Bruce pressed his lips into a solemn line. Aurora was looking at him, but not really looking. Her eyes were absent, as if the room's darkness seized her gaze. She turned away from him, met by sleep almost immediately. Bruce laid down opposite her, sure to keep his distance. He stared up at the ceiling, knowing sleep would elude him, as it often did.
He thought about how the night would have gone if he took Aurora home like he should have. Maroni would be in police custody, awaiting prosecution. Now that had to wait. The manor probably still would have been broken into, but Aurora would be safe and oblivious to who he really was.
Or would she?
Bruce’s hands tangled in his hair and his eyes closed. Didn't she know all along? He gave her the final certainty by taking her to the cave, but she accused him of being Batman.
Aurora was too clever for her own good.
Suddenly, the girl sat up and took a deep breath. He glanced over at her, but didn't react. She wouldn't have wanted to talk to him. So he watched her calm down, get comfortable again, and then quickly fall back asleep.
His mind drifted to the man he fought earlier. He never encountered anyone with such prowess. The way he fought was familiar. He didn't waver or tire, almost as if he had an unlimited amount of stamina. Bruce would look into it further, but it could wait until tomorrow.
He snaked his left hand behind the headboard of the bed where a few batarangs were hidden for emergencies. He closed his eyes as his hand wrapped around one, then opened them again and looked out the window parallel to the bed.
Slowly, as not to stir Aurora, he rose and walked over to the window, looking out at the city. He started at it for a long time, then his eyes fell down at his feet and finally to Aurora. She could never understand why he was doing this. Why he was Batman. She never suffered like he did. She never endured the same pain—the pain that still wracked him. And he would make sure she never had to.
I promise you, he thought to her.
From there, his eyes shifted to the alarm clock on the nightstand near the bed. It was four in the morning, which meant dawn was just around the corner. He reached for the curtains and pulled them across the window, keeping the quickly approaching sunlight from flooding in and waking Aurora. Looking at her again, he knew she was safe. He wouldn't fail to keep her that way again.
He turned for the door, headed in the direction of his study.
Exhausted as she was, Aurora was a light sleeper. She felt the bed shift and then sink more toward her side, and it woke her up. Her eyes took a minute to adjust to the darkness, and she soon realized that Bruce was by the window. She kept quiet to see what he would do. It was clear he was looking at something, but it wasn't something near, rather far off in the city. Aurora took a breath, closing her eyes when he pulled the drapes together, only looking at him again when she heard him walking out of the room.
She knew where he was going. He was leaving to be Batman one more time before the sun peeked over Gotham.
It took her a long time to decide that she was going after him before she took action. Obviously, she knew she shouldn't be getting in his way by playing the role of damsel in distress that always annoyed her, but she needed some sense of closure before he left. It could have been the last time he did, and though she declared there was nothing between them, not even a friendship, she had to make sure he was okay.
Her hair wasn't really messy. Because she slept so heavily, she didn't move much. Her bandage, along with Bruce’s slouchy shirt and pants, were stained with blood and clung to her where it dried. And if she would have noticed the red on his expensive sheets, she would have felt bad for ruining them.
"Bruce?" Aurora called in a groggy voice, rounding the corner to the hall glowing with yellow, incandescent light. No answer.
Aurora sighed and leaned against the wall, watching him go into his study. The three notes from the piano echoed down the hall. After a moment’s hesitation, she pushed off the wall and went the same route he took. Knowing the notes from the myriad of wasted piano lessons from her mother, she pressed the three in the same order Bruce did and waited until the bookcase moved aside to reveal the elevator. She walked confidently toward it, stepped inside, and hoped it wouldn't set off some sort of alarm because Bruce wasn't with her. Thankfully, it didn't. The machine recognized her and let the door slide shut, then began its depart to the cave. Once she was there, the door slipped out of her way and she stepped out silently.
Aurora crept around and stopped behind a tall, metal shelf, crouching behind it to watch him.
