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Chapter 5: Incognifty

 

Gothamites who studied the hawks over Robinson Park would have noticed the one now circling the northeast corner was not especially graceful.  Clayface relied on muscle memory for so much of his non-clay movement, and not having been a bird in his pre-clay existence, he’d had to improvise a good deal.  Still, he liked animal disguises on the whole.  They were perfect for casing a target or for those occasions when rain threatened and he didn’t want to risk his total body-mass.

Or in today’s case, when he was going to see Poison Ivy, a woman who despised him, who’d had him blacklisted from Rogue society for giving her a stupid little box of potpourri at a Christmas party, and a woman who would sic those miserable plants on him again if she saw him coming.  It wasn’t fatal, her plant-attacks, but it was the ickiest sensation he’d experienced since being fitted for a latex body cast in Space Tempest.  Those plants of hers sticking their hungry roots into him, sucking out all the minerals, it was NOT PLEASANT and he did NOT mean to let her do it again.  So he opted for the hawk, figuring that was the safest way to approach her lair.  But he hadn’t figured on the other hawks, which had noticed him and were taking far too much interest in him, real hawks that were far better at the flying.  In desperation, he dove towards the ground and, in something of a panic at the female pecking at his tail-feathers, he quickly assumed the one human shape that memory said would be a safe one in which to knock on Ivy’s door.

He walked the last sixty yards in a gruff, manly stride that solidified into a more familiar and comfortable bodymass by the time he reached the entrance.

“Ivy,” he began, but got no further when the rapturous gasp that greeted him stopped him cold.  He realized, with the levelheaded prudence that comes when one is no longer being pecked at by a pair of angry hawks, that his present disguise was—

“HARVEY!”

—a monumentally stupid mistake.

 

Rather than head all the way back to the manor, Nightwing opted for the satellite cave under the Wayne Tower.  He extracted the Riddler clue carefully from the evidence bag and slid it into a pressurized canister.  He accessed a pre-programmed battery of tests from the main control console, and dropped the canister into the waiting chamber.  The lid slid shut and as the hum of simultaneous spectrometry, chromatography, electrophoresis, ion mobility, energy dispersive xrays, and electron scanning mechanisms whirred to life, Nightwing checked to see if there were any munchies left from the days when Cassie, Stephanie, and Black Canary were using the satellite cave as a clubhouse. 

He found a prehistoric Snickers bar… and a tube of Pringles that didn’t seem too ancient.  He returned to the console while the tests continued to run, and opened up the main OraCom gateway.  Only a still, grayed out, Oracle head greeted him.  It was just after noon, not a time of day Barbara would normally be operating as Oracle, but he had assumed since she knew about the Riddler clue that she would be standing by to assist.  He opened a phone line and called home the regular way.

“Hey Ora-kewl,” he began with a grin.  “A/S/L Want to cyber?”

..:: Dickey, what the hell? I thought you’d bring it home. ::..

“No, too many tests to run before I can open it.  Hop onto the Com, okay?”

..:: Slavedriver.  I’ll be right there. ::..

He hung up, and almost immediately the Oracle image flickered from its inert gray state into an animated green.

“Hey, Gorgeous,” he winked at the screen.  “Preliminary tests are just finishing up, but you can get started on the phrase from the outside of the envelope. My Delectable Puzzlemuffin.”

..:: Shoot, ::.. the Oracle head answered. 

“I figured run the anagrams first, and all of the standard numeric keys, assigning values to letters and—”

..::  Right, Riddler 101,  all the usual stuff. ::..

“…”

..:: Dick?  C’mon, I’m waiting, what’s the phrase? ::..

“My Delectable Puzzlemuffin.”

..:: THAT’S what’s written on the envelope? ::.. she laughed.

“I told you that already,” he grumbled, sounding a bit like Bruce.

..::  I thought I was the delectable puzzlemuffin.  I thought you were, you know, being you.  ‘Ora-kewl, want to cyber.’ ::..

Dick sighed.

“No.  ‘My Delectable Puzzlemuffin’ is the opening clue.  Now please run the standard analyses.”

