“He’s awake,” Stitch muttered.
“Jesus,” Dinner muttered. “You OK, boss?”
I grinned at them, and sat up, ignoring the stabbing pain in my chest and face. Mouse, Dinner, Beck and Stitch, something of a surgeon among the Blackgaters, backed away hastily as I swung my feet over the edge of the bench. I ripped the IV out of my arm, and glanced over the bloodstained implements sitting on a nearby trolley, next to a piece of machinery that had been cut carefully out of my insides. My face was a different matter entirely – it’d been stitched back together almost a week ago, but the pain was still murderous. Stitch had removed the staples, though, and now I had hideous grinning scars that I would carry for the rest of my life. Casey hadn’t been lying about my green hair, either – I was now almost a spitting image of the Joker. But that wasn’t even the strangest thing that’d happened to me lately. My vision still wasn’t back to normal – it was a mix of otherworldly colours that were far too sharp and vivid – and I suffered from bouts of hallucination now and then, mild but still extremely irritating. The Titan’s effects would probably be permanent, or so Stitch had told me. But it wasn’t all bad – my body was healing faster than it had before, much faster. I was still left with scars, but my muscle and skin seemed to match my determination to be up and around as fast as humanly possible. The fact that I could sit up less than an hour after having half a kilo of wireless technology carved out of my gut was proof of that.
“Nice work, Stitch,” I said, nodding at him. “What’s the time?”
“Almost ten,” said Mouse, glancing at a newly-purchased Rolex.
I grinned at it. “Good to see you’re putting that cash to good use. Where’s my shirt?”
Beck handed it to me, and I shrugged it on, doing up the buttons, then pulling on the waistcoat, handkerchief, and finally the long purple coat that I’d come to love. The others stepped back as I got unsteadily to my feet. I had a meeting to attend, and it wasn’t going to be anything friendly. Nightwing hadn’t taken too kindly to my lie about staying on the ship – although, in my defence, I’d said that I’d be around, not on that goddamned luxury yacht specifically. I was in the warehouse that the BlackCage matches had been set up – now one of my temporary bases of operations. I’d had a few crates of Joker’s toys moved here. Not all of them were exactly toys – there was plenty of plastic explosives, pressurised tanks of Joker Toxin, and his other little lethal gadgets. Dinner had laid out a few of them for me.
I scooped up a Dan Wesson 1911 remake, along with a handful of Joker’s calling cards and one of the electric joy-buzzers. That, coupled with the flower pinned to my lapel, saw me set for a fight, should something like that arise. I tucked the gun into my waistband, and then walked outside, limping slightly, ignoring the blinding pain that was ripping through my chest. Pain was something I could handle. Something real and tangible that made sure I had a firm grip on reality. That moment on the boat… when I’d almost laughed at myself, at my life. I’d almost lost it. I’d almost lost touch with what was real and what wasn’t…
Mouse opened the door to a taxi cab that he’d acquired recently.
I stepped into it, and moments later, we were cruising through the streets.
“What’s on your mind?” Mouse asked.
“Getting this over and done with,” I told him. “After that… we’ll see what happens.”
Why the hell Nightwing had decided to meet in a restaurant of all places… well, I could probably expect the police to be there in moments when I walked through the doors looking like Joker reborn. The thought didn’t bother me for some reason. I’d been through so much crap lately that nothing really surprised me anymore.
Finally, we arrived at the Palm Beach Lounge.
“You sure you don’t want me to come in?” Mouse asked.
I grinned humourlessly at him. “I’ll be fine.”
What I didn’t tell him was that he would only be a nuisance. Even in my present state, I could handle Nightwing. Hope wasn’t exactly my strong suit, but it was nice to think that Batman’s old sidekick wouldn’t try and kill me. I wasn’t hopeful, though. Pulling myself out of the back of the cab, I stepped through the classy revolving doors of the restaurant. It was low-lit, carpeted and screamed rich. Nightwing probably owned the joint. I sensed a footstep to my left and turned, my old switchblade flicking out of my sleeve and into my hand.
It was only a waiter, who saw the movement but pretended not to notice it.
“This way, sir. Mr Wayne is expecting you.”
