a lullaby for suffering - BL00DINTHECUT (2024)

Chapter 1: martyrs wrapped in butcher paper

Chapter Text

A cold wind blows across the snowy grounds of St. Thomas Aquinas' School, carrying the smell of sea coming from the other side of Gotham. Edward stands on the school stairs with his body shaking like a leaf in the wind even though he’s dressed like he’s ready to explore Antarctica. He has lived in Gotham for his entire life, but can’t remember a December this snowy. On the stairs below him, a man is trying to light up lanterns to show the way to whoever might be arriving at the school on this dreadful evening. The man strikes his third match, trying to protect the flame with his hand, but the wind blows the fire out almost immediately.

“Eddie,” the man calls out to Edward over the sound of the wind. “Eddie, help me with these, will you?”

Edward does as told and walks down the steps, pulling a lighter from his pocket and crouching down to light the first lantern. This time, the fire doesn’t die out, and Edward closes the lantern so that the wind doesn’t get in. He does this to the rest of the lanterns and is ready in no time. The older man gives him a look of faux disapproval and shakes his head.

“I should take that thing away from you,” he says and nods towards the lighter in Edward’s hand, “but without it, we would be standing here until tomorrow, so let’s keep it a secret.”

“Of course, Mr. Myers,” Edwards says and hides his grin behind the collar of his jacket. Mr. Myers notices his amusem*nt and chuckles.

“Now, go inside before you catch a cold before Sunday,” he says and gestures towards the door. Edward doesn’t need to be told twice.

St. Thomas Aquinas’ is a school where most politicians and high-ranking businessmen send their sons to study and become proper men, just like they and their father did before them. It is the oldest private school in Gotham and therefore the greatest, reserved only for the best – or at least for those expected to become the best. It’s like a club for rich boys with no one to disturb their delicate ecosystem. Or at least it used to be. If it still was, Edward wouldn’t be standing in the entrance hall, kicking snow off of his shoes.

Edward Nashton has been, to quote Jane Austen, with no money and no prospects for most of his life. Well, at least he doesn't need to worry about being a burden to his parents , since he has never met them. How does a boy with no known family, home, money, or any other worldly possessions, find his way into a school where all of the boys’ names were written into the student records the moment they were born? This question has been asked by Edward by students, parents, and teachers alike, and then later – after they haven’t gotten any answer from the boy – from the school principal, whose answer is always as disappointingly vague as it gets: Good connections. The boy has wealthy patrons.

And so Edward has remained in St. Thomas Aquinas' for almost four complete years. Yes, he fits into the school like a stranger’s tooth would fit into one’s mouth, but he has learned to not care about it. It is his last year there, and if people have a problem with him being there, they won’t have to worry about it in a couple of months. Also, having a one-sided feud with a 17-year-old orphan tells much more about those people than it does about Edward.

It’s the last Friday before the Christmas holidays and the school is much more lively than it’s been in a while, with students running up and down the hallways, trying to find teachers to ask them about their grades or just looking for their friends before the dinner. Edward doesn’t relate to their hurry. He’s staying at the school for the holidays, just like he’s been doing for the last three years. He has gotten permission for that, it’s not like the school officials can just throw him out on the street before the spring semester starts.

Edward makes his way down the stairs that take him to an underground corridor that connects the older school building to a newer (but still not very modern) dorm building where the students live during the semester. The corridor is as busy as the main building, with teenage boys laughing and yelling at each other while running or walking in opposite directions. Edward closes his ears from all of it and keeps on walking, dodging a group of first-year students who run past him like a hurricane.

“Hey, Nashton!” a senior from a group loitering by the corridor doorway yells after Edward when he passes them into the dorm building. Edward turns to look at him. “Roberts told that he found fa*g p*rn in your room, is that true?” The boy group laughs, and Edward clenches his gloved hand into a fist for a moment.

“Oh, no, your dad asked me to keep them safe for him, nothing more,” he says and keeps on walking, making his way up another stairwell.

The school is built onto a hill on the east side of Gotham, where it overlooks the city. The view is beautiful, yes, but the location is also the reason why the student dormitory building, which houses almost 450 of the school’s students, has been built upwards, rather than spread out on the school’s otherwise big grounds. Edward couldn't care less about the architecture of the place if his room wasn’t on the fifth floor. If he had any word on the matter, he would’ve taken any other room, but no one asked for his opinion three years ago, and so now he has to go through extreme physical pain every time he has to climb up five floors of steep and narrow stairs in order to get to his room. Neither the endless flow of other students nor Edward’s now way too warm winter jacket makes his climb any easier, and by the time he’s up on the fifth floor, he would like to push one of the yelling freshman-year students down the stairs. He certainly isn’t going to miss this during the holidays.

If there is something good about Edward’s room, though, it’s that it is located at the end of one of the fifth floor’s corridors, making it one of the most isolated rooms in the building. He also gets to have it all to himself, since his roommate of three years – a banker's son named Joseph, who had an annoying habit of talking to his swiftly changing girlfriends on the phone until the wee hours of the morning – got sent into rehab during summer and never came back. Edward doesn’t feel sorry for the guy, he really can’t bother to care about rich people’s drug problems, since most of them can always trust that their parents will send them somewhere to recover, if not for their well-being, then for the family’s reputation. Edward has seen worse, much worse. He has seen those, who don’t get sent to fancy facilities and who only have the streets to live on, so, no, he doesn’t really care what happened to Joseph. They weren’t even friends, and now Edward gets to have the room all to himself. It’s a win for him.

Edward closes the door to his room, shutting out all the noise coming from the hallway, and takes off his coat, hanging it on the door. He’s been told to leave Joseph’s side of the room empty, just in case someone new moves in with him, but since the school year is already halfway done and it’s very unlikely that Edward is going to get a new roommate, he has taken it as his liberty to spread his territory onto the right side of the room, using the empty bed as a storage space for his clothes and books. He throws his book bag from his bed onto the other one and lays down, trying to find something to do before dinner. He attempts to read a book that his old and dry English teacher had assigned for the class before the Christman break, but the sounds of other students’ joy bleeding through his door make it impossible for him to concentrate.

