimer: I own none of the various DC Comics characters mentioned in this story. They belong to DC and not me.
Notes: This is a one-shot that's been nagging at me for a while. It takes place just before Infinite Crisis. For anyone who hasn't read those comics, Luthor put together a Society of Villains encompassing nearly every DC villain. The Batman Rogues were not as involved as some but certain individuals were invited to join. This story is about two such Batman villains. The scene in this story never happened in the comics but I think it should have. Every organization needs a "Welcome New Members," party; even a secret, evil, organization.
"What the hell am I doing here?" Edward Nigma, who preferred to go by the Riddler, sat in the back of the banquet hall taking in the view through the purple tint of his sunglasses. The hall was extensive with many tables just like the one he sat at, all set with snow-white linen and fancy flowery centerpieces. Expensive silverware gleamed at every set place and classical music played softly over the speakers, barely heard over the babble of conversation.
It had the illusion of an upscale convention hall but that view was spoiled by the individuals walking around the room and sitting at the tables. Supervillains of every stripe, in bright costumes and glowing with power, put the lie to any air of gentility. There were people in this room who had committed mass murder without blinking an eye, beings who could cut Nigma into a thousand pieces with one raised finger, aliens and immortals, men and women who styled themselves as gods...and enough hostility to make his skin crawl.
So he asked himself again what he was doing here as he took a nervous gulp from his glass of water. Even after putting it down, his fingers played with the glass, making the surface of the water tremble in a way he didn't dare show in himself. It was rare for Edward Nigma to actually feel unnerved. He had the Joker as a neighbor at Arkham and Batman on his trail at every free moment. Pressure was something he'd learned to deal with a long time ago.
But this was different. He sent out riddles and committed crimes based on them. It was a far cry from the level of power in this room. There were several telepaths present too, so he tried to keep his thoughts ordered, tried meditation techniques to calm his mind. Still, somehow the sight of Dr. Psycho turning to peer in his direction for a moment made him want to flee from the room. He was a small fish among sharks and it wasn't a big enough pond to contain all of them.
Luthor may have ordered them all not to fight but that didn't stop those with grudges from glaring at each other from across the room. Luckily, there was enough space to keep rivals apart. Nigma had wisely chosen a table in the far corner where he could sit with his back to the wall and keep his eye out for any trouble.
The only villains who seemed unconcerned were the Rogues who usually faced the Flash. Captain Cold's crew were clustered around one large table and there was much laughter and conversation coming from their location. It was earning them glares but they were too busy to notice. Of course, the amount of beers they'd all consumed since Nigma had got here, probably had something to do with it. Drunk supervillains were an even scarier prospect than sober ones.
The room was only half-full yet. Riddler had arrived early in order to get a good table. He was situated in such a way that he could see everyone who walked in the room. While he didn't know of any villains who had grudges against him, it never paid to be too careful. His trick cane, which was hooked over the arm of his chair, was the only weapon he had if things got out of control so he made sure it was handy at all times.
Several villains arrived at the same time, streaming through the door as he looked over. He tried to look without anyone noticing while he kept a running list in his head of who was here. There was Sinestro, his eyes scanning the room while he fidgeted with his ring. Gentleman Ghost walked by, his top hat seeming to float in mid-air above the emptiness of his non-existent face. Solomon Grundy shuffled into the room and everyone did their best to stay out of his way.
Cheetah strolled by, clad only in her own spotted fur and Riddler couldn't help but stare from behind his sunglasses this time. There were quite a few scantily-clad villainesses in the room but she took the cake. Of course, noticing her or any of them's state of undress, was asking for trouble so he was careful to remain discreet. It wouldn't do for her to take offense and scratch his eyes out.
The room was filling faster now and Nigma was beginning to wonder who he might have to share a table with when a familiar sight walked in. He gave a small sigh of relief and made sure he caught the other man's eye before giving a small wave. The other villain strolled over and folded his lanky frame into the chair next to Nigma.
"Edward." He said in greeting.
"Jonathan." Nigma said in reply, mocking Scarecrow's curt greeting. He wouldn't have dared it with any of the others but Jonathan and he were old acquaintances. Not friends, he didn't count any of the Arkham inmates as friends. None of them could be trusted enough for that. Still, better the devil he knew then the scarier unknown (and sometimes actual) devils in the room.
