When the custom stylized Maserati, or the Batmobile, as the tabloids had taken to calling it, skidded into the cave, Alfred Pennyworth was already there with the first aid kit and a suggestion for sleep on the tip of his tongue. He knew his employer wouldn't actually take the suggestion, but that would never stop him from trying. The top of the Batmobile slid open and Batman hopped out, waving away the medical supplies and tea as he stripped off his cape and cowl to reveal the face of Michael Fassbender, boy billionaire, underneath. His cheekbones were more pronounced than usual, accentuated by too pale skin that hadn’t seen sunlight in days and a day’s worth of scruff that begged for a shave. He ignored Alfred’s attempts to examine his bruises and most likely cracked rib and strode to the massive computer screens at the far end of the cave.
“Any word on the Riddler yet?” Michael asked.
“None, sir,” Alfred replied. “Perhaps you'd consider getting some sleep until some news surfaces?”
“Not now. Shreck's conference for the new power plant is in a few minutes, and I'll be listening in.” He typed in his password and pulled up the audio and visual links to the cameras he’d planted in the main conference room earlier that night.
“Research for your meeting on Wednesday?” Alfred quirked an eyebrow.
“I need to know what he's hiding, if anything.”
“I'll bring your supper down to you, then.”
“Not hungry,” Michael muttered, eyes glued to the screen. They were more blue than green tonight, Alfred observed, with a hint of grey denoting the exhaustion that Michael was attempting to distract himself from.
“With respect, Master Michael, you can eat and listen to the meeting at the same time.” Alfred retreated up the winding stairs before Michael could protest.
“I believe that this power plant would give new life to Gotham,” Shreck announced, stifling a yawn as he spoke. Where was James with the coffee? He had the tree lighting ceremony directly after the meeting, and if he fell asleep at the podium because that bumbling secretary couldn't do his job, there would be hell to pay. “This city uses energy like water, as if it's an endless resource that will never run dry. But--” Shreck was cut off by the loud slam of the double doors behind him, and he whirled around to glare at the floppy haired young man hunched awkwardly over the coffee tray in his hands. The sleeves of his rumpled purple sweater slipped over his shaking hands as he edged into the room, deliberately avoiding Shreck's withering gaze.
“S-sorry,” James mumbled. He put the tray down on a nearby desk and pushed his thick framed glasses up on his nose before shuffling around the table with the coffee pot.
Shreck frowned. “As I was saying, gentlemen, this plant is would provide an efficient means of generating power for many years to come.” He walked over to the windows overlooking the city as he spoke. “Imagine the Gotham City of the future, blinking on and off, embarrassingly low on juice. I shudder to think about it.”
“I admire your idealism, Shreck, but I'm still not convinced of its practicality in the long run,” Reeves said. He took a sip of his coffee and flashed Shreck a humouring smile. “How can we guarantee that this plant will generate enough energy and, for that matter, enough income to justify its cost?”
“Um. I have a suggestion.” The boy had apparently finished making his rounds with the coffee, and now seemed to shrink even more under Shreck's warning glare. “Well, more like a question, really.”
The room fell silent, all eyes on Shreck to gauge his reaction. Shreck merely raised an eyebrow at his assistant's audacity. “I'm afraid we haven't properly housebroken Mr. McAvoy. Although he does make one hell of a cup of coffee,” he added, earning a collective chuckle from around the table.
“Mr. Shreck?” Shreck's receptionist poked her head in the door. “Your car is waiting.”
Shreck nodded. “Gentlemen, we'll continue this tomorrow morning.” They stood and filed out of the room, leaving James standing around awkwardly in the empty room. He slammed the coffee pot down on the table and began collecting the mostly untouched cups left behind.
“'More like a question, really',” he mocked himself under his breath. “You fool. You bloody useless fool.” He pushed his glasses up again and sighed. “Alright. Dry cleaning, the numbers for tomorrow's meeting, filing is done, emails are sent, the tree lighting's tonight and the speech is—oh no.” James' gaze landed on the handwritten notes left at Shreck's place at the table. “And of course this is going to be my fault,” he muttered, snatching them up before booting it out the door.
James rounded the corner to City Hall just in time to see Shreck shake the mayor's hand and take the podium, applause drowning out his ragged breathing from jogging the last six blocks.
“...I'm just a poor schmoe who got lucky and wants to give back,” Shreck was saying. “I wish I could just hand out world peace and unconditional love with a big bow.”
James rolled his eyes. Suddenly he understood why Shreck didn't write his own speeches. He coughed and leaned against the wall of the nearest building to catch his breath.
“Riddle me this: as long as I eat, I am fine, But when I drink, I die. What am I?” A smug male voice echoed over the loudspeakers overhead.
“What in the...” Shreck glanced back at the mayor, who held up his hands in confusion.
“Give up, Mr. Shreck?” the voice boomed. “I'll give you a hint.”
“Fire!” A woman in the audience shouted, pointing behind Shreck. Sure enough, flames were steadily engulfing the towering Christmas tree behind Shreck from the ground up, filling the stage and immediate area with smoke.
“Give the lady a prize!” The voice cackled overhead. Shreck covered his nose and mouth with his sleeve and stumbled off stage, only to be snatched back by the crook of a gold cane around his throat. “Not so fast, Mr. Shreck,” that same voice was now much closer, murmuring in Shreck's ear. “You and I have business to discuss.” The pair disappeared unnoticed in the cover of the smoke, while various men and women in green leotards and domino masks leapt into the square, sporting everything from baseball bats to shotguns as they terrorized the remnants of the scattering crowd.
James covered his ears as a team of fire trucks flew by, sirens wailing, towards the square. Once they had all passed, he stepped back onto the street, only to flatten himself the wall again as a blonde woman in purple fishnets and a green leotard ran past him,and he caught a large purple question mark emblazoned on her chest.
“Because now's the time to be noticing a woman's chest,” he muttered. “Right. Look both ways, and...go!” he half ran, half stumbled onto the road, and skittered back again as a black monstrosity of a car slammed to a halt mere inches before him.
“Jesus!” James fell to his knees, only to be dragged back up to his feet by another question marked goon. Electricity from the guy's taser buzzed at his throat, and James craned his neck in the faint hope that it might somehow save him. “Please...please I--”
He froze as the top of the car—the Batmobile, clearly, James corrected himself—slid back to reveal the Batman himself, cape swirling around him as he dropped onto the pavement. He stared at James and the thug for a second, then pulled a grappling claw from his belt and shot it at the wall behind them.
“You missed!” The thug shouted, grinning toothily at him. The taser moved closer to James' throat, and then Batman yanked hard on the wire, causing half of the wall to crash down on the assailant's head. James screamed and jumped out of the way, then cleared his throat and attempted to brush himself off when he caught Batman staring at him again.
“Wow. The Batman,” James forced a small smile. “Or is it just Batman? Your choice, of course!” he called after his rescuer's retreating form. “Do you ever think before you speak?” He knelt to collect his papers, when a crackling blue light caught his eye. James carefully picked up the taser and pushed his glasses up to examine it. He looked at the unconscious thug beside him, then back at the weapon in his hands, before leaning over and pressing it into the thug's abdomen. The body spasmed and James fell back in surprise dropping the taser on the ground. A giggle escaped his lips and he covered his mouth with his hand, eyes darting around to ensure no one else was watching. The fire was almost completely out now, and the smoke had cleared just enough for James to make out Batman taking out the last of the armed assailants. He took one last look around, then shoved the taser in his back pocket and began the trek back to his apartment.
“Pick up the pace, Maxie!” A young woman with short dark hair pushed Shreck towards the warehouse just ahead. “Mr. Nigma doesn't like to be kept waiting.”
“You got that right, Echo,” said the taller blonde flanking Shreck's left side. Both women were clad in long sleeved green leotards emblazoned with a large purple question mark, matching purple fishnets, and black ankle boots. The dark haired one, apparently named Echo, opened the door to the warehouse and gestured for Shreck to enter. Shreck complied, hesitating only slightly and the expanse of black nothingness stretching out before him.
“Aww, is Maxie afraid of the dark?” the blonde cooed as Echo slammed the door behind them.
“Don't call me that!” Shreck retorted angrily. “Where are you even taking me?”
“You'll see,” Echo replied, and Shreck had no doubt she was smirking at him even in the dark. He felt a pair of hands push him forward and he stumbled, nearly falling down an invisible set of stairs. “Oops, maybe you won't!” Echo cackled. Both girls laughed and guided him roughly down the stairs. It grew steadily brighter as they descended, and when they reached the bottom, Shreck found himself facing a long rectangular table lit by a single bare light bulb overhead. He squinted at the shadowed figure seated at the other end, clad in a tailored green suit, purple tie, and what appeared to be a green bowler hat tugged over an unkempt mop of ginger hair. He leaned forward and rested his arms on the table as Shreck approached, revealing slim, angular features, clear green eyes, and a thin half smile playing across his lips.
“Mr. Shreck,” he gestured to the chair to his right. “Please, sit down.”
The blonde woman shoved him towards the chair and Shreck glared at her as he sat down.
“Now, Query, that's no way to treat a guest,” the man tutted. He held a purple gloved hand out to Shreck. “Edward Nigma. You may also know me under my...stage name, the Riddler.”
Shreck nodded, but didn't take the proffered hand. “I know who you are. What do you want with me?”
