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Marshmellow Smiles

Chapter Text

When Bruce is leaping off the rooftops, soaring through the skies, eyes out for a disturbance, ready for the rush and the thrill even if there's no trouble to be found-

It's not all heaviness, not all the time, no matter how vast and grave the task at hand remains.

Being Batman was never about the weight of the responsibility, or all the honest work that must be done in it's own right, not entirely- those are vital components, indispensable and constant and necessary for this to be an honest, humble endeavor meant to help everyone, not just you.

But there is freedom, too. 

No expectations.

No rules except the ones that keep Bruce grounded.

The ones that really matter.

(And it is not selfish to revel in it, not entirely, because the thing you need most to keep yourself from drowning is the same oxygen mask that lets you keep your victories and to help the city sprawl into new paths and new options. It is the fragile thread that started it all, and keeps everything from being overrun and altogether too much for only you to handle, the very tenant which keeps your priorities clear. It is how you are still able to look your family and loved ones in the eyes, even with all the prices everyone has paid and will continue to face, because without it, you would have crumbled and faltered and lost yourself, and there is no shame in admitting that, not when the truth is all that you are trying to uphold, even as the shadows keep you safe. Sometimes, hopes for the future and lies you tell yourself are not too different, and hope is a truth provided you believe in it enough, that you mold the world around it, that you make it real and tangible so that it cannot be invaded or stolen or ripped away from you ever again.)

You are Bruce, not Bruce Wayne.

Just Bruce.

Just Batman.

And you are taking back your city and your home, letting it be what it could always flourish into, so long as the cowardly and the cruel were kept from razing it all to ashes. You are the deterrent. You are the surgeon, pruning back the ones growing weeds that want to choke every new, good thing that could possibly sprout and break free.

You are Batman, and the darkness is your home.

It is written in every whoosh of air past your eardrums, and every swing of your shoulders, and every recoil of every grappling hook as it grows taut and lift you up in every sweep you make through each neighborhood and patrol route. It is there, in the thin beam of light in the sky that shines out from over the GCPD, in the concession and the mantle of the trust given over to you, however nascent and possibly undeserved, an agreement as valuable as the covenant you want to foster between yourself and every honest being in this city.

This is your home, and you will make it safe, as safe as you can, one night at a time. It is your domain, not the home of criminals and bad actors. It is the home of wayward souls and people with no place to go, and while in some ways, you cannot know the island that has left them stranded, thanks to all your resources and safety nets, in other ways, it is that same isolation and pain that makes them more familiar than any neighbor, more kin to you than anyone in your life or circumstance because you have felt the same distance and abandonment and precariousness of the toil that has visited itself upon you, found in every molecule of your grief and every pang of loss and every bit of self-loathing you are trying to turn back to love and care and acceptance.

You need to do this for them as much as you need it for yourself.

And you will reclaim it for them, this city, in the name of all the things you cannot do alone but must strive for, must believe in, and for all the ways this must be a community vision, one built on empathy and respect and trust, and not just one man's means of escape from all the things that threaten to rip you apart.

And you will siphon the poison from where it festers and take it into yourself, make yourself the target, make yourself the isolation box to keep it contained, a last antibody to draw out and combat all the lurking things attempting to lure Gotham's most desperate and most bereft into the treacherous, selfish depths to revel in all it's conjoined misery and fury and hatred.

You will beat it back with your bloody knuckles and bruised shoulders and with every speck of blood you shed. You will make this place sanctified for the people who can find no home save for except in the darkness- people with no place to go, people who you will find a way to house and keep safe and who will help build Gotham from it's foundations.

You are the one keeping the foundation clear, so the next up and coming visionaries can build their hopes atop it and make this place their own.

And just as you find solace in the night, in the sky, in every nook and over every rooftop and every alley that you refuse to fear, refuse to not make your mark upon- so you will spread that tranquility, and give it to the next soul who needs that peace and quiet and time to breathe and a space to be their own.

The night isn't the mask. It is your calling. It is your mission.

You are vengeance. You are the night. You are justice. You are truth.

You are all the masks cast aside, to hope for something brilliant and unknowable, the future at your fingertips, all because of a dream you've built on every brick you survey.

And as long as criminals and worse evils are scared and superstitious and hampered by their inability to think of anything but their own wants and own limited ideas of will be, so you will rise in answer.

And you will make sure they are afraid, turn the fear they wish to feed on and foster and turn it back on themselves. They will be destroyed by the very weapon they hope to use to beat everyone else into submission, and for the rest, the ones who aren't too far gone, with any luck they will think twice about continuing a cycle that only needs to be broken, so that something new, something better, something honest and unselfish can remain.

Corruption flocks to power. It feeds on it, twists it, uses it to build an illusion that allows the vile underbelly of the world to make it seem as if that is the only option. As if that is all there is.

You will use that.

You will take that same instrument and you will make all those cruel, selfish actors powerless, so that everyone else can keep the balance and settle the score and to balance the scales as impartially as can be managed. You are not the judge. You are a fist and a whisper and a shadow- something that is so often used for ill, but what you will wield in answer, what you will turn on it's head to reclaim in the name of all that is it's antithesis.

Force is hard to argue with- and a safety net is much harder to topple once the raging breakneck winds tearing holes in it are stopped by one mountain in the way.

All it takes is one action. Deliberate.

All it takes is one body. One will. One promise.

One beacon in the darkness.

All it takes is one to stand up and cast that shadow down by casting a bigger shadow, one that will dwarf and swallow the head of the snake and drag it's plans right down to your level, right down to Hell with you.

All it takes is one to choose to be better. To choose to act. To act as if no one will try and mend the damage, but who will try to suture the wound and that it will be healed, that it will be seen and tended to and safeguarded better once people see how septic it was.

All it takes is the belief that what you choose matters. That every choice stacks, however seemingly futile, because the intent will shine through, one day, and make itself known.

And while there is nothing to gain from suffering, from martyrdom, not when it only hurts the ones you love and keeps you from the love you must demand for yourself. (Denying yourself kindness, denying what is gentle, what is not earned justly or not but simply is there for you to foster, but letting yourself rot because you do not feel worthy- that is how the darkness is no longer a comfort but a pit, a void that lets others eat you alive.)

Yet you can learn from everything, even the rainclouds and the blood and scared animal living in the back of your brain. You can grab your angels and demons and vices by the throat and cast them down, however many times they may rise to wrestle you down into the dirt with them, and still rise back up, triumphant, because it is fighting back that matters.

It is holding on to yourself that wins the war, even if the self is always changing with every new thing you face.

Because you can forge yourself anew from the fractures, from the agony, from the helplessness that cannot claw its way back to control.

Acceptance is always moving forward.

Acceptance is rebellion and belief. It is change and hope and truth.

It is knowing what is your fault and what is simply cost benefit analysis of what can change and what you can do with the limited scope of what you can do.

And Batman is a soldier with a singular scope, precise and dedicated, with a narrow range of vision to keep what can be contained from running too rampant.

Batman is not a hero. Not a martyr. Not blameless. Not infallible. Not a cure-all.

He is just a man doing his best, flawed and honest and calculated.

He is how you choose what price to pay. He is the culmination of many choices made with a singular goal, unselfish and expecting nothing because it is not about reciprocity.

It is about seeing the vision through. Making it, with your own two hands, and helping others see they can make that same gentle love thrive, too.

And that is good enough for you.

Because you choose to let it be enough.

And you will grapple with whatever new tortures and triumphs and changes come your way, because that is what Batman must do to keep himself adaptable and ready, to see the war through to the end, and to keep Gotham and everyone in it safe.

Being prepared for what is unknowable and unanticipated is the path you've chosen to take, because it is all you can do.

You weather the storm, you rally those who survive, and you see it through to the end, whatever that price may be.

And it won't feel entirely like sacrifice, because you have chosen that is not what you will be.

It is a public service, and a promise, a legend and a dream.

It is an idea that cannot be conquered or reshaped, because knowing that even when the smoke is choking and blocks out everything, the sky is always there, and it will clear.

And a promise never really dies. Not as long as someone believes in it, and has the strength to see it through.

And Bruce believes in compassion. He believes in leveling the playing field.

He believes in turning the worst of other people's darkness against them, and using his own darkness as a way to try and reach them and turn them from that path.

Whether they take him up on it- whether they choose to care and believe they can be better, be kinder, than what they otherwise choose- that is their responsibility and their war to fight.

But Bruce will keep on believing, and keep on working, and will not give up on those.

(Not even on ones who perhaps deserve to be given up on, even if that list is perhaps limited to only three ghosts that Bruce cannot shake- and he wonders, maybe, if they are so far gone because they do not remember what it is to be human, when they do not accept death or laugh in it's face, and Bruce does not know which is worse.)

But he will choose otherwise.

He will keep his head high, and melt into the shadows, and find his solace outside of four walls, where he can be himself without prying eyes or the weight of all that tries to keep him trapped and nailed to the resting places of all the ones he's lost along the way.

Outside the manor and Bruce Wayne's small life, Batman is untouchable.

Batman is safe.

Batman is free.

Batman believes in all the things that always keep Bruce Wayne's nightmares at bay, even when Bruce might fear that those nightmares are more real than the beautiful, impossible dreams that he wishes he could tamp down and keep from feeling so far beyond him.

Batman persists when Bruce feels he cannot endure any more.

Batman revels. Batman trusts, in physics and composure and strength.

Batman stays grounded even when he soars. He gives Bruce room to fly, and does not fear falling, because he knows he'll catch himself with his own two hands, and that is solid and real and reliable, in a world of shadows and nameless, unknown shapes.

Batman is taking every nocturnal moment for what it is, in all it's immediacy, all it's rough edges and small sparkling streetlamps flickering far below, and not dreading the dawn of the encroaching day.

When you are on patrol, you do not think that far ahead.

All that matters is the time you have and the actions you take, here and now, as you see what needs to be watched over.

(It is knowing that you can always become the darkness, and that the same penchant or good or evil is inside of you as it is inside everyone, that they are just like you, and instead of fearing that, shunning it, that you do what is right, anyway- because that is the choice, one you can make, and they can, too. It is knowing all any senseless violent circumstance or tragedy that befalls doesn't have to be the catalyst for not giving a damn, but for deciding that keeping that pain and using it to save others, just as it can save you, just by deciding you want to use it to heal instead of letting the pain and anger devour and consume you.

Some people want to watch the world burn because they never stopped burning. But you have grown cold. You have taken all the resulting burns that scabbed over and turned all of it into armor, into the reminder that while you are as human and as fallible as anyone else, that is your greatest asset, too. Humanity just as much capacity for empathy and compassion and mercy as it does every act of cruelty or violence, and you will make it so you uphold the former, no matter how much of the latter is shoved at you.)

The night is your blanket, comforting and real and reliable in all the ways so many other things aren't.

You are in your element.

You are the rush, the energy, the fury-

You are the raw feeling of being alive as you rush by every passing, acid-eaten skyscraper that reaches up to the stars.

Chapter Text

--Bruce, Age 11--

You get in trouble a lot for being quiet at school. The fact your parents are murdered doesn't really garner much sympathy (you learn fast that no one really cares for the quiet rich kid or his feelings, not in Gotham, except to pretend at friendship and line their pockets more often than not, and you don't really blame them- you probably deserve it, just a little, even if you don't. Even if they are all wrong, even if they think you are a freak, because everyone knows Bruce once went by another name). The teachers (and Alfred) are worried that you aren't engaging with people your own age.

Jack, however, breaks you out of the shell. He doesn't want anything from you except a laugh. He doesn't need you to talk, but he wants to garner a reaction. (The adults don't like him much- call him trouble, call him a bad influence, but it beats no socialization at all, and futilely maybe they hope Bruce will maybe rub off and be a good influence if he doesn't want Jack to leave him alone.)

He's the kind of kid, a year or two older even though he won't specify which it is, 12 or 13, who doesn't mind you skipping and going off somewhere without supervision. He usually follows. Gets a kick out of seeing what you do. Tries to figure out what you are thinking.

Especially after those kids tried to beat you up, the older ones, and you broke their lip (he bit one, too, drew blood and laughed and punched the lights out of them. You aren't sure which scared them off, your ferocity or his, and you wonder, then if that's what other kinds of love feels like. If it is how he looks at you and the way he calls you by your name, even if it's a twisted version, only because you allow it.)

He's the kind of kid who doesn't take no for an answer, and in your book, it means at least you feel wanted. At least you don't feel invisible.

You didn't use to mind. Not in the beginning.

He'd coax you into trouble and call it fun, and sometimes, it was, even when it pushed everyone else away.

--

When Jack has to go back to the circus for work, you walk him back as a show of support. He hates it there, and you aren't a fan of the clowns, but you go where the other goes, and a walk is slower than the car that gets there too fast.

Eventually, you both hide out at the circus, in the places no one looks, in the secrets you discover and make your own spot, same way Jack hides in the manor. (Alfred doesn't know how he's breaking in, and you don't care. You've never really had a best friend before, except for Selina, and she breaks in other places all the time.)

Selina and Jack hate each other, but they tolerate each other's company, rarely, if it means going places with you.

--

When you fall in the well, bats flying all around you and streaming past your head, it's Jack who finds you first after the solitary climb out.

You are heaving breaths on the the lawn.

He gets Alfred, eventually, but not after holding a hand to help pull you to your feet.

You climbed out of the well on your own, but it was nice to see a familiar face peering back afterwards.

--

You know why clowns scare you more than other things. Bats are an easier excuse, in some ways, for the nightmares.

But you haven't forgotten the mask, or the sound of that bullet leaving the gun.

And you haven't forgotten the painted face in the sea of masks.

Alfred says coulrophobia is fairly common in the populace, Gotham more than others.

Neither of you think it is that irrational, really.

You can still feel fingers in your mouth, forcing a smile.

And when you met the eyes of the monster in that alley- you could tell it wanted you to laugh, for all the wrong reasons.

That's why you'll become more than what you fear.

Because you don't want to feel those eyes- or that smile- anywhere on you at all.

(Jack, however, thinks he can make you laugh at clowns anyway. That laughter and painted faces will snap you out of it. Exposure therapy, he says, arm around you, and you lean into his arms and pretend it's fine because he's your best friend and that's what best friends do.)

--

But even with his attempts, when it comes down to it, you hate clowns with something visceral coiled in your gut.

The hate runs deeper than the fear.

Chapter Text

--Jack Napier, age 13--

You'll admit, Bruce Wayne being special is not exactly something you were banking on. In fact, you were fully prepared to hate the new rich snobby kid, seeing as you don't like snotty brats or rich fucks and would rather slit their purses and cut and run.

But then you saw that look in his eyes, from the moment you met, saw the way his fists curled and the way he thought of things so seriously, so intently, how he noticed all those little details others so often didn't. How he didn't really care about all those little, boring everyday things- and when he did, it was to figure them out. Fit them all together.

To Bruce, every little thing was a mosaic that built on itself.

And you kept finding yourself interested.

--

Once you get to know him, Bruce really is a riot. He still barely tolerates your jokes half the time ("That's not funny, J." is a daily reminder to keep on trying) but sometimes he'd crack a smile and hide it- but he actually seems to like you. 

And that's funny, too, seeing as not many people do.

Maybe he can see that underneath it all, you've got things figured out.

Or maybe he just likes being seen, really seen, when everyone else seems to look right through him.

Either way, you aren't getting out of dodge anytime soon.

Kid is small but scrappy, and he needs all the help he can get. And he's not boring- not like the rest of the people you're forced to deal with every day.

(And deep down, you know he finds you funny, even if he won't admit it, because then he'd have to admit to actually possessing a sense of humor.)

You aren't exactly a fan of his overprotective, helicopter guardian, or the little thief he also follows around, but at least she's marginally more interesting than the other folks that actually want to make connections with a rich idea and not the actual person right in front of them, and is less likely to object to social conventions because he wants to be in school as little as you do, or his little pickpocket.

A thief, a kid, and a comedian all stalk the streets, making mischief.

It sounds like the start of a very bad joke, and you wonder if Jeeves would laugh at it. Or maybe try to herd lil' Brucie out of sight, even if you know that will only make him latch on harder than he already has.

Then again, Bruce tendency to assume the best of people. Maybe he'll even convince Jeeves to tolerate you back.

He's so damn earnest, an open book even when hiding under small frowns and quiet furrows of his brow, and you not only find him fascinating- you want to crack his head open and see the gears underneath.

You actually think you might want him around. And you don't want anyone around- so maybe it's that sunny disposition he hides under the brooding eyes and shifting feet.

--Joker, Age 20--

The problem with Arthur Fleck's whole movement was that it was based on the idea of inequality and payback.

You've argued the point time and again with Bruce, indirectly, every time the clown and his movement came up. Symbols were important, yes- that you could both agree on. Bruce thought it was a natural response to failing social supports, and corruption, and while you don't disagree, you think that's missing the point.

The corruption isn't the institutions. It's inside the people- every single one. The system failing is just a natural response to people trying to hold together something inherently unsustainable due to their selfish natures.

When it came down to it- everyone is human, flesh and blood and breakable.

Whether you have power or not can be equalized in an instant, based on how you are willing to act on that.

And while Bruce doesn't agree with the motive behind it, that's what he thinks Fleck was after. That he's a sick, violent, terrifying man just looking to take his rage out on the target of his choosing. Everything else was fallout- people feeling hopeless, and turning into a mob, and cannibalizing each other like crabs attacking each other in a bucket- was just a frenzy of people reacting to the same stimulus and egged on by each other.

But you know that's not all there is to it.

Fleck thinks he's better than the people who hurt him. That he had a right to kill because he made himself more powerful, made himself an icon, said his truth and got public approval.

That's the joke, to you, really.

No one is better than anyone else. No one has more of a righteous reason for doing things than anyone else, either.

And that's because all those little people- society itself, drop by drop- is just a bunch of people telling themselves lies to make themselves feel better. Complacent, boring people until someone stirs the pot and they give themselves permission to be piranhas chomping at the bit.

People are starving for release. To let those base urges out, because they spend so much time suppressing them.

And you don't need a crowd to make waves or see a vision through. You don't need public endorsement to have a vision and make it real.

All you need is elbow grease and to not care about conventions at all- and then you are untouchable. Then nothing is taboo.

Then nothing stands in your way, because nothing can break you. You can cut down anything in your way, because you aren't afraid anymore.

Then you are truly, truly free from all the ways other humans try to cut each other down to size.

(That's where Fleck failed. He didn't go far enough, didn't see the truth that was right in front of his face.)

People are just animals- base, instinctual piles of organic matter that only do the most selfish thing and justifying it any way they can.

Well, most people. Bruce tries to stay above it all- really believes in the best of people, while knowing full well they are capable of their worst. (Bruce has seen a lot, even if he is a rich, and very sheltered once upon a time.) You don't know why he clings to that notion, although you have a few lucky guesses.

(Bruce is a romantic. Likes the idea of love, platonic or otherwise, of kindness and goodness and people helping each other through the worst of things, even when you know it's a superficial thing with fair weather friends all dropping each other at the first sign of inconvenience.)

But moreover, you aren't buying that Bruce buys his own press at all. Bruce might keep a rap on things going on inside that quick little mind of his, because he doesn't like admitting that people are ugly, violent, base things, ready to justify their worst instincts at the drop of a hat. That he wants to let loose all his rage, too, for all the ways he's been in pain and the world saw fit to make him in the image he did not want to be.

That he'd want to end the man who took the parents he loved so much away.

(You honestly can't mourn them. You thought Thomas Wayne was a heartless, stuck up bastard and deep down you know he didn't love his son, not enough, or Bruce wouldn't be himself, and if they didn't kick the bucket then you and Bruce would've never met and come together and become as fast friends as you are. As much as you want to take Arthur Fleck's whole persona and make it what it's supposed to be, as much as you feel he missed the mark, you don't mind what he kicked off- not when Bruce is still so fractured from it all, not when it has him feeding out of the palm of your hand. As for his little "movement," mobs are useful- easily herded where you want them to go, and stupid, just stupid and violent enough that maybe Bruce will see his dreams aren't really what's worth it, out there. That one day he'll rise above it all and you'll fix this mess by burning it all down and building something new, something better, because you and Bruce were better than all these lowlifes and dull people so focused on living their tiny, insignificant lives, running about like ants in an anthill and pretending to be superficially good people when they aren't- not like Bruce tries so hard to be.)

There is something you like about the philosophy, though. You want to be that romantic, for Bruce's vision. You want to be the one helping him through the storm and out the other side, to guide him to the truth.

You want to show him you can be there, every step of the way, tearing down all those pathetic, drooling sheep in the way so that the world he wants to build can be made, with a few modifications.

People are only as good as the world makes them, Bruce had said once, which is why we need to make the world seem like it can be better. So people have hope.

You have hope. Hope that one day he'll see that he doesn't need to placate and care for all these worthless people. That he can mold Gotham into whatever he wants, both of you, together, because if there's one thing that trumps power and influence and emotion, it's the drive to create, and the stubborn will to see things through.

You are an artist and a technician. Bruce is a visionary, same as you, with all that same will just waiting to be let out.

And one day, you are going to get him there.

You want to see what it looks like, when he lets go. You can tease it out, sometimes, when he feels safe, feels comfortable- he always needs that illusion of control, unless he's deciding to trust you, and then he handing it all over to you- and you are touched, really, that he trusts you so intimately with his sense of self.

It's a little intoxicating. 

You never were a big fan of love, but dear Brucie has managed to grow on you. He wants to give you all of himself, wants to love and be loved completely and to build something together with you- and who are you to say no to such an innocent, enticing offer?

You want to watch him be remade, stronger and better and less concerned with all that's holding him back.

And you're the only one who ever teases that out, because he's not afraid to take, not afraid to give himself up or demand all of you right back.

And you are never going to let that go.

You two are going to do great things together. More than best friends, more than soulmates...

You fill the hole the other doesn't want to admit is there. Bruce humanizes you, even when you'd rather he didn't, because you just can't quit him. You're orbiting him like any other addiction, and you don't want to let it go.

And you help him let out that little animal inside his brainstem, the one he still won't admit is there- or if he does, the one he wants to keep leashed, because he's afraid of his own greatness.

You'll fix that, though. A little chaos, a little uncertainty always helped rip the wool from people's eyes, helped then latch on to those instincts.

And all Bruce needs is the right excuse, and to trust you, and one day, he'll let it out.

(Sure, maybe you've grown a little fond of the ways Bruce latches on to all his little weaknesses, all his softer, pliant aspects. But that's only because of how he trusts you, so deeply, in a way you shouldn't trust anyone, and the fact he doesn't know better somehow still makes you unbearably fond in a way that would disgust you with anyone else.)

And you can't wait to see what it looks like, when all that simmering rage and pain and loss is finally allowed to be let out.

Then you'll have all of him.

And Gotham will be in the palm of your hand, either way, because you will kill and torment and blackmail and shoot anyone who dares get in your way.

After all, everyone is flammable.

(And if Bruce doesn't get on board... well, then you'll just have to be creative.)

But it's not like you can't have fun with it, in the meantime. If something isn't amusing, then it isn't worth doing.

You're going to dance on people's graves until your own lights go out, and you think- with how unpredictable the world is, and how that unpredictability is that same thing so many other people run from- that there is no other way to live.

It pays to be happy, and to find happiness in the little moments when people show who they truly are, deep down.

That, and happiness is cheap. All you got to do is find everything hilarious, and that, if nothing else, is something both you and the old, washed up clown can agree on.

(Although, that's half the reason you're going to resurrect his following- once you have them all tearing at each other's throats and bringing Gotham down with them, then you can have Bruce all to yourself.)

And you did mean what you said, once. Bruce shouldn't really have a phobia of clowns. It's beneath him.

Besides, you'll win him over, even in a getup he hates.

You always do.

Most of all, what matters is the plan isn't really a plan. It will all just happen, organically, as a response to everyone's else's little attempts at plotting, and when you get to where you need to go, all you can look forward to watching how it all breaks apart into beautiful, fractured pieces.

Chapter Text

--A Day Before Joker Breaks Out of Arkham At an Unspecified Time--

The Joker is born in a city on fire.

Batman builds from the ashes.

That is always how it was and that's always how it will be, a cycle that you will keep going- at least, until it ceases to bring amusement.

And so does Bruce, in his own way.

Because he won't kill you- no matter how hard you try to goad him otherwise.

--

"You think it's funny?" The policeman says. "The whole city's on fire because of you."

Poor sap thinks he's a comedian.

But you know better. You tell better jokes, because you don't feel the need to sugarcoat the truth.

You smile.

Doesn't he know the city was already burning?

It had been doing that long before you rose.

All you did was light the match and watch the world set itself on fire- and Gotham happily, willingly set itself alight in the little world it had made for itself.

That there, that's the biggest joke of all.

It doesn't matter who you are, where you come from- everyone is the same when faced with a bullet and some gasoline.

But you don't even need those.

People are so ready to turn on each other- all they need is an excuse just to let it all out.

--

You think back to that night. Being lifted from the crashed car, a sea of masks looking back at you, watching and waiting- finally listening in a way you had so rarely been afforded before you let yourself be reborn- and dancing, smiling, blood on your face as you stood on the hood of that car.

What stands out is watching across that alley.

At a little boy standing over two dead bodies.

Looking back at you, shellshocked.

And you think, in his eyes, you see someone like who you once were.

Maybe he's a little bit too much like who you used to be- someone having one bad day when they thought no bad days would come for them. A kid who didn't know better, who got hurt just because he was in the way, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

(And maybe that's not exactly what happened. Maybe it was different. But it is what you say it is, and if you can make Bruce see you the way he saw that man in the alley and the one who kicked this whole riot off, then the Joker thinks it will be enough. He will make this work.

Every day is a new day, and you decide what really happened.)

Not that it matters much.

All Bruce needs... is a little push.

--Harley, Still An Intern--

"You wouldn't get the joke." He says. Distant. Laughing at the answers with that smile on his face.

The hair on the back of your neck rises, and you think, You're supposed to be professional about these things.

But the Joker's eyes aren't on you.

They are far away.

And for the first time, you are glad they are, because you are not sure you'd like what you see with all that rapt attention focusing back on you.

 

Chapter Text

--Jack, Somewhere Between Age 12 and 13, if he isn't lying about it--

"Look, the little orphan Lucy is sticking her nose up at the rest of us-"

"It's Bruce." 

"No one asked you-" Billy says, and he's staring Bruce-the-pipsqueak down as some other idiot holds their victim of the day by the scruff of his collar, with three other hapless morons watching the whole thing with a rapt fascination-

Only it's not just any pipsqueak, but media's favorite Bruce McFucking Wayne, number one orphan of the year thanks to all the gossip, and that would make you laugh if it wasn't for the fire and brimstone radiating from the handsome little devil's eyes. It's hypnotizing, captivating. It makes you feel... less alone, if that's the right designation.

Billy sucker punches Wayne in the stomach.

Bruce throws a few punches in retaliation, feet kicking in the air with the momentum- it's ineffectual, unpracticed, sloppy but charming in all the right ways, and he does connect with Billy's face more than once.

And he draws blood once he connects with Billy's teeth, which Billy doesn't appreciate at all.

Billy punches Bruce in the mouth, and Bruce spits blood right back in his face. (He looks like he'd rip his throat out, given the chance, and that's a look you want to see more of.)

"You think you're brave, freak?"

"Now, that's not very nice, Billy boy." You say, rolling up your sleeves as you jump the fence. Mezmerized as you are, you can't let that insult stand. "Maybe I should teach you some manners, instead."

You're Brucie's knight in shining armor, and that's more of a riot than anything else to cross your mind today.

You consider saying something even more cliche, like, pick on somebody your own size, but to be honest, Billy isn't exactly worth the line. He's not on your level at all.

You just start punching and kicking and biting, going to town, and you get Billy in the jaw and the temple and then break his nose, and get his little lackey in the knee, while Bruce scrambles free.

By the time you're both done, Bruce is panting right along side you, having covered your back and thrown a few more punches of his own.

Billy tries to grandstand, one last time, but you punch him in the throat, and flick your knife open, a good enough threat as any.

"I think you should leave this dashing gentleman alone. Sound good?" You hiss.

Bruce grows still, watchful, with wide eyes, opens his mouth like he's going to object, or say something-

But before he can, you abruptly let Billy go, and watch his pitiful pals run away with their tails between their legs. You sheathe the pocketknife, too, for good measure. (Can't go scaring off your new friend, with how rabbit-quick he's gone on red alert.)

Bruce keeps on observing you, unsure.

Evaluative.

You slick back you hair, hold out a hand, and present him a winning, genuine smile. (And you couch it all in an appeasing, apologetic tone, which maybe doesn't match your glee. But it's not like Bruce is known for his friends. And one loner to another, you can't help but be fascinated as to what he'll do.)

"Name's Jack. Sorry for uh, stealing your thunder. I didn't want them trying anything else-"

"I appreciate it." Bruce says, haltingly, and then he shakes. "I'm Bruce."

And you memorize the shape of his jaw, the way he's eyeing you, so unsure, so calculating, and yet so horribly, horribly hopeful because you're likely the first person who hasn't seen through him at all, in this cesspit. (Or abandoned him, if he does have any rich friends in this sorry excuse for a school.)

"Mm. I know. Must get tiring, having everyone hound you all the time."

"You distracted them last week." Bruce cuts in. Still not staring away from you. "And the week before."

"Did I?"

"Yes. I don't think I ever thanked you for that, either."

"That's alright. You were a bit busy, getting out of dodge and all. As for those other times, don't sweat it. You looked like you could use a friend."

The bell rings out from the schoolyard.

"Say... Speaking of," You start in, look at the building you usually only prowl around and then ditch, and hold out an arm invitingly. "Wanna blow this joint? Take your mind off things?"

"I shouldn't." Bruce blue eyes cast down, and then he's wavering. He wants to say yes. And honestly, you don't blame him. He could use some good distractions in his life, after the week he's had.

"You saying you can't afford one day to let go, when we both know you're smart as a tack and miles ahead of everyone here? The boredom isn't worth it, trust me. And I do know some great places to explore that'll be worth your while. You could ever think of it as paying me back, for saving your hide, and I'll teach you some new tricks for all the trouble. It'll be an adventure-"

"Is that why you skip?" Bruce asks. Inquisitive, not letting you push too many buttons, but not shutting you down.

"To practice? To interact with the way the world really is, instead of being cooped up inside false walls with rules that don't matter out here? Maybe if you come along, you'll find out." You lick your lips, mouth dry. "C'mon. You can afford to live a little, Brucie-"

"It's Bruce."

"Sorry, Bruce. I guess I'm not used to having too many friends. Bit over-eager, I guess." You leap up on the stonewall fence again, balancing as you go, not tacking on, jumping the gun, because you have a feeling that will make Bruce flinch and check out and withdraw, from all the other times you've watched him. "Stop me if I go too far." You spin around. "See, uh, people tend to find me a bit... prickly. And if I'm being honest, I'm not too sure how this is supposed to go."

The tension drains out of Bruce fast, slopes in his falling shoulders and exhale of air, and almost a small grin. Kid trusts slow, but you suppose he's warmed up to you far faster, thanks to your repeated, and noticed, meddling. Or maybe you're just that good.

"If it's any consolation, neither do I."

"Then that settles it, I suppose. You want to bequeath a nickname, you just let me know."

"Maybe I'll allow one, once we move on from being acquaintances." Bruce teases back. He still hasn't moved to leave, or shouldered his fallen bag. Still turned towards you. Still evaluating. "Do you prefer Jack?" He adds. So careful and considerate.

"I'll answer to anything you choose. Jack, Jay, Jeremiah, it's all the same to me. Just don't call me Jackson." You shudder, exaggerated, then crouch and hold out your arm.

Bruce's spine straightens, and he takes your pro-offered hand this time.

"Well, Jack. How about you show me around, and we'll see if your claims of adventure and intrigue are warranted."

"You calling me a liar?"

"No. But something tells me you have a flair for the dramatic."

You laugh, and pull Bruce after you, cackling more as you whisk him away.

"That, I can't deny. But what I can promise you, Bruce, is that you won't regret this. I know the best food truck for miles around-"

--Bruce--

You know this probably isn't the best idea.

You don't know this kid at all, save for the times he's helped you indirectly, and today.

And he's the kind of kid who pulls a knife on a schoolyard bully. Which worked, but reminds you of other things...

But between his affability, and his help, and his genuine attempts to be your newfound friend, you can't help but take a leap of faith.

You don't have many friends.

And Jack... You don't know. There's just something about him that intrigues you. That makes you want to get into his head...

That makes you want to give him a chance.

(And he isn't prying, or obviously after something. And if he is, you'll figure him out. Not that you have much to lose.)

He seems, paradoxically, like an open book. He's wild and excitable and throws himself into whatever happens to be in your path with reckless abandon, in all the ways you don't.

And it's like... Like he doesn't see through you, like so many other people. Like you are the only other person in the entire world. (It would be a bit intense, if you didn't find yourself doing the same.)

And by the end of the day, he's made you laugh. More than once.

It's all that... And... And you haven't laughed like that in a long, long time.

(In some ways, you feel guilty. In other ways, you can't let it go. You didn't realize how empty everything had been, until he'd helped stop you from being unable to stop seeing them, and the blood, over and over-

And part of you needs that relief.)

He also is anything but boring. Keeps you on your toes, guessing, before dragging you off somewhere else. Be it the docks, or the streets, or cafes, or lookout spots on top of Gotham's streets.

--

Once you learn his last name, that's a different story. Napier's practically infamous, the roughest kid around, if anyone else at school can be trusted to have an opinion.

But you don't really pay it much mind.

Jack is beyond decent when it comes to how he treats you, every time you meet up, now that's he's taken to walking the grounds with you on the way in and out of school (or hand in hand, when he gets you to skip), and while he is certainly different than what you're used to, you know better than to trust the rumor mill. You know all too well already how reliable that can be.

In some ways, it seems like he understands.

And Alfred did say you could try and make more friends.

Chapter Text

"Bruce, there's no conspiracy-"

"I hate to agree with the cat, but not everything happens for a reason. Just because your family is a big name doesn't mean there's always a rhyme or reason or agenda-"

Bruce's voice turns cold as ice.

"If you two aren't going to help, then I'll figure it out myself. Alone."

--

"Well, you really jumped the gun on that parade-"

"Speak for yourself."

"Oh? And how is this particular mess my fault?"

"You're the one who brought up his parents."

"No, Bruce did, and I just reminded him that not everything revolves around his family name and precious legacy, just like you-"

"You took it too far. And just because he sees you as his best friend doesn't mean you can get away with everything. And it's high time Bruce developed a spine when it came to you."

"Careful with that mouth, kitty. Besides, if you saw things my way, you'd know that our boy should have a flexible spine. After all, if a bunch of flying birds are after him, he's gonna need to be good at falling off buildings and dodging. Good life skills to have, anyway, with all the trouble he throws himself at."

"You're impossible."

Jack gives her a chesire grin, harder to parse and even harder to wipe off to find whatever threat lurks underneath.

"Maybe, but I only balked at the the idea of a cult operating on such a wide scale without some competition or other overarching goal- Hell, we all know rich fucks all have secret societies to fuck over us dime a dozen folks, that much is inevitable. But you, Selina, you're the one who said you didn't believe in him. In Bruce's anxious, earnest heart and dedication to finding out the truth at all costs, nevermind if he's a man possessed, if a little too close to the matter at hand. So, I'd say I'm ahead of the curve, seeing as I didn't doubt Bruce's detective skills in the face of grief. That one's gonna be a little harder to bounce back from."

--

"Hey. You okay in here?"

"If all you are going to do is attempt to break my concentration, go away. I don't need distractions."

"Bruce, level with me. I know this is important to you. And I'm not going to knock that. But just because you want answers doesn't mean you have to jump into the fray with no brakes. I'm an expert, I would know with all the stunts I pull. And when you put your mind to it, you're even more of a reckless andrenaline junkie going for that fix- which, in your case, is justice. So maybe just... take a raincheck and give yourself some distance. I can be a sounding board. It might help."

--

"Can you take one thing seriously?" Bruce demands, voice catching in his throat.

Jack stills, and his frenetic glee goes from tornado to pure stillness as he stares back at the strangled, hurt look Bruce can't help but wear on his sleeve.

"You." Jack promises, for once solemn in all the ways he so rarely ever admits to being. "I always take you seriously, Brucie, when it counts."

Bruce can't keep staring and looks away, discomfited, until he's rambling, "Jack, I... Look, I know there's something going on here. And I know you and Selina and Alfred don't believe me, but-"

"I'm going to stop you right there. I believe you, Brucie. I'll help you get to the bottom of your conspiracy. And even if I think it's not the barrel of laughs we deserve, I'm with you, every step of the way." Jack twitches, reaches out only to pull back, then adds, "You and me, we're in this together for the long haul. You lead, and I follow. No matter what your stoic one man act might entail. Every leading man needs a roguish, rakishly handsome pal to take the heat off once in a while, you know?"

Bruce doesn't know what to say to that. He just stares, overwhelmed, still unable to catch his breath, too many feelings all cascading around him that he doesn't know how to put in boxes and classify and reign in fast enough.

But Jack knows that. Just as he knows how to take the pressure off, because he never really gives an opening for all the breathing room to catch and turn into something too heavy.

And just as fast as eye of the storm came and went, Jack's energy shifts, and he licks his lips, and he bows his head level with Bruce's own. One bump and forehead touch that Bruce instinctively jumps at, only for Jack to catch his wrists.

Jack's mouth twitches, and then he's animated, pulling away again.

"And I promise, if we find any owls nesting in your walls, that's the first infestation I'll burn out at the roots. I mean it. Any of those nasty little guys come near, and they'll have to face the wrath of this!"

Jack presents his favorite potato peeler that he stole from Alfred the second time Bruce let him sleep over with a flourish.

Bruce stares, the barest hint of a long-suffering fondness and exasperation and concern once again at war.

"What, don't look at me like that-" Jack palms the peeler and props open his eyes wide like a bemused owl. "Flaying birds with this beauty takes patience and skill, and I'm not the smoothest operator. It'll strike fear into the heart of any bird or man... Or chicken, even if they're all interchangeable thanks to Diogenes or whoever the fuck his name was, only reason that stuck is because you read those history notes with those beautiful pipes o' yours-"

"J, I worry about you, sometimes." Bruce manages, trying to deadpan all the other things he can't let slip.

Jack sees his real expression, though, and makes a more exaggerated face as he cranes his neck as far as his head will go and flaps his arms loosely at his size, making the worst imitation of a screech owl known to man issue from his mouth.

And then Bruce does laugh. Can't quite stop at the ridiculous stupidity even when all the heavy things weigh around his neck and threaten to drown him (Jack likes to hold out a hand and keep him from getting too waterlogged in the thick of it all, and Bruce takes that out, because few things can pull him out of the grasp of obsession and pain and the past he's trying so desperately to keep from pulling everything away from him.

Jack takes his other hand and brushes a finger against Bruce's nose, darting away when Bruce swats at him.

"Told ya I'd bring a smile back to that face."

"It's a grimace of pain."

"Very little difference, there, if you want a professional opinion." 

"You're ridiculous."

"I'm hilarious and I assure you, no enigmatic rich boys can resist my magnetic charm."              

--

“This is a home invasion. I’m claiming this bed in the name of only top notch comedians. No sourpusses allowed!” Jack adds, then tackles Bruce around the waist as if in afterthought and not entirely premeditated.

Bruce sighs.

“If you wanted to stay, you can just ask. You don’t have to sneak in through the window every other night-"

“Don’t spoil the fun! Let me play the dashing vagabond come to sing sonnets at your window-"

"-Alfred knows you’re here, you know. And I wouldn't let him kick you out, and he's not going to try, either. Not when there's snow outside and not when you won't let me fix your dinosaur of the space heater or buy you a new one-”

"Excuse you, rich boy. I don't need you messing with my shit, that's my heater to turn into my own science experiment, and you need an excuse for me to swing by and keep you on bed-rest more often. I'm conquering this mattress in the name of progress and friendship. And honestly, you need the company at night- your manor is the one that's cold as balls, with all the empty rooms and creaking floorboards and howling wind and shit. Face the music, Brucie, when it comes down to the wire, I'm the best damn space heater you are ever gonna get, and that's a fact."

Jack doesn't waste time enacting his revenge for the careful concern Bruce dared dish out, tackling and then tickling Bruce until he can’t quite take it, and Bruce grasps for the nearest object and hits Jack with a pillow in retaliation, only for it all to escalate into a soft war of feathers and dodges and muffled pillows to the face.

They laugh, and both eventually wave a white pillowcase in mock surrender until the other attempts to ambush the other only for both to give up, eventually, breathless and young and unconcerned with things other than each other’s company for the near future.

But that's what Jack likes doing best.

Getting Bruce out of his brooding moods and out of his own head to focus on what really matters- the two of them, and the fun they have dancing and wrestling and laughing together.

(And if he's going to sharpen that, hone that into the juggernaut he knows Bruce will end up being, that that's just icing on the cake. Jack knows you cannot have the sharp stab of joy without the accompanying tragedy to bring it into sharp relief, homemade and carefully cultivated in all the ways Bruce should be grateful for.

The future is always up in the air, never set, never steady, and even knowing that, it's a public service, giving him this. And yet, there's the ever-present contradiction of your friendship, of what draws you together, and the fact remains that there is something maddeningly comforting about the persistence of Bruce's steady, immutable nature, in all the ways he remains so staunchly himself in the face of all that attempts to unmake him. And seeing what he'll do with the good and the bad and the ugly when it all comes to a head, when your magnum opus is realized...

Jack can't wait to see what breathtaking, beautiful spectacle that will be, when you both rise together- because the world takes no prisoners, and Bruce does not falter or break in the face of impossible odds, never takes any small thought or notion lightly, and he does not bend- at least, not without something else, softer, more permanent carrots on sticks that are harder to banish as incentive, and Jack will take up the mantle of that challenge, if it means he'll have the gratification of being the only one to seduce Bruce and persuade him to fall on his knees.)

--

By midnight, Bruce curls up in Jack's arms, head tucked into the crook of his chest as he attempts to stave off and then fails to not doze off to sleep.

Bruce is warm and small and soft, his hair all sticking up in different directions, full of out of control cowlicks in the way his carefully cultivated, combed and organized waking style isn't. (Being so close, so often, even when just hugging and sleeping in the same bed, it's like looking in a funhouse mirror, being able to get under his skin and into the most vulnerable parts all because Bruce trusts you, so deeply, and that feels... nice. Fluttery, like butterflies and hot cocoa and stolen kisses Bruce can't take back when you manage to smack one of the edge of his lips or on his forehead. It's like a trick step you've missed only to land on a fluffy pillow underneath, and if that's not a metaphor for Bruce's attempts at insulating and smothering everyone with affection and attention that he so often shies away from or is overwhelmed by, then you don't know what is. All it does is make you want to hold him tighter, to pin him close and keep him with all the same diligent care and make sure nothing can take that away, and you will make him fearless, invincible, will help him forge that part of himself so that the only thing you can wield over him is that same closeness he allows, that love which gives him over to you in a way Bruce doesn't allow with anyone else, save perhaps Alfred and Selina, even if that isn't the same, and you'll sever those ties to replace it with that intensity so that Bruce won't ever get a drug as good and sweet and potent as what you share together. You want to reciprocate with the same intensity and care Bruce shows you. You want to make him see just how much it matters to you, how it's all that really matters, in the end.)

Bruce doesn't whimper or twitch from the nightmares, not yet. It's a quiet night. Calm and slow and unwinding in a way things so rarely are.

(But Jack is wired, always is, can't turn off his flint-sparked mind even if Bruce's own relaxed state does mellow him out a bit. His every nerve is electric as he clutches at the soft fabric of Bruce's stupidly soft silk pajamas, and even with all the absent-minded petting of his neck, Bruce's breathing slows, and eventually, agonizingly slowly, becomes even more measured until he's out cold asleep in a way that even means his light sleeper habits won't jostle him awake again. Jack can tell by the very way Bruce relaxes, in the way all his limbs loosen and his eyelids don't flutter and the way his breathing doesn't hitch or his muscles aren't coiled with that same restless, analytical, ready-for-anything hyperventilating hypervigilance that Jack knows all too well from the way Bruce can't quite help himself, that he carries with him so often except when he softens and Jack steals the roughness and the exhaustion away, just for a moment, whenever he can get the kid to crack and laugh and let go. It's nice, having Bruce's trust and having him close and having him care, in a way everyone else doesn't. It's nice, even if Jack's gonna have to help him coax the beast out eventually, to hone that weapon like the fine-tuned, beautiful instrument Bruce's rage and sense of moral outrage combine, even if Jack still might steal some of that quiet, gentle open sweetness and keep it for himself and himself only. But that comes later. That comes organically, with life, as things wear everyone down. All Jack has to do is catch Bruce when he falls, when the world gives him a push and Jack is waiting to give him all the answers he'll ever need, that the answers don't matter, that the answers are what you make of them and make together-)

And Jack looks out the window, bites his lip, and whispers at the owl perched outside the window-

"I don't care if you peeping nocturnal fucks are real or not. If you nasty bird brains are out there, listen up. Bruce is mine. You got that? You mess with him, you have to deal with me. And I know, I'm a real class clown, I spice up my stories to keep things fresh, and I'm not really one for promises, except in dire emergencies. But deep down, you know- you know- that when I do promise something, I deliver. And I promise this- I am endlessly creative. I don't play fair. I'm an insomniac with too much time on my hands, as all those charming teachers say. And I know if you are watching that you've seen some of my up and coming work. I'm an honest artist carving out my niche, and it's not quite amateur hour any more. So. You try to mess with what's mine, I'll make your bones into a nice owl omelet. Toasty, with a lot of protein. We're growing boys, after all, and this is my funhouse to haunt. So buzz off and steal your nest out in some other ritzy part of town, or I'll give you a fight that'll make your whole operation look like broken peanuts on an empty funhouse floor.  And if you try to wind Bruce up and watch him go, I'll start sneaking in some fun of my own to even the scales. Because Brucie-boy, he's mine to see how many licks it takes to get to that gooey tootsie-pop center we're all dying to see. And while I'm not one for grand plans or big imposing speeches, I am territorial. This is my turf. And you don't get in on the action without my blessing. Capiche?"

--

"Bruce?"

"I don't like that things just happen. I don't like there not being a reason."

"I could make a reason-"

"J."

"I could, just saying. You can hold life and death in your hands, make it have a reason because you're the ones holding the strings- kidding. You know, Bruce. I think you understand all of it just fine. Tragedy isn't something that singles people out. Shit happens, no rhyme or reason. It's the greatest equalizer- and that's not even your issue, fitting it all into boxes and trying to shove it down. You just hate seeing it happen without fighting a futile battle. You hate not being able to control it and mold it to what should be, into what's fair, instead of what the chips fall down as, no rules and no plan and nothing but everyone out for themselves. No, you want to carve it out and make it right and change it, instead of accepting it as it is. I get that. And that's beautiful, that righteous anger. And it's okay to be angry, you know. People might say it's madness, but anger is only the other half of laughter. Fury is holding on, and laughing is letting go. And when you cut to the chase, we're all headed to the same place. Comedy or tragedy, everyone's curtain falls in the end."

"But what we do before we get there, that matters-"

"Yes and no. The only way it sticks is how one's work gets remembered. And the first time the dominos fall, once you drop, there's nothing stopping the thieves and the worst of them all taking it and ripping your hard work to pieces and taking it for themselves, while everyone else is stark raving mad, keeping their heads in the sand, pretending that everyone is dignified and not facing down the same void we stare into eventually, that same selfish scrabbling everyone pretends they all too good for even when they'd go for it at the drop of a hat. But it's insane to bottle it all up. That's what I think. It's not healthy, and it's not right. It's just going with the flow..."

"Jack... Is there something you aren't telling me?"

"There are no secrets between us, Brucie. Only inside jokes and personal space."

"Jay, how on earth do you make me feel guilty for-"

"Feelings?"

"For wanting to make things better? How do you make a joke and suddenly it's just... not funny, or it is, when it has no right to be?"

"Timing. All good comedy is rooted in truth, Bruce. Just as all hope is rooted in little lies we tell ourselves."

"Maybe I don't like how everyone else sees things. Maybe I don't like how you see things."

"Now, that I'll believe. You're a stubborn one. And I can't wait to see what you do with all of it, a trailblazer on your own self-appointed mission. Long as you don't leave me out of the proceedings, consider me hooked."

"I can't believe I'm telling you to lighten up, but Jack..."

"Oh, relax. It got you to stop brooding, didn't it? Reverse psychology is a beautiful thing- there's that adorable look on your face. Who could resist that look, Brucie, it's too tempting, you make it all too easy-"

"I will throw you off my bed-"

"Good luck with that. I know the perfect hostage to keep my spot, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it's you. Face it, I got you good-"

Chapter Text

"Can I kiss you?" Bruce asks, emboldened.

Jack's smile widens as he laughs. He'd been expecting to be the one to make the first move-

But Bruce was always full of surprises.

"Always a gentlemen. With me, Brucie, you don't ever have to ask-"

Jack gets cut off as Bruce leans in and pulls him closer, and Bruce kisses him with a ferocity and a sense of mission that gave Jack chills despite himself.

--

"Give me your best shot, loverboy."

The two of you fall, Bruce tripped up by your leg as he overcorrects a bit too hard, and socks you in the jaw with a little extra kick as you both fall and bang your foreheads together.

"Are you okay?"

Jack snorts. "It'll take a lot more than that to ring my bell. How about you. You still in one piece?"

Bruce nods.

You both don't say very much for a second, both under the pretense of catching your breath, when really, neither of you can ignore how Bruce landed straddling Jack, and the ensuing closeness which ensures he can feel exactly what is going through Jack's head right now.

Chapter Text

--Vicki Vale--

"Going somewhere?" Jack asks, hauling you out from your hiding spot with a very wide grin.

You consider your odds.

(They aren't very good, considering everyone else who has seen what they shouldn't are six feet under and were butchered very fast. And something tells you that even having backup polaroids on hold isn't going to hold enough weight to keep this guy from following through on any threats.)

But if there's anything you know from tailing this bastard, is that he can't resist the sound of his own voice.

"That depends on you, I guess." You settle on empty bravado.

For what it's worth, Jack takes it all in stride.

"I just thought it was a shame. Here you are, so meticulously cataloging all my work, and you don't even get a proper autograph."

--

"You're... blackmailing me?"

"I hardly think it's blackmail when you're the one talking about photographic evidence, doll. I am not one to turn down a friend perched in high places. We could do so many good things for each other. Think of the press jockeys, all envious of you and your exclusive photos of Bruce, with no competition. I'm just thinning the pack, after all. No need for vultures to go picking their teeth all up in Brucie's private business."

"And in return, I'd do what?"

"Keep your darling mouth shut. All I need is for you to keep your ear low to the ground, and make sure no... unsavory rumors destroy the ambiance. What do ya say?"

You hesitate.

"Might I remind you, this isn't a negotiation. You're either in... Or there's a piranha with your name on it. I bet you'd taste delicious to those little suckers. Showbiz can be such a lonely road, and climbing the press junket isn't much better. Are you really ready to call it quits on your big dreams just because of a little roadblock?"

Chapter Text

--Bruce and Jack, Ages 16 and 17--

"If I have to suffer Tommy and Roman and whatever other ragtag group of rich pals you're babysitting, I am going to set their houses on fire."

"Jay-" Bruce sighs.

"Don't look at me like that. Arson is a perfectly reasonable response to being stuck in a room with the two of them."

Bruce doesn't rise to the bait.

"Look, I have to go to this function- it's for charity. We can go off on our afterwards. It's only a few hours."

"A few hours too many." Jack grumbles, but then he is twisting himself from where he's draped himself upside down on the sofa and ruffling Bruce's hair. "Maybe I can enlist Selina to distract them afterwards and then set their houses on fire for making me go through the ordeal of their company. Do you think she would go for it?"

Bruce snorts, tries to hide it with his hand, but Jack pokes him, catches him in the act.

"For you? Not for all the money in the world."

Then you are both snickering, and Jack is placated, even if he'll start grumbling the moment Alfred herds you both to the car. (He doesn't exactly like ferrying Jack along, but he's grown used to him being attached to Bruce like a barnacle that won't let go, and Bruce thinks that counts as progress.)

'Course, Jack will start acting the picture-perfect show of innocence and interest the moment you make it to the gala before he blends into the crowd and makes himself invisible, unless he feels the need to latch back on to you, because that's what he does.

But you know the moment you get a chance alone, he's probably going to try and smuggle you and out and whisk you out to some abandoned roof without any stragglers to look at the sky and breath free air and get away from it all, or maybe to sneak a closer look at the fireworks scheduled for the night.

And that, maybe, isn't a bad thing. It just means you've got to make sure everything is in order and all the proper things you are supposed to do are in place before he tries anything, and the challenge and the game of it does make the night seem a little brighter.

--

The first time Jack met Roman Sionis, he stole some smokes and told him he'd rip his teeth out if he said one word about it to anyone- long as Bruce wasn't around to see it.

In earshot, all he did was proclaim that his tie was tacky.

The first time Jack met Tommy Elliot, he just smiled a little too wide, eyes too narrow, before promptly sitting on Bruce's lap as if staking out prime real estate, even if Bruce protested he was too damn heavy and to budge off.

It's not the first time nor the last that he's been a territorial and aggressive nuisance, nor did the black humor and too-cutting jokes help ease the interactions, because Bruce knows all too well what Jack thinks of rich kids who aren't him.

But Bruce isn't sure how to ask him, to, well, tone it down without Jack turning into asking him to change and finding the whole ordeal too funny, like the idea that he might want to try to be friends with them, or at least attempt it, worth his while, particularly when the last thing he wants to do is spare their "precious, adorable feelings."

(In private, when Bruce isn't around, Jack makes no mistake to cut straight to business, having seen right through them in all the ways Bruce remains oblivious, and what a mimed slit throat won't accomplish... Well, in Jack's mind a little talkin' to never hurt anybody much, particularly when fear and intimidation and restraint is not exactly in his vocabulary. And if they cross him, then they have no idea whose pockets Jack is lining and what pies he's got his hands full with.

But what Bruce doesn't know won't hurt him, and Jack really is doing him a favor.)

Sometimes, Jack takes things a bit too far, and maybe that's half the problem. But usually, he can at least pretend at politeness, even if Tommy can already tell the immediate loathing is probably mutual.

"I come from a family of bruisers and con artists and carnies, Bruce. Don't expect me to pretend that their company is a riot. Besides, you don't need to hang around those stiffs. They aren't fun, and remain piss-poor influences."

"And you're the bastion of integrity, my mistake-"

Jack sticks out his tongue.

"Hey, I'm an influence, I never said I was a good one. But I'm a far better pal than the likes of them. I'm a whimsical menace, not a boorish lout-"

"Jack, while I am touched you think of me so highly, I do feel the need to defend their honor when they aren't here to personally defend their reputations."

"That's because you think chivalry isn't dead. I could take them mano-a-mano, if that is a better alternative-"

"God forbid we settle this without bloodshed."

"That's the spirit!" Jack cheers, only to backtrack at Bruce's flat, unamused glare.

"Okay, fine." Jack concedes, dragging and popping the vowels out. "But my point still stands, Brucie. They don't deserve to bask in our fabulous glory. They are whiny, gold digging trust-fund junkies who don't give a shit about friendship, or charity, or you," He smacks his lips together, rubbing his chin in thought. "And deep down, they only wish their folks would drop dead already-"

Jack trails off at Bruce's stony, far-away expression, then leans closer, hand squeezing Bruce's own, other hand stroking the back of his neck lightly.

"Look, Brucie. I didn't mean it like that. You know I didn't. It's just... I'm not trying to be harsh, here, or to be a reactionary pest. But you don't need the company of cockroaches like them. They're poison and even if they weren't- they just aren't invested in real things, the things that really matter, too caught up in their ivory towers to see the forest for the trees. And you deserve more. You deserve to let loose and actually enjoy yourself instead of having to grit your teeth and bear it. You're Bruce Wayne, not a hostage to a hold-up carried out by a cabal of rich vultures who like lording over each other and making their spawn play their little games to propagate their own private money sinks-"

"Tommy isn't too bad." Bruce finally murmurs, not wanting to engage with the rest of it.

"Tommy is a selfish, conniving prick who wants to bleed you dry and assert his dominance, and the only reason he hasn't yet is because you're a saint with a heart of gold who doesn't know when to quit. That, and he's a sore loser at chess." Jack holds a hand to his chest, expression as if that's the gravest sin one could commit.

"Well, we can't be graceful and poised without facing any adversity." Bruce deadpans, crushing the grin, only the telltale twitch of his jaw betraying him.

That makes Jack crack a real smile, and he claps Bruce on the back before he laughs.

"That's the Bruce I know and love. Fine, I'll suffer through their company with you. But only for you, got it? No one should brave those waters alone, even if you've been swimming in them for as long as you remember."

"Your support is duly noted." Bruce says, rolling his eyes. Sometimes, Bruce thinks maybe the combination of being privileged and selfish and getting goaded by Jack's sense of humor has made him aloof and disconnected and self-centered, or, as Selina likes to say, "just a little bit of an asshole." But he thinks maybe that's not the worst crime in the world, provided he keeps perspective in order to balance it out. Empathy and knowing you can never know all the answers or someone else's experience, being humble when you don't want to be- Bruce knows those things are equally true, and Alfred and his mother always stressed that, even if the seed of that same feeling remained with or without their influence. And while it's hard to hold on to, sometimes, Bruce doesn't think sharing Jack's morbid humor is always a crime, moreso just something he needs to keep an eye on, because if he's being honest with himself, it's not all Jack that's the one keeping it going. 

Jack may be a handful, and jealous, and didn't like to share, but some part of him doesn't mind. And maybe that should worry him- but with Jack, it's hard to worry.

He doesn't take anything seriously enough half the time to make anything feel too stifling.

And when he is serious, he's dead serious- and you both have too many secrets, too many quiet things you can't put the words to but you intrinsically understand, and that's half of  what binds you together, that's what makes you best friends, that's what makes it all worth it. Jack may be cutting and cruel and wild, but he can be gentle and soulful and somber, too, and when he isn't always trying to make people feel like he's the physical embodiment of nails on a chalkboard, he can be sweet, and funny, and kind. At least, when he wants to be. When he lets his guard down and lets you in.

And Bruce likes feeling wanted, and maybe, deep down, some of what Jack says rings true.

Not of all it- hell, not half of it, Tommy and even Roman didn't deserve half the shit Jack said behind closed doors about them, but Jack had always had that edge, that cynical and acerbic and misanthropic side, so much that you've grown used to his sense of humor. But as for feeling trapped in a spotlight, and asked to put on a show you didn't want to be in, well, that part, that resentment, that need to stuff it all down and become a mask and not yourself...

That chafes, sometimes, because you want to be invisible and average as much as you want to uphold the honor and legacy of your family and it's memory, and even if you can't say it, Jack's indignation sometimes feels like a release on your behalf for all the ways you cannot reconcile the two. It's like he's defending your honor, even if Jack's the one who says you are a self-righteous goody two shoes ready to leap into the fray on his behalf. And when he says you don't deserve to deal with any of it, the weight of things you don't know how to quantify and the loss of privacy you never really registered as properly owning, that makes you feel better.

And you wouldn't trade him or his wry, flat humor for anything, even if he sometimes doesn't know when to draw the line.

He's as flawed as anyone else, and that doesn't make you love him any less.

The moment is ruined when Jack throws the comb at Bruce, and begs him to help tame his red hair into something less tousled and more put together for high society. He could do it himself- but that's the point.

He likes drawing Bruce in and involving him, and sometimes, that's all Bruce needs to feel like a part of something bigger. 

Even if he likes to hog the spotlight and be difficult on purpose, just out of principle.

Chapter Text

--Beach Day, When Bruce is Age 17--

It's when Jack finally gets Selina alone, when Bruce is otherwise preoccupied, that he makes his play.

"I have no problems sharing. But if you try to take him all for yourself-"

"Bruce deserves better than you." Selina hisses.

"Oh, like you're such a catch. You'd rob him for all he was worth if Brucie wasn't such a peach-"

Selina clenches her fists.

"I wouldn't do that to him. And I'm not dangerous, not like you-"

Jack smacks his lips together, toes digging into the sand. "Everyone's dangerous. I just don't bother hiding it-"

"So Bruce knows about that stunt you pulled a few days ago, because you are such an open book-"

Jack's expression goes cold. "I'm a true pal. You, well, you're one to talk. You hurt him so easily." Jack drawls, "How's that factor, exactly, hmm? You disappear for a week and it takes all my good material to get a smile back on his face-"

Selina backs him into the shed, hand a little close to his throat. "You think I don't know what you really are, you fr-"

Jack grabs her wrists, smile dropping so easily.

"Careful, there, kitty. You know how Bruce feels about that word. Don't go breaking anyone's hearts." Then the smile grows very, very wide, and he drops his grip on her to hold a hand to his heart. "See, Brucie and me, we're two peas in a pod. And I only want what's best for him-"

"That's funny, really, your best joke yet-"

Jack pushes her into the wall of the shed, fingers digging into her shoulder.

"I know you've got no proof, because there's nothing to tell." Jack's voice gains an edge, before growing deceptively light again, although the sneer stays on his face. "And dear Brucie does see the best in people, so unless you want to make him choose- and I think I know whose side he'll take, if we're being honest here..."

Selina keeps her gaze level, disgust and loathing clear as day.

"If you think I'm going to let you ruin his life, you have another thing coming."

"I don't want to ruin him, Selina." Jack pouts. "Bruce is my very best friend, and I'm just as entranced by him as you are. So if I were you... I'd worry about your own neck. Competition can be brutal, these days. No sense of showmanship, or fair play..."

"Hey, are you two going to come swim or not?" Bruce yells over the crash of the waves, and they both start up from where they are crouched in the sand out of view to join him there, truce temporarily reached all in the name of their one attempt at friendship they don't want to mess with.

--

"If we can't put your vast fortune to good use and teach you the meaning of fun, what kind of friends would we be?" Jack asks, disentangling his arm from where it is looped over Bruce's shoulder to instead turn on the music.

Jack nudges Selina on his way over. And she plays his game, for now, pastes a smile on her face, keeping her tone as light as possible.

"Yeah, Bruce. There's one thing a big bank account is good for- and that's sparing no expense. And if you can't live a little, then our attempts are all in vain-"

"You know, I'd hate to see you two in a theatrical production together." Bruce slings back, circling as they both try to grab one arm each and make him dance. "I think the audience would drop dead from how much you two ham it up. That, or the drama alone-"

"Presentation is everything," Jack says with a mock bow, holding out a hand.

And Bruce smiles at the familiar expression there, reaches out-

A muscle in Selina's jaw twitches, and she shoves Jack out of the way. Maybe keeps it a little exaggerated, just to make it less obvious as part of the joke, but the intent remains.

"If you can't get skin in the game, stay out of the game." She one-ups, and then presses a kiss to Bruce's cheek.

Bruce blushes, and then it only escalates, Jack circling around and pressing his tongue against Bruce's the next time he pulls him into an open-mouthed kiss, one hand tracing the elastic of Bruce's swim trunks as he cups Bruce's hip, subtle enough to keep Bruce from saying something but pointed enough that Selina knows he knows she notices.

The rest of the night, Bruce keeps trying to stop both of them from passing him off and grinding up against him and kissing him senseless when he's caught off guard.

"You two do realize you don't have to fight over me-" He tries.

"We're not fighting over you, Bruce. We're fighting for the privilege of showing the other how it's done-"

"Yeah, it's all in good fun, Brucie. No need to get a big head-" Jack interrupts.

"If anyone has a big head, it's you-" Selina cuts in, successfully derailed.

"All the better to eat you with, my dear-" Jack crows, but it's not directed at her, no, he's crowding Bruce's space, hands thrown wide as he falls on one knee, eyes flicking down and up and down at eye level, only for Bruce to tackle him to the ground for daring to be so bold like Jack always is. Bruce's face is flushed red, and he rubs his nose against Jack's in challenge.

"It'll be good fun when I can breathe-" Bruce half-protests, eyes so serious, only then Jack starts making out with him again, this time with a slight bite of teeth.

"You know you love the thrill," Jack whispers when he pulls away, kissing the soft skin under Bruce's ear, hands tracing Bruce's chest and down his stomach, and Bruce's mind goes off-line for a second before Selina trips and falls over both of them in revenge when she's done kissing the crown of Bruce's head, Bruce pushes them both over and nestles between them, telling them to take a break for a second.

The three of them stare up at the sky, backs buried in the sand, Bruce holding one arm around around both of their shoulders while his head leans into Jack's chest and his other hand plays with Selina's hair, all of them stuck in a fragile peace that Bruce forces them to adhere to.

"You two need to learn to take it easy." Bruce says, so very intently. "Take a step back and just relax."

Both Selina and Jack laugh, Selina snorting, Jack's low and throaty as it rumbles in his chest.

"This coming from you-"

"We're the ones who suggested you take a vacation, Brucie,"

"Besides, I don't think the word relaxed is in our vocabulary-"

"Yeah, we're creatures of habit. Excitement is our bread and butter-"

"Then I guess it's good I'm here to keep you two from flying off the handle." Bruce sighs, closing his eyes.

"Mm, or maybe we owe you a little more excitement, just to make you take that back." Jack challenges, pulling Bruce closer.

Selina turns and kisses Bruce's mouth, off-center and mouth closed, and then loops her hand over Bruce's waist and helps him to his feet. (And if she stomps on Jack's leg in the meantime, neither of them mentions it.)

They keep dancing, and go back and forth like that for a while, although they do listen when Bruce tells them to go a little slower. It's not a fun game if Bruce feels neglected, after all, even if he's still flustered and out of his depth.

Jack dips him, eyes raking over Bruce like he's a three-course meal and that knowing half-smile lighting up his face, and Selina leans back into Bruce's arms, his hands around her waist, and Bruce honestly doesn't know what to do with the two of them when they are all in lockstep, all flitting from a three-way dance. He has no problems with flirting or kissing or touching either of them, but he never knows how to navigate their intense competition and not-entirely subtle derision towards each other, and that, more than anything, makes him feel like a fish out of water. (Even if he doesn't mind, doesn't entirely know how to speak when they both gang up on him and tumble into the sand, both of the kissing him, eyelashes and lips and fingertips brushing the inside of his arms all Bruce can register until they kiss his surgery scars or press kisses to his Adam's apple, and Bruce doesn't really mind being overwhelmed and trapped underneath the two of them, even if he does wriggle out from under the two of them once he's had enough and tells them to dial it back a little, to let him press kisses back, light ones brushing over their knuckles and their collars until he's tracing the edges of their mouths with his in the quiet, subdued way he does, in ways they both melt into.)

(In a lull when Bruce has broken free, Jack even takes Selina in his arms, once, and whispered that she better up her game while Bruce laughs at something Alfred said while he checks in on the radio.)

And then it all gets forgotten when Jack says something that makes Bruce full-on cry from laughter, so much that he can't stop, and Selina burns up from the thought even though she's just as arrested by the rare, carefree sight that Jack only ever seems to make happen on command, at least until she lifts Bruce up and dunks him in the water before it turns into a full-on water fight, Jack jumping into the fray, and Bruce finds himself unable to worry about anything at all because he's having too much fun with the both of them.

Despite their animosity, they reach a mutual arrangement, seeing as the whole point is their attention is all on Bruce, and making the best of this vacation, and Bruce, while not entirely sure what to do with their uncharacteristic joint scheming, certainly isn't complaining, even if he does have to discourage a few touches that go a little further than he wants.

And when Bruce is tired of the flirting and slightly overwhelmed by the dancing and increasingly overstimulating contact, however wanted, however nice, he grabs some blankets and sits by the fire, all of them bundled up. Jack cracks open a beer while he hangs off one shoulder, his mouth pressed into Bruce's neck and kissing every so often, and Selina's head remains perched in Bruce's lap, both of their hands in Bruce's while they all keep watching the stars.

It's one of the best memories Bruce has of the two of them, despite the tension and the competition that he's grown used to with the two of them as his best friends, and part of him never wants to leave that beach if it just means living in the moment with two people who treat him like himself, who have no problems hiking out to faraway places and who may take things too far but have always made him smile and laugh and feel alive and safe and good.

(Years later, he finds out Jack only tried to drown Selina in the water once, which, according to her, was a nice change of pace from all the other times he'd try for harder and longer, or all the other stunts they'd both tried to pull injuring the other, with Bruce none the wiser because he'd chalked it up to the fact they always took things too far when leaping off rooftops and fighting low-level mob lackeys or breaking into places to lead the GCPD to evidence even if they had to do it carefully, to avoid tampering with due process. They'd pulled a lot of dangerous stunts over the years, and knowing the two of them were playing a twisted game of I-hope-you-have-a-fatal-or-severely-injurious-accident chicken half the time makes Bruce sick to his stomach.

Sometimes, Bruce wishes he could forget just how much he'd been willfully blind to, or how much he attributed aggressive if ultimately good-natured competition and friendship only for it to be substituted it for actual, mutual loathing. Sometimes, he wonders if he was so blind because both Selina and Jack were so convinced of how much he loved them that they put their all into the mask, just for his sake, because maybe they hadn't wanted to take it too far, because they knew the mask would come off one day. Maybe they knew how much he didn't want to see the truth, and hoped Bruce would stick around anyway, even after they went too far, even for seeing them at their worst, because he's always wanted to love them, always wanted them right by his side and to never let go of that love. Maybe they just didn't think about it that hard, not like Bruce did.

Maybe Bruce can only blame himself, for not seeing the writing on the wall even though he knew it was there. Or maybe, maybe blaming himself is easier than admitting that he'd rather feel in control, rather feel like he was at fault because the alternative is it was all out of his hands and not even his love for the both of them could stop them from wanting to use the darkness inside of them, wanting to let it eat them up, when Bruce's only option has only ever been to keep it at bay, at arm's length.)

--

 

--

"Selina, you look... amazing."

"Plan on sucking any rich man's blood to feed your vast cache of wealth?"

"Jack, stop ruining this-"

"I ruin everything, it's a professional past-time-"

"Your tie is crooked."

--

"Dare you to leap off that."

Jack points at the fire escape.

"Only if you jump first." Selina slings back.

"You're the one with nine lives-"

"Can you two please focus? I'm not having either of you break your necks-"

"Bruce, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if anyone's gonna snap their pretty little neck, it's you."

"As loathe as I am to agree with chuckles here on anything, he's got a point. We have been doing this kind of thing a lot longer than you."

"Yeah, Brucie, respect the wise mentors and let us carry you through the doorway into the unknown, a blushing virgin groom-"

"Jack, finish that sentence-"

"Aw, you don't want me to sweep you off your feet-"

"-and I will push you off the fire escape without hesitation."

"That'll be the day."

"Shh!"

--

"Some merry home invaders we are. A skank-"

"Jack, don't call Selina a s-" Bruce growls.

"A nag-" Jack pulls on Bruce's tie.

"Bruce, I can defend myself, also I can and will punch you in the jaw, jackass-" Selina growls, lurching forward as Jack darts away.

"That's my name, don't wear it out. 'Specially since you can't catch me-"

Selina takes another swipe.

"Oh, the resident clown thinks he's a comedian."

"And Judy Bloom cracked the case." Jack lets out a throaty laugh, low and more cynical than anything. "Look, what I'm getting at, is, it's like the start of a bad joke. Three party-crashing delinquents all break into a big bad warehouse and the mob doesn't even know what hit 'em. We may not be exactly cutting edge, but what we lack in presence, we make up in exuberance. And Gotham's streets will be clean in no time at all, least until the next batch of wannabe amateurs stirs the pot and we go back to committing petty crimes in the name of justice and the cycle starts anew-"

"We are not criminals-" Bruce challenges, crossing his arms.

"You can't pick and choose the rules, Brucie-"

Bruce maintains the look Jack knows all too well, face set, mouth a thin line, eyes staring defiantly out like he can fix the world just by glaring at it long enough.

"It's not a crime if it's the right thing to do-" He argues.

"I think the letter of the law disagrees-" Jack sings, and Bruce side steps out of his range of movement as he tries to tuck a stray hair behind his ear. Some things, Bruce doesn't tolerate jokes with, and it's a running contention that has yet to be settled via philosophical discussion or fisticuffs.