As much as Edward takes pride in having never needed anyone other than himself to take care of him, and as much as he loathes the other boys at the school, he isn’t above feeling left out during moments like this. When Edward had left the orphanage to move to St. Thomas Aquinas’ at the ripe age of 14, he had cried like a baby in the arms of one of the nuns, Sister Carol, who had always been nice to him. It hadn’t been because he wanted to stay at the orphanage, no, it was the last place he wanted to be in, but because he was scared to be so completely alone for the first time ever.

“Don’t cry,” Sister Carol had told him while he had sobbed against her shoulder with his packed bag at his feet. “You are so lucky you get to go there. You couldn’t stay here, anyway. You will get so many new friends, of course you will. God’s with you, Edward, he always is.”

She was right about one thing, that being Edward being lucky. If he hadn’t gotten into St. Aquinas’, he would’ve been transferred to “The Lobby”, officially named St. Jude’s Boys’ Home, which has gotten its name because it’s the place where most boys get thrown on the street the moment they turn 18. When it comes to her promise of Edward getting friends, however… Well, let’s just say that she wasn’t a prophet.

Maybe it’s partly Edward’s fault that he never got any real friends at the school. He could’ve tried harder, but it would’ve meant abandoning his pride and admitting that he’d never be like the rest of the boys. Yes, Edward knows that he doesn’t come from money and that he wouldn’t be there if he hadn’t caught the eye of a rich, old man – Daniel Waters, or Mr. Waters, as Edward called him – who just had lost his son in Iraq and decided to give some poor orphan a future, so yeah, he guesses that he owes his position to the rich, after all, but he refuses to feel inferior to his peers because of that. If he wasn’t good, he wouldn’t be here. That is what seems to infuriate the other students at the school, his unwillingness to know his place. At the same time, they seem to be slightly scared of him, as if he’s a wild dog that might bite anyone who gets too close. Sure, Edward could’ve proved that presumption wrong by maybe not glaring at the other boys so venomously during his first year at the school and if he hadn’t once claimed to have stabbed a mugger with the f*cker’s knife when he was only 12 years old, but whenever being feared is lonely, it’s million times better than being included but constantly being looked down upon.

Just six more months of this , Edward tells himself and pretends to read his book until the dinner bell rings.

The dining hall is noisier than usual, and Edward tries to focus on his food instead of listening to a group of boys next to him talk about whenever their families are taking them to Norway or the Swiss Alps for the holidays. He is almost finished with his plate when he feels someone tap him on the shoulder. He turns his head and sees Mr. Myers standing behind him. An unintentional smile breaks onto Edward’s face but he’s quick to conceal it. He’s always liked Mr. Myers, so much, actually, that he became interested in math because of him.

“Hello, Edward,” Mr. Myers says with a pleasant smile. “Can you meet me in the hall after you’ve finished eating? Nothing serious, I just want to discuss some details considering the Sunday service. No hurry.”

“Yeah, of course,” Edward says. Mr. Myers nods and leaves, and Edward hurries – against his orders – to finish his plate. Maybe it’s the lack of parents or anyone even resembling a parental figure in Edward’s life, that has made Edward latch onto his math teacher so shamelessly, but he can’t bother to feel ashamed for it when it’s the first time any adult – apart from maybe Sister Carol and to some degree, Mr. Waters – has shown any compassion towards him. Academic success isn’t something Edward craves just to feel accepted, it’s something he needs in order to have a future outside the stone walls of St. Aquinas’, but with Mr. Myers, he can feel that the man is actually proud of him. Like a father would , Edward thinks but whisks the thought away before it grows into something embarrassingly real in his mind.

Mr. Myers is standing in the entrance hall and talking to someone with his back turned, when Edward steps out of the dining hall. He seems to hear Edward approaching, because he turns around, revealing the person he’s talking with.

Edward feels like someone has opened the front door and let all the cold air in.

“Edward, I was wondering if you could manage the preparations for the service together with Bruce?” Mr. Myers asks, but Edward doesn’t hear it. He’s too busy staring at the boy standing next to Mr. Myers. Bruce Wayne. Sometimes Edward is convinced that God hates him. Bruce just stands there with his arms crossed and eyes glued to his shoes. Finally, Edward looks at Mr. Myers, feeling utterly betrayed.

“Sorry?” he asks “I thought… I can do it all fine by myself.”

“I don’t doubt that,” Mr. Myers says with a warm smile, clearly not catching the begging tone of Edward’s voice. “However, it would be much easier together, and since Bruce’s father was such a munificent patron of our school, I think he should take part in the service, too. I discussed it with Mr. Awlyn, and he thought that it was a good idea.”

Edward curses Mr. Awlyn – the school’s theology teacher – in his mind and looks back at Bruce. This time he meets the boy’s eyes – gray and sad. Even though Bruce is (to Edward’s displease) standing right there, the look in his eyes is absent like he isn’t actually there. Edward has seen the same look in the eyes of the kids in the orphanage, but seeing it in Bruce’s eyes fills him with anger. What do you know about being left alone? he wants to ask. Instead, he turns back to Mr. Myers and tries to fit an accepting look onto his face.

“Okay, then,” he says and gives Bruce the slightest glance. “Tomorrow, at the chapel after lunch. Clear?”

“Okay, yeah,” Bruce says and nods at his feet. Mr. Myers clasps his hands together, visibly pleased, and gives Edward a pat on the shoulder before leaving to yell at first-year students for running in the hall. Edward is left standing with Bruce, who gives him an awkward, close-mouthed almost-a-smile, like saying “it is what it is”, before turning and walking away, leaving Edward standing in the middle of a wave of students who have just emerged from the dining hall.

It’s an understatement to say that Edward is angry. He’s f*cking furious. Of course, he had to be paired up with Bruce Wayne. O f course . Edward has a lot of bad blood between the other students, but that’s nothing he can’t manage. He would even rather do the Sunday service with Roberts, who locked him into a closet with a real human skeleton from biology class during his first year at St. Aquinas’, than with Bruce Wayne.

