The Darkest Night

"All things truly wicked start from innocence." Ernest Hemingway


1. Aurora Rider

The paper said the hail was supposed to turn to snow, but it didn’t seem like it. The little pellets drove onto the ground like bullets. Aurora adjusted the newspaper in her hands, sipped hot, black tea from a big cup, and listened to the hail pound against her window like giant nails spilling from a toolbox. It seemed like it would be an unpleasant sound, but it wasn’t. The pattering made her want to do nothing more than put on her pajamas, curl up in her massive bed, light the fireplace, and watch a movie or read an old book. Since she had a meeting in two hours, that wasn't an option.

Instead of being dressed comfortably, she was dressed in a long, black pencil skirt that was tailored by her maid, Sarah, to fit her perfectly, with black heels and a blue dress shirt tucked in at her waist. Her blonde hair hung heavy and straight on her back and shoulders, and her makeup was dark, but not strikingly so.

With a dramatic roll of her eyes and a scoff, she dropped the paper onto the table. The main headline talked about Bruce’s return. It wasn’t about the good of it, rather the mystery. Where was he? Why was he gone so long? Was it a woman? And her favorite: Did he kill Joe Chill?

Of course not, she thought. He wasn’t that type of man. Not that she knew him enough to deem that statement true. For the time being, she was going to doubt he was even back. With the town so screwed up, topics to write about ran scarce, so the media dug up whatever lies they could to get people reading; things like the mayor's alleged affairs or dirt on a judge.

It had been months since Bruce Wayne had been seen or heard from, but Gotham somehow managed to carry on with its usual business. Corruption, extortion, trafficking... The usual. The absence of Batman, however, wasn’t like that at all. He was only around for a few weeks, and even then, no one was sure he existed. Only the rumors of Gotham’s least trustworthy fueled the fear of Batman. He vanished when she was seventeen. Aurora assumed they were in some sort of collusion, because when Bruce left for his trip at twenty, Batman vanished into thin air. Crime rates rose again, as the crooks and scum that were hiding hastily took back to the streets in hopes to take care of their "business" before Batman returned. Just the idea of Batman scared every criminal away, but as soon as he wasn’t there to keep the fear fresh, everything was back to chaos.

Despite a freshly fallen blanket of gray snow-slush, the entire city seemed darker. Something was always on fire, and no matter where you looked, you would see a thug running rampant. The Gotham City Police Department arrested anyone doing something that passed as suspicious, even if it was digging through a purse or walking slumped over with a hood up. You never know in Gotham.

It was understandable that the police force was scared like the rest of the city, but their cowardice and lies were still unheard of. Arrest the little problems, let the big ones run free because the commissioner is either paid off or too scared to fight. That seemed to be the GCPD’s motto. Because of that, no one really found a reason to be out from three o’clock in the afternoon until the sun rose the next day. Unless, of course, you were the one percent, in which case everything was white picket-fence safe.

Aurora Rider was part of that small fraction. She never accomplished anything great that gave her the wealth she had. She was just a girl who had a few advantages from growing up as a Rider and friend of Bruce Wayne. Her and Bruce’s fathers went to university together, and remained friends and associates after graduating. The two families merged together right away, thus forcing the two children together, whether or not they wanted to be. Holidays, charity name it. They were always together. After Bruce’s parents were killed, though, everything changed. She could still remember the morning she had to leave his house. The morning she had to leave poor Bruce alone in that empty house with Alfred.

When the big door of Wayne Manor closed on her, and her father and mother urged her toward their car, it was like locking her in a solitary cell. It was storming outside, but the rain didn’t faze her as it streamed down her face with her tears. Everything she knew was in that house with her best friend, and all she wanted was to go back and be with him and make him smile again. They didn’t go to the same parties or have playdates. She didn’t get to go to his house or help Alfred cook.

