“My Lord! We found him!”
Grodd turns, a massive shape hulking in the torn scraps of moonlight that pool on the cracked, puddle and moss-ridden floor of the ruin that used to be Arkham Asylum. The guards, all in stiff armor with helmets covering their faces, stalk over dragging between them a pale, whisper-thin man who wears his dirty, torn, muddied rags as proudly as though they were still as fine as the day he commissioned them. His legs are both broken, trailing behind him as the guards carry him up by his arms. His feet are bare, the seams of his trouser legs coming apart as surely as the building that, as it turned out, sheltered him all this time.
“Grodd, you old cad! How ya been?” the ruin of a man rasps through bloodied teeth as the guards force him to his knees.
“Joker.” Grodd nods at him. “I should have known you’d choose… this…” his nose scrunches up in disgust, “as your hiding place.”
“Oh, was I hiding? I hadn’t realized. Say, have you lost weight? Or did you do something with your hair? You look positively radiant, my apey friend.”
“I find world domination agrees with me.”
“Aye, so it would. Either that or you’ve found a punishing moisturizer. What can I do for you, old pal? I’d put the kettle on, but alas, we’re a bit short on tea here. Or water. Or kettles, ever since I used the last one to brain one of your Daft Punk cosplayers…”
Grodd comes up to the man and grabs him by the chin. He tilts his face into the stain of green-tinged moonlight. His eyes narrow. Quietly, like a man poring over a crossword puzzle, he muses, “I have taken over the mind of every man, woman and child on this planet… save two. What is it about your mind that Grodd can’t penetrate?”
The man known as the Joker gurgles. It’s a horrifying sound, broken, brittle and barren. The crumpled walls of what used to be Arkham snatch the sound and amplify it, sending the nightmarish parody of laughter to feed up and down into every nook and cranny.
“If you’re so eager to penetrate me, old friend, why not buy me dinner first?”
Grodd’s nostrils flare. “I’ve got you now. Whatever is in your fractured hell of a mind, I will get in. You can’t keep me out forever.”
“They all say that,” the man known as the Joker sighs, “until they actually get in. Then suddenly they realize that uh-oh, they’re not in Kansas anymore.”
“Grodd is not intimidated by your madness,” Grodd declares with a veneer of calm. “Nor shall he be tainted. Prepare to be broken, Joker.”
The Joker smirks, the shadows on his face rearranging into something ghoulish. “Don’t say I didn’t warn ya, Toto,” he taunts as Grodd tightens his grip on his chin, staring at him hard.
One second passes.
Grodd lets go and staggers back, breathing hard, and stares at the man with wild, unfocused eyes.
The Joker keeps making those brittle sounds as he hangs there like a rag, head lolling back and forth, and doesn’t stop when Grodd backhands him across the face.
“My Lord.” One of the guards hoists up the machine gun in his arms. “Should we kill him?”
Grodd stares at the Joker, who never stops laughing.
“No,” he decides, his massive chest still heaving. “Load him up. I will see him broken, first.”
He looks around, at the ancient stone and mortar running with mold, ruin and damp. Empty wires. Smashed CCTV cameras. Quiet corridors, trashed cells, and rats.
The last sanctuary. The heart of Gotham. All that remains of the old world, and its last petitioner, its mad king, finally taken.
“And blow this place up once we leave.”
They beat the Joker. They break his bones and bleed him. They tear out his hair, pry off his nails and pull out all this teeth one by one, to replace them with cheap, blunt prosthesis.
Grodd comes to him once a week, and tries to rend his mind apart to match the ruin of his body.
He never stays more than five minutes, and everyone knows to clear his path as he storms out, tense with fury, perspiration beading on the folds of his brow.
And the clown never stops laughing.
“What do you propose, Luthor?” Grodd asks, standing on the balcony, looking out over the stark, shimmering metal of his kingdom. “How do we deal with this… pest?”