..::  Oh Dick, don’t be so dense, ::.. she laughed.  ..:: Tell me that you do not have a four million dollar computer system spectro-analyzing a letter addressed to ‘Delectable Puzzlemuffin.’ ::..

“It’s a Riddler clue, Barbara.”

..:: It’s a love letter, you nitwit.  He probably misses Doris.  Been a while since I snooped on the rogue’s IM network, but I’m pretty sure it was this time of year they broke up. ::..

“He is not going to leave a letter to Doris at the Bat-Signal,” Dick pointed out.

..::  He’s not going to leave a clue for Batman addressed to ‘Puzzlemuffin’ either, Dickie.  ::..

Dick stared at the OraCom screen for a long moment.

“Oh my god,” he croaked.

Behind him, a discreet, cheery ping informed him that the spectrometry, chromatography, electrophoresis, ion mobility, energy dispersive xrays, and electron scanning of specimen alpha was complete.

 

For centuries, those privileged to serve the cause of righteousness as host of an Azrael were an obedient and docile class, programmed from birth via ‘The System’ for the great honor that would pass to them on their fathers’ deaths.  The Order of St. Dumas was confident in their methods of indoctrination and in the spirit of unquestioning fealty to the church that pervaded their time. 

As the world changed, the Order of Dumas did not, and the ancient programming of the Azrael persona never incorporated, as an example, any mindset to respond to strong, confident, free-spirited women of the sort who might don a costume and become a catburglar, and who might contrast said Azrael unfavorably with other crusading knights of her acquaintance, particularly with respect to sexual attraction or the lack, who would in fact take his inability to generate sexual tension as a personal insult and a mark of his inferiority to the aforementioned knight and indeed all men.  

In the years since the original Azrael mindset was devised, the world had changed, but the clerics of the Order were too removed from that world to adapt the System accordingly—with one exception.  In the 1790s, after the British colonies in the New World had rebelled against their sovereign king and the peasants of France actually beheaded theirs, with the church in France forced to undergo radical restructuring, it occurred to one Brother Louis of Navarre that the absolute and unconditional loyalty of the Azrael hosts might not be as absolute and unconditional as had always been assumed.  On his own initiative, he inserted a latent directive to activate should the mortal host show signs of “rebelliousness, defiance, unruliness, mutiny, or sedition.”  On activation, the Azrael was to observe the subject, probe for the extent of his corruption, and report the situation to his superior.

It was assumed the superior would always be the High Lord Father of the Order of Dumas. 

For the present Azrael, it was Nightwing.

Nightwing.

This was simply not an acceptable person in which Azrael could confide his dilemma, yet his program made it impossible for him to choose another or for him to keep silent. 

He watched his fickle host Jean Paul Valley shave and privately begged the man to reconsider his position. 

He resolved to “probe” one last time, praying for a new type of response that would express the absolute, unwavering loyalty to the System and the Ways of Dumas that would release Azrael from his compulsion.  In the interests of not having to report to Nightwing, Azrael was willing to take almost anything short of “DEATH TO DUMAS” as an expression of absolute, unwavering loyalty.  If only the mortal would abandon this new mindset of his and cooperate.

Mortal—  He began, when his thought was cut short and his hopes dashed by a knock at the door and the arrival of a dozen long-stemmed roses.

“Look at that, she sent flowers,” Jean Paul exclaimed, tickled.  “Az, look, she sent flowers.  Damn, what a woman, huh?”

Azrael tried to respond that it was unseemly for the woman to usurp a man’s role, such as this sending of flowers following an amorous encounter… when he saw that Jean Paul’s mind was not ‘receiving’ his thoughts as it ought.

Mortal— He repeated, more forcefully than before to break through Jean Paul’s cloying preoccupation with the flowers, but by now, the mortal had opened the card and had moved on to a whole new level of disloyal musings.

