For those of you who have not yet been scared away by ownership charts, here is another short bit. As a final housekeeping note, I've realised that I would never muster the perseverance to type up a 7,000+ word chapter in one go, especially during the working week; hence I've split the four longer ones into manageable parts of 2-3.5 K words each, and am now looking at a total of 22 chapters – this is absolutely, positively, definitely final. Of these, 13 through 15 may be heavy on techno-babble, but the rest should be a pretty straightforward narrative.
"I can hear you thinking." They are in bed back at the villa, or rather she is in bed while he is sitting sideways on the bed still wearing the dressing gown. She suspects that he is waiting for her to doze off before he goes into the study to spend the night in front of the computer, and it makes her angry. "You might as well talk out loud."
He reaches for her hand; a simple gesture, but nonetheless effective in dissipating her anger. She sits up and leans against his side, stroking his back through the smooth silk, feeling the scars. The ones inflicted on skin and flesh aren't the worst by any measure.
"I want to go back," he says when she has given up on expecting an answer. It makes her flinch; for a terrifying instant she imagines he means going back to Gotham, casting aside the life he has embarked on here as an interlude between Batman and more Batman. Logic tells her that being legally dead might be an effective obstacle, but it still feels like she is falling from a height when she asks, just above a breath, "Where?"
"To China," he replies; and her relief, while relative and questionable, is still palpable. "I want to get to both those plants and see what exactly it is that they're making."
For once, logic and emotion are sufficiently well aligned to let her speak with conviction resulting from both. "I think it makes more sense to start from here. We can go back to Prato and take a look around the factory, and in the meantime you can keep looking for info in China online."
"Not sure I agree. Now that Varese is dead, they'll be expecting someone to come snooping here, but they won't expect me to go back there." If he did not call her out on the we, he is still making it clear that he sees China as a solo mission. "Besides, it's not the shortest route, but it is the more direct one. Going to China will let me see things at the source, and it'll be easier to follow the chain downstream from there than reconstruct it upstream from Prato."
She suspects that calling it the suicidal nonsense she believes it to be will gain her little besides a protracted verbal battle. Well, as they say, if you can't beat them, join them. "Fine. On one condition."
"No." The vehemence of his tone is unexpected. He gets up and walks right out of the bedroom, onto the terrace. After a few seconds of quietly fuming, she flips on the light, reaches for her shirt, and walks out after him.
He is standing on the terrace in the dark, the long black dressing gown falling from his shoulders looking exactly like the cape, and with the light now coming from the bedroom falling on his jaw with the rest of his face in darkness, the resemblance to the costume is complete. She is so struck that she literally stumbles back from him. To her, seeing Bruce as Batman is seeing Bruce going to his death; at this rate she'd rather tolerate the Wayne persona than this. He sees her reaction but makes no gesture to comfort her; instead he leans on the railing and looks away, over the lake.
She is not one to give up easily, however. "I can be useful, and I can take care of myself."
Her reasonable tone seems to work... somewhat. "I know. I've been your mark, and I've seen you fight. But that's not the point."
"What's so wrong about me going with you?"
"Can you be a bit more specific?" She injects her voice with all the sarcasm she can muster; she is not some sort of useless, helpless, burdensome creature.
But when he starts answering, she is sorry for her callousness.
"I told you... about Rachel," he says, quietly and hesitantly. "I told you how much she meant to me. Even when it looked clear that she was choosing Harvey over me, I still wanted to do everything to keep her safe, to have her near. It probably sounds masochistic, but even if she had chosen another, I couldn't let go, even if it meant we'd only see each other as friends. Of course I still hoped she'd change her mind, but that again is beyond the point. The point is, I didn't tell you how and why she died. I let her and Harvey get into a fight that should have been mine and mine alone. They had their reasons for wanting to jump into it, but the madman who killed them was looking for me, and was using others to get to me. I should have stopped them, and instead I let them both become his victims."
She is about to make a riposte about free will and people's right to pick their own fights, but something else in what he just said jumps out at her. "Harvey as in, Harvey Dent?"
"Yes," he exhales.
"But Harvey Dent was no one's victim. I've heard the contents of Gordon's draft resignation speech. He didn't want it published, but it was... leaked anyway. Harvey Dent killed five people in a deranged spree and died falling off a ledge. How exactly is that your fault?"
"It's entirely my fault," he insists. "Harvey painted a huge target on himself when the Joker demanded that the Batman reveal himself and he gave himself up as the Batman. He didn't even give me a chance. If it hadn't happened, he and Rachel wouldn't have been taken hostage and strapped to time bombs. And I could have, I should have saved him afterwards... after she died. I saw him in hospital very briefly but I should have found a way to stay with him through the worst of it, should have let him spend his anger on me instead of others. He was a good man, a brave, honest man, and even if he didn't deserve the glory they covered him in after he died, he doesn't deserve to be remembered as a villain." He is still looking away from her so she cannot see his face; but he sounds broken, years of guilt, only fractionally justified, coming to the surface. "I can't keep letting people get killed when they take up my fights."
"This one's my fight too," she argues, putting a hand on his shoulder. "I suggested the trip to China, I was there with you on the plane, and right there when you were talking to them. You wouldn't have gone there if it hadn't been for me." And you wouldn't have been so anxious to keep trouble to a minimum.
"No, I was the one who suggested China, and you didn't tell me to mention Varese."
"If I'd known of him, I would have. In fact I would have done so myself. I was the one who suggested Mongolia, anyway, and neither of us is responsible for its visa regime."
"You couldn't have mentioned him, you don't speak Chinese."
"The principle still stands."
It is a stalemate; they have descended from sweeping statements into petty details, but she likes it better this way. The more she can corner him with technicalities, the more difficult it is for him to go back to self-flagellation on a global scale.
And he may be foolish in many ways, but he has enough experience in tactical situations to know that he has to concede defeat here. Not that it makes him happy.
"You aren't letting go of this," he says, turning away from the lake and looking sideways at her. It isn't a question; she tries to hide her triumph.
"You're not the only stubborn one."
"That's libel. I'm not stubborn. I'm prepared to offer you a compromise."
"I agree to keep looking at this mess from the Italian end and not go to China until it becomes absolutely necessary. If you agree to stay out of it."
She has multiple issues with this proposal, starting with the until and the absolutely necessary part and including the stay out of it part; but it's a start, and it is best to cement her advantage now and try to build on it later.
"All right," she snaps, perhaps a touch exaggerated, and turns to leave... but when he gets hold of her arm and pulls her to him, she does not resist.
"I'm sorry," he whispers against her temple. "I didn't want to drag you into this mess."
"So long as my being dragged into the mess means increased chances of you making it out of it alive, I really don't mind," she counters with a touch of wry amusement.
"We were supposed to go to Venice this weekend, and instead we'll be dealing with this."
"We can always go later," she argues. "Venice isn't going anywhere."
"You never know." She can feel him smirking, his lips soft against her skin. "They say it's sinking."
"I don't know about you, but I'm betting on us making it there sometime in the next hundred years. It won't have sunk in that time."