“Straight to the point,” Nigma's smile widened. “I like you already. I know you think me a monster, I can see it in your eyes. But,” he continued, silencing Shreck's protests, “You and I have much in common. We both know what we want, and will stop at nothing to achieve it. And if some people have to die to prove a point, it's just good business, am I right? No, don't answer that, I know I am.”
“Being a businessman, albeit a bit of a shrewd one, does not make me a monster,” Shreck said.
“Ah, but now you're just twisting my words. I've got a friend in the sewers that's been digging up all of your dirty little secrets. Shredded documents, almost ruined backup computer files, and even a corpse or two.”
“You're bluffing,” Shreck said nervously.
“Am I?” Nigma held out his hand, and Query handed him a stack of papers crudely taped together. “These are all just from the past two years, and there's more where that came from. Oh, and your previous business partner? His body is crammed into a crate in the next room, ready to conveniently resurface somewhere along the Gotham River.”
“What is it you want from me?” Shreck nearly shouted. “I've done nothing to warrant this kind of retribution!”
“Why, I thought that was obvious,” Nigma said, taken aback. “I want you to make me your partner.”
"Honey, I'm home," James mumbled, slamming the front door to his apartment behind him. "Oh, I forgot, not married." He dropped his jacket, keys, and paperwork to the floor and kicked his shoes to the side as he entered the tiny kitchen. As if on cue, a bedraggled black cat slipped in through the window and onto the counter before making the leap to the floor.
"Miss Kitty," James greeted the cat. "Back from more sexual escapades, are we?" A hint of Scottish brogue slipped into his voice as he rummaged in the fridge and poured a dish of milk for his visitor. It hadn't taken him long to realize that it was much easier to get a job in America as an American, and Gotham was no exception. "What's that? How can I be so pathetic? Well, I may seem pathetic to you, Miss Kitty, but I'm a working man, and someone's got to pay the rent, since you're certainly not chipping in."
James sighed and hit playback on his answering machine as he trudged into his room and hit the light switch, causing a set of neon letters reading "HELLO THERE" in jagged font to stutter to life on the adjacent wall.
"You have 3 new messages," the answering machine announced tonelessly. "First new message received at 2:34 pm: 'James, it's your mother calling.'" James groaned and slumped into the plush coffee brown armchair next to his bed. "'Anne-Marie was round again today asking about you. You should call her and catch up. And leave out the bit about being some lowly secretary, it makes you sound like a working class college dropout, which you might as well be.'"
"Do you have a point?" James rolled his head back and stared at the ceiling.
"'Anyway, call me back when you have a chance.' End of message."
"Message 2, received at 3:15 pm: 'Hello, James. This is yourself calling, to remind you that you have to go all the way back to the office to get those Michael Fassbender files, because the meeting's on Wednesday.'"
"Damn it!" James grabbed his coat and was out the door before the message ended, shoving that evening's paperwork to the side with his foot to get out.
James thumbed through the top drawer of the filing cabinet and narrowed his eyes over the edge of his glasses. The Bruce Wayne file was much slimmer than he remembered. He snatched what few documents were present and slammed the drawer shut before turning his attention to Shreck's desk. "It's only a few files," James murmured. "He doesn't have to know where I got them from, right?"
James slid onto the chair and glanced around the large office. "Password, password... ha!" He keyed in the name of Shreck's yapping dog-rat-thing, of which there were various photos scattered around the room, and grinned as the folders popped up on the screen. "Let's see, there's the rest of the Wayne files-- and what do we have here?"
“Working late, Mr. McAvoy?" James jumped and nearly fell off the chair in surprise. "Mr. Shreck! I was just, um, pulling the Wayne files for your meeting," James stammered.
Shreck smiled humorlessly. "And how did you get into my private computer?"
"Oh, that. I cracked your password. It was your dog's name," he added, avoiding eye contact with Shreck. "You know, this is all, um, very interesting, the part about how it's a power plant in name only? And, um, how it's more of a giant capacitor?"
Shreck nodded. "Do go on."
"And instead of generating power it will be sort of, sucking power from Gotham City? Storing, stockpiling it? which is a very, um, novel approach, I'd say."
Shreck moved towards James, backing him up against the floor to ceiling windows as he spoke. "And who would you tell about this fascinating discovery, hmm?"
James flinched and tried to edge out of the way, but Shreck had him cornered. "Um...nobody?"
"What did curiosity do to the cat, James?"
James laughed nervously. "I'm no cat, sir. I'm just a lowly secretary," he said, echoing his mother's earlier sentiments. "I'd never tell anyone, I swear! I'm no one, I'm no one at all!"
Shreck planted his hands on either side of James' face. "This power plant is everything I've been working for. I won't have it taken away from me by some 'lowly secretary', as you say."
"Fine, go ahead, bully me, intimidate me," James snapped. "It's not like you're going to just kill me."
"Actually, it's a lot like that."
James' eyes widened in panic, and then Shreck was laughing as he moved away, and James was laughing too, until Shreck took a step forward and shoved James backwards, sending him crashing through the window. James landed on the pavement with a sickening thump, limbs splayed at unnatural angles, and he just barely caught Shreck looking down with grim satisfaction before his eyes fluttered shut.
The cats surrounded him, licking, pawing, nipping at his lifeless form, while others circled him protectively, luminous yellow eyes warning off all other creatures except the cats that tended him. His own eyes flashed open, and a large black cat shot him a cursory glance before working its tongue over his wrist. He stared at the cat for a moment, confused, until another scraggly grey tabby padded over to his face and nosed the corner of his eye. He took the hint and closed them again, allowing darkness to overtake him.
The door to the apartment swung open, and James shuffled inside, dishevelled and disoriented. "Honey, I'm home," he declared to the empty space. "Oh, I forgot. Still not married." He turned on the lamp, knocking it over in the process, before stumbling to the refrigerator and retrieving the now half empty milk carton. He glanced at the window, where his usual feline visitor was seated, and poured some milk onto the floor in the general area of the dish.
“Some for Miss Kitty--" James tilted his head back and sloppily downed the contents, milk spilling down his chin as he drank. "--and the rest for me." He dropped the carton to the floor and it crunched beneath his feet as he walked over the phone and replayed the messages on his answering machine.
"James, this is your mother calling. Anne Marie was round again today..."
"SHUT UP!" James grabbed the machine and threw it against the wall, effectively silencing his mother's voice, and then stalked into his bedroom and shoved everything off of his desk in one sweep. Pens, papers, and post-it notes fell to the floor, followed by the contents of his dresser drawers, and finally the drawers themselves. He growled and spun to face the mirror behind him, ready to smash that too, but something in his reflection made him pause. James lowered his fist and squinted at the mirror. Were those...cat ears? He reached up to touch them and they twitched eagerly under his fingers. He pulled his hand back in surprise, and then hesitantly ran the pads of his fingers along the soft tips.
James shivered at the contact and smiled, turning his head left and right to fully examine his new parts. Suddenly, a thought struck him and he felt the sides of his head. Yes, his regular ears were still intact. So these new cat ears were an addition, not a replacement. Oddly, that was somewhat reassuring. James tried to wiggle them experimentally and laughed aloud when it worked, then started when he saw a flicker of movement behind him. He whipped around, but finding no one there, returned his attention to the mirror. Then the shape moved again, and this time James turned only head to find a tail, long a feline, flicking lazily from side to side.
"What in the..." James tested the tail the same way he had the ears, flicking it up, down, and from side to side, and grinned as he realized he had full muscle control over that as well. he glanced back around the bedroom and his expression hardened, rage once again welling up inside him. He threw the closet door open and began snatching clothes from their hangers and carelessly discarding them behind him. Finally, he grabbed an old vinyl raincoat from somewhere in the depths of his closet, gave it a cursory once over, and threw it on the remains of his desk. He dug through the closet once more for his old sewing machine, and dropped that on the desk as well with a loud thump.
"Who's useless now, Mother?" James giggled and began to work, furiously cutting, sewing, and stitching well into the night.
James emerged from his bedroom three hours later, in a pair of tight fitting vinyl pants covered in haphazard white stitching, matching jacket and fingerless gloves, and a plain black ribbed tank top underneath the jacket. His dark unkempt hair fell over a black stylized domino mask that curved up into points at the corners of his eyes. He ran his tongue across his lips and flashed a wicked grin at the cat lapping at what little milk had made it into the dish on the floor.
"I don't know about you, Miss Kitty, but I feel...so much yummier."
Actors and characters belong to themselves and DC Comics, respectively. Also this entire fic will be up by the end of the weekend, followed closely by the final chapters of Okay I Feel Better Now.
Michael came skidding into Shreck's office fifteen minutes late, as would be expected from an irresponsible playboy billionaire. The young man at the desk, however, barely even noticed his entrance, being far too preoccupied with the files he had his nose in to notice Michael's presence. Michael ran his fingers through his hair and cleared his throat loudly, causing him to nearly jump out of his skin.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Fassbender,” he said, rubbing at the bandage on his forehead and glancing at Michael as he moved to pick up the files. “Mr. Shreck has cancelled your meeting. I did send you a memo.” he straightened and met Michael's eyes, unflinching despite his otherwise anxious disposition.
“I must have missed you. It,” Michael correctly quickly. He glanced down at the floor and back up again, only to find the boy's too blue eyes still boring into his own.
“Well, I'm sorry you came all the way down here for nothing.”
“Michael, welcome.” Shreck emerged from his office and greeted Michael warmly. “Unfortunately I didn't have time to let you know the meeting was canceled, but I'm glad you could make it nonetheless. I have an important announcement to make this afternoon.”
