"I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less to conceal it—but love it."
The first thing Bruce does is remember, in the warm darkness, suspended: the rain on the sidewalk reflecting back the marquee of the theater. Pulling back a bow and arrow above a green rice field in Kanto. Pearls tumbling through a grate into darkness. The smell of incense in a temple high above the mountains, the sound of a gunshot up close, climbing the stairs to his room two at a time with a foundless and primal anxiety growing cancerous in his childhood throat.
He remembers a shadow against the high windows, the crash, fear and then understanding, yes father, I shall become the bat—
Bruce opens his eyes.
Beyond a green that clings to his eyes like sea water, he can see light. Darkness too, at the corner of his vision. There's a high long electronic sound. His fingers stick in the passage of fluid, which is draining down past him into some hidden vacuum. As it passes, he sinks slowly to the floor of his holding tube, catching his balance against the glass. His body feels strange. Alien to him, in some fundamental way.
"You're awake," someone says to him. The voice sparks a distant memory, the shape of his father's winter coat on some long ago excursion, which flashes and dies. The man who taps his cane against the glass is a stranger, but a familiar one in some way too. His hair is white to the root, and his nose looks like it's been broken more than once.
"Happy birthday," the stranger remarks. He nods back past himself, to the endless black cavern, the walls themselves glittering with black cables and blinking pilot lights. "Welcome to the future."
For one hundred years, there has been a batman in Gotham City. The caretaker explains the process to Bruce as he examines the cavern, all its strange machinery and curved luminescent screens. Each Bruce comes into being, from his own perspective, at the very moment that he chooses to take up the cowl. You can always change your mind, the caretaker tells him; it doesn't mean anything to be Batman if you don't have the choice. But no Bruce to date has ever changed their mind.
The room has been cleared of everything except tools. During his lifetime as Batman, this Bruce will fill this cave with his own mementos and memorabilia. When he grows too old to be Batman anymore, he can do what he likes with the accumulated odds and ends. The previous occupant donated his things to the Gotham Crime museum, which makes quite a lot of money off his legacy. The caretaker shows him the computers, the data machines, the laboratory—it will take a long time for Bruce to understand how all of them work. There was nothing like this in the twenty years of a lifetime he remembers.
"Why don't we just implant the memories of each successive life?" he asks. "Having to relearn all this progress each time—lifetimes behind the world around us—"
The caretaker shakes his head. "There's too much bad mixed in with the good," he says. "Each time is a fresh slate. A new chance to be a better Batman. The things you'll see—" He turns away, his eyes fixed on something far above the walls of the cave, "Each of us has to fight his own battles."
The data banks of the computers contain all the accumulated knowledge of a century. Crimes long forgotten by police, unrecorded by any modern justice system, remain here as thoroughly documented as the day they were observed. The thrumming machines that span every wall contain backups of backups of precious data, every rogue and villain and disaster since the birth of the first Bruce Wayne.
"You'll be a Wayne, of course," the caretaker tells him, pushing a folio of legal documents across the reading table. "Wayne is a big family. It's easy to get lost in the ranks, legally speaking. The original Bruce had a lot of kids, and some of those branches have their own branches. Each Bruce inherits their majority stake in the company from the previous one. Don't let go of that for anything. Political regimes come and go, but at the end of the decade it's always men with money who have the power. Use yours for good."
The caretaker gets him up to speed on the layout of the city—it's swallowed several neighboring towns since the lifetime of his memory—the current state of the police force—they're accepting assistance, but moderately corrupt—and the watershed political events—the USA legalized genetic modification of children in the womb, criminalized ownership of any computer rated two or more points over government standard—etc. He is already committing a felony just by standing in this room.
