"I gotta be honest, Bri, the nerd might take a little convincing."

It took a minute to understand what the hell Joker was saying, the words squeezed out as they were around the lollipop in his mouth. And when he did, paying particular attention to the name Joker had used, Bruce rolled his eyes and refused to respond. He was all for adopting aliases for safety but, whatever name Bruce chose for himself, it wasn't going to be Brian .

"He was jumpy enough about the Arkham files and what with us being a coupla hot little potatoes right now, he might just decide we're not worth the trouble."

"Well, I'm sure you can persuade him," Bruce eventually replied, adjusting the strap of the duffel bag slung over his shoulder. And, remembering that Joker's brand of persuasion often ended badly for those on the receiving end of it, added, "And I mean verbally ."

He got a long and exasperated groan in return and Joker pulled the lollipop out of his mouth to waggle it in front of Bruce's face.

"Must you ruin all of my fun?" Joker demanded.

Bruce pushed the hand away. "That kind of fun, yes."

"But it'll be much quicker and easier my way."

"And a whole lot more difficult for him , I imagine."

Joker snorted. "He doesn't need his toes to -"

" No ," Bruce said, eyes hardening. "Bribe him, threaten if you must but no maiming and absolutely no killing . Not this time."

Joker narrowed his eyes ever so slightly and Bruce matched his gaze, refusing to back down. He may've been resigned to the fact that he couldn't stop Joker completely but he sure as hell wasn't giving him free reign.

The stalemate didn't last long though, Joker breaking it with a grin that seemed to say we'll see , before stuffing the lollipop back into his mouth and fiddling with the strap of his own bag. They'd stolen a car to drive most of the way to the docks but abandoned it a few blocks back to avoid drawing any attention to their new hiding spot, and now that they were almost there, Bruce couldn't wait to dump the bags and sit down. He'd only gotten a couple of hours' sleep, wanting to get moving before daylight hit and his body definitely wasn't thanking him for it.

"So, Brian, when should I make the call?" Joker asked and Bruce once again refused to acknowledge the name.

"Don't. Giving him warning isn't a good idea. You said he isn't a rat but I don't want to run the risk of him proving you wrong."

Joker pressed his hands to his chest and gasped. "He wouldn't do that to me. We're buddies!"

Bruce gave him a look. "You were ready to cut off his feet a few minutes ago."

Joker shrugged and leaned in. "What's a few limbs between friends?"

"Not much, apparently," Bruce muttered and ignored the laughter that followed as the docks came into view.

As they weaved through the shipping containers, heading for one located near the back, Joker didn't look too impressed.

"Gotta admit I was expecting more."

Unlocking the chain, Bruce opened the doors and stepped aside to let Joker enter first, who spread his arms out wide and moved in a slow circle to emphasise just how small the space was. Reaching for the lever beside the door, Bruce tried not to grin too widely at Joker's stumble when the floor started to descend.

It wasn't until it neared the bottom, when the warehouse lights came on and a full view of the second "cave" was revealed, that Joker finally offered a soft whistle of appreciation - although Bruce couldn't quite bring himself to agree. This place, while adequate, was nothing like the cave and as soon as the thought entered his head, he really wished it hadn't.

The cave is gone. Get over it.

Maybe afterwards, if they made it through alive, Bruce could make an inventory of every single thing he'd lost and find some quiet little corner to sob to his heart's content, but until then he had to focus.

Dropping his bag, Bruce went straight to the desk at the far end, flipping switches and praying to God everything worked. Not that he didn't trust Lucius but still...he wouldn't be happy until he saw for himself. He watched as machinery started to hum and the screens all flickered to life, a short and very familiar electronic melody signalling the system's boot-up. It'd been a good couple of years since he last used this equipment and Bruce decided he might as well see what else Lucius had left for him while he waited.

Joker was already ahead of him, the few doors and drawers that didn't rely on electronic power to work open to signpost his route, but he was already bored by the time Bruce caught up with him, having realised that all the fun stuff was locked away until further notice.

"How long since you last came down here?" he asked, swiping a finger across the lip of the drawer and holding it up.

"A while," Bruce replied, deciding to distract himself from the niggling irritation by grabbing Joker's finger and wiping off the dust. Why it should suddenly bother him so much he wasn't sure, he'd known this was coming for the past week, but…well, most of the week had been spent in a painkiller-induced haze so perhaps now it was really starting to sink in. This was it. This was what was left and once this was gone...

