Diversions & Digressions | fanfiction by mara

The Suffering Frame

The Suffering Frame

by Mara

Summary: “To be Batman, I must be in control. And I knew–as certainly as I’ve ever known anything–how to find that control again.”

CONTINUITY: I think it might be safest to say this is an AU.

SPOILERS: Hmm. Just for last year’s issues of Gotham Knights, I think.

NOTES: Batman demanded I write this. I swear. Thanks to Xandri and Illmantrim
for encouraging words that kept this from becoming drawerfic. Special gigantic
thanks to Penknife and Ozchick for their amazing betas of multiple drafts, which
prevented this from becoming a “Very Special Episode.” And, of course, thanks to
Avi for putting up with me while I obsessed over this. A lot.
DEDICATION: For those who suffer, with my hope that one day they will be free.

* * * * *

“Pain hardens, and great pain hardens greatly, whatever the comforters say, and
suffering does not ennoble, though it may occasionally lend a certain rigid
dignity of manner to the suffering frame.”

— author A.S. Byatt

To the rest of the city, it was another ordinary night in Gotham: attempted
rapes, muggers in custody, foiled break-ins, a husband stopped in the act of
beating his wife…

But I’ll never forget that night.

I crouched atop the bank complex’s tallest tower, listening to Robin narrate our
latest capture to Oracle, surveying the shifting city, my domain.

For an instant, the view blurred and I imagined us, decades later, sitting in
that same spot and doing the same things. How many thugs had I put in jail
during my career as Batman? How many drug dealers, pimps, murderers? And I
hadn’t even made a dent.

I put psychopathic killers in Arkham and they escaped like clockwork to commit
the same crimes. They were as locked into their patterns as I was.

I swung off my perch, heading down into the city on a wave of sadness. Could I
ever make Gotham safe? Robin–surprised in the middle of telling his story–
followed, and we headed north, where I was certain we’d find some crime to stop.

No, I’ll never forget that night: A familiar feeling returned, one I’d thought
gone forever. It began in my gut, a tension that wouldn’t be denied, that made
my punches a little harder, my moves a little more reckless. Robin saw it, of
course. After all, I’d trained him to notice everything.

Just this once, I wished he hadn’t learned so well. This…this was something I
didn’t want him to see, something I had to deal with myself.

As dawn approached, a jewel thief made the mistake of turning to fight me
instead of running or surrendering. Obviously not a local. Normally, I’d have
blocked his punch and tied him up. But…

I kicked his side, barely pulling back in time to keep from smashing his kidney
to paste. The pained sound he made when he slammed into the brick behind him
only made me angrier.

I stood over him, burning with the need to hit him again.

“Please don’t hurt me,” he whispered and I felt no pity for this criminal who’d
dared to work in my city. I could reach out and–

“Batman?” Robin called over the comm. “I’ve got the second perp. What’s your
sitch?”

The sound of his voice snapped me out of my reverie. My god, what was I doing? I
tied up the whimpering thief, doing my best not to look at him.

The rest of the night went by in a blur. I automatically fought, catalogued
threats, directed the team, but in my heart I knew there was only one solution
to the rising tide that threatened to smother me.

Once the patrol ended, it took Robin a subjective eternity to change and leave
for home, time I spent pretending to type. But my mind was focused on the far
corner of the Cave, my fingers itchy and my breathing shallow. I was so focused,
I barely managed to nod goodnight to Robin before I was on my way.

Moving swiftly, I stripped off the suit, tossing it aside as I reached for the
cabinet–that well-stocked cabinet, the one Alfred checks at least once a day,
replacing bandages, antibiotics, forceps, and…scalpels.

I didn’t want to do it. I never wanted to be there again.

But to be Batman, I must be in control. And I knew–as certainly as I’ve ever
known anything–how to find that control again.

The scalpel was sterilized, gleaming in the best lighting found in the Cave. I
rested the blade on the skin of my left arm just below the elbow, then with a
steady hand I cut a shallow slice.

The relief focused my wandering mind, drawing out the tension from inside to
stream down my arm in thin dribbles of scarlet.

My pulse slowed, my breathing eased, my muscles relaxed. I watched the sluggish
trail of blood, another in a long series of wounds incurred by Batman. I bowed
my head and concentrated on the feeling until I knew I was in control again.
Then I bound the wound, cleaned and sterilized the scalpel, and replaced it in
the cabinet.

Now that I was thinking clearly, I returned to my work, determined to get
something done before I had to sleep.

* * * * *

It took two weeks that first time, weeks in which Robin kept an eye on me, but
relaxed when I seemed normal to him. My focus was back, my moves precise, and
that was good.

Days and nights flowed as they always did, meetings at Waynetech as Bruce Wayne,
genial to one and all, out on the streets as Batman, fighting Gotham’s slow
slide into chaos.

It was two weeks. Exactly.

I was proud. I was strong. I was in control. A child died in my arms.

She couldn’t have been more than five, a tiny thing, born into poverty, living
in a household of dealers, junkies, and thieves. Her curly brown hair was filthy
with accumulated dirt and blood–her blood, streaming from wounds inflicted by
someone in that room.

Oracle summoned an ambulance for the girl, but before the sirens drew close
enough to hear, her breathing hitched and failed.

I began CPR immediately, desperately, but to no avail. Her chest rose and fell
as I blew air into her lungs, but through compressions and breaths, there was no
sign I was keeping her heart pumping. The paramedics I could hear nearing our
location would try this as well, but I knew it wouldn’t work–they would be too
late.

I laid her back on the carpet beside the dead roaches, taking care not to jostle
her more than necessary. When I stood, Robin said, “Oh no.”

I could hear Oracle saying something in my ear, but I didn’t care, stalking
toward the criminals–the scum–we’d captured. I’m not certain what I intended,
but before I reached them, Robin stood between us, face stern behind the mask.

