Aurora fell asleep at one point and woke up wrapped in a big blanket with still-hot tea sitting on a small table near the giant screens. It was cold in the cave, so she took it gratefully and began sipping from the small cup.
"I'm sorry," she smiled over at him just a little, "if I fell asleep while you were talking or while we were watching the news." Her feet were pulled up close to her chest, arms around her legs and the side of her face resting on her knees. The chair was big with a rounded back that made sleeping more comfortable than she would have thought. She wondered how many hours he spent sleeping there rather than in his bed. "Did I miss anything?"
He turned his head toward her and smiled. "Don't apologize. You fell asleep while Dent was being taken to the hospital," he explained. “He's refused any medical treatment, including pain killers, which is curious to me. Someone has been leaking information to the press regarding his condition.”
"That's odd." Her eyes scanned the screen as he stood and walked over to her.
“I’m heading to ACE Chemicals again soon. Are you up to handling the computers?" he asked, kneeling down in front of her.
Aurora nodded. "I promise not to fall asleep.”
She watched as he left her side and went to the mass of computers, explaining the names and workings of each one, as well as how to use them. "Police Scanner, uplink to the National Criminal Database..." She didn't listen half of the time, instead focusing on him and how he moved and talked, watching his cape float around behind him.
It was weird to see Bruce as he was—half himself, half Batman. But the thought didn't last long before he was completely covered by his cowl, too.
"I think I've got it," she said and took a sip of her tea. Bruce walked over to her, kissed her deeply, then walked away without another word. It took her breath away and left her heart aching. Kissing Batman felt entirely different than kissing Bruce; sure, they were both thrilling, but Batman was more fierce because there was always the chance of him not coming back. And while Aurora knew that to be the cause of the intensity, she also knew that Bruce couldn’t see that.
He saw himself as invincible. But no one is.
He was gone right after that. Aurora was left sitting in the big, round chair with her blanket and tea. Suddenly, his voice chimed in on the speakers.
“Can you hear me?”
”I hear you," she answered, paused, and added in a worried tone, "Be careful, Bruce."
"You don't need to worry about me.”
By the time Bruce arrived at ACE Chemicals, it was the dead of night.
"I'm going in,” he said to Aurora.
Bruce forced entry the same way he did the previous time. Inside, it was a graveyard, crime scene tape everywhere. He looked to the catwalk the Red Hood fell from. A pang of regret hit him in the chest, but he quickly moved on.
He did some minor detective work, trying to make sense of everything, and kept coming up empty handed.
His thoughts were interrupted by slow, deep laughter. Bruce looked all around for a source, narrowing his eyes. The sound of the laughter seemed to get closer with each passing second, and suddenly all of the lights went on in the building, blinding and disorienting Bruce, the laughter evolving into a hearty cackle.
He looked up and saw a man, face hidden behind white light, sitting atop a throne of what seemed to be empty canisters of toxic waste.
“Boys, welcome our guest of honor! Bwahahaha!" The man kicked his legs in the air and continued in a fit of laughter as all of the henchmen around him applauded Batman. "They always do come back to the scene of their failures, don't they?" the man asked rhetorically.
Bruce narrowed his eyes.
"Red Hood," Bruce growled. "How?"
"Not Red Hood anymore, Bats! That gag got old quick. Now you can call me,” the man leaned forward in his throne, revealing his crudely painted face, white with red lips, and green hair combed back neatly, "the Joker!"
"What are you doing here?" Bruce asked, his voice still in the same low growl.
"Well, waiting for you, of course! We're going to have quite a long evening! I have a friend who is going to owe me a big favor after I take off that head of yours," the Joker explained, pulling a switch blade from his pocket and flipping it up. He smiled darkly at Bruce. "But I won't kill you yet. You still have to worry about the bombs. Oh, yes, Batman. Soon my happy gas will shower Gotham in a fit of laughter! I guess you could say they're going to laugh themselves to death! BAHAHAHA! Go on, boys! Show our guest around!" the Joker commanded, jumping from his throne and running out the back door.
"Stop!" Bruce called out, attempting to chase after him.
He was cut off by a small group of thugs wearing clown masks. Bruce scowled as they began to circle him. "I need you to contact the GCPD. Get Gordon,” Bruce ordered Aurora and crouched into a fighting stance. ”I'm a bit preoccupied.”
“I’m on it,” he heard her say.
Bruce disposed of the five men around him with ease. Each of them were untrained, sloppy. He left them handcuffed, tied together, and hanging from a high strength wire he attached to the ceiling. All of them swung unconscious.