“Oh, that's alright, Max,” Michael replied. “It's my fault for missing the memo your secretary sent out.”
“My...secretary?” Shreck seemed to notice the boy for the first time, who waved amicably and slid over to sit at the edge of the desk. “James. James...James.”
“That's my name, don't wear it out, or I'll make you buy me a new one,” James drawled, his Scottish accent becoming ever more pronounced as he spoke.
“I thought you were still on vacation? Unless that, ah, skiing accident brought you home early, in which case you should be at home resting still.”
James frowned. “It's funny, you know? Last night was such a blur. I mean, not complete amnesia, but my whole brain just feels like--” he swished his hand past Shreck's face, narrowly missing his nose. “Whoosh! Gone! A complete. Blur. Couldn't you just die?”
Shreck cleared his throat. “Yes. Well. It's time Mr. Fassbender and I were going. You'll have to tell me all about your trip later, James.” He took Michael by the arm and all but dragged him down the hall to the elevators.
“I apologize for James' behaviour, Michael. He's normally much more....reserved than that.” They rode the elevator down and walked the half block to City Hall, where civilians and members of the press were already gathered before Mayor Sharp at the podium. “Now if you'll excuse me, I have an announcement to make.”
Michael watched Shreck disappear into the crowd before finding a spot on the sidelines to watch the mayor's speech.
“Last night's chaos will not be tolerated,” Sharp declared. “This kind of extreme violence must be stopped, and we will not allow it to dampen our Christmas spirit. The tree lighting has been rescheduled for next week, but in the meantime, I believe our own Max Shreck has an announcement to make.”
Shreck strode up the steps and replaced the mayor at the podium. “Thank you, Your Honor. As many of you know, I have been working tirelessly to bring you, the people of Gotham, a power plant that will provide limitless energy for many, many years to come. I have come before you now to announce that I have found someone else who shares my quest for unlimited, affordable energy, and who loves giving back to Gotham as much as I do. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in giving a warm welcome to Mr. Tom Hiddleston!”
Michael narrowed his eyes at the lanky, immaculately dressed young man that joined Shreck onstage. Tom Hiddleston smoothed his deep green tie and ran a hand through his short ginger curls.
“Thank you very much,” Hiddleston began, silencing the smattering of applause. “This city has seen so much chaos, crime, and corruption in the past few years. Ever since the Batman emerged, in fact,” he added offhandedly. “Gotham has remained in the shadows for far too long, and I believe that by bringing Mr. Shreck's dream to life, we can literally bring her into the light!”
The crowd cheered and applauded, but Michael was not impressed. There was something much too familiar about him, and he intended to find out exactly what it was.
Tom hummed to himself as he buttoned up his deep green silk pajama shirt and checked that his alarm was set for the next morning. The new penthouse Shreck had provided for him was, he observed with glee, far more preferable than any of his previous hideouts. He'd kept the master bedroom for himself of course, with its king sized bed and massive glass doors leading out to a balcony overlooking the cityscape. Query and Echo, he knew, had chosen identical bedrooms next to and across from his own, and a quick check of the computer screens against the far wall told him that there were two more henchmen stationed out in the hall.
Tom turned back to the glass doors only to find that they were now wide open, the pale purple curtains billowing outwards. He backed towards the bed, reaching blindly for the .32 he kept under the pillow, and bumped into something not entirely unfamiliar. He face the intruder and flashed his brightest smile.
“Batman. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“You know exactly why I'm here, Nigma,” Batman growled.
“Edward Nigma is dead,” Tom replied, his expression hardening. “It's Hiddleston now, but you already knew that.”
“Why the sudden interest in Shreck's dream for a better future?”
“Is it so hard to believe that my intentions are entirely altruistic?”
Batman remained silent, watching Tom play back that sentence in his mind.
“Alright, it is a bit hard to believe. But I don't have to please you when I've got the support of everyone else in this disgusting city.” He turned away and pulled back the plush green comforter on the bed. “Be a dear and close the door on your way out? It's drafty in here.”
He looked up to find himself alone once again, the glass door still wide open. “No, I didn't think so,” he grumbled to the empty room. He smoothed the comforter back down and moved to his walk in closet instead, where he retrieved a familiar three piece suit in deep emerald green, embellished with tiny black question marks. “You think you can best me? I’ll give you something to be suspicious about, Batman.”
It was as if the suit had been waiting for him, Tom thought as he slipped his arms through the jacket sleeves. Still a perfect fit, even after losing all that weight in Arkham. A wig head on the uppermost shelf housed a matching green bowler hat, which he slid over his curls before carefully fitting the purple domino mask over his eyes.
“QUERY! ECHO!” he yelled, flexing his fingers as he slipped on a pair of purple lambskin gloves.
The door behind him flew open and his henchgirls, still in their matching green leotards, practically ran into the room. The Riddler turned to face them, a slow smile spreading across his lips.
“Find me some hostages, ladies. We’re going to catch us a Bat.”
Only a few blocks away from Tom Hiddleston’s penthouse, Jennifer Lawrence kicked off her heels, paused to pick them up, and broke into a jog. The footsteps behind her sped up as well, and then a large hand reached out to drag her into the nearest alleyway while the other pressed a knife to her throat.
“All by yourself tonight, sweetheart?” the thug snarled. “That ain't a very wise idea in a city like this.”
“Please, just let me go, I--” she stopped and stared over the thug's shoulder at the approaching figure. The newcomer was half her attacker's size, dressed in tight fitting vinyl and a domino mask that obscured his features. But what stood out the most about him, were the furry feline ears that seemed to perk up as he approached, and the matching black tail that swung lazily behind him.
“I just love a big, strong man that's not afraid to show it with someone half his size,” he smirked and brandished a long leather whip, slapping it experimentally against the pavement. “Do be gentle, it's my first time.”
He cracked his whip and the knife in the thug's hand fell to the ground. The thug ignored it and threw first one punch, and then another, which the Cat-man easily evaded before landing a kick in his chest and sending the thug stumbling backwards into a line of trash cans. He flexed his claws, which seemed to have come right out of his fingernails, and slashed 3 angry red lines across the thug's face.
“Tic-tac-toe!” the Cat-man grinned and turned back to Jennifer, who was still staring at him in shock.
The Cat-man grabbed her by the face and dragged her close to his own. “You make it so easy, don't you? Always waiting for some Batman to save you.”
Jennifer just stared at him, wide-eyed and afraid to speak.
“Ugh, you disgust me.” he rolled his eyes and tossed her to the side before disappearing into the shadows. “Should have come up with a name,” James muttered, watching the girl collect her belonging and run out of the alleyway. “Now she'll go running to the papers saying she was saved by Alleycat or something. Oh well.” he took a running leap and jumped onto the next roof, slid down the shingles and landed back on the pavement. Almost as soon as he landed, a charcoal black cat padded over and rubbed itself against James' leg. He knelt down and picked it up, rubbing his nose lovingly against the cat's.
“I think that's quite enough excitement for one night, don't you, Miss Kitty? Let's go home and order Chinese.”
Batman surveyed the streets of Gotham from his perch on the clocktower, and was almost satisfied that all was quiet (for once) when he caught a glimpse of green from the corner of his eye. He grappled to the next gargoyle over and found himself facing his own bat signal in the sky, a hazy green question mark superimposed on top of it. He frowned, extremely displeased at this turn of events. Had his own interference caused Nigma to react this way? He was like a child, always begging for attention, and Batman was constantly forced to give it to him. He stood and glided from his perch, aiming for the roof of the GCPD building. Lieutenant Gordon was already waiting, purple envelope in hand, which he immediately surrendered to Batman.
“You’ve got mail,” Gordon greeted him. “Looks like Nigma’s finally showing his face.”
Batman frowned and read the message aloud. “Three robbers robbed a store. When they came out, they were totally changed, but continued robbing. Why?”
“Simple. They changed clothes, right?” Gordon glanced sideways at Batman, but he was already gone. Gordon shook his head. “I really wish he would stop doing that.”
James skipped down the street, tossing in a couple of front flips now and then just for the hell of it. He rounded the next corner and paused, considering the building before him. Chinese food could wait, he decided, approaching one of many window displays for Shreck’s Department Store and peering inside. Funny, he didn’t remember the new men’s line featuring quite so much green. Or that much duct tape on the mannequins. He shrugged and used one retractable claw to draw a large oval in the glass.
“I don’t pretend to understand fashion,” James mused, “but all that tape has got to be terrible for the thread count.” The oval popped out neatly and James slipped inside, ears twitching as he registered a muffled cry from the direction of the duct taped mannequins. “Aren’t these things supposed to be seen and not heard?”
He strode over to the frankly appalling display and frowned. “How am I supposed to wreak havoc with you people in my way?” James flexed his claws and slashed at the tape on the first captive, then the second and the third, stepping daintily out of the way as three men in their early twenties fell to their knees and ripped the remaining duct tape off their sleeves and mouths.
“Thank you,” the first one tried to grab at James’ hand, but he pulled away in disgust. “These two girls came out of nowhere and—”
“Yeah, yeah,” James waved them away. “You’re all the same. If you were stupid enough to fall for the pretty girl and her tricks, you deserve what you got. Now get out of here so I can destroy things guilt free.” He cracked his whip and laughed as the trio scrambled to their feet and ran off towards the nearest exit. “Well that was fun. Oh, what do we have here?”
