Bruce shot out of the elevator. He thundered down the hall and into the dining room, praying to see his family sitting around the dinner table. Eating their meal, joking and laughing and bickering, like always. They'd look up, and demand to know where he'd been. They'd invite him to sit down and share the food, and he'd tell them about Nightwing. And, just like that, they'd be up in arms and at his side, ready to follow him into battle.
Because these were his kids, and he was their father.
Bruce braced himself on the doorframe. The air left his lungs like he'd taken a hit to the chest. The dinner table was a sauce-soaked battlefield. Several of the chairs had been overturned, the dishes were thrown across the table, and spaghetti was splattered everywhere. His eyes swept the scene, then landed on an overturned wheelchair.
To his left, someone groaned. Bruce hurried over, and found Alfred Pennyworth half-underneath the table, struggling to get upright. "Alfred."
"Master Bruce? What…where is everyone?"
There was no need to cause his old friend any further distress. Bruce grit his teeth, and took Alfred's hand. "I'll explain later. Are you alright?"
As he put one arm around the old butler's shoulder to help him up, Bruce felt something crackle slightly.
He drew back, as Alfred reached up to the back of his neck. The butler withdrew a crumpled piece of paper, and shot Bruce a confused glance. Bruce unfolded the sheet, and scanned over the printed words. The paper was water-damaged, and hard to make out, but he managed easily enough. It was a flyer for the Gotham City Fairgrounds and Carnival.
FAMILY DAYS! FREE CHILDS TICKET WITH PURCHASE OF TWO ADULTS. OFFER VALID UNTIL JULY 31.
Scrawled across the bottom half of the flyer, over a cartoon picture of a carnival tent, were the dripping red words: I TOOK THE KIDS FOR A LITTLE FAMILY FUN. LET'S SETTLE THIS THING ONCE AND FOR ALL, WHY DON'T WE? Underneath that: 11:00 SHARP. COME ALONE OR I START SLICING THROATS.
The paper crackled in Bruce's fist.
"Master Bruce?" Alfred wheezed, leaning against the table. "What is it?"
"It's nothing. All you need to worry about right now is getting to a hospital. I'll take you."
He helped the old Butler through the kitchen, down the hall, past the bust of William Oscar Wayne, into the cave, and finally into the passenger seat of the Batmobile. As Bruce helped his old friend buckle himself in, Alfred raised one gray eyebrow at him.
"I think that the Batman checking Bruce Wayne's butler into the hospital will arouse slight suspicion amongst the staff, will it not?"
He paused. "You're…you're right. Do you think you're well enough to walk in?"
"I think I'll be able to manage." Alfred managed a wan smile.
While Bruce positioned himself at the wheel, and closed the hatch, Alfred glanced around the interior of the vehicle. His smile had widened. As they sped out of the cave, he cleared his throat.
"You know, all these years I've spent watching you run around in a cape and cowl, and I've never even been on a ride in this thing. It's quite fast, isn't it?"
Bruce smiled, and turned sharply. "She can really fly, can't she? Remind me, and I'll have to let you drive her sometime."
"I expect you will." Alfred smiled, and glanced out the passenger's window as they reached the end of the tunnel. The night sky was on full display, dark and starless, but deep as the ocean on the horizon. The lights of Gotham City glowed, stars in their own right. "And I trust that you have things under control. Since you don't feel the need to share your master plans with me."
Alfred pressed two fingers together, sticking his thumb up. A finger gun.
Bruce's fingers tightened on the wheel. "How—"
"You must realize by now, that I was not born yesterday, Master Bruce." The butler shook his head. "And I know you are only doing what you feel is best. But I'm asking you to please consider the children. You've taught them well, but I don't know that they're ready to—"
"I raised each of them, Alfred. I taught them everything that they're going to need. Besides. This is the only way it will ever end." Bruce set his jaw and stared at the lights of Gotham City. His old friend sighed deeply, and Bruce reached over to set a hand on his shoulder. "It won't be forever, Alfred. I promise."
"I understand, Master Bruce. I only hope you know what you're doing." He cleared his throat, and blinked, hard. "I hope you're sure."
