December 24th. Thursday Night. 10:30 pm. Across Gotham, children were in their beds, eagerly awaiting Christmas morning; cookies were laid out beside their Christmas Trees, stockings were hung up along their fireplaces and grey clouds cast down perfect, white snowflakes onto their roofs.
The Misfits sat around the table, toasting their absent friends with mugs of boozy eggnog. Though Sharpe had initially struggled to win back Ito’s trust after they had freed Dekker from his dungeons, their relationship had been mended with a ‘brand-new’ teapot Sharpe had covertly liberated from an Englishman’s larder. Gar, stopped by Clair’s residence, to hand over a stack of poorly wrapped presents, and left unsure if Clair was feeling festive enough to hand over the DVD boxset he had intended to gift Jenna. Bridget, nodded politely along to the Misfit’s banter, thinking of her uncle’s empty apartment, still furnished with the decorations she had placed in the vain hope that she might have been able to celebrate the holiday with her father.
Batman had shed his police officer disguise, but remained at the GCPD, keeping watch over the prisoners. The impending snowstorms had made the prospect of transferring them to a more secure location impossible. His Knights stood watch over several key locations around the city; Nightwing and Red Hood were positioned on a rooftop overlooking the GCPD itself, Red Robin and Spoiler surveyed the dockyards, taking keen interest in the Tiger Shark’s penthouse while Robin and Batgirl observed the ISA headquarters from a rocky outcrop nearby.
Posted on the bridge opposite the Asylum, Needham’s eyes squinted. It was currently rather difficult for him to think, what, with the constant scratching sounds on his left: Azrael, was tonight’s chaperone, the one-time Caped Crusader and the long-time enforcer of the will of the Sacred Order of Saint Dumas, a secret order that had sworn righteous judgement on all criminals and heretics. For the last five minutes, he had been enforcing their will through an attack on Eric Needham’s hearing, grinding his blade against the stone balcony to sharpen it, whispering a hymn as he did so.
Elsewhere, exhausted parents sat down in front of their TVs: The 10 o’clock news had just finished broadcasting, and the latest instalment of Jack Ryder’s late night talkshow was up next. Ryder, mug of cocoa in hand, was dressed in a padded Santa suit, with fluffy fur lining around the wrists.
"To all of you folks just tuning in, stay right there. We’ve got an extra special show for you all! Later tonight, we’ll be joined by fashion guru Mari McCabe, and we’ll have music by- by-"
An ear-piercing noise burst through the speakers. Ryder winced, as he put his finger to his headset.
"I’m very sorry, folks, but there appears to be some kind of issue with the equipment, we’ll try to resolve that immediately," Ryder pledged.
As they walked through the hallway together, Batman and the Commissioner came to a stop outside the breakroom, their eyes fixed to the TV.
"Some kinda issue with the audio," one of the cops inside was muttering to his friend.
"Well, it better not get pulled, this show’s been the only thing that’s gotten me through this rotten week."
"It could be that the snow knocked an antenna loose," Gordon suggested.
"Could be," Batman frowned, rejecting his friend’s optimism.
Ryder’s voice was crackling now, as the screen turned to static. "Huh. We seem to be losing our signal… That’s weird. Bear with us for a few minutes, my team and I will be working hard to give you another thrilling show of ‘You Don’t Know Jack!’"
"tesssssting… tesssssting…" a different voice rasped, separate from the noises of Ryder’s show. The feed cut to a lush green forest, or rather, a crude replica of one; the tree trunks were cardboard, the bushes were painted, and the blue sky was a creased shower curtain.
"Turn that up," Batman ordered the cops as he entered the breakroom. A mistake that their ears would pay for:
"GOOOOOOOD MORNING VIETNAM!" the voice boomed, as the camera panned out to reveal a familiar, pale man, dressed like an American G.I. "King Cong here with an extra special all points bullet-in! I know how you all like to be kept informed on matters of strife and death!" the man grinned, lowering his pair of sunglasses to reveal his manic green eyes.
"Drum roll please!"
The camera panned out further still, as The Joker pattered his palms across a cylindrical metal drum. But Batman’s eyes were instead drawn to a small watermark on the corner of the screen: Bowman Consolidated.
