Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right—
And here I am, stuck in the middle with you.
--Stealers Wheel, "Stuck in the Middle with You"
“Sometimes I feel like every choice I make creates another universe for each possible outcome,” Duela says to him the morning after the night they first meet. The kitchen is filled with early morning light and she has her hand on a box of cereal. “I choose to have cereal for breakfast instead of toast, and there’s another two universes right there, a cereal universe and a toast universe.”
His spoon makes a middle-C clink against the ceramic coffee cup as he stirs in the sugar. The computer array is humming in the other room and birds are twittering off the balcony, normal and surreal at the same time. The sun falls in a slant over Duela, illuminating the back of the faded t-shirt and pink sweatpants she slept in. There is a faded green lick of a bruise on the back of one calf.
“Which one do you want to live in?” the Jokester asks her.
She smiles at him, her lips still faintly stained with last night’s makeup. “Eddie would never say that,” she says, as if that confirms something for her.
Faint music starts playing down the hall, and then dims abruptly when a door shuts. Somewhere else, a shower starts. It is all normal, except the Jokester is looking at the bruise on the back of Duela’s leg and wondering if she got it from fighting costumed villains on a rooftop somewhere.
The Jokester pushes back his chair. “I make a mean pancake,” he says, searching the cupboards for ingredients.
She hugs him then, unexpectedly, resting her head on his shoulder. It makes him freeze, still reaching up for the bag of flour.
“You don’t need to wear your makeup when you live here,” she says into the shoulder of his suit.
He looks down at her and her eyes confirm it for him. Eve has blue-grey eyes, the color of pigeon feathers. The Riddler’s eyes are solidly brown. But Duela’s eyes are lavender, just like his, and more than anything else, that tells him that she’s really his daughter.
He puts his arm around her shoulders and hugs her tight. “I forgot I was wearing it,” he lies.
The Riddler is a douchebag. Case in point:
The way he wears that Bluetooth headset all the freaking time.
He carries a little bottle of hand sanitizer around and uses it constantly.
Those sunglasses, even at night, even indoors.
The stupid insistence on skin-tight costumes for his whole family. Duela is sixteen, for Pete’s sake! It’s just obscene.
Pretending that his last name really is Nigma, because E. Nigma is totally something someone would actually name a child who coincidentally grew up to become the Riddler.
Eve cleans guns in her bedroom. It makes the Jokester hesitate in the doorway until she looks up, her eyes cool.
“What do you want?” she asks.
The Jokester shrugs. “Just wanted to say hello,” he says.
She looks down at her guns again and doesn’t answer, so he takes that as an invitation. Her bedroom is cluttered with things left abandoned—a thigh holster in mid-repair, a spill of mismatched earrings, a mug with an inch of cold coffee in the bottom.
He knew Eve sixteen years ago, when they were both in high school and she was this soft, flowery, feminine thing with pink fingernails and curly blond pigtails. This Eve, now, is a stranger.
He studies a picture frame on a shelf—a much younger Duela and the Riddler out of costume in a park. The Riddler’s eyes are hidden behind sunglasses and he’s smirking in a way that the Jokester has already come to loathe but Duela has her arms around him and is grinning widely, looking content.
“Have you said hello yet?” Eve asks her gun.
“Eve—” the Jokester starts.
“I’m not Eve!” she snaps at him.
“Then who are you?” The Jokester sits down in a desk chair, watching Eve’s hands work with a fluid competence.
“You can just call me Three Face,” she says coldly.
He doesn’t know what to say and so he lets the silence lengthen. There is a collection of shot glasses on one shelf and he wonders which one of her collects them. There’s a pile of Time magazines on the desk. He lifts the edge of the stack and finds underneath a well-worn copy of The Great Gatsby. He pulls it out from under the stack and flips through it.
“Remember when we met in the park?” he asks quietly. Three Face doesn’t look up or stop what she’s doing, but he continues doggedly on. “You were reading a book and I fell into the fountain? And you rushed over to see if I was okay, and when you asked me why I fell in, I said that I had been trying to read over your shoulder?”
She says nothing. Her fingernails are dirty, unpolished, bitten short. She has gun calluses on her fingers.
“You lent it to me afterwards. It was Grapes of Wrath, right?”
“The Great Gatsby,” Eve corrects him automatically.
He smiles and doesn’t say anything when her hands go still on the guns. She looks up at him. Her eyes are as blue-grey as he remembers them being on that first day, when he couldn’t look anywhere but at her.
