The laugh is eerie and echoes through the docks in a way that turns the unwary person's blood to ice. The wary people who actually know better don't bother to stick around past the first echoing sound of it. Most of Gotham knows to get off the streets when the Joker is loose and on the prowl for some fun. The tall figure of the psychopath strides down the docks, thick arms gesturing wide as he dances more than walks. The lurking form of his henchmen follow at a respectful and fully warranted distance.
Joker's mood is capricious and can turn on a dime. Happy and giddy one moment to absolutely out of his mind enraged in the next. The insane green of his eyes flashing and burning with an unnatural light that lets even the stupidest of people know they need to get as far from him as possible.
Bells jingle as a smaller figure follows close behind. Well within striking range, but absolutely unafraid as the red and black clad shadow follows behind Joker with adoring blue eyes that can be every bit as insane as Joker's. Harlequin sways under the weight of a massive sledgehammer that looks too large for his smaller form, but more than a few people have ended their lives as smears underestimating the strength in his arms.
"This, this, this!" Joker stops and flings his hands out toward a freighter ship that looks the exact same as all the others. His grin grows wide and demented as he frames it with his hands. "Oh yes, Harley dear, this one will be fucking perfect."
"You heard him," Harlequin tosses one belled head at the clowned up crowd following him. "Let's get Mr. Jay's ship all pretty and nice now."
The promise of senseless violence is, as always, enough to get their men going. Joker laughs as they swarm over the lightly guarded ship an start breaking things. The smart guards have already jumped ship and are swimming away unmolested, but a few screams rise up to be cut short showing that not all of them were very smart.
Joker spins around and gets an arm around Harlequin. Spinning the younger man around in a mad dance that leaves his weapon to crash to the docks with a splintering sound that echoes. "It will be so perfect! He'll come and we can have ourselves a proper little family reunion."
Harlequin grins up at him and pulls away just enough to wrap his arms around Joker's neck. He smiles up at him and the expression almost makes the white paint caked on his face crack. "With cake and fireworks and rusty ships. It'll be just like old times."
The vans come up next to unload their precious cargo and Joker watches with glee as the bound and unconscious forms of his brothers and sisters are hauled out. The perfect bait for the man they all called father in one form or another.
Laughter rings out over the dock as the explosives follow and the night slowly passes.
It's not in order, but did you expect anything from madness to be in order or make sense?
Jason dies and Bruce buries his son. He grieves and blames himself and nearly goes off the edge into place that he always swore he'd never go to. He almost loses himself, and then a stubborn boy marches into his life and tells him how he should be. A boy who tries his best to fix them all and ends up being exactly what Bruce needs. Tim is bright and eager and incredibly loyal. Enough to keep Batman in check and Gotham safe.
Then the Joker disappears and no one notices until Bruce realizes how very long it has been since he last dealt with a threat from the man. Arkham is a dead end and every inquiry he puts out leads to nothing. Harley Quinn goes nuclear and that more than anything lets him know how very wrong things are when they finally put her down in Arkham.
"Is it really that bad?" Tim asks when she's safely out of earshot. "If he's dead," Tim breaches the possibility that none of them have said yet, "the world is safer. Right?"
It's callous but Tim doesn't mean it that way and Bruce knows it, but he says nothing as he leaves. The Joker being gone --which he will only believe when he sees the body-- will only leave a void waiting to be filled. Perhaps by whoever was dangerous enough to kill him in the first place.
It's another year and Harley escapes twice more before she too disappears. Tim take the opportunity to follow her trail out of the city to gain some more training, and Bruce approves of his initiative. Gang war breaks out for the fourth time in six months and Bruce is busy enough that he only notices Tim has missed his check in by three days when Alfred pointedly reminds him of it.
Tim misses the fourth day and the fifth and by the sixth all of Bruce's resources are reporting the boy was last seen in France before going stale. Dick and Babs follow up in person and Bruce patrols Gotham with more violence than is needed until they report back in.
