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For the City Sweetly Whispers

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She didn’t kill his parents.

He asked her, later, when he no longer trusted her, but she truly hadn’t meant them any harm. The Waynes had been dedicated to helping and improving her. She’d had no reason to harm them.

She might have, if she’d known then what their son had the potential to become after their deaths, but he was just a child then. She’d spared him little thought.

No, the Waynes’ deaths were a result of negligence on her part, not malice. Even a city couldn’t split her attention everywhere at once, and she’d been distracted by a premonition that had shaken every city on Earth. A cry from cities somewhere out in the stars that was so loud, so agonized, that it reverberated through space.

Something was coming.

 

Bruce first came up with the idea of Batman when he was nine. It was a brief thought, a childish thought, he told himself firmly, and one that he’d intended to put aside for better ideas.

But a whisper in his mind said, Oh, I like that.

The voice was dark and rich and even at a whisper had the impact of a shout. For just a moment, he felt something old, powerful, and hungry pressed against his mind.

Most likely, he was going crazy. Most likely, he should tell Alfred.

But Alfred worried about him too much as it was, and the whisper had felt . . . almost familiar. Like he had felt it that night in the alley.

Like Gotham.

And, he thought, turning over the idea in his mind once more, who better to know what a city needed than the city herself?

 

They had time. There was no need to rush him.

So she watched and waited as he got tutors for various martial arts and began to educate himself on ways to fight crime. She was nervous about the plans he drew up to seek other teachers around the world, but she wanted him to be the best, and she trusted him to come back. He was hers, after all, hers in a way most cities could only dream of.

While she waited, she rotted, but that was alright. He would be ready soon, and in the meantime, that dear Jim Gordon was doing his best to beat her corruption back.

 

The first night he went out in the cape, the first time he accomplished something, the city whispered in his mind, Well done.

He hadn’t heard the voice in years. For a moment, the old fear came back all over again.

But the city laughed. Not even your mind could dream me up. Let me show you.

She taught him secrets of her streets that no one else knew and called him to the places where she needed him most.

She was real. She was alive but hurting, but if the city herself was on his side, he could change that. He could save her.

 

Her first investment had worked out so well that she couldn’t help but want another.

It wasn’t the first time the Graysons had come to Gotham. It was the first time they had brought their son, but she saw him in practices. He was magnificent.

She wanted him.

But try as she might, she couldn’t reach into their minds to convince them to stay. They weren’t hers, weren’t any city’s, and there was no place for her hooks to land.

Reluctantly, she let go of the dream of keeping all of them.

Her first little Robin never asked her if she killed his parents. She was glad of that.

Because the Graysons weren’t hers, but Zucco was.

And though Dick never knew it, if his parents hadn't saved him, if he had fallen, he alone would have had a soft place to land.

 

Bruce watched in horror as the flying Graysons fell. He stood, desperate, but -

They hit the ground.

The little boy lived. He sat, waiting, as the medical personnel and police did their work around him. His eyes were wide with shock and the terrible emotion Bruce remembered all too well.

The audience was supposed to clear out, but he couldn’t walk away from the boy. He just couldn’t.

He walked over to him instead. Sat down and started to talk. Trying to console the inconsolable.

The little boy burrowed into his side, and Bruce put a hesitant arm around him.

When he had to walk away or face awkward questions, he did it, but it was one of the hardest things he’d ever done.

He wanted - He wished - If only he could have taken him home. Alfred would have known what to do. Alfred could have helped.

The city brushed against his mind. That’s a wonderful idea.

He was surprised she approved. Taking a child in would surely interfere with his other work - Not that he should take a child in, surely he was unfit -

Just think about it.

So he did.

And when he ran into Dick on the rooftops trying to avenge his parents - When he discovered just how terribly Dick was being treated in the place where he’d been put -

He brought him home.

 

She still had time, but she didn’t know quite how much, and she didn’t want her new little bird to be just finding his wings when the time came. She wanted him ready.

So when he stumbled across the truth, she decided to push.

 

He should be there when you catch his parents’ killer.

Bruce had seen the logic in that. He’d offered Dick a choice and then made the situation as safe as he could.

It went well. What he hadn’t anticipated was Dick’s question on their way home.

“So that’s what you do every night?”

Well, that one he could have anticipated. What he hadn’t expected was that after the affirmative, Dick would ask, “Can I help?”

“No,” he said instantly. “It’s too dangerous.”

He especially hadn’t expected the wave of disapproval from the city.

You should at least make sure he gets to keep up his acrobatics. And if he’s to be the son of a billionaire, he needs to know self-defense.

That, at least, Bruce agreed with.

Unfortunately, the training gave Dick false hope.

If you took him out at night, he might have less energy to wreck the manor during the day. Alfred would like that.

Alfred barely puts up with my self-endangerment, much less child endangerment.

Perhaps he would mind your activities less if you had someone to look after you.

Someone adult, Bruce insisted. Dick had seen enough of Gotham’s ugliness. Bruce would shield him from the rest of it, not drag him into it headfirst.

The next time he got injured, Alfred patched him up with pursed lips. Dick watched with wide eyes.

“You’ve gotta let me go out with you,” he pleaded. “You need someone to watch your back.”

Bruce opened his mouth to say no.

The entire weight of the city pressed against him until his voice was lost in the crush of millions.

What came out was, “Alright.”

Dick cheered. Bruce desperately tried to take it back, but Gotham’s weight was still heavy in his mind, suffocating the words before they could be born.

It’s a good idea, she insisted. And after all I’ve seen, wouldn’t I be the better judge?

Not with my son’s life on the line, he snarled.

You really have taken to him. Gotham sounded delighted.

Bruce waited for Alfred to protest.

But though he looked as if he very much wanted to, he, like Bruce, was silent.

 

The old man was trouble. She had hooks in him, of course, he’d lived here too long for her not to, but there was a part of him that still belonged to London. That was the one thing she couldn’t combat. All of Bruce’s will, all of his mental tricks and barriers, those she could brush aside like the fleeting cobwebs all mortal defenses were.

