*Disclaimer: I own none of these fine characters. They all belong to DC Comics, created by various people far more creative and talented than I. My interpretation of certain origin stories retold here is not meant to be disrespectful to anyone. This is just a work of fun. I have no intention of making money off of this story. I'm just a penniless fan who enjoys the exploits of the Justice League of America.
Time Frame: Taking place sometime after "The Secret Identity Crisis" issues.
DARK CLOUDS, SILVER LINING
This is a question I am still asked. From the most neophyte of the Young Justice team to the eldest veteran of the Justice Society, they ask 'Why?' Even after all this time, when my choice has been more than justified, they still ask me 'Why?'
I've never been inclined to answer, at least not fully. I had my own reasons for doing what I did, and no wish to disclose them. Diana and J'onn, of course, could sense I was holding something back, but never pressed. They had always respected my privacy. Before.
Before one of my greatest enemy, Ra's Al Ghul, stole safeguard protocols I created in secret, should any in the League ever go rouge.
Before Ra's used those protocols with deadly intent against my teammates.
He almost succeeded.
There was a time of great...difficulty between myself and the League after that. But Superman, the Boy Scout that he is, stepped in and together, he and I took the next steps towards a League reconciliation. We placed our most cherished secret into their hands.
Clark Kent is Superman.
I, Bruce Wayne, am Batman.
In response to this gesture of trust, all the masks in the League dropped.
No more secrets, it was vowed.
Yet I have still never answered 'Why?'
Now, standing in the Watchtower's Hall of Justice, I sense that is about to change. It's twenty minutes before a scheduled meeting...yet everyone, including the perpetually late Green Lantern, is already here and seated at the round table.
No. That's not quite true.
"Batman. Good." Superman nods in greeting. "Have a seat. We can call this meeting to---"
"He's not in his chair," I interrupt.
Superman winces at my bluntness. "No," he says awkwardly. "He's not. We...told him the meeting was canceled."
I wait for an explanation. Wally West, the Flash, fidgets in the silence. Kyle Rayner, the Green Lantern, looks everywhere but at the empty chairs and me. Diana of the Amazons, called Wonder Woman, looks at no one, still as a marble statue. J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter, is just as immovable.
Finally Arthur Curry, King of Atlantis, known to the world as Aquaman, exclaims, "Great Tides! We just changed the agenda---"
"Meetings have agendas for a reason," I say evenly, staring at Superman. "They prevent people from wasting the little time they have for sleep preparing for a meeting that's been officially cancelled."
"It's not," Superman snaps. "It's just...we just..." He sighs and rakes his finger through his black curls. "We changed the agenda and...didn't feel it appropriate for him to be here," he finishes lamely.
My eyes narrow.
"Bruce," he says through clenched teeth. "Please. Just sit."
He called me Bruce. He's stressed, impatient. Not good signs. I make my way to my own seat, but I don't sit. Instead I stand behind my chair and look at the sheet of paper placed before it. I read the only sentence printed on the page.
"RE: Re-evaluation of JLA Membership."
Am I surprised? I shouldn't be. I lost my right to keep secrets from the League, but I still kept one last thing from them. I knew I would be confronted sooner or later and have to confess. But not like this. Not when it wouldn't be me to pay for my silence, but him.
"No," I say coldly.
Superman blinks at me, surprised. "Batman, we haven't even called the meeting to---"
I slam both fists onto the table. Drinks topple. Everyone jumps. "No!"
"---order," Superman sighs, tapping the Chairman's gavel against the table. The meeting is officially open.
I draw myself up straight, taking slow, deep breaths. The sheer arrogance---! How dare they confront me like this? Didn't they know the League bonds were still fragile, still healing? No, of course not. One gesture on each of our parts, ripping off the masks, revealing our identities and everyone believes that makes it all better. I admit it, I had wanted that to be true. Wanted to believe it so badly that I even employed that 'solution' to help my protege, the third boy to bear the name Robin, with his girlfriend.
A moment of insanity. It wasn't my secret to give. I had no right to interfere. Now I've lost him...and...I don't know how to get him back.
