Chapter 1: The Living Years
"Say it loud, say it clear/You can listen as well as you hear/It's too late when we die/
To admit we don't see eye to eye" – Mike & The Mechanics
Thanks to DWParsnip for the beta!
"...the extent to which vast chromosomal regions have been duplicated in the Arabi–"
"HEY Knock it off, Dick!"
Sitting back in his chair, Bruce exhaled deeply and clicked off the digital voice recorder. He'd been trying to break down Pamela Isley's latest tweak to her serum for the last couple hours but instead, had found himself growing more and more irritated at the number of times his normally impenetrable concentration had been breached.
Bruce rubbed his eyes before starting the recorder again and–exhaling deeply–leaned forward to look through the microscope again before continuing, "--duplicated in the Arabidopsis genome, indicates..."
"Oohhh, knock it off," Dick mocked, shaking his palms in the air. -left upper block- "Is that gonna be your new battle cry the next time you go up against" -right lower block- "Scarecrow or Clayface?" -side step, left reverse punch-
"I'm pretty sure" -right outer block- "they won't be" -left forward elbow- "trying to de-pants me!
"...indicates that the evolution of Arabidopsis involved a whole-genome duplication--,"
-right reverse knife hand- "Ya never know, Tim, Dr. Crane might have a kinky side…" -left elbow back, strike to eyes-
"Okay, that's just -hih-hih- gross," Tim panted with exertion, suddenly finding himself in a headlock.
"--duplication followed by gene loss and additional extensive local gene duplications."
"Hey, I'm only looking out for you!"' Dick laughed, scooting his left foot back as Tim attempted to sweep it out from under him. "Batman always says to 'expect the unexpect-eed.' Oof!"
Dick's mind hadn't registered that his back had hit the mat before Tim pounced. "Expect the unexpected, Dick," he leered, sitting firmly on his brother's chest.
"Yhu–you hit like a girl," Dick laughed while blocking a series of vicious punches before suddenly catching one to the side of his face.
"And you take them like a girl."
"Did I stutter?"
"Alright, little brother, you asked for it. Now you're gonna get it-"
"...tool in plant molecular biology and genetics. The short and relatively compact genome of Arabidopsis make it an ideal model system for--"
Bruce growled as his train of thought derailed again, this time by howls of laughter that bounced off cracks and crevasses, echoing throughout the cave. Snatching the voice recorder as he shot to his feet, Bruce gripped the ill-fated machine with enough force to feel it crack beneath his fingertips. With barely reigned impatience, he placed the now defective item back down before curling his hands into fists to keep from pounding them onto the table--an uncharacteristic move that spoke volumes about the depth of his annoyance.
Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to relax, to let the pulsing blood in his veins cool before he said something that he knew he shouldn't. And yet, as he strode quickly towards the steps that led to the Manor, he could hear their laughter ringing in his ears, hear the sounds of joy and mirth filling the air around him. And suddenly, he couldn't take it anymore.
Turning, to Tim he snapped, "It's obvious you're not taking this training session seriously. I don't need a liability out there. Stay in and work on Ivy's toxin."
"And if you're going to encourage this behavior," Bruce continued, turning cold blue eyes to Dick, "maybe it's best you leave."
Harshness and temper reigned in his voice while his eyes lit with a sadness that he couldn't seem to express, couldn't seem to do anything except bottle up inside until it exploded in simple, easy moments like this, a fact that he deeply regretted.
Ignoring his oldest's single word of concern, he turned before either of the wide-eyed boys could say another word and stalked up the stairs, leaving them staring after him from the dark recesses of the cave.
"That was harsh," Tim said, breaking their mutually stunned silence.
"Yeah... but you know he didn't mean it. Don't you?"
"I dunno, Dick. Maybe he did. He's been so... off lately."
"Sure he has," replied Dick matter-of-factly, sitting down on the mats as he began to stretch and work through a cool down exercise, having lost all interest in continuing their sparring match after Bruce's stinging words and sudden exit. "You know tomorrow's the anniversary. Bruce is always callous and stony around this date."
"I know, Dick, but I'm tellin' ya, it's more than just that. I mean, I've never seen things this bad."
"Alright, spill it," Dick ordered, tossing his little brother a sports drink.
