Chapter 4: The Cockroach

You would think that even with a month-long leave of absence, no one would be stupid enough to try and mug him. Maybe the guy had been new to Gotham or high. The Joker looked down at the corpse. Then again, some people were just stupid, terminally so.

"What were you thinking?" he asked.

He knelt down to wipe the blood from his favourite knife on the mugger's dark clothing. It was a pretty futile exercise. His knife was still streaked with rust thanks to Blanc's influence. He had others of course, but this one had the worn grip that fitted his hand perfectly and he was loath to part with it.

As the last drops of blood left his knife and soaked into the would-be assailant's clothes, he sensed that someone else had appeared in the alley. He hadn't heard anything, but he knew that he was no longer alone in the dank laneway. There was only one individual that could sneak up on him with that much finesse. He had wondered how long it would take for Batman to track him down. The whole falling out with the police and public was bound to be a hindrance, but the Bat was more than human. The Joker knew his opponent would find a way.

He took his time standing up to savour the calm, before combat made everything gloriously chaotic. His grin was so wide it pulled at his scars.

"I was wondering when you'd catch up. I mean, I left a pretty obvious path of destruction. Surely the police aren't making things that difficult for you."

The Joker raised his head and paused. It wasn't Batman. The voluntary smile melted off his face. He was getting sick of the interruptions.

"So, I suppose you've come for this guy." The Joker jerked his head in the direction of the ex-mugger. The skeletal presence of Death remained as silent as the average Bat. The Joker gave an exaggerated sigh.

"You see, I'm not an idiot. I realised what was going on about the time I was talking with 'Sable'. War, Famine, 'Pollution', and now you. And you know what? I don't care. I've never feared you and I never will. So you can stop doing the whole silent-as-the-grave-thing and get the hell out of here. I'm expecting company." He ran a hand through his hair, but his gaze was focused and his eyes never left the hooded apparition before him.

Death, on the other hand, was not looking at him. He was looking past the clown's left shoulder. The Joker turned around very slowly. Beneath the greasepaint, his skin paled. No. No, no, no.

The Joker wasn't afraid of dying. He'd seen it enough times, caused it enough times, and he knew on an intellectual level that nothing was forever. He was going out with a bang (a very large and literal bang) and that was sort of like his very last piece of amusement. But he wasn't ready for this. Standing behind him and doing that thing where it was hard to tell where shadow ended and were Kevlar and cape began, was Batman. His Batman. The Joker spun back around to face the fourth rider. The skull made it impossible for Death not to be grinning, but somehow his grin seemed wider than it had right to be, and far, far more malevolent.

"I'm not done with him," the Joker managed to croak. "There are games to play and you are not taking him."

His own death, the Joker could handle. If he was killed by the Bat then he would know that it was a life well spent and that his last act was to corrupt the incorruptible. He would have settled for causing his own death, inadvertently, during his own chaos-inducing activities. But to lose the Bat would be worse than death. It would mean that the Joker would be faced with non-existence. No one would be able to stand against him. There was only one equal who was capable of surprising him, let alone stopping him. To lose his opposition would be more than losing his purpose; it would be losing himself.

He raised his knife. It was a stupid gesture and he knew it, but he really wasn't thinking clearly at this point. Death's head tilted down slightly and his gaze now seemed to be in the vicinity of Batman's left foot. Against his better judgement, the Joker turned around again to follow Death's eyeless gaze. The Bat took a step forward and there was a muted crunch. The Joker's gaze flicked to the pavement and he saw the remains of a crushed cockroach beneath Batman's foot. He whipped around again to confront Death. The rider was still grinning, but it no longer looked quite so malicious.

IT'S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT HUMANS. I SHADOW ALL OF CREATION, Death explained.

Death's voice was not something that was really spoken. The whole lack of vocal cords made a true voice impossible. Unlike the rest of the riders, there was no mistaking him for a human being. The words, though unspoken, seemed to filter through directly into the brain.

The Joker himself was speechless. That had never happened to him before, to his knowledge. It was one of the more bizarre feelings he had experienced. He couldn't even vocalise his resentment at having himself and the Batman referred to as humans.

