4 A.M. 40.

The alarm buzzed against his forearm, waking him from a too-brief sleep.

Batman opened his eyes and saw the giant white screen in front of him: the projector had finished telling its story.

The silence was perfect for emerging.

He touched his chest and felt a hole made by a bullet he had received earlier in the night. Even with his heated suit, that hole just below his heart would invite winter to come. He needed to change each piece of his armor, but only after the meeting with Bane or his men: a new armor might have been suspect…

As he stood up, the seat groaned. Batman looked up, but the projection room seemed empty: no figure, no light this time.

He shook off the ache in his shoulders with a gentle stretch, then a few circular motions.

In the lobby, just when he thought he was alone, Batman was surprised to see the Joker: the clown, wearing a Christmas hat, was leaning against the coffee machine, waiting for the machine to finish pouring hot chocolate. While waiting, he flipped cards from one hand to the other. Batman did not notice it immediately, but the game was only with jokers.

"Rise and shine, Batmoon." he shouted as the bat emerged.

His cardinal lipstick reminded Batman of the movie that had been shown in Room 2.

"Where's the projectionist?"

"What projectionist?"

"Someone was screening While the city sleeps when I arrived."

Joker shrugged as he unhooked the hot cup from the machine.

"I didn't see anyone."

In doubt, Batman looked at the bottom of the clown's pants, the sleeves of his blazer, his neck, but there were no bloodstains. At least, none recent.

Because of the snowstorm, the purple night was still pervasive outside, weaving a heavy darkness. Perhaps the projectionist was taking a nap somewhere on the premises, holed up in what he considered as the only shelter in town?

"I still have some change left if you want a coffee, Batsy. Or tea? Something they drink at the Queen of England's manor?"

Batman was about to refuse, but the Joker slid a coin into the machine and selected a coffee:

"Here. Black as your soul— I mean, your suit."

Without answering, Batman took the cup and unhooked the bottom part of his mask.

"And if you want sugar, use this, it can make a spoon." Joker advised as he held out a candy cane and hooked it to one of the ears of the cowl. Batman immediately removed it with a grunt.

"You'll have to leave your mask that way."

"I know. Bane might think you've hidden someone else under my costume."

The coffee was far too hot and they did not have time, so Batman put the cup on the counter behind him, scattered tickets used as coasters. The most recent ones were three days old.

Joker pulled a cable tie from his jacket pocket, a more effective link than the thin golden rope Batman had managed to tear off.

With this plastic cable tie, he would have less chance of getting out on his own.

"Turn around."

Forced to obey, Batman turned his back and they repeated the same act as in the red room, even if this time only one turn was needed. The plastic was also much stiffer, leaving no room for movement.

"Play along, Batsy, and above all, do what you always do: do. Not. Talk."

A pressure between his shoulders indicated that he could move forward and exit the cinema.

Dawn during a snowstorm was always gloomy: neither gold nor parma, the night was cotton, spinning its menacing indigo. Batman felt a strange sadness when he realized he was not living in a nightmare: Alfred was dead and he was embarking on a strange revenge. Why he could not just kill Joker first and deal with Bane later?

A single, anonymous car was parked two meters from the cinema. Joker opened the back door and pushed Batman inside, laughing out loud. With his cheek against the leather seat, Batman could only understand what was happening thanks to the sounds, but for now, he could only hear Joker's laughter.

The radio switched on as the engine started. The leather quivered, sensitive to the vehicle's hum. It was a strange coincidence that Laughing by The Guess Who began as the car turned into the snowy avenue.

There was no one in the passenger seat, not even Dr. Quinzel, who might have gone home. The plan included only the two of them — the traitor and the fake hostage.

"You know, I could see an asylum in Wayne Manor! It's a bit fancier than that Arkham ruin. What do you think?"

"A bomb destroyed half the hall." Batman muttered. "Sharp will waste less time restoring Arkham than Wayne Manor."

"Is that so? Too bad. The irony would have been… fabulous!"

"Why are you so obsessed about Arkham?"

"I mean to have a long career, Batsy, and I'm not that crazy: I know I might spend a week or two up there sometime!"

"… Assuming you can see the opening of this asylum."

The Joker's laughter grew thunderous, covering the radio and the rumbling of the engine.

"Ahahah! Threats! Keep it up, Batsy! It's really exciting when it comes from you!"

What did he expect? He had tried to intimidate Joker several times, while the madman seemed to enjoy keeping his enemies close to him without the slightest concern.

Suddenly, Batman remembered how Joker had spread his arms when Bane had fired on the Royal balcony, how he had mixed up dying with staging. If Batman had not saved him, Joker would have been nothing more than a short bad memory.

For a second, Batman envied this freedom of spirit, but he pulled himself together: Joker might not be unhappy, but he was not happy either. Nothing could get to him, neither drama nor joy.

