The turning of the new year is traditionally associated with change. Across the nation, and perhaps across the world, people vow at the beginning of each new year that this time things will be better. This time, they vow, they will shun chocolate in favor of cheerfully snacking on a big crunchy stick of celery. This time, they will buckle down and really write that story that they've been meaning to write for the last three years. Sure, they said the same things last year, and the year before, but this time - for certain! - it will be different.
This particular new year couldn't be anything but different for Jackie Baker. At the start of last year, she'd been safely anonymous in the populace of Gotham, working away at her quiet little job in her quiet little apartment and enjoying her quiet little life. And now...
She edged a little closer to the Riddler - Eddie - smiling as he put his arm around her shoulders. Around them, the criminal population of Gotham (or at least, the half that preferred masks and spandex) celebrated in their typical exuberant fashion. It didn't matter in the slightest to them that New Year's Day had been last week. Piddly little things like dates didn't matter when you had a pocket full of ill-gotten holiday cash to blow at the bar.
Harley Quinn and the Mad Hatter's Walrus twirled wildly past the question-marked pair with all of the exuberance that could be found at the bottom of a bottle. "Wheeeeee!" Harley crowed as the massive Walrus swung her up into the air and launched her toward the chandelier. She landed with a tinkling crunch and sprawled flat on her back, giggling helplessly as the chandelier sailed back and forth above the revelers.
Jackie dodged a piece of dislodged glass. "Shouldn't we be going?" she asked.
Eddie glanced at a nearby penguin-shaped clock. "No. We've still got at least four hours to wait."
"Four hours? Here?" Jackie skipped out of the way of another airborne piece of glass and almost ran into the Ventriloquist, who was quietly observing the party while Scarface ogled the pretty girls. "Couldn't we have waited at home?"
"No," Eddie said flatly. "...People...know we'd be there."
Jackie sighed. Okay, so all of his former henchgirls knew where they lived, and they'd all joined together into some kind of warped Coalition of Mild Evil. Okay, so at least three of them had tried to kill Jackie, and a large percentage of the others had tried to kill or terminally embarrass the Riddler. Okay, so they could in theory talk themselves into another raid on their house, one which pantyhose and strategically placed socks probably wouldn't discourage. It was probably still safer there than in any room containing more than one rogue and a bar full of every kind of alcohol imaginable.
"Why four hours?" Jackie asked curiously.
"Because," Eddie answered, fiddling with the cuff of his sleeve, "it's safer to travel after the sun comes out." He shrugged at her questioning look. "Batman."
"What about the Bat?" snarled Killer Croc, jerking out of his half-doze on the bartop next to them.
"Uh...he's a jerk," Jackie suggested.
"I'll drink to that!" Croc rasped, doing just that before wobbling out onto the dance floor.
Jackie twitched a bit as a raucous chorus of "Auld Lang Syne" broke out behind them. Yes, this year was definitely going to be one to remember.
The party had wound down a few hours later. Most of the other rogues had gone elsewhere, either by choice or by force. For most, the threat of being barred from the premises was enough to send them on their boozy way. For others, there was always a trick umbrella or two to be demonstrated as a gentle suggestion of what might happen to them if they didn't leave immediately.
Eddie and Jackie, both of whom had avoided any drinking, were sitting at a cozy little table toward the back of the room. They talked together, chuckling over near misses and telling stories, and neither of them noticed the clock slowly drawing closer to four in the morning.
The crash of slamming doors reverberated through the nearly empty club. Jackie looked up from her cola in time to see two navy-blue blurs skid past her and throw themselves behind the bar. There they crouched, panting and sweaty. Their long blue coats hung limply open over their clothes - a T-shirt and jeans for the man, and a set of silky grey pajamas with snow melting on the cuffs for her.
"Maybe...you should have...gone with them," she panted, scraping a hank of sweaty hair off of her forehead.
"No. This is better," he assured her, wheezing as he sank to the floor.
"What planet are you from that this is better?" she snapped, flopping down next to him.
"The planet where I love you," he replied. "Want my socks?"
She looked down at her bare, soaking-wet feet. "Yes."
Eddie chuckled softly and took a sip of his water. "You know them?" Jackie whispered.
"Yeah. That one's Sorrow, and her sidekick is...what was he calling himself...Grief."
"Happy couple, are they?" she giggled. Honestly, the names people gave themselves in this town...
