Something is wrong with Bruce.
Everyone says so.
They call him ‘Orphan Wayne,’ or ‘The Little Heir,’ or, in one blatantly blue piece of journalism, ‘The Loneliest Billionaire.’ Alfred gathers the papers and throws them away with the rubbish, but Bruce sneaks them out and reads the articles, one-by-one. Each word catches in his chest and makes his throat burn, but he reads them carefully, writing down the words he doesn’t know and looking them up in the big dictionary in his father’s study.
He lays flowers on his parents’ graves, dressed in crow-black, as the reporters circle and snap pictures. Alfred tries to prevent it, but it makes little difference.
Bruce pretends not to see them.
“Bruce, tell us how sad you feel to lose your parents,” a reporter directs the silent boy. And Bruce is sad. But what he feels most of the time is not sadness.
It is rage.
Something is wrong with Bruce, and everyone can see it. His teachers treat him with ginger concern, always watching, as if they know some secret he doesn’t. His peers don’t like him. They think that he is an arrogant rich boy. They think he is weird because he has no family. They think he is stupid because he keeps quiet.
Bruce isn’t stupid. He is bored. He has read each of his textbooks by the second month of school, memorized the biological classifications and the planets of the solar system. The other kids in his class don’t read much outside of school. They certainly don’t spend hours in the library, poring over college chemistry textbooks. They don’t obsessively read the crime sections of several newspapers and keep a careful catalogue of notes, tracking patterns, sifting for clues. Trying to make order out of chaos.
Bruce wonders if it is him that is disordered.
The teacher calls on him, and he deliberately provides the wrong answer. His classmates laugh, and he smiles at them. Even the teacher is amused; he has been careful to maintain a rapport with all of his teachers.
Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Bruce recites in his head. Family, Genus, Species.
Something is wrong with Bruce, but whether the sickness was always there, lying in wait, or whether the death of his parents caused it, he does not know. What Bruce knows is that, deep down, he is not normal.
When he is thirteen years old, he is suspended from school for fighting. Alfred patches him up, face drawn and weary. He doesn’t shout or lecture or any of the things that parents are supposed to do. He does not presume. Instead, he tells Bruce that his fitness as Bruce’s guardian is being questioned. There will be a hearing and, until then, Bruce must go to counseling.
Bruce hates the councilor. He hates her hennaed hair and her tight-lipped smile. He hates the way she asks questions, and the way her eyes study him when he answers. Her eyes are beady and dark—crow’s eyes—and he feels like an experiment in a dish.
“How did you feel when you struck the boy?” she wants to know.
And he answers truthfully, “Nothing.”
Later, the woman pulls Alfred aside and says quiet words to him, watching Bruce as she whispers into the old man’s ear. Alfred pulls away, his eyes going terribly livid for a moment, before he barks, “Come, Master Bruce. Let’s go home.”
It is the only time that Bruce has ever seen Alfred truly angry. The knuckles of the hand wrapped around the steering wheel are white. “I wish that I could forbid you to go back to that place,” Alfred says, tightly. “But I cannot. Do you understand?”
Bruce nods. He does understand.
Bruce spends the entire next day in the library, reading every book on child psychology that he can get his hands on. He learns how to answer the councilor’s questions in acceptable ways. He learns how to smile, and to nod, and to “make progress.”
He learns how to pretend.
He pretends so well, that soon enough everyone forgets. The teachers lose their wariness. His peers invite him to their parties. The councilor testifies on Alfred’s behalf. The reporters stop coming around. Everyone believes that he is fine.
But deep inside, Bruce knows that he is not fine. He does not fit. He is out of order.
He is alone.
Bruce is sixteen years old when he meets Jack, and everything changes.
Batman is thirty-four years old when he meets Joker, and everything ends.
Batman drops from the ventilation shaft into Joker’s padded cell.
It has taken Batman a year to find a way inside Arkham Asylum. Now, it seems like it was a fool’s errand. Joker sits unmoving on his narrow bed. His greasy green hair has been shaved close to the scalp, his makeup washed away to reveal a narrow, pale face bracketed with scars. His legs are splayed out in front on him, the left wrapped in a brace that covered his threadbare drawstring pants from calf to thigh. An injury from Joker trip down from the Pruitt Building; a compound fracture that never healed properly. Joker’s eyes are glassy and unfocused. His hands, inside padded leather cuffs, lie bony and motionless in his lap.
He looks like a rag, folded in on himself, paper-thin and pale. His file says he is catatonic, unresponsive to therapy or medication.
Batman doesn’t believe it.
“Joker,” Batman hisses. His whisper seems loud in the still room. He hears the distant moan of another inmate, a shuffle of feet, the creak of a bed as someone turns over. No answer from the clown.
He crosses the room in an angry stride and shakes him. “Joker!” he tries again, more sharply. Joker’s head flops loosely on his neck and Batman releases him, watching as he slumps over onto the thin bed.
Nothing. No movement. Not a snide remark, nor mocking smile, nor even a spark of recognition.
This is a waste of time.
Batman moves to go, when a low, hoarse sound stops him.
“Ah-“ There’s a long intake of breath, an obvious effort to try again. “I know why you’re here.”
He turns. Joker is still slumped over like a marionette with its strings cut, but his eyes have focused on Batman.
There is a long, tense moment where they simple stare at each other. Batman has forgotten the power in that gaze—uncanny intelligence and relentless obsession like a freight train running him down.
“Bruce,” Joker slurs and Batman snaps into action, curling his fists into Joker’s soft grey t-shirt and lifting him bodily from the bed. He slams him against the wall, Joker’s knees knocking into his thighs with the impact and there it is--the mad swell of laughter. He cocks his fist back, wanting nothing so much as Joker blood on his gauntlet, when a noise makes them both freeze.
Footsteps outside the door, and Batman steps away, letting the clown crumple back onto the bed. He leaves as quickly and as silently as he can. He is barely outside Joker’s cell when he hears the door crash open, and Joker’s bright, “I’m glad you boys could make it,” before the sound of the guard’s shout and a fist impacting flesh.
Batman is gone before the fight is over.
“Hold him,” Mario Maroni says.
Bruce’s arms are yanked behind him and Mario’s fist plants into his stomach. The blow knocks the wind out of Bruce, tears springing to his eyes. Mario draws back his fist and punches Bruce again. The pain is blinding, knocking his feet out from under him. He sags into the grip of the two other boys.
“Hey there, rich boy,” Mario croons, cradling Bruce’s chin in one hand. “You’re in the wrong part of town.” He smiles nastily at Bruce, brushing a hand against the collar of Bruce’s coat. Bruce shifts away as much as he is able, and Mario lets him, a cruel smile still lighting his brutish face.
“I could break that pretty nose of yours. Really teach you a lesson.” He laughs and his idiot friends guffaw, and Bruce tries to pull himself together and think. He gets his feet back under him, and kicks out, connecting with Mario’s knee. The boy goes down and Bruce struggles against the hands holding him. He gets one arm free but then Mario is to his feet, pushing him against the wall of the alley and grinding his face against cold bricks.
“Now, that wasn’t nice,” Mario says. “Rich boys like you should learn who runs this town.” He pulls Bruce around by the back of his jacket. The blow lands on his cheek, pain blossoming across his jaw. He pitches back, head ricocheting against the wall and into the next punch. He tries to defend himself, but there are three of them and, while he lands a few punches, he knows they are just toying with him. Another punch to his gut and Bruce is crumpling to the ground. He curls into himself as they kick him a few times.
“You want this?”
Bruce looks up, rage burning in his chest. The left side of his face aches with the movement. Mario is holding the necklace—Rachel’s necklace, the one her mother had given her for birthday and that Mario had stolen from her locker at school—in front of Bruce’s face. Bruce snatches for it, but Mario is quicker. He pulls it away, laughing. “You want it?” He cocks his arm back and throws it, the gold chain glittering as it arcs into the trash piled at the end of the alleyway. “Go get it!”
Mario kicks him one more time and he and his friends leave.
It takes Bruce a long minute to uncurl himself and scramble to the back of the alley. He digs carefully through leaves, broken bottles and other detritus, looking for the necklace. Rachel was crushed when she found it missing, and none of the teachers would do anything—even when Rachel had seen Mario wearing it the next day. Cold anger scorches him at the memory of Rachel’s tear-streaked face. He shifts a large piece of glass out of his way, still probing for the discarded piece of jewelry. He is so intent on his task that he doesn’t hear the other boy until he’s right next to him.
High, eerie laughter awakens him to another presence and Bruce jumps, spins around in a crouch.
The boy is leaning up again the side of the building, and he’s laughing like he’s just heard the funniest thing in the world. Long streams of giggles bend him over, bony hands clutching his ribs in glee. He’s dressed in a t-shirt and jeans that are at least two sizes too big for his tall, lanky frame. The t-shirt is a garish bright pink, and the blond hair that hangs in front of his face is long and stringy. He lifts his head, the giggles still bursting out of his wide red mouth and—oh my god, his face, Bruce thinks and stares. Long, angry red cuts extended the laughing mouth, dark thread binding the broken skin in uneven stitches that look swollen and painful. Bruce can see the skin break as the boy tips his head back and howls, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.
“You,” the boy gasps, trying to speak past his mirth. “You just got your ass handed to you, didn’t you?”
Bruce blinks, forces himself to stop staring at the horrific gashes that mar the boy’s face. And he is a boy; Bruce can see that now. Despite his height, he can’t be more than thirteen or fourteen, and painfully thin. He is mostly clean, but has the ragged look of someone who’s lived on the street for a while. No track marks on his bare arms, though. No sores on his face or neck. Just those long, jagged cuts.
“I don’t really see how that’s so funny,” Bruce says sullenly. He turns back to his task, dismissing the laughing boy.
“Of course you don’t,” the boy says gleefully. His laughter tapers off, and he unwinds himself from the wall, shivering all over in delight. “That’s because you lost.”
“I didn’t lose,” Bruce answers sullenly. He could kick himself. He doesn’t know why he’s letting this strange, and probably crazy, boy bait him like this. “There were three of them. It wasn’t fair.”
Bruce only has a moment to curse his inattention before the boy springs across the distance between them, his surprisingly strong hands gripping Bruce’s shoulders painfully. “Fair?” he mocks. His face is so close to Bruce’s that he cannot look away, watching in disgusted fascination as the gashes on his face bunch and move with the boy’s words. “There is no fairness in this world, Bruce Wayne.”
Bruce starts, surprised as he always in when people he doesn’t know seem to know him. He twists away, shrugging the younger boy’s hands off him. The boy leans back onto his heels, amused. He holds out his hand, Rachel’s necklace dangling from his fingertips.
He pulls it away as Bruce snatches for it. “Fair doesn’t matter,” he says. He catches Bruce’s eye and his eyes are green, bright and intense. Bruce was wrong about the boy’s age. His eyes are old, far older than his thin, boyish body suggests. Bruce is trapped by that gaze, staring back for a long, dumbstruck moment. His brain is working to catch up, still reeling from the beating he received, and the boy’s sudden and unnerving change of mood.
The boy seizes Bruce’s wrist, uncurling Bruce’s fingers and dropping the necklace inside. He closes Bruce’s fingers around it, gives them a little pat and releases him. He stands, goes to the mouth of the alley. Bruce is still crouched next to a heap of trash, watching the boy as he hesitates between the darkness of the alley and the daylight beyond.
“What matters is who wins,” the boy throws over his shoulder. He slips smoothly into the crowded street and disappears.
Batman crouches on the roof of Arkham Asylum, winter snow spiraling down around him and onto the mostly barren grounds. The frozen grass is white, wind-blasted shrubs and stunted trees black in the moonlight. In is near midnight, and there is no sound from inside. The winter has been crueler than most, freezing water pipes and trapping many people in their homes. The ones who venture out find that most businesses are closing early, if they are opening at all, and the streets are caked with thick layers of ice. Even the denizens of Gotham’s notorious prison for the criminally insane seem to have hunkered down for the winter.
Batman is glad for the quiet, but he dreads what it might mean.
Joker had celebrated his reawakening with the murder of two hospital orderlies. The clown was eventually sedated and moved to a high-security wing. Batman can no longer reach him without a full-scale assault on the hospital. But he has no doubt that the madman is biding his time, planning. Batman curses himself for visiting him, for contributing to his growing obsession. Without Batman, Joker had been nothing. If he hadn’t been so intent on getting answers from the madman then none of this would have happened.
His guilt cuts far deeper than that, Batman knows. Across years, decades. So many times he’s failed. So many things he could have done to stop this before it even started. He tries not to think about it. He tries to neatly bisect his life: before Joker and after-- but he knows it’s futile. Joker was always there, waiting. Just like Batman was. It would have always found them both, no matter what either of them could or should have done.
Batman has no confidence in Arkham Asylum’s ability to retain Joker. Joker will leave when it pleases him, and start their bloody game all over again.
And so he stands a lonely vigil, waiting for the first rays of the morning sun to touch the horizon before he rises from his crouch, stiff with cold, and abandons his post for a few precious hours of sleep.
It is a couple weeks before he sees the boy again.
Bruce is cutting across Broad Street on his way downtown, dodging traffic and weaving through pedestrians. He loves being out in the city. It’s remarkable, the times he can just walk around Gotham without being recognized. That’s why it’s so jarring when it does happens; he’s always stupidly surprised when people call him by name, or act like they know him. The media has left him alone for the past few years, though he knows that interest will ramp up with the anniversary of his parent’s deaths, and his seventeenth birthday, just around the corner. Truth is, he’s been dreading the increased scrutiny and attention that comes with being the sole heir to the Wayne fortune. He sometimes wishes he could just slip away, trek across the world as a nameless no one.
