The Tolls of Justice - Chapter 12
Happy pride month!!!!
For all of those who thought "that was good, but I would like some emotional reconciliation and character growth, please" after last chapter... Take this with all my love!!! (⌯˘̤ ॢᵌ ू˘̤)യෆ̈
Important Spoiler Tags: mentions of past acts of canon-typical violence, mention of past deaths, lots of feels, i love my boy sm
Read on Ao3 or continue below...
[Chapter 12: Ten Cheers to the World]
John could hear the wheels on the short-back office chair rolling over the raised bumps in the metal floor as he pushed it back and forth with a clunk-clack, clunk-clack, half-spinning in the seat with every move. It was better to sit there with his head on his arms thrown over the back of the chair and look over the whole cave – keeping his eyes peeled for movement by the entrance to the bathroom around the corner of the workbenches – than to sit still while his mind churned and chewed on everything.
“Watching the door won’t make him come out any quicker, you know,” Alfred said from behind.
John ignored him. And the tight feeling in his stomach that pulled at the corner of his mouth.
“He once stayed in the shower there for forty-three minutes. Then he had the audacity to tell me he’d just been meditating.”
John tried to ignore that, but his traitor of a brain was pushing the image of Bruce sitting cross-legged on the tile floor under the spray like it was a waterfall in an old movie, with a serious hurm of an expression. It was a little funny…
“I know he was just dwelling. He used to do it at the computer, on seats – and in front of his homework, back when he was younger. He won’t do it in front of people anymore, of course. Raises too many questions he doesn’t want to answer.”
Alfred had changed into pajamas and a fancy-looking robe, yet he still stood as straight and proper as all the other times John had seen him. He didn’t hold anything or seem to be milling around the cave for any real reason. At least one John could see.
John didn’t know why he was being talked to so…normally. It didn’t change anything. It didn’t sweep everything Alfred had said under the rug. It just dug the knife a little deeper into his stomach. He couldn’t stand looking at him for more than the glance. It was why he wasn’t spinning anymore and just inching the chair back and forth.
“Not that I blame him, really. I’ve always been more proficient in handling physical wounds than mental. It’s easier to mend a hole in the chest versus a broken heart, as they say…” A beat of silence; John could hear the clunk-clack of his chair a little too loudly. “Miss Avesta filled me in on the goings-on at Arkham and the Church of Mercy this evening – are you quite sure you’re alright?” Alfred asked him, “You might have skipped out on the inspection, but I can see some of those bruises a mile away.”
John felt a laugh bubble in his throat, thinking of Bruce’s hand around his throat, gripping his wrist, punching his shoulder… But looking at both arms buried under his face, he could see others had formed sometime in-between. Oh-h-h. Those. The question instantly became less ha-ha funny and more ironically funny. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” he said with a bitter chuckle, “I mean, it’s not like I’ve changed or anything - I’m too crazy to give straight answers, remember?”
Alfred was silent for a moment. John dared to peek – he seemed…regretful, maybe, as he stared at some fixed point down in the cave. Alfred breathed out slowly, and audibly, the way Bruce did sometimes when something had become too much of whatever it was. “I deserve that,” he said finally, allowing a beat of silence to follow. “I was surprised with you this evening,” he continued, “After everything that’s happened this week, The Joker carry a former Agent inside to get her proper medical treatment after escaping a kidnapping and thwarting a bomb-threat at Arkham Asylum was the last thing I expected to see during my visit. You rushing out to help Batman afterwards was one thing, but you working alongside Robin, even after the things we said...”
It seemed too awkward to finish that sentence. He seemed to be searching for the right words. “You saved both of them from a seat on my operating table tonight,” he continued instead, with real gratitude lacing his voice.
John wasn’t entirely sure where this was going. Or really, why he was laying all this out at all. The dry dancing-around-the-point thing was doing nothing for him. If anything, it was wiggling the proverbial knife in him.
“I suppose what I’ve been trying to drive at is that I misjudged you,” he added, meeting John’s probing gaze with softer eyes. “You proved that tonight. I let old memories and foolish prejudice cloud my judgement. I know I can’t undo the damage I’ve done, but… I hope you can accept my apology.”
John stared, almost wondering if he’d fallen asleep in the chair sometime after deciding to wait for Bruce. His fingers tapped on the edge of the chair – real, real, real, like everything else before then.
The tight anger in his stomach had loosened its knots into a confusing not-really-calm feeling. He wasn’t sure if he could accept the apology, let alone if he should. He might not be mad now, but he knew his brain well enough to know that the creeping thoughts of ‘he actually hates you’ and ‘he thinks you’re crazy’ were bound to come up again and reignite his rage and feelings of alienation with the memory of standing outside the Wayne Manor living room. He might never be able to go near there without thinking about it, either.
And despite how sincere Alfred seemed, who was to say it wasn’t all one big lie in an effort to get back on good footing with Bruce? Or was that just the paranoia talking already?
John breathed out slowly, hearing his lips sputter together as he let his head rest back in his arms to stare down at the dark back of the chair. He knew he shouldn’t listen to that part of him. The shreds of anger at being rejected were still there in his stomach, but what good would mending them back together at this point do? Break two people’s hearts in one go? Leave Bruce to choose between his practically-adoptive-Dad and him?
As nice as it would be to get a bit of justice for himself and reject in kind, John knew what he wanted… The same as the old John and probably the future John. And he knew what he wanted wasn’t always good for him, as the doctors would say. But the siren call of inclusion always ensnared him. It was hard to find people he actively liked, and a hundred times harder to find people he could truly relate to. And both he and Alfred loved Bruce, the one person John liked and related to the most…
John sat back up. “Fine,” he said, “But just because I accept it doesn’t mean I forgive you yet.”
Alfred’s shoulders seemed to droop, finally. “That’s understandable,” he replied, seeming like that was actually enough. “I don’t mind having to work for that.”
John rolled backward in the chair. “I might forgive you quicker if you teach me some tricks of the trade,” he added slyly, rolling the chair forward again, “I mean, skin can’t be too different from fabric, but I’d hate to be the only person who can stitch up Bruce one night without a little practice.”
Alfred blinked, genuinely surprised. “You want to learn sutures?”
“Yeah! I already know aaall about injections. And most painkillers. But Bruce told me he had to stitch himself up before while you were away, and I know Tiffany’s learned it. So I want in,” he finished, rolling the chair back and forth again.
He seemed to think it over. John couldn’t tell what was going on inside of his old head, but it looked promising. “I believe I can find some pig-skin for us to work with while I’m staying,” he said, the emotion in his voice indecipherable. “Have you eaten anything yet?”
John wasn’t going to say anything about the snacks he’d pilfered from the kitchen on his way up to get changed. “Uh, not really.”
“I’ll bring down another plate of leftovers, then; the ladies seem to have finished the one already.” He was about to move away, and suddenly got a harder look on his face like he remembered something somewhat unpleasant. “And John – do make sure Master Bruce eats some of it,” he said with all the sternness of a parent John never had, “He has a terrible habit of starving himself when he overthinks. I don’t want him passing out halfway up the stairs.”
John felt something stop his chair from moving – Iman had quietly hobbled her way over and used his shoulder to lean on with one hand. “No worries – I gotcha,” John replied with a click of his fingers and a wink, “And you,” he added to Iman craning his neck back to look at her, “You could’ve just said something, y’know. I would’ve wheeled over.”
Iman had a funny look on her face. “I’ve been sitting for too long anyway,” she waved away all friendly-like, still leaning against his chair like she was hovering over it for a reason. It wasn’t until Alfred had passed her that he realized she even looked over at the other man – her brown eyes stared at the retreating back like she was examining it under a scope.
The look didn’t last long. She shifted to prop herself up against the railing instead, opposite of where Alfred had been, holding a cane borrowed from who-knew-where. She had changed into a Gotham Knights t-shirt and very soft and loose fuzzy black pants, and unlike him, she had no problem walking around barefoot on the cold floor. “I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“You mean physically, psychologically, or…?” It hit him why Iman had been hovering by him out of nowhere. He looked over at Alfred at the end of the cave, making his way to the elevator. Ahh-ha. “Ohh! You meant with Al’,” he added in a hush. “That’s why you came over, huh?”