Tim exhaled deeply after taking a long swig, plopping down on the mat himself. "The last week, week and a half have been normal and true to form: Bruce avoids everyone at all costs, barely steps foot out of the cave and refuses to speak to anyone unless it is blatantly obvious the person won't go away until he gives a reply."
"Alfred," Dick snickered.
"Right. Well, they went through the usual song and dance whenever a disagreement surfaced. You know how it goes. At first, Alfred'd try to do the polite thing and urge Bruce to either take their conversation to another room or ask me to excuse them--"
"Your cue to leave the room--"
"Of course. Anyway, stubbornness on both parts quickly led into obviously heated disagreements..."
"Nothing strange there."
"Yeah, I know, but they started to happen all the time. And loud too. Take yesterday for example: they're in an argument - pretty sure they skipped right over the whole 'disagreement' part - but anyway... they go back and forth a few times and then Alfred seemed to have had enough 'cause not only did he not make an attempt to take it to another room, but he was also matching Bruce's tone and volume. It was like they didn't even care that I could hear them."
Dick frowned at Tim's last words, pushing a hand through his sweaty hair before resting it on the back of his head for a moment. "They were shouting at each other?"
"Hell yeah, they were shouting," Tim replied, rinsing out his empty drink bottle before tossing it into the recycle bin.
"What were they fighting about?"
"Not really sure. Some sort of event Alfred said Bruce needed to attend, a charity dinner or something. But here's the kicker--"
Head tilted back, draining the rest of his drink, Dick cocked an eyebrow in mid-swallow. "There's more?" he asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
Tim nodded as they walked into the shower room. "In the past fifteen or so years since you came to be a part of this dysfunctional family-- how many times can you remember Alfred addressing Bruce informally?"
"Informally as in... just 'Bruce'?"
"Shit, Tim, I dunno… two, maybe three times at the absolute most—why?" Dick paused and turned to look at his little brother, his hand frozen on the shower door as a bad feeling stirred within his gut. "How many times have you?"
Tim let out a small snort accompanied by a sarcastic smile as he hung his towel on a hook just outside his shower, "Two. In the past 5 days alone."
"Well, damn. And you said things were 'off'?" Dick could only shake his head as he stripped out of his t-shirt and shorts, tossing them into a nearby hamper. "That's not quite the adjective I would have chosen."
Tim shrugged, "I try not to be overly dramatic."
"Whatever. Look, I know it's gotta be hell trying to live with all this crap," Dick said as he reached into his shower, letting the hot water spray out, "but just think about all the shit Bruce is involved with: Wayne Enterprises, the JLA, normal-everyday Bat issues and who knows whatever else the ol' man's obsessing over."
"And sometimes Bruce just gets pissy simply because he does. And when that extra pissy spell hits the Bat on this week--" Dick shuddered, "It can be worse than a Tamaranean with PMS."
Tim stopped scrubbing shampoo into his hair for a second, mind now lost in the image that Dick had just provided. "Tamaraneans get PMS?" he shouted to his brother in the next shower over and could laughter echoing amidst the shower spray.
"You don't even want to know, little brother-- don't even wanna know."
Dinner time in the Wayne household was something that Alfred took quite seriously, creating exquisite meals that were always greatly appreciated but all too often found themselves uneaten and cold. No one gave it a second thought anymore when the Batsignal would light up the night sky, announcing an early patrol brought about by whatever villain had chanced to escape from Arkham and decided to wreck havoc in Gotham. There'd been many nights over the years where Tim had only enough time to grab a quick something as he rushed towards the cave, preparing to face yet another criminal crisis, be it with or without his dinner.
Having the opportunity to stay in and actually complete a meal for once was always a nice, refreshing change of pace. Tonight, though, having given the choice Tim would have jumped at the opportunity to suit up and face the criminally insane rather than trying to ignore the stiff tension that hung in the air around the table. Keeping his eyes downcast, he struggled to swallow a bite, wishing that he could have gone with Dick when he'd left the house just before dinner. That certainly would have been better than this, but Tim knew that tonight had been a Titans only thing for Dick and much as he would have loved to tag along, he also didn't want to intrude.
Although now, as he pushed a piece of beef tenderloin around his plate with his fork, a part of him wished that he'd gotten down on hands and knees and begged Dick to bring him along, sparing him this never-ending torture device known as tonight's dinner.