Getting lost in the twisting streets of Gotham is the next best thing. The spring sunshine warms him as he moves, loose-limbed despite the bruises still hidden underneath his clothing, the remnants of Mario Maroni’s handiwork. The thought of the bully still sends a cold shock of anger through Bruce. He wishes he’d been able to teach him a lesson. The humiliation of letting a guy like Maroni beat him burns. Mario Maroni is a coward, hiding behind his father’s name, committing petty theft and aimless acts of cruelty at school, untouchable because even the adults are scared of him.
Bruce doesn’t want revenge. He wants justice. And it burns him that he is not likely to get it.
Bruce is passing the space between two storefronts when he hears an eerie, and familiar, giggle. His mind flashes to two weeks ago, and the strange, infuriating boy in the alley. He is moving before he’s even thought of it, following the siren sound of high-pitched laughter down a side street.
He sees them from a dozen yards away. Two figures in a deserted parking lot: the boy, dangling by his shirtfront, laughing in the face of a huge brute of a man. The man draws his fist back. The boy’s body rocks with the force of the blow. The laughter does not stop.
“Hey,” Bruce shouts.
Neither figure pays him any attention. The man punches the skinny boy again, letting him crumple to the pavement. The boy howls, curling around himself as giggles burst from his too-wide mouth.
“Shut up,” the man barks, raising a foot to kick him.
And then the boy moves, faster than Bruce has ever seen anyone move. He grabs the man’s foot in both hands and pushes. The man overbalances and falls down, the boy rolling smoothly up and over him, planting himself on the man’s chest. The man attempts to shake him off, but a flash of silver freezes him.
“Now it’s my turn,” the boy says in an uncannily calm voice. He shakes his head, dripping blood onto the man’s shirt. His knife hand moves. The man screams, and Bruce, who has slowed to watch, races forward again.
“Hey,” he shouts.
The boy’s head snaps up. His face is all sharp, pale lines and wide red mouth. There is blood on his knife. The boys grin is feral.
Time dilates. Bruce can feel him lungs burning, his legs churning over pavement, trying to get to the man because he is certain, absolutely certain, that the boy is going to kill him. He has to stop it. He has to stop him.
He stretches, strains forward even as the boy turns back to his victim with another eerie chuckle, and then everything snaps into bright focus as the sound of a siren rends the afternoon quiet. Bruce almost collapses with relief. Someone has called the police.
The boy’s knife is quickly stashed into a pocket. He pats the man’s face, says something that Bruce doesn’t catch, and rolls to his feet, sprinting away.
The man levers himself up, hand clutching his neck. There is blood trickling from between his fingers but he doesn’t wait for the police. He ducks into a nearby building. Bruce jogs towards the end of the street and looks.
There is no sign of the skinny boy.
Bruce stretches his right knee under the desk, rubbing at the underside of the joint absently as he leafs through paperwork. He ignores the pages with the Wayne Enterprises logo, reaching for the file that Alfred had handed him this morning instead. It contains the latest press clippings on the Dent Act, signed into law by Mayor Garcia that morning. A new era of hope, the mayor calls it. A city that no longer needs Batman. Bruce places his hand over the crisp, white sheets of paper. His knee throbs, the ache a constant background hum.
The shrill ring of his deskphone interrupts his reading.
“Bruce Wayne,” he answers, still staring down at the newsprint, his eyes caught on the words masked vigilante…murdered…hope. “Ahoy there, sailor,” a shrill voice coos.
Bruce’s head snaps up.
“You know, you may want to have words with that secretary of yours. Ten minutes on hold, and my phone time’s almost up.”
Bruce swallows drily. “What do you want?” he rasps.
“Oooooh! You know I love the voice. Though it must be hell on your throat,” Joker’s voice drops. “Does Alfred provide lozenges? I bet he does.”
His hee-hawing laugher brays down the phone line. “I was so happy it was you. I mean, I knew, of course. But still…oh yes, so happy. Such a great punchline, you know?”
Bruce’s control snaps. “What. Do. You. Want?”
“What do you want, hmmmm?” Joker mocks. “You came to me, remember.”
Bruce remains silent. On the other end, there’s a huff of impatience.
“Oh fine, you want me to tell you. Fine.” He clears his throat theatrically. “You want to know why.” He draws out the last word in a sing-song, making it sound like a childish whine. “You need to make it fit. Not me. You know me.”
Another huff of laughter. “You want to know why Rachel.”
Bruce becomes aware that his hand has fisted in the contents of the file. He forces his hand to relax, smoothing out the crumpled papers and closing the folder.
“Alright,” he answers, proud of how steady his voice comes out. “Why Rachel?”
There is a click on the other end. A dial tone is his only answer.
Bruce laughs easily, his wide smile bright and charming. The redhead beside him prattles on. He isn’t listening, but that doesn’t matter. Bruce does not even remember her name. She has her arms wound through his, though, her breasts pressed into his side as the socialites and sons of powerbrokers and Gotham’s aristocracy mingle around them. Everyone stops to congratulate him on his birthday, pressing drinks into his hand and smiling brittle, over-bright smiles. He doesn’t know most of these people, and the ones he does know almost universally despise him.
It doesn’t really matter, though. The booze are flowing and the clothes are stunning and there are photographers everywhere, and Bruce could do all of this in his sleep.
Bruce hates it. He hates every single second of the chatter, and the music, and the stuffy conversation, oh you must come to dinner sometime and what a lovely party and you look so much like your father. He has to concentrate on not flinching at that last one, but he’s become an expert at this point, he’s heard it so damn often.
Rachel catches his eye from across the room, her smile tilting wryly. He gives her a jaunty wave and she giggles before she is swept onto the dance floor by her date. Bruce sighs and uncouples his arm from the redhead’s.
“Going for a smoke,” he tells her. “Why don’t you get yourself a drink?”
He doesn’t wait for her permission, just makes a beeline for the door, waving and shaking hands and nodding at the greetings he receives on his way out. Finally, he pushes through the restaurant’s side door and into the crisp night air. He breathes a sigh and tilts his head back, catching a glimpse of the stars. It’s quiet here; the sounds of the party drown out by street noise.
Bruce riffles through his pockets and pulls out a crumpled pack of cigarettes. Alfred would kill him if he caught him, but Bruce really needs the excuse to leave the party, so his guardian’s aversion to smoking is just going to have to take a back seat, and damn, where is his lighter? Another search of his pockets comes up empty and he curses around the cigarette tucked into the corner of his mouth. He rounds the side of the building and notices a figure leaning against the brick. A cigarette glows as he takes a long drag.
“Hey, sorry to bother you, but do you have a light?”
“Sure thing,” a voice drawls. There is the flick of a lighter and a familiar face is illuminated for a brief second before he holds the flame out towards Bruce. Bruce lights up, drawing soothing nicotine into his lungs, and exhales on a gusty sigh.
“Thanks,” he says, leaning against the wall next to the boy from the alley. Bruce’s eyes have adjusted and he can see that the boy looks slightly different than when Bruce saw him last—the stitches on his cheeks have been taken out, the skin still bright pink but knitted together. His hair is pulled back into a tidy ponytail at the back of his head. He is dressed in the black pants/red vest combo of the restaurant’s valets.
“Are you even old enough to drive?” Bruce asks with amusement.
“Says the guy who’s celebrating his sweet sixteen,” the other boy rejoins. “Seventeen,” Bruce corrects. The other boy shrugs. He crosses his arms, cigarette dangling between lazy fingers. Bruce can’t tell in the dim light, but he thinks the boy is smiling. Bruce peers over at him, trying to catch the expression. “Are you staring at my scars?” The question is conversational, and Bruce remembers how the boy sounded when he threatened the beefy man—calm, casual, violence without anger. He shivers. “Do you want to know how I got ‘em?” the boy asks.
“No,” Bruce says flatly.
Bruce takes another drag on his cigarette. The clouds part, a slice of moonlight illuminating the other boy’s face for a moment. He is looking at Bruce, his head canted to the side thoughtfully. Bruce opens his mouth to explain that no, he doesn’t need to know or even want to know about the boy’s scars or his past. It’s strange, this need to explain himself, to be understood by the other boy. Bruce had long-ago given up on really knowing people; knowing them the way that other people seem to know each other. Even Rachel doesn’t really know him, not the parts he doesn’t want her to see. He knows that she knows it. He catches it in her eyes sometimes; the way her mouth goes tight, her eyes soft and pleading. But she never pushes.
The boy next to him shifts closer, as if anticipating Bruce’s response, and Bruce feels something in his stomach lurch at his nearness. He raises his head, searching out the other boy’s eyes in the darkness.
A door crashes open around the side of the building, the sound of laughing partygoers breaking the moment.
“Oh my god, this party is the best,” one girl says, loudly enough that they can clearly hear her.
“Yeah, too bad it’s for that douchebag, Bruce Wayne,” another girl responds. “Did you see him flirting with Angeline? Ugh!”
The boy beside him giggles. Douchebag, he mouths, pressing his long fingers around Bruce’s wrist. His laughter is mocking, but Bruce gets the impression that it’s the situation, and not him, that is being mocked. Bruce grins back. They are standing very close together, but Bruce does not move away.
The girls continue to trash the redhead—Angeline, right, that was her name!—until their voices fade into silence.
“Wow, nice friends you got,” the boy drawls.
“They aren’t my friends,” Bruce says reflexively. And then he realizes how much that statement reveals, and he snaps his charm back up like a shield between them. “And maybe they’re right. Maybe I am a douchebag.”
The taller boy rolls his eyes. “Or maybe you’re just a guy who doesn’t know when to stop.” He releases Bruce’s wrist and steps back, planting his shoulder blades into the wall.
“That sounds like a mutual problem,” Bruce tells him. At the boy’s blank look Bruce explains, “The guy in the parking lot. The one you pulled a knife on?” “Oh. That.”
“Yeah, that. You looked like you were going to kill him.”
“Would that be so bad?” There isn’t a hint of humor in the question, and Bruce doesn’t laugh.
“Well, yeah,” Bruce says slowly. “I mean, do you want to go to jail?”
“Is that why you don’t kill people? So you won’t go to jail?” He sounds bored, almost disappointed.
Bruce smiles mirthlessly. “That fear seems to be enough for most people.”
The boy turns, considering Bruce for a long second. “Yes,” he says slowly. “But we aren’t most people.”
The door bangs open again, more people spilling onto the sidewalk. The party is breaking up, it seems. Bruce ought to head back inside to say goodbye to his guests. The thought makes his jaw clench, but it wouldn’t do to keep standing out here. Besides, the other boy will probably be needed at the valet stand.
The skinny blond pushes off from the wall, probably thinking the same thing. Bruce turns to go, then turns back.
“Hey,” he calls to the retreating figure. “What’s your name?”
The boy turns and regards him for so long that Bruce thinks that the boy won’t say. Bruce feels a spark of disappointment at the thought.
“You can call me Jack,” the boy says, finally.
Bright colors, lights, press of people. He pushes past the crowd, fear clogging his throat. He hits the cool night air and pulls in deep calming breaths. He feels a warm, broad hand on his back, and the fear abates a bit. There is the buzz of voices talking over his head, and then the stiffening of his father’s body beside him as the man emerges from the shadows, the barrel of the gun bright as silver in his hand. The fear rushes back, twisting in his gut and he is pushed out, away. A deafening sound; one, two, three—crimson unfurling even as his parents fall, broad splashes staining grey concrete. Screaming. He falls to his knees beside them, pain a sharp bright thing in his chest--
Bruce wakes, gasping and shaking.
He goes into the bathroom and washes his face, drinks a handful of water.
He lays awake the rest of the night, straight and silent in his dark bedroom. In the morning, he gets ready for school and hides his fatigue-bruised eyes from Alfred.
He doesn’t allow himself to wish for someone to tell.
Grim darkness, cold wind pushing past his face, chilling exposed skin. He leans forward, ignoring everything else in the aching need to move faster, gain a few more seconds. Rage and fear twist in his belly and, far in the back of his mind, a pale face and a soft fall of hair.
He rounds the corner, kicks off from the still-moving bike and runs full-out. Pounds through the door, skidding to a stop in front of hundreds of barrels, a circle of light and lying within, the wrong face. The wrong person.
A tinny radio carries her last words. A roar, like a thousand voices screaming at once, and then the crack and shattering of concrete as the building erupts into flame—
Bruce wakes, gasping and shaking.
He levers himself up, gets to the bathroom in time to puke into the sink. He runs shaking hands across his face and stares into his own eyes in the mirror, waiting for the pain and grief to subside. He pads down to the gym in the darkness and takes out his frustration on his own aching body.
In the morning, he will return to his room and shower and give himself a cortisone shot, so Alfred doesn’t notice the stiffness in his leg and how he’s punished himself long past the point of exhaustion.
He needs to see Joker again.
The phone call was an invitation. Joker wants his attention, Bruce knows. And his attention might be the distraction he needs to keep Joker in Arkham until he works out a better solution. It might be enough to make Joker stay put, at least for as long as Bruce makes it interesting.
He’s fucking lying to himself and he knows it.
It has nothing to do with keeping Joker in Arkham. It is about excising Joker—finally and forever—from his brain.
It takes Bruce six weeks of research to find another way into Arkham. The solution is so simple that he is surprised that it didn’t occur to him before. He only needed to find a security guard in deep with the mob and desperate for money. The Wayne fortune does the rest, and he has a short window of uninterrupted and, more importantly, unobserved, time with everyone’s favorite clown. After that, it’s just waiting.
Bruce gets the call in the afternoon and is inside within the hour. br>
“He’s been restrained,” Bernard, his bought-off security guard, tells him. “But you should still be careful. Don’t touch him. Don’t go near him. He’s fast, even with his leg all fucked up.” They pause at a heavy steel door. “The nurses are on break but I can only give you twenty minutes. I’ll knock three times, then open.”
Bruce nods. The door opens and closes. And then, he is alone with Joker.
