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Life is so much better when you're dead

Chapter Text

"Oh, there's nothing like tooling along the glorious, glorious streets of Gotham, is there Moses, my good man?"

"I believe it's Mosheh, Sofia. As it's always been."

The red haired girl sitting behind the wheel scrunched her face in an irritated grimace, which quickly gave place to an expression of utter serenity. "You pay too much attention to detail, Mosheh, it's too jewwy even for you."

"Yeah, you know, my jewness is that of a lucrative nature. You shouldn't complain."

"Who said anything about complaining."

The black vintage Jaguar Mark X careened lazily down the dilapidated streets of the Narrows. The cheerful tune of the Beach Boys' Sail On Sailor on the speakers was seemingly ill-suited considering the surroundings and the lurid, chilly weather, yet it elicited carefree humming and bobbing of heads from all three people inside the car.

"So, you men remember the drill, right?" Sofia turned around and looked at the man huddled in the back seat who until now had remained silent. He was quite tall for an Asian, dressed neatly in a three-piece pinstriped suit. His left eye was completely blue with the pupil indiscernible; clearly the eyeball was out of order. He looked up wearily and cleared his throat as Sofia's eyes fixated back on the road and she continued on twittering.

"We enter his office like everything is just and right with the world, and as soon as we close the door behind ourselves, our Yaguchi here pulls out his pistol and points it at the doctor. Right?"

"Sounds about right," Yaguchi answered in a raspy voice, muffling a yawn.

"And then I do my thing and make him that proverbial offer he can't refuse. This is about to be funny, I wonder if he's gonna display a reaction of utter triteness or if he's gonna try the psychological approach. Alright, getting there... dun, dun, dun..." Sofia abruptly stopped the car. "Here's Arkham."

"Can I have a smoke before we go in there?" asked Mosheh.

"Why do you always ask me such difficult questions?" Sofia snarled and got out of the car, beckoning the men to follow her. "You'll have a smoke after we're done, I wanna be through with it as soon as possible. Shitload of laundry to do today, innit?"

"Laundry, huh? That's what the Kawasaki Imports is for, you don't need to do a thing about it," muttered Yaguchi, dragging his feet with a slight limp. They ascended the concrete steps and pushed the old, wooden door open.

"Well, yeah, but to carry out the distribution without chagrining the good ol' uncle Sullivan, that, my friend, is something only a family member can undertake."

"True, true."

The hospital had been reformed into an institution catering not only to the so called criminally insane, but also to those downtrodden with more mundane problems. The dramatic plunge in the amount of the criminally insane element of Gotham city must have left the psychiatric body on the verge of poverty, forcing them to open up to the masses. That was the reason regular folk like the three of them was now able to enter the premise and get professional help without anyone asking any bothersome questions. Chit-chatting and snickering every now and then, they meandered through the corridors of the asylum. Finally, they arrived at their destination.

"Uh, hi. We have an appointment with doctor Williams." Sofia leaned slightly over the secretary's desk. "Family therapy," she added with a smile.

"Name?" the secretary asked, analyzing the group in front of her. Two men, one outrageously tall with an even more outrageously long braided beard, wearing a stand-up collar suit. Features outrageously Semitic. The other man slightly shorter, eerie looking, obviously Asian. And the girl--long red hair with a fringe, exceptionally small frame. She wore a baseball jacket embroidered with a design of a Japanese woodblock print-styled skeleton, and if the secretary could make anything out of human appearances, she seemed to be partially Italian, maybe Italian-Irish. What kind of family connections could possibly exist among those people was a mystery to the woman.

"Falcone," Sofia answered, adorning the last syllable with a stifled chuckle.

"Alright..." The secretary gave her register a quick look. "Indeed, an appointment has been made... Doctor Williams is waiting." She gestured to the left, pointing to the door leading to the office. Clearly as day, there was something slightly off about those patients, and that was exactly the reason she chose not to delve any deeper into the nature of their relations. Family or not, they went through all the trouble of making an actual appointment with the very head of Arkham Asylum, and, more importantly, they could actually afford it. As far as legitimacy was concerned, everything seemed perfectly fine, and there was nothing more she could do. Although she couldn't help having a faint feeling that today Dr Williams was in for quite an adventure.

And indeed he was, as everything went according to plan. As soon as they entered the office and closed the door, Yaguchi caught the doctor at gunpoint. Dr Williams, after all being a renowned psychiatrist bearing years of experience, retained his calm and did his best not to even let out a sound of swallowing. Sofia took a seat in the chair opposing him, her companions taking flanking positions.

"Good morrow, doctor Williams," she said with a smile. "I should hope you recognize my face. Keep your hands over the desk, please, and away from the phone or any other devices. And let me see your wallet."

The doctor hesitated for only a second. Indeed, he knew all too well who had just graced him with their presence. Obediently, he reached to his suitcase, the movement of his hand being followed by Yaguchi's gun. He opened it as slowly as possible and fumbled inside of it for a moment. Finally he withdrew his arm, holding up his wallet. Sofia made a beckoning gesture and held her hand out, prompting Dr Williams to part with the object. Without uttering a word, he watched her go through all of his documents, credit cards, and everything else he had ever decided to put in there.

"Rrright. We're gonna do it old school, after all," she trilled, smiling gleefully. The doctor squinted, trying to make out what caught her attention, and his whole body stiffened as Sofia pulled out some pictures out of the photo pocket. "As the big bad mobsters usually say in moments like this, lovely family you've got there. Here Mosheh, these are for you." She handed the photos to the taller man. "Now go and, you know, circulate them. And feed your dying cancer."

Mosheh nodded with a grin and left the office. Dr Williams, still dumbstruck, watched as the door closed behind the man and fixed his eyes on the red headed girl in front of him.

"That was a hint which I believe you've taken," she said in a mellow voice. The doctor cleared his throat.

"Yes, I have. What do you want?"

Sofia rolled her eyes and adjusted herself in the chair.

"I want to go and talk to Jonathan Crane, alone, without anyone knowing and stuff. You put nothing in the register, I'm out of here before you notice. I hope so, at least. See, a fairly mundane, harmless request that is, hm?"

"I'd like to think so," Williams muttered, drumming his fingers against the desk nervously. "Well, then. Let's get going, shall we?" He stood up and nodded towards the door. Yaguchi put his gun in his pocket, but kept reassuringly close to the doctor. Unfazed by the secretary's questioning look, they left the office in silence and walked to the elevator which took them down to the basement. It was where the privileged patients were kept, privileged meaning they basically had three hots and a cot daily, without being subject to any excruciatingly beneficial therapy.

Their steps echoed through the dim corridor as they attracted the eyes of caged madmen in their wake. The doctor stopped in front of a door tagged Jonathan Crane, his patient number beneath the name.

"It's here," he said quietly, sliding the key-card into the slot.

"So you guys play it nice while I'm in there." Sofia peeked inside and turned around, giving Yaguchi a big grin.

"Yeah, and you try not to make him cry or anything," the man muttered, causing Dr Williams to wince in trepidation.

"Nothing is to happen to my patient, let's make this clear," he droned weakly.

"Now, don't be silly, doctor." Sofia entered the cell, and the door slowly closed behind her.

Jonathan Crane was sitting on his bed, hands clasped together and resting in his lap. He appeared only slightly surprised at the sight of Sofia coming through the door, instead of the all too familiar, tedious countenance of his orderly.

"Hello, Jonathan. My name is Sofia Falcone, you probably have heard of me. I'm ever so pleased to meet you," she drawled, scoping the surroundings. Finally, she fixed her gaze on the cell's tenant and sat on the floor in front of him, crossing her legs. "I have a question, you know..." she muttered, rubbing her left eye lazily. "I know you had copious amounts of that awesome fear toxin of yours stashed somewhere. I wanna know where is that somewhere."

"And how exactly are you planning to go about persuading me into giving away the location of that somewhere?" asked Crane, leaning in a little and cocking his brow.

"Now that's a whole lot of unnecessary words," she cringed. "You're institutionalized, what couldn't I do to you at this point?"

"Well, I'd be pleased to know exactly what my odds are at this point."

"Very, very grim, I'd say."

Crane gave her a condescending look.

"You must know one thing, miss Falcone. The item in question isn't of a kind that I'd be likely to share with a fledgling mob starlet such as yourself. Not without some effort on your side first. Something called a favor or two."

"...Okay. Fledgling, you say, favors, you say..." Sofia paused for a moment. "I can sort of understand why you wouldn't want to part with your sole ace in the hole, the only way you might reclaim your position in Gotham right away, should you ever be released. But I'm still in my twenties, and I really shouldn't be that understanding at that age. So here's what I'm gonna do. I'm going to measure every dick my henchmen possess, and I'm gonna pick the biggest one. Then I'm gonna get him a job at Arkham. That would be your new personal nurse, all for you. Now, the way I see it, you're gonna get raped repeatedly every day, until you decide to stop being such a stingy bastard. And don't you worry, I'll go out of my way to make sure you lovebirds won't be interrupted during your quality time. Favor enough for ya?"

Crane started to show signs of unsettlement. He clenched his jaw and shifted his position a little. "That's... quite elaborate. Even if somehow you were able to do all that... just out of curiosity, wouldn't it be easier to force the answer out of me in a more... traditional way?"

"Absolutely not, wouldn't want to bruise that dashing physiognomy of yours. We're gonna bruise you where no one's gonna look. And don't you worry about what I can or cannot do. At this point I can assure you, you're about to begin a brand new chapter in your life. Or maybe it's gonna be a drastic rekindling with an old one, I don't know where you've been. So, what would your answer happen to be now?"

The man analyzed every grimace of Sofia's face as she was speaking, trying to figure out whether she was bluffing or making honest threats. As far as he was informed, that girl came back to Gotham just three months ago, following a very long absence. With all the remains of the previous Falcone empire being swept off the face of the Earth, she was forced to start her business with very scarce resources. She was creative, he had to give her that, but did she actually gather enough following in such little time to force a stunt like this? Sofia didn't actually come across as someone overly confident. Her way of speaking was strangely casual and composed, with a faintly noticeable stammer. Definitely not intimidating by any means. So, should Crane take the risk? All in all, chances Sofia would actually carry out her promise didn't seem that high. And even if she would, Crane was sure he could take that kind of humiliation in order to protect his life savings. If it turns out it's too much for him though, maybe eventually he would disclose the location of his precious chemicals, but right now... he decided to gamble.

"My answer would be no."

"Oh dear." Sofia let out a strange sound being something in between a screech and a giggle. "You're gay, aren't you?"

"No, I'm not. I just don't really find you very convincing."

Sofia stretched her arms and slowly stood up as there was nothing more for her to do. "So, you'd better start concocting some lube out of that gooey thing they feed you with, you know..." With that, she left.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

The following day a new orderly had indeed been assigned to take intensive care of Dr Crane. After the first day had passed, in Jonathan's personal opinion calling the man well endowed was a severe understatement. Needless to say, he was more than ready to cooperate with Sofia at the very beginning of this treatment; unfortunately, he found himself forced to endure a week long therapy. When the day of liberation came, Jonathan had to employ all he had in him not to show relief upon seeing Sofia entering his cell, instead of the way too well known, way too tedious countenance of his way too personal nurse.

"Blessings once again, my good man. I do apologize for my prolonged absence, it just seems that my friend Mickey enjoyed your company all too much, and I simply didn't have the heart to call him off so quickly. So, tell me what you know, Jonathan, tell me, tell me, I'm all ears," Sofia twittered as she took her place on the floor.

Crane felt he probably couldn't look more hurt and woeful than he did, but a part of him hoped to evoke at least a little bit of remorse out of his visitor. Given his current fix, all he could do was to take a strike at Sofia's conscience, and he would appreciate any compensation, no matter how trifling.

"Last time we spoke, you made yourself very clear. I understood my well being is at stake as long as I choose to remain, as you put it, a stingy bastard. Well, I had a change of heart the very day you worked your magic and sent in that... filthy animal. So..." At this point Crane simply wasn't able to contain himself any longer. He bit his lip painfully, and Sofia could have sworn she saw a tear forming in his eye. "What. The fuck."

"Now don't be a baby, Jon. Sometimes people need to take special measures to get their point across," she said in a saccharine, cooing voice. "You know what... I'm gonna make it up to you. Tell me what you know already, and you might find out doing business with me can be a very rewarding experience."

Jonathan stared at her for a while with an undefined look on his face, feeling a wave of resignation wash over him. "Very well then. What you're after can be found in the Dixon docks. The basement of the third warehouse from the Vincefinkel bridge."

"Basement?"

"A lot of those warehouses served as storage space for people who would appreciate some privacy. Many of them had been adjusted to their needs."

"Is that so. Is there any trick to acquiring the goods?"

"To enter the warehouse you must enter the combination of six digits, 7-5-4-3-9-0. The hatch is located beneath the stairs. There's a switch button at the bottom of the railing. Push it, and you'll find your object of desire in abundance."

"Thank you ever so much, Jonathan, I'm very much obliged. Now tell me, have you been eating well? I don't know if I'm just imagining things, but you seem to have lost some weight since our last meeting. No, wait, don't answer. I know you've been spending your days actively as of late, but now it's time for recuperation. Here." Sofia pulled a candy bar out of her bag and placed it in Crane's lap. "That's for starters. Take care."

She left the cell waving her hand. Crane fixed his gaze on the candy bar and let out a deep, mournful sigh.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

The moon was very full of itself the night Sofia and her cohorts decided to raid the Dixon docks. The dimly lit area seemed to be completely abandoned. With brand new shipping yards emerging lately up north, this place now seemed to serve only one purpose which was providing storage space for various shady individuals with enough power of persuasion to secure a high level of privacy, without anybody of the prim and proper kind snooping around--just like Jonathan Crane had said. Right now though, said individuals were more than likely to be six feet underground or institutionalized in one way or another. The last two years had been indeed very fruitful when it comes to crime fighting; the entire mob was completely pulverized, and every attempt at petty theft or assault usually ended in bloody carnage. Strangely enough, the ones getting damaged weren't the victims, but the would-be perpetrators. Some said it was the Batman's doing. Some said he had finally snapped. After all, he hadn't been spotted even once in six months.

The situation was similar concerning the Joker. After being admitted to Arkham two years ago, he graced the place with his presence for mere two months before escaping. At first he would make public appearances not unlike his usual modus operandi, but his attempts at wreaking havoc never reached the initial level. Eventually, as Joker's little performances got more and more scarce, his image slowly faded from the public consciousness.

If one would give it some more insight, one might raise a question: why did both Batman and Joker disappear completely from the public eye and, in a way, took every criminal still remaining in Gotham with them? Although the whole situation did intrigue Sofia to some extent, she was more than happy with the outcome. A city with such ridiculously squeaky clean slate--if one wouldn't count the microscopic, benign enterprises--was a perfect place to build a new empire from scratch.

The black Jaguar stopped behind a dreary looking warehouse. The quiet hum of the engine faded out completely, and nothing else disturbed the perfect silence.

"I take it we're all alone in a place like this... this is going to be fun, huh?" asked Sofia, going through various things she had stuffed in her bag before setting off. "Do we have everything?"

"Yeah, I've got that, what's it's called, code breaker or whatever, we can try it out on other warehouses that haven't get raided yet. It's a tad old, but still a military toy nonetheless. Might work with some of those gatekeepers," Yaguchi muttered with a cigarette hanging from his lips.

"Can you get any more pretentious? Look at you, a pinstriped suit, a goddamned mafia hat and that fag speak, I mean, honestly." Sofia gave him an amused look and continued to rummage through her bag.

A lopsided smile crept onto Yaguchi's face. "Well, maybe some men are just born that way."

"Maybe it's Maybelline," she sing songed. "What the fuck. I've got them flashlights, I've got a piece but can someone tell me why do I have this night-vision camera on me? And those... laundry pegs? I mean, what...?"

"Afraid I can't help you. Can we proceed? I want to test that fancy Nokia that Reese guy gave us." Mosheh heaved a deep a sigh.

"The one with all that sonar bullshit? Yeah, if Crane has a basement in this joint, it's safe to assume other warehouses may have plenty of hidden surprises. How did you get a hold of that artifact, by the way? Because I really don't recall."

"Well, you remember how we gave Reese a visit and asked him who that Batman really is?"

"Yeah...?"

"And how he kept on whining how he can't tell us under any circumstances, or else the Joker will come and kill him?"

"Yeah, it was pretty funny when he was sitting there crying, with two bigass boogers hanging all the way down to his neck."

"It was, wasn't it? Anyway, I don't know if you recall, but when you were about to chop off his nostrils, he said he'll do anything, that he has certain ways of getting things that might prove useful in our line of business."

"Oh yeah, he did... Venal bastard. And then what? I was so hammered it's all blurry to me now."

"Then we cut a deal. I honestly thought you'd remember, the next day we had insight into the entire R&D department of Wayne Enterprises. That Coleman dude can be pretty resourceful when he finds himself in a hostile environment. He got us some of these," Mosheh pulled out a cell phone from his pocket and turned it around in his hand. "And some other gadgets."

"All I remember is that the next day I was going through our hookers' HIV test results. But now I guess you guys did talk about that while I was looming over Coleman. I'm not drinking anymore, my life is slipping through my fingers."

"Let's go already, huh?" Yaguchi decided to speak up.

"Let's do just that, men."

They left the car in the shadows and took a walk to the gate. The information provided by Doctor Crane turned out to be accurate, and the code granted them access to a big, almost empty hall. The only things that stood out in this place were a couple of empty cardboard boxes, and, on the left, stairs adjacent to the wall. The warehouse was immersed in darkness, the only source of light being the moon shining in through the open gate. The trick with the railing worked as well. Slowly, the hatch leading to the basement opened, unveiling what was hidden underneath for nearly two years. The so called fear toxin. Barrels of it. Mosheh went down the steps leading underground, followed by his companions.

"Now that's... enchanting." Sofia gasped at the sight of such abundance as the flashlight's beam swept across the collected goods.

"Yeah, I'll call someone to come over with a truck or two. Now let's go check the other warehouses." Yaguchi turned around and was just about to go back up when he heard a thud, followed by a sound of struggling. Sofia momentarily switched off her flashlight.

If there was anything the three of them were good at, it was how not to be noticed. How to see without being seen. How to conduct most complicated operations without letting out the tiniest sound. Each of them slowly took positions on the steps, rearing their heads ever so slightly, just so they could assess the situation.

What they saw surpassed all of their expectations.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Batman threw the Joker into the warehouse and knocked him down to the floor with one swift blow. The Joker landed flat on his back, letting out a stifled gasp. He didn't even have a chance to pull himself up as the dark, ominous figure dove down and straddled him in a matter of seconds. The Bat quickly took off his gloves, his now exposed hands feverishly maneuvering around Joker's waistband and then, his own codpiece. Joker didn't even try to put up a slightest resistance as his pants were being almost torn off him, pulled all the way down to his ankles. Breathing heavily, he watched as the man above him positioned himself between his thighs, spat in his open hand and smeared the saliva over his erect cock. Without a moment of hesitation, Batman sunk into the body splayed beneath him with one brutal thrust. Joker's back arched involuntarily, cries of pain bordering with lustful moans coming out of his wide open mouth. His arms reached up, fingers clawing the kevlar plates in an attempt to get a hold of the man pushing into him with maddening ferocity. In response Batman leaned over him and pinned his hands down to the floor, holding them in a tight grip.

Joker's cock pressed against the other man's armor was leaking, leaving sticky trails on the kevlar, and his wails were getting louder and more violent on the ears of the spectators with each second. He pressed his temple to the floor and shut his eyes tightly. The groans coming out of the Batman's throat started to sound more and more inhuman as he quickened the pace of his thrusts. After a minute that seemed to go on forever, the increasing cacophony of animalistic sounds reached its climax and then slowly faded away. All that was left was heavy panting and quiet whimpering.

The grip on Joker's hands weakened. His eyes fixed on the black cowl above him as he reached up once again. This time Batman didn't stop him. The clown brushed his fingers along the other man's lips and placed his other hand on the spot where the cowl met with the upper parts of the armor. He pressed it gently, letting out a short sigh as he heard a silent click, and placed his hands on both sides of the mask, his movements strangely demure. Still no reaction from the Bat, even as Joker started to pull it off, gradually unveiling his face.

The cowl landed on the floor, thrown away like a piece of trash. Joker attempted to lift himself up, but found his body refusing to cooperate as he was too weakened. He wrapped his arms around Bruce's neck and pulled him down, connecting his mouth to his own. Hesitant at first, Bruce gave in and dug his fingers into the blond curls. Finally, he pulled away from the clown, clenched his eyes shut and took a deep breath. He seemed tired, completely spent, both emotionally and physically.

Bruce turned his head around, looking for the mask. He reached for it, put it back on, fixed his codpiece back into place, collected his gloves, and slowly stood up. Not giving the man sprawled across the floor a second look, the Batman disappeared into the night.

Joker remained motionless for a couple of minutes. Finally, he reached down to his pants and pulled them back on. Another minute had passed before he decided to stand up. He brushed specks of dust off his suit, spread his arms in a theatrical shrug and walked out of the warehouse, humming Badfinger's Baby Blue to himself.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

"What the fuck," Sofia mouthed, lowering the hand holding the camera.

"You know what... I'd like to officially commend you on putting your female intuition to such splendid use," Yaguchi rasped weakly, motioning towards the camera.

"I know, I know. I'm almost too good to be true." Finally Sofia felt her brain get unblocked, and thoughts were once again able to flow as freely as always. "Mosheh, my friend. Say something."

"What... oh." Mosheh shook his head as if trying to get rid of the afterimages. "Was this thing on the whole time?"

"Indeed it was, yes."

"Then, aside from the deeply entrenched trauma, I believe we're now in possession of our very own Bruce Wayne sex tape. And..." The man pinched the bridge of his nose, giving into a confused chuckle. Sofia patted him on the shoulder.

"Yeah. I know. The feeling when the biggest mystery of them all unravels itself in front of your eyes in such style is, how do I put this, stupefying."

"I just can't help but feel sorry for them now." Yaguchi placed a cigarette in his mouth and lit it contemplatively.

"Well, you know, I kinda feel sorry for ourselves. I believe we have reached our lifetime limit of luck in the last ten minutes. We need to put the fruit of this expedition to really good use." Sofia puckered her lips and gave the camera a pensive look.

Chapter Text

In his heyday, Salvatore Maroni used to own a chain of family restaurants all across Gotham city. One of them had been conveniently designed to serve both as a meeting place and his personal headquarters, complete with an office located above it. This particular premise presented itself especially useful in the eyes of Sofia Falcone who had now deemed the place her own. The joint downstairs was undergoing renovations at the moment, but the office could still serve its purpose of providing a secluded area suitable for discussing matters of utmost subtlety.

"Johnny, Johnny, please do not chagrin me any further," Sofia clasped her hands in a pleading gesture, elbows rested on the surface of an extravagant ebony desk. Previously it had belonged to Maroni whose penchant for ostentation outlived him by the means of a fabulously furnished lair and a bar whose contents made Sofia's heart flutter with happiness. "Have some of that fine substance our dearly departed uncle Sal bequeathed upon us." She poured the man in front of her a glass of Macallan whisky. "Can you believe this? I mean, it's not even officially in production anymore, and yet he had ten bottles of it stashed in that bar of his. Drink it all up and let's go through all of our problems once again."

The man referred to as Johnny was squat of figure, auburn hair forming a bowl shape around his head. He fixed his blank stare on the freshly filled glass and reached for it slowly.

"There's no need to go through all of it one more time, Sofia. You know damn well you won't be able to keep my mother away from whatever it is you're starting in this town." Johnny took a sip and grimaced slightly. "She's been frantic about bringing your father down since day one. Now he's in Arkham and your brothers are, let's say, incapacitated, and of course there's Sal who met his demise... there's no one left in Gotham. And she says Chicago is starting to feel a little too cramped, she wants to expand the market."

"How do you mean, 'no one left in Gotham'? You know, if I were a tad more petty than I already am, l'd say belittling our organization like this is an outrage, right?" Sofia shouted in the direction of two men hunched in the corner of the room who seemed to be occupied with some kind of a board game.

"Damn right," was a calm reply.

"I told you Johnny, do not chagrin me any further, and here you are, insulting me like this." Sofia pouted and crossed her arms.

Johnny glared at her for a moment, his eyes showing signs of weariness. He was used to negotiating with men whose power of enticement was severe enough to make you agree to whatever they had to offer as your innards turn inside out on their own in sheer panic. He certainly wasn't used to talking business to a small, red headed girl who--had it not been for a few ragged scars on her left cheek--could possibly pass for an innocent fourteen-year-old.

"Look. I don't know what you've made up in that pretty head of yours, but you know my family is far sighted. And we're not the ones to be easily intimidated. Especially not by a lil' girl like you. Tell me, do you honestly think you can run an organization on a par with what your daddy achieved back in the day? Not gonna happen, you know it. Even uncle Carmine was wise enough to secure his connections, especially family connections. You can have your shares, sure, but don't expect us to withdraw and leave it all up to you."

"But I'm not the head of this organization," the girl chuckled in amusement. "I don't run it. You've got it all wrong, you know? There is no head, so don't come here looking down on me like I'm some petulant child building up her sand fortress in the middle of the living room because the parents aren't home. And what was that lil' girl like you expression supposed to mean, hm? You've got a problem with the fact I was born with a vagina? Wanna see how petty I can get? Because using your way of reasoning I guess I'm entitled to say I've got a problem with you being born with ten fingers." Sofia reached to the drawer and pulled out a chopping board and a Japanese tanto knife. She removed the wooden sheath, unveiling the sharp metal, and arranged the items in front of her cousin. "Fix my problem, please."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Johnny ground his teeth in irritation.

"Perhaps you could use some aides?"

To his surprise, Johnny felt two hands rest upon each of his shoulders. He didn't notice when Mosheh and Yaguchi had managed to approach him as they hadn't made a tiniest sound. Sofia grabbed the knife and leaned over the desk.

"If you don't cut off your finger, I'm gonna deprive you of your nostrils, eyelids, lips, earlobes... and you're gonna look fucking stupid."

"You think you can force me to endure all this bullshit and get away?" Johnny hissed, his eyes following the blade tracing circles around his nose.

"What, you think your goons behind the door are gonna help you? Our guys bought them out the moment they appeared in their eyesight, now I'm sure they're enjoying themselves in some relatively remote place. Now, Johnny, you do as I say or you know what."

"Yeah, go ahead, do it and see what happens."

Sofia pinched his eyelid between her index finger and thumb, and pulled at it a little. Johnny jerked in his seat, but two pairs of strong arms effectively restrained his ability to move. As the knife made contact with the sensitive skin, he felt all his muscles tense up and cold sweat trickle down his back. With the first shallow incision, he let out a horrified squeal.

"Stop it! Not the fucking eyes! I'll do it, I'll do it, please stop!"

"Then step up and do it, fuckstick, and don't waste my time."

Johnny was trembling as a tiny rivulet of blood ran down his glistening face. Slowly, he took the knife from Sofia and clenched his fingers around the handle.

"Just don't try to start any drama with cutting us and running for your life, or the proverbial else." Mosheh sighed and pointed his gun at the man.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Bruce was sitting idly in a lobby, gazing apathetically at the door in front of him. The steel door tag read Falcone. It had been thirty minutes since he arrived, and the prolonged waiting didn't help his growing confusion in the least. He lowered his gaze and hanged his head. Watching his pale, vein-ridged hands, he felt an avalanche of twisted strands of thoughts flood his mind. He had no idea why he was in this place. It was only this morning that he had received a letter.

Dear BATMAN, come to the Maroni restaurant at 32nd street today at 2 p.m., alone.

- Sofia Falcone.

It was addressed to his penthouse, which meant that someone knew. At this point in his life Bruce really didn't need this. There's only so much a man can take, and he knew he was slowly, but inevitably reaching a breaking point.

A blood curdling scream coming from the office ended his musings abruptly, and he jerked in his seat, slightly startled. He listened for a good couple of minutes, but he couldn't make out anything except for a drawling, female voice, some laughing men and quiet sobbing. Suddenly, the door opened, and a whimpering, stubby man got kicked out of the room by a grinning Asian in a bowler hat. The man was holding a handkerchief over his blood covered hand, and his shirt was completely soaked in sweat. Staggering, he scurried away without looking back even once.

"Tell your mom I said hi!" Sofia shouted after Johnny, leaning out of the doorframe. "Next, please," she said as she headed back to the desk, while Yaguchi smiled courteously and gestured toward the room in an inviting manner. Bruce took a hesitant step inside, looking around. The room was scantily lit by the yellowish rays of sun filtered by blinds and filled with cigarette smoke forming layered, lazily drifting clouds; some early Rolling Stones record playing quietly in the background completed the picture. His mind was already putting together the most sordid scenarios, forcing his body to react in accord, making his muscles tense up and his blood rush straight to his head. Sofia grinned at him as if she didn't notice his turmoil, and pointed to the chair in front of the desk.

"Sit, please," she chirped. Bruce took a seat obediently and gave her a quick glance, but something caught her attention and she rose from her chair. "Oh, wait a minute..." She paced to the door and left. The two men that kept his company remained silent, returning to their board game.

Bruce decided to stare at one particular point. He needed to focus on anything, any object, any shape. He couldn't let the overpowering haze take over his senses completely, he couldn't let them know that right now he was at his most vulnerable stage in his whole life. If anyone decided to use violence against him that day, the possibility was quite high that he wouldn't be able to dodge even an amateurish blow. He couldn't assess the distance, the velocity, nothing; he perceived swift movements as if they were stretching out in slow motion and vice versa. Time wasn't a logical linear quality anymore, it quickened and slowed down its pace on a whim.

Bruce Wayne had indeed been suffering insomnia. For two long years. Not counting the rare occurrences when certain circumstances would allow him to doze off for about three hours or less, he had been constantly awake. At this point, Bruce wasn't able to determine what should be done and what would eventually come out of this whole situation; all he could do was to go with the flow and hope he wouldn't drown in the process.

He blinked as the object he had decided to focus on got suddenly obliterated from the surface of the desk. Only then had he realized he had been staring at a trail of blood droplets, now sprayed by Sofia with some kind of detergent and promptly wiped off with a paper towel.

"That goddamn tit spilled blood all over, sorry about that," she muttered as she finished cleaning the desk and took a seat behind it. "So, can I offer you a drink or something?"

"I'd rather we make this quick," he said weakly.

"Okay, okay, you seem pretty displeased with your current plight, so let's get down to brass tacks. As you probably have figured out, I know it is you who dresses up as a bat and does swooshy things with his cape to instill fear in the hearts of criminals. At least you used to, as I gather nowadays you have more... pressing matters to take care of, no?"

"What do you mean?"

"Here, look." Sofia turned her laptop around so Bruce could see what was on the screen, and a video started playing. When it ended, Bruce was sitting still with his fists balled and beads of sweat emerging on his forehead. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest as if wanting to rip out of his ribcage.

"What the fuck is it with people getting so worked up in this place today? Good God, man, stop sweating all over my furniture... Look now, I didn't show you this video to give you a cardiac attack, I just wanted to make a point." Sofia squinted and observed Bruce for a moment. "Damn, you do look kinda groggy. What's wrong? I mean, really?" She rose from the chair and reached for the paper towels. Bruce's jaw clenched as she wiped the sweat off his face, but he remained still.

"There, there, don't go apoplectic on me here." She grinned and sat down. "Did the video disturb you so much? Health problems? What is it?"

He didn't say a word. Instead he fixed his gaze at some distant point.

"Okay, we'll talk about this later. Now listen, this little video, it won't go on the internet or anything, don't worry. I mean, not right now. But nonetheless, it's kinda well circulated among my associates. Now, I know this may look like a really small enterprise, but I assure you, our human resources are ample. And the fun part is, most of those people can be trusted. That's why now it depends only on you whether your mystery gets revealed or not. I figure you wouldn't want to come out of the closet in such style, so I'd advise you to listen to what I say, hm?"

Bruce finally looked at her, and a faint, smug smile crept upon his face.

"Why do you think anybody would listen to what you say? For all I know, dressing up as Batman and fucking male prostitutes dressed up as the Joker in abandoned warehouses is just another one of my wide array of billionaire playboy depravities."

"Oh, they'll believe it, don't worry. And you know why? Because nobody likes you, Wayne. Nobody likes a billionaire playboy. Nobody likes the Batman either, I presume. Such a perfect little story, hm? A spoiled rich bitch trying to get his rocks off, playing a vigilante and sating his desire to clobber people to his heart's content. Then he decides to play God and starts to exterminate the vermin swarming in this city's underbelly, just because he can. Maybe a couple of innocent civilians lost their lives in the process... I mean, do you have any idea how many murders you're being credited for at the moment? Even if there's no evidence, people will believe it because they will want to. As Batman you're as good as dead, now I'm threatening you, Bruce Wayne. It takes so little to leave you with nothing."

Bruce took a deep breath and lowered his head, his hands finally relaxing a little.

"What do you want from me?" He asked in a quiet, raspy voice.

"I'm going to give you an opportunity to help this city one more time. You saw that pug coming out of this room, crying and bleeding all over, didn't you? He's my cousin Johnny. His family runs Chicago. His mom is my dad's sister and, to say the least, she holds a few grudges against him. And trust me, right now she would love nothing more than to scourge this city with her poorly woven net of heroine deals and human trafficking, and who knows what else, I mean, I know Johnny's line of work is child pornography and such. And it's not that all of this makes me indignant, no. I couldn't give a shit about what they do, as long as they do it away from Gotham."

"So what makes you so different?"

"I have some of those, what do they call it, standards. I'm cautious. For example, you don't see my people pushing drugs on the streets. No, we target a very specific group and let the small fries cater to each other while we watch over them lovingly. You know, aunt Carla has got her ovary ducts in a bundle because she has to go out of her way to at least partially satisfy the abundance of clients, not to mention all of those poor college students on her payroll who concoct crack in their basements, while I'm importing only pure cocaine in fancy narco submarines and selling it to fancy rich fucks such as yourself. You'd be surprised of how many people from your environment my clientele consists. Bottom line is, I am slowly making big money without risking being capped by one of my disgruntled employees or attracting the prying eyes of policemeisters because I chose to be a little more subtle instead of getting rich quickly in a most uncomely manner. My auntie doesn't like that, and she wants to vent her spleen by making my life harder. And this is where you come in."

Bruce raised his eyebrows and gave her a questioning look.

"You know, it won't be long before they take a strike at me, especially after what I've done to Johnny. It also won't be long before the police starts to get a little antsy. You know, in a city undergoing such a severe plateau phase when it comes to petty criminality it must be pretty boring, there's no one to legally violate and so on, don't you think? The general plan is as follows: me and my associates arrange a series of scams, put some of the Vitis in unambiguous situations, and then you emerge from the shadows and remove them from my sight range. Then, you throw them into the longing arms of our happy little piglets. Then, they make bail, of course, piglets get richer, the Vitis get fierce, we get even fiercer, and we repeat the whole process until they get bored or go bankrupt. And then, we will live happily ever after."

Bruce stared at Sofia for a while. He understood the meaning of her words, but couldn't quite process them. It felt as if her whole utterance was directed at someone else while he was just sitting there, letting his awareness dissolve. Maybe it was some kind of a defense mechanism. Maybe it was his mind's way of protecting itself from even more aggravation. Deep down, however, Bruce felt something was horribly wrong. Had he been the man from two or three years ago, he would have reacted immediately. He would have frowned upon such shenanigans with all the power of his self righteousness, and stated he would never in his entire life make deals with criminals. But now everything seemed different--unclear, soiled, and twisted.

Sofia placed her hands on the desk and leaned in a little.

"I can tell by the look in your eyes that you're undergoing an internal quarrel. That's fine. You have time until tomorrow to think about it, meanwhile get out of here and take it easy. I'll be calling you tomorrow evening, don't make plans."

Bruce stood up slowly. He didn't make eye contact neither with Sofia nor with Yaguchi and Mosheh who were watching him from across the room. His mind was now completely empty. Without a word, he left the room and closed the door behind himself.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Another dark, abandoned alley. Bruce wondered how many of such places he had been to ever since he started this game with the Joker. Each time there had to be cold concrete, coarse bricks, grit, dirt, dust, broken glass, and he had never imagined it any other way. Even though he did remember how all of it had begun, his own reasons and drives got lost in the way, and now all he was left with was this unceasing, mind numbing stupor, dim urges, anxiety, even fear.

Somewhere in the process, Joker had become his only reality. He inhabited all of his thoughts in his waking state, forcing the sleep out of his body, withering him down with every passing day. He would drag him out every night to play hide and seek, rewarding him every now and then by letting himself be found, sucking him into a vertigo, devouring him completely until he would fall unconscious. For two long years, Joker had been holding all of the strings and pulling them as he desired. He let him sleep, woke him with gruesome nightmares, eroded him gently with short moments of comfort and abandon. And with every passing month, Bruce found himself further gone. Even his guilt evaporated gradually, letting the task of torturing him solely to Joker.

Now he was facing him, his eyes sliding down the hunched silhouette. The last bit of sanity he had retained was grasping at straws, desperate to find a solution to all of it. Still, he knew it was futile.

"Brucey?" Joker cocked his head. "Are we going to proceed or are we back to the initial phase when I had to kill someone or at least verbally berate you to get you in the mood?"

Silence was his only response. Bruce stood still, feeling cold sweat run down his body. Slowly, he removed his cowl and gloves. Joker's eyes followed his movements as the corners of his lips curled up in a smile.

"Does it mean we're not rough-housing tonight? How splendid, I kinda grew weary of it a long time ago."

"Tonight we're going to talk," Bruce muttered under his breath, finally locking his eyes with Joker's.

"Talk? Now... that's kinky." The madman fluttered his eyelids and approached him with a suspicious look on his face. "What's gotten into you, hm?" He placed his hands on the other man's shoulders, pushing him gently towards the wall.

"Y'know, this is the first time you're not greeting me with your ruthless bat-fury. It kinda makes me queasy... but then again..." He watched Bruce from behind half closed eyelids, his gaze strangely affectionate and predatory at once. "Come on, sit down, sit down..." he purred, patting his shoulder, and Bruce didn't protest. He sat down and rested his back against the wall, letting Joker climb into his lap and wrap his arms tightly around his neck.

"We can talk all you want later, right now I'm not in the mood for such heinous perversities." The clown pressed himself close to the kevlar armor, running his fingers through the dark locks in a petting manner. Their eyes met for a moment before Joker's lips rested on Bruce's forehead, and, to his surprise, the taller man found himself relaxing a little at the feel of familiar softness and warmth. Another kiss followed on his temple, then his cheekbones, eyelids, nose, chin... He couldn't help but smile faintly as the pecks gave place to licks.

"What are you supposed to be, a dog?" Bruce asked amusedly, letting Joker further cover his face with layers of saliva and greasepaint. Joker grinned and let out a flirty growl.

"I just can't get enough of your pretty face, darling. You're always trying to keep it all to yourself, it makes me sad and frustrated."

"Didn't you use to prefer the mask?"

"Uh, the mask, you say... Well, it got boring in the end. And irrelevant."

"So what will you do when you get bored of this face? Cut it up and rearrange it?"

"Maybe. My, my, you really are a talkative one tonight Brucey, aren't ya?" Joker cupped Bruce's face in both hands and smirked menacingly with his head tilted to the side. His gloved fingers ran down the sharp cheekbones, smearing the black make up a little. Humming softly, he leaned in and nipped at his lower lip gently before pushing onward and shoving his tongue all the way down his throat. Bruce sucked in breath and closed his eyes in response, white noise suddenly filling his head. His hands wandered to Joker's shoulders, initially intending to push him away, but somehow he found himself pulling him closer, yielding to the dominant tongue snaking around his own. Finally, the clown lifted his head and gave him a playfully surprised look, but Bruce averted his sight.

Joker smiled with his lower lip tucked in and lurched forward, nuzzling his face into the crook of Bruce's neck. Soon a trail of kisses descended down his jaw line, finally reaching the sensitive skin underneath his ear, licking and sucking on the delicate flesh until Bruce started to gasp quietly, the warm breath and the moist tongue making him tingle and burn. He twitched as teeth slowly grazed against his earlobe, and his fingers clawed over Joker's back involuntarily.

"Now, this just keeps getting better..." Joker murmured, pleasantly surprised with his reactions, and kissed him softly one more time. Bruce had to employ all he had in him to keep his mind from coming apart and melting away, the madman's arms closing around him protectively and possessively filling him with some indescribable longing and disgust at the same time. The white noise in his head became even more intense and cluttered, and as he was about to give in completely, one last speck of awareness ran through his head, reminding him of what he was supposed to do tonight.

"No. Stop," he rasped, trying to catch his breath, slightly pushing Joker away. "We need to talk."

The man above him propped himself on his chest and raised his eyebrows.

"What is it, Bruce?" he asked with a bitter tinge in his voice.

"This... I can't..." Bruce swallowed with difficulty and paused, words escaping him.

"Here we go again..." Joker snickered and rolled his eyes, drumming his fingers against the kevlar plates. "What is it this time? Alfred says I'm not good enough for you? Hm?" He gave him a bored look.

Bruce leaned his head back against the wall. His expression was halfway between a smirk and a snarl as he fixed his eyes on the other man's face.

"You really have no idea, do you... what it really feels like..."

"Well, it's not like you talk to me about your feelings, dear. Maybe if we found a way around this communication barrier, if you were able to articulate yourself in a more coherent way more often instead of growling at me, then maybe I would have an idea. But since things are as they are, sorry, no can do."

Bruce chuckled bitterly. "I won't cry on your shoulder, Joker. But this needs to stop. You've already managed to break me completely, you can sit back and relax now."

"Yada, yada, yada..." Joker sighed and patted Bruce on the cheek. "This is getting too dramatic, y'know. Did something happen to you today?"

"Someone taped us."

"Someone taped us doing what?"

"Someone taped us... having sex." Bruce hesitated for a moment. He had never referred to what they were doing as sex. To him it was always so much more, it felt weird to call it by name.

"About time. Has it surfaced yet?"

"Stop it... you don't understand. People who did it... the mob... now they're blackmailing me, trying to make me into an errand boy. I just... I've had enough, I haven't slept properly in two years thanks to you and now this..."

"Oh, sh, sh, sh, sh..." Joker cradled Bruce’s head to his neck, stroking his hair. "No one has the right to upset you but me. Now tell me who exactly has upset you, and I'll explain it to them."

Bruce could feel the last line of his defense dissolve with the madman’s warmth pressing gently against him, a wave of nausea churning his insides at the realization of just how much his body ached for this sickly comfort. He breathed in his smell, a mixture of cigarettes, gunpowder and sweat, and his eyes closed. The white noise scourged his mind completely.

"Sofia Falcone," he said quietly.

He couldn't believe he had just given Joker a name. It was equivalent to agreeing to his means of explaining things, but maybe Batman was indeed as good as dead already.

Chapter Text

"So, how do you think, who should I treat first?" asked Sofia, pouring the fear toxin into small aluminum spray bottles. The long day of work had already ended, but regardless of that a lot of the goodfellas still remained in the restaurant, their festive voices seeping from downstairs into the dimly lit office.

"A regular wino would be sufficient, if you want my opinion. Just try not to do it in our vicinity," replied Mosheh, filling three shot glasses with Becherovka. "I suggest you desist your current activity and come join us. I know it's three a.m., but it's five o'clock somewhere," he spread his arms over the table he and Yaguchi were sitting at and nodded invitingly.

"I'm not sure if that's such a bright idea, with my PMS and everything. I might become volatile." Sofia took a seat and reached for a glass. "Oh well."

"Drink it up, a little volatile is good for the heart." A big grin lightened Yaguchi's face as he fumbled in his pocket for smokes.

"Isn't it? Thank you, good doctor. Now, I'd like to propose a toast since today has been a very fruitful day indeed. We've acquired a severed finger and scarred Wayne's fragile little mind, goddammit." Three glasses clinked together. Sofia downed the shot in one gulp while both men restrained themselves a little, drinking in small sips.

"Share, chinaman," the girl extended her hand towards the cigarettes. Yaguchi held out the packet, letting Sofia draw one.

"What do we say?" he asked and reached for a lighter.

"Hi kashite?" she muttered. The man chuckled in response, lighting the cigarette for her.

"That's straightforward, you brute."

"Isn't it? It was the first Japanese phrase I learned," Sofia inhaled deeply and let out a cloud of swirly smoke. "One of the benefits of being a white working for the yakuza. Gets you mad privileges, you get to be straightforward."

"Or they just thought they couldn't expect more of you."

"Being considered a dumb gaijin is a privilege."

"Still miss that job? I mean, body chopping?" asked Mosheh.

"Badly, my braidy-bearded friend, if I hadn't met you two, I'd probably be still doing that, I mean, it was a lucrative job. I was good at it, had a huge clientele, I was on the brink of getting my own business cards. Pretty rewarding experience, at that. And then one day it all just had to go bad, didn't it... pour another round."

The sound of a shotgun and shattering glass abruptly ended this conversation. The three of them froze, listening carefully. In a matter of seconds the sounds intensified as the shots started to come both from the ground floor and the outside of the restaurant.

"What the..." Sofia turned off the light, scuttled to the window and raised the blinds ever so slightly. She looked down, beckoning Mosheh and Yaguchi to come join her.

"Somehow I feel we should've expected this," said Yaguchi.

At first glance everything looked pretty trivial. A drive-by conducted by the book: a car, some men shooting at an establishment, some other men in said establishment responding with fire, glass, debris, racket and conniption. If it wasn't for the fact that the assailants were sporting clown masks and that their supposed make up covered leader was wielding a bazooka in his hand, it would indeed appear to be a somewhat garden variety situation.

Joker observed the progress with a bored expression, watching his henchmen fall to the ground with as much concern as he gave to the casualties on the other side of the bout. Hidden behind his van, he craned his neck every few seconds, assessing the situation. Finally, after a prolonged moment of silence, the clown stood up slowly and cased the scenery: splattered brains, puddles of blood, bullet shells all over the ground, the enemy dismantled, two of his men still unharmed. He nudged one of the bodies with the tip of his gray suede shoe. "So much talent, such a waste..." he muttered to himself and shook his head. Smacking his lips, he looked up and slicked back his messy hair with a gloved hand.

"Uh, hello?" he shouted in the direction of the blinded window. His grip over the bazooka tightened as he awaited the response with mocking anticipation.

"Should we shoot him?" asked Mosheh.

"Not if you want to bereave Wayne, he might get upset. And the video makes him look worse with the painted toad alive and wreaking havoc." Sofia's eyes followed the hunched, pattern clad figure sauntering towards the restaurant, the lackeys trailing his steps hesitantly. "You know... let's just bail for now. Think we can make it out the back in time?"

"We'll see," said Mosheh and darted to the door immediately, followed by his companions. The way to the emergency escape wasn't long, and soon enough they found themselves outside, breathing out white plumes of cold air.

"I'll take the Jaguar and invite him to a chase. I'm going left. You take the BMW, wait for him in some side alley and pounce him when we approach the intersection," said Sofia, her fingers tightening over a small aluminum bottle as she ran to the car. "Just, you know, don't kill him," she shouted through the open window, starting the engine.

Joker was about to shoot the bazooka at something, just to get out of the rut of this stalemate, when he heard a car drive from behind the restaurant and speed past him with a screech of tires. His head turned after the black Jaguar.

"Oh no, no, no, no, you're not free to go until we reach a mutual agreement," he hissed and jumped in behind the wheel of his stolen van, leaving his henchmen behind. Swiftly, he pressed the gas pedal and pursued Sofia down the empty street.

The madman groaned as the distance between them slowly began to grow. Although vintage, Sofia's vehicle must have been thoroughly tuned up as it could outrace his randomly picked model easily. He gave the bazooka lying on the passenger seat a quick glance and shook his head as if trying to shun the thoughts of simply blowing her up. Alas, Bruce was very clear on that matter. Apparently the video was well circulated and killing her wouldn't solve anything. He had to remind himself of that every ten seconds, and it vexed him to no end.

As they started to approach the intersection, it became obvious that Joker won't be able to rear-end the Jaguar by any means. He reached for his cell phone, intending to order some of his men to cut off her escape route, but he didn't get to type a single digit as his car suddenly got sideswiped by a BMW that seemed to have plunged out of nowhere. His head hit the glass and everything went black.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

"You guuuys, that was just beautiful. If I weren't so outrageously asexual, I'd say I wanna have your babies right here and right now," Sofia chirped as she got out of the Jaguar.

"Gross," said Yaguchi and lit another cigarette off the remains of the one hanging from his mouth. He went over to the crashed van and pulled the Joker out of it.

"He looks kinda floppy. Is he alright?" Mosheh gave him a concerned look. Yaguchi pressed his hand to the man's neck and nodded.

"Just knocked out."

"Okay, let's get him to a more secluded place. I need to vent." Sofia got back in the car. "Drive into that alley over there."

Yaguchi pulled the unresponsive Joker back into the van, placing him in the passenger seat. He sat behind the wheel and followed Sofia, Mosheh joining them shortly with the BMW, and as soon as they reached a safe distance from the main street, the engines went silent. Sofia grabbed her bag from the back seat and rummaged through its contents for a few seconds, finally pulling out a Japanese Noh theater mask of a young female. A smile slithered onto her face, causing her scars to crinkle.

"Get that sack of snot out here. He's about to be my wino of choice," she exclaimed as she left the Jaguar with the mask on, rolling up her sleeves. "We'll see if Jon's ways prove useful."

Yaguchi obediently pulled Joker out of the car and dropped him to the ground. A quiet groan came out of him as he hit the dirty concrete, indicating he was slowly coming around. Sofia knelt next to him and slapped his face a few times.

"Rise and shine, you crusty son of a goat." She grabbed his suspenders, shaking him until he fluttered his eyelids and looked up hazily. He squinted at the sight of long red hair hanging over him, enclosing a white wooden mask. Sofia shook him a little more, watching his eyes roll back and then shut tightly.

"Now... would you mind stop doing that?" He finally muttered reproachfully, his voice quiet and laced with pain.

"Not at all." She let go of him and let him hit the ground again. The haze began to lift from his head, and he gave the girl a closer look, his eyes fixing on her mask for a few seconds before wandering to the two men standing next to the black BMW who were watching the whole situation with grim amusement. The ringing in his ears gradually gave place to the pummeling, greasy sounds of music coming out of the car.

"How are we? Up and running yet?" asked Sofia, pulling his head up by the hair and checking his pupils. Joker raised his eyebrows and exposed his yellowed teeth, a high pitched cackle bursting out of his throat.

"Oh, just peachy keen," he rasped and swiftly grabbed the girl’s forearm. Sofia registered a glint of a knife in his hand before he lacerated her skin deeply a couple of times, blood starting to gush immediately. Unfazed, she yanked her arm the moment Joker buried the blade again, only deepening the cut with the struggle, but shortly she managed to free it as the madman still hadn’t recovered completely from the crash, his grip not as strong as he had wanted it to be. She kicked the knife out of Joker’s hand, pulled out her gun and pressed it to his forehead.

"Don't exert yourself, ok? You'll pop a vein," she chuckled, her blood dripping on his face making him spatter with mocking disgust. His laughter augmented as his eyes rested on the pale fat tissue protruding out of one of her cuts, though the gun was grinding into his temple firmly. Her arm didn’t seem to be weakened in the least. "I’d rather not kill you, so just keep still." He was about to retort, but without a word of warning Sofia sprayed something in his face.

With the first whiff of the substance, everything around him suddenly started to pulsate and shift, and the music coming from the car gradually became louder, more intrusive. All strength ebbed his body in a matter of seconds, and he could hear a terrified gasp escape his mouth before his voice was silenced by the tightness in his throat.

"And the clown had something gone wrong... a mental shutdown, synaptic revolt..." Sofia sang along, pacing around Joker as he began to squirm, debilitated by the toxin. "Guys, this song totallyfits," she laughed. "And the clown had no idea why... where were his ethics? Where were his manners?" She kicked him hard in the ribs repeatedly. One of the kicks landed on his face, and she pressed her boot to his forehead, watching blood start to trickle down his painted mouth. Finally she bent over him to give him a better look.

Joker's pupils widened as he watched the grisly figure loom over him. He tried to look away, but strong fingers gripping his hair tightly made it impossible. The features of the mask blended together completely, leaving just a smooth, white surface without any distinctive characteristic, and he couldn't help but shake as it moved closer. The sounds turned into low, unbearable droning.

"And the clown became a jag-off..." Her voice sounded distant, yet uncomfortably near, monotonous and petrifying. Her movements were jagged and mechanical, and every little contraction of her muscles seemed like a sickly threat. He tried to worm away in vain as the figure bestrode him and two hands grabbed his head, smashing it down against the concrete a couple of times. Cold and prickly light exploded underneath his eyelids with every hit, and the thick blood filled his throat, choking him before he managed to swallow it on reflex. He started to wheeze, trying to draw in more air, but to no avail since Sofia's weight effectively suppressed his lungs, the irrational fear of suffocating only adding to his panic.

"Feel corrected yet?" Sofia growled ferociously, accentuating every syllable with another thrash. "You don't just go and damage my property, IT. DOESN'T. WORK. THAT. WAY."

"Hey... maybe you should stop, I mean, he looks like he's gonna pop any second now," said Mosheh with a worried hint in his voice. "Didn't Crane say they might die if you give them too much?"

Sofia let go of Joker and turned around. "Mosheh, I swear," she hissed. "Why do you have to be such a cockblocker all the time? Alright, alright, let's say he's had enough. Let's call Wayne now, two hundred dollars say he'll be here in less than fifteen minutes."

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Bruce was lying in his bed. Some insistent force kept pulling his eyelids up, denying his sore eyes any reprieve. He had already spent three hours trying to calm himself down and at least reach a state of semi-conscious oblivion, since real sleep seemed to be too much of a luxury for someone like him. Usually after seeing Joker he would fall asleep the moment he came back home and threw himself on the bed, completely spent and devoured. Tonight was different. He kept reliving their meeting, remembering the feel of the firm body yielding as he took him in that alley.

The madman's words still sounded in his head. "By the time you wake up, everything's going to be just fine and dandy, darling..." he had said, laughing breathlessly, propping himself against the wall as he was trying to get a hold of his pants and pull them back on. After a few seconds, he had given up on standing, slumping down to his knees, still laughing. "Just fine and dandy..."

Bruce left him like this, the noise filling his head shutting out the meaning of it. Now it didn't want to let go of his thoughts. The sense of danger that stemmed from this promise sent cold shivers down his spine with every breath that he took. He knew something was about to happen.

A knock on the door cut into his pondering.

"What is it?" he asked, sitting up as Alfred entered the room.

"There's a phone call for you, master Wayne, from some young woman. She wouldn't give her name, but apparently, it's very urgent."

"I'll take it here."

"Very well, sir." Alfred gave his employer a quick glance. The old butler could tell something was horribly wrong, and whatever it was that gnawed at Bruce, it just kept getting worse. He had lost a lot of weight, dark circles around his eyes had become just another feature of his face, his hair longer than usual and messy since he hadn't had a cut in several months now. With every passing day Alfred was closer to bringing this up, but every time he looked into Bruce's eyes, something caused him to back away and remain silent. Maybe he didn't want to admit that more than anything, he was simply afraid. He felt that Bruce had changed in more ways than meet the eye.

As soon as the door shut behind the butler, Bruce picked up the phone and pressed it to his ear. "Yeah...?"

"Hey Wayne, listen here now, I have your boo down here, and he's kinda not well, I mean, I've sprayed him with fear toxin... I guess you went and ran to him crying after our little meeting, did you not? But to prove I'm actually on your side, I'm letting you know, so if you have some magical antidotal potion and wanna cure his distress, come to--Mosheh, where the fuck are we? ...oh yeah, off the thirty-fourth street--you know, that little dark alley where they found those two headless hookers a year ago-"

Bruce hung up and sprung from the bed. In less than a minute, he collected random clothes and rushed to the hatch leading to his base which also served as a garage. As soon as the elevator reached the right floor, he ran to a cabinet where he kept various drugs and chemicals, including the fear toxin antidote. He grabbed a small glass container filled with translucent liquid and a syringe gun, and sped to the garage. Adrenaline sharpened his senses, and he didn't have a moment of hesitation over picking his Agusta MV 4 bike as his transportation means for tonight.

The elevator taking him to the ground floor took forever, but finally Bruce felt the cold rush of air on his face when he found himself outside. He started the engine and set off at full speed into the city, his body working on impulse as his mind was held in a tight grip of panic he had never felt before.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

"Well, lookie here. You're so indebted, Yaguchi." Sofia snorted. She was sitting comfortably on the unconscious Joker and stitching up her arm, her mask and a small first aid kit lying on the ground beside her. "Eight minutes, Wayne. You've gone and outdone anything I might consider any kind of concern for a loved one."

Bruce didn't pay any attention to her taunting. He got off his bike and hurried to the man sprawled on the concrete. "Get off him," he hissed. A mockingly frightened expression graced Sofia's face as she obediently changed her position to standing and continued her stitching.

Bruce knelt next to Joker. He filled the syringe with the antidote, pointed the needle at the fold of his arm and pushed it in. His other hand wandered to his neck, checking the pulse. As soon as the antidote had dissolved in Joker's blood, his heartbeat steadied, slowly coming back to normal. Bruce sighed in relief. Finally, he took his eyes off the now relaxed, painted face, and looked at the grinning redhead.

"Now tell me Wayne, have we learned anything today?"

Bruce didn't respond. He felt his fists clench unwillingly and every muscle in his body tense up, ready to attack any second, but it didn't faze Sofia in the least.

"I mean, tell me, what the fuck did you expect? That I would actually let him kill all of my men, blow up my office and all in all treat me like a little snotty bitch? Honestly." She spread her arms in a theatrical gesture of disbelief and paced towards the Jaguar.

"Word of wisdom for you. Listen to what I say and there's profit in store. And by profit I mean not obtaining a new asshole. Think it through." She seated herself behind the wheel, giving him a condescending look. "I'm still calling you in the evening, you had better have some sort of apology prepared."

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Images flew through Bruce's head. The face of the girl who he was once certain meant the most to him. Her frightened voice. His own fear of losing her for good when he was speeding back to his cave, hoping it's not too late to give her the antidote and save her. Now, life in its irony forced him to relive all of this. Except now the person he had been desperate to save, the man he was now cradling in his arms, was the same man who had taken Rachel away from him. The same man who had killed her, ended her life with as much concern one would give to blowing off a candle.

And yet, he found his arms embracing him instead of pushing him away, a hand resting on his neck glad to feel the harmonious, calm pulse instead of urging to close and strangle him. Bruce opened his eyes. The chilly air brushing against his sweat-covered skin slowly swayed away the memories, and he finally decided to look down. He had never seen the madman so serene and helpless. Still unconscious, he instinctively nuzzled his face into the crook of Bruce's arm, as if drawn to the warmth. Bruce didn't know how long it had lasted before Joker slowly opened his eyes and looked around. He finally turned his head upwards, his dazed stare resting on the other man's face.

"Have I actually gone to heaven, darling?" He muttered, a sly smile creeping onto his face, fighting off the pain still visible in his eyes. "What happened...?"

"You were poisoned," Bruce answered. He couldn't help but remember saying these exact words to her so many years ago. Adrenaline still rushing through his veins didn't allow his memory to wander any further, instead he indulged himself to the overwhelming relief upon seeing Joker regain his consciousness and brass immediately. "I gave you an antidote, you should be alright now."

"Heheh... who would've thought you could play the part of a knight in a shining armor so well... without the armor..." Joker snaked his fingers around Bruce's forearm, smiling at the feel of the soft fabric of his jacket instead of the cold Kevlar plates he was so used to.

"What were you trying to do anyway?" Bruce still didn't feel like freeing himself from the other man's grip and getting up. He couldn't even find it in himself to give his voice a slightly colder tinge, feeling the adrenaline's effects slowly diminishing, leaving him relaxed and calm.

"What was I trying to do... Well, I just wanted to have a little talk with our mutual friend Sofia, maybe give her a piece of benevolent advice, but as you can see, she, uh... rebuked me." Joker aligned himself slightly to lie more comfortably against Bruce. "Besides, dear, I should smack you right now. I told you everything would be alright by the time you wake up... you didn't even go to sleep, hm? And, uh... you should've told me this Sofia person is more resourceful than your everyday mobster... I mean, fear toxin? Who does that?"

"Of all people, I've always found you to be the most resourceful."

"Well, you know how it is... We're all allowed to have our bad days, don't we?" The madman giggled quietly. "Maybe you could help me make it all better..."

"I saved your life, that's as good as it gets."

"Oh no, no, the saving part... That's banal, y'know? It's seeing your concern, that's what I like best about the near-death experiences."

Bruce cringed. A part of him that struggled to retain some kind of sovereignty didn't like the way Joker uttered the word concern. It was too late to fight it all off, though. "So you've seen it. Now what?"

"Well... You could take me home, at least."

"You actually have something you call a home?"

"Actually, yes I do. Just four blocks away. You could exert yourself this much."

Bruce stared into Joker's eyes for a few seconds, but he didn't find any traces of mischief or cunning. Despite the audacious tone, his face was still giving away signs of utter exhaustion and pain.

"Alright. I'll take you... home. Can you get up?" He slid his arms under Joker's and helped him to his feet. The clown turned around, cupping Bruce's face in his hands.

"My hero..." he drawled with a big grin. His make up was completely ruined with sweat and blood, making his face look even more grotesque than usual, but it didn't really matter to Bruce as he let him wrap his arms around his neck, press himself as close as possible and kiss him softly with a satisfied purr. Bruce sighed, feeling his skin begin to tingle. Fighting the urge to return the affectations, he broke the kiss.

"Let's go." He motioned towards the bike. "I forgot the helmet, so you're gonna have to try not to fall off. Hold on to me tight."

Joker gave out a low chuckle, taking a seat behind Bruce.

"Now you sound like an up-to-no-good greaser from a biker movie," he murmured, leaning in and twining his arms around the other man's chest. "Guess that makes me the sweet, innocent girl with blond, curly hair that's gonna fall for it..." He rested his head on Bruce's shoulder and closed his eyes with a deep sigh, his grip tightening as the engine started. They drove away down the seedy alley, leaving the crashed van behind.

Chapter Text

"It's here," Joker purred into Bruce's ear as they passed a particularly grim looking alley.

Bruce stopped the engine and looked around. The entire block consisted of really old tenements, visibly derelict and void of any signs of dwelling. Some time ago they had gained bad notoriety, being referred to as firetraps by the media since the wooden elements of their construction made them extremely susceptible to the attacks of some amateur pyromaniac, who, for the record, was never caught. The series of arsons had lasted for a couple of months until the whole area was deserted completely, and a few subsequent ghastly incidents managed to keep even the vagrants from venturing around. Considering it was the place Joker called home, it had now become clear in Bruce's head that the man standing behind all of it must have been the landlord himself, ensuring no one was fooling around on his turf.

Finally, Bruce parked the bike underneath the fire escape and got off. "Need any help?" he asked quietly. Joker stretched out his arms, trying to assess if any of his ribs were broken. He felt almost disappointed at the realization that despite everything he had gone through in the past hour, apart from a couple of bruises and a throbbing headache he was far from being incapacitated.

"You could lend me an arm, y'know."

Bruce held out his hand with a sigh, and Joker gladly took it in his own, dismounting the bike. Swaying exaggeratedly, he threw his arms around Bruce and slumped against him.

"Now you're gonna have to help me upstairs," he stated with a sly smile.

The taller man gave him a weary look. "You could walk on your own."

"Who said that I couldn't?" Joker grinned and started to pace towards a decrepit entrance door, his arm hooked around Bruce's neck as he dragged him along gently. He kicked the door open. "So, uh... wanna come in?"

Bruce lowered his gaze, the seemingly simple question puzzling him a lot more than it should. Although he had already regained his mettle, Joker still didn't give away any sign of being up to something malignant. He was just standing in the open door, looking at him with that weird glint of anticipation in his eyes.

"What for...?" Bruce asked, unable to stop his voice from faltering slightly. That tiny hint of uncertainty was all that the madman needed. He grabbed his hand and pulled him inside, starting to lead him up the creaky, wooden stairs, and Bruce couldn't find it in him to protest. He climbed the steps slowly, trying not to trip, breathing in the stale, musty air mingled with the smell of Joker's blood and sweat. The grip of the gloved fingers around his wrist tightened when they stopped in front of another decrepit door. Joker let go of him and started to frisk his own pockets, a metallic clink sounding in the dark eliciting a victorious purr out of him. After a few failed attempts, cursing the lack of proper lighting, he finally managed to insert the key into the lock and turn it.

"Do come in," he said and stepped inside. Almost tripping on various objects scattered on the floor, he made it to the desk, reached to a small lamp sitting on top of it and switched it on. Bruce closed the door behind himself and looked around. It was a simple single room apartment with a kitchen annex. At first sight, there wasn't anything extraordinary about it, at least not in a way one would expect from its tenant; no splatters of blood, no artistically arranged body parts, no barrels of decaying organic matter. It was far from being tidy, but still, it lacked that special touch of filth and macabre Joker would sport at all times. The night lamp, being the only source of light, revealed a medium sized bed located next to something that could pass for a nightstand. The bed wouldn't look suspicious in the least had it not been for make up smears all over the pillow, accompanied by stains of dried blood here and there.

Bruce's sight wandered to the right. A simple wooden chair and a big desk cluttered with newspaper cutouts, some rubbish, a few screwdrivers, and a turntable. The entire wall above it was plastered with pages of The Gotham Times, scribbled over or made into collages. Beneath the desk there were cardboard boxes filled with vinyls, magazines, filming equipment, an assorted collection of explosives and other knick-knacks.

