In the Dark, Dark Night... Blinky the Tree Frog

Author's Notes:

This story was inspired by a marvellous bit of bat fiction called "Letting Go", which was written by Dannell Lites. You may have read it. If you haven't I do recommend it.

"In the Dark Dark Night…" can be read as being in that 'universe', and it fits fairly well when slotted in near the end. I hasten to add that you certainly don't need to have read that story to enjoy this one, however. Everything is pretty much explained inside. Just remember that it deviates from continuity soon after Knightfall in the Bat titles, and it'll all make sense.

Enjoy, in any case. And I'd really love to hear some feedback :-).

Disclaimer:

All DC Characters (including Batman, Nightwing, Azrael and Oracle, amongst others) belong to DC Comics. This is just a piece of fan fiction and I'm not trying to profit, honest.


Prologue

Rebecca Turner sighed as she headed down to the basement cupboard. Only half an hour left on her shift and there'd been a major spillage in the medication room. And now she couldn't find a stupid mop. She nodded absently to Harry from security and key-carded herself into the basement.

To the people of Gotham City, Arkham Asylum was a place of terror, a collection of some of the worst murderers, sadists and psychopaths in the world. To Rebecca… well, it was a job. Not everyone's ideal job, to be sure. Whenever she cleaned in a place that was anywhere near a prisoner she had to have a security escort. And knowing the histories of the guys whose cells you cleaned out made the whole thing nerve racking to say the least. And every now and again there was a breakout and you got hustled out and had to sit outside and listen to all of the terrible stuff that was happening indoors. But over all…

Well, the hours were good, and the pay was frankly amazing. And nothing had ever happened to her. Not yet, anyway. And it was a job. She could handle it.

She yanked the cupboard open and finally found some proper cleaning tools. So she pulled them out and turned around and…

Nearly screamed the house down. An unfamiliar figure stood near the bottom of the stairs. She felt a sharp stab of terror and her mind suddenly clicked into overdrive. A prisoner, an escapee? Who could have gotten down here? Could she call down Harry before he got to her? Could she… Wait a second…

It wasn't a prisoner. It was a child. He was leaning against the wall, looking at her with innocent inquiry, blond hair half twisted across his eyes. In his hands were a bunch of flowers, irises, they looked like.

She took a deep breath to calm herself. Okay, don't frighten him. Just try to see what's going on. "Errr… hello?"

"Hello!"

"Those are… nice flowers you have there."

He nodded solemnly. "They're not for you though", he pronounced.

"Oh well, I suppose not. Look, I don't think that you're supposed to be down here, you know."

The child looked faintly surprised at this. "Yes, I know that. But I'm a bit lost."

"Okay, how about you come with me and we'll see what we can do about that?"

He seemed to consider this for a few seconds, and then finally shook his head. "No, it's okay. I think I can find the way."

Putting down the mop and bucket, Rebecca carefully walked up to him. "Look, I don't think I can let you do that…"

He smiled up at her…

"How about you just come with me…"

…and slowly faded away.

This time, she did scream.

End Prologue

************************

The Batcave wasn't very wheelchair friendly in the beginning, but when I had my… accident, Bruce converted a few things and added a lift so I could get down here. I guess he'd thought he owed me that much for being his loyal ally for all those years. As much as the Batman had embraced the whole "brooding loner" image, you could tell he'd appreciated those who'd been there for him.

In any case, the modifications have come in useful because I've been spending a lot of time down here lately. Dick has grown into the whole "dark knight" persona with much more ease than he'd ever thought he would, but he still needs assistance. I don't mean in the technical aspects of being the Batman, either, although the Oracle's skills do come in handy there. It's more the emotional support, knowing that when he gets back to the cave and takes off the cowl there'll be someone there who loves him enough to tell him where he's going wrong and where he's going right, and to steer him in the right direction.

Bruce never really had someone like that. He had Alfred, who was a father figure, and Dick, who was a son, and many different allies, who where all just that little bit below him, whether they acknowledged it or not. But he never really had an equal, never let even Dick get close enough. I've been thinking that maybe he intended, when he recruited Azrael, for him to fulfil that role. I'll never really know, because for all his good intentions (if they even were good intentions) in the end it all went horribly wrong.

Bruce is dead. And two days ago Azrael was sentenced to stay in Arkham Asylum for a very long time. Because he's a murderer. Because he killed dozens all over the city, from hard-nosed criminals to petty thugs. And in the end, he killed the Batman.

