Too Many Long Boxes!

Feast of Fools

by Matt Morrison

Barbara Gordon blinked her sleepy eyes as she glanced at another screen-full of news. It had been a harrowing week for the information broker. She had been going full tilt ever since she received the call about the virus from Superman at the watchtower. As one of the few active heroes who hadn't been infected by the virus or quarantined on the Watchtower, it had fallen to her to be one of the lynchpins in the efforts to stop those who had gone rogue.

For the most part, it was indirect help she gave such as tracking people across the globes and handling communications between the various groups of reformed villains. However, she did take a direct hand in two matters. The first had been in helping to capture her friend and partner Dinah Lance, The Black Canary. The other had been when she made the quick drive to Bludhaven to see if there had been any sign of Dick in the last few days at his apartment.

There hadn't been, and Babs' worries didn't improve two nights later when she picked up a police-band transmission of a young man with a blue and black uniform setting a home for abandoned children on fire. She thought for a moment about those deep blue eyes before she heard the beep of an incoming call from the new JLA headquarters. Quickly, she switched on her microphone.

"Who calls to consult the Oracle?"

"Ah... so this is the Oracle. Very nice to meet you ma'am. Or sir, as the case may be behind that voice modulator." , said a male voice. High and reedy, she thought, and also vaguely familiar.

"You're not Scarecrow."

"No, I'm afraid Dr. Crane is currently asleep. This is the Riddler... I've been elected acting head of the team until he wakes up."

"Oh..." said Babs, now recognizing the voice. "How can I help you?"

"I was going to inquire as how the efforts in Gotham are progressing."

For a moment Babs panicked, barely able to stop the gasp in her throat. Never mind the fact that they were all reformed, nobody but nobody was supposed to know she was in Gotham. She decided to try a gambit and play off Riddler's vanity. Somehow managing to keep a cool edge to her voice, she replied "Surely you know more about Gotham than I do, Mister Nygma?"

She could hear his smile over the phone. "More than likely, but I know a lot more than most people. I ask, because I have just been informed that none of our operatives in Gotham have reported to the base since they left. We thought you might have some inkling of what they are up to. I'm afraid that all we know about what is going on there is what is being broadcast on the major network news. And many of us being Gothamites... well, we're a bit concerned about our hometown. I'm sure you can understand."

'More than you know, bucko' Babs thought as she switched the mike off for a second and gave a quick sigh of relief. The gambit had been unneeded. She switched it back on, her expression souring as the thought of the Gotham operatives.

"I'm afraid not. But you have to admit that the people you sent here are not known for being... team players." Babs said biting her tongue. She had almost said "sane".

"No, they aren't. But there is method to their madness, as Shakespeare would say. Or perhaps I should say there is madness in their methods?"

"Why did you send them?" Babs said with a bit of impatience which, thankfully, the voice modulator would take out. She never liked the idea of them being out on the street, especially now that the city she loved and lived in was depending on... them, of all people.

"If I were to guess Scarecrow's strategy... we know that Batman has been sighted in Gotham and that he has been involved in incidents where the virus was released, like at the airport earlier in the week?"

Barbara winced a bit at the thought of the virus being released on the public as the Riddler continued.

" Unfortunately, unless we know where Batman will strike or what he is up to, we can hardly plan something to work against him. Therefore, I believe Scarecrow was hoping to draw him out into a situation where we would control the variables... or at the very least, create enough headaches in Gotham to keep him distracted from whatever he is planning."

"Assuming he's still in Gotham. He hasn't been sighted here in days." Babs said.

"Yes. Regardless, I think we could do with some more help there. I only have one agent free who I think could be of help. He could manage to keep up with the crew we have there now... and he's much more... reliable."

"And who would that be?"

"James Jesse. The Trickster?"

"I know of him, yes. And you've instructed him to get a full report from them?"

"Yes. That's all I need, unless there's anything I can help you with?"

"No. I'll be in touch. Oracle out."

Babs blinked as she switched the mike off. It made an odd sense. She'd never dealt with The Trickster, but she knew of him by reputation. He often got called "The Flash's Joker", even though that was hardly accurate. About the only thing they had in common was that they were tall, lanky men with wide grins and that they used a lot of weapons based around toys and joke items. Aside from that they were night and day. Trickster was never a killer and tended to play the good guy as often as the bad even in his days as a full-fledged criminal. More importantly, he was sane. Or at least as sane as any man could be when he wore clown pants and anti-gravity boots to work.

Yawning a bit, she pulled up the break on her chair and started to wheel back away from the computer desk. She was surprised she there was a sudden stop and she felt the pressure of hands gripping her wheels. And then she heard him and his breath, the sound she had memorized after hear it so close to her ear so many times.

"What? No comment about needing to improve your security again?"

Barbara reached for the escrima sticks she kept in the side of the chair, wheeling partway around as she struck out on reflex, hitting Nightwing in the chest and knocking him backward. Shocked for a second, Dick Grayson looked at her and smirked.

"Well, you know how to surprise a guy. I was expecting a kiss."

"Stay away from me, Dick. You know I don't want to have to hurt you. And you know that I can if I have to." Babs said as she completed her circle and faced him. She pulled herself up, sitting taller in the chair, her sticks raised in a defensive position.

"Oh, I know.", Nightwing said as he opened up his hand to reveal a small, open vial. "I also know that in about a minute, you're going to go to sleep and when you wake up in a few minutes you'll be seeing things much more clearly."

"Oh yeah. You're seeing things very clearly!", she said with a sarcastic edge that could cut through concrete. "That's why you set an orphanage on fire!" She wheeled towards Dick, trying to ignore the growing urge to close her eyes and the growing nausea in her stomach.

"That was Bruce's idea, and don't worry. It was set to allow everyone plenty of time to get out. The goal was just to put the kids out on the street. Not kill anyone."

"Why on earth-?"

"Call it the latest Wayne Foundation effort to save the world. Rather than let them grow up expecting handouts from others, we're going to let those kids grow up independent. Learn the real value of the world and the feeling of worth you get when you build yourself up. It worked for him and me, after all." Dick said with a grin.