He knelt down and picked up a large purple envelope, which he immediately tore open to read the message inside: “There is a man who is completely in black. Everything about him is black; he walks, lives, and breathes shadow. There are no lights on in the stores, no reflectors on the road, no moon or stars visible in the sky. Another man was walking down the street, turned around, and looked straight at the man in black. How did this second man see him? Ugh, riddles? Bored already.” James tossed the note over his shoulder and, using the whip as a jump rope, skipped out of the room and down to home appliances.
“I mean really, who leaves all these appliances plugged in at a department store? You’re just asking for trouble, Maxie.” James turned on stove after stove, both gas and electric models heating up one after another, before moving on to the line of microwaves. “Now where did I put that lighter…” He reached into his boot and pulled out a Zippo, which he lit and tossed into a microwave before selecting 3 minutes and booting it out the back exit.
The front windows exploded outwards just as James made it back around the block, and he ducked into an alcove between a convenience store and a shoe shop to protect himself from the blast.
“That was not part of the plan!”
James’ feline ears perked up at the sound of a familiar voice, though he couldn’t quite place its origin. He peeked out again and watched a gaunt, green suited figure stamp the end of his cane against the pavement in frustration.
“Who the hell blew up the store? Query?”
A striking blonde in a green leotard tentatively materialized at the man’s side, and James immediately recognized her from the chaos at the Square only a few days prior.
“It wasn’t us, Mr. Nigma,” she said. “We were all set to flick the lights on like you asked, and then Echo said she smelled gas and we ran for it.”
“And Batman?” Nigma snarled.
“Not here. Not yet, anyway.”
“So who blew up the building before I was through with it?”
Query shrugged. “No idea.”
Nigma drew himself up to his full height, a towering 6 foot 2, and glared down at her. “Then I suggest you FIND OUT!”
Query paled and skittered away without another word, but Nigma didn't remain alone for long.
“I’m not sure your business partner will appreciate you bombing his store,” Batman said from behind him.
James raised an eyebrow. He hadn't seen or heard him coming, but this Nigma guy didn't seem surprised in the slightest as he wheeled to face his opponent.
“This isn’t how it was supposed to happen!” Nigma threw up his hands in exasperation. “You were supposed to find my clues, save the hostages, beat up a few expendable henchman, and most importantly match wits with me just like before! But this?” He waved a hand at the remains of the store windows. “This is insulting!”
“Sorry to rain on your parade,” James emerged from the alcove and approached the pair, a seductive smile playing across his lips. “But what’s a parade without...fireworks?” James turned, did a quick backflip, and scaled the side of the nearest building, digging his claws into the spaces between the bricks for traction. He didn’t need to look back to know he was being followed, and he was ready for Batman when he grappled up the side of the building and joined him on the roof. James hissed and launched himself at Batman, slashing wildly at his face as his had the thug in the alleyway while Batman deftly avoided every blow. Frustrated, James changed tactics and attempted a roundhouse kick to his opponents chest, but Batman took hold of his ankle and simultaneously kicked his other leg out from beneath him. James twisted out of his grasp and landed on his haunches, breathing hard and glaring at Batman.
“Good thing cats always land on their feet,” James smirked. “Speaking of cats, what do you think I should call myself? I’m sure I’ll be branded as Cat-Man or something after saving that girl earlier, but that just seems like a rip-off of your shtick, you know?”
Batman just stared at him. “Who are you?”
“Exactly! That’s what I want to know!” James exclaimed, climbing to his feet. “Cat-Man? Man-Cat? No, too barbaric. Alleycat? Or what about Tomcat? Except there’s already that new Tom Hiddleston guy and I don’t think this town is big enough for two of us. Any thoughts, love? Or are you just going to stare at me like you want to have me on right now on this rooftop?”
James took advantage of Batman’s shock and struck out with his whip, yanked him back, and wrapped the handle around the nearest set of pipes, leaving Batman hanging off the side of the building.
“Life’s a bitch, darling,” James purred, “and so am I.”
Batman floundered for a moment, then reached for his utility belt and sprayed a caustic fluid that burned right through James’ jacket sleeve and bubbled up his arm. James screamed and released the whip to clutch at his burning flesh, then realized his mistake and grabbed for the handle before it disappeared over the side of the building. Batman yanked hard on the other end and James stumbled over the edge, skidding uncontrollably down the slanted overhang while Batman grappled back to the rooftop.
“Nononononono—” James scrabbled at the shingles, too smooth to dig his claws into, until a large, black gloved hand reached down and roughly pulled him back up to safety and he found himself once again staring up at the Batman.
“Who are you? Who’s the man behind the mask?” James asked softly, running his fingers almost reverently over Batman’s chest armour. “Maybe you can help me find the one behind the cat…” He bit his lip and trailed his fingers lower, discreetly searching for a weak point. Right...there. He leaned closer, keeping Batman’s eyes trained on his own.
“Ah. There you are.” He sunk his claws in as deep as they would go, eliciting a short gasp from his foe. James just grinned and yanked his hand free—or attempted to would be more accurate, he supposed, because Batman now had a death grip on his wrist. His grin fell away and he tried again to pull away, but Batman used his momentum to push him backwards and he stumbled over the edge of the roof. He flailed uselessly at the empty air and a horrible sense of déjà vu overtook him as he fell; this had already happened far too many times for his liking. He braced himself for the sickening crunch of bone against concrete, only to land with a hard thump in the bed of a large truck filled with—
“Kitty litter,” James scooped up a handful and laughed aloud as he watched the granules slip through his fingers. “Bastard.” He let his head fall back and his laughter dissolved into manic giggling as he watched his caped crusader disappear into the shadows.
At the sight of his charge, shirtless and taking a pair of long tweezers to one of five small stab wounds in his side, Alfred merely raised an eyebrow and continued down the winding steps into the cave. Leaving the dinner tray (or perhaps breakfast was more accurate) he’d been carrying on a nearby worktable, Alfred frowned and inspected the damage.
“I do wish you would at least wait for me before you start dissecting yourself,” Alfred commented drily.
“I just need that bit of claw, or whatever this is—” Michael winced and sucked in a breath through his teeth.
Alfred sighed. “Here, let me.” He took the tweezers from Michael and carefully extracted a tiny sliver of nail from edge of the lowermost wound. Michael held out a small vial, which Alfred obligingly dropped the fragment into. “Now let’s get you bandaged up.”
Michael just barely allowed him to disinfect and tape gauze over the entire area before sliding off the gurney and immediately heading for the computer system, its giant flatscreens currently the main source of light in the cave.
“I need to analyze this sample, and find out who that masked Cat was.” He extracted a sliver of the nail fragment and dropped it into another tiny vial, which he fed to the computer for analysis. While the on screen progress bar inched forward, Michael turned his attention to the mass spectrometer.
“Cat, sir?” Alfred inquired, nonchalantly nudging dinner/breakfast in Michael’s direction.
“I was attacked by this…this man, only he wasn’t a man. He had feline ears, in addition to human ears, mind you, and a tail to match.” Michael pushed another button on the spectrometer and glanced up at Alfred. “At first I thought it was part of an elaborate costume, but they looked incredibly real up close.”
“And exactly how close did you get to this cat creature?” Alfred suppressed a wry smile.
“Close enough,” Michael replied shortly. “To be honest, I still haven’t figured out if he was flirting or fighting with me.”
“Funny how those two seem to coincide.”
Michael shot Alfred a look and returned his attention to the computer, which had come up with exactly zero DNA matches. “Not Gotham born, then. And not out of Arkham, either. A new player in town, maybe?” He frowned and turned back to the spectrometer. “This is going to be a couple of hours, at least.”
“Perhaps now would be a good time for breakfast? And a few hours of sleep, at that?” Alfred ventured, gesturing to the forgotten tray of food.
Michael sighed. “Fine. But wake me up at dawn to check on the machine.”
Alfred nodded, knowing that was as good as it was going to get. “Very good, sir.”
Tom left a trail of shoes, cane, hat, and gloves down the dark hallway as he retreated to his bedroom. Echo attempted to follow and pick up what he had tossed away, until Tom shot her a glare that had her scurrying back to her own quarters. He fumbled blindly for the light switch as he entered and jumped as the lights flicked on before he could reach it. He spun on his heel, prepared to face another ambush from the Batman, only to find that ridiculous vinyl-clad Cat-man, or whatever he was calling himself now, lounging lazily across his bedspread, remote in hand, a lewd smile playing across his too-red lips.
“Just the kitty I was looking for,” Tom greeted him, suddenly wishing he hadn’t tossed his cane out in the living room. He would have felt just a little more secure with a blade in his hand.
James stretched sensuously and rolled onto his stomach, tail flicking lazily behind him. “It’s chilly in here.”
“Maybe you should have shut the door when you came in,” Tom replied with a sneer. “Doesn’t anyone have any decency in this city?” He edged closer to the bed and nonchalantly let his hand fall close to the pillow that housed his handgun.
“Decency is overrated, darling.” James’ heel shot out and hovered a hair’s breadth from Tom’s throat. “Not a step closer, now. We need to talk. You see,” he continued, slowly lowering his foot, “we’ve got something in common.”
“Oh really?” Tom took a step back from the bed. “Do tell.”
“Ah, yes. The Dark Knight of Gotham City, and my favourite sparring partner. Well,” Tom added thoughtfully, “until you rudely interrupted.”
“I want him gone.”
“I’m not done with him yet.”
“I didn’t say when.”
“Care to elaborate?”
James sat up on the bed and crossed his legs. “To destroy Batman, we have to turn him into what he hates the most. Namely, us.”