He didn’t seem at all put off by my appearance. I followed him to the VIP lounge. The entire restaurant was completely deserted – the staff were here, but there was no-one else to be seen. I rounded a corner, and then saw the two people I’d been hoping to see. Nightwing and Casey. They were both dressed to kill, Nightwing in an immaculate tuxedo that was so black it shone, and Casey in a gown of deep green that looked like it’d been sewn out of emeralds. The irony wasn’t lost on me, and I grinned as I was shown to a seat.
“Hey, gang,” I greeted them, and looked to Casey.
I noticed a series of long, parallel scars carved into one pale shoulder.
She saw where my eyes went and a half-smile touched her face. “Yeah, that was me.”
“You got lucky,” I told her, tapping my jaw. “Could’ve been a lot worse.”
Casey winced at that, and Nightwing spoke.
“Thought we could have dinner together. Like civilized people.”
“Mmm. ‘Cept that you two beat the crap out of meatheads for giggles.”
“Are you going to be intentionally difficult?” Nightwing asked, his voice wintry cold.
“Depends. Are you?” I leaned back. “What do you want from me?”
“Honesty. Directness. Maybe an apology.”
I laughed in his face. “Right. Because you’re so honest yourself…”
“JJ, shut up,” Casey snapped. “For once, just listen.”
I caught the warning tone in her voice, and closed my mouth.
Nightwing shot a grateful glance at her, and then looked back at me. “I know you haven’t had an easy life. And the last couple of weeks have been enough to drive most men insane. You more than anyone. I just wanted to come clear with you.” He took a deep breath, and then a waiter placed down a tray of steaming salmon for first course. “I’ve spent the last few years away from Gotham, tangled with other matters. I didn’t know that things would get so out of hand so quickly… I thought that maybe Batman would have left some kind of plan in place. So far as I know, nothing’s come up, and everything’s going down the drain so fast that it won’t be long before this place gets worse than it was in the first place.”
He looked straight into my eyes. “I need your help.”
My first instinct was to laugh at him, but I saw Casey gazing hard at me, and realised that part of this was her idea. Help? From the son of the most twisted psychopath that the world had ever seen? From a guy who wore his face and his clothes? Who used his weapons?
“What kind of help are we talking?” I asked.
“Help to clean up Gotham,” Nightwing said, tucking into his food. “You’re got the Blackgaters, which are the hard-cases around here. They’ll listen to you. Joker had hundreds, if not thousands, of connections with the criminal underworld. You can tap into those, use them the right way. We can reduce crime on the streets, and take out the bigger bosses one at a time.”
“I’ve heard this before,” I told Nightwing, nodding at Casey, “and I know how it ends. You pin the blame on me, and then, once I’m dead or behind bars, you walk away whistling.” I shook my head and smiled. “Wasn’t born yesterday.”
“I wouldn’t do that to you,” Casey said softly.
I looked into her eyes, and didn’t see anything but pure honesty.
“Oh, now I get it,” I said, looking back at Nightwing. “You’ve still got big damn hero stuff to do. And you’re leaving Gotham to the two of us? Man, you must have a busy life…”
“I trust Casey. I know that she can take care of herself. And I also know that you care about her,” Nightwing said, fixing me with his cold blue gaze. “So I know that you can watch each other’s backs. I’m hoping that you’ll agree to this, else I am going to have to drag you unconscious and bleeding to the GCPD.”
So, I cared about Casey. Mightily observant of him.
Except that I knew next to nothing about her.
I frowned. “If you know anything about Casey and me, it’s that we’re not team players. We play two different kinds of cards every time. You honestly expect this to run smoothly?”
“I’m hoping you can compromise,” Nightwing said.
I looked at Casey, who met my gaze evenly.
“You’re thinking about it, aren’t you?” she said softly.
That made me chuckle. “Get a better name. Green Arrow Girl shortens in to GAG, and let’s be honest, that’s not exactly awesome. But yeah, I’m thinking about it.”
“Can you give me an answer tonight?” Nightwing asked me.
I looked at Casey. “Can you give me ten minutes?”
He nodded towards the back of the restaurant, which opened up into a balcony that overlooked the Gotham River. I held my hand out to Casey as I stood, and she took it. I helped her to her feet, and we strolled to the balcony. She seemed tense as I leaned against the railing, glancing over the water, in no hurry.