Tim is gone, and he stays gone until a rumor of an explosion in Hong Kong leads them to a small bit of burnt remains. So burned that it's only luck that allows the DNA match to be made. The story comes out slow and fragmented afterwards. Harley had apparently never wanted to be found, and had been willing to do whatever was necessary to stay gone.
Bruce buries the blackened remains. He grieves and blames himself, but he doesn't go off the edge like he had before. It would be an insult to Tim's memory if he allowed himself to do that.
Bruce finds Stephanie Brown after that, and he keeps finding the girl despite how many times he warns her off. Her stubbornness to not be like her father refuses to allow her to quit even when it becomes obvious how very untrained she is and how that will kill her one day. He takes her on just to try and prevent another death more than anything else.
Cassandra finds Barbara but it's Bruce who talks in her language, and it's not long before the new Robin and Batgirl are flying across the city. Babs gives her blessing on it, and Bruce is just getting used to Cass being his third official ward when Damian finds them.
Damian is bright and demanding and arrogant in a way that screams Talia, and Bruce knows even before the testing is done what he will see. The names shift again and Bruce almost thinks he can be happy like this. With Dick coaxing genuine responses from Damian as Cass and Steph play tag in the Cave. Babs' voice wry as she talks to Alfred. Even with the cases watching silently from their place of prominence, and Bruce likes to think that Jason and Tim would approve of this if they were here.
Rumors start. Slow and insidious but chilling all the same about the return of the Joker, and shatters the ease Bruce had been feeling.
It's not long before the rumors become fact. Joker gas is being used as the Joker throws his rage on the city with a bubbly Harley close at his heels. They hit fast and hard before melting away in a corner of the city Bruce can't find, and Bruce is tense. Tense and more than a little obsessed at the return of the two people who took two of his own from him. Even with Dick's assurances and Babs' eyes they can't catch them, and Bruce has to reel his children in.
Damian chafes to be allowed to 'prove' himself against them, Cass doesn't fear them the way she should, and Steph just isn't cautious enough to not be hurt. They resent it and resent him, but Bruce will be damned if he allows any more of his children to fall.
He get reckless himself instead, he chases shadows and rumors all around the city until he sees the plan far too late to stop it.
Dick was taken last night, Cass shortly afterwards. Steph sometime around lunch just before they took the Manor by force to get Alfred and Damian. He doesn't know when Babs was taken. Her reports have been short and expertly edited clips played out from the supposed safety of her Clocktower while her Birds chase ghosts in another city.
The scope of the planning is astronomical and mind boggling. Nothing less than what he expects from the Joker.
Bruce follows the signs pointing him to the dock and doesn't even bother hiding his presence as he enters the ship. The explosives aren't hidden, but the device controlling them is. Bruce grinds his teeth and follows the messily painted arrows below deck. The ship is empty of the usual henchmen and Bruce hears him before he sees the light coming from what has to be a mess hall.
His children are all there. Awake and alive, tied to chairs placed delicately over more explosives. They're placed evenly around a table filled with food. Alfred sits at one end and his eyes are filled with pain as the Joker's crazed laughter cuts off when he realizes he's not alone. "Well, well, the man of the hour is finally here!"
It's not the Joker who spins around to face him.
The face is pale, the grin mad, and the clothing the same but this is not him. Bruce knows that because he knows the Joker. He also knows his own son.
"Jason," Bruce says and fails to dodge the blow to the back of his head. He falls to the ground and manages to roll over enough to find someone who isn't Harley Quinn standing over him. "Tim, no-"
"Ah, ah! No protesting," Tim says brightly as he raises the heavy hammer over his head. His grin is not sane and Bruce feels paralyzed with despair. "Not after we went through so much trouble to make this day special for you, Brucie."
The hammer comes down and Bruce has enough time to regret that he'll be waking up in a worse position before he loses consciousness.
Jason comes out of the pit mad and nothing Talia does can fix that. Jason laughs when she tries. Long, loud, and hard. Like the sound of his endless nightmares and he likes the way she flinches back from the sound. How her eyes go wary and she stops protesting when her dearest old dad wants him killed.
