"Awwwww." The Joker made an exaggerated pouty face. "Poor little Nightiewing. So lost, so troubled... so stupid! REALLY! Getting tricked by Mud-face? Sorry, but even I wouldn't fall for that oozing blob of putty."
Nightwing glared at Joker and said nothing.
"Uh-oh, he's planning something, boss," Harley Quinn said. "I've seen that look before!"
"I'm sure he is, Harley-pie. But he'll be too dead for it to make any difference! KIDDIES! You've heard both sides of the story and all the crazy kicks in between. Let's put it to a nice, fair, Democratic vote!"
"Not so fast, Joker," came Pamela Isley's sultry voice. "I don't think Nightwing here finished his story."
"Oh, come on, Pammy, don't start now," the Joker said. "You already passed on the chance to shoehorn your own backstory in here. We're voting!"
"Yeah!" Killer Croc added, and then, "Wait, who's the candidates?"
"It doesn't matter," Nygma said. "Vote for the Joker."
"Trust me on this."
"No, no, no," Pamela Isley said, stepping in close to the Joker. "I don't think you understand. The bird-boy's story isn't finished. We don't know who brought him to Arkham."
"Aw, Red, don't be a stick in the mud," Harley said. "It was Mistah J, of course!"
"Really? Now isn't that funny," mused Isley. "I didn't think 'Mistah J' knew that much about chemicals. Besides the fact they don't make for good bathwater, I mean."
Joker ground his teeth and glared at the beautiful villainess.
"Now I, on the other hand- I'm a scientist, not a mass murderer," Poison Ivy said. She smiled sweetly at the Joker. "Admit it, darling. You're trying to take credit for someone else's handiwork. I can't really say I'm surprised- men have been doing it to women for centuries."
"Rrrrr! She's LYING!" shouted the Joker. "You blathering little idiot! I never gave that walking tub of Silly Putty a cure! The chemicals were just supposed to make Dicky bird crazy enough for admittance so he'd wind up in here! I planned this, I planned all of it, and I'll be wet-willied before I see someone else take credit!"
There was a moment of silence. In the corner, Nightwing smiled grimly. Poison Ivy took a step towards Joker, who grinned back maliciously. Then Ivy's eyes closed...
...and reopened to nightmarish yellow orbs. Joker's grin froze.
"Funny you should mention that," growled Poison Ivy, her voice wavering between sultry femininity and a guttural rasp. "The vigilante suggested as much on the ride over."
"Red!" gasped Harley. "You're not lookin' yourself!"
"I wouldn't worry about 'Red,'" Poison Ivy said. A long crack ran down her face, and dirty yellow clay burst out. "She was more than happy to get a free pass out after I hit the lights. And, hey, what can I say? She's got good taste- call me if you ever get bored, toots."
"Hey! Nobody talks that way to my girl, except me!" the Joker snapped. "All right, Mud-for-brains, I admit it. I fooled you into-"
He was interrupted by a huge clay hand to the torso. In the corner, Nightwing leaped up and sprang over Harvey Dent. The two-faced villain let out a startled gargle of rage and lunged at him. Nightwing cartwheeled out of the way, and Two-Face careened into the Ventriloquist. Meanwhile, the Joker alternated bouts of psychotic laughter with shocking Clayface with the guard's flashlight. It was utter chaos.
"Noooo! Hang on, Puddin', I'm comin'!" howled Harley Quinn.
"He's getting away! Everyone, stop the vigilante!" Two-Face roared.
"He ain't gettin' away from me!" Croc bellowed, and charged after Nightwing.
But some had other ideas.
"Shut up, Dummy, ya wanna get pounded again? Leave th' birdie alone; let's get outta here!"
"For once, I believe the puppet has the right idea," Nigma announced to no one in particular. "I believe they say: those who leave the Joker and Clayface to fight it out, and run while Two-Face is strangling Nightwing, live to riddle another day."
"That's not how the rhyme goes," rasped Scarecrow.
Nigma shrugged and dodged a flying clay hammer.
As if by agreement, the two villains ran to the nearest window and began working on the laughably insecure security lock. Meanwhile, Nightwing had taken down Croc and was currently sparring blows with Harvey Dent, and Clayface was beginning to be angry.
Every time he got near the Joker, the clown shocked him, with a flashlight! The electricity didn't have much effect on him, but it felt a bit like being a wet person being shocked with a Taser while standing in shallow water, except that the water was the Clayface's body and the toaster was his brain. And the clown never stopped laughing! Never! Behind him, he say Nightwing go flying across the room and land hard on Harley Quinn. That gave him an idea. Why let the Joker keep shocking him when the monster clown could waste his battery on the harlequin? A tendril of clay snaked out towards Quinn-
and was immediately severed by a well-thrown Batarang. Or Nightwing-a-rang. Wingarang? Clayface would have stopped to ponder the name, but-
"RRRRAAAAH! Joker, I will KILL YOU!"
Clayface hurled himself at Joker, enveloping the grinning villain despite the flashlight's sting. Amazing what you can do when you're angry.
Croc was out for the count, and he'd just knocked out Two-Face with the Ventriloquist's puppet. Two birds with one stone; Harvey should be pleased, or at at least mollified. Nightwing cuffed Quinn and quickly scanned the room for the others. Riddler and Scarecrow were gone, probably trying to escape, the Ventriloquist was hiding under a table, Dent was groaning softly and holding his head. That only left-
BAM! Something hard slammed into Nightwing's head from behind, and he briefly saw stars.
