My brother (DivineMango) and I (TurnTrout) wrote this first arc of a Batman fanfiction in the summer of 2020. 

1: Don't Look Away

“The man’s starving. That doesn’t change if you look away, Bruce.”

Hand wrapped firmly around his son’s shoulder, Thomas Wayne directed his son’s flinching gaze towards a haggard face. The man looked crumpled, his beard long and unkempt, his eyes bagged and bloodshot. A tattered cardboard sign hung heavily from his neck:

Bruce was scared. At eight, he’d seen homeless people before, but he’d never connected the dots: this was a person, just out on the street.

Thomas walked towards the man, his designer leather shoes tapping out a confident pace against the pavement. In a smooth motion, he pulled out his billfold and kneeled to speak.

The man flinched. He seemed surprised anyone had even noticed he was there, and his eyes widened as he recognized the magnate of Wayne Enterprises. Ignoring the looks shot his way by the affluent passersby, Thomas spoke with the man. After about a minute, he pressed two crisp large bills into the man’s dirty hands; between the bills was the business card of one of Gotham’s better psychiatrists.

As the father and son resumed their stroll, Bruce looked up at his dad, his eyes still wide.

“What happened to him? Did he used to be a kid like me?”

Thomas considered his response as they walked down the boulevard and past the gleaming storefronts. To their right stretched a verdant park dotted by dark wooden benches, some of which encircled a duck pond. Together, they sat.

“His name is Oscar, Bruce. He’s seen terrible things. Sometimes, people, good people, can get hurt in ways that don’t heal. It’s not like skinning your knee—it’s like falling down a dark well, and no one comes to help you climb out.”

“That’s awful.”

“Yes, it is. It is awful.”

“I don’t want to… I shouldn’t get any more toys until we help these people.”

Thomas blinked. The musical conversation of a happy couple drifted by. The sun cast long and deep shadows across the park.

“I’m proud of you, Bruce. Never forget that feeling. But... that’s not right. If you only let yourself be happy when everyone else in the world is, you’ll never smile again. The world is big, and no man or woman can fix everything by themselves.”

“Why not?”, Bruce asked earnestly, legs swinging lazily under the bench, feet grazing the tips of the grass.

“Why not?”, Thomas echoed softly. “Problems are hard. To land on the moon, we had to understand mathematics, and physics, and ten thousand details besides. To stop viruses, we had to understand our own bodies so well that we could teach them to attack the virus before it could hurt us. If you want to change the world, you have to understand it first.

“Even though we employ many skilled people, I can’t just cut a check for ‘fixing everything.’ If people get hurt and never heal, we need to understand why. Then, we need to change the system in just the right way, so that the problem goes away and never comes back. That’s hard work, and there are many problems.”

Bruce nodded. The sun winked over the skyline, and the sky waxed purple. Darkness would soon be upon them.

“Some people use this as an excuse. Since they can’t solve everything, they won’t try to solve anything.

“It’s easy to let details like Oscar fade away. You might notice a broken flower pot the first time you walk by, but by the third pass, your mind forgets to notice. But Oscar isn’t a flower pot. He was someone’s son. He had dreams, and heroes, and toys.”

The silver and black skyline glimmered against the velvet curtain sky. Silence overcame them for a moment, like the pause before a question's answer. Thomas' gaze meandered onto the nearest tower, which housed the main branch of Kingsley Bank. At the base were the letters , with the K's branches intimately wrapped around the B. Gold flowered at their points of contact, giving the impression of illuminated calligraphy.

“Noticing is painful, Bruce, which is part of why I’m proud of you. Let yourself be happy, but never look away.”


Thomas and Bruce shared a quiet chauffeured ride back to Wayne Manor, Bruce peppering his father with questions about what such-and-such a worker was building, or why this-and-that restaurant had shuttered. Bruce grew quiet once they left downtown, leaving only the smooth hum of the drive. For the last half mile, the route lay exposed to the broad and deep blue of the lake; on their right ran the modest cliffs and hills which buttressed the limits of the city proper. A sliver of moon smiled sideways, and the stars twinkled.

Face pensive, mind uneasy, Thomas looked out over the water and the photons which skipped and swam across its surface. That day's meetings had disappointed.