Not everything can be healed by revealing secrets. Sometimes, it just makes things worse.
Someone tugs at my cape. "Batman," Green Lantern whispers. "Didn't you hear Supes?"
As a matter of fact, I didn't. I stand, silent, waiting for Superman to repeat himself. He doesn't let me down.
"Bruce, are you trying to be difficult," he shouts? "Just sit already!"
All around me I can feel the tension build.
Let it, I suddenly decide. They want this out in the open, fine. But on my terms. Which meant I wouldn't sit in that damned chair. Petty? Yes. Satisfying? Oh, yes. "Computer," I say out loud. "Uplink the Batcave Crays. Access Archive Folder 1, File 00053."
"What the hell are you doing," Aquaman demands. "This is an official JLA meeting in session! Solve your little cases on your own time, not ours!"
I ignore him. It's not Aquaman's cooperation I need right now. "Wonder Woman, will you verify my words?"
The marble facade cracks. Everyone mirrors her wide-eyed stare. Finally, Superman asks, "What words, Bruce?" He sounds unsure. Good.
"Answers," I say curtly.
Glances are exchanged, confused, and curious. But the look between Wonder Woman and the Manhunter is one of silent communication. I've known them for a long time. I can guess what they're saying to each other. "A slight change of plans," I tell the League, startling everyone again. Were they so arrogant as to believe they could fool me? "Wonder Woman's ability to hear a truth, a half-truth, or an outright lie should suffice. J'onn won't need to scan me."
"Afraid of what he might find," Flash blurts out? Then he pales. He hadn't meant to say that. Flash has been afraid of me since he was a child. If he's saying things like that to my face, things are worse than I thought.
"In a way," I tell him. "J'onn's telepathic abilities are too valuable to risk for the sake of curiosity." I rest my gaze squarely on the Martian. "I don't think you'd like it in here right now." The League jokes about how ugly it is in my head. J'onn knows the full truth of this.
J'onn looks away, his face grave and unhappy. "It's not about mere curiosity, Batman. It's about the League's unity. Otherwise I would never have agreed to this farce."
There. He admitted it. "Thank you for not insulting my intelligence, J'onn." I reach out and tear the offending paper into bits. "You didn't need to set me up," I tell them, punctuating each word with a rip. "If anything was in doubt, either him, or my reasons…" I let the confetti fall from my hands like snow. "…you could have just asked. I thought we had established that." My mouth curls with a bitterness I can't hide. "Obviously not."
"Bruce..." Superman looks at me apologetically, nervously rubbing the back of his neck. With a sigh of exasperation, he tugs the red cape from his shoulders and tosses it into the other empty chair. "Bruce, this was a bad idea. You don't have to do this if you don't want to."
I don't want to. But now I have to. Unmasking my face only set the foundation for redemption in the League's eyes. Now, to build upon it, for the sake of League unity, for his own foolish sake, I have to unmask more.
I peel back my cowl, feeling the cool air of the controlled atmosphere against my face. I feel naked, horribly exposed. I have to fight the urge to step back into the shadows, to turn my back on those eyes. I stand my ground.
I'd rather be fighting Doomsday.
"Computer. Run the video from File 00053, security camera 4, starting at time frame 01:26:03." I look at J'onn. "Watch." An image flickers into life above the center of the metal round table, the interior of a chemical plant. Great open vats of noxious liquids churn and bubble under a series of catwalks. What truly draws the eye, though, is a single man trailing behind a group of thugs racing across the rickety metal paths. He's quite a sight. Even in our line of work, it isn't everyday one sees a capped man covered from the neck up in a red reflective helmet shaped like a curved glass hood. "Computer, pause." I let them absorb the sight. I wait. Will they recognize him?
"What the hell is that," Kyle bursts out laughing.
Everyone looks at me expectantly. I wait. No one says anything else. I shake my head. Fine then. The farce plays on. "Computer, continue."
The scene resumes. The thugs make it across the catwalk, almost right into a police ambush. The Red Hood doubles back and races for the higher catwalks. The thugs take their chances at the lower levels, disappearing from view. The Red Hood heads straight for the roof exit.
