He let Harleen see him down the pills, so she'd have to come face to face with the reaction, the blood coughed onto his hand as though he was the swooning Victorian maiden, wasting away from consumption. It was a poetic image, dashingly tragic, a little bit of fantasy to spice up the dullness his life had become. He wanted to fight her, so he asked her to train him: he wanted to fight Batman, but Harleen was what he had on hand. For a while, the soaring of adrenaline in his veins made it easy to forget. Forget he wasn't running through the streets—forget he wasn't pulling off a successful heist—forget he wasn't the playing the Joker anymore. He wanted to fight her, but the more he did, the more he was afraid he might actually hurt her; that he might actually want to. He couldn't talk to her, he couldn't fight, he couldn't move, for it was like treading on a beam, far above the ground. It was the most he could do not to look down.
She got him in the face, where he'd asked her not to; payback for all the punches he'd once thrown her way. It annoyed him; it was the only stipulation he'd given. If she wanted to hurt him she could have pummeled him until he was nothing but bruises, she could have twisted his ankle, broken his arm, gotten really creative and pulled his fingers backward till they snapped, one by one. He wouldn't have begrudged her one good shot; they had enough anger between them, simmering ever closer to boiling—perhaps it might have even helped.
But instead, she went for his face.
"You think Batman is gonna avoid your pretty face?" she taunted him; there was steel in her eyes and something icy in her voice. He couldn't answer her question, couldn't even begin to answer the anger behind it, warranted and unwarranted. Instead he gave her logic.
"I'm a councilman now! Elected by the people of Backport."
It didn't impress her.
"So?" Harleen asked, boredly, pressing her foot against his windpipe.
"So how's it gonna look if I have a black eye?" he spat.
"Eh, quit yer whining and go put on yer makeup," Harleen said, finally putting her foot down on the floor without going for his throat, the way he'd almost thought she might. "And don't tell me you've forgotten how."
He almost broke her ankle, right then and there. Beyond any other taunt, that one was aimed to hurt. What, doubting my story? He knew she wasn't—not really, or she'd have called him on it already. Was disgusted, then. The poor amnesiac, can't remember how to do anything.
There wasn't anything he wanted more than to put on his makeup, to play with the colors and shapes. She said it like an insult, though, because to Jack, of course, it ought to be.
Do you think they wouldn't tell me, if my son was acting like a—
The tears glittering in his eyes could be brushed aside as sweat, and he got up before she could look at him, put on his shirt with sharp movements, the collar almost strangling him. "I'm sure I'll manage somehow," he said thinly; and walked out the door.
They had a balcony at their new apartment; Batman knew it, of course, and Joker saw his silhouette through the frosted glass. He stood still, fearing impossibly that the caped crusader was nothing more than a mirage—though he could hear Batman's lowered voice, talking with Harley, pleading for her help. He sagged against the wall, barely a few feet from his nemesis, took heaving gulps of air and tried to remind himself not to throw open the door, to go running out to Batman, to fall prostrate at his feet, tell him he'd been right all along. It didn't work if Joker got desperate before Batman did; it was all for nothing if he was the one who had to crawl back.
"Jack is not a villain anymore," Harleen said, her pure, pleading tone rising clear into the air. Joker closed his eyes and listened. "And whatever his sins, he's put the city on the right track. I'm begging you to let it go. Before it's too late for you."
There was a sudden crash that sounded like bricks flying under Batman's fist. "Am I the only one who hasn't lost his mind?" Batman yelled, sounding more delightfully unhinged than Joker had ever heard him. "Can't you all see that violent, psychotic maniac for who he really is?"
Joker smiled, his grin stretching wide on his face; the whole world seemed to expand with possibility. Just hearing the effect he was having on Batman, merely by not being there, not playing by the rules, was heady.
"Oh, we'll have some fun before the end, my dear, dark knight," he whispered under his breath. "Just you wait… and see."
Only after the hiss of Batman's grapple had signaled his departure did Joker stride nonchalantly onto the balcony. Harleen had her back to him; her head bowed. "I've never heard him yell like that," Joker said calmly. "I must really be getting to him."
"Stop it," Harleen said.
"What?" Joker asked mildly. He walked over, arms crossed casually, to stand beside her, back to the rail, leaning against it. She turned away as he came near, as though she couldn't even bear to be close to him anymore. He played his fingers around the engagement ring on his hand, tying them together: round and round it went.