Jason welcomes the death sentence because death is not something he fears any longer. He's died and been buried and punched his way out of his own coffin already. What are a bunch of ninja going to do to him?
He laughs as he kills them. Laughs as he tears them apart with his bare hands and uses their blood to paint a smile on his face, because he doesn't fear death. He doesn't, but there is one thing he fears. One person and Jason can't stand it. He's conquered death by becoming it, and now he's going to do the same to the Joker.
He goes to Ra's with the blood of his ninja drying in tacky streaks on him and speaks the first words he's said since he was thrown into the pit and came out as madness and death incarnate. "I'm going back to end him."
Ra's does not argue, and he does not flinch back from his laugh. The man is ancient and as much a part of the madness in the pit as Jason now is. He's intrigued by Jason now in a way he never was before and Jason finds himself back in Gotham almost before he can think of a plan.
Gotham is the same. She's dark and sharp and deadly and Jason paints a few alleys with blood the first day he's back. Only some of them are the ninja that had followed him with futile orders to kill him. Jason laughs and understands why he does it so very much. Gotham echoes and amplifies the sound. Making it darker and more alive than Jason himself. He laughs into the night until his throat his bleeding and he croaks like a frog between giggles.
It's only then, when he's mostly silent, that he sees them.
Batman and Robin flying above the dirty streets of Gotham and Jason wonders wildly if he's forgotten himself. Because Batman is a dark blur sucking in the night sky, while Robin exudes light next to him with his vividly eye catching colors. His feet are firmly planted on the ground though and it takes him too long to realize that's not him up there in the air. He's not Robin anymore because someone took it.
The realization is shattering and if Jason had any voice left the city would have shaken at the force of his scream as rage takes over the fear. Bright, acrid green. A poisonous sour apple that tastes like blood and smoke and doesn't clear until he has the last of his ninja escort pinned to a dirty brick wall and his hand around her throat.
He breathes and takes her air as she claws at his arm in desperation because she's mortal and she fears her own death the way most mortals do. Jason lets go and waits for her to breath her own air back in before making his demands known. "I want everything you have on that replacement Robin."
He leaves her with the bodies of the others and disappears into the city for days. He doesn't laugh and he doesn't speak. He watches and listens instead. Learns what has changed and what is the same. He looks for his fear too and finds that exactly where he didn't want to expect him to be. Safely locked up and still alive.
Fear wars with rage and Jason wanders and plans and replans and wonders why he's planning at all until the fear wins out.
Jason hears laughter that is not his own and follows it to the gaunt man who doesn't recognize him or the threat he poses. Not even as Jason attacks. Not when he draws blood and breaks bones. It's only when Jason starts to chuckle that something like recognition enters those eyes that chase him in the night, and by then it's too late. By then it's far too easy to snap his chicken neck and watch the wretched life drain from his eyes.
Watch it drain and feel it go through his fingers, build up in his gut until Jason's roaring with laughter. He pulls the ragged clothing off the man and puts it on his own frame but it doesn't fit and Jason laughs as he realizes he bigger now than he's used to. His arms are thick with muscle and the clothing of the old Joker just won't fit him. The corpse slides into the sewer and Jason loses his fear.
There is nothing for him to fear anymore and the feeling is liberating. He smiles up into the smog filled night of Gotham and goes off to find himself a new set of threads that actually fit. He was Jason the Robin, then he was Jason the dead, and then he was Jason again but not Robin because Robin is for someone else now. Some newer, better person, and now the only name Jason has left to take is Joker.
He likes it. It fits, and Jason dances all the way to a good enough looking place.
The clothing is made to fit him with shaking fingers and more tears than he'd like, but they fit and all Jason needs is a little red and a lot of white. The blood of the tailor is tacky and won't do for long, but it doesn't take Jason long to find everything else he needs. Including a nice little package of information from Talia's own hands.
She watches warily as he reads and grins. The expression more terrifying against the bone white of his face and the red stretch of his lips. "Timmy," Jason laughs when he's read it four or five times and the Robin's face is burned into his mind and rage. "Timmy, Tim Tim, Tim."