Dick was at the hearing when Jean Paul Valley was declared insane and sent to Arkham. He'd brought him in with his own hands. It was a crusade so personal he wouldn't allow it to be carried out by anyone but himself. A crusade so personal he nearly lost his soul, nearly had the blood of Bruce's killer staining his hands. But in the end, he prevailed…

And now it's like we're all starting a new life. Creating a new Batman and sending him out into the world. We'll always miss Bruce, Dick more than anyone, but I think he's enjoying his new role. It's given his so much… purpose. He's starting to smile again, even as the Batman. I imagine that's given Dad quite a fright…

I stop my musing as I hear the Batmobile roaring through the cave's entrance. Technically I'm supposed to have been digging up some files for Dick from various intelligence agencies that I keep tabs on. It's not urgent work though, so I think he'll forgive me for being distracted.

The cape swishes around him smoothly as he jumps out of the 'mobile. It took him a while to get used to the weight of it, but now you'd swear he's had it all his life.

"Hey, Dynamic Uno. Have a nice night after I logged off to do my own thing?"

He gives me a smirk and flips gracefully through the air, landing at my side. "Well, I've still got enough energy to do that. Tim says goodbye, he's got school in the morning and desperately needs the rest. Oh, and the gang by the warehouse has had their smuggling racket pretty much wrapped up."

"Aren't we oh-so-casual about it? And I still find it freaky to see a smile under that cowl, by the way…"

Another grin, and he sweeps off the offending garment. "I was thinking I'd make it a theme. One day a week is "perky Batman" day, where I smile all the time and add pink highlights to the Batmobile."

I muffle a snort. "Well, it would certainly terrify the crooks…"

"It'd probably terrify Tim too, come to think of it. Maybe I'll reconsider that idea… Any luck with the files?"

"Actually, I haven't gotten all that far", I confess. "Too distracted with my own thoughts. You're not going out again tonight are you?"

"It's actually pretty quiet out there. I know it's only early but I do need the sleep. That's why I knocked off so early…"

He's cut off by an urgent screech from the Batcomputer. Inwardly, I wince. So much for a quiet night. I swivel around and flick my fingers across the keyboard.

He's looking over my shoulder in a flash. "That was one of the breakout alarms."

"I know." Please don't let this be where I think it'll be.

Unfortunately the world isn't working in my favour tonight. My stomach sinks as I bring up the details.

Dick speaks for me. "It's Arkham." I flick my eyes up, but his face is unreadable.

More details are brought up. "Okay, this is weird. It doesn't look like the outside scanners that Bruce put in have been disturbed, but sensors indicate the most… no, make that all… of the inside doors are opened. It looks like the guards at the gate are managing to keep the complex sealed, but inside must be chaos. What the heck?"

"All the cells inside the prison are open?"

"We don't have sensors on all of them, but from the look of things, yes. Though I really don't know how and why…"

"Azrael's loose inside there."

Dammit. This is too soon. I give him a look of concern. "So are a lot of other very bad people, Dick. He's not the only…"

He cuts me off mid-speech, already sweeping back towards the car. No extra sleep tonight. "I'm going down there. I'll talk to your father to get the details, I'm sure he'll be waiting…"

"Dick, wait a second…"

"There are probably still staff inside the building, Babs. They aren't going to last long in there…"

"Dick, LISTEN!"

He pauses at the 'mobile door and looks at me, complete seriousness on his face.

I bite my lip. "Keep a two-way link up at all times, okay? Radio and video from the cowl. I want to know what's going on."

And he nods, and is gone.

*************

"It's the newest inmate. He was only transferred in tonight." Commissioner Gordon was a professional, and consequently he looked almost completely at ease talking to the man who melded into the shadows next to him. Other less experienced officers stood off to the side and cast uneasy looks in his direction.

"How did he do it?"

"Chalk it up to stupidity on the part of pretty much everyone who was involved in his arrest. He came in from another part of the state under a false name and no one at any point appeared to have questioned this. It's only taken us half an hour of investigations to figure out that Charles Hall has also gone under the alias of Lockpick."

"Is that a skill, or an actual power?"

"Power. That's what makes it really absurd. And him really dangerous. An hour ago he appears to have simultaneously opened every door and lock in Arkham. The guards outside managed to re-lock the outside gates and keep everyone inside until we arrived to surround the building. Unfortunately there weren't enough guards inside to keep things under control. From what we can tell, they're all roaming loose in there."

"There are staff inside?"

"At least a dozen. Maybe half a dozen guards who might acceptably be able to look after themselves, half a dozen nurses and cleaners who don't have a chance. Reports are that several are being held hostage by inmates, which is why we're reluctant to charge in."

