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Hours that were once all glory

by Te

Hours that were once all glory
by Te
December 14, 2003

Disclaimers: Nothing here is mine. I'm just a happy fangirl.

Spoilers: "A Better World," "Hereafter." See Author's Note for more information.

Summary: Sometimes, it's just a matter of one day after another.

Ratings Note/Warnings: R. Contains content some readers may find disturbing.

Author's Note: This is my attempt to explain how Lorder!Batman came to be. I've decided some version of the new Teen Titans cartoon exists as canon, as do the events of all prior Timm/Dini Batman cartoons, including, in an AU sort of way, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.

Title from D.H. Lawrence.

Acknowledgments: To Livia, Jack, Bas, Rynia, the Spike, and the lit chick for audiencing and many helpful suggestions. To Misha for the extended... discussion that led to this particular version.

*

There's nothing special about the call, when it comes.

Tim has his own team these days, and they'd long since created a system to handle those moments when those team-mates had to get in touch with him, or vice versa.

And because Tim's team is what it is... Well.

It's not the first seemingly random phone call Batman's gotten through a number of near-instantaneous and random switchbacks from San Francisco.

It's just that it's usually Beast Boy to make them, and usually at four a.m.

It's eight thirty-seven in the evening.

"... so I don't mean to bother you or anything I know you're busy Robin always says don't bother you unless it's an emergency and I don't think it IS an emergency but sometimes I don't know for sure and --"

"Starfire."

"Yes?"

"What seems to be the problem?" Batman grins to himself, having already decided that whatever it is, it'll be a job for Superman.

"Well. Um. Is Robin there? Because you know he said he was going to see you and that he needed a vacation -- except that he doesn't talk about vacations the way I've come to understand the term --"

Or not. "Starfire. Are you saying Robin's missing?"

"Yes! Yes, that's it exactly. Only, he's really always been kind of mysterious. It's just that he's been gone for a week and he --"

"Stay where you are. Someone will be there to rendezvous with your team."

"Okay! I --"

"Call me immediately if you hear anything. Batman --"

"He's all right, isn't he?"

He closes his eyes, just for a moment. Thinks about everything Robin has shared about his team. About Starfire, in particular. Sighs to himself. "I'm sure he's fine. Batman out."

*

He's had an hour to think.

"San Francisco? Bruce, are you sure I wouldn't be of more use to you here?"

Superman -- Clark -- doesn't, quite, have his hand on Batman's shoulder. Everything in his voice and body language says he's not sure about that decision. He straightens where he stands, just in case. "Someone needs to keep an eye on those kids, Superman. You're the best choice."

He's had an hour.

Tim has had a week. Six days, really. Robin had stopped a jewel heist in Reno not long after leaving his team.

Tim Drake had boarded a plane to Gotham later that night from Las Vegas International. Careful of him.

Entirely in character. Robin's bike was probably stashed in the desert.

"You shouldn't be alone for this."

"Nightwing and Batgirl have already been notified." If they weren't already back at the Manor, they were on their way.

"Bruce --"

"Clark. I need you in San Francisco. The Titans are... nowhere near as professional as I'd like them to be."

"They're good kids --"

"Exactly. I need you to find out exactly what they know, if there's something Starfire didn't tell me --"

Hand on his shoulder. "I'm on it. I'll take J'onn, too."

Batman blinks. He hadn't thought of that. An hour. A week. Six days. "I. Thank you."

A squeeze. "He's my friend, too."

Clark is gone before Batman can respond, which is probably for the best.

He powers up Javelin-4 while he waits for the information to come in from the Gotham area airports. Intellectually, he understands that the data won't reach the Cave any faster than it will reach the Tower.

That's all that matters.

There are eight different aliases Robin can reasonably be expected to use at any given time. Eleven, if he includes the emergency identities. He has done so.

The only way he would've landed in Gotham as Timothy Drake is if he wasn't, for whatever reason, thinking clearly. Batman has another system checking that, too.

He would've contacted one of them, as a matter of course.

He hasn't.

Six days.

*

Batgirl is on the computer when he walks into the Cave. She nods at him vaguely and continues to type.

"He landed in Bludhaven as Christopher Miller Sunday night," is all she says.

Batman nods. "Nightwing --"

"Is already on his way back there. I'm trying to patch into the security cameras to get a better look at him. Check the print-outs."

He does. Grainy, blurry shots. Obviously Tim, obviously in motion. The best shot is of him smiling at a guardswoman who seems immune to Tim's charms. He's grown another inch, at least, since Batman last saw him. There are a dozen absolutely irrelevant things he wants to say. "There was nothing on either of your systems." He can't repress all of them.

Batgirl stops typing and looks at him hard for a long moment. Softens. "No, Bruce."

Batman bites the inside of his cheek. Six days. "Two-Face --"

"Locked up tight at the new place."

The 'new' place has been up and running for a year. A subsidiary of WayneTech designed much of the security, with help from S.T.A.R. It would always be the new place. "Who isn't?"

Batgirl narrows her eyes, mostly at herself. "A few of the usuals. Ivy broke out three weeks ago. She's still underground. You have my report. Catwoman and the Ventriloquist -- wait. He's still working for you, isn't he?"

"Check him anyway. Who else?"

She shakes her head. "Take over on the security cams. I'll check. It's been really quiet here and. Hell. Too quiet, right?"

Batman doesn't bother to respond. There's a program he's been working on to patch airport security into his own systems. There's nothing wrong with it; he just hasn't had the time to work out a way to make the reams of information useful in any way.

And President Luthor hasn't been especially encouraging of their efforts to help with the terrorism question.

There was always something else to do.

Six days.

"Joker and Harley were last seen in Metropolis two weeks ago, Batman."

Batman closes his eyes. There was a time when there was no one, nothing more important than keeping an eye on Joker.

The Lords have other things to do, on a daily basis.

He had specifically told Batgirl and Nightwing to. To.

There'd been other things to do.

"Assume they're here."

"Oh. Oh God. Would they... Oh God, Batman!"

The image editor finishes cleaning up the last decent shot of Tim. When it prints out, Batman can see him smiling easily and openly at the elderly cab driver who is clearly trying to help him with his luggage.

