Batman traveled through mid-town, swinging on a zip-line twenty stories above the ground. It was a quiet night so far- the return of the dreaded Batman had had more of an impact than he'd expected. Rumors in the underworld made him out to be a demon from hell, some kind of vampire, a machine, or simply too tough to die. Whatever they believed, most criminals were staying off the streets for now. Dick wasn't naïve enough to believe it would last. Sooner or later greed and desperation would put the slime back on the streets. But until then, he had time to get used to his new role- and to train his own replacement.
The new Nightwing was coming along well. He was fast improving as an acrobat, and his escrima skills were growing by leaps and bounds. He'd even given Tim maps of Bloodhaven so that the younger man would arrive with a good knowledge of the city's layout. Tonight, though, he was still Robin- and Robin was patrolling the docks. Batgirl and Huntress were staking out a suspected meth lab, while Azrael was assaulting a gang hideout. Thus, Batman was alone tonight.
He passed by the building that until recently had held the Gotham branch of the League of Assassins. Just as he had predicted, it had been quickly attacked and destroyed by the various criminal factions struggling for control of Gotham's criminal economy. Although the fanatics within had fought ferociously, and had managed to hold off several attacks, they had been outgunned and outnumbered. In the end, it was the Ghost Dragons, lead by King Snake himself, who had routed the agents of Ra's Al Ghul.
Batman had made sure that the survivors had seen him watching the entire affair. No doubt word had already reached the Demon's Head that Batman was back, and that he was not above using criminals to defeat his enemies. Dick smirked as he thought of old man Ghul trying to wrap his mind around the idea that an enemy could change strategies. 'God knows the old Ghoul hasn't changed 'em once' he thought. 'I wonder if he knows I've formally inducted Azrael and Huntress to the BatClan?'
He pondered this as he traveled. 'I wonder if Bruce ever thought it would come to this- that we'd have five costumed vigilantes all fighting the war he started alone. To think, it all started when one guy put on a costume and started breaking heads. He probably thought he would make his stand alone forever, but he never wavered a bit. Amazing'
The OraCom implanted in his cowl interrupted his thoughts. "Hey sweetcheeks" came Barbara's voice. Since their engagement, she had dropped what formality she had used when speaking to him. He, of course, couldn't do the same- unlike her, he was outside and anyone could hear his side of the conversation.
"Go ahead, Oracle" he replied.
"We've got a silent alarm tripped somewhere in the industrial area. It's…oh god." Her voice went quiet.
"Where is it?"
"The Ace Chemical plant. I guess Harley's making her move, whatever it is. Do you need backup?"
Batman snorted, unable to contain himself "For Harley Quinn? Get serious. Batman out."
He landed on the roof of a bank and stopped to clear his head. He hadn't been to the chemical plant since Bruce died; he was under no illusions about the effect that it would likely have on him. He needed to stay focused, so he sat down and meditated for a minute or two. Thus prepared he set off for the plant.
Ace Chemicals had been hit hard in recent years. The shift of chemical manufacturing to China, combined with the company's role in creating the Joker, had turned a once-immense company into a shell of its former self. This was reflected in the dismal state of much of the factory. Lighting was poor, the place was filthy and security was a joke. Batman had no trouble gaining entry, and set out to find the deranged miss Quinn before she did whatever she had come to do.
He slowly moved through the facility, keeping to the shadows and scanning the area as he walked. All the evidence indicated that Harley had lost what little sanity she still retained, and that she was far more violent than she had been. He knew that in a straight fight she would be no match for him; even champion gymnastics are no match for years of martial arts training. But overconfidence and carelessness were a recipe for disaster, and he knew it.
Cautiously, he checked the factory floor. He carefully examined each piece of machinery for tampering, checked the chemical stores for dangerous additives, and swept the area for bombs. He took his time- a disaster involving a factory full of volatile chemicals within city limits would be catastrophic. A half hour later he had to admit that there was nothing there. He wondered if perhaps they hadn't jumped to conclusions. Silent alarms malfunctioned and they had jumped on this one because of the location.