Babs felt her muscles starting to go slack. She tried to make one last effort, lifting her right stick and lunging forward from her chair. She felt herself go off-balance and begin to fly towards the floor. The last things he remembered before blacking out was a pair of strong hands holding her and a soft voice and familiar breath in her ear.

"Don't worry, Barbara. I'll never let you fall."

"You seem troubled, beloved." Talia said as she came up behind Batman as he sat in meditation on a pillow in the middle of his chambers. Although she had said they could easily share a room, he had insisted on remaining proper. At least until her father's plans were finished and time allowed for a formal wedding. She couldn't help but admire that, despite her longing to be with him again.

"Just thinking. Your father's plans to divert attention from our work are going well. Yet all the reformed supervillians working together are slowly proving to be a match for the former heroes. Not that it will matter soon. The preparations are nearly complete."

"It should be easier now that your city no longer concerns you."

"Gotham is always of concern to me, Talia. Your father has helped me to change much in these last few days... to abandon my old notions of right and wrong and what is acceptable to stop the wrong and insure what is right. But he can no more stop me from loving Gotham than he could stop me from loving you."

"Or I you." Talia put her arms around his broad shoulders and gave him a tight hug. "But now your attentions can be focused away from your city... now that two of your disciples are there to distract our enemies."

"And what would you have me focus my attentions on now that they are free?", Batman said with a rare grin. Without a word, she began to pull of his mask and moved around to kiss him. He returned her affection in kind, although for a brief moment his thoughts turned not to the woman in his arms... but to another woman; raven-haired with a purple mask.

Jonathan Crane blinked as he came awake, his mask and hat serving as an impromptu pillow. He was slumped over a counsel in what had become the break room for the new JLA. There were sleeping quarters in the facility, but Jonathan Crane had no intentions of sleeping... just closing his eyes and letting himself rest for a moment. It seemed like days since he had gotten any sleep at all and no doubt it had been several days since he had gotten more than three hours at once.

He had read once that there was no rest for the wicked and had found that to be quite true over the course of the last week. Unfortunately, that also meant there was no rest for the good and that meant he had no time to test the other old saying about the sleep of the just. He had just begun to wake when he heard footsteps in the room. He turned his head and there before him stood T.O. Morrow. Morrow was pouring himself a coffee from a machine set up on the counter.

"Oh! Forgive me for awaking you, Dr. Crane", he quickly said.

"No apologies needed Dr. Morrow. I was already stirring", Crane said as he pulled on his mask, assuming his alter ego of "The Scarecrow.

"Would you like a cup?"

"Thank you, but no. I stopped drinking beverages with caffeine in college, after I learned they can cause increased anxiety."

The Scarecrow stood and began to stretch, an impressive sight considering the length and reach of his legs and one good arm. His other arm had been injured earlier in a battle with Green Lantern, and was still in a sling. "How have our efforts progressed during my nap?"

Dr. Morrow smiled wryly "Nap? It was a bit more than a nap, Dr. Crane. You've been asleep for nearly two days. Nonetheless, things have turned out well."

Crane nodded. "Have we had any major successes in the last few hours?"

"A few. The most recent was Clayface's capture of Elongated Man and Plastic Man."

"Clayface? Which one?" asked the Scarecrow with a quirk of one eyebrow under his mask. "We have so many now..."

"The original one. Basil...whatever his name is..." Morrow said as his brow wrinkled, trying to remember the name.

"Alone? Against those two? That seems a bit surprising that he was able to manage both without some cunning strategy..."

"Well, he was getting commands from our new deputy leader..."

"Ah... you elected a replacement for me?"

"Not a permanent one, of course. We still need your mind for strategy... but we thought it wise to have someone who could think fast and take command on the field. You have been running yourself ragged the last few days, Jonathan. Running from Midway to Detroit to New York and back here... I'm honestly amazed you're still standing now after the last few days." Morrow said giving Crane a look of admiration.

"So whom has been running things during my rest?" Scarecrow said as he completed his stretching exercises.

"The Riddler. We called him back from helping Toyman and Zeus with their fundraising efforts."

"Ah yes. Edward loves a good puzzle..."

"Yes. Mr. Nygma has proven quite inventive in thinking of ways to organize our teams to best counter the abilities of the rogues. It was he who suggested sending a shapeshifter after two other shapeshifters.

"Edward always was a master of strategy. I imagine he's feeling quite pleased with himself."

Morrow smirked. "Rather an understatement. When he got the word that we had Dibny in custody, he did a victory dance around the Hall and said something about finally having gotten him back... whatever that means."

"I'm sure he'll tell us all about it in good detail later." The Scarecrow said with a slight grin. "While the virus may have rid The Riddler of his criminal tendencies, it has apparently not rid him of his desire to gloat in the face of victory."

"We have little time for gloating, Dr. Crane. There is still much work to be done."

"You truly do have the knack for understatement, Dr. Morrow." The Scarecrow said as he led the way toward the meeting room.

The cowled figure moved through the shadow. He had long studied the art of hunting and now had mastered the art of tracking a body through the urban jungle. Granted, it was made more difficult by the small size of the bodies this time... still, it was nothing truly difficult.

Three children were missing in the fire of the orphan's home and the examination of the building found nothing. No burned bodies. No cremated bone fragments. Nothing to indicate the death of those children. A very fortunate thing for he who had set the fire, thought the cowled man as he entered the old building. The building was still abandoned and in disrepair from the earthquake and the time when this city had been No Man's Land. He remembered having passed by this building once during his last trip to Gotham, but he had never entered it that time. It took him but a moment to find the three children, huddled in a corner of the building to stay warm.

As he approached the children, they huddled together closer in awe and fear of the impressive site before them. There were two girls and a boy; none of them older than nine, he guessed.

"Are... are you Batman?" said one of the girls.

The figure smiled under his mask. "Do I look like Batman?"

"I... I dunno... I've never seen him before. I heard he was a b-buh-big man in a mask and that he al-al-ways helped p-people who needed him.", the girl said half stuttering and half shivering.

The cowled man removed the long coat that covered his costume and began to tear it into thirds, each third making an impressive blanket for each of the children. With that he nodded simply at the girl.

"If that is who Batman is, then I am Batman.", the masked man said with a nod.