"Freeze right there." Bruce ordered, and for a second, she thought he caught her, but he only got closer to the screen he was in front of. "Run an analysis from the National Criminal Database." He sat back down and rubbed his eyes.
Squinting, she realized what he was looking at so closely. A woman in bed? No. It was her in bed. What was he trying to see? She leaned forward a little more and faltered, grabbing the metallic shelf to steady herself with a soft thud. Aurora hid herself completely in case he looked back, terrified that she gave herself up.
"The man who attacked you tonight is Slade Wilson, one of the most lethal killers in the world."
"He was probably hired to come after me, but decided to use you as bait," Bruce said, not taking his eyes off the screen. "You can come out, Aurora."
She exhaled all the tension of trying to stay hidden and stepped out, keeping her eyes trained on him as she did.
Slade Wilson? What a horrible name.
Her jaw clenched at the sight of the masked man on the screen by cause of no particular emotion.
"I’m lucky the serial number is still intact. It’ll allow me to find out where he acquired his weapons. Handguns of this caliber are illegal in the U.S., so not only will I be able to track him down, but I can also take out his supplier," Bruce explained. He set the bullet fragment down near the massive computer.
Shamefully, Aurora watched him stand and pick up all the pieces of his armor. She walked over and inspected the bullet herself.
This was the one meant to kill her. This was the one that hurt Bruce.
"You said you would give me answers in the morning," Aurora reminded, eyes glued to the bullet. "It’s morning." Satisfied with the tiny chunk of metal much sooner than she thought she anticipated (probably because she was afraid she would throw it across the room), she let it clatter back to the counter. The thought of the bloody bandages crossed her mind and made her look down at herself to discover just how red they became while she was sleeping.
"And I will answer all of your questions, Aurora," Bruce promised, pointing to the chair in front of the giant computer then walking over to an area of the cave with a table and more metal shelves. Aurora didn't plan to move, so she just watched him grab a small box and walk back to her. He led her to the chair, sat her down, and knelt, beginning to uncoil the bloody gauze on her left arm.
"None of these cuts are too deep. That’s pretty lucky considering where they are on your body." She didn't feel she needed him to go through all the trouble he was, but it made her feel a little better. Despite the good condition of the injuries, they still hurt every time he touched them or adjusted the gauze. The disinfectant he rubbed on her arms and feet stung at first, then warmed and melted the pain away. Her eyes were on his hands the entire time, watching every move they made. When he finished fixing every single damaged part of her skin, her eyes shifted back to his face.
"Ask away," he told her.
For the first time, Aurora actually thought about what it was that she actually wanted to know. Well, "Are you really Bruce Wayne?" seemed like a good enough start, but she held her tongue and tried to be serious. Questions poured through her mind. Easy to answer questions, like, "Where did you learn how to do everything?" were met with the unanswerable, like, "Why? Why do you do it?" She took a breath, locked eyes with him, and kept herself solid
"What were you doing in the Alps for six years?" was her first question.
Not too tough.
"Well, I wasn’t on a ski trip," he started. He pulled the chair a few feet from her closer and sat in it. "Six years ago, I was injured while I was doing an investigation of a SWAT officer. I couldn't go to any doctors here with all of my injuries, so I went to a doctor in Switzerland who could operate on the down-low. I was gone as long as I was because of the rehabilitation," he explained, keeping their eyes locked. "I just used the guise of an extended ski trip. What else?"
She blinked at the bluntness of his answer. Six years of rehabilitation?
"Why did you need the surgery? What happened?" she asked, following up her thoughts. "What happened to you that you had to go to another country for it?" Her eyes didn't leave his. Trapped under his gaze, she had to take a few breaths to keep her mind on track. His eyes were dark and full of secrets that she wasn't sure she wanted in on.
Aurora could remember something bad happening to Batman—something terrible—but she couldn't remember what. As soon as Batman left, she lost faith and trust in him. So in Bruce, too. And she forced herself to end her girlish crush so she stopped caring about where he was or what he was doing.