"Quite an interesting assembly, don't you think?" Scarecrow seemed much more relaxed than Nigma. His blue eyes scanned the room with a certain sense of amusement from behind the worn sackcloth mask. Of course, his fear gas was a more effective weapon than the tricks hidden in Eddie's cane but there were still beings here who would probably be immune to it. Perhaps that was what interested Scarecrow. He always liked a challenge.
"Interesting is the right word. I wonder how long it will be until a fight breaks out. There are a lot of unresolved...issues between some of the people here."
"Why Riddler, are you scared of our fellow villains?" There was the usual gleam in Jonathan's eyes that he got whenever the subject of fear came up, which was quite often when he was around. It was what he steered nearly every conversation towards, after all.
"No, merely cautious as any intelligent person would be among such company. I'd rather not get caught between two rampaging psychopaths with superpowers. It's common sense."
Scarecrow looked even more amused as he looked around the room again. It was rapidly filling up with more villains and the main event would begin soon. Their host, Lex Luthor, would take the stage and welcome them before making an announcement about some sort of major upcoming event.
"Have you seen any of our fellow Gothamites here?"
"I saw Killer Croc and Mr. Freeze. I heard that Poison Ivy was here but I haven't seen her yet."
"Hmmm, well at least they had the sense not to invite Joker. He would be sure to stir up trouble and then you really would have something to fear. Although it might have been amusing to see some of their reactions. I do believe that many of the people in this room would be quite afraid if Joker were here."
Nigma thought of denying that he was afraid and then decided it didn't matter. Scarecrow would just assume it was true anyway. He was glad Joker wasn't around. The thought of the psychotic clown stirring up everyone even more made him shudder internally. And Scarecrow was right. Joker gave even other supervillains nightmares.
"So what made you join?" Riddler gave Scarecrow a slightly irritated look. Questions were supposed to be his forte and it distracted him from his villain watching. Talia al Ghul strolled in and Riddler suppressed a grimace and affected disinterest but she never even looked in his direction. Luckily for him, she didn't know about his illicit use of one of her late father's Lazarus Pits or he'd be dead right now-again.
"Why, the wonderful incentive plan. You?"
"That would be the incentive not to die horribly if you turned them down? I found that clause quite amusing. It ensures that some people are only here out of fear. As for me, I always welcome the chance to expand the scope of my experiments. Facing off against every super-hero on Earth should provide all sorts of fascinating opportunities to study the affects of fear."
Eddie knew Jonathan was insane but statements like that were always helpful to remind him just how insane the former professor really was. Riddler might have joined out of fear but the recent actions of the superheroes worried him too. The revelation that they had mentally altered Dr. Light's brain and reduced him to a harmless buffoon was shocking.
The superheroes had always been predictable before. All the Gotham Rogues knew Batman didn't kill. Joker considered it a game to see how far he could push the Bat before he broke that rule. Even the murder of the second Robin hadn't provoked Batman into killing the Joker although it had been close.
But what if the heroes got darker and Batman broke his own rule? It was an unacknowledged truth among the Rogues that if Batman ever snapped, they'd all be dead. He'd go after Joker first but the rest of them would be next. It was a disturbing thought to everyone except Joker, who could laugh even at the notion of his own death, and maybe Scarecrow who enjoyed the undercurrent of fear created by the idea.
Even if Batman stayed the same, there were plenty of other heroes, many of them with superpowers, who might decide to take the villains out. Riddler imagined the destruction an evil Superman or Martian Manhunter could cause and didn't regret his decision to join the Society, at least not much. He liked his brain exactly the way it was and no one was going to mentally lobotomize him if he could help it.
"That may be so but I'd keep your opinion to yourself if you don't want to end up as a pile of charred bones on the floor. People this powerful don't want to admit their fears and they sure as hell don't want you conducting a psychological study of them."
"Please Riddler, do give me some credit. It's far more interesting to study them through observation. It's not as though I were planning on taking a survey. 'On a scale of 1 to 10, how much of a factor did fear play in your decision to join the Society?'" He snorted in amusement at the idea.
The room was full now, and all the tables taken. Luthor or one of his cohorts had planned well enough that there was enough room for everyone to spread out. Some villains had tables to themselves and others clustered in groups but at least Riddler and Scarecrow didn't have to share the table with anyone else. Poison Ivy had wandered in a few minutes ago but had ignored them and had instead gone to sit with several of the other female villains.
The robot waiters came around with the entrees. The filet mignon that was placed in front of Nigma was obviously of high quality but he wasn't particularly hungry and just picked at it. Scarecrow had the same meal. He grudgingly removed his mask and hat. He laid the mask on his lap under the napkin, donned his glasses, and put the crooked hat back on his head as he ate. Riddler found the sight amusing but kept it to himself.
