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The Puppeteer

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Everyone has something they want. Some hidden desire, a past regret they’d give anything to change, a secret bubbling just under the surface. The conscious mind ignores them, beats them down until they vanish into a haze of impossibility or erupt in desperate violence.

The Hatter has always been able to see these desires. They are the puppet strings that shape the world, and he was gifted the role of puppeteer. Everyone’s strings are different, of course. Some people have so many they seem to be nothing but strings, bleeding want out of their very pores. Some are thick, built up over long years of desire. Others are thinner, newer. All can be manipulated.

With a simple rhyme, echoed through the tick, tick, tick of a clock, the Hatter can grab anyone’s strings and pull them. Not much, and certainly not rearrange them - he can’t control what people want, after all. He can only control what they will do to get it.

When he first finds out about his gift, he is nine. A classmate wants the shiny new toy another boy has. He nudges the strings just a bit, just enough to give him a hint. “If you want it,” he asks, “why don’t you take it? What’s stopping you?” The classmate returns to school the next day showing off his acquisition, and the boy is left in a ditch with a broken arm.

In high school, he sees the threads of the bullied and the isolated begging for connection, for friendship, and he twists them. He makes himself their king, redirects the affection they were hoping to receive onto himself. It never lasts long; the strings break and fade away when they are twisted too far, or when the original desire ends. But it lasts long enough.

Now, he has pulled on the strings of everyone in this city. Almost half of Gotham had been up on those roofs, and it had been so simple. Because everyone is fed up, aren’t they? The monotony of daily life and the drizzly grayness of the city and the oppressive knowledge that the world is hurtling toward disaster. All he’d had to ask had been “Don’t you want it to stop?” And they had.

Jim had foiled him, of course. He’d always intended him to. Jim had been the one person whose strings he couldn’t control, the ones that slipped out of his fingers at the last minute, dissolved right when things were getting interesting. And he’d hated him for it. He still did, if he was being honest. But seeing Jim walk around trailing twice his weight in strings, so many of which had thickened to ropes, was amusing in its own right. So many of them had been forcibly cut off, dwindling to nothing while being strong as a root near their source.

His friends, the Cheshire Cat and the Hare, had their strings too. But theirs were different. Maybe that’s why he was so drawn to them - they were a mystery. The Cat wrapped his up tight, hid them behind a mask of laughter and refused to let the Hatter see where they led. When he tried to grab hold of them, they merely twisted around his hand and led back to the Cat’s empty grin.

The Hare was different. He wore a mask too, but of a different kind. His strings shimmered like spider silk, here one minute and gone in a trick of the light. And the Hatter wanted to know what it would feel like to pull those strings, to find out where they went. Would his hands stick to the webbing or pass through it like air?

Sometimes, the Hare would be different people. It was always the Hare, of that he was sure, but sometimes he was called Scarecrow and those were the times he would hide behind his mask, become the mad eyes of fear itself and move only with the soft rustle of burlap and occasionally the sharp slice of a scythe. Other times he was Jonathan, but those times were rare. Then, the mask came off and revealed the boy inside, the man who reeked of fear and who radiated a desperate desire and intense disdain for appreciation so powerfully Jervis didn’t even need to be the Hatter to see it.

Scarecrow and Jonathan were always the Hare. They were welcome to the Hatter’s mad tea party, and whichever one arrived, both bore identical strings.

They were always so tempting. So unlike anyone else’s. He wanted to follow them, to see if he could make the Hare dance. But it wasn’t practical, it wouldn’t help the Cat’s plan, so he didn’t, even if he looked at them longingly nearly every time they saw each other.

When the Hatter met the Hare, it was only the Scarecrow. Jonathan only emerged after months of caution, of accepted invitations treated more delicately than eggshells. When the Hare was Jonathan, it blinked owlishly in the daylight and tried its best to fold itself down to nothing and only spoke after repeated prompting. Before this, the Hare hadn’t been Jonathan in a long time.

The Hatter - no, Jervis was fascinated by Jonathan. By his strings’ frustrating translucence, yes, but more than that. He became fascinated by Jonathan as a person in a way he hadn’t been of anyone in years. Sometimes, he found himself complimenting Jonathan when he knew it was needed, not to manipulate or hypnotize, but for comfort.

Before long, he’d watched a string grow out of himself, push its way out of his chest and tie itself around Jonathan’s wrist. On anyone else, he would have viewed such a painfully obvious desire with only disdain. It was so easy to nudge, to take affection or interest or love and make someone do horrible things in its name. He even knew what he’d have to say. “Wouldn’t they want you to? You’re helping them, they’ll see.”

But the Hatter was curious. So he waited until the Hare had provided the Cheshire Cat his precious laughing gas and then plucked at his strings, gently at first. Only enough to do small things. Convince him to eat when his body wanted to and his mind refused to leave his work. Helpful things, he told himself.

Soon, he’d grabbed every thread coming off the Hare and counted them, learned them. And he’d been right, they had stuck to his hands like the spider silk they were made from, impossible to remove. He only succeeded in entangling himself further.

His Hare wanted to prove his worth, to spite a dead father whose shadow he felt he hadn’t escaped. He wanted to be feared, and, in a smaller cord braided into that, to be loved. And Jervis felt the string tied around Jonathan’s wrist, the one that connected to his heart, grow stronger when he realized - he didn’t want to use that desire for love against Jonathan, puppet him like he had so many others. He wanted to fill that desire, give him that love.

But the strings were stuck to his hands and as he attempted to free himself Jonathan danced empty-eyed before him. He yanked this way and that, and nothing ever freed him but Jonathan did as his unwitting manipulations asked, blankness in his eyes slowly turning to anger.

Rage sparked and Jervis panicked as Jonathan stepped towards him, each movement slow and deliberate as he fought off the Hatter’s control. Jervis felt the last of the strings rip free from his hands as Jonathan pulled a knife out of his pocket. He let out a sigh of relief before he practically collapsed as a sharp pain exploded in his stomach. Looking down, he saw the knife buried in his abdomen.

“Stay out of my head,” Jonathan practically growled, and if Jervis hadn’t just been stabbed he knew he would have found that threat very interesting.

Jonathan twisted the knife just a little as he pulled it out, making Jervis’s knees buckle with pain. Jonathan wouldn’t let him fall though, and distantly Jervis wondered why.

“I’m sorry,” he said. This was the first genuine apology he could remember giving.

“I trusted you. You only saw me instead of Scarecrow because I trusted you, and look where that got me.” He lay Jervis down, far more gently than one would expect from the person who had just stabbed him. Blood trickled from his stomach, slowly but growing faster by the second. “You can’t hypnotize people into getting everything you want. And I know what you want.”

He leaned over and kissed Jervis, and even the kiss was cold. It was everything Jervis had wanted, but not like this.

“I could’ve loved you, you know.”

Jonathan stood up and left, the door slamming behind him. Jervis brought one bloody hand up to trace his lips and passed out, cursing himself and Jonathan and regretting his unfortunate similarity to the Cheshire Cat’s still, lifeless body he’d seen only weeks earlier.

In the back of an ambulance, the Hatter pulled on one of the paramedics’ strings. She only wanted to help, after all.

“There was an anonymous tip,” she said. “We never would have found you in time otherwise.”

Nodding, the Hatter asked her to let him out of the ambulance. “You wouldn’t want me arrested, would you? That would be most unkind.”

She unlatched the door and he hopped out at a red light, wincing in pain when his feet touched the pavement. Not for the first time since arriving in this city, he had nowhere to go. Not for the first time, he saw a string trail limply from his chest, belonging to a person he knew had cut the other end.