It was supposed to have been a simple takedown operation. Cobblepot’s thugs were planning a raid on one of their competitor’s warehouses, a little something for the boss to brag about. All Batman had to do was drop in and interrupt the proceeds, maybe get a few of them behind bars for possessing illegal arms. An ordinary night’s work. But he didn’t consider the cache hidden in the warehouse, or who it belonged to.
He should have known better. Cobblepot’s men wouldn’t have raided an ammunitions cache when they have guns and firepower. And right now the Penguin and Scarecrow are at each other’s throats over conflicting plans to hit the waterfront. A quick look into the warehouse’s contents before jumping into the action would have alerted the Bat to the real danger. Instead he’s finding out the crates are filled with fear gas when enough bullets hit the canisters inside to release a good amount of it into the air.
The smell hits him first, as he knocks a thug out of commission. Something like moss over rusted metal. He knows what it means and instantly tenses up. Three of the goons he’s fighting go down coughing and the others still standing run for an escape while they can, that instinct for self-preservation bubbling to the surface.
The trouble isn’t the smell, but the mist that comes after. Once you’re caught in it, everything spirals out of control, twisting your perception and pumping excess adrenaline into your system. Batman understands the effects of Crane’s canister formula all too well and covers his mouth before he inhales too much of the gas. He can already feel his heartbeat speed up as he climbs out of an open window and a fine cloud of the gas curls in the wind behind him.
The gas will dissipate, given a couple more minutes, but he can’t risk fear gas leaking into the bay. Bruce alerts the GCPD to the warehouse so they get the area cleared off fast and leaves as soon as he hears sirens in the distance, shooting a line to the nearest building. His hands shake from the effort, but it’s manageable. He can power through it until he reaches the mansion.
Then something hits him over the head and he smacks hard on the rooftop.
“You brute! What have you done?! That was my newest batch!"
Of course it’s Scarecrow and he’s fuming, swinging a sack full of what Bruce assumes to be rocks, judging from the bruise he’s sure to have forming on his head. He swallows a groan and gets to his feet, jumping back into action and apprehending the convict. But Crane is slippery, and he doesn’t make it easy, screaming the whole time and promising retribution for his lost goods. It doesn’t help that his body is beginning to feel sluggish, fists lifting just a fraction too late to block a hit or keep a good hold on the man.
And Crane notices, eyes trained to observe the tiniest shift in change. He sees the sweat beading in the Bat’s chin, his panting, and laughs menacingly.
“And what do we have here? Perspiration, shortness of breath. Has someone stuck their nose where it doesn’t belong?"
Bruce swings a fist at Crane’s masked face but only gets as far as his shoulder. He can hardly hear him over the sound of the police sirens gathered in the street.
Then his vision lurches and it’s not Scarecrow in front of him, but something bigger, a gaping maw of teeth where stitches and hay used to be. Bruce doesn’t let the apparition stop him, even when his steps stutter forward and his whole body wants to get out, run away. His thoughts scream in denial and fueled by a spike of adrenaline, the Bat lands a solid punch on the thing’s face.
He hears Crane grunt and a playful sing-songed, "My, Batman, aren’t we greedy for more?" Then teeth extend and turn into needles. They dive towards him, morphing back and forth between bone and metal, curling like snakes. Something grips his arm and squeezes, Bruce paralyzed and breathless until a jab of pain jolts him back to the present and rage replaces the horror. He beats the thing still attached to his arm viciously, until it yelps and lets go and he’s running, jumping across black chasms and climbing tall spires, away from the ghoulish maw and its hacking laugh.
His only thought is to go further, escape and find safety, but everywhere he turns there’s another figure leaking from the shadows. He moves forward with trembling limbs, the bright lights from between the shadows blinding him, turning him away. He moves and runs and crawls and he can’t stop, not yet, not when the teeth and needles can find him and trap him again.
Everything feels too close, hands clenching and unclenching, stretching the gauntlet around his palm, body screaming for air. He wants to crack his head open on the pavement to stop the noise, pulse skyrocketing and echoing each breath Bruce takes, but he stops himself before the need becomes reality and focuses on breathing. One step, inhale, two steps, exhale.
Enough steps ahead, he finds familiar ground and feels infinitely better. An empty lot stood there, surrounded by an oil canvas of color and deflated balloons right in the underbelly of the city. A broken down fair. He walks into it, still crowded by game stands, and hides in the first building he sees. It’s dark, but not a threatening sort of darkness. A small whisper of reassurance flutters into his fever brain. It’s safe here, it says, nothing can get to you in here.
He curls in a corner and closes his eyes, just for a moment.
Something runs against the back of his suit and he jerks awake, terrified all at once and unable to suck enough air into his lungs.
He hears a voice shush him, rubbing circles into his back as he tries to scramble back and up. But then whatever was touching him moves into sight and Bruce stops.
The name scratches against his throat like sandpaper. He feels like a child again, weak and small, on the verge of tears from the inexplicable sense of dread and terror he’s had since his fight with Scarecrow.
