Word Count: 3,092
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)
Bruce’s mind struggled to break out of its frozen state. Whatever it seemed like, it couldn’t be true. Ghosts didn’t exist, pure and simple. Whatever happened after you died, you didn’t stick around. The only way you haunted those you left behind was through memories.
If ghosts existed, he would have never truly been without his parents. They wouldn’t have left him alone in the world if they could have been there, even as something faint and intangible.
The silence that greeted these thoughts seemed to confirm his theory, causing his tense muscles to unwind a little. It was just the stress of it all, the guilt, the clear parallels to old, pained memories where there should have been no comparison. Perhaps Joker’s death was his fault, in a way, but he couldn’t, shouldn’t let it bother him to the point where he put the criminal on the same level as his parents, much less manifest any guilty feelings he had as the dead man’s disembodied voice.
Bruce shook himself out of his contemplation, moving into the next stage of his exercise routine. The pull and burn of his muscles was incredibly grounding and soothing in its own way. It anchored him in the here and now, let him know when he was pushing himself hard enough. Meditation while training brought him clarity and a release from anxiety that he had never been able to achieve while sitting still. Eventually, no matter the state of his mind, his body became restless.
He was in the middle of his push-up sets when the buzzing returned, gradually solidifying into the hallucinatory voice again.
He ignored it, concentrating on counting his reps, losing himself in the movement. He had nothing to say to a figment of his imagination. If it was some sort of manifestation of his burdened conscience, it had picked a very ironic avatar to convey its distress.
He gritted his teeth, focusing instead on the discomfort in his arms as he got to his feet and moved to the pull-up bar. If he ignored it, with time it would go away.
Bruce exhaled sharply, beginning the first set. You’re not here. You’re not real. I did the best I could for you, and there’s no reason to feel guilty. You’ll go away with time.
Bruce didn’t feel like arguing with his own mind. He already felt unbalanced enough on some days just considering everything he did in his daily life. He didn’t need one more thing to make him question himself and his purpose.
Quiet, he thought back before he could stop himself. It wouldn’t be good to get into the habit of arguing with himself, even if it was only temporary. The general public seemed to already think he belonged in Arkham with the rest of the deranged scum that he sequestered away from the rest of society, but he’d not end up worthy of that sentence if he could help it.
Dropping from the bar, Bruce moved into the center of the training room, centering himself before launching into a kata. The forms came without thinking after long practice and endless repetitions. I am not already there. I’m sane, I’m in control, I protect people. I protect the city when no one else will. He was the last defense for the helpless when nearly the entire system of law and order was corrupt and rotting from within.
The voice’s words dripped with humor, as if it was seeing things Bruce hadn’t already considered. I don’t need to justify everything to myself all over again. I made the right choice. He finished a series of kicks and then straightened up, moving back into the starting position at the center of the room to begin again. I certainly am not going to argue if all my conscience can come up with is trite two-word commentary.
Laughter filled Bruce’s mind at that thought, eerie in how closely it matched his memories of the way Joker had laughed; it was the sound of a man who danced along the edge of being a wild animal. /Energy. Tiring,/ it said, offering the words as an explanation. /Not conscience./
There’s nothing else you can be. I’m just tormenting myself. As usual, he admitted. He knew he shouldered an unhealthy amount of responsibility, even for things that weren’t strictly his fault. It was a personality flaw – one that caused a fair amount of distress on a regular basis, but was also a great source of strength and compassion.
Bruce snorted and stilled his mind, not wanting to engage the rebellious piece of his consciousness any further. He sunk his focus into the training routine, ignoring the words that echoed in his mind every now and again. If he concentrated entirely on his movements, his breathing, and the sound of his own heartbeat, he couldn’t even make out what was being said. Eventually it went quiet, leaving him to finish the workout in peace.
The short reprieve didn’t last long. As soon as he’d finished cooling down, the voice returned, giving unsolicited input as he made his way towards the lair’s shower. Between the voice and the location, Bruce was trying desperately not to think back to what he’d used the tiled stall for only a few days earlier.
/Stop ignoring me./
Stop bothering me, he shot back, stripping off his sweat-soaked clothing and fiddling with the shower until he had the temperature he wanted. Having gone without for a number of years while he trained in Asia, Bruce had never stopped appreciating the simple pleasure of having a warm shower at the turn of a faucet.
There were some things you never truly appreciated until you lost them.
Silence filled his head again as he scrubbed himself down, but the sense of being watched by an invisible presence was back again, stronger than it had been before. For someone like him, intensely private at the core, it was more than a little unnerving, even if it was a false impression.
/So many scars./ The comment was so quiet that Bruce almost missed it under the hiss of the water streaming out of the showerhead. He ran one hand through slicked hair, glancing around him even though he knew he was alone.
