Author's Note: A ridiculous delay and my sincere apologies. It's an extra-long chapter…
A woman screamed in an alleyway. In a city like Gotham it was a part of the background noise. For Batman, it was a call to action. He had been searching for leads on both the Joker and the Scarecrow for weeks. Crane's ruthless and unexpected attack made his capture a priority, but Joker was also behaving unusually. He had been inactive for too long after his escape. It was unsettling for the police and the public, but for Batman it was almost torture. Any day could bring reports of fiery destruction or the deaths of innocent civilians. Batman was prepared for anything, anything at all, except this silence.
At least dealing with a mugging was straightforward. These sorts of crimes were clear cut affairs. The perpetrator was motivated by sane reasons. Batman could help someone and at best, maybe even save a life. He wouldn't be hampered by the police and one more criminal would be spreading stories of Batman and adding to the ledged.
The vigilante dropped down into the dead-end alleyway. It was the sort of scene he'd disrupted countless times in the past. The civilian was backed up against a wall. A can of mace, presumably the victim's, was lying on the ground. The criminal was carrying a knife, but his grip on handle the suggested familiarity rather than training or expertise.
Batman surged forward and crushed the criminal's wrist with his left hand. The vigilante's right fist swung around and rammed into the assailant's jaw. Of course he pulled the punch at the last moment. Batman was a trained martial artist and he knew how to take a strike as well as he delivered them. Common criminals didn't have that training and Bruce didn't want to break the mugger's jaw. A lot of these sorts of criminals in Gotham were just desperate people and crippling them wouldn't be justice. Sirens wailed in the distance. It was more background noise that went largely ignored.
The mugger dropped the knife and slumped against the wall in a dazed stupor. The victim hadn't stopped screaming. She was clearly just as terrified of the vigilante. That should have been the end of it, but the woman's screams had attracted attention. The police budget had been increased substantially after the Joker's attacks and Batman's supposed crimes. This meant more cops on the street and much better response times.
It only took seconds for two police cars to drive up and block the entrance to the dead-end alleyway. Batman's gaze swept toward the rooftops. He couldn't hear helicopters, so this was an unlucky chance rather than a trap for him. Five police officers were already shielding themselves behind their squad cars. They were all pointing guns at him and they all though that he was a cop killer.
"Keep your hands where I can see them!" one officer yelled as Batman surreptitiously reached for his grapnel. The vigilante hesitated.
Much later, Batman blamed his distaste for firearms getting in the way of his observation. He saw a gun waver rather than the way the rookie cop behind it was shaking. The kid was scared and it was probably an accident. He fired his gun. The shot went wide, but it acted as a trigger for the rest of the nervous, adrenaline-filled police. Bullets arced through the alley before anyone beside Batman realised what had happened.
The vigilante leapt in front of the criminal and victim, but he wasn't faster than a speeding bullet. One shot slammed into the woman's shoulder and the next one ripped through her ribcage. Batman recognised a killing shot when he saw it. Even dazed, the mugger had hit the ground as soon as the first shot had been fired and he was fine. It was the innocent civilian that didn't know what to do in a fire-fight. Batman set aside his horror and rage in favour of escaping.
"Stop it! Stop shooting, damn it!" the lead officer shouted just as the woman's body hit the pavement. Batman was already on the rooftops and concentrating on evading any pursuit. But focused as he was, he still heard the rookie cop pleading.
"Oh god, I didn't mean to. She's okay, right? Oh god, oh god…"
Once he was away from the site of the killing, Batman took a moment to sit on a rooftop ledge and inspected his side. Though he hadn't noticed it at the time, he had sustained an injury. A bullet had grazed his flesh where a joint in his armour left him somewhat vulnerable. Some of the more superstitious criminals thought that he could dodge bullets and it payed to feed those rumours. In reality it was a combination of the Kevlar, and a clear sense of how people used firearms when panicked, that saved the vigilante from most bullet wounds. But that didn't save bystanders. Batman scowled as he replayed the events in his mind. He had to do better, he had to be faster or innocents would pay the price. His expression could have been carved from stone.