I could have smacked him aside. I think I almost did, but something about the
way he believed he could stop me, well, it worked. I realized I was losing
control again.

The pain came back. The need.

I cut the evening’s patrol short and nobody questioned it. By the time Robin and
I were in the car on our way back, Nightwing was on the line, checking to see
how I was. Obviously, Oracle was concerned, since she’d contacted him on his own
patrol.

“Batman, I’m sorry to hear about the kid.”

I concentrated on my driving, ignoring the worried glances from Robin.

“Are you okay?” Nightwing asked finally.

“Fine.” Stupid question. Who taught him to ask stupid questions?

“Ah. Well, it’s good you’re taking the rest of the night off.” Obviously, Oracle
was coaching him.

“Batman out.”

Nobody questioned my desire to be alone. Robin had me drop him off at the
Clocktower and Alfred only spent a few minutes fussing over me.

It was nearly unbearable, but it would have taken longer if I wasn’t so used to
forcing them away, and if they weren’t so used to obeying. Everyone probably
assumed I planned a few hours of pounding exercise.

My rage was all-consuming, although I wasn’t certain if I was angrier with the
child’s parents or with myself for not saving her.

Just one more time. Just one more cut. I placed the scalpel an inch below the
nearly-healed slice and almost screamed when I made the cut. Not because it
hurt–I’m accustomed to worse injuries–but because the relief was so huge, like
lancing an infected wound.

It only took two weeks for me to find the rhythm, the justifications, the
excuses. Even though it had been two decades, I remembered and I relearned.

Turns out creating Batman wasn’t quite the permanent solution I thought it was.

* * * * *

The first time I cut myself, I was in the middle of puberty–a wealthy orphan
with no purpose and nearly boundless anger. I don’t know where the idea came
from, but I remember that I was upset and angry and ready to go on a rampage,
and I slashed at my hand with a straight razor.

I was shocked by the blood. That first time, I stared at the cut for a long
time, trying to figure out what had happened–why I felt better, calmer.
Eventually, I decided not to question what worked.

Wayne Manor was filled with unused rooms and abandoned storerooms; it was easy
for me to hide. The knives I kept behind statues, in closets, under window
seats. I moved them any time I thought there was a danger of Alfred finding
them.

Coming home, knowing another day had passed without my parents, another day I
had wasted in the futile dance of a wealthy Gotham teen, I would slip into one
of the back passages of the mansion, running until I found the right room.

Sometimes I did it slowly, intent on every twinge as the blade parted the skin,
forcing myself to feel it–letting the pain tell me I was alive. Other times I
was wild, slashing deeply in a swift move, venting my rage, my helplessness.

When I wasn’t home, I scratched, gouging at myself like an animal. Sitting in
the car one afternoon, I stared through the passing scenery, Alfred oblivious as
I picked the side of my head until it bled.

Another time I crouched in the bathroom at some fancy charity ball, shirt
unbuttoned while I clawed at my chest to keep from crying or screaming. I
couldn’t face the milling crowds–mindless and intent only on their own affairs,
without that comfort.

It was tae kwon do that ended all of that. There was a brief fad among the rich
and bored that year to take classes in self-defense, in case of kidnapping
attempts.

To his eternal regret, Alfred thought this was “a splendid idea, Master Bruce”
and a better use of my time than moping or extra studying. I believe he thought
I needed more social activities.

I was unenthusiastic about the idea at first, as I had no interest in watching
my posturing peers strut around a mat pretending to be Bruce Lee.

Three weeks into class, sensei used me to demonstrate several moves and I had my
first experience fighting someone who knew what he was doing. Although I was
thrown almost instantly, the experience was exhilarating. I bounced up off the
mat, eager to try again.

Sensei was impressed by how quickly I learned, how I asked for extra lessons. He
saw my drive, my determination, but not how I craved the punishment, the
discipline.

Something had finally caught my interest and the idea that became Batman was
born.

I had a purpose, a goal, a mission.

* * * * *

Somewhere along the line, the mission stopped being enough.

This time, I started out able to go for weeks between cuts. Robin was still
concerned, but I never gave him reason to think it was anything but normal Bat
angst. He’s good at ferreting out secrets, but I was sure I was better at
keeping them.

I would feel normal, but then something would happen, some failure, some loss,
some reminder, and the pain would build up again. And I would know I had to do
something soon.

One particularly frustrating evening began with a futile chase after the Joker
before we finally lost his trail on the East Side. I prowled the area for an
hour before Robin convinced me to find other prey.

I was hoping to find a nice, uncomplicated mugging, maybe some B&E, something to
make me feel the night hadn’t been a waste.

Instead we found two women laid out on the sidewalk.

We knew they were women from their clothing, or what was left of it. Without
that clue…I couldn’t have been certain.

The killer had left them displayed like trophies, as if proud of the
accomplishment. I actually choked when I first saw them. There was…they had
been tortured. Extensively.

Robin and I split up, calling for immediate backup and the police. The perp, I
thought, had better hope the cops found him first.

There it was again: murderous rage. I had to calm down. I had to do something or
I’d be no better than the people I chased. This was an emergency, there was no
time.

I crouched behind a dumpster–Robin three alleys away–clutching a batarang. I
stared at the edge, guaranteed to stay sharp through almost anything.

Robin was getting closer and I gritted my teeth, slashing the batarang through
the Kevlar on my left arm, stifling the hiss of relief by biting my gauntlet.

My pulse slowed, but I stared at the blood dripping to the ground, uncertain how
I would explain it. This had to be a one-time event and I had to restrict my
activities to the Cave, where I was in control.

After all, as long as I was in control, everything was fine. Right?