"What got Lockpick institutionalised?"

"Multiple murders in which he solemnly declared that he was doing them a favour by setting them free from the confines of the body. Another tip off, or at least it should have been. I'm going to have a few very stern words with the people responsible for this when it's over."

"Sounds like a good idea. Any idea where people are within the building?"

"All over the place, but the west wing seems to be the quietest. If I was thinking of going in, I'd start there."

"Thanks."

Gordon waited politely for a few seconds, and then turned slightly towards the shadows. They were, as he knew they would be, completely empty. He sighed, and murmured under his breath, "I get a thankyou now? Well, you may be a change, but at least you're a pleasant change…"

*********

The landscape bobs up and down and there are gentle swishes and cracks as he pushes his way through the grounds. Towards Arkham. Damn.

"Dick? You still reading me?"

"Loud and clear, Babs."

"There must be some other way to do this."

"You heard what he said. There are innocent people inside. Do you have any ideas?"

"…"

"I'll be careful. I'm not going to engage anyone hand to hand unless I have to. And I'll have you as another set of eyes and ears."

"Oh great, put the onus on me."

His voice comes through slightly amused. "Oh, I think you can take the responsibility."

"Good Luck, okay? And you better be damned careful."

"Cross my heart."

********

One hour ago things had been relatively normal for Dr Irene Blackburn. She'd logged onto her shift while chatting to Rebecca the cleaner, who was just leaving, and who looked a little white. Apparently she'd had a scare in the basement and she swore that there was a ghost down there, which was interesting but not something that Irene would actually get scared about. Ghosts were just phantoms, they couldn't actually hurt you. Not like the inmates of this godforsaken place.

So she'd started her shift perfectly calm, thinking everything was relatively normal, and now…

Now Arkham had turned into hell on earth, and Irene was stuck in the middle of it. Now she was scared.

She was hiding in one of the broom cupboards on the ground floor, curled as tightly into the corner as she could get, cleaning supplies piled against the door to keep it closed. Not that they would do much good if Killer Croc decided to come past. Killer Croc was out there. The Joker was out there. A hundred different types of killers were out there, and all she had were a few cleaning supplies to fight back with.

No, not scared. Terrified.

She stiffened suddenly as the sound of someone opening doors and rummaging around drifted down the corridor. No. Oh *no*. Up until now all the sounds of voices and general destruction had seemed far away, but now it looked like someone was seeing what they could find in this part of the asylum.

Don't look here, please don't look here. Oh god, do I make a run for it? Do I fight back? Can I fight back? Who is it? Maybe it's even one of the guards. Maybe… Can't risk it. Just stay still. Just listen…

There were footsteps, walking to her door. The handle rattled.

Go away. Please go away.

"Hello. Someone in there?"

She bit her lip, hard. Felt the blood trickle down her lip. Her hands were shaking so very hard, and she shoved them under her armpits. No noise, no sound. If you make a sound, you are going to die. That was Zsasz. That was his voice. You are going to die…

"There is someone in there. I know. I can smell the blood. I can smell the fear. And I can hear you shaking."

Nononono…

"If you come out now, I'll make it quick. Relatively, of course…"

Ohgodohgodohgod…

"I'll…" And the voice cut off. Just like that. There was a sound, a terrible wet, twisting sound. And the door opened.

Zsasz's body lay on the floor, half a broken mop handle shoved right through his chest. Blood pooled around his still twitching body. Above him stood a man, long twisted blond hair framing his face. His hospital garments splattered with gore. And the expression on his face was just… And his eyes…

He turned to stare at her, and she couldn't move.

"He is dead."

"y…yes." She had no idea how she managed to croak it out.

"They will all die. They are filth. The walls will be painted with their blood."

"…d…don't…"

His face twisted with disgust. "Speak, woman!"

"don't…k…kill me…"

He looked at her as if she were less than a worm. With a twist, the mop handle was pulled from the body. He held it like a weapon.

"I am Azrael. You are nothing to me."

He turned, and walked away.

She sat next to the body for a few seconds and just stared, unable to look away. Then she slowly backed down the corridor.

She had to get away. She just had to get away.

*****************

This side of the asylum is quiet, although you can hear noises in the distance. It's also eerily dim. It looks like the mains electricity has been cut off, although I'm not sure by whom. The emergency lighting is… adequate, but it also serves to make the place look even creepier than normal. The shadows seem to shift at the edge of my vision.

"Okay there, Bat-wonder?"

His voice drifts softly to me as he leaps silently to the floor. "Fine for now. Looks deserted down here."