Edward’s normally quite chilly room feels at least five degrees warmer from the anger boiling inside of him, as he lies in his bed, staring at the cracks on the slanting wall above him. Bruce hasn’t necessarily done anything to him, Edward can’t even recall if the boy has ever talked to him, but Edward’s hatred towards him runs deeper than some singular incident. It’s not what Bruce has done as much as it is what he stands for.

Edward remembers the night when Thomas and Martha Wayne were killed. Or rather than that he remembers the next day, and week, and month, and year when no one talked about anything other than poor little Bruce Wayne who had become an orphan in one night. Even in the orphanage, the nuns had made them remember Bruce in their prayers since he was now one of them. The difference, however, was that Bruce would never have to step foot into the orphanage, he would never have to sleep in a room with a dozen sick kids on a winter night or wake up with rats biting on his feet. And still, he was all everyone was talking about. It didn’t take Edward long to realize that this was how things would always be. It didn’t matter if there were forty orphans almost freezing to death every winter, because the public would only pay attention to the one who gets to live in a tower above the city with enough money to buy himself new parents if he so pleased. After that, Edward had always crossed his fingers while praying.

He can also remember two years later when Bruce arrived at St. Aquinas’ along with Edward and the other new students. Edward had seen him standing a few rows before him on the first day when all the new students had to stand at the front of the whole school, tall, quiet, and with an air of profound sadness around him. Edward had almost felt bad for him.

And here Edward is now, having to prepare a church service with the said rich boy. The more he thinks about it, the worse he feels. This was supposed to be his thing. It’s not like he’s the only student there who was raised Catholic – St. Aquinas’ used to be a Catholic boys’ school, after all – but it’s the one thing he feels entitled to more than the others. He’s been there, wearing the choir boy’s outfit every Sunday for years, pouring wine as an altar boy for years after that, standing on his knees on a cold floor with his hands crossed and eyes closed every night, praying for someone to take him away from the life he doesn’t deserve. It’s his place, it’s the only thing he has, and even though he doesn’t believe in God anymore, not like he used to – the world has carved his faith out of his chest – he sometimes still gets down onto his knees and crosses his hands out of habit, just to feel the peace it still brings to him.

And now Bruce Wayne is trying to push himself into that small space as if he doesn’t have the entire world in the palm of his hand. Edward hates him. He hates him, he hates him, he hates him.

If he was any more petty, Edward would walk down to the teachers’ rooms and tell Mr. Myers that he doesn’t want to do the service with Bruce. But as his anger starts to wear out, he finds himself too tired to do anything. Maybe Bruce won’t even show up, who knows? It’s not like he seemed very keen about the whole arrangement in the first place.

Edward turns onto his side on his bed and watches as snow falls slowly behind the window. The school fields lay below, covered in white. The snow here is completely different from the gray slush from Edward’s childhood that used to get his shoes and pants all wet when he and the other orphans walked to school during winter. For a moment he feels weirdly nostalgic for a time he hated with passion. The idea of spending Christmas alone once again makes him feel wistful, but instead of wallowing in it, he closes his eyes and drifts to sleep, listening to the muffled whispers coming from neighboring rooms.

**

Saturday noon is cold and bright as Edward tries his best not to slip and fall while walking (or mostly sliding) down the hill that leads to the school chapel. Despite the Catholic history of the school, the chapel isn’t used much at all anymore and has been left standing at the edge of the school grounds, where it waits silently to be used twice a year – for the Easter service during spring and Christmas service during winter. That’s about all that’s left of the school’s religious past, apart from its name.

Edward manages to reach the chapel without falling but almost suffers a heart attack when he sees Bruce standing in the niche of the door in his long, black winter coat, like some kind of a wannabe Dracula cosplayer.

“Great, you’re already here,” Edward says and pretends that he isn’t bitter over the fact that Bruce was there before him. Bruce just nods behind his scarf and watches as Edward fishes the chapel key from his pocket. He needed special permission to get it from the janitor, and while being responsible for the Christmas service isn’t the most important duty there is, it makes Edward feel at least some kind of authority, which he enjoys. Especially if it’s over Bruce Wayne.

The door opens with a creak, and the musty smell of dust and wood floods Edward’s nose. The chapel isn’t big, at least considering how important it used to be. It’s not warm, either. Edward’s breath is visible in the air as he steps in, the stone walls around him emitting coldness like he’s in a walk-in freezer. Bruce follows him, looking around like he’s never seen the place before. Pale winter sun shines in from the stained glass windows, painting the floor in reds, greens and yellows.

“Right, you can sweep the floors, I’ll get all the other stuff ready,” Edward says and glances at Bruce, who doesn’t protest. With that, he takes a broom that has been leaning against the doorframe for probably months, and hands it to Bruce, before walking up to the altar and disappearing into the sacristy to look for the chalices and altar pall. Maybe Mr. Myers did Edward a favor by assigning Bruce to do the preparations with him because at least now Edward doesn’t have to do the cleaning.

They work in silence, the only noises being the sound of the broom sweeping against the floor, and the jingling of the chalices as Edward puts them on the place. To Edward’s surprise, Bruce doesn’t seem too bothered about having to do the boring job. He’s not sighing or dragging his feet or complaining. Edward paces between the sacristy and the altar, moving stuff from room to room, and when he occasionally looks at Bruce, who is sweeping between the pews, the other boy looks almost content. Well, he’s doing the bare minimum , Edward thinks, not wanting his anger to die out.

They’re almost done with the preparations, and Edward is putting up numbers on a hymn board when Bruce suddenly speaks.

“I heard that you’re staying at the school for the holidays,” he says. Edward’s hand stops in the air, still holding a number in his hand.

“Yeah,” he says dryly and puts the number in its place. Bruce is standing in the middle of the nave and leaning on his broom, probably trying to look cool but failing miserably.

“What is it like?” he asks. If Edward wasn’t so annoyed by Bruce’s entire presence, he would probably feel flattered by the sound of genuine interest in the boy’s voice. Instead, he just scoffs.

“What is it like to spend Christmas in the Tower, hm?” he asks, mocking Bruce’s tone.