The conversations seemed to be getting louder as more people were drinking now. If Luthor were as smart as Nigma, he'd have limited the available alcohol but not everyone could be a super-genius, after all. By the time he began his speech, he was going to be facing a lot of bored and buzzed supervillains. This couldn't be good.
Dinner was nearly over when the inevitable happened. The Flash Rogues were quite clearly plastered now and the Trickster got to his feet and threw his arms out in a great flourish as he delivered the punchline to some joke that Nigma's table couldn't hear. Heat Wave laughed so hard that he fell off his chair and hit the floor. This only produced more gales of laughter at his expense from the others at the table.
Nigma was almost wondering if Joker hadn't sneaked something into the air or the food when Gorilla Grodd got to his feet and headed for the table. He'd been glaring at the table all night, especially the Trickster, and he'd clearly had enough. The Rogues all turned in unison to face him as the gorilla pointed a thick finger at the Trickster.
"He shouldn't be here! He's an FBI agent and a friend to the Flash. Traitorous little cretin!"
"Awwww, are you still mad about getting sent to jail again? Get over it, banana-breath. It was just business. Besides, aren't you more at home in a cage anyway?"
Grodd snarled and moved to grab at Trickster only to find the whole table rising to their feet. In the face of Captain Cold's cold gun, Heat Wave's heat ray, and Weather Wizard's wand, he lowered his hand although he didn't step back.
"Trickster's one of us. What ever he did is in the past. Now back off Grodd unless you want to take all of us on." Captain Cold was less drunk than some of his compatriots and his voice and aim were completely steady.
The whole room was silent as everyone watched the confrontation, some eagerly, some merely bored. Nigma glanced at Scarecrow, expecting him to be enjoying the undercurrent of tension in the air. Instead, the Master of Fear was glaring at Grodd with his teeth bared in anger.
It took Eddie a moment to realize why but when he glanced back at the standoff, it came to him. The way Grodd was towering over the table, trying to intimidate Trickster, made him look like a bully. Crane was probably flashing back to those memories of pea-brained jocks towering over him at school. Never mind that Trickster didn't look concerned in the least and in fact was grinning widely.
Several of the other villains were on their feet now. Some of them merely wanted to get a better vantage point but others looked like they were ready to go charging in to any fight that started. Whether that was because they enjoyed any excuse for violence or because they had reason to back one side over the other, he couldn't say.
Either way, Eddie readied himself to flee if he had to. It wasn't cowardice, despite what Jonathan might say. He just valued his own life too much to risk staying here if all-out war broke loose. Grodd was looking at the table intently but after a moment, he snarled and put a hand over his face.
"What have you done to me?"
"Telepathy not working? There's a reason." Eddie jumped a little as Lex Luthor's smug tone came over the loudspeakers. "There will be no hostilities here. Anyone who tries to use their abilities in a violent manner will find themselves unable to do so. When you agreed to join the Society, you were told to leave all grudges behind. Save your anger for the Justice League."
This brought several angry responses from some of the other villains but every one of them that tried to power up found themselves blocked. Eddie didn't care how Luthor was doing it, whether machines, drugs in the food, or possibly some unknown metahuman with power-dampening abilities. All that mattered was he wasn't in danger of being incinerated or zapped by anyone.
He relaxed and leaned back into his chair. Jonathan too had relaxed and had a rather satisfied smile on his face. It only took a few minutes before the anger died down and everyone grudgingly took their seats again. It wasn't as though there was anything they could do about the situation.
"What a lovely example of ordinariphobia." Scarecrow said softly as he watched the muttering villains shift in their seats.
"What? Is that even a real phobia?"
"I invented the name myself but clearly from what we just saw, it's real. All these villains with their precious superpowers are afraid of losing them. They know that without them, they're nothing. Mere humans with no defense against the harshness of the world."
"Taking away their superpowers wouldn't make all of them helpless. Grodd is still a superstrong ape even without his telepathy."
"Yes, but most of them are lost without their superhuman abilities. They fear being ordinary, being normal. That's where you and I have an advantage. I may prefer my fear gas but even without it, I know how to get into the minds of others and force them to reveal their fears."
"Yes, but you had that Scarebeast persona for a while."
