“Okay,” Phyllis agrees, “but I need all the bad guys locked up in here.”
“And I mean all of them.”
Phyllis has a pretty good idea of what’s about to come, and sure enough, Batman seems to get her point almost immediately. Just a second ago he’d been itching to go back out there and fight his dark little heart out, but now hesitation steals onto his face, creasing the lines of his cowl and touching his mouth with tension. Phyllis herself doesn’t have a face, as such, but she’s spent her entire existence watching the world from up above and she thinks she’s gotten pretty adept at reading their expressions; and besides, she also had a pretty good look at both this one and the other one as she scanned them. She knows exactly what Batman is going to say next.
“The Joker —”
“Yes,” Phyllis agrees, “him too.”
“No buts. You’re returning all my escapees or I’m keeping you here and that’s that.”
“This isn’t fair!” Batman insists. “Joker doesn’t belong here! He only got here because I sent him!”
“That may be true,” Phyllis counters, “but I got a thorough scan on him when you did and let me tell you, if anyone belongs in the Phantom Zone, the Joker does,” she asserts, and very carefully doesn’t mention the fact that her scan revealed something else, too. She has a feeling that if she told Batman about the true potential she saw in Joker, including the depth of his feelings for Batman and how those feelings could well be the one single thing that might turn him away from his path of villainy, the results would be... counterproductive. She needs Batman to figure things out on his own — and the Joker, too. One cannot rush these things. In her experience it’s better nudge the humans along than hold their hands the entire way if there are to be any lasting changes...
Metaphorically speaking. Because Phyllis doesn’t actually have any hands to speak of.
“He was only here for like ten minutes!” Batman argues.
“And look what he’s managed to do in that time,” Phyllis points out. “He’s found a way to release all my prisoners and is currently on the brink of destroying your entire city! He’s proved he’s the worst villain we ever got in here and in case you need the reminder, we have to mop up giant gorilla poo every day.”
“Whoa, okay, bad mental images.”
“Yeah, no kidding.”
“I did not need that in my head.”
“I’m not sorry.”
“But I can’t send Joker back,” Batman pleads, obviously choosing to stay clear of any further poo-related topics. “I’ve only just… understood things, and I…” He looks at the ground again, beating a fist against his side.
Phyllis, as has previously been stated, doesn’t have a face. Ergo, she cannot smile. But she has over the years accumulated a lot of context to imagine the situations in which a smile might be appropriate, and she imagines that if she could, she would be smiling right now. Her internal circuits feel warm enough, which always happens when she experiences sensations humans would describe as positive.
“You’ve realized he’s your greatest enemy?” she prompts.
Batman looks tortured now. He mumbles something under his breath never once looking up from the floor.
“What was that?” Phyllis hovers closer. She doesn’t have ears to listen with but she finds it usually comforts humans and makes interactions easier when she pretends that she does. “I couldn’t quite hear you.”
“Maybe.” For a blink Batman looks angry — and just a little constipated — but then his face softens, and finally, he lifts his head to look at Phyllis. “All right, he is. I admit it. He is, and I…” He takes a deep breath and makes that constipated face again. “And I need him.”
There’s that warm sensation buzzing through the cables inside Phyllis again, but she reminds herself to stay on script. This isn’t over yet.
“I’m sorry, rules are rules,” she tells Batman. “He was a prisoner in the Phantom Zone and he’s a grade A villain. You have to bring him back with the others.”
“But he only freed the others so I’d realize how stupid I was,” Batman insists. “None of it would have happened if I hadn’t just… If I hadn’t rejected him in the first place.”
Internally, Phyllis’s circuits fizzle with excitement. Out loud, she says, “No, sorry, can’t help you.”
“Okay, what if…” Batman looks deeply conflicted for a moment before his face settles into determination. “What if I promised I’d bring myself back in his place?”
The glow of triumph lights Phyllis up from the inside to the point where her lights begin to flicker out of control. Focus, she tells herself. This is a delicate operation.
“Nah,” she says. “Sorry, but you’re no bad guy.”
“What do you mean I’m not?” Batman looks offended by this, even though he denied his bad-guy-ness to her face just minutes ago. “You just showed me! You said it yourself, I even dress like a villain!”
“Nope, sorry. Just being a Meanie McMeanface doesn’t count. If we sentenced all the poopooheads to the Phantom Zone there wouldn’t be anyone left down below.”