Going further right, his eyes stopped at the kitchen annex. Again, nothing extraordinary apart from the fact that every appliance looked quite vintage, as if Joker had inherited this place from some elderly citizen. Also, the only things that weren't entirely covered in dust were the refrigerator’s handle, an espresso machine and a metal whistle kettle.

Bruce turned his head to the left. Wooden shelves filled with various trinkets, tools, books, more newspapers, balls of string, stacks of DVDs and VHS tapes. An old looking TV set sitting on a small table, topped with a VHS/DVD player. A dusty, worn out armchair and a clothing rack stuffed with outfits of bold colors and patterns. The floor was strewn with small piles of rags, glass bottles, cigarette butts and the like.

"Make yourself at home, dear. Sorry about the mess, I haven't been here in weeks." Joker smiled underneath his running makeup, taking off his gloves. "Take a seat wherever you like." He looked at the bed suggestively.

Bruce stood still for a few seconds. By now the adrenaline had completely left his blood system, and without the cold night air to keep him alert, his body slowly started to remind him of its exhausted state. Finally, he walked to the bed and sat down.

"I don't suppose I could offer you something... I mean, my supplies are running, uh, low, but still, if there's anything you can trouble me for, I'd be more than happy to, you know... cater to your needs."

Bruce looked at him, feeling a sudden surge of calmness sweep through his body. "I should be going now," he said, not making a move. Joker's bed must have been really old, the springs were almost sticking out of the mattress, and yet, he felt strangely comfortable.

"Don't tell me Alfred gave you a curfew." The madman shot him a slant look and climbed into his lap. He had noticed a long time ago that Bruce wasn't exactly the picture of health. Cheekbones much more prominent than in the old tabloid photos, dark circles around his eyes, hair hanging in messy strands, slight stubble covering his jaw--all of those details didn't escape his attention as he stroked Bruce's cheek tenderly.

"So uh, about that talk we had earlier tonight. If I recall correctly... you said you haven't slept properly in two years because of little ol' me? You poor thing."

A slight smirk was Bruce's only response. His head suddenly felt heavy. He couldn't even look up, staring at the intricate pattern of Joker's shirt through half closed eyelids. The warmth radiating from the madman was drawing him in, and slowly he started to feel his senses shut out when soft hands ghosted gently down his sides. The silence was ringing in his ears, laced only with the quiet sound of Joker's breathing as he leaned in closer, resting his greasepaint covered face in the crook of his shoulder, and wrapped his arms around him tightly.

"Wanna know what I think?" he whispered in Bruce's ear, smiling at the feel of the other man yielding to his touch. "As much as I enjoy seeing you all malleable like this... I do believe you could use some rest. So," he patted Bruce on the head and ran his fingers through the dark hair, pulling him even closer. "How about a little sleepover? Hm? I'll tend to your... condition."

Bruce closed his eyes. "I don't think there's much tending left for you to do," he muttered quietly.

"Now. Don't tell me you're gonna fall asleep on me like that."

Bruce smiled, feeling his awareness get further clouded with warmth. His body took over him completely, and he nuzzled his face into the madman's neck unknowingly.

"I guess this constitutes for a yes," Joker sighed and placed his hands on the other's shoulders, pushing him away gently. "You could at least lie down, y'know." He let go of Bruce and climbed on the bed, dragging him along. Before some tiny part of Bruce's consciousness had a chance to awake, Joker enveloped him in a tight embrace, adjusting their positions until they were both somewhat comfortable against the creaky mattress and the bloodied pillow. Bruce burrowed into him, at this point barely even realizing what he was doing. Lulled by the sound of Joker's heartbeat, he fell asleep in a matter of seconds.

Minutes were passing in complete silence and stillness, yet soon enough the madman found it impossible to give in to his own exhaustion, with the feeling of warm lips pressed to his neck and slow breath brushing against his skin. He closed his eyes and heaved a sigh, trying to will the insistent blood from running downwards. To have him so close, so defenseless, completely unarmored--it was almost unreal. He felt his fingers claw over Bruce's body on their own in an upsurge of emotions he wasn't able to define.

No, no, no, Brucey needs his beauty sleep.

Joker took another deep breath, but that tickling sensation just underneath his skin didn't want to go away. While he was trying to empty his mind and keep absolutely still, Bruce moved closer in his sleep, and Joker shut his eyes even tighter. He started to feel the familiar tingling in his stomach. After a couple of minutes of this distress, he sighed with resignation and began to count in his head. By the time he had reached five hundred, he realized his left arm had gone completely numb and prickly. Unfortunately, it was the arm he had slid under Bruce's head earlier, and trying to move it now would probably wake him up. Joker gritted his teeth. It was going to be a really long night.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Bruce sat up, covered in sweat. He looked around, his sight still slightly blurry; he barely recognized the cluttered room. Joker's home, he recalled after a few seconds. Joker himself was nowhere to be found, though.

He pressed his palms to his face, trying to force the remains of his nightmare away. It wasn't long before he finally felt the inevitable grip of reality tighten over his mind. He brushed away strands of hair from his sweat slicked forehead and looked around again, this time with more caution. The late-afternoon sun barely getting through the dirty windowpanes, combined with his dazed state, made the room look almost surreal. His eyes rested on the nightstand, a piece of paper lying on top of it drawing his attention. There was something written on it. He reached for it and tried to focus on the whimsical, red letters.

Gone shopping, will be back SO DON'T GO ANYWHERE OR [a few lines crossed out and scribbled over] Just don't go anywhere. Make yourself at home [smiley face]

xoxo
J.

Bruce sighed. Somehow, he didn't feel like opposing Joker's instructions. He was much too groggy for going anywhere. He reached up to his temples, feeling the blood pump under his fingertips. It had been a long time since he slept this long; his body must have forgotten how to deal with it.

His mouth was dry, and the thick layer of sweat felt almost heavy on his skin. Finally, the thought of water in any form prevailed over anything else. He freed himself of his jacket and approached the half open door leading to the bathroom. He turned on the light. It looked... almost normal. Quite vintage, just like the kitchen. A curtained bathtub, a sink, a toilet, a mirror cabinet, lime green tiles. A towel lying on the floor. Bruce went over to the sink, checking himself in the mirror. He winced at his reflection and decided to focus on the crusty smears of greasepaint instead. Driven by curiosity, he opened the cabinet, and his eyes met an abundance of make up supplies, but not solely of the clownish palette. Some high quality makeup base and foundation, some pressed powder and a small bottle of liquid latex caught his gaze for a few seconds before it wandered to a collection of straight razors arranged neatly on the lower shelf. Some bandages and butterfly stitches, iodine, a small plastic comb, a seemingly brand new toothbrush, and an almost full tube of toothpaste completed the picture. Most of those things were stained with make up and other substances Bruce didn't dare to analyze at the moment.

He found himself staring at the toothpaste longingly; the sour taste in his mouth after so many hours of sleep was indeed quite unpleasant. Finally, he reached for it and turned the faucet on, slightly surprised with the fact that the madman had running water in there. He squeezed some of the toothpaste into his mouth, bent over the sink, and mixed it with water, creating a makeshift mouthwash. He spewed the concoction out after a few seconds and put his face under the cold stream, quenching his thirst.

After a couple of seconds, Bruce closed the faucet and looked at the bathtub uncertainly. He pulled the curtain aside, assessing the situation. Again, nothing that might be considered overly deterring; just a bottle of shampoo and some shower gel standing on the edge of the tub. He didn't really know what he had expected, but obviously, not this. Joker certainly must have been absent in this place for a while. It looked too normal.

He glanced at the lonesome towel lying on the floor and picked it up hesitantly. It was slightly damp--apparently Joker had taken a shower before he left. Bruce cringed in disbelief, but upon closer inspection, he didn't find any further irregularities about the towel and assumed it was safe to use it. He looked at the bathtub again and sighed. Finally, he made the decision and took off his clothes, got in, closed the curtain, and turned on the water. It was a good decision. He closed his eyes, letting the hot stream wash away the stiffness lingering in his muscles. The dreary realm of his dream, still present in the back of his mind, slowly began to blur until it had vanished completely.

He got out after a couple of minutes and reached for the towel. It smelled of Joker. Not of his sweat, not of his blood, nor any other excretions. It was that subtle scent Bruce could sometimes feel when he would let him close enough.

Another one of the array of unsettling things about this place.

After drying off, he put his clothes back on and left the bathroom, eyeing the rest of the apartment. The wall plastered with newspaper pages caught his eye first, and he approached it, sliding his gaze down the numerous cutouts and scraps. He stopped at a yellowed picture of Batman. It had appeared in The Gotham Times many years ago, at the very beginning of his activity when the omnipresent lenses still didn't bother him too much. Bruce squinted a little. The caption read: Does this cape make me look fat? He hanged his head and let out a silent chuckle.

He spent a good while in front of the wall, smiling occasionally before his attention switched to the turntable sitting on the desk. Bruce raised his eyebrows and knelt down on the wooden floor, reaching to the box filled with vinyls. Slightly intrigued, he started to rummage through the ample collection. A lot of classics such as The Stooges or Dr Hook, a bunch of various singles such as Screamin' Jay Hawkins' I Put a Spell on You. Bruce remembered receiving that single on last year's Valentine's Day. It had come in the mail without any note or return address, but he knew all too well who had sent it.

The sound of the door unlocking barged into his memories, and his eyes automatically wandered to the left. He froze at the sight of the man entering the apartment. Black, rumpled suit, strands of curly blond hair sticking out from under an old fashioned hat, paisley patterned shirt. Gray suede shoes, black leather gloves. Two plastic bags filled with groceries of sort. And that face...

"Well, hello there," he greeted Bruce with a big, somewhat familiar grin, and kicked the door closed, placing the bags on the floor. "Oh, I see you've been rifling through my treasures, naughty, naughty," he drawled and approached the man still kneeling in front of the desk. Finally, he sat next to him, the grin not leaving his face. "Found anything you like?"

Bruce narrowed his eyes a little, trying to apply some imaginary makeup and scars to those features. "Is this what you use the latex for?" he asked, pointing to Joker's cheeks.

"Uh, yeah." The madman removed his hat, unveiling a little ponytail. "You sneaky devil, you looked everywhere, didn't ya?"

"No, not yet. Where were you?"

"Oh. Just shopping. Missed me?" Joker ruffled Bruce's hair playfully and got to his feet, pacing to the bags he had left at the door. "I didn't buy anything substantial, but there are some, uh... sandwiches and stuff... if you want." He threw one of the bags in Bruce's direction, taking the other one to the refrigerator. Bruce could hear the clinking of glass bottles coming from the kitchen as he checked the contents of the bag. Indeed. Some Starbucks sandwiches. Uncertain at first, he finally acknowledged the fact that he hadn't eaten anything in two days, and reached for one.

"So, uh, did you sleep well?" asked Joker, still struggling with the bottled fraction of his groceries.

"You could say so," Bruce answered with his mouth full.

"Come on, you gotta show me some more enthusiasm, or else I'm gonna keep you here until you're picture perfect again."

Finally, he emerged from the kitchen. Taking off his jacket and gloves, he walked up to Bruce. The dark haired man finished his sandwich and looked up, still finding himself in awe with the painstaking work Joker must have done with covering up the scars. He couldn't take his eyes off his face even as he knelt down next to him with an amused expression.

"Yeah... you still seem to be a little out of your element, dear." Joker pinched Bruce's cheek lightly. He reached inside his pocket for cigarettes and placed one in his mouth. "Wanna bum one?" Bruce lowered his gaze and shook his head.

"Aaah, virgin lungs? But I'm sure I could fix you a drink, hm?"

"What?"

"A drink, Bruce. A drink. Just--please don't tell me you're a teetotaler or something."

"I am."

"Why?"

"I just... I prefer to be sober."

"You haven't been exactly sober in the past few months, y'know." Joker scooted a little closer. "I'm not taking no for an answer, I didn't haul all of those liquids over here for nothing," he said quietly, his tongue darting out. Bruce just looked back at him, cocking his eyebrow. It seemed so unreal, to hear this familiar voice, to see all of those little ticks without the layer of greasepaint covering it up.

"Now, now, now, stop glaring, I know I make some serious GQ material when I'm like this. So, uh..." Joker drummed his fingers against Bruce's shoulder and furrowed his eyebrows as if thinking something over profoundly. "We'll start with this..." He rose to his feet and disappeared in the kitchen again.

For a moment, Bruce wondered if he was still dreaming. If all of this was real, it meant that he had spent the last night sleeping, cradled in the arms of the Gotham's most wanted felon, that he was at the moment sitting in his apartment being subject to his hospitality, and that he was about to be forced to have a drink with him--all of this while not a single part of his mind alarmed him that something was indeed not right. He blamed it all on his grogginess, but deep down the prospect of getting out of this place just like he was supposed to and going back to his stark clean penthouse filled him with dread. Somehow, he really didn't want to leave, almost enjoying the slight surreality of this situation. His still dazed senses only added to the effect, persuading him to give in and shut out the remains of his reason.

He seated himself more comfortably and rested his back against the side of the bed while Joker kept making a racket in the kitchen, the clinking of glass and his annoyed grunts coming out of it every few seconds. Finally, he appeared with a bottle of some expensive looking whisky and two glasses, and sashayed back to Bruce, the cigarette hanging from his mouth.

"On the rocks?" he asked and sat down.

"I'm not drinking, Joker," Bruce droned, but his voice didn't sound as self-assured as he had intended.

"Not on the rocks." The madman poured each of them a fair measure and reached up to the desk, pawing about its surface blindly until his hand rested upon a chipped, ceramic ashtray. He grabbed it and placed it on the floor in front of himself. "Yeah, I, uh, I know it's early, but..." He took Bruce's hand in his own and wrapped the man's fingers around the glass, his other hand tapping his wrist gently. "Here... Uh, I mean, don't you feel you could use a day off? See, if you just mope around all day, only to go out at night and get frustrated, then this is what happens." Joker made a wavy gesture with his hand, pointing at Bruce. "You should go out with friends more often, dear." He took a drag off his cigarette and grinned. The taller man remained silent, looking at him almost amusedly.

"Yeah, uh, I know... I know you would just love to make a frowny face and say that you don't have any friends, but you do, darling. You do." He patted Bruce's knee. "Just... c'mon, drink it up."

Bruce kept staring at him; he still couldn't get over the lack of make up and scars on his face. He suddenly realized that it was the best he had felt in months, even though his mind was still immersed in that peculiar dream-like state. It felt as if he was someone completely different, and a total stranger he had known all his life kept his company in a place whose contours slowly had begun to blur with the sun setting. He smirked. Joker wanted to drink with him. He almost hoped his drink was spiked with poison so he would be spared of his conscience nagging at him later, because he had already made the decision. Bruce raised the glass to his lips and took an ample sip.

Pleasant warmth started to spread over his body as soon as he had swallowed. He looked up at the madman, only to see a wide grin slide onto his face and his hazel eyes glint with approval.

"That's what I'm talking about," Joker said and chuckled softly. Bruce squinted, not sure if he really heard genuine joy in his voice or if he was just imagining things. He tilted his glass, almost emptying it and feeling the alcohol start to work its magic. The madman downed his own drink in one take, and his face scrunched in a sour grimace. Finally, he managed to open his eyes. "Come on, come on... bottoms up," he murmured. His fingers brushed against the back of the taller man's hand coaxingly while he poured himself another round.

"You seem pretty committed," Bruce said quietly.

"I'm fighting for a noble cause." Joker clinked his glass against Bruce's and watched him take another big sip. "It's not your first time, is it? You're drinking like a champion, dear."

Bruce felt the corners of his lips curl up a little, but he managed to prevent the smile in the nick of time. "I used to drink moonshine with the Bhutanese quite often before I went to prison." He looked up to gauge Joker's reaction, and this time he had to bite the insides of his cheeks, trying not laugh. He shot the bottle standing next to him a glance. 60%.

"What?" Joker tilted his head incredulously.

Bruce bit down harder. "Shall I reiterate?" he muttered.

"No... no, just... have some more, and..." Joker gave him a generous refill. "And, uh, keep talking, keep talking."

"That's not the thing to talk about, really."

"Oh? Did you, like, drop the soap in there or something?"

"They didn't exactly have soap in there..."

"No soap? So they took you au naturel, the filthy degenerates?"

"Well, they tried." Bruce sighed, fighting very desperately to remain deadpan. He took one more sip, watching the inside of his glass while Joker dissolved into laughter, and he thought that he must have been pretty much under influence already since he couldn't hear the trademark tinge of mockery in the madman's cackling. Or maybe he really was dreaming. It didn't matter anymore. Joker placed another cigarette in his mouth and lit it, still shaking and giggling.

"Oh, darling. Do tell, how did you deal with such inane courting?"

Bruce leaned his head back a little. He couldn't fight off the slight smirk anymore. "One day I was a little under the weather, and they jumped me... and to compensate for my earlier frigidness, they tried to force me to perform fellatio on each of them."

"Like... like in Shawshank Redemption?"

"Quite. Except, I did bite off a piece when they shoved it in my mouth." Bruce's gaze followed the lazy tendrils of smoke. "Then, I explained... I mean, I beat them up and explained they shouldn't come on to me anymore." Joker hid his face in his hands, laughing, the cigarette sticking out from between his fingers. "As soon as they could walk again, they tried to get back at me..." Bruce was wondering why he was telling him all of this. "But after I'd explained myself one more time, the guards put me in isolation. That was it." He closed his eyes, inhaling the acrid fumes. Surprisingly enough, it was a quite nice memory. The last episode of his pleasant nonexistence, when he could afford being undriven and indecisive, simply trying to get through another day. Then, he was shown the path. Given the drive. Forced to decide. Kicked back into existence. He sighed, and his eyelids lifted, just in time for another refill. Joker was still giggling softly.

"How did he..." He bent in half with a new wave of laughter, supporting his head against Bruce's knee. "...How did he look, the guy? When you took off with his goods?"

"I don't know, I wasn't looking him in the eyes. I give bad blow jobs."

Joker hyperventilated for a few more seconds before he managed to pull himself together just enough so he could stand up and advance to the bathroom. He left the door half open, and Bruce watched him unzip his pants and relieve himself, the sight redolent of something. Finally, he remembered and indulged himself to a soundless chuckle. Joker must have thought of the same thing since his laughter exploded with doubled force as he was shaking off the last droplets. He emerged from the bathroom, clawing at walls for purchase, turned on the night lamp since it had gotten quite dark already, and kneeled in front of the desk with a thud.

"I just had a flashback, dear--oh, I missed those." He murmured as he was going through his vinyl collection. "Remember? It was a dark and stormy night, and everything, and... one of our first encounters. I just couldn't... heheh. I mean, what happened? Too much coffee before you set out?"

Bruce clenched his eyes shut, this time the threat of bursting out laughing really grave. If he hadn't recalled the exact same vignette, he would have serious trouble following Joker's prattling, but he knew all to well what he was referring to. The madman placed some Stooges' record on the turntable and switched it on, shortly reclaiming his place next to him.

"I'm walking about the city, minding my own business, and what do I see all of a sudden?" He finished his drink and lay on the floor, using Bruce's thigh as a cushion. "You don't mind, do you--I mean, when I saw you then in your full regalia, pissing against a wall..." Another violent attack of laughing. "What were you thinking?"

"What were you thinking?" Bruce took another sip and looked inside the glass. It was empty again. "I wasn't thinking of anything in particular until you appeared with your dick in your hand and started pissing next to me."

"Heheheh, yeah, you seemed pretty startled, darling. What did I say to you then.?"

Bruce sighed. The pleasant buzzing in his head started to be too pleasant for his own good. "I think you expressed your interest in me being circumcised."

Joker adjusted himself a little, looking up at him with a smile. "Oh, you." He reached back and fumbled blindly, trying to find Bruce's hand. Finally, he got a hold of it and took the empty glass in his own. He refilled it, still lying down, and passed it back to him. "And you were too dumbstruck to do anything, huh?"

"Actually, you waved a detonator in my face as soon as I tried."

"Oh, yeah... and then, I just zipped up my pants and disappeared into the night, didn't I... Kinda anti-climatic, now that I think about it."

Minutes were passing, and Joker just kept running his mouth, bringing up equally amusing occurrences. Bruce caught himself listening. Just that, listening--not analyzing, not trying to dissect each sentence and unravel the madman's grand agenda. The music mingled with the words, and he just leaned back more comfortably, Joker's head still rested in his lap as he reminisced. He didn't mind. By now, he was almost completely sure he was dreaming--or maybe it was that everything else up to this point had been only a dream. He looked down as Joker moved, starting to pick at the latex covering his cheeks.

"It gets itchy after a while," he mumbled, peeling it off slowly and wincing a little at the stinging sensation. Finally, his scars were unveiled. Bruce squinted. Maybe he wasn't dreaming, after all. It was the Joker he had gotten drunk with, it was him who was using his thigh as a pillow while twittering about their past. Bruce thought about it thoroughly, spelling it out to himself, but somehow, he still didn't mind. He looked at his glass. Empty again.

"...Hey, you remember what I was singing when you caught me feeding his liver to the cats?"

"Circle of Life... From Lion King." Why did he remember such things?

Joker was still laughing while the music was getting more and more tangible. For a second, Bruce had a feeling that he had forgotten about something quite important, but the momentary lapse was quickly swayed away with another surge of the madman's jabbering, and he found himself going with its flow without remorse. His eyes fixed on his own hand.

He had been playing with Joker's suspender strap, snapping at it gently, and it wasn't until now that he realized it. Joker either didn't care or didn't notice. His eyes wandered to the man's face, and oddly enough, he felt a weird urge to reach out and touch his scars. No, it wasn't an urge, he was actually doing it. Joker went silent and looked up as soft fingertips ran down his cheek, the gesture more curious than sensual.

"Are those hard to shave?" Bruce asked, removing a stubborn piece of latex from one of the dimples. Yes, there he was; that was the man he had been brutally sodomizing for the past two years, but there wasn't a mention of those dark episodes in the man's reminiscing. There was some foreign tenderness in his eyes, instead.

"Not if you're as virtuosic with a razor as me," Joker purred. Soon enough, Bruce's fingers resumed their interest in his suspender. "So, are you keeping up...?" The madman righted himself and took a seating position, investigating the inside of Bruce's glass. He grabbed the bottle and started to pour another round, his arm hooking around the other's neck in a comradely gesture.

"I've had enough, I think," Bruce muttered, the image dancing and blurring in front of his eyes. Suddenly, it got very warm, and he started to feel some weird, but pleasant tingling underneath his skin as Joker leaned close against him. A hand rested on the one holding the glass, raising it to his mouth, patting its back, and he budged, imbibing the contents. A wet kiss followed on his cheek, and he went rigid. His heartbeat fastened, oddly enough.

"That's my boy," the madman cooed, his chin propped on Bruce's shoulder. He was laughing quietly, still without those sneering undertones. The fingers didn't let go of his wrist. Bruce sighed, fighting the sudden urge to turn his head in Joker's direction. "C'mere, let me look at you." Joker took care of it for him. "Oh, you're doing so well, dear. It's... it's just heartrending, y'know? I know what you're thinking. That you're just dreaming, hm?" And suddenly, it occurred to Bruce he didn't mind Joker staring into his eyes at such proximity. He didn't mind any of this, really. "I wish I could just keep you here. Put you back together..." Something awoke at the base of his spine with soft, scarred lips resting on his own, but they retreated too quickly. "I will put you back together. I'm just that kind of guy, I take care of my... belongings. I sew back missing buttons and everything."

Bruce could hear his own voice in the distance. "But they don't always match."

"Oh, you noticed?" The madman giggled. The lips returned, spreading warmth all over his body. He closed his eyes, allowing the moist tongue to coax his own lips apart and slide inside his mouth, moving languidly. "So, you're staying... right?" Bruce didn't bother with answering. Something inside of him started to melt. "You are, you are..." The tongue wandered to his neck, licking the skin in lazy strokes while the hands sneaked beneath his shirt, meandering over his body. The hot breath and the gentle touch made him shiver, and he wasn't sure if he really let out a silent moan, but he knew he wasn't about to go anywhere; he was staying.

Chapter Text

It didn't really feel like a dream. The image was blurry, but every few seconds it became so crisp, Bruce could tell every detail of the scarred face that was so close to him now; the puckers and dimples of the Glasgow smile and patches of stubble Joker must have overlooked in his razor virtuosity were brushing against his unarmored, vulnerable neck. The knowing hands wandered all over his body, spurring fiery tingles in every inch of his skin, and the arms tightened around him, whisking away the remains of hesitation. His head filled with the familiar white noise. There was only the feel of Joker's skin, the warmth of his lips, the way he moved--insistently and almost frantically, yet there was some sensual tenderness hidden underneath it all. Bruce found himself kissing him back. His fingers started to claw at his patterned shirt, trying to tug it out of his pinstriped pants and sneak beneath it.

Joker gasped when Bruce's nails grazed gently against his ribs. He kissed him with more viciousness, and something inside of him snapped at the realization the other's tongue wasn't the docile, submissive creature he was so very used to--it attacked him back while the hand moving underneath his shirt pulled him even closer. He broke the kiss and looked at Bruce, breathing heavily, but he couldn't keep away for too long; he didn't really know how he managed to take off the man's shirt, but he did it quickly enough, despite his hands trembling. His eyes slid down the tempting flesh; the rising chest and the pulsating veins were just luring his tongue, and he couldn't resist even if he wanted to. Bruce's arms wrapped around him demurely, and his fingers tangled in his curly hair as he sucked at the skin of his neck until it bloomed with red marks. Joker slid his hands under him and lifted him slightly, pushing him onto the bed. Bruce took the hint. Soon enough, he was lying on the dirty sheets with Joker crawling on top of him. He looked at the ceiling, but there was nothing except the drunken whirlwind, so he closed his eyes for a second. The madman was scattering kisses all over his face and neck, and his hands were moving aimlessly over his chest, smoothing down his sides without haste, slipping under him and caressing the small of his back. The teasing fingers flicked against the muscles of his lower stomach, causing an eruption of warmth at the back of his spine, and without thinking, Bruce spread his legs wider so Joker could settle between them and lean down, rubbing against him languidly.

Joker was still kissing and licking him all over, as if he couldn't sate himself, his hunger seemingly growing with each second. Bruce didn't know if it was the alcohol's doing, but it felt so good; compared to everything he had experienced in the past, it felt like it was the first time someone really wanted him--but it was the Joker, the very core of his nightmares, the marrow of his growing madness. Still, his arms were pulling the man closer, his lips were seeking for the warm and soft lips of someone who had been skinning his mind alive for the past two years, and it was all that he wanted, nothing else could weed out this urge, he wanted to be wanted by this man, to dissolve against him, to kill the voices of those he had killed, and to finally forget.

The tongue started to circle over his nipple, and Bruce sucked in breath as the velvet lips closed around it, the moist tip moving against it back and forth. His back arched a little, and Joker moved his hips slyly against the heat growing between his legs. A trail of wet, lingering kisses ascended up his chest and neck until they were face to face. Maybe it was a dream, after all; Joker couldn't have possibly had it in him to look at him like this, and Bruce's lips stretched in a smile--it was the best dream he had ever had, that much he could admit in this state. He would forget it later, probably. Right now, he was reaching up to cup the madman's face in his hands and kiss him one more time. Joker slid his arms under his back, embracing him--they were holding each other while kissing--it had to be a dream. Bruce's smile widened, and he felt two light pecks land on each corner of his lips before the tongue wandered down his neck, massaging the more sensitive spots while it kept going further and further down.

The fabric of Joker's shirt chafing against his skin finally became frustrating, and Bruce pushed the madman away gently, just enough so he could reach to the buttons and start undoing them, the effort evidently slowed down with his intoxication. Joker slapped his hands away playfully, slid off his suspenders and took care of the shirt in a second, ripping the buttons off. He leaned over Bruce, allowing his hands to ghost down his bared chest, his own hands petting the dark hair. His heartbeat quickened and he started to shiver because Bruce just couldn't stop touching him, as if unaware of what it did to the man, indulging himself to the feel of his skin. It almost surprised him how smooth and warm, how human Joker's body felt against his, but all of this most probably wasn't real. Bruce closed his eyes and licked the madman's neck when he lowered his head to place a kiss on his temple. He had always wanted to do it, and he knew it. He wanted to taste him, to be closer; he wanted what was beneath the layers of custom clothes and make up, and he had to deny himself of that every single time, trying to trick his mind into believing he was fucking merely a mirage of his own insanity, while his fingers would helplessly claw over the soft fabric of Joker's vest. Every single time. His arms closed tighter around the lean body. He kissed the spot between the man's collarbones, listening to him purr with pleasure when his tongue started to stroke his earlobe, and his teeth nipped gently at the delicate flesh.

Joker burrowed his face into the crook of his neck, almost giving in to his embrace, but this odd moment of compliance ended quickly with the lips starting their journey anew over Bruce's body. His tongue rolled over the hardened nipple while his hand slowly smoothed down the man's stomach until it reached the waistband of his jeans. After loitering for a few seconds, it slid further down between his thighs, rubbing lazily, but incessantly. Bruce's breath quickened, and he finally gave into a quiet moan. The deft tongue and the teeth brushing gently against the vulnerable nub of flesh sent a surge of tickling heat through his entire body with each stroke, and his neck arched back when the touch of the hand became firmer, its movements growing faster. He almost let out a disappointed cry when it stopped, resting at his hip, but the hot tongue began to descend down his chest, flicking over his ribs and leaving a trail of teasing tingles in its wake. Joker bit at his hipbone lightly while his fingers slid under his ass, tightening. The teeth grazed down the fly of his jeans. The vibrations and the madman's hot breath made his hips jerk involuntarily, and he realized he had no control over his reactions anymore. The fingers moved to his waistband and started to maneuver around it, but Joker's hands were shaking too badly to conduct this simple task.

"Uh... could you..." Joker purred and started to tug at the seams with his teeth. Bruce reached down, and after a few feverish, failed attempts, he finally managed to unzip his pants. Joker pulled them off his body immediately. "Now, that's teamwork..." he muttered under his breath and plunged down, lapping up the bead of precome from the tip of Bruce's cock and kissing it gently. Bruce let out a stifled groan, and his thighs shuddered in a spasm of pleasure. The moist tongue tickled the throbbing veins and slid back up, lingering a little in the tiny slit at the tip until he started to squirm, but it ended too quickly. Bruce sighed helplessly when the hot mouth let go of him. Joker crawled up to face him and kissed him on the cheek, cradling the back of his head in his hand. "Don't go anywhere," he whispered and climbed off him, disappearing for a few moments. Bruce started to feel cold the moment Joker broke the contact, but soon enough, the madman was leaning over him again, caressing his skin and nuzzling his neck. It didn't distract Bruce's attention from the small bottle Joker had brought with him and placed on the bed.

"What's this?" he asked amusedly, nodding towards it.

"Oh, this... you know, um... I really wouldn't want you to go through what I had to after our first time." Joker grinned deviously, but his eyes still didn't hold any threat. "Don't worry, dear... I'll be gentle," he murmured and his lips flicked against the slight smile that crept onto Bruce's face.

"You mean... you want to-"

"Shhh..." A firm kiss silenced him, and Bruce just gave the madman a questioning look. "Yeah, I... I want to." Another warm kiss left his lips tingling. Bruce just closed his eyes for a moment and nodded unknowingly. Joker reached for the bottle. He opened the cap, pouring the lotion on his hand profusely, and Bruce felt his pulse quicken when his gaze followed this hand sliding between his legs. His teeth gritted at the foreign, yet oddly pleasant sensation of the slippery fingers lingering for a while before one of them started to enter him slowly. The muscles of his stomach flexed involuntarily. It took him some time to get accustomed to this languid friction inside of him, but after a while, he started to like it, and when the second finger joined, stretching him and scissoring with the other one, curling upwards, rubbing his prostate--he couldn't help it, he started to writhe and moan quietly, and Joker didn't want to stop. He kept fingering him diligently while his other hand closed around his leaking cock.

Bruce twitched, and his hips bucked up on their own. The tingling spreading over his entire body slowly started to drive him mad. He looked at Joker, and he really didn't care what he might have thought of his pleading gaze, he needed him, close, as close as possible. Joker stopped his ministrations, unzipped his pants and spread some lube over his own cock, looking back at Bruce with a strangely affectionate smile. He crept in between his legs, his hands ghosting up the insides of his thighs, and leaned down, licking the taut muscles of his stomach. As the hot tongue meandered upwards, his hands slid under Bruce's hips and pulled them up a little. The man arched against him. The remains of will left his body, and he gave in completely, immersed in scorching anticipation. Finally, Joker started to enter him. Bruce's breath quickened even more, coming in ragged gasps. It burned, but he had never wanted anything more in his life. He wanted to feel Joker move inside of him, he wanted to come apart with his weight pressing into him--he wanted all of this for so long now, even if he barely ever acknowledged it.

He let out a groan of pleasure mixed with impatience when Joker started to slowly pull out. The madman prepared him well; it didn't really hurt too much, and the alcohol filling his veins helped him relax even more. A new surge of heat erupted in his lower stomach when Joker angled another languid thrust up a little, the throbbing, hard flesh moving against the right spot. The fingers tightened over his hips, and Bruce began to push back despite the burning. The tip of his cock rubbed against Joker's skin when he leaned in a little more before he started to pull out again, but he didn't make him wait too long for another burst of pleasure, moving his hips knowingly and aiming perfectly. Bruce couldn't help the soft whimpering leaving his mouth, and his back curved again on its own, his hips moving of their own accord. The smooth skin ghosted against his cock one more time, and his hips bucked up even harder.

He closed his eyes, and his lips curled back in a satisfied, lustful grin, because after a few minutes of this maddening preparation, Joker finally took the hint and quit being gentle. Bruce knew why it felt so good, and that's why the dormant but still sentient part of him really hoped it was a dream. Deep down, though, he started to realize all of this really was happening. The Joker was fucking him, pushing into him with such cruel ferocity, and he was just coming undone in front of him, unabashed, his entire body begging for more because he loved it, he loved the feel of Joker's nails digging into his skin and scratching down his ribs, clawing at his chest as if he wanted to rip it open and crawl inside him, his teeth and tongue teasing his nipples, his hands wandering further and further down--Bruce wasn't moaning anymore, he screamed when the fingers closed around his cock, smoothing it in one second, stroking hard in another, soft fingertips slicked with his precome massaging its tip, circling around it over and over again.

The agonizing pleasure was accumulating in his lower abdomen, and his senses started to shut out one by one. Bruce didn't know what he was doing anymore. His arms reached up, snaking around Joker's body, and he pulled him closer, his fingers curling over the hot skin. He clung to him, hiding his face in the crook of his neck and breathing in his smell, the screams slowly dying away, giving place to short, fervid gasps. His eyes rolled back. The heat just kept building up, spreading over him in rippling, paralyzing waves with each insistent thrust, with the teeth biting at his earlobe, with the fingers stroking harder and faster, with the firm flesh rubbing against him, melting and merging with his own, until something in him burst out without any warning. His whole body convulsed and thrashed against the bed, but Joker hadn't stopped yet, pushing into him, seeping the fever into each of his veins until he thought he was about to overflow. The sudden release snatched the scant remains of awareness out of his head. He went blind for a few seconds, and the only things keeping him conscious were Joker's teeth biting into his neck and his cock still moving deep inside him as he came.

His body slowly started to fall prey to the numbing comfort when he heard the delicious sound coming out of Joker's throat as he reached his own release. He sighed at the feel of the moist warmth filling him, and his arms slid down the madman's slippery skin, welcoming him when he just fell down like a lifeless lump, breathing heavily against his neck. Bruce burrowed his face into the blond curls and closed his eyes. Finally, Joker pulled out. His arms wrapped around the other man, but he still couldn't lift his head, and after a few seconds, Bruce felt the soft lips pressed against his skin stretch in a smile. The image was pulsating in accord with the stirred blood still rushing through his veins, blurring out and shifting. A wave of soft tingles ran through his body with each breath, and his mind still didn't want to switch gears and acknowledge what he had done. He chose to bask in his lapse a little longer. A scarred cheek brushed against his face, and soon enough, Joker was looking at him from behind half-closed eyelids. He was smiling. Bruce gave him a slight, sated smirk in return, even though this strangely tranquil gaze sent shivers down his spine. He thought he saw something else in his eyes, something that made his insides churn in a strangely pleasant way, but it couldn't be real. He was too drunk to see straight.

The madman rolled off him and landed on his back with a soft grunt, and after a few moments of lying motionless, he started to worm towards the pillow. His hand closed around Bruce's wrist, urging him to come join him, and it took the man a good while before he managed to muster enough strength to simply lift himself and crawl a little further. Finally, his head dropped against the make-up covered pillow, and he breathed in the bitter smell of greasepaint. His eyelids felt so heavy, but his gaze followed Joker's movements longingly. This time he couldn't force himself to be sickened with this urge to be close to him, and he felt almost grateful for getting himself intoxicated to such extent. He sighed when the warm body returned to him, slender arms throwing the slightly dirty sheets over both of them before they wrapped around him tightly, and he felt a soft kiss land on his forehead before he fell asleep.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Bruce woke up to the sound of running water, and it took him some effort to unglue his stubborn eyelids. He looked around, realizing he couldn't have slept for too long; it was dark outside, and he still felt very much under influence. Finally, the drunken grogginess subdued him, and he closed his eyes again. There wasn't much to see anyway; Joker was in the bathroom, taking a shower or God knows doing what. Bruce just remained as he was, his mind continuing on being pleasantly empty. Slowly, some purely physiological needs began to coyly draw his attention, and he acknowledged that he was thirsty, that he needed to go pretty bad, and that the air was so dense with the cigarette smoke it was almost tangible, making him dizzy in a particularly nauseating way. As soon as he had spelled it out to himself, Joker emerged from the bathroom, a little wet and wearing only some fancily patterned boxers, with a toothbrush sticking from his mouth. Bruce's eyelids lifted up slightly, and he watched the madman saunter to the window, humming some weird melody. He propped it open and disappeared in the bathroom again.

The fresh air seeping in seduced him strongly enough, and Bruce finally unclenched his eyes completely, blinking until he could see somewhat clearly. He lifted himself with a silent grunt and leaned to the side in a quest for his own boxers. They were lying on the floor, along with his jeans and shirt. He reached for them, being painfully aware of each of his muscles, and slowly pulled them on, deciding to remain oblivious to Joker's crusted semen remaining in and on his body. He didn't mind it, actually--what was important was the air. Bruce tottered in its direction and leaned his head out the window, breathing in voraciously. He felt better immediately. Something wet landed on his cheek, followed by something equally wet splashing against his forehead; it was raining. The cold droplets helped to sway away his nausea, and after a couple of minutes, he decided it was safe to retreat into the warmth of the room, just in time to witness Joker get out of the bathroom again.

"Darling!" the madman cooed, clasping his hands theatrically. Bruce cocked his eyebrow and looked at him with caution. Finally, he became clearly aware of the residue sticking to his skin, and of the weird, slightly burning sensation inside. It had really happened. He swallowed with difficulty.

"Did I wake you?" Joker tilted his head and grinned. "Sorry," he mouthed.

"No, I... I kinda have to go to the bathroom," Bruce muttered, and forwarded his hesitant steps in the desired direction. When he went past Joker, he received a friendly pat on the back. He stopped for a second. It had really happened. It doesn't get any worse than that, so what the hell.

"Do you have a, uh... A spare toothbrush?" he asked quietly without making eye contact.

"Toothbrush... Oh, sure. Plenty." Joker gave him a wide smile and pranced to the wooden shelves. Bruce squinted. As venomous as he was, Joker didn't really have a habit of being sarcastic in such a cliché way. "What color do you fancy, dear?" the madman asked, excavating a handful of brand new, unopened toothbrushes from underneath a pile of magazines and rubbish. Bruce gave him a suspicious look.

"Why do you have so many of them?"

"Uh..." Joker creased his eyebrows and looked up, mulling over the question. "Precautionary measures, I guess. So..." He walked up to Bruce. "Who's the lucky toothbrush?" he purred and held them out courteously. Bruce just rolled his eyes to the side at the lame quip, but he couldn't stop the faint smile from creeping onto his face. He grabbed one without looking and went straight to the bathroom. He could hear an exaggerated gasp and a high pitched "You smiled again...!", but he closed the door quickly before he gave in to a quiet chuckle.

He paced to the sink. The mirror didn't lift his morale too much, because he caught himself watching the scratch and bite marks with some kind of morbid appreciation. The skin of his neck was basically one big hickey, and he didn't mind that either. He was still drunk, sure, but he had sobered enough for the tedious disgust and shame to rear their ugly heads already. They were really long due. Bruce pouted slightly and lowered his gaze, pondering this anomaly. By this time he should have been eagerly wallowing in denial and angst, but he was still so calm--and it still was real. Finally, he shrugged and approached the toilet, the objective of relieving his bladder prevailing over anything else.

As soon as he was done, he got in the bathtub. The cool water didn't really help him regain his sobriety, but after soaking for a while, he felt much fresher nonetheless. He dried himself with the yet again damp towel picked from the floor, pulled on his boxers, walked back to the sink, brushed his teeth, and lapped up some water. Having performed all of those rituals, he couldn't lie to himself anymore. Despite the obvious hindrance of his cognitive abilities and the slight soreness here and there, he had never felt better in his whole life. He cocked his head pensively at his own reflection--still no disgust.

"C'mere, darling, get a load of this!" Joker called in a gravelly voice--it seemed the alcohol wasn't kind on him either. Bruce turned his head towards the door and slowly left the bathroom, his gaze automatically drawn to the TV set. He grimaced at the sight.

"Miss La Cosa Nostra has made the news." The madman lifted a glass to his mouth. He was drinking some brownish liquor on the rocks, evidently hailing the principle of fighting fire with fire. Bruce walked up to the bed and took a seat next to him. Sofia was a guest on Gotham Tonight, being interviewed by none other than Mike Engel himself, and the current topic was the recent assault at one of her restaurants.

"...I assure you, it wasn't some full blown mob argument. My business here is legitimate. It was a one sided expression of misplaced aggravation where I and my associates unfortunately played the roles of victims."

"It sounds as if you were aware of the identity of the assailants."

"I have my bets. I'm sure you do as well, Mike."

"Is it possible that the assault was conducted by the members of the Viti family?"

"Everything is possible."

Joker lit a cigarette and took a huge drag. "So, that's how she looks... no wonder she likes to prance around in a mask." Bruce gave him a quick glance and raised his eyebrows. Sofia was no beauty, sure, but she wasn't particularly appalling either; simply, smack in the middle of plain.

"What do you mean?"

"Just look at her, I mean... she looks... blank. Like Jeffrey Dahmer or something." Joker took another sip and cringed. "Never mind. Am I supposed to be affronted by what she's saying?"

Bruce scrutinized her for a couple more seconds. Her hair was pinned up neatly, and she was dressed quite elegantly, emitting a somewhat corporate aura. The jagged scars he remembered she had on her left cheek were covered up, and indeed, she did look blank. Even her speech seemed unnatural, compared to what he had heard in her office; the slight stammer and the weird, slurring accent were completely gone, but Engel didn't seem to notice that it was an elaborate act. On contrary. He seemed to be convinced with every answer she would come up with, dealing even with the most drilling questions. She knew what she was doing, and she retained the facade of legitimacy without any visible effort--so different than Sal Maroni and the likes of him.

"I don't know... Depending on how she chooses to play it out, you might have done her a big favor." Bruce turned his head and looked at Joker again. He was wearing the now buttonless shirt with its sleeves rolled up, and when he yawned, stretching out his arms, Bruce caught a glimpse of dark, purple bruises covering his ribs--this particular detail had eluded him earlier. "Did she do that?" He pointed at them.

"Uh... yeah. I think." Another drag off the cigarette. "I don't really remember. But, y'know... why can't we just kill her? I mean, seriously, even if we killed her, and one of her 'associates' would show that video to the whole white world, couldn't you just, I don't know... leave? You could fake your own death and leave the country just like that." Joker snapped his fingers and took another sip. "You could dwell in Europe and cultivate hops happily forever after."

Bruce's eyebrows furrowed at this sound advice. It was the most straightforward way to go about this whole situation, and, most probably, the most appropriate. Sans the killing, of course. He should just leave this city for good, but somehow, the perspective didn't spur any enthusiasm in him. Quite the opposite. He gave Joker a slant look.

"What would you do if I left? Take up knitting?"

Joker dissolved into hiccupping laughter, choking on his drink. He fanned his face with his hand and swallowed, his body still shaking with waves of giggling. "Oh, don't tell me you think I would just stay behind...? No, no... I would follow you everywhere. I mean, you could spend the rest of your life on some God forbidden island, separating baby chicks by gender for all I care, I'm still going to be there making it hard for you."

Bruce kept looking at him, fighting with all his might not to crack a smile. "I wish I could say that's a relief," he muttered. Joker still had this ridiculously affectionate grin on his face, and Bruce started to reevaluate each premise indicating all of this was indeed real. Or maybe it was just the lack of make up that made the madman appear like this; whatever it was, something about him was so enticing right now, Bruce just couldn't quite process it. It didn't even feel like the usual sickly temptation. It seemed just normal, natural.

"So just say it." Joker chirped and tilted his head. Bruce squinted amusedly and finally allowed himself a soundless chuckle. Joker was next to him in a second, cupping his face in his hands and squeezing his cheeks together. "You did it again...!"

"What...?" Bruce groaned unhappily.

"You smiled again."

"I'm sorry."

The madman grinned and placed a light kiss on Bruce's lips, still kneading his face. Finally, without any warning, he leaned against him and simply hugged him. Bruce sucked in breath and went completely rigid. This was wrong on so many levels, he didn't even know where to start, but Joker just seemed to dabble happily in this absurdity without giving it a second thought. And he dragged him along. Bruce relaxed a little; he had noticed a long time ago that Joker's proximity had a calming, even lulling effect on him, and now was the perfect moment to finally admit it. It doesn't get any worse. Not now, at least.

"You know what, dear... That Italian wench won't weed us out unless we let her. So, don't worry, don't worry," Joker murmured in his ear, and Bruce slowly started to give in to the warmth. "Wanna go back to sleep?"

"I've got two years to make up for, so I guess..."

The madman turned off the television and pulled Bruce’s arm gently as he lay down. "C'mere," he said quietly, and Bruce once again felt grateful for getting himself this drunk. Joker wrapped himself around him, and he tucked his head against his neck since there really was no other place he could put it. He still didn’t mind, though, and he almost enjoyed the absence of disgust that would normally start romping in his stomach by now. Maybe it was just his body's way of yearning for sleep. Whatever it was, it worked, and he slipped into unconsciousness within a few minutes.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Weirdest dream ever: some insolent, cold fingers were tightening over his forearm and shaking it for some obscure reason. Joker grunted scoldingly. The fingers didn't vanish like they were supposed to, and their grip became stronger as the shaking grew more insistent. The madman lifted one of his eyelids. Blur, blur, blur, redhead, blur, blah. His eyelid gave up. The fingers grabbed his hair and pulled his head up, and his eyelid lifted up one more time, deciding to give it another go. Blur, blur, more redhead. Pfft... Finally, the tiresome redheaded thing budged, and he began to fall back into the warm oblivion, but a sudden splash of cold water against his face terminated his bliss mercilessly. He opened his eyes, shocked, burning indignation lighting his gaze as he fixed it upon the thing.

"What-" he started, but another splash silenced him efficiently. Sofia reached over him while he was trying to get rid of the unsolicited liquid from his eyes and nostrils, and pinched Bruce who was still sleeping soundly. He wasn't especially thrilled with the prospect of waking up either, so it took her a few more pinches and pokes before he finally fluttered his eyelids and looked up. By this time, Joker had already dealt with the water and was staring daggers in the direction of the girl, evidently displeased and a little dazed at that.

"What-" Bruce started, but the remainder of his utterance was muffled with a cold hand pressed against his mouth.

"I ask the questions first," said Sofia. She let go of Bruce's face, taking a step back and sizing both of them up. "What the fuck are you friends of Dorothy doing at this date and hour? Weren't you supposed to be somewhere yesterday, Wayne?"

"What the fuck are you doing here...?" Bruce groaned quietly. "How did you even get in here...?"

"Fire escape. I was just driving around and noticed your bike, parked ever so conveniently under it, and the window was open, so, you know, you were just asking for it."

Bruce scrunched his face and pressed his palm to his forehead. He gave Joker a glance; if he felt as miserable as he looked, then they were joined in their ailing. The hangover really went over the top; his veins were almost crying out loud, his pulse was resonating in his aching head, and he was so thirsty. His eyes slid back to Sofia, the weak stare hopelessly trying to render her presence null. Unfortunately, she was as real as the fact that he was lying in bed with the Joker. And he thought it doesn't get any worse...

"Since you're holding my cup in your paw, which you've taken without permission, go fetch me some water, wench," Joker droned, rubbing his eyes. Surprisingly enough, Sofia turned around and forwarded her steps to the kitchen.

"You want some too, Wayne?" she asked.

"What do you think, of course he does," Joker hissed and looked at Bruce. The man looked back at him, slightly disoriented with Sofia's obedience, but Joker just shrugged, equally confused. She came back in a few moments, holding two ceramic cups filled with tap water. The madman squinted; she didn't look quite so blank anymore. Her long hair was hanging in ragged, frizzy strands, the scars weren't covered up and she was wearing the same jacket he had remembered from their last encounter--the one embroidered with a skeleton design. The corporate aura was gone, and without it she appeared kind of eerie, in the worst possible way.

"You look nice today. Thank you," said Joker weakly as he received the cup. He inhaled the contents in two gulps and handed it back to her. "Refill, please." Sofia just snarled at him, but she took the cup anyway. The madman turned his face in Bruce's direction, cocking his eyebrows and smirking mischievously, but Bruce couldn't find it in him to prevent the malevolent plan that was undoubtedly hatching in his mind. He just stared at him as he reached beneath the pillow and pulled out a knife, and it didn't faze him as much as it should. He took another sip of water and cringed a little; that was the most condemning reaction Joker was going to get from him.

Sofia reappeared in their sight range. She handed Joker his water and observed as he tilted the cup to his mouth, gobbling up the soothing liquid. His other hand was hidden beneath the sheets, and it wasn't until he finished drinking that it finally darted in the girl’s direction. Bruce watched without too much enthusiasm, but he was indeed impressed with Joker's ability to spring up in such style despite his state. The madman pushed Sofia against the wall, sticking the blade in her mouth, but, unfortunately, it was the end of his mettle. Soon enough, he was pressing the knife to his forehead, wincing and writhing in pain, swaying on his legs a little.

"Uhh... where was I," he coughed, and placed the knife back in the girl's mouth. "So, uh... Actually, it's quite nice of you for having dropped in and everything, and I really don't want to appear hostile, but..." Another violent attack of coughing. "As I was saying, I..." Joker swallowed and cleared his throat, rolling his eyes and trying to get back on his train of thought. "What I'm trying to say, is that I think I, um... Darling? Are we killing her...? Because I don't remember if we decided on anything..."

"We're not killing her," Bruce grunted, clenching his eyes shut and rubbing his temples.

"That's the spirit, Wayne," said Sofia. Joker looked at her with disbelief; his hand had slipped a little, and the blade went into the corner of her mouth as she spoke, but she didn't seem to notice until the madman cleared his throat again, pointing at the cut.

"Hm...? Oh. Goddammit." She pushed Joker's hand away and reached up, wiping the trickling blood off her chin. "You have a tissue or something, maybe?"

"Toilet paper. In the bathroom." Joker pointed in its direction. He squinted and tilted his head as she disappeared inside. The cut was deep enough to hurt pretty badly, yet it seemed as if she hadn't even felt the knife. He blinked repeatedly, remembering how he had lacerated her arm the last time--she hadn't seemed to be moved by that either. His gaze fixed on Bruce who was still sitting on the bed, but the man just shook his head at him, a grave reprimand filling his eyes.

"What...?" asked Joker, but he didn't get to finish. Sofia emerged with a wad of bloody toilet paper pressed to her mouth.

"Okay, Wayne, as you can see, I haven't got the time. I'm gonna have to get that stitched up. What's your answer?"

"Can't you see it's not the best moment to discuss such things?" Bruce sighed and rubbed his temples some more.

"That's your problem, son. You were supposed to be in my office last night, but you chose to throw a little bacchanalia with your special friend. I tried to call you at home, and even your butler didn't know where you were."

"Oh, shit. Alfred..." Bruce finally rose from the bed and approached his jacket lying on the floor. He reached inside the pocket for his cell phone. The battery was dead.

"You're so grounded," Joker said gravelly, wiping the blood off his knife with the hem of his shirt. Bruce grimaced at him in response before his eyes locked with Sofia's.

"As you can see, I haven't got the time either. I need to... get home, somehow."

"Slippery move, Wayne. Not good enough, though. But yeah, since I take it you've already agreed, I can give you a lift if you want."

"I haven't agreed."

"Not in writing, yet. So, what's it gonna be? You're too blissful to drive your bike, you know."

Bruce stared at Joker as if expecting an answer from him. The madman just grinned. "Oh, you can take him home, alright. But only if I can tag along,"

Sofia creased her eyebrows. "Yeah... sure... But--I ain't letting you two anywhere near my car unless you stop looking like a couple of ass fondling hobos."

Joker rolled his eyes and started to pace towards the bathroom. "Tricky, but we'll manage. You want something to cover up the hickeys, dear?" he asked Bruce. The man just looked at him wearily and nodded after a couple of seconds, wondering if this day could get any worse, or if it had already reached the ultimate limit.

Chapter Text

There were times when he would often fracture Joker's bones, beat him until he blacked out, and wait until he came around, just to pin him to the ground, fully aware of how all the sharp edges of his armor were grinding into his already maltreated flesh, and fuck him raw until he bled. Then, there were times when he would only use the amount of force necessary to keep up the facade of punishment--that's how he had referred to it in the beginning. Joker was asking for it, of course, so he gave it to him tenfold. The clown would laugh, he would moan and scream like he enjoyed every minute of it, and Bruce couldn't count how many times he had made him come, simply ravaging his body. Still, it was punishment, and he knew he was doing a much better job than they would ever do at Arkham. At first, he would look for excuses. For example, ever since they had started, Joker's criminal endeavors had decreased significantly; in a way, it was public service. Had he turned him in, though, he would have surely escaped again with renewed ingenuity in the field of spreading terror.

It had lasted for two or three months. Then, there were times when Bruce would sometimes make a mistake of looking into Joker's eyes after they were done, instead of pulling away immediately and disappearing into the night, forcing the realization of what he had really done out of his mind. And he would drown in self disgust. About that time, he had acknowledged his sleeping problem. It had already taken its toll, and the memories from that period were merely a mélange of white noise, pain, the taste of blood and nausea.

One night, when he was done and Joker was still able to move, he didn't leave at once. He waited a few seconds too long--the madman managed to stand up and approach him. He placed his hands on both sides of his cowl and started to pull it off his head, but Batman pushed him away just in time. This he had remembered with outstanding clarity: Joker just smacked his lips and walked back to him, his legs shaking a little bit. And he said something along the lines of "Now, don't be silly, Bruce".

Bruce simply froze. Joker unveiled his face without meeting any resistance and simply looked at him with that strange reverence mixed with amusement in his eyes. He kept looking for quite a while, and Bruce just stood still. The first thought that came to his mind was that he had probably reached the end. There was nothing left for him to do than to turn himself in or die. But Joker pressed himself close to his armor and kissed him. And it didn't feel like a joke. He pushed him away again, but only a few inches; the madman was still close enough to start wiping the red greasepaint off Bruce's lips with his own necktie, smiling apologetically. Bruce just yanked his cowl out of the gloved hand and put it back on. Then, he just ran away.

Back in his base, he had to not only remove Joker's semen from his armor, now he also had to get rid of the red and white smears from his face. They were very stubborn, and he caught himself wondering what the clown uses to remove his make up, if he ever removes it at all. Soon enough, Bruce found himself facing the greasepaint problem every time.

There was also the night when he made another mistake and spoke to Joker. They were already through, and the madman was lying flat on his back, smiling at him. Finally, he propped himself on his elbows. Bruce just watched the puddle of blood forming between his legs before he managed to reach down and pull his dusty, purple pants back on. He asked him why he always came back for more, even though he knew what he was going to get. Joker went completely silent for a couple of moments, his breath coming in short rasps. Then, he burst out laughing.

"I just... as long as you want to give something to me... no matter what... I will take anything. As long as it's from you, darling..."

Everything went downhill from that point, blurring and twisting along the way, until it had reached him right here, in Joker's den, hungover and miserable, yet still dubiously calm. He wasn't disturbed with the quiet presence of Sofia. He wasn't too remorseful about having spent the last twenty four hours with Joker. Bruce didn't know if it was detachment that held him in its grip, or if he had just gone mad already; either way, he was still immersed in that protective numbness, and it still felt good. Finally, a sound of the bathroom door opening and an unhappy grunt broke into his memories.

"I tore the buttons off that shirt last night, didn't I... Shame, shame, shame..." Joker mumbled to himself as he approached the clothing rack and began to browse through his garments. He was wearing only some gray, pinstriped pants and black, dotted socks, and the morning sun shining in through the open window exposed every scar on his upper body. Bruce's gaze slid down Joker's back; he could remember being the source of too many of those scars. He hanged his head, concentrating on the particles of dust floating in the light.

Joker started to hum some cheerful melody. He had finally found a shirt he considered appropriate for the occasion. He buttoned it down, put on his shoes and suspenders. "Let's take care of those pesky hickeys, shall we, darling?" The madman grinned as he pulled a green, elastic band off his wrist and tied his hair into a small ponytail. He reached inside his pockets, taking out some make up supplies, and seated himself on the bed next to Bruce. He assessed the damage. "Ouch. Did I do this to you...?" he murmured and opened a bottle of foundation.

The dust was floating lazily, and Joker's warm hands felt good, even though he wasn't doing anything sensual. Bruce looked up to see his face. His scars were now visible in their entirety, but somehow, it wasn't the deformity that drew his gaze at first, it was the few pale freckles that covered his rounded nose. Then, he noticed a couple of small, jagged scars on his left cheekbone. Also his doing. The remnants of the night he had almost killed him.

"There. Like a virgin, prim and proper." Joker smiled with his lower lip tucked in as he applied the finishing touches.

"Ready?" Sofia began to shuffle her feet impatiently.

"I still need to powder up my own nose, y'know." Joker grinned and cupped Bruce's face in his hands, sizing up his work with pride.

"Just... just leave it, I have darkened windows. Come on, I wanna stitch this shit up already." She threw the blood-soaked ball of toilet paper, and it dropped to the floor with a sickly, splattering sound. Joker rolled his eyes at such display of crudeness. Finally, he rose from the bed, pulling Bruce up by his hand. He picked up his black jacket from the chair and paced to the door, and Sofia clapped her hands in approval, watching the madman maneuver around the lock.

Bruce inhaled the musty air as they left the apartment. Joker finally let go of his hand to close the door properly, but as soon as he was done, his fingers snaked around his elbow. Sofia went down the stairs first; the clinking of the buckles of her cowboy boots and the creaking of wood echoed across the staircase. After a few seconds, both men caught up with her, and they went outside into the sun in complete silence. Bruce squinted, not ready for such an abundance of light reflected straight into his eyes off large puddles. He recalled that it had rained at night.

He looked at Joker who was still clinging to him, and he noticed a few more things, for example, how his hair looked clean and soft, without a trace of green. He must have stopped dying it a long time ago, but Bruce couldn't tell since he would always meet him in the dark. Actually, it was the first time he had ever seen him like this in broad daylight, and something about this fact made his guts wrench a little. Joker's touch was firm and warm, every feature of his face was clearly visible, the texture of his skin exposed, the dark circles around his slightly bloodshot eyes; he looked so human...

Joker figured out Bruce was staring at him, and he tilted his head to meet his gaze. "I know I don't look very dapper this morning, but c'mon... you're in need of some facial yourself, so gimme a break." Bruce raised his eyebrows and smirked slightly.

"Get in the car, poofs." Sofia opened the door and sat behind the wheel.

"I'm gonna have to take care of that damn fire escape..." muttered Joker, eyeing the wrongfully deployed ladder before he got in and took his place in the backseat next to Bruce.

"Now... give me five minutes here." Sofia reached beneath the passenger seat and pulled out a first aid kit. She fumbled inside of it for a moment until she found some suturing equipment and a bottle of disinfectant. She angled the rear view mirror to have a better look at her split mouth and started to fix it. The cut wasn't too big, it only took two stitches. She spat on a tissue and wiped the dried blood off her chin, and then, applied some adhesive band-aid over the whole thing.

"Done. Oh wait, one more thing." She opened the glove box, grabbed a black sharpie marker and wrote DON'T LAUGH on her left hand.

"Yeah. This can no longer go unnoticed." Joker furrowed his eyebrows. "Are you so stalwart you eat pain for breakfast, or do you just... uh..."

"Just what?" Sofia turned around and gave him a suspicious look, but the madman rolled his eyes up as if searching for the right expression. In the end, he just shrugged and pouted at her. "It's called congenital insensitivity to pain, and I have it," she said and faced the steering wheel. Joker seemed somewhat offended with that explanation, but he remained silent.

"Now." Sofia started the engine. "Where to? The penthouse, the mansion?"

"Penthouse," said Bruce quietly.

"Do you ever intend to move back to your mansion, anyway? You're done rebuilding it, aren't you?" She put a cigarette in her mouth and pushed the gas pedal.

"Can't see why it should concern you. Besides, I don't think you should smoke when you have an open wound in your mouth."

"Can't see why it should concern you. Besides, if I were doing anything wrong, baby Jesus would've smitten me already. Now, fasten your fucking seatbelts."

Joker leaned against Bruce and wrapped his arms around him, tucking his head in the crook of the man's shoulder. "I will be his seatbelt," he singsonged.

Sofia turned her head for a second, an expression of disbelief gracing her face. "Does he get any lamer than this?" she muttered with the cigarette hanging from the undamaged corner of her lips.

"Very rarely." Bruce sighed. He rested his head against Joker's, and it took him a while to realize what he was doing, but he just shrugged it off. He felt comfortable like this, and he was too hungover to oppose his body's struggle for any kind of comfort. Sofia rolled down the window, letting fresh air mingle with the thick smell of the inside of her car which consisted mainly of metal, gasoline, leather, and tobacco. She didn't have any air conditioning installed in it, let alone any kind of air freshener, so Bruce welcomed the gust of wind on his skin with appreciation.

"So, listen. You go ahead and explain yourself to your butler, get more rest and whatnot, I have no problem with that. Yet. But, at nine p.m., I'll be seeing you at Cheetah--you know, that old fashioned go-go club downtown that Maroni owned... Now I own it. And this is your last cue, you fail to appear tonight, and you know what happens. We don't have any more time if we want to carry it out with dignity."

Bruce didn't respond, distracted with a sudden wave of giggling that shook Joker's body. It stopped as abruptly as it started, left with no explanation.

"So how about it?" she asked.

"Fine, fine." Bruce tilted his head to lie more comfortably against Joker's and closed his eyes, trying to enjoy the moment while it lasted, and also, while his little, questioning, internal voices kept lying dormant. Joker began to caress his neck lazily with his fingertips, making him even more relaxed and sleepy, but the sound of the engine kept him somewhat alert. The ride lasted for a couple more minutes and neither of them was happy when Sofia finally pulled over.

"Okay, we're here. Right? It's here, right?"

"Yeah, it's here." Bruce reached to the handle hesitantly and opened the door, but Joker grabbed his arm.

"Hey. Won't you kiss me goodbye?"

Bruce looked at him, slightly perplexed, and gave Sofia a quick glance, but she didn't seem to be interested in the least in what they were doing, so he locked his eyes back with Joker's. Once again, he felt something coiling in his stomach at the sight of this face. It felt almost like fear, but wasn't really unpleasant. Bruce decided to ignore it. He leaned onward and kissed him, cradling the back of his head in his palm; it surprised him how easily it came, how natural it felt. Joker let out a satisfied purr and smiled before he pushed back, sucking on Bruce's lower lip.

"Jesus, stop it," Sofia gnarled, throwing the cigarette butt out the window.

"Shh..." Joker wagged his hand at the girl and pounced Bruce for one last hug, pressing himself close.

"You took a gun with you?" Bruce whispered in his ear at the feel of something hard beneath his jacket.

"Mm-hm."

"You know what... don't... don't hurt her, okay?

"Oh, come on-"

Bruce quenched the wave of protests with another kiss. "Just don't," he said quietly as he pulled away. Sofia turned around, seemingly annoyed.

"Go away, Wayne. Tell your butler to make you something nutritious because you look like shit. And see you in the evening. Good day."

"Now, don't say that..." Joker pursed his lips. "It's inconsiderate. Y'know, if he looks like shit, then you look like a very vexed lower intestine, but do you see us making fun of you for it? No."

Sofia glared at him with a lopsided snarl, but she didn't say a word. Bruce chuckled and shook his head. He opened the door again and got out, looking at Joker one more time with a slight smile before he walked away to the entrance. Joker didn't close the door until the man disappeared in the building. He gave out a dreamy sigh and stretched out his arms, ignoring Sofia staring at him with wry amusement.

"Did you see it? He smiled at me...!" A blissful expression brightened his face as he lay down, taking up the whole backseat.