“I would’ve been over here sooner if I hadn’t had to hobble,” she explained with a note of annoyance, “I figured the reason you rushed to get away when you all came back was so you wouldn’t be caught up in an awkward conversation.”
“Hah, you aren’t the psych’ expert for nothing,” John smiled, pushing the chair back and forth slowly again, “But I’m okay. Al’ and I cleared things up a bit. How are you? Catching Roman put a spring back in your step?”
Iman’s razor-thin show of white teeth seemed to gleam with the same amusement in her eyes. “At least in one of them,” she joked back.
“Good – it certainly did for me. I just wish I could’ve seen that punch up close! And I only caught a bit of the pounding he gave Hooty McShooty, too...”
Iman snorted into a short laugh. “W-who?”
“That was probably his last word, too,” John joked with a grin. “You know, the white-faced owl with the big gun! I don’t know his ‘real’ name. I don’t care, either – anyone who tries to kill me and my friends doesn’t deserve a birth certificate.”
“Hm, well,” she said, “I don’t have the barn owl’s real name, either. But you know, we did catch some footage from the drones. So Bruce’s fight might be on there.”
John screeched his chair to a halt and stood, swiveling the seat towards her. “Well what are we waiting for?! Let’s go look!”
“I think the batteries are still-”
“Less talk, more looking,” he emphasized, patting the chair back to get her to sit. She gave in with a wary sort of look, and as soon as she was down, he whirled her around and wheeled her towards the oversized computer, feeling giddy about the very idea that he would get to see Batman beat up the owls as many times as he wanted. Maybe he’d even see his and Bruce’s team-up! Eehee hee hee hee!
The display still had a myriad of things thrown up. The little map of Gotham with all the Court of Owls’ old hiding places, the FriendBook page of The Church of Written Mercy, background information on the Reverend Sebastian Overfield, the cloud storage Jackie had given him with all of Matt Chaney’s incriminating pictures, some screenshots of the crowd of Owls showing a few of them without their masks...
And the disappointing notification that large file transfers from one of the drones was still in progress, with its uploading screen still at sixty-something percent.
“Shouldn’t there be a streaming option or something?” he asked, the words barely out of his mouth as Iman dutifully pulled up the other two drones’ interfaces.
“Doesn’t look like it. The Batcomputer might be fast, but those drone’s video feeds turn out huge files. It’s never that fast.”
“Boooo,” John groaned, “Now I’m all hyped up for nothing,” he pouted, perching his bruised elbow on the back of the chair as he took in the collage of information. He knew all of it – or at least the pieces that mattered – but in Bruce’s absence it would at least pass time to poke through. But his eye caught something: facial recognition software was pulled up, half-hidden by other windows. “Ooh, what’s that?”
“It’s nothing,” Iman answered casually. “It just checked some of the live feed against social media databases we had access to.”
“Ooh, fancy! Let’s look,” he said, reaching for the mouse.
Iman’s hand got in the way. “It’s not really interesting.”
Dismissing it and yet clearly obstructing it. John knew that was code for ‘I don’t want you to see this’. Which meant it was important and secret, and therefore very interesting. He wasn’t so much upset as he was intrigued, and it was easier to get information like that out with sweet-talk. “I-maaan,” he sang quietly, “what are you hiding?” He rested his chin in his hand, propped up against the back of the chair. “You can tell me. I’m good at keeping secrets.”
“It’s…not something you need to see right now.”
“That means it’s the perfect time. I’m not doing anything else but waiting around.”
“No, I…” She sighed, and turned in the chair, forcing him to stand up straight again as she looked him in the eye. “I meant you might not want to see it now. I was waiting until I had something more concrete to show you, and after everything today… I just don’t want to upset you.”
“Upset me?” he said heatedly, “After everything I’ve been through in the past few days, you think I can’t handle a little breaking news?”
“John,” she started seriously, “what I found could trigger your memory. It’s no guarantee, but if it does, it might be overwhelming. You’ve been through a lot, and you’ve handled it reasonably well,” Iman added encouragingly, “but we both know how exhausting it all was. I’m almost ready to collapse, and I know you’re more tired than you want to be right now. At the very least you should get some sleep before riding an emotional rollercoaster.”
The warmth that had flared on the sides of his head was shifting. He shuffled, trying not to appear as embarrassed as he felt at being called out. “So… What is it, exactly?”
“Potentially, a picture of you,” Iman explained, “It’s not directly of you – ‘you’ are more in the background, but it’s what facial recognition turned up when I tried to match your face with any photos from social media databases we have. I couldn’t find a direct match in any other system I tried, with the exception of the criminal database. And Arkham,” she finished with a nod.
An odd thing to suddenly look for. He couldn’t help but ask himself why. It made sense to say it aloud, but it was smarter to ask a direct question rather than something too broadly answered. “Why would you try to do that?”
“Aren’t you curious about yourself?” she dodged, staring him down with a slight tilt of her head, “You told me before that Arkham hadn’t pulled up anything on you, but I know some of their paper records were destroyed in an accident three years after your admittance. And there’s the events around the time of your admittance nine years ago,” she said, sounding far more curious about it than he had in ages, “An accident at Ace Chemicals, an unrecoverable data loss at the Agency, the string of deaths in the Valestra mafia over the tri-city area – and there was an unusually high number of crimes in both Gotham and Bludhaven the week you were brought to Arkham from the harbor. The G.C.P.D. might not have found anything linking a missing person to any of those events at the time, but it can’t be a complete coincidence.”
It was easy to see how invested she’d gotten. “You put a loooot of thought into this, huh?”
“Don’t you want to know who you were?”
He took the captain’s chair and tapped his feet on the floor, thinking about what to say as he leaned his head back into his hand. Maybe it was his meds, or maybe it was Bruce’s essence seeping into his skin from the chair, but he found he wasn’t really mad at her for looking where he’d never asked. He didn’t care about whether or not it was really for his sake or just her own curiosity, but she’d given herself away enough to emphasize that there was a line that needed drawing. “I used to,” he emphasized, “What name I went by, what I did, any family I had; stuff like that use d to keep me up at night, get me through the long days… But who I am now is a better question! And that’s never a solid answer, either,” he ribbed, smiling over at her with a chuckle. “I’m surprised at you, Iman - didn’t you ask yourself why it took three years for someone to get match-happy near my file?”
She stared back, shifting slightly between his eyes. She didn’t lose the curious look on her tan face. “So that was you…”
“Not that it matters,” he countered, pleased that she’d understood, “You’re a sneaky snooper – I’d wondered why you asked me about the day I woke up during your last visit! Here I just thought you were making friendly, topical conversation. Were those marshmallow Peeps a subliminal bribe, too?”
Ah. There was the guilt seeping in. “A little.”
“Et tu, Peeps?!” he feigned clutching his chest in betrayal, unable to stop from giggling afterward.
“I’m sorry, John,” Iman said, looking very much like she meant it, “I’d thought you’d want to know as much as I did,” she said slowly, not quite looking at him. “But I did want you to have visitors apart from Bruce,” Iman added, meeting his gaze again, “I would’ve gone anyway.”
He knew there was no way that wasn’t true. “I know,” he said, smiling wider, “You’re nice like that.”
She flashed a smile, but the gears were clearly still turning in her head. “John, if you don’t mind me asking… Why did you stop being curious?”
John was slightly surprised. He was sure she was going to ask about what was in his old file that was missing from the new one. He tapped his heel, remembering the isolation of Arkham. The three years of hoping for anyone to really explain anything, to see him, to know him. The bitter understanding of the truth. The hilarity of the reality.
