"Miss Gordon? … Miss Gordon?"
Barbara heard a soft voice calling her back from the nebulous realms of her dreams. Her eyes flickered open, resisting the powerful urge to continue sleeping. The pristine white room was bathed in orange light from the window behind her; the setting sun provided a serene backdrop. Her hands had their sensations return to them, and they could tell that Ace had left her at some point.
She looked up, to see Alfred setting down a chair across the coffee table from her, and taking a seat.
"…Mm… oh, god, what time is it?"
"It's 7:42, on the dot." Alfred informed her. "You needn't worry, I've already called your father, and informed her that you've opted to stay with Bruce through his treatment at the local hospital. He suffered several dreadful bullet wounds attempting to stop Arnold and his… dreadful puppet behind the school grounds."
Barbara's frown tugged further. "How is he?" she asked.
Alfred nodded, and he seemed very solemn as he said, "Master Bruce has survived the operation, and I'm certain he will recover. But his wounds were worse than my initial impression. It will be some time before he's out of bed. And now… now I believe you're owed your explanation."
Barbara straightened up on the sofa, to show that she was listening. The old butler sighed and leaned over, deciding where best to begin his tale.
"Eight years ago, my original employers, Master Thomas and Miss Martha Wayne were shot, and died, in a back alley. They were returning home from a night at the theater with Bruce, just a boy then… I still remember, the movie was an old Zorro film."
Alfred reached into his suit's pocket, retrieving a handkerchief without flourish and bringing it up to dab his glistening eyes.
"…It was Christmas Eve. I've never known the whole story… Master Bruce has never told me. All I know, is that the man responsible was just that. A man. No fantastical weapons, no psychological fractures to justify him. Just one desperate man, with a gun in his hand."
He put the handkerchief away, keeping it nicely folded and tucked in his pocket. He folded his hands as he bowed his head, resuming his story.
"I came myself to return Bruce to home… but I don't think this will ever be our home again, Miss Gordon. Inside these walls, there is an emptiness, where two happy people once resided. And I believe that stuck with Bruce, as for months he responded very little. He spent some time with your family during all of this, though I… I doubt you remember him. He spoke so little then. But one day, something changed."
Alfred pointed out the window.
"Out past the grove of apple trees, there is an old well, built in the first days of Wayne Manor. It's boarded up now, but we kept it open to the air back then. I lost Master Bruce one day, and no matter where I looked I could not find him; on a hunch, I went to that well. And down at the bottom, I could hear Master Bruce, crying and… calling for his parents."
Barbara bit her lip, but made no effort to stop Alfred. She had to hear everything.
"I reached down to pull him out, but before he reach up to me, I disturbed a swarm of bats."
The vision of the thousands of bats swarming through that tunnel came back to Barbara, and she could almost perfectly visualize the moment, the old butler lurching back in shock, Bruce crying in terror as the leathery creatures spiraled up into the air.
"Bruce shrieked in terror, but only once. Once I had finally gotten him out, he was completely, eerily silent. I took him inside, and put him in his bed for the night. But when I went to shut the blinds, he told me to stop. He asked me to leave the window open, that he had some sort of idea sprouting. I did as he wished, Miss Gordon, but when I came back the next day… there must have been a hundred bats clinging to the corners of his room."
Barbara almost felt the need to gasp, both as a courtesy and out of the sheer disgust she'd have had in the same situation.
"And Bruce was smiling, Miss Gordon. For the first time since his parents died, he was smiling. But it was… off. He told me that he'd finally learned how to do it, and when I asked him what, he told me 'Vegeance. I've finally figured out how to avenge my parents.'"
Barbara let those words mull in her thoughts. Vengeance. Is that what drove Bruce, even now? How much of him was that happy boy she knew? How much was all a lie? Had she ever truly known him?
Do I even want to know?
"Since that night, I wager, Master Bruce had been thinking, nonstop, of how to bring about justice to the man that murdered his parents. At some point, this expanded, to encompass all criminals. He needed a way to fight them, to make them feel the same terror that he had, in that alley. Those bats provided him with the answer: a symbol. He had to become more than a man, but a symbol that the good folk, the downtrodden, could recognize as a larger than life thing to rally behind and aspire to. And it had to be something that criminals would fear; a monstrous thing, like a bogeyman. This was the conception of what Gotham recognizes as Batman."
He made a small, sweeping gesture.