The hospital was only a few minutes away. Bruce turned sharp corners, and tried not to think too hard about what the night held in store. Instead, he thought of Dick. An eight-year-old boy kneeling in the bloody dust of a circus tent. He thought of Barbara. Starving eyes in an alleyway, narrowed in defiance as she raised her fists. Jason, with a tire iron in one hand, and both feet planted with purpose. Tim, with his stark intelligence and determination as he proclaimed, "Batman needs a Robin." Stephanie, mouth always open in a laugh or a battle cry. And Damian, his son. Sharp and independent, like his mother. Quiet and calculating like his father.
All of them were brave. All of them were capable. He could never have asked for better partners, or for a better family.
"I'm sure, Alfred," he said. "They're ready."
The old butler let out a heavy sigh. "Yes, Master Bruce. But is Gotham ready for them?"
They pulled up to the back of the hospital. Bruce gave the area a quick once-over to be sure they weren't being surveilled, then pressed the button that retracted the top hatch. "There you go, Alfred. Take care of yourself, alright? Take care of them."
"I always do."
Alfred turned away, heading for the front of the building. Bruce cleared his throat, though, and he hesitated.
"You're right, Alfred. They are not what this city deserves," he said, "but they are what it needs."
"Then, Batman, I wish you and this city all the luck in the world."
The Joker had left the tracking chips in his other five children, so pinpointing them in the Fun House in the southernmost corner of the Fairgrounds was easy. Bruce might have hesitated, because it was too easy. But the Joker wanted this. It wasn't a trap if the perpetrator expected the victim to be wise to the plot. So the Batman marched through the doors.
The scent of fear and death hit him like a bus.
But he kept walking, even as his boots stuck to the blood-slicked floor.
It was a proper funhouse; it had all the moving parts, cheesy music and flashing lights. He turned a corner, and almost fell into a large pit filled to the brim with red, yellow, green and blue balls. Bruce stared at the bright pit for a few seconds, then stooped to pick up a one of the blue ones. The thin plastic dimpled underneath his fingertips.
It was when Dick was eight, or maybe nine. Bruce had brought him to this very place. He'd had a day off work, and Alfred had suggested the outing. It had been one of the first times Bruce had seen Dick laugh since his parents' accident. He leapt over the moving floor tiles, slid through the spinning tunnel, and disappeared before Bruce and the building attendants could catch him. They'd searched for the boy for hours, and cleared out the entire funhouse, when Bruce finally spotted a small black tuft of hair in the ball pit.
There'd been a frenzied little giggle.
"Dick, I've been looking everywhere for you. Please come out."
No response, but the balls shifted a little.
"Well, then," Bruce sighed, "I guess I'm going to have to go and get ice cream all by myself, huh? Such a shame. Maybe I'll have to find another little boy who likes Rocky Road…"
"No!" Dick's head burst out of the ball pit, sending the multi-colored spheres flying in all directions. The boy looked genuinely frightened in that moment, and Bruce still felt guilty about that sometimes. "I'm sorry, Bruce! Don't get somebody else!"
He wrapped his young ward in a hug, lifting him out of the pit. Dick threw his arms around Bruce's neck, squeezing tightly. "Please, Bruce," he sniffled, "Don't get somebody else."
"Dick, I was just joking around. I would never replace you." He squeezed the boy tighter. "Now, what say we hit the ice cream shop down on mainstreet? I think we've had enough carnival fun for one day, don't you?"
"Okay!" Dick's grin was like a ray of sunshine. "Thanks Dad. Uh, I mean Mr. Wayne."
Bruce dropped the ball back into the pit with the others and straightened. He couldn't afford to let nostalgia cloud his judgement, or his resolve. Not tonight.
