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Something Sturdier Than Kevlar

Chapter Text

Gotham is an island. It’s isolated by a sea of uncertainty that bubbles and surges, and even though there are more cities only a few miles away, they seem to be separated by oceans. The fear of the unknown enemy outweighs the cost of remaining within the nightmare of Gotham.

Thus, no one goes in or out. Well, never for long. Those who take a visit to Gotham are not surprised by its dreary atmosphere and rather unique entertainment opportunities, but they are surprised by their own reaction. When one first steps into Gotham--when one first steps out onto the pavement and looks up for a moment at the dark, Gothic sentinels that keep a close guard over the ants that scutter below before looking down and catching the eye of one of the street urchins, or the hobos, or the hop-heads; once one sees the impossible mix of hope, despair, and Stockholm syndrome that fully weaves the minds of Gothamites, that is when one has taken a step into Gotham-- his stomach retches. He pauses, he trembles, and he steps back. One can feel something similar traveling to a foreign land and finding yourself alone in a room of strangers with words that mean nothing to you and with no way to make them understand you. To the rest of America, Gotham is so alien, such a juxtaposition to what it knows, that it boards the intrusion off from the rest of the body to prevent the infection from spreading.

And indeed, Gotham is an infection. Sin, and madness, and horror are her soul. She seeps into the hearts of men and drags them down into such hopelessness that they might never escape. She gathers them up under her vulture wings and waits for them to wither beneath her shadow. But, her greatest cruelty lies in her mercies. She breaks her children down just enough so that they would never flee from her, but allows them just enough hope to keep on living in order to prolong their tortures.

Once a Gothamite, always a Gothamite. When you meet one who has escaped his savage mother’s physical form, make sure to keep an eye on him. He has supped full of horrors from his birth, he was milked on insanity and despair, and he was raised with not a sunny day to kiss his skin. Indeed, Gotham breeds only the most broken of men.

For all of these factors, any government agencies or other outside forces that might have helped the people of the Wretched City are driven away. They see a house already in embers that they are far too late to save. It is depending on one’s view on whether or not they are right. As for me, Gotham has always seemed more like Moses’ inciting shrub, on fire, but never burning. She is a messenger of many truths, but will always be tortured by flame, never able to rest in her own ashes when her violent hopes keep dragging her from her grave, kicking and screaming.

And she will kick. She kicks at everything and anything. She tears, chews, swallows, before spitting up and out whatever intruding force has caught her eye. There’s a maxim, among the intelligence agencies, I don’t remember the exact wording, but it goes something like, “The only reasons to go to Gotham are the parties and assisted suicide.”

That was why when a large deposit of vibranium appeared and was quickly bought up by the Prince of Gotham himself, no one was eager to encourage Tony Stark to pursue it.

“S.H.I.E.L.D. owns all the vibranium I’ve heard of, and you haven’t given me gram of the stuff to work with. I’ll take what I can get.” Stark used a middle finger to push his sunglasses further up his nose. It was a fiercely sunny day, the light attempting to scratch out the retinas of anyone who accidentally looked up.

The airfield was littered with the sleeping forms of sleek, shiny metal plans. It was a lurid scene, with nothing but harsh whites and dull greys. In the distance, past the sea of concrete, there was a splash of yellowing grass. There is something deeply unsettling about being so exposed to the open sky. Perhaps it is something left over from out ancestors. “Look, a Roc!” they cry, as if they can already feel death screaming from above. Although there weren’t any thick mats of clouds to conceal the approaching form of a giant bird of prey, one cannot help but turn his eyes up, squinting up at the empty blue to keep watch for a coming shadow of wings.

The stern-faced man that was confronting him as he left for his private flight frowned. “If it’s a matter of having vibranium, Mr. Stark, I’m sure we can--”

“Unlike the rest of the Avengers, I don’t need to eat out of Fury’s hand, Coulson. Now run along, I think Cap’s sleeping in the next room.”

Coulson frowned at the reference to his awkward first encounter with Steve Rogers. “Fury insists that you do not go to Gotham.”

“The city isn’t as bad as they say. I met Bruce Wayne, well, shook his hand at a party once, and he didn’t seem half bad.”

Phil looked at him with a motherly mixture of frustration and concern. Tony was always one to choke himself on the chain. “I insist that you do not go to Gotham.”

Tony stared at him, cocking his eyebrows. “Ah-ah, Agent, we both know personal pronouns are a no-no,” he chided.

Coulson merely pressed his mouth into a harder line than before. As much as Fury wanted to put a collar and an electronic tracker on Stark, unfortunately, Stark was still a free man. He was a billionaire, too. If he had a mind to go anywhere, even if it required a hundred people dropping everything to wait on him, he could make it happen with his sort of bottomless pockets.

“You don’t understand. Mr. Stark, Gotham--... You have no jurisdiction there,” Coulson said.

Tony’s dubious expression grew just that much more intense, before he finally released the growing tension in his face with a chuckle. “I’m rich. Money talks everywhere.”

And so, the Iron Man disappeared into the belly of the plane that soon carried him off into the sky, and Coulson was left to bring Fury a rather disappointing message.

Stark was still so naive. He couldn’t yet tell that some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money, or power. His pockets might have some sway, but not over the people that really mattered. And the added fact that he was Ironman only made him that much more vulnerable. After all, this was the Bat’s turf. S.H.I.E.L.D. had sent more than a few agents into the belly of the beast to take a stab at recruiting the Batman or disabling his operations, and all had failed rather miserably. It was not just the supposed work of the Batman, who simply messed around with their technology a bit. No, there were more violent forces at work. The agents were assaulted by low-level thugs, threatening messages scrawled into their apartments, no matter how many times they relocated. It was as if there was a mole planted in their ranks that spilled his guts to the criminals, and for some bizarre reason, they chose to protect the work of the Bat. Or, at least, they had no wish for the actual government to get involved. In some ways, it made sense. S.H.I.E.L.D. was too efficient. Too orderly. The Batman was the wild, mad justice that fit the insane degree of crime in the city.

This was Gotham. Tony Stark was far too pretty and shiny to make it a moment before Gotham decided to intervene.

Chapter Text

Tony didn’t understand why, no matter what he did, no matter how many people he tried to bribe, he couldn’t get anyone at big bad Wayne Enterprises to get him a private meeting with the Prince himself. It was understandable, though. Tony was a stranger to them, in every sense of the word. They wouldn’t want their delicate flower to be left to the mercy of some ravenous lapin who couldn’t control his impulses. But, really, what did they believe Tony could do to Bruce? Tony knew little of the billionaire, except that he was a Lothario, more face than brain or heart. However, Stark had a lot of experience with that type. In fact, he had a lot in common with Wayne. Stark was sure they would get along as well as a match and a haystack.

If the deal went over well with ol’ Brucie, Stark might invite him over for drinks, if he wasn’t too dense to be a bore. Stark often found himself lonely among the Avengers. They either thought too much or too little of him, and the lack of shared experiences between them deepened the gap even further.

Tony Stark had gone through genuine friends like tissue paper when he was younger, and now, although he had a few of them, most of the people that surrounded him were there out of obligation. If it wasn’t a favor he had done them, it was his position as Ironman that kept all of his Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. associates about him. However, he valued many of the relationships he had built on the foundation of obligation, but there would always be the weak, uncertain core that made him wonder whether or not, if he ever did something truly stupid, or became less than he was, if he was anyone else, they would stick around. So, he shook out his feathers extra pretty for them. He had to keep them fooled that they were actually still his friends because they wanted to, not because they had to. Of course, there were those times when Tony let himself get angry when they tried to pry back his armor. He had to train them to the status quo.

He was Tony Stark. He was the smart, funny, and rich one. Everyone else was endeared by him, and needed him. They were the adorable and lovable side characters that would forever plague the sequels and eventually become overplayed, but he was the main character.

Unlike Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne was charming not to draw people in, but to push them out. He was not extravagant enough to catch the eye. Of course, he was beautiful, flashy, but those traits are a dime a dozen. They have become commonplace, especially with the idolization of celebrities that has become such the linking thread through so many cultures. We love looking at people who can do everything we can’t, we love to envy them, and we love to imagine what it would like to be them. That is what we do. Tell me, what is the last time that a magazine didn’t have a three-page walk-through of some actor’s mansion or that the women on the red carpet didn’t do whatever they could to out-dress their peers? Showing off is the norm, from Hollywood to the children in school who happen to have bought one brand over another.

Bruce Wayne was just extravagant enough to be completely unassuming. Unlike Tony Stark. While Bruce Wayne had as much uniqueness of vanilla yogurt, Tony Stark was eccentric. He was important. He had visible arcs and changes of his character, and the public had been alongside him when his tragic backstory kicked into action. But Bruce, darling, darling Bruce, they had long forgotten about the tragedy of the Waynes. Thomas and Martha were just drops in the bucket for them, swept away into the endless sea of oblivion that consumed their memories.

“Tell him I just want to get coffee with him then, I just want--”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Stark, Mr. Wayne does not accept invitations for one-on-one meetings,” the phone rasped in Tony's ear.