"Well, I'm sure you understand that a man full of bullet holes can't go to a hospital without someone asking questions. This doctor in the Alps is an old friend, and she owed me a favor," Bruce explained. "I understand your confusion, but if I were to waltz into a hospital the same night that Batman got the same injuries... It's just a little suspicious, don't you think?" he asked her.
Listening to him talk, it all made perfect sense, and she felt like an idiot for not realizing right away how dumb it would have been of him to walk right into Gotham General. But how did he get all the way to the other country and not die? That was fantastic. He was fantastic.
As soon as he finished talking, she leaned back in the chair he had her sit in and pulled her knees up to her chest.
"Don’t you think it was just a little odd that Bruce Wayne decided to go skiing the same night that Batman was gunned down?" Aurora shot back. The question wasn't completely sarcastic. She had some genuine curiosity underlying in there somewhere.
"Not if you announce it to the press a week later. Just because I was gone doesn't mean people notice," Bruce explained.
"I noticed," she stated, and they exchanged a sad, uncomfortable look. Her eyes moved to the big bruise on his abdomen that peaked out from under his uneven white shirt, and they lingered there for a long moment before Aurora regained focus on his face and what he was saying.
"Don’t worry about this. I've had much worse," he said and pulled down the white material. "I know this probably doesn't make sense to you. I know you probably think I’m crazy for doing it, but it isn't about thrill seeking."
"It makes absolutely no sense to me why you would do this. It makes no sense to me why you risk your life and leave behind the people you love, then act like it’s no big deal." She shook her head and stood. It gave her a slight head rush, but she blinked hard and it went away.
"I made a promise."
"A promise to who, Bruce?" Aurora inquired, sounding exasperated. To the city? To Alfred? To himself? Not that it mattered who he made his promise to. It wasn't worth it. It wasn't worth his life.
"A promise to my parents," he said sternly, standing from his seat so he could be a little over eye level with her. "The night they died, as I sat on my knees in front of their lifeless bodies, I promised I would create a world where no little boy would lose his parents to some punk with a gun."
She held her breath when he said it and her heart broke. Of course it was his parents. Aurora castigated herself mentally for being so oblivious and naïve. She reached out to him and moved his face with her fingertips to look at her, just as soft as her voice when she said, "And you think this is what they wanted for you?" Gentle, concerned, and cautious was all she could be for him. More than those, though, he needed her honesty. "Bruce, I’m all for you going out there and doing what you need to do. I think it’s reckless and dangerous, but it’s what you feel you need to do. I just…" There were no words, so she just let her sentence end there. Hand still in place on his face, she struggled to find his gaze that repelled her like a polar opposite.
"I know that they wanted a better Gotham," he started. "You know as well as I do that Batman is the only way to do that. Corruption has run rampant in this city for far too long, and a man like Bruce Wayne isn’t the kind of person who should represent the people."
Eventually, his dark gaze fell on her baby blue eyes. He lifted his hand over hers so they overlapped. At first, his contact surprised her. She never really thought of Bruce like that, but she never really thought about Bruce in any specific way. In all the years they were apart, she pushed him from her mind anytime he found his way in. Things never ended well when he was prominent in her life—he always disappeared or did something that wasn't like him that completely threw her off. Like confess he was Batman. And now that she knew that, things were different.
Everything she knew about him became nothing more than possibility. Everything he ever said or did was false. Except for two things. Who he was—Batman—and what he stood for.
His hands were strong and rough, evidence of the battles he constantly pushed through. They were wise, too, as they smoothly slid from her hand on his cheek to the back of her neck. Her chest was tight and her cheeks became flushed with an emotion she didn't understand. One she never experienced with anyone else. His lips pressed softly against hers, and her heart skipped a beat. It took a second to get used to how it felt to kiss him, and she found that it felt right. There was nothing to adjust to.
Too soon, he pulled away. Aurora’s eyes locked on his, unsure and definite all at once, and she exhaled one shaky breath.