The madman is sitting in the corner, his left leg straight out, the other tucked underneath him. The brace is gone, no doubt taken after Joker stripped the metal parts in his comeback killing spree. He is strapped into a straightjacket, his arms bound tightly to his chest. His head is still shaved. His feet are bare.
He looks harmless.
This is an illusion.
Joker’s eyes lock onto Bruce’s face-- vivid and corrosive. His balance shifts as he leans forward, his leg twisting underneath him until he’s almost crouching. His tongue flickers out, wetting dry lips, lingering at the knot of scar tissue at the corner of his mouth. He cants his head to the side, eyes narrowing.
They stand and stare at each other as the moments tick by.
Finally, Joker relaxes, slumping back against the wall. “Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” he says. “A priest walks into a bar with a duck under his arm. The bartender says—“
Bruce punches him.
Joker’s head hits the wall with a dull thump, but Joker’s foot lashes out, hitting Bruce in his bad knee. Bruce doesn’t fall but it’s a close thing. Rage blurs his vision and he hits him again, feeling the crunch of cartilage beneath his knuckles.
Joker grins at him, wide and blood-stained. “So, the bartender says, ‘What’s with the duck?’ And the priest says—“ His voice huffs into a laugh as Bruce plants a fist into his stomach. He collapses, cackling and panting.
“Fine, okay, you don’t like jokes,” Joker says. He fights his way to his knees. The hard concrete must hurt against his unhealed knee, but he is still huffing out giggles. “Don’t suppose you’ll be a dear and help me loosen the straps on this lovely coat, will you? No?”
He pushes himself back against the wall and peers up at Bruce.
“So, you want to talk about Harvey’s squeeze,” he drawls.
He waits for Bruce’s reluctant nod.
“Ooh-ho, I can tell you stories,” he says. “You want to know how much she cried? She was scared at first, but she warmed up after a while. You know, I think she always had a thing for me. You should have seen her at the party. Mmmm…”
Bruce steps forward, livid, but Joker’s next words stop him. “She talked about you, right before I wired her up. Wanted me to tell you something. Do you want to know what it was?” His voice drops conspiratorially, and Bruce leans forward to hear him.
Joker looks up at him, a cat-smile curling his lips. “She said—“
Bang. Bang. Bang. The guard’s knock on the door is deafening.
The smile widens, mocking laughter pouring out. “Time’s up,” he sing-songs.
The door opens.
“See ya later, cupcake,” Joker chortles.
The week before spring break is unseasonably hot and, as if by consensus, most of the juniors at Brentwood Academy skip afternoon classes to hang out by the nearest body of water. Rachel’s school is across town, and she cannot be talked into blowing off even one class and so Bruce is on his own. He spends most of his time at the little boathouse on the far edge of the manor’s grounds, alternating between swimming in the river and sunning himself on the dock. His father’s yacht is in storage across town, but the small cottage is fully furnished with a bed, television and kitchenette. By Wednesday, Bruce has stashed enough food and canned soda in the mini fridge that he doesn’t need to sneak back into his own room until dinner time.
Bruce makes his way across the grounds, carefully avoiding the gardens and anywhere else he might encounter Alfred, and picks his way down to the shore. Long soft grass dampers his footfalls, and the wide boughs of the oaks and walnuts dapple his path in shifting patterns of sunlight. Lazy insects float on the air, and he negligently waves them away with the book he’s carrying under one arm.
As he gets closer, he can hear singing, loud and tuneless.
I’ve been to Georgia and California, anywhere I could run
Took the hand of a preacherman and we made love in the sun
I ran out of places and friendly faces because I had to be free
There is a gigantic splash and the voice cuts off, before sputtering out the last line of the chorus:
I’ve been to paradise, but I haven’t been to me .
Bruce pauses at the treeline, watching the skinny boy as he bobs in the water like a cork, pushing off from the bottom and flinging his arms wide to create ripples. His blond hair is pasted in wet ringlets to his face and neck, and he giggles and launches into the next verse with all the self-consciousness of a child at play.
Bruce steps out from the shade of the trees and down the steep path to the dock. He pauses at the lawn chair he’s placed near the door to the boathouse to set down his book and discard his shoes and socks.
“Hey-ho, look who finally showed up,” Jack crows as soon as Bruce steps back out into the sunlight.
“You swim here often?” Bruce asks drily. He twists his fingers in the hem of his t-shirt but decides to leave it on for now.
“Since this morning. Naughty naughty, keeping this all to yourself.”
Bruce drifts closer. Jack’s chest is pale and littered with scars. Something in Bruce’s stomach lurches at the sight of his wet skin, appearing and disappearing as the boy bounces in the water. Bruce breathes in slowly through his nose, stepping to the end of the dock. The boards are damp beneath his feet. The water is grey and blue, swirling with tiny orange algae and strands of limp brown seaweed. Far away, Bruce can hear the hum of traffic on the Kane Bridge. He smiles down at Jack and executes a neat dive into the water.
He gets the next call a month later. “No hitting this time,” Bernard tells him. “It’s not worth what you’re paying me to explain that.”
They’ve added a table and two chairs to the room. Joker is out of the jacket, cuffed with plain padded cuffs to the table in front of him. There is a newspaper spread on the tabletop.
“A gift,” he says, nodding down at it. “Because I’m making progress. There’s a lovely doctor here—Quinzell, her name is—thinks I’m just doing peachy.”
He smiles and nudges the other chair with his foot, offering it to Bruce. Bruce doesn’t relinquish his spot by the door.
“Driveby shooting, 5 bystanders dead,” Joker indicates the headline with obvious relish. “That’s the Eighty-Sixers’ turf, isn’t it?”
Bruce doesn’t respond. They both know it’s true, and what it means. That someone is moving in on Eighty-Sixers territory.
“Which means it’s either the Russians or Maroni.”
“Maroni’s dead,” Bruce says.
Joker cackles delightedly. “Harvey?” He doesn’t wait for Bruce’s confirming nod. “Oh, I knew he would be good for so many things. Well, that puts you in quite a pickle, doesn’t it?”
Bruce takes the proffered chair. “How so?”
“Well, with your friend Gordon minting new cops, and Batman branded the murderer of our dear, departed Dent…”
Bruce’s mouth flatlines. “I am not discussing that with you.”
“Fine, fine. So, what did you want to talk about?” Joker cocks his head and regards him. “Last words, wasn’t it? You wanna know what my old man’s last words were? ‘Son, if you do that one more time…’” He chuckles to himself.
“Your jokes haven’t gotten any better,” Bruce observes.
“Eh, it’s a matter of perspective,” Joker waves his fingers, substituting for the grander gesture he obviously wants to make. “I told you before, it’s about choices. You chose to be a frowny face from day one. I chose to always smile.”
He leans back as far as his shackled hands will allow, grinning brightly at Bruce.
“I don’t have to come here,” Bruce states.
“Oh-ho, you think so?” Laughter bubbles out of him, sharp as glass. Bruce clenches his fists until the laugher sputter down. “You’ll come for me, Brucie,” Joker’s purr makes the double entendre evident. “You always have.”
Bruce’s mouth tightens. He is not going to talk about his friendship with Jack when the man in front of him is nothing but his enemy.
“Choices,” he prompts.
“Oh yes,” Joker says, leaning forward again. “You made your choices. She made hers.” His eyes catch and hold Bruce’s. “And she didn’t choose you.”
Joker’s smile is almost pitying. “That’s what she said. ‘Tell him I’m sorry,’” he affected a high-pitched voice. He laughs, then drops his voice into his regular timbre and continues, “She couldn’t take it, what you are. She wanted someone normal. Can’t blame her.”
Bruce stood up, stormed to the door. He knocks three sharp raps. The door swings open.
“She left you a letter,” Joker calls after him. “Ask Jeeves about it, if you don’t believe me.”
Bruce slams the door shut, leaving Bernard to stumble along after him.
Jack often shows up unexpectedly. Sometimes he’ll be absent for days, sometimes weeks. Bruce finds him at the lakehouse or, as summer turns to autumn, seeking shelter under the trellis beneath Bruce’s balcony. Bruce opens the sliding glass door and Jack climbs up and they play chess, or cards. Jack knows dozens of variations of poker, and shuffles the cards with the showmanship of a Vegas dealer, cards appearing and disappearing between his long fingers. Sometimes he performs magic tricks and even shows Bruce how to do them when Bruce demands to be let in on the secret.
Bruce thinks they are friends, of a sort.
It’s nothing like his friendship with Rachel. He’s never really sure that Jack likes him. Indeed, sometimes he seems more resigned to Bruce’s company than anything else. He is sometimes sulky and belligerent, picking fights with Bruce until they nearly come to blows, only to reappear a few days later like nothing happened. And when he’s not being antagonistic, he’s straight up annoying. Jack is constant noise and energy, tearing through the room like a hurricane, mouth running a continuous stream of nonsense.
Sometimes, Bruce hates him.
But there are other times when Jack comes to him pinched and hollow-eyed with exhaustion. Jack seldom sleeps, Bruce knows. He sometimes stays awake for days at a time, only to show up at Bruce’s window looking seconds away from collapsing. Bruce watches him rove around the room like a wind-up toy until he finally runs down, folding himself onto the nearest piece of furniture and curling up like a child.
There is a shocking intimacy to this, to having Jack warm and pliant and totally unguarded in his presence. It pierces Bruce’s chest with unexpected warmth. Jack’s face is still and pale, the scars on his cheeks pink and shiny. His blond curls fan out like seaweed, the pale shell of an ear peeking out. The top knot of his spine protrudes from the gapping back of his t-shirt. Bruce’s eyes trace the long, lean curve of his spine before he steps back, hands fisted, and retreats to the other side of the room.
This, he tells himself, is why he keeps their friendship secret for so long.
They are sitting in Bruce’s room one blustery October evening.
“Flush,” Jack says, laying down his cards.
“Cheater,” Bruce says without anger.
“Not if you don’t catch me,” Jack rejoins. Jack cheats outrageously, and encourages Bruce to do the same. It’s all part of the game, according to him.
“All games of chance are loaded against you,” he had told Bruce one long-ago evening at the lakehouse, insects buzzing in the heat and the shuffle of the cards between his fingers almost hypnotic. “Winners make their own luck.” He picks four cards out of the deck, seemingly at random, and sets them down in front of Bruce.
Bruce turns them over at Jack’s urging, revealing four identical red jokers. Bruce chucked them at Jack’s laughing face. “Always the joker,” he scoffs.
Bruce lays down his own hand, “Royal flush.”
“Oh-ho, and I didn’t even notice you holding onto that suicide king. Very nice.”
Bruce gathers up the cards, makes to shuffle them again when he hears a familiar voice calling down the hallway, “Bruce?”
He freezes for a second. He’d forgotten that Rachel was coming for a study session.
“I hope you’ve got your brain fired up,” she continues. “Because this chemistry stuff is really kicking my—oh.” She stops when she rounds the corner. “Sorry, I didn’t know you invited someone else.”
“It’s okay,” Bruce says hastily, the cards spilling from his hands as he stands. “I mean, he’s not here to study. Rachel this is Jack. Jack, Rachel.”
Jack waves a laconic hand at her, his eyes sharp on Rachel’s face.
“Oh, well nice to meet you,” she says, drifting closer. Bruce can tell the moment when she notices the scars. Her eyes widened and then narrow, her mouth tightening in sympathy. “Do you go to Brentwood?”
“Ah—no.” Jack’s voice sounds strange, too casual, but with an undercurrent of menace. “School’s for fools.”
“You don’t go to school?” Rachel sets her books on their table and sits down between them.
Bruce cuts Jack a look. Take it easy. She’s my friend.
“Don’t your parents care that you aren’t getting an education?”
She means well, Bruce knows that. Rachel isn’t mean-spirited. Her question is an honest attempt to understand. But it sets Jack’s teeth on edge, all the same. Bruce can see him bristle, even though his posture becomes even more casual, his tone more diffident.
“Dead, both of ‘em. Oh it was tragedy, let me tell you. Huge fire, could be seen for miles around. Arson, they said. I was the only one that escaped.”
Rachel’s brows knit together at Jack’s tone and the way he seems to relish telling the story.
“Sometimes though,” Jack says, leaning close to her, peering up into her face and flashing his scars to full advantage. “Some-times, I still hear them screaming. The smell of burning flesh…have you ever smelled it?” Rachel’s face is horror-stricken. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever smelled before, let me tell you. And the smoke—“
“That’s enough,” Bruce says. He seizes Jack by the wrist and lifts him from the chair. “Come on.”
He hustles Jack towards the door. Jack throws a bright “Too-da-loo!” at Rachel before Bruce shoves him out onto the balcony and shuts the door.
“Did you see her face?” Jack sputters around a laugh.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Bruce tells him.
“Uh-oh, looks like someone’s mad,” he chirps, still giggling. He reaches out to pat Bruce’s cheek and Bruce has had enough. He catches Jack’s wrist, squeezing hard. Jack ignores the obvious warning, or maybe he doesn’t care. His laugh is high and shrill and it sends Bruce right over the edge. Bruce’s fist snaps out, catches Jack on the chin and Jack rocks back. There’s no place for him to go with Bruce still holding his wrist, so he bounces back instead, surging towards Bruce with all the energy of a coiled spring, landing a blow to Bruce’s ear that makes his eyes water.
It’s all a blur after that. The fight is frenzied and uncoordinated, the balcony too small for them to do more than clumsily jab and scratch at each other. The angles are all wrong, and Bruce won’t relinquish his hold on Jack’s other wrist, even as Jack twists and bucks against his hold like a pissy cat. Bruce kicks Jack in the shin, and Jack responds with a weak punch to his stomach. He’s pretty sure that Jack tries to bite him at one point.
It is completely ridiculous.
It feels wonderful.
Bruce’s mind is utterly blank, but everything is bright and sharp. His skin burns where Jack has scratched and punched and gouged—a dozen bright sparks that remind him that he is alive. They are grinning at each other like idiots, trying to tear each other apart and it feels wonderful.