Luthor’s face stays perfectly still, as always. Grodd made sure that it would. He spent so much time on the man, blunting some of the the edges of his mind as he labored to preserve others, erasing bits, twisting them, chipping away with surgical precision — but it paid off. With his genius preserved even as Grodd wiped everything else about him clean, he is loyal, brilliant and efficient, the best Lieutenant Grodd could fashion for himself.
Luthor takes his time before speaking, and when he does, his words are quiet.
“Pain will not work on him,” he judges. “The Joker is a creature of pain, and he knows how to withstand it to the point that he takes pleasure in it. That’s not the way to tame him. What you need, my Lord, is to nurture his madness and push him past that last brink of rationality he still clings to, so that you may build him back up to your liking.”
“And the way to achieve that?”
Again, Luthor takes his time as he considers his former colleague’s weaknesses.
“Isolation,” he decides. “Utter, complete and prolonged. Cut him away from all light and sound. Make it impossible for him to hurt himself. Deprive him of all stimulation, and all hope.”
“Hope,” Grodd echoes. “He puts his hope in the Bat. Every time I try to enter his thoughts I see him — it — there, at the center of everything. I would stamp it out, Luthor. He needs to believe the Bat is dead, or he’ll keep clinging to that hope till his last breath.”
“I would advise against it, my Lord,” Luthor judges. “News of the Batmans’ death, false as they would be, might yield unpredictable results. He might find it in himself to fight you, and even in his current state he still poses a risk. Better not to address the issue of the Batman at all. Let him wonder. Act like the Bat is no longer a concern. He will have no way to know otherwise.”
Grodd looks out over the horizon, the kryptonite-green sky.
“Yes, Luthor, you may speak.”
“Might it not be wiser to simply kill him?” Again, Luthor’s face is impassive as he stares on ahead, hands folded behind his perfectly straight back, his voice lacking all inflection. “He resists you. He is the only one besides Batman who can. It might be cleaner and more… prudent to simply dispose of him now and keep it a secret before he can infect your servants with doubt.”
Grodd turns to study him, and prods at the edges of his mind. He says, “You two used to be close in the time before my coming.”
“We worked together,” Luthor agrees in that same, mechanical drone. Not a flicker of emotion to betray him in his face or mind. Grodd considers.
“Perhaps you want to grant him a swift death out of some misbegotten sentiment.”
“There had never been any sentiment between me and the Joker. I merely wish to serve you, my Lord.”
And Grodd believes him. There is nothing Luthor’s mind that can hide from him anymore, not after the days he spent laying it bare. Luthor’s face is perfectly blank, his stare dull, his poise unaffected, and his mind is still the lovingly shaped instrument Grodd has molded him into. Still…
“If I kill him now, I admit defeat.” Grodd turns to study the world at his feet. “No one defeats Grodd. He will be broken, and in time, so will the Bat.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Throw him into the pit. Chain him there and feed him intravenously. No one is to come near him except the machines.”
“Yes, my Lord. How long?”
Grodd turns his back on the view and lumbers heavily into his chambers.
“As long as it takes.”
Five years later
“Bruce?” Dick whispers into his comm as he sneaks along the steep stone walls, clinging to shadows. “I’m about to get into the north wing.”
“Be careful.” Bruce’s voice in his ear is quiet and fractured with static, and Dick tries to breathe quieter still.
He focuses on the climb — one step at a time — and hoists himself inside through the nearest open window before the prodding search beams can touch him. He crouches in the darkness, counts under his breath and waits until the riot in his heart settles down.
“I’m in,” he reports, and then darts for the door.
Grodd’s palace isn’t very well guarded. It doesn’t have to be. No one would ever think of disobeying the King Kong these days, and if they ever do, Grodd will feel it, and send his goons to take care of the problem often before the culprit even realizes they’ve committed a thought crime. There is no more danger for Grodd out there save for Batman, and as far as Grodd knows, Batman is constantly on the run, too busy hiding from Grodd’s all-reaching mind tentacles to ever risk going anywhere near his fortress.