Sofia flailed her hands. "Like, omigod, he totally did...!" Joker shot her a reproachful glare. "So, you expect me to take you home now, or what?" she asked.

"No, no, no, no, we're going to Wendy's and you're gonna buy me breakfast."

"Okay."

The madman sat up and gave her a suspicious look, but she started the engine unfazed. They drove for a few minutes in complete silence until he decided to speak up. "How come you're so accommodating all of a sudden?"

"Hm? I'm always accommodating, what are we talking about here?"

"Oh, you're mollycoddling us. First, the blackmailing, then you spray some festive substance in my face and beat me up, then you're breaking and entering just to give us some water, then you give Bruce a ride home, and now... I mean, I'm overwhelmed."

"Right now it's in my interest to make sure Wayne is in the right state, so I guess it's just business, and if you feel overwhelmed, I can always cut off your thumbs for the sake of balance."

"Yeah, so, uh, listen..." He pulled out his gun and placed the muzzle to her head without eliciting any reaction. "I've noticed how you like to act like you're not opposed to the concept of... violence. But... there are ways of making the experience unpleasant. Even if it doesn't quite hurt you."

"...Really."

"Look. All I'm saying is that if you want to use Bruce for your silly endeavors, you'd better give him something in return. I can tell, you see, he's seriously considering to play along, at least for a while. I do believe he needs something to help him take his mind off a couple of things and put other things in perspective, that kind of stuff."

"Do continue."

"Just some friendly advice. Make sure he gets some fun out of it. He needs that, and I can't really give it to him at this point, because, uh... yeah. And if you fail, I will kill you, and he will take care of your legacy, just as soon as he gets better. And he's already gotten fairly better."

"I've managed to notice this much, you should've seen him when I showed him that video," Sofia pressed her hand to her mouth to muffle a sudden eruption of laughter. "But to what do I owe such friendly advice?"

"Well, hindsight is twenty-twenty, and now I see your presence has been beneficial so far."

"...To you? In what way...?"

"That doesn't concern you."

Sofia shot him a look in the mirror. "Think you're too cool for seatbelts, don't you? If that gun you're pointing to my head went off accidentally, you'd do yourself in just like Dent did Maroni."

"How do you know about that?" he asked, putting the gun back in his pocket.

"I might've spent the last seven years abroad, but this is still my city. I know everything I should know."

"You might want to rephrase that; it's not your city, silly."

"It's as much mine as it is yours or Wayne's. Guess it belongs to everybody that cares. Now, there's Wendy's..." she muttered as they approached the drive-thru speaker. "What's your order, son?"

"Kid's Meal. Cheeseburger, fries and root beer."

Sofia giggled maliciously and repeated the order to the speaker.

"Can't see what's so funny about it. It's fairly mundane," he droned, lying down on the backseat as they drove through.

"Keep your shoes off my upholstery, or you'll be digesting your kid's meal backwards."

"Now. Don't be so strict." Joker took his feet off the seat obediently as they arrived at the window. Something struck him as he listened to Sofia talk to the employee. He sat up and leaned onward to take a look at him. "Hey there, Schiff." He waved his hand at the man in the window, causing him to twitch nervously.

"M... Mister Jo-"

"Ahtatata, we're not using the J word here, chum. So. You went and got yourself a spiffy job, I see."

"Well, um... yes... um, it's a part of the p-program, um, th-the social workers, they... they got me this j-job and s-so I work here n-now..."

"Oh, that's nice. So, how's your mother?" asked Joker, but Schiff just gulped and twitched even harder. "Look at him, he used to be such a strapping, young lad when he worked for me, and now..." The madman clicked his tongue with disapproval. "What a waste... Now, gimme my order, you ingrate."

"O-of course... on the house." Schiff made an attempt at smiling, but what appeared on his sweat slicked face resembled more of a painful cringe. He passed the box and disappeared promptly. Sofia snorted and drove away, eyeing Joker maneuver around his meal.

"What toy did you get?"

"Oh, a splendid one. Jigsaw puzzle."

"Jigsaw puzzle... words cannot express the splendidness."

"You're just jealous," he retorted with his mouth full.

"Yeah. So, where to now?"

"What time is it?"

"11:30."

"And you told Bruce to come at nine? What am I supposed to do for all these hours...?"

"So, you want to be present when he's present?"

"Well, sorry if I led you to think otherwise. So, uh... I don't know. Think of something to keep me entertained for a while."

"Why can't you think of something yourself?"

"Because after last night, I'm in no condition for thinking. Besides, I'm kinda shifty and anxious when he's out there somewhere and not here with me, and you can think of it as a comradely warning."

"Why don't you two just get married."

"Oh, I'm sure this issue will come up eventually."

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

"Master Wayne... What happened, sir? Is everything alright?"

"Alfred... look, I... I'm sorry I just left like this..." Bruce smiled sheepishly. It was deadly evident Alfred had spent the last twenty four hours worrying himself to death, yet he still tried his best to retain his poise as soon as his employer went through the door. "But everything's fine."

"With all due respect, sir, your current appearance indicates otherwise."

Bruce laughed softly. "If you would be so kind and make me some breakfast... I think it might help a lot."

"Sir... I know it's not my place to ask, but..."

"No, Alfred, you have every right to ask. And I really wish I could... tell you about everything. But I can't, you see... some of those things, they are just... too personal."

"Well, as long as you don't get yourself hurt, sir, I have no pretensions to knowing what exactly you have been doing lately. I shall prepare your breakfast now." The butler smiled. Even though Bruce still looked like hell, he definitely seemed more at ease compared to the past few months. If taking care of his personal affairs in such dramatic style resulted in some peace of mind for him, Alfred wasn't going to oppose it in the least.

"Thank you, Alfred... I, um, I'll go take a bath."

"Very well, sir."

♣ ♣ ♣

 

"Oh, come on. Don't tell me this is all you could come up with."

"Stop whining, fuckstick."

"But I don't wanna sit in a go-go club of all places for, what? Nine hours?"

Sofia snarled and clanked Joker on the head with a silver cigarette case she was holding. "At least get inside before someone sees you with me, Jesus. You know what? I can have you beaten up until you pass out, it'll help the time go faster. How's that?" she said as they entered the club.

"I'll consider it." The madman pouted and followed her inside. The interior of the club was indeed quite old fashioned, slightly seedy and definitely giving out an aura of mafia patronage. A broad, wooden bar; an opulence of exotic looking liquors; some red leather booths in the so called vip area; an ample sized but not too extravagant stage and some plain tables and stools for the financially impaired clientele completed the picture. As it was much too early, it wasn't open to the customers yet. It wasn't completely deserted, though.

"Heheh, look at what the cows dragged in," Yaguchi exclaimed from behind the bar.

"Who the fuck are you calling a cow, chinaman?" responded Sofia with a lopsided, but seemingly good natured smirk.

"None other than you, guinea mick." Yaguchi left the bar area and approached them, limping a little. He smiled at Joker and lowered his head slightly. "Pleased to meet you properly. It's nice to see you in good health, I thought she went rougher on you back then."

"Oh, no, no, no, I'm fine, just fine." Joker grinned menacingly and flailed his hand. "Nice eyeball. What happened to it?" He pointed at Yaguchi's left eye which was completely blue. The man plucked it from his eye socket and presented it to him with courtesy.

"As you can see, it's not quite there."

Suddenly, Sofia grabbed it from his hand and threw it behind the bar. "Goddammit, what did I tell you about pulling out your eye in front of me? Out of my face, go fetch."

Yaguchi rolled his one good eye and flicked her on the forehead lightly. "I swear, one night I'll sew all your limbs together in your sleep," he mumbled as he went looking for the eyeball.

"I swear, one more reference to that episode, and I'll sew your dick to your eye socket in vivo." Sofia looked at Joker and squinted. "Now, what should I do with you..."

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Bruce observed the spots of light wandering over his body, distorted by the surface of water. The scratch and bite marks left by Joker stung a little, but he found the sensation somewhat pleasant. He rubbed his face with his hands as if trying to wipe away the weariness and leaned back more comfortably in the bath tub.

He closed his eyes. Vivid images began to appear behind his eyelids, seemingly not connected to anything, as if he was watching commercials on the TV; it happened to him quite often lately. Another sign of exhaustion. Minute by minute, the images started to mingle with random thoughts running through his head, slowly forming a message that was only for him to understand, telling him that he had indeed arrived at a turning point. And that there was no going back.

Bruce memorized everything he had said today. How did he explain himself to Alfred...? That he had some personal business to take care of. Personal. Funny, how he had decided to use this particular word. Until now, his way of seeing the world revolved mainly around symbols. There was his parents' death, a symbol of his forced transition into adulthood. There was Alfred, a father figure. There was Rachel, the embodiment of everything right and just, the definition of unattainable. One of the reasons he had decided to turn himself into another symbol--Batman. Then, there was Bruce Wayne, the lifelike stereotype. And so on, and on, and on. Everything that had ever happened to him, everyone he had ever met, his brain would compartmentalize it all, turning it into ideas, channeling his emotions into masks, keeping their true nature hidden even from him.

He was never really there until the challenger appeared.

At first, it was very easy. The Joker was just another symbol, and he fell perfectly into the scheme. But the clown had broken out of the pattern a long time ago, dragging Bruce along without him noticing. As the time went by, every crime that Joker had committed stopped to matter in his mind, turning into merely an opportunity. It was about that time when he started to suspect what really drew him to the madman, and it was something so ridiculously human he couldn't believe it at first.

Joker welcomed everything from him, especially the worst that he had to offer, no matter how much it would cost him. He seemed to know everything about him, every last little thing, even the most trifling. He predicted his every move, guessed each of his urges. Then, Bruce realized that Joker would goad him simply to give him an excuse, allowing him to do whatever he wanted, changing his own ways gently and without alarming him until Bruce found himself pushed against a wall, aching for the bitter taste of greasepaint and blood that he had drawn himself, for the touch of gloved fingers on his face. Joker seemed to accept him as a whole, and Batman was simply infuriated with the fact that Bruce's well hidden need to simply be accepted was satisfied so efficiently by someone like this. But, over the years, Batman had become irrelevant, and all that was left now was someone with no label to identify himself with.

Bruce opened his eyes and looked at the marks covering his body. Still calm. He had either snapped or found his own, personal drug, and he didn't know if it was for the worse or for the better. He felt better, though, and maybe that was all he should be concerned with at the moment.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

"What time is it?"

"Will you fucking cease to ask me this particular question every five minutes? It's 8:43." Sofia grimaced with disapproval and poured Joker another round of Jack Daniels, emptying the bottle.

"So... so, so, so it means he'll be here in fifteen minutes...?" the madman slurred, propping his lolling head against the table.

"He'll be here unless he won't come. It's fairly logical."

Joker let out something in between a squeal and a growl. "You... You say he won't come one more time and I'll, uh... I will tell you in detail what I did to him last night."

"No!" Sofia covered her ears. "You get so starry eyed when you talk about him, it's sick."

"No... no. It's so not sick. It's... ugh..." He pressed his hands to his face and sighed. "It's pretty incapacitating, but not sick." Joker downed his whiskey in two takes. "Where's that Japanese person? He was kinda funny."

"He's got work to do, son, but yeah, he does have some mad stories."

"Don't you have any? For Christ's sake, woman... come up with something, lemme see some effort." Joker began to drum his fingers against his Glock which was lying on the table next to his glass.

"Wait, wait, wait. Have I told you already how I convinced Crane to share the fear toxin with me?"

"You haven't. Do tell."

Meanwhile, Bruce was already at the door of the club, welcomed cordially by Yaguchi who had been awaiting his arrival. The billionaire did his best not to draw attention with his appearance; plain clothes, a hood over his head, unshaved. Nonetheless, the one eyed man recognized him instantly and greeted him with a smile.

"Good evening, mister Wayne. I see you've taken some precautionary measures, but you needn't worry about being spotted by the wrong people. We're having a so called vip soirée tonight. This way, please." He extended his arm toward the table occupied by Sofia and Joker.

Bruce took a few steps inside. The first thing that struck him was the familiar, high pitched cackling. He cocked his eyebrow and slowly approached the booth. The table was cluttered with empty bottles, glasses and a few ashtrays, and neither Joker nor Sofia noticed him as they were both slumping over the table, debilitated with violent waves of laughter.

"And the best... and the best part is... Mickey... he installed some cameras in his cell, and, Jesus... I mean... oh, hey Wayne!"

Joker looked up. His eyes widened, and a ridiculously elated smile appeared on his face. He sprung up from his seat, and in a matter of split seconds he threw himself on Bruce, wrapping every limb around him and forcing the other man to fight for his balance.

"So, you came here too?" Bruce looked at the drunk madman with amusement, holding him up and trying not to give away how he felt about the surprise.

"I... I've been here the whole time... waiting for you, my dearest," Joker purred and placed a wet, whiskey flavored kiss on Bruce's lips.

"Yeah, at first he wouldn't shut up about you so I thought I'd get him drunk enough for him to pass out and shut the fuck up, but it only worked for like, two hours. Then, he woke up sober as a judge, wanting more," Sofia said, stuttering a little. "Motherfucker can hold his ale, gotta give him that."

"Wait... don't tell me you've spent the entire day sitting here and talking about me to her." Bruce grimaced in disbelief and attempted to take a seat with Joker still clinging to him.

"Oh, no, no, don't be silly, she was telling me things too."

"But mainly it was you running your mouth about... this and that, which I absolutely needed not to know. I swear, If I had to look any longer at his maidenly blush and buttery eyes whenever you were even mentioned, Wayne... Jesus..."

Bruce finally managed to seat himself, allowing Joker to remain in his lap. He gave him a careful look; he could tell Joker was completely inebriated, but since he himself was sober this time, it was quite a treat to observe what alcohol could do to the madman. He certainly wasn't a typical kind of drunk; his movements and gestures had lost their twitchy quality, becoming fluid and almost childlike. There were no traces of ill willed cunning or mischief left in his eyes, yet his stare was so intense it sent shivers down Bruce's spine.

"I missed you." Joker leaned forward and kissed him gently. Bruce began to feel warm tingles in his stomach immediately, but he pulled away and attempted to smirk.

"You just saw me this morning."

Sofia coughed and shot them a chiding look. Bruce gave her a somewhat apologetic smile in return, and his eyes locked with Joker's one more time. He felt another surge of tingles. Finally, he reached out and caressed the back of the madman's neck. "Come here," he said, pulling him slightly and wrapping his arm around his waist, and Joker budged; he closed his eyes, nuzzling his face into Bruce's neck.

"You two are just outgaying yourself right now," Sofia muttered, but Bruce didn't find it necessary to retort. He just raised his eyebrows at her. "Can we talk now?" she asked.

"Yeah, I guess we can."

"So, let me hear all of your arguments, and I will tell you why they're invalid."

"Look, I... I gave it some thought. What exactly do you need me for? Muscle? Protection? A way to appear more legitimate?"

"All of the above."

"You really don't need me for all of this. You could buy off as many people as you want if you want to appear valid. You can get all the muscle you want, you can afford it. And you don't really need protection. So why does it have to be me?"

"Before I answer, let me ask you something first. Are you having inhibitions because of the nature of the work I do?"

"Among other things, yes."

"May I ask why is that?"

"Well, as far as I can tell, associating with the mob on any level whatsoever never results in anything good. And if it does, it's short lived."

"You know what, as a professional, I need to commend you because this is exactly how it is. And it's because for the mob it's always about profit. Individual profit. That's why there's always the risk that someone steps out of line and brings downfall upon the entire outfit." Sofia leaned over the table slightly. "I told you, we're not your typical mob. I've already made enough money to last me for the remainder of my existence, along with the chinaman behind the bar and those shady characters in the other corner, and everybody not present today. We run this organization, but not for profit."

"What for, then?"

"Public service. Someone needs to do it. And we just felt like being the ones to do it right. Maybe out of boredom, maybe because we like this city. I know one thing for sure--if you want to appear legitimate and get high quality protection, you can't just buy off the 'legitimate' people who only do what they do to feel better about themselves or to compensate for something. They're either venal or short willed and unreliable. If you want to do it right, you need to work well with the right people. And you still are the symbol of what is right in the eyes of right people, like, from what I've heard, Commissioner Gordon."

Bruce hanged his head. Joker had already fallen asleep, becoming limp and relaxed like a cat. He was alone with this.

"Look," the girl continued. "I know how it might seem immoral to someone like you to even consider working for the so called criminals, but I think you're big enough to understand that they're always going to be around. My question is: is it better to build a system of checks and balances with the likes of us or to deal with the likes of the Vitis? Their way of doing business pretty much resembles my father's so you ought to have a pretty good idea of it."

"I wouldn't know which is better, I guess we're going to have to see for ourselves."

"Does it mean you agree wholeheartedly?"

"I don't really have a choice. Besides, I'm just curious what you really expect me to do."

"Oh, but you do have a choice. My guess is you just feel like it, don't you?"

"Maybe I do, in a way."

Sofia smiled with approval.

"So, this is what I'd like you to do. Remember how I told you we're gonna put Vitis in some unambiguous situations and then just hammer them in? See, I have a rat in Chicago, and he tells me Carla Viti is planning to pay me a visit tomorrow. She's taking her friends with her. Said rat has already given her my agenda so she knows where I'll be tomorrow evening. I'll be at the restaurant your boyfriend demolished lately, talking to the renovating crew. So just... be there too. Observe. There are surveillance cameras installed in the whole building so if they start correcting me in there, we'd have a pretty evident evidence. If not, well, just follow them wherever they take me. Wait until they break most of my bones or whatever, and then jump them, seize them, call the cops and an ambulance for me, provided they don't kill me at once, which I doubt they'll do. And I will tell everyone that Batman saved the day."

"You can't be serious."

"Why not?"

"I know you don't feel pain, but this is... this is pushing it."

"I'm only pushing it as far as I have to. Will you be there? Because if you won't, I'm gonna have to have them all killed, and that might raise suspicions."

"...Alright, I'll be there."

"You promise?"

"I promise."

Sofia leaned back, grinning. The stitches in the corner of her mouth were already ruined by laughing, and a tiny rivulet of blood kept trickling down her chin from underneath the bandage. Bruce cringed slightly at the sight.

"You... you really can't feel anything?" He pointed at her face.

"What? Oh..." She reached up and looked at the blood that remained on her fingers. "Well, wonderful. Yes, as you can see, I can't feel shit. Makes life a whole lot harder."

"I imagine. Look, um... did-" Joker moved in his sleep as if predicting he was going to be the next topic. "I mean... what did he tell you about me?" Bruce asked hesitantly.

"He was very informative. He told me about how the two of you used to be best friends forever in school, and how you were taking care of the class hamster together, and--"

"Okay, that's sufficient. So he didn't..."

"Yup, he didn't really say anything."

"Well, that's a relief." Bruce sighed and looked at Joker pensively. "I'm gonna have to take him home now..."

"Nonsense. I'll do it, lemme just call my designated driver." Sofia beckoned Yaguchi with her hand. "You'd just stay with him and do some uncomely things, which you shouldn't because you have to be in prime condition tomorrow. It's gonna be your big day."

Chapter Text

"So, what's your outlook?" Sofia asked, sucking on a cigarette.

"Well, this spot is pretty convenient, but I doubt they'd take the risk to go with it in here." Bruce moved his head, casing the layout of the restaurant. The renovating crew was still doing some actual work in the main hall since it was only ten in the morning. The Vitis' visit was slated for the evening.

"If I were them, I'd snatch myself all the way to Chicago, correct myself and then nurse myself into well being to get rid of any traces of their malevolence."

"Are they that thoughtful?"

"If they were, they wouldn't be the Vitis. But there's always a possibility, you know. Are you willing to go all the way to Chicago for this?"

"Well, I might. In that case, I'd better take some regular car." Bruce sighed and gave her a careful look. "Listen... Are you absolutely, positively sure they're not intending to straight out kill you?"

"If they were, they wouldn't bother with the whole procession, right? My guess is, aunt Carla wants to personally force me to atone for her sonny's lost finger and dignity. Speaking of which--if they attempt to sever one of my fingers, allow them. Intervene only when I give you a sign or if they go for an entire limb, okay?"

Bruce's eyebrows creased. Her voice seemed to falter a little when she mentioned the amputation possibility. "Aren't you taking this too far?" he asked.

"What? No." Sofia's lips curled up in an unsettling smile. The new, elastic stitches in the corner of her mouth stretched slightly. "We all deserve a little joy in life."

"Joy?"

"Just do what I'm asking of you, please. Pretty please. It's gonna be alright, you'll see."

"I already promised, it just doesn't seem... I don't even know."

"It doesn't seem like a situation that's not going to involve a lot of blood?"

Bruce gave her a reproachful glare. She blew a cloud of smoke in his direction. "So you've seen the place, there's a lot of spots you can perch upon to gauge everything. Get here around six, and it'll go smooth from thence onward," she said, but Bruce still didn't seem convinced. "Look, just go home, prepare yourself. Or go call up your boyfriend. Something. I don't need your spieling nor your disapproving looks. You're spoiling the fun for me. Go away."

Sofia put out her cigarette and raised her eyebrows. She wagged her hand at Bruce, shooing him. The man sighed with resignation and forwarded his steps to the remains of the main entrance, grimacing at the lousy early spring weather as he left the restaurant. Go call up your boyfriend. He would hesitate about calling Joker his friend, let alone something as intimate as this. Although it was probably pretty irrational on his side, given the way things were at the moment. Bruce's teeth clenched. Actually, he was still unsure whether that way things were was about to stretch out in time or if it was going to turn into something even more malicious than it used to be. He was pretty sure of what he wanted, though. Well, maybe not really wanted, but he would appreciate the possibility of actually being able to call him. Just to make sure he hadn't suffocated on his own vomit or anything.

The problem was quite prosaic--he didn't have his number or even knew if he had a regular phone, but he was quite certain a little something he had slipped in Joker's pocket while he was passed out might help overcome it.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Joker woke up in his bed, much to his surprise. The events of the other night were an indiscernible blur, but there was an underlying sense of failure, like he hadn't managed to get something very important done. Whatever that might have been, the throbbing headache soon found its way into his attention, claiming all of his thoughts possessively.

His eyelids felt sticky when he attempted to lift them, the endeavor futile at first, but after a few seconds, he successfully fixed his gaze on a bottle of mineral water sitting on the nightstand. His hand lurched out, trying to grab it. Finally, his fingers tightened around it and he lifted it with difficulty. The plastic cap was stubborn, but in the end it gave in to his frantic maneuvers and he tilted the bottle to his mouth, melting into euphoric mush as he felt the cold, soothing stream go down his dry throat.

When the initial thirst was quenched, Joker clenched his eyelids, and slowly the memories of the previous day began to stir his aching state of consciousness. He remembered getting completely shitfaced with Sofia, with that annoying, inhuman little wench who was actually twenty six but looked fourteen and couldn't feel any pain, and who could do more damage than she weighed in one minute. He was waiting. He remembered how he felt. Anxious. Eager for... something. He remembered warmth and softness enveloping him, steady breath against his neck, arms cradling him as his inebriated mind gave in to the comfort. He remembered the scent.

And that was pretty much where he had failed. Because that was it.

Bruce was there, actually holding him. But he had passed out.

He let out an angry sigh through his nose and opened his bloodshot eyes a little. His pupils wandered back to the nightstand, eyeing a box of painkillers left by whoever had extended him the courtesy of hauling him home last night. The pricks of pain coming in excruciating surges every few seconds forced him to reach for the box, and after a few moments of fumbling around it, he excavated two pills which he promptly put in his mouth and swallowed, washing them down with lots of water.

He kept still for a couple more minutes. When he felt the claws of the hangover loosen their grip, he placed his feet carefully on the floor. Someone had taken off his shoes and jacket, but they hadn't gone through the trouble of removing his suspenders which ground into his body during his sleep. He felt the skin on his back sting a little where the clips had been pressing against it. If only his mattress weren't older than dirt and hard as a rock... He was going to have to take care of it at last. He had been meaning to do it for so long now, but everything around him never ceased to be so very distracting.

Same with changing the bed sheets--they were slowly, but inevitably growing too rank to even consider sleeping in them, even for someone with such humble needs like him. A crust of make up, blood, sweat and now also semen just kept on stiffening.

But all of this... maybe later. As always. First things first. Joker tottered to the bathroom, stopped over the toilet, unzipped his pants and relieved himself with a sigh, leaning onwards, his burning forehead propping against the cold, slightly musty tiles. He angled his head so his temple was pressed to the wall, the veins throbbing with agitated blood.

He got undressed clumsily, crawled into the bathtub and turned the faucet, letting the cold water coming from the shower head send him to the verge of a thermal shock. He gasped repeatedly, almost gagging, and adjusted the temperature a little. As the water became less severe, in the end pleasantly warm, he closed his eyes and just sat still, soaking. It wasn't long before he felt a sickening clench in his gut, forcing him to bend over on his fours and retch. The running water washed the mostly liquid contents of his stomach down the drain as he knelt in the tub, panting. When a minute or two had passed, a new wave of nausea wringed his body, and he parted with another portion of bitter fluids.

With the last string of mucus leaving his mouth, Joker felt the overwhelming relief wash over him. He sucked in breath and rolled his eyes, slapping himself twice. A cracking sound resonated inside his skull, but the slight tingling in his cheeks was a pleasant contrast to the blunt pumping in his temples. Distracting, to say the least. He turned off the water and got out of the tub. There was no sight of a towel around. The madman shrugged and paced to the door, grabbing the knob weakly and turning it with some effort. He approached the clothing rack and pulled it away, uncovering a door leading to a closet. He opened it and inhaled the dust.

Inside, there were stashed some things that had already been there when he took over this apartment--a vacuum cleaner, a mop, things, some very old detergents, a stack of porn magazines, more things, towels. He grabbed one and flicked it before drying himself. His eyes rested on the rack, assessing the clothes carefully. Finally, he decided upon some random things and got dressed. For a while, he wondered if he was hungry, but the thought of food made his stomach cavort in his derision, so he ceased to consider the subject any further. His eyes wandered across the room, trying to locate his jacket. It was hanging neatly from the back of the chair, so he approached it and reached inside the pocket, grabbing a pack of cigarettes. He pulled back the lid, hoping to see a yellowing row of cigarette butts, but to his surprise, his gaze met a small piece of thick paper. He took it out of the box, examining the tiny letters.

It was Bruce's card.

With a number scribbled by hand under the printed bullshit.

And it said: "This is my cell phone number".

Nothing else, but that was more than enough.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

It was late afternoon when Bruce's phone began to ring. He jumped in his chair at the sudden buzzing sound. For the past few hours, he had been busy in his base, oblivious to the world around him, making sure his equipment was in prime condition, researching this and that, the usual. It actually felt good to engage in all of this after such a long recess.

He reached for the phone and pressed it to his ear. "Bruce Wayne," he said absently.

No response on the other side. Just heavy breathing. Actually, no. It sounded more like salacious panting. "Hello?" Still no answer.

Bruce cocked his eyebrow, starting to suspect who it was. "Stop playing."

"What are you wearing right now?" hissed the lustful, raspy voice.

"It depends. What kind of answer would satisfy you?" Bruce leaned back in his chair and smirked. That wasn't exactly his idea of taking a short break from work, but it would do.

"Oh, you dirty, filthy tease." More panting. "You'd better watch out next time you're alone in the parking lot, sugar." The voice took on a predatory tinge. "I can already hear you begging for mercy, I can see that look in your eyes but I know your kind, oh, I know."

"My kind? Care to elaborate?"

"You know what, stop spoiling my fun. You're supposed to start freaking out and threaten to sic the wild pigs on me right now."

Bruce just chuckled, not too sure about how the voice on the other side made him feel--relieved or indeed freaked out. His heart skipped a beat before he decided to ask this one innocent question after a moment of ringing silence.

"So, aside from being disenchanted, how are you?"

"Well, I'm so hungover, sad and lonely. Come over."

"I can't. I have to be at Sofia's in about an hour and a half, and I still need to take care of some things."

"Oh, nice. So, you two reached a mutual agreement?" A slightly disappointed tinge appeared in Joker's voice.

"I guess you could say the same about the two of you." Bruce chuckled silently. "You sure seemed to enjoy yourself at that club yesterday."

"No, I don't think so. She's kind of unnerving. I was just trying to make the time go faster, y'know."

"Yeah. You chose the best way. You passed out."

"That was not my intention, mind you. I wanted to, uh... I don't remember. So, tell me, what kind of engrossing activities has she prepared for you?"

"I'm going to, um... I'm going to watch her get beaten up and intervene when she's on the verge of death."

"Whoa. Now, that sounds like a shindig. Did she come up with it herself?"

"Who else would?"

"See what I mean? We should have eradicated that abomination right at the beginning."

"Really? Look who's talking." Bruce's retort met with an indignant gasp.

"You," Joker hissed with disapproval. "So. Be a doll and come see me when you're done, hm?"

"I'm going to be tired."

"No, no, no. Come. See me. When. You're. Done," he growled quietly. "Or I'll blow up an orphanage."

"Orphanage again? Have you ever actually blown one up? Because this is getting old."

"No. I... I don't know, orphans are just inherently unfunny when they die."

"So, how am I supposed to be alarmed with your threat?"

"Just because I don't feel inclined doesn't mean I'm not gonna do it eventually."

"Alright, I'll come see you."

"Oh, but of course you will."

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

When Bruce arrived at the restaurant in an old looking BMW, the workers had already decided to call it a day. He waited in a safe distance, observing from behind the darkened windows as the last member of the crew left the building. He caught a glimpse of Sofia looking around before she disappeared back inside. As soon as the street emptied completely, he drove the car into a nearby alley. It was already very dark since the sky was strewn with thick clouds, blocking away the last rays of sun. Bruce put on his mask and got out, deciding to enter the restaurant through the back. Sofia was waiting at the door, holding a flask which was probably filled with some kind of alcohol as she looked a bit drunk.

"Hey. How are we tonight?" she asked cordially with a big grin as they entered the dim kitchen.

"Are you drunk or something?" Bruce caught himself adapting the rasp automatically, eliciting a slight chuckle in response.

"Why, yes I am. Quite an occasion tonight, isn't it?"

"Not quite. You're all alone in here?"

"Now that you've dropped by, I have company. No, no, don't get started." Sofia waved her hands in front of her face before Bruce had a chance of saying anything. "We're doing it." She raised the flask to her mouth.

"You don't look very calm about it. Maybe you should reconsider."

"Nonsense. We shall have none of that, son."

"But is it worth it?"

"Worth it?" She dissolved into laughter. "I don't know. It's not like I've got anything better to do. Go crouch in the dark, Wayne. They'll be here any minute now."

"Don't call me that when I'm... you know."

"You actually enjoy it when people call you Batman?" Her laughter grew more unabashed, and she took another ample sip from the flask.

"You never know who might be listening."

"What good would I be if I didn't know who might be listening..." She sighed, waves of giggling still shaking her body every now and then. Bruce cringed. Unnerving.

"Take this." He handed her a small homing device. "Might be useful if they drag you some place distant."

She nodded and put it in her pocket. Bruce turned around to look for an appropriate spot while Sofia left the kitchen, leaving the door slightly open. A faint stream of light slipped inside, indicating she had just put herself on display.

She seated herself at one of the tables, pretending to read into some documents. All that was left to do was waiting. After fifteen minutes, it became apparent the Vitis are not the ones to linger. Bruce could hear two cars park in front of the restaurant, thanks to the device installed in his cowl. Soon enough, he started to pick up bits of conversation.

"...Told you, fucking idiot, what if she left already?"

"Just chill. See? She's there. All alone."

"Jesus. How stupid is she?"

"Just enough," a female voice joined the gnarly male ones. "Go get her, I don't have all night."

A sound of the door opening. Footsteps. Five men entered the building. Bruce kept still, breathing slowly, listening.

"Aah, Johnny. What brings you here?" Sofia chirped, a smile noticeable in her voice. "How's your finger, or rather--how's the lack of it?"

"We're going for a ride tonight, Cousin Dearest."

"Yeah? Where to?"

Sounds of struggle. Someone turned off the light.

"Let go, you fucking-" Sofia's voice suddenly got muffled; they had probably gagged her. Bruce sucked in breath as they left the restaurant. He waited for a couple more minutes in total darkness, catching strands of words and laughter. Finally, he heard the hum of engines as the cars drove away.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Sofia found herself in a backseat of some car, squished between Johnny and a nondescript thug. As they took off in some unknown direction, a corpulent, blond woman sitting in the passenger seat turned around and graced her with a wan, condescending smirk.

"Are you scared, little birdie?" she cooed mockingly with a strong accent. "Don't be. I'm your auntie Carla, don't you remember?" Sofia couldn't respond even if she would like to; some rag they had gagged her with successfully prevented her from speaking. "I hear this and that about your recent... behavior and frankly, I'm concerned, my dear, we all are. Did you take the time to think about what your father would have to say on the matter? Hm? I've made the decision to help you out. Show you the right way. This is what families are for, am I right?"

Johnny guffawed and placed a cigar in his mouth, lighting it. "Of course, mother. Now don't you worry, honey, whatever we do, remember we're doing it out of love. Hm? Feel the love yet?" He put out the cigar on her cheek, snickering.

Sofia squirmed, held in place by the nondescript thug, screaming and whimpering. As the cigar was taken away from her face, she gave into spasms and lifted her eyes, now brimming with tears, fixing a half-frightened, half-hateful gaze on her cousin. A smug expression crept on his face. He raised his hand and patted her on the head, his tongue darting out and licking his narrow lips curled up in a foul smile.

"Now, now. Better?"

The girl allowed herself some more spasms and wheezes, feeling shivers wash over her in waves of exhilaration, a mantra of don't laugh, don't laugh, don't laugh running through her head.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Perched upon a steel girder, Bruce observed the situation from above. They had brought her to a secluded place near the docks, some abandoned factory. He tried his best to remain focused on what was going on beneath him, but his eyes kept getting clouded, his vision throbbing in accord with his quickened pulse. Something felt wrong even more than it should, but Sofia's faked screams kept him on the verge of being alert.

From what he could make out of the conversation being had, the Vitis did intend to kill her. Then, maybe dump her body into some acid or incinerate it. Or maybe even make it look like an accident, but before that might happen, they were very eager to give her the time of her life. Bruce could tell she was amused with their diligence, to put it lightly. Amused with how they tore her flesh with serrated knives, broke her bones with steel batons (they had managed open fractures in both her legs and right arm so far), pulled her up by her hair and smashed her against walls. And so on and on. Still, it seemed she hadn't had all the fun she had hoped for yet.

Bruce took a deep breath, his mind slowly clearing. He could feel bile rising in his throat as he watched Carla Viti step on Sofia's leg which was bent in an unnatural angle, letting out a sickly, cracking sound. Something began to build up beneath his skin--the anticipation to strike. He waited, wondering what was stopping him. It's not like he should wait for her sign, it had already gone too far. He knew one thing for sure--he did not enjoy the sight. He did not enjoy their methods nor her thespian talents. He swallowed with difficulty.

Over the past two years as the Joker kept dragging the ugliest parts of Bruce to the surface, he had come to terms with the notion that he actually wasn't what they call a good person, finding more and more aberrations from the norm in himself. He had begun to suspect the worst every time he was confronted with a situation that would severely upset a regular man, both on a moral and aesthetic level. Many times, he had asked himself--why did he really resort to violence, how did he really feel about Joker's violence, his killings, did he actually get off on it...

He used to get off on it for a while--that much he was aware of. It was about the time when the only guilt that he felt was connected to the fact that there was no real guilt left in him. Acting inhuman was rewarding. Freeing. It let him sleep. But when actual acceptance came, when he himself let go and agreed to being a monster... It started to sicken him, the urges dying away, like a child that stops being a nuisance as soon as he realizes no one is paying attention.

He kept looking down, still waiting for the sign or for something he really couldn't precise, but all this loitering effected in was just more bile and a tighter knot in his stomach. He should have been at least indifferent to the sight--after all, he was a self-proclaimed degenerate with an unhealthy obsession for someone who had killed his loved one. He was the man who enjoyed seeing Joker murder petty criminals and would-be rapists in dark alleys because it gave him an excuse to punish him. He was just plain sick, and after two years, he really wanted to believe it--it was a label, something to describe himself with, but lately, even that started to dissolve.

His eyes followed the squat figure of Johnny's as he approached Sofia lying sprawled on the concrete. The man took out a cigar cutter from his pocket. "Now, I have a problem with you not being born a basket case, if you catch my drift," he muttered, the cigar muffling his words a little. "And I'm going to fix my problem piece by piece."

Bruce squinted. There was a severe change in Sofia's expression, noticeable despite bruises and lacerations disfiguring her face. From a forced scrunch it thawed into genuine panic, laced with a huge dose of morbid excitement. Johnny took her hand into his, positioned her pinky finger inside the cutter and, without hesitation, cut it off with a loud snap. Her reaction surely wasn't what anyone would expect as she burst into hysterical laughter, staring at the stump with an intoxicated look in her eyes. That was it. A sign, so to speak.

Bruce lurched down, taking out two men at once, feeling the rancor burn in his veins. The shock value of his entrance style was unfailing as always as it bought him a few seconds before any of them even thought of reaching for a gun.

"That's... the fabled Batman, isn't it?" Carla droned to her son as she began to retreat instinctively, observing her goons slump to the ground like flies, smitten by the powerful and precise blows.

"Indeed, but what the fuck is he doing here?" Johnny hissed and pulled out his gun, shooting repeatedly and missing or grazing the kevlar. Bruce plunged in his direction with a furious growl that literally rendered the man motionless. With the help of skill and luck, he dodged a series of bullets shot in his direction by Carla and managed to knock Johnny out, sending him to the ground and disappearing in the shadows promptly.

Carla tightened the grip over the gun and looked around, anger and fear filling her eyes. Bruce watched her for a few moments, trying to silence the thought that he will never tire of seeing that kind of dread. But this is not what it is all about, after all. It's not supposed to be. He shouldn't stretch this out. He walked up behind her soundlessly and disarmed her with a swift move. She turned around, panicked. No, he will never tire. He basked in her fear, approaching her slowly, baring his teeth in a half-grin, half-snarl. Now, this is what he had really missed. The woman's trembling legs refused to support her any longer, growing limp. She fell on her knees, looking up with a pleading expression.

"Please... Don't- Don't hurt me..." she croaked.

Bruce's eyes didn't waver, taking it all in greedily. He sucked in breath and punched her in the face, a loud sound of her jaw cracking oddly satisfactory on his ears. She fell to the concrete, unconscious, just like the rest of them--apart from Sofia. The girl was far from being passed out, despite the blood loss and God knows what kind of internal contusions she might have acquired. Wheezing softly, she still seemed to admire the bloody remains of her finger.

He paced to her, the knot in his stomach tightening even more at the sight. Sofia looked up, wise enough not to speak, unaware of the state of her insides. Her gaze seemed absent, but she did manage a weak, lopsided smile. For a second, he pondered what it must be like for someone like her, knowing her body is completely ravaged, that there are pieces being cut away from it, but being unable to actually acknowledge it like a normal human being. Maybe he even felt sorry for her in a way, but right now, he was too far gone, soaked in adrenaline. He knelt next to her and dialed the number for an ambulance.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Night had already claimed the entire city, providing Bruce with the freezing cold he needed so badly at this particular moment. Hidden in the shadows, he watched police cars and ambulances drive into the decrepit factory one by one, engulfing it in eye wringing throbs of light. The paramedics were at a loss at first, considering for a few moments how they should go about placing Sofia on the stretchers. It seemed that in the end she managed to encourage them to choose the most straightforward way, explaining she wouldn't feel anything whatever they do.

Bruce leaned back against a wall, observing the billowing plumes of air he exhaled. His armor felt slightly loose against his sweat slicked skin, reminding him he really should take better care of himself and his eating habits as of late if he was about to resume his activity as the arbiter of justice. Gordon was there. Bruce followed him with his eyes, being sure he was actually trying to spot him in the darkness, suspecting he was crouching in there somewhere. It had been a while since they as much as exchanged a few words, let alone work together, pool their resources, whatever. Maybe it was better that way.

His mouth was completely dry, and thoughts were squishing into his head, shedding new light on various things. Slightly unpleasant things. Arbiter of justice... His memory wandered way back. He wasn't able to force anymore guilt upon himself, knowing it would take him nowhere, but he did feel some kind of reevaluation was necessary.

The distance between him and Gordon was less than one hundred yards. The distance between him and how things should be played out was immeasurable. What he should do was to go up to him, do something radical, like, for example, disclose the location of Joker, participate in his apprehension and see to it that he is put away for good. Then, something even more rightful, like, maybe revealing the nature of the conflict between Sofia and the Vitis, followed by his leaving the country. Then, spend the rest of his days knowing he did the right thing. That's what he should do.

Bruce sighed.

What he most probably will do is go home, take a shower, tell himself he's not going to see Joker, then he'll think about the orphans and grimace. He'll put a hood over his head, catch a cab and go anyway, consequently condoning each and every murder the madman had ever committed and giving a silent go-ahead to all the ones he might commit in the future. Because he needed to see him.

He felt deeply uncomfortable with that knowledge, anger washing over him as he realized he was helpless. Bruce closed his eyes. If it really were anger, it had a very distinctive shade to it. He drew in cold air. That wasn't the blinding emotion he was used to, with which he had learned to cope by letting it run wild until he was too tired to think about anything. This one made him tense up. It held his throat in a tight grip. It ushered his blood downwards. Bruce tried to swallow.

He needed to see him. Now.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

It felt completely different now that he actually wasn't exhausted or hungover. He was standing at Joker's door, tense, shaking, unable to move. The feeling that took over him back there now turned into something monstrous, filling him with anxiety he had never experienced before. Bruce had no idea how much time had passed since he arrived, but still, he just couldn't as much as simply lift his hand and knock. Finally, he heard a silent rustle and the sound of the door unlocking. He braced himself when the scant light coming from the inside leaked into the corridor.

"I was wondering if you passed out at the door or something. I heard you coming up." Joker grinned and pulled him inside.

The room looked a little bit different than the last time. Stacks of rubbish seemed to be slightly rearranged, and everything appeared somewhat less dusty. Sewing supplies were scattered across the floor, along with the shirt Joker had torn the buttons off.

"So, how does it feel to come home after a long day at work, to a doting wife who has been waiting for you longingly, darning the garments?"

Bruce smirked weakly, trying to avoid Joker's eyes as he approached him and reached up, cupping his face in his hand, slender fingers clawing a little. Nails grazed against his cheek gently, making him shiver. Joker squinted, beginning to slowly circle around him, the hand smoothing down his jaw. He stopped behind him and wrapped his arms around his neck, brushing his lips against his ear.

"How does it feel, hm...?" he repeated, his voice turning into gravelly whisper. "You... you finally got enough sleep, didn't you...?" The arms hooked around Bruce's throat tightened a little. Joker could tell how quick the other man's pulse was right now and how it just kept going up.

Bruce twitched as he felt soft lips nipping on his earlobe, soon followed by a firm tongue. He tried turning his head away, but Joker held him in an iron grip. It felt too good, only adding to the frenzy that was already in full swing inside of him, turning his nerves into barbed wire. He needed to be close to him. But he wanted something he just was not able to ask for. He couldn't find the words for it. He wasn't even sure of what it was. He jerked again when teeth brushed slowly over the delicate skin. He reached up, trying to pull Joker's arms away, and turned around to face him, his eyes fixed on his madder, pinstriped vest, unable to look up.

"I can't." he said softly. His hands wandered up from Joker's wrists, fingers tightening over the fabric of his shirt as if trying to hold on to it. "I just... I can't." He hanged his head, his jaw clenching. Joker hunched a little and tilted his head, trying to catch a glimpse of his eyes. Finally, he lifted his chin with his index finger, forcing the other man to look at him. Bruce tried not to squirm, sensing danger as he dared to lock his gaze with Joker's. He loosened the grip on his shirt and took a step towards the door, feeling sweat run down his back. Joker didn't react, so he took another step. And another. He caught himself praying for something, but he had no idea what for.

Suddenly, all the tangled thoughts left his mind as he was slammed against the wall and pinned to it by a pair of surprisingly strong arms. Bruce had always known the madman had much more strength than he appeared to have. Back then, he would probably have been able to defend himself against Batman's brutality up to some point, if he hadn't actually let him. If he hadn't given in...

"But I can... Oh yes, I can." The jagged nails dug into Bruce's wrists, and he gasped, feeling Joker's hot breath against his neck. "And you... You can't, and yet you're so desperate for it, aren't you?"

What was going on inside Bruce at that moment couldn't be labeled by any word in any existing language. Blood was pumping through his veins so quickly his vision was getting blurred; his muscles twitched, and he tried to push Joker away, only adding to his fury, the scarred lips curling in a snarl. A sudden blow sent Bruce back into the room, making him almost trip on a chair. Joker was next to him in a second and forced him to sit on it, pulling his head back by the hair. Bruce looked up, dazed,

"Sit still." The raspy hissing was distorted by the ringing in his ears. The madman took off Bruce's jacket and t-shirt frantically, exposing his heaving chest. Bruce closed his eyes. He felt the scent of blood and its taste in his mouth, and he was dizzy, but still aware of what was going on. Joker left him for a moment and came back with a handful of something that looked like colorful strips of fabric. Bruce blinked repeatedly, but before he had any chance to make out what it was, Joker was behind him, pulling his arms back and tying his wrists together and then to the chair with something smooth and surprisingly thick. He felt senses come back to him along with strength, and he jerked, trying to free from the ties, but to no avail--the knots only tightened as he struggled. He heard clinking of metal clips and realized he was being held down with a pair of suspenders.

Everything went black when his eyes got covered with a piece of cloth, another piece sliding in between his teeth, tied tightly at the back of his head--the familiar scent indicated they must have been Joker's neckties. Bruce tensed up. He was quivering uncontrollably, and the suspenders were digging into his wrists. He could sense the madman standing behind him, observing. Trying to draw in more air, he heard his own heartbeat loud and clear, the rhythm racing with fearful anticipation. Suddenly, he went rigid. Warm hands traced the line of his neck and shoulders, sliding down his chest, crossing. A soft cheek pressed against his head, and slow breath ghosted through his hair. He hissed as the nails scratched his neck lightly, his skin literally itching and pricking at the contact.

"Gotcha..." Joker purred, still embracing Bruce from behind. He bent slightly and rested his head on the man's shoulder, brushing his lips against his neck gently and pulling away before he leaned in a little more, his tongue darting out and ascending up the throbbing jugular vein in a teasing, languid stroke. Bruce's teeth sank into the fabric, the madman's hot breath making him tingle all over. "Why were you trying to run away from me? Hm?" His voice sounded dangerously saccharine. He paced around Bruce and placed his hands on his hips, smoothing up his sides, the fingers trailing patterns over his trembling skin. Bruce felt Joker's weight press against him when he straddled him, his clothes slightly coarse and irritating against his bare chest.

"I'm not gonna hurt you, you know that... right?" The hands tightened over the nape of his neck. "You're my sunshine, I would never hurt you." The fingers tangled in his hair and closed in a fist. "I would give you as much pain as you want, but I would never hurt you." They yanked harshly, exposing his throat.

Bruce gasped, sharp pain in his scalp being registered as something completely different. A slight relief that came with it was obliterated soon enough with a moist tongue going up his neck lazily, stopping at his lower lip and flicking against it, then sliding down his jaw line without haste, as if savoring the taste of his skin. The fingers caught in his hair made even the shiest attempt at twisting away from the maddeningly soft touch futile. He tried lifting his head up a bit just to get a little more of that comforting stinging, but another hand placed firmly on his neck immobilized him completely. Minute by minute, Bruce dissolved into a twitching mass of nerves, bursting with anguish at the most delicate touch of those warm lips, soaking in blissful anticipation with every promise of a bite, twitching with anger every time Joker wouldn't sink his teeth just a little deeper, denying him the reprieve that came with it, replacing it with tenderness that just drove him insane. He had no idea what was going on with him. Joker seemed to know. He knew all about it, knew what it was stemming from, how to alleviate it. And yet he seemed to revel in all of it, growing more and more fascinated with Bruce's increasingly desperate reactions.

"So, how are you? Must be pretty hard for you now, with all those years you've spent blindfolded..." he said quietly, still bracing his head. His mouth wandered down Bruce's chest, weightless kisses growing more and more intense, gentle touch becoming firmer, insistent. The lips closed around his nipple, sucking, the hot tongue teasing it and tickling until a quiet groan escaped his dried throat. Joker finally let go of his neck and hair, snaking his arms around his torso, not allowing him to pull away. He kissed the reddened nipple gently before he caught it in his teeth, biting down slowly but without the teasing reluctance. Bruce gasped involuntarily, feeling the pressure increase in his head, shutting out every other sensation apart from the overwhelming wave of pleasure exploding in him as the teeth sunk deeper. It ended too quickly. The teeth let go of him, and the warm lips wandered up, sucking gently at his fervid flesh. The fingers clawed over his back, and the nails slowly traced a line along his spine. Bruce arched against Joker with a hiss when they reached the small of his back, scratching lightly. Their hips bucked together for a second, and an onslaught of shivers took over him with the short moment of friction, making him realize just how hard he already was.

"Yeah... You're sitting here, reduced to a quivering mass, completely under the sway of someone like me." Joker dismounted him and took a step back, watching Bruce twitch helplessly. His body was now desperate for any kind of contact. "Someone, who should be put down like a dog, hm? Someone, who caused so many calamities of all sorts and colors, right?" He paced to Bruce's side and bent over him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. "Someone... who snuffed out so many precious, precious lives..." His other hand began a journey, starting between his collarbones, going all the way down to his lower abdomen, unwilling to go further, smoothing the tense muscles with soft fingertips. "Who killed Rachel," he growled quietly right into Bruce's ear, and the hand suddenly slid down between his thighs, palming his erection in slow, circular motions. Bruce moaned breathlessly. Joker's words were getting to him through a wall of ringing, and his voice was oddly compassionate underneath the coating of mockery, as if his intention wasn't to torment him, but something else... The mention of Rachel's death struck something in him, but strangely enough, there were no traces of anger nor guilt. There was something much darker, something that made him writhe in unbearable pleasure at the madman's touch.

"I killed her and forced you to play tag with me, but you just couldn't find the balance, hm?" Beads of sweat started to emerge on Bruce's skin as the fingers tightened, cupping him, a thumb tracing the tip of his cock through the fabric of his trousers. The arm around his neck pulled him closer to the scarred lips that pressed against his ear. "You thought taking a plunge into depravity would make everything go away... that acceptance would bring you peace..." Joker whispered. "You thought I made you hate yourself, but--you see, that was just another one of your ways of making all the pieces fit. There's more to it than you thought. And you can't take it. You can't fit it anywhere, even though you see it already."

Joker pulled away and reclaimed his place in front of Bruce, his hands resting on the man's knees, spreading his legs slightly as he knelt down between them. His fingers curled over the insides of his thighs, moving upwards but swerving away from his erection, resting on his hipbones. Bruce was on the edge of losing his mind, unable to control the soft, jagged moans coming out of him when he exhaled. His pants were already slightly damp with precome, making him all the more vulnerable to Joker's hot breath.

"There's something more than madness..." He rested his head on Bruce's thigh, his lips brushing gently against the bulge as he spoke. He paused, kissing it faintly, making the other man hiss. "Something much more excruciating for the likes of us." He kissed him again through the fabric, this time harder. The soft lips parted, and he began to lick along his length, the massaging tongue moving unceasingly, pressing harder when it reached the tip. Bruce groaned--every second was bringing him closer to the release which he didn't want. He wanted something different, something more. He tried to worm away, but in vain; Joker's arms tightened around his waist and pulled him closer to his vile mouth while the fingernails grazed against his lower back, clawing over his ass. The cruel, tingling surges of pleasure just kept exploding in his stomach with every move of the hot tongue, and when he was sure he couldn't take it anymore, the madman suddenly lifted his head, and his fingers loosened their grip. Heaving, Bruce felt his blood slowly calm a little, but Joker's hands placed firmly on his hips kept him alert.

He had no idea how much time had passed before the hands moved to his waistband, unzipping his pants and pulling them down, taking them off along with his socks and shoes. He felt some sort of panic when he realized he was completely defenseless right now, but another part of him boiled in anticipation, hoping for something, waiting.

A gust of air sent a wave of shivers through his body, and all of his muscles tensed up when Joker's tongue ascended up his thigh languidly, stopping just before it was about to reach his groin, changing direction and heading for his hip. Soft hair brushed against his cock for a second, making him almost bite through the fabric. His hips jerked involuntarily, but Joker's hands kept him in place as he kept licking and sucking on the sensitive skin of his lower stomach. Strands of hair ghosted against him teasingly one more time, then again, and again, and he couldn't stop the helpless whimpers coming from his mouth. He stiffened when without any warning the moist tongue snaked around his cock and started massaging it gently inch by inch. Bruce gasped, the threat of release becoming imminent one more time. The lips closed around the tip and sucked while the tongue traced numerous, lazy circles, lapping up the precome. It didn't stop even when Bruce pulled back a little, as much as he could; the mouth followed him, and the grip over his hips grew even stronger. He almost screamed when Joker took him all in and sucked hard while the tongue just kept moving, not wanting to stop even for a second, and he started to lose his mind, finding himself back on the verge, shuddering and moaning without any control--but then, the madman withdrew again.

Joker sat still for a moment, admiring his work. The state Bruce was in literally drove him insane; the sight of his heaving chest, the feel of his twitching muscles, the taste of his sweat, the sound of his moans... He knew that his self-control was reaching its limit inevitably; the clench in his stomach and the maddening heat between his legs screamed at him to take action. He moved his hands up Bruce's thighs one more time, leaving a trail of goose bumps before he slid his arms under him, lifting him up slightly, just enough for him to use his own legs as leverage before he seated himself on the chair with the other man straddling him. He unzipped his pants, reducing the discomfort, and leaned in, their bodies pressing flush together. Bruce could feel his own erection brush against Joker's, and his pulse quickened when the nails dug in his sides promisingly. Joker leaned to the left for a second, picking a small bottle he had prepared earlier from the floor. His breath was faltering. He swallowed with difficulty, poured some lube on his hand and reached between Bruce's legs, his fingers lingering, teasing. The man started to shudder in anticipation at the silent promise, and Joker reveled in his reaction as if it was his sweet reward. Finally, he pushed one finger inside, moving it back and forth lazily, his predatory eyes fixed on him, savoring everything. He entered another finger, noticing with a smirk how Bruce's hips began to rock gently as if of their own accord. Without stopping, Joker pressed his face into the crook of his neck, his other arm snaking around him, squeezing. He inhaled the raw scent, and his lips parted almost without his doing, teeth tightening over the tense muscles, sinking deeper and deeper...

A loud moan stopped him halfway. He pulled away and removed his fingers. His vision started to get blurry, he just couldn't wait anymore. He spread the lotion over his cock and positioned himself, starting to push slowly. Bruce's body arched. His hips pushed back impatiently, but Joker kept him at bay, stretching him, taking his time, burying himself inch by inch. He stopped for a second and closed his eyes. His hands wandered to Bruce's back, clawing. A few more seconds passed, and both of them kept absolutely still, when suddenly, Bruce's mind went completely blank. Something exploded in him with the abrupt thrust of Joker's hips, with his nails scratching deeply, delightfully, his teeth grinding the flesh of his neck and shoulders without mercy, tightening, drawing blood, the growing heat inside of him, the rhythm unfaltering, quickening...

Joker lost himself in the other's scream; his senses were intoxicated with the sweet taste and smell of his blood, with the feel of his body convulsing in pleasure just underneath him, melting against him. His skin was tingling with anguish as there was still the layer of clothes separating them, but he was too far gone to tear them off now--it only made him push and bite with more ferocity, made his groans louder as the heat grew more maddening with each of his moves, with the rising pace, with Bruce's hips bucking against his own greedily, almost desperately.

Something that felt like an electric shock paralyzed Bruce for a split second when he felt a hand tighten over his cock, squeezing it and stroking with accord to the violent thrusts. His hips jerked harder, and the sudden change of angle almost sent him over the verge of sanity, making him scream even louder. The necktie he was gagged with was completely soaked in sweat, blood and saliva. His body gave into spasms when Joker yanked the tie out of his mouth, claiming his mouth viciously, forcing his tongue down his throat, his movements frantic in one second, languid in another, possessive, sucking, devouring him... A surge of vehement emotions mingled with the eruptions of ecstatic pleasure. He was under Joker's control, he was taken care of, he was helpless--and he loved every minute of it, and the madman was giving him more with each second. The release was building up in his entire body, taking its time and blanking out his mind, and it surged as soon as he felt Joker come inside him, when he clung to him as if desperate for purchase. He heard a scream, but he barely recognized his own voice--and soon enough the familiar, warm numbness started to envelop him gently.

Succumbing to the aftershocks, Joker remained motionless, listening to Bruce's gradually slowing heartbeat. It took him a while to gather enough strength to sit upright. Leaning to the side, he reached to the knots still holding the other man in place and began to maneuver around them, freeing him. Bruce's arms fell loosely to his sides, completely numb, red ligature marks emerging on his wrists. Joker's hands wandered to the back of his neck, untied the sodden necktie and threw it aside. His fingers brushed against Bruce's jaw gently before they reached up and removed the blindfold.

They sat still for a while, looking at each other in silence. Slowly, Joker started to feel uneasy under Bruce's stare. It was something he had never seen before. He tucked in his lower lip, the corners of his mouth twitching nervously, and fixed his eyes on the bloody bite marks covering Bruce's neck. His hand reached up as if wanting to touch the red droplets, but he withdrew demurely, hanging his head.

"I... I'll get you something to disinfect it," he said quietly, not making a move.

Bruce couldn't take his eyes off him. As soon as he felt his arms come back to life, he lifted them without thinking, wrapping the madman in a tight embrace, hiding his face in the crook of his shoulder. Joker closed his eyes and let out a jagged sigh, clinging back to him. They just held each other without a word, and neither of them knew how long it lasted.

Chapter Text

He was given a pair of clean underwear and pants as soon as he got out of the shower, along with a snappy remark concerning his weight loss. He had his wounds disinfected and tended to. He was given no choice whether to stay or go. After all, the thought of leaving never even graced his mind as he was sitting on Joker's bed, sipping cold water from a ceramic cup, waiting for him to leave the bathroom. Nothing was stirring Bruce's state, his breath was calm, his heartbeat solid, balanced, his sight clear and focused. He felt... just right, purified, aware... Alive. The tension was gone, unveiling the presence of something that had been coiling slyly in the back of his mind, now seeping the dark, numbing comfort into his veins. He waited patiently.

The door opened with a creak, followed by soft steps against the wooden floor. Joker stood next to him, his hair hanging in thick, wet strands, dripping with water and sticking to his face. He was buttoning his shirt down lazily, gradually concealing the pale, scarred planes of his body from Bruce's sight, his expression oddly relaxed, but his eyes vivid and corrosive as usual. The madman tucked the shirt in, turned around and walked to the armchair sitting across the room, baring his teeth in a wolfish smile. Bruce watched his slightly slouching posture through half-closed eyelids, completely deadpan as Joker seated himself with his eyes still fixed on the other man. Finally, Bruce raised his eyebrows and gave him a questioning look, an eerie chuckle being his response.

Joker leaned back, smiling, drumming his fingers against the arm rests, but Bruce didn't make a move, remaining on the bed in the same position. A minute of dead silence passed before Joker stood up smacking his lips and cocking his head slightly. Slowly, he walked up to the bed and knelt at Bruce's feet, resting his chin on the man's knees, chewing at the corner of his mouth.

"Better?" he purred. His arms snaked around Bruce's legs, squeezing gently. Bruce gave him a faint, lopsided smirk and placed the cup on the floor, his eyes locked with Joker's unwavering. He studied all the small details of the madman's face, admiring the dissonance between the placid harmony of his features and the caustic threat lingering in his eyes, underneath the layer of some peculiar tenderness. His hand wandered to his temple, brushing away the wet curls, smoothing down and cupping his face in a calm, fluid motion.

Joker lowered his gaze and twitched almost unnoticeably at the touch, slowly easing against the warm hand, tilting his head and exposing more skin for Bruce to caress. Still, Bruce sensed some kind of subcutaneous tension as his fingers wandered across the dimples and puckers of his soft lips, stroked the back of his neck, traced his jaw line. The grip over his legs tightened a little. The madman closed his eyes, seemingly satisfied with the languid petting, but his slightly furrowed eyebrows and his nails digging into Bruce's calves indicated there was something more going on inside him.

He bit at his lower lip when the hand rested on the side of his neck, irritated with how the treacherous veins revealed his quickened pulse. His eyelids lifted. Bruce stared right at him, the corners of his lips curling up ever so slightly at what he saw. Longing, danger, anxiety, fear. All at once. He slid off the bed without giving it a second thought and straddled the other man's lap, his fingers tightening over his collar, pulling him closer. Enclosing his face in his hands, he felt something creep up from the base of his spine, slowly taking over him. He wanted to see it again.

Joker sucked in a ragged breath at the feel of smooth lips against his neck, scattering perversely affectionate kisses over the most sensitive areas of his skin. Bruce pulled away for a second, gauging the reaction. He had already abandoned every pretension to appear composed, his expression still peaceful but unabashedly carnal at the same time, because he enjoyed what he saw more than anything. Joker was scared.

His hands moved to the buttons of his shirt, undoing them one by one without haste, still basking in the other man's growing unease.

"Better," he whispered, his fingers descending down the bared chest, meandering over his ribs, tightening a little when they reached the curve of his waist. His touch wasn't forceful. It wasn't possessive. Yet it made the madman stiffen, it petrified him, even though he seemed to give in voluntarily, not even trying to pull away when Bruce nuzzled his pale flesh, licking, tasting him. The lips sauntered up, finally resting on his own, rendering him completely rigid. Bruce sucked gently before the firm tip of his tongue slid across Joker's mouth, tracing its shape with lewd reverence. It's not like he couldn't control himself. He didn't want to. The response he was getting, the fervid breath, the rapid heartbeat along with the look in his eyes--it was a first. He didn't intend to let it pass, indulging in the opportunity to claim his revenge.

Bruce leaned back a little, his arms still wrapped firmly around Joker's slender waist. He really did enjoy the sight; how the madman clung to his t-shirt and tugged him back, the glistening trails of saliva on his torso that he had left, the playful scold protruding from underneath the unsettlement that veiled his eyes.

"Are you going to give me a taste of my own medicine, or what?" Joker hissed gravelly, his fingers closing in Bruce's hair in a subtle warning.

"That's not what I want to do to you." A dim smirk slithered onto Bruce's face. He crawled off Joker's lap without breaking the contact, his hands smoothing along his sides. "Sit here." He nodded to the bed.

Joker stood up slowly and took a seat with slight hesitation, the tense muscles of his legs relaxing a little at Bruce's touch, his thighs spreading, letting him settle between them as he knelt on the floor, his arms wrapping around the madman's hips. His hands brushed upwards, pressing lightly, resting on his shoulders for a second before slipping the undone shirt off his body. Joker scooted a little towards him. His thighs squeezed Bruce's waist as the sleeves were being tugged off his arms.

Bruce observed with growing satisfaction how his regular breath against the man's skin made him shiver, how his fingertips sliding over the ridges of his hipbones made the muscles of his stomach flex involuntarily. Joker closed his eyes, his eyebrows narrowing. His breath was getting more and more jagged, quickening when Bruce pressed his face to the heaving chest, trailing a line of gentle kisses and stopping underneath his Adam's apple, his lips loitering, sucking. He pulled him even closer, his hips moving lazily against the growing heat between his legs. His hands wandered across the madman's back, his fingers traced the lines of his shoulder blades, slid down the crease of his spine, drifting over the flesh leisurely. He cherished the feel of him, the warm, smooth skin laced with rippled scars, the lean muscles moving underneath it, quivering but compliant.

Bruce looked up with fascination at the subtle contractions of Joker's face. He could sense his fear even though his whole body seemed to yearn for his touch, arching, rubbing gently against him in need of friction, fingers tightening over the dirty sheets. Bruce sat down on his heels, breaking the contact for a moment. He watched Joker open his eyes, his gaze rattled and venomous at once. Rising up to his knees again, his hands ascended up the man's thighs while he leaned onward, nipping at his lower stomach with his teeth. His mouth wandered up to his navel, tongue circling around it before going back down, sneaking beneath his waistband.

Joker gasped when the hand resting on his groin moved languidly over his erection in a massaging manner, fingers cupping him slowly while deft tongue kept lingering in the most sensitive parts of his upper body. His head lolled back. Bruce wrapped his arm around his waist, his fingers sliding down, digging under the fabric of his pants, squeezing the soft flesh, the touch of the other hand growing firmer and more sensual with each second. His thighs spread a little more without his doing, and he leaned back, arching against the moist lips burning into his skin, biting at the rugged insides of his cheeks, the terror plundering his head unable to force his body to cower away from the touch, from the perversely slow tongue that just kept on creeping over him like a worm, savage and sweet all at once, the heat rising, the sensation spreading, making his insides tingle, rendering his muscles useless as he fell on his back, panting, his hips pushing against the meticulous hand.

Bruce pulled away and crawled on top of Joker, wedging his knee between his thighs. He stroked the damp hair gently, smirking at how the madman's eyelids clenched shut, how his lips parted before Bruce lurched down and kissed him. Joker whimpered, rubbing against his leg in a limber, cat-like movement as the warm tongue slipped inside his mouth, snaking around his own in a strangely coy manner. Something began to scream in the back of his mind. The foreign tenderness he was being subject to chafed with everything that he knew and remembered, taking over his body in an onslaught of rending warmth, haunting his fraying thoughts with unprecedented dread. The threat that came with having something...

