The Joker died tonight. He finally left us a clue to where Tim was. He'd had him at old Arkham, doing... something. He'd brainwashed him. Maybe driven him insane. Or both. The poor kid. Nobody should have had to suffer that.
I remember most of the fight. Bruce had chased Joker around while I dealt with Harley. We fought in the ruins of the asylum. Metal support struts and beams stuck out from the ruined concrete like bones sticking out of torn, rotten flesh. The demolition had revealed caverns under the asylum that went downward nearly a mile. Unstable minds over unstable ground. Fitting, I guess. Too dangerous even to tear down.
Harley must have lost an extra screw when she'd let him torture Tim. She'd brought her bazooka into play over all broken concrete and empty space. I tried. I really did try to save her, I swear. I hated her for what she'd done, but I'd grabbed her when she fell. I tried to lift her up to the ledge, but I ripped her costume. I mean, it ripped. And she fell. She fell too far for me to hear her land. All I could hear was her high-pitched little scream for the last time.
Bruce had never really outlined for me exactly why he didn't kill. His respect for the law was always obvious, despite being a vigilante. Sometimes I thought he really believed everyone could be saved, or fixed, or whatever. Other times, maybe because he wanted to put that line between himself and the psychos. I don't know for sure. He'll never say. But in the spirit of the former, I'd always tried to reach Harley. She'd proved she wasn't all bad in the past. She was a smart girl. But I think she always just found it easier to follow Joker's twisted schemes. No morals, no restraints, no guilt. Total freedom. And that's what everyone wants deep down, isn't it?
When I'd finally heaved myself back up over the ledge and gotten my head together, Tim, who'd brought the bazooka, was gone. I looked around for a bit, and headed back to the operating theatre where we'd found them. I followed the sounds of the fight a few rooms over. But when I'd gotten there, it was already over. Bruce was down, bleeding. Tim was on his knees with a flag gun in his hand, still in that clown getup. The laughter had turned into bawling. Tears streamed down the side of his face from eyes wide open. I'll never forget how lost and scared he looked, just staring off into space as he cried.
But the Joker was dead. No question in my mind. No thoughts of “maybe he's just knocked out or disabled.” Something about the way he laid there, flat on his face, arms and legs close to his sides. I didn't even notice the little flag pole sticking out of his back, turning his suit jacket into a tent. There wasn't even any blood yet. But I knew he was dead. And that Tim had killed him.
It gave me hope, if that isn't the most fucked up thing you can imagine. Tim had killed him, and it gave me hope that he was still in there. I held him in my arms until he passed out covered in tears and running makeup.
We went back to the Batmobile. I laid Tim in the back, locking it from the outside, while Bruce patched up the knife wound in his leg. And for a minute we both just sat there. No plan. No push forward. No cops to run from and no more villains to chase. We just... sat there for a little while. Bruce never had much to say while he was under the cowl. But I think that was the only time I ever saw him really speechless.
After those few fleeting minutes, he finally asked: “Quinn?” I looked at him, shocked. But I shook my head. He sighed, rising to his feet. “We should bury them.”
“Okay” I replied, still stunned.
I followed him back inside to where the Joker... the Joker's body still lay. I almost thought... a part of me even hoped... that the body would be gone. That Joker had fooled us again and was still alive. I know that sounds horrible. He was a madman. A psychopath. A monster. But a part of me hoped that the game, if you could call it that, hadn't changed. But it had. And even in my suit, the world felt... colder.
“Where's Qui... Harley?” he asked, standing over the body.
“I think she's already buried,” I said. I remember it hadn't sounded like me. If anything it sounded like Nightwing a little. Dick had picked Bruce's cold side to take with him when he'd left.
But he didn't say anything. He pushed the body on to its back. The Bang! flag was halfway into the chest now, and the yellow fabric was beginning to stain red. Bruce lifted the body over his shoulder so that their backs were together. “Isn't that a little...” I began, unsure how to describe it.
“He's already dead” Bruce replied. Even when he spoke from under the cowl, there was a kind of command to it. A mastery, a surety. And in that way, there was a kind of comfort; a warmth that I think only Alfred, myself, and the Robins could hear. But now... he was as cold as Victor Fries on Christmas Eve. He started walking, and I followed.
We took every downward stairwell we could find, trying to go as deep as we could. I remember trying not to look, but I couldn't help it. Joker's face was tight in his usual smile, probably from rigor mortis. His empty eyes stared blankly at me through the darkness. His pale skin and hooked nose. Those severe lips and white teeth. It was rigor, right?
After a few minutes, Bruce stops to rest, rubbing his knee. When he did, he shifted the weight on is back, pulling on the chain. I heard muscle and sinew rub against cold metal and felt myself shiver.
When we'd gone maybe a hundred feet down, almost out of reach of the moonlight, he stopped. He dropped the body to the ground and picked up a spare piece of rebar from the wreckage above. “You don't have to be here for this, Barbara. You should go watch Tim”
“I can help you bury him.” I said. “Without a shovel, it could take...”
“I said GO!” Bruce turned back to me, teeth gritted, with the rebar clenched tightly in his hand. But his voice didn't have his usual edge of command. Another rarity for Batman. For once he didn't sound like a general in a war. For just that moment, he sounded like just another soldier with a burden to bear.
He turned back away, this voice going softer. “Take the car back to the Batcave. I'll call the Wing when I need it.”