While he felt slightly ridiculous, he waded through the ball pit anyways. The soft swishing and crunching beneath his boots made him clench his jaw. As he made his way around the corner, he came upon the 'haunted' section of the funhouse. It was separated from the children's section by a length of velvet rope. Usually, there was a worker here, making sure that no one under driving-age made it through. Teenaged boys often brought their dates here just for this part of the attraction. The hope was that their dates would get so frightened, that they'd cling to their arms for the rest of the night. Tonight, though, no chainsaw-wielding actors or gory zombies burst out of the shadows. Bruce wasn't sure why, but it was done up like a dilapidated alleyway, complete with smeared graffiti and steaming vents. He shook his head, and threw a hand out against the wall to steady himself. Against his will, the memory flashed in his mind.
Dick had been off that night. Grabbing pizza with Wally, if Bruce remembered correctly. As a result, that night had been a solo patrol. Not an eventful one, to be sure, though he'd faced off against Mr. Freeze and the Penguin, during one of their 'team-ups'. He'd just been on his way back to the manor when he happened to swing above an alleyway almost like the counterfeit one he was standing in now.
A group of small-time gangbangers. Switchblades out, grins stretching up their tattooed faces, and all five of them closing in on one small girl.
He'd perched on the edge of the rooftop, ready to jump down and come to the child's rescue. But instead, he watched with slight shock as the girl put up two fists, and socked one of her attackers in the jaw so hard that he spit out a stream of blood. The others closed in, but instead of screaming or cowering, the girl fought back.
But between her size, her inexperience, and lack of her own weapon, the thugs soon overpowered her. She was knocked to the ground, and one of the men started to slide his knife down her face.
All of them froze when the Batman landed behind them.
"Leave right now," he'd said, "And I'll forget I saw you here tonight."
It was generous. He wouldn't have let them go, but he wanted to be sure that the girl was alright. She was huddled on the ground, bruised and bleeding. She needed medical attention, quickly. And yet, generous as it was, the men didn't take him up on that offer.
But, between their size, their inexperience, and crude weaponry, the Batman soon overpowered them. They all ran off, like dogs with their tails between their legs, and Bruce had turned to the street kid with one raised eyebrow.
She looked up. Bruce took a step back as he watched her blue eyes fill with fire. Her expression was dark, possibly the darkest he'd seen on these streets. It was the look of someone who had been knocked down too many times, and was ready to do something about it. It was a look he wouldn't see again until, years later, when he looked into the unmasked eyes of the Red Hood.
"That was brave of you. Fighting back like you did."
The girl scowled, wiping at the blood on her face with the back of her hand. "It was nuthin'. They's just tryin' to scare me off their turf. Wanted somethin' I didn't wanna give 'em, so they got out their shivs." She looked up at him with narrowed eyes. "You's been flying over the city a while, yeah? Takin' creeps like them to jail? You gonna take me to jail?"
Her words were awkward, stilted, like she'd practiced them in her head before vocalizing them. He'd reached into his belt, and pulled out a tissue, offering it to her. She held it up to her bleeding nose, and took a step back. "Well?"
"Well," he said, "I'm not going to take you to jail. But I do have a question for you."
"Yeah? What's that?"
"Did you run away from home? You're using street words, but your inflections are all wrong. I can tell that you've had a good education."
Her eyes widened. "I—"
"Tell me, what's a nice girl like you doing in the Narrows? Where's your family?"
She drew back, then put on a brave face, sticking out her chin. "That's none of your business. Besides, I hear you're really smart. You'll figure it out yourself soon enough, right?"
"I want to take you back home. I'm sure your family's worried sick."
The girl laughed humorlessly. "That's gonna be a bit hard for them, seeing as how they're six feet under." She crossed her arms over her chest. "I'm all I've got, and I'm not too worried. But I do want to know something, Mr. Batman."
"Oh? And what's that?"
"You scared off those creeps like it was nothing." Her composure cracked a little. "Can…can you show me how to do that? I'm tired of…"
She trailed off, and her eyes searched the street behind his shoulder. Bruce had seen eyes like hers before, but couldn't quite remember where. They were cold, bitter. This girl had the look of someone who had been beaten down one time too many; she was a powder keg just waiting for a spark.
"Teach me how to fight," she said, squaring her shoulders.
"I can't do that." He started to turn away. "You should run along. This is a dangerous part of town."