There was nothing visibly wrong with him six days ago, in Bludhaven.

*

"Batman."

He jerks himself back to himself and looks around. The Cave. Batgirl is sprawled, half-asleep, on the med-table.

Nightwing is... not here.

Nine days. He checks his watch. Ten days.

"Batman, are you there?"

He taps the communicator. "Yes."

"The Slade angle didn't pan out. He was a tough sonofabitch to track down, but he didn't have anything useful to say. Even when J'onn asked. J'onn and I are thinking we've outlived our usefulness here, and GL mentioned needing a hand with that uprising --"

"You're sick of baby-sitting, aren't you?"

"They never sleep, Batman! And that Raven kid uses magic in an entirely --"

"You can leave." He wants, very badly, to be amused.

There's a pause.

He knows Clark is hearing... everything.

"They know to contact us if they hear anything... Batman."

He closes his eyes. It's safe -- he's awake now. "Get back to the Tower."

"... I sent Flash and Wonder Woman to Metropolis."

"Nightwing told me."

"I... should have guessed. Batman. Bruce. Use us."

"I will."

"You have to --"

"I will."

Silence. He uses it.

"Batman out."

*

Twelve days and Nightwing's stopped shaving.

"I'm going to kill him, you know."

It jars him away from the computers. "We don't do that, Dick --"

"Ease off, Bruce. Christ. I'm talking about Flash."

Batman watches him scratch at his growing beard. Regroups, and knows he's doing it visibly when Nightwing smirks at him. "You need to shave."

"And you need to sleep. We've got other things to do."

Other things. Twelve days. "Report."

"The hideout in Metropolis was useless. Stage-makeup, one dead hyena. Signs of at least two other live ones. Wonder Woman seems to know a helluva lot about --"

"Irrelevant. What else?"

"There are signs that Metallo may be up to something. I left Wonder Woman looking into that."

Batman nods. Makes a note to himself to specifically tell Superman to stay out of it, this time. Makes another note to tell Lantern to keep him out of it. Whether either tack would prove useful... "What else?"

"Batgirl has a bead on Ivy. She'll call in if and when she gets anything we can use."

"And Flash?"

"Crashed out at my place back in Bludhaven. At Dick's place."

It takes much, much too long to parse that. Nightwing is still smirking, but it's rueful. "Are you going to explain that?"

"Just as soon as you explain why it never occurred to you to get that guy to knock on a closed bathroom door."

He could say something about how it never seemed important -- Batman never changed on the Tower. He could say something about the amusement factor in having someone like Flash on a team with people like Superman, and Hawkgirl.

He'd always meant to, anyway.

Nightwing would've probably appreciated it. Robin... Tim.

Twelve days.

"He found out your identity in Metropolis."

"Yep. You know, you can rent a hotel room in costume in that city. Superman's influence is just a little terrifying."

"You're not... sleeping with him." He can't even make it a question, much less a casual one.

Nightwing, thankfully, looks nothing but offended. "Jesus, Bruce, give me some credit. I mean, he's a decent enough guy, but. But." A look. "One, you really need some sleep. Two, you... whatever. I'm not going there. Three, come up with a good reason for Dick Grayson to be Nightwing that either does or does not take Bruce Wayne into account. Four, let us all know what that reason is, stat, because Flash --"

"I'm working on it."

"Bruce --"

"Later. After we find Robin."

Nightwing sighs and drops into a crouch. Runs a hand through his hair. "I just... whatever happened, it had to be sudden. There's just no way --"

"I know."

"We'll find him, Bruce."

"I know that, too."

"Right. What should I do with speedy when he wakes up?"

"Did you drug him?"

"Don't think the idea didn't occur to me two or seventeen times."

The smile on his face isn't enough of a surprise. "Chances are, he's already awake. And looking for you."

"What... aw, fuck. The metabolism --"

"Track him down. Bring him back here. We might as well use him."

"Right. I'm gone. Do not forget to call me if Babs calls in."

"I won't."

"And check on Alfred, would you? He. He wants to help."

"I know."

"He almost got out of the hospital the other night. He." Nightwing stops, very obviously not looking at the stairs that Alfred won't ever be walking down again.

The stroke had been sudden, and disastrous.

"Bruce. What do we tell Alfred if --"

"It won't happen."

"But --"

"Go. I. Bruce will visit Alfred tomorrow."

Slow, careful nod. "All right."

*

Seventeen days, and Batman is on the street when Batgirl calls in.

"I found her -- Christ!"

"Where are you?" He drops the half-conscious pimp and punches in the code to start the car.

"Greenhouse, where else. Out in the country -- dammit -- right off I-80. Get help here fast. I can handle the vines, but --"

"I'm on my way."

"Batgirl out."

"Nightwing."

"I heard. I'm coming. I'm... here. Heh." Flash sets Nightwing down next to the car and dusts off his hands.

"Where are we going?"

We. Christ. Thankfully, Nightwing is giving him a look, so Batman doesn't have to.

Still. He can be useful. "Batgirl's found Poison Ivy. Do you remember --"

"The 'poison' isn't just a name, she might know where to find Harley who's in some kind of fucked up relationship with the Joker, I got it."

Flash looks... painfully earnest.

Nightwing gives him a look and shakes his head. "Just let us take point. Batgirl can handle herself, so we don't need your speed yet. Batman, my bike will be here in another couple of minutes. You take Flash in the car?"

"Fine."

"I get to ride in the Batmobile?"

Batman ignores the headache doing its best to form behind his eyes. "Let's go."

Surprisingly, after a few comments about the complexity of the seatbelts, Flash is silent. He checks the rearview several times, nods to himself when Nightwing's bike comes into view, and then just goes back to staring out the window at the passing countryside, tapping his fingers in a somewhat hypnotic blur on his own thigh.

Batman... he knows he needs sleep. More than the six hours he caught two days ago.

Days.

Robin is... he shakes it off internally. "You're quiet."

"Hunh? Oh. It happens. Really."

"Difficult to credit."

A grin that doesn't miss 'sly' by much. "As difficult as you having, like, people you enjoy working with?"