“You brought me to your house to use your clothes dryer because I’d get in trouble if I went home with wet clothes,” the Jokester says softly. “And your mother came home while we were waiting for the clothes to dry and all I was wearing was your bathrobe.”
She ducks her head but he can see her smile suddenly. In the part in her hair, where the spiky red hair is separated from the long black hair, he can see her roots are starting to grow in blond.
“You got in trouble with your dad anyway,” she says.
“Well, I was late getting home,” he replies with a careless shrug.
She puts the gun down on the bed and rubs gun oil between her thumb and forefinger. “He broke your wrist,” she says.
He lets the book slap shut. “Why did you leave, anyway?”
Something shutters in her eyes. “Are you still here?” she says.
He gets to his feet. “Not anymore.”
The house is painfully modern, mostly poured cement and glass expanses. The guest room that they put the Jokester in is on the second floor and it has a window overlooking the yard of the compound. After living on his own for so long—since he left home when he was eighteen, to be honest—it’s weird to hear other people moving around in the same house, to hear a shower running somewhere, to hear the chatter of a television downstairs, to smell coffee brewing when he hasn’t gotten up and made it himself.
His own apartment is quieter. He rents, because he doesn’t see a point in buying something permanent when he’s only going to die soon. It’s a ridiculously expensive apartment and it lets him have a private entrance and garage space for his ridiculously expensive cars and gadgets, and he never has to interact with the neighbors because he doesn’t want them to know the Jokester lives there. If they knew, Owlman would know, and Owlman would kill the neighbors just to teach him a lesson. The lesson, by the way, is ‘continue living in this world and I’ll destroy everything you’ve ever touched’ and he’s learned it already, thanks.
Or maybe he hasn’t, because he can’t bring himself to take off the makeup. It’s a routine. Makeup when he rolls out of bed. Let it smear all day, only touch it up if his flesh starts to show through. At night, scrape it off haphazardly, avoid his reflection in the mirror, crawl into bed and feel his raw face breathe, his scars exposed to the air for the first time all day, until sleep swallows him whole and when it spits him out again, he can’t get the makeup on fast enough.
Even if he didn’t wear makeup and tried to have a normal life, people would know who he was, he tells himself. It doesn’t matter if he wears makeup or not. He’s always the Jokester. Always.
The Riddler’s real last name, incidentally, is Dawes.
There’s a certain point when things shift, and looking back, he can’t tell when it happens. It’s just that whoever makes the coffee in the morning starts making enough coffee for four, and when the delivery truck comes with the groceries, there’s the Jokester’s favorite brand of frozen pizza, the stuff that he practically lived on when he was a poor unknown comedian, even though he only remembers mentioning it offhandedly once.
The days split into a regular schedule. In the mornings, mostly, the Jokester gets up early and finds breakfast on his own. Either Three Face or the Riddler have already been up, because there is fresh coffee in the pot, but he doesn’t see anyone until Duela stumbles out of bed to help him make pancakes or scrambled eggs or French toast. They try to make something different every day until they start to get really weird, fried eggs on top of leftover cold pepperoni pizza, or chocolate cake, or peanut butter and pickle sandwiches, until Duela finally says that she doesn’t think she wants to live in a universe with peanut butter and pickle sandwiches for breakfast, and then they go back to pancakes. The Jokester likes watching her laugh because it’s Eve’s laugh and Eve doesn’t laugh anymore.
After breakfast, Duela will go to school, which she really hates. She’s old enough now that she could drop out if she wants to, but it’s a unanimous decision among the five of her parents that she stay in school. In her jeans and t-shirt, with flower barrettes in her hair, she could be any sixteen-year-old girl.
With her gone, the Jokester will try to find something to do. Back at home, he would work on his arsenal of gadgets, inventing or fine-tuning or just fooling around. But he’s left all of that stuff at home, and the workshop here is the sole domain of the Riddler, and it’s where the Riddler spends his days.
He’s not sure why he doesn’t just go home again. It’s not like he has a reason to stay here. He just can’t make himself leave.
The Jokester isn’t really sure where Three Face goes. On the second day, he makes two sandwiches and brings one to her bedroom at lunch, but she’s not there, and though he roams the entire compound, he never finds her. He’s pretty sure she must be around, though, because the extra sandwich disappears from the fridge mid-afternoon. After that, he starts making an extra sandwich every day and leaving it out for her.