"It's more for storage than anything," Bruce continued, hoping the system didn't take too long to start. He'd have something to actually do then. "I only ever used this place if I couldn't get to the cave."

Joker snorted softly, letting his finger rest in Bruce's hand even after the dust was gone. "I can't tell you how delightful it is to know the Batman uses an actual cave full of actual bats as his actual headquarters. Never knowingly half-assed are you, hmm?"

Bruce let a small smile rest on his lips. What other way was there?

Joker stepped closer, free hand going around Bruce's waist before sliding down to pinch his backside. "One of the many, many things I've always loved about you."

He offered a kiss that Bruce returned until a soft electronic shrill pulled their attention to the desk. The system was ready to go. Bruce took the chair, immediately beginning his checks while Joker perched on the desk, but the clown was gone in an instant when lights on the sealed draws and doors began to switch on one by one.

Bruce immediately made sure any containing explosives were only accessible to himself - which led to a string of childish whines - before continuing his checks and soon lost himself in the task despite another wave of irrational frustration at having to view it all on screens much smaller than he was used to. When he heard the squeak of wheels against the floor, followed by a gasp of delight, Bruce knew Joker had found his stash of old suits. And when a squeal loud enough to burst eardrums bounced off the walls, his heart sank...because that meant -

" Bat nipples?! "

Yeah.

Bruce still hadn't forgiven Lucius for that. A stupid prank that'd come at the expense of Bruce's wallet and dignity. Lucius had fed him some crap about how they were a necessary element for the new chestplate design and Bruce - God help him - had actually believed him, right up until he'd put the damn thing on and Lucius' renowned poker face had finally cracked. And now Joker had found it and was filling the warehouse with cackles that left Bruce grateful for the existence of soundproofing.

"Oh, Batsy darling sweetie honey-pie baby-cakes snugglemuffin love, why am I only just discovering the existence of these now ?"

Bruce stayed silent, running his hands through his hair as an endless stream of appreciation spewed out of Joker's mouth - "These are the pinnacle of design, really, they belong in a museum!" - and he almost wished he'd let Joker rifle through the explosives instead.

"Honey," Joker eventually said, voice dropping into a warm silky tone, the kind Bruce knew very well and was thankfully immune to.

Bruce lifted his head and looked over his shoulder. "No."

"Oh, c'mon!" There was that whine again. "Please? I guarantee if you gimme a glimpse of you in this, I'll never hurt anyone ever again."

"Yes you will."

Joker's expression became pained, as if he desperately wanted to disagree but couldn't quite bring himself to. "Okay, fine! But I'd promise not to hurt the nerd...or limit myself to maybe the baby toes?"

Joker wiggled his pinkie fingers as he approached and Bruce's answer didn't change.

"Alright, one toe," he offered, kicking Bruce's chair around to sit in his lap. Another no.

"Half?" Joker wrapped his arms around Bruce's neck. " Please ?"

Bruce shook his head and tried very hard to resist the smile tugging at his lips but Joker was pairing puppy dog eyes with a ridiculous pout and the fight was soon lost. But that didn't mean Bruce was going to give Joker what he wanted. He couldn't, even if he'd wanted to.

"Beg all you want, it doesn't fit me now, anyway."

Joker's face fell and he groaned. "Ugh, Captain Buzzkill is reporting for duty!" He pressed their foreheads together, palms squishing Bruce's cheeks. "You're even more grumpy when you're tired. We should fix that. This place come with a bed?"

Bruce had to think and his smile turned apologetic. "Not a proper one. There's a blow up mattress somewhere...I think."

Bruce patted Joker's waist as a signal to move and it took a little digging around but he eventually found it, along with the foot pump to blow it up. Joker, of course, offered to do that part, deciding it would be a great time to show off some dance moves while Bruce hunted down something that'd serve as bedding. The mattress was an addition that only came about after Alfred discovered Bruce had occasionally been sleeping here in -

Bruce immediately pushed the memory aside. He didn't want to think about Alfred right now.

"There!" Joker declared, before jumping onto the bed. "Ooh, not bad! I dare say it's even better than my own."

Hardly a great feat given how old and ratty that mattress had been.

The hunt for bedding hadn't gone so well, leaving Bruce to improvise with a few of the capes from the old suits but, from the look on Joker's face, that didn't appear to be a problem. In fact, Joker was beaming as he wrapped the first cape tight around himself, scooting aside to give Bruce space to join him.