But another city’s claim . . . That was a different matter.

Worse, Alfred knew it. She’d held his tongue once, but as he retreated ever deeper into his roots, her ability to do so weakened.

He gave an ultimatum to her bat.

She didn’t want to do what she did next, but Alfred had left her no choice.

Just last night, a gang had tortured a rival to death.

She filled Bruce’s head with the memory.

His scream was short and cut-off. He had far greater control than the victim had.

But Gotham’s history was soaked with blood. She had plenty of memories of pain to send him.

The next sent him crashing to his knees.

“Master Bruce?” Alfred was at his side in an instant, even now.

I can’t afford for them to die, she whispered in Alfred’s mind. But I can’t afford to let them go either. And this? This won’t leave any marks at all.

Horrified understanding flooded the old man. Understood.

She let the memories fade. Bruce struggled to his feet. “Alfred . . . “

Alfred was already ushering him towards a chair. “Sit down, Master Bruce. I’ll have something warm for you to drink in a moment.”

She retreated, satisfied.

She didn’t have her hooks all the way into Robin, not quite yet, but she was making progress there too.

 

Dick’s teacher wanted to talk about the bruises. The shadows under his eyes. The split lip.

Bruce wanted to talk about those things too. Gotham just wouldn’t let him.

But while Gotham was made up of people, she didn’t quite understand them. Not enough to give him specific orders of what to do. What to say.

“Bruises?” He blinked at the teacher. “I haven’t noticed any bruises.”

“Mr. Wayne, they cover half of your son’s face.

“Well, I’m not always around very much . . . “

Look at me! he tried to silently scream. Do I look like I’m a fit father?

The teacher’s expressions was grim. “I see.”

Dick was waiting outside the door anxiously. “Did it go alright?”

“Perfectly,” Bruce assured him, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Everything’s going to be just fine.”

Perfectly? Gotham demanded. She’s going to try and take him away from you!

Is she? What a pity. I imagine that’ll infringe on his ability to go out at night and fight criminals.

But you want him.

Somehow, it didn’t surprise Bruce that Gotham was too selfish to understand not taking and keeping what and who you wanted. Not as much as I want him safe.

He is safe. Don’t you trust me?

Any last trust he’d had for the city had died when a fist had hit Dick’s face.

Gotham sighed, like he was the one being unreasonable. They won’t take him.

“Bruce, you okay? You look kind of distracted.”

Bruce smiled at him. “I’m fine. What do you say we get some ice cream on our way home?”

“Asterous!”

He wanted to get as much time as he could before -

Except no one came to take Dick away. It seemed that before she could take action, Dick’s teacher was in a car accident.

She didn’t survive.

Bruce taught Dick how to use concealer.

And every year after that, he sent flowers to the grave.

 

With her favored son raging against her, she tried to pull some new soldiers into the war.

Unfortunately, she might have been a bit too heavy handed, judging by the way so many of them went a bit . . . mad.

But if the Joker and his ilk weren’t quite what she’d had in mind, then at least they served a purpose. If she could not create peace for herself, then she could at least make sure her children were prepared for the coming storm. She would make them hard, wary, ready to defend themselves at the drop of a hat. She would train her heroes in a gauntlet until they were readier than ever before. Some would die in the process, true, but the rogues killed on her behalf. Every drop of blood spilled on her pavement was a sacrifice for her to grow fat upon.

And she had learned her lesson. Best to start when her children were young.

Jim Gordon’s daughter for instance. She had potential.

 

“Please go home.” Bruce had rarely felt so weary.

The new Batgirl crossed her arms defiantly. “The city needs me!”

“The city doesn’t deserve you.”

Robin swung down beside him. “Aw, come on, B. You taught me better than that.”

“And you let him do it,” she added. “What’s so different about me? The fact that I’m a girl?”

“That you haven’t been trained for this.”

“Well, then, train me!”

He couldn’t find another choice.

So Bruce did.

 

Other heroes, claimed by other cities, came knocking. They wanted to draw her children away from her to join teams.

She didn’t want them to leave her, but the idea of alliances with some of those metas was appealing.

She allowed one of them to go at a time. One always had to remain behind.

Keep your mind closed, she warned Bruce. I won’t have you stolen away.

Robin was hers now, fully and truly, so she sent a memory of fire racing down the boy’s arm just for a moment.

“Agh!” He lurched in his seat in the batmobile but caught himself quickly. “Sorry, B. Don’t know what that was. My arm felt like it was on fire for a second there.” He frowned down at the offending limb.

“We’ll check it out in the Cave,” Bruce said, and she could feel how he fought to keep his voice even. I’ll behave. Leave him out of this.

If you wouldn’t fight me like this, I wouldn’t have to go to such lengths.

Sometimes she missed the days when Bruce had loved her.

 

Bruce couldn’t protect Dick. Not enough.

But he did what he could, no matter how much Dick came to resent it as he grew up. He didn’t care how many arguments it led to.

And if one phone call with him while he was with the Titans ended with Bruce hissing, “In Gotham, you play by my rules,” and Dick followed that up by shouting, “I’m an adult now, in case you haven’t noticed, and if you can’t recognize that, maybe I shouldn’t come back - “

Well. Bruce was pretty sure Dick hadn’t expected him to respond by growling, “Fine,” and slamming the phone down.

More importantly, Gotham hadn’t either.

It’ll be weeks now before he comes back!

I wouldn’t be surprised if it was longer. Maybe much longer. In fact, by the time he comes back, I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t consider this his home at all.

For once, he’d managed to best her.

Make it right, she demanded.

Bruce smiled grimly. They both knew that here, her hands were tied. Make me.

She could make him pick up the phone and dial the numbers. She could make him say anything.

But Gotham had no idea how to apologize to people. Frankly, Bruce wasn’t sure how to fix this carefully constructed mess.

I’m sure, she thought icily, that you can figure something out.