Congealing blood between Batman's skin and the inside of his armour became tacky as it dried, restricting movement. He made a note to talk to Lucius about it. The vigilante used a batarang to cut a small section of the damaged fibres away from his wound. A few threads stuck to the drying blood, but Bruce didn't wince as they pulled away from the lesion. He applied antiseptic and used adhesive bandages to fix a pad over the wound. Both the pad and bandages were black. No one would be able to tell he'd been hit unless they were scrutinising the site and that was unlikely during combat. The thought of cutting his patrol short and returning home didn't even cross Batman's mind. Alfred could patch him up in the morning. It would give his old friend an opportunity to lecture him.
An unpleasantly familiar voice cut through Bruce's musings. "That looks like it hurts. Well, probably not as much as the image of that poor girl hitting the pavement. Thud. It's a very distinctive sound, don't you think? Kind of like dropping a thick steak onto linoleum."
An inarticulate growl rose from Batman's throat as he twisted around to face the intruder. The Joker waved at him. The casual gesture was rather spoiled by the knife clutched in his hand. Batman leapt to his feet while completely ignoring the pain that tore through his side.
"You know I really do admire your stubborn streak. You're out here getting in the way, getting bystanders killed, being chased down by the police and you're still insisting that you're doing this for Gotham. For them."
"The police are part of the mess you caused with Dent. I'm cleaning it up."
"You're really not. And as much as I'd love to take credit for all this, it's only inevitability. This city is sliding into a pit and no matter how hard you dig your heels in, things are only going to get worse, inch by inch."
Batman concerntrated on his fighting stance, his eyes never leaving the Joker's knife. The Joker's other hand reached inside his coat. Before the vigilante could react, a note book and a folder containing some documents thudded onto the rooftop. He tensed, but took a half-step forward when it became obvious the contents weren't going to explode.
"What's this, Joker?"
The clown merely smiled. "Remember what I was saying about things only getting worse?"
Far away from the two arch-foes, in an apartment in the Narrows, Crane scowled. He was looking at the cheery post-it note that had been left on one of the documents he'd stolen from Wayne Tech. it was a message from the Joker explaining that he had taken the notebook, with the suspicious formula, and that he knew that Crane wouldn't mind. There was a smiley face scrawled on one corner.
That smiley face is creepy, Scarecrow commented.
Crane ignored Scarecrow and continued to scowl. Other than his expression, the doctor was being remarkably controlled.
'The next time I see that damn clown—' Crane began in even tones.
That's not all he took, Jonathan. I'm fairly sure your stack of experimental notes was higher than that.
Crane looked over at his meticulously organised data. He could guess what was missing, even if the Joker's motives were as opaque as usual. This time Crane cursed viciously and just barely refrained from scattering his notes. Scarecrow smirked at his counterpart's unaccustomed belligerence. It was unusual to see Crane lose his composure.
Crane collected himself in less than a minute. 'I'm surprised that the narcissist left the Arkham notes that directly concerned him,' he said bitterly.
I guess it's better than nothing…
Crane continued to scowl.
Batman didn't reach for the folder, despite how strongly his curiosity was piqued.
"Come on, it's a gift," the Joker insisted.
The vigilante glared and remained silent.
"You're going to pick it up sooner or later. If it was a trap you'd already know the punch line. It's all about the timing." The Joker was toying with his knife, but his free hand tapped arrhythmically against the side of his leg.
When it became obvious that the Bat wasn't going to reply, the clown continued. "Now you're just being contrary. You don't want to do something that I suggest out of sheer stubbornness."
Finally Batman chose to participate in the one-sided conversation. "You don't know a thing about me," he growled.
The clown broke into a fit of laughter. It almost seemed genuine. "That's a good one!" he chortled. "Firstly, I know you're just dying to hit me and that any second—"
Batman's Kevlar clad fist rammed into the Joker's jaw and spun him to the side.
"Lucky guess," Batman muttered as he turned to face his opponent again. Pain lanced through the vigilante's side but it didn't show on his face.
The clown was still howling with laughter as they fought and he chanted 'told you so' in between fits of giggles. Despite his lingering mirth, the Joker fought with complete focus. His knife flashed across the reinforced Kevlar plates, searching for edges. Batman fought to incapacitate when he could. However, the manic viciousness that was employed against him often forced him to strike to hurt, just to give himself space to think and breathe. Batman couldn't hold back when he fought the Joker. He told himself that he didn't enjoy those few moments when a violent, uncontrolled punch was a necessity.