“Wait, wait, don’t hang up on me. Is there any way I can talk to him sometime soon? In person?”

“There is a charity event hosted at Wayne Manor tomorrow that Mr. Wayne should be attending.”

“‘Should be?’ Well, thanks, I guess.” Stark hung up and pocketed his phone. For a man who seemed to be out and about enough to pick up eight new lovers a week, Wayne was a hard man to get a hold of. Stark would try not to get offended that there wasn’t an exception made for him (he was goddamn Tony Stark! Didn’t they know who he was?), and he couldn’t help but be a little bit jealous of the loyalty of the guy’s secretaries. He was sure that they got callers impersonating anyone from the resurrected Elvis to Stephen Hawking to Jesus Christ, but he had offered genuine money! He wish he had some company loyalty like that to keep the paparazzi away from his vacation homes.

Stark was too distracted by his growing disgruntledness to realize there was no need for sunglasses here. In fact, he looked rather ridiculous. The clouds were spreading across the sky like an infection, ripping and tearing at the faceless blue, until the curtain was torn up to reveal the featureless grey that had been behind it all along.

But as soon as he got into his rented car and found himself with a few moments of silence as he was ferried to the other side of the city to his hotel, he took a moment to look up at the architecture. Although it was as sleek and modern as anyone could wish for, Gotham seemed like a love-letter to Gothic London, with its emphasis on presence rather than efficiency. Yes, there were many tall-rising buildings that took advantage of their confined space, but as one went further away from the heart of the city, the buildings became lower, covering more area, like great sleeping beasts sprawled across the earth. The draconic factories spewed up their smoke and smog into the air for the Gothamites to clean out with their lungs. It had the crowded atmosphere of a slum, but the architecture and harsh environment of some future dystopia.

Tony could see why this wasn’t the most popular vacation spot, but he couldn’t understand why the city had such an awful reputation. Sure, the crime rates were pretty high, he’d heard, and wasn’t there this weird guy that dressed up like a Bat and beat up criminals in alleyways? Tony said it gave the place personality.

Chapter Text

Tony Stark was glad to see the familiar scene of cars lined up until they were hidden from sight, while the press of any newspapers not big enough to make it through the door clamored the interview anyone who was walking in who would just stop for a second. It wasn’t an open-invite thing, but Tony was pretty sure that the security would be pretty well-disposed towards him. Even though it seemed like Wayne Enterprises had absurd company loyalty, who would keep Tony Stark out of a party? Even when he went a bit wild, he always donated generously. It wasn’t like Bruce hadn’t done worse at other people’s events.

And Tony intended to behave tonight. He was here to get what he wanted, so he would lay on as much honey and oil he needed to. His car screeched up, and Tony got out to the sudden explosion of press. They clambered about him, and he waved them off.

“Mr. Stark, Mr. Stark! What brings you to Gotham? Is it true you’re going to negotiate a--”

“Whatever you’ve heard, no! Just here for a chat with the man of the hour.” He pushed his sunglasses back up the bridge of his nose. Now that the sun had almost slipped beneath the surface of the horizon, the sunglasses seemed purposefully ironic rather than unnecessary and silly. Tony had found that if you stuck a mistake through all the way, people eventually assumed that you were doing it on purpose. This discovery had gotten him through many a sticky situation.

He fought through the tides until he reached Poseidon’s gate, and the guard at the door, after looking at him for a moment, checking the guest list, squinting a bit, finally let him in. Tony gave him a little finger-gun in appreciation, and the guy smiled nervously.

The mansion was all fuss and feathers. Apparently ol’ Brucie really cared about the Gotham Police Department. Crime apparently hit a soft spot. Stark had a vague recollection as to why, but he didn’t pay it much mind. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that he was going in completely blind. Wayne Enterprises, although a competitor of Stark Industries, usually kept to itself. It never did much to encroach on the market, although it did tend towards very one-sided business deals. Since they never really cut any deals together, Stark had never bothered to research the former-CEO of the company.

Stark didn’t know how dangerous this was.

Even though the press was practically screaming outside, Tony wasn’t noticed immediately. He was only one suit in a sea of black and white, with splashes of color here and there from ladies’ feathery, sparkling, or much-too-short dresses. The scene was alive with talk and gossip, just as it was supposed to be, and every face blended into one-another. But there, further across the room, a singularity was evident from the way the room was spinning around him.

Bruce Wayne. But before Stark could go introduce himself, a firm hand grasped onto his suit.

“Mister Stark!” a harsh, nasally voice hissed into his ear, and Tony turned to a rather odd sight: a clearly male figure squeezed into a tight purple dress, with somewhat-curly, almost-red hair. The person had delicately-done lipstick and eye-makeup, although some of the cherry-red gloss had been smeared around the edges of their mouth. They also had rather uneven skin around their cheeks, almost as if they had some sort of birthmark that they had covered through extensive use of foundation. Either Tony was being confronted by a transvestite or a trans woman poorly passing. He was quite unsure.

“Now-- what has brought you to Gotham?”

“Wayne, now if you’ll excuse me--” He attempted to pull himself away from the hand on his arm, but the grip was like iron.

The man or woman smirked slightly. “Oh, really? You’re after his new shiny shhtuff, aren’t you?”

Stark took a moment to stare incredulously at this stranger. And he found his stomach turning in his gut. Not from anything else about the person except their eyes. They were warm brown, like dirt after a sprinkling of rain, but they were also impossibly dark, as if they were infinitely deep beneath the glossy surface. They were wild eyes. Like a storm trapped in two crystal balls. And Stark found himself paralyzed, not from fear, but rather a morbid fascination, as if he were looking in at a lion while at the zoo.

“Yes, I am,” he cautiously replied.

The stranger chortled, readjusting their arm so that it fell across Stark’s shoulder more casually. “Well, I gotta tell ya:--” they flicked their tongue out across their lips, smearing the blood-like lipstick just a bit more. “-- Brucie-bear isn’t really what he seems.”

The stranger patted Tony’s shoulder gently. “And, really, you shouldn’t be here at all.” Their tone was so light and genial. “But, I wish you luck!”

And with that, the stranger spun off into the crowd, leaving Tony stranded and confused. He would brush it off as nonsense, but something about the encounter weighed on his mind. He stood there for a few moments, a befuddled look on his face, but his sunglasses did a lot to keep that hidden.

Then, suddenly, the attention of the pack shifted to the entrance of the room where Tony stood as the eyes of the Alpha turned upon him.

“Tony Stark? I don’t recall you being on the guest list!” Bruce Wayne said with a casual, almost humorous air. The sea of people was parted before his footsteps as he began advancing towards Tony.

Tony couldn’t remember a time where he had ever felt more out of place. The people at this party were staring at him, not with admiration, but with a morbid curiosity, as if he were some sort of displayed exhibit. Or, more accurately, as if he were a missionary to a tribe long-concealed within the depths of the Amazon Rain-forest. Here he was, with his own sense of civilization, all clean and pressed, and here was their wild chieftain approaching him to test his will power.

Of course, the moment Wayne got close enough to get a look at, Stark shook off this disorienting sensation. He had never seen someone with eyes so shallow in his life. Wayne looked like he had the IQ of whatever Tony could scrape off of his shoe. Tony didn’t want to rush to conclusions, but there was only so much he could do to reign in his first impressions of a person.

“Well, I’m sure you just forgot to invite me. After all, we all care about--” Tony faltered for a second, looking to the center of the room at the banner to remind himself what the charity event was for. “--Gotham Police!”

“Of course, Mr. Stark. After all, with our sort of streets, there isn’t a tougher job in America.”

Tony could tell the entire room was dubious of his story.

“Yes, in fact, you can put me down for a couple thousand to help out,” he announced loudly.

“A couple thousand? You can do better,” Wayne teased gently.

“If I lived here, I’d care a bit more, Mr. Wayne.”

Tony Stark got the distinct impression that Bruce Wayne knew more about him than he knew about Bruce Wayne. Wayne addressed him like an old friend, and Tony was following his lead, if only to dispel the tension of the crowd. It was working, and those with shorter attention spans were beginning to drift away or talk amongst themselves.

And Bruce laughed. “Someone get this man a drink. You greedy moochers haven’t downed all of the champagne yet, have you?” he called out towards the refreshment table.

What did Wayne know about him? Maybe the man was just a little more proactive than he seemed and did a bit of research on his competition.

A waiter brought him a glass of champagne, and Wayne one as well. The crowd was mostly spread out evenly by now, although anyone who knew anything about anyone kept an eye on the pair.

“Clarissa, why don’t you go get yourself a drink as well.” Wayne gestured his date away towards the table. The bird of paradise managed to pick up on his wanting a private conversation with Tony Stark, and she giggled slightly before flaunting away.

With that, both Stark and Wayne took a sip of their glasses.

“So, what has brought you to Gotham, Mr. Stark? The vibranium?”

Tony shrugged casually. “Guilty as charged. The guys who hold my leash are tight-fisted.”

“A shame you had to bring business to a lovely event like this.”

“It’s not my fault your secretaries wouldn’t arrange a meeting for us.”