Usually dinner was a rather quiet affair, almost dignified, but tonight, there were more than delicious scents in the air – there was a tension that had Tim slumping down in his chair, wondering if the two combatants currently arguing with one another would notice if he simply got up from the table and walked out. Somehow, he had a feeling that even in the midst of this argument they'd manage to notice him. Probably even call him a liability again.
Stabbing the meat with his fork, he tried desperately to ignore the swirl of voices around him, but they still somehow came in loud and clear, disturbing his thoughts and any chance of actually enjoying his dinner.
"Alfred, I don't want to talk about this anymore. I refuse to have anything to do with that harridan, Horatia Cynster. This discussion is finished," came the emphatic voice of Bruce as he slammed his linen napkin down on the table. Tim did a mental double-take as he saw the stirrings of temper in the action and tried to remember the last time that he'd seen Bruce lose control like that.
Probably that time when Dick –
"Master Bruce, you're entirely correct. This discussion is finished because you've already asked the princess Diana to join you-"
"Alfred!" Bruce hissed in a low tone, his eyes darting towards Tim who quickly dropped his eyes back down to the lace and linen tablecloth to avoid Bruce's stare.
"Whether she accompanies you as simply Diana or as the Amazon Princess," Alfred continued, completely ignoring Bruce's interruption. "That choice is utterly up to you. After all, you are the one involved with her, Master Bruce."
Tim buried his head in his hands at these words, wondering how he was going to face Cassie at the next Teen Titans meeting knowing that his mentor and hers were – he shuddered, unable to continue the thought and launching into his favorite Audioslave song in order to try and strike the vivid images dancing through his brain out of his head.
His voice calm and steady, Alfred looked down at the seated Bruce with a world-weary expression on his face. "You need a woman like her in your life and I refuse to stand by and watch you carelessly destroy another relationship with a woman you care about."
'Oh hell, no. This was not happening. No way were they talking about Bruce's love life,' Tim thought to himself. Picking his napkin up from his lap and placing it on the table, Tim decided to make a break for it, to see if they'd notice his departure at all in the midst of their argument. To hell if Bruce called him a liability – he didn't want to sit here and listen to this anymore. Pushing his chair back, Tim stood, heading softly and swiftly to the stairs when he heard, "Where are you going?"
'Fuck!' Tim mentally cursed as he halted his assent somewhere between the second and third step and turned around to see his mentor, arms folded across his chest, standing in the dining room doorway. As irritation practically rolled off the older man in waves, Tim had to remind himself that at that moment, Bruce's annoyance was actually focused elsewhere.
"Master Tim, you didn't finish your supper," Alfred said, side-stepping around Bruce to cross the grand foyer.
"Yeah, I know, Alfie, and I'm sorry, but I'm not very hungry."
Placing a hand on Tim's shoulder, Alfred looked him in the eye, a hint of remorse in his expression as he said quietly, "I apologize for the ghastly display of rudeness Master Bruce and I demonstrated in your presence. Please, won't you come to the table and finish your meal."
"Really, Alfred, I'm not hungry. I kinda raided the pantry before Dick got here and I guess I ruined my appetite," Tim said with a half smile and a shrug, knowing all the while Alfred could see through his lie as clearly as if he were looking through one of the Manor's spotless windows.
Alfred scrutinized Tim's face for a fraction of a second before clasping him on the side of his arm, giving him a small squeeze and a warm smile. "Very well, young sir, since you know the best places to "raid", I trust that should your appetite return before you go out for patrol tonight, you'll have enough sense to find something to satisfy it."
"I will, Alfred," Tim replied with a smile, realizing that he was precious seconds from escaping this disastrous dinner and retreating to the peace and solitude of his room.
Gripping the banister, Tim took the steps two at a time before stopping about halfway up to look back, watching as Alfred made his way into the kitchen. He grimaced and hoped that he hadn't offended him, but he knew that after years of living with and dealing with Bruce, Alfred had pretty thick skin. It would take more than one skipped meal to really piss him off.
As Tim continued up the stairs, grumbling to himself about a report that was due for his English class, he heard Bruce's voice and immediately quickened his step.
Bruce watched as Tim practically fled toward his room and couldn't help but wonder what had gotten to Alfred lately. He had always been adamant that Bruce had a social life, but lately, his attempts to push Bruce into said life, whether he was ready for it or not, were bordering on the incredibly pushy and the downright irritating. It had become a bone of contention and he'd never wanted it to reach this point where it disrupted the workings of the household.
