At any given moment of any given hour, someone somewhere in Gotham was making a deal. And three am on a Thursday morning in an underground parking lot was no exception.
It wasn't said with malice or irritation, just a statement of fact Carl wanted the man approaching to be aware of as he dropped his cigarette to the ground and squashed it out with his shoe.
The man spoken to checked his watch. "You said three."
"And it's now three minutes past."
Carl was given a look that was ignored and the conversation moved on.
"Do you have it?" he asked.
The man beside him reached into the inside pocket of his coat and pulled out a small envelope.
"You got the money?"
Carl tapped the briefcase on the floor beside him with his foot. "Five hundred thousand, as agreed."
The other man reached for it, but Carl pushed it back and clicked his fingers. The envelope was handed over. Carl opened it and pulled out the sheet of paper inside before unfolding it, eyes skimming the two words scribbled onto the page. The other man watched as if expecting some sort of reaction but Carl's face gave nothing away.
As Carl stuffed the sheet back into the envelope and placed it safely into his pocket, he looked at the other man again and asked, "Did you read it?"
"Of course." Who wouldn't? "A shocker, I gotta say."
Carl nodded but didn't say anything. He didn't really have any feelings on the matter. "Have you told anyone?"
"No. Who'd believe me, anyway?"
"Indeed," Carl said, picking up the briefcase and finally handing it over. "Don't spend it all at once."
The other man laughed quietly and with a nod that signalled the meeting was over, Carl let him walk away. It was three steps before a bullet went through the back of the man's head.
Carl pulled out his phone and dialled.
"I've got a name," he said, walking over to the fallen body and picking up the briefcase. He left without a thought for the dead man, knowing a clean up crew was already on its way. He had more important things to deal with now.
When something very bright and very sudden cut through the sleep Bruce hadn't had nearly enough of, something very unintelligible but very, very crude fell out of his mouth and he burrowed his face into the pillow.
"I hate to interrupt your beauty sleep, sir, but the gala is in two hours."
Bruce didn't quite understand at first, made clear by the frown on his face as it emerged from the pillow, hand lifted to block the lamplight still pointed at him, and he had to clear his throat several times before he could finally croak out a, "Huh?"
"The charity gala," Alfred explained. "Hosted by the Wayne Foundation."
Oh, yeah. That. Bruce let out a long groan and his head flopped back down. He hated social functions at the best of times, but after a night on patrol, a full day at the office and only three hours of sleep, Bruce didn't want to get out of bed. The warm, soft, comfortable bed.
"I'll lay a suit out for you," Alfred said and Bruce didn't need to see his face to know there was a grin on it.
Bruce would've thrown his pillow at him if it wasn't tucked so snugly under his head but, even then, he didn't actually have the energy to move the thing, and for a while he just laid there, stuck in that horrible sort of lethargy that left his mind muggy and aching as he waited for the ability to move to come back to him.
To pass the time he tried to think of excuses he could use to get out of going to the gala. He could feign illness he supposed - food poisoning or a sudden bout of flu, maybe - or simply say he wasn't available. He didn't necessarily need to give a reason. The people who attended these sorts of things weren't really the type to call out someone like Bruce Wayne. But then his brain helpfully reminded him that the gala had been his idea in the first place, a way to raise funds for a charity he had a personal interest in, and if he wanted it to be successful he'd need to be there.
And that was what finally managed to drag him out of bed. Shuffling to the bathroom, he could hear whistling next door and although it was too quiet to recognise the tune, the sound still made him smile. Alfred's whistling was as much a feature of the mansion as the walls, ceilings and furniture. And after answering the call of nature, Bruce was about to make his way to the shower when he saw his reflection in the mirror. He wasn't particularly vain but it scared him sometimes to see how old he looked. He was only forty four, but right then looked far too close to sixty for his liking and he could only hope the shower brought some much-needed life back into his face before he had to brave the outside world.
"And in local news, Arkham Asylum announced the release of Jonathan Crane. Better known as Scarecrow, a figure that's terrorised Gotham for years, Crane's release marks the culmination of Arkham's rehabilitation project introduced a year ago. Spearheaded by Mayor Candace Marshall as part of the election campaign that saw her replacing Sebastian Hady last year, all eyes will now be on both her and Crane to see whether the project is a success."