“Ah, well, you can understand my paranoia.”

Nodding, Stark took another sip of his drink. “I’ve got a bit of an idea.”

“Yes, well, it isn’t for sale.”

Stark lowered his brow, but before he could get out a protestation, Wayne struck him with a darker gaze. His eyes, first shiny and plastic, now became as deep and as sharp as ice. But only for a moment. It was like a lightning strike, there, then gone.

“Sorry about that. Now, I have other guests to attend to. I hope you can enjoy yourself, though, Mr. Stark.”

And with that, the stranger spun off into the crowd, leaving Tony stranded and confused.

Chapter Text

Tony knew that it wouldn’t be a good idea to press the matter, particularly at the same event that he was practically kicked out of. Not really, but Mr. Wayne made it quite obvious he had no intentions of discussing any sort of business deal tonight. But, Tony was determined. He would just have to play a longer game than previously anticipated.

He had a meeting the next day that he had kept scheduled, because he assumed that it would only take a short conversation to convince the billionaire to part with his eye candy. Because that was all it was. What use would Bruce Wayne have for vibranium? There wasn’t enough in the lump of raw material the man had bought to be of any use to the company. Any product containing vibranium would be far too costly to be practical for mass production. And Mr. Wayne wouldn’t need it himself. It wasn’t as if he flew around in a suit protecting the masses every day. Although, Tony had heard once that Mr. Wayne liked rock climbing. Maybe he was using it for some extremely expensive equipment? But, that was just selfish. When the material could go towards something as important as the protection of the public, who was Wayne to withhold it for his own personal use? Wasn’t Wayne a philanthropist?

Tony was forming all of the arguments to justify how he just wanted vibranium because it was flexible enough to be resealed with nanobots. He had this amazing idea of how he could use vibranium to create a sort of armor with a bleeding edge that could just reform over his body. It would be awesome.

As his jet was passing out of Gotham early the next morning, (as in early, early. The sun was just stretching its brilliant fingers above the horizon, running through the fog that had settled over the Gotham skyline the night before. The air was crisp, cool, and refreshing, and the streets buzzed with the hard-working crowd that was truly trodden under crime’s heel) Stark could feel a slight weight lifted from his shoulders, as if he had been hiding some secret sorrow in his heart, away from even his own conscious mind, and it had suddenly been ripped away. He didn’t understand why, and he passed it off as the change of weather, from the gloomier, cloudy nature of Gotham, to the relative brightness of the rest of the US.

He found himself distracted for the rest of the day, planning to drag Bruce Wayne into selling him the vibranium somehow. He would be an unexpected guest at another party or two and drop subtle hints to the press. Even if Bruce Wayne was generous with his money only for the PR, then the threat of a media war orchestrated by the masterful PR agents at Stark industries would be enough to sway his determination.

Unless, perhaps, Bruce Wayne was against any sort of vigilantism whatsoever? Could Tony still categorize himself as a vigilante, since he was under the wing of a US government program? Well, the Ironman at least had a past of it, and if Bruce was very against that, the stigma might force him to refrain from giving such a dangerous raw material to someone who was (if Tony was honest with himself) a well-documented loose cannon. The Batman, with his violent methods in Gotham, might have been a trigger to that. Tony would need to do some research on statements that Wayne had made about the Batman. Hopefully, that wouldn’t be too hard to look up, even though Wayne seemed to talk more about himself than anything.

So, after the brief (it was long, but Tony left early) meeting, Tony began fiddling with things in his lab to keep his hands occupied while he listened to old news programs about the Batman, hoping to catch anything about Bruce Wayne. He mostly tuned everything out about Batman himself, with his ears only keen for the name of the fellow billionaire.

But, he would turn his eyes up once in a while when the news channel would display the few scratchy, blurry videos they had of the Bat in action. Tony didn’t know much about martial arts, but being around S.H.I.E.L.D. agents often enough had trained his eye. The man was truly talented in kicking the living daylights out of people. Tony’s favorite one was were a bullet went through the guy’s suit into his arm at close range. It was just enough to convince him that the creature of the night, the master hand-to-hand combatant, the myth, the legend, the Bat, was only a man. Not even Kevlar could stop a bullet at point-blank. He had to admit that the guy’s methods were pretty brutal. It would be enough to turn up anyone’s nose at vigilantism, even someone as clueless as Bruce.

The Batman was Gotham’s pride and joy. He was the manifestation of hope and fury that was so cultivated in Gotham’s citizens. He was just horrifying enough for men to reject him in public, and just valiant enough to keep the mice in the trap. He was justice in a way that was just enough to prick a man’s conscience, but not enough for him to actually do anything about it.

It had just become natural to continually insult Wayne’s intelligence in every thought, and it made Tony just that much more cocky as he schemed to himself. Fluorescent lights hummed about the dull chattering of the news that he projected onto his screen while metal jumped and popped into different forms beneath his fingertips.

After his ringtone broke the atmosphere, Tony put down his project and answered it with a quick ‘Yellow!’

“Mr. Stark, this is Agent Coulson.”

“Ah, Son of Coul.”

“Stop stealing Thor’s shtick. In any case, I called to see how your meeting with Bruce Wayne went?”

Tony chuckled as he picked up his trinket again. “Aw, you care about me?”

“I’m mostly worried whether or not a mad inventor got his hands on one of the most dangerous metals on earth.”

“So you do care!”

He could almost hear Coulson’s eye roll through the phone. But, Tony was somewhat curious as to why the agent would call him. Especially since it didn’t seem like Fury business. Fury would know already, through some unholy means, if he had succeeded in his quest.

Coulson had seemed to have an extremely high opinion of Gotham’s potential lethality, so perhaps it was merely a point of intrigue to talk to the man who had survived an encounter with America’s Vanity Fair!

“Well, I practically have the deed to it in my hand, Coulson, so, ha.”

“He turned you down, didn’t he.”

Stark huffed slightly, not replying.

Coulson continued with a satisfied lilt to his tone. “Well, I wish you luck on your next course of action, but I must advise you--”

“Yeah, yeah, Gotham’s dangerous. I’ll try not to burn my hands, mom.”

With that, Tony hung up. Wayne was just a stupid pretty boy who probably couldn’t even tie his own shoes in the morning.

“-- invincible!” the television murmured. “The robber shot him at point-blank, and he didn’t even flinch!”

Tony jumped up, staring at the screen. “JARVIS, rewind a few seconds.”

“Bullets worked against him just fine before, but now, I swear the Bat’s invincible! The robber shot him at point-blank, and he didn’t even flinch!”

“JARVIS! What’s the date of this story?”

“Two days ago, sir.”

Tony stared at it for a few more seconds. Realization washed over him as he stared. There was only one material that could make bullets drop like cotton balls.

It seemed that Bruce Wayne was all for vigilantism. He’d have to be if he had given his stash of vibranium to the Batman for a new suit. It made a lot of sense. Where else would the Gotham Bat be getting the money for his gadgets, other than an extremely rich sponsor?

That had to be it, and what a fascinating development it was!

Chapter Text

It was always a good day for a smear campaign. Tony had spent almost his entire day cyber-stalking good ol’ Brucie boy, only to discover the guy’s twitter had maybe two posts actually written by him. The others were automated notifications of his followers of upcoming charity events and stuff like that. Stark was rather disappointed. If he over-shared on the internet, he expected his fellow billionaires to do the same thing. Unlike everyone else who posted embarrassing stuff online, Tony couldn’t be fired for it. Besides, he gave people enough controversy every week for people to forget about one little comment or two. It also kept his PR team on their toes.

All he knew about Bruce Wayne was that he sometimes did something crazy, but nothing that could be considered really controversial. He was a well-known womanizer, and he had sometimes said a rude thing or two at a party, but nothing too major. Any really big rumor could sink his reputation, if Tony was careful. He would need to do this delicately and professionally in order to get Bruce to do what he wanted.

So, Twitter rant it was.

He had been posting his conspiracy-theory about Bruce Wayne being in league with the Batman for only a few minutes when Coulson’s number lit up his phone again.

“Coulboy, my main man--”

“Why are you accusing Bruce Wayne of being the Batman?”

Tony sighed. “Not saying he is the Batman, just that he’s at least given Batsy some vibranium.”

“We at S.H.I.E.L.D. think that this is a horrible idea, Tony.”

“What if I’m right?”

“That’s what we’re afraid of.”

Tony gritted his teeth. “What’s got you all riled up with Gotham, Agent? Why is S.H.I.E.L.D so antsy that I’m just trying to get something that should already be mine?”

“It’s a matter of--”

“You know what, no, I’m not going to deal with your dancing around the issue. Call me when you’ll give me a straight answer, Coulson.”

He had a short temper when it came to the agents. Tony still had the freedom of any human being to rant on Twitter about something to get what he wanted. It was an essential human right. Just because he sometimes helped S.H.I.E.L.D out and loaned his money to pay for damages to New York and all that stuff didn’t mean he was at their beck and call. He had a life that he would live how he pleased.

After about a half hour of responding to people who commented on his rant, he finally got a real reply.