Bruce staggered backwards as the pain of two gunshots ripped through his chest. He fell to one knee as the other leg became convinced it had snapped.

Bruce took in a ragged breath and held it.

She could do what she liked. His son was in a kinder city now.

His son was safe.

 

Her first bird would come back to her eventually. He would have to. And when he did, she would keep him here by any means necessary.

But until then, she needed a replacement. She could still feel the threat racing towards them, and she would not be unprepared when it came.

 

A kid had stolen his tires and hit him with a tire iron.

Bruce was reluctantly impressed.

He has fire.

No. He could feel the direction of the city’s thoughts. No. There would be no more Robins bleeding on Gotham’s streets. No more sons for the city to hold hostage. Dick was safe. That was over.

He tried to push past the dangerous moment. “Put the tires back on, and I’ll buy you something to eat.”

Jason weighed the offer carefully. “Deal.”

Bruce prodded him into talking some while they worked. Hopefully, the boy would reveal something to disqualify him as Robin.

But Jason was bright. Fierce. He spoke of school wistfully and his mother protectively, even though she was past defending.

Jason deserved so much better than Bruce could give him.

Then you do care for him. He’ll make an excellent Robin.

No!

Against his will, his arm moved, slipping drugs into the food before taking it back to Jason.

Bruce slammed all his will against Gotham’s, desperately trying to spit out a warning to the boy. Run, he had to run -

Gotham pushed pack and propelled him forward. Enough of this.

Haven’t I been doing enough? he tried. I don’t need the backup, there doesn’t have to be another Robin -

I need more.

Jason, a savvy street kid that didn’t really trust anyone, trusted him. At least enough to eat what he was given.

When he slipped unconscious and was past warning, Gotham retreated a bit from his mind. Close enough to make sure he actually took Jason home, distant enough to allow him a bit of freedom.

He was as gentle as possible as he cradled the boy in his arms. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

Then he did the only thing he could and took him home.

 

Bludhaven. Her first Robin had given himself to Bludhaven. She could hear her sister’s gloating already.

Batman had done this. Batman had tried to deny her Jason.

Gotham was not in a merciful mood.

 

He’d hoped he would have time. Time while Jason figured out the truth of his identity, time to train him, time to figure out what to do.

Gotham refused to give him any. Jason didn’t even have the protection that Dick had initially. Jason was Gotham’s, completely and utterly, and Gotham demanded that he send Jason out now.

He needs more time. Bruce wasn’t sure when he’d given up on reasoning with Gotham and just started pleading with her.

If Nightwing were here, we could afford to give it to him.

Bruce let his face fall into his hands.

Alfred’s hand rested on his shoulder. “The situation with Master Jason, sir?”

Bruce looked up at him. “What do I do?”

“Train him as best you can for the nights, and give him the best life you can during the day,” Alfred said firmly. “I fear that’s all you can do.”

Bruce was afraid Alfred was right.

He trained Jason hard. He made modifications to the suit.

He had gotten Dick safely to adulthood. Surely he could manage it for Jason too.

Even if the streets were darker now. Even if he had more enemies.

As for the rest -

What he wanted most to give Jason was a safe home. Since he couldn’t give him that, he could give him everything else he could. Anything he wanted.

“I don’t want to let him down,” he overheard Jason tell Barbara once when he went to pick him up from tutoring. “I just - I want to make him proud.”

Bruce hugged him tight when he came out and resisted the urge to scream.

 

She had chosen well in some respects. Bruce clearly loved his new Robin, and Jason defended her well.

But choosing him had only driven her first Robin farther away, and Jason was so often angry. Already Bruce argued with him, and she’d let blood run in the streets before she fell for the same trick twice.

When Jason found that Catherine hadn’t been his real mother, she allowed him to leave. He would return for the man he considered his father, and perhaps this trip would be just what was needed to steady him.

She refused to allow Bruce to follow him. She trusted him to return to Alfred, but she didn’t trust her control over Alfred enough to be sure that he wouldn’t somehow remove himself from the equation.

Unfortunately, she was distracted enough by Bruce’s frantic attempts to at least send someone else after his son and blinded enough by the Joker’s madness that she didn't realize what the Joker intended to do until it was too late.

She had thought Bruce had hated her before.

That was nothing to how he felt when the Joker sent back the second Robin in a box.

Gotham was rather put out herself. Between this and depriving her of an active Batgirl, the Joker had been quite irritating. She’d have to punish him for that.

 

Bruce didn’t want to go down to the cave. Bruce didn’t want to think about the cave.

At this point, pretty much the only thing he wanted to do was sleep. If he dreamed, he dreamed of Jason - either alive, in which case dreams were a welcome escape, or dying, in which case he could at least be there, trying, holding him in his last moments so that he wouldn’t be alone.

If he didn’t dream, he didn’t have to think. He could just skip through a few hours of his life in oblivion.

Dick came for the funeral. Bruce yelled at him afterward. He couldn’t remember what he said, just relief when Dick left.

Relief, and a sick, selfish wish that Dick would come back, that Bruce could cling to at least one son, that he could know for sure that Dick was safe -

But of course, if Dick was with him, he wouldn’t be safe.

The press left him alone. He kept waiting for a flood of them at his door, screaming questions about negligence and how he could have been such a terrible father, but there was nothing, just like Child Services had never shown up demanding to know why his children flinched at sudden movements and had more bruises than excuses.

He suspected Gotham had something to do with it. A bribe, maybe, to soften him up to head out into the city again.

He was done. Done. She could drag him out into the city like a marionette if she wanted, but he wouldn’t do it willingly again.

That was when his dreams stopped being of Jason and started being of other things. Theft. Murder. Torture.

And in every crime, a child.

These are real, she whispered. Won’t you help them?

Bruce put on the suit.

He hung up one of Jason’s spares in a display case and put a plaque on it. A Good Soldier.

