August 2012 – January 2016
A/N: This story would not have been possible without two very special people: Karen Greim Mullian and IcyWaters.
I started writing this right after seeing "The Dark Knight Rises" for the first time, more than three years ago. I hit writer's block when my dear friend and beta at the time, Karen, died. IcyWaters generously picked up the mantle and has been my source of inspiration, encouragement and much needed butt kicking ever since. Thank you, my friend! I couldn't have done it without you.
Alfred Pennyworth crossed the temporary bridge to Gotham the moment it had been cleared for non-military personnel, following the huge convoys taking relief supplies into the city. Whatever Master Wayne might think, his oldest friend had never abandoned him.
Alfred had waited on the other side of the bay, always caring, always hoping, never letting the isolated city that had sunk into darkness out of his sight.
He passed heaps of rubble, pieces of buildings and furniture; clothes thrown out of windows or dragged outside by the mobs; broken-down cars, vehicles that had burned out or been blown up; filth and dirt and dust on every street. It was chaos and senseless destruction.
The news reports hadn't been able to prepare Alfred for the sight before his eyes.
He walked on with heavy feet and an even heavier heart; yet he'd had to come back. He needed to know…needed to see if it was true. Alfred swallowed but never finished his thought. He turned a corner and bumped into someone who was walking backwards, shouting orders at some policemen clearing the street of rubble. It was Jim Gordon.
Alfred quietly apologized and sidestepped the commissioner to hurry on, hopefully unrecognized, when a hand sneaked out of nowhere and grabbed him by the arm. Startled, Alfred began to twist his arm free and raised his other hand to punch whoever had grabbed him. Belatedly, he realized the hand holding on to him belonged to Jim Gordon. He stopped himself just in time before knocking out the commissioner. Then he let himself be dragged back around the corner he had just turned, into a dark alley that seemed to end nowhere, but Alfred knew better than that.
They came to stand a few yards into the narrow passage, alone and unobserved in the shadows because the light didn't reach very far in here, gazing at each other in the dimness.
Alfred cleared his throat, opting for playing the part of the elderly butler he'd inhabited for most of his life in Gotham. "Commissioner Gordon?" he asked, adding just the right amount of confusion and worry to his voice that any innocent citizen who had been dragged into a dark corner by Gotham's head of police would feel.
It didn't work.
Jim Gordon regarded Alfred with a scrutinizing gaze usually reserved for a specimen under a microscope, but the older man resisted the urge to squirm and said instead, "I'm sorry, sir, but I need to go on. I'm looking for…"
He didn't get the chance to finish his sentence because Gordon interrupted him, his face grave and sad. "You won't find him."
Alfred stood stock-still, his heart ready to break into a million tiny pieces, a thousand thoughts and more racing through his mind at the same time. What do you mean? How can you even know whom I'm looking for? You must be wrong! How dare you assume? It cannot be true!
He uttered none of this. Instead, Alfred tried playing ignorant one more time, not wanting to believe, not thinking the unbelievable, not saying the unspeakable. "I am very sorry, sir, but I think you're confusing me with someone else. I came back into the city to search for my master who hasn't been seen in days."
Gordon heaved a sigh, deep from his core, and looked around as if searching for eavesdroppers. When he found none, he looked at Alfred steadily and repeated, with more emphasis this time, "You won't find him. I am sorry." His voice didn't break, but Alfred could hear the weariness and despair in it. The hurt and loneliness. And finally he knew that it was true. Master Wayne would never come back.
But how could Gordon know?
Alfred refused to accept the pain, the burn in his heart and chest, the knowledge of his ultimate failure, just yet. He forced himself to stand when all he wanted to do was to run, to destroy, to weep. Was this what Master Wayne had felt all these years?
"Are you sure?" he asked instead. Gordon simply nodded.
Before Alfred could come up with another reply, the commissioner continued, anticipating his next question, "He told me. I didn't force him. He knew he wouldn't come back, and I think he wanted me to know."
Alfred held himself upright by sheer force of will. "Thank you." It was all he could say.
He needed to get away, away from this man who had been able to say goodbye to Batman when Alfred himself hadn't. The knowing gaze, the dullness in the commissioner's eyes…it was all too much.
Alfred simply turned and walked away, not looking back, not saying anything else, and Gordon let him go.