From Bruce Wayne. The guy hadn’t posted in forever! Tony had chosen Twitter to accuse him because he had thought it wouldn’t get to Wayne before it got to the news outlets. But, here the guy was.

“(1/2) There is some truth to what Mr. Stark says. The reason I did not sell him the vibranium is because it is in the possession of the Batman. However, I did not willingly give it to him. It was stolen from my personal safe where it was kept,” the first tweet read.

“(2/2) The reason I did not mention it was because of embarrassment. I’m sure you can understand, Tony that I did not want to tell you why I couldn’t sell you my recent, very expensive purchase. Now, please stop this ranting about me.”

Oh. Well, that made a lot of sense. If Bruce Wayne had had something stolen from him, he certainly wouldn’t want it advertised unless he had to do so. Now Tony felt a bit bad for how badly he had thought of the guy. How embarrassing was that, to spend like, a gazillion dollars on something, only to have it stolen not even a week afterwards?

Now, Tony had a new target for his anger. The Batman. Not only was the guy an unregistered hero, but he had also stolen vibranium from a poor, innocent billionaire who hadn’t done no wrong! It was a tragedy. Tony took the time to consider how dangerous heroes, with their skills, money, and abilities were without being reigned in by something. Perhaps that was why S.H.I.E.L.D was so reluctant to let him off of his leash. He was beginning to understand slightly. He had money and skills that could be a danger to a lot of people if he went off the rails. But, at the moment, he wasn’t looking to hurt anyone but a certain flying mammal who had snatched what was rightfully his.

He would rescue the vibranium for pretty Bruce Wayne, kill the dragon, and return victorious with shiny new armor. The Bat should be easy to take down with Stark’s significant technological advantage over the man.

What could go wrong?

Chapter Text

It’s hardly a secret that Anthony Stark is an impulsive man. A simpler man would be much easier to reign in. It’s like comparing how easily one is able to train a dog versus how easily one can train a leopard. They are of similar if not equal intelligence, however, one is smaller, weaker, more eager to please. A simple reward system can easily lure a hound’s weaker will under your power. And you think you’re so special for managing to convince a creature who could not even survive without your assistance to sit or stay or roll over when you please it to. Sure, it is a loving relationship, but don’t feel too proud of yourself that you have a bag of loose fur and skin yapping and running at your beck and call. It is in their natures.

Now that you’ve gotten a dog under your power, have a go at a leopard. They are the masters of earth and water, nothing but pure muscle and cunning intellect. They laze about in the midday not because they are weak, but because they have the strength to do so. So is it with Tony Stark. He can be silly, impulsive, childish, only because he has the intellect, wealth, and power behind him to back up his personality. That was what made him so frustrating for S.H.I.E.L.D. to deal with. He couldn’t be trained and whipped into submission. This was a man comfortable with being at the top of the food chain, able to do whatever he pleased and act however he pleased because people knew better than to challenge a genius billionaire with the ability to make weapons that could topple nations. But, for all of that laud, Stark was a childish man. He was impulsive, materialistic, and much simpler than he would like to believe. And for all of his mighty, logical reasoning power that he stored up in his giant head of his, he was emotional. He managed to hide most of it behind his persona of eccentric billionaire superhero. Charming, carefree, and dangerous. It kept most people away from his heart, and often, he managed to slip into his role enough to even convince himself.

It made everything so much easier. He had almost created an entirely new person, with its own passions and urges. It was so real and full. He forgot he had it most of the time.

All of this was to say that S.H.I.E.L.D was extremely disappointed that Stark was the person to decide to have a personal vendetta against the Batman. Because Bruce Wayne was so passive about the whole incident, Tony Stark (after his countless hours of reading about Brucie’s tragic life) had decided to feel angry for him. Now, the Batman had personally affronted him.

It’s amazing how much one can feel invested in another person’s life without even knowing them. Tony had read at least a dozen different recollections of the death of the Waynes, from interviews just after the incident with a teary-eyed baby Bruce, to a colder, rougher, and wilder teen who was much more inclined to snap at the reporters when they pried too far, and finally, the current model. He was so shiny and well-adjusted. If Tony peered too close, he could see his own eyes in that paper face.

And then, there was the matter of Bruce’s disappearance. That had seemed to be transition point from bitter young adult to happy and given-up current day. He couldn’t find a single interview with Wayne about it, but infinite conspiracy theories, ranging from secret lovers to kidnappings and searching for himself in the mountains and rain forests. That would explain the comparison pictures of before and after his trip away. Brucie got absolutely jacked during his vacation. Stumbling across a picture of Bruce shirtless (he had done it for a charity calendar or something, it didn’t matter), Tony thanked the Lord that he was only mostly straight. He also noticed how many scars littered the man’s body. Bruce had once said it was because of rock climbing. Or polo? Or fencing? Something like that. Tony wondered if it was just to cover up some more… private activities?

Some might say it was bad form to cyberstalk someone you were planning to buy something from in the hopes of getting emotional leverage to use against them, but… Tony really couldn’t care less.

He was here to get what he came for. And if that meant violating several safe airspace laws by coming in screaming in his classic red and gold, well, then it was gonna fucking be like that.

“JARVIS, send a DM to Brucie’s twitter. ‘Off to fight the Big Bad Wolf. I’m sure you’ll give me the vibranium out of gratitude once I kick this flying mammalian's butt ily.’”

Tony didn’t think he would ever get tired of flying. He had enough fuel to get to Gotham and stay afloat for a few hours, but if worse came to worse, he had a rental car waiting for him. He hadn’t really prepared much in way of battle plans, but the Bat was known for his scheming, wasn’t he? So, the best way to beat him would be to catch him completely off guard! If even Tony had no idea what he was going to do next, then the Bat wouldn’t be able to predict his next move.

A perfect lack of plan.

__

A man stood at the city border. He stared up at the sky. It was featureless and gray. The wind whipped at his grimy yellow hair, which seemed to be streaked with a darker color that was already washing out in the falling rain that was running over the city. Except, instead of cleansing the earth, bringing up that pleasant smell of Petrichor, it was dragging the smog of the air to the dirt and the water, and sending it into the deepest parts of men’s souls. If anything, it only polluted the city more.

It was featureless and gray, save for a growing dot of blazing yellow. A falling star come from the North that was going to burn out most splendidly.

The man stretched his face into a smile. “You really shouldn’t be here at all. ”

He finished dialing a number into his phone, raising it to his ear as the scars on his cheeks crinkled.

Gotham wasn’t happy.

Chapter Text

Bruce Wayne blinked dully at the message that had just appeared on his phone. He had been suiting up for another night of patrol, but after putting his phone onto the table, he began to strip off the suit and get back into his normal clothes. The city could survive without Batman for a night. He had a feeling Bruce Wayne would be more useful.
_

“JARVIS, turn on all of the scanners!”

Tony needed to be looking for a concentration of electronics on a singular person, smoke pellets, scanners, things like that, and when added to the very distinct vibrations of vibranium, if he cross-referenced everything, it should give him the Bat’s location.

However, he wasn’t omnipotent. It would take time, and a lot of flying around, because any material in the way could interfere with the scans. Luckily for Tony, Batman was usually jumping about rooftops like a murderous squirrel.

From above, one could see Gotham much more clearly than usual. Tony was hyped up on adrenaline, but even someone like him could look down and feel a slight chill. It was like looking down into an anthill, everyone drearily being prodded along towards the same goal. With their collective head, they decided to stay here, live here, and keep their existence going if only because they had no where else to go. Any ant that strayed too far from the status quo was quickly shut down and reprocessed into fuel for the ants that still followed the great Queen Gotham.

The buildings were somehow more crooked from above. In the streets, everything seemed much more orderly. The Waynes family a few generations back had had a big part of planning the city back in the day, and their futurity had carried on their legacy to build a wonderful, sprawling city. But from up here, it seemed like all of the Wayne architects had been just a little bit cross-eyes when drawing up the plans. Everything just seemed a little bit crooked. Somehow. Gotham followed the pattern of lightning, or tree-branches, or mold, spreading out from the heart across the landscape with its dark, black fingers of buildings. Tony imagined for a moment that if he followed the veins back to the core, he might be able to rip out whatever he found there and shut all of Gotham down for good.

The thought was odd.

As much as he flew around the city, however, nothing was popping up. He guided himself over the Northern District in the direction of the Narrows. The Batman liked to hang out there, didn’t he? That was the place where most of Gotham’s crime liked to fester.

There were clothes-lines draped across the thinner alleys, trash cans that were vomiting up their contents, windows repaired with duck tape. The buildings had the same dark aura that the entire city possessed; however, in the business district, it had been the air of some silent guardian, while here in the Narrows, it was nothing but wretchedness and squalor.

This only dully registered with Tony. After all, he had his shiny red and gold suit. It would tank an anti-tank rifle to get through the Mark III suit. He was safe from any of the monsters outside as he curved through the narrow channels of the filthy streets

Suddenly an alert popped up in his helmet. He barely had enough time to realize what it was for when his suit was hit by an explosion on his side. The blast sent a wave of hot air through the street. He flew through the air, only registering the fall when he impacted the brick wall on the left of the alley. Pain shot through his back, and his head was thrown back into the brick. Rubble scattered down beneath him. His ears rung like screams.