He didn't dare to look at Bruce despite the coaxing kisses he was scattering over his face. He didn't dare to reach up and pull him closer despite the burning need. He couldn't stand it, but he craved it, he wanted it to end, but he prayed for it to go on and repeat over and over again. It felt like falling into his own snare.

All he could do was writhe as the muscled thigh between his legs was replaced with vile fingers undoing his trousers, sliding in, smoothing over the slicked skin back and forth while the feverish mouth claimed his throat, the tongue pressed against the pulsating veins, licking lasciviously. He clawed desperately at the sheets, his temple pressing to the hard mattress while Bruce's lips wandered down his torso, stopping now and then at the more vulnerable spots, but their destination becoming more and more apparent as the fingers curled over his waistband and pulled his pants down a little. Joker squirmed when the coarse fabric brushed against the delicate flesh. He was still a little sore after what he had done to Bruce, but it didn't diminish the need for contact in the least. He just lay without a move, exposed, waiting, trying to calm his breath in vain.

Bruce knelt in front of him again, his eyes wandering over the rising chest, sliding down the flat planes of his stomach, reveling in the sight of pale skin stretched tightly over his muscles and giving away even the smallest twitch. Joker's eyelids lifted slowly, and their gazes locked.

The madman knew he wasn't able to hide what he felt. He was aware of how it affected Bruce. He winced a little, in awe at the way the other man looked at him with both lust and threat, serene affection fusing into carnality in a seamless manner. Something crawled into his throat, growing as he watched Bruce slink down without taking his eyes off him, his lips parting, ascending up the hardened length, sucking gently, treating every inch with malicious diligence. His tongue slithered out and teased the base of his cock before it slid up in a languid stroke, snaking and swirling around the head repeatedly. Joker groaned breathlessly. The sight of the other man, the morbid fondness in his eyes, the obscenely lewd and gentle way he was savoring him, kissing, licking, sucking... He felt his mind collapse, and all the remaining thoughts whisked away. His body thrashed against the bed in spasms and he wasn't even sure if the litany of obscenities actually left his mouth or if it was just something bellowing inside his head.

He was scared to look down. A wave of electric shocks immobilized him when a slippery finger slowly slid inside, quickly finding his prostate, moving teasingly while the moist, feverish mouth closed around him, snatching the breath out of his lungs. He felt the soft back of Bruce's throat brush against the tip of his cock over and over again. The merciless fingers rubbed more insistently, making him writhe and wail, his hips pushing back, head pressing against the mattress, turning to the side, burrowing into the sheets, his teeth sinking into the soiled cloth and muffling the cries he couldn't control. He couldn't control anything. As his legs tightened around Bruce, he could feel his other arm move, his body rocking gently back and forth in accord with the quick, unceasing rhythm of his mouth and fingers. Joker bit down harder. The knowledge that the other man was masturbating while driving him insane flooded his entire body with agonizing heat. He felt the first, sleazy tingles of an orgasm.

It exploded at the base of his spine, spreading in an upsurge that crawled underneath his skin until it took him all. He coiled and screamed, arms flailing and grabbing at the sheets desperately, almost tearing them apart. He whimpered when he felt Bruce suck him dry and swallow. Shortly, Bruce reached his own release almost without a sound while the backdraft subdued Joker with a wave of aftershocks. Even though it was all over and he just lay down lifelessly, the mouth didn't want to leave his body alone, a wet trail of kisses going up the middle of his torso, each one of them spurring warm tickles. Joker finally dared to open his eyes and faced his oppressor. He just couldn't stand how peaceful he looked, how his head lowered in a sly manner, how the warm lips settled in the crevices of his scarred cheeks, nuzzling and kissing with languid adoration, how they moved over his mouth, coddling it with disturbing sweetness. He felt a growl form in his throat.

Joker sprung up and tackled Bruce over to his back, bestriding him. Clawing fingers pinned the compliant arms to the bed. He bared his teeth in a snarl, plunging down, claiming the source of his growing exasperation, his bloodthirsty tongue pushing all the way down the throat that had sent him over the verge of sanity, biting at the provokingly parting lips, drawing blood but not eliciting a sound, not a twitch. Finally, he pulled away, defeated. The grip over Bruce's wrists weakened, letting his hands slide down slowly, fingers slipping between Joker’s, interlacing. The madman felt the numbing wave of panic engulf him all over again. His eyes fixed on his face, unable to veer away. The corners of Bruce's mouth curled up a little, his upper lip retracting in a victorious smirk, yet his gaze was oddly tender. The fingers tightened.

"Gotcha," he said softly.

Chapter Text

The flow used to be unhindered. The time interlaced the space, the touch mingled with blood, each event resembled a kaleidoscope, unveiling every facet, every possible way of evolving. He used to be able to dissect every last little speck of reality, trace out every tangent, predict every course. He could see what others couldn't, he could see them, each and every one of them. Passing through, connecting them with strings. They dreaded him, but did he ever adore them. He understood, admired, derided, cut open and let them witness their own punchline, starting from the inside, spreading until the very last nerve ending withered.

And the world used to be so vast. It surged right through him, not meeting a sole obstacle. He didn't feel himself, he didn't acknowledge himself, his senses would simply strive for the right texture, color, smell or sound. He didn't exert himself in search of what suited him; those things would always find him. They flew to him, from him, through him, circling, diverging, clashing. And he laughed every time the past and the future collided with a bang.

And there never was any hierarchy. Soaking in the rain for hours, crashing a car into a tree, gutting someone, feeding their innards to stray cats, going grocery shopping, massacring his entire crew because one of them seemed to be unreliable, smearing make-up over his own face or painting up their dead features--somehow, everything was equally engrossing. Hysterical in its own right. Interacting with one thing at a time, he would soon forget it with something new attracting his attention. A string of instances would flick before his eyes while the soft, translucent flesh of reality flaunted its lithe skeleton. Everything could be foretold, everything could be prevented, everything could be bent. Everything, but those fingers that still kept his own captive in their gentle grip. And those eyes that scorched him in a sickly nonabrasive way. Those lacerated lips that he had bitten, still curling up in a triumphant smile. Pliancy, when he dug his fingers in the strands of dark hair and yanked, his other hand sliding down the prominent cheekbones, clawing at the throat, scratching, tearing off the bandage that he had put there himself just moments ago. The blood was warm, thick, seeping out lazily; a red liquid blurring the border between him and what was sprawled beneath. He leaned down again to lap up the glistening beads and rivulets, to claim them. He sucked and licked those lips, his fingernails dug deeper and deeper into the scalp and the soft flesh of the throat, but slowly, he started to see that no matter how much blood he would take, he won't be able to see the bigger picture this time. It was the only time that the taste actually made him feel something. And it didn't want to swim right through him, it ground into his mind, rending it at the realization he was being kissed in response to his teeth sinking into the already gnashed mouth. He groaned when a warm hand rested on his neck as if encouraging him to continue, although it didn't protest when it was pinned back down to the mattress. He scratched the bondage marks brutally, and his teeth sank even deeper; he was about to bite through, but all he got in return was a silent chuckle. He pulled away again, infuriated.

Nothing had ever been like this. Right now, he couldn't capture any movement, he couldn't sense any disturbance. The man he was straddling was devouring him without stirring anything, and suddenly it felt hard to breathe. His eyes started to sting as he watched a genuine smile creep upon the blood covered face, while the gaze remained bleakly tranquil. He couldn't breathe. His fingers tightened around the throat, squeezing hard, but there was only soft laughter. The first time he had ever heard it, and it hurt. His hands let go of the neck and closed into fists. Everything was blurry, but he could still hear it, he could still feel the eyes fixed on him. His lips curled back and his teeth gritted, a low, droning growl bursting out of his throat.

His arm retracted and plunged down, knuckles connecting painfully with the bloodied laughter, punching repeatedly, but it only grew louder with each blow. He kept hitting, hissing and groaning like an animal, but it didn't stop. It hurt. Debilitated him. He braced himself on both arms, leaning over the other man, heaving. Looking down, he watched the patterns of blood, the bruises starting to bloom. Still no movement. Only that smile, so cruel and tender. His eyes stung so badly the image began to dissolve into an amalgam of shifting forms. Something wet ran down his cheek, and the vision cleared a little. He righted himself slowly and swallowed what was growing in his throat, letting the air barge in with a ragged gasp. His whole body felt numb, but he could actually feel it. The awareness of being paralyzed, the awareness of anything, being susceptible, wanting to be... Wanting anything and getting it, having it, at the reach of his hand, being bound with it, but still seeing every possible route, fearing the scenario that had as much pretension to coming to existence as any other. The scenario of the end, the end of something that belonged to him.

The stupor lifted from his body with a prick of heat in his stomach. Blood rushed to his head, and he reached down, grabbing the black t-shirt. He pulled the man up to face him without meeting any resistance. Something was creeping over his insides, mixing in his veins, insentient, but knowing. The resolution would always find him, even when he himself was incapacitated. His gaze rested on the placid eyes and he couldn't feel the droplets running down his face anymore. His consciousness retreated a little. He heard his own laughter, stifled and sinister, and his head lowered slightly, his face burrowing into the bruised neck. His arms snaked around the firm body tightly and possessively, scarred cheek brushed against the stubble covered jaw until his lips found the man's ear.

"You're not going to leave, you know," he hissed. His embrace surely grew painful with his arms closing tighter.

"Of course not," Their eyes locked. "It's dark outside, I might get hurt."

The nonchalant tone, that faint smile--it didn't unnerve him anymore. It drew him in.

"Ever." His fingers ran through the dark hair, coy in one moment, clawing in another. Their foreheads pressed together, and his lips rested on the soft skin, ghosting against the cheekbone, kissing. He heard a whisper.

"This is what I meant." No remains of a smile in that voice. His eyes clenched shut, and he pulled himself even closer, coaxed by the arms that enveloped him gently. Suddenly, everything became lucid, every sound, every touch, every last little sensation, it flew freely once again, but something changed forever. He was deeply entrenched into something, wrapped in something soft and warm, but solid at the same time, and he didn't want to break out. He felt himself growing into it, settling, melting against it, diffusing.

Their lips found each other. Somehow, it was like he had never done this before, the hot and swollen skin intoxicating against his. He sucked hard, feeling the growing exhilaration as it was being returned with equal zest. A firm tongue slipped into his mouth, entwining with his own, caressing it with sensual insistence. The threat waned, leaving him with nothing more than wanting this, to be right here, like this, close to him.

He pulled away to catch some breath. His insides had already turned into mush, and all he could do was to remain as he was, molten, his head lolling against the other man's. A kiss settled on his forehead for a moment before the lips wandered down to the tip of his nose, then further down to nip gently at his own. The image was clearing with every second, and all the fragments began to fall into place. He gave into a smile when he felt the tongue lick up the tears on his cheek. His hands enclosed the bruised face, and he just couldn't get enough of this sight, so crisp, so close. He was only vaguely aware of his own movements, delving into all the details of those eyes, relaxed lips, spots of dried blood.

"Bruce..." He heard his own voice, realizing something started to gently drag him out of the haze.

The dark haired man smiled in response. There were no traces of vile triumph left, his gaze became simply tender and slightly weary. He reached up to stroke Joker's hair languidly, playing with the damp curls, glad that his touch didn't startle him this time.

"Look what I've done to you again." Joker brushed his fingers over the bruises that were getting more visible with every passing moment. The smile didn't leave Bruce's face when he leaned back a little bit to get a better look at the madman. It was almost inconceivable how many facets of him he had seen in the past hour. Each of those emotions he was the reason for. Each of them vehement, genuine, and vivid. Fear, lust, rage, numbing panic, every shade of that morbid affection they both shared, and now this. As he watched Joker lean onward to be closer, as he felt his body relax against his own, it struck him how happy he was to see him placated, as simply as that.

"And I didn't even ask how was your day," Joker purred, kissing his temple. Bruce chuckled and rested his head on the man's shoulder, closing his eyes.

"I don't really mind," he said softly. The growing sense of affinity was incredible, and yet it felt so natural. He was fully aware of what had happened, nothing seemed out of place, one thing leading to another until they both found themselves in a place where words were only used to hear the other's voice.

"You're tired, aren't you." Bruce nodded without lifting his head. Joker crawled off his lap slowly and paced to the desk to turn off the night lamp. He was back in a few seconds, clawing at Bruce's shirt in the dark and tugging it off his body. Pushing him gently to make him lie down, he giggled.

"You're not scared of tetanus, right?"

"No, but you could really change those sheets every once in a while."

"You're gonna help me pick some new ones tomorrow."

Bruce smiled when the madman began to pull down his pants. "You know, I'm not that tired, I could undress myself."

"Oh, shh. I like to undress you."

He felt Joker's warm body press against him, his arms snaking around his neck, adjusting until they both lay comfortably, as close to each other as possible. They remained still for a few moments before Joker's fingers wandered down Bruce's face and sneaked behind his ear, rubbing his skin as if he were a cat. Bruce relaxed even more, the caress oddly lulling. He let out a quiet sigh and nuzzled his face into Joker's neck without thinking, and he could tell the madman was smiling.

"Hey, Bruce."

"What..." Bruce groaned with faked annoyance. He felt he could fall asleep any second now.

"I was just wondering. I mean, uh... how was your day?"

"I'm supposed to be tired, you know."

"Well, yeah, I just wanna listen to you actually talk a little more." Joker's voice reclaimed its playful tinge, but it was still very soft, slightly lower than his usual nasal drawling. Bruce smirked and tilted his head a bit to be more comfortable.

"Just record me and put it on loop or something."

"Come on, tell me. Had fun at that get-together?"

"You mean Sofia and everything?"

"Yeah."

Joker heard a mirthless chuckle and his fingers tightened a little over Bruce's body. Neither of them said anything for a few moments.

"I had so much fun, I almost threw up."

"Now. Details. Share with the class, c'mon."

"I'm really not sure if she made it, and I actually feel bad about it." The words were leaving his mouth without any effort, despite his exhaustion. "Because she told me to wait for a sign, but it didn't come until each of her limbs was broken and dislocated, bones sticking out, and then they cut off her finger." He paused for a second and sucked in a breath. "Can you guess why I waited so long?" he asked with a bitter smile.

"I'll just pretend I can't." Another gentle squeeze. "Keep talking."

"I was staring at what they were doing to her, trying to enjoy it. I couldn't. I only felt sorry for her." Another ringing pause. "You know how I like to think of myself as a monster, right? It's easier that way."

"I know."

"And now, I get sickened looking at the scars I gave you, I get sickened watching a piece of garbage like Falcone get beaten up, and yet when I think of you killing Rachel..." A quiet giggle cut into Bruce's musings. "Yeah, you know what happens. It is funny."

"And confusing, isn't it?"

"Very."

"I've told you, you're not insane, you're not a monster, you're just having a tough time. Soon you'll understand."

Bruce closed his eyes, allowing himself to find some comfort in those prosaic words; coming from Joker they held some foreboding significance. Understanding couldn't come any sooner, but for now, his wrecked body succumbed to warmth, taking the mind with it.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

There were leafless trees all around him, and the air was cold and moist. The grainy image was suffused with sickly faint, orange light slithering through the bare branches. Bruce tried to look around, but all he saw were shadows, some of them still and gnarly, others cadaverous, moving, meandering through the trees so slowly it was almost unsettling. Some of them even had faces, and he knew he should recognize them, but he couldn't. He felt something warm standing close behind him. Unfazed, he watched the flickering spots of light laced with the cobweb of shadows cast by the dried twigs.

Someone walked past him without paying any attention to him. Just another shadow with a face. For some reason, it held a gun in its hand. Bruce began to notice guns in the hands of each one of them. Still, it didn't stir him. The warmth kept him motionless, calm.

The image became even more grainy and lurid. A definite shape emerged from the woods, approaching him slowly. Jagged movements, limbs bent at unnatural angles. The closer it got, the more its features blurred, becoming indiscernible. When it was right in front of him, the face was completely blank, framed with ragged strands of red hair. It pulled out its gun and pointed it at his forehead. Bruce could hear its dry voice, even though it had no mouth.

"Tag, you're it."

It pulled the trigger. He felt the bullet break through his skull slowly, but there was no pain. The rending heat wandered through his brain, a piece of metal disconnecting everything forever. Finally, it reached the back of his head, breaking out, going for the warmth.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Bruce opened his eyes and turned his head, trying to lift a little. It wasn't easy as he was lying on his stomach, pressed down by Joker's weight. The madman was drawing something on his back with a red sharpie, but as soon as he noticed Bruce was awake, he greeted him with a big grin.

"Good morning," he sing-songed, his arms snaking around Bruce's torso without letting go of the marker.

"Morning... what are you doing?" Bruce narrowed his eyebrows and twisted his head, but he couldn't even catch a glimpse of Joker's work.

"Oh, I just... I was playing connect the dots on your back."

"What?"

"Y'know, you have so many beauty marks, it was so hard to resist." Joker sighed and snuggled a little closer, resting his head on Bruce's shoulder, careful not to irritate any of the wounds or bruises. Bruce chuckled, and his hand slid down the arm wrapped around his chest, caressing it.

"So what did you come up with?"

"An elephant."

"So now I've got a red elephant on my back?" he droned reproachfully, but he couldn't hide the amusement tingeing his voice.

"Oh, c'mon, it's always been there. Now it's just... redder."

The smile didn't want to leave Bruce's face, and he just closed his eyes, enjoying the other man's touch.

"What time is it?" he asked quietly.

"It's daytime, dear. And we have a lot of crazy things slated for today, so you'd better start getting up."

Chapter Text

"I mean, you'd better brush up your self-preservation instincts, darling. Do you really want to get rabies from me?" Joker said, pouring the disinfectant over the bite marks scattered all over Bruce's skin. Bruce just smirked, wondering for a second about those instincts. He had to admit--lately he had given in completely to Joker's protective custody, and being taken care of felt a little too nice, a little too right, enough for him to forget about the various dangers of bites and other things; then again, the prospect of catching something from Joker didn't seem particularly scary to him. He listened to the madman mutter unhappily something about failing to tend to those wounds before they had fallen asleep, and slowly his thoughts trailed off a little, allowing him to give in again. His gaze kept circling around Joker's face, analyzing different details, the subtle changes of expression, the image going slightly out of focus in one minute and sharpening in another when something new would catch his attention. Sometimes, their eyes would meet, and he would smile as Joker would place another band-aid over another wound. Bruce was aware he was as far from dreaming as he could get, though everything seemed a little grainy, just like in his nightmare. Still, he was sure that the gray, foggy morning seeping into the room through the open window was real, covering the entire city, slinking around their home. He remembered what he had said last night, and he knew what it meant. It was their home now, and the thought of it didn't stir him in the least. Not right now.

A warm hand chose a bruiseless spot and patted him on the cheek gently. Joker raised his eyebrows and pouted, checking out the result of his ministrations. He squinted and cleared his throat. "No, really, y'know, it's you who should be reasonable. I'm worried," he said in a parental manner, dragging out the syllables.

"Really, y'know, it's you who shouldn't be worried," Bruce answered, mocking him a little. Joker leaned back and shot him a reproachful glare, smacking his lips. The springs of the mattress creaked quietly when he changed his position from straddling Bruce to sitting next to him; he didn't take his eyes off the other man. "Maybe I shouldn't, maybe I am; I'm just subversive like that," he said, smirking. Bruce gave him a slant look and smiled despite the pain.

"I could never imagine you worried over anything."

"Are you saying you were actually imagining me through all those years? Thinking of me in your spare time, mulling over various scenarios?"

"You would be surprised." Bruce chuckled and rubbed his forehead with his hands. He closed his eyes for a moment. Lean arms wrapped around him, strands of hair brushed against his neck, tickling the skin, and the slender, twitchy fingers clawed at his shoulder in a possessive gesture. That was their morning: talking about nothing and everything, washing the wounds, doing nothing really, being close, reluctant to pull away even for the time needed to go to the bathroom. Everything seemed to pass by in slow motion as opposed to the jump-cut sequences of which Bruce's memories mainly consisted; the memories of countless nights filled with fear and jagged doses of the emotion now suffusing everything, not wanting to go away, glueing them together with comfort, calmness and something without a name. Bruce turned his head to face the madman. He really liked to look at him in broad daylight. He liked to see those incisive eyes get clouded with slight confusion at his touch, and then soften in a way he would never suspect was possible with Joker. Maybe there was something perverse about enjoying the effect he had on him with a simple gesture, maybe there even was something morbid about it; right now, thinking of who this man really was and what he had done would only send a pang of weird longing through Bruce's body, longing to neutralize it somehow, to watch it melt, to feel it melt.

He pulled Joker closer, embracing him tightly. This was their new way, and it worked for both of them better than anything, much better than the old, tired mechanisms. One move, and the quiet, doubting monster dwelling inside of Bruce would coil up and wither. One touch, and the boiling, acerbic substance that seemed to normally be the Joker would subside, relenting more and more the tighter he held him. There were short moments of satisfaction at this small victory, but soon enough Bruce would give in himself, remaining still until they both felt harmless, unarmored, forgetting about what had just gone away almost unnoticed; the lingering traces, the memories of the old way.

"What are those crazy things we have slated for today?" Bruce asked, his arms still wrapped firmly around Joker.

"Well, uh..." The madman fixed his gaze at some distant point as if pondering the question. "We're going out and having breakfast, that's quite insane if you ask me, and then, we'll just, y'know, go with the flow, and at some point buy those goddamned bed sheets. I'm thrilled already," he chirped and shivered exaggeratedly.

"Well, I'm fucking petrified already." Bruce laughed softly and leaned his head back against the wall, closing his eyes. Joker gasped and smacked him on the head, forcing Bruce to lift his eyelids and give him a scolding glare.

"Language," he hissed and cupped the other man's face in his hands, looking at the bruises critically. "Now, c'mon, you should have a positive attitude about it. It's a beautiful day, as can be seen, so just absorb the beauty. Be sprightly, be positive; we're getting new bed sheets," he uttered the last sentence in singsong. "I'll give you a makeover before we set out, hm? You oughta feel better immediately."

"I should hope so." Bruce sighed. He already felt rather good, he would even wager the more appropriate expression was that he felt great, and he knew that Joker knew it, and even shared it; it didn't need to be mentioned though.

"Wouldn't want anyone to find out you're being subject to domestic abuse now, would you?" Joker grinned and pranced to the bathroom, returning shortly with handfuls of make-up supplies. "Now, that would be unsightly," he muttered as he seated himself on the bed next to Bruce. The man smiled, and Joker smiled back at him in a wolfish, yet sort of tender way before he started to cover up some of the bruises.

"What do we want for breakfast?" Bruce asked quietly, still smiling a little.

"Pancakes."

"Doesn't sound very insane. Still petrifying, though."

"When you see the maitre'd of the place, you'll sing differently. Insane, I'm telling you." Joker leaned in and lowered his voice to a conspirational whisper.

The room got a little brighter for a moment, thanks to a stray streak of sunlight getting through the thick clouds, but in a matter of seconds it was gone. Bruce's eyes wandered down Joker's torso, stopping at some of the scars while the madman kept applying the make-up diligently, humming something to himself. Bruce didn't mind the pricks of pain at the touch, in fact he kind of enjoyed it as if it was the perfect reassurance of him being there, of Joker being there with him. It was everything that really mattered at the moment. Without thinking, he reached out to touch some of the scars he had given him, smoothing over the uneven skin with his fingertips, caressing it. He felt something strange for a second, being torn between wanting them to go away and the urge to get deeper, to burn into the other man. It could be done without blood, and he saw it when Joker looked at him. He still seemed a little startled every time Bruce would reach out to him on his own, and Bruce caught himself wanting to see more, again, but another part of him guided his hand until it rested on the blond hair, petting it in calming, languid strokes.

The corners of Joker's mouth twitched, and he tucked in his lower lip, smiling. He was giving the make-up its final touches, and as soon as he was done, he grabbed Bruce's hand and kissed the bondage marks on his wrist. "Get dressed, get dressed," he lilted and rose from the bed. Bruce moved his head, looking for his clothes on the floor, and began to pick them up slowly while Joker rummaged through his shirts.

"My pants are still damp," Bruce said, slightly amused.

"You don't say," answered Joker. "Take mine. They fit you, right?"

"Yeah." Bruce pulled on Joker's pinstriped pants and reached for his t-shirt. It had spots of dried blood on it. He sighed, trying to scratch them off with his fingernails, but the stains remained, so he just shrugged and put it on anyway, deciding he'll hide it under his jacket. The madman put on some randomly picked shirt, pants and suspenders and proceeded to the bathroom. "Time to get dapper," he announced.

Bruce smiled and followed him, but not because he wanted to watch Joker work on his scars. It just felt obvious to be where the other was. Joker must have thought the same; he opened the cabinet and gave Bruce an approving smile while the man seated himself on the edge of the bathtub, his eyes following the fingers slathering shaving gel over scarred cheeks and then, the precise sweeps of the straight razor. Minutes were passing, and finally Joker went on to the main task. With each layer of liquid latex and make-up, he began to turn into the man Bruce had seen a couple days earlier, dragging bags of alcohol into the house. The effect was flawless, yet the whole process didn't seem to take any effort on Joker's part; he just continued his routine, the movements of those usually twitchy hands steady and knowing as if he had been doing this his entire life. He was humming some strange melody that Bruce felt he knew, although Joker's rendition sounded much more eerie than what he thought was the original. Bruce curled his fingers over the edge of the tub; it was hard and cold, reminding him all of it was real, what he had said last night was real, what they were about to do was real, they were real. Joker finished preening himself in the mirror and turned to face him, grinning.

"So, how's this?" he asked and pointed at his face, his tongue darting out.

"I like you better without it," Bruce answered, not realizing what he had said until a couple moments later. He chuckled and lowered his head, shaking it slightly, but Joker approached him, unfazed, and placed his hands on the man's shoulders. He leaned in and kissed his hair.

"Flattery will get you anywhere," he murmured and got a hold of Bruce's hand, pulling him gently to make him stand up. On his way out of the bathroom, Bruce caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror; the bruises were covered completely, and there were only the band-aids under his lower lip and on his neck left to tell the story. He remembered the sharp teeth grinding his skin and the taste of tears. Warmth swept through his body; he looked at Joker with a sinking feeling in his stomach and followed him to the door.

They found themselves back in the dim room; the clouds seemed to have gotten even thicker, blocking more of the sunlight away. Joker picked a plum waistcoat and a brown and purple argyle necktie from the floor, put the waistcoat on without buttoning it and focused on the tie. Bruce smirked. He walked up to him and grabbed his hands.

"You're gonna end up with a botched knot again," he said quietly, raising his eyebrows a little, and began tying it, creating a perfect knot with a few quick movements. He straightened the necktie and glanced at Joker who seemed to be deeply offended and genuinely amused at the same time. Bruce just smiled.

"What do you mean, botched? Again?" Joker asked, sounding a little hurt. "You... you." He pouted and started to button his waistcoat. "You really pay attention, don't you," he added softly.

"When the details are all you have, you pay attention," Bruce said, the corners of his lips still curled up a little. He reached to the last button of the waistcoat and undid it. "If you wanna be dapper, leave this one undone." His hands lingered, picking at the fabric absently. Joker let out a high pitched giggle and took a step closer to Bruce.

"I'm gonna break hearts now," he said, still laughing. "You always leave yours undone, don't ya?"

"Yeah. I have to be the ultimate fashion victim of this city." Bruce's hands slipped underneath the fabric, his fingers playing with the suspender clips and wandering over Joker's shirt. He didn't think much of what he was doing. Joker moved even closer.

"No, no, you don't have to," he half-whispered.

Bruce reached up to the other man's face and evened out the make-up on his cheekbone with his fingertips; his other hand rested on the small of his back. Joker squinted, tilting his head.

"What now, my make-up's botched too? Hm?"

"Just a little bit."

"You're like the perfect wife, y'know?" The madman smiled, and Bruce felt that sinking sensation one more time when he looked into his eyes. Everything around was gray and cold except for what they had right now. His fingers brushed down the back of Joker's neck while his other arm wrapped around his waist, pulling him close. Two soft hands slid down his sides slowly and soon enough Joker was holding him tight, still smiling, their gazes still locked. It was enough for Bruce to drown in warmth, and it never ceased to amaze him how little Joker had to do to make him tingle all over. Fingers clawed at his back, and he leaned in, wanting to kiss him, but at this point he wasn't sure if he would be able to stop at that. His lips rested on Joker's forehead, then his temple, and his hands started to be a little anxious, moving over the patterned shirt. He felt something shut down inside his head. The familiar white noise clouded his thoughts for a second when Joker grabbed his hair and licked his lips, kissing him, very gently at first as if trying not to hurt him, but Bruce had already forgotten about pain. He pushed back.

They moved closer to each other until their bodies pressed flush together. Bruce's tongue slipped inside Joker's mouth, moving slowly, but insistently, and Joker responded with languid sweetness, so unlike his usual, harsh way. Bruce's arms stopped wandering over the other man's body, holding him tightly, protectively. There was a strange feeling shooting through him, something much more powerful than lust. Something almost euphoric. Joker broke the kiss, muttering something about being reasonable and sounding a little breathless, patting the band-aid under Bruce's lip gently. He didn't pull away too far; there were only inches between them, and his arms were still wrapped around the other man's neck and waist. Bruce leaned back a little bit to get a better look. He chuckled; Joker was literally glowing despite his gaze slowly regaining its sharp edge.

"Sofia was right," Bruce said, amused.

"About what?"

"About your buttery eyes and maidenly blushes."

Joker gasped. "What?"

"You don't remember?" Bruce smirked, playing with Joker's hair. "At the go-go club?"

"No... no, no." Joker bit his lower lip pensively. "I'm gonna have a little talk with that fishwife, tell her a thing or two about maidenly blushes."

"Provided she's still alive."

"She'd better be." The madman took a step back and grinned. "If not, I'll just go to her funeral and have fun, maybe even celebrate at her wake, and I expect you to tag along."

"If it would be any consolation to you, sure." Bruce cocked his eyebrow. "She brought you home that night, you know."

"I thought you did."

"No, she said I'd just do some uncomely things with you."

Joker wondered for a moment. "Now, she's drugging me, badmouthing me, buying me water and painkillers, and tucking me in bed. Why can't we kill her?"

"Because she might be just as well already dead."

"Ah, yeah." Joker felt a growling in his stomach and bent slightly. "...Another county heard from. We should go, darling." He threw his arms around Bruce's neck and kissed him one more time, as gently as possible. "C'mon, c'mon," he murmured and grabbed Bruce's hand, pulling him towards the door and grabbing his jacket from the chair on their way out. Another streak of sunlight brightened the room for a second before they left.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

It was cold outside, and kind of windy. The moment Bruce found himself surrounded by the chilly air and insipid sunlight, he acknowledged the slight soreness in his muscles, stinging pricks of pain when the fabric of his clothes brushed against the scratches, and the general reluctance to reemerge, to go back to the world of endless possibilities and threats. Trying to steer clear of such thoughts, he looked at Joker; the madman was smiling at him and squeezing his shoulder as they slowly approached the border of his turf. The deserted, dingy back alleys slowly transitioned into equally dingy, yet somewhat occupied areas. They passed a number of sleeping vagrants, and Bruce could have sworn he saw a slightly decayed, female hand protruding from underneath a pile of garbage, but it's not like he wasn't used to such images; it's not like he could have done anything about it. It's not like he could force himself to care at the moment.

Joker sighed and grabbed his hand without a word. A simple, human gesture of reassurance. It was out of place, but it was exactly what they both needed, and the further away from home they ventured, the more they realized it. What they had, what they had decided upon--it was still fledgling, vulnerable, prone to damage, and they knew it, they felt it. Bruce's fingers interlaced with Joker's, and his eyes bore into the pavement, sliding over various pieces of trash they passed. His grip tightened; he was walking down the alleys with the Joker, holding his hand, passing dead hookers and dying skells. And everything was just perfect. He felt a little nauseous and his head filled with strange buzzing.

"Y'know... We're not getting any better, are we?" Joker asked, smiling. Bruce looked at him. The sound of his voice sobered him up a little. "But we're right where we should be. Can't be anywhere else, right? Can't be any different."

"No, we can't. We don't have to, either." The nausea went away, and Bruce exhaled, the air coming out in a white cloud. Joker let go of his hand and wrapped his arm around his neck. They walked like this for a while, in silence. When no one could see them, Bruce stopped for a second and kissed Joker's temple; it felt like the last stolen moment of something he needed desperately to get through another minute, but that was it. He pulled away and they both went into the main street.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

The maitre'd of the seedy diner they entered was an elderly, incredibly dry and skinny, maroon-haired woman. As soon as Joker appeared in the entrance door, she threw a lighter at him with a cordial "Get the fuck out of here, Melvin", but the madman dodged the projectile with grace and advanced to a table. Bruce watched the lighter land at his feet as if in slow motion, and he looked up at the woman, but she wasn't paying any attention to him; she was earnestly staring daggers in Joker's direction. Bruce followed him and took a seat. The only customers beside them were three younger men in the other corner; probably college students, seemingly not very responsive and sipping on their tenth coffee.

"Told you to get the fuck out of here, you useless piece of shit," the woman droned from behind the counter.

"I will, but you know the drill, Annabelle," Joker answered with a grin and blew her a kiss.

"So how you want them goddamned pancakes this time?" she asked in monotone, not impressed.

"Take a wild guess."

"Fucking blueberry again, huh? What about you, pretty-pretty?" she asked Bruce, her voice losing the sour tinge.

"The same, I think," Bruce said, giving the woman his smuggest smile and watching her disappear in the back. He looked at Joker and raised his eyebrows. "Melvin...?" Joker looked back at him and shrugged.

"Yes, Francis?" he said, chuckling. Bruce stared for a little longer and burst out laughing. He rested his hands on the slightly sticky, checkered, plastic tablecloth and leaned back in his chair.

"Why is she so bitter with you?"

"Oh, that. Y'know, I used to be her favorite customer, but a few weeks ago this Jewish person, one of Sofia's stallions, came around here with friends. Offering unsolicited services."

"Like what?"

"Well, you know. Protection, things. I can't imagine them actually trying extortion in here since this place is so hot, I guess they just liked the location. So I was just sitting in the corner, drinking my coffee and having fun watching the quarrel, and Annabelle didn't appreciate my having fun in her direst moment. Shouldn't have laughed so hard, huh? But I did. I laughed a little and left, and ever since she has this term of endearment for me, Useless Piece Of Shit." Joker pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and placed one in his mouth. He lit it and took a drag contemplatively. "But I still leave her ample tips, and she still adores me."

"Yeah, I can tell." Bruce gave Joker a lopsided smirk, and his gaze trailed off, focusing on the smoke. He didn't think even for a second that Melvin could have been Joker's real name, or that this right here was a slice of his everyday life as a law-abiding citizen while at night he would don his costume and go on a prowl, like Bruce did. All it came down to were just names and appearances, and such things never determine the so called truth. The fact that he was Gotham's most prominent citizen and the Batman at the same time, and the fact that he was right now sitting in a forgotten diner with an apparently psychopathic mass murderer, waiting for his pancakes, wasn't any more real than the facade of latex, make-up and normality they were keeping up at the moment; in fact, all of it seemed insignificant. Oddly enough, everything that mattered right now was that they were together, and Bruce felt almost too comfortable in the surreality of it all, like it was the only thing that allowed him to be himself, whatever it meant. It felt just right.

They sat in silence for a while, listening to the lyrics of the song on the speakers--Too Many Fish In The Sea. Joker leaned in and grinned.

"We live in an aquarium, don't we," he said quietly. Bruce smirked and raised his eyebrows.

"And there's no one to change the water."

Their pancakes arrived. Annabelle placed the plates on the table and put a bottle of chocolate syrup in front of Joker.

"So you don't whine, motherfucker," she gnarled and turned around.

"Where's my coffee?" he asked, disappointed.

"Haven't pissed in it yet," the woman shouted from behind the counter. Shortly, she came back to their table with a pot, two cups, a few creamers and sugar packets. She arranged all of it on the dirty tablecloth and muttered something along the lines of "Hope you get ulcers, enjoy". She gave Bruce a quick glance and was just about to walk away, but something must have clicked in her head, and she stopped.

"Hey. Aren't you..." She pointed at Bruce and creased her drawn on eyebrows. "You look just like the douchebag Burt Wayne or what's his face... skinnier, though."

Bruce gave her the dumbest smile he could muster. "Heheh, yeah, I hear that a lot," he said without missing a beat, almost cheerfully; it's not like he had never been in such situation while going into the city in plain clothes.

"If we ever meet the guy, we'll fix him up so no one confuses Francis with him anymore. I mean, it's an outrage. He's much cuter than Wayne, right?" Joker smiled coaxingly at Annabelle. The woman stepped back and gave Bruce an assessing look.

"Sure is." She guffawed, exposing her crooked teeth. "But what are you two, gay or somethin'?"

"Yeah, yeah, zany." Joker smacked his lips and waved her off. She hissed and paced back to the counter, mumbling something unintelligible. Bruce was about to say something, but suddenly, his phone began to ring. He pulled it out of his pocket and pressed it to his ear.

"Hello?"

Joker squinted, trying to listen to the conversation. Bruce wasn't speaking much, mainly asking half-questions and agreeing to something reluctantly, and after a minute or two he hung up. He looked up at the madman, seeming a little relieved and confused at the same time.

"Who was it?" asked Joker.

"Mosheh Nissenbaum."

"The Jewish Person, right? That's his name?"

"Yeah. He wants me to be some place this afternoon, and he said Sofia's got a ruptured spleen, but she's going to make it. And he thanked me for the service rendered."

"See? They're thanking you, how very lovely." Joker grabbed the bottle of chocolate syrup and squeezed some of it over Bruce's pancakes, drawing a smiling heart. "Eat your pancakes, Francis."

Bruce chuckled and shook his head. "Alright, Melvin."

Chapter Text

They sauntered down the sidewalk without haste, Joker humming something and smoking a cigarette, the smoke insistently floating in Bruce's direction each time the madman exhaled, sometimes getting in Bruce's eyes. He didn't mind, though. The weather hadn't changed much since they left the apartment. It was still blindingly gray, cold and surreal, and a small rain had joined the picture, but that wasn't important either. Bruce looked down, seeing Joker's gray, suede shoes, his own black ones, pinstriped pants belonging to the madman wrapped around his own legs, flat cigarette butts on the pavement and a fresh one thrown by Joker, remaining behind them just to be stomped on by another pedestrian some time later as they slowly advanced towards a decrepit parking garage. Bruce watched the tiny drops of rain on Joker's jacket; he thought it must have been woolen, but he had no idea why it had crossed his mind. They walked up to the attendant booth. Bruce wasn't really listening to the madman talk to the bored cashier, instead focusing on how Joker's hair got even more curly and frizzy because of the rain, and somehow, he found the fact interesting enough to stare a little longer as he followed him to the slot.

Their steps echoed in the nearly empty building until they approached a black PT Cruiser and stopped in front of it. Joker wiped a nonexistent speck of dust off its hood with the sleeve of his jacket and gave Bruce a half-smile, amused with the other man's incredulous expression. Bruce remained silent for a couple more seconds with his eyebrow slightly cocked before he decided to speak up.

"You actually own this?" he asked.

"No, uh... I actually use this," Joker answered slowly, trying to define the nature of his relationship with the car. "It's just here, I have the keys. I buy it gas." He opened the door and motioned for Bruce to get inside. "Sometimes."

Bruce sat in the passenger seat, watching Joker position himself behind the wheel and fasten his seatbelt.

"Do you have a license?" he asked tentatively, smiling.

Joker shot him a slant look. He reached to the glove compartment, fumbled inside of it for a moment and withdrew a few plastic cards. He handed them to Bruce in a smug manner, staring at him with anticipation as Bruce squinted and examined the cards thoroughly. All of them were perfectly bonafide looking driver's licenses, each belonging to a different person, yet all of them seemed to share Joker's retouched features. Bruce gave the printed names a cursive look and looked up just to see a huge grin slide onto Joker's face. He couldn't help but smile too.

"Roger Waters...?" Bruce chuckled.

"Waters, Roger, yeah..." Joker reached inside his jacket. "Rock and roll," he murmured to himself, pulling out an old looking, leather wallet. He opened it and took one more plastic card which he presented to Bruce.

"Today I'm staying in character," he stated.

Bruce glared at it. This license belonged to a Melvin Callaghan.

"All forged, right?" Bruce asked quietly.

"No, this one's real, or me name ain't Melvin Callaghan, macree."

Bruce fastened his seat belt. "Yer name ain't Melvin Callaghan," he said self-assuredly. Joker looked at him and nodded.

"Yeah, probably not." The madman reached to the glove compartment one more time, this time pulling out a bag of gummy dinosaurs. He opened it, retrieved a fistful and started sticking them in his mouth, at the same time throwing the bag so it landed in Bruce's lap. Bruce was still smiling and he couldn't stop. He took one dinosaur and bit off its head while Joker started the engine, and they began to drive down the exit ramp. He wanted to ask him something, but after a few seconds he wasn't sure if he really wanted to hear the answer. He wasn't sure if there even was an answer, and if it was in any way significant. Nonetheless, he gave Joker a look and the man looked back at him, his mouth full of gummy substance and attempting to smile. It took him a while to grind and swallow each dinosaur, but as soon as he was done, he started talking, his nasal voice eerily carefree as usual.

"I had turned quite a few civil servants into millionaires just to be relieved of this kind of burden... before they met their demise," he said as they joined the traffic. At this hour it was far from being congested. Bruce kept staring at Joker. The madman gave him a quick look with the slight smirk that appeared to be pasted onto his face permanently, and his eyes sharp as usual. His gaze focused back on the road as he continued. "I just... y'know, I couldn't for the life of me find one good reason for all those certificates and records to lay around. For some, uh, name to connect it all and pertain to me."

"You paid off some people to erase you?"

"Erase me? I paid them to delete a couple of files, that's all." Joker shrugged. "I'm not just a sum of numbers and records, and The Man can't tell me no different," he stated, accentuating each word with a wag of a finger and his tone evidently mimicking every rebellious teenager ever.

Bruce smirked. "You can still hear the Mosquito, right?"

"You're just jealous because I have more valid licenses than you."

Bruce smiled and rested his head against the window, watching the rain drops slide down while they waited for the light. He was a little jealous. Thinking of his own well-charted identity as Bruce Wayne, he felt discomfort that seemed almost physical. The world is too small for someone like Bruce Wayne to disappear. A tragically orphaned son of a renowned doctor, sweet, generous billionaire, harmless and stupid to these; noble and generous to those--there was a face for everyone, each of them well described and documented, and everyone held those faces in a vise-like grip, defining him. The Batman is as good as dead. It takes so little to leave you with nothing. All those words he had heard in his life, all the sentences summarizing him, all the truisms couldn't possibly begin to cover the instance of Bruce Wayne sitting in a PT Cruiser with a mass murderer, eating gummy dinosaurs and trying desperately not to laugh, or not to cry--he couldn't determine any longer.

"I want to drop by my apartment... to grab a couple things," he said quietly after a prolonged moment of silence that, surprisingly enough, wasn't uncomfortable in the least.

"Whatever you say, darling," said Joker, glancing quickly at Bruce. "But y'know, you could've just said you wanna talk to your legal guardian and tell him you're not gonna be home for supper. I'd understand."

"Your sagacity is unnerving."

"Well, I'm trying."

Bruce turned his head away from the gray image of the streets and his eyes rested on Joker's face; he seemed so calm and concentrated on driving, it just didn't seem to add up compared to his usual bravado when it came to handling vehicles, but then again, the only times Bruce could contemplate Joker's driving skills were the nights spent chasing him in his tumbler many, many months ago. The times of keeping up the appearances of perpetrator and prosecutor for the sake of... he didn't know what anymore. He kept looking at him, realizing how merely the sight of the madman sitting right next to him, all well and not bleeding from his ministrations, made him feel so tranquil, comfortable. Simply being near him made everything appear perfectly right, despite the jarring awareness of nothing being really right. Bruce tried to recall the smeared greasepaint, the blood, the strain in his muscles, and he couldn't process how he had managed to live like that for all this time when all this time the solution was so easy. Then again, he had never dared to think absurdity could be easy. He had never dared to think it could feel more real than pain and nausea.

Joker's features weren't morphing into demonic features he had remembered from the countless nights spent looking at the painted face, balancing on the edge of consciousness. For once, Bruce realized that what he had right there wasn't going to go anywhere, and that the man sitting beside him was tangible, real, not going to change into another nightmare. Perhaps the nightmare had seeped into his waking state and was there to stay, but it sobered him up, and looking at Joker, the shape of his eyes, lips, his rounded nose, his freckles--it drove away any trail of doubt that had been lingering in his head, for good.

Minute by minute, they were getting closer to Bruce's home. The burden of the choice that had been made seemed to grow heavier with each second, but there was no other way; all of it was there to stay, for good.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

The elevator looked the same, nothing had changed ever since he used it last time a few days earlier, yet everything felt different. The 'P' button lighted up. Joker was waiting for him in the car. Sweat was trickling down his back, and numerous explanations ran through Bruce's head as he was being taken up to his penthouse, about to face Alfred. His legal guardian. Bruce chuckled, but it didn't bring any relief. On contrary; the knot in his stomach tightened, yet he was strangely sure of everything that had to be done.

The door slid open, and there he was, about to enter his home where everything seemed so bland and proper, the black-clad silhouette of his butler greeting him as he stepped out of the elevator. He walked up to Alfred in silence, trying to muster a smile, but after a few seconds he realized something had taken over him, and the smile just forced itself onto his face without any effort on his part, and he looked at the man, wondering if he had ever felt so happy to see him. Alfred gave him a careful look, but his weary eyes seemed to be smiling as well, despite the obvious concern veiling his gaze.

"Alfred..." Bruce started. "I'm sorry I didn't call you or anything... again."

"You needn't worry about me, sir. Compared to your seven-year absence, such jaunts seem quite harmless."

"I'm not so sure."

Alfred smiled, but it was evident it was hard for him. Bruce started to feel stinging in his eyes and swallowed, forcing down something growing in his throat. He hanged his head and took one step closer.

"Listen, I..." he paused, trying to figure out what he really intended to say. "I might not be... coming back for a while." Alfred was silent, and it felt more suppressing than anything he could have said right now. "And... you don't have to stay here... go spend some time with your family, if you like..." Bruce kept staring at his shoes, at Joker's pants he was wearing, unable to face the other man. The silence began to feel unbearable, and the stinging in his eyes grew more persistent.

"Master... Bruce," Alfred said quietly, and Bruce felt something wet run down his cheek. He couldn't remember when his butler called him that last--for the past several years he had been Master Wayne and nothing else. He looked up; Alfred was still smiling, but he seemed much more at ease now. "Just make sure to let me know if you ever wish for my services in the future."

Bruce chuckled and wiped the tear from his cheek, unknowingly smearing some of his make-up and unveiling a bit of bruised skin. "I don't know if you'd ever want to hang around again, if you knew..." He clenched his eyes shut. "I'm sorry, Alfred. This time you should give up on me, for your own good."

The old man laughed quietly, and Bruce immediately felt a wave of calmness wash over him; the laughter sounded so genuine, it made all the guilt dissipate, leaving him slightly bemused, yet at the same time feeling more relaxed, safe.

"Never," said Alfred, and Bruce laughed as well. "I've become much too old for being unbiased, sir," he added after a moment. "And you've suffered long enough. Too long for being selfless. Pardon me being so bold, Master Bruce, but..." he looked at his employer, thinking. "You're laughing... and you haven't laughed in two years. Whatever it is you're doing now... I didn't spend thirty two bloody years of my life looking after you just to watch you wither away like this."

Bruce took a couple more steps forward without thinking, and soon enough he found himself hugging the man just like he used to as a little boy, crying for his parents. The tears were flowing down his face, sinking into the black suit, and he felt like all the years separating him from being that helpless child hadn't passed at all. Alfred returned the embrace, patting him on the back. He laughed silently.

"Just be sure not to do anything stupid."

Bruce chuckled. "You know... I think I've been doing nothing but stupid things for the past few days."

"Well then," Alfred pushed him away gently. "You're still in one piece, it can't be that stupid. Especially if it makes you happy."

"What if... someone else had to suffer in order for me to be happy? What if someone had to die?" Bruce paused for a second. "What would you say then, Alfred?"

"I told you, sir. I'm too old for being unbiased." The butler hanged his head, still smiling, and Bruce's eyes clouded again.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Bruce threw the bag filled with toiletries and clothes in the back seat and got in the car, taking his place next to Joker. He was completely soaked since the rain had become a deluge during the time he spent in his penthouse, and the raindrops were trickling down his face, but Joker could tell some of them were tears. The madman leaned in, scooting a little closer in his seat.

"You're crying," he stated.

Bruce looked up and smiled. "I am." Joker smiled back at him and wrapped his arm around his neck, and Bruce couldn't bring himself to care about being sighted by anyone right now, shunning thoughts out of his head when soft lips pressed against his, when warmth spread all over his body despite the cold, wet clothes sticking to his skin. His hands moved unknowingly, finding the tangled hair, brushing down the latex-covered cheeks, touching the smooth neck, fingers sliding beneath the collar of the patterned shirt. He let himself be pulled closer, he closed his eyes when Joker started scattering gentle kisses all over his face, and he wasn't sure if he wanted to cry harder or laugh. The sudden surge of emotions was blinding and deafening, and he simply put his arms around Joker, holding on to him as tightly as possible, burrowing his face into his neck. These emotions seemed almost childish in their purity, and he didn't quite know what to make of it, but he remained silent, motionless, breathing in his smell. It stopped being stupid for a moment.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Joker of course had to choose one of the most exclusive stores in the whole city. The entire journey to this place had seemed like a blur to Bruce, its duration measured with the monotonous bows of the wipers, the undulating urge to cry for some reason, the warmth that Joker had given him, still present despite the cold and rain-soaked clothes he was wearing. It didn't matter; he was used to his skin being cold. He couldn't feel it anymore, actually. He felt warm despite the frigid lighting in the store and the stiff silhouettes of other customers who stared suspiciously when they thought he wasn't looking.

They walked around the displays, Bruce wearing a pair of sunglasses he had grabbed from home, Joker rubbing his chin contemplatively, examining each and every set of bedlinen available with much more engrossment Bruce found necessary. They had been there close to an hour now.

"What about those?" asked Joker, giggling and pointing at a rose print set from Laura Ashley.

"That would suit our usual excretions," Bruce answered calmly.

"Yeah, would take you quite a while to notice any stains and start complaining."

"There are limits to practical housekeeping, you know."

"What limits?"

"Laura Ashley."

"You grow a little stubble and suddenly you're too tough for pretty flowers?"

"It's not like I can shave. I don't think I could endure being called 'Burt Wayne' in public again."

"Cheer up, Francis." Joker elbowed him lightly. "What about these?" He motioned in the direction of a paisley print bedding from Tommy Hilfiger.

"Too quaint."

"You really make me proud." Joker smiled and his eyes wandered back to the displays. "When are you supposed to meet mister Nissenbaum?" he asked, turning a set from Michael Kors in his hands and scrutinizing the details of its pattern.

"At six." Bruce automatically glanced at his wrist to see what time it was, but he remembered he hadn't put on his watch last night before setting out. He wouldn't be able to wear it now anyway because the bondage marks still stung a little. He retrieved his cell phone from his pocket; it was eleven. Joker stepped closer and peeked at the screen.

"The principles of detection tell me we've got many hours to spend, dear Francis."

"Not in here. These are fine. Let's get out of here."

Joker clicked his tongue and shook his head. "Gotta be more convincing."

Bruce tilted his head and shot Joker an annoyed look, but the man looked back at him, unfazed and grinning. The first thought that crossed Bruce's mind was that Joker's teeth looked much less yellow than, say, a year ago, but he chucked the meaningless realization away and leaned in, trying to give his face a serious look despite the sudden urge to laugh. He grabbed the Michael Kors from Joker's hands, and his trademark billionaire smirk slid onto his lips.

"The design is called Jaipur, which is the capital of the Rajasthan state of India, also called the Pink City. I think the subtle double-entendre of its name corresponds well with the nature of what we are seeking for right here, and the eclectic amalgam of patterns and muted colors appeals perfectly to our diversified lifestyles. The design is a statement in itself, and I strongly suggest acquiring this one. Melvin."

Joker stared in silence for a second before he burst into a laughing fit, attracting the scolding eyes of the store attendants. He grabbed Bruce's arm as if trying to hold on to something since the augmenting cackling seemed to debilitate him severely.

"Can I ask you to be even more convincing?" he managed to say in the end.

"Don't you dare," said Bruce, barely keeping up the facade of composure. With the bed sheets in one hand and Joker's elbow in the other, he advanced in the direction of the cash register, dragging the man along and trying to remain deadpan while Joker kept laughing unabashedly. Before they reached their destination, Bruce decided it was necessary to make a short stop. He covered Joker's mouth with his hand, giving a concerned female attendant a dazzling smile, keeping at it until the madman calmed down a little. Finally, Joker took a deep breath, closed his eyes and patted Bruce's shoulder reassuringly.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," he muttered, his voice vibrating with stifled mirth.

"Good. I thought you were having a seizure."

"No, no, don't be silly."

Joker cleared his throat and forwarded his steps to the register. In complete silence, he pulled out his wallet and paid with cash. Bruce managed to sneak a peek at his financial resources and had to admit they seemed quite ample. For once, he didn't care at all how many people had to die or go bankrupt in order for Joker to be able to pay for their new designer sheets. Because those were their sheets now, and they really were a statement in themselves.

Chapter Text

They had been disputing very ardently for a very long time what should be done next. Joker's propositions danced on the verge of being completely impractical and unviable, and Bruce refrained from coming up with ideas of his own, instead trying to remain calm while explaining why the prospect of going fishing to the Palisades in torrential rain didn't seem that attractive. Still, he felt he knew why Joker really wanted to go to the Palisades, and that was the somewhat problematic part.

"You want to roam around my base, just say it already," Bruce said, one hand on the car's door handle, the other cradling the packet of gummy dinosaurs. They had been in this parking lot for so long now.

"No, no, I've already done that, twice," Joker purred, leaning back in his seat. Bruce just grimaced in response. "No, honestly," he continued. "I've been there. When it was still under construction after you'd burnt it, no one paid too much attention."

Bruce couldn't force himself to even pretend to be moved with the sudden revelation that his arch nemesis had frolicked around his cave while he resided on the other side of the river, oblivious to everything going on at the manor territory. "Found anything interesting?" he asked.

"Nothing." Joker sighed. "You weren't there. I was kind of hoping I'd find you there, gnashing your teeth, crying for your loved ones and, you know, stuff."

"I haven't been there in over a year."

"So..." Joker smiled demurely, but Bruce just raised his eyebrows, silent. "Oh, come on."

"I told you. Just say it already."

"Yeah, yeah, I wanna see where you hang out these days. Please?"

Bruce closed his eyes and chuckled. He also couldn't pretend that he had a reason not to take him there, so he just bit another head off another dinosaur.

"Drive north," he said. He didn't have a reason, but still, it felt strange to say it, to draw a full circle with just two words. He was about to guide Joker to the place where he had decided to start his crusade after the madman, and he was about to do it for recreational purposes, for lack of a better explanation. Another part of him was going tumbling down, landing right next to their designer sheets. Joker was grinning and seemed happy; Bruce didn't seem like anything, giving directions from time to time, chewing on the sweet, extinct carrion, blaming all of it on sugar overdose. Joker rolled down the window a bit and lit a cigarette while they waited for the light.

"Just how much do you smoke?" Bruce asked with a slight reprimand in his voice.

"Are you starting to nag at me by any chance?" Joker chirped. "That's just beautiful."

Bruce cocked his eyebrow. "You like that, don't you," he stated smugly, and Joker almost choked on the smoke.

"Yes." A segue of coughing. "Don't rouse me when I'm driving."

They kept going, but the scenery behind the windows wasn't changing; the same old, gray buildings, the same old, dark corners, places Bruce used to patrol nightly. He used to differentiate among all those streets and rooftops, but not right now. Even as they passed spots bearing some significance in their mutual past, he wasn't moved. Although, he did feel some kind of excitement gnawing gently at his insides as they moved closer to their destination, slowly revealing its nature. The realization came as a slight shock--he was actually exhilarated about taking Joker there. It felt like the most obvious thing to do now, like taking your fiancé to your parents' house for the first time or something equally inappropriate, yet strangely fitting.

Finally, they arrived. Bruce felt calm, maybe even numb in a way, but inside, the sense of how right it felt to come here still clashed with how wrong it really was. The car stopped by the net fence, and Bruce knelt in his seat, turning around to find the keys in the bag he had thrown in the backseat. Joker leaned out the window, giving the shipping yard and the Wayne Enterprises, No Trespassing signs a once-over. Everything seemed exceedingly quiet when Bruce got out of the car and unlocked the gate, allowing Joker to slowly drive into the yard. It seemed like deliberately letting a viper into your most dearly protected nest, but still, Bruce just couldn't help wanting to see what would become of a move as insidious as this one. Betraying what Batman had fought for seemed to be his main activity as of late, he might as well carry it out to the end. There was no real reluctance, no uncertainty.

Bruce unlocked the container's gate and went inside, motioning for Joker to follow him and keep driving until the car was in the right spot, and the secret lift slowly went down. When they reached the basement, the lights began to switch on one by one, revealing the stark interior. Joker hesitantly left the car and looked around.

"Chilly," he droned.

"What did you expect?" Bruce smiled and retrieved his bag from the car. He threw it on the floor and started looking for some dry clothes; it was indeed pretty cold, and the soaked rags he was wearing weren't helping. "You didn't get too wet, right?" he asked. Joker shook his head and crossed his arms, squinting, his gaze fixed on the ceiling. Finally, he stopped scoping the surroundings and turned to Bruce, watching him discard the wet clothes on the floor and put on a black long sleeve T-shirt. Their eyes met for a short, silent moment, and Joker smiled nervously, taking off his gloves. Bruce didn't really know what to make of it; it was him who should be nervous about the whole thing, yet in the end, he was absolutely comfortable. He cocked his head, observing. Joker seemed mitigated, and that was definitely unusual, maybe even slightly unnerving.

"Come on in." Bruce smirked and gestured inwards. They walked past the tumbler, the spare tires and piles of other equipment, and Joker kept staring at everything intently, strangely reserved. The sound of their steps reverberated across the hall until they stopped in front of the multiple screens fixed above the desk. Bruce looked at Joker's face, remembering how he had watched the video of him right here, time and time again, how the image of a laughing psychopath had bored into his mind. He tried to recall what he had felt back then, but it was all an indiscernible blur with very few clear, jagged memories digging into it like shrapnel. It seemed like a different, distant life. Still, there was a sense of continuity, that all of it was simply unavoidable, natural, and not just the amassed convolutions of his drives and values. Remembering the painted face displayed on each of those screens left him unaffected; he couldn't even tell the color of his eyes back then. Now, he could just reach out and touch him, grab him. Different things mattered. Back then, it was mainly about the strain, the painful tugging at his sanity, now it was about wondering if Joker was cold, of all things.

"I see you've got a fireplace here." Joker grinned and motioned to the furnaces.

"Yeah, but there's nothing to burn in it."

Joker seated himself in a chair and started to spin slowly, scrutinizing everything he had laid his eyes upon. Bruce just watched him for a moment, the familiar sinking sensation taking over him again, and he walked up behind him, grabbing the back of the chair and stopping the lazy pivoting. Joker arched his neck and looked up with a slight smile.

"There's still the heater, you know," Bruce said quietly.

"I was wondering if you really are so stern and spend your winters here with nary a blanket."

"I'm not." Bruce started to push the chair towards the wall, and Joker leaned back, enjoying the short ride. They stopped next to an extension cord lying on the floor. Bruce walked behind the tool table, picked up an electric heater and brought it back, plugging it in. "Some time ago, the heating system broke down, and I didn't exactly feel like fixing it... didn't feel like anything, really. So, Alfred brought me this." He grabbed another chair and dragged it next to Joker's, took a seat facing the madman and slicked back his damp hair. Joker moved a little closer with his chair. As the heater started to efficiently produce warmth, he freed himself of his black jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt.

"Can I smoke here?" he asked. Bruce nodded slowly, and he withdrew cigarettes from his pocket. "No nagging this time?" He smiled. Something about that smile seemed unnatural in just how natural it looked.

"Well, just how much do you smoke?"

Joker was still smiling, the healthy dose of insanity slowly returning to his eyes to Bruce's relief.

"Well, uh... lessee.. three packs a day, give or take," he muttered, rubbing his chin contemplatively.

"Is this why your teeth look like that?" Bruce asked and reached out, gently pulling down Joker's lower lip with his thumb and exposing the slightly yellowed slivers of bone. The madman, taken aback at first, let out a sudden cackle and shook his head.

"No, no... I mean, yeah... I mean..." Another drag. "I actually had them whitened some time ago, because, y'know, there used to be days when I couldn't brush them even if I wanted to, then I could but I'd stopped looking by then, and then there was the day when I had to grow up as a person and get myself an honest job."

"What... kind of job?"

"I, uh..." Joker dissolved into laughter again. "I helped rebuild your house, sweetheart."

Bruce pinched the bridge of his nose. Somehow, he knew he should have expected this the moment Joker mentioned even being there. He tried not to laugh. "Are you at least qualified to do this kind of thing? I mean, it's not gonna collapse now, right...?"

"I'm qualified to do things you wouldn't dare to dream of. Specialization is good for insects." Joker nodded as if agreeing with his own dictum. "But y'know... I only started smoking like this maybe a year ago, after I'd gone to the dentist... heheh, I remember the look he gave me."

"Was there any particular reason?"

"Why he gave me a look of disdain?"

"Why you started smoking so much."

Joker leaned in a little, scooting even closer with his chair until their legs were touching. He patted Bruce's thigh. "Stress," he mumbled with the cigarette hanging from his lips. "It takes the best of all of us. You probably smoked a fair share too, when you were in college or some other stressful institution."

"Not long ago you were sure I had virgin lungs."

"Now I'm not sure of anything." As Joker said it, the corners of his mouth twitched nervously, almost unnoticeably, but Bruce managed to catch that. He leaned in as well; Joker's hand was still resting on his thigh, long fingers drumming against it.

"I did smoke in college."

The madman grinned victoriously. "Well. As soon as you get better, I know just what I'm gonna do."

"What do you mean, better?"

"No, no, it's just that you seem so... pale. Wouldn't have the heart to offer you one now, and I, uh, I wanna see."

"See me smoke?" Bruce laughed quietly. He reached out and took the half-finished cigarette out of Joker's hand, putting it in his mouth without hesitation. He inhaled the bitter fumes. "You seem pale too, you know," he said. The warm hand moved from his thigh and ghosted up his forearm. Bruce looked up to meet Joker's eyes and took another drag; he was positive he would get dizzy at once, but he didn't. He felt good, his fingers slowly wrapping around Joker's elbow, and soon enough, he realized he had a slight smile plastered on his face for quite some time now.

"What else did you do in college?" Joker asked.

"Not much... plotting a murder," Bruce said absently, wondering if they were really having this conversation.

"Yeah, that can get really aggravating. And you know what, you look fabulous when you smoke."

"That's why I quit. You want the rest?" Bruce held up the remains of the cigarette, but Joker shook his head, so he threw it on the floor and stomped on it.

"So I look pale, huh?" the madman continued. "Well, you seem concerned."

"I just wanna know what it is that you find so stressful."

Joker lowered his head a little, licking his lips. "Well, what do you think?" he said in a quiet, surprisingly husky voice and rolled his eyes to the side. "We've had some tough months lately, didn't we. I was kind of getting anxious, had to keep my hands occupied." Bruce's eyes wandered all over Joker's face, noticing the small signs of emotional exhaustion for the first time. It had never occurred to him that for Joker the last two years could have been equally harsh, that while Bruce was desperately trying to fall asleep or hitting himself in helpless anger, he was probably facing something similar.

With his head still hanged, Joker kept staring at Bruce's hand slowly moving over his own, watching how his fingers brushed against his wrist, the soft touch making his skin tingle. Everything around them seemed so detached and distant--the cold light, the cold devices, and the faint smell of steel and emptiness. He didn't want to be taken over by this, but all of it was giving him a sense of foreboding. He didn't want to think about it. He wanted to sink completely into the warm touch, but the more he tried, the things he had been trying to smother down were becoming more and more lucid. Both him and Bruce were conscious, sober, and every move or touch meant exactly what it was supposed to mean. Subtle as it was, it burned into him and forced his heart to slightly quicken its pace, mixing fear with his blood.

And he didn't see it coming. Bruce leaned forward and kissed him, and it was short, soft, almost painfully sweet. And it meant exactly what it was supposed to mean, making his heart nearly jump out of his chest. His hands wandered to Bruce's face of their own accord, touching the stubble covered jaw, moving down his neck until his fingers clawed at the black shirt.

"C'mere..." Joker muttered, tugging a little. "Your balls won't wither if you sit in another man's lap, I promise."

Bruce smiled and did exactly what he was asked for, straddling his lap and wrapping him in an embrace. Joker closed his eyes and rested his head on Bruce's shoulder, trying to breathe slowly, but it wasn't that simple. He started to laugh. Bruce began to stroke his hair, rocking back and forth gently, as if without knowing, until the vise-like grip of Joker's arms around him loosened a little bit and the laughter gradually died away.