Duela usually gets home around two in the afternoon, unless she’s hanging out with her boyfriend. She’s pretty good-natured about the Jokester’s spontaneous set of dating rules that he comes up with after hearing about this boyfriend—namely that she can’t date until she’s twenty-five, that she had better be using protection and dear God if she’s sexually active he’s going after her boyfriend with hedge clippers and he’s not joking young lady. She won’t tell him her boyfriend’s name, but that’s probably for the best. The Jokester would probably end up stalking the poor kid to put the fear of God in him.
When Duela gets home, Three Face will reappear from wherever she’s been hiding and the Riddler will come out of his garage. The television will turn on with the news and someone will head into the kitchen to start pulling some sort of dinner together. Three Face cooks like she cleans her guns—competent and methodical. The Riddler shows a startling propensity for complicated dishes and will sometimes come out of the garage early in order to spend a few hours cooking, and will come up with things like poached salmon and fingerling potatoes with a port wine reduction and steamed asparagus. It is always, as with everything he does, perfect.
The Jokester cooks like a bachelor, which usually means box mix and pasta. And yeah, maybe he could cook something a little more complicated, but after the first time the Riddler comes up with one of his concoctions, the Jokester finds himself going for the Kraft macaroni and cheese in a sort of knee-jerk reaction. The Riddler will make some comment about immature palates and the Jokester will return with something about stuck-up assholes and things will progress from there.
Nights, they’ll patrol, or plot to foil Owlman’s plans some way or another. And the focus is specifically Owlman, even though the whole Crime Society is a big problem. Three Face has an almost single-minded (which, for her, is impressive) focus on the man. The Jokester certainly isn’t one to complain, considering his own obsession with the guy, but he notices. Three Face and the Riddler will make detailed plans and Duela will do homework and the Jokester will alternate between the two.
When they fight, they try to fight as a group. Three Face and the Riddler and Duela have been training together for a long time now, but it’s hard for the Jokester to fit into their team effort. He’s used to doing his own thing and not paying too much attention to the fallout. Fights on rooftops generally don’t involve too many innocent bystanders and he doesn’t pay attention to his own physical safety, so he hasn’t learned to reign in the crossfire. When the Riddler stumbles, choking, out of the cloud of tear gas that was meant for Talon, the Jokester realizes, after his initial hilarity, that he’s going to have to change his whole mindset now that he has a family.
It’s that six-letter f-word that gives him pause. Family, to him, is something to appease when he can and avoid when he can’t. Family is something that he is kind of embarrassed about when the interviewers ask him about it, and that he pretends doesn’t exist when father’s day rolls around, and that he hasn’t really thought about in sixteen years. Family is something that he is afraid of having, because he knows that kids who were abused tend to turn into men who abuse, and he never wanted that.
But now he can’t avoid it, whether he wants to or not.
One afternoon, about a week into his time there, he runs into Three Face coming out of the garage, wearing her biking leathers. She’s smirking at something the Riddler said to her, looking over her shoulder at her as she lets the door to the garage swing shut.
“Hey,” the Jokester says in greeting, trying to ignore the stab of something like jealousy in his chest. “Where’ve you been?”
She turns and studies him, her smirk cooling. “You put on your makeup every day, but you never leave the house,” she says, pushing past him.
He follows her back into the kitchen. “Where did you go?”
She gets a glass and fills it with water from the sink. “Just out. Can’t stand this fucking tomb.”
“Then why do you come back?”
She drains the glass and then hesitates. “Because I’m outnumbered,” she says finally. He wonders which one she is.
“Want your sandwich?” he asks as a peace offering when she starts to go for the door.
“Sandwich?” she says blankly, and disappears into the hall.
The Riddler is fixing a flat on the motorcycle when the Jokester comes into the garage. He’s wearing his sunglasses and Bluetooth headset (douchebag) but not his costume, which is kind of a relief because it’s really hot in there and the Jokester doesn’t really want to see sweat-damp skin-tight spandex.
“Back for more?” the Riddler asks, not turning around at his footsteps.
“God no,” the Jokester replies, and this time the Riddler turns around and actually blushes. The Jokester sort of wants to laugh and punch him at the same time, so instead he puts the sandwich down on the seat of the motorcycle.
“Oh. Thanks,” says the Riddler, pulling off his gloves. “I, uh, thought you were someone else.”
“Eve, I hope,” the Jokester replies. The Riddler gives him an unamused look and reaches out to adjust a wrench where all of his tools are laid out on the floor, impeccably arranged by size.
“Did you want something?”