“See that?  ‘To Jean Paul.’  That’s me, Az, not you.  I’m the one she went to bed with, and I’m the one that’s going to call her for another date—without you, we clear on that?  No more Dumasian three-ways.  Because I meant what I said, buddy, I’ll hurt you.  I was chewing on it all night while you were patrolling, and I’ve got the kryptonite to put an end to your interference with me and Helena once and for all.  So don’t make me use it, Az, or it’s death to Dumas, you hear what I’m sayin’?”

Yes, Mortal, Azrael sighed.  I hear you loud and clear.

 

Dick sat at home, on his couch, the still-unopened envelope sitting on the coffee table.  He stared at it.  Barbara sat on the far side of the table, her eyes shifting rhythmically from the letter to her husband.  After several silent minutes of this, she spoke.

“I can’t believe what a wimp you’re being.”

“Bruce is out of town,” Dick explained in terse, coiled tones.  “I’m in charge.  And if that’s a Riddler clue, it has to be dealt with according to Hoyle.  Thoroughly analyzed—”

“Which you’ve done,” Barbara noted.

“Decoded if necessary, and solved.”

“Agreed,” Barbara said.  “It’s not a clue, it’s a love letter, but I completely agree you should open it anyway, ‘just in case,’ and you’ll feel much better.”

“But I won’t feel better.  ‘Cause if it’s a love letter—and I’ll admit Puzzlemuffin, delectable or not, leans it in that direction—Babs, if it’s a love letter, it’s gonna be Catwoman all over again.  Worse, it’s going to be Catwoman without the part where she’s the incredibly hot villain, and more like she’s the annoying villain that leaves freakin’ riddles as clues to his crimes.”

Barbara started laughing.

“You want me to read the scary love letter for you, Dickie,” she asked, opening it with a light grin, “so you don’t suffer any kind of Catwoman-related flashbacks.”  

“Joke all you want, you weren’t there.  Shameless in front of the impressionable teenage sidekick.  You know what it’s like going back to take-down-the-bad-guy-business as usual after she’s heard your voice crack?  It was never the same after that, against Catwoman, I mean.”

“Which has nothing to do with Rid…” Barbara began as her eyes glanced over the page.  As she trailed off, her eyes widened and the color drained from her face.  Then she sat the letter down abruptly.  “It’s a love letter,” she said matter-of-factly.

Dick’s lip twitched. 

“You’re quite sure.  You’re sure you read enough to be absolutely certain?”

“I’m sure,” Barbara pronounced fiercely.  “I definitely read enough.  You can face Bruce when he gets back knowing you did not blow off a Riddler clue.  You have official Oracle-confirmation that that,” she pointed, “is a love letter.”

“Mhm,” Dick nodded smugly.  “And now you’re never going to think of Riddler the same way, are you?”

“There are phrases that are burned into my memory,” she admitted, closing her eyes to blot out the pain.

Dick sighed. 

Barbara sighed.

“Well, it’s not a clue,” she said finally.  “What do we do now, give it back?”

“Nohohoho, no, no, no,” Dick answered fanatically.  “Only thing worse than my actually reading that letter is if he thinks I’ve read that letter.  No, this is—”

“Dick, we really need to get this back to him.  This isn’t a puzzlebox announcing a crime spree.  This is personal stuff.”

“And how do you figure that would go, Barbara?  ‘Here’s your letter, Nigma.’ ‘Here’s your clue, Nightwing.’ ‘Now let’s just be men, look at our feet, and leave the rooftop.’”

“There has to be a way,” Barbara insisted.

“I told you.  Never going to think of him the same way again.”

 

Every year, Jervis Tetch rigged the Rogues’ Secret Santa drawing, and that year, Ivy had somehow offended him in late November.  He decided to ‘punish’ her, in his slippery way, by pairing her up with a man on whom her pheromones had no effect.  It was a short list, the men Ivy couldn’t have her way with chemically.  Joker was the only other candidate, and if he’d drawn Ivy’s name when it was common knowledge that Jervis rigged the drawing, the weaselly little Hatter wouldn’t have lived to see the New Year.  But Clayface, Clayface must have seemed the perfect choice:  There was no bad blood between him and Ivy, not like there was with Joker.  She simply couldn’t control him—and Ivy hated not being in control. 