"My father wants to make you an offer," Talia eventually says when he doesn't stop repeating that name.
It's an order that Jason feel no compelling need to follow. He doesn't fear Talia or Ra's, but he is intrigued by it. Rage burns bright and insistent in him, but Jason knows enough to know he wants to take his time with this plan. That he actually wants to have a plan for this. Talia won't like to hear it, but Ra's might approve.
"Fine," he drawls out with a put upon sigh and pout not entirely feigned. "Let's see what your old man wants."
What the old man wants is to give Jason money and weapons and training. What he wants is to make Jason as dangerous as possible and then see how much of the world he burns when he goes off on his own. Jason loves the plan and tells the old man his own in return. He get apathy in return and it makes Jason laugh loud enough to make some of the ninja shift uneasily in their stations.
Training is less the lessons he remembers and more a series of men and women thrown at Jason and told to survive. Jason doesn't learn what they came to teach, but he does learn better how to take people apart. How to blow right past the ingrained controls set by his old training. How to not hold back and how to just keep on punching until he feels like it's enough, and then keep on going right past that point. Until he starts to get bored with it all and starts thinking about plans again.
He gets one last gift from Ra's then. A gift in the form of a livid Harley Quinn. Sickly looking and madder than ever when she sees him with his white face and laughter. Killing her is a mercy that he should have done the day he killed the old Joker. She was never meant to be able to function entirely without her Joker. It was not how he created her to be after all.
The thought makes Jason pause as he admires the shine of her blood on his hands. The Harlequin needs a Joker, and Jason thinks it would be awfully nice to have his own personal Harlequin. And who better to be that to Jason than someone who truly understands where he comes from.
His plan shifts.
It's ridiculously easy feeding the little bird a line. It's maddening that --when he flies the nest-- he's allowed to do it alone, but Jason only thinks about how much sweeter his plans have become as he lays out a tantalizing little trail of breadcrumbs for this new Robin who's sharp enough to cut and curious enough to follow his lead.
"Joker," Robin says when he sees him, but the firm expression on his face wavers when Jason moves out of the shadows. Confusion followed almost lightning fast by something that actually surprises him. Recognition. His voice wavers when he speaks again. "Jason?"
"Oh, Timmy," Jason croons as the doors slam shut on the timer he's set and the room fills with the gas that hasn't been able to affect him since he came back to life. He catches the Robin before he can get the filtered mask out, and easily blocks the weakened blows he tries to use. Holding on tight until the boy is barely struggling and held up entirely by Jason's arms. He wraps the bird up and holds him closer than he should, but this Robin will be his soon enough. "We have so much to talk about."
It's his laughter that chases Timmy Tim-Tim into unconsciousness.
The first thing Jason does is strip Robin off of Timmy and hand every piece of the costume over to the last of the ninja waiting for an excuse to run away from him. He doesn't need Robin after all. Wants him, but Jason lost that name with his death. He's not planning to kill Timmy but he does need him free of Robin for his purposes.
It's going to be easier to break Timothy Drake than it would be try and break Robin.
Timmy wakes up long before he even opens his eyes and Jason holds absolutely still so that he doesn't know he's not alone. Timmy's not impatient though. He takes his time listening and testing his bonds before cracking a single eye open. The left one. Which is a shame because Jason's on the right, and it takes a few more moments before Timmy sees him. "Hi, Timmy."
Jason's washed the paint off of his face for this meeting. Timmy recognized him even with it on, but he wants the boy to really know it's him and not some trick. Timmy swallows. Heavy and obvious without the sleek looking cape to hide it. "Jason. You," Timmy swallows again and he's struggling for a calm that he doesn't feel naturally. Shock still weighs him down heavily. "You're dead. How did."
"I woke up in my coffin," Jason explains patiently but his attention is already wandering. He's ready to get started but first he needs to make sure Timmy understands what is going to happen. He doesn't need to know why, but it will be better if he knows what to expect. He'll break faster from the anticipation.