“Kinda lonely, actually,” Bruce says quietly, and Edward can’t help but feel a little bad for him. Oh, come on, says a voice in his head. He is Bruce f*cking Wayne. He could spend Christmas with anyone on Earth if he wanted to. He doesn’t answer, but Bruce doesn’t seem to catch the hint, because he keeps on talking.

“I heard that you might get a scholarship for college,” he says. This time, Edward almost drops all the numbers he’s holding.

“Where did you hear that from?” he asks. It’s not that it isn’t true. He’s talked about it with his teachers, but the question is: why does Bruce know about it?

“Mr. Myers mentioned it,” Bruce says and looks down at his shoes. “I guess he thought that I could do something on the Wayne Foundation’s part, but I’m not the one who makes the decisions on that… or anything else, really, so…”

“Listen, I don’t need a sponsor, okay? If I get a scholarship, it will be because I deserve it. Some people can’t pay their way everywhere nor do they want to,” Edward cuts him off, feeling the familiar irritation starting to stir up inside of him again.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Bruce mutters, sounding embarrassed. Edward would like to drag him a little more, just to see how much it would take to either make Bruce snap or to shut down completely, but his hands are getting cold and the stale chapel air is making his head hurt, so he decides not to. He finishes his job and makes sure that everything is in the right place for tomorrow, all the while Bruce just stands there like an angsty, 17-year-old personification of the grim Reaper.

When they’re both standing outside and Edward is locking the chapel up, Bruce speaks again, seemingly thinking that it’ll make things any better.

“I didn’t mean that you aren’t smart enough to get a scholarship on your own, I meant… I do think you’re smart,” he says, and Edward would like to sink the chapel key into his neck just to shut him up. Not letting himself feel flattered, Edward starts walking up the hill back to the school, with Bruce on his heels. The climb is windy and slippery, and Edward almost starts sliding down backward at one point. That’s when he feels Bruce’s hand on his back, pushing him forward. Blood rushes to Edward’s face and he struggles to find a footing on the icy path, almost falling again. When he finally can take a step without either sliding backward or falling onto his face, he dashes forward to get away from Bruce’s touch.

“Get off of me,” he hisses over his shoulder at Bruce, who is now struggling in the same spot as Edward just moments ago. Bruce looks up at him, looking somehow ever sadder than usual.

“I’m just trying to help,” he tries to protest, but Edward has already continued walking at a speed that is closer to running.

“Maybe just leave me alone,” he yells into the wind, leaving Bruce standing on the path, surrounded by an ocean of white.

**

Sunday afternoon is when the parents arrive at the school. If Edward could, he would just stay in his room with the door closed, but that doesn’t work, because he quickly gets tired of other students’ parents knocking on his door every other minute because they can’t remember their son’s room number.

And so Edward takes shelter in the library, which is also full of students and parents, but at least they know to be quiet. He ignores the weirded-out stares he gets from some parents who are probably wondering who he is, as they haven’t seen him in any rich people events. He pretends to read and imagines how it would feel to show his parents around the school, to tell them about his friends and studies. Well, if he had parents, he wouldn’t go to a school this fancy. He would go to some public institute where tired and underpaid teachers would try to have at least some authority over reckless problem children and where he would probably get shoved into lockers every day. He has spent his time at a public school and knows that much.

If Mr. Waters – his sponsor – was still alive, would he come visit him? Edward doubts that. Waters died a month after Edward had started studying in St. Aquinas’ and hadn’t even been there to let him off on the first day. Not that it was his duty in the first place. He had paid for Edward’s studies in the best school in Gotham, which was more than enough.

Edward knew that he would never get adopted, and even though he had secretly wished that Mr. Waters would have decided to become his legal guardian, he was – and still is – more than grateful about the fact that he got a chance that all the other children could only dream of. Still, he can’t help but feel envy uncoil inside of him like a snake when he watches other students with their parents.

He had once asked Mr. Waters why he had chosen him. It had been during one of their few and formal meetings that had felt more like talking to a CEO of a big company who he needed to impress. “Because you’re smart,” Mr. Waters had answered in a dry and distant voice that always kept Edward from feeling any emotional connection to him. “A smart child like you shouldn’t have to live in a place like this.” That had been it. Edward had deserved his place because he had worked for it. That’s the thing he’s the proudest of, but sometimes, just sometimes, he thinks what it would be like to get things even if he didn’t work for them with his blood, sweat, and tears. What it would be like to have someone love him unconditionally.

“Eddie.”

Edward’s head snaps up and he turns to look at the person who has appeared next to the reading chair he’s sitting in.

“Did I startle you? Sorry,” Mr. Myers smiles down at him, and Edward relaxes.

“No, it’s okay,” Edward assures. Mr. Myers is dressed up a little more formally than usual, wearing a tweed jacket and all. Edward suddenly feels very underdressed wearing only a worn-out sweater. Mr. Myers, however, doesn't pay attention to that. He looks at the book Edward is reading ( Flatterland by Ian Stewart) and hums approvingly before clearing his throat quietly enough for the library.

“Actually, I wanted to talk to you,” he says, and Edward feels the familiar anxiety starting to build up inside of him. Mr. Myers seems to notice it because he smiles and shakes his head. “It’s nothing serious, I just want to give you something.”

“Oh,” is all Edward can say to that, the anxiety turning into something like excitement. Mr. Myers nods and gestures to Edward to stand up and follow him out of the library. They push past groups of people, and Mr. Myers greets almost everyone by their names. Edward keeps his eyes on his shoes just so that he doesn’t trip and fall down the stairs.

“Today isn’t probably the easiest day for you,” Mr. Myers says as they walk through the entrance hall towards the corridor to the teachers’ dorm building.

“Oh, the church service isn’t really that much work,” Edward begins, but Mr. Myers looks at him, and he realizes that he’s not talking about the service but about the students and their parents. “Oh. No, I’m fine, thanks. I mean, it’s hard to miss something you’ve never had.”

Mr. Myers looks like he wants to say something, but right then someone walks up to them and grabs his attention.