He knew that Alfred wanted him to be happy, to have more in his life than just vengeance and the night. And much as Alfred loved Dick and Tim, he had taken care of Bruce first, been there to raise him and to support him in all the endeavors that he had chosen. It was something that Bruce admired and appreciated, but something that had gone unspoken of in the household.
It just simply was.
But lately, Alfred's support had been waning and Bruce could see something in the older man's eyes telling him that Alfred wasn't going to rest or let up until Bruce found himself a suitable mate and made a few changes in his life.
It wasn't that Bruce objected to that plan - not completely anyway - it was simply that his role as Batman came first. It had always come first, ever since that night so many years before.
His life was that of the Batman and being Bruce Wayne was secondary to that. A front, if he had to explain it. He was simply unable to function as only Bruce Wayne – he needed the darker side of himself so that he could confront his nightmares rather than continue relive them in all their graphic horror.
And so, before he knew it, he found himself in the doorway of the kitchen, looking at the man who'd become a second father to him and wondering how to keep control of the situation while letting Alfred know that he simply wasn't going to yield, wasn't going to give in and give up the life that had made him, formed him into the man he was today.
"Is there something else that you require, Master Bruce?" Alfred asked, turning to face Bruce as he stood in front of the sink, having just dumped in a handful of the dirty pots and pans from the stove into the hot, soapy water. His manner was stiffer than Bruce had ever seen and he wondered, once again, what had caused Alfred to suddenly go on this crusade to get him a romantic life.
He was happy with his life, dammit. Well, perhaps not happy, but certainly satisfied with knowing that he was responsible for saving so many lives, for capturing villains and forcing them to stand and atone to their crimes. He watched for a second as Alfred began to rinse the dishes, his ferocious scrubbing mute testament to his butler's anger.
"I do not see the need for you to bare the personal details of my life in front of Tim."
His personal life was his own, to live and lead in whichever way he saw fit. Granted, he used the guise of Bruce Wayne usually to show that he was little more than a foppish and foolish playboy, but that was what he had chosen, how he had decided to live his life. He didn't need anyone questioning it or bringing up the romantic side of it that he strove so hard to not only deny but often suppress as well.
His relationship with Diana was no one's business but his own.
"This discussion isn't about the young master, is it?" Alfred asked, placing a few now cleaned utensils in the drying rack before rubbing his wet hands on a dishtowel. He looked Bruce directly in the eye, forcing him to mentally take a step back and think about how to deny Alfred's claim, no matter how true it was.
He'd never been able to pull the wool over Alfred's eyes, but that didn't mean that he was ready to give up trying. He certainly wasn't prepared to admit, even to himself most of the time, that he possessed some insecurities about his relationship with Diana, wasn't ready to let anyone know that they were slowly but steadily becoming involved.
"This discussion, Master Bruce," Alfred said, putting an emphasis on the word, "is about the fact that you refuse to move out of the shadow cast by the Batman, by your parents' death, and find your own place in this world."
Drawing himself up to his full height he continued, "A place where you can be happy or at least let some light into your life rather than suffocating your very soul with that darkness."
"It's my choice," Bruce stated, his mouth pursued in a tight line that spoke volumes about his irritation with the way this discussion was progressing.
""I'm aware of the choices you've made in your life, Master Bruce, and the reason behind those choices," Alfred told him, his voice rising in volume as he took a step forward, his starched white shirt gleaming in the glaring overhead kitchen light. "But I also know that there is more to you than some figure, some symbol, and that others see that as well. So few others have the privilege of seeing that as well-- Princess Diana being one of them."
"Leave her out of this," Bruce warned in a low voice, quickly taking a few steps forward almost before he realized it.
Alfred eyed him with pity and folded his hands in front of his body, linking his fingers but unable to control the faint trembling of his hands as he gazed at the boy who had become a man under his watchful eye, his guidance, and his tutelage. In a no-nonsense voice he stated, his voice both somehow tired and piercing, "She cares for you, Master Bruce, and I know that you return those feelings. You delude yourself in thinking that she does not belong in this discussion. I know the eventual outcome of this relationship: you will shun her and push her to the side in favor of your nocturnal career, once again ending an old man's hope for you to have a shred of happiness in your personal life."
