disclaimer: Batman Begins (c) Warner Bros/DC Comics.
summary: Covers the "two days" Bruce was out from Crane's fear toxin.
Images curled around his mind like the smoke rising from his body, taking charge of his senses with an insidious violence. Breath only seemed to draw him deeper within himself, where the world shifted and bent, blotted out at intervals by sound and memory. Relentlessly the bats tore at him, through him, like he was nothing and they were everything. Yet he was in a strangely lucid state, despite the crippling presence of the pain. It all made sense, somehow - and that was perhaps the most frightening thing of all.
Still, what was left of his objectivity railed against his growing complacence. It was maddening, to feel the hard-won control slipping from him so easily, like ice melting through his fingers the stronger he gripped it. But there was something fierce in him that yet resisted, something stubborn and unyielding that scorned the toxin that spread through his blood. Blindly, he reached for the edge of the rooftop and heaved himself onto the wet metal - a wounded monster, smoking like some black demon just thrown from hell.
Forcing mastery over his limbs, he reached down to retrieve the comlink located on his utility belt - a small device he'd hoped he'd never have to use. It indicated failure and reliance, two quieter fears that usually festered in some dark corner of his subconscious, but now joined the storm loose within him.
Disgusted at his own desperation, he attempted to speak into the receiver. The name was hardly recognizable coming from his throat.
A gunshot rang out above the chaos that engulfed him, and with clear certainity he saw his father falling before him, triggering his mother's screams, which mingled with the high-pitched howling of the bats. The sound was excruciating. It came from everywhere at once.
Father. It wasn't a prayer. Or a plea.
An apology, perhaps.
For seven years Alfred Pennyworth had been the sole occupant of Wayne Manor. And despite the house's intimidating size - so vast and excessive it was, of all things, claustrophobic to any visitor stepping through its doors - he had never felt alone in it. The legacy that had been entrusted to him to protect lived tangibly with him in the place. In a sense, Wayne Manor itself was his company.
Still, Bruce's long absence had been felt. The place was never quite right without a Wayne under its roof. As it wasn't now, and whenever Bruce went out on one of his nightly crusades - finding something worthy upon which to let loose that unnamed rage Alfred had witnessed being born, so many years ago.
On these nights, Alfred almost felt as if nothing had changed. He would distract his thoughts in the same fashion he had when Bruce had been away - tending to the spotless rooms that were never in use, over-tending to Bruce's, checking the kitchen arrangements for the morning, generally attempting to improve upon the perfect - until he conceded that there was nothing more to be done and took a seat in the study, where the perpetual, faint classical trilling from the stereo would provide a backdrop for his carefully organized thoughts... but always a backdrop, never a focus, as he so ardently wished it would.
One thing was different, however. There was one new addition to his subconscious routine, something that hadn't been a factor before. He would find his eyes, with cursed inevitability, straying to the grandfather clock in the study. And whenever that happened, he would realize his attempt at self-distraction had failed yet again, and his thoughts would congeal back into worry for the young man.
With a sigh, he leaned back in his chair.
Alfred always worried. After all, he was the only one who could.
He considered it part of his duty.
And tonight, he was reminded of just how important that duty was, when the music coming from the stereo suddenly cut short, and he heard his name barked twice through the speakers - hardly discernable - sending a shock through the quiet of the Manor and bringing him to his feet in an instant.
Alfred made his way out to the Bentley in a state of heightened awareness. He didn't realize he was shaking until he turned the key in the ignition. Blasted nerves. It was unseemly to be less-than-composed right now, when such a time required imminent focus. Not one moment could be spared. He did not know the details of the situation, but what he had heard in that voice... it had shaken him in a way he had not experienced since...
Since a call on a bleak night twenty years ago, one that had forever marked his life - and that of an eight-year-old boy in a police station waiting to be picked up.
He hadn't been prepared for what he saw in Bruce that night. There were no tears to wipe away, not even the stain of dried ones on his young, flawless cheeks. He had stared sightlessly through Alfred, hardly aware beyond some base level that he was there. His eyes had held an ocean's worth of unshed grief, dammed up behind a vacancy that haunted Alfred still - the same vacancy that Bruce had carried with him for the several long years up until his disappearance.
Before then, Bruce had only allowed Alfred to get so close. He was distant more out of a need to escape himself than anything else... a young man so charged with guilt and anger that it forced him away to some vast, lonely plane of existence Alfred could not (nor did he believe he honestly wished to) visit.
But ever since arriving home, Bruce's guard had been let down significantly. Carefully at first, but more and more as time went on. His steely resolve was still there, of course, and he was far more intensely focused than the frustrated adolescent that had left years ago. Yet it was as if his effort to perpetuate a false front toward everyone else in Gotham had drained him, mind and spirit, and around Alfred, he let his control slacken a bit - out of necessity. In those moments, he was not who he wanted to be nor who he wanted others to see. He was, quite simply, himself.