So it’s a good thing that as far as Grodd’s concerned, Dick’s been dead for five years. If the monkey isn’t expecting Bruce to come knocking, he sure as hell won’t be expecting Boy Wonder’s ghost.
Dick checks all of his equipment and makes sure the cloaking device, as well as the brainwave signal scrambler Bruce equipped him and Alfred with, are in good working order before he peeks outside.
The corridors are dark and empty. Grodd himself is busy downstairs in the ballroom entertaining his top generals and other mind-wiped ass-lickers in what amounts to little more than a massive circle jerk, and the faint sounds of music simmer up and through the floors. Dick inches forward on soundless feet, firing up the HUD to night vision and bringing up the haphazard, sketchy blueprints he and Bruce have managed to compile over endless stakeouts and hacking and a fair amount of guessing. Turn right here, then up the stairs, and then Grodd’s private quarters ought to be…
… right here.
He stops by the door, pulse rushing in his ears. He steadies himself against the wall.
“Everyone’s downstairs, right?”
Dick nods. “Any guards in the office?”
“I’m not picking up any heartbeats. Make it quick.”
“Yes, fearless leader,” Dick breathes before pressing the archived fingerprints they have managed to steal — barely — against the scanner.
It clicks green. The doors open. Dick swoops inside as soon as he can, and darts around, looking for movement.
There is none. The massive antechamber is still, the door on the far end open, giving Dick a clean view of the office beyond.
He seizes his chance and runs into the office on soundless feet the way Bruce taught him, and heads straight for the heavy machinery piled on Grodd’s desk. He rummages in it and is careful to put everything back the way he’d found it. He checks for secret compartments, plugs Bruce’s data sticks into any devices he can find and activates data transfers, and looks for more as they load. Their window is limited and he needs to get copies of everything he can get his hands on; Bruce can sort through the scoop later. Tonight is all about quantity — they’re not gonna risk another outing like this again.
“I’m picking up movement,” Bruce says suddenly, and out of the corner of his eye, Dick can see the red led light of his drone blinking at him in warning through the window. “The main door. Get out!”
It’s already opening when Dick’s head snaps up, and he has just enough time to get to the window and haul himself over to balance on the parapet beyond when voices drift out from the office.
Someone is speaking, and he recognizes that voice. Luthor. They’ve known that Luthor has been appointed as Grodd’s chief adviser for a while now, and Dick never thought he’d ever feel sorry for the son of a bitch but he did when they learned the truth of what happened to him.
No time to dwell on it now, though. If he and Bruce succeed they’ll stand a fighting chance to shatter Grodd’s mind control and bring everyone back to normal, including Luthor — for better or worse. For that to happen, Dick can’t afford to get caught. He fights to keep his breath under control and tries to listen.
And then someone laughs, and Dick’s eyes go wide.
No way. No fucking way it could be —
“Chain him up,” Luthor is ordering, and Dick strains his ears to hear as much as he can over the wind.
The other voice he thinks he recognizes is chanting something, repeating the same sounds over and over, and Dick can’t quite believe it but it sounds like…
“Bat, bat, bat, bat, bat.”
Slap. The crash of something heavy hitting the floor. A welp of pain.
“Bat, bat, bat.”
“You’re done entertaining the guests for the night,” Luthor is saying, quietly, levelly. “If you don’t calm down —”
“Bat, bat, bat.”
“He’s not here, Joker. Our Lord was displeased with your display tonight. You need to calm down.”
The rattle of chains. Another sigh, and then, “The needle, Captain.”
“Dick,” Bruce is whispering, urgently. “What’s going on?”
Dick ignores him, only pressing the button on his gauntlet that sends the I’m Safe green signal. He can’t reply now. Just one sound and he’ll give himself away.
He stands on the ledge, back glued to the wall, and keeps listening.
Laughter booms from the room again, but the sound is fast going softer. Soon, it fades into nothing, and then Luthor says, “Secure him. Stand guard at the door. I’m going back down.”
“Yes, sir,” two men echo in perfect sync, and then Dick can hear footsteps march out of the rooms.