"Bruce?" she whispered. Was this his playboy mask? Was she a just a band-aid for the pain she caused him to relive? Or was that a real kiss? Aurora wasn't sure of anything anymore, but that ambiguity was welcomed. For a girl who liked to know the answer to everything, not knowing felt like a break.
Their lips were mercilessly mere centimeters apart.
Aurora couldn't stand it.
His grip on her tightened as he brought her in and kissed her again. She felt her eyes fall shut and gave into the kiss completely. It was a good feeling, being close to him. An amazing feeling. He slid his hands down the sides of her body and rested them on her hips, allowing him to eliminate any space between them. Above everything on her mind, she just wanted to be closer to him.
Despite all the fear and confusion and exhaustion brought on by the night, Aurora relaxed and let him take charge. Her chest became heavier with want the longer the kiss continued and, as if out of nowhere, they were engaged in a passionate embrace.
A small, needy sound passed her lips. At first, it embarrassed her, but his contact made her forget it even happened. Her free hand dragged lightly up his covered torso, carefully avoiding his wound, until it was entwined in his hair.
It was weird for her to think that he was the little boy she grew up with. He was the boy whose parents were killed before his very eyes. He was her employer and family friend. He was the man who was going to save Gotham. And there he was, allotting himself someone for his worst enemies to target to get to him. She wasn't as worried about that as she thought she would be, though. Because he would protect her from them. No matter what it took. She kissed him harder.
Bruce lifted her into his arms so her legs wrapped around his waist. He broke the kiss for a moment and touched his forehead to hers, the only sounds that could be heard were the soft whirring of the equipment in the background and the sound of their heavy breathing.
He looked her in the eyes.
"It's a little cold down here, don't you think?
The small smirk on her face could have passed for devious, just as it could have been shy. She nodded and tried to find the breath he took away.
The cave was cold, but she didn't feel it. Bruce was so warm, and there was a fire inside her.
He kissed her. Bruce Wayne kissed her.
Oh, Mother, Aurora smiled to herself, I dare you to call and ask about this man again. If only you knew...
Her smile widened just a little and she bit her lip, nodding in agreement with his question. Suddenly, he was heading for the elevator with her still wrapped around him. What if Alfred saw? What if there was someone from the press trying to get shots of the break in? She smiled wider. Who cared?
He put her on the bed in his grandiose bedroom, and she was childish enough to just stare up at him. What exactly was he planning now? Aurora's eyes desperately tried to pull away from his, but she was trapped. Of course she wanted to kiss him again, but she didn't know what was going to happen if she did. Would he treat her any differently tomorrow? Act different around her? The day was so full of chaos that she felt this was all just one great, big release. But this was also Bruce. And he wasn't like that. Was he? Who knows what Switzerland's women can do to a man?
In a burst of confidence, she reached up and pulled him down by the neck of his shirt. Each action was so out of character for both of them, they seemed almost right. Her forehead touched his after another long kiss and her eyes stayed closed.
"Why?" she asked vaguely.
"Why what?" he replied and dragged the tips of his fingers slowly up her unscathed right arm, leaving his forehead pressed against hers.
"Why me, Bruce?" Her eyes opened. "Why now?"
All the time they could have been around each other. All the time they could have at least been friends. And he had to choose now. Was it because she knew his secret and was he afraid she would tell? It was a genuine question that was tough to keep in the front of her mind.
They were so close.
Aurora's eyes opened and lingered on his lips for a long time before flicking up to his eyes. They were much clearer now than they were earlier, and she took that as a good thing. He was relaxing, too. Something Aurora assumed he got to do very rarely.
"I've wanted to be closer to you since the day I returned in Gotham. When I was in Switzerland, I thought of you constantly. Every single day since the day your parents made you leave. When I came back from school, when I found out you worked for Wayne Enterprises, I wanted to be the one to tell you about your promotion. I tried to meet with you, but then..."
You were shot, she recalled.
"You're one of the only reasons I wanted to come back to Gotham," Bruce continued. "You're worth saving."
Their eyes locked. He kissed her again. Deeply. Passionately.
