AN: It's been over a year since I updated any fan fics, or communicated with most anyone I met in the Bat fandom community, and I apologize. I had a very trying year, between graduating college, having a case of bronchitis last for over six months, being diagnosed with dysthymic disorder and Asperger's syndrome, dealing with an emotionally abusive roommate, and finding a job, among other things, but I am trying to work through all the issues I've dealt with and get back to my passion for writing. I am sincerely sorry for any reviews I have not responded to or communications I have ignored over the past year. Thank you to everyone who has continued to read and enjoy my work in that time, and thank you to everyone who has reviewed or contacted me.
The benefit to beating someone senseless in a dream was that it took considerably less effort than the same act would in reality.
Which wasn't to say that Eames took any enjoyment from reducing the clown to a broken, giggling heap on the floor of Arkham's rec room. Terrorist or not, invading an unguarded mind for the purpose of stirring up agitation and pain was an appalling abuse of dream sharing. Eames was a forger, not a sadist. His morality may not be defined in the most black and white of terms, and a life of corporate espionage didn't dampen his ability to sleep at night, but his willing involvement in extraction hardly led to an absolution of brutal and needless beatings.
So he found himself grudgingly grateful, as the Joker stared up at him, black-rimmed eyes still sparkling with mirth as the clown cradled his broken ribs, that it had only taken a few well-placed blows to bring his victim to this state.
Eames hadn't intended to beat the man when he brought him into the dream asylum for the second time. It had always been a possibility—Arthur had demanded to know what would cause the madman's mind to fight back, after all—but most any other subconscious could be provoked into a confrontation long before a fist was thrown. Blatantly alter enough elements of the dreamscape and the projections were bound to grow hostile.
The clown's subconscious, however, proved to be as contrary as his waking self.
The first attempt—knocking a few books from the rec room's shelf and stopping them before they fell to the floor, hanging in limbo over the tiles—hadn't warranted as much as a glance from the projections. Granted, Eames wasn't sure if the shambling monstrosities could see, given their lack of eyes, but certainly they should have felt his intrusion. The Joker hadn't noticed either, but that was expected. It was rarely the mark who sensed a strangeness in the dream, particularly if that mark was untrained. One's consciousness expected a dream to be nonsensical, and lacked the depth of insight necessary to recognize another's manipulation.
After the books failed, Eames had dropped all pretense of subtlety, dreamt a little bigger, and altered the dimensions of the room. The walls widened, floor supports creaking as they stretched to match. The cinder blocks making up the walls had lengthened, growing taller and taller until they split like cells in mitosis, forming new rows as the room grew higher. The glass in the window frames distorted as it expanded, rippling like liquid before snapping back into one smooth, solid sheet as the growth stopped. The floor of the asylum was still shaking minutely as it had in the last dream, the clown's hypersensitive mind feeling every vibration of the air vent in his cell as he slept, and that sensation in tandem with the room's metamorphosis gave Eames the unsettling sense of watching an earthquake.
The rec room had grown high as a tower once he gave up on distorting it, and vast as a warehouse. The projections hadn't moved beyond a few continuing the aimless wandering they had been at before he'd begun. There was no undercurrent of tension or urgency to any of them, no equivalents of eyeless glares cast his way. Even the bizarre illumination emanating from beneath their sternums didn't seem to change color or intensity in response. He'd dealt with projections of the delusional or even catatonic in the past, but even those manifestations would have responded to blatant disturbance by now.
Eames had once been told that the projections of marks with high fevers were incredibly sluggish, too overwhelmed by illness's taxation on the body to respond to another invasion. It was the only point of comparison he had for the clown's mind. He'd broken just about every rule of extraction in less than five minutes, and the only sign of any response on the Joker's part was that it had grown slightly cloudy outside. And if the biggest threat he was going to face was a not-so-sunny afternoon, then Eames was ready to perform inception here and now, alone.
Instead, he'd made a last ditch effort to provoke the man's subconscious before he went to face the clown himself, and reversed the movement of the sun.
The sky darkened as the sun sped backward, hours reversing in the course of seconds. It had been pouring rain when he stopped, not quite a storm but threatening to escalate. There were no dangerous winds, no hail pounding against the windows. No reaction from the projections, when Eames turned his gaze back inside, and nothing from the Joker, laying on a couch that had been beside the window before the room grew and that was now a dozen yards away, reading a book.