"Most of the noise seems to be coming from the direction of the main cafeteria. There might be a bunch of them holed up there."

"With hostages?"

"Undoubtedly." The camera tilts suddenly. "Dick?"

"Not everyone's in there though. Hear that?"

"I think, but I can't make out who it is with all the background noise…"

The camera starts to move as he paces down the hall. Quiet as a mouse. Or a bat. The sounds become clearer, bumps and crashes with one muttering voice added in.

"Two-Face"

"Sounds like he's pulling apart one of the offices…"

"And this would be because?"

"I don't… wait. His coin. He must be looking for a replacement."

"In that case I suggest you deal with him before he finds one. Easier to grab him that way."

"Will do." He sounds like he's smiling again. "Just excuse me for a few moments."

*******************

"Get going, you gagoon! Let's see the next one."

The Ventriloquist glanced worriedly around. He and Socko had been wandering the building for a quarter of an hour, but through every window he could only see more police and guards surrounding the compound. They were never going to get out at this rate. He had a suspicion that Scarface might be able to form a better escape plan but he had no idea where to find him and Socko scoffed at any suggestion that they start to search. Socko didn't like Scarface very much at all.

"Dis is getting stupid. Dere's got to ge some way out of here…"

Surely there was no harm in trying again? "Perhaps if we could find Scarface? I'm sure he'll act nicer to you this…"

"I told you to shut up agout that! Dere's nothing dat gastard can do dat I can't!"

Chastised, the Ventriloquist quickly apologised. "I know, I know. I'm sorry. I know you're doing your best there…"

"Damn straight!"

"Hello!"

Both Socko and the Ventriloquist jumped at the voice and quickly swung around.

The small boy was sitting against the wall further down the corridor, a look of slight bemusement on his face. In his hands he held a bunch of flowers, and he twisted them idly as he talked. "Do you know that there's a sock on your hand, Mister? It looks pretty silly."

"Why you little gozo…!"

Desperately the Ventriloquist tried to calm his friend as he quickly explained. "I'm afraid you're mistaken there, little boy. This is Socko, he's my friend. We're trying to find a way out of here at the moment."

The boy blinked, but seemed to accept the explanation. "Are you sure you should go out? 'Cause maybe you're supposed to be here and you should stay so they can help you."

Socko looked as indignant as it was possible for a sock to look. "Dere's nothing dey can do to help us dat we can't manage ourselves! Dis is just unjust imprisonment!" He thought for a few seconds and then added, "And what de heck's a kid doing here, gy de way?"

"I'm trying to find someone but I'm a bit lost. And I think that you may be okay but maybe your friend who isn't a sock needs someone to help him."

The Ventriloquist looked mildly surprised, but it was Socko who spoke.

"Dat's rubbish! He's got me to help him! He's fine!"

The child frowned, and then he scooped himself up, walked up to the Ventriloquist and stared solemnly into his eyes." Are you fine, Mister?"

Socko opened his mouth, and then closed it again. The Ventriloquist stared into the boy's clear blue eyes, and found that only his lips could move. "I… I'm not really fine, no. I think I really would like to see what it's like to not have a Scarface or a Socko to have to rely on."

"Well, why don't you then?"

"I'm frightened. And they need me. Without me they'd both be dead. I don't want to kill them!"

The little boy frowned. Then, as the Ventriloquist watched silently, he carefully reached down and detached one of his flowers. He examined it, brushing the petals to make sure it looked nice. Then he pushed it carefully into Socko's mouth.

There wasn't a scream, or a gurgle. There was no sound at all, as the sock was instantly reduced to a tattered bunch of threads.

That broke the spell. The Ventriloquist gasped and threw himself back, staring in horror. Then he panicked and pulled off his remaining sock, yanking it onto his hand. The little boy watched as he desperately shook it, trying to get some kind of reaction.

"He's…he's not there."

"I know."

"You killed him!"

"I know."

"But now what do I do?"

The boy smiled sadly. "Learn to live, I guess. I'm sorry."

And as the Ventriloquist watched helplessly, he faded away.

******************

"Well, that was easy."

I frown at him, which is pretty much an exercise in pointlessness but it makes me feel better. "Don't get cocky. Harvey without any backup and with no coin is not an especially difficult foe. When you've downed Killer Croc, then you can celebrate."

"I can always rely on you to burst my bubble, can't I?"

"Ego deflating is my specialty, oh caped one."

"Okay, I'm circling around now. I think you were right, seems to be a lot of noise coming from the main cafeteria. I'll… oh."

"Dick?"

