A/N: I want to thank everyone for your incredible patience and beg your forgiveness for what has been - once again - an unpardonable delay. I assure you all, I will not give up on this story until it's done. Real life has been hectic, between the wedding, a couple unexpected deaths, and the need to look for a new job as soon as possible for complicated reasons. Also, this was a hard chapter to write, because, as you'll see, I had to address something in this chapter that I really struggled with how to handle. I assure you that the fallout will NOT be what it was in the movie. However, I would be remiss and a bad author if I ignored it completely.
That said, I hope everyone enjoys this chapter and will try very, very hard to get the next one posted much sooner! Keep fingers crossed I find a new job soon, because that would open up the time I currently spend writing boring cover letters and allow me to spend it on Bruce/Lois love!
Red Sky at Morning
They were almost back home before Bruce realized he was being rude. He'd spent the entire drive staring silently out the window as he pondered the situation. Lois had been uncharacteristically quiet as well, seemingly lost in her own thoughts. However, he did realize – with something of a shock – that he had unconsciously been comforted by the warmth of her hand, pressed against his own. It had been many years since Bruce had found comfort in another's presence, outside of Alfred.
He turned to look at her, wracking his brain for something to say that wouldn't sound inane under the circumstances. Finally, he settled on, "I hate to do this. I know we haven't had much time together lately, but I really should go to the hospital and check on my staff."
The tiny frown line that had creased her brow smoothed, and her eyes were full of understanding when she met his gaze. "It's okay; I figured you would. You want me to go with you?"
He bit back the affirmative reply that came automatically to his lips, remembering that he had other duties tonight that couldn't be performed by Bruce Wayne. "Maybe next time," he said with genuine regret. "If I am able to get in to see them – and assuming they're able to talk – they may be more willing to open up about any suspicions they may have if they're talking privately with me."
She nodded, seemingly unsurprised by his sentiment. "Of course. You're familiar, part of the company. I'm a stranger – not to mention a reporter. I figured you'd want to go it alone, but you know I'm here for you if you need me, right?"
"I know," he murmured, leaning down to press his lips against hers. The allure of spending the evening alone with her was almost overpowering; under any other circumstances – if he didn't have such pressing responsibilities as both Bruce Wayne and Batman at the moment – he might have given in to temptation and ignored his responsibilities for an evening. Sadly, particularly because both Gotham and Wayne Enterprises had need of his alter-ego, he didn't have that luxury.
He only broke off the embrace when he realized that the car had come to a stop some time before; there was no longer a driver behind the wheel. Apparently, they'd arrived back at the Manor. As he pulled back, he saw Lois flush as the same realization hit her. As tactful as ever, Alfred waited another moment before opening her door, and Bruce would have been amused at Lois's exaggerated aplomb as she smiled at the older man, if he didn't have so much else pressing on his mind.
Still, he couldn't help but tease her a little. He had reason to know that she was by no means a prude, so he couldn't help but be amused about her inexplicable attitude when it came to Alfred. "You do realize that he knows we're in a physical relationship," he drawled good-humoredly. "He just caught us kissing, and he managed not to keel over at the sight."
She glowered at him over her shoulder as she stepped out of the car, and as he followed her out, she replied defensively, "No, he didn't! He has a condition that prevents him from seeing through…car…windows!" Then she stomped on his foot for good measure.
She was a puzzle. He wished he could remain at the Manor and spend his evening trying to figure her out, but he knew he had to go. However, he couldn't help but stall for time, stealing another minute with her as he escorted her inside. "I don't suppose I can convince you to take it easy and get some rest tonight?" he asked, rubbing his fingertips gently across the bandage that covered her palm – a reminder of the ordeal she had all too recently experienced.
Her smile was sheepish as she replied, "I don't suppose you'd believe me if I said yes." Before he could respond, she added quickly, "Before you panic, you should know that you have nothing to worry about. I'm not planning on doing anything stupid. I was just thinking on the ride back that, ever since I came to Gotham, I've come across more questions than answers. Since I figured you'd have other things you needed to do tonight, I thought I'd go over everything I have on Harvey Dent's death. Batman and Gordon are covering up for something, I know it! There has to be something I'm missing!"