Jack's smile widens as he starts reeling in the net, having successfully derailed Bruce in the way he always loves.

"Like you care about that-"

"Not at all, but you're the one tampering with evidence in spades, so we all know I'm right-" The last syllable pops on Jack's tongue, lingering, too pointed.

And the moment is broken as Selina sighs and rolls her eyes, earlier waspish mood rekindled, and boredom running far too rampant. They are burning time, after all, and if they do want to case the damn place they better get a move on. The mob may be a drag, but it's still an organized and dangerous drag to underestimate or god forbid, get caught in the crossfire.

"Jack, leave the inspiring speeches to Bruce."

Jack waggles his eyebrows and scoffs, holding up a pointing, accusatory finger.

"Please, you've heard his rousing calls to action- mine are so much better."

Selina opens her mouth to argue, but Bruce beats her to the punch, trying for his method of long-suffering diplomacy instead of her patented spitfire derision.

"I think we can all agree Alfred's the only one who makes any decent speeches-"

Jack and Selina look at each other and then Bruce, the welcome calm belied by pointed silence still damning enough on it's own.

"Don't say one word-" Bruce warns.

"We aren't. We are definitely not-" Selina coughs unconvincingly, muffling a snort.

"Yeah, even if Jeeves is self-righteous-" Jack pipes up.

"And old fashioned-"

"And no fun-"

Bruce raises his eyebrows, tone dangerously flat.

"I will tell him you said that."

Jack mimes a look of righteous outrage, hand to his forehead, and sings in falsetto, "Oh no, will I lose my tiny sandwich privileges?"

"Actually, how about you tell him to his face, and we'll see what happens."

Bruce levels him a blank look that soon morphs into the casual twitch of his mouth and the relaxed tilt of his shoulders, but in a way Jack doesn't appreciate, when he knows Bruce is laughing at his own joke and not his.

"Oh, c'mon, Brucie, it's a term of endearment at this point." Jack whines, spinning on his heels to wheel closer, and then . "You and your darling butler wouldn't be such a pair if he wasn't an old fashioned stick in the mud and you weren't a dashing swashbuckler in that suit ready to make all the single bachelors swoon-"

He wraps an arm around Bruce's waist and hangs on so Bruce can't shake him off, at least until he tries to coax him into a false waltz too close to the edge of the roof and fakes a dip and Bruce shove him enough to make him stagger back towards the middle of the roof again, where he can't trip by accident, or pretend to fake-trip to make Bruce panic for the fun of it. (Which, he does let himself fall, closer to solid ground, unwanted slapstick just as mocking and self-aggrandizing as ever, and Bruce knows he does it just to get a rise out of him, seeing as Bruce barely put any weight into his attempts to push him back, as to not over-correct and fall himself.)

"Bruce, my offer to punch him still stands-" Selina's voice drips with a disgust and poison that wasn't quite there before, with more weight and danger behind it.

It's too familiar, too much infighting to salvage the situation gone south, so Bruce does what he always does when faced with this battle: he groans and rubs his temples and acts like the only adult in the room.

"Can you two try to be nice to each other, for one day-"

"Nice, ew." Jack shudders with a grimace so exaggerated it looks almost like he can't keep a straight face and then he's laughing, "Language, young man."

Selina smacks Jack on the head, then turns to Bruce, all business.

"Not in these heels. Besides, on the clock, I'm contractually obligated to counteract all the trash that comes out of his mouth."

"Charming as ever. Brucie, dear, lend me a hand, would you? It's high time we got the show on the road, and I'm getting bored-"

"Famous last words."

Chapter Text

--Bruce, Age 18--

Even years later, after so many galas and events that Jack's practically become an old pro at them, sometimes he still is rearing for fights and picking battles he shouldn't, just to stir the pot.

And if there is anything Bruce knows about Jack, it's that he knows how to pick whatever perfect target to get the rise out of the most, and so long as he finds it funny, damn the consequences.

Normally, Bruce lets Jack fight his own battles, unless he wants to back him up. But when it comes to baiting the mob...

Bruce doesn't want to take any chances. They will take them down, one day, make them forgotten in the annals of Gotham's history.

But until then- Bruce isn't playing with fire and chancing things in public venues with little cover or an out aside from quick excuses of too much to drink and showboating. (After all, you have to be logical and realistic about these things. And while Bruce knows that money can be a very real component to power, there are other things that can levy heftier weight, more powerful and more dangerous. And when it comes to higher level mob business, Bruce doesn't feel like indulging Jack in his fits of throwing himself in a self-appointed cage match, just to test his mettle and to try his luck like he loves to do all too easily.)

It's not just worry that clogs Bruce's throat- it's the cotton feeling of loss and distance and the need to hold on tighter, a long-buried fear that never quite ebbed because Bruce knows all too well what can happen at the drop of a hat. You can lose anyone, any time, and Bruce isn't going to indulge something so dismissively reckless- even if perhaps, he doesn't always follow his own advice, as Jack never fails to remind him.

"Jack, that was idiotic, even for you." Bruce manages. Tries to keep it curt and flat, because letting too much emotion out only means Jack will become an opportunist about trying to change the topic of conversation (and to evade all culpability in his own passively, almost-suicidal ploys that Bruce would feel the need to intervene in, if he didn't know better. If he didn't know how much Jack putting on airs and pushing the envelope was couched in self-assured confidence and a need to prove himself, considering Bruce knows Jack's expertise and zest for living the good life all too well. And if Jack wasn't so upbeat and convinced and perhaps too arrogant in his trust in himself- if he wasn't such a tour de force and so sure of his own ability to outlast and outrun all the dangers he's survived- Bruce would let the worry run rampant, perhaps beyond the bounds of what is rational and not stifling. But he knows better, really. Jack's been pulling stunts like this as long as they've been fast friends and you need to know when to let it go, or when you can push back.)

"Well, you know what they say, Brucie. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. And stupid or not, at least I added some life and color to the party." Jack is flippant- more than usual. And he's eyeing Bruce like he's a three course meal and like he's readying for a fight- not a real one, but old arguments that they never reached consensus on but also never let lie. (Old lovers' quarrels, as Jack likes to call them, while Bruce maintains they are just common sense where Jack is only flirting with danger and not actually looking out to keep himself safe- something that Bruce can't help but try and fight, because someone has to look out for Jack in all his knuckleheaded, thrill-seeking glory. And while Bruce knows he isn't a saint on that front, or the best at reigning in his own adrenaline-fueled blindspots, either, at least he attempts to keep control and keep his head. Sometimes, when Jack gets like this, it's like he doesn't even care, damn the consequences, damn what may come from the tiniest slip up that could be avoided if Jack didn't feel the need to rub things in-)

But more intimately than any other habit they've fallen accustomed to, Bruce knows a losing battle when he sees one, and changes tack. You have to be able to roll with things, to become a chameleon to match all the ways Jack would otherwise let everything slide right off him.

"I thought you were trying to keep a low profile." Bruce tries for placating, and decides to substitute curt disappointment for a strategic, harried attempt at helpful concern (even when he knows it'll hardly make much of a difference, knowing how hard-headed and dismissive Jack can be when he gets like this).

Jack makes a scathing noise, tossing his head. "Trying is not doing, Brucie. And if I go out, I'll go out in style. You gotta admit I'm still rockin' these threads." The syllables pop with a click of Jack's mouth, and his constantly tapping-moving fingers pick at his lapel, his wrists shifting as he twists the stem of the flower braided through his waistcoat. "Purple always was my color."

"Jack-"

"Look, I promise this won't go south." Jack's tone gentles, his thumb stroking the edge of Bruce's face, all other motion coming to a standstill. He's restrained and calm and placating, infused with too much understanding of all the fears Bruce doesn't voice, in all the naked understanding Jack lets bleed through as he looks back and sees what Bruce is trying to hide, and all the ways Jack will try to assuage those same fears. "Pinky-swear. I'm gonna bake my cake and eat it, too, and it won't get in your way. You know me, Bruce. I'm a man of my word." He drawls, the sound rumbling deeper in his chest as Jack pulls Bruce closer, an arm curling tighter around his waist. "And when have you ever seen fit to doubt me and my beautiful mind?"

(Because he can see the real cogs in the machine of what Bruce isn't saying outright. That he is tired of losing people- and not just by chance, but by the fact that sometimes, Bruce doesn't know why there is something wrong with him, why people keep leaving, why he keeps messing things up and ruining things, even if he blames himself wrongly- but not with Jack. Jack, at least, of all people, isn't going anywhere unless something tries to take him away, and Bruce can't let... Bruce can only worry about losing through other means. Sometimes, Jack can see it- how Bruce anchors him, and how Bruce holds on, just as tight, and how he feels like he's an island that won't ever budge or let go of Bruce or keep him anywhere else unless he falls beneath the sea. And Bruce can't lose him, he can't, but he can't just let this roll off him and Jack sees that, all of it, and gives a reassuring smile, so gentle and so small, the only kind he reserves for Bruce and Bruce alone.)

And when Bruce finally composes himself, musters all his wit and his need to bury all that raw emotion down, he manages the driest rejoinder he can use to save face, even if there's very little he can use to try and cover what feels like a scythe hanging over his head when things get harried and too close to things he doesn't want to think about.

"My misgivings grow stronger with each passing day." Bruce says. Fainter than Jack would like, but strong enough to have some meat there, and combined with the dirty look Bruce gives him- one that would send stockholders second-guessing themselves and running for the hills- all of it serves to brighten the moment instead of disaster striking, with Bruce opting out of shutting everything inside himself and put it all in lockdown because he can't let any hint of what he's really trying to keep a lid on out to see the light of day.

"Low blow, Brucie. Low blow." Jack says. He shakes his head, the arm wrapped around Bruce's midriff pulling him flush against his hips as Jack nuzzles his neck-

Not exactly a proper apology, even if Bruce can give as good as he gets, but Bruce will take the concession that only he can seem to eke out, even if this remains the only way Jack ever appears to ease off and admit he took it too far...

Otherwise, Bruce doesn't mind the contact, at least until Jack whispers, "But hey, if you want to go lower..." Jack draws back to make an obscene gesture, his tongue pressing against the side of his mouth, a hand sweeping lower until it's not, "I don't think anybody is watching."

Bruce smacks him on the shoulder, turning away and not engaging for another half hour until Jack makes up for it with good behavior.

The wicked grin doesn't leave his face, though, and after a few more playful passes and Bruce finally losing his patience and telling Jack to quit it and Jack finally complying, Bruce half considers taking Selina up on the offer of breaking into the good liquor cabinet despite his better judgement, maybe half as a way to bribe her into talking about feelings in a way Bruce wouldn't, if only to have her bemoan Jack's many, many failings to snap out of it and to ignore his own flushed face and stuttering inability to deal with Jack when he gets like this.

Then Bruce remembers that Selina isn't talking to him right now, still isn't, and that that's on him, and the thought makes him withdrawn for the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

 

 --Bruce, Age 17, Post Selina and Him Having a Falling Out--

You and Jack have been dating for two years now. It's not exactly official- but Jack hardly tolerates the company of everyone else, and he certainly isn't shy about showering you with attention. (And you only have eyes for him- even if there was the start of something there, maybe, with Selina, once upon a time before you realized you had already fallen hard for someone else, and even before that realization, you've both grown far more distant, running in drastically different circles. And while you remain friends, there are some things that remain unrepaired and pointedly not talked about, after what happened with her mother, and after she found out you were planning on leaving Gotham sooner rather than later down the line.)

In some ways, being with Jack is easy. (He might be involved in a different crowd, but he's not trying to push you away, quite the opposite, trying to get closer and to break old habits, while Selina has gone back to what she considers the laws of the roads and the alleys and you don't have the heart to stop her, because like she said, you have no right to dictate her life, even if you'll always be there if she needs it.)

Jack doesn't ask for anything except your undivided attention at times, and while he can be a handful, you find it easier to work with.

He always knows how to blend into a crowd, and helps you do the same, even if you've learned your own tricks along the way.

That being said, Jack loves to put on a theatrical show-stopper more than anyone else you know. He's like a chameleon, when he does it. Can change the way he carries himself and talks enough to even blend in with what strangers think are your stereotypical circles, and the way he makes people hang on to his every word, even if deep down he still tells you he was born gutter trash and he doesn't need to put on airs for anyone, least of all "so-called high society." (He leans down and kisses the corner of your mouth when he says it, gives you a lopsided grin, and you find yourself distracted easily, because even if Jack is a brash, daring son of a bitch, he's yours and you wouldn't trade it for anything.)

But what matters most is he doesn't give a single fuck about any of that and never has. When you are with him, you aren't Bruce Wayne, public figure and tragic orphan with access to a mogul industry, something for reporters and people to ogle at and speculate about.

You are just Bruce. Just a best friend, able to watch a show and sit in the rafters of the circus or in Jack's trailer without any prying eyes- and like it does with Selina, it feels like a different kind of freedom.

(Maybe it's unfairly earned, but you didn't choose to be born Bruce Wayne. And while you love your family, and will uphold your legacy, you'd like to be able to create something that is just yours. To have something that isn't anyone else's.

To just be young and in love and safe in a place that feels as much a home as Alfred makes the manor, even if they are different worlds entirely.)

You want justice. But you think your parents would want you to be happy, too, to make something of yourself that feels right, even if they didn't always understand you, because they loved you, and that's what mattered.

You can have both.

--

Jack eventually takes you up on the offer- to go to college, like you, and take that scholarship you'd hope would get him out of a life he still feels trapped in but was too proud to do anything other than make it through himself. Maybe he'll even intern at Wayne Enterprises, if he doesn't mind the spotlight- who are you kidding, he's never minded- but you know he wants to stay close to you, without interference, and maybe, selfishly, you both want to make that work and keep it private like your friendship has been to everyone kept distant and unimportant when compared to who you let in close.

(Normally, you wouldn't interfere. But you know he's been making deals with shady people- people you don't trust, people you hate, people you knew he hated too and that Jack would discard and use the moment it served his purposes, people he couldn't really afford to get mouthy with but would anyway, who he played because not playing meant racketeering would lend itself to bullets and blood money, and while normally you would be furious, you don't begrudge Jack doing what he has to do to stay alive if neither of you can take on the entire mob yet (the same went for Selina, and all the same things she did. You know your friends aren't exactly big fans of the law, but they have their reasons, even if you are trying to make them see it doesn't have to be like that). And aside from the dubious legality, along with the fact that he's not exactly trying to hide it from you even if he leaves a lot out, when you are right there, willing to help, you do worry.

It's not that he can't take care of himself, exactly... But you don't always like the person Jack turns into, when he gets like that. And you feel the need to remind him that it isn't charity, isn't condescension, even though he already knows it isn't when you offer a way out, when you offer help. Because it's not. You love him. You know he could do great things, and he knows it, too, only Jack isn't afraid to do horrifying things on his own because aside from you, that's all he's ever had to work with. You don't want to blame him. But you don't want him to keep going down that path, either.

When he stops, when he finally admits whatever he was doing that he'd felt the need to hide isn't working and that he'll take your need to help for what it is- you can finally rest easy. Because you'll look out for him, the way he's always looked out for you.

That, and you're still worried about the drug habit that's only intensified thanks to the criminal activity. Jack has been trying to kick it for years, but addiction is a powerful thing, and you don't even know what he's hooked on- or if he's even hooked or just experimenting, seeing as he quit smoking only to take up something else. And you'd rather support him, help him to get clean, and extend a hand after the whole close shave with organized crime, thanks to the circus and it's dubious owners changing hands from one mob to the other and back again, even if you keep trying to help fix that, too.)

And while he's still working at the circus, doing maintenance work and engineering for the lights and the rigs and the carnival rides even with all the upheavals, he's also helping you with your own ideas for clean energy for the city. Hopefully, he can use that as a springboard into work he likes more. (Although he prefers to keep it secret, prefers to keep it between the two of you, and maybe you like the thrill of that, too, knowing that you are both building something together without anyone else being involved.)

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and you both feel like you'll get there, together.

--Bruce, age 18, Spring Break of Freshman Year--

The first sign something is wrong is when you can't find your pills.

Usually, Alfred makes sure you have enough, and you're fairly decent at being regimented about it. But you can't find them anywhere in your pockets, or Jack's trailer, or the car.

Jack hasn't seen them either.

That makes you panic in a way you haven't for so many years. When you're out with Jack and not Alfred, he's always helped you keep track of them, and while you are grateful your testosterone is accounted for and in it's proper place, it does little to ease anything else.

But Jack promises to help you look, and when that goes south, helps you to try and contact your physician and even says he'll try and see if he can find a supplier directly while you wait for the next round. (You don't want to tell Alfred, yet, not when he's on a mandated vacation you begged him to take. If he knew you'd be staying at Jack's place for the week, he might've reconsidered- but you desperately wanted some space and time with Jack, alone, without Alfred worrying about nothing, and it's not like he usually has a chance to take vacations. And legally, you can be on your own. It's not a big deal, not usually. And you don't want to have to rely on him. Not after all these years. And maybe, selfishly, you don't want him intruding on your time with Jack, even if it's going south fast and you don't know what to do about it.)

There isn't exactly cell service around Jack's trailer, not even with your high-level service- it's too out of the way from everything, deep past the campground to get some privacy, and after his mom's disappearance not many people head out that way. (That was sort of the point, to go off the grid and have a place with no one breathing down your neck.)

He manages to convince you to head back with him. Puts his arms around you, smooths your hair down, wipes the sweat off your forehead with his thumb as he whispers a few soothing words, promising you he'll be right there with you as you ride out everything.

Hands shaking, head pounding, half-dizzy from withdrawal after hours of this and feeling like you're gonna hurl, you let him lead you back.

--

The prescription, even with expedited shipping, isn't going to reach you for a week, not with Gotham's messes making everything a headache.

Jack asks if maybe you think it fell out of your pockets in the dressing rooms somewhere.

You attempt to answer, only for your hands to start feeling numb and your vision to go woozy.

--

You don't remember too much of what happened after that, not concretely.

You spend three days at Jack's with withdrawal symptoms, sometimes trying to claw your way out of the trailer, sometimes stock-still and too scared to move from your spot on the floor.

It feels longer than that.

Jack keeps trying to get your attention- touches here and there to your elbow, cupping your face, tending to the scratches you've gouged into your arms with antiseptic and bandaging them up, helping you back on to the bed when you fall off-

But you aren't entirely lucid, not the whole time, and you cling to Jack like he's the only thing keeping you sane, the only anchor to the outside world.

(He doesn't take you outside, to the circus or anywhere. More stimulation means more overwhelming lights and noises and sounds that only distract you from knowing what's real, what smells and sights and sounds you hear are fabricated or not.)

You find yourself watching shadows, straining to see reflections in spoons to see if there's any way to tell what is an optical trick.

--

Finally, Jack finds you the same brand- slightly different dose- from somewhere you don't want to ask, and honestly, you're too grateful to throw it back in his face or go digging, once he helps get you settled enough to force the pills down.

You don't want to talk about any of it. Jack's seen you vulnerable before- maybe not like this, maybe not completely out of control- but you don't want to think about it.

And Jack is a warm and close body that keeps hugging you (maybe a bit too tight and smothering but you don't really mind because at least you feel safe, here, at least you feel real), not heeding the bites and scratches you don't remember leaving. You're grateful that he doesn't think the guilt is warranted, that he's not scared away by you like so many other people could be, even if he doesn't want you to be grateful one bit. (Although he's not one to shy away from praise or attention.)

No, you can't be angry, not at this, not even if you're worried he's jeopardizing his future to make sure yours is pristine and kept hidden from those who would use such knowledge to hurt you.

He only wants to help.

And you feel safe, with him, in a way you so rarely ever do.

--

You both pay careful attention to your pillbox for the next few months every time you go out.

For a little while, you even try to keep the details of what happened from Alfred, but then decide it's for the best to be upfront about what happened, and not just so the inevitable disappointment and betrayal he feels at being misled blows up in your face. You want him to see that Jack is a good person, that he's always been there for you, and that while you aren't perfect, you have people you can rely on that aren't just Alfred himself.

And sure, maybe Alfred has a point. Jack is a little possessive, more than a little intense- but he's always been like that. There's no reason Alfred need to disapprove so much about all this, not when Jack's been an anchor in a world you've so often felt apart from, not when you are so used to it, when it's just one part of a puzzle of a man that you love.

Jack drops out of school freshman year, bored and antsy, but remains invested in his work and internship with you at the company, even if no one else has to be privy to that. Even without the degree, he's still a genius when it comes to engineering and chemistry and programming, and while he didn't end up doing much with what was once his major in epidemiology, Bruce still sees him help patch people up on the streets.

--Bruce, Age 19--

Sometimes, Jack says you two should run away together.

Sometimes, you want to take him up on the offer, even if you have no plans to leave college any time soon.

But you aren't sure either of you really wants to leave Gotham- not permanently. You both feel a pull towards it, because in your bones, it's home.

But you do appreciate the sentiment- starting over in a new life, anonymously, being yourself without any obligations. (Sometimes, not wanting those obligations and that legacy makes you feel like a failure. Other times, you resent that they exist at all.

But mostly, you just feel wrong, because you miss mother and father as acutely as ever, as if it happened yesterday, right in front of your face, and you shouldn't want to hide from who you are, to honor them and their memory.

On bad days, you wish you were not a Wayne, because then the memory of the bullet and blood and all the fire and the vacant look in their eyes wouldn't coil in your gut and feel inescapable.

--

You try to move in with Jack, both of you bouncing between the manor and his place before deciding you want to try longer stints out in the country he's camped out in again- this time with Alfred's blessing, albeit grudging and with surveillance you know is happening.

(You're a little nervous, at first, at keeping a low profile, but if no one has noticed anything yet, then you know it's a foolish notion. Jack is good at hiding you and himself, and Alfred is good with security.)

You're also more nervous about being out on your own with him, after what happened the last time you tried for a longer stretch.

(You've been so forgetful lately, as Jack's been reminding you. He thinks it's stress from classes and work, and you've been attributing it to attacks you've tried to keep on the down low, because maybe your dosage needs checking.)

But Jack makes note to make sure you always have your meds, and things are perfect, for a while, and those fears skitter to the back of your subconscious.

And if Jack pushes a little too hard or asks for a little too much or gets rougher than usual when you both decide to fuck- well, it's like he says. You are one to chase the dopamine rush, and you can take whatever he throws at you.

He says he just wants you to let go and have a good time and not feel like you have to tiptoe around him.

You counter by saying it's not like that, it never has been, and just wish he wasn't so handsy in public. (You don't want to be noticed, don't want to chance it- not because of being outed, which is irrelevant, seeing as you'll date whoever you please, and you are not ashamed of weak-minded people's opinions- but because you want to keep Jack all to yourself, and don't want the media blowing up the tiny bit of peace and quiet you two have been able to hold on to so far, a miniature miracle in its own right. You want to keep what you have as it is now, and will do anything to keep that safe, even if Jack insists on pushing the envelope because he can never quite help it.)

Jack says he just wants to change things up, mess around and try some new things, and backs off when you say enough is enough, even he takes a few seconds to actually hear you.

He watches you, so closely, and it's so familiar you've long since stopped feeling exposed, but you aren't sure when Jack became so hellbent on settling down with you.

(That feeling creeps back up again, a few months later, when you feel something is off, and you're starting to wonder why Jack is harsher, sometimes, why he's a little bit more paranoid about keeping things under wraps with your independent projects and why he's so fixated on this.

But you try to make those misgivings vanish. Gladly let him seduce and distract you, let him kiss your eyelids before he's biting your mouth oh so lightly while you climb over him and let him pull you on top of him when no one else is around to watch.)

--

Eventually, you're growing more than suspicious.

Jack has been out late, disappearing somewhere when you sometimes think you should tail him, because you know he's talking to the mob again- not taking jobs, this time, though. Luring people places, doing dead-drops, only not caring if you catch him at those junctions, which is the most troubling part, on a personal level.

You ask him why, and he says he's going to take them down, making sure they are at the wrong place at the wrong time, and you pretend that makes you feel better.

You don't want to suspect what you think is going on, even if you can read the signs, and when Jack proposes you get out of Gotham, to go camping somewhere new and remote, in an effort to dispel former fears and make better memories, you go along with it.

You don't feel like yourself. Feel off.

But you know Jack was relapsing, saw him fidget and aching for a fix and going through the medicine cabinet and popping too many painkillers when there's nothing else left, and while he's at least been up front about that, you know you need to do something to get him out of old haunts and old habits.

And if this is what helps him stop again, then you'll be there for him, like you always are.

--

Everything topples when can't find your pills again, and on top of it, you can't find your phone.

Jack tries to get you back into the trailer, tries to help you calm down, but you know you had them both, especially your phone.

Alfred doesn't know where you are. (No one does, save Jack, and that's the only thing keeping you from spiraling even with how erratic Jack has been lately, and you probably should've never agreed to something like this again, not after the first time-)

Jack gives you something to take the edge off, and you, stupidly let yourself be convinced that it's for your own benefit. (You know he didn't take your pills, because you can tell when he's high even like this, and you also know he brought something with you- and while you know you should have stopped it, if Jack was relapsing you didn't want him to go into shock.)

His pupils are blown, now, though, and you might be on edge and not thinking clearly. Hell, you know that, but fuck if you aren't scared of the way Jack smiles, this time.

You think you remember him kissing you, telling you it's going to be okay- but it's so hazy, after that, just a blur of colors and sounds and feelings.

You have half a memory of, "Bruce, don't worry, I'm right here," And, "Fuck, you're beautiful, I wish you could see how beautiful you really are."

You remember asking him to hold you, closing your eyes and trying to drown out the feelings of things crawling over you, stabbing pins and needles and sounds that you aren't sure are real.

But Jack's voice is, and his hands are entwined in yours, and that's what you'll hold on to.

You feel lips on your throat, kissing your too-fast pulse, and between the shivering and the huddling into Jack's ribs you just want to feel like your home, like you used to.

--

The next day, you are still wearing the same rumpled clothes when Jack rouses you, having found your pills have fallen out from your backpack outside, and rejoice.

--

That night he's touching you, asking you if you want this, asking you if it's good, asking you to let it all out-

And you'll do anything, anything to feel safe and good and close to him, if it means you don't have to think about all the other things that have happened, if it means you feel in control and healthy and safe.

Jack traces your scars, kisses them, fucks you with all the brutality you'll allow with your knees bent and chest heaving, and you think that it's worth it. That you'd do anything to only feel this, if you didn't have to feel anything else.

Then Jack starts drawing lazy circles around your cock with his thumb, intent on making you beg for it.

You find you can let the aggression out then, in a way that feels warm and good and right, in a way that doesn't make you want to curl up and hide like you have done so often before.

--

The other shoe drops when you are looking for your watch and find your phone and the radio in his things, buried deep, and you feel like you are falling again, the whole weight of what's been horribly, horribly wrong.

Jack admits he's been changing your dosage, seeing what it does when you take too little or too much, (and that explains so much, the headaches, the blackouts, the shakes and the fainting spells and all those times you woke up disoriented tangled in Jack's arms too scared to admit you don't remember how you got there but you remember all the things you said and did earlier and it hurts, knowing you don't know how much you've been compromised, how much he's been taking your choices away-)

And then he admits that he's come to the conclusion you don't need them, Brucie, not really, I'm only looking out for you- and that's when you know it's well and truly over.

You try to leave. Try to walk the way back.

Jack drives up and intercepts you, and attempts to sweet-talk you back into the car.

"Where else are you going to go, Brucie? Anything could happen out here, in the dark. After all, we're a little farther out than we planned on going."

I could do anything I want with you, and you'd let me, he doesn't say, but you recognize the look.

Then he's holding the pill bottles he's nicked from you pockets, shakes them, eyes gleaming.

"You don't even have your meds." He baits, because if he can't win you over he'll try to coax you with force, attempting for you to try and beat him for it and then try to gain the upper hand.

And you could fight, could try to run, but you're being backed into a corner, here, Jack's been sparring with you and defending himself since you were kids, knows all your moves as well as you know his thanks to watching and helping you train with Alfred, and has been beating up lowlifes in back alleys, holding his own for even longer.

And while there's no gun to your head, you find yourself going along with it, with the caveat you'll break his lip and his teeth if he tries to touch you again.

Jack doesn't come too close, doesn't put a hand on your knee like he otherwise would on any other road trip.

"I do love you, Bruce." He says.

You laugh, a small, pathetic noise.

"I wasn't trying to hurt you." The sad thing is, he means it, you know he does, because you're getting a real good sense for when he's well and truly lying. You can see the difference now, night and day, from all the other times you trusted him.

--

You consider going to the GCPD. But it feels too heavy to say, to admit, especially when you still love him and you hate him and yourself for it. You feel like you can't tell anyone, even if Alfred knows something is very wrong. (He would've called helicopters to come looking for you, was about to when you didn't check in when you said you would, because while he couldn't stop you as an adult from going out with Jack he still has never fully trusted him, and that's about the only thing you trust right now-)

Before you can make up your mind, the first bodies turn up at the GCPD, and that's when the rest of all the things you hadn't want to see all clicks, and you first start connecting the dots at high level mob dealers biting the dust.

That's the final nail in a coffin that's already shut.

You always were good with puzzles, and after the break up, after letting everything be known, Jack seems to want to have you catch him- that this was a twisted way of either taking you with him, trying to mold you into what he wanted and if that failed some kind of send-off.

You dig into one of the crime scenes when no one is looking, and end up finding the stash of pills he's holed up under the floorboards at the circus.

It's not proof, nor your old pill bottle- but some things aren't stacking up right, anyway.

When you find Jack that night outside the manor, and press him into the brick wall with your elbow, ready to break him into pieces- so scared of turning into something as twisted as him- he tells you that it's for the best.

Says you two can make a difference, can erase the corruption of Gotham easily, that he's doing this for both of you-

You lose it, beat Jack to the ground, tell him that if he needs to turn himself in, that you'll stop him yourself if you have to, and that he's better than this, that he didn't have to do this. 

You don't say that you loved him. That you don't understand why he did any of it.

And then you make your way back to the manor as fast as you can manage, worried he might follow you there and pin you down before you make it, and dare to call the GCPD when you know he'll be long gone before it ever really matters.

(Somehow, nothing gets leaked to the press about you and Jack. You don't know how- you don't want to know how- and even if Gordon does try his best, you know that's not his doing.)

--

Jack turns himself in. Doesn't get sent to Blackgate or charged with anything other than manslaughter, because there's no proof, not really, only circumstantial evidence the counsel dismisses despite the admission, and they aren't entirely sure he's sane (or even sober, not with all he's been trying).

He gets a brief stint in a cell and goes to rehabilitation at Arkham.

--

You meet him on the way out, because you're the only one he has, even if you do not forgive him for any of it- ask him why, why on earth did he think this was the solution-

(Why, why on earth, would you do that to me, would you choose that, you don't say, although he reads it just fine.)

And he only looks at you, the slightest smile on his face, and says he'd do whatever he had to. Whatever must be done to clean up Gotham and make it yours. That he still thinks they deserved it, every single one. That he wasn't trying to break you, or hurt you. That he just thought he was setting you free, at the time.

You feel sick, and wonder if you should drive him right back to Arkham then and there. Even if there's no proof. Even if he's been cleared.

And then you wonder if maybe you missed the signs- something, anything, like all the cagey ways he's been paranoid or curt with people around you, with all the ways he's been so focused on getting the two of you alone long before this- some excuse, anything, that maybe means he wasn't acting like himself. If maybe losing his mom and the reveal of her unsolved, brutal murder maybe unbalanced something, or maybe if Jack is struggling with something else like you, since some illnesses develop later, gradual, sneaking up on you when you least expect it.

(But you can tell when Jack is acting. You also can tell, mostly, when he's not, and the bitter pill to swallow is that he believed all the trash coming out of his mouth.)

You think, maybe, if he tries anything again, you'll drag him back in yourself, and this time, you won't hesitate.

But then Jack shifts. Calms himself, relaxes his body language. Changes his tune so he sounds almost normal, sounds genuinely apologetic.

He'd just have to do it differently, next time. He promises. In a better, more socially conscious way. In a way that didn't dishonor what you had and what you made together.

And while you want to hope that that means something less threatening than it sounds, you aren't so sure.

--

Jack is the picture of model behavior the next three months, and you almost start to let yourself believe that maybe, maybe rehab did something right.

Maybe this nightmare would be over.

Maybe you'd never be over what he's done, but you'd both move on and never have to deal with it ever again.

--

Jack doesn't show any signs of remission until four months in, and you notice him out of the corner of your eye when you are out and about and trying to blend- when he's not supposed to be there, following in your footsteps.

He also breaks in, leaving lovesick notes or bad jokes around the manor, even if he hasn't felt the need to stick around.

Optimism never was your strong suit.

Your pills start to go missing again the more he makes his presence known. You make a point to order double the dose you need and to hide them somewhere else.

(Sometimes, you can smell Jack on your pillow when the house is empty, or you catch Alfred sleeping too soundly in the chair- only for a hand to fall over your mouth and for you to flail and bite and kick away, for Jack to haul you upstairs and whisper, "Shh, Bruce, shh, it's alright. Stop avoiding me, I love you, don't you know that, I just want to be with you again, I know you missed me-")

Sometimes you manage to fight him off. Other times he still gets the upper hand, all wiry, quick movement, used to pain and discomfort in a way you've also learned to be.

Other times he doesn't try anything. Just holds you close and takes your struggling and says, "I missed you, Bruce. I don't want to do this without you."

Alfred tries to fix the security protocols and the locks, but Jack has always been better at re-routing those even than either of you, and he knows your house like the back of his hand, just like as he knows how to pick locks.

And maybe, stupidly, you don't want to drag anyone else into this.

Maybe, as much as you hate him, you miss him sometimes, too. (You know it's not really that, but don't want to consider the alternative. He's a monster, and he was once your best friend, and he was even more than that and he betrayed everything you ever loved about him and you stupidly let yourself think everything was fine until it wasn't.)

When you catch him, when he tries to hold you down and kiss you and you can't stand for him to touch you, you beat him black and blue, and he lets you, and laughs, and sometimes even lets you go.

(Sometimes, you wake up gasping from your sleep, Jack straddling your waist, one hand on your hip and straying other places, the other wrapped around your throat, his lips against yours. You'd try to pull against the cuffs around your wrist, already picking them open, until breathing grew too hard and and he'd stop choking you the moment your vision started going fuzzy and your wrists limp, leave a few hickies before he'd straighten and put his pants back on and climb back out the window or through the door.

You don't know how he hasn't been shot yet, or how he keeps managing the cops. He has some shallow connections in the criminal underworld- you've done your research- but he's always been a lone wolf, with a lone vision save for where he wants you with him.

Locking the door at night doesn't do much, but you try to set elaborate traps, at least until that only makes him more determined to break in, and more interested because makes him feel appreciated again, and that, honestly, scares you more.

--

Just the once, you leave work early and walk to the old places you used to go, abandoning the plans and the rules and everything you've believed in, just for a day.

Not looking for anything, not thinking about anything at all, except for that aching part of you that hasn't ever really left.

You find Jack in one of the old, ramshackle haunts he used to bounce around in, and somehow throw all the things you think you should know better about out the window.

He's alone. Concealer covering the scars of a smile on his lip. You don't know how he got those, and you don't ask.

You know he let you find him.

You know he probably wanted to. And even though you have not forgiven him, not yet, and even though he's done things that can never be undone, you want to look at this man and see the person you thought you once knew, that could still be there, if maybe you didn't pull your hand away and instead of having him pull you along, maybe you could carry him back up from where he's fallen.

You tell him, you want to help. You used to be best friends and you loved him and you don't know why he's doing this but he can stop, right now, and you'd find a way to move on and heal together.

You say that he can trust you.

That all he has to do is come home and you will help him get help and things can be like they used to be, maybe not the same but not like this, and that while you aren't going to let him hurt anyone or you or himself and please, please just let you help.

You tell him he doesn't have to take it all out on the world.

That he's always had you and if he'd just let you decide for yourself, who you want to be, that if he really wanted to build something together all he had to do was stop because you don't know what drove him to this but you know he could stop, if he wanted to.

You want him to want to.

You may be weak and blind and angry, and there can be no undoing what was done, and this may be impossible, but you want to turn that anger into purpose and to make impossible things feel real, like they used to when you were together, even if it was all an illusion. You want to turn the trick into something real, turn the smoke and mirrors into something good, and he could do that, if he wanted to.

You could help him move on, if he'd just let you.

"Please," You whisper. "Please let me help you. You don't need to do this-"

Jack stops you in your tracks. Kisses you, soft and quiet in a way he rarely does.

Then he pulls you out the door, takes you to your parents' grave, hand in yours.

You look at the flowers you left there earlier, and the way Jack wears one in his lapel. It was always your favorite flower, even now.

And then he tells you it is too late. But that that's okay.

You pull away, only his hand clamps down on your wrist, and he says he loves you, that you're his.

And that you've never seen the truth. That you don't have to change, neither of you do. That you are perfect, just as you are, and it's the world that has to change around the both of you.

You fight, throwing punches, half-strangling the other, rolling in the dirt, Jack laughing with mirth and you letting out a scream for all the things you haven't allowed yourself to grieve until he strangles the sound with his mouth on yours and you bite him and-

One of Jack new crew steps out, having followed when he shouldn't, and Jack pulls the gun from his waist and shoots him, point blank, the blood splattering over the both of you.

You freeze, unable to think, unable to breath, as he puts the gun in your hand and forces you to hold it against his chin.

You do not pull the trigger.

Then he hauls himself up on his elbows, straightening, backing up while still facing you, arms out and appraising, like a bow. Like you'd never left his embrace, even when he let go of you.

He leaves you a heaving mess on the ground.

Says he'll see you again soon, that you'll understand, that you'll learn-

You stay there, all the fight gone out of you.

You didn't think you had any more heart left to break.

--

Eventually, he gets caught again, but doesn't seem fazed by it at all.

You pray that it lasts, this time.

 

--Bruce, Age 20--

The day you first attempt to leave Jack's radius officially is the same time you go on the gap year. Not just to finally make Batman a reality and not a work-in-progress, but also because you need to put as much distance between yourself and Gotham and Jack as you can.

After what he did... After everything... 

You can't look at him, can't be in a place where all you remember are times that were once good, tinged with all the stress and fear and pain and betrayal you've felt after Jack did what he did.

You want him to get real help. For it to stick.

You also want to be as far away from him as possible for as long as you can manage.

Vainly, you hope that no news is good news.

--

Ra's and Talia welcome you into the League of Shadows with open arms. Talia and you become fast friends, if you can be called that, in a place like the League, particularly when she and her father do not see eye to eye.

Ra's, on the other hand... You can already tell when someone is trying to groom you, you've been seeing the signs your whole life from supposed mentors and less-than-well meaning folks only after your name. But mostly because after Jack, you have promised yourself you are never going to make the same mistake again. (That, and you need no mentor save Alfred- Ra's will never replace him, will never uproot what is there, in your heart.)

You infiltrate their ranks, learn all you can, and let them think you are going to be molded. (You are angry, so very angry, more than you've ever been. But you will use it, you will control it, and you will move on, and none of them are going to use that to make you a puppet.)

In a way, it is easy to pretend and let yourself go into figuring this out and finding ways to take them down from within, because it means you do not have to focus on all the other things that made you need to leave Gotham and all the dreams that might've stopped you from this path in the first place.

Eventually, they see the ruse for what it is, Ra's and Talia still hopeful you will come around.

You follow them home.

It is before you are ready, perhaps- but when has life been any different? 

You are a response to a larger problem, and that means you have to make the best of it.

--Bruce, Age 21--

When you come back to Gotham, no one knows where Jack is. (You try not to be distracted, with all Ra's and Talia are up to, but you can't quite help wonder, with the ways the streets have grown dark and forbidding and full of secrets again, when that's how Jack always slipped away only to arrive with fanfare and a sharp smile when he saw fit.)

You also find out that the year you left, Jack escaped prison, again, then got caught red-handed at another crime scene a few weeks after you crossed the ocean, and that this time, the prosecution hadn't gone easy, not with physical evidence.

Not after they found the axe he'd buried, the same weapon used to kill his mother, buried deep around the woods and the river, unearthed when they started excavating for Dr. Strange's offsite labs.

It had his prints.

(The shock doesn't entirely settle, although you don't know why Alfred and Selina kept the news on the down low while you were off the grid, focusing on other threats that felt less claustrophobic, less personal, even if you know exactly why they did it.)

Alfred and Selina have tried to keep tabs on him in the meantime while you were away, considering all the stalking that once occurred after he broke out of prison the third time, or at least the third time you're aware of...

But he's just up and vanished.

And that doesn't bode well.

--Bruce, Age 21, 3 months later--

The clocktower falls, and your naive hope that maybe Jack has moved on to other hobbies and become someone else's problem crashes and burns as hard as the places Jack has started setting on fire or blowing up with the generators you had thought would be a solution and not something used thing to rip Gotham apart. (You know he's always been your responsibility, deep down, even if you had hoped to hide from it.)

You stop the bombs with Lucius and Gordon.

You don't find Jack, and even though he broadcasts killing his followers, then he goes quiet again. Whether it's whim or calculated, you don't know. You don't care.

He just wants to sow as much damage as he can.

Wants to see you break.

All it is is another dance, another bluff in a game of cards.

He's waiting for your move.

Waiting for you to bleed your hand.

You try to remember who he used to be, and wonder if that's who he ever was at all.

--

Jack lures you to the GCPD to talk. Not Batman. Just you, under the cover of giving something up.

Then the lights all blow, power leeched out of all of Gotham, and he slides out of his cuffs and out the door, and guns down a few cops on his way out.

You give chase, only for the trail to dissolve into smoke again.

--

The next time Jack strikes, it has nothing to do with you at all.

And the next time, and the next.

Bank robberies, drive-bys, other buildings crashing down.

Every time you close in, he's already long gone.

--

And the thought that maybe you'd been forgotten about shrivels up the moment Jack makes it known that he has snuck back into the manor and hypnotized Alfred and two doppelgangers of your parents, who sit blankly in the parlor, under his thumb, too.

You need to stop this, all of it.

You just don't know how.

And you should be strong enough to fight him, stronger, even, but where you have learned more control and more brute force in order to never be helpless, Jack has refined his tactics, too.

He might not be as strong, anymore, but is just as resilient, and as long as he has the people you love in the palm of his hands, you can't hurt him. Not without hurting everyone else.

You hate being caught. You hate falling into his trap again.

But mostly, you just want him to stop.

--

Jack says he wants to be the only thing that ever hurt you most, so everything will be his.

So that you don't have to hurt any more, because he'll make it right, because he's the only one who really understands.

And if you won't love him, then he'll make himself bound to you in a way that won't erase what he gave you.

That he's always been your best friend, even if you don't want to see it.

--

The decoy parents don't die, because he doesn't shoot them. And it's not for a lack of trying, until Selina intervened-

You chase him to a chemical plant, come to blows, dodging the nick of his razor or every time he tries to push you over the edge.

You tell him that it's over.

Jack answers it's only beginning.

You say he means nothing to you.

He yells you're a joke without him.

That you need him.

That you always will.

 --

Then Jack falls.

And somehow, you feel guilty, because, for all the things you would never forgive him for, for all the ways you hated him and wanted him locked in a cell never to return, you never wanted for him to die.

He had slipped from your grasp, both your hands slick with blood.

And while that isn't murder, while he tried to pull you both down together, you still feel like you failed him, like you could've saved him from this, if only so he'd have to see the damage he's done and have to deal with the consequences. 

Even though he doesn't want that. Has never wanted it.

You hope, one day, it will feel like relief.

Like you can move on, like no one is breathing down your neck in a way you shouldn't feel accustomed, and things will finally be okay in a way they haven't been for so long.

--

You and Selina reconnect, in a pale imitation of being okay and some sort of celebration.

And you think, maybe, you know when Jack snapped.

You understand one bad day. You understand what drew you to him, and drew him to you.

And you are grateful, and scared, for seeing that clearly, and know you aren't going to allow that. Not again.

"To be fair, the day isn't over yet." Jack says across the doorway.

He shoots Selina.

He's not dead and he shot Selina and she's falling, bleeding out in front of you and Jack is just watching you from where he always let himself in, and you are helpless, unable to do anything except to try and staunch the bleeding, talking to her, begging for her to be okay, to stay conscious, and he keeps watching you until Alfred beats him to a bloody pulp and he's dragged away again while Selina is pulled on a gurney and you follow her out the door.

--

You don't know if Selina is going to be okay. You aren't really sure of anything.

All you know is even after the League of Shadows, after all the other plots you've tried to foil, with Scarecrow making himself known and Al Ghul attempting to infiltrate the city, Jack wanted in, and then wanted to upstage them, taking the bridges out and isolating Gotham into his own personal playground and hording Scarecrow's materials for his own plan, whatever it might be.

If he is so hellbent on disrupting Scarecrow and dismantling the League as you have been, and if he's using their plans for his own gain, then you need to trick him. Need to outsmart him where it counts and play his game only as long as necessary so you can stop him in his tracks.

You may not be able to save anyone, but you can try to make his plan fail.

You hope it is enough.

(You notice, then, it's your birthday, when the clock strikes and it all comes tumbling down, the quiet smothering and louder than any noise could ever be.)

--Bruce, Age 22--

Selina lives. And after making sure she is cared for, making sure she is as safe as she can be, you withdraw from her life completely.

She will not be the sacrifice for what you are too weak to do, otherwise, and there will be no more of her blood spilled as retribution when Jack only means to hurt you.

It may not guarantee her safety, but it at least will mean she doesn't have a target painted on her back.

Jack eventually gets locked up again, although not before he gets the GCPD to call you in under the threat of more bombs.

You play his game.

--

He asks you if Selina will ever walk again, and you lose it.

And then you reel yourself back in, not willing to let him have anything, until Jack escapes, like he always manages when you aren't there, and lures you to an old, re-purposed carnival of his own making, a house of mirrors.

You trade blows, Jack with his knife, you with your fists, attacking him from behind and throwing you both to the ground and you punch him and then again, and again, and-

There's a shard of glass from the mirrors. You don't even remember picking it up, holding it to his throat, everything going red-

You almost snap.

You don't.

And Jack stops laughing, stops telling you to do it, because you almost gave him exactly what he wanted.

And then you refused.

--

Finally, Jack lets himself be taken away.

But even behind bars, you know he is active behind the scenes, because the mob isn't making waves.

You do not take the bait whenever he tries to call.

The next time he breaks out, you find him sabotaging the League of Shadows while you try to track him down and tackle the League and the Court of Owls at the same time, the Talons and other hidden things that you have only scratched the surface of keeping you from making more progress. (That, and there's still shipments of Joker venom you keep intercepting- a prototype of another batch, but you keep trying to pin down the production line, and you take on the newly stylized Mr. Freeze, Riddler, and Firefly when they start making trouble. In some ways, the straightforward fights help clear your head from all the other battles you have not won yet, all the ways you are still learning to fit into the new skin for a name you and Alfred have long since styled for yourself.)

Talia and you have gone your separate ways thanks to what she's planning against her father and her methods.

In the interim, a new threat is summoned to your city, a distraction to Ra's and Talia alike because he cares little for their goals and has his own vendetta to settle, even if you've never met.

Bane lures you out, and you follow him all the way to the Pit.

He breaks your spine.

You find yourself falling, and wondering if that is what Jack felt, the first time he fell.

And then you are caught, mid-air, winded and barely alive.

When you look up, there's a familiar gloved hair pulling you back to the surface.

You would rather you reached rock bottom.

--Bruce, Age 23--

You don't remember much of this year. You aren't sure you want to.

But Jack found you.

And then he kept you.

Healed your spine, eventually, since he hadn't wanted you running away.

You don't know how, but you know why, and it doesn't make it any easier, particularly when by that point, Jack has already set enough traps just to watch you fail to escape.

(You remember the syringe was green, like those vats down below.)

--

One day- one impossible day- you crawl your way out.

You aren't sure if Jack let you, or if he was growing bored, or if he was so assured of his own ability to keep you there that he didn't realize your growing strength until it was too late.

Alfred has already been looking for you, been scouring everywhere, and it doesn't take long for him to find you and take you home.

(When you see him, face to face, you feel no shame in burying yourself in his tight hug that doesn't want to let you go. You are gaunt and weary and all your training is half of what kept you from losing it, and it takes you a few months to be able to eat like you used to, again.)

--Bruce, Age 24--

You go back to being Batman and running Wayne enterprises, the media storm having died down once you settled in. Gotham was in shambles when you made it home, thanks to Ivy and Riddler and too many other threats, and getting back on your feet while taking down the ones responsible for divvying up Gotham into pieces took long enough even with the recovery making things more treacherous than they otherwise would be.

Jack hasn't made himself known again after the second round at Ace Chemicals. You are obscenely relieved at the reprieve, even if he doesn't deserve it. (Even if you don't know what is coming next.)

In the meantime, you lose yourself in cleaning up the mob and other, less encompassing threats while learning how to be yourself again.

Alfred keeps an eye out.

Waiting for the same inevitable thing you know will happen now, whether you feel like you are the cowl and not fragile, human Bruce or not.

--

You check on a family with a red haired baby, making sure things are peaceful and good and safe through windows and wishing you could keep things like that.

Then you stalk the streets again.

--

Jack makes his next big-time public debut around Thanksgiving, although he found and staked you out earlier, when you were throwing birdseed for Rosh Hashanah into a different pond than you used to, if only because remembering hurts too much and because the press has grown wise to your usual haunts, which means you needed to find a more secluded spot again.

You think of forgiveness when Yom Kippur comes around, the nature of what is has happened and what can be endured or accepted even if you don't know how, while you wear your grandfather's yarmulke, and wonder if it will ever feel possible to make it feel real, to make it feel possible, after everything that's happened.

Hanukkah passes without much fanfare- you trace more of Scarecrow's and Mr. Freeze's movements and lock them both back up, derail the Penguin's attempts at running for mayor and gunning down people in his lounge, meet with Gordon every week for some new threat, Clayface and Killer Croc and Magpie- and all the while little present are left at your doorstep, below the window where you menorah gets lit for each night, the wrappings purple and green and empty, each time.

Until the last one, which isn't, which holds a playing card and a ring that you once saw buried in Jack's things, right next to your phone and the empty pill bottles and the broken remnants of a hazy dream you were never sure was real.

You consider telling Alfred, only you are too tired to watch him worry again, when you know Jack will find you anyway.

He's always been good at that.

And this time, you maybe can hold your own, and take care of yourself.

(It's not exactly wrong, except you know you've never really been able to believe it, because even when you beat him bloody and black and blue and win, he always finds a way to make it feel like a loss, anyway, because he still got he what he wanted, saw every little emotion you keep trying to bury on your face.)

--

Jack visits you with little fanfare. Catches you on a night you have just stopped being Batman and are limping and injured from another long, draining fight with Ivy, and you don't have the strength to fend him off when you are already exhausted. (He carries you from the Batcave to your room, like he always surprised you by being able to do, with how much muscle you've put on again after the last time he had you in his clutches and left you a half-emaciated wreck. Jack always was stronger than he looked, and pain never really registered with him, but you wonder if maybe you haven't recovered as much as you thought you have, even watching so carefully to never be that helpless again.

The syringe stays discarded in the basement, and you know the security feeds are down because that's what he always does, and hope that he only put Alfred to sleep like he's seen fit to do every time so far when he pulls these old, familiar betrayals and you hate feeling stupidly grateful for that fact when you know he could do so much worse.)

He whispers the things he usually does, brushes calloused fingers over your cheek, reverently unsticks your matted hair from your forehead, paint flakes rubbing off his hand from where he once made contact with his face, even if the makeup is long since wiped away to reveal wan skin and red lips and the damage from the first time you let Jack take the fall from his own decisions.

He kisses your eyelids and under your ear, and then lower on your neck. Trails a hand down your chest, tracing your scars like he always does, flicking a thumb over the sensitive nub of your nipple before he starts gliding lower, his belt already undone and your boxers already ripped off.

You don't know how to be afraid, because you still half-floating from the slightly-worn off anesthesia and because you are too tired, resigned and disgustingly grateful he's seen fit to be gentle tonight.

When Alfred catches him in the act, he shoots him. (You know he would have killed him, only you you push Jack's arm in the way, fumbling, because if Jack let himself in then who knows what he has planned, what he has as a backup (you've seen a dead body drop his toxins, and don't want to deal with the memory of the fumes leeching out and making people choke and laugh and scream), and because you will not let Alfred murder anyone if you can help it, even if he's killed men before, even if he's grown accustomed, because you will not let Jack take Alfred from you when really, he's all you have left, and even if he's trying to protect you, even if it's self-defense, you will let Jack take when he wants from you if it means he isn't targeting anyone else for the night, if there's no greater plan or overarching method to the madness save for what he wants from you when not inside the suit.)

Jack lets himself be apprehended, but he looks at Alfred and you with that look on his face, clutching his shoulder, eyes dead and cold and mouth, for once, not smiling or laughing as he lets Gordon's team ferry him away.

It's a break in a fragile truce you hadn't realized was there, with Jack holding back when you are just Bruce while keeping Alfred off the hook, only now Alfred intervening of his own accord has suddenly caused something ugly and new and horrible to rise up in that false peace's place.

That look stays with you, intimate and old and the same look you see when Scarecrow's brews hit you as a civilian and show you everyone dead and Jack standing over you and them.

It's that look when he doesn't get what he wants but still felt the need to stake a claim, to pull you from Alfred's grasp and have you lose yourself in the maelstrom of all that he is forever.

You do not become Batman, that week, because you cannot save Gotham when you are drowning and Gotham will survive a single week without you, especially because everyone is quiet and cowed and waiting, and you know Jack has done something to keep them quiet, to keep them subdued even if you don't know how, because they started to get rowdy and then it all dropped off in that quiet, horrible way it always does before Jack decides on theatrics, and you in your bones and heart and soul that's what been keeping them all in line for the last month, too, while the holidays you observe are going on. That, and incarceration never slowed Jack down, only ever been part of the plan or a diversion.

No. You stay Bruce Wayne, alone, and remain with Alfred whenever you can manage it for as long as you can afterwards, because you know Jack will have less of an easier time killing him with you in the room.

(It might not stop him, not completely, because it never does- but it's the only plan you have.)

Lucius keeps working overtime to get the new batsuit and tools ready, to make a respirator that keeps airborne pathogens from taking you down for the count.

When Jack breaks out of Arkham and you give chase, he sends dogs after you, making known the remaining flaws in the suit, and Jack gets away again.

You scour every lead you can, and try to mitigate all the plots Jack has been weaving for months now.

--

When Christmas day comes, over seven hundred people die laughing, the Mayor included.

Jack crashes your annual Christmas party to rally donations for the hospital and public works projects, razor against Dent's mouth, only he doesn't get a chance to cut anyone before you've thrown yourself into the fray. He throws a guest at you as a diversion, then leaps out the window, glass exploding while you follow.

The whole city watches Batman chase Jack up a Christmas tree set on fire, and city hall explodes (already evacuated, thankfully, although the debris hit too many places and there are so many injuries), and then Jack lits off fireworks, actual ones and not more explosions, and then he jumps off the building with that devil-may-care laugh.

You try to catch him with the grappling hook, not caring if it skewers his leg on the way down.

He rips the bloodied barb out of his leg, and falls down, down, down, eventually become as shapeless as the snowbanks.

You look for a body.

All you find is a gutter and a trail of blood next to the condemned Ace Chemicals building Jack has long seen fit to abandon.

You aren't sure if you can mourn him, or only the memory of who he used to be, or if you can't feel anything, anymore.

If you are as dead inside as much as you know he's pretending to be.

--

Jack breaks into your house a day before New Years Eve.

You fight, and you win, and you are ready to throw him back inside any box that can hold him, at this point.

Only then Jack points out how Alfred is conveniently missing, and tells you if you don't play the game, you'll never get him back.

Jack stays with you, that night, even though you'd rather strangle him.

He's gone in the morning, has left you a note of where to meet him, and before you know it Arkham has had another breakout.

--

Another year comes and goes.

Tetch has been apprehended again, all his hypnotism victims snapped out of it before they could leap off bridges into the ice below. The other Arkham patients are being rounded up slowly, but you have bigger fish to fry once the worst of Jack's plan have been stopped, having only barely stopped the subway from crashing or and having evacuated the GCPD before more people could die of asphyxiation with a  ghastly smile on their face. 

You eventually track down and tackle Jack on an abandoned rooftop, Alfred still being held for ransom, and Jack tells you that it's one or the other. Get Alfred back, and let him go, or throw him in Arkham and find Alfred long after it's too late.

You choose Alfred.

Jack kisses you, long and hungry and biting, ever so slightly, and tells you to kiss him back, or he'll change his mind.

You are tired of playing games, of having no recourse, because Jack blackmails you and when he doesn't he's still getting what he wants, still able to be one step ahead because he always has too many ways of targeting large crowds and you and single targets all at once.

And then Jack leads you to an old warehouse full of mirrors, skipping as he goes, because he knows you don't trust him to tell you the real location.

You think, maybe, you could apprehend him after you find Alfred, but then you see what state Alfred is in, how close you are to losing him, and Jack throws you a vial of antidote, which you catch, and Jack uses the brief moment to manage another escape while you inject Alfred with the substance and can only pray that he'll be okay.

You take Alfred to the hospital, and while there, you and Lucius try to find a way to tighten security on the manor, when the news breaks and it doesn't matter.

It's not the first time it has burned to the ground, but it's the first time Jack set the fire.

(A week later, you find all your closest possessions delivered to the penthouse and stacked up inside every room, the piano and blankets and things that really mattered- your mother's pearls, all of it- pristine and just like they had been back home. Each box is blank save for a spray painted on smile, and you and Alfred leave the penthouse as fast as possible, because if Jack found his way in there's no telling what he might rig the place to do or if he's stuck around. You would stay and fight him, if Alfred still wasn't fragile and in no place to be in the middle of a fight. Eventually, you get those items in quarantine, go through them as Batman with Lucius and Alfred monitoring you for any anomalies or toxins.

The objects are untouched, no bugs or switches or chambers or traps, and warily, you eventually let them back into the remade manor again. It takes a few months not to worry that they might still be compromised. But that's likely the joke- that you worried over nothing.)

When you make your way back to where the manor was, only the Batcave remains untouched, the only place Jack hasn't seen fit to make himself at home.

When Alfred has recovered, you both live there each night, not willing to chance a hotel or other suite. Not when Jack knows you all too well, and remains far, far too quiet, in all the ways he is when he isn't focused on Gotham and would rather undo you. 

(The media thinks you are taking private jets to business trips to Metropolis and back, and you don't feel the need to correct them, hoping your time in town during the day will go unnoticed.)

--

None of it matters, however, when it turns out the manor going up in flames was only the start of another apartment building crashing down.

You lose time. Lose grip on yourself, on everything.

You hold a burnt picture frame in the rubble and try to trace Jack down and all his movements only for him to be smoke-

As much smoke as a family you once asked for the impossible from, as one red-headed child you won't check on through windows anymore.

You didn't know any of them were on Jack's radar. That they were anything but safe-

But you should've known better.

Nothing ever was.

--

You find Jack.

He does not die. You do not get your answers.

The world stands still and does not start.

--

A week later, you are going through the motions throwing yourself into every case and every facet of the real work that must be done without pause, into mob cases and whispers where Jack has made his mark. There are too many plots to unravel, too many threads tied into one whole you haven't even begun to unravel-

Then there's a double murder at the circus, and you find yourself taking in an orphan while wondering just what you got yourself into.

You wonder if grief has driven you to do impossible things against your better judgement. You wonder if you have the right to try and guide anyone.

But then you push that aside.

Your misgivings doesn't matter- what matters is that Dick has someone taking care of him, not just a roof over his head but someone who actually gives a damn. He deserves to feel like he is valued, and listened to, and as safe as anyone can be in this city-

And if you are failing someone else by choosing to save another child, then you will accept the limits of your sins and make the best of the impossible situations you have no answers for.

You do not want Dick to fight in the shadows as you do. But if he will keep fighting shadows, anyway, then you will make sure he does it in an environment that won't let him be another body in a morgue.

It is not a crime to try and fix the past, even if the past cannot be unwritten.

Even if you could not do the same for another child.

Even if you don't know if you'll be able to train Dick so that he is spared the nightmare that plagues you still, the one that never really ended, only settled in your bones, inevitable and inescapable, the moment one singular apartment complex went up in flames.

Jack always knew it was one moment that turns the tide. Like two bullets in a gun, and two parents dead in an alley.

He knew how to get under your skin and make it stick and make it hurt, and you aren't going to let him dictate how you'll spare anyone else the same fate, when playing his game alone hasn't spared anyone, either.

--

--Bruce, Age 26-

"You don't get to make that decision for me." Dick says. "I want to be a part of your family. You might never replace my parents... But you care when no one else does. And that's all that matters to me. And you respect me enough to let me choose, as long as you think this will work. No one else would do that. But if you want me to take my chances-"

"I don't want that at all." You say. "But I cannot guarantee your safety..."

Dick gives you a crooked half-smile, half-grim and somewhat wry. "I'll think I'll take my chances with Batman over anyone else. I have faith in you, Bruce."

Then his face falls, and his voice grows a little hoarse.

"If being Batman isn't safe, then no one is really safe. Not in Gotham."

You put a hand on his shoulder.

"Dick-"

"It's not like anyone was safe to begin with. Doesn't matter if you're a member of the circus or a millionaire who fights crime. Things happen whether you plan for them, or not."

He hugs you, trailing off.

"We're going to fix that, Dick." You murmur. "We're going to help people remember they can all make things right. And you are always going to be welcome in our family, with me and Alfred. No matter what happens."

Dick lets you carry him back to the house, to a bed that's all his own.

(You don't quite sleep on the couch that night, alert and near enough to notice any disturbances. Just in case. Jack has been quiet lately, and you never know when he'll show his face. And that's not something the kid needs to be subject to, not ever and certainly not after tonight.)

--Bruce, A Few Days Later--

"Why are there locks on the fridge?" Dick asks, studying you face. Not with any kind of fear- he knows you too well to know it has nothing to do with him.

"Safety precaution." You manage, and then look at Alfred when your voice fails to materialize and give a more detailed explanation. 

And that answer piques Dick's interest, but he can read you well enough already.

"You will your own set of keys, master Dick, we just need to keep them in a place that is... a little unconventionally out of the way." Alfred says. Diplomatic, but not really helpful on the piquing-interest front.

"Is it because of J-"

"Yes." Bruce answers, rubbing the back of his neck absently.

Dick's expression tightens, and holds your hand a little harder.

"If you don't feel safe-" Bruce tries again, but Dick cuts him off.

"You aren't getting rid of me that easily." He says, staring you down.

"I know. If you want to stay, Dick, then you aren't going anywhere. But you don't have to sleep or live anywhere that's makes you uncomfortable. We do have resources, other places you can go-"

"I'm staying." Dick answers, so sure, and part of you wonders if you are really prepared to raise someone in an environment like this. Not just as Batman, but as Bruce, because at least Batman let the people you love down less than you do.

But Dick has made his decision, and considering he won't let you scare him off, for better or worse, you'll do your best to make sure he is cared for, and loved, and above all, able to protect himself.

There are some things you cannot leave up to chance.

And part of you wonders if this is just an excuse to try for a family you shouldn't try for, to be a caretaker when you might not be qualified for it. But Alfred has faith in you, and would have counseled against the option if he thought it would do more harm than good, and even if you aren't sure if this is a good idea, just because of Jack, and all the ways he still isn't out of the picture, and all your own personal failings, all the ways you've failed to save yourself and others even if you've been long forgiven for things you can't quite get over- you still want to make this work, for Dick's sake as well as yours.

You are terrified that you will lose him, that, worse, you are failing him by trying to do this because you aren't cut out for this and it just isn't safe, but Dick is just throwing himself into the fray and keeps finding his way back.

And he asked you, to do this. To trust him, to be there for him.

You can't abandon him, or what he wants or needs. Not when you want to be there for him, however imperfect, however flawed.

But if you are going to be a guardian as well as a mentor and friend, you only hope Alfred taught you enough, and that you can pick up the slack, so that you don't screw this up.

(And you hope, maybe in vain, that Jack will be disinterested and still more focused on you, provided you give him an out, and that you keep Dick out of his way.)

Because, if anything has been proven, it's that staying out of Jack's way does not spare his pool of victims any chance of being a target.

And you will not abandon someone who needs you, not when no one was safe and not when that's exactly what Jack wants.

Chapter Text

Faking your death isn't exactly rocket science.

You string up your neck real fancy, and then wait for the invariable attempt to check up and take out the trash.

In your case, though, it's almost too easy. Comes with the territory, with handmade shivs being easy to nab at Blackgate- that, and being able to snuff it and then get back up again is a wonderfully unexpected skillset no one really sees coming.

It's an in-and-out job, once you get your affairs in order and they cart your body out the door. No witnesses, easy mess clean up, with the swamps and grates and Croc around, or the piranhas, provided you can track down all your shit after it was scattered on the winds.

The next step is getting a reliable cache of clowns to be your muscle. Not too hard with some blackmail here, some bribes there, and all the threats you can level to the malcontented housewives and the bitter and the down-on-their-luck folks who you ding-dong-ditch. You dabble with a Red Hood here and there for presentation- not totally committing to the role, seeing as you don't want to snatch up prime real estate too fast and want to keep a low profile for now. Better to get the construction projects underground in the works and all set before Brucie returns from his extended vacation, and to dispose of the middlemen involved when the opportunity arises. (You can't afford to keep the construction crew around, even though some of them are positively delightful- too many chatty Kathy's means all the effort you put into keeping things under wraps is at stake. So you space out your spring cleaning and get crackin' where it counts- supplies, raw materials, access to the ports. Snatching up all the abandoned owl nests you can re-purpose to your whimsy, as a backup in case someone goes sniffin' where they shouldn't. Or if Jeeves finds his empty nest too empty, and goes digging a bit deeper into the bedrock on a lark. You wouldn't put it past him or the kitty cat, even if Selina isn't on speaking terms with Bruce and ol' Alfie doesn't even know you made a successful jailbreak, and you are not losing your prime real estate with it's own private waterfall view).

The next order of business should be easy, in theory. Sizing up the competition and getting eyes and ears in places like Ye Old G See PD. But in truth, it holds little charm with Bruce off on his little adventures, and the mob just isn't that dazzling yet. You can save kicking the home team when they're down when you get back from following your second star the right, the one-and-only man star-crossed enough to leave you hanging. Brucie didn't have the manners to follow you into Neverland, like loyal, stubborn loverboy would've done if he just wasn't so easily spooked by bloodier kinds of intimacy.

--

A month goes by, and you weigh your options, only to throw up your hands and call it quits once you get antsy enough. So, like all antsy entrepreneurs, you decide to go on a vacation of your own.

After all, if Bats is learning new tricks of the trade, you might as well learn some of your own to keep him on his toes and you can give him a run for all his money.

--

The vacation does end with you following Bruce back from the other side of the world, without Bruce really knowing. You couldn't really get in good with his shadow buddies- they're a tough one to crack, even if you did a decent job at making a dent- so you settled for calling a friend of a friend of a pal who owed you one, and got in good with the military with a shiny appropriated I.D. and the dexterity and the kill-count to make up for anyone who asks too many questions.

And while it's difficult, keeping up the facade- chemical treatments and Botox and homemade concealer only go so far when trying to impersonate an officer of the law, pretending to be a victim to your own tricks, thanks to your telltale grin- you eventually can afford to throw caution to the wayside. After all, those shady government types who employ so many off-book mercenaries can't really stop you without more bloodshed, and by the time you make nice with them, Lex Luthor and you have struck up the barest hint of a business venture, with you playing nice with those black-suited fed types and their love of black ops no one in their right mind would want the Geneva convention getting wind of.

He needs someone to disrupt a few key places, and you need an excuse to let off some steam and to refine your techniques. Sure, you can play mob boss and crowd buster and spree killer with ease, but there's finesse to these things. You can't let the muscles get all rusty, and in truth, you need to be able to apply it more wide-scale. Branch out. Make things more... bombastic, and large-scale, without sacrificing the little homey touches and personal flares you endeavor to give your acts.

In the agency you may or may not be a plant for, Waller keeps rising in the ranks, trying to stir the pot and make your time difficult, even if she's not quite good enough to one-up you and oust you from the program. She's a right card, really- but you've got an in with her competition, and they are all too ready to play you against Luthor and her and anyone else who needs a good kick in the pants, be it terrorist cells or foreign countries or a single mother with a bad attitude. And you even get to play diplomat and bodyguard and ambassador, for a day or two when going in deep enough to hide in plain sight, every blue moon. (You've always been good at blending in, despite your colorful condition, even if you'll never really change your spots.)

You aren't too picky about who ya kill or who gets to off who- as long as they stay out of your business, you'll kill anyone and everyone who looks at you funny for a price, and torture them for free. The real trick of the trade, though, is playing everyone against each other. Getting them to do all the heavy lifting, so you can take a load off and get the next move off before the opponent is any the wiser. That, and crowd control is underrated. Know how to play everyone and get them at each other's throats, know how the military bigwigs and the people they pretend don't exist spirit people away and make them disappear- that's a skillset that's useful, and even if you've been refining your own techniques down to such a fine point that you've surpassed them. Even so, it can't hurt to know their operatives, manpower, specs, and goody grab-bags of free samples ripe for the taking. And hacking their tools and toys is never dull, even if it doesn't compare to the electronics you'd troubleshoot with Frieze and Brucie and Foxy back in the day for funsies (or, 'public good' as Bruce was so fond of saying, but really, you just liked working on his engineering projects and cracking inside that head of his and how it worked, even if his old coding projects are still giving you headaches while he's away on his quest to find himself).

Truth be told, you'll know he'll come back to Gotham eventually. It's in his blood, his bones, his beautiful blue eyes- he'd never forsake this place. It's your conquest as much as he's yours, too.

But you don't feel like waiting.

You need to make the League strike hard and fast and early, give them a reason to send Bruce packing his bags and returning into your open arms.

And for that, you need to get the Owls and some shadowmen cracking each other's skulls wide open, leaving your little breadcrumbs for your trusty paramour to follow.

--

Bruce returns, using the shadows like an extension of himself.

But you... You are the shadow puppeteer, readying the stage for something even better. Something worthy of him.

And if that doesn't pan out...

Well, you always did talk about settling down one day. Finding a nice, quiet stretch of land out in the sticks where no telemarketers and paparazzi and pests would come a-knockin' and starting a proper family. You always said you'd make it work, even as a starving comedian.

(Bruce would always answer, "I don't think money would be an issue," While you shushed him and told him it's more romantic, that way.)

At least, before he turned down your proposal and left.

But absence does make the heart fond.

And you've got an axe to grind with everyone who dared be an excuse for Bruce to stay away.

--

You have some fun. You win some, you lose some.

And with all the gang wars heating up, you get your sleeper cells in order, and your comedy clubs all lined up like ducks in a row. (And Penguin can eat his heart out trying to keep up- duck tastes much better, anyway.)

--

Bruce leaves, following the trail of La Conquistador, Bane on his own quest of tilting windmills because he thinks he can take on the Bat with all his delusional, cute misconceptions. He thinks it's a wrestling match and testosterone-laden death battle to claim a crown, one man muscling the other out to claim the title, and not an identity Bruce has carved in his bones, an alternative lifestyle that's as much a part of him as Gotham's lifeblood hums in his veins. As if the Bat is not the very way Bruce's lungs expand and his eyes behold the world and he makes his way through the madness and tries to bend it to his will, thinking he can make a truth out of a world full of smoke and mirrors and twisted things.

--

Whether Bruce is up to snuff or not... If he wins, you'll make mayhem at home, give him a real challenge to rise to match his newfound abilities. You'll be the coach, goading him to greater heights to leap from to reach his peak.

And if he doesn't escape unscathed, too eager, too desperate, too much of an adrenaline-fueled junkie throwing himself into the deep end too early like he did in the days of your youth, well...