Tom laughed. “You want to frame him? How very basic, and so inelegant. And why should I even trust you? For all I know you’re just some spoiled, screwed up rich boy whose daddy never bought him that red Ferrari he always wanted.”
James slid sensuously off the bed, walked over to a small gilded cage near the balcony doors, and peered inside. He yanked open the cage door and retrieved a tiny green finch, which he crammed into his mouth, still alive and whole. Tom shuddered with disgust while James writhed in pleasure, tracking Tom’s reaction out of the corner of his half closed eyes.
“You think I care about that thing? They're a dime a dozen. All you've proved is that you're completely off your rocker,” Tom said.
James frowned and released the bird, his lips forming a perfect O for it to fly out and make its bid for freedom out the open door.
“You’re no fun at all,” James pouted. “Look, Batman napalmed my arm and tossed me off a building just as I was starting to feel good about myself. Play your little games if you want, but all I ask is that in the end, Batman is mine.”
Tom thought for a moment, then grinned as he began to consider the possibilities. “And you shall play your part, kitty cat. My plan is already in motion.”
“Mmm. The thought of busting Batman makes me feel all…dirty.” James sat down on the bed and shivered. “Maybe I’ll just clean myself right here.”
He licked up the arm of his jacket and rubbed over his head and neck in long, exaggerated motions that Tom should not have found sexy in the least. Even so, he found his cheeks were getting hot from what he wrote off as sheer discomfort, and certainly not any sort of arousal.
“Out,” he rasped, quickly clearing his throat. “We’re done here.”
“Oh no,” James smiled and stood up, his eyes burning fiercely into Tom’s own. “We're only just beginning.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Michael emerged from the cave late the next morning, barely glancing back to ensure that the antique grandfather clock had slid securely into place behind him. The results of the spectrometry analysis had been disquieting, to say the least. For all intents and purposes, the source of the nail fragment appeared to be a Domestic Shorthaired cat. It wasn’t possible, he knew that, but a second test had proven that this was no mistake. Coupled with the lack of results from his earlier database search, he was more confused than ever about his feline foe.
Michael sighed and picked up the remote to turn on GTV News before sitting on the chestnut brown leather sofa, seeking coverage of last night’s explosion. Shreck and Hiddleston were already on screen, standing in front of the wreckage while various news microphones decorated the lower portion of the screen.
“This just proves that the Cat and the Bat are working in tandem,” Hiddleston announced, while Shreck nodded supportively beside him. “Batman is not the White Knight of Gotham that we have made him out to be, but a ruthless vigilante that must be stopped.”
The off screen audience murmured their assent, bringing a triumphant smile to Hiddleston’s face.
“Mr. Shreck!” a woman’s voice called out. “Will you be cancelling your annual masked ball because of this incident?”
“Of course not, Ms. Gleeson,” Shreck replied smoothly. “The masquerade is an annual tradition, and I firmly believe that in times like these, with vigilantes and villains running rampant in the streets, what Gotham needs is something they can depend upon. After all,” he added, “It is Christmas.”
"Subtle,” Michael commented aloud, turning off the television. He had to agree with them on one thing, though, it was Christmas. He shook his head and exited the room, grabbing a black overcoat and navy blue scarf from the closet in the foyer before heading outside. Perhaps the forced Christmas spirit in the downtown core would provide a distraction from thinking about last night.
James gazed at his reflection in the store window, barely registering the vibrant holiday toy display inside as he tucked his cat ears further into his hair. He’d discovered that if he swept it back instead of letting it fall in an unruly mess over his eyes, he could camouflage the ears perfectly, as long as no one looked too closely. That wouldn’t be a problem, James thought, no one ever looked at him. His tail was even easier to hide under the bulk of winter clothing and the oversized sweaters he normally wore to work.
He touched the pads of his fingers to the glass and sighed. “Why are you doing this?”
He spun around in surprise, his fingertips squeaking painfully across the glass. “Michael!”
Michael frowned. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
James almost laughed. “Scare me? No, just scaring myself, actually.”
“I don’t see how,” Michael replied amiably. “Anyway, it’s nice to see you out in the world. Away from Shreck, I mean.”
“It’s nice to be here,” James said, surprising himself with his sincerity. Not good, he chided himself. Don’t get distracted by his ridiculous cheekbones, or that fine layer of scruff that he didn’t bother to shave this morning, or those deep blue eyes, or were they green? No, they were definitely more of a blue in this light, with little flecks of green—or wait, was that a tinge of grey? No, that was concern clouding over, and Michael’s lips moving to ask him a question.
“I’m sorry?” James shook his head dragged himself back into the conversation.
“Are you all right? Got the holiday blues or something?”
“Or something,” James muttered, earning him a raised eyebrow from his companion. “Ugh,the news these days,” he complained, taking Michael’s arm and guiding him down the street. “All about the Bat and the Cat. Did you hear they’re working together now?”
“Those headlines aren’t even accurate,” Michael replied, matching James’ pace. “‘Batman Blows It’? He could save millions of dollars in property damage alone!”
James cringed slightly at his eager support for the Batman, but if that was Michael’s only fault, he wasn’t going to nitpick.
“You’re not going to that tree relighting thing, are you?”
“I wouldn’t be caught dead there.”
“Hmm. It’s going to be a hot time in the cold town tonight.”
Michael stopped walking and stared at James curiously. “You’ve got a bit of a dark side, don’t you?”
“No darker than yours, Michael,” James responded slyly.
“Why don’t you come over and watch the tree lighting on TV with me tonight?”
James dropped his arm and took a barely noticeable step back. “I can’t. I have somewhere to be.”
“An early dinner, then,” Michael persisted. “5? Or no, let’s say 6.”
James couldn’t help but smile at Michael’s eagerness. “Okay, 5.”
“5, then.” Michael grinned. “You and me.”
“You and me,” James echoed, watching Michael disappear into the throng of holiday shoppers. He turned back to his reflection in the nearest window and forced a small smile, but it quickly fell as he caught the tip of his right ear peeking out again. He hastily tucked it in and sighed. “Oh, James. What have you gotten yourself into?”
Backstage at the tree lighting, Cristi Conaway, Gotham’s Ice Princess, leaned close to her dressing room mirror and carefully applied the second strip of white sparkling eyelashes before leaning back once again and appraising her reflection. Her golden blonde hair was curled and styled to perfection, and her fur lined leotard accentuated her curves in all the right places.
“Now remember,” she told herself, “you say your lines, and then the tree lights up, and then you press the button!” She frowned. “Hang on. I press the button and then the lights turn on!” She grinned at herself in the mirror, and started when she noticed two women in green standing behind her. Cristi turned to face them and flashed a bright smile. “Are you girls from the newspapers or something?”
The blonde on the left grinned back. “Or something. Say cheese!”
Cristi stood up and struck a pose, her smile widening. “Cheese!”
The last thing she saw before she blacked out was a large black object hurtling towards her face. Echo caught her as she fell and smirked at her companion. “Wouldn’t want to crush the fur.”
Query wrinkled her nose at the rows upon rows of Swarovski crystals garishly coating Cristi’s leotard. “You couldn’t pay me enough to wear that thing.” She grabbed Cristi’s legs and lifted her up. “Ugh. I bet without all the fur and hairspray she’d be ten pounds lighter.”
“I still say we should have lured her to the van with candy canes and cheap jewellery,” Echo commented wryly. “Come on, Eddie’s waiting.”
“You know he hates when you call him that.” They carried Cristi out to the waiting unmarked van and swung the back doors open with considerable effort.
“Yeah, well he’s not here, so I’ll call him whatever I want.”
“And I’ll call you late, as usual.”
Both girls jumped at the sound of their employer’s voice and nearly dropped the Ice Princess on the sidewalk.
“Do you two ever shut up?” Edward crouched in the back of the van, using his cane to keep his balance. “Well come on, I haven’t got all day! We’re running a tight schedule here, and I still haven’t heard from our feline friend.”
“Yes Mr. Nigma,” Echo averted her eyes and helped Query shove Cristi unceremoniously into the van. She made to circle around to the driver’s seat, but Edward hopped down onto the pavement and grabbed her by the arm.
“I’ll drive,” he said, his voice low in her ear. Echo shivered and backed off, instead climbing into the back with the Ice Princess while Query slid into the front passenger seat with Edward, but not before shooting her friend a triumphant look. Echo just glared at her and slammed the back doors shut. Enjoy it while you can, she thought venomously. He changes his mood as often as he changes names, and next time you’ll be the one facing his wrath. Echo settled into the far corner of the van for the long ride to the warehouse district.
“Echo, be a dear and strip our little Ice Princess,” Edward called over his shoulder. “And pass the costume to Query.”
Query gaped at him. “Why?”
“Because the show must go on, my dear,” Edward grinned. “And this show needs an Ice Princess.”
“But—I—” Query sputtered, but her protests were quickly silenced by a glare from her employer. “Yes, Mr. Nigma.”
Echo didn’t even both to hide her smirk as Query crawled into the back of the van and grudgingly helped her with the garish costume.
“You just shut up,” Query pointed a finger at her.
“I didn’t say a word,” Echo’s eyes widened innocently. And she didn’t have to, she thought gleefully, because it looked like things were finally going her way.
James curled up on the couch and did a quick check to ensure his tail was still safely hidden before letting his fingers graze Michael’s, suggesting but not taking. Michael took the hint and laced their fingers together just as Alfred entered with a pair of wine glasses and some fancy European cola that James couldn’t pronounce. He’d been extremely wary of the wine earlier, uncertain of how alcohol would affect his metahuman side, not to mention he needed to be at the top of his game tonight.