“Joker doesn’t deserve it,” Batman begs. “It’s all my fault. I should be the one to pay.”
“You care about him this much?” Phyllis asks, and immediately wonders if it wasn’t overkill. But Batman doesn’t seem to notice — he just looks at the ground again.
After a moment, very tightly, he nods.
Phyllis decides that a pause is in order, just to let the moment sink in properly. Then, after she calculates that enough time has passed, she decrees, “Fine. As long as you take his place here, you don’t have to send Joker back. But are you sure?”
Batman looks up at her, and when he does, the steely look in his eye assures Phyllis she hasn’t miscalculated.
“Yes,” he says, “I am. Now send me back so I can save my family.” He pauses for a moment, and then finishes, “All of them.”
Satisfied, and excited at everything her algorithms predict is still to come, Phyllis finally agrees, and sends Batman right into the fray. Then she spends a couple highly enjoyable hours watching the little humans fight, and cheerfully welcomes each and every new villain back to their home as they pop into existence on the entry platform, looking rather the worse for wear. She is glad to see them back, for the most part — yes, even the gorilla — and hopes that it won’t take them too long to get over their failure this time around. She’s glad they had the chance to stretch their legs a bit and enjoy a change of scenery, let off some steam, even if just for a single night; they’d really been getting rather cagey before the Joker shook things up. Hopefully their little stint in Gotham will get it out of their system and humble them enough to give them all some peace for the next few years or so.
Besides, Phyllis is rather fond of her charges. The place would be far too quiet without their grandstanding and monologuing. At the very least, they give her something to do.
But down in Gotham, dawn is slowly breaking, and Phyllis turns her attention back to the city to watch Joker’s bomb go off. She really doesn’t want to miss the grand finale.
It’s a beautiful moment, and even more beautiful when, moved by Batman’s confessions, Joker reacts by grabbing his hands. As they hold onto each other and start to pull the plates of the city back together, each held up by their own support network, Phyllis can well and truly see the new course their lives are taking in this very moment, and all the other changes that lie ahead. The paths are so striking and clear Phyllis wonders if the humans themselves can see them, or at least sense just how important this moment is — it seems so obvious to her that she imagines they must. At least a little, as far as their limited fleshy brains will allow.
And she discovers she cannot wait to watch them embark on those paths on their own.
She enjoys rejecting Batman into the Phantom Zone; enjoys his befuddled expression, the questioning look, the way he obviously wants to keep asking but knows he can’t, not with a — seemingly — blissfully ignorant Joker standing to his side cheerfully waving at Phyllis like they’re old friends. She enjoys keeping them both in the dark, and she keeps an eye on them for the rest of the day as each of them celebrates — Batman with his new family, Joker in his hideout smiling constantly and talking at Harley about everything that happened and drawing little hearts everywhere, humming constantly.
She also enjoys the moment when, late at night, the sky lights up with the Bat symbol — the old one — from somewhere that isn’t the roof of the GCPD.
She wonders if Batman knows what he’s flying towards, and from the small smile she observes on his face, she concludes that he probably does. In any case he doesn’t look surprised when he sees Joker sitting on the edge of Wayne Tower, legs swinging over a sixty-storey drop, one of those small, gentle smiles on his face as he turns to watch the bat-plane land.
“Hey,” he says pleasantly, turning to switch off the makeshift spotlight rigged up behind him.
“What’s this?” Batman asks, pointing to the signal. “This isn’t some new demented plan, is it?”
“No, don’t worry.” Joker turns back to watch the city, all lit up and enjoying its one undisturbed night of celebration below his dangling feet. “I’m giving myself a break. I’ve earned it.”
“I’ll say.” Batman shakes his head at him, smirking. “So what did you want?”
“Oh, you know.” Joker shrugs, still smiling, twiddling his fingers. “To talk.”
“That’s a lot of effort for just a talk. How did you even haul that thing up here?” Once again Batman turns to the lighting mechanism, patting it with a fascinated air.
“I did some push-ups,” Joker counters, grinning. “You’ve inspired me.”
“Good.” Batman turns his smile on him. “I need my greatest enemy in top shape.”
Joker’s grin turns sappy, and he looks away as though embarrassed to let Batman see it. Batman’s own smile turns a fraction bigger at this, and he seems content to let the moment linger as he stands there behind Joker, both of them looking out over the city.