The problem with problems is how many problems there are: if you want to build an orphanage, you have to go through zoning laws. Then, maybe you realize how bad zoning laws can invisibly drain billions of dollars from the local economy, and you think about overhauling zoning. To overhaul zoning, you think about the rot eating at the city’s politics. To fix the rot eating at the city’s politics, you think about how to fix broken incentives, like having politicians running their own elections.

That had been the subject of that day’s meetings. Thomas thought you shouldn't let the local politicians control the logistics of their own elections. If you could make voting inconvenient for the other party's constituents, make the average voter travel an extra mile or wait an extra hour, you'd chip off a hundred votes here, a thousand votes there. 

Of course, it isn't brazen and physical, like burning a ballot box on live TV. Not many are outraged by mere counterfactual reasoning, by abstract concerns like “if people had voted closer to home, thirty thousand more would have voted.” 

The mayoral election came to mind. He could still hear the Gotham News Network reporter’s recounting how many poor people had had to vote in well-known gang hotspots. Not many showed up to vote. Those who did tended to regret it.  

There was so much going wrong that sometimes, it was hard to care about anything anymore. Just, exhausting. He didn’t know how Martha found the energy to care all the time. He wished he could.

Thomas' proposal was to contract third parties to handle logistics, paying them based on voter turnout and exit-polled satisfaction with the voting process. Implementation would require non-partisan watchdogs and careful attention to detail. The incentives weren’t perfect, but they were better than the status quo. Unfortunately, even Wayne Enterprises couldn't force the change by itself.

The politicians benefiting from the practice are motivated to not outlaw the practice. The trick, though, is to negotiate along multiple dimensions. You care about having Fridays off, I care about a sharper dress code in the office, we cut a deal. He'd met with several of his wealthy friends to find a set of agreeable trade-offs to entice the lawmakers.

His lifelong friend Douglas considered himself an idealist, but he hadn't given Thomas' proposal a fair shake. Douglas had just criticized everything, seemingly without trying to consider alternatives or improvements. Following this, the others had cooled. Sometimes, Thomas felt like he was the only one who would actually act

Sometimes, Thomas just wanted to wring the sickness out of Gotham with his bare hands. 

Gentle deceleration woke him from his thoughts. As father and son left the car, the soft tinkling and chattering of water greeted them, their large circular fountain carrying water through the mouths of four dolphins. Amid the four stood a man of marble. He faced the set sun, right hand safeguarding a book, left hand proudly holding aloft a great torch. From the lantern streamed water, refracting the starlight and sending it sparkling across the front of the manor.

They were home.

2: The World is Messy

Thomas and Bruce passed through carven mahogany doors into a warm, high-ceilinged room of pale marble floor. Opposite them burned a fireplace of hardwood mantel and brick hearth. Family legend held that its fire had burned uninterrupted through the last century. For his part, Thomas had never seen it darkened. 

Beneath their feet, a large carpet patterned rich maroon and gold; gating the entryway, two Corinthian columns reaching upwards with strength and opulence; above the fireplace, a painting of a man and woman holding hands, looking out over Gotham’s then-naked landscape. Thomas liked this painting. It seemed to him at once pure and bold and full of opportunity, but also wistful. Many mistakes had been made since that paint had dried.

The hall opened left and right, meeting both wings of the manor. The main staircase’s twin landings flanked the fireplace, the stairs turning and disappearing behind the mantel wall. His son’s soft, warm bed was up those stairs; Bruce yawned, but resisted his bedroom. Instead, he followed Thomas into the study. Thomas was looking forward to a hot cup of decaffeinated tea and an hour of discussion.

They’d be discussing biology again. Thomas wasn’t a biologist, but he liked learning and expanding his understanding through textbooks recommended by local professors. No one was expected to know every detail about everything, but Thomas enjoyed learning the basics.

Each weeknight, Thomas would spend half an hour reading. Each Friday, he’d distill what he’d learned so that Bruce could understand. Saturdays were date nights with Martha; Bruce often had his friend Rachel over, with their butler, Alfred, making sure they didn’t get into too much trouble. Sundays were family nights. This Sunday, they’d attend the opera Mefistofele, which, according to the local newspaper, even included people dressed as bats. Bruce had said he thought it would be boring, and Thomas privately agreed, but it was Martha’s turn to choose. Bruce would happily tag along, in any case. He just liked going places with his parents.