Well, it happened.  Matt gave her potpourri, looking on it as a “flowery” gift, not as “dead flowers.”  It happened.  It happened.  It was time to get the hell over it.  She’s been dealt worse slights by other men.  The potpourri flowers were dead when he got there.  He didn’t kill them; all he did was buy them and wrap them up in green foil with a big silver bow.  She let vengeance for Ivan go in a shorter time, and Clayface couldn’t help thinking he would have been forgiven long ago too if she wasn’t so fundamentally threatened by a man she couldn’t green over into a helpless slave.

Well, he’d had it.  Enough was enough.  He’d gone in there prepared to be polite but direct, just like the contract negotiation for the Dragon Raider sequels: He liked Gotham, he liked Harley, and he was staying.  Period.  End of story.

That was his plan (and it would have worked, he knew it would, just like the Dragon Raider sequels).  It was his plan right up until a moment’s panic reshaped him into Two-Face to enter Ivy’s lair safely, without quite realizing…

“HARVEY” she had squealed, squealed like a schoolgirl.  Ivy, the queen bitch, squealing in girlish delight.

“WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR FACE!”—which made NO sense at all.  Harvey’s divided features that inspired his nom de crime Two-face, wasn’t something any self-respecting shapeshifter could get wrong.

“YOU’RE BACK!”—and then a liplock that would have done Sharon Stone proud. 

Matt Hagan, playing the role of a terrified Harvey Dent (or perhaps it was best to think of it the other way around), backed up in horror.

“No,” he breathed gently.  “So sorry.  Big mistake.  Um, let me explain…”  He looked around helplessly, and then swelled, melted and drooped into his natural state.  “Ivy, I am so sorry, I didn’t mean—” he managed to say before she screamed.  Matt was ready to morph into a bird again to escape the reach of her attack-plants, but she was far too agitated to order them into action.  Instead, she leapt on him herself, flailing away with her hands, her fingers liberating chunks of muddy glop and hurling it behind her. 

Clayface stood, silent and still, with a patient, almost bored expression as he waited out the storm.  As a handful of his person was flung against the wall, he would calmly slide it to the floor and inchworm it across the lair to rejoin the bulk of his main body. 

“Pamela,” he tried when it seemed like the violence and hysterics had gone on long enough.  “I only picked a form—”  Here he had to stop and slap a mud-gag across her mouth rather than suffer another round of screams and probably a few terse orders to her attack plants.  Her reaction to the gag was such that he had to continue the ‘mud pack treatment’ until she was fully bound. 

He then waited with renewed patience for her writhing and muffled cursing to subside.  When she was exhausted, he resumed.

“I only picked a form I thought would get me in the door without you trying to kill me,” he explained.  “I wasn’t trying for a tonsil massage, and if it makes you feel any better, I got nothing out of it.  Ivy, I came here because we need to talk.  I’m done being shunned because I gave you dead flower-heads one Christmas—which by the way, was a gift I picked out because I thought you might like it.  It’s been a few years but, from what I remember, flowers smell nice.”

There was another round of squirming and muffled objection, which Clayface waited out without lessening his hold.

 

Nightwing watched and waited while Batgirl carried out her mission.  He had been absurdly hesitant to send her in alone even though, as she said, she’d always worked alone.  She was perfectly capable, but tonight she was his partner and somehow that changed everything.

She’d infiltrated the Iceberg Lounge before, on her own, going undercover as a groupie.  Simply beating a few answers out of the bouncer without even venturing into the nightclub was child’s play.  But Nightwing watched nervously all the same, until his peripheral vision caught movement at the rooftop level, approaching on the horizon. 

He tensed as, even at this distance, he recognized the figure heading towards him, and he snapped the control opening the OraCom mic.

“O, did you give Azrael my location without giving me a heads up, or is this an astonishing coincidence about to land on the roof beside me?”

..:: Yeah, I did, Wing.  And I didn’t tell you because he said he would explain when he got there.  Some Dumas thing. ::..