JUST CONSIDER THIS A REMAINDER THAT NOT EVEN YOU ARE IMMUNE. With that, Death departed. He whisked away something indefinite from both the cockroach and the Joker's victim, with the exact same level of gravitas.

Joker shivered and turned back to face the Bat. He knew, in an entirely instinctive manner, that the vigilante hadn't seen Death and had only experienced one side of the stilted conversation. He tried to collect himself. The thought of a dead Bat had shaken him up more than he was willing to admit. War, Famine, Pollution and Death. The Joker was not ready to see Gotham end. There was too much to do, too much chaos to wreak and too many points to prove. Besides, Batman without Gotham would simply defeat the purpose of the game.

The Joker tightened his grip on his knife. Right now, all he wanted was combat. He sprung forward and felt secure in the notion that Batman knew him well enough to have some idea about how was going to attack. The vigilante was hard to take off guard without a surprise attack. They would be matched; the way it was meant to be.

The Joker's first strike went wide, skimming across reinforced Kevlar. A streak of rust marred the black surface where the Joker's knife had flaked. Damn Pollution. Damn all the riders. The Joker couldn't even summon his usual level of viciousness. He was rattled and idly wondered if Batman noticed that his opponent wasn't at his peek. It seemed the vigilante did indeed notice, but rather than closing in for a quick victory, he held back, naturally fearing a trap. Things were never this straightforward when he faced the Joker.

That in itself was hilarious. Batman was more wary of him when he was fighting less competently. The laughter welled up uncontrollably. It was only when he felt the familiar spasms that the Joker realised just how quiet he'd been and how little he had had to laugh about recently. The sound was also a trigger for his dear foe. The Bat's habitual scowl deepened at the sound of manic laughter and he surged forward with a growl. Maybe Batsy disliked his laughter and found it brought back unpleasant memories, or perhaps he felt relieved that the Joker was feeling better and realised that it was okay to play rough. The Joker decided that it was definitely the latter.

Despite his laughter, the Joker just couldn't focus on the fight. Usually thousands of possibilities sleeted through his mind during combat and his impulses seldom led him astray. Now he was distracted and restless, but not in a way that gave him any edge in the matter at hand. Needless to say, Batman's training and discipline, not mention physical strength, gave him the advantage.

The Joker only landed three more strikes and only one of them managed to insinuate itself between armour plates to draw blood. It was a poor effort and the wound probably wouldn't even need stitches. Of course the Joker wasn't fighting to kill, but he liked to leave a mark or two. It was like history, but indelible.

The Joker made one final pass with his knife before the rust-weakened blade snapped off at the hilt. He stared at it for a moment before reaching for one of at least a dozen spares, but the Bat was on him before he could retrieve a new weapon. The collision threw them to the ground and the Joker twisted around to escape, but found himself landing face-first onto the pavement instead. Despite the pain crawling across his face and ribs, the Joker giggled at the idea that he had executed a perfect, albeit unintentional, pratfall. He hoped the pavement wasn't scraping off his makeup too badly.

The Bat shoved a knee between the Joker's shoulder blades and drew his arms up behind his back. Handcuffs snapped into place around the Joker's wrists. He was going to make a comment about bondage, but his heart really wasn't in it. Instead, he turned his head to the side, ignoring the flare of pain that raced up his neck. "Just one favour, Batsy?"

Despite the awkward angle, he couldn't see his opponent and only really saw the walls of the alleyway. As expected, the only reply was silence. He could imagine the unwavering scowl focused on his back. He continued anyway. He knew the Bat was listening.

"Just don't let Gotham destroy itself completely. Not yet."

There was another silence. There was tension to this pause and the Joker could tell that Bats was waiting for the punch line. Unfortunately there wasn't one. Maybe he could occupy himself at Arkham by coming up with one.

"Fine," Batman eventually rasped. He knew better, but the request sounded almost genuine. For some reason, the clown had seemed even more disturbed than usual. Besides, there was no harm in verbalising his desire to protect Gotham, even though he was replying to an appeal from the Joker.

In the darkness, with his face caked with war red, famine black and pollution white, the Joker grinned. There wasn't going to be an ending for Gotham. Not yet.

~X~

Contradiction aside:

The End

Thank you, all