Bruce has always needed you when he's down on his luck. You're his white knight riding in with shining armor, ready to defend his honor and carry him home. If he's sick, you'll nurse him back to health. If he's hurt, you'll make sure he gets mandated bedrest. (Not like Jeeves can complain about that, with how much he'd insisted on it in the past. By all accounts, it makes up for lost time, with Bruce always rushing back into the thick of it before taking a breather.)

And then, Bruce can take it easy. You'll build your little cottage on a hill and domesticate the blind bat that keeps evading your net, and give Brucie his secret, deepest hearts desire, buried so deep you'd have to pry his caged heart out to get him to say it right, with all the repression he's practiced so diligently with his pack of projectile-happy monks.

Underneath all the masks, extravagance, drama, and gothic getup, all Brucie really wants is to have his best friend back. To be swept off his feet by the one guy always in his corner, with the whole world just you and him and the things you'd dare to create together at his fingertips. There's no secret too big to tear you apart, and with the venue, and Bruce's condition, no pesky interlopers to make Bruce feel guilty for the feelings he can't quite quash, with all his rules and standards and ethics. Those don't hold a candle to true love, after all. They're a testament to it, really, seeing as Bruce loves his tenets of faith and hope and trust so much, enough that he'd love you enough to forsake them. (You would never force him to, of course. That's his metamorphosis to choose, and you'll love your man no matter what he decides. He's still yours, at the end of the day.)

And you'll even admit, Brucie did play the role of a single, carefree bachelor so well, so well you'd almost think he's forgotten he's spoken for, and just as tied down and hitched as any one half of a smitten couple is. But he is a fantastic actor, and like any thespian, you're very proud. Still a bit miffed at the cold shoulder and silent treatment, but proud, nonetheless.

The last thing Bruce Wayne is, is carefree and an open book to all those fakes he insists on giving a damn about. But you, you know what sings inside those veins, how to penetrate below the surface and dig under Bruce's pale, soft skin to get to the steel and behold the real masterpiece and force of nature he is at his core.

But most of all, you just want to see that beautiful smile again. Make him laugh. (And maybe cry and beg and promise he'll never throw your heart in the trash or refuse to take your hand again when he needs all the help he can get.)

But you mostly just want to see the relief, and the understanding you've shared from being so close for so long. No one just throws that away. You have something sublime. Something endless.

And you do get your wish. Just for the briefest moment, when he's falling, falling, falling down into a deeper well that forged him good and proper-

When you stop him from careening into the darkness, he looks up, and the existential fear and pain gives way to that look of safety and gratefulness and relief you'd missed on that cowled mug of his, for a bright, brilliant, second. It's all the gentleness, all the carefree things you missed, even when you still try to tease Bruce's rough edges out for his own good.

(Bruce's expression fades to something more complicated, lightning-quick. Replaced by shame, terror, pain, resignation, and most of all, expectation. All of it- he knew you'd never leave him, that you'd always come back for him, his wingman in a fight when it goes south. He knows, that he was yours and you were his and you'd always take such good care of him, forever and always. No one else could break or bruise him, after all. Your his proper sparring partner, ready with all the aftercare he'll ever need to patch him back up and stop up the wounds in his heart that never quite healed over.)

And you'll pull him back into the light and make him see the life you don't have to give up, if he'd just have you as you are. Literally, and figuratively, hoisting him up by his own grappling hook he'd lost and you'd kept as a memento all these lonely nights.

The way you see it, transitioning to domestic life shouldn't be too disagreeable, even if you both are more high octane adventure junkies ready for your next hit. Together, you tend to mellow and balance out.

Your big idea is less of a plan and more of a wish, really.

Best case scenario, you both retire from your extended separation and settle down like Brucie always daydreamed about.

Worst case, Bruce gets cold feet and can't commit- and then this is just a pleasant, extended vacation, and when you gotta get back to work and hunker down, you and the Bat are still dancing partners, so close to courting your destiny and that day Bruce's bat-chrysalis is all ready to break open and unleash his true potential to the world.

(In the interim, you'll settle for a single-story ranch with an electrified picket fence, and a kid or two to keep Bruce's paternal instincts and his pathological need to coddle others engaged. People do say kids tend to strain a marriage and don't work to bring couples back together, but you have faith. You and Bruce never really moved on, so really, it's all an issue of timing, and having the right resources. But you'll got the nest egg, and the home security system, thanks to Bruce's foresight, and homey digs with close enough quarters that Bruce and you can really take the time to reconnect and get on the same page.

And it's not like Bruce is going to take a load off and take it easy long enough to get a kid who's got both your genes the usual way, with all his hangups. So after you heal his broken back, this is the best way to go about it- get it over with, quick as can be, so Bruce can't brood. It's gotta be spontaneous, something he can go in blind with. That way Bruce can't get too guilty for swearing off his bat-exercise regime or staying away from the city, with all it's pollution and health hazards, or let his fears of himself and fatherhood keep him from the fact you knew he'd make a wonderful dad one day.

Sure, Bruce had always been more a proponent of adoption whenever you talked about maybe going down that road as a distant what-if, but that's not good enough, in your opinion. Bruce deserves a real legacy, to make his dead folks and Jeeves proud. And you, well, while you aren't one to knock orphans, you don't really feel like giving any handouts or molding them too late. It's true, you aren't really one to tout kiddies as being worth the effort, seeing as most of them are whiny and snot-nosed and obnoxious. But a kid from you and Bruce might just be worth your while, and you'd be lying if you claimed Bruce wasn't breathtaking whether you knocked him up or not.

And in some ways, you really are getting up inside him in all the ways that matter. That you know him, inside and out. That you fit together, just right. And what better way to prove you two can make this work than by making something that's purely you and him combined, the union of all the mountains you've climbed together?

Even if the kid isn't up to snuff, he's still yours.

(And part of you, the part that is still heartbroken by Bruce running off, knows that a kid is as good insurance as any to keep the two of you on the same page. Together, and perfect, and routine in all the ways you're meant to be settle down and make this work, whether it's a roller coaster or a gentler, more abrupt kind of settling down and into a new chapter of your lives together.)

(If Bruce begs and promises and curses you out, and says all the things you knew he'd say when the time comes, well, serves him right for turning down your proposal the first time. Even if you don't take it too personally- Bruce has always been horrible at doing what's best for himself, and his future. Always dodging the question and being a workaholic to avoid making a real home for himself, because he thinks being happy and fulfilled and complete is a crime. But you know why he does that, just why you know why he really left town- it's been real quiet, in Gotham. Once he realized how empty his life was, without you in it, leaving was really the only option.)

(And if he doesn't let his heart bleed through, if he keeps his stiff upper lip and bottles it up and says everything you want to hear, well, you know you'll break him of his stoic pride eventually. It's not healthy, keeping things tamped down like that. But if darling Brucie insists, you'll be there to pick up the pieces when he breaks and it all leeches out of him. You've always been more of a fan of direct, active, kinetic communication. All healthy relationships need that kind of honesty and trust and understanding, and you'll make him see that's what this is, once he stops throwing an internal, agonized, tantrum about it.)

(And if he turns to self-hatred, you'll just have to comfort him the way you always have. Tough love might have it's merits, but you can be gentle and kind and the shoulder he leans on when the going gets tough.)

All couples face those gauntlets- moving in together, rearranging the furniture, deciding what positions work best and what food to make and what songs are worth a tango.

You've been through far more trying crucibles, between manslaughter and arson and grappling hooks and cults, to ever let domestic troubles really spoil the fun or make things too fraught. 

Enough humor and conversation and mutual arrangements suited to both parties should settle all the grievances and make it all work it.

It just takes time, and effort, dedication and patience.

And you always have oodles of that, with Bruce by your side. It's not like he can rush off and get distracted these days, anyway.

Injuries really are something to be taken seriously, and given proper time and attention to heal just right.

Chapter Text

He unhitches you out of the suit, one piece at a time. Catching at the triggers and traps, finding the seams where everything breaks into parts, a puzzle he'd unravel much like he'd so often unraveled everything else.

Jack's voice is oddly calm. Tender, gentle, whisper less full of the manic energy to instead opt for intense quiet- like filling in all the blanks of what would turn into something bombastic later, to call upon the ghost of what had been, once. To act as if the curtain never fell away and they were still bound by the love he had long since sacrificed for something selfish and cruel.

"Tell me when you can't feel any more, won't you?"

His hands delve lower, down your spine and the wings of your hip bones and then the warm, barely there contact cuts off as if it was never initiated. Lower lumbar. Same damn vertebrae that Jack once severed with Selina, and that reminder only serves to highlight all the ways you are still failing to save so many. In this case, yourself.

--

"Of course I wasn't going to leave you, Bruce. You are my very best friend. And we're not done yet. You and I, we've got our whole lives ahead of us. And I think it'll do you some good to look to the future, like you're always saying in all those public speeches of yours. Not that you'll be making, ah, any public appearances any time soon..."

"After all, we've got a lot of catching up to do."

--

"Just because you tried to walk away doesn't mean it really meant anything. You don't let go, Brucie. You never do. It's why you keep reaching out and trying to grasp thin air. Why you can't help but try and pull us back from the edge. Why would this be any different? And why, oh why, would I not repay the favor, when you know there's only one man who I allow to catch me? You, always the apple of my eye, and it would be a crime to let you rot before you've taken flight and seen the world for what it really is."

You can hear the undercurrent just fine, the hidden cache of what he wants to say so badly, to burst out like a lit match catching flame, only to draw back into false docility early.

You don't get to leave me, Bruce. No one gets to LEAVE- No one bounces from this party early until I say so.

"And I know we've had our... bumps in the road. Artistic differences." Jack waves a hand. "But I can give us another go of it. Trust me, Brucie. I'm a man of my word. We're in this together for the long haul, until the sidewalk ends and we're freefalling into the new Gotham that is yours and mine. And until we sees how it all breaks apart, see what new vision will rise from the ruins, I have no intention of watching you end it early- however suicidal your little trip to this desert ended up being. You should take better care of yourself. Even a Bat needs a place to perch and rest. Otherwise, he might just lose his little wings..."

--Nine Months Later--

"We're going to have to do an emergency C-section. So you hang tight. Oh, and bite down on this. The drugs should make this a little less painful, but I can't make any promises. It's gonna want to heal up as soon as possible, so I had to inject the reagent to make sure your body doesn't stitch itself up while I'm pulling our darling babe out-"

--

The next few days, Bruce doesn't remember. 

Everything fades in and out, a mess of grey and black and spots over his eyes and crying and pain as the afterbirth follows suit.

--A Few Weeks After Jason is born--

Bruce stares at the ceiling. Jack keeps snoring in his ear, mouth puffing out warmth over his neck as he dozes (which, if Bruce hadn't been trapped living this weirdly vivid nightmare of a life, he'd have almost forgotten he did. That Jack was still human, underneath- even if he only ever sleeps for three or four hour stretches like always, due to the constant insomnia that had plagued him forever. Although, Bruce thinks he might be noticing more of an opening, lately, seeing as he's been sleeping deeper with how much crying Jason gets up to.)

Bruce rubs the damp spot where Jack keeps drooling on him, untangles a knot in his mess of sloppily cut hair at the same time, and shifts the baby curled up on his chest as his arm cramps, fighting the urge to fall asleep and the lethargic way his eyelids keep blinking even as his mind keeps racing away.

As loathe as Bruce is to interact, months without any other human contract, and blatant necessity, seeing as both of his legs are broken, means he has little choice but to talk.

"Jay. Wake up." He hisses. Tries to be loud enough, but still quiet that Jason won't be awoken.

"Hmm?" Jack mumbles into Bruce's neck, still half-asleep.

"I'm falling asleep, and if you don't put him in the crib, he's going to get crushed."

"Alright, alright. Don't you worry your pretty little head about it-"

"Shh, you'll wake him-"

The only saving grace from this domestic hell Bruce has found himself prisoner of, is that Jack, for all his evils, has been eerily tender and agreeable post Bruce's ordeal of childbirth and getting his mobility back, thanks to all the injections. (Bruce wonders, maybe, if it was because he was so close to dying, not remembering much due to the blood loss and the blackouts. Or maybe it was his way to try and win Bruce back over, after he'd tried to escape with Jason, and Jack had decided to break both his legs.)

It would be more terrifying, if Bruce wasn't so angry and exhausted and didn't have the energy to spare for Jack's mercurial, possessive, and downright horrifying habits.

But it's still preferable to the violence and the threats and the constant barbed jokes that remind Bruce of how fucked he is if he doesn't find a way out soon.

--

A few weeks later, you wake up to Jack ushering in a woman with wild blonde hair, and you almost don't recognize her without the face paint. He hands Jason over to against your protests like it's nothing.

"You remember Ecco, right Bruce? 'Course you do. Now," Having put on his coat and hat, Jack claps his hands together, adding, "I've got some business to attend to, checking up on some hot real estate." He points at you for a second, and waves his hand absently, "But while you're on the up and up, she'll be helping you take care of him, dressing bandages, and making sure your legs set right. Anyway, I know how rambunctious you get when I'm not around, but try to behave. I'll be back before you know it."

Chapter Text

--Lucius--

It has been three months and five days since Batman disappeared.

Three months of turmoil, turf wars, and Gotham's streets being leveled and remade into something new.

But more than that, it has been three months where Lucius doesn't know the fate of the child of his best friend, a friend himself.

(Aside from his attempts to contact you to track Bruce down and frantic attempts to engineer some solution, or attempts to hire contractors and the best of the best to find him, Alfred has grown withdrawn and wan and quiet.)

You think of what he might feel, and then look to your own children. Your son, barely nine (nine and three quarters, he insists) and your daughter, barely 2 now, and wonder how they will fare inside this city that is incubating some new monstrosity without a symbol and an honest man keeping the balance.

(You mourn, too, for all the people you have lost and all the ones you cannot be sure are. Bruce isn't dead, you won't allow yourself to believe that, no matter how much Bane bragged of his triumph over the Bat.)

And through the twisted jungles and miasma-filled forests Poison Ivy has started to make grow, through the puzzles and platforms and trick rooms Riddler has made into a maze, through the broken into houses and tunnels and gardens Mad Hatter has carved out as his own-

You are going to do something about it, with Gordon and Alfred, until Bruce returns. And when he does, you will be ready, to fight alongside him the only way you know how.

--Alfred--

Seven months, four days, and six hours since Bruce's disappearance, a phone rings.

You pick up the burner phone, the one Bruce left for you and you alone, with it's blue unregistered number blinking up at you, but you pray and pray as you hit speak-

"Bruce?" You ask.

"Almost. He can talk to you in a hot second, Jeeves. How's that sound?"

"You. I swear, I'll-"

"Hunt me to the ends of the earth, cut me into a million pieces, pick that shotgun off the wall- I get the picture. But unless you want me to hang up-"

"NO-"

"Didn't think so. Oh, and don't bother trying to get a trace. I know you and Lucius have been on the hunt, but I do have some idea of how to keep Brucie all snug as a bug in a rug. So no funny business, or I'll be forced to make this the last time he gets to hear your stately voice."

"What do you want?"

"Me? I want nothing. I got everything I need. But Brucie has been checking out on me a bit, and I thought he could use a pick-me-up. So. Don't go getting him all distressed. He needs someone to help him calm down so he can sleep. Think you can oblige?"

"Yes." The tacked on, compliant, desperate silence answers for itself.

"Thought so. Oh, and don't mention Batman. Brucie hasn't been able to keep his head on straight between both, and being put on the bench didn't make it any easier. So. Here you go, darlin'. Just like I promised-"

"Al." Bruce rasps. Using the nickname he'd only ever used when he was very, very young, and that, more than anything, sets Alfred's hackles more on edge.

"Bruce, where-"

"I don't know."

"Are you..." Alfred doesn't ask, safe, or okay, or any of the things he knows it's stupid to ask. "Well?"

"I don't... I... Al, I..." Bruce sounds like he's on the verge of crying, even though, after years of testosterone, uncontrollable crying fits of rage had morphed into something quiet and dry, rage and pain like the heat of a hot desert, or cold of a tundra, and the tremble in his voice makes Alfred's voice shake, too. "What did my... What was it like, right before my parents had me?"

"Sir?"

"What did they do?"

And a pit opens up like a gaping maw inside Alfred's stomach, as he thinks about why Bruce would ask something like that.

But, he tries to keep it together. Tries to be as calm, and gentle as possible. So that Bruce at least, has some remnant of something he can find reassuring and right and not... whatever nightmare he's currently living.

"Your mother... She was so happy. She'd walk with your father helping her along, outside, planning out all the places they would go. The color of your room, the names they'd pick from, the adventures you might have. But you... You know all about the names."

"Yeah." Bruce had picked the middle name they would have chosen, if he'd been born in the body he needed to begin with.

"Now, your father... He was so overjoyed, he could hardly talk about it. Master Thomas... He was quiet, sir. But he was proud. Glowing, spine straight with a spring in his step." Alfred rambles, and he doesn't care that he does, because he knows Bruce needs this, and he needs to keep him on the line, goddammit, he needs to save him- "And they'd been trying for so long... And after... I never told you, sir, and neither did your parents. But they had a miscarriage, before you. He was going to be Thomas Wayne, Jr. And I think, having you, it was a relief in more ways than one."

Bruce makes some kind of noncommittal noise.

"I'd always make Martha tea. She loved earl grey, but when she was carrying you, she liked chamomile. Does... Sir... Is there anything else you want to know about?"

"How did they know they were going to do it right? How did they feel... ready?"

And any illusions Alfred might have been able to pretend as misgivings don't quite land that way, any longer.

"They didn't. They hoped. And they knew, that, whatever happened, that they loved you. And they hoped that love would guide them whenever they weren't sure. That, and they did have me, sir. And while I can't say I'm the best example, I did have some prior experience."

"You have a kid?"

"A daughter. Julia. Her mother and I divorced seven years before I came under your father's employ."

"You never said-"

"We aren't very close. Her choice, and I respected it. But I have always been there if she needed it... Just as I will always be here for you, sir. Now, seeing as I haven't been able to... keep up, after your... disappearance. Is your condition-"

"Oh, don't you worry your head, old man. Bane hurt Brucie here very badly. Broke his spine. But by the time I'm done with him, he'll be good as new. You know I'd never let anything happen to him. Isn't that right, Brucie?"

There's a silence, and Alfred imagines Bruce swallowing, imagines the hurt in his eyes, the rage, the exhaustion, all the pain he's ever seen when Bruce talked about Jack at all, or didn't.

"Al. Thank you." Bruce says, instead, and there's an edge of composure that was barely cobbled together and ready to break the minute this call ended. "Thank you for everything. I... Jay, no, wait-" (And his voice is breaking, again.)

There's a sound of a phone being pulled away, and a muffled admonishment, of, "I told you, five minutes, Brucie. For someone who likes rules so much, you sure seem to like breaking them-"

Then Jack's voice grows louder, less indulgent, every flinty edge making Alfred want to strangle and shoot him over and over again. "Well, he's tired and needs his beauty sleep. But thanks for catching up, Alfie. If you behave, and Bruce doesn't try to starve himself for the third time, you can expect another phone call sometime next week. Wouldn't that be nice?"

"You listen to me, you-"

"I know, you must be thrilled! Nothing like a bun in the oven to bring everyone together!" Jack cackles. "Tootles."

--

Alfred clings to the phone- the last of Bruce's tech as Batman to tie him to the outside world- and knows his next step with frightening certainty.

He stops recording, and takes the evidence with him.

--

First, he goes to Lucius.

If anyone can help him narrow down locations and crack the tech to get to Bruce, it's him, and they've been working on this attempt to rescue him without any leads to help for months now.

--

Lucius can only do so much. And whatever the Joker is doing, it's using his own tech against him.

(That's not exactly a surprise.)

So they go to the next part of the plan, if any lead ever surfaced.

But first, you call Selina.

Ever since Bruce disappeared, after Bane, after Gotham turned into a madhouse, she's been searching for him and the suspiciously absent clown.

And you told her you'd keep her in the loop.

The same goes for Jim Gordon.

--

"Clark, I need a favor."

"Can do, although if you could fill me in-"

"I need you to get me an appointment with your resident celebrity. It's an emergency."

"What-"

"I have reason to believe Bruce has been abducted by a madman, and that he doesn't have the means to escape. I hear that Superman is quite good at finding people."

"Come with me."

--

Superman, despite his searching, does not find Bruce, and that, more than anything, makes the fear smothering and worse.

If Superman can't...

But then you think about all the pains Bruce took to be invisible and undisturbed by any metahuman or outside intruder, and you think that maybe, you know how the Joker is keeping him hidden.

--

Selina says she has an idea, but that it's not going to be easy.

You and Selina brave the part of Gotham that once was the West side, and is now more jungle than concrete, while Lucius and Clark go seek out the Riddler to get a different kind of intel.

The Riddler and Penguin may be at war with Black Mask, Bane, Hush, and all of them with Ivy and the new Red Hood Gang that's been disrupting everyone, but when it comes to getting Bruce back, you are going to play whoever you need against each other to make this work.

Jim stays in reserve for this one, ready to move in when he knows he won't be throwing a spanner in the works.

--

"I need your help."

"And why would I deign to help you?" Ivy asks, looking down at you like you are a tiny speck.

"Because we can get you one step ahead of Riddler, Bane, and Zsasz, and a lead on the Joker." Selina starts with the hard sell-

"I don't need your help-"

"And because I have reason to believe Bruce Wayne is being held hostage-"

Ivy raises an eyebrow.

"And why would that move me?"

But then Alfred stumbles forwards, and the adrenaline in the air, the heartbreak, the fear- Ivy is riveted to it, can feel it palpable as anything else.

(It's the first time in a long time humans have gotten under her skin like that, and she thinks, if she dared try to control this man, the broken parts of him would mean it wouldn't take. And that makes her pause, even if she didn't know Bruce was Batman already.)

"I have reason to believe there's a child involved, if you... catch my drift." Alfred says, hands clasped together. He swallows.

"I see." Ivy finally says. "I suppose I could allocate some resources. But you'll owe me-"

"Understood." Alfred adds, "But... I expect the utmost discretion."

"Don't take me for the likes of the other scum out there, Pennyworth. Your secret is safe with me." Ivy walks down the steps, and pulls Alfred and Superman along. "I'm assuming you have some idea of how I may be of use?"

"The last known location Mr. Wayne was near was an island off of Santa Prisca. We were hoping you could use the plant life to detect any signs left, or to figure out which way he would have been moved by the Joker."

"And Blue Tights here can't find him?"

"Whatever technology is at the clown's disposal, it has rendered Superman's skills obsolete. He's shielded, somehow, no sound, no heartbeats, no noise, and there's enough interference that even combing through every lead lined area is a wash. Which would mean it would make the most sense that they are underground-"

"-And you want me to tap into the root systems, see what I can pick up or if Superman can work with my skills to track them?"

"Yes."

"And if there's no plant life around?"

Ivy smiles, and says, so gently, "There's always some residue. You can't keep mother nature down. What really will be the issue is range. At my current capabilities, I can only go a few miles past Gotham's city lines. If you want me to check on somewhere else, we'll need to move. And move quickly. I don't intend to lose any turf to the others."

Chapter Text

Bruce knows he has little time.

But he can walk, finally. (More like stumble, with the broken leg having only recently healed and your muscle tone not being what it once was. If Jack had it's way, it'd still be far from set. But you wrestled the injections away from Ecco while he was gone and knocked her out, then injected her with the stuff Jack is so fond of keeping you under with, so she should be down for the count for a few days... And while you don't know what injecting three more vials of the green plasma Jack's been extracting from his veins and injecting you with will do to yourself in one dose, you can stand and have more strength than before, all your broken parts having mended, very painfully, in the interim.)

You throw your only batarang left up as hard as you can, and wait for it to detonate where the sliver of sunlight streams down from above.

And that, that, more than anything, breaks the shielding Jack had made from your own scraps and parts and discarded gear.

That is your only way out and up without detection, no cameras monitoring this caved in part of the facility Jack thought he'd boarded up so well.

Walking is a gift you don't take for granted. Same goes for climbing, even as you desperately cling to the wall.

And while you fear falling- fear discovery- fear so many things, fear another back breaking paralysis if you take the wrong step-

You are going to haul yourself up from this prison.

And when you know that you are strong enough, you are going to climb out, and bring Jason out with you.

But you have to make the climb, first.

--

You reach the top. Break more dirt and metal and debris to make the opening easier to climb through, secure the thin line you've made to rappel back down, and survey the area.

Then you climb down the rope, making sure it will hold, reach the bottom, pick up your pack of supplies, secure your son close to your chest, and make the climb again.

--

Bruce steadies his breathing.

Ignores the blood seeping through the bedsheet he's tied around himself. Makes sure the sling he's made will hold Jason to his chest, no matter how much he can't rely on the grappling hook he's made from bits of wire and chains and tied together fabric that is the barest excuse for a rope he could manage.

He makes sure the other white sheets are tied around his head and covering Jason from the sun peeking through, because all he knows, is that it is so very bright, and he knows a desert waits above him. 

(They won't last long out there. All he can hope, now, is that someone finds him fast enough. Before Jack gets back. And if he has to duck under the earth and stone again to shield his child and himself from cold nights and the blistering son during the day, then that is what he'll do.)

All he needs is time. Time to be past the shielding, so that someone can pick up the signal.

So that they can locate him, once and for all.

--

Three hours in, Jason wakes up again, and Bruce takes the bottle of formula and feeds him under the outcropping of rock.

He rocks him asleep again when he's done, carefully humming, making sure he's outwardly as calm and collected as possible, because showing any anxiety seems to get picked up on fast, even if Jason is only three and a half months old.

(Inwardly, the back of Bruce's mind buzzes, wondering if the next minute will bring laughter and raucous noise and everything crashing down around him again. He had learned inner fortitude and techniques for resilience under torture and pain and anguish, under Ra's and so many others.

But they still did not hold a candle to the betrayal and the pain and the raw wounds that had never healed since Jack burrowed his way inside Bruce's head, even if Batman could hold it at bay for so long.

Every line snaps under strain, over time.

And Bruce knows he can repair it. He just needs to get out of the pit, out of the isolation and the mind games and the trapped, caged-animal place he's found himself in for over a year.

Batman was enough to not forget himself, but could only hold the line so long until Bruce took over.

Batman could fight back.

But when it came to enduring, when it came to waiting the pain out and hiding and keeping his head down, pretending at affability and submission until he got a chance to make a real move... Bruce was far more used to that.)

(Only sometimes, Bruce isn't sure if he's really pretending. Sometimes, he wonders if that's all he knows how to be when it comes to Jack, for all the ways he loved him once. For all the ways Jack wanted to make Batman a caged, snarling animal set free, while Bruce could withstand all the indignities Batman could not. For all the ways he let him in and didn't know how to escape, unlike any other problem he could keep an arm's length away.)

Then Bruce stops thinking so much. It's easier, not to think. Easier to wait, to let everything fade into a kind of numb static and forgetfulness, and and growing alert only when real action can materialize into something that will stick, and not feel so slippery and nebulous and aching.

He has a three day stock from his hidden stockpile of pills until they're gone, and the only saving grace is, he knows Jack will be back before they're gone. So if he doesn't make it out... Jason will be alive, albeit not okay, seeing as he's still as much of a hostage and therefore insurance to make you do whatever Jack wants if everything goes to Hell.

(But if Bruce can't be trusted to take care of his own child due to circumstances outside of his control, then he's going to do his best to not recklessly endanger Jason any further while trying to get as far away as possible from the monster keeping them underground. It's as if Jack is guarding a hoard of treasure, with both of them trophies, and Bruce's other tethers to his life feeling so very, very far away.)

Chapter Text

Grief is a living emptiness, a hollow pit that festers and rots inside you when you realize there is no recovering what can only be conjured in memory.

Your flesh houses it's form in every stitch of your bruises, inside every tiny scaffold of your bones.

After grief, which didn't properly end, only grew fainter and more constricted and condensed with time, there was loneliness. So much that Bruce thought he would drown in it, in every way it smothered his lungs and throat and coiled body. 

Next came rage. White hot, constantly burning and making you cling to being alone just as much as you clung to the growing cinders, because even if you were lonely, even if it was all too much, the flippant buzz and moving cogs of everyday life and shallow interactions and everyday exhaustion of people not marred by the feeling of it all bearing down, unfair and off-kilter and unremedied, meant that you would rather clutch your rage in too-tight fists and a forever-unvoiced, strangled scream that wanted to rise from your throat if only the everyday condescension of people who never felt it or those who had already moved on didn't constantly remind you of the loss, of the fury, of your own ineffectual powerlessness, at least until the spark of it burnt out on its own fumes and morphed grief all over again, a wound that hadn't quite scabbed over, and you were never sure if it would.

It was a phantom injury- constantly there, constantly eating away, a cycle you couldn't end without wanting to break something or run off, only no one wanted to really see how real it was, and no one cared enough, save Alfred, who was too old and worn and accustomed to the too-many permeations of the feeling that all it did was make you feel more alone than ever.

It was an invisible virus that plagued you every single day, just like the nightmares, just like the swooping fear in your stomach and the churning guilt and the constant feeling of off-balance helplessness, hazy and numb from the shock of the loss. It was the manifestation of a crackling flare rising from your insides, charring them inside-out as it rose and unhinged your jaw, prying open your mouth and making your eyes close too-tight until you saw stars, until it was too much pressure, always too much, while the world always felt cold and distant and empty.

Then Jack came along.

And it didn't feel like loneliness, anymore, because he had seen the barren wasteland inside you and he didn't turn away.

He had taken your hand, pulled you down that empty road with a smile, and make the nothingness worth seeing, anyway. Made fireworks and quick barbs substitute for the constant pins-and-needles of never knowing when the next inevitable wave of missing what was gone and the unfairness of it all would swamp you again, enough to distract from what kept you in the past, enough to think of the present and to ground you even if it was just by demanding your undivided attention.

The grief and rage and pain and need to hurt, need to control, need to change, never fully abates.

But it transforms into walking side by side with an equal, into a kind of companionship with someone just as sharp as you, all broken shard of glass melted over and re-broken by someone who laughed without mirth, but instead with something hollow and aching and wanting, too.

There is a kind of yearning, a kind of determination in carving out the world from the things you have survived and the things you have witnessed and taking all the ways you feel skinned inside out. In all the ways you take your battered, grazed-up hands and force them to mold the future into what you want it to be.

That felt like hope, like love, like trust, eventually. It felt like a sort of promise.

That the world may be a place which made you feel like such a small and helpless animal wasn't so cold after all, because there was a fire burning inside of you, and one day you would both let it out.

And that, somehow, felt like love. Like the very self-destruction you both were trying to transcend would burst apart and you would rise from it, anew, with the scars sandblasted into something that didn't feel raw and unhinged and like a yawning chasm that would not be escaped or endured.

--

When Jack took your trust and broke it, all the scaffolding keeping that same grief out burst like a dam, splintering it into a billion pieces and leaving you sinking in the mire of your own false hopes.

Later, you think that may have insulated you. After losing what was so hard to give, it was easier to go numb, and less easier for you to linger on what was, or to be worn down by the constant things thrown at you later, even if it Jack still tried to take more away and drag you down to his level.

In a way, the anger just changed into something just as angry, but disconnected and formless and ready to be called upon like an endless black hole sucking everything else in with it, a single minded focus that you could pretend was still not grief.

(Even if it was. Even if always was, when you made it past the singularity and dared dwell on all that you could not move on from.)

--

Baudelaire was not quite right- the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

It was convincing the world that he was necessary.

That good could only exist in a panacea where it hinged on it's contrast with evil, when in truth evil never needed be borne for what is good and gentle and kind to thrive on its own, and of its own volition.

And that aggrandizing, theatrical misdirection is the flavor of Promethean fire Jack is trying to conjure now, as a symbol, as a nihilistic idol who doesn't care for the people who follow him, or those who cower, or those who stand against him, when all he wants is the immolation of what came before, to burn them and the whole place down and raze it anew so that you can be his newest creation, forged out of his own inverted image.

The Joker is not a clown. He is a wildcard, ready to twist and turn on a dime, ready to whisper whatever poison hits the mark most to conjure his singular dream and make it real.

And you will make it so that Batman will rise in answer- the darkness to choke out the light that threatens to take everything in the burning floodplain of gasoline with it, you most of all.

You plant your feet, root yourself to all that you can hold on to, the frantic, frenzied edges of your own rage your only tether you can sink your teeth into, along with the memory of something gentle that could not quite yet weather the storm.

But you would win.

You would heal and breathe in the very darkness, taking the void left behind from the light and filling it with sound and motion and purpose, filling it with the violent need to never feel empty and aching and incomplete, exhaling the very chains which tied you to Jack and exhumed you from the pit you always found yourself being dragged towards.

--

On the nights you wanted to forget but couldn't, those secret times when Alfred had long since fallen asleep in the hours of the morning- so early that everything is bathed in pitch black- you used to lay outside, the crown of your head half-buried in Jack's chest, his two arms circling your waist while sprigs of grass tickling your cheekbones. Far from Gotham's labyrinthine alleyways, in the expanse of the manor removed enough to be distant but close enough to be home, the stars would wink down instead of being choked by the air pollution while you lay hand in hand with a boy who liked dancing to music he'd hum on the spot, who cheated at every game you had ever played, making up new rules as he went, a boy who whispered your name like it was something perfect and made you laugh so hard you couldn't breath sometimes in a way no one else could-

A boy who purposefully chose to tackle you in games of flashlight tag that he never managed to outgrow if it meant you could curl up in the darkness, one body folding into the other, a red, ice-cold nose snuggling into the dip of your turtleneck sweater- half to keep you from startling whenever Jack rubbed his chin against yours, and half so you could feel Jack's eyelashes blinking when he tilted to press another kiss to your forehead.

You would savor it, content and soft and the weight of everything, unwinding under the pressure of it all...

At least until Jack's frozen, mischief-making fingertips slid under your shirt, splayed hands tracing up the small of your back, and you lurch forwards, grumbling, only for him to roll over on top of you, laughing raucously as you squirm, your chin pressed into the ground with the full weight of his embrace sprawling over you.

And then suddenly Jack is whispering into your ear all the things he wants to do to you, and you bare your teeth, growling as he keeps stroking over your clothes, then dare him to do his worst, joined by the same wanting, silent hunger, ready to rise to the challenge of what he's hasn't quite asked for, but what you say yes to, anyway.

A roll of his wrists pulls your sweater over your head. He kisses your neck, and pins your arms under his, licks down your Adam's apple and starts sucking on your collarbone, the mounting pressure of his dick rucking up into the curve of your ass. Every twitch and buck of his body curves to your movements, and he thrusts faster- even if your own aching, desperate attempts to dissolve into the friction remain unsated- until Jack turns you over, your elbows bent behind your back and spine pressed into the ground.

His hips grinding into yours, the prick of his jeans bearing down against your own with a pressure that makes you moan.

Because that was Jack's goal- to stake his claim on all the ways made the world stop for you, and made it all center around him, and only him, so everything else was but a pinprick in the way you'd stare into his eyes and let him have you, because that was another kind of power through surrender, in letting him tease out all the things you let him do and all the ways he wants to possess you. 

Jack revels in the triumph until you cut him off, mouths mashed together, and his heated, strangled breaths flush against your lips. Ragged prayers and exhalations unfurl from your throat before you lick your way inside his mouth.

A hand snakes down and rubs taut against the fabric bunched around your crotch, and the other drags fingerpads down your exposed chest until Jack fumbles your fly open, and then your boxers and jeans are dragged past your toes and Jack is propping you up on your elbows, prying your legs apart, lank hair falling in his face as he climbs to his knees, head tilting downwards.

And then he's swallowing you to the hilt, your twitching hands clutching at nothing until he interlaces your fingers with his, pulls your grasping palms closer to the crown of his head, and then his mouth glides lower, closer to the tip. You hang on for dear life and thrust into each bob of his throat as he makes you twitch and shudder against the suction and the wet pressure of his palate and the steady flick of his tongue.

When you are a heaving mess, melting against his mouth, and your legs kicking out, Jack buries his head against your thigh as licks up the head of your cock before he swallows you whole again, and pushed yourself flat on your back, your spine digging into the ground as he resurfaces, undoes his fly, and then he's dragging you under him at an angle, knees straddling your waist as he cups your jaw. He asks a question and you nod, still half-blissed out, your mouth lolling open and drooling as you try to catch your breath. 

He thrusts his red, straining dick between your lips and you half-choke on the girth, eyes watering, and Jack slides in and out, patient and slow enough to make sure you can handle it, until you  inhale and manage to take him all in, tasting him, twirling your tongue the way he goads you to, swallowing him until he pushes even deeper and you gag, and then he's pulling out again, letting you huff in as much air as you can after spitting out the precome.

Then Jack shoves himself in, this time with shallow but more frantic movements, dick gliding harder against the roof of your mouth, and a hand slowly crushes your windpipe, thumbs digging into the ridge of your throat, just enough to notice, just shy of too painful but not enough for you to stop.

"That's it, Brucie, just like that." Jack sighs. And then he's going as deep as he can, growling as you whimper and then start to choke, and just when you start to see spots, the pressure around your throat eases, come hot and tacky as it spills down your throat, and Jack pulls out, breathing heavy, eyes rolling back before his fingers start tracing your lip and over the rough, close-shaven stubble over your jawline.

His other hand props up your waist, locks under your arms as he helps you crawl to your knees to steady yourself as you cough and breath in deeply. Fluid oozes from the corners of your mouth, and Jack laughs as he wipes the thin ridges of it away with his thumb, then laughs harder at your huffing breaths and glaring expression at his stunt, still winded, still dabbing your face with his jacket, wiping all the evidence clean. (You are pretty sure he means he is going to set the jacket on fire, but as long as Alfred doesn't get involved, then that's his problem, not yours.)

He waits until you can breathe evenly, before he kisses you again, cradles you to his chest, pokes your rib and turns serious for once, promising you that you're extraordinary and that he would never let anyone take you away from him, or ever allow you to feel alone again, no matter the cost. 

And you don't even mind that he just took what he wanted, because all you needed was to be held and to be loved and to be seen, to take the pain and make it good, to make it mean something, to make it fade into something beautiful and unselfish and you are so happy that he loves you, that he wants you, that he won't let you go.

Jack is warm and wiry and all teeth and sharp, bony edges, and you want to stay wrapped in his arms all night long, even if the cold sends you both rolling back into the tent you laid out in the yard. You both huddle under the covers, Jack kissing the ridges of your shoulder and the wings of your pelvis, eventually spreading you out over his chest, and sometimes Jack's grinds against the inside of your leg, both hands wrapped around your cock as you jerk against him, his mouth kissing your pulse point and his dick rubbing naked against yours, both of you bound together by wanting too much, wanting what you were told you couldn't have, and then demanding to take what you wanted, anyway.

(It is not the first time you've fucked, but it is the first time you didn't feel the need to go slow, the first time you just rolled with it, and somehow, in the haze of all the times you camped out there in the darkness, it feels more substantial, more of a promise than anything else that you'd always stick together and let yourself melt into the calm and the easy way you understood each other, even if you both were coiled up with violence and absence and unrealized dreams that promised to bring themselves to life on the horizons the more you held tighter and clung closer to each other. In some ways, you both felt untouchable, unbreakable by anything that stood in the way.)

Other nights are softer, gentle and unguarded and vulnerable in a way Jack only ever seems to be when he's with you, those nights when you just felt fragile and small, and those nights you would listen to the crickets while Jack wove dandelion's in your hair, or you'd both watch the fireflies on the porch steps until the cold finally banished them, rounds of poker discarded for s'mores instead. Or in the fall, you'd cuddle in the leaf pile you had made together, both staying collapsed in a heap long after it grew dark, a stray thumb stroking the edge of your wrist and a rough, toothy half-smile pressed up against your jaw, and you'd doze off with bad puns lazily whispered against your ear as Jack nipped at it, the sounds formless as the howl of the wind as it creaked against the manor's outer walls.

--

When the true winter of your companionship comes to break even, you are left in the rotting emptiness, a bright light bearing down on you from all sides, your only defense hiding your eyes and making the darkness a part of you, because otherwise all Jack did would break you against all the other ways being close to someone does, and losing it all over again, choking the air from your lungs like a fire blazing, smoke smothering your lungs.

--

You find your answer, one day, to a question you had never wanted an answer to.

The greatest con the Devil ever pulled was that he had loved you, he had, and that love was a violent, gluttonous thing, couched in laughter and sharp teeth and potent for all the wrong reasons.

His greatest crime was making you want to love him back- so much that you almost lost who you were whether you nurtured the connection or were left stranded without it.

But you are used to not keeping what you love, and lock that away, keeping the pain and letting it out in the only times you can ever almost break even.

Deep down, you would plant a tree of what is righteous, what is true- and it's roots would outlast the carnage of what was done to you and everyone else, would withstand all the ways Jack wanted to make the world hurt, and if you win- if you do this right- the seeds would outlast even you, to give Gotham something back that could feel like hope. Like safety, for all the ways you would unleash what was done to you and redirect it back.

Even if you might never stop feeling guilty for the things you could not predict nor control.

Even if, somehow, it still feels like your fault.

--

When you think of all the ways you have become Batman and brought the symbol to life while hiding behind a mask to right the wrongs of Gotham, you do not think of your father's often quoted words, that "only cowards hide behind masks."

You think of one Purim, when he let you dance on his feet, and taught you of the way all are dressed to be unseen for the celebration, because of the miracle of something higher working through everyday things, and that grace can be found in acting in a way that is good and right, and standing for what you believe in, even if you cannot see how or why.

And you think of the synagogue you once went to with your mother, where the rabbi told you all with outstretched hands may be given to freely. The masks were a way to equalize one another, an act of good faith, with no judgement, she explained.

Sometimes you wonder if that is the nature of compassion, or if what makes the system work is that people are given a chance to give freely, back, so that all may share the bounty, and all may rebuild together.

Sometimes you wonder if maybe the point is that there was a higher power looking out for people, so that the wicked would be foiled.

Sometimes you wonder if it's just an excuse for more people to be taken advantage of, for people to take and take, and then you remember that the point is to give the benefit of the doubt and give grace even when it isn't always warranted, because perhaps that kindness could be accepted and turn things around one day.

Perhaps the point is that you are not judge or jury, that you are all made equal by the masks and that that is maybe the choice given: to hope with no guarantee, to give freely without doubt or fear in your heart because it is not about who is good or right or deserving but about giving for the sake of giving and still surviving, anyway.

You do not feel like a higher power. (And you do not even always practice or preach what you have learned, even if you try to uphold tradition.)

All you feel like is one man trying to inspire the masses to see that they could be the change they wanted to be, if they only held on to each other and didn't let what would destroy them cannibalize the city from the inside out.

And until that courage could persist...

You would be whatever Gotham needed to hold back the tide.

--

One time, your mother planted an apple tree in the park, and told you everyone had a responsibility to look out for one another.

That kindness begets kindness, but more than that, it brings temperance, and resilience, because if you hold on to what is gentle, what brings people together, than nothing can truly rip them from you.

Even if the grief never leaves you, memory remains.

 

Chapter Text

You find out the Red Hood Gang isn't being fronted by some faceless son of a gun, but a much worse customer.

It's your first time facing Jack down since you left him and brought his other prisoner out with you.

And you could curse yourself for letting him realize you've come back, even though you knew it would be short-lived- but that would be a waste of time and energy and resources, and you need to keep your head in the game. That, and you knew the risks all too well already. Jack knows your handiwork like the back of his hand and isn't one to shirk any assumptions, even if he couldn't be sure until now... And he still can't track your operations, however long that one last saving grace might last, even if you did have to make a new batcave to compensate for his knowledge of the old one.

(You do not think of whispers in the dark and smiles and words that haunt you every night.)

You have to focus.

And right now five men are gearing up to try and tear your mask off and possibly throwing you out of Penguin's hijacked blimp, so that takes priority. (That, and keeping Jack as far away from you as fucking possible, which is why you focus on the goons. You know the moves Jack will make. The goons and the firepower are the only thing keeping this from being a fair fight and you getting the hell away. Threatening to shoot you with stolen Wayne Tech is an empty threat and you both know it.)

--

The red, elongated mask is gaudy and tacky and horrible and makes Bruce think of poisonous fish, warning you to stay away but drawing you closer just by being so loud, and Bruce knows he chose it on purpose, just to make a statement, even if he did need the general design to stay in control of the gang itself.

--

Bruce shoves his face in the back of one gang member's shoulder, breathing in the powdery scent of dry-cleaners from the pressed suit and concrete and paint, just to keep himself grounded, to drown out unneeded stimuli while searching for the best escape route, eyeing all the actions he'd have to take to make a break for the closest emergency exit. That one over there is a wash, he'd have to leap out the other, seeing as he can't twist out of the way in time from Jack's twitching fingers, and Bruce needs to keep it simple, keep himself low to the ground, without doubling over, some stitches already broken today and making it hard to keep his stance steady- (Even if the real reason he hides himself behind whoever this unfortunate man whose threw himself under Jack's thumb is really all a means to mask the other scent memories clogging his nose, after being so close to Jack for so long, still able to taste the acetic tang of his skin and sweat and the cigarette-whisky hum of his breathing trapping him in a room too full of recycled air. He can't be pulled back into his net, can't afford to let memory make him freeze, or the memory of Jack's voice making his skin crawl, the hair on the back of his neck risen and phantom fingers all too close-)

Just as Bruce can't afford to let the other goons see his face, even if there's a high chance Jack might off them one by one out of spite.

"Aw, come on. Don't be shy..."

Bruce doesn't want to think about the innuendo, the double dealing, all the horrible things he can still feel clinging like cobwebs to the back of his mind, like breaths against the back of his neck, so close, so predictable and crooning.

"You want me to throw you a red hood? Maybe show you my face?" Jack licks his lips, teeth so white against the clashing mask and the pallor of his unpainted but sickly skin, "Hell, come with me into the control room, I'll show you mine if you show me y-"

Bruce's head pounds, and he sees red.

"That won't be necessary."

Bruce finds his opening, takes it, runs his mouth and playing the game even as he draws the first blood between the two of them, mob infighting aside.

The batspikes, still prototypes, leave piercing marks in Jack's side before Bruce sidesteps away from his reaching grip and leaps out into the sky.

He wants to take Jack down and escape and make it hurt-

Even if he's still stuck playing along by different rules, because if the game is rigged and Jack hasn't seen fit to shed his own camouflage, then Bruce doesn't want to know what sick reveal he's planned for being unmasked early.

Even while falling, with his gear not working right, Bruce is still grateful that if he dies, his last breaths will be open air. It tastes sweeter, even if it's still half poison.

It's better than being shackled underground in a place with no windows or running water or the echo of the bats and the outside world.

Then the rope grows taut and Bruce sticks the landing, boots finally latching on to the bottom of the blimp.

--

"There are many things I understand, Bruce. Your need to stay busy, your need for justice. But what I cannot abide is permitting your company to lapse into someone else's name, and your refusal to do anything public as you watch your enemies use weapons stolen from the legacy your parents left you. You keep making riskier and riskier moves, and I will not sit by as you pretend to be a ghost, fighting tooth and nail to your limits, and refuse to give yourself proper time to recover-"

"Alfred, that's not-"

Alfred doesn't acknowledge the interruption, staying course, "What I take issue with, Master Bruce, is you pushing yourself too hard, deliberately, like you'd rather be let yourself rot through overexertion, and acting as if Bruce Wayne should be cast aside for the cowl-"

"Maybe he should!" Bruce yells, and then he's heaving in air.

Alfred stares back at him as if he'd been slapped.

The grappling hook demolishes the wall, and Bruce pulls back on it, too hard, too much force, too much uncontrolled feeling spilling from the two limbs that he hadn't had used against him, all while he loses his balance. (Walking, after everything, still felt semi-unfamiliar, still off-balance with all the muscle atrophy he's been desperately trying to fix, and that's why even now, he's kept to aerial maneuvers, or strategies focusing on upper arm strength instead of running marathons. That, and the scars still sting whenever he almost needs to bend, enough to almost make him double over. There's a long, red gash he can't look at, even now, and it isn't healing fast enough, always reminding Bruce of everything he's been running from even back when he could hardly crawl to safety.)

"Maybe Bruce Wayne should stay dead. It's better, that way." Bruce adds,  voice still hoarse from the voice he'd been using while the new vocal scrambler was still in development, (even if the real reason is all the screaming he's been doing when he thinks no one can hear, deep in the caves, even though Alfred knows all too well).

That admission does make Alfred lose his cool.

"I will not stand here and watch you court death-"

"Al, you aren't listening, I'm not-"

"No, Master Bruce. Whatever you think this is, whatever you might tell yourself, your actions the past few months belie those promises. And I did not sign up to watch you throw your life away because your self hatred has consumed you, when none of this was your fault-"

Bruce turns away.

"But it is my fault, Alfred. I can't kill him. And I..." He swallows, "I loved him, and I let him..."

"You did noth-"

"No Alfred," Bruce rasps, "This whole mess is Bruce Wayne's fault. And Batman is going to fix it. That's final."

"It is very well not! I am not permitting your alter ego to toss you in an early grave, whatever you insist your intentions are to the contrary. And I'm not letting you throw up this pretense that what you are doing here is anything other than a glorified suicide mission, and then acting as if it is anything else. If you can't be honest with me, or yourself... Bruce, I want to help you. I will always be here to patch you up. But I will not let you throw yourself into the thick of this, with no care for your injuries, while you try to run from the things that you can't face. Because that is what this is."

"I am not a coward-"

"No. But you are running. From shame that isn't yours to bear, from guilt, from the things you will not even discuss with me. I am trying to give you the space and time to process, however much you need. But when it comes down to the wire, I will not let you allow you to let this imposter parade about and murder Bruce Wayne. Not when you've fought so hard and deserve to thrive. Not when that monster tried to steal you from yourself. You deserve to have a life, Bruce. You deserve better than to keep yourself locked in a cave only to fight the things staring back at you in the night. And if donning the mask and becoming Batman is exacerbating the problem instead of granting you the means to take back yourself... Then I will do what I must to make you see reason."

The moment the words leave Alfred's mouth, he knows he miscalculated. But that is half the problem. Him trying his best to help, but not knowing how, and Bruce half not wanting to heal because healing hurt more than inflicting more damage on himself.

And he does understand the resistance, with so many people trying to force Bruce to do things when all he wants is to let go and stop thinking, stop listening, stop everything-

And that's exactly the nightmare Alfred needs him to break free from. That he is already free, and that he'd keep him as safe as possible, that he doesn't need to embrace self-destruction to keep himself and everyone else safe when all it is doing is allowing Bruce to hide from what is eating him alive-

"You are dismissed for the evening, Alfred."

"Very well, Master Bruce. If I find you throwing yourself off buildings without sufficient backup, or facing him alone to prove something, I will do everything in my power to stop you-"

"I said. You. Are. Dismissed."

"Goodnight." Alfred turns back by the door, "If you need me, ring. And, if not for your sake, then for mine, please consider holding off on further acrobatics for the evening. I do not want to have to staple you back together over your frayed stitches, and you are already bleeding."

He motions to the bandages, like he wants to re-dress them then and there, but doesn't because Bruce can't stomach it, just curls around himself like he'd never be touched by anyone ever again, and Alfred knows he's pushed them both to the limits of getting to the bottom of this this evening, even if he did not know how else to broach the subject.

Bruce always was prone to turning inwards and self-flagellation as a means of trying to regain himself from the things threatening to consume him. Alfred used to know how to counteract it, but ever since the island...

Being around Bruce is half like being around a stranger, and while it is no one's fault but the monster who stole him, he does not know how to help Bruce the same way, and holds on tighter because he cannot bear to watch Bruce dash himself to pieces without a care for what it might do to him, or worse, like he's willfully trying to break himself to pieces so no one else can do the same.

Alfred doesn't know how to fix that, how to ask Bruce to see this for what it is instead of throwing everything away. Maybe time would heal him, if he'd let it. (Alfred fears Bruce won't give time that chance, so eager to throw himself into the fire of his personal crucible again, even if that ordeal was the only alternative to someone else's games...)

Bruce says nothing, just throws himself back into training like he didn't hear another word.

Alfred doesn't know how to break down the walls, or worse, if it is wrong that he feels like he needs to. He wants to give Bruce space, when Bruce so desperately wants to reclaim himself after such an ordeal.

But he can't let go. He can't. He is already losing him, anyway, and he doesn't know how to fix something that Bruce won't accept help with.

Bruce is closing himself off, to everyone, like being close to people is a weakness. And that is also what Alfred fears, because he knows that isolation is exactly what Jack wants, and is exactly why Bruce is trying to retake it for himself. He doesn't see that all he is doing is letting himself drown, because he wants to believe he can fight the ocean of things suffocating him, alone, because accepting help would be opening himself up to all the things that have already broken him one too many times already.

--

"This is me, dragging you out of the cave..." Uncle Phillip says.

But it all sounds very far away.

It's too loud, too much, clicks of cameras and eager socialites and people you don't want to see, publicity you can't have, too much stimulation and the echoes of life you do not want, you cannot have because no one can know you are home...

(All you can think of is a voice, breathing down your neck, "Wouldn't it be nice, Brucie? To get away from it all? To start over where no one knows your name? I can give you that, now. I can make it all better... You just stick with me."

And, "If anyone tries to drag you back, you'll never have to trouble yourself again. I'll take care of it. You know I will. It's just you and me and the kid now."

Part of you hates that you wish you were back underground. Unknowable. Not on display.

(Part of you hates that you know that feeling is a lie, and is just a residual fear of something far worse, that smothered you too much and made you feel like you would never escape and only be able to be safe by falling into the rules of another game, a game that Jack was winning...)

But it's all falling to pieces now.

You can't be known.

Can't be recognizable.

(You have grown used to lingering underground, not sure if you are able to feel alive or dead because you've been a ghost for so long...

Part of you, the sense memory, the muscle-reaction of needing to freeze and run and hide, thinks you might miss it. But you don't.

You don't miss Jack and you don't miss being a prisoner and you didn't miss any of this, either.

You just want to escape. From all of it. To keep on running and not look back and not feel like part of you was being ripped up and tacked up for everyone to dissect, or in Jack's case, to keep you and own you in a way you can't allow him to ever do again, in all the ways power has felt so insubstantial and unreal these days.)

You don't feel like you own your body.

You don't feel like you own your name.

You don't feel like anything but hunted, and need to lash out and get out of the light before it consumes you entirely.

(Before Jack sees an opening, and uses it against you. Before he makes his move and corners you more, when you've been so good at keeping to the shadows and disrupting things, erratic but efficient and making the moves on your terms.)

You should have known it wouldn't last.

--

Even if you didn't know what was coming thanks to the balloons and the smiles and the 'Welcome Home' banner slung over your makeshift apartment, you are used to the anticipation. Fight or flight in overdrive, you crouch, take cover, the telltale tic of the imminent explosion the only thing you register the millisecond before the place detonates.

Everything is loud, and then you can't hear anything except the roar of the fire coming for you before the vacuum of air hits and everything collapses around you.

Everything is woozy and everything burns except for where hard and cold against one side of your face. (You wonder, then, if you can move. You've grown so used to not being able to, you can't have your body stolen, not again-)

"Bruce, help me find you-"

You think you hear your father. He's coming to get you when you fell, bats streaming past your face-

The ringing in your ears is starting to fade-

You struggle to move, fingers, toes, and you stay curled up over yourself, hugging your knees to your chest even though the very act doesn't spare you any agony-

There's something gaining purchase on your arm- a hand?

A hand. 

"I have you-"

And as you are gathered up, the pressure around your arm tightens as you wobble to your feet. You stumble into the figure hauling you up, and then there's darkness enveloping your eyes, your head tucked into the crook of a hip, and their body a shield from the flames and the heat and the smoke, rising up to choke you.

You sway, hunched over and unable to straighten, the pain lacing through your skull not as bad as the throbbing of your abdomen that still stings like a brand you can't ignore.

There's a hand on your back, now, rubbing circles.

The hand around your arm tightens, as a voice whispers, their words so softly hummed in your ear.

"Yep, I have you, Bruce. There you go."

And the haze lifts, you remember where you are, and who is holding you, even though part of you knows all too well, after months of it being the only one holding conversation, no matter how one-sided.

You rear back and spit in Jack's face, hitting where his eye would be if the mask wasn't hiding his pale face and the green eyes beneath. (You are glad you can't see him. It's the only mercy you get.)

Jack takes it all in stride, not bothering to wipe it away.

Don't touch me unhand me get away don't no, no, no, no, no-

Bruce considers biting him and making a break for it, but the window of opportunity isn't in the cards today.

--

(You miss when gentleness wasn't more of a weapon than the raw, unfiltered violence Jack revels in. And you hate how he's made it more effective than any knife or match or bullet.)

--

Jack shoots his men.

And then he shoots you, two shots through the canvas, through ash and soot smeared likenesses of your parents' faces.

Searing pain blooms where your scars are still healing.

You go down.

It's not lethal. Not yet. And while struggling certainly isn't going to throw those odds in your favor, you know Jack too well not to expend the energy in an attempt.

--

"Heh. You should have never come back, Bruce." Jack says. Quiet. His voice sounds fuzzy, distorted, like you are ten feet underwater. "I was doing you a favor, you know? All ready to take the plunge and settle down and move on, like all your big plans used to go. We could have started over, if you could stay put in your cave like a good little bat. Hah. Who am I kidding? You wanna play it this way, well... who am I to stop you? We are two busy bees and homebodies to boot-" He kicks you in one bleeding spot when you try to crawl. "Just can't seem to stay away."

He kneels down, hand carding through your hair, takes your head and cradles in his lap before he's hauling you out of the fire and descending into the first cave, the one you haven't dared use since your return.

"I will say, I'm surprised you don't like my gift. You were the one already playing dead-"

You mumble an answer. Something delirious. Something you can help but say between gritted teeth, while Jack digs a finger into one of bullet wounds when you struggle and claw to escape him too much.

Jack ignores it.

"Shh, shh, shh. Brucie, I'm just helping you escape the limelight again, seeing as your uncle thought it best to blow your precious cover. And I know, I know, you weren't hiding from me, that would be monumentally stupid. We'd recognize each other's precious handiwork in the field anywhere. But I gotta say, getting back in the game so soon? I know you are a glutton for punishment with that whole, uh, masochism complex you got goin' on, and while I am always happy to oblige, just the once, I might have to put my foot down and insist on bedrest. Wayne Enterprises is supposed to give a whole year and a half of benefits when ya pop one out, and it seems a damn shame that the main kahuna doesn't lead by example."

--

"Criminals aren't complicated, Alfred. We just need to figure out what he's after."

"With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man you don't fully understand, either."

Bruce turns on his heels, fists clenched, jaw tensed and a yell almost escaping his throat on autopilot.

But when he sees Alfred's drawn expression, he waits. Even if the scream of, "I don't understand him? Me?" Rankles worse than any other insult Alfred could manage.

Out of everyone, he of all people knows Jack best.

That's exactly what made him so dangerous.

"Don't look at me like that. You don't understand him because you know what you want to see. You have suffered too thoroughly at his hands to be objective. Not through any fault of your own, but because of what he's done to blind you."

--

"Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn." Alfred stares at Bruce, so sure, and then swallows, looking older than Bruce have ever seen him. "And worse men... Worse men want to take you with them." He finishes, trailing off.

"Alfred-"

"When it comes to Napier, sir, it would be safe to say he doesn't care what he destroys, so long as he keeps you. And that is what you can't see, because you want to see the past differently. You want to either castigate yourself for your own perceived failure or take it out on the memory of a man who hid exactly who he was from all of us. You. Me. Selina. You are not to blame for that. But what we both need to understand is that he can't be reasoned with, because we don't know what he really wants. He wants you, yes. But we don't know what that really means- not when we didn't see the writing on the wall. That's why you can't fixate on him, Bruce. That's what he wants. That's what he's counting on."

"Then what am I supposed to do?"

"I wish I knew the answer. But if you want to make things right... Don't play into his hands. Don't be a dead man who he can make disappear all the easier. If not for your sake, then for the sake the son who won't know this family. Do it to keep him safe, and use your name where it counts."

--

The sign says, Welcome to Bat Country, thanks to your upgrades and a few loose cannons tied on a string-

And for the first time in a long time, you feel alive and untouchable and unbroken despite all the scars and bruises and wounds that have yet to heal.

You are taking yourself, and your city, back-

One night and one fell swoop at a time.

--

"Red Hood 347. I'm going to assume that was a stray shot and forgive you."

Jack shoots.

"I'm still going to kill you, of course. But I forgive you."

--

Ace is falling in on itself, choking with fumes and sparks and fire and stray metal catwalks breaking down.

--

"Where'd you stash him, hon?" Jack singsongs, "Where is our little baby blue-"

You say nothing, perched in the rafters.

"Silent treatment, huh? Ah, well. I do love me a game of hide and seek-"

--

Take my hand, you had said.

Of course, darling. He'd replied, But I'll lead, this time- and then tried to drag him down with you.

And now he's aping the same actions, waiting for you to hold out your hand and save him from the fall-

A scorpion ready to strike, as is Jack's nature.

Just as yours is somehow just as set. With you trying to pull him up, even as he lures you in close, because you still can't let him die.

"It's over." You say, the words bloody in your mouth.

"No, Bruce. It's only just beginning."

--

New fires spring up, Ace collapsing over itself into something far more treacherous and combustible, the wavy-heat of the fumes and sparks sizzling even though your mask filters enough of it out to function.

You stand there, frozen, as Jack holds out his hand above the bubbling, green chemicals, smile splitting his face. So smug. So sure.

"So. How about it, darling? You ready to do it right this time?"

And you take your outreached hand and it snatch it away.

--

"Happy anniversary!" Jack calls, as he falls into the pit once more.

--

You recover uncle Phillip's body from the morgue, and prepare for another burial.

--

You don't know if the Joker is immortal, or if he just heals so fast it's the same difference.

You don't know, if you kill him, if it would be murder after all.

And you can't take that chance-

Even though you need a way to stop him.

Even if he is one step ahead of you, every move you make.

Chapter Text

Jason, Age 5

There's a gloved hand pulling you away from the burning rubble.

You don't want to be pulled along by it.

But the grip is tight and bruising and you still can't feel your legs and it's too cold and you can't breathe, everything feels too close and there's the ringing in your ears and blood in your mouth and you feel like a kite dragged along by a hurricane.

You don't even feel real. You aren't sure you exist.

Not after the smoke and the fire and the imprints of things that were once people (once family) still rattling around in your skull.

Eventually, too late, you start kicking and biting and squirming. 

You almost slip past, thanks to your own sweaty palms slick against the gloves, but then the other glove comes off and catches you when you break free and there's something being pushed against your mouth and you are so sleepy, suddenly, it takes like cotton and grape juice and then you are tilting, lifting, and unceremoniously slung over a shoulder, your chin jarring against a bony collarbone.

The last thing you remember before everything starts to fade in the threadbare leather of a red car that smelled like both chemicals and hospital blankets, and the whole block fades into a block of grey as you lurch and screech out of what was once your home and is now nothing but ashes.

--

You wake up on a green couch, a very heavy dark blanket that does not match the ramshackle or barren or messy interior of the room at all half-slung over you.

(It's heavy and black and comforting when you shiver under it, even though you don't know the material and when you are so far from everything you know.)

You try to open a window, hoping to maybe use it as cover- but the windows rusted over and won't budge, and the fire escape taunts you with being so close and yet so far.

Problem is, the movement is hard to keep quiet- there's too many things strewn over on the floor, bits of machinery, paint, matches, legos, some stuff you don't recognize but steer clear of them, some in organized piles and some just scattered parts scattered every which way, and the noise seems to summon someone who's name even you know, young as you are.

Hard not to, with all the ruckus the clown causes on TV.

Why the Joker decided to bring you here, you don't know. But you aren't exactly keen on finding out.

(The adults always thought you weren't paying attention when they talked about it, but even you pick up on some things. Your pen pal from the other side of town got trapped inside the school that burned down when he had robbed a bank, and everyone knows who set the fire.)

You consider attempting to bite him if he gets too close, but then see the knife in his hand and back up on autopilot, falling back over the couch.

"Hey, no need to get all antsy. If I wanted to hurt ya... Well, you'd be in that building along with those nasty fakes who pretended to be your family." The Joker starts in.

You glare up at him, tears welling up anyway when you think of what happened to your parents. Sure, you may know they weren't your blood. But they were your parents and they loved you and now they're gone forever.

--

"Look, sonny boy. Life isn't kind. If you want to make your way in the world, you gotta be hard as nails and still see the humor in things. I'm doing what's best for you, here. Otherwise, this whole place will eat you alive."

Jason eyes the slavering dogs when he says it, watches them go mad over a haunch of what looks to be not-quite-steak that gets lobbed over the side of the balcony.

--

"You wanna know how I got these scars?"

"No." Jason finally answers. His first words to the figure he'd rather pretend isn't there but that he can't quite tear his gaze away from.

The Joker's mouth quirks. A bit too tight. Not quite a real smile, even if there's a fondness that belies whatever violence Jason is getting used to. (Reading him is all he can do, even if he can't bluff his way out of whatever game the Joker is playing. But he's getting better at reading his mercurial moodswings and getting out of the line of fire when he turns on him, all the manic energy and attempts at his own parody of evil parental instruction aside.)

--

"I hated her. But you know what I did? I got the nag in the end. And even if you hate me now, well, I say it builds character. I got knocked around a bit but turned out just fine. Don't see why a little discipline can't make you stand up for yourself and take this city by storm. It's your birthright, kid. And if you can't take a joke... Well, it'll make you tough as nails, anyway, if you're anything like the one you popped out of. But I think you'll take after me, when push comes to shove. I find the bright side of life so much easier to stomach."

--

"Shh, shh, shh."

The Joker smooths down Jason's hair.

"Look, kiddo. I am the biggest, baddest monster under the bed out there on Gotham's streets. And I'm the one who brought you into this world, cut you right out of the bitch who was lucky enough to be mine. And I promise, I'm going to make you fearless. Just like me. You're gonna be the scariest fish out there... aside from me, of course. So buck up. I'm only trying to help you."

--

"They did teach you something. They taught you how to burn, nice and crispy."

Jason howls and launches himself at the Joker, and Jack laughs, recognizing the way the mouth curls and the way the snarl rings the teeth.

That desperation and rage, that's all Bruce-

And that need to inflict damage, damn all the consequences, to make you bleed and to enjoy watching-

That's all you. 

--

"There you go, kiddo. You'll knock 'em dead in no time at all."

--Bruce--

There's no body to mourn, but you make the shroud and tamp down the earth and keep the vigil in the night anyway, a broken Kaddish on your lips and feeling the weight of it all crushing you so deeply you feel like you'll never feel warm again.

You cannot sit shiva and mourn, not properly, because you cannot accept what was done.

You will not accept it.

And you will not move on, because while you cannot change what has been done, you cannot undo this crime so heinous you can't live with yourself or anything else, but you can refuse to let it go.

You are going to hold it close even as it burns you and you are going to use it to end this, once and for all. To take the Devil down and let him bring you down with him it it means he can never gloat about this again or ever make a parent mourn their child even if you will never be absolved for this.

Chapter Text

"No more." You spit, the growling hoarseness of your voice just strong enough to yell,  "All the people I've murdered by letting you live-"

Joker spits blood and hisses, "I never kept count."

You throw another punch.

"I did."

"I know," Joker stabs the knife in, only for it to meet empty air when you dodge. "And I love you for it."

Then he's going in for another go, and you deflect, dodge, only you are too slow the second go around and it goes deep-

Joker gets thrown in the water as you throw him away, staggering and trying to staunch the bleeding.

Jack steps closer, deliberate- takes the knife and gives it a twirl before he's stabbing again, the batarang in his eye unheeded and barely registering even though it's only bleeding more and lodging deeper with every step he takes.

"It's finally here." He whispers, giddy, and then his voice crows louder, "The moment we've both dreamed about."

He shoves you down into the water as you try to stop the blade from inching closer than your head, and he half chokes you out while you try to keep his other hand grappled.

"Oh, don't tell me you're gonna fall asleep before we finish. Heh, you have gotten old, haven't you? Or are you just letting me get it over with, because you can't bear another second of living with the consequences? You had to know he was on borrowed time, Brucie. He was the moment you took him and yourself away from me."

He gives you another smile, and you punch it off his face, squirming free and kicking him prone.

Jack rises from his haunches, scrabbling like a bug on the ground before all the elastic energy turns into a contorted mess of muscle and condensed movement as he grounds himself in the unsteady weave he prefers.

But you've grown used to his erratic patterns.

You've been doing this dance a long time.

Too long.

But worst of all, is knowing that you are not only failing Gotham time and time again, but one of the few people you had tried to keep from the Joker from the end, even if you had to keep them distant.

That knowing that every second he breathes, Jason is dead and it's your fault for not ending this and that Jack is still getting what he wanted.

And that gives you the strength to push back and squeeze and feel him feebly kicking out from under you, for once the reversing the roles of being a bug pinned to the corkboard instead of how it's always the other way around.

"Not quite how I imagined it." Jack rasps, gasping under the weight of your hands around his throat, and he grimaces, too wide, when he adds, "But we can still end on a high note."

"Why did you do it?" You scream. "Why?"

The Joker is punched into the dirt, spitting blood, with your hands around his neck.

"You know why, Bruce. You always knew why."

Because getting to you was all that mattered to him, really, and everyone else was just a pawn.

And you are ready to finally end it.

You are ready to throw Batman into the void and all that Bruce Wayne is if it means this monster can't wreak more pain on this city and all those nameless people that have been lost, all the ones you knew and all the ones you don't and the son you never got to know because you couldn't handle any of it.

But then you stop, last second, hands loosening even when you want to wring them tighter, and the Joker chokes out a gasping rasp of eye with narrow, flashing eyes that almost look surprised and disappointed but still so very malicious and gleeful and haunting, for all the things that are promised there.

But you won't do it. You won't give him this. You won't let it all go down in the flames of another building.

Not because you can't but because once you do, you won't hesitate. Not with anyone else. You won't stop trying to break them, all those who hurt others, all those entitled, evil people in the world who chose their crimes and did not want to turn their face away no matter the cost, or anyone stupid enough to think that slipping up wouldn't lead down a darker road, even if they have the best of excuses or tragedies to explain their reasoning.

You won't be able to stop it once you start. You'd kill and kill again and say it was to save people and maybe it would save some, maybe it would stop some deaths but all it would do is make the cycle more vicious, all it would do is lead nowhere good. All it would do is prove Jack right, that one horrific tragedy and you are one step away from becoming just like him, just as heedless of others and what was good and right and gentle.

It would make you into something worse, something bitter and cruel and broken and more relentless and crazed than you already are, and even if the Joker miraculously died here and stayed dead, it wouldn't change all the whispers he'd left rattling around inside your head.

It wouldn't bring Jason back. It wouldn't heal the wound, or all the future that was lost, or the way Jack played with his life like it meant nothing.

And you cannot turn aside and let yourself lose who you are. Because if you do, it means Jason died for nothing. It means he took him and you couldn't save anyone else, ever again.

It would only make you the very thing you sought to destroy, in that alley, not because the Joker didn't deserve it but because you are so angry, so lost, so reeling from the weight of it all that it could crush you all too easily, the way you want to make the world ashes all because of a loss you should've been able to prevent and couldn't do anything in the aftermath because he's always been one step ahead of you, every second of every day.

You would not tarnish the memory of a child you gave up so that he might have a chance when neither of you did.

You may not be a good man.

You may not be able to do much.

But you are still vengeance. You are still Batman.

And if you can save anyone else- any child, any innocent person, anyone who could be held back from that abyss-

Then Batman you had to stay.

For their sake, and yours, and for the sake of everyone you have lost or haven't lost yet.

You cannot lose yourself to the Joker and what he wanted.

The best, and only vengeance you have, is holding the line, no matter how much your heart is breaking from it.

--
"That's the beautiful way you lie to yourself, Bruce. You aren't ready. Not yet. And if that's not gonna push you over the edge, then even I don't know what will. But I do so look forward to finding out, every step of the way."