Bruce walked over to the desk to switch off the harsh overhead lighting, leaving the soft bluish glow of the computer screens to provide illumination before rolling one cape up as a pillow and draping the others over them both as he laid down. On the comfort front it left a lot to be desired but wasn't any worse than the bed Bruce'd slept on for the past week and, honestly, he was tired enough that even the bare floor would've done.

"Don't be a stranger, Bats."

Bruce hadn't realised his eyes were closing until Joker spoke, and opened them to see the cape and Joker's arms open in invitation. Bruce scooted closer and, as Joker rearranged the capes around them, closed his eyes again and immediately fell asleep.

Two fully dressed grown men sleeping together in a chilly warehouse had been an excellent idea at the time, but when Bruce woke the heat was stifling and, after a few minutes of struggle, he managed to push down the sheets - sheets? No...capes? - far enough to let in some much needed air.

And fully intended to drift back off again until singing began and fingers tickled the back of his neck.

" Wake up, little Brucie, wake up! "

Bruce just grunted and the tickling got more insistent until he had no choice but to twist his head and eventually roll onto his back.

"Whatim'sit?"

He got a snort in response. "Whatever language that was, I don't speak it. English? Or French if you're feeling fancy."

Bruce cleared his throat as he looked at Joker with a frown. "You speak French?"

"Bien sûr que je le peux!"

Well...that was something. And, after wiping the sleep from his eyes, Bruce replied, "Well...quelle heure est-il?"

The way Joker's face lit up was a sight to behold, like a kid seeing Santa at the North Pole for the very first time, and he clearly didn't care that Bruce's pronunciation left something to be desired because he was immediately climbing on top of Bruce with a look on his face that said he had plans for this little nugget of information.

But apparently not just yet, as Joker leaned down for a kiss that quickly got ahead of itself but was also the one to break it up, pressing their foreheads together as his warm breath blew across Bruce's face.

"Later, later, Batsy-boo, you and I have work to do!"

He giggled, pressing a kiss to Bruce's cheek that Bruce leaned into until he felt a tongue slide into his ear.

"Ugh!" Bruce pushed Joker away and cleaned out his ear before rolling onto his front to climb tiredly to his feet. He'd never gotten an answer to his question, in English or otherwise, so trudged over to the desk and tapped a random button on the keyboard to reveal the time. Two pm. So, they - or at least Bruce - had gotten...what...nine or ten hours? It didn't feel like it. He'd be quite happy to lay down on the blow up bed again and have another ten at least.

Rubbing the back of his neck and stretching it out, Bruce turned to Joker.

"Did you sleep?"

Joker shrugged. "Here and there."

"You stay in bed the whole time?" Judging by the positions they'd woken up in, it didn't seem as if the pair had moved all that much but that was a long time to lie around doing nothing - especially for Joker - and Bruce dreaded to think what he might've gotten up to to pass the time.

"Of course! Far too warm and cosy to get out. You're like an industrial heater, y'know."

Joker stepped up behind Bruce and slid his arms around his waist. It'd been about a week since their first ever kiss and Joker had always been handsy, even before they became whatever the hell it was they were now, but it'd already stopped feeling novel for Bruce to let lean into Joker's touches rather than bat him away. Now it just seemed normal, which undoubtedly should've been a bad thing but, well, didn't really matter anymore, did it?

With a loud and tired sigh, Bruce forced himself to focus on the evening ahead: visiting Joker's "friend", hopefully getting at the very least a proper location for the lab and then figuring out a way to get inside the damn place and destroy every last bit of toxin they could find. Not the hardest challenge Bruce'd ever faced but it certainly wasn't the easiest.

They didn't plan to leave until after nine, which gave them plenty of time to eat and shower - another addition from Alfred - and, as he watched Joker paint on his "normie" face, Bruce felt the same anxiety rise as before, going out in public where anyone could spot them. They'd been lucky during the shopping trip and he didn't trust that luck to stretch this far, too.

"Darling, stop flapping!" Joker said as he pulled up his hood, tucking damp strands of fading green underneath it.

"I'm not moving."

"You're overthinking, I can hear it." Joker rapped his knuckles against his temple. "Got a damn descent of woodpeckers chip, chip, chipping away in there. Has it ever occurred to you, oh batty one, that tonight might go entirely without incident?"

Bruce offered a look that had Joker immediately holding his hands up.