“Wonderful.  Nightwing out,” he barked irritably.  Then he returned his gaze to Batgirl twisting the Iceberg bouncer’s arm, and found he was enjoying the sight more than before.  Before long, Azrael joined him on the roof, and he too watched Batgirl in silence for a time.

“She is a fearsome interrogator,” he noted. 

“She’s not bad,” Nightwing agreed proudly.  “We needed to find Riddler’s current hideout, and if the rogue grapevine gets hold of it, we need it to be known that it was Batgirl that’s looking for him and that she was alone.”

Azrael’s helmet tilted, as if these strategic intricacies were beyond his understanding, or at least beyond his interest.  If he wanted to know an infidel’s location, he too would find that infidel’s associates and coerce answers in just this way.  If other infidels saw and spoke of the encounter, he cared not. 

“What can I do you for, Azrael,” Nightwing said brusquely.

There was an unpleasant pause.  An old tension seemed to vibrate across the roof, like a loud, distant stereo throbbing the baseline of a song you couldn’t quite make out—but knew you wouldn’t like if you heard it.  Nightwing recognized that tension; he hadn’t felt it since those first encounters with Azrael after the AzBat disaster. 

“I come to you as my commander and superior,” Azrael stated formally—which, despite the implied deference, did nothing to dispel Nightwing’s “AzBat” apprehensions.

“O-kay,” he said cautiously.  “Y’know, B is back in a few days if you’d rather wait.”

Azrael paused again.

“Nay,” he said at last.  He understood that Nightwing must find the situation as unpalatable as he did, but the System did not permit needless delays.  “I am compelled to report at once symptoms of disloyalty in my host, before they might proceed into acts of overt rebellion.”

Nightwing’s eyes narrowed.

“Your host?  You’ve got a problem with Jean Paul?”

“I am compelled to report to my superiors any signs of treachery or portents that the host might rebel against myself or the System.”

While Nightwing’s eyes remained narrowed in a suspicious Bat-glare, his mouth dropped open in wonder.

“Az, if there’s some friction between you and Jean Paul, what makes you think I’d be on your side?  I mean given the history…”  He trailed off into an ambiguous gesture, pointing to the night sky in the general direction of the Bat-Signal.

Azrael stood mute for a full ten seconds, then at last he spoke in a strained voice hauntingly reminiscent of the AzBat gravel.

“I expect to find no friend or ally in your person, Nightwing.  I am compelled, nevertheless, to make immediate report to my superiors of what has occurred.  I have been threatened by my host.  I am compelled to make my superior aware of the particulars.”

Nightwing’s mouth puckered thoughtfully. 

“Jean Paul threatened you?  Jean Paul Valley?  Blonde guy, about your height, owner of the body, we’re talking about the same guy, right?  Jean Paul threatened you?  Azrael, how would that even work?  What do you do, punch yourself in the mouth?”

Azrael said nothing. 

Nearly a minute passed, and Nightwing began to realize he was approaching this all wrong.  The Azrael he’d always dealt with, and even the one he’d fought as AzBat, was an integration of the System programming and Jean Paul Valley’s mind.  This thing before him now was all System without any Jean Paul.  He was a set of commands and protocols, and ‘Wing was trying to talk to it like a person.  But you couldn’t converse with a computer program.  You needed to let it carry out its instructions, even if, in this case, those instructions seemed to be tattling on Jean Paul because of some inner-helmet squabble.

“Okay, sorry,” Nightwing coughed, his manner becoming serious and markedly more Batlike.  “Make your report.”

 

When Poison Ivy finally got tired struggling, Clayface cautiously released his grip.  He assumed the shape of Grant Gifford, defense attorney battling to save the woman he loves from the gallows, the most earnest and sincere character he’d ever played. 

“Look,” he said frankly, “Harley and I are involved.  I like her.  Who wouldn’t?   Flaky, yes.  Voice gets a little irritating at times.  Most incompetent burglar I’ve ever seen in my life.  But you look at rogues as a whole, and then you look at her, all bubbly and sweet, with the cute little tassels bouncing up and down—she jumps around a lot, too.  What’s not to love?”

