She hissed, a low unhappy sound as she spotted the unmoving form crumpled on the filthy floor. Finding the nearest exit would have been a very prudent move. Joker was on a rampage, more vicious than anyone had ever seen him. Mass murdering psychotic clown on the loose who was hell bent on starting his own personal Armageddon … Yes, getting the hell out of Dodge – or Gotham - would be a very wise idea indeed. Just because one had nine lives was no reason to waste them frivolously.
But the saying tells us that curiosity killed the cat. It was clichéd, but there was more than a kernel of truth in it. Catlike as ever, she made almost no noise slinking through the shadows, across the cold, dirty concrete splattered with fresh blood.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. No one was supposed to get hurt, least of all him. Of course, I learned long ago that coulda woulda shoulda and fifty cents would buy you a saucer of cream at Vinnie's.
Crouching next to him, I know without touching him that he's still alive. My hand stops before I actually make contact. Maybe I shouldn't touch him. There isn't any visible flesh that isn't bruised, beaten or scraped in some way. While I hesitate, he makes this pitiful groaning noise, but doesn't seem to have the energy to move. That's probably for the best, moving would only cause him more pain.
More pain. I really don't know if he could be in more pain. It's dark, but one of the joys of being meta-human is excellent night vision. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the compound fracture of his lower left leg. I don't bother looking at it. What good would it do? I can't fix it. I can smell the infection eating through his body. I can't take it back. I can't undo anything …
Bile rises in my throat and I turn away as I fight to contain a dry heave. I crouch there, panting, trying to get myself under control. I'm being a wimp and I hate it. Soft. I can't afford to be soft. So he's hurt. So he'll probably die. It's not my problem.
Not your problem, but definitely your doing.
I snarl impotently, knowing it won't silence the voice purring inside my skull. The Cat doesn't lie. She doesn't gloss things over. You did this, She says. You betrayed him. You betrayed both of them.
No, I snap. I did the job I was paid to do. Information. His blood isn't on my hands.
I'm not able to stop myself from looking at my gloved hands, despite my protestations. Of course they're free of blood. Of course his body wasn't actually ripped apart by my hands. But it doesn't make me feel any less responsible and inside my head, She laughs.
You never were innocent, Selina. You may not have clawed his flesh yourself, but you knew. You knew. Providing Joker with information about Nightwing. You knew what he would do –
I didn't! I rage with the ire of those who so desperately want to delude themselves. I'm a thief, not a murderer. I wouldn't tear up a kid for fun.
Fun? She purrs. No. Not fun. But the second best. Money. And safety. You gave the Joker Nightwing's head on a platter to further your own ends. Does your money keep you warm now, Selina? Does it make you less of a whore because you gave him this boy's flesh rather than your own?
At least She doesn't gloat when She wins an argument. I look down at this boy's flesh. He tries so hard to be a man, so hard to scramble out of Daddy's shadow. I know that Nightwing knew in advance what was going down. I know he had warning that Joker was after him, that it was a trap. I know because I made sure he knew. He shouldn't have tried to take care of it by himself. He should have called for help. Nightwing may have had his issues with Daddy, but Bats wouldn't have hesitated for a second. He would have protected his own.
You could have warned Him, Selina. You could have told Him that the Joker was going to kill another one of his boys. You could have stopped this.
Bruce Wayne stared into the box sitting on his desk with a sort of catatonic detachment. He was a scientist, a detective. He should be methodical, reasonable, meticulous. He should take the sample and test it against his databases. He should confirm …
… what he already knew. That the fingers resting on the crumpled tissue paper once belonged to Dick Grayson. The pen in his grip cracked in two, bringing his attention to the fact that he was clenching his fists so tightly his knuckles were bloodless. He closed his eyes, fighting for control. Rage had its place, but this was not it. Right now, he needed to be calm, to use his head. He needed to be centered and focused.
He opened his eyes and looked once again into the box. As his eyes clinically appraised the evidence, his jaw muscles twitched painfully. He didn’t need a scientific analysis to tell him that the necrosis on this flesh was too pronounced. Dead. This flesh had been dead a very long time.