“Will that be all?” Alfred asked, setting the try down on the glass coffee table.
“Yes, thank you, Alfred,” Michael replied, absently running his thumb over James’ knuckles.
Alfred caught the gesture and smiled knowingly at his charge before disappearing down the hall, presumably to finish cleaning up in the kitchen.
James flashed Michael a tentative smile. “I’m sure Alfred is wonderful company, but doesn’t the gold plated bachelor bit get a little stale?”
“Kind of like the lonely secretary bit?” Michael cocked his head to one side.
“Executive assistant, thank you,” James corrected with mock seriousness, then, “…secretary,” he conceded. “So, no girlfriend at all? I find that hard to believe.”
“Well, there was someone, but it didn’t work out,” Michael admitted.
“Really? What happened?” James ran his free hand through his hair to flatten his ears, which were attempting to perk up with curiosity.
Michael sighed. “We were from two different worlds, I guess. Not moneywise, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he added hastily. “I just mean that once she got to know me, the real me, she couldn’t reconcile that person with the Michael she thought she knew. I guess it’s just me that’s from two different worlds, in a sense.”
James nodded, understanding. “I know a thing or two about duality myself. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m the man or the mask. Figuratively, of course,” he clarified quickly.
“I know exactly what you mean,” Michael said softly. “James, I—”
James launched forward and crushed his lips against Michael’s, hungrily demanding access with his tongue. Michael returned the kiss with equal ferocity, one hand at the nape of James’ neck to bring him closer while the other travelled down the small of his back to lower them both down onto the couch cushions. He slid the hem of James’ shirt up his abdomen, freeing James’ tail from its hiding place as the blanket fell forgotten onto the floor. James, caught up in his ferocious exploration of Michael’s mouth, didn’t notice the sudden exposure, until he was tugging blindly at Michael’s shirt and then Michael’s fingers were knotting in his hair and travelling dangerously closer to—
Michael stopped suddenly, releasing James and pulling his shirt hurriedly back down while James skittered backwards and ran his hands nervously over his hair.
“I can’t do this,” they both blurted. James blushed and looked away, fidgeting with the back of his pants to tuck his tail away. “I mean…I just…” He fumbled for the right words, but was saved by an emergency announcement interrupting the tree lighting pre-show.
“I repeat, the Ice Princess has been kidnapped,” the mayor announced. “We have reason to believe that the Batman is responsible for this terrible crime and an investigation is underway.” He held up a bloodstained batarang in a large Ziploc bag. “However, this act of violence will not deter our holiday and as always, Gotham will press on. Mr. Hiddleston has even provided us with an understudy in Ms. Conaway’s absence.”
Hiddleston appeared on screen with a tall blonde woman in a glittering diamond and fur get-up, which James assumed was meant to pass for an Ice Princess costume. The woman looked completely miserable until Hiddleston elbowed her in the ribs and she forced a smile at the cameras.
Michael stood and looked at James apologetically. “I have to go. Just sit here for a second, okay? I’ll be right back.”
James barely managed a nod and then, once Michael ducked out of sight, stood and checked his tail and ears in his reflection in the glass coffee table before running out of the room and right into Alfred.
“Mr. McAvoy, I—”
“Alfred!” James interrupted. “Um, can you just tell Michael that I've just been going through a lot of, um, changes...wait, no. Just tell him this isn’t a rejection, me leaving, in fact he makes me feel the way I hope I really am....no. Could you just make up a sonnet, a dirty limerick or something?”
Alfred raised an eyebrow. “One has just sprung to mind.”
“Great, um…” James glanced both ways down the long hallway, and Alfred obligingly pointed him in the right direction. “Thanks!” He raced out the door to his car and keyed the ignition, snatching his homemade outfit and mask from the backseat as he drove away.
Michael parked the Batmobile in an alleyway a block away from the Square and pulled his cowl over his face before exiting the vehicle. He didn’t need the attention of the police at the lighting, or anyone else for that matter. As Batman, he grappled to the top of the nearest building to watch the frantic scene below.
“The police department and your elected officials have the situation well in hand!” the mayor shouted over the noise of the crowd. “If you would all just calm down, we can still proceed with the lighting!”
Batman snorted and scanned the stage. Hiddleston was nowhere to be found, but Query, his makeshift Ice Princess, was still seated to the far right of the podium, absently picking Swarovski crystals off her outfit and flicking them into the crowd. Batman used his cape to glide down to the gargoyle jutting out far above her head, then silently dropped down using a wire cable, grabbed Query, and retracted the line until they were both perched precariously on the roof of City Hall.
“Where is she, Dierdre?” Batman demanded, gripping Query by the throat just enough to emphasize the urgency of his question.
Query coughed melodramatically and sneered at him. “No idea.”
Batman tightened his grip, leaving her barely enough room to speak. “Not good enough.”
Query frowned. “The Riddler was right. You are no fun at all.” When he moved to dangle her over the edge of the roof, Query held up her hands in surrender. “Alright, alright! Riddle me this, Dork Knight: ‘What kind of men are always above board?””
“You want to play?” Batman growled. “Fine. I’ll play.” He dropped Query on the roof and grappled across to the next building, and then down to the alleyway where the Batmobile was waiting. Query waited to until he was gone and fished a miniature walkie talkie from her bodice.
“He’s heading your way, Echo. Get out of there.”
“Already gone, Query. The car belongs to the Riddler now,” came the crackling response.
“Excellent work, ladies,” Nigma’s voice rang more clearly than Echo’s on the tiny transmitter. “Regroup and wait for me at the rendezvous point.”
“Roger that,” Query grinned and turned off the walkie talkie.
James watched from the rafters as Batman entered the warehouse of Checkmate Games warily, keeping to the shadows as he edged into the room. The riddle had been obvious; men who are always above board were chessmen, and Checkmate Games, abandoned for the past five years and adjacent to the tree lighting ceremony, had been the most logical choice location.
“Is someone there?” a woman’s voice called out. Batman slowly moved forward until he reached Cristi Conaway, unimaginatively tied to a wooden chair directly in front of a paneled window at the back of the warehouse.
“Who did this to you?” he asked as he untied her, and James almost laughed. As if he didn’t already know the answer to that.
“I don’t know, a couple of sluts in green leotards claiming to be talent scouts or something.” Cristi flipped her hair back and sighed. “I think they were just jealous of my title. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a princess?”
James rolled his eyes and let Batman begin untying the hostage’s legs before somersaulting off of his perch and slamming his boot into Batman’s face, catching him off guard and sending him stumbling back into the darkness.
“Not so fast, Bats.” James crouched in front of Cristi, poised to attack. “You and I have some unfinished business.”
James threw the first punch, but Batman caught his forearm and twisted it behind his back. James bit back a cry of pain and slashed at Batman’s face with his free hand, just grazing his mask and causing Batman to release him. He fell to his knees but quickly leapt to his feet again and circled his foe until he was once again standing in front of the hostage.
“Hey, I thought we had something together,” James pouted.
Batman’s features softened beneath his cowl. “We do-”
James snarled and grabbed Batman by the shoulders, claws digging deep for traction, and shot his knee up into Batman’s face. Then he spun, wrenched the Ice Princess from the chair and bounded up to the window. “Toodles, Batman!”
He took the steps of the fire escape two at a time, dragging Cristi unceremoniously behind him. Predictably, Batman followed their ascent, but with his head start James had already dumped his hostage at the edge of the roof and bounded across to the top of the next building over to watch the show, tucking himself safely into the shadows.
When Batman finally reached the roof, he found himself instead facing the Riddler, only a few feet away from Cristi’s precarious position.
“Riddle me this, Batman,” he declared. “I see without seeing. To me, darkness is as clear as daylight. What am I?”
James’ enhanced hearing just barley picked up Batman’s growled response: “Blind as a bat.”
“Exactly!” the Riddler cackled. He flipped the top of his cane open and pressed a button, releasing hundreds of bats onto the rooftop. They swarmed around Cristi, sending her flying off the rooftop and into the crowd below. Her screams echoed amongst the screech of the bats right up until she landed on the mechanism meant to activate the lights, simultaneously electrocuting herself and shorting out the massive Christmas tree, which released still more bats from within its branches. They swarmed the crowd, sending the stunned Gothamites ducking and shielding themselves against the sudden onslaught.
James just gaped at the scene before him, anger welling up at Nigma’s betrayal. He wasn’t supposed to kill the Ice Princess. He’d never wanted that. Once James was through with Batman, he was cutting off his partnership with Nigma before things got really out of hand.
As if on cue, the Batman tumbled onto the rooftop, narrowly avoiding the bullets fired from police guns on the ground. He rolled and fell to the lower balcony and James followed his progress, marvelling at how ungraceful the Dark Knight was when he thought no one was watching. James grinned and lithely jumped down onto the balcony before crawling on top of Batman, now sprawled face up on the balcony floor, and propped his elbows up on his foe’s chest. He watched the bats disperse overhead, his gaze travelling to the mistletoe hung directly over their heads.
“Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it,” Batman noted, nodding at the decoration.
James leaned into him, nose just barely grazing his jawline. “But a kiss,” he murmured, “can be even deadlier if you mean it.” He ran his tongue from Batman’s chin to the tip of his nose, savouring the barely repressed shiver he elicited. “You’re the second man who’s tried to kill me this week.”