"Tah Dah! It’s the Cloudburst! Well, the fun size variety. Parps out gas faster than the Penguin on Taco Tuesday! Funny the kind of goodies STAR Labs just leaves lying around, isn’t it? I would have been happy with milk and cookies.
Now, what kind of gas, I hear you ask? Dunno! I just filled the tank with a chemical cocktail and two teaspoons of lemon curd! I suppose we’ll find out together!
And if you want to stop it, Batsy, ’cause I know you’re watching, you little TV addict, then you’d better grab your Batreindeers and Batsled and get your Bat-Ass moving! Heh.
After all, I’m a Ryde or Dye kinda clown, so you can be absolutely sure I’m not bluffing. Of course, I also have a reputation as a general mirthster and prankmaster extraordinaire, so perhaps I am! What do you have to lose? Oh, right, the city. Heh. Toodles!"
"I have to find that bomb, Jim."
"You know it’s a trap," Gordon advised him, as he removed his glasses and wiped them with a piece of cloth. As he put them back on, he turned to his right, and smiled thinly.
"Hm. Of course, you do… Just like I knew you’d be gone by the time I put these damn things back on."
Batman entered the Batmobile, then inserted a cable from his gauntlet into the USB port below the monitor. "I take it you saw it?"
"The watermark? What do you take me for, Baffler? First thing I noticed," Oracle’s voice replied, her green avatar lighting up the screen.
"Good, then I hope you have something for me. What do we know about Bowman Consolidated?"
"Alright… Founded on March 15th, 2002, by Louis Bowman, it’s a tech company, based in Connecticut."
"And Bowman himself?"
"He’s a recluse. No public appearances, nothing."
"So, he’s a ghost," Bruce said grimly.
"No. I know a forgery when I see one. But everything checks out, Bruce. I’ve got his birth certificate, marriage certificate, property deeds; he’s got a mansion just outside of Metropolis. Seems like a lot of work for a shell company."
"Look, I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not Billings. Maybe it’s not even Joker. Is it really too much of a reach to say they just… stole Bowman’s gear to make their broadcast? Did Joker even take the aftereffects course?"
"There aren’t any coincidences with him, if he let me see it, it’s because he wanted me to," Bruce answered, steadfast in his assertion. "I need you to send the Batwing over here, navigate a flight plan to Metropolis,"
"You’re leaving tonight? Now? With everything that’s going on-"
"If this is what I think it is, then it’s our best way of finding the Cloudburst."
Dick was perched on the edge of the rooftop, watching the yellow glow of the Batsignal break through the grey skies. "Bruce, Dick here. Babs filled us in, you need us to help find this thing?"
"Negative, Nightwing. No one leaves their posts, understand?"
"Yeah, because that’s been working out great, so far. What, did Az put Spider to sleep with scripture? Joker got past them no problem," Jason folded his arms.
Bruce sighed. "I heard that, Jason. I’m chasing up a new lead. In case I’m not back in time, I’m sending each of you instructions on how to defuse the Cloudburst. If worse comes to wear, it’s up to you."
"Yeah? And how’ll we know when that is?" Jason asked pointedly.
Bruce answered hesitantly. "I’ll be dead."
Dick pursed his lips. "Well, there’s the Christmas Spirit we’ve all been missing."
Jason sighed and leaned his back against the fire escape.
A scraping sound broke the temporary silence, an ear-splitting screech of metal on concrete. Jason was the first to investigate, holding his pistol in front of him as he stepped behind the plastic tarp. The noise had subsided now, but his eyes were drawn to the source; a discarded, rusted crowbar, covered in dried blood, its’ edges lightly charred by an explosion of some kind. He shook slightly as he knelt beside it, and though he came close, he couldn’t bring himself to touch it.
An additional clattering came from the other side of the roof, quieter than the crowbar had been. This time, Dick checked it out. As he walked towards the fire escape, he froze: An orange and black domino mask had been placed on the top of the ladder, alongside two silver sai. "Jay, I think something screwy’s going on here," he called back to his brother.