He can't quite repress a smile. "It happens. Really."

He can feel Flash grinning at him, even more than he can see it out of the corner of his eye.

And he can feel it fade.

"So. Uh. Robin."

"What is it?"

"How long...? I mean, I figured out that Dick -- that Nightwing used to be Robin, and... and I think I have some questions for you that I'll never actually ask, because I'm not, actually, an idiot. But..."

"Robin has been doing this for almost five years. He's experienced."

"I... yeah. Okay. We'll find him, you know?"

Batman does his best to make his sound non-committal, as opposed to just irritated.

"You're probably sick of people saying that."

"You have no idea."

And Flash is...

Very obviously thinking.

"I didn't before, no. But I think I'm getting it. That thing with Superman a few years ago, when we all thought he'd died. You really -- "

"Flash --"

"This is me, shutting up."

"... thank you."

"Mm-hmm."

The greenhouse announces itself with fire on the horizon and a stink of burning vegetation that manages to make it past the car's filters.

"Jesus, Batman."

"The thing about Poison Ivy is that it always ends with fire, one way or another."

"I'm just gonna take your word on that," he says, and gets out of the car as Nightwing pulls up.

"... northwest edge of the fields, yeah I hear you." Nightwing taps his communicator and points the way. "Batgirl's got Ivy cornered in a shed out there. She's out of acid and a little banged up, but fine. We won't be able to take the car or the bike. Ivy's figured out how to make her own quicksand."

Batman raises an eyebrow. "Clever of her."

"... quicksand?"

"Just don't veer off the path we're taking, Flash."

"Right."

Which would've worked fine if the sawgrass hadn't been altered by Ivy's experiments. Just enough to make a nuisance of itself.

Batman gets knocked into one of the pits, and before he can shoot off a grapple, Flash is running them both to safety. Speed vs. surface tension.

Right.

"I told you --"

"Yell at me later. Do you have a flamethrower in that belt somewhere? I'm starting to see the point of fire as a weapon, here."

He nods and tosses a few of the exploding batarangs behind them and Nightwing does the same.

His suit is in shreds over his legs, but he's all right.

The grass starts screaming.

Flash grabs them both and runs in mostly the right direction, dropping them on one of the few patches of ground bare of vegetation.

The shed is visible, whole and silent.

"Head in, Batman, I'll wait for Flash to catch his breath."

"I'm good, just --" He takes a breath, coughs, takes another, shakes. Stands up straight. "Right, point me at the bad guys."

Nightwing frowns. "Are you sure --"

"He can handle it. Let's --"

A vaguely female shape crashes through the wall of the shed. Red-haired and... green.

Batgirl comes out after her, suit ripped in a dozen places and fists clenched.

Flash blinks. "Or we could let her handle this."

Ivy struggles to stand, reaching toward a small, oddly-stunted bush -- and Batgirl stomps on her wrist.

And starts grinding.

"Tell me where they are!"

Ivy rears back, snarls, and both his and Nightwing's batarangs hit her before she can spit.

Batgirl turns on them, snarling. "We need her to talk!"

"Uh --"

Batman puts out a hand to stop Flash from doing... anything. Nightwing doesn't need any direction, of course. He catches Batgirl by the shoulders and walks her away from the unconscious and severely beaten woman on the ground.

"She was about to poison you --"

"I was about to kick her in the head!"

"That, too. Stop. Take a look at yourself, okay? Take a look at her."

"Dammit, she knows! She always knows where to find Harley, she's fucking obsessed --"

"Barbara --" Nightwing cuts himself off, and looks back over his shoulder at him.

Batman nods.

Nightwing leads Batgirl back into the shed. Batgirl allows herself to be led.

Good enough.

He turns to Ivy. She's bleeding from several different wounds, none of them serious. They can hold her for at least a few hours before they have to get her to Arkham -- no. The new facility.

He pulls out the cuffs.

"Can I help?"

Batman blinks. Flash is still there, of course. Vaguely vibrating behind him, and a little to the right. "What are your gloves made of?"

"Uh. You know, I honestly don't know."

"Then chances are they're not strong enough to risk you coming into contact with her bodily fluids."

"To which I say: ick."

"Exactly."

He gets her restrained. The gag isn't the best -- she'll be able to dissolve it with her saliva given time and motivation -- but they'll at least have some warning.

He can hear Batgirl crying in the shed. Great, wracking sobs of exhaustion and anger.

Flash is staring at the burning greenhouse, very deliberately.

"Flash."

"I can't hear any of that, you know. Not a... not a word."

"Thank you."

A smile, tossed easily over his shoulder. "Twice in one night? Bats, you're gonna spoil me."

*

Seventeen days.

Eighteen days in three hours.

Seventeen days and Ivy isn't talking.

Seventeen days and Batman's knuckles... itch.

He is not alone.

There is a patch of cape missing where Batgirl moved too slow to avoid a spit.

Nightwing's glove is dissolving from the punch he gave the woman after. His uniform is of lighter material than Batman's own, in deference to his need for greater flexibility.

Batman can see the man rethinking this.

Flash is...

Flash is in the corner, out of spitting distance, and watching.

Mostly watching him.

It can wait.

"Ivy."

"Call your bitch off, Batman." A laugh. "Your other bitch."

Nightwing tightens his fist in her hair.

"Ivy, you need to talk."

"No, let her keep her mouth shut. I've got a few things I'd like to try." Batgirl is tapping a batarang against her palm. One of the electrified ones. If she slips... she won't slip.

Ivy laughs again. "Good cop, bad cop? With that as the bad cop? Please."

Seventeen days, and he isn't the only one feeling them.

Nightwing doesn't even look up -- just moves to hold Ivy still when Batgirl moves in with the makeshift cattle prod.

He wonders if they know what they're doing.

If they realize what line they're crossing.

Flash is watching him.

"Ivy."

"Fuck, I don't know where they are! We don't keep each other on fucking speed dial!"

"Oh, I don't know, Pam. You and Harley are awfully... tight." Batgirl feints with the batarang and Ivy flinches.

Snarls again, but flinches.