“He’s on his way.”
“Good. He'll find these men and get them booked. In the meantime, I need to find the Joker so I can find out where he hid these chemical bombs," Bruce explained, walking out the same door the Joker exited from.
He sharply turned a corner and found his vandalized tumbler. It was covered in green spray paint in a combination of smiley faces and the word "HA", and every one of the tires were missing.
To think that someone could do that with such a short amount of time.
He approached the vehicle and found a note sitting on the windshield. Upon close inspection, he found it to be a map of the city with several locations circled in red. The locations of the bombs. Why would he just leave it there?
He’s a madman, Bruce reminded himself and shook his head slightly as he tucked it in his belt.
He clenched his fists and grappled up to the roof of ACE Chemicals for a view of the city.
"I'm sending you an image of the Joker's map. You should be able to navigate the Batwing to my location as well as input the locations of each bomb in the autopilot system. Everything should be laid out in front of you," he explained. His cowl took a picture of the map, which was quickly sent to the computer. He went back into ACE for a moment and attached the map of the city to the group of thugs tied together. A gift for Gordon.
By the time he made it out, the Batwing was hovering overhead. Bruce smirked as he used his grapple to board it. Aurora was highly capable.
"He's planted four bombs across the city. The Batwing should be fast enough to get me to them in time, but the Joker has them numbered on this map. It must be based on the times of detonation. The first one is on the roof of the Gotham City Royal Hotel.” Bruce punched the accelerator on the Batwing and sped toward the hotel, ripping through the clouds, snow bombarding the craft as it cut through the air.
He ejected from the Batwing and glided to the roof of the hotel, one of the tallest buildings in Gotham’s Diamond District. Sure enough, there was a bomb guarded by a few men dressed as clowns. Bruce charged them, slide tackling one and quickly recovering to his feet. Two men attacked him with knives simultaneously. Bruce swiftly dodged and gripped both of their wrists, crushing them in his hands, causing the men to drop their weapons. He kicked one man in the stomach and kneed the other in the head. He looked around, the three guards utterly defeated, caught off guard by the presence of Batman.
Bruce quickly approached the bomb and punched into the circuits, pulling a handful of wires from it. The bomb whirred as it shut down, the lights of the countdown timer fading.
"One down, three to go. Has Gordon arrived yet?" Bruce asked as he waited for the Batwing to return for pickup. A needle protruded from his right gauntlet and slipped into the bomb, pulling a sample of the gas.
"I think they're just getting there. There aren't a lot of men yet. I see...Gordon. And three other guys. But there’re some more cars showing up.” She paused long enough for Bruce to board the Batwing. “What’s in those bombs?" she asked.
“It could be something, it could be nothing. But we act like it’s the worst cast scenario. I’m on my way to the second bomb at Gotham General. Send Gordon to the GCPD station. That’s where the next bomb is. Make sure they have gas masks. Then contact Lucius Fox to get an antidote. I’m sending you a sample now. I’ll contact you as soon as I’m done at the hosptial.”
He was there in no time, plunging his fist into the bomb and disarming it. Two more, he thought.
“What’s Gordon’s status? Did he get there?”
"Yeah, they working on it ri-“ Her voice cut off, and when she spoke again, he could hear her sorrow. “Bruce, it… They didn't stop it. They're okay. But the people around them..."
Bruce stopped in his tracks and looked across the city from the roof of the bank and saw the dense green cloud descending upon the city. He clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. He could hear the sound of the clown cackling in the back of his mind.
He was silent as the Batwing made its pass to pick him up, and he zoomed through the sky to the final location. The roof of Wayne Enterprises.
By the time he arrived and ejected to the roof, there was no bomb in sight, just the form of a man with his toes hanging over the ledge. "Joker!" Bruce shouted to him. The Joker turned to face him, a wicked smile on his crimson lips.
“Oh, hello, Bats! Fancy seeing you here! Heeheehahahaha!" The Joker stepped away from the ledge and pulled a knife from his pocket, flipping it open. "Just you and me, Bats. No fourth bomb. No nothing!" The Joker doubled over in laughter.
Bruce gritted his teeth and growled, "Do you know how many people you have killed tonight?" He leaned forward slightly, preparing to charge.
"Gee, I dunno! Somewhere between one hundred and five hundred? BAHAHAHA!" Bruce barreled toward the clown and tackled him to the ground, causing his knife to go skidding across the snow covered roof. Bruce punched him. Again and again. Each time, he slowed his pace and increased his strength, causing more and more damage.