The channel was switched over as Bruce walked in and with a yawn that probably should've snapped his jaw in half, he finished dressing.
"I'd offer another cup of coffee," Alfred said. "But you've already downed two."
"I don't want coffee, Alfred," Bruce replied. "I want sleep."
"Should've thought of that before you decided to become a vigilante."
Bruce threw a half-hearted glare Alfred's way and wiggled his bow tie into place. In his opinion it wasn't Batman that was the issue, more the Wayne routine Alfred had always insisted he keep up, but it was an old argument neither of them had ever been able to settle and he didn't bother digging it up again now. Instead, he reached for his suit jacket and was about to slide his arms into the sleeves when Alfred stopped him.
"How can you manage to learn and perform God-knows-how-many forms of Martial Arts, yet still be incapable of tying a bloody bow around your neck?"
Bruce ignored the question and stood patiently as the old man fussed, feeling more like a teenage boy getting ready for prom than the middle aged man he actually was, before something was dropped into his hands.
"I trust you won't any need help with that."
Bruce's eyes went wide as they fell to the mask.
"A bat?" he asked, incredulously. "Well why don't I just put the whole damn suit on?"
"Wouldn't want you to be too comfortable tonight, sir."
Bruce rolled his eyes. The old man wasn't anywhere near as funny as he thought he was, and when he was out of earshot, Bruce mumbled a curse.
Bruce refused to wear the mask at first - something about tempting fate had never appealed - but when he arrived knew he'd seem more out of place without it and reluctantly strapped the mask over his eyes, laughing at every joke and Batman reference thrown his way, while he cursed Alfred to the outer edges of the universe and back.
But the mask did have its good points, mainly that it hid the dark circles ringing his very tired eyes. Although last night had been a long one, followed by an even longer day, it was at least three weeks since Bruce last slept properly. Three weeks since his brain was able to actually switch off. Three weeks since Joker had escaped Arkham asylum again. More than enough to leave Bruce scouring the streets every night for the slightest hint of his whereabouts, it wasn't just Joker's newfound freedom that scared him. Throughout the twenty one days of his freedom, Joker had yet to make a single move and based on far more experience than he liked, Bruce knew it was a sure sign that whatever he was planning was going to be bad.
And what made it worse, making every part of Bruce feel heavier and even more tired than usual, was the disappointment. Nine months ago he'd made a gamble - a stupid, reckless gamble born out of desperation and something else Bruce would rather not name - and there was a moment, or many if honest with himself, where he'd begun to hope. Hope that after all this time things might actually change. But the escape proved that they weren't going to...and Bruce didn't want to think about how sick it made him feel.
His thoughts were interrupted by someone clearing their throat and, turning, he came face to face with a woman he recognised instantly and had hoped to speak to since the evening began.
Bruce's feelings about Candace Marshall were mixed. On the one hand, her election had been a massive boost for the city. During her campaign she'd offered all the usual promises of clearing up the city and clamping down on crime, but there'd been something about her, some kind of steel that Bruce'd liked and when she'd actually started delivering on some of those promises, he'd known his instincts about her had been right. But her attitude towards Batman made things complicated. She didn't like him. At all. In fact, one of her nicer opinions of Batman was that he was petty thug, as bad as those he apprehended and Bruce knew Batman would never win a popularity contest, but still. He had to disagree with that.
Her views weren't new by any means but in the past Gotham's politicians had always been happy to leave him be so as long as he did the dirty work for them, a low crime rate hardly a hindrance for a re-election campaign. But clearly the same couldn't be said for Marshall. From her first day in office she'd pushed the GCPD to finally get Batman off the streets, steadily increasing pressure until Gordon was now close to actually removing the signal from the station's roof. To say it made Bruce's job harder was an understatement.
Plastering on a smile, Bruce offered his hand. "Madam Mayor, so glad you could make it."
"Mister Wayne." A smaller smile spread across Candace's lips that Bruce thought might be genuine but couldn't quite tell. "Thank you for inviting me. It's not normally my scene but I couldn't resist for such a good cause."
"I appreciate it," Bruce said, before pointing to the ornate hawk eyes and beak covering the top half of her face. "And the mask isn't bad, either."