"Alright, so that's a little optimistic. But, in the words of George Michael, ya gotta have the faith, the faith, the faith. Pessimism ain't gonna get you anywhere."

"Since when did you become an optimist?"

Joker grinned, stepping right up to Bruce until their noses almost touched.

"If I wasn't, I'd've given up on us a long time ago."

Bruce frowned, not sure how to respond to that, but was saved the trouble of trying when Joker gave him a quick but firm kiss that said the conversation was over.

"Now, c'mon, Bruce, time to get me some toes!"

Bruce rolled his eyes and followed.

It was dark, their hoods were up and they were moving quickly enough through the crowds that curious glances couldn't linger long enough to recognise them, yet that still didn't stop Bruce waiting for a cry of "It's them!" every single time someone passed by. But it never came and by the time they reached the apartment block where Joker's contact - still unnamed at this point - lived, Bruce felt like skipping on the spot just to dispel some of the nervous energy. Luckily, the elevator had apparently been recommissioned as a toilet, giving them four flights of stairs to climb and Bruce felt a little better by the end.

"Hoo boy, old age is setting in! Stairs aren't as easy as they used to be, heh."

Bruce threw Joker a keep your fucking voice down glare that got nothing but a nonchalant shrug in return. He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, giving the utility belt concealed by his sweatshirt a comforting tap as Joker knocked on the door.

There was no answer. Joker cupped his hands around the spy hole before putting his eye right up to it and Bruce would've reminded him that they only worked one way but Joker was already bending down to poke his nose through the letterbox instead, cooing, "I know you're in there…" in a way that wouldn't encourage a single person to open their door.

Losing patience, Joker knocked again, much harder this time, before leaning against the door.

"You either open this door or replace it," he said, tone showing he was quickly losing patience and it wasn't a surprise to hear the chain quickly slide open before the door followed suit.

"Mikey!" Joker cried, face brightening immediately as he stuck his foot into the gap between the door and the frame.

Mikey - nowhere near as overweight as Joker had made him sound, with short dark curls and a face almost as white as the one hidden beneath flesh toned makeup - looked at Joker with wide eyes. "What're you doing here? There are cops everywhere looking for you, I can't -"

Ignoring him completely, Joker barged his way inside and Bruce followed, ready to offer apologies, when Mikey's face somehow managed to turn even whiter, eyes ready to drop out of their sockets.

"Oh shit...he really is with you."

Bruce hadn't been looked at like that for a very long time. Probably since he first became Batman in fact. If in a room with both Batman and Joker, people were invariably far more terrified of the clown, but apparently being led to believe Batman had actually killed people was enough to switch things around. And Bruce wasn't above using it to his advantage, although he didn't offer anything more than a stern look because the guy seemed ready to faint and Bruce really needed him conscious right now.

"Good grief this place is even more of a shithole than last time!"

That assessment was pretty rich coming from Joker considering his own mould-ridden apartment was hardly the stuff interior design dreams were made of and, taking a spot by the wall, Bruce watched Joker help himself to an open bag of sweets from the cluttered desk as Mikey shuffled into the room, nervous hands running through his hair.

"Look, you - you can't be here, if you're caught -"

"Mikey, my tubby little friend," Joker said around a mouthful of food, walking over to the man and draping an arm around his shoulders. "Cease your babble and listen. I need you to work some of your nerdy voodoo and hack into the systems of Nisson Pharmaceuticals for me, 'kay?"

If Bruce thought Mikey's face had been ghost white before, it was nothing compared to now. The guy looked as though he was in the middle of a heart attack and Bruce wondered if this was really such a good idea. There had to be another way...somehow…

"What?" Mikey said, clearly trying to step out of Joker's reach but unable to loosen his shoulder from the tight grip of those long white fingers. "I told you last time, that's insane! You have any idea what they'll do if they catch me?"

Joker threw the sweets onto the floor and turned to face Mikey fully, holding his face between his hands and pinching his cheeks. "Oh, Mikey, Mikey, Mikey, do you have any idea what I'll do to you if you don't? Circumstances have changed, my friend, and I can't take no for an answer this time."

Bruce crossed his arms, wondering where the endearing Jay-Jay had gotten to, the one who'd fed Charlie nothing but honey. All Mikey was getting was pure vinegar. But it seemed to be working, the man already giving in, although he did offer one last plea that got nothing but another squeeze of the cheeks in return.

"We'll be out of here before you know it," Joker promised. "And, if they come sniffing, tell 'em I forced you into it, tell 'em what a meanie I am! I'll even cut off a few toes for authenticity."

