For the Joker, an audience was an audience.
It made up for the fact that he'd just been removed from his foul cell in Arkham Asylum despite being on the very brink of successfully cultivating the Ebola virus in his cup of tapioca pudding from today's lunch, placed in full restraints, and then dragged to the shabby interview room by stone-faced orderlies pretending to ignore the man with a smile carved on his face happily outlining how he planned to skin, stuff, and mount every one of their children.
The Joker cackled and giggled all through the usual procedures -- being shackled to his bolted-down chair, having the orderlies warn his visitor already in the room to never come any closer to the laughing man, and then these hospital assistants departing, leaving them both alone there.
Hmmm, that last was a bit unusual. Usually, at least two orderlies stayed with him in the room at all times when the Joker had one of his rare visitors, with those guards tensely holding their clubs and Tasers ready for instant use.
His wandering attention caught by this, the white-faced man squinted past the overhead flickering fluorescents, across the dingy table, where his visitor sat back out of the light. The Joker could only dimly see the outline of a man in casual clothes, sitting relaxed in his seat, and with his arms folded across his chest, and this person calmly keeping his shadowed face turned towards the truly insane man in the other chair.
*Mood lighting!* The Joker delightedly smiled, performing an ear-to-ear grin, which for this man was decidedly NOT a figure of speech. *He's showing proper respect, so either I kill him with my left little toenail, or I share with this guy the proper method of making obscene balloon animals. Well, whatever, my little cabbage, you're on….*
Opening with a cheery quip about genocide, the Joker was off and running, spewing out his vile philosophy of life, with his guest seemingly hanging onto every word, as that man never moved nor shifted the slightest in his chair, and always keeping his intent gaze upon the psychotic clown.
A half-hour later, the punch line seemed to be approaching, as the Joker was in the middle of an involved story consisting so far of Britney Spears, chainsaws, and the 1937 Hindenberg disaster, until something unbelievable happened to the nemesis of a certain flying rodent. Something that was truly unforgivable for the Joker.
He was interrupted.
By the ringtone of the cell phone of his visitor.
A ringtone that every single American would instantly recognize.
From the other man's front shirt pocket, the Brady Bunch theme happily played.
For once absolutely silent, from sheer outrage, the Joker disbelievingly stared at someone whose life expectancy had at this moment shortened to just a few seconds. Just before he was about to erupt into a killing frenzy, the enraged psychopath watched the figure in the shadows shift in his chair, pull out his cellphone, and glance at the face of it. Giving a faint sigh of relief, this soon-to-be-messily-dead man replaced his phone, and stood up from his chair.
Still in the shadows across the table, the Joker's visitor now spoke for the first time since entering the interview room. A composed voice with a West Coast accent informed the madman, "Hey, Thoker, I've got three things to say to you. First, our little chat today meant you were distracted and couldn't get in touch with your gang about their latest kidnapping victim, which helped us rescue her just now without you interfering. Second, your rationalization for all your crimes is that something bad happened to you and you're now permitted to take it out on the entire world. According to THAT logic, every survivor of the Nazi death camps would have become a serial killer. Since that didn't happen, all I see here is someone who fell into a cesspool, and instead of getting out and cleaning off, you just sat there in the shit, convinced yourself you liked it, and tried pulling everyone else into the filth with you."
Pausing in his speech, the standing man reached up with his right hand, and did something at the side of his head a seething lunatic couldn't quite make out, at least until his visitor took a step forward, finally bringing himself into the light at the edge of the room's table, revealing someone who hadn't yet seen his thirtieth birthday, who now leaned forward to contemptuously stare into the Joker's features at eye level, only a few feet apart.
A man who would always wear a sadistic clown's mask as his facial appearance now gazed into another man's face that was as scarred as his own, with an horrific empty crater in the socket where the man's left eye should have been.
Xander Harris used the other man's temporary astonishment to straighten up and replace his eyepatch he'd been holding in his right hand. Just as an enraged Joker realized how disrespectful his visitor was to him, and shifted his muscles in preparation for a savage lunge towards the other man close enough for this to be successful, the lunatic was frozen by the one-eyed man's next words.
"Third, you're just not that funny, Thoker."
There was now complete silence for a few moments in the interview room, until a question was asked in a robotic monotone that indicated the asker was well past the sanity borderline.
Xander shrugged, and looked down into the other man's burning eyes. "Thoker. Tee aitch oh kay ee are. To me, that's really your name, and that's how I'll be putting it down on my report, and also encourage everyone else in the entire world to call you that, Thoker. I mean, you're the perfect example of guys who just have no sense of humor. You must have met and listened to them -- those guys who can't tell jokes, always mess up the punch line, think they can do accents, and manage to completely offend everyone in their vicinity with racist and dirty stories. Like you. Thoker."
"STOP SAYING THAT!" The man with the new name burst from his chair, stopped from flying across the table and ripping into his insulter by coming to an abrupt halt at the ends of his restraints attached to the floor. The enraged clown now had a wordless shriek of pure rage coming from his enormously-wide mouth, as he fruitlessly scrabbled to reach the other man, who'd calmly moved back a half-step to take himself just out of range.