"Well, I'd like to think it's in slightly better taste than yours, at least."
She was still smiling but Bruce could hear the disapproval and he pointed to himself, all earnest innocence.
"Oh, the bat? Yes, well, my butler seems to think he has a good sense of humour. But don't worry," he held up his hands. "The streets are safe from this bat, at least."
"I don't think your butler's humour is the only one that's questionable," Candace said, the smile slipping just a little. "It's hard to find anything funny about a dangerous criminal roaming the streets freely every night."
"Oh, absolutely," Bruce nodded, dropping the smile, too. "Although he doesn't scare me half as much as some of the others."
"Really?" She frowned and there was something about the way she looked at him that made him feel like he was being assessed.
"Well, yeah. I mean, he only goes after criminals, right? And I'm not one, so..." he trailed off with a shrug.
"So far," she argued and Bruce had a moment where he wasn't sure if she was referring to Batman, or Bruce's innocence. "But what's to stop him crossing that line? Nobody should be above the law and this man has law enforcement sitting in his pocket. Although that's definitely about to change." She took a sip of her drink and continued. "Combine that with the massive resources he clearly has and I'm sorry but I honestly believe he's even more of a threat to this city than the Joker."
Bruce's smile was laced with disbelief and the shock was genuine. Whatever people thought of Batman, no one had ever considered him worse than Joker before. A sobering experience and, considering this opinion was held by the woman responsible for running the city, a scary one.
Bruce's job was about to become very difficult, indeed.
But before he could say anything else, another guest caught Marshall's attention and, with a quick smile and goodbye, she disappeared into the crowd, leaving Bruce so bewildered that it took him a minute to realise he hadn't even been able to touch the topic he'd wanted to discuss. He took a deep breath. Crane would apparently have to wait.
So to pass the time until he could draw her into conversation once more, Bruce immersed himself fully into the Wayne role, mingling and thanking people for coming and making sure everyone knew exactly where to put their money. And when a young woman signalled her interest in a dance, Bruce didn't hesitate, throwing on the charm and it wasn't an entirely agonising ordeal, as Jane turned out to be pretty good company, even managing to raise a few genuine smiles out of him as they chatted on the dance floor.
They were midway through observations of the other guests when someone quietly asked to cut in and Bruce was surprised it hadn't happened earlier, given the amount of eyes following Jane around the room. He could tell she wasn't happy about the interruption, but, as nice as her company was, Bruce had had enough dancing for one night and took a step back to let the other man take over.
And was surprised when he felt a hand take his, before Jane got bumped out of the way by the hip.
"I wasn't talking to him, Sweetheart," the man giggled and Bruce froze. He'd know that sound anywhere.
For a second the mask almost, almost slipped, his eyes going wide and head going blank and he forgot all about Jane and the gala and everyone else in the room as his eyes fixed on the face in front of him. He was expecting to be overwhelmed by clashing shades of purple and green and the lack of it only threw him off even more, as he was confronted with black and white instead, the only splash of colour present in the jester mask hiding the top half of the face.
"Thought she'd never leave," Joker whispered, giggling again and that was when Bruce realised Jane wasn't even there anymore. His eyes quickly moved around the room that was slowly coming back into focus and the fatigue slipped away, sharpness replacing it.
It took Bruce a minute to fully get control of himself again, but when he did it was with the biggest smile he could muster, just about managing to slip out a quick laugh.
"Do I know you?" he asked and hoped the forced humour was convincing because there was something about the way Joker was looking at him that set every one of Bruce's nerves on edge. "I'm sure I'd remember a dance partner like you."
A wide grin spread across Joker's lips and he leaned in.
"Oh, we know each other very well," he said, his voice low. "But, then, you're already aware of that, aren't you?"
Yes he was and, with nothing else to do, Bruce gently tugged his hand. Joker's grip tightened. The distance between them closed even further and Joker's voice softened to barely above a whisper as he said, "Or, should I say, Batman?"
For the second time, Bruce froze and there was a moment where he was sure he'd misheard, or wanted to believe he had. But there was no mistaking the look in those eyes or the tone of that voice and when Joker winked, any tiny sliver of hope Bruce might've had died. He yanked his hand this time, trying to pry it out of Joker's grip as he was overwhelmed by the urge to bolt.
