The key to surviving on this godforsaken murder planet, Lex Luthor had decided, was to compartmentalize.
Lex could compartmentalize. It was pretty much all he did back in the civilized world, because while his ambitions were grand and many, in order to get anywhere in life you had to learn to chop things down into chewable bits first just so you wouldn’t choke on something too big to force down.
For example, back home Lex had wanted to be President of the free world. A most reasonable goal if he did say so himself, because after all, he was the smartest man on the planet. It absolutely stood to reason that everyone would be better off with him in office, cleaning up what all the other idiots before him had messed up. Unfortunately though the world wasn’t exactly short on idiots, and so Lex had had to find ways to deal with them first before he could convert the rest to his way of thinking. And he’d done it fastidiously, methodically, step by step, keeping the larger goal very much in sight but minding the details too and dealing with things as they’d come, one at a time.
Little steps. Little wants. Which lead to bigger wants, and bigger steps, and so on, and so forth.
He was compartmentalizing right now, slicing the world into understandable units of big picture end goal and temporary objective as he shuffled away from the warm lights of the fire pits and into the gaping, cold-breathing maw of yet another godforsaken jungle night.
The end goal? To get the hell out of here, preferably with all his limbs still attached.
The main objective right now? To find somewhere he could piss in private without tripping over a supervillain.
It wasn’t as easy as it sounded, these days. In theory Lex had been perfectly aware of how many of those bastards, super or otherwise, swarmed the planet like so much restless, dirty, unwashed vermin; but it was one thing to keep neat secret files on each of them and quite another to endure them in depressingly close quarters and have to smell them every. Single. Day.
God, Lex wanted out. The sooner they finished work on that damn transporter the better. But to do that Lex knew he needed to pace himself, and for that he needed sleep, and food, and yes, some semblance of privacy because murder jungle or not, he was still a man of taste, and there were standards one simply did not compromise on, and he flatly refused to answer Mother Nature’s calling where everyone could see.
So maybe it was ridiculous. So what. This whole situation was ridiculous and Lex preferred to think of his own little… eccentricities as keeping his humanity intact. As soon as you gave in to your baser instincts and started to disregard things like manners, reason or, for that matter, personal hygiene, you were well on your way to worshipping pig heads on sticks and…
There was light just on the edge of camp, beyond the haphazard palisade, struggling and weak like the glow of a dying firefly.
And Lex rolled his eyes, because seriously? He’d told them to stay within camp grounds. There was no predicting what other beasts this place might throw at them, and after the clown’s latest raid anyone ambling away instantly drew suspicion. They’d barely salvaged the camp as it was. No one needed yet another damn splinter group, and Lex certainly did not need any more conspiracies to further challenge his authority.
Which probably meant that he was going to have to look into that. Damn.
… In a moment.
He picked his way a little deeper into the bitingly cold darkness, far enough that the lights from the camp barely trickled through the thick undergrowth but still allowed Lex’s eyes to distinguish between shadows. He took care of business, swatting away the nagging buzz of what passed for mosquitoes around here, and quickly tucked himself back in before the cold could bite his dick off.
What a miserable, lousy, nightmarish hellhole.
Still, Lex allowed himself another few moments of blessed solitude, looking up through the canopy of trees at the distant stars dusted across the inky sky. He stomped in place, arms tucked around himself, his breath coalescing into weak puffs in the air. Just a few more minutes. Just one more moment of hearing himself think.
If he didn’t see another supervillain for as long as he lived, Lex thought he could die… maybe not happy. Not unless he could take Superman down with him.
But in a state of reasonable contentment, that’s for goddamn sure.
Then, though, his eyes inevitably caught on the feeble glow on the edge of camp, and it could just as well be the dreaded S symbol itself for all the seething irritation it stirred in him.
Lex allowed himself just one more moment of solitary resentment, sending an accusatory look to the skies. And then he sighed and started to pick his way towards the light, minding his step so he wouldn’t soil his shoes with anything too… natural.
Better nip whatever this was in the bud. Insanity had an unsettling tendency to catch, especially on a planet that seemed to have caught it long ago.
When he pushed apart the bushes and got a good look at the source of the light, though, he immediately regretted coming anywhere near it. Oh hell no.
