Word Count: 3,095
Rating: NC-17 (eventually)
Summary: "Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for awhile." -Westley, The Princess Bride
After an unfortunate turn of events, Bruce finds himself haunted.
Disclaimer: This work is based on characters and concepts created and owned by DC Comics, Warner Bros. and other entities and corporations. No money is being made and no copyright and/or trademark infringement is intended.
Warnings: graphic violence, mature themes, character death, angst, slash, necrophilia (if you count ghosts in your definition)
Batman didn’t hesitate, running after the green-haired figure that had slipped out a side door into the night. Gordon’s men had the situation under control and could take care of cleanup. Joker’s men were never anywhere near as tricky and dangerous as the man himself.
His heart and breath ratcheted up into a steady rhythm, his entire being focused on the fleet, shadowy outline of the criminal sprinting away from him. He knew why Joker had pulled this latest hostage job; everything he’d done in the last few months had seemed to be not so much about money, survival, thrills or social commentary so much as a game to lure Batman out into the open. Whatever the clown wanted with him, it had made him more daring, and thus more likely to make a mistake, expose a weakness.
Batman cursed silently as Joker rounded another corner. The Narrows was literally a maze, all twists and turns and unexpected openings. He’d never be able to get off a grapple shot the way Joker was running, and the clown likely knew it. He’d have to speed up and catch him bodily, or let him go for the moment. The latter was not an option – he had no way of knowing how many people Joker might hurt in the meantime, or on the next job. All to gain Batman’s attention and presence.
Gunshots shook him out of his train of thought and he put on an extra burst of speed, flat-out sprinting. What he saw when he rounded the corner wasn’t anything like what he’d expected; a small group of junkies were stumbling and jerking away at the other end of the alleyway, knowing even through their drug-induced haze that a mistake had been made and that they didn’t want to be there no matter whose attention the gunshots brought. A familiar form was down on the ground, one arm wrapped around his gut against the darkening pool that was spreading out beneath him.
Bruce didn’t even think about what he was doing, about whether it was a trick, about whether Joker was vindictive enough to stab him even in this state – he moved down to the clown’s side, assessing the damage as he fumbled with the few medical supplies he kept on his belt. It was quickly, painfully obvious that a few small bandages wouldn’t be enough. Someone had gotten in a few lucky shots and hit something vital.
Joker had never looked more furious, teeth gritted against the pain, eyes bright with feverish anger as he watched Batman kneel down to loom over him. A purple-gloved hand shot out, grabbed hold of Batman’s arm. “…wasn’t supposed to end like this, dammit.” His body twitched involuntarily as the dark knight unwrapped a piece of gauze, pressed it against one of the wounds; they both knew it was a futile endeavor. “I’m not done with you yet.”
“I know.” It had been obviously that Joker had been gunning for something specific, drawing Batman out again and again to try to lure him towards some secret goal the madman had. Whatever Joker’s intentions were, he’d never get to act on them. Bruce watched the white panels of fabric under his gauntlets grow dark and heavy, a numb sense of sadness filling him. Perhaps this was for the best in the end, for Gotham and its citizens, but Bruce never took joy in seeing death come to anyone, even those who were arguably deserving. “You don’t have very long. Was there anything you wanted to tell me?” Batman wasn’t a fitting priest to perform last rites, but he’d have to do.
Joker chuckled, the sound breaking off into a damp cough at the end. The hand on Bruce’s arm tugged him in closer, oddly full of strength for someone in his death throes. “Yeah. I’m not done with you yet.” He swallowed, dark eyes growing distant as his vision began to go dark. “… don’t be afraid, Bruce.”
Bruce froze in shock, lips parting slightly as he tried to reconcile what he’d just heard while the body under his hands quivered and went still. The comment had plunged into his mind like a rusty knife, ripping open old wounds that had never really healed properly. This setting, this stage was all too familiar.
When the echoes of old memories finally left him, Bruce looked down at the still form of Joker, prying off the hand that just didn’t want to let go of his arm before pulling back slightly. Somehow, the madman had known who he was, yet he’d never used it to his advantage. Never given any sign that he’d known.
One more mystery to add to the pile that he’d never solve.
Batman got to his feet, pulling out the encrypted communication device he’d had made to connect to Gordon during emergencies. He had to think quickly. He had a decision to make.
Bruce had driven the Tumbler home in silence, the edges of his mind still feeling hazy as he did his best to ignore the burden being transported with him, silently accusatory even behind a swathe of black plastic.
After a brief talk with the Commissioner, they’d both come to the agreement that neither of them wanted to announce the Joker’s demise at the moment. The clown had been too much of a focal point for Gotham’s criminal underworld. If the police confirmed his death, all hell would break loose: some of the men loyal to the madman would most likely try to take revenge on whoever they felt was responsible, some might try to take his place as a copycat, and a large scale turf war would immediately break out between all the major gangs and underworld contenders, scrabbling for a piece of what was no longer under Joker’s control. If Joker merely disappeared from the scene for awhile, the transition would occur more slowly and hopefully be more manageable. The GCPD were understaffed and overworked as it was, and nobody wanted another large-scale crisis if it could be diverted and diffused for awhile.