The snow had started to fall with more force; the windshield wipers were fighting against the flakes that were leading the assault. When the first guitar notes of Cold Cold Heart sounded, Joker turned up the volume and his voice joined Hank Williams'.

He changed the lyrics, however, and Batman heard him sing:

"You know you need and want to laugh, yet you claim it's not your style. Why do you hide behind that mask? I'm trying to do my part!"

Joker laughed again, pleased with his improvisation.

Even as the car pulled into the narrow driveway that led to the strip club parking lot, he was still laughing.

"Do you know the My Alibi, Batsy?"

"Yes, I do."

"Ah! I'm not surprised, you lech."

"All the biggest criminals in the city meet here."

Joker stopped in the middle of the parking lot, turned off the ignition and leaned back in the passenger seat to turn around. Even in the dark, the color of his hair remained bright and the acid of his smile persisted:

"Then welcome, comrade! You have your place among your own."

The door let a biting cold enter the car. Batman tensed his muscles as Joker pulled him out of the car. Without balance, he had to work harder not to bend under the gust of wind.

The door to the club was open and a dancer, her lipstick smeared and her mascara strewn with blush, was drinking her coffee on the threshold. Upon spotting Batman, she suspended her action.

"… Oh, Good Lord of fuck and shit…" She whispered. She tightened the long coat tighter around her and went back quickly into the nightclub, ready to warn her colleagues not to go out even for a smoke.

"If you behave, Batsy, we'll say hello to them." Joker taunted.

There was only a handful of seconds left before the appointed time, but they were still alone. Joker jumped on the hood of the car and held Batman tightly next to him, on his right.

The walls around cut the wind a little, but it was so cold that even the bat was starting to feel numb. Joker had placed a hand on the tightening rope, holding it as if it were a leash. In case that was not enough to keep him still, the clown had drawn a gun.

"If you're afraid I'll hurt you, Batsy, the safe word is gobbledygook. Oh, shush! Here come our guests! You can't even say gobbledygook now!"

Six men, bundled up in coats, had just passed the fence at the entrance to the parking lot, looking in their direction. All of them had wrestler's builds, making the leather of their coats unyielding, yet, none had Bane's spectacular size.

"Too cold for Bane to go outside?!" Joker shouted, detaching each word as if the snow made the men deaf. Or dumb.

None of them paid the slightest attention to the clown; only Batman interested them, and they measured him with eager eyes. One of the men grinned in satisfaction, another expressed his contentment by cracking his tattooed fingers, and a third stepped forward, ready to retrieve the trophy and leave, but Joker warned him by pointing the weapon at him:

"Hey now, you're not taking him away like that."

"Bane isn't here."

"Yeah, I noticed, otherwise you'd look like garden gnomes next to your boss, buuuut Bane knew I had the Batman and I'll only deliver him in person."

One of the henchmen stepped forward, less intimidated by the gun than his colleagues. Joker reminded him of the weight of the threat by aiming the guy:

"Do you have a lead deficiency?!"

Suddenly, Joker raised his arm and fired once into the night, startling Bane's men. He laughed as he weighed the weapon:

"Here! Only five bullets left. At least one of you will survive this meeting!"

One of the men slipped his hand under his coat, indicating that he also had a gun.

Batman moved his wrists, checking the margin he had, for the thought of being tied up within inches of an armed lunatic was not reassuring… Though a pressure against his kidneys reminded him to stay still.

Winter had already begun to chill the tip of the gun's barrel, but the ring was still warm when it landed against the right side of Batman's jaw.

Surprised, Batman was about to pull on the tie or swing back before the bullet blew his head up, but the gun was only used to indicate what to do: turn his face to the left, toward Joker.

Without understanding, Bane's six men saw the payaso kiss his masked hostage. Even pressed against the static mouth, Joker's lips could not help but smile. Taking advantage of the general surprise, Batman's included, a blade hidden in the Joker's sleeve cut the tie.

Batman only dared to move when Joker moved aside; he could feel a red mark on his lips.

The clown turned his gun on the visitors again and shot the one who got too close right in the head.

Batman dove forward and rose, aiming at the first jaw, knocking out the teeth. Each time his gloves hit, the meat made a dull sound, but when the blow was more violent, a cracking sound could be heard.

Despite the weapon, Joker also opted for hand-to-hand combat. His gun-weighted fist could stun in no time, but he rather had the perversity to make the fight last.

He gave a violent kick under the knee of one of the combatants, aiming at the most sensitive points — a common point he shared with his unexpected ally.

In the struggle, one assailant pulled out a knife and lunged at the clown. He tackled Joker to the car, but as his enemy dodged in time, he missed, and the tooth of the blade stuck in the hood. One of his colleagues, the one with the gun, came to help and aimed at the Joker. He squeezed the trigger at the same time Batman jumped and hit his temple; the gunman fell and the bullet pierced one of the car's front wheels rather than the Joker's chest.