"Metropolis and New York are still our major target areas." Scarecrow said to the assembled group of reformed villains before him, only a fraction of the total number he had at his command. Some were still engaged in battle. Others like poor IQ and Dr. Spectro, he thought, were too injured to continue the fight. "You all have your assignments. If you do not, report to Riddler or myself and we shall give you one. Are there any questions?"

A hand quickly shot up in the back. "What about Gotham?" said a man with a British voice, nervous but impeccably clear. The Mad Hatter stood as all the eyes in the room turned to him. "Forgive me for saying so Scarecrow, but it seems as if we've been avoiding our hometown."

Scarecrow nodded. He had many reasons for this and he'd been hoping to avoid discussing them until a later time when things were more to their advantage. But now, with Jervis having broached the subject... there was naught to do but press on.

"We have been avoiding it because we have had more pressing problems with the more immediately dangerous threats..." Scarecrow began to say when The Mad Hatter cut him off again.

"Poppycock! We know he's been spotted there and we all know, you and I especially from personal experience," Jervis Tetch said with a wink. "That HE is potentially the most dangerous of all those we will face... and if we give him time to entrench himself further in Gotham... why, there's no telling what he may do!"

"Hat Goy's got a point. Seems to me that all of us that knows the Gat best should be in there right now, working to find him and gring him down together!" said Scarface from a few chairs over as he struggled off the hand of the Ventriloquist.

Out of all the rogues in the room, Scarface had probably undergone the most obvious changes. Famed for his stylish Jimmy Cagney pinstripe suits and fedoras, he was now dressed in what looked like a Keystone Cops costume, complete with a small nightstick. The Ventriloquist, his underling and right-hand in more ways than one, was still dressed in his old tuxedo, looking as nervous as ever... but with a slightly sinister edge in his smile.

"We could take him down quite, easily Mr. Scarface. We could just shoot him in the back. Have Deadshot sniper him from across the street while the rest of us are keeping him busy..." The Ventriloquist said softly. Before he could react, Scarface brought his billy club down on the top of his head, in twisted imitation.

"That ain't the way we do things no more, dummy. No killing. 'Sides, shooting a guy in the gack ain't honorable and our guddy Deadshot only trickshoots other people's weapons out of their hands. Now pipe down before I punch you again, Judy!"

"Sorry Mr. Scarface, sir."

Scarecrow quickly tried to regain attention. "Jervis, I admit that I have been... hesitant in sending a full group into Gotham. This was in part, due to the more immediate threats posed by such individuals as the Flash and Green Lantern. But I also believed that in this case, a small group... or indeed several independent individuals would prove more difficult for Batman and his agents to stop than an large group attacking en masse. That is partly why our efforts in Gotham thus far have been limited to sending in those whose talents lend themselves better to chaos."

"Speaking of which, have we accounted for all of them?" asked the Hatter.

The Riddler shook his head. "We don't know what has become of Azrael and the new Batgirl. Nightwing was among those at Bell Reeve, but aside from a few brief sightings, we have nothing substantial regarding his activities. Robin is unaccounted for but he hasn't been sighted, either. Oracle told us that they believed that Robin won't be a factor...but I don't know how reliable that opinion may be now..."

"How do you mean, Eddie?"

The Riddler sighed. "Oracle shut down all lines of communication with us approximately 36 hours ago. And I have reason to believe that despite Superman's reassurances that Oracle was safe from the effects of the virus, that somehow... they have contracted it."

"How can you be sure of that, Riddler? I mean, there are many other possibilities. Anything from simple computer failure to... one of the rogues having found Oracle and... pulling the plug.", said T.O. Morrow.

"I was just getting to that!" Riddler said with mild annoyance. "I believe that Oracle has turned bad, because several things have happened within the last few hours... things which only a hacker of great skill could have accomplished."

"Which proves nothing, Nygma."

"Oh, it proves something, all right. I put our best to work on studying the activity just in case it was related to our troubles and they found something quite interesting. Giz? Mouse?"

Giz looked slightly uncomfortable as he felt all the eyes on him. He stood calmly, as Mouse just sat and looked up at him. "Go ahead and tell them.,." she said softly.

"Well, we've had experience dealing with Oracle from before we reformed." Giz began. "I'd say that what we're looking at would definitely take that kind of skill... some of what's happened, I don't think I could pull off... I sure as heck wouldn't try it..."

"Excuse me, but if you could humor Rip Van Winkle for a moment... what exactly has happened?" said the Scarecrow.

Giz gulped. "Well, among other things...the checking accounts of several charity organizations based in Gotham and Metropolis have been completely cleaned out, including all the funds of the Wayne Foundation. The alpha copy of Curtains 2002 was stolen and then mysteriously uploaded to various FTP sites around the Internet. And the sound file on the White House Webpage of President Luthor saying "Welcome to the White House." was replaced with an edited sound file of the President and Meg Ryan... to put this tastefully...?"

"Making babies" finished Mouse.

The Scarecrow bit his tongue for a second as a brief burst of laughter traveled around the room. "I see. And the connection to Oracle?"

The Riddler nodded. "Thanks to our two net-savvy compatriots, we got a trace of servers and aliases used by whoever did this. There is a pattern of sorts. Here we have a server in Delphi, Indiana as the site of the White House hack. The person who owned the account used is named Sybil Cumaean. The Wayne Foundation thefts occurred while someone named "Cassandra Pythia" was logged in. She was traced to an ISP in Apollo, Texas..."

"Oh, spit it out, mate!" said an agitated Captain Boomerang.

"Quite simply, all of these aliases have something to do with famous oracles. Apollo? Delphi? The most famous oracle in the world was at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. Pythia is another name for oracle. Cassandra was an oracle condemned to be forever disbelieved. The Sybil of Cumaena is another-"

Scarecrow cut the Riddler off. "Enough, Edward. Fascinating though I do find the subject, I am convinced. Good work, all of you." He nodded to the Giz and Mouse. "Do we have any idea where Oracle is based?"

Giz nodded. "Somewhere in Gotham. In fact, until this mess started we thought Black Canary was the Oracle...old business. But since we've had her in custody for days now and Oracle didn't black out until a day ago..."