"I dug my way out and got thrown into a pit," Jason reaches out and lays his fingers over Timmy's face. Fingers tracing the line of the paint he can already see him wearing, the smile he will have too. "You took my name though so I had nowhere to go, no one to be since Jason Todd was dead."
He grins and watches the slight flinch in Timmy's eyes even as he holds himself stiffly. "I had to take a name for myself."
"Joker," Timmy says. Low and numb as his eyes go a little distant. "You killed him."
"I feared him," Jason agrees with a nod and a smaller smile. "I had to become him before he could kill me again."
"Ok," Timmy frowns and his eyes dart around even though Jason knows he already has a pretty good layout of the room he's locked them into. A small and dark thing in the larger building. "Ok, yeah, don't think anyone can blame you for that."
It's a lie and they both know it. Batman, Bruce, can and will always blame him for it.
"Look, everyone is going to be too happy to hear you're back to care," Timmy looks back up at him and there's a grimness in his eyes that says he already has an idea of how this is going to go. He tries anyway and Jason wants to pinch his cheek and coo at him for the attempt. "Let me go and we can call-"
Jason doesn't bother holding himself back. He pinches both of Timmy's cheeks. Harder than even the old mayor's wife used to do to him and that old hag had claws. "Oh, Timmy! Timmy, Timmy, Tim, Timmy!"
Jason chants the boy's name over and over until the syllables lose all meaning, until he's laughing uproariously at the meaningless mash of sounds. Until he's clawing at the boy's face and screaming into his wide eyes in rage and hate and glee. Jason winds down until he's laughing again, until the laughter rolls to a stuttering chuckle.
He smooths his fingers over the reddening scratches on his face and notes how Timmy is very careful to keep his face utterly blank. Jason sees the lines of the paint on his face and now can see the face he'll make under it. Timmy is going to be perfect. Jason smiles indulgently as he soothes the scratches gently and carefully. An action that seems to disturb him more than anything else.
"Timmy. My little Harlequin," Jason grins in delight as alarmed understanding floods into his face. Such a bright young man. Able to put so very many things together with only a few leading phrases. Jason pulls away and reaches for the rolling table he'd carefully placed just out of view. A table filled with things to break and things to remake, but Jason ignores them for the moment and reaches for the deceptively delicate little wires attached to a big black box.
Electricity is a funny thing. It hurts and burns but it also cleanses and wipes clean. It's perfect for making a blank slate to build his Timmy back up on so that he's everything Jason will ever need.
Timmy's screams fill the little warehouse no one will ever find. Building up in volume until it's pounding in Jason's head and he stops laughing to scream too. The smell of it burns and fills his nose until Timmy goes silent and still. Beyond the screams and the pleading he'd eventually broken down to.
Jason puts the wires away then and gets up on the table with his Timmy. Curls up over his shivering body protectively and mutters comforting promises until he falls asleep.
Timmy’s broken by the end of the week. A week of the worst kind of shock therapy and the best drugs Jason has access to. Which is pretty damn good drugs with Ra's help. Jason pushes further after that week though just to be totally sure. Then he starts to build up the structure of what he needs from Timmy. Carefully and methodically even when he doesn't know exactly what it is he's building up.
He knows he's doing it right though when Timmy's clouded blues eyes start to lock onto him when Jason enters the room and don't leave him. When Timmy stops trying to get up and flee when he takes the buckles and straps off of him. When he doesn't so much as flinch when Jason pulls out the wires or the needles anymore. Just lays there patiently waiting.
It still takes a month to bring him to the point where Jason feels confident enough to let the boy go from his prison without running. He’s lost muscle mass and coordination and is as weak as a baby bird when he walks. Clinging to Jason with desperate hands and his dull eyes looking for Jason instead of watching where he’s going.
"My Timmy, Baby Bird, Tim-Tim," Jason half sings the endearments to him and Timmy absorbs it all like a sponge. Takes it all in with no sign of recognition or retention, but Jason knows it’s there. Deep inside his mind and worming it’s way into the things that Timmy thinks are the truth. "My perfect little Harlequin."