Bruce has no idea how long it goes on before Rachel’s voice intrudes and they spring apart like guilty lovers, breathing hard. Bruce feels a trickle of blood on his cheek. There is the sound of the trellis scratching against the wall as Jack clambers down and away.
“Oh my god, were you guys fighting out here?” Rachel asks incredulously.
“It’s not a big deal,” Bruce says, brushing past her and back into the room.
“Uh-huh.” Rachel follows him to the table. Bruce sits down heavily, the hum of adrenaline still thumping through his blood. He is still smiling, he realizes. Rachel digs in her backpack and hands him a Kleenex. “You’ve got blood on your lip,” she says.
“Yeah?” he says. He takes the proffered tissue and wipes it away.
”Did you bring any cards?”
Bruce’s mouth is set in a grim line.
“I didn’t come here to play with you, Joker.”
“Of course you did,” Joker rejoins with a laugh.
Bruce scoots his chair closer. “I want to know how you knew about the letter.”
“Ah, your honeybun told you, did he?”
Joker twists his wrists in the shackles, making the chain rattle.
“How did you know he destroyed it?”
Joker leans back as far as he can, peering into Bruce’s face.
“’Yet each man kills the things he loves..’” he quotes from memory. “’The coward does it with a kiss.’” He smacks his lips contemplatively. “Do you think he ever would have told you?”
“He was trying to help.”
“And that makes it all a-okay, does it? That he was helping?”
Bruce breathes a slow breath in, trying to hold his temper. Because no, it doesn’t make it okay. Alfred had lied to him and the betrayal stings worse than any loss Bruce has ever known. To lose her last words to him, even if those words were a rejection-- Bruce cannot even fathom a way to forgive him, or to retrieve their friendship. It burns him that Joker is the cause of yet one more broken relationship in his life.
“I told you before,” Joker tells him gently. “You aren’t one of them, however much you try to be. I know you, Bruce. I know that you will fight yourself bloody to fit into the cage you think you’re fit for. You will clip your wings. You will cripple yourself.” He holds Bruce’s eyes. “You will break your heart.”
“By what? Caring? Having people in my life that I can trust?”
“For not trusting the right people.”
“And who should I trust?” Bruce demands. “You?”
Joker erupts into laughter. “Is that what you think I’m after? Nonono, Brucie. I want you to trust you.”
He doesn’t see again Jack for six weeks.
It is the day before Thanksgiving break and there is already a few inches of snow on the ground. The student body is buzzing excitedly, anxious for the bell to announce the beginning of the holiday. Bruce just finds it depressing. With his parents gone and no extended family to speak of, the holidays are always difficult. Alfred tries, Bruce knows he does. He always prepares a big meal--turkey and stuffing and all the trimmings--but there is only he and Alfred, and sometimes Rachel and her mother, to eat it all. It’s not the same as the picture in Bruce’s head of a big family talking and laughing around the table. What should be a celebration always manages to come off dreary and sad.
This year, Bruce had finally worked up the courage to ask Alfred to stop observing the holiday. Alfred hadn’t liked it, but he’d acquiesced, announcing that Bruce was old enough to decide for himself which holidays to observe. Bruce was ridiculously grateful for the respite from the enforced gaiety of the holiday season.
The school bell rings and the students break for the door. Bruce lags behind, fiddling around in his locker until the halls clear out, and then heads for the exit.
Jack is slouched in the vee of the entrance and the science wing. “Thought I might have missed you,” he says.
Bruce shakes his head, clutching the straps of his backpack awkwardly. Truth be told, he wasn’t sure that he’d see Jack again. Not after their fight. “Here I am,” Bruce says, trying for casual and utterly failing.
Jack looks amused. “Come on.” He starts across the frozen lawn, slipping and sliding on snow that’s been packed down by hundreds of feet. Bruce falls into step beside him as they head towards the mostly-empty parking lot.
“I’m sorry,” Bruce says after a few moments of silence. “That I hit you.”
Jack abruptly stops walking. Bruce stops too, looking around for the reason until Jack swings to face him. His looks absolutely murderous, his mouth set in an angry, flat line, his green eyes livid. He’s always been taller than Bruce, but at this moment he seems to tower over him.
“No you’re not,” Jack says flatly.
It’s true; Bruce is not sorry. But he knows he should be. People—normal people—don’t hit their friends. And they certainly don’t feel good about it afterward. The truth is that Bruce loved every last second of their fight, could think of nothing for days afterward but the feel of Jack’s hands on him. But he knew that that was wrong.
Bruce looks down, not wanting Jack to see it. Jack doesn’t make too much of those effort through. He takes Bruce’s face between his hands and forces his head back up. His hands are warm on Bruce’s cheeks, his thumbs pressing into the soft underside of Bruce’s jaw as he gazes into Bruce’s eyes.
“Don’t ever apologize to me again,” Jack says.
His fingers tighten for just a second, and then he lets go, turning back to stride across the parking lot, leaving Bruce to trail along in his wake.
Bruce tosses a pack of cards down on the table between them.
“If you want me to deal, you’re gonna have to help me with the cuffs,” Joker tells him.
Joker flashes him a grin. He grabs his left thumb in his right hand, popping it out of joint with a small grunt. He’s got the left cuff off in a matter of seconds, and makes short work of the other. “Ta-da!” he preens, waving his unshackled hands, dislocated thumbs flopping.
Bruce rolls his eyes, scoops up the pack of cards and starts shuffling. He stretches his sore knee out under the table where Joker cannot see. The ache is constant now, despite the cortisone shots and over-the-counter analgesics. He won’t take anything stronger; he can’t afford to be doped up. He can handle the pain.
“Deal,” he says, slapping the cards down in front of Joker.
Joker pushes his thumbs back into the joints and deals out the cards, a variation of poker he taught Bruce years ago. They play in silence, watching the cards and each other’s faces. It’s almost soothing, the rhythm of the game reminding Bruce of long evenings and quiet conversations. He feels something bittersweet rise in his chest.
Joker must be thinking of the same thing, because he says, “Do you remember the first time you hit me?”
“The interrogation room,” Bruce says evenly.
“No,” Joker is not deterred. “The first time. Tell me how it felt,” Joker demands, and Bruce feels sick. He does not want to talk about that. He does not want the howling pain his memories of Jack bring him.
He shakes his head. “No.”
“Come on. Come on, come on, come on. Tell me,” he wheedles, eyes over-bright. Bruce hates him, with a comprehensiveness that is stunning. Rage rises up, blotting out the hurt. It calms Bruce with its tight familiarity. “You tell me,” he lashes back.
Joker’s scars tuck up into the corners of his cheeks. “Like falling in love,” he says grandiosely. “You always knew how to make me swoon.”
He moves, faster than Bruce would have expected. It is only Bruce’s finely-honed instincts that make him turn his head away at the last second, the punch glancing off his cheek instead of shattering his nose. He plunges forward to tackle Joker, overturning the table with a crash. They both go down, punching and gouging at each other. White noise fills Bruce’s head, the buzz of endorphins coursing through his veins. His hands wrap around Joker’s neck and squeeze. Joker is still gasping out giggles. His long fingers circle Bruce’s wrists, urging him to squeeze harder. He arches between Bruce’s spread thighs, pressing closer, and Bruce leans over him, his eyes staring into the bright, mad eyes below him.
“Come on,” Joker wheezes. “Do it!”
Bruce lets go, standing abruptly. “No.”
Bruce raps three times on the door to be let out.
“You can’t deny it, Brucie baby,” Joker gasps, his voice hoarse and raw. He levers himself up, his splayed legs and thin cotton pants doing nothing to hide the outline of his erection. “You can’t explain it; you can’t make it fit.”
“I’m not coming back here,” Bruce tells him. His knee is throbbing in time to his heartbeat. It will be difficult to walk out of here without giving some sign, but he’s become an expert at masking his pain.
“If you don’t, I’ll come to you.” Joker chuckles darkly.
The lock slides back and Bruce wrenches the door open.
Bruce wakes on Thanksgiving morning to a note taped to the balcony door. He peels it off the glass, cursing the snow that had blurred the sloppy lines of the address that Jack had scrawled across the back of a takeout menu.
A half-hour later, Bruce pulls into the abandoned lot next to a metal-sided warehouse. The side door is unlocked and Bruce slides inside, snow swirling around his boots as he pushes the door closed against the wind.
“Jesus,” he huffs, chaffing his hands and looking around. He is standing in a short hallway that opens into a large storage area. Bruce goes to the entry and looks around. The storage area is mostly empty, metal racks bare, stacks of broken pallets leaning haphazardly against the back wall. Fluorescents buzz overhead and there is a low tone like a plucked harp string, sounding over and over again, and then a nasal voice muttering to itself.
Bruce feels a smile pulling at the corners of his lips. He follows the sounds around a half-overturned stack of wooden crates to find Jack, half buried in the top of a battered upright piano. Jack grunts and there is a loud, melodious thunk.
“Got it,” Jack crows. He emerges from the bowels of the piano and spies Bruce watching him. “Hey there sleepyhead, need your muscles.”
“For what?” At Jack’s shifty look Bruce groans. “You want me to move this?” He waves his hand at the piano.
“Only a few blocks.” Jack rubs the back of his neck thoughtfully. “I’ve silenced the hammers so we won’t damage the strings.”
“I hate you,” Bruce tells him, but spends the afternoon laboriously rolling the piano through the snow to a squalid apartment building three blocks away. They somehow manage to get it up a narrow staircase without killing themselves. Jack unlocks the door and they roll it inside, discarding their coats and collapsing against the wall, panting with exertion.
I mean it,” Bruce gasps. “Hatred.”
Jack laughs in his face, but he levers himself up and moves into the tiny kitchen, pulling down a glass. He returns, handing Bruce a glass of water from the tap. Bruce drinks it as he looks around. The apartment is tiny, hardly larger than Bruce’s bedroom at the manor, with a battered door at one end that presumably leads to an equally cramped bathroom. A narrow bed sits in one corner, an overturned milk crate serving as a nightstand. Beside it is a sloping bookshelf, crammed with battered paperbacks. There is a stack of cardboard boxes next to the bookshelf, the top one opened to reveal an old alarm clock, a coil of copper wire, the handle of a hammer and other odds-and-ends. The boxes lean against a tiled kitchen island, the top cluttered with papers, newspapers, a spilled stack of VHS tapes and an overflowing ashtray. The kitchen area is mostly clean, if a bit squalid. On the other wall is an antique-looking dresser, one drawer open to reveal a jumble of bright-colored clothes. There is a large, oak-framed mirror on top, covered in taped photographs, ripped out pages of magazines, post cards from various places. There’s even a ticket stub from the Gotham Opera, tucked against a faded Savemart receipt.
Jack has rolled the piano to the foot of the bed and is standing on the mattress, his head and shoulders inside the back of the instrument. He does something that makes the piano clunk out that low tone again, and then bounces off the bed, dragging a beat-up wooden chair over and planting himself, depressing the pedals experimentally.
Jack takes a breath and begins to play something that Bruce dimly remembers from his four years of violin lessons. The piano is badly out of tune, and Jack grimaces at the sound, but he played the piece through anyway, his long, pale fingers dancing across the keys. He plays with easy mastery, the melody flowing effortlessly from his hands as he plays from memory. Jack’s shoulders rise and fall; Bruce can see his shoulder blades working through his threadbare t-shirt, his head bent to reveal the nape of his neck. His eyelids flutter closed and he strokes the keys tenderly.
Bruce watches him, his chest aching with yearning.
Jack’s eyes snap open and catch Bruce standing there stupidly, openly staring. Bruce tries to wipe the look off his face, but he isn’t sure he is entirely successful. Jack regards him for a moment, the somber melody still lingering in the air, and then he launches into the song again, playing it double-time. He waggles his eyebrows and adds a ragtime rhythm with his left hand. The mood breaks, and Bruce drift over to settle himself onto the bed, leaning against the wall and pulling a book out of his pocket. Jack keeps playing, but Bruce is no longer listening. His eyes are locked unseeingly on the page in front of him, his mind in a riot.
He’d known. Some part of Bruce has always known that he wanted Jack. But he can’t; he can’t. Jack is his closest friend and he cannot lose him. And he will, Bruce knows he will. Jack has accepted so much about him already. But this is too much It’s too much and Jack will leave, and—
The bedsprings creak as Jack settled beside him. He snatches the book from Bruce’s hand, glancing at the page. “’Some love too little, some too long; some sell and others buy. For each man kills the thing he loves, yet each man does not die,’” he reads out and then snorts and tosses the book to the foot of the bed. “Oscar Wilde. How apropos.”
He peers into Bruce’s face. Bruce smiles weakly, avoiding his eyes. Jack lets out a little huff and climbs into Bruce’s lap, wrapping his arms around Bruce and burying his face into Bruce’s neck. Bruce’s body burns everywhere Jack touches, warmth uncurling from the base of his spine. Jack’s breath ghosts against Bruce’s skin, causing it to prickle. Bruce sits rigid, petrified.
“Silly,” Jack murmurs, his lips brushing Bruce’s neck.
And then Jack draws back and kisses him.
His lips are soft and warm, slightly chapped. He slants his mouth over Bruce’s, tasting him slowly and languidly. The hand in his hair holds Bruce in place as Jack’s tongue traces the seam of his lips, licking in short strokes that make Bruce gasp, his own lips parting in invitation. Jack does not hesitate, pressing in closer, winding his tongue around Bruce’s. Bruce closes his eyes, head swimming as he kisses back. Jack makes a noise into Bruce’s mouth and sneaks a hand under Bruce’s shirt to stroke his skin. Bruce shivers, pulls him closer. He cannot believe this is happening. He has wanted it for so long, wanted to lick the inside of that scarred mouth and feel the knots of flesh under his tongue for so long, that he can hardly believe that he is actually doing it. But the sense of unreality slowly fades as their kisses grow more heated. It is happening. Jack is kissing him, and touching him, and he is not disgusted or angry. He wants this.