She sounded so frustrated, he wished he could tell her the truth. About everything. But now wasn't the time. He knew he was losing time he couldn't really afford. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Alfred waiting for him, ready to accompany him down to the caves in case his assistance was needed. Still, he was concerned about where this path could lead, knowing her penchant for putting herself in the path of danger when in pursuit of a good story, and he couldn't go without saying something. "Lois, wait," he said, tugging gently on her hand until she turned to face him. She probably wouldn't like what he had to say, but he had to take that chance.
Choosing his words carefully, he continued, "I know this is important to you. But earlier tonight, you came out publicly on Batman's behalf. A lot of people in Gotham hate him right now, and the last time the Joker was free, he specifically targeted him. I just need to know that you're considering how dangerous it is to investigate him right now…particularly since you could be wrong. You may find he's every bit the monster people think he is."
She threw him a mutinous glare. "Or they could be wrong about him," she shot back.
"Maybe," he conceded. "But if so, then he's agreed to take the fall for some reason, and it could be for good reason. After all, whatever secrets he has, he's continued to keep them, even in the face of public hatred and distrust. Maybe Gotham needs to believe in the fiction…and even if not, the truth may not change anything. People could still choose to fear him."
She shrugged, the corner of her mouth twisting into a wry smile. "Maybe," she admitted. "But even if he had the best intentions, whatever secrets he's keeping about that night, it's time for them to come out. Even if the lie is told with the best of intentions, there comes a time when people deserve to know the truth. It's up to them what they choose to do with it.
"There are madmen in Gotham, and it seems like everyone is just holding their breaths, waiting to see what horrible thing they do next. And we don't even know who they all are – even when we know their names, we'll never understand why they do what they do.
"If we can't know who the villains in the shadows are, at the very least, we should know who the heroes are who are fighting to protect us. Maybe the people of Gotham will still hate Batman…or maybe they'll realize there's someone out there, fighting for them, and they realize they're not alone." Then she paused, her gaze dropping to his chest, and he saw her swallow heavily. "You wouldn't believe how important it is, when you're scared like that, to feel like you're not alone. Even if it doesn't change anything."
Bruce didn't know what to say to that, but he didn't really get a chance to think of anything, either. Lois gave a quick shake of her head, as though brushing off the direction her thoughts had taken, and stretched on her tiptoes to brush a quick kiss across his lips. "Anyway, you better get going if you're going to get to the hospital during visiting hours. If it makes you feel any better, I promise to try to take it easy while you're gone."
"'Try?'" he repeated skeptically.
The grin Lois threw him was entirely unabashed. "The General always told me not to make promises I wasn't sure I could keep!"
He was down in the Batcave, working on the computer, when Alfred joined him later. He had told Lois the truth when he'd said he wanted to visit his employees at the hospital, but there were a few things he needed to do first. A glance at the clock revealed that time had gotten away from him more than he'd thought; it was the middle of the night.
"I thought I might find you down here," Alfred said mildly as he put a tray of food at Bruce's elbow. "Have you been to the hospital?"
"Not yet," he replied grimly as he scanned the security footage playing on the screen in front of him, looking for anything suspicious. "I wanted to wait, to catch Lucius alone, without people coming in and out." He scowled and admitted, "I didn't realize it had gotten so late. I'll head over once I'm finished here. Has Lois gone to bed?"
"I believe so," the older man responded, but his brow was furrowed in concern. "You think what happened today could have something to do with the Batman?"
Bruce grimaced, his frown deepening. "I don't know," he admitted. "But if anyone would have noticed anything out of the ordinary lately, it's Lucius. The problem is, there are too many questions right now about the purpose behind the attack. It could be someone who has a grudge against the company, but if they're trying to bring down Wayne Enterprises, why send letters to the people they did? Medical Technologies is just one small division of the company; why target Henry Jackson? Lucius and I were the only members of the Board who were sent a letter."