And Alfred knew Bruce could not go without those lapses, or he would be lost.
So he had taken it upon himself to make sure such a thing never happened. He couldn't pinpoint exactly how he went about doing this - it was more a small, yet indisposable, part of everything he undertook - the entire way of life Alfred maintained for the young Master, since he couldn't for himself. He would call it normalcy, except that there was nothing normal about this mode of living, and there never would be. Normal was the streets of Gotham, the struggling middle class, the people Bruce fought so hard to protect. People he had no real insight into, no singular common trait save the fact that something had been taken from him.
Normal was the Narrows, where the pulsing point of light on the vehicle's map system was leading him. He navigated the streets now with precision, wondering at the way Gotham disintegrated around him the farther he went. The tall, proud buildings gave way to decrepit structures, hungover in filth and neglect, a pair of desperate eyes peering out from the darkness every now and again. Alfred had never been this far into Gotham's less savory districts - he'd never had cause to - and as he watched the road ahead, Bruce's self-appointed quest suddenly became very real to him.
On the locator system, the dot hadn't moved for several minutes. Alfred felt his common worry evolving into a heavy dread. It was all too easy to imagine a place like this pulling Bruce under, and it was with this thought fresh in his mind that he pressed the comm button to hail, of all creatures, the Batman.
But he was not the Batman any longer, he was just Bruce Wayne, stripped of the ferocious dominance over his fear that made him into Gotham's monster. And he struggled to fight the blackness that crept in at the corners of his consciousness, even though it promised to swallow the storm. He could not allow himself the luxury, not yet.
He must wait.
An eternity later, static crackled from the comm's receiver. It was hard to make out through the unending noise that held his mind captive, but something about Alfred's voice - clear, distinct - pierced the dissonance, affording him some much-needed focus.
"Master Wayne." Alfred's trademark calm was inflected with dismay. "The southeast alley. Master Wayne?"
He couldn't speak, so he merely punched the microphone button to let Alfred know he had heard him.
With a growl that he wasn't sure ever reached his throat, he commanded stiffened limbs to lift dead weight; the action was protested with a fresh wave of pain. The bats themselves seemed to be forcing him down, their will being for him to remain prostrate and submissive - their will his own at the bottom of some distant, dark well so long ago.
The will is everything...
And he would not allow his to be undermined any longer by some ghost of the past.
He made out the opposite edge of the rooftop in erratic glimpses through the toxin's haze. The southeast alley. He momentarily blessed Lucius Fox and the technology that had made it so easy for Alfred to pinpoint his location, even if the necessity for it at all was so humiliating.
After some time he noticed his heart beating irregularly, and the fight to stay conscious became more intense. He felt as if he were hanging from the edge of a precipice, not at all unlike that fateful moment back in the mountains of Bhutan, where he had refused once before to give into despair.
He much preferred that situation to this one, where no mere physicality could save him. All of it, all of the training, all of his mental barriers, had been thwarted in an instant - half-paralyzed by something he had long since conquered, become, used.
It was using him, now.
His hatred for it had its own fire, and for the first time since Chill's death Bruce did not stop himself from hating with the full force of his being.
It was powerful, and it brought him, in a heap, to the corner of the southeast alley.
The first time Bruce put on the costume, Alfred had marveled at how such a familiar voice could come from so demonic a guise. The cowl was what transformed him. He remembered feeling as if he'd go mad if Bruce took it on and off one more time during their first testing session. Bruce would muse about technicalities and Alfred would do his best to offer a comment or suggestion every now and then, but the absurdity of it all had taken him so far aback he'd found himself at a loss for words more than once.
But even then, it had been more of a bizarre curiosity, nothing that truly frightened him; the only thing he'd feared about the whole ordeal was Bruce's own safety... and sanity.
Now, though, in midst of the tar-black rain that fell in torrents from the night sky, weak tendrils of smoke framing the haggard figure at the corner of the alley, Alfred was afraid.
The street was abandoned. He supposed any souls brave or desperate enough to be out in this hellish weather hadn't dared approach the shadow, leaving him fully alone, and giving Alfred the chance he needed.
He exited the Bentley in a rush, closing the few feet between them and biting his tongue before he let "Master Wayne" slip. He shook the hunched figure tentatively, and it shifted. Gaunt eyes lifted to look at him out of the mask, a truly unsettling vision, and with visible effort, the Batman tried to stand.
Alfred grabbed his forearm and heaved, grateful when he felt a response. He could hardly do this on his own.
Together they stumbled back to the Bentley.