"It is not blasphemy to love, but human and quite natural," Alfred continued as he looked down at his hands, never seeing the expression developing on Bruce's face as he allowed himself a moment to think about the little boy who had once played on the grounds of the Manor, his laughter ringing out over the acreage as he found happiness in almost everything around him. But that had been while the Waynes were still alive and Alfred often wondered if he himself had played a part in making Bruce into this cold man who could be so unfeeling as to turn his back on love in his need to prove something to himself and his deceased parents.
And it was that fear that pushed Alfred to say, his voice somehow thunderous in the confines of the kitchen and absolutely unyielding, "You disappoint me, Bruce."
In his room upstairs, Tim sat on his bed, furiously typing as he tried to pound out a thousand word book report before Bruce called him for patrol. He figured that he had a little bit of time if nothing went wrong, but he also knew from years of experience that things in Gotham could go downhill at any moment and the Batsignal would act as the city's voice as it called out for help.
Glancing at the door in frustration Tim rolled his eyes as the noise of raised voices began to carry itself upstairs, almost as if seeking him out and he wished that Bruce and Alfred would give him a little peace. He'd come upstairs hoping to escape all this, but somehow, even in a house this size, their voices managed to not only transmit but transmit loudly.
He sat there, tapping his pencil against his forehead as he tried to work past the distraction and remember where he had left off before being interrupted. Eventually though, his irritation got the best of him and he pushed himself off the bed with a huff, grumbling to himself as he began to search the room for his iPod, knowing that he'd left it in here somewhere.
Or so he hoped. "I know it's here. It's gotta be here," he pleaded desperately as he tossed clothes over his shoulder, pants and shirts flying before landing in tousled piles all over the room. Finally finding it inside one of his sneakers, he snatched it up as he glanced around the room, frowning as he looked at the chaos he'd just unleashed, once again.
"Man, Alfie's gonna kill me." Then he shrugged, deciding that he'd get to it later. Like tomorrow. And as he wandered back over to his desk, he realized that the shouting match between Alfred and Bruce had apparently come to a ceasefire; it was dead quiet down there. Oh, well, he decided, at least he had some music to help get him through another five hundred words.
Oh, well, he decided, at least he had some music to help get him through another five hundred words and, sure enough, before he realized it, he'd gone through his entire collection of Black Stone Cherry as his nimble fingers had typed out the rest of his report. Closing the laptop, Tim linked his fingers together and stretched his arms straight over his head as he glanced out the window, he noticed that night had fallen sometime during that hour he had been engrossed in work and music and now he was probably late for patrol.
"Great," he muttered, throwing his iPod on the desk, "Bruce'll skin my ass for this." He took off for the Batcave, rushing down the long flight of stairs before coming to a screeching halt as he reached the central computer station. He frowned as he looked around and saw no sign of Alfred. A little unusual, but Tim had a feeling that after a fight like that, Alfred probably just needed a little time on his own, to cool down and find an outlet for his frustrations.
He pitied the silver tonight.
Expecting a lecture of the usual Batman proportions, he instead found Bruce fully dressed, peering through a microscope at something on one of the lab tables, and, when he glanced up and saw Tim heading toward the Suit Vault, simply said, "Let's go."
"That's funny," Tim remarked, pulling off his helmet and quickly scrubbed gloved fingers through his hair, pushing it into disheveled spikes wet from perspiration. Allowing his bike to lean against its stand, he asked curiously "Where's Alfred? It's been ages since he wasn't down here waiting for us with a tray of finger-sandwiches and drinks."
Pulling off his gloves, Batman took a quick glance around the cave before tossing the gloves onto the computer console. "We're back about thirty minutes ahead of schedule. He's probably putting the sandwiches on the tray right now."
"Yeah, either that or, like the last time, he's polishing the silver while rockin' out to Beethoven's 9th Symphony and lost track of time," Tim shouted from Suit Vault as he changed back into normal, every-day clothes.
The corner of Bruce's mouth tugged upward into a half smirk as he pushed back his cowl, running a hand through his raven hair, damp with sweat from that night's activities.
"I'll bring something back down," Tim shouted, already halfway up the stairs. "I'm starving!"