Of course, Lucius wasn't the first member of the Board who had been hospitalized in recent weeks. Bruce had previously wondered about the two supposedly unrelated incidents – Fredericks's fatal heart attack and the bout of food poisoning that hit Carol King and her staff. Although everyone had thankfully pulled through and were now out of the hospital, the illness had hit Carol hard – although it was assumed that was due to her age. Still, although the events seemed to be unrelated, the timing merely coincidental, Bruce had already resolved to take another look. He didn't really believe in coincidences.
Alfred had been standing quietly by, a silent sounding board while the younger man tried to work things out. But after a few moments, he spoke, breaking the silence. "Could the Joker be behind the letters?"
Bruce shook his head, having already considered this possibility. "Maybe, but I doubt it. It isn't showy enough for him. The Joker doesn't really work in the shadows like this. Murder is rarely the Joker's real objective; he wants the credit." He paused the tape and turned to face his butler for the firs time. "No, this is someone new. What I don't know – yet," he said, adding a significant stress to the last word, "is who the actual target is. And, of course, all of this could be a diversion. There could be some underlying purpose we just haven't discovered."
The older man's mouth drew into a grim line and he nodded. Though he couldn't shed any light on the mystery, he didn't turn to leave just yet. He was quiet for so long, in fact, that Bruce had turned back to work, almost forgetting he was there, when he spoke again, his voice deceptively light, "It's good to have Miss Lane back."
The deliberate non sequitur took Bruce slightly aback. He paused in his work for a heartbeat and then continued, agreeing in a similar tone, "It is."
Alfred wasn't deterred by his ward's apparent disinterest in the conversation. "She seems quite determined to follow her story." Bruce pondered several possible responses to this, finally settling on a non-committal grunt. "Perhaps it would be better to tell her the truth…?" the austere butler suggested, finally getting around to his point.
Bruce grimaced. "I can't," he growled, and though he knew Alfred was talking about more than Dent's murder, he didn't want to address the greater issue. Instead, he chose to be deliberately obtuse. "If Bruce Wayne tells her how Harvey died, she'll wonder how he knows. If she hears it from Batman, she'll print the story…unless she knows his secret identity. Gotham needs to believe in Dent right now, and it's not the right time to tell her about Batman."
He didn't need to turn to the older man to picture the expression on his face; Alfred hated it when he talked about himself in the third person. However, his companion seemed willing to ignore it in favor of his original point. "Why not? From what I've heard about her meetings with Batman, if anyone could handle the truth about your double life, I imagine she could."
Bruce sighed, his head bowing. He'd suspected it wouldn't be long before Alfred broached this particular issue, but he hadn't relished the prospect. Now it didn't seem like the older man wasn't going to let the matter go. He was going to have to explain something to Alfred that he wasn't entirely certain he could articulate to himself. "I've thought about telling her, of course," he admitted after a long moment, not looking up or turning to his companion. Instead, he pretended to examine the images displayed on the computer screens before him, although he couldn't seem to focus. "Now isn't the right time."
Alfred made a non-committal sound of his own. "She doesn't seem terribly patient," he pointed out. "How many nights do you think she'll be willing to spend alone, while you're off chasing down the scum of Gotham?"
The younger man clenched his jaw and hit a few buttons on his keyboard, watching as the security footage rewound. He could focus on the images no easier the second time than he could the first. Finally, he gave up and hit a button to pause the footage. Then he turned to the man he loved like a father and leaned back in his chair. "When Rachel found out my secret, she decided she couldn't be with me – at least, not as long as I needed to be the Batman. I don't want that to happen again."
The older man's expression was kind, although his eyes were filled with concern when he said, "As you know, I've always looked forward to the day Batman could retire, but I even I know that can't happen until the Joker is behind bars again. Miss Lane may not want to wait that long, particularly since she doesn't know what she's waiting for."
Bruce scowled. He knew that what Alfred was saying was true, but he didn't want to admit it. "She may not know that I'm Batman, but she knows Bruce has a lot going on right now. I'm sure she understands."
"If you're wrong, you could lose her. I don't want to see you wait until it's too late. By the time you realize what you're risking, she could already be gone. I can't stand to watch you lose someone you care about. Not again."
