Usual disclaimers.

No. It's not funny.

In The Absence of Comedy **

When the Joker manages to wriggle his way from the depths of Arkham to freedom, a worm coming up in the rain, there's a certain quiet that comes over the company I keep.

We grow more serious, all thoughts of humor, all traces of a life outside of our job wipes away. We understand the gravity of the situation and we grow rigid with life-or-death intensity, knowing that lives hang in the balance, and this macabre circus will only end once the foul man is put back into the catacombs of the asylum.

It was the first time we'd had to face him since my relocation to Bludhaven, and even at the distance, I felt a chill run through me. I looked to the swell of my abdomen, and I wondered briefly why I dared bringing life into this world-what right did I have?

This was a world of darkness that was currently being terrorized by a madman. I knew the gravity of our situation-we all did.

"He's not here any more. He got away from me. There's a tracer on him now, though."

We all knew so very well. but I was still not prepared for the timberless voice coming through my com system, or the words that were said. You purposely do not prepare yourself, because preparing for the worst means dwelling on the worst. And none of us can afford to put ourselves through that, every single time the word comes down that the Joker has escaped.

The Batman's voice had lost the controlled strength we'd all known so well over the years. It was a breathy, lifeless sotto voce rasp eking through my speakers. Instantly I felt my stomach knot. Something had happened.

"Nightwing should be able to find him. Permission. to use any means necessary."

With the last, his voice faltered. Something terrible had truly happened.

"Bruce. what is it?" I asked, trying to keep the even, reassuring tones of a 911 operator.

I was greeted with the silence I had come to expect, when he didn't feel like discussing certain problems.

"Why aren't you going after him? You're the closest." I knew if he wasn't in pursuit, something was seriously amiss, but I had NO way of helping, if he wouldn't open his mouth. "Are you injured?"

"I. am not," he conceded, but the pain in his voice said otherwise.

"I can have Robin on your location in seven. Do you require assistance?"

There was the sound of him sliding down the wall, I was certain. "Batman out." And then nothing.

They said when they found him, he was still sitting against the wall, somehow lost. One would have suspected full-blown vengeance, given the circumstances. I remembered how he lost control when Jason, his second Robin died, and I remember how it took the Man of Steel to restrain him. I remember the look in his eye-a man lost and helpless to his own rage.

They said he was lost again, but not to any visible emotion that they were able to discern.

Nightwing helped him out of the puddle of blood. It was a sticky, coagulating mess by the time Nightwing was through with the Joker enough to provide backup to his mentor. Robin had done nothing, upon entering the scene. He'd stayed in the rafters of the warehouse, knowing there was nothing that HE could do for either of the building's occupants.

Nightwing, by that point, would be the only one of us who would get any sort of response from him. We all knew him well enough to know that.

And he'd gotten him out of that puddle of blood. That was reaction enough at the moment.

Robin said it was something to behold, and not in an appealing sort of way. The head, the body, every ounce of blood drained from the body, pooling around the Dark Knight, clinging to his cape and boots, trapping him, somehow. The image my own mind conjures is something that will haunt me forever. I can not imagine what he will have to live with.

I was waiting in the cave with Alfred and Cassandra by the time Bruce had finally made the drive back home-under his own power. I knew it meant a lot to him that his two birds were willing to allow him his self respect.

Nightwing stood in front of me, blocking the sound of his voice with his own body from him. "He spoke a little. before the police showed up, and we had to leave them with the body. He blames himself for the Joker finding out her identity. He blames himself for the Joker using it against them." There was little surprise there. Nightwing told me the rest, and I had to wrap my arms around my midsection, as if that would somehow protect me from the chill that had suddenly run through the room.

Nightwing took off his mask and my husband hugged me, lingering for just a moment. He looked at our treasured possession beneath my heart with a terrible pain, but he attempted to hold it within. He knew I would need his strength to hear the words that he now spoke to me. This wasn't easy news to hear, and watching the end result-Bruce, trying to function normally, and yet completely lost-was crippling.

He shuffled and paused as he moved about the cave, knowing he'd lost something he didn't even know he'd had.

He'd gotten there just after the Joker had beheaded Selina.

Rage alone probably made him want to tear the Joker limb-from-limb, but he must have hesitated, paused in some way that allowed the Joker to get a word in edgewise. That was always deadly; letting the clown talk.

We'd known for years he was bank-rolling doctors, lawyers, garbage men, convenience store workers. Too many to effectively stop for very long-not when we could never find the source of his funding.

The Joker said he'd been planning this break-out for quite some time, and had been looking for appropriate inspiration, and through his channels, he'd found just the thing. He'd come across a tidbit that his morose mind found delectable in some way, and had decided to turn it into a feast.

He'd used the element of surprise to his advantage, drugged Selina Kyle with gas in her own home, and had removed her. There was a table set for two, candles gutting and a meal still warming in the oven when police arrived a few hours later. He'd taken her to a warehouse that the Batman would be sure to find, chained her upside down from the cage that quartered off the manager's office, and decapitated her cleanly, and without remorse while she was still unconscious. It was the only way, of course. She'd never have let him do so, in a fair fight.

This was a man who enjoyed watching people struggle, plead, fight back- anything. This was a man who enjoyed the thrill of the hunt and the amusement of the difficult kill-and yet he'd done none of this.

The plan he had in his head required Selina Kyle dead. It required that every last bit of life be gone from her when the Batman appeared.

It required that the Batman hesitate just long enough for the Joker to talk, and give him the 'why.'

Tonight was the night Selina was to announce that not all of the illustrious Batman's plans were fool-proof, that sometimes, being prepared just wasn't enough. Sometimes, the best equipment, no matter how well- tested, or how efficiently used, failed. Sometimes, in the most interesting ways.

That brief pause in Batman's momentum, the thing that slowed him from tearing the Joker to pieces on sight, tore down his world, and left him dully taking off his belt, laying the components on his table with practiced precision. It left him removing his cape and cowl with routine practice while we watched, helpless to console, helpless to do anything more than stay at room's length, letting him struggle with this knowledge on his own.

It was something that should have been given to him by Selina and savored like a fine wine. But it was not to transpire that way. It was a world of darkness, terrorized by a madman. The Joker wanted-needed-to be the one that delivered the punchline of the joke to the Batman, that he was to have the simplest and yet greatest of human joys; he was to have been a father.

THE END