"She's with Joker --"

"And you hate it. You hate it every minute out of every day, don't you, Pam?" Nightwing smiles against her ear. "She'll never love you the way she does him. The lunatic. The painted, laughing freak. And she's with him right now..."

"Shut up!"

"We'll put her away, sure. But she won't be with him."

Batgirl crouches on her other side. "If you're a good girl, we'll put her in the cell right next to yours."

Batman has an excellent view of Ivy. She's not looking at any of them, really. Her face is twisted into something much closer to a rictus than anything else.

And Flash is.

"Ivy."

She focuses on him so quickly that Batman knows he made a mistake. Her face settles into calm, even lines. "Like the boy blunder said -- Joker's a lunatic. How would I know where he is?"

Batman lets his eyes close behind the mask.

He can hear the punches landing.

They haven't given her any water, but if they go too far, she'll be able to spit blood.

They won't... they probably won't --

Wash of air and Flash is grabbing his arm. There's something --

"Batman, you have to stop them. She's human --"

"She stopped being human a long time ago." And that's not the point. There's something important here. Something he's missing.

"Batman --"

"I'm thinking." Joker's a lunatic. Joker is --

"Christ, Batman, I know this is important, but -- "

"Batgirl. Nightwing. Stop."

"Thank God --"

"Why?" Batgirl is, at least, looking at him.

Nightwing is not. Later. He'll deal with this later. Because Joker is a lunatic and Harley isn't much better. Because they met at Arkham. Because --

"We'll find them at Arkham."

Nightwing looks up at that. Slowly.

Unwinds his fist from Ivy's hair, brushing off the strands that came loose on his suit with absent inattention.

Ivy, for her part, is rapidly slipping toward unconsciousness. Nightwing gives her one last backhand. "Let's go."

"No. Nightwing..." He can't go. Not like this.

"What?"

"We need someone to take her in." And if you don't get yourself killed at Arkham, you'll certainly kill someone else.

Batman watches him, watches him hear everything he did and didn't say. Wishes he had room for prayer.

Nightwing nods, curtly, and cuts the straps holding Ivy to the chair.

Batgirl is already walking, presumably headed towards her bike.

Flash is... still holding his arm.

And suddenly Batman can feel it. Pressure, heat.

"Get me to the car. Fast."

Flash swallows, clearly visible under the tightness of his suit.

And nods.

*

It's only been a year, and even then, at the end, Arkham was a crumbling mess. Now...

It could be any pre-Victorian mansion left to rot.

It isn't, and not just because Arkham's maintenance had been, at best, haphazard.

Batman has met countless demons, literal and figurative.

Batman has led a life seemingly designed to wear away all skepticism he would have liked to have about the numinous.

And Arkham is very much unhallowed ground.

Batgirl knows it.

Flash, beside him, is learning.

"This place..."

"Stay close."

"No problem. Batman, when we find them --"

"Later."

The cells are empty, doors smashed when not simply left open. There are footprints in the dust. Not many.

He leans in to study one more closely -- a thinner layer of dust.

He shakes his head at Batgirl and she takes point, down the stairs. The administration offices have been ransacked. The damage here is more recent, though not by much.

Deeper.

The infirmary is criss-crossed with footprints, human and otherwise. It reeks of rotting (flesh no no) meat and --

The hyenas go for him and Batgirl, first. They've been trained for that, assiduously so, to the point where they ignore Flash entirely.

This is a mistake, but they've lost the element of surprise.

The door to the Operating Theater is closed, but he can hear movement beyond. He forces himself to pause.

There is no sign, here, of Tim. Of Robin. Not even (a scrap a shred what have they done) his uniform.

Batgirl takes one of the exploding batarangs from her belt and looks to him. He nods, and gets his own.

The door explodes inward and they go in low, through the smoke.

Flash is behind him.

Joker is nowhere to be seen.

Batgirl is --

Up and moving, and a glance shows a hint of red and black. Harley, running through the maze of tables, up into a cartoonish approximation of a... family room? No time.

"Batman! Didn't anyone ever tell you that an early guest is an unwelcome one?"

Joker's voice, echoing through the hall. Everywhere and nowhere. He's on the speaker systems, which are located --

"Or should I call you... Bruce?"

Flash gasps beside him, so he doesn't have to.

"And you brought a friend. How sweet. You Justice types just can't get enough of each other, can you?"

The audio room is above, beyond the audience seats. He can get there unseen if he --

"But that's not really the point, is it, Brucie-baby? No, the point is... well. You're early, but not too early. I've got a present for you, Brucie..."

Hum of machinery in front of him, a loading bay. Where's the power coming from? How had they not known?

"We've been playing this game a long time, you and I. A bit of fisticuffs here, a truly cosmic joke there... good times, good times."

There's something rolling out of the bay.

"But that old biological clock of Harley's was just tick-tick-tocking away. A woman needs a family, and I'm not immune to the drive. Your old Joker's just a man, like any other, Batfreak."

It's a table, with a body. A small, small body.

"And Harley... well, let's just say that the joys of childbirth were just a little beyond the old gal's tastes, shall we?"

The table tilts upward, mechanism grinding from (use) age.

"But you've always had a few spare kids running around, Brucie..."

Patent leather shoes, buffed to a high shine. White knee socks. Purple knickers, purple jacket. White, white face.

"So we decided to borrow one."

"Oh my God..." Flash runs for the table, not at top speed. Too fast to stop, and Batman can't move. Can't blink.

"Oh, it took some molding, some effort, but in the end your little bird just couldn't stand up to the drugs, the shock therapy... you know how it goes."

A smile, hideous and unnatural. And Robin's eyes are blank, unblinking pits, even as Flash works on the straps holding him down.

"He told us everything, Brucie. Every. Little. Thing."

Robin starts to laugh, breath hitching, hitching, catching.

"Say hello to your friends, Junior. I think they've missed you."

He stops laughing. He stops -- "Flash, look out!"

Flash turns to him, and Robin is. Robin is still very well-trained. Flash goes down sprawling and stunned, and Robin unfastens the rest of the restraints and Batman can't move and Robin has a knife --

Batman lunges, awkward and slow and -- just fast enough.