“… wish I had a volleyball,” the Joker babbled quietly, hunched in on himself on a dirty piece of log, his knees drawn up, scratching something in the ground with a sharpened stick. His back was to Lex, and in front of him a feeble fire struggled to stay alive in the nightly chill, casting uneasy light on the leaves and branches and trees fighting for space all around them. “Then I’d have drawn a smiley face on it with my own blood and called it Wilson,” the clown mused on. “Or Bruce. Ha! I wonder if it’d have talked back. They do sometimes, you know, Sticky? I always thought Tom Hanks got it.”
Lex watched the stick. It cut into the ground with steady purpose, drawing something he couldn’t quite make out, and once Lex’s eyes got used to the glow of the fire he noticed that there were more doodles next to it already.
Not that Lex wanted to take a closer look. His first instinct was to turn right back and retreat to the camp, back to where it was loud and crowded and stinky but at least people listened to him. He’d already exceeded any acceptable quota of Joker interaction during the first, well, five minutes into his exile, and by now he was so thoroughly sick of the pasty bastard that it was all he could do to control his gag reflex at the mere sight of purple.
But as his rotten luck would have it, he hesitated exactly a second too long. The moment he shifted his weight to inch back a branch snapped under his shoe, and the Joker’s ridiculous green head spun around, and he stared right at Lex.
“Lexie! Come join us,” the Joker sang and waved, his stick raining dirt all over the muddied, torn but still nauseatingly garish purple suit. “Sticky here is no fun at all.”
Sticky, Lex thought, looking at the stick. God, he hated that man.
“What do you think you’re doing out here alone?” he asked reluctantly, staying right where he was. “You know as well as I do how dangerous that is.”
Joker batted his eyelashes at him and puckered his lips as though for a kiss. “D’awwwwww, so you do care!”
Lex stared him down, unimpressed. “I don’t,” he snapped. “I’d just rather you get eaten by one of those Lovecraft rejects where I can sit on a deck chair and watch.”
He turned to go, but Joker’s voice stopped him in his tracks.
“Lexie, wait. Come here. I want to talk.”
Lex still wanted to leave, to get the hell out of here, because a) the Joker was holding a big sharpened stick and Lex knew better than to get anywhere within that thing’s range, and b) he had important, life-saving, jailbreaking work to do and talking to a murderous madman was the last thing he wanted to put on his agenda for tonight, or any night. If Joker went and got himself eaten, well, he was a brilliant marksman, one of the best they had here, but Lex had enough of those not to mourn his loss. In fact, if Joker got himself killed it would solve pretty much all of Lex’s most pressing problems.
But then he stopped. And actually thought about it.
He looked at Joker.
“If I talk to you now,” he said slowly, “will you promise you’ll behave?”
Joker’s grin widened, a flash of sharp teeth in the darkness. “Scout’s honor, cupcake,” he promised, crossing his heart theatrically. “For a full day! Now is that a sweet deal or what?”
“I don’t believe you,” Lex sighed, but eventually he turned and made his way over to the fire, grabbing a big stick of his own on the way just in case Joker got any ‘funny’ ideas. It was a long shot and he didn’t trust the clown any more than he could throw him, but maybe he could turn this to his advantage. If he could humor Joker now as a show of good will, perhaps the clown would stop making Lex’s life difficult at every turn. Maybe he could even be useful. Lex personally could not understand it but there were people here who looked up to the Joker — even worshipped him — and after the raid that number had only grown. It would be nice to have the clown firmly on his side so he could in turn sway the others.
A day without in-fighting. Lex allowed himself a moment to imagine it, and nearly sighed in longing.
Spending a few minutes out here enduring the clown by the fire seemed a small price to pay, considering.
He got closer, and Joker promptly scooted to the side of the log, making space for him. Lex ignored him and headed for the other side of the fire, well out of the reach of Joker’s stick. The position also had the added advantage of putting the walls of the camp behind Lex’s back, making him feel marginally safer. If any beasts were to erupt from the ground, they’d probably prefer the open space behind Joker and go for him first.
There were more logs scattered around, looking like they’d recently been vacated. Lex grabbed one and pulled it close to sit on. He looked at Joker across the fire just in time to catch the clown’s mocking smirk, as though Lex’s choice of seat was particularly hilarious to him. He leveled his best unimpressed glare to match it.
