This was not happening to me.
Fine, I could handle everything Joker had thrown at me – taking control of the Blackgaters, killing Zsasz, watching people in a nightclub choke to death on laughs… even driving a nuke through Gotham in peak hour – but this… Casey refusing to swim for safety… I caught her under the arms and tried to drag her away from the controls. If she wasn’t going willingly, then I was going to throw her overboard. But I got more fight than I bargained for – an elbow crunched into my nose and made my head spin. I clung to her, tight, finally managing to wrench her away from the wheel… her foot found a wall, and suddenly we rocketed sideways, through whatever remained of the wall and onto the deck. I tripped, lost my grip, and then rolled to my feet again. Casey was slightly slower to react, but when she finally found her feet, I was barring her way to the console.
“Jump,” I told her, nodding at the water.
“Every second we waste here, you’re putting more lives in danger,” she snarled.
“Yeah, I know. Except that you’re the one who will be wasting them. Jump.”
“I can handle this. My father, my goddamned problem, Casey.”
Her eyes softened, just a little. “You know that’s the first time I’ve heard you say my name?”
“Don’t get a big head about it,” I said, glancing at the Cadillac…
Then my world spun as something crashed into my jaw and spread me out on the deck. I fought unconsciousness, and finally won, wrestling control of myself and rolling over, tasting blood. I had no idea where it’d come from, until I realised that my nose was streaming scarlet. I wiped it, and my purple sleeve came away red. The boat jolted, suddenly picking up speed, and as I sat up, trying to find my feet, I saw Gotham suddenly smaller in the distance.
Dammit. Damn it.
I ran back towards the cabin, but something hissed past my ear and made me pause.
Casey pointed her crossbow-carbine at my face, daring me to move again.
“We’re in this together, whether you like it or not,” she told me, stepping out.
“You’re going to kill me for trying to save your life?” I said, laughing. “Jeez, that’s gratitude for you. Seriously, though… you haven’t got much time. You might still have a chance if you jump now. I don’t want to waste your life.”
Nightwing crackled over the comlink. “Casey, what the hell are you doing?”
“Stay safe, Dick,” she told him, and then tossed the device into the water.
Her hand was still scarily still, the weapon levelled at my skull.
“Never thought it would come to this,” I said. “Not quite so fast.”
“What do you mean?” Casey asked, tilting her head.
“Death. A nuke. Joker.” I shrugged. “Never really thought…”
Then Joker’s metal calling card hissed from my hand, catching her in the side of the head, drawing blood. The crossbow fired, and sliced into my neck. I ignored the pain and charged towards her. I covered the space between us in half a second. Casey, lightning fast as always, swung her arrow-weapon up like a club. I caught it on my forearms, shrugging it aside, and then caught hold of her collar and free hand, rapidly spinning her into an armlock. Casey tried to struggle, but I kept my feet away from hers and tightened up the pressure, making her wince.
I shoved her towards the side of the boat…
And then felt a stabbing pain in the side of my leg.
My entire body trembled, and I lost control of my muscles. I staggered backwards, and fell to the deck again, my vision turning hazy. Pain suddenly racked my skeleton, and I gritted my teeth, forcing the pain back. I managed to get a twitching arm under me, and looked down. A small metal syringe had been rammed into my leg. Casey looked over me, horror suddenly in her eyes. I grinned at her, humourlessly, and then wrenched the damned thing out, tossing it overboard with twitching fingers. What had Joker said about the stuff?
Titan. An extremely concentration of Venom. I’d never tried either of them… I gritted my teeth as my body twitched again, everything twisting… it was like having your blood turned into acid. Pain and I weren’t exactly strangers, but this? I hadn’t felt anything like it before… it was taking every ounce of self-control and discipline I had not to scream, to keep my teeth together… my vision seemed to darken, hardening into shades and outlines of black and green and red.
“JJ? Can you hear me…?”
Casey’s voice seemed disembodied, distant…
Then I felt the darkness race in. The last sensation I remembered was that of my head hitting the deck…. until I opened my eyes again. But I wasn’t on the boat, and Casey was nowhere to be seen. I was standing in my apartment again, except that the walls were bleeding green and a familiar figure in a purple suit was sitting on my bed, smoking a pipe. Flames, dragons and what looked like sparrows set alight flittered out of the bowl. I stared at it in astonishment, and Joker grinned that insane grin of his.