--

"Bruce Wayne is like a caterpillar. Naive, idealistic. Never quite strong enough to face his own denial. Limited, predictable, but cute in how defenseless he remains. Batman is the chrysalis. Getting there, but not there yet. And he's stubborn. Not willing to burst forth and bloom into his own yet. No, to be what he can be all the ways I see who you are, deep down, I've gotta burn the whole forest to the ground. And out of the ashes a butterfly will come forth, more breathtaking and more twisted than anything I could make from the very heat and pressure that melted the world around it. You aren't that butterfly yet, Brucie, but you will be. All it will take is one bad day- that one worst day of all- and I'll finally have you in my net, one bat caught in the hand. And you do make it fun, quite the challenge, I'll give you that. You've seen a lot of bad days. But hey. I aim for the stars here. And I am used to thunderous applause once the show goes on. We haven't even made it to the intermission, the rate we're at." 

Chapter Text

--3 weeks after Dick has become Robin--

The first time Dick scrambles around in the kitchen past 12 on a night when Batman is not on patrol is the night the pale man makes himself known.

"Well, look what the Bat dragged in." The garish red smile is something Dick isn't sure how to process, in the darkness, the smile like something otherworldly and nauseating.

Dick says nothing. Puts his arms up, fists clenched, center of gravity low enough to stay balanced but light enough if he needs to do a few twists to leap away- as if he really has a chance, here, only three weeks into training with Bruce when faced with the Clown Prince of Crime himself.

(He knows the Joker knows about his training- little hard to miss it, tumbling around following Batman like he is. Bruce had said he wanted to keep the colors muted, but Alfred suggested something flashier, only to better keep tabs on Dick and make sure he was accounted for and out of the way in worse firefights. That, and Dick wanted color. He felt more at home in something like an acrobat's getup, even if flashy wasn't always practical enough. And while you find it serves a good distraction so Batman can stay out of the line of sight, Bruce would never condone something like that if mentioned aloud outright. That brings up too much guilt, and too many fears and loss that Bruce has not yet recovered from, even if he doesn't look at you and see the ghost of another kid.)

The Joker laughs at the motion, makes a Boo! and a lunge motion with his hands, and lets out a low, throaty hiccup of a laugh when Dick backs away as fast as possible.

Then the laughter subsides, eventually, and the Joker goes back to picking the last of the locks on the fridge.

"I'd ask if the Bat got your tongue, but you are such a scrawny songbird I'm not sure if you have the strength to sing." He murmurs, side-eyeing Dick, maybe bored, maybe otherwise preoccupied enough not to give a damn.

Dick remains silent, mouth pressed together in a thin line while the Joker combs back his own green-dyed hair back with a few twitching fingers. (There's no knife in his hands, even if the picks have been discarded on the counter- not that it means much.)

Dick wonders if he should yell for help, but keeps what Bruce told him in mind. That Joker likes an audience. That you flinch, or run, or talk a little too loud and the mood shifts.

That, and Bruce promised that if the Joker did show his face, to make his retreat as casually and quietly as possible. To press on the emergency alarm on the suit so Bruce can intercede and to try and keep out of arm's reach.

Then again, Bruce had said that the Joker breaks in, a lot, and that there was an agreement to not interact or arrest the villain, mostly because Bruce didn't want Dick getting murdered or abducted before he could get there and intervene.

The silence is stifling.

"You aren't supposed to come downstairs." Dick finally accuses, unable to help himself.

The Joker goes back to rummaging through the fridge, but pauses his low humming to give him another side-long glance.

"More rules. I can see why Bruce has grown so fond."

"Don't talk about him."

Then the Joker is lurching back, crouching, inches from Dick's face.

"Why so serious, little birdie?" He licks his lips and smiles, head canting to the side. "I've known him longer than you."

"You kill people. You don't get to act like... like..."

"Like we're best friends?" That makes the Joker laugh, full throated chuckling where he bends over, wheezing.

You don't find the sound particularly comforting, even if he's no longer preoccupied with you.

(I should probably get an adult, Duck thinks, back in the skittering parts of his mind that don't want to be brave even if the part of him that wants to be a hero wins out... Even if the sense-memory of Bruce's drawn face and worried voice almost makes him reconsider.

But if you don't, another voice says, Then you can prove yourself, and Bruce won't smother you or keep you from training, and you can figure things out on your own. 

Dick doesn't want to have to be worried about. He want to let Bruce sleep, and to prove the he can handle things even if Alfred and Bruce keep reminding him that while he is very capable and is a quick learner, that it is not his responsibility to try and bite off more than you can chew or do things alone.

The second voice wins.

"Why are you here?" Dick demands, trying to change the subject not to shift backwards, crossing his arms and tapping his feet until the Joker straightens and finally stops fiddling, having jail-broken the fridge open, pale white light a sliver half-blinding you both in the shallow, dimly lit room.

"The room service is unparalleled." The Joker drawls, making a say of barely paying Dick any attention even if they both know he's doing the exact opposite. Deciding on what whim to follow, maybe, if he isn't planning something worse.

(That's the biggest lie of all, Dick can see now. That the Joker doesn't plan things. Sure, he may roll with whatever he's facing, but he's got plans as much as anyone. He just doesn't get as ruffled when he has to change them as they go.)

Chapter Text

The paint itches, and makes Jason's lips taste like rotten soap.

Jason hates it, just like he hates how the Joker is dragging him along by the scruff of his neck until he drops him unceremoniously by the end of the pier.

"We made it, kiddo. So here's the scoop: ol' Johnny boy thought he could make everyone afraid. But that's not for the likes of you, no. And I promised to teach ya how to be fearless as me." The Joker throws his hands out with a flourish, tongue darting as he adds emphasis, "And with you being such a kinetic little thing, the best way to learn is to do. So, Jaybird- you're gonna sneak on in there, steal his stash-" The Joker forces Jason to turn his head and points to the warehouse 200 feet past the next dock, far enough to keep cover but close enough to make it into the sewer tunnels to the warehouse- not close enough to the hotbed where Croc is active, far enough from the no man's land where Penguin's munitions and Freeze's crew set up shop, which Jason is grateful for, after other too-close calls.

As he talks, the Joker crouches down and hands Jason a bag and a paring knife, "If you get caught... Well. We'll see where the wind blows. But don't worry, whether you sink or swim, I'll fish you back out from his clutches. After all, you're still learning- one way or another. But I have high hopes for you, kiddo. Now go make daddy proud and scram like your life depends on it!" The Joker punctuates his sentences with laughter that doesn't meet his eyes, which are cold, but Jason hasn't stuck around to notice.

He knows what the Joker gets like when in a mood like this, and he'd rather face the sewers.

--

Chapter Text

--Jason--

Only the door is ajar.

And you make your first real break for it. It's not your first actual escape attempt, and it's not rare for the Joker to leave you alone attended for days at a time, sometimes weeks.

But it's the first time you've had both in tandem, and you want your freedom more than you can bear.

--

Your eyes take too much time to adjust from the white florescence and constant-humming brightness of the rooms you've found yourself trapped in for so long, and even once outside, the constant hum remains inside your head.

You keep scrambling forward, half wanting to halt and take your time (no telling what traps might be set, even though the Joker seems so sure you weren't going anywhere), but the part of you that wants to run and keep on going forward until you can't feel your lungs wins out despite all carefully ingrained caution.

You trip and skin your knees, but it's hardly anything compared to long-healed over bruises, and you barely register anything save for the fact the wetness of the stone you've fallen on isn't something sharp, like nails (or worse, the beartraps you've seen lying around).

You take in a deep breath, and taste something metallic and cold and not quite open air, even though it's muggier and too stifling to be anything less than claustrophobic, even if that pales in comparison to the rote hatred of the same twisting corridors and blank walls you've been trapped in for months save for when the Joker tried to take you out on a job.

But outside, outside...

There is only darkness, and mist, and dripping stalactites. (And perhaps, the faintest, distant roar of rushing water.) And you find that freedom itself remains still too far, even though you grit your teeth and climb to your feet and keep on making your way through the darkness, your dim flashlight clutched in hand. You do not light it until you find yourself at least 200 paces from thin white brightness of the distant doorway whose threshold you never want to pass again, because you don't know what could be watching. And this might be the only chance you get...

--

"Doesn't it just take your breath away?"

--

When you get hauled back inside, you break a window.

Only when you break through the glass, the window is just a trick. Pretending to be the outside world, enough to give you a shock which sets your teeth on edge and burns.

You tell yourself the pain will keep you from focusing on worse things.

(You find yourself lying to yourself so often these days.)

--Jack, Age 14--

It's not every day you fall into a sinkhole.

It's also not every day you are soaked in your own blood, much more than usual, although you can't exactly claim that's as rare an occurrence.

Chapter Text

There's something afoot in the Narrows, a question without an answer that's got everyone in a hive of activity. And like any competent crime lord (with the best of intentions, sure, but still, crime pays and it pays well), Oswald isn't going to just let people waltz around dealing in information or arms without trying to muscle in on the territory.

By mutual agreement, everyone is acutely aware that the Clown is a problem, insofar he cannot be reasoned with or intimidated (and considering all attempts to off him continuously have been a wash). However, until a more permanent solution to end the clown's hijinks are reached, the tried and true method of dealing with him (aside from ignoring him or staying out of his hair) prevails.

And that means going down to the damn club that no one with any real sense has the gall or ability to try and take over- the same one the clown has been parading around in and making pop up like a circus tent within weeks of whenever the Batman shuts down his older operations.

Every time the Joker gets busted (or blows his own haunts up, or decides to set up shop somewhere else, either by muscling someone else out directly, or by settling in after another group has been fighting over territory, tires the other out, only for the clown to rip them apart for remaining scraps like a woodchipper chipping away), he jumps ship and sets up shop again, like a bad penny you can't shake.

As it stands, Poker Nights are a semi-monthly event. A time for well-respected criminals to swallow their pride and make nice with the other people trying to one up them- the pests and nuisances, petty small timers, the old mob crowd and the new money, up and comers, wannabees, along with any of the unsavory, batshit insane, or the infamous regulars to swing by and save face or to compare notes to try and stop the one enemy whom they remain against as a united front. (Barring the Joker. They all may be gunning for the Batman, but the Joker is in second place for the next one to go, if by some miracle they don't just take each other out and make everyone else's lives easier. That'd be the day, even though Penguin will never admit it.)

It's a little like an impromptu organized truce, if a truce was a game of craps with homebrew rules adding a loaded gun in a roulette game that could go off at any time and had no guarantees of any actual payout.

The Iceberg Lounge may be the Penguin's bread and butter, the creme de la creme for criminals with standards and style, and the hotspot of ferrying weapons back and forth or trading information around the upper echelons of high society.

But when it comes to raw data and suicidal brawn for hire and chemical warfare, he has stiff competition, and even now, Penguin will grudgingly admit, his establishment hasn't been cutting it against the draw the damn circus of a bar the Joker probably cooked up on a lark has maintained. How, he has no idea. The chintzy setup probably appeals to the masses, the lowest common denominator, like junk food, and thus easily propagates itself.

The Iceberg maintains a more sophisticated and discerning clientele, cutting out the rabble and ragtag scum from the more lucrative and reasonable patrons.

Although, if Oswald is being honest with himself, he knows the success differential is all because the clown trades in knowing secrets and getting under people's skin, moreso than anyone, and he does it thoroughly, right to the foundations, gets down deep to the barest levels of what people run on- and that's why he can get teams to do things that no sane man will do. (No one will admit that, though. Admitting a terrifying, gleeful madman whose idea of joy is evisceration and explosions and raw chaos can see people and really get them to lose it and lose themselves is not something anyone wants to think about, and so they all stuff that down and assure themselves that it won't happen to them, because they are smarter than the typical average Joe or pathetic civilian the Joker does go after, nevermind that the Joker sees everyone as the same brand of ants to be burned under the microscope with tender loving care.)

And that's competition, for you. Accepting what is in your control and what is not and keeping your business model afloat, anyway.

If you need blackmail material, worse than something the Penguin can provide, or something that will motivate desperate people with nothing to their name and nothing to lose?

You go to the Joker, and pray fortune smiles upon you instead of a bloody end too full of teeth and laughter. (The only thing you don't go to the bar is for general weapons- the Joker hordes all the gunpower, gasoline, matches, bazookas, and whatever other explosives or sharp objects he gets his hands on, enough that nothing that disappears into his clutches on the Underground sees the light of day until he's started unleashing it on people. Drugs, too, are a crapshoot, because the Joker doesn't like people riffing on his stuff, but he doesn't mind mixing things together to see what happens or letting people deal different stuff to muddy the waters or test new concoctions.)

So, you want to disappear and forge some papers and get a new life as a mole? You go to the Iceberg, if the Dollmaker doesn't find you first. You want to smuggle a crowd somewhere they shouldn't be? It's a crapshoot, because the Penguin will give you a guidebook and the means, but the Joker can get people in and out without anyone (not even the crowd themselves) knowing which way they got there, and that means the Bat has half a chance of not knowing, either. (The only issue is half the time, the Joker leaves people halfway through, and then you never hear from those unlucky souls again.)

You need to cover your tracks? You go to Penguin.

You want to erase anyone who ever knew you? You go to Zasz, and if you're still desperate, you go to Bane, and if that doesn't work then you go to the Joker and beg for mercy and he'll throw in a few civilians just for fun, unless he decides it isn't worth his while or boring and then he'll just do whatever he wants anyway.

You want to ferry one person into places one shouldn't be able to get into, or get access to some top-secret bioweapon or schematics? Somehow, the Joker has Oswald beat, even though the Iceberg does have a good smuggling gig for people and things, enough that he's not sure how he's being muscled out of that department. (That is, when the Batman isn't busting him, which so far, he's been disrupting everyone. He doesn't get the small groups as much- although when he does, the Joker still somehow falls off the grid and escapes punishment enough to get out of dodge, even when the Bat is in a rabid, relentless pursuit, even if the Joker leaves everyone else to take the fall and pick up the pieces.

You want security and a real plan? You got to Penguin.

You have your back against the wall? You go to everyone else you can think of before caving to check out whatever grift the Joker is selling, at least until he reveals whatever joke the circus he's running is, too. It hasn't imploded yet, even though everyone knows it's too good to last, but in the meantime, they'll take what they can get.

You need to hide from the Batman? You hope the Joker decides it's funny enough to throw you a bone, because nine times out of ten, it still doesn't work, and when it does, half of those times the Joker will just make you disappear forever. (The ones who do make it out, though, to Metropolis and other places, usually don't say shit, because then the Bat will try and track them down again, or the Bat enlists his international friends.)

When it comes down to the wire, if you want to test your mettle in a place where no one will start infighting because the Joker will just start gunning people down or threatening to blow it sky high? You go to the damn bar the Joker runs, because no one starts shit in the domain of a madman who is only toying with everyone. It's a little like banding against a common enemy, to put aside common differences to tolerate ones that need to be dealt with sooner rather than later.

But that day keeps getting put off, like a particularly unfilling birthday that sours more each year.

(The only familiar faces who are barred from the club are Hush- for reasons unknown, although there is a story there- and while Black Mask isn't banned, the Joker never stops making fun of him and trying to set him on fire or have him eaten by piranhas or to try out some new deadly joke like it's the best vaudeville act in history, complete with dinner and a show. So those two don't really mingle there, which means contact with them is instigated by other means... Not that very many do try, as half the time Black Mask is competition or just a slog to try and work with, and Hush is too autonomous and more of a solo act, too focused on some other goal that he only really deals with Clayface for gigs, although Riddler has mentioned that he may be reaching out more.)

The Joker also has a running gag that Catwoman is a welcome patron at any time, which everyone knows is just a standing invitation for them to kill each other as messily as possible, as everyone is all too aware of whatever secret bad blood has been there the moment they ever were in a room together. There's little speculation as to their history there- Catwoman is too lurid in her descriptions of her hatred towards the clown and his many crimes, and the Joker is all too... angry, his glee weaponized into something too pointed and trigger happy to the point where any insinuations that they ever got along in any form aside from hating each other's guts are immediately a wash. And it isn't just about whatever weird thing they have with Batman, because they don't really talk about him at all save when he meddles and swoops in trying to contain them or to stop said attempted murder of the other from occurring, because the Batman is too stupid to let nature run its course and leave it well enough alone.

That, and they both have said too many unguarded things- the only unguarded things, actually, that Penguin can recall, always whispering or yelling vaguely about what is best for a mutual friend and some kind of betrayal, so everyone just assumes they have a mutual acquaintance. (No one is stupid enough to try and guess who, as the Joker is more than efficient and deadly whenever someone tries to dig up dirt, to the point where everyone has stopped digging because the ones digging already got buried too fast. That, and while Penguin could guess, the only common thread the two seem to have- with Selina's secret identity kept close to the chest for leverage, and the Joker's well known love of theatrics- is Bruce Wayne, himself, and no one touches that hot mess with a ten foot pole, not since Clay Face tried to impersonate and had a nasty shock when the Joker intervened, and then went on a rampage. He even stopped laughing, which was more terrifying than his usual schtick.

So when it comes to Bruce Wayne, no one wants to know- especially since, for all his boring, vapid philanthropy and earnest efforts to engage with people in Arkham, everyone can't help but be a little fond of the stupid, well-meaning billionaire, particularly since all that seems to go to waste when he's being abducted by the Clown on the regular. The Penguin wouldn't wish that fate on his worst enemy, and he's willing to get his hands very red and dirty to make people pay, so that says a lot.

Batman also has a standing invitation, which would infuriate the general bar populace if everyone didn't know the Joker liked trying to lure the Bat in for any kind of attention and to break him, so they don't really take that personally. The clown is unhinged and obsessed and doesn't shut up about it, and it's one reason Penguin is grateful that most of the time, he can avoid Arkham for greener pastures free of the prattle and laughter.

Aside from that crowd, there's a whisper at a few more unwanted patrons, but no one knows the truth. It's only vague details- that owl nursery rhyme Penguin thinks is a droll and superstitious hoax, and the whispers of those shadow people no one seems to have any concrete intel on. Whoever those weirdos are, if they exist and aren't some wild figment of the clown's bizarre consciousness or another inside joke only he finds funny, apparently they are all personae non grata- with the caveat that if they show up, the Joker will welcome them in with open arms and a smile just so he can slaughter them faster. (The Penguin doesn't get it, but that's not saying much. The clown doesn't make sense, and that's his whole deal. If he isn't just insane and honest about his crazy, then he just likes screwing with everyone for digging to even be worth the while.)

With all that strange humdrum aside, the fact is, everyone needs ears on the ground to be prepared for Gotham's changing tides. And when your goons and your teams can't get solid intel, there is only one place to go. Because the Joker, more than anyone- not even Hush or Strange, who both know too much they shouldn't (although Hush gets his ass beat by Joker on the regular, and Strange is often MIA out of self-preservation, having pissed too many people off on both sides)- is the one who seems to know everything, provided he doesn't outright lie for his amusement. (By now, everyone knows not to go to Harley to fact check- she may take a shine to Croc and take pity on him, but the bird is ruthless and spares no pity or consideration for anyone else, and she would just as soon bust in your teeth for the hell of it if she's in a mood, or get Ivy to join in on the fun if the Joker isn't trying to off her instead. The Joker himself is easier to predict, in some ways, seeing as everyone already knows he's always trying to screw everyone else over and that you'd have to ferret out the truth from the things he's thrown in for a lark, anyway, whereas Harley's pity or nastiness really depends on the day.)

And that is why the Penguin finds himself in this garish, far too loud and flashy dump with smiles and too many smiling patrons who drop dead half the time against his better judgement, when he could be doing more enjoyable things.

But he's no imbecile.

He's going to get in, get the information he needs, and get out. All business.

No distractions. No things that can bog him down and get in the way.

(Even if there's a lot of juicy rumors going around- especially about the kid that the Joker has been sending in, lately, and the Batman's weird crusade about it, how he's been oddly intense about trying to pin down the Joker (more than usual)- and just the Joker- and he's roughing up everyone far more in the interim for intel.

The whole affair, secret and hush-hush as it is, has caught everyone's attention- not just because the kid snuck into their hideouts and lived, which is a feat on it's own, but because the Joker never really takes on kids for his crew. Sure, he'll take anyone, but with the mortality rate his crews have, the kids generally don't make the cut, and the smart street rats know to stay out of the way. Whoever this new blood is, they mean trouble, and a variable to account for, and Penguin likes having the books balanced.)

But that being said, the Penguin can't afford to indulge petty, inconsequential distractions, no matter how curious, especially since the clown will sniff that out and lord it over everyone, thanks to the ego on him. And the Penguin has more important matters to tend to.

He needs to sweeten the pot and get the clown to buzz off on his operations to make a payday if he can somehow find a way to make a deal that might last for a day or two before their associates inevitably try to kill each other again. Right now, a few weeks before the first referendums hit, the Penguin has too much on the mayor not to try and make a play, and it's increasingly difficult to do that when the Joker is trying to blow him up or otherwise torment him at random along with everyone else, thanks to his love of very public and very deadly spectacles with too wide a scope to manage. And his fondness for staking out fountains, and hospitals, and parades. Honestly, who blows up a parade and laughs about it?)

Not that the Penguin intends to be crass or obvious about their mutual dislike while engaging in negotiations. (He's not like Riddler, bless his emotional heart, who can't hold his tongue or keep a lid on his indignation and outrage so much that the Joker will not stop baiting him to the point of ridicule and an inability to hold a conversation for more than five seconds. Nor is he like Scarecrow, who can't hide a grudge to save his life. The Penguin knows better- they all do- especially since the Joker makes Scarecrow the butt of every joke he can find funny and hasn't stopped tormenting him or interfering with his operations for years. Bane, even though he comes off as slow, at least has the common sense to hide the vitriol behind a veneer of respect, which no one understands how he pulls off. He just rolls with whatever spews out of the clown's mouth, when everyone expected him to tolerate the clown the least. There's a story there, too, one no one has unpacked, either, but some stones are best left unturned. That, and it frankly seems both suicidal and boring to dig, seeing as the Joker doesn't really interest Penguin and while formidable, Bane does remain too much of a threat and too mundane to care about his plans. Unless he decides to try and destroy Gotham's infrastructure again, the Penguin and Bane do not do business and only ever cross paths to deal with mutual headaches, or bat infestations.)

Too much on his mind and too much to account for, by the time he finally makes his way through the muck and labyrinthine alleys, and correctly enters the password to the doorman. The Penguin centers himself, tips his hat, then stabs a clown who laughs at him with his umbrella once inside, then promptly sits himself down at the gaudiest table with the least amount of patrons and the highest amount of chips towering as high as can be managed.

The usual crowd is small, but it's still got a noticeable draw of the notorious or the familiar.

However, Mad Hatter, Croc, and Zsaz are absent, which is odd, seeing they are the few that don't really pay much mind to the clown, enough to be regulars and to not seem like this place is personally detestable to their constitutions. While the other regulars all hate the place and it's benefactor- Riddler, Scarecrow, Ivy, and Freeze- they still show up enough for their absences to be considered downright concerning. Ventriloquist, Clayface, Firefly, and Man-Bat, aren't usually around, even though they don't seem too bothered by the ambiance or the crowd or the clown's manners when they do show (and even if Clayface is still scared stiff of the Joker enough to barely say two words to him directly, which is a blessing in disguise, everyone supposes, seeing how the two might otherwise get on like wildfire, with their knack for theatrics and getting into character. Penguin will be grateful for the bullet dodged, even if he doesn't want to know what could scare a mutated clay). And while Calendar Man would like to be a regular, but he only really gets in on games when Harley joins in, seeing as no one else pays him much attention, seeing as he usually hangs around the lower stakes tables. Deathstroke hardly shows his face, even less than Deadshot (which is odd, since it is Deadshot who tries to keep his head down, even though the clown and him have some beef, while Deathstroke is almost tolerated), and the rest of the other mercenaries show up on a blue moon unless they are looking for huge payout, and the only rarer patron to the big table is a very desperate mob member from the old guard, or Strange when he has no where else to hide and when he's willing to make a true gamble.

Harley is sometimes there, sometimes not- depends on how much the Joker wants her around or not, and how much she's in a mood. She isn't around right now, which can mean he's either in a nasty mood, she's plotting out something in the works, or she just is on the rocks with him again. No telling which unless she or Ivy spill the beans down the line, seeing as the Joker hardly acknowledges Harley's transience unless she's caught his attention, for good or ill, or he's on an upswing and dragging her deeper into whatever mess of a relationship they have, or they are doing a bit of comedy no one really wants to laugh at.

Today, the only patrons are Dollmaker, Grundy, and Bane- and he is more than a surprise, since as the juggernaught only seems to show up in dire emergencies or when he's not working a gig that goes directly against the clown, and that usually means something real serious is in the works. No one really understands their interactions- Bane acts civil and respectful, which, he of all people, doesn't need to do, seeing as he's built like a tank and the clown hasn't seemed to have made a dent to him directly yet through any means at his disposal compared to everyone else, even if it makes sense to be cautious when engaging with a man immune to fear or basic common sense. The fact that Bane does level that respect is just odd, and the fact that the Joker has only half-heartedly tried to kill him so far is suspicious.

But that's a problem for another day. Right now, Penguin needs to focus on what matters. And that's guns, goons, and haggling for breathing room or a mutual boon, with maybe some Bat-gossip thrown in.

"Deal me in." Penguin starts in.

The Joker grins at him, and only nods. No laugh, which might mean he concentrating, or might mean he doesn't give a damn. (The Penguin doesn't care either way, but has learned to read some signs just based on having a gun or a knife pulled on him for something innocuous, although it is best to be prepared for any eventuality considering the Joker's very well known fervor for attacking people for fun. Which the Penguin understands, even though he thinks violence should be reserved for annoyances- but if everyone annoys the Joker, then he supposes it makes some sort of twisted sense, in a man who doesn't make sense at all.)

Bah.

Who cares, he can't let the clown inside his head before the game even starts. No misplaced curiosity is worth it.

What's worse is that battle is already half lost, and the Penguin finds himself thrown, almost distracted, because there's a damn scrawny kid sitting on a stool next to the clown himself, close enough for the Joker to put an arm around (or a gun to his head) if he wanted.

And the Joker never lets anyone sit near him, not even Harley. (Well, maybe an exception, Bruce Wayne, but that's an entirely different can of worms that every villain and good citizen of Gotham politely avoids discussing. It's not worth the hassle.)

And he doesn't let kids in the establishment, even if they are part of crews like the Dollmaker's, and the ones that are already part of something or living on the streets get their own lodgings with people their age somewhere else past the bar itself. Why, no one knows. It's not like the Joker has standards, but for whatever reason, kids are either deemed a hassle or not worth the attention, or just seen as a point of contention between factions that isn't worth the cost of business, although anything that doesn't drum up mayhem doesn't seem the Joker's style. But as long as no one has to regularly clean people's brains off the walls, no one really cares to get into it, although knowing the Joker, it's either something to do with the Batman and the long con the Joker has planned, or it's just the petty fact everyone knows the Joker hates sniveling and screaming kids who won't listen because they don't have a filter. It might be he just doesn't want to waste the bullets.

No one wants to think about why, but it's the novelty of the fact the kid is there at all. Sure, the Joker has no rules.

But breaking a long established pattern is odd and frankly, has the precedent to be terrifying, because when the Joker is changing things up, things get messy and not too fun for anyone at all.

"I want a nice clean game, gen-tle-men." The Joker says, slurring his vowels on purpose. Too amiable, too relaxed, even if his wiry frame is always hunched and coiled like a snake ready to strike on a whim.

"That'll be a first." The kid in the clown face paint mutters, eyes darting around as he kicks his feet out and makes contact, enough to make the table shudder.

The Joker raises an eyebrow, still grinning, but the kid slouches lower when a gloved hand lights down on his shoulder.

"What's that phrase I told ya, kiddo?"

"Better to be seen and not heard."

"And you wanna remind me why-"

The kid trips over his words, rushing them out.

"Because I'm supposed to be watching," The kid bares his teeth in something that looks like it's supposed to be a grin, only it just looks hateful and furious, "And learning."

"That's m'boy. Anyway, the rest of you stiffs, stop hoarding all that loot and let's get this party rollin'."

"Who kid?" Grundy grunts.

Joker sneers too wide. "None of your beeswax. Kay? So, now that the blather is out of the way, what brings you, ah, fine gentlemen to my doorstep?"

"Would professional courtesy be too much of a reach?" Oswald can't help the sarcasm that seeps into his voice.

Okay, so maybe he's not so good at hiding the dislike. What can he say, the lack of class and the whole demeanor always puts his teeth on edge.

Chapter Text

Jason considers trying to go to Batman.

But it's too risky. The Joker seems to be dangling him like bait, close yet far enough to keep whatever joke he's concocted from being obvious, and why Jason can't fathom a method to the madness, he knows that the Joker is using him to get under Batman's skin.

And, maybe unfairly, Jason isn't sure he wants Batman to catch him.

He doesn't know if Batman has taken an interest because he wants to play hero, or because he's got ulterior motives. They all know how much he wants to throw the Joker in Arkham forever, and while Jason would dance when that day comes, he knows better.

He's a criminal and complicit, too, and he doesn't think Batman would give him a chance.

(Or worse, he would. And he'd still find Jason lacking- or, worse, he'd pity him and dump him somewhere and then Jason would be a sitting duck, waiting for the day Joker came after him again while trapped in a system that would treat him like dirt.)

Then again, there's a good reason not to trust anyone who dresses like a fucking animal in this city.

It's not as if Batman could be considered a paragon of stability, himself, and Jason isn't going to tempt fate with more potential madness.

The fragile hope isn't worth it, and you can't afford to take too many risks on childish, naive mistakes.

That's how you fall, and don't get back up.

--

In the chaos, Jason sees his opening and makes a break for the tunnels, heedless of the gunfire and smoke and laughter.

--

Grundy and Croc are excellent roadblocks for anyone trying to tail him, and while it won't slow down the Joker much, Jason hopes that between the firefight between the four heavy-hitters and the chaos of the unfortunate patrons of the bar that he's slipped through the cracks and evaded any attempt at a trace.

Besides, even if the turf infighting dies down, there's a chance that if Batman gets involved, Jason knows the Joker will have more on his plate to worry about, and if it comes to that, he might have enough time to make a clean break.

(Even if Jason can still smell the sickly chemicals and gasoline on his tongue, even when hoping the tunnels and intersecting sewer system can drown it out. Even when Jason can still feel all the bruises left, like he'd never escape the Joker's grasp.)

--

Halfway past crime alley, Jason pitches on to the farthest rooftop he can sling them, and uses the puddles of water to further throw any attempt at sniffing him out, or worse.

Some of the dogs might be fond of him, but that wouldn't stop the Joker from siccing them on him to retrieve him- Jason knows that much from past failed escape attempts.

--

Catherine 'Call-Me-Trina' Todd (nee Garcia, although she's not exactly in good graces with the rest of her family, with their new money fix and attempts at climbing the political ladder, and only considers the last name she chose to be her real one after becoming the black sheep), doesn't turn Jason away when he climbs through the window of the rusty fire escape. She tosses him a towel and a too-big t-shirt, and doesn't make a move to approach when he attempts to dry himself off and tend his wounds. When Jason catches his reflection, he looks like a ragged dishcloth, soaked to the bone, one black eye and a split lip with green dye dripping into runoff on his clothes, and calloused, muddy feet tracking over the cheap green linoleum. Once they make their introductions and Jason realizes he's not going to be kicked back to the curb, considering her habits, isn't exactly someone whose judgement Jason trusts completely. But she offers shelter and a roof without expecting anything in return, even if she's strung out on who-knows-what drugs half the time and prone to wild mood swings. Compared to the Joker, it's a piece of cake to deal with, even if Jason is terrified she's going to go to sleep one night and not wake up.

But keeping tabs on her, making burnt stovetop dinners, and making sure she's tucked into a blanket with a pillow propped under her head even if she's passed out on the floor, becomes half his mission.

He considers it paying his share, partially, even if it's deeper than that. It keeps him from focusing on all the things he can't fix.

But he might be able to help her, even if he still feels like he's drowning and can't surface for air.

And she, at least, offered some compassion, in a world where Jason was hard pressed to find any.

--

As for Willis- he's another story. He is, to put it far too gently, very rough around the edges, and close enough to the low level bookkeepers and small fry Jason is used to seeing on the fringes of every higher operation. It's not enough to put Jason off when he asks for him to join in once in a while, seeing as they both know Willis knows enough people to possibly sell Jason out if the going gets too tough. It's a mutual understanding, a business transaction, on his end. Learning Jason's tips and tricks to keep himself from getting in over his head, and maybe taking pity on a kid whose had his life upended, but also saving his own skin, because they both have something to win or lose if the truth gets out he's harboring the kid both Batman and the Joker seem to want to either grill for information or spirit away, either to get one up on the other, or in some attempt to save Jason from the company he found himself in.

Jason would like to think Willis Todd is a better man than the blackmail would imply, but not even the faint memory of his father Luis can compete with what he knows about people turning on each other for a quick buck or to spare themselves and their loved ones the wrath of mad dogs ready to make Gotham their own personal playground. He knows, if Penguin or Zsaz or someone who has something to gain from selling him out and find out through the low level mooks, that unless they want to gamble or try and press Jason into service instead, that the Joker will hear through the grapevine, and will come for what he considers is his.

Jason does not want that. Jason wants to hide in plain site and stick to whatever will keep him out of the way, even if a normal life is barred to him. And if he lets off some steam by scaring off any of Willis's potential competition and saving his hide, then that's the price he pays.

It's not as if Willis is doing what he does for entirely selfish reasons, either, even if he isn't a saint by any means. Trina is sick, and even if she wasn't, they'd have to get enough money for clinics and food and clothes any way they can manage. Jason understands that all too well.

Once they iron out the nature of their agreement- Jason's anonymity and their small home base as a sanctuary in return for help on petty crimes, low level theft below other peoples' radar that can still make enough for bankroll, and silencing people who might talk too loud or endanger certain operations', with the caveat that any drug running doesn't go to kids if Willis has any say- after that, Willis is almost too eager to absorb Jason in his operations once he realizes how quick on the uptake he is (not that that was much of a surprise, considering the state Jason arrived in- they can infer enough about who he was and where he came from, with the way the rumor mill has spun).

And while things do get tense- Jason isn't thrilled about the infighting between the two of them, nor is he a fan of the other runners and criminals who sometimes crash there, or the petty thieves who know too many people for Jason to sleep easily, or the thin edges of ragged mafia men turned to desperate measures to keep themselves in the game, or, heaven forbid, someone higher on the food chain who knows Penguin or Croc or one of the low level mooks Joker sometimes lets live (it's not often, but there are a few, like Frank, his favorite getaway driver when he doesn't feel like offing everyone- who could spot Jason on sight, and Jason can't have that)- but Jason stays out the way. Silent and invisible or as aggressive and uncompromising as possible, with Willis covering for him if spotted, because it's not like Jason cares to rat them out either, although with the bad apples, he'd like to talk to with his fists if they aren't doing their trade out of desperation and dire straits and threats leveled by sharks.

Jason doesn't really have a gauge for restraint. You do what you need to do and you move on and if people have a problem with it, as long as they can't get dirt on him, he's not letting anyone make him a doormat.

But even with that promise to himself, when possible, Jason keeps his head down and focuses on what he can do, instead of all the things he can't. (Even if he's used to being able to let loose, having it demanded on him as the Joker asked him to push the envelope and become someone else, something Jason doesn't want to be. He will keep all that deep inside and not let it out if it means he can pretend it's all over.)

And Willis, despite their fragile truce and the many times they do not see eye-to-eye, is still not something Jason can manage to be afraid of. He's seen people far crueler and wilder, and only has enough fear left for one thing.

And if he wants to hide, doing it in plain sight and under pettier circumstances with one ear to ground seems like the only thing to do. You have to keep a pulse on which way the tide is turning, and where the gangs and operations are going to be if you are going to stay as far away as possible.

(After all, Jason has tried to escape to an honest life, only for the Joker to blow it all to pieces whenever he found a social worker or concerned civilian or an officer not on someone else's payroll. And bleakly, Jason thinks this is probably as good as it gets. It's not like anyone in that world of locked doors and steady lights and easy money could likely handle what he knows, after all the things he's survived.)

--

When she isn't high as a kite, Catherine tells Jason's stories her family used to pass down, preferring stories that are more rooted in folklore than anything more close to home.

(She does not speak of La Llorona, however, until dosed with a bad batch mixed with Scarecrow's creation. It is one of her greatest fears- why, Jason does not ask, although he knows enough from what Willis and her argue about that there was a miscarriage, once.)

In some ways, it brings them closer, helping her weather the fears. Still, when the drugs ebb, they go back to lighter topics.

They are both too acquainted with those kinds of stories- too many horror stories made real, so much that they'd rather escape to anything else, even if Jason can't stomach the means by which Trina tries to drown out her own demons more often than not.

Sometimes, Jason tells Catherine of the little history he managed to research of his old family, the Varons, and one man who fled from the Inquisition and made his home here, and passed down his small business to his children. Even if he doesn't know his blood family save for the one infamous figure he'd rather not, his adopted family has always been the real one, ready to give him a place when he felt like he'd have none.

And sometimes, he tells her she reminds him of a woman named Miriam, and thinks he sees the ghost of a smile on Trina's face that looks like the one someone else used to give him.

It's not the same, not exactly, but the warmth and the memory of what once had been and was no longer still aches, even as Jason is desperate to keep memory of a smile that didn't make him want to cry alive.

--

Two months later, when Jason goes to light candles for Hanukkah, she stops him from making his own menorah, having found one already, and when Jason stands on his tiptoes to put it somewhere it wouldn't manage to burn the whole complex down, Willis helps him perch it in the windowsill.

When Christmas comes, the city holds it's breath, ready for all manner of terrible things, but in one tiny apartment in the narrows, Jason helps Trina drape some battery operated lights over the fullest tree he could uproot and haul from the nearest park over five away.

--

Dick swings past the window, and doesn't dare chance to use the coms for fear of interference, in case of any unfortunate wire-tapping.

No, he finds Batman directly, after the firefight dies down and the scene is secure, the wind howling over the rooftops, enough to make eavesdropping nigh impossible.

"Bruce. I think I found a lead."

Chapter Text

Jason knows he has to work fast.

It's not every day the Bat's swanky ride just sits ready for the scavenging.

(And part of him, maybe, deep down, wants to be caught. He's so tired, with Trina gone, and Willis dead in prison, and being on the move again, with the Joker on the prowl and snatching up new turf left and right, so much that Jason feels like a mouse in a maze trying to keep his head down, with all the walls closing in-

He put out a bounty on him. And that's got all the crime bosses out for blood, and making his own attempts to keep his head above water harder than ever.)

Crime Alley isn't exactly a safe place. Far from it. But it's the only place that seems calm before the storm, like no one's set their sights on it yet.

--

Only when Jason looks up next, wiping his brow as he almost hauls another rim off, he sees a very tall, black-cowled figure looking at him, stock-still. Mouth parted, so slightly, and all the color draining out of his face. (Or at least, the parts of his face Jason can see.)

Jason books it.

"Jason?" (The voice is so quiet, he isn't sure he imagined it.)

Only he can't help but glance behind, sees an outstretched hand-

And something in that voice stops him in his tracks.

"Jason, wait-"

It's not just recognition, or shock, or the expected Batman's on-a-mission-and-he's-on-the-hunt growl Jason expects to hear.

It's quiet, hoarse, only turning into a yell because there's something so broken in that voice, so lost, so desperate, and with it, Jason suddenly realizes something else, crystal-clear.

Batman knows who he is. Not from the Joker, not from anything else-

He knew him. He knew his family.

And Jason turns around, and when the Bat skids to a stop to halt the pursuit, with the reaching hand and outstretched cape is too close, held out at him like he thinks he's smoke, like he doesn't know how close he is, he remembers that this is Gotham, and attempts to whack Batman's hand with the tire iron out of principle.

Just because it's Batman doesn't mean you don't put up a fight. (And Jason knows he is a criminal. There's a lot the Bat could want to drag him in for.)

Batman holds up his hands and doesn't pull Jason any which way.

But he does catch the tire iron. Stops it right in it's tracks, before he drops it and it clatters to the ground, loud yet sounding so very far away.

"Are you okay?"

"How do you know my name?" Jason demands, keeping his stance wide and ready to bolt again at a moment's notice.

Batman goes silent. Swallows. Like he doesn't know what to say, until...

"We've met, once or twice. Miriam and Luis... They were good people."

Jason stares at Batman, and Batman stares back, uncertain, still holding up his hands, palms out, like he's forgotten what he was doing with them. (Jason remembers, then, shadows at the window, after his parents met with whatever official guy in a suit checked up on them from time to time. And then he thinks, a little hysterically, that he's the first person to see the Batman look anything other than composed and terrifying, because right now, he just seems lost and dazed and fiercely protective in a way that Jason isn't used to in any capacity.)

"Would you want to get out of here?" Batman asks. "It's not safe-"

"I think, with you in this alley, it's the safest it'll ever be." Jason can't help but answer, on autopilot, a bit too overwhelmed already. Crime Alley isn't a joke, and Batman looks shaken, but there's a look in the set of his jaw that is both determined and frantic and gentle enough that Jason can tell he means no harm.

"Look. You don't have to trust me, or believe me. And if you want to leave, I know some places you can go to escape the manhunt. But... It would mean a lot if you'd let me help you. You look like you haven't eaten in days."

"I can take care of myself." Jason spits. He doesn't know why he's biting the hand literally offering to feed him, but old habits die hard and he doesn't know how to process all this at once, and... And...

"You shouldn't have to, Jason. You're just a kid." Batman says, so softly. "And while I have no doubt in your skills, you deserve to have your life back. You deserve a home and a proper place to rest and not to have to hide in alleys any more."

Batman holds out a hand.

Jason hesitates, then takes it, more certain than he's ever been.

The batmobile opens, and Batman lets Jason climb in while he replaces the tire. (Even if getting in a strange car is usually a bad idea, Jason has already seen too much to care, and it's Batman. Guy might be odd, but he beats up criminals and saves people, which means he's far better than the other people Jason's been forced to go on joyrides with. And he gave Jason the choice.)

Jason also takes Batman up on his offer to grab some food and pay the tab.

He's not exactly trusting him entirely, really. (Trust is too valuable a commodity to give away too easily.)

But he knows that Batman has him in his sights, and even if he isn't lying about letting him go, Jason knows it's very hard to outrun Batman.

(And honestly, if he's being real with himself, this is the safest he's going to get.)

(And he'd missed that. He'd almost forgotten what that felt like. A weight lifting off his chest, making it feel like he can breathe.)

--

Inside the car, Batman seems to be debating himself, or still shaken, too. Jason knows he doesn't talk much (both from the rumor mill and previous encounters where Jason only caught a glimpse of him in action before being ferried away or getting out of dodge), but he is being oddly intense about trying to decide on if he wants to open up.

"I'm sorry." Batman says, finally. Like that's the only thing he can settle on.

"What?"

"I'm sorry. He shouldn't have been able to find you. You were supposed to be s-"

Jason cuts him off, not wanting platitudes and pity or to remember much of anything.

"Well, he did. Don't beat yourself up about it too badly. The Joker is good at achieving the impossible. Hell. I'm surprised we lasted as long as we did."

There's a silence.

"They were friends. And good people. And I should have found you sooner-"

"I did endeavor to make it difficult." Jason yawns, and cracks a thin smile before adding on a hasty, "Sorry."

"You are the last person who needs to apologize. You were surviving. That's a feat on its own, and a burden you shouldn't have had to bear."

"Yeah, well life doesn't care who you are. Them's the breaks." Jason says, too tired, suddenly, and he swears Batman half-flinches at his tone. (And then he remembers all the times the Joker said that to him, the same way, and wants to disappear or break skin or curl into a ball. Because he knows Batman knows. Batman knows exactly what the Joker is, Jason can tell.)

There's another pause, and Jason shifts and fiddles with his ratty sleeves, then hazards taking another bite of the burger. (Batman has kept on telling him to slow down, or he'd make himself sick. Jason, for all his enthusiasm, had tried to listen because he knew from past experience what scarfing down stuff too fast while starving was like, but resisting the urge is a struggle. A welcome, distracting one, for all the ways today has thrown everything off balance.)

"Did you know my..."

He doesn't say mother. He can't, not just because Batman cuts him off, but because doesn't know what unfortunate person was the focus of the Joker's attentions. Because he doesn't know her face.

"Yes."

"What was-"

"Your family wanted what was best for you. They wanted you to have a chance. And your birth parent, they would have given themselves up to the Joker if it meant you were safe from him. They sent you away to keep you safe."

I know, Jason thinks. Touching the remnants of a note in his pocket where the scraps he'd managed to save, ashen, blurred words on a piece of paper he'd lost to the fire. The only real link, the real words, said between him and someone who made him and loved him in a way he still can't quite comprehend.

"Like witness protection." Jason mumbles.

Batman nods, and keeps glancing a him, like he can't stop looking away, in between driving through the side streets.

It would be unsettling, except now Jason knows a bit too much.

If Luis and Miriam were friends, or at least Batman had been trying to guard him, it makes sense. Especially if he knew his mom, and had a hand in helping her get Jason out from under the Joker's thumb the first time. (It makes sense, too, based on the distant history he remembers, with Batman gone for a year. Maybe he'd been looking for his mom, the whole time. It checks out, with his birthday.)

Jason can imagine, someone as serious as the Batman, struggling to honor friends and thinking he'd failed all of them. (And he wonders, too, if he and his mother were more than friends.)

(And more than that, Jason knows a liar when he sees one. Despite only being acquaintances, he can tell this much: Batman might not be telling him everything, might be keeping some things under wraps or close to the chest, but he isn't lying about this. The pain, the exhaustion, the inability to keep looking at Jason like he doesn't know what to do but he's so grateful to have found him...

That's real.)

And it makes Jason feel like he has a fucking chance.

Chapter Text

Jason stares at the box of fruit loops, frozen, until he tries to beat everyone in range with it, mouth curled into a smile that isn't one, not one bit.

--

"Don't go up to the East Wing, Master Jason."

"Why not?"

"It's the least fortified part of the house, and forbidden." Dick says, a bit too quickly.

"That's some real Beauty and the Beast shit right there-"

"It's also where Master Bruce's parents generally frequented." Alfred adds, very grave and terse.

"Oh."

"Yes. For your safety, and Bruce's general peace of mind, we all avoid the area. However, if you are ever looking for Master Bruce when he is in a brooding mood, I'd recommend the gardens, batcave, or pool. He generally frequents those places when trying to think, and only heads up to the East Wing to patch security or take a nap when he wishes to go undisturbed."

"Most of the time, he'll be in the batcave, though. He'd live there full-time, if he had the chance."

Despite the answers being more than adequate, Jason still noted, out of the corner of his peripheral vision, how Dick's face had screwed up into some kind of panic, and then met Alfred's eyes.

They are hiding something, united in some mutual understanding, and Jason wonders what remains unsaid.

(It's not like he doesn't know Bruce is Batman, considering how he was picked up.)

--

But once Jason grills Bruce about where the boundary lines of the house are, and why he shouldn't go up there, he lets his hackles rest and decides it's not worth investigating, not if he can practice moves on other rooftops and the main concern. Bruce, at least, is being more straightforward about it, even if he looked very, very tired at the question.

"If you ever need me, and you can't find me, comm me. I've always got one in." Bruce assures. "But I do need a place I can go that no one else frequents. Everyone has their own space. And if you can't get ahold of me, I'm out in the field, and we always have someone keeping tabs."

--

Bruce turns his head away, muscling in his jaw too tense from the things he's had to hide. But he's had to learn to be a better liar than Alfred or Dick, with all the secrets he's had to keep, and all the things resting on his shoulders.

And he'll be damned if Jason finds out the Joker can get in any time, or hears something he shouldn't. Or walks in on the price Bruce will pay so long as he can't ensure Jason's safety and can't find a permanent way to keep Jack out of his life. (If his son is to have his freedom, if he can get Jack to only focus on himself and not their son, then he will pay whatever price is necessary.)

Jason deserved far better than this. (And it's the only kindness Bruce can give him. The only assurance that the Joker will never touch him or see him or take him back, so long as Bruce keeps playing the game Jack has stacked against him the moment Jason was made.)

He's so tired of the secrets. But they are better than the Hell waiting on the other side, if the truth is allowed to see the light of day.

--

The Joker has three dogs that tend to stick around. One is a nasty customer, more than mean and encouraged by the Joker to be that way, thrown into every possible scenario that would bring that side out. Jason honestly wondered if she was half-rabid or experimented on by some toxin, with how out of her head she acts when she's in a mood- and he hates that dog the most, because it's the one that liked to chase him and bite him and helped the Joker drag him back inside if the Joker didn't do the deed himself. The Joker named that one Sunny, and she was a right bitch by all accounts, even after Jason tried to get her to warm up to him. She however, was protective, and if anyone came near Jason that wasn't the Joker, generally tried to rip their throat out before she attempted to herd Jason into another room if anyone attempted to attack him, or if he was already bleeding too much. She'd lick up the blood and would growl if Jason tried to move from whatever pile of blankets she carried him over to, even if she'd maim him the minute the Joker ordered it. Jason wishes she wasn't the way she was, and still hates her for always managing to track him down and drag him back, but can't really blame her, even if she's a beast and bites more than she guards.

The second one, Bud, was once used for dog-fighting, and now used for worse- and when not ordered into a frenzy, he was not as mean, and could be baited or bribed with food or if Jason let him leap up on the couch or the bed when the Joker wasn't around, but if he latches anywhere on you, you'd be hard pressed to make him let go. Jason has a lot of scars from that one.

The third one, Louise, aka Lou for short, was an absolute sweetheart if you played your cards right. She could fight, too, but she generally slobbered all over Jason or any Harlequin given the chance, and she loved having her ears scratched. Jason would often stick around with her to make the other ones leave him alone. She however, was the best tracker, and always helped sniff him out when Jason did manage to make a break for it, even if she wouldn't bite or haul him back herself. So out of all of them, Lou's still Jason's favorite, even if his love of dogs is rivaled by the fact he doesn't want to see any of them again.

--

"I don't want to remember." Jason admits, glancing back. "And I need your help. Tetch won't wipe my memories for free, and you can make sure nothing goes wrong."

"Jason, this isn't a good plan-"

"It's the only plan we've got. I don't want to remember my time with with him, Dick. I want everything he's drilled into me buried in the ground. You and Bruce can protect me, after that. I know you will. Please."

 

Chapter Text

"No need to run so fast. You won't get very far. Cotton candy?"

"Pass."

"Your loss."

"Tell you what. If it's not poisoned, I'll eat Penguin's stupid hat-"

"Don't make bets with people better at bluffing than you, kiddo."

"-And I don't accept candy from strangers."

"Who, me? I'm hardly a stranger."

"Maybe. But you are a monster and if you think I'm going to accept the harmless act when I know you're lying-"

"Oh, don't be so grumpy. I was minding my own business. Now you, you're the one making the gamble here. Having you as a hostage is just a last resort. But, despite your lack of trust, I have no intention of leading anyone astray at the moment. In fact, I'm feeling charitable, so here's a little lesson for ya: all fathers are monsters at some point or another... even if the worst Bruce will do nowadays is try to keep you from leaping off buildings or talking to criminals without supervision. Hell, mine was a real piece of work."

"Save the sob story."

"Everyone's a critic. But my point still stands, if you don't want to be grounded for being unlucky enough to cross my path, I'd keep this our little secret-"

"I'll take my chances."

"Someone's really put that self-righteous verve in your step today."

"You know what? You have three seconds before I make sure you're hauled off to Arkham-"

"Oh, I think Bruce has seen enough of this pretty mug for one night. And newsflash, I'm not currently committing a crime, and it's broad daylight, so unless you intend to break out the spandex and start pretending at a new acrobatics act... Actually, that does remind me. How is Jason, I heard you two have grown close-"

"You don't get to say his name."

"On the contrary. I'm the one who helped pick it out. Bruce swears it was a nod to Greek mythology, but we all know he's grasping at straws there, seeing as the pun was too on the nose. And you're missing my point. Fact is, I brought him into the world, and I can bring him back out. And you are lucky Bruce is so fixated on keeping you two birdies safe and I don't feel like suing for custody, how about that?"

Dick goes to call Bruce, and the Joker catches his hand.

"Take a hint, boy wonder, and tell me, or I'll... Look, you don't want me to make a house call, kid. I know you don't. Not when that would force me to act in ways that would not be good for your continued acrobatic career. And since you got up close and personal with junior, and after all this pomp and circumstance Bruce will still hardly look at me- nevermind say anything about how he's overjoyed the kid is in one piece- you're gonna tell me how that reunion went. And if you do, I won't steal him back. Got it?"

Dick glares the Joker down, then looks away.

"Fine. Tough crowd. So let's put the nastiness aside and just chat. You may be a thorn in my side, but you are still family. You can give me all the dirt later. And I'll admit, my curiosity is piqued, seeing as hiding in the shadows and being sneaky is less your deal, with the whole gaudy getup and all- even if you aren't dressed for the part. So. What is your business here? Does Brucie-boy know you're sniffing around my old haunts, or was that a happy accident?"

Dick debates on making another for it, or just not saying anything, but then he's going with plan B, which is distract the Joker at all costs, and get his mind off of the one person Dick doesn't want him concerned with in any capacity.

"Your haunts?"

"Guess he's kept that close to the chest. Don't fret, kiddo, there's nothing explosive. But before they ditch this trash heap and try to make it bright and shiny and new, I figured I'd stake my claim on it."

"That's not happening."

"Oh? And why not?"

"Because I'm the new owner."

"Ha! That's a good one. Oh. You're not kidding. Well. That certainly changes some things. How about I give you a grand tour?"

"Do I have a choice?"

"No. We both know Bruce is on his way anyway, so you might as well just enjoy the scenery and wait for him to come pick you up."

"I grew up here. I doubt you'll show me anything I haven't already seen."

"Indulge me. After all, former carnies always stick together."

There's a beat while he drags Dick along.

--

"You sure you aren't bitter that Bruce brought the new baby home?"

"Say one more word to me and I will throw you off this catwalk."

"Oh, come on. You know how he gets with baby brain. Focuses all his attention on the wounded birdie with the broken wings and letting the older one fend for itself while he forgets he exists, or smothers him when he realizes what he was doing. Take it from me, kid, he's horrible at dividing his attention. That's why you gotta command all of it to get what you need."

--

"Kid, if I hated your guts, they would be splattered across the wall right now and you'd be in tiny pieces, cut up and fed to some dogs or oversized rats. No. At worst, you are an annoyance. At best, I'd consider you another member of the family. After all, Bruce took such a shine to you, and we've been sharing the same house for a while now. And if Bruce considers you a son-"

"Don't."

"Why?"

"One, I'm his ward. Two, none of your business."

"Oh, come on. It's not like he's been giving you the same attention, lately. And seeing as I've devoted most of my time to my son until now, it's only fair we swap babysitting duties like a responsible couple, it's not like Jeeves is as spry as he used to be, can barely keep up with the youths these days-"

"You can go jump off another cliff and stay gone, how about that?"

"Do I have to wash your mouth out with soap?"

"You know, I heard you got locked out last night. And that if it keeps up, he won't just keep you from crossing paths with anyone downstairs. He'll finally cut you off-"

"Key word is he's been trying to change the locks. But I will crack the code, don't you worry. I always do. Hell, half that mansions traps are mine- don't want the other rogues getting their hands on all you defenseless bleeding hearts when you're off the clock. And you of all people should hope he changes his mind, otherwise the deal is off and I'll be forced to desperate measures to keep him from putting me in the doghouse. But nevermind that. We'll burn that bridge when we get there."

There's a pause as they continue on in the darkness of the circus, Dick pulled along and not disengaging only because he knows he might be able to fix this, somehow, if he can just keep the Joker running his mouth.

"Honestly, I don't see why he's being so cagey. Jay-bird is going to find out sooner or later, and it's not right, having you keep all his secrets, and if he's going to ferry the kid around from one place to another all to avoid lil' ol' me, I'd rather just bite the bullet and not make myself known if it means the brat finally stays put. Let Bruce keep his secrets and his guilt until the truth wills out. We'll all move on eventually."

"After we lock you back up in Arkham and you pay for your crimes, I will find a way to make you pay alimony off the books."

"We're not legally separated, numbskull. And even if the restraining order could be traced back to my actual name, the IRS hasn't been able to track me down for years, kid. If they could, all they'd get outta me are some laughs for the road. But what do you care? Bruce can shoulder the cost just fine. All he has to do is cut down funding for flashy boy wonder suits and antivenoms and he'll be all set at shouldering the burdens of a single parent while he lets me rot in solitary until I find my way out again... Unless you are worried about your inheritance getting split."

"I hate you and I hope you trip and fall on one of Riddler's stupid traps."

"Now, that's just rude. We all know Ed isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I even I feel bad for Brucie when he's stuck cleaning up that guy's mess."

Chapter Text

"Do you want to know how I got these scars?" The Joker whispers, cradling the back of the man's head, and he pulls back to look at him, nodding, eyes dark and blank. "My father was," He draws out the word, gaze darting up to the left as he licks his lips, before he intakes a breath, nostrils flaring, "A drinker, and a fiend." The Joker gives a lopsided sneer, shifts from one foot to the other as he bares his teeth wider, "And one night he goes off crazier than usual." The Joker rolls his eyes, trills the word crazy like it's the funniest thing in the world. The next words are higher pitched, mocking and bitter as he thumbs the man's chin, knife slipping a bit closer to his nose before his grip tightens again, "Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn't like that. Not. One. Bit." The Joker growls, punctuates each word with a blink and his face, inching closer, and this time the sneer looks more like a promise to rip someone's throat out from how wide the grin spreads and the way the Joker's tongue darts out again, fast and eager, a falsely nervous tic that can't masquerade what it really is. Anticipation. The crux of the tale he's trying to stitch together. A well-worn bedtime story Jason is all too used to, the lies the Joker likes to cycle between victims. He has about 23 different sets, each one gruesome and as horrible as the last, and Jason knows he's been trying to work on a few more as material. It's not just an intimidation tactic- it's part of the whole process. The ritual way the Joker likes to instill fear, some would say, but Jason knows better. This time- this ones personal. This is a threat, not directed at the hostage but at him, and Bruce, and all the things they haven't settled, in all the ways Bruce finds himself unable to rip Jason from the Joker's clutches even with safeguards in place. At least, that's all Jason can manage to guess. (You have to be able to guess at the Joker's motives- not his overall plan, that's stupid, but what gives him the most gratification with where he's going. You don't survive if you don't. Jason just isn't sure what the message this time is- not when the Joker seems to have everyone where he wants them, and Bruce is all tied up, unable to move because of all the things aimed at Jason's head, ready to blow him to pieces whenever the Joker pleases.)

"So," The Joker croons, shifting closer, mouth pulling down into a false frown, the creases of his peeling paint over his forehead widening in mock concern as his eyes grow wide, "Me watching," The Joker smacks his lips together, "He takes the knife to her," He trails off, and the next word is soft and shrill, his eyes dead and cold, like he's looking at something slippery and disgusting instead of a human being with flesh he intends to peel off, "Laughing while he does it." The Joker looks around and gives a conspiratorial edge to his newly-loud and thrown voice, and he eyes the crowd before turning back to his chosen victim, still nodding along with every couple of words, like he's telling some sick bedtime story, still looking at them with hooded eyes and a too-tight tension that doesn't match the glee of anticipation shuddering in every bob of his head or every flick of energy he gives off as he shifts from foot to foot. "He turns to me, and he says, 'Why so serious?'" As the Joker's words slur into a growl, his grip tightens around the back of the man's head, and the tongue darts out, slower, more deliberate as the Joker savors the moment, and when he blinks, his lopsided grin tilts in tandem with his closed eyes that look like empty black pits in a skull, and Jason can't look away, can't block out the words as the Joker tosses his head, purses his lips like he's hearing a melody no one else does and he's ready to hum along, an expression Jason has come to know too well, so well he can taste the smell of scotch and cigarettes on his lips and the tang of paint and chalk and gasoline, can smell the phantom of it on dyed green hair mushed too close to his face as he's being pulled away, even when the Joker is half a room and half a lifetime away, too absorbed in the tapestry of lies he's spinning, until he isn't, until instead of looking at the man he gives Jason a winks and stares him down, crooning, "He comes at me with the knife," The frown becomes a snarl, no mirth to be found, "'Why so... serious?'" The knife slips past the man's lips, "He sticks the blade in my mouth," and the Joker smiles, closes his eyes, and growls, 'Let's put a smile on that face!' And..." The Joker's voice turns remote and casual, as if they are all friends, here, as he stares Bruce down from where he's restrained, eyebrows raised, and adds, "Why so serious?" Flicks his wrist, slits the man's throat, tosses his body to the floor, and he wipes his palms together with the knife still dripping red.

Then the Joker starts laughing, high and shrill cackles that make Jason want to both punch his teeth in and hide.

Only he can't, because no matter how much he kicks and bites and fights, the Joker still is too close, and it's not long until he's handed off to him, the knife prickling at the edge of his lips, while another hand is clutched over Jason's forehead.

"Or wait, do I have that backwards? Yeah, it was. My mistake. See Junior here, he gets so jumpy, when I'm half outta my head, and it's his greatest fear that one day I'm gonna turn on the one I carved him out of and that when I'm done, I'll still have half a mind to paste a smile on so Jaybird can stop raining on our parade-"

"That's enough!" Bruce yells.

"Aw. Why so serious? Hmm?" The Joker frowns. Holds up his hands and tucks Jason under one arm, before tossing the knife to this throat to instead grab a gun, shooting out the window, and throwing them both over the side.

Chapter Text

"If he's not ill and entirely aware of the consequences of his actions, then why don't you just send Joker to Blackgate instead?" Dick asks.

It's not a question of insanity or not, of whether he deserves to be there or whether it's right to send him into a place that he'd consider easy pickings. It's about the fact that Jack would rather be perceived a certain way because of his nihilism and his sadistic streak and the way he's trying to shape the world. And while you know he is cognizant of his actions and just doesn't care about the consequences save for what he sees as benefiting him, you are not the person to decide what kind of treatment he gets. Whether he is in control or not... You've stopped being able to read it, sometimes, because you've always thought something was deeply wrong, insofar that Jack would rather be a killer and destroy so much when he had so many chances to do otherwise, and would rather watch the world burn because that somehow made him happier.

That is madness, at least, enough madness in your book. But there are some things that you don't know how to fix, and you doubt too many others know, either.

So that only leaves one option- what can withstand the scope of what Jack does?

"Because he's liable to do more damage." You settle on. "Back before he was Joker, he went to jail a couple times- it didn't end well."

The understatement lingers, an unspoken question on Dick's face that you do not elucidate.

There's too many wounds you'd rather keep buried, when it comes down to it. Even if perhaps that is not the best play. (But Dick already knows enough. He doesn't need more horrors in his life, not when the knowledge of them would do little good or prepare him any better.)

"And while I don't like sending him to Arkham- there's too many people for him to prey on, too many victims he can get under his thumb who don't know any better or who are dangerous in their own right- Blackgate doesn't contain him. All it does is give him more people to press into service, who are more competent and bloodthirsty than most of the people in Arkham. And while I don't like subjecting their patients to his presence, my hands are tied, in some ways- I am not the law, only trying to reign in what the law can't deal with. And if I send him somewhere else, they transfer him to Arkham, anyway. It's easier to keep him contained and to deliver him myself, instead of chancing him being let loose on the general populace of the asylum when not everyone there is out for their best interests as it is."

And Jack has never been someone I've been able to beat, not fully. I cannot trust myself to make the decisions for him, there, not when I've miscalculated so many times before. I am the last person able to make that call, when it comes to him.

You force yourself to focus. Can't be all brooding and helpless and guilty in front of the kid, not when he'll catch you out for it. Not when it's something you've needed to relearn after failing to do otherwise.

Jack always was good at making you feel complicit and guilty for things he did, for things you failed to prevent, even if there was very little you could do to stop him.

"And while it is not a solution, he at least is marginally less inclined to kill people in Arkham because he finds it more convenient for his purposes and marginally less boring. Besides, even if he could go to trial and get convicted without escaping, the Joker is too skilled at manipulating public perception. In order to avoid mass hysteria or any more copycats, the DA prefers to have the public working under the assumption that the Joker is a rogue element completely removed from sanity."

They need me to be insane, Brucie. The truth would scare them too much, otherwise. But that's on them. That's the kind of people they choose to be- the people you pretend to lump yourself in with.

(You try not to remember, although you remember all too well.)

Dick waits, noticing you as you come back to yourself, to the many grounding exercises you've grown accustomed to.

"Furthermore, even if he wasn't, and even if I did have enough influence at Arkham to properly do something about the oversight, those at the asylum and other political players would rather keep the Joker under as much lock and key as possible- even if it means drugging him and hoping something sticks. I do not condone the latter, but I am not the one making the decisions, and I am already doing what I can to root out the corruption I can. And those at Arkham who actually are trying to fix things cannot definitively decide what exactly is wrong with Ja-the Joker. If they do figure it out- if there is something they can do... Having proper psychological treatment would help, perhaps, if he wanted to be a different person." Bruce says, catching himself, swallowing a name he'd grown used to only using when faced with the face of the man himself and not the persona he made everyone else see. "He just doesn't care about anyone's opinions except his own, and that's entirely the crux of the problem. Common decency is annoying and irrelevant, to him."

"And that's where you come in, I take it?"

"I can only do so much to limit the consequences of what he unleashes. But I haven't found any solutions other than Arkham. I can't lock him up here- that's... It's not a solution, and it's not... right, and I doubt it would hold him, anyway. I am not judge, jury, and executioner. I am just trying to clean up what I can, to remove criminal elements when safety nets and public works are either defanged or unable to limit the worst of the worst, and to make sure bystanders are insulated as well as they can be. Our job isn't to be heroes, Dick. It's just to serve Gotham, and to be the symbol it needs to inspire people to feel safe, to feel like they can be better. To feel like they can believe in each other again."

"Is that why you're making me go to those civil service meetings?"

"It pays be to informed, Dick. And public policy is what matters. I can donate as much as I can to hospitals, throw as many galas and functions as I can to get donations for all the foundations and scholarships and public works projects that I can, but if we can't get Gotham invested in it's own infrastructure, and if the elected officials refuse to raise taxes on people like me, and keep paving the way for their own power to be consolidated, then even a billionaire in a cape can't and won't fix things at the roots. People need to have a platform to speak and the power to collectively take away the power from those who abuse it. And if they don't have that, then everything I do as Batman is only throwing a bandaid on much larger problem. And that's why the Joker is such a menace, really, when stacked against everything else plaguing Gotham. Because he makes people feel unsafe, feel like there is nothing but their back against the wall. He wants them to think the only option is to take power through force, through the worst of who they are, to make them feel hopeless and that everyone is out for themselves. He wants to take what could be a community and turn it into a bloodbath, a personal gladiator ring all for his own amusement, because that's what he thinks most people are worth."

"Okay, I think I see. But I have to ask- if social reforms pass and it ends up that we're being taxed higher, both as private citizens and a corporation, without any tax breaks for charity work, either, then how do we get funds for all of our tech? Won't that make the longevity of being Batman unsustainable eventually, if you don't have the tech to compensate for what other criminals can get off the black market or homebrew themselves?"

"That's why we have to be good at budgeting." Bruce deadpans, then adds, "But, no. Not really. Lucius and I will manage- we'll make whatever we need the long way, if we have to. And it's not about what gear you have- although that certainly helps keep everything be sustainable, considering how many bioengineering projects Gotham finds itself involved in. But that's only have the battle, Dick. When it counts- when there's nothing else left or standing between you and what we're fighting... It's about being true to who you are, and doing what is right even when something else would be far too easy. And if it does come down to that, one day- the fact is, if Jack can work off of matches and gasoline... Then I will go back to my roots, and find a way that is equally resourceful, in order to fight those fires and the things he makes. Besides, we are a family of engineers. If we can't make what we need when it counts, then Batman wouldn't have been possible at all."

Chapter Text

"See, I don't really like you muscling in on my turf. And I know, you're nigh invulnerable. But I didn't sign off on this whole leaving Gotham or babysitting thing, especially with the whole shared custody-"

"You don't deserve or even have actual visitation rights-" Dick shouts. (Jason is still out cold and down for the count.)

"Shush, pipsqueak, the adults are talking. And as it stands, I don't think you are a good influence on the children."

"I'm not a good..." Clark trails off, not wanting to indulge the Joker any further. "Okay, wiseguy, we all know you don't have a leg to stand on. But if you think you can threaten me into backing down-"

"I don't know, do you feel threatened? You're the one with the laser eyes..."

"I could throw you into outer space in a solitary cell-"

"Real heroic."

"At this point it would be a public service."

"Fine. You drive a hard bargain. How about this- you heard from Lois lately?"

"You-"

"I heard she was expecting. Hope you weren't planning on practicing with the other kiddies, first. They're a little less durable than sacks of flour. I would know, I've had to knock them around a few times and the cleanup was a bitch. Look, I'll break things down for you, nice and slow, so it settles in that swollen noggin' of yours. See, you try to get keep Bruce and the kids away from home sweet home, and I'll deliver another package when you least expect it." The Joker tosses the green Kryptonite over. "Only it will be a little darker in color, if you catch my drift. Anyway, I've got to get the kiddies back and tucked into bed. So how about you tell Luthor he can choke on a pinata, and we can all move on. I'll stay out of your hair if you stay out of mine."

Chapter Text

There's a few cassette videos propped up on the table half out of their cases. (Saw, Friday the 13th, Legally Blonde, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Serendipity, which wouldn't mean much on it's own, but the way it's stacked and all the playing cards around it definitely sending a message you can read loud and clear- Ecco is probably helping drive the getaway car, Jason is with them, Joker is probably bringing them to the drive in movie-theater between the intersection Elm and Grove, and spelling it out for you to make a point.)

A few uneaten confetti cupcakes with Happy Birthday and a toothy smile with extra icing are also on the table, although one has a tiny bite taken out of it (the crumb patterns definitely mean it was forced down Jason's throat and that he spat it out, although that does little to quell the fear of whatever Jack might've laced them with. Or, he didn't, but you aren't taking that chance.)

Still looks lived in, but abandoned early. Normally, it would be harder to tell, seeing how disorganized Jack keeps his stuff on purpose.

But the hastily abandoned knives and the ammo cases mean that Jack had made a quick escape.

And the not-quite-dried blood crusted on the sofa isn't Jason's, which is the only relief, although it definitely means Jason wasn't trying to go quietly, wherever Jack had decided to whisk him off to, although the lack of it means Jack probably isn't feeling too charitable towards Jason... Or he's proud and taking it all in stride.

You never know which it's going to be with him, and you can't afford to let Jason suffer the fallout either way.

--

Jason hates the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. (Mostly because the Joker gets a kick out of watching it, but also because he's trapped in a car with two evil clowns.)

Not the way he wants to be spending his tenth birthday.

Chapter Text

"I could cut you in two, and the world would not mourn you."

"You know, I appreciate your gumption. And I do love your work, don't get me wrong- cutting down all those in your path, all that bloodthirsty self-righteous violence, and going toe to toe with me, taking on all that madness from a god and trying to outsmart me at my game- impressive. Really. But I think Bruce would disapprove of premeditated murder in cold blood-"

"It is not murder when defending the innocent!"

"-And not to mention that might kill the whole mood of peace and prosperity you're trying to be the poster child for, international cooperation against invading aliens and all-"

"You have enough blood on your hands that I could catch you in the act, and then trap you somewhere where you could never hurt anyone else-"

"Sure you could. I don't doubt that. Although, Bruce would be the first to tell you I'm good at climbing out of cages. And even if I wasn't... Here. Let me tell you a story. Once, there was a world where people killed each other and no one gave a damn except one sad, lonely Bat. Now you go and kill someone the Bat doesn't want dead just to prove a point. Might put some strain on that partnership at a crucial moment. Not to mention all the international hurdles of killing an American citizen without trial, or double-dipping once my initial wrap sheet failed. They did give me the chair once... Little bit of a let down, really, and everyone chalked it up to electrical failure to cover it up. Wouldn't want everyone to panic. I'm sure Bats has already given you the lowdown about that, trying to keep it all hush-hush, and who am I to stop him? The whole affair did make sure I got front row seats right back to Arkham, though. Which, I don't mean to jump around, with my brain being scrambled and all, but even if Bruce forgives you and doesn't go all," The Joker clears his throat, and then mimes a grim face, voice lowering to a growl, "'He's mine to deal with, and Gotham is my city, I can handle it, keep your focus on the real enemy' - Uh, don't you have a family?"