The Scarecrow frowned. "Gotham... Batman or someone else must have gotten Oracle, then. Have we heard from our agents there recently?"

The Riddler shook his head. "No. But we just sent The Trickster in to check on the two of them."

"Which two or what three, Said Tweedle Dum to Tweedle Dee" asked the Mad Hatter.

The Riddler answered. "Riddle me this. Who goes where angels fear to tread?"

"The Joke Signal isn't working, Mistah J." Harley Quinn sighed as she started out of the skylight of their new hideout.

"What? How can that be? We just bought a new bulb for the thing yesterday! It can't have burned out that fast!"

"I mean, I don't think it's doing what we want it to do. We were trying to get it to bring Batman to us, right? Well, it's been two days and we've got bupkiss. We can't even get Robin to come knocking on our door." Harley pouted.

The Clown Prince of Crimefighting hmmmed as he looked up from the paper he had been reading. He leaned back his purple felt recliner and taped his pipe thoughtfully. He then raised it to his lips and blew some bubbles through it as he pondered the problem.

"You know, poo... I believe you have a point. The last few days have been a total bust. First thing we do once we hear Batsy and his gang are causing trouble, we swing by Police HQ to have a talk with the new commish and see what's going on...

"Yeah." Harley said. "And the next thing you know, we're running up staircases trying to get away from half the police force, guns a-blazing with Harvey Bullock of all people leading the guys running after us!"

"Yes, that WAS a shocker wasn't it? Old Harv has really slimmed down. Must have switched to the Olestra donuts. Of course, I heard those things will give you the runs...." Joker said with a roll of his eyes as he put down the paper and stood. He began to pace around the room, his pelvis bent so that he walked like Groucho Marx.

Harley giggled at the sight. "So then we got the idea, that maybe if we did something to show the people that we were protecting them now, maybe that would draw Batman out cause he'd get jealous of the attention."

The Joker nodded "So we got ourselves a Jokermobile, painted it up nice and started doing out nightly patrols..."

"Which we quit doing after that one rookie pulled us over."

"Well be fair, Harley! There aren't many men who aren't pimps who drive purple convertibles and most of the hookers in Gotham wear as much makeup as you do! But the nice officer sorted everything out and let us get back on the road after he saw my JLA Membership card."

"Oh, I remembah, puddin'. He must have had good eyesight though... I don't think he got close enough to see the card."

"Well, he must have just recognized me then...."

Harley nodded. "Anyway, we got this new Jokercave with all these cool Jokergadgets and the big Jokersignal in the sky... and Batman hasn't even bothered to come here and find out what the big J in the sky was!"

The Joker nodded. "We should have put my face on the signal. Or maybe a nice outline of the shape of my head. That big J is too confusing. For all Batsy knows, that could be the "Jerk-signal" or the "Jack-signal" that the police use whenever they want to talk to Jack Nicholson..." Joker paused for a second. "If we ever do get the cops on our good side, I'll have to ask them about that. I've got this brilliant idea for a movie about my life and I'd love to offer old Jacko a chance."

"He's good enough to pull you off, Puddin'" Harley agreed.

Joker quickly scowled at her. "Playing me? Harley, obviously I'm going to play myself. I was going to offer him the role of Batman."

"Oh. Can I play myself too?"

"Sure... long as Julia, Sandra and Gwyneth don't return my calls."

"Puddiiiiiiin!" Harley screeched in protest.

"Sheesh! I was just joking!" The Joker grinned as he walked to the windowed door that exited onto the balcony of their "cave" and looked out into the night "But you're right... We need to change the signal. Put up something like... THAT!"

Harley glanced out the window and gasped. Hanging in the night sky was a signal. It was a simple design; a tilted "D" with several vertical lines drawn upon it creating a symmetrical smile.

"Oooh! Maybe the cops are finally ready to talk with us."

"Somebody obviously wants us. Quickly, Harley! To the Jokermobile!"

The Joker ran to a small bust of W.C. Fields, grabbed the red nose, and pushed it. Suddenly, a bookcase on the other side of the room slid aside, revealing two poles labeled "Joker" and "Harley" The two fools ran to their respective poles and jumped, catching them and sliding downwards to the garage where the Jokermobile awaited.

Barbara Gordon grinned as she clicked the "Send" button. Soon it would be complete; four hours of work and the world would soon be witness to a masterpiece of hacking.

Getting all the mailing lists had been a piece of cake. Getting the appropriate files had been a breeze. The tricky part had been compression the main components of the virus into a file under 5000K, but she had finally done it. And now, the "Nabber Virus" would soon be uploaded onto nearly every computer system in the world.

It wasn't a dangerous virus by any means. It didn't delete files or corrupt them. All it did was send a zip file that automatically unzipped to their desktop. The zip file would then automatically be forwarded to every person in the user's address book.

Of course creating such a virus was highly illegal and there were a lot of copyright issues to think of as well. But Barbara didn't care. Even if there was a slightest chance of her being caught, she wouldn't have cared.

It would be well worth it tomorrow morning on the news, Babs thought. Tomorrow... when a certain loudmouthed drummer of a certain metal band who was certainly very much against on-line MP3 trading woke up to find that the entire discography of his band had been uploaded onto most of the computers in the world. Totally free of charge, courtesy of the Oracle.

Babs laughed inwardly at the thought when a voice cleared its throat behind her.

"You didn't reset your alarms after Dick left. Sloppy."

Babs fumed a bit. It was sloppy, but she was having way too much fun with all of her new ideas on how to strike back at the world. She turned around and nodded to Batman.

"I've been busy working on some things..." she said testily.

"So I've heard. Much as I did enjoy seeing Luthor humiliated at having his website hacked, we have more pressing concerns. Or do you want to live to see the world after our plans are done?"

Barbara wheeled around with fire in her eyes. "Let's get one thing straight right now, Bruce." She said. "I'm not your gopher, your intern or your secretary. I'm working for you on my terms. And I'm working on a lot of things to try and make the world a better place, in addition to "our plans". So don't give me a hard time... unless you'd like for Talia to find out about a certain pretty kitty that you've been seeing on the side."

Batman kept his stoneface, but Barbara could tell she had him stunned.