The camera dives down. "There's something slippery…"

His hand comes into view, eerily pale in the lighting. He carefully traces his finger over a dark, sticky substance that coats his sole. Uh oh. "Blood?"

"Yeah. There's a pool here, and it looks like…" My view shifts and I can see bloody marks down trailing down the hall.

"Looks like someone dragged something. Probably a body."

He moves cautiously, following the tracks. "I'd better see if they're dead or alive."

*****************

The Joker rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically. He liked doing things dramatically. He liked to think it gave that extra punch to what would otherwise be a rather boring hostage situation.

And as hostage situations go, this was pretty boring. Mainly, he assumed, because no-one outside was actually sure that they had hostages. It was a dreadful waste, honestly. There they were, tied up all nicely in the centre of the room, and no one knew! He decided that they really needed someone to go out and clarify the situation. Sure, anyone who went out was sure to be instantly mown down by the massive police presence outside, but that was the way the cookie crumbled, and actually it would probably be pretty funny.

He sighed dramatically again, because not enough people had seen him last time and it irritated him that people weren't paying attention. When people still didn't pay attention he smashed a plate over one of the hostages and started throwing the pieces at people, which finally seemed to do the trick.

"Hey, what the hell is your problem?!" yelled one of the inmates, who the Joker didn't recognise and so decided to call Random Inmate Number One.

He rolled his eyes this time, but he still made sure that it was as dramatic as at all possible. "What my problem is, fair chap, is that nothing is getting done here! Sure, we've smashed the place up, taken a few hostages and gathered together to swap stories, but honestly, does this make you content? What are we going to do next, sit down and play cards? Personally, I blame the Batman."

Random Inmate Number One frowned. "What the heck has he got to do with it?"

"DO WITH IT?" He screamed, and chuckled when he made everyone jump. Then he continued casually. "He's got nothing at all to do with it. I just like blaming things on the Batman."

Cornelius Stirk cleared his throat at the back of the room. "Maybe we should kill one of the hostages?"

The Joker looked exuberant. "Of course! What a brilliant idea!" He turned around and stuck a handy knife through the back of the nearest hostage. There was the expected amount of screaming, and the man fell down. Nothing else of interest happened. He sighed dramatically again. "Well wahoo. I think I've been amused for a whole 30 seconds with that. Honestly, isn't there anyone here who has an interesting suggestion? Is there anyone here who's in the least bit exciting? Where's Killer Croc, for heaven's sake?"

Random Inmate Number Two extended a hand. "He went off in the opposite direction."

"The Ventriloquist?"

"Walked off talking to his sock."

"Now there's an interesting guy. Poison Ivy?"

"She's not in Arkham at the moment."

"Amygdala?"

"They did that operation and he got let out…"

The Mad Hatter put up his hand. "I'm here you know. And so are Tweedledum and Tweedledee"

"Oh wonderful. We've got a regular fricking Wonderland here." He smiled as a thought occurred to him. "Hey, Tweedledum. How'd you like to have a stroll outside?"

"Ahh…"

"Well, speak up my man!" It occurred to the Joker the Tweedledum's gaze appeared to have turned, along with everyone else's, towards one of the doors. Taking this as a subtle hint he turned as well.

There was a man at the door. He was tall and well muscled, with lanky blonde hair that grew past his shoulders. He wore hospital garments. They were covered in blood. And his eyes were…

The Joker smiled with delight. Now this was interesting.

*************

"Oh my God." The image through my vid-link isn't brilliant quality-wise, but it's more than enough for me.

"Azrael did this."

I stare in horror at the remains of the man in front of me. He has been crucified. Blood drips from the nail wounds in his feet and hands, and also from a gaping wound in his chest. I don't know what to say.

Dick's voice is grim. "It stinks of his signature. And he thinks everyone in this place has sinned beyond redemption."

"He's going to kill all of them?"

"He's going to try. I think I'm going to have to save the lives of everyone in the Asylum. It's almost ironic, really."

"Almost, I'm sure. Dick…"

"I've been through that, Babs. It's done. I'm not going to kill him, I'm not going to hurt him more than I need to. I'm going to take him in. Period. Stop worrying."

I almost laugh, if somewhat hysterically. "Well of course. There's nothing to worry about in this scenario."

"I'll be okay. I will. Babs, I don't recognise this guy. Do you have a record?"

I pull myself together and check. "Hang on… Yes. He's listed in the records as…" I wince as I recognise the name. "…Charles Hall."

"Lockpick. I bet he regrets ever getting the power."

"Wherever he is now…"

"I'm going to start…" High-pitched screams rend the air and he stops, gauging the direction. "Cafeteria?"