“Oh, hello, Mr. Pennyworth, good to see you here,” he says. Edward looks up and sees a classily dressed older man and with him – you guessed it – Bruce, who rubs the bottom of his shoe against the floor to avoid eye contact with Edward.

“Of course,” the older man says and shakes Mr. Myers’ hand before turning to look at Edward with an open expression. Mr. Myers pats Edward’s shoulder and introduces him.

“This is Edward Nashton, he’s actually been preparing the Christmas service with Bruce,” he says. Both Mr. Myers and Pennyworth look at Bruce who for one looks at Edward.

“Is that so?” Mr. Pennyworth asks and shakes Edward’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Edward.”

“You too,” Edward says, trying to figure out what exactly is the relationship between Bruce and the man. Is he a relative or just Bruce’s legal guardian? It’s probably common knowledge in the circles where everyone else in the school goes, but Edward can’t bring himself to care that much.

“I guess we’ll meet later in the evening,” Mr. Myers says to Mr. Pennyworth and Bruce, and after brief goodbyes, Edward and he keep on walking to the corridor that connects the old school building to a newer dorm building for teachers. It’s much emptier and calmer than the rest of the school, and Edward feels like he can finally breathe in peace.

Mr. Myers stops in front of one of the doors, which all look identical to the ones in the students’ dorm building, and takes his keys from his pocket, letting Edward in. Edward hasn’t been in a teacher’s room before and is surprised how small it is. It’s barely bigger than his own, with a bed, desk, and a big bookshelf not leaving much room to move. He stands back against the bookshelf as Mr. Myers steps past him to look for something from the drawers of his desk. There’s a framed photo standing on the desk. In it Mr. Myers smiles at the camera, younger with less gray in his hair, and next to him stands a woman in a white wedding dress, also smiling.

“Found it,” Mr. Myers says, straightening his back and handing Edward something. It's a box wrapped in brown paper, small enough for him to hold it in one hand. Edward looks at it, then at Mr. Myers, and isn’t sure what to do. Mr. Myers chuckles. “It’s a gift.”

“But why?” Edward asks, well aware of how stupid he sounds.

“Well, Christmas is right around the corner, isn’t it?” Mr. Myers says, still holding out the gift. Edward just stares at the brown package before finally taking it. He’s never gotten any gifts before, at least not ones given just for him. No one has even gotten him anything that they had personally picked out for him.

“You can open it,” Mr. Myers says. Edward unfolds the paper gently, careful not to rip it. Inside is a box, and in the box he finds a beautiful, silver lighter. He takes it into his hand, flicking it open and watching the flame for a moment before putting it out. Onto the surface of the lighter, there is a carving of a snake that wraps itself around the piece of metal. It’s beautiful and classy, nothing like Edward’s old, green lighter with a scratched-up plastic cover, which he picked up from a train floor last summer and which is seconds away from leaking lighter fluid all over his hands every time he uses it.

“Thank you,” he manages to say, looking at Mr. Myers who is half-sitting on his desk. “But I thought you were the one who said that I’m not allowed to keep one of these at the school.”

“Well, don’t use it here and no one has to know,” Mr. Myers says with a shrug and an easy smile. “Maybe I should have given it as a graduation gift.”

“No, it’s perfect, thank you,” Edward says quickly and pockets the lighter, biting the inside of his cheek to stop himself from smiling like an idiot.

“I also wanted to ask you about one thing,” Mr. Myers says. Edward nods, feeling the cool surface of the lighter in his pocket anxiously. “As you know, I’m going home for the holidays. Well, I was just wondering, if you would like to come visit on Christmas Day? Anne would really love to meet you.”

Edward doesn’t know what to say. For the last three Christmases, he has been alone at the school, his only company having occasionally been the janitor and the kitchen lady, and now he has the opportunity to spend it with someone who actually cares about him? Edward pinches himself a little, just to make sure that he’s not dreaming. Yup, he’s definitely awake.

“I… Yeah, I would really like to,” he says, a smile breaking onto his face. Mr. Myers looks also pleased, and Edward really wants to hug him but doesn’t act on the feeling. He doesn’t want to do anything that could make Mr. Myers see him as annoying or needy or just outright weird and could make him take back the invitation.

“Let’s talk about it after the service, okay?” Mr. Myers asks, and Edward nods, his heart so light that it could float out of his throat.

The Christmas service is held in the evening after dinner. For Edward, it all passes in a haze. He’s floating somewhere above everything that is happening, not caring about all the small mistakes Bruce makes while serving the communion. Edward has never felt the so-called “Christmas spirit”, but as he’s standing in the small chapel filled with students and their parents, listening to Mr. Alwyn – who is also a licensed priest – read the gospel, he feels something almost like it.

The service isn’t long, and afterwards, Bruce is the one who greets the parents and students on their way out. Edward cleans the chalices in the sacristy and changes out of the cassock he’s wearing, before hurrying out of the chapel through the back door. The weather is getting close to a full-blown blizzard, and Edward struggles to keep himself upright while wading through the snow where other people’s steps have been almost covered already. By the time he reaches the school stairs, his glasses are covered in snow and he has to take them off in order to see anything.

Most of the students and parents have already left but some of them are still standing in the entrance hall with their coats on, chatting while students run to get the last of their stuff from their rooms. Edward spots Bruce standing amongst a big group of people and looking extremely uncomfortable. As he walks past them, Edward hears Bruce call after him but doesn’t bother to turn and hear what the boy has to say. He only wants to talk to Mr. Myers again.

The teachers’ building is empty, as everyone is still saying their goodbyes in the main building. Edward knocks on Mr. Myers’ door and waits. No answer. Okay, he’s not there. Edward sighs. Just the idea of having to go back to the crowd to look for the man makes him exhausted. Still, he pulls himself together and walks back to the main building. He’s barely stepped through the doors to the entrance hall when Bruce appears out of nowhere to talk to him.

“Edward, hi, I just… well, I didn't blow out the candles before I left, because… I just got pulled out with some people, so, um, I was wondering if you remembered to do it?” He speaks quickly, and Edward has difficulties grasping what he’s saying.

