seiberwing: (Ham and Cheese)
[personal profile] seiberwing
Title: Puzzles and Masks
Fandom: Batman (1960s TV Show)
Characters: Riddler, OC (canon immigrant)
Warnings: References to depression, massive amounts of ham.
Summary: The one riddle Batman cannot solve is the one he doesn’t even know is there.
Author’s Note: If it exists there is fic of it, even if I have to write it myself. This started as a joking attempt to explain why every female minion in Gotham seems to want to ride the Batpole, and ended up a dark psychological analysis of characters from show that brought us Shark Repellent Bat-Spray and a villain obsessed with eggs. My brain likes to latch onto odd things.

He'd been an easy catch once the high died down. Freedom meant little once you'd lost the will to live. During this part of the infernal loop he barely ate and spent most of the day staring at the ceiling of his cell like a glass-eyed doll. Manic-depressive, the prison psychologist called him, trapped in a cycle of ecstatic highs and pitch-black lows. But when they offered him treatment (as they always did, the soft-hearted fools) he rejected it with all the strength he could manage.

To choose normalcy was to choose death. The despair was the sacrifice he made for his genius; there could be no light without darkness. One suffered the hellish torments of aching emptiness to ascend once more to glorious heaven.

And the Riddler had begun to hear the angels sing.

"Good day, officer!" he chirped, as the guard went by for the daily headcount. He leaned on his cell door with his arms dangling through the bars. "I have a riddle to brighten your morning. Until I am measured I am not known, yet how you miss me when I have flown." He didn't quite recognize the fey young man, but he assumed even the greenhorns would have heard of the Count of Conundrums. Mocking his captors with an occasional riddle was always fun. Some were even bright enough to solve them on occasion.

The guard stopped by his cell, throwing a glare over his shoulder. "Time," he said, eyes narrowing. “As in, I ain’t got none of it for your nonsense.”

"Oh, there’s always time for riddles, Officer..." Riddler's eyes descended towards the guard's badge and he bit his lip to restrain a laugh. "Tsaifere. Are you Russian?"

The guard gave him a considering look and stepped closer to the bars. "No,” he whispered. He looked down the corridor, then back to Riddler as his hand went to the cuffs on his belt..

"Oh, no pressing engagements. I can be patient." Riddler pressed his wrists together and offered a pleading look. "But must I?"

It was a good thing he was such a competent actor. The compulsion to burst out laughing as he was led past all the petty little prisoners and prison guards was nearly unbearable. "Stop twitchin', you freak,” the guard growled, twisting Riddler’s bound wrist back. Riddler gasped in what one might have assumed was pain. Oh, it was good to work with people who were willing to go that little extra mile for you. At the gates the guard forced him into the back of a police car, tipping his hat to the uniformed man at the gate. Riddler counted to thirty in base seven as they drove away before finally letting out a shriek of glee.

"Yes!" He pounded his fists on the dashboard. "Oh, you're wonderful, my dear, I could kiss you. And that name, a gorgeous touch!" Tsaifere. Cypher. Make something look foreign enough and nobody stopped to try out the pronunciation.

"Thought you'd appreciate that bit." The guard tossed his hat in the back seat, giving a rough chuckle. "You're an easy man to please."

Riddler turned to watch the gates of the Gotham State Penitentiary disappear into the distance. "Sometimes the simplest things in in life are the most delicious." Even hearing the sound of his own giddy, passionate voice again was rapturous. No drug or physical pleasure could substitute for the pure joy of having his mind back.

But let's not let it all out at once. Riddler took in a deep calming breath. "That and the little note you sent me regarding your continued existence," he said, voice returning to a more stable level. "It made the darkness lift more quickly."

"Figured you outta know. You're such a drag when you're down in the dumps." Which explained why he'd waited until now to make his move. That was fine, Riddler wouldn't have wanted to escape until now.

Riddler folded his hands and leaned forward. One small question had been nagging at him, a little riddle he hadn't had the energy to attend to until now. "So tell me,” he asked, chewing on one thumbnail. “What did happen to Molly?" All they'd told him was that his beautiful henchwoman was no more, until a note slipped into his breakfast had told him otherwise. “The plan was perfect. I capture Robin and hide him away while you disguise yourself as the Boy Blunder to infiltrate the Batcave and take Batman unaware.” The most reasonable plan in the world, why hadn’t it worked?

"Fell into the nuclear reactor in the Batcave. You know how dames are. Weak." The guard spat on the floor of the car.

Riddler tilted his head. "The...Batcave has a nuclear reactor?" Was that even legal? Probably was, if Batman was doing it. The man wouldn't so much as double-park his car.

"For powering the Batmobile."

Riddler bit his thumb. "Ingenious," he murmured in awe. The man's endless resources never ceased to surprise him. It took a few minutes to pull his thoughts back to his original question.
"But the masquerade?”