"Sounds like it. Could be hostages."

He's off at a run. The screaming tapers off about halfway there, and then it starts up again. Only this time there's more of it. "It's not just hostages now", I report.

"Azrael?"

"Hurry."

He does.

****************

The Joker ducked behind a convenient chair as Random Inmate Number One went flying past him with a twelve-inch steak knife stuck through his chest. Okay, now this was definitely more interesting. More terrifying as well, but definitely more interesting.

When Mysterious Blood-Covered Guy Number One appeared at the door, the Joker had given him a hearty welcome and offered to supply more blood to cover the bits of him that were obviously lacking. Rudely, the guy ignored him and proceeded to hack into the whole room, screaming obscenities about how they were all sinners and deserved to die in terrible ways. A few people made vague attempts to show him that they did in fact have hostages, but this failed to make any real impression and so everyone seemed to have settled on either running or hiding as acceptable alternatives.

It was never a dull moment in Arkham; he could definitely say that.

He peeked up from behind the chair and noted that at the moment the man appeared to be strangling the Mad Hatter. He was sure to finish him off soon, however, so all things considered he supposed he should be getting out of here. Skirting the panicking masses, he headed towards the door. Unfortunately, at that moment the door chose to become blocked by a large rather ticked off looking Batman.

Definitely never a dull moment, he thought as he ducked behind another chair.

*************

"Azrael!!"

He's trembling, I can tell because the camera is wavering around pretty badly. For all his reassurances to me, I'm still very, very worried. This isn't just a criminal. This man killed Bruce. Dick's anger has faded, yes; he was always better than Bruce at dealing with his emotions. But this is a pain that's still so terribly raw.

Dick please, be okay. Deal with this like you know you should.

Through the lens I see Azrael drop the man who he's currently strangling to death. The room around him looks like it was hit by a bomb. All of the inmates who were here just a few minutes ago are either lying in broken heaps or have somehow managed to get away. In the middle of the room are people dressed in guard and nurse uniforms, tied up tight and looking absolutely terrified. And… and one of them has been stabbed. Oh no. I hope to god he's still alive.

"Yes, that's right. I'm talking to you. Playtime's over, murderer. I've come to put you back in your cell. Back where you belong."

He turns gracefully, like the predator he is. "These are sinners beyond redemption, False Bat. They deserve the oblivion I give them." His eyes narrow. "I will not stop until they have all been delivered."

Dick takes a step forward. Just one step. Easy there. "No one ever deserves your kind of justice Azrael. And you are far from the right person to be deciding who's a sinner."

"I am he who brings death. What I do is what I am."

He tenses…

"What you are is a sick bastard."

…and springs.

Azrael is anticipating him, of course. He's a very hard person to take by surprise. What he said is true, to a point. Death is what he is. He lives only to fight and to kill. Tim told me that there was another side to him at first, the side that was Jean Paul instead of Azrael. Apparently he was harmless, shy and generally inoffensive.

I never met that part of him, and frankly I find it hard to believe that it ever really existed. Even if it did, Jean Paul is gone now. There's only Azrael. The killer. Standing covered in blood in the middle of Arkham trying desperately to rip the heart out of the man I've come to love more than any other.

The fight is brutal. I can see the blows as they rain down, can see Dick twist and dodge, and fall and get up again. My heart is in my mouth the whole time. And then… I see them both dodge, and Azrael looks up and gives a roar and jumps and runs away.

"Dick!? What the hell is he doing… It's hard to pinpoint anything at the moment… Dick, are you okay?"

He sounds like he's gasping for breath as he pulls himself to his feet. "It was… was the Joker, Babs. He ran out the door… he's going to kill him. Dammit! I'm gonna get the bastard"

"Dick!!! Wait, for god's sake…"

"Babs, he's getting…"

"There are hostages, Dick. One has been stabbed. He's bleeding… Whose life is more important?"

He stops abruptly at the doorway. And then he turns back to the bundle of terrified people in the middle of the room.

******************

Irene stumbled down the corridor. She'd managed to get to one of the outside doors almost, and then there'd been this godawful screaming from nearby and she'd ran away. She was beyond shock now, beyond terrified. She walked aimlessly because it was something to do. If she came to a way out she'd run, but she wasn't even sure there was any ways out any more. There just seemed to be corridors, miles and miles of corridors and it was a maze, a maze filled with monsters. She just had to get away. Someway, just keep walking, just get away.

She turned a corner and… there was a man. A man with a white face, and red lips, and green hair. There was the Joker.

