Chapter Twelve: Thirty-Five

It was the dreams that were the worst.

They always started the same, a repetitiveness about them that should have gotten old night after night. But they never got old, just continued to reopen old wounds.

Bruce hoped that he could've at least learned the signs. That way, he might've been able to fight them off. But with the speed of the bike beneath him, the dashboard lights blaring and telling him it couldn't go faster—couldn't be over faster—it was like he'd been thrown back to that very night, snow-capped mountains lining the distance, smoking buildings streaming past him, and that never-ending panic ripping at his chest.

Somewhere within the deafening chaos of twisting flames and black clouds, there was something louder, the paced blip of a tracer that Bruce had pulled up on his dash. It was a small thing, tiny as a pinprick. Yet it was the center of the world right then. Just that yellow circle, so close but permanently out of reach.

The snow gave way in waves when Bruce threw himself off the bike, the vehicle spinning off to the side as he raced forward. He didn't need to see the tracer anymore, didn't need to hear its steady sound. He'd trade his life to hear a steady heartbeat instead.

But the dreams always ended the same way, always ended in fire and smoke and the earsplitting cry of metal walls being pulled apart, the culmination of it all enough to rend the world. It should have. It really should have, because that was what it did.

The world wasn't whole anymore.

That was all Bruce could think as he stared at the remnants of the warehouse, flames licking at the sad piles of steel, now sitting on wisps of ashen snow. The building continued shrieking as Bruce tore it even more apart, looking, always looking. And even when he found it, found what he'd been looking for, he kept looking. Because the person he found wasn't him; his partner was still out there somewhere, still out in the world with a heartbeat and a smile and a glow that could challenge the sun.

But there wasn't anything past the somber glow of flames. Not anymore.

Because Jason wasn't there anymore.

"Bruce," came a voice, and just like that, it all gave way.

Bruce hadn't even been asleep this time. Just staring at the glow of Gotham's skyline, barely visible through the window. It was as if he'd been searching unconsciously, thoughts pulling him back to that night even when he was awake, when Sarajevo was 7,000 miles away from him.

He blinked at his reflection.

It wasn't him, really. Just Bruce Wayne at his usual event, champagne glass in hand, surrounded by the constant barrage of perfect white smiles and perfect white jewels that all boiled down to perfect white noise, easily forgettable but stubborn to tune out—impossible, even, as Bruce Wayne was always in the thick of it.

Yet there Bruce was, staring pensively out at the world because he was looking for someone. Maybe he was looking for Jason still, asking the world why it sheltered murderers instead of teenagers with cheeky grins and bright blue eyes. Maybe Bruce was looking for himself, the piece he'd lost that night. Or maybe…he was looking for someone else.

"Bruce," came the name again, someone behind him drunkenly frustrated by his aloofness. It pulled him back in: the clink of drinks became audible again; the lit skyline outside the window dimmed into nothing more than a reflection. And with some nebulous strength that he himself didn't understand, Bruce managed to slip on a smile—and turn.

He was always looking for someone.

Perhaps that was why it was easier to be Batman than Bruce Wayne, to have a reason to look, because in the life of a vigilante, things were always hidden, always in need of being searched for. There were clues and good guys and bad guys. And it wasn't black and white all the time, but it was something.

Even then, though, there were nights when Bruce came back to Alfred and the cave and the continuous stream of clues, and he wanted to quit. He was never quite sure what that meant, but it was a thought that occurred daily.

Some days, Bruce wanted to quit being Batman, quit the shadows and the lies, and other days, he wanted to quit being Bruce Wayne—because that was just as much of a lie. But in the end, Bruce knew it came down to wanting to quit neither or wanting to quit both; the two had to coexist, because Batman needed an identity, and Bruce Wayne…Bruce Wayne needed a purpose.

And so, it was some unholy hour (always was), and Batman stood in the shadows, waiting for the room to clear. It was an ornate home, one with long, crimson drapes framing the windows and antique furniture that must have totaled in the millions. Bruce didn't used to think much of it, but the affluence of it all was enough to make his stomach twist, repulsed, because there were kids in the world desperate enough to deal or kill or steal tires for food.