“I’m sorry, JJ,” she said finally. “About your face…”
I shrugged fatalistically. “Nothing you could’ve done. Did you figure out what it was that Joker actually put into the car? I haven’t gotten around to taking it to pieces yet.”
Casey’s face went hard. “It was a kind of Toxin variant. It’s still a neurotoxin like the regular Joker Toxin, but instead of killing you, it screws with your head. Hallucinations, psychosis… I couldn’t fight it. I couldn’t do a damn thing. I just… gave in.”
“It was probably intended for me,” I said finally.
“Probably. But what I did to you… that would have been enough to send anyone over the edge. How can you still function after all that? After the Titan and everything?” she asked.
“Joker was pretty much a walking chemical factory,” I told her. “He had insane amounts of resistance to chemical change in his tissues. And anything he wasn’t immune to, he dosed up on it so that he would be immune. Looks like I inherited his resistance.”
“It’s still affecting you, isn’t it?”
I glanced at her. “How’d you know?”
Casey smiled sadly. “You’re twitching like a cat’s tail.”
That made me raise an eyebrow. “Interesting way of putting it. Then again, I did just have surgery. Getting that damned transmitter cut out. Could be the left over anaesthetic.”
She shook her head. “You’re crazy.”
“Not yet,” I said. “Not quite yet.”
Casey looked up. “Are you going to help us?”
Bit underhanded of her, asking about my health and then going back to the original subject. But I liked her sneakiness. It was endearing. And it was going to very useful to her in the next couple of months. I grinned as I turned, leaning back on the rail.
“Looks like it,” I told her. “I’ve got a couple of conditions, though…”
I saw Casey’s relief, a flash of excitement, and then caution as my last words found the air. She sat down on a nearby chair, looking up at me. I allowed myself a moment to admire her in the moonlight. If there had been one thing that had been even slightly worth having my face sliced almost in half, it’d been a kiss from Casey. But she’d told me herself – it’d been psychosis, not genuine. And it’d freaked me out more than anything else.
I realised I was staring and started talking.
“You don’t complain about my methods,” I said. “That’s the first one.”
She shook her head. “I can’t promise that.”
“Just try,” I suggested. “Because I’m pretty sure you’re not going to like them.”
Casey looked me hard in the eye. “Just keep it as clean as you can.”
“I will. Second condition – no secret identities. We both know who each other are.”
That made her stop short, and smile strangely. “Why’s that?”
“Because it’s a lot harder to trust a mask than a real person.”
“You plan on trusting me?”
“Not entirely,” I admitted. “But it’s going to have to factor into all this.”
“I can live with that. Please tell me that you don’t have an entire list of conditions…”
I chuckled. “Nah. One more – third and last. You’ve got to change your name.”
Casey laughed. Genuine, real… not fake, not sarcastic, and not torn from her by neurotoxins. The first time I’d ever actually made her laugh. It was a strangely musical sound, like a bell tolling or crystals tinkling against each other.
“Deal,” she said, holding out her hand.
I shook it, suddenly glad I hadn’t slipped my joy-buzzer onto my hand.
“Let’s go tell Nightwing.”
“What’s your real name?” I asked her, catching hold of her wrist.
She looked back at me. “What, you don’t think that Casey Laughlin is legit?”
“A laughing case?” I said, raising an eyebrow. “Sounds like a bad Joker pun.”
The girl grinned. “Best I could come up with at the time.”
“So, what is it really?”
“Cassie,” she told me. “Cassie Evermore.”
“Joker Junior. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
She curtsied, grinning. “And the same to you.”
Nightwing cleared his throat, and made us both look up at him.
He leaned against the entrance to the balcony, a smug half-smile on his face.
“So, I take it that you’ve agreed to our proposition?”
“Hers, yes. Not yours, Bird-boy.”
He shrugged. “Guess I should be thankful for small mercies.”
I laughed at that. “Oh, yeah, definitely. Things just get worse from here.”
Casey – Cassie, I remembered now – tilted her head, looking at me.
“What makes you say that?”
I nodded down at the river, where a gang of mooks were tossing crates back and forth feverishly, trying to get them all in as fast as possible. If that wasn’t a smuggling operation, then I had no idea what was…