"No." She stepped back, crossing her arms tightly over her chest. "I won't do that, Mr. Wayne."
He met her eyes. They glittered with triumph. "I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about."
"Want me to shout it a little louder? I can tell. The way you stand, and your 'inflections'. Or am I wrong?"
His eyes narrowed. "And what's your name?"
The girl blinked, surprised. Clearly, she'd expected some other reaction. But she wet her bloody lips, and said, "Barbara."
The world narrowed to a single point: her eyes. Just like that, Bruce had remembered exactly where he'd seen those eyes before: a psychopathic crime lord by the name of Barbara Kean. She'd terrorized Gotham City during the days of his boyhood, beating out more seasoned competitors for a place at the top of the city's underworld. Competitors like Fish Mooney, Oswald Cobblepot, and even Carmine Falcone himself.
It was at that moment he realized that whatever he chose to say next would determine the future of his city. If he abandoned this girl, or sent her on her way, then their paths would cross again. But that reunion would be violent; she would follow in her predecessor's footsteps, and paint the town red. In the most literal sense.
If she was related to Barbara Kean, then this girl had the makings of a Rogue, or perhaps something more dangerous. This girl had a dangerous family history.
But, if Bruce took her in…taught her how to fight honorably…
What if he could give her a different family history? A better one?
"Well, then, Barbara. I suppose you'd better come along."
Her blue eyes widened. "R-really?"
"Hmm. Follow me, before I change my mind."
Bruce shook his head, returning once again to the present. A quick glance at his wrist computer confirmed his children's location, and he was getting very close. There was no turning back now, and he couldn't afford to lose focus.
His boots squeaked against the damp floor as he turned one more corner. The Hall of Mirrors stretched out in front of him, lit only by the cracked fluorescent lights overhead. The smell hit him first. Then, he processed what he was seeing, and his eyes widened behind his cowl.
The color red registered, and he chose not to look closer at the mutilated bodies decorating the room. It appeared that he'd found Gordon's missing men, and this was yet another thing the Joker would be made to pay for. So, he grit his teeth, and marched towards the door at the end of the reflective hall, pausing only to turn the rusty handle.
The door swung open slowly with a sound that reminded Bruce of a dying animal, and at first, he could see nothing but darkness on the other side. Then, electricity hummed through the air, and a dozen spotlights burst to life. They illuminated the room before him. It was an auditorium, most likely used for children's plays or puppet shows. But the scene on the stage was no puppet show.
It took every ounce of willpower that Bruce had not to lose his composure.
"Well, well! We were beginning to wonder when you'd finally show, weren't we, kiddies?"
The Joker grinned wider than ever as he put the finishing touches on Damian's face. Bruce's son winced away from the dripping paintbrush, eyes wide, but he said nothing. The Batman took a step forward.
That maniac had strapped each of his children to electric chairs, set out in a semi-circle on the stage. Most likely, the furniture came courtesy of Arkham Asylum. Electrodes were taped to their foreheads, but that wasn't the end to their attire. They were dressed in tattered, green and purple versions of their usual uniforms, but without their masks. Instead, Joker had painted their mouths with wide red grins, and Batman's stomach dropped as he realized that the smiles most likely weren't done with paint. His mind went to the GCPD officers in the Hall of Mirrors, but he shook the thought away quickly. No need to go there; his children looked terrified enough as it was.
His eyes traced the wires around his family to a small table set up on the stage in front of the chairs. On top, there was a small box a single red button. Next to that, a lone revolver.
"Bruce." Dick's voice was weak. He seemed exhausted, but probably the least disturbed of his children at the moment. On his left, Barbara was staring straight ahead, breathing shallowly.
"Hush now, big bird." Joker jabbed the end of the paintbrush into Damian's neck, just hard enough to make the boy cry out. He tossed it away, and it clattered against the floor as he stepped forward. There was something off about the clown's grin tonight. Perhaps he, like Bruce, knew that this was the night that would end it all. "Welcome to the party, Brucie! I had the guests put on their best for our little shindig tonight."
Bruce wasted no time. "This is about the bet. The one for your life or my soul."