Bruce was trying to say something. It came out in a mess of harsh syllables that Alfred couldn't, for the life of himself, put together - whether it was because of Bruce's condition or simply because his own nerves were stretched so tight, he didn't know. But he strained to hear, and eventually the sounds rearranged themselves into something that made sense... though he did not like the sense they made.
Alfred's heart sank. It was worse than he'd guessed. What had been done to him? Who had done it?
He an elementary idea of how one dealt with poisoning, but this specific situation... what if there was something more to it? His mind reeled. The list of people who could help was short, and it was out of the question anyway. He could not compromise the young Master's secret, not this early in the game.
Or could he? Which was easier to be risked: an identity or a life?
Alfred glanced back; Bruce was fading. They were about ten minutes from the Manor.
Sheets of water ran down the windshield, but the road ahead was blurry for more than one reason.
When the silence came, it was far worse than anything before.
He'd thought the blackness would bring relief, but he was wrong.
It was the same silence that had visited him in the wake of his parents' murder; it was, in and of itself, deafening. The footsteps of the thief... the murderer... had sounded almost as loud as the shots themselves in the heaviness of the quiet. Soon even they receded, and he was left so utterly alone the word lost its meaning.
He couldn't even cry.
No more than two minutes ago he had been inside - his mother and father surrounding him protectively, alive and warm, not cold like the lifeless fingers he still clutched on the dirty pavement.
He hadn't trusted that protection. It hadn't been enough.
It was his fault, and he couldn't even cry.
Bruce hadn't moved for hours.
Despite this fact - or perhaps because of it - Alfred found it difficult to leave his side for more than a few minutes at a time. He stared down at the young man's sleeping form, wondering what more could possibly be done.
The suit had stayed most of the burns, though even with it removed, the room still smelled of smoke and gasoline. Alfred doubted Bruce would remember much of his journey through the Manor to this bed; he'd fought the inevitable to the point where he might as well have been walking unconscious, every part of him shut down save base muscle movements - placing one foot in front of the other with Alfred's support. It was a display of human endurance that would have amazed Alfred had it come from anyone other than Bruce.
Very little water had gone down his throat before he was completely out. Then Alfred went about an old duty, one he'd performed since Bruce's childhood sickdays - tending to every conceivable outside factor that might increase the comfort of the afflicted, until proper help came.
But no help was coming.
He weighed, not for the first time that night, the pros and cons of following through with the sanest option available to him - calling Lucius Fox.
It was only with Bruce that the sanest option became so... complicated.
He didn't appear to be improving, but Alfred argued with himself that it was too early to tell. Initially, he'd hoped that the effects of whatever substance Bruce had been exposed to would simply wear off with time - at least enough to grant him eventual consciousness and some degree of lucidity, so that they could move forward from there.
But it was a baseless hope, and if anything, Bruce seemed to be falling into a deeper, almost catatonic state as the night wore on. He had been pale before, but his skin now was cold and clammy to the touch. His face, turned sideways on the pillow, held an uncommonly fragile expression... it brought to Alfred's mind the little boy after his fall into the cave beneath the Manor, days before his parents had been effectively stolen from the both of them. That fall, as Alfred later observed, had cracked more than bone... it had set up fault lines that ran through the whole of him. And when they gave way, he'd been left with the shattered pieces of himself, sharp and uncompromising, each vying for control - tearing into him in the process.
Alfred saw the way Bruce justified the pain. Yet somehow, he did not let it become self-destructive. He punished himself, yes, but did not wallow in self-pity, nor lock himself away from the world - instead, he had chosen to lash out. In a debatably controlled manner. However close he got to crossing the line - and the struggle to stay behind it was, at times, obvious - there was an unfailing nobility to him: his father's. It was what held everything else in check; it was what helped Alfred to understand the young Master so well. He was Thomas, and yet he was not; their methods were entirely different, but the root of their motivations, the same.
Letting out a sigh, Alfred rested his elbow on the bedside table and rubbed his right temple, watching Bruce still, though nothing changed, nor promised to.
A few hours later, he made the call.
As the silence continued, he began to forget.
It was like walking backwards through time, watching his life recede in front of him. He forgot Batman. The creature inside of him was still nameless. He saw Ducard's face, and the years with the League of Shadows rushed from behind him to the forefront of his mind - years with purpose, belonging... focus. He longed for them even as they slipped all too quickly away, and he tasted the loneliness that had defined the first bout of his exile, the aimless frustration.
The forgetting helped him to remember certain things more clearly than ever, before they evaporated like smoke.
"Lucius Fox, Applied Sciences."
"Mr. Fox, this is Alfred Pennyworth calling from Wayne Manor."
The bored voice on the other end of the line sparked to life immediately. "Alfred? And here I was prepping for another reprimand from Earle. What can I do for you?"
There was a slight pause before Alfred ventured, "I'm afraid it's a bit of an emergency."