Unacceptable satisfaction aside, uncontrolled meant inefficient, and when Batman ducked out of the way of a particularly fierce thrust, it gave the madman an opportunity to flee. The vigilante gave chase, but it was futile. Even though it should be impossible to lose a bright purple target, his enemy could use the shadows and darkness almost as effectively as he did himself.
Batman chased the Joker over rooftops and through alleyways for hours. Even after he lost the trail, he had started searching in a widening spiral pattern, expecting to find bloody corpses or other markers of the clown's passing. Most of the time, the Joker wanted to be caught. But on those rare occasions when he didn't, he excelled at disappearing. Batman growled to himself and made his way back to the rooftop where the papers had been left. Maybe they'd offer some insight into the Joker's activities. The clown liked to leave threats.
Batman recognised the Wayne Enterprises logo on the cover of the notebook. A chill slid down his spine. Reminders about his identity were not welcome during his patrol, especially not coming from the Joker. But it was worse than that. Bruce didn't need to open the notebook to guess that it was one of the stolen notebooks from Wayne Tech.
First it was weeks of inactivity from the Joker, and then it had been a flashy and completely uncharacteristic attack from Scarecrow against Wayne Enterprises. Now the clown was appearing with Crane's stolen notes. Batman desperately hoped that this wasn't an indication that the villains had joined forces. If Joker and Scarecrow were working together, then Gotham was going to suffer. This cryptic clue, or more likely threat, from the Joker was just the perfect end to this hellish patrol.
Once the Joker was sure that he wasn't being trailed by Batman, he ducked into an alley to catch his breath and check his wounds. After taking in a lungful of Gotham's hazy air, the Joker burst into a fit of laughter. The police accidentally killing, the Bat blaming himself, and the fight, had all been so perfect.
The laughter gradually subsided until only the occasional giggle spilled from the clown's ruined mouth. At that point, he dragged off a glove with his teeth and proceeded to explore a bruise forming just underneath his ribs. He shivered as pain crawled across his torso and his smile broadened. Batman always played hard, just like him. His un-gloved hand tested his jaw as well. There was no fracture, no break, but it was going to be sore tomorrow. Hell, it was sore right now. He prodded the injury a little harder than necessary. The resulting twinge caused him to chuckle. It had been fun, but it was time to call it a night. There were bigger things to occupy his time over the next few days.
The Joker didn't have any sort of permanent hideout. The police thought he moved around to avoid detection, but the real reason had nothing to do with pragmatism. He got bored easily and moving around helped to keep him occupied. It was also hilarious whenever he forgot that he had moved on and returned to an old, stripped lair and ended up sleeping on the floor. It was even funnier if he forgot where his newest hideout was and had to start from scratch. It kept life interesting.
The clown was currently holed up in an abandoned industrial district near Gotham's harbour. There were old warehouses galore, but the Joker had chosen a small office block. He had even acquired a bare mattress, for once. When he got around to getting more henchmen, he would move into a warehouse. It was practically traditional.
As the clown made his way into his hideout, he was immediately beset upon. His recent tangle with Batman had left him careless. If his favourite foe had lost his trail, then there few others who'd risk tangling with him like this. Even the mob's hit-men had gotten the message. Admittedly he had to carve said message into the flesh of three separate individuals, but he'd made his point.
The Joker's back thudded into the wall. The jolt winded him so his laughter was breathless and wheezy. Fresh pain flared up from his bruises.
"Where are the notes, you petty thief?"
The Joker raised an eyebrow as he recognised his assailant. The mild insult was also amusingly understated. "Hiya Scar—wait, doc? Who's driving?"
The masked villain pressed a forearm into the Joker's throat to cut off the enquiry. "Unless the next words out of your mouth involve the location of my notes, I'm going to give you a nice concentrated does of toxin and watch you scream until your throat starts to bleed. Then we can try again." He decreased the pressure on the Joker's throat to hear the clown speak.
The Joker was expectedly uncooperative. "I'd say Scary because of the mask and the lack of personal space, but my instincts say it's the doc, and not just because of the obsessive notes-thing." The clown reached up and tugged lightly on the burlap shrouding his guest's face. "You two are a lot harder to read when you're wearing this."
The masked villain jerked his head away from the Joker's hand. He was scowling beneath his mask. The Joker's unconcerned attitude was igniting his temper. A stray beam of light from the shipping yard glinted off a canister of fear toxin. The Joker had never been exposed to the aerosol version.