"How did you know about..."

"The Oracle sees all," she grinned. "That and Nightwing saw you two at your makeout point earlier in the week when he was trying to track you down. It would be all to easy for me to take control of a spy satellite just long enough to get some very incriminating we understand each other?"

Batman breathed out deeply and quickly making a "hhhh" sound. "All right. Do you have the probability studies I asked for?"

Oracle reached to the counter and handed a Zip Disk to Batman. "Finished them hours ago, she said as she began to spin back around. "I found severally likely places for the next step to be carried out where it won't effect Gotham."

"Good. We can still save the city and still be able to save the rest of the planet with it." Batman nodded as he turned to move back toward the window.

Barbara waited until he was out the window and waited a minute before reactivating all her security devices. Once she was certain everything was secure, she returned to her computer... and opened up a line into Bruce Wayne's bank account. She had just realized how painfully small her father's retirement pension from the GCPD was and how very happy Bruce Wayne would be to contribute a million or two to the "Let's Buy Jim Gordon A New House" fund.

"Faster, Harley! The Commissioner is waiting for us!" yelled The Joker as he stood up in his seat and began to make a siren noise. He somehow managed to keep his balance as Harley Quinn quickly drove the purple convertible towards the base of the big smile in the sky.

"I could go a lot faster if you didn't make me stop at the red lights, Mistah J!"

"What?!?" said Clown Prince of Crime-fighting as his grin became shocked. "Harley, it's always important to obey the traffic signals. After all, it's the law. Oh, which reminds me. I really should have my seatbelt on," he said as he sat back down and buckled up.

"Hey wait a second! That's not the Central Precinct building! That's some old abandoned warehouse!" Harley said as they neared the light.

"So it is, Harl... let's park the Jokermobile and get up there!"

The cowled man led the children down the cold Gotham streets, his eyes forever watching around them for other predators of the night.

"Umm... mister Batman?" said one of the boys.

"Yes", the cowled man said as he tried to make his usually gruff voice sound gentle. He was surprised when the other girl... the younger one who hadn't spoken before giggled. "What is so funny?"
"Your voice?" she said. "You've got a funny voice. Kinda like Sister Maria."

The man nodded as he turned to the boy. "Your question?"

"Are you taking us back to our parents?"

The man stopped dead in his tracks. "I am taking you back to the shelter."

"I don't want to go back to the shelter! I want to be with my mommy" the boy said suddenly, stamping his foot and giving the cowled man the most defiant look possible.

"Well... I'm afraid there are no other choices. Your mother left you and..."

"No she didn't! She died!" the boy said, his eyes welling up with tears far faster than the masked man thought possible. He looked at the boy for a moment, like a person at the zoo staring at some exotic animal. Suddenly, with surprising gentleness for such a large man, he knelt and pulled the boy into a hug. He whispered an apology and felt the girls come close.

"My mommy died too." Said the younger girl.

"Mine didn't. She said she had to go away for a while and that I'd stay with my aunt. But my aunt didn't want me, so she called the police and told them my mommy was... ne.. ne-glet-fil." She said sounding out the words.

The masked man began to feel his own eyes start to become moist, but he blinked them away. He had precious little time to know his own mother and he empathized greatly with these children as he felt his anger towards the one who left them alone and afraid on the streets increasing.

"I know how you all feel." He said softly, in his accented voice. "My mother left me. And the most terrible thing in the world is for a mother to leave her child. But you must know, and I tell you this is true... mothers very often get very little say in what happens to their children. But all of them would want you to be warm and safe. That is why we must go to the shelter."

The masked man put his arms around all three of the children for a moment and simply held them, his strong arms unused to the task of comforting others. More often they had been used for inflicting pain. No doubt they would do so again, but right now the masked man was content for the simple joy he felt in this expression of love.

He pulled away and stood, looking down at them. "Let us hurry." He said. "We still have a while to walk."

Joker fumbled through the pockets of his newly designed Joker-utility belt. Harley sighed as she watched her Puddin' search. She loved him, but he had become way too much of a boy scout since their change.

"Did ya really need to bring ALL of that with us, Puddin'?"

The Joker continued digging as Harley looked at the ground around their feet and began trying to sort through some of the dropped supplies.

"Let's see... low voltage tazer joy buzzer. Smoke bombs. Itching-powder. Hot sauce powder... a fish in a plastic bag?" Harley said in amazement. "Where'd you get a live fish, Mistah J?"

"The true crimefighter always carries everything he needs in his utility belt, Harley", he said just before he laughed in triumph. "Y-reeka! I found it! The Joker-Rope!"

With a quick gesture, he pulled out a purple plastic gun with a purple and green woven hemp rope. He squeezed the trigger, sending a grappling hook flying onto the roof, with the rope trailing behind. After pulling the hook secure, he motioned to the rope and smiled at Harley.

"Ladies first."

"Why thank you." Harley said as she began to climb the rope, gripping the rope with one hand and then reaching up with the other to pull herself up.

"Careful Harl! Both hands on the Joker-Rope!"

"Sorry Puddin!" she said as she began to pull herself along the rope, keeping her feet planted against the wall.

Five minutes later, the duo stood on the rooftop of the abandoned Acme Rubber Plant, the light of hastily constructed Joker Signal hanging in the night sky.

"Well... this don't look like no Policeman's Ball. Or the Policeman's Other Ball. Looks like we may have been had." Joker said.

"Hmmmm... could be." Said a voice from behind them."

Harley spun around and then screamed. Standing behind her, hovering two feet above the roof-ledge was a blond man with a wide grin that almost rivaled The Joker's. He was wearing a black shirt, a leather jacket and outrageously loud yellow and black stripped clown pants.

"Sorry about the light, but you guys aren't very easy to get a hold of." said the man as he clicked his heels and fell two feet to the roof. He offered Harley a hand and nodded to The Joker.

"Harley, Meet James Jesse. I don't know where Meowth is, but I don't much care. Stupid Japanese animation." The Joker muttered for a moment before returning to his usual cheery self. "He calls himself The Trickster and out of all the clowns to shamelessly rip off my act, he is undoubtedly the best."