Ivy spat at him.

“You’re slime, Hagen,” she screeched bitterly.  “You took up with Harley to get back at me.”

Clayface’s entire frame rumbled in anger, condensed into a smaller green blob and then morphed into an image of Ivy herself.

“How about we try it this way,” he said in her voice, “Since it’s all about you no matter what, maybe this way I can get you to listen.  I like Harley.  It has nothing to do with you.  I am back in Gotham to stay.  THAT has nothing to do with you either.  All you can do to me, Ivy, is force me go to the Iceberg ‘incognifty’ because people would rather say no to me than to you.  That’s all you’ve got.  And all you’re going to do if you play that card is make Harley miserable—again—because you can’t get along with the guy she’s with, as usual.”

Although she had never read Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting or studied The Method at the Actors’ Studio, Ivy gave a convincing performance of a thoughtful and considerate listener.  Matt Hagen’s true weakness, she knew, was his vanity, that actor’s ego.  It would please him to think he had found a way to reach her.

“Incognifty,” she said with a gentle, amused smile.  “That’s a Harleyism.  You must be spending quite a lot of time together.”

Beneath the calm, still beauty that concealed the deadly flytrap, Poison Ivy seethed.  This CREATURE that she DESPISED, that didn’t even respond to the lures of NATURE HERSELF (i.e. whom she couldn’t control with her pheromones), this SLIMY GOOEY THING had infiltrated HER PARK, had COME into HER LAIR, had gagged her, bound her, HUMILIATED HER!  Gotten her to reveal vulnerabilities she’d rather not have revealed, and was talking to her in a less than adoring manner!  Clearly he had to die.  He had to DIE, DIE, and DIE AGAIN!

“It is easy to like her, once you get to spending time with her,” Ivy went on, a vision of the loyal friend charmed by one who could appreciate Harley’s fine qualities.

He had Harley on his side now.  And Harley was obsessive.  If she’d somehow gotten over her pitiful and disgusting obsession with Joker, she might very well fixate on this walking dunghill.  The only time Harley made time for her was when Joker was unavailable, either in Arkham or more often –damnit– because he’d beaten her and thrown her out.  If Clayface were to buck the trend and treat Harley properly, Ivy might never see her at all.

Clearly the mudheap had to die.    

But how?  How… 

“Take that catfight thing on Kazaa,” Clayface was saying, having resumed his regular form.  “Roxy’s a showbiz gal, she knows the only bad publicity is no publicity.  She reveled in it.  What did you do?  Something about raising the dead and zombies marching on Riverfront Park, that’s how the Opal City grapevine tells it anyway.”

…If Ivy had learned one thing from the disasters that followed that awful catfight, it was to stop acting impulsively.  Impulse brought gargoyles and black mists, hell lords and dying trees, a Whitman sampler and a viciously mad Selina ready to scratch her eyes out, no Harvey and no Harley, nothing but an empty hideout and a pair of green Jimmy Choos.  But patience, the calm and knowing patience of the gardener, that would make her life bloom again.

She would allow Clayface to reintegrate into Gotham society, treat him with polite but queenly disdain, not fill Harley’s head with all the reasons they shouldn’t be together. 

And then…

when the talking mudpie least expects it…

she would strike.

 

Azrael’s report to Nightwing was interrupted by Batgirl’s joining them on the roof.  She had successfully learned the location of Riddler’s new hideout, in what appeared to be an eyewear manufacturer.  Nightwing and Azrael accompanied her as she followed her lead, and it was only once the trio arrived at the corner of 91st and Ipswitch that they saw the sign reading Crynovich Optical Supply had been altered to read merely Cryptic.

Batgirl went down alone, as planned, and radioed in a minute later to report that Nigma wasn’t in but she was positioned in the shadows near the door where she was sure to spot him on his return.

Nightwing gave a satisfied grunt.  The Batlike composure with which he’d received Batgirl’s report melted into helpless amusement as he returned his attention to Azrael.