They entered the richly appointed study and sank into adjacent leather armchairs. As Thomas organized his thoughts, Bruce savored a deep inhalation of the fire-warmed air. The silence was punctured only by periodic ticks and tocks of a mahogany grandfather clock. Before the clock’s hands had traveled far, an older man entered the room. 

“Tea, Master Wayne, Master Bruce?” asked Alfred. Bruce nodded eagerly and Thomas nodded absent-mindedly, and they were again alone. Thomas finished organizing his thoughts and spoke.

“Last week, you weren’t too pleased about having to clean your room. You asked why your room doesn’t clean itself. I don’t know if you were serious or not, but that was, in fact, a good question.”

Bruce raised his eyebrows. “It was?”

“Yeah, it was. What do you think, Bruce? If no one’s looking after your room, how come it only gets messier over time? Why couldn’t it get cleaner?”

The boy thought. Thomas liked turning Bruce’s childish remarks into lessons—he hoped that even after Bruce grew up, he would retain his curiosity. 

I don’t like cleaning because... it’s boring. Usually I want to be doing other things. But that can’t be why the world doesn’t clean itself—the world doesn’t want anything, it just follows rules. I don’t know what the answer is, though.”

Thomas smiled. “That’s a good starting thought. Let’s think about the train our family built for the city. Imagine something breaks, and the engineer says she’s going to try random things until the train works again. 

“Obviously, that’s probably not going to work, because the train is complicated. There are many ways for the train not to work, and only a few ways for the train to work. Every improvement is a change, but not every change is an improvement.”

“Oh! And so most changes will make the problem worse. She has to be smart and well-trained to know what to do, which is why she had to go to school!”, Bruce interjected excitedly.

“Right. And what if this train were your room?”, Thomas asked, as the doors welcomed Alfred back into the study.

“It’s easier to clean a room than to fix a train, first of all.”

Setting the serving tray on the coffee table, Alfred feigned offense. “I beg your pardon, Master Bruce. Have you forgotten what you and Rachel did to the lounge last week?” 

Thomas flashed a conspiratorial grin. “I certainly haven’t.” After a shallow bow, Alfred left again. 

“So most changes make my room messier?”

Thomas nodded. “Yes, and you have to put in effort to make things cleaner. This is called ‘The Second Law of Thermodynamics’, which is a big deal for physics, for biology, and, most importantly,” Thomas put on a serious face, “for cleaning messy rooms.”

Bruce giggled at that. 

“We’ll need to learn more physics before I can tell you the math, but it basically says that the universe gets messier over time.  In a sense, you have to work to clean things up.

“This is important for how your body works. Your body is like... a computer, only it’s so complicated that biologists have only just begun to figure out the wiring and code. 

“The cells of your body are highly ordered. To make sure they’re running the right program, your cells have to catalyze the right chemical reactions in the right proportions, at the right times, in response to all sorts of situations. Your genes lay out an exacting recipe for all of this, but the real complexity comes from your brain. Your brain is way more complex than a train. Do you remember what I mean by ‘complex’, Bruce?”

“Um… How many yes/no answers I’d need in order to put you back together again, if I didn’t know anything beforehand? What are those called… ‘bats’? ‘Bites’?”

Thomas mostly suppressed a grin. “Close enough, and no, Bruce, the word you’re looking for is ‘bits.’ Anyways, even though your genome could fit on a premium hard disk, your brain is far more complex because you’ve been learning about the world for a long time. Your body’s cells need to preserve all of this information, to grow and function, to keep their rooms clean, even though the universe tends to get messier as time goes on. To do that, they need available energy from the outside.”

Bruce looked out the tall windows and onto the rolling hills surrounding the estate. Thomas relaxed in the silence. His own father had taught him to not interrupt people when they were speaking—especially not when they were thinking. 

“Is this kinda like how the city keeps falling apart?”, Bruce asked. 

3: How People See the World

The rich, warm tones of smooth jazz wafted through the apartment: the croon of the saxophone, the deep doom of the bass, the shimmering harmony of the piano. Thomas sank into the cushy leather couch as he sank into the groove of the music. 