“No, I didn’t blow out the candles, it was your job,” Edward says when Bruce is finally done. “I left through the backdoor, I didn’t know whether you put out the f*cking candles or not.”

“Yeah, I know it was my job, it’s just that everyone was talking to me and –” Bruce begins, but then shakes his head and looks out of the window where snow swirls in the wind. “Whatever, I’m going back to check. Can I have the key?”

“No, you would probably drop it in the snow and I would get the blame for that,” Edward snaps and wraps his scarf around his neck again. Having to interact with Bruce Wayne is eating away the little joy he’s been feeling tonight. “Let’s go, then.”

Bruce gives him a tired look but doesn’t protest, and so they walk to the door and step out into the horrible weather. If the visibility was bad the last time Edward was outside, it has somehow gotten even worse. He and Bruce push through the wind towards the chapel, slipping and sliding in the dark, the distance feeling ten times bigger than usual. Finally, they reach the building, and Edward struggles with the key because he can barely see his hands. It’s not needed, though, because the door has been left unlocked. They push on it and stumble into the chapel.

It’s dark inside, so either someone else put the candles out or they just went out by themselves. Edward and Bruce stand inside catching their breaths, ready to start arguing about how useless the whole trip was and whose fault it is, when they both notice a weird smell in the air. It’s thick and metallic, and Edward sees that Bruce recognizes it too. It’s the smell of blood.

And that’s when they see it. Against the back wall, where the altarpiece is hanging, stands a shadow of a person. At least that’s what it looks like in the dark. For a moment both Edward and Bruce stand frozen in place, staring at the person, whose hands have been lifted up horizontally, like Jesus up on the cross.

It takes a moment for Edward’s eyes to get used to the dark, but once they do, he realizes that the man isn’t actually standing. He is upright because he’s suspended up on the wall from his hands. Hanging. The front of his shirt is dark with blood.

Edward’s body goes completely cold, and he hears Bruce breathe out a shuddering "Oh no" .

For a moment nothing moves, no one says anything. It’s quieter than in a grave. Then, Edward takes a step towards the altar, eyes glued onto the man on the wall. Who is he?

"Don’t–" Bruce chokes out behind him, trying to grab his sleeve, but Edward doesn’t stop. He takes a slow step forward, then another, only hearing his own heartbeat and shallow breathing.

Ten feet away from the altar he can see the man in the slightest light illuminating from the windows on his sides. That’s also where he can hear the quiet and steady sound of blood dripping onto the floor, almost like the ticking of a clock. He takes another step. Two knives have been struck through the man’s wrists, binding him onto the altarpiece, his hands hanging limp, blood dripping down the sleeves of his jacket. His head is hanging low, his chin against his chest. Edward only has to look at the gore on the front of his shirt to know that his throat has been cut.

That’s when Edward really looks at him. His eyes go from the stained white shirt to the ruined tweed jacket the man is wearing, before focusing on the mess of his hair. There are some gray strands in it. And that’s when Edward knows.

“Oh no,” he breathes out, his world blurring around the corners. “Oh no.”

**

“Why did you and Bruce Wayne go back to the chapel?”

“To… to check the candles.”

“And that is where you found Robert Myers’ body?”

“Mhm.”

“Someone get the boy some water.”

The principal’s office has been turned into an interrogation room. Edward sits on the other side of a big desk, pressing an ice pack against his forehead where he first hit his head on the edge of the altar and then on the floor when he fainted. On the other side of the table sits the DI of GPD, looking at him with so much pity that Edward would feel annoyed if he wasn’t too shocked to feel anything.

He can’t remember what happened between him finding Mr. Myers’ body and talking to the DI. He can’t remember how Bruce managed to get him back to the school from the chapel or when the police arrived. He does remember waking up on a couch in the common room and then being asked to talk to at least five different police officers. He doesn’t know where Bruce is.

“Did you see anyone by the chapel when you left it earlier this evening or when you went back?” the DI asks. Edward just stares at the nametag on his shirt. Ramos , it reads. He is brought back to the moment when the man clears his throat.

“No, I didn't. I didn’t check the chapel when I left and when I– when me and Bruce came back, it was so dark and snowing so hard that we couldn’t see anything,” Edward says. There’s a knock on the door, and soon a younger police officer, with a name tag saying ‘Gordon’, steps in with a glass of water for Edward. Edward takes it but his shaking hands can’t bring it up to his lips. DI Ramos gives him an apologetic look.

“I heard that you’re staying here for the holidays,” he says. Edward nods. “I just want you to know that we will be conducting a thorough investigation of the whole school area. If you have any other place to go, it would be probably for the best –”

“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” Edward interrupts. If couldn’t stay at the school, he would have to go to St. Jude’s, which would be the same as nothing. He has spent his last two summers there, as the school can’t let him stay there for the summer, and those couple of months had been the worst he’s had in a while. Ramos looks at him with a pitiful look and nods. Edward wonders if he would be as sympathetic if Edward was just a normal orphan who had seen a man get killed on a street instead of going to the best school in Gotham.

“Were you and Mr. Myers close?” Ramos asks. Edward feels like his throat is going to close up.

“He, um, he was very nice to me. I guess, yeah,” he manages to get out. Ramos seems to notice his struggle and nods at the younger police officer Gordon.

“Okay, I think this is all for tonight, Edward. Thank you,” he says. “We’ll need you to come to the station tomorrow to give an official testimony.”

Edward nods and mutters something between “good night” and “thanks” that gets stuck into his throat and comes out completely incomprehensible. Officer Gordon escorts him out of the office into the hallway, and that’s where Edward sees Bruce. He’s sitting on a chair next to the door with the older man – Pennyworth. Edward looks at him, trying to meet his eyes, but the boy’s look is distant, and Edward knows that he’s not really there. Edward glances at Mr. Pennyworth who looks at him with the eyes of someone who has seen all of this before.

Gordon walks Edward through the common room, where all of the teachers ( not all of them, not anymore , Edward thinks absently) sit in silence. Edward can’t bring himself to look at them. He and Gordon walk in silence all the way through the main building and the underground corridor to the dorm building which is empty and cold. Edward’s head is pounding after climbing up the stairs, and he’s glad when he finally gets his door open.