"You know what..." Joker started, his voice low and gravelly. "Before I met you, I had a really hard time remembering anything... all of it just passed me by. And as soon as you came along, it stopped. And I remember everything of the past two years, because you were just everywhere." The lazy petting didn't stop, and somehow, it cleared his thoughts. Joker relaxed a little and burrowed into the warmth enveloping him. "Now, it's become just plain scary. My main concerns used to be be if tonight you beat me to death or make me need another little surgery, but you just wouldn't snap. It was all deliberate on your part, wasn't it... the way you'd stopped hitting me. How you'd let me closer and closer. Now look where that got me. You smile at me and I'm scared because it's just... all I've ever wanted. Bad things tend to happen when you get what you want."

Bruce listened to the quiet, stuttery talking, slightly shocked with his frankness, with the twin-like relation of Joker's thoughts to his own, but then again, it wasn't unexpected. He felt one of the very last lines of his defense break with a surge of warmth rushing through him, and he pulled Joker even closer, cradling him as if he was a child.

"I just don't want to someday wake up somewhere, in a white place like this," Joker gestured around the hall, "knowing that all of it is gone, remembering you and knowing that you're gone."

Bruce leaned back a few inches just to get a better look, his arms still wrapped firmly around the other man. Joker seemed relaxed, but in a resigned kind of way, his eyelids half-closed, gaze fixed downwards. He felt the need to tell him something, but the thought of it halted him with a realization of what it could later turn into. Bruce closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to Joker's. No, he needed to tell him something, no matter how insignificant or ridiculous it would be, somehow it had to be said out loud as an assertion of what they had both consensually gotten into.

"I think you're overreacting," he started and pressed his lips against Joker's temple. "What do you think this is... between you and me?" Joker didn't say anything, so he just kept going, his mind surprisingly clear of any noise. "If you're scared of what's going to happen, I will tell you right now. You will grow more and more frustrated and disoriented, wanting to reclaim what I've apparently bereaved you of by simply existing, and your fear will increase without you even knowing it until you overflow. And I will be having recurring lapses, indulging myself to self-loathing, a little more every day, wishing myself dead while you'll be wishing me dead just because you won't be able to stand the fear and confusion. I won't either, it will be too much. In the end, we'll get so close, we'll be trying to kill each other out of fear of loss. Every once in a while, that is." Bruce cupped Joker's face in his hands and looked at him. "But think of all the things we can do in between."

Joker laughed quietly. "You make it sound so... easy."

"It's not that complicated."

"I guess the poor ol' missus was right... I worry too much. It's just that, I can't help it, y'know."

Bruce grabbed Joker's hands, their fingers interlacing. "I can help you keep your hands occupied so you don't have to smoke so much, and it'll get better, eventually."

Joker grinned. "Are you quite positive?"

"Not really." Bruce smiled back, feeling completely disarmed at the sight; it didn't look anything like the slightly neurotic grin he was used to. "But it's going to be alright, in a way."

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Looking back at all the hours they had spent underground in his base, Bruce wondered how it was possible that each minute had morphed into another so seamlessly, that everything appeared so obviously natural and harmless when there were just the two of them with nothing else to steal their attention. Looking back at the whole day, it seemed to have been suffused with warmth and the sense of everything being right where it belonged, despite the obvious askewness of it all. Now it was getting dark, and they were driving towards some restaurant on invitation of none other than Mosheh Nissenbaum. Bruce had to explain over the phone why Joker absolutely had to be present as well, and it surprised him how inexorable he was on that matter. All in all, he succeeded, but knowing that without Joker on his side his mind would simply fill with dull buzzing left him feeling somewhat queasy. This addiction was proliferating throughout his whole being much faster than he thought. At least Joker got a few laughs listening to the conversation.

Finally, they arrived where they were supposed to arrive. The place was located in a pretty quiet part of the city, so looking for a place to park didn't produce difficulties. Slowly, they left the car and went inside, greeted by a sketchy character in a black suit who directed them towards a table across the room. The interior matched the unimpressive outer appearance, but it certainly wasn't a display of squalor; not very sophisticated, yet cozy. It also seemed almost completely empty; apparently, another vip soiree. Mosheh stood up and acknowledged them with a huge grin, the long braids of his beard swaying a little as he waved for them to come closer and take a seat at the table he and Yaguchi were sitting at. Yaguchi stood up as well and greeted the visitors with a slight bow.

"Good evening, gentlemen, it's a pleasure meeting you again," he said courteously.

"Ditto," said Mosheh. "We haven't been properly introduced, pleased to meet you." He held out his hand in Joker's direction. Joker shook it vigorously.

"Enchanté," he purred.

"See? This is what I call good pronunciation," Mosheh said to Yaguchi and sat down, motioning for everyone to follow his example. "So, let's start with this little issue which is James Sul-"

"You fucking lout," Yaguchi interrupted.

"Pardon his Japanese."

"No, what I really wanted to say is that we're indeed very indebted to you, mister Wayne. Thanks to your aid, the main figures of the Viti family are now presented with charges of attempted murder. The judiciary system of this city is quite well oiled in our favor, their lawyers have been persuaded and their immediate funds have found a better use than serving as bail, so we're bound to be rid of them for quite a spell. Still, nothing is indicating that all of it was contrived, and we owe this opportunity to you. Please accept our sincerest gratitude." Yaguchi lowered his head slightly.

Joker turned in Bruce's direction, maudlin admiration gleaming in his eyes. He grabbed his hand. "I'm proud of you," he said. Bruce looked back at him, worried that he would lose it and start laughing uncontrollably any second now, but he managed to keep his poise. The surreality struck him again, and he had to cope with it somehow. Yaguchi was, to put it simply, an unbelievably eerie character. The cordial kindness of his words seemed absolutely genuine, yet something about his low, strangely smooth voice and gestures was definitely unsettling. In the end, it was hard not to take his little speech seriously and feel like one has in fact done a good deed. Bruce nodded, accepting their sincerest gratitude.

"Yes, my associate here has put it quite nicely." Mosheh cleared his throat. "Can I proceed now?" Yaguchi nodded, so he continued. "What we'd like to ask of you this time is pretty trivial, at least for now. Might turn into something big with time."

"Okay, what is it?" Bruce asked.

"Do you know of a man called James Sullivan?"

"Heard of him."

"The thing about James Sullivan, he is Sofia's uncle. Which has absolutely nothing to do with anything, but we like to keep him assured that it does, and so we show him respect and trust, he keeps a certain autonomy and runs a few affairs of his own. And a few bigger errands for us every now and then, that's why we keep him anyway." Mosheh pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it, spreading it on the table. It was a small map of Gotham City. "Look here, the blocks marked in blue are his joints and usual routes. What I want you to do is show up there every now and then, see what they're doing, just to keep them in line so they don't feel too rowdy. We can't exactly send someone over there and give his goons a beating for, say, muling because in theory, this is none of our business. If one of his goons gets caught, it doesn't automatically make Sullivan look bad, but if one of his goons gets caught and starts talking, it might. And if anything associated with us in even the smallest way starts looking bad, you know, it's never a good thing."

"Yes. It's totally a bad thing," Yaguchi said with a sneer, glaring at his friend.

"To put it differently, yes," Mosheh sneered back at him irritably.

Joker huddled up to Bruce. "Just look at them all bantering about, this is so adorable", he chirped. Bruce rubbed his forehead and took a deep breath. The task seemed feasible, and somehow, he didn't feel strained over the fact that he was being forced to work in mob's favor. At least, not right now. He thanked his conscience for cutting him some slack for the time being and reached out for the map, folding it and putting it in his pocket.

"Very well. Would that be all?" he asked.

"Yeah, I guess." Mosheh looked at Yaguchi for a second, and they both nodded. "At least for now."

"So, we should get going," Bruce turned to Joker, but the madman shook his head.

"No, no, no, let's stay. I'm hungry. What's the specialité de la maison?" he asked, looking at Mosheh intently.

"This is some good pronunciation," the man said, pointing his finger at Joker and elbowing Yaguchi at the same time.

"Yeah. I'd recommend yakisoba, but if you want seasoned partridge with redcurrant sauce, we also have that," said the one-eyed man without a trace of sarcasm in his voice. If that wasn't enough, he motioned for one of the thugs standing by the door, and to Bruce's surprise, the man shortly appeared next to their table with a menu. Joker grabbed the booklet from his hands and immediately started perusing the contents, nodding approvingly from time to time. Bruce took this moment to give the men in front of him a closer look. Both of them seemed to be in their late thirties or even early forties, and they definitely didn't fit the stereotype of a gangster with their eccentric mannerisms. Come to think of it, Sofia wasn't exactly a specimen either. They weren't intimidating in the traditional meaning of that word. He caught himself wondering why in the world were they doing what they were doing, or if it really was just public service in their understanding. Suddenly, Joker almost shoved the menu in his face.

"How about this?" he asked, pointing to lamb chops with pomegranate relish.

"It's fine, just please don't ask me to be convincing," Bruce said with a smile, suddenly realizing he was pretty hungry as well. Joker smiled back at him, the familiar, crazed mischief glinting in his eyes; it was a nice sight.

"What do you want with it?"

"Whatever you're having."

Joker turned to the ponderous thug and listed everything he wanted while the man jotted it down meticulously. Yaguchi added yakisoba to the list, and Mosheh ordered something Bruce probably wouldn't be even able to pronounce correctly.

"And a bottle of something full-blooded. I trust you to do the right thing, Mickey!" Mosheh shouted after the thug as he slowly walked away from the table.

Joker squinted and turned around to catch another glimpse of the makeshift waiter. "Was that the Mickey?" he asked tentatively.

"Why, yes." Yaguchi grinned. Joker started to giggle uncontrollably.

"Who was that?" Bruce asked, cocking his eyebrow.

"The man who had ravished Doctor Crane long time," Joker explained with difficulty, still laughing.

"What...?"

"Allow me to explain," Yaguchi joined the exchange. Minute by minute, the dreary yarn of Jonathan Crane's predicament unraveled itself to Bruce's sincere horror, but he had to admit, he sort of understood why Joker was laughing so hard the whole time. He now felt he had a new kind of respect for Sofia's ingenuity, but still, the only reaction he allowed himself to display was shaking his head in disbelief. Soon after the one-eyed man had finished his story, the food arrived along with a bottle of Bowmore, brought to their table by three thugs, one more frightening than the other. Joker happily began to devour his food, and the rest of the men soon followed suit, but it didn't take long for the madman to speak up again.

"So, how exactly did you and Sofa meet?"

"You mean Sofia?" Yaguchi asked, smiling. At the same time, he turned to Mosheh and tied the braids of his beard behind his neck. "It's getting in your food, you swine." He turned back to face Joker. "Usually she does that," he motioned to his associate. Mosheh didn't seem to be bothered with such treating, he just continued eating in peace.

"But about your question," Yaguchi continued. "Why is it of importance?"

"It's not by any means, but it looks like a group date, so let's find a common subject."

Yaguchi chuckled and nodded. "Well then, we met her in Japan. She was kind of working in the service sector at the time."

"What does that mean?"

"Let's put it that way," Mosheh joined the conversation. "Me and him, we were hauling a dearly departed one night, and the departed was about to be disposed for the sake of the immaculate image of Yaguchi's, god bless his tortured soul, ex-boss. We brought the body to this little workshop where some happy old men were polishing engines like everything was right with the world. They told us to go to a room in the back, and so we did. And there was this little red haired girlie, treating some other dearly departed with a handsaw and singing Mother Macree. Not a pretty sight, but we delivered a few more bodies afterwards and made acquaintance."

"And that's it?"

"No, not really," said Yaguchi and poured himself and Mosheh a glass of whisky, offering the bottle to Bruce and Joker, but they shook their heads. He put it back on the table and took a sip from his glass. "Her brother was sent to Japan by their father to establish some new, how to put it, sex trip routes for Japanese businessmen overseas, and she just tagged along. So, her brother did what he was supposed to, but somehow the wrong people found out and he was sent back to the States immediately. Back in the States, he got excommunicated from the organization for some reason, even deported to Italy. Apart from us, he was the only person who knew she was there, and after he left... she was in no position to move."

"Quite so," Mosheh added. "It was like, a strike of luck that she'd met us, I mean... it's not like it's necessary to give you all the juicy details, but his boss took a liking to her, and when she wouldn't come into his house for free candy, figuratively speaking, things got ugly."

"One day, I went to the boss's house, I don't remember what for, I was one of the head guys so I was at his house quite often." Yaguchi lit a cigarette. "So I went and I saw that skeleton jacket of hers on the floor, and I could swear I heard something like whimpering from behind the door before the boss came out to meet me. I went back home and told my associate here what I'd seen and heard, and since both of us felt the administration of the whole shebang was going down anyway, we figured maybe we could find something compromising in the boss's house, something useful for blackmailing him, like, for example, a nineteen year old girl with her... no, no need for details. She was there, in no position to move, as was mentioned earlier, and that was pretty compromising."

"You know how to tell a story," Joker droned, drumming his fingers against the table and chewing slowly.

Yaguchi looked at Mosheh, Mosheh looked at his glass, and they both shrugged.

"Yeah, at his boss's house we found a nineteen year old gaijin girl with all her limbs sewn together, her eyes and mouth sewn shut and her left cheek sewn to her shoulder, and that just happened to be Sofia," Mosheh continued. "The boss had this thing, you know, he picked a gaijin girl without a visa, pumped her with morphine, sewed her up, tube fed her, basically a half-alive sperm bank. Sofia got to be the seventh of his lovelies."

Joker raised his eyebrows and gave Bruce a look. Bruce looked back at him, wincing a little.

"That's outrageous," the madman said. "Do continue."

Mosheh guffawed and shook his head. "No, that's not the ugly part. You see, while we were foraging that house, the guards had been already sent away on vacation because we just happened to be somewhat wealthy that night. The boss was gone for day or two. And she was left there all alone, all sewn up. Later, she told us that for the whole two weeks she was mainly trying not to fall asleep because then she wouldn't know if she had moved and torn the stitches. It happened once and that's why her left cheek is all messed up. So, when we found her and unstitched her, she fell asleep pretty much on the spot." He took another huge sip of his whisky. "It was horrible, I mean, back then she really looked just like a little kid and we felt a little sorry for her, but we also knew who she was and sensed business, so with such a dual incentive we stayed there and kinda nursed her for a day or two, because my associate here just happens to be a has-been doctor. Sure you want all the juicy details?"

Joker nodded with a huge grin, and Mosheh sighed, looking at Yaguchi. The one-eyed man downed his drink, cleared his throat and started talking.

"The boss came back eventually and it kind of surprised him to see Sofia sitting comfortably in his armchair, wrapped in a blanket and laughing at him like an idiot..."

"That was adorable," Mosheh interjected.

"...and the sight of us holding him at gunpoint in his own office must have been unusual too. The first thing we did was slap him around a little to make him tender, then we tied him to a chair. Sofia's legs were in pretty nasty condition and she didn't want to walk, so we moved her chair so it faced his, and she started talking business."

"And that went rather nice," Mosheh interjected again.

"Yeah, we just kept bringing him various documents to sign and held a phone next to his ear until everyone believed he had gone on extended vacation. He also made us rich, so to speak, mainly her. We did that for a week or two, without feeding him. But yeah, Sofia had a pretty good grasp of what she was doing, I liked that. Now, here comes the funny part. By the time we were done, we'd found plenty of stuff in his house, some contraptions I don't even want to know what he used for. Sofia was doing well, she had bronchitis or something at the time, but she was having fun. She fed the guy and let him sleep for a day so he was aware of everything. Then, she put his head in a vise and started carving him up. He was squealing like a pig and she was just cutting off his lips trying to get even crescents, and she got pissed because she was getting those cough attacks and she messed up. So she cut off his nostrils, and by the time she got to the eyelids, the guy lost it. He was screaming so hard he puked all over himself, and she just scooped it all up and put it back in his mouth, and then duct taped his face until he swallowed it all."

"That coughing part was funny," Joker said as he finished eating his lamb chops. Bruce was glad he was already done with his meal and cursed his overly detailed imagination, but he kept on listening without a word.

"Yeah, and then after the guy'd gone blind after a few days, she plucked out his eyes, pushed them into his mouth and duct taped it again. He was puking through his nose, that was nice." Yaguchi smiled to the memories, and Bruce almost flinched at the sight. That man was the definition of unsettling. "But he didn't suffocate, somehow, so she took that big, antique clock that he had, grabbed some tools and started messing with it, still coughing like mad, telling she liked the arts and crafts classes as a kid. She made this little device with an ice pick fixed to one of the gears and placed it between his legs so the pick would dig into his urethra half an inch every five minutes. And we left him like that. We left the country the next day, came back a few years later. No one talks about what happened to him, which is a shame, we did a good job."

♣ ♣ ♣

 

They left the parking garage and started walking towards home. There was hardly anybody in sight; the wet pavement glistened in the insipid, yellowish light, undisturbed by pedestrians. Bruce glanced at his cell phone. It was quite late as they had spent much more time in that restaurant than he had initially intended, but the Bowmore was disappearing quite quickly, and Yaguchi indeed was a living treasury of morbidly engrossing stories. Bruce had actually caught himself listening quite closely, while Joker had unabashedly goaded the one-eyed man into divulging more tales of such kind. Finally, the time had come to return home. Bruce felt a little strange about saying it out clearly--they were going home. With his bag on his shoulder, he walked the empty street with Joker on his side. Everything seemed so eerily familiar, but he couldn't put his finger on it. He was anxious for some reason. Joker moved a little closer, their arms touching briefly, and Bruce turned his head to see him. Joker was smiling. It was that disarming grin that Bruce still wasn't used to, and it didn't fail to halt him for a second this time either.

"How are ya?" Joker asked.

"Why? Do I seem pale again?" Bruce felt a faint smile slide onto his lips, even though the anxiety had slowly started to turn into regular fear, and he just couldn't shake it off.

"Your face, at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale," Joker crooned.

Bruce chuckled nervously. "I'm not gonna lie and tell you I'm just tired," he said, his voice quiet and weak. "It's just that..." He shook his head. "No, never mind."

Joker glared at him for a couple more seconds, but he didn't say anything. Bruce noticed him slide his hand underneath his jacket and heard a silent click. They kept walking without a word. It was really dark, it was really cold, the lantern light was just that particular, sickly shade of yellow Bruce hated. The stench of those rain soaked alleys he had remembered all too clearly, as well as the steps in the distance, the glimpse of a shadow, the comfort of someone close next to you as you return home, the chasm between what had been and what was about to be. Bruce knew something was going to happen, he felt it crawling right underneath his skin, turning his insides into mush. His head felt cold and empty; he unwittingly started counting down. He was wrong by maybe two seconds. They entered another dark alley. And then, he came along.

Bruce could hear the heavy breathing, he could smell the odor of dirty, soaked clothes and alcohol. He couldn't discern his face, but he didn't have to. He knew his face, he had seen it so many times in his nightmares. Now, it had returned to deride him. He felt nauseous.

"Wallets. Fast," the man hissed, holding them at gunpoint.

"Fine," Joker said slowly. Bruce could barely hear him; the loud thumping of his own blood echoed in his head. "Just take it easy." He pulled out his wallet and held it out, but his hands were trembling and he dropped it to the ground. "It's fine," Joker repeated as the man knelt to pick it up, the gun still pointed in their direction. "Just take it and go."

Joker only needed one split second of distraction when the robber lowered his gaze to grab his quarry. Bruce couldn't see him reach inside his jacket and pull out his gun, he could only hear the shot and the soft sound of a brain splattering against a wall. He braced himself, but he was much too weak. He dropped to his knees. Next thing he knew, Joker's arms were wrapped around him, and he was trying to breathe and not to vomit, covering his mouth with his hand. He stared at the body sprawled on the filthy concrete, he stared at the blood and brain matter flowing out of his skull, he stared at his face, but he couldn't see it. He shut his eyes tight. Joker's fingers were slowly running through his hair, and he pressed his face into the crook of the madman's neck unknowingly, his breath ragged and shallow. His head was completely empty.

He had no idea for how long he had been kneeling there, and later he couldn't recall the exact moment when he had allowed Joker to help him to his feet and started walking home. He only remembered the firm grip, the feel of Joker's leather glove around his hand. He also remembered hearing a laughter as they were going up the stairs, but he couldn't tell if it was his own.

Chapter Text

The smell of dust hit Bruce's nostrils as he was being led inside the apartment. Teetering, he took a few steps onward, clawing at the cold wall for purchase, the tangy taste of blood still present in the back of his throat, the bile coiling and trying to scale its way up his stomach. The quiet laughter didn't seem to go away, even as he pressed his head to the wall, slowly slumping to his knees, oblivious to the coarse surface scratching the skin of his face. Stark white light kept exploding underneath his eyelids with each pump of his heart, and the cold, clammy fingers of nausea seemed to wander all over his body, as if teasing every part, every inch of him into letting it go, into throwing up until there was nothing left inside, no blood to race through his veins, to fill his skull with excruciating throbbing, no muscles to painfully contract of their own accord at even the smallest recollection of what had just happened.

He heard the silent click of the door being locked, and despite his eyelids being closed shut, he registered the change of lighting; Joker had turned on the night lamp. He listened to the soft steps, to the rustle of the other man's clothes as he approached him--the hunched, quivering lump leaning against the wall like a cornered animal. Joker didn't say anything, he didn't even touch him, he just sat right next to Bruce and watched; the fingers curling over his own body as he wrapped his arms around his stomach, the disheveled hair, the reddened skin around his closed eyes, the slightly parted lips, the glistening strings of saliva dribbling out of his mouth as he kept giggling. He didn't want to reach out for him and drag him out of this state. He knew Bruce needed to crawl through all the corners of his memory and absorb as much pain and filth as he could. It had to happen, it had to hurt, it had to be his own. Still, Joker remained as he was, separated from Bruce yet close, feeling his own guts twist painfully with each passing minute. He waited for the laughter to stop, but it seemed to drag on and on, pulling him along dangerously close to a precipice he had never suspected to exist inside his head.

There was a moment of complete silence, a shred of time stretched beyond its capacity until it began to bleed with something ominous, dark and seething. Joker leaned in a little, watching Bruce's eyelids lift slowly, trying to catch a glimpse of the greenish iris. The whites of the man's eyes were reddened, covered in a web of tiny veins, and his gaze was absent. It took another torturous minute before it wandered up to meet Joker's. Bruce kept staring for what seemed an eternity, until the madman began to dissolve in his resolution to let him be for the time being; maybe it was about time to break out of it. Time for the blood-letting.

He reached out to touch Bruce's cheek. It was cold and sweat-slicked, pale and sickly. His gloved fingers trailed down, tracing the sharp cheekbone, pressing gently against the lacerated lips and wiping the rivulet of saliva off his chin. A speck of consciousness seemed to lazily worm back into Bruce's gaze, the corners of his mouth curling up almost unnoticeably at the gesture, and Joker felt as if his frost-bitten veins had begun to thaw, the warmth blooming in his stomach and spreading throughout every square inch of his body. He scooted closer; their eyes remained locked, and he found himself being drawn in by the foreign vulnerability. He put his arms around Bruce's shoulders, leaning closer until they were pressed flush against each other. Not really sure of what he was doing, his movements simply intuitive, he wrapped himself around the other man, hands wandering, rubbing, trying to breathe warmth into the cold body. He could tell how cold Bruce was even with the layers of clothing separating them, he could still smell the fear and adrenaline on his skin, he could feel its sour taste as he kissed him tentatively. None of this was sensual, it simply was; the assurance of something unspoken. The jagged, awkward movements slowly gave way to a silent embrace. It was easier to breathe when Joker was so close, and Bruce sunk into him. His cheek pressed to Joker's neck, he seemed to cherish the steady pulse, the soft sound of exhaled air ghosting through his hair.

For a second, Bruce felt like he was drowning, going further and further down until there was nothing that could reach him anymore. His limbs had gone almost completely numb, and it felt so good. Maybe being dead wasn't that far away from this, and the thought of it threatened him with another burst of uncontrollable laughter. Bruce smiled as Joker squeezed him with a quiet sigh. He inhaled the smell of him and the still present hints of gunpowder on his clothes.

"C'mere, let me look at you," Joker murmured and cupped his face in both hands. Bruce's pupils were a little widened and he was still shivering, indicating the shock hadn't subsided yet, but he seemed a lot more relaxed now, and the madman grinned despite the unrelenting knot in his stomach. "Say something to me... anything. Hm?"

"Something," Bruce said with a wan smile, surprised how effortlessly the word had left his mouth. Yet, his voice seemed too quiet, confined and distant.

"That was trite." Joker smacked his lips, but he couldn't hide the relief. His eyes began to sting a little as he ruffled Bruce's hair, hoping to see just a little more life come back to his gaze, but in vain. It wasn't over yet. He was leaning over the precipice right now and it took just one more little step. He darted onwards, pulling Bruce back into his embrace.

"Now, listen," he whispered so quietly he could barely hear it himself. "Don't even try to hold it in." His fingers clawed at the trembling body in his arms. "Please, don't." His throat began to tighten. "Or I will rip it out of you myself." He waited. His heart skipped a beat and he closed his eyes shut as Bruce's grip started to grow more and more painful. Joker felt the breath against his skin turn into erratic gasps, slowly giving way to stifled sobs. Bruce wasn't shivering anymore, he was shaking. Something wet ran down Joker's neck and it was getting harder to breathe as the grip came dangerously close to crushing his ribs, but all he could do was hold Bruce as tightly as he could while the man started to practically spill himself on him. Joker had never heard anything like this in his life before; it wasn't crying, it wasn't even wailing. There was no word to describe the sounds forcing their way out of Bruce's lungs, the incoherent screams reverberating inside his skull, sinking deep down into the core of his being and tearing it to shreds.

The words, growled, hissed, appeared not to make any sense, but Joker could absorb it, line up everything that was being forced onto him and understand it, and understanding was eviscerating to both of them. Everything that had remained dormant and welled up until this one point found its way out and seeped right back in, much more powerful, much more lethal. It felt like dying but never quite crossing the one final line, trying to pick up your own remains as they elude you, going down the drain. Joker gave in, welcoming Bruce's hands tightening so hard over his body they left bruises, his nails scratching blindly at the skin of his neck and face, gripping the flesh, strangling, tearing off the latex. His eyes closed tightly; he was petrified to look, but his hold over Bruce didn't weaken, and he waited for what seemed like hours, waited for the first signs of exhaustion.

There was a black spot when he found it so hard to breathe he almost lost it, but he pulled through, and the next thing he heard was Bruce simply crying. Unabashedly, without any restrain, his face nuzzled into the crook of Joker's shoulder, the iron clasp of his fingers slackening slowly as he dissolved into this half-conscious state. Joker stroked his hair until the silence claimed the whole room, boring into his ears.

The cold, white noise began to dissipate. Bruce lifted his head, too tired to do or say anything, too tired to force any sign of life or apology into his eyes, but he knew Joker never expected anything like this. His entire body ached, and he was completely covered in sweat. He looked at his own tears and saliva glistening on the lapels of Joker's jacket, at the strings of latex hanging down from his cheeks. He reached absently to touch the scratch marks he had left; it was his doing, but it was hard to recall right now. Joker's hand rested on his own and squeezed gently. Thankfully, there was no need to speak. Bruce still felt the pressure inside his head, and the edges of his sight were still gray and blurry, the image pulsating in accord with his heartbeat. Still, he was overcome with a sense that it was all supposed to be there, it was supposed to be embraced, dissected, and not abandoned. The wound had been opened and there was no need to stitch it back.

He started to tug gently at the tips of Joker's gloves, pulling them off his hands. Then, he began picking at the remains of latex. Simple, pointless actions, yet they brought him a little comfort. Now, he could grip the other man's hand and watch the slight smile slide onto his scarred lips. Joker seemed so pale and fragile in this one moment. It didn't feel right, but it wasn't supposed to. Bruce let out a sigh and hanged his head, their fingers still entwined. He relaxed against Joker as he felt the deformed cheek brush against his own. The gun in the madman's pocket ground into his ribs as he pulled himself closer, and he shivered. He reached underneath the black jacket and grabbed the weapon, leaning back a few inches to examine it. Joker didn't say anything. Bruce turned it in his hands, smoothing the steel, fingertips tracing every ridge and indentation. The memories that had just been ripped from the deepest parts of his mind and forced into his waking state mingled with the present, and he kept touching, remembering the gestures from many years ago when he had been pondering the countless scenarios of ending that man's life.

Back then, it had been enough to close his eyes to smell his fear, to hear the sickening whimpering as he would beg for his life. Like a dog. In the end, it had never come to this, it had happened much too fast.

Joker's hands came to rest around his own holding the gun. The madman smirked and raised his eyebrows. "How does it feel?" he asked.

"Familiar," Bruce answered quietly, the corners of his mouth twitching slightly before he mirrored the smirk.

"At some point you must have come to a conclusion that this is a cumbersome kind of device, huh?" Joker muttered, his voice just as weak as Bruce's, but he urged to give it a playful tinge. "But you can't deny it comes in handy. I can see by the way you touch it."

Bruce's eyebrows knitted, but the smile didn't leave his face. He enjoyed just hearing Joker say anything to break the silence, he liked how soft it sounded. "It was, um... too abrupt," he said.

"It's not like you can train it to take its sweet time, y'know," Joker licked his lips. "But you can coax it into solving all your problems when they stack up and get out of control." His long fingers brushed up the slide, jagged nails drumming gently against it. "Just so you know... you're not alone when things get out of hand... when you have it. I want you to have it." He squeezed Bruce's hand still wrapped around the grip. "When you're cornered, when you're sick of it... it will be your decision to make and yours alone. And I will abide. I give it to you." Joker directed the gun at his own head and smiled. Bruce felt his heart stop for a few seconds at the sight. He started trembling again.

"You know it will never come to this," he half-whispered.

"I don't know."

"No... not like this." He angled the gun, pointing it at himself. "You were supposed to follow me anywhere, remember?" A quiet chuckle forced its way out of his throat as he stared into Joker's eyes. He released the gun and wrapped Joker's fingers around it, his hands enclosing the man's wrist. Slowly, he pressed his own temple against the cold, soothing steel and his eyelids felt heavy.

"Silly..." The smile froze on Joker's lips. "You can't ask me to do this. Never," he hissed. His eyes began to sting again.

"What if I do?"

"What, like... now?" he asked, laughing mirthlessly.

"No..." Bruce began to laugh as well, although it sounded so much more relaxed than the uncontrollable giggling from what seemed like ages ago. "No, not now. Maybe tomorrow." He let go of Joker's hands and rested his head against his shoulder. He heard a clank as the gun hit the floor, and a warm pair of arms wrapped around him in silence.

Minutes were passing, and they seemed to have fallen into a strangely soft limbo together. They acted in unison, each movement and word languid and muted, the sense and clarity of their actions not quite registering, shrouded with lulling comfort. The clothes soaked with fear and agitation lay discarded on the floor as they advanced to the bathroom. It had all seemed like a sweet blur to both of them, the warmth of the water falling on their bodies in lazy cascades, the feel of skin against skin. Bruce leaned back against the cold tiles, his head slightly bowed, and savored each and every second of the simple, prosaic action of Joker washing his hair. With his eyes closed, he brought his arms around the other man's waist, ignoring the suds of shampoo trickling down his face. It was a sequence of images and sensations, no continuity, nothing logical. He was taking a shower with Joker, he had seen a man's brain hit the wall and he had been laughing. Slippery hands were wandering all over his body, cleansing him of it all. His own hands started their own journey over the smooth skin, and even though the water was blinding, he tried to look into Joker's eyes. Everything he needed was right there.

The warmth was almost smothering, yet it made Bruce's skin tingle pleasantly, assuaged the knots in his muscles and brought him close to drifting away. He leaned against Joker and burrowed into him as if anchoring himself. It struck him how rarely they had broken the physical contact for the entire day, and now it seemed like even the thought of breaking it for a mere second was unbearable. He wanted so desperately to melt together with the madman in his arms it startled him, forcing him out of this state of oblivion. Yet, he was unwilling, unable to let go.

Even as they left the bath tub and dried themselves, as they were taking turns with the sink to brush their teeth and lap up some water, as they went searching for clean clothes, they made a point to stay close to each other, as if only the other's proximity could allow them to conduct the simplest tasks that seemed so absurd and out of place considering what had happened. Still, each of those methodical actions seemed to bring them a little more peace, and so Bruce welcomed the black, plastic comb being pushed into his hand after he had seated himself on the bed. Joker climbed onto it and lay down next to Bruce, using his thighs as a cushion.

"Help me out with this, hm?" he muttered and smiled almost sheepishly, his lower lip tucked in a little. "I don't like combing. I really don't," he added quietly.

"I can tell," Bruce said. Without batting an eyelid, he complied and began tugging gently at the tangled curls with the comb, helping himself with his fingers at the more challenging parts. He felt like laughing again; through all his life the only things that could ever bring him any solace were spiked with violence and abandon. He had never suspected the meticulous act of combing the hair of a mass murderer would be so soothing. "Haven't you heard of a thing called conditioner?" he asked, trying not to pull too painfully, although the damp, blond thicket seemed to resist no matter how he approached it. Joker started to giggle and didn't answer. "That wasn't a rhetorical question," Bruce chided good-naturedly, chuckling as well.

"There's no place in my heart for such trivial things, dahling," Joker said dramatically, reaching up and cupping Bruce's chin in his hand.

"Well, good, such things tend to be for external use only."

The madman giggled again. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, letting out a cat-like purr as Bruce tugged with a little more force than he had intended. "You've done this before," he said with a seductive lill in his voice.

"As a matter of fact, no. I used to be a very decent man." Bruce gave him a lop-sided smile. "Turn your head now," he commanded, and Joker obediently shifted his position to give him better access. The comb dove into the uncharted jungle at the back of his head. Pulling, parting, smoothing, time and time again. Everything was so crisp and clear, the calm breath, the steady heartbeat, nothing absurd or surreal in any of this. For the first time in his life, Bruce didn't feel like what he was doing was escaping or blocking out the bleak reality. The quiet rustle of hair against the black plastic, the faint smell of shampoo, the patterned fabric of an unbuttoned shirt wrapped around the warm body leaning against him--that was his reality, and he had this man to thank for this; for purging his head with a few simple gestures, for staying to see him at his ugliest, for swallowing it all and not letting go. He had this deranged killer to thank for preserving his sanity.

Bruce put the comb aside; there wasn't much more he could do anyway. He touched Joker's shoulder, and the man lay on his back once more, looking up to meet his eyes. Joker seemed to be wearing an air of content languor, yet there was some strange anticipation in his gaze. Bruce brushed his fingers across the scarred cheek, smiling. Something was building up at the base of his spine, warm and demanding. He wanted this man, in more ways he could imagine. He wanted to mold together with him, to be absorbed by him, to tear himself open and let him crawl inside. His heart quickened its pace, but all he could do was stare, touching Joker's face as if it was the most precious thing in the whole world, waiting for the sudden upsurge of emotions to crest. The madman must have felt something similar; his eyes glazed over with longing, but Bruce couldn't overlook the small glint of apprehension. His hand wandered down Joker's chest, fingertips taking their sweet time over the hardened nipple before they slid down, nails grazing gently the sensitive skin at this side and leaving a trail of goose bumps in their wake before they rested on the pronounced hipbone. Nothing could ever inject such fire into his veins as the look in Joker's eyes as his caress continued. His fingers ghosted back up, sliding beneath the olive green shirt enclosing the smooth, lean body, and Bruce began gently urging Joker to sit upright. As soon as he was free of the madman's weight, he walked around and straddled him, his body doing the thinking while his blood started to race at a deafening tempo. He grabbed Joker's wrists and plunged onward, pinning them to the bed above his head. In a split second, his mouth was grinding into the soft, yielding lips.

Joker felt as if breath was snatched right out of his lungs with Bruce's sudden ferocity, the feverish body he could only feel through the layer of the other man's shirt imprisoning him before he had a chance to react. His back arched of its own accord and he spread his legs to let Bruce closer. The grip over his wrists tightened and a moan escaped his throat, stifled by the incessant mouth, kissing hungrily, denying him the precious air. He didn't mind. He knew too well he would rather suffocate than have this taken away from him. He angled his head to give Bruce better access, and a surge of tingles ran down his body, straight to the heat beginning to pool in his lower stomach, teased with the slow, coy movements of the other man's hips against his. Bruce's tongue moved inside his mouth, snaking around his own in such ways that it was enough to make him grow completely hard. He could barely believe the pleading, whimpering sounds he heard were coming from him, he couldn't stop his hips from bucking up, trying to get a little more of the delicious friction, but Bruce suddenly broke the kiss, pulling away a few inches to look at him. Joker felt as if his insides suddenly dissolved in the boiling blood, and his entire body began to shiver under the other man's gaze. There was no word to describe it; lust, need, bloodthirst, buried beneath a translucent veil of vulnerability and despair. A predatory smirk slid onto Bruce's flushed lips, and suddenly, Joker felt a pall of paralysis drape over him, transfixing him as he watched those lips move closer to his trembling skin.

It wasn't the fear he had felt before, being subject to Bruce's ministrations. Now, he knew it wasn't about fear at all; he wanted Bruce to devour him. He wanted him to unleash each and every last of his demons on him. He wanted to writhe under his hands, and scream, and beg, and he wanted those eyes to skin him alive, those lips to scorch him from the inside out. His throat tightened when the knowing tongue started moving over his neck, softly at first. Slowly, the almost innocent kisses and flits stopped and Bruce licked the throbbing, jugular vein, teeth nipping gently before the tongue wandered up, massaging the skin beneath Joker's ear. The madman's breath hitched, and he closed his eyes shut, trying not to think about the pulsating heat between his legs begging for attention while Bruce's hand brushed lazily over the insides of his thighs, the deft mouth still injecting poisonous pleasure into the most vulnerable spots of his neck. Still, he couldn't as much as move his hand. He wouldn't.

The tongue slid downwards, taking its time as if tasting Joker's skin was its only reason for existence. Kissing, sucking, relishing every inch of it. The lips brushed against his nipple, and he whimpered again. A warm, moist tip began to tease it, tracing circles around the hardened nub of flesh before it rolled over it, slowly, time and time again. Bruce kissed it, taking it in his mouth and sucking, his tongue still paying all kinds of vicious attention to the spot until the madman started to squirm. He looked up and smiled at the sight of his parted lips, his beseeching eyes. His hand moved from Joker's thigh to his groin, and his mouth wandered to his other nipple, leaving a trail of wet kisses on the heaving chest. He licked it, his tongue warm and tickling, while he allowed his fingers to brush very gently across the bulge in Joker's pants, just to ghost back to the man's hip and remain there.

This mere hint of touch where he needed it most was like a lash. Joker's hips jerked involuntarily, desperate for any kind of contact, but the hand was inexorable. The minutes of torturous pleasure and tension were dragging on and on, his entire body was tingling and shuddering under the vindictive mouth and tongue, melting under the hot breath. Bruce seemed to operate with some kind of a sixth sense, knowing exactly how to touch, where to lick to bring the other man closer to losing himself. Still, Joker behaved; he waited, allowing Bruce to sate himself with his offering. But his body could only take so much.

"Please..." he heard his own ridiculously mewling voice when the feather-like fingers rubbed his erection again and again while Bruce's lips started caressing his nipples anew. His entire body had become simply a quivering mass, each of his nerve endings strained for release; the slightest touch spurred waves of unbearable pleasure he had no outlet for. A soft hand stroked his hair and he watched as Bruce leaned over him, a sweet smile curling up the corners of his lips. Joker had never seen him like this; he fixed his eyes on him, spellbound. The man nuzzled his face and kissed his cheekbone.

"Shhh," he whispered and planted another kiss on Joker's earlobe before he started nibbling at it, his tongue tracing its curves. The madman's eyes rolled back, his heart pounding, the paralysis growing stronger with this strange display of affection, combined with the pleasure building up to the point of aching for any kind of touch.

As if reading his mind, Bruce moved his hand over the bulge, cupping it, but without really doing anything else. Joker gasped, and his entire body jerked spasmodically. He looked at Bruce, not even trying to contain himself. "Please, Bruce..." Whimpering, again. The man squeezed him through the fabric, his thumb rubbing gently, but in the end it was even more agonizing than not being touched at all. Joker's eyebrows furrowed and he pressed his temple against the mattress, biting down the litany of pleas trying to force their way out of his mouth. His body didn't listen, though, and he started moving his hips, pushing into the almost motionless hand. The few seconds of friction were enough to make his entire body arch, and his strained groan echoed across the room, but suddenly, the hand was gone, and so was Bruce.

Joker opened his eyes, trying to catch his breath. He heard a few steps on the wooden planks. Lifting himself on his elbows and turning around, he caught a glimpse of Bruce picking something up from the floor. In a moment he was back, looming over him, his gaze even more ominous and suffused with pure lust. The mattress creaked as he positioned himself between Joker's splayed legs. He placed a small bottle next to him, and his hands returned to the quivering flesh, fingertips trailing patterns over the flushed skin, mouth starting a journey down the lean torso. The madman's head lolled back and he caught himself holding his breath when the burning kisses approached his lower stomach and didn't stop there, the tongue lingering for a moment around his navel and continuing further down along the stripe of wispy, light brown hair. Seconds were passing, yet all he could feel was Bruce's hot breath against his erection, still trapped in those pants, now more than dampened with precome. He didn't dare to look, he knew the sight of those cruel lips barely touching the place where he wanted them most and yet refusing to give it to him would bring him over the edge. He waited while Bruce's hands moved over his thighs, the touch growing more sensual as it approached the groin, but never quite arriving where it should.

Suddenly, a rush of electricity ran through his veins when Bruce closed the distance between the yearning flesh and his mouth, licking, tentatively at first, as if trying to gauge the madman's reaction. Joker literally wailed, starting to bite down on his hand, his thighs shuddering as Bruce spread them a little more, placing indulgent, lingering kisses through the fabric stretched tightly over his crotch. He began licking more insistently, massaging with his tongue, mouthing, grazing his teeth against the fly until Joker started to writhe, his nails digging into the sheets, teeth sinking deeper into his hand as if trying to stave off the release. Bruce placed one more kiss before he pulled away and reached for Joker's waistband, unzipping his pants. He started tugging at them without any hesitation; he couldn't wait much longer himself. Joker wriggled his body, helping him to remove the constricting piece of clothing until it was finally gone. He wasn't wearing any underwear; now, he just lay there, exposed and seized with anticipation. Bruce placed his hands on his shoulders and slid off the unbuttoned shirt. Joker had voluntarily found himself completely at his mercy, and the realization seeped a little more of the cold, paralyzing poison into his veins.

Bruce's vision began to grow blurry, yet he couldn't deny himself a little more of this. He had always reveled in how sensitive was the other man's body, how respondent to his actions and eager for any attention. All those years of crude sex with no place for savoring left him dreaming of inflicting so much pleasure onto Joker it would drive him insane, but the only thing he kept coming back to was feeding him scraps of his own passion, concealed in violence and pain. Bruce needed this moment to last as long as it could, and the madman's silent compliance effectively turned his blood into fire. He placed one hand on each of Joker's sides.

"Turn around," he ordered, his voice raspy. Still trembling, Joker did as he was asked, allowing the demanding arms position him until he was bent on his fours, his head hanging low as if trying to hide his growing despair. His breath faltering, he listened as Bruce freed himself of his shirt and threw it to the side next to his own clothes. A muscled torso pressed against his back, and a pair of feverish arms snaked around him, smoothing his chest, knowing hands caressing his stomach, sliding to his hipbones and inner thighs. A series of kisses descended down the crease of his spine until it stopped at the small of his back. Joker's fingers clawed tighter at the sheets when Bruce began licking the sensitive spot, and a quiet whimper punched its way out of his mouth despite him desperately trying to hush it down. He couldn't help it anymore; the tongue wandered lower and lower, and he knew what was coming. A wave of heat ran through his abdomen at the mere thought, his entire body shaking when Bruce's hands spread him gently, and the soft, moist tongue began flitting against his entrance, circling, prodding insistently yet sensually, taking its time. The warm lips brushed across the loose skin beneath, and Joker moaned, doubling up in a sudden spasm, his head burrowing into the mattress.

Through all those years, he got used to this part of his body being maltreated, although the amounts of attention he had to pay to it preparing himself before setting out to meet Bruce slowly effected in him growing to like it. Sometimes, even fantasizing it was his Bat's fingers moving gently inside of him and not his own could bring him to release, but he never dared to dream he would ever be given anything but rending pain. Now, he felt as if the blood from his entire body pooled in his lower stomach as the deft tongue continued to lavish him with warmth, massaging, slowly finding its way inside and twirling. He heard his own muffled scream when Bruce's fingers brushed down the underside of his cock, teasingly as if knowing a heavier stroke could prove to be overwhelming. His fingertips started rubbing gently the leaking slit at the tip, his tongue still refusing to stop its maddening ministrations. Joker started to break in his resolution to hold on as long as possible, the onslaught of sensations shrouding the remaining parts of his consciousness. He was so close, he couldn't control the spasms or the betraying, breathless moans. But Bruce seemed to know better, and just when the release was about to take over the madman, he stopped. He listened to the heavy panting and almost rueful whimpers for a moment, the sounds more delicious than anything he had ever heard.

Moving without haste, coyly, Bruce reached for Joker still lying face down and shivering out of the recent chafe with the overload. Stroking his hair, he wedged his other hand beneath his shoulders, hinting for him to turn around. The madman complied, reluctantly at first, but finally he switched his position and lifted himself, trying to support his body with his arms. He felt as if his muscles were rendered useless, twitching and trembling, every contraction reminding him of the heat still burning between his thighs. Bruce cupped his face in both hands, and Joker raised his gaze. That look was literally heart-rending, yet the sense of vile satisfaction superseded any other feeling that momentarily fluttered in Bruce's chest. Still, despite his predatory instincts gnawing at his insides now with doubled force, he simply placed a chaste kiss on Joker's lips, his arms snaking around him, cuddling him and tangling his fingers in his hair. This sort of subjugation felt so much more perverse, so much more rewarding. He started to slowly realize how purified he felt now, as if each kiss, each of his gasps and moans helped him smash the frozen monster inside him, grind its remains, shed the layer of loathing. Now, he was clean. He found himself growing more and more desperate; not cradling the other man, but clinging to him. He pulled away before he would lose himself, not without tugging at Joker's lower lip with his teeth first.

Joker appeared to be a little calmer, yet the burning plea in his eyes never went anywhere. Breathing slowly, he couldn't avert his sight, drinking the silent promise from Bruce's lips as they stretched slightly in a wolfish smile. Bruce reached to his side and grabbed the bottle he had prepared earlier, his movements fluid and deliberate. He opened the cap, squeezing the lube over his fingers profusely without breaking the eye contact; he just couldn't sate himself with what he saw. Joker seemed to relax almost immediately as soon as he nudged one finger inside; the tight ring of muscle must have learned a long time ago that contracting equaled more pain. The thought of it made Bruce's stomach clench, but he continued, pushing his finger deeper, rubbing and stretching, observing the subtle changes on the madman's face with silent reverence. A soft, breathy moan signaled he had found the right spot, so he indulged him for a few minutes, his thumb brushing against the sensitive skin just above. He wanted more, again. His lips still weren't satisfied; they ghosted down the arched neck, nipping at the collarbones, tongue rolling over the reddened nipples while he sent another one of his fingers inside.

Bruce wrapped his other arm around Joker's shoulders to keep him from falling flat on back, the prolonging preparation and the flitting, teasing tongue starting to threaten to take all the remnants of self-control from him. Those fingers moving inside of him, twisting, rubbing all the right places in just the right way brought him dangerously close to crying, the vehement lust creeping up and down his spine unable to find its way out.

Without a warning, the fingers were gone. Joker's eyes fluttered open and darted to meet Bruce's, not even trying to smother down the seething demand in his gaze. Something about the man's demeanor told him he didn't have to, not anymore. He watched him rise to his knees and undo his pants. His pupils followed the slowly descending waistband, unraveling Bruce's rock-hard cock. The mere sight only added to the frenzy already in full sway inside of him, and when the man poured more lube on his hand and began stroking his erection, spreading it over the velvet, throbbing flesh, he had to employ the last reserves to keep himself from pouncing him and finally closing the damned distance. He shifted anxiously, waiting as Bruce slowly leaned onward, his slippery hands spreading the flushed thighs. Bruce's heart was beating so fast it almost ripped out of his ribcage as the tip of his cock began to push slowly into the welcoming warmth. His vision darkened for a second, the body splayed beneath him arching and jerking wantonly, urging him inside. He felt Joker's legs wrap around his bare back, forcing him to plunge onward, connecting their bodies with one, slick thrust.

The fire in his veins seemed to have burned his retinas; he couldn't see, he couldn't hear, he could only feel the smooth, tight warmth sheathing his cock, the snake-like limbs close around him lest he decided to pull away more than the few inches he needed to thrust again, and again, and again. Finally, his senses started to return, and what he heard could easily bring him off in just a few seconds. The groans coming out of Joker's mouth, each and every single sigh and gasp dripped with pure, undiluted ecstasy, and he wished he could hear it every day, every night, for the rest of his life. His face hidden in the madman's neck, he began to claw blindly at his body, kneading, clinging in a sudden surge of possessive emotions. His hips kept moving and he knew he wouldn't be able to stop them even if he wanted, pushing into the heat in long, smooth but insistent thrusts. He caught himself instinctively aiming at the right spot, trying to give Joker as much pleasure as possible; something he had never done before. The sight before his eyes and the sounds filling his head were like the most beautiful reward he could ever get, and he knew he was going to regret for the remainder of his days what he had been doing to him for the past two years. It only made his blood boil even stronger as he suddenly wedged his arms beneath the sweat slicked back of the man beneath him and lifted him, changing their positions so Joker was on top, their bodies still pressed flush together.

Joker wailed with the unexpected burst of pleasure as the angle changed, his cock rubbing against Bruce's smooth stomach with every thrust of his hips. He couldn't stop even for a second, his fingers dug into the dark, damp hair, tugging, his mouth crashing against the bruised lips, teeth oblivious to the bite marks he had left just the night before. He pushed his tongue inside, devouring the hot sweetness while Bruce's hands kept wandering all over his body, his touch nothing like the teasing torture from before. He could feel the other man's despair mixing with his own as their bodies slammed against each other feverishly, bringing them closer to the peak. Bruce reached between them, his hand wrapping around Joker's wet cock, and he stroked hard, squeezing and rubbing its tip. The madman's body arched back, and the incessant heat inside of him hit the right place with vicious accuracy. His nails ground into the muscular shoulders supporting him. He felt his senses slip away, the growing pressure indicating there was no going back. He screamed, his body convulsing violently as he came, the liquid warmth inside of him and a low, sinfully delicious groan coming from the parted lips pressed against his neck only prolonging this moment.

Next thing he knew, he lay atop of Bruce, his heartbeat slowing down with each indulgent breath that he took, and he couldn't for the life of him recall anything that had happened before that day. He couldn't attribute any meaning to anything beside the greenish eyes he couldn't stop staring at for what seemed like hours now, and he felt their owner's thoughts mirrored his own.

Chapter Text

The sound of heartbeat was the first thing Bruce registered as he woke up. His sore face pressed against a warm, rising chest, he inhaled the dust-heavy air. His mouth was dry, and his head felt pleasantly light. Joker didn't stir when he arched his neck a little, remaining sound asleep. He saw bruises, fine hair covering an arm slung loosely around his torso, a map of scars of various volume and texture. The slight throbbing of Joker's jugular vein right underneath a thin layer of flesh. His eyes moved upwards, right over the minute stubble, relaxed lips, dry skin stretched over the astoundingly perfect bone structure. He watched the freckles, the tiny wrinkles around his dark circled eyes, the net of small, blue veins. The gentle furrow of his soft eyebrows. Bruce had never seen him asleep without his make-up before, with Joker tending to get a jump on waking up and watching him sleep for God knows how many hours. He knew he must have done that the first time he spent a night in this place, looking at him and writing his little note prohibiting him from leaving the apartment. He wondered if back then Joker had felt similar warmth.

It seemed to be a nice day outside, and the sun accentuated its presence sending a few rays to play in Joker's hair spilled against the blood-stained pillow. The warmth in his chest was quite overwhelming as Bruce kept staring, but he refrained from touching. Looking was rewarding enough. Joker didn't make any noises, his breath was slow and almost inaudible as he lay perfectly still, truly a sight to be seen. The lax facial muscles that would usually contract with violent mirth, as seen on the news on TV, as seen in Bruce's nightmares--both a thing of the past. The clean hair he had combed himself, honey blond free of any green now. The fact that he was revering the sight of a sleeping monster meant nothing, as Joker was no more of a monster than he was. Joker was a natural disaster, not a killer. Bruce saw it now, and he accepted it, and he didn't even flinch at the thought; he just leaned in, nuzzling the sun-warmed hair.

They were both surviving a nightmare now. They were both emerging, pink and vulnerable, slowly molding together into something stronger. Bruce's lips settled against Joker's cheekbone, unable to keep away any longer, and he watched the furrowed eyebrows smoothen, the heavy eyelids flutter open. Joker's eyes were reddened and piercing as always, with no glaze of drowsiness one would normally expect. Bruce found some comfort in it.

"Watch me sleep, did you?" Joker purred, his voice raspy and his grin wide. "Ugh. Creepy." He cowered mockingly before he hooked his arm around Bruce's neck to pull him down and kiss him, quite roughly for just having woken up. Bruce just sunk into him and melted for a moment, happy to know there was no need to fight it anymore. He pulled away, his face glowing beneath the bruises and lacerations. Joker watched him with evident pleasure, a little flushed from the kiss himself. He scrutinized the scabs, the blots of red, purple and green, the ominously affectionate gaze he didn't fear anymore; it was a part of him now and he knew he mirrored it, because he felt it too.

"At least I didn't draw on you," Bruce said. "That's what I call creepy."

"Oh, still have that elephant?" Joker perked up and craned his neck to catch a glimpse of Bruce's back. "Yeah, still there," he muttered with traces of pride in his voice. "C'mon, it's not that creepy." A wide grin and a warm hand against Bruce's cheek. "It suits you. It screams you."

"Right. Maybe I should change my entire gimmick now, what do you think?"

"Elephant-man?" Joker cackled. "It's been done already, but you'd instill fear like whoa." Bruce laughed with him. He still remembered the sight of brain matter splattered against a wall, and he was having the best morning of his life anyway. Maybe the guts inside him finally grew accustomed to the sight of their brethren wrongfully smeared on concrete, just like skin doesn't recoil at the sight of skin; he had grown blood-simple, then desensitized, then accepting of death of others as he mustered acceptance of his own death already underway deep down. Dying felt good if approached right, and Joker showed him the right way. Bruce followed beautifully; he wasn't rotting, he was drying out in the sun shedding his coarse, scaled past, and finally, he realized it without pain.

They went about their respective morning routines seamlessly. Pissing, push-ups (Joker urged Bruce to do it and counted, sitting on him and viciously telling him to put some elbow into it), showering, shaving (Bruce didn't feel like shaving), the acknowledgement of the fridge's abject emptiness, the clothes they picked from the floor, still smelling of fear and gunpowder in spite of their suspicious briskness. It was obvious they needed to leave their den and go hunting for groceries, and they didn't feel apprehensive about it. The corpse most probably waiting for them in one of the alleys seemed now like a sightseeing site they'd love to visit again. One look into Joker's reddened, hazel eyes was enough for Bruce to sustain the weird strength that allowed him to feel that way, and he had to admit, he enjoyed this. He enjoyed how his mind coped with it, how it managed to bounce off the filth-paved limbo and settle comfortably into this morning.

Joker watched Bruce kneeling on the floor and rummaging through his bag in search of something clean to wear. He liked the way his hair was growing out, curling slightly at the ends, and he liked the round, green bruises with his teeth marks in their center, the criss-cross of scratches and all the other little things he had left inside and outside. He liked the way Bruce wore them without shame, and how his eyes told him he would gladly have some more. Joker's eyes followed a dark blue t-shirt spreading over the scarred torso, and a strong hand slicking back the dark, tousled hair, and something jumped in his chest, ridiculously light and also overwhelming. He wondered if he would ever stop feeling like a teenage girl whenever he laid his eyes on Bruce, and he put on his button suspenders pensively. Then, some comforting inner voice told him teenage girls usually don't have half the ugly urges he harbored, and his mind happily treaded down the path of planning and arranging what he should do now with his precious darling.

"Say, are you in for some highly flamboyant, ritualistic cleansing on our way to the grocery store?" he asked, rooting in his closet for a canister of gasoline. Upon locating it, he grinned and presented it to Bruce who looked askance at him, cocking an eyebrow.

"What?" was the natural reply.

"Burning effigy, that's what. Are you in or not?"

"What do you want to burn?"

"Now, Bruce. What burns better than a smitten sinner?"

Something clicked in Bruce's head and his gaze brightened. "You want to go back and... cremate him?" he asked. The idea seemed gloriously pointless. The sun-lit motes of dust floating in the air obscured Joker's grinning face as he looked at him across the room. It was really warm outside, and a small breeze barged in through the open window. Bruce felt his lips stretch in a smile and he remained silent for this pregnant moment before he hanged his head and laughed. His reality was thick, lazy and potent like lava, and he could mold it anyway he wanted now. Would the sight of that bastard burning in a pile of trash please him? "Of course I'm in," he said through laughter. Joker liked the sober, relaxed sound of it. He waltzed up to Bruce and cupped his face in his hands, his memory fresh with the way he had gotten drunk with him, the way he had cried in his car, picked their bed sheets, smoked his cigarette. He kissed him, long and hard, losing himself for a second or ten.

"Have I ever told you you're beautiful?" he hissed as he pulled away, his head slightly bowed and his eyes trained on Bruce's. Bruce wondered if he would ever stop feeling like a teenage girl whenever Joker looked at him that way, painfully aware of his glowing cheeks.

All of it was painful, in a way, but it was the good kind of pain, cleansing like fire. The affection and all the quotidian things the two of them should never share hurt more than teeth and fists, but this suffering was a process they wanted to complete for the sake of God knows what. A sick, intoxicating vocation, that's what it felt like. And they found comfort knowing there was no escape.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Here lay the smitten sinner, rats swarming around his head, splinters of skull jutting out like a crown, fat, green flies buzzing and droning in agitation. Bruce stared at him, feeling the sun shine right at the back of his neck, Joker standing next to him with his hair sticking in every direction, the canister sitting between them patiently.

"We should put him in there." Joker motioned to a rusty, steel garbage box. There was not a soul in sight, even the sound of traffic couldn't reach this place. Bruce looked around, reassured in being a part of something forgotten. This place was the city he had fought for. He walked around the corpse and bent down to grab his legs while Joker took care of the arms. They lifted him and slowly plodded to the box, dropping the body inside with an oddly satisfactory thud. Bruce acknowledged the stench only peripherally, now consumed with something blistering and red slowly working its way into his veins. Joker handed him the canister.

"Do the honors," he said, his voice sultry. Bruce obliged and slowly started to bedew the sinner with the acrid liquid. He took his time and he stared. His mind was still and his thoughts pellucid, the subconscious taking it upon itself to spill all the jarring echoes out of his head along with gasoline. What he saw didn't matter; the folds and creases of dirty clothing, the sprawled limbs, the rigid features that meant nothing. He just poured and watched it glisten until the canister was empty, and then he watched some more. He didn’t want to blink; the shapes started to shift and the incandescent colors molded together.

"C'mere," Joker mumbled from behind him. Bruce turned around, seeing a cigarette hanging from the other man's mouth. He took a few steps away from the box, taking a seat on the concrete next to Joker.

"Weren't you supposed to cut down on it?" Bruce asked, traces of iron and mirth resounding in his voice and making Joker grin. Bruce had the devil back in his eyes and Joker had to admit, he had missed the sight.

"This one is special, and it's mainly for you," Joker chuckled and lit the cigarette, inhaling deeply and holding it in. Bruce watched it--it didn't look that special, but maybe Joker had used a rolling machine to give it a neat, inconspicuous finish. No time to think now as it was being handed to him, and Bruce obediently sucked on it. He liked the taste. It was a blend of various things he struggled to recognize mixed with good tobacco. Nutmeg and wormwood extract, among other things he couldn't make out. It was special, he could tell a few minutes after he had finally exhaled, watching the other man take another hit. He knew he should be wondering about all of it--most importantly, he should be asking himself why the fuck was he doing whatever he was doing right now. The blistering lava in his veins suddenly felt good, and Joker's latex-treated face never looked so crisp, the smirk on his soft lips never looked so familiar as he passed the joint back to Bruce, the tendrils of smoke crawling out of his mouth and nose in the gloriously blinding sun.

It lasted for a while, and it spread at good tempo, allowing Bruce to take the few steps he needed to approach the steel box and throw the remains of the joint inside. He returned to Joker stepping backwards while the fire blazed up, the flames several feet high. He sat down just in time for the strength to ebb his body, warm sand taking its place. He smelled the burning meat and he laughed, and Joker laughed with him. The flames were red and orange and purple, they were everywhere, licking the inside of his skull and filling his lungs, and he just wasn't quite there to be touched, ensconced in the smoke and out of reach. The past was empty, the future was opulent, and the present was charring.

With minutes passing, Bruce slowly started to feel the effect diminishing, leaving a pleasant aftertaste. He closed his eyes, still smelling the carrion and smiling at the warmth of sun and fire. Joker took his hand and they remained like this for a while, their backs resting against the brick wall upon which the story of the previous night was limned with dried brain matter.

"You know what?" Joker cleared his throat. "It feels like this is indeed our city."

Bruce squeezed his hand. He had a vivid memory of himself standing atop of skyscrapers, playing his eyes over the endless sea of flickering lights and thinking exactly that. This is my city. Now he sat in the garbage, burning a corpse and holding a madman by the hand, and he couldn't help thinking how ridiculous he was for having thought that then and there. Here and now, he looked up at the sky, free of his haughty perch, as far away from the top as he could get, and yet he felt something burn inside of him, something he hadn't felt in years. He felt exhilarated, just the way he had when he first decided to become what he was. He locked his eyes with Joker's.

"It is ours," he said. His obligations didn't matter, the mob's favors didn't matter, his sex tape didn't matter and Sofia Falcone's ruptured spleen also didn't matter. He had something much greater than all of this in the palm of his hand.

They sat like this for a while longer, drying out enjoyably and without a hitch until their hunger sent them to their feet. They gave the smoldering offal an amused once-over before they set off.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Bruce had a hood over his head along with his trusty sunglasses and stubble, and Joker had his hair in a ponytail, his shirt not too gaudy today and the sleeves of his black jacket rolled up; they looked like two regular guys shopping for fresh produce in an open-air market that just happened to be located in the James Sullivan's part of town. They both knew this was the kind of place where you're likely to hear things, especially when you're equipped to hear them. They had both agreed it was a good idea to come all the way down here before they even left the house. Now they were giving themselves a mental pat on the back. Bruce adjusted the device against his ear with a lazy move while he and Joker strolled in an equally lazy manner past a dirty truck, pretending to have their attention zeroed in on a box of rather impressive looking tomatoes. All it took was a strand of a quiet conversation caught by chance--a couple of jovial, corpulent vendors innocently discussing kidneys of all things while they leisurely waddled into the truck. Bruce knew it, Joker knew it, and most decidedly any wise businessman knew it too--stupidity was the thing that tended to bring you down in the trade, and the vendors were evidently guilty of it.

Bruce stood relatively near the truck and listened to the livid exchange, a part of him wondering if there even was such a thing as luck or coincidence, the drugged part laughing at the dumb question. Joker flashed a charming grin at the woman in charge of the impressive tomatoes, sustaining small talk as she weighed and packed them, eliciting a few giggles and blushes. Bruce snorted at the sight, but not one iota of the kidney discussion escaped his keen attention. Just when one of the stubby men left the truck with a red face, Joker finalized the transaction. They were free to go, and they sauntered back home. They had a long way ahead of them and they spoke quietly.

"Those guys almost made it sound like Falcone and the band eschew things like harvesting organs," Joker stated when Bruce finished recalling what he had heard. Their heads were still pleasantly resonating, and their minds were maybe a little too clear. The whole ordeal of getting groceries had seemed like a breeze, and the one in a million chance of getting information they had just encountered left them unimpressed, but content.

"We'll check with Nissenbaum if they do, but regardless of that they can expect some force majeure to put them out of work." Bruce bit into an apple. Joker stretched as much as the bags he was carrying allowed him to and cracked his neck. They felt at home and purified, ready to get back to business.

Chapter Text

The visiting hours weren't strictly fixed in the case of Sofia Falcone. Considering herself a paying client, she insisted upon ‘doing her time on her own terms’, and the doctors could merely frown and shrug. She lay in her hospital bed, ensconced quite comfortably in traction and bandages with her associates by her side, the television set was on, the movie playing was Dolemite, and in all honesty one couldn't image better conditions to recuperate.

Yaguchi sat quietly on a chair right next to Sofia's bed with a laptop on his knees, typing order details into an excel sheet, glancing at the TV screen from time to time. Mosheh occupied another chair on the opposite side of the bed, watching intently and giggling. It was a little jarring, hence the unappreciative glares he received at a few minute intervals. Sofia couldn't laugh. She could barely talk, owing to the ingenious construction some overzealous doctor had affixed to her face.

"Would you kindly contain your whinnying?" she asked in a downy tone.

"Pardon me." Mosheh covered his mouth with his hand.

"Why are we even watching this?" Yaguchi joined the exchange.