The old butler went on, paying no attention to the people crossing his path, shouting at him to get out of the way, the rubble and heaps of destruction still lining the streets. Alfred had only one goal: the Wayne estate on the outskirts of the city.
Bruce wasn't there.
Alfred searched the manor from top to bottom – and then went back up again. The young man wasn't in the batcave or anywhere on the grounds. Not hiding in the old well that had given Master Wayne the fright of his life – and a new purpose to cling to. He wasn't in the greenhouses or on the roof or waiting just outside the wall encircling the park. There were no cryptic clues, no fancy gadgets showing him the way. No messages. No hope.
This time, there were no miracles.
The last member of the Wayne family was truly gone, had given his life to save the city that had only caused him pain and suffering for more than thirty years. And still Alfred couldn't believe it. Wouldn't believe it. He had left his master, his surrogate son, in order to protect him, to save his life – not to send him to his death all alone.
Alfred opened the gate to the Wayne family's tiny graveyard whose headstones looked out over the city, silent and strong. And there he finally broke down. He fell to his knees in front of Thomas and Martha's graves, sobbing and shaking and cursing himself.
Lucius Fox found him two hours later, hugging his knees and staring unseeing at the names of the two people who had trusted him, had entrusted him, with their most precious gift in the world: their son.
"Come now, Alfred," Lucius said, trying to drag his friend to his feet without jarring the arm he had hurt during his mad flight from the underground cavern, but Alfred was inconsolable, a dead weight in his arms.
"I left him," was all the distressed man could say. "I left him."
Lucius finally gave up and sank down onto the grass as well, resting his left hand in his lap. "You did not leave him, Alfred," he tried to reason with his eldest friend. "You made a choice you thought was right. You did it in order to save his life, but we both know that Bruce Wayne was no one you could bully into doing something he didn't want to do. His goal in life was to protect this city – God knows why – and he did it willingly, whole-heartedly, no matter the cost."
His voice was steady, assured, and calm; but when Alfred looked up in anger to admonish Lucius for his lack of grief for his former charge, he saw his own pain and guilt mirrored in the other man's eyes.
Lucius had always pretended not to know what Master Wayne was up to with his eccentric requests and hair-raising shenanigans, but more than once he had come to Alfred for confirmation or reassurance and help in managing a man who cared about everyone except himself – or so it had seemed.
He had been like a son to both of them, and the two men sat in silence for a while to share their sorrow, deep in thought.
Eventually, Lucius rose to his feet and offered Alfred a hand up. "Come on, let's get you inside and into some dry clothes."
Alfred got up as well, leaning heavily on Lucius's offered arm, but he refused to leave the graveyard just yet. He stood staring at the Waynes' gravestones, his head bent and his shoulders down. He looked much older than Lucius had ever seen his friend.
They both turned around at the sound of feet on the gravel in the driveway.
John Blake walked toward them. He still looked the same as before – young, earnest, and honest – but there was a new tension in the line of his shoulders, darkness lingering around his eyes and mouth, anger and pain in the way his feet hit the ground with every step.
It was a quiet anger Alfred had seen too often in Master Wayne, and it made him fear for this young cop who was still a stranger to him. But he knew that the detective had honored his oath and tried to protect the people of Gotham with everything he had. His picture had been all over the news, as the man who tried to cross the bridge leading out of Gotham with an entourage of children and citizens behind him – and almost got blown up for his courage and sense of duty.
Pulling himself together, Alfred stood up straighter and let go of Lucius's arm. But he could see that he hadn't fooled Detective Blake who observed him with knowing eyes that told much more about the young policeman's early life than he wanted anyone to know. Not commenting on it, Alfred simply acknowledged the new arrival. "Detective Blake."
Blake nodded in greeting – it was more like a salute than anything else – and looked at the two men before him in turn. He didn't offer any explanation for his unexpected visit, but eventually, he seemed to come to a decision. He turned toward Alfred and faced the elderly butler full-on. "I am sorry, Mr. Pennyworth. I couldn't save him."
Alfred stared at Blake in astonishment. "You? Save him?" He almost laughed out loud at the ridiculous idea of a simple cop saving Batman. Then he saw the pained look on the young man's face, the guilt lurking behind his eyes, and he suddenly understood.
