Love is never easy. In books, in songs, in movies - in practically every form of media ever created - the troubles of being in love have been laid out for all to see. Love may be patient and kind, but it can also be cruel and stupid.
Troy Grey lay sleeplessly in his bed, absently rolling a piece of lint between his fingers as he stared at the slowly rotating ceiling fan. Beside him, the woman he loved shifted restlessly in her sleep.
It wasn't fair. He had done everything he could to keep her safe. When he'd been her doctor, he'd braved the terrors of staff meetings and fought to get her out of the high-security floor. That hadn't worked, so he'd quit his job in an explosion of temper and sought her out in the depths of Gotham, wanting only to warn her about what waited for her back at Arkham. But through a long and complex series of misunderstandings, he'd wound up in a costume, at Batman's mercy, and eventually he'd found himself locked away in a cell of his very own. He'd braved Poison Ivy's wrath, Harley Quinn's cooking, and the ever-present threat of broken bones from the Batman...and for what?
He'd thought that getting out of town would be the hard part. He'd never thought about going back. He'd assumed that, now that they were safe, she would give up her life of crime so that they could go somewhere and be normal. No costumes. No vigilantes. No terror-filled races down the sidewalk, expecting every moment to be knocked to the ground and delivered back to hell with a kick in the ribs just to remind them of how much they deserved it.
He'd tried so hard to convince her to leave Gotham last night as they'd walked on the beach. As the icy water lapped around their feet, he'd brought up every argument and fact at his command, even going so far as to point out what exactly was waiting for them in the depths of Arkham if they ever got caught again. The moonlight had let him see just enough of her stubborn, fixed expression to know that he was failing miserably.
Sorrow wanted to go back. He couldn't understand it.
Bowls rattled in the kitchen. Sorrow rolled over, blinking sleepily at him. "Morning," she greeted blearily.
"Morning," he repeated.
"Sounds like breakfast," she said, arching back into a stretch. She slipped out of bed, wrapping a soft purple bathrobe around her silky pajamas. "You coming?" she asked, padding toward the door.
Grief slid out of bed and obediently followed, mind still buzzing with sullen disbelief and half-proved arguments.
The Riddler and his henchgirl were already sitting at the kitchen's little table. "Good morning," Jackie smiled, taking a bite of her cereal.
"There's nothing good about it," Sorrow said, wandering over to the refrigerator. Grief sat listlessly at the table, pouring himself a glass of juice. "Do you think this place has rats?"
"Rats?" Jackie darted quick looks at the floorboards as if a rat might be perched at her feet like a dog begging for scraps.
"Yeah. I kept hearing this weird squeaking noise last night," Sorrow said, rummaging in the crisper. Eddie and Jackie froze, carefully not looking at each other. "Sounded like rats to me. You didn't hear them?"
Eddie coughed. "No," he said, "I don't think so." Jackie bent her head down toward her cereal bowl, staring intently at the little bits of processed grain as they floated merrily in the milk.
"Squeak squeak squeak 'til three in the morning," Sorrow grumbled, emerging from the refrigerator with an apple. "I vote we buy some rat traps."
"Uh...sure," Eddie agreed, taking extreme interest in his glass of milk. Beside him, Jackie toyed with her spoon, barely visible behind the veil of her hair.
At least someone had a good time last night, Grief thought grumpily.
"So...plans for today?" Sorrow asked, slicing her apple on the countertop.
The Riddler started chattering about some stupid tourist attraction, obviously glad to change the subject. Grief ignored him, staring into the opaque depths of his orange juice.
He obviously couldn't try asking the other two to help him persuade Sorrow to stay out of Gotham. He should have remembered earlier that the Riddler would probably rather cut off his own leg rather than give up battling wits with Batman. No, he'd have to think of something else...
Broadway at the Beach was a place that had everything. If you wanted to mini-golf under the eyes of a dragon, you could do it there - provided that you had planned your visit in nearly any month that wasn't February. If you wanted to put on your robe and wizard hat and fight the goblin king, you could do it there. If you wanted to lay on a bed of nails inside an upside-down building - why yes, you could do it there. Somebody had very carefully tried to pack something to please everybody inside of one circled highway.
It was one of the few places that the rogues hadn't fully explored in the three weeks that they'd been in Myrtle Beach. They strolled through the shopping area, peeking through dark windows and gated doors to see what lay on the other side. The restaurants, the only thing open at this time of night, sat in puddles of light, sound, and activity amidst the generally deserted boardwalks.
A diner in an outdoor cafe abandoned his meal and hurried up to them. "Hey. Nygma, right?" he greeted.