It was so easy for me to hide. Bruce Wayne always wears long-sleeved shirts and
suits and Batman’s suit covers a multitude of sins. I’ve always needed to cover
up my injuries, and this was another in a long line of lies. Except this time I
was hiding from everyone, including those who were normally in my confidence.

Even Alfred didn’t suspect anything, although occasionally he looked curious
when he glimpsed the edge of a bandage he hadn’t applied. But it wasn’t unknown
for Robin to patch me up in the field.

As long as nobody compared notes, I could continue as long as I needed. And I
needed. I needed it so badly.

Each slice through an arm or leg was a temporary relief. Not a rush, like
fighting, but soothing. Nobody understands that. They only think of pain, they
don’t see how the small pain can make the larger pain go away. But it does, damn
it, it does.

* * * * *

Despite what people think, it’s nothing like when Jason died and I recklessly
put myself in harm’s way, acting and reacting without thought.

Nobody sees how different that was. I *wanted* to die after Jason did. My guilt
was so strong that only my own death at the hands of some villain could wipe out
the pain. I didn’t want to cope, because that would mean living.

Somehow, they brought me back; *Tim* brought me back by reminding me why I
needed to live. And we regained the status quo: Batman and Robin making the
streets safe for the average citizen. Or something like that.

Why now? I don’t know. Maybe it was just one thing too many: Being accused of
murder, realizing that even the people who know me best weren’t sure I was
innocent, the investigation into Jason’s death, Alfred’s near-death.

All of these things could be the straw that broke the Batman’s back. No, we’ve
already done that, haven’t we? And I came back from that, too.

When does it become too much for any one man to bear?

* * * * *

Months went by. The scars were starting to pile up, my arms and legs lined with
rows of pale and plastic tissue. Some were short and tidy, others looked like
I’d hacked myself with a machete. They hadn’t healed cleanly, despite my careful
bandaging, because I scratched at them sometimes too.

I hid the scars well, although Robin gave me occasional odd looks and I began to
worry he might catch me. The thought of the uproar that would ensue was almost
enough to make me reach for the scalpel.

I never expected…I didn’t think about what would happen when I got a call from
the JLA.

They only call me for emergencies, so I don’t head to the Watchtower expecting a
walk in the park. But we were on our way to the outer reaches of the solar
system before I’d even gotten a briefing.

I was along to solve the mystery of an abandoned spaceship and its strange
contents, both hurtling toward Earth. When those contents proved to be gigantic
furry creatures in stasis, which awoke and attacked us, we all jumped to the
obvious conclusion.

After all, it often seems the universe is populated solely by beings who wish to
invade Earth.

I fought my way to the control center, engaged in hand-to-hand combat in narrow
passageways; the ship had to be turned away. Perhaps if Lantern had been
there…but he wasn’t.

The creatures were ungodly strong and even the powers of my colleagues were
barely holding back the attacks as I struggled with the ship’s computer. If the
creatures had had any sense of coordination, we’d have been lost through sheer
numbers.

I could hear shouting through my comm, but I blocked it out, forcing myself to
concentrate on the screen in front of me.

“On the left!” Wonder Woman called, her voice sounding strained.

If the orange circles represented conduits…

Flash yelled, “They’re here!”

Push this to make the power flow there…

“No!” J’onn said.

That was it! It was working; I could knock out the power to the ship, disable
it. That would give us enough time to figure out a better solution while the
crew fixed the ship.

**Stop!** J’onn called in our minds.

“What?” I said aloud. “The engines are going to blow. We need–”

An alarm screeched and blue lights flashed in the floor panels.

J’onn sounded frantic. “They’re children, Batman. Their minds are hard to read,
but I’ve managed to get through and they’re definitely children.”

Flash appeared in front of me and before I could react, he’d carried me to the
Javelin.

“We must stop whatever you’ve done,” J’onn said, slipping up through the floor.
“They can’t fix this. They only fought us because they were frightened.”

“I can’t stop it,” I said as Superman and Wonder Woman arrived, slamming the
hatch closed behind them. We stared at each other for a long moment, listening
to the alarm blaring.

Superman recovered first. “Then we’d better go find someone to fix it.”

“But we can’t…” Wonder Woman made an abortive move back to the alien ship.

J’onn held her arm. “In their minds, we’re invaders. They’re too frightened to
let us help. We must leave and find another way.”

Most of the ride back to Earth was spent transmitting all the data I’d
accumulated, tracking down the materials and manpower to fix what I’d done.

I felt my colleagues’ eyes on me as I worked. I shamelessly used the cover of my
costume and the fear I knew I inspired to keep them all away. Even Superman
couldn’t bring himself to bother me, so strongly was I projecting ‘leave me
alone.’

There was no time to get back to the Cave. If I didn’t do something, I was going
to explode long before I reached the transporter and got past the reception
committee waiting at home to be certain I was okay.

I would *not* lose control. I would not lash out at my teammates or those
waiting for me on Earth. I tried deep breathing, but every time I closed my eyes
I saw the creatures, the children of a distant race, those I’d nearly killed by
acting without sufficient knowledge.

I imagined their panicked cries as the power systems drained. Bile gathered in
my throat, acrid, burning, and not nearly enough pain to soothe me. There was
nothing more I could do. I’d done quite enough harm for one day.

Wonder Woman tried to say something when we reached the Watchtower, but I
brushed past, stifling the urge to hit her and wipe off the pity I saw. Flash
whispered something and they let me go.

I strode to my quarters, where I keep a first aid kit for times when I want to
avoid the infirmary. Even that didn’t seem unusual to anyone. It’s amazing how
years of habits can add up.

It was…odd. Despite my occasional efforts, the rooms remained distressingly
bright and, even with their size and light, being in outer space made me feel
trapped in a way the Cave never had.

I hesitated, but the pull–the feeling I was going to explode–was too strong. I
left my cowl on, but stripped my gloves and the top half of the suit to get to
my right arm. The waiting was killing me and I put up the strongest mental
shield I could conjure.

