The grandfather clock rang. It was accompanied by a dozen others of its kind, distant though ever-present in the lonely halls of Wayne Manor. The walls were a rich and exquisite maroon in almost every room, warmly lit by various fireplaces and carefully-arranged stained glass lamps of various sorts. The vigilant sentinel, Alfred Pennyworth patrolled the halls ceaselessly. If even a speck of dust were to be found in a corner, he pounced like a hungry lion. Feather dusters would perform their grim task with no remorse, and the speck would be little more than a pained memory.
There were too many rooms in the manor to count, which made it a nightmare to navigate for anyone new to it. On this Sunday morning in early October, the house's current victim was a completely overwhelmed Barbara Gordon. The ginger haired girl looked all around in bewilderment, a couple whimpering noises escaping her throat as she realized just how affluent her new friend Bruce Wayne really was. When they met on that August morning at the beginning of sophomore year, she had never suspected that he would turn out to be the richest man in Gotham. Neither had she suspected that he was quite as inviting as he was.
The previous day, Bruce had been invited for dinner for what must have been the hundredth time by Barbara's father, newly-promoted Commissioner Jim Gordon. The mood had been somber, to say the very least. The Commissioner looked aged nearly to his golden years by the stress of losing a colleague and suddenly replacing him, and to say he was unwilling to talk was such an understatement you may have lost a few brain cells simply saying it. Bruce, the quick-thinking boy that he was, made the suggestion that perhaps the next day Barbara could come over to his house for a change. Being in the financial position he was in, he noted it was more or less robbery to be relying on their goodwill and not vice-versa. Though the Gordons tried to resist and avoid imposing on their orphaned friend, they found themselves roped in.
And that was how Barbara Gordon found herself carefully tip-toeing through Bruce's luxurious mansion. Her heart was still catching up to the rest of her, after leaping when she passed through the estate's gate in her friend's stretch limousine. The Gordons lived in a small house cramped between two others in one of the less aesthetic neighborhoods in Gotham City, this was a kind of wealth she simply wasn't prepared for. Every step she took came with the apprehension of wondering just what kind of priceless Ming vase or family portrait she would knock over first. However, neither of those things were touched. What she hit instead was a bookshelf.
They had entered the parlor room, a wide-open space divided into a simple, yet refined dining area on one half and a living room/study on the other. Bruce had been giving the Gordon daughter the grand tour, and was going on about how his dad had nearly killed one of the contractors building the place after he installed the chandelier directly over the fireplace as opposed to the dining table.
Though she wasn't exactly bored, Bruce was insane if he thought Barbara was going to do nothing but sit around and listen to him spout irrelevant historical crap for four hours. With him none the wiser, she turned and started walking towards the bookshelf, hoping that there would be some kind of reading material to distract her from the main event. She stepped past the couch, to find the oddest of all surprises waiting for her: a great dane.
The black dog stuck its head out from behind the couch like a carefully-placed leg to trip one's friend. Barbara fell for it hook, line and sinker, and tumbled straight into the bookshelf. It wobbled for a moment, before going for the most catastrophic option available and pouring its contents on top of the miserable little girl who could be heard screaming "Not again!" underneath the mountain.
Bruce finally turned around to see what had happened, and shouted a general gasp in surprise. "Ace, bad!" he shouted as he rushed over to help Barbara out from beneath the rubble. He tossed a few volumes away and pulled her up for air as she gasped. He placed Barbara a few feet away, sitting on the couch as he began to pick up the mess she had made. She clutched her head, muttering curses to herself as she wondered where that dog went. She needed something to hit. She tried to look around for him, but that only compounded the aching in her skull. She gave up, and tried to steady herself by fixing her gaze at the disaster zone that might once have been called a bookshelf.
The Wayne boy was moving about like a bee, stacking books in to various piles on the plush carpet. His eyes were focused, two icy blue things dead-set on their task, unwilling to take in any unnecessary information. That was when she noticed something odd. The bookshelf, now standing grim and barren, still had one small speck of its former charges remaining. While all the others had made their mission to crush a poor red-headed girl into a fine paste, one book stayed behind. It was a dull green hardcover book, whatever text was on its spine was faded from years of wear and tear. Out of curiosity, Barbara called her friend, who barely looked up from his task to acknowledge he was listening.
"One of the books didn't fall; looks old, what is it?"
Bruce looked up, seemingly doubting of Barbara's claim; that look disappeared when he set eyes on the little tome she was referring to, at which point his eyes took on an appearance that almost looked fearful. "That? It's nothing." he assured her, suddenly stacking a dozen books on either side of it, almost like he was hiding it amongst its own kind. With the others on the floor, Bruce stood tall and stretched his back out, apparently leaving the rest for Alfred to handle. He walked over to the couch and sat down next to Barbara, leaning back into the cushion.
"So," Bruce queried. "are you usually more coordinated than that, or does the Gotham Museum have a bounty on you?"
Barbara grimaced. She wasn't one for ribbing, friendly or otherwise. "If you're going to blame anyone, blame your mutt, sticking his head out in front of innocent young women's feet."
"Hey!" Bruce exclaimed, sounding hurt. "Ace is a purebred with a lineage dating back hundreds of years! The queen of England wishes her bloodline was as royal as his."
Barbara relented and gave a little chuckle. Apparently Bruce wanted to be laughed at today. Before the conversation could continue, Bruce hopped back to his feet and pulled the unsuspecting Barbara up with him. She nearly toppled into the fireplace as the blood rushed back to her head, and was only saved this time thanks to Bruce being there to block her fall. He shook his head and led her along out of the room. "Let's go find Alfred to make some food;" he told her. "The silverware is replaceable."