Bruce climbs the tower of the cave, which is not a cave in any literal sense, and leans over the railing of a spire, peering down over the surprisingly dark city below. There's a curfew on electric lights in this day and age. Bruce can only imagine how much terror goes on down there in the unlit street corners. His spire glows with a gentle opalescent light, the only illuminated thing for several city blocks. It's a monument. Erected and paid for by the Wayne charity foundation, dedicated to the lives lost during a domestic terrorist attack in the first half of the last century, now housing generations of Bruces deep beneath its foundation. The original cave beneath Wayne manor, he's been told, is long gone now. Collapsed. One branch of Waynes still live in the house there; he's been told that they always keep a room open for him. He's not sure if he wants that. A family? For him? It seems wrong. He thinks of Alfred, nearly a century dead.
They're someone's family, but not his. No family will ever be his again.
A century, he thinks. Something about it makes him uneasy, superstitious. He wishes Alfred were here. He can't be the first Bruce to mourn his friend, but knowing that generations of himself have all lived this bone-weary ache does nothing to ease the grief.
To him, it was barely yesterday that they reunited.
Bruce is thumbing through all the old files in the data banks, drinking caf out of a clear plastic mug. Coffee trees, it turns out, have been extinct for fifty years. He's not sure he likes this alternative.
There are a multitude of eras to peruse, but for some reason his attention keeps settling on the very first one. Maybe it's that flare of superstition. Everything starts with Year One. A significant percentage of the villains occupying the city today are a legacy of one or another. Riddler, Calendar Man, Mad Hatter… they all start here. And then there's the very first file, which Bruce finds himself clicking through again and again, as if he expects something more to finally appear. There is only the clinical description of a blood disease, an ancient map of Europe, and this.
"What is this?" he asks the caretaker, one morning early into his research.
The caretaker looks up to where the now-antique playing card is displayed across the screen, and his filmy eyes grow dark and distant, as if he were observing the moment of his own death. "You'll find out," he says. "We always do."
The file troubles Bruce long after that, long after he dons his own cowl for the first time and ventures down into the city. It troubles him long after the caretaker ceases to use his cane, or rise from his arm chair in the library, or speak to Bruce at all. And then it does not trouble him, because the caretaker—his only link to his legacy, and his home, and the memory of Alfred—slips away in his sleep, and Bruce's heart is too heavy with trouble to hold any more.
The first playing card turns up at the scene of a robbery.
It's an old-fashioned robbery, the kind where one man blows the wall off the side of the building and another man goes in to scrape out all the wiring and circuitry they can carry. Well, it's old fashioned to the current GCPD, who scratch their heads and sip their caf and try to figure out why someone would go to the trouble of scraping out an investment bank and not bother to hit the databanks for credit numbers. To Bruce, who has been living like a man out of time here in his own future, the robbery is a breath of fresh air. He knows how to track tires, brush for fingerprints, analyze for chemical residue. So, to this Bruce, the playing card feels like home.
There are more of them. Bizarre twists on antique crimes, robberies which seem to gather nothing of value, murders as motiveless as they are nonsensical. The police whisper to themselves. No, they say, no, he's definitely dead this time. It's been ten years.
Bruce lights down on the roof of the GCPD, where the broadcasting station for the bat signal (a radio transmitter, operated by anonymous policemen) spires into the darkness. The young, new commissioner is waiting for him in its shadow.
"It's time for you to tell me," Bruce says.
The commissioner sighs out blue smoke. "You're a batman," he says, "shouldn't you already know?"
"I want to know what you know," Bruce says.
The commissioner sighs, again, and twists off his plastic cigarette. They all know the Joker, he says. Every person born in Gotham knows the Joker. Most of the world knows the Joker, in some way or another. His name is synonymous with suffering. He's existed as long as Batman has, year to year reviving for new mischief, calling across the rooftops for someone to come out and play.
The commissioner tells him that almost every single building that stood at the beginning of Year One was eventually demolished by him. All buildings, it's commonly held, someday will be. In parts of France, they worship him—they say he's never died, that each Joker is the same Joker, the same flesh, the same mind.
"Horseshit, of course," the commissioner says. His name is Mahmud. His family is new to Gotham.