The corners of the clown's lips curled upwards. "Yes."
"Then we'll settle this. You and me." The Kevlar of his gloves crackled as his fists clenched. "But there's no need for any of them to be here."
"On the contrary, Batsy! They're the main event!" Joker spun over to the table, and gestured grandly to the buttons and the gun. "See, here's how this whole thing is going to go! Ladies and gentlemen, please turn your attention to the seven merry bat-brats on display! Each of them has enough charge hooked up to fry their little brains! And, gentlemen, cover your wives' eyes for this next part!" His finger hovered over the button, and each of Bruce's children flinched back, expecting the shock. But it never came. The clown seemed to revel in their fear; it made Bruce's teeth grind together. "Because I'm going to press this button, and kill every last little bird and baby bat for good!"
He tipped back his head and let out a loud laugh. Jason and Damian strained against the buckled restraints. Stephanie and Tim glowered at the clown. Normal reactions, but it was Dick and Barbara that had Bruce the most concerned: both seemed resigned. Ready to die.
"However!" Joker waved a hand grandly in the air, smirking at Bruce. The villain was enjoying every second of this. He waggled his fingers over the gun. "Option number two? To save the rest, old Batsy must choose one kiddie to shoot in the head! If he doesn't decide, then the rest are in for a real shock!"
Another peal of manic laughter as he gestured to the button.
Dick and Barbara sat up straighter in their chairs, determined. Jason growled. His vengeful expression didn't match the dripping grin painted on his face. "You sonuva #$#$, when I get out of this—eyahhh!"
Every muscle in the Red Hood's body tensed. The back of his skull banged against the chair's headrest, and a vein stood out in his forehead. Then, as quickly as he'd gone rigid, he curled forward with a grunt, gasping for breath. A burnt smell permeated the air.
"Jason—!" Stephanie's body jerked as she was shocked next. "Nnnn!"
Joker waved a small remote in the air. It had a button just like the one on the table. "Of course, I have my own ways of keeping these brats from getting sassy!"
Bruce walked forward, climbing the carpeted stairs to the stage. When his boots clapped against the tape-covered wood paneling, he stopped. Right in front of the table. Underneath his cape, his fingers went to his belt. "Leave them alone, Joker."
"Hmmm, no. Don't think so. I'm having far too much fun!" Bruce was close enough now that he could see the yellow tinge to the Joker's teeth. "These kiddos have been a blast! So much screaming, and crying, and begging…and here I thought it would take much longer to break them. Ha! You should have seen their faces when I brought out those screaming policemen, and let them—"
"Enough!" Tim's arms jerked against the restraints. He looked up at the clown with narrowed eyes, and more rage than Bruce had ever seen from him. His jaw was clenched hard, and he spoke through his teeth. "Do you seriously think this is funny? It's not. You're pathetic! And when we get out of these, you'll wish that those officers were here to save you!"
He paused, waiting for the Joker to press the button. Deliver the electricity. But the shock never came.
The smirk melted off the clown's face. He slipped the remote into his pocket, exchanging it for a thin switchblade. It slid open with a click that made the hair on the back of Bruce's neck stand on end. "Oh, I'm pathetic, am I?"
Tim's eyes widened slightly. The clown's tone had taken on a deadly ring.
Dick caught on quickly. He strained in his chair. "Joker! He didn't mean it!"
"Don't touch him!" Barbara's eyes were wide.
Batman made to move forward, but the Clown Prince of Crime was faster. He lunged forward.
Tim gasped as the Joker seized his jaw in one gloved hand. The clown snarled, and slid the blade into his protesting mouth.
"Joker, please!" Dick pleaded.
His other children cried out. A batarang slid into Bruce's palm.
But before anyone could do anything, there was a sickening snik.
"Stop it!" Damian shut his eyes. His knuckles were white.
The Joker stepped away, leaving Tim's deathly pale face on full display. There was now a long, curving slice at the corner of his mouth. Blood bubbled from the wound, running down his son's face in rivulets. Tears streamed from Tim's eyes as he gasped, and Bruce could see that the Joker had cut cleanly through his cheek.