“Bruce...” I said, reaching forward.
I took a long look at him. At the man I'd admired from afar for so long, and finally joined in his just cause. He was so strong and sure. He was always prepared, never allowing even the possibility of failure. He was a founder of the Justice League, a force to be reckoned with by the biggest super-villains, and the image of fear for the lowly street crooks. He was Batman.
But as I looked at the monolithic shape of the cowl and cape against the darkness, I wondered: was there anything left beneath it?
I waited for Barbara's footsteps to echo away before I started digging. Despite its age, the rebar had held strong and hadn't rusted. I used the twisted end to loosen the soil.
You monster. You psychopath. You stupid, stupid man. How could you let him do it? How could you let him do that to Tim? If you'd only thought of Arkham sooner, you'd have saved him. You'd have saved him from weeks of torture, months of therapy, and the endless guilt of murder. Thought you'd learned your lesson after Jason died at this monster's hands. You should have done it yourself, years ago.
No. It isn't right. I am not an executioner. I bring them in because the law can't. That's all. The courts decide their fate, not me. It's not for any one man to decide, no matter how great he is.
I took a break from the rebar for a moment, using my hands to scoop the loose dirt from the grave that was slowly forming. In my thoughts, I'd lost track of time. But the moon was still high, which was good. There was still more to do. I wiped my brow through the cowl and pushed the pain from my knee back down into my subconscious before grabbing the bar and starting again.
If they'd asked you for a statement, an opinion on his sanity, what would you have said? The insane are cared for; treated; protected from the death penalty. But you know you can't save him. That he can't be saved. That even if he could be, he wouldn't want to be. That would have been enough for a conviction, and you know it.
But it doesn't matter. He's dead now. And he won. Maybe not the way he'd intended, but in whatever Hell he's gone to, he's looking up and laughing now. I'd never really known what he was thinking. Cobblepot, Crane, even Ra'z; I knew what they wanted, and how it shaped their actions. I knew what they were about to the slightest detail. But him... I never could parse out his reasoning.
Or maybe you could, and you were just afraid to.
But I always knew one thing for certain: he wanted to die. And he wanted me to kill him. He wanted the whole line of dominoes to crash down into oblivion, with him as the first, and my hand on it. He never had a grand plan, or any point to prove. He just wanted it all to burn. But I won't let that happen. Dead, alive, or otherwise.
I dropped the bar again, pushing out the last of the dirt I would need. I tried not to look at him. At it. The smile on the pale face. The cold, lifeless eyes. The blood finally beginning to well up from the wound. I thought about taking it out. He was already dead, after all.
No. There would be no marker. No one would need to know where this madman was buried but the three of us. And Jim. He would need to know. How would he take it? I honestly couldn't say. I'd tell him it was unavoidable. He'd created a monster inside Tim. And it was the monster that had killed him. Not us. Not really. But we'd all take the blame. And we'd all keep the secret. James Gordon was a good man, a smart man. He knew that everything I did was for the greater good; that I never would have accepted this given a choice. But he wouldn't like it. He'd be disappointed. I'm sorry, Jim.
I climbed out of the hole, and dropped him in. He landed with a dull thud. I almost expected a buzzer to go off, or a set of clacking teeth. Maybe an exploding jack-in-the-box. But nothing. Nothing but that smile, the teeth opened just slightly, still beaming up at me. Even lying there in the dirt, arms and legs splayed out atop bits of rock and rubble, he looked content, like a king on a throne. The Clown Prince of Crime, the papers used to call him. I hated that name. The glorification only fed his madness.
Even now, as I stood looking down at him, dropping the dirt over his body, I could hear him. That low, terrible, chuckle, followed by that searing high-pitched laughter. It stung at my mind, building and building. The more dirt I dropped, the louder it got.
Finally I couldn't take it. I dropped down into the hole and knelt over his face, covering his mouth with my hand. “Stop,” I heard myself say. But the chuckle continued. I felt my hands begin to shake, and grabbed a handful of dirt. I forced the teeth open more, and violently shoved them full of dirt. “Stop laughing!”
I filled the orifice until it was completely covered. Only those wide, empty eyes remained above the dirt, like an alligator from the pits of Hell. Those blank, dark pupils seemed to follow me. So I reached down with my fingers and closed the mascara-covered lids. I climbed out of the hole and finished returning he dirt. I used the rebar to break some concrete, and dropped it over the top for good measure.
As I climbed back out of the depths of the old asylum, the falling moon took me in its light again. And in that light, the brown dirt staining my suit looked red. No man comes away from a burial the same. No matter which side of the Earth you're on.
I pressed the signal button on my utility belt, sending a radio wave out to the Batwing that waited in the cave's hangar. By the time I'd made it back to surface level, the Wing was waiting in a clearing on the old asylum grounds that had survived the attempted demolition. I pressed the signal button again, and the cockpit slid open. I climbed in and started the engines, which came to life with a mighty whine.
The computer's communicator lit up. “Master Bruce?” came Alfred's voice. He lacked his usual steadiness. “I'm... I'm sorry, sir.”
I sighed. “I'll see you back at the cave, Alfred,” I said, flipping the communicator off again. And as the vertical engines finally lifted me from the ground, I engaged the rear boosters and took off back toward the cave. I pushed the engines hard, and the whining rose higher, until finally it had blocked it out. The echo of that horrible laughter.