"But he had no training, no way to begin this crusade. So we left the country, and we've been traveling the world for the last seven years. Bruce sought out the greatest masters in every field; detective work, combat, genius-level engineers, forensics, among others. He devoted his entire being into mastering these arts. And when he was done, we returned to Gotham, and he began this… this crusade, I suppose there's no other way to put it."
Silence overtook them, and stayed for quite some time before Barbara finally asked, "Is that everything?"
"Yes, Miss Gordon, as much as this old butler ever cares to remember again."
Barbara popped her jaw, making idle motion as she let it all sink in. So this was the real Bruce. A tragic little boy, who decided one day to become a monster, and then… he went out and did it. Was there some proper way to respond to that? She'd seen him at work; the men he fought were without a doubt the worst type of scum. But, Bruce was so… brutal fighting them. He'd shattered bones like they were twigs, sued painful shocks and gadgets that couldn't possibly have been painless in subduing them. Now she knew why he wasn't just another police officer, going for the quick and painless takedowns.
He reveled in it, savored it as he put them through hell; he likely imagined the face of that man on every one of them. Any man who broke the law was the man who killed his parents, and they'd be treated like it.
She stood up; she wasn't ready for this sort of revelation. She was beginning to enjoy her life, find light in it again. It was all a lie.
"Thank you, Alfred." She murmured, aiming herself for the nearest exit. "I should probably call my dad and get home."
She only made it a few steps before a voice called after her. "Wait."
She turned back, and Alfred was reaching after her with a silent plea in his eyes. Against her judgment, she turned around to hear him out.
"Miss Gordon, please… if you would do an old butler one favor…"
"Bruce should be waking up, soon. Would you please talk with him before you go?"
Barbara froze, a dozen protests in her mind. She was barely ready to accept what was going on at all, but confronting him? That was a can of worms she hardly wanted to think about, let alone open.
Her mouth hung open, and after a moment of hesitation she said, "Why should I? Why would he want to, if he's been so happy to just… just lie to me this whole time?"
Alfred pursed his lips in an odd manner, suppressing some kind of outburst. But he still said with much conviction, "Because he needs you, Miss Gordon."
Though she had been through many shocks on that day, this one hit fresh when the ones that came just prior were dulled. He… needs me?
Alfred clasped his hands together and quite earnestly explained. "Miss Gordon, you must understand. When Bruce was but a boy, and we traveled the world, for those seven years we would eat our supper together every night, no matter what. And at every meal, he would be silent. His brow was furrowed, and his eyes were as rough and dead as coal. All he cared about was his crusade… but then we came back to Gotham, Miss Barbara. He met you."
Barbara found herself sitting back down in her seat to listen to Alfred, his voice slowly breaking down as emotion threatened to overcome him. He was reaching for his handkerchief again.
"He came home, that first day, we sat down for supper, and Barbara…" He looked up at her, stray tears dripping down his cheeks as a joyous smile overtook him. "…Barbara, I couldn't get him to shut up! He talked about you, and your family, and his classes, and he seemed so happy, so genuinely happy. The first real, honest and happy smile he'd had in eight years. Miss Gordon, I promise you, even if every other second in Bruce's life has been a lie, I promise you: everything he has said, and felt, and done towards you has been true."
Barbara sat still and bowed her head, contemplating what to do next as a few notes of a Frank Sinatra song drifted inside of her skull…
A knock came at the door of Bruce Wayne's bedchambers. A spacious room, with a king-sized four poster bed. Maroon curtains hung on either side of the bed with a similar fabric draped above. The room was decorated in a similarly brooding color, and the blinds on the windows were drawn. The decoration was sparse, and the carpet plush. A single chair was set beside the bed.
Beneath the covers rested Bruce himself, bare-chested with bandages wrapped taught around his abdomen. He groaned as he heard the intruding knocks, and managed to moan, "What?"
"Master Bruce, you have a visitor."
"Ugh… send them in, Alfred."
The door opened and shut quickly, letting in the last person Wayne expected to see.
"Hey." She whispered, looking over his body as she inched closer. He realized he had more scars than she likely would have known. A long and thin one between his neck and his shoulder blade, and pock marks from bullet wounds along the left side of his chest. She made a slow, deliberate advance for the chair, taking a seat when she arrived.
For a moment, they stared at each other, searching for something to say. Barbara found the words first.
She bowed her head so as not to look her friend in the eye, and Bruce glared at her with an expression of perplexity.
"Why are you sorry?"
She shook her head, a motion made more for need of one than for any meaning. "If I hadn't been so trusting… so, I don't know, so gullible, you wouldn't be…"
"Barbara." Bruce firmly said. She looked up at him, and saw a passion, and a force behind his eyes. "I didn't choose this life, thinking that I wouldn't be hurt. That I'd live forever. I'd rather be hurt than anyone else."