Bruce examines the edges of the first playing card, from the robbery, one thing he has never surrendered to Evidence. "Of course," he says.
Their first meeting is a rooftop chase. A child lies dying behind them in an alley way, although by the next morning she will have been stabilized and reunited with her mother. Bruce does not yet know that, as he gives chase. The moon is tiny and green with smog above them, the only light across the crowded roofs of Gotham City. The Joker is little more than a trenchcoat flapping in the wind, an echo of laughter just a little too far ahead. Somewhere above midtown, he disappears between two smokestacks and is lost to the darkness, as if he had never been.
In the aftermath, the GCPD all spit and tell ghost stories on the rooftop of the crumbling chemical factory where he disappeared, a place half a century abandoned.
Their second meeting is under the lights of circling helicopters, where Bruce sees the shape of his face for the first time—his sharp chin and his cheekbones, which seem to be holding up skin as paper thin as ancient velum. He's young though, Bruce senses. It's something in the way he moves. Something in the way he talks. There are no old wounds underneath that bruised skin.
He crows, over the chopchopchop of the helicopter, "Well hello there beautiful!"
Their third meeting and their fourth and their fifth all blur together. Bruce is on his trail now, burning midnight oil and spreading endless nonsensical collages over the inside of the cave, listening to ORACLE as she reads off the correlations in her data drive.
"We're two of a kind," Joker remarks, as Bruce hangs beneath him, desperately trying to cut his way out of a titanium thread net. "We are, aren't we? I can feel it."
Slowly, the urgency becomes commonplace. A case is solved but never truly solved—plans are thwarted, but the mastermind twists free. Again and again, until Bruce looks up and it's been half a decade, and he's no wiser than he was when he first began his collage which now spans a wall all of its own. He looks down at his hands like a stranger in his own body. How did he get here? Is this his life? He feels possessed.
Is this another Bruce's life, haunting his own?
It's a decade. The mechanism that rotates this funfair at the top of the Gotham Needle erupts in a shower of sparks, bringing the carousels and the flickering arcade games to a discordant halt. The Joker glares up at him from the edge of the platform, wind licking the edge of his coat as he hangs so many stories above the earth. He is dangling from the firm grip of Bruce's hand. They are at a stalemate.
"It's over," Bruce says.
"It's never over," Joker says.
A chill runs up Bruce's spine. In his ears it sounds like a suicide note, or a curse. Joker licks his chapped lips, features now as deeply familiar as they were once alien. He always looks exhausted and bruised, no matter how fresh to the plate he should be.
"Let's put a stop to this," Bruce says. "Once and for all. It doesn't have to be this way."
"Don't you get the joke?" Joker says. He is searching deep in Bruce's eyes, with a desperation that unnerves. His grip tightens. His face is a face that Bruce sees now in his dreams, a comfort and a nightmare in alternating turns.
This world is full of unfamiliar things. Bruce knows no one, has no one. There is only the cave, and his legion of distant relatives who seem to know so much about him when he knows nothing about them, and the unfamiliar landscape of the city. Out of everything in this lifetime, Joker is the only thing that feels like his. His case. His enemy. His nightmare, comfort, obsession, his life to save.
"Tell me the joke," Bruce whispers.
Joker starts laughing. It shakes him so hard that Bruce is afraid he's really going to fall, rattling him up to his fingertips. When Bruce tries to pull him up onto the platform this time, he's surprised at how easily the Joker goes along with it. When at last they both lie firmly on the floor, breathing hard, there is still laughter rattling around inside the hollow cage of Joker's chest. He reaches out, and he takes Bruce's hand again.
"Stop me if you've heard this one before," he says. "See there's these two guys in an insane asylum—"
It isn't until long after this that Bruce remembers the neuroscience in this century has advanced well past the point of fully integrating physical and mental illness into the same medical profession—that is to say, asylums, an old-fashioned idea even in Year One, are obscure here to the point of confusion. There are no insane asylums anymore.