"You think?" Jason called back to him sarcastically, as the two turned their attention to a new challenger, a thin man dressed in a red and black costume with a matching cape and a golden mask.
The interloper raised his hand in the air and waved at them cordially. "Oh, hello! How lovely to see you!"
His opponents drew their weapons. "Don’t take another step," Jason barked. His gun trembled, just slightly but enough for Dick to notice.
"Jay, it’s ok," he whispered. "He’s not here. He can’t hurt you now."
Hayden stopped walking, and looked down at his shoes, like a child who had just been caught scribbling on the walls. "Oh. Alright," he obliged to Jason’s request. "Did I do something wrong? Was it the presents?"
"Well, you could have wrapped them better," Dick joked, but there was a lack of confidence in his voice.
Beneath his mask, Hayden smiled sweetly. "I’ll take notes for next year," he pledged, as he continued his approach.
"I said you’re fine right where you are, Goldeneye," Jason warned.
"But you’re anything but!" Hayden protested. "It’s not me you’re angry at, not really. Yourself, yes. The Joker, certainly. And of course, the family who let you die."
"Don’t listen to him-" Dick interjected.
"Tsk, tsk. Still won’t let you think for yourself, will he? Older siblings are always such a bore… Always casting their shadows over your achievements. Always father’s favourite, hm? Not your real father though. He couldn’t be bothered with you. Your mother practically guided you into your grave herself… Family. Who needs family. It’s a fa-arce. A concept built to stop one another from tearing out each other’s throats for the sake of blood or kinship. But you understand, don’t you? You’re not The Red Hood, not really. You’re the Black Sheep. Because you see through the lies, don’t you? Not like him, he’s still telling himself the same old fantasy. ‘Justice not Vengeance.’ But the truth is, you want to kill each other. You want to rip each other apart. Why wouldn’t you? Why haven’t you? Because you’ve been told not to. By Daddy. But Daddy’s gone away now. So, I am here, to tell you yes. It’s alright, it’s ok, it’s what you deserve, it’s what he deserves. Kill him."
"Hood…" Dick watched as Jason’s hand rested on the handle of his handgun.
Jason’s mouth was dry. "He’s right," he answered with a voice that wasn’t truly his own. "Why shouldn’t I kill you?"
=Arkham Asylum. The Night Before=
Billings joined Crane on the grounds, two glasses and a bottle of champagne in hand. He offered one to Scarecrow, who immediately flapped his hand away dismissively. Unoffended, Billings popped the cork off and simply drank both glasses himself. "This is really it, isn’t it?" he asked his associate. His voice wavered slightly, which did not go unnoticed by Crane.
"Do I detect doubt in your tone, Mr Billings? In this critical stage?" Crane pondered, his one good eye scanning the man’s face for any sign of weakness.
Billings’ eyes widened as the ramifications of what such a betrayal would bring played vividly in his mind. "No, no. Not me," he spoke, perhaps a little too quickly. Now he was chugging the champagne straight from the bottle. "Never. I think this is great. All of this."
Crane leaned back in his chair, an irritated grimace on his face. "Your sycophantic mewling is not endearing. It is exhausting. I am in no hurry to report your misgivings to the clown or the speedster, so if you have reservations, I suggest you share them. Now."
Billings scratched the back of neck, peeling off clumps of dead skin. "No! No, really, it’s nothing like that, I’m onboard 100%. However! and this is not a criticism of you persay, or at all, but this stuff, with the Bats, I mean, it’s ugly. Personal. And the only way you could know this shit, if you know know them."
Beneath his burlap, Crane smiled. The first sociopathic grin in months. "Once Two-Face divulged to me the secrets behind that cowl, identifying the Batman’s brood was child’s play. The acrobat, the runaway, the prodigy, the offspring… The daughters of assassins, policemen and overcompensating criminals. Yes, I know them well.
He gives them shelter and they serve him faithfully, like good little boys and girls… But their loyalty is a failing of its’ own.