Of course there are scars. Even taking care of himself as best he could, he couldn’t be Batman and escape entirely unscathed. Scars were the least of the dangers and the least of his worries. It wasn’t like anyone was ever going to be in the position to see them and pass some sort of aesthetic judgment.
/Not true./ The voice sounded oddly smug – pleased, even. That left Bruce more disconcerted than it should have. /I see mine./
Yes, Bruce ventured cautiously, aware that he shouldn’t be engaging a figment of his imagination like this. As if it was real. Or perhaps that was what was needed? Closure, a different method of coping? He would have to do a bit of research on the matter when he had a spare moment. You caused a lot of them. Probably more than anyone else. Joker had been a great deal cleverer than the other criminals he regularly dealt with, even the mafia types. He’d manipulated situations until he could get up close and personal more times than Bruce could count, and after one of those sorts of encounters a mark was usually left behind. Alfred had nearly gotten to the point of insisting Bruce don the old, heavier, less flexible batsuit when he had to keep patching knife holes left in flesh and armor alike.
/Of course./ The voice’s tone made it sound like the reason for that should have been perfectly obvious. /I know you./
Because you are me. Joker is dead. Some part of me is doing this for one reason or another, and so you know me. But you can’t tell me anything I don’t already know.
You’d have to prove it before I’d believe that. Bruce leaned against the tiled wall and relaxed under the warm water for a moment. Whatever the hallucination tried to tell him, he was confident he could reason his way through it.
/I will./ Silence filled Bruce’s mind as he finished rinsing off and turned the faucet off, stepping out to dry himself. /Ask./
Ask what? Bruce didn’t pause, stripping the excess moisture off his skin and wrapping the towel around his waist when he was done. Ask you questions that only you would have known?
/Yes. But short./
Why can’t you respond in full sentences? He asked, a little exasperated with the stilted nature of this… conversation, or whatever it happened to be.
/Not enough energy./
Bruce thought it was more likely that his mind was just trying to be purposefully cryptic. Not enough energy. You’re saying talking like this at all is a chore?
It was a good excuse. Bruce wondered how many hoops this part of his mind would jump through to try to make itself believable. So where are you getting the energy from?
/You,/ it admitted. /And environment./ It was silent as Bruce pulled on one of the spare sets of clothes he kept down in the lair, simply watching the lines of the man’s body disappear under layers of cloth. /Makes things cold./
That mimicked the usual urban legends spread about ghosts, of course. Haunted locations purportedly had “cold spots” and electromagnetic fluctuations that couldn’t be explained, yet defied every professional attempt to record a conclusive set of data. Bruce pondered this as he moved towards the master computer, taking a seat and turning on all the displays. The monitors flickered to life, some of them already set to show the major local news stations. If you can do that, you should be able to do it in a designated spot. He extended his left arm out to one side, palm turned upward. Prove it. Make it cold there.
The chatter from the screens filled the air around Bruce as absolutely nothing happened. No, that wasn’t quite true – the fingers of his left hand were beginning to feel cold and slightly numb, the nerve endings tingling… but he was underground, and had just stepped out of the shower. Getting cold was hardly anything out of the ordinary. Well, that was underwhelming.
/New to this,/ came the resentful, muttered reply. The computer monitors flickered for a moment, something interfering with the electron flow. /Just a couple days./
Bruce ignored the response, bringing his hands together over the keyboard and logging himself in to the surveillance systems. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but he liked being able to check on things throughout the day. Gordon often didn’t call and fill him in on a situation until it had been well out-of-hand for awhile.
Minutes slipped away as he hacked into the police systems and checked the recently filed reports. Irritatingly, his computer seemed to have a connection problem – the screens would flicker with static every once in awhile, accompanied with a slower clocking time for whatever program he was working with. A chill was slowly spreading over him as well, spreading across his shoulders and neck and down his chest.
/How is that?/ the voice murmured, much more audible than it had previously been. The monitors in front of him filled with static again for a moment. /Could go lower./
Stop that, Bruce hissed back mentally, fingers drifting up to pinch the bridge of his nose as he fought back an irrational wave of irritation. He was not being haunted by a dead clown, and there had to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for why his equipment was malfunctioning.
/Let me check./
Bruce jolted upright and out of his chair, backing away for a few steps. He couldn’t recall the lair ever being this drafty and cold, much less having the chill seep through to very… specific… locations. Cackling filled his head as he extended a hand, trying to figure out where the drafts were coming from. /Wrong guess./
Bruce’s eyes widened, his jaw clenching as another breath of winter hit very unappreciative, tender skin. Stop that. I mean it.
Or what, indeed. What on earth could one do to a figment of one’s imagination? Bruce stubbornly refused to consider any other option, cold or no. He wasn’t even going to consider ghosts as a possibility, much less ponder Joker doing… that to him. Well, what do you want?