"Ah, ah, ah," Joker crooned, voice still soft. "I asked for a dance."
Bruce's voice dropped, all pretence gone. "I'm not dancing with you."
"Oh, I think you are, darling and you're gonna look like you're enjoying it, too."
Warm air brushed against Bruce's ear as Joker leaned far too close and spoke into it. "Because, if you don't, I can't guarantee that the people in this room will still be breathing when they leave."
A shiver ran down Bruce's spine and he closed his eyes, his free hand clenching into a fist. For one long moment, he considered using it and dragging Joker out of the room by the scruff of the neck. He was so close and it would be so easy…
But no. No he wasn't going to do that. He couldn't. That was the norm for Batman but Bruce Wayne didn't have a violent bone in his body. And it was an impulse he'd vowed nine months ago to no longer resort to, wanting to change the same old cycle they'd found themselves stuck in and he tried to ignore how fragile his resolve was already proving to be.
Opening his eyes, Bruce looked long and hard into the eyes only just visible through the mask and said to himself, you can do this. Then he shifted his hand into a more comfortable position and, in response, Joker let his free hand land on Bruce's shoulder. Bruce's other arm was mere inches away from resting against Joker's waist, but even as he tried to force it to move there was something inside that refused to close the gap. He didn't want to do this, didn't want to dance with Joker and pretend everything was fine, play the same old game, make the same old moves and end it all the same old way. He wanted everyone to leave, maybe sit Joker down and just talk and - and - and what? He didn't know anymore, he just didn't want to do this.
"We're stood in the middle of a dance floor, dear," Joker said. "And we're not dancing. People might think we're weird."
Chuckles snapped Bruce out of his thoughts and it was just enough to make him close the distance, but it was a literal helping hand from Joker that finally brought his palm to rest on Joker's waist.
"Atta boy," Joker murmured, before his hand returned to Bruce's shoulder.
Bruce tried to distract himself by giving Joker a second assessment, which, in hindsight, probably wasn't the best idea. With his head all over the place, Bruce'd only really taken in the colour scheme, but now he saw that a man usually dressed in clothes more fitting for the ringleader of a circus was in fact, looking nothing short of impeccable in a tuxedo that put most of the others in the room to shame. Bruce refused to imagine where Joker might've got it from. It wouldn't help.
Joker's hair was swept back from his face and very much not green and when Bruce's eyes dared to actually land on Joker's face, he realised that the skin visible beneath the mask wasn't its usual white, but just a couple of shades lighter than his own. The fact that Bruce hadn't actually registered that before now showed just how far on the back foot he really was.
"See something you like?" Joker asked, swaying gently from side to side as they started to move in a slow circle.
"What do you want, Joker?" Bruce asked and even to his own ears he sounded tired. And afraid.
Joker pressed a finger to Bruce's lips. "Watch that tongue of yours, dearest, or mine might just start wagging."
Bruce's hackles rose and he used every ounce of willpower he had left to keep calm.
"I won't, by the way," Joker continued, his tone maddeningly conversational, like he wasn't a serial killing psychopath that'd just threatened the lives of everyone in the room. "Share your secret, that is. Far too much fun this way. And it's nice to finally put a proper face to the fists!"
Although the sound wasn't actually any louder than a murmur, Joker's laughter reverberated loudly in Bruce's eardrums, almost enough to make him wince.
"You haven't answered my question," Bruce said. He didn't how much more of this he could take. "What do you want?"
"I already told you," Joker replied. "I wanted a dance. Just one little dance with Gotham's most eligible bachelor. Been a frightfully lonely few months, Brucie and I needed cheering up. Been going through a bit of a break-up, you see. There's this guy I was seeing - you might know him, actually - and I thought it was all going so well, until, one day, he just swoops in and locks me up without even so much as a how's-your-father. Never calls, never writes." He sighed theatrically. "It's enough to break a poor girl's heart."
There was an edge to Joker's voice then that made Bruce look away and take a deep breath. No he hadn't called, but then neither had Joker and Bruce would've reminded him but this wasn't the time or place to start playing tit for tat.
So, instead, he tried to figure out what Joker was up to. Of all the places to turn up, why here? Yes, there was money - a lot of it - but Joker had never really been interested in that sort of thing. It was something else and the tricky part would be working out what it was before people got hurt.