Stifling a yawn, he walked into the unlit kitchen, hoping that maybe Alfred had left something out, maybe even some leftovers from dinner to appease his growling stomach. Flicking on the light, he scanned the counters, quickly noticing that the kitchen bore absolutely no sign that Alfred had been in here recently. Dirty dishes still littered the counter from what appeared to be dinner and now that he thought about it, he couldn't remember the last time the lights in the kitchen had been off when they'd returned from patrol, no matter how late they'd arrived home.
Then again, things had been so weird in the house lately and Bruce had barely spoken during patrol tonight, acting even more distant and distracted than Tim had expected.
"Alfred?" Tim called out as a slightly concerned expression crept on his face. Upon receiving no response, his meticulously-trained instincts kicked into overdrive causing his gut to churn with an uneasy feeling as his stride quickened toward the main staircase.
"Hey, Alfie! Where ya hidin'? You're not playin' hide-n-seek with the dust bunnies again are you?" he called out again, taking the steps three at a time.
Listening to Tim's footsteps fade as he headed upstairs, Bruce took a moment to rub swiftly at his temples, wishing that the vicious, pounding headache would somehow manage to cease and leave him be. Knowing that to be utterly futile, he pushed aside the pain and strode over to the computer, hoping to get a little work done uploading and updating files before managing to catch some sleep, even if for just a few hours.
Leaning back in his chair, Bruce reminded himself that tomorrow he had a meeting with the majority stockholders for Wayne Enterprises and that he had scheduled in a few hours of personal time at the end of the day… just like every year.
Shoving that thought aside, he let his fingers fly over the keyboard as he stared up at the screen, taking a second to watch the words come to life and to make sure that he didn't omit a single detail of that night's events, of all the information that he'd learned. Closing his eyes for a second, he removed his hands from the keyboard, rubbing at the stiff tension in the back of his neck.
Rising to his feet, he went in search of a bottle of water to help ease his parched throat, but before he'd managed even two steps, he thought he heard something and swiftly turned toward the entrance to the Manor, wondering if Tim was coming back down.
And, in that instant, he brought a hand to his eyes, groping blinding for the edge of the computer console as the cave began to swirl out of control around him. Within seconds, he pitched forward to the floor, body heaving with convulsions before finally going lax, a crumpled heap on the ground.
After searching the house with no success, Tim decided that maybe he'd just missed Alfred or that the butler had already gone to bed. Forgoing the snacks and drinks, he bypassed the kitchen, jogging back down the stairs, his eyes automatically searching the cave for Bruce to tell him that he couldn't find Alfred.
The computer screen lit up the darkness of the cave and at a quick glance, Tim could see that it was filled with the image of Killer Croc, the villain that he and Batman had been tangling with tonight. There was no sign of Batman though and he couldn't see any signs of movement in the cave.
"What is this? 'Everybody Hide From Tim Day'?" Tim muttered, taking another couple of steps forward before his gaze fell on the prone figure of Batman curled up on the floor, his eyes closed and his body absolutely motionless.
"Bruce!" Tim exclaimed as he bolted toward his mentor, still unmoving on the cold cave floor next to the computer. Falling to his knees at his Bruce's side, he immediately felt for a pulse and, upon finding one, he began to tap his mentor's face with stinging pats. "Bruce, Bruce, answer me!"
A groan emanated from Bruce and Tim watched his steely blue eyes flutter open. "Wha... Tim?"
"Yeah, big guy, what happened? Are you okay?" Tim asked, scrutinizing his partner's movements as Bruce sat up, searching out any signs of injury that would explain his mentor's condition.
"I don't…I'm not sure," Bruce answered, his voice shrouded in bewilderment as he put a hand to his head as if he expected to find blood pouring from a wound.
"Well…are you okay? Does anything hurt?"
"No, I'm fine. A bit of a headache, but that's nothing unusual," Bruce answered as he staggered to his feet, weaving a bit before he put a steadying hand on the back of the computer chair.
"Uh, maybe you should sit down for a little while. What happened? I mean, what's the last thing you remember?"
Bruce thought for a moment, rubbing his forehead as the pain in his head increased with every second that passed. The more he thought, the more he tried to remember, the worse the pain got. "I-I don't know."
Pushing down the uneasiness rising in his throat, Tim filed away his personal feelings and took the logical route. "Alright, let's start small. Do you remember coming back to the cave?"
"What about meeting Gordon on the roof?"
"... I-- no."