James rolled his eyes at the introduction, all the while trying to remind himself that the man before him, while not sane, was not a killer either. Not anymore. He kept up his smile as he nodded to Harley. "Actually, Miss Quinn and I know each other already. Nice to see you again, Harley."

Harley nodded as a confused look came over Joker's face. "We were in the Justice League of Anarchy together."

"Well, bless my boots and call me Wally! You two kids know each other?" The Joker clapped his hands together and chuckled. "Well, not that it's not great seeing you Jimmy... cause it's not... but what brings you to Gotham?"

James clicked his heels again, activating his air-walker boots as he began to pace in midair. "Scarecrow sent me to act as your ace in the hole. I can sneak into whatever groups need sneaking into, since I play the white hat as much as I do the black hat."

The Joker nodded. "Makes sense to me. But then again, so do the lyrics to the song "Horse With No Name"... But that's neither here nor there nor anywhere but here. I appreciate the help, Jimmy. It's talking all that Harl and I can do to keep up with Batsie sightings. And the rest of the crew... well..." Joker's voice suddenly took on the accent of an old Jewish comedian. "They're nice kids, but they don't know bupkiss about the business!"

Harley sighed. "It's no joke, Tricksta. Nightwing has Bullock and his gang run ragged."

"I know. I got the police report from them before I started looking for you guys. Took a phone call from Superman before they'd help me." Trickster said shaking his head. "You guys are REALLY popular downtown. Which reminds me. That Bullock guy wanted me to tell you that as soon as this whole mess is cleared up, he's going to find you and put more lead in you than there is in Texas tap water."

The Joker laughed. "That's our Harvey! So what do the blueboys have for us?"

Trickster pulled a file folder from under his arm and handed it to the Harlequin Hero. "Two eye-witness accounts have him starting the thing. We've got a bunch of kids in child protective services having nightmares of bat demons setting them on fire."

"Nobody was hurt though?" said Harley as she read the report.

"Thank God, no. Just like the homeless shelter the other night. The fires were lit, the buildings burned... but just slowly enough for everyone to get out on time. Whatever he's planning, he's making sure that nobody gets hurt on purpose."

"That's a shame... now I won't be able to rough him up quite as much when we find him." The Joker said with a pout.

So Nightwing has been burning down orphanages and homeless shelters? Why?" asked Trickster.

"That's the $500 question allright." Harley said with a nod just before the sound of an explosion reverberated across the cityscape. A red glow filled the night sky; the telltale sign of a fire somewhere nearby.

"Great Gigglers!" yelled The Joker.

"Holy Hanna, Puddin!" shrieked Harley Quinn.

"And there's the $500 answer" said The Trickster as he kicked his boots back into anti-grav mode.

"Right! Jimmy, you take the high road... we'll be right behind you... soon as I get the rest of my Joker-junk from downstairs!"

Nightwing grinned to himself as he dropped the gas can into the flames and began to run for the rooftop. 'Boy... those firebombs make a lot of noise for something so small. Oh well. Chalk up one more victory for the Wayne Corp Liberation Project" he thought to himself as he jumped for the rooftop of the next building. He made the leap easily and began to move for the next roof when he saw something that stopped him dead in his tracks. It was a man in bright yellow pants, walking in open arrow in his general direction.

"Trickster" he muttered under his breath as he grabbed a deceleration cable from a glove compartment. Latching it onto the ledge, he jumped down the space between buildings, the cable slowing his fall as he landed in an alley. He was about to run out of the alley when he saw a purple convertible with two familiar figures at the wheel ,parking across the street.

"Joker and Harley?" he thought as he ducked deeper into the alley. "They must have been waiting for me."

Nightwing all but held his breath as he watched the two clownish heroes hop out of the car, and after sorting through a variety of items in the backseat, they began to run off towards the fire. Once the coast was clear, he sighed with relief and began to run for a fire escape he saw leading back up to the roofs.

The masked man and his charges were only a few blocks from the children's shelter when the firebomb went off. The children's eyes went wide as flames began to dance upon the roof of the shelter. Children and workers began to race out of the building, meeting across the street.

The masked man was about to lead the children to the building crowd, when a purple convertible screeched past him, coming to a stop a few feet away. Out of the car, two familiar figures from his last time in Gotham jumped out. He began to approach them, when he saw a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye. Looking to his right... he saw a flash of blue disappear into the shadows of an alley.

"Nightwing..." he muttered, his jaw tightening as one of the children tugged on his pant leg.

"Isn't that the Joker, Mister Batman?"

"Yes. But do not be afraid. Today he is a good man."

The children looked confused for a second, until The Joker turned and saw them. He immediately ran up to them, his smile even wider than usual.

"Well hello there, kiddies. Say, isn't it WAAAAAAY past your bedtime?" The Joker said as he looked up at the masked man. "Say, you look familiar. Didn't I see you fighting vampire women in some B-Movie once?"
"I very much doubt it.", the masked man said. "I just saw the one who set this fire. I intend to hunt him down and bring him back here to answer for what he is doing. Will you see to these children?"

"Okay, but I charge five bucks an hour and I reserve the right to eat anything in the fridge."

The cowled figure looked down at the three children. "Go. Join them, he said motioning across the street. "I must go and catch the one who did this."

"Okay. Thanks, Mister Batman!" said the outspoken older girl as she started to lead the other two across the street.

"Wait kids!" yelled Joker as he ran to the children. "You should always look both ways across the street before crossing and let a grown-up cross with you!" He helped the children over to a crowd of very confused social workers and then ran back across the street. "Okay Harley! Start cranking the ladder, I'll get the hoses ready!"

The cowled man shook his head in disbelief as he turned to ran after Nightwing.

James Jesse had decided that first thing he was going to do after this mess was over was build some kind of special anti-fire device. Kind of ironic really. All his life, he'd devoted himself to making toys that blow up... and now here he was searching his bag of tricks for something to stop an fire that was started by an explosion.

All he had come up with was two bottles of compressed seltzer water. He had originally designed these bottles to release a high-pressure spray of water; about three hundred pounds of force for about five seconds. It was a fast way to make a floor slick (and all the better to send a certain Scarlet Speedster slipping) and even could be used as a one- shot way of knocking a running man down.