"You dare threaten me-"

"The hubby's Steve, right? And, oh, whatever broad is your squeeze these days and the, uh, you know, their name escapes me, but I thought I saw a tyke on the birthday card Bruce didn't quite hide fast enough downstairs, next to all his heart-warming trophies and trinkets in his little cave while I pined from afar-"

"I am warning you, jester-"

"Hey, you wanted to throw hands first. Don't challenge a gambling man, it doesn't end well. Eh. Splitting hairs, I know. Drama happens to the best of us. So I'll just tell you what I told the meat-brained brick house back on the yellow road in Kansas. Stay out of my city, and out of my love life, and I'll leave yours alone. Otherwise, my first stop after escaping whatever prison you might try to keep me in is your, uh, pretty little island or that house by the Louvre or wherever else you stash your mortal distractions. And I don't think you can afford to look over your shoulder, not when there's a new crisis from beyond the Twilight Zone every few months. Bruce works so much overtime those nights, it really gets to him- that's why I gotta help him let off some steam in the interim. So. Now that we've got that all settled. Wanna shake on it?"

The Joker wriggles a hand at her, the buzzer they both know is there still concealed under his palm.

"I will make you pay your dues, you vile-" Diana spits, so quiet, so as not to draw attention...

"Aw, flattery will get you everywhere-"

Diana takes her lasso and wraps it around the Joker, eye to eye.

"And they say I'm mad, look at you go-"

"I could make you spill your secrets." Diana hisses. "Let them all see who you are. Take down every mockery of life you've spouted with every damning word out of your mouth."

The Joker blinks, and regards her with a blank expression, tongue darting, and then he smiles, too wide, a shark looking at another shark and not balking in the slightest.

"You could. But that wouldn't spoil my fun. And there are other secrets I could answer. All those little things I've learned over the years. And let's say you get lucky enough to reveal the man behind the curtain... It doesn't change how this ends. I'm going to get what I want, one way or the other. Sure, I have to be very patient. Bruce gets spooked so easily, even when he pretends to be all stoic and unfeeling. You gotta draw him in slow. Get him acclimated. But it will all come together in the end. I'm not a schemer, see, I'm just an artist paying homage to my darlin' muse. And whether you interfere or not, if the show can't go on, I'll just have to rewrite the script and start over. And a word to the wise- you do not want to prematurely set off all the fireworks for all the trouble it's worth. But hey. Look on the bright side. We all know what the best course of action is here. No reason we can't all take this in stride. So, take a hint, why don't you? Quit while you're ahead-" 

Diana lets him go, then punches him in the face. Enough to make him bleed, enough to bruise and knock him over, but not enough to do anything else, because there's precious little leverage on the bastard and they both know it.

The Joker makes a show of dusting himself off, and looks at a nonexistent watch on his wrist.

"Oooh, look at the time. 'Fraid I gotta cut our friendly chat short. Lunch plans. It's almost Valentine's day, after all. Gotta outdo myself from last year. Make it a day Bruce won't forget. Always a pleasure, though. Have fun swinging around that sword!"

--

"Bruce, I know you don't leave anything up to chance, but there's no way for him to hack our systems based on what he knows-"

Bruce regards Clark with the same grim resignation he always has when Jack is involved.

"Given our history, the Joker can guess almost all of my passwords- which is why I don't make them. They get chosen by someone he would never suspect and who would fly under his radar. And I do have contingencies. You always need contingencies with him. Then again, Jack is generally content to only stir up trouble in Gotham or when he wants attention from me. So if you stay out of things... Honestly, he won't care enough to get to you, not unless he finds a way to get at me through you. Which is why we need to keep our work strictly business while on the clock."

"Bruce, there is always the option of locking him somewhere more secure-"

"He's human and a common criminal. It's unethical, puts too much of a spotlight on him, and not worth the risk. And we're not locking him up in space, or giving him any means to hack a satellite by proxy, or a chance for aliens or other bad actors to abduct him, especially when he knows too much. So no. We're not putting him in the Phantom Zone. I don't need that keeping me up at night. I'm already living one nightmare, I don't need to make them any worse."

"Bruce, he's not going to break out of the Phantom Zone. And it's not like he'll be making any friends up there-"

"You don't know that, and I'm not taking that risk, and that's the end of the discussion."

"Bruce-"

"I said no. The Joker is my burden to bear. No one else's. And I would think that you and Diana, of all people, would respect my wishes on this, seeing as they already get trampled and ignored enough."

"Okay. But if you need anything-"

"I won't. But I appreciate that you care. Can we move on to more pressing matters? I have business back home, and if we can finish up these schematics, it would take a load off."

Chapter Text

You only getting a nagging feeling of your hair rising on the back of your neck, the thinnest, barest hint that something is about to go wrong, before there's the rustle of someone approaching from behind, a sprinter blowing open the inner office glass doors with a crash, and the sound of a shotgun going off. It blows a hole in the ceiling, drywall crackling as it falls.

Everyone scatters.

You dive down, tackle the nearest guy to the floor, and kick away his gun before hustling the raincoat-clad kindergartner and her mother as far out of the way as you possibly can. A few security guards run for cover or put up a fight before being riddled with bullets.

The rest of the crowd screams and runs for their lives.

There's a hand on your shoulder, and you throw off the grip of one of the unluckier lackeys who's other friend managed to pull you down after you smacked his pals head against a stall, only for your blood to run cold when the infamous, all-too familiar voice starts in, "Ladies and gentlefolks of Gotham, please keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times-"

He laughs, raucous and having a ball, dancing and spinning while he fires more rounds into the air.

Some people freeze, others drop and duck down for cover, and the civilians who've been stuck in larger crossfires in other skirmishes but who weren't unlucky enough to be in a building or subject to Jack's individual attentions before, all cover their mouths with hands and sweaters and scarves even though they likely know just how useless it'll be. 

You try to make yourself as hidden and unassuming as possible as you can in plain clothes (for you, a suit that'll still unfortunately draw attention but not too much, with all the other businessmen around), hoping he doesn't notice so you can call for backup without him realizing, and hate that your first thought is that you wished it was absolutely anyone else. You'd even prefer Bane, and he's a fucking nightmare. (Idly, you notice how his crew ditched the usual masks this go around, and file that away until you can deal with more pressing matters.)

Jack drawls on, unconcerned, "This is a stick-up, and while we hate to interrupt your day-" He whoops, twirls the gun like a parade baton.

Then he sees you, and breaks off with a dog whistle, "Bless my heart," Clutches his chest, while you keep scrambling backwards from smack dab in the middle of the lobby. “Do my eyes deceive me…? Hey, Simon says ‘red light,’ pretty boy, it’s a crime to try and hide those eyes-”

You only freeze once Jack levels a gun to the bank teller's forehead, and when he's suitably placated, he pushes her into the arms of one of his flunkies, gifting the gun over to instead opt for flicking open his knife.

"If it isn't the best-dressed guest of the hour. The man who can banish all those rain clouds leaving nothing but blue skies..." Jack saunters on over, combs back his greased-up hair, and you clench your fists and force them open again to counter the visceral need you have to sock him in the jaw once he finally hauls you to your feet. "The most wanted hostage in the house..."

Joker sidles up to you, weaves an arm around your shoulder, other hand sweeping out like he's presenting you to the crowd until he reels you in, his favorite tiny paring knife lighting down just above your jugular.

"How've you been, sweetheart?"

You say nothing, only stare. Not trying to look brave, or stoic, or anything, just as blank as you can be, not trying to hide the residual fear and rage because that would only be a liability when it comes to keeping your cover and keeping Jack placated.

You need to be the mask. That's how this goes, when he catches you during the daytime.

"I know you're a bit starstruck, seeing as I sprung this engagement on you. And I know, I know, we don't have our annual appointment until next week, but I did pop a question. Least you can do is let a guy down gently."

Jack's grip shakes you around a bit, not enough to do very much (your feet are grounded and you are all too used to dealing with his presence and countering his weight on autopilot, even with your hands tied), but you know what he wants. And you also know that playing scared civilian isn't going to make him any easier to deal with, not when everyone knows his habits and your resignation to being both grappled, tossed around, tied up, or stuck dealing with Jack's wandering hands.

And you don't like taking this bullshit without giving back whatever fight you can manage, provided it's not going to make things worse, especially when it's about the only outlet you have.

"I've been better." You grit out.

"Oh?"

"I prefer to get errands over with quickly."

"Ah. Not one for too much fanfare. Got it. You chic Byronic figures gotta keep up the elusive charm." Jack nods, pretends like you are reaching consensus, and his free hand ruffles your hair before returning to wrap an elbow around your throat.

"I suppose I'll just have to make it up to you." He says, and the chuckle breaks loose with his ever-widening smile.

Then Jack resumes his oratory to the crowd, even if his one arm is clutching you tighter to his chest, flush against him to the point where it hurts to heave in air.

"How about some applause? After all, you're a lucky bunch. It's not every day my favorite celebrity graciously awards us with his company. Everyone say hi to Mr. Wayne. Give him a wave. He did travel all the way from his ivory tower today to mix and mingle with you stiffs. And good news, he's your golden ticket out of here. If we all play our cards right, I'll even let some of you leave the party early, with no bullets or fireworks or laughs on the house. That sound like a plan? Yeah?” The false joy turns into a barking glee. “Then chop chop!" He claps, arms still looped under yours. "Everyone get into position. You know the drill. Hands up where we can see 'em, backs up against that wall," He points at a few shuffling children peering through their hands and a few people who look desperate enough to make a break for it, "No peeking, thank you very much- and you there, kindly shut that brat up before I give her something to smile about." (The mother covers her daughters mouth, muffling the sobs.) "Thank you. Brucie, baby, sorry about the interruption."

You know that tone. Know exactly what he wants. But he's not quite done getting everyone where he wants them, and that's the only slim window of opportunity you'll get to try and catch your bearings.

“You,” He points at a man in a green coat, “Keep those stragglers to that side, you, move that lot off to that side. Ugly mug three, you march dollface down to the safe. And thanks to the lovely winning lotto ticket tonight, I have a one-time special offer- if the lot of you can hold off Gotham’s finest blue shirts for enough time, you get the entire cut of the spoils. All I ask for is some privacy. Thirty, forty minutes. Think you can oblige?”

“You the boss, Boss!”

“That’s what I like to hear.”

Jittery, always impatient and over-eager, Jack backs you up past the office door, keeping watch on the only three entryways and exits while he pushes you against his collar, his back pressed up against the wall.

He coos, so softly, "I could have us do the deed out here. Keep a lid on that hasty self-sacrificing bad habit of yours. Maybe I'm selfish, but I can't help but keep you all to myself. Command all that pent-up attention. And I do know just how much you like your privacy, so... your call."

His eyes dart to where you are still furiously observing the doors (no windows) and then the thugs he's pressed into service, trying to see if there's any chance of turning the tables without giving yourself away or tipping him off or suffering any fallout...

There's a vent with a loose covering. Utterly useless to you, but might help later, when trying to get the other four year old and his father out of dodge...

A muscle in Jack's jaw twitches, making the smile a little less friendly, and there's the tell-tale narrowing of his eyes and inevitable twitch of his fingers just as he tugs your tie tighter around your neck, other hand palming the knife as it clutches your jaw , just to make sure you only focus on him. He leans in close, breathing heavily, breath smelling of gasoline and chalk and cigarettes, with the smallest whisper tickling right below your ear, "'Course, you could try to swoop in and save the day. But that might blow your whole cover story, with all the cameras." 

His tongue darts out and licks just under your earlobe, and you flinch at the warmth and the wet as he draws back with a toothy smile.

"You promise you'll let them go?"

"Brucie, when have I ever lied to you? And hey, if you don't wuss out by saying you have a headache, I'll even send the GCPD a banana split with a cherry on top, with all those scattered ants and my little helpers not sent back in body bags this go around. 'Course, it won't help with finding all my haunts, even though you have a standing invitation, always do, but that should still count as an incentive, right? So. Brucie, darling, do we have a deal? Will you allow me to sweep you off your feet?"

You don't feed the beast of Jack's own vainglorious affirmations if you can help it, knowing when he gets too much of a rush that he's liable to try and push the envelope even more.

And you want this to be cut-and-dry. Even if there's no stopping it. Even if it's just the same extortion he always pulls you into.

Even if you are basically marooned on your own one man island facing down exactly what the nature of this bargain always is.

Sure, Jack hates rules, and hates following them, but loves making you read the fine print and changing the rules of the game when it doesn't suit him any longer. But he does keep some rules, as long as they keep reinforcing that same Pavlovian behavior he's been relying on since the get-go, the same hard-won compliance you pretend you haven't made a habit, if only to spare those you'd otherwise be unable to save.

(The Batmobile isn't in transit. You can't risk Dick on this one, and you can't manage to get in the suit without everyone finding out.)

The only one who can get you through this is Bruce Wayne and the mask, and all the ways Jack knows who you really are, and keeps on trying to worm his way beneath to dig up everything that's never quite stayed buried.

"Back room." You manage.

Jack hauls you through the double doors, past shelves and desks and closed offices, far enough to not be seen, but not too far that he can't threaten you with the crowd if you try to back out. (He can still shoot through the walls, after all, and you both know that all too well.)

--

"All eyes on me."

--

"I'll be gentle. Make it good."

--

"Playing rough is for the other guy."

--

"If rich men keep fucking the poor over, it can't hurt to try it out the other way around, am I right? Or was it the rich eating the poor out of house and home? Ah, who cares. You always taste delicious."

Chapter Text

Quinn, Bane, Riddler, Penguin, Scarecrow, Killer Croc, and Ivy are sitting in the back row near Selina, who looks surprised but also very intent on making sure they are on their best behavior. Barbara and Jim and Dent look they are going to collectively explode a few rows up, but also don't do anything to escalate the situation.

"Thank you for the invitations." Bane says as if in afterthought to Jason, holding one up, as if that doesn't change the fact that they all are making everyone more than a little on edge.

Jason nods.

Bruce taps his foot, still standing in front of him protectively.

(No one sent them invitations. Everyone can tell that it was not exactly in the game plan. But there's no point in stirring the pot on that front, and if he can lay down ground rules and they can be a decent audience, the only issue is keeping Jason from exploding from all the things having them here dredges up.)

Penguin and Quinn, Bruce can at least chalk up to going to any synagogue with good food regardless. Why the rest decided to tag along remains more of a mystery, considering Bruce is fairly certain Bane is out of his element and wasn't even in the same holding facility, while Scarecrow and Croc are probably only tagging along because they all left Arkham together.

But Bruce will try to settle this diplomatically.

Somehow.

Provided they don't decide to attempt to murder anyone.

(Harley yells, "Mazel tov!" in the ensuing silence, waving at Jason like the exuberance is going to stop him from short circuiting, and then giving another wave to Dick when she sees him off to the side, while he frantically tries to weigh what kind of intervention is needed without anyone catching on.)

"We heard your parties have really good catering." Croc adds, actual attempt at an inside voice a bit too loud. Penguin smacks him with his umbrella, only for Croc to snap back at him.

Ivy fidgets, a few vines crawling up the sides of the building to mirror the carved Tree of Life moldings that rise up near the doorframes. Bruce has no idea why she of all people decided to show up, considering her hatred of humanity in general, but if need be, he'll grill her about that later, provided he doesn't need to summon an out to let Batman handle this.

But he can't chance that making everything go south.

Bruce can handle this.

He can.

Jason doesn't have to deal with extra problems today, especially when they all know the culprit for the invitations in the first place.

As if on cue, the Joker strides in, devil-may-care laughter heralding his arrival, even if it's a snicker, subdued and not at all mirthful.

"Hey, Brucie. Thought we'd all show some support for his big day."

"If it helps, I only came to make sure the clown wasn't going to try something, as a courtesy." Ivy cuts in.

She and Jack glare at each other.

There's another story there, one no one has time to unpack, because Bruce can see Jason is three seconds away from losing it and jumping Jack then and there, and Dick is barely reigning himself in, and that doesn't even cover what mayhem Jack might try to instigate any second.

And that's not to mention the pinched, deadly look on Alfred's face.

Damage control is already needed.

"You did a lot for us at Arkham. So we'll be on our best behavior." Riddler interrupts, staring Bruce down, and Bruce ignores the fact that he's one of the few who knows exactly why Batman hasn't crashed the proceedings yet. Not that that's a comfort- in fact, he's probably putting a few more pieces together and hoarding the information from every other rogue he may consider almost a friend (or Oswald, since they've been dating on and off for however long- but they keep secrets all the time, so Bruce knows the secret is still safe just from the obvious retaliation he'd otherwise face). It's still half a threat, but not one he can allocate spare attention to, not when there's a fifty-fifty shot Jack is going to pull out a glock or have secretly rigged the floor with explosives or Smilex or whatever else he might try.

"Honor among ruffians." Alfred murmurs under his breath. "How... thoughtful."

But Jack is the only one Bruce can manage to worry about right now, seeing as he's doing this just to disrupt whatever peace Jason's been starting to foster now that they've been able to keep Jack away from him more often than not.

It's probably revenge for Bruce deciding to take on Jason as Robin as a means to both help him stay grounded and to help him defend himself. It's also probably just cruel spite and possessiveness and whatever other evils Jack has decided suited his purposes today.

But Bruce needs to do something, now, and it doesn't help that he really doesn't have any idea how to keep this situation from escalating.

Chapter Text

Only when he goes to fight back, Jason freezes, and tears are pouring down his face.

Bruce kneels down next to him. Doesn't touch him, keeps his distance, talks to Jason like he's a wounded, fragile animal, and he half drags the cloak of the batsuit from the chair on autopilot in case Jason enters shock.

"Jason. Breathe. It's okay. I'm here. And you don't have to do anything you don't want to do. We can stop, anytime. Okay? Here-"

Only instead of reaching out and taking the cloak, Jason wraps his arms around Bruce's chest and buries his face in his shoulder.

Bruce hugs him back, cradles the back of his head.

"I don't... I don't understand. I'm supposed to, to be... I've trained to fight back. It's supposed to be easy." Jason sobs.

"It's never easy, doing something you were first made to do out of fear." Bruce manages. "Sometimes the wires get crossed."

"It's not fair! I want to be Robin! I want to... to harness all of this and not be so afraid and angry and... But every time you look like you're about to take a punch I just-"

"I know. It's okay. We'll take things at your own pace, okay? No rushing into things... And you don't have to do this, if you don't want t-"

"No! I want this! I want this more than anything and he doesn't get to take it from me!" Jason yells, and he stares, setting his jaw, grounding his stance as he stares Bruce down.

"Okay. Then that's what we'll do." Then, Bruce says, softer, "You just let me know what you need from me, and I'll help you through it."

"I don't want you pulling punches-"

"Jason-"

"I can't afford you to go easy on me-"

"Jay, first, we need to work up to those sorts of things. I'm not throwing everything at you all at once. That's not safe or practical, logistically or otherwise."

"This is survival we're talking about-"

"No it's not, Jason. The Joker isn't going to get to you. He's got to get through me, first."

"But-"

"Jason. Look at me. All of this is training is insurance. But more than that, most of all, you have to be Robin because you want to be. Because you can make it yours. I can train you how to protect yourself as best you are able- and I can do that whether you are Robin or not. But being Robin, all of that- that's something you choose to do for yourself. And if that changes things-"

"It doesn't!"

"Okay. But what that means is, we can afford to take this slow. You can change your mind. And if you decide this is what you want, then we're taking this at your pace, and doing this together, enforcing boundaries and all. Sound good?"

"Okay." Jason sniffles, and Bruce wipes away the tears and the snot.

--

"Don't make promises you can't keep." He warns.

Chapter Text

"You should never be made to become a weapon." Bruce answers, hand on Dick's shoulder. And then he looks away, out towards the lights behind Gotham, face lit only by the blue light of the computer- almost as if he's underwater, Dick thinks, Or a fishtank with with no way out.

And Bruce murmurs, oh so quietly, so quiet Dick barely hears him. "But sometimes, the world tries to make you one anyway."

Then he's looking back, so grave, but also, Dick thinks, proud.

Proud and terrified and helpless in a way Bruce never lets Batman be, but in a way Dick knows all too way Bruce himself has been for so long.

"You're the one who decides who and what you become. Not me. Not anyone else. And I am not going to pretend that this is easy for me. But if this is what you want- I want you to be safe, Dick, I want you to be prepared, and above all I want you to be able to go out there and live and thrive on your terms. To become who you need to be, to find out who you are, and to build that up. Leaving is part of growing up. I did it, once, and you have just as much a right as anyone who strikes out on their own. But if you need anything... Anything at all... The manor and everything else will always remain open to you. Just... try to stay safe. And if you can stop by once in a while, for dinner, or just to put an old man's mind at ease..."

"Don't want me to take after you with the workaholism?" Dick deadpans, the tug of a grin on his lip, and Bruce's expression softens, growing fond in all the ways it did since Dick was ten or twelve or fourteen and did something so alien to him that it must've felt like walking back in time.

"I've made a lot of mistakes in my time. And one of the privileges of watching you grow up has been watching you do things differently, doing them your way, not being like me. And while you'll make your own, and I can't stop that no more than I could stop you from learning from them, they will be your lessons and yours to make your way through the world."

Then Dick is being hugged, too-tight, and in a way Bruce rarely ever does unless prompted, or hugged first, and Dick holds on with as much force back. (Bruce never was good with contact, had to learn how to adjust, even if Dick was old enough not to be as bothered by the standoffish way Bruce was by default compared to what contact a healthy child was supposed to need. Dick is pretty sure Bruce did his research about it, and that's why he let Dick take the lead there, and didn't initiate save for those times Dick was really hurt, and swooped in at default to patch him up and fix it. Training to be as fierce and as intense as Batman was not easy, not for a child, and neither of them were going to pretend it was. But in Bruce's mind, it was practically all he could do to keep Dick safe, if he was to remain his ward and part of Bruce Wayne's life, purely out of necessity, because there were too many skeletons in Bruce's closets and too many horrors that came knocking too often for Dick not to be prepared.)

"Be careful." Bruce says, clapping Dick on the back as they both step away.

"I always am."

"And Dick... For what it's worth... I'm sorry to see you go. But I hope it makes you happy. And even if this was going to happen one day... I hope it wasn't because of what the job does. I hope that you don't have to feel like you have to choose between being gentle and being unbreakable. I hope that it wasn't too much-"

"Bruce. You told me I could leave at any time. And I chose to stay. And even though I'm leaving now... It doesn't make what you taught me any less important. And while I don't agree with everything you do, and I want to change some things, see if doing it differently might work better... I know why you do the job the way you do. And I don't think you could be Batman, or stay Batman, unless you did. But that's why I'm here- so we can remind each other of who we are, and to pull each other out of the deep end when it gets too much for us to see what we are turning into anymore. And even if I'm leaving, that's not going to change. We look out for each other in this house. You taught me that, too."

"I think Alfred can take credit for that one."

"I take credit for all the good ideas in this house. It's one of the perks of being in charge." Alfred answers from the doorway, and then Dick is being hugged again.

"Take care, Master Dick. And don't get into too much trouble."

"Trouble? Me? You should be looking at him." Dick snickers, pointing, and the old, well-worn laughter of old jokes makes the parting a little less tense.

Even if Dick can tell Bruce is terrified, because he doesn't know what's going to happen with Dick making his way on his own, or what his own enemies might do now that Dick is striking out and putting a new target on his back, one without backup in the same manner Bruce has been used to being, as a buffer and a mentor but also just by virtue of what being Batman is.

Batman is a symbol for Gotham, a protector, whatever Gotham needs... But Batman also protects his family, and the people close to him, because they are not only a part of Gotham, but because they help keep him from being pulled down farther and farther away from who Batman needs to be- and because if Bruce Wayne can't keep his family safe, how can he save anyone else? (Even if, all too often, Bruce doesn't feel like he's doing enough, or really able to save anyone- not permanently, even if what matters is trying, over and over and over, because each time does something, even if it's just countering the daily struggle to stay afloat.)

Dick is more worried about Bruce on his own, more than himself. (He knows too much not to, even if maybe his own independence might mean the Joker gets less vicious, with Bruce being forced to focus more on him and less on Dick and raising a kid and all that comes with it. It's a fool's hope, maybe, but any hope that Dick and Bruce will take, seeing as they need any they can get.)

But then again, Bruce promised to try not to be a helicopter parent, so Dick supposes it's a start in being seen more as a colleague than an apprentice, or a child, and that counts for something, too.

There is an art to letting go, when all you want to do is hold on tighter.

When all you know is losing people.

(And while Dick knows there isn't a lack of trust, there is still a lack of transparency. Just as there is a very brutal edge to Bruce and Batman that he does not want to emulate, that Bruce doesn't want him emulating because he never wanted the same things that scarred him to hurt Dick the way it hurt him, even if Bruce sees the brutality as necessary, as part of who he has to be because any other option wasn't working. And while Dick won't stand for the secrets, for being kept in the dark, he knows why Bruce does it. He knows Bruce can't quite make himself change, however aware he is of the strain of those secrets and the go-it-alone habit he has at the best and worst of times, because Bruce is still too scared too let anyone in too close, and because it's the only way Bruce keeps himself together, or knows how to function when all else is in flux.

They do love each other as family. But in some ways, distance is what is needed. Partially for Dick to get out of his own way, and partially because Bruce can't help but keep him in the dark still, because he's too afraid of what will happen if he doesn't keep him at arms' length, even after everything.

Dick does not want to be kept in the dark, to have to tiptoe around secrets Bruce doesn't mean to keep, but still can't put words to. There are some things that run too deep for Bruce to even contemplate or put a name to why he does what he does, and they both have been aware of that glaring flaw in their familial unit for as long as they can both remember.

And while Dick sometimes does let resentment fester, and while it is real, it is inconstant, like when Bruce almost goes too far and Dick has to drag him back and has to face all the jagged edges Bruce doesn't want him to try to fix and Dick wants to try and take responsibility for, even if Bruce won't let him.

Dick knows he can't fix what has made Bruce the way he is. And Bruce does not want him to try.

But it hurts a little less not being around to see that it's a futile effort.

Other than that, the festering feeling is more a manifestation of worry- a fear that Bruce can't do anything else even when he's trying his best to change- and because resentment makes it easier to leave and move on when not wanting to leave hurts just as much as staying does or going feels. Resentment isn't really resentment, not when Dick knows Bruce isn't trying to disrespect him or dictate how this will go, and not when Dick knows Bruce wants him to make decisions for himself, even if he doesn't know how to cope with an empty nest yet. It is more the constant sense-memory of knowing they've never been safe, of always looking over their shoulders, and knowing that, when push came to shove, Bruce doesn't want to let the fear of losing Dick overwhelm him enough that he'd fear losing himself to something worse. It's why he's trying to make this easy- why they both are trying their best to keep this light, when there is so much there, under the surface, that threatens not to be.

It's the same thing Dick saw when he realized the Joker would always be there, in the background, and that maybe, if he succeeded in hurting Dick enough, then Batman might morph and change into the same thing Dick is trying to prevent, the same thing Bruce is all too aware of, with what he could become. It's the same thing Dick saw when he realized Bruce would try to stay as detached as possible even when he couldn't, when Batman almost failed to save him and they know what could have happened, that one day. It's the resignation of not being able to let things end, not without losing either way, and it's the same thing Dick knew he was getting into when he told Bruce he was staying, even when Bruce told him he couldn't guarantee a home, or safety, or the ability to be there the way Dick might need him to be. They are all too aware of what the limits of their bonds are, and while the roots run as deep as possible, while the love is always there, the know that sometimes, they are forced to be statues. Sometimes, they cannot be Bruce Wayne or Dick Grayson, because being that is too vulnerable, because being that would lead down a road that would only hurt them. And maybe, just maybe, this is half a way for Dick to try and be himself again, to prove that being Dick Grayson is enough and doesn't have to be a liability, opposite the way Bruce won't let himself rest, in the way he can't stop being Batman because he hates the man he is underneath too much, because he feels too powerless to survive as only a man. He has been broken as only a man before, and Bruce will not let himself be broken as Batman. It is the only shield he has.

And Bruce is happy for Dick, happy that he might not suffer the same pain or the same consequences. He doesn't want this life to be the end of the line, not for him, because while he might choose it as his only option, he will not choose for anyone else, not when it's a mantle he took up both as the right thing to do, and out of personal necessity.)

In some ways, maybe Bruce is relieved, even if it's short lived due to the nature of the job. At least, this time, Dick is leaving of his own volition, and not being forced out by a bomb or explosion or with a smile on his face.

At least Dick is taking a way out, and even if he isn't leaving the life, even if he's still in as much danger as he's ever been, there was no way to prevent the danger that was and remains, at least Dick has the option to decide what path is best, and might retire from all this, if it means it will gift him the only safety there ever was.

A loss of physical proximity to Bruce, because Bruce, most of all, has never been safe, and no one he loved ever was, even if the illusion of space might presume otherwise.

(Which is also why, Dick thinks, there still might be helicopters checking in, every once in a while. But that's what mics and coms and casual lunches are for, and he intends to visit, even if he doesn't know if he's going to take out crime another way, or stick to the straight and narrow, by becoming a cop in Bludhaven, or an EMT. Or maybe some of all of the above.)

If they are being honest with themselves, even with the change, even with the fears that Batman might not have enough support looking out for him, or Dick the same, the Joker has always been a wildcard, and never stays muzzled or any less malicious whether they are trying to play his game or not.

He's a rabid dog by choice, and he wishes to spread the disease to anyone and everything, with no regard to boundaries.

And Bruce, no matter all his fears, hopes the distance will mean Dick isn't in the crossfire that Bruce had never wanted him to face.

Even if, maybe it is a false hope. Bruce clings to those as much as he does, because one day he hopes they won't be false.

In some ways, that is all he knows. Even if he can't quite convince himself of their reality, he clings stubbornly to what could be.

Dick wants to prove him right. That they can grow past what made them feel broken, that they can build something on it and maybe not move on, but honor it.

Maybe to make time hurt less. To make that sacrifice mean something.

Maybe that's all hope is. Trying to make things matter, and making them matter even if they don't.

Chapter Text

"You don't have to go, you know. Just because I'm going to be Robin-" 

"Jay, that's not why I'm leaving. And it's not as if I'm not going to see you any more. But... That's also what I'm here to ask you about."

Jason stares at Dick, listening. He listens very intently, always observant, when he's not loud and boisterous and able to be a kid in a way he wasn't allowed to be for so long.

And he can tell that Dick is conflicted.

Dick bites his lip, shoulders sloped, formerly carefree and accepting expression (they've all been trying to be upbeat about things, Bruce trying to make sure Dick knows he's not in hot water for wanting to grow and move on out and make something for himself.

And then he straightens, the uncertainty in his eyes giving way to something more concrete.

"Jay... If you had the option. Did you want to come with me?"

--

"I don't want you to think that I'm trying to take you away from Bruce or Alfred or to stop you from being Robin or anything like that. And it's not... It's not that we'd be leaving, it's just... Sometimes, this place almost consumes me. And I..."

Dick can't say, "I don't know if it is safe here, for you, when nowhere has been safe and you think Batman can stand between you and all the evils in the world, especially the ones you fear most of all."

He can't even claim that he can keep Jason safe himself.

But it's a balancing act, of all he knows. Of all the things he's watched and seen and kept silent about, of all the ways he knows whatever peace has supposedly not been fractured yet, that it will.

It's knowing all the things Bruce said to him, knowing how much he's been trapped already.

(It's seeing that safety fall apart, again and again, and knowing that while Bruce thinks he has under control as much as possible, that you both know, deep down, it won't last.)

Dick also knows there's a lot of ways Jason might not take the option well. He just got adopted. He adores Bruce and he's finally gotten used to things and has been thrown from one end of Gotham to another more times than either of them can count.

But Dick can't, in good conscious, not give Jason the option. Not if it might give Bruce a way out from under the blackmail they both know the Joker has been using to keep him under his thumb, not if it means Jason is out of the crossfire.

(The Joker always liked the idea of having Bruce to himself, even if Dick knows they'd need to plan as a unit to keep Jason away. But that's half of why Dick chose Bludhaven as a means to make his mark.)

It might not even make too many waves. Bruce would still see him, all the time, and still have custody.

But it would get Jason out of the manor at night, after Bruce gave up on trying to keep him out of the way with Dick before whatever nebulous agreement went into effect.

(Dick knows Bruce doesn't want Jason finding out whatever deal he's struck so that the Joker quit abducting him or making himself known. And he knows, it's only a matter of time before Jason finds out something he shouldn't.

And maybe selfishly, Dick doesn't want to leave him alone for that. Not when he knows the ways Bruce isn't equipped to handle this, not because he can't but because of wounds he's seen never heal. In all the ways Bruce still keeps all his secrets and thinks it the only way to keep anyone safe, when that's half the reason Dick couldn't be Robin anymore, even if he can't claim Bruce's hypothesis was flawed because it's the only choice he's ever had stick, and Dick knows why he's doubled down on it despite how unhealthy and exhausting he finds the habit.)

And half of it, is really, Dick has grown used to Jason, and wants to be able to check up on him. Wants to be able to help him through the hard nights when he knows Bruce can't, because he's been compromised into a Hell he can't escape.

The other, more selfish part is that Dick is going to do something concrete, something outside the cowl. Going to try and make a life for himself and wants to give Jason that structure that they don't have as vigilantes save for the boundaries Bruce sets. He's going to be a cop. He's going to have a network of people that he can maybe use to fix the system from the inside so Batman isn't stuck cleaning up an overwhelming, snowballed mess.

And maybe Jason needs that as much as he needs to be Robin. Or maybe that's just what Dick thinks he needs, after being thrown from one place to another, from a normal life to a street to underground bunkers and crime scenes and a giant manor that they both call home but that can be so horribly empty and cavernous and horrifying, sometimes, in all the ways it doesn't feel alive without all of them there, together. 

Sometimes, the manor's ghost threatens to consume Dick as much as being Robin did, with watching all the ways Bruce was only hanging on for dear life with hope as his only lifeline and making that enough.

--

Jason only just got used to having a brother, and now he was leaving. (And asking him to come with him, even though he can't. He can't watch the Joker try to tear him apart. It's safer, with Bruce. He doesn't know how Babs or Dick think they could keep him any safer.)

Chapter Text

"Babs... if you are up for talking. There's something you should know."

--

"He did this to threaten your father. And he did it to threaten me. You don't deserve to be caught in the crossfire, I should have never-"

"Bruce, for once in your life, accept that not everything is your responsibility. I knew what I was doing. I chose to be a part of this. I always knew there was a chance he could target me to get to you, or that my identity could be compromised... And even if it isn't... I knew what I was getting into."

"You're only 19-"

"And I made my choice. And while I know where you are coming from, how you care for me like you care for your own sons and how you can't extricate yourself from that... Don't cheapen my sacrifice, Bruce. I am not your child. I am fully capable of making my own decisions and accepting the risks."

--

"If we could bring back your mobility, knowing it would be through very dubious and experimental means... And, and if that solution was through using the Joker's DNA... Would you want me to look into it?"

"No."

--

"You should go, Bruce."

Then she adds, before you go, "Give him hell for me."

--

Chapter Text

It all starts one morning, when Bruce feels himself being pushed, and not holding as steady when he should.

And then it builds, and builds, and keeps gaining ground with every morning the Joker sneaks out of his room, or every time he makes a quip about making breakfast for Bruce's sons, (or just living with the knowledge of what he's done to Babs, and the way he keeps touching you), or all the other things he'd do if he found their arrangement no longer to his liking.

It ends one night, with Bruce breaking every bone in Jack's body, knowing it will heal far too fast, and knowing it will hardly slow him down (and Bruce makes every contusion and bruise and injury blunt and not as serious as it could be, because if he's learned anything, the more fractured and broken the Joker becomes, the faster he mends. It has been that way for years, almost been a timetable Bruce could calculate.)

(That, and Bruce remembers all too well how it felt to watch his own skin knit itself together. How it hurt, with every accelerated dose of the Joker's blood and plasma injected into his spinal column- and how in some ways, stitching every broken part of him back together broke Bruce more.)

And Bruce feels himself slipping when instead of taking Jack to Arkham, he throws him in the trunk. And Bruce strips out of the suit, abandons it for his turtleneck and jeans, and drives Jack to the farthest, most desolate point he can find away from the manor.

It all really starts when Bruce thinks of Jason's flinching motions and wobbling lip and bruised eyelids, of Dick's gritted teeth and lowcast gaze and clenched fists, in Alfred's lapsed silences, of the new, hard fury in Bab's eyes, or the tension and exhaustion plaguing Jim, and in every way he still cannot save his family from the monster that he thought loved him, once.

It starts when Bruce thinks of being held close, kissed on his brow, before this monster that once called himself his friend do whatever he wished.

It was inevitable, this moment, when the symbol he stood for wavered, just enough, how it's heart gave out and Bruce no longer felt like anything at all. Like he's insubstantial, air, not real, not worth anything, and in those moments Bruce would feel the rage beckoning at him, those times when he's grown so cold out of necessity, and become so used to a body holding him close, whispering old promises and false kindnesses, the same way Jack always managed to do when it hurt most, more haunting than the laughter, and Bruce can't keep himself from staring back at the abyss this time, just the once, knowing that Jack has everyone in his reach-

And Bruce can't take it.

Not when the grin and the way his green eyes crinkle and the way he throws his head back is the same, every time, just like it was when he cut Bruce wide open.

Just like it was when he held a gun to Jason's head and wagered that either outcome worked for him.

--

"Oh, Bats, I think you're slipping-"

"This isn't Batman, Jack. This is just Bruce, doing what he should've done years ago."

And Bruce shuts the lid of the coffin, not caring or noticing that hammering in the nails too much after they already are secure has made his hand bleed.

(There's enough blood on his hands, already, even if he's not the one responsible for the blood being spilt. It's all the same, after a point. Batman is right, Batman is necessary- but he can only do so much, and there are always another wave threatening to swamp him, even if the only true threat is the man buried alive right in front of him.)

Even Batman isn't infallible.

But Bruce has never claimed to be a good man, even if he doesn't know what else is left.

"Oh, darlin'. You're giving me chills."

--

Batman dies, temporarily, with the Joker trapped six feet under (Jack breathing and laughing and mocking even then, even as he's piling on more dirt to muffle the sound, because Bruce knows it is a matter of time before the Joker rips up the coffin by his fingernails and claws his way out. He'll get out in months, if he's lucky. If not, Bruce bets on a week).

It's not that Batman is gone- only dormant- because deep down, Bruce can't quite claim the mantle, not then, not when he feels like he's sunk down to a level he promised he would never fall to again.

Even if some part of him starts to wish that he could move on, that he doesn't have to keep fighting, that he can stop trying to keep everything bottled up...

Because then, even if Jack was half-winning, maybe he'd still lose, too.

Maybe there is no way to stop this cycle, not for the two of them.

But maybe it would feel like it did something.

--

"Don't worry, Brucie. You're only human. It was bound to catch up to you eventually."

--

Bruce knows he isn't doing well when he gets like this.

But sometimes, the pain is too much.

Sometimes, it is all that feels real.

--

Bruce knows keeping Jack buried won't last.

But he wants to pretend that something he does will matter when it comes to Jack.

That he can have the illusion that in some way, that this hurts him, this breaks some kind of hold that he has with every threat hanging over his family.

Even if, Bruce knows, deep down, it is a temporary relief.

And even if the laughter trails after him, because Jack thinks that this is just another wonderful joke, and evidence that he's got Bruce exactly where he wants him.

(Because it is. It always is. Engaging and giving in to the smallest urge to break Jack in the way he breaks everything around him and has broken Bruce all too easily, in the dark, in the silence, in the isolation...)

All it proves is everything Bruce has tried to keep himself apart from and escape.

But his children need him. They need space, they need peace, and Bruce needs time to plan how to get that, with Jack constantly breathing down his neck.

All this is is a brief reprieve. A chance to take stock and recoup and make a frenzied plan to get them out of Jack's clutches however Bruce to manage.

All it is, really, is buying time. 

Even if it's still giving Jack half of what he wants, and Bruce knows it's not an ending.

Just another thing Jack will find a way to twist to his liking...

But Bruce takes what he can get, because he doesn't know what else will spare anyone anything.

Batman is worth more than what Bruce can be, sometimes.

And sometimes, all Bruce wants to do is bury all his secrets if it means they won't have the power to hurt anyone anymore.

But he can't. He never can.

Because telling the truth only leads down one road, and that is Jack moving on to the next stage of whatever evils he has planned.

(And Bruce knows, the moment the truth gets out, Jack isn't fixated on killing. He's fixated on worse. On drawing this out, for everyone, finding the exact poison he needs to get what he wants and to make everything hurt most and using that to twist everyone and everything Bruce has ever loved. In some ways, Jack is predictable- he wants to take everything Bruce loves, and make it his. He wants to exert control over everyone, and call it the opposite.

And Bruce doesn't always have the strength to look that in the eye and to try to rise above it, because sometimes, all he can do is choke on the dust and the pain like he did when crawling out of the same hole he wishes he could keep the Joker locked in forever.)

--

When Bruce checks on his children, that night, he doesn't sleep. He only lies down on a mattress dragged on the floor, and readies hot cocoa (Jason's favorite, while Dick always preferred a stick of cinnamon in his) and a hand to press into theirs when the nightmares come knocking.

When Jason's light sleeping habits means he jerks upright, panting, Bruce tells him stories in a small whisper to lull him back to sleep, and when Dick rises, Bruce makes sure that his sling and cast aren't badly damaged from the last fight he found himself in, or crushed and slept on at the wrong angle.

--

The week Bruce finally allows Batman out again, a week the Bat signal is not lit up in the sky, he stays out on the streets for hours, not caring how many bruises he gets from too many fights, chasing whatever comes his way, until Dick and Alfred both say something.

In some ways, it is a self-inflicted punishment. For not being enough. For not rising above. For not being able to let go.

In some ways, it's the only thing Bruce has to anchor himself once Jack sneaks through his window again.

--

When the shadow of the bat shines up from the GCPD again, Bruce makes sure he keeps a routine, and doesn't let himself falter.

In some ways, meeting with Gordon, having Dick at his side, and Jason and Alfred safe from the mayhem Jack is brewing, eases the pain of knowing every lull, self-made or otherwise, is always transient and temporary.

(There are three universal constants in Bruce's life, and two of them bring no comfort. One is that all pain can be endured. The other is Jack. The third is the love Bruce has, from his family, for everyone he wants to believe in, and all the ways that becomes the other half of Batman- and sometimes, it feels like that's all he has left to fill the gaping holes inside himself.)

Chapter Text

"They deserved it!" Jason answered.

There's a silence- both of them holding their breath, Jason afraid he's said too much.

And Bruce...

Bruce says something about logistics, about needing the man to not be in shock so they could interrogate him. 

(It is not the only reason, but it is the only thing that will stop Jason from looking at him like he's so scared of crossing a line, of not being good enough, or worse, the anger that Bruce knows all too well and can't condemn, even if he can't let it swallow him. Not when it already took too much, and was a loaded gun waiting to fire.)

But this is not the first time Jason has wanted to do more than just incapacitate and break bones and make truly vile people feel pain.

(And it's not just conditioning, not just a response to his own experiences and things he does not want to remember, although Bruce knows that's a component. And he does wonder, then, if this is a mistake. Not because Jason can't take on the responsibility, but because maybe he shouldn't have to. Maybe this is stealing more from him than it heals. Maybe...)

Bruce doesn't blame him, for thinking this way. He just knows he can't let him drown in it, because it only leads down one road. And they deserved better, they deserved...

To be happy, and free, and to aspire to something less hopeless than Bruce has felt creeping over him.

He believes in his son. He trusts him. He loves him.

But Bruce needs to think, and they both lapse into silence on the way back. Jason... Bruce doesn't know what is going on in his head.

And he has to be careful.

Because no matter what he wants for his son, whatever form catharsis and safety and happiness might take, he can't let him be consumed by what he sees as Robin. He can't let him live another nightmare. The mantle is supposed to be a tool. Not something that would suffocate him in all the things they need to escape.

After Bruce helps him out of the Batmobile, he wonders, not for the first time, if it's better if he wasn't Batman at all, for the sake of his children. (He wonders if it would save anyone, when he knows it does, but he has doubts. Whether it would ever been enough, but even if he could give it up... He knows, whether he stays or goes, that neither option would spare them pain. There are too many hungry, evil things that do not sleep even when being watching eyes in the night and a way to strike back is a heavy burden as any. Not as heavy as not taking up the vigil and doing what must be done... But Bruce knows how much he wants to lash out himself. How much anger he suppresses. And he can't fail Jason, can't let it take him like it's done Bruce. Even if he wants to save all those people out there, like him and not. Even if he wants to spare his children the same.)

--Bruce--

The next night, Batman does not patrol. (And like it does once every blue moon, the signal does not activate, and it is a rare time that you are glad of it.)

(You assure Jason it is not because of the night before, but because you need rest yourself.)

(It isn't even a lie.)

Dick takes Jason out for ice cream per his weekly check-ins, with Alfred accompanying and your own prompting, while you pretend to go look over paperwork so it might lull you to sleep.

--

There's a note left on your pillow- coordinates, time and place.

You reach out and manage to convince a change of location.

(You don't like him being in the house, where Jason is. Vulnerable, asleep or not, you will not suffer that risk. And you'll leverage whatever you have to.)

--

Before he leaves again, Dick tells you to talk to someone. That if you don't do something, he'll make a move. Babs and him have been coordinating, lately. (You know he's been talking to Superman again, too, even though you all know his hands are tied as much as anyone else's.)

It is not the only secret kept between you that has made your relationship strained, even if his heart is in the right place.

--

It's a late night. But it's a Saturday, so you suppose it's a far cry from the worst thing you've ever allowed as a parent.

All of you share cocoa with Alfred, and then you make sure Jason brushes his teeth. When you tuck Jason in at 4 am, and kiss him on the forehead, you pause and sit on the edge of the bed.

And then you dare to ask-

"Jason, are you happy?"

"What kind of question is that, B, 'course I'm happy..." He snorts, but then notes the way you can't quite meet his eyes when you ask, and he asks, "Are you okay?"

You paste on a smile, ruffle his hair, and say, "As long as you are."

It is not entirely a lie.

"Bruce, if this is about the other night, I-"

"Jason, trust me. We're fine. But if you ever need to tell me anything... I'm here."

"I will. I promise... But, B..." Jason hesitates, until he can't help the words that burst out him, "Are you going on patrol without me?"

"No. I have an... appointment. Things I've let sit for too long." You quickly amend at his dubious expression, ensuring you keep your voice level and your face blank, and then force yourself to think of lighter things. Controlling your breathing, your body, in the ways you've so carefully honed. "But I was thinking we could stargaze tomorrow, if that sounds good?"

Jason nods. Still analyzing you too much with wide eyes. You keep your expression light, until Jason's suspicion relaxes into something less hypervigilant.

"With the new telescope?" He yawns.

You nod, and when his hand reaches for yours, you give it a squeeze.

"Goodnight, son."

You turn off the bedroom lamp with a decisive click, pulling your coat tighter around your shoulders as you walk out.

(You can still feel Jason's eyes following you with every step. But he has Alfred checking in, and Nightwing has crashed on the couch for the night.)

He'll be fine.

(And you tell yourself, maybe it's not Jason that's faltering. Maybe it's just you.

And maybe it is high time you took a stand, and made sure both your sons are safe whether you played with fire or not. You are tired of watching for shadows, for hiding the marks on your neck and all the hours stolen from your sweeps of Gotham or your children, being lured to a place you'd promised you'd never let yourself succumb to, yet you find yourself trapped in, anyway.)

And after yet another rendezvous at yet another motel, after one too many whispers, promises you have grown all too used to-

You think that it's time Bruce was as strong as Batman pretends to be.

--

It's only afterwards, still sprawled out under him, that you remember the courage you used to feel mattered, whether you were in the suit or out of it.

"No more." You say. You're surprised you even manage to make a noise.

"Bruce, I know your throat took quite the beating, but you're going to have to speak up-" The last word pops, loud and sugary. Your fists clench on autopilot, blood thrumming in your ears.

"It's over. And if you so much as look at him, at any of them-" You don't get a chance to finish your sentence, low laughter warm as it hisses against your earlobe.

"Someone's in a mood tonight. Let's just see how you feel in a few days, okay, hon-"

"No. We're done."

Jack stares at you, his fingers skittering from your chest to your arm, before digging into your shoulder, too tight. He blinks, so slowly.

"We'll see." He promises. 

He lets go of you, laces his fingers together as you sit up and collect your clothes and with them, the only dignity you've got left. The knife sits on the bed, discarded, not gathered in his hand.

He doesn't smile once after that.

(His eyes follow you as you leave, and you try not to think of every other time he's looked at you like that.)

--

It takes a week before you snap.

And the next time you throw the Joker into Arkham, he isn't laughing.

(That's when he's always the most dangerous.)

And the sense memory of it makes you itch with all the things you cannot shake, all the fears you know all too well. (You have new ideas for security, for restraints, and, beneath that, buried even deeper, terms and sacrifices you'd make if Jack found a way to break through and get what he wants again.)

But Dick was right.

You deserved to be free, all of you. And you don't know how you can help Jason heal when you haven't at all, for all the ways history repeats itself.

--

When you make it back home, you ask Jason if he feels safe.

He asks why you'd even need to ask.

And then you clarify, "Just making sure."

"I know you'd never let anything happen to me, B..." Jason says, adding, "Are you sure you're okay? You've been acting weird, like, weirder than you already are, which is saying something-"

And you can't let him see through the cracks, and let the barest hope that this will work itself out thread it's way out your throat, as you laugh, rubbing the back of your neck absently.

"No doubt someone will alert the media."

You two laugh together, then, and it feels real in a way so many things still don't.

(You pray it is enough.)

Chapter Text

"I hear you are really enjoying yourself. Taking up new extracurriculars. Leaping off rooftops, beating the snot out of the Gotham's parasites-" 

Jason dodges a third blow, then counters by throwing a few pieces of a dismantled box to keep the Joker from getting another hit in. He can't afford to go down here, and he certainly can't afford to let his concentration go to shit when he's being toyed with. (And when he knows where this rabbit hole will lead, inevitably. The Joker never really pulled punches, even when going easy on him or when baiting Bruce in public. They both know he could do worse, and the only thing stopping him was that frail line of patriarchal ownership and amusement that led him to making Jason exist as part of some legacy. At least, that's the only lead Jason has, the only motive that might make any lick of sense, even if the Joker never makes sense and probably has some other reason locked in that madhouse he calls a brain.)

"And I'm not knockin' that, kiddo. But we hardly ever see each other anymore, even when your darlin' Dad takes you out on the town. And dare I say it, I miss our little heart-to-hearts, even if you always seem to blow me off these days-"

Another hit misses, too wide, too projected not to be anything but a tease to make Jason flinch and little else, you know, all in good fun.

But Jason is tired of the game that no one wins. He climbs up a few boxes, grabs hold of the upper pipes soldiered to the ceiling, and hauls himself just out of reach of the Joker's suddenly too-close grip or the lunge of the blade he favors in his left hand, displaced air whistling past his bare feet. Jason knows he's only buying time and surveys every inch of the warehouse to see any options for how to get out of this, and he hugs the pipes tighter when he can't quite see where the Joker has decided to weave in and out of, thanks to the shadows of the boxes, all while the Joker doesn't stop yakking away. The echo of his too-amiable voice and sporadic assaults on the floor and the walls all cause a few clattering noises, all meant to be disorienting, and keep him off his game, if he's not testing for the fear response the Joker has been supposedly trying to knock out of him by force.

"Ah, well. All part of watching you grow up, I suppose. So let's catch up."

When he wheels too close for comfort, voice echoing just close enough to half-predict his erratic dancing movements, Jason tries to kick him in the face, hoping to stagger him or knock him prone to get enough time the reach the door, but he misses and nearly slips from over-correcting.

The Joker dodges with a half hop-skip, then scrambles out of reach, intangible as smoke.

"How's school? You keeping up those grades in between leaping across streetlamps? Meet any lucky ducks for prom? I never understand having them this early, one when you're so small. Is it practice for the real thing, you think?"

When the Joker finally emerges from shadows he's been using for cover, hovering closer to the corners of the warehouse, Jason spots him sporting a crowbar. Probably nabbed it from the pile of rest of all the tools he brought with him that Jason already upended everywhere after his first attempt to squirm out of his grip.

The Joker drags it on the floor, ever so slightly, just because he likes building ambiance, and Jason hates that the Joker knows all too well how much he hates the grating noise.

It's a threat. Not new, not anything unexpected, but enough to make Jason have to quell the lizard part of his brain that wants to panic.

"Actually, that reminds me. Has Brucie give you the talk of the birds and the bees yet, or did he leave it for dear ol' Jeeves? Or was that my job? Hard to tell, seeing how everyone keeps trying to keep me out of the loop-"

The Joker hefts the crowbar higher and dents a few of the boxes for good measure, tumbling them down, maybe to make Jason's attempts to navigate and leap across them all the more treacherous, or maybe just because he wants to demolish something. Hard to tell, sometimes, seeing as he's having a ball and laughing at his own antics. (Jason grits his teeth and tries to count his breathing and tries, so hard, not to freeze up.) The reach will be a problem, seeing as the ceiling isn't high enough to avoid bludgeoning damage.

"It does take two to have a conversation. Any chance you'd throw your old man a bone?"

A direct hit lands, heavy and methodical in the way the Joker never projects himself capable of, and Jason finds himself falling, wrist breaking as he lands wrong trying to duck and roll. (He's never been good with the acrobatics, not like Grayson. Sure, his reflexes are good, and his brute strength is nothing to scoff at- living on the streets makes that more than necessary, not to mention all the little "training sessions" the Joker has been throwing at him all these years- but the ways he's falling short are all too evident from the things he struggles with, and they both know it.)

He's not fast enough, as the Joker always likes to remind him.

Jason crawls, half tripping and half-rolling with the same frenetic energy that's been drilled into him, not by training but by necessity, to get as small a target and as far away as quickly as possible, until a very sharp, steel-toed boot kicks him in the stomach, knocking him prone.

"Go to Hell." Jason wheezes. Winded. He's already lost his only advantage, and now he'll just have to settle for surviving the shifting moods he's never sure he's predicting right.

When the Joker crouches next to him, he ditches the crowbar and clutches his jaw, a gloved thumb digging into one of the spots his fist grazed Jason's lip.

Jason tries to bite him, only for the other hand to wrap around his throat, and all he can do is reach for the crowbar, so close but not close enough, until he can't help but pull at the grip around his neck and stare into the face of the man that dared pretend he was family.

Half the paint has worn off, only to show sickly white skin and red lips and old scar tissue and Jason does not want this to be the last thing he sees before he passes out, not when he's been trying to outrun everything-

"Ah, teenage rebellion." The Joker finally lets go, and Jason heaves in air, the concrete leeching cold against his back. "Is that why the first boy blunder bounced on you? It is awful quiet in that mansion these days. I don't blame you for wanting to get some fresh air." A hand pats Jason's face, tangles with Jason's hair as he lurches away, and then the Joker straightens, pacing, back and fro, only pausing to give another kick whenever Jason tries to make a grab for crowbar. "Not to mention how stuffy the cave is, too- although, is that why you followed in his footsteps so closely? Do you miss big brother already? I know Bruce isn't always good at handling an empty nest, no matter what he pretends otherwise-"

"You have no right-"

"Excuse you. I have every right." The Joker's tone turns into that growl Jason was waiting for, the serious, all-business side that always comes out underneath the manufactured smokescreen of false glee the Joker cultivates to hide who he really is, and Jason muffles a grunt as a kick to his knee knocks something out of alignment.

"I'm the reason you've taken a jaunty little vacation so far from home-"

Jason covers his face, on autopilot.

"-I'm the reason you had the means to survive the streets-"

When the expected hit doesn't land he dares to try and roll away, only for a boot to land on his chest, too heavy, pinning him down, heel digging in, the blade sticking out of the sole nicking his Adam's apple, enough to make him freeze.

Jason hopes that the knife, for once, isn't laced with a sedative or worse. He can't afford to be taken to a second location, can't afford to be drugged, can't afford to fall into whatever evils he has planned now that Jason knows things that should've stayed buried-

"-And I'm the reason you're in this world at all!"

...Just like he can't afford to be spiraling right now, Jason reminds himself, and fails, keeping his eyes screwed shut tight and his chin tucked against his chest as he tries to pretend he is anywhere but here.

Bruce will come find him. Batman will save him. He will. Even if Jason was once unwanted. Even if he gave him away. Even if he didn't tell Jason anything. Even if he knew that Jason has been looking his real family this whole time and had them right there and even if Bruce didn't tell him, didn't want him to begin with, he does now, and he wouldn't make him Robin if he didn't, and he's going to save him-

(Jason tries not to think of a note, the note left with him, the one he now knows Bruce wrote, the one that burned in the fire when the Joker took him the first time. The one that said he was loved, to never doubt that, and he was only left there to keep him safe and to give him a family that could love him and raise him better than the people he came from. And Jason doesn't think, does that mean you couldn't love me, or save me, is that why I'm always ending up like this, how can you save me from this monster if you couldn't save yourself, you promised-)

And Jason doesn't think about how maybe Bruce is too angry or too afraid to be thinking straight, and he's not thinking about how he didn't say where he was going, or how he went off to find answers against everyone telling him to let it lie, and maybe there was more to it than that.

Maybe it wasn't just that Bruce didn't want him to know. Maybe there were other reasons he hid this. (Because why, why would he not say anything, when Jason knows every syllable and broken word on that note because he memorized it, because it couldn't be taken away-)

And Jason tries not to fear that he wouldn't find him in time, like he didn't find him before. Bruce won't be too late.

He can't be. He wants to protect him.

Except...

Maybe he's never known how.

(And the fear, the real fear Jason didn't know he's held so close to his chest until after reaching the warehouse, once he realized it was no clone, no trick, but that Bruce was Batman and Batman was his father, not anyone else...

Jason did not ask for that knowledge. He thought he was done being afraid, learning how to be part of the night, untouchable and unbreakable in all the ways Bruce was under the cowl...

He thought he'd finally found his footing, only to have everything shatter, for all the safe things he took for granted to turn into questions with ugly, terrifying answers and Jason wants to stuff them back in the box and they won't go.)

The Joker's furious yell trails off.

And then his voice goes soft, morphs back into the sickly sweetness Jason knows to fear more than anything else. (He knows he saw something to latch on to, saw all the emotions he can't keep from overwhelming him. He always does. He always draws it out and it's always part of the game, his constant punchline, and Jason stupidly, pathetically, falls for it every time-)

"But you already know that. You just wanted to know if that fancy computer was mistaken when it told you the other side of the equation, and just who you popped out of. Am I close?"

"Shut up!"

Jason fights like a cornered animal, not caring if the knife cuts his collarbone as he tries to push the Joker's weight off himself, not caring if knuckles bruise him further.

Only he soon finds himself falling, elbows askew, unbalanced, because the Joker slid his foot away.

The Joker tsks at him, arms akimbo and hands on his hips.

"Such backtalk," Joker sighs, rolling his eyes. "Jeeves would be so disappointed-"

Jason rises to his knees and makes a last desperate grab for the crowbar, holding it close, because holding it out in front of him as a barrier would only lead to the Joker trying to play a game of tug of war before he'd rip it out of his hands.

And Jason finds he can't stop talking now that he's started, the words pouring out of his mouth, "I don't want to have anything to do with you unless it involves throwing you back in a cell and locking the door forever." Jason stumbles from his knees to his feet, testing the weight on his bad foot, "I'm taking you in. And then you can rot-"

The Joker claps. Back to smiling a real smile, one that Jason knows means he's well and truly in for it now.

"Such a convincing performance. I gotta say, you really outdid yourself." The Joker clasps his hands behind his back, tilting forwards. Daring Jason to use the crowbar, inches from his face, and then Jason lashes out.

Attempts another break for it, hoping to use the remaining boxes for cover, crowbar hitting Jack right below the eye.

Only just as he thinks he's bridged the gap and in the clear, so close to the door, an arm wraps around his bruised neck, and Jason resists, all elbows and teeth, jabbing the crowbar wherever he can reach the Joker until he can't muster the energy, and they both sink to the floor.

The Joker's free hand musses Jason's hair, and the arm around his neck grows tighter, and the pressure doesn't let up until the crowbar is abandoned at their feet-

The Joker is oddly quiet, subdued while the Joker cuffs Jason's hands too tight behind his back, until the Joker's usual frenzied, affected speech picks up speed again, "You almost sounded just like them, little bird boy and Brucie when he gets all suited up. But here. Let me help you get some of the fine tuning down. I'm sure you'll appreciate the lesson-"

"How about this? I'm done. No more games." Jason's voice hitches, then breaks. "You don't matter to me. You've never mattered, not to anyone-" Jason sobs, nails digging into the arm around his chest until he's being turned around and lashing out at the Joker's face and chest with his fists, trying to break his grip that's too tight around his wrist and shoulder.

"You're breaking my heart, sonny boy. And I don't take heartbreak well. Just ask your Dad-"

But Jason doesn't wonder at what history is unsaid there. He doesn't care. He's done wondering about the secrets of the past.

He just wants an ending to this horrible story, one he's never had control over.

Jason thinks of burnt words turned to ashes, of ears ringing and broken windowpanes, of poker games and static on old TVs and bullets dropped in his hands, of hiding, cowering behind sofas, thinks of so many upturned bowls of cereal, of scrounging for week-old meals and broken, rattling radiators, the way greasepaint smelled foul and chalky as it suffocated his face, painted oh-so-carefully. Like Jason is something to be owned, controlled-

And then Jason forces himself to think of anything, anything better than that, of swinging off rooftops, of Alfred making late night mac and cheese and letting him stay up late to watch movies and leave the sound on when the manor felt too big, thinks of Dick laughing only then his heart leaps in his mouth and all he can taste is cotton and blood as he thinks of Dick, leaving-

And all that's left is to comfort him is the warm weight of Bruce clasping him on the back, or the way he'd look at him with a half-smile, his blue eyes distant, like he's still not sure Jason is real, or the way his hugs would always crush too tight, like he's too important to let go of, and telling him he's going to be safe, that he's proud of him, that he loves him-

Jason thinks of the fucking blood test, and the flashing green and blue lights on the screen, telling him the other half of a story he still didn't understand or want to comprehend.

Jason thinks, this is not betrayal, it can't be, family is not that-

He doesn't wonder: did you treat him like an object, too, like a dog on a leash, did he hide from you the same way I did, does it hurt when he beats you to a bloody pulp in every way you have always deserved-

But there's only one thing that bursts from his mouth, that sums up the rage and totality of all the things that matter, all the emotions Jason can't pin down and name.

"You mean nothing to me." Jason snarls.

The Joker goes still in a way he so rarely ever does, eyes wide and nostrils flaring and Jason only can register that he's never seem him look at him with with real hate before, not really, not like this, and he's seen so much fury, so much malice, so much no-holds barred danger-

"Now, now. Is that any way to talk to your father?"

The Joker drops him, then levels a knee to Jason's gut before he shoves him to the floor.

"But okay, kiddo. I'll bite. If that's the way you want to play this, and you're that committed to this role, who am I to stop you?"

The Joker rises, and Jason rises to his knees, only to become sprawled out like a lamb for slaughter once the next kick connects with his head, "It's not exactly playing catch in the yard, but if you wanna play cops and robbers so bad, put the big bad boss in the slammer and be a big time hero?"

The Joker bends and picks up the crowbar again, teeth gleaming, too white, and his voice rumbling in his chest more snarl than laughter, "Then let's play!"

--

Jason stares back into the nameless expression lining the Joker's twisted face, his own heart leaping in his throat, Jason unable to think of anything because of all the things he expected to suffer, he had not anticipated this.

He stares, into the fury, into the mirthless no-mercy hate behind this man's eyes, and knows, beyond a doubt, that the man he wishes wasn't his father, doesn't just want to hurt him, or break him, or remake him in his image.

The Joker is going to kill him.

And the part of Jason that thought there was some line, the part of himself that didn't have anything left to break, comes loose and undoes any part of Jason with dignity left.

All he has left to cling to is survival. Whatever that might mean. Waiting this out. Taking it. Not. Jason doesn't know anymore he doesn't know anything he wants Bruce he wants his real dad he wants to be as far away from here as possible and this can't be happening it can't-

And the part of Jason that isn't scrambling to find a way out, a bird in a cage, the part that knows better, wonders why he was even brought into this world at all, if this is what the road led to.

Because this joke... it doesn't seem like one. Jason can predict those, he usually understands...

But he doesn't get this one.

(You always go after the ones who don't get it, kid- he remembers and he needs to stall he needs to do something he needs to get out of the goddamn way so Batman can save him and stop this and please-)

Please...

And Jason throws whatever self-respect he has out the window, because all he is, really, is thirteen years old and almost 100 pounds of muscle turned dead weight. A kid who doesn't want this to be real.

"Father-"

"Oh, none of that. If you're the new Robin, you know how this goes. I'm just giving you same treatment I'd give Grayson if he didn't wise up and get out of town."

"Please-"

"No more playing favorites. Remember, you disowned me. And they say corporeal punishment is going out of style, but really, I turned out just fine. Can't hurt to try, right?"

(Jason knows one thing, and that's despite everything, he does not want to die.

And if he has to die, he doesn't want it to be here.)

And maybe the threat is all it is.

Maybe he's wrong.

Maybe he'll change his mind and laugh about it and that will be the only threat the Joker deigns to make good on today.

Only Jason can't think about that now, because running didn't work and there's no where else to go and he's getting closer, so close now, arms raised high above his head-

"This is going to hurt you more than it'll hurt me."

Metal crashes down, and that's the only thing Jason knows for a long, long time.

--

"Wow. That looked like it really hurt."

"Whoa. Now hang on. That looked like it hurt a lot more. So let's try and clear this up, okay, pumpkin? What hurts more? A or B? Forehand or backhand?"

"Eheehehehe. A little louder." The Joker ruffles Jason's hair, kneeling down next to him, whispering in his ear, "I think you may have a collapsed lung. Always impedes the oratory."

Jason spits blood at him, then has his face pushed back down to the floor. The Joker laughs, ever so slightly, although the smile drops for a millisecond as he rubs the blood off his face, some paint peeling off along with it.

"Now that was rude. The first boy blunder had some manners. Try to keep up."

Jason smiles at him, a full on snarl. Half an attempt of defiance, but not entirely. Still a remnant of an earlier time where smiling was about the only thing that maybe made him ease off, once in a blue moon.

"Ah, ah, ah. No breaking character while class is in session. Those pearly whites won't get you anywhere today."

"I suppose I'm going to have to teach you a lesson so you can better follow in his footsteps. Give you some pointers, one actor to another. So... How about I just keep beating you with this crowbar until it all sinks in?"

--

"Okay, kiddo, I've got to go. It's been fun though, right? Spending some quality time like we used to? Well, maybe a smidge more fun for me than you. I'm just guessing, since you're being awful quiet. But you'll bounce back, son. I promise. Anyway, be a good boy. Finish your homework, and be in bed by nine. And hey, please tell the big man of the house I said hello."

--

Jason stays small and still and quiet until the coast is clear, and then opens his eyes ever so slightly to make sure he isn't being tricked.

He's learned that behavior, had it ingrained in him for as long as he can remember.

But he can do this.

He struggles and strains so that his cuffed arms escape from where they are trapped behind his back, even tendon and bruise and laceration red-hot with pain as he steps his legs through, wobbling, unsteady, unable to see anything but double-

He just has to make it one step-

Until his legs collapse out from under him, and then he's crawling instead.

Everything hurts.

But he can push past it.

That's what you have to do, to get out.

Even if he can barely muster the strength to crawl, and spots are swimming over his vision, his blood leaving a trail behind him, soaking his side, dribbling down his lip, sticky and warm.

(Only he's so very, very cold.)

His eyes won't stop watering, and every intake of breath he chokes down tastes like copper, like his lungs can't take in enough air, the ringing in his ears drowning out every frail protest his mouth can't help but whine up from his sore, bruised throat.

But he's so close-

The door is right there, and Jason kneels, reaches up and up and strains-

Clutches at the doorknob like it will give- even though it isn't- and he pushes himself against the door, rattling the hinges and the latch again and again, until he doesn't have the strength and he leans with his back against the metal, curled up over himself, still trying to staunch the bleeding over his ribs, waiting-

For whatever trap this is, for Batman, with him as bait-

Only then he hears the beeping, sees the blurry red neon countdown, so hazy on the other side of the room-

Even though by now, he knows all too well what this means.

It's over.

(That this time wasn't a test, only a final parting shot.)

(And that hate, that rage, that deathly gleam in the Joker's eye- it wasn't a trick of the light.)

(But deep down, Jason already knew that.)

He closes his eyes.

He shouldn't have dared to hope, not even for the frail chance that didn't know he still had- that Bruce would somehow swoop in and gather him up and stop this-

But Jason knows better. He always does.

There's no time left.

The real joke is on him- thinking that the Joker didn't mean it. That there was a way out. That this was going to end any other way, so long as he kept his head down and played dead...

And Batman isn't going to make it here in time, with seconds left, Jason doesn't even know if he knows he's even gone-

He never said goodbye. To Dick, to Babs, to Alfred.

To Bruce.

(The last thing he ever said to someone who loved him was, "I'll try." And he did. He tried his best-

He tried so damn hard and it was never good enough and he's going to die here, alone, and, and...)

And I'll see them again. Miriam. Luis. I'll go home in another way, and it won't hurt, not anymore-

--

It's loud and burning and bright, until it's not.

--

Bruce is ten feet away when he witnesses half of his whole world crumble in yet another fire, praying that Jason isn't in there he can't be in there he can't be gone he can't be late he was supposed to protect him and he's never really-

He can't-

Jason isn't dead he isn't this isn't happening he's going to find him he's going to save him he doesn't know why no no no no no NO-

--

"You know, it's sad, really." Jack turns on his heels as he advances, licking his lips, "Makes me feel like you don't care to see the good side in me."

"Whatever shred of good that might've been locked inside you died with our son." You say. So quiet, and yet it echoes, loud and final in the dead air.

"Then why are you still holding back, hmm? Are you just going to stand there and let me get away with it?" Jack hisses as he advances.

You throw him to the ground, pummeling him, all control slipping through your grip in a way it hasn't since that one time in an alley where you should've done the damn job when you thought this was the same crime.

This time, you don't want to stop.

This time, you want to put him in the ground and make him stay there, for all the things he put Jason through before he died and the way he died and the way he looked at you, in your arms, third degree burns and lacerations and bruised eyes swollen shut as you tried to get him out of the rubble only for him to just go limp, one last gasp.

He's gone.

"Come on, baby. Beat me 'til your knuckles bleed. And why quit there? You know there's only one way to stop me. Not that it will fix this. But hey, our little tyke was living on borrowed time. Guess you should've spent more time with him back home instead of out stalking the streets..."

Jack chokes on blood, for once silent, for once so close to being crushed under the weight of everything you throw at him, no holds barred, with precious little left to give save the same heartbreak you thought you'd almost gotten used to, inoculated to, only for it all to collapse over you as if it never even left.

You try to cling to the last moorings of what would make you pause.

But there's too much you can do to rationalize it all away.

Dick is still reeling from the loss. Distant. But as safe as he can be, out of your house, out of the area, out on his own and safe from the toxic mess that permeates every part of your life.

And Alfred would forgive you, for following Jason down into the ground and taking Jack with you.

And even though you wear the cowl, you do not feel like Batman.

Not tonight.

Tonight, you are only a broken man, a broken father who didn't deserve the name, with precious little keeping you from leaping on that one cliff.

You don't even care if you are giving Jack what he wants. That you are abandoning everyone else close to you that is left.

You just want it to be over.

You want him- all of it- to be over. To pay, however briefly, for what he's done and to put it all to rest.