"Oh, no, you don't!" he snarled, surprising even himself. Blake took an involuntary step backwards, looking to Lucius for help who stepped closer to Alfred in turn but refrained from taking his arm again.
Alfred took a deep breath and continued more calmly, "Don't you dare take the blame for his fall! You only tried to help him – and this city – by asking for his help." He didn't need to specify the "him." It was obvious to the butler that Blake had known all along; how was a whole other matter. "It was his choice; and although I tried to stop him from going out there again, I think I always knew the outcome of all this. So if you really want to put the blame where it belongs, you lay it on me." Pain and misery constricted his chest, and Alfred had to pause for breath. Blake started to shake his head, but Alfred interrupted him. "I failed to protect him. I even helped him when he came to me with his crazy idea all those years ago. I was so glad to see him alive back then that I would have gone along with almost anything. I agreed to it although I knew better. Now he is dead, and I am still alive."
And with one long last glance toward the Waynes' headstones, Alfred marched off toward the house, leaving in his wake two shocked figures who didn't know what to do. They looked after the hunched-over man slowly limping toward Wayne Manor.
Lucius started to follow, but Blake held up a hand in warning. "You better let him go."
They gazed at each other until Lucius finally nodded. "You're right," he conceded, regarding Blake with new respect in his eyes.
They had gotten to know each other well enough over the past few months, working together to undermine Bane's grip on the city and trying to hold the resistance together, so no more words were necessary between them. They both knew that sometimes there was just nothing you could do to ease the pain.
Each of them would have to find his own ways of dealing with it.
Lucius could see that Blake hadn't had time to come to terms with what had happened. Not just the events of two days ago, but the past few months as well. Hell, even he had trouble accepting that most of Gotham was lying in ruins once more and that Batman – Bruce Wayne – was dead.
He was torn between grief and the wish for a miracle. Bruce had been known for doing the undoable – the man had been jumping off rooftops and beating the criminals of Gotham to a pulp every night for years – but Lucius knew he should stop hoping and concentrate on helping to rebuild this city.
Batman was gone. Many other good men and women had died saving their city. The survivors still had work to do. And Lucius could really use Blake's help.
Resolutely turning away from the gravestones, Lucius started walking toward the gate, motioning for Blake to follow him. "Come on. It's not over yet."
He didn't know if he meant their situation in general or the tiny slumped figure that had reached the entrance to the manor and was fiddling with the key in his pocket right now, but it didn't matter. Blake joined him willingly enough, falling into step beside him as they walked toward the staircase leading up to the Wayne dynasty's former home.
They took a few steps in silence. When Lucius observed Alfred entering the house and closing the huge door behind him, he turned to Blake. "So you knew."
It wasn't a question but a statement. Blake just nodded.
"Did you tell anyone?" Lucius added.
The young cop shook his head vehemently. "Of course not!"
"Good. We'll need to come up with an explanation for Mr. Wayne's death as well as a body we can bury."
The policeman looked stricken at the idea. He stopped at the top of the stairs, and Lucius sighed. With everything the young man had seen and done over the past months, you would have thought that he'd have lost his wide-eyed innocence and idealism along the way. Obviously, something of the former rookie who still believed in doing right from wrong continued to exist in him. Question was: for how long?
Lucius hated himself at that moment, but Alfred seemed in no condition to make these decisions, and they needed to plan ahead before anyone could notice that something was amiss, that the story they were about to tell the world didn't fit.
The younger man visibly shook himself at Lucius's address. "Yes, Mr. Fox?"
"You're still a cop, are you not?"
Blake blinked and shrugged. "Technically, yes. I'm not carrying my badge or my service weapon anymore because I lost it, but on paper I'm still a member of the force." He continued with an edge to his voice, "However, I am going to resign as soon as the worst is over. I'll help the commissioner to clean up this mess, bring back some order and help where I can, but I'm done with all this official police business."
Ignoring the curious look coming from Wayne Enterprises's former CEO, he added, "We're going to need the commissioner's help."
"Why?" Lucius replied. "Surely you have enough authority as a detective to help us out."
Blake shook his head. "Sorry, I can't. And I won't. Don't you think we need to tell Commissioner Gordon? He has a right to know. He should be there."