James was quickly discovering however, that it made little headway against a large fire on top of a roof. He was a little relieved however when he saw a ladder coming up the side of the building, The Joker atop it.

The Clown Prince of Crimefighters was quite a sight. He had what appeared to be a large firehose in both hands and was wearing what appeared to be a child-size fireman's helmet, which was secured to his head with a small piece of string.

"Never fear! The cavalry's here!' he yelled with a whoop.

"Should I bother asking why you just happened to be carrying a firehose and an extendible ladder in your car?"

"What kind of clown would I be if I didn't have a ladder and firehose in my car?" The Joker said with a shrug. "You got any more tricks that can help?"

The Trickster shook his head. "Just ran out of water."

The Joker nodded. "Well, it's best to remember what the Boy Scouts say... be prepared! But chin up, Jimmy. If you hurry, you can catch up with Bird Boy. An old friend of ours is already chasing him down."

"An old friend? Who..."

"Well, not really an old friend... in fact, he tried to break my neck the last time I saw him... but hey, who knows who's on what side anymore since that virus got released? Now go away kid, you're bothering me."

Trickster shrugged and began to move the direction Joker had pointed as The Prince of Pranksters himself craned his neck and shouted down to Harley Quinn. "Okay Harl! Turn on the water!"

"You got it, Puddin!"

The female clown spun the knob on the end of the hose. The Joker tensed, his arms straining to hold the hose as he posed heroically before the crackling flames. Finally, the hose began to fill with liquid and with a tense expression on the face of the Joker... one tiny drop fell out of the tip of the nozzle.

The Joker's eyebrows bent inward as he glared down at Harl. "Turn it ALL the way, Harley." He said softly, before breaking into a loud laugh as water began to gush forth.

Nightwing was about halfway to Barbara's apartment when the masked man suddenly jumped at him from behind a large air-conditioning unit.

"You?!?!" Nightwing shouted in amazement as he jumped back, flipping and rolling away from the masked man. Of all the people he'd expected to see chasing after him, the masked man before him ranked low on the list. "What are you doing in Gotham?"

"I had heard the news of what has been happening to masked heroes around the world. This virus had the stink of The Demon all over it. When I heard about the attacks on orphanages and shelters around Gotham, I thought it too slim a chance to be coincidence. I came here to get my revenge on them both and finally prove myself the superior to the both."

"Well, I've got news for you, pal..." Nightwing said steeling himself. "They aren't here. I'm the man in Gotham now."

"It does not matter," the masked man said as he approached. "I came to Gotham with revenge on my mind, but I was in the airport when the virus was released. I managed to escape before they corralled all those they quarantined. I find myself... a changed man now."

"Good, bad... it doesn't matter. I'm going to cut you down whether you want revenge or not"

"I am past revenge now, Nightwing. This is about children. The children you drove into the streets. Children I found crying in a dark hole. Children who go through what no child should... like I did. Like what your mentor did."

Nightwing spun the sticks in his hand. "You're starting to bore me with the sob story here. Let's just get this over with... Bane."

Bane nodded. "Yes. Let's."

Nightwing slid a razor-sharp Nightarang into his hand as Bane charged him. The acrobatic hero threw of the thin boomerangs at the larger man, while simultaneously running towards him. With amazing timing, he leapt and grabbed Bane's shoulder with one hand, just as the Nightarang hit him in the side.

The force of the blow knocked the newly reformed villain back, forcing him to bend at the waist. With the momentum from his run, Nightwing was able to use Bane as a vault and jump around past him while he was momentarily stunned. He continued to run for the roof-ledge as Bane grabbed his wounded side and continued to pursue the young hero.

"You do not escape that easily." Bane said softly as he grabbed for Nightwing. The hero was just about to leap from the rooftop, when Bane's free hand grabbed a hold of his ankle. Suddenly stopped, the acrobat slammed downward, his ankle twisting as his momentum ran out. Nightwing found himself dangling upside down from the roof-ledge, Bane's grip on his pained ankle the only thing saving him from a long fall.

Nightwing glanced around desperately for a way out; A ledge...a fire escape... or a rain gutter like the one about six feet away to his right. Grinning, he let one more Nightarang slide from his glove. Looking up, he grinned at Bane.

"Going down!" he said simply as he threw the bladed weapon into Bane's arm. Screaming from the shock, Bane lost his grip and the former Boy Wonder began to fall downward. Twisting his body, Dick grabbed a hold of the gutter lightly and tried to get his good foot against the wall. With that done, he began to slide down the gutter like it was a fireman's pole, hoping and praying that the pipe was strong enough to hold his weight.

It was strong enough, and he was able to slow his descent enough to make a relatively painless landing in the dark alley below. Wincing from the pain of his twisted ankle, Nightwing began to limp through the shadows of the alley, looking for a likely place to use his grappling gun that would be out of Bane's view. Once back on the roof, he could flip his way along the roofs and swing between buildings... keeping the weight off his dead foot until he could get back to Barbara.

Bane grunted a bit as he lifted himself from the roof, his hands moving to his cuts. They were superficial wounds, he knew. Nothing that would not heal eventually. Still, the shock of them did stun him long enough to allow the student of his enemy to escape.

"You okay, pal?" a voice said from above him. Bane spun around and looked up, surprised to see a man in bright orange and black-striped pants standing in midair.

"My wounds are not serious, but I will not be "okay" until he is brought to justice for what he has done to those children." Bane then blinked under his mask. "Are the children safe?"

"Yeah. They had just gotten them all out of the building. Joker and Harley are still helping contain the blaze."

Bane nodded. "Then we must continue our chase of Nightwing... he just fell into the alley, but I twisted his ankle as he tried to escape. He will not be able to get far unless he gets back on the roofs."

"The roofs? Well, call me crazy but won't he be able to hide better on the ground?"

"He will try to keep moving, rather than risk being caught while hiding. He is very much like his teacher."

"So I've heard. But won't he have a hard time moving across the roofs?"

Bane shook his head. "He is a trained acrobat, so he will be more at home where he has room to move and doesn't have to depend on his feet."

