AN: Thanks for the reviews!
He stared at the Joker's hand, unmoving. He should be feeling relief, he knew, that his life had been spared, but it seemed he was still drained of emotion, save for the steadily growing sense of disbelief. Whether it was disbelief at his luck or at the Joker's audacity of assuming they were on friendly terms again, he wasn't quite sure.
"It's okay, I'm not gonna hurt ya." He twitched his fingers, like he was beckoning a dog. "Why are you under there, anyway?"
He only stared, hoping someone would tell the Joker off for him the way they'd done throughout the conversation prior. No one did. Perhaps they were still too floored by his brazen, ludicrous explanation to say anything. His disbelief was slowly giving way to anger; anger that this bastard presumed to think the influence he held over Crane was that great. It wasn't. He refused for even a second to entertain the possibility that it could be.
"I think I'll stay here for the moment," he said finally, flatly, and then shut up. He didn't trust himself to say something that wouldn't ruin the Joker's good mood.
"You don't have to be scared."
"Right. Look, Jonathan, I'm—" he cleared his throat, grimaced. "Serious. About everything. And I'm also not moving until you let me help you up, even if it gets me shot. Got it?"
He would have liked to test that, but like so many other things tonight, it hardly seemed worth the effort. Suppressing both a shudder and the urge to be sick, he slowly extended his hand, noticing as he did so that the shaking had almost entirely stopped. He wondered vaguely when that had happened. He certainly hadn't noticed at the time. It couldn't have been when the Joker was talking, of that he was sure, but he couldn't imagine the tremors lessening around Leland or the Batman either.
He didn't take the Joker's hand in his own; he couldn't bring himself to do that. He lost enough already, over the course of this miserable day, but if he gave into that it would be like truly going over the edge. Instead, he only offered his hand out, letting the Joker be the one to close the distance, make contact. He tensed when he felt the leather of the glove against his skin, but was able to keep from jerking away. Which was lucky, because the tense way Nigma was holding the gun out made him think if he had pulled back, one of them would have been shot by reflex.
He didn't know what he was expecting the contact to be like, apprehensive as he'd been in reaching out. Something akin to burning, likely, the way contact felt on fear toxin or laughing gas. Instead, it felt as it always had; soft, warming, and to his absolute disgust, mildly comforting. Not as much as Leland's hands had been, but somewhat. He was sick with himself, for reacting in that way, as if he was so desperate for human contact that even the Joker felt reassuring. Which he wasn't. He'd never needed human contact, and even if at some point he had, he'd taught himself to overcome it long ago.
He felt the Joker's grip tighten, standing as he was pulled forward. He nearly hit his head against the cabinet on the way out until he remembered where he was at the last possible second and ducked down. Once outside, he could hear Leland getting up behind him as he realized the Joker had yet to let go.
"Get your hand off me."
"Aw, c'mon." The Joker stared at him, eyes reflecting such hurt that had Crane not been desensitized last October to these kinds of tricks, he would have fallen for it. "Can't we be friends again? I mean, I never actually hurt you. Aside from the whole bone breaking, concussing thing back on Halloween, but really, you can't blame me entirely fo—"
"Let him go," the Batman and Nigma said together, each taking a step toward the pair. Afterward, Nigma blinked, looking surprised at what was surely one of the first times he and the Bat had ever been on the same page. Batman, in contrast, stayed focused, looking ready to tear the clown's arms from his sockets should he make things difficult.
He pouted, to the point where his expression went from believably forlorn to absolutely fake. "Fine." He let go, and Crane's sense of self-loathing was furthered when along with relief at the release, he felt longing, as if he'd wanted it to go on. Stupid bodily reactions. He felt less guilty over starving himself now, if this was how his physical form responded to things. "Happy? Now let's light this candle. It's Pizza Day at the nuthouse, and I'm not missing it."
"It's eight o'clock," Leland said, after a glance at her watch. "You've already missed it."
"Well, crap." Joker gave a glance around the room, sucking on the scars. "Could we, like, camp out here for a week then? I don't think I can adjust back to life at Arkham without pepperoni to ease the transition."
She shook her head. "I'm afraid you'll just have to try your hardest without it."
"Aw." He looked petulant for approximately five seconds, before his expression returned to normal and he turned to face Nigma. "Oy. Riddler. Go make Red let go of my girl. Nobody ties up Harley but me."
Nigma seemed, for a moment, like he was going to talk back, but wisely decided against it. He backed through the door, aiming the pistol at the Joker until he finally disappeared from sight. Leland followed after, pausing in the doorway. "I'm going to go explain the situation to your friends. Will things be all right if I leave for a moment?"
She was looking at Crane and the Joker, but the last sentence was directed at the Batman and they all knew it. Crane looked back, watched as the Bat nodded. Leland still looked apprehensive, but after a second's hesitation she exited as well.