He never makes it.
My own sudden appearance in the video clip causes my teammates to gasp. The Red Bullet shoots a full clip at me, scrambling backwards. He was a lousy shot, I remember. The rounds never touched me.
My hands flex and I frown at what happens next. So close. I almost had him.
The police bursts onto the screen, guns blazing. This was an early case, before the Gotham Police Department and I came to an unofficial understanding. The men we were watching were shooting to kill, me as well as the Red Hood. In a fit of panic, the Red Hood dives over the edge. I throw a line and catch him around the ankle before he hits the tank's contents. Bullets strike me repeatedly, but the body armor holds, and so do I.
But the cable doesn't.
I watch myself look on in horror as the Red Hood falls into the tank. "Computer, pause. Rewind by five seconds, then pause." I step closer to the table. I can feel my face hardening as I stare at this ridiculous bug of a man, arms frozen as he flailed in mid-air. "This was the Red Hood," I tell them, striving for a clinical tone. "Not much is known about his past. A would-be criminal mastermind who recruited out of town muscle who attempted to rob M&C Chemical Works at the edge of Gotham. A narrow goal, considering the worth of some of the chemicals stored there on the black market. Sloppily planned, disastrous in execution. All in all, a very poor excuse of a criminal mastermind." I pause, the bile in my mouth twisting my lips. I spit my next words out. "And I wish the bastard died screaming in that vat!"
"Bruce," Clark protests, "you don't mean that!"
"Diana," Clark asks, his voice plainly pleading for this not to be true. The Bat does not kill. One of my cardinal rules. I was one of the few at the table to not have blood on my hands. Considering that most superheroes consider me to be psychotic, I believe that was a source of great comfort to them. Until now.
At Diana's nod, Clark's shoulders sag. No, Clark, there is no Santa Clause, and there are people I would dearly love to see dead.
Diana quickly walks to Clark's side and puts a comforting arm around him. "Batman, I don't understand," she says. "You say he was no great criminal. What did he do---?"
An ugly, sharp edged bray of laughter escapes my lips. Kyle and Wally now look positively terrified. "What did he do," I echo bitterly? "What didn't he do? Live to kill hundreds? Nearly set off a nuclear war? Tried to drive the Police Commissioner of Gotham City insane? Shot two of my partners, crippling one? Killed my friend's bride? And before that, the bastard took my boy, my second Robin! He killed one of my sons!" I'm shouting hysterically. I turn my back on the League, trying to compose myself. "What didn't he do?"
"Batman." Arthur stands. The sympathy in his eyes makes me look away. That does me no good. Now I'm looking into J'onn's understanding eyes. I stare at the floor, bracketed by the moral support of the only other fathers in the room. They too had tragically lost their own children. They know you don't get over some things. Ever.
"The Joker," Clark suddenly whispers. I stiffen at the sound of that name. "This is the Joker, isn't it Bruce? Before he became...the way he is."
"Even better, Clark. You're seeing how he got the way he is." I turn back around, my face now merely grim. "The doctors at Arkham Asylum believe one reason he's so fixated on me is because I was the last person he saw before he fell into that vat. Those waste chemicals did something to him. Bleached his skin. Turned his hair green. Deeply altered his brain chemistry. Made him insane." My lips thin. "And Gotham's been paying ever since."
"This is...whoa. This is heavy stuff," Wally says shakily. "But...Batman? What does this have to do with anything?"
"Wally," Superman roars, coming out of his chair. The next thing I know, everyone is on their feet, shouting at each other. Some defending me, some pointing out that I've side tracked the issue. At least, they think I have. Regardless, the meeting is now truly out of hand, the League just shy of trading blows. This is one of the few times when my voice does not carry above the others. They don't hear me striving for order.
I take out flash pellets from my belt. There are other ways to get attention.