“Okay.  So,” he began, making a considerable effort to control his grin, “You—No, not you… Jean Paul had a date with Helena, and she spent the night, and you… peeked,” the last word blurted through his lips in a spasm of semi-laughter, not unlike a reaction to SmileX.  “You peeked,” he repeated, regaining control of his voice and breathing.  “And Jean Paul was—understandably, I’d say—upset by this.”

“And it was this dissatisfaction which led to the act of defiance and threats I am compelled to report,” Azrael declared, resuming his account.

“I can’t wait to hear this,” Nightwing said under his breath.

“He has devised a method to prevent my emerging when he is occupied with Miss Bertinelli.”

“GOOD!” Nightwing blurted.  “Good for him.”

“You approve this defiance?  In the history of the Azrael, no host has been permitted to block, hamper, or incapacitate the Azrael persona.  It demonstrates a dangerous and subversive independence of spirit, does it not?”

“Putting a towel on the door while he’s strumming Huntress’s quiver, no.  No, that’s pretty standard operating procedure, Azrael.  Guy’s within his rights, and if you ignore that towel, I do believe he’s entitled to lock you outside the apartment wearing only your socks—but in your case, I guess he’s going to have to be a little more creative with the payback.”

“He is that.  That is the reason for my report.  He has, as I said, devised a means to thwart my emergence and threatened me with it should I act in opposition to his wishes.”

“Yeah?”

“You wish me to disclose it?”

“We’ve come this far, Az, mustn’t stop now.  What’s the threat?”

“He likened the Huntress’s costume and appearance to that of the Catwoman.”

“Oh my god,” Nightwing gasped, his head snapping back with a laughing snort. 

“He had a number of points of comparison, and he said focusing on these thoughts would in no way lessen his exhilaration.”

“No, I don’t imagine they would,” Nightwing managed.

“Should I emerge again while he is engaged in such activities as he does not wish me to observe, he says he shall focus his mind relentlessly on these points of similarity.”

“Azrael, we’ve had our differences, you and me and Jean Paul.  I’ve never liked you much.  But I’ve gotta say, this is turning me around.  When you started your little tale of woe, when you said ‘Jean Paul and Helena,’ I thought to myself, she’ll eat him alive—not in the good way.  I mean, I’ve been there and it’s not pretty.  That woman is a handful.  But any guy who can come up with fixating on Catwoman to keep you at bay while he’s taking care of business, he’s gonna be alright.”

Azrael didn’t move, and certainly his helmet betrayed no expression, but the atmosphere abruptly shifted. 

“You… have ‘been there?’” he asked in a charged gravel.

“Oh,” Nightwing waved his hand dismissively, “ancient history, years ago, was nothing.” 

“I was not aware of this,” Azrael intoned.

Dick wasn’t surprised.  His brief affair with Huntress wasn’t unknown in Bat-circles, but their chief source of gossip had always been Barbara (or “Radio Free Bat” as he called her when she first began her efforts as Oracle).  She obviously wouldn’t have been spreading that particular news item, and the others who knew had been careful not to discuss it in front of her or over the OraCom.  It would be easy for someone like Azrael to remain in the dark.

He is not aware of this,” Azrael added, a pleased, sinister tone creeping into his voice.

“Az?” Nightwing asked, sounding (had he but known it) a bit like Jean Paul.

“Silence, Mortal,” Azrael snapped.  “I must consider this new information.”

 

Batgirl had been trained to read the subtlest body language as a means to predict an enemy’s attack.  There was no subtlety in the Riddler’s approach as he neared his hideout.  He had the gait of a man who was beaten down enough to be dangerous beyond his strength if fought into a corner, but who would withdraw from the fight completely if given the opening.  

As such, she stepped from her place in the shadows so he could see her clearly as he approached the door, rather than waiting until he was trapped with only the locked door of the lair behind him. 

She stood calmly and silently, waiting to see what he would do.  He paused only a second when he registered the sight, the petite but fierce bat agent waiting on his doorstep, and then continued as before, approaching with a weary movement not consistent with rogue bravado.

“Well?” he asked when he reached the door.