“Get some sleep,” Gordon says. Edward closes the door to his face.

For a while he just stands in the dark room, hearing nothing, seeing nothing. Then, slowly, he moves to his wardrobe and starts pulling his shirts down from the shelf before finding a pack of cigarettes he’s hidden under them. Then he pushes his desk aside so that he can get the dorm window open. He struggles with the latch of the window for a while before finally getting it open, a bunch of snow and ice scattering onto the floor. The cold wind makes his eyes water, but he doesn’t care about it. He takes a cigarette, puts it between his lips, and sticks his hand into his pocket. The smooth metal surface of the lighter meets his fingers and for a moment he feels like he’s going to throw up. With shaking hands he pulls the lighter out, doing his best not to look at it. He flicks it open and brings the flame to the tip of the cigarette and breathes in when the paper finally catches on fire. Below him stands the chapel, now lit up by the lights the police have set up. Edward breathes out smoke, his fingers going numb.

“Good things happen to good people,” sister Carol had said to him when they had first heard that he would be getting into the school. Edward had never believed that.

The neverending sound of police and ambulance sirens is distant somewhere in the city. Edward feels completely empty. Bad things happen to good people , he thinks, a picture of Mr. Myres’ body flashing before his eyes when he blinks. He looks at himself in the warped reflection on his lighter. Bad things happen to bad people .

His cigarette has almost burned to the filter. Edward looks at the glowing tip of it and holds his breath. Then he pulls the sleeve of his shirt up and presses the tip of the cigarette on his wrist, right next to an almost healed burn. He keeps it there until the pain becomes too much and he finally has to drop the cigarette out of the window. He covers the burn with his hand, the pain radiating up his arm into his entire body, and then he cries and cries and cries.

Chapter 2: bad things

Notes:

tbh i don't even think that it snows in gotham like this but let's just pretend that it does.
enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

For a month after the death of his parents, Bruce couldn’t speak. Not to Alfred, not to the police. He remembers sitting at the police station with the DI sitting on the other side of the table and with Alfred next to him, both of them silent, while Bruce wrote down his description of the events of that night.

He thought he could see them sometimes – his parents. He could see his father sitting in his chair at the library from the corner of his eye, or hear his mother walking down the hall to his room when he was lying in bed. Ghosts.

“It is completely normal to see or feel the presence of a loved one even after their death. It’s just your brain trying to catch up on what has happened,” his crisis-help assigned therapist – a woman named Kim, who wore a lot of yellow – had said to him, when Bruce, after a month or so, could speak to her.

Kim was nice and understanding, never pressuring him to speak. Sometimes they would spend the sessions with her asking questions or talking, and Bruce nodding or shaking his head if he felt like it. Still, even when Bruce eventually could talk again, he felt like he could never quite articulate his feelings.

“It’s going to happen again,” he had told Kim once. She had raised an eyebrow and written something down on her notepad.

“Why do you think that?” she had asked.

“I don’t know why, I just know it,” Bruce had said, and she had smiled sadly.

“What you went through was very traumatic and it’s normal for you to feel like something bad is going to happen to you again. I promise that those things are not going to happen because you deserve it. Bad things happen to everyone, but you don’t have to fear them,” she had said.

Bruce, however, couldn’t explain that it wasn’t fear that he was feeling. He didn’t fear that something horrible would happen, sooner or later. He knew it. He also knew that he wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

That feeling had followed him all these years, and now it had come true.

The car ride to the police station is quiet. Usually, Bruce sleeps better in his bed in the Tower than at school, but last night he couldn’t even close his eyes. Alfred keeps on giving him worried glances from behind the wheel, but Bruce pretends not to notice. He knows what the man is thinking. It’s going to get bad again.As if it had ever gotten better.

Winter sun does nothing to warm Bruce up when he steps out of the car and walks to the police station door with Alfred on his heels. The inside of the building makes him feel even colder than the outside. Alfred talks to a receptionist, and a police officer comes to take both of them to the depths of the station.

Everyone is very nice to him, which somehow makes Bruce feel even worse. The DI is the same, who asked him questions after the death of his parents and won’t stop giving Bruce apologetic glances. Bruce only wishes to get out and back home. He doesn’t have anything more to tell about Mr. Myers or his death. He didn’t know the man well, only that he taught Bruce math and was quite nice to his students most of the time. Now he can only remember the way his limp body hung on the wall.

It doesn’t take long to get his statement, and he’s out of the interrogation room in 30 minutes. Alfred is waiting for him outside of the room, talking to Edward, who is picking on his cuticles so intensively that they bleed. Both of them turn to look when Bruce steps out of the room. Alfred gives him a worried look, but Bruce just looks at Edward. The boy looks like he hasn’t slept either, his skin pale, dark shadows under his eyes, and an absent look on his face. He looks up at Bruce, and for a moment it looks like he’s going to say something, but the moment passes and he goes back to staring at his hands resting in his lap.

“Edward Nashton, your turn,” the DI says, and Edward stands up, pushing past Bruce without looking at him.

If I hadn’t said anything about the candles, we wouldn’t be here now, Bruce thinks, and the ever-present guilt flares up inside of him. The door to the interrogation room closes, and it’s just Bruce and Alfred in the hall. Bruce can see that Alfred wants to say something, so he just turns and heads towards the exit.

“I think you should start seeing Kim again.” That’s the first thing Alfred says after ten minutes of their silent car ride back to the Tower. Bruce leans against the passenger’s side window and closes his eyes.

“I’m fine.”

“It would be good for you.”

“I’m almost an adult, Alfred, I can make my own choices just fine.”

“You get to say that once you start making your own doctor calls,” Alfred says, lips pressed into one thin line. Bruce can’t say anything to that. Alfred glances at him from behind the wheel. “Go see her, just once.”

“Once,” Bruce says, knowing that he’s lost this battle.

The silence stretches between them, and Bruce can sense that there’s still something Alfred wants to say. When the car stops in midday traffic, Bruce asks him: “What?”