But death comes down hard on everyone, no matter rich or poor. It was that same kind of fateful providence that had led Bruce to the parlor of an elderly woman's mansion that night, just waiting.

A door closed.

"They're gone now," Gordon sighed, standing alone in the space with a look of tired dismay circling his eyes. He appeared older, the light catching on the white streaks in his hair, as he looked down at the scene in front of him.

It was another moment before Bruce stepped out. He had already gathered enough from his place in the corner, enough to know that this was more than what it seemed.

"Our victim's sixty-eight. Veronica Jacobs," Gordon started. "Her family was big in the shipping industry, and she sold the company for a fortune a few decades ago. Since then, she mainly stuck to investing," he continued, taking in the vigilante who was surveying the scene. "Didn't have to step on many toes that way, so no known enemies. Actually, she was quite the altruist, a Mother Theresa of sorts."

Bruce already knew as much; although the particulars were a bit before his time, he'd seen this woman before at a charity event—multiple, actually. Something about her had always been off, a perfectness that didn't fit with people who lived in the fairytale world of millions. People kill for that kind of money, become corrupted by it.

So, as expected, Bruce had looked into her long before that night. But his search had only proved that that perfection was true, not a single stain of sin on her life.

Back then, it had made Bruce even more suspicious, and now that mistrust was quickly gaining footing as the heiress was dead, killed in her home in the middle of the night, and all the usual explanations were quickly being tossed out.

"Not a robbery," Bruce grunted, eyeing the pendant around her neck. A family heirloom, he guessed, the jewelry seated just beneath the red line drawn across her throat. Markedly, it was untouched.

There were hundreds of other valuables in the room that could've been stolen too, priceless bric-a-brac crowning the fireplace's mantle, but even the jewels in the chandelier remained, shimmering dimly above their heads.

"That's what we're thinking: The maid who found her said nothing was missing. And it's not a crime of passion either," Gordon added, "Jacobs' friends said she hadn't been seeing anyone since her husband passed."

Yet there they were, the GCPD commissioner and Gotham's Dark Knight, looming over a corpse with no apparent motive.

"There was one thing of interest, though," Gordon offered suddenly, hands in the pockets of his trench when Bruce looked up. "We called her son in Memphis. Mentioned she'd been having problems thinking straight, remembering—more than could be excused by old age. He pushed her to see a specialist, and he said she was diagnosed with dementia just last week. No one else knew, but…it might be something."

Bruce didn't comment in words, instead digesting the statement with a considering hum as he turned back to the woman on the floor. Her wrinkled hands laid useless at her sides, nothing under the nails to indicate she'd been caught in a struggle. And yet the cut was on her throat, in front where, typically, she should have been able to see her killer.

Bruce spared a glance up to the ceiling. No rafters. So, no one had jumped down and caught her by surprise. The side then: the knife must have come from right where Bruce had been waiting before. It was the only spot in the room that wasn't touched by the light, perfectly concealed by a tall bureau and the whispering drapes.

A knife from the side. Tossed.

Bruce's eyes lingered on the only mark marring the woman's flesh, that single slice across her neck, thorough yet strangely docile.

Whoever had done the job was obviously well-trained. And maybe it was something that could be chalked up to calculation, to caution, but Bruce couldn't help but hope that murder wasn't yet in their blood: Because cold-blooded murderers don't mind watching someone die from point blank. But here, distance was purposely put between killer and victim, enough to hide the look of horror that comes in one's last moments. Enough to hope.

A stretch of silence settled, one in which the wind easing through the window shook the chandelier, its jewels shining like frozen rain.

"No witnesses, I take it?"

Gordon shook his head. "Not a single one. The camera feeds were looped like always, and the few servants that were here—They didn't see a thing. Outside of the head trauma, though, there were no injuries; Jacobs was the only target."

Bruce exhaled carefully, suddenly feeling his age.

It was the usual M.O. It was why Gordon had been so quick to notify him. Five hours of Bruce Wayne being in New York to check on Tyler Chemicals, and this was what happened.

It'd been that way for a while, actually: coming back to homicides or disappearances of anyone from crime lords to aristocrats. Always when Bruce Wayne was out of Gotham. Almost like—

Like someone has me pegged.