“Because things like ‘who I was’ and ‘who knew me’ doesn’t really matter,” he answered after a beat, “No one cares about whoever-I-was. If they did, they’ve forgotten. And that’s really for the better,” he shrugged, “Not knowing is fun – it’s multiple-choice! Maybe I was someone in the wrong place at the wrong time; or someone at the right place at the wrong time. Maybe I was some experiment gone wrong. Maybe I was even an Agent, like you,” he teased with a wider grin and a chuckle that wouldn’t stay down, “Wouldn’t that be a laugh and a half!”
She seemed to get it. Her eyes drifted down to her hands, guilt still softening her face. Anyway, she didn’t look confused or disturbed, or anything that rang the alarm bell in John’s head saying he said the wrong thing. “Do you want me to delete everything?” she asked, looking back at him sincerely, “It’s not much, but if you don’t want the information anyway…”
He leaned back in the chair, feeling more at ease now that the line had been scribbled down. He’d let her do what she liked, as long as she kept him out of it. And Bruce, but he was sure Bruce had already pulled out all the stops and come up with nothing, anyway. “Hey, just because I don’t care to know doesn’t mean I’ll stop you from solving a dead-end mystery,” he teased, “Though I do want to know what your fancy software pulled up…”
“You still want to see that?”
“I said I wasn’t curious about who I was, I never said I didn’t want to see the picture you found. Besides, if nine years of therapy and doctors cramming their memory exercises down my hippocampus hasn’t brought anything back, I doubt a little picture will.”
“Well…if you’re sure.”
The software had dozens of pictures saved in the file, but the one Iman brought up – just big enough to see, not take up the full screen – was of people clearly having what looked like a Great Gatsby themed party on what looked like the deck of a ship of some kind. At first, John focused on the people in front: a group of young twenty-somethings he didn’t recognize in the slightest, most of them sporting a glass or bottle of alcohol in hand, the quality of the image being the best indicator that the cell phone used for it was at least ten years old. But he spotted what the software, and Iman, must have noticed behind the group, clearly just walking by with a cigarette in hand – another young man in his early twenties sporting a cheap suit, seeming out of place against the others, half his long face in view enough to show one green eye and a few locks of dark brown hair.
“Wow, that’s…nothing,” John blinked, surprised at himself. “I got more feeling looking in the mirror with peach-tone makeup on.”
“Really? I can see why it pulled this one,” Iman said, looking between him and the picture on screen, “I’m pretty sure that guy has your nose.”
“Pfft, barely,” John rolled his eyes. “He certainly doesn’t have my fashion sense,” he gloated, thumbing his purple t-shirt.
Iman smiled, finally, glancing down at the zig-zags of blue and orange of his pajama pants. “You’ve got me there.”
“It’s a pretty bad picture, too,” John continued, “The lighting’s terrible, the angle is off… And those two -” he pointed towards the two flappers with their arms around each other’s shoulders – “are definitely faking it.”
She gave a light hah. “They certainly are. The left one’s too strained and stiff all over, and the other’s smile doesn’t reach their eyes.”
John thought to himself for a moment. He’d missed an opportunity to take a picture during their team-up at the theater, since the car was too dangerous while it was moving, and the jumpsuits didn’t flatter either of them. And she was the only one he didn’t have a picture of on his phone somewhere. “I bet we could do better,” John grinned, pulling out his phone.
Iman smiled, rolling the chair a little closer to him. “You’re on.” Her arm wrapped around his shoulder, and he mimicked the action.
“Maybe a little more to the left… John, it’s not a selfie if you’re not in it.”
“You said left,” he teased, moving it back, “Say... Um, how do you say ‘cheese’ in Farsi?”
“Say ‘pah-nehr’!” Snap. “Ooh, that’s good! The monitor light really makes us glow.”
A text popped over the image, from Devi: Hey r u ok???...
Then another, this time a text from Jackie: Photobooth app…
“You’re popular today,” Iman nudged, “Don’t mind me, I’m going to clean some of this stuff up. Do you mind if I keep the chair? It’s easier to move around in.”
John stood. “Nah, go ahead,” he waved, selecting Devi’s text first, “I’m going to go wait for Bruce to come back out. He can’t stay in there all night.”
Hey r u ok??? Mick said he called u w info earlier and he thinks u told the bat and ofc theres probs @ Arkham. Bat sighting by Chauncey 2.
Hes pretty worried. I mean he wont SAY he is but he IS.
I m 2 after hearing about the Black Mask bust up @ Waynes!!! We didnt know until after group! Stupid phone wifi cant load news for shit :(
“Didn’t really have the time, did I?” he muttered to himself, leaning one hand against the railing to stretch himself out.
But he wasn’t going to leave her on read. Knowing Devi and Mickey cared enough to worry over him made him feel that warm, fuzzy sense of appreciation again.
Yeah I’m ok, sorry for the radio silence!!! A lot happened :o) Still kinda processing some of it, he typed, not wanting to go into too much detail. Upper floor break room always has the news on first thing at 6 if you need to eavesdrop. Dr. W still gets papers, usually tosses them at 11. ;) Oh and the Bat says thanks to Mickey btw.
Damnnn J something real went down huh???
John laughed to himself at her choice of phrase. It was real. There was no doubt left in his mind.
I’ll tell you more when I see you guys. I have remote therapy but I still have work on Tuesday as far as I know so we can talk then! ;D
Aw :( 2 much 2 text? My phones safe u kno.
Trust me, it’s easier to say in person, he typed back. Ttyl (93-)
K igy. Night J man :)
John swiped over to the other active chat. Jackie had sent him a second copy of the picture she’d taken of the two of them all dressed up in the church’s stairwell – the owl mask she’d worn sitting on the stairs behind him – with her tiny flashlight being held up at an angle with the phone so the camera flash didn’t look too terrible in the dark. She’d added a soft-light filter, little sparkling stamps around, and some bat ‘stickers’ here and there, with the caption ‘#StraightOuttaGotham’ in glittering purple bubble-letters at the bottom, all sitting above her text:
Photobooth app didn’t have enough room for “you can’t fight if you ain’t cute” :/
The cave always made his laugh bounce around no matter how loud or quiet he was, and now it was jarring the bats hiding up above. It was funny on several levels at once, but all the feelings that had built up and grown static in the wind-down of the evening’s car ride home finally had a good outlet, and he let it out until he sank to the metal floor to stop himself from doubling over the railing.
John slipped his legs through the gaps in the rails as he caught his breath. He rested the phone in his lap so he could wipe away the moisture that had built up in his left eye. “Ahh…That’s one for the album,” he said to himself, saving the image for later. He’d have to frame that for sure.
Then came footsteps. Not from the right, where he was expecting Bruce sooner or later, and not a hobbled step with a cane from behind that would mean it was Iman. He pocketed his phone, the good mood already evaporating.
Tiffany had stopped a foot away, hands at her sides like she didn’t know what to do with them, her whole face practically screaming unsure. “Hey,” she said finally, with a slight shrug, “Can…I sit with you?”
He knew things would be going this way eventually. She’d saved him back there, in the ironically-named Church of Mercy, and he wasn’t sure if it was an attempt at apologizing or if she would’ve done it for anyone, but it had broken the ice. He’d went along with being casual – and not just for Bruce’s sake – and even though he’d like nothing more than to shove all the awkwardness and pain from the past two days into a drawer for him to pointedly avoid for the rest of his life, he knew that wouldn’t happen now. It had to be laid out on the table and pointed to like a broken vase.
“Pretty sure that it’s still a free country if we’re underneath it,” he answered lightly, “Unless this place isn’t marked on a map... Then you could do anything anyway.”
Tiffany sat next to him, crossing one leg and letting the other hang over the side through the gap in the metal railing. She was quiet, and even though only a few seconds passed it felt like way too long to him. “So, are you okay? I mean, like, physically,” she rushed, “I know you’re okay…otherwise,” she finished lamely, trying to gesture slightly with her hands towards another category. “But you got shot at, and I know I saw blood on you - and Iman filled me in on Arkham while you were upstairs,” she went on, “Fighting one of those Talon guys on your own couldn’t have been easy.”