"Off with his head!" shouted the Mad Hatter. "Off with his head!"
Oh, brother. His head still ringing like a bell, Nightwing turned slowly and immediately realized why no guards had sounded the alarm yet. Apparently, Jervis Tetch had been saving some of his hat-cards for a special occasion.
Aaron Cash stepped forward, vacant-eyed, and took a swing at him. Nightwing dodged it- barely- and tossed a smoke pellet in front of the brainwashed guard. Two more guards rushed up, reaching for their weapons-
A black-gloved hand grabbed one and pulled him out of sight. Nightwing smiled and knocked the hat-card from Cash's head. Bruce had come through, just like he promised. The second mindcontrolled guard rushed up, and Nightwing quickly knocked his gun aside and snatched the chip from his hat.
Batman walked up, carrying the Mad Hatter by the collar.
"What took you so long?" Nightwing said, rubbing his head.
"Isley." Batman dropped his captive, and the Mad Hatter crumpled to a heap on the floor. "But you seemed to manage pretty well on your own. Except for the Joker."
"Clayface is about to suffocate him," Batman said. He reached for his utility belt, grabbed a handful of ice pellets, and tossed them into the back of the shapeshifting villain. There was a dull flash, a long NOOOOOO from Clayface, and...
"Brrrr! I've got to hand it to you, Bats, that was cold! Say, anybody got a blanket? I could really go for a snuggle by the fire with a cup of hot chocolate and those little marshmallows, just you and me-"
"And that's a bad thing?" Nightwing called, looking at the half-frozen Joker with disgust.
Nightwing knelt on the roof of Arkham Asylum, watching the whirl of police lights and listening to the muted chatter from the crowd. Crane and Nigma were still at large, but they'd set up a perimeter five miles from the asylum. The two villains couldn't get far. A few ambulances were on their way to pick up the victims of Isley's failed escape attempt and re-set Killer Croc's fractured collarbone. Clayface was temporarily sharing a cell with Victor Fries while the asylum administration worked on freeing the Joker. All in all, it was a good night's work.
He felt a soft puff of air on his neck and knew, without turning, that he wasn't alone.
"You've got to quit sneaking up on people like that," Nightwing said. "It loses its effectiveness after the five hundredth time."
"Five hundredth and eight-first time," came Batman's deep voice. Nightwing turned, a little incredulous.
"Seriously? You keep count?"
Nightwing shook his head.
"You had me worried for a moment there."
There was a moment of silence.
"Hey, Bru- Batman, can I ask you something?" Nightwing said.
"Is it about what the Joker said? That I'm crazy, paranoid, destined to end up sharing a cell with him?"
Nightwing turned, startled.
"How'd you know? You weren't even there. But yeah... it is. Don't get me wrong. It's just sometimes, well, we see the plans and the backup plans and the backup backup plans. The files you keep on people, for instance. Like when you had that blackmail stuff on Luthor's accountant. And I know you keep Kryptonite in the Batcave. It just... makes people wonder. I wouldn't be surprised if you had a plan for neutralizing me if I went evil. Don't tell me, I don't want to know. But... do you even trust anyone?"
Batman took a step forward, his shadow suddenly much longer and darker.
"I trust you. Barbara. Alfred. Leslie. Clark, to some extent. But you have to understand, Dick. Preparation is everything. Here, in Gotham, there are no second chances."
"I tend to disagree," Dick said.
"Think about it. How do you even know my plans exist? The files, because they were used to save a city from a homicidal madman. The Kryptonite, used to stop my friend- my friend- from a mind-controlled rampage. The double identities, backup plans, contingencies for contingencies- you only know of their existence because they were necessary. That's not paranoia, that's being prepared."
"The Joker knows about it," retorted Dick. "How does he know about it, huh?"
"Because he's a madman, and because he wanted to hurt you," returned Batman. "And because that's what he does. The Joker is obsessed with me, with pushing me to the edge. It is inevitable that we glimpse each other's minds as we pass."
Nightwing frowned and looked back down, over the edge. Below, two police officers were returning with a lanky prisoner in Arkham grey. They had him almost to the Asylum gate when white smoke began billowing out of his sleeves. The officers fell down, coughing and screaming, and Scarecrow broke free and fled.
"And as for how I knew what he said," Batman continued, "remember, I've spent some time in Arkham myself. I've heard it all before, and it's nothing but a bad joke."
"Yeah?" Nightwing said. "Look, Bruce- thanks. For showing up. And... I guess-"
He turned back, fully expecting to see an empty moonlit roof, but the Caped Crusader was still there.
"Well?" he said.
Dick laughed and shook his head.
"You usually just disappear about now," he said. "Ah well. First time for everything. Want to help me catch Scarecrow?"
"Help you? Since when do you need help?"
Two grappling hooks shot off into the darkness together.
"I don't need help, I'm just fine on my own! Why don't you go chase the Riddler?"
"Well, if you don't think you can handle Crane on your own..."
"Gah! Fine! We'll do it together."
Overhead, the full moon shone bright and clear as two figures swung down from the asylum roof, their dark silhouettes moving in tandem as they landed outside the iron gate.
"Fine by me. Just make sure you can keep up."
"Me, keep up? You're the one who's going to have trouble keeping up, old-timer!... Er, which way do you think they went?"
And there it is, the end of the story! Thanks so much to the reviewers, and many apologies for the late review. I blame Debussy (major, major concert this week). Anyway, hope you all enjoyed it.