Barbara began to tear up, sniffling as she asked "Why? This isn't a life anyone has to lead, Bruce; why do you do this to yourself?"
Bruce's face did not distort as he spoke. "It's not about what I'm doing for myself. It's about what I'm doing for other people. I lost… everything when my parents died. My family. My innocence, my childhood. It was stolen from me. If it meant that no little boy or girl would ever have to go through that again, I'd give my life a thousand times over."
"But why alone?"
Bruce looked straight at Barbara, uncertainty marring his eyes. She explained, "Why do you have to do this alone? You could've told me, or… or someone! Anyone, instead of being this… this lone ranger thing you've been doing."
Bruce shook his head slowly. "Because I don't matter."
Barbara's expression begged for an explanation. Bruce continued on.
"The beauty of Batman is, Barbara, that anyone could be behind the mask. And, in a sense, everyone is. He's not a person, or a monster. He's a symbol. Something that criminals will fear, a symbol that the night will no longer protect them, and shelter them like it has. And he's a symbol to good, innocent people, that as long as he's here, they won't have to fear the shadows on their own streets, in their own homes. They can take back the night. He's more than just vengeance, Barbara… he's a sentinel. A protector. Like… like a king's knight. A knight cloaked in darkness, who never ceases in his vigil. It doesn't matter who's behind the mask, because he doesn't want your approval, or recognition. Only to keep Gotham safe."
Barbara watched Bruce as he spoke, going on at lengths about his dream, his arms wildly gesturing as he envisioned some perfect world, that Barbara only wished she could join him in. When at last he seemed to stop, she asked, "You've been thinking about this a long time, haven't you?"
"It's my life." He said back to her. "My dream."
Barbara stood, stepping closer to the bed and laying a hand down on his shoulder.
"Well, the dream doesn't have to be so lonely, Bruce." She said with a smile. "Unless you've got some kind of mind eraser in your belt, your secret's out. And you," she added, tapping him on the nose with a finger. "are crazier than I thought if you think I'm letting you do this all by yourself."
Bruce grew a massive grin as he looked up at her. "Heh, is that so? And how do you plan on accomplishing that."
"Well," she mused. "you said Batman could be anyone, right?"
"Well, I see a problem with your theory."
"You've got a Bat-MAN… but where's the Bat-GIRL?"
Bruce stared at her dumbfounded. And then, a thin smile returned. In a sudden rush of movement, he began to laugh as his arms reached out around Barbara for a hug. The girl was drawn forward and down, screaming protests on the grounds of gravity.
"Bruce, Bruce waitoffbalance—"
Unable to balance herself in time, Barbara was brought down by the hug, crash-landing straight on top of Bruce. The impact on his abdomen sent a shock of intense pain of his body, and a resounding yelp of pain blasted through the halls of Wayne Manor.
As quickly as she could, Barbara rolled off of him and onto the other side of the bed. She, panicked, sat up and looked over to make sure he wasn't hurt badly. What she found instead was a face full of enough humor that he looked ready to break out laughing at any moment. She burst out laughing, herself, and Bruce joined her a moment after. The sound echoed out, through the walls of the manor and further on, out into the encroaching night.
"Hm-hm-hm-hm hm-hm-hm-hm HM HMMMM~"
A lonely voice hummed to itself as a young man strolled around the exterior of Gotham High. It was about midnight, now, and the police, along with the other students, were long gone. But one boy, dressed in magenta dress trousers and still wearing a light green button up shirt and bow tie was swinging his suit jacket around, entertaining himself with a tune as he thought of something to entertain himself.
The greasy-haired boy was just about ready to head home for the night, when his eyes happened to drift over to a conspicuous dumpster against the wall.
"Hm… wonder if anybody left somethin' good tonight…"
With no better way to spend his time, J strolled over to the dumpster and threw open the lid. He hopped up to get a better look inside.
"Lessee here… aw, SCORE!"
He dropped back out, now holding a hatless, musty, but still perfectly good ventriloquist's dummy.
"Kinda mussed up in the face, but what the hell, I ain't choosy!" J exclaimed. "Who'd throw away a perfectly good puppet?! Oh well, finders keepers~"
He trotted off into the night, supporting his new pal on his shoulder.
"So, kid, whats yer name? Guess we'll have'ta think up a new one for ya. How about… Scarface? Hee-hee-hee-hoo-hoo…"