It wasn’t his memorial to Jason. His memorial to Jason was a gravestone that called him ‘beloved son’ and a room that was perfectly preserved except for the new books Bruce left in there that Jason would have liked. That Jason would never read.

The case was an accusation aimed squarely at Gotham, because Jason had been a soldier she’d forced into her war, and Jason had died fighting it.

Bruce had no one to watch his back now, and he didn’t even try to watch it on his own.

Bruce was a soldier. He was ready to die fighting for it.

 

She could lose him. She could watch constantly and still lose him because inevitably she would slip and then -

The obvious solution was a new Robin. She needed one anyway. But who?

She was still searching for candidates when the small boy who had been stalking her for years knocked on Mr. Wayne’s door.

 

Bruce looked at the dark haired child in front of him and struggled to breathe.

What have you done?

But for once, even the city was taken aback. He came on his own.

Bruce wasn’t sure he believed her.

“You need a Robin,” Tim said firmly, and no, Bruce needed a Robin like he needed a red hot knife to the gut that was slowly twisted while he screamed for release.

Hope, yes, laughter, yes, and everything Robin was supposed to represent, all yes, but he didn’t need Robin, because Robin was really betrayal and agony and death.

He needed his sons. But he couldn’t have them.

“Go home.” Please go home before the city takes a liking to you, and I can’t stop this.

Tim bulldozed onward. “I found Nightwing and tried to talk him into coming back - “

And suddenly Bruce couldn’t breathe again.

“ - but he said his Robin days were over. I know I’m not what you wanted, but you need somebody out there, or you’re going to get yourself killed.”

He could work, Gotham mused, and Bruce felt something in him break.

He could fight it, still, but it was as good as done. Tim’s childhood was gone, already sacrificed on the city’s altar all unknowing.

If he went along quietly, hating himself all the while, there would be mercy. There had been for Dick. He could train him properly. Buy him a few more months.

He would do it. He would.

He just couldn’t make himself force out the words.

So he came at it obliquely and said instead, “You need training.”

Tim blinked, like he hadn’t expected to get this far, and then he grinned.

 

There was time. Now that it drew closer, she had a better sense of just how much time.

So she let Bruce take a few months to train her new Robin, and she even let him send the boy away for training across the world.

She knew that Bruce hoped that the boy wouldn’t come back. That his parents would find out and spirit him away, that he would get sucked in to some other mission, that he would damage a leg irreparably and give up vigilante work.

The last was nonsense, of course. Even paralysis hadn’t stopped her from making use of Barbara.

They were all nonsense, really. The boy was hers, heart and soul, the way Bruce hadn’t been for ages. He would come back to her of his own free will, and that was its own kind of sweetness.

 

Bruce was determined not to love this one. If he didn’t love him, it would hurt less when he came back from patrol bleeding, when he screamed from the Scarecrow’s toxin, when he was driven away like Dick or died like Jason.

Please, let him not die like Jason.

The brightness of his smile didn’t matter. The life his enthusiasm brought to the cave didn’t matter. His inexplicable faith in Bruce and the dedication to the mission that even Bruce no longer believed in didn’t matter. His brilliance didn’t matter. The way he practically radiated happiness whenever Bruce gave him a scrap of approval didn’t matter.

Then Tim’s parents came home, and Tim stayed away from the manor for three days to avert suspicion. He came back only when they left.

Seeing him felt like coming to life again, and that was the point that Bruce realized it was too late not to care.

When Tim all but fell asleep in the cave after patrol that night, Bruce picked him up and carried him to a room that he had been calling a guest bedroom but that it might be time to admit was actually Tim’s.

“You did well tonight, Tim,” he murmured.

“Thanks,” Tim mumbled in sleepy surprise. “I know I - “ He yawned. “Know I still need to be better. I’m trying.”

Bruce set him down on the bed. “That’s all I can ask. Good night, Tim.”

Tim wasn’t his. Not - legally. But Tim was the reason he hadn’t found out if Gotham would catch him if he didn’t bother to throw a grappling hook, and though Bruce wasn’t quite sure how you said something like that, that mattered.

He dreamed of three gravestones with little robins chirping on top of them and woke up with only his training to thank for the fact that he hadn’t screamed.

 

Tim made Bruce happy.

Well. Happier.

The problem, as she saw it, was that Tim was too often away. Bruce needed near constant help, needed to be able to check and make sure Tim was alright at all times, and that couldn’t happen when Tim still had to return to his parents at inconvenient intervals.

The next time the Drakes returned to town, it was a simple matter to sabotage the traffic lights.

Jack Drake survived, albeit in a coma. Janet Drake did not.

Good enough.

 

I got you a present.

Bruce did not trust those words. Not from the city.

Especially not when his phone rang immediately after, Tim’s number on the caller ID.

Tim was uncharacteristically panicked, and it took Bruce a minute for Tim’s message to sink in and for him to figure out why.

“I’m on my way,” he promised as soon as he understood. Tim would need help, he’d be grieving, and with his father out of commission too, he’d need somewhere to stay -

I’ve already smoothed the way for you to take him in, the city assured him. He’s all ours now.

Bruce froze, just for a second. He had almost forgotten her promise of a present.

Apparently, this was her idea of it.

If he had thought something that made her think he wanted this - If she was doing this to make him happy -

Tim was shaking when Bruce finally got to him. His eyes were wet.

Bruce had done this. A bit of light had come into his world, and Gotham had put it out.

Bruce hugged him tightly. “I’m so sorry.”

Sorrier than he could ever dare to say.

 

There was a new girl on her streets. She hadn’t even had to prod her out onto them. Spoiler, she called herself. Gotham liked it.

Her latest Robin took her under his wing. She really didn’t know what Bruce was so upset about. Tim was as effective as always and spending more time defending her than ever.

She still wasn’t quite up to the strength she’d like yet, but that was alright. She still had time.

 

Jack Drake woke up. Bruce’s mind immediately turned to Gotham.

We can work something out. He was never much of a problem before. With his wife gone, I’m sure he’ll be even less of one.

