Author's Note: My version of the Joker is the well-read version, the sort of college education savvy super genius depicted in some of the comics, as opposed to the sort of unschooled image favored at other times.
The Poetry Reading
"Do you like poetry?"
Batman doesn't answer. He stares beyond the Joker, over the Joker's shoulder at the tank of acid. He can hear Robin's voice in the back of his mind. 'A tank of acid?' the preteen said. 'Hasn't he done that already? What's the game? I thought he did something new every time he escaped.' Be that as it may, Robin, we don't have time to question the Joker's tactics. If he's going to dunk a sixteen-year-old babysitter in a vat of acid, he's going to do it whether we get there or not.
The Joker sits in a chair stolen from the dining room set of the crime scene. He leans back, front chair legs in the air, flipping through an old hardback. The cover has coffee stains on it. Batman knows it is coffee, thanks to the readout from his goggles. He checked. He always checks.
The babysitter rolls terrified eyes at him. He can see white all the way around. She's bound and gagged, strung from the rafters of the old warehouse. It's always an old warehouse, or abandoned factory. Batman wishes he could turn the economy around so Gotham wasn't full of these places. Every time a section of the city died, Joker and the other psychos descended on it like rats, claiming new hiding places.
The Joker chuckles, glancing up at him. "She's not going anywhere. You have time to answer one question, at least. Do you like poetry? How about turn of the century literature? L. Frank Baum? The Wizard of Oz?" He snapped his fingers, suddenly looking annoyed. "Batsy, I'm speaking. How rude."
Batman is simply contemplating how quickly he can cut the girl down and catch her, and whether the Joker has an AK-47 under his coat.
The Joker sits straight up, sending the chair crashing down back on all four legs. "If you don't answer me, I really will kill her."
Batman's gaze snaps to the madman's.
The Joker let a satisfied smile curl up on his face like a lazy cat. "I knew that would get your attention." He giggles and wags an index finger at the caped crusader. "I know what you like."
"Get on with it," Batman said.
"Answer the question," the Joker said.
Batman knows it is some sort of trick. It is always some sort of trick. The Joker probably wants to pick his mind based on his answers, look for any psychological weaknesses. And they're there. No one is more aware of them than Batman himself is. He guards them, secrets them away, but the Joker's seen them. So has the Scarecrow, and Two-Face. Too many times to mention, they've seen them. But he hides the weaknesses anyway, and keeps coming back, and he knows that amuses them. Sometimes, he comes up with a clever comment. Sometimes he makes them doubt – makes them think, in paranoia, that he was toying with them all along. But most the time he is silent, and they talk, and he feels helpless.
The Joker nods. He raises an eyebrow. "So you can remember what I've been saying to you. I thought you'd been placing it in one pointy ear and out the other."
"Poetry is diverse."
"Yes…" The Joker draws the word out, gesturing for Batman to continue. The book is in his lap.
Tears are running down the babysitter's face. Batman sees it out of the corner of his eye and feels as though he is betraying her. He is talking to the Joker, instead of saving her. He is ignoring her need for help.
But he can't answer her muffled cries. If he does, he knows for a fact the Joker will send her plunging down into the murky, foul smelling solution, and he'll see the flesh melt from her bones. He knows this – but he wishes he could tell her. He is here to help, he is listening. He is trying to save her. He just can't yet.
"Poetry is an art form."
"I agree," the Joker says. He is watching Batman shrewdly, savoring the pain evident in the set of the cowled man's mouth. "What do you think about Ambrose Bierce?"
Batman is silent. His father owned a collection of turn of the century poetry, first editions. All different kinds of authors. They would read out of it, together. He needs a moment to place the name. The Joker gives him that moment. Hazily, he remembers long words, many mispronunciations until his father took the book from him and read the poems to him. "Hard to read."
The Joker cackles, clapping his hands. "Hard to read. I suspect you've never read much more than the funny papers, Batman."
Batman takes the insult silently, counting it as an expected response.
The Joker leans forward, eyes twinkling in merriment. "Have you ever heard the poem, 'The Bubble'?"
Batman can't remember poem titles at a time like this. "No."
The Joker lets out a burst of laughter and laps his hands again. "Good! Then this will be a surprise for you!" He makes a show of thumbing to the right page. "This is one of my favorites."
Batman knew then that this was the point all along. For a poem, the Joker had kidnapped this girl and placed her over a vat of acid.
He places one hand at his temple as if in exasperation. He presses the button that will transmit the signal. Robin is waiting outside. Waiting for the right moment. Batman knows all is well when he sees the shape of his young charge in the window, illuminated by heat vision. The girl is getting out of here alive.
The Joker clears his throat and begins to recite the poem. "Mrs. Mehitable Marcia Moore was a dame of superior mind, with a gown, which, modestly fitting before, was greatly puffed up behind."
Batman watches Robin break into the warehouse, jimmying the window so slyly that it does not make more than a whisper of sound, even in his headset. The poem sounds vaguely familiar.
The Joker stands, gesturing as he reads from the book. "The bustle she wore was ingeniously planned with an inspiration bright: It magnified seven diameters and was remarkably nice and light. It was made of rubber and edged with lace and riveted all with brass, and the whole immense interior space inflated with hydrogen gas."