Approximately an hour after the horrid bookshelf incident, Barbara and Bruce found themselves on a balcony on the third floor of Wayne Manor. There was a simple, by the standards of the house, table and a pair of chairs overlooking the estate. Verdant green fields, carefully tended to by dozens of workers, with gently rolling hills. An apple orchard was visible over a quarter of a mile in the distance, and to the left and even further were the cliffs that overlooked the ocean.
"Okay, I'll admit it." Barbara said, smiling as she observed the landscape. "This is actually pretty impressive; how did your parents manage to make a place this beautiful around Gotham?"
Bruce sipped at a goblet Alfred had brought him several minutes before, and idly stirred his fork around a bit of roast pork as he mulled the question over. "To tell the truth, my parents weren't really responsible for anything here. My family goes back in Gotham, pretty much back to its founding. My great-great-grandfather built this place. The rest of us just add on every generation or two."
"That so?" Barbara asked. She was eyeing her own drink at this point. It was in a wine glass, and it was certainly purple. She sniffed it, and took a tentative sip. Just grape juice. Good to know Mr. Wayne wasn't trying to get his friend drunk on a Sunday afternoon. "So then, Bruce, what have you added to this place?"
A little beat of sweat rolled down his forehead. That spoke more than any amount of words: he hadn't done anything with the place.
"I'm not really finished settling back in yet." he explained, tugging at his collar. He wore a gray and black t-shirt, the same thing he seemed to wear all the time around Barbara and her family. She thought about raiding his closet, just to see if he even owned any other sets of clothing. Bruce continued as she explored this train of thought.
"But as far as plans go, right now the mansion isn't a big deal. I'm focusing funds more on community outreach programs."
"Oh, so a philanthropist, are we?" she asked in a teasing voice. Bruce scratched the back of his head, smiling though visibly out of his element.
"Yeah, I guess that's weird, right? Rich kid with limitless fortune wants to give half of it away? But… you've seen this city, Barbara. You've lived here." She looked at him with a bit of worry; he'd gotten serious very quickly. "You know that place, Crime Alley, Knife Alley, whatever they call it? That used to be one of the best neighborhoods in the city when I lived here; now it's a slum. All of Gotham's going to hell, and I feel like I need to do whatever I can to stop it."
The young Gordon girl nodded, and her lips wavered a bit. She hadn't realized it meant that much to him. She took another sip of the grape juice as she grasped in her mind for another conversation topic. She set the glass down and tried not to look too relieved when bringing up a new conversation point.
"So, back to school tomorrow, right?"
"That's right." Bruce affirmed. "Repairs are all done, I saw it myself a couple days ago."
"All that fire…" Barbara drifted off in her own thoughts. She still remembered the day Gotham High burned down vividly. How one of her closest acquaintances Garfield had become a mad arsonist. The fires he started completely destroyed the auditorium, and rendered nearly half of the building completely useless. They'd nearly had to rebuild the entire place, with significant assistance from none other than WayneTech Enterprises.
"You did a lot of the oversight for that personally, didn't you?" she asked her affluent friend. He nodded with a bit of a smile and took the last bite of his pork.
"Uh huh." he mumbled as he chewed. Barbara's face scrunched in disgust and urged him to finish chewing before he spoke again. He did so, and started talking. "I drew up the blueprints personally, brought in my own guys to do a lot of the construction, I even personally paid all the staff during their time off. It's like I own the place now."
Barbara set her fork down and let the corners of her mouth drop. "Bruce. You're scaring me." The boy had a devious look in his eye, like a child who had found the perfect scheme to steal all of that night's dessert and blame it on his brother. He remained like this only a moment, going back to that semi-placid, semi-cordial expression he more often showed. He stood, and walked over to the balcony, leaning over it. Barbara followed him. At the moment, the winding road out from the manor led out down the hill they were on and far into the suburbs of Gotham. Beneath them, the distant sounds of police sirens, music, and the hustle of city life could be heard. But closer, that was replaced by the tranquility of songbirds, gentle ocean winds and the rhythm of a waterfall somewhere out of sight. Barbara took in a deep breath and let it all sink in; the view was beautiful.
"You must really love living here, don't you?" she asked, not really thinking as she spoke. The words just drifted out of her mouth without input. She lazily looked over to Bruce to see him tightly gripping the metal railing. She was bewildered, at first, and looked at his face to see what was wrong. Bruce's face was taut and stoic; he was holding back on his emotions, she was certain of it.
She didn't do anything that night. He could tell her later, when he was ready.
They spent the rest of the day together continuing the tour, making sure to avoid any wandering dogs, before Barbara's father finally came for her at around 6:00 PM. He stood at the door waiting for her, and politely conversed with Alfred as the two said their goodbyes.
On the drive home, her father felt chatty. "So, how was the place? As big as I told you it'd be?"
"Bigger." Barbara said matter-of-factly. "But I don't think you ever mentioned a dog."
"A dog?" Jim asked, thinking it over. "No, I don't suppose I remember a dog. Why don't you tell me about it?"
The car ride, and the rest of the night when the rest of her family was involved consisted in its entirety of Barbara explaining the grandiose trappings of Bruce Wayne's home, and to her dismay watching them look on with absolute glee and neglecting any need to think of the person and not his money.
When they finally let her leave them, it was past 11:00 PM. Poor Barbara sighed, stripping and throwing on her pajamas in the span of precisely thirty seconds before tossing herself into bed to get what little sleep she could that night.
She wasn't sure what, but a feeling in her gut told her that her misfortunes at Gotham High were nowhere near over.