“You’re dead,” I said, shaking my head.
“Ah, that’s what I thought, too. Then I decided that it might be fun to be the devil for a while. Then I got bored of it. Now I’m here.” He cackled softly. “So are you. Hell, sit down, have a bloody cigar. Your imagination’s so freakin’ boring, kid. All I see around here is meat sacks with shadows for heads and no real squishy parts than I can make bleed.” He tossed me a case of cigars. “Seriously, siddown. I need to talk to you.”
“You can talk to me up here,” I told him, throwing the case out the window.
The glass shattered, disintegrating into playing cards, which floated eerily in the air.
Joker shrugged and stood up. “Suit yourself. What do you think of the place?”
“It’s not real. It’s just a hallucination. Just like you.”
Then the apartment burned itself into cinders around us, along with the rest of the buildings, leaving the street a charred mess. A Rottweiler with glowing red eyes melted out of the asphalt and sprang at Joker. He dropped the pipe, scooped up a piece of rubble, caught hold of its jaw, smashing its brains out with the chunk of blackened concrete.
“I’ll tell you what’s a hallucination. Life. Boring, mundane, colourless. Just waiting for blood and fire to make it shine.” Joker flicked blood from the dog at me – I felt it splatter against my face. “That’s what Batsie never figured. I tried so many times to make him see…”
“He knew you were insane. That was all he needed to see,” I snarled at Joker.
“Everyone craves chaos, kiddo. Even Bats did. That’s why he did what he did.”
“I’m not you. I never have been, and I never will be.”
Joker looked almost hurt, then he grinned again.
“You know what you got injected with, right? I took over Arkham Asylum with it. It’s called Titan. Turned my boys and just about everyone else into slavering monsters. Hell, even me. But that’s not the point… you’re the one feeling the effects right about now.”
“It’s not going to kill me. Or change me. I’m not going to let it,” I hissed at him.
“Boy, you think it’s all about you, don’t you? Jeez…” Joker kicked me in the gut, forcing me to double up, and then smashed me in the face with his rock. “Sweet dreams. Hate to see you when you wake up…. Because you’re going to look like crap…”
I woke with a start, my head burning with pain. The deck of the boat was rocking underneath me, and as I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was the Cadillac, still lying on its side, still intact. I was still alive. But the timer had to have gone off by now… somehow, I managed to get my feet under me. I heard a giggle behind me.
An insane, draw-out sound that made a chill run up my spine.
Oh, hell no.
“Right here,” she said playfully.
I turned, and saw her leaning against the rail of the ship, a huge grin on her face. Her eyes glowed slightly green, but aside from that, there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with her… but I’d learned that with Joker, nothing was ever as it seemed. It wasn’t Joker Toxin – that would’ve killed her – but something else entirely. The Titan was still gnawing away at my senses, affecting my balance and my vision – things seemed just a little too vivid to be real. Casey seemed to glow green, her outfit emitting a soft luminescence, making her pale skin seem to shine. Her hood was thrown back, and her mask was nowhere to be seen.
“Whatcha starin’ at?” she grinned, sauntering closer.
I took a step back, raising my hands. “Are you OK?”
“Never felt better. Something happened with the car… it didn’t go bang like it was supposed to.” Casey giggled again. “No Joker Toxin either. It went all shiny for a moment, and I touched it. Then…” She shrugged. “Now I feel wonderful…”
Casey twirled over the deck and laughed like a little girl of four.
What the hell had happened?
It couldn’t be the Titan. So far as I knew, I’d ingested the full dose. And, looking down at myself, I could see that I wasn’t the slavering monster that Joker had been hoping for. Maybe some kind of drug. That seemed likely – Casey was acting nothing like herself, so far as I could see – but I had no idea what it was, or how long it was going to ask. I ran my eyes over the wreck of the Cadillac, but nothing seemed different. I touched it, but nothing happened – no sudden effect. I even crawled into it and looked around, but there wasn’t anything that I could see that was out of place.
“Yeah?” she said, stopping her spinning and looking at me.