"Because, my friend, one day we're all gonna end up like this," Sofia muttered and rolled her good eye.

"Fucking up motherfuckers? Or being the fuckupee motherfuckers?"

"The former."

"Oh. I see." He bowed his head over the laptop. "I thought we-"

"And, it's a fucking classic, if you have no appreciation for the classics you're dead inside, and I resent you," she droned. Mosheh reached out and patted her bandaged head appeasingly.

"It's okay. I'm okay," she said and shot him a glare. Then, she fixed her eye back on the screen.

"Hey guys," she started after a moment of silence. "How long do I have to sit here?"

"Didn't they tell you?" Yaguchi cocked his eyebrow.

"I don't remember anything of the past few days."

"Three weeks, and then the wheelchair for you, my dear." The man grinned maliciously.

"Oh, good. Oh, so fucking immensely good." Sofia choked down the laughter brewing in her throat. "You know what that means? You'll get to push me around."

"That's a good one," Mosheh interjected. "Almost."

"I'm getting better at this shit." She sunk into the screen for a while before she spoke again. "How's business today? I'm guessing everything’s just perfect?"

"Couldn't be better, you know." Yaguchi rubbed his temple and smiled. "You got the job done like a fucking champion."

"The world loves to collectively shed a tear or two for a poor girl paying for her father's sins. No wonder everyone's happy. Have you given some public statements yet?"

"Mosheh has, since you've got this shareholding partnership thing and they were all over him like locust. God, it was a thing of beauty." Both men laughed to Sofia's dismay.

"I wish to peruse this statement sometime."

"We recorded it for you."

"Great."

Mosheh's telephone went off. He retrieved it from his pocket and mouthed "it's the Batman" as he switched it to speaker mode.

"Good morning, mister Wayne," he started amicably.

"I have a question regarding the nature of errands Sullivan runs for you," Bruce said. Yaguchi furrowed his eyebrows and smirked. Mosheh blinked repeatedly. The man's voice sounded almost imperial compared to their last exchange. "Is trading organs one of them?"

"You mean human organs?" Mosheh asked tentatively.

"I mean human organs."

"I don't suppose so. Why?"

"A couple of Sullivan's roustabouts unwittingly led us to espouse this inference, that's why," Joker's voice provided the answer.

"Conference call?" Yaguchi snorted. "Could you give us some details?"

"From what we've heard, they seek out rare blood type donors, and in case of relatively long shelf life tissue they import the organs from the East and distribute here. In cases where ischemic time shouldn't be longer than a few hours, they do the harvesting themselves. They have access to the state's blood donor databases."

"They're in complicity with some hospital, it seems?"

"So it seems."

"And how did you come across this information, precisely?"

"Pure coincidence and a bit of cunning." Joker again.

"Our point is, if Sullivan has people walking on the streets, talking about kidneys, what does it tell you about the kind of men he employs?" Bruce asked. "This whole thing is one big liability, if you're concerned about your impeccable image."

"Point taken. This enterprise has to be relatively new if we didn't hear of it until now," Mosheh pored for a few moments. "Do you know where they operate?"

"No, but maybe you have an idea?"

"Sullivan's shipyard would be a nice spot for that. Secluded, relatively close to a hospital. Wanna have a crack at it?"

"If I go there to rattle them up, they'll get even clumsier."

"We'd have to shut them down abruptly so they don't have the time to get clumsier nor the incriminating evidence to clumsily handle," Yaguchi cut in.

"Wayne, you're a bright shining superstar and I adore you, would you take care of this?" Sofia asked. A brief silence followed.

"Listen darling, it's Sofia Falcone, the stalwart crime dowager talking to us," Joker whispered audibly enough.

"Yes I am talking to you, I'm sorry."

"No offense taken. I was kinda wondering if I should chip in for your funeral wreath, though."

"Oh shit, now you're gonna have to wonder about something else."

"What do you want me to do about this?" Bruce asked.

"You are the demon of the night, don’t ask me." Sofia grimaced as much as she could.

"Put them out of business, strafe them, leave no evidence?"

"You nailed it."

"What should I do about the evidence then?"

"Pass it to us, we'll take care of it. Collect all the ledgers and merchandise, and we'll set up an interception spot. And give my best to Uncle Sullivan."

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Joker was sitting indian-style on the floor, chewing on the corner of his mouth pensively while the TV set kept on blatting about his mighty need to acquire the latest generation of Power Juicer which would render his existence meaningful and beatify him until the end of his days. Bruce was sitting in front of him, turning the now silent cell phone in his hands. They needed to come up with a plan.

"First..." Joker started and paused for a few seconds. Meanwhile, the power of aggressive advertising had Bruce on the brink of questioning his own right to live if he dares forgo procuring the Juicer. "First, we need to make sure..." Joker rose to his feet, walked up to the bookshelf and came back with a large notebook and a pencil.

"We can't just prowl around, in a place like this there's always risk of being noticed and we can't have them at their toes," said Bruce. "We can't ask around, and we can't dawdle with the whole thing either."

"Yeah..." Joker licked his lips and put the pencil in his mouth.

"We need to put them under surveillance somehow, and we need the area's exact layout to figure out how to go about it. We could go back to my base, look up the satellite feeds."

"Why bother?" Joker furrowed his eyebrows and started drawing something in the notebook. "We can get the general idea right now." Bruce's attention shooed the infomercial and zeroed in on the man's proceedings. With astounding cartographic precision he drafted the simplified aerial view of the shipyard, complete with every single building and berth. Such display was a little hard to take in, but then again Bruce always knew Joker must have been nothing short of genius to execute his carefully laid plans of terror in such style.

"You have the whole city memorized like this?" Bruce asked.

"Mm-hm," Joker nodded and squinted over his creation. "Look here, here's the hull shop, here's the block shop and behind them on the outskirts is the office building, where in all certainty James Sullivan spends his work hours. I've had the pleasure to meet the guy, sleek like a flounder, god forbid he actually supervise his own business. If you're thinking of planting a bug for starters, this is the place." Joker circled the spot, looked up and smiled.

Bruce stared for a few moments and smiled back.

"You're positive about the accuracy of this?" he asked.

"Oh, by all means, break my heart and go check with a map." Joker scowled with disdain and shrugged exaggeratedly. Bruce was convinced he didn't have to.

"Let's say the whole thing's happening down there, when we hit we're gonna have to do a few things simultaneously," he said. "An axonometric view would come in handy beforehand."

"Well, I'm sure you have the right toys just for that."

"I do, but we need the right spots where we could inconspicuously plant them," Bruce sighed, thinking of his trusty sonar devices. The same technology he had used to capture the man in front of him he would now implement into a plan the two of them were hatching together. He smirked at the irony of it.

"So, let's get to the fun part, shall we darling?" Joker gave him a mischievous glance. "What do we do and what do we need?"

"Casualties, that's definitely what we don't do." Joker nodded solemnly. "Before we move in we need the precise location of their operating and storage places, we need to know what we have to take and what we can destroy, and we might need some help with the loading and transport. Every second is crucial." Bruce raised his eyebrows and looked at his companion.

"Leave the workforce to me, although you are aware in this area casualties might occur."

Bruce hanged his head and kept silent for a minute. The image of a burning carcass momentarily flashed behind his eyes and sent a twinge through his guts. What had to be done, had to be done.

"It's up to you," he said quietly. "I round up anyone who might be an obstacle, I give Sullivan a visit, have a word with him and secure the documentation. At the same time you're gonna have to take the... merchandise. And torch the place."

"When the police arrives to inquire about the explosion you know all of them must look squeaky-clean, that's the idea. There's no other way. There can't be any outsider witnesses apart from us." Joker tilted his head to catch Bruce's gaze.

"You don't have to tell me this." The man smirked dimly. "Like I said, it's up to you."

Joker scooted a little closer and hooked his arm around Bruce's neck. He patted his shoulder.

"You really trust me, don't you," he said with a corrosive look. The words seemed to be suspended in the suddenly leaden air. Bruce didn't bother to calculate anything in his head, even though it took him a while to give the answer.

"What's the point if I don't?"

Joker gave him his makeup-addled grin. Bruce really liked him better without the latex.

"Y'know what, I was wondering..." he began and licked his lips. "What if I told you that all of this was just a big joke?" His hand tightened at the back of Bruce's neck, and he kept staring, scanning for signs of doubt, but he found nothing. Without as much as batting an eyelid, Bruce smiled at him.

"I'd say it was the best one I've ever heard," he told him.

The next instant, he found himself fighting for air due to the sudden, albeit welcome weight of a madman pinning him to the floor, smothering him in a compulsive embrace. He chuckled and simply ran his fingers through the blonde hair. Joker pressed his forehead to Bruce's without saying a word.

"You're no fun," he purred after a few minutes. Slowly, he righted himself and pulled Bruce up by his shirt until they faced each other again while the television set urged them to rocket their abs from flab to fab. He cupped Bruce's face in his hands, not caring about the bruises. "No fun at all."

"Life can't be all fun and games. It's time for you to settle down," Bruce told him, smugly deadpan. Joker burst out laughing and slumped against him.

"Whatever you say, darling."

They sat like this for a little longer, arms wrapped loosely around each other. Bruce's eyes rested on an empty cereal bowl sitting on the floor next to a half-empty box of cookies they had bought that morning. The TV implored him to do something about his life, but there wasn't much left to be done. Not right now, anyway.

Joker leaned away a little and started clawing at his own face. The latex had gotten too uncomfortable. Bruce smiled, reaching up to help him. He didn't quite understand why, but he liked to uncover what was beneath.

"Oh. We still need to go out later today, hm? For the obligatory casing?" Joker said while Bruce tore another lump of latex off his face.

"Probably."

The madman sighed in exasperation. "I don't wanna put this on again. It's so tedious." He rolled his eyes.

"Why don't you make silicone molds?" Bruce asked. Joker's eyes lighted up, and he grabbed the other man's head.

"Ingenious."

Bruce laughed quietly. Apparently there was a trade-off to the ability to memorize each structure in Gotham City so precisely.

"It's still early, you know," Joker said and smiled. "How about we finally change those bed sheets?"

Bruce was surprised at the warmth this simple question spurred in him. Without thinking too much, he pulled Joker closer and rested his head on the man's shoulder. He hummed agreeably. As he closed his eyes, the incandescent image of the burning effigy appeared behind his eyelids for a few short moments until its meaning dissolved into soot.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

The gravel gave out a quiet, disgruntled sound as they circled around the shipyard. They kept a safe distance from any guard that could have been patrolling the area at this hour. The stars were faintly visible as the imposing lights of the city had little power over this area, allowing the shipyard the needed autonomy. And the welcome vulnerability.

"See? I told you, they're pretty lax about making those rounds, don’t worry" Joker said. They stopped and gave the premises one more assessing look. The black PT Cruiser was hunkering down somewhere in the dark, waiting for their return, but they took their time. Bruce handed his binoculars to Joker and checked the drawing they had brought along.

"You're checking it for the third time, you're bordering obsessive-compulsive right there, darling," the madman added after a moment of silence.

"Three times is bordering obsessive-compulsive?" Bruce asked absently and raised his gaze, moving his head to the sides and back to the Joker's drawing. "It's being sure."

"It's being insecure." Joker sighed and rested his chin on the other man's shoulder, sneaking a peek at the spots he was circling on the paper with a pencil. "And here, don't forget this right here," he half-whispered and pointed to a spot with a leather-clad finger. Bruce turned his face to him and smirked.

"I know. Insecure, huh?"

They had spent a nice, surreal and productive afternoon together. Bruce was catching on pretty nicely, all to Joker's terror and exhilaration. He didn't whine about preparing their dinner, he didn't hesitate at showing Joker some of the tricks of his trade when they made the trip back to his base to collect some equipment, he didn't show any signs of having second thoughts about anything at any point during the day. At this point it was evident, it had gone too far to even stop and reconsider.

It still sent shivers down Joker's spine, it propelled him in a craftily veiled, hysterical way, sharpened his senses and heightened his defenses, drilling holes in them all the same. He envied Bruce's adaptive skills, something he had prided himself in for a long time, in his own understanding of the term pride of course.

They slowly paced back to the car to get the sonar devices. They never got further away from each other than a couple of feet. There was a distinct fear of seeing the larger picture from the distance, but right now it was upstaged with the thrill before the job. This job was going to be easy and painful at the same time, but they had to start at something.

Picking the right moment to approach the net fence around the shipyard, they planted the devices in the yielding ground, unnoticed by anyone as planned. Spot by spot, they had James Sullivan's enterprise on a plate now. They retreated to the car before the watchmen came along for another round.

Joker sat behind the wheel, and Bruce took the passenger seat after picking up his laptop. He opened it and began to work his magic, starting the few minutes of focused silence finally broken with the click of Joker's lighter.

"C'mon, nag at me," he said seductively. Bruce looked up and turned his head to him, laughing quietly. He stared for a while before he obliged.

"You really should stop poisoning yourself," he said gravely. "Are you even aware of the dangers smoking entails?" Joker choked down a small outburst of mirth and nodded contemplatively, taking another drag,

"Tell me all about them,” he said.

"It can forever ruin the natural radiance of your complexion. Think about it," Bruce turned his gaze back to his laptop. "Is it worth it?" He leaned in a little, analyzing the sonar feed.

"You're convincing again," Joker said, laughing. He threw the cigarette out of the window and bent to the side to take a look at the screen. "See? Sullivan's in his office like the good virtual supervisor that he is." He pointed to a man-shaped silhouette and licked his lips, squinting. "Oh, look, he's getting ready to leave."

"Yeah. I'll go there in a couple of minutes to plant that bug." Another few moments of silence. "Look here." Bruce pointed to something on the screen. "You said it was a guest house?"

"Yeah, and there's a workshop on the ground floor."

"See this, in this corridor?" He circled an object with his finger. "Looks like a gurney to me."

"Well, definitely, that's one premium gurney if I've ever seen one." Bruce looked at Joker and cocked his eyebrow. The man tucked in his lower lip and gave him an eerie, endearing smile. "This must be the pantry", he said and motioned to a small room.

"Pantry?"

"Those three cases here, see? They use those for organ transport- oh, look, someone's gonna get a second chance tonight," he sneered as two silhouettes appeared on the screen, picked the cases and carried them out of the room. "And this must be the intensive care unit."

Bruce felt bile rise in his throat as he zoomed in the image of one of the guest suites adjacent to the ‘pantry’. It seemed equipped well enough to take intensive care of anyone.

"Alright," he said quietly, scanning every object inside. "You're going to have to take most of it. Some of it wouldn't burn quickly enough, some of it won't burn at all. The gurney, the table, drainboards, tools, everything. If they have anything in stock tomorrow, take it too. What are you going to do about the crew?"

"Same I usually do, why?" Joker tilted his head suspiciously. Bruce smirked.

"Nothing."

They looked at the screen for a while longer until they had memorized just about everything, including the number and location of all the forklifts on the premises.

"Are you stressed about something again?" Bruce asked, watching the other man play with an unlit cigarette.

"Darling, you give me the creeps every time you smile at me." Joker stretched his arms with a grunt, crushing the cigarette in his hand in the process.

"Looting and blowing up a shipyard just to kill your crew members afterwards doesn't stress you, but me smiling at you does?"

"Uh, yeah," Joker said flatly and gave Bruce an incredulous look. He wagged his hand, pointing at the other man. "You do a lot of outrageous things on a daily basis, don't you? Yet all it takes is a little visit to a designer bed linen store and you're soaking in cold sweat, scanning the hall for escape routes." Bruce burst out laughing. "Who's pathetic now?" Joker smirked victoriously.

"I never said you were pathetic, did I?"

Joker was giggling. Those exact same high-pitched sounds Bruce had heard every time he wouldn't get there in time to save one of his victims or prevent any other cataclysm of his doing. Now Joker was giggling, ruffling his hair, and Bruce was smiling, knowing he had agreed upon a plan including genuine murder, and knowing he would never get a good sleep again if it wasn't for the murderer's arms wrapped tightly around him. It was whole another level of pathetic, and it was going to bite him someday.

"I should be back in about fifteen minutes," Bruce said, zipped up his black jacket and handed the laptop over to Joker. It almost felt like his first endeavor ever--just a balaclava and his utility belt. It would suffice for this task, or so he would tell himself. He just didn't want to think about his reluctance to put on his armor right now. Joker blew him a kiss when he walked a few yards away from the car and turned his head for a second.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

"Am I speaking to mister Nissenbaum?"

"Speaking. Mister Joker, I presume?"

"Right the first time. Wow."

"How can I help you?"

"I just, you know, wanted to get you privy to what we've come up with and stuff."

"Why isn't Mister Wayne making this call?"

"He's fixing the sink."

A pause.

"Excuse me?"

"Well it's all backed up, we can't just leave it like this."

"Oh. Of course you can't. What have you come up with?"

"It might go down tomorrow. We have James Sullivan's office tapped and under surveillance, and tomorrow we'll know if he's expecting any guests on the premises. Y’know, guests with life expectancy longer than a few hours. If he isn't, we move in at ten thirty, should be done in twenty minutes and we'd like to meet you five miles north from the shipyard. By the river. I'll be sending a carcass laden, burning van into the water, y'see, and I don't wanna hang around with all those hospital beds and kidneys for too long because the river guard might find that odd if they just happen to come by."

"Naturally. May I speak to Mister Wayne?"

"Oh, I don't know, he's kinda..." Joker lowered his voice to a half-whisper. "He's kinda in a frenzy right now. Y'see, that sink, it-"

"Never mind. Please give me a call tomorrow around two p.m., we'll make all the final arrangements."

"Naturalment."

"You've taken some serious French phonetics course, haven't you?"

"No. Talk to you later, Gomez."

Chapter Text

Some man was being wheeled into the building on a gurney. By then he was most probably unconscious, but maybe he had been aware of what was in store for him before the fabled black car swallowed him. Bruce watched the proceedings on five screens, each set to feed him image from a different angle. Five minutes earlier he had smeared black paint around his eyes. His cowl was sitting on the desk. The man was about to have his heart taken away from him. Bruce had spent most of this day harboring this knowledge, and right now Joker wasn't there with him to help him pretend it was just the way it had to be.

He had known thanks to the bug he had planted the night before. James Sullivan had assured someone the delivery was going to be made tonight, giving the whole operation a very strict time frame. They had to wait until the man on the gurney dies and his heart is safely placed in a cooler. Then, they had to steal his body and burn it, and pass his heart along to Nissenbaum. The delivery was still going to be made, nothing was about to change apart from making this particular instance of organ theft a little more foolproof, owing to Bruce.

The operation was starting, and Bruce watched the first incision as he reached for his cowl. He had about an hour before it would be over, but the trip to the shipyard shouldn't take more than fifteen minutes. He walked to his supercharged BMW--a car that seemed a little worse for the wear and was about a thousand times less conspicuous than the ponderous tumbler. He didn't want to attract any attention tonight, didn't want to run from anyone or anything, he just wanted this to be over with. Joker was out there somewhere, shepherding his little flock of masked tools. Bruce was going to notify him as soon as James Sullivan receives a phone call telling him the harvesting had been a success.

Bruce's route was thankfully quite clear. Not many people were headed in that direction at this hour. He wasn't comfortable in his armor and there was a hungry black hole in the pit of his stomach. He was driving by rote. There weren't too many highlights to that day; Joker was mostly out, getting everything ready. That man could recruit a reliable crew and have everything prepared within twelve hours, and Bruce could count on him to help him make this head dive right on schedule.

Joker wasn't there when Bruce listened to Sulivan's conversation, though. He also wasn't there to see him go pale and paralyzed, or to hear him talk to Nissenbaum in that distant, dry voice. Bruce had only seen him in the morning when he woke up in their designer sheets, his face against Joker's warm chest. Then, they both had work to do, and all he had was his voice on the phone every few hours. He was strung out, just wanting it to be over.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

The boys weren't talkative in the least. All of them hiding behind clown masks, they didn't want to know anything about their co-workers and were even less eager to divulge anything about themselves. All they knew were their instructions and the generous down payment. Joker was notorious for both his generosity and the occasional abuse of trust that would result in his entire crew dying. Yet, many were brave enough to take the risk, and those men seemed cut for the task. Joker adjusted his mask and checked his phone. Bruce was going to give him the cue to move in as soon as he had rounded up all of the personnel and guards.

Time wasn't moving fast enough tonight. Joker wished for a cigarette, but he'd much rather have Bruce close, putting up his convincing wife act. There were no words to describe how much he wanted this to be over. It would be nice to just go home. He tried not to laugh at himself. He needed to keep up appearances for the sake of the group, speaking in a low, husky voice and definitely not laughing. He wanted to be home, which was just almost as funny as it was depressing. One good thing came out of it--motivation makes for a driven man, and the plan was a surefire way to destroy James Sullivan's little idea in less than thirty minutes.

There was just one thing he couldn't shake off, and it was the way Bruce had sounded on the phone the last time they spoke. He knew all about the little oubliettes bursting open in Bruce's head as he sat before the screens, his eyes glued to them without a doubt. He just knew about everything there was to know. The problem with favorite toys is that you can't put them away until you know exactly what makes them tick, disassembling them screw by screw, putting them back together, maybe rearranging something, maybe giving them your own twist, but still learning whether you like it or not. Sooner or later, a part of you gets trapped inside, maybe the part you could never handle yourself. The toy becomes an extension of you.

Bruce was his favorite toy for the longest time, but one day he just took something Joker offered without asking any questions and buried it deep within him. He turned it against him. All that it led to was this reality--them living together, Bruce fixing the sink, Bruce petting his hair, Bruce smiling at him, Joker trying to laugh away his terror as Bruce tells him one day his fear is going to make him want to pull the trigger.

Knowing Bruce could result in sheer panic. As he waited for his cue sitting in a van behind the wheel among masked soon-to-be cadavers, Joker humored himself with a little honesty. He recalled Bruce sitting in his lap, caressing his face and telling him all about everything that could possibly go wrong. He remembered the comfort it had given him, and to his own satisfaction he concluded that he liked the fear. He wouldn't trade it for anything, and he most definitely wouldn't let it meddle with what they had, because he of all people had his priorities in order.

Joker simply strived for everything Bruce would give him, fear included. Bruce had reconstructed a little part of Joker's ego to settle in, enabling the fear to flourish, but in retaliation, Joker had planted the seed of his own selfless freedom in Bruce. He watched it grow lovingly. He knew when to water it, and he knew when to weed. He still knew Bruce, and he knew by the tone of his voice on the phone that weeding might be in order quite soon.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

James Sullivan was most probably sitting back and relaxing with a cigar in his office, but the woman who had made the confirming call was now barely conscious, tied to a forklift with the rest of the operating crew, left at a safe distance from the guest house. Guards, supervisors and just about everyone else on the premise shared her predicament. Bruce had resorted to gas pellets and darts, avoiding bruises and broken ribs. Only one man had put up resistance and opened fire, but Bruce had no time for this. He had twenty minutes before the effect would start wearing off.

James Sullivan had no idea he was all alone in the building. He was the type to sit back and relax with a cigar, the old fashioned type with faith in his own cunning and clout. Bruce held much resentment for that type, especially with the image of Carmine Falcone deep-rooted in his mind as the unsuperseded symbol of oppression. From the very beginning and for the longest time, starting with the very words that had compared his father to a begging dog, he could never find a better package for his disgust. Golden rings, cigars, leather chairs, the works. It might help him get in the mood.

Before he entered the office, he knew all the guns inside had empty barrels. He knew where the safe was, and he knew how many minutes he would have to dangle Sullivan from the window to convince him to open it. Joker had been notified. Right now, he was probably loading the heartless carcass into the van.

To nobody's surprise, Sullivan was smoking a cigar and watching TV when Bruce walked inside. The weather forecast he was perusing promised sunshine for days to come. The mandatory reach under the desk, and the expected dread upon hearing the sorry click of an impotent gun. Bruce calmly approached the man, grabbing his collar, hoisting him up, leading him to the window, opening it, pushing him towards it precariously. Joker was probably setting up the explosives.

The expected "What do you want?" escaped Sullivan's wide mouth in the form of a squeal. Bruce wasn't in the mood after all, and all he ended up feeling was mild annoyance. No sense of righteousness. The man was old and scared. An old, organ-stealing, scared man hanging from the window.

"In about five minutes, your guest house will be blown up. In about fifteen minutes, the police will come asking questions. In thirty minutes, they will know the explosion was no accident. Right now, you have a chance to stand innocent in their eyes. You will give me all the documentation that says otherwise, and you get the chance to turn a new leaf."

Bruce couldn't make it any simpler. No over the top scare tactics this time; Sullivan just couldn't win his rage or even repulsion in this instance. Just a scared old man straining to remain professional.

"Yeah, and guess what, my guest house is blown up, I'm dead in two hours." An audible gulp. "There's a fucking heart ready to be delivered, and it's to be delivered right now."

"That's why it's in your interest to let me know right now to whom it should be delivered."

"What are you going to do?" Sullivan's voice screeched to a halt. He was about to surrender.

"I'm going to let you live if you give me what I'm asking for." Simplicity could get you anywhere.

Batman's murderous notoriety worked in Bruce's favor. Two more minutes and Sullivan was reduced to a bundle of all rights and please don't kill mes. Joker was probably at the gates, having his detonator ready and waiting. Bruce dragged Sullivan back inside, his eyes following the scrambling, stout figure maneuvering around the safe. Three minutes and there was a stack of ledgers trembling along with short arms wrapped in bespoke Hugo Boss. Bruce made the obligatory few ominous steps towards Sullivan before the man extended the prize in his direction, still unsure, still hoping for a chance. The sound of an explosion made the parting scene so much easier. Bruce was gone in fifteen seconds.

He put the documentation in a messenger bag, slung it around his shoulder and left the building. Just a couple of minutes before the wound up personnel would fully regain their senses. He made a quick run for the half-awake coven and sliced the ropes holding them together, allowing them to slump to the ground. The orange flames made the situation clear, but the raspy threat gave the best piece of advice those people would ever get. They had no idea what had just happened, they hadn't seen Batman anywhere around them, and most definitely they didn't know who would hold a grudge against them and why.

What they did know is that they'd have to act by the book from now on, aware of Batman watching over them, afraid of the police trying to figure out why anyone would attack their shipyard.

Bruce didn't think of all this, though. He just did what had to be done, he said what had to be said, and as soon as the messenger bag was thrown into the back seat and his hands were clutching the steering wheel, all he could think of was going home.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

The boys were still demure, maybe a little afraid, finally starting to wonder if one of them was going to reveal a painted face and kill all the others. Or maybe they were just professional, and in that case killing them was going to be equally heart-rending. You don't come across valuable work force very often these days. They loaded and rigged everything with time to spare, and unfortunately they weren't going to live long enough to enjoy the fruit of their talents.

When they were about half-way to the interception spot, Joker made sure no one was looking in his direction. He was driving, and the other five men sat in the back with the black body bag and the procured merchandise. He reached into his pocket in a relaxed, non-alarming gesture, pulled out a small gas mask, wedged it underneath the clown mask and covered his mouth. No one noticed. He reached into his other pocket and pressed a button. A translucent gas filled the van. Again, no one noticed. Finally, they just panicked, cursed, coughed and died.

Just a couple more minutes. Bruce was supposed to take a different route, but they were all going to meet up by the river. Joker rolled down the window by his side, letting some fresh air in. It was a very slow night and a very quiet road; no one bothered a driver in a clown mask.

It was the first job he had ever carried out without the promise of Batman showing up to slap him around and tell his wrong-doing self off. Dear God, was it tedious. There was a long forgotten knowledge that it was the way work was supposed to be--tedious and without prospects. Joker sighed. He heard a silent thud when one of the bodies fell to the ground as he took a left turn.

Finally, he arrived at the spot and parked on the gravel. As soon as he got out, he was attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes and he made a mental note to stock up on vitamin B12. One can never know how many bodies one should have to dump into the river before fall comes. He opened the rear door and turned to Mosheh who got out of his car and walked up to greet him. Joker finally decided to take off his mask, revealing the greasepaint. It had been a while since he last used it.

"Good evening. What do we have here?" Mosheh grabbed his hand and shook it absently even though Joker hadn't extended it, and took a few steps towards the van. The braids of his beard were tied behind his neck; he was probably eating before he came here.

"No, no, no, don't come closer. Gotta let some air in first," Joker said.

"Oh. Nice work with... you know." The man motioned to the assorted corpse collection. "Got the heart ready?"

Joker licked his lips and brushed some stray hair from his forehead. The make-up left white stains on his glove. There was this annoying weight in his chest.

"Sure. Here you go, Gomez," he smiled as he reached inside the van and picked up a small container. Mosheh took it in his hands carefully and paced towards his car. He placed it in the passenger seat. Joker puffed out a sigh, grabbed a canister of kerosene and started pouring it all over the van.

"Seriously just the heart? No marrow or anything?" asked Mosheh.

"Just the heart," Joker drawled and pouted. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a cigarette. He needed it badly. He walked around the van and released the brakes, and after taking a couple steps back, he lit up his cigarette and threw the lighter inside. The car burst up in flames. Bruce arrived just in time to watch it descend into the river.

The rumble of the engine almost brought tears to Joker's eyes, and he took a hearty drag to prevent the inappropriate grin that urged to slide onto his face. Bruce left the car and smiled at him. He was still wearing his cowl. The result was stupefying. Joker didn't bother to watch the van drown or to pay attention to anything else.

"Good evening!" Mosheh exclaimed and approached Bruce who pushed the messenger bag into his hands without a word. As if the mood wasn't heavy enough, what with the mosquitoes, frogs, crickets and stolen organs. Batman would always deliver the final touch of grim brooding and without him the night of Gotham was never complete. Joker smiled as he watched.

"Check the most recent ledger, the delivery address is under today's date. And the number you should call beforehand." Bruce spoke in the familiar rasp even though he didn't have to. No one dared to point that out. Mosheh obediently consulted the page in question, nodded to himself and threw the documentation into his car. He turned around to face Bruce again and gave him a pat on the shoulder with a grin on his face. This man was so awkward and sincere with every gesture, he could be forgiven just about any shortcoming in courtesy.

"Thanks a lot, I'll go now. How long do I have?"

"Forty minutes."

"Better get going then, huh. Thanks again." Mosheh raised his hand and crawled into his car.

"If I find out you're going to pick up where Sullivan's been forced to leave, I will come for you," Bruce said quietly. The hungry black hole inside him demanded something.

"Why would we wanna do that?" Mosheh stared at him with wide eyes. Bruce just turned around and went back to his car, giving Joker a quick look. The man followed him and sat in the passenger seat while Bruce settled behind the wheel. The sound of Mosheh's car gradually died away, and their job was done. Joker relaxed against the headrest and attempted to raise the cigarette to his mouth, but Bruce snatched it out of his hand. He took a drag and exhaled slowly.

Joker watched dumbfounded for a while before he started rooting for the phone in his pocket. He raised it to eye level and took a picture without a word. Bruce sucked on the cigarette one more time and started to laugh, Joker soon following suit.

"That mask makes everything extreme," he cackled.

"That's the idea," Bruce said, this time in his regular voice. The cigarette butt flew through the window.

"Was your day as exasperating as mine?"

"Mine was... nothing special." Bruce hanged his head with a tired smile. Joker tapped the pointy ear of his cowl.

"Take it off," he murmured. Bruce obediently pulled it off his head and soon enough the hard kevlar on his temples was replaced with warm lips. He leaned into the greasepaint-coated kiss and closed his eyes. That was definitely a first for both of them. He liked it.

They drove back to his base to leave the car and the armor. It was a pleasant ride, and the air seemed fresh and cool for a change. From the moment Joker had reclaimed his rightful place which happened to be by Bruce's side, the two of them began to thaw and soften around the edges, but there was still this cross-grained feeling that needed to be resolved. They jabbed at it one bit at a time. They were both tired and gravitated towards what felt the most natural.

When they found themselves in the white-lit hall, Bruce started with doffing pieces of his armor and putting on a black t-shirt and jeans. He didn't bother to shower or remove his make-up. Meanwhile, Joker just kicked back and engrossed himself into one of his favorite activities in this place--spinning in a chair. When Bruce was done changing, he followed Joker's example and sat down, his head lolling back. His eyelids felt heavy. He heard a rustle and the creak of Joker's chair as the man stood up.

Bruce righted his head to look at him. He was just standing there in his worn-out, rumpled jacket, smiling and looking completely spent.

"Why are you wearing make-up?" Bruce asked with a weak smile. Joker shrugged, still staring at him until Bruce began to chuckle. "What?"

"You didn't sound so hot on the phone today," Joker said softly.

"I didn't feel so hot about the whole thing." Bruce hanged his head. "When I watched that guy being carved up, I remembered how I told myself world wouldn't be like this within the reach of my arm," he said and laughed without mirth. "It was a good few years ago, though."

Two things gnawed at Joker--the rending feeling in his stomach at the sight, and the string of little concepts hatching in his brain that would undoubtedly make it all better.

"It's just that... today I kinda felt what this is all about for the first time. I'm running errands without asking questions." Bruce rested his head on his hands and sighed.

"You know what?" Joker started and took a step towards the other man. Bruce looked at him askance. "I could be saying the exact same thing, but you said yourself it's time for me to settle down, right? Other guys my age work their hinds off just so they can have a little peace of mind with their families at the end of the day." He knelt in front of Bruce and patted his knee. "You can see it as running errands, but it's just, uh... just daily grind. All for the sake of my little peace of mind with my family."

Bruce kept silent for several minutes, processing what he had just heard. Oddly enough, he felt like crying. He slid off his chair to the floor and gravitated to what felt the most natural. He eased into the man's embrace and smiled when Joker childishly pressed his face against his cheek, smearing his make-up all over him with each warm, sloppy kiss.

"Some time ago I could only go to sleep when I felt this stuff on my face," Bruce half-whispered and inhaled the smell of greasepaint with a slight, content smile. The familiar white noise claimed him once more, though this time he felt safe giving in to its softness.

Chapter Text

One could compare a city's streets to human veins, the criminal element starring as antigens, the brave and righteous folk as antibodies. The seediest, darkest area is a blistering tumor and your memories of it are merely metastases. The disease of one particular occurrence spreading into your bones and sinews, replicating itself until it calls you its home. Though there are instances of the host simply forgetting of the squatters, of them ever interrupting his integrity. The host basically transgresses to a different plane of being where the tumor has never started to exist. The world of medicine calls those instances unexplainable. Everyone else calls them miracles. Bruce could safely wager to say he was halfway to experiencing one of those.

Joker had insisted upon them going back home by the means of one of Bruce's bikes, particularly the one that Bruce had employed to get to Joker in time before the fear toxin had the chance to turn him into an overgrown vegetable. It was really quite laughable, them having something significant to their budding relationship, something tactile such as the bike in question. Other people had diamond rings and dried roses, they had this. And that one empty syringe Bruce had kept for some reason. Anything that had pierced Joker's skin was worth keeping, in his less than rational opinion.

Joker had also insisted upon doing the driving, and Bruce really didn't see a problem there. Still unshowered and with the black make-up half-assedly wiped off his face, he grabbed his leather jacket, conjured up two helmets and settled behind the other man, wrapping his arms around him without any second thoughts. As the lift took them up to the ground level, Joker slowly rode through the shipping yard, stopping every once in a while, making sure to lock everything up behind them. Then, they charged into the city, and it really did feel insanely good to let the madman do the driving. Bruce clung to him, knowing it was the same man he had been more or less literally clinging to for the past two years, breathing the air he had been breathing ever since he was born, and feeling lightheaded because despite everything, holding on to Joker didn't hurt anymore. Taking Gotham's air into his lungs didn't burn anymore. He could give in and enjoy the ride, along with Joker's surprisingly proficient bike-handling skills.

The reason it didn't hurt was simple and quite pathetic, really. Bruce knew as soon as he would get home, he could ask for cleansing, and it would be delivered. He could afford to forget his metastatic memories and doubts because he had the tool forged specifically for the task of forgetting. Also, he had the best surgeon available.

Back home, Joker had begun to grow suspicious. Bruce was taking a bit too long in the bathroom for his liking, and as he listened to the quiet rustle of running water behind the closed door, he tried his best to simply sit on the bed and read the evening newspaper. His fingers were tingling, but he held on to the printed sheets for dear life, humming to himself to keep his cool. Something about the way Bruce had clung to him, about the way he had looked and smiled at him before he disappeared in the shower kept him on edge. And so he read about the reins over importing Italian shoes going from the freshly deported Mario Falcone to his extremely legitimate sister, Sofia, and as he engrossed himself in the various intricacies of the Falcone Imports stockholding, his throat grew tighter and tighter.

On the other side of the plywood door, Bruce was toweling his hair. He checked himself in the mirror and noticed the slight smears of makeup remaining close around his eyelids. He decided not to bother and slicked back the few locks that fell on his forehead. He appeared different to his own eyes, yet he couldn’t quite place a finger on it. It wasn’t the matter of bitemarks or weight loss. Something about his features seemed more distant and more familiar all the same, almost as if the guy doing all the staring in the mirror suddenly started to look from a bigger perspective. It didn’t matter; he was clean and ready, so he turned the knob and left the bathroom.

Joker’s gaze shot up immediately, and the scarred lips nibbling on an unlit cigarette stretched in a nervous smile. He folded his newspaper and put it aside, saying nothing. The friendly voice in the back of his head kept laughing at him announcing a showdown, but he couldn’t pay attention for too long. He changed his position from sitting Indian style and placed his feet on the floor, watching Bruce come closer. The man was only wearing his boxers, shamelessly displaying the wound-mottled planes of his body, and once again, Joker’s breath hitched at the sight. He should be well accustomed to it by now, but maybe half a dozen days spent together weren’t enough to grow desensitized. Maybe half a century wouldn’t be enough, but who could tell if they had that kind of time ahead of them. Joker sighed when Bruce nestled between his slightly spread thighs and wrapped his arms around his waist, pressing his face into the crook of his neck. The spit-soaked cigarette was still dangling from his lips, forgotten in the sudden rush of blood to his head. He slid his hands up Bruce’s shoulders until they met behind his back, completing the embrace.

Quiet and simple, that’s what it was, but to Joker it suddenly seemed cruel and too much. He could sense what was going on inside the man in his arms, he felt those pesky larvae of anxiety crawling just beneath his skin, and it was quite contagious. His own core was rippling with those little bastards. Bruce tilted his head back to look at him and smiled at the undoubtedly pathetic sight. Joker was aware his expression spoke volumes, but he kept silent. Bruce pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and threw it next to the newspaper, and then he leaned in, his palms moving up Joker’s chest until they arrived at his shoulders, fingers tightening a little over the fabric of his shirt. Joker fought bravely to keep his eyes from rolling back and kept them trained on Bruce’s, trying to figure out his next move.

What came next were Bruce’s soft lips on his cheek, then on his earlobe, the fingers moving to his collar, pulling him a little closer. And then that voice that would normally give Joker the chills of the most pleasant kind regardless of its message, lowered to a half-whisper, warm and tickling against his ear, telling him, “I want you to tie me up and fuck me”. With no hesitation, no self-consciousness, like a blow right to his jaw. It felt like one, only with a slightly different outcome, resulting in him getting painfully hard in a split second. Joker waited a few beats, let out the breath he had been holding in for some reason and attempted to catch Bruce’s gaze, to tell him that of course, he was right on it, but again, he got stopped in his tracks. Bruce looked amused, if the small smirk was any indication, but the evident vulnerability was nothing short of disarming. Especially when in cahoots with the raging hard-on that apparently had no intention of going anywhere.

Joker nodded and tried to swallow the tension in his throat. His mouth was dry, the pinpricks of heat bloomed down his back and in the pit of his stomach, his heart pounded like a piston, but he knew he had to deliver.

“Yeah, uh… just give me a second.” He patted Bruce’s arm and swallowed again. Bruce knitted his eyebrows, giving him a puzzled look, so Joker glanced down as if it would explain everything. It sort of did, and elicited a little laugh from the other man. Joker inhaled, exhaled and lifted his hands, at first unsure what to do with them as they twitched awkwardly around Bruce’s face before they cupped his cheeks, thumbs brushing tenderly over the bruised skin. He placed a chaste kiss on his forehead and made an attempt to stand up, wincing at the unfortunate placement of his fly. He adjusted it, reducing the discomfort a notch.

“You just wait here for a minute, I gotta… You know.”

“Yeah,” Bruce laughed and sat on the bed with his hands flat on his knees.

Joker stumbled to the bathroom and braced himself against the sink, staring himself deep in the eye. Five minutes had to pass before it dawned upon him it was no staring contest between him and his reflection, and finally he took another deep breath. And then he splashed some cold water on his face, and then a little more for good measure. Having done that, he decided to focus on clipping his nails. He knew what Bruce asked for in not so many words demanded surgical precision, a steady hand and a sober mind, so to speak. Just a few days ago Joker had to slap him around a little and use every last bit of his persuasion skills just to tie him down to a chair. Now, Bruce was asking for it. Nicely.

Joker left the bathroom and his eyes were automatically glued to him, sitting on the bed still like an oversized doll, watching him with a smile. He smiled back, trying to ward off the tugging in his guts, and paced to the other side of the room where lay his clothes and everything else that might prove useful. A few minutes of digging through various treasures filling the measly shelves beyond their capacity produced a satisfactory length of jute rope and a one-piece leather wristwatch belt. All the while Joker tried not to think what purpose those would serve. He tried not to think of the things going on inside Bruce’s head, of all the things he had encountered in the past few days, of the way he had dealt with them, of his ever-changing approach and all the threats it entailed. Joker searched his mind’s deepest recesses for the most unappealing imagery, just to keep a relative clarity. He thought of Sofia Falcone importing Italian shoes. Sofia Falcone was a surefire way to kill any unsolicited boner.

Gripping the rope and the belt in one hand, he grabbed two random neckties and turned around. Bruce didn’t change his position, facing away from him, his shoulders slightly hunched. He seemed so relaxed in some respects, as if he had complete faith in the medication about to be injected. Still trying to think of Sofia and therefore remaining calm against all laws of logic, Joker knelt down on the bed behind Bruce and placed his equipment at the side. He couldn’t resist now. His hands wandered to Bruce’s sides on their own and smoothed across his stomach. He rested his head on the man’s shoulder and squeezed him gently in a silent promise that it will be alright. Bruce leaned into his embrace, and again, it felt like too much, and yet none of it was nearly enough.

Joker clenched his eyes shut and inhaled the scent of Bruce’s skin. He wanted to remain calm for his sake. It had always come so easily, but now it was virtually impossible. Nothing was going to be that easy ever again. He grabbed his forearms and pulled them behind his back, trying not to marvel over his compliance, but as expected, he couldn’t quite control it. He kept coming up with at least a dozen little ideas per second, inventing new ways to reach deeper, to see more, to maybe get burned like he never had before. All for the sake of seeing relief in Bruce’s eyes at least for those precious few moments, for the sake of knowing it will be only temporary, and will require increased doses until something breaks or distorts its nature for better or worse.

Joker took his time with the rope. He had always enjoyed working with strings and yarns, respecting their versatility and unjudgemental aiding and abetting to his most nefarious endeavors. He tied people down, he strangled them, he rigged his explosives, all by the means of knitting wool or other similarly formidable inventions. Now he was putting together a set-up far too complex than the purpose it would serve, but he just couldn’t say no to this weird urge. It helped him gather his composure. Even though his mouth kept watering every time the rope would bite into Bruce’s skin a little deeper, he was happy with the simple act of tying knots and forming loops until it resulted in a rigging as intricate as it was inescapable.

The coarse jute seemed to erode Bruce’s flesh, already tinting his skin bright red where it rubbed against it. Joker swallowed, feeling the heat pooling between his legs all over again, mainly because not a word had been spoken, nothing had disturbed the malleable softness they were both suspended in. Everything was definitive, in place, inescapable for both of them. Joker took one of the ties in his hand and passed it between his fingers before he brought his arms around Bruce’s neck, holding him intimately, letting his lips rest against his temple. Then, he forced the tie into his mouth, maybe using too much strength, maybe tying the knot a little too tightly, but Bruce let out a quiet moan and shuddered against him. Apparently, everything was just perfect. Maybe too perfect.

Joker glanced over Bruce’s shoulder and to his half-relief, half-horror he realized the man was just as aroused ad he was. It wasn’t helping. He gritted his teeth and blindfolded him with the other tie. This was about to take some time and exhaust them both to the point of a near-death experience. It was also going to be unnecessarily agonizing if he couldn’t find a foolproof formula to keep his urges corralled. But with Bruce everything always felt like a sticky, unhinged and embarrassing first time. It sort of felt like finally being forced into the pubescent phase since Joker seemed to have missed some of its perks the first time around. He squared his shoulders and counted to ten. He stood up, walked in front of the other man and gave him a careful look. His hair was mussed and damp, his head hanging, his entire posture telling he knew nothing apart from what Joker had in store for him, and that he didn’t wish to step forward even an inch without being told to do so.

Joker felt numb and restless; his heart alternately pumped fire and ice into his veins, or rather straight into his brain and all the other parts interested. He had to take things really slowly, one hurdle at a time. Puffing out a sigh, he placed his hands on either side of Bruce’s head, allowing himself to relish the sensation of his hair against his fingertips, and then he pulled. Not very hard, but enough to force a small groan out of the man’s throat.

“Stand up,” Joker said. He did a great job at making his voice sound flat and composed.

Bruce obeyed, rising from the bed while Joker’s fingers kept clutching his hair. Then, they released him and flitted down his sides until they hooked beneath the waistband of his boxers. Without further ceremony, Joker pulled them down, urging Bruce to step out. He threw them onto the bed and trying not to look at what was unveiled, he placed his hand at the nape of Bruce’s neck, pushing.

“Kneel on the floor and wait,” he said.

Again, Bruce didn’t put up an ounce of resistance. He knelt on the dusty, wooden planks, his head slightly bowed. His mind had blanked out by this time, as he gradually found it easier and easier to rappel down the edges of what he used to call his waking state. Being awake and in control had become much to complicated nowadays. He tuned himself to every little sound and touch coming from Joker, and he didn’t need anything else. As he sat patiently, he heard some commotion originating in the bathroom, the water running, the clank of the cabinet’s door, and then there was a gust of cool air laced with Joker’s scent, something he supposed was a water-filled bowl being placed on the floor beside him, and the overwhelming heat in his core, his faith in the medication.

Bruce couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so safe. He revised his day, his week and his entire life, almost enjoying the bile it spurred, knowing it won’t be long until it’s sucked dry out of his system. He could tell Joker was sitting really close as he sensed the familiar warmth. His entire body was already tingling, but he found a bit of comfort in his ropes. He had been told to wait, so that’s what he was doing.

Then, he felt Joker’s long, dry fingers trace his jaw line, slide across his stretched lips, sneak underneath the tie, slither over his tongue. Moist lips nibbled on his earlobe, raising goose bumps on his arms and stomach. The fingers pushed deeper, moving lazily before they retreated and smeared a bit of saliva down his chin. Joker pulled his head closer against his mouth.

“Maybe I should take this time to tell you a few things, hm?” he murmured into his ear. A swarm of shivers marched down Bruce’s body. Without knowing, he inclined his head for more of the soft scar tissue and hot breath, but Joker had already pulled away from him, his hands stopping on his chest, unmoving but pressing fire into him none the less.

“I’m sure you used to think of me as some sort of, uh, garden-variety emotionally impaired sociopath. Well, maybe you still do.” As Joker spoke, he trailed patterns over Bruce’s torso absently, as if oblivious to the small tremors of pleasure erupting under his touch. “But to tell you the truth, my empathy works overtime.” His thumbs moved over Bruce’s nipples. If Joker had noticed his cock twitching, he did nothing about it. His hands went still, squeezing his sides gently. Bruce felt a few stray tufts of hair ghosting against his neck, the heat of lips just inches away.

“It used to give me the worst headache, y’know? All those feelings slung around like projectile vomit. People don’t know the concept of personal space when it comes to emotions. They never stop to think somewhere out there might be a little somebody who can actually feel their burden whether he likes it or not.”

Bruce heard a hissing sound, and then there was something cool and soft being spread over his chest. He recognized the smell; it was shaving foam. He felt a pang of amusement deep down, quickly eradicated with the hard edge of a straight razor gliding casually over his jugular vein, merely grazing over his skin without breaking it.

“And you know, all those people trying to write dissertations on my abhorrent behavior, and I’ve read quite a few of them, they all share this miscarried notion that I do what I do because I can’t seem to adjust and put myself in the shoes of people I apparently toy with.”

A long, smooth sweep of the blade across the plane of his chest gave birth to even more tingling anxiety. The movement of the razor seemed lackadaisical yet the pressure was perfect, right on the verge of sinking a little too deep but never quite crossing the barrier. Bruce heard a quiet splash of water when Joker rinsed the blade, and found himself surprised how eager his body was for another stroke. Funny how every little thing works for you when you’re in the right hands.

“Truth is, sometimes I just get tired. Some people pride themselves in being able to read other folks, when all they can do in all reality is read a few self-help books on body language, or whatever.”

One more slow glide. This time Bruce was almost sure the cold metal would dip into his flesh, but no dice. It felt weird, actually wanting to be cut, but something told him Joker would never use anything apart from his own tooth and nail to tear his flesh. Knowing this made him warm and a little dizzy. He listened to the other man, letting his words drown in his dulled mind and spread like a drug.

“It’s nothing to be proud of, but I can actually feel what they feel. I would feel them lose their marbles every time I gave them attention, I would feel their horror, and disgust, and hatred, and despair. Everything. So it’s not like I’m unable to put myself in their shoes because I am in their shoes every single time. God knows I never found anything remotely fun in it. But at least they would finally learn some humility. And they would shut up.”

The foam hissed one more time, and this time a warm hand spread the dollop over Bruce’s groin, slathering it generously around the base of his cock and balls. Again, Joker didn’t seem to make anything of the twitching. Bruce tried not to jerk under the matter-of-factly touch; there was nothing sensual or teasing about Joker’s behavior and that’s what made it all the more agonizing to stand. He felt sweat dewing the skin of his back when the razor started to rake down the wisps of hair on his lower stomach, moving leisurely in small increments, lower and lower.

“You wanna know why I like to wear gloves most of the time?” Joker leaned in conspiringly, his mouth close to Bruce’s ear again. “There are days when if I touch something, my skin crawls until I wash my hands. Especially when I have to shake someone else’s hand. It’s madness.”

The razor was close to the base of his cock now. Bruce gasped when Joker grabbed the shaft, his touch impersonal like a doctor’s, angling it, his other hand moving in graceful curlicues, the blade rasping softly, threatening and tickling, stopping every once in a while to be rinsed. It was getting hard to keep still.

“Basically, that was the case with just about anyone. Sometimes I would just touch people out of mere curiosity. No matter how righteous, no matter how pure at heart they would advertise themselves to be, my skin crawled. Then, I would usually kill them. Except for Harvey, maybe. He extended me the courtesy of putting up a little drama. Still had to help myself to a dab of sanitizer, though.”

Joker was now paying attention to his balls, somehow managing to avoid bloodshed and keep the small wrinkles intact, pulling and tugging at times to get better access. Bruce tried not to whimper, and most importantly, not to shudder.

“And so I was living my life happily, slicing and dicing every once in a while to get a little respite, until you came along.” The razor plunged into the bowl, and Joker placed his hands on Bruce’s sides, tightening his grip until the man let out a quiet whine. Joker smiled and started nipping with his teeth on the flesh beneath his jaw, finally giving in and sucking indulgently. He pressed his lips to Bruce’s ear, and his voice fell to a hoarse whisper.

“With you… I could keep my hands on you for the rest of my life, I could bury them into your flesh, snapping at your veins and rolling your bones in my fingers, and I guess that alone could make me come time and time again, and I could never get enough. Even when I fuck you, and when I have your blood on my tongue I feel you’re too far away from me.” Joker licked and kissed Bruce’s neck, wet and burning, digging his nails into the skin of his arms. “You’re one mean bastard,” he laughed breathlessly. “You’re the only one who makes me feel, not just empathize.” Then, his words lost their momentum. “Sometimes I think I could probably eat you, literally. Just thought you might wanna know.” He patted his shoulder, absurdly casual.

To Bruce, listening to this was like being force-fed burning coal and loving every single bite. No more parallels between him sitting here now and him existing at any given point in the past. He could almost feel his skin crackling with need, the heat from the inside seeping out and slicking his body. He shook and shivered, pushing against Joker, and there was absolutely nothing he could or wanted to do about it. His head was swimming.

Joker smoothed his hair and kissed his cheek. He reached for the discarded razor and resumed his painstaking work. His main objective at the moment was to ignore the glistening beads of precome going down Bruce’s cock in slow, sticky rivulets, just begging to be kissed away. He shouldn’t have spilled himself like that; now it was twice as hard, figuratively and literally.

“Of course, I wouldn’t actually eat you,” Joker sighed and looked up, tilting his head to the side and waving the razor in the air in a dismissive gesture. “You know you’re just a bucket of fun, and I would never, ever do anything to jeopardize having you around. At this point I guess I’d kill myself if you died, you know that,” he announced flatly. His tongue darting out, he leaned in a little to get a better focus on the finishing touches. “See what you’ve done?” he murmured reproachfully. “You’ve won the battle, at last,” he chuckled.

Now it felt like having barbed wire shoved down your windpipe, or maybe it was the urge to cry; Bruce couldn’t tell. Joker seemed to be finished, accentuating the completion with allowing the razor to drown in the bowl with a splash. He wrapped his arms around Bruce’s waist and bit on his chin playfully.

“Don’t get too carried away though, we’re not quite there yet.” He bit on the tendons of his neck, this time not so playfully. Bruce screamed, and his hips jerked. He wished he could beg for more and make an idiot of himself. There was no space left for caring. Joker snarled his fingers in his hair and yanked, pulling his head towards the bed. Bruce took the hint and shifted his position, bending over and leaning his upper body over the Michael Kors. Joker spread his thighs forcefully and retrieved the can of foam and the razor. He made a mental note to allow himself to smoke an entire carton of cigarettes as a reward; no human being should ever be subject to so much strain in such a relatively minuscule amount of time. If he could, he would just rip his pants off and bury himself balls-deep into Bruce without as much as a warning. He would probably come at the first thrust, or maybe even halfway in. But unfortunately, he had to play doctor a little longer. If anything, he despised being anti-climactic.

“What I could never understand… I mean, I kind of could, but still, it’s baffling. How does someone like you even come to existence?” Joker pondered, slathering the foam between Bruce’s asscheeks, praying for strength to remain deaf to his little sighs at every little touch. “You don’t seem to even be aware what you’re made of, you know?” He furrowed his eyebrows, trying to concentrate; fortunately, his hands would rarely fail him and he did right to keep faith in his own dexterity no matter the challenge. “There’s all this guilt, gallons of it, there’s self-deprecation, as if you were unworthy of your own… I don’t know what to call it, greatness? You’re a great, great person, Bruce,” Joker laughed as he maneuvered the razor over the soft flesh. When he slid it down Bruce’s perineum, he had to stop for a moment due to a sudden spasm that took over the other man. Joker gulped and cleared his throat.

“Like I said, touching righteous people makes me feel, um, unsanitary. Like digging through a dumpster and never knowing what sort of filth you’ll excavate. You can only guess why. You, you’re homogenous. You could never truly hide anything, because no matter what you choose to bury deep down, it’s just more of the same, maybe more condensed.” He was close to finishing, so he slowed down a little. Appreciating the perfect curve of Bruce’s ass didn’t really encourage taking things slow, though. Quite the contrary. “I think you just don’t like the idea of possessing these so called good qualities. When you think ‘good’, you think ‘Rachel’, you think ‘your father’ or ‘Jim Gordon’. It would be blasphemous to put yourself in line with them, hm?” Joker smiled at the small hitch of breath at the question.

“You on the other hand, you’re the monster driven by rage and vengeance, and you never give yourself any credit because all the good, or as I’d rather say, productive things that come out of it, they’re all circumstantial, am I right now?” Joker leaned in expectantly as if there was an answer coming his way. There wasn’t any, just silence and shivering flesh under his fingertips. “Now, I don’t wanna embarrass you, God forbid, I just want you to understand something,” he confided with a flourish. “The reason the good people of Gotham do all their good stems from Pavlovian training. When you’re trained to act a certain way, it feels obvious to you, doesn’t it. No matter what taught them, be it the upbringing on the socially imposed urge to make a difference. In the end, it all comes down to self-gratification.”

Joker was finished now. He grabbed Bruce’s shoulders and pulled him up from the bed, tugging him closer until he was leaning against his chest. Leaving a trail of kisses down the nape of his neck, he continued.

“The reason you suffer so much is because you feel for those poor bastards, just the way I do. You want to help them, but not because it makes you appear righteous in your own eyes. It doesn’t make you feel better. No, it makes you feel awful, but you still do it. Instead of silencing them, you want to take their burden and carry it for them. No matter how many kicks to the head you take, you still want to save them and give them all you’ve got. And since you want to hate yourself so much, for all the wrong they’ve done, you kick yourself even harder and harder, you seek out castigation hoping that in hating you others will find some peace of mind. No one ever had to teach you to be this way, no one had to scare you into being this, even if you think otherwise. It’s simply the way you are.” Joker closed his eyes and nuzzled his face into Bruce’s shoulder. “You’re the only good person I’ve ever met,” he laughed. “So cut yourself some slack from time to time.”

Bruce felt his blood cloud everything, from his hearing down to his breath. He felt it hot and sticky, flooding him, its tides crashing against what little was left of his mind’s integrity with every stream of words leaving Joker’s mouth. Some of it almost came close to angering him, but he couldn’t give in to anger, knowing it was merely because it was all true. He wanted to give in to him, and so he did, and he had to accept everything as his own and agree to his truth. It left him raw and exposed. He knew he had nothing left to stand between the two of them. The sheer panic it brought rivaled maybe only the burning need to be taken in every way possible, right now.

He was shaking with every breath that he sucked in, being left alone for a few seconds while Joker paced to the bathroom just to return with a cold, damp washcloth. He used it to wipe away the remains of the shaving foam, his movements still deliberately impersonal. Even though the cold made him shrink a little, Bruce already felt the difference; there was nothing to guard his most sensitive parts from the overload of sensations that was surely coming next, if he knew Joker at all.

Joker pressed the washcloth to his own forehead for a few seconds before he threw it aside. It helped a bit. Then, he picked the wristwatch belt and calmly fastened it around the base of Bruce’s now half-erect cock. It seemed that he was done with all the preparations. No real reason to hold yourself back now. He unbuttoned his shirt and practically tore it off his body, immediately feeling better. There was just too much heat. He also unzipped his pants, and after a few seconds worth of pondering, he decided to get rid of them too. Cool air might be of assistance, after all.

He scooted closer, kneeling with one thigh wedged between Bruce’s, and he pressed himself snug to his chest. He let his hands roam across the man’s lower back while his lips were finally allowed the field day they'd been waiting for. He sought out the pulse point on Bruce’s neck and sucked, long and hard. His tongue was insatiable, and it only took it a couple of seconds to make the man rock-hard again. Kissing his way down, he started to bite at the taut muscles of his chest, gradually increasing the dosage of pain. His fingers slid between his asscheeks, spreading them and squeezing, and when he let them flit over the underside of Bruce’s balls, he was rewarded with a small moan. He smiled at the job well done; Bruce was back on the edge, where he was supposed to be.

His mouth descending steadily but slowly, he closed his lips around one of Bruce’s nipples, caressing the other one with the side of his thumb, rubbing in small circles. His other hand went to his groin to rest there, and maybe just to ghost over the now defenseless, smooth inner thigh every once in a while. Joker just loved how bothered Bruce had become; if anything, it was his favorite thing ever to have him reduced to such a shivering mess. His tongue kept teasing his nipple, sucking and nibbling, and that alone forced a small whimper out of his throat at a few second intervals. And there were no inhibitions left. His entire body was writhing and arching for more, without a trace of shame.

Bruce had no place left in his head for shame or any other thing that wasn’t Joker’s hands and mouth on his flesh. He didn’t know anything that wasn’t Joker, around him, inside of him, devouring him, having him at his behest. He felt safe with his own desperation, and so he pushed, and writhed, and exposed himself as much as he could just to get more, and more. He moaned for it, he screamed and cried when Joker dragged his nails down the small of his back just to dig them into the flesh of his ass a second later, sending a surge of tingles right to the base of his spine and then straight to his already strained cock. He felt it pulsate against the makeshift cockring, and he couldn’t decide whether its presence made it better or more unbearable.

Minute by minute, everything stared to melt into one, long, agonizing ordeal. Joker would touch him everywhere, he would lavish him with his teeth and nails, drive him crazy with his tongue slithering down the skin of his stomach and inner thighs, now moist with sweat and flushed with impending insanity, all the while happily ignoring the increasing tempo of his panting, and the more and more insisting jerks of his hips. When Bruce felt the moist breath against the head of his cock, he was peripherally surprised at how whiny and high-pitched his voice had sounded, but he couldn’t enjoy his own astonishment for more than a split second as Joker chuckled, letting the air he exhaled sharply ghost past the yearning flesh. Enough was enough. Bruce arched his body pleadingly, letting his chin fall to his chest as he bit down on his gag. Finally, Joker relented.

The first touch of his tongue against the leaking slit of his cock felt like pure electricity. Bruce wailed and tried to push into the barely parted lips that gently kissed and sucked away the precome, but Joker gripped his thighs hard enough to bruise, keeping him at bay. His head lolling back, Bruce felt himself drowning in his own blood as it throbbed in his trussed up arms, pounded in his skull, pooled in his abdomen and literally converged in cock, as it rushed quicker and quicker with each long, slow lick up and down his shaft, with each open-mouth kiss to the bundle of nerves on its underside, all the while Joker’s hands took care of his balls, prodding gently at his asshole from time to time. It was all much too slow, too cruel, and in his shaved state he was much, much too defenseless.

Then, Joker engulfed him in his mouth, but he didn’t move much, just sucking in accord with his heartbeat. A dry finger buried itself deeper and deeper into him, but somehow the lack of lubrication didn’t bother Bruce in the slightest right now. He tried bucking his hips a little, and Joker gave him one warning as he gently pressed his teeth to the vulnerable flesh in his mouth. When Bruce stilled, he continued on his languid sucking. The finger didn’t want to go in much deeper, just as the tempo Joker hollowing his cheeks and massaging the best spots with his tongue wouldn’t go up even a notch. The only thing that was going up was the volume of Bruce’s anguished moans, until the mouth released him after a few minutes, leaving him panting and purple.

Joker pulled away and clenched his eyelids, counted to ten, and then one more time. When he felt he was good, he scurried behind Bruce and grabbed the back of his neck, pushing down until the man was pressing his cheek to the floor, his ass in the air. Joker raked his nails down the soft skin and then he spread him, inching forward. The first lap of his tongue resulted in a delicious convulsion and a startled whimper. That was the idea.

If the tremors were on the verge of knocking Bruce down before, now they were quite successfully bringing the siege to the final stage. The lack of hair chipped in to his plight, and the firm, deft tongue seemed to just go on and on with its leisurely torture, sometimes moving in fast little circles, sometimes pushing inside, sometimes sucking and kissing the puckered flesh, letting warm strings of spit trickle down his balls. Bruce had never felt so grateful for having something in his mouth in his entire life. He bit down hard, groaning and gasping. Every single muscle in his body went into spasms, and he felt the pressure sear to new heights against the tight ring of leather, when suddenly Joker stopped and reached for his hair, yanking hard, hands grabbing his shoulders and repositioning so he was leaning his back against the side of the bed, still kneeling with his thighs spread and slicked with various bodily fluids, his upper body arched as Joker kept tugging at his hair, holding his head to the mattress.

Bruce tuned himself to the rhythm of Joker’s breath against his body, and he wondered if he was able to take it much longer. He had no say on the matter. The way Joker started to kiss him, sucking and biting on his exposed neck and chest, oblivious to the previous wounds—it felt like the man was indeed going bite off a piece at some point, but Bruce wasn’t afraid, or even remotely apprehensive. If anything, at this point, he would enjoy it and there was no question. He didn’t even try to stop himself from arching into the assault of teeth and bruising grabs and squeezes, trying to worm his way into more and more.

There was a short pause during which Bruce heard a soft click and then Joker was pushing lube-slicked fingers into him, not caring about his comfort. And Bruce was thankful for that, rocking against the rough, invasive burning with a delighted cry. The tempo Joker adopted right from the get-go was something that normally would bring ten times more pain than pleasure, but this time it was perfect, and Bruce could only lie back, his hair still pinned to the mattress, his chest and nipples sucked and gnawed on while the long fingers thrust into him faster and faster, rubbing him in all the right places until he found himself swaying precariously over the edge. When Joker pushed the fingers of his other hand past the necktie into his mouth, it was only a miracle he didn’t come on the spot. It was deadly apparent to the madman, so he stopped and harshly turned Bruce around so his face was buried in their designer sheets.

Joker did a quite perfunctory job at spreading the lube over his own cock, mostly for the sake of reducing the stimuli to the absolute minimum. He was already soaked with his own precome anyway, and Bruce was already more than ready to take all that he had without any further nonsense. He grabbed the man’s hips and pulled him roughly away from the side of the bed, just so only his torso was leaning on top of it. A small precautionary measure to prevent any unwanted humping. He positioned himself and started to push. His throat and lungs seemed to have unlocked as he buried himself deeper and deeper in the tight warmth. The way Bruce pushed back against him, the way his body writhed almost sliced him to pieces with the little blades of near-death pleasure, swallowing him whole until his vision went white for a few seconds.