Right. Right. He keeps himself still, listening hard.
“Only one heartbeat left inside,” Bruce tells him as his drone scans the rooms. “Slow. Sedated.”
“I’m going back in for the data.”
“No. The risk is too big.”
“I’m not leaving with nothing, Bruce.”
Dick cuts the connection without a touch of that old remorse he used to feel whenever he disobeyed Bruce, as a kid and then later as an adult. Ha, adult. That’s what he’d thought he was back then. Wasn’t that hilarious?
Sorry, old man.
He needs that data, and just as importantly, he needs to know.
Slowly, Dick tips back inside, making sure to touch ground so quietly ninjas would eat their hearts out. The door to the left of the anteroom is open, and through it, Dick can see the hint of a massive four-poster bed.
He swallows, thinking fast, and then decides to risk it. He inches towards it and peeks through the open door.
And freezes right where he stands, heart coming up to his mouth.
Good thing he cut the comm. There’s no way he’d be able to hide his reaction from Bruce.
The man looks like a ghost of himself, but there is no mistaking him for anyone else. Not with the chalk-white skin, the bone structure and the tufts of green hair springing in disarray from his mostly-shaved scalp. He appears to be sleeping, curled up tight and fitted into a cot on the floor that in happier times might have been made for a dog; he’s half naked, and his purple pants are in tatters.
Heart in his throat, Dick gets closer. In the green moonlight he can see scars littering Joker’s body, both old and fresh; new bruises purpling on his ribs; disturbing bloodied marks that look like they might have been made with claws, or maybe teeth.
Some of them are only just beginning to scab.
When Dick comes even closer, he catches sight of something else, too — Joker’s acid-burnt mouth, free of lipstick now to give it a more ghoulish, fleshy, disfigured red — has a set of scars on either side that look like someone poked holes through his mouth recently, like they were trying to…
Sew Joker’s mouth shut.
Tentatively, Dick crouches beside him. His eyes catch on the heavy metal collar fastened around Joker’s neck and trace its chain to the leg of the four-poster. Seized by the kind of curiosity that wouldn’t let him stop now if he tried, Dick reaches out, and gently pokes the Joker’s shoulder.
They thought the Joker was dead. Bruce never said so in so many words but that was what he believed, and neither Dick nor Alfred ever had cause to suspect otherwise. Not that they even thought about the clown in recent years. Dick certainly hadn’t, too busy fighting for his life and the integrity of his own mind to spare anything else much precious brainspace.
He knows Bruce did, though. Not that he’d ever admit it. He’s never mentioned Joker’s name. But still, Dick knows because this is just how Bruce is whether he likes it or not. He wouldn’t be able to not think about the clown from time to time, even if he gave him up for dead.
Joker might have been better off that way, Dick thinks grimly, looking at the scars. Looking at the cot at the foot of the bed, and the chain.
Joker doesn’t stir. Whatever Luthor’s men gave him must have knocked him out for the count.
Dick looks at him a few seconds longer in mute horror and then forces himself to tear his eyes away and turn his back on the sight to collect the data he’d amassed before the interruption.
His eyes keep darting to Joker as he works though, and there’s a cold, cold weight on his heart now that he just knows won’t let up.
Stop it, he tries to tell himself. It’s not why you’re here. He’ll only put everyone at risk. Grodd might be in his mind even now. He might decide he wants to kill us all. He’s a liability.
Remember Jason. Remember Barbara. Remember Sarah Essen-Gordon. And do your damn job.
The thing is though, he can’t quite muster that old fire of grief now. He hasn’t been able to for a long time. Not with the entire world on fire around them, and a sea of dead-eyed faces up on the streets every day, moving day through day with nothing but one overgrown ape’s propaganda on their mouths. All those painful memories that used to fill him with so much hate he almost killed the man once are faded now, blanched, tattered, and distant like they belong to a past life he remembers but which he’s grown numb to.
He wonders if he’d be able to spark them in himself again, and almost wishes he could. It would have made things so much easier.