"Joker."

Green eyes swivelled round to Bruce and their gazes locked for three very long seconds before Joker rolled his eyes and sighed.

"Fine. Maybe just a black eye...or something."

Joker looked at Bruce again and winked before releasing Mikey and pushing him towards the desk.

"Now, chop chop, time is of the essence!"

Mikey dared to look at Bruce - though whether it was to thank him for intervening or because he expected Batman to do something even worse wasn't clear - before doing as he was told and Bruce left his spot by the wall to move closer, trying hard to ignore the pangs of remorse already setting in. He'd only just met Mikey but already he was bringing the entire weight of Nisson, Ghost and probably even the GCPD on his back. Yet another life to add to all those Bruce had put in harm's way. But what could he do? If he left now, who knew how long it'd take him to find the lab on his own and how many more lives would suffer because of the delay? It came down to a choice of which outcome could he live with more and, in the end, Bruce may not like it - in fact he loathed it - but using Mikey would save a hell of a lot more people in the long run.

Joker picked up the discarded bag of sweets and continued eating as he perched on the edge of the desk, looking down at the man who, rather than switch on his computer, seemed to be packing his bags.

"I'm not doing this here ," Mikey explained, shoving a laptop into his rucksack before shutting it. "I wanna keep them off my back as long as possible. There's a place a couple of blocks down - a restaurant. I know the owner. He lets me use the back room sometimes."

Bruce didn't like the sound of that, seemed too much like a set up to him. And it wasn't beyond Nisson's capabilities, Joker had come straight here from Arkham, after all. They could've gotten to this man early, kept him in place just in case Joker came back.

"Oh, Mikey," Joker said, sliding off the desk and leaning down to Mikey's eye level. His voice had dropped into a tone much closer to the one he'd used for Charlie, but there was an undercurrent of menace that made the temperature in the room drop. "You wouldn't be trying to do anything silly now, would you? Because nothing would wound me more than this friendship of ours turning sour."

Bruce circled round to Mikey's right, watching for any sign of deceit, trying to gauge whether the terror was because he was being found out or simply because of who was cornering him. Honestly, it could've been both.

"N-no, no! I just - we can go wherever you want, just not here . They kill people like me - please !"

The "please" ended as a high pitched shriek when Joker lunged, pulling Mikey up to full height and bringing their faces so close that they looked as if they were going to kiss. Then Joker's lips spread into one of those nasty smiles that Bruce had never liked, the green of his eyes seeming to darken several shades.

"If you're lying to me…"

"I'm not, I swear!"

Mikey looked ready to cry or mess himself or both and Bruce kept watching, assessing every reaction. He'd never be one hundred percent but...he was pretty sure Mikey was telling the truth. Of course, Bruce wouldn't relax around the guy. Wherever they went to do this, he was going to keep a close eye on the doors and be ready to bolt.

Without breaking eye contact, Joker threw a question Bruce's way. "Whaddaya say?"

One last look at Mikey and Bruce said, "Let's just get this over with."

The place they ended up was a nightclub - Joker's choice. One of those grungy metalhead places that stank of cheap booze, cigarettes and sweat that the Bruce Wayne Gotham thought it knew wouldn't have been seen dead in, that the real Bruce Wayne would've preferred to avoid simply for the crowds. But Joker was adamant that, in a place like this, they could easily blend in, find a dark corner to let Mikey do his thing and, with so many faces to choose from, the authorities would have a hard time picking them out if they arrived.

The first thing Bruce did was look for the exits and came to the grand total of one, double doors behind the dance floor that led to a smoking area. As Mikey and Joker settled on the floor close by - all the tables were taken - Bruce mapped out their escape route. It was a small square garden area with a few tables and chairs, with steps that led down to the alley below. A decent enough escape route provided the alleyway wasn't blocked off by the time it came to run.

Mikey was already going to work when Bruce returned, Joker's mouth close to his ear to tell him exactly what they wanted and Bruce remained standing, scanning the crowds. Between the flashing lights and pumping music, it was hard to pick out faces but he was confident he'd spot the difference between a partygoer and someone coming towards them with the intent to kill.

A sudden tug at the leg of his pants threw Bruce off balance and he braced himself with a hand against the wall, looking down to see Joker glaring up at him and beckoning him closer with a curl of his finger. Bruce crouched and Joker grabbed the front of his sweatshirt to pull him closer and yell into his ear.