She was too little to understand what was happening around her. Bruce was little, too, but he understood perfectly. He changed the most. He always seemed so dark since that day. So isolated. He never healed, never moved on. If anything, he went deeper and deeper within himself every year. People grow up, she told herself, but they don’t change completely. Aurora was the only one who could really tell. Maybe it was because he never left home. Maybe it was because his butler, Alfred, just couldn’t take care of him like his parents could have. It was something no one knew, and something no one would ever know.

She and Bruce were never in contact—the only times they ever really spoke were at parties and other events, and that was just to show the press about the great bond between the Riders and Waynes as business partners and families even after such traumatic events took place, which was supposed to help the people of Gotham trust Wayne Enterprises more or something. But the "relationship" between the two only lasted when she was little, and she only saw him a couple times.

After Bruce turned fourteen, he disappeared to go to different schools and programs around the country. Six years later, he was twenty and she was seventeen. He was only back for a few months before the press claimed Bruce either left again for a ski trip in the Alps, or was running because he murdered Joe Chill. They were undecided about the event, even though there was no evidence against him, and dragged it out for weeks. They were just bored. It seemed like he never returned from school before his "vacation" except to show up at one Wayne Enterprises board meeting. And leave early.

The advantages granted to her by growing up with the Wayne family for that short period of her childhood were few, but each one was major. One was her affluence. Since her parents were in business with Bruce’s, their income was always plentiful. They were honest, trustworthy people, and truly deserved the money they made.

Another was her job at Wayne Enterprises. Bruce left home before she even applied for a position in the company, so she assumed he didn’t know she worked for him. Her position was below Bruce, below all the board members, and below everyone else but the newest members of the company. Because of her family’s money, she easily afforded an Ivy League school on the east coast, so when it came to the business, she knew what she was talking about. She just didn’t care for the attention. And Wayne Enterprises was a man’s world. No one wanted her leading that company anywhere. But at some point, someone up top in the company found out who she was, and promoted her a hundred times over until she was almost CEO of the entire production. Aurora never found out who it was, but she liked to think it was Bruce.

Finally, she had the privilege of someone being there when she needed something. Aurora hardly reached out to him, but when she did, Alfred would answer. Occasionally, she would head toward Wayne Manor, but turn around halfway there in doubt of herself. As soon as he was declared gone on his trip, though, she would go visit with Alfred, talking about anything that came to mind. The last time they spoke, she could hardly read more than a picture book. So it wasn’t the idea of Bruce being there when she needed him, rather having Alfred instead of just Sarah.

Tea finished, except for the bitter swirl at the bottom, she placed the mug atop the newspaper, pulled her black coat over her shoulders, and dashed out to the car waiting in her driveway. It was a quick drive to Wayne Tower. Inside the main lobby, there was no one but her and the two secretaries at the desk in the center. Aurora greeted them on her path to the elevator.

Her heels clicked against the expensive stone floor in an echoing rhythm that went off the beat of hail pounding against the marvelous windows until she stopped at the elevators and pressed the button to go up. Over all the muffled sounds in the room, she heard a low voice. She didn’t think anyone else was there yet, as it was a Sunday, she was an hour and a half early, and those who worked on Sundays didn't go in until the afternoon. When she turned around to see who it was, she saw someone leaning over the desk of the pretty secretaries with a small, almost seductive smirk on his lips. They giggled as he flirted with them, and Aurora just rolled her eyes. The men in the company were pigs.

She pressed the ‘up’ button again, not wanting to have to bear witness to that, when the man walked over and stood right next to her, also pressing the button to go up, even though she already did twice. Aurora looked over at the black-suited man, back to the elevators to check what floor each was on, then up at his face. She had to look at him for a second, and he had to glance quickly down at her before she realized who he was. It was something familiar in his dark eyes—the same dark eyes she knew a long time ago.

"Bruce?" Aurora asked softly, just in case it wasn’t really him. He looked the same as he did when she saw him briefly when he was twenty, but this was six years later, and there was something about him that was unnervingly different.

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