He broke the kiss momentarily to sit up and pull his shirt off. He tossed it aside and collapsed back down on top of her, kissing her once again, his hands moving slowly up her sides while pulling off her shirt.
At first, Aurora thought she was going crazy and hearing things in the hall, but Bruce kept her attention more than that could. Then he stopped and she exhaled, frustrated and disappointed. What was he doing now?
She suppressed a groan, sighed heavily, and sat up, watching him reach across to the nightstand and pull something out of the nightstand drawer. A radio.
"What's wrong?" she asked, brows pulling together in worry. He wasn't going to leave, was he? He was Bruce Wayne right now, not Batman. "Who is it?" Aurora sat up, eyes just a little wider when she heard the voice describe an armed robber at a bank—heard it describe the robber’s mask.
Slade Wilson. It was him. The one who broke in earlier. The one who hurt Bruce.
Even though every fiber of her body said to stand against it, she pressed her lips together to gather herself, then quietly said, "Go." She didn't want him to leave and put himself in front of that man again, especially now that there was something holding them together. But she knew he didn't feel he had a choice, and it would only make it harder on herself to try to keep him from going. "If that's what you need. Go."
"You don’t have to try to be strong for me, Aurora. I know it’s hard. But it’s not what I need. It’s what Gotham needs." Bruce slipped off the bed and went to his walk-in closet. He came back out with a folded shirt and a pair of pants. "I’m sure they’ll still be too big, but they’re better than what you have right now." He handed them to her and went back into the closet.
In the few minutes of Bruce's absence, Aurora redressed herself in his clothes and sat with her feet hanging about a foot from the ground because of his tall bed. Her head pounded from her hangover and she regretted drinking as much wine as she did. Maybe she would have reacted differently to all of this. Her hand held her forehead, the rest of her body tired and achy.
Bruce reappeared, telling her to follow him, and she did just that. They went out of the room and back to his study, where he played the three notes she was becoming accustomed to.
"Now, it's apparent that Sal Maroni hired Deathstroke to kill Bruce Wayne, but he wasn't expecting the return of Batman. I need you to take some evidence I’ve compiled straight to Harvey Dent, the District Attorney. Don't mention me or Batman. In fact, it'd be better if you didn't let him know your identity at all," he explained as they stepped into the elevator.
"How will I do that? He knows who I am, Bruce."
"Lights," Bruce called when the elevator opened.
The cave felt colder than it did earlier. Aurora wrapped her arms around herself and rubbed her eyes tiredly at the harshness of the lights.
He went over to a small screen and punched something in, the lights dimming slightly.
Bruce walked to the supercomputer and pulled a flash drive out from a drawer, plugging it into the small device that was still in his pocket.
"I’m uploading every piece of evidence I've gathered on Salvatore Maroni to a flash drive," he walked to a touch screen and typed in a code, a door holding his armor sliding open in response. He quickly slipped into each piece. "I'm going to get Slade to talk tonight. One way or another." He walked back to the device he left by the computer, pulled out the USB and handed it to Aurora. "All you have to do is give this and this tablet to Harvey Dent. I made sure it’s secure. You can trust him."
She took the flash drive and exhaled.
"Be careful. I don't know how I would explain the death of Bruce Wayne and Batman." She smiled a little.
It was strange to see him how he was in that moment; his armor covered every piece of him, but he wasn't wearing the mask, so the face of Bruce Wayne was showing and out of place on the body of Batman. Aurora reached for it and slipped it over his head.
"There," she stated softly.
"I will come back. Tonight, we finish this," he promised. "Tonight, Maroni goes behind bars."
Aurora watched him as he walked to a massive, flying machine. She wished he could have stayed, but he wasn't hers—he was Gotham's.
She put her forearm over her head and squinted her eyes against the swirl of wind caused by the engine. Her hair blew around her head in a mess, whipping her arm and the exposed parts of her face and neck. She watched as the vehicle rose and jetted out of the cave, leaving an uncomfortable silence in its wake.