A long slice, exquisite pain, and I fell to my knees, almost crying out. It was
so intense, I forgot where I was.

Which was why I was so surprised to hear J’onn’s voice. “Batman!”

How the–

Nobody, not even J’onn, should be able to sneak up on me. All my senses scanned
the area, checking for other intruders. Nobody. But J’onn…

I found my voice. “Go away.” I had a hand over the most recent cut, but I knew
it wasn’t covering all the scars. I had to get away.

“But you–”

“I’m fine. I’ll bandage this and go home.”

J’onn’s hand covered mine before I could move. “No.” I had seen him in a great
many situations, but rarely had he sounded so uncompromising.

“Go. Away.” I refused to struggle–it was undignified–but I wanted him off me,
away from me. This was not his concern.

“Yes, it is. It is my concern if one of my friends is hurt.”

“Get out of my mind!” I jumped to my feet, forgetting my determination not to
struggle. J’onn let me go, his expression sad as I backed away.

“Bruce–”

“I’m Batman here, you know that.”

J’onn looked lost. You wouldn’t think he could still be surprised after so many
years as a telepath on Earth; perhaps it was just that it was me. “I’m sorry. I
wasn’t trying to read you, but you are projecting. Strongly. It was…I was
worried.”

He took a step toward me and I backed away, running through every exercise I
knew to block telepaths. J’onn winced, so it was obviously working.

“There is nothing to worry about.” It’s almost amusing that I could say that as
blood dripped between my fingers onto the metal floor, splashing like a leaky
faucet.

“Do not lie to me,” J’onn said.

“I’m not.”

“You’re bleeding and I could feel your pain from three floors away. That was not
only a lie, it was a clumsy lie.”

I couldn’t think. I needed to do something and he was standing there insulting
me. “I neither need nor want your help.” It was a struggle to keep my voice low,
harder than usual to keep from shouting my irritation.

“Another clumsy lie. That worries me more than the blood.”

I glared at him. “How many times must I tell you to leave me alone?”

“Until I believe you will not hurt yourself when I leave.”

“You have no idea what I’m doing.”

“But I know you need my help, even if you do not want it.” He morphed into the
shape of John Jones. “Would it be easier to talk to me in this form?”

I turned away, moving to the table with the first aid kit. There was a whisper
of sound behind me, but J’onn stopped when I picked up a bandage and went to
wash off my arm. My breathing was erratic, echoing in my ears.

I held my arm under the running water, turning the water as hot as it could go.
J’onn made a strange noise, but he didn’t try to stop me, so I ignored him,
concentrating on the water, on how it burned. It wasn’t as good as the cutting,
but it worked, and my customary focus returned.

When I felt able to face the world, I turned off the water and bound my arm.

Still not looking at J’onn, I put the suit back on, not even wincing as it
placed pressure on my new cut and the reddened skin around it. When I was fully
armored, I raised my eyes to meet his, which were once again alien.

“Do *not* attempt to restrain me, or you will regret it.”

Even J’onn can be cowed temporarily by the Batman and he bowed his head. I left
the room and transported back to Earth. And if I felt a deliberate brush across
my mind when I reappeared in the Cave, well, there was nothing more to be done
then.

Alfred and Robin were waiting, with Nightwing, Huntress, and Oracle on the line,
all eager to hear about the JLA’s latest mission. I think they were disappointed
by the brevity of my report, but I needed time to think, time to decide what to
do about J’onn.

I knew him too well to believe that he would keep silent forever simply because
I demanded it. But exactly what he would choose to do, that was more difficult
to discern. In some ways, J’onn is more human than I, and in others, so alien I
couldn’t understand him in a lifetime of trying.

* * * * *

J’onn did nothing.

That was almost worse than any action I could imagine, because it left me
waiting and planning. And wondering. A part of me wondered what he was up to,
another wondered why he hadn’t already taken action. A small voice asked if
perhaps he didn’t care, but I stifled that as irrelevant.

A week went by with no reaction from anyone. No Nightwing showing up on my
doorstep, no Superman looking earnest and concerned, not even unusually worried
stares from Robin.

Foolishly, I relaxed and resumed my routine. By this point, I was cutting myself
at least once a week, and one early morning found me in the Cave,
remembering…many things.

Head bowed, I held the scalpel over my thigh, below the tidy rolled hem of my
sweats, panting breaths making it hard to hold the small object steady as I
leaned against the wall. Just as the blade touched my leg, I sensed the presence
I’d been waiting for. Whirling, I found J’onn hovering behind me, his face
blank.

I found I was holding the scalpel between us, and I’d automatically dropped into
a fighting stance. “What do you want? Are you here to stop me?”

“No. I am here to witness.”

That surprised me enough to break through the haze over my mind. “What?”

“I’ve been doing research. I do not believe I can or should stop you. But I do
not wish you to be alone, either.”

I took a step back, my mind awhirl. The pain was still beating at me from behind
the shield of Batman, demanding an outlet, but the habits of a lifetime warred
with it.

“Get out of my home,” I snarled.

J’onn didn’t deign to respond. He knew that so long as he remained in his
intangible state, there was very little I could do to him. Of course, there was
always the chance that I might take one of those other options, one of the ways
I knew to incapacitate a telepath or a Martian, but I wasn’t that far gone. Yet.

I stood in unfamiliar indecision–he could follow anywhere I might go, no
material would stop him, and he was equally as stubborn as I. Sitting in midair
like a green Buddha, J’onn made no move to influence me.

Inside my mind, I screamed. J’onn knew damn well the thing I hated most was
others witnessing my weakness; he was wrong if he thought that would stop me. I
reminded myself that when you can make your weakness a strength, you will always
win.

I stood tall, my expression undoubtedly at its stoniest. “If you want to watch,
then watch.”