All of which left Bruce with a series of duties. Joker had died under his watch, literally under his hands, and now he had to deal with the body. He was uncomfortable with his new, temporary role as undertaker and the logistics of exactly where he’d be hiding the grave site, but the guilt and unease would be dealt with. Far better to endure it himself than add the burden of more deaths to his conscience should the street war he and Gordon feared come to pass.
He’d contacted Alfred as soon as he arrived back at the lair, told him not to come down. He knew his elderly mentor would try to comfort him through this, distract him and try to give him reasons to not feel that this was his fault. Perhaps Alfred would be right about that, but it wouldn’t stop him from feeling it, and such feelings were never easily reasoned away. This was something he was going to have to deal with by himself.
So much in his life boiled down to that.
As he exited the Tumbler, Bruce sank into the numbness with the ease of long practice, turning his attention to the matters at hand. The body bag was carried to one of the workshop tables and laid out, the plastic peeled back to reveal the still form beneath. Bruce began to take measurements automatically, trying not to think too deeply about how familiar the scent of death had become to him. For someone who’d seemed larger than life while alive, so full of an overwhelming aura of menace and power, Joker was surprisingly slender, if not quite to the point of being delicate. It would have been funny had it not had such a sense of the tragic, that the Terror of Gotham had come to such a sudden, lowly end with no real climax or catharsis to the tale. For all of his resources and cunning, he’d been just as susceptible to bad luck and bullets as anyone else.
The thought brought back more memories of another dark alleyway, other victims of bad luck and a desperate gunman. Bruce shook his head in an attempt to clear his mind, moving the wheeled table to the lair’s washroom. It didn’t matter what sort of person Joker had been, the string of bad decisions he’d made; even if he’d been a monster, he’d also been human, and Bruce wasn’t just going to dump him in a hole in the woods like a rabid dog that’d been put down.
Soiled clothing was stripped off and set aside, the body set on cold tile under a stream of water from one of the showerheads. A young man was gradually revealed underneath all the mess and smeared makeup – pale skin and freckles a sharp contrast to the patterning of scars that revealed a hard life. Without the lined ripped into his skin, Joker could have been a random man you could meet on the street of any city – handsome, but not unusually so. Normal. Bruce wondered again what combination of inherent madness and bad experiences had made the man choose the life of a monster. After all of their fights together, he’d gotten to the point where he could no longer deny to himself that he could have easily made the same descent into hell, violating the principles and morals his parents had taught him in a quest for bloody revenge.
Choice and self-discipline had made all the difference. That and the support of his oldest friend and mentor when he’d allowed Alfred to get moderately close. He kept most of his suppressed internal darkness hidden from the elderly man. Alfred undoubtedly knew it was there, but aside from showing concern for his health and happiness, the butler never pushed the issue.
Bruce replaced the cleaned body on the wheeled table, leaving it there as he went to go build a makeshift coffin out of whatever materials he had handy in the workshop. He worked in silence, piecing the box together, digging a hole out near the back wooded edge of the Wayne Manor property, sorting through older pieces of his clothing to find something he was willing to donate. Emotion finally began to seep past the numb mental barriers he’d put up as he dressed the dead man in colors he’d have never worn in life, closed the lid on the box, transported the coffin out to the site and began to lower it. It was truly beginning to hit him when he began to shovel dirt back into the shallow, unmarked grave.
Strangely, it was a sense of grief and loss.
The next few days that passed were surreal in their normalcy. Patrols went as smoothly as could be expected, and Gordon had made no effort to contact him yet. Bruce was a bit relieved about that; if the Commissioner had tried to talk about anything but business, as he’d begun to more recently in the last few months, Bruce didn’t know if he’d be able to take it. He didn’t want to talk about recent events. He kept everyone at a distance for their own protection as well as his own. It was just… better for everyone that way.
He hadn’t been able to work himself up to the point of being able to put on the Playboy façade convincingly, so he’d decided to spend some time with Lucius going over business strategies and decisions. He couldn’t do this for long or it would begin to be out of character for the Bruce Wayne everyone knew, but it was a comfort to be dealing with cold numbers for once instead of people who demanded charm and good humor.
Bruce was sitting in on a board meeting when he began to notice it – an odd, faint sound, like a voice too quiet to make out talking out of a hidden speaker, filling the room with quiet murmuring underneath the everyday sounds of professionals going about their business. It was distracting to the point that Bruce found himself peering about the room, trying to locate the source of the noise. He was surprised nobody else seemed to be hearing it.