Because you could come back from it, the first time. And when Jason was returned, you almost got used to thinking things could be worse, only for the reality of everything Jack was to pull the wool from your eyes and make everything come crashing down and to hurt him when he'd done nothing except suffer being born from this monster as a way to keep you under his thumb.

And you are so, so tired.

And once it over, there's no coming back. 

So you might as well end it for the both of you, and bring about an ending to a cycle that Jack was never going to stop inciting as long as you didn't let him win the game.

"Batman- Bruce- wait!" Babs' voice cuts through the haze.

Chapter Text

"Bruce. Talk to me." Alfred asks. And Bruce breaks down and finally lets out all the things he could not keep together any more.

"I thought I could take the pain in Jason’s heart and replace it with something better. I thought I could give him a reason to turn his life around, that he could feel safe and free and that I could shield him... But I couldn't. And I couldn't tell him the truth and it killed him."

"Sir-"

"No, you don't get to say it isn't my fault! It is-"

"You didn't kill him."

"I as good as pulled the trigger! I should've told him the truth. I should have warned him, I should have realized he would do some digging, that he'd realize-"

"You were trying to protect him!"

"IT WASN'T GOOD ENOUGH! It's never been..." Bruce yells, only his voice breaks as he chokes out, "Don't you get it? I abandoned him by not being able to say it. I was so scared of what might happen if I told him, if he realized, that I didn’t even think he'd try to find any other answer and start scouring the middle east to find a way out. And if I hadn't made him Robin, Jack-”

"Jason wanted to be Robin, he needed-"

"Not if he was going to kill him for it!" Bruce yells.

"Sir, he would've tried something else. You know that. And we both know Jason coming into his own as Robin was just as much needed for Jason as much as it was the best way for you to keep an eye on him, to keep him-"

"I know why he went looking, Alfred. I know why he couldn't just ask me once he found out. He knew I gave him away, and that I adopted Dick, and he... He took Dick leaving so hard, and I should've realized... He didn't trust me because I didn't trust myself to tell him and... I just wanted to protect him. And when I told myself I'd stop living a lie, that I'd grow a damn backbone and tell him, and the moment I said no, the moment I told Jack it was over, that he'd never touch him or me again, he, he..." Bruce's voice breaks.

"Bruce-" Alfred can see there are some things he cannot broach. Not now. And changes tact, "Bruce, you wanted to give him hope in the face of hopelessness. You couldn't have known-”

“I should've! I know what Jack is- I knew, I should've... Al, I just wanted what any father wants for his son! Hope. Happiness. A future of never wanting or regretting something he could never have again… Even though I knew it all hinged on him not knowing. And I thought, if he didn't find out... Jack would leave him alone. I wanted to tell him, Alfred. I wanted him to realize... But I didn't say it. I went about it the wrong way. I allowed him to have hope, and I lied to myself. I thought that he could be free of him, that he'd be safe..." Bruce gasps, "And when he realized that... That I'm Batman and Batman couldn't save him, that... That he's my son. That hope, Alfred. That lie... It killed him.”

Bruce’s head falls, tears streaming down his face as he holds his head in his hands.

"I killed him."

Alfred leaves him, knowing when it's best to give him space, and plans to reach out to Dick, Leslie, Barbara, and Mr. Gordon later.

The path Bruce would go down was not going to be fixed with any words he could say.

Chapter Text

Jason's first memory waking up is feeling closed in, like he can't get enough air.

It's dark.

And then his fists are pounding against something hard and splintered-

--

He can't leverage enough force to break through.

He's got bloody knuckles and the air is so stuffy he's about to choke on it, and even though he's covering his mouth in case he does break through, there's no guarantee he won't suffocate beforehand.

(Jason thinks, of irony, of dying in his own grave after being buried alive, except he can't be alive, he shouldn't be alive, because he can still feel the scars under his skin even when it's smooth and unmarked.)

(He remembers the heat and light behind closed eyelids, the sound it made, rushing in-)

--

Someone is scratching above him.

Jason doesn't know what is real or not, but between the whispers and the colors and all the other things he can feel touching his face, the scratching remains a constant irritant.

There's the hit of a shovel breaking through, and dirt and loam pouring in-

And a thin, throaty chuckle as a hand hauls him out of the hole in the ground, even though Jason is doing his best to wrench himself of a grip that has no right to be stronger than him.

Not after all this time.

Not after-

(Except Jason knows all about atrophy and decay, all the ways his body is a wisp of itself no matter how much it's managed to come back together.)

The sliver of Jason that isn't mad-dog-foaming at the mouth, only struggling to bite and scream and get away, wonders if he's still dead, and just in Hell, his head lolling as the Joker hauls him over his shoulder.

(Jason sees Bruce's body unconscious in the dirt before he gets dragged into the stolen Lamborghini (again), and wonders how long he'd been sitting there.

Like he'd been expecting something.

Or he'd been mourning, keeping a vigil over him.

(And that's the first time the fire stirs, and the white hot rage blinds him and he wants to hurt Bruce, too, for abandoning him. For not reaching him. For not killing the clown that won't even let him die in peace.)

(For being just as defenseless as he always has been, when he promised Jason he'd finally be safe when he can't even protect a corpse.)

--

"C'mon kiddo. Swimming is like blowing up a consulate. It always comes right back to ya."

The Joker tosses him into the green, bubbling pit, and Jason forgets how to hold his breath fast enough.

(It burns his lungs, only it burns cold. Nothing like having fire and shrapnel ripping you to shreds and boiling your skin, but the ice hurts worse.)

--

The only mercy of falling into the pit is that once Jason crawls out, it makes the voice and the whispers and the touches and the scratching go quiet, lets his whirling, dizzy-oxygen-starved-still-repairing brain and it's synapses click together too fast and too sure and it crackles like a lightningbolt, vertigo ringing through his skull and contact with the Pit's oozing miasma churning, all liquid plague of ice-cold fire burning through through every limb.

But what comes as a packaged deal with the clarity, in this case, is a mixed blessing, if not a curse outright.

(Only clarity means the truth swamps him. That he's not free. He'll never be free-)

And the truth is enough to push a man and kick him while he's down and make him seek out madness to stave off the things he cannot hide, from all the things Jason does not want to remember or know or anticipate.

Chapter Text

"Where does he keep finding strays, anyway? If he wanted more children all he had to do was ask, and pass on the hysterectomy."

--

"You got replaced real quick."

--

"Your body was barely cold and in the dirt before he took on someone new."

--

"Screw you."

--

"Don't worry, I won't give you the belt for backtalk. That's reserved for your father, with his thing for tight leather."

--

"I think that whatever doesn't kill you is a learning experience. One that will be very... instructive."

--

"He doesn't know I'm alive."

"Now, what makes you think that? I already fooled him once. You really think I've managed to fool him twice? You know better than that, son. I know you do."

--

"Okay, have it your way."

"I've known him for years. Ever since we were little. Then he let me into his heart, and we were gonna have something. Me, you, him. We'd left Gotham behind. And he could've walked away. Could've accepted the new life I'd helped make for him, the three of us. And instead he ran off and threw you into someone else's arms and went back to throwing criminals away because that's what he does. He pushes everyone out. And it's always been about Gotham, about some abstract idea of what's right. Never about me. Never about you. And he means well. And he loves you. He loves all of us. But not enough, kiddo. He's too scared to let anyone get close. And if he loved you, he'd end the game we've been playing and bite the bullet and stop being vengeance and the night or whatever point he's trying to prove. If he cared about his family, about his children, he'd choose you over everything else. And he hasn't. He's left you at my mercy. And he should know better, shouldn't he?"

--

"You'd think you'd have learned after the first time, Bruce. He is our son, after all. I'm not about to just throw him under the bus, even if he did need to learn to listen his elders and show some respect. But hey, I forgive you. I do tend to commit to most of my more lethal projects and get in character. It's easy to think you might think the worst of me. 'Specially since I was hoping you'd finally commit. Was I surprised you backed off? Sure. But we have ample time to explore that, and the fact remains, I've only ever done this for the both of you. And one day, you'll both see the light."

Chapter Text

"Enough. it's over. You say you wanna be better than me. But it won't happen. Not like this!" You yell, and then throw Jason through the already-broken drywall.

You don't want to settle this with violence. But you do need to subdue him, and Jason isn't exactly pulling punches, even if he's not aiming to kill.

(And it's not like you are getting younger. You are many things, but if you want to outlast him you need to be objective about this.)

Jason lies prone facedown on the floor. Winded, but without any broken bones or contusions as far as you could manage when deflecting the force of his blows.

"I know I failed you..." You begin softly, standing there. "But I tried to save you, Jason. I'm..." Your voice breaks, and you want to reach out a hand to pull him up, but you know the movement would only make him angrier, like he's something to be pitied, even when it's not that, not at all. "I'm trying to save you now."

Even if it isn't enough. Even if you've never really known how.

Even if, when push comes to shove, Jason can only choose to save himself from this, and keep hold of the truth even if it's tearing him apart.

Jason sits up from where he's crumpled, clicks off the safety of a gun hidden by his waist, and points it at you.

You step backwards reflexively, arms up, not willing to engage or make this worse than it already is.

His hand shakes, ever so slightly.

"Is that what you think this is about?" Jason yells. "That you let me die?" And then he catches his breath, modulates his voice to something even and not broken as he rises swiftly to his feet and adds, "I don't know what clouds your judgment worse. Your guilt or your antiquated sense of morality."

He catches his breath, the two of you unable to look away from the other.

And there is a disappointment there, bitter and festering but the flatness of his tone makes it seem inevitable. Like he's come to terms with all your failures. And you wait for him to keep going, because, for all the ways you want to stop this self-destructive spiral in it's tracks, you know Jason's the one calling the shots here, and you don't want to scare him into another wild goose chase while he pushes it all down and makes everyone suffer the fallout. (That, too, is too much like someone else you know, but that is not Jason's fault, not when he's had to survive the same person who ingrained those old habits that you tried to curb and then failed to fix because you could never really be what Jason needed, not because you didn't know how but because it was always a temporary safety that you knew would come crumbling down. Neither of you, none of you, Jason or Dick or Alfred or anyone who got close was ever safe, even if keeping them at arm's length didn't save them, either.)

And then Jason's lips purse together and his nostrils flare, and you know that all the hurt that hasn't yet been discussed is bubbling close to the surface, ready to boil over. (Jason always lashes out when overwhelmed. He always felt deeply, felt joy and sorrow and anger more than anyone you've ever really known, and that has not changed.)

But he's trying his best to keep it together, even while he isn't. Even as you can see him breaking apart all over again.

"Bruce, I forgive you for not saving me." He says. So sure, as you stay oh-so-still, scared to reach out and scared to do nothing because neither will solve this. 

"But why? Why on God's earth-" Jason snarls as he kicks down the door, hauling the pale man in all your nightmares out from the closet and dragging the chair he's bound to with a screech along the floor, "Is he still alive?"

Jack looks between the two of you and laughs, low and throaty and real in a way his raucous laughter isn't. 

It's too satisfied. Too comfortable. He kicks his feet out from the floor, testing the bonds, wriggling with all that energy he hasn't let loose yet. Testing for any weaknesses while he thinks you are both too distracted, even though the moment he's in the room, you are more concerned what he'll try to do to Jason than anything else Jason might try himself.

"Gotta give the boy points. He came all the way back from the dead to make this shindig happen." Jack's mouth tics, tongue licking his lips before he's craning his neck back at your son as he asks, "So. Who's got a camera? Oh! Oh! Get one of me and the kid first. Then you and me, then the three of us..."

His eyes dart from Jason to you and back until they settle on you and stay there, as he cackles, "And then one with the crowbar-"

Jason hits Jack in the back of the head with enough force to send him prone. Then kneels, next to him, his tone deadly quiet as he presses the barrel of the gun flush to the Joker's head.

"You'll be as quiet as possible or I'll put one in your lap first."

Jack's eyebrows rise and fall as his shoulders strain, but the smile stays pasted to his face even when his mouth contorts into a pout.

"No cake for you." Jack coos, the glee in his eyes bright and horrible as he winks up at you.

Guess he doesn't want any more siblings, Jack mouths.

Jason kicks him in the head and straightens when he rises.

(You keep your eye on the gun loose at his side, and the twisting contortions of Jack's twitchy fingers, because you know his game and how easy he could turn the tables here, if he wanted. And you will not let him get a chance to hurt Jason again, even if Jason doesn't think he needs protection because he's taking matters into his own hands.)

"Ignoring what he's done in the past. Blindly, stupidly, disregarding the entire graveyards he's filled... The thousands who have suffered, the friends he's crippled..." Jason lectures, and doesn't falter even as he follows the path of your gaze.

Then his hand tightens on the gun and trains back on you, not even a threat but more with a fury of not feeling listened to but also seeing exactly what you are still afraid of more than anything else, in all the ways your divided attentions make him feel as invisible as he's must've felt every time you thought he'd died and he still had to live with the fallout and crawl back out of his grave, anyway.

With every reminder of all the ways Jason is right and yet still so wrong about your reasoning, in all the things that hit too close to home and remind you of all you are not, your eyes narrow out of memory, from failing Barbara, too, and of the secret things Jason does not know when the memory of your broken spine and too-close hands and all the things Jack did to you to bring Jason into this world all too fresh all over again. (Paralyzed, in the dark, with only the false comfort of lies and laughter in the darkness, and you cannot think down this path any longer.)

"You know, I thought... I thought I'd be the last person you'd ever let him hurt." Jason lowers the gun, absently, as if sleepwalking, trapped by all that he cannot come to terms with. And then his voice grows louder and more fervent, raw from every wound he's suffered and every fear he hasn't quite yet laid to rest, every fear you know he's pretended not to have but that you do not know how to alleviate- about being unwanted, about being unasked for, about being left to die and not being good enough to be loved enough and about every threat of losing you in the maelstrom of everything the Joker has ever threatened to do, "If it had been you that he beat to a bloody pulp... If he had taken you from this world," And the gun snaps up again as the rage and pain overwhelms all else, "I would've done nothing but search the planet for this pathetic pile of evil death-worshiping garbage," His voice breaks, "And sent him off to hell!"

"You don't understand." You answer. Level. But weary, drained, the cowl suffocating everything on his shoulders. "I don't think you've ever understood-"

"What?" Jason snaps, voice flat until it becomes a deep growl, his expression and the rumble in his chest like a starving dog kicked one too many times, "What, your moral code just won't allow for that? It's too hard to cross that line?"

And just like that, every fear and thing you've been trying to keep from boiling over snaps in two.

"No!" You yell, trying to dispel not just the guilt but that look on his face, that abandonment and self-hatred that Jason is only aiming at you because it's easier, that way, and you don't blame him for it, not one bit, because you're the one who failed him.

Your voice breaks, too. "God Almighty, no." You manage to reign your composure in, going even more still in the way that Jason full-body flinches at your tone- and you grasp at the only way you can make any of this make sense to him, in a way that doesn't excuse anything but might make the load easier to bear. "It'd be too damned easy. All I've ever wanted to do is kill him." You look down at the floor, not thinking about all the betrayals you've long come to terms with, or times you did not feel this way, too terrified to admit what you know is true, too terrified to let Jack know how close he is to breaking what you've so far managed to hang on to- but Jason comes first. And you will give him what answer you can manage, however insufficient and flawed and however much a weapon it remains, a loaded gun threatening to tear apart the smokescreens that have allowed you to keep going, and you look back up at Jason with tension and pain lighting through your jaw and the memory of every bruise and caress and whisper laid so lovingly and so precisely over your skin by the same monster who took Jason away, over and over, along with every scream of everyone you ever failed to save. "A day doesn't go by I don't think about subjecting him to every horrendous torture he's dealt out to others and then... end him."

Jack's pupils are too blown, his gaze riveted on your every minuscule tic you can't keep off your face, and his voice enough to make the both of you flinch at the grating, unwanted noise.

"Aw. So you do think about me."

Jason's foot presses down harder on the Joker's spine, pressing him into the floorboards.

You do not acknowledge Jack, otherwise. He cannot matter. He is wallpaper. He is nothing. What matters here is your son, and impressing upon him the very weight of what you know to be true, and what you cannot let go unsaid.

Jason needs to know it's not him. That your failures are your own. That you would protect him, if you could. If you could ever protect anyone where it counts.

"But if I do that..." You breath, voice growing hoarse, "If I allow myself to go down into that place... I'll never come back."

And that's the difference. Jason could be a far better man than you if he only believed it was a worthy option, if he hadn't felt like everything had failed so utterly to keep him from this. He may say this is the right thing now, but you both know he's lying to himself and that it's all he feels like he has left, otherwise he's treading a quicksand that's threatened to swallow him the moment Jack got his claws in him and made him feel so helpless and hopeless and broken in all the ways you wish you could have prevented, in all the ways you tried and failed to do.

But Jason could make that choice and stop. Even if, in the here and now, he's not even in his right mind, instead he's all too dangerously close to toppling off that cliff Jack's been dancing on and dangling him off of for so long- when push comes to shove, you know your son. And even if you don't want this for him, even if you can't let him choose this path and need to stop him and will do anything in your power to do so, you know that even if he falls off that cliff he could come back from it, could choose to stop, if he felt like he had the hope and the right to it (when you know, deep down, he'd blame himself for being too weak, for failing, and that it would all go back to anger and lashing out at everyone else in a way you still can't indulge but understand all too well.) And while you know he wouldn't crawl out of the hole himself, you know Dick and Alfred would somehow try and that maybe Jason could one day be able to listen to reason and feel like he could heal and absolve himself and pull himself from the hole he's in deeper and almost collapsed in on himself.

You, though... You would never come out of the hole. You'd kill and kill and kill and it wouldn't even matter who, if it meant your sons would never face a villain who could hurt them ever again in the way you've lost this one too many times already.

You cannot do this, because you cannot pull him from the same void, not when you are already staring it down and all too close to blinking.

And you couldn't do it when you thought he died the first time. Not just because Jack couldn't win, couldn't have this, but because it was what you needed to do to protect them all. It was the only way you could be an honest man and a decent father and not a monster, even if the blood is staining your hands from your own inability to make any change feel real. (Even if Jack has always been pulling the strings and every time you cut them loose you get snared and strangled by the threads all over again.)

It is all you can do to keep yourself afloat, not only to protect Gotham and Lucius and Selina and Gordon and Barbara, but most of all your sons, and the closest man you have to a father.

"Why?" Jason begs.

And then the righteous fury returns, the pleading for answers all the more plaintive, every twitch and fidget and sweep of his uneasy arms bunched up in all the ways he still doesn't understand.

"I'm not talking about killing Freeze or Penguin or Scarecrow. I'm talking about him." He snarls, aiming the gun straight down where Jack's head lies there, his pose lazy, expression too rapt, the hint of his smile showing just how much he's enjoying all of this. And Jason breaks off, chest heaving, and he swallows, eyes narrowing tighter in the way you recognize from when he was so small, when he'd pull on your sleeve and beg for you to sit with him in the darkness when he could not close his eyes without wanting to scream.

"Just him." Jason's voice breaks, mouth twitching, his head bowed, until he straightens and his face stares up at you like you are the only thing he knows how to hold on to. "And doing it because... Because he took me away from you."

He waits. For some justification. For something that will finally heal the damage and somehow make everything make sense again.

But you cannot give him a better answer.

You want to. You ache with all the words that tighten and die in your throat.

Because the truth is too dangerous. The whole truth is exactly the knife Jack will use to cut you deeper than he ever could, to try and finally find the leverage you've been depriving him of for so long. He's come close. Too close. But if you are ever going to get your son back, then you cannot answer. You cannot tell Jason exactly why, in so many words, even if they can read it on your face and even if he doesn't like the answer.

That you are a fallible man, an angry man, and not just the being of vengeance and patience and implacability he needs you to be to feel safe.

He wants to think you can face the void staring back at you and descend into it and not go mad and protect him in the way you never have been able to.

But you can't.

Because the Void would win, and he'd lose the very thing he needs right now, even if he wants you to throw it away. Even if he thinks the only thing that keeps you holding on to what is gentle and what is endless and what is kind and right and good is the very same thing that stops you now and means you keep on failing him.

You say nothing. You do not move.

You are a statue in the face of all that has not yet moved you from your path but would threaten to break you into pieces the moment you faltered.

Jason sees it as you not yielding. As you choosing everything else over him.

When really, deep down, all you are is choosing him, and Dick, and Alfred, and the man you could've been if you were a better man than you are. (If you were, Jack wouldn't have been making every victory feel hollow, even when you beat him at his own game.)

This is the only choice, even if it looks like nothing.

Even if you don't have the words to explain why.

Even if it feels like you've never moved from that alley, stuck still in the awful knowing of what will come but you cannot avert in that split second before the real bullet hits.

And then you give him the only real, honest answer that remains.

"I can't. I'm sorry."

And Jason's eyes start to tear up, his nostrils flaring, his stance widening and every muscle coiled, shaking with all that he cannot keep contained any longer as you prepare yourself for an explosion that you do not even fault-

"That is so sweet-" Jack's voice is poisonous honey, mocking, possessive malice dripping from every crooned word, a match to the powder keg that Jason wants to let himself become.

Jason cocks the gun. He's gone rigid, a statue, as he aims it back up at you.

"Well, you won't have a choice!" Jason breathes.

His hand doesn't shake, this time, only when he moves you do not flinch, only track the jagged way his other hand pulls another gun from his pocket and tosses it into your fumbling palms.

You think of Jack, holding your fingers together, the barrel of the gun forced in his mouth, and your parents gravestones, and the blood on their mouths and lapels, and find yourself frozen, legs turning to jelly even as you stand there, suspended, drowning in nothing but the memory and the weight of all that's been dragging you and your son down. (Like fingers, covering your mouth, wrapped around your throat-)

"I won't-" Your voice trembles. The gun is too heavy. It makes you want to hurl it to the farthest corner of the room and run as far as it as possible and to drag Jason home even if he would bite and kick and hurt as much of you as possible.

But your feet are planted, your mind static, and you cannot make any sudden moves.

"This is what it's all been about." Jason's words run together, too fast, too agonized, too certain, and the hand at his side closes into a fist. "This. You, and me, and him. Now is the time you decide." Jack kicks the Joker and then pulls him into a headlock, smothering his windpipe, gun still flush to Jack's forehead, (and Jack lets himself be restrained, his stance too loose, his false frown stretched too taut until he can't keep the smile peeling back), and Jason yells, "If you won't kill this psychotic piece of filth, I will. If you wanna stop me, you're gonna have to kill me."

Your own voice sounds tinny and far away, strangled with some last gasp of disbelief.

"You know I won't-"

Jason bares his teeth.

"I'm gonna blow his deranged brains out!" He grits out, jaw jutting upwards, his head held high even he vows, "And if you wanna stop it, you are gonna have to shoot me. Right in my face!"

"This is turning out even better than I'd hoped." Jack's voice is so very soft, filled with a dazed, fascinated wonder, sick and nauseating, and his eyes widen with real surprise, as if all his dreams are being realized as yet another nightmare worms its way and fractures the world around you.

It's almost as if he's proud- as if Jason's lashing out has surpassed his wildest expectations, upped the stakes of all this into a new game, better than the one Jack even was banking on from the very beginning. 

Your eyes narrow. Your shoulders set. Your blood runs cold.

No. You cannot give him that.

You cannot give either of them what they want.

And there may be no way to win. For any of it to make a difference.

But you can walk away from the horrible game that was never a game, not really, just the spider's web of a predator who is too good at pulling strings.

It's the only way.

You will not let your son become a pawn, or become twisted by the same entitled legacy that the the one who forced him into the world and forced him out and back again started and tried to force on him.

You will not become a killer.

You will not lose yourself, or your son.

And you will not exercise futility, or shoot that gun, or let Jason shoot that gun, to watch Jack fall with a smile and climb back up off the floor.

You will not see that horrified anguish and despair and helplessness reveal the punchline to a joke that was never funny and would only bring another tragedy upon all of you, would only hammer in another nail in the coffin of the cage Jack's been trying to bury you both alive in.

You turn away, and start walking towards the window.

Jason doesn't understand.

Jason doesn't know, and can't know, why this abandonment is all that is left for any of you, and his desperation claws it's way out of his throat, shaking with every furious syllable.

"It's him or me! You have to decide!"

You keep walking.

It's not you walking away. It's you overturning down the real chessboard and throwing the table out the window as everything fractures into pieces.

You are taking a stand when so often that has been denied without bloodshed.

It's you, refusing to give Jason what he so desperately needs and what you'd do for him if it would make any difference and save him any pain.

It's you, leading by example.

It's you, acting upon the only option you have left.

"Decide now! Do it!" Jason spits. You see how he shifts, how he trains the gun on your receding figure in the damp reflection of the glass, and Jason lets out an animal noise, his voice a wailing, demanding scream, "Him or me? Decide!"

Not giving in, or giving up, is a choice, because you have to stand for something.

You slide a batarang into your palm, anticipating Jason's hesitation, glancing back a second before the gun fires only to see the gaping, helpless expression on his face.

It arches too wide, off target, not meant to kill, only reactive, only the agonized throes of a lost, grieving, furious, and far too broken man, and you lean away from the shot, turning, throwing the batarang into the barrel of the very weapon that you swore you'd never let steal another family member again.

Jason shoots again, this time aiming for your shoulder-

Only the bullet catches in the cylinder and backfires, breaking his hand, making him cry out in pain as the shrapnel catches his ribs enough to draw blood. (Somehow, no matter what you choose, you always seem to be causing him pain, and you find the fear leaps into your mouth again, metallic and bloody, because the wound isn't quite so harmless.)

Jason drops Jack and falls to his knees.

You leap forward, your only thought keep the monster away from your son, to keep him from making this any worse, or from hurting Jason any further, injured as he is-

Jack keeps on cackling, crumpled and sprawled out on the floor, full of so much mirth it bursts out of him like he's breaking apart at the seams. You try to choke the noise out, in an attempt to knock him unconscious, to subdue, to make the noise stop, and all it does is make him laugh harder.

Jason is panting, whimpering, and you cannot look at him. Cannot bear to see the betrayal and pain and disbelief and all the broken things you know are left there because of your choice and every impossible one that led you here.

"I can't believe you got him." Jack wheezes, eyes too bright, tongue lolling, "You expert, rooting-tooting, eagle-eyed, goth-loving marksman. I love it." You ignore a knee to the gut, keeping him tamped down, and his voice still trips over itself, a constant flood of noise, "You managed to find a way to win." His voice keens, sharp and joyous. "And everybody still loses!"

Jason attempts to rise to his feet, staggering, and that's when you see it- the detonator, out of the corner of your eye.

Jason sways, and presses down, and you spy the explosives, the neon letters, counting down and down and down-

20

19

You leap to intercept and cut the wires, only Jack wriggles out from under you in your split-second of broken concentration, his forehead ramming into yours.

"No, don't spoil it! This is better." Jack sings, writhing on top of you as you trade places. The sharp, too-familiar weight of his hipbones straddle you, and he slams your head into the concrete on the edge the hearth- once, to keep you winded, then twice, to make it bruise- before his stained, calloused fingers wrap too tightly around your throat.

18

17

Jason sinks to the floor, good arm staunched over his bleeding abdomen.

16

One paint-smeared hand tightly clutches your chin, guiding you so all you can do is look Jack in the eyes. The bubbling, endless laughter peals off as Jack shrieks, "I'm the only one who's gonna get what he wants tonight!"

All you can smell is greasepaint and gasoline and cigarettes on your tongue, too close, and when your gaze rolls over to Jason, black spots swimming over everything, he is is hunched over on himself, two arms wrapped around his bent knees like they did when he was nine, and ten, and eleven and twelve and all those times he was almost catatonic, quiet as a mouse, a reel of memories keeping him there along with the same embedded survival tactics he had learned to hone early on.

10

"Yes! Bing, bang, boom." The pressure around your throat eases a hair as Jack pumps the air with his fists, before he's leaning closer, lips brushing your own, the rabid sounds of each syllable tracing the corners of your mouth, "We all go out together!"

He overcompensates, unbalancing, heedless, gleeful, distracted-

"Don't you just love a happy ending?"

You heave in air, slam your forehead into his nose, kicking out, breaking free, and punch Jack in the jaw with as every ounce of muscle you possess, then hurl him in an arc with enough force to slam him against the farthest wall.

5

You haul yourself up, run, scrambling, one fist wrapping around the front of Jason's shirt as you drag him out of the blast zone. You hold him close to your chest, crushingly tight to minimize anything that can exacerbate his injuries, one open palm cradling the back of his head and the wrapping of your cape pulled taut, both to keeping him pinned and to shield him from the debris, even as he struggles to push and bite and fight you off like a cornered, feral animal.

You stop only when your lungs burn and you collapse and you are as far away from the blast zone as you can possibly make it. (As far from the skittering limbs and receding dangers of all that Jason might try to seek out, of all that Jack remains even when buried under loads of concrete.)

Even when you give him air, you do not let go of Jason.

You only hug him, and beg.

"Come home."

And then the words burst out, unable to stop, as you plead for him to allow you to fix this, to let you try to help, to patch up his wounds, even if you don't know what could ever make this right.

"Jason, please, God, please-"

Even if your heart is breaking again, because Jason did come so close to crossing a line you don't know how to bring him back from. (It's not entirely about the attempted double murder- that, that fills you with a fury not directed at him, even if he knew exactly what he was doing, because you know what the Joker has always been able to do, and all the ways what has been done has gotten deep inside both your heads again.)

It's the fact he was trying for suicide on top of it, that you don't know how to broach.

How to ever make it seem like there is steady ground to stand on, and that you can help him out of this if you both even thought you could.

Because as much as you want to save him, help him, be there, you have already proven to not pass muster except for pulling him from the fallout and hoping it never touched him again, and knowing that it will, because the Joker isn't gone and was going to try for another round one way or another and you still don't know what to do to fix what can be salvaged or to stop the cycle in it's tracks, because it has never really ended.

Only paused, like the deep breath in before you are holding it for dear life until you are gasping and can't take it any more, and you can't let it happen again but you don't know how to make it stop.

And you need to feel like you can be a rock, a shield that isn't broken, that can still do what needs to be done without Jason facing the eye of the storm and throwing himself into it because he thinks it will consume him anyway, and that he deserves it.

You need to help him realize that you love him, that you are there for him, and that he can save himself from this. Even if you are holding out your hand and begging for him to take it- you can't force him to try and save himself.

That's something that is always done alone.

But for all the things you wish for, you know all you can do is hope, and hope it remains enough to brace the storm and wait it out, because that's all you really know how to do, aside from becoming the storm itself.

And that is only a temporary solution, because you do not want to break Jason more.

He needs his home and his family and help, even if you don't know how to make him see he has it. Even if you think you've maybe lost the right to try.

It's all you can do.

It's all you know how to do, anymore, with all the ways you've proven yourself not to be trusted with his blind faith in you in thinking you can fix things you've always wanted to make better but have only ever barely patched up, a bandaid over a blistering, festering, too-deep wound that has plagued this city and yourself and everything for far, far too long.

You hug Jason closer, and finally, for one minute, he doesn't wrench himself away.

And then he pulls back, flees, and you let him go, watch and follow as he goes to tend his wounds and still hoping that he'll limp on home. (You track his vitals with the bat mobile while keeping the distance you can, and Jason doesn't break the tail, even though he probably wants to and has every reason to try, even if he's heading to find Alfred and you don't intrude on that, either.)

It might not be a solution, or something that will patch up the bridge you've both found yourself immolated on, reaching for each other but both unable to stop each other from falling and drowning in the depths below.

But it is not a war any longer.

Not even when he thinks you aren't on the same side for all the ways you've lost him, and when you don't know how to bridge a gap that seems almost impossible to breach.

But you will try.

You won't stop trying.

And you will give him what space you can, barring any chance of him dying alone and feeling abandoned again, and Jason will allow you that, because deep down, that's what he's always wanted.

He just wishes you could protect him. That you never lost sight of him or turned away, even when you thought it was the only choice to keep the Joker from taking him away.

And in the night, in the rain, you both go and bandage your wounds and wait for the inevitable that you know will strike, eventually.

Chapter Text

"I gotta congratulate you, son. You might not be top dog- that title still belongs to me- but you did get real close."

Chapter Text

Bludhaven is hit by a ray of green.

And Bruce and Jason stop, and find themselves united in the one thing that has always brought them together.

Because they can't lose Dick Grayson.

They've lost enough people already.

 

--

 

"You're the only clown I'll tolerate."

Jason settles on, and that makes Dick smile as they pull him from the rubble.

Chapter Text

Jason squints one swollen eye open at the sound of the door barely creaking open. (He'd always been able to hear it better than Dick, who could sleep through a tornado if he wasn't too careful.)

Only it's not Alfred, this time.

Jason stills, not daring to breathe as Bruce sits down, so quietly next to him with a bowl of chicken soup in hand- homemade recipe, the kind he'd decided to teach himself how to make once upon a time when he didn't want to rely on Alfred for everything.

The same soup he'd always make for Dick and Jason as kids. Chicken noodle with extra celery, because hydration is important, or whatever.

Jason coughs and opens his eyes and attempts to shift, so slightly, so Bruce knows he's not sleeping and doesn't just... watch him, or whatever he was planning on doing. Brooding, or guilt-tripping himself, that kind of thing that Jason is all too sick of dealing with.

Honestly, though, Jason doesn't really mind that he's there, and even if he could rise from the bed and not face any discussion with Bruce, at this point, he'll accept that no one is letting him leave the house with a broken arm, especially after coughing up blood.

(And deep down, beneath the fury and the helplessness and the exhausted resignation, part of him feels a little soothed by the familiarity of Bruce forcing homemade soup on him. Having a least one universal constant after everything has gone to shit, while not a cure-all for any of the things they have not worked out, at least makes Jason feel like he isn't completely worthless or unwanted. That's his second greatest fear, even now, just below losing Bruce and losing control and having the Joker hanging over them all the time.

Because he knows he wasn't wanted, once, and even when he was, when he was central to Bruce's world... He still died and they... they moved on.

Even if... Even if Jason knows Bruce never did. Even if he thinks his attempts at redress or fixing the situation are nowhere near what they need to be.)

And while home is... Well, it isn't safe, apparently never was, who knew, not being safe has been a constant in Jason's life, and he'd be lying if he didn't know the same went for everyone in the manor by now.

Bruce doesn't say anything. Just hands the soup over on a platter next to Jason's abdomen so it doesn't put pressure on anything, and when Jason doesn't flinch or yell when his hand lands on his shoulder during another coughing fit, helps him breathe and then fluffs up the pillows and helps Jason sit up straight, and just sits there, with clasped hands, maybe to be a lookout and maybe because he doesn't want to let Jason out of his sight and maybe because he just wants to keep him company. Wouldn't that be grand, Jason's dizzy, tired mind thinks, so cynical, and he can't help but rasp, "I'm no a kid, anymore, you know. You didn't have to make-"

"No one's too old for soup. Just ask Alfred, he'd do the same for any of you... And me, seeing as I had to fight him off from hovering last week." The attempt at lightness falls flat, and Bruce shifts in the chair, looks at his hands and back up again. "And it's... I know you like the egg noodles, so I added those instead. If you need anything-"

"Bruce, cut the shit. What did you really come here to talk about?"

"I didn't-"

"Oh, you sure I'm not going to be lectured, again-"

"Jason, whatever my thoughts are on certain... decisions, they don't matter right now. All that I give a damn about is that you take it slow and heal and just... Please, I don't want to fight. I don't want to make you uncomfortable, either. I'll leave if you want, and get Dick or Alfred instead. But if you don't... If it's not too much trouble to indulge a stubborn old man, I'd just like to sit here with you, in case you do need anything."

"That's it?"

"That's it."

Jason's mouth cracks into a thin smile which hurts his face. Bruce surveys the look, so carefully, like he's trying to see if Jason will start crying or raging or if it's a smile he can smile back to- and his face is pale, paler than usual, and the only reason Jason notices is because he's holding his hand and doesn't realize it and he knows he's clammy and pale, too.

"You know, as quiet as you are, I never thought I'd see the day I made you speechless." Jason manages.

Bruce does smile, in the small way his mouth turns up at the corners when he does actually feel at ease.

"Don't get used to it."

Chapter Text

Only when they do go to train, Bruce can't throw a punch. In fact, Bruce can't move at all.

He just stays there, frozen in place, and while he can deflect Jason's blows, he can't raise a hand to him once.

(He knows he should be able to help. Jason asked him for this, to do better, to be prepared...

But all Bruce can see is a burnt and broken body and the remnants of an old photograph and the way Jason's eyes glazed over.)

It's not that Bruce can't fight him, period- he can, under stress or to protect Jason from the fallout he'd either let reign down on himself or cause through not caring about the collateral damage. But without that adrenaline-fueled need to both protect Jason from himself and protect everyone from Jason, he can't consider it. Jason has suffered enough because of him, been injured because of him, died because of him, been failed by him for Bruce to raise a hand to a child who has been hurt by his father and by the one who dared lay claim to him and Bruce can't hurt his son-

And then all he can do is stand there, helpless, until Jason approaches, asking words Bruce can't even understand because it's all static, and more often than not, he's holding him in his arms again.

(Jason, for one, doesn't seem to mind, although he does secretly ask Dick what he should do about the training, and how best to condition Bruce to be able to do this again.)

It was hard enough to train him as a child, not wanting to push too hard, but now, it's like trying to climb a mountain Bruce doesn't even want to climb.

(He still remembers how Jason flinched when he threw the batarang, how he flinched when he was nine, and ten, and eleven, and twelve even after becoming Robin because he was all too used to having to duck out the way. He'd trained himself to take it, but even he couldn't suppress it all the time, not when it was ingrained. Bruce had brainstormed ways to train with him then, because there was an end goal of being able to evade Jack and that was something they could work through together.

Now, with everything...

Jason and Bruce are both trapped in something muddled and transient, not knowing what they are working towards, because they are all too aware of the raw nerves and the failures of all they have tried to save themselves from, and each other, and it's hard to keep going when it feels so empty, and when it reminds them of all the ways Bruce still feels he's always failed him, and how Jason still feels betrayed by that, even when he doesn't want to.)

Chapter Text

--Bruce, Age 40--

"I'm going to kill him." Damian announces.

"No one is killing anyone." You say, for what feels like the billionth time.

Jason, arms crossed, has ceased throwing things across the room, Dick holding him back, with Damian ready to start a fight all save for the way Tim is clutching his arm. (It is rare they ever reach consensus, although it seems their feelings on the matter at hand have brought them together in a way little else does.)

Tim always did keep trying to keep the peace, and remains ready to help Alfred keep them from doing something not only rash and violent, but definitely ill-advised, but deep down, that hurts just as much as the rage and the hurt and the pain and lack of trust Damian and Jason seem to have latched on to, because no one should be asking that kind of patience from any of them, child or no.

Damian and Jason both start speaking at the same time-

"Just try and stop me-"

"You really want to keep playing his game?" Jason says, louder, voice breaking. (You keep eye contact, on the brand, on the things he has not healed from and all the ways you let him down. You cannot do that again. But you cannot let him near Jack. Not because Jack doesn't deserve it but because of what it would do to Jason. How Jack would use it as just another way to get to him.)

"We are not giving him what he wants." You try to stay calm and level, even though you know exactly why no one in this house wants to listen.

(You don't really blame them, you understand the urge all too well, but you can't let Jack tear your family from the inside out just because you've always been too weak to stop him where it counts and they just got caught in the crossfire. You can't let Jack remake them in his image just because they don't know the way he's trying to lure them right down with him, like he's been doing to you ever since you were their age.)

"Who cares if it's what he wants, at least then he won't be able to hurt anyone else-" Jason bellows.

"We can at least beat him into a bloody pulp." Tim volunteers, very quietly, still staring at you. It's not breaking the rules, seeing as that's kind of the rules of engagement, save for the fact you aren't letting Jack within stabbing or slicing or bludgeoning range ever, if you have anything to do with it.

"None of you are getting near him ever again-" You start in, only for the very voice of your nightmares to interrupt from the same damn side of the house he's been breaking into (always near the kitchen, and when that gets boarded up you don't know how he's getting past security, but it has never stopped him and it probably never will).

"Oh, Brucie. You gotta learn to let boys be boys. A few good licks never hurt anybody, well, not much-"

Dick, Tim, Damian, and Jason all assume aggressive stances immediately.

(Alfred takes out the gun. The one he told you he isn't keeping on him except for emergencies, that you know for a fact he's kept on his person the moment he found out Jack was visiting you every night.)

Your composure finally slips, and you find your fist meeting the wall.

And Jack's face, by extension.

You tackle Jack to the floor with a growl, before anyone else can make contact. (Just to keep him pinned, and to keep that pistol away from the rest of them.)

The cocked gun leans against your forehead, the only reason why no one has leapt into action and dogpiled the Joker on instinct. 

"Look, sugar, tell your little birdies and Alfred to stand down, and maybe I won't take you with me tonight. You might be able to cart me off to Arkham, but there's no telling what I've rigged to blow, and they aren't quite quick enough if I decide to pull the trigger. Not when you are so..." He twitches, lips smacking together, and green, lank hair falling in his eyes as he finds the word, "Exposed."

You don't take the bait, however much it may or may not be a bluff. You're all too used to this. (And while you could pry him off you, there's no telling what everyone else will do to try and break even. That's all that matters, really. Keeping him contained and focused on you, and not taking his sick games out on anyone else. That's the only reason you agreed to let him in like this at all.)

But there are still lines that must not be crossed.

"Get out of my house."

Jack, like always, laughs.

You punch him again for good measure.

"You're setting a glowing example here. Do as I say not as I do, eh?" Jack licks his lips, the usual tic as he stares back at you. His eyes flick down and back up again. "You know, it's so rare you get handsy without the suit coming between us."

"You're not supposed to be here." You snarl. (Not when they are. You don't say, because that's implied and you need to keep his attention off of any of them.)

Jack whistles and rolls his eyes. "Oh, please. I'm not here for a housecall. I'm just being a good Samaritan. See, I think, in all the excitement, you and your little merry band missed the lightshow in the sky."

Jack tries to tilt your chin towards the window, and you wretch your head away, eyeing where the signal is beaming up on autopilot without any forced, outside prodding.

"And since you so rarely miss your curtain call, I thought I'd stop in. See what all the fuss was about..." Joker adds.

Takes a chance to glance and wink at Jason, who is forcibly held back by Dick and Tim while Alfred holds Damian off the ground to keep him from leaping into action.

Alfred shoots Jack in the arm.

He cackles, rolling you with him up against the fireplace.

(The only reason you don't break free is because you remember what happened the last time Alfred shot him, and the damage that remained, and all that followed after. You will gladly serve as a shield if it means Jack is holding on to you, and not targeting anyone else. Not after what he did.)

"Tsk, tsk. You should never tell the same joke twice. Don't want you to break anything, again. I don't think Bruce could take the stress. He's such a busy bee, these days. He can't spend his few free moments worrying about you."

"Worry about yourself." You hiss.

Jack's eyes narrow.

When he talks next, his voice is low and throaty in a way you've learned means he's being dead serious, when the fake joy gives way to what he really is underneath.

"Brucie, dear, you do bring us to the matter at hand. And I think we are all overdue for a conversation. A big fat ol' bat family meeting. What do you say?"

--

"Oh, don't all leave on my account. I figured with all your familial woes that I could give you a little vacation and let Harley clean up the streets for once. Helps her let off some steam. Between you and me," Joker adds with a conspiratorial whisper, covering half his face with his hand. "I think she's still a little jealous. Thinks she's the one and only and then, here you are, bringing home a new baby and all..."

You punch him in the mouth again.

"They say three times is the charm. Although, I gotta say, Brucie, you never learned not to target the head first. It's been years, you'd think after all my lessons you'd get it through your thick skull by now-"

"You want to talk broken heads, let's talk about yours." Jason snarls.

--

"Okay, but what's stopping us from breaking all his bones-" Tim asks.

"-And his face-" Damian pipes up.

"And his larynx-" Jason adds, voice dry.

"And then leaving him to rot in Arkham." Tim finishes.

Dick remains conspicuously silent.

"Oh, hoo, hoo. They are creative, I'll give them that. Such wasted potential. Bruce, you want to field this one, or are you leaving it to me?"

--

"The first time the manor blew up was some common criminal. The second time, well, that was an accident, and entirely Bruce's fault. You remember that? Yeah, that was fun. The third time... I don't know, was that Selina, or me, or Jeeves? Hard to remember with all the blows to the head. Fourth time was that mess with Scarecrow after Al Ghul tried to steal my thunder, bleh. But now that I'm racking my brains, heh, I think it's fair to say the last three times this manor exploded, or you tried to move out, and that manor exploded, so you just moved back here... I think those were me."

--

"I'm with Jason on this one." Damian pipes up.

--

"Look, boy wonder. I'm only doing this because it's honestly worth the laugh, even if it goes against my, ah, code and everything I stand for. But hey, having no rules counts as a rule. You gotta change it up once in a blue moon. So it goes like this- I am welcomed through the front door, ideally when Bruce isn't babysitting any of you snot nosed kiddies, and I don't get carted away in a full body cast, s'long as I don't try to off any of you or commit any crimes while a guest at this five star rest stop."

"You missed the detail where you are not to talk to, or interact with, or breath in the general direction of any of them while here." Bruce snarls.

"But they're growing up so fast!"

Bruce slams him into the wall.

"Not the head, Brucie. How many times do I have to tell you?" Then he turns to Dick. "Anyway, as long as Bruce is willing to play... I've always had a weakness for a good suit. And I'll admit, you tykes are a riot when you aren't playing dress up. I consider it a win-win, quid pro quo situation. But I'm sure you're used to all of this, by now. Maybe you can put everyone else's minds at ease."

"Dick, what is he-"

"While I may not have always been inclined to be such a model guest, the first birdie here is no stranger to having me walk through the front door. Least until Bruce decided to change the locks again, and then I had to take a few months to get past those..."

Jason, Tim, and Damian look at Dick with what can only be described as shock, rage, and betrayal, although Tim glances back at Joker, eyes narrowing.

"Like we can trust a word out of your mouth." He challenges.

"Hey, I never said it was permanent arrangement. But I have to ask- why do you think Bruce started having you sleep over at other hotels and suites and rest stops and vacation homes and cabins as the years went by? Did you think he just didn't want to commit to raising another kid, or that big brother was the favorite son?" The Joker answers with a shrug, and finds himself released just as suddenly as he was being restrained by Bruce because Bruce can see the trouble brewing and the Joker is enjoying every second of it. "He just knows this house is as much mine as his, by now."

"You knew." Jason snarls, eyes on Dick and Dick only.

Bruce intercepts him before they could come to blows, trying to hold Jason back while Jason lashes out with reckless abandon.

"Jason, if you are going to be angry at anyone, be mad at me. Not him."

"Oh, don't take it too hard, kid. He learned to keep his mouth shut ever since we first met. Then again, you've always had more of a mouth on you-"

Jason turns on his heels and slams into the Joker, blood pouring down the Joker's nose and mouth. Jason knees him in the gut, while Bruce tries to haul him off the Joker and fails to stop the constant beatdown.

"-No need to take it so personal. You've always been my favorite. Why would I bother with you, if I didn't? And hey, I don't see why you're taking it so hard. It's not like I stole you from your bed, you found me, remember? Or maybe you don't-"

Jason grapples the gun from Jack's waistband, and in a second, all it takes is a click and a barrel aimed at the Joker's forehead...

And the bang never comes.

Everything stops, for a second.

The Joker grins, ear to ear, for once not even laughing because he's having too much of a ball.

"'Fraid I haven't stocked up on bullets. You know how jumpy Bruce gets with loaded firearms. And I did promise to be on my very best behavior."

Jason only lets out a howl, leaps forward to strangle him with his bare hands, and keeps trying to claw Bruce's grip off of him while Bruce pulls him off the Joker and holds him while they huddle on the floor.

Jack does start laughing, then.

And in the midst of the struggle to keep Damian contained and Jason from doing something drastic, Bruce nods at Alfred, who doesn't hesitate to hit Jack on the head and knock him out.

--

Jack wakes up cuffed to a radiator.

"You know, I always thought Bruce saw a little bit of me in you. We both have killer senses of humor, and red hair- well, mine's not so red these days, unless you count the blood, but the point still stands-"

Jason says nothing, only stares at him, crowbar in hand.

"It's a shame I haven't really had a chance to chat with the younger ones. Now, you and Thing One, we have so much history. The pipsqueak and the peacemaker, well, they're fresh meat-"

"You come near either of them-"

"And you'll... what?" Jack savors each word with a smile. "Kill me? Take that poker from the fire and make me sing? Or will ya beat me with that crowbar and have it all come back around? Go on. Do it, do it. Make my night, kiddo. Iwantyoutodoit, c'mon, you know you want to-"

"Jason." Bruce interrupts, and then Jack's eyes are darting between the two of them, tongue flicking out from his lips like the snake he is.

"How can you accept any of this?" Jason seethes, quiet and controlled and raw and not caring all the bereft pain and hatred and exhaustion bleeds through. "How can you let him keep on breathing? Because he has a death wish? Because... why? Why can't you just let it be over?"

"Yeah, tell him what you're really scared of, Brucie. Unless you want me to do the honors. Too slow, my turn. See, what Bruce fears more than becoming a cold-hearted killer, is that the moment he breaks, he'll fail all of you. And even if you'd all feel differently... Bruce knows that even if I choke and die, it won't change anything at all and things will be just as bleak and hopeless as he pretends things always aren't. And that means he won't be able to hide it any more, and he's worried that he'll do it, for any of you, and that he'll lose himself right along with it, that he'll snap and then there won't be any Bruce to come back to, only all the little things he's been trying to keep a lid on all along. Isn't that right, Bruce? Am I close?"

"We're different from him, Jason. We can choose to do the hard thing, the right thing. Even if it hurts. Even if I don't know a better way yet. We just have to believe we'll find one. Now, let's get out of here-"

"I'm not leaving this freak unattended-"

"Jason, please, if he's going to be watched it's not going to be your responsibility-"

"Don't tell me what to do, Bruce!"

"Jason-"

"There you go again, sentimental for all the wrong reasons. When are you going to get the joke, Bruce? When are you going to realize the big ol' punchline and just take the dive already-"

"We're done talking."

"If you say so. But remember, you break our little truce, and the songbirds don't have immunity."

"Don't make this worse."

"You know me, Bruce. I always make it worse. That's half the fun of it. Oh, you two. You're both so grumpy. So let's wipe those frowns and turn them upside down and-"

"Shut up." Jason yells, and Bruce tries to lead him out of the room, only Jason isn't budging.

"When are going to admit you just don't have the guts to kill me, kid? I could always see that. Even at your worst moments, when I had you down for the count, or after your freedom and little line of breadcrumbs you left for Bruce to follow, I still think you'd have choked before the curtain call. Don't get me wrong, I thought it was a great gag. Stunning, really, beautiful presentation all around. But, I think, deep down, you fear Bruce will leave you out to dry if you really do it. That things will never be the same. That you'll end up just like me. And the kicker, is maybe, maybe if the first, perfect Robin did it he might've even forgiven him for it, or maybe if it was the kid that bitch dropped on his doorstep, he'd rationalize it and say he didn't know any better, because he's the youngest. But what you're afraid of, even more than that? Is that he'd welcome you home with open arms anyway, be a hypocrite, and you'd still feel as tainted and twisted as me, because then both of you would be irreparably broken and wouldn't know where to go from there and all of Gotham would crash and burn because there'd be not Batman anymore. Am I close? Even a little. You and Bruce do wear your guilt on your sleeves. Although, for what it's worth, I don't think you give Bruce enough credit. He loves you as much as the first pathetic birdie, maybe a little more. Because if he didn't? Well, I wouldn't have picked you at all. I know, I know. I tried to convince you otherwise. But sometimes the truth hurts more than all those little white lies we tell to make everything hurt less."

Jason just stares. Like he's not all there. Like Jack has broken back into his head and he's helpless on the ground again, and Bruce is trying to find the nearest object to gag Jack with, but Jack talks fast.

"You want to know another secret? I don't think that gal you were trackin' down, the one who led you to me, even was your mother. You take too much after Bruce, and look a little too much like me. Just sayin'. You were adopted, after all, and Bruce's clones have gotten him secret children before. Not that I'd go for that, of course, 'specially when Brucie here did disappear for a few years and doesn't remember all his time with me exactly. We were once thick as thieves. But maybe I'm misremembering- things do get so hazy. Do you think he'd tell you truth, if he didn't manage to block it all out-"

Bruce gags the Joker on autopilot and drags Jason out of the room. Jason lets himself be led, all the fight gone out of him for once, too many horrible things to contemplate, too many horrors weighing on his mind.

--

-- (other later time) -- 

"Oh, don't mind me." Joker sips on a drink, detonator in hand. "You keep on having your little domestic. I'll wait."

--

"Deadman switch, kiddos. Ya gotta love 'em. Especially when you don't have those cute accessories and grappling hooks to play hot potato."

--

"You know what we agreed to."

"Rules are such a pain, Brucie. The things I do for you, and you alone."

Chapter Text

The balcony is quiet.

"Why didn't you say something?" Jason asks, finally. (He absently keeps gripping the crowbar, cleaning it, until Bruce holds out a hand and wraps it around his, and the crowbar slips out of his hands and falls.)

It's not like he didn't exactly suspect anything, or didn't know. (Knowing is what killed him, really. Searching for answers to a question he already knew the answer to. But even without that, he's done the blood tests, just like he knew his parents had adopted him. He's not stupid, and it's not like the Batcave and it's many upgrades don't analyze DNA when checking for Joker venom strains or anything else. But he'd wanted to be blind.)

And it's not like he didn't chase the leads in the hope that he could ignore the truth, and the things he'd found.

He'd been trying to track down a lead on Bruce's clone in the League, and instead stumbled upon something else, and the very person he'd been trying not to run into, and that killed him. So maybe knowing is enough of a reason why Bruce wouldn't say anything. But it doesn't change the fact that not telling him meant Jason was going to search for answers. And whether the Joker would've killed him for knowing or not, in some ways, Jason wishes he was spared trying to find out on his own.

Bruce keeps staring out past the grounds and the pool.

"I... I didn't know what to say."

That's one way of putting it, Jason supposes.

Jason doesn't ask, "Why did you take in Dick, but not me?"

(He knows the age difference, can make a few guesses there.)

Doesn't say, "Guess Damian might take this as a hard pill to swallow."

It's not as if Jason hasn't considered bringing it up before- blood or not, Bruce considers them all his kids. But he'd been hoping to stave off having to... acknowledge all of it, all the things Bruce hasn't talked about with him, all the things unfinished or unsaid between them.

He doesn't say, "Why can't you kill him, when he killed me?"

He's already asked that time and time again.

Then again, it's not like he needed to ask the Joker why he felt the need to torture and kill and resurrect the son he brought into the world. 

But if he's holding Bruce to the same low bar of not talking about any of it... it just leaves too bitter a taste in his mouth.

"Seventeen years is an awful long time to not say anything." Jason settles for.

He needs some kind of answers.

He'll settle for any grasping at straws he can get. And he's so fucking tired.

Bruce looks grim.

"I wanted to talk about it, with you. I wanted you to know- I wanted to say something, I knew you knew some of it but... I don't know how to talk about it. I've tried, before. I couldn't... I can't-"

It's not like Bruce to stumble over his words, and Jason doesn't like it. It's the most unBatmanlike, unBruceWayne like thing he can't think of and he needs it to stop.

He holds up a hand.

"You don't have to talk about all of it... But... I don't know, Bruce, why didn't you take me in, after Dick, after my parents..." (The parents you gave me to) Jason thinks, "I mean, I didn't have anywhere to go-"

"I would have taken you in, Jason, the moment I found out, but I didn't know-"

Bruce Wayne, Batman, failing in his due diligence, is not an answer that makes any sort of sense, either.

"How did you not know-"

"I thought he killed you."

That admission stops Jason in his tracks. Because he remembers the way Batman looked at him, when they met face-to-face, and the way he said his name. (And because Jason knows what it means. That Bruce knew, on some level, that Jack might try to kill him just because he could, even if Jason told himself the Joker did it because he'd told him he was done, when it was never really about Jason at all.)

"I thought... After the explosion- When I found you, stripping the car, I... You were a ghost, and I couldn't let you go. Not again."

"And that excuses not telling me-"

"Jason, when I first gave you up I was barely able to function, and I couldn't... I couldn't let you be in the life. I couldn't let you stay when he was around, all the time. You were a target and I... I couldn't do it and I couldn't be a parent and you deserved better than what I could give. You always have. So I asked Alfred to find a family that would treat you right and would keep you safe and made sure to cover your tracks. And I looked out for you, when I could. Kept tabs. And then, he... I couldn't tell you. It would only put you in more danger, and after what happened at the apartment complex-"

Jason doesn't want to think about that day.

He barely remembers it and swallows and tastes ashes and looks away, and then Bruce is holding his hand tighter, staring at him as if he's a ghost again as his voice breaks.

"You were five. You were gone. And I... Once I realized you were alive, I wasn't going to chance you learning something that might make Jack target you even more-"

Bruce closes off, unable to speak.

"How come I had to find you?" Jason dares ask the one question he hasn't been able to the entire time. "How come it took you so long to track me down, after you realized-"

How did you find me, too late-

"You're really telling me you didn't find anything for a whole year?" Jason manages, stealing a look back up. "Anything at all?"

"There no trail. There was nothing left, not even a trace in the rubble, and the foster system had no record of anyone matching your description, and... No, Jason. I don't know how he hid you, afterwards. I don't know how he's ever hidden you, every time he's taken you away-"

Everything is cold.

"Can we... Can we not..."

Jason doesn't want to remember being small and alone and all the things he has endured.

"Of course, I'm not... God, Jason," Bruce rubs his face. "I checked everything. The scene, every place Joker was and anywhere I thought he'd be, every police report and hospital and there was nothing... Once I got you back, you blocked a lot of it out, and I didn't want to dredge it back up, and I had already failed you, so many times..."

"So you already mourned me once, is that it? Is that what made it easy to turn your back on me every other time it's happened?"

"Jason-"

"Face it, you just kept on going and found a new kid until you saw me alive and making a living off of hubcaps and just took me in, out of guilt-" (Jason lies, but he wants to lash out, to hurt someone, for all the ways he feels like nothing, because if Bruce didn't care maybe all of this would be easier to stomach than the truth-)

"No!"

"Out of obligation-"

"Jason, I looked for you. And I know I was too late to save you, too many times. The first time... I... I wasn't functioning and I was trying to figure out a way to keep fighting. And when I saw you alive, I couldn't let the world hurt you again. I thought... I thought I could keep you safe, since you had never been safe, and I didn't know what else to do, and all the times after, nothing I did was good enough to keep you from him-"

"And you didn't think to warn me? Not once? Does it even matter, Bruce, when it still happened all over again? He will keep on doing what he always does-"

"Jason, please. Please, listen. When I thought you died, I wanted to kill him. I tried to kill him."

"But you didn't. And then he actually killed me, and what, you threw in the towel because you couldn't handle it?"

"No!" Bruce growls. "Jason, it consumed me. He took you, again. And I... When I had him, right there... I couldn't let him know that your death undid me. And I... I didn't want to lose you, and killing him... It wouldn't bring you back. All it would do is break me down into something I couldn't come back from, make me into the very person I can't be if I want to keep anyone else safe, and I couldn't ... It wouldn't save anyone." Bruce says, too distant. Too empty. 

"If you killed him, he wouldn't be able to hurt me again. Or anyone else." Jason answers.

Bruce says nothing.

But in that silence, Jason can read between the lines just fine.

Bruce surprises him by breaking it.

"It never sticks, Jason." Bruce finally manages. "I can't watch him go down only to see that he's getting right back up, worse than ever, with you more tangled in the crosshairs. And I don't think I could look you in the eye, and tell you it will fix anything. It won't change what he did. It won't make that pain fade. It won't change what he's going to keep on doing until I find a way to make it stop, if I can..."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

"There is nothing that will make this better, Jason. I... I love you. I want you to be safe. And I don't want you to have to suffer him-"

"Or turn into him, is that it? The disease is in my DNA, is that why-"

"You know that's never been my fear. But no, I don't want him to warp you, the way he's used and warped me. If I'm being honest, Jason, when it comes to him... I'm not sure there's anything I can do to fix anything. But I am here for you. Even if you don't think I am. Even if we get lost sometimes. Even if I've failed you too many times for it to matter. Even... Even if I can't keep you safe now, and I never could."

"Are you asking for my forgiveness?"

"No. I'm asking that you find a way to walk away, the way I never could. I'm asking you to keep yourself safe and damn the consequences and to try not to let it all consume you. That's my fear, Jason. That there will be nothing I can do to help you or keep you from the game he's playing. You deserve more than that."

"What I deserve is for you to stop standing there and taking what he's dishing out and... Bruce, you could shoot him. Just him. Just once."

"It won't help." Bruce answers. "It never does."

"It might make me feel better."

"It won't." Bruce answers.

There's an edge there, an edge Jason isn't used to. One a little too honest, too much experience making it not seem like a bluff.

"If you can trust me about anything, Jason... Trust that."

And Jason wonders what else Bruce isn't telling him.

Then Jason does ask, "Why did you adopt Dick?"

"He needed me. And when I lost you... It was like the world was telling me that I couldn't do what I had done again. When I realized there was no safety in being kept out the Joker's games, because he'd find a way to force you into them... I couldn't let someone else suffer my same failures. And when I got you back, Jason, it was like the world was giving me a chance I didn't deserve. And I know I've lost you, and that I can't make this better. But I love you, and I love him, and I love all of you- Damien, Tim, Alfred. And he's going to use that. He's always used that. And I don't have an answer for you. But I know if you put a bullet in his skull, it's only giving him what he wants. And I can't let him break you."

"Maybe he already has."

"Then I want to make you feel like that isn't the end of it all. That you can choose. That this is a choice that you make, not something reactive... Not something you have to become. I want to help you believe that you can move forward. I want to think we all can, someday. Maybe not me... But maybe you, and Dick, and the others. Maybe I'll find a way to trap him and keep him locked away and you'll be able to get out. I want you to believe you can heal, Jason. And maybe I can help. Maybe you need to be as far away from me as possible. I don't have the answers. But I want you to be safe. I want you to live, and not feel shackled to the past or what he's done and to find some way to stop him from drawing you back in again."

Chapter Text

"Is there any way you can freeze him permanently?"

"Even if I could- why would I? It wastes my resources. Unless you are willing to provide something that will help me save Nora, I fail to see how this is of any consequence or concern to me."

Dick considers his options. Mentioning Wayne Industries and trying a quid pro quo deal might work, albeit the entirely unethical double-cross that would have to follow. (Dick isn't going to support this man, however plagued by his illness he is, but he needs some kind of leverage. He could frame it as an attempt at redressing the issue.

However, it might just make Freeze more angry. And his anger was unpredictable as it was a cold, slow kind of vengeance.

That, and it might open up a new can of worms. Freeze isn't fond of the Wayne family, even if he isn't aware of any connections Nightwing would have to them.

Otherwise, there's the issue of a lack of mutual trust.

Victor hates Nightwing and Batman and would betray them unless it was more rewarding to gain something from them, and in the case of his obsession with Nora, he knows they wouldn't jeopardize her life, however much they be at odds. That is the only tenuous way to make this work.

And that's why Dick makes the play anyway.

Not only promises to help Freeze find his resources, to infiltrate and help him try and make this work, provided he follows through on his end, but makes the only sane proposition he can.

"The Joker is going to threaten your operations eventually, by the scope of his destruction or by your proximity. Wouldn't you rather take the uncontrolled variables off the board? You have more to gain from this than to lose, if you do the math."

"And if the Joker decides I'm in the way?"

"He already thinks everyone is in the way. Every time Batman interferes with your work and the Joker sees that as taking the spotlight off himself, every time you are at the wrong place at the wrong time and someone threatens your operation by proxy, every time Nora is not in custody in a safe place but at the mercy of whoever is trying to manipulate you into compliance- there's always a chance he'll destroy something irreparably. Do you really want to risk that, when I have enough resources to make a difference in your research and provide protections for her? And you know I will make good on my promise. We may be at odds, but Nora is an innocent civilian. And you know my track record there. Just as you know I won't go behind your back. Not with something this big. I'd be in your debt and working on your terms until you get the resources you need. That has to count for something, considering all the other factors."

Dick will willing to betray Wayne Industries and all the others if he can make this work out and end this nightmare in a way that finally sticks. (He won't even have an issue if he needs to get Selina to help, however much working with her standards would mean how much Dick is throwing all his own to the wayside.)

And while Bruce would hate Dick for going behind his back, Dick can't stand to see the rift between him and Jason and all the bad blood that remains part of unspoken things they have no fixed. Not when Jason needs them, and not when Bruce has been fighting a battle he thinks Dick isn't aware of, not when Dick can see this isn't going to have a proper solution any time soon without drastic intervention.

(Dick knows there's more to it than just the idealism- there's too much Bruce is trying to hide, too much he isn't saying about the entire situation, and Dick knows him all too well to let it lie, even if he knows he will be deprived of an answer. And that's the problem.

Jason knows it, too, and that's what's driving the betrayal. He knows Bruce is holding back, with every unsaid word and look of loss and entrapment and failure and guilt on Bruce's face.

They both know know he's hiding something, something about why he doesn't allow others to off or incapacitate him aside from not allowing anyone to kill each other. Actively stopping people from trying to kill the clown or showing up when the clown is in danger of a very public execution that he somehow manages to dodge is a very different thing than letting the Joker fall on his own sword because someone else wanted to hurt him, but Bruce has intervened in situations too many times for it to be coincidence.)

At least this way the Joker would be contained, and while not dead, he would be in an induced coma with less likelihood of bouncing back.

Dick views it a necessary evil. One he won't like, but the only solution he can find to try and get to the bottom of things even if it fails.

(Because, if Bruce finds out, he'll be hard pressed to explain why he's trying to stop Dick from doing this, aside from the obvious, along with the various qualms and lectures and consequences Dick knows he'll face for working with criminals and compromising the code he's lived by, and while it might not yield results, Dick can question Bruce, can push and try to make him spill, and the emotional outburst and perceived betrayal might just make Bruce finally crack and something- anything- slip to explain why he's keeping secrets and what he thinks he's achieving, here. And Bruce might not explain, but his face, or his actions, or something might be just honest and unmasked enough that Dick might be able to intuit something that might change the tide. It's not the best solution, but it's all Dick knows how to do at this point. Bruce hasn't come clean yet, and the Joker is laughing at all of them, and Dick has allowed whatever blackmail to persist in silence and he's had enough.)

Freeze may not be trustworthy, but he does have motives that can be a source of common ground.

Dick knows he's playing with fire here, but he doesn't see much of a choice.

The clown is showing up to the manor far too often. Ripping open old and new wounds, terrorizing Bruce and Jason and all of them but mostly just Bruce with reckless abandon, gloating at them, at all the ways he has Bruce trapped, and playing coy with the rest of them. The Joker keeps walking on that thin, thin line where their thin detente still holds, and Bruce is still stuck in whatever twisted deal they've made at the price of Jason and Dick not being targeted aside from the instigated conversations the Joker can't help but attempt until Bruce shuts it down as best he's able, which is limited, and even when Jason and Dick try to rail against what is, but the Joker and Bruce are too invested in keeping that deal functional for entirely different reasons, at least until it is no longer something the Joker values and everything falls apart.

It's all untenable, and unsustainable, and the Joker is going to snap and break the terms and do something horrible eventually, and they all know it, and it's just a matter of waiting and wondering what Bruce's plans are to prepare for the eventuality they all know is on the horizon, however close or far.

And Dick is tired of waiting on the edge of the cliff waiting for everything to explode into more chaos and pain and fear.

If the price he pays is this one necessary evil, then he'll take it.

Nightwing does not torture. Nightwing is not judge and jury. Nightwing, in some ways, has vowed to be kinder than Batman.

Except when it comes to this.

He will condemn the Joker. He will find a way to neutralize the threat. He will protect his little brother, however useless he's been at doing that, with all the secrets, and the omissions, and the way Jason won't look at him, won't talk to him after the Joker ran his mouth and said the horrible truth of how he's always been there, lurking in the manor, watching them all, everywhere they go, and that Jason has been in the house with him and only spared his attentions for so long because Bruce and Dick played along with his game because they didn't feel like they had another option.

Dick is tired of that empty, helpless compromise. He's tired of feeling useless. 

He just wants to save people, Gotham and Bludhaven- and that includes the people he loves, his family, too.

They are destroying themselves, have been, for too long now.

And Dick is going to stop it. He doesn't care if he gets disowned, if everyone finds the compromise insufficient for different reasons.

He will find out what has Bruce so out of his mind with paralysis that he's silent and opening up to no one, he will find a way to make it up to Jason, however much trust might be broken between them, and he will find a way to trap the clown somewhere he can't escape.

It's only a matter of keeping the Joker away from Freeze until the right moment, and making sure Freeze plays ball.

Which- easier said than done.

But it's the only plan he's got. And he'll take action over inaction, over the same compliance he's been playing along with for so much of his young life.

(Bruce had warned him, as a child, tried to prepare him for that fact. And Dick knew the risks. But if he's going to go beyond Batman's legacy, to reach out of the shadows, he wants to bring Bruce and Jason and Alfred into the light, into a hope they haven't had for quite some time. He wants to give them closure, the only way he knows how.)

And Dick will take that gamble. He will outbluff the damn clown.

After all- this is his circus. And he's going to replace the ringleader, even if he needs help from people who otherwise are at odds with him.

Because there is one thing Dick can bank on- the other criminals hate the Joker, too, and the only reason they haven't tried to oust him more is because they are terrified of him or consider him to be a hindrance who otherwise is irrelevant to their goals (even if they all know, deep down, that the Joker would be a threat if he set his sights on them and found a reason to be interested. Thankfully, the Joker finds the other criminals largely uninteresting and beneath his notice, which serves them all well enough to keep up the masquerade of their own.)

It is not a long term solution. It is not without flaws.

But the enemy of an enemy can sometimes be a friend under the right battle conditions, and this is one battle Dick refuses to lose.

After all, he's already lost enough of them, stuck watching and trying to mop up the damage, so often a bystander to the twisted games he watches the Joker play on the rest of his family.

It's half the reason Bruce knew- they both knew- that he'd need to leave.

And that's why he had to come back, and check in, and make sure things were made right.

(Even if he, too, doesn't understand why Bruce is hiding things, why Bruce can't talk to Jason and explain why he's doing what he's doing, or why even Alfred won't tell them anything.)

Freeze considers the proposal.

Then again, what does he have to lose in trying? He only has one motive, and if the potential benefit outweighs the risk of becoming an actual target for the Joker, he'll bite.

Victor Freeze, at least, is a man motivated by results and general logical thinking, barring his other specific delusions.

That is something reliable. Something concrete in a way dealing with some other villains isn't.

And he doesn't have other emotional baggage to drag around, save for anything that might threaten what he sees as his.

(Aside from the Joker interfering, or Batman, there is only one other potential snare- that he might try to leverage this to another party and see who he can sell the information to to get an outside parties help. But he can't rely on the Joker- he'd just as much ruin everything provided he could make a sick punchline. And there is precious little honor among thieves, so it's not like Freeze is going to trust his acquaintances at Arkham.)

There may be mutual dislike, but there is at least an understanding, and consistency, Freeze wouldn't get anywhere else with this deal.

All it hinges on is Nightwing being able to help bring Nora a cure and back to life.

And while they'd have to deal with the aftermath of that once it happens, that on it's own isn't a goal Nightwing is necessarily against. Trying to save someone else isn't a crime.

And making sure a criminal doesn't resort to more crimes or more collateral damage in his search is also not a crime.

In a way, Dick is helping everyone here.

Even if Freeze will still end up in Arkham, and even if Bruce might not trust Dick or might be furious or betrayed or terrified or some other kind of disappointed Dick doesn't know how to face head on, and even if Jason sees it as an insufficient solution to the things he's been forced to live through.

It's better than nothing.

(Even if, deep down, Dick wonders if he's creating another monster- if the fact the twin obsessions of Freeze and the Joker are too similar to be ignored, however at odds they may be, and if trusting one obsessed maniac to take down another is more than just a mistake.)