Bruce breaks from the kiss, gasping hard. His fingers are clawing at the front of Jack’s t-shirt, and he pushes the fabric up, reaching inside to trace his fingers across Jack’s ribs. Jack gasps, tipping his head back and Bruce licks a long stripe up his neck, returning to suck on the skin beneath his chin. Jack shifts impossibly closer, the friction between their bodies making Bruce shiver and moan.
He rocks his hips experimentally up into Jack’s, and Jack hisses a broken, “Yes.”
Bruce goes a little crazy after that. He licks into that scarred mouth again, rocking into Jack’s hips, nearly frantic with need. Jack shifts back and Bruce groans, clutching him close, not wanting to lose an inch of this contact. Jack twists out of his grip, getting a hand in between them. His fingers slide against the erection trapped in Bruce’s pants and Bruce lets out a gasp, his head thumping back against the wall. Jack hums in approval, biting down at the exposed juncture between Bruce’s neck and shoulder.
“Jack,” Bruce gasps, and Jack bites down harder, grinding Bruce’s flesh in between his teeth as his other hand slides over Bruce’s clothed cock. Bruce comes in hot pulses, his mind blanking out.
When he comes back to himself, Jack is smiling down at him, looking equal parts pleased and lustful. Bruce surges up, turning them over, determined to wipe that self-satisfied smirk off Jack’s face. His hands go to the front of Jack’s pants, undoing the fly and pulling baggy jeans and underwear down. He’s never done any of this before, but Bruce doesn’t let that stop him. He takes Jack’s leaking cock in his hand, setting a brutal rhythm. Jack arches beneath him, pushing his flesh eagerly into Bruce’s tight hand. It is over very quickly; Jack’s entire body shakes as he comes, his mouth open in a silent scream, spurting over Bruce’s hand.
They stay like that for a few seconds, panting and staring at each other in shocked delight. And then Jack pulls Bruce into a languid kiss, pushing him down onto the bed beside him. He curls into Bruce, not bothering to do up his fly. They lie motionless for a long time, the distant ticking of a clock and the buzz of traffic outside lulling Bruce. Bruce feels Jack press a kiss to his throat and then Bruce slides into sleep.
“Gordon.” The man doesn’t startle, but his eyebrows quirk up at Batman’s sudden appearance.
“Thank you for coming,” he says. It is the first time since Harvey Dent’s death that he’s called on the untraceable cell phone that Batman had provided. Which means that whatever this is, it is something only Batman can do. A frisson of bright anticipation trickles down Batman’s spine.
“You know that Vincent Maroni’s been rebuilding his father’s empire, right?”
“I’ve heard,” Batman answers. He’d made a point to find out, after Joker had mentioned it. As far as he can tell, Joker does not have a hand in any of it. That doesn’t mean he’s not involved somehow, though. “Maroni’s got most his father’s old lieutenants on his payroll,” Batman explains. “The Eight-sixers are in disarray with Gambol gone, so he’s taken over their territory. The Russians are in bed with him. Which means that he’s got complete control of guns and drugs in the city.”
“Correct.” Gordon doesn’t sound surprised that Batman knows this, despite the GCPD’s efforts to keep it out of the papers. “What most people don’t know is that his brother, Mario, has decided to turn state’s witness.”
Batman’s mouth curls up in grim amusement. Mario has always been a coward, hiding behind his friends, angry that daddy had passed him over for Vincent. Of course he’s jumping at the chance at some payback against the brother who was always favored above him.
“The problem is that Vincent’s got his daughter. And Mario won’t testify without a guarantee of her safety,” Gordon continues.
“Which you cannot provide,” Batman finishes.
Gordon spreads his hands. “We only just got the Dent Act passed. You know what people are saying. They think Garcia is overreaching, giving the GCPD too much power.”
“It’s necessary,” Batman says firmly. Batman is only one man, and the Dent Act has put dozens of cops on the streets, given Gordon real power to keep men like Maroni behind bars.
“Yes, but we have to play this one by the book. No going in without probable cause. We cannot let Maroni walk on a technicality.”
He removes a map from his pocket and spread it out on the top of the concrete wall. “We think she’s being held here.”
Batman memorizes the location. “I’ll take care of it,” he says. He has leaped from the building, catching the updraft, before Gordon’s ‘thank you’ reaches his ears.
Bruce spends the weeks between the winter holidays in a blissful fog. He divides his time between the manor and Jack’s apartment. He lays Jack back on his narrow bed and learns every angle and curve of his body with his hands and tongue. He traces soft fingertips over pale flesh, watching goosebumps spread over his lover’s skin. He gazes in rapt fascination as Jack’s comes apart under his hands, taking in each motion and sound he makes. Sometimes it is him, splayed out and arching into Jack’s eager, scarred mouth. They take their time, memorizing each other in delirious harmony.
Bruce has never been happier.
He pushes down the thought of graduation, and the acceptance letter tucked away in his dresser drawer at home. He should tell Jack. It isn’t fair that Bruce knows he will be going away in a few short months and hasn’t told him. It is cowardly, but he cannot help himself. Bruce has never belonged to anyone before. He does not want to do anything to break the tenuous threads that bind them.
He wonders if Alfred suspects the reason that Bruce is sneaking away more and more often. Probably. But the best thing about Alfred is his absolute faith in Bruce. He will not pry, or offer unsolicited advice. He lets Bruce alone.
On Christmas morning, Bruce lets himself into Jack’s apartment. Jack isn’t there, but this is no surprise. Bruce has learned that Jack will often stay away for days at a time, doing whatever it is he does when he’s in a wandering mood. Bruce doesn’t ask.
He takes off his coat and throws it over a chair. He clears off the piano top; cigarette wrappers, an overfilled ash tray, various coins, screws, matchbooks and detritus, and a snub-nosed Beretta that he’s seen Jack carrying under his coat. Bruce hates guns on principle, but he isn’t going to judge Jack for wanting the protection. It’s a dangerous neighborhood, and while Bruce knows Jack can handle himself, he doesn’t like the thought of him here alone. Bruce sets the gun aside and opens the back of the piano. He pulls out the book he’s brought with him, getting to work. It takes hours of painstaking effort, replacing frayed strings, tightening others, listening to the pitch of the tuning fork to get each note right.
He has just finished tuning the piano when he hears Jack clattering up the stairs.
Bruce closes the piano lid and sits down, playing through a few scales so Jack can hear the ringing, clear notes as he opens the door. “Hey there, man of the house. So glad you…” Bruce’s smile slides from his face as he takes in the blood on Jack’s shirt. His hands still on the keys.
“It’s not mine,” Jack says grimly. He goes into the bathroom and shuts the door. Bruce hears the water running. The faded cherry stain of the piano blurred in front of Bruce’s eyes. He can smell the metallic scent of blood in his nostrils, feel it seeping into the knees of his pants as it pools and spreads from the prostrate bodies… He blinks, trying to wrench his mind away from the memory, but it lingers in the back of his brain—a primal, mind-numbing terror. Paralysis seeps into his muscles, gluing him to the spot. Nevertheless, he has the presence of mind to snap his head up as the bathroom door opens, Jack framed in the doorway. His hair hangs in damp strands. Bruce watches him as he crosses the room clad only in a pair of boxers. He pulls on a shirt, leaving it unbuttoned. Jack’s scarred chest gleams in the low light. Bruce’s eyes slide from Jack’s pale skin to the Beretta, laying in a pile of odds and ends on the dresser’s top.
He stands, the wooden chair falling over with a loud clatter. His mind is filled with white-noise, soothing rage coursing through his veins, crowding out his terror. Jack turns to him, calmly watching as Bruce lifts a fist and punches him. The smack of his knuckles impacting Jack’s cheekbone is shockingly loud. Jack reels back but keeps his feet. His eyes meet Bruce’s, a slight smile on his face.
Bruce punches him again.
Jack crumples, his smiling mouth opening to pour out laughter and Bruce is on him, howling with rage. He pins Jack to the ground, hitting everywhere he can reach. He loses count of the blows, but he doesn’t care, doesn’t even try to control himself. He grinds against Jack, muscles burning, his mind roaring with fear—the fear of losing something that is his.
Jack is still laughing as he hits him, the sound oddly soothing. He looks up at Bruce affectionately, blood streaming from his nose, and Bruce’s wavers. Bruce draws in a gasping breath. Something knowing enters Jack’s eyes and he shifts a little, arching against Bruce’s thighs. Jack is hard, and Bruce realizes that he is, too.
“You fucking bastard,” Bruce growls, and swoops down to kiss him.
Jack’s lips meet his with equal ferocity, tongues dueling for dominance. Jack’s hands claw and twist in Bruce’s shirt before he wrenches it up, breaking the kiss to pull it over Bruce’s head. Bruce bends to bite at Jack’s throat, licking at blood. Their hips move roughly against each other, pushing, gasping in between biting kisses. The fear is still bubbling over Bruce and he buries his face in Jack’s neck, clinging to him as Jack shutters beneath him.
“Brucie, shh now, it’s all right,” Jack whispers, running soothing hands down Bruce’s back.
Bruce is shaking, his eyes stinging. He doesn’t know what he’s feeling; everything in his head is a tangle of fear and rage and need. Jack takes advantage of his confusion, flipping them over. He grasps Bruce’s wrists, holding him down with a surprisingly strong grip, and bends to kiss him, open-mouthed and sweet. His blood trickles over Bruce’s face and Jack licks it away, lips spreading heat all over Bruce’s body. Bruce shuts his eyes, his brain in freefall. Jack mouths his way down Bruce’s neck, teeth rasping over his veins, nibbling on the flesh of his bare chest. He lets Bruce’s wrists go as he shifts down, and Bruce’s hands catch in Jack’s tangled hair, pulling the other man closer. Jack sucks Bruce’s nipple into his mouth, his tongue lapping at the nub of flesh without haste. His hands smooth down Bruce’s sides, then meet to trace over his fly. Bruce arches and Jack pulls back, smiling beatifically down at him. Bruce lifts his fingers, tracing the lines of scars on Jack’s cheeks with something akin to wonder catching in his chest. Jack playfully bites at his fingers, his own hands unfastening Bruce’s pants and pulling them down to release his straining cock.
Jack bends, sliding his hot mouth down Bruce’s length. He knows Bruce’s reactions better than Bruce does and he presses his advantage now. His tongue moves ceaselessly, licking diligently up the underside, circling the tip, plunging back down. He sucks hard, and Bruce groans, liquid fire pooling in his stomach. Jack’s cups his balls, gently squeezing as his voracious tongue strips every ounce of reason from Bruce’s mind, replacing it with a fever that spreads over his skin in a wave of prickling heat. Bruce lifts his head, wanting to watch that scarred mouth stretching around him. Jack’s meets his eyes and Bruce can see him rocking, his other hand thrust into his brightly-patterned boxers. That realization—that Jack is jacking off while he sucks Bruce’s cock—sends Bruce to another place. He groans and comes, thrusting helplessly into Jack’s hot mouth. Jack doesn’t stop, sucking and licking him through it, as Bruce twitches and moans helplessly. Jack whimpers against Bruce’s sensitized flesh, his whole body shuddering as his own orgasm overtakes him.
Everything is soft afterward. The fear that plundered his mind is gone, replaced by a tired sort of resignation. They eventually get up from the floor and stumble towards the bed, collapsing in a tangle of limbs. Bruce’s fingers stroke over Jack’s bruised face in mute apology. Jack smiles at him wearily, his eyes sliding closed. Bruce waits until Jack’s breath evens out, holding the slighter man tightly against him.
“I wish I could keep you,” he murmurs into Jack’s wild hair. He pulls Jack tighter against him and closes his eyes.
The hotel where they are holding the girl is near the freeway; a cheap, rundown hole filled with tired truckers and homeless who’ve scrounged up the money for a night’s stay. There are three guards, sitting at a small table playing cards. The girl sits on one of the double beds, clutching a stuffed bear and watching television. Batman shatters the door with one, well-placed kick. The first guy goes down like a folding chair with one blow, and the other two aren’t any harder to subdue. Its over in a matter of minutes; three of Maroni’s thugs out cold on the dingy carpet while the girl watches him with rounded eyes.
“Are you Jenny Maroni?” he asks, crouching down to secure each man’s wrists. She nods at him, holding her teddy bear to her chest. Batman stands. “Don’t be afraid,” he says. “I’ve come to take you back to your father.” The girl is still regarding him warily, but she allows him to pick her up and take her out to the waiting Tumbler.
He will never forgive himself for what happens next. One moment he is walking towards his vehicle with the girl in his arms. The second, he hears someone shouting at him, “Stop, police!,” and then the pop of a gun discharging. Batman dives for cover. He takes a few running steps and then his bad knee twists underneath him and he hits the pavement a few dozen feet from the Tumbler. He feels the impact of the bullets hit his armor and curls protectively around the girl in his arms, crawling quickly to the vehicle, prying the door open and pushing the girl inside. Bullets ping off the side of the Tumbler, ricocheting against the walls of the hotel, bits of masonry and paint exploding off at the impact.
“Batman, come out! You are under arrest!” He hears a voice call, and he peers over the Tumbler to see two rookie cops ducking down behind the doors of a police cruiser. One is desperately calling for backup over the radio, the wail of sirens already rending the air. Batman dives into the Tumbler, gunning it towards the police cruiser. The cops scatter as he hits the bumper, driving up and over it.
“Hold on,” he tells the girl in the other seat as he floors it, passing two police cars coming up the exit with lights flashing. They turn, giving chase.