“I tried to save you—”
“It seems like everyone you try to save ends up dead or deeply resentful,” James interrupted, sitting up on his heels. “Maybe it’s time you retired.”
Batman gripped him by the waist and threw him off before extending his cape and gliding down towards the empty street, far from the chaos in the city square. James, meanwhile, hauled himself back up to the roof, where Nigma was already waiting for him.
“You put on a nice little show down there,” Nigma said. “You’re like Beauty and the Beast, all wrapped up in one sensuous package.” He slipped an arm around James’ waist, but James angrily shrugged it off.
“You said you were going to scare her!”
“She looked pretty scared to me,” Nigma retorted. “And on that note, we’ve still got a few loose ends, love.”
“What are you talking about?” James demanded.
Nigma smiled thinly. “As much as I’d like to keep you around for my own…pleasures…we can’t have the most respected business man in Gotham next to Michael Fassbender brought down by news of some illegitimate lover. Especially a barely human, barely sane criminal such as yourself.”
“The word you’re looking for is metahuman. And I wouldn’t touch you if you were the last man on earth,” James seethed, furious at this turn of events. He was supposed to be dumping Nigma, not the other way around.
“I’ve got two lovely women on my arm, and that’s more than enough for me,” Nigma continued, oblivious to James’ outbursts.
“Are you listening to me? I don’t want—NO!” Nigma shoved James off the roof, sending him crashing through a domed skylight on the next building over and into a large conservatory, where he landed in a flower bed and found himself ankle deep in potting soil. He spat out a mouthful of dirt and sat up, chest heaving, painfully aware that he was still alive.
cats are mixed ancestry, and vary greatly in temperament because of this. The one thing they have in common is their short, sleek coat(courtesy of various google searches).
Summer Gleeson is a reporter in Batman the Animated Series.
Cristi Conaway is the actress that played the Ice Princess in Batman Returns.
Query's real name is Dierdre Vance. Echo's is Nina Damfino.
The chess riddle is shamelessly lifted from Frank Gershwin's Riddler in the 1960s Batman series.
The term "metahuman" is used to describe "any human being with what are commonly described as "super powers". The prefix "meta-" simply means "beyond", describing persons and abilities beyond human limits." (DC Comics wiki)
Once again I lifted quite a bit of dialogue from the movie and altered it to fit James and Michael.
I am SO relieved to finally have this done! Thanks to everyone who's been reading, and to the McFassy LJ community for organizing this prompt fest ^_^
Batman settled into the driver’s seat of the Batmobile and keyed the ignition, but received no response from the vehicle.
“Not good,” he muttered, frowning at the still darkened display before him. He tried the engine again and it obediently roared to life, but this time it was the gas pedal that failed to oblige. He examined the gauges and various switches littering the dash, searching for the root of the problem. Beside him, the small computer screen powered itself on, and Batman was greeted by the Riddler’s smug expression.
“Confused, Batman?” he jeered. “Don’t worry, the Batmboile is in excellent hands. He held up a remote device that looked suspiciously similar to an altered game controller and thumbed the left analog stick, sending the Batmobile shooting forward out of the alleyway. “After all, I had to have a back-up plan considering what crack shots the GCPD are. And you and I are long overdue to spend some quality time together.”
Batman ignored Nigma’s rambling and focused on typing various commands and hacks into the computer while the Batmobile sped recklessly down a crowded main street. Cars veered out of its path, scattering pedestrians and leaving a trail of chaos and destruction behind.
“First the Joker, and now that vexing feline creature,” the Riddler continued, steering the car towards a group of late night shoppers crossing the street. They jumped out of the way just in time, their purchases crushed underneath the car’s wheels as it careened through the red light. “It seems there’s always been someone else, someone you considered more important than me. Well not this time. With you out of the way, I’ll take good care of these wretched pinhead puppets of Gotham.”
Batman didn’t answer, still fiddling with the computer keys even as the Batmobile made another fierce turn and flew straight towards a brick wall. The Riddler watched his progress, glowering furiously at him through the screen.
“See? Even now, I’m sending you to your gruesome demise, and you’re too busy trying to override my clearly infallible infiltration to listen. What more do I have to do to make you pay attention?”
“Take a hint,” Batman growled. He pressed the control, alt, and delete buttons simultaneously, causing the screen to black out and the Batmobile to skid to a halt mere inches from the wall looming before him. He almost laughed at the simplicity of it. Clearly it wasn’t that infallible if it could be taken down by an emergency shutdown. He wondered idly which of the henchgirls would be getting it this time for her failure as he shifted into reverse and backed out of the alleyway. When he emerged onto the street, both directions were blocked off by police cars, with armed officers stationed behind their opened passenger doors.
“Attention, you are under arrest. Please exit the vehicle with your hands in the air,” one of the officers declared over a megaphone.
Batman shifted gears and accelerated, aiming directly for the car in his path. The officers, to their credit, held their ground for a good four seconds before screaming and jumping to the side. He had absolutely no qualms about flattening the now deserted police car; it wasn’t as if his reputation could get any worse at this point. With the road now clear before him, he headed in the direction of the Fassbender estate, already planning out his next move.
Michael sat before the computer screens in the cave, keeping one eye on Shreck’s emergency press conference while he copy and pasted sound bits on the other. The material from the Riddler’s car hijacking, coupled with previous security audio from Arkham Asylum, would give him exactly what he needed.
“In spite of tonight’s terrible tragedy, the annual masquerade ball and fundraising gala will be held as planned tomorrow night,” Shreck was saying.
“And respected socialite Michael Fassbender, will be attending, as will be expected,” Alfred noted from behind him.
“Yes, he will,” Michael agreed. “Alfred, can you call James for me and see if—”
Michael glanced at him and raised an eyebrow. “That was a bit presumptuous of you.”
“I’m merely looking out for your best interests, sir,” Alfred replied innocently.
Michael turned away to hide the smile playing across his lips and finished splicing the audio together, just in time for Hiddleston’s tirade against the Batman.
“Batman is a menace and an outlaw!” Hiddleston declared. “If he even dares to show his pointy ears at the ball, the Gotham City Police will be—”
“These wretched pinhead puppets of Gotham are no match for my superior intellect!” The Riddler’s insults blared over the speakers, cutting off Hiddleston’s speech.
Hiddleston looked stunned for a moment, but quickly recovered himself and tapped experimentally on the microphone. “That’s not me. I didn’t say that!”
“I’ve played this stinking city like a harp from Hell!”
“No, that’s not me! Ladies and gentlemen, please—”
“Wretched pinhead puppets of Gotham…like a harp from Hell….no match for my superior intellect!”
The recording blared on while Michael replayed his favourite parts over and over again, inciting the audience to a frenzy. Shreck exited stage left, leaving his partner alone to face the hail of fruit, shoes, and rocks that flew at the podium until Query and Echo, still in their henchgirl uniforms, stepped up and began spraying bullets in the air above the crowd. The citizens of Gotham City cowered under the sudden onslaught, giving the Query and Echo a chance to usher Hiddleston safely off screen.
Michael was already up and out of his chair, tugging his cowl back over his face and jumping into the Batmobile. The tracker he’d attached to Query earlier that night would tell him exactly where they were going.
Michael arrived at the masquerade the next night in a black tuxedo and without a mask, not a physical one at least. With the Riddler, Query, and Echo all back in Arkham Asylum, Michael could relax, at least for a little while, and enjoy the evening. There was still the matter of the Cat to consider, but he forced himself not to think about that now. There was only one man he wanted to see tonight, and he was standing at the top of the ballroom stairs, eyes scanning the room as though looking for someone. Michael caught his eye and couldn’t help but smile as James bit his lip and slowly descended down the stairs, edging past mingling couples and champagne-toting waiters. Michael was about to move to meet him when Shreck appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, blocking his view of the stairs and James.
“Michael, so glad you could make it,” Shreck greeted him. “Great costume, by the way. Let me guess: trust fund goodie goodie?”
Michael groaned internally. He wasn’t in the mood for Shreck’s games, especially with James standing barely five feet away, looking dapper as all hell in that tuxedo.
“How are things with your business partner, Max?” Michael asked.
Shreck glared at him and stalked off to greet the other guests, while Michael scanned the staircase for James. He was there only a moment ago; was he upset that Michael had been intercepted by his boss?
“Looking for someone?”
Michael turned to face James standing directly behind him. “Yeah, he’s about 5 foot 7, has the most astonishing blue eyes you’ll ever see, and looks so incredibly attractive in a tux it should be illegal. Have you seen him?”
“Perhaps,” James teased, unable to prevent a blush from colouring his cheeks. “Where’s your mask?”
“Oh, I almost forgot.” He reached into his inner breast pocket and pulled out an imaginary mask, which he mimed slipping over his face. “Never leave home without it. Where’s yours?”
James mimicked his actions, pretending to concentrate on tying an invisible ribbon behind his head.
“Here, let me help you.” Michael gently turned James around and to tie an elegant knot level with his ears, fingers brushing down to the back of his neck and lingering briefly. “You look gorgeous, he commented as they faced each other again. “Although I do wish I could see more of the handsome face hiding beneath the mask.”
James reached up and adjusted Michael’s invisible mask. “You’ll just have to use your imagination, darling.” He paused. “Look, about the other night…”
“I’m so sorry for leaving you like that,” Michael apologized. “There was an emergency, I would have come back but it just couldn’t wait.”
“Oh,” James said, relieved. “No, it’s okay. I had to go home anyway and, um, feed my cats.”