John felt a cruel giggle bubbling in this throat. She was clearly trying to avoid saying anything that could be construed as another attack on his mental health, and it was made funnier by her shirt sporting the words ‘Point B.L.A.N.K’ dramatically written above some language he couldn’t read. “Aww, are you worried?” he teased, needling her further. He wanted her to squirm a bit.
“Well… Yeah. I saw a guy punch you in the gut. Who knows what other injuries you have?”
“I didn’t think you cared,” he answered, swinging his legs over the edge and looking out at the cave. Tiffany was easy to poke. The quiet said all he needed to know of her embarrassment. “You saved me earlier, sure, but that could’ve just been payback for all I know.”
He could feel her staring. “John, why do you think I’m talking to you right now?”
Well his first guess was ‘guilt’, but-
“Look, I know I screwed up. But I didn’t save you to make up for it. Or for any of that ‘tit for tat’ garbage,” she said, dark eyes staring at him pointedly, a softness like Bruce’s there. “I saw someone pointing a gun at you, and I acted.”
Ah. Ha ha. Ha ha ha! “A real hero, huh?” He leaned his head against the railing, the laugh dying low in his throat. He slid his arms through the large gap, too, numbing himself as he loosely crossed his arms. “I know you know what it’s like getting stabbed,” he said, holding up his own scarred palm, mirroring hers, “so I know you understand when I say that little conversation you and Alfred had about me was on par with that. I mean, I knew Alfred didn’t really approve of me when I got here. It still twisted the knife in,” he mimed at his own heart, smiling but not feeling the humor of the joke, “but it wasn’t a real surprise. But you? I thought we had something. We were getting along, becoming friends, having fun chasing the crook-of-the-week… And then you pulled the rug out from under me. I just can’t figure out what I did that sent me back to square one.”
She didn’t look away, at first. Her eyes and nose scrunched slightly, her brows furrowed up, and it was all regret. Tiffany cast a look over the cave again, her hands crumpling the material of her pink sweatpants. “It wasn’t really you,” she answered, “Bruce didn’t tell me you two were...together. So when you said you knew he loved you, I thought it was a big red flag,” she said, glancing over at him briefly. “And when you showed up at the Gala… I thought maybe you were obsessing over him or something. The whole ‘Court of Owls’ theory you put forth sounded so – so wrong, that I thought you’d…”
Gone off your meds, John finished for her. She looked like she didn’t want to say that, and was struggling for anything else to replace it.
“I thought Bruce was in danger,” she lamented, “I know I should’ve just talked to him and cut out all the bullshit, but I didn’t think he’d really listen to me.” Tiffany met his eyes again, not breaking away this time. “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have said any of it if-” she cut herself off, clearly not liking where that sentence was going – “I never meant to hurt you,” she added instead, clasping her hands together in her lap and avoiding his gaze. “That’s really what it boils down to. Can we…start over? Pretend it never happened?”
John stared back at her. She was serious about wanting that. It came through in her voice and her soft brown eyes. Tiffany and Bruce weren’t related, but they sure could be alike sometimes. That ‘I never meant to hurt you’ sounded a lot like him.
He remembered getting that Batarang stuck in his hand. The sharp edges piercing his palm and sent his nerves screaming back into reality... Forgetting the rude things they’d said about him was like trying to erase the Batarang.
It was funny, though: he wasn’t as mad about it. Either the cold metal of the walkway was doing a pretty good job of keeping him numb to the bits of angry hurt still sitting in his gut, or Dr. Song had been right when she’d said looking at things from their perspective could help. They really did all love Bruce, didn’t they? They all kept looking out for him in their own ways…
Still, he couldn’t pretend it never happened. It was impossible, even if he wanted to. It was another thing to mend and heal. She had to understand that.
John sighed, leaning back to stretch out. “Kinda hard to forget about all that, kiddo,” he said, “I know, it’s ironic – an amnesiac who can’t forget something,” he joked, chuckling at himself. “But pretending it didn’t happen won’t make the wound heal any faster.”
He could feel the muscle in his right palm twitch. If he had to face reality head-on, so did Tiffany.
“We both know that,” he continued, “My hand took several weeks to heal after surgery, but I see the scar every day. I can cover it up, but I’ll always know it’s there. It’s the same for you, right?” he asked, pointing at her own scarred hand.
Tiffany looked down at her right hand, where the faded scar made a slash over the back, in-between the knuckles and wrist. He could tell she was thinking of the knife he’d run through her hand; but there was no pain written in her face. Only understanding. “Yeah.”
“See? That’s why we can’t pretend. The scars aren’t visible, but I know they’re there.” John kicked his legs over the edge. “They’ll just take a little longer to heal.”
“I guess starting over isn’t really an option, huh…”
“And what, forget about how you literally flew down to kick that Owl in the head? Our car chase on your bike? Our little crime scene investigation on the roof? Not on your life!” he grinned over at her. “We don’t need to start over, Tiff’. You just have to learn to take my feelings a little more seriously. And stop making assumptions.”
Tiffany looked at him like she was searching for anything insincere. She seemed hopeful. Or maybe it was relieved. John settled on a mix of both. “I think I can do that,” she answered with a slight smile.
“Oh, good; fighting beside you is more fun when we get to banter.” Truthfully, he felt better knowing they were picking things up where they’d left off rather than having to start afresh again. He’d had more than enough of that. “Sooo…does this mean I can call you ‘Tiffy’ now?”
“I’ll think about it.” Tiffany shuffled her legs to put both over the platform’s edge, leaning her arms over the rail. “Are you waiting for Bruce?”
“He really pushes himself too hard,” she said, swinging her legs gently. “I know it’s because he’s Batman, but I almost thought he’d collapse when we got home. The guy’s exhausted.”
“That’s why I’m waiting,” John commented, “I didn’t want to leave him to climb up all those stairs alone… You’d think with a cave this size there’d be a bed down here.”
“Yeah, you’d think…” Tiffany’s dark eyes suddenly sparked. “Why don’t we bring one down for him instead?”
Ooh. Now that was an idea... The cave was Bruce’s domain, but how many nights did Bruce come home this tired and crawl up to that giant master bed to sleep the pain and emotional lashes off, all alone? Probably more than he’d ever say…
“How many guest rooms does this place have, again? There’s me, you, Iman…” He tossed a look over at Iman behind them, seeing the chair shift around like she hadn’t been watching them the whole time. He eyed her, thinking about height and width. “What do you think, two mattresses for the four of us? Unless Alfred wants in…”
Tiffany gave a light, short laugh. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a sleepover, but I think two will work,” she answered, gripping the railing to stand. “And I don’t think Alfred would sleep down here, even if it wasn’t the Batcave; he’s got a fancy adjustable bed. Hey, Iman!”
Iman swiveled the chair all the way around. “Yes?”
“We’re moving mattresses to sleep down here tonight. You in?”
“Only if you’re using the seven-hundred-thread-count sheets,” she answered, “And if one of you could get my eye mask from my room, please?”
John pushed himself up off the floor and brushed off his pajama pants. “I gotcha, Agent. Need anything else?”
“A pillow for my ankle wouldn’t hurt.”
Tiffany was already heading towards the elevator. “Just text if you think of something else.”
John followed close behind, glancing around the corner towards the bathroom Bruce was still holed up in. The light was still on under the door. “What are the odds he’ll come out of there as soon as we’re in the elevator?”
“Preeetty good. Which is why we’ll have to go fast.” The elevator slid open, and they both stepped in at the same time. “Otherwise he’ll try and go up anyway.”
† † † † †
Bruce stepped out from the steamy tiled bathroom onto the cool metal of the Batcave floor. He didn’t quite care that his hair wasn’t completely dry or that he’d stayed a little too long in the shower. He’d become hazy under the spray, letting the hot water soak into his skin and wash away the Bat, bringing him back to his senses. His anger had faded, being worked through his body during the raid on the Court of Owls, and what had settled into a sense of satisfaction had turned into a hunger for something he couldn’t quite place.
