Steph burrowed into Tim’s side as Red Hood snarled back at Batman. “Why do all the cub scouts in spandex always say that? ‘If I cross that line, there’s no coming back.’” He sounded more and more like a lost, hurt little boy instead of a savage thug as he continued, ending with, “…and doing it because … because he took me away from you.” Tears welled up at that, and Cassie sniffled too.
She knew, better than most, that the world wasn’t black and white. Everything was shades of gray. Jason goddamn Todd was a very, very dark gray—but that didn’t mean she couldn’t feel sorry for him, hearing his broken voice over the comm. Bruce had told her that her compassion and sympathy were weaknesses, but Steph didn’t believe that. She wasn’t a genius like Tim or Babs, she wasn’t the level of badass martial artist that Dick or Bruce himself was, but she went after this with her whole heart. No one could say Stephanie Brown didn’t give a damn. She genuinely cared for people, and she let them know it.
From the sound of it, Jay had no idea how much he was mourned. No idea how far off the rails Bruce had gone. No idea how even now, the mention of his name could put a shadow in Dick or Alfred’s eyes. The poor bastard—not that she didn’t want to kick seven kinds of shit out of him for beating up Tim, but still. She could afford to empathize with him. There was enough room in her heart for anger and sorrow.
“I can’t. I’m sorry. I just can’t.” That was Bruce, apologizing. Steph’s jaw dropped. The big bad Bat didn’t explain or apologize or even thank his Robins most of the time.
And then Jason dropped the bomb: he meant to kill Joker, right in front of him, or force Bruce to kill him. His voice was still ragged with heartbreak, but the rage was coming back as he screwed himself up for someone’s death, maybe his own. “I’m going to blow his addled, deranged brains out—and if you want to stop it … you’re going to shoot me. Right in my face.”
“No!” Tim cried out in a strangled voice. He almost bolted out of his seat, but Jason grabbed him, swept him into a bear-hug. There was no time now, nothing any of them could do; if they interfered they’d only get themselves killed. Tim kicked and struggled against Jason’s grip, shouting, “Don’t make him do it, don’t make him choose, you selfish bastard, you’ll kill him if he has to lose you again!”
Steph—who had been fired as Robin, told she was a failure, cast out and swept aside—shuddered as Joker laughed. Even with a gun to his head, he laughed. The deranged clown actually sounded happy about all this. Then again, no matter what happened, he won tonight. This kind of madness—chaos, pain, death—was right up his alley, even if it ended with his brains splashed all over a wall.
Jay was counting to three, and Steph squeezed her eyes shut. Not that they were seeing anything, but this was like the end of a really horrible horror movie, and all she wanted to do was hide under a blanket somewhere. Babs had to be just as painfully enthralled as they were, or she would’ve killed the feed by now.
A metallic clang, the thuck! of metal meeting flesh, and Joker’s wild laughter. Cassie and Steph both screamed, and Tim thrashed against Jason. None of them knew what had just happened … or who was dead….
And then Joker’s gleeful voice shouted, “You got him! You expert, rootin’-tootin’, eagle-eyed goth marksman sonofabitch! Ya banked that bata-thingie off the pipe!!” He bayed laughter again. “Oh, God!! I love it!! You managed to find a way to win….”
Now they could hear pained gurgling in the background, Bruce panting harshly into his mike, and then Joker’s voice rose to a snarl. “…and everybody still loses!! Except me, my dark little pumpkin pies. I’m the only one who’s gonna get what he wants tonight!”
Only when Bruce shouted, “No!” did Tim stop struggling, and even then it was in vain. Seconds later came a gunshot, and a loud explosion. The camera view of the alley suddenly lit up with the haunting red-gold of flame.
From Babs’ end of the line came a strangled, “No! B—!”
Then Dick’s voice. “I’m on it,” he snapped.