He had been thinking about learning to play the saxophone. Thomas had never been a great singer, so the saxophone might be his next best hope. There was something very vocal, very human about its sound. He leaned over to Martha, cradling her hand, and said, “Martha, can you remind me to call Mr. Wilson about saxophone lessons when we get home?”

She shot him a devilish smile. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten about the tuba incident, dear.”

Would he ever live that down?

He rocked Martha’s hand as his gaze drifted across the apartment. In the corners and on the tables sat candles whose flames danced slowly, throwing their warm glow and soft shadows to the walls and tabletops. The sky was kindled, with orange, red, and purple staining the wispy tufts of cloud. 

The room’s layout was clean. Depending where you looked, the room guided your eyes towards either the sliding glass doors and the skyline beyond, or towards a small alcove etched in the wall opposite Thomas and Martha. Flanked by well-populated bookcases, the alcove housed a small jade elephant.

The ring of metal on glass pulled Thomas out of reverie. He looked over to see Henri and Sophia emerge from the kitchen, carrying platters of steaming food. 

“Wow, Thomas, have I actually caught you enjoying yourself?” Henri ribbed as he set a platter on the table.

“Oops.” Thomas gave a wry smile and made his way to the table.

Sophia was quick to chastise her husband. “Honey, be nice—the roast isn’t until the main course. Can you go get the salad?”

As he sat down with his wife, Thomas said, “Congratulations, Sophia. I heard about your promotion. To be frank, I’m surprised the city council appointed you—don’t they prefer yes-men and -women?”

She laughed. “You have to understand, Thomas, that people don’t see the world as it is. They see what they want to see, they read what they want to read, and they hear what they want to hear. It’s not like I lied to them, but rather… I put my best foot forward. I’d agree with them on costless and unimportant things, and when I had to go against them, it was subtle. Non-confrontational. They got a good impression, even though they might’ve hesitated if they took a closer look. 

“They wanted to see me as agreeing with them, and so that’s what they saw in their new city administrator.”

Martha raised an eyebrow. “Seems like an easy way to become another cog in the machine, if you aren’t careful. You don’t see the world how it is, either, you know. We all like our consistent little self-narratives. You see yourself as the kind of person who agrees with the council of your own free will, and you’ll start conforming to that self-image.”

Sophia shrugged minutely. “Oh, I never agree to anything of my own free will, because I don’t have any. So I think I should be fine, then?”

Henri returned with the salad and rejoined the conversation. “Is it really that surprising, Thomas? She’s been working towards this for a while now.”

Thomas had a simple question. “Why’s that?”

“Why did I want a promotion?” 

“Sure. There are many ways to spend your time, and getting promoted is only one of them.” He weighed the new administrator, seeing how she factored into his plans. He knew Sophia Ducard, but he didn’t know Sophia.  

Sophia was in no rush to answer as she filled her plate with green leaves and red tomatoes. 

“I felt stagnant. Like I’d taken too long to get up in the morning, and if I didn’t make up for lost time, the whole day would be wasted. This was just the obvious outlet.” She grinned. “Or will you not be satisfied until I repeat a cliché about wanting to save the world?” 

He didn’t know Sophia, but apparently Sophia knew him. 

She continued. “When I was growing up, my dad paid the bills with his hot dog stand. Police officers would always treat themselves to a discount, and nothing ever happened to them. So, I suppose that if you pressed me, I might also admit that I enjoyed throwing a wrench in Gotham’s gears.”

Martha gave an approving smile. 

The conversation drifted along—to money and to other subjects for which Thomas had learned to feign interest. He felt restless. He felt trapped. He couldn’t stop thinking about his work. Minute after minute slipped by, as he fruitlessly tried to immerse himself in the conversation. Each spent minute felt like a betrayal. 

Martha’s gentle hand squeezed his leg under the table. His thoughts slowed, and he settled back into the room. Fearless, selfless Martha. 

When they were together, he felt invincible.

4: Family Night at the Opera

Bruce’s half-lidded eyes opened fully. The opera was finally over. He couldn’t believe it. 

His parents hadn’t even let him bring any of his favorite books. Instead, he’d passed time by watching the performers dressed as bats, imagining what it might be like to be a bat. Didn’t bats get cold, without any clothes?

