The Darkest Night

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

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4. The Contract

She kept crying until sleep took her. It seemed to be the only way she could let out all her stress. And there was quite a bit of it.

It wasn't long before she heard a gentle whir, which she assumed to be nothing more than the heat turning on or Bruce returning from doing whatever it was he left to do. She thought about getting up, but by the time she decided what she would even say to him, she fell back asleep.

It was when she heard another noise that she groaned and sat up. Her head pounded, stomach kicked with pain, and her eyes burned with dried tears. Down her cheeks, along with the pillow she favored lying on, were tear stains. Aurora rubbed her eyes and looked toward the door, where the noise came from. Was it Bruce? Alfred?

Out of nowhere, the door crumpled and hit the ground with a loud boom that pierced the night’s silence. The girl jumped and gripped the comforter tightly, pulling it up over herself as if it could offer her some sort of protection. She stared at the terrifying silhouette of the figure before her. First, everything with Maroni and Bruce. Now this guy? The itchy tear stains on her face, burns on her hand, and hangover were numb compared to how frigid she had become. Her entire body froze like she was submerged in the river Maroni threatened to throw her in. No words came to mind—just terror.

Where was Bruce?


 

Donning the suit was exhilarating. It felt good to be back. He pressed a button located on his right gauntlet and a row of lights began illuminating the rest of the cave; the armory, the vehicle bay, and the flight platform. He connected his utility belt around his waist and it locked in with an electronic 'click'. He pressed another button on his gauntlet and the Batwing started, the engine roaring and exhaust shooting out the back end. The sound must've woken the bats in the cave, because loud chirping could be heard in the background.

"Sir!" Alfred's voice called out over the sound of the Batwing. "What shall I do about Miss Rider?"

"Just keep an eye on her. Activate the security countermeasures," Bruce shouted back, and the Batwing began to hover off the ground. He walked beneath it and a boarding platform dropped from the underbelly. He stepped onto it, and the platform shot back up into the Batwing, putting Batman right in the driver's seat. He took the controls and rotated the Batwing toward the exit, pushing the throttle forward and darting out of the cave.

"I shall keep you posted on Miss Rider’s activity, sir," Alfred's voice called over the radio.

"You do that." Batman cut the line as the Batwing maneuvered through the caverns of the Batcave, shooting him from the manor. He pushed into full throttle and began heading toward the Bowery, where Maroni's restaurant and headquarters were located.

He was jettisoned from the Batwing at an incredible speed. He dive bombed straight to the ground, allowing his cape to parachute out to give him a softer landing. He landed in front of two of Maroni’s armed guards, who leaped back in terror and dropped their guns. Batman lunged forward and disposed of them silently. His training was without flaw.

He was standing just outside the front door to Maroni's restaurant. He pulled a small EMP emitter from his belt and tossed it at the window of the restaurant that faced the street. It beeped a few times, and then all of the interior lights died. Frantic shouting in Italian was quick to follow. Time to make an entrance.

Just as Batman was about to blow the door open, Alfred's voice called out in his ear.

"Master Bruce! There's someone inside. I believe he’s gotten to Miss Rider." His voice was strained and breathless. Batman's eyes widened and he touched a button on his gauntlet, calling the Batwing to him. He took one last look at the restaurant and then turned away, aiming his grapple to the sky and firing it to be towed back toward the manor. The gun began to retract, pulling him up and into the Batwing.

Hold on, Aurora, he thought to himself in worry.


 

She was silent except for her breathing, which was uneven. The entire house felt unnervingly quiet, even though an alarm started to blare.

"Where’s Wayne?" the man’s voice boomed.

Aurora saw something through the dark room—something that glinted when it caught the light from the hall. The thing she assumed was a sword stopped a couple inches from her neck, but she could still feel its razor edge and cold metal. Aurora pulled the blanket up higher, trying not to be too shaky.

"Tell me," she winced at his harsh voice and felt tears pricking her eyes despite her willing them not to, "and I’ll consider letting you live."

"I don't know where he is," she whispered in a voice as shaky as the rest of her body.

This stranger didn't like her answer.

The tip of the sword made contact with her throat and she gasped.

"He left! I swear!" she shouted. "I don't know where he went!" Tears were falling from her eyes, but she managed to keep her crying silent. This is happening, she thought, and I can’t change it. Trying to make her voice stern, she searched for the man's face with a solid look.

"Don't think for a second that even if I did know, I would tell you. Should I really believe that you're going to let me live through tonight? Bruce won't let you win." Her eyes narrowed and jaw clenched, expression the complete opposite of what she felt.

"Wrong answer!"

She couldn't see it coming, so when the man ripped her from the bed and  threw her, Aurora screamed and had no way to protect herself. She was forced into the wall and landed harshly on the ground, head striking the wood floor. She blinked hard, trying to clarify everything around her, but it was in vain.

