A Bullet-Ridden Valentine
Disclaimer: All together now: I don't own Batman or Scarecrow or Mad Hatter doodle-oody-do! Bad'n naughty language lies ahead, suggestive situation abounds, da-da-DA!
As happens so often in tales like this, a car exploded. Not an unusual occurrence in this part of the city. But the crowd of gawkers were unprepared for the accompanying side-effect as a cloud of choking smoke descended on them and one by one they began to scream and claw the air.
Unnoticed by many a scrawny, scraggly man slouched away, his collar-brim turned up. Peering from side to side like a silent film villain, he made a quick dash for a nearby alleyway. High above, unnoticed, a dark shape watched him flee. The shadow high up on a defunct office building prioritized and sighed. The people came first; vaccine would have to be dispensed before the crowd killed each other. A mike, built into the suit, was tapped to life.
"…hey, big guy? If you're not too busy, I've got something coming your way…"
Jervis Tetch sat in an abandoned haberdashery and giggled to himself, two of his favorite activities. A cup of scalding hot Earl Grey warmed his right hand, pinky extended. His left hand hovered the saucer underneath it; a formality, really. He hadn't spilled a drop of tea in fifteen years. His conversation companion sprawled on the day bed next to him.
He took a sip, listening intently to the chaos in the street. The person next to him stirred.
"I sent a message to the fish," he sighed, "I told them 'this is what I wish'…"
A right hook to the jaw and the hood went down. He caught himself on one knee and opened a flick-knife, charging straight at his opponent, who sidestepped it easily. His opponent wished just once that he'd fight a more intelligent breed of hench, before bringing his elbow down on the back of the hood's grimy neck. He went down like a pile of wet laundry, and his opponent straightened, dusting off his cape. The mini-phone beeped.
"Sorry Batgirl, what were you saying?"
"Someone just blew up a canister at Sunridge apartments. Guess who's out of Arkham already?"
"I don't have to guess."
"You never do. I'm busy cleaning up, would you be a love and corral our friend for questioning?"
"I have an ice cream social to get through, but after that I'll be right on it."
"Bruce, sarcasm isn't necessary." She clicked off before he could alienate her further. He sighed. No one got him.
As he made his way from rooftop to rooftop, something tickled at the back of his mind. It wasn't until he was right upon the ill-fated apartment building that he was able to put his finger on it. There were a lot of men with hats on the streets. Not necessarily strange, but they all had the same hat, an old-fashioned black bowler. Perhaps Alfred had been telling them where to shop. He shrugged it off and turned away… but then looked back.
It was…odd. They all wore it regardless of what their attire was. He saw a skate punk with his waistband near his knees and a filthy shredded tee-shirt wearing one. Ditto the sanitation worker, homeless man, and procurer in full pimp regalia. He shook his head. First things first.
He found his man huddled on a rusted mattress skeleton, wearing several different coats as hopes of a disguise. He made no move to flee as the dark knight landed near him.
"I can't, I have questions for you."
"I'm having a bad day, piss off."
"I know someone who's having a worse day than you."
"He can't be."
"It isn't a he, it's the twenty-odd people you left back there, screaming and–"
"I said piss OFF!" Jonathan Crane said, his voice nearly rising to a scream. He then winced, recoiling as if he expected to be hit. When the blow didn't come, he resettled.
"Want to tell me what's eating you?"
"Go away. I'm only biding my time until I'm put back in Arkham again."
"You sound downright wistful." It was odd. Usually the Scarecrow didn't speak of the institution without several expletives preceding it.
"Look, whatever I did to those people, trust me when I say it's not so bad. In the long run, they might even thank me."
"Whatever you did? You mean you don't know what you threw at them?" Batman asked, his voiced gaining an edge.
"Look, there wasn't time to think or plan I just…I had to get out of there quickly, it's something you don't understand, okay?" Crane rubbed the bridge of his nose. No glasses, what happened to them?