"There's the dents this time too," Gordon was back, still looking at the corpse with a subdued air, "I had my guys tag the ones we could find. There's a few just outside." Bruce gave a grim nod, and after another moment, the pair slipped out into the hall.

There wasn't much point; Bruce knew what they would find the second Gordon had spoken, and there they were: small, crescent-shaped dings along the wall with yellow police tags taped beneath them. Just two marks this time. But it must have been enough.

"Some cheap ricochet trick," Jason had said, "he chucked it at the floor, and then it came back to him..."

The words returned to Bruce as he took in the scuffs, around an inch in diameter and guided so that one of the marks would lead directly to the next. The two of them were both distractions, perfectly angled to hide the face of the person who had made them until any witnesses would be unconscious.

Bruce could trace the path back, back to the point where the boy might have been standing, and he found he didn't have the heart to look away. It'd been months, but that absence, one of a person who once had been there—It emphasized the fact that there were only two people in that hall. And these crime scenes... They used to be searched by three.

A solemn silence haunted the place right then, filled with so much regret that it was as if Bruce could feel it on his skin, damp and cold and empty. It must have been strong enough to be obvious.

"He was a good kid."

Gordon's comment fell flat, but it was a nice thought, similar to the other ones Bruce had heard since Jason had died.

"It's not your fault," Alfred had said one night, "there's nothing you could have done."

That was a nice thought too, the same sympathy held in it, but it was never true: There were plenty of things Bruce could have done that night. Plenty of reasons that Jason's death was his fault. He should've kept better tabs on his partner, should've been faster or smarter, enough to know that something was off. Bruce should have just been honest for once and talked to him, because Jason was his son.

At the end of the day, that was what Jason was. And then he was dead.

Bruce's attention was still pinned to that spot in the hall when Gordon spoke again, the man's eyes tracing the rug beneath them. "You know, I've been in this business a long time, son. Long enough to know those kinds of losses—They take a lifetime to get over. If anything ever happened to my Barbara, well…."

A faint thread of wind worked its way through the hall then, but Gordon didn't once move his gaze from the floor. It was as if he was expecting the damask pattern to come to life like it could somehow make things better. It wouldn't. Couldn't.

"I know it's not much," the man continued, "but if there's ever anything I can do to make things easier, just…"

That was as much as Bruce heard.

Because Gordon looked up then to find himself alone.

The familiar glow of electronics lit the back half of the cave, illuminating the floor and disturbing the bats above. In an effort to corroborate the dementia diagnosis, Bruce had pulled up a listing of Wayne Biotech patient histories on the computer bank's screens. There hadn't been much success in those regards, meaning the victim had visited a doctor outside of Gotham—either that, or paid for someone under the table. But, Jacobs had invested funds in Wayne Enterprises' neurological research a few days prior to her death, enough to assume the diagnosis story was true.

"Digging into the archives yet again, I see," Alfred deadpanned, coming up beside Bruce with something tucked beneath his arm. "Am I to assume this breech of company policy is not something I should mention to Lucius?"

"Jacobs was trying to keep the diagnosis from prying eyes…"

"Heaven forbid eyes would be prying, sir."

Bruce didn't address the sarcasm, still focused on the screens. "Her son was the only one who knew—her next of kin. She had staff on consistently at her mansion, almost like she was paranoid of being left alone." Bruce rested his elbows on his desk, lacing his fingers pensively. "I imagine somehow she would have seen this coming."

"You believe she knew her killer?"

"In a way, Alfred, I think she was one of her killers." When the Englishman sent him an intrigued look, Bruce pulled up a collection of videos on the monitors, footage from the murder scene. Each screen covered a different room, and it all looked fairly ordinary, people moving between the spaces without any sign of malaise. Alfred raised an eyebrow, but he continued to watch patiently, nothing amiss on the screens until, suddenly, the footage flickered, and everything was wrong.

It was as if a ghost had gone through the mansion, the figures previously walking about the rooms collapsed and still; the elderly woman who had been sitting in the parlor was now bathing its floors red.

"Looped footage," Alfred summarized, continuing to take in the paused crime scene as bars of static ran over it, "your assassin's handiwork, it would seem."