She rolled onto her back, groaning, and struggled to sit up. Shattering sounded from a window and a rain of glistening glass and snow poured in. It slipped across her skin, piercing and cutting her, but she hardly felt it. Blinking again, she tried to make out a new figure in the room that was lit only by the moon and the glow of the hall's light. One in all black with a cape.

Batman.

Aurora pushed herself away from the battle, using her feet to move back because she couldn't stand, glass digging into her heels. The black room was spinning, blurred together by specks of white and brushes of red. Muffled strings of words and loud echoes of cracking and booming pounded in her head as Batman and the intruder fought.

She saw what she thought was her final sight. A gun pointed directly at her. She gasped and squeezed her eyes shut, hiding her face in her shoulder and pushing herself with the heels of her feet again until she hit the wall and rendered herself cornered, trapped by her own stupidity.

Aurora surprised herself by wishing Bruce was with her in that moment. He would have known what to do.

Bang! The gunshot shook the walls and floor, and the cold snow landed on her cuts and sent icy pain through her. Everything was a swirl of colors singing her to sleep. Nothing hit her. Aurora blinked, looking up to find Batman lying before her, clutching his side. The other man heard what must have been police sirens and dashed away.

She sat there in shock for a long time. Everything felt surreal and her body screamed in pain. It was so cold. She swallowed thickly and leaned forward over Batman.

"You’re him," she breathed. "You’re real." Aurora couldn’t control her body and just stared at him. Her limbs were foreign to her and her mind was blank. "Are you okay?" she finally spoke up, saying the words only because they seemed necessary.

The tear stains on her cheeks were covered with new ones, but she couldn't tell she was crying. She couldn't tell she was bleeding all over Bruce’s previously pristine floor, either. Her hands itched to remove his mask so she could make sure his head was okay, but she knew that was a bad plan. Instead, she let her hands travel to the area he was holding, using his body as a guide in the darkness.

She could hear footsteps and clamoring outside, and she worried there were more people coming to hurt her, but she realized it was only the police. In Gotham, though, they could be just as dangerous.

"What...what should I do?" She felt like she was talking to Bruce all over again—asking for some sort of guidance or help. Aurora was in over her head far deeper than she thought.

Batman stood, still clutching his side. "Come with me," he ordered, clearly out of breath. "Hurry." He extended his hand to her.

Her entire body was shaking and she was silent. Being in shock will do that.

She took Batman's hand and let him pull her through Bruce's home. Aurora stumbled down the stairs, holding the railing for support. Every step she took, the shards of glass in her feet dug in further and further. They ended up in the foyer, where Alfred was standing guard over the door as police filed in.

"Look after her," Batman told him. "She’s bleeding, and she was struck in the head." Aurora was staring at him, unable to take in anything he was saying. She glanced quickly from him to Alfred, and by the time she looked back, Batman was gone. Her chest sank and her brows pulled together in confusion. Was she imagining him? Maybe he wasn't real. Maybe he really was nothing more than rumor. It was the stress. It had to be the stress.

She looked up at Alfred, ready to ask him if Batman was actually there, but didn't want to sound crazy and kept quiet.

"Come, Miss Rider," Alfred said, pulling her gently away from the doors and into the kitchen, where he dug around a cupboard until he pulled out a bag of medical supplies.

Alfred sat her down on one of the tall chairs at the counter. He flipped around her left arm, inspecting the major cuts from the glass window exploding next to her. "Not too bad. I can stop the bleeding. You should be fine." His words offered little comfort.

He rummaged around the bag until he pulled out a small, plastic case.

"Here," he clicked open the case's tiny latches and wrapped his thumb and forefinger around a white pill, setting it on the counter. With a tiny knife from the bag, Alfred cut it in half and placed it in the palm of Aurora’s hand, dropping the other half back in the case. She took it dry, not bothering to ask what it was.

At first, there was stinging pain in Aurora’s arm where Alfred tended to the more prominent cuts. But as the minutes ticked by, she felt less and less until there was no pain at all. She kept zoning out and her eyes unceasingly tried to close, but she fought the dizziness and fatigue with what little she had left in her.

When Bruce came upstairs, sweaty and damaged, she didn't connect the pieces of the puzzle—couldn’t. She was half asleep, holding her head in the hand Alfred hadn’t gotten to.

"I’ll take care of this," he said in a barely audible voice. "Can you handle the police?" Alfred nodded in response and turned away, touching Aurora gently on her shoulder before taking his leave.

Bruce sat next to her and she just stared up at him.

"Are you alright, Aurora?" he asked in a soft, concerned-parent voice.

Did she look alright to him?

"Where were you?" she inquired. Judging by the massive purple bruise dark enough to see through his white t-shirt, someone got to him before the police showed up. He was lucky it wasn't the same guy that got to her.