His suit had absorbed most of the blast, so none of the screaming people down on the sidewalk had been hurt. Even the wall he had been thrown into hadn’t taken much damage.

After a second, he peeled himself off just enough to look out into the apartment building across the street, where a man in a clown mask was creeping away from the open window with his anti-tank rifle. Tony's gaze was wobbling and fuzzy.

The smell of burning. Pain was ripping through his head, and beginning to thud down his spine like a spreading heat, although it wasn’t the worst he had ever felt. His vision was starting to spin.

He kicked his hand thrusters into gear, to fly to the open window, but he couldn’t keep his hands steady. Only a slight wobbled of his arms, and his suit flew out of control, shooting him face-first into the concrete. Tony could hear the cracking of concrete against the face of his suit before the leverage flipped him over through the air. The impact wasn’t too bad. But then again, he was blacking out, and couldn’t tell all that well.

__

The surrounding crowd of horrified onlookers stared as a sleek black car pulled into the thin street, stopping just before the crumpled form of the Iron Man.

Bruce Wayne stepped out, with his phone pressed up against his ear.

“Yes, 21st street. His armor appears to be mostly undamaged, so be prepared for impact damage. Probably a concussion. Yes, thank you.”

He pocketed into the inside of his jacket as he bent down beside the fallen hero on the cracked pavement. The paint was scratched off on a good portion of it, but really, the idiot was lucky to come out with so few injuries.

As soon as the ambulance arrived, loading the unconscious form into the back of it, Bruce hopped in beside them. He was going to have a word with Tony when he woke up. Really, the man had the impulse control of a child and just enough intelligence to make it even worse.

Chapter Text

Sleep is the closest to death we can experience in this life. It’s one of our few chances to let go of our responsibilities and fears. We dip into the infinite void, guided by Hypnos’ benign hand. What does it say about life that we prefer to escape it above all else? As soon as we get a true taste of the world, we ache for sleep in every moment of waking. Only children, in their pure, untainted states, are still excited to stay awake and experience what they believe to be an exciting world to the fullest.

Of course, even in the state that we use to directly flee from our terrors in modern life, our minds don’t let us escape the fully. We are soon pursued by much more twisted exaggerations of our fears and hopes. We experience everything a thousand times worse in our dreams. That pricking worry grows into a wretched monstrosity large enough to rend one limb from limb. However, when he wake up, all memory of such horrors fades. The blood that had tainted the bathwater is flushed down the drain, not a trace left behind except for the cold sweat clinging to our skin as we plunge into wakefulness, our hearts pumping. Although the fear was real, with no memory of what had caused the fear, we decide to disbelieve our own emotions. It is the most logical thing in such a society as ours. If an emotion can in any way be deemed ‘irrational,’ we kill it.

However, often these irrational thoughts and impulses are much more real than we could possibly imagine. After all, our emotions came before we could ever be considered logical. Before we were ‘Homo Sapiens’. Animalistic impulses hold more truth than we realize.

Tony had a lot of experience in shoving down fear, justifying how ‘rational’ it was. Even though the threat of the alien invasion was long past, sometimes… It… It was still on the horizon. He could still feel the utter emptiness of space, enveloping him as his conscious mind flickered. He had accepted his death and came back. A man can’t dip his toe into the void and not get a little of it on him. In him.

He blinked awake.

It was a warm, quiet room. Smelled like bleach and old people, so, a hospital. He looked down at his body. He didn’t have many tubes sticking out of him, so he obviously wasn’t that badly injured.

“How long was I out?” he called out to the presence he felt, maybe a nurse, in the room.

“Oh, only an hour or so,” an only somewhat familiar voice replied.

Tony blinked drearily at the now reoccurring form of Bruce Wayne. He certainly didn’t expect that guy to be there. Well, maybe Brucie was so touched that Tony tried (and failed) to fight the Batman that he had come to pay his respects.

“You have a mild concussion, so the doctors will be around in a bit to talk it out, then, I think they’ll most likely let you leave.” The billionaire’s business casual looked out of place in the context of a soft hospital room.

“So why are you perching like a mother hen?” Tony asked as he reached down to the side of his bed and had the head of it began to rise with a steady hum.

Bruce said nothing for a moment.

“Did you see who fired at you?”

“Yeah, this weirdo in a clown mask.”

Bruce didn’t seem all that surprised. “The Joker is rather protective of the Batman.”

“Why? Why would criminals want to protect a vigilante?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it? Mr. Stark, you need to understand…” Bruce mulled over his words. “You can’t just...”

“Try to help you? Get injured while doing it? I can’t tell if you’re ungrateful or concerned.”

The man sighed, turning his hardened gaze towards Tony.“You’re pulling out the supports,” he said.

Stark hadn’t thought that Wayne was capable of an intimidating look, but apparently, he was wrong. However, Tony had seen far, far worse than Bruce’s little mean face. It took much more than that to shake Tony Stark. He had supped full of horrors, ever since his true arc began in Afghanistan.

So, he shrugged. “Only one added on late,” he replied unapologetically. “And adding it in created more problems than it solved.”

“But it will prevent damage further on.”

Tony raised an eyebrow as he leaned further back into the semi-upright hospital bed. “Very utilitarian of you, to support the man that stole from you, Bruce. But how do you know?”

“I know my city.”

Tony’s curiosity was practically suicidal. This was a new side of Bruce than the prissy little boy toy he had met at the charity event. Although he had been convinced by Bruce’s embarrassing tweets that the Batman really had stolen the vibranium, Wayne’s insistence that the Bat was still doing the right thing was suggesting otherwise. How fascinating that what seemed to be a two-dimensional playboy stereotype might actually be supporting an illegal, violent vigilante. Although Tony was slightly hurt that the guy didn’t even give him a word of thanks, he could let that slip.

“Well, maybe you can show me around sometime.”

Tony reveled in the slight slip of composure in Bruce’s eyes as the man studied Tony’s smirking face.

If Bruce was going to be dishonest with Tony, Stark would repay in kind. With each layer of Gotham’s darling he pulled back, he could only see more of how much he had yet to uncover.

“Perhaps,” Wayne said cautiously. “However, I’m sure your friends in New York are concerned about you. I’ll leave you to rest.” Bruce stood and walked to the door.

“Visit anytime!” Tony called after him.

Chapter Text

There was a bit of paper work to go through, a little check up from the doctor, but other than that, Tony was free to go. Really, he had barely been injured at all, just enough to knock him out. However, what he was surprised of was how this Joker character had gotten his hands on anything strong enough to knock the Mark III out of the sky. It hadn’t been enough to pierce any of the armor, but still. It was concerning. What sort of connections did these Gotham criminals have in order to get them that sort of equipment? It had looked like an RPG or an anti-tank rifle or something in the moments before Tony was hit, but he had only had a split second to think. Something of such a low calliber wouldn’t have been enough to knock off the balance of his suit. Perhaps it was something bigger. More dangerous. And if the Joker had something like that on hand, who knew what else the clown had up his sleeve?

The Ironman suit had been put in a parking garage or something a little ways down the street, since the hospital didn’t trust the staff to just have it somewhere in there. Which was understandable. Tony was just annoyed that he had to walk two blocks to get to his ride. Well, it would do him good to exercise his legs. He needed to sort through his intentions with this whole situation. He still wanted that vibranium, but now that he knew he wouldn’t have Bruce Wayne’s support, he would need to do some serious recoordination. He had set himself up in order to maniupale Bruce’s favor, if Bruce Wayne chose to invite him to be shown around. However, he doubted that Bruce would ever help him, even if he liked Tony.

Aside from the vibranium motivation, Tony was now also motivated by curiosity. Indeed, it was the glory of kings to search out a matter, and if Tony had to get a bit scraped up to understand what the hell was going on here in Gotham, he would.

The great Mother City was hardly happy with this new development of Tony’s psyche. Such a smug feline would have to be lured to his death most efficiently by his own search for answers. However, whether it would be his body or his mind that broke first, that would be the true answer. She would need to feel him out much more.

Her prophet appeared from the shadows as Tony walked beneath the dead sun of the afternoon. His rags were those of a fool, and his eyes were those of a god in flesh.

The man leaped from the shadows, snatching up Tony’s shirt sleeve. Tony recoiled slightly.

“Tony, darling! That bandage tells me why you’re still here, but really, what brings you back to Gotham?”

Tony stared at the man for a few seconds before recognition finally kicked in of a tight purple dress and bright makeup. The person at the fundraiser.

“Oh, Miss, or--”

“It’s ‘sir,’ no worries. But I appreciate your, ah, political correctness, Tony.” The man’s breath was sour and rotten as the words were hissed into Stark’s face.

“It’s only courtesy,” Tony said warily.

“How noble!”

Tony nodded slightly, tugging his arm away from the man’s grip. “Well, I have places to--”

“Yeah, yeah, but I gotta say, you’re walking on thin ice. I’m warning you out of the goodness of my heart, Mr. Stark. Go back to New York. You don’t deserve Bruce.”