She stared in blank incomprehension. This wasn't happening. This was a nightmare. She was at home in bed. She wasn't in Arkham with the Joker in front of her. He wasn't holding a large metal skewer from the kitchen at her throat. He wasn't smiling and saying "Oh good, I was hoping to find another hostage. You'll be useful when he catches up to me."

None of this was happening at all.

******************

He applies first aid to the bleeding man and then carries him out. He leads the other hostages out with him, and informs the police that the west wing is clear except for unconscious and dead inmates. He listens carefully as they say that there is now only one person unaccounted for, a doctor by the name of Irene Blackburn. Then he turns and goes back in.

He doesn't say a word to me the whole time.

"Dick. Are you alright?"

"Joker and Azrael aren't the only ones that need to be dealt with. Killer Croc is still in there. So are the Ventriloquist and Zsasz."

"You didn't answer my question."

"I'm bruised badly, a few cuts. I'll recover."

"I wasn't talking about physically, Dick."

"Just let me deal with this Babs. I'll be fine."

My lip almost has a hole chewed into it at this point. "We'll talk after."

"Of course." He stops and changes direction. "You hear that?"

"Whimpering? Might be Irene."

"Think it's in one of the gyms. Through this door… oh…"

He tenses immediately. It is Irene. She's tied feet first to a rope that's threaded through one of the gym's rings, dangling several metres headfirst off the ground with the Joker on the other end of the rope that holds her life in the balance. She looks like she's in shock, white and trembling. I don't blame her.

The Joker looks like he's having the time of his life, the bastard.

"Well, well, well! Aren't we having fun here? Hello Batsy! You will note that I have acquired myself another innocent life to endanger in order to toy with you amusingly. Yes, I know it's getting passe, but one must…"

"JOKER!!!"

It's the angel. He stands in the doorway, face twisted with rage.

The Joker doesn't seem phased, however. "Oh, ye gods. Not him again! I thought I gave you the slip!"

"Prepare to die choking on your own blood."

"Hello!?! Hostage here? No killing allowed!"

"Azrael!" Dick's trembling again, just slightly. I'm not a praying person normally but right now…

"Yeah! You tell'im Batsy!"

He ignores him. "Don't."

"I do not know the meaning of the word."

The angel lunges towards the Joker, but never makes it there. Dick tackles better than a gridiron player. And they fight. Again. Only this time Dick's a lot more tired, and his attention is split between fending Azrael off and checking to make sure that the Joker hasn't harmed Irene. He's losing. I've never been the fighter that Batman was, but I can tell that.

The Joker is loving it, of course. He's still holding onto Irene for now, and seems to be using her as a cheer tool, bouncing her up and down while she whimpers with terror. I want very badly to hurt him, almost as badly as I want to hurt the man who's currently pounding into Dick. Oh god, this is a nightmare…

They fight up close and personal, slamming punches into each other. Another mistake on Dick's part because he fights better at a distance. He's not taking this with a level head at all. I can't blame him, not at all. But I can fear for him. I can at least do that.

It happens so quickly. One moment he's ducking in for another kick, the next he's on his back, with Azrael sitting over him, hissing in triumph, arm raised for a killing blow.

And then… Azrael stops. Freezes above him, his eyes staring in almost disbelief at something behind Dick's head. And Dick gauges the distance, props himself up, and slams the hardest headbutt I've ever seen done, right smack dab into the angel's forehead. I see Azrael's eyes flick in brief astonishment, and then they roll back. He slumps forward.

I pull my heart out of my mouth. "Dick!"

He pushes Azrael's large frame off of him and staggers to his feet. "I'm…eckk… I'm fine. Didn't I… didn't I tell you?"

"Yeah, right!"

"Helllooo!! Over here? Now that you've finished that little rumble, may I point out that I still have a hostage here? Sheesh, you'd think… hey… acck."

The "hey" refers to when the rope is ripped out of his hands by someone behind him. The "acck", however, is all Dick.

The camera lingers on the Joker's prone body just long enough to tell that he's definitely out of it. Then it sweeps up to the guy who's holding the rope, and currently offering it to him to deal with. To my considerable astonishment, I swear it's the Ventriloquist.

"Umm… here. I think you probably know how to get her down better and all, Mr Batman."

Dick's voice is amazingly calm, all things considered. "Uh, yes. Thankyou."

"I was just going by and I saw this poor girl and I thought, maybe I could help."

"Oh, right."

"It just didn't seem very nice and all…"

"Obviously… not"

There's an uneasy silence. And then the Ventriloquist smiles and says, in a terribly happy voice,

"Socko's dead! And so's Scarface, I think!"