I didn’t bother to turn away, switching the scalpel over to the left hand,
bracing my right hand on the wall and slicing with the left. I held J’onn’s gaze
and he didn’t move, just watched me.

As I felt the warmth flow down my leg, the screaming in my mind subsided. I
wondered if J’onn heard it, since I couldn’t be sure of my ability to block. My
pulse slowed and I went to apply a bandage to my leg, refusing to limp as I
walked.

When I was done, I looked up at J’onn, who didn’t appear to have moved.

“Well, are you satisfied?” My voice and mind were quieter.

“No. Are you?” Now he held *my* gaze. I was fairly certain he wasn’t reading my
mind, but I concentrated on blankness.

“I’m fine.”

“You are far from fine.” J’onn hesitated. “Please, Bruce, the pain, let me–”

“Quiet!”

He closed his eyes for a moment. “You are hurting yourself.”

I crossed my arms and glared. That was a statement so obvious as to be unworthy
of a response. I wanted to walk away, but was certain he would follow until he’d
finished whatever he wanted to say.

“Bruce, I am concerned.”

“There is nothing wrong.”

“That you appear to believe this means that I have missed far too many warning
signs. We *all* have. We’ve grown too accustomed to allowing you your secrecy.
We have failed you and I am sorry.”

I was almost incoherent with the hatred that welled up. “Sorry? You…how dare
you…Stay out of my mind!”

J’onn sighed, sounding almost human. “I will leave now. Please try to think
about what I’ve said.”

He stretched and slipped through the ceiling of the Cave, leaving me alone with
uncomfortable thoughts and worse memories.

* * * * *

J’onn didn’t appear every time I cut myself. Even *he* couldn’t possibly monitor
me all the time, I suppose. I hated the idea that he was waiting, watching for
an emotional spike that must have been a beacon fire to a telepath of his
capacity.

But he came often enough. It was the same each time: He’d watch, try to talk to
me, not try to stop me. I wondered when he would finally give up and tell one of
the others, how they would react.

I began to obsess over it.

* * * * *

Another midnight in Gotham, another grimy alley and abandoned warehouse, another
set of clues leading me to a mass murderer.

This time, it was a trap. An obvious trap, so obvious Robin tried to convince me
not to go, his voice cracking as he argued with me. I couldn’t be bothered to
listen to his arguments, and he followed me in.

The click of a detonator is unmistakable to anyone who has heard it before.
Instinctively, we both dove out of the way, but not fast enough.

Everything was on fire, shrapnel falling in flaming sheets; I crouched over
Robin, using my cape to shield us. Oracle shouted in my ear, but I was too busy
staring at Robin unconscious, burned, bleeding.

Blood streamed onto his shoulder and it took long moments for me to realize it
came from me, until I could hardly hold my cape over us. I could hear Nightwing
yelling on the line, but the words couldn’t beat back the encroaching darkness.

Then the pain was gone and I let go.

* * * * *

Of the following week, I remember very little. Leslie says that’s for the best.
They had to tie my arms to the bed, because whenever I got them free, I tore at
the bandages, scratched my skin, and tried to reopen the closed wounds.

All that work to keep my secret, but now Leslie knew and the others guessed.
Batman might have many scars, but no one with half a brain could miss the rows
of scars I’d accumulated. I know J’onn spoke to everyone, although they’ve never
revealed what he said.

Apparently J’onn arrived as Batgirl and Spoiler made it to the scene of the
explosion; he transported us both to the clinic, and never left. He took charge
of the situation, Leslie tells me, like the leader he is, making all kinds of
arrangements and acting as everyone’s confidante. He told the JLA he was on
extended personal leave and had Nightwing make my excuses while I was
unconscious. It says something about the JLA (and me) that nobody then or since
has questioned those excuses.

Waking up was difficult, as much of my mind found unconsciousness more congenial
than facing what had happened. But I could only avoid it for so long.

Years of habit left my eyes closed while my other senses tried to figure out the
situation, and years of injuries meant that I recognized the sounds and smells
and textures of Leslie’s clinic almost immediately. Then there was the almost-
tangible presence of J’onn. My eyes flew open as everything came back to me.

“J’onn. Tim…how is Tim?” I pulled at the straps restraining my arms.

J’onn was hovering by the window, but came to free my arms. “He is well. His
injuries healed much faster than yours, probably because he is younger and his
system was under less strain.”

I closed my eyes, fought back tears.

“His greatest fear is that you will forbid him from acting as Robin. As you did
to Dick.”

A few tears leaked out despite my best efforts. I couldn’t deny my first thought
had been just that–protect Tim by pushing him away. In this case, there was
even more justification, since I hadn’t considered his safety as I led him into
a trap. Hell, when was the last time I *had* considered his safety?

“He also said you would blame yourself,” J’onn said. “Although he is not yet
aware of the…full extent of the problem, he is a very perceptive young man.”

That got my attention. “What…how much…do they know?”

J’onn’s form rippled, which I recognized as uneasiness. “They know enough for
the moment. They’ve known something was wrong for months, although the secrecy
and stubbornness you seem to breed in your associates prevented them from
confronting you.”

His words hit like a steamroller. “They’ve known…”

“Yes, Bruce. They’ve been covering for you, cleaning up things you left undone.”

I wanted to call him a liar.

“Problems they would ordinarily have brought to you, they’ve solved on their
own. Dick has been putting in extra hours to help Tim. Cassandra is even showing
some signs of the strain.”

“My god. How could I not see?”

J’onn pushed on. “They were uncertain what was wrong, but their instinct was to
protect you.”

My lips moved, but I didn’t even know what I could say. How many ways had I
failed them?

“Tim does not blame you for his injuries,” J’onn said as I tried to calm my
reeling brain.