"I meant everything I said," she said, tiredly. "That maybe if you two weren't so stubborn, you'd realize how similar you've become."
We've always been the same, Joker thought, kindly. Harleen had never understood. Nobody had; not really; no one but the two of them, and even that seemed to wax and wane like the moon.
It was brilliant. Of course, what else could be expected, with a team like the GTO—one Joker had created to be brilliant—enough to beat the Batman himself? Watching the Batmobiles collide, the sleek older version against the armored tank, the crash as it was overturned, in a pile of groaning smoke and metal, ploughing into a telephone pole, the wires falling to the ground, looping like a noose. Batman, with blood pouring across his suit, jumping off the edge without bothering to unhook his grapple at all, landing in the winding, mazelike alleys, where the searchlights far above couldn't penetrate. He landed like a wounded thing; no grace to him; finished. And still got to his knees, batarang in hand. That was what Joker admired about him. He never stopped. Not ever when he should. Not even when it would be easier. Not when the whole city screamed recrimination at him. It was in those moments that he shone brightest; nothing but his purest self stripped to the raw, aching heart.
"You know," Joker said, from the shadows, "you're not easy to get over. Oh, don't get the wrong idea, my dear Bat, I'm still rooting for you. It's the least I can do to repay my biggest fan." He walked out into the pallid, red-streaked light of a dawn lit by factory fires. Without a word, brutally, Batman stumbled close to him, put the blade beneath his chin, a warning. Why shouldn't I? Give me one good reason. Would he really do it, now? Kill the Joker—as Jack, an ordinary, unarmed man?
Joker didn't think he could. Even if he was angry, hated the Joker enough, the Bat's chivalry was too strong.
"Wouldn't you rather beat me the old-fashioned way?" Joker said, quietly. He met Batman's wounded, lost eyes; met it with a soft smile, a moment of connection for the Bat to grab hold of. "One more dance? …For old time's sake."
The utility belt was thrown to the ground; then the cape. Then a punch to his jaw sent him flying, and Joker, blood pouring from his nose, grinned wildly. "That's more like it!" he said.
They fought for long, fragmented minutes, with a brutal sort of efficiency that came from knowing the moves, but there was a new passion there, something stranger and more dangerous, something that sparked its way, like static, over Joker's skin. He didn't know where they would go from here; what was even left for them. He'd only thrown the dice, rigged the game, but he didn't know how it would end—how it possibly could.
You know I would have done this forever, he thought. But they weren't going to let us. A fist to Batman's face and blood poured from his lips. Brutal punches, kicks from the knee in succession, then, almost made the Joker stagger, but he had been preparing for this; he was ready and Batman—Batman had lost his balance months ago. I wasn't going to settle for an end unworthy of the legends we've become. I wouldn't settle for an insult like that. And I knew you'd feel the same.
A kick to the edge of Joker's shoulder; Batman's blows were still strong but his precision was weakening; the moves slowed, easier to predict. Joker was slammed back into the wall, then he surged forward, cracking his forehead against the Bat's. Beyond the sound of the fight, ragged breathing, heavy steps, the dust, rising and settling again, that song turned on: from some old radio far above; but who, at this time of morning, and in such a wretched place, would play a love song?
"You always hurt the one you love,"
He dodged, grabbed the utility belt, still lying on the ground beside them, whirled and caught it around Batman's neck; pulled, steadying the Bat's weight against him, while his own legs trembled.
"The one you shouldn't hurt at all,"
Then he fell.
Like any man might; when he had lost his air, and gone into a faint, but it still shocked Joker. The heavy suddenness; the way the Bat just slipped to the ground.
"You always take the sweetest rose…"
He collapsed, sitting by Batman's downed head, blood almost obscuring the symbol across his 's shoulders resting on his legs, his hands pressed to his eyes, as though to blur the image of a hero vanquished and destroyed, stripped of everything.
"And crush it till the petals fall…"
"I've thought about this moment for decades," Joker confessed. The silent form didn't respond; didn't open his eyes, lay insensible and still. "Wondered what I'd do if I ever got to see you like this. All broken and vulnerable…" his voice cracked, wavered.
Faint and scratchy, the record played on, words dropping like pebbles into a polluted lake.
"Oh, God…" he said. The tears that sprang to his eyes flooded down, washing away the scene, the horrible stillness of the slowly-breathing body; his shoulders shook. "What have I done…?"
"You always break the kindest heart
With a hasty word you can't recall… so
If I broke your heart last night,
It's because I love you most of all."