This joke, Bruce thinks, is one that perhaps only he fully understands. But how could the Joker have known he would? No one should- No one could-
The next time, they are on the grand bridge above the bay. If he takes one wrong step, he will slip from the bridge and be lost to the depths, and he will die, he must die, or else what is he?
"What are you?" he asks Joker, as they shake rain from their eyes, high above the raging water. Joker's empty jacket hangs from Bruce's hands by its collar, flapping in the gale.
Joker tips his head up to the tumbling sky and laughs. "What are you?" he says.
Joker, whatever he is, is an old mystery. This Bruce isn't the first batman to try and understand. The deeper he gets into his predecessor's notes, the more confusion he finds. Some of it has a morbid edge that seems to say: if they ever had solved the mystery, they would have ended it all then. Batman isn't supposed to be a killer, but none of them could see another end to this legacy. Bruce doesn't know what he would do, in that situation. Each time he looks at Joker, he sees again his nightmare, his comfort, his obsession, his life to save.
"Are you like me?" he asks Joker, as the red and blue lights flash in the distance - Joker will be gone before they arrive, he always is, god only knows how.
"What are you like?" Joker says, gleeful and cruel.
He wishes Alfred was here to advise him. Now he's lived a decade alone, with Alfred's memory, but he misses the man as fiercely as he has ever missed his parents. Bruce searches the archives for photographs of Alfred. He seems so old there. So much older than Bruce remembers him. Bruce looks at photos of the original Damien Wayne as well, all the original children who thought of Bruce as a kind of father. In the faded gloss of old photographs, he watches them age and marry and die, leaving children of their own, foundations and legacies. There are generation on generation of other Waynes that he could examine, but somehow it's this first set that make his heart ache. Children that could have been his. Faces that looked up into a face like his own and maybe even loved it.
He is on another continent now, tracing the footsteps of another Bruce. This Bruce was close to the beginning, far enough back that the path he once took is lost entirely in places. Berlin. Prague. France. In some places war has eroded the old monuments. Bruce does his best to triangulate from the terse case notes left behind, trying to imagine what terrible truth it was that Bruce could only bring himself to allude to in a note buried cryptic layer on cryptic layer deep in the files of a long dead supervillain. Bane, out of all the persons of interest from Year One, is the last one he would have expected to provide a connection to Jokers of the past.
It's the map, the card, and the clinical description of a blood disease, with one cure.
Bruce pulls up the collar on his jacket. This century is such a warm one, he'd almost forgotten what it meant to be truly cold. But there's something about the bitter cold in Berlin that makes him feel as if he can nearly taste the past in the air.
The notes say that the cure to the disease was contained in the blood. One half in each of them. When he reads the notes he can almost taste the shame, the empty spaces where that Bruce couldn't bear to record his truth. What was the terrible truth that this earlier Bruce couldn't bring himself to name?
Bruce stands in the coliseum of Rome, at night, in his coat and his bare face. Italy hasn't changed that much. It was old even when he was young, and it knows how to survive a century without losing itself in the tide. He is watching his breath crystalize in the night as the figure appears, a shadow among shadows.
"Well aren't you a long way from home!" the voice calls, rasping and high and singsong, unmistakably his.
"We both are," Bruce says.
He could deny the implications, but it would be wasted effort. If the Joker had followed him, he already knew it all. With a surge of heartache, Bruce admits that there isn't so much to know about him these days. He is what he is. There are no innocent bodies left to shield behind the anonymity of his cape and cowl. Sometimes he thinks that he should have taken up the Waynes on their offer, back at the beginning, back before time had widened the gulf insurmountably. But he had been so afraid to have (to lose?) another family, and now the time is long past. The way is lost.
Joker crosses the ruins, the jagged ground where perhaps the last Bruce to stand here had left a permanent scar in the stone. "Aren't you gonna arrest me, officer?"