He was about to call Oracle to get her to recheck her sensors when he heard a single loud footstep on the catwalk above him. He glanced up just in time to see a female figure run towards the darker end of the catwalk.
Raving towards the catwalk, Batman considered the situation. Harley had clearly chosen the Ace Plant for its significance in both the death and the birth of her lover. Furthermore, she had obviously wanted him to see her; that footstep had been too obvious to be anything but an invitation. It was therefore likely that she had some manner of trap prepared. He had to be on his toes and ready. Also…
"Batman to Oracle, I need reinforcements…Batman to Oracle, come in….Oracle, do you hear me?"
"Ah ah ah, B-man!" Harley's voice was as chirpy as ever, ringing out across the silent factory. The echoes of the huge building prevented him from getting a fix on her location, but he could still understand her. "No callin' your friends ta come an help! This is a private party! Heeeheeheee!"
"Quinn…Harley…Give it up." He called out as he moved towards the metal staircase to the catwalk "The Joker isn't coming back. You need help, Harley. Someone's killed Poison Ivy…"
"Well, duh, Buttman" the voice responded, with a childishly mocking tone "I killed her. Stupid little petal head was finking on me! Plus, she was really starting to get on my nerves. Now come on up here and play with me! Maybe you managed to cheat my Puddin' of his victory, but I'd like to see you do it twice! Hee hee hee hee!"
Something in that giggle disturbed the Dark Knight, though he never slowed his ascent. It didn't seem like Harley, although he couldn't put his finger on why. It was oddly familiar as well, though again he couldn't pin down why that was.
Finally he reached the catwalk, and cautiously moved towards the darker end. He was uncomfortably aware of the similarities between this and the final moments of Bruce's life. Still, he pressed on, every sense stretched to the limit.
His ears, straining to catch any sounds, caught a low whistling and he dove forward. A loading hook, attached to a length of chain, swung through the space his head had occupied until a second before. If he hadn't dodged then, armor or no, he'd have been killed instantly.
"Oooh a nice dive by plucky newcomer, Bratman" Harley said, doing a fair imitation of a sportscaster "But he's in for some tough competition, and he'll have to see if he can keep his edge! Heeheeheeeheeheeheee!"
a knife came flying at him from out of the darkness. Batman ducked, and then- because he knew it couldn't be that easy- jumped to the side just in time to avoid a second blade. He broke into a run, deciding to sacrifice caution for aggression. Harley had clearly rigged some basic traps, but apparently had to trigger them herself. If he moved quickly he could deny her the chance to do so.
As he neared her position he was better able to make out his opponent. Sure enough, Harley Quinn stood on the catwalk, in her red and black costume. Oddly she didn't seem to be wearing her usual tasseled hat, but he couldn't be sure since her face was in shadow. In her hands was a small control box, no doubt the trigger mechanism for her various traps. Without breaking stride, he extracted a batarang and hurled it with perfect accuracy. It knocked the control from her hands, and sent it plummeting over the side. With the traps rendered harmless he slowed his pace..
"Give it up, Harley" he said, as he slowly approached "You can't resurrect the Joker." He didn't want to spook her; without her traps Harley was largely harmless. Or so he thought.
"Oh but you're wrong Batsy" she said "I already HAVE" she leaned forward, bringing her face to light for the first time. What he saw made Batman gasp.
Harley's once peachy skin was now bone white. Her pert lips had been replaced with a hideous, red-lipped grin. Her hair was still done up in pigtails, only now it was a bright shade of green. All bad enough, but it was her eyes that truly shocked the Dark Knight. Harley's eyes had always been alive with feeling; whether happiness, love, sadness or rage- her eyes truly were the windows to her soul. Now, he looked into her eyes and saw only madness and flat murder. "My god…you-you dipped yourself, didn't you?" his voice was soft, hushed, shocked.