As his family left the theater, he looked up to his mom. “Mommy… why do you like opera? It’s real boring.” 

His dad instantly scolded him: “Bruce! How dare you speak that way to your mother! ‘Real’ is an adjective. Here’s how a gentleman speaks to a lady: ‘honey, that was really boring. Why do you like opera, again?’”

Bruce somehow giggled and rolled his eyes at the same time. 

Lips pursed, Martha closed the theater door behind her. “Bruce, when I was a little girl, my parents took me to the opera all the time. They were even crueler than I am, you see. At the time, I resolved to never inflict this upon my own children, but… 

“As you get older, you realize how special these moments are. Even if they’re a bit… snoozy, sometimes.”

Bruce blushed. He had dozed off—and he hadn’t even noticed! He was usually proud of how well he tracked what his mind was up to, and his parents knew that. 

His dad put a warm hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Bruce. I enjoyed a bit of sleep as well—your mother always knows how to help me wind down after a long work week!” 

His dad winked at his mom, and they both laughed at some joke which Bruce didn’t get. He didn’t like it when they did that. It felt like playing “monkey in the middle”, chasing an explanation which no one cares to give to a kid.

They left the small opera room and entered the big outdoor room, which usually was beautiful and starry but was cloudy tonight. It was rather chilly for a summer night, if he thought about it. His dad looked around for their limo. Alfred had said he’d come pick them up. Maybe the opera had finished early. Bruce couldn’t possibly believe that that was true.

His dad had spotted something else, however. Someone else, next to the building, another beggar. Bruce’s gaze was steady. He wanted to make his dad proud of how he didn’t look away. 

The man was slumped against the opera house. It was too dark to really see him, but Bruce thought he had an empty jar next to him. That would be for any money people gave him. 

Thomas started to kneel down, and the man yelped and scampered to his feet. He was breathing really hard and fast. The man’s right hand shot to his pocket. Thomas tried to back away, arms raising up in front of him, but before he could move far, the man swiped his dad’s arms with some small object. The beggar was screaming in short, ragged barks, his face turning wildly as though he were surrounded by monsters, monsters which attacked whenever he wasn’t looking.

Bruce’s mom pushed him back and bolted towards the two men, drawing some small canister from her purse. Bruce couldn’t think straight. He felt really funny, as though he were at the dentist’s and the laughing gas was just starting to kick in. Bruce noticed he was scared. He looked around at all the other scared people. No one else seemed to know what to do. Bruce tried to think. What should he do? 

Then Bruce realized what was going on. This man was crazy and he had a knife. He looked back to his father. Now his dad was the one slumped against the opera house.

Bruce screamed. 

His mom turned to look. His mom turned to look, and the canister flew out of her hands, knocked away by the flailing of the screaming panicky man with the wild eyes. The man’s arm flew out again.

Bruce didn’t look away as his mom’s body fell to the ground. 

He screamed harder than he thought he could, so loud that his throat hurt and his eyes hurt and this was usually when he woke up from his nightmares why was this one so long

Bruce screamed, he screamed until no more noise came out. He opened his clenched eyes and saw the man was gone.

Bruce looked around. Men shielded women and children so that they couldn’t see what had happened. No one was doing anything. 

Bruce was shaking. He took a deep breath. One. Two. Three. He walked to his dad, and almost slipped on the red puddle. 

Bruce looked down and screamed again. 

Frantic, he realized that he had to call doctors to help his parents. No one seemed to be trying to find a telephone. Bruce desperately cried out, “Is anyone here a doctor?”, but people just looked around, as if they were trying to find a spare doctor by the side of the road.

Bruce ran into the opera house and yelled “Someone call 911! My mom and dad got stabbed!” The worker’s eyes bulged as they turned to their phone. Bruce ran back outside.

Pulse. Mom showed me how to check a pulse. I need to see how hurt they are.

Bruce knelt down next to his mother, her head near the curb. Her beautiful blonde hair grew red, dark dark red, mommy wasn’t supposed to look like that—focus

Bruce’s mind was going so fast and so slow at the same time. He felt like he was watching someone else pilot his body. He wasn’t sure what they would do next.