Seconds later, everyone is rubbing their eyes and blinking furiously, no longer screaming or threatening violence. Good. "I did not speak of this so you can all disgrace yourselves," I tell them harshly. "I'm telling you this so you can understand why I did what I did." I draw my cape tightly around myself. I can't fall apart again. I can't afford to. As crazy as they believe me to be, the League looks to me for stability. One moment of weakness and they nearly riot.
I can do this.
I pick up where I left off, calm and composed. "Computer, play security camera 7, start at time frame 01:28:53." The image flickers and shows a different part of the Chemical Works. Six men, the hired muscle, race down the metal stairway past towering metal tanks marked ACID. "Computer, pause." I wait again. No comments still.
He was truly determined to see this through.
"I was younger then. Once these men fled the city limits, I didn't give them another thought. They were someone else's problem. A few years later, the Joker revealed to me that he had once been the Red Hood. These men became the links to the Joker's past. I began my quest to find them. It took some years-"
"Years," Kyle yelped.
For the first time that night, maybe even all week, a fond smile softens my face. "Something more important took up my time." Memories of a fearless boy using the chandelier as a swing set popped to mind. Night patrols missed because a terrified child could only sleep if his guardian held him. Afternoons of parent-teacher conferences, trying to hide my pride when my ward had been called to task for punching out the school bully. Twilights spent preparing my young partner for the night, teaching, training, and worrying.
Time spent with my first Robin, now a man grown. Nightwing. My surviving son.
I give myself a mental shake. Now I am getting side tracked. "I---yes, Wally?" He's looking at me oddly. He jerks back and mumbles, "Nothing, nothing. You were saying?"
I nod and continue. "Two of these men were killed on the scene. Shortly after the Red Hood caper, a certain associate of ours arrested three for a different robbery. Grand larceny. I found them doing time at three separate prison facilities all across the nation. Unfortunately, they had nothing useful to say. Apparently, they never actually spoke to the Hood. They had just met him that night. The two who died were their contacts to him. Their knowledge of the Joker's past died with them. The last man in the heist was still at large. He had a rap sheet as long as my arm dating back before he could shave. A knee breaker and bank robber by trade." I shake my head. "I didn't pursue him. I didn't think he had any information, and he was foolishly operating in another hero's territory. I figured it was only a matter of time before he was brought in. As I said, I had better things to do." A wry half-smile curls my lips. "I caught the last man purely by accident, when I was researching the backgrounds of League candidates. Computer, play."
The scene comes alive. The six men race down the stairs. At the top landing the police converge and start to fire. Two thugs are shot in the chest and fall over the railings. A third is shot in the shoulder. Simultaneously, the acid vat right next to him is riddled with holes. The liquid fountains out, showering the crook, soaking him. He cries out, dropping his gun. Clutching his shoulder, he turns and runs.
"Computer, pause," I say quickly. "Center on the man's face. Magnify 400%." It enlarges. Its grainy, but I see a spark of recognition in the eyes of Clark and J'onn.
"That face," Clark mummers. "I know it. Somewhere."
"Yes," J'onn rumbles looking thoughtful. "Computer, clarify the image."
Slowly the picture begins to smooth out.
It hits everyone all at once.
"Hell," Kyle gasps.
"Will you look at that," Wally says.
Wet, face twisted in pain and anger, he was still recognized as Eel O'Brian, the Justice League member known as Plastic Man.
"Small world," Arthur grunts.
Diana leans forward, fascinated. Clark and J'onn exchanges looks before facing me. Waiting.
"Eel's comrades abandoned him. He ran all night, pursued by police. Finally, wounded, exhausted, he collapsed near a monastery. The monks gave him sanctuary. During his convalescence, Eel discovered that the acid had changed the cellular structure of his body. It became as elastic as rubber. Or plastic. The first thing he did with those powers? He set up a sting that arrested his old 'friends.' Eel never looked back."