"Crane, there's something you're not telling me."
"Life is a little more interesting if you leave a little mystery." He said wryly.
"Mystery…like a mysterious legion of men all wearing bowler hats?"
Crane's knuckles whitened. "What did you say?"
"The men in the hats, they have something to do with this don't they?"
Crane's whole body tensed, then relaxed. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"No, I'm completely serious on this. You. Would not. Believe me."
Batman leaned forward. "Try. Me."
Jonathan shook his head. "Sufficed to say, it is wise to never, ever piss off the Mad Hatter."
"In winter when the fields are white, I sing this song for your delight– you haven't been keeping up your end of the conversation, you know," Jervis said reproachfully to his companion. The reply was muffled. The reason for that was that, among other restraints, his companion had a makeshift gag of leopard-print underwear, making her status as Tetch's conversational companion somewhat ironic. It made sense to Tetch, though, who had always preferred talking to listening.
"I remember being in love once, a long time ago," Tetch mused, resting his elbow on her taut stomach, "it was in sixth form. She had lovely light hair, and a laugh that was, I daresay, musical. I never talked to her, never got near her, couldn't tell her how I felt. She didn't even know I was alive."
His companion groaned, squeezing her eyes shut, kohl streaks running down her cheeks. Jervis smiled and nodded as if she had concurred with him.
"Ah, yes, true courtly love. She was my Beatrice. And He is my Virgil, guiding me through the unsightly lower portions of hell with a steady hand…" he sighed, "did I ever tell you how we met?"
"Jervis Tetch is without a doubt the least sane individual I've ever met." Crane stated. They were walking to the police station on 45th street, the batmobile being otherwise occupied, and Crane was constantly looking over his shoulder and into the shadows around him.
"I'm well aware of that."
"No, no, no," Crane shook his head, "This is different. He's obsessive and manipulative, completely ignoring the world around him as he pursues a demented fixation of his–"
"I know, Crane."
"No you don't!" Crane looked uncomfortable and terrified. "This is…it's not Alice this time, don't you get it? It's me!"
"In autumn, when the leaves are brown, take pen and ink and write it down– you know I've never really had what you might call a role model(excepting the good Reverend Dodgson of course). I was an only child, a lonely child, so few acquaintances growing up. No one to match my brainpower, my abilities forever putting me far and away from the other children. Until…him." He breathed.
The young woman beside him stirred, her silvery platform sandals making little scuffling noises on the concrete floor. She was his Alice for the night. They had met when she stuck her head through the wrong car window, finding herself face to face with a madman.
Tetch rolled over, placing his hands on either side of her head. She made a muffled squeaking noise, trying to push herself further into the bed.
"He has such a way with words; he's always so…scholarly." Tetch grinned to himself. "And he plays a good game of chess."
The girl whimpered and Tetch petted her face, making shushing noises.
"That doesn't mean I've forgotten you my dear," he said, stroking her lips with the pad of his thumb, "Though I'm afraid before this night is out you will have served your purpose to me." He smiled wryly, wiping a bit of false pink on her bustier.
"What did you do?" Batman growled. Crane stared back at him impassively, quite a feat for a man being held six inches off the ground.
"I told you, you wouldn't understand. I don't even understand it. Who could fathom what goes on in that deranged little noggin of his? All I can really tell you is that he wants me, and the men in the bowler hats are sent by him."
"Crane, if you don't give me something, some reason that set him after you, I'm going to drag you out to the street and hand you over to the next bowler I find."
"Please no! I-I don't know why he's still so fixated on me after all this time, but-but a year or two ago… well, it's just a silly little thing."
"I…sort of…tortured him for an extended period of time." He blinked at the dark knight's scathing look. "What?"
"And you wonder why he's after you?"
"It was just a little misunderstanding. I don't even remember why I did it."
"If I weren't so soft-hearted, I'd say let him find you and return the favor."
"Oh, trust me," Crane grimaced, "he already has. What he has in mind for me is much, much worse."