Chapter Text

"No. No more evasions. You tell me why, Bruce. You look me in the eye and you tell me why you are just letting him do what he wants, why you won't make it stop, and why you won't end it for me, and Dick, and everyone else. And you're gonna tell me why he's allowed to throw us around and beat us and break us and laugh and why you think giving him what he wants from you instead will make him stop doing it all over again. Why you think that's gonna stick, huh? Tell me why you think it's protecting us, protecting me, to make me watch you pay his price in our place and acting like making us watch is a mercy, or pretending that this sick arrangement even matters when the wind could blow another direction and he throws all the promises out the window again! You are going to tell me why you chose THIS, why this is the only solution, why he's allowed to throw you around like a ragdoll and say and do what he wants, and... And-" Jason yells, smashing all the contents of the table to the floor, "Why are you just standing there and TAKING it?"

He stops, gasping for air, while Bruce just stares at him. Immobile, eyes wide, looking more lost and remote than Jason has ever seen him.

Then his lips press into a thin line, and Bruce inhales, exhales, tries to count his breathing and Jason can tell what little control he has is slipping in a way he doesn't, save for once, in a way he's never forgotten- when the Joker had taken both him and Dick into his custody when he was 12, before he then grudgingly gave them back. No tricks or blackmail or anything else past the twisted game of hide and seek, nothing, just handing them over in that split second of discovery, before Bruce could beat him to a bloody pulp if needed to get them back home safely.

"Jason..." Bruce says. 

He doesn't say, "You're wrong," or, "I'm not," or, "I have a plan," or even, "You don't understand, that's not what this is," or, "I am not like the others who stood by and watched you suffer for no reason or in the name of my own moral integrity," or, "I promise I'm not martyring myself for you without cause, without any way of making it end."

Not like Jason needs him to.

Because there has to be a reason. There has to be something, something Jason can provoke out of him or justify or to explain why he just doesn't end it save for the commitment to not killing and save for the terror he knows Bruce has of whatever inevitable retaliation will follow if he doesn't kill him.

It goes beyond that. Bruce may have chosen to save Jason from the explosion and not the Joker, but the Joker still lives, and Bruce has still stopped others from being killing him.

And Jason needs an answer that Bruce won't give.

There's a giant, glaring secret staring him right in the face, in all the betrayals and the guilt and the exhaustion he can see plain as day on Bruce's face.

And he doesn't know why Bruce is acting like this is the only answer. That all he can do is keep them in the dark, and he did it because he was wrong, and now he's gonna fix it.

There's no reassurances. No method to the madness. No answer to the way everyone's hands seem tied except how they shouldn't be, because Bruce fought for them- he always fought for them- except in this.

There's just silence, and all the words Bruce can't say.

Until, all he says, is the one thing Jason doesn't want to hear.

"I'm sorry." Bruce rasps.

And he approaches, and hugs him, too tight, and Jason can feel Bruce's hands shaking where he makes contact, and can only watch the bob of Bruce's throat as he stutters out words in a way he is not supposed to.

Then, "I know you think I've betrayed you. I know this is still a betrayal, because I couldn't and I can't protect you. I wish I could explain. I wish I could make it all make sense. But I can't do that, Jason, I can't do that to you-"

Jason shoves him back, tasting salt, his eyes burning.

"Do WHAT? Why won't you tell me why? Why do you keep on keeping secrets and acting like it will make up for any of it-"

"Because, for all the ways I have failed you, Jason, the alternative is worse. I know you cannot trust that, or me, precisely because I can't tell you. But I am protecting you from what precious little I can protect you from. And I can't tell you why, or how. Because it won't fix things. It won't make things easier. But it's all I can do. It's not right, and it's not good enough. It's... It's just all I know how to do. It's all I have left to give. And I can't let you be broken by what I know. I won't... I won't do that to you."

Jason stares at him, trying to keep himself steady. Trying to make the words not swim in his ears, trying to drown out the disappointment and the pain and the resignation.

Then he walks away.

Unable to accept any of it, to look at him, to know so intimately all the ways Bruce wants to fix the fact that he is just as complicit in this cycle, somehow, and that he knows it, just as he knows Jason can't understand why, and how he can't accept the broken ways Bruce cannot make this right.

Because he knows Bruce is trying his best- and that's what hurts most of all, because all that does is make it worse.

Jason knows Bruce is terrified.

He's terrified, too. And furious. And desperate.

But that look on Bruce's face haunts him, because it's more than just fear.

It's some kind of bone-deep, haunted, hunted look, like he's grown so used to whatever horrible secret he's keeping that he doesn't know how to stop.

And Jason doesn't know what could be so much worse that Bruce is so convinced he can't even tell him.

It makes him want to dig deeper.

It makes him want to make someone hurt.

But most of all, it makes Jason remember how scared he is, and how much he wants to protect him, and be protected. How Bruce was this figure of stability in a sea of hurt and madness and pain, and all of that was being ripped away by the Joker, too, and Jason had been blind to it the whole time, until now, until Bruce can't give any reassurances any more save that he's doing his best, and his best is not good enough, and it still feels like a betrayal even though he's trying to make it not.

--

Bruce does not say:

"I cannot let you kill him, Jason, and it's not because he doesn't deserve it. I know why it seems like the only option. But I can't watch him enjoy making you think this is the only way. That you have to shoulder the burden. And I wish I could fix it. And the secret is, I'd do it. I'd end him and I'd give up being Batman and save you from this, if I could. Because you're right. It wouldn't be murder to kill him. It would be self-defense. But I can't let you bear that load. Not when it won't last. Not he'll only use it to hurt you. Not when he won't die. And not when he's been trying to make us all killers the whole time. I cannot give him what he wants or let you be destroyed by any of it. And I cannot let him murder everything I've tried to foster from not giving in. I need Batman. I am Batman. But I'd give it up for my sons. But it won't save you, if I'm not Batman anymore. It won't save anyone. And if I do the deed- if I tried- all he'd do is get right back up and have me exactly where he wants me. And maybe that means I can never be what Gotham needs. But I am all that's standing between Jack and everyone else. And I'll be an imperfect symbol pretending to forego my own hypocrisy if it spares you anything else. Anything at all."

He wishes he could explain.

But the truth is too much.

 

--Bruce--

 

"How could you do something so reckless-" You start in. "How could you trust a criminal, again, after the first-"

"You trust him." Dick answers.

That stops you cold.

You don't have an answer to that. You never have.

You can't tell him, it's not trust, it's just the only weapon you have when it comes to the true terrors Jack has visited on this family and that he will continue to enact if you don't play his game carefully.

Self-sacrifice is all you can do to stem the fallout. However imperfect. However much it does not fix the gaping wound.

It is a bandaid. More than insufficient.

But it's better than the alternative.

Because you can't let your children know that same inevitable fear you've known ever since Jack didn't stay dead, the same shoe he's been waiting to drop but won't so long as you keeps giving up what matters to him.

It haunts you, all the time. It creeps into every quiet moment, suffocating and endless, knowing that Jack is never going to be out of the way, and that he's going to kill you and maybe bring you back and that if you kill him... If you kill him, or he dies, all he gets to say is, "I told you so" as he breaks the one thing you've been able to keep hold of in the storm.

But you can't have that hanging over their heads.

You'd rather they hate you. More than Jack. More than anything.

Better that than the knowledge of what Jack really is, what corner he's backed everyone into, and what he's always planned, because he was never going to let it go, and he wanted to take you with him, and if they find out he might just try to take them with him, too.

You swallow, finding your voice.

"It's not trust, Dick. It's not that."

"Then tell me what this is." Dick demands.

"Extortion."

"And how does that make it better? Tell me how I should just sit here and do nothing- No, Bruce. You think what I did undermines everything we worked for? Tell me how this is different. Tell me how you could be so desperate as to think that shutting us out and playing his game is right-"

"If that is what I have to do to keep you and Jason and Tim and Alfred alive, then that's the price I'll pay."

"Maybe that's not good enough, Bruce."

"Maybe. But that doesn't mean you should have gotten sucked in and compromised yourself-"

"I didn't see any other option-"

"And it doesn't mean you should be throwing everything away-"

"You might not be able to end this, Bruce. But I had to at least try."

You cut off the paranoid lecture, and turn your face away.

Dick's tone softens, pleading.

"Bruce, just tell me why. We're backed into a corner, here. Stop shutting us out and let us all try to fix it. We're in this together-"

"We can't be. That's the problem. I can't let you in because it won't spare anyone, especially you or Jason, anything he'll attempt otherwise. And you can hate me for it. But that doesn't mean I'm just going to let you and Jason and Tim throw everything away because you think it'll save any of us. Let me take the fall. And then you get yourselves out. Be free. Don't dig your grave right along with me-"

"Bruce-"

"I'm not getting away from this, Dick. I never was. But you and Jason and Tim can find your way out. And that's all I've ever really wanted."

"And you think pushing us away is going to force us into complying-"

"No. But I cannot give you answers. I can't. I told Jason and I'll tell you- it's better you don't know. Whatever you think I'm hiding, whatever answers you think will help... It won't. All you can do is survive it and escape. And I'm not taking the chance that you won't just because you want a truth that is better left buried. I am desperate. I am tired. But I'm not just lying down and accepting it. I'm working with the only parameters I have that have ever spared any of you the true scope of what he's been planning. And I will not pay the price of another child dying, not because I was too rigid and too uncompromising and too overconfident in trying to stop him. I will not bend and I will not let him have whatever he wants, but if I have to play within the parameters he's set and give myself up, if that's the only thing that guarantees any of your safety, then I will be a hypocrite, I will be a punching bag, I will be defenseless and I will take everything he throws at me as long as it doesn't reach you any longer. I will still protect what I can, and I won't give him what he wants. But he gets what he wants with this endless dance, too, and if that's enough to stem the damage then that's what I will do."

"But we can end it, somehow-"

"I am not taking another chance, not without something I can hold on to. And right now, we have nothing. So we lie low. And if there's an opportunity to fix this- then I am not having you or Jason or Tim or Barbara anywhere near me or him when it invariably goes wrong. Do you understand? Dick, I need you to understand, I can't let you do this to yourself or compromise the only thing you still can uphold, all the things and the hopes that I can't. I know I'm a hypocrite, I know I'm losing where it counts. But you and Jason and Tim don't have to. You just can't save me. And if you get out and I don't... All that matters is that you are safe, and Gotham is safe, and that Jack is... contained. As much as he can be."

"You call this contained?"

"I call it the only solution without the guarantee of things worse than what he's already done. Because there are worse things, Dick, worse things than what's already happened. He's only been playing with all of us, with me, with you, with Jason. He's been playing and planning this out ever since we were children... And I don't want to do anything to make him decide to ramp up his plans when we're already hanging on by a thread. And right now, he's content with the status quo, as much as he can be. And I'd rather settle into what I can predict, and make contingencies for, then to wonder at whatever worse evils he has waiting for the wings once he decides on more escalation. I need all the time to plan I can get, and I am not accelerating what is already too much to bear."

"Then why not let him die? You don't have to be the one to do the deed-"

"Dick, he's been planning on making me murder him in cold blood the entire time. He wants that more than he wants to kill me. He was willing to torture and kill Jay just to try and move that along. He dies, he gets exactly what he's been preparing for. So no. I can't kick that next part of his plan off. I can't and I won't. Not just because for what it would do to me, and everyone around me, and all of you, but because I don't want to prematurely set off what I know will invariably come next. I will not give him that, and I cannot give Jason that when it will bring no closure, either. And I can't have him deciding he wants to weave you into his plans because you did something that caught his attention. I need all of you as far away from this as possible, as much as you can be. And I know this- that if he's planned on his own murder, by my hands or anyone else's, that there will be consequences when he dies. And I refuse to allow those consequences, to let his plan, ever see the light of day. And that's the end of the discussion."

"How do you know that isn't exactly what he's banking on to stay alive and keep on doing what he's doing?"

"Because I know."

Bruce gets up to leave, then turns when he reaches the doorway to go back to the manor.

"You should get some rest."

There is a forgiveness you did not ask for there, a concern so familiar and exhausting that you do not know what else to say.

You wonder if he will get any, or if the monster you all know is out there is waiting for him back in his room, at the edge of his bed, making Bruce give him half of what he wants as blood money to keep you and Jason from dealing with his presence and the games he's been playing.

The moment he leaves, Jason leaps down from the rafters of the Batcave, both of you speechless, processing, and too overwhelmed to exchange any theories.

You both swarm Alfred when he peeks his head in the door to check in moments later.

"Alfred, what isn't he telling us?"

"What is so goddamn terrifying to him that he isn't fighting back-"

"Do not speak ill of Master Bruce, Master Jason. I know you have your grievances, and I know your concerns are warranted. But I cannot in good conscience let you continue to believe Bruce is willfully allowing you to come to harm when he has done everything in his power to prevent it, even if you think otherwise. Master Bruce would not prefer I tell you that, but that is the truth. And I'm afraid, Master Dick, that I'm with Master Bruce on this one. I do not have the answers, either, but I know why he's doing what he does. And while I do not want this, and I would do anything in my power to fix this, I am as lost as Master Bruce. But I'd rather you didn't blame him for it- just as I know he prefers you would if it means you were as safe as he could manage."

"How is telling us going to put us in more danger? How much more danger can we be in?"

"That is a question I cannot answer."

"Then we'll just have to keep digging..."

"I cannot advise that, either. For all our sakes'."

Chapter Text

By now, it's common knowledge most events sponsored by the Wayne Foundation are going to get crashed by the Joker.

However, there are exactly three reasons people still go, aside from the bravery and the resignation everyone has by most things being crashed by some new and destructive themed criminal every few weeks or so.

One, is that when people tried not to go, other events very explicitly became even more deadly and threatening after the clown made his terms known. Like parent teacher conferences, or any other high-society parties and charity events some other bigwig tried to use as an excuse to one-up Wayne's events, or football games. Be it the Iceberg Lounge, any random coffeehouse, or whatever unfortunate building or infrastructure the clown deciding he wanted to try to blow up around the holidays, the fact remained that the Joker was very adamant and very explicit that people not toss their one good priority of fun out the door just because he likes dancing and clinging to Wayne like some kind of obsessive, cackling barnacle.

And, even with the threat of explosions and guns and other evils, it's a long-standing tradition that everyone inside the party is generally pretty safe, thanks to Wayne's security (which, while not foolproof, is still miles above everyone else's), and the fact that for whatever reason, the fact that Bruce Wayne puts up with the clown. There's one trend that people don't consider a rule, but remains unspoken- whenever Bruce is a hostage of the Joker in any form, people could get roughed up, but they generally tend to not die (which, in any other scenario involving the clown is generally guaranteed when a crowd is involved) and are merely stuck humoring the fact that the clown expects Wayne to humor him, which are better odds than anyone else even if the odds of the clown appearing are basically guaranteed. When you are inside a Wayne party, all you have to worry about is the clown. Most other villains, they either behave, or don't get in at all, and if it's between chancing the Riddler and Calendar Man and Bane and Ivy out there wherever they decide to make their mark, versus humoring a trigger happy clown who finds it good fun not to murder people at this very specific juncture, then people know what chance they'll take. (That's half the reason Wayne can still get dates to hang on his arm before the clown cuts in- they'd rather either the notoriety of being around Wayne, trying to get in his good graces, or they are genuinely friends, or they pity him like most of Gotham does for the fact he has a clown stalker he can't shake. The fact that the Joker let's them live in these situations alone is enough for the adrenaline-junkies or people who want a scoop, although Wayne, for all his popularity, still turns a lot of people down.)

Two, when the clown is at a Wayne Party, he's guaranteed to not be anywhere else. Which means your kids and friends and relatives are safe from at least one mass murderer, and when people stop going, the clown targets other places, with much more deadly results. So going is generally a better idea than not-going, thanks to tradition. In some ways, it's a little like how people employed under Wayne don't tend to get targeted when Wayne is in the building unless they are being used as a reason to get Wayne to follow the Joker wherever he decides he wants to take him out to. He might still break in, or kill or maim or torment people when Bruce isn't around, but when Bruce is there, he's like a lucky charm. Unlucky, because of the Joker being there, but lucky for everybody else not being in the crosshairs by proxy. It's a little bit of a mindfuck, but by now, people are getting used to the bizarre nature of it all.

Three, it's a Wayne Party. All other madness aside, you don't pass that up just because the resident clown decided he wants to join the fun. And it's for kids at a charity event. For the people wanting the good PR or the actual people involved in making Gotham a better place, helping kids and town infrastructure is still not something people want to scoff at, particularly when Wayne tends to invite everybody under the sun. (He did try to warn people about the whole Joker thing, with specific guidelines about what he's doing to rectify the situation, but no one can really blame him for the limitations of what he can guarantee as a host, seeing as no one else can seem to handle the clown any better.)

And the fourth, controversial reason is that half the time, Batman shows up to kick the clown to the curb, which, for some folks, makes the ticket of admission reason enough to go. It happens less when Wayne is around, but with all the conspiracies surrounding Wayne and Batman and the clown and the adopted kids, the gossipy ones have a field day.

--

"Surprise!" The Joker swings on the reinforced tinsel streamers like he's having the time of his life.

--

"Really, sweetheart, I'm all a flutter. Every year comes and goes, and yet I never seem to receive a standing invitation. I know the doorman knows me by sight, but you'd think you'd extend a guy some basic courtesy."

Bruce, for all his masks of good humor to keep things... civil, finds his patience less charitable than usual. "Maybe if you stayed put in Arkham, you'd actually receive your mail."

--

Bruce pauses, chest heaving as he tries to win back control.

"What's this?" Jack pays no mind to the glass shard at his throat as he examines Bruce's expression with renewed vigor, noting dilated pupils and thin sheen of sweat beading his brow.

Only everyone in the crowd goes cold as they watch the Joker's smile thin, his green eyes flashing and his playful tone lowering to a whisper and turning all too-sweet on a dime.

"Well, I'll be." The Joker says. Lower, more guttural, possessive rage seeping through everything else underneath. "Crane finally managed to crack into that noggin' of yours. That won't do. No, that won't do at all."

Bruce scowls at him, baring his teeth. Jack goes to readjust his skewed tie, pulling it tighter mostly to remind Bruce that he could almost-garrote him again and roll them over, seeing as they have a lot of witnesses, and Bruce is shaking like a leaf. For all his muscle mass and dead weight, he's not exactly in peak form now. He's burning up and not doing hot at all, and that gives Jack even more leverage to work with.

(Not that Bruce is paying mind to all the mess and broken glass and mayhem, even if everyone is holding their breath. A lot can be explained away with too much alcohol, with this crowd, and they probably wouldn't even blame Bruce for finally snapping in the clown's presence. After all the kidnappings, hostage situations, and everything else he's tried to be as-cool-as-a-cucumber about, they probably were all placing bets on it happening eventually. And while Bruce having the muscle mass to take you in a fair fight wasn't exactly on the radar, with all the careful failsafes and plans and doubles Bruce attempts to keep himself from being suspect, no one can really pretend adrenaline isn't running high. You did just threaten his adopted children very directly, after all. Jack doesn't really blame Bruce, either, and he'd be delighted if only the slip up wasn't caused by egregious and meddlesome interference.

If Bruce is going to crack, it's going to be do to Jack, and no one else. That's the name of the game, and anything impeding that process means it's poor form to not throw Bruce a little bit of leeway in situations like these. (Although, Jack is wearing him down more than usual, that he can tell, if Crane managed to get under the Batman's skin and find an opening. Bruce hasn't been sleeping very well lately, and he'd been running on too much caffeine and the fumes of his own desperate righteousness for a while, and even that energizer-kick of justice and conviction and resilience Bruce loves so much can only sustain a man for so long. For all Bruce's indomitable aspects, he is, after all, still so very human, and while Jack'll play along, he is one of the few people to see the Bat when he really breaks. That's why he's there. To catch Bruce once he finally falls, like Batman so often does for him. Even if he has to break a few more skulls to get situated.)

"All right, folks. Party's over. If you want your ticket out, now's your chance. I know, I know, normally I'd put on much more of a show. But darlin' Brucie needs to take an early nightcap. And being that someone has to take care of him when he won't take care of himself, I've got to put my foot down if Jeeves isn't up to snuff. So, if you don't scram in the next ten seconds, there will be a lot of people bounced outta dodge as fast as can be managed. Or I'll shoot ya. Your call." The Joker jerks his head towards the broken window.

The majority of the crowd exits like a panicked herd of gazelles out the door and down the stairs, foregoing the elevators entirely, until only Leslie, Jim, Alfred, Dick, Jason, Barbara, and Selina remain.

(Lucius would stay, but one look from Alfred means he needs to keep his cover, and he has kids he needs to get out of here as fast as possible. Jim keeps his gun trained on the Joker and tries to convince Barbara to leave off to the side, but she isn't budging.)

Chapter Text

It's ironic, really, that Harley catching you pisses the Joker off more than anything else you've done.

But it's not like you didn't see it coming. (Well, you didn't see Harley coming, not this time. Jack, you might not anticipate, but you know what makes him tick- whatever causes the most damage. Whatever gives him the last laugh, because the only humor that matters is what he finds funny, and God forbid he doesn't make you try and find it funny, too.)

Jack never liked being overshadowed or outsmarted by anyone who wasn't you- mostly because even when you did win, it didn't count, because you all knew he got inside your head, anyway.

That, and he thinks Harley is clingy.

You know you're not the scapegoat. Harley is. (Because she broke easier, Jack's whisper says. Because she wasn't much of a challenge. Because part of her wanted to break. Not like you, Batsy. You fight me even when you know you'll break that one rule eventually.)

Which is why you can see the writing on the wall.

Harley begging, pleading, furious and wondering why her gift of you trussed up and ready to die so the past can die with it is not wanted.

The Joker doesn't care if the past dies. He rewrites it every day, and keeps one universal constant.

You, Brucie, it's all you and Gotham rotting and you trying to save a dead city. When you realize there is nothing to save.

When the Joker throws Harley out the window, you not only make your escape, but go out flying through it after her, free-falling, half-gliding with a slightly torn bat-cape and breaking glass to roll through the next building.

Harley is a little limp in your arms- she's got more than a few bones broken- but she isn't shutting up. She's still in shock, and the adrenaline rush is probably the only thing keeping her conscious, but you'll bear the brunt of whatever denial she's concocted for herself, because deep down you think her submission is just another survival strategy, one way to survive him even if it's not the same brand of masochism you've chosen.

But you might have to rip the bandage off. If it isn't keeping her safe any more, then there's no use pretending the same tactics will keep on working. (The Joker invents himself over too much for any survival strategy to fully stick, and it's best to get out of dodge the moment the sand shifts.)

Harley says she hates you. Hates that he loves you and not her, not enough-

But you aren't fully listening. You're too busy trying to figure out how you are going to get away, this time, when Jack knows you are both injured and not getting far and he's just this shy of furious that you don't want to consider what else could be on the menu.

"He doesn't love you, Harley." You say again. Not with any venom. Too many people try to kill you on a regular basis for this to feel personal, and while you won't excuse any actions Harley makes of her own volition, violent and terrifying in her own right, you know all too well what the Joker can do to people. (She just needs help. You all need help, and even if your help isn't enough it's got to count for something. Perhaps you are too close to the subject at hand, but you never claimed to be objective about it.)

She says something about you being wrong, that this is your fault, that you ruined things, why did you have to come after her, why did you have to try and save her-

Then, you say, quieter, "He doesn't love either of us. Not really."

The Joker loved control. Sure, he'd pretend there's no controlling things. But that's not the kind of chaos he likes.

He likes calling the shots, sowing the chaos and watching it dance in his image and rolling with the punches he throws, keeping everyone off balance except himself.

And in some ways, that's a new kind of control. The chaos of keeping you trying to stop the world from falling down while he gets to reap the spoils.

Harley starts crying. Stops trying to headbutt you, and there is some kind of vacant breakthrough understanding in her face, and the person who was once Harleen Quinzel stares back with blue eyes, into yours, and sees something there too much like her own.

You feel disconnected from your body in a way you haven't been for a long time, ever since you were a kid, like the days before testosterone and the days before you breathed life into Batman and found a purpose.

The days before Jack was what you knew he was deep down, maybe.

Maybe you are in shock, too, because up until this point, you didn't want to have to say it.

You need to learn to let it go. You want to warn her. Before it kills you. You're worth more than that. We all are.

(You wish you could follow your own advice.)

(Because you can't kill him. And all that leaves is him killing you, one day, with the cards that are on the table.)

--

Joker follows both of you to the other building. Why wouldn't he? He's angry, and bored, and you flew the coop, taking both the focus of his rage and attentions away and leaving nothing but boredom in it's wake.

You both limped as far as you could out of the way, leaning on each other, holding each other up after a twenty-five foot drop, but you'll bet he's following the blood trail like a hound on a scent. 

It's slow going.

(Thanks to Quinn's zealous planning, you can't get ahold of Alfred, and even if you could, he isn't close enough to run interference. You can't hold your arm to glide down safely with the wings shredded, your belt barely functional thanks to what Harley did to it in the earlier fight, and the Batmobile got blown to smithereens earlier that day.)

Jack meets you as he takes the elevator up, because you can't glide or take the stairs down.

The logistics aren't good.

But the Joker doesn't like broken toys. And he knows when you are close to breaking- not in the way he likes, but enough- he always knows when to back off, because where's the fun or the challenge in anything else?

(Jack always gave you more consideration over everyone else, because how else could he try to mold you away from what you were trying to be?

Or at least, that's what you tell yourself.

Fact is, you don't want to pretend it could be anything else. That's how you become too much like Harley.

That's how you become Brucie, and not Batman, and you can't afford that right now.)

When he catches up to you, there aren't many places to go.

"Now, now, Batsy, you shouldn't swoop in and save her. Harley has to learn from her mistakes, and you need to look out for yourself-"

You dodge but still get a punch to the face. Both of you fall to the floor as the Joker advances, trying to fight, trying to do anything, block and hit, even if you are too broken to do much, arm broken, leg broken, J sending you sprawling and digging his hands into tendons and bloody, broken parts where the Bat armor didn't survive the impact of an entire other building and reinforced glass.

(The joints always were a crapshoot, you think, going hazy, world going grey and unsteady. You should have Lucius fix that, you think, because sometimes your armor for the dogs doesn't cut it for the hand-to-hand-)

Joker pulls Harley up on her feet. Says a few mocking words. Says she's lucky you were there to break her fall, chuckles and wheezes and gives you a glittering, narrow-eyed once over before he holds a gun to Harley's head.

Joker fakes out shooting her, mouths uncocking the trigger.

Laughs, louder, more raucous.

You try to send some Batarangs at him, try to pin him to the wall, wrist limp and blood speckling your mouth from the effort-

Two hit his arm, the rest go wide, and Joker looks at you, still smiling, holds his one arm aloft like he's going to sweep Harley in a dip, other still gripping the gun like it's lived in his hand his whole life.

Then he drops her on the floor like a ragdoll, empties out the bullets from the cartridge, flicks the empty gun back up and mimes a bang before kicking her in the gut.

(She's coughing up blood, fading faster, having taken more damage than you-)

You're on the ground, struggling to move closer. Harley is on her back, and barely conscious.

Joker sprawls on the floor in between the space that keeps you seperate, puts an arm around your shoulder, another arm around Harley.

"Play nice, you two. I have enough hands to go around."

(You don't know if Harley hears him, her head's lolling and her breathing is shallow and you hope help is on it's way, and you don't, because the Joker is here and he's having too much of a good time and-)

Then he's done looking at her, and he's rolling on top of you, pulling the mask over your head like he's done too many times, circumventing the failsafes-

(He's always had a quick mind, always been faster with the electricity and the algorithms back when you were on the same side, trying to make generators and build something new, as a unit together, in this city you wanted to remake. But he's always been one step ahead- that's the only way he ever has anything on you, when brute strength doesn't cut it.)

There's the syringe- the one he always seems to have when he slips into the manor at night. How it doesn't get broken in all your fights, you'll never know- and you are fading out, your fists going wide, not even glancing J's jaw as he looks, rapt and coveting, back at you.

--

When you wake up in the hospital, you drag the intravenous hookup after you, checking vitals as you go. Alfred is asleep in the chair next to you- which means it's been a few days, because he'd keep himself awake for hours and only succumb to sleep against his better judgement.

Otherwise he'd be handing you specs, help you steady your walking, a shoulder to lean on.

Your mask is gone. (So is all the armor. You'll have to ask to change the formula with Lucius, otherwise the Joker will be having a field day, trying out the raw materials and seeing what new fresh hell he can put you through.)

Harley is awake, and would've been sedated the next bed over, but she's always had a quick turnaround time, after all the cocktails Joker experimented on with her.

That, and there's an unconscious nurse on the floor, and you know what that means.

(Normally, they'd keep you separate, but with the Joker gas scares, everyone gets the same high-level quarantine to make sure nothing passed your system. It's the highest security Gotham has, after the last outbreak- and you think the last words over your com to Alfred helped, seeing as he has almost as much clout as the Wayne name as executor of the estate right along with you.)

J sent flowers to both of you.

Harley gets a card with sorry, and she's gushing over it, giving you furtive looks when she thinks you aren't looking, seeing the man behind the mask since that's her reward for digging too deep.

You wonder if she'll keep your secret.

And then you realize it doesn't matter, because Joker won't let her spill.

You don't read your letter.

You already know what it's going to say.

Chapter Text

Damian is left in your office at Wayne Enterprises with a note and the briefest break-in from Talia herself, only heralded by everything being disturbingly in order, so much that you know she was rifling through things and putting them back, because you have a system and a knack for telling when your stuff has been messed with.

(You know she didn't break into the manor because that's more than a death trap these days.)

The note reads, "He's yours, beloved. One imperfect boy for an imperfect man."

That's Talia, for you. Professes that she loves you for everything you can do and everything you are, but dare to have morals and not want to murder people and she finds herself apparently cloning you and then going off with that clone to get the perfect heir, without having to deal with any baggage around murder or the fact that you once considered her a friend (as much as a murderous assassin trying to take over her father's empire with an eugenics agenda could be, in that place, united only by the fact that you understood the world standing in your way for similar reasons. Otherwise, you hate her and everything her empire stands for, and for the person she could be if she didn't choose a bloodier path).

You are at least thankful that she gave the kid over, instead of killing him. Whatever supposed crime of childhood or mercy led her to dump him on your doorstep, you don't know. But you know Talia wouldn't abandon her child unless he'd either shown mercy or an unwillingness to kill, somewhere along the line.

(Or if Ra's demanded something better, and the kid didn't deliver.)

That's the only saving grace here, that she decided to let the kid live and be cared for, whatever your care is worth... Well, that, and she stalks you far less than Jack, although you aren't entirely sure how you are supposed to help the poor ten year old kid who has been given to you like he's to be discarded like trash. That is going to take a lot of careful handling, if you can earn his trust enough to even get that far.

But, you suppose, this will at least give Damian a chance to have some semblance of a normal life, if he can break free of all that the Al Ghul's tried to mold him in to.

(You pointedly don't think of your other failures in that department with your other sons. You may not be the best father, but you are all he has now. And you'd like to think you'd learned from your other mistakes, knowing how little you've prepared your family for the worst of all you know.

It won't absolve you of Jason, or all the ways you need to repair that trust and care and to be there for him when you know all too well that Jack isn't going to stop any time soon.

But the kid needs somebody in his corner, and you are the only other person trained in the League's ways who might have a shot of helping deprogram him and let him be himself and make his own way.

Well, aside from Lady Shiva. But she could not be trusted with children in any capacity, so that doesn't count.)

--

Damien, apparently, thinks you are a subpar father figure. A substitute only worthy because apparently, Talia told him he was to learn all he can from you, and that he might earn his way back into the fold if he is obedient.

(But he doesn't seem to know his isn't yours directly. Whether they hid the clone thing entirely, or grew him in a test tube, you have no idea.)

The only upside is that because he sees you as a blood relation, he seems more inclined to listen to you.

Not that he really listens. Or that the whole blood relation thing makes him get along any easier with the rest of the family, with his attitude.

(You can't hold that against him. Even with the small grains of kindness and patience and childishness you've been able to tease out, the kid's been programmed and punished and molded very deeply, and it's going to take a lot to help him through the other side.)

(But you hope, maybe, that helping Jason and Dick and Tim and Damian at the same time might allow them to help each other...

Even if Jason is still finding it a riot whenever Tim gets in over his head, and Tim is getting quiet after Jason's first attempt to kill him months ago. So you have a lot... A lot, of work to do.)

This is going to be a mess.

So it's a good thing you like to tackle messes head on.

Paranoia and obsession and compulsion only might take you so far, but it does have it's uses.

--

Once you and Damian reach some sort of understanding and familiarity, it's not the first time one of your children pays no mind to murder and is half-feral with things you can more than imagine them having gone through (with Damian, and Jason, you have enough of an inkling from first hand experience).

But the only saving grace, sadly, is that Talia didn't kill her kid. (You know, if Ra's had his way, that he'd be long dead already.) So you suppose this is Talia's way of keeping him safe, in the hands' off, impersonal, viewing-people-as-disposable way she does. It's not absolution, and it in no way protects her from the cruelties she'd still seen fit to dish out, or the dehumanizing way she does things.

But the kid is alive.

And the kid feels cared about, at least, if not included, even if he's resisting every step of the way.

And that's a good first step as any.

--

Jason and Tim rarely agree on anything, on principle.

However, the one thing this new arrival of a new son does, is unite them behind a common enemy.

That, and they are both convinced he's a plant for Talia to infiltrate and destroy you in some Machiavellian plan to overthrow her father.

(You already know he's a plant. That's a given. But you have hope the kid can get out from under the thumb of the League of Shadows and Ra's legacy with enough of a parachute to catch him on the way down.)

In the interim, aside from Dick's and Alfred's attempts to keep the peace, you have to find some way to stop your children from infighting.

Chapter Text

"All of you are my children."

"For better or worse," Jason jokes, but his mumble doesn't ease the tension, and it only falls flat.

--

"I wish you were my real father."

"Damian. You aren't a part of this family because of blood. You are my son because you choose to be. Do you want that?"

"It's not-"

"This isn't about what anyone else wants, Damian. This is about what you want. What rules you decide matter. You don't have to uphold someone else's legacy because they told you that's all you are allowed to be, or fail because they want you to. You can make a life for yourself, on your terms."

--

"I'm want you to listen to me, on this, even if you never care about anything else that comes out of my mouth. What matters is that you care. That you are the one to make the decision. That you decide what matters to you. No one else can dictate that. But what matters just as much, is that you learn to care about other people, and care about the same trials they live through. That you see them for what they are- equals. Not rivals. Not a threat. Not beneath you. But human and flawed and just as conflicted and confused and curious and wild as you."

--

"But if you do, then you need to accept the rest of this family as much as you do me." -- "I love each and every one of you, and you all need to learn to love and rely on each other. That's what a family is."

--

"What matters is that we look out for one another."

--

"Maybe if you stopped keeping secrets, we'd be able to help you, too."

Chapter Text

"You think if you keep playing his game that you will earn his approval, sister. But you won't. He won't ever see you for who you truly are. Your worth is entirely based on your usefulness to him and what he thinks he can change you into. But don't worry. I'm going to fix that. When we're through, he won't be the one in control any longer. And we will claim our birthright. Together."

--

"I don't recall signing up for your eugenics program." Bruce voice is dry.

--

"Ra's left your family to die." Bruce says to Nyssa. "And I'm surprised you'd let Talia go so far, when she doesn't care if how many of her children perish provided they don't suit the image she wishes to mold them into. I would think you, of all people, would decry that."

"My sister has a lot to unlearn. But that does not make us enemies. And you and your bleeding, imperfect heart are in the way."

--
"In some ways, you and Talia aren't so different after all. You say you aren't copying your father, when in truth, all you are doing is falling into the same trap. Trying to control everyone and destroy all that you find wrong, without realizing you are eradicating good, innocent people, the same way your enemies tried to do to you. Only Ra's doesn't think of his enemies as people, and you know all too well what they are, and go through with his vision regardless."

Chapter Text

Damian stares at nothing, while looking very interested in the wall.

"You okay?" Jason tries.

That, at least, merits a response. Even if it's a scowl and a death glare, but hey. Jason won't knock results, however little he may have accomplished.

"I don't need your pity."

"This isn't pity, you total im-" Jason groans, but Damian cuts him off, gesticulating with every word.

"So I'm not the firstborn son. I'm just the son of Bruce Wayne's clone. This isn't some life shattering revelation, even if he has no reason to care-"

"You know he'll care, anyway."

"Thanks, Todd. I feel so much better. Oh wait! No I don't, because it turns out all my heritage is just... I wanted this to be my family. I like it here, more than the League. I wanted to belong here. And now I don't have anything that makes me fit in-"

"That's not true-"

"Don't you get it? Now I'm just... expendable. Just another hapless orphan Bruce took pity on. You, you might have thought you were nothing but you were always something, to him."

"It's not all it's chalked up to be. And don't let Dick hear you say that, I can think of at least five rebuttals-"

"Dick Grayson is lucky. He got chosen. Bruce didn't choose the rest of us. We just stuck around and he didn't turn us away, and you got the jackpot of actually being his son-"

"Kid, it's not like that. And you know it-"

"Why do you get to have what you don't even want? Why couldn't he be my father, and not yours? I don't want to go back. What if he makes me-"

"You idiot, he's not going to throw you away-"

"But what if he doesn't want me any more?"

"Kid. Barring the complete and total bullshit you'd have to swallow to think that, when we all know he loves you. Do you think Bruce wanted me, either?"

"That's different."

"Is it?"

"You couldn't control how you were born. He doesn't blame you for-"

"Okay, then why do you think he'd blame you for this, either?"

"It doesn't matter if he blames me! It matters that everything I took for granted was never real, that I have no claim-"

"Newsflash. It's real to him. And it's real to us. You are as much a part of this family as anyone else, for better or worse. No one gets to erase that. And none of us want to, even if you are a royal pain in the ass."

"Says the common criminal."

"Yeah, well at least I'm more put together than you."

"Pardon the interruption, young masters. But I heard raised voices."

"We're fine, Alfred."

"On the contrary, master Jason. Whether or not you qualify as fine does not bar me from joining you, does it?"

"'Course not."

--

"I brought scones."

--

Jason stares down Ra's, guns in hand.

"You stay away from my little brother."

Chapter Text

"Ah, ah, ah. Don't break up your little sleepover on my account."

There's the old razor they all know too well in the Joker's hand, (his favorite), not poised at Bruce's neck, but still clutched too tight, too close to his face. Ready to leap into action and stab Selina again if she moves too fast.

Selina lunges for her gun, pulling it out in one smooth motion and aiming it right at the Joker's head.

"Go ahead, Kitty. Give it a whirl. But, uh, you really want to shoot someone in front of Brucie, hmm?"

"Selina, please-" Bruce says, maybe a bit too quiet, and Selina stares at him.

He isn't surprised at this interruption. (Neither of them are, really, but Selina didn't want to believe the rumor mill, not really. Not when she knows what it really means).

(She tries not to think of the old scar where Jack once put a bullet in her and left her bleeding out on the floor, all those years ago, tries not to clutch at it if it means the guilt settles, but it still rankles, bitter and ugly and she isn't sure her expression hides on her face. The betrayal that isn't quite that, because if Bruce is betraying her here, than Jack betrayed him long before and Bruce was betraying himself, too, for letting this monster touch him.)

And she tries to break open his mind and what he's thinking, even though she doesn't understand why when he's out of the mask, the Joker just lets himself in the window and Bruce doesn't fight to stop it.

Bruce's face might not be emotionless, far from it, but he is as hard to crack as always.

(Or maybe he isn't. Maybe she can see all too well just how much he can't stand watching anyone die in front of him, how he can't stand seeing her as a murderer and giving Joker exactly what he really wants, and that's exactly the problem.)

Grudgingly, she lowers the gun. Slowly. Hatefully, eyes glaring into the Joker's with a promise of violence later.

"There we go." The Joker smooths down Bruce's hair, presses a kiss to his forehead. "Bruce, you really do know how to make people get along."

Bruce elbows him to break the slightly chokehold, but doesn't use practically any of the force they know he could to bruise or make the Joker fall to the floor. He's a little too still, a muscle jumping in his jaw, nostrils flaring and he's angry and more than that, but he isn't fighting back like Batman would.

"Alfred tried the same little trick you did, once. It didn't end well for anyone." Joker adds, and while Selina might not kill him she has no qualms punching him in the face and trying to rip it off for good measure, scratching and clawing and throwing him to the floor if it means he stops taunting and touching Bruce right now.

--

"We have an agreement. I don't kill anyone while I visit pretty little Brucie here, like the good ol' days, and he can rest easy after I'm done with him. I mean, I'm not one for all his little rules... But every relationship needs some sort of boundaries. We're all friends here, and it's not like Bruce knows how to ask for what he wants. And if the big light in the sky coaxes Batman out of his shell, then I stay out of the way. Or I make more mayhem. Depends on how much excitement we want that day."

The Joker laughs.

Neither Bruce or Selina laugh with him.

--

"See, Bruce here wants to pretend that everyone isn't going mad. Doesn't want to see how all of you are just as ready to turn into murderers at the drop of the a hat, same as me. And while I am doing my best to educate him on the subject... You know how stubborn he gets. Who am I to spoil the fun?"

--

"Unless you feel like abandoning him again. I'm sure Bruce wouldn't begrudge you that-"

"Jack, don't-"

"I know, I know. It's what she does."

--

"Come on, Selina. Bruce does love you and your darling pussy. It would be such a shame to deprive him."

--

"Go on, Bruce. Let it all out."

--

The Joker leaves around 5 am. Bruce still sleeps, like he's grown accustomed to a routine he shouldn't.

Selina has not.

When he wakes, she makes Alfred call out of the office for him, and after breakfast drags Bruce along by his wrist, even if he just goes along with it.

"You're going to the doctor." She says. It's not a request.

"Selina-" Bruce tries, but she doesn't let him make excuses.

"You're going. We don't know where he's been, and I saw how many marks he's left. You need to make sure nothing gets infected."

She doesn't say: He's been raping you, repeatedly, for who knows how long, and we need to do something about it and not pretend it isn't happening like you seem to be doing.

Bruce looks at the ground. Anywhere but her.

"I know where he's been. He only... It's just me, and Harley. And Harley only is going out with Ivy, and you, so it's not like... I've been tested, I wouldn't chance that." Bruce fumbles at Selina's expression. "And he cleans the knives." Bruce adds, like that's any better. "I'm fine."

She knows he isn't fine, and it's not the testing she's worried about. She's worried about his head, and his injuries- it's not like a concussion is out of the running, with how Joker was last night, even if he's hellbent on patching himself up.

And his mind. She's worried about that. About all the mindgames. And the idea that getting used to knives isn't as terrifying as everything else.

But she goes with the path of least resistance, and tries to keep her tone soft, and not so flushed with worry that she's yelling at him for trying to keep everyone out and deal with it alone instead.

"Look. I'm not going to make you do anything, but it can't hurt-" Selina tries.

"People talk. And I can't let anyone find out."

You mean you don't want to think about it, Her mind supplies, but denial here isn't an option.

And this is not about Wayne enterprises, or appearances, even if Bruce's tone is definitely going too light and airy like he's the mask and not the real boy underneath.

No, she can read his face, and between the lines. If the Joker has been doing this for this long, and the paparazzi have been silent, and Bruce is scared to do anything except maybe enact retribution as Batman...

The people who find out don't make it, is what he's saying.

And Bruce doesn't want that on his conscious, either.

Selina pinches the bridge of her nose and scrambles for a way to get through to him.

"I know a place. A... Discreet place. Please, Bruce. I'm..." She bites her lip. "I'm really worried about you."

Even if you aren't. She doesn't say. Even if you don't know how to worry about yourself anymore, too busy trying to save everyone else.

--

"All in favor of killing the Joker?" Selina asks.

Ivy, Penguin, and Riddler all raise their hands.

"Ah, I'm flattered."

There's a chuckle and the shadow of a bazooka by the door.

Speak of the Devil and he shall appear.

--

Harley storms out.

--

--Bruce--

"You want to talk about it?" Harley asks, crossing her legs and peering at you over your counter.

You keep putting on a cup of tea.

Harley is absently tapping the table. You doubt she notices.

"I am still a trained psychiatrist, you know. It might help."

Bruce raises an eyebrow.

"Before you became a wanted criminal." He says. A bit too calm.

Harley isn't discouraged. "Look, Bats- Bruce." She corrects herself. "I know Mistah J. So if anyone knows what it is like to love puddin' and not want him dead, too, well, you are talking to the one other person who is in the same boat as you. And maybe I want to talk about it. With you. If you don't feel like being psychoanalyzed, that is."

Maybe that's a low blow, but you know the game she's playing. And you'll take the out with grace, if it means maybe you can help her and make some sense of things for yourself, too.

Chapter Text

--Bruce--

"What about the kids?" Selina asks, trying to read too much.

You twitch, putting the coffee down too fast.

"What about them?"

"Do they know?" She presses. Like you'd intentionally put them in the fire, when all you'd ever done was try to stop them from getting involved and they kept involving themselves, anyway. You never wanted any of the kids to have to face the Joker or become some new thing for Jack to play with, in his eyes. (You never wanted to have them in the Manor, even after you took them under your wing, because you knew that it wasn't safe, and while nowhere was safe with the Joker it was never safe for you where it mattered.)

The problem was, they caught his attention anyway.

(And while the Joker plays by no rules, you know it's best to keep the focus on you, lest his mind wanders elsewhere.)

You look out the window. "I wouldn't have let them stay if they didn't."

"And he hasn't tried anything?"

Your lips peel back on autopilot, and then you try to school the expression back. Jack always liked your not-quite smiles, the snarl of wishing he'd fallen into that vat and never crawled back out.

"He always tries something, Selina. But it's my house. And when I'm out of the cape... He keeps it between us. I stay upstairs, they go to another safehouse with Alfred or stay downstairs."

"Somehow, I don't see them going for that, Bruce."

There's a story there, one she can tell you'd rather not say. But as close as you and Selina will remain, there are some things you cannot put words to.

Not when the Joker is still trying to ingratiate your family into his and take everything else with it.

"We all learned the hard way."

"Like Jason did?" She says, quieter.

You look at your hands.

("How are you supposed to save anyone, Bruce? You can't even save yourself!" Jason yells.

You say nothing.

You just hold him close as he tries to fight you off, and don't let go.

You were going to pay the price from now on. Not him. Not anyone else.

"How are you going to save me, Bruce? There's nothing left to save. Just kill him, and get it over with.")

It is a fear that the Joker still wields over you, a threat of something that has never fully reared its head again- even though you know it will, once the masquerade ends and the Joker changes the rules of the game only he is playing.

Jack takes and takes and pushes every fragile boundary he can get his hands on, eventually.

("You know, I like this one, Batsy. He takes after me. It's Jay, right?"

"Jason."

"The little bluejay speaks. Got more lungs on him than your first songbird, I'll give him that.")

Chapter Text

C'mon Brucie, give us a smile.

You wish you could sleep without his voice in your head. You make a good show of not letting it perturb you outwardly- but that's all it is. A show.

And Jack can see right through you. He always could.

--

You hate how Pamela looks at you, then.

With pity. With compassion.

That’s not what gets to you.

She looks at you like you are somehow the same.

Like some other women do. Like you are somehow fooling yourself, and falling prey to the same kind of violence so many supposedly real men wield at the rest of the world. (At the people in their lives they decide are their property).

A look she reserves for people who aren’t really men, not in her book. A traitorous part of your mind whispers, but you ignore that- it’s Jack’s voice, and you tune that out all the time.

But you are not. The world may subject you to the same kind of violent, dismissive scorn but you aren’t the same and you have never been.

And you aren't letting the Joker get away with anything.

You are choosing not to be remade except in the image you chose.

You are choosing not to become cold, not to let what is gentle go into the good night, to let what is right trump the violence Gotham has decided to let consume it.

You may have both been almost broken by men in your lives who thought they were entitled to you and remaking you in their image, in molding the world around them…

And she thinks you aren’t fighting back enough, when you are fighting the good fight the only way you know.

And you will not compromise.

You won’t lose yourself in the maelstrom, no matter how many pieces Jack tries to take.

You say, “I did not let him remake me.”

The Joker had nothing to do with it.

You are Batman. You always have been.

Bruce is just Batman with a different face.

You chose to stand for justice- for compassion where there is none, for force when there is no way to stop violence otherwise levelled throughout the streets.

You don’t blame her, though, even if you can’t let her destroy Gotham for what was done to her.

You can understand wanting to level everything to the ground, sometimes. To let the seed take root and remake all that came before so the violence that touched you would never touch you again.

It’s tempting.

But that’s what the Joker wants, too. To burn it all down.

To grow a garden and watch you change and break and to throw all the rules out the window.

And you may bend- but you do not break.

And if you break, you shatter- but the pieces will remain obstinate, and your rules remain the same.

She waits.

Then she musters the courage and asks why you don’t just kill him.

You tell her, “Because I’m Batman.”

And that’s good enough for you.

Pamela seems to read something in your face, and then her open expression closes off, and Ivy kisses your cheek.

"You always were a stupid man, Bruce." She says.

You cannot be a puppet on her string, though.

She doesn't try to control you like the others.

And even if she did...

It has never worked on you, not since Bane broke your spine and all the consequences that followed.

And you've learned to fight it, through every way you fight any attempts at mind control.

Too many people tried to turn you into a marionette already, in a house of smoke and mirrors and grinning masks and Joker gas, when Jack held your head and gave you the antidote and whispered you would be the center of his universe forever.

--

Ivy goes back to trying to level the city in a green paradise of her own making.

You escape, and with recon from Alfred and some nifty new devices from Lucius, you eventually take her back to Arkham.

She breaks out with Harley a few days later, but decides to lay low instead of causing mayhem.

Harley helps her sneak into the manor to make you lunch.

"No hard feelings," she whispers.

You think you both were too tired to try harder, and for once, the bruises and the violence from other fights, older fights, ones she didn't level with you, settle in deeper.

Like you know the peace is only temporary.

Like it's been marked under your skin for too long.

--

The Joker escapes the following week.

You think maybe, you are growing to predict his movements unconsciously.

Chapter Text

"Thank you for coming to visit Arkham, Bruce. We know you believe in rehabilitation, but we do have some reservations about security-"

"Dr. Leland, while I know there are concerns after all the other visits and the... events that have occured, the waiver still stands. Arkham will not be liable for anything that may befall me thanks to certain... conduct and mitigating circumstances."

"Bruce, with all due respect, while I do support your aims here, are you sure it's worth it, for your sake-"

"If that's what it takes to change things and get honest answers on what needs to change on the inside, then that's the sacrifice I'll make. With any luck, we'll also pin down better ways to improve security, seeing as the breakouts get a little more creative each time."

"I suppose that's an optimistic way of looking at it."

"I wouldn't go that far."

"Pragmatic, then?"

"Let's go with that one."

--

"Everyone, we have a visitor today. A face many of you know well-"

"Wayne!"

"Hey, it's our favorite board member."

"We're going to be conducting reviews and interviews from your perspective as well as the staff, so feel free to submit your feedback the usual way."

--

"Brucie! You sly dog! Surprising me like this! If I'd have known, I'd have rolled out the red carpet. Does this mean I am finally allowed visitors? Conjugal visits?"

--

"Here we go." Scarecrow mutters.

Chapter Text

Except things don't go exactly as planned.

Because one hostage- the denim-clad man at six o'clock- picks up the gun and you are still to slow to stop him from pulling the trigger.

He shoots Jack point-blank in the forehead.

Jack falls to the floor, and you tackle the man out of the way, covering Jack's mouth and body with your suit to shield him and the other families from whatever evil thing Jack keeps waiting in the wings whenever he's caught off-guard, be it Joker venom or something worse that would keep his secret from getting out.

Except nothing happens.

Jack's body lies crumpled on the floor, without any hair-trigger traps, and vainly, you hope you can get everyone evacuated before he gets right back up again to make up for being caught by surprise.

Except then there's too-reflexive, quick, jagged movement and Jack is lurching up to sit, stabbing you in the leg before his other arm grabs you in a chokehold while you start laughing harder and harder.

You try to throw him off, elbowing him in the eye before you can't quite take in a heaving breath enough and your chest feels like it's on fire, and the laughter bursting out of you is loud enough almost to make all the other screaming white noise before Jack is slamming your face into the floor and kicking you in the ribs while you clutch at him, trying to wrestle the gun away and failing miserably and then not being able to move much at all, thanks to the trouble breathing.

"Now, why did you have to go and do that?" Jack asks the man who shot him, all too quiet and focused in the serious way he hardly ever lets on he is, deep down. All the rage is out to play now, all the ways he can't keep up the mask.

There's a bang! And more screaming until the Joker yells at everyone to shut up! And the silence descends as someone falls to the floor next to you.

"You just had to go and ruin it, didn't you?"

Not the man who shot Jack, then, just some other poor bystander-

Your vision is starting to get hazy, and then you feel another sharp pain as another syringe gets jabbed into the muscle of your still-twisted arm. The laughter peters off a little, and the pressure in your chest and the uptick of your smile ebbs as whatever version of the drug hit you gets diluted enough not to kill you, even if it's not enough to keep you from being down for the count.

"Don't get me wrong, I am all for surprises- no use planning for things when life is going to throw a curveball and make each act unique." Jack projects, voice too loud and close to your ear even though he's not close enough to headbutt or even talking to you. "But comedy treads a fine line, and now you've gone and thrown my timing off. And seeing as you can't rush a good performance- and I, ah, can't stand a stolen punchline, now I've gotta re-tool my material. But that's showbiz, so I guess it's best to start from scratch-"

The Joker goes to press the trigger, but you manage to grab his hand before he does.

"Wait-" You rasp, and then the laughter bursts out of you again.

Jack pistol-whips your jaw with the gun with enough force to send you staggering and to lose a few teeth. Possibly a concussion, definitely will bruise enough to be noticeable, but that's the least of your problems right now.

(It's rare that he slips up this much, with you, considering the line he treads to keep the joke from getting stale or for the reveal, but today, there's no smokescreen, not when everyone in the bank knows who and what you are and knows exactly why Jack isn't going down and staying there. Now, all his false patience is all worn through and he's all terrifying business, and you need to think fast before this devolves into anything worse.)

"You just hang tight down there, Brucie. This batch wasn't meant for you, and it doesn't seem to be mixing with your meds too well. Too high a dosage and too much serotonin can kill you, you know, and if your heart stops, even if this trusty doohickey," Joker waves the joybuzzer, "Can do the job well enough, I don't have all the tools to keep the brain damage from setting in too fast, and you can't afford that, considering how bone-headed you already are. I know, I know, it's rare that I'm not too keen on playing Dr. Frankenstein, but today's been a long one. Can you believe that they don't pack defibrillators at a bank? I'm fairly sure that against some regulation- unless maybe someone stole them all. Wouldn't put it past people, these days. No respect for public property."

--

The Joker keeps the gun flush to the little girl's mouth, the barrel of it pressed almost down her throat, and clicks his own teeth together in time with the flick of the safety.

"Ah, ah, ah. I wouldn't try anything. Even if I grabbed the wrong gear today, this baby's got the tensile strength of one of your trusty grappling hooks. Wouldn't want to skewer her poor head in two, now, would we?"

"So, do I have these two lovebirds choose which one gets to shoot the other, or do I have junior here pick favorites and choose who gets a bullet to the brain?" Then he's looking back at you, and adds, a little more gently, still with the awful, quiet glee to hide how very, very frustrated he remains, "I would have you shoot them to save her, but ah, who am I kidding? You can't even shoot me, and I killed our baby twice."

You don't say another for a long moment. Too many things are holding you hostage, keeping your hands tied, both literally and figuratively.

But you will not let him have this.

You will do whatever you have to do to get these people to safety and if you have to out bluff him... You've never managed a full con, but you can do your best to keep him from focusing on everyone else.

"Your material is getting stale." You dare.

And that's enough to get a reaction. Maybe not the best distraction, but Jack's weakness has always been his obsession with you. And if you can keep him preoccupied, then that's all you can do while hoping someone else can come and save this trainwreck from getting any worse and weathering the worst of all that he is.

"Oh, really?"

"It's the same thing all over again. Either you make someone play out what happened to me, or make me do what was done to my family, or you pull the same thing you've pulled with our son. And you're the one always telling me that old jokes aren't any good. Maybe it's time for something fresh. Something new and not played out."

"Are you calling my act washed up?"

You grimace, staring him down, and muster all the dry contempt you can manage.

"That's being charitable."

--

"I'll tell them exactly who you are."

"Go ahead, babe. One way or another, everyone else in here is going to take this to their graves, be it laughing or with crickets. Can't have them blabbing about the main event before I've even got the stage set up. And you know audiences. You can't trust anyone these days not to run their mouths."

Chapter Text

"It's a pleasure to have you back in the studio, Mr. Wayne-"

"Summer, you know you can call me Bruce."

"Okay, Bruce, let's dive right in. What is your opinion on the Batman?"

Bruce sits and considers, deliberate and more somber than the way his usual easy laughter and bashful touches to the back of his neck aren't usually in most social outings.

There's a pause, then, an almost tentative, begrudging answer.

(He could've play it cool, make it a joke, but he wants to treat the seriousness of the situation with gravity, because for all the ways his own mask as Bruce Wayne holds up with scrutiny, there are some things that anyone would see through if they looked hard enough.)

"I think he's selfish." Bruce finally answers. Oddly quiet and subdued and unlike the usual manner in which he so often lets things roll past, and that, more than anything, is enough to make the news anchor lean forward and hold the audience captive enough with bated breath.

After all, it's not every day Bruce Wayne, darling philanthropist and playboy persona of Gotham whom everyone thinks is shallow and ditzy and absent-mindedly irresponsible even if his heart is in the right place, for a billionaire, makes such a weighty, meaty statement on one of the most infamous and divisive figures of Gotham itself.

(The Bat is almost a mascot- for good or ill is up for debate, although most would argue that regardless of whether the Bat is a symptom of the disease or a catalyst of what plagues Gotham's streets, he is undeniably something that keeps Gotham feeling a little less unsafe when night falls.)

Then Bruce adds more, almost as if unable to help himself, "Don't get me wrong, I think he's trying to do something right for our city. I think his heart is in the right place- even if his sense of justice is his own. But I think... Anyone who takes the law into their own hands isn't thinking about the big picture, not all the way. The only way to enact real change, is to invest in Gotham's future. In the children and the people of this city and to make them think that they have not only the will but the power to persevere and rebuild and make something new and better even when things are hopeless- to believe in the power we all have to help and trust each other. And I think, and maybe I'm reaching here, but I think that Batman knows he's not the solution to the city's problems. I think he wants to give people that hope, but I also think he knows that whatever drives him to do what he does... I think he knows it's rooted in something that changed him. And I'm the last person to have much to say on the subject- I mean, I'm not one to criticize the same person who goes toe to toe with the Joker on the regular. I cannot claim to be unbiased, there. He lets out a nervous laugh, looking down. "But while I think Batman is trying to protect people, in his own way, deep down, I think he's trying to invoke something bigger than himself. As a symbol, he's trying to stand for something. He's trying to tell Gotham that they can find a way through this- to make criminals afraid and to make people choose to do things differently. But when it comes to taking down lowlifes and criminals, and taking matters into his own hands... I think that's rooted in something personal, and that even if he's trying to make things better or right or to fix what he sees as a broken system, that when it comes down to it, he's also fighting for himself. That by taking things into his own hands, he's not only taking responsibility for this city, whether or not he can handle that responsibility, but that he's trying to prove something. And I don't know what that is. But I know that anyone who tries to fight crime, be it through charity, or helping others, or anything like that, that something made them care. Maybe I'm projecting, I don't know, I don't claim to be objective about any of this, but... Maybe Batman lost someone. Loss can do that to people. And if that's what it is... Than I empathize with his reasoning. I know what it is like to lose people. That's part of why I try to give back, because I know I don't feel half the pain most people in this city are subject to, and I don't want anyone, orphan or not, child or adult, to have to suffer the worst of what thrives in this city. And I think Batman wants the same thing, even if his methods differ. But even if fighting crime is supposed to save Gotham from itself, somehow... I think that Batman is trying to fix something that he knows won't ever be fixed by him alone. And I think that by taking things into his own hands, maybe he thinks he won't be powerless in the face of whatever drives him. And maybe it works for him. But I think anything rooted in that cannot be complete altruism, because for Batman to be that symbol he wants to be, for Batman to stand for what Gotham could be, for safety, for justice, for anything Batman might mean to the people of this city... Maybe he thinks that getting into the nitty gritty of it all, of doing things with his two hands and seeing things on the ground, that he won't be distant. That he won't forget why he's doing what he's doing or feel disconnected, in the way I suppose I am, insulated from things in some ways. But I think that same idealism, or intentions, or whatever it is that drives him to do things on his own terms and to directly intervene... I think he knows that won't save Gotham on it's own. And I think he knows he's doing it for himself, because that's what grief and rage does to a person. I think that's why he draws so much fear and attention and fascination of so many criminals, too, because they see that he's a rogue element trying to be better than him while still using their tactics against them. He wants to make criminals and murderers afraid. But by doing that... I think he's close to losing that same community mindedness that maybe motivates him. I think that whatever makes him act as he does... It's personal. And you can't make that charity or public service without sacrificing the same hypocrisy that makes him both a symbol and such a divisive figure. If he's going to stand for Gotham and be what it needs, then it can't be about him or whatever makes him do what he does. He has to transcend that, and be willing to give up everything. Batman isn't a hero. He's just a man, and I think he knows that, and if he wants to be more than that, to be the symbol, then he's got to willing to lose himself and what makes him a vigilante in the first place. And until he figures out how to do that, then he's just a man trying his best to be something that no one understands, not even Batman himself."

Then Bruce sighs, and gives a wry grin. "But hey, don't quote me on that. I'm not an expert in these things."

"That's a lot to take in, Bruce. If I may ask, what about the rumors that Wayne Enterprises funds Batman, along with all the other conspiracies out there? Or, dare I say it, that one accusation that you are Batman, following that emotional statement?"

Bruce blinks at her.

Deadpans, "You got me. I'm Batman."

Then he doubles over, and this time, Bruce laughs harder. Far more real. Less forced, with a little less punch than usual even if the hysterical bouts are more hysteria than mirth, even if the crowd that joins in isn't sharing the same joke.

Bruce waves a hand as his chuckling peters out.

"That's a good one, Summer. Disregarding why would I need to go out and punch people at night when I have events to run and business meetings every other morning," No punches pulled there, but Bruce is used to the grilling, even if he knows his usual persona isn't cutting in, and the exhaustion and need for honesty when he cannot be honest maybe makes something else bleed through. "More seriously, I think, if I was Batman, I wouldn't have to deal with the Joker joyriding yachts and cars or crashing all my parties every few months." The smile slips off his face, and everyone grows a little restless thanks to the clear awkwardness of the situation that so rarely plagues the photogenic and distant but almost familiar figure of Bruce Wayne, and all that they have decided to not focus on. "That's all I really have to say about that one."

"And the other allegations?"

"When it comes to Wayne Enterprises, we would never do something that would threaten the integrity of Gotham's infrastructure or the sanctity of due process and the law. That's actually something I'd like to talk about, if I may. See, I know a lot of people wonder why I don't just give up all my funding and my business if I believe in the advocacy of the public and strengthening Gotham's institutions without outside interference. And I know people might see that as hypocritical or odd, seeing as I own a conglomerate and I am very well off and I could influence too many things, be it politics or transit or pretty much anything if I threw enough money at the situation. And as for that, I can only say I am rooted in paranoia. If I sell my company and try to invest half of it in public works, a quarter of it for the GCPD, and the remainder as inheritance to Dick, I fear that someone else will take the assets and steal it or use it to hurt people. And maybe I'm just used to too many things going wrong, but I think it's a healthy fear and damage mitigation to keep control of my companies assets. I don't want my money falling into the hands of Scarecrow, or Dr. Strange, or Black Mask, or Joker, or any criminal. And I wouldn't put it past them to try. At least, this way, I feel like I can manage the security myself and have a hand in the security and integrity of my companies operations, and I can take responsibility and fix things if somehow there was a breach or something went wrong. But I trust my team and my employees, and this way... I mean, maybe it's selfish, but at least I know where my money is going when I'm a shareholder and the face of the Wayne legacy. At least I can take responsibility for what might happen when it is my name. And I want to uphold my parents' vision. I have always wanted to honor their memory and to keep people from losing people they love, and using their money for good is something they would want and something I believe in. And I don't think I could live with it, if that money was used by criminals to undermine this city. As for funding Batman..." Bruce stretches, "I think if I was, the auditors and IRS would've been knocking at my door by now."

"You are a powerful man, though. Would it be a stretch to consider that you could circumvent scrutiny you may fund Batman as a security measure?"

"Summer, if I can be frank... If Batman could protect me or the people I love, I wouldn't have to leave Gotham so often on extended vacations. Whether or not I agree with his tactics or his persona is irrelevant to the fact that funding Batman is a risk that would put everyone I love in more danger than they already are in thanks to their proximity to me. And, let's be honest, here. Do you really think a masked vigilante who beats up criminals on the regular and almost stoops to their level needs permission or is at a loss for funding when he can just take what he wants? If Batman wanted my resources, I don't think he'd need a paper trial. I think he would just do what he thought needed to be done. I don't need to enable someone who can already do what he wants and only doesn't do so because of whatever morals guide him. And that's all I really have to say on that matter."

They can fill in the blanks, there, themselves.

"Thank you, Bruce. I don't mean to pry too much, but speaking of your upcoming charity events, do you think the charity galas you host every year will keep being a tradition?"

"Of course. Just because criminals want to undermine and undo what we are trying to build as a community does not mean we need to give them what they want. I may have to be creative, but that doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying."

"Is there a reason you don't have the GCPD or whoever lights up the Bat signal on call for those nights?"

Bruce makes a face.

"I don't really believe in tempting fate, Summer. And if anything is guaranteed to make the Joker more unpredictable, it's prematurely adding Batman to the mix. If he wants to clean up the mess, he can do what he does. I'd rather steer clear of the whole thing, if it's all the same to you. And if we could move on to... Other topics, I really would appreciate it."

"Oh, Brucie, you are breaking my heart!"

--

"Citizens, your time gr- Wait. Why are you here?" Scarecrow starts in.

"Oh, hey Tin Man. You get cable hook-up in Arkham yet? No. Such a shame." The Joker cups a hand to his mouth conspiratorially. "He was going to douse you all with his tacky work and all, but I stole his stash. Third time this week and counting. I can be a model citizen sometimes, you know. With the right motivation. You're welcome!"

"JOKER-"

"Oh, cut the theatrics, Crane."

"I WILL MAKE YOU RUE THE DAY YOU RUINED-"

"Stop being so predictable and I won't spoil the surprise!"

"I'm predictable? I'm PREDICTABLE?"

"Obviously, otherwise I wouldn't steal your bit. Great running gag, though, even if it hasn't run it's course quite yet..."

"YOU KNOW WHO'S PREDICTABLE? YOU, WITH YOUR STUPID FACE AND STUPID JOKES AND YOUR STUPID OBSESSION WITH THE BATMAN AND YOUR... WHATEVER THIS IS WITH THE BILLIONAIRE. AND I SWEAR, YOU WILL FIND MY VENGEANCE IS SWIFT AND-"

The Joker laughs, and flicks his sleeve. "Careful, Straw-For-Brains. You wouldn't want to make a fool of yourself."

"YOU'RE THE FOOL, YOU TWO BIT EXCUSE FOR A-"

"Okay, now you're trying my patience. Luckily, I've got a hot date and I'm on the clock. So, get wise, Doctor. It only serves you right. I told everyone Wayne was off limits, but no, you just had to push the envelope. So, bitches, you want to abduct Bruce? Too bad. The only one who abducts his ass is me. Tah!"

Chapter Text

"Not this putz again." Joker groans and makes a face. "I hate that overbearing meddler."

"I thought you would get on as fast friends. He's a nihilistic lunatic who believes humanity is beyond redemption and wants to wipe everyone out, and you're a serial murderer who believes life is inherently meaningless and that humans are animals ready to throw each other to the wolves at the mere drop of a hat."

"No, no, no, Harv, you got me all wrong. I'm wounded, really, after all the laughs we've had together. Ahem." The Joker clears his throat, adjusting his collar, "I believe life is one grande spectacle, the tragedy and comedy ebbing and flowing with the tide! All life is a stage, and Bats and I are the two dancing on it while everyone else watches. And while I am not shy with pruning the hedges now and again, you can't kill everyone. Then there wouldn't be an audience to call for an encore, or to help the Bat rise from bed every night to get properly motivated. And if we're being frank, the other guy is a buzzkill. Too depressing, even for me. Even more than Batsy's schtick. That, and I'm not too fond of birds. Songbirds, I can suffer and endure, but nocturnal ones are hazardous to the local bat population, and that's getting up in my business."

Chapter Text

"No, his evidence is compelling and thorough, even if I was angry about with his meddling." Hawkgirl complains to Superman, crossing her arms. "And do I appreciate the concern? Yes. But why is he so fixated?"

"Batman loathes stalkers."

"It doesn't mean he has to take it upon himself to pry into my private life."

"Shay, he keeps tabs on everyone. It wasn't meant to be an invasion of privacy, he just goes over the footage following all of our public appearances to preempt any potential threats, or monitor if any of our well-known enemies have found a way to get better tabs on us. Any intrusion into your personal life was purely incidental. I can promise you that. And dating... Dating stalkers, especially, is more than a work liability to him."

"Okay, fine. But disregarding the implication that I would breach anyone's trust-"

"Trust has nothing to do with it."

"Yeah, well, he's one to talk, seeing as he stalks people regularly!"

"I hate to break the mystique, but with him, it's more incidental lurking and being in the wrong place at the right time than stalking. Like that time he fell asleep on my roof due to his pathological workaholism. Sure, did he help me shut down that giant death ray aimed at my farm while I was stuck fighting Brainiac in space? Yes. But any problems he solves by being in the area is generally due to his habit of being so incredibly over-prepared that it spills over into borderline-unhealthy paranoia. So you're giving him too much credit. Trust me. If he got involved enough to bother showing you all the photographic evidence, it means he was deeply rattled."

"Kal, stalking and staking people out is part of his job description! Why-"

"No, you don't understand-" Kal sighs. Only to be interrupted.

"I have a history of dealing with them. And I do not want you going through anything remotely similar." Batman interjects, peeking his head down from the open light in the elevator. "Stalkers, especially ones interested in romantic relationships, are not worth the trouble."

And while Hawk Girl is used to Batman's patented doom-and-gloom, dramatic ways, something in his expression, overall body language, and the catch of his voice makes her censor whatever argument she might make about eavesdropping.

There's something a little too honest, there.

Clark breaks the awkward silence by asking, neck craning up towards Batman's upside-down cowl, "Do I even want to know why you were in there-"

"Like you didn't hear him-" Shayera mutters under her breath.

"There was an electrical short in dire need of repairs. However, I apologize if I caused any undo friction by involving myself or eavesdropping. If you need me to stay out of your affairs, Hawkgirl, I will adhere to your judgement on the matter."

An apology from Batman is enough to ameliorate any of Hawkgirl's remaining misgivings or any comeback she might make, seeing as that's a rare occurrence as any.

"See what I meant about wrong place, right time? I swear it's not even intentional, because I know for a fact he's up here hiding from Alfred and his band of kids-"

"Kal-" Batman warns, only there's a brief pause as he shifts in place, sighing as his wrist communicator goes off with Nightwing's desperate yelling and what sounds like multiple explosions, accompanied by the unmistakable sound of Spoiler and Robin cheering. Batman's grumpy expression resurfaces. "If you'll excuse me. I have to ensure my children don't set anyone else on fire today as part of another ill-advised science experiment."

Batman leaps down without another word, then takes off once the door of the elevator dings open.

They hear a muffled lecture as Batman rounds the corner and heads to the portal down to earth, catching a stray, "Why would any of you dare Spoiler to make a life-size, homemade volcano? What possible utility does that serve-" Before Batman grows too far away for Shayera to catch anything else.