“He should.” He knew it was a trap. Even if I had decided to go in, I should
have made him wait outside, but I was so wrapped up in myself, it didn’t even
occur to me. I could have gotten him killed, I nearly did.

“You made a mistake.”

“I don’t get to make mistakes.”

J’onn sank into the chair beside my bed, angling it to face me. “Perhaps that is
where your problems begin.”

I turned my head away and tried not to listen, helped out by a pounding
headache.

“I had hoped that I could reach you, help you, before anyone else was hurt,”
J’onn said. “If there is blame to be placed, you may as easily place it on me.”

“I put Tim in danger.”

“Tim chose to follow you.”

“We shouldn’t have been there at all.”

“Perhaps. But the fact remains that I knew there might be a problem, yet I did
not take action.”

I closed my eyes, despairing. What would I do now? What was there for me other
than Batman?

“Bruce?”

Ignoring him, I felt the urge. My fingers twitched. Without a knife, I wanted to
scratch.

“Bruce!” J’onn grabbed my arms and pinned them to the bed. I was so weak, I
couldn’t break his hold or use any of the thousand martial arts moves I knew for
such situations. “Bruce, listen to me.” His voice echoed through the roaring in
my head. “You can survive this, but you must want to. You must want to stop
hurting yourself.”

How could I? I’d stopped before, but that wasn’t through any effort of my own.

“You can. You will. Focus.”

There was pain and memory and guilt. The screams of everyone who’d died while I
was busy elsewhere.

“Focus!” J’onn sounded desperate, he sounded afraid. Afraid for me? “Focus on my
voice. Let me all the way into your mind.”

No! No, I couldn’t let him see–

“There is nothing in your mind that can shock me. Please let me help you. Trust
me.”

And I did. I had trusted J’onn for years, from the earliest incarnation of the
Justice League up through the present. For once, those years of habit worked in
my favor, and I let him in, his mental presence a familiar beacon in the
blizzard of my brain.

Images flashed by, almost too fast to see, a catalogue of failures, lives lost.
Jason called my name, my parents died for the thousandth time, the Joker laughed
as he gassed a roomful of innocent people. I saw Dick’s angry face as he left
the mansion, every woman I’d treated shabbily in the guise of the playboy,
countless anonymous victims I couldn’t save from Ra’s and Bane and the Riddler
and Ivy…

J’onn’s hand was on my shoulder, keeping me from being drawn into the maelstrom.
“This is what haunts you,” he said, “and you will have to face these things and
defeat them. But not today.”

He stood before me, and stretched out his arms. I could see light streaming from
him, filling the space between me and the memories, pushing everything else
back. The pain receded and I could feel my body gasping for breath.

“This is only temporary,” he said. “But it will hold for the moment.”

When my eyes opened again, I felt as if I’d gone weeks without sleep. J’onn
stepped back, looking weary. “Rest,” he said. “There will be time to talk
later.”

My eyes slipped closed, my last thought a fervent wish for dreamless sleep.

* * * * *

The next time I awoke, the sun was down and the only light in the room came from
a bedside lamp. It glowed on the features of Cassandra, who was curled up in the
chair, peering at a book.

She looked up at me and nodded. I didn’t know what to say, so I took my usual
tactic of saying nothing. She studied me, hopped off the chair, and disappeared
out the door. I closed my eyes again, only opening them at the sound of
footsteps.

J’onn strode in, disguised as John Jones, and shut the door behind him before
shifting to his more familiar form. “Cassandra said you were awake and looking
much better.”

“Did she?” I raised an eyebrow.

“Well, she said ‘Better.’ The rest was tone.”

“Ha.” I felt drained, empty, as my head dropped back against the pillow.

“Bruce? We must speak of this.”

I stared at the ceiling, counting cracks. “What is there to say?”

“I thought we might talk of your recovery.”

I looked at J’onn, then turned to stare at the dark window that reflected back
the lamplight and my gaunt face. “Recovery. That’s funny. Do you know how I
dealt with the Joker, the Scarecrow, and the other Arkham inmates all these
years?”

I heard the scraping of the chair. “How?” J’onn asked.

“By believing there was one fundamental difference between them and me: They
were crazy and I was sane. Now even that’s gone.”

“You’re not insane.”

I didn’t answer, just looked at my arms. It felt strange to see them bare, to
know that anyone who walked in could see them. I resisted the urge to pull up
the thin blanket.

“You’re not insane,” he said again.

“Then what am I?”

“Human, Bruce, very human. We forget that, but you are a human being who has
seen too much and needs help.”

I shook my head.

“There is no shame in needing help. You are not the first person to make
mistakes. Nor are you the first to be too stubborn to ask for help. But you are
my friend and I will help you anyway.”

“How?” It was a challenge, not a question.

“As I said before–you will face the memories that haunt you. Your actions are a
side effect of the emotional trauma.”

Snorting, I crossed my arms, refusing to wince at the pull on my healing chest
and back. “Psychoanalysis? I’d have expected better from you than ‘Tell me about
your mother.'”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m not the one who thinks my problems can be solved by lying on a couch and
describing my dreams.”

“Bruce, I can only help you if you listen.”

I swallowed, feeling trapped between two unappealing options.

J’onn watched me struggle for a long moment. “Why do you injure yourself?”

My mouth opened, but no sound emerged. My brain felt sluggish. “I…I have to,
to be certain I don’t hurt others.”

“How might you hurt others?”

“Losing control. When I lose control, things happen. People get hurt.”

“That is true.”

“What?” I’d expected a denial.

“It’s true that if you lost control, people would get hurt. But that doesn’t
happen.”

“Because I keep it from happening by doing this!” I held out my arms, voice
thick with anger at his obtuseness.

Staring into my eyes, J’onn didn’t look at my arms. “No. Because you are too
strong. Batman does not kill. You’ve held to that through circumstances that
might have driven any of us past the point of control. You may be using this as
a crutch now, but you are capable of taking that strain on your own. You have.
And you will again.”