“You kids stay put. I mean it,” Dinah said over the open mike. Steph startled; she hadn’t even realized the chairwoman was over there with Babs, but she should’ve expected it. The whole Birds of Prey crew would be watching this one just as closely as the Titans, though they’d been ordered by Bruce not to interfere.
“Joker triggered that explosion,” Tim said in a choked voice. “He did. He killed them, all three of them. That maniacal, murderous sonofabitch…!”
“No,” Cassie said, still sniffling. “We don’t know that. This is Batman we’re talking about. It takes more than an explosion to put him down for the count. Don’t you dare talk like that, Tim.”
Steph wanted to believe her, but the tears fell anyway. “It can’t end this way,” she whimpered. She didn’t want to feel sorry for Jay, not really, but she couldn’t help it. Not after what she’d heard. Everything Jay said and did came down to one thing: why wasn’t I good enough? And she knew that feeling all too well. Jay had almost killed her boyfriend … but he hadn’t finished the job.
Jason was busy holding Tim, but Cassie reached over the chair and hugged Steph to her. “It doesn’t end like that,” she said, and Steph wondered who she was trying to convince: Steph, or herself?
Babs swept her glasses off, dropping them carelessly aside, and buried her face in her hands. So this was how it all came down. Jay, insouciant pain-in-the-ass Jay, the wild child—but never the bad one, no, forget what Bruce thought about him now, he hadn’t been a bad kid, he just had a wild streak and he liked the fighting a little too much, but for God’s sake he’d throw himself in front of bullets for a woman or a child. That was the thing that triggered the worst of his anger, harm against the defenseless. Babs remembered that about him, and wondered if maybe she’d been the only one to see it. Even here, even now, even as Red Hood, he’d killed the thugs and the dealers who preyed on children. Somewhere inside that featureless red mask was the boy he’d been. A boy she’d loved—the obnoxious little brother who’d metaphorically pulled her hair, but whom she would’ve defended with her life. Babs had known from the first that he had a streak of darkness in him, a taste for violence … but then, who among them didn’t? Even Bruce had admitted it. They couldn’t survive being who they were without a ruthless hunger for justice.
She wept for him, her shoulders shaking, and wept for Bruce too. Even if he survived the explosion, worse damage had been done tonight. Babs remembered how he was after Jay’s death. Her photographic memory was a curse, sometimes. She could still remember the look in his eyes when he’d come to her hospital room and been told that she would never walk again. Hell, Babs could remember the exact intonation and inflection the doctor who’d said that had used. The day her life changed for good.
Dinah pulled her into a tight hug, cheek pressed against her hair. No words of comfort; nothing needed to be said. They both knew all too well that tonight wasn’t going to end well. Even the best-case scenario was awful. If Bruce lived, and Jay and Joker both survived to end up in Arkham—since that was where Red Hood would likely be sent—that wouldn’t erase anything that had been said or done tonight.
Over the comm, Dick’s voice came in loud and clear as he and Helena raced toward Crime Alley. “ETA five minutes.”
“Stand down, Nightwing.” Bruce’s voice, coughing with smoke from the explosion, and Babs dashed the tears from her eyes and snatched up her glasses to patch into his comm.
“Status, Batman?” she asked, and her voice was remarkably steady even if her cheeks were still wet.
“Joker’s alive. No sign of Red Hood.” His voice was a gruff, emotionless rasp, and Babs swallowed her despair. They were back to this again, back to Bruce losing himself in Batman to the point of almost becoming a machine.
“We’ll see if we can pick up his trail,” Dick said.
“Leave Hood to me,” Bruce growled back.
“Sorry, comm’s shorting out, can’t hear a word you’re saying,” Dick replied sharply, and Babs smiled in spite of herself. No matter how much he might want to handle this himself, Bruce had to appreciate the help. He’d never admit to it, and Dick was mad as hell, but they were still working together.
“We need to keep in touch with the kids,” Dinah murmured, and Babs bit back a curse. She should’ve never let Tim and Steph listen in to this nightmare—but from the moment Joker laughed, her attention had been divided.