He catches Robin in a tackle that knocks the boy's head against the table. He's laughing again, and the knife comes up and Robin's eyes are blank, so very blank.

"Oh God, Tim."

A flare of something in those eyes, a blink, and Robin drops the knife, wrestling his way out of Batman's grasp and running into the shadows.

Flash is groaning, and struggling to his feet. He'll be all right.

Batman takes off after Robin and falls, almost before his body registers the pain. A blow to the back -- one of Joker's weighted, flying boxing gloves.

"Ah ah ah, Brucie. Didn't anyone ever tell you not to play with other people's children? Oh, well, I suppose I know the answer to that."

It doesn't even feel like instinct. It's just too fast, too easy, and the knife is flying toward Joker's head before he can stop himself, before he can think.

Joker ducks, laughing, utterly unconscious of what Batman just did.

And Batman... he can't feel it. He knows he just tried to kill the man, but there's something stopping him from understanding it, or.

His legs aren't working properly. The blow may or may not have damaged something important, but that's not the point.

"Don't you like my surprise?"

"I'm going to kill you," he says, mouth working without his permission.

Joker laughs, advancing on him. "C'mon, Brucie. We both know you don't have the stomach for that game."

And it's... something like permission.

From the universe, if not from Joker, or himself.

He slumps in on himself, pretending to favor his left shoulder. Not pretending at all about his legs.

"... need some help down here. Like fast." Flash, probably on the communicator. Joker turns, snarling --

"No fair --"

And the bolo wraps around the man's throat easily, the weights bringing him to his knees.

Within reach.

"You went too far this time, Joker."

It feels like someone else's voice, someone else's pointless, shockingly obvious speech.

It has nothing on the feel of his hands around that scrawny neck, the rope of the bolo slick and hard against his palms. This close... this close he can smell the man, and taste his madness on his tongue.

This close, it all feels inevitable.

Even the look of dawning horror in Joker's eyes as he scrabbles and scratches at Batman's hands.

Because he doesn't have to know the details of what the man had done.

He knows exactly how far he would've had to go to make Robin -- Tim -- talk.

Too far.

"Batman? Batman, I found Tim. I... Batgirl sedated him. Harley... Harley fell. Off the cliff. Batgirl couldn't. I. The others are on their way..."

Flash, coming closer. There's nothing in Joker's eyes but rage and pain, no sign that he's even heard what Flash said about Harley Quinn.

This isn't a surprise.

Batman squeezes a little harder.

"Christ, I can't see a thing in here. Did you find Joker? Is he about to jump on my head or something? A signal would be good here...."

Batman can smell urine. Not much longer now.

He can feel himself smiling.

"Jesus, Batman, no!" Flash's hands on him.

"Go. Away."

"You're gonna kill him! You have to stop!"

An insect, at the edges of his awareness. He's been trained to ignore worse.

"Aw, man, I'm sorry --"

And it's not that he'd forgotten Flash's strength. It's just that he never expected it to be used against him.

His back is telling him, in no uncertain terms, that he is not to make that mistake ever again.

Hoarse, muffled groan. Joker is still alive. He lunges, and hits the floor hard. Again.

Flash is on him, straddling his chest and forcing his shoulders to the floor. Flash is in the way.

"Please, Batman, snap out of this..."

If he can just reach his belt --

"Please."

No. Not that. Never... he blinks. Forces himself to breathe, just breathe, until he has something like control back.

"Batman?"

"I'm all right."

"Uh... is that all right like 'I'm no longer insane' or all right like 'I'm doing my best to trick you so that I can go right back to strangling the other crazy man?'"

It's difficult to decide how to respond. He could be sarcastic, and so prove himself to be in character. He could be honest, and so... what?

"You're trying to decide, aren't you? Could you go with whatever doesn't lead to you doing something horrible to me?"

"I won't ever hurt you. Not. I won't hurt you."

Flash squeezes his shoulders and smiles down at him shakily. "Okay. Now about the murder thing --"

"I lost control. I. I'm in control. Now. Thank you."

Another squeeze. "That's three, Bats. You're gonna turn my head."

He's up before Batman can even try to figure out how to respond, and offering his hand. He needs a great deal of the man's strength to stand, but he has feeling in his toes. Whatever this is, he will recover.

"Jesus, did I --"

"Some. It was the Joker."

"Right. Um. Why don't you let me cuff the unconscious bad guy, this time?"

He hands over the cuffs without a word, and limps toward the theater, stepping over the Joker (one kick, a blow to the throat, just one) as he goes.

Batgirl is holding Tim.

Batgirl.

Batgirl isn't a large woman, but Tim is still much, much smaller. Crumpled in on himself like a doll. There are drying tears on his face, streaking through the makeup. Only makeup. It didn't have to be...

The smile is still on his face, despite the fact that he's clearly unconscious.

His stomach lurches, and he can't hold in a groan.

Batgirl looks up, wild and unfocused. There's a batarang in her hand.

"It's just. It's me."

She blinks and grimaces, shaking her head. "I gave him the anti-toxin, but..."

"It will probably take several doses. It. Is he --?"

"He helped Harley. When she was trying to kill me. And then Flash caught him and... I don't know if he was laughing or crying. Batman, I couldn't reach Harley, she fell so fast and oh God I think she's dead --!"

He has nothing to say to that. Joker is an itch at the center of his spine.

He falls to his knees, and wraps his arms around them both.

Batgirl will be all right.

He doesn't think he will be, at all.

*

"He's my patient now, Bruce. You know I can't give you that information."

"Leslie. Please. I... I know you can't tell me what. What he's talking to you about. But I have to know --"

"If he's going to be all right?" A sigh so heavy he can almost see it, even over the phone. "Bruce..."

"I'll do anything. Anything at all."

"I know. And we both know it isn't about that, not anymore. Your friend with the ring brought me a stack of... films. Recovered from Arkham."

He squeezes his eyes shut. "Lantern."

"Indeed. Bruce. The Joker did... I can't even wrap my head around the things he did to Tim. I don't know if I'm qualified for this."

"You've been my doctor since I was a child, Leslie." The humor falls as flat as it should.