Despite each ferocious punch, the Joker laughed.
"C'mon, Bats! Is that all ya got?!" Bruce stopped and lifted the Joker by his collar, dangling him over the edge of the roof. A deadly fall. "That's more like it! Do it! Kill me. It's no less than I deserve!”
The Joker smiled darkly. Bruce growled but continued to hold onto him. "Very well! I'll give you a hand!" A knife shot forward from the toe of The Joker's shoe and he kicked Batman in the stomach. His armor absorbed the blow but he let go of the Joker. He could hear the laughter as the wicked man fell.
Bruce cursed himself and dove from the roof, heading for the Joker. He managed to catch up and grab onto him.
"What the hell are you doing?" the Joker shouted, pulling a revolver from his back pocket and pressing it against Bruce's temple. Bruce swatted the gun away and head butted him.
As they grew closer and closer to the ground, Bruce's cape flared out, allowing them to land on the street safely. In an instant, they were surrounded by a horde of cops, all pointing their guns toward him.
"Freeze, Batman!" the voice of Gordon shouted through blaring sirens and lights.
To his luck, Aurora already had the Batwing hovering over head. In one swift movement, Bruce grappled into the Batwing, avoiding the hail of bullets headed in his direction and leaving the Joker at the will of the GCPD.
He quickly pushed the throttle forward and flew off in the direction of the cave, the blood of a madman on his hands. The blood of the people he couldn't save on his hands.
By the time Bruce returned, it was very late. He didn't expect Aurora to be awake, yet as the Batwing landed on the platform, there she was, waiting for him.
He left the cockpit of the Batwing and stepped onto the ground, pulling the cowl from his head and tossing it aside in rage. Aurora’s quiet gasp bounced around the silent cave, and he heard her feet shuffle against the cold floor. He put his face in his hands and dropped to his knees, defeated.
"Bruce?" she said softly, kneeling next to him but not touching him. He heard her as an echo in the back of his mind, but he was too lost in meditation to calm himself down to reply.
He rose from his kneeling position after a while. The meditation had calmed him some, but he could still feel rage burning within him. He looked down to Aurora and offered his hand to her, pulling her up to a standing position. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the cold, sharp air of the cave, and slowly exhaled.
"Did you manage to contact Lucius?" Bruce asked, his voice weak and defeated. He slowly made his way to the armor stand where he began to peel off individual pieces of armor and hang them in their appropriate places. His shirt stuck to his body with sweat and his hair was matted with it. He looked over to Aurora. "What kind of hero am I to let people die?” It was more rhetorical than anything, but Bruce still hoped for an answer. He clenched his fists. "He wanted to confront me alone. To be caught. He wanted to see what I'd do after he killed all of those people. He wanted me to kill him.”
The more Bruce made sense of this maniac, the less he understood.
“He wanted you to kill him, but you didn’t, Bruce” she said in a soft almost-whisper. “You’re at war. People die in war. Not everyone can be saved. And not everyone wants to be. Things happen for a reason.”
Bruce simply looked at her. He didn't want to admit that she had a point, that there was some sense in her words. But at the same time, how could she think that for things to get better, people would have to die?
"My parents didn't die for a reason, Aurora. They died because Joe Chill wanted to pawn my mother's pearls for his next bottle of booze.” His words were sharp and they tasted awful coming out of his mouth, but he stood strong behind them. Her face dropped and her eyes went to the floor. There was no reason he should be giving her such a hard time about what happened. ”I'm sorry, Aurora," he said, pulling her in and embracing her. He held her tightly, arms wrapped all the way around her. "I have one rule. I won't inflict on these criminals what they have inflicted upon me. I will not become one of them. I will stand above." His voice was powerful, unwavering.
He made the promise long ago, atop a mountain’s peak in the Himalayas. He was with his mentor, Ra's Al Ghul, and the two of them were discussing the penalty of death, and whether or not it was justified. He remembered the fight that broke out between the two men because Bruce refused to kill Ra's and take his place as the head of his organization, the League of Assassins. Bruce was victorious and left Ra's there, deciding the man had taught him all he could.
Bruce knew Aurora had a long night. She had to watch those people die. She had to watch it all. But you would never guess it—she was strong. She was the reason the Joker didn’t really succeed. “You were amazing tonight.” He looked directly into her eyes, whispered, “Thank you,” and pulled her in again.