"No," Eddie denied instantly.
"But...oh. Right." The man fumbled in his pocket and drew out a card. The Club Kryptonite logo, in metallic green, gleamed at the top of the little rectangle of off-white paper. Underneath the logo, embossed in shiny silver, were three words: Sean Cole, Deliveries. "I saw you at the club a while back. I've got a package for you. Been there for years. You gonna be here long? I can go get it. Club K's just down the road a bit."
"Ah...sure," Eddie agreed.
"Great! Two seconds and I'll be back," he assured them, trotting off down the boardwalk. As promised, he returned almost inhumanly quickly, a small box tucked under his arm. Perhaps he had some sort of speed powers. It sounded like a good explanation to Eddie. After all, if your job involved delivering things to people who tended to shoot the messenger, it was probably a good idea to be able to get away from them as soon as you could. "Here you are," he offered, holding it out to them. The shoebox-sized package, wrapped in black paper, bore no identifying marks other than a question mark imprinted on it in green spangles.
"Thanks," Eddie said, gingerly taking it. The delivery man, not bothering to wait for a tip, hopped the fence back into the restaurant and resumed his dinner.
Eddie gently peeled the paper from the box. It wouldn't be the first time someone had attempted to kill him from a distance. He stuffed the paper in a nearby trash can and carefully opened the lid.
"So what's in the box?" Sorrow asked, peering over Jackie's shoulder.
"It's..." Eddie beamed. "My miniguns! I'd forgotten all about them!"
To anyone familiar with weaponry, the miniguns themselves seemed almost ludicrously disappointing. Instead of being traditional miniguns - ie, something with about the same weight and destructive capacity as a pair of toddlers - they were literally miniature guns, somewhat similar to itty-bitty double-barreled shotguns. Question marks curled decoratively around them like tiny golden snakes.
"What are they?" Jackie asked, curiously turning one over in her hands as Eddie strapped on the specially-made holster belt.
"They're little lasers," he said, slipping one into its holster. Its gold question mark of a handle rested brightly against his dark shirt. "They're strong enough to burn through bricks, but that's about it."
"And that's useful?"
"Useful enough," he shrugged. "Why use a sledgehammer where a rock will do?" He slid the other one into its holster, tucking his jacket down over the glinting question marks.
The four rogues wandered off, chatting amiably among themselves. Behind them, unnoticed, a red-gloved hand slipped into the trash can and removed the black paper. In the darkness behind a potted plant, a pair of clumsily masked eyes scowled at the glinting question mark.
It was a beautiful night. The moon glimmered gently on the surface of the lake, highlighting tiny wavelets as they bobbed toward the shore. Distant chatter from outdoor diners echoed softly.
The four rogues had found a nice little deck to relax on. True, the tables and chairs had been overturned and stacked for the winter, but that didn't matter. There was still a sturdy railing to lean on in order to take in the view. A long wooden bridge, starting at the center of the deck, stretched across the lake.
Eddie and Jackie stood together, resting their heads against each other. Beside them, Sorrow and Grief leaned over the railing, hands clasped, watching scraps of litter swirl in the current.
Eddie slipped his arm a little tighter around Jackie, smiling as she cuddled closer. Behind them, wood scraped on wood. The Riddler glanced over his shoulder to see a hunched form in a red cape disappearing abruptly behind the stacked furniture. With a roll of his eyes, he turned back to the lake. He wouldn't bother the others with this nonsense.
It was almost a shame that they had to go back to Gotham. This town was so nice and quiet, even with the annoying red-caped nuisance of an amateur hero lurking somewhere behind him. But the back of his brain was itching, seething, boiling over with riddles to be riddled and puzzles to be puzzled. He couldn't wait to get home and paint the town green.
Two men wandered to the far side of the railing, peering across the dark water to a distant fountain spraying from the lake's surface. "Excuse me," the taller one asked the person nearest to him, which happened to be the Riddler. "Do you know what time it is?"
Eddie glanced at his watch. "Nine-thirty."
"That's a nice watch," the stranger said, smiling. "Hand it over."
"I said hand it over." The two men stepped away from the railing. The short one held a short, heavy length of pipe in one hand. The taller one's fist glinted from the brass knuckles wrapped around his fingers.
As the realization hit him, Eddie almost laughed out loud. They were being mugged.
"Wallets too. Hurry up!"
Eddie slowly and carefully began to undo his watch. "Oh dear," he said pointedly toward the tipped-over table. "If only there was a hero here to rescue us."