"Any particular reason I should save you?"
"Do you really want my death on your head?"
Batman sighed. "Well, what can I do?"
Crane gripped his arms, though his feet were on the ground now. "Take me into protective custody. He can't reach me if I'm behind bars!"
"Crane, think for a moment about what you're saying. Can you name a single person that I've saved by taking them into protective custody?"
Crane paused. "You're right. You have a lousy track record."
"Yeah, and my patience is pretty thin, too."
"But I need–" Batman cut him off.
"Yeah, I need, I need, give me one reason I should save you other than your burning desire to save your own ass; one way protecting a convicted felon who's made a mockery of the justice system his entire career would benefit me."
Crane blinked. "You're cranky aren't you?"
"It's been a long night."
A soft beeping drew the Hatter away from his current distraction. He slid off of his Alice, who was weeping softly, and headed for a jerry-rigged console showing a GPS layout of the city. He made a few keystrokes and frowned thoughtfully, chewing on his bottom lip. He searched the map from corner to corner, brow furrowed, Alice forgotten. Finally he sighed with resignation.
"Alice, my dear," he said, "I'm afraid he's eluded us yet again. It is time for the final measure." He smiled at her on the bed. "Don't worry, I haven't forgotten you. You'll simply be playing a slightly…different role."
He retrieved an ancient microphone from the battered tabletop and blew into it. "Testing!…testing…1 2 3 SIBLANCE…SIBILANCE! Okay, that should do it."
He made a few more keystrokes. Out in the streets of Gotham, the bowler-hat men stood still. On each one, a speaker crackled to life. Batman and Jonathan Crane peered out of an alleyway at them. A few screeches and pops, and an all-too-familiar voice came through.
"Hello? …check, check, I sent a message to the fish, I told them–hello? Can anyone hear me?"
The dark knight's lip curled. "–the hell?"
Beside him, Jonathan Crane's face was drawn and white.
"Salve and hello! I have a proposition to make of a certain Professor Crane who is loose somewhere in Gotham city tonight!"
Batman looked at Crane, who wore a look of pained resignation.
"I have a special valentine's request for him, if he would be so kind as to report to the stews of the east side, I have something special prepared."
The duo was silent.
"Any upstanding citizen willing to deliver him would be duly rewarded as well…that is all, cheerio." With a teeth-grinding screech the speakers died.
"It's hardly 'Mandy' is it?" Batman said conversationally.
"I'm a dead man."
"No, you're not."
"Yes, I am. He's got an entire army of bowlers and I'm sure every one of our intrepid citizens would be willing to turn me in."
"I can protect you."
"I can't run forever, though, can I?" Crane peered at him morosely through his thatch of hair. "You'd better go. This isn't going to be pretty."
"But you said yourself; I can't just let you die."
"Don't pretend you won't be happy to be rid of me."
"I wouldn't choose this way to–"
"We don't always get to choose what we want in life." Crane fished a dirty handkerchief out from a pocket and scrubbed his face with it. "Whatever happens, you won't be able to say you didn't try."
"Not good enough."
"No," sighed crane, "I suppose not." A click came from the handkerchief, which shot out a gust of odorless gas. Batman's instinct kicked in and he held his breath, but a little too late. He slumped against a brick wall as Crane's shuffling footsteps faded away. Damn it…was his last thought.
He woke to the sound of explosions.
Crane had had some dealings with the Deadly Swordfish, a minor triad based in Hong Kong, which had ended better than his usual collaborations. They had started out in a district that primarily manufactured fireworks, hence their secondary title as "The Firebug Kings". Dealing mostly in explosives, they were a trigger-happy bunch. Crane, who tended to employ more subtle methods, must've run to them as a last resort. The streets were alive with bangs and screams as the dark knight hoisted himself to a standing position.