Which is, I have to say, one of the weirdest phrases ever used to end a crisis in the history of the world.

**************

"Ouch!" Dick winces as Alfred smears disinfectant along a nasty looking cut.

"If you didn't persist on putting yourself in such situations, Master Dick, then you wouldn't have to deal with the aftermath."

"Hey! You're blaming me for your disinfectant hurting?"

"And yet I do believe that you didn't let out a squeak while actually getting the wound in question. Isn't bravado a wonderful thing?"

Dick gives Alfred a look and I stifle a grin. It's amazing how more amusing these things seem when you've got a few hours between you and the gut-wrenchingly terrifying event in question. And Dick seems… okay. I think I'm going to have to have a big talk with him tonight, but right now… Well he's better than Bruce would be.

Damn it. It always comes back to Bruce. He's been dead for months and still I'm comparing him…

I bite my lip and shake away my thoughts. "So anyway, the inmates are being transferred back now that Lockpick's disastrous work has been negated."

"Those that are alive."

"Dick trust me, the body count would have been a lot worse if you hadn't been there. And yes, I know this isn't the correct thing for one of the Bat team to say, but I really can't get too depressed about the death of Zsasz."

"Okay, I'll give you that. I shouldn't, but I will anyway."

"I think you should just be rather glad that you came out of the experience with such minor injuries. Now do keep still while I apply this ointment."

"Is it going to sting?"

"Honestly, a grown man…"

"I've got to wonder how you got out of it myself, Dick. In all honestly, I could've sworn that he had you dead to rights, and then he just looked up and froze."

"Yeah, I know. And that was the weird thing. Listen Babs, don't think I'm crazy here, okay?"

"Oh that's a great way to start a question."

"After I decked him and got up, I glanced in the direction he'd been looking."

"Yes, I know. But there was nothing there."

"Really?"

"I can give you the tape if you want. Are you saying you saw something?"

"Well yes. It was just for a few seconds, but… I could've sworn I saw a kid there. He was just standing and then he… disappeared."

"Into thin air?"

"I guess I could've flicked my eyes away or something but…"

"It wasn't on the tape. I really didn't see anything."

Alfred wipes his hands. "A ghost? A rather fortunate one then."

I'm still intrigued. "Did you recognise him at all?"

"Actually that's the really really weird thing."

"It gets worse?"

"I know it's stupid Babs, but I could've sworn it looked like… well, Azrael. Jean Paul Valley, only as a child."

Alfred raises a quizzical eyebrow. "I'm not at all sure, Master Dick, that it is possible to have a ghost of a person who is still alive."

"I know, it's bizarre."

I frown, as a strange thought comes to me. "Actually…"

"Babs?"

"No it's just… I got the feeling… From everything I read and knew about him…"

"About Azrael?"

"That's just it, isn't it? Azrael is still alive, he's probably back in his cell by now. But Jean Paul Valley… I get the feeling that he's been dead for an awfully long time."

And I frown, as the room falls into an uneasy silence.

****************

Epilogue - Tomorrow

Azrael sat rigidly in his cell. His injuries were already healing themselves and the doctors had decided that there wasn't any reason for him to stay in the infirmary. That was well. He was an Azrael. He healed faster than petty humans. It was crucial to his work as the avenger.

"Hello Azrael."

His eyes flickered to the doorway, startled. It hadn't opened. But there was a small boy standing there, a faded bunch of flowers clutched in his hands.

"I've been looking for you. I got lost a little, but I'm here now."

Azrael frowned. "Why are you here?" he demanded.

"I don't like you very much, Azrael."

"You did not answer…"

"All I wanted to do really was help people. I just wanted to stop people being in pain and having bad things happen to them, like bad things happened to me."

"This does not interest me."

"And I did try, at first, but then you came. All the programming that the Order of St Dumas put in my head came together and I was just like they wanted me to be."

"Go away!"

"You took over. I couldn't resist you. You made me do terrible things. You made me hurt people. You made me everything I didn't want to be, and I couldn't stop you, because you were too strong."

"Why will you not stop talking?!"

"You made me a killer, Azrael. You violated me, corrupted me." His voice softened, almost to a whisper. "Because of you, I am death."

Azrael opened his mouth, but found that he could say nothing.

The little boy smiled. And held out the flowers.

"These are for you." he said simply.

*******************

Azrael was found dead in his cell on the night of the 18th of October. Guards found him lying peacefully, with no signs of struggle. The cause of death was unclear.

There were flowers placed gently on both his eyes.

Fin