I’m here again, torturing myself with his pain. I’m not looking at him. I can’t. I sit in the corner, letting the coldness of the concrete seep through my leathers and into my flesh and bones. I’ve been here for two hours and it feels like an eternity. He’s been here for two weeks. I wonder what it feels like to him.
He doesn’t move. He doesn’t even grunt in pain when they slice into him. He hasn’t made a sound in days. He’s still alive. The wounds from where they cut off parts of his body still ooze and seep. I hope he’s delirious. I hope he’s in a place where pain can’t find him.
And then I remember who he is. The Man Wonder, all grown up. No doubt Bats taught him all sorts of meditation tricks to keep him focused, to keep the fog at bay. If he could have foreseen this, he wouldn’t have bothered.
Days. The test results indicated that the tissue had been dead for days. The Joker would know he knew this. What was the point? Was the psycho simply going to carve up his son's dead body piece by painstaking piece and send it to him in brightly colored boxes?
What was the point?
If Dick was dead, then there was no reason to negotiate, no reason to not storm in there and punch Joker's face through the back of his frizzy green head. That was all that stood in the way; the one enormous if.
Every signal pointed to Dick's death. It told him that the Joker was only toying with him, taunting him. But he couldn't afford to take that chance, not until he knew his son was dead. He needed the scientific evidence even when his heart already knew the truth.
Batman lost this war.
Morris Technologies. It’s not Cartier’s. Hell, it’s not even Zales and Catwoman wouldn’t be caught dead at Zales.
So what are you doing here?
I ignore Her. She knows what we’re doing here. She can act all high and mighty, but in the end she is just as attached to our skin as I am. The Joker says jump, the smart ones ask how high. You could never accuse me of being stupid. Morris Technologies is how high I have to jump tonight. I fully intend to land on my feet.
Joker wants some gadget. I’ll play fetch like a good little kitty. The thing retails for close to six figures. On the black market I could get an easy seventy-five grand. If I’m lucky, I’ll walk away with enough cash to make the mortgage payment on my penthouse and all my whiskers in tact. Sometimes a deal doesn’t seem too good until you take a look at the alternatives. My particular alternative was lying on the floor of the abandoned Ajax Chemicals warehouse in a pool of his own bodily fluids. There’s something to be said for paying the mortgage.
It says you’re a coward.
I don’t even hesitate as I slip the weighty cylinder into my tools pouch. Not so long ago a six figure piece of computer equipment would have taken up a gymnasium and weighed more than the Statue of Liberty. Today it fits in my pocket. Hooray for technology. Now if they could just make it pretty I might start stealing this stuff for myself.
And that is all that matters, right Selina? Yourself. Never mind the boy slowly dying in that warehouse. Never mind that he’s there because of you.
She's right. I know and She knows it. I stand on the rooftop, blindly watching my city, the Joker's prize forgotten. I was there when he was just a boy. I used to think it was cute when he would try and quip while pretending not to be checking me out. Who could blame him? Hormones at his age made ogling the chick in leather a biological imperative. He would pout when Daddy sent him on some fictitious errand so we could spar in private, verbally and physically. It was always the same game, hard nosed reformer and the consummate bad girl. He'd be a stick in the mud, I'd push his buttons. We'd quip, kick and more often than not, kiss.
Our relationship was the one stable thing in our costumed existences. We were the one exception to each other's rules. Except now … sometimes he looks at me and it's like he can see right through me. It won't be the same. Not after I sit by and watch his boy die. The boy who used to give me the saucy little winks. The boy who had a sense of humor even when Daddy was strictly by the book. The boy who Joker is now cutting into little pieces and leaving them around the city for Daddy to find.
I've lost so much in my life that you would think it would cease to hurt as much. But this was mine. He was mine. None of the other Rogues can get to him, not the way I do. None of the other Rogues slip through his grasp time and time again. I know the truth. He's never broken his rules for anyone but me. I don’t know if he admits it to himself or not, but it's true. I haven't escaped, he's let me go.
If that boy dies, whatever exists between us dies with him. Even if Batman doesn't know, I will know. Even my hardened criminal conscience wouldn't let me toy with a grieving father when it was within my power to prevent his pain.
So it's gone. We're dead.
[to be continued]
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