There was a manic glint in her greener-than-normal eyes that I didn’t like. I stepped closer, until I was close enough to touch her. Carefully, I brushed a strand of blonde hair out of her eye and saw the cut that I’d opened up with my metal blade-card. It’d mostly stopped bleeding now. Casey tilted her head a little, letting her cheek touch my hand, and a strange thrill ran through my skin. She saw me jolt a little, and smiled at me.
“What did he do to you?” I said quietly.
“Joker? Don’t know. Feels nice, though.” She reached up, and touched my hair, giggling softly. “That stuff sure did the trick. You look just like him, now.”
“What?” I snagged her wrist. “What are you talking about?”
“Your hair, silly. It’s gone all green.”
The information hit me like a punch.
“Please tell me you’re kidding,” I said desperately.
She shook her head. “Looks good on you. Didn’t you say you wanted green hair?”
“I was joking.” Oh, God. What the hell was happening…? “Casey…”
“Wait a sec,” she said, suddenly seizing my hair in a grip like a vice.
The suddenness of it took me off guard. Her hand came up, then something cold and sharp touched my cheek and ripped through my mouth. Pain flashed, and I couldn’t help a raw yell escaping my throat. Casey laughed, and then pressed her mouth to mine. Blinding, burning pain was tearing through my face… and in her kiss, I could taste blood.
I wrenched myself away from her, knocking her arm from around my neck, and staggered backwards. Casey shook her head, and wiped her mouth with her hand. A hand holding Joker’s calling card – dripping with scarlet. Her tongue darted out as she cleaned her lips, and she laughed, her teeth red. My hands went to my mouth, and pain more intense than anything I’d ever felt tore through my entire face. A tremble charged through my fingers as I traced the cut. Ever so slightly curved, it ran from cheek to cheek, and my fingertips came away dripping scarlet.
“Now you’re smiling,” Casey said happily.
No… NO!! I dropped to a knee, and let the pain race in. Memories, things that I’d repressed, forced back, suddenly raced to my mind – the first time I’d killed a man in the street, slashing his throat as he’d tried his hardest to cut mine… countless fights, the satisfying crunch of breaking bone… theft, lifting cars, smashing through windows with bricks and ripping through apartments, overturning them until I found something that would keep me fed for a few days… then, more recent ones. The BlackCage. Powerhouse. Zsasz… the horror I’d felt, coupled with the violent satisfaction of knowing that the knife I’d rammed into his skull would be the last one that he ever touched. Faces… Nightwing, that smug look on his face as he crouched by my head. Then Casey. Threatening me, laughing at me, working alongside me to try and rescue Gotham City… now here, slicing my face open so that I looked exactly like my father.
One hell of a twist of fate.
God, if I’d had half the sense of humour of my old man…
Something slammed into the deck beside me, hard.
“Dick! It’s good you’re here,” Casey said, laughing. “JJ has something to show you.”
I kept my face down, and heard Nightwing let loose a stream of almost silent curse words, strung together with such originality that I had to smile, despite the circumstances, despite the amount of pain it caused me. Blood ran into my mouth, seeping between my teeth and down my throat. Finally, something caught me by the shoulder and spun me up and around. A hand caught me by the throat and pinned me to the wooden deck so effortlessly that I barely had time to resist. If I’d even ever wanted to resist.
“What the hell happened?” Nightwing demanded softly. I could hear the rage in his voice.
“The car… wasn’t carrying a nuke. Something… else.” It was killing me to talk – my face was burning so hard that I almost wanted to rip it off. “Casey… Casey got dosed with it.”
“Dick, get off him,” she interjected. “You can’t strangle him. He’s Joker, can’t you see?”
“The Titan?” Nightwing hissed.
I grinned weakly. “I got the full dose.”
“And you’re still…?”
“I’m funny like that.” I gestured slightly in Casey’s direction. “You have to get her out of here. Get whatever the hell it is out of her. Come back for me after. I’m not going anywhere.”
Nightwing’s grip around my throat vanished. “If you run…”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. You’ll kill me. What the point of threatening me if I know you’re not going to follow through with it?” I asked him, managing to get a shaky arm underneath me and sit up. “Just take her and go. I’ll be around.”
Something, a rope of some kind, whipped out of the sky and hung there, waiting. Nightwing walked over to Casey, jabbed her in the neck with something, and she went limp. He slung her over his shoulder, and then caught hold of the tether, rocketing up into the sky and into a sleek black machine that rapidly vanished towards Gotham.