"Why don'tcha just head on up to the dj booth and announce you're a fugitive into the microphone?"

Bruce tried to reply but Joker cut him off.

"Relax! Nobody's gonna spot us."

Bruce wished he could share Joker's confidence, he really did, but so many things had gone wrong and he didn't expect the trend to change anytime soon. And while he didn't stand up again, he still kept a watch on what he could see of the crowds, looking for feet that didn't belong while Mikey was hard at work, the terror of earlier replaced with absolute focus.

A nudge of the arm pulled Bruce's attention away from the crowds once again to see Mikey mouth "I'm in," and Joker slipped his arm around his shoulders in a I-knew-you-could-do-it gesture that seemed to do nothing to comfort Mikey whatsoever.

Looking at the laptop screen, Bruce couldn't make head nor tail of what he saw but he could feel the renewed urgency in the way Mikey's fingers flew across the keyboard, and when what Bruce could only imagine to be curses flew out of Mikey's mouth before his focus intensified, he knew what that meant. He'd been discovered.

"Just gimme a few minutes!" Mikey shouted and Bruce could only hope they had that long. He tried calculating time and distance in his head but as he had no idea where Nisson's people were located, soon gave up. It didn't matter if the GCPD were a good fifteen to twenty minutes away when the assassins could, for all he knew, get here in five.

He counted down in his head and as the five minute mark neared, he turned to Mikey. Bruce'd take whatever he had, even a district, just anything so he and Joker could get the fuck out of here. But Mikey was still lost in the task and when six and then seven minutes passed by, Bruce's patience went too.

"Tell me you've got something ," he demanded when almost ten minutes had gone by.

"Just..."

The music stopped.

With a soft curse Bruce stood, scanning the crowd to see if anyone was coming towards them. There was nobody so far but Bruce didn't want to wait around so crouched back down and hissed, "Give me whatever you have!"

A flash drive was pressed into Bruce's hand and the second the main lights came on he ran for the exit, trusting Joker to follow and hoping Mikey found a way to safety, too. He vaulted over the railings to bypass the steps completely, his side twisting painfully in protest as he landed, and Joker's considerably lighter footfalls were right behind as they raced through the alley towards the street. They didn't consider direction or destination, just kept moving, pushing past people and dodging cars, creating as much distance as they could between them and whoever was coming after them.

After a few blocks, Bruce risked a glance over his shoulder. He hadn't heard a single shout, other than curses from the people they knocked out of their way, and couldn't see any cops or assassins hot on their tails - or anyone else for that matter. Perhaps, by some stroke of luck, they'd actually managed to get away.

Joker was right beside Bruce now, close to overtaking and, as if through some mutual agreement, both started towards the parking lot on their right. And that was when whatever luck Bruce thought they'd had vanished.

Sirens sounded up ahead and shouts came from behind and, when three gunshots fired, Bruce dove for the cover of the wall. And when he realised Joker was no longer beside him, turned to see him tumbling to the ground a few feet away, everything seemed to pause, vision narrowed down to the man now lying on the ground, red spreading out across his back.

The connection was automatic, brain rewinding through a lifetime of memories to the last time his entire world had been snatched away by lead flying from the barrel of a gun. But just as Bruce thought he might black out from the sudden squeeze on his heart, the body on the ground moved and, through a reflexive surge of adrenaline, Bruce lunged to haul Joker to his feet and drag him to the parking lot.

It'd felt like forever but in reality only a few seconds had passed and as the heavy clatter of cop shoes approached, Bruce managed to squeeze himself and Joker out of sight between two cars. His eyes immediately flew to the blood on Joker's back, which was nowhere near as horrific as it'd seemed moments ago and, as desperate as he was to see what the real damage was, it'd have to wait. The cops were in the parking lot now, checking through the rows of cars and, pushing Joker to take the lead, Bruce crawled close behind, glancing back every few seconds and listening carefully to the route the cops took. They knew Bruce and Joker were here, they just didn't know where and the fugitives needed to get away before the entire area was cordoned off.

It was slow going, Bruce and Joker trying to move as silently as they could, keeping as much distance between their path and that of the cops' as possible, but as they reached the edge of the parking lot, their paths looked set to cross, forcing Bruce and Joker to freeze. They stayed low and, if they were lucky, the cops might've chosen to turn left instead of right, but luck really didn't seem to have a lot of time for them right now because the cops were headed straight for them.