“Was anyone else here?”
“Harv,” Joker recounted on his fingers, “and Pam, and Weylon, and Victor and Basil and Man-Bat. The home crew. Thought we’d all indulge in a lil’ bit of healthy nostalgia. It didn’t last.”
He giggled. Lex murmured, “I can see that. How long did it take them to up and leave?”
“About half an hour!” Joker looked absurdly pleased with himself. “They really must miss Gotham. They never lasted more than ten minutes with me back at Arkham.”
“Can’t imagine why,” Lex deadpanned, and Joker only laughed harder.
“Oh, Lexie, you’re a hoot,” he told Lex. “You always were one of my favorites.”
“Am I? Wouldn’t have guessed.”
“I push because I care,” Joker crooned, and poked the ground with the stick again.
“In that case, what do I do to make you hate me?”
“Be boring,” Joker said with a shrug. “Luckily we’re in no danger of that, are we? Why, in Batsy’s absence, you’re the next best thing.”
“The next best thing,” Lex echoed flatly. “How do you imagine I should take that?”
“As a compliment,” Joker said without missing a beat. “Because it is. The biggest one I can give.”
“That I’m almost as funny to you as Batman?”
“Yes. And nearly as entertaining.”
Stung, his pride taking a hard hit, Lex opened his mouth to tell the clown exactly where he could stuff his goddamn ‘compliment,’ but Joker never gave him the chance. He kept talking, his tone all at once dropping from the playful lilt into something sharp enough to match the pointed end of his stick:
“Plus, you’re the only one around here they respect more than me. Of course I need to keep undermining you where everyone can see. It’s not personal, Lexie. You should understand that: you’re like me.”
“I’m nothing like you.”
“Back home? Maybe.” Joker’s smirk was a wicked smear of red as he dug into the sand, his arm jerkier by the minute. “But here? Among folk who can shoot lasers from their eyes or freeze your balls with a breath? The only thing non-powered schmoes like us can do is be smart. Or smart and crazy, in my case.” He laughed again, stabbing the ground. “They were never gonna respect us if we didn’t make them, right? You bought their respect with promises of home. I had to buy mine with fear. Otherwise I’d be a nobody, and that…” he shuddered; brought his left hand to squeeze the right. “I’m not a nobody,” he murmured in a low, dangerous voice. “I can’t be a nobody.”
He stabbed the ground again, and this time when he did, the stick broke in half. Laughing with a brittle edge to his voice, Joker fed one half of it into the flames. In the hungry firelight, his eyes shone like fractured jade.
Lex ruminated on that for a bit, and then translated, “So you’re saying that you challenge me because your ego can’t stand not being the top dog, and the only way you can make yourself noticed is through being contrary to people who are actually useful. Did I get that right?”
“Bingo!” Joker clapped.
Lex nodded and gave a non-committal hum. That, he could understand. Perhaps even respect, if Joker’s logic didn’t place him as the clown’s primary target. Because there was definitely logic in there. He’d assumed Joker was defying him out of spite or even frustration, or both, but this… it made sense. A twisted sort of sense, granted, but still. Especially if you were an urban animal to the bone and suddenly found yourself alone in a strange lethal jungle, all your skills rendered useless and nothing but your reputation to keep you alive. Joker knew the supervillain crowd just as well as Lex did. He knew the instant they’d start to regard him as a liability, they’d kill him, and out here, he had nothing but his wit to defend him. No henchmen to boss around, no Bat swooping out of the skies in rescue.
Maybe it was more than just Joker’s ego at play here; maybe it was survival.
Lex regarded him thoughtfully across the fire.
“I wonder sometimes,” he found himself saying, “whether you’re actually as mad as everyone thinks you are.”
“Oh, I am,” Joker assured him, his smile turning into something cloyingly sweet. The light from the flames licked his face, bringing out the gauntness in his cheeks, the shadows under his smudged, grainy old makeup. “In my own way. Which isn’t always what you’ll find in medical books, but that doesn’t make it any less so. Not if you go by the right definition.”