Michael smiled and took James hand, leading him out to the middle of the room. James rested his hand on Michael’s shoulder and leaned into him as he slid his arm around James’ waist.
“Aren’t you worried about tarnishing your completely heterosexual playboy image?” James asked, nodding at the openly staring guests around them.
“It doesn’t matter,” Michael replied. “Not with you.”
“You’re sweet,” he murmured, pressing closer to Michael as they danced. “Sweeter than me.”
“Oh, I doubt that.”
James rested his chin on Michael’s shoulder. “I have a confession to make,” he breathed into his ear. “I didn’t just come here for you. The truth is…” he paused dramatically. “I came here for Max.”
Michael pulled away and gaped at him. “Wait, you and Max aren’t…”
“Oh, no!” James laughed, and Michael chuckled as well, uncertain as to what was going on, until James lapsed into a fit of hysterical giggling, leaning on Michael for support.
“Are you alright?” Michael asked, brows furrowed in concern.
“No,” James repeated, suddenly sober as he shoved a pocket sized gun between them. “This and Max. And don’t even give me the ‘killing Max won’t solve anything’ speech, because it will.” They moved in a slow circle on the dance floor as he spoke. “And aren’t you tired of that sanctimonious prick always coming out on top when he should be six feet under?”
Michael met James’ piercing stare unflinchingly, his own anger rising to the surface. “Not that I’m defending your boss, James, but who do you even think you are?”
James looked taken aback, eyes shining. “I…I don’t know anymore. I really…I don’t know.” Another giggle escaped him, a nervous hiccup that Michael silenced by sealing James’ lips against his own. James clung desperately to Michael with his free hand, his nails digging into the arm of his tuxedo as they kissed, oblivious to the disapproving glares around them. The gun in his other hand lowered ever so slightly as Michael kissed his tears away, and he had to stop himself from laughing again when he noticed the mistletoe hanging above them.
“A kiss under the mistletoe,” he said instead. “You know, mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it.”
“And a kiss can be even deadlier…” Michael stopped, the realization hitting him hard. “…if you mean it,” he finished quietly.
James looked up at him, tears still staining his cheeks. “Does this mean we have to start fighting?”
“Let’s get some air.”
“No, I…I can’t!” James pushed him away and bolted from the room. Michael followed him, calling his name down the hallway leading to the exit, but James had already disappeared.
James stripped off his suit, revealing a black tank top and tight vinyl pants underneath, and grabbed the matching jacket, mask, and gloves from their hiding place in a nearby storage closet. He shoved his suit back inside and slammed the door, shrugging on the jacket and as he strode back to the ballroom. Michael was nowhere to be found, which was, James told himself, for the best. He rumpled his hair, releasing his feline ears from their confines, and slipped the mask into place before re-entering the room. His thoughts returned to Michael helping him tie an imaginary mask only minutes ago, and he wondered idly if Michael would have done the same for this one.
But is this really a mask? Or is it my real face?
Couples and business partners mingled about the room, barely glancing at James’ unconventional attire. Now that he was in costume, he seemed to fit right in. Still, he kept to the walls as he slunk towards Shreck, speaking with an older man that James didn’t recognize.
“Hello, Max.” James gripped Shreck’s arm and dragged him back through the crowd. “You and I have business to discuss.”
Shreck struggled to break free, but James dug his claws through the suit sleeve hard enough to draw blood and yanked him towards the back exit.
“I don’t know what you want, but whatever it is, I can give it to you!” Shreck babbled. “Money? Jewels? A very large ball of string?”
James opened the door marked “FIRE EXIT” and tossed Shreck out into the deserted alleyway, then skipped over to his soon to be ex-boss and aimed his gun at Shreck’s face.
“I want blood. Yours, to be more specific.”
Shreck held up his hands in surrender, eyes wide with panic. “Let’s make a deal. What can I do for you?”
“There’s only one thing I want,” James replied, his voice layered with malice. “Sorry Max, but it’s only fair. Not that you’d know anything about what’s fair.”
Something large and black collided with James’ hand, knocking the gun away and sending it skidding across the ground. James glared at the Batarang on the ground and kicked it out of the way before facing its owner behind him.
“Thank you!” Shreck called out. “I know we’ve had our diff—”
“Shut it,” Batman growled. “You’re going to prison.”
“The law doesn’t apply to people like him,” James said. “Or people like us.”
“We can take him down and bring him to justice. Together.”
James drew his whip from the inside of his jacket gripped the handle, uncertain what to do next. He wanted to attack, needed to attack and finish this, but there was something too familiar about Batman’s tone.
“Wait, don’t I know you?” Shreck asked, shifting slightly to scrutinize James’ profile. James ignored him and took a tentative step towards Batman, but still said nothing. It couldn’t be him. Could it?
“We’re the same, you and I. Two sides of the same coin.”
James lowered his hand, letting the whip drag on the ground. Impossible, he thought, but as he watched Batman remove his mask, revealing Michael’s pleading expression underneath, he realized that a small part of him had always suspected the truth.
“Please, James.” Michael dropped the cowl and held his gloved hands out, palms up.
James let the whip fall from his hand and took another step towards him. “Michael, there’s nothing I want more than to put all of this behind me and be with you.” He struck out with his claws, inflicting three angry red slash marks across the side of Michael’s face. “But I just can’t live with myself, so how can I expect the same from you?”
“James McAvoy!” Shreck interrupted, and this time James spared him a tired glance before ripping off his mask. “And Fassbender, why are you dressed up as Batman?”
“Because he is Batman, you moron,” James retorted.
“Not anymore.” Shreck held up James’ discarded gun and shot Michael in the chest. James resisted the urge to run to Michael’s side, and instead turned his attention to Shreck and the gun now pointed at him.
“You can’t kill me, I’ve only got three lives down! Think you’ve got enough in there to finish me off?”
“Let’s find out.” He squeezed off two more shots, sending James to his knees, but he leapt to his feet once again and stuck his tongue out at Shreck.
“Four, five, still alive!” he sang gleefully. Two more bullets ripped through him, but he ignored them and snatched the gun from Shreck’s hand. “Six, seven, all good boys go to heaven!” He laughed and pulled Shreck towards him, so that their faces were only inches away. “That was fun, but I think I’ll save the rest for next Christmas. In the meantime, how about a kiss under the mistletoe?”
James produced the taser he’d been saving since the first train wreck of a tree lighting and shoved it into Shreck’s mouth. Michael watched on in shock as the electricity from the taser erupted into a shower of sparks and bright orange flames. When the resulting thick grey smoke finally cleared, James had disappeared, leaving the taser and Shreck’s charred remains lying in the alleyway.
Michael rose slowly, applying pressure to his bullet wound with one hand while he retrieved a small transmitter from his belt with the other. “Alfred,” he spoke into it. “I need a ride home from the masquerade.”
“On my way,” Alfred’s response seemed too loud in the enclosed space. “Will Mr. McAvoy be accompanying you?”
Michael shook his head and had to remind himself that Alfred couldn’t actually see him. “No,” he replied quietly. “I’m afraid we won’t be seeing each other anymore.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, sir.”
“So am I, Alfred.” Michael knelt down and picked up the discarded taser, noticing how similar twin points looked to a cat’s ears.
“So am I.”
Michael gazed out the car window, watching the few last minute shoppers struggling to carry their purchases while evading the more leisurely couples and families out for a Christmas Eve stroll. He sighed, imagining himself and James walking down that same street, snuggling against each other for warmth as they admired the holiday window displays. Alfred glanced at him through the rearview mirror, but said nothing, and Michael was thankful for the silence. He didn’t need to hear that this was for the best, or that they weren’t meant to be, or any other empty consolation.
The car idled at a red light, directly adjacent to an alleyway dimly lit by streaks of hazy moonlight. Michael squinted into the darkness, hoping against hope, and just barely caught a shadowed figure leaping down from the wall and disappearing around the corner, the barest hint of a sleek black tail flicking briefly into the light.
Michael scrambled out of the back seat and bolted into the alleyway. He rounded the corner nearly ran into a chain link fence blocking his path. As he moved forward to scale the fence, something brushed against his leg, and he looked down to find a midnight black cat staring up at him.
“Hey there,” he said softly, kneeling to run his fingers through its fur. “I’m actually looking for someone else. Maybe you know him?” He straightened and took one last look around the alleyway. “No, I didn’t think so.”
As Michael turned to leave, a dark outline dropped silently to the ground behind him, caught his arm, and shoved him up against the wall. James leaned up on tiptoe so that they were nose to nose, bright blue eyes boring into Michael’s own through his mask. He flashed a mischievous grin and propped on elbow up on Michael’s shoulder to dangle a sprig of mistletoe over their heads.
“Merry Christmas, darling.” James dropped the mistletoe and dragged Michael down into a slow, languid kiss. He caught Michael’s lower lip between his teeth and nibbled playfully, eliciting a low growl from Michael, who tangled his fingers in James’ hair and stroked the pads of his thumbs over his cat ears. James leaned in to his touch and allowed Michael to tease the tip of his tongue between his teeth, only break off the kiss and retreat back into the shadows as quickly as he appeared.
Michael touched two fingers to his mouth as he watched James’ fading silhouette, the taste of him still lingering on his lips. He picked up the discarded mistletoe and turned it over in his hands, revealing a folded slip of paper taped to the underside of one of the leaves.
“Always,” Michael replied aloud. He slipped the note into his pocket along with the mistletoe and returned to his car, soft laughter echoing behind him from the darkness.