He expected to see John as he rounded the corner, but he encountered nothing but empty space. He looked over the cave, not seeing any sign of life where he would expect to… No sign of John or Tiffany at all; he didn’t expect to see them too close together, but he still expected to see them doing something, maybe at the weapons storage or the medical bay. He didn’t hold out hope for Alfred to hang around, and he expected Iman had gone to get some proper sleep.
Bruce was used to being alone in there, and in the rest of the manor. Maybe he’d just gotten used to the hectic days of a full house and almost constant companionship, but somehow, being down there all alone at that moment felt…hollow.
The soft click of a mouse pulled his attention towards the Batcomputer, where he could see Iman’s messy brown bun poking over the top of the captain’s chair. An empty office chair sat next to it, turned oddly like she had been moving between chairs at a whim.
Bruce felt strangely relieved to know someone was still down there. He made his way towards her, checking the screens; she seemed to be working on the left-over notes and references to what they’d all found, complete with pictures.
“Where are those from?”
Iman practically jumped in her seat with a shout. He’d clearly startled her too much. “Bruce, I didn’t even hear you walking,” she stressed.
Oh. He didn’t even realize he was still using his stealth walk. “Sorry, force of habit,” he said with an apologetic shrug, “I was trained by ninjas.”
“At least tap the back of the chair next time. I’ve strained my ears and this thing’s,” she gestured to the snake-shaped hearing aid, “abilities more than enough for one evening. Anyway, you…asked something?”
He decided against telling her to go get some rest. “The pictures you took,” he said while looking back up at the monitor, “Where are they from? I don’t recognize them.”
“Those are the ones John took from the theater. He didn’t label them, so I’m going through and marking which were more relevant.”
There was more than one picture of the various bat-signal-like shapes sprayed on the walls. And one that looked like the clown-smiley-face he drew on the sticky notes still saved in Bruce’s desk drawer. “Ah, yes, graffiti art. Very relevant.”
“I think it’s interesting. I wonder how many different people went through there… You can see the different spray patterns of the bats, and some have more control over the drip of the paint. And they were scattered all over that hallway; a lot of people were brave to go in there and tag it in the first place, but to do a bat? Considering how much anti-Batman graffiti there is in the middle of Gotham, it really says something.”
Truthfully, Bruce didn’t think it was that brave to go tag the inside of an all-but-abandoned building, but he reminded himself that he had refined his breaking-and-entering skills for years, and others had grown up honing them for survival, so he kept that quiet. “I have more secret admirers than I thought.”
“As long as they don’t form a vigilante club,” Iman muttered.
Hm… He had to admit he’d thought about other John Does running around since the Agency had left. It was a small concern, considering John’s old friends – the ones Bruce could find not under arrest, in any case – had kept their noses clean of further clown-themed vigilantism. But there was Sonja, Reverend Overfield, and that unidentified Owl… “Some already did. The Court of Owls seemed to think we were on the same side.”
“You don’t believe that, do you?” she asked, swiveling to look at him. She was surprisingly annoyed, and almost disgusted. “They were prepared to kill you back there. If they had the chance, they would have.” She stared at him hard. “Throwing John and I in Arkham – that was to make us suffer before they destroyed the place. And I know that if you weren’t Batman, they were going to try and induct you, and then kill you – that Talon who found us at the theatre had a file on your public face in their pile of targeted Arkham residents.”
He’d suspected Bruce Wayne was on their hit list. None of that was a surprise, but he had refrained from thinking too much about the situation at Arkham. And now he saw her point: there was no way to know how long either of them would stay unconscious; both of them clearly had time to escape, but if they couldn’t have… Waking up in Arkham only to die in its crumbled ruins would’ve been a wide-awake nightmare.
“You’re not like them, Bruce. They don’t have any regard for human life outside of their puritanical views. I know you well enough to say you’re better than that.”
He knew he was harder than he needed to be on people sometimes. He knew that if he wasn’t exactly who he was now, he might be more like the Owls than he’d want. But hearing someone other than himself say he wasn’t like them lifted the weighted question off his mind. At least for tonight. “I don’t exactly believe we were on the same side, but… I needed to hear that,” he said sincerely. “How’s your ankle?”
Iman cast a look down at the plastic brace strapped over her foot and calf. “It could be better. Alfred assures me that it’s not broken, but I can’t drive for at least two weeks,” she huffed. “I really shouldn’t have walked on it to follow John out of the laundry room, but I wasn’t sure what that Talon would do at the time… It goes to follow, when something stops you from moving around, you suddenly appreciate being able to do so on your own. Though I’m not looking forward to eventually having to go up stairs all by myself.”
Was that why she was still awake? “I’m surprised you’re still down here. I would’ve thought someone would have helped you up,” he commented as the elevator door dinged.
“Oh, I don’t need help tonight,” she smiled up at him, “Our city’s two other heroes are bringing a bed down here.”
“Bringing a bed?” Bruce pondered aloud.
“Two beds, actually,” Alfred interjected, “I barely stopped your partners in crime from surfing down the stairs with the mattresses.”
The old butler might have been dressed in his bathrobe and slippers, but he still seemed like he was on duty; he was even carrying in a plate of miscellaneous finger-food from the gala and holding it like he was going around the ballroom. It was a sight that Bruce didn’t know he’d needed to see until right then.
“They’re under the impression you’re going to fall to pieces trying to get up the stairs tonight. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I’ve seen you manage with two fractured ribs, a wounded leg, and broken arm.”
Bruce barely noticed that Alfred had put the plate down near him. The elevator had silently retreated and was coming back down again.
“At least you don’t have any of those injuries this time,” Alfred commented gently, “This is the most whole I’ve seen you after one of these nights.”
Tiffany came out of the elevator first, backing out with one end of a queen-sized mattress in her hands, and John carrying the other – at least until John spotted him. “Bruce!” The mattress slipped out of his hands as his face lit up like it was visiting hours.
Tiffany struggled to balance the sudden shift in weight. “John! Don’t DROP it!”
“Whoops – sorry.”
Tiffany didn’t seem to mad about it. “At least we can slide it down the stairs…”
Alfred turned towards them. “You will not,” he called out to them firmly, “Both of you will either carry it down, or you will sleep up here.”
John looked over at the stairs. “Uh, we should probably switch sides, then…”
Bruce watched them for a moment. It was strange how both of them were suddenly getting along. He’d looked over it at the church, putting it down to a truce, but now it seemed like they’d made amends.
“I know I have them to thank for that,” Alfred continued, “I never expected you to have both a protégé and a very dedicated partner, much less have them both out in the field with you.”
Partner. The word stuck out like a sore thumb. There was no distaste, no disapproval, just acknowledgement. “Neither did I,” Bruce said, not wanting to call too much attention to it right away, “Two years ago I never expected I could have people I could regularly count on, other than you.”
“Yes, well… I’m glad we were both caught off guard, in that sense. I always said you needed more than my old bones to keep up your crusade.”
Bruce eyed him, looking for any sign of denial or hesitance. “I’d say John is more than a partner at this point.”
Alfred raised an eyebrow, straightening slightly. “I’m well aware of your feelings, Master Bruce; I just never thought you’d really follow through with them.” He looked out over the landing, where John was backing down the last set of stairs very carefully with the mattress end. “I suppose I hoped you wouldn’t, in a sense. Truthfully, I didn’t think he was…good enough for you, before,” he settled on, his features going soft. Bruce sometimes forgot how old Alfred really was, and his age showed more than ever in the fine lines and the softer look staring at him in the dark brown eyes sitting behind thin, wiry glasses. “I only ever want what’s best for you.”
Bruce couldn’t bring himself to tell him he could decide what was best for himself, despite the childish desire to say so. Alfred was only doing his duty as his guardian. Looking out for his ward in the best ways he knew how. “I know that, Al’.”