“Right,” Lex murmured, and left it at that. He’d heard what tended to happen to people who openly questioned Joker’s status as criminally insane. The last doctor who’d tried that was still in hospital. And it wasn’t as if Lex suspected Joker was healthy, or, God forbid, normal — he’d dealt with the man often enough to know.
But there were moments, quiet, lucid moments much like this one, where Joker would drop the theatricality long enough for something unsettlingly, chillingly genuine to peer through. It didn’t happen often, but Lex had seen it enough times to recognize and catalog those moments away as the real reason for why this man should be feared. That’s when Joker’s true madness shone through, cold and far more calculating than anyone except perhaps the Bat would suspect, and hungry in a way that chilled Lex to the bone.
He wondered sometimes, after having to deal with Joker for any extended periods of time, if his eyes ever looked similarly hungry to other people. One time he’d told Mercy to shoot him if he ever started to cackle, and he’d only been half-joking. And that’s because Lex knew a thing or two about obsession. Joker happily let his consume him — Lex refused to sink that deep. That’s why keeping the small goals in mind was so important, and why he’d never allowed himself to lose sight of the bigger picture either when he threw away money and resources to rid the world of Superman.
Killing Superman could never become his endgame. He had to keep reminding himself it was only the means to an end. He had a plan, and Superman stood in the way of this plan. There was nothing… personal about this, nothing deep, nothing mythical or obsessive, and it was crucial that Lex remember that. As soon as he started to slip and regard the death of Superman as his primary objective, he might as well turn up at Arkham, shut himself in a cell and let them throw away the key.
He was nothing like Joker. He had a plan and destiny bigger than just one man in tights, a philosophy that went beyond ‘please myself however I like and prove my worth to my enemy.’ And he didn’t need to stir trouble and bash people’s heads in to be respected, because unlike Joker, Lex Luthor was never useless in any situation, ever.
He took some comfort in that thought and sat up straighter, answering Joker with a smirk of his own.
“You know,” he said, “there may be easier ways to stay alive. If you stop being a nuisance I could guarantee your protection. I could even make you…” he considered. “Co-leader. We’ve worked together so many times in the past, with some success; why not this time? I could use you in my corner.”
He knew he made a mistake the moment he saw the glint in Joker’s eyes. It had nothing to do with the fire struggling between and everything to do with an altogether different kind of fire, the one that Joker never seemed to be able — or willing — to put out.
“Use,” Joker repeated before Lex could rephrase it. “It’s such a neat little word, isn’t it, Lexie? Oh, I just bet you could use me. And how! To thwart whatever flames of dissent still sparkle in that Fort Knox of yours, to rally the vile and villainous to your banner, to galvanize! To inspire! Hear ye, hear ye, avail yourselves of the mercy of house Luthor, may the sun forever glint off his blessed bald head!” This time when Joker giggled it sounded sinister, and Lex reached to grab the stick he’d carried with him. “Why, I’m almost tempted to let you,” Joker purred, narrowing his eyes and looking, to all intents and purposes, like a demon about to offer Lex a blood pact. “But what would I tell Batsy if I did?”
Lex blinked, suddenly thrown for a loop. “What does Batman have to do with anything?”
“What has —” Joker shook his head, bringing a hand to press to the side of it, strands of greasy green hair poking between his gloved fingers. “Batman is everything! He has everything to do with everything, Lexie! I thought you’d realize it by now!”
Lex frowned. “You just said you’re pitting yourself against me to save your own skin.”
“Not for myself,” Joker corrected as though it should be obvious. “For Batsy! He needs me. He’ll always need me, even if he’s too stubborn to admit it. I can’t let some unwashed, pathetic B-list shadow puppets do me in while he’s away — what would he think of me? And what do you think he’d say if he learned I let you, or anyone else for that matter, pull my strings? He needs me to be the best I can, at all times. He’d lose all respect for me if he learned I wasn’t giving something my all. It’s a test, Lexie, don’t you see? He’s testing me. I need to come back to him stronger and better, and for that, I can’t let myself be saddled up by the likes of you…” He winked at Lex. “No offense.”
Offense taken, Lex decided right then and there. The likes of him, indeed. He may have seen some kind of possibility in this conversation, but obviously he’d been deluding himself. Joker was too far gone, and when Lex looked at him now, Joker’s naked, slavish weakness, so desperate and obsessive and revolting, disgusted him to the point of making him sick.