"I gotta say, Brucie-Boy," Joker said, tone still chatty, pleasant and infuriating. "You sure know how to treat your guests. I mean, the champagne's gotta be worth more than most Gothamites make in a month, am I right?"
"How did you even get in here?" Bruce demanded. Not that he'd ever consider it impossible for someone like Joker to manage but if Bruce was going to have to start upping security, he'd like to know where to start.
Joker leaned back and gave Bruce a look. "What, you think you're the only one who hires escorts for this sort of thing?"
Bruce wished he hadn't asked. Surely one of the guests hadn't arrived on the arm of the Joker…had they? His gaze circled the room in case a pair of eyes wondered why their date was dancing the night away with someone else, but two men dancing together was always going to attract the attention of more than just one person. And Joker's gaze followed Bruce's just as another couple passed them, giving them a look that definitely wasn't one of approval, but Joker just smiled and nodded his head, before his attention went back to the dance. It was enough to make Bruce's brain short-circuit, seeing Joker act so congenially, fit in so well.
Bruce's discomfort must've been obvious because Joker tutted and started kneading his shoulder.
"You seem a little tense," he remarked.
"Can't think why," Bruce said, voice cold as his eyes met Joker's again.
"Aw, now don't be like that," Joker whined. "You're playing all hard-to-get right now, but I know there's just a teeny tiny part of you that's glad to see me."
Bruce glared but didn't say anything and as Joker leaned in even closer, noses touching and those impossibly bright green eyes drilling holes into him, he let out a high-pitched laugh, before immediately clapping a hand over his own mouth. Several guests looked their way and Bruce's grip tightened, patience close to snapping.
"Oh, darling," Joker whispered, the word slipping out between half-stifled giggles, his face still close and practically glowing with delight. "If I'd known how much you were missing me, I'd have broken out months ago!"
Bruce didn't reply, too annoyed and, frankly, alarmed by how easily Joker had just read him, and in a desperate need for deflection, Bruce decided to run with the conversational opportunity Joker's last comment provided.
"How did you escape?" he asked.
Joker didn't reply straight away and for a long moment simply studied Bruce, the smile fading but refusing to drop completely.
"I didn't," he finally said and Bruce frowned.
"But, you just-"
"Ah, I said I would have," Joker corrected, with a wag of his finger. "Not that I did. Oh, sure it was made to seem like an escape and was oh-so-very convincing." Joker paused, giving Bruce another long look. "But I know the difference between escape and release."
There may well have been some kind of crude double entendre hidden in there somewhere, but Bruce was too busy focusing on something a lot more important to acknowledge it. Joker being covertly released would raise a huge amount of questions, but Bruce found himself focusing on only one: was it true?
"Why would they release you?" he asked, reluctant to believe even as he fought against the renewed hope prickling in his chest.
"Y'know," Joker said, his tone thoughtful. "I'm wondering the same thing, myself." A wide grin spread across his mouth. "It's kept me very busy these last few weeks, let me tell you."
"How so?" Bruce wondered, unaware of how obviously eager for information he looked until Joker started giggling again.
"Oh, if only Mr. Tall, Dark and Brooding was as chatty as you! He'd best be careful. I might have a new favourite." A glower from Bruce forced Joker to focus. "Oh, alright, if you must know, I've been trying my hand at a bit of detective work - Bats would be proud! Unfortunately, I haven't been able to discover who's responsible, but what I have uncovered is gonna provide plenty of bedside reading."
Joker inched closer, noses almost touching again, and Bruce was torn between the choice to lean in or back away.
"For both of us."
"What does this have to do with me?" Bruce asked.
"Well, aren't you curious about how I figured out your not-so-little secret?" Joker's fore and middle fingers walked along Bruce's right shoulder, climbing up the side of his neck and face before gently flicking his temple. "It pains me to admit, but I never woulda done it myself. Not that I was ever looking but still. Even I have to admit this mask's impressive."
Bruce didn't bother asking what mask he was talking about and his blood ran cold as he considered what Joker was telling him. If it was true, who else knew?
"Of course," Joker continued, seemingly oblivious to Bruce's mounting panic. "When you take a closer look - as I am, right now - you start to see the little signs that perhaps Bruce Wayne isn't everything he says he is."