"Joker!" Bruce shouted, and flung the batarang at the clown's head. Joker dodged it, unsmiling, and stepped away from Red Robin, coming to a stop at the other side of the table. He wiped the blade clean on his lapel, and jammed it back into his pocket.
"You & $# &%!" Barbara shouted.
The remote came back out.
"Now, is there anything you'd like to tell me, Timmy boy?"
"Go to # %%!" Dick snarled. He winced as he received a shock.
"Uh-uh. I was asking Timmy." He turned his gaze on a shaking Tim. "Anything? Or do I have to even out your new smile?"
Tim's blue eyes were wide. His voice came out soft. "I'm…s-sorry." Then, he winced violently. The act of speaking was probably excruciating.
Bruce's jaw was about to snap. He banged a fist on the table, and all eyes focused on him. "Enough! For the last time, leave them out of this!"
Joker's eyes were still cold, but the smile returned. "Now, now, Brucie. The game hasn't even started yet! Pick a kid to die, and the rest go free! It's that simple!" He lunged forward, grabbing Bruce's wrist. With the other he picked up the revolver, and slammed it into Batman's hand, forcibly curling his fingers around the barrel. "And you're going to play, believe me. But there's a way out, of course. Shoot one, or I kill them all! But I'm lumped in with these little copycats. See, you can end all of this, and all you have to do is shoot one of us in the head! It's me…or them…or all of them! Get it?"
"Bruce," Jason said.
Stephanie shook her head.
Damian's gaze was fixed at the back of the theatre.
Tim was shaking.
"Shoot one!" Joker shrieked.
"Wait!" Barbara squared her shoulders, and looked him straight in the eye. "Bruce," she said. Her voice was soft, yet firm enough that all attention shifted to her. "This has gone on long enough. Shoot me."
"No Babs," Dick warned. "Not you. Bruce, shoot me!"
"No!" Babs snapped. "Bruce, it'll be okay, I promise. I want it to be me."
Bruce's hand tightened around the weapon. "Barbara, please—"
She squeezed her fists tightly. Tears brimmed in her eyes. "I won't let him win, # $& it!" she cried. "And I'd rather die than see you sacrifice the mission. Better me than the others!"
The others started to protest, but Joker cut off their cries with the press of a button. When they stopped convulsing, the clown cocked his head to the side and hummed. "She makes an interesting point, Batsy. I must say, I wouldn't call it a loss if you did choose your little Oracle…in fact, I think I like the idea of seeing big sister's brains go splat. I can almost hear the others scream!" He let out an ear-piercing laugh.
"It's okay," Barbara said softly.
"Like # %% it is." Dick bared his teeth. "Bruce, don't listen to her! Shoot me!"
"Shut your mouth, Grayson!" Barbara's eyes brimmed over.
"No! I won't let you—"
"Dick, if I can save you from—"
"Babs, I can't lose you!" Dick's voice shattered. The others watched on, gaping. Bruce fiddled with the gun, unsure. He sure as # %% wasn't about to shoot anyone, no matter what anyone said. But there had to be a way out of this.
And yet, he knew. The Batman and Joker had fought many times before, but this was different. There was something off about the clown tonight. Bruce could see it in the way he stood, the way that his smile kept disappearing. Usually, even during a fight, that infernal grin almost never went away. Bruce had a feeling that tonight, all bets were off. This was the end; he promised himself that much.
One way or another, one of them was going to die tonight.
Dick and Barbara were still bickering loudly. Their performance was almost perfect; Bruce hadn't even been able to tell right away. But he could hear it in their voices. They were drawing the Joker's attention, trying to give Bruce time to think of a way out of this. Even after everything, those two always had his back.
And Batman did have a plan.
"Ah, such stirring declarations of love!" Joker pretended to wipe away a tear, then sneered. "I do love a good drama!" He slammed the button, and sent a drawn-out flow of electricity through his two eldest. Their mouths fell open in silent screams. Bruce had to end this before any of his children became casualties.