I shook my head, made speechless by the faith in those words.

“I know you, Bruce. You feared what I would see in your mind would make me hate
you. What I saw was what I expected to see: a man pushed beyond human endurance.
Or Martian endurance, for that matter. You blame yourself for things you tried
to stop, things you couldn’t have stopped.”

“I have to stop them. It’s my responsibility.”

J’onn ignored that. “Shall we begin?”

“Now?” My stomach curled into a knot.

“I see no advantage to you in waiting. This will be a long process.”

“I…”

J’onn placed his hand on my forehead and we fell into my mind.

I gasped as we landed in a typical Gotham alley, filthy concrete, a few rats–
and a cowering jewel thief. “Please don’t hurt me,” he said, staring up at me,
eyes wide like a panicked horse.

I took an involuntary step back, my stomach aching, breath caught in my throat.
“I remember this.”

“Yes,” J’onn agreed behind me. “What happened?”

“I was going to hit him. I wanted to pound him into the ground.”

“But you didn’t.”

“Because Robin called me.”

J’onn came to stand beside me. “No, because you chose not to. You see this
moment as weakness, I see it as an example of your strength.”

I shook my head, backing away. J’onn stood beside me and with a flash of light
we were someplace else.

A hot desert wind blew across my face, scattering the splintered remains of a
building. In the center of the destruction lay a small broken figure. I sank to
my knees, the strength knocked out of me. “Jason?”

J’onn knelt beside me. “You didn’t fail him, you know.”

A tear streaked down my cheek and my stomach heaved.

“Tell me, Bruce. Why are we here?”

“How the hell should I know? You brought me here.”

“No.” J’onn’s voice was gentle. “We’re following your thoughts, not mine.”

“Then let’s go. I’ve seen this often enough.”

“Bruce–”

I jumped to my feet. “What do you want me to say? Fine, I hate myself for
letting Jason die. Is that it? Can we leave now?”

The sirens of the approaching police grew louder. Soon, I knew, they’d pull up
and find Jason, his mother, and me. I would pay them off and take Jason home.

“You blame yourself for Jason’s impetuous nature?”

“He should never have been Robin.”

“But he wasn’t killed as Robin, was he? He was looking for his mother. You
couldn’t have known what would happen.”

I stared at Jason’s broken body. “I couldn’t protect him.”

“No, you couldn’t.”

Our surroundings flashed again, and we were back in Gotham. It took a second,
but I recognized the street, the moment in time.

“Bane!”

“He nearly killed you. Where is he now?”

“The east. Somewhere.” I watched the villain I remembered, pumped full of that
drug, stalking me.

“When you recovered, you could have killed him for what he did to you, to
Gotham.”

“No.” I shook my head, unable to look away.

“Instead you helped him recover from his addiction, find out about his family.”

I relived the fight, the moments leading up to that sickening crack of my–

“Bruce.” The scene froze and J’onn stood in front of me. “You are fundamentally
a good man. You’ve helped many people and there is much more for you to do. You
know that. But to help them, you must stop this self-destructive behavior.”

“I can’t. I don’t know how.”

“You do. Will you abandon those you’ve sworn to protect?”

“No!”

“That is what you have done.” As J’onn spoke, the street scene faded into a
blur.

“I need this. I need the release.”

“No, you’re stronger than that.” J’onn sounded so sure, I wished I had that same
certainty. “What do you want?” he asked.

“I…to make Gotham safe. Keep the world safe.”

“What do you want?” he asked again, patient, apparently ready to keep asking.

“For things to be the way they were,” I whispered.

“I don’t know if you can have that. But perhaps it can be better.”

“How?”

“Trust me. Together we will help you find that control. Shall we continue?”

I took a deep breath and watched the Gotham street fade into the Watchtower.

Time seemed endless as we wandered through the corridors of my mind. It’s not a
pretty place. Finally, an image started to appear and flickered into restful
pale blue walls.

“What happened?” I asked.

“It was time to rest,” he said.

I realized I was sitting in a comfortable leather chair, J’onn across from me in
a high-backed chair that looked like his seat at the Watchtower table–although
they hadn’t been there moments before. I leaned my head against the back of the
chair, feeling wrung out, exhausted. It felt like I’d spent a week gathering up
Arkham escapees.

“Now that you’ve begun the process of facing the things you’ve seen, we must
discuss what you will do when we leave here.”

I closed my eyes, not sure how to respond.

“Your problems will not be solved in one day.”

“I know that.”

“There are substitutions,” he said, “things you can do when you feel the urge to
injure yourself. Eventually, you will no longer need those either. All of this
is contingent, however, on your desire to change. Everything we have done this
evening will be for naught if you don’t have the determination to succeed.”

We were in my mind. J’onn could have easily found the answer for himself, but he
chose to wait for me to find it myself.

I thought about everything that had happened, from that first night until Tim
and I were injured. I believed I was in control, but in actuality I had left my
team, my family, in danger. With the perspective J’onn had helped me find, I
realized what I’d been doing was irrational, dangerous.

This was unacceptable, all of it.

“I want to change, J’onn. I *will* change.”

He smiled. “Yes, you will.”

“Thank you.” The words were wholly inadequate, but considering where we were, I
felt certain he knew how heartfelt they were.

“You are most welcome, my friend.”

* * * * *

Over the weeks of my physical rehabilitation, J’onn and I confronted the things
that had been torturing me. He was right, of course, and I gained a measure of
the control I’d been seeking. It was torturous, especially since I’m not by
nature an introspective person, nor do I like to think about my emotions. I
don’t even like to admit to *having* them, most of the time.

But gradually it worked.

At the beginning of this process, I had to talk to the family, which ranks among
the hardest things I’ve ever done.