“Seriously, J-Bird,” he asks eventually, coming closer. “What is it? Why aren’t you down there celebrating with everyone else?”
Instead of replying, Joker pats the space next to him. “Sit.”
“You’re not gonna push me off, are you?”
“Not tonight,” Joker promises with a very sharp-toothed grin, “clown’s honor.”
“Well,” Batman hesitates only for a minute, “fine.”
He sits down, sweeping his cape behind himself, and lets his own legs dangle next to Joker’s. Neither of them seems to be disturbed by the height, but then again, Phyllis reckons they wouldn’t be. Not these two. This is, after all, their bread and butter.
Well, maybe not the sitting down next to each other just to talk thing, Phyllis corrects herself. But give them time. They’re definitely on the right track.
And then Joker asks, “What did you do?”
Batman looks puzzled. “I sat down. You asked me to.”
“Not this, stupid,” Joker sighs, and doesn’t bother to hide the soppily fond grin that eats onto his face. “I swear, if you’re gonna start playing dumb with me again I am gonna push you off.”
“Not if I push you first.”
“Yeah I would.”
“Oh yeah?” Joker’s grin gains a sharp, triumphant edge as he points out, “Well then you’d just jump after me and save me anyway. You always do.”
“No I don’t!” they shout in unison, and as Batman hits his palm to his face Joker looks so delighted with himself that Phyllis wonders if he’ll break into song.
“You won’t catch me doing that again,” Batman warns. “I gave you this one. Because I felt sorry for you.”
“Sure, Bats. Whatever helps you sleep at night.” Joker makes a thoughtful face and then amends, “Sorry, by day. You did say 4pm, right?”
“3:30 for me.”
“No it’s not,” Batman huffs. “Really?”
“Nah,” Joker confesses.
“So… what time do you get up?”
“Tell you what,” Joker says coyly, “we’ll keep this up, see where it goes, and maybe one day you’ll find out.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Batman warns, but he smiles as he does and Joker smiles right back, sidling closer by about an inch.
“Soooooo.” He starts, turning back to watch the city. “Will you tell me what you did?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“The Phantom Zone,” Joker explains quietly. “Why am I not up there with all the others? Care to explain that one, Bats?”
Phyllis thinks she might actually laugh at the face Batman makes, suddenly all uncertainty and flailing and “ohmygodNOWwhat.” Seriously, for someone who considers himself a mysterious embodiment of darkness, Batman can be hilariously easy to read.
Judging by the edge to his smile and the glint in his eyes, Joker thinks so too, but he doesn’t say anything and appears to settle himself to patiently wait for an explanation.
“Well,” Batman starts, wriggling in discomfort, “uhhhhhhh. I. I kinda. I don’t know? How should I know? Apparently that talking traffic light thought you’re too much of a loser,” he finishes gamely.
Hey, Phyllis thinks vaguely. Joker doesn’t even blink.
“I don’t think so,” he says. “I think there’s more to it.”
“I think you did something.”
“Because see, it doesn’t make sense,” Joker says, inching closer, “for you to think that you had to go back, but not me. You didn’t point that blasty thingamabob at me once. It was never even a question. But I was there longer than you were, and I actually am a villain, and Phillie must have been pretty pissed at me.”
Up above, Phyllis nods. She really was, for a second, before she understood what was actually going on. At the same time, she finds herself thinking, Awwww, he remembered my name, and decides to put in a good word for Joker with her boss in the future if it’s ever necessary.
She kind of likes the endearment too. She doesn’t think she’s ever had one before.
She keeps listening.
“But then when she popped up, she didn’t even look at me,” Joker continues, even as Batman’s face crumples more and more with every word. “It just doesn’t add up. So, you wanna hear my theory?”
“Too bad.” Joker stretches his hands behind himself to lean on them. “I think,” he says slowly, eyes glistening bright, “that you told her you’d take my place. That you were gonna sacrifice yourself for me like the disgusting do-gooder you are. Ain’t that right, greatest enemy mine?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Batman mutters, avoiding his eyes. “You’re deranged. You’re talking nonsense again. I’d never do that for you.”
Joker’s smile only grows. “Because I’m your enemy?”
Batman sighs. “The greatest.”