"Don't remind me. That wasn't my idea and it took me months to figure out how to reverse it. What's the use of provoking fear if I'm not aware of it? Turning into some mindless, rampaging monster does nothing to further my studies. I'm better off without it."
"I suppose so." He'd never really wanted superpowers. Some of them might come in handy at times, like invisibility or flight, but they always seemed more trouble than they were worth. Besides, what power could compare to the sheer brilliance of his own mind?
Eddie contemplated the idea for the rest of the dinner. He only half-listened as Lex Luthor took the stage and made some predictable speech about uniting against the Justice League and their arrogant abuse of their powers. He tuned the former president out completely as Luthor started to talk about some tiny, pathetic group of supervillains who were going against the program and needed to be dealt with.
Anyone who went against the Society was siding with the Justice League and should be considered an enemy according to Luthor. The man thought that Catman was a threat? Please, Thomas Blake was a loser who wore a "magic" cape, lived in Catwoman's shadow, and hadn't done anything of note in a year. Luthor was clearly an ego-maniac with serious control issues if he was worried about Catman.
Eddie kept coming back to the same riddle. If he had superpowers, would it make a difference? Would he be more successful or respected? All of the superpowered villains in the room had been defeated time and time again by the superheroes. On the other hand, most of them were much more well-known and feared then he was. But he didn't care about being feared. He just wanted everyone to realize and acknowledge that he was the smartest man on the planet.
His scheme with Hush had been an attempt to gain back some respect from a Gotham that saw him as a mere nuisance compared to Joker or Two-Face. Even though it had backfired in the end and left him with an answer he couldn't share and the enmity of several of his fellow Rogues, it had been exhilarating.
He'd plotted out the entire thing on a grander scale then anything he'd done previously. He'd even managed to involve Superman whose vaunted and varied superpowers hadn't done him much good against Poison Ivy's pheromones.
Could he have done any better with a metahuman ability? Riddler doubted it. It was far more interesting and challenging to pit himself against Batman with only his wits as a weapon. As long as his mind wasn't altered by the Justice League, he would never have to worry about being ordinary.
Feeling much better, he made it through the rest of the dinner without any trouble. The dinner broke up as various supervillains departed to go sleep, or work on evil plans or whatever past times those less mentally-endowed than him chose to spend their time on.
The Flash Rogues staggered out the door in a group, arm in arm, and supporting each other in a way that suggested they were only vertical with each other's help. Riddler and Scarecrow walked out not far behind them.
"So, are you still fearful of your fellow Rogues, Riddler?"
"I told you it's not fear, merely caution. My feelings haven't changed one bit. You merely enforced it by pointing out that humans can be just as dangerous as any metahuman. But it doesn't matter. I can hold my own just fine."
"You have such ordinary fears, Edward. It's rather boring although I suppose it's predictable at least. I shall see you next Society meeting. Good night, Riddler." Scarecrow tipped the edge of his hat at Riddler in a rather mocking gesture and headed off to his room.
Jonathan had some nerve calling him predictable when fear was the only thing he was interested in to the exclusion of everything else. But Scarecrow's observations had made him realize that he was fine the way he was. He didn't need superstrength or laser eyes to be dangerous. Intelligence was a weapon of sorts and one he had in spades.
And being human gave him more flexibility in society. Once he succeeded in proving his own genius to the world, he could retire and maybe write his memoirs. He couldn't see Cheetah or Gorilla Grodd fitting into society if they ever retired or changed their minds about the villain business.
Maybe he could even have another career some day. He bet he could become a private detective and give Bruce a run for his money in crime solving. He could just imagine the look on Wayne's face if the Riddler started solving cases in "his" town. Maybe joining the Society wasn't such a bad decision after all. Grinning to himself, he entered his room and shut the door behind him.
A/N: I started writing this after Infinite Crisis. I love it when supervillains work together but really, what does someone like Riddler bring to the table? He has no superpowers and a brilliant mind does little good on the battlefield. It didn't work out well for him as Riddler ended up getting knocked unconscious during IC #2 and was in a coma for weeks. I wanted to explore what it means to be "merely" human and still be a supervillain but I got stuck on certain details and stopped writing it for a while.
But when Riddler woke up, he "reformed" and began working as a private detective in Gotham. I thought this was a great idea, although not one that will last. Sooner or later, a new writer will have Riddler return to crime. So it's really Paul Dini's current run on the Batman Detective Comics that shaped this more than IC. Especially #835-836 where Scarecrow proves he's terrifying even without his fear gas. I hope you liked it.