The Jokester shrugs and circles the motorcycle, looking around. “Does she go out every day?”
“Pretty much.” The Riddler munches into the sandwich. “You make good sandwiches, by the way.”
“Well, immature palates and all that,” the Jokester says with a shrug. The Riddler smiles and continues to eat.
“What happened to her?” the Jokester asks after a pause. The Riddler looks at him, then the bike, and then seems to understand.
“You should ask her, not me,” he says.
“She was just Eve when she left me,” the Jokester continues.
“And she was Three Face when I met her. I wasn’t there for whatever happened.” The Riddler looks irritated. “I don’t know what happened. It’s none of my business. If she hasn’t told me in eight years, she’s not going to.”
The Jokester frowns at that and falls silent. The Riddler wipes crumbs off his hands and picks up the wrench again.
“Need help?” the Jokester asks.
The Riddler gives him a look, then something eases in his expression.
“Yeah,” he replies.
That’s how it starts.
He dreams that there’s a barrier between them, separating him from Three Face and the Riddler. It’s invisible and shifting and he knows he can’t cross it because he’ll die if he does.
They reach out to him, looking encouraging. Three Face holds out her hands and mouths words that he can’t hear. Riddler gestures at him to come closer but he hangs back. He can’t do it. He’ll die, don’t they understand that?
They look disappointed but they keep reaching. He points at them, at how they fit together like puzzle pieces, like a team, making up for each other’s weaknesses. There isn’t room for me there, he says.
He wakes up confused and realizes he forgot to take off his makeup last night. Standing in the bathroom, scraping off the old makeup to reapply it, he avoids his reflection in the mirror. It doesn’t take a shrink to figure that dream out, thanks.
As soon as the Jokester pushes open the door to the garage two days later, he hears the Riddler’s voice, sounding strained.
“I didn’t mean to sound like I thought you were stupid. I know you’re intelligent, I just—”
“I know it’s dangerous,” Three Face returns, her voice angry. The Jokester eases the door shut behind himself and stays where he is, watching. From here he can see the two of them standing on either side of the motorcycle, both leaning towards each other as if magnetically attracted. The Riddler looks tightly wound, as the Jokester has come to learn is his normal stance in an argument—as if he has to stay perfectly in control of the situation.
Three Face is the opposite. She goes loose-limbed when she fights, as if violence is relaxing to her. She stands with her arms hanging at her sides, ready to swing at him if the situation warrants.
“You throw yourself into fights,” the Riddler says. “It’s like you don’t care if you get hurt. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I don’t care,” Three Face says offhandedly. “If it gets the job done.”
“Owlman is not worth it!” Riddler explodes, throwing up his hands. “None of them are worth it. You’re obsessed. Maybe we should all just take a break from fighting them for a while.”
“We can’t do that,” the Jokester says. They both turn to him, startled. He pushes away from the door and approaches them. “We can’t just leave them to do whatever they want.”
“You’re not part of this conversation,” Riddler snaps. Three Face crosses her arms over her chest.
“He’s right,” she says to Riddler. “When they’re fighting us, they’re not killing people. We can’t give them free reign.”
“This is ridiculous! You don’t care about saving lives! Neither of you do! You just want to fight Owlman!”
“What’s the difference?” the Jokester says coolly.
“Ever since you came she’s been even worse,” Riddler says. “You’re both obsessed. And the difference is that if you and Owlman were the last people left in the world you’d still fight him to the death.” He turns his head to Three Face. “You can’t let him kill you. You can’t do that to Duela, or me.”
“I’m not going to let him kill me,” Three Face says. “I’ll kill him first.”
“Just stop thinking about him,” Riddler begs. “There are other things in this world.”
“No, there’s not!” the Jokester exclaims. “You don’t understand—”
“Believe me, I understand,” the Riddler interrupts. “He scarred you and drove you insane and now you want revenge.”
“I am. Not. Insane.” The Jokester bites off the words in fury.
“No? Tell that to the pills I’ve seen you taking.”
“You’re pathetic,” Three Face says to Riddler. “Look at you. You’re jealous. As if you’re anything different from us. You dress in a costume and fight crime because your daddy thought you were stupid and you have to prove him wrong. The only reason you’re not getting revenge on him is because he’s already dead. Don’t think you’re better than us.”
The Riddler takes a breath to respond, then stops. “This isn’t about that,” he says finally, his face wooden.
“You don’t need to fight Owlman if you don’t want to,” Three Face continues, turning away from them already. “Go on, take Duela and pretend to be normal. You can still do that.”