I felt I owed Alfred the first conversation.

“Master Bruce, are you awake?” I’d heard his footsteps long before he spoke, but
a cowardly part of me kept my eyes closed.

I swallowed and opened my eyes. “Yes, Alfred. I just…has J’onn explained
what’s been happening?”

“Yes, he’s been most helpful.” He had on his best blank ‘I’m just a servant’
face, which meant I was in real trouble.

“I’m sorry,” I said, unable to find any way to ease into what I had to say. “I’m
sorry I frightened you.”

His blank face faded as I spoke. I’ll never forget the pain that replaced it, or
the feeling that I’d failed the man who raised me.

* * * * *

Tim didn’t look me in the eye when he slid into the room. We’d barely had a
moment to talk since the explosion, mutually avoiding having this conversation.

It didn’t help that I was still struggling with my guilt over putting him in
danger. That was bound to make us completely ineffective as a crime-fighting
team if we didn’t deal with it.

“I think we need to talk,” I said when he came into the room.

He and I winced together at the cliché, but he sat in the chair beside my bed.
My lap was full of printed reports, catching me up on everything that had
happened while I was unconscious.

Unable to look directly at Tim, I stared down at Oracle’s summary of new mob
activity in prostitution, the words wavering.

“What’s up?” he asked when I didn’t say anything.

“I…I get the feeling you’re still angry with me. For not listening to you.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tim stare up at the ceiling, blinking a few
times. “That’s not it.”

I turned to face him. “Then what’s wrong?”

He crossed his arms and looked at me, the piercing stare he learned from me (or
possibly Alfred) firmly in place. “I want to know why you didn’t tell me
anything. If I’m your partner…”

God, that hadn’t even occurred to me. Just another failure on my part. “You are,
Tim, you are. I thought this was something I needed to handle on my own.”

“You were ashamed.”

That’s the problem with training your partners so well, you can’t control where
they turn their intelligence. “Yes.”

His stare softened and for a moment he looked his age. “I was worried about you.
You were acting so weird and we didn’t know what was wrong. I thought
maybe…there was something I wasn’t doing.”

“No, absolutely not. There’s nothing you could have done differently.” I put
every iota of certainty I could muster into those words. He had to understand…

I saw a flash of relief before he was staring at me again, aged well beyond his
years. “No more secrets.”

I inclined my head. “No more secrets. Partner.”

* * * * *

As difficult as that conversation was, facing Dick was a thousand times worse.

“Dick…” I trailed off when he turned away. His shoulders shook as he leaned
against the windowsill and I realized he was crying. “Dick, I’m so sorry.”

I could hear him swallow several times and he shuddered once all over before
turning to face me again. “Why’d you do this to yourself? Why the hell didn’t
you talk to me?”

Before I could answer, he began cursing, starting in English, moving on to
French, and finishing in Russian. All I could do was wait for him to stop.

“But you don’t talk to anyone, do you, Bruce?” He shook his head, jaw tight.

I hung my head, unable to argue with his assessment.

“That’s got to change,” he said. “If you do this to us again, I swear I’ll kill
you myself.”

* * * * *

Arms crossed, Barbara glared at me. “I’m disappointed in you. I knew you liked
to keep secrets, but how could you…” She broke off, lips tight with
disapproval.

I wanted to say something about her own self-hatred since she’d been shot by the
Joker, but discretion won out. “It’s complicated, Barbara.”

“That’s what you always say, just after you’ve nearly destroyed Dick.”

Unsurprising, I suppose, that she should mainly be focused on him. “I’ve already
talked to him.”

“I know.” Her glare softened a bit. “And we accept your apology. I just don’t
understand how you could…damage yourself on purpose.”

Both of us glanced involuntarily at her wheelchair.

* * * * *

Cassandra patted my arm with a sad smile, sitting in the chair next to my bed,
her lotus position an obvious suggestion that we meditate together. I think she
understands the self-loathing better than anyone–even Barbara–and she wasn’t
hurt by my silence like the others.

After we’d breathed together for an hour or so, she patted my arm again.
“Tomorrow?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

She nodded at me and was gone.

It was nice to have someone not demanding my attention. Much as I love the
others, they can take more energy than I have to give at the best of times.

But they all stood by me, even if they didn’t understand. I’m not sure I had
ever realized how much of a family we are until those days, until I saw them
support each other just as they supported me.

I swear I will do my best from now on to be the man, the hero, they believe I
am.

* * * * *

I wish I could close with “And they all lived happily ever after” but I’d be
lying. We’d all be happier if I could claim some miracle cure, but if there is
one, I haven’t found it.

I can’t take the drugs for my depression. Leslie is upset by that decision, but
accepting–I think she hopes I’ll change my mind. It seems to me that taking
drugs would be an acknowledgment of defeat, and I’m not ready to do that.
Besides, it’s too dangerous for me to take mood- and chemistry-altering drugs.

J’onn says I’m wrong about the drugs, too. I talk to him pretty regularly and I
know that he keeps an eye on me. I don’t trust that many people, especially with
secrets like this, but J’onn is…well, J’onn. And it’s not as if I can visit
any random psychologist.

I still think about cutting myself, find my fingers twitching, the pain building
in my chest. J’onn and Leslie say that will fade with time, as it did before,
especially since I’m trying to stop this time. Sometimes I even believe them.

I’ve learned other ways to get through the bad times, but I’m an expert on scars
and I know that I’ll bear many of these newest ones for the rest of my life,
constant reminders of what I’ve done.

The most important thing, though, is that Batman is back on the streets of
Gotham, terrorizing the criminal element. Robin and the others are by my side,
Oracle on the line keeping tabs, and Nightwing a call away.

I even call Dick sometimes, just to talk, especially when things are bad. He’s
forgiven me. Mostly.

Whether I’ve forgiven myself is another question.

–end–

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