“And you’ll hate me forever?”
“I’m seriously gonna push you off this roof.”
“Blinkety blink blink blink — “
“Oh my God.” Batman gets to his feet. “I’m leaving. You can sit here all night for all I care.”
“Batsy — “
“If you’re gonna say blink again — “
Batman stops. He looks at Joker.
“Thank you,” Joker says, pulling himself up again, looking up at Batman with a face that radiates pure fondness and understanding. “It was a stupidly idiotic thing to do, but you wouldn’t be you if you didn’t pull something like that. And that’s why I hate you so much.”
His smile wobbles just a little on the last few words, and he turns to the city again, eyes shining.
Batman watches him for a minute, and then he sighs. He ambles over to sit next to Joker again, and for a while, neither of them speaks.
“You know,” Joker whispers after a long moment, “if they did take you, I’d blow up the city again. For good this time.”
Batman doesn’t say anything at first.
Then he murmurs, “I know.”
“And then I’d get that projector and pull you right back, and then send you back up again for being an idiot.”
“But then I’d bring you back.”
“And maybe send you away again, and bring you back again, just to watch you go back and forth like an angry black yoyo — “
“The point is,” Joker says, stifling a giggle, “there is no Gotham without you. So… don’t you ever do that again, okay?”
Batman sighs. “Yeah, okay.”
“I wouldn’t have let them take you.”
Batman hesitates for a minute, and then turns to face Joker. His mouth is returning a fraction of Joker’s smile.
“Why do you think I made the deal in the first place?”
“A-ha!” Joker’s face lights up in triumph. “So you admit it!”
“I admit nothing.”
“I know you inside and out, Batsy, just accept it.”
“Watch it, clown,” Batman warns with a smile, “or I’m really gonna — ”
“Yeah, yeah.” Joker sighs, but it’s a happy sound, and when he scoots closer to Batman again, Batman pretends he didn’t notice.
“So,” Joker says after another quiet, content moment. “You remember how we saved the city by holding hands?”
“Sure I do. It was just this morning.” Then Batman seems to catch himself and remember who he is, and adds, “And we didn’t save the world by holding hands, we saved it with the power of abs! Mine, mostly. But yours too. Just a little. But mostly mine.”
“I was thinking,” Joker’s legs are kicking the air rhythmically, “that maybe we could… do it again?”
“What,” Batman looks at him, perplexed, “flex our abs?”
“No.” Joker directs his fragile, wobbly, quietly hopeful smile at him. “The other thing.”
He holds out his hand.
Batman eyes it for a moment, and for once, his face remains blank as he considers.
“I don’t know, J-Bird,” he says at length. “The city isn’t being destroyed.”
Joker’s smile is beginning to crumple. He starts to withdraw his hand.
“But,” Batman says quietly, looking away from him, “if it… were… to, uh… be falling apart again… then maybe we could… try to save it… again.” He takes a deep breath. “With our abs.” He shuts his mouth, looking very much like the effort of saying even this much is splitting him right down the middle.
At first Joker looks confused, but then his brow clears, and the smile is back on his face. He clears his throat.
“You know what,” he says, “I can kinda feel this building shaking.”
Batman lets out a breath with all the relief of a man finally breaking the water surface. He is beginning to smile. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. Can’t you? Like it’s… wobbling? These bricks aren’t very stable, man.” Joker pats the ledge he’s sitting on. “It’s about to fall apart. Maybe an earthquake. This Wayne guy ought to invest in better builders.”
“You know,” Batman says, “I may have felt it shake too.”
Joker’s eyes gleam as he tries to keep the grin off his face, adopting a concerned expression instead. “It’s about to fall apart, I’m telling ya. We need to do something.”
“Yeah,” Batman agrees. “For the sake of. Um. All the people.”
“Exactly!” Joker nods vigorously. “We have to save them, Batsy! So you gotta hold my hand now so the bricks hold.”
“Right.” Batman moves closer to him. “For the people.”
“Yeah. For Gotham.”
This time, when Joker extends his hand, Batman takes it, and they sit there on the ledge, legs kicking, looking out over the city, both of them trying to fight off a smile they don’t want the other to see.
It’s at this point that Phyllis decides it’s time to leave them be, and pulls away, to see what new mayhem her bad guys got up to while she wasn’t paying attention.
They’ll be all right.