Switching channels so she was broadcasting to them, Babs demanded, “Status, Titans.”
“Locked down and awaiting orders.” That was Wonder Girl’s voice, and Babs wondered when she’d shown up. Then again, the kids were all pretty close. It wouldn’t surprise her if Superboy was there, too.
“None at this time. The situation is under control.” Even as she spoke she was monitoring fire and rescue’s progress toward the scene.
“We’ll be fine,” Steph’s tearful voice told her. “I mean, B’s okay, right?”
No, and he won’t be for a very long time. No need to traumatize her with that, though. “You heard him report in. Where’s Red Robin?”
“Superboy dragged him off once we heard B report,” Cassie said. “It’ll take both of us to keep him here. He’s frantic to get home.”
“I’m sure he’ll be cleared to return once we have a fix on Red Hood,” Babs replied. “Until then, keep him safe.”
With that mike closed, Dinah said quietly, “You think we ought to alert the rest of the Trinity?”
Babs’ first instinct was to refuse. Bat-business stayed in Bat-clan; that was how it had always been. But she wasn’t Bruce, for all that she was so much like him. Babs took a deep breath. “He’ll be pissed, but it’s the right thing to do. I’ll give them clearance, and he can complain later.”
“We need all the friends we can get right now,” Dinah murmured.
The Themysciran embassy was mostly empty at night, and Diana strolled its halls, alone with her thoughts. And these days, Bruce occupied her mind more often than not.
He was a difficult man to love, especially now. He put his city ahead of everything, and he reacted to any threat by refusing assistance and relying on his own will and his own trained soldiers. Diana’s patience had been sorely tested by the months of Gotham being on lockdown. She and Clark could have helped him, but no, Bruce denied them entry to his city as if he were its king.
Diana wouldn’t have accepted that autocratic decree, but Clark had wanted her to. Bruce was on edge, and letting him control things helped his frame of mind. And he had been handling things possibly better than they could; he was able to anticipate Jay’s moves. After all, he’d trained the boy.
This war against one of his own was taking a lot more out of him than he would admit, though, and Diana was losing her patience. Sooner or later she was going to march over there and give him a piece of her mind—a generous piece, at that. One of his best attributes was his immense resolve, but one of his worst was the sheer stubbornness that was its opposite side.
Even as she thought that, her cell phone chirped. Diana opened it to see a text she’d never expected. O here. You are cleared for the city. Assistance needed but will not be requested. Expect call on secure line.
Of course. Diana took a deep breath, wondering just what the hell had happened, and moved to answer the secure encrypted line Oracle had had installed in the embassy a few years ago. It was already ringing when she reached it, and she lifted the handset with trepidation. “Tell me,” was all she said.
“You’d better sit down,” Oracle cautioned, and the tone of her voice even through the digitizer told Diana just how bad it was going to be.
Lois received a fairly strange text message, from a number she didn’t immediately recognize. Songbird here. He’ll be late getting home tonight. Don’t worry.
Hmm. The only hero she knew with a bird-themed code name was Black Canary, and it certainly seemed to fit. Plus the area code was Gotham. Lois texted back, using the JLA’s code for operations. Card game tonight?
The reply came back quickly. No, personal. Support for a friend.
Well, that didn’t tell her much. There were limits to what could be expressed in code, but Lois was a reporter, after all. She opened her laptop and headed to the Gotham Gazette’s web site, hunting for breaking news.
And found it. Red Hood on the rampage. Lois read the stories—for once without criticizing other reporters’ skills, or lack thereof—and didn’t realize she was biting her lip until she tasted blood. “Oh, Bruce,” she groaned, seeing where he’d taken Joker back to Arkham. Again. The news stories didn’t have any information about Red Hood’s motives, but Lois knew more than they did.
