TITLE: The Suffering Frame

AUTHOR: Mara Greengrass

AUTHOR'S EMAIL: fishfolk@ix.netcom.com. Feedback is better than chocolate.

PERMISSION TO ARCHIVE: Please ask.

CATEGORY: Drama, angst

RATINGS/WARNINGS: R, contains very disturbing content

SUMMARY: "To be Batman, I must be in control. And I knew--as certainly as I've ever known anything--how to find that control again."

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

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

DISCLAIMER: These characters belong to DC Comics. I just fantasize and worry about them.

NOTES: Batman demanded I write this. I swear. Thanks to Xandri and Illmantrim for encouraging words that kept this from becoming drawerfic. Special gigantic thanks to Penknife and Ozchick for their amazing betas of multiple drafts, which prevented this from becoming a "Very Special Episode." And, of course, thanks to Avi for putting up with me while I obsessed over this. A lot.

DEDICATION: For those who suffer, with my hope that one day they will be free.

* * * * *

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

-- author A.S. Byatt

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

But I'll never forget that night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Batman?" Robin called over the comm. "I've got the second perp. What's your sitch?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

It was two weeks. Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pain came back. The need.

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

"Batman, I'm sorry to hear about the kid."

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

"Are you okay?" Nightwing asked finally.

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

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

"Batman out."

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had a purpose, a goal, a mission.

* * * * *

Somewhere along the line, the mission stopped being enough.

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

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

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

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

Instead we found two women laid out on the sidewalk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

--continued in part 2--