Tim couldn’t lose his father. Not so soon.

We can try, Gotham said reluctantly.

Jack apparently now wanted to try his hand at being a good father.

Bruce really wanted to know why he couldn’t have tried that a few years earlier and kept things from getting to this stage.

But Tim kept up with his Robin duties, so Bruce shoved aside his own feelings and tried to be happy for him.

Right up until Jack found out and forbade Tim from being Robin.

If the city killed Jack now, Bruce was pretty sure Tim would make the connection.

Let me try to talk him around. The last thing you want is Tim emotionally compromised.

You have two weeks.

Then Stephanie showed up, asking to be Robin, and - Bruce wasn’t proud of it.

But he thought he could use her to buy some more time.

 

The girl nearly died. The doctor tried to spirit her away, but of course Gotham didn’t allow that. The near death swamped Bruce with guilt, however, and their relationship grew even more strained than it had been.

Gotham subtly directed the girl towards Oracle for further training. That meant that she needed a Robin once more, and Bruce’s time was long since up.

Jack Drake inexplicably took several wrong turns on a solo drive. He ended up in the middle of a gang fight.

He did not survive the experience.

Unfortunately, Bruce was right. Tim was rather emotionally compromised after that.

But she had her Robin back, and she was sure that with Bruce now his permanent legal guardian that he would become a better soldier than ever.

 

Dick had called him. Not to fight, or cast blame, or even to talk. He had called him because Bludhaven was burning, and Dick was in way over his head.

Bruce ought to be there by now. He had fully intended to be there by now.

Instead he was on a rooftop at the border between the two cities, staring at the answer to a question he hadn’t had enough hope left in him to really ask.

Jason was alive.

And he’d crafted a trap so perfect that Bruce’s only options were to kill him or watch him kill the Joker.

Bruce had tried, desperately, to talk him down. For all Gotham had done, she had not yet managed to force his children to be killers, and Bruce would give anything to spare him that.

But Jason wouldn’t listen. Bruce couldn’t get into his head, didn’t understand what he was thinking.

I don’t know either, the city hissed. The Pit’s laid claim to him. I can’t get into his mind.

The Pit. Suddenly everything made a terrible kind of sense. If Jason was still lost in the poison of the Lazarus Pit, then there would be no reasoning with him.

Bruce was going to have to let him kill the Joker.

It wouldn’t be Jason’s fault, any more than it had been his fault when he’d broken Bruce’s nose while under the influence of fear toxin. And maybe - maybe it would break through the fog, and he could bring Jason home -

The city’s sharp voice cut his hopeful line of thought like the cords that had held up Dick’s parents. Absolutely not. I would prefer to keep all of you, but if this is what he’s forced us to, I prefer to keep the one I can at least somewhat control.

It took him a few of the precious seconds remaining to figure out what she meant.

She wanted to save the Joker.

She wanted Jason dead.

No. The word was instant. Instinctive.

You’ll have to do it. Just pull the trigger.

No! Bruce was almost free of the ropes now. Jason was too lost in his rant to notice. No, Bruce could get free, could -

And then what? Any nonlethal shot you make leaves him free to kill the Joker before he goes down.

He was free of the ropes, but the rest of his freedom was quickly vanishing. The unconquerable weight of the city was already invading his mind.

He argued with Gotham frequently. Tried to reason with her on a nearly weekly basis.

He had not begged often. The first time Dick had nearly died. When Jason had run off, and she had refused to let him follow. When he had sensed her intention to remove Tim’s father once and for all after Stephanie left.

He begged now.

No, no, please, no. Not my son, please not my son, don’t make me - Once the Pit fades, he could be yours again, he’ll fight for you,please -

He’s left me no choice. She hesitated. I will at least not use the gun.

Against his will, his hand left the gun and went down to a batarang in his belt.

Stab me with it, he tried desperately. He’ll be distracted, the Joker can escape, please -

The batarang flashed through the air and sliced open Jason’s neck.

JASON!

It wasn’t an instantly fatal wound, Bruce could still save him, could get him help - He would hate Bruce forever after this, but that was alright, as long as he lived -

The Joker set off an explosion.

Bruce . . . didn’t remember much of what happened next.

Mainly he remembered a big pile of rubble and the need to comb through it, piece by piece, until he’d found his son.

Mainly he remembered the city denying him even that, driving away from the scene. The city, almost excited over something she called “an opportunity.”

It was only remembering that Dick needed him that allowed him to keep moving once he was in Bludhaven and Gotham could no longer touch him.

Dick needed him. He had to help Dick. Had to keep another son from bleeding out -

His hands on the weapon, his son’s blood gushing out, his mind and will too weak, too pathetic, too stupid to stop it, to save him, to save any of them -

He remembered battle dimly, later. Mostly he remembered the burning.

And then he’d found Dick, shaking, because he hadn’t been able to stop this.

He hadn’t hugged Dick in years, but at the moment, hugging wasn’t the problem. Letting go was.

“I couldn’t - I tried - “

“This is not your fault,” he said firmly.

Dick’s head dropped onto his shoulder. “The civilians. I need to - “

“There are other heroes here now,” he said. For a disaster of this magnitude, everyone who could get here had come. “What you need to do is breathe.”

Dick took a few moments to do just that. “Thank you,” he finally said shakily. “For coming. After everything, I know I didn’t really have the right to ask.”

Bruce hugged him tighter. “You’ll always have that right. And all this arguing hasn’t been your fault.” It had been his. And Gotham’s. And a desperate hope that he could save at least one child.

“I want to go home,” Dick confessed in a whisper.

And part of him wanted that, needed that.

But the rest of him knew better. Though how could he say, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t want to end up with another of my son’s blood on my hands because the only thing keeping me from jumping off this building while I still can is that I don’t want to think what that cursed city will do to Tim if I’m gone.

“Then come home,” he said, and for an instant he thought the words were a moment’s inexcusable selfish weakness.

Then he felt that terrible, crushing weight and knew.