Bruce frowned, acknowledging the point but not wanting to imagine it. Instead, he retorted, "Rachel understood. She couldn't be with me, but she was willing to wait until I could finish things." He didn't say it, but the sentiment was there: he could only hope that Lois would be willing to do the same, even without knowing his secret.
Alfred opened his mouth as though to speak and then shut it again. Bruce watched him grimace, bow his head, and sigh. This uncertain, awkward behavior was so unusual, Bruce was somewhat taken aback. After a long moment, Alfred turned as though preparing to leave, but the scrape of his shoe against the ground marked yet another pause. Finally, he turned back to face his ward. "And what if Rachel wasn't willing to wait for you?"
Bruce frowned, confused. "What are you talking about?'
Alfred swallowed heavily. "What if, before she died, she wrote a letter saying she chose Harvey Dent over you?" Alfred paused, his expression downcast, looking both pained and guilty. Bruce's mind wanted to balk at the words the older man spoke; he didn't want to believe them. But he couldn't deny the pain in Alfred's voice when he continued, "And what if, to spare you further pain, I burned that letter?"
Their eyes locked, and it was Bruce's turn to swallow heavily. He felt numb, like his brain was disconnected from his body. Rachel had chosen Harvey, and Alfred had kept this from him? He didn't want to believe it, but he knew it was true. The expression on his companion's face made it impossible not to believe.
"I don't…," he started, but his voice trailed off before he could form a coherent thought. "How could you…how could you use Rachel's death like this?" Recently, he'd realized he hadn't loved her as he'd once though he did. However, that didn't mean that the wound didn't still hurt, or that he wasn't enraged at the idea of her death being used in this fashion.
Alfred was visibly pained, but he didn't back down. "You lose yourself in the Batman; you have since you first put on the suit. I don't want to watch you miss out on your chance at a normal life because you're holding on to a memory, particularly…" he broke off, but Bruce knew what he didn't say: particularly since the memory was a lie.
Feeling rushed back into his body with such force, he almost gagged on the metallic taste that filled his mouth. Adrenaline. His hands curled into fists, his face grew hot, and he jumped to his feet. "You're lying," he growled, although he knew it was the truth. "How could you say – why now? If you thought it was so damn necessary to burn the letter, why are you telling me this now?"
"Because I want to see you happy someday. Because it's necessary. Because…you deserve the truth." He paused. "Because since the first night Miss Lane has spent here, I've spent more time with her at breakfast more than you. I've had to explain where you go in the middle of the night. Tomorrow, I expect I'll have to come up with another excuse for your absence. She may have been understanding so far, and she knows about the letters sent to Wayne Enterprises today. But I'm telling you the truth about the letter now because I've realized I don't want to wait until the morning when she gets tired of waking up alone."
Listening to Alfred's words, Bruce couldn't be reasonable. He couldn't rationally consider what he was being told. The truth was, he couldn't remember the last time he had been so angry. If he didn't love this man more than anyone else in the world, he might have struck him. Instead, he stormed over to his cowl and swept It into his arms, his hands shaking as he spoke with cold fury, "We'll talk more about this later. I have to get to the hospital."
"Bruce, I'm sorry," he heard Alfred murmur behind him. He could hear the older man's heartbreak, but he couldn't comfort him just yet. He had no comfort to give. Finding out the truth – that Rachel had chosen Harvey over him, and that the man he trusted the most had deliberately kept that secret – felt like he was losing Rachel all over again. Theirs had been a complicated relationship, but for most of his life, she had been the closest thing he'd had to a best friend. It hurt to lose her again like this, more than he could say.
He stared down at the cowl, considering the woman sleeping in a bed a few floors above. He was tempted to go to her, to find comfort of his own in her arms, but he knew he wasn't good company at the moment. Ignoring Alfred's apology, he pulled the cowl over his head and stalked towards his car, needing to lose himself in being the Bat for a while. Not bothering to turn, he growled angrily, "You don't have to worry about telling Lois anything in the morning; I'll be back in time for breakfast."