I turn on one heel and begin to slowly pace the perimeter of the table. "Why, you all ask? Why did I sponsor Plastic Man into the League? He's undisciplined, his humor juvenile, and he seems to go out of his way to be irritating." I stop behind Plastic Man's chair. "I've said to you all its because he's demonstrated that he works well in a team. He's a quick thinker. His instincts are good when a situation goes bad. More importantly..." I swing around to face them all. "He gets the job done." I let my words sink in. I nod sharply and continue to pace. "But you've all sensed that I wasn't telling you everything. Still, you didn't pry, respecting my secrecy. Then Ra's happened and you all began to wonder, what was my ulterior motive? You all know I'm a firm believer in the phrase, 'keep your friends close, your enemies closer.' Was Plastic Man a danger? Did I believe Plastic Man to be nothing but an elaborate con job? 'Once a crook, always a crook?'" I continue my circuit around the table in silence, my words echoing the paranoia that ate away at some of the finest people I've known. Once again I stop behind Plastic Man's chair, where the red cape had been carelessly thrown. I grip the back of the chair. "The answer; No."
I am careful to make eye contact with each and every one of the League members. "I admit, the most I ever expected from reformed criminals were for them to find a regular job, live peacefully, and keep their appointments with their parole officers. I never expected to find a career criminal who gained metapowers, then reformed, and became a hero without using said powers for any criminal gain. Ever! Not once. I couldn't believe it. I investigated him thoroughly. I looked. I probed. I even tested him. And I found his dedication to be as genuine as mine."
There. Now, the hard part. I take a deep breath and plunge ahead. "The night the Joker was...created...was the start of a nightmare. Nothing good came from anything he touched. So I believed. Until," I point at the image, "I realized who that man was." My eyes drop to the red cape. "Why did I sponsor you into the League, Eel? Your redemption was the only good thing to come of that night, the sole silver lining from the darkest cloud in my life. And sometimes..." I falter. I take another deep breath and try again. "Sometimes I..." My voice chokes. Dammit, it's just a word! Say it, you fool! I close my eyes and swallow my pride. "I just need to see..." See what? I'm making no sense. "I need some hope..." Worse and worse! This explanation is pathetic. Where's your vaunted courage now, O Dark Knight? I slam my fist against the chair, frustrated. I'm about to try again when the red cape ripples. It flows onto the floor and quickly gains more volume, more color, and more humanoid features. Plastic Man is now standing beside me. "I was wondering when you'd give up the disguise," I tell him.
He shuffles from one foot to another. "When'd ya know?"
"When I walked in." His eyebrows shoot up in disbelief. "Superman's mother always makes his capes from a cotton-silk material." Out of the corner of my eye I have the satisfaction of seeing Clark blush. "You have a different texture, Eel. Distinct from cloth. You should work on emulating fabric weaves. It would help in your undercover work."
"I'll do that. Thanks for the tip."
The silence is awkward between us. He's always been uncomfortable around me, but covered it up with his slapstick humor. Now he says nothing. Ridiculously, that makes me nervous. I clear my throat. He jumps. "As I was saying, Eel---"
"Bats." Cautiously, Eel puts a hand on my shoulder. "S'Okay. I get it. Really. And...thanks. I'm honored." He steps back and, clumsily, sincerely, bows to me in the traditional Kung-Fu style; one fist, representing power, presses into his open palm, representing the promise to do no harm.
I lower my head and incline my torso, returning the bow. Honor given. Honor returned.
"And the next time we wanna know something," Eel continues, embarrassed, "we'll just ask ya." He shrugs. "We just thought...well, that ya'd be more forthcoming if ya thought I was getting kicked out. We're...geeze, we're sorry, man! We had no idea."
I nod curtly. "Is there anything else anyone wants to know?" I let a sarcastic edge into my voice. "Since I'm already bearing my soul?"
Eel practically jumps on the offer. "Well, there is one thing."
I cock my head to one side, feeling the dread creep up my spine. "Yes," I ask impassively.
In a theatrical sotto voice, he stretches closer and asks, "So did you and Nightwing ever really, ya know, do it? Guys hear stuff."
I punch him in the face so hard he hits the wall and falls into a pile of limp, rubbery limbs. "No," I say simply. "Any other questions?" None seem forthcoming, so I slip my mask back on, walk to my chair, and sit. "Then let's get on to the next order of business."