Batgirl mutely held out her hand, holding out a green envelope.

Riddler looked at it in wonder, then looked again at her.

“Found this,” she said flatly. “Big words.  Not read.”

 

“THANK YOU!”  the words rang out from the street below. “THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!”

From their vantage point on the roof, Nightwing and Robin looked down.

“He’s happy,” Robin remarked.

“Yeah,” Nightwing agreed, then winced, turning away.  “And now he’s in pain, but still happy, I’d think.”

..:: What happened? ::.. Oracle asked anxiously. 

“Well, he was dancing around on the final thank you, and it looked like he tried to kiss her, so she slugged him,” Nightwing reported.

Oracle laughed, and Nightwing said he’d be home soon.  He closed the com and turned to Robin.

“You’re supposed to be off for ten days,” he said severely. “If that didn’t look like the old ‘coolant bag wrapped around a nested bowl to keep the hot fudge sundae intact coming up the flyline’ trick, you’d be grounded right now, young man.”

“What gave me away?” Robin asked.

“Just the hundred and sixty of those things I delivered over the years.  I know the location of every 24-hour Dairy Queen in the city.  There’s one right down on 89th and you came from that direction.”

“Yeah, well,” Tim murmured sheepishly.

“How’d it happen?  Foozball?  Arm wrestling?”

“Phoenix Ninja,” Tim answered.

“Bro!” Nightwing laughed, “A videogame, you lost on a video game.  You dishonored the mantle by losing to Batgirl on a video game?!”

“If you delivered a hundred and sixty of these losing at foozball, sounds like I’m holding up the tradition of the mantle just fine, Bro.”

“Why I oughta,” Nightwing grumbled jokingly as he stood.  “She’ll be back any second, so I’ll leave you to the groveling.  Tell her tomorrow night, we’ll meet up on the Moxton building at ten sharp.”

“Will do, Bro.”

“Phoenix Ninja,” Nightwing said, firing a line and swinging into the night.

“Foozball,” Robin shook his head sadly.

 

::This is Oliver Queen, I’m not in right now so leave your name and measurements and I’ll get back to you—unless you’re not a hot woman, in which case how did you get this number…::

Dinah hung up without waiting for the beep.  She felt ashamed for even dialing the number, ashamed and foolish.  He would never change.  “Leave your name and measurements,” he would never change!  She once joked his answering machine message should be “Look, you can’t prove it’s mine. I’m not taking any kind of test, so don’t call back—beep!”

Barbara and Stephanie had laughed, but Dinah herself, despite her bright smile, didn’t really feel like laughing.  It was the kind of joke you made to pretend you didn’t care.  The fact was he cheated, time after time.  He would cheat again, too.  If they tried again, he would cheat again.  Some pretty thing would come along, and he’d flirt and cajole and be Mr. Wonderful.  She’d find it charming; they usually did the first time around.  And that would be that.  Not a thought to any promises made, no thoughts of loyalty or love, of the good thing he was wrecking—or the good woman he was hurting.  Just a chance to fire off his arrow –patoinggg– that’s all he’d think of, the rat. 

That’s what would happen, she KNEW that’s what would happen, why was she even THINKING of calling him?

She went back to her dinner, cold by now, but she liked the Szechuan spice better that way.  She picked out a large chunk of chicken with her fingers and bit into it thoughtfully.

Did she just call because she was lonely?  Was she that pathetic? 

Or was it Ollie himself that she missed? 

She threw the rest of the chicken back into the carton and then crossed her arms angrily.

It was all such a mess. Such a hopeless, impossible mess. 

Her eye fell on the fortune cookie in its wrapper, and in a burst of rage she smashed it viciously with her fist, rupturing the plastic and sending a spray of crumbs in all directions. 

“Great,” she mumbled, feeling more of a fool than before as she herded the crumbs into a neat pile at the edge of the table and then swept them gently into her free hand for disposal. 

The fortune itself sat unread and unnoticed on the remains of the wrapper. 

Before you can see the light, you must deal with the darkness.

To be continued...

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