“M-mom?”

Silence.

He put his fingers on her wrist. He couldn’t feel much of anything. There was a pulse, but it was faint. But mommy’s chest wasn’t moving. He looked at her head again and gasped. Her throat had been slit. Bruce’s face crumpled. 

Check dad. I need to understand what’s happening.

He unrolled his father’s once-white-now-red dress shirt sleeve. Dad’s arms got cut. But… but dad had a pulse. Dad had a pulse. Dad would know what to do. 

“Dad? Dad?

His father’s half-lidded eyes opened, then. “Bruce… I’m so glad you’re okay.”

“I got them to call 911. But dad, I don’t think mommy is breathing.” 

His dad looked around at the scared people, and his eyes narrowed a little, for some reason. “Bruce… I don’t think I’m going to make it… Listen to me.” 

His dad looked like he was fighting to avoid falling asleep. “I love you, Bruce. I’m… so proud of you. There’s… there’s so much I wanted to do with you… so much I haven’t done. I don’t want to…” Thomas Wayne squared his jaw. His dad’s face was bold and proud and tight. 

“I’m proud of you. I’m so proud of you, and I know I’ll be proud of the man you… become. I want you... to keep helping people. To keep smiling and laughing. Don’t be afraid of… getting hurt.” 

His eyes were closing. 

“Don’t be afraid...”

5: The Dream of Flight 

Bruce left the warm glow of Wayne Manor’s entry chamber and entered the night. Water spilled from the mouths of the dolphins, but he barely noticed. Bruce left the warmth behind him and turned left, his eyes on the stone-block path which wandered the grounds with him. 

Some grown-ups had told Bruce to not think about what had happened if it was still too painful. That had made him mad—what had happened was real and it felt cowardly to hide from it—but they had insisted that people can be fragile, that too much toughness can hurt them. Sometimes, the grown-ups said, you just had to take it slow. 

It was true: Bruce felt fragile and alone. But he was still thinking about what had happened.

He walked to his dad, and almost slipped on the red puddle.

The hedges towered over Bruce as he followed the winding stone path. His brain felt electric, as if he’d just chased Rachel around the house, but he wasn’t tired. The grown-ups had told him to take things slowly, and he wasn’t. He knew the danger in that, but he couldn’t look away.

His dad had read him a few books where bad things happened, but they never happened to the main character. They happened to other people. In those books, bad things happened to people like Oscar, and none of the other characters ever seemed to care too much. 

If Bruce had been living in one of those books, a superhero would have swooped in to save him a million times by now. A huge man with wavy hair and a heroic cape would have flown down and stopped the knife from reaching his dad’s stomach. He would save the day, rustle Bruce’s hair, and fly away. Or maybe, a normal-seeming woman would step out of the crowd and her voice would be thunder and fury, and she would give a speech which convinced the beggar to put down his weapon.

No superheroes had come. No heroes had come. No normal people had come.

No one was doing anything. 

Bruce realized what was going to happen to him, eventually. What was going to happen to everyone. Alfred was going to die, somehow, and no one would do anything special to stop it. Rachel was going to die. He was going to die. 

Would anyone go out of their way to stop it? Bruce thought about the scared people outside the opera. Why hadn’t they done anything? Were they afraid of getting hurt? His mom hadn’t been afraid. Or maybe she had been, but she hadn’t let that stop her. 

blonde hair grew red, dark dark red

But the scared people still hadn’t helped, even after the crazy man had run away. They still hadn’t helped. 

Bruce slumped against an old well. His dad hadn’t quite finished boarding it up. It was hard to see the path, anyways, under all the shadows and through all the blinking.

Bruce felt a terrible anger. He locked his jaw. He wasn’t like them. He wouldn't stand by any longer. He would protect his friends.

Then he heard a noise, some kind of flapping, and something shrieked, it shrieked just like the beggar before it flew into the night, Bruce screamed, it was like he was reliving the murder, it was like the beggar was right there and Bruce was breathing so fast he didn’t know what was happening

He had already jumped to his feet and he was looking around frantically

the beggar’s face turning wildly as though he were surrounded by monsters,

monsters which attacked whenever he wasn’t looking.