He hates Grodd now. He hates Grodd so much it seems that he has run out of space and fuel to hate anything else.
That might change if he does what the stupid part of his brain wants him to do. It’s the soft part, the part that still keeps alive ember after dying ember, and it speaks to him now in Bruce’s voice.
He knows what Bruce would do in his place. He knows what Bruce would want him to do if he could see what Dick sees, even if he’d never voice it out loud, or even admit it to himself.
He looks at Joker’s curled up, broken body, and something in him squeezes and then releases in a rush of clarity so deep and profound it shakes him right down the middle.
No one deserves this.
And if he’s an idiot for doing this, well, at least he knows he’s still a human one, and in a world that’s gone to shit, maybe that’s good enough.
“Bruce?” he speaks to the comm, activating it again. “I’m gonna need the fastest and clearest path down to the hangars. I’m done here.”
“Stand by,” Bruce tells him, and though his voice is dry and as deadpan as ever, Dick thinks he catches an undercurrent of relief in it.
Relief, and foreboding. We will talk about this.
Dick looks at the Joker and sincerely doubts Bruce will remember his insubordination once he gets back to base.
Surprise, dad. You owe me one.
Dick doesn’t think he’ll ever forget the face Bruce made when he slipped into the sewers with the Joker slung over one arm. He won’t soon forget the silence that followed, either.
“Brought you a present,” Dick tries, and then they stand there up to their ankles in sewer water because Bruce apparently has forgotten how to speak and Dick’s face goes hot, and he can’t quite look at the man anymore.
“No need to thank me, but I’d appreciate if you let me pass so I can drop him into a chair or something.”
“Is he dead,” Bruce asks in a tone that makes it more of a statement than a question.
Like he’s guarding himself against even the possibility of it being a question. Like he doesn’t want to — what? Hope?
And if so, hope for what?
Dick thinks he knows, and goes cold with it.
“Nope. Drugged though,” he says, and almost manages not to sound shaken. “Wanna take him off my hands? I’ve hauled his ass all the way from the castle and those chains are no joke.”
Bruce stares at the body over Dick’s shoulder for so long that Dick sighs, comes up to Bruce and simply dumps the Joker, metal collar and chain and all, into the hands that come up to catch him with such instinctive speed Dick doubts Bruce even realized it was happening.
“Shower,” he announces, leaving the two men in the dark, stinky silence of the sewer. “Where’s Alfred? I’d kill for a bite to eat.”
“Kitchen,” Bruce murmurs, and Dick barely hears him over the trickle of water.
He turns to watch Bruce watch Joker. His shoulders slump.
“Right,” he whispers, and leaves.
The Joker doesn’t wake as Bruce carefully takes a blood sample from him, although something in him flinches, like the prick of the needle is enough to cut through to his subconscious. The veins near the inside of his elbows look sickeningly stark against his white skin, almost bulging out, and Dick is sick with the implications.
“It seems that the Joker has fallen on some… hard times,” Alfred comments quietly.
Bruce is silent, analyzing the sample.
They stand around the operating table as the moving water drips and rushes over their heads.
“We’re not… keeping him, are we?” Alfred whispers.
Bruce says nothing.
Alfred raises alarmed eyes to Dick, who shrugs, feeling the phantom prickle of his ten-year-old self’s defensiveness. “I couldn’t just leave him there,” he mumbles. “Not after what I saw. You would have taken him away from there,” he adds, looking at Bruce.
Bruce’s eyes flick to his for just a moment. Then he looks back to the tablet screen running diagnostics, and says nothing.
“He was keeping him chained to the bed, Alfred,” Dick explains, and out of the corner of his eye he spots a tightening around Bruce’s jaw. “On the floor, like a dog. Worse than a dog. Not even he deserves that.”
“And what do we do when he wakes up? We can’t very well give him free roam of the place,” Alfred points out. “He’s still dangerous, no matter the state he’s in.”