Bruce clarified grimly, "I think Jacobs was a member of The Court. If she truly had been suffering from dementia, who knows how severe it may have become. There could have been the potential that she reveal something about the organization unknowingly—meaning she wouldn't have been worth the risk to keep alive."

"You're saying the homicide was proactive then?"

Bruce nodded. "It would be a motive. And the footage and dings already match up with a Court murder."

"Naturally," Alfred dipped his head, shifting whatever thing he was carrying, "but how will the Batman respond to The Court, I wonder? Or…will Bruce Wayne perhaps be the one responding?"

Bruce leaned forward over his clasped hands.

The idea had merit: Assuming The Court comprised aristocrats, the Wayne Enterprises owner would likely be a welcome member if he presented himself as a potential candidate. But there was still the conjecture that one of their assassins knew of Bruce's double life. As of then, no one had targeted him in his civilian identity, implying that his cover hadn't been blown to the rest of The Court—not yet, anyway.

"No," Bruce decided, reasoning with the keyboard in front of him, "best play it safe for now and keep to areas that are less gray. I still have other options."

"Very well," Alfred hummed. He pulled up a chair and settled down. "While you plan, Master Bruce, I will be attending to other matters." The man flipped open the object in his hands, the book's binding cracking at the movement and drawing Bruce's attention.

If he'd learned anything in the time he knew Alfred Pennyworth, it was that breaks were something the butler rarely pursued. But it'd become a habit of Alfred's in the months since Jason had passed, simply sitting beside Bruce in the dead of night with something to busy himself with, anything from sowing to cleaning or, as of late, reading. It might have been his way of coping, of processing things in the presence of another person. But sometimes, it seemed as if Alfred was doing it more for Bruce than for himself.

Bruce wasn't sure how to feel about that, but Alfred never pushed for anything more than quiet company, so he let it be, eyeing the cover of the novel before offering, "A Tale of Two Cities?"

"Ah, yes," Alfred rejoined blandly, removing his bookmark, "the crown of Victorian literature. Dickens' finest, some would say."

"Uh-huh," Bruce answered with his mouth pulled to the side. In the end, he decided to turn back to the computer screens without commenting on Alfred's Anglophilic disposition. There were still things that needed doing, anyway, and Bruce was already under the impression that to make any kind of move against The Court, he was going to be pulling a lot of strings.

The man leaned back in his chair, his fingers finding their way to the keyboard as he mulled over his options.

In The Court, there was at least one assassin who knew his identity, someone shrewd enough to figure it out but, for whatever reason, deciding to keep it confidential. That meant that if Bruce was going to make any counter, the first person who needed to be dealt with would have to be that person. Someone young and clever who used a collapsible bo staff. Someone Bruce had seen once before.

The computer keys began sounding, a plan forming.

There was no way Bruce could predict who The Court would target next. But perhaps he could influence their decision, arrange it so a threat to their existence would be out in the open, a threat that was intelligent enough to make them send an equally-intelligent Talon to handle the job—hopefully the one Bruce was wanting.

A listing of Arkham Asylum inmates flashed onto the main monitor, the roster scrolled down toward the "M"s. He's still there, Bruce considered upon reading the name. It was the perfect person for his plan: someone sane enough to pull out of the asylum and one who had a history of ruffling the upper-class' feathers.

Bruce pulled his hands back from his keyboard, reclining in his chair thoughtfully.

It would take a few months for his nascent plan to be put into motion, but that couldn't be helped. Until then, Bruce would make do, orchestrating everything around one night in which "Bruce Wayne" would coincidentally be out of Gotham—preferably on a business trip of minimal import.

"Might I inquire what you're doing, sir?" came Alfred, his book forgotten in his lap when he noticed a monotone ringing coming from the computer. A set of ten digits glowed on the monitors: a phone number.

"J'onn owes me a favor, Alfred," Bruce answered, a knowing look in his eyes, "I think it's time I took him up on it."

AN: I just want to mention that I take dementia very seriously. It runs in my family, but...I guess I just tie in bits of myself in everything I write. Still, I hope I didn't offend anyone with that.