Bruce glances at him. The month before, some tiff between Joker and the Red Queen had left ten families homeless and relegated to the burn ward. What was Batman still here for, if not to be an instrument of justice?
"I'm not an officer," he says.
"That's true," Joker says. "Not that you wouldn't look adorable in one of those little hats. Can you believe they actually have little hats again? I tell you, fashion is just a big wiggly snake chewing its own tail."
Bruce thinks of the oroboros too. The original Dr. Arkham had seen the shadow of the bat in the mad darkness of his grieving house, long before the high window and the moonlight and yes father, I shall become the bat. In less than half a decade, now, Bruce will begin the process to bring himself back into the world, watch himself reborn again, and then if his health permits, he will become the caretaker who lays his aging hand across the glass and says, happy birthday Bruce. Welcome to the future.
In the heat of the Mediterranean evening, Bruce shivers.
"There was a secret," Bruce says. "Do you know what it was?"
"Cryptic, cryptic," Joker says. "Which secret was that?" His gash of a mouth splits in a smile. His whole body is violence, a masochistic exultation to the pain of existence. In stranger moments, Bruce sometimes imagines him dancing in the red hot shoes of a fairy tale that no one tells anymore.
At times, he imagines himself as the mermaid who trudged onward, bleeding from the toes that she willed into existence. Why are fairy tales so preoccupied with the ruination of feet? Maybe it's because tale tellers have always known that forward motion is pain.
"You know which secret I mean," Bruce says, gesturing at the crumbling stone above them. "Your ancestor was here too. It's your secret as much as it's mine."
Joker rocks back on his heels. "Ah," he says. "And you think I'm somebody's descendant, eh?"
"You must be," Bruce says. He tries not to let his heart trip into anxiety. "You must be. How else do you explain us both, here in this century?"
Joker turns and looks at him. He reaches out. His arms close around Bruce's head, his birdbone chest presses into Bruce's - his lashes are so pale they seem almost invisible until the red of the light pollution catches them just right. He rests his elbows on Bruce's shoulders. He tilts his head.
"You look so much like him," Joker says. "Or at least, I think you do. Sometimes I remember him one way, sometimes another."
He touches Bruce's face, fingertips ghosting over the shape of cheekbones, gloves rough against the skin. There is no bottom to the blackness of his eyes in the dark, the green eaten away to a pale grey, pits that reflect back like funhouse mirrors, distorted and strange. Surrounded by these ruins, he seems more specter than man.
"I remember he had eyes like yours," Joker says, like a sleeper in a dream. "I watched them through the holes in his face. He was so dark. So dark and lovely, my lost Lenore."
"Who do you mean?" Bruce says, growing uneasy in the madman's grip. "Do you mean someone before you were..." But even he doesn't know what he means. His question dies in his mouth.
"If you're never sorry," Joker sing-whispers, half giddy with laughter, "you can't be forgiven! If you're not forgiven, you can't be forgotten! If you're not forgotten, you can live for-ever..."
Bruce tries to pull himself free, but too late. Joker has him in a vise, his bubblegum breath filling Bruce's lungs.
"If," he laughs, "you live - forever - you will begin to dream of," he is gasping now, with laughter, "death, death, death!"
Bruce breaks free, stumbling back across the shattered stone, head full of bubblegum and horror. Joker is wracked with laughter now, clutching at his sides, his long jacket flapping as he shakes. The clouds are red and pink with light pollution. Grass is growing between the stones that another Bruce stood on.
He leaves Rome. Before the dew has even dried on the continent, Bruce is long gone from its shores. He understands the terrible truth now, which he had though was such a mystery - but it's only the obvious, the self evident conclusion. It's no secret at all. One half of the disease was in each of them.
One half of the cure. One half one half one half.
Bruce does his work in Gotham, as he was designed to do. Joker comes and goes. They don't speak of Rome, when they speak. The time is fast unraveling - Bruce looks up one day and finds ORACLE prompting him to begin the process of DNA sampling. He stares up at the screen for a long time, a ghost in his own skin, and then finally hits the snooze button on that alarm.