"Bruce, do you even remember going out tonight at all? Killer Croc? Anything?" Tim asked, concern evident in his eyes as he looked at the man who had become such a large and important part of his life. It shocked him to see Bruce in this state, to watch his ultra-controlled mentor and trainer not only look confused but to actually allow it to show and let others know of his puzzlement.
Closing his eyes, Bruce forced his mind to travel back in time, attempting to see through the clouds of darkness that had taken up residence within his short-term memory. But it seemed that no matter how hard he pushed himself, he simply couldn't remember anything about the patrol that night.
"The last thing I remember, Tim, is…" He trailed off, trying to sift through the fog and haze that were clouding his brain and find the memory that was his last before the darkness had overtaken him. But all he could see were snippets that didn't seem to have any particular pattern or significance to him at this moment.
He saw the downward thrust of a knife clasped tightly in a whitened fist emerge from the fog of his brain. His brain tracked the movements, watching as the knife finally landed squarely in a chest, causing an immediate pooling of blood, dark and viscous as it seeped forward, staining a white shirt that suddenly looked stark and harsh in comparison to the deep color of red. Bruce shook his head, trying to repel the trickle of memories, trying desperately to determine whether or not they were real, but they kept coming, kept pushing forward until they released in a flood of sensations that buried him, just like that pool of blood. He pushed his eyes closed even tighter as a deathly cold seeped through his body along with his memories; remembrances that he couldn't seem to stem and was not, would never be, ready to handle.
Tim frowned in unease, looking around the cave as if it held the answers to what was going on amid all this confusion and chaos. "Something's going on around here. I looked everywhere upstairs and I couldn't find Alfred anywhere. It's not like him to just take off; he always leaves a note or some…" Glancing at Bruce, he let his sentence trail off as he took in the other man's suddenly pale and ashen complexion. All the blood appeared to have drained from Bruce's face and Tim immediately sought to check his pulse again, sure that something horrible had happened.
"Bruce?" he asked, pushing his face in close to his mentor's, "Bruce, what's wrong?"
But instead of a clear answer, all he heard from Bruce were incoherent mumbles, indecipherable to Tim's ear. He watched as Bruce fell back onto the floor, turning onto his side and quivering, almost outright shaking as he continued to murmur and mumble.
Concerned that he was witnessing some kind of seizure, Tim tried to turn Bruce onto his back, hoping that he wouldn't have to somehow manage to keep him from biting his tongue or causing some other sort of damage to himself. But when he began to turn him, he caught a glimpse of Bruce's eyes and could only stare into them.
They were cloudy, hazed over with a sentiment that brought memories of sadness and grief to Tim's mind – the only word that he could use to describe them was haunted.
"Bruce," Tim said softly, the words almost choking in his throat. "Bruce!"
But to Tim's horror, Bruce displayed absolutely no signs of recognition, still lost in whatever was going on in his mind, his body shaking and shivering and his eyes glazed over with memories or images or…something. Honestly, Tim wasn't sure that he wanted to know.
Taking a deep breath, he tried again and again to get Bruce's attention, to get him to show some awareness of his surroundings, but time and again, he failed. Bruce was trapped in his own little world and Tim wasn't sure how to break him out of it, wasn't even sure that he could. It didn't look like anything was actually physically wrong with Bruce – there were no new cuts or bruises, nothing additional that had appeared since their fight tonight with Killer Croc.
Physically, he looked to be fine. Mentally, however, Tim easily recognized the signs of utter and complete agony and desperately wondered how to snap Bruce out of whatever was holding his mind hostage. Shaking him, hoping that he would jolt him out of this almost catatonic state, he shouted, "Bruce!"
Swallowing back the fear that clogged his throat, he wished that Alfred was here, that Dick was here, anyone who could help him figure out what was wrong with Bruce and how to fix it. But he was alone and there was no one who could help him.
Tim looked into Bruce's haunted blue eyes and spoke, his last words barely above a whisper, "Tell me what's wrong with you. Help me, Bruce. I can't lose you too."
Bruce closed his eyes as a fresh bout of shaking wracked his body, finally murmuring, "I did it."
Tim struggled to contain the helplessness that plagued him as he asked Bruce, "Did what?"
"Killed him…killed Alfred."
And Tim could only stare at him in horror and disbelief as Bruce continued to whisper over and over, his tone soft and laced with panic, "Killed Alfred…"