No. He was in Bludhaven. This wasn’t possible.

Bludhaven is dead, Gotham said gleefully. Everything left is mine now. More space, more people . . . and my first little Robin back.

Dick looked hopeful.

It was only Gotham’s presence in his mind that forced back Bruce’s scream.

 

She had triumphed over her sister. She had laid claim to the little Nightwing. She was more prepared than ever for what was coming.

And Jason, it seemed, still had enough of the Pit in him to survive the night after all. He was slowly becoming hers once more, and he’d formed the delightful habit of killing some of the criminals that walked her streets. Each lovely little sacrifice increased her strength all the more since it was done in her name.

This had the additional bonus of making Bruce - well, not happy. Less inclined to hope that a patrol would end with him unable to get back up and keep fighting. It seemed forcing him to kill his children was even more detrimental to his mental health than she had realized.

She was so happy that she was even willing to forgive Bruce for scaring off that promising assassin girl. The girl hadn’t been Gotham’s, so she hadn’t been able to keep her without help.

Well. The incident was mostly forgiven.

She might have hurt Tim a bit, just to make a point.

 

Every time Jason thought he had cornered the Joker, the madman managed to slip away. He was about ready to shoot something out of pure frustration.

I don’t suppose you could help? he asked Gotham wearily. He’d started hearing her some since his return. He’d worried at first that it was another symptom of the madness, but she’d managed to keep him away from Bruce until he was ready to confront the man again, so he was inclined to trust her a bit.

I need him too much to let you kill him.

Jason pulled up short. “Is that what you told Bruce?” he demanded, not caring that anyone around to hear would think him mad. “Is that why he never killed him? The ever loyal Batman, just taking orders?” He’d always know he’d come second to the mission, but hearing it spelled out like this hurt more than he’d expected.

Gotham . . . hesitated. Bruce took some convincing. On a number of issues.

So Bruce had at least argued the point. Good for him. Not enough to actually defy the city, of course, not enough to actually do anything, but it was something.

The city seemed impatient. You will continue to be at odds with him until this is settled, won’t you?

You better believe it, lady.

You are partially mine now, she mused. Let’s see how much. Put the gun to your head.

Jason’s arm jerked up to do just that.

The rest of Jason froze in place. What.

The pressure against his arm relaxed. He shove the gun into a holster immediately. You could have chosen literally anything as a demonstration, and you picked that?

Gotham seemed almost amused. It accomplished what I needed.

“Yeah,” Jason breathed out. “Yeah, I guess it did.”

He headed blindly towards the safe house he’d been using.

Bruce hadn’t come after him when he’d run away. Bruce hadn’t killed the Joker. Bruce had gotten a replacement. Bruce had sliced open his neck.

Exactly how much of that had been Bruce?

And what exactly was he supposed to do now?

 

Jason stopped leaving quite so many presents, but he also stopped attacking the rest of her flock, so she supposed it was an acceptable trade.

Besides. A new little bird had flown into her cage, and this one’s beak was already sharp.

 

He had a son.

Bruce sank into a chair in his study and closed his eyes as he could only now afford to. The first rush of danger, at least, was passed.

He tried to imagine a world where he would have been happy at the news. A world where Talia had left her father and come back with him to Gotham. A world where Gotham didn’t speak and crime was not the maddened thing it had become.

He still would have adopted Dick. Talia would have needed to be talked around, but she would have let herself be persuaded. No one could see Dick’s smile and not love him. They could have been a happy family - not a normal one, but a happy one. Dick could have gone to college instead of off to join a team for young superheroes. He would have come home every weekend.

And then Jason - he knew Talia liked Jason. She had brought him back to life, after all, little as he appreciated what she had done afterward. They could have raised Jason together, and then . . . three years after they took him in, if he did his math right, Talia would have brought him the news. They were going to have a child together.

She would have stopped patrolling for awhile. In this imaginary world, of course they would patrol together. Talia would never accept a quiet life. Then Damian would have been born into a world as safe as his parents could make it, surrounded by both of their love.

Maybe in this world Barbara would have been better off. Maybe here he could have been a proper mentor to Stephanie. Maybe Talia would have noticed the Drakes’ neglect of their son faster than Bruce had. She would have been the queen of Gotham society, and there wouldn’t have been anything she allowed to slip beneath her notice. They could have brought Tim home too - since this was a fantasy, he allowed himself to forget the drawn out court case and all the heartbreak it would have brought - and the boys could have all been proper brothers.

When he found Cassandra, he wouldn’t have frightened her into another city. He would have taken her in. Damian would have grown up surrounded by a plethora of siblings, trained to defend himself instead of to attack, and would have always, always known that he was loved.

This was not that world. In this world, Tim and Alfred were both slowly healing from wounds Damian had inflicted, and Bruce was wary of his own son. His cruel, abused, trained by assassins son.

And Talia wanted him trained here. Here where the city would chew him up while Bruce screamed where only he and Gotham could hear.

He wasn’t sorry Damian was alive. He was just sorry they all didn’t live in that other world.

 

She had allowed Bruce to join the Justice League in the understanding that he would always come back.

He had not come back.

He had died. What, exactly, was she supposed to do with that?

She was prepared to sacrifice most things, but she was surprised at how sorry she was to lose her tortured son.

 

Jason had figured out a number of things. One, killing people made the Pit’s influence stronger. Two, the stronger the Pit was in him, the less of a grip Gotham had. (Not that this was a perfect solution as he wasn’t too fond of the Pit madness either, but he was trying to find a balance, okay?)

Three, someone new was going to have to be Batman. The city needed Batman, and while he didn’t give two hoots about the city as a personality, there was a reason he’d kept fighting, and that reason was the people who were stuck there. They deserved help, and he was going to give it to them.

Bruce was dead. He’d finally had too much demanded of him, and in losing him, Jason had finally figured out how he’d felt about the man.

It didn’t hurt that the city had yanked on his head a few times in the interval.