"Yep!" she said, her voice alive with malicious glee, though her eyes were as cold as ever "I wanted to make sure my Puddin' was remembered forever. But I didn't know how, not really. He came down from heaven himself and told me what to do. To make sure he was remembered, I had to take on his role. I had to make the ultimate sacrifice for my love- myself. I'm not Harley Quinn anymore, now I am the Harlequin. And now, Batman, I'm going to make another sacrifice…YOU! Heee hee hee heheheh ha ha ha ha HA HA HA HA HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAA!" And with that, the crazed woman launched herself at the vigilante.
Shocked by her appearance, and her laughter (which was EXACTLY like the Joker's) Batman was taken off-guard. Her flying kick caught him in the face, and sent him stumbling backwards. The clown gave him no time to recover, launching a flurry of attacks which kept the Dark Knight on the defensive. As he recovered his senses, Batman began to counter her attacks more effectively. He blocked her punches and elbow-jabs, finally catching one tiny fist. He judo-flipped her over his hip, sending her across the metal walkway.
Harlequin turned the skid into a reverse-summersault, and came out into a crouch right near the knives she'd thrown earlier. Taking one in each hand, she resumed her attack. Slashing and stabbing, she forced Batman back against the railing. Then she paused and looked upwards.
"See ya in a minute Mista J"
Harlequin hurled herself at Batman knocking them both over the side towards a bubbling vat of chemicals. "Déjà vu all over again, huh, Batso? Let's see if you get out of this one! HAHAHAHHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAA!"
Suddenly, a pair of shadowy figures swung out of the darkness and caught the two enemies in mid-air. Batman looked up, to see Robin smile back at him. Across the way, Batgirl was fighting to keep her grip on the furious Harlequin.
"I guess you needed help after all, huh Boss?"
As the police arrived, Batman prepared to depart. He'd tied the deformed Harley Quinn to one of the support beams, along with a recording of her confession. As he turned to go, she called out to him.
"This ain't over, B-man! I'll have my revenge for taking my Puddin' away! Ya hear me?! I'll kill that whole miserable family of yours! YOU WILL NEVER BE SAFE FROM ME!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!"
Finally, though, her hateful laugh faded into the distance. Batman stopped on top of the WayneCorp Tower, and looked down at the city. Robin came up to him and put a hand on his shoulder. Dick looked at him and spoke
"Why didn't any of us see this coming? We should have known from the start that Harley would be a danger to herself with the Joker gone. We should have tried to get her help, but instead we ignored her. Now, I have a horrible feeling that this will only be the start of our problems with her."
Tim sat down on the ledge and swung his legs over the side. "Maybe, but remember we had a lot on our plates. Bruce's death, the war in the underworld, taking on our new identities…We aren't gods, Dick, and we had to prioritize. Besides, between you and me, I think it's like a law of nature: If you have a Batman, you need a Joker."
Dick snorted, but Tim continued "I'm being serious. I think it's a question of cosmic balance. Good and Evil, Order and Chaos, Sanity and Madness- whatever. The universe needs both. Besides, tonight hasn't been a total defeat. Yes, Harley turned herself into a Jokerette. Yes, she's probably way more dangerous than she's ever been before. But on the other hand, the League of Assassins is out of Gotham, I stopped a drug smuggling ring, and Azrael put twelve gangbangers in jail and four more in the ICU. On the whole, we did all right tonight. Now go home, change your clothes and spend time with your fiancée."
As Tim swung away, Dick realized how right the younger man was. They were doing well. They had suffered a major hit when Bruce died, but they'd rallied well and now the city was almost back to normal. He looked out over Gotham one last time before heading home. Over the big city.
Now back to work on the epilogue to Joker's Wild. Its called Recovery, if anyone wants to know.
What did we all think?