The voice laughed, pleased with the question. /You, Bruce. Always./
That made absolutely no sense. You are me. The words reminded him of other memories, however – the odd obsession Joker had always had for him when he’d been alive, the things he’d said to him during their many encounters. Bruce had not paid it much mind at the time, too concerned with getting the madman off the streets and keeping him from hurting anyone else.
/Yes,/ it whispered back, seeming to follow his train of thought. /Wanted you./
Bruce considered this, watching the computer screens flicker and hiss just a few feet away. …why? He could understand someone that unbalanced feeling a sort of… professional or philosophical rivalry, but the voice’s tone was making it apparent that it… he… had had a different set of intentions.
/Can’t… talk well,/ the voice grated out, sounding more than a little angry about the fact. /Too many reasons./
Bruce sighed. He should have known better, really. His subconscious couldn’t come up with any answers he didn’t already know. Well, tell me sometime, if you can. A glance at his watch told him that he should eat dinner while he could; it would be time for patrol soon enough.
/I will./ The chill of the lair followed Bruce up the elevator to the ground floor of the manor, stubbornly clinging to his skin. Bruce rubbed his arms briskly and made his way towards the kitchen, hoping to find Alfred or, at least, some of Alfred’s handiwork. His oldest friend would have seemed psychic at times if it weren’t for the fact that Bruce’s schedule tended to be fairly predictable.
True to form, Alfred wasn’t present, but a set of covered dishes hinted that his absence was a recent occurrence. A quick bit of investigating revealed a lean cut of meat and steamed vegetables under the ceramic covers, still warm. Bruce grabbed a plate and sat down at the kitchen table, planning out his night as he dug in. The food seemed to help him get rid of the cold feeling still lingering at his core.
/Patrol every night?/
Yes. It was irrational to keep humoring this phenomenon like it was a different person, but it was less effort to engage it that way than to constantly remind himself that it was a guilty twinge that would soon leave.
/Not worn out?/
Yeah, it gets wearing. But nobody else can do it. It was the same argument he’d used with himself, again and again. The number of good cops is still few and far between, and they can’t do the things I can. Gotham can’t afford for me to take nights off.
/Gotta rest sometime./
Bruce shrugged. He was forced to take a break every once in awhile due to injury, but improvements to his gear had minimized the frequency of those occasions. Perhaps. But not now.
When it’s enough. He knew very well that that day would never come, but that was an issue he’d always brushed aside, even when Alfred tried to broach the subject with him. It would never be enough. He’d given over the whole of his life to a cause, to an idea. It stretched out before him, eating up whatever time he’d be allotted in life, just as it had devoured others around him: Harvey, Rachel. His parents, with their kind hearts and open pockets.
He had decided to take the hard road so that fewer people had to, so that some might escape suffering. He’d given up a great many options when deciding to pursue the path of self-sacrifice. He’d stop temporarily when he was hurt, when extenuating circumstances didn’t permit him to do his work, but it would never end. He’d accepted the fact that old age was something he’d never get a chance to experience, and he’d had his Will drawn up accordingly.
/…you’re depressing, Bat./
You just noticed this now? Bruce thought, a ghost of a smile touching his lips as he turned his attention to the food in front of him. You really thought Batman would be all comedy and sunshine?
/No./ A few minutes passed, giving Bruce a chance to devour half the plate before it added, /just less broken./
I’m not broken. Bruce carried the dish to the counter, dumping the last few bites in the trash and leaving the plate in the sink. The fading light through the windows told him that it was time to get going. He drifted back towards the hidden elevator that would take him down to the lair again. Maybe you were, but that was one of the many things you were in the wrong about. We were nothing alike.
You’ll never convince me of that, Bruce shot back. We were nothing alike. I try to preserve life. I value it. All you ever did was play with people like they were toys, crushing them to pieces when you were done. Bruce couldn’t quite bring himself to really believe Joker had deserved what he’d gotten – nobody really deserved a violent, messy end – but the man had been a monster when he’d been alive. He hadn’t deserved it, just as he’d finally accepted the fact that his parents’ murderer hadn’t deserved his sudden end, but on some level he was glad both of them were gone.
/…you mean that?/
Bruce hadn’t quite been expecting to hear Joker’s voice use that… tone. It was unusually quiet for the madman he’d known, low and laced with hurt. You killed, or nearly killed, many people I cared about. Still care about. You never would have stopped killing, if you were still alive. He opened the armor rack, stripping down and beginning to put on the batsuit. I’m glad you can’t hurt anyone anymore.
Bruce was left in silence as he finished gearing up. Everything was quiet and peaceful as he started up the Tumbler and headed out into the night.
A/N: Due to the turn-in extension, I got to submit another chapter for points! As a reminder, this story will be continued at batsandknives.