"Oh no." The dread in Fox's voice was evident, and all too familiar. "How bad?"
"I hesitate to say, but his condition has certainly worsened since last evening." Alfred did not attempt to mask his worry. "He's been poisoned, I believe, though I'm not sure as to how. I couldn't call a doctor, for reasons I think you understand." He swallowed, his throat suddenly dry.
"Yes. Of course." Alfred could almost hear the information clicking into place as Fox's mind reeled. Then, rather than being asked further questions, which Alfred fully expected to field, there was merely the scrape of a chair on the other end and the promise, "I'll be there as soon as I can."
He allowed himself to feel a measure of relief. "Your speed is most appreciated, Lucius."
And he hung up the phone.
When the returning silence was complete, he peered down at Bruce again, gingerly touching the icy cloth that lay on his forehead, that was now growing lukewarm. The fevers were quickly nullifying his attempts to bring them into check. Even lowering the temperature in the room had helped little. But Alfred chided himself for letting such inappropriate worry overwhelm him. It was not in a Wayne's nature to surrender to the way things were, Bruce least of all. He would pull through. Lord knew, he was stubborn enough.
Still, as Alfred dutifully replaced the wet cloth with a fresh one, he bitterly cursed whoever had reduced Bruce to this state.
Lucius Fox removed his spectacles as he walked through the last of many doors in the incessantly massive Wayne Manor. It had been years since he'd stepped foot inside this castle of an estate. Owing, of course, to the fact that Wayne Enterprises had been left to rot by one man with a gun; he'd pondered on the curious scale of that cause-and-effect chain many times before. Had Thomas and Martha Wayne lived - either one of them - their son would have likely stepped into their shoes at the company long ago; Earle would've never been allowed to take root... Gotham itself might be a marginally different place.
But his father had left before he could teach his son how to properly fill those shoes, and now the young Wayne was trying to do it his own way.
Yet, in the end, he mused, were the consequences all that different?
Shaking his head, Lucius took the seat Alfred offered him, quietly scrutinizing the still form on the bed. It was a wonder, how aptly this man had managed to make everyone in Gotham believe specific things about him. His front was masterful, to the point where Fox was amazed he didn't arouse more suspicion just for being so damn good at it. Especially when it came to people who had known his parents.
But then, Fox realized, few that had known Thomas and Martha had been concerned with much else other than the stature to be gained by being associated with the Waynes.
Scenes like this, in any case - a pensive English butler overseeing his stricken ward in silence - were most definitely far from what the public guessed went on inside the walls of Wayne Manor at this hour.
After a moment, he asked, "How long have the fevers been running?"
"Three or four hours, by now."
Fox nodded and pulled out a syringe from his coat pocket, leaning carefully over Bruce to apply it to his upper forearm, from which he drew the smallest possible sample of blood. "I'll need to work quickly."
"Thank you, Lucius," Alfred said as, so soon after arriving, Fox prepared to leave. He glanced back down at Bruce, then returned Alfred's sincere look.
"No need," he replied, and then cracked a smile. "He'll be fine, Alfred."
"I know, but I've been waiting to hear it."
Fox gave a slight bow, widened his grin, and said, "Earle's determination to ignore me will ensure all the privacy we need in this matter. And, thanks to his father," he gestured to Bruce, "I have everything required at my disposal."
The more he forgot, the sharper the grief became - but the vaguer the details of his memory. School was a sea of faces pressing up against him, trying to get in... but he had locked himself away and hidden the key.
Alfred was a constant, though - sometimes he found the key when Bruce had forgotten where he'd put it.
He hated being young; too small to do anything about the profound emptiness that plagued him, too scared to confront it. So he ran away. It seemed he was always running, lately.
Then, without warning, there it was: the moment he hadn't realized he'd been dreading, and something within him screamed for the backwards pull to stop - he could not forget this, he couldn't let it pass away as easily as the rest had... this moment was him, now, and without it, he was nothing.
The eyes of the killer were more frightened and shocked than hardened or evil, which made the young Bruce, who couldn't conceive of such a thing, hate him all the more.
And then it was leaving, with the same inevitability of the other memories, not matter how fiercely he clung to it. He was being dragged away from the scene, from himself...
And the silence abruptly ended.
There was no sound for awhile still, but he could tell it had gone. It was like a cork had been pulled from an empty bottle, with a mute pop, and he could breathe again. Light fell on his face, and he gazed up, half-blinded.
It was his father, and he spoke.
"Bruce," he said, and just hearing his name in that voice again made him feel a fleeting, blissful moment of completion; most importantly, it made him remember. The forgetting had stopped, its purpose served... things congealed now, instead of evaporating, and he was at the bottom of himself - though it did not look like he had guessed. "Why do we fall?"
He opened his eyes.