Xander watched the man he'd taunted, his look of contempt now fading to boredom, as the member of the International Watchers' Council thankfully realized his business here was over. Turning to leave, the man with the eyepatch heard from behind him another, more comprehensible statement screamed at the top of someone's lungs.
"I'M GONNA KILL YOUR PARENTS, YOUR BEST FRIEND, YOUR WIFE AND KIDS, DESTROY YOUR HOME, AND MAKE YOUR LIFE A LIVING HELL!"
Whatever else the man who'd taken his new identity from a playing card expected from the guy he'd threatened, it wasn't the exact reaction that instantly took place. Spinning around and darting forward to get right into the Thoker's face, the startled lunatic stared into a grin as cold and mirthless as his own, and heard an iron-hard voice snap out:
"Wanted to, did that, never worked out, already happened, and from Captain Hairgel's personal description, you don't even know the meaning of that last word!"
Several hours later, Xander still had a happy smile on his face about the end of his meeting with the Thoker. That expression was the main reason why he could unconcernedly make his way through the Devil's Hook, one of the worst slums in Gotham. Those who would ordinarily have made trouble for anyone daring to pass through their turf without paying the toll -- money, pain, or life -- watched a guy who could clearly take care of himself, plus having a look on his scarred features that indicated he'd really enjoy giving anybody bothering him a world of hurt, and sensibly decided to wait for easier prey.
So, a former Scooby's good mood lasted right up until the moment when a patch of darkness at the entrance to a filthy alley gathered up Xander, pulling him into the narrow passage out of sight, and slamming the man by his back against the alley wall, to then growl, "Why did you visit the Jok--guhh!"
That pained grunt from the Batman wasn't how things were meant to go. His captive was supposed to be scared into talking, or if he showed signs of fighting back, the usual attack from his opponent at this close range would have been an attempt of kneeing the crimefighter in the groin. Which would have been just fine, believe it or not. Considering his titanium cup, anybody who'd actually managed to accomplish that specific piece of violence upon the Batman would then be in agony over a fractured kneecap, and desperate to tell whatever they knew so they'd be let go to drag themselves to a hospital or the closest emergency room.
A totally logical plan, which pretty much went to hell right at this moment. To be fair, there was no way Bruce Wayne could have ever have possibly foreseen what happened next. It would have been like trying to plan for gravity reversing, ducking pigs flying at head level, and other things that just would never occur in a million years. Or ever. Such as his entire costume, from cowled head to booted toes, all of the bodysuit's protective Kevlar material and carbon-fiber nanotubes, plus every other bit of metal, plastic and anything else he was wearing now suddenly transmuting to a cheap, $19.99 cotton knock-off of his outfit.
The only clothing unaffected was his silk underwear. Which didn't do a single thing in protecting him from a very hard knee that had just punched into an extremely sensitive part of his anatomy.
Well, at least THAT he could plan for, as Wayne had spent years training in martial arts and bodily control, during that time learning how to suppress the effects of even such agony he was now experiencing, and still managing to keep up his side of any fight. So, the Batman let only his abrupt grunt show any discomfort he might have experienced, instead smoothly reaching out to grab and then pummel the cold-eyed man across from him who'd dared such a rude hit.
Once again, unreality happened. The Batman heard the dual thumps of objects landing from dropping off from the top of the windowless, three-story wall behind him, and before he could react to this, he was grabbed by his arms just before he could get his hands onto his former captive, with the defender of Gotham himself being lifted off his feet, and carried back at a mad dash for the crimefighter to slam very, very hard by his back into the far alley wall.
Still trying, despite his daze from all the assaults on his mind and body, the Batman uselessly wrenched his arms, trying to break free from whoever was holding him in their steel-hard grips with strength far beyond human, his head snapping back and forth to identify his captors as being….young women?
The female on his left was about the age as the man the Batman had grabbed, with her being a dark-eyed brunette with a fierce face, who casually looked down when her captive tried a side-kick at her leg that should have instantly brought her down. Instead, Wayne felt as if he'd tried to kick through a telephone pole. The woman didn't even budge. Desperately looking onto his right at the other woman holding his arm in a very firm grip, a smirk was sent his way by the dark-skinned female as old as the other, and a tolerant shake of her head was made that warned the Batman not to repeat his futile efforts.
A cleared throat brought our hero's attention back to the man he'd assaulted, who was now leaning his left shoulder against the alley wall, and twirling in his right hand a foot-long stick of wood sharpened at the far end, all while glowering at the Batman. A faint chuckle came from the brunette on Wayne's left, who next said something that was extremely perplexing, particularly when declared in a Boston accent. "Sorry, Xan, but tall, dark, and bruised-balls here is one hundred percent, total human."
"Oh, crap," grumped the one-eyed man, who now made his stick disappear somewhere inside his clothing. "I really didn't think it was likely, but you have to admit our former fr-- the guy we knew -- would have actually dressed up in tights if he'd ever thought about it, Faith."