"This ain't Metropolis," the tall one snapped.
"No one's here to save you," the short one added. "This town doesn't have heroes."
"I guess you're right," the Riddler sighed, holding his watch in one hand as he slipped the other into his back pocket. "A real hero would have been out here by now. Real heroes don't let people get mugged, you know. Oh, would you look at that - "
Grand Strand Man, in all his pouch-covered glory, eased himself out from behind the nest of stored furniture and dragged himself up to the muggers. "Who's the kid?" the tall one demanded of Eddie.
"I'm Grand Strand Man," Jimmy said sullenly. Then, choking on the words that he really didn't want to say, he growled "Leave them alone."
"Buzz off," suggested the short one.
Grand Strand Man leapt at the muggers, focusing his efforts on wrenching the pipe away from the short one. He managed to knock it out of the man's hands. It rolled over the edge of the deck into the water, where it immediately sank.
"You brat!" growled the tall one, snagging him by one pouch-covered strap and throwing him to the ground. The would-be hero scrambled to his feet just in time to put his face directly in the way of the short one's furious punch.
Grand Strand Man hit the boards with a painful-sounding thud. The tall one expressed just how happy he was to meet Jimmy by stomping hard onto his kidneys.
"Okay, okay," Eddie said, buckling his watch back onto his wrist. "I think he's had enough." Grand Strand Man, bloody-faced, curled into a tiny ball of pain on the slightly splintery wooden planks of the deck.
"Who asked you?" the tall one snarled. "Who do you think you are, anyway?"
Eddie smiled, lazily tucking his jacket back and placing his hands on his hips. Two question-marked weapons, newly revealed, glinted in the moonlight. "Riddle me this," he asked gleefully. "No one wants me, yet I have been given freely since the beginning of time. Your children don't know me and your fathers know me too do not seek me, yet you stand in my house. What am I?"
"A dead man," the tall one snapped, ignoring the riddle in favor of threats.
"Close! Very close indeed," Eddie smiled. With the flick of a wrist a little gun was in his hand. Golden question marks shimmered in the moonlight.
The short one was growing distinctly pale. "I think that's the Riddler," he whispered urgently to his companion.
"Don't be stupid!" The tall one examined Eddie. "He's not wearing green!"
"Yeah, but he's got those weapons..."
"They're probably just toys," sniffed the tall one.
Eddie obligingly aimed his weapon into the water and fired. A double ray of electric green light zipped out of the barrel of the tiny device. Deep below the surface of the lake, a ball of light glowed ominously for a moment, rising fast toward the air. The surface of the water churned and bubbled, exploding upward in a towering splash.
Hot rain spattered down around them. "Sorry to bother you, Mr. Riddler," the tall one stammered, stumbling over his trembling companion. "We'll just...get out of your way..." They took to their heels, racing across the deserted shopping area and disappearing.
"Did you know it did that?" Jackie demanded, looking at the minigun as if it might jump out of Eddie's hand and hold them hostage.
"I...think they may have upgraded their technology a little," Eddie said, gently tucking the device back into its holster.
Grief knelt by the fallen hero. "Do you need a hand?" he offered, pulling the cape off of Grand Strand Man.
The teenager shot to his feet, jerking away from Grief as if he might contract Supervillainitis from standing too close. "Don't touch me," he snarled. Blood from his broken nose dripped in a steady splut, splut onto his chest.
"You might want to put some ice on that," Eddie, veteran of many a broken nose, suggested.
"You might want to shut up!" Grand Strand Man glared furiously over his swelling nose. "Don't think that this changes anything," he growled. "You're still villains and I'm still going to arrest you. You'll see. You'll see!" He spun in place, cape flaring dramatically behind him, and stalked off across the long wooden bridge spanning the lake.
"Well," Eddie said, breaking the silence. "Anyone feel like dessert?"
All good things must come to an end. Of course, this means that all bad things must come to an end, as well, which is possibly the only thing that makes the slow march of time tolerable.
The end of the vacation loomed. When the suitcases were packed, the apartment was cleaned, and the car was loaded, the four rogues locked up and slid into the car for their final night on the town. They would go eat at the best, the fanciest, and the most expensive restaurant within the city limits: Milton Green's La Plage Grille. After that, they would travel back home, wrapped in the safety of the night. By the time they hit Gotham, the sun would be up and the Bats would be back in their belfries.
La Plage was everything that anyone could want in a restaurant. The chairs were plushly upholstered, the lighting was soft and dramatic, and the food...well! If heaven was a meal, it would have been served at La Plage on an elegant gold-trimmed plate.
