"He's lost between universes."
Jason narrows his eyes within the domino mask. "We can't take him back with us."
Batman's cloak twists in the wind as he walks away, leaving Jason standing with his fists clenched. "He's not the Joker, Robin. Keep reminding yourself that. In his universe, we're the bad guys."
The sound of Jason's motorbike revving up is his retort.
First, he reminds him of the Joker.
The effect is so eerie that Bruce can't stop staring, can't help but notice how exactly like his scars are, two deep canyons in the landscape of his face, the same as those belonging to the man whose pictures flicker from screens in the batcave. They end in the same upward flourish, the work of individuals accomplished with the use of a blade.
The same patchy covering of white base, the hollows of the eyes deepened with spitblack. He looks like he even uses the same brand of lipstick – something waxy and aggressively red. His hair is dyed a different colour at the ends - sickly purple instead of sickly green – but the texture is the same, lank curls which appear to be a brassy shade of dark-blond at the roots.
He has the same tics: the fat pink tongue drawing a ceaseless circuit around chapped lips, red-raw from the action, jaw working from side to side like that of a coke addict. He stands in the same way, shoulders hunched and head down low as he stares from beneath his brows, watching, evaluating. There's something of a wolf about him: watchful, wary, quick.
There's the same bitter humour, the love of puns and wordplay, the broken-down magician persona. He does card tricks that don't seem to work until you realise that it was a ruse to distract and he's stolen your wallet.
"Why. so. glum? Why so glum, chum? Hm? You look like you need a smiiile... why don't you, uh, take mine?"
Bruce finds himself holding a pair plastic wind-up chattering teeth, a relic from a joke shop in another universe. He dashes them to the ground and gets an apologetic moue and the shrugging of rounded shoulders in response. The Jokester turns away with a flare of his coat. "Suit yourself, tough guy."
He cuts the same flailing capers, he sings and hums and repeats things under his breath. He steals things, pocketing priceless knick-knacks and he leaves playing cards, dirty plates and glasses, and chaos in his wake through whatever room he trails. Bruce feels rage slowly consuming him, having this man in his house. He tells himself over and over again that it's just logical paradox compressing his brain, but he can't help feeling that 'the Jokester' is doing this on purpose to irritate him. Somehow imitating a man he has never met.
Bruce knows that has never been good at hiding his emotions or controlling his temper, and he just feels so angry, looking at that nightmarishly familiar face – the one that has committed a thousand atrocities – haunting his private home. He has to resist the urge to hit him, to bang his head off tables. He feels his hands repeatedly curling into fists by his sides; the tension in his muscles becomes an ache.
After a few hours the impression gives way and he starts to realise that while the 'Jokester' and the Joker may be physically almost identical, they are completely unlike.
His eyes are unexpectedly soulful, holding a sad, desperate quality which is at odds with his twitching, grinning mouth. The irises are purple, but changeable: beneath the electric lights they appear a violet which is bright and translucent like stained glass; in the shadows they become a dusky indigo.
His tics mask moments of indecision, Bruce realises – he is gauche and awkward. While the Joker loves getting up in people's faces, making them shrink from his physical presence – exulting in his ability to paw and breathe over people when they don't want him to – this man can be sent skittering across the room with just the brush of a shoulder against his own. He will shriek his puns louder than ever to distract the viewer from his discomfiture.
He doesn't carry knives. His pockets contain a variety of concealed weapons, but none of them are lethal, used correctly. His lapel is adorned with a tear gas-emitting boutonnière in the shape of a yellow carnation.
He doesn't tell scar stories. He doesn't seem to wear his with pride – in fact, Bruce has to ask where he got them, and he is stunned to discover that his own counterpart, 'Owlman' gave them to him in retribution for some unflattering stand-up comedy.
"Worst review I ever got, a-ho, a-ha, a-hee," Jokester deadpans.
When he starts to unburden himself of his history – the dead loved ones, the training, the gadgets – the Jokester starts to remind Bruce uncomfortably of himself. He sees that they have both donned a mask to hold their fragile selves together. They are both desperately striking back at a world which has spurned them – where evil is allowed to prosper and ordinary people do nothing to stop it. He sees that underneath it all Jokester is angry and afraid and it terrifies Bruce, because the emotions are so plain and obvious – he hopes that he himself is not so transparent.
Through the Jokester's stories, he starts to become familiar with Owlman, the privileged child who was tossed onto the streets and became a monster. The man who has committed atrocities worse than the Joker's because, at least with the Joker, nothing is ever personal. Because... the Joker thinks of himself as an auteur, a philosopher, an artist, and this Owlman just grimly cuts down anyone who challenges his authority. That's why he has a clown for his nemesis... only a clown can challenge a power so absolute and malign.
The very word 'nemesis' carries the sense of a response both opposite and deserved. Bruce wonders what Batman has done to deserve the Joker. Does he have a hint of Owlman's authoritarianism, perhaps? The same lack of humour about himself?
In a moment of blinding clarity, Bruce snaps out of his solipsism long enough to realise that the Jokester might sense these similarities too, might be made angry and unsettled by them. Might find him – Bruce – disgusting, even. For one hysterical moment he wants to grab the Jokester by the shoulders and shout: "I'm not like him, I'm not like him, I'm not like him! I could never be like him!"
Except that, just because of a twist of fate, in another universe, he was. The revelation is so shattering he can't even think about it, he just tries to push it to the periphery of his consciousness. If there's one thing he's good at, it's repressing uncomfortable truths.
"How did he do it?" Bruce asks.