So, this was some sort of obsessed stalker, who couldn’t bear the thought of anyone hanging around his beloved ‘Brucie-bear,’ even though there hadn’t been a hint of romantic entanglement save for one comment on Tony’s part? Well, Stark had dealt with many a crazy stalker before. All of his nervousness and respect for this strange man washed away, his mouth turning up in a sneer.

“I must assure you, I do.” Without another word, Tony turned tail and began walking, almost running down the street.

The Joker chuckled slightly, shaking his head. “Self-deprecation,” he sighed softly to himself as he watched Tony go. The man was in for a surprise.

Chapter Text

Oh Gotham, you treacherous mother. I know only what I have gathered, from the wandering madmen, the fools and the sages, who have either passed beneath your shadow or untangled you with their minds alone. However, even that cannot protect their minds. Dwelling too long upon your influence is like staring into the face of the fire. So close, one might touch it, as it dances there upon the dead coals, the corpses of the trees that were drawn and quartered to be sacrificed to its dance. It is forever pulled up by its own nature up beyond the air, into that place where it hovers between corrupt Earth and the perfect deferents.

But this fire was born of earth, fed on it. It was struck up by the filthy hands of man. But, it is light, man insists. The stars give forth holy light, in their purity, forever spun on by the Grand Mover, and this fire, this fire that I have struck up by my own hand has the same sort of stuff, driving away the darkness that comes without the sky’s most luminous eye. Surely, surely, it is just as good as the pure stuff, just as pigs fat burns just as good as spermaceti, although far less sweet, but much more suited for a pauper as myself, rather than those blessed beings that attend the Mover among the crystal.

That is the trick of it, wretched woman. The illusion of it grabs a hold of the eye, the deep, rusty red light that is so much more hellish than the palsied dance of the stars in their orbit. But it nourishes not. Man cannot hole himself up with only the light of the fire to kiss his skin! He will shrivel, perhaps not in body, but surely in mind. Man is a creature of light, born beneath the gaze of his Maker, warmed with love and brilliance. The plants that drink the light only for their sustenance are his food, so, he too eats only light. Without sun, truly, what is Man? Without the truly illuminating light that shows all there is, Man can only see far enough to know that he does not know.

He fills in what he cannot know by the light of the fire with only what the fire lets him know, and thus, his world is consumed by the dull and ruddy red, where illusions, suspicions spread as quickly as they did in the Dark Ages.

But you know that. You know that so, so well. Get him to stare for just too long at your fearsome face, so warm, yet so dangerous, so close to the real thing, but just not enough, and he will forget that there was anything else.

Do not cry your plastic tears. You are as fooled by this illusion as they are. You have been seduced by your own propaganda. Go ahead, cry for the souls of your children while you beat them into the ground with a baseball bat. Your tears will do good to wash their wounds out with salt.

But, you injure yourself just as much as your prey, foolish woman. You love the most vile things of the earth most of all, as a child wanders over to the brush and takes a handful of fire ants, and presses her tender lips against the shivering, fiery mound of disgusting creatures. They crawl all over your flesh, into your nose and eyes and mouth, infesting and blinding you, and once they force themselves down your throat, they will eat you from the inside out. Why, why, then, do you hold them so close to your chest, these people that so sting you? Foolish, foolish woman.

So the world stares at your wretchedness. Your so called ‘dance’ of convulsions, content to toil in your own filth and squalor, is a circus. They are all driven away, by what some call fear, but I know that it is truly disgust. Men cannot help but stare, however, and they wonder whether or not there is some beauty to be found in you. You have lived for so long, and so many people have been swayed by your charms, perhaps they are right? Then, they fall into your grasp. You clutch at them, kiss them fiercely, and your darling children swarm over your cheeks and fill the eyes of your newest prize. With no eyes to look to the sun, all he can know is you. It is all he can know.

Stare not too long into the fire! Fall not asleep as you still attend the keel!

I turn now to address our tragic hero. Oh, Stark! You stand far too close to the edge, and your eyes are affixed in your wonder as you try to search for meaning and reason in this witch when there is none. Come back to us on the outside, and you will be safe.

You do not listen.

You chase your Ariadne as she promises to guide you, but she is blinded by Gotham’s wiles, even while you plunge into Mother’s labyrinth. Dear, dear Theseus, I’m afraid Athens will be greeted by black sails when you return.

Gotham’s Minotaur nips at your heels.

Chapter Text

The Bat prowled.

A dark shadowy form, that seemed to be somewhat entangled between the tangible and not, glided across the night sky. Looking up, one could only make it out because it was so much darker than the low-hanging clouds that reflected the lights from the ever-waking city. It was like an owl that soared on the waves of choking air. The air was so heavy with Gotham’s aura, that when one knew how to tilt his feathers just so, he could shoot up faster and farther than even Icarus, with no sun to fear in that eternal night. The stars would not be seen tonight, nor any night. The fluorescent brightness of the city choked out any of the more delicate, feminine light of the stars. Yes, the robust fullness of the city’s illumination was distinctly masculine, in the way it puffed itself up to anyone who might look, but the stars were so much more graceful and naturally beautiful. There was so much more that was fundamentally different, though, but the only truly apparent thing to the naked, physical eye was the sex of both.

The Clown stared out into the night sky. Although he faced one way, really, he was looking out the back of his head at the approaching fallen cherub that dropped down onto the roof beside him.

“Hello, Batsy,” the clown purred.

“Joker.”

“What’s a guy like you doing alone on a night like this?” The Joker turned to face Batman, staring straight into those beautiful hazel eyes of his. The wind moved just enough to brush his hair to and fro. It had long since lost any true meaning of color, shifting between some reminiscence of green, and a darker tinge of brown, with streaks of blonde all throughout. His makeup was streaked and running, like great tears of oil running down his cheeks. He wore a pack that weighed heavy on his back.

“Searching for answers. Why did you attack Tony Stark?”

“No foreplay, huh?” The Joker sighed. He was melancholy tonight. He had been thinking more than he ought to. “I’m just trying to...” he waved his hand as he searched for words. “-to get the sheep out of the goats.”

“I don’t need your protection, Joker.”

Of course he didn’t understand. He always assumed things like that.

“No, but your mind does. I’m savin’ you a whole lotta grief, Batsy.”

"I don't need saving--"

He knew that the guilt would eat the Dark Knight alive if something happened to this unaware trespasser. The little damsel needed to be saved from her rescuer's own deepest nature.

The Bat made a move to strike or to grab the clown, it didn’t matter which, but the clown had already cast himself from the roof like a lemming, and as he fell, the pack on his back exploded into a parachute.

The Bat did not pursue, mostly because this was how it always was. It was sometimes better to leave the Joker to his antics, then risk the escape from Arkham that resulted in a mass release of other mental patients. It just was never worth it.

Chapter Text

“Where’s Tony?”

“Stark won’t be joining us for the briefing.”

“Yeah, but where is he?”

“A quick doctor’s appointment down in Gotham. He got a concussion.”

“Really, how? Why?”

“The damn fool decided taking the Iron Man to Gotham would be a good idea. He got shot out of the sky.”

“I thought that thing could take a missile. Who was it?”

“In Gotham? Who knows.”

“Are you even going to run an investigation? Stark is a major member of this team, and you don’t even care enough to look into it?”

“Of course we care, we’re just not fucking stupid.”

“What’s big enough to hurt you there?”

“A whole damn city.”

“There’s no way an entire city will fight against you. There’s a bit of good in everyone.”

“Evil flourishes when good stands by. The problem with Gotham is that the decent people won’t get off their asses and the scum have the best work ethic in North America.”

“Perhaps the good people are too scared to do anything. They need a rallying cry.”

“They’ve had their chances. Have you ever heard about Dent? The Batman? Bane? All of them, calling up the righteous spirit of the people to do what they thought was right. All of them failed.”

“Well, now we know three ways how not to do it.”

“There’s a point when you just give up.”

“Fury, sir, I was in the military, and if I learned anything, it was that you never leave a man behind, much less a whole city.”

“They don’t want to be saved.”

“Sometimes, the worst thing you can do to someone is give them what they want.”

“How Biblical of you, Rogers. What do you suggest as a cure-all? Speechless, as I thought.”

“I don’t pretend to know much, I’m just a kid from Brooklyn, but you have to have faith in people. If you decide that a group of people just aren’t human, well...”

“Oh, don’t you dare compare this to--”

“I didn’t mean to.”

“Don’t fuckin’ lie to me. Gotham’s unofficially quarantined, and has been ever since that fucking nuclear bomb went off in the harbor. They had a fresh start with all of the supplies they needed to rebuild, but they went back to their old ways like a bitch to her vomit.”

“Can you expect someone to learn how to be better without anyone to help them?”

“I thought you said there was a bit of good in everyone.”

“Not everyone knows how to bring it out, I suppose.”

“You suppose a lot of things. The best answer is the one that requires the fewest amount of assumptions. And I assume that Gotham’s a bad nut that should be left alone.”