The chaos centered on two buildings, a hat maker's in the old factory district and the department store across the street. Currently the battle was one-sided, with Crane hurling curses from the rooftop while the other building was surprisingly silent. Batman plotted on different routes before hitting on the ridiculously simple: he took the stairs.
When he flung open the door to the roof, the only one near him was a young man with slicked-back hair and a sleek automatic, a poorly-inked dragon encircling his neck. He opened his mouth to sound the alarm, preparing to spray him with bullets, but Batman was faster and gave him a roundhouse kick to the jaw before anyone on the roof could react. He dove, rolling just before impact, hooking an arm around Crane's knees before his forward momentum carried them both off of the edge. Crane was too shocked to react, but Batman pulled a grapple out and arrested their fall twenty feet before they hit the ground. They swung back and forth for a moment or two.
"Um…I suppose 'I'm sorry' wouldn't work right now, would it?" Crane managed to say.
"This is hardly 'giving yourself up', is it?" Crane winced. He was using "the voice" again.
They descended to the street in silence. Waiting for them was a little present from the Hatter.
The girl had lost a heel, leaving her tilting alarmingly to the left. There were bruises, old and new, on her body and face, as well as a trail of healed cigarette burns on one thigh. The young lady of the evening had been having a tough shift, evidently. Batman made a move toward her, but Crane restrained him with an arm, pointing.
She had all the telltale signs. Standing stock still, with a completely blank expression on her face, pupils dilated. There was a black headband with a tiny bow set atop her brown-to-blonde roots. Crane grimaced.
"Mr. Jervis Tetch has requested your company for the evening, for dinner and coffee." The Alice's voice had a nasally twang, and recited her speech without any inflection. "He requests that you come alone. He says 'you will not get a second chance'."
"I will not get a second chance? I will not– you have to be kidding!" Crane snarled.
"Does that mean you don't accept?" Tetch stepped out from behind her. Both Batman and Crane blinked. In her heels, the girl was several inches taller, but she was far too thin to hide much of anything behind her. Batman realized that Tetch had gotten rid of his signature coat and hat, which meant a considerable loss of bulk, and stood before them in a plain white shirt. A bowtie lay unclasped about his neck. He gazed at them, not the throbbing, violent gaze of a madman, but the quietly amused look of a man who had a private joke to share.
"I'd say no," Crane fired back, "with an extra helping of die you fœtid grub!" He whipped out a pistol and began firing wildly at the Hatter, who seconds before had dove behind a nearby car, dragging his Alice with him. Crane dodged out of Batman's reached, stopping cold as the Hatter reared up again, balancing a small grenade launcher on his bird-thin shoulders.
"I'm sorry," he said warmly as all the blood drained out of Crane's face, "but I was never good at dealing with rejection." The resulting firefight was chaotic as both Bowler Hats and Swordfish joined the fray. Somehow, Batman managed to corner the Alice behind a dumpster and relieve her of her headband, smashing the control chip like a beetle. She immediately burst into tears.
"What'd I do?" she cried, "what'd I do? It's not my fault, I'm sorry, it's not my fault!" She covered her face and sobbed violently.
"No, it's not your fault," he told her, "It has nothing to do with you. This thing, whatever it is, has been going on for a long time."
He held her, her bruised shoulder blades heaving, as the melee around them escalated. Unnoticed, the two principle players slowly made their way down an empty side street, in a fashion that would almost seem like one was leading the other.
"You need to let it go, that was over two years ago when I did that to you!" Crane roared, peppering an old station wagon with bullets. Tetch's voice floated from behind it.
"You seem to remember it well enough, Jonathan. Besides, it was only a year ago that you enjoyed my company!"
"That has nothing to do with me! That was all your delusion, Tetch. I don't recall requesting that you lock me up and molest me for seven months straight!" Something hit the pavement near his feet with a small thud, Crane dove for cover as the flash grenade ignited.
"Yes, but you didn't say you didn't want me to, either!"
"Yes I did! I clearly did!" Shot rattled the brick wall behind him, and Jervis smiled.