Not Harley Quinn because she’s dead and it wasn’t Timmy who did the work to take her place. No, Jason doesn’t need an exact copy of her anyway. His needs are a little different so his pet will get a different name. Maybe even a different color palette though Jason likes the thought of black and red on his Baby Bird.
Timmy follows him around like a duckling imprinting. Physically when he can and with his eyes when he cannot. His muscles jerk and spasm randomly. Smoothing out slowly until Jason starts to recognize some of the movements. He laughs the first time Timmy reaches out for him with a needy whine after Jason ignores him for too long, and rewards him with a kiss to his cheek.
He gets more vocal after that and it’s not long after Timmy starts to laugh with Jason that he’s talking.
"Jay," Timmy slurs as he climbs up to the rafters Jason is hanging from. Sweat drips from Jason’s face as he ignores his Timmy to continue the chin ups he started an hour ago. His muscles burn pleasantly and if he closes his eyes he almost feels like he’s back in the pit.
The pit had been comfortable for Jason. Welcoming and devouring. It had been coming out of it that had been the real bitch.
"Jay, go," Timmy says louder, and Jason opens his eyes to watch him nimbly pick his way over the rusted beams. He hardly missteps anymore and there’s no stumbling in his movements. He’s sure and confident and moves very precisely with no wasted movement at all. There’s an understated grace to it that Jason’s already planning on using. "Go frr."
Jason doesn’t ask, doesn’t feel the need to figure out what Timmy’s saying even as he starts to pull urgently on Jason’s wrist. Light tugs that are no danger at all in hurting him, but make him grin at the way frustration builds on his face as Jason continues to ignore him.
Watching his face screw up is funny.
Funny right until Timmy gets fed up with it and lunges down. Sharp teeth sink into the meaty flesh of Jason’s hand and his scream is more out of surprise than the pain. Surprise and shock that make him slip and fall. His body rolls with the impact he barely feels as rage flares up inside of him.
Timmy is his! Timmy belongs to him now and he’s not supposed to ever hurt him! Jason rolls to his feet with a snarl and looks up to the boy who obviously needs more breaking.
Bright blues eyes aren’t looking at him though. They’re fixed with their own snarl on a dark corner and Jason spins in time to avoid the first ninja. They pour in from the shadows and Jason screams as he lets the rage go. Lets it spill out to consume them all for daring to try and hurt him while his Harlequin is so weak.
They fall, predictably, and Jason smears them into paste with his fists and their own weapons. Cutting through them far too easily. Talia again and Jason needs to break her if she still thinks she can hurt him. The last ninja falls to the ground in smaller pieces than he came in as and Jason still burns with anger, but there's no one left to vent it on except for the corpses.
Corpses aren't any fun though.
A sound makes him turn and Jason sees one last living ninja. Timmy’s on his knees over a weakly thrashing body that stills when he jerks to the left abruptly with a final cracking of bone. The boy is unharmed despite the fact he hadn’t had the sense to stay out of the fight. He looks up at Jason immediately after checking the room over for more enemies.
The anger drains as fast as it came, and he smiles. The bite on his hand tingles in memory and Jason wonders how he could have ever doubted his little pet. Timmy is broken and almost completely trained. If he hurts Jason or attacks him it is only because he has no other option.
"Come here," Jason holds his hand out with the command, and Timmy obeys it instantly. There’s no hesitation or sign of fear as he picks his way over the corpses and folds himself up into Jason’s arms. His face is serene and content as he looks up at him. Vivid red specks of blood dot his right cheek and Jason laughs before bending down to lick them off. "My pretty bird. You do look good in red."
He traces the slick trail of saliva with a finger dripping with blood and draws a diamond under his eye. "Jay, good."
"Very good," Jason croons and begins to sway. Back and forth from foot to foot before he sets his hands on Timmy's waist and back. Twirling them both quickly with a bark of laughter that echoes. Their feet trailing through pools of blood and painting the floor with a mad pattern of dancing steps. "So fucking good!"
Timmy laughs and there's nothing shaken or dull in that sound. It's time, Jason knows it he can feel it, to paint his Harlequin up and give him some brand new clothes.