Joker purses his lips in a low whistle. "That'll leave a stain."
Coleman Reese lies in a glossy pool of blood, his throat slashed in a smile that stretches ear to ear. Dark red splatters paint the walls, the kitchen chair Joker straddles, drips slowly from the knife balanced negligently between his fingers.
"Now, don't look at me like that, you knew it was bound to happen sooner or later. We couldn't have him running about all willy-nilly with your face in his head." Joker folds his arms over the back of the chair and rests his cheek on them. His eyes are soft with pleasure. "He wasn't afraid of you anymore."
A wordless growl pushes at the back of Bruce's clenched teeth. "No one would have believed him."
Joker tsk-tsks. "Well, we couldn't risk that, and I'm not about to rely on you for these things, you know you're not really the best judge of character." He points the knife at Bruce's chest, sights down the blade. "Harvey would agree with me there."
Reese had left Wayne Enterprises years ago, his resignation set wordlessly onto Lucius's desk. His silence had been bought the day Bruce had saved his life. "There was no reason to kill him."
"Always so hung up on reasons. Haven't I taught you anything?" Sighing, Joker glances down at Reese's corpse. "It would be a shame to tell him now that he died for nothing at all. Isn't that what every man wants? To find meaning in death, when death is the meaning." With another sigh he rises from the chair, moving to peer out through the blood-spattered blinds. A smear of white paint sits in the grime on his sleeve, glistening as brightly as Reese's blood. "The Commissioner's not going to be a very happy camper when he finds you here. Brick by brick, the wall of Batman's enemies comes tumbling down. What does that mean, I wonder?"
There's no wail of sirens yet. Gotham's long winter nights, never so quiet, are becoming a foreign land. They cry out in a language Bruce has forgotten how to speak with someone else's words crowding inside his head.
Joker turns glittering eyes back to him. "If you ever let them catch you, I'll kill them. All of them."
Only the south wing is complete but Bruce knows the manor will never be what it once was. It was a foolish attempt, the idea more than the reality keeping Alfred content. Too many ghosts roam its sparkling new halls, too many scars lie barely healed and ready to bleed anew beneath its fresh paint.
He shivers as fingertips smeared with white circle the thick cluster of scar tissue on his shoulder. "And this one?"
"I don't remember."
"Liar, liar. Don't make me go find a telephone wire."
Bruce leaves his belt unbuckled and hanging out of the loops on his slacks to brace his hands against the bathroom sink. "A roof fell on me."
"If I didn't know better, I'd think Batman had a death wish." Joker's mouth takes the place of his fingers, warm and soft until he turns his head to press the rough knots of his scars to Bruce's skin. "But we both know that's not the wish you wished upon our stars."
Bruce closes his eyes, imagines smashing his fist into the mirror, and Joker's playful lilt snaps to a tight barbed-wire snarl. "Go ahead. Do it. It'll make you feel better."
Shards of glass slice into Bruce's knuckles, an explosion of pain radiating up his arm and spilling out from between Joker's lips in a pleased little moan. Rough hands tug at his zipper, impatiently shove his clothes out of the way to get at his cock. He chokes on the groans he tries to swallow and curls his hand into a tight fist as Joker jacks him, squeezing too hard one moment and not hard enough the next.
"No," Bruce says, craving the hateful, blissful wrench of his insides as Joker digs a nail into his slit. "Not again."
"Oh, shush," Joker says, lifting Bruce's bloodied hand to lick up one of the thin rivulets of red streaking his fingers. "You like it when it hurts."
The sharp tang of blood leaches into Bruce's mouth.
No one screams as Joker picks his way through the tables, pausing to peer interestedly at one dish and then to sneer at another. They chatter on, oblivious to the monster in their midst, and jealously sinks its teeth into Bruce's gut.
Bruce's date, yet another supermodel and this time from Karlstad, is in the bathroom powdering her nose as Joker slinks into her vacant seat, one arm slung across the table's corner and the other hooked over the back of the chair. "She doesn't really like you," he says, and sniffs at her wine. "But she thinks you'll look spiffy on her résumé."
Resting his elbows on the table, Bruce folds his hands in front of his mouth and whispers, "Go away."
"Oh, come on," Joker drawls, and laughs, so fond and cruel. "You know that's not going to work." He jabs a finger at Agda's grapefruit cured hamachi. "What's this supposed to be?"
"You know what it is."
Joker pauses, eyebrows lifting, before he huffs out a breath. "So what. It's more fun when you talk to me."