“Something wrong, Mr. Wayne?” Lucius’ warm voice interrupted his search, drawing his attention to the board members that were watching him with a mixture of amused and exasperated faces. It came as no surprise to most of them that Bruce Wayne was, once again, not paying attention, merely warming a chair in the meeting room.
“I’m sorry, Lucius, I just keep hearing a faint buzzing. Are you sure nobody’s left a speaker phone on in here?” Bruce doubted that Lucius would allow anyone to plant bugs anywhere in the building, much less that someone could manage to secretly do so without him detecting it, but it was worth checking.
“I assure you, Mr. Wayne, this room doesn’t have that capability. I haven’t heard anything.” The older man tilted his head and regarded Bruce with a concerned smile. “Perhaps you ought to have your ears checked. Buzzing could be a sign that something else is wrong.”
Bruce recognized it for the cue it was, getting to his feet and nodding to the other board members. “Perhaps I’ll do that, yeah. Excuse me,” he murmured, giving the room one last searching look as he retreated. He’d never had a problem with his ears before, not even with as many times as he’d been in close proximity to gunfire. He’d always taken care to build sound protection into the batsuit’s cowl, so he doubted it was any kind of ear damage.
As he walked back to his office, Bruce couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being followed. He felt a presence shadowing along behind him, making the space between his shoulder blades itch, yet every time he glanced back there was nobody there. Neither had the audio phenomenon left, the faint whispers just quiet enough to be indecipherable. Entering his office and closing the door behind him, Bruce moved to the window and took in the view of Gotham spread out before him, darkly beautiful even in full sunlight.
On impulse, Bruce stuck his fingers into his ears, blocking out even the quiet sounds outside his office door. Instead of hearing nothing but his own breathing and heartbeat, as he’d expected, the whispers continued, all the louder for the lack of external sounds masking them. He could almost make out what was being said, and that coupled with the feeling of the presence behind him made him yank his fingers away, glancing around the room.
He was alone, and whatever he was hearing was coming from inside his head. Perhaps he was finally losing himself, just as Alfred had warned him about such things many times before.
Bruce paced around his office before deciding to drive home and call it a day. If he was having some sort of mild breakdown, he didn’t want to have it here at the office where so many people would see and gossip. As much as he didn’t mind being the subject of the rumor mills, he didn’t want to draw the wrong sort of attention. He took the elevator down to the secured garage and slowly drove back to the manor, ignoring the buzzing that continued to come and go in waves.
He parked the Lamborghini and snuck down to the batcave, grateful for the fact that Alfred was still out running the day’s errands. He didn’t want to give the older man one more thing to worry about. Bruce stripped out of the crisp suit he’d worn to the office, changing into something more suitable for training. Physical exercise served a double purpose – it was necessary to keep up his work as Batman, but it was also soothing in a way that few other things were. He had no one else to share his burdens with, but training could take some of the edge off when things started to weigh on him too heavily.
He’d just finished running a couple of warm-up laps, pausing to take a drink of water when he felt his skin prickle again, the whisper actually intelligible this time.
Bruce froze, wondering if he’d imagined it, or if the sounds he’d begun to consider as being a sign of a partial mental breakdown had actually formed real words. The feeling that someone was in the room had returned and intensified, despite the fact that nobody else could possibly have been there. He would have heard Alfred if he had come down. It can’t possibly be real.
Bruce started, unused to being spooked. The… voice had come through clearly this time with its one word response, fast on the heels of his own thoughts. Too fast for his mind to simply be responding to himself. I’m going crazy. This can’t possibly be happening.
Bruce paced the room, mouth pressed into a thin line as he tried to puzzle out what exactly was going on. The only times he’d ever had hallucinations before had been in reaction to chemical compounds he’d inhaled – first during his training with Ducard, then when the same agent had been turned into an airborne weapon by Dr. Jonathan Crane. As stressful as it had been to deal with the sudden death of his main enemy among the Gotham underworld, it shouldn’t have sent him over the edge.
He froze in midstride, a bit of color draining from his tanned skin. The quiet voice was oddly familiar. Bruce ran a hand over his face, feeling a damp slickness against his palm, breathing deeply to calm himself. Perhaps if he played along with this, he’d be able to figure out what was going on and fix himself. “What is this? Who are you? What do you want?”
Bruce had never believed in ghosts, in anything supernatural. He’d never seen any convincing evidence for it. With as much exposure as he’d had to theatrical tricks and conmen, Bruce had always assumed that stories of ghosts and haunting were the products of the human psyche constantly searching for patterns in its surroundings, internalized fears and hopes, and the wiles of charlatans looking to squeeze a few dollars out of easily suggestible folks. The response he received after a brief, potent silence was enough to chill his blood even so, as the voice was easily recognizable this time.
/I’m not done with you yet./
A/N: This is the first chapter in a longer series. Only the first chapter has been posted for the Knight vs Anarchy challenge. I will be continuing to post more chapters of this story in the relevant Batman/Joker communities, not here.