A green-gloved hand flies self-consciously to the scars. "An 'owlarang'," the red-painted mouth twists into a bitter smile, "it's a... curved piece of metal for, uh, for throwing." The purple eyes rise to meet Bruce's blue. "He has them too, the scaaars?"
"Yeah, exactly like yours."
"Did you give them to him?"
"God no! Nobody really knows how he got them. He likes to tell stories about them to his victims... a different one every time."
"What does he sound like?" the Jokester smiles his fragile, facetious smile. "His jokes aren't better than mine, are they?"
Bruce lifts a steak knife and holds it near his own cheek, licking his lips like the Joker. "You look nervous. Is it the scaaars?" He copies the falsely earnest look the Joker does when he's at his most dangerous as he asks: "wanna know how I got 'em?"
"Sounds like a reeeally bad impression of me," the Jokester comments, one eyebrow cocked.
"What does Owlman sound like?
Bruce is stunned when he hears an uncanny impression of his gruff 'Batman' voice. "Shut up! Shut your filthy mouth, clown!"
They talk about their enemies more than themselves. Bruce finds himself getting frustrated when the Jokester tries to make light of his evil doppelganger; needing him to understand somehow the irrepressible, rank chaos that the Joker embodies.
"You know," the Jokester observes, cutting through one of Bruce's tirades as he drinks coffee at the kitchen table, "you talk about him like he's a former loveeer or somethin'. Serious-lee, what's up with that?"
"It's like, when you go on a reeeally bad date – the chick's yakking on and on about her mean old ex, you know? And she's angry but she's still obsessed. That's exactly what talking to you is like: 'blah blah blah Joker this, Joker that'. I mean, what the hell, Brucey? Seems like you got... entitlement issues. In faaact, If I didn't know better I'd say maybe there's an element of, uh, un-re-quited crush!"
"...You knoooow, you should see a shrink. Bats, aha, bats in the belfry!"
Bruce growls, before he even thinks about it he has dragged the Jokester over the table by the lapels of his green jacket. He brings his face close and hisses: "what makes you think you're any different?"
The Jokester lies limp and crumpled across the tabletop, smirking at having caused this reaction. "To him... or to yooou? Well I dress better than you both, that's just for a start."
"You think this is a joke? He's a monster." He feels himself sneer, feels his cheeks blazing and his eyes glowing bright with rage. He suddenly longs to be in his costume with a malefactor to pound into the pavement.
"God, thaaat look. You're so like him..." Bruce hears the note of soft wonderment in the other man's voice and knows intuitively that 'him' means 'Owlman'.
"No, I'm not. I'm not, and we're not. We're not like either of them."
Another flicker of uncertainty passes over the Jokester's face. "How do we know?"
Because we have limits. Because we know how to be weak sometimes... still know how to be human. Because we became freaks just to fight people like them. Bruce thinks all these things, but he knows they will sound cheesy and the Jokester will deflate them easily with a cutting retort.
So he shows the Jokester that he knows how to be gentle. His hands release their grip, uncurling and flattening out. He brushes a ruined cheek with the backs of his fingers and slowly leans in. As he kisses the other man, Bruce closes his eyes and lets him taste his pain.
When he pulls back he finds that he doesn't have anything left to say, so he goes to bed, leaving the Jokester standing there in the kitchen, still watching him with those shrewd, evaluating eyes.
Some hours later he wakes up to a naked body scrambling over his own in the dark. Chapped, malformed lips clumsily press against his jaw and his cheek before finding his mouth.
Bruce doesn't really know what to do with a man so he only uses his hands, but the Jokester doesn't seem to mind. He makes appreciative sounds and Bruce can tell it's been a long time since anyone was kind to him, since anyone even looked at him as anything other than a freak.
When roughened fingertips with long nails brush against his chest he feels a strange wave of homesickness, which is absurd, because he is home.
When a mouth that tastes of tobacco and coffee meets his in another deep, wet kiss, he tries to remember that it isn't the Joker because he isn't going to let him ruin this by intruding upon his thoughts. He's still not quite able to dispel the paranoia that their enemies are in bed with them: within his own mind he keeps brushing the Joker and the Owlman aside, batting them away as if they were cobwebs, obscuring his vision.
"Jackie," he murmurs, to remind himself that this man has a name, that he's something more than a symbol.
They lie on their backs in the darkness and Bruce's arm is around the other man's shoulders, hand laid flat on a scar-riddled chest. The palm moves sideways and Bruce makes a soft, curious sound. "Your heart is on the wrong side."
"Right side." the Jokester corrects, Bruce can hear the smile in his voice. He stretches luxuriantly and gives a yawn that almost splits his head in half before observing: "this is a niiice universe, you know. You're lucky. Mine's, uh, mine's kind of a dump."
"You want to stick around?" Bruce offers, as if he is the ambassador for this reality. "I'd kind of like to see you take down the Joker next time he escapes from Arkham."
A soft laugh tickles his ear. "I do sort of want to meet the guy. Morbid curiosity, maybe... but nah, can't stay. Gotta find a way baaack – can't leave my Gotham all deee-fenseless against old bird-brain."
"Yeah... why don't you just admit that you miss him?"
"Ha heh heh, haven't we done that joke already, Brucey?" a hand reaches up to ruffle his hair.
Finally, Bruce realises that the tics, the habits, the words and intonations, the fall of wavy hair against his shoulder – they don't make up a being who is a composite or patchwork of others, they make a wholly unique individual.
He feels himself slowly relax.