She stalks out of the garage. The Jokester follows her, sparing a glance for the shattered look on Riddler’s face.
In the hall outside of the garage, Three Face turns back to the Jokester. “Why are you following me?”
“He has a point,” the Jokester says. “None of us want you to get hurt.”
She rolls her eyes and starts walking towards her bedroom. The Jokester continues after her, not letting her escape.
“I thought you just said we shouldn’t let Owlman go free.”
“We shouldn’t, and we won’t. I just don’t want you to go after him alone.”
Three Face pauses outside of her bedroom door. “I can’t just stop thinking about him,” she says in a low voice.
“I know,” the Jokester replies. He almost says neither can I.
Three Face steps into her bedroom, but doesn’t shut the door behind herself so he follows. She paces over to her gun laid out on the counter and begins to methodically take it apart to clean it, though Jokester is willing to bed that is has been cleaned to within an inch of its life.
“I left because I was pregnant,” Three Face says after a long silence. “I couldn’t face anyone. I didn’t want to embarrass my parents.”
“I would have—” the Jokester starts.
“You were sixteen,” Three Face replies. “And so was I.”
“Where did you go?”
She glances at him and her face is strangely calm and blank. “It’s not hard to get lost in Gotham,” she says.
He closes his eyes and briefly lets himself think about another universe, about the life they would have had if she’d stayed. Getting married, getting an apartment, trying to find a job as a comedian. Poor and struggling, but together, and no Owlman between them.
He opens his eyes and Three Face is standing in front of him, watching him.
“It could have been so different,” he says.
Three Face kisses him in response. Her mouth isn’t like Eve’s mouth, soft and inexperienced—she’s forceful and firm, taking control of the kiss. Her breasts press against his chest and her waist is small under his hands. When they part, she studies him for a second and then smiles.
“We’ll go after Owlman again tonight,” she says. “Just the four of us.”
“Six,” the Riddler says blandly from the doorway. The Jokester turns to see him standing watching the two of them, his face expressionless. “We’ll all help.”
The roof is bathed in moonlight, picking out highlights on the air vents and brick. Duela squats on the edge of the roof, looking down. The shops on the street below are due for being hit up for protection money. Owlman or one of the others should be coming through sometime soon.
“No tear gas this time,” the Riddler says to the Jokester, his arms crossed over his chest. “If I even catch a whiff of tear gas—”
“You’d rather I let him stab me?” the Jokester returns.
Riddler leans in, testy. “I’d rather not almost fall off the roof because some moron decides to spray everyone in the vicinity with tear gas.”
“Thought you could take care of yourself.” The Jokester shrugs. “Guess I was wrong.”
“Pardon me for mistaking you for someone with two brain cells to rub together—”
“Just whip them out and measure them already,” Three Face snaps.
“Shh,” Duela hisses. Everyone turns at her sharp gesture. The Jokester is at her side in an instant.
Below, a shadowed figure is sauntering down the street towards a corner store where the owner is just pulling down the grate. As he steps into the streetlight, the Jokester sees that it’s Talon. Duela draws a breath to say something but then doesn’t.
“Owlman must be busy tonight,” Riddler says. He doesn’t put any inflection in his voice but the Jokester sees Three Face scowl.
“I guess there’s no point in attacking him then, right?” Duela suggests. “I mean, it’s just Talon.”
“He’s a criminal just like they are,” Three Face says. “We’ll put him in jail. See what Owlman thinks about that.”
Duela looks troubled. Three Face moves to the edge of the roof and leaps across to the next one, and they all follow.
Talon is just leaving the shopkeeper behind, counting his money, when Three Face drops down in front of him, out of the range of the streetlights. He jerks up his head, startled.
“Oh, it’s you—” he says in annoyance, and then the Riddler, Duela and the Jokester all drop down as well, surrounding him.
“You think you can just prey on the people in this city?” Three Face asks coldly, holding her gun on him. “Drop the money and put your hands in the air.”
Talon looks around at all of them, his gaze lingering on Duela. “This takes all four of you?” he said incredulously. “What, was there nothing good on television tonight?”
“Do what she said,” Riddler says. Talon rolls his eyes and lets the wad of cash drop to the ground. He lazily raises his hands in the air.
Three Face tosses him a pair of handcuffs. “Put these on,” she orders, keeping the gun trained steadily.
Talon twirls the handcuffs around his finger. “Yeah, I don’t think so,” he says.