Pushing away from the table, Bruce stands and signals the server, leaving instructions for a car to be called for the lady and to be charged, along with the unfinished meal, to his name. He collects his coat and walks quickly out into the cool spring evening, desperate for the air to clear his head. The valet falls back at the curt wave of his hand.
Joker tromps along the sidewalk beside him, hands tucked casually in his pockets and his face turned to the biting wind, chin tilted high. His coat flares and snaps like it's a part of him, delights as much as he does in relentlessly dogging Bruce's heels. "And where are we going? Upset that I made you realise all those pretty smiles of hers are fake?"
"You are. You can't keep these sorts of things from me." A finger waggles in Bruce's face. "I know."
Bruce ignores him, cutting into an alley that connects with the lower city. Joker leans into the wind rushing through the tunnels between the towering buildings, his smile wide, pure.
"It always is," Joker says. "Always real. I've never given you reason to doubt me."
Something not really a smile tugs at the corner of Bruce's mouth. "I thought you said I don't need a reason."
A broken edge of asphalt catches Bruce's toe, sends him stumbling clumsily forward. His shoulder thumps against a wall slippery with filth, and he slumps there, shocked to realise that even after all these years he still isn't paying enough attention.
Joker's gloved hands strike the wall on either side of Bruce's head. "Tell me why you try so hard," he whispers against Bruce's jaw. "Tell me why you flap and flutter through the night, why you wake up screaming with your lungs about to pop and your throat so raw and bleeding. Tell me."
Bruce tips his head back against the wall. The sky above is caked with black murk. Soft leather brushes his throat.
"I don't need a reason," he says, closing his eyes as Joker's hold on him tightens.
The news runs a special on the carnage Gotham has endured since Batman's conception and a voice whispers in Bruce's ear, "Look at you go."
The markers are laid out in neat, tidy rows, society's rebellion against the chaotic path that led the graveyard's tenants here. Numbers instead of names, all Janes and Johns, and one that had a name everyone knew but didn't want to remember. He'd paid to have Joker buried here, where no one would know, where no one would build a shrine or smear shit across the marker.
"So nice to see you care," Joker says, flopped back in the scraggly midsummer grass, his smile garishly bright in the sun.
"It's your grave," Bruce says, standing atop it, "learn to stay in it."
"That pile of ash down there isn't me, no more than the bag of bones they'll put in your grave is you. Of all people, Batman should at least know that."
"My name is Bruce."
"Wrong again." Joker rolls to his feet, stretches lazily. His hair stirs in the breeze but his shadow remains still and lifeless. "That's who your poor dead mommy wanted you to be."
Bruce drags in a slow breath. He isn't strong enough to purge his demons and Batman needs them, wants them, holds them tightly in his chest in a grip like death. Without them, Bruce could never be him. "I don't know why I came here."
"Because you wanted to." Joker cocks his head, the shadow of his coat finally wavering. "No, you don't think that's it? Then because I wanted you to come here, and since you're as much me as I ever was, that really makes it all the same."
"You don't even exist."
Mouth twisted like a secret, Joker smiles and says, "And whose fault is that, hm?"
Arguing with the man had never worked, and arguing with a delusion that takes his shape is a worse idea still. Bruce turns to walk away and a hand seizes his elbow. Bony fingers dig into his flesh, the pain so real, so startling, that he stops, stares down at where nothing but his own mind holds him captive.
"You can't blame me for proving you right, you know," Joker murmurs, his insubstantial weight heavy against Bruce's back, his breath as warm as the sun. "Hand to God to Hand of God, even you can't kill an idea, and you can't blame me for this idea creeping inside your head, inside your heart, beating against skull and breastbone so loudly we danced to it, you and I."
Joker shivers, moans, and Bruce feels the tremor in his arms, the answering quiver in his belly. He knows the ecstasy that quickens Joker's pulse. He's seen it writ clear across his own disbelieving face. Sweat prickles at his hairline but his mouth is so very dry. "We danced so wonderfully and when you stumbled, when you were ready to fall, there I was and here I am."
"Get out of my head," Bruce says, his voice trapped between his own and Batman's, a brittle, despairing rasp. "Leave me alone."
But the lightest tug on his sleeve is all it takes to turn him back. He squeezes his eyes shut, blocking out the sun and the sky and the fever reflected so brightly in Joker's eyes. "You're so sorry you killed me. It's really kind of sweet." Cool hands frame his face, bring their foreheads together, the touch of Joker's skin a blessed relief on his. Their mouths brush, his lips dry and cracked, Joker's smooth, slicked with paint, so close to a kiss he never wanted.
A finger gently taps his head, and Joker says, "Do you want to know how you got those scars?"