"Now, what'll it be, Brucie ol' boy? Are you going to shoot Dickie Bird? Or your Barbie doll? Maybe one of the younger brats?" Joker's finger hovered over the red button on the table. "Make your choice quickly, though. I'm beginning to lose my patience."
In reply, Bruce slid open the cylinder on the gun. Slowly, he removed one bullet after another, placing them all into a neat line on the tabletop. Joker's face registered more and more outrage with every small clink.
"What is this?" he demanded.
"I'm making my choice, Joker," Bruce said coldly. "And I choose a wager."
"A wager?" The clown was incredulous. "What do you think this is, a—?"
"Yes. A wager. A game of chance." He reached forward, and picked up one bullet. He showed it to the Joker, then looked down and slipped it into the revolver's cylinder. "I trust you're familiar with Russian Roulette?"
He shut the cylinder with a click. Then, he spun it.
"A stupid question. Everyone's familiar with Russian Roulette." Bruce looked up, meeting the clown's gaze with a frown. "Here's the new deal. The bet's still on, but now I'm making the rules."
Joker slammed both fists on the table. The bullets tipped over, rolling in every direction. A few clinged against the stage floor. "You can't do that! You have to—"
"Shoot someone. I know. So here's how this is going to work, Joker. There is one bullet in the gun, and even I don't know which chamber it's in. So." He lifted the gun, aiming it straight for the Joker's forehead. "I'm going to pull the trigger. If it goes off…then, you win, like you've said. If not, then I pass it to you, and you take your turn. If it goes off, I lose. If not, then I get to leave, and take my family with me. Does that sound like a deal?"
The Joker's eyes widened. Then, a slow smile stretched up his face. "Sounds like fun! Go on and pull the trigger, Batsy!"
"Just one more thing." Bruce forced his hand to stay still. Holding a gun like this, aiming at another human being—no matter how inhuman that being was—was making him shake a bit. It shouldn't have mattered; he'd used firearms before. But never as Batman. "If the gun goes off in your hands, then that's the end of it. You let the others go free."
"Ha! And what guarantee do you have of that, Brucie?"
"I have none. Just your word."
The Joker threw his arms out. "In all our years of fighting, Bats, I never took you for such an idiot!"
He laughed, and the others watched on in silent horror.
Bruce cleared his throat, and aimed. The Joker grinned, and shut his eyes. "Here's to us, Batman! See you in # %%."
Batman squeezed the trigger.
The clown's eyes fluttered open, and the batkids breathed sighs of relief. Sighs that cut off sharply as Bruce reached forward and placed the weapon in the Joker's gloved hand.
The Clown Prince of Crime waved the gun, and pointed it squarely at Bruce's chest. "And how, pray tell, can I be sure your tough bat-suit won't stop the bullet?"
"From this range, the shot would be lethal."
Perhaps he'd made a mistake. The heavy-duty armor was back at the cave. He'd settled for something that would allow him to move faster tonight. This seemed to occur to his children. Their eyes widened.
"Bruce, don't!" Barbara cried.
He looked his daughter in the eye. Then, his eldest son.
They stared back, disbelieving.
"Take care of them," he said, "Promise me."
Dick straightened. "Bruce, you can't!"
They opened their mouths to answer, to protest. All of them did.
But Bruce couldn't make himself look at them. His protégé's, his legacy, his world. He'd raised each of them into the heroes they were today. He'd watched them grow, progress into the men and women who would one day surpass him. Perhaps that day was today.
They were his children, and he was their father.
The Batman turned, and looked the Clown Prince of Crime right in the eye.
"See you in # %%."
The Joker squeezed the trigger.
Seven screams split the air.
The revolver clattered to the ground.
The Joker staggered, and leaned against the table, pressing his palms into the grain to keep himself upright. "No. This wasn't…this isn't…"
The Batkids screamed themselves hoarse.
Their screams wove together into a cacophonous wail, and Joker clapped his hands over his ears.
"No!" he shouted. "No, no, no, no, no! I was supposed to win!"
He stared at the Batman, sprawled on his back. Staring at the ceiling, at nothing. A crimson stain bloomed on his chest. Right in the center of the black bat insignia.