"Batman had her pegged as a phony from the beginning. He disarmed her, he made sure she didn't see the way into the cave, he played her for a fool and she had to make a run for it. The heat and the fumes got to her, made it hard for her to figure out where to put her feet. He grabbed for her but her hand slipped." Despite the use of the third person Riddler could hear the restrained emotion in Tsaifere’s voice. He understood the poor man's pain. You had a perfect plan together and then that one little thing you'd missed tripped you up.

"And the escape?"

"Dropped a smokebomb under cover of the fumes, hid until he left, then got into the trunk of the Batmobile to be smuggled out."

So she saw the way neither in nor out of Batman's breathtaking lair. Shame but nothing for it.
Tsaifere slammed the palm of his hand against the wheel and again muttered, "Stupid broad."

"We all have our moments of weakness." Riddler reached over to pat his shoulder with a sympathetic coo. "He'll come for you again, my dear."

For two heists last year the Riddler had hired two separate women, both eager to assist a master criminal and both achingly enamored of the Caped Crusader despite their avowed allegiance to his ciphered cause. His suspicions were aroused when the second had known his technique too well for a woman he'd just hired to do his criminal bidding. At first he'd suspected treachery, or a police spy in his ranks. It was not until he'd confronted her on the matter (and talked her down from attempting to coerce his silence with a boxcutter) that he'd discovered the two women he'd hired had been one and the same. And two others besides.

In fact, most of the women hired by your average Gotham master criminal, seemingly unconnected by anything but the desire to commit crimes and look good doing it, ultimately hailed from the same mother. Some of the men as well, though the devilish disguise artist preferred the female form. Riddler had shared cells with identity thieves, but Jane Doe was the only person he knew who was an identity kleptomaniac.

For Jane there was no 'true self'. Even the name 'Jane Doe' was only a mental shorthand Riddler had given his occasional partner in crime, for it irked him when a thing went unquantified. Jane stole the personalities of others, or made up an identity from whole cloth when a suitable one was not nearby--it was beyond mere makeup and acting talent. The disguise sunk all the way past the bone and down to the brain.

Riddler was trapped between the dehumanizing 'it' and the ungrammatical 'they' when it came to the creature behind the stage makeup. The latter seemed the least ill-fitting. Certainly his companion's body was more akin to that of Venus than of Mars, but their mind was a cryptic even to the Prince of Puzzles. If the doctors at Gotham State shook their sad little bearded heads at Riddler's wild swings of mood, they would probably be brought to their knees weeping at a person who refused to even keep their gender constant, let alone the rest of their personality.

As his dreaded foe had often said of Riddler himself, if only that criminal genius could be channeled toward the benefit of humanity. An unprecedented human chameleon and what did they do with that power?

They stalked Batman.

"An apothecary?" Riddler asked as they reached their final destination. "I hadn't known this city even had one. It seems so quaint."

"It's only a front. I took the place over after my last gig with the fairy pharaoh." A fact made clear the moment one walked through the door. It was covered in faux-Egyptian paraphernalia and there were hieroglyphs painted on every wall. Someone had put potted palms in the corner to help encourage the North African ambiance, but they obviously hadn’t been tended to in weeks.

People never could make their hideouts subtle.

"Can't stand working for that Queen of the Nile,” Tsaifere grumbled, idly kicking a discarded canopic jar with the head of a baboon. “Everything's drama to him. You gotta butter him up just to keep him from giving up entirely. And what kinda guy wears eye liner?"

"Eye makeup was common for both sexes in ancient Egypt," Riddler pointed out. "Be gentle with poor old Tut, he's mentally diseased."

"So are you, and you complain when I'm too gentle."

"Ha!" Oh, but that was far different. Riddler would have prepared a worthy rebuttal, but then he caught sight of King Tut's former throne. An unbearably gaudy creation, gilt over wood, but it was not the chair itself that interested him. Folded up on the seat was his beloved question mark suit, with his patent leather green oxfords nestled beside them. Riddler ran to them as if meeting a lover and fell to his knees before the throne, crushing the suit to his chest. "You absolutely beautiful, genius man," he moaned. He pressed the fabric of the waistcoat to his face and let out a relieved, ecstatic breath.

“Go change. I got a little freshening up to do.” The man glowered at him as he ducked into the storage closet. "Peek and I'll break your nose."

"Of course, of course." Jane would rather be seen without their clothes on than without a proper mask. He'd only caught the barest glimpse of their real face once, through mirrors and trickery--pale narrow features, small nose, hair and eyebrows shaved so close he could barely tell their original hue. There had been an unnerving deadness in their eyes, a body waiting for a soul to fill it. What passion there must be in Jane's heart for their fondness for the Caped Crusader to linger on through so many changes of self.