A deep breath helped to stave off the overload. Bruce wasn’t helping to make it last longer, but Joker still had so much to give him. He wrapped one arm around his chest, the other one going to his hip for leverage, and started to fuck him. His thrusts were harsh and his tempo was gaining right from the start, but Bruce’s screams were nothing short of utterly ecstatic. There was still one more thing before Joker would finally let them give in. Joker pulled Bruce up so his back was to his chest and held him close without losing his momentum. He wanted so badly to just tear him open, get deeper and then even fucking deeper until he would be entrenched in him, wrapped and soaked, and yet all he could do was to tighten his hand around the man’s throat and experience it vicariously.

The last moan that managed its way out of Bruce’s mouth before his breath was cut off still resounded in Joker’s ears. He slowed his thrusts little by little, in accord with Bruce’s slowing heartbeat. The fact the man was so relaxed despite being strangled seemed so wrong, and yet feeling him yield like this nearly brought Joker to the edge of sobbing, as inappropriate as it was. He had strangled enough people back in the day to know when to let go, and so he pinpointed the perfect moment to give Bruce the opportunity to breathe again. As his strained veins choked on the oxygen and his heart went into racing mode again, Joker began to fuck him faster and harder. Bruce had become limp in his arms, but his hips kept canting to meet the incessant pounding. His moans seemed to be unfiltered by any kind of awareness. He had never sounded and felt so unbridled, but there was still a slight hint of tension in his muscles, as if the barrage of sensations was too much for him to handle. He shouldn’t want it to be over, he should just go with it. Joker gripped his throat once more, and once more, he slowed down until Bruce’s pulse was on the verge of dying away.

When Joker released him, Bruce didn’t know the difference between pain and pleasure anymore. In fact, he barely knew anything. The pressure behind his eyelids colored his temporary blindness red, then black, then it submerged him in white, cold heat. His body was euphoric with the sudden air influx, with the feel of Joker’s feverish body so close to his, and with his arms serving him dying and revival so tenderly. It was the overwhelming sense of safety that did it; Bruce tilted his head and pressed his face to Joker’s cheek, and his body took over the helm, riding the other man and angling his own hips to get the most of it without even realizing. Joker held him tighter and unfastened the ad-libbed cockring. He stroked the slicked flesh, slowly working up a tempo to match Bruce’s rhythm. He buried his face into the shivering skin, getting high on the spasms and screams, marveling at how effortlessly Bruce seemed to take it. Each of his movements was infused with something Joker had never seen in him before, and when he finally came, in Joker’s eyes he was at his most beautiful. It would have scared him if he wasn’t already taken over by his own release. Holding on to Bruce for dear life, he moved his hips a few more times with no rhythm or finesse, their screams mingling until they fell to raspy, breathless moans and then just eased into heavy panting.

After that, it was just a jump-cut sequence of images, the fringe awareness of cutting through ropes and removing the gag and the blindfold while Bruce lay the upper half of his body against the bed, his eyes still closed and his mouth slightly parted. It took Joker a good few minutes to be able to experience reality in a fairly consistent manner, just in time to see Bruce’s eyelids lift with laziness. He watched the man right himself and turn to face him, and the poor organ he called his heart took yet another stab at the sight. He had no idea if Bruce had ever looked at anyone the way he looked at him right now. The gag had pressed itself into the sides of his mouth in a mocking image of his own scars, the blood mixed with sweat and spit ran down his bruised and rope-burned skin, the bitemarks and hickeys threw in a slightly obscene touch, and yet it was the pure, childish happiness in his eyes that seemed the most perverse. That, and the way he reached for Joker and pulled him close, the way he threw his still slightly numb arms around him and melted into an embrace that seemed so ill-fitted to everything that went down just seconds before. Innocent, warm and gut-crushing all at once. Joker’s head was swimming anyway, so he didn’t dwell on the bizarreness of it all and just hugged Bruce tighter, since it seemed that the purest things would always grow out of the worst kinds of filth and there was no need to question it.

Chapter Text

A/N: school's out, FINALLY. I hope some of you still give a shit about this story. xD

Bruce had gotten off the phone with Alfred a good fifteen minutes ago, yet the little device still felt heavy in his hand, and the trappings of the few parting sentences still singed a little bit. He was sitting in his base, had been there since the early morning, and on the multiple-screen set-up in front of him were displayed various strands of information on Yaguchi Kawasaki, the newest transplant to his company's board of directors. Mister Kawasaki had replaced a certain Amanda Brigham who had died intestate a couple of months earlier, leaving no specified next of kin nor any explicit dying wishes. Her portfolio had been made public and subsequently purchased by the man, whose history Bruce was trying to put together from the available scraps.

He couldn't concentrate on the task for the moment, though. He was painfully aware he would very much like to see Alfred at least one more time in his life. For now, his old friend was staying with his family in the countryside, entertaining his brother's grandchildren and enjoying a not so much needed vacation, as he had told Bruce. In other words, Alfred missed him, but he couldn't bring himself to saying it. It wasn't his place to say so; even after all these years he seemed to take pride in his professional integrity, never stepping out of line, offering his best courtesy to his employer even after their ways had parted.

Alfred was one of those things in Bruce's life he wanted to shelter from this craziness, yet gradually it had become harder and harder to really think of it as craziness. There was a certain order to what was going on in his life, but the problem lay in translating this order into something that would make sense to an outsider. It was all still very chancy, trying to tread forwards and going about his tasks and chores knowing how much of his world had been turned upside down, but so far he was doing great. It had been almost two weeks since he had moved in with Joker, and as far as the world was concerned, Bruce Wayne was enjoying a positively debauched junket around the world. No one should expect to hear from him for another month, at least no one of immediate importance.

Bruce scratched his chest; the hair that had been shaven off so many days ago was growing out really slowly, and it caused all kinds of discomfort since Bruce wasn't one to take excessive care of his skin, but he didn't mind any of it. It was something Joker had left for him to keep himself present in his thoughts even if he wasn't there in person. Right about now Joker was catering to one of his many enthusiasms, though Bruce would rather call it a compulsion; on certain days the man just couldn't fight the urge to simply roam around the city for hours and hours on end. Bruce saw his own nightly rounds of the streets reflected in this need to be everywhere, to breathe the air and touch the concrete flesh, a sort of sickly variation of the landlord's need to look after the property. It was their city after all.

He shook off the remnants of the conversation and panned his gaze across the screens. He had to hack into a couple of files, like for example the ones that shouldn't exist, particularly the list of descendants of a certain group referred to as eta by the Japanese. In medieval times, eta were the outcasts sentenced by heredity to eke out their living through unclean labor such as handling cadavers. To this day the progeny of those people suffers discrimination and constitutes the bigger portion of crime syndicates. It is illegal to check the background of a person and make it into a basis of discriminatory treatment, yet private detectives are still being employed to do just that. There actually is a database of eta descendants that may be accessed if you wish to, for instance, check your daughter's fiancé’s blood lines for contaminations. Many people are still willing to pay for this access. Bruce didn't really have to pay, but it did cost him a bit of a strain to figure out a way to open it, the language barrier being one of them.

He was fairly well-versed in Chinese, with its grammar being relatively simple and the writing system not producing many difficulties to learn since all it really required was good visual memory, and Bruce was virtually an eideteker. With Japanese it was little bit harder, but in the end he managed. Being conversant with the Chinese characters may lend one some help in deciphering Japanese if one's bright enough and has the basics of the language covered, and Bruce could check out both prerequisites. In time, he knew mister Kawasaki's brilliant career as a brain surgeon had been cut at the stem with no satisfactory explanation, but the eta database turned out to have one ready for Bruce.

He could only imagine due to some internecine competition someone would want to snip a rival's career short--he had seen it everywhere, and the world of medicine was no exception. Elderly patients wouldn't want to be handled by someone whose forebear might have handled dead bodies, some of the younger ones might have objections as well. The hospital's reputation might be marred, and no one really wanted that. Mister Kawasaki was let go and subsequently went off the grid for eight years, only to reemerge in Gotham City, an entrepreneur on the make quickly ascertaining his position as one of the main players. He had been there for four years, making frequent trips to Japan and back, but it wasn't until recently that he abandoned them altogether. Bruce could only suspect it was due to the colorful severance of his ties with the Japanese organized crime and setting up shop with Sofia Falcone.

Bruce's eyes felt weary all of a sudden. He leaned back in his chair and focused his gaze at a distant point behind the screens, ruminating over each and every detail of the whole story. Amanda Brigham had held a veritable iron grip over her affairs--it didn't feel right to hear of her dying intestate, of natural causes to boot. She was a well-preserved, middle aged woman who took good care of her health. Then again, aneurysm has the tendency to strike without a warning. Then again, so does murder.

Bruce took a sip of his coffee and put the cup back on the table, unhappy with its temperature. He stood up, walked over to his armor standing as if on display and reached out to touch the Kevlar plates. It felt different now. He used to see and feel the armor's power vibrating in each of its molecule, its weight on his body transforming him into the embodiment of his fear. Now it seemed like a ridiculously overpriced Halloween costume made in China. He couldn't sense its strength no longer, and he had to wonder if it had ever been there to begin with. In the past, he could never attribute Batman's qualities to himself. Now he was starting to realize, the sight and the feel of the armor elicited such reverence in him because he could never bear to notice those things in his own reflection.

It was Joker who had made the armor redundant for him. Putting on a cowl would always spur a certain change in his behavior, something that happened by reflex and without thought. He would adapt the growl and the aloof manner, the set of gestures, every single move so very different than his everyday ways of carrying himself. It was automatic and he couldn't help it, even if the only people around him were the ones who shared his secret. Batman and Bruce Wayne were not the same and had no common denominator. Now when he was with Joker and wearing his costume, he just felt like a guy in a costume. He had told Joker about it, and after a stretch of silence the madman had confessed that he felt the same way about his make-up, whether it was the clown paint or his everyday latex (though now Joker used the silicone molds Bruce had made for him. Much less tedious, still silly to wear in front of the other man).

It would be stupid to assume they had stripped each other of their alter egos and destroyed the parts of themselves that would drive them to come out at night and deal out terror in their respective ways. If Bruce had any knowledge of himself, he had to admit he had finally internalized that part. It was what allowed him to look in the mirror and see the power that had made such an impact on his city. It was what stripped the armor of that power in his eyes. He could only wonder if it was the same for Joker, but frankly, it couldn't be, and it had him worried. Joker didn't become something else when he put on his make-up and purple coat.

There were still so many dangers awaiting, but Bruce realized one thing--he didn't want to let anything that was his responsibility deteriorate. There were still things he wanted to sustain, and he wanted his father's company to keep going. Thinking of his father, he had to wonder whether there was any doctor left in mister Kawasaki. Once the man had to vow never to bring harm unto others and always strive to bring relief to the suffering. He could never bring actual harm to his company, the board of directors being more of a bevy of docile consultants who knew their place and were constantly made to remember it. Yet, his presence during the meetings might entail things Bruce couldn't see from his current standpoint.

He glanced at his phone. Every once in a while Joker would text him or even give him a call just to report something pointless about the city as of today, something that Bruce would find interesting in spite of everything. Inevitably, he would catch himself growing fonder and fonder of certain traits of Joker's personality. Bruce had learned it wasn't just primordial chaos that swam through the man's veins, and there were more and more instances where he would just catch himself simply enjoying his company in the most innocuous ways, aside of being perpetually and derangedly dependent on him.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Joker had many quirks, if he said so himself. Some of them would raise Bruce's eyebrow, others would downright mortify him, like for instance all the little things one would usually attribute to a regular guy instead of a mass murdering terrorist. Yet there were reasons for Joker being a relatively healthy, able man who was approaching the middle of his fourth decade. There were reasons for his managing to keep himself alive and in good shape up to this point, something he couldn't have accomplished had he not indulged from time to time to the quirks deviating from his psychopathic mainframe.

And so, when he wasn't engaging in antisocial behavior, Joker could spend hours in an environment swarming with people, without being particularly bothered. In fact, he liked it. Walking around the city was a compulsion, and a good exercise at that, and he couldn't possibly count the days he had spent doing just that, memorizing every brick and every crack in the pavement, every begging post of every beggar, and he even kept tabs on the winos' turnover rate. Such occupation held low life expectancy, and he would sometimes contribute to it, aiding their blooming cirrhoses with a lavish gift of booze or means of acquiring it. He also collected their life stories.

He just loved to be everywhere and know everything there was to know about this city. He would go as far as to infiltrating companies or hermetic circles of various persuasions, just to be closer to each and every vein pumping life and lividity through this town. He loved having the knowledge of what pained the Gothamites, what drove them to committing capital crimes or turning on their own lives. At the end of the day, Joker was the nonjudgmental spectator, learning so much without letting anyone grow any wiser to his scrutiny. He had many acquaintances under many monikers, and he had a well-maintained net of contacts in each stratum of Gotham's society.

Today he had already visited many old places, cut up many old touches and now he was walking down the corridor of the freshly rebuilt Gotham General Hospital. Quite the stroll down the memory lane, only today he was wearing decent scrubs and a coat, since he wasn't completely sure he would pass for a redheaded nurse this time. Not in front of the two bodyguards lounging around Sofia Falcone's room. He gave them a nod, gripped his clipboard matter-of-factly confident in his radiant professionalism, and entered the sterile, confined space where lay the battered product of his old friend Carmine's loins. Still in traction, but her face didn't resemble minced meat anymore. She didn't have any company and was entertaining herself with some agonizing daytime television. Upon detecting an intruder's presence, she turned her head to the door and squinted.

"Whoa," she said.

Joker closed the door behind him and shoved his free hand in the pocket of his wrongfully appropriated coat, although the ID card adorning his chest displayed his photograph along with every information necessary to consider him a duly appointed member of the hospital's staff. So far no one had questioned his right to be here. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet and smiled, tucking in his lips.

"You here to smother me with a pillow?" Sofia asked and returned her gaze to the screen.

"Nope." Joker took a few steps towards the bed. There was no good reason for him coming to visit. There was just a slight curiosity spurred by the little research he and Bruce had conducted a few days earlier. Bruce had resolved it would do him a world of good if he could regain his footing in the whole situation, and what better place to start than learning about the enemy. And so he had sifted through each and every available piece of information on the subject, and most of it were just medical records dating as far back as the year Sofia was born. In contrast to the more recent findings, such as the outline of her business endeavors ever since she had come back to her home town, the medical history had proven to be a real page-turner.

The reason all of it had been arranged into a neat and comprehensive database was because the girl to this day received all kinds of treatment from all kinds of medical branches due to her condition. It was crucial for every doctor who would take her under his wings to have insight into the complete story.

Personally, Joker had found the reports of her having all her milk teeth pulled out as soon as they'd emerged quite riveting, on par with the accounts of her Pavlovian conditioning slash hypnotherapy ordained by her father, which in the end had resulted in her phobic fear of losing physical integrity, if one could speak of real fear in her case. Whatever it was, it had kept her from biting holes through her cheeks as her permanent teeth started to grow. The girl had spent most of her childhood in restraints, until she began responding to the therapy.

There weren't very many psychiatric evaluation records, but as far as anyone was concerned, Sofia Falcone to this day hadn't been diagnosed with any sort of mental ailment. Whether she should have been or not was a different matter altogether.

"I'm just here to take your vitals," Joker chirped and took her bony wrist in his hand. It really felt like holding the hose of a waste pump, the throbs even and machine-like, and, more importantly, it left no film of crawling disgust on his fingers. It left nothing at all. Joker released her hand and placed his own back in his pocket, pursing his lips pensively and moving his gaze over the traction. Restraints again. He glanced at the old stitch-marks on the inside of her arm, corroborating the story Yaguchi had told them what seemed like such a long time ago. Restraints, all right. He studied her face for a while and found no traces of mental ailment. Perhaps the learned shrinks had been right for once.

"Congratulations, you're, uh, quite a corpse," he said and cocked his head.

"I'm more like a fancy interactive 3D installation," Sofia muttered, her gaze still fixed on the screen. Joker rolled his eyes.

"Uh-huh. Anyway, there's no need to kill you so do me a favor and have a nice day, hm? Sorry I didn't bring flowers, maybe next time." He swiveled on his heel and directed his steps towards the door, leaving behind him the only reliable mobster he had ever met. He left the doctor getup in one of the washrooms and vacated the hospital not bothered by anyone. Sofia fell asleep a couple of minutes after the door had closed, non-nonplussed by anything.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Bruce had many occasions to explore undisturbed what Joker had amassed in the apartment, like today, taking advantage of the man's prolonged trekking about the city. Not that Joker would have anything against him going through his stuff, and it's not like Bruce would feel uncomfortable having him around while he did it. Still, when Bruce learned things, he liked to do it by himself--it was an old habit.

Not long ago he learned this apartment had originally been a hideout of some top-ranking and now deceased mobster, hence the perfectly working fixtures, running water, electricity and even a working phone line, though that one had been disconnected for obvious reasons. The whole setup dated back to the late nineties, and apparently good money had been paid here and there to keep potential developers at bay. The entire area had been condemned years ago, yet no one seemed eager to do anything about it. It was a good thing in Bruce's opinion. Standing on the rooftop of the building that held their nest, he could appreciate the existence of a place like this one; a place where you could very well lose your life and sanity and no one would even notice. A while ago he would have cringed upon such thought, now he found comfort in it.

He was in need of a little bit of comfort, actually. He didn't know what convinced him it would be a good idea to look up Joker's medical records from Arkham; it seemed obvious at the time, what with him doing all this investigating on various people as of late. Even now, he felt he should have this knowledge and didn't really regret acquiring it, but still, learning of the methods that had been implemented in Joker's 'therapy' was slightly harrowing. He remembered the empty face of a blond woman staring at him from one of the screens; doctor Harleen Quinzel, quite an Ilsa the She-Wolf of the SS if Bruce could say so. He was glad to know she had crowned her career with becoming one of the inmates, yet it hadn't happened soon enough.

Still, maybe Joker had found her extensive study of his sex drive amusing, especially since two months worth of exhaustive tests yielded nothing, not even a single arousal out of him, if there was any truth to Quinzel's logs of her progress with the patient. There hadn't been any actual progress, but the conclusion had been rather satisfactory; Quinzel finally had gotten caught during one of her 'sessions', and since extreme sexual abuse wasn't part of any standard procedure, she had been dealt with in an appropriate manner. Bruce was fairly sure it was only a smoke screen to deflect attention from other MKULTRA-styled tests that had been conducted with Joker as the subject, but he couldn't find very many files confirming his theory. Still, he had found enough, and he knew he could spare himself some details.

Two months of regular torture couldn't break this man, that much he did know. Looking at Joker's possessions and watching him every day had given Bruce an idea of what kind of a man he was. Now that he had come to understand his drive to create events that resulted in destruction, he began seeing other facets and different angles. It made his knees weaker and the knot in his stomach tighter.

Bruce zipped up his jacket and looked across the evening sky. It was a nice spot, quite near the waterfront and the view wasn't too obscured by skyscrapers. He had to admit, being here made him feel just as safe as in his old bat cave. He hadn't been there in a while, perhaps it would be a good idea to go back and do some dusting. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, only to feel the buzz of his cell phone. He put it to his ear with a smile he couldn't help anymore.

"Yeah?"

"Oh, good, so you haven't been kidnapped. Where are you?" asked Joker's exasperated voice.

"I'm on the roof, come up here." The entrances to the building were on the other side and Bruce hadn't seen Joker coming home.

"The roof? What are you doing there, hunting for pigeons? You don't have to, I did some shopping." The voice sounded slightly different now, indicating Joker had left the apartment and was now making his way up the stairs.

"Just come here," Bruce said softly, still smiling.

"Well I am here, now what?"

Bruce heard the screech of the rooftop door, turned around and pocketed his phone, watching Joker mirror his gesture. The man held a bag of sunflower seeds in his other hand and seemed to be munching on some. He was also smiling, though he did look a little tired. Bruce didn't feel all that chilly anymore, quite the contrary, and with each step Joker took towards him the warmth in his chest ratcheted up until it spread all over his body. Joker was only inches away now, looking at him in a way reserved only for him. There were so many things the two of them had never shared with anyone; so many things that didn't really exist anywhere except for the times they were together. Bruce watched the man put the bag in his pocket, take off his gloves, drop them to the ground, unzip Bruce's jacket and slide his hands underneath his shirt, moving closer and closer until he was securely wrapped in the tightest embrace Joker could manage without breaking his ribs. He chuckled when Joker nuzzled his cheek and then his neck, breathing him in and letting out a content sigh. The air ghosting over his skin made his knees even weaker, so he squeezed Joker a little harder, kissing the soft spot under his ear. It had been almost two weeks now, and it was getting worse.

Chapter Text

The sun was barely dealing out enough light anymore, but Bruce wasn't eager to go back inside. Something about remaining in this part of the city almost completely void of human presence and lights comforted him, and he enjoyed measuring the distance between himself and the nearest flashy skyscraper that he could see. The remoteness was satisfactory. He looked at the estranged world over the shoulder of a madman he held in his arms, and he felt justified in every choice he had made over the past couple of weeks.

They had been standing on that roof motionless for several minutes. A gust of wind sneaked up beneath Bruce's shirt, still slightly pulled up to accommodate Joker's arms wrapped around his waist. It gave him a slight chill. Joker sensed it, giving his sides a little squeeze before he let go of him and zipped his jacket back up. Bruce chuckled when Joker fixed his wind-addled hair for him, combing it back with his fingers. He had thoughtful concern visible in his eyes.

"So how's life been treating you today?" he asked. "Why are you here, trying to deal with some unpleasantry by contemplating the moldering surroundings?"

Among all the things Bruce now admitted to like about Joker, there was the completely different way of talking the man employed only while speaking to him. It wouldn't seem different to an outsider, but Bruce could sense the lack of premeditation and a certain spontaneity in his speech; things that weren't there when he spoke to anyone else. He allowed himself the small pleasure of noticing it once again, taking up the additional second before he responded.

"I think I'm good. I deal with unpleasantries in other ways." Bruce bent down to pick up Joker's gloves from the ground and straightened back up. "You need to stop dropping your stuff all over the place," he chided. "Sometimes I can't keep up, you know."

For some mysterious reason, Joker really loved it when Bruce nagged at him. It was a genuine, honest-to-God happiness lighting up his eyes whenever the man found it necessary to voice his annoyance, even if the annoyance wasn't really genuine. They had developed a sort of a banter as their main platform of communication, and they both seemed to enjoy it more than they should. There was definitely something perverse about it, just like about everything else concerning their relationship.

Joker squinted and tilted his head incredulously, still managing to look pleased at the same time.

"You can't keep up? You're not even trying, and I need to keep you alert, darling."

"I'm not even try- I do most of the dirty work around here, when are you going to acknowledge that?"

Of all the things Joker liked about Bruce, the way he would become so animated while arguing was within the tightest top ten. To be honest, a few weeks earlier he couldn't even image Bruce concerning himself with mundane things enough to argue about them, jokingly or not, and now it was steadily becoming one of his favorite things in existence.

"I do the shopping, mostly. It's the worst, you know?" Joker slapped Bruce's arm as they started to slowly walk towards the roof door. "This is how it works, it's the ancient way of dividing responsibilities," he continued, accentuating his truths with broad gestures. "I provide, you adjust."

"You mean I cook, wash up, clean up, fix everything and keep picking stuff up after you. When was the last time you cooked something?"

"What's for dinner?" Joker asked bluntly, disregarding Bruce's point. The man raised his eyebrows at him and grinned. It was really dark as they descended down the stairs, but Joker still could make out the thuggish glint in his eyes as he said:

"Spaghetti."

"Again?"

"It's not like I have time to come up with elaborate meals."

"Of course not, you have things to do. You're Batman."

"Yeah. I'm Batman," Bruce growled. Joker had to sit down to deal with the sudden laughter bursting out of his lungs, and Bruce helped him up after a few seconds, holding his elbow as they passed the threshold of their abode. Still giggling, Joker, turned on the lights and marched to the kitchenette. He took a seat at the small table, making a display of his exhaustion while Bruce took off his jacket and walked straight up to the leftover spaghetti. He poured a little water into the saucepan, put it on the stove and started to heat it up, stirring every now and then. He also made a point to look slightly exasperated at all times. Only to hide how much he enjoyed it.

Bruce didn't think of himself as a particularly good cook. He got the hang of it while traveling the world, but his only concern was always to make sure all the crucial elements were there; the taste's importance was secondary, if he ever took it into consideration. Cooking for someone else was something he was still getting used to. Made him realize how many simple things he had never shared with anyone until a certain mass murderer came along.

Joker was sitting quietly at the table, leafing through the evening newspaper. He never seemed to miss it; actually, he was a remarkable press connoisseur. Going further--Joker was a die-hard collector of Gotham's history. During one of his rummaging sessions, Bruce had discovered a motherlode of catalogued news recordings, dating as far back as the early nineties. Some of those were still in the form of VHS tapes, but many had been ripped and stored on external drives. The newer ones were simply recorded on DVDs and labeled appropriately. Joker seemed to favor themes relating to economy, organized crime (unsurprisingly), medicine (this one was baffling), and, of course, Bruce Wayne. He even had an entire scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings dedicated solely to him, and it spanned from Bruce's earliest years as a public person to the latest mentions of his playboy offenses. Joker must have been following his life for years.

A normal person would probably feel put off upon finding something like this, but Bruce felt glad, even flattered. He had it bad.

One more stir and he deemed the spaghetti ready. As he poured it onto a plate, Joker snorted over his paper.

"Falcone Imports is not public anymore, says here. The world's in awe of Sofia Falcone's prowess, given her state. Frankly, she's just watching 'How to look good naked' all day from what I've seen."

"You went to see her?" Bruce asked and placed the plate in front of Joker, earning himself a beatified smile.

"Yeah." Joker grabbed a fork and shoveled an ample amount of pasta into his mouth, not bothering with a spoon. Bruce sat at the table across of the man and looked at him with the unspoken question hanging in the air.

"You can learn a lot watching things recuperate, you know," the madman said as soon as his mouth wasn't completely full, just enough to permit conversation. "I thought maybe I'd smother her a bit and see what she says, but wasn't necessary."

"So what did you do?"

"Checked her pulse."

Bruce laughed. "How was it?"

"Slow. And you know what?"

"No."

Joker squinted and wagged his finger. He chewed and swallowed another mouthful of pasta before he took up the subject.

"She doesn't even acknowledge she's alive. Not in a way a person her age should. I know you understand. I say we can work with someone like this, if we're not going to kill her. If we're going to, you know, stay here."

Bruce felt he knew what Joker meant by that. Among all the spoils of his training, switching off the awareness of one's own existence was one of the most prized ones. It gave you clarity which nothing else could offer, allowed you to see the world beyond the human categories of what would sustain a life and what would threaten it, or as some call it, good and evil. In this state you saw events as they were, you could analyze them and make an accurate judgment later on, once you had returned to your old, driven self.

Existing on this detached plane full-time must have had its perks, but an outsider could wonder what was the drive behind Sofia Falcone's actions in that case. Everything she had been doing pointed to the obvious answer--she was just matter subject to the chaotic flow. Just the thing Joker endorsed, and just the thing Bruce tried to fight for so long, ineffectively. It was what they all seemed to share. If that was the case, embracing it was the key to keeping balance in Gotham, just as she had said. Bruce started to wonder if his and Joker's choices so far had been influenced by this prescience of a better future for all of them. The choice to comply with Sofia Falcone's demands was certainly the thing that ultimately brought them together.

The tingling warmth Bruce felt as he watched Joker tiredly drag his feet to the sink and wash up after himself warded off any doubts about this particular choice. Joker poured water into the kettle for, most probably, coffee, as he had developed a habit of drinking a cup of really strong one right before going to sleep. Something to substitute the three packs of cigarettes a day. Bruce walked up to him and leaned back against a counter, simply looking. Joker just grinned, and then realized he was still wearing his jacket. He took it off and tossed it on the table, for Bruce to pick up after him later. Right now, Bruce was more interested in the silicone molds still present on the other man's face. He reached up to peel them off while Joker set up his cup. It was another one of those little things; Joker just tilted his head to make the task easier, and he was smiling ever so slightly, enjoying this daily ritual a bit more than he should. Once the ground coffee was in the cup, he just turned to the man and leaned against him, one arm loosely slung around his shoulders.

"Are you really that tired?" Bruce asked, trying to support Joker’s dead weight.

"Yeah," Joker mumbled against his neck. "It's a good thing I have you here."

"It's gonna be a few more weeks before you stop tiring so easily." Joker had quit smoking recently and he was only starting to notice the difference. Combined with getting fairly good night sleep, it resulted with the dark circles around his eyes diminishing a bit, but he still looked sort of worn out and bloodshot most of the time. Some might say the two of them were starting to make small efforts at ensuring they can spend as much time with each other as possible. It meant trying not to die in the near future, not by accident, not by natural causes, certainly not of cancer.

The whistle went off and Joker reached for the kettle lazily, still letting Bruce support him. He poured the boiling water into the cup and stirred it with a spoon.

"I don't tire easily, I'll have you know I walked half the city today. Had many encounters. You know how boring people are."

"Yeah, I do." Bruce chuckled into Joker's hair. He was tired himself, to tell the truth. A day worth of various revelations of gross and yet unclear importance wore him off mentally.

Joker lifted his head from Bruce's shoulder and flicked a speck of something dust-like off the man's t-shirt.

"I'll go take a shower," he said, leaving the steaming coffee on the counter. Once he comes back it should be good for drinking.

Bruce watched him disappear in the bathroom and walked to the bed, contemplating how much on a scale of one to ten they needed something that resembled a couch. He dismissed the subject in favor of his own exhaustion taking up his entire head space. He sat on the bed and reached for the remote control, looking for the evening news. What he found pleased him more; some pop psychologist was showcasing his professional mettle attempting to analyze Gotham's pet celebrities, Batman and the Joker of all people. Right about now, he was proffering an explanation to their disappearance from the public eye, his surmises being a composite of second-rate Freudian trappings and a dystopian social commentary. All of it flimsy and most enjoyable.

Bruce wondered if he was becoming cynical. Back in the day, he had never paid attention to what the media had do say about Batman, being too consumed with the objectives of his crusade. He would never allow himself to feel superior, watching the average folk trying to fumble around the concept of Batman and what they thought he represented. Now, he watched the scholarly man on the television and laughed quietly. He was laughing a lot lately.

Ten minutes into the show, Joker walked out of the bathroom, shaking his head like a dog and sprinkling water all over the place. Bruce glanced at him over his shoulder and smiled as the mist reached him. He went to grab his coffee. When he came back holding the cup, Bruce noticed a comb in his other hand which was handed to him without a word. Joker settled on the floor, his back leaning against the side of the bed. He was only wearing his boxers and an unbuttoned shirt.

Bruce didn't find it expedient to say anything, he just shifted his position so he had Joker sitting between his legs and started to comb his hair while the man took his time absorbing the gravity of theories the TV set was blaring at them. Finally, he decided to speak.

"Did you know I'm acting out my necrophilic drives when I spread destruction because it is easier for me to exist in an inanimate environment where I dictate all the rules?" He said, tilting his head back to look at Bruce. Bruce raised his eyebrows at him and pushed his head back down to get better access to the tangled curls.

"Did you know I suffer a mild form of autism, and I project my own demons onto the canvas of Gotham city’s criminal element, dealing with them as I deal out punishment, unable to see the world as the multifarious place that it is, instead only seeing my own reflection in it?"

"I didn't know that," Joker muttered and took a sip of his coffee.

"See, now you do."

They listened to the man in silence, unwittingly taking some of his ideas into consideration, only to dismiss them in later discourse. It was certainly fun to adopt the idea something was horribly wrong with them, something horribly wrong that motivated every last of their actions. In reality, nothing felt wrong. Bruce finished his task of combing and allowed his hands to linger on Joker's shoulders while the man rested his head on his thigh, wrapping an arm around his leg.

"You know the Vitis are making a comeback?" Joker asked, drinking the last of his coffee. He was growing increasingly drowsy, and Bruce's pleasant warmth wasn't helping.

"Who took the reins?"

"Some Lucia Viti or another, Carla's daughter. It's not officially official yet, but she's been talking to Maroni's sons. Those two worldly guys, y’know, they have a chain of restaurants and that's about it. They're not doing anything interesting, but you know what they say? They say Lucia's incendiary. And hell-bent on revenge." Joker snuggled closer to Bruce's leg with a tired sigh. "Godfather part three, huh? When we get old we should sell the rights to this whole story."

Bruce felt a pang of something indescribable upon this remark. He squeezed Joker's shoulder without realizing. The man on the screen was starting to draw conclusions out of conclusions in a poor attempt at laying out a summation.

"Change the channel," Joker yawned. Bruce complied, only to find Godfather part three a few channels later. They laughed for good several minutes. Maybe it was just another proof of how well tuned in to the multifarious world they were. Bruce decided his back was starting to ache from the hunched position and urged Joker to scoot a bit so he could nestle behind him on the floor, letting the other man lean back against his chest. He ignored the wet curls sticking to his face.

They watched the movie for its remaining hour, at least Bruce did because Joker's comments fell short about twenty minutes to the end. He had fallen asleep, snoring gently every now and then. When the right moment came though, Bruce pinched him just in time to admire Pacino's agony over the fresh corpse of his daughter. Joker pressed his hand to his face and cackled, and Bruce felt it shouldn't be that funny, but one more glance at Al's face and he was done for, joining the other man in his ill-suited mirth.

"We should go to sleep, hm?" Bruce asked once the end credits claimed the screen. Joker nodded and rubbed his eye, making an attempt at getting up and failing. Bruce slid his arms under Joker's and helped him to his feet for the second time that evening. The man ambled to the bathroom to brush his teeth and Bruce took this time to get ready for bed which meant shucking off his clothes and sweeping off a few specks of dust off their sheets. He waited for his turn with the sink, and once he was done with everything that needed to be done, he turned off the light in the bathroom. He really was quite tired himself. Joker was already horizontal and tucked in, the shirt he had been wearing lying rumpled on the floor for Bruce to pick up later. Bruce smirked and walked to the bed, the TV set currently being the only light source leading his way.

He lied down next to Joker and swung a remote-wielding arm haphazardly, hoping to aim well without looking. He did, and the TV went off.

Bruce had noticed his tendency to let Joker wrap himself around him protectively while they slept. In fact, he craved it, knowing it was the only way he could fall asleep and stay asleep. Now, Joker pressed his face to Bruce's chest, clinging to him like he hadn't before. It wasn't familiar, but it was welcome, though Bruce couldn't name the feeling it spurred in him. He brought his arms around the man, shifting a little until they were both comfortable and any risk of limbs going numb later on was allayed.

Joker was breathing slowly. He seemed to be absorbing the silence of those few minutes before being lost to sleep, and his hold over Bruce's waist wasn't slacking. He started to wonder if they were breaking yet another barrier with this little embrace. They’d already shared so many, and each one felt like a glorious kick in the gut, and Joker didn't predict it could stop hurting any time soon. He rather enjoyed this kind of pain, sticky and tingling, spreading just underneath his skin before it seeped inwards, moving in for the vital organs. He never would have suspected he could enjoy this kind of entrapment, but he did, and more so he craved the release--something that was rationed before, something he could reach for and receive right now. He feared it might lose its taste with time, but it didn't; it was only getting more prickly, more invasive and confusing.

He had already spent about fifteen minutes just taking in Bruce's heartbeat. He knew he wasn't completely awake, but he needed more of him than just this. He rolled on top of him, pleased with how yielding the man was, how his arms immediately moved up his sides. One of Bruce's hands snarled in his hair while he pushed down, kissing blindly at his face until their lips met. The blood in his veins wasn't exactly rushing, it was buzzing through him, resonating strangely, reminding him he was so exhausted he couldn't really differentiate between what was really real and what was merely perceived as such. He knew Bruce was real, he was right there, caressing his back, holding him even though Joker's weight had to impede his breathing significantly.

Joker dug his fingers in his hair without pulling. He couldn't stop kissing him. He barely acknowledged they were both growing hard quickly, he just went with it, wanting to spill himself out, cling to Bruce never to be pried off, stay like this without feeling the microscopic gap between their bodies as they moved against each other, trying to get everywhere, get every square inch covered.

His head felt light and suddenly he couldn't feel any pain in what he was doing. He was aware of his hands cupping Bruce's face, feeling the sharp cheekbones, the soft, pale skin he couldn't see, the stubble and the muscles tensing slightly in a smile beneath his mouth. He slid his tongue a little deeper, let it move slower, languidly, without the earlier despair. Bruce didn't hide how much he liked it. He smoothed his hand up and down the crease of Joker's spine, letting his other hand squeeze his ass, and he purred into the kiss.

If Joker were to be honest, he had never expected him to be like this. He had envisioned him as someone who would gladly give in one time and regret it for the rest of his life, only to give in again and regret it even more. He never suspected Bruce could make him laugh, or cry, he never dreamed he could make him dinner either. All the while looking so shameless and serving him fear of the rarest kind.

He let his lips wander all over his face, enjoying how little control he had over his own body right now. He moved his hips, hearing himself moan as their cocks pressed together. He reached down, pulling his underwear and then Bruce's a few inches down with a couple of frantic gestures. There wasn't any pain to be found, and slowly he lost the awareness of that microscopic gap between them. He licked Bruce's neck, sucked his skin without haste. He didn't bite. He kissed and savored, the soft sounds escaping the man's mouth, those little moans and whimpers going straight to his cock. He reached down and lined them up, his consciousness dissolving even further with each of their thrusts and bucks.

His other arm slid beneath Bruce's head, fingers gripping his hair, and he still couldn't stop kissing him, sometimes taking a short break to catch his breath while he paid all kinds of attention to the man's neck and heaving chest, licking and sucking on his nipples, leaving hickeys everywhere.

One of Bruce's hands left the small of his back and joined his hand around their cocks to help, squeezing, sending a jolt through Joker's body and forcing a fairly loud moan out of him. He pressed his face against Bruce's neck, panting heavily as they gained momentum. Everything seemed so soft and warm, welcoming, in place, and there was the complete lack of tension, pain, or even awareness of it missing. Joker was fairly sure he gasped Bruce's name into his ear, and he was fairly sure it earned him a shower of kisses in all the places Bruce could reach. He smiled at the moist warmth spotting his neck and shoulders as he leaned an inch or two above him, letting his mouth do what it wanted. His thrusts were getting more and more erratic, and he felt it growing in him, both his release and the emotion he feared to name.

He sunk into Bruce, squeezing the hot, hard flesh, screaming against him, trying to get everywhere, fill every space between them. Bruce came first, and it only took Joker a few seconds to catch up. He wanted to hold him so badly, all of him, and it only resulted in a seemingly awkward embrace involving all of their limbs and disregarding the stickiness between them. The darkness started to smother him, and he felt blind, half-paralyzed. Bruce’s hand was on his for a few seconds before it moved up his arm, leaving something in its wake Joker hoped he could keep for longer. He couldn't possibly know if all of it had been a dream. It felt too easy and too sweet, the kiss Bruce placed on his cheek didn't seem to pose enough threat for this to be real.

Chapter Text

Passing the reception and all the nice people sitting there, then down the corridor nodding to patients and doctors alike, Mosheh Nissenbaum born Roger Weiss pushed the wheelchair-bound Sofia Falcone to the x-ray unit. It had been seven weeks since the faithful day when Carla Viti nearly brought her to the edge of oblivion, seven weeks of irreparable damage and lost opportunities resulting in the dollar spilling through her fingers, but she was fine. It was going to be her last x-ray, the doctors were optimistic and happy with her recovery, for all she knew she was going to be able to walk in a few minutes. After not doing it for seven weeks. She didn't miss it all that much and it had been sort of funny, being pushed around in a wheelchair and carried everywhere, almost like childhood.

They walked inside the lead-lined room where another smiling doctor and a radiant nurse took it upon themselves to assist Sofia onto the table. Mosheh and the chair went back outside. The man wheeled the chair against the wall and sat in it, examining his fingernails, straightening the braids of his beard, rubbing a speck of dirt off his right Italian wingtip. Things had been perplexing lately. New faces emerging, conniving, effecting a confluence of powers he wasn't sure he liked. It had only been a few weeks since Lucia Viti started hobnobbing with the elements standing lower in the food-chain, but she already had something to show for it. She had been spotted several times in the Maroni brothers' restaurants, she had been seen hanging out with the some of the triads' lower enforcers for God knows what reason. The triads didn't like them. They had their suspicions about Yaguchi's background, they also didn't appreciate him single-handedly taking over several of their businesses. The Maronis were dumb and confused, and these particular characteristics can be deadly, especially in men being poised against you.

Mosheh glanced at his flashy watch, wondering how much longer it was going to take. He didn't like to be kept waiting, but then again he'd forget he was waiting soon enough. There was a lot going on around him, like for instance, that knurled lump of a spider building its home right above the door to the x-ray room. You don't see that many spiders trying to settle in hospitals. Could be it's simply because they're being swept away as they come, but this one at least provided entertainment for the five minutes before Mosheh was called inside with the chair. He wheeled Sofia outside and found himself a regular chair to sit in while they waited for the photos to be developed.

He would have sent someone else to do all this, but he had learned a long time ago, when you finally find something as fickle as trust, and if you can afford to maintain it, you don't let anyone in between. You don't allow anyone to do anything for you, unless they have no idea what they're actually doing. The fine art of subcontracting to the ignorant, that one he had mastered. He could sell practically anything. He used to be a lawyer after all.

"They said if I can walk, I should at least use a crutch for another week. Fuck crutches, I want a cane," said Sofia.

"With a fist handle?"

"What else? But only if it has six fingers, 'cause that would be confusing when I make people kiss it."

Mosheh pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed a number, puffing out his cheeks.

"Yeah, mister Andrews, I have a job for you," he started in uptalk. "A cane, for a 5'4" person, six-fingered fist as the handle, make it fly, and we expect to see some detailed concept sketches by nine p.m. tonight or some disenchanted customer might come over by your shop. Yeah. E-mail is fine, just make it clear." Mosheh hung up and looked at Sofia, not changing his almost-reclining position in the uncomfortable chair. This job he could afford to outsource.

"I like doing business with you." Sofia stretched out her arms, examining all the scars, both old and the sort-of new. They were fun to look at, just like one might enjoying looking at a crocodile with all its textures and crazy features. There is so much fun in this world to be had.

"When is Lucia coming to visit? I forgot," she asked.

"Thursday around six, because she knows you need your rest and doesn't want to disturb you at a later hour."

"What a sweetheart."

"Hey, last time I saw her, what, a year ago? She was about to get married? You know, I saw those photos of her in Maronis' joint and sweet Jesus, she's twice as, uh, voluptuous now."

"Runs in the family, I'd look like that too if I remembered to eat."

"You need to get those notes set. I'm serious, you need the calcium and shit."

"Hey, I like to eat, I just forget."

"That's why you need notes, give me your phone, I'll do it for you. You know we sometimes forget to remind you, you need more help than that."

"I left it in the car, remind me to give it to you. Don't forget to remind me that."

"Yeah, okay." Mosheh looked up a few things on his phone before he spoke again absently. "Hey didn't Lucia have a baby a few months ago?"

"Six months ago. Her firstborn child and a masculine child, she made everyone so proud."

"Shouldn't she be like, doing stuff with it, him I mean? Raising and, you know? Stuff? Those first months, years even, are the most important, a child should spend most of that time with parents otherwise it might grow up all weird and deprived."

"You tell that to her when she comes over, okay? Tell her to do stuff with the baby and lay off our thriving middle class of businessmen and go back to her own sandbox. Baby stuff. The stuff of reason. Convey it in your lawyerly way."

"Okay, I will." Mosheh became engrossed in his cell phone once again.

The door to the x-ray room opened and the smiling doctor emerged accompanied by the radiant nurse. The demand to perform an efficient and speedy diagnosis worked well.

"Miss Falcone? Yeah, nothing unexpected here, you can get off that chair today if you like. Here are your photos." The doctor handed her an envelope. "The bones are all but recovered, the rehabilitation program you've been doing also yielded results, though as I said, the ligament that had been torn shouldn't be subject to much strain, okay?" He spoke in a pleasant twang, trying to make every word crystal clear and a statement in itself. "I must insist on that crutch, I'll have someone fetch one for you in a minute if you just wait here, and, weeell, I think that would be all, for now, huh Jane?" He glanced nervously at the nurse who nodded cordially, letting her radiance be seen at all angles. "So, if there aren't any questions, no..." He cleared his throat, his voice breaking. "Please, take care." He attempted a nod at Mosheh. "Mister Nissenbaum..." And he walked away, sweeping something off his forehead, maybe sweat. Nurse Jane followed him.

Sofia leaned in towards Mosheh.

"Hey, I think we've intimidated him with our high-roller debonair."

"I think it's because of your last name, you know?"

"Or maybe it's because you look kinda weird." Mosheh had assumed a seemingly impossible position on the chair, trying to get comfortable and only achieving this sort-of-but-not-quite-there coiled recline with his legs jutting out and taking up most of the corridor's width.

"Weird how?"

"Bendy Bob weird."

"You're... Bendy Bob," he muttered. It was now evident he was playing Angry Birds.

"I was, but then they put me in traction," Sofia laughed. Soon enough, Radiant Jane brought Sofia the promised crutch.

"Alright, let's do this." She grabbed the crutch, got up reluctantly and attempted a few steps. She turned to Mosheh with mock rapture. "I can walk!"

Mosheh righted himself and dropped his phone in his lap, clasping his hands together.

"You can walk!"

"OH MY GOD!"

"PRAISE JESUS!"

Radiant Jane tried to ask them to tone it down, because other patients and this and that, but they didn't pay any mind to her, they kept praising the Lord at the top of their lungs all the way to the exit, and it was a long way because of the crutch.

 

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Yaguchi Kawasaki was a strange, strange man. Even though he was a relatively fresh transplant to Gotham city, his history of investments here was extensive. His input remarkable. Doing his homework on him, Bruce had discovered substantial donations to charitable foundations, his involvement with several construction projects of great importance to the city (including the rebuilding of Gotham General), not to mention his and his associates' tireless efforts to boost the economy in any way possible. Bruce had seen the numbers and they didn't lie. The machine had been set in motion way before those people decided to take actual residence in Gotham, they had been spreading their influence ever since the previous Falcone empire ceased to exist.

On the surface, Kawasaki was impeccable. He even wore a regular fake eyeball to the meetings of directors instead of the ghastly pale blue one he seemed to favor on his days off. He charmed his peers right off the gate, and everyone seemed to applaud his agreeably demure suggestions and carefully proffered plans. Every single person he came in contact with had nothing but superlatives for him, describing him as a man of vision and one of the best things that had happened to the company in a while.

The numbers didn't lie. The recession was indeed becoming history, something that people of the last decade could only dream of. It was hard to tell who should receive the credit for this. Was it the rather long string of deaths in the petty criminal populace, combined with the extinction of the biggest family in town and the consequent shy withdrawal of the smaller groups? Was it because of the inevitable currents in the economy that simply had to take their time? Or perhaps someone aside of Bruce had been injecting the city with their own visions.

Visions of a richer clientele, of people who can afford to be regular customers, of people who can afford to gamble away millions of dollars. Bruce couldn't help but wonder whether Kawasaki and the others were merely fattening the stock before the great slaughter, or if they were trying to establish an even keel. So far everything seemed to point to the latter.

Bruce had grown weary during today's meeting. He would be coming back to his penthouse very reluctantly had it not been for Joker waiting for him there. They had spent the last couple of days in that cavernous dentist’s office as the man had dubbed it. Joker said the place was only good to slide around in socks in, and that was mostly what he did when Bruce was away. That, and maybe playing dress-up with Bruce's overpriced, bespoke designer suit collection, or poking around the secret room.

After all this time of them being together, over a month now, Bruce really didn't feel he could hide anything from Joker. He knew it worked both ways, too, he just didn't ask. He never asked about anything Joker didn't tell him on his own, he never pried. He still felt there was something brewing, something that might have to be confronted, and that it needed its own pace to come to the surface. That gestation period when they finally accepted neither of them had ever any chance of getting away from the other, with all of its unspoken hardships and suppressed dread, wasn't without its perks. Letting off the steam felt overwhelming. The closeness, the sense of safety they had built for themselves couldn't compare to anything. Not unlike the petrifying knowledge of how much they stood to lose.

The elevator door slid open and Bruce should say he was home, but he wasn't, really. He never felt at home anywhere except for their little rathole. Seeing Joker splayed on the sofa, reading some book while listening to some graphic extreme makeover show on the TV (right now they were showing the process of breast augmentation in detail) dissolved the starch in his posture he had to keep the entire day. He undid the top button of his shirt, loosened the necktie and started to walk towards Joker who was giving him his most bone-melting smile from above the backrest, the one smile Bruce was still trying to get used to with little success. At least now he knew he had to brace himself against the unmanning effect it had on him.

It was hard to believe the first time that man was in this penthouse, he had dropped his best friend out the window. And then he had her killed. And Bruce could never truly blame him for it, just like he could never blame anyone for anything, gathering all the guilt for himself to feast on. And it was hard to believe how he could now let it go, bit by bit, sometimes feeling it had gone away for good only to be reminded of its yet untouched layers. He could still feel the tendrils creeping around his mind, only to descend deeper whenever he tried to grab them.

They were all still now. Now, all he wanted was to drop on the floor by the sofa and lay his head on Joker's chest, so that's what he did. He closed his eyes and sighed while the man put his arm around his neck, giving him a slight squeeze. Now and only now it felt somewhat like coming home.

"Do you know what the tacit understanding is?" Bruce mumbled into Joker's vest. "That I’m fresh out of rehab. Weight loss."

Bruce had only attended two of the directors' meetings after his prolonged absence. It was only normal people were going to talk.

"Yeah, that, and you still have that haggard look about you, even with the stupid haircut." Joker ruffled Bruce's hair, trying to make it a little less than impeccable. "Was it really necessary? Hm? Does it say anywhere in your job description ‘sport banker mullet at all times'?"

Bruce lifted his head an inch, just enough to make his 'how droll' sneer be seen before he dropped it back down on the warm, comforting surface.

"How do you know what the tacit understanding is, anyway?" Joker asked, running his fingers through the banker mullet.

"A gangster told me," Bruce chuckled.

"The yakuza brain surgeon?"

"The same. He's the only one who's honest with me on such matters, so far at least. We had a talk on the way to the parking lot."

"He shares gossip with you?"

"Just said I should use concealer around the eyes and gain a few pounds so I look more reliable, because people are talking. He has plans and he wants my involvement."

"Do you want me to go slap him for saying you look unreliable?"

"We could have a gas pipe explode under one of his gambling joints. I'm kidding," Bruce added quickly, sensing the sudden zest growing in Joker. "He wants to... expand the monorail. He wants it to be our flagship endeavor. He says it would say a lot, would be symbolic almost." He paused to give the TV a slant look. A surgical scalpel was cutting into a girl's eyelid on the screen and he didn't even cringe. "Those trains... my father created that." Joker didn't say anything, just kept playing with his hair. "And I don't really feel anywhere about messing with that. I don't feel anything."

"There's nothing to feel. This is our city, we're still making it what it is."

"I just keep disconnecting from the past, I'm not used to it yet."

"I know."

Bruce finally lifted his head enough to take a better look at Joker. It took him a few seconds before something clicked in his head.

"Are you wearing my clothes?" He knew there was something familiar about the vest, though he wasn't sure about the shirt. He suspected Joker was better versed in his wardrobe now than he was.

"Yeah."

"Why?"

Joker shrugged and smiled. Bruce raised his eyebrows and glanced at what the man was reading. He didn't really believe it at first, but even when he took it in his hands and squinted at the title, it still read 'The Nun, The Dog & The Pleasure'. He knew Joker liked old pulp novels, but he didn't know how expansive his tastes were.

"Is it any good?" he asked, absolutely deadpan.

"Oh, you have to read it. I picked up a ton of those today," he pointed to the pile on the end table. Bruce grabbed a few, skimming the titles. All equally horrifying. Bruce picked something called 'Teacher’s Golden Shower Shame' to read later.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

"It's so good to see you're back on your feet, Sofia," said Lucia Viti, the corpulent mother of a masculine child.

They'd all convened in Carmine Falcone's old penthouse, the one now officially occupied by his daughter. Everyone close to her knew she barely ever laid a foot in there, preferring the suburbs, the so-called rich degenerate district where everyone kept to their own and had their curtains drawn, where everyone had something dirty to hide, where she could walk around in her everyday clothes not bothered by a soul. People often didn't know who she was and feared the scars she had to conceal whenever she had to discuss business with outsiders or in public. Plus, looking corporate was a bore. Still, if it was about putting up appearances, she could manage just fine.

And so, she had expertly put one up for her cousin Lucia as the two of them hadn't talked ever since Sofia was four years old. Just as the rest of the family, Lucia had no idea of her condition. It had its advantages.

"I can't even begin to imagine the suffering my mother put you through," Lucia gave her cousin her best motherly heartmelter of a look. "And for what? For my fucking brother's little finger? I swear to God, I tried talking her out of it but you know she's a bull, that my mother."

"I know Lucia, I know," said Sofia, carefully trying to reduce the stammer that was usually there because of her never being quite into the conversation. Now she had to pretend she was paying attention. She made a show of walking across the room with a labored look, gripping the crutch tightly. Mosheh and Yaguchi were sitting on a Le Corbusier sofa in the back of the room, trying to look neutral, though Sofia knew damn well they thought the whole situation a riot. They were the only people who understood why she looked funny with her hair up and in Prada.

"Well, whatever happened--happened." Sofia gave her cousin her best forgiving look which she'd personally call the "pedo priest on TV" look. No one needed to know that, though. "I am sure, and I can't stress that enough--sure, absolutely, positively convinced, you are not your mother and things are going to be different, am I right now?"

"I'll tell you what I think, Sofia." Lucia licked her fat lips, leaning in, trying to create a sense of affinity with little success. "I think with the older generation out of the way, we should all try and get back to, well, you know... the good times. Family times. Reinvent what was good." she added, her eyes cutting to Mosheh and Yaguchi for less than a split second, but Sofia got the message.

"Oh. Oh, I get it. Pop and aunt Carla used to run things together for a while, it was good and old, and family all around, I'll give you that. The grim tough world of grim tough people, can you believe we still had remnants of that crap like two-three years ago? The term 'made member' was still in use sometimes, how quaint, eh?"

"Sofia, I don't really know wh-"

"No, no, no, I'm not trying to say anything about anything, I'm just, you know, reminiscing. Because I remember how it was. Memories of those times are all I've got to connect me to them, you see. There's nothing more. Such a shame." Sofia plodded across the room, trying to look forlorn, but the sound her crutch was making seemed too funny. "Those were the times blood actually stood for something. No half-Irish bastard kid could ever get anywhere. We didn't do high business with no fucking heebs or chinamen, that's for sure," she made sure she was audible enough, and the small chuckle that could be mistaken for a cough coming from the sofa was all the reassurance she needed.

"And you know what?" She continued. "We all minded our own business. We all made our choices and stuck to our guns. And you know what else? It was twenty years ago. Now, no one minds their own business. Now we're all so grabby. Now we go talk to outsiders, trying to weasel in on things that aren't ours to take. Now we just. Don't. Care." Sofia brought a hand to her brow and turned her back to her cousin, grinning at the two men. When she faced Lucia again, the woman's expression was virtually impenetrable. Sofia had to respect this display.

"But I'm sorry, you came here with something on your mind and I just go on and on," she said.

"It's alright. No, all I wanted to do is see if you're alright. I feel terrible."

"I know. I know. Hey, why are we still standing?" Sofia motioned to the two armchairs by the faux fireplace. "Can either of you be bothered to bring us something to drink?" She said in Le Corbusier's direction.

"Straight scotch for me, thanks. No ice." Lucia fit her superfluous frame in the chair with as much dignity as she could muster. With all the exhaustion of child rearing and being in charge of a syndicate visible in the woman's face, she did exude something terrifying, not unlike her mother.

"Same for me."

Yaguchi rose from the sofa and walked to the bar, fixing them two glasses of something they had snatched from Maroni's collection a few days earlier. They still hadn't gone through all of it. He brought it to the two women with his best courtesy.

"Thanks. That's mister Kawasaki, am I right?" Lucia asked as she was handed her drink.

"That's right, ma'am."

"I hear more and more about you lately," she said with a pleasant smile. "About that project you're putting together with Bruce Wayne? You two must be getting pretty close?"

Yaguchi glanced at Sofia, not letting any tightness mar his cordial expression when he looked back at Lucia.

"You do keep your hand on the pulse, ma’am. With mister Wayne… let's just say, our interests coalesce at a certain point."

"Oh. Well I must say, it is really fascinating." Lucia took a sip, her unerring gaze trying to ferret out any sort of emotion on Yaguchi's face, failing.

"Hey, Lucia," Sofia grinned and extended her glass. "I'm yet to drink to your son's well-being."

Lucia clinked her glass with her cousin's.

"We should drink to the well-being of us all. You never know what waits around the bend in this crazy world," she said and trained her eyes on the flame.

Chapter Text

The baby finally shut up when a considerably sized breast occluded its gaping mouth. Lucia Viti had just entered the seventh month of motherhood, and her appearance had little more than slight dark circles around the eyes to show for her relentless toil. One could envy her stamina. Umberto and Pino Maroni were definitely envious. The years of financial draught that befell them reflected badly on their health and morale. The twin brothers and sons of the late Salvatore Maroni didn't enjoy being weaned away from the comforts they had grown accustomed to, all thanks to Sofia Falcone. They didn't appreciate being demoted to the level of mere restaurateurs. They were open to any kind of initiative that could restore the luminescence of the yester year. They were definitely open to whatever Lucia would say despite her offspring's nerve-scorching wailing.

But now that the masculine child had been pacified, they could talk in a slightly more professional ambience, if one could look past the pastels of the nursery they were situated in. Lucia's penthouse had been adapted to suit the masculine child on all fronts and everyone was expected to suck it up in silence and with dignity. Umberto and Pino tried to exude as much dignity as possible.

"I gotta admit, Lucia, this is bold. And I wish you'd break off a piece of intel you're basing this on, 'cause it's kinda hard to operate on blind faith." said Umberto, the husky voice crawling out through several layers of neck fat.

" Kawasaki and Wayne are working together, and you don't need any intel to know something is wrong with the picture. If there's one thing Wayne is famous for, except for the obvious, it's his keeping the company squeaky clean. Nothing dubious."

"Kawasaki ain't dubious, Lucia. No one in Gotham is anymore. I tried, and I tried, and honest to God, I couldn't for the life of me find anything on anyone working with Sofia. Or on Sofia."

"You're right." Lucia adjusted the baby against her bosom and sat a little more comfortably in her armchair. The two men seated on a sofa across the room looked at her with strange intelligence glistening in their porcine eyes. She was positive they had enough of it to not fuck this up. "There is absolutely nothing to be found on them. But he still wouldn't want to get anywhere near them. Because the name Falcone is involved, and that's good enough for Wayne. None of the Falcones ever managed that. Remember Mario? That's what I'm talking about. Wanna know what I think? I think they've got something on him. Something big. Real big."

"How do you get anything on a guy like Wayne that he couldn't pay for? And for fuck's sake, what could that even be? It's not like he'd lose a night's sleep even if the whole world suddenly learned he's a cross-dressing Nazi diddler, he could pay anyone to call the story slander even with solid evidence presented to the public, and the public would gobble it down."

Lucia kept her expression blank. She didn't want to waste her illustrious intuition on the Maroni brothers. She for one was quite good at math and adding things up. In this equation, Bruce Wayne, his wealth, his influence, his history, Sofia being saved by Batman and now this business endeavor between Kawasaki and Wayne -- it all fit together. You just needed a little finesse to appreciate this equation's simple elegance. People such as the Maronis couldn't possibly muster any of it.

"There's always something, gentlemen. Some things even we couldn't dream of, but it's a safe bet there could be something in for us."

"No, Lucia. You gotta tell us flat out how Wayne fits in all this. We can't just nab him, we gotta know what we're nabbing him for exactly."

"We're just going to have a little talk with him. Find out whatever it is that they have on him. Such secret isn't very effective when suddenly everyone knows it, right? If there isn't anything, well, I'm sure he's handsomely insured against kidnapping and we can always use some pocket money."

"So what do you want us to do?" Pino leaned in and interlocked his fingers.

"You guys are pretty respected restaurateurs, eh?" Lucia caressed her sleeping baby's potato-shaped head and smiled to her bright future. "Your staff respect you?"

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Altitude always mattered very little to Joker, and whether he paced along the rooftop ledge of a skyscraper or sat comfortably on a curb made no difference to him. None whatsoever. Right now he was engaging in the former. Then, he had a moment's reflection and stepped down in favor of the less precipitous areas. He walked in circles for a good fifteen minutes, he glanced at the sunset, thought it looked tacky, and resumed the walking.

Bruce had once told him that fear would get the better of him. That fear of having something and the risk of losing it, a concept completely alien to him until relatively not long ago. He had lost count of the days he and Bruce had already spent together, but he hadn't lost the itching awareness of that dread. It wasn't overpowering by any means, no, he was far too well-adjusted to the world around him to give into any kind of fear, but this one was stemming from something he didn't know he had -- his core. There was something all else would revolve around, after all. Had it been there all along or had Bruce built it from scratch, that was yet to be discovered. It didn't feel exactly foreign.

It was the very reason he stepped down from that ledge. What would Bruce do if he fell down? If he were to believe him (since they had already talked about the issue), he would take the gun Joker had given him and use it accordingly, probably laughing at the anti-climactic mediocrity of it all. While the thought of making Bruce laugh at his ridiculous death just before the man would blow a hole in his head did have some charm in it, it definitely would remain more charming in the thought form. No need to make it happen.

Bruce was having some kind of a business-clincher celebratory dinner right now. He and Kawasaki pushed the idea through, got the city council's backing, got enough people on board and they were making this happen. Kawasaki would become Gotham's next chief benefactor in no time as the monorail would spring its new branches.

So many things were different. Two months ago, Joker wouldn't dream of receiving a text pertaining to Mayor Garcia's lush eyelashes coming from Bruce as he was stuck with boring social obligations. Now, as he held his phone and read the few words, he laughed and then the dread pinched his guts one more time. He wanted Bruce next to him, now, badly. He was scared of something, he could admit it openly. The city's energy assumed the form of waves, and he could always tell when there was a discrepancy with the status quo. That's how he planned most of his proceedings, anyway. That's how he would stay one step ahead. There were certain tendencies that never changed, and one of them was coming about.

It was Lucia Viti and her territorial instincts of a wild sow with her sole masculine child. And Maroni's boys, two poor, winged creatures aching for their once lost greatness. The human sense of entitlement was something that never ceased to amaze Joker, but now it just seemed tedious and in need of being eradicated. No place for amazement when you're involved directly and stand in the crossfire with something in your hands that you don't want to lose.

He texted Bruce, asking how much longer it was going to take, but Bruce was taking forever to answer that. Meanwhile, the tacky sunset had already left.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

"Sometimes I wish I was back in Japan, you know?" Mosheh looked positively crestfallen as he was leafing through a small pile of bids. One of Nissenbaum Industries' unofficially subsidiary companies was about to contribute to perfecting the remotely operated submarines, the kind they used for smuggling drugs. Officially, there was no connection between Nissenbaum and the company, unofficially there was a lot of money and a lot of supervision, including revising the tenders.

"Why is that," said Sofia flatly. She was the unofficial counselor, and that was the job she could live with.

"No one gives you a second look when you rig the bids, that's why."

"We had a very strict PQQ with this one, that's almost as good as rigging with resources this scarce".

"But still, I miss the climate I guess".

"You only have three bids there. Three. Stop whining and let's make those engines happen."

Suddenly, the sharp sound of Baltimora's Tarzan Boy cut through the silence. It was Sofia's cell phone.

"Yaguchi?" Mosheh asked.

"Yeah, you like the tone I got him?"

"Yeah, it fits."

"Sup?" she said to the phone. As she listened, she stood up, walked up to the window without her cane, walked back to the leather chair, stepped up on it, stepped down, walked back to the window, all the while her expression remaining unreadable. Mosheh knew what the migrating around the room meant though. Finally, she burst out.

"How the fuck does something like that happen in a restaurant? The fuck is this, Godfather? It wasn't a Maroni restaurant, was it? No? Wayne's restaurant? Well then how? Why didn't you check the personnel with a fucking retina scanner? Didn't have one on you, huh. Fuck. No, I'll call him."

She hung up and got her bearings on the surroundings. She was standing on the chair again, Mosheh looking at her all confused.

"Guess what," she said.

"How many guesses do I get?"

"Fuck that, Wayne's been drugged and kidnapped in broad faux daylight."

"What?"

"He fainted. Get it? Fucking collapsed mid-dinner, wouldn't wake up, so they call an ambulance, it gets there, they scoop him up, chaos and conniption all around, Yaguchi makes a few calls, poof, no hospital in Gotham City confirms it's admitted Wayne. Fucking skeevy ambulance collects a conveniently collapsed Wayne and disappears."

"When did this happen?"

"30 minutes ago."

"Guy like Wayne probably has his own medical care that isn't exactly a hospital, you know?"

"Except the ambulance was supposedly dispatched from General . Only, not really. It was set up."

"So now what?"