Hell. Now that the madness had ended, for the most part, he remembered what his friends had set out to accomplish in the first place. Bringing him back to Arkham. He wondered if it was too late to start formulating a plan to escape. Starving or not, been through hell and back or not, even now he would give anything to avoid going back. The chances of getting out, with the Batman behind him, the Joker at his side, and his psychiatrist and friends in the hall, were astronomically low, but despite the futility of it, he was sorely tempted to try.
His sanity was the only thing he could be sure of, at the moment. The entire world had gone mad—the Joker's sudden switch from murderous rage to relative normalcy only underscored that fact—and he was the only person he could trust anymore. Himself, and Scarecrow, who was trying and failing inside of him to come up with a way out of this mess. It gave him a slight relief to know that Scarecrow wanted to get out as well; he was Jonathan's oldest, dearest friend, even when he'd been nothing more than the nameless interior monologue all people had, and knowing that he agreed the situation was madness was a comfort. He'd always trusted Scarecrow's opinions. If the voice in his head agreed with him, it was a sure sign he'd kept his hold on sanity, even through this ridiculousness.
Whereas Arkham would do all it could to undermine his sense of security in himself, and Crane wasn't sure how much longer he could take the gaslighting before it pushed him over the edge, and he honestly became the psychotic they thought him to be.
There was a hand against his back, suddenly. He almost screamed.
"What?" he asked, teeth clenched and hands in fists. He debated stepping away from the Joker, but figured he would only be followed. The Batman was watching, he knew, but had yet to intervene.
"You're not scared to go back, are you?"
"No." He looked towards the door, resisting the urge to make a break for it. It's not as if he'd get anywhere. The majority of the group was in the hallway, after all. He settled for stepping away from the Joker. Behind them the Batman tensed slightly but remained stationary when it became clear that he wasn't trying to leave.
Moving away accomplished exactly nothing, as he discovered when the Joker began poking him in the back. "I think you are."
"I hate you."
"I know. Look, Jonny, running away from your problems is no way to deal with them." He was still poking him. Crane turned around, knocked his hand away. Or attempted to, anyway. The Joker grabbed his hand halfway through the swipe and held it so tightly he didn't dare try pulling away. Thankfully it wasn't the left hand, or the bones there would probably have broken again. "I mean," the Joker went on, as though there'd be no interruption. "Arkham's a pretty fucked up place. You probably don't need me to tell you that, given that you're one of the people who made it fucked up, but it's scary. Still, the self-proclaimed Master of Fear should have the guts not to run away from it."
He felt a vein somewhere over his eye throbbing as he glared at the Joker. Was the clown actually trying to be the voice of reason here? "Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't it your goal to mess me up to begin with? That's what I gathered from the conversation where you called yourself God. Why would you want me to go back to a place that could potentially undo any damage you might have caused?"
"One, I never called myself God. I just used Him for purposes of comparison. Actually, I see myself as more of a Lucifer—"
The Joker chose to ignore that comment. "Lucifer's the more interesting one. God, really, is just this selfish old man creating people to tell Him how great He is. And two, like I said, I can make and break you as easy as, uh, a kid with Play-Doh. On the off chance the madhouse did a damn thing for you, I could undo it with no effort should the mood strike me. But this isn't about me, it's about you." He paused, looked Crane over, sighed. "I may have just tried to kill you, but it doesn't mean I'm not concerned about you."
"Enough." He tried pulling away. It was every bit as painful as he'd guessed, and as fruitless.
"No, seriously." That same pained expression. "Scarecrows are supposed to be thin, not, uh, emaciated. If you starve or kill yourself or something, what am I gonna do for fun?"
"Ruin other people's lives?"
"I didn't ruin your life, angel, I made it all colorful."
He had no idea what that was supposed to mean and didn't care to know. "And what do you mean, for fun? I thought I bored you."
"Bored me?" His expression was blank for a moment. "Oh! The angel thing. No, no, no, Jonny, you don't bore me per se. I like you. I like you a lot." He reached out, nearly stroked Crane's face before the other stepped out of the way. "It's just you're not interesting enough to justify all the crap I'd have to go through, killing you and, uh, afterwards. Remember that time I told you that you mattered, just not as much? It's like that."
He had never felt such an overwhelming urge to hit someone, even though he knew it would have no effect. "I hate you."
"I understand that that's how you're feeling right now and don't you really mean that. Don't worry, I'm not upset. Though, angel, you oughta talk to Leland about your coping methods. Lashing out at others like this isn't healthy."
"Go to hell."
"See? That's what I'm talking about."
And Crane would have hit him, had Leland not chosen that moment to reappear in the room. For the first time since he'd known her, she had decent timing and he couldn't appreciate it because he wanted to punch the man so badly. Even though it would have no effect and likely get him laughed at, or injured.
"Can you take two of them back?" she asked, addressing the Batman. "My car only seats four passengers."
"I call Bats!" The Joker released Crane at once to raise his hand, waving it back and forth. "In fact, I'm not going back unless he takes me." He shot a glance to Crane as if to say 'so there.'