Trickster nodded as he pulled a small box from his pants. "Right... I'll keep an eye out for him. You do something about those cuts. This will help." Trickster tossed the small box to Bane as he began to run off on the air. Bane caught the box and looked at it. It was a small first aid kit. He had begun to open the kit, when he heard the approach of sirens. Sighing, he moved towards the shadows of the roof. The last time he checked he was still a wanted man in Gotham. And even on this day when fools became heroes, he doubted very much that he would find much sympathy among the police of Gotham.

A moment later, Nightwing found his opening and was back on the rooftops and moving towards Barbara's apartment. He was nearly there when he heard a flapping noise. 'Wind-blown cloth" he thought to himself as he continued to move, taking one quick glance behind him as he flipped into the space between buildings. What he had seen was The Trickster... about 100 feet behind him, running on thin air.

"Babs, where are you?!?" Nightwing yelled as he limped through the apartment. "We've got to get out. Now. We've got clowns to the left of us and Joker to the right!"

"Here I am." Babs said as she wheeled herself out of the bathroom. "What's wrong? We can just hide out here..."

"No we can't... The Trickster is chasing me and the police will be here in a second along with Harley and The Joker."

"What?!?" You lead them here? Dick, you id-"

"You can chew me out later, Barbara!" Dick said as he grabbed Barbara's hands. " If we hurry we can get on the road to Bludhaven and hide out at my place." He looked into her eyes as he spoke softly.

She returned his gaze as she got that warm feeling she always got looking into those baby blues.

"When we get out of this... I am going to give you the biggest-"

Smoke suddenly engulfed the room, coming forth from a small plastic globe that flew in from the open window. Coughing and sputtering, Dick grabbed for the back of Barbara's chair and began to push, using the chair to support his weight as he tried to push them both with his good leg.

"C'mon... we've got to get out."

Outside, The Trickster stood on open air... cursing under his breath that Nightwing now had a hostage... whatever person lived in this big loft apartment. He heard coughing and a shout of "C'mon!" Reaching into his bag of tricks, he began to walk downward.

The door leading out of the underground garage creaked open, as Dick nervously glanced outside. "No sign of the clown!" he reported to Barbara as he rubbed his bruised arm. "You know, you didn't have to hit me for pushing the chair out of the room."

"I don't like being pushed! I can move myself just fine.", Barbara said as she put down her escrima stick.

"Yeah.. Yeah... now let's get out of here before the rest of the insane clown posse shows up..."

"Bit late for that." The Trickster said as he touched down in the driveway, his hands balled up with his fingers pointing upward.

"Give it up, Nightwing. You're cornered."

"Never threaten a desperate man, Trickster. First rule of being a hero." Nightwing said as he grabbed at Barbara with one hand, a razor-sharp Nightarang slipping into his hand easily as he moved to it. "One move and I cut her a new smile."

Barbara's eyes widened "What?! Don't you dare..."

The Trickster didn't even blink. "Yeah... but you forgot the first rule of being a con-artist"

Nightwing quirked an eyebrow as he took a step backward. "Which is?"

"Never give a sucker an even break.",

James Jesse grinned and opened his left hand, throwing a small capsule to the ground before the couple. "Another smoke bomb" Nightwing muttered as he closed his eyes from the sting of the smoke and began coughing. He dropped the Nightarang, his bluff called and tried to get the rebreather he kept in his right glove compartment. He had just found the compartment when he felt something wet and sticky fly around his hands. He tried to pull his hand free, but found that it was stuck fast. He opened his eyes to see Trickster standing ten feet away, holding an aerosol can and covering him with what looked like silly string.

"Silly String?!"

"Sort of. I designed it myself. Special chemical polymer that's sticky as chewing gum, but it streams out like spider-silk. Just the thing for children's parties and intense hostage situations."

Barbara began to wheel herself forward, her hand slipping to her side as she reached for her sticks. "Thank you very much for saving me.", she said in the sweetest voice possible. "Is there anything I can do to thank you?"
Trickster nodded as he turned the can onto her and began to spray her with the sticky string.

"Yeah... stay put... and don't think I'm pushing you. I know you can move just fine. That's the problem, in fact."

Barbara gasped a bit. "You heard..."

"Just enough to know not to let you set wheel near me. But don't worry... I know neither of you are in your right mind."

Barbara sighed and merely stared ahead as the sound of police sirens grew ever closer.

"Apparently, he broke a vial with the virus while struggling with Ms. Gordon. We've got her in lock-up along with Nightwing until we get a cure for the virus." The Trickster said over the video-conferencing link as he spoke to Superman, Martian Manhunter, The Riddler and The Scarecrow. Four men, each two of the foremost members of two different Justice Leagues.

"So what happened to your teammates?" The Scarecrow asked.

"Joker and Harley are back in hiding already. They split after the cops showed up last night... and considering how things in Gotham are, I can't blame them. I haven't seen the big guy with the mask either." Trickster said wrinkling his brow.

"Well, do keep us informed on anything more suspicious in Gotham."

"Will do. Jesse out."

The transmission from The Riddler and The Scarecrow cut out as well, leaving Superman to look at J'onn.

"We're very lucky that Trickster got to the building first and that he didn't see anything. Had Joker gotten in there..." J'onn said.

Superman sighed deeply. "Barbara might have gone over the line." he finished. "She and I talked once and... she told me that sometimes she felt if she had the chance to kill him, she would take it."

J'onn nodded. "Most survivors of a violent attack feel that way towards their attackers, even if they are normally quite calm and rational."

"Still, she's one of the strongest people I've ever met. Sometimes I doubt even I could live through what she has."

J'onn allowed himself a slight, thin-lipped grin. "Says the man who came back from the dead."

Superman smiled back; a rare sight in the last few days. "Can I use the computer for a second? Clark Kent has some e-mail for work he has to check, even though he is laid up with a particularly nasty flu bug?"

"Of course," said the Martian hero as he pushed himself away from the terminal and stood. "I have some messages of my own to send regarding my own identities absence."

Superman nodded as he pulled up a screen and then blinked at the desktop. "J'onn... you're the only one who has used this terminal recently?

"Yes. Why do you ask?"

"I was just wondering... how long have you been a Metallica fan?"

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