Bruce reached for his belt to pull out a couple of smoke pellets, as well as one of the small explosives, throwing it as far as he could to his left and dropping the pellets right at the cops' feet. Then, as if he hadn't been shot just moments ago, Joker immediately sprang up and was already running, Bruce following close behind as a cacophony of car alarms and coughing fits heralded their escape. Once again, as they ran, their direction wasn't all that important, they just needed to find somewhere to hide at least until the heat died down. The sirens seemed to be everywhere and who knew where the assassins were. If they could find a store that'd closed for the night or apartment or just somewhere that was dark and empty it'd do.

In the end, they came across what used to be a small clothing store that'd been shut down for quite a while by the looks of things. They went to the back to check for a door - much more discreet than breaking in the front way - and Bruce picked the lock, letting Joker enter first, before closing it behind them.

They stepped into a cluttered storage room, with clothing and rolls of fabric strewn all over the place. Clearly the owners hadn't bothered to clear the place out when they left. And Bruce could already see Joker just itching to start fucking around but with the red stain on the hoodie still getting bigger, he needed to get a look at that gunshot wound as soon as possible, so grabbed Joker's arm to guide him further in.

Upstairs seemed to have been where the previous owners lived and, although bare for the most part, there was a couch in the far corner, as well as a few more items of clothing and rolls of fabric lying around. Joker sat down, Bruce settling behind to help him remove the hoodie and t shirt before taking the flashlight from his belt and pointing it at the wound. It seemed whatever luck they had on their side had been concentrated solely on Joker because the bullet had done nothing more than graze his shoulder. It was still a nasty thing to look at, blood running down Joker's back and it'd need stitches but... Jesus , it could've been so much worse.

Bruce didn't realise his hand was shaking until he saw the beam of light tremble.

Impatient to see the damage for himself, Joker looked over his shoulder at Bruce before glancing down at what he could see of his injury.

"My arm about to drop off or what?" he asked, twisting his neck as far as he possibly could but soon gave up and left the couch to go in search of something reflective to see it with instead.

Bruce stayed where he was as Joker shuffled into the next room, which must've been a bathroom if the echo of Joker's voice was anything to go by.

"Ooh, now that's gonna leave a beautiful scar! Shame about your hoodie, though. That thing was fast becoming a favourite."

Joker giggled but Bruce couldn't bring himself to even manage a ghost of a smile because now that the chase was over and the adrenaline was wearing off, his mind was immediately taken back to that moment just outside the parking lot. The gunshot, Joker falling to the ground, the blood spreading over his back, it played in a loop over and over. They'd shot him. Tried to kill him. They'd shot him and he could've…

He almost…

Bruce buried his face into his hands and took a deep, deep breath. This wasn't the first time Joker had been shot. It wasn't even close to the first time he'd almost died but in that moment it was too similar, too too similar...and Bruce had already lost...

Joker must have sensed something was off because his rambles cut short and he came back into the room.

"Hey, now, none of that," he said, tone firm but not unkind as he walked over to Bruce and climbed onto his lap. "Save the meltdown for when we're back at the warehouse."

Bruce's hands came up to rest on Joker's waist and, feeling something sticky and wet under the fingertips of his left hand, pulled it away to see blood. "Joker - "

He was cut off by fingers pressing hard against his lips.

"Ah-ah. Gotta stay sharp, Brucie. Can't have you distracted with what-ifs when we've got ninjas and the pigs to contend with, can we?"

The dismissive tone was frustrating because this was Joker's life and he needed to take better care of it, and Bruce tried to argue but, before he could, Joker kissed him. Again and again, every word Bruce tried to mutter cut off until he gave in and started kissing back, slowly, deeply. But as his eyes closed, the moment returned to play in that awful loop again to the point where he couldn't stand it and had to open them.

His vision was soon flooded with green and Joker's sigh blew hot air right into his mouth.

"Stop it," Joker murmured against his lips before leaning back. "The bullet didn't even go in. And you've done a whole lot worse to me during our tussles, y'know. Don't remember you on the verge of a panic attack about any of them."

That was true - much as Bruce hated it - but there was a difference. Bruce had never been trying to kill him. And, yes, he also knew that with time and distance he'd see that he was overreacting but...right now it didn't change the fact that if the bullet had struck just a few inches lower, they wouldn't be having this conversation. Or any conversation ever again.