Eames had closed the space between them and grabbed the clown's hair, forcing his head back until their eyes met. The words in the book the Joker held were illegible, the letters shifting around between the fibers of the paper like insects swarming under a cloth. There was a pause in which Eames waited for retaliation, either from the Joker or his projections. Neither came. He hadn't really expected projections unbothered by violations of the laws of physics to come running when he resorted to hair pulling. The clown himself looked as though he were trying to work out whether he should be confused or entertained. "If you're that curious about, um, my styling products," he said, licking red lips that were much more smoothly painted than his cosmetics in the real world, "you can just ask, you know."
His response to being dragged off the sofa by his hair had been to giggle. His projections, having apparently inherited his lack of self-preservation, remained motionless. Outside, the rain continued.
"I don't think," said the Joker, as Eames had hauled him to his feet, "that the ACLU's gonna like your brand of therapy."
It had only occurred to Eames as his fist was connecting to the clown's jaw that it would have been wise to disguise his appearance before he began provoking the man. If the Joker was one to remember his dreams, then he'd remember that his subconscious had assigned his newly appointed psychiatrist as the man who beat him senseless for no discernible reason. And, sexual deviance the clown had demonstrated in their first session aside, that sort of association couldn't be good for establishing doctor-patient rapport.
Another blow, and the Joker was on the floor, cackling as Eames's foot connected with his torso. He could feel the clown's ribs snap like pencils through the sole of his shoe, and it turned his stomach. There were flashes of darkness at the windows, but when Eames raised his head, there was nothing to meet his gaze but the storm clouds.
The Joker had raised himself to his knees, one hand on the floor to support himself as the other shielded his ribs, blood gushing from his nose. His smile was stained red, wide, but he made no effort to get up, and his subconscious failed to come to his aid. "Nice. What other flavors have you got?"
By way of response, Eames reached into his jacket and pulled out a pistol.
For the first time since his hair had been grabbed, the Joker's eyes left his attacker's, staring up at the barrel of the gun as though Christmas had come early. Lightning flashed outside, illuminating the clown's face in a way the fluorescent bulbs far overhead couldn't, making him look absolutely glowing with anticipation. "Oh," he breathed, appreciative, his voice reverberating with the thunder that shook the asylum. "You've just gone and done the dumbest thing in your whole life."
There was another flash of darkness at the window, and this time, when Eames raised his head, the glass shattered.
The foundations of the building rattled as the thing that crashed through the window landed, knocking Eames to the ground. The gun slipped from his hand, sliding just out of reach on the floor.
An impossibly black boot slammed down on the pistol, grinding the metal to shards under its heel.
Eames felt fragments of the gun slice his skin as he shuffled back, struggling to upright himself as he took in the creature before him.
"Impossibly black" had been the only words his mind could think of to describe it, but even that was short of the mark. It wasn't black, it was darkness incarnate. It was as though any light that touched the being was simply absorbed into it, as though it was a shadow given three dimensional, humanoid form. But "shadow" couldn't convey the sense of solidity the thing exuded. The cloak wrapped around its shoulders—the folds in the fabric were like staring into a black hole—moved like a shadow, enveloping its bearer in a dark, filmy layer, but the rest of it...it might as well have been carved from pure black, smooth rock. There were etchings over its body as though it were encased in armor, but Eames was sure if he were to cut away the layers there would be no flesh beneath, no blood, just pure, impenetrable darkness. It was a void made flesh, nothing upon nothing layered into being.
It had no facial features, no hair, only more smooth, solid darkness. And a set of long, smooth, pointed ears on the sides of its head.
The Joker's laughter had changed. Before it had been mocking, dismissive, reflecting that, while he may be enjoying himself, Eames had better think again if he imagined his beating actually mattered. Now there was no undercurrent through it, nothing but genuine happiness. He was watching his dream come true, and if that happened at Eames's expense, all the better.
There was no time to move, no time to dream up a way to defend himself. The Batman's hands were around his throat, lifting him into the air, wrapping tighter and tighter around his neck until Eames expected to feel the sides of his esophagus grinding against each other. There were blades on the Batman's arms, so thin and sharp that they looked as if they could cut through any light that tried to settle on them, and Eames could feel his lungs burning in his chest, begging for oxygen, his hands clawing at the Batman's grip, when the hands at his throat grew tighter than ever, cracking his larynx, and he felt his spine snap.