Bruce's eyes narrowed. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Joker's right hand shifted position, wrapping around Bruce's fingers to bring his hand up between them.
"I mean," Joker said, voice lowering as his gaze settled on his thumb running backwards and forwards across Bruce's knuckles. "That a man who supposedly spends his days doing nothing more than eating, drinking and entertaining women, does not end up with the hands of a bare knuckle boxer."
Bruce hoped the dim lighting in the room was enough to hide the colour flushing his cheeks. However, given the way those eyes seemed to evaluate every inch of him, Bruce wasn't sure he'd be so lucky. He tugged his hand again, but, of course, Joker wasn't going to give an inch. Instead, he readjusted the grip, bringing their hands to his chest and snaking his other arm around Bruce's neck, making the dance even more intimate. And Bruce hated it. Part of it, at least. The part where his head was all over the place and the threat of death hung over everyone in the room. As for the rest, well he hated himself for not hating that part quite enough.
For a while they were both silent and Bruce, still reeling from it all, wasn't sure how to break it. He tried to think but it only seemed to make the panic worse. All of it seemed to much, too big, question after question spinning in his brain and it wasn't until Joker's hand fidgeted and fingers dipped into the collar of Bruce's shirt that he was able to focus again.
"Relax, Batsy," Joker cooed, voice softer than Bruce wanted it to be. "Despite what you think, I didn't come here to hurt you. I just needed to get your attention. Once this little number's finished, I'll be outta your hair and you can continue to wine and dine the night away."
Bruce managed to shake his head. "I can't just let you leave."
"Well, you're gonna have to, I'm afraid. This thing is just a little bit bigger than us, right now."
Bruce didn't know what to say to that and as much as he might want to push, he couldn't afford to. There was too much at stake. So he had no choice but to let the rest of the number play out as they moved together hand in hand, cheek to cheek, swaying in time to the gentle hum of violins until, eventually, the music stopped and Joker finally allowed a small but much-needed amount of distance between them. He didn't let go of Bruce's hand, though.
"Well, that was more fun than I've had in a long time," Joker said with a grin that wasn't entirely malicious. "Send Batsy my regards and remember -" he wagged a finger at Bruce. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do!"
With a quick pat of Bruce's cheek, Joker released his hand and was about to walk away, when he seemed to remember something.
"Oh, and you might wanna be careful when you're taking off your shirt."
Before Bruce could even ask what the Hell that meant, Joker sauntered through the crowd towards the exit and Bruce's eyes followed him all the way. It wasn't until Joker disappeared completely that Bruce finally let out a long, long breath.
Someone - Bruce didn't bother to see who - approached, but he ignored whatever question they were asking and excused himself. He needed a moment to...he just needed a moment.
As soon as he got to the bathroom, Bruce went straight to the nearest sink and tore off the mask that'd started off ridiculous and now felt stifling. He ran the tap and splashed cold water onto his face and his hands rubbed at the tired skin, as though it could erase the entire evening from existence.
Eventually, when enough sanity kicked in to remind Bruce that that wasn't possible, he settled for placing his hands either side of the sink and staring at himself in the mirror. He looked even worse now than he had a few hours ago and felt an overwhelming urge to head-butt his reflection.
He slammed his hands against the sink instead.
Bruce wanted to shout or scream or - or kick, punch and destroy everything in arm's reach. Or he wanted to race out the building, find Joker and hit him or - or - or go back home, put Alfred on the first flight out of Gotham and -
Bruce dropped his head, took several deep breaths and sighed. Then he pushed away from the sink and started pacing the bathroom to walk off the rest of the rage until something tickled the back of his neck. He remembered Joker's last words.
What did he do? Bruce reached into the back of his collar and pulled out something small and plastic: a purple data stick.
Placing it safely into the breast pocket of his shirt, Bruce didn't waste any more time. Wining and dining were off the cards tonight and he knew it was rude to just abandon the guests without even so much as a goodbye, but he didn't care. There were more important things to worry about. And as he left, Bruce triggered the fire alarm. He may've done as Joker asked, but that didn't mean Joker wouldn't still kill everyone in the room, and Bruce was sure the guests would appreciate being hosed down by sprinklers a whole lot more than being dead.