"I'm going to have to bring in some help. I know a few doctors in Europe; they specialize in children removed from war zones. I'll protect your secrets as best I can, Bruce, but I have to tell you that those secrets aren't even close to my priority right now."

He nods, and it takes a moment to remember that she can't see it. "Do what you have to do."

"Of course."

She hangs up without a goodbye.

It isn't necessary -- they both know he'll be calling back soon enough.

War zones.

Of course.

He puts his head in his hands and shudders, once. Breathes. When he opens them again, Dick is in the doorway.

There is nothing particularly wrong about his appearance. His clothes are neat, and the beard, while jarring, is trimmed. His eyes are... elsewhere.

"That was Dr. Thompkins," he says, and it's not a question.

"She won't tell us anything."

Dick nods and walks into the study, closing the door behind him. Sits in the chair opposite his own. "I can't decide if you were right to send me away or not. That night."

"Dick --"

"I would've killed them both. With my bare hands."

Flesh and cord beneath his hands. So close.

"Leslie let me see Tim yesterday. Through a two-way mirror. The dye isn't out of his hair. His lips keep bleeding from the toxin. He. I still can't decide."

All Batman can do is nod.

"Bruce... do you ever think we were doing this the wrong way? This..." He waves a hand at the room, taking in the book shelves, the cold fireplace. "Everything?"

"I don't know."

"Because the new facility is better than... better than Arkham ever was. But Ivy, Joker, Harley..."

"They still got out."

"They'll do it again, Bruce. You know they will."

"You're talking about murder, Dick."

"Look me in the eye and tell me those weren't your fingerprints on Joker's neck. He's not out of the hospital, yet. But he will be."

Batman closes his eyes.

"It was one of us this time. Will it be better or worse when it isn't?"

Dick doesn't wait for an answer, just stands up and heads for the door.

"Think about it. I sure as fuck don't want to be the only one who has to." One last look over his shoulder. "Oh, and the blond kid vibrating in the library is Flash. Wally, if by some bizarre twist of fate you didn't know. I brought him with me. I'm leaving him here.

"Call it my good deed for the year."

Batman gives him time to make his exit.

Considers attempting to remain here, in the study, until Flash either came to find him or left.

Right around now, Alfred should be saying something gently acerbic, with a look in his eyes that suggested he was seriously considering beating him with a poker.

He shivers.

Alfred would have remembered to light the fire, too.

Alfred isn't here, anymore.

He forces himself to his feet and goes.

The library is at least five degrees warmer than the rest of the manor. Dick had lit the fire, and Flash is poking it with a look of deep suspicion.

"Hello," he says, and listens to his voice crack between Bruce and Batman. He doesn't know how to do this.

"Hey!" Flash smiles at him, broad and clear, and takes a step. Pauses. Looks him up and down with something between thoroughness and confusion. Eyes the poker in his hand with rueful amusement and sets it back among the others. Wipes his hands on the back of his jeans. "Uh..."

"Would you like... something to drink?"

"Hmm? Oh, no, Dick got me a beer. Heh. Are you allowed to have beer in a place like this?"

"I won't tell if you won't."

Another smile, a little narrower. "That's almost right. You still sound a little too nice."

Batman blinks. "Flash --"

"You should probably call me Wally. If only so I don't forget and do something superheroic without my suit on."

It's amazing, even though it shouldn't be. Flash -- Wally -- has always been the one of them most noticeably himself, even with the uniform. He's used to finding the man in the set of his jaw, the curve of his mouth.

The hair and eyes only make him... moreso.

"There's no one else here," is what he manages to say when he can speak.

He pushes a hand back through his hair, which immediately falls back to frame his face. "Yeah, but..." A pause, and Wally's frowning around at the room. "No one?"

"There was... I had a butler. He raised me. He's... he's sick now. He had a stroke."

"Jesus, that explains a lot. I mean --"

He laughs despite himself. "It probably does."

Wally smiles ruefully at him, from under his lashes. It's easy to picture the gesture, the motion, with a mask over the man's face.

He doesn't want to.

"So... uh. Are you eventually going to take more than three steps in here, or are we going to just kind of yell at each other from across the room?"

"I'm... not used to company."

A wince. "I... yeah. Dick said it would be all right, but he said it with a kind of mean look. I can go, it's no problem. I just wanted --"

"Stay."

"Yeah?"

"I. It's good to see you."

"And yet there you are, way over there."

His feet move almost entirely without his permission, and Wally is right there, smiling up at him. His hands. There's an ache in his palms he doesn't know what to do with.

"That wasn't so bad."

Wally has to see it in his eyes. It feels like it's written all over his skin, naked under Bruce's clothes.

"Hey. I... I kinda wanted to hug you. Before. I mean, I know it isn't something... fuck it."

Wally's arms around him are lean and strong. His body is warm. His hair smells like something cheap and wholesome and Batman shakes in his arms and holds on tight.

"Hey... it's all right. It's. I promise it's all right."

He loosens his grip when he can, but can't, quite, let go. Wally is still grinning up at him, something soft in his eyes that Batman wants to fall into.

"So... is it the masks? I mean the fact that they're off. Is that what makes it easier for you to be... like this?"

"It's you."

And he can see it hit, see Wally realize what he's saying. Feel the long, lean body tense.

He still can't make himself let go.

And Wally's eyes fall shut, most of the way. He's staring at Batman's mouth. "I. I wondered..."

The kiss is soft, and it's Wally's turn to shake, harder when Batman kisses back, and then those arms are tight around his neck and Batman has to hold on, kiss harder, make Wally moan into his mouth and suck on his tongue. So close now. So close.

Wally breaks the kiss and pants against his chin. "Batman..."

"I want you."

"Yeah, I... okay."

*

The communicator chirps in his ear.

Alfred is asleep. Deeply so. The lines of his face are so relaxed that Batman almost can't tell that.

Alfred, of course, has a private room.

He moves to a corner, anyway.

"Batman here."

"Heyyy."

He feels himself smile and lets some of it into his voice. "Flash."

"Yeah, so, insert small talk you wouldn't really care about anyway, here."

"Noted."

"And I would say that you're missed up here, but, well, you're you."

"Also noted."