The girl beside him lets out a small cry and Batman glances over at her, and then turns his attention more fully onto her, his heart catching. The girl is bent over, both hands clutching her stomach. Red stains her pink pajamas, seeping from around her hands. He reaches out but she shrinks from his touch, gasping in pain with the slight movement.
“Hold on!” he tells her again. “Just hold on!”
He heads downtown, police sirens screaming behind him. More have joined the chase; he can hear their chatter through the police scanner. Minutes tick by as Batman tries to shake them. He makes a series of sharp turns, counting on the Tumbler’s agility to lose a few of his pursuers in the winding, twisting streets of the Narrows. He turns off the lights and runs off the road, skirting the harbor. The cruisers scream past him, still heading downtown, and he throws the Tumbler into reverse and heads back towards the expressway.
“Alfred,” he calls on the radio. “I’ve got the girl but she’s been shot. I’m headed towards Saint Michaels. I need an emergency team outside.”
He glances at the girl again. She sits slumped against the door facing him, her face slack, her sightless eyes staring towards him. “No,” Batman moans, reaching for her. He can’t feel a pulse through his gloves and he peels one off desperately, driving one-handed and pressing two fingers to her jugular. Her hands slip from her middle, blood staining her entire front and puddling on the floor below. “No!”
“Batman?” Alfred’s concerned voice comes through the speakers.
Batman draws back, clutching the steering wheel in both hands.
“Belay that,” he speaks through gritted teeth. “She’s dead.”
He hears the old man’s indrawn breath. He closes his eyes, not wanting whatever comforting thing Alfred is going to say. He switches off the radio and pulls the Tumbler to a stop. The girl has fallen forward and he presses her back into the seat, smoothing brown hair from her face. Anger and grief howl through him, leaving him shaking and helpless. His fist hits the steering wheel, his bare flesh slipping, wet with Jenny Maroni’s blood.
He screams, fists hitting the dashboard, leather and plastic cracking under the assault.
If had said no, told Gordon the truth… The truth that he has never spoken aloud to anyone. The truth that he has barely acknowledged to himself. The truth that he should have admitted the first time he knew that his leg couldn’t carry him anymore.
He shakes his head. He doesn’t have time for this. He looks over at the small body beside him, nausea twisting his gut. He breaths slowly, pulling himself back together. He pulls out his cell phone. It is answered in one ring.
“Batman, Jesus I’m so sorry. I didn’t know that a patrol car would be—“
“The girl was shot,” Batman cuts Gordon off. “I am taking her to Saint Michaels. Meet me on the roof.”
He hangs up. His hands are shaking. He clenches them into fists. He is abruptly reminded of something Jack said to him the first time they met: There is no fairness in this world. Fair doesn’t matter.
What matters is who wins.
Batman pulls his gauntlet back on and heads downtown.
Jack switches on the TV, throwing himself onto the threadbare couch. They are in the boathouse. It is still too early in the spring to swim, but they’ve taken to meeting here rather than Bruce’s bedroom at the manor whenever they aren’t at Jack’s place. Bruce likes the privacy, but if he’s honest, he would rather be in Jack’s space. With graduation only a few weeks away, Bruce is grasping at minutes, he knows--anticipating the day when this is all going to end. If he holds Jack a bit too closely, squeezes too tightly in his frantic need to be near him, Jack says nothing.
Now, Jack surfs through channels until he finds GNC and sinks back. Bruce groans.
“Come back to bed.”
“Waste of time,” Jack calls. “Hey, did ya see that Maroni and Falcone are making nice?”
Bruce rolls out of bed and pads naked to lean over the back of the couch. “I do read the newspaper, you know,” he says drily, laying his forehead on Jack’s bare shoulder.
“Do you think they’ll make Mario some kind of kingpin?”
“That asshole? Never.” Bruce stands, retrieving his boxers from the floor and putting them on before sliding next to Jack on the couch. “He doesn’t have the brains.”
“His brother does, though.” Jack lays his head in Bruce’s lap, still watching the glossy newspeople on the screen. Bruce rolls his eyes at the broadcast, burying a hand in Jack’s hair. They’re calling Falcone a businessman, for Christ’s sake. Talk about unreliable news sources…
“I met him,” Jack goes on.
“Vincent Maroni. He’s smart. Vicious.” Jack grins evilly. “But banal, like all his kind. No imagination. No style. Just the same sort of common criminal that takes over every town.”
Bruce’s hand pets through Jack’s hair, tangling in curls. “Well, maybe we ought to take the town back then.”
“What, become a mobster?” Jack snorts. “No thanks.”
“I don’t mean a mobster. Something else. Something they would fear…” Bruce’s voice trails off.
Jack is looking at his strangely. “Like what?”
Bruce shrugs. He’s never really thought about it. He hates thugs like Maroni, but it’s not like there’s anything he can do about them. The world isn’t fair. No one can change that.
“Batman,” Gordon greets. “What happened?”
“Is Maroni downstairs?”
“Yes.” He runs a hand through his silvering hair. “I called him, but I didn’t know what to tell him.”
“Tell him that I killed her.”
There is a beat of ringing silence between them before Gordon turns on him. “Bullshit,” he says vehemently. “That is bullshit and we both know it. I’m not going to—“ “It’s what is needed,” Batman says tiredly. “Think about it. If you convince Mario that I was working for Vincent—“
“He won’t buy that,” Gordon interjects.
“He will. If you tell him, he will.” Batman walks to the edge of the building and looks over. It is a long way down. “Commissioner—Jim. No one likes Batman. The mob doesn’t like me because of what I do, and the public doesn’t like me because I have to do it. It’s why they believed you about Harvey. It’s why they will believe you now.”
He speaks all of this gently, each word tearing a strip from his heart. It is the truth. It has always been the truth. Batman is a necessary evil, but still an evil.
“You’re a hero,” Gordon says, as if reading his mind. “If people knew what you’d done—who you are…”
Batman laughs bitterly. “Maybe I’m just a guy who doesn’t know when to stop.”
Gordon gives a mirthless chuckle. “That’s probably true.” He turns to face Batman, still staring over the edge of the building. “But this isn’t right. It isn’t fair.”
“Fair doesn’t matter.”
Gordon regards him for a long minute before he nods. “I don’t like this. But I’ll do it.”
Batman’s shoulders relax slightly. “Thank you.” He jumps onto the ledge, about to trigger his cape and fling himself forward when Gordon’s voice stops him.
“I want you to promise me something.” Gordon steps closer, his voice intense. “If I do this, if I let you take the fall again, then you have to promise me that you will stop this. I have the manpower, and with Mario’s help we will take out the last of the mob in Gotham. Go out and live your life. Do whatever it is you do, but don’t come back.”
Batman lets his eyes slide closed. Wind whips around his face, stirring the folds of his cloak. His chest aches, but he turns and catches Gordon’s eye. Gordon’s face is creased in sympathy, and Batman can see how much it hurt Gordon to say all of that. He is abruptly reminded of the first time he met this man—a beat cop offering comfort to a child who had just lost his parents.
“I promise,” Batman rasps, chest raw with howling grief. He doesn’t wait for Gordon’s answer—just flings himself into the night.
At 9am, Gordon makes the announcement of Jenny Maroni’s death at the hands of Batman, and the subsequent arrest of Vincent Maroni.
At noon, he gets the message that Joker has escaped from Arkham Asylum.
“Heard you’re going to Princeton.”
Bruce feels his blood run cold. His hand clenches on the phone receiver and he sinks heavily onto the bed. “Where’d you hear that?”
“Read it in Gotham Today,” Jack says evenly.
And Bruce feels like utter shit. He’d given the interview weeks ago, answering the question about his college plans without thought. Of course it would be published, and of course Jack would see it.
“You shouldn’t have found out like that. I’m s—“
“Don’t,” Jack snaps at him. “We both knew this was coming.”
Bruce says nothing. He hadn’t been sure that Jack knew it was coming, actually.
“And I’ve heard that Princeton is great,” Jack continues. His voice is sugar-coated and over-bright. Bruce shifts uneasily but tries to banter back.
“I’ve heard there’s a lot of rich pricks there.”
“What, you afraid they can’t take one more?”
“Ha ha, always a joker. Look, I’m having a graduation party on Saturday. Will you come?”
“Someone’s gotta keep me in the lifestyle to which I’ve become accustomed,” Jack’s sneering laugh sounds a bit more genuine to Bruce’s ears. “I’ll come over after I’m done. How about that?”
“Okay.” There’s a pause. “Jack?”
“Yeah, I’m still here.”
“I really am…” He doesn’t say it, because he knows Jack doesn’t want him to. “I wish that I could…”
“I know,” Jack says gently and hangs up.
Bruce spends the next few days mindlessly acting by rote. He removes his armor piece by piece, assembling it on its stand, not feeling the ache in his body from where the bullets impacted his armor. He grabs rags and cleaning supplies and returns to the Tumbler, begins to methodically clean the girl’s blood out of the passenger side. Alfred calls him half-way through, but Bruce cannot hear the phone ringing past the ringing in his own ears. It doesn’t matter. He doubts the old man has anything to say that Bruce wants to hear.
It takes hours before the last speck of blood is gone. Bruce gathers the bucket and cleaning supplies and returns them to their spot under the industrial sink. He grabs a metal garbage can and goes back for the rags. He scoops up the pile of crimson-soaked terrycloth and discards it. And suddenly, the horror sweeps over him anew—the smell of blood, the tacky feel of it on his hands and in his hair. The numbness abates a little and he can suddenly feel the ache in his chest. He retches into the garbage can, holding back tears.
When the dry-heaves finally subside, he is filled with renewed purpose. He dismantles the armor, stuffing it into the garbage can with the blood-soaked rags. His hands are shaking, but he doesn’t stop, carefully disassembling each piece of Kevlar before tossing it into the trash. When he’s finished, he strips the spare suit of weapons and places it in the trash with the other one.
He looks around his stark, white haven, eyes stinging. Right—the Tumbler is next. It takes hours to strip the vehicle of weapons, guidance system, anything that can be used against the GCPD. He tears out the computer’s circuit boards with his bare hands, cutting himself on the metal and leaving smudges of blood on the electronics. The blood hardens as he works, flaking off of his hands and onto the cold metal floor. He ignores it. He pounds away at his toys, destroying everything that he can. He keeps his mind dulled out. He doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t eat. He ignores Alfred’s calls. He methodically tears apart every link he has to Batman.
On the third day, his body gives in to exhaustion and he passes out.
When he wakes up, Joker is there.
“You know,” Joker drawls, smoothing Bruce’s hair back from his forehead. “You are not an easy man to find.”
Bruce stares at him, mind peculiarly calm. He cannot find it in himself to be surprised or upset that Joker has discovered his hideaway. He feels nothing at all.
Joker’s hands continue their petting as Bruce watches him, his brain cataloguing his actions automatically. Joker has traded in the threadbare drawstring pants and t-shirt of the average Arkham inmate for his trademark suit, along with waistcoat and tie. Brown leather shoes and soft suede gloves complete the outfit. There is a black wooden walking stick lying near his bent knee. His hair has overgrown the buzz cut he was periodically given as a prisoner, blond curls wisping around his bare, makeup-less face. He is more like the boy Bruce remembers than the madman that is his enemy, and it throws Bruce off, makes him unable to react the way he knows he should.
Joker presses a paper cup of water from the sink into his hands.
“Drink this,” he says with an encouraging smile.
Bruce drinks it, still in a daze. The water feels wonderful in his dry throat, and he gulps it down, handing the empty cup back. Joker takes it and disappears for a moment, returns with another cup of water and a granola bar. Bruce eats, watching the other man, who has settled in front of him, that slight smile still on his face. It feels like a dream—Bruce’s thoughts float through his head, barely ruffling the surface of his conscious mind. Instead, his head is steeped in a warm stupor. He finishes the food, setting the cup and the wrapper beside him and then turns to the clown.
Joker ruffles his hair fondly. “That’s my boy.”
He stands, leaning on his walking stick as he draws himself up. He puts his weight on his right leg and leans down to Bruce. Bruce takes his proffered hand and lets Joker draw him to his feet. His knee is stiff from so long in one position and he nearly collapses when it won’t take his weight. He claws at the wall for purchase, Joker’s hand under his elbow propping him up as he stretches the stiffness out. The pain breaks through some of his numbness, but it still feels far away and dream-like. Eventually, he is able to stand on his own and he follows Joker outside.
There is a car waiting, stolen no doubt, but Bruce doesn’t question it. He climbs into the passenger seat and watches as Joker fumbles with the keys and turns the engine over. The reality of the situation has still not set in fully. He is sitting in a car with Joker; he had woken to find him in his hideaway; he is even now being driven to some unknown place. Yet nothing stirs in his mind, no hint of anger or fear. Perhaps he has a death wish. Or perhaps he just doesn’t care anymore.
It takes a few minutes for Bruce to realize that they are heading for Wayne Manor, but Joker turns off before they get to the main entrance, taking the lower road towards the boathouse. Bruce hasn’t been there since the manor was rebuilt—hasn’t wanted to deal with the memories of his times there with Jack. Joker rolls the car to a stop and they both get out. Bruce’s eyes fix on the dock, charred and ramshackle with decay. A surge of exhaustion sweeps over his body. He drags his eyes away and goes inside.
Joker is looking around the dim room, his tongue darting out to lick at his scars. “The old one was better,” he observes.
Bruce approaches him, that strange lassitude still settling into his limbs. “The roof leaked.”
“Eh, it had charm,” Joker demurs. “Some people like that sort of thing.” Bruce shuts his eyes, letting familiar laughter wash over him. He usually finds it irritating, but now it is soothing.
“And, some people look like they’re about the fall over,” Joker observes. Bruce slits his eyes back open and smiles faintly at him.
Joker’s hands push Bruce towards the couch, urging him to lie down and then straddling Bruce’s torso and fitting his chest against Bruce’s. He cups Bruce’s face in both of his hands, rubbing his knuckles on the stubble around Bruce’s jawline. The warmth of his hands is sinking into Bruce’s body, making it hard to focus.