Eddie rolled his eyes at her terrible joke and swiveled in his chair, leaning one arm casually up on the backrest. "Having a good evening?" he inquired, examining the bedraggled couple dripping tiny puddles on the floor.
"Oh, it's dandy, thanks," the woman muttered, pulling on the socks. "Couldn't be better, Eddie...Eddie!" She scrambled to her feet. Her oversized socks hit the little puddles on the tiled floor, sending her skating toward them in a windmilling, flailing bunch of limbs. To stop, she grabbed the first thing that presented itself - Eddie's head. His hat tumbled gracelessly onto the floor, where it rocked upside-down dangerously close to a puddle.
"Hey!" he yelped, abandoning his suave pose and grabbing her wrists. He immediately let go and ducked backward, examining the palms of his hands with frantic worry.
Sorrow steadied herself and tugged her coat into place. "You're fine. See? Gloves." Eddie relaxed enough to scoop his endangered hat off of the floor as Sorrow displayed the solid, heavy gloves covering her all-too-dangerously poisonous hands.
"Good," he muttered, replacing the hat on his head and fussing with it until it had just the right tilt. "Have you met Query?"
Jackie waved tentatively at Sorrow.
"Nice to meet you," Sorrow said absently before returning to her previous panic. "Eddie, you've got to get out of here!"
"Why?" he asked with the patience of one who had carried on conversations in the midst of buildings collapsing, running from the police, and other such calming events.
"Batman's out there!" she said, dramatically gesturing to the door as if the man himself were waiting for his introduction.
"And?" he asked calmly.
"And?" she squeaked. "You do remember Batman, right? Tall, wears a mask, likes to break your legs?"
"Yes," he said mildly, settling back into his chair. "I also know that Batman doesn't come in here unless there's some earth-shaking problem to deal with."
She put her hands on her hips and glared at him. "Every rogue in Arkham - well, almost every rogue," she corrected, "is out there right now. Free. Loose. I think that registers at least an 8.0 on the Earth-Shaking Disasters scale."
"All right," he agreed amiably. "We'll lay low here for a few more hours, and he'll give up and go find someone else to bother."
Sorrow blew out an exasperated sigh. "That's not going to work this time."
Eddie smiled with the easy amusement of the expert soothing the novice. "I think I've had just a bit more experience with Batman following me," he pointed out, "and-"
Sorrow's eyes narrowed. "Do you remember," she said sweetly, "the last time that we were in Arkham together? Do you remember breaking out with all the rogues?" She folded her arms. "Do you remember who planned that escape? Me," she jabbed her thumb into her chest, "and you." She pointed at him.
"And me," Grief chimed in.
"And him," she added, not looking away from Eddie. "And, hmm, let's see, who is Batman out to pummel into a fine powder for their involvement with that little adventure? Why, I do believe that it's me and you and him!"
The color drained out of Eddie's face. "He knows it was us?"
"He knows," she confirmed grimly.
Eddie leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. Jackie gnawed nervously on her lower lip as his eyebrows drew together. Then, like the dawning of a rather small and ineffective sun, his face brightened.
"He chased you here on foot, right? Well, I've got a car. Come with us," Eddie volunteered. "We're going to South Carolina."
Jackie's heart sank down somewhere around her toes. Come with us? But this was their vacation! Together! Alone!
"South Carolina?" Sorrow asked, bewildered. "That's a bit far, isn't it?"
"I could drop you off at home if you like," Eddie offered, one eyebrow raised.
"South Carolina it is!" Sorrow agreed hastily.
"We'll go get our coats and meet you near the doors." Eddie offered a hand to Jackie, who numbly took it and rose to her feet.
When they were out of earshot, Jackie nudged Eddie with her elbow. "Come with us?" she hissed.
"What was I supposed to do? Leave them there?" he whispered back urgently.
"Yes!" she snapped. "I thought we were going to go alone. Together."
"Plans change," he said absently as he lifted their coats off of the rack. He handed her coat to her and began struggling into his own. "It's no big deal."
No big deal? No big deal? The whole reason they were getting out of Gotham was to leave everyone behind so that they could have a romantic getaway! They weren't going to have any contact with the rogues, the Bats, the ex-henchgirls...