"But there's something hinky going on in Virginia, blah blah it's probably Luthor's fault blah. The main thing is that Superman is making the plan."

"I'm beginning to see the problem."

"Ya think? Anyway, he wasn't going to call you, but I? Am attached to my own skin."

"I can understand that."

"You're totally flirting with me over the comm. Can phone sex really be that far away?"

"Flash."

"Yeah, yeah. If you leave now, you can... wait, no, Supes just broke through GL. Last line of resistance. You'd better meet us there."

"Send the co-ordinates --"

"To the Cave. Way ahead of you, big guy. I'll see you in a few hours."

"Batman out."

"And in and out and in --"

"Batman out."

"Heh. Yeah, and you never hang up first, have you no --"

He twists the smile off his face with an effort. Adjusts the covers over Alfred's still form.

The driver is waiting for him in front of the hospital.

He doesn't actually work for him -- the service was recommended by Lucius -- but he's efficient enough.

"The Manor. Quickly."

"As you say, Mr. Wayne."

*

He reaches the co-ordinates early. As near as he can tell through the binoculars, he's looking at just another warehouse on just another set of docks.

Except that the "workmen" move with military precision, and quite a few of them are armed. And some of the crates are large and heavy enough to require the use of trucks.

The information Flash sent along with the co-ordinates is spotty, but there's enough of it to draw a few conclusions.

Public tirades against the varying nations making up Luthor's 'evil axis' of the moment.

Satellite photos of various non-publicized war games.

A dozen noticeably different nationalities.

Weapons technology that might as well have LexCorp stamped all over it.

The money trail leading, suspiciously, nowhere at all.

'Hinky.'

Right.

The Lords were about to take a very big, very messy step into the world of global realpolitik.

Of course Superman hadn't planned to call him in. Bruce was busy. He couldn't possibly have the time for something as trifling as encroaching world war.

He leaves the plane a few miles inland, and makes his way in at a jog.

He has just enough time to scout the south and west borders of the makeshift compound when Javelin-7 comes in loud and obvious from the east.

And immediately gets fired on.

Right.

Thankfully, either these 'workmen' aren't especially well-trained or they've conveniently -- for him -- forgotten to watch their backs.

He makes it into the largest warehouse easily, and finds himself face to face with the absolute proof of Armageddon.

The men who aren't busily destroying the latest Javelin-7 -- and why bother to give the new ones new names? What was the point of dooming yet another innocent number? -- are equally busily jumping into tanks and planes.

Into other, less identifiable, but probably equally deadly things.

He slips behind a pile of crates holding -- yes, laser rifles. "Batman to Javelin."

"We're busy up here, Batman. Make it fast."

"Don't bother with the warning shots. There's an arsenal in here, and it's about two minutes from being aimed at your face."

"Got it. Lantern out."

He lays out half of his available explosives and runs. He feels the tug of his cape being perforated in several places, loses most of the sole of one boot, and gets blown several dozen feet in the resultant shockwave, but he makes it out.

Just in time to see the Javelin getting shot out of the sky.

Lantern's on top of it, and he counts five bodies in the man's force bubble before the smoke obscures it. Good enough.

He works his way around the edges of the battle, taking out as many of them as he can from behind.

Bodies start flying over his head and Hawkgirl's in the air.

Flashes of red and blue and... yes. Wonder Woman and Superman are going after the tanks.

There's a flare of green that may or may not be Lantern. Flash and J'onn are nowhere to be seen.

Worry about that later.

Some of the flying bodies are getting up, and coming after him. For approximately the nine hundredth time since not-quite-joining the Lords, Batman reminds himself to work on a suit that can be used for day-work.

And then there's nothing but the battle.

And there will never be anything like this, something for which he can almost believe in some form of god as much as he believes in all the demons.

There is the moment when the fighting is nothing but work, and the moment spreads, reaches, moves through him and around him.

His cape is in tatters.

A rib lets go.

The moment rises and expands just a little bit more, and breaks with the crunch of a man's kneecap beneath his boot.

And then the moment is something else entirely, and he is nothing, absolutely nothing but the motions of his body, more natural than breathing, more perfect than oxygen.

The mind within him shrinks in on itself, screaming.

He can't possibly survive this.

And then he's whirling into the next kick and into... nothing.

Smoke.

Tertiary, possibly quaternary explosions.

He wakes up within himself to pain, none of it serious. He doesn't have to look down. The suit is a loss.

"Batman to Lords. Check in."

"Wonder Woman, almost done."

"Hawkgirl, me, too."

"Lantern, check."

"J'onn, here. There is no doubt these are Luthor's men."

"Superman. I. Batman, you'd better get in here."

"Where's Flash."

"Get in here."

"Where's --"

"Superman, what the hell is wrong with Flash?"

Lantern sparks a wash of chatter over the comm, cut off with Superman's low, tired sigh.

"He's dead."

A muscle twitches in Batman's cheek, breaking open a cut that had had enough time to start healing. "Say again," he says into the silence.

"His neck is broken. It. It looks like an accident. Flying debris. He."

*

It's four-thirteen in the morning. A group of teenagers has, finally, left the gravesite. They took most of their empty beer cans with them.

It's a moment of terrifying disconnect to see the rest here amidst the mountains of flowers, silvery in the fading moonlight.

Because they are terrible.

And because Flash would find them entirely appropriate.

Would have found. Them.

Batman remembers to blink when his eyes start to burn.

"I knew you'd wait."

"Now is not the time, Clark."

"I'm not going to... I'm not going to force my friendship on you, Bruce. Not here."

"Then why are you here? You've paid your respects with the rest."

"Because I need to make sure you're with us. Now, more than ever."

"You're going after Luthor."

"Tomorrow morning."

"The word 'treason' comes to mind."

"We can't think about that right now. That compound... we've found others."

Batman nods. This is not a surprise.

"Luthor is the only official world-leader involved. We both know that doesn't matter."

"Yes."

"Will you come with us?"

"Yes."

"Good enough."

"Leave."

He takes off, for once, without another word.

Batman straightens the wreaths into more even lines, slipping the rose hidden in his cape beneath the rest.

He leaves the beer cans where they lay.