The Batman has coddled them, filled their heads with false purpose. Always there to catch them when they fall and drape his cape around their shoulders like a security blanket. But this is Gotham. There is no security. There is no safety. There is no refuge from the horrors that dwell in every corner of this damned city. Too long have they patrolled our rooftops with unearned confidence. Too long have they disrespected us and mocked us as though they are any better, in their pixie boots and masks. The clown wants them distracted. I want them unnerved. Off center. And above all else, I want the children of the Batman to be afraid."
Blam. Blam. Blam.
Gunfire lit up the rooftop, discarded bullet casings littered the floor. Dick flipped back and forth across the roof, dodging Jason’s bullets as best as he could without hurting his brother. Jason, on the other hand, was not feeling particularly sentimental. He unhooked a grenade from his belt and hurled it Dick’s way, blasting him off the roof; Dick extended his escrima sticks into a staff as he fell, hooking into the narrow gaps between the buildings; he used his momentum to flip up into the air, and then threw his baton at an air-con unit. The baton bounced off the sides, and struck Jason in the side of his head, cracking his crimson mask.
"You never trusted me! The Pirate’s right! I was always the black sheep to you! To all of you!" Jason yelled, continuing to fire off rounds.
"Yeah, well, the bullets aren’t doing a whole lot to dispel that feeling. Snap out of it, Jay, this is what Joker wants!"
Sitting atop the roof access’ roof (how he accessed that, was anyone’s guess), his legs hanging over the doorway, Hayden tittered. "I could watch you two forever! But there’s a lot of little boys and girls on Santa’s list tonight, and they all need a gentle sprinkling of Christmas cheer."
There was a fleeting burst of lightning, and then the Pirate was gone.
Even with the chaos of the night’s broadcast, the desk sergeant didn’t seem to be particularly worried, on one monitor, he was playing online poker, on the other he was ordering a pair of diamond earrings for his wife with money he had not yet won. His attention focused squarely on the screens, he barely heard the sound of a man entering the precinct and ringing a bicycle bell for his services.
"Yeah?" the sergeant asked disinterestedly.
“I believe the Commissioner was looking for me," the man replied.
“Hn. Name? The desk sergeant, not looking up from their monitors.
“Kerr. Joe Kerr," the man answered.
“Funny," he chuckled under his breath, as he slid a clipboard over to the visitor. "That almost sounds like… Joker."
The sergeant finally looked up, and was met with the haunting white-faced, grinning visage that had been plastered onto every notice board and wanted poster in the station.
The sergeant tumbled off their chair in shock, his face almost as white as the clown’s, then he screamed into their walkie talkie. "Code Purple! Code Purple!"
"Code Purple?" Joker blew a raspberry. "Tell Jimbo I’m flattered! What’s Scarecrow? Code Brown? Oh, as if that poor man hasn’t suffered enough, tsk tsk."
The thundering of footsteps from every direction filled the air as the entire force of the GCPD mobilised towards the reception and leading the charge, was ‘Jimbo’ himself.
"Oh, there you are!" Joker clasped his hands together. "I’d like to register a formal complaint."
"Keep your guns trained on him," Gordon spoke calmly.
The youngest of the cops there, who had unfortunately ended up the closest to the Joker, shuddered nervously. "But- But, sir-"
"Don’t waver, Wilkins, he’s just a man. Flesh and blood," Gordon reassured him.
"But… But I heard… I mean, they say he can’t die."
"C’mon, that’s a loada bull!" Bullock derided the young man.
"And you oughta know, ya big hunka beef!" Joker giggled, delighted by the disorder he’d caused with his mere presence.
"He’s b-been fed to sharks, electrocuted, f-fallen off buildings, washed out to sea… One of our own s-shot him in the face, remember? Bullet went through his jaw and came out his forehead. But he always returns."
"It’s true! It’s one of my many hidden superpowers! That and my inability to tan!"
“What do you want?” Gordon asked sternly, his arm was the steadiest of anyone’s in the room. His history with the Joker the bloodiest of anyone’s in the room. And his resolve was the strongest.
Joker’s face scrunched up as though he was having to think long and hard about his answer, and then it came to him. “That’s easy. Cuba! Actually, given the choice, I’ll take an island the size of Cuba, but without the complicated political and socio-economic factors. But I suppose I could settle for, say… Drury Walker?”