Three Face calmly cocks back the gun. Duela shifts beside the Jokester and then something whizzes through the air, coming from above them. Three Face swears, stepping back. The gun hits the ground and the owlarang clatters onto the cement.
The Jokester swings around, scanning the sky. There is a dark shape in the air, hurtling towards him, and he doesn’t even get a chance to let out a cry of warning before Owlman’s boots crash into his chest and the two of them go rolling and scraping across the sidewalk.
“You morons always fall for it, don’t you?” Owlman laughs, his fist swinging down. The Jokester rolls with the punch and squeezes the flower in his lapel, squirting tear gas into Owlman’s face. Owlman sputters and draws back. Squinting his eyes shut against the noxious smell of the gas, Jokester punches him.
Owlman roars with anger and grabs another sharpened owlarang from his belt, slashing it at the Jokester’s face. There’s a gunshot behind them and Owlman jerks, the blade digging into the pavement. The Jokester grabs it, his fingers sliding on the oiled metal, and flings it away from them. Owlman drills a fist into his stomach and the Jokester gags, choking on his own tear gas.
Three Face launches herself onto Owlman’s back, wrapping one arm around his neck. The gun digs into the ridged cheekbone of his mask. Her face is twisted in anger but she doesn’t say anything. Her finger tightens on the trigger.
“Wait—” the Jokester croaks, twisting his face away. Owlman jams an elbow backwards at Three Face, jerking his head back to smash her face, and the shot goes wild.
Owlman knocks Three Face off his back and rolls off the Jokester as the Jokester swings at him again. Three Face catches herself on the cement and raises her gun to shoot at Owlman again.
“Look out!” Talon shouts to Owlman, racing across the sidewalk toward them. Three Face brings the gun up to point at him.
“Mom!” Duela shrieks, flinging herself at Three Face. She hits Three Face’s gun arm as the gun goes off. Talon dodges to the right, avoiding the bullet.
Owlman gets to his feet, taking a grappling gun from his belt. He shoots it up into the shadows. Talon looks towards the noise and seems to get the hint. He throws his own grappling hook up into the rooftops as well. They both swing away.
“Cowards,” Three Face spits after them, reluctantly holstering her gun. “I could have had them this time.” She turns to Duela. “What were you th—?”
Duela’s on her knees on the sidewalk. The Riddler lies flat on his back, staring at the sky. He blinks slowly. There is a flower of blood on his chest, blooming rapidly.
“Daddy?” Duela whispers, holding onto the Riddler’s hand.
Three Face swears, freezing where she is. The Jokester runs forward, dropping down next to Duela. The Riddler rolls his eyes up to look at the Jokester, his lips blue.
“Call 911,” the Jokester says to Duela. She pulls out her cell phone, fumbling with it, too panicked to dial it properly. He takes it from her.
“We’re in costume,” Three Face says behind them. “We can’t let them see us in costume.”
“Then find some clothes,” the Jokester snaps, dialing. A female voice answers on the other end of the line. “Uh, we need an ambulance, someone’s been shot—”
Duela’s crying, holding the Riddler’s hand. The Riddler mouths words at her that the Jokester can’t read, words of comfort most likely. She buries her face in his neck, still crying.
Three Face drops a pile of clothes down next to him. The Jokester looks up at her, startled, and she gestures sharply back at the shopkeeper, who is watching them worriedly from his storefront. She squats next to the Riddler and starts cutting off his costume with a pair of scissors. Duela sits up and starts to help. The dispatcher is talking in the Jokester’s ear about stopping the blood, keeping the victim warm, don’t worry sir the ambulance is on the way, but all the Jokester can look at is the Riddler’s muddy brown eyes and his strangely calm expression. He hangs up the phone, tossing it away, and helps.
They get the costume off and help the Riddler into a button down-shirt, leaving it unbuttoned in the front. They pull pants on him, slightly oversized jeans that are baggy around his muscled waist. Three Face sits back and pulls off her own shirt, bare breasts to the air, and uses it to wipe the makeup off her face. She pulls a t-shirt on from the pile and then tears off a patch of the costume and wraps it around her hair as a bandana, hiding the two-toned hairdo. She is suddenly and startling normal, a regular woman, wearing regular clothes and with a look of twisted worry on her face.
“Here,” she says, offering a t-shirt to the Jokester, and he takes it but just holds onto it, staring at Eve. He can take off the makeup, yes. But there are scars underneath, scars that make him recognizable.