“A bad nut left alone will grow into a bad tree. If you think Gotham is such a problem, why don’t you do something about it?”

“Because Gotham will eat herself from the inside out. If we leave it alone, eventually, it’ll collapse in on itself. Fewer funds and men wasted.”

“Very utilitarian of you, sir. Next, you’ll say we should starve them out.”

“You’re acting as if I’m actively hurting them!”

“Evil flourishes when good stands by. What even happened that made you think so little of Gotham?”

“I lost some damn good agents to that city.”

“How many?”

“Enough, some dead, some worse. I won’t make the same mistake.”

“But you didn’t bother to even send in people to check on Tony?”

“Stark needs concussive therapy when it comes to getting an idea into his head. Now he’ll know better than to go back to Gotham.”

"We'll see, I suppose."

Chapter Text

There is a celebration in the streets. The men and women who watch cry out jubilantly, eyes wide and bright. Their faces are stretched up beyond reason for all of their passion, and it is quite certainly beyond reason the emotions they feel. But, who could blame them? Look at that man! He is being honored! He wears his Sunday best, and on his snowy white breast, a medallion of scarlet is proudly brandished. The color is so vibrant that all eyes are drawn to it irresistibly, as if to Gabriel as he proclaims that one true message. In that same way, the color was almost blinding in its supernatural intensity. It burned like fire in the air, but as it blazed fiercer and fiercer in its immortal beauty, the man's flesh beneath it grew colder and colder.

The street continues to cry, even as the man is lifted up on a throne and carried away for further honor. But, for all the laud he will receive, is it not a tragedy that his red badge will be wiped away? It is what made everyone here care about him for the first time in his long life. He had no family or friends to speak of. He was not respected in his work place. Really, he had worked his entire life tirelessly, and to show for it, he was a few thousand dollars in debt. He no longer had to worry about that. Speeches would be made in his honor. Someone else would tend to his affairs. He would sleep easy in the arms of Hypnos and Thanatos. For one moment, New York, the city of a million souls just like him, would turn and look.

Could he not keep the medallion? It was all that he had anymore.

Another man of a similar breed had received the same badge. But in the street, he was invisible, the color had lost all of its power, because it was no longer revered. Once a rariety is made commonplace, it looses all of its value. who would wish for a diamond if everyone had one already? If black gold could be found in every man's backyard, would anyone start a war over it? If everyone knows a secret, is it even a secret any longer? The man has become just another part of the scenery, because they don't care enough about those red badges. It isn't as if New York and Gotham do not give out the same amount. If anything, there are more in New York than the other. But New York is idealistic and young. Gotham is a survivor, and she has one of the oldest souls in the Americas.

If she dwells too long on that immortal color that comes from mortal forms, she would drive herself to her own destruction. To madness. Surely, she is already mad, but there is a madness that preserves the body it inhabits, and there is one that destroys. The mind is sickened for the sake of bodily health, and in that sense, it can be utilized in small doses. But too much of anything can kill someone. Is Gotham's madness already self destructive? Or is she still attempting to survive? When does cutting of your own arm to escape from a rock that pins you become self harm?

Is Tony hurting or healing his mind in a crazed search for answers? One might say that Gotham's way of life is the only way to stay sane. After all, when one expects nothing of man, he will never be disappointed. If man truly is only beast, it is so much worse to dress him up as a higher being than to just accept him as the wretch that he is. A beard does not make a philosopher, the same as speech and reasoning do not make one human, so much as love. And Gotham loves, in her own sick way.

Chapter Text

Tony was back in New York. It felt different, somehow. The shiny buildings weren’t as shiny, maybe, or perhaps the air wasn’t quite as polluted with the air of American dreams as he was used to. Perhaps it was just his room. The couch and the table seemed to be in the same place as always. The wall was not a different color. Tony entertained the possibility that it actually had been another hue, however. For example, he might have never taken a good look at his wall before. It was just always in the background of everything after all. Why would he ever need to look at it? Without this implantation of surety into his mind, he could not ever be positive that things had not changed from the state they once were. If he did not pay attention in every moment, how would he know when change finally came? For all he knew, the walls might have been pink until the second right before he looked at them for the first time today.

The sandwich that he prepared for himself while he was alone tasted different, too. It tasted so… artificial. Tony would not be entirely surprised if a reality TV show crew were to pop out and reveal that Tony had been eating edible plastic and use his utter unawareness as an advertising campaign for their new product. But, no… Tony had made this sandwich himself. He was sure--

But was he really sure?

He had never stopped to examine his life before, the common things he did every day. The status quo was such a fickle thing that it had shifted dramatically almost every month or so, what with him becoming Iron Man and joining the Avengers, and before that Stark Industry becoming one of the top competitors in the market, and before that, Tony growing from a rebellious prince to the rightful heir of his father’s throne. So much had happened that had changed him from one state of thinking to another, and he had barely even noticed it was happening.

All of this to say: if something were to come along and change everything, without an intensity of recollection of what had come before, could someone even realize that something was different?

Tony sat in melancholy. The too-bright sun shone upon him through the window like an unblinking eye that stared in through a mouse hole as Tony nibbled upon his meager luncheon. He had never noticed what a glass city New York was. No one ever just stood up and said what they felt, they had to filter everything through smiles and ‘sorries’ and forced politeness. Bruce was like that. Had been like that. At the party at least, but now that Bruce was revealing so much more of his blunter self, Tony found himself to be more endeared. He and Bruce were quite similar in the regard that they both put on a certain show for everyone else. But for Bruce, Tony had noticed a distinct shift in the transition between surface Bruce and deeper Bruce.

Tony thought with a bit of concern, that if he reached up-- digging his fingernails beneath his eyelids, ignoring the wet texture of the more veiny flesh-- and began ripping, digging up his face from the very roots, no matter how much his flesh squealed for the pain, once it was off and on the table in front of him, he would reach up and touch the same skin he had had before.

And if he continued to shed his skin, would it not be like a man vainly trying to pluck every leaf off of a tree? They would come out in handfuls, thin, dripping leaves of skin, and still, Stark would be no further into his quest of self-discovery than he had before, no matter how much pain he caused himself. He could no longer see past his own face. Truly, the shallow image in the mirror was the only one he knew of himself.

“Tony!” a familiar voice called, drawing back the silence like the hand of God over the Red Sea.

Tony’s head jerked up, and with a slight nervous chuckle, he stood up, realizing he had been staring at a half-eaten sandwich for the past ten minutes.

“Oh, Pepper, I--”

Pepper was framed perfectly in the center of the room as she crossed her arms and stared with that utterly debilitating look that only she could give. “You’re even more of an idiot than I usually take you for.”

“That’s--”

“Hard to beat, I know. Why would you fly the Iron Man suit to Gotham at eight o’clock at night?”

“That’s a very long, and complicated story that I really think I should get into when I’m not tending to a concussion.”

“Fighting the Batman, really, what were you thinking? He’s been active far longer than you have.”

Tony shook his head slightly. “And why do you know so much about him?”

“Unlike you, I actually care just a little bit about the people who might be able to kill you.” Pepper sighed after a moment of pause. And there it was. The ‘I’m not angry, just disappointed’ face. Tony had seen it a million times on his own father’s face.

Tony raised his hands in surrender. “Okay, I’m sorry that I worried you,” he jabbed.

Pepper glared at him for another moment, then turned away without a word. She picked up the sandwich plate that Tony had left on the table, not allowing her eyes to meet her companion’s. “Bruce Wayne is not some damsel that needs saving. If anyone, it’s you.” Then, she jerked up before Tony had a chance to speak. “Don’t you dare say that he’s pretty enough to be one.”

Tony did his best to look innocent of all such thoughts.

“But seriously, Potts, how do you know so much about Gotham? It seems like everything gives a shit about it except me. Am I out of the loop, or is it just me?”

Pepper dumped Tony’s rancid sandwich concoction into the trash and began to pull out some better food stuffs from the fridge. “It’s a train of thought that gets passed around the little people. You wouldn’t know, playboy.”

“I was a little people once, probably. I’m just asking why people have never talked to me about Gotham before.”

“I don’t know, they either assumed someone else had talked to you about it, or they knew you were too--...” she let herself trail off as she continued to run butter across bread.

“Too what? Sheltered? Stupid? Rich? Intelligent? What were you about to tell me?” Tony could feel the mounting tension in his voice. What about him made him unworthy of the secrets of Gotham?

Pepper didn’t answer. For once. It was as if she would not allow whatever foulness she was about to spew about Tony was too vile to pass by her lips.

“Whatever it is, I’m sure Bruce’ll fill me in. He’s honest, unlike all you fakes.” Tony grabbed the sandwich with his bare hands before stomping off.

Pepper was left to clean up. Poor, poor Tony. She would need to figure out a way to keep him from throwing himself into the fire.

Chapter Text

“I heard you’re finally making friends your age.”

“Hm?”

“Mister Stark.”

“Ah, yes. He tried to fight the Batman for me.”

“A real knight in shining armor, huh? Maybe it’ll be good for you to take a step back for once.”