"Anyway," the Joker continued, "I gave your notes to the Bat along with the Arkham formula. He should have fun with that."
"You did what?"
"I think he'll go after the Asylum or maybe Wayne Tech. It won't take him long to put the chemical puzzle together. After all, he did crack your toxin pretty quickly. That's why you keep modifying it, right?"
The intruder's anger at being ignored was palpable. He was about to release a cloud of toxin when an unpleasant sensation caused him to freeze. Despite the Joker's apparent unconcern, he'd unsheathed a knife with his left hand and the blade was currently in the vicinity of his attacker's right kidney. The Joker's expression had changed from light amusement to something much more dangerous. But it was the feeling of sharp metal against the masked villain's flesh that caused him to lower the canister.
The Joker used his free hand to pull off the other's mask. "So it's you, doc," he exclaimed. The feral glint in his eyes was replaced by mirth, though it was doubtful that anything glimpsed in the Joker's expression was ever truly genuine.
Crane gave the clown a wary look and pocketed his canister. He knew the Joker was faster, especially with a knife. "That was an inane comment, but yes, it's me."
The Joker furrowed his brow. "I thought so."
"Scarecrow and I were shifting control fairly quickly. He enjoys dealing with emotions like anger, and I let him, but my notes took precedence."
The Joker nodded to himself. "And the threats?"
Crane gave a cold smile. "We both enjoyed that, though your lack of fear was disappointing."
"But not unexpected."
"No, I know you well enough to have grasped your typical behaviour," the doctor said.
The Joker gave the ex-psychiatrist a searching look. His knife dug in a little deeper, though he didn't seem aware of it.
Crane shifted slightly, though he maintained a neutral expression. "But I'm not a behavioural psychologist and I don't find voluntary behaviour particularly informative of the cognitive process," he hastened to explained.
The Joker smiled and the pressure on the knife blade lessened. "Are your next words going to be about how useful fear is in describing the 'cognitive process'?"
Crane shrugged. "You know my opinions and you've experienced my research methods first hand." Crane allowed himself a sharp smile, though it was only brief.
The Joker tilted his head to one side. "Did you learn much, doc?"
The Joker's smile widened. "You really are fun."
"I suppose that's a compliment, coming from you."
"Fun is the single real thing in this world. It's the only compliment."
"I don't know—the fact that you haven't sunk your knife into my kidney seems fairly complimentary."
The Joker snickered and sheathed his knife.
"Why did you give my notes to Batman?" Crane asked. Now that the Joker seemed less likely to spill blood, the doctor wanted answers.
The Joker shrugged. "Why not? I saw them sitting on your table and I decided to share the joke. It's funnier that way."
The doctor scowled in reply.
The Joker sought to disentangle himself from Crane. The ex-psychiatrist realised just how close he had been standing thanks to Scarecrow's influence. He stepped back quickly.
"So, doc, don't you have copies or something?"
"Not of the Arkham notes."
"Oh come on, I just stole one little notebook."
"One little relevant notebook."
The Joker shrugged again and sat down on a dusty desk. The wooden veneer was peeling and the Joker picked at it with the tip of his knife. Crane folded his arms. A part of him was keenly aware of being in the Joker's territory. It was hard enough dealing with the clown when the doctor had the advantage of familiar terrain. This was even more difficult. Naturally his instinct was to go on the offensive.
"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you gave the notes to Batman."
The Joker shot a quick look in Crane's direction. The feral look flashed in his gaze for an instant.
Crane pressed his point. "Your preoccupation is obvious. It has even been established under experimental conditions."
The Joker didn't look at Crane, but his knife dug a deep furrow into the surface of the desk. The doctor tried to slow his elevated heart rate. Perhaps it was best to abandon this line of discussion. It was clearly dangerous. Unfortunately, his counterpart was feeling displeased about not getting to dose the Joker. Scarecrow took control and decided to pursue the conversation with his usual level of tact.
"It's almost like you're in love with him or something," Scarecrow said without bothering to hide the note of aversion in his tone.
Instead of anger, laughter or accusations of jealousy, the Joker merely looked thoughtful for a moment. "Maybe. It's possible to love someone so much that you want to break every bone in their body, right?"
Scarecrow gave him a long look and tried to work out if the clown really meant it. "You're very disturbing."
The Joker smiled. "Coming from you, that's almost a compliment."