She knew Red Hood was Jason Todd, Batman’s second Robin, Bruce’s son in all but blood. She knew the boy had been killed by Joker, or at least everyone thought he’d been killed. If his master plan came down to himself, Bruce, and Joker, then it could only be about one thing: vengeance denied.
Lois was a general’s daughter, and though some people forgot it, she’d been through the Metropolis Police Academy, too. She understood use-of-force doctrine, and she had made her peace with the notion of lethal force long ago. In some situations, it was justified. Kal-El disagreed, but he was operating under a different set of rules. For him, with his powers, killing would have been all too easy. And besides, he was invulnerable to most things, making self-defense an unlikely reason.
Given the opportunity, Lois would have killed Lex Luthor; she’d tried to do so before, and only a mirrored wall had spared his life. She firmly believed that some people were beyond rehabilitation, and that confinement in prison or in an asylum for life was crueler than a death sentence. If ever faced with the choice, she’d have preferred death over life in Arkham or Blackgate. Not only were those places far from humane or secure, they let criminals learn from each other, becoming even more deadly when they escaped, even more entrenched in the criminal underworld.
The courts wouldn’t give Joker the death penalty because he was insane. Lois understood that, but there were more important issues than whether or not he was responsible for his own action. Joker was a clear and present danger to everyone in his path. He ought to be shot like a mad dog, put down not out of revenge or rage but simply because the rest of society deserved the right not to live in fear of him.
That was simplifying the issue, not looking at all the implications, but Lois remembered how Kal-El had been the night they’d gotten the news about Bruce’s Jay. Until then, no one had targeted the sidekicks. The Teen Titans got into dangerous situations on a regular basis, but none of them had died. They had adult mentors, too, to keep watch over them. With the loss of Jay, the entire caped community had not only mourned, they’d all held their partners and kids a little closer.
Lois remembered that night too well. Kal-El had come home, miserable, heartbroken, doubting everything he did and was. What good were superheroes, if kids died following in their footsteps? She herself had looked in on her twins, then only thirteen years old, and been immensely glad of her dogged insistence that they not get into the caped game until they were a little older. Fifteen was too young to lose a child. Hell, any age was too young to lose a child, but fifteen was especially cruel.
At fifteen, the adult potential of both her children had been growing clearer by the day. She couldn’t imagine what it would’ve done to her to lose either of them at that age—she’d come too close to losing Kala when she was sixteen, and it was bitter indeed. Lois knew she would’ve killed Lex for that, in spite of what her husband stood for, in spite of the fact that she probably would’ve been arrested for it.
But not Bruce. Bruce didn’t kill. Bruce just became even more Batman, even more the terror of the night. He broke more bones after Jay died, he frightened more crooks, he was more willing to intimidate and threaten to get information. He did everything except kill them, and Kal-El had told Lois in strict confidence the reason why: Bruce believed, in his heart of hearts, that if he killed once he would never be able to stop. The no-kill rule was the only thing separating him from his own rogues’ gallery. He was brutal and violent and ruthless and terrifying, but he was not a murderer. That was the one line he would never, ever cross.
Lois sighed heavily, turning off her laptop before the news reports could depress her more. In spite of everything Jay had done, the pile of bodies he’d left behind him, she couldn’t help feeling a twinge of sympathy for him—and for Bruce. Everyone lost tonight. And her husband was out there tonight, trying to be a shoulder for Bruce to lean on, but Bruce wouldn’t bend, he wouldn’t lean, he’d just go on trying to be the hard-ass sonofabitch he wanted everyone to think he was. Sometimes Lois wondered if he believed his own legend just a little too much.
But he was one of Kal-El’s best friends, all the same. Picking up her phone, she sent a quick text to Black Canary. Need my help over there? I’m good at talking sense.
A few minutes later, the reply came back. We should be good. The Princess is here managing the situation.
At that, Lois managed a smile. If Diana of Themyscira couldn’t talk Bruce out of whatever state he was in, no one could.