He listens to archival log recordings. I'm going to rest here a little while with my friend. / Even after everything you've done, I still would have saved you. / I'll never know if he missed me on purpose, but the scar will forever remind me of the day...
Lifetime after lifetime they crash together on the threshold of death, mirroring and mirroring and reflecting themselves back into oblivion. He watches old newsreels, reads doctoral theses on Gotham's catastrophic history, visits the museum of crime and presses his hands against the glass. Everything that the lineage of Bruce Waynes didn't want to pass on to him, this one blank page in an archive deeper than anything else found on earth, Bruce unearths and pieces together.
Why am I here? he asks himself for the thousandth time, but now he thinks he is drawing closer to an answer.
How is it that the two of them alone remain? Joker laughs, and weeps, and remembers a face like Bruce's; Bruce reaches through the darkness and catches his hand as he falls into the night.
Father, he thinks, father did you mean this for me?
He was supposed to be an idea. Ideas are immortal. But men are not immortal, and he knows he is a man - he must be a man, for when he ceases to be a man he ceases to be - he ceases to be-
They are standing on opposite sides of a fence. It is the end of another chase, and he knows that by the time he scales the gate or cuts his way through, Joker will be long gone. Bruce is thinking about the prisons in his first lifetime, the barred cells that are so old-fashioned now as to be obsolete. He grasps the bars, pressing his forehead into the cold metal.
"Talk to me," Bruce says.
The grass of the rooftop garden is soft underfoot; it barely whispers when they shift over the top of it.
"What's this?" Joker says, leaning forward. "The staunch and stoic knight of Gotham wants to chat with me?"
Bruce closes his eyes. Parents, caretakers, the ghost of a family gone before it could even be his - the only thing that belongs to him now is Gotham herself, and the creature that stands in front of him. He is responsible for the Joker's life, and responsibility is not unlike ownership, in a way.
"You're all I have," he says.
Joker slips closer, Bruce can hear the soft sound of his coat as it falls behind him. "Oh, Batsy," he murmurs, his hands hovering just beyond the sides of Bruce's face. "I'll always be here for you," he says. "Of course I'm yours, I'm always all of yours."
"I don't understand," Bruce says, "you don't have a cloning facility like I do. You can't be like me, but you are, somehow-"
Joker lets out a puff of laughter. "Is that how you're doing it?" he says.
Bruce opens his eyes. He knows what other Bruces did not, or were afraid to admit they did - in this one way, no Bruce has ever been in danger from the Joker. He would never sabotage the instrument of their oroboros. "Yes. How are you doing it?"
Joker pulls back his hands, spreading them wide open. "I just don't die! It's amazing how many people think they have to bother with it. Did you know there's a kind of jellyfish that can be born backwards?" Joker says. "Now that's a trick!"
Bruce sags. "Nonsense," he sighs, "nonsense and madness. I should have known..."
Joker boops his nose. "Shh," he says, "Shhh, it's alright. Look, I'll show you how it works."
He lifts Bruce's hand up to his throat, urging it to close around the paper thin flesh. Bruce's hair stands on end in an awful mixture of revulsion and satisfaction, as Joker sighs into the grip.
He feels as locked into place as if they were puzzle pieces. The pulse thumps, thumps, slowly under his glove, where the biometric scanner flickers to life. It thinks he is searching a corpse for signs of life. It is reassuring him that they haven't lost the victim yet. The heart-rate is heightened, it says - it suggests this is a fear response, but when Bruce looks into Joker's eyes, with a fist closed around his neck, he knows that fear isn't what has blown those pupils open like a starburst.
"Don't worry," Joker says. "I'll come back. We're both getting a bit long in the tooth, eh? It's got to be about time for you to start over. You've worked that body of yours awfully hard. It ain't gonna last much longer!"