Bruce took over Alfred's job and wrapped up Aurora's wounds. He made the bandage tight enough to stop the bleeding, but not so tight that it would cause her more pain.

"I’m a heavy sleeper."

"Clearly," she mumbled.

"I'm sorry I wasn't there for you. I put you in danger by bringing you here tonight. They're after me. You were just caught in the middle. I can take you home if you'd like."

Each time Bruce shifted his hand, she winced. She could feel her pulse beneath each bandage, which made her stomach squirm. The black spots and fuzziness in her vision began to fade, but her eyes were irritated by the mess of tears flooding them only minutes ago.

"Maroni wasn't kidding, was he? He's really going to kill me." The weight of that didn't set in until she was sitting there with Bruce, dizzy and tired and bleeding. "I don't think I'm any safer at home than I am here. Not with whoever that was still out there. So no, I don’t think you should take me home."

Aurora watched him wince and try to cover it.

"Are you...?" Are you okay? was what she wanted to ask, but the words didn't come.

She took the ice pack that Alfred left sitting on the counter and rested her head against the cold, makeshift pillow. Looking down at her pale skin and borrowed clothes as she readjusted, she discovered blood smeared all over in artistic pools and swirls like she was an easel for some twisted painter.

Bruce released her arm and started on her left foot, setting it on his knee and spreading a cream across the bottom that numbed it. Pressure ached through her heel as he started pulling out the glass with tweezers and Aurora tried not to react. Easier said than done.

He finished her left foot quickly, tears welling in her eyes once again, then switched to start the right, skillfully pulling out the bigger pieces first.

Her mind was blank and body numb as she teetered on the edge of deep, medicine-induced sleep. The girl stared at Bruce’s bruise for a long time, mind sluggishly solving the puzzle piece by piece until she slowly retracted her leg from his gentle grasp and sat up despite relentless nausea. It all came together in one confusing heap.

"Bruce," she began, sleepy speech slightly slurred, "I'm going to ask you something and I want you to be completely honest with me." How stupid did he think she was? Aurora paused to keep herself together and in a low voice asked, "Where were you?"

"I told you where I was, Aurora."

"No. You told me what you’ve been telling everyone else."

He said nothing.

"I just almost died for you. You told me no one could get in here. Being honest with me is the least you could do. The bleeding can wait." She shook her head and stood, holding the chair to keep centered. "How’d you get that bruise? And don’t say skiing."

"Aurora, you hit your head. You’re on powerful medica-"

"Bruce."

He took a deep breath, then looked at her. No, he didn’t look at her. He stared into her without a single emotion on his face. Nothing. Seconds ticked by like minutes before he spoke again, not moving.

It was terrifying.

He was terrifying.

"I think it’s in your best interest that you know why this is happening," Bruce began slowly, looking directly in her eyes. Unwavering and cold. "Now that Maroni has targeted you, he won’t be stopping." He paused. "I need you to listen very carefully. I was in the Alps, but I wasn’t on a ski trip."

She was in a fragile state, hit with so much information at once, and he was acting like she should be taking everything lightly.

"Come with me. I can show you." He offered his hand.

"No," she snapped in a low voice and shook her head, fighting a losing battle against a yawn.

How could she trust him anymore? All this time, he lied to her.

Aurora pressed her lips into a hard line, bent on staying where she stood and not listening to a word he said.

But then he smiled at her. A smile rooted from both his amusement in her disorientation, apparently, and genuine care. Conflicted and tired, she let him take her hand and lead her to wherever it was he planned.

Each step she took was more painful than the next, the little pieces of glass that hadn’t been tended to burrowing into her feet. Her eyes were watery, but she swallowed the threat of crying.

Not in front of Bruce, she told herself, tripping over her own feet and swaying slightly.

By the time they stopped in his study, he had to wrap his arm around Aurora to keep her standing. They stood over the piano together and he played three awkward notes. The bookcase across from them slid open once more, revealing the elevator on the inside. He urged her forward silently.

Once they were in the dark elevator, he reached behind them and pulled a lever, which caused the bookcase to slide shut, and the elevator sealed itself. Bruce’s hand slid from her waist to her arm, still offering her support, but not quite so much.

A monotone female voice started, "Identifying. Bruce Wayne. Aurora Rider." Aurora looked around, confused.

"It’s a facial recognition program. It can identify anyone in its database." Even though he explained the voice to her, she didn't feel any more comfortable.

The elevator groaned into motion. The suddenness scared her, causing her arm to pull back in surprise. Bruce’s hand grabbed hers and he placed it between his palms.

"It’s okay," he promised.

"What is this?"

Bruce was silent.

The elevator opened in only a few more seconds. Bruce pulled her out by her hands into a pitch black room. Whirring and beeping could be heard, but there was no flash of a power button or glare of a screen. Then he called out for the lights to turn on, and they did, revealing a vast...

Cave?

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