He turned away from Bruce, picking the plate back up. “Besides, I figured the term ‘vigilante-boyfriend’ sounded a bit too gauche. ‘Partner’ is far more versatile.”
Bruce found himself with the full plate being pushed into his hands. The smell of the cucumber and ham in the tea sandwiches on the tray hit his nose like a punch, causing his stomach to gurgle in response. The little vegetable rolls, spinach puffs, raspberry chocolate tartlets, and bite-size beef wellingtons were quite a sight for someone who hadn’t eaten anything all day.
“That’s for the both of you. I’d better find it empty when I come back down tomorrow morning.” Surprisingly, he passed Bruce, reaching into his robe pockets as he conversed with Iman. “Here you are, my dear – phone fully charged, and painkillers as requested…”
Bruce decided to let them talk alone, and made his way towards the still-open elevator, where Tiffany and John were just maneuvering the second mattress out.
“Hey, buddy! Can you, uh, toss some of those pillows on here?” John nodded his head towards the mattress center, being held flat.
“Might as well throw on the blankets, too,” Tiffany added from the elevator door, holding the mattress up with one leg to wrangle one of the blankets up.
Bruce looked at the corner of the elevator, where they’d dropped the once-neatly-folded bedclothes and pillows. “It’s a good thing Alfred is distracted,” he mumbled, using his free hand to toss the pillows on, “He’d never forgive you two for throwing these on the floor.”
“What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” Tiffany shrugged.
Bruce tossed the blanket over the pillows. He knew better than to think that anymore. “How many times did I tell that to myself?”
“Hey, at least it’s just sheets this time.”
Bruce returned her little smile, bundling the sheets under his free arm so he could walk alongside her. Despite everything that had happened earlier that day, she seemed to be doing better than he’d expected. She was right when she said she could handle herself out there. Still, he knew what it was like to lie there and process everything afterwards in an exhausted stupor rather than sleep, and she might have had that youthful spark of energy going into the Court’s lair, but... “How are you feeling?” he asked her.
Tiffany hummed in thought. “If you told me this morning that we were going to be kidnapped by the Court of Owls, escape, and then willingly go back to their lair to fight them and arrest Black Mask, I would’ve asked what planet you thought we were on.” She watched the pillows shift in the center of the mattress and slowly try to slide down with gravity as they descended the stairs. She had the same expression now as when she was working, with eyes fixed on a screen half-filled with code only she truly understood. “That was one hell of a day,” she said, the corner of her mouth lifting into another smile, “but I could do it again. That’s how I’m feeling. How about you? You seem pretty tired. Not that I blame you…”
He’d had longer days than this. He was used to the gnaws of hunger, to not getting enough rest, to the strain of almost-overworked muscle, and the muddled cornucopia of thoughts in his head.
It was strange, though, how he didn’t really feel any of it right now. At least not in the same way as before. It was there, but all like background noise, like the rush of the waterfall in the cave. The feeling of needing something unnameable was all but gone, as if drowned out. Or maybe fulfilled.
The only thing he was sure he could really feel was… “Satisfied,” he answered.
“Really.” He knew she had to be part of the reason for that. The day would’ve been longer and far more arduous without her help. “I was really impressed with you out there. I know Lucius would be proud.”
She smiled wider, the sparkle returning to her eyes with pride. “I think so, too.”
The mattress was dropped a foot above the floor, right next to the other in the middle of the platform. Bruce put the plate down on the floor and worked on finding the bottom sheet for one set. “Now, if you had told me I’d be doing this today, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
John grinned over at him. “Gee, Bruce, you act like making a bed to sleep on with your friends in the middle of your top-secret hideout is weird.”
He tossed him the other end of the fitted sheet. “Don’t tell me you’ve done this before.”
“Me? Hah! Nah. But a good idea is a good idea.”
Tiffany tucked the corner in with a playful huff. “You should’ve had more sleepovers as a kid,” she shot to Bruce, “You’d understand better.” (Bruce didn’t know exactly why that would help in this situation.) “My friends and I once set up a tent in the living room, moved it to the back yard in one piece, and then pretended we were all pioneer girls on the run from the law.” She straightened her side of the top sheet she’d taken from the pile. “I still remember that stew we made in the camping gear…”
“What crimes did you guys commit?” John asked, not paying attention as he was tossed the end of the blanket. He missed grabbing it.
“Uh, murdering our husbands, witchcraft, and stealing a pie.”
Bruce raised a brow while John laughed. “And how does that help make this whole night any less strange?”
Tiffany stepped around him to start on the other mattress. “Because on weird levels, this is nothing.”
He supposed so. If he compared the whole day up until this moment… “I guess getting broken out of a kidnapping via the Batmobile crashing through a wall is a lot less mundane than this.”
John sighed. “I wish I could’ve seen that,” he said wistfully, taking the other end of the second fitted sheet. “That sounds way more fun than crawling through the air vent.”
Bruce felt the year-old wound in his side twinge. He glanced down at John’s long white fingers, seeing a plaster wrapped around one. There were two more on his elbows, along with several bruises. Iman had only mentioned during their drive to the church that John had found her locked up before they got entangled with the Talon.
“Really? How did that happen?” Tiffany asked innocently, unaware of the implications of John’s situation.
He’d woken up alone in a locked cell.
And as expected, John’s demeanor changed, his eyes looking far away, beyond the top sheet he was still staring at and back to Arkham. “Not by choice,” he said darkly. He glanced over at his right forearm. The cuts from the glass at St. Dymphna were partially healed already, but Bruce wondered why he didn’t put a fresh bandage over it. “But it turned out alright,” he finished as if returned to the present. “I mean, I’m here, you’re here – right where we should be.”
Bruce heard chair wheels rolling over metal from up above. Iman had stopped the office chair near the top of the stairs. “Tiffany, can you come up? I need your help for a sec’.”
Alfred called over the railings at the group, too: “Good night; I’ll be back down in the morning for you all.”
Bruce heard the three other bids of goodnight, but didn’t pay it any attention – John had taken a seat on the newly-covered makeshift bed, glancing over at him with a soft, needy sort of look, as if Bruce was too far away. Bruce took the bed opposite his, facing the staircase, leaving the plate of finger-food in the small part between them.
“Half of this is yours,” he said, pointing to the plate.
“You should probably eat some of that, then,” John said quietly, a smile picking up the corner of his pale lips. “Alfred told me to make sure you do. I’d hate to force-feed you.”
Bruce doubted that very much, but the laugh in John’s eyes wasn’t quite there. Like him, John was waiting to hear that last footstep on the stairs. Bruce padded out the time by eating two of the spinach puffs in one bite; the buttery crust and soft spinach melted in his mouth, and in one swoop he felt like he could eat the whole plate.
John gave a tiny laugh, and then the coast was clear up above. They were alone. One beat, and then two, and then it was nothing but John sitting across from him, heart bare and needy. “I don’t know how you do it,” he said quietly. “You just…deal with all of this so casually, and I’m… Ha, kinda shaken up, the more I think about it.” He looked down at his hand, where the Batarang had plunged through thirteen months ago. “I almost broke, you know. Nearly took that emergency exit.”
Bruce was unable to move. He didn’t have to ask what it meant. He knew, intrinsically.
“If it wasn’t for you, and the others, I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d be pushing up daisies with the rest of Arkham,” he continued, looking unblinkingly at Bruce despite the humorous tilt to his voice at ‘daisies’. His little smile was brief. “It was scary. I can only imagine what it was like for you, waking up all alone in ‘Owl H.Q.’…” John softened, stooping to lean his elbows on his knees. He stared at the rope burns on Bruce’s wrists. “I wish I could’ve saved you.”
Considering Arkham was still standing thanks to him, Bruce was grateful that he couldn’t. But he was clearly upset, and he needed more comfort than that. “You saved a lot of lives tonight,” Bruce soothed, “Iman, Arkham, Gotham…and mine, at least twice in that courtroom.”