Eddie and his companions were enjoying their meals, though enjoying seemed like a pale representation of the wonders exploding in their mouths. They laughed, talked, and did their best to act like normal citizens on a night out.
A lone man slid into a nearby table. Sorrow glanced over and stiffened in her seat. "I don't believe this," she hissed.
"What? What's wrong?" Grief asked, craning his neck to see.
"Take a guess," she growled. Eddie and Jackie turned just in time to see a pair of blackened eyes peering savagely at them from over the rim of a menu.
"He followed us here?" Jackie sighed, slumping into her chair. "How did he find us?"
Eddie's eyes narrowed. "I'll take care of it." He summoned a passing waiter. "We'd like to switch tables...somewhere away from that young man," he added, glancing in the badly-hidden Grand Strand Man's direction.
"I'll take care of it at once, sir. If you'll follow me -" The waiter obsequiously beckoned them to a far table, surrounded on all sides by smiling, chatting diners. As they settled into their new seats, a pair of waiters almost immediately delivered their plates and filled their water glasses.
"Waiter!" Everyone in the room turned to see the overly loud, roughly bruised teenager in the Goodwill suit jacket. "I want to move tables, too," he demanded when a waiter approached.
"Certainly, sir," a waiter soothed quietly. "There is a lovely table on the other side of the restaurant - "
"No!" interrupted the boy. "I want to sit by them." He pointed to the Riddler and company, who did their best to ignore him.
"I am afraid, young sir, that the tables in that area are already filled." The waiter gestured to the far wall. "I am certain that sir will find something suitable elsewhere."
"You don't understand! It's a matter of national security!"
Diners rustled uneasily, glaring genteely at the troublemaker in their midst. "Sir," the waiter said, with the patience of one making three hundred dollars an hour in tips, "I must ask you to lower your voice. You are disturbing the other patrons."
The boy glanced around, only now noticing the interest that his raised voice had drawn. All hope of subtlety was clearly lost. "Fine. Will you please seat me by them?" he asked in a murmur dripping with forced politeness.
"I am terribly sorry, sir, but as you can see, there are no tables in that area," the waiter said firmly. "If there is anything else I can do for you, be sure to let me know." He spun on his heel and strode away, moving nimbly between the tables.
The boy scowled. Then, with rage twisting his face and narrowing his blackened eyes, he stood up and pointed accusingly across the restaurant. "That man," he informed the entire dining room at a volume just below a shout, "is the Riddler. They're supervillains!"
The diners looked across the room. Eddie looked up from his steak and gave the room a quizzical glance. "Me?" he asked innocently.
Sorrow, her hands hidden behind long satin gloves, shook her head in false bemusement as Jackie stifled a giggle behind her well-manicured fingers. Grief, ignoring the situation, toyed miserably with a crescent of dinner roll.
"Don't try to deny it!" Jimmy snapped, flushing bright red as snickers erupted from around the room. Waiters flocked toward him like maids rushing to a dirty floor. "You're the Riddler, and she's Sorrow, and he's - get your hands off me!"
The maitre d, with a tight, pinched expression on his face, took Jimmy by the arm and adroitly propelled him through the restaurant. "We would appreciate it if you did not return," he said, loudly enough for the other patrons to hear.
"But you don't understand - they really are - you don't have to -" The door slammed shut on Jimmy's protests.
The maitre d skimmed lightly back to Eddie's table. "I am so sorry," he said. "Had we known that the young man would react so loudly - and mistaking you for supervillains!" The word tumbled out of the man's mouth as if his lips and tongue were unaccustomed to such syllables sharing each other's company. "I am deeply sorry. Please, allow us to cover the cost of your meal tonight."
"That would be fine," Eddie said, a bright smile pasted on his face.
The maitre d smiled politely in response, then retreated to the kitchen.
Eddie turned back to the table, setting his back firmly between the dining room and the small circle of rogues. "This ends tonight," he muttered.
Eddie's knife stabbed deep into his steak. "The only way it can end," he promised darkly.
A brisk, chilly wind breezed steadily past the door of the La Plage Grille, sweeping the scent of ocean salt and exquisite food into the city. The moon shone gently on the parking lot, twinkling off of side mirrors and chromed detail work. Something moved in the shadow of the ornamental bushes. Something red. Something thin. Something with vengeance on its mind.
The Riddler, Sorrow, Grief and Jackie stepped out of the restaurant, gracefully sidestepping the valet and moving down the sidewalk away from the bushes. They rounded the corner and disappeared.