"We notify the next of kin, I suppose." Sofia punched Joker's number.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

By the time Joker received this phone call, he had already known there was something off. He was very disappointed with himself. Ideally, he would kick into the right gear right away and get on with solving the problem, but this exceeded the limits of what constituted a problem. This was too much. He never knew he could develop those silly ticks and mannerisms people in distress usually display, but here he was, sitting on his (their) bed and pulling his hair. They both woke up in this bed this morning. They were both supposed to go to sleep in it tonight, in a few hours. When the phone rang and Sofia's name appeared on the screen, he just wanted to laugh at himself, but couldn't figure how to do that with his throat tied in a knot. He just pressed the phone to his ear without a word.

"Do you know what's happened yet?" Sofia's voice was as impassive as always, but he was content to detect a bit of irritation in it. He didn't want to hear compassion, but he wanted to hear something. Why, he didn't know.

"No, feel free to share," he said with ease. It surprised him how fast the knot gave.

"Wayne's collapsed during that fucking dinner, we suspect someone slipped him something, and a fixed ambulance took him somewhere. Where, we have no idea. Yaguchi took the plates, but they must have switched them, they don't turn up anywhere."

Joker fell silent, but it didn't take long before the problem-solving gear finally kicked in. He couldn't feel anything anymore because it was too much. Deliberate and analyze. He knew Bruce had microchipped himself. Until a week ago, Alfred and Lucius Fox had been the only people who could track him down in the event of something going terribly wrong. Now, Joker could do that too.

"Okay, uh, meet me at Lumber Street. The shipping yard. In 30 minutes." Joker didn't even know if he had that long, but if he wanted to pick some toys from Bruce's base, he needed to take that risk.
"Take some people with you, and, uh, some explosives? And some gas, like acetone? In a neat big cylinder? With a dispersion nozzle and a pipe, y'know, to quietly pump it into a room all nice? And, uh, a backpack or something? Think you can manage that?" His voice turned completely pragmatic.

"Yeah." Sofia didn't even ask what he was up to and hung up, and he liked that. He could get right to work, and it helped to ignore the cold dead rift that had cracked open in his gut. He felt it, but couldn't acknowledge it all the same. It was hard to act in a state like this, but some things had been hard-wired into him such a long time ago. Things like working under severe pressure. Any employer would be delighted with a guy like him, he thought as he sprinted down the stairs, not bothering with locking up the door. The bike they had been using sometimes to move about the city was parked outside their tenement, covered up with some cardboard boxes. Not that their neighborhood enjoyed many sticky-handed visitors. He put on a helmet (last thing he'd want right now was to be greeted by the police), shoved the keys in the ignition and sped off, trying to cut as many corners as possible, being as civil about it as possible.

He didn't have to pay that much attention to where he was going, his in-built GPS could always do that for him, giving him the time to figure some things out. Lucia Viti had to be responsible for that, and there was no question. Now, what could she possibly want with Bruce, that was a little more baffling. She was either very smart or tragically stupid.

For a second or two, Joker was able to feel something, like layers inside of him, pulling further apart from each other, his thoughts and feelings getting reduced to those thin plies of organic pudding. Another innovation. The cold dead space kept growing though, and he had little time if he wanted to accomplish anything before it would reach his consciousness. He cut through the steam and lights and concrete until he reached his destination.

Bruce had given him all the keys and combinations he needed to enter the base. He operated in the badly lit silence and his hands didn't even shake when he unlocked everything that needed to be unlocked. He checked his phone; Sofia had five more minutes. He entered the crate and the lift took him down, the ceiling lights coming to life one row after another.

There were ghosts of memories appearing in his peripheral vision, but he chose to ignore them. He didn't want to think about Bruce pushing him around in that chair over there, no. For a split second, he even forgot all about who Bruce was, the cold dead space claiming him and he had to find a name for this. He was paralyzed with terror. But only for a split second. He knew where everything was; that particular laptop with the tracking engine, the infrared camera, the right cables, this and that. He was all done and packed up before the five minutes were up, but when the lift took him back to the surface and he left the crate, he saw Sofia's Jaguar parked just outside the fence. He glanced at the bike leaning sideways on its kickstand like some arthritic mechanical cow and decided to leave it there, sprinting up to the black humming car.

The door opened, inviting him in. He took the passenger seat. In the back there were Mosheh and Yaguchi, and Sofia was at the wheel. Joker moved his head around and rolled his eyes.

"Oh, the gang's all in, lovely," he sighed and turned on the laptop.

"You are so pale, your silicon's showing," Sofia said. Even in this poor light, Joker was evidently chalk-white, accentuating his scar fillings.

"Uh-huh. Sorry." The screen came alive and a few taps on the keyboard later, the engine started to triangulate Bruce's position.

"What's this?" Mosheh asked, craning his neck from the backseat. There was a duffel bag wedged between him and Yaguchi, presumably filled with the trinkets Joker had asked for.

"This is exactly what it looks like, y'know?" Joker's voice was eerily pleasant. "Here." He jabbed his finger into a blinking dot on the screen. "That's where he is."

Sofia leaned to the side to get a better look.

"Sheldon Park, eh?" She started the engine.

They drove in absolute silence for the first five minutes, then Yaguchi produced a cigarette packet and asked if anyone was in for a little cancer. Joker had to think really hard whether he had already quit or not. Everything seemed to mash into something primordial, exactly like in those days before Bruce had dug up his little burrow in Joker's insides. But it felt different, not good at all. He wanted it gone, and maybe a little cancer would help. The first whiff definitely helped him determine he had quit some time ago -- he was dizzy at first, and his pulse augmented immediately. And he managed to inspect some of the partitions his mind had spontaneously divided into.

This whole situation brought about something unbelievable. Each deep smoke-laden breath helped clear the picture. Joker was furious, terrified, frozen, and there were hot tears running down his cheeks, and the ash fell on the keyboard as he kept staring at the dot on the screen. The microchip was also taking Bruce's vitals, and they seemed steady enough. Still, he was crying, at least that's what it felt like.

He tried to determine how many times Bruce had already made him cry, and he couldn't. It was actually funny. He glanced at Sofia -- she also looked funny. Her hair was up, she was wearing a dress shirt and suit pants.

"Did I pull you away from work? Sorry," he said. Sofia was holding her serving of cancer in the corner of her mouth. She gave him a sidelong look. There were still some glistening tear trails on his face.

"This is work, woobie. Stop crying for it is creepy."

Joker's head was coming clearer by the second. He wiped the wetness off his face and finished his cigarette, trying to keep the ash away from the laptop -- the dot was going steady, there was no reason to panic, not yet at least. Also, they were almost there.

"Oh, oh. Oh. So they took him to one of Maroni's restaurants, that's awesome." Sofia pulled over, put out her cigarette against the dashboard and turned around to face the men cooped up in the backseat. Then, she looked at Joker.

"I'm assuming you came prepared and actually have a plan," she said.

"Uh, right. Plan." Joker rooted inside the small bag he had brought with him for the infrared camera. Once he got a hold of it, he left the car and set the laptop up on the hood. The car was parked across the street from the restaurant, close enough to get some kind of picture, whether satisfactory or not that was yet to be determined. He connected the camera and clicked around a bit while the others left the car to join him, forming a semi-circle behind his back.

"You did come prepared," said Sofia as a murky image of a few red silhouettes appeared on screen. "This looks mean."

Joker just shrugged and adjusted the image a little, making the silhouettes a little more discernible. Judging by the distance and the fact it was a one-story joint, the key figures had to be located in the kitchen, including Bruce -- the red lump that seemed to be sitting, probably tied to a chair.

"Okay, there are four guys in there with him, nothing that looks like a fat woman so I'm assuming Lucia's not there," Sofia peeked over Joker's shoulder. "And there are two guys here practically at the front door. How are we gonna get inside?"

"Air vents," Joker muttered and looked at the screen, thinking something over. "You're the smallest so you'll go, hm?"

"I'm a convalescent, I walk with a fucking cane."

"Uh, you can crawl the air ducts with your cane if you promise not to make too much clamor, okay? No, listen. Um, if you could just come with me for a moment here." He packed up and headed for an alley leading to the back of the building. Just like most of the establishments in this city, this particular restaurant was familiar to him. He knew how to get inside, at least he hoped he did. The small area was littered with rotting trash and the back door was locked. There were no windows to give away their presence. Joker motioned to the three grills barely visible in the weak light coming from the distant main street. He pulled out a pen light and a cordless screwdriver, set the rotation accordingly, checked the drill size and switched it on. The grill gave quickly enough. Joker gestured towards the duct's uninviting darkness and smiled at Sofia.

"Now, this should take you to the kitchen, right? Pack the acetone and when you reach it, start pumping until everyone is asleep."

"That kitchen seems big, will this be enough?" Mosheh looked at the cylinder he had pulled out of the duffel bag. "Also, this means we're putting Wayne to sleep as well?"

"Uh, any other way is too risky. And it should do fine, I've done that before." Joker giggled quietly, checked the nozzle and helped Sofia put the cylinder into a backpack. Thankfully, restaurant vents tend to be big enough for a person her size to fit in, even with an ample-sized cylinder on her back. Whether she'd be comfortable or not was a wholly different matter. She mouthed a litany of obscenities and crouched in front of the gaping entrance.

"Wait, wait, wait," Joker sing-songed and handed her a gas mask. "Put this on."

"Alright, when they go to sleep, what are you gonna do?"

"Then we won't have to worry about being quiet so we'll just make some smoke," Joker held up a small pellet he had taken from Batman's stash, "and kill them. Then we'll take Bruce out the back so someone should bring the car over here once we're done with the killings." He gave Yaguchi a quick look and cleared his throat. "Then we blow this place up and go home, something like that."

"Foolproof," Sofia muttered and went inside. After a few seconds she reemerged, took off her shoes and got back in. Joker sat on the ground, his back propped up against the wall and his legs jutting out, and opened up the laptop, positioning the camera so it was feeding him the image from the inside at a fairly satisfactory angle. He could see Sofia meandering the vent, but slowly approaching the point of destination nonetheless.

Yaguchi took off his jacket, threw it on the ground and loosened his necktie. He seemed more withdrawn than usual, but no one seemed to pay any attention to that. He had learned one thing in this line of work -- when no one accuses you of anything, do not take the blame, no matter how guilty you know you are. He should have figured out what Lucia meant with her cordial interest in his and Wayne's project.

Finally, he realized Joker had been looking at him with this weird dead gaze, so he turned his artificial eye to him at tried to remain as still as possible. The minutes were stretching instead of passing. Joker moved his sight from the one-eyed man back to the screen.

"Wanna watch?" he asked the two men and stood up. They walked up to him, craning their necks. They could see Sofia, her body temperature registering as much lower than the people she was supposed to put to sleep. They could deduce her sure gestures. Joker felt his guts twisting as he looked at what was evidently a scene of torture. The sickly movements started to slow down after an agonizing while. The thugs were too far away from the door to alert the guys out front that they were being stealth-sedated.

"You. Take this. When it's done, get the car." Joker handed the laptop and the camera to Mosheh, and the man scooped it up clumsily. "You -- grab a gun, got a silencer? Nice. Get it and come with me," he told Yaguchi. "And put this on." He handed him a small gas mask, the same kind Sofia was wearing. He produced one more from his bag and put it on, then he took one more glance at the screen. Everyone seemed to be getting comfortable on the floor, the distant figures of the front door sentinels remained still.

Mosheh watched as his friend disappeared in the alley following Joker's quick stride. Then, he trained his eyes on the screen and didn't pull them away through the entirety of their strafe. He figured at what point Joker tossed the gas pellet inside. It was all very quiet. The two gassed guys were writhing on the floor, trying to twist away from the guns pointed at them. There were two sudden flashes of bright light and the guys stopped writhing. He shut the laptop, placed it on the ground and sprinted for the Jaguar, quickly put it in drive and maneuvered into the narrow alley, barely avoiding a group of drunken pedestrians that appeared out of nowhere. He parked it near the back door no sooner than Sofia had emerged from the air duct, covered in dust and visibly satisfied. She took off her mask.

"Gassing people is so cool," she said and pulled a cobweb out of her tousled hair.

A few seconds later, there was a quiet rustle and the back door swung open. Few more seconds, and Wayne was being carried out of the establishment, Joker holding his upper body, Yaguchi taking care of the legs. The trash-infested area was finally slightly better lit thanks to the Jaguars headlights, and they managed to carry him to the car without tripping or slipping on a dead rat or something of the sort.

"You guys, go set up some bombs inside, here, put this on," Joker took off his mask once he was in the car, Bruce's head in his lap. He threw it at Mosheh, and the man motioned at Sofia, grabbing the duffel bag and disappearing inside. Yaguchi collected the scattered items from the ground, wrapped them in the jacket he had discarded and put them in the trunk, then he crawled in the backseat, mumbling apologies as he placed Bruce's legs over his own. Joker didn't seem to mind the cramped conditions. Bruce was cold to touch, he looked so pale, there were bruises and cuts on his face that someone else, not him, had put there, two of his fingernails had been pulled out. He felt tears streaming down his face. His vision turned white, he pressed his forehead to Bruce's and dug his fingers in his cold, clammy skin where it was exposed. He froze still, unable to even breathe. He didn't speak until Sofia and Mosheh were back, Sofia hurriedly starting the car before the man even had a chance to shut the door properly.

"His pulse is slowing down," Joker said without lifting his head.

"What do you mean, slowing down?"

"It's slowing down." His voice was flat.

"Why does he have to be such a goddamn delicate fucking lily," Sofia barked as she made a sharp left turn. The explosion was fairly audible from the increasing distance. No one bothered to turn around and have a look.

"Where are we going?" asked Mosheh.

"Call Doctor Marcotti, tell him to have some adrenaline ready and tell him to have it fucking ready, right at the gate."

Mosheh pulled out his phone and did as asked. Joker could barely discern the words. His head was pressed to Bruce's neck, his arms wrapped around the still body, and all he could feel was emptiness. His lungs didn't want any air, his senses didn't need any stimuli, he grew blind and deaf to anything that wasn't the diminishing throbbing he felt under his fingers. He did register a short stop, unsure of how long they had already been going and in what conditions. He was unaware Sofia had broken several traffic rules and that they'd been pulled over by the police, he barely registered the sound of the glove compartment being opened, the window rolled down and her voice saying something like "Emergency here, officer, here's a bonus for you". The bonus must have been satisfactory as they weren't bothered for the remainder of their trip. Joker had no idea how long it took. The throbbing was almost gone. Almost.

The car stopped. Something clicked in Joker's head and he came to life. He righted himself and looked around. Sofia was already out of the car, so was Mosheh, Yaguchi was opening the door on his side, and Joker followed suit without giving it much thought. Everything seemed white and muffled, he didn't have much feeling in his extremities and Bruce's upper body seemed strangely weightless as he and Yaguchi carried him inside some decrepit, old warehouse. He recognized the scent; they were at the docks. Then, he recognized the place. It was one of many mob clinics in this town. Back in the day he enjoyed their hospitality once or twice. Way, way back in the day. It gave him little comfort.

The discrepancy between the outside and the inside of the warehouse was astounding. The place was well lit, well enough to further impair Joker's already weakened vision. Still, he managed to haul his share of Bruce's weight onto a gurney. Doctor Marcotti was there, taking Bruce's vitals and administering something, but it was all so blurry. For a moment, Joker was completely focused on Bruce's face as he looked down at him, the bruises and his dry lips slightly parted, there was blood too, the image so crisp Joker felt it burn into his mind. His ears felt filled with cotton and his knees finally gave. He slumped against a wall in this makeshift hospital corridor. Actually, it was more like an aisle, there were plastic curtains and half-walls dividing the space into specialized areas. There were a few actual rooms, though, offices or ICU's, he didn't know, his guts were punching their way through his throat. He retched, but he did hear the sound of gurney wheels on the bare concrete. Another time lapse, another bout of blindness. Someone slapped him. He looked up, realizing he was soaked with sweat. It was really cold.

"He's on IV now. He went into anaphylactic shock or something like that, I suppose the double sedation he experienced in the past few hours was too much. Right know they're pumping him with adrenaline, but we gotta find out what it was exactly they slipped him in that restaurant. Some of my people are looking for the faulty personnel, we should know what's what soon enough."

Joker stared at Sofia as she spoke, and he didn't blink even once.

"Do I need to slap you one more time?"

He got up, swaying on his feet a little until he found his balance. Sofia was upright as well, giving him an blank look. He tilted his head, looking back at her, and spat out the excessive saliva. He kept looking, not sure what he felt or if he felt anything. He knew he was probably angry underneath the stupor, enraged even, and he also figured such feelings are fickle and not worth catering to.

Still, he punched Sofia in the jaw. She teetered backwards until she found a half-wall to hold on to, blood gushing from her mouth. She still seemed impassive, but not until she inspected her teeth with her tongue. One was missing. It was lying on the ground adorned with some blood splatters. The change in her demeanor was rather abrupt. She pulled a gun from behind her waistband and hit Joker in the head with the grip. Before the initial daze subsided, she was already kicking him in the stomach.

"Why'd you do that?" She sounded different and with a speck of clarity Joker remembered something about her fear of losing physical integrity. He wanted to laugh, but instead he righted himself and grabbed her hair. Even though she couldn't feel a thing, it seemed like the best thing to do. He was shouting at her and his voice seemed odd, guttural.

"Why did I do that, huh? How about because you silly mobsters can't handle your own family issues and spill your gall on innocent bystanders? Hm? Reason enough?" He was shaking her by the hair violently as he spoke. Sofia swung her arm up and the gun grip clashed with his chin, and his vision darkened. When it came back on, his head seemed clearer. He blinked repeatedly and sighed.

"Yeah, that helped, uh, thanks. But-"

He couldn't finish because of a sudden rending pain in his crotch where Sofia kneed him. As he doubled over, he felt a small hard object pushed into his mouth, and then one more gun-handle blow to his jaw. He remained conscious nonetheless. He spat out the object; it was Sofia's tooth, accompanied with a chipped fragment of one of his own. And lots of blood.

"Okay, you wait here." She patted him on the back as if nothing had happened. "I'll bring you Lucia and the Maronis so you can beat up those who deserve it, you ingrate fuck. Jesus. Chinaman, fall in! Seriously, after all I've done... "

He couldn't hear her anymore, she disappeared behind the door, then Yaguchi ran past him, joining her, and then he could hear the engine. Silence fell around him. Joker clambered up to his feet and the knowledge of his mouth having housed one of Sofia's teeth made him retch again. He had nothing to puke with, though. He put the tooth in his pocket and tottered in the direction they had taken Bruce. It was one of the room-like units. He didn't bother to knock or announce his arrival in any way. Mosheh and Doctor Marcotti were discussing something in the corner, Bruce was lying on a hospital bed, a chubby nurse trying to bandage up his nail-less fingers. His vitals were being displayed on the screen. They seemed fairly stable for now.

Joker realized he had missed the moment of transition between Bruce dying and Bruce getting better thanks to his little mental lapse. The thought was pushed from his head quickly enough. He approached the bed, not disturbed by anyone. It was one of the good things about such places -- no one asks whether you're immediate family or not. No one asks anything. Doctor Marcotti glanced at him over his inch-thick glasses with a glint of recognition in his eyes. He had a reason for that glint. But it was such a long time ago. Joker's gaze moved over Bruce's figure; he was wearing a blood-stained white shirt, the necktie he had picked for him this morning, a waistcoat (two buttons were missing, he might sew them back on for him, he might), pin-striped trousers. Everything had blood on it.

He stood motionless, staring. The nurse was done, most of the blood was washed away from Bruce's face, but he still seemed pale. Someone walked up to him. It was the good doctor. Marcotti was an old man, short and stout, he had a habit of not judging anyone and he made a fortune off that habit.

"I seem to remember you, don't I," he spoke in a pleasant voice.

"Uh-huh," Joker mumbled. "What do you think about this?" He made a vague gesture in Bruce's direction.

"Well, he's quite strong, and it surprised me, really, all the tabloids were yakking about Wayne being a drug addict and look at him, he's pulling through. But he's not all strong, was he sick recently? Something serious?"

"Uh, insomnia?"

"Yes, I'm running some blood tests now, and from the first glance I can tell there was something." The doctor sighed. "He's going to need plenty of rest. And I can't stress plenty enough. And we still need to know what was the first sedative he was subjected to. Gotta drive it out as fast as possible."

"But he'll be alright?" Joker's voice seemed tiny to him. It really did something to his head, talking to this man after so many years. Another turning point in his life and another encounter with Doctor Marcotti. He shuddered at the symmetry.

"I think so, yes."

Marcotti excused himself from the room and went back to examining Bruce's blood. Joker and Mosheh were alone now, but Joker couldn't feel the man's presence. His eyes were trained on what was his, and bit by bit his mind started revolving at its usual frequency. He could see Bruce was breathing by himself. He was going to be alright. Mosheh asked if he wanted a chair, and Joker just shook his head. The man left. Joker's tears ran freely. He dreaded the moment when Bruce would wake up, because he couldn't vouch for his actions. Fear was an interesting thing; it could reinvent even someone as detached from everything as him, and he knew now he couldn't count on himself any longer.

He touched Bruce's cheek. It was a little warmer than before, and his fingers started to tingle pleasantly. He smoothed them along the man's jaw until they rested on his neck. His pulse wasn't as strong as usual, but it was steady. Joker slumped to his knees and placed his head against the side of the bed, enjoying the cold steel. His hand was lingering on Bruce's wrist, ever-conscious of any changes is his pulse. He drifted away into the realm of gray silence ringing in his ears, his eyes felt hot and irritated, his throat was made of sandpaper, and he probably fell asleep for a few seconds, or a few minutes, he didn't know. It had to be much longer than that. A tapping on his shoulder woke him up. Nissenbaum was hovering over him, smiling, and his clothes were covered with blood.

"Hey, I found the girl who slipped this crap into mister Wayne's water, I asked her to give me the container it was in and Marcotti's determined what it was. Some generic stuff, nothing to worry about. He's gonna give him something to break it up faster and help with the detox, because his organism is having trouble with it, something wrong with his metabolism."

"When did you manage all that?" Joker asked, still clutching Bruce's wrist, still half-sprawled on the floor.

"In the past hour, I think." Mosheh fidgeted with the tips of his braided beard. Joker remembered a thing or two about him. This guy liked to do his own dirty work, and he liked to do it for other people, too. He gave the blood stains a once-over and smacked his lips.

"You asked her, hm?"

Mosheh straightened his necktie.

"I used to be a lawyer."

"You know how to ask."

"That I do. How is he?" The man pointed towards Bruce with his chin. Joker didn't answer, just squeezed Bruce's wrist a little tighter. He didn't know if he was imagining things, but it seemed even warmer now. Probably absorbed some of his own body heat.

"And you know what?" Mosheh said as if picking up an abandoned subject. "Sofia called. And she said she took the liberty of using some of the toys you brought, like that camera and stuff, and she's extracted Lucia from her penthouse, I mean, some of our guys did, one got killed, but, they're on their way here with Lucia now. I don't know about Maronis, Yaguchi is still tracking them down, you know how it is."

"When did she manage that?"

"In the past hour. Were you asleep? You were, huh." Mosheh pointed at the bed-side print on Joker's cheek. He undid his cufflinks and rolled up his sleeves to wash his hands in a nearby sink. The water ran crimson for a few seconds until the blood came off. Joker regarded him for a while. They were all such a weird bunch, those mobsters. Sometimes you just encounter such oddities and don't know how to feel about them. And then they prove useful. Joker never considered anyone useful. So many changes in such a short time. He stood up and walked to the now unoccupied sink. He pulled Sofia's tooth from his pocket and rinsed it with warm water. He didn't know what for.

He spent the next twenty minutes counting the tiny wrinkles around Bruce's eyes. Mosheh probably went to change his clothes or get something to eat, probably the latter. Marcotti made a short appearance, injecting something into the IV. Another ten minutes and there seemed to be a smidge of color returning to Bruce's face.

Then there was a lot of screaming. A lot of cussing and begging. Some thuds and other crazy sounds. Joker didn't look away from Bruce until Sofia appeared in the doorway, grinning, gap-toothed, dried blood on her face, Lucia Viti manacled, down on her fours, trying to twist away from the shotgun muzzle pressed to her temple. Lucia's knees and hands were scrapped and dirty; Sofia had made her crawl all the way to the unit.

"Say, Jerker, you in for some classic vendetta or can I do the honors?" Sofia asked, evidently exhilarated.

Dr Marcotti reared his head from his tiny laboratory.

"If you want to do anything to her, do it in the morgue, okay? On the tiles? So we can hose everything down all nice, thanks." He disappeared again.

Suddenly, Joker felt a little better, even though he knew it was a minute distraction. It was all going to tumble down on him sooner or later, but for now, he needed a little laugh. He stood up and petted Bruce's hair with a slight smile, as if telling him he'd be right back. He advanced towards the door and looked down on the writhing fat woman. He kicked her in the stomach.

"So, uh, Sofa? Where is the morgue?" he asked.

"Over there," she made a vague gesture to the right. "Hear that, Lucia? Over there." She prompted her with the shotgun to assume a certain direction with her crawling. Lucia wasn't very cooperative. "Do you really want me to bring your baby to watch? Move, you goddamn chapata." That seemed to work, though Joker couldn't determine whether it was the baby threat or the chapata reference. He enjoyed the sight of the fat woman slowly moving towards her death like a big juicy caterpillar. Usually, he didn't feel anywhere about this kind of stuff. Now it felt somewhat festive.

Kicked and prodded, Lucia tried to beg them through her snot and tears, all the mettle already vanished, all the verbal prowess left at the door. Just a few hours earlier she was ready to take over Gotham City and be the next big thing, just because she felt she deserved it. Now, not so much.

"Lucia, you look really stupid now, you know?" Sofia said and shoved the shotgun in the woman's Givenchy-clad ass, making her crawl faster. "You know how you can tell someone is a pretentious dick? When they look stupid when they die. Like, you know, in movies?" She turned her head to Joker. "When someone looks all smug because they accomplished something and shit, or they walk down the stairs in slo-mo, and I always think it would look so funny if someone shot them in the face right that moment. I wish I coulda shot her when she was sitting in her armchair with a glass of wine, plotting, smiling to herself with the corner of her mouth, red nail polish glistening as she brings her fingers together and says 'excellent', and if I could record it, oh shit, that would be magical."

Joker remained silent. Sofia was revved up and it was kind of amusing. It's astonishing how families make people act. Even someone like Sofia shows a human side. Her cell phone started to blare out Tarzan Boy and she stopped mid-sentence, passing the shotgun to Joker.

"Your turn," she said and answered. "Yeah? What? Why? And? Crap. And? Well that's smashing, bye."

"Who was that?" Joker asked and tapped Lucia's hind with the muzzle. They were almost there now, and the woman was starting to resist being pushed forward. She had no say on the matter though.

"Yaguchi, he said he had to blow the Maronis up because there were too many people around them, so he just, you know, made a package deal and rid us of some element, kinda sucks, but hey, we still have you, precious," she chirped in Lucia's direction. "Aaand we're here."

The morgue was located completely at the back of the warehouse, isolated from the rest of the clinic with actual solid walls. It was neat and tiled, and indeed there was a hose at hand should anything unfortunate happen. Sofia kicked Lucia in the kidney and turned her onto her back with one more kick to the ribs.

"Any last words?" she asked with a small lisp. She hadn't grown used to the decrement in tooth count yet.

Lucia was choking on her own snot, her cuffed hands brought up in a pleading gesture.

"My... my baby-" she started, but Joker spattered and shot her in the head. He didn't feel a thing except for a pleasant lightness. Pleasant as it was, he knew it was treacherous. Just some organic anesthesia.

"Now, Sofia?" he said and made an awkward gesture with the shotgun, trying to find an appropriate place to put it down. He just propped it against the corpse.

"What?" The girl was back to being impassive, but she seemed content.
"I'm sorry I knocked your tooth out." He reached inside his pocket. "Here." He grabbed her wrist and placed the tooth in her hand. "I washed it up for you."

"That's... awesome." Sofia placed it in her front pocket and started to look around the morgue in search of a body bag or something similar. Her experience taught her Marcotti was usually stocked up on such stuff. She looked at Lucia, and with her face blown off, she really did look rather stupid.

She glanced behind her, but Joker was already gone. In his own mind, too. Gone to count those tiny wrinkles again, like some post-traumatic stress disorder posterboy.

Chapter Text

Joker was aching all over. A slight comfort of a stool a helpful nurse had brought him did little to alleviate the dull tugging he felt in his muscles with every move, each breath even. It had been several hours since Bruce's condition stabilized, and the doctor predicted he might regain consciousness any minute now. Having conducted blood work, Marcotti was able to determine Bruce was anemic amongst other things, but all things considered, his organism was strong. Strong enough to know he wasn't going to die that night, but it wouldn't dissolve the acrid fear in Joker's muscles. It seemed it would reside there for a little longer.

Time seemed contaminated with it, too. It felt oppressive, too dense, too greasy. The density of time was something Joker didn't experience very often; normally, it would shoot through him and leave without a trace. Not now, though; now he had to sit there and acknowledge every speck of its morbid weight in the air he breathed. He wasn't sure how long he had been there alone with Bruce. Sofia had said something about a checkup because her leg felt weird, as she put it. Joker didn't delve into the intricacies of her being able to assess the weirdness, instead he concentrated on his own ailments.

He could barely feel his hand wrapped around Bruce's wrist, but he could feel the man's pulse just fine. It was strong now, yet it didn't help the dread. Joker needed something to put himself together, but for the life of him, he couldn't figure out what that might be. When Bruce comes to, he could start the countdown to the next instance of this. Someday, somewhere, Joker will get a repeat performance, and this time the punchline will not be pulled. He will take the brunt of it, and he wasn't exactly sure if he'd be able to kill himself fast enough before it sinks in.

He predicted Bruce might regret surviving, in the end, once he realizes he's stuck with Joker, and being stuck with Joker in this condition will not be very amusing. He will not enjoy being on lockdown. Joker will not let him out for a while. Maybe even longer than a while. No matter what it takes, no matter. Bruce will not leave his sight, he will not step out of his physical reach, not even if he has to kill him, but he will stay with him. Not until Bruce figures out what it takes to put something like Joker back together. It was up to Bruce; Joker was positively helpless. His lungs hurt, and the air was too dense.

A sudden clatter dragged his thoughts away from the sordid plans for the following weeks. Sofia pushed a trolley table into the room with one hand, clutching a folding chair in the other.

"Good for you, my leg isn't broken, heheh, but that steel bolt in my knee, it kinda shifted when I kicked you, so I hope you're sorry anyway."

The table arrived at Joker's side, and Sofia unfolded the chair, sitting down with a puff. Joker shot the table a slant look; there was a bottle of Ballantine's and two apparently unused urine cups.

"Sorry, Marcotti didn't have any glasses," Sofia said, leaning towards the table and grabbing the whisky. She poured each of them a cup.

"Perfect color for the ware," Joker muttered.

"I know, right?" She inhaled the alcohol in one take. Joker just sat motionless for a while. It didn't cross his mind that he might actually be able to reach out and grab the urine cup.

"Synapses backed up? Drink this, you'll feel better." Sofia went through the trouble of picking up the cup for him and placing it in his feeble grip, saving him the effort of moving a single muscle. "I believe you can do it. Do it," she said with the confidence of a baseball coach. For some outlandish reason, her presence and her bringing alcohol didn't irritate him. It even kickstarted his physiology, and it told him drinking from the urine cup would be good for his clogged synapses, so he drank.

The warmth spreading from the bottom of his throat down to his lungs and stomach was the first physical sensation in hours that wasn't utterly unpleasant, not counting the feel of Bruce's pulse under his fingers, though as nice as it was, it too spurred all kinds of trepidation. Joker sucked in a slightly deeper breath and acknowledged the bruises Sofia had given him. He remembered some of the happenings of the last few hours, the corpse of Lucia Viti lying somewhere out there, and his world distended a little bit, just so it encompassed the warehouse he was located in. A little sense of space took a bit of weight off the oppressive time. A bit of context always helps. Joker knew trying to get a grip would be futile, anyway. All he could do was drink a little more, and maybe experience this breakdown with a little more clarity.

Sofia stretched out her allegedly addled leg and leaned back in her chair. She drank her whisky and closed her eyes. Joker wondered how someone like her acknowledges fatigue. She didn't even perspire, couldn't feel the sting in her muscles. He wanted to trade places with her for a few minutes, just for reference. And a small respite would be nice too. He poured himself another drink and annihilated it in one take.

"Shouldn't you be out there somewhere, being interrogated and all the fun stuff?" He asked.

"No, uh, my doppelganger's talking to Gordon now and we're going to pin it all on the triads, like, some deal went sour and they snapped and off Lucia goes, that's the story."

"Your doppelganger?"

"Yeah, you know, I paid this chick to get plastic surgery and voice training, and she makes public appearances for me while I go out and get antisocial or something. I pay her good money now, too. And we paid the Chinese enough to corroborate, so yeah. And Gotham General confirms it's admitted Wayne and he's under observation, but it's nothing serious. He's not accepting visitors, though. Frankly, no one cares. Guess we're the only people who care."

Her words just slid past Joker, bringing some peripheral comfort. He wasn't used to having people take care of things important to him, to his advantage at that. He wasn't used to having things important to him, either. Sofia didn't seem to really care, despite her assertion. She seemed to calculate and assess, and nothing else.

"This is quite a plight that we're in. If it keeps up, I might have to kill all of you, and I don't mean to be offensive, y'know? I'm just leveling with you here, trying to be, uh, pragmatic," he said.

"I don't mean to rain on your parade, but I don't care if you kill me."

"Yeah, yeah, I know, but look, surely it's not like it doesn't make any difference. See, if you truly didn't care, you wouldn't try to stay alive against all odds. Right? You with me?"

"Yeah."

"So what I'm saying here, we should reach an understanding where none of us is placed in a disadvantageous position, like, you should stop engaging in activities that might result in me killing you, id est, approaching us in any way whatsoever."

"What are you, fucking retarded or something?"

"Uh, no."

"I can't not approach Wayne in any way whatsoever, we're just doing business here, a business that's going to come to fruition, mind you."

"Oh, this isn't negotiable."

Sofia glared at Joker for a good couple of minutes. She found something she recognized, not from her own experience, but it was a classic example of shock and mental withdrawal on Joker's part, nicely wrapped and eloquently expressed, but still, a disorder. It called for a little something known as tactics.

"Okay, fine. Let's say we all back away from all the deals and shit, which we won't do anyway. What are you gonna do with him?"

Joker shrugged.

"You know damn well what you're gonna do. Or better, you know what you want to do. I can see it. You're thinking about it. I can't understand what you might be going through, but I see it," she said and poured them both another drink. "Because it's kind of lame, this whole display you're presenting me with, the whole nervous breakdown thing you've got going on and everything. But for the sake of science, let's think about this. Maybe I can find a solution." She gulped down her drink and suctioned the cup to her chin, looking as pensive as possible. It took her a while before she removed the cup. A red ring bloomed around her mouth.

"Here's your solution. Just walk it off. Don't do anything stupid. You're in shock, I think you're aware of that. Don't make decisions, not for yourself, not for anyone."

Joker remained silent.

"You're not going to kill him now, are you?" She tilted her head. She might as well be asking about his vacation plans with that voice. Joker lingered with the answer. "I would have to kill you before you do that, Wayne's my golden goose, you maladjusted baby."

Having heard his thoughts verbalized, Joker had to face them. The idea had crossed his mind. Repeatedly. "No. No, I'm not gonna kill him, sheesh." Joker rolled his eyes and took interest in his own drink. His head was starting to buzz and he realized he hadn't eaten anything since last night. It reminded him of Bruce's anemia. "No, I'm going to take him home and make sure he's alright. That's what I'm gonna do," he said with a lilt.

"I have never heard anything more ominous than that." Sofia lifted her glass in an appreciative gesture. "At least let him make outgoing calls so he can clinch all the monorail crap? It's kind of important."

"I'll sleep on that."

"I'll make sure you will."

"I'll settle it, don't worry," Bruce said.

Joker twitched. His entire being twitched and coiled up to his very core before he turned his head to look at the man on the bed. He heard Sofia scuffling away. They were alone for now.
Bruce looked like death warmed over, weak, ripped of all fight. Joker reached out to touch his face where there were no bruises. He practically dropped down to his knees, sliding off the stool, to be closer. He was cold and scalding hot all at once. Bruce's voice reverberated in his head, the image was blurry, multiplying before he managed to focus just enough to take in the man's eyes. Slightly puffy, slightly absent, but definitely conscious. Bruce endured Joker's ubiquitous hands and his tears dropping on his sore skin. He was smiling. Joker wanted to hold him against his better judgment. Bruce seemed to be laughing at him through his lacerations. He reached up to cup Joker's face. He remembered him waking up in his arms from his near-death experience several weeks ago.

"What are you laughing at? Hm?" Joker couldn't really speak, he just squeezed the few words out of his throat.

"My hero." Bruce was very much laughing. Quietly, but still.

"Hero, huh? Just wait 'til we get home."

"Don't threaten me, you maladjusted baby." Bruce squeezed his hand.

"Now, I'm sorry, I know we've been through all this before in theory, we've talked about this, like, what we would do and how, and who would do what and we had everything figured out all nice and no wrinkles, like, you would kill yourself when this, and I would kill myself when that, but-" Joker choked and pressed his face to Bruce's idle arm. "Now it all seems like some advice straight from a teen magazine, you know? No reflection in reality. None."

"I wouldn't know, you're the one who subscribes to that crap."

"Right." He grinned, shaking with laughter, probably. Maybe with fear. Probably both. "How are ya?"

"My head. Feels like it's full of nail polish remover. It actually hurts. A lot."

"It's supposed to hurt."

"I figured. Other than that, just abrasions and things. I'll live."

"Oh, I know you will."

"She's right, it sounds ominous."

A short, soft silence.

"You almost died."

"Yeah? Didn't notice."

"I'll fill you in later. Why didn't you say you were awake?"

"Talking hurts."

"So why are you talking?"

"I wanted to tell you to come here." Bruce tugged at Joker's collar with his good hand. Every cell of his body seemed to be filled with something acerbic and painful. He was thoroughly seasoned with poison, ripe with soreness. If you'd drill a hole in his head, you'd get condensed pain sap and nothing else. Pain inhabited his veins exclusively. But he wanted Joker closer. Even the bed he was lying on hurt his back, yet he wanted Joker's touch. Just the slightest ghost of contact would do.

It was the first time in his life that his prayer got answered. Tortured, he wanted to slip away and wake up in safety. He wanted Joker to be the first thing he'd see.

♣ ♣ ♣

 

Lockdown was one way to put it. It had been two weeks and Bruce hadn't been allowed a minute all to himself, unless it was a visit to the bathroom, though even then he knew Joker's senses were keen as a razor blade.

His injuries had healed up for the most part, but he was still learning to deal with the lack of some fingernails. First and foremost, though, he was still a little dazed, not physically, but he had trouble deducing some things. There was a life to be lived ahead of him, he was tackling anemia under Joker's diligence, he was taking his medicine, and there were some conclusions forming of their own volition amongst the quotidian minutiae of his convalescent life. There was also this thick layer of happiness lining each of his days. He liked Joker taking care of him and of his affairs. Eventually it had him worried, though. He knew agreeing to Joker's demand not to leave his sight would mollify the man, but only for so long. There were only so many hours they could spend locked together in their apartment or in a car while going shopping without addressing the issue. The issue was, Joker had been steadily growing more manic and sulky.

Bruce could hear the steel tinge in his voice, the franticness in his embrace, the despair in the way he fucked him, all the while going out of his way not to hurt him. Not even a single scratch or burn. Bruce was looking out the window at the sun-lit degradation of their neighborhood, listening to Joker doing something in the kitchen. Finally, the man had taken the helm of the cooking department. He wasn't half bad at it, either, maybe a little too generous on the condiment side, but other than that, Bruce couldn't complain. Not about cooking, anyway.

Dazed or not, the conclusions kept forming. Something was missing, and it was something buried within both of them. They were suspended in inaction, corralled by empty space. Bruce had a good memory of what his life used to be. One-sided as it was, it gave him many outlets and a sense of accomplishment. The hypocrisy of it was one mean drawback, but the perks were undeniable. In spite of that, Joker showed him what he had been lacking. Through his disease, mental and physical, Bruce was able to burn it into his very core. He was still strong, but the sort of weakness that overcame him in the end was nothing short of edifying. Insomnia, anemia, and an inflamed ligament that he hadn't even acknowledged, exhaustion, poisoning. And now, he had almost died.

Yet, there was a life to be lived, still. And he needed that life to include Joker, preferably present in every facet of it. A Joker that wasn't suffocating with fear and on the verge of driving both of them into an early grave with his growing neurosis. Looking out the window, he knew that this day marked a slight shift in Bruce's outlook. It had been nice, having Joker take control of his life for so long, for years, because it allowed him to simply get to know him. Chucking all the symbolic dichotomy of their life choices aside, they were both able to learn of all the mundane trifles each of them carried within. They learned they were alive, not just images on the screen, newspaper cutouts, explosives or Kevlar plates. Such knowledge cost them more than they had wagered. Existing is easier when you assume death waits around every bend and there isn't much more than that. Cherishing something outside of your own recklessness brings about your own doom. Cherishing something equally reckless could soothe you, but not necessarily. Apparently this is what happens when an unstoppable force meets and immovable object.

Bruce smiled at the image his memory provided him with. Joker hanging upside down, laughing at him. He'd be damned if he didn't admit he felt euphoric when the line snarled around the man's ankle, meaning he wouldn't be left alone. Even then, he didn't want to imagine a world without someone like him, reminding him of how futile and pointless everything he did truly was.

He had to fight it at first, but that too was bound to collapse. He thought he would lose everything, but he ended up with too much to handle and still wanting more. He was only beginning to see the Brownian motion around him back then, now he saw himself a part of it, and he did not fear the lack of purchase. Now he had something better than solid foundations to build his identity upon.

Bruce felt Joker's warm hands touching his back. The man's gestures were so demure nowadays. He turned from the window to face him, leaning into his arms. The circles around Joker's eyes were darker than usual, his skin sallow, his voice strained and his grin almost sweet. Each and every one of these little things cut Bruce to the bone. He felt no pain now, but the vacuum inside him was excruciating, and he couldn't reach Joker to assist him with it. Joker was all around him like a blanket, but he didn't dare to breach in, afraid he'd lose his footing and leave Bruce with some semblance of freedom. Freedom was too risky of a treat to give to someone so dear to him.

Bruce wondered if the other man even acknowledged the slightly catatonic state he had been in for the past two weeks. Sometimes he wondered if he hadn't seen the preliminary symptoms even before that, and he had to ask himself, was it even feasible, letting the likes of them have a good life? He held Joker close, their chests flush together, just breathing. Bruce felt a twinge of longing; he needed to reach out and show him a speck of hope. He wanted to return the favor. Hazy and diseased, he was still firmly planted in this slice of reality they shared, and he knew he had the strength to endure Joker's malicious fear and fight it off. He missed him.

It was hard to decide, should it begin innocently, should he measure the force with which he bit on Joker's lip without any warning, should he dig his nails in his side a little slighter, should he push him against the wall with less ferocity. It's always tough, but measuring takes the fun out of it. He slammed Joker into the peeling wallpaper, as hard as he could. It had been such a long time since he caused the man any pain. It wasn't self-gratification. Now it was therapy, an invitation. Joker gasped; he hadn't expected that. The sudden clash with the wall punched all air out of his lungs. It left him confused and contracted. Bruce kept pushing into him, not giving him a second to figure out what was going on. His teeth tore a hole in his neck, and it slapped some of his nerves awake. Some blood rushed to his head, most of it pooled between his legs. Greenish eyes fixed on his and he saw affirmation of his greatest fear. He understood what Bruce felt and what he wanted, but he couldn't quite process it yet, with his hands moving all over his body, grabbing, groping, scratching while his teeth sank deeper. Joker's arms woke up and did his bidding for a change. Clutching Bruce's hair, keeping him close until he says what's on his mind.

Bruce slammed Joker into the wall one more time, making sure his head hit the surface hard enough. He wedged his thigh between the man's legs and rubbed his whole body against him, sucked his tongue into his mouth and bit down, not hard enough to make him bleed, but hard enough to make him scream. His teeth rasped against Joker's stubble-covered jaw. He licked his earlobe, all the while palming his growing erection, hot and pulsating beneath his hand. Joker was panting, his muscles stiff but arching into him helplessly. He didn't seem to know what to do or what he felt.

"I want you to hit me," Bruce growled into his ear quietly. He moved his head to look him in the eye and he saw a speck of voracious need crowded by confusion and resistance. Something shattered inside him. It was the Joker, his Joker, losing out to fear and it was his doing. He wrapped his arms around him, squeezed him tight, bit at the skin of his jaw hard enough to make him cry out and started confessing.

"I can't go on like this and you can't go on like this. You can't leave me here, you can't just step back and spread yourself around me, not letting me reach you. I know it hurts too much, and it has to hurt, and you're going to take it, and you're going to give it all back to me." Bruce felt he was bordering on crushing Joker's ribs, but there seemed to be a slight shift in the atmosphere. "I want you here." Joker's fingers in his hair curled and pulled harder, then a little harder, then there was a punch to his jaw and he was sent reeling backwards, but through all this red haze he wanted to laugh more than anything. He regained his balance and grinned at Joker, searching for signs of revival.

His eyes were glistening. He had missed this sight. There was blood trickling down his mouth and neck, his skin was flushed, he was hard and ready to hit him again. Bruce didn't even get a second to shake off the initial dizziness, he had to take another blow to the side of his skull and the pain bloomed with a two-second delay. He loved this kind of sensation; it was a comforting, pulsating pressure in his head, and knowing it was Joker's doing only added to it.

"More," he rasped and welcomed a punch to his stomach while a clawed hand grabbed the back of his neck, pushing him down into the blow. And then another, and another, and another, and then there was sharp pain in his chin, his head lunging back, dragging him along. He fell on his back, Joker straddling him before he could even blink. The man was grinning and his teeth were bloody. Bruce pulled him down to bite him, his cheeks, his neck, lips, and Joker let him. They wrestled for several minutes before he let him roll over on top of him and look at his bleeding skin to his heart's content. He let him suck it and lick it, he bucked his hips up, rubbing his swollen cock against Bruce's, gasping, wheezing, whimpering as the hot, throbbing flesh pressed to his, still separated with fabric, their hips grinding and rolling together. He was craning his neck in earnest, letting Bruce take as much as he wanted. He didn't protest when the man righted himself and punched him in the face time and time again. He was laughing, eyes clenched shut, teeth bared. All the clasps keeping him together for the past weeks came undone, every rigid layer separating him from Bruce thawed, and he embraced his terror, pitting it against the coming blows. Every serving of pain brought more comfort until the scales began to tip in favor of something completely different. Bruce stopped hitting him. He leaned down to pet his hair and kiss his lips, mouth open, tender and sweet, and he kept going, and he didn't seem to want to let go.

Joker's bones felt like molten lead. He moaned into Bruce's mouth, wrapped all his limbs around him and remained like this for a while. Bruce was imprinting himself into his body in so many ways, nuzzling him, sucking and sinking his teeth where it hurt most, kissing his forehead with maddening affection. He extricated himself from Joker's grip and tore his shirt open, buttons scattering across the floor. He placed a series of kisses on the man's cheek.

"I'll sew them back on for you," he murmured into his ear and ran his remaining nails down Joker's bared chest, making him hiss and arch his back. He watched the red welts emerge on his skin, muscles undulating with his rapid breathing. His past life had been rewarding at times, true, but not like this. No jumping off skyscrapers, no flashy tactics, no conquerable vast expanses of the world could ever compare to this. And finally, he could do it without shame or guilt. He couldn't not do it, the hunger was too overwhelming.

Bruce bowed his head to bite Joker's nipple, gently, then sucked and rolled his tongue over it until the man started to whimper and squeeze him with his thighs. He moved to the other nipple, taking his time. He could feel the small shivers swarming beneath Joker's skin. He dug his nails into the small of his back, grinding their hips closer. Then, he started to bite. His chest, the taut muscles of his stomach, the flesh at his sides, and he wasn't going easy. He lapped up Joker's sweat and tiny droplets of blood that began to emerge from his teeth marks. There was an incessant pressure growing inside him, threatening to crush him with the taste of Joker's warm, trembling flesh under his tongue.

Joker could no longer reason with himself, he was sinking into his own melting sentience. He had spent so much time being wary of Bruce's well-being, forced to analyze his environment and make decisions beneficial to both of them in order to get through another day. He hated it, but there had been too much at stake, so he learned to adore it. In the end he was unable to ignore the need to break out of the danger zone and turn the tables. There was a way to go about it, and it was killing Bruce. There was also another way; letting Bruce kill him. And then, maybe there also was something smack in the middle of it.

He grabbed Bruce's face and regarded him. Anemic as he was, he looked pretty robust right now. Disheveled, bloody and grinning, eyes insane, his grip on his body and his punches as delightful as the very first time in the interrogation room. Now they both shared finer nuances of it, and they had most of it figured out. There was absolutely no way to show or tell him how he felt and get it all across, but he could always try. Joker sensed it coiling up inside, ready to spring. Bruce seemed to anticipate it and gave him the sweetest kiss on the lips just before Joker pushed him away to stand up. He pulled Bruce up by the hair to his eye level and slammed him into the wall. Bruce was laughing, his breath hitching.

"Do it again." He sounded so hoarse and perfectly ecstatic, and Joker didn't deny him, harder, putting his entire body into it. Groping, grinding, ripping his skin with sharp teeth. He tore the shirt off of Bruce and dropped to his knees, licking his bruised stomach. His nails dug into his ass while he grazed his teeth down the bulge in Bruce's pants. The way he moaned was the final straw. Joker scrambled to his feet, scratching Bruce all over on his way up, and ground their mouths together. It was the most painful kiss of Bruce's life, yet he pushed back into it, purring. Honestly, he didn't know what pain was supposed to be anymore. All he wanted was more, deeper, preferably now. His head was swimming.

There was very little air between them, but it was alright with Joker. He'd be content breathing in Bruce's blood if he only could. He was at a loss, though. He didn't know how to hurt him to get the most of him. It was disconcerting, but Joker found himself reduced to this sizzling lump of need with no tools to truly tackle it. He could only scratch at the surface, knowing he won't be able to get in no matter how wide Bruce opens up for him. He punched the man and sent him to the floor again. He didn't even make a move to gather himself up, just lying there, beaming at him. No matter what, this felt great.

Joker straddled him and squeezed his face between his palms, deforming his features in any way he saw fit. He tugged at his cheeks and stretched his mouth, then he dug his nails in the malleable skin and left bright-red claw marks in the form of an extended smile.

"I couldn't stand the thought of you dying," he told Bruce. He traced his features with his fingertips, following every bump and concavity, smearing some of the blood in the process. "But it's really hard to have you here, alive." Bruce reached up to caress the skin of his torso. Some of Joker's tears dropped on him, but the man didn't seem to notice they were running down his face. He had always thought someone like Joker didn't cry much, or at all. Yet here he was, again, and again, it was his doing. Bruce grabbed the back of his neck and brought him down.

"If you can't stand the thought, drop the thinking. Just act," he whispered in his ear. Joker shook his head. He was sobbing now. "Let me take it from you." Bruce's voice was pleading, his touch soothing. He ran his fingers through Joker's hair. He held him through another assault of teeth and nails, and he didn't seem to mind his skin being torn, covered with bruises and sores. Whatever Joker had brewing for him, he wanted to soak in it. They kissed, hard, long, trying to spill at least a bit of the acid coursing in their veins. Joker slammed Bruce's head into the floor repeatedly, until the man could barely see. But he looked so blissful. Joker wrapped himself around him, wanting his body to remember all the rhythms and thrums of the body beneath him. Then, he propped himself up and started maneuvering around Bruce's waistband. He had little command of his own hands, but he managed to unzip his own pants and pull them down a little bit. Some of his vision was bright red. There was dull throbbing in his ears. Bruce lifted his hips to help him get rid of his pants and underwear.

He lay before him, naked and still, and he wanted everything from him. His cock was dark red and rock-hard. The sight of him like this, bloody and beaten, smiling and serene, it stabbed Joker in the gut and twisted until the boiling acid poured out of him. He spat in his hand and rammed his fingers into Bruce. The man cried out, but spread his legs for him. He was panting, his lips parted and cheeks flushed, and he rocked with the pain. The fingers were intrusive, but not unwelcome. Joker wasn't particularly aiming to give him pleasure, he was busy sucking purple hickeys into the skin of his inner thighs before he would bite at the pale flesh, but every twist and thrust of those fingers sent more liquid fire to the pit of his stomach. There was no escaping them.

The vision jumped in front of Bruce's eyes. He was dizzy from all the beating and the sort of adrenaline rush he hadn't experienced in years. He was only partially aware he was smiling as he moaned, and when he finally saw Joker's face above him, the man had never looked more beautiful to him. Joker hooked his knees over his elbows and pushed inside into the barely prepared tightness, not giving him a second to adjust. And this was perfect. Bruce couldn't care what would happen to him. He'd be happy to bleed to death around Joker if only he could hold him while he did that. He brought his arms around the man's neck as he fucked him at a sickening tempo. The laughter that escaped him, he couldn't recognize it. Their eyes remained locked as Joker bore into him, quenching everything with this selfless abuse.

It was hard to discern whether Bruce was crying or laughing now. His heart rate was racing, and Joker's moist kisses cooled his skin. Then, there was a tight grip on his neck instead of soft lips. He couldn't breathe, but he didn't make a move to free himself. Joker kept pushing into him as every other sensation began to wane. Bruce had absolutely no understanding of pain anymore, only the pressure and his pounding heart, threatening to burst out. The burning inside him, verging on combustion. His vision grew white. Time seemed to be passing, measured with the rhythmic thrusts of insistent heat. Joker wasn't letting go. If that was the way it would end, he was fine with it. Through his numbness, pleasure licked at the embers of his consciousness, and he felt so safe, on the brink of dying. No panic, no flashing images of his past life. This was his life at its peak.

He didn't realize Joker had let go of him at first, but his lungs did. He coughed and wheezed until his trachea regained its shape. The air burned him. It smelled of blood. Another second, and he would have had to be resuscitated. It took Bruce a while before he could laugh, but it was quickly drowned out by the wanton moans he couldn't contain. The pleasure was shattering. Delicious tingles shooting up and down his entire body, Joker's hand around his cock squeezing and rubbing the leaking slit, his hot tongue on his nipples, sucking, all moist, velvet and sweet, the smooth, hard flesh rubbing all the right places deep inside him. There was no physical way to hold back now. Bruce blindly grabbed Joker by the hair and pulled him into a kiss. His mouth needed more than that. He was desperate for something, the orgasm was already building up at the base of his spine. He wrapped his legs around Joker's lower back and looked at him. The edges of his vision were gray and blurry, but he saw everything he needed, and he pulled him closer, trying to release some of the pressure. His teeth clenched on Joker's ear lobe. He heard a scream, but the man didn't pull away, he just thrust into him deeper, squeezed his cock harder.

Bruce had little grasp of what he was doing. Everything seemed so pure and obvious to him in this instant, the gushing blood, the little bit of flesh that remained in his mouth, him grinding it with his teeth, Joker smiling, showering him with kisses as his blood spilled profusely on Bruce's face and neck, warm and tickling. When Bruce finally recognized the taste in his mouth and what he had done, he couldn't hold it in. He came as he swallowed a little bit of the man on top of him, he came feeling Joker's hot cum inside of him, hearing his sweet, low groan in his ear.

They sunk into the warm silence, broken only by their breathing. Joker wedged his arm beneath Bruce's neck and tucked his head in the crook of his shoulder. Bruce spoiled him with his embrace, sending his mind into a buzzing abyss. It probably lasted longer than it felt, but before he had a chance to truly give in, he felt a twinge of conscience, for lack of a better word. He braced himself up, both arms planted on each side of Bruce's head, and managed to stay that way despite his muscles shuddering with exhaustion. There was some damage that needed tending to. He wasn't concerned with his own state for the time being, but Bruce pointed out the jarring reality.

"I just bit off a piece of your ear. And I ate it," he said flatly. His childish smile was inappropriate with all the remnants of abuse evident on his face.

"Yeah, uh, I almost killed you." Joker inspected the decrement in his ear with his finger and hissed. He looked at the hand-shaped bruises surfacing on Bruce's neck and it sunk like a block of ice into his gut. He had almost killed him, and he wasn't exaggerating, either. And Bruce would have let him. With all the tranquility that engulfed him at the moment, this fact left a sore in the back of his mind. There were things to be done, though. He helped Bruce up and gave his injuries a preliminary once-over. It did not look good. Apart from all the bite marks that broke the skin, there were splinters, scratches and burns on Bruce's back from all the grinding into the wooden floor. And there was blood between his thighs. Even with his ear bitten off, Joker felt his condition was slightly better, though he suspected a concussion. It was too early to determine that now, and definitely not with the two of them in this state.

Joker pulled up his pants. They stumbled to the bathroom and he urged Bruce to get in the bathtub. Everything appeared to him in slow motion, the sound was dulled, but he couldn't deny the genuine euphoria he felt. As he knelt down beside the tub to start tending to Bruce, the way he looked, the way he was, trusting and mauled over, it nearly choked him. With happiness, with shock at what he had done, with a knowledge that had now settled in despite his head being a mess. Maybe he needed a bit of faith in order to survive. He could never kill him. He needed to live with the fear and he needed to learn how to ask for a little assistance. Bruce was more than capable of finding the right valve and helping him let it off. Somehow, he didn't want to see it before.

He pulled another small splinter from underneath Bruce's epidermis with a pair of tweezers. About five more to go. Finally, some cogs turned in Bruce's maltreated head, and he took interest in Joker's ear. It was still bleeding. He shifted in the bathtub and reached for the first-aid kit Joker had set up on the tiled floor. With the help of their limited supplies, he managed to more or less disinfect the wound and make a decent dressing for it. His muscles were incredibly stiff. When he was done, his hands remained on Joker's shoulders. They smiled at each other for a few minutes like a pair of idiots.

"What's gonna happen when our post-coital bliss subsides, darling?" Joker asked and resumed his work on Bruce's injuries.

"Well, we're definitely not hiding here anymore. I think I need to see a doctor." Bruce made a face that told him exactly what kind of doctor he had in mind.

"Think you're gonna taste the joy of sphincterotomy?" Joker remained deadpan, though he did feel a slight pang of remorse now. He had first-hand experience of it, and even though Bruce had been the cause, he still was far from wanting to inflict that kind of ordeal on him. Especially now.

"Yeah. Almost thirty three and haven't had one yet, I feel I've been missing out."

Joker burst out with silent laughter. Everything hurt now, and not in a nice way. But that was the perk of physical pain; it was awful, basically, but a godsend to the mind in the right circumstances. He grabbed the shower head and made sure the water was lukewarm before he directed a soft stream at Bruce's flesh. He tried to be as gentle as possible with the washcloth, but Bruce was clenching his eyes anyway. Joker dreaded his turn. It was funny how one single therapeutic session could turn both of them into sane, pain-abhorring individuals. Thankfully, this would pass and they knew it.

"But... how do I put this. What do you think? Hm? What's gonna happen?" Joker murmured so softly Bruce could barely hear him over the water's rustle. He trained his eyes on him and saw a lot that was destroyed, and a bit that was restored.

"You can always tell what's gonna happen."

A slight shadow flitted over Joker's gaze. He dropped the washcloth and the shower head, and leaned into Bruce's space.

"I think it's kinda obvious, I'm terrified of drawing conclusions with this one."

Bruce reached up, slid his arms under Joker's and embraced him awkwardly, trying not to cause him more pain than necessary. Some was necessary, they had to live with it.

"I once told you we might end up killing each other, well, we can file it under bullshit for now," he spoke into Joker's good ear. "You wanna know what I think, well I think we're past the teen angst phase, you and me. If there's one thing I learned living with you like this, we're already dead to the world. But we can build and destroy whatever we want. And I mean us, here. We can build ourselves again. And why not. I can't see why not." Bruce's voice hitched. He wanted to tell Joker about all kinds of things, about what he felt, but he feared he couldn't express it properly. That was another thing they had to learn to tackle -- the inability to speak of something crucial. "And I'm not going to die on you, stop obsessing about it."

"I almost killed you not even a half an hour ago, and you did absolutely nothing to back up this statement."'

"Well, did you kill me? If I died, then you could say I did nothing to back it up. Get it straight." Joker's arms around him were trembling.

"So, we're going to just, uh... keep this... this up?" His voice was tiny, faltering.

"Yeah. We're gonna get our prescriptions, stock up and take a few weeks off. We can afford it. We'll booby-trap the neighborhood so Falcone can't reach us."

Joker laughed into Bruce's torn-up shoulder. It hurt, it really hurt, but it was alright.

"You know what?" He lifted his head and looked Bruce in the eye. "I'm seven months older than you."

If it had been anyone else, Bruce would have dismissed this statement as exceedingly random, but it was Joker. Bruce didn't really know anything of this sort about him, and he assumed there was nothing concrete to really know. But with these few words, Joker told him something else, about the kind of life he wanted to lead and share with him. It was one of the scariest things Bruce had ever heard, and at the same time it left him with a sense of gut-wrenching happiness.

EPILOGUE

 

"Last time I saw you, you were quite green around the gills, master Wayne," Alfred said as he began to clear the table after dinner. Bruce had developed a habit of visiting him at his brother's house every few weeks. Every time, Joker would stay in their motel room and wait, entertaining himself with sit-coms and making origami animals out of the motel bible pages. "I believe you coming here and eating right once in a while might be the best idea you've ever had. You look slightly less tubercular now, sir."

Even now that Alfred wasn't officially Bruce's employee, he seemed to care for him with doubled effort during the short hours they would see each other. It still remained a heavy weight for Bruce to carry, though with each week it seemed to be more and more bearable. He seemed to manage balancing most of the aspects of his life now, the past ones along the present. All the years spent fighting the good fight and protecting the memory of his loved ones could never teach him the true meaning of caring about someone. Now he had a innate understanding of how it worked.

"Before, I thought I had no right to come see you," he said quietly. Alfred froze with the tray and gave him a scorning look. His brother's grandchildren were playing outside, screaming; it was a hot, summer day.

"I should hope you don't feel that way anymore, sir. I... I've been missing that... life, let's call it." Bruce turned his eyes down. "Pardon me, I shouldn't have said that." Alfred placed the tray on the kitchen island and sat at the table across Bruce. "You must understand something, sir. I think of you as if you were my own, against my better judgment. I cannot cast that away. You needn't worry about coming here. Not ever." He paused. Bruce looked so different, yet it seemed familiar, as if something he had lost with his parents' death had been returned to him. "I can see you are happy now. Whatever it is that you're doing, you are doing something right. The city you sought to redeem, it's making progress. You cannot deny it. You have no reason to be ashamed, master Wayne."

Bruce smiled. He still hadn't told Alfred all about his life in its present shape. He felt no shame, yet he couldn't bring himself to it. He suspected Alfred had known all along, still, it was something he wasn't able to verbalize.

"Has Batman retired for good?" Alfred asked.

"I really can't tell. I... don't feel the urge to do it. Not now."

"Well, 'now' seems to be quite engrossing, then, sir."

"It is," Bruce chuckled. "It's still so new."

"And it looks painful." Alfred pointed to some barely healed scratches on Bruce's neck. "You always seem to have some of those." Bruce just smiled, leaving this statement without a comment.

One day he would tell him everything, just because he had learned recently that naming certain things and speaking out the unspeakable brought great comfort. He thought about it on his way back to the motel. As he entered their room, he saw Joker lying on the bed, contorted in a strange position -- his legs jutting up, propped against a wall and his torso twisted so he could actually see the screen of the television set mounted on the opposite wall. As always, Bruce felt a rush of warmth upon seeing him after a few hours of being apart.

It was undeniable, they could never truly get used to one another. It could be a sign of mental deterioration to some, the inability to form a stable image of the other, but as it didn't meddle with their lives, they had resigned to taking themselves apart time and time again only to find something new in each instance. Taking apart, rebuilding, rearranging, they had time for all of this. Tearing apart, burning away, carving up -- they had time for that, too.

Bruce dropped on the bed next to Joker and simply snuggled up to him. Joker ruffled his hair and scratched him behind his ear like some kind of pet, then he lazily swung his other arm and one leg around his body.

"When are you going to introduce me?" He whined.

"When you buy me a diamond ring so Alfred sees you mean business."

"Really?"

"No."

"So, when?"

Bruce tilted his head to meet Joker's eyes. He knew it amused Joker, and he knew Joker was more than aware of how it made Bruce feel and what it meant to him. And Bruce loved that Joker didn't care.

"I'm going to tell him everything next time I see him. Then, it's up to you."

"What if he says I'm not good enough for you?"

"Better get that diamond ring," Bruce murmured against Joker's neck. He wanted to catch a little nap before they would have to go back to Gotham. A chartered plane was already on standby, but neither of them felt like moving now. Back home, there was Sofia Falcone with a sheaf of new business proposals and no way of brushing her off, there was his base with the armor that kept gathering dust, and Bruce wondered if it was going to last. He had found Joker's purple suit in their apartment not long ago and ended up holding it in his hands for an hour or so, just staring. It was nice to the touch.

Joker's arms around him tightened, and he smiled, burrowing his face into the man's patterned shirt. Taking apart, tearing apart, building, carving up, they had the time for everything, going around in circles included. Right now though, something different caught his attention. One of the buttons on Joker's shirt seemed to be a little off. Next time he'll do a better job with sewing them back on.