Bruce closed his eyes. One. Two. Three. Deep breaths. Even his breathing was trembly.   

He collapsed against the well, face in his hands. All his determination went away. Bruce felt fragile, and weak, and alone. 

Bruce couldn’t think straight.

Remembering the part he had played, Bruce felt like an idiot, the shame was hot in his cheeks, the shame was pooling in his lungs, and he felt like he would choke on it. 

Other people had done nothing. He had done worse than nothing.

Bruce screamed.

His mom turned

to

look.

If he hadn’t screamed, his mom might have lived. If he hadn’t screamed. If he hadn’t screamed.

Bruce grabbed his hair. He started crying really hard, and that only made him more ashamed, he couldn’t help it. His father had told Bruce how it was okay for men to cry, but he had never cried in front of Bruce either—so how okay could it be? Bruce cried, curled against the well, feeling all hollow inside.

After a while, his thoughts regained a bit of order—they waited their turn instead of spilling out all at once. 

He knew he was just a kid, but that couldn’t explain all of his mistakes. There had been adults there, too, and so maybe his foolishness wouldn’t just go away as he grew up. Maybe he’d stay stupid, and maybe more people would get hurt.

I have to get smarter. I have to. I can’t afford to be stupid. I won’t be stupid any more. I have to get smarter. 

I have to. 

Another hard blink. 

“Bruce… I don’t think I’m going to make it…”

Bruce felt a flash of anger towards his dad. He felt like a wretched child, but the anger swelled all the same. What had his dad been thinkingWhy did he have to help that man? If he had just waited for Alfred… 

Why did he do it? Bruce imagined his father ignoring the crazy man. Something about that picture made him very sad. People staying away from each other, not trusting each other, worried about being betrayed or tricked. People who were too afraid.

“Don’t be afraid of… getting hurt.”

“Dad… how do I not be afraid?”. Bruce didn’t remember reading any books about that.

He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what people expected him to do. What his dad would want him to do.

His fingers ran through the dirt. 

What should I do?

Everything was just so unfair. What happened to his parents, what happened to Oscar, what happened to him. Unfair, and awful, and cruel. 

His fingers curled and his eyes narrowed. He wanted to be strong. He wanted to change things so they weren’t so broken. He really, really wanted it, he wanted it so badly that it was hard to sit still, his heart felt like it was reaching out of his chest.

He felt like something inside of him was settling down, making a choice, but he had no idea what. 

More soft flapping sounds from the well. Bruce heard the bats fly out into the night. This time, he didn’t scream. 

Bruce again wondered what it would be like to be a bat, flapping through the night. Bats weren’t afraid of the dark, or of the cold, or of the unknown. They lived there.


That night, Bruce dreamt of being a bat, of swooping in to save his parents. He dreamt of freedom, and of justice, and of purity. He dreamt of being whole. He dreamt of swooping in to protect Alfred, and Oscar, and Rachel, and all of the other good people he knew.

Bruce woke up. No superheroes had come for him, and he knew that none would come. But Bruce could be whatever he wanted. Bruce could become a superhero. He wasn’t like everyone else. Bruce would act.

6: The Cost of Inaction

Bruce stared at the man who had killed his parents twelve years ago. He stared at Joe Chill while Judge Faden rendered his verdict.

“Given your record of cooperation with the police, I grant your request for parole. I understand, however, that a member of the Wayne family is here today. I wonder if he has anything he would like to say?”

Bruce stood straight and tall, composing his thoughts. While this had been an unusual arrangement—soliciting a statement from a criminal’s victim in public court—Bruce figured he might as well make the best of the opportunity. He’d prepared for long enough. It was time to act. 

“Thank you, Your Honor. I now understand that Mr. Chill suffered a psychotic break. He believed that my father was kneeling down to strangle him. I understand Mr. Chill’s actions, but I do not forgive them. 

“My father taught me that character is the difference between your incentives and your actions. For too long, Gotham has kicked the can down the road. For too long, Gotham has allowed weakness to fester, from its decrepit infrastructure to its crumbling moral character. The costs of inaction must eventually be paid. I paid some of those costs as an eight-year-old boy in front of an opera house.