A red blur, somewhat bruised, pelted out of the bushes after them. "Stop!" Grand Strand Man commanded, cape draped awkwardly over one arm. "You are under arrest!"
The rogues, as one, turned to face him. Eddie stepped forward. Something under his suit jacket briefly glinted golden in the moonlight. "Are we now," he said flatly. "And how do you intend to stop us?"
"With this!" Grand Strand Man drew his hand out from beneath his cape. A stun gun sparked at them, twin prongs hissing in the still air.
"Riddle me this," Eddie said, one hand slipping slowly toward his belt. "What demands an answer, but never asks a question?"
"A...um..." Grand Strand Man shook his head sharply. "Who cares?" he demanded. "I can take you down!" The stun gun fizzled menacingly at them.
Eddie tsked lightly and flicked something from a safe spot nestled in his belt. "The answer," he commented softly, "is a phone." Indeed, it was a phone - a phone painted all over with golden question marks. "Did you hear all of that?" he inquired toward the seemingly inert device.
"We did," came the reply. From a parked car across the street, one dark figure emerged and trotted up to the small group.
"A policeman!" exclaimed the would-be hero, tucking the stun gun back into a pouch. "A policeman. Really? You called the cops on yourself?"
"Oh, not on me," Eddie remarked, a vicious smile cutting into his face. "Officer?"
Lightning-fast, handcuffs ratcheted around Grand Strand Man's wrist. "What? No!" he yelped.
"You have the right to remain silent - "
"Why? What did I do?" he screeched.
"Stalking. Unlawful imprisonment. Disturbing the peace," the cop said with a shrug.
"What?" the boy gasped. "No. No, you don't understand! He's the Riddler!"
The cop looked carefully at Eddie, taking in the question-marked phone. "Nope," he said bluntly. "WHAT?" The kid fumbled in his pouch, twisting out of the way as the cop attempted to capture his other arm. "No, look, I pulled him up on WikiVillainy - that's him!" He held the phone out, begging for confirmation.
The cop peered at the tiny screen, at Eddie, and again at the tiny screen. Eddie obligingly made the same face that he was making in the digital picture. The cop examined both again. "Nope," he repeated. "I don't see it."
"WHAT?" the boy screeched. "You have to see it - he's the Riddler! He is! He - hey!"
The cop wrenched the would-be hero's arms behind his back and clicked the cuffs closed. His phone dropped to the ground. "My phone! My mom's gonna kill me," he wailed, trying to bend over and retrieve the lightly damaged device.
The cop scooped it up and slid it into his pocket. "Oh, I'm sure your mom will have other things to worry her," he commented. He nodded politely to the group of rogues. "Evening, folks."
"Evening," they chorused back. "Thanks for your trouble," the Riddler added.
The policeman grinned in response. He obviously knew the Riddler for who he was, and just as obviously was willing to be paid large amounts of money to pretend that he didn't. Of course, no law-abiding cop would have taken the bribe, which is why he certainly and in no way had a fat bundle of hundreds tucked in the pocket over his heart. "Come on, kid," he said, hustling him toward the unmarked car and tucking him into the backseat.
"But I'm the hero!" the boy wailed as the door slammed shut.
One week later
Eddie and Jackie had settled back into their Gotham lives with relative ease. On their return, Eddie had curled up for several hours with a selection of notebooks, checking and cross-checking riddles and their targets for maximum profit and incomprehensibility. After all, the next heist would be Jackie's first - and the first time had to be special.
Jimmy Velasquez could attest to that. He'd attended his first special booking session, slept in his first very special jail cell, and been to his very first super-special and completely humiliating criminal hearing. He scowled in the backseat of his mother's van as she silently drove him home. If only the cop hadn't been so stupid! If only the world wasn't so stupid! If only the Riddler had never shown his stupid face around his town!
Jimmy's fists clenched tightly. He was going to get even with the Riddler for this. Oh, yes. And as soon as he was done with his community service he'd find the perfect way to get back at that arrogant son-of-a-bitch. And he knew just the way to do it...
Author's Note: Milton Green survived his brush with the Joker and Harley and moved to Myrtle Beach! Good for him.
I want to thank all of you that review for your kind words. I'd also like to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to leave reviews with every author that writes something that you enjoy. Positive reviews are basically the only way that authors around here know that you're enjoying yourself. Tell them what you liked and why you liked it, and they'll probably try to give you more of the same!
There will be more Eddie and Jackie, but I'm giving them a break for a little while. Stay tuned for my next story, "Go for Broke", in which Arkham Asylum's residents are in a whole new kind of trouble. See you next time!