“You don’t think this is real,” he says, gaze oddly affectionate.
Bruce shakes his head.
“Oh Brucie, Brucie, Brucie. You still have me, you know. You never didn’t have me. Your having of me was and is a permanent affair.”
Joker bends and places a tender kiss on Bruce’s forehead. His arms tighten around Bruce. Bruce closes his eyes and turns his face into Joker’s neck, breathing in his familiar scent. Joker hums and pulls Bruce closer, fitting their bodies together on the narrow couch. Bruce’s mind finally resigns the last vestiges of awareness and he falls asleep in the madman’s arms.
The party is horrible. Bruce makes his way through the crowd of his father’s friends, smiling his plastic smile as they press envelopes of cash into his hands. He makes his way over to Rachel, beautiful in a deep red dress.
“Bruce, congratulations!” She says and kisses his cheek.
“You, too. I heard about the internship at the district attorney’s office.”
Rachel smiles at him and they clink glasses in a comradely gesture. They sip champagne until the silence turns awkward. “I’m sorry,” Rachel says. “I know we haven’t seen a lot of each other in the past few months. I hope you don’t think I’ve been avoiding you.”
“No,” Bruce says, waving away her apology. “It’s okay. I know you’ve been busy with school.”
“Yeah,” she says, her warm eyes meeting his. “But it’s no excuse.” Her soft hand closes around his arm. “I miss you,” she says softly.
Bruce feels his chest tighten. “I miss you, too,” he tells her.
The crowd eventually thins down to stragglers. Rachel and her date leave, and Bruce makes the rounds again, shaking hands and kissing cheeks. Alfred stays to escort the last of the guests outside, but Bruce has had enough. He goes to his room and strips off his jacket and tie and throws them into his chair before sitting on the bed to untie his shoes.
“You’ve gotten better at that,” Jack’s voice purrs from the balcony. Bruce does not startle.
“Taking off my clothes?” Bruce asks, toeing off his stiff leather shoes with a groan.
“Well, that too,” Jack tells him. He leans against the frame of the glass door, watching Bruce unfasten his cufflinks. “But I meant the party. Being Bruce Wayne.”
Bruce sets the cufflinks on the dresser top, eyebrows furrowing. “But I am Bruce Wayne.”
“No, you’re not.”
Jack lolls back against the glass, tendrils of hair sticking to the rain-soaked pane. The earthy smell of wet grass drifts in on the cool night breeze. Moonlight illuminates Jack’s face, his eyes following Bruce’s movements with something close to menace in his gaze.
“The girls are gonna love it,” he drawls. “Or boys.”
“Girls,” Bruce says. “I’m not—I mean, you’re the only man I’ve…”
He trails off, trying to catch Jack’s eye. Everything here is wrong, Jack’s stillness and the tone of voice. Bruce desperately wants to walk over to Jack and wrap his arms around him, to bury his face in Jack’s neck and never let go. But the look in Jack’s eyes forbids him for even taking a step in his direction.
“Well, there’s that,” Jack says. He finally looks at Bruce, his smile wide and strained. “Do it for me, then. I want to see what it looks like.”
“Do what for you?”
“Play Bruce Wayne.” He moves towards Bruce slowly, his shoulders hunched, his entire body leaning towards Bruce like a stalking predator.
“No. I don’t want—“
“It’s what I want. And I deserve to get what I want, don’t I?”
And Bruce knows it’s wrong, and that it will hurt both of them in the end. But he also knows that he is the one leaving, and he owns it to Jack to try to make it right. So, he slides on his Bruce Wayne mask. He slouches a bit, leaning forward casually, his face set in a rakish grin. He runs a hand through his hair, ruffling it, and pushes up his sleeves. He regards Jack, cocking an eyebrow at him and smiling slowly.
“Hey beautiful,” he says, his voice smooth, playful.
He wants Jack to smile back, to crack a joke at the ridiculousness of his playboy billionaire persona. But Jack plays along. He casts his eyes down demurely, brushes his blond hair back in a coy gesture, and touches Bruce’s arm.
It’s like a twisted game of chicken. Bruce presses in, using every stupid, outrageously flattering line he knows, smirking and flirtatious. And Jack responds, playing the part of the innocent young girl to perfection. Bruce hates it; hates everything about the insipid, shy way that Jack kisses him, hates how Jack’s hands modestly resting on Bruce’s waist rather than clawing their way inside his clothes. Bruce presses him back into the dresser, using his greater bulk to his advantage. He pulls Jack’s shirt from his pants and snakes his hand inside to caress the small of his back. Jack squeaks--a sound he would never, ever make--and arches timidly against him. His hands smooth up Bruce’s back lightly and Bruce pulls away, disgusted.
Jack’s face is still set in a demure smile, and something inside Bruce snaps at the sight. He grabs handfuls of Jack’s shirt and spins them, body-checking Jack into the wall. Jack’s head bounces against the plaster and Bruce seizes him, bounces him against the wall again. The lethargy begins to clear from Jack’s eyes and Bruce leans in, triumphantly seizing Jack’s mouth in a kiss. He bites at Jack’s lower lip, tongue running over Jack’s scars before plundering his mouth again. Bruce feels like all his prayers have been answered when Jack’s tongue moves against his.
Their teeth clash in another fierce kiss and Bruce bites down, tasting blood. Jack’s hands fist in his hair, his tongue pushing against Bruce’s. Bruce’s head fills with white noise, every nerve ending buzzing as he claws at Jack’s shirt. Buttons tear away and the shirt is pushed frantically down Jack’s arms. Jack gasps as Bruce’s mouth descends to bite down his throat. He leans his head back with a groan, digging his nails into the back of Bruce’s neck as he bites and sucks, leaving marks on the pale flesh.
Bruce pulls away, pawing at the front of Jack’s pants until he’s able to push them down. He roughly turns Jack around, pushing his face into the wall. His hands on Jack’s hips bend him until his ass is in the air. He keeps one hand there, riffling feverishly through his dresser drawer with the other. He finds what he is looking for and pops the cap one-handed, spreading lube on his fingers. Bruce is nearly trembling with need, and he cannot slow himself, cannot even find the resolve to do so. He spreads Jack’s asscheeks and slides his slick fingers against his entrance. Jack whimpers and arches against Bruce’s questing hand. Bruce does not hesitate; he pushes two fingers roughly inside, feeling a grim sense of satisfaction when Jack groans, his forehead hitting the wall in front of him as he rocks his hips back, impaling himself on Bruce’s fingers.
Bruce fingers him roughly, and Jack arches against his hand like a wanton whore. Bruce’s blood is burning as he bites the flesh of Jack’s back, lapping up sweat. He wants to mark this man, to leave scars on him that will never fade. His senses are buzzing in his head, desire cresting over him, and he bites down savagely, breaking skin. Jack screams, but he pushes back against him, shifting closer to Bruce’s vicious mouth.
“Yes, you fucking beautiful thing,” he slurs. “Do it!”
Bruce bites down harder. Blood wells around his mouth and he sucks, grinding his teeth into the flesh, head spinning. Jack screams again, hands scrambling for purchase against the wall. Giggles pour out of his wide-open mouth and Bruce pulls back, lips wet.
His fingers are moving somewhat smoothly inside Jack’s ass and he pulls them out, slicking up his own cock and pushing roughly into Jack’s tight heat. Jack’s knees buckle and his head tips back lewdly, a load moan escaping his throat. Bruce grabs a fistful of blond hair and fastens his lips to Jack’s neck, sucking and tearing with his teeth, holding Jack’s hip in an iron grip as he fucks into him with brutal purpose. Anger is swirling in Bruce’s chest and all he wants to do is push every bit of his rage into Jack.
And Jack lets him. He giggles and moans and shakes. He whines and pounds on the wall and pushes back into Bruce. He takes everything that Bruce is giving him and he urges Bruce on.
Bruce can feel his orgasm barreling down on him, and he pushes Jack forward into the wall, gripping his hip with bruising force, taking Jack’s wet cock into his other hand and beating him off in time to his wild thrusts. Jack hisses and clenches, coming almost immediately. Bruce isn’t far behind, pistoning his hips into Jack’s body a few more times before he shudders through his own orgasm.
He pulls out, trying to be gentle, and lets them both sink to the floor. He lays his head on Jack’s bloody back, his breath coming in sobbing gasps. He screws his eyes shut, suddenly ashamed of himself.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Jack croons, shifting around to put his arms around Bruce, pulling him in tightly. Bruce lays his head on the battered skin of Jack’s shoulder and lets himself be held. The weight in his chest makes it hard to drag in breath. His anger has burned itself to ash inside of him, leaving only crushing grief behind. Jack’s fingers card through his hair, and Bruce gives in to the comfort for a moment before pulling away.
He urges Jack to his feet and into the bathroom. He runs the water in the shower, pulls Jack inside the tiled partition with him and tenderly washes him, rinsing blood and semen from Jack’s bruised flesh. Bruce’s cheeks burn with shame when he realizes that some of the bite marks will scar. He shuts off the water, pats Jack dry, then makes him sit on the toilet lid as he disinfects and dresses each wound. Silence stretches between them, ringing and empty.
When he is finished, Bruce retrieves Jack’s clothes. The shirt is a lost cause and so he gives Jack one of his own, pulling it over Jack’s shoulders and buttoning it up. He forces his fingers not to linger. Jack tilts his head, trying to meet Bruce’s eyes but Bruce steps back, letting his hands fall away. He keeps his eyes resolutely lowered.
He is afraid of what he might do if he looks at Jack right now.
Bruce goes over to his desk and writes something down on his personalized stationary. He hands the note to Jack. Jack doesn’t look at it, doesn’t take his eyes off of Bruce’s distressed face, forcing Bruce to explain. “It’s my cell phone number. If you ever need it.”
Jack tucks the piece of paper into his pocket. Bruce does not watch him leave.
Jack never calls.
Bright colors, lights, press of people. Pushing past the crowd, fear clogging his throat, hitting the cool night air and pulling in deep calming breaths. A broad hand on his back, and a horrible sense of foreboding as a man steps out of the shadows, something gleaming in his hand.
The nightmare unspools behind Bruce’s eyes, familiar horror catching in his chest as he lunges forward, mouth open in a silent scream. Each step feels like walking in quicksand, breath burning in his lungs and he stretches forward, reaching, reaching… Pop. Poppoppop. The retort of the gun is deafening. Bruce watches his parents crumple. His knees give way, shock and sorrow bearing him down. He reaches out, touching the still, cold forms and then the figures morph and it is Rachel and Jenny lying in front of him, their faces ghastly white, the eyes of the little girl open to stare accusingly up into his. He couldn’t save them. He couldn’t save any of them--
He starts awake, covered in sweat.
And starts again at the unmistakable sound of a revolver’s cylinder flicking into place. Bruce jerks around to see Joker sitting in the chair opposite him, coolly flipping the cylinder open again. It hits the frame and he spins it with a whir, looking down the site before flicking it back into place. He thumbs the hammer back with an audible ‘click’ and points the gun at Bruce.
“Good morning, sunshine,” he chirps, his voice full of cheerful menace.
He’s got his facepaint back on. White greasepaint gleams in the dim light, the garish red slash of his smile twisting. Bruce very carefully turns fully toward him, setting both of his feet on the floor.
“You know, I’ve been thinking about that scene back in your Bathole,” Joker says conversationally. “All those broken toys and stuff.” He gestures widely with the gun in his hand. “You’ve had people die on you before. You’ve even taken the blame for their deaths before. So, I’ve been thinking, what’s so different about this time?” He pauses. “And I’m thinking it’s that.” Joker extends his arm, pointing the gun at Bruce’s right knee.
Bruce’s eyes slit fractionally, jaw tightening. It’s all the confirmation Joker needs. He sets the gun down on the end table and stands, leaning heavily on his right leg. His gaze is a threat that heats every part of Bruce’s body at once. Bruce stands as well. They both pause, the length of the room between them, and the moment stretches—the air humming with anticipation. Their eyes lock. Joker bares his teeth in a feral smile.
They both spring forward at once. They go down in a tangle of limbs, rolling as Joker’s chattering laughter swells up. Joker’s fists connect with his torso in a rain of frantic blows. Bruce’s head swims. It feels like coming home. Bruce twists underneath him, bridging up for a counterattack. Skin and bone connect under his fists with a cracking sound. Joker tips his head back, giggling, blood dripping from his open mouth. Bruce raises his fist again, his other hand grasping the lapel of Joker’s purple jacket. He stuffs his fist into Joker’s face, punches and hits and grinds up into him mindless to anything but tearing the madman apart.
Joker’s hands seize Bruce’s wrists. He uses his body weight to push Bruce’s arms to the floor, pinning him. “Now now, that is enough of our usual foreplay,” he drawls.
Joker leans forward, placing a soft kiss on Bruce’s lips. He pulls back, grip as tight as iron on Bruce’s wrists, and then bends again and pushes his tongue into Bruce’s mouth.
Bruce’s head swims—the endorphins from the fight and the banked desire filling his veins with blood-soaked sand. Joker’s hips move coyly, grinding into the one’s beneath him. Bruce cannot help the way he gasps into Joker’s mouth, the awareness of his erection, swollen and pressed against Joker’s own, blotting out his reason for a moment.
Joker uses the moment to shift away, releasing Bruce’s wrists and sits up. Bruce attempts to follow but is pushed back down by strong hands. The point of a knife keeps him down, Joker’s blade pressing into the soft skin of his throat. Joker’s other hand picks at the front of Bruce’s shirt, parting the fabric. His nails prick Bruce’s skin as he trails them down Bruce’s chest and pops open the button on his fly. He shifts his weight off Bruce, the pressure of the knife never easing, and uses his other hand to take off Bruce’s pants and boxers.
