Lucius Fox listened openmouthed to the somewhat hysterical babbling of the secretary who had just burst into the board meeting, limbs flailing. The annoyed faces of the board members, who were irritated at being interrupted, slowly melted into masks of horror as the hysterics of the secretary – Alice? Annie? The one who always had a piece of gum in her mouth – slowly coalesced into one true, terrifying meaning.

Lucius thought he heard someone faint behind him, but it was hard to tell. His ears were roaring.

Commissioner Gordon was at his favorite deli, on his lunch break. He took another bite of his slightly stale turkey sandwich, glancing as he did so at the television mounted in the corner. He stared at it, bored, for half a second before he realized what the wide-eyed anchorwoman was saying. As if on cue, his pager began beeping. It was a surprisingly loud sound in the sudden silence that had fallen over the deli. With a muttered curse he leaped from his seat, grabbing his jacket as he raced out the door. The sandwich lay abandoned as he sprinted for the precinct.

Alfred Pennyworth was nothing if not calm. He could stitch bleeding wounds with the same amount of composure as if he were making tea or mending socks.

A plate, half-washed, slipped from his hand to the floor as he stared at the subtitles scrolling across the bottom of the screen of the muted television. His eyes were wide, his jaw open, and a word that would make the toughest thugs of the Gotham streets blush slipped across his mind and out of his mouth.

He allowed himself to stare at those fateful words for three whole seconds before giving himself a mental shake and striding past the remains of the plate towards the entrance to the temporary Batcave, drying his hands as he went. Master Bruce would be needing his help.

Bruce Wayne sat frozen in the chair in front of the computer terminal in the temporary Batcave. The rim of the metal table protested his white-knuckled grasp as he listened blankly to the anchorwoman. "...only a few minutes ago...." He had been looking up information on a certain drug ring which he thought might have more to it than the police suspected. Such speculations, however, paled next to the news that was currently expressing itself on the plasma screen of the medium-sized TV.

With a sudden, swift movement, he leaped from the seat and crossed the distance to where the batsuit was stored. Bruce Wayne became Batman. His city needed him.

A man wearing garish makeup and a purple suit laughed. No one knew his name, or even if he had one, but the mention of his title was enough to send chills through the heart of any Gotham resident. His harsh, insane laughter echoed eerily through the huge, abandoned factory. A few men stood outside the door leading into the space, shuffling uneasily. They were tough, hard men, who had seen and committed countless horrors in their lives as Gotham criminals, but even they shrank from the horrible laughter coming from this man, this thing. The laughter turned into high-pitched giggling, and then cackling, and the man collapsed onto a conveyor belt, leaning on it for support. The inhuman noise stopped abruptly, and in its place a smile grew over the man's scarred countenance. "I'm here to stay this time, Batsy," he snickered, his eyes shifting and his tongue flicking out to touch chapped lips. "And I'm feeling kind of playful."

Deranged laughter echoed through the empty building.

The Joker was back.

And there would be hell to pay.

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