Eve looks at him, then seems to understand. “Take Duela home,” she says. “We’ll be okay.” There are sirens sounding a few blocks away. Eddie is holding tightly onto Duela’s hand. Duela is staring down at him, tears trailing down her cheeks.
“Come on, baby girl,” the Jokester says, patting her arm. “We have to get out of here.”
“What?” she looks up, then registers the sight of Eve. “No! I have to stay with him!” She starts wiping the makeup off her face frantically, grabbing for the shirt that the Jokester discarded.
“Go, Duela. You can come to the hospital later, but you have to go now,” Eve says. “The police will be asking questions. We can’t let them talk to you.”
The Jokester gets up and pulls Duela to her feet. She fights him, shrieking. He lifts her into the air and carries her bodily into the dark alley. He glances back just once as the ambulance pulls up, seeing Eve reach down to gently touch Eddie’s face.
Duela rushes to her room to get changed back at the house, and she’s furious when the Jokester tells her they have to wait a while, maybe two hours, before they can be sure that the police will be gone. He winces when she slams the door to her room but there’s nothing he can do about it.
He goes to his own room and sits on the end of the bed. Adrenaline is making his hands tremble and his stomach heave now that it doesn’t have any useful purpose to serve. Eddie could be in surgery right now. Eve could be pacing the waiting room. The doctors could be coming to Eve right now, telling her—
He gets up and goes into the bathroom and retches into the toilet, spitting up bile. All he can think about is how Three Face kissed him earlier, and how the Riddler saw it and said nothing, and now he could be dying or dead. It’s guilt he’s feeling, the Jokester identifies finally. Guilt that he came into this family and took the Riddler’s daughter and girlfriend away from him, that he egged Three Face on to fight Owlman when all Riddler wanted was to keep them safe. If Riddler dies tonight, it’s going to be the Jokester’s fault.
He straightens up and rinses out his mouth in the sink, then faces the mirror and forces himself to meet his own gaze. He takes a washcloth from the railing and wipes off the greasepaint in long streaks, revealing bare flesh.
Jackie stares back at him for the first time since the attack, a wide-eyed, startled looking man with a face that’s a little too long, a nose that’s a little too prominent, and scars that curl up on either side of his mouth like furrows plowed in the earth. Eve and Eddie and Duela can take off their masks and costumes and look normal, can go to the hospital and be anonymous, but he can never do that. He’ll walk into the hospital and everyone will know. He’ll incriminate the others, guilt by association.
He could just go home, he knows. But he doesn’t want to live in the universe where he would make a decision like that.
He dreams that there’s a barrier between them, separating him from Eddie and Eve. It’s thick and smothering and he knows he can never cross it no matter how hard he tries.
He reaches out to them, stretching as far as he can. They look back suspiciously. Eddie glares. Eve just points at her cheeks, at the smooth skin, free of makeup. There isn’t room for you here, she says.
The Riddler is discharged from the hospital one week later. Three Face helps him into his bedroom, setting him up with pillows and the television remote. Duela makes him hot chocolate with lots of marshmallows and too much whipped cream and makes him drink it. The Jokester hangs outside of the room and listens to the two of them laugh, licking up the whipped cream as it spills down the side of the cup.
But afterwards, when Duela has to go to school and Three Face goes out on her mid-morning escape on her motorcycle, the house falls quiet. The Jokester paces for a good hour before he finally forces himself to go to the Riddler’s bedroom door and knock.
“Come in,” the Riddler says. The Jokester pushes open the door and steps into the room. The Riddler lifts his chin in surprise, looking at him.
“Your makeup,” he says, his eyes searching the Jokester’s bare face for something recognizable. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without it.”
“I’m sorry,” the Jokester says.
The Riddler blinks. “For what?”
The Jokester thinks back. “Everything.”
“Heh.” The Riddler smiles faintly. “I don’t remember everything that happened but I’m pretty sure you weren’t the one with the gun.”
“If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t have been there,” the Jokester insists.
The Riddler considers this, his smile fading. “I think you underestimate Three Face,” he says seriously. “I wouldn’t have been able to convince her not to fight Owlman, whether you were there or not. You may have already noticed this, but when Three Face wants something, she gets it.” There is something unsettlingly direct in his gaze and the Jokester knows that he is also referring to the kiss.
“I didn’t mean to cause all this trouble.” Which isn’t actually true—when he first came into this family, he didn’t care what sort of trouble he caused the Riddler. But that’s different now.