The thing was, he was pretty sure Bruce had loved him. The city couldn’t have faked that. She didn’t know how.

Which meant the love had been real, and the rest of it, all that mess that he’d been so angry about, was probably on her. He couldn’t prove it one way or another now, but with Bruce dead, what did it matter? He hated Gotham already. For the sake of simplicity, he’d blame it all on her.

Which meant Bruce had lived out his whole life like this, except without the Pit to fall back on, and Jason couldn’t imagine what kind of toll that had taken on him. He didn’t want to. Bruce was supposed to be invincible, not broken.

But now he was gone. Someone had to carry on his legacy.

Jason thought there was no one better qualified than someone the city’d have a far harder time breaking. Someone who could do what Bruce had wanted instead of what he’d been forced into.

Jason grabbed a gun and put on the cowl.

He carved his way through the city, dedicating every kill to the Pit.

Is this what you wanted? he growled at the city. You wanted us fighting on your streets. Well, you’ve gotten your wish.

It all went pretty well if he did say so himself, right up until he ran into the Replacement on a roof near Crime Alley.

Which would have been fine, actually. He sort of liked the kid.

Except the kid was also wearing the cowl, and, no. Jason wasn’t having that. Whoever wore the cowl bore the brunt of Gotham’s attentions, and Tim was Gotham’s through and through. There’d be nothing to stop him from getting as messed up as Bruce.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.

“Someone had to do it,” the kid said stubbornly. “I wasn’t about to let Nightwing do it, and since you’re going around doing your best to destroy all Bruce stood for . . . “

The Nightwing comment was interesting, but Jason was more focused on the last part of that statement. “None of us know what Bruce would have stood for,” he snapped. Not that he expected the kid to get it.

But Tim was nodding. “Point. But given his history, I think we’re safe in believing he had a genuine aversion to guns.”

. . . Probably. Jason couldn’t argue with that one, as much as he’d like to.

But he was pretty sure from that wording that Tim knew.

They didn’t talk about it. None of them ever talked about it. He wasn’t sure if it was fear of being thought crazy or superstitious dread of calling down her attention.

But Tim knew.

“So why not Big Bird?” he tested.

“I don’t think he knows,” Tim said quietly. “And he wouldn’t do well under that level of scrutiny. Better that someone else step up. Someone with practice reasoning with her.”

And Jason suddenly wondered how long Tim had known. Because Tim had volunteered to be Robin, hadn’t he? Had he known then, and volunteered himself to spare whoever else it would have been? Had he figured it out later and refused to even try to run?

Jason looked at the kid with new respect. “You’ve got a point there. But I can’t let you do that.”

Tim braced for a fight. “Try and stop me.”

“If I have to.”

He didn’t shoot the kid. That would defeat the whole point. He crashed into him instead, making use of his greater weight.

A brutal half-hour later, the kid was out like a light. Jason peeled the cowl off and double checked to make sure there was still a domino mask to protect his identity.

“Sorry, kid,” he said softly. “But I’m not letting this city chew up any more Robins.” He’d take the cowl with him. Maybe spray paint ‘fake’ on the batsuit before he left? That should at least slow the kid down a little.

Someone landed on the roof behind him.

Jason turned. “Nightwing.”

This was going to get messy.

“Red Hood.” Dick sounded mad. “What have you done?”

Jason stood. “Oh, he’s fine. Just got himself a bit banged up playing in Daddy’s suit. I’m sure he’ll have learned his lesson by morning.”

Apparently Dick was feeling a bit overprotective given . . . everything . . . because he took that as provocation to attack.

And Jason was good, but without using lethal force, he wasn’t quite Nightwing good. Not yet. Especially when he wasn't fresh.

So he wasn't exactly surprised when he lost that fight.

He heard more than felt the handcuffs click around his wrists. He was too busy trying to breathe around the pain to care much. “Gonna drag me back to the batcave and make me sit in the corner while I think about what I’ve done?”

“You need help,” Dick said. “More help than we can give you.”

“Probably,” he admitted. “Although have you looked in a mirror lately?”

Dick opened his mouth to answer, but then he froze. Cocked his head like he was listening to something.

Oh, no.

Gotham? Gotham, what are you up to?

You chose the Pit, she said coolly. You tried to deprive me of a usable Batman. You need to reconsider your choices.

Okay. Okay, at least she probably wasn’t telling Dick to kill him then. Blackgate, maybe? She probably wouldn’t even have to force Dick to send him to Blackgate. He could handle that alright. Spend a few weeks healing up before busting out to deal with business.

A flash of horror crossed Dick’s face, and he actually flinched back. Jason was getting a little panicky now. He started picking at the cuffs a little frantically.

Hey, leave him alone, you rotting pile of -

“Professional help,” Dick said. His face was the kind of blank Jason had only ever seen on Batman before. “I’m sure we’d all benefit if you spent some time in Arkham.”

“Arkham?” Jason choked out.

The Joker was currently in Arkham.

He began struggling in earnest now, but Dick knew all his tricks. He’d secured him too well.

Not Arkham, anywhere but Arkham -

Dick slung both him and Tim into the car with equal carelessness which only confirmed what Jason already knew. Dick wasn’t the one at the steering wheel right now.

Knowing that helped him keep his mouth shut the whole way there and focus on trying to talk Gotham out of this. She was already down one protector, did she really want to be down two?

Apparently she did.

Once the cell door swung shut behind him, Jason's self-control broke.

He was pretty sure Dick heard the scream.

 

Her new little Bat was crumbling in her grip, but she couldn’t afford to loosen it. The threat was drawing close now. She demanded he make Damian her new Robin so she could keep the boy close. She could make him hers, given enough time.

Tim might have been the better choice, she admitted to herself. He reasoned instead of raged.

But he’d already had an intriguing idea when she’d been making her choice, and she wanted to let him pursue it. It would be wonderful to have her first bat back after all.

She was so happy with his progress on that front that she even left him free Jason when he returned to her and learned of his elder’s placement.