This wasn't how it was supposed to be! He'd planned it all out to the last detail…
But those brats! They'd gotten in the way, ruined everything!
He whirled around, and the kids all fell silent. Tears streamed down their painted faces, and they stared at him, horror-stricken. For so long, they'd thought that their mentor was invincible. Untouchable. The one person Joker would never…never…
"This is all your fault," Joker hissed at them. He lifted his hand over the button. "This is all your fault!"
Dick and Barbara exchanged a glance, and nodded once. Resigned. Then, they looked to the others. The Joker was still screaming, but the Batkids all looked to their older siblings, watching them with large, horrified eyes. It was agreed silently.
This was the end.
"Shut your eyes," Barbara told them softly. "It's all going to be okay."
They did. Stephanie let out a sob. Damian and Tim were silent. Jason's shoulders were shaking. But Dick and Barbara couldn't close their eyes. They looked at each other instead.
"I'll kill you! Every last one of you!"
A tear slipped down Barbara's cheek. "I love you, Dick Grayson."
Dick let out an anguished sound. "I love you too, Barbara."
The Joker's hand came down.
"TUC EHT NOITCENNOC!"
The screamed spell pierced through the room.
The Joker's hand had hit the button, but there was no fatal flash, no sudden shock. The auditorium doors had burst open, and seven figures dashed into the room.
The original Team members all sprinted down the aisles, leaping over velvet-covered seats, flying through the air. All converged on the stage, shouting out a battle cry.
"What?" Joker pulled out another gun, and started firing off at the newcomers. "No!"
Tigress snarled, and lifted her crossbow. She fired off a series of bolts. Above her, Miss Martian's eyes glowed a furious green as she clapped her hands together. The gun's barrel bent back, useless. Joker tossed it away with a snarl. He made a mad dash for the exit, but Superboy, Rocket and Aqualad beat him to the doors.
"We got your message!" Kid Flash—the original Kid Flash—appeared at Dick's side. He started undoing the bonds at a rapid pace. Zatanna floated down and landed on the stage.
"Allow me, Wally," she said quickly. Her hands shot out as she cried, "Odnu Eht Stniartser!"
The buckles loosened, and the straps holding them down fell away. The Batkids all ripped away the electrodes, and leapt out of the chairs. They rushed to their fallen mentor's side, silent.
All except Barbara. Wally and Zatanna hovered in front of her, unsure.
"Are you alright?" Zatanna whispered. She was staring at the garish face paint on Barbara's mouth.
Wally waved a hand. "Um…do you want me to…? Should I just pick you up?"
She reached out, and grasped the fabric of his costume in her fists. "Wally. Take me to him. Take me to him now!"
The speedster's eyes widened, but he obliged, lifting her up. He turned, managing a hesitant smile. "Take you to who—?"
Then, he saw Bruce. His mouth fell open.
"Holy $#!%," he breathed.
Hesitantly, Wally propped Barbara up next to Dick.
The Team stood by, watching as the Batkids gathered around Batman. Conner and Roquelle had pinned the Joker to the wall with a few of Artemis's crossbow bolts, and wandered over to the rest of the group. They all watched with horror as the normally stoic, unshakable bats cried, bleeding and bruised.
Dick shouted, and stripped off the Batman's chest plate. He flung it to the side, and it crashed into one of the chairs. He started in on chest compressions.
"Come on, old man," Jason muttered.
Nightwing pumped harder. "You don't get to do this!" he shouted. "You don't get to leave us! Get up, # %$ it!"
"Bruce," Barbara said, "Please. Please."
Pump, pump, pump. Breathe, breathe. Pump, pump, pump, pump.
Dick stopped, and pressed his ear against the Batman's heart.
A second went by. Two. Three. Four. Five.
"No!" Dick shouted. He slammed a fist down on Bruce's chest.
Stunned silence hung in the air. Then, Stephanie's hands flew to her mouth, and she let out a wrenching sob. Tim's eyes were wide. Jason swore. Damian was silently crying.
No one noticed the Joker slip away. All eyes were on the fallen man before them.
Member of the Justice League.