It’s because of this disgust, and because he still hadn’t forgotten Joker’s midnight raid and all the insults and complications and trouble the clown had caused him, that he decided to catch that unkind spark and fan it. He’d had enough.
“Is that how you rationalized it to yourself?” he challenged. “Neat trick, Joker. You absolutely must teach me that sometime. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this level of self-deception.”
Joker’s eyes blazed with the images of the fire reflected in them. “It’s the truth,” he insisted, far too quietly for Lex’s liking. “It is a test. Batsy knows I’ll find my way back to him somehow. He wouldn’t have allowed them to send me here otherwise. If he didn’t believe that, then that would mean we’d never see each other again, that we wouldn’t die together like we’re supposed to, and that’s… Ha! That’s just silly.” Joker’s voice sounded hoarse, like gravel. “He’d never let that happen,” he whispered. “He wouldn’t just… abandon me.” He grabbed the broken half of the stick and started to dig it into the ground again, but without his earlier ferocity. Some of the sharpness eased up in him as he stared into the shapes he’d drawn, a strange, forlorn air settling around him, the blaze in his eyes giving way for something far duller that looked disturbingly like heartbreak.
“He wouldn’t,” he repeated.
If there were any stones within reach, Lex would have thrown one at Joker’s head. For God’s sake.
“You can’t seriously be that self-centered,” he spat. “You can’t honestly think that this… us being here… this entire goddamn hellhole… is just for the sake of you two. To, what, bring you closer? What about the rest of us then, clown? Why the hell do you think we’d be here too, if it really was just about the two of you?”
Joker shrugged. Somehow, that flippant gesture infuriated Lex even more. “There’s gotta be extras in every play,” he told Lex in that same, quiet, brittle voice. “Don’t take it personally, dear. It’s not your fault you’re not real, and for a shadow puppet, you’re doing great. Like I told you, you’re one of my favorites.”
Right. That was it. There was only so much insanity Lex was willing to tolerate any given day, and Joker had spent that limit just by breathing the same air as Lex over the past weeks they’d been trapped here. He was not going to just sit there and let a fucking murder clown patronize him and tell him he’s not real.
He got to his feet.
“He did abandon you,” he told Joker through the pulsing tension in his jaw. “He doesn’t care if you die here. He let them cart you out here not because he wants to test you, but because he finally came to his senses and got fed up with your bullshit like everyone else. He never wants to see your stupid pasty face again, Joker. Better accept this now and spare yourself the disappointment.”
Joker looked up to him with cold, unsmiling eyes.
And then he drew a gun from the inside pocket of his jacket, pointed it at Lex and fired.
It wasn’t until Lex heard something heavy hit the ground behind him that he released the breath he’d sucked in the moment he found himself face to face with the barrel of Joker’s gun, and gingerly, he touched the side of his head. The bullet shot just shy of grazing the skin off his ear. Lex’s finger came away clean, with no blood, and there was no pain, but he could still feel the phantom of the wind from the bullet, and his heart was beginning to pound, finally caught up with what happened.
In the camp, there was silence. Everyone had heard the gunshot.
Slowly, Lex turned to look behind him.
A great big carcass of something that looked like a cross between a panther, a snake and a buzzard sprawled on the ground. Its tongue was out, its eyes like twin glassy beads staring off into nothing, and black blood was beginning to pool around the body from a bullet wound that ripped a hole clean in the middle of its forehead.
Lex stared at it, and forced himself to breathe.
He looked at Joker.
The clown was standing up, dusting himself off. He blew the smoke off the gun in a theatrical manner and then sent Lex a cold, cold smirk.
“Thank you for the lovely talk,” he said. “Most refreshing. Gave me lots to think about, that’s for sure.” He pocketed the gun again and narrowed his eyes at Lex, and his smile turned into a razor’s curve. “Sleep well, sweetie pie. I’m sure we’ll talk some more soon.”
Lex watched him saunter back into camp, hands in his pockets, his gait casual, an upbeat tune whistled into the night.
He looked at the beast again, and swore under his breath.
And then he started to make his way back after Joker, not bothering to put the fire out.
Objective for tonight: to work on the transporter until his hands went numb.
And then sleep with a gun in his hand.