"How can he be so competent, yet so oblivious, and so incredibly infuriating while still trying to take care of everyone at the same time?" Hawkgirl asks, throwing her hands into the air.

"Oh, that one's easy. He's says he's a loner and insists on doing everything himself but still has a pathological need to help, and he accumulates friends by breathing. That, and being a Dad makes you anticipate everything. And I mean... Everything."

"Jon and Kon-El giving you a run for your money, too?"

"You have no idea."

"I guess it makes sense." Hawkgirl muses, tapping her face absently. "You garden and wrestle bigger aliens to blow off steam, while Batman turns to home ec projects and tinkering with our base to get alone time, seeing as his cave isn't just his anymore."

"You're going to use that knowledge to prank him, aren't you?"

"Oh, undoubtedly. While we may be even, he still owes me for that one time Robin stole my car."

"I thought you flew-"

"Are you saying Robin hasn't stolen your car, either?"

"Tractor, actually. They added rockets to it and tried to create a roller derby track."

"What happened?"

"Nightwing won, but that's because Robin flew off the track and had to be rescued from an airborne tractor going 300 miles per hour. Batman grounded him."

"Of course he did."

"And then helped him build his own rocket-powered motorcycle a week later. Granted, it was a two-person motorcycle, because Robin couldn't legally drive, but he still helped him make it."

 

Chapter Text

"I'm not letting him ruin every single circus and carnival that comes this way. We all know the Joker is a unrepentant, mass murdering villain. But if he wants us all to laugh at him, then let's give ourselves a real reason. Because the fact is, he's pathetic. I know clowns. He isn't one. He's a failure, and if he doesn't condone that terminology, then let's all concede that he's not much of an entertainer, because when it comes down to it, even the lowest of the low can agree he just isn't that funny. And I refuse to let him try his comedy act without giving him a run for his money."

--

"Dick, you have exactly ten seconds to explain why you baited the Joker on live TV before I send you off to the Justice League indefinitely."

"The bastard had it coming."

"Aside from having me break every bone in his body before sending him back to Arkham, what exactly was your plan for dealing with his inevitable retribution?"

"Oh, I wasn't going to let you deal with him. I'm going to make him pay with my own goddamn fists and I'm not letting any else get involved."

"If I have to incapacitate you to stop you from doing something willfully suicidal-"

"No, Bruce. You don't get a say. I have a plan, and I'm done sitting here, watching him destroy you and Jason and Barbara and Alfred and every innocent civilian and everyone else I care about. I'm taking the fight to him. And that meant I needed to make him focus on me, not you, for once, and I figured this was as good a chance to get his undivided attention as any-"

"While I commend your principles, Master Dick, I will say that is not something you should be actively seeking out-"

"Alfred, with all due respect, we've all got targets on our back. Might as well make use of them."

"Dick..." Jason interrupts, choking up, "I can't believe you pulled a stunt like that-"

"Oh, it's been a long time coming."

"-And I never thought I'd see the day you'd back me up-"

"In all fairness, I'm not letting you anywhere near my plan, Little Wing-"

"For the last time, neither of you are getting anywhere near him-"

"We won't have to. He's going to come to us. Like he always does."

"Dick-"

"Bruce... No one blames you. But we are done watching you act like this is working, when it isn't, and when we all deserve better. And I don't know what he's holding over you. But I'm ending this. I'm ending all of it, and we're doing it on our turf. Not his. Not this time."

"Dick... I know you think I'm not able to do anything. I know that you have trouble trusting me. But believe me when I say I'm not losing another son to him. Not again. And if you think I'm letting you go into this blindly, ruled by your emotions, however justified, then you are gravely mistaken."

"Bruce, we can't live like this any more. And I don't know what you are afraid of. But I promise, that by the time I'm done, none of us will have to be afraid any more."

"I don't know how to make you two understand that I can't let you throw yourselves into the middle of this, more than you already think you are. And I am not letting you destroy yourselves, knowingly or not."

--

"There are some things a parent has to do to spare their children the burdens they carry, even if they can't know why."

"We aren't going to be kept in the dark any longer, Bruce. And by the time this is over, we won't have to be, any more. We never deserved to live in fear. We never deserved to have the very thing we use against the worst of the worst holding us hostage. We don't have to live like this. And you... You don't have to accept that this is all there is. And neither does Jason."

"Do you really think that's what this is?"

"I don't know, Bruce. You tell me. Or you can keep on holding your secrets close to your chest. Your call. But when it really comes down to it, whether you do or don't... Letting us in won't change what must be done."

--

--

"Alfred, how do I fix this? How do I stop them from trying so hard when I know... I know it isn't going to work?"

"I don't know, Master Bruce. But I know you'll find a way. You always do."

--

Bruce knows how to look and act desperate. He also knows that most days, Jack can read when he's using those very real emotions to try and manipulate their arrangement, although more often than not, he doesn't need to try, because the truth is as clear as day.

Which is also why he's in a double bind. Bruce has to be opaque enough so that Dick and Jason don't realize how he's very much railroading their attempts to "fix" something that cannot be fixed without more pain and bloodshed- however much Bruce wishes for an alternative, and as fervently that he wishes Dick's attempts to do so would have merit, or however much Bruce wishes he could end this mess himself- and all the while, he has to be direct enough that Jack doesn't take offense or further advantage of the situation.

(That, and while they both know Jack knows that Bruce is going to try and contain him with bloody, bruised fists, Bruce has to make the inevitable mean something. He has to make it so that Jack doesn't catch on to the real slight-of-hand that will allow him to intercept both parties and keep the flashpoint from being realized.)

Chapter Text

"Want to see a magic trick?" Jack asks Zatanna, brandishing a gun. "It's a real crowd killer-"

Batman breaks the gun into pieces and tackles Jack into a wall.

--

["Relax, I'm not here to fight ya. I just want to have a little heart to heart."

--

"Hon, it's me we're talking about. And when the going gets rough, I'd wager I'm the only guy you can really trust."

--

"Batsy, be driven to murder? Now that's a lark. The only one who gets to drive my flying mammal off the rails is me. Hell, you should've seen him when I put Jaybird in the ground. Oh wait. You did. And fact is, if that didn't get him to budge, then good luck to any poor soul who tries to one up me. I mean, one day we'll get you all transcendant and ready to reach your true potential, but until you're ready to lambada, we'll take it slow."

--

"See, Mr. Skeleton and his green-robed pal were all ready to unleash your little goodies on your friends. But me being so concerned with your welfare, well, I shut that down fast. You're welcome."

--

"You think I don't know how to use the tech I watched you make? Don't play dumb. We all know better."

"Aw, are your buddies feeling left out?"]

--

"Next thing ya know, he might ferry the kids down to your little underwater park. And while I am not against a small scuba trip, I would like a say in where the kiddies end up when I didn't sign the field trip permission slip, if you catch my drift, Aqualad."

--

"I guess I'll just phone a friend-" Jack cackles.

"Joker, I swear-" Batman snarls, swooping in to tackle him.

"Oh, keep up the sweetalkin', darlin', and I might just throw you a bone."

The next thing the Joker is pulling out the radio stem of whatever he's hooked up to the Bat-system that Bruce is trying to wrest away from him, the Joker kicking at him from a ledge he's climbed before Batman hauls him down.

"We're in the middle of something actually important, what the hell do you wa-" Luthor says through gritted teeth, only to break off when he sees the Justice League staring back him through the giant screen. It's readily apparent the interruption stopped them from conducting a very official looking meeting that the Joker deliberately blew off, and Black Manta, Cheetah, Savage, Scarecrow, and the rest of the League of Doom go stock-still, only for the silence to be broken when Scarecrow rises from his seat muttering curses about the Joker to himself before slamming a door. (Bane is conspicuously absent.)

Jack gives Luthor finger guns and a wink until Batman shoves his face into the table and starts to handcuff him.

"Hey, Lexie boy. Doom buddies. You're looking real swell-" Jack calls, a bit muffled from his face being half-obscured.

"Joker. How on earth did you get up there and-"

"Ah, ah, ah. A magician never reveals his secrets." Jack waggles a finger he's already snuck out of restraints until Batman re-cuffs him, wrapping more restraints around his legs. Jack, for his part, doesn't acknowledge any of it.

"Sorry, did I steal your line?" Jack glances over at Zatanna, then tilts back to look at back at the League of Doom. "Still, I'm surprised. You know me, old boy, and my penchant for hitchhiking. Anyway, mind if I call in a favor? Or, you know, subtract one you all owe me after I cleaned up your little mess the last time?"

Luthor glances at the Justice League, eyes lingering on Superman before giving a quick once-over of Batman, who has sat down, one hand pinching the bridge of his cowl, the other still pinning Jack's head down.

"What kind of favor?" Luthor asks, wary but half on board already if it means causing some damage.

"Well, see, we're at a bit of an impasse up here. The League here is interfering in my, ah, personal business, and on top of it, it's all work-work-work stealing the light of my life away, and since no one seems to get that what happens in Gotham stays in Gotham, I was kind of hoping you could throw something explosive in the mix or you know, threaten some city on the ground if things escalate. We could use some impartial mediation to level the scales and get the couples counseling back on track."

"You do realize I have multiple contingencies for when you pull stunts like this-"

"Oh, I know, Batsy, and I love your delicious inventive little solutions, but, uh, who says I don't have some of my own? So. You wanna make a wager out of it?"

Batman punches the Joker in the throat, finally rendering him blissfully mute for a few minutes.

"No."

The Joker scrunches his nose and pouts.

--

Everyone sits in silence, Luthor uncomfortably clearing his throat as they all just stare at Batman, still holding back Red Hood and Nightwing from the clown while keeping the clown pinned and unable to slice or dice anyone.

--

"Why did you give him a phone with emergency access to our line, anyway, Luthor?" Cheetah whispers.

"Because I knew what would happen if I didn't. Now, if you could please stop with the stupid questions-"

--

"You can hack into Batman's entire network, and you didn't think to mention that-"

"Oh, I'm not one for mixing business and pleasure. This is a personal matter, not something to get in a tiff about. The dayjob interfering with the home life ruins all the fun. Which is why you lot need to remember your place and stay out of our affairs-"

--

"He'd rather keep tabs on me, obviously. Can't do that if I'm out of sight. I do get into so much trouble when left... unattended, without any attention. It's enough to make a heart break, and all the flowers wilt-"

"Your ego is big enough to sustain you."

--

"Oh, you know, I may have asked Bane to come along. Roadtrips can be a drag without some grade-A entertainment."

--

Bane sips his slushie as the automatic doors open.

"This facility is very nice."

"Oh, and I may have also dosed him with a few experimental kicks. Definitely improved his sense of humor. I didn't know he had it in 'em!"

"Why are you like this-" Lex groans.

"Because he's a degenerate piece of shit who's life mission is to ruin everything for everyone." Bruce growls, tazing Jack again for good measure.

--

"This is very hypocritical. The clown abducted me from my cell. You can't claim I broke out when I am being held against my will." Bane argues, albeit half-heartedly and with much less fervor or violence than usual.

Batman sighs.

"After the day we've had, what exactly did you even hope to gain with that defense?"

Bane shrugs. "I thought it was funny."

"Think fast! Ahahahaha!"

--

"You know, if you ever feel like kicking the hero habit, you'd fit right in-"

Batman only glares at him with the fire of a thousand suns, and Luthor trails off and has to look away from the sheer force of the promise that follows if he dares finish that sentence (as does the rest of the League of Doom and Justice League on autopilot, quelled by the pure rage and impatience found there).

Batman turns to Superman. "I do not feel like leaving Gotham at this juncture, but would you be opposed to swapping cities for a few hours sometime." He asks, too mild, and Superman glances at Luthor and back at Bruce with an unreadable expression.

--

"Ignore him. He feeds off the attention."

"You don't need to tell me twice."

--

"Those beeping red lights suggest otherwise, Batsy."

--

"Aren't you the one always jonesing for people to redeem themselves?"

--

"Please, everyone. Let's focus on what counts. We all don't like interlopers getting up in our business! And I, for one, I would very much like to make it home for dinner tonight, and I don't feel like seeing this place turn into a fiery pit unless I'm the one rigging the explosives. Sound good?"

--

(after League deals with extradimensional threat with running Joker commentary- insert Jason and Tim and Damian and Dick and Oracle and then let the family drama get dark)

(Jason trying to kill Joker while Joker tries to attack Dick and Damian and Tim involve themselves)

--

"You don't think I don't see what this is?"

--

(Superman tries to use Phantom Zone gun and it does not end well)

--

"NO!"

"For God's sake, let us do something for you! We can't keep looking the other way-"

"Kal-"

"It's gone on long enough-"

--

"Broadcasting the evidence live, I'm sure that will go over well-" The Joker sneers.

"Maybe that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make!"

"The world needs you-"

"And maybe we need you to be okay! Have you ever thought about that-"

--

"How am I supposed to look my daughter in the eye when I say I save people and I can't even save you?"

--

"Oops." The Joker holds his arms out, open. "You just can't trust technology these days."

--

"Plan B. Get ready to rumble, Bane! I think you'll like this next batch, it's a doozy-"

--

"Smash them flat!"

--

"You know, I'm a very simple man with simple tastes. A family man, if you will, even if I find the mob designation distasteful. But the point is, it takes very little to keep me happy. I like a good fire to toast my hands, a nifty knife to worm my way out of trouble, a nice trip outdoors with the kiddies, and a piece of hot ass waiting for me when I come home from a long day at work. Any of you threaten that, well, Lexie, I'll be forced to use that super-secret you stashed away, and I can and will murder every single one of you- or worse- for threatening what is mine. We all know how turf works. Stay off mine, and I don't particularly care about yours. Get up in my backyard when I'm doing a little landscaping and you'll find I'll redecorate your face. And when you mess with mi familia, well, I'll forgive you. I'll torture you, sure, but I'll forgive you. Any questions?"

--

"You thought you'd stage your little intervention and what? You'd lock me up and then the bat-babe would fly off into the sunset with his brood of hatchlings and that would be that? Newsflash, killjoys- you don't get up in my personal business without some payback! And Batsy- he's mine, and I'll get him and the kiddies and Jeeves and their little dog, too!"

--

"This is between you and me!"

"Tell that to the blues brigade. Make sure they got the fucking memo!"/ "Tell that to the rainy-day parade, in case they missed the fucking memo!"

--

"Damian, no!"

--

"Let me kill him!"

--

"Why are you protecting him-"

"Because you don't know what he'll do to you. You don't know him like I do, you don't know-"

"I THINK I HAVE A GODDAMN INKLING! I KNOW WHAT HE IS!"

"You think this is bad? You think what he did to you was horrific? He's planned far, far worse-"

"THEN LET US END IT!"

"NOT WHEN IT'S PLAYING RIGHT INTO HIS HANDS. Jason, we are not giving him what he wants-"

"On the contrary-"

"Shut. UP!"

--

A batarang breaks the cords, cutting off the connection to the League of Doom.

--

"ENOUGH!" Bruce yells.

--

"You destroyed everything I cared about-"

"You prey on innocents-"

"Water under the bridge-"

"Alfred-"

"Jeeves knew what he signed up for, since when has that ever stopped us-"

"Targeted my friends-"

"Can't make an omelet without a few eggs-"

"Tortured my children!"

"They needed the discipline-"

"Murdered our son."

"He got better!"

--

"You think I wanted my children to be vigilantes putting their lives on the line? Do you think I would have chosen this for them if I could shield them from it myself?"

--

"Yeah? And what do you think you're going to do about it?"

--

"It's over, Jack. I'm done playing your games-"

"That's what you always say. But yoooou can't help yourself. Face it, darling-"

--

"And what exactly were you expecting?"

--

"I gave you what you really wanted. I gave you a chance to walk away. And you took my gift and ran off with it! Like you always do! Why can't you see that I'm the only one in your corner! It's always been you and me!"

--

"Tim, shut it down-"

"I'm trying!"

--

"Over thirty years and you think I can't hack into this like it's my bread and butter? Don't make me laugh, homewrecker. I watched him make all of this, helped tinker with the controls. Well, not this, exactly, but the mainframe the same coding I've been breaking into since I was a teensy-tiny tater tot. And you think you're better than me?"

--

"You took them from me!"

--

"They're mine as much as you are."

--

"I'm not feeling the rays of gratitude-"

--

"You broke my heart, Jack. I did need you. I cared about you. And you took what I gave you and you twisted it into something ugly and wrong-"

"Ugly? Wrong? If you ever loved me, you'd see. What we have now... is beautiful!"

--

Only when he looks back, the Joker isn't smiling anymore.

--

"Is that so?"

--

"I did all of this for you! Why can't you see that? Why don't you get the punchline?"

--

All Jason can see is something he's seen, time and again, and can remember just how it felt to have the Joker go in for the kill. He remembers that anger, staring back at him.

He remembers looking death in the face.

"No!"

--

"Stay out of this, kiddo, the adults are talking!" The Joker snarls.

--

"I made you!"

--

"You're nothing without me! You need me, Bruce, and if you think I am going to let anything take you from me again..."

--

Harley shoots Jack in the shoulder, twice.

"I may not be crawling around with a cape, but unlike these goody two-shoes, I ain't above bringing a bit of pain. And you aren't going to beat anyone bloody like that again if I have anything to say about it, puddin'."

--

Bruce collects himself and the pieces of the broken mask, cradling his bruised face and the eye above where the Joker socked him in the jaw.

--

"Jason, Dick... There's another safehouse I'm sending you to. Take Damian and Tim and Babs. "

"If he can get all the way up here, what good-"

"This is not up for discussion. Either you trust that I know what I am doing or you don't. Now take them and get yourselves out of here. Alfred is already enroute."

--

Bruce says nothing else as he walks out the door, the Joker bound and gagged as he takes him back to Arkham.

Chapter Text

Batman and Wonder Woman do not always see eye to eye. However, aside from their life's mission and noble work, as friends, they are united by more than one thing. They know what it is like to be an outsider. To be kept apart, judged by different metrics, and yet held up by a legacy greater than them, trying to hold on to a name without losing themselves or being seen as an emissary of the ones who brought them into the world, and not who they are themselves. They share some of the same fears, when they do not know lies from truth, to have to sift through the sands and find their way and their place.

They do not shirk from toil. They prove themselves. They try harder and push their limits. They try and try again.

Batman seeks to shape the world so he can better fit in it, Wonder Woman seeks a place to call a place home enough for rest, and both of them wish to make the world a kinder, more open place, so that people can hope and trust in each other. (They also have both briefly dated Kal-El, with neither party privy to the alter egos involved at the time. Bruce dated Clark as a way to try and get himself away from Jack while he was investigating the League of Shadows, with Clark breaking into international journalism and trying to get over his own breakup. Later, Diana dated Superman when she thought Barbara Ann and Steve were dead before they were all reunited. And once disaster struck, and Barbara Ann was lost to herself for a long time, she clung to her husband and their adopted child and her friends and her mission, trying to get Barbara to remember the person she knows she is, deep down inside.)

Bruce and Diana both know loss and betrayal. Diana wants to get the woman she loves back. Bruce wants to find a way to move on and spare his children and his family and his city and the world all the pain Jack would deign to cause it. But when it comes down to it-

When they are in need, whether in the suit or out of it, they look out for one another, and hold out a hand and a listening ear to keep their friend from falling into the maelstroms that would consume them.

--

In truth, Bruce didn't mean to step on Diana's toes in the jungle where Urzkartaga is trying to rise up from his prison. Based on his calculations, Steve and Diana should have the situation entirely under control, knowing their respective skillsets.

But he needs to let off steam, very badly. And sometimes, when he can't face Gotham, or Dick, Jason, Tim, Cass, or Damian, or stomach dealing with Talia or Jack or anyone else as the Bat, he just needs to teach ancient inhuman evils their place in the world and remind them that they aren't welcome whenever Batman is in town.

And just because they are on the road and out of Gotham for a way to rest does not mean Bruce can't make this a work vacation, much to Alfred's chagrin. Even if Diana might consider the intrusion a bit too pointed not to be suspicious. But they've both not been in the best place lately. Bruce can tell, because they both get withdrawn and don't talk to the right people, if Dick's heavy sighs and constant check-ins are anything to go by.

(Bruce keeps telling Dick it's not his job to get inside his head and help, and Dick keeps saying he doesn't let anyone else in enough for it to work, and then tried recruiting Harley to do his dirty work for him, which was Bruce's cue to get out of dodge before they all try to get Lucius involved, too).

And fact is, beating up evil undead trees, ancient evils, eldritch gods, mutant animal splices infected with viruses, and invading aliens, while not a cakewalk, remains morally uncomplicated and easy compared to the issues Bruce has to deal with on a regular basis.

(Sometimes, Bruce wonders if his work with the JLA is entirely unselfish, considering how it's far easier to let go and not think and just go to work and let off steam through righteous, uncomplicated types of justice, when he knows exactly what he's really running from.

But facing the horrors and evils of man is a lot harder to stomach and keep himself from brooding on... Even if he's still trying to figure out what to do about the animals experimented on unfairly and then given intelligence. Planet of the Apes isn't exactly going to help with the moral quandaries of what makes someone a person, and those kind of human moral issues of justice still apply to them, too. But that why Bruce invests in trying to find alternative solutions to humanity's hubris and irresponsibility when it comes to sentient life, and lets Diana and Clark and the others take point with those situations.)

--

"Batman."

"Diana. I was in the area, and thought a few EMPs wouldn't be remiss."

"You can crash this party any time," Steve yells, fending off another swipe of claws and teeth.

--

"I am Batman!"

--

"He does know how to make an entrance." Steve admits.

Chapter Text

"So he's prancing around wearing Arthur Fleck's skinned face."

--

"When it comes down to it, I can't have you babysitting the kiddies all the time. It's a liability, especially when it's high time for them to grow up. And to get to there, move the process along, well, we'll all have to dig a little deeper. Get right down in the grey matter, remove all the masks hiding what really goes on in those cranial cavities of theirs, to really see what lies underneath all the bravado and the people-pleasing and their desperate need for your approval. Co-parenting is a compromise, after all. We can discuss what needs to be pruned back, what needs to be tended to... And drop what has to go like a hot potato, pronto!"

--

"Let's really savor this first dish and unwrap our presents, shall we?"

--

"Oh, the suspense is to die for!"

--

"Ta-dah!"

--

"Oh, Brucie. You should've seen their faces. Nothing like that one on your mug right now, but still, it was a sight-"

--

"It's your choice, Bats. You can watch them burn, or I can do a little redecorating to show their true faces underneath. It'll build character."

--

"I think I'll start with this one first. He is your favorite, after all, even if he thinks otherwise. The chosen son meant to carry on the family in all but name. What do you think, Wingman? Should I start carving up from the top down, or up from that delightful smile?"

--

"Or, I know- How about you, son. Why don't you take this pretty little beauty and chop your replacement's smug little face off? I know you're just dying for some long overdue punishment."

--

"If you aren't a fan, you can end this at any time, Brucie. All you have to do is rise and turn them into ashes!"

--

"Forgive me."

"Why-"

"There's no trick. No gadgets. No magic solution. There's only Batman. That's it. Just you and Bruce. And that's good enough for me."

Chapter Text

"Nightwing, you stick with Red Robin and keep an eye on Gordon and the old town haunts- if Maroni, the Chechen, or Falcone surface, you keep watch but do not attempt to intervene without backup, especially if Zsasz or Deathstroke make a play. We don't know what Joker has rigged with his attempts to work with the mob, and seeing as we all know it's a front for something worse, we can't afford to be blindsided. Try to find any clues as to where he is helping them hide out, and when we get the lay of the land, we'll reconvene. Jaybird, you and Spoiler keep Penguin from making a move, and keep an eye on Grundy and Croc while you patrol the area. Robin, you and Batwoman need to make sure Hush and Black Mask aren't taking initiative or attempt a coup over in your quarter. Batgirl, you're covering Oracle with Penny-two and keeping an eye out for Scarecrow and Manbat. Keep in contact with Fox and Penny-One. Bluebird is covering Gordon and the GCPD with Signal. If you hear any chatter from Riddler's or Freeze's quarter, or if there's any news of Strange or anyone else reaching out from Arkham, keep us updated. Otherwise, you both are strictly reconnaissance only, we can't afford to have you enter a firefight in your condition. Huntress and Zatanna are going to cover you and the area around Bludhaven for Nightwing. They've also got eyes on Waller, in case she tries to pull anything, and Quinn has informants on the ground who won't necessarily help us but aren't eager to get in the way, so keep that in mind." Bruce says. "We need to do this right, and we need to coordinate as a unit. No one goes in alone. And if you see the Joker, contain what you can, but stay out of his way. I'll deal with him. He's going to pulling out all the stops on this one, especially since there's still no sign of Tetch, Dollmaker, or Bane."

Dick puts his hand on Bruce's shoulder as he goes offline.

"Bruce, are you sure it's a good idea to host your endorsement for Dent when we haven't pinpointed the Joker's location? With everything going on-"

"Let me worry about that. We have more allies than you think. And I have a plan."

"Famous last words." Selina interrupts, adjusting her dress, linking arms with Bruce.

"It's alright, Dick. Tim's already got the Batwing ready. I trust you two. And if you can't trust me to handle a gala with a giant target on it's back, then I'm losing my edge."

"That's one word for it, old man." Jason snarks over the com.

--

Harley fixes her hair and steps arm-in-arm with both Bruce and Ivy, readying their dramatic late entrance. Having a helicopter on call might not be strange for something with Batman's tech, but it certainly is different from stealing one for the rush of it.

"I can't believe you roped me into this."

"Aw, Ives, I knew you'd come through for me!"

--

Lois Lane meets Diana outside Wayne tower. They have their own grievances to handle, but even preoccupied, they aren't going to let Bruce bite off more than he can chew, not when Superman isn't around to try and intervene. (Even if interventions only occurred in emergencies to begin with, seeing as most of the time, they know to stay out of the way, not just because Bruce and the family can usually handle themselves but also because intervening would only ever make things worse without failsafes, and half the time when they do need to intervene, some other world-threatening calamity is keeping them preoccupied.)

They make small talk with Rachel as she heads up with Harvey, keeping an eye out for any disturbances.

(Bruce might not be exactly on board with their plan, but it's not like he can stop them involving themselves, even as civilians. They have mourned too much lately to not try and intervene now.)

--

"Are you baiting the Joker on purpose?"

"If we can't have some fun with it, then what is the point? Besides. Maybe he'll learn to take a joke."

Chapter Text

"Leave him alone!"

"Well, hello beautiful!"

--

"Oh, cut it out with the sob story. I've heard enough of 'em for a lifetime."

--

"Harley, Harley, Harley. How's high society life treatin' ya? Thinking about running back to the asylum any time soon? Because you look like you could use the security of a straitjacket- playing at being a stiff ain't doin' your figure any favors!"

--

"Learn to take a hint, puddin', and read the room!"

"Oh, let's not be too hasty."

--

The Joker rolls Oracle's wheelchair in a circle and pops a wheelie, Barbara eyeing daggers at him.

--

"Zsasz, what gives?"

"Hey, don't look at me like that! I'm on a job. The Roman says to watch this guy, I watch him. I can't have a bunch of carnivorous plants offing the whole investment. That's unprofessional."

"Unprof-" Harley sputters, "He's going to stab you in the back!"

"Gee, why do you I'm paid to be here? Either I pop him if he gets ahead of himself, or I keep the muscle from going off the rails. Either way, it's a win-win situation, and I can't have you mucking it up. I do have standards."

"Yeah, well they need work!"

"Excuse me, but I must insist on cutting in. Thanks, doll." The Joker draws the knife over Barbara's face, enough to draw blood but not scar. "Finally. I thought we'd never get this show on the road."

--

Barbara almost considers blowing her cover. Shocking the joker with upgrades to her chair, or using any of the other tools to incapacitate him. But that would be throwing in the towel, instead of waiting for the trap to spring- even if the trap is wildly off the rails already.

But they got him talking, which means they've got time to make a better plan.

--

Joker waves a hand dismissively. "Look, I'm not really a fan of the whole... old school mob business. We all know my uh, thoughts, on the matter. But the fact is, I'm sending Batman a message. We're going back to where it all started. He wanted to suss out all those little small-timers from their little hidey-holes, fine. But now Batman's hiding behind false faces and false promises, and I had to improvise to get him to trip down memory lane. If Bats won't, uh, take off the cowl and get with the program, then I had to get his attention with a little more panache. And if he won't show that beautiful face tonight, the next step is getting his new white knight up to speed. Or getting Bruce Wayne on the dance floor. Honestly, I'm not too picky. So, I ask you one last time, ladies and gents and two-faced germs: where is Harvey Dent?"

--

"See, the mob, they're tired of all the hijinks our little merry band of miscreants like to parade about. They want things to go back to the way things were. And while I don't quite, ah, share their sentiments, and I can't say the likes of me and Pengy or Strawman or this nuisance of a shrubbery get along, the fact remains that while we all stand on different hills to die on, we can all agree that Batman remains a priority. Unless the two of you shacking up has uh, changed the playing field and you're suddenly going to bat for these chumps that the winged mammal and his little birds are oh so fixated on saving from themselves."

"Don't insult me. I'm here only for Harley, and to spite you."

"Seeing as you're already insufferable, I just had to check that you hadn't lowered your paltry standards even more-"

"Says the guy who isn't even over the breakup." Ivy slings back.

"With Harls? Oh, make me laugh, why don't you? She'll come crawling back. She always does, one way or another, whether it's by choice or, uh, a few well placed blows to the legs. And hey, if she wants to waste her time palling around with the likes you, that's none of my business. I have more important irons in the fire, and quite frankly, I think for this job, she'd be a liability. Her head isn't screwed on quite right these days. Nothing another stint at Arkham won't fix, but until then..."

The Joker shrugs.

"I dunno, Ives. You might be on to something, seeing as he's getting awfully cranky. Not sure if that's because Wayne hasn't seen fit to crash the proceedings or because he can't slit Harv's throat, but-"

"Ugh. Keep the psychobabble to a minimum. You've proven you aren't exactly cut out for the role-"

"You take that back! I earned that residency and just because you're a-"

Zsasz cuts in, expression schooled into something relatively bored even if he keeps his aim trained on Ivy.

"You know, uh, I hate to interrupt this scintillating rehash of relationship drama-"

"Oh, can it, blade runner-"

"Ouch. Correct me if I'm wrong, Red, but I didn't think you were a fan of Dent, considering your priorities and uh, dating history-"

"Look, if anyone is going to kill Dent, then it's certainly not going to be his sorry clown ass-"

The Joker rolls up his sleeves.

Ivy keeps going, unmoved, "Also, I'm not knocking your operation here, but did you really think that you could handle me on your own?"

"Honestly? If I had my way, you wouldn't even be my target- Roman's out for blood on Catwoman and her loved ones, and normally I'd be all for blowing her brains out if he didn't want her alive and kickin'. But seeing as you know, you're here, and standing in the way, I'm not an idiot. I just keep this trained on the competent people in the room. No offense, Quinn."

"Oh, you are askin' for it, baldy!"

"Hey, it's basic math. We all know when push comes to shove you won't kill the guy in the purple suit, even if you could give us a run for your money. You're like, attempting put a lid on your old habits and not use lethal force, right?"

"With the way you're talking I'm willing to make an exception!"

"Enough from the peanut gallery! Harls, we all know you can take a hint, so just be a dear and stay out of this. Contrary to what you'd like to believe, you aren't the star of the show tonight, and we aren't here to tango with you. We are only looking for the district attorney's favorite golden goose. So. Anyone ready to cough him up yet, or do I have to start painting the room red?"

"What part of you have to go through us first didn't permeate your brain?"

"You always demand so much attention. But I can grant one dance, for old times sake."

--

Bullets start flying, soon followed by giant vines and gnashing flytraps out of the potted plants, Harley making another beeline in order to roundhouse kick the Joker's face, while Alfred and Nightwing trying to contain the fallout and Kate tries to sneak Babs out from under the Joker's nose while trying to keep a low profile.

--

Barbara runs over the Joker's foot.

--

"Got a little fight in ya. I like that!"

"Then you are going to love me!" Batman growls.

--

"See, I took a cue from Seymour's lovechild, and uh, figured I'd mix up a batch of my own. I can't have her muscling into my territory, after all, seeing as cosmetics are my gig, not hers. Had to be potent enough to give you and Harls enough of a kick, but until either of you pucker up, I just had to make due with the next best thing."

--

"Let her go!"

"Very poor choice of words!"

The Joker let's go of Kate's wrist, then wheels himself and Babs out the opposite window, cackling.

Chapter Text

"Ah, the good cop, bad cop routine." Jack says, clicking his tongue.

"Not exactly." Gordon says, face grave, and leaves.

And then it's just you and him.

The lights go on, and you slam Jack's head into the table.

"Ah." He grumbles, and recoils slightly, not really one to shy away from pain, but you aren't pulling your punches too much. Not this time.

You lean over the table, staring him down.

Jack keeps his head tilted, hand waving as he gives you that narrow eyed look, like he wants to crawl inside your head and make mayhem there.

"Never start with the head." He whines, instructive in all the ways he liked to be all the time. "The victim gets all... fuzzy." The slurring trails off a little, gaining a slight edge instead. "The victim can't feel the next-"

You break a few bones in his hands, stopping him in his tracks, the only evidence you got to him at all the intake of breath and muffled yell.

Jack blinks.

Then he jolts closer with a slightly aborted lunge, pouting when he stares you head-on, only for it to morph into long-suffering expression.

He lowers his hand to the table, clutching at nothing. (You follow the movement with your eyes, and then glance back at his face.)

"See?" He says, all I-told-you-so-Bruce, you should know better by now...

His mouth twitches.

You stay as still and in control as you can be, with him.

"You wanted to see me. Here I am."

"I wanted to see what you'd do." Jack says with the slightest smile, each word echoing off of gritted teeth in a prim-and-proper way he always liked to taunt you with. "And you didn't disappoint."

And isn't that the joke. That he already knows exactly who you are but wants to play let's-see-how-many-people-I-can-murder before you cave, Bruce, before all of Gotham knows your secret or I pretend I don't care anymore, because it's not about them, it's about you and all the things I can do

But if you tell the world who you are, and there's no Batman. Just Bruce. And all it really hinges on is Jack banking on you needing to be Batman as much as he likes playing with you.

It's something you'll give up, if you have to. The suit is just a mask for who you always are, deep down. But giving it up won't save anyone- not when it's playing into Jack's hands.

Jack leans in closer, licks his lips, whispering, "You let five people die." His eyebrows raise oh-so-slightly, and he's leveling that wry look he wears whenever he's dangling some new torment in front of you and you somehow fail not to rise to the bait.

"Then, you let Dent take your place."

Even though I know already, Bruce. Who are you really hiding from, hmm?

Jack twitches, again, hunches closer, lips smacking together the way he always does before going in for the kill.

You stay still. Oh so still, because any movement will be a tell, and you cannot afford to let him get under your skin like he does so easily.

"Even to a guy like me, that's cold." Jack growls, but there's a smile in his eyes that you want to wipe off with another punch, even if they never really have. Even if it will change very little.

"Where's Dent?" You keep your voice level, modulated- curt but placating, even, because maybe by cutting to the point Jack will dig his own grave and throw you a bone. Move on to some other game that he finds more amusing, will make him stop killing time to lead to whatever deadly game he's running. (The voice scrambler has always helped, or at least feels like insurance. Yet another mask to use so that Jack can't read you so easily.)

And the Joker obliges starts to tip his hand, lets the bleed through of his cards of his deck show, because it was never about the mob, or Dent, or anyone.

It's always been about you.

Jack trails a few fingers down in front of your face, waggling them like it's all one big show. Like all the people around you are not quite people at all, easily discarded like a bad apple Jack has decided doesn't matter to him any more.

"The mob wants you gone, wants things to go back to the way things were," Jack mocks, voice pitching with the edge of a deep-chested laugh, rolls his shoulders until the mood shifts and he turns less jovial, turns into the cold, calculating thing his persona pretends not to be. "But I know the truth. There's no going back. You changed things." Jack muses, eyes growing wide, savoring every word. "Forever."

We're changing things, making something new here, You can see the wheels turning in his head.

And he's leading you down another rabbit hole again. Putting on a big performance for Gordon and all the precinct and everyone who thinks you are on his chopping block, and he's asking you to keep playing along.

You are so tired of playing along. But you'll appease him, for now, if he's decided to go gentle, if he's decided the game is up and he'll let Dent go to get you into whatever compromising position he's trying to herd you into.

"And why do you want to kill me?" You say. Quiet. Flat.

You don't like the masquerade, and the mantle feels heavier. Like you are betraying it, for once, instead of being the symbol you need to be.

Jack laughs, throaty chuckling high pitched and shrill, having a ball because you just keep playing into his hands and folding cards because you both know you have nothing, here. That he's got all the leverage, and you are just the punchline to a joke he hasn't seen fit to unveil yet.

Jack is practically bouncing in his seat.

"I don't want to kill you." He says, the first non-lie he's given the GCPD today. 

(His face is closer, now, close as it almost is when he's breathing down your neck at night, like he's teasing out Bruce from where Batman meets the man.)

"What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No." And then he pulls back, act resumed, and rolls his eyes for good measure.

For a minute, he's not looking at you at all, glances at the walls and the cameras, then fiddles with his vest where you've so often ripped off the flower from it. (Nervous habit, same way he loosens his tie before he climbs closer, and part of you just wants to drag him from the station and break something if it means he'll stop toying with you, like he always is.)

Then he's staring you down again, licking his lips.

"You... complete me." Jack says, the words a low rumble, hands all movement as they motion towards his heart.

You mean nothing to me, You had said once.

You wish you had meant it, because even when he'd lunged for you and fallen into the vat and you still tried to catch his wrist, even after he wouldn't hear the truth and wanted to pull you down with him, even after the railing gave way because he'd tried too hard to dig his hands into your wrist and pull and swung too hard to compensate-

It didn't change he could see how much you cared, even if you still hated him for everything he put everyone through. What he put you through.

You need me, Bruce. Without me, you're just a joke without a punchline.

(That was a joke, to him, too. The one that started it all.)

"You're garbage who kills for money." You say, unperturbed, not making this personal.

That, finally, gets under Jack's skin. Breaks the patient act, gets a response, because if he's not going to take mercy and change the rules of the game he's forced you to play, then you'll break him the only other way you know how, by forcing the monster to the surface and letting the rage and laughter out.

He gets cocky, when he thinks you aren't listening. When he thinks he has you right where he wants you and you think you don't need to play. (He gets sloppy, sometimes, because he's too eager, and you hope it will be enough to make up for lost time and save Dent and whoever else might have been caught in Jack's net.)

"Don't talk like you're one of them." Jack snarls. "You're not."

Then he catches himself, grows too calm, and the thin layer of smarmy smug needling he wears so well just starts to peak through as he stops his arm from sweeping towards the window, all the while keeping his eyes glued to yours. "Even if you'd like to be."

Then he shifts, back and forth, clicks his tongue with the same manic energy that he calls on too often, his eyes darting back to the window and you again, as he says, so softly, so gently compared with the violence he's imbued himself with, "To them, you're just a freak."

Draws the dreaded last word out, long and pointed, full of too much history, full of a time when Jack and you were in it together and two friends fighting off the rest of the world from trying to silence and beat you into the box they wanted you to be. 

Jack brightens, his tone growing higher and colder, knowing the barb landed all too well, no matter how ancient it's history. "Like me."

You want to strangle him, and resist the urge, tongue glued to the roof of your mouth and teeth ground together.

"They need you right now..." Jack hems and haws, head tilting to and fro, and sighs, "But when they don't..." He gives you a knowing look, eyebrows raised, and then smacks his lips together again, adding, "They'll cast you out." Singsongs, "Like a leper."

You draw away from him, on autopilot, so very slowly, and Jack's voice rumbles into a growl again, "See, their morals, their code-" He sneers, barely stops himself from baring his teeth as his nostrils flare, "Is a bad joke." Raises a hand, splays his fingers, shrill noise morphing with the movement, "Dropped at the first sign of trouble." He nods, like that will make you agree with him, and when he sees you aren't biting, whispers, "They are only as good as the world allows them to be."

(Takes your own words and twists them, from once upon a time. Twisting the knife all the deeper.)

Jack crouches even closer to make up for the space you tried to settle between the two of you, fingers still twitching as he assures, "I'll show ya. When the chips are down..." Tongue darts as his vowels elongate, "These, uh, these civilized people- they'll eat each other."

And then Jack straightens, leans back, oh so confident, always the showman, announcing, "See, I'm not a monster." He slams his hands on the table, eyes darting down and up again, the smallest real grin showing through the scars that imitated one even though you did not flinch. And then he shifts, grounding himself, the madness giving way to the thing that just wants to break you, "I'm just ahead of the curve."

Your composure doesn't exactly slip, but your patience does. You lift him upwards, drag him off the table, your fists bunched over his custom suit as if it will somehow make up for all the dead bodies and the bruises and the lies, and demand, "Where is Dent?"

You let him dangle in the air while he whines, half-plaintive and half-petulant, "You have all these rules, and you think they'll save you."

You slam him head-first against the brick wall, spine to the stone, your elbow pressed into his throat.

You don't care if he's too easily unconcerned with pain. You'll make him talk. He always does. He can't help himself.

You just want to get to the damn punchline so you can unravel the damage that's already too long in the making.

(And maybe, maybe you know where he's leading you, now. If he can't make you break your rules on his terms, with his own attempts to break you, he might just be backing you into a corner to make the decision for you, like he always tries to do.)

You will not be played again. You will not, not like this.

"I have one rule." You answer.

"Then that's the rule you'll have to break." Jack taunts, lips peeled back, strangled sound devolving into a hiss with eyes too wild, too bright as he savors every fucking moment.

"Which is?"

"The only way to live in this world is without rules." He says, then growls, "And tonight you're gonna break your one rule."

"I'm considering it." You bite out, digging into his throat a little harder.

Jack's nose scrunches at the bluff.

"Oh, there's only minutes left, so you're gonna have to play my little game if you want to save one of them."

You freeze. The things that have not yet gotten under your skin gives way to a more primal kind of feeling- of freefalling, of knowing that despite knowing all too well what Jack is and what he does that you still haven't managed to crack him, still haven't managed to draw out what you need and that he's still playing you all too easily-

His eyebrows waggle, up and down. Taunting how little control you have over any attempt to mop up the damage, in all the playful ways he so easily takes everything apart.

Jack licks his cracked, flaking lips, red paint staining his tongue.

"You know, for a while there, I think the alley cat really thought she had your flock of songbirds under lock and key." He whispers, "But they can't stay in your gilded cage forever. Sometimes, they just have to spread their wings and fly free-" 

You flip him over, slam him on to the table as he cackles, everything slipping under your skin and pulling you under. (There's no show left, only a smokescreen to lure you out, crimes all a distraction while he sucker punched you, brought your deepest fears back to the surface long after he'd been content to let them lie-)

"Where are they?" You yell, all attempts at calm forgotten, at the mere sense-memory of that same existential terror at Jack targeting your children, your family-

Jack laughs harder.

"-You'd think our little bluejay would learn, after the first time in the ring-"

You bar the door with the chair.

"-Or maybe it was all those blows to the head-"

Turn on your heels, trying to keep control, hands shaking, as Jack sits up and cricks his neck and smiles-

"Look at you go-" Jack snarls, all glee.

You ram his head into the glass pane of the wall, hard enough to make it fracture-

"WHERE ARE THEY?"

"Killing is making a choice-"

You punch him in the face, his skull smacking against concrete.

"Where are they-"

"Choose between one life or the others." He says, composed and quiet, "Your friend, the district attorney- or the lucky members of your happy little family." He laughs, and you punch him again, only he doesn't stop laughing, just looks up at you in rapture, because once he found the thread of what might make you snap he just had to keep pulling at it, to find a new way to distract you while he tried to kill everyone you'd ever tried to keep out of the line of fire.

"You have nothing, nothing to threaten me with." He says, gasping, sliding up against the wall, "Nothing to do with all your strength."

You pull him up by the throat, only able to see red, while Jack assures, "Don't worry. I'm gonna tell you where they are. All of 'em." His mouth splits into a wide grin, all teeth, white of his eyes all too bright against the blown pupils, as his voice remains calm, and collected, and every bit unfettered as he dangles the only thing keeping you together, "And that's the point. You'll have to choose." His tongue lolls out, as he pauses, as he keeps you with baited breath for an answer you need more than anything, because you cannot be late, not again, you cannot fail them like you've already failed Jason, "Dent's at 250nd street," His eyes narrow, tongue darting out like he's racking his brains, "And the kiddies are on Avenue X, at Cicero."

The target was never you, or Dent, or even Gotham, this time. It was all the people he wanted to remake right along with you, people you loved, while he played cat and mouse.

And you don't know if it's a bluff. If he's going to try and blow everyone sky high or if this is all a setup for something else, something worse-

But you cannot waste any more time.

Chapter Text

The Joker keeps his hands clasped over yours, gun still shaking in your hand.

"Choose, Bruce. You can shoot Selina right where I got her the first time, and she might live. Or you can get over yourself and point that gun at me. And if you don't choose, I'll fry all four of the kiddies... Or I can fry you. It's your call. Make the right choice. Look me in the eye and stop letting them make you so... indecisive. Man up and choose, Brucie. And choose wisely."

--

Only you can't breathe.

Can't stop laughing, and even while you are scrambling to get the Joker and end this, the fact is- you're too slow.

The Joker turns the key, and instead of everything going up in flames, the earth shakes and smoke billows upwards from a few blocks over.

"You should've seen your faces. Ah." Jack fakes wiping away a tear. "But fear not. The little jaybird and I do share a good threat of blowing us all sky high, but in this specific situation, I'm going to follow his lead- well, to a degree. Dent was boring. But all of you, well, you're all too fun to wipe the slate with quite yet. And I've found parenthood is growing on me. Who would've thought-"

Chapter Text

Jack's lips smack together when the explosions don't go off as planned, his eyes growing dark and narrow and empty in the ways Bruce wishes he didn't know so well.

But still, he feels relief.

That the faith was rewarded.

That he wasn't too late.

"What were you trying to prove? That deep down, everyone is as ugly as you?"

Jack throws the crowbar, petulant, throwing a tantrum Bruce knows will only escalate given the chance.

"You're alone." Bruce spits, unable to stop himself from twisting the knife like Jack had done to him so many, many times.

Jack growls, teeth bared, eyes closing until he blinks and then he gives an eye-roll instead, enunciating each word with bitten off frustration, "You can't rely on anyone these days, you got to. Do. Everything. Yourself. Don't we?" He rummages in his coat for the detonator, animated, shaky as he drawls, "That's okay." He trails off, looks down at Bruce, and flashes a real smile. "I'll always have you, darlin'. And with no secrets between us, you should know I came prepared. It's a funny world we live in..." Jack whispers. "Speaking of which, you ever learn how I got these scars-"

"No. But I know how you got these-"

--

"You didn't think I'd wage the war for Gotham's soul in a fistfight with you? Oh, honey."

--

"Sedate him before you take him in." Batman growls, and then he's lost into the night.

--

"You brought your cops?"

"All they know is there's a situation. They don't know who, or what. They're just creating a perimeter-"

"You think I want to escape from this? There is no escape."

--

"Instead of making your deal with the devil-"

"I was trying to fight the mob!"

Harvey cocks the gun.

"You're not going to hurt my family." Gordon says.

"No. Just the person you love most."

"Harvey, I'm sorry, for everything, please don't hurt my son-"

--

"You don't want to hurt the boy, Harvey."

"It's not about what I want. It's about what's fair!"

Nothing is ever fair. It's what we choose to do with that knowledge that matters, Bruce doesn't answer. It would only make things worse.

--

"You thought we could be decent men, in an indecent time. Well, you were wrong. The world is cruel. And the only morality in a cruel world, is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair. His son got the same chance she had. Fifty-fifty."

"What happened wasn't chance. We decided to act. We three-"

"Then why was it only me who lost everything?"

Bruce hyperventilates. Thinking of all his mistakes. All that pain. All the ways Jack has smiled at him, and the bodies he's cradled in his arms.

"It wasn't."

"The Joker chose me-"

I chose you, Bruce, because you're perfect, because I can't wait to see what you do, it's going to be so beautiful, just like you-

"Because you were the best of us. He wanted to prove that even someone as good as you could fall."

"And he was right!"

"You're the one pointing the gun, Harvey. So point it at the people who are responsible."

"Fair enough."

--

"Have you ever had to talk to the one you love most, tell them it's going to be alright, when you know it's not?" Harvey murmurs.

I've lived it, every day. Bruce thinks, but says nothing.

"Well, you're about to know what that feels like. Then, you can look me in the eye, and tell me you're sorry-"

--

"Take off the mask."

"They don't need to see this, Harvey. If you're going to kill me-"

"Then they can close their eyes."

--

Bruce removes his mask.

Harvey stares at him.

And Bruce finds himself saying some things that can't stay buried. Not when too many have paid the price.

Not when he's so tired.

"I found my son after he was abducted and tortured by the Joker for four years. I found him after I thought the Joker killed him, and then the Joker took him back, and tortured him more. After I told him I'd protect him. Then the Joker took the rest of my family. Tried to burn them alive, tried to cut their faces off. And I couldn't kill him. And when the Joker took you, and Rachel, and my family... I couldn't fail them again. I couldn't let them be taken and watch them all go up in flames. I've failed him, and this city, and the people I love, so many times. So anything you do to me... It would be deserved. Because I've had to tell them there's a way out, Harvey. And I don't know if there is, and while I've told them that, too, I still don't know how to save them. But for all our sakes'... Don't blame them. Blame me. The Joker is my responsibility. You don't need to hold anyone else accountable. I can pay the price. You can hurt me as much as you like. But you don't have to give yourself permission to be a murderer." 

"You think I care... I've already killed-"

"You can stop. I'll come quietly."

"Do you think that this is fair? Do you think you have any right to dictate terms, after... What, you think this evens the scales? You wouldn't dare try to justify yourself if you knew what I'd lost-"

"I don't know, Harvey. I think I could give you a run for your money, if we're counting scars." Jason interjects, aiming a gun of his own.

--

"That's what the Joker does. He twists and ruins things and makes you hate everything you love about yourself, to make you like him. Don't do what I did, Harvey. Don't let him break you. Don't get more blood on your hands."

--

"Bruce watched me die, and he couldn't save me. And I forgave him for it. And as I promised him I wouldn't kill unless it was self-defense. But I lied. I promised, if that son of a bitch or anyone else tried to put my Dad in the ground, that I'd hunt them to the ends of the earth and put them under. And I mean to keep that. So if you think I'm going to watch him die, you'd be wrong."

"Jason-"

"See, what Bruce doesn't know is I'm already a lost cause. I've been one, for a long time, even with all the chances he's given me to get back on track. And I'll break that trust however many times I have to, if I means I don't have to see him at the mercy of another bastard he can't kill because out of all the people in this city, he's the only one really good enough to believe that still means something. But I've already got blood on my hands. I'm already a killer. I'm already everything I was afraid to become. So you tell me, Harvey. What else do I have left to lose, one lost man to another?"

Harvey says nothing.

"Drop the gun, step away from them, and I won't pull the trigger."

--

"You don't have to do this-"

--

"You are going to walk away." Babs says. "Or I will make you."

--

Babs pushes Harvey over the side, on autopilot.

Harvey falls.

--

"Babs. Look at me. You were doing what you needed to do. You were protecting your family-"

"He was unarmed. We could have taken him in, we could have-"

"Babs. You didn't do anything wrong."

--

"I killed those people."

--

The Joker digs up Harvey's body from the dirt, humming as he goes.

He's going to be the perfect experiment to get the formula just right...

--

"You didn't really think the Batman killed ol' Harvey, did ya?" The Joker laughs, snickering behind his hands like a child who snuck their birthday presents early. "Good ol' boyscout Batsy?" The Joker slaps his knee. "Oh, that's a good one. If he was up for that kind of fun, we'd be having such a field day. But here. Don't take my word for it. Let my pal Bane here... illuminate ya."

--

"Let me tell you the truth about Harvey Dent from the words of Gotham's police commissioner, James Gordon." Bane clears his throat. "'The Batman didn't murder Harvey Dent. He saved my boy, then took the blame for Harvey's appalling crimes so I could, to my shame, build a lie around this fallen idol. I praised the madman who tried to murder my own child. But I can no longer live with my lie. It is time to trust the people of Gotham with the truth, and it is time for me to resign.' And do you accept this man's resignation?"

 

Chapter Text

"No kill." Cass says, holding out her hand to grasp Jason's own.

Jason stops cleaning the barrel and stares her down, and, after a very long pause, holsters the gun now hanging loose in his palm.

"Fine. But if things go south, we're doing things my way."

Cass gives him a dubious look, then covers her face with her cowl.

Chapter Text

"And if I don't?"

"Bruce, even if you never complete your brilliant metamorphoses, you should know I'm never going to abandon you. If you remain Bruce, my bat with all his peculiar, quaint rules, it'll just be like it is. Me, looking out and taking care of you, for all the ways you can't keep out all the ways the world would break you."

"Jack-"

"I still have to get Jeeves and the kiddies on our level, but-"

"Stop. Just... stop."

"Whatever you say, darling."

All Bruce can be grateful for is that no one is home for the week. Alfred is helping Cass settle in with Babs, so it should be empty.

--

There's a light on the end of the hallway, where the TV bleeds out colors with indistinct noise.

Jason walks in to find Bruce with one wrist handcuffed to the Joker's, who has his feet propped up on the coffee table as he shovels popcorn into his mouth.

Bruce is out cold asleep, head on the Joker's shoulder, the ears of the bat cowl making angry indents near the Joker's clavicle.

(Why neither of them slipped out of the handcuffs when they are both very practiced at escaping, Jason doesn't know, although he does have some idea of what blackmail might be involved.)

"He hasn't slept in days. Finally caught up to him," The Joker tsks and shakes his head, tone as flippant as ever.

Jason resists the urge to set him on fire, the back of his neck erupting into goosebumps, and his teeth clenched so hard his jaw aches.

"What are you-"

"No foul play, here, kiddo. He was going to cart me off to Arkham again, but you know how it goes. Duty calls, with all those rootin' tootin' meteor-slinging high-rollers battling it out in the sky, and after he trussed me up in the trunk, I told him I'd stay put and behave and be quiet if he took a load off afterwards. He wanted to keep tabs, didn't want to deal with an escape attempt with all those other characters on the prowl. So I figured, give him so time to recoup, give him some pointers if he misses anything, and when it was all over, I figured I'd stick around. I'm not entirely a monster, you know. I do love him."

"You don't love anything."

"Of course I do. Why do you think I work so hard to keep all of you on your toes? For kicks?"

"Something like that."

"No, no, no. I'm preparing you. Keeping you sharp. Bruce here, he's so hellbent on being perfect he has that beautiful little machine that pretends to murder him every year. I mean, if it's a simulated death trap he wants, I'm happy to provide. But he's got his own regiment going. And I do miss these moments, for all the ways he is breathtaking."

"I should gut you, right now-"

"You'll get blood on the sofa."

Jason goes still. Recalls split lips and broken bones and blood in his mouth and black eyes, and manages to swallow, throat burning, as he hisses-

"That never stopped you."

The Joker eyes him, up and down. The way his fists clench and the way he steps forward, chin raised, and the Joker only leans back, threads his fingers together, one eyebrow quirking upwards as he meets the challenge, unruffled and casual-as-can-be. But his eyes glitter, evaluative, narrowed, nostrils flaring, too. For once, he isn't laughing, and his voice is oh-so-quiet and level, meticulous in the way Jason remembers it before it turned to malice, before his eyes grew cold and he beat him halfway to Hell.

"You're never going to kill me in this house. We both know that." The last syllable hangs there, sharp and grating, before the Joker's glottal murmur adds, "And as much as I've tried to beat that gentleness out of you, truth be told, I get it. Even if Bruce doesn't make the change and turn into who he needs to be, he'll always be my friend, always be mine. And you are so much like him, sometimes, no matter what you claim to the contrary."

The Joker doesn't laugh. Keeps his tone soft, even if the low tone of his voice reminds Jason of other, worse times and threats and promises.

"Besides, you don't want to spook him. The last thing he needs is to wake up to a bunch of blood and screaming with you in my line of sight. You might give him a heart attack, no matter how spry he keeps himself."

The Joker threads his hands over Bruce's cowl.

Undoes the failsafes, cradles his head and neck as he strokes the flattened, matted hair in small circles as he slowly, carefully lowers props Bruce's head with one hand, the other settling on his knee.

(And Jason sees something he does not want to see, an unwilling accomplice forced to bear witness to answers to questions he doesn't want answered anymore. A history he'd told himself he wasn't still held hostage by. But he is, because part of him thinks, that is my father and he's being held hostage like he's been a kept animal for years, and yet, Jason doesn't know how to set him free.)

All Jason can think is, how long did he use you? How long did he lie and twist and play his games to make you think you have no way out?

(Jason doesn't have the answer, to getting out. He thought he did. But even he can waver in the face of Bruce's certain convictions, in all the ways he's held back when Jason can see the truth, bald and ugly and right in front of his face, even if he'd been trying to take the rage and the helplessness and the knowledge and cram it somewhere else- that Bruce has been a prisoner for a long time, and thinks it is an acceptable punishment if it means he doesn't have to see his children made into objects to torture and own and break and remake at the Joker's leisure, too.)

And Jason wonders, how many hours Bruce was stuck like this, when he'd had no one else but the clown for company and he couldn't even walk away, because his body had been used and hijacked, too. (And he wonders, if that's his fault, even though he had as little control over it as Bruce did.)

"I know you want to protect him, son. But one day, you'll see that I'm only looking out for the both of you."

"You murdered-"

"Near death experiences build character. You know that."

"It wasn't a near de-"

"Do you think I would torture you so intently without knowing how much you could take? Your body wasn't vaporized in the blast. Full of lesions and burns and shrapnel, sure, but nothing a good dip wouldn't fix."

Jason suddenly feels very heavy, and tired, and wonders if he's been drugged, or if he's just had enough.

And then he answers, "My mistake."

And sits.

(He doesn't know why, when he'd rather throttle the man who dared call himself a father while he kept the only parent who cared like a bird in a cage.)

The Joker eyes him, quiet, evaluative in the ways Jason doesn't want to remember from long nights trapped in rooms with no escape, and holds up the remote.

"Any movie preference?"

Jason stares at him, stony, feeling like a puppet with cut strings, and only answers, "I'm not leaving him alone with you."

"Fine." The Joker sighs, "Little Miss Sunshine it is."

None of this feels real, when Jason looks back on it. But it was strange, not killing the man he wanted to kill so badly, gun and knives on the table, out of reach but close enough that the moment the Joker wanted to grab them he could, hold them against Bruce's neck if he really, really wanted to.

--

When Bruce wakes, there's a second of disorientation. It's not the first time Jason has seen the Bat just exist as a man, but it's the first time he's seen him look broken and dazed when he realizes what happens, swallows, and then rage flushes his face as he glares at the Joker, opening his mouth only for the Joker to beat him to it-

"Oh, don't look at me like that. I'm behaving, aren't I? In fact, it was nice, taking a load off, having some family time..."

And then Bruce sees Jason , jerks up in panic, attempting to headbutt the Joker, until the Joker wrenches him back down with his own cuffs and does go for the knife-

Jason lunges and holds out a hand and intercept, grabbing the Joker's wrists. White paint smears on his hands, and the Joker goes still, and looks between the two of them, smiling like a shark, eyes glittering, as he says, so softly, "Relax. You're fine. Both you of. We're all getting along. No need to spoil it."

He pulls his hand away, and Jason doesn't let go, only shifts to drag Bruce's wrists in his palm instead.

Jason undoes the cuffs around Bruce's wrist with his own pick, staring the Joker down the entire time.

"Don't touch him." Is all he manages.

The Joker holds up his hands in mock surrender, the smile never leaving his face.

"Too much PDA, son?"

Jason socks him in the teeth, and then Bruce intervenes, tackling and re-cuffing the Joker behind his back and making sure he can't make any marks of his own.

Chapter Text

"I've been compiling some of our greatest hits. You know me, not much one for nostalgia. But something about these gives me butterflies."

The Joker holds up the scrapbook, where Bruce can see their old polaroids from when they were young- beach days with Selina, movie outings, one of him training on the staircase that someone must've snapped one rare moment he hadn't been watching or was too young and inexperienced and focused on what he was doing to catch it, that one time Jack took him to the outdoor movie theater by the circus and threw popcorn all over Bruce's hair and then all over the Lamborghini, the one time he was blackmailed into dressing up for Halloween and Jack decided to go as The Man Who Laughs and had tried to make Bruce watch another black and white movie as a way to try and desensitize him to other things-

Then there's the opposite side of the pages, juxtaposed with a Bruce's youth he had always been paying a price for and always tried to avoid passing down.

The Joker posing next to Gotham's public water supply-

The rubble of the apartment building Bruce tried to find Jason in after the Todd family and their neighbors went up in flames, his own grainy civilian shadow barely noticeable next to the broken picture frame he'd salvaged-

Dick nearly being electrocuted that one time Jack abducted him when he was twelve-

Jason's bruised and beaten face next to the silhouette of  a bloody crowbar-

The family under the cave system before Joker tried to set them all alight, all their bandaged faces stark white in the darkness...

If Tim wasn't being forced to hold a gun to Dick's head and if Bruce wasn't already trying to calculate the best way to distract Joker and get Jason an opening to get the others to safety, Bruce would rip the damn thing apart, page by page, but only after getting the Joker restrained.

Chapter Text

The Joker keeps the knife hinged against Bruce's mouth, hand curled in his short hair.

"You know why I don't mark up this pretty face?" He says, too conversational. "Because as much as I enjoy leaving my mark, then everyone would be let in on the fun. And that- ah, that wouldn't be funny at all."

"No, Brucie, dear, if you're gonna let the bat out of the bag, that's your call. All I provide is the ambiance."

--

"You wanna know how I got these scars?"

"No."

"Why not? You weren't there. You aren't the least bit curious?"

"No."

"Liar."

"Ignoring your ego trip-"

"Ha, takes one to know one-"

"I can guess well enough. Process of elimination. I know how you didn't get them. So I don't need to know how you got them."

"Now, that, I can respect, Brucie. At least you understand that much. How I got them doesn't matter. It's the acknowledgment that they exist. That people can't let their eyes wander and pretend that they aren't there, no matter how hard they try. Now if you could get with the program..."

Chapter Text

"If he isn't going to tell us, then we're going to have to do the digging ourselves. What the Joker is hiding, whatever he has on him... The Justice League might be useless, but we aren't throwing in the towel."

--

They're young. Too young, and Bruce is smiling in a way they haven't seen except in the quiet moments, when he's with the kids and able to forget the horrors he's seen for the briefest moments. The exhaustion, the pain, it hasn't set in yet, resigned and constant.

In some ways, seeing that is more of a betrayal. Seeing what was stolen from him, when he's younger than Dick and Jason and Tim.

--

"Ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?" Jack asks, holding Bruce in his arms (and it is jarring, seeing him without malice, seeing him without the frenzied, violent way he lurches around even if the spring-loaded energy and trill of laughter and mischief is all too familiar).

"You tell me." Bruce hums back, a bit muffled from where he's leaning on his shoulder.

They are interrupted by a barrage of marshmallows being pelted at them by none other than a very young Selina Kyle, her frizzled, damp hair falling all over her face.

"Think fast, boys!"

A marshmellow hits Jack in the eye and Bruce in the nose, before they both dodge the next round, diving down to throw the old projectiles back.

"Selina-" Bruce's voice, which is much less gravelly than they are used to, still holds the edge of what would turn into his brand of not-quite-serious admonishment.

"You're told me to always be prepared!" Selina anticipates his grievances in advance, and adds a counterargument to his next round of arguments. "And if you two don't get your asses over here, I'm stealing all the s'mores for myself."

--

"Ah, youth. How quickly time flies..." The Joker leans off the catwalk above, having come down from upstairs.

"You stay right where you are." Tim hisses.

The Joker leaps over a railing and slides down the banister, sticking the landing.

"You know, for someone who is supposed to be the new brains of the operation when Daddy's left the nest, you are a bit slow on the uptake. Isn't he, Jaybird?"

Jason, for his part, says nothing. Something herculean in effort, particularly when the only thing staying his hand is that he can't quite take the shot to end the Joker in the batcave, and they all know it.

(And if, perhaps, he's feeling a bit frozen and not quite himself, not quite all there, no one really blames him. Not after seeing that. Not when he has half a mind to stakeout Selina's haunts next and demand answers for all the secrets she too, has been keeping. Bruce, they all know is a lost cause. But he thought he knew her better.)

Chapter Text

"I'm telling you, Batman is a robot-"

"Not this again."

"Okay, bud, do you have any better ideas-"

"I heard Bruce Wayne is secretly dating Batman."

"That's total sh-"

"Both of you are wrong." Bane booms. "Batman is Bruce Wayne's clone."

--

"Sonny! You decided to pay us a visit."

--

"I'm ending this once and for all."

--

"Any of you move, I'm blowing this place sky high."

"You are such a chip off the old block. I'm so proud. Gosh, I bet you don't hear that often enough."

--

"Do I look like I am bluffing? Look at me." Jason asks. "I said, look at me. Do I seem like a man with anything left to lose?"

--

"Bruce! Is it my birthday already?"

--

Bruce slams down the axe into the stained wood of the table table. 

The handle is worn, so old and battered where it lay forgotten in evidence lockers, and the damning silence that it brings with it is too much history that no one else save Gordon knows.

And if the threat hits a little too close to home, the Joker doesn't blink.

(His smile falls, though. Eyes narrowing, just a hair, before he pastes the smile back on his face. Too wide. Too stretched.)

--

"You want to play a game? Fine. Let's play." Bruce snarls.

--

"Jason. You are going to walk away. Right now."

"Bruce-"

"No, you listen to me. I am not losing you again."

--

"You want Batman dead? Fine. He can burn. All I care about is getting you out of here, safely, and getting you away from him. And that is final."

--

"To quote an old friend, fuck Batman."

"That is not what I meant and you know it!" Dick's voice yells from above.

--

Nightwing restrains Jason.

--

The Joker pulls his hand away as if burned.

Greasepaint smudges on Bruce's bare palms.

But he just stares the clown down, holding his cards in his other hand, close enough to his chest that Jack can't peek from his higher perch and read them.

--

"It's like I said, Batman is a coward. And if he knew what was good for him, he'd retire and get his priorities in order."

--

"There it is. The part of you that I haven't seen come out to play in ages."

--

Bruce stabs Joker with syringe.

The Joker drops.

When he doesn't get up, everyone lets go of the collective breath they kept holding.

"Is he dead?"

"No." Bruce hooks up an IV of the liquid. "But with any luck, we can keep him in coma."

"When have we ever been lucky?"

"We'll need to keep pumping the compound continuously."

--

"How on earth did you find something that would affect him-"

"Happy accident. You can thank Bane, though. If he hadn't made a virus to affect both Batman and Joker, I wouldn't have been able to get the drop on him."

--

Jason keeps his gun trained on the rest of crowd at the table, until Bruce forces his hand down.

"No more."

--

Bruce addresses the entire assembly of villains unfortunate enough to be caught in the crosshairs. (Which is everyone. Jason chose the place when it was packed for a reason.)

"If any of you come near my family, I promise there will be hell to pay."

--

"Nightwing, take him home."

"Neither of us are going anywhere without you."

--

"I didn't know if it would work."

"You didn't..."

"He wanted a gamble. He didn't say what kind."

"What would you have done if he didn't stay down?"

"Plan B."

"And what was Plan B?"

Bruce responds too quickly, not lingering on the thought. (There is always a plan B. Whether it is a plan B anyone else likes is another matter entirely. But there is always something the Joker wants, and precious little Bruce won't put himself through if it will ensure his children's safety, however temporary.)

"Doesn't matter now, because it worked."

"Bruce-"

"Enough. I love you, and we will get through this-"

"I'm sensing a but-"

"What you did in there was reckless and terrifying and I would like to get you home as soon as possible."

"But what were you-"

"Jason."

Bruce resists the urge to say he's grounded. (There is too much weight behind the word, now.)

So instead he settles for silence.

--

"Master Bruce, if you don't mind me asking... I know you haven't attempted this maneuver precisely due to the fear that Napier planned for the eventuality. Are you alri-"

"I'm fine, Alfred. We can cross that bridge when we get there."

If it's not burning already.

"Some prices are too high to pay. And I was not going to let him toy with their lives or their recovery any longer. Even if there are some rules I can't break... Sometimes, adapting is all you have. And I am done giving ground unless I have to."

"And when... If he wakes...?"

"Then we'll deal with that like we've dealt with everything else."

"Sir-"

"I'm tired, Alfred. If that is all?"

"Of course, sir. If you need anything-"

"I know."

Chapter Text

Bats isn't saying much after he limps on home. You can't even get inside to pick his brain- he can't know you've slipped through the cracks, not now.

But that fight with Darth Seedy or whathisface definitely took everyone through the ringer, if the hacked feed to the satellites indicates how thoroughly exhausted all his work pals are.

And that, more than anything, reassures you that it's time to put a nail in the coffin to all the dead weight dragging Bruce down with him.

He tried to fight you, tried to push you away as usual- only after last time, too many outsiders tried to push the envelope and get in the middle of what would be an argument you'd eventually win.

And this whole affair with those big league alien threats served as the perfect thing to keep you below everyone's radar, escape and all.

What people don't realize about the really big, world-breaking firefights is that they aren't the best time to strike the big defenders in the sky and kick 'em when they are down. Even distracted, they've got enough firepower to deal with ya, and, more importantly, it's better to let them handle things so life can get back to normal and business can go on without a hitch. Plus, you don't want them permanently out of commission until Batsy can handle things on his lonesome, and apocalyptic threats tend to take up all his time so he can't spend it where he belongs. In Gotham. With you. You may like chaos, but letting invaders from the lands before time invade the U.S. of A really puts a damper on things, and you do love yourself an Independence Party full of fireworks and dynamite.

But what those annoying, interrupting, generally chaotic but predictable calamities do give is an opening.

It's the best time to prep, to get under all the defenses and make sure meddlers go undetected (which, let's be honest, would be a struggle for anyone else). But even with Batsy outsourcing his security because you can get into his head all too well, there's precious little that will stop you getting what you need save Batman swooping in and subduing you himself. Sure, the boyscout in blue tights and Bracelet Queen can give you a run for your money, if they tried. But it's not permanent, and you've got backups in place for them. No one can say you weren't avidly watching Batsy's little failsafes and countermeasures get put in place in case evil mind control is in the picture. Even if that wasn't a thing, Brucie still has them for everything, and you are all too ready to exploit that.

And usually, you don't feel the need. They stay out of your way, you don't concern yourself with things beneath you, life goes on.

But they crossed a line.

They tried to get between you and darlin' Brucie and the batbrats. And that won't do. They need to learn who wears the pants in this arrangement.

And you are all too happy to oblige.

(You will admit, being blown off as nonthreatening by anyone who isn't in the know also helps, with how close Bruce keeps things to the chest and how mum his two pals-for-justice stay out of respect for Bruce's feelings.

But that's always a weakness, and not one you are above exploiting.

Especially when they broke that fragile truce you had going.

Now, all bets are off.)

And normally, Bruce would have backup plan upon backup plan upon failsafe to anticipate that. He knows you and your habits.

But he's not on his A-game. He's distracted, brought down by everyone else taking up his time and attention and exhausting him.

And you, personally, aren't just fed up with the alien invasions, and the work drama, and his friends all so gallantly trying to lock you away from your one-and-only thinking that will work, especially when you were reading Bruce and the kids the riot act. It's rude, to interrupt domestic disputes and to try and to force a divorce when Bruce isn't leaving your side any time soon.

Really, when it comes down to it, this is just a long time coming.

Bruce has been overwrought and leeched off of by too many parasites, and it's high time you cleaned house and brought him into the limelight.

You'd hoped to win him over.

But that's long overdue. This time, you are going to bring him into the light, kicking and screaming and cursing your name if you have to.

The things you do for the one's you love are often not kind, after all.

Love is so very cruel.