"Be where?" came the commissioner's voice from behind and slightly below them. Both men jumped guiltily and turned around.
Jim Gordon stood at the base of the grand staircase, still wearing the same clothes he had in the news reports for the past two days. In fact, none of them had changed in the past couple of days, but no one cared about such unimportant things anymore.
The commissioner raised an eyebrow at their silent greeting and took the stairs toward them with a few long strides that belied the weariness in his slightly slumped bearing and the tired lines around his eyes.
He stopped in front of them and fixed Blake with a stern glance over the rim of his glasses. "I thought I told you to get to the MCU and see how many men had reported back, Detective."
"I did that, sir," Blake replied defensively. "I was on my way back to you when, uh…I just needed to…" His voice faltered, and he averted his gaze.
Gordon snorted and let him off the hook. "It's okay, son," he said gently. "I've been here myself several times over the past two days. He's not coming back. We all know that." He cast a meaningful eye at Lucius who looked at the commissioner in surprise.
Blake's head snapped up when his brain registered what Gordon had just said. "So you knew," he accused his boss. "I thought you said you never wanted to know. You told me to let it rest!" The anger was back in his posture.
Gordon took off his dirty glasses and started cleaning them on his even dirtier sleeve, taking the time to formulate his reply. When he finally spoke, there was a storm of emotions flickering across his face and a bone-deep weariness to his voice. "Yes, I did, but I also told you the truth. When you asked me if I didn't want to know, I answered honestly. I did not want to learn his true identity. It didn't matter to me. I knew he was my friend, my ally, that was enough."
He paused, and Lucius asked kindly, "What made you change your mind?"
The commissioner looked at him and replied frankly, "He strapped himself into his futuristic flying thing to take the bomb away. He looked at me in goodbye, and it was clear that he knew he was going to his death. So I asked him – and he told me."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that," Gordon confirmed. "He didn't tell me his name out loud, but his answer was easy enough for me to understand. And then he took off."
"Damn the man!" Lucius turned away, and the two cops exchanged worried looks behind his back.
"What do you mean?" Blake dared to ask.
Lucius sighed and turned around again to face them, his complexion gray despite his darker skin. "I told him to fix the autopilot months ago. I didn't have the time or the resources, and I thought it would be a nice challenge for him, to occupy his mind when his body was failing him."
Gordon looked at him with sudden understanding, as if a piece of a puzzle had finally fallen into place, although the sadness never left his eyes. "You were his supplier, his…inventor, weren't you?"
Lucius nodded grimly. "Yes, I was. I ran the R&D department of Wayne Enterprises when Mr. Wayne first came back to Gotham. One day, he strolls down into my lab and asks me if he can have a look around. The next I know, I am building this and that for him, giving him an antidote against the toxin that claimed the Narrows, allowing him to fly."
He abruptly cut himself off. "We shouldn't be talking about this out here. And since we now all know," – he stressed the last word for emphasis – "we should go inside and try to get warm at least. It's freezing, don't you think?"
With that, he turned around and banged on the huge double door in the hopes of getting Alfred to let them in. Lucius knew from his previous tries that the doorbell hadn't worked for a couple of days at least. It was also getting dark, but no lights were on anywhere in the huge manor looming over them, and the streetlights leading down the driveway stayed unlit as well.
Lucius huffed in annoyance. As soon as everything was more or less back to normal, he would see to it that Mr. Wayne's money was returned to his company. He didn't want anyone to remember Bruce Wayne, last of the Wayne dynasty that had been good to Gotham for more than a century, as the man who gambled with his family's fortune and lost it all. Lucius could prove that it had been a fraud – he just needed some time and a good computer to do so.
The screeching of one of the beautifully carved oak doors opening shook him from his musings.
Alfred stood in the doorway of Wayne Manor, regarding the three dark-clad figures patiently waiting in Gotham's winter cold, much more composed than he'd been just a few minutes ago. Lucius was glad to see his friend slightly recovered. They had a lot of planning to do. And now with all of Batman's allies assembled here, they needed to get to work. Fast.
The old butler's gaze came to rest on Gordon. "Commissioner," he simply said, accepting the latest arrival in their circle of conspirators. He turned without another word and led them down into the basement kitchen. And there, by candlelight and the flickering illumination coming from the ancient fireplace, they outlined their battle plan.