*

"Well. It had to be done." The stink of burning flesh is no worse -- and perhaps better, in ways, than what he had thought might happen.

No matter what Clark himself had expected to come of this.

He watches the fire to make sure it doesn't start to burn out of control. Fires.

Clark had been exactly as thorough as he needed to be.

Diana goes to the man, saving him the trouble.

"Are you okay?"

A pause, and Batman narrows his eyes against the possibility of the man --

"I'm great," he says, with genuine relish.

And isn't that just fascinating.

Diana looks to him, for whatever reason.

He nods, and the troubled look deepens on her face for a moment. And then fades, with an obvious act of will on her part.

She is a princess of a warrior people. This can only seem logical, if, perhaps, out of character.

She turns back to Superman, back straight and eyes no wider than is her usual.

He's done here.

"Batman to team two."

"Hawkgirl and I've got a bunch of Luthor's storm troopers under wraps here, Batman. J'onn's faded out for whatever reason. He looks fine."

"It's done."

"Done how?"

Hawkgirl's no fool, and neither is Lantern.

"Done permanently."

"Well," says Lantern. "Isn't that interesting?"

The smile on his face doesn't feel entirely unfamiliar. Flash had been... he shakes it off with an internal shrug. "Very. Handle the clean-up. I've got some things to take care of."

"Right. Lantern out."

He taps the other communicator as soon as the plane lifts off. "Nightwing."

"I'm here."

"It's begun."

A pause, and Batman can hear a television come on from Nightwing's end.

Superman's voice, muffled through the communicator. He can't make out the words, but the tone is open and very, very obvious. He's making the announcement.

Nightwing laughs in his ear, honest and light. "That's what I love about you, Batman. Once you make a decision? You don't fuck around."

"What have you done on your end?"

"Like assassinating a sitting President? I leave that to the big boys. Consider the Northeast yours, in terms of the police departments. Well. Most of the police departments."

Something like a pang. But, then, his ribs aren't healed yet. "I'll take of Gordon."

"Gordons."

"Oh?"

"Babs will probably be waiting for you when you get back. She didn't like my ideas at all."

"That's a problem."

"You are, as ever, a master of the understatement."

And you, Dick? What are you, right now? He shakes that off, too. "If you couldn't convince her..."

"I'm on my way to her place. She's about to lose a great deal of access and materiel."

"Cut her out."

"It's the only way."

"You sound like a zealot."

"Whose fingerprints are on Luthor's neck? There's no way out of this now, Batman."

There's a reflexive urge to snap at the man for stating the obvious, but reflex is all it is. Because there really is no way out.

Not anymore.

He wonders when that happened.

"Batman?"

"Just thinking."

"Yeah, thinking. I've been doing a lot of that, just lately."

"Color me unsurprised."

"I need a new uniform. A better one. I get the feeling I can't avoid the kevlar any more."

"I have a few designs in mind."

"Color me unsurprised. Nightwing out."

*

Batman watches the construction teams work, from a distance.

To be honest, he hadn't been especially enthused about the idea when Superman had brought it up.

To be perfectly honest, he'd come very close to taking the Kryptonite out of his belt.

And yet.

The man had a point.

They need the newer facilities for the criminals who can, actually, make trouble.

The growing tribe of lobotomy patients, on the other hand...

He can see the shape of things to come in the bones of Arkham.

There's a kind of symmetry to it, even a practical sort of poetry. They're building a new world, and there's no room in it for open, stinking graves.

Everything must be made new again.

Everything.

"It's an obscenity." Barbara stands beside him, her gaze a hot weight of accusation.

Batman considers and rejects telling the woman that she'd announced her presence with a broken twig.

Let her make her own mistakes.

"Wasn't it always?"

"You never thought you had to help, before."

"Things change."

She makes a sound, something between impatience and absolute rage, but her body remains still.

"There's still a place for you at WayneTech."

"So you can watch me twenty-four hours a day? No thanks."

"You assume I'm not already doing so?"

A twitch. The reports have been explicit: she hasn't been sleeping.

"Barbara --"

"When will you let my father out of that... that camp?"

"There's too much upheaval right now. You know that."

"And that's the bullshit Superman's been feeding to the press. What's the real party line, Batman?"

"Don't ask questions you already know the answer to."

A hissed-out breath. "He's your friend!"

"He's an enemy."

"And me?"

He looks her in the eye. There's a smudge of dirt on her cheek, and her hair hasn't been washed in at least a few days. She is, as always, beautiful. "That's up to you."

"I used to think I loved you, Bruce. Now? I don't think I ever knew you at all." Her eyes are clear.

And when she walks away, she uses no more stealth than what has become natural to her.

When she's out of earshot, Batman calls it in.

She won't be allowed to do any more damage than she's already done.

*

They watch Tim from behind the two-way mirror.

He's pale, but his hair has grown out, the last of the dyed strands snipped and burned away. He'd looked up to acknowledge that he knew they were there, but has long since gone back to reading his book.

"Dr. Shabouk says he's almost ready to see us," Nightwing says from around a mouthful of his own fingernail.

It's a new and distressing habit, but Batman isn't sure what, if anything, he should do about it.

Nightwing has been nothing but professional.

The new uniform is a sleek, self-conscious grey. Bulkier than the last, but between the two of them they've managed to retain most of the flexibility he needs.

It's... enough. "Have your people found Thompkins, yet?"

"She's underground. We'll find her."

"Sooner --"

"Is better. I hear you. We're not going to make another mistake like Selina."

He nods. There are words he should be saying, but he can't quite find them. He tries, just the same. "Nightwing."

Nightwing looks at him, a bright, brittle light dancing in his eyes for just a moment before fading into calm. "I'm all right, Batman. I promise."

"I. Are you sure?"

A hand on his shoulder, steady and firm. "I'm all right."

Batman puts a hand over Nightwing's own, careful of the raw, bitten fingertips, and they go back to watching Tim.

There's no one left, really, to give an update, to.

He sees Superman more than often enough for the both of them.

And in San Francisco... Raven is doing her job, and she doesn't really give a damn, either way.

But Tim has them.

And will have them.

When he's ready.

end.


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