“We could put him in cuffs?” Dick speculates. “Keep him contained until we know what we’re dealing with. I know it sounds crazy but it doesn’t look like Grodd actually got to him. Not like the others. Luthor said something about being displeased, and Joker kept —” Dick looks at Bruce and almost bites his tongue.
“He kept saying bat,” he carries on, in defiance of what, he isn’t quite sure but he knows it’s in defiance of something. “Over and over and over. That’s why they sedated him. He wouldn’t stop.”
He’s watching Bruce carefully as he says it, and doesn’t miss the moment when Bruce’s eyes flick to Joker’s face, nor the sudden movement of his throat.
“But how is it possible?” Alfred wonders in a hushed, tired voice, bringing his bathrobe closer around his shivering body. He’s cold, and Dick dearly wants to run and grab a blanket for him.
He shrugs instead. “No idea. Maybe he’s just too damn crazy to mindbend so Grodd resorted to more… conventional means. I didn’t find anything about it in the files.”
He doesn’t ask if Bruce has taken a look at any of them yet. Bruce wouldn’t let his eyes slip from Joker’s face for longer than a minute or so ever since Dick left the clown in his arms. Dick doesn’t know if he wants to draw Bruce’s attention to that fact.
“Well, in any case,” Alfred clears his throat, “he needs a signal scrambler. We cannot be sure that Grodd won’t be able to trace his brainwaves, even if he can’t penetrate them.”
Bruce nods. He puts the tablet with the data aside. “We need to get the collar off,” he whispers.
It’s the first thing he’s said since Dick got back.
“Yeah,” Dick agrees, swallowing. “Yeah, we should.”
They get to work.
It takes a long time. They manage eventually, but the stubborn thing puts up one hell of a fight, even more than it did back in Grodd’s rooms where Dick was eventually able to just explode the lock and unwind the chain from around the leg of the bed; and before they’re done Bruce manages to nearly tear a hole in his gloves from pulling so hard. By that time Joker is beginning to stir, and Bruce doesn’t even say a word; he just puts the scrambler in Joker’s ear, activates it, and then, without looking at any of them, picks Joker up and carries him off to what serves as his bedroom.
There isn’t any privacy in their little makeshift HQ. Just the illusion of it, whatever they manage to carve out for themselves in the space available, what they manage to negotiate between them. You don’t tend to find luxurious accommodation when you dwell in the sewers of some godforsaken village on the run from the authorities. A privacy screen is the only thing they could swing, and it’s the only thing now separating Bruce and his living, whimpering cargo from Dick and Alfred, who are both doing a piss-poor job of not glancing over.
Bruce’s shadow is moving around, bustling. He darts out from behind the screen, grabs their meager medical supplies, and disappears back in. He isn’t looking at any of them, and they pretend that they aren’t looking at him.
Jesus, what a farce.
And then —
“Bat,” says the quiet voice, tiny, throaty, burnt. Breathless. “Bat…?”
“Yes,” Bruce whispers. “I’m here.”
Dick and Alfred look to one another. Neither says anything, but they both know: this is the softest, the gentlest, Bruce has sounded in years.
“Bat,” Joker breathes, quiet and relieved. “Bat’s back. Bat’s back, bim bam boom... batter cake mix… beat him down, eat him up.”
He giggles. The sound erodes into coughing, and through the screen, Dick can see Bruce’s shadow put a hand on Joker’s agitated chest.
“Bat,” Joker whispers.
“Yes,” Bruce agrees, sitting down on the edge of the mattress. “And I’m not letting him touch you again.”
Dick gets up, shaking his head. He turns his back on Bruce’s privacy screen and tells Alfred, “I’m getting some food.”
“Let me help,” Alfred volunteers, gazing sadly at the two shadows hidden away together. “Tea as well, I think.”
“Sure, why not.” He offers Alfred his arm, and Alfred takes it, letting Dick support him over to the far end of the tunnel which they’ve adapted into a small kitchenette.
They put as much distance between themselves and the pair behind the screen as they can.
Bruce never seems to notice.