The poem is just nonsense so far, rattling around irritably in Batman's brain. Just the kind of poem the Joker would like. It doesn't mean anything. Batman has always thought nonsense verse and free verse should be exterminated from the realm of poetry forever. But then, battling the Mad Hatter and being forced to listen to endless interpretations of Lewis Carroll has something to do with that.
He watches Robin scurrying along the catwalk, soft-soled boots silent.
"The ladies all said when she hove in view like the round and rising moon, 'She's a stuck up thing!' which was partly true, and men called her the Captive Balloon!" The Joker chortles. A tear came to his eye at the image in the poem, and he wiped it away with a finger carelessly.
Batman rolls his eyes, which the Joker can't see behind his goggles. The poem was making more sense, but he wasn't entertained. Robin, thankfully, is getting closer all the time. The thin youth is walking along the beams in the rafters now, effortlessly balancing, body tucked low. He's almost at the rope.
"To Manhattan Beach for a bath one day she went and she said: 'O dear! If I leave of this what will people say? I shall look so uncommonly queer!'" The Joker made up a new voice for her, speaking in a falsetto that half-conveyed a woman. "So a costume she had accordingly made to take it all nicely in, and when she appeared in that suit arrayed, she was greeted with many a grin." He indulgently points to his own frozen smile.
Batman was half hoping there was a point to this story, and half hoping there wasn't. Robin was above them at the rope, examining it.
The Joker is totally lost in his telling. "Proudly and happily looking around, she waded out into the wet; but the water was very, very profound…and her feet and her forehead met!"
Batman glares at him. What is he talking about?
The Joker stands on his chair. He is beaming at the tank of acid, looking down at its depths. "As her bubble drifted away from the shore, on the glassy billows borne, all cried: 'Why, where is Mehitable Moore? I saw her go in, I'll be sworn!'"
Batman's eyes widen. Moore. The girl's name is Alicia Moore. Water…acid… The Joker's going to do it anyway, he realized. The girl is in mortal danger.
He glances up without moving his head and sees Robin struggling with the rope. He's trying to untie it so he can haul the girl up. Batman's lips thin. Hurry, Robin!
The Joker begins laughing, a deeper, more diabolical sound that shakes Batman's faith in the world as a good and normal place. Batman knows time is almost up. Does he have time to save the girl if Robin can't?
The Joker's voice soars over him, filling the warehouse and echoing back a thousand times. "Then the bulb it swelled as the sun grew hot, till it burst with a sullen roar!"
Robin! Batman silently prays.
Suddenly there is a switchblade in the Joker's free hand. Batman watches it flick open in horror. He is ready at any moment to throw a batarang.
The Joker's face is excited. "And the sea like oil closed over the spot –" His voice reaches a screaming peak. "Farewell, O Mehitable Moore!" He begins laughing, a frenzied, hysterical sound Batman knows all too well.
He lunges for the madman.
The Joker lunges for the rope, slashing at it with his switchblade.
The rope is yanked up, out of the Joker's reach. His blade slices instead through the girl's blouse and with another yank the girl surges upwards out of reach. Batman throws the Joker to the floor, disarming him and cuffing his hands behind his back.
The Joker is trying to speak through uncontrollable laughter. "You…you ruined the finale."
Batman presses a button on his cowl and activates the speaker on his headset. "Good work, Robin." His voice is calm and final. He knows that makes the Joker angrier than anything else.
Robin grunts loudly. It echoes off the walls. He can be as noisy as he wants now that the danger is over. "Say, how heavy are you?" he calls to the girl dangling on the other end of the rope. "You seem a lot heavier than a hundred and ten." They'd pulled the girl's school file.
"She's what she says she is," Batman says, smiling. "You're just out of practice."
"Aw, man!" Robin says. "This is killing me!"
"You need to train instead of sitting in front of the TV having cookies and milk," Batman says. He grins, and he can grin, because the danger is over, and the Joker is subdued, under his control.
The Joker grunts. "Yeah, real funny, Bats. Let me up."
Batman only then notices that one of his feet is on the small of the Joker's back, and he's been absently putting more and more weight on that foot. He decides to ignore the Joker for now and continues steadily bearing down on the Joker's spine. This is much needed catharsis.
"Ack! You're crippling me," the Joker wheezes, wiggling. "Get your boot out of my back."
Batman innocently lets up, then presses back down again.
"I'll sue you for this, I swear," the Joker says. "You're hurting me. I'll get Cobblepot to do it. He'll cheat you out of every cent you own – ow!"
"Where's Harley?" Batman asks casually.
"How should I know?" the Joker says. He's turning a little pink in the face.
Their small talk is interrupted.
"Got her," Robin calls. "What do I do now?"
"She'd like to go home, I imagine," Batman says. "You know where that is. Take her there. I'll take Joker back the Asylum."
"You have no imagination," the Joker complains. "You always take me back to Arkham. Why don't you take me anywhere nice?"
"Shut up," Batman says without sparing a thought.
Robin unties the girl. As soon as she's free, she hugs him and won't let go. Batman hides his amusement at the boy's bewildered demeanor. Robin only just started noticing girls, and now a fairly attractive, high school age girl was holding onto him. It should be an interesting trip home for her. She'd most likely never traveled along Gotham's rooftops before. After her ordeal, she could use some wonderment in her life. He knows Robin would be more than willing to oblige.
And so it ends. Another night of terror and uncertainty, muscles aching from the previous night's battles, ultimately ending where he started. But not in a bad way.