And I'd be jealous because…why, exactly?
"I'm not goin' unless I can be with Mistah J!" Harley called from the hall. Leland glanced to the doorway, then back at the Batman. He nodded, after a moment's pause.
Joker looked as if he might faint, he was so overjoyed. He was really like a child. A child who enjoyed hacking people open and causing panic for no good reason. "Hear that, Jonny? I'm riding in the Batmobile!"
"That's not what it's called."
"How wonderful for you," Crane said, in a tone of withering disinterest.
"Aw, c'mon Jonny. I thought we were friends again."
"I will never be your friend."
"So you say." Before Crane could snap back, Leland's hand was on his sleeve, gently leading him toward the door.
"Ready, Jonathan? Your friends are waiting." He nodded, allowed himself to be led. The situation was miserable, but there was little he could do about it at present. Arkham wasn't that hard to break out of. He'd get around to it the second he wasn't starving anymore.
When the Joker half-shouted "Feel better!" at his retreating back, he didn't turn around.
When the Batman, who'd up until now been living up to the title 'silent guardian' very well, said "Good luck," however, he did turn. Leland noticed the movement and stopped, as Crane stood in the hallway staring at the Caped Crusader.
He wasn't sure why he'd stopped. It wasn't as if he felt grateful toward the Bat. Hell, half of this fine mess had been his fault. He may have stayed with him all day, and stopped the Joker from slitting his throat, but it was his fault the Joker had found him, and his fault Crane was going back to Arkham now. But the Batman seemed, in some strange, twisted way, to care what happened to him. Crane didn't think it was concern, more likely an extension of his rule against killing. But he wasn't quite sure. And he didn't know why he felt the need to acknowledge it, but he found himself giving the Batman a nod before he turned back, letting himself be taken back to his friends. Isley took him by one arm, Nigma by the other, and they all but marched him to Leland's car.
"It's all right," Nigma said, while Jonathan was fastening his seatbelt. "Don't be afraid, okay? They're going to help you."
That should have angered him, and on some level it did, but he found himself preoccupied by thoughts of the Batman, and curiosity regarding just what their connection was.
Batman regretted putting the Joker in the passenger's seat almost the second they'd taken off, but he wasn't about to risk pulling over with two maniacs in tow to readjust their seats. He'd thought cuffing the Joker behind his back and strapping him to the seat would be enough, but he'd forgotten just how strongly the man was driven to be as much of a pain in the ass as he possibly could. Every few seconds or so he'd try pushing buttons on the console with his feet, and Batman would have to intervene. Quinzel in the back, whining that she wanted to listen to the radio, wasn't helping either.
And as it turned out, the Joker hadn't been lying about the Tumbler being tagged. He didn't even want to imagine explaining to Alfred why there were random obscenities scrawled over the car's hood in various colors of paint. He didn't want to imagine how he'd explain any of the day's events.
Eventually, around the time the Joker got bored with trying to crash the Tumbler and kill them all, and began singing show tunes with Quinzel as a backup, he tried zoning them out, focusing on anything but the situation at hand. He found his thoughts returning to Jonathan Crane, and the conundrum that had been his latest experience with the mad doctor.
He'd saved villains before. The first being keeping the Joker from falling to his death, and more from there, usually from their own stupidity or from a fight move gone wrong. But this was the first time he'd ever saved one villain from another, or spent the better part of a day with said villain, protecting him both from himself and others. This was the first time a villain had ever come off as a victim, even though Bruce knew that Jonathan Crane was far from innocent.
He supposed it was only part of the job, just a part he hadn't experienced before. After all, a majority of the 'super villains' in Gotham qualified as insane, and it was easy to undermine a person's crimes when one was watching that person lose touch with reality, seem helpless. Crane may have been the first villain he'd had to protect for an extended period, but Bruce doubted he'd be the last.
Still, and it was almost certainly wishful thinking on his part, but he hoped protecting Crane had convinced the doctor that Batman wasn't out to hurt him. Or at least that he should stay in Arkham. Hell, he knew 'convinced' was shooting too high, he'd settle for having put any doubt in Crane's head regarding his delusion of sanity. He couldn't help but hope that something had changed between them over the day, and wish that Crane would see things the same way.
And then the Joker nearly made them crash again, and he was pulled out of his thoughts and back to the present.
AN: And it's done. The next story will be up as soon as possible, hopefully in one or two days. Though I'm going home for the weekend, which may delay the process somewhat, but I'll try my hardest. The next fic will be much, much shorter, but I've got a planned longer one after that.
"Gaslighting" refers to the movie Gaslight, where a woman is made to believe that she's going insane when she really isn't. Harley's comment about wanting to listen to the radio comes from the cartoon episode "Harlequinade," where she makes the same comment and then almost crashes the Batmobile by pressing a button at random.
Thank you all so much for your reviews! I could not have finished this fic without your feedback and support. I love you guys.