Ex-henchgirls. Jackie bit her lip as she shrugged into her gaudily question-marked coat. If he didn't care about the two of them being alone...well, he did go through a lot of girls. Maybe he didn't feel like she thought he did. Maybe she was the only one thinking romance. Maybe -
She crossly told herself to shut up. Eddie loved her, or why would he have kissed her? Why would he have let her do countless things to him - everything from making him live in a pink apartment to stuffing him in a dress - without kicking her out and leaving her behind?
He was talking. Jackie shook her head and tried to rejoin the conversation. "...besides, she's got powers! Can you imagine us working together? Batman would never suspect it!"
"Until you tell him about it beforehand, right?" Jackie said grumpily.
"What's wrong?" he asked, pausing with one arm shrugged behind him in a quest for his missing sleeve. "You'll like them!"
Jackie bit her lip. How could she say that she didn't want to take anyone with them, no matter how likeable they were (and that was still up for debate)? She especially didn't want to take other rogues along, particularly one that could kill people by accident. "Sorry" didn't mean much to a corpse.
But...well, he'd already invited them. It wouldn't be very polite to march over and uninvite them - and Jackie was very enthusiastic about being polite to people that could kill her. Besides, maybe they'd change their mind and stay in one of the other cities on their route. Gotham was hundreds of miles from South Carolina - surely they could be dropped off in a nice, far-away location while she and Eddie continued southward.
"Nothing," she said, answering Eddie's question. "It's okay."
"Great!" he grinned, doing up his buttons. "Now we-"
A quiet white light began blinking softly over their heads. Eddie winced, grabbed Jackie by the arm and towed her to the entrance. "What now?" she hissed.
He jerked his chin toward the gentle white lights. "Someone's on the roof," he whispered back. Jackie's heart, already pounding from anger, jealousy, and general biological processes, kicked into overdrive at the thought of Batman not ten feet from her head.
They met Sorrow and her henchman at the entrance. They were hunched by the glass, doing their best to look outside without the outside looking in at them. "Come on," Eddie hissed, kicking Sorrow lightly on the ankle. "This way!"
They snaked through a dimly-lit corridor marked "Employees Only", up a battered set of stairs, and skidded to a halt in a small room that held nothing but a couch, a gilt-framed mirror, a sink, and an old beat-up dresser.
Sorrow pulled open a drawer. "We're going to fight him with band-aids?" she asked flatly.
"No, no, this is just where Oswald sticks people who got into a fight," Eddie said dismissively as he ran his fingers over the frame of the giant mirror above the couch. "No, we're looking for...ah!" As his fingers sunk into four specific depressions, the giant mirror swung aside to reveal an enormous ventilation duct.
"Okay. Up on the couch, then out through the ventilation duct."
"You've got to be kidding," Sorrow said. "We'll fall through the ceiling!"
"No, no, they're specially reinforced. I heard Oswald bragging about it one weekend, that if anything should happen he had a *kwak* failsafe exit." Eddie grinned. "Up we go."
One by one, they clambered into the metal shaft. "Roomy," Sorrow commented.
"Well, it had to accommodate Oswald," came the echoey voice down the tunnel. "Hurry up. We'll come out around the side."
They crept as quietly as they could through the ductwork. The duct wound around and around in what seemed like an endless maze. "Okay," whispered Eddie, "The exit should be around - heeeeeeeeeere..." The duct echoed with clangs and bangs as he rolled down the steep incline toward the door blocking the exit.
"Found it," echoed a tinny whimper from below. The other three followed at a more sedate pace, slipping a little as they descended.
Once they were ready, Eddie lifted the latch and swung the door open. "Go," he hissed, jumping into the icy alley and skidding deftly toward the car. The others, in varying states of gracelessness, skated and flailed their way after him, diving into the car as if all the hounds of hell were hot on their heels.
Jackie found herself behind the wheel. She jammed the key in with shaking hands and the car roared to life. Her foot stomped hard on the pedal as she yanked the wheel, aiming them down the quiet street.
The little green car zipped away. In the shadows surrounding the Iceberg, a caped figure threw itself onto a still-rolling, ominous black car and roared after the escaping rogues.
(to be continued)
Author's Note: There is no excuse for taking almost three years to post this story. Rather, I have many excuses, one of whom is having his second birthday soon, but I still feel really shamefully sorry for taking this long. I've finally managed to learn how to write with Raffi or the Wonder Pets or that damn singing jungle toy playing, though, so I will hopefully be able to update this on a less-than-monthly schedule.