A bewildered Bruce Wayne saw out of the corner of his eye an exasperated look appear on the named woman's face as she maintained her grip on him, growling at the other man, "Give it a rest, boytoy. Angel's gone, and he can't even hear ya insultin' him, so what's the point?"
The other woman of the trio now broke into what seemed to be a long-standing squabble between the pair. "Can we get this over with, Xander? I want to leave here before my nose actually falls off from the smell in this place!"
"Okay, okay, Caridad," soothingly spoke the man who was now confirmed by his acknowledgement as Xander Harris, employed by the International Watchers' Council, an organization that vaguely professed itself to be an world-wide scholarship and educational facility for teenage girls, and despite Bruce Wayne's most vigorous attempts to hack into their database, further information was infuriatingly impossible to acquire. His suspicions had been aroused over this, especially when Mr. Harris' request to visit the Joker had been promptly granted by the board of directors for the asylum.
After watching their meeting in the interview room through the spy-cam and bugs he'd planted in that place, the Batman had decided to follow Mr. Harris until he could be caught alone and a little chat was then held between the two of them. While it was true things hadn't exactly worked--
The Batman's heart actually stopped.
"Yeah, ya got him good there, Xan. Skipped a beat, and he's smelling really worried."
There wasn't any time to wonder about what the brunette woman had said, when his own world was crashing down over a simple identification by the one-eyed man standing before him.
"Oh, relax. We don't care."
What the hell was this? Xander Harris wasn't triumphant, or gleeful, or smug. Instead, he just seemed….irritated, at most, just before speaking again.
"Here's the way it's going to be. You dress up, do whatever you want to do, dance with whoever you want -- that Thoker asshole included -- but in the future, you stay out of our way if we ever need to come back here."
"Gotham is my city!" Those words burst from the Batman's mouth before he could think.
A pitying shake of the other man's head was made, and he lifted his right leg and then dropped it in a stomp, clearly in a gesture indicating this place. "It's our city. Just like every other city in the world, all the other towns, villages, houses, fields, forests, plains, jungles, oceans, nations, continents….the world. It's our home. And we guard and protect our home, no matter what, you understand that?!"
The last part of the final sentence had come out in a savage rasp, as Xander Harris' remaining eye blazed in a towering fury. Blinking behind his mask, a startled Batman shifted his gaze from the man to glance at the women holding him captive. Both had their faces set in stone, with their own eyes glittering with predator ferocity.
His attention was drawn back to the other man continuing in a frozen-nitrogen voice. "We work in the darkness on a much bigger scale than you do, Wayne. We're not heroes facing guys with serious anger management issues, with everything wrapped up in the last twenty minutes. We fight and kill to allow humanity to survive, and even when we succeed, all too often we have to mourn our own. And if we ever fail….then all of us die. Which is why when somebody interferes in our work, that really pisses us off."
Xander stepped up nearly nose-to-nose with the Batman, and delivered his final message. "If any of your little playmates ever get in our way again, I won't swear vengeance, dress up in a costume, and lock him away in a nice comfortable cage with doctors fascinated by his psychology. What I'll do is get a Barrett M82 rifle and put a round from a thousand meters away in his center of mass!"
Looking at how white the captive's lower face turned below his mask, Xander seemed to be satisfied by this. Glancing at the two women at the Batman's side, the man in the eyepatch now gruffly said, "Let him go, girls. C'mon, let's get out of here and check on Dawn."
At that, the pair of females now abruptly let loose of the crimefighter's arms and stepped forward, brushing past the man in the black costume without even bothering to guard against any possible attack. They seemed to be supremely confident there wouldn't be any, and even if stupidity ruled the day, that they would prevail.
Bruce Wayne, standing there and rubbing his arms that were aching from the circulation returning to them, admitted they had a point. He stared after the trio now leaving the alley, and heard a final few remarks from them.
"Hey, boytoy, after ya tell Willow how well her spell worked, I know a surefire way to celebrate Dawn's hundredth kidnapping. It'll really cheer up Little D anyway, once I tell her what I did when I came across Mr. Cape's ride."
"Oh, nooooo. Okay, I know I'm gonna regret this….but what did you do?"
The last thing the Batman heard was seriously evil giggles from the two women.
A few minutes later, after cautiously sneaking back to where he'd left the Batmobile, hidden away in the middle of a construction site, the son of Martha and Thomas Wayne held his head in his hands to avoid looking at his vehicle. He groaned to himself, "Lucius is going to be totally furious."
His car had been keyed.
Scraped along the sides around the entire vehicle, an inch deep into the armored skin, were two-foot high letters that spelled out the words "FAITH WUZ HERE."
It was easy enough to see what tool had spoiled his multi-million Batmobile. After all, nobody could miss a twenty-foot long, three-inch wide piece of steel rebar that had been rammed into the roof of the vehicle, penetrating the entire height of the car to pass through the floor and pierce at least a yard into the ground, sticking up straight from the middle of the automobile. Particularly when the other end of the rebar pointing at the sky had two pairs of women's panties tied to this, fluttering gaily in the breeze and showing off someone's partiality for black French-cut lingerie and another's liking for a hot-pink thong.