When Bruce is naked, Joker’s warm hands slide under Bruce, urging him to turn over. Bruce does, brain in a vertigo. Joker leans close to whisper in his ear, “Now, be a good bat and don’t move.”
He pats Bruce’s cheek affectionately and rolls off of Bruce.
There is the sound of undressing. Bruce stays where he is. The pressure in his head is building. His body feels heavy and slow. Guilt and pain are dead weights in his chest, but it’s okay. It’s okay. He is safe and he is being cared for. The thought that it is Joker who is providing this respite only proves to Bruce how wrong he is.
Batman is over. It’s all over.
There is a slight rustling sound behind him. That is all the warning he has before Joker’s walking stick cracks smartly against his bare shoulders. Bruce hisses in pain and shock, automatically lifting himself on his arms, but Joker’s foot plants between his shoulder blades, pushing him back down.
“No,” he says, drawing the vowel out chidingly. “It’s time for you to take your medicine.”
Understanding comes in a rush and his mouth goes dry. Joker removes his foot and Bruce shifts, pulling his arms into his body, squaring up his back. He hears Joker’s breathy chuckle.
“Yeah, you get it,” he says, trailing a hand teasingly down Bruce’s spine.
And then the walking stick crashes down again, obliterating every thought from Bruce’s mind. Bruce gasps with the first few blows—he cannot believe how much it hurts. Each blow feels like fire bursting under his skin. Joker is not holding back at all, beating him with all the strength of his whipcord body behind him, the heavy wooden stick raining blows over the skin of his back, his ass, his thighs.
Bruce squirms and cries out, tears prinking behind his eyelids. Joker chose not to tie him up, Bruce realizes. He wants Bruce to be able to move, to respond, to submit himself to this. To take his punishment.
It goes on and on, the pain searing him, scorching into every cell until there is no escaping it. He welcomes the pain, feeling with each strike the pressure around his heart easing. Dopamine dumps into his veins, his senses shutting out one by one until all that exists is the feeling of the blows lavishing his body. Bruce howls and sobs and he takes it. He takes everything that Joker is giving him, feeling cleansed with each stroke.
After an endless time, the blows abate. Bruce hears the walking stick clatter to the carpet, and Joker’s low grunt as he kneels beside Bruce’s battered body. His fingers stroke through Bruce’s hair, cupping his flushed, upturned cheek. Bruce feels a warm tongue lapping up his tears and he turns, exposing his entire face to Joker’s questing tongue. The licks give way to lingering kisses. Joker sucks at his lips, mouth clinging and Bruce kisses back, desperate and hungry. His arms tingle from where they have been pinned to his chest, but he raises them the moment he regains feeling, pulling Joker closer. The jagged landscape of that ruined mouth is so familiar. Joker moans into the kiss and Bruce pulls back.
A crest of indefinable emotion rises in his chest as he gazes into Joker’s face.
“It’s done,” Joker says, cradling him. “You’re square now, you understand?”
Bruce nods. Yes, he’s square. The guilt that has been driving him for days has finally eased. Bruce hasn’t felt this human in years.
He feels himself smiling at Joker, and Joker smiles back and cups Bruce’s face in his hands again. He kisses Bruce unhurriedly, hands lingering in Bruce’s hair, trailing teasingly down his chest to circle over his nipples. He pulls Bruce over him, and Bruce presses their hips together, Joker’s cock wet against his own. It is all so familiar—the way the man beneath him moves, the way his fingers twist inside Bruce, the way their bodies fit together. Bruce takes him inside, rides him as Joker’s nails graze the welts on his back, making him moan and shiver. Joker’s hand strokes Bruce’s cock with perfect pressure, the tempo slow and then faster as Bruce’s movements become more frantic. It is all so familiar, and so sweet.
Bruce cries out when he comes, clutching the man beneath him close. “Jack,” he murmurs into blonde curls and the man beneath him shudders and moans and does not deny it.
”Bruce, I don’t suppose there is any way I can convince you not to come?” Rachel’s head tips down, dark hair spilling over her shoulder.
The manor’s driveway looks the same as it’s looked since Bruce can remember. He recalls running across the crisp gravel after Rachel, sifting for arrowheads in the garden. He remembers cutting across the lawn and jogging up the drive after a long, languorous day of swimming with Jack. He remembers the way the rain made the driveway gleam when he left here two years ago. These memories filter through his mind, but they do not stir his resolve.
The gun in his pocket is a steady weight. He feels calm and ready.
“Someone at this proceeding should stand for my parents.”
Rachel winces and argues with him, but Bruce knows it all. Knows that Joe Chill made a bargain with the DA. Knows that his testimony will help put Falcone behind bars. Knows that Chill will never live to give that testimony.
They drive to the courthouse in silence.
The parole hearing is a nightmare. Too many reporters, too much false sympathy. Bruce wishes for the millionth time that Jack was here. Bruce had tried to find him, to say goodbye. He found the apartment empty, no forwarding address, no way to contact him. Maybe it’s better this way. He knows that Jack will understand what he has to do.
Bruce follows Chill out of the courtroom, retrieving the gun he had stashed under Rachel’s car. Reporters are clogging the exits, circling for a story. One recognizes him and clears a path between him and Chill, eager for a confrontation. Bruce’s heartbeat quickens, his breath coming in short gasps. He grasps the loaded gun tightly. His vision telescopes down to a pinpoint, every cell in his body straining toward his revenge.
He does not even see the blonde step into his path until it is too late.
“Hey Chill,” she says. “Falcone says hi!” She thrusts a gun at Chill’s chest and fires. Chill falls. Reporters scream and scramble back as police scramble forward. In the melee, the blonde woman turns and Bruce feels a flash of recognition. And then she’s gone, police pursuing on foot, and Rachel is pulling him away.
They get into the car. Bruce is numb. “All these years I’ve wanted to kill him,” he says lowly, “And now he’s gone. Now I can’t.”
“You don’t mean that,” Rachel says, and it strikes Bruce then how little she truly understands him.
“I do,” he argues grimly. “Chill killed my parents. They deserve justice.”
“You’re not talking about justice,” she argues. “You’re talking about revenge!”
“They’re the same,” he tells her. She looks at him, appalled, and he can feel her slipping away from him. “Rachel, your system of justice is broken. Don’t you see that?” He is desperate to make her understand, to still have one person who understands.
“Don’t you tell me that! I’m trying every day to fix the system, while you use your grief as an excuse to do nothing!” She stops the car, gesturing out the window. “Look at this city, Bruce. Look! It’s rotting from the inside, and you know why? Because men like Falcone run this city. Joe Chill wasn’t the disease; he’s just a symptom. No one wants to deal with the real problem. Falcone may not have killed your parents, but he has destroyed everything they stood for.”
Rachel rolls the car into the street and gestures at the club opposite them. “Everyone knows where to find Falcone, but no one will touch him. They are either too scared or they’re working for him. Like your friend Jack.”
Bruce starts. “How do you—“
“Everyone knows it, Bruce. He’s too low-level for my office to go after him, and I’ve tried to keep it that way for your sake, but the path he’s on…” She shakes her head. “I’m sorry Bruce, but he’s not a good man.”
And Bruce could almost laugh. “You think I am?” He pulls the gun from his sleeve. “I was going to kill Chill myself.”
Rachel stares at him in shocked silence for a moment. Her hand lashes out then, slapping him once—twice—tears flowing down her face. She points at the gun in his hand.
“Your father would be so ashamed,” she says. The words cut him to the quick, because they are true. His father hated violence. He built his legacy on creating peace. But building peace is impossible in a world like this one. There is no fairness in this world, Bruce tells himself. All his money, all his fame and charm is useless in the face of such injustice. Bruce opens the door and stumbles out onto the pavement. Rachel guns the car, leaving him behind.
His mind goes back to the blonde reporter, and that flash of recognition, and he looks down at the gun in his hand. He remembers the gun in Chill’s hand wavering as he holds it on Bruce’s parents, his eyes wide with fright and greed. And he realizes that Rachel is right. Chill was never the problem.
He turns toward the club. The bouncers try to stop him, but a wad of cash gains him entrance. Falcone is there, seating amongst the elite like a spider in a web. Bruce’s eyes scan over him, taking in the details, but he is not here for him. He waits, not knowing how he knows but he does know. And sure enough, he hears that familiar laugh braying out. He leaves the lobby, skirting the tables and following the sound into the kitchen. Jack is leaning against the back wall. He’s ditched the blonde wig, but is still wearing a grey skirt and women’s makeup. The disguise would never hold up to close scrutiny, but Bruce supposes he didn’t need a lot of time—just an opportunity.
This is what is happening in Bruce’s conscious mind. But underneath it, his emotions are going haywire—two years of frustrated longing and enraging silence tangling in his chest.
Bruce’s stride doesn’t slow as he makes for the man. Some of the kitchen staff bristle, but Jack holds up a hand to stop them. “It’s fine,” he drawls. “Just an old friend coming to say hello.”
Bruce wants to rip him apart, but he waits until Jack pulls him out the door and into the dark alley.
“I take it you’re here to have a chat about—“
“How could you do that to me?” Bruce interrupts. His fury is a red blot against his vision. He lashes out, his fist connecting with Jack’s cheek. Jack sways, but doesn’t fall. “He was mine!”
“Oh and what were you gonna do, huh? Shoot him in front of a hundred witnesses? Oh that was a great plan! Real swell.”
“Fuck you! You fucking asshole!” Bruce hits him again, and this time Jack stumbles back into the wall, laughing as his head hits the bricks. “You had no right!”
“I had every right, sweetheart,” he giggles. “Both personally and, ah- professionally.”
Bruce pauses, disappointment a crushing weight. “The mob? Jesus, how can you? You hate them.”
“Oh please,” Jack shoots back. “Don’t pretend you didn’t know. What did you think I was doing, Brucie, huh? Selling cars? Not all of us want to flunk out of the entire Ivy League to work in Daddy’s company.”
“Don’t you fucking throw that in my face. I didn’t ask for that, and I don’t want it.”
Jack sneers. “What do you want, then?”
And the devastating truth is, he wants Jack.
But he cannot--cannot--have him like this.
“I want you to leave. I want you out of Gotham.”
Jack laughs in his face. “I don’t think so, sweetheart.”
“Then I’ll go,” Bruce says and his voice is cold.
“Don’t,” Jack seethes. “Don’t even say that.”
But the decision has already been made. Jack must see it in Bruce’s eyes because he springs forward, pushing Bruce back into the wall, his whole body pinning Bruce to the cold brick. Bruce tries to push him off, but Jack’s grip is inescapable. “You and me—we don’t choose. We get chosen. Do you understand me?”
And Bruce does, of course he does. He can’t help what he feels for Jack, can’t help the sick rush of desire that overtakes him, even now. After everything Jack has done to him, Bruce should despise him. He does despise him. But the simple truth is that it doesn’t matter. He belongs to Jack, as surely as the other man belongs to him. Nothing can change that.
“I hate you,” Bruce whispers, half-wonderingly.
Jack smiles at him. “I hate you too, darling.”
In a flash of insight, Bruce realizes what he must do. The idea has been growing, slowly taking root in his brain for years. There is no fairness in this world, and nothing that he can do about it. He is useless as Bruce Wayne. But perhaps he can choose to become something more.
He smiles back at Jack, leaning in to place a kiss on his forehead.
“I’ll be back,” he tells him.
It is a promise.
“I don’t think I can take another Gotham winter,” Joker says. They are still in the boathouse, crowded into the tiny bathroom. Bruce’s wounds have been tenderly cared for and now he sits on the lowered toilet seat, watching as a shirtless Joker takes a wet washcloth to the greasepaint on his face.
Bruce’s eyes follow the movements of his hands as Joker swipes the cloth against his cheek, revealing a bit of pink skin. His back is a pale expanse broken by scars, the faded half-circle of a bite mark clearly visible on his right shoulder blade. Bruce watches the muscles moving under Joker’s skin as he works. His mind is calm and untroubled. The skin of his back throbs, but the pain makes him feel solid. Balanced. He feels a smile crawl over his face as Joker grimaces, rubbing futily at the black paint under his eyes.
“Nope,” Joker tells him, turning on the tap and running the rag under it. “I think,” he pauses as he runs the washcloth over his mouth, more and more of his face revealed to Bruce’s gaze. “I think I want to go someplace warm. Maybe Hawaii.”
“That is just an excuse for you to wear a flowered shirt.”
Joker—Jack—snorts. “As if I need an excuse. Tijuana then.”
Bruce shakes his head. “I’ve been there. The food is good but it’s a total shithole.”
Jack cants his head, regarding him. “Have you been to Jamaica?” It is couched as an innocuous question, but Bruce can clearly hear the other question beneath it.
Bruce thinks for a moment. “I’d like to.”
A smile twists across Jack’s face. “Good,” he says. He reaches out and places a hand on Bruce’s shoulder, squeezing a bit before going back to lean over the sink, continuing to unmask himself. He catches Bruce’s eyes in the mirror. “That’s good.”
Bruce rarely thinks about Jack in the years that he is away from Gotham. He is too busy surviving, learning, honing his skills into a weapon that can be wielded against injustice.
Seven years later, Jim Gordon hands Batman a playing card, encased in plastic.
“Got a taste for theatrics. Like you…”he says.
Bruce feels his heart constrict, fear and hope and longing planting claws in his chest.
“I’ll look in to it,” he says, and disappears into the night.
Bruce is thirty-five years old when he meets Jack again.
They have never been out of each other’s orbits, not really. But now, they are beginning to fit their lives around each other.
It is slow going. They have years to make up for. And there are still sore spots—wounds that never healed quite right. They try to talk and to understand each other and, when that fails, they go at each other with fists and teeth until the truth pours out.
Because the thing is…something is wrong with Bruce.
But it’s nothing that they can’t make right together.