"Look Scary, I don't need to think up a hundred different reasons for doing things after the fact. That's what most people tend to do. They act and then they wonder why they did it. They think up all these clever little reasons that have nothing to do with the gut instinct that drove them in the first place. I don't pretend. There's no such thing as a good reason."
The Joker buried his knife in the desktop and stood up. Scarecrow watched him approach and leaned forward slightly. There was something terribly compelling about the Joker. In the back of their mind, Crane snorted.
"Speaking of reasons and gut instincts," the Joker continued, "you could stay the night if you wanted. I suppose the invitation extends to the doc as well."
For the first time in months, Bruce was alert and awake during a board meeting. However, he wasn't paying attention to the actual content of the meeting. Instead he was brooding about the notes he'd received from the Joker. He'd handed them over to Lucius and the reinstated CEO had discovered some important things. So now Bruce was restless and close to fidgeting in his seat as the meeting droned on and he tried to catch Lucius' attention without appearing to.
Lucius was as patiently dedicated to the company as he was to Bruce's nocturnal crusade. That meant that the meeting covered everything of immediate importance. By that point, Bruce was drumming his fingers on the table and wondering if Lucius knew Morse code and whether it was worth tapping out a message.
Eventually, the CEO took pity on the vigilante and called a break. The other board members leaned back to stretch and a couple of them requested coffee from a hovering personal assistant. Lucius walked out of the room for a breath of air. After a few seconds, Bruce gave the board a vacant smile and murmured something about needing to see the new secretary and welcome her to the company. A couple of the more senior members of the board rolled their eyes while the rest tried to hide their distaste behind indulgent smiles.
Bruce found Lucius waiting for him in an empty office near the board room. He was carrying a folder that had been with him in the meeting. Bruce had assumed it was related to the company, but Lucius' grave expression indicated otherwise. As soon as Bruce shut the door, Lucius got down to business.
"You were right, Mr Wayne. The notebook was part of the information that was stolen from the tech. division. The loose notes aren't anything I've seen before, but the compound that they describe is the same one isolated from the coma victim."
"Larry Walters," Bruce said.
Lucius gave Bruce a sympathetic look. He seemed about to say something but stopped himself at the last minute. "Yes. From what I can tell so far, the specialists were right. There's no way to clear this compound. It's not just sitting in the brain and causing trouble. It's damaged the structure of the neurons themselves."
"Couldn't we repair that damage?"
"If we could, Mr Wayne, it would be hailed as a medical marvel. There's no cure for brain dysfunctions like Alzheimer's or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and there's no cure for this. Once the neurons start decaying, there's not a lot that anyone can do."
Bruce stared at a point just behind Lucius' shoulder as he came to terms with the information.
"That's not the only bad news, I'm afraid."
Bruce looked back at Lucius.
"If you recall the Arkham brief," Lucius began. Bruce nodded. He had covertly encouraged the deal in the first place. Batman was not the only way that he could do good in Gotham.
"Well, this stolen notebook outlines some preliminary structures for the drugs that the tech. division was working on. They bear a remarkable similarity to the structure of Crane's compound. There are slight discrepancies, so the effects could differ, but the way the backbone of the compound has been arranged suggests that any effects would be altering the structure of the brain. Doing that is irreversible and seldom good."
Bruce didn't say anything but his mouth drew into a frown.
The silence stretched and Lucius felt compelled to explain something else. "It might be inappropriate to say it, but the individual who wrote out these notes is brilliant. I had a sense of that when I worked on the 'fear toxin', but this is different. The toxin could have been a fluke—you told me about those flowers yourself. However, these notes show a ruthlessly methodical approach and an exceptional level of intuition with chemistry. If these really are his notes, then Crane is a dangerous man." Lucius' expression was earnest; though it was clear he was uncomfortable praising the ability of a psychopathic criminal.
"I know. These sorts of criminals are different from the mob or the desperate elements in Gotham. Crane, Joker, D—" Bruce caught himself, "Ra's al Ghul, these are individuals who could have done great things with their lives. That makes them worse. They had a chance to make the world better place and instead they chose to destroy."
Lucius was silent for a moment. "It wouldn't do any good if I told you that what happened to Larry wasn't your fault, would it?"
"No." For the second time in as many days, Lucius saw an expression that did not belong on playboy-billionaire Bruce Wayne's face.