“But it’s not the same,” John grumbled, “I don’t care if you’re Batman or not – you had to break yourself out of your cell, with no help, and you act like it was nothing.”
So that was it. He’d almost had a breakdown in Arkham before he escaped, and he wasn’t so much ashamed or embarrassed about it as he was guilty. And coupled with it was the envy of Bruce’s ability to keep calm, and he’d attributed it to not feeling any repercussions.
But Bruce couldn’t blame him for thinking that way. He’d been straightforward in the car when explaining his and Tiffany’s dramatic kidnap and escape, with Tiffany embellishing the story with her own little details. He’d mainly focused on getting them all home.
“It wasn’t nothing,” he admitted. It wasn’t as bad as John’s experience, but he would understand. “I could hear everything, but I couldn’t see anything. All I could think of was the time I was wasting in that chair. The people who could come back in any second. I thought of everything that could happen – to me, to Tiffany, to Gotham… Every awful scenario.” He was so used to being out on his own, it never occurred to him that John might have the opportunity to save him. He’d thought of everything but rescue… “It just seemed small in comparison to everything else tonight; and I worked out most of my feelings about that on the Owls.”
John gave a light chuckle that seemed much more genuine. “I thought some of those hits looked a little more forceful than usual. That Reverend looked pret-ty messed up – I would’ve loved to see that fight.” He picked up one of the little beef wellingtons, the excitement brewing in his voice making Bruce’s face feel warm. “I did some physical therapy, too. That Owl-man in Arkham didn’t know who he was dealing with.”
The bruises on John’s arms were more prominent next to his wild lounge pants. Some of them, and likely the light one on his cheek, had to be from the Talon. He’d gone through his worst nightmare and rolled with it all the way up until now. As impressive as it was, it squeezed something uncomfortably in Bruce’s chest. If he hadn’t gotten kidnapped himself, if he’d known earlier, if he hadn’t asked John and Iman to go to the theatre in the first place…
“I wish I could’ve saved you, too,” Bruce said softly, feeling every word.
“It’s okay. It was probably better for me that you didn’t.” John chewed on a vegetable roll. “Kinda made me wonder if Dr. Crane had point, y’know? The whole ‘facing your fears is the only way to get over them’ thing.”
“No,” Bruce said bluntly, hearing his voice dip as if by reflex at the mention of the disgraced doctor, “Not like that. Never like that.”
John leant back, giving a little hum in thought as he looked up at the stalactites and popped one of the sandwiches in his mouth.
He was quiet for a bit. Bruce could barely taste what he was eating in the silence. Thoughts were swirling behind those poisonous green eyes, and they weren’t looking at him enough. Bruce’s gaze trailed over the sharp lines of his pale face, over his lips and down to the bruises on John’s neck. It was only from yesterday, but it felt like it had been a week ago, now.
“I guess it was a pretty extreme therapy session,” John muttered, neck still craned up to look at the ceiling, “Waking up and doubting the whole past year. Thinking I was locked away again. I wouldn’t want to do it over. But I’m so much more sure of things now.” He looked back at Bruce, not quite softly, but steady. Bruce felt pinned to the spot. “I’m not doubting anything. Not anymore.”
He said it as if it was a choice he was making. “How can you be sure?”
“I’m not,” he answered with half a shrug and a smile, “but if you’re here, then I know everything happened. It’s how it’s always been.” He leaned forward with something like gratitude in the affection on display. “I would’ve liked you to burst in and save me, but you do that every day.”
Bruce felt his heart jolt. I do?
He couldn’t ask that. It felt like a natural thing for John to say, and he sort of understood the reason why without even asking. He wanted badly to say that John did the same for him, but it felt shallow to just toss the phrase back. For a moment, he wondered if John had even said it at all.
He never wanted to touch him more than now, to make sure he was real. He looked down at the thin white hands. John shifted one forward, not quite reaching out – Bruce took it without thinking. It was warm and solid, like the mattress he was sitting on.
It was like being under the faucet in the shower, letting the hot water pour over his shoulders and down his parched throat. He wanted to lay on John and just feel him there in all his messy beauty.
Before he knew it, Bruce’s forehead found itself resting on John’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t be here without you, John,” Bruce said, tasting raspberries on the roof of his mouth, “I’m Batman because I have to be. And I want to be. I’ll always be Batman.” He could smell sandalwood and cheap laundry soap as John’s right arm wrapped around his back delicately, as if Bruce would melt away. “But you make me feel like it’s a choice I can make, and I keep choosing ‘yes’ because of you.”
John didn’t breathe for a moment. Bruce felt it brush past his ear. “Oh, buddy,” John whispered, “you really know how to take a guy’s breath away. I would’ve settled for ‘you’re the moon to my sun ’ …”
Bruce’s left arm curled around John’s middle in return. His hand was warm and he didn’t want to let go. “I could say that too, if you wanted,” he muttered.
He felt John’s laugh brew before he heard it. “Hee hee hoo hee! Yeah, but wouldn’t sound like you!” John grinned into his hair. “I love you just the way you are, Bruce.”
Bruce held him tighter, not wanting to let go.
He could hear that a hundred times, and still catch himself not quite believing he really meant it.
“Uh, did we miss something?” Tiffany asked from what sounded like the stairs, freezing Bruce’s thoughts. He hadn’t heard their footsteps at all.
“Just mushy stuff,” John answered with a sly smile, letting Bruce slip away from his embrace and distract himself by pushing the plate away. “You know, two lovers against the world, that kinda thing.”
Bruce knew logically he had no reason to be embarrassed. They weren’t hiding their relationship anymore, and Bruce was used to having far more scandalous displays of affection being seen by the public. But he never felt so exposed. “John.”
Bruce picked up the tartlet left and pushed it at John’s mouth. “Finish that for me.” He seemed happy to take it with his teeth, so Bruce set on setting the pillows right and distract everyone from what they’d seen. Iman had two pillows of different sizes, Bruce had his own special side-sleeper one… “Did any of you think about how this was going to work?”
Tiffany stepped towards Bruce with Iman’s arm over her shoulder, seeming to carry her weight with ease. “I’m sleeping next to you at the end.”
“And I’m sleeping on this other end,” Iman said. “You’re in the middle with John next to me.”
John rocked to one side. “Really? I thought you two would want to sleep next to each other…”
“I’ll overheat in the middle,” Tiffany waved away, letting Iman set herself down on the makeshift bed.
“Juuust that?” John grinned knowingly over at Iman, “Or should I start charging for my piggyback rides?”
“Piggyback?” Tiffany squinted down at Iman. “You don’t think I could’ve done that?”
“Er, no, I know you’re capable-”
John looked way too smug. “I have a sturdier back.”
“The hell you do. I’ve been training with Bruce for a full year - I could pick you up if I wanted.”
“Ooh, you think so? Bring it!”
Bruce had enough. His was far too tired to let them horse around all night. His hand caught John’s shoulder before he could stand. “Save it.” (John hesitated to sit back down at first, but did so with a pout.) “It’s late, and three of us have work tomorrow.”
Tiffany trod over to Bruce’s side of the bed. The mattresses were pushed together now, to have one large double-queen. “What, am I back in grade school?” she mumbled. “It’s barely past one.”
It is? But that can’t be right… Bruce pulled out his phone to check. Sure enough, it was 1:06 A.M. But that couldn’t have been right – it took them roughly half an hour to get home, and he was sure he was in the shower for over thirty minutes… “Huh. I wouldn’t have thought that we’d get home so fast…”
John started to settle under the sheets next to Iman, who was positioning the pillow for her ankle. “What do you mean?”
“It’s only after one, but I could have sworn we left just after twelve.”
“You didn’t leave after twelve,” Iman chimed in, “you all left just after eleven-forty. I have the time-stamp on when the drone connected to the Batmobile.”
Maybe Bruce’s sense of time was just off. “Was the clock in the tower set correctly?”
Tiffany plopped next to him, hugging an extra pillow. “Yup. I remember checking it against my tablet when we were outside. Why?”