The Riddler shakes his head, looking away. “This trouble was already here well before you came along,” he says, looking tired. “I think it’s good that you’re here, actually.”
“Really?” the Jokester asks doubtfully.
“Three Face and I…we’re very different people. Sometimes I just don’t understand why she does the things she does. But you understand.”
“I don’t know the first thing about her,” the Jokester protests.
“But you both have that obsession to fight. You’re both determined and direct and focused on what you do. You know how she feels about Owlman because you feel it too. I can’t understand how she feels. I don’t have the kind of motivations you do. I’m not in this for revenge. I don’t even know why I do this.” The Riddler looks up at the ceiling, blinking quickly. The Jokester sits down on the edge of the bed.
“You think being in it for revenge is a good thing?”
“No,” the Riddler replies honestly. “But I love Eve and I’m glad that she’s found someone who understands her.”
There is something eerily final about the way he says it. The Jokester stares at him.
The Riddler looks embarrassed. “I’m—” he says, and then hesitates.
“You can’t leave her. You think it would be better without you around? Eve and me—we’re self-destructive. We wouldn’t survive without you around to make sure we do.”
The Riddler takes in a breath, still focused on the ceiling. “You think we can do this? You and me and Eve?”
The Jokester pulls his feet up on the bed, sits cross-legged, his knee just brushing the Riddler’s thigh. “Why not?” he asks with more confidence than he feels. The Riddler reaches out and touches his knuckles against the Jokester’s knee, just resting his hand there, and doesn’t answer.
It’s not something that happens overnight. Eddie slowly gets better. He wants to work in the garage almost immediately but Eve makes him wait an entire month, and then only lets him in under the Jokester’s supervision.
They work together on smaller projects. Eddie helps the Jokester figure out the mechanics behind a trick belt that will punch outward with incredible force when triggered. It’s not a project that requires a lot of heavy lifting, so it’s perfect for Eddie. They spend hours bent over plans, and work with tiny jeweler’s saws and soldering irons and coffee cans caked in flux and the Jokester begins to develop a fondness for Eddie’s steady hands and deft fingers, for his even breathing, for his insistence that everything be perfect, not just okay.
Eddie isn’t as bad as the Jokester originally thought. Case in point:
He’s a genius, and it’s nice to have a genius on your side sometimes.
He’s attractive (and he knows it).
Voices of reason aren’t always a bad thing.
He has a passion for the musical stylings of Queen.
He is pretty awesome when it comes to making trick belt buckles.
Eddie cooks one night and afterwards, Jackie does the dishes. Eve joins him at the sink, drying each dish as he finishes washing it.
“How domestic,” Eddie says, coming up behind them. He slings an arm around Eve’s shoulder, then puts his other arm around Jackie. He plants a kiss on Jackie’s cheek. Jackie watches Eve, who smiles and kisses him on the other cheek.
“Guys, ew,” Duela says. “Not in front of your daughter.”
Duela calls them into the living room one night a few months after Eddie’s return home from the hospital. She’s nervous, and when Jackie thinks about it, he realizes that she’s been on edge for days, always on the verge of saying something but not quite able to make herself say it.
She stands in the living room by the curtains as they all assemble. “I wanted all five of you here together before, well…”
“Oh, do dispense with the mystery, Duela,” Eddie says from the couch.
She smiles briefly. “Okay. Uhm, I wanted you all to finally meet my boyfriend…though I guess, technically, you’ve already met him!” She pulls back the curtain to reveal the balcony and Talon is standing there, smiling.
What happens after that happens in segments, and it’s hard to assemble them completely in his mind. Jackie remembers yelling, and the words “you’re not my daughter” come back to him later as a pain in his chest. Then Talon takes a teary Duela and they flee off the balcony, and then—
The only thing he remembers after that is the fire, the incredible noise of the explosion. He remembers the flames separating him from Eddie and Eve, and he doesn’t reach out to them because he’ll be killed if he does, and they don’t reach out to him because they don’t even know he’s there. In their final moments, there is nothing he can do for them, and they die alone.
He should have died in their place.
“Sometimes I feel like there are an infinite number of universes, each one based on a different choice I could have made, but I’m stuck in this one.” Duela says to him the morning before the night that everything ends, her hand on a box of cereal. “Every choice I make, I only make because that’s the universe I’m in.”
They’re in the kitchen. Eve’s out on her motorcycle. Eddie’s in the garage. All is right with the world.
“Guess we’d better make the most out of what we’ve got,” the Jokester replies. “What do you want for breakfast?”