"And you're sure it was the gun that he reacted to?"
Even now, hours and a few stiff drinks later, Eames could feel the vice-like grip of the projection's hands around his throat. "For God's sake, Arthur, if it was the threat to the clown himself and not the gun, don't you think he'd have shown back up after everything else I put him through?"
It had taken a moment, lying on the floor of the Joker's cell, nearly hyperventilating in his attempts to fill his lungs with the air he'd so desperately needed before the Batman broke his neck and woke him up, for Eames to gather the resolve to put himself back under. It wasn't that he was frightened of a repeat encounter—it was only a dream, after all—but that his body, heart hammering and hands shaking, did not want to go through the experience of strangulation again without a bit of a break. It was one thing to be fatally shot or to fall to one's death in a dream. Both of those were quick and relatively painless, and faster sensations for the body to let go of once it woke.
But once his breathing had steadied, he went back under. The Joker's expression upon seeing the gun had burned itself into his mind as clearly as the Batman projection's appearance. The beating hadn't made him look that way. When he was just being punched, he wasn't anticipating the Batman's arrival. The only question was if the reaction had been to the gun itself or to the threat of deadly force.
And so he'd applied deadly force upon starting another dream, in any other way he could think of. Beating, stabbing, drowning, scalding, burning, freezing. He'd stopped just short of killing the man after each, dreaming the clown back to full health and trying again. It was ghastly, horrific, and even now he couldn't rid his mind of the image of the Joker huddling as far away from his assailant as he could drag himself, his hands frozen solid and shattering from his attempts to crawl. The only consolation was that he'd had the presence of mind to disguise himself the second time around, so hopefully there would be no subconscious fear once they met again in the waking world. Hopefully, as he'd been fully healed after each assault and they'd played a game of fourth dimensional bridge before Eames woke up, there would be no subconscious scars at all.
But traumatizing or not, none of the tortures had brought the Batman back. Upon his arrival back at the manor, Wayne had confirmed that, before the day the Joker was arrested, the day of the murders of Harvey Dent and five others, Batman had never been known to use guns. Which lead to the current situation of Wayne, Cobb, Arthur, and himself sitting on the billionaire's sofas with the point man analyzing the encounter to the last detail.
"None of the other attacks were as sudden, though, were they?"
"I'd say walking up to him and stabbing him in the throat was rather abrupt."
"At this point, I think it's safe to say he was reacting to the gun," Cobb said, and added, before Arthur could argue for the sake of proving that Cobb was no longer in charge of the team, "The question is, what does that mean for the inception? Beyond avoiding guns, obviously."
"We need a contingency for if the Batman comes back." Eames realized that the brandy in his glass had evaporated at some point during the conversation and frowned. "He's unnaturally fast and powerful, and I doubt he can be shot. But it also takes a very specific set of circumstances to bring him out."
"And his other projections don't react at all?" Wayne asked.
"Then it shouldn't be too hard to move him around in a dream, forcibly or otherwise."
Arthur looked as though his own glass was full of vinegar. "Fine. Then we can contact Ariadne and Yusuf and put together a plan. But if we encounter anything like the Bat projection again without a gun, then I'm reserving the right to pull the plug on the operation."
Wayne, who mostly looked relieved to have gotten through a conversation with the man that didn't end in a lecture or with Cobb and Arthur at each other's throats, agreed.
AN: After watching Inception for the first time, I did a lot of thinking about the uses and abuses of dream sharing technology, and realized that someone with grudge could commit a lot of torture with the aid of a Pasiv, which in part inspired the "agitate the Joker" ideas in this chapter.
"You just gone and done the dumbest thing in your whole life" is a line from Sin City, and one that I just had to reference here because it remains my favorite response to having a gun pulled on oneself ever.
…I just realized that I may have made the Joker's Batman projection into his own personal Iron Giant.
Severe frostbite has been a phobia of mine ever since I watched an extremely disturbing sequence from The Men Behind the Sun, a Chinese film about the atrocities of the Japanese Unit 731 during WWII. If you've seen the movie, you know the scene. If you haven't, save your mind the scarring.