It felt strangely personal to say it aloud. But he didn’t really see any alternative. “The bell in the tower tolled before the rest of you came up.” A beat of silence. “It seemed planned; the reverend called it ‘the justice toll’. I assumed it was supposed to ring after the trial was over, to coincide with the clock – hence the twelve tolls I heard.”
John nodded with an elongated ‘oh’ as Iman checked her phone with a hum.
Tiffany pulled out her phone and swiped around. “Oh, I know what it is – there’s that hole in the roof, remember?” She turned the phone screen to show him the street-camera stream. Sure enough, there was a decent sized hole in the roof of the church’s tower, above the bell, barely visible from their angle. “The rain must have finally fried the wiring on their timer, and made the bell go off early.”
“Can you even do that?” John asked. “I thought those things worked mechanically.”
“Sure. The weights and measures needed to pull the bell works on an electrical trigger rather than traditional cog movement. They might have fixed the clock, but I’d bet they took the cheap way out and replaced the cogs with an electric clock that links with whatever they set up for the bell.”
“But the clock face is right,” John pointed out.
Bruce had noticed that, but he was more focused on the various emergency vehicles that had parked on the street around the place. It looked like the whole area was sectioned off with G.C.P.D. cars, and their flashing lights were distracting, but he could see some people on stretchers. He was honestly just glad Gordon’s people had gotten there.
“The source for that is probably separate.” Tiffany put her phone away. “That, or someone upstairs really likes irony.”
John laughed, falling back onto the pillow. “That, or Bruce!” he grinned, lightly slapping Bruce’s arm.
Iman stretched her phone over John towards Bruce – a log of time-stamps and drone connectivity. “Here, I was right: 11:43:20PM, my drone connected with the Batmobile. So the chimes went off a few minutes before then.” She pulled her phone away and stashed it under her pillow. Bruce knew the vibration on it was set high enough to wake the dead. “I’m going to take my hearing aid out, now. Goodnight, guys.”
Tiffany tucked herself under the sheets, with Bruce following and muttering goodnight at the same time.
“Oh!” John tapped Iman and moved his hand to gesture, not quite touching his mouth and moving the same hand to hover over the other in a cupping motion.
Iman gave him a thumbs-up as she put her aid on the other side of the pillow. She settled down on her back, pulling on a thick eye-mask and folding her hands over her stomach on the covers.
“Sleep does sound pretty good right now,” Tiffany mumbled, settling on her side to face Bruce with the second pillow still in her arms. “Can we do something about the lights, though?”
Bruce was still sitting up. “Computer, dim lights to five percent, disable all non-proximity alerts for the next five hours, keep repellant sonar active in all areas for the next six hours, and turn off main screens.”
As expected, the lights dimmed low as the electronic voice echoed back at him: “ENTERING SLEEP MODE.”
I can’t believe I forgot I made that setting, Bruce thought disgruntledly to himself. He blamed it on the need for sleep and the very long week.
“Thank you,” John added from the pillow. Naturally, the Batcomputer did not answer back, but he didn’t seem to expect it. “’Night, Tiff’; don’t let the bats bite.”
“’Night, guys – and they shouldn’t, John; that’s what the repellent sonar is for.”
Bruce let the sound of the waterfall in the distance take over his thoughts instead. The rush of water, the cool air, the darkness that surrounded them softly – all of it tended to relax him. It kept his head cool, even when confronted with the worst Gotham could offer. As usual, felt more comfortable there than anywhere else in the house.
In fact, he felt better than usual. Being Batman could be exhausting and dangerous, but the end results were often worth the labor and occasional scars. The satisfaction after the fight was still there, the hunger was gone, but more than that…he felt somehow complete.
Bruce felt a tug on the end of his t-shirt. John patted the mattress. “Lay down already,” he mumbled, a smile in his voice.
Bruce made to lie down on his stomach, folding his arms underneath his pillow with a sigh of goodnight. He couldn’t remember the last time – if there was any time – he’d slept with so many people around.
He felt John rolling onto his side to face him with his left hand placed between their pillows. A wordless invitation to which Bruce responded almost immediately, linking his left pinkie with John’s.
He could see the ‘I love you’ in his handsome, pale face, and wondered if John could see it in his.
The cave’s atmosphere swallowed him gently, as always, but the warmth that came from John’s quiet
and the flutter of his lashes into a sweet calm was what finally made Bruce slip into sleep.
† † † † †
Author Notes: Did you all have fun re-reading and finding my tarot hints? (*☌ᴗ☌)｡*ﾟ Man, I didn't realize how much stuff I referenced until I went over my own notes over the past few months... Some of them are hard!! I drew up a chapter-by-chapter guide you can read here on tumblr [soon!], if you'd like to read it. I'm sure you saw "The World" clearly in the title here, but this chapter is also referencing the X of Cups! It's a celebration of our fulfilling journey finally coming to a close! We still have the epilogue left, but it's a bit sad to be finishing this story soon. It took a lot longer to finish than the other one...
But you're not thinking about that!!! You're thinking about the fact that I made A BATFAM SLEEPOVER ENDING!!!! The whole Batfam under one roof!!! Found-family bonding, baby!!! Ha ha ha, yes, back in Feb 2020, I was sorting through ideas of what to have as an ending! I knew I wanted John to have the opportunity to make his own decisions regarding relationships, and thus be able to forgive Tiffy and Al', but I wasn't sure on where to show it outside of the post-battle Batcave, and furthermore what to do with everyone after that! And then I thought "what's the most self-indulgent thing I could do?" to which I instantly replied .ﾟ☆found family sleepover☆ﾟ. and here we are!!! John is OFFICIALLY part of the Bat-family! Tiffany is recognized by Batman as a valuable team member! Iman is ALSO officially part of the Bat-family! Even Alfred got character growth! And Bruce recognizes that he needs and loves the people around him and that they are in fact an unspoken family AT LAST!!! I hope it's just as satisfying for you all to read as it was for me to write!
Speaking of, fun facts about The Sleepover Ending™: You can only get it if you have Tiffany and John on Bruce's team, and they have to be on good terms with each other (i.e. John was not actively mean to her, and agreed to give her another chance) as well as Bruce (Bruce can't be mean to Tiff and tell her not to get involved at the Court; just don't be mean enough to John, even he has limits). If you're re-romancing Selina she'll be there, but like Tiff she overheats so she'll take Iman's place at the end or else have another bed above Bruce. If you're just friends with Selina, even if she joined you at the Court she'll go home her own way.
For those of you wondering if John ever texted Jackie back after she sent him that purikura-esque picture of them, he did while he was going upstairs with Tiffany. (He texted outright he was framing it, and showed it to Tiffany.) And for those of you are like "Why didn't John and Bruce kiss?? I need my vicarious smooches :(", I know how you feel, but the answer is a little complex. I wanted to show their love to the audience without much physical contact, because it a) fits the mood of "i'm still a little overwhelmed by everything that happened" b) is a fun challenge and c) if this were a real game and the "the player" hasn't romanced John, some of the lines are changed a bit but their gentle embrace still happens, because they're still the most open with each other, love each other, and need each other.
I'd like to give a special shout-out to all of you who recently started reading. Don't think I haven't noticed my hit count jump along with my kudos notifications! I also see the nice things you tag in the public bookmarks! ;D I hope you - and my long-time readers - enjoyed this as much as At the Brink of Midnight. But the story's not truly "over" yet, even after the epilogue, so stay tuned to this Perseverance Project series for more! (｡•̀ᴗ-)✧
Next time, our epilogue will wrap up those pesky loose story ends. Did some of the Court get away? How's all that being handled? Is Jackie Lant truly off the hook? Is John in hot water for being Joker again? Is there going to be a surprisingly smutty ending where everything is just mentioned off-hand??? The only way to know will be to wait and find out - and in the meantime, stay safe out there, and please let me know what you think! (♡ᵉ̷͈ัॢωᵉ̷͈ัॢ )‧₊°♡
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