“I’m not letting a child run around with a cigarette in an oil field.”

“I did, and you turned out almost normal.”

“Alfred-”

“No, you’re right, I’m giving you too much credit.”

“Alfred, I’m not that bad.”

“If I could audibly raise an eyebrow across the phone, I would do it.”

“Would you have liked me to be more like Tony Stark?”

“Relaxed? Maybe. But he’s an alcoholic with even bigger daddy issues than you, sir. I wouldn’t really want that. I suppose its better you’re motivated by a philosophy, no matter how stupid it is, rather than pleasure.”

“Stark has been becoming much more self sacrificing since his kidnapping. Almost admirably so, considering what he was like before.”

“I suppose, Master Wayne, but I remember when I first saw his father on TV, nothing but talk and show, and his son, his son looked at him like he was Jesus Christ. Stark grew up idolizing pleasure and drink, making weapons of war to let loose on the world. Even if he got most of that knocked out of him, how do you know he’s changed so fully?”

“Alfred, you of all people know how one experience can dramatically shift a man’s life. I doubt Stark made a complete turn-around of his character in one night, but he’s sure getting better.”

“Careful, Master Wayne, or I’ll think you might be getting optimistic.”

“If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to look at Gotham every morning and even hope to do some good.”

“Ain’t that the truth, sir.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Alfred. In your own opinion, has Gotham gotten worse or better since…”

“Since your parents died? It’s a hard question, Bruce. I don’t pretend to know this city as well as some. You stare into the nastiest bits of it enough for the both of us.”

“It’s hard.”

“I keep telling you, you don’t have to do it.”

“You haven’t answered my question. Just your opinion.”

“If I’m going to be totally honest with you, I’d have to say that it was a little worse before your parents got here, then it was a little worse, and now it’s a little better. Gotham doesn’t really change all that much for anyone, though.”

“Dent made a big difference. He gave the people hope.”

“And look what happened to him, eh? Gotham’s a nasty brute who doesn’t like change. That’s why you gotta bash it over the head a couple of times to make it listen.”

“That was the Joker.”

“Joker, Batman, Gotham, the lines blur a little when you watch long enough.”

“You’re comparing me to that psychopath?”

“You’re of similar temperaments, if opposite ideologies. He pursues chaos single-mindedly, and you pursue justice.”

“Have I made any progress in that?”

“If I didn’t think you had, I wouldn’t be letting you throw yourself in the meat grinder every night. Not that I could stop you anyway.”

“Thanks, Alfred.”

“Anytime, Bruce.”

“Tony asked me to show him around the city, you know.”

“Someone is actually endeared to you? And they say God is dead.”

“People like me, Alfred, it’s not as if I’m growling at every person who gets too close.”

“You might as well. You’re not exactly the type for a second date, you know.”

“I’m not having this conversation again-”

“All I want is for you to become friends with someone who might be able to get you outside of city limits. You stew too much in here, it’s not good for a man!”

“Gotham is like any other place except for--”

“Except for everything.”

“Name one thing other than crime rates.”

“Mind set for one. People can smell a Gothamite from a mile away, it’s like meeting an America in Spain, they stick out like a sore thumb.”

“How?”

“You just feel it. They just… They’re just different. Otherworldly, almost, although I doubt that’s the word I’m looking for.”

“You’re getting ridiculous in your old age.”

“Probably.”

Chapter Text

Tony in some sense represented the American spirit. A war monger, turned philanthropist, play boy, genius. He had inherited his company, but he would be damned if he didn’t keep it off the ground much better than his father ever did. But who knew whether or not Tony would be in the situation he was at the moment, rich, successful, at the top of the world, if he hadn’t been given the crown at a young age. He might have not even had the motivation to be a head of a company if it hadn’t been pushed onto him. One wouldn’t even blame him if he would have preferred to not be a part of the capitalist machine, but because of his blood, here he was. And he knew not whether he would have enjoyed another path of his life more, because he could never experience it another way.

How true was that of other people? How many men and women lived as they did only because those who came before them dictated it? America has always proclaimed to be the land where anyone can be and do anything if they work hard enough, but how many people have been born in the dirt, worked until they dropped, and died there?

From a babe’s first cries in the icy cold of winter, wrapped up in blankets in a suburban home because his single mother can’t afford to pay the heating bill that month, he was doomed. He grows up on food stamps, his mother promising him every day that he’ll eventually be able to get out of this hell that they live in. The other kids don’t notice the holes in his shoes or how his hair was cut at home with dull kitchen shears, but that would change. They would begin to berate and mock him. Separate themselves. They didn’t want to be with the kid who took showers as rarely as he could to save money on the water bill. Who would?

And then, when he graduates, he works himself through college, barely getting passing grades by balancing classes, studying, and late night shifts flipping burgers. He gets a degree in something he loves, because his mother told him he should make money doing something that makes him happy.

Of course, no one hires him, because a college degree is useless nowadays. So, he works minimum wage to pay off the remaining thousands of dollars of student loan debt that he sacrificed for a useless piece of paper and four wasted years of his life. A one-night stand leaves him with a kid to care for in his tiny suburban home, wrapping her in as many blankets as he can find because he can’t afford to pay the heating bill this month, and he promises his daughter every day that she’ll eventually be able to get out of this hell they live in. The cold always presses around them, one moment away from snatching the tiny, glowing life out of that child’s eyes. Would it be better to end the cycle there? Would that be better than condemning generation after generation of children to poverty?

Perhaps Tony’s children would go the same way. They would be handed their money and responsibility and they would follow in the footsteps of their father without question because that is what they are expected to do.

Perhaps Gotham’s children go the same way. They are born into misery, and they desperately pray for the chance to escape the hell they live in, but they can do nothing to escape. Generation after generation has lived this way in Gotham. Why bother to change it now?

The natural order had dictated this way of life, and so it would be. Trying to shift it would be like moving a river with a sieve.

Useless. If one has gotten a favorable lot, he might as well enjoy the ride down to the waterfall.

Chapter Text

Tony was beginning to ache for Gotham. His curiosity was maddening, like an itch on the inside of his skull that he could never scratch. If he had an ice pick, he was sure he would split open his own head with it if only he could reach his fingers into his cranial cavity and scrape his nails across the sensations. It made him wonder, he who did not know much about the human body, whether the brain was solid enough to withstand a scraping of fingernails across its grayish-pink surface, or was it so soft that it would instantly tear? Would it be the consistency of jello, immediately being pulled up and stuck into his fingernails? Or would it be more like solid frozen ice cream, forcing him to put as much weight as he could manage behind his fingers in order to curl up a bit of the tissue?

Tony had heard that there was no sensation in the brain. He had heard that sometimes doctors don’t even put people to sleep when performing brain surgery. But surely, they must be dully aware of the instruments poking and prodding their most important organ. Tony couldn’t believe that the brain could not feel when his mind itched irresistibly.

Everyone wanted to keep him away from Gotham, for some reason. Of course, that only made his desire to go back that much stronger. Gotham was a riddle to be untangled, but if she was the Gordian knot, Stark would be Alexander. He wasn’t planning on just sitting there, picking at the knot. He was going to figure out what was going on in some grand stroke. Of course, he wasn’t exactly sure what that would be.

However, he did know that the Batman was key to all of this. He had to be. The Batman was the one who held off the black tide every night, and every night dove into the most ugly parts of the city. If anyone could answer the question as to what Gotham was and why she drove away the outside world like a snarling wolf with its paw in a trap, it would be him. Wouldn’t it? Surely a man wouldn’t continue to fight everyday, risking his life and sanity without even knowing what he was fighting for? The Batman wouldn’t continue to fight if he wasn’t sure that Gotham could be saved, surely.

But, then, perhaps, that is what a hero is, a man who looks at a lake and decides it is entirely reasonable to attempt to empty it out with a teaspoon. Perhaps it was unreasonable and idealistic to think that a single man can save an entire city, but then again, unreasonable ideals were exactly what Gotham needed. Or, maybe Tony was just projecting, painting on his own concept of heroism and morality onto something he didn’t truly understand.

Good and evil are co-dependent. If evil is entirely destroyed, then the forces of good have nothing to struggle against. And when there is no common enemy, they cannot help but fight amongst themselves, and then, they shall each redefine in their minds what is good and what is evil. The Batman could only be good as long as there was evil, the same way that many morally questionable things can be excused when they are for good causes. That was why Gotham embraced the Bat in her times of need and shunned him whenever he was no longer needed. When they were fighting against the same enemy, all of her previous qualms with the Dark Knight were cast aside. When that enemy was defeated, the lesser good became the greatest evil. However, this was all from the city’s perspective. Those on the outside of the walls had different views on the good and the evil within Gotham.

In any case, the relationship that the Bat had to the city was not the ultimate question that Stark intended to answer, but rather, the nature of the city herself. Studying the Batman and the Joker before Gotham would be like trying to understand a full tree by only looking at the leaves. All of these villains and excess philosophy were outputs from the heart of the city, that pulsing, liquid black.

He needed to understand Gotham. It was a maddening itch indeed.