 

When Bruce stumbled out of the time stream and into the present, seeing Tim had not been entirely unexpected.

The first thing Tim said when he finally pulled out of Bruce’s embrace, though, was. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Bruce wasn’t entirely sure how long he’d been in the time stream, but however long it was, surely Tim didn’t blame himself -

Tim shook his head. “I know you might not have wanted to come back, but we need you. Dick’s not going to last much longer as Batman.”

Bruce hadn’t wanted anyone to be Batman after him. He had been very clear on that in his will.

But since when had Gotham given anyone a choice?

“Tim,” he said firmly. “You did right. Thank you.

He hated Gotham with a burning passion. He couldn’t pass through the city limits without quiet panic racing through his veins like poison.

But he’d return there as often as it took to protect his children.

 

They were almost out of time now.

The threat was shrieking ever closer, and Gotham hurried to put her players into place. She’d need every protector she could get.

So when hundreds rose up and declared themselves Robin, she certainly had no word of complaint.

She could not give all of them her power, as she had done for her favored ones. They would not heal more quickly or jump more safely on her streets. Without these safeties, they died faster.

But one of them, Duke, called to her, and him at least . . . Well, surely she could spare at least one more thread of power.

And then they were out of time. The great shrieking darkness descended upon them with fire and blood and pain.

 

Bruce had fought aliens before. More times than he could count.

This wasn’t like that.

For the first time, he felt what it was to have two opposing forces clawing at each other for control of his mind. Fighting through the agonizing pain of that was like nothing else he’d ever done before.

He remembered -

Mostly he remembered his children’s voices over the comms. He had a perpetual count going that flared into panic whenever one of them was silent for too long.

He remembered impressions of blood and pain, and he remembered attacking the ship that had carried the aliens here and crashing it, but mostly he just remembered their voices and then a few minutes of ringing silence after the crash.

He stumbled out of the ruins of the ship and fell to his knees in the grass. Each rasping breath burned his throat.

Did we win?

Gotham didn’t answer. He looked around and came to the slow realization that he’d landed outside the city.

Hearing slowly returned. There was a lot of shouting over his comm.

“Batman reporting in,” he rasped. “Source ship down.”

“Homing in on your exact position,” Oracle said tightly.

“I’ve got visual,” Red Hood announced. Bruce looked up wearily, and sure enough, there was Jason’s motorcycle racing towards him. Jason was running towards him almost before it was safely stopped.

“Jay.” Jason’s helmet was off. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his son’s face look like this. Not angry. Not pained. Just . . . worried. Worried for him.

Jason was right next to him now. “Hey, B. Think you can stand?”

Bruce grimaced. “Give me a minute.” He needed longer than that. No, he wanted longer than that. He could make it in a minute.

“Okay.” Jason’s face was pale.

“You - okay?” Bruce asked. His voice scratched at this throat.

Jason laughed wildly. “Am I okay? You look half dead.”

“Sorry.” He couldn’t think what else to say. His head drooped forward onto Jason’s shoulder.

Jason didn’t shake him off. Bruce had expected him to. He hadn’t expected Jason’s hand to come up and start rubbing his back.

“Hey, you’re okay,” Jason said anxiously. “The others’ll be here soon.”

“Not all of them,” he said tiredly. “She’ll never let all of them out.” He stiffened as soon as the words were out. He couldn’t talk about that. He couldn’t risk drawing her attention to them.

“She’s pretty badly off,” Jason said. “Maybe she won’t notice, just this once.”

Bruce jolted up in horror. “You know.” What had she done to him? What had she forced him to do?

Jason’s face twisted. “Yeah. Tim and Dick know too. I don’t know about the others.”

Bruce felt another piece of himself break. “I’m sorry. I tried - “ Tried to protect them. Tried to make up for it. Tried, tried, tried. His head bowed. “I failed.”

Jason grabbed onto him tightly. “No,” he said fiercely. “No, this isn’t your fault. None of this is your fault, and I’m - “ He swallowed and continued on. “I’m sorry for thinking it was. This isn’t on you.”

Bruce took a deep, shaking breath. Jason knew. Jason knew, and that had - horrifying implications, but Jason . . . Jason forgave him.

More vehicles approached. Bruce’s head jerked up. Jason was on his feet in an instant, twisting to put himself in front of Bruce.

He relaxed almost instantly. “What took you so long?”

Dick. Tim. Damian. Stephanie. All they were missing were Barbara, Duke, and Alfred.

All of them were hurrying over.

“Alfred and Duke are picking Barbara up,” Dick announced. “They’re on their way.”

“How?” Bruce breathed.

Tim and Dick exchanged looks. “The city’s dead,” Tim finally said. “Or at least hurt enough to go quiet for a good while. We thought it would be good to evacuate as much as possible just in case.”

Dead.

A failure. They had saved plenty of civilians, but if the city was hurt enough to have gone quiet, then far too many were dead.

A failure, then.

But also - freedom. For all of them.

“I do not understand,” Damian huffed. “Surely we can rebuild. Should we not be assisting in the cleanup?”

Damian didn’t know.

“You’re not going back into that city,” Bruce said instantly. He didn’t care how raw his throat was, he was laying down the law on that. “None of you are. I’ll - “ He tried to stand.

“Nope.” Jason was pressing him back down instantly.

“You’re not going back in there,” Dick agreed. “Ever. We can move headquarters to New York or something.”

“California,” Stephanie suggested.

Tim explained the situation more fully. “We got the brunt of the attack. We’ve got out of town heroes helping with the cleanup now. It’s safer to let them handle this.”

He could hear a car approaching.

“That’ll be the others,” Dick said in relief.

They were out. They were all out.

It took him a moment to realize he was shaking.

“No more cities,” he croaked out.

“Judging my by analysis of the other heroes, most cities are probably better,” Tim offered. “But I’m fine with never finding out.”

“I still do not understand,” Damian said testily.

Bruce pulled him into a hug. “And you won’t ever have to.”