"What do you mean you'll be back?" Bruce says, teeth already on edge from the implication that he might kill - that he would ever -
"I'll never leave you for long," Joker say. "You need me."
Bruce just stares at him through the bars. His heart is sinking. "Isn't there any way to end it?" he asks.
"Hm, well," Joker tilts his head, making a show of looking up at the sky, "you could try to, I guess. Or you could just be here, with me."
Bruce lets go all at once, but Joker catches his hand before it can pull away. He presses it to the side of his own face, eyes closing, leaning into it like a pillow. His pale lashes catch the light from the moon above them.
"Is that so terrible?" Joker whispers. "To have a life? To be loved?"
Bruce's heart beats terribly in his chest, shaking the cage of his ribs. A life? Is that what he has?
"There's no heaven or hell for us, darling," Joker says. "You know what your reward is for being Batman? You get to be Batman."
The utter darkness of the city is primordial. It is ancient. On the rooftops that stretch for miles in every direction, moonlight licks the brick and mortar and renders it beautiful, elegant. It licks Joker's gash of a mouth, black against his white skin. The earth is quiet.
Is it so terrible? To be born, to live, to die? He has thought of this life as a sacrifice, but a sacrifice to whom? He has thought of this life as a burden, but who is he carrying it for? Somewhere along the way, he forgot that every day he rose into the evening and put on this cowl, he was choosing to be the Batman.
He is one in an endless line of identical men, but he is also one man. It doesn't matter if you don't choose it.
He thinks again of the family he's never spoken to. Of the silent cave. Of these long nights, the terror, the uncertainty. Is anyone to blame but himself, if this life has been a sacrifice?
Joker leans his forehead against the same bars. He is watching Bruce with his endless black eyes, but their funhouse madness is quiet tonight. Bruce sees only the moon reflected back at him.
For the first time in this lifetime, for the first time since the childhood that wasn't even truly his, Bruce feels loved. It burns him, irradiates him down to his very cells, leaving him raw and breathless with wonder. He is wonderfully, terribly loved.
"Nothing happens for a reason," Joker whispers. "Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it a blessing?"
Fog swallows the moon.
Bruce is forty five. He is standing at the bottom of the tube, watching as it fills with pale blue liquid.
Bruce is fifty. He is posing for a photograph at the grand opening of the New Martha Wayne Free Hospital.
Bruce is sixty. He is sharing a caf with commissioner Mahmud, now thoroughly grey but smiling at the newsfeed where his daughter's promotion has made the local stories.
Bruce is sixty five, too old for combat, watching the sunrise with a stooped figure in an old-fashioned hat. The wind catches the lipstick-stained napkin on the table between them and carries it away.
Bruce is sixty seven, standing at the glass of the tube which is even now draining to reveal a familiar face. He presses his hand against the glass. "Happy birthday Bruce," he says. "Welcome to the future."
In the midst of all the trophies and mementos of solved cases, the long table is laid out with an endless array of photographs. Children are smiling. Children are frowning. There are printed headlines with grand tragedies, handwritten notes from friends reminding someone to bring salsa to the graduation party, obituaries, pressed flowers - all the absurd and beautiful detritus of a human life. It took him so long to understand this.
It may be painful and confusing and brief, but it's his.
"Let me show you everything," Bruce says, a little gruffly - there is something caught in his throat. "Your life is so short. There are so many people to meet."
The new Bruce, shading his eyes under the glare of the spotlight, gestures to the playing card that towers above everything else, the laughing sinister face more than a hundred years out of fashion. "What is that?" he asks.
This Bruce, bent with age, leans into his cane and touches a photograph gently. The man in the photograph is only a smile beneath a wide brim, the breath of anticipation before a showman's bow, a perfect moment of delight and danger caught on film. It was a bad day, by any rational reckoning, but now Bruce can only be grateful for the chance to have known it, to have seen it when it was new and terrible and wonderful. He slides the photograph back into an album.
"You'll find out soon enough," he says. "We always do."