"You know what your problem is, Jonathan? You fear intimacy."
Crane's head popped up from behind a pile of scrap. "No I don't!"
"Yes you do," Tetch chuckled, eyes twinkling malevolently, "you don't hesitate to seek out help from the most unstable gangsters, but when it comes to commitment you run and hide like a little baby." He pursed his lips. "It's sweet, really."
"How dare you!" Crane roared. He pressed his finger on the trigger, firing endlessly, turning the car into Swiss cheese. Tetch lay flat on the ground, giggling nervously to himself. Finally, the gun only clicked when he held the trigger down. Tetch peered out from behind the front wheel.
"Out of bullets? Shame."
"Shut up!" Crane snapped. He ran at Tetch and swung, but the Hatter easily dodged his fist. What followed was a ridiculous ballet up and down the sidewalk, as Tetch was always a little too fast for Crane. After a few minutes they tired, Crane leaning against a brick wall for support. Tetch smiled gently at him.
"When will you admit that we have something in common? You make more of an effort denying me than accepting me could ever be."
"Shut. Up." Crane gasped, hands on his knees. Tetch walked up beside him and placed a hand on his back. Crane didn't flinch away.
"Jonathan," he said quietly, "look at me."
Crane glared at him sullenly, uneven bangs veiling his eyes. Tetch gently brushed them away.
"We understand each other, don't we? We think more alike than those other manxome foes we must walk amongst. We are literary men. So few of them understand what it's like growing up on an island adrift in a sea of ignorance, the pale faces washing over you but never touching–"
"Good god!" Crane snapped, shoving his hand away, "and then what? You and I ride off into the sunset, arms flung about each other? Our volatile passions distilling down to utter saccharine? You're hardly the domestic type, Tetch."
"Neither are you." Tetch murmured.
"You…indignify me in the crudest way possible, and then about-face like nothing ever happened! What do you want me to do? Hugs and kisses and flowers, chocolates every Valentines day?"
Tetch considered him seriously for a moment. "No," he finally said, "no, I want to shag you. As often as possible. The other things would be a nice bonus, but really it's the shagging I'm in for."
"Of course you– I– you– what?" Crane stammered.
A thick silence fell over them. Tetch produced a yellow handkerchief and blew his nose with a slight honk. Far off, a dog barked.
"Well," Crane began, then paused, "…well, if that's…I mean it's only…but of course you can never do…that to me again, understand?"
"Of course." Tetch said. "Unless you want me to."
"Okay, ah…" Crane nodded absentmindedly, rubbing the back of his neck, "I think we…yes. I'll, uh…"
"All right, Jonathan," Tetch replied soothingly, stemming an agonizing tide of hemming and hawing. He produced another (mercifully clean) handkerchief and dusted Crane off, who viewed him like a particularly dangerous specimen of hornet.
"Now," Tetch said, finishing with a final swipe, "are you ready for dinner?"
"You mean you…" he glanced up and down at Tetch. "So that's why you're dressed so…well, fine, but keep your hands above the table at all times. And no tea for me."
"I've got a lovely Bordeaux." Tetch said, crooking his elbow. Crane took a moment of painstaking consideration before linking his elbow with his beamish companion. Off they went, in the direction of whatever Tetch had planned, and a hopefully bright future.
"You idiot," Crane said after a few blocks, "St. Valentine's is in April. It's May 24th!"
"In spring when woods are getting green, I'll try and tell you what I mean–"
"Shut up, damnit!"
Author's note: so we finally arrive at the last piece of a loose trilogy, Ab Tenabrae and A Mad Teaparty being the first two. Before I get any silly questions, Salve is Latin, it means hello. Tetch isn't that crazy. The poem that keeps appearing is from Through the Looking-Glass, the one Humpty Dumpty never finishes. The Bowler Hats are a suitably creepy image, and I might have to use them later on… there's just something unsettling about that hat. Vale!