"I'm gonna punch you in the face," Joker warned, winding his arms around Bruce's neck. Apparently the gentle understanding he'd shown after Alfred's accident didn't fancy making a second appearance. "Now behave."

And Joker kissed him again, harder this time, as if determined to use his mouth to chase the what-ifs away. And it took some time but eventually Bruce lost himself in the kiss, too, in the taste and feel of the very much alive and well Joker in his lap.

When they broke away, both were breathing hard and Bruce's vision was once again engulfed by green, although Joker wasn't glaring at him this time. The heat in his eyes was for something very different. But that would have to wait.

After cleaning up what he could of Joker's back with cold water and one of the dresses from the lounge floor, Joker put the t shirt and hoodie back on and Bruce went to the window, scanning the street below. It was empty and there were no sirens sounding close by. Give it another hour or two and they'd make their way back to the docks.

Hearing rustling behind, Bruce turned to see Joker examining a roll of shiny, bright turquoise fabric, rubbing it between thumb and finger.

"Hmm...colour's good but the quality is godawful! Cheap nylon crap."

"Didn't realise you were an expert."

Joker looked over at Bruce and grinned. "Well, where'd you think I get my suits from? Hardly off the rack, are they? Especially these days."

Yeah. Ever since Joker became an almost permanent fixture of the front pages, purple suits had become very much a fashion no-no. Not that they'd ever been all that popular to begin with. And it seemed impossible at first to picture Joker with a pin cushion and fabric chalk in hand, but it did soon make sense. Even if his tastes in fashion had run in a far less eccentric direction, trying to find stores that stocked anything in Joker's size would've been impossible. He wasn't built like anyone Bruce'd ever known.

"How long we got?" Joker asked, putting the roll of fabric back where he'd found it.

"I'd say give it an hour," Bruce replied. "Then we'll head back."

Joker pursed his lips. "Well, dry humping on the sofa sounds good but it's just gonna leave me frustrated so...let's explore!"

Bruce didn't think that was a good idea. They couldn't afford to draw any more attention to themselves but Joker was already off downstairs, rummaging through the random assortment of clothing and fabrics. And, in the end, with nothing better to do, Bruce reluctantly decided to join him.

"Y'know, I say we blow the whole place sky high."

Bruce looked up from the surgical thread he was knotting at the end of the stitches now running along Joker's shoulder. They'd returned to the warehouse just over half an hour ago and Bruce hadn't had his meltdown. He'd decided to put his energy into fixing Joker and looking through Mikey's flash drive instead.

"The lab," Joker continued when Bruce stayed quiet. "Blow it up. Get rid. No messing."

"We can't," Bruce replied, reaching for the tape that'd hold the dressing in place. "There'll be people in there."

" Bad people."

"Not necessarily."

Joker groaned. "Look, people are gonna die whether you like it or not. Now, would you rather it was these assholes or all those precious civilians out there getting more and more barmy with every aspirin they take?"

Bruce was quiet again, finishing off the dressing, before closing up the medikit and heading back to the desk where plans to Nisson's mysterious lab were currently displayed on the screens (Bruce'd expected nothing more than an address, so this had been a very pleasant surprise). Joker was apparently very much under the impression that they were now living a kill or be killed lifestyle and kept trying to push it but Bruce absolutely refused to buy into it. The day he resorted to that was the day he'd gladly go to mee this maker.

"I want as many of them to be held accountable as possible. Besides, there's an antidote and I'm willing to bet it's also in there. We need to get that to help those already poisoned."

"Boring, boring, boring," Joker muttered as he came to join Bruce at the desk, slipping a clean t shirt on. "Okay, but I'm gonna get to blow up something , right?"

Bruce ran his eyes carefully over the plans. Unfortunately, there wouldn't be time to figure out how many people were stationed where and, ideally, he would've liked time for reconnaissance but that wasn't a luxury they had. They were going to have to make do with some serious improvisation.

"Well...we're gonna need diversions." He looked at Joker, a small smile playing at his lips. "If you're up to it."

Joker beamed. "Oh, babe, if there's one thing I know, it's how to draw attention to myself."

Bruce turned back to the plans. "Good. Then get ready."

"What, now?"

"Yeah," Bruce nodded. "They know what we've got. If we wait they could have everything shipped out of there before we even arrive."

His eyes turned to meet Joker's once more, which were now radiating excitement, tongue poking out between the front teeth of a beatific grin. Bruce smiled back, letting himself feed off Joker's energy. He was going to need it.

"We're finishing this tonight. "