Except for the dead man with the pierced forehead, Bane's other men were still alive. Sure, with a broken jaw, a head injury, or a bent knee, but still alive.

Batman hit the stomach of one of the guys after Joker had knocked off his balance with a kick on his tight. The pain was so vivid that the victim spat out a stream of vomit that splashed over Joker's pants. The latter sighed with a grimace and aimed at the man's neck, increasing the death toll to two.

"They have no class! No manners!"

Batman felt blood drying on his chin. His elbow had dislodged three or four of another opponent's teeth before tipping him over his shoulder; a trickle must have run down by then. The victim tried to get up, but was shot in the throat.

Three.

One half of the group.

The other three men looked at each other and one of them backed away, but Joker interrupted his escape by shooting him. The warm body fell flat on the snow.

The last bullet went into the head of the man next to him, for no real reason.

Even though the Joker was out of ammunition, he pulled the trigger several times, aiming at the only survivor. He knew the gun was empty, but the litany of clicks frightened Bane's mercenary into fleeing.

Unlike his colleagues, he managed to escape alive.

The Joker laughed: he actually had four more rounds of ammunition left in his jacket pocket, but he had never intended to use them. He wanted one of them to survive.

He retrieved the fallen Christmas hat from the ground and repositioned it on his head.

"Why didn't you let me go with them?" Batman exploded. "The plan was for me to meet Bane!"

"With your fists tied? Oh, sorry, Batsy, I didn't know you were actually planning to die! You told me about killing Bane, not being killed by Bane!"

"You would've untied me first!"

Joker grabbed on the hood the tie that had been severed.

"And you think Bane's men wouldn't have noticed?" He laughed at this naivety and threw the severed link to the ground, letting it disappear into the snow. With another chuckle, Joker added, "Bane's going to be angry. Angry as hell. Angrier than you've ever seen!"

"So angry that he'll come in person?"

"For you and for me!"

"You're sick…"

Was this really the first plan? To make Bane angry? Make him lose his temper? Despite his bully looks, Bane was an intelligent man. And contrary to Joker's claims, he could maintain a cold attitude.

That did not explain…

"That kiss, what part of the plan was that?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Joker kicked the car's flat tire. "For the surprise! The nonsense! Whoever survived will go straight to Bane and tell him that detail for sure. Bane will go nuts, wondering what the hell is going on."

Batman crossed his arms, wrinkling his nose. As if to comfort him, Joker patted him on the shoulder:

"I'm sorry to disappoint you, Batsy, but you're not the first hostage I've kissed. Ask Harley."

"Dr. Quinzel? She wasn't a real hostage either."

"Another thing in common."

They looked at the lacerated hood and the wheel that was pulling a sad face. The Royal Hotel was about a twenty-minute walk away, but in this storm, they could count another ten minutes.

Joker pulled his coat tighter as he passed the fence, fighting a breeze that haunted the alley.

"You know what, Batsy? I think we make a great team. And if I'm not mistaken, you saved my life again."

"A kneecap, in fact."

"That's really important. You need two kneecaps to stand on your own two feet."

"Right. It's bad enough that your mental balance is already unstable…"

They passed a car and the dark windows had a mirror effect. Batman saw his own reflection with the blood stain on his chin, but his attention was drawn to the lipstick mark. It looked like a woman had kissed him passionately.

The alleys of Gotham were a maze, but these long urban roads held no secrets for them. Even if they had no serious injuries, Joker crossed his arm over Batman's to walk side by side, intending to be supported.

"Are you going back to your cave, Bats?"

"I told you before, there was a bo—"

"I was talking about the cinema!"

Yes, maybe that was his intention. Where could he go, after all? To the Royal? Nonsense.

"When I think that this guy threw up over my pants, it's unbelievable!" Joker began to talk about his own plans: for his part, he had taken up residence in the hotel for the moment, occupying all the suites on the top floor. Up there, he did intend to take a bath, maybe a shower, he still hesitated, but it was time to get rid of the blood and the vomit.

They turned into an alley where a street lamp stood only every fifteen meters, making light scarce.

Further on, an abandoned dog, its paws buried in the snow, was disemboweling a garbage bag, tasting more plastic than food. His belly that hunger made hollow shook with rage, and he pulled on the bag so hard that two cans leapt from the tear, clattering in alarm.

The noise failed to cover the footsteps Batman heard behind them, and when he turned, imitated by Joker, he saw five men. In the dark morning, the heads seemed to have disappeared because of their black masks.

Roman Sionis' men did not need to introduce themselves, so the five machine guns rose, ready to fire.


Due to the lack of feedback here, readers of FF are welcome to read the next chapters on Archive of our Own, the fic has the same title.

The version here is now finished.