Riddler stripped off his prison uniform and tossed it away with disgust. Careful, almost ritualistic attention was given to every verdant piece of clothing as he pulled it on, fastening the buttons with utmost care. It was like washing off the last vestiges of the Gotham State Penitentiary in a warm rose-petal bath. He slipped his arms around himself and ran a hand down his shoulder, savoring the sensation of the fabric against his prickling skin. A laugh bubbled up in his throat, rising to outright shrieks of glee. The Riddler was back, let the dull cow-eyed agents of order and justice tremble. Once again the world was beautiful.

Riddler twirled his bowler around his finger and began pacing before Jane’s door. "He visited me in prison this time around, you know. He wanted to convince me to take their infernal drugs, become a proper and upright member of society. Don't get jealous, it was hardly a conversation. Merely shaking my head took all the effort I had. I couldn't even think of a proper response until the shadows had cleared."

"And I know you're dying to tell it to someone,” The voice from behind the door was higher pitched, rising from Tsaifere to a more feminine tone.

Riddler tossed up the hat and caught it on his head. "Riddle me this, why is it that I never take an insanity plea when they shuffle me off to the courtroom? Because it means I deny responsibility for my actions and cast myself as some broken child needing to be put back together with injections and therapy. I know exactly what's going on, I know the repercussions of my crimes.”

The room felt too small to contain him. Riddler paced, whirled, jumped atop a convenient table and locked his fingers around a water pipe. "I know it and I love it! I am mad and I revel in my madness, I would rather take my own life than let them take away my insanity!" he shouted, fist to the ceiling.

"Oh, but Batman, my dear man in the mask." His voice dropped to a thrilled whisper. Riddler slipped again to the floor, though his feet felt as if they were barely staying in his shoes. "For all your genius and your crime computers, for all that my impenetrable riddles are like glass to your steely eyes, you cannot grasp the simplest matters of the deeper passions." Riddler took three delicate dancer's steps across the room and caressed the muzzle of a golden statue of Anubis, judge of the dead. "I don't care if I'm locked away a hundred times as long as I have your eyes on me, but how could you understand? You know the criminal mind but not the criminal heart."

He heard the click of the door opening and whirled to see what new face Jane had created this time. Blonde hair delicately turned up at the ends, hint of rouge at the cheeks, a slight smirk on her burgundy lips. Not a scrap was left of the uncouth young man she'd been before.

"Gorgeous," he pronounced, blowing her a double-handed kiss. "You know how it is, don't you? You have your own troubles. No white picket fences and well-scrubbed husband for my dear chameleon, you chase a far wilder target."

Jane smoothed down her dress and gave him an awkward shrug. Even her posture was different, Riddler could swear that she’d shrunk an inch or two. "Can't say I make it easy on myself.” Her voice carried a strong flavor of Chicago, the accent of a rough and clever girl.

Riddler offered the newly-made woman a frown as he approached, not sympathy but true empathy. "Of course, he'd prefer if you were straightforward and asked him to take you out to the movies. He'd rather we all gave up our criminal ways and became good little civil servants. But he'd turn you down with the utmost politeness and chivalry and never give you a second thought afterwards. This way you will always catch his eye, and when his attention wanders to a new crime there you are again to meet him." His gloved fingertips rested lightly on her cheek. So rare to meet a kindred spirit in this bland little world, rarer to find one willing to join forces for mutual gain.

"You're too smart for your own good, Riddler." Jane made the shape of a gun with her fingers and placed it under his chin, even as she smiled sweet as a button. Her glued-on nails left small scratches under his chin. "One of these days you might just get to be too much trouble for me." Her wrist jerked as the gun 'fired'. Riddler stumbled back with his hand over his heart and splayed himself melodramatically across Tut’s throne.

"The safe life is the unlived life," he murmured, eyes closed as if he was breathing his last. "But don't we make the perfect matched pair? Myself, the crafty deviant, and you the ultimate conformist, and he can't understand either of us."

He launched himself upward into a blur of motion, whirling around the completely unnecessary (and historically inaccurate) pillars Tut had installed in the back room, giggling, reveling in the joy of being himself. There would be riddles again, and the thrill as Batman untangled each beautiful enigma. There would be robberies and heists and such elegant death traps for him to plan and his pursuer to outwit. He always did find his way through, the accursed beautiful man, but if he became unable to solve Riddler's perilous puzzles he would have become unworthy of the game anyway. As long as he lived there would be the fun, the chase, the capture, and the whole cycle anew.

Riddler wound up hunched on a table with one leg beneath him, staring at Jane with a hungry smile. "An eternal riddle for us," he asked, teeth tearing into the knuckle of his emerald glove. "When are a skinchanger and a puzzle master like two court jesters?"

"When they're a pair of fools." Jane laughed, light and soft with the slight hint of despair. "But there's no other way to be in love."


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May 2013

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