“I agree that Mr. Chill deserves clemency for his help cleaning up the streets, but I do not celebrate it. I’ve always held myself responsible for how I affect the world. Even if I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t—I deem that I would still hold myself responsible for my actions. If I knew I suffered psychotic breaks, perhaps I wouldn’t carry a knife with me. 

“I understand Mr. Chill’s actions, but I do not forgive them.” 

Bruce sat back down. Chatter began to swell up before being banged away by Faden’s gavel. 

Judge Faden’s voice boomed forth. “Thank you, Mr. Wayne. The court is adjourned. Our land is the land of opportunities; go forth, Mr. Chill, and make the most of your regained freedom.”

Faden’s honeyed words disgusted Bruce.

Trembling only slightly, Joe Chill and his public defender stood and quietly left the room. Everyone else was packing up their bags when the gunshot rang out.


The blood pooled on the marble floor. Bruce watched silently. Joe Chill had been weak, and so the world broke him. He killed Bruce’s parents, and then another thug killed him. In front of the courtroom, two crooked cops disarmed and arrested Joe’s killer. According to Bruce's mob sources, Bruce was looking at the handiwork of Carmine Falcone.  

The blood sank through the crevices between the black and white tiles.

When he’d learned that the courthouse's security precautions required "unexpected maintenance", Bruce knew what would come of it. Still, Bruce had to see it himself. To see justice executed.

A sick heaviness settled in Bruce’s chest as the corners of his lips fell, as his brow furrowed. Either Falcone had bluntly threatened to kill Faden, or Falcone had had kompromat on him—proof of a mistress, or perhaps of a bribe. To maintain Falcone’s discretion, the good Judge had agreed to a small favor, a bit of leniency when sentencing Falcone’s muscle. That agreement was more dirt, which was again leveraged for a slightly bigger favor. Each time, the right thing felt just a little less practical. Fast-forward, and he was bought.

Faden had either been too stupid to see the pattern in advance, or too weak to do anything about it. It didn’t matter. You couldn’t blame him, because he wasn’t worthy of blame. Each night, Faden rehearsed well-worn rationalizations making sense of his actions, why each transgression was necessary or tolerable. He couldn’t confront the truth, and so he lived in his own little world.

Most people were Fadens. They’d crow about freedom and justice and taking a stand, but when the world’s chaos and cruelty visited them, they fell silent. Most people would die before changing their mind, before seriously considering whether their actions were just or their beliefs were true.

Society was filled with people like that. The vice principal who somehow never got around to dealing with vicious bullies. The cop whose baton happened to fall harder on black protesters. The beggar who let fear make him a murderer.

His father’s last words returned to him, unbidden: “Don’t be afraid.” 

Bruce wasn’t afraid. He didn’t need to be afraid in order to do the right thing.

Other people needed that.

72

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5 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:16 PM

Was extremely enjoyable.  Any plans for more?    

Thank you! I want to write more, but don't currently have the macro-level fiction writing skills (e.g. plotting) to do the rest at the moment. I'll respond to this comment if and when I continue the story.

Nice writing. Though one bit stretches credulity for anyone familiar with modern legal systems:

When he’d learned Judge Faden had insisted on making Joe Chill’s trial public, Bruce knew what would come of it. Still, Bruce had to see it himself. To see justice executed.

In camera trials are almost exclusively reserved for cases involving big secrets. It‘s very unlikely for petty homicide to warrant anything other than a public trial. So it’s difficult to imagine anything but a very alien society that would need someone to ‘insist’ to make a trial public.

To clarify, this wasn't the homicide hearing (that took place years earlier, while Bruce was still a child), but clemency for Chill's help in ratting out the mob with information he gathered while imprisoned. But probably your broader point still stands. I'll tweak that part. 

Overall this was pretty good.

 

That night, Bruce dreamt of being a bat, of swooping in to save his parents. He dreamt of freedom, and of justice, and of purity. He dreamt of being whole. He dreamt of swooping in to protect Alfred, and Oscar, and Rachel, and all of the other good people he knew.

The part about "purity" didn't make sense.

 

Bruce would act.

This is bit of a change from before - something more about the mistake seems like it would make more sense. Not worry. ('Bruce would get it right this time' or something about 'Bruce would act (and it would make things better this time)'.) 'Bruce wouldn't be afraid' maybe?