Joker titters and runs his pale, pale hands on Bruce’s cowl and a pitiful sound comes out of his throat when Joker pulls away.
“Shh, now, now. Batsy, I’m not leaving. Just,” he leans his whole body on Bruce’s left side and snuggles there, “Getting more comfortable."
Something, deep inside and muddled, tells him he shouldn’t feel so at ease, leaning on the bit of warmth he can get from the body glued to his flank. But his entire world has been reduced to a set of truths. He is not safe, he needs to hide, familiar is good, familiar won’t hurt, the Joker won’t kill him, the Joker loves him. It drowns every thought in his head like a mantra. Joker is familiar, Joker is good. He is not safe, Joker won’t kill him. It goes on over and over, until he loses the words and all he has left is the imprint of them.
Joker’s voice is like a blanket over him during it all, soothing him with feather-light touches.
“Why d’you come here, Batsy? I can’t do anything for you.”
Safe, he wants to say, safe here. Safe with you.
Bruce doesn’t know how much time passes while his breathing continues to stutter and his heart refuses to calm down. He sees a pensive look come over Joker’s face and moans when his head is struck by an onslaught of hot pain. He feels worse by the minute and soon there are tears spilling from under his mask onto Joker’s dry hands.
The pensive look turns dark, hands prying into his sides, his neck, his arms, until Joker finds a small torn patch of kevlar armor and skin peeking through, red angry pinprick marks visible on Bruce’s arm.
“Bats,” Bruce is trying to keep his breathing under control but the more he tries, the harder it gets and soon he’s hyperventilating and he’s afraid because Joker won’t kill him but Joker can hurt, he’s familiar, familiar, good is not safe, the words jumbled up in his head again in the wrong order—“Bats, baby, look at me. Breathe. Look at me."
Bruce lifts his eyes and focuses with difficulty on Joker, but it’s too much and he can’t keep the gaze. A hand grabs his and squeezes softly, repeatedly, catching his attention through the anxiety clogging up his chest until it’s all he feels. It’s set to a rhythm and Bruce finds himself breathing in when Joker squeezes and letting go when the grip softens.
"What is wrong with me,” he hesitates to say. Joker doesn’t answer but he keeps their hands joined and that’s good enough.
He falls into a half-sleep, troubled and exhausted by the fever his body is going through. Panic bubbles to the surface when Joker’s hand slips free from his, but Joker pushes him back down and promises to be right back. It’s a long, stressful minute before the clown returns with a half-drained bottle of water and tells him to drink up.
Bruce does as told, downing it in three gulps and relieved for all of four seconds. He curls back into his comfortable spot and waits for Joker to sit with him again. When the clown doesn’t move, and the faint wisps of drowsiness begin to cloud his vision, he looks up with some agitation curling in his gut.
“Now, don’t look at me like that, Batsy, darling. You need to rest, and I have some things to do!” He pets one of the Bat’s ears and thinks. "I’ll be right here when you wake up, baby. Pinky promise?"
By the time he finishes talking, Bruce is in a dreamless, drug-induced daze.
Awareness comes back to him in chunks, his head pillowed on an elevated surface, sweat dripping from his face.
“Hot…” He paws at his cowl, trying to pull it back so he can breathe but strength leaves him. A cold hand helps peel it off and Bruce gasps when cool air touches his forehead, hair stuck in sweaty patches to his face.
The world drifts in and out of focus. His heart is still hammering loudly inside his ribcage, blotting out most of the sounds floating around outside of himself. He hears a melody hummed somewhere above him, not a lot of it making sense. Something pinches his arm and he grunts from the slight ache it leaves. Bruce swears there’s someone speaking to him, running fingers over his unkempt hair, but he can’t open his eyes to check if it’s not his imagination. Words drum into his ears and back out again, and he doesn’t really register any of the words, just its low, soft-spoken timbre.
“—a couple of broken bones makes people so very cooperative! You won’t believe how fast Johnny boy caved. He’s not such a Big Baddy when you point a gun at his family jewels, y’know. Oh, but you wouldn't do that, my boring little baby. He was so eager and told me what chemical cocktail to whip up for you—"
Slowly, everything begins to fade back to black. His breathing evens out, and his blood stops trying to spring out of his veins. Bruce wakes up later with his mind back in order, opening his eyes groggily to greet the ceiling.
It’s not morning yet, not by the looks of the gray city lights illuminating part of the doorway. He stands up from his spot and sees a slip of paper fall to the ground. It reads, “You’re cute when you snore,” with a little winky face drawn in the corner.
Bruce scowls and ignores the heat trailing up his face from the combined embarrassment of the last couple of hours and being honest-to-God comforted by the Joker. His face. Bruce is momentarily frozen in place, but a quick check confirms his cowl is still on. He’s not sure what to make of that, or if he even did take his cowl off in the first place. The better part of the night is a blur, only impressions and thoughts catching in his memory.
He takes one last look around and heads back into the city, trying to ignore the small tug of fondness he felt in his chest for the clown.