“I’m worried about that boy – Edward,” Alfred says. Bruce looks down at his lap and hums, the guilt starting to eat him inside out, starting from the pit of his stomach and making its way upward. “He said that he’s staying at the school for the holidays. That’s terribly lonely, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” Bruce says, feeling nauseous. He thinks about Edward’s pale face and the empty look in his eyes. He wonders how quiet the school is when there’s no one else there. How cold the halls must be.

“You could invite him to spend Christmas in the Tower,” Alfred suggests. Bruce shrugs but doesn’t look up. He remembers the look of disdain Edward gave him every time Bruce spoke to him and the way he had flinched away when Bruce had tried to help him. “Maybe just leave me alone.”

“I don’t know,” he says to Alfred. “I don’t think he likes me very much.”

“Well, that’s not really a reason,” Alfred states. The line of cars moves and they keep on driving. Bruce says nothing.

**

Edward can’t get out of bed for three days. He had somehow managed to carry himself to the police station, but the moment the school janitor had driven him back to the school, he had fallen into a weird slumber-like state, where he had only laid in his bed with his eyes half-open, listening to the sounds of police officers walking on the school grounds and going through the students’ rooms for days. No one has come to talk to him, no one has knocked on his door to even inspect his room. He doesn’t care.

On Christmas Eve he finally revives, blinking slowly as a few stray rays of pale sunlight land onto his face. The sounds of the police have ended, but there’s another sound – a muffled ringing. Edward lies still and listens to it for a minute, wondering if someone has left their phone in their room, before he realizes that it must be the school landline that no one really uses anymore. Well, apart from Edward, who doesn’t own a cellphone.

The ringing stops after a minute or so but starts again just as Edward closes his eyes. It echoes in the empty halls and drills into Edward’s brain, until he gets enough of it and kicks his covers off, slowly getting out of the bed and walking across the cold floor of his room to the door. He almost steps onto a tray that has been left on the floor outside of his door, most likely by the kitchen lady. It’s breakfast. Edward steps over it and walks down the maze of corridors until he finds the landline. He takes the beat-up plastic receiver into his hand and lifts it to his ear.

“Hello?” he asks, his voice bouncing off of the cold walls and floor.

“Edward?” asks a tinny voice through the phone. “It’s, um, it’s Bruce. Wayne.”

Edward says nothing for a moment and only stares at the wall above the phone. He’s too numb to feel irritated or confused over Bruce calling him. He’s completely empty.

“Edward? Is it you?” Bruce asks when Edward doesn’t give him an answer.

“Yeah, it’s me,” Edward says, his voice hoarse and dry. He can’t remember when he last drank water. “What do you want?”

“Well, I called to ask… I was just wondering, if you would like to – um – come over to the Tower to, you know, spend Christmas,” Bruce stumbles over his words. Edward blinks at the wall, not understanding.

“What are you talking about?” he asks after a brief moment of silence.

“I– I just thought that you might be lonely… being alone there and… you know…” Bruce’s voice fades. He sounds uncomfortable, as if he doesn’t want to be having this conversation in the first place. Well, that makes two of them.

“We’re not friends, Bruce,” Edward says. Bruce sighs.

“Well, yeah, I know, but…” He’s audibly struggling. “Listen, Alfred wanted me to ask. He’s worried about you.”

Right, Alfred – the butler. He had spoken to Edward at the police station. Edward scratches a faded piece of a sticker off of the metal part of the phone absently and thinks. Yeah, sure, it’s terribly lonely to spend the holidays alone, but he’s gotten used to it by now. Besides, if Bruce doesn’t even want him there, why would he go?

“I get it if you don’t want to come. I know you don’t like me,” Bruce keeps talking. “But… you should. Or do you want to be alone right now?”

It’s a genuine question, and Edward finds himself asking it, too. Does he want to be alone? Does he want to spend Christmas at the place that houses yet another ghost of his past? Would it be so bad to go to the Wayne Tower and see what his life could be like if his parents were rich but dead, instead of just shadows that he’s never truly seen?

“Fine,” he says finally. “But don’t expect a Christmas present.”

“Wait, really?” Bruce asks, sounding genuinely surprised about Edward’s decision, before letting out a small laugh. “Okay, yeah, nice. I can send a car to pick you up. Do you think you’ll be ready by six?”

“You don’t have to–” Edward begins, but stops to think. How else is he supposed to get there? By public transit, which would take him way more than an hour? “Yeah, six is fine.”

“Okay,” Bruce says. “See you then.”

“Bye,” says Edward before putting the receiver back in its place. For a moment he just stands in silence, staring at the phone and wondering what the actual f*ck is going on. Something terrible has happened and now he’s somehow interfered with Bruce Wayne, who doesn’t seem to have a problem with it since he won’t leave Edward alone. A week ago this would have had Edward fuming, but right now it feels almost indifferent to him. If Bruce wants to pretend like he cares, then so be it. It’s not like Edward owes him anything.

**

Three and half hours later Edward is standing inside the shining metal walls of one of the elevators in the Wayne Tower, snow melting from his shoes onto the stainless steel, and watching as the numbers above the door get bigger. “Go to the 50th floor,” a woman at the reception had told him when he had told his name to her.

Half an hour earlier a car – a black, shiny Mercedes – with an actual chauffeur (a guy named Ali in his mid-thirties) had come to pick Edward up from the stairs of St. Aquinas and driven him downtown, through the streets decorated with Christmas lights and everything in red, white and green. Edward had been sitting on the back, listening to a carousel of Christmas carols playing quietly on the radio and watching the people on the streets – families waddling through the gray slush on the avenues, people sitting in cafés or stepping out of stores with last minute Christmas gifts in their arms. All of it had felt distant to him. He has lived in the city for his entire life, but right then he could’ve been on the other side of the world. He had never seen the finance district up close, always having been stuck on the south side of the city during summers, but now he could see all the men in their suits, their phones glued onto their ears, working even on Christmas Eve. One of them had been carrying his daughter in one arm and holding his phone in his free hand. The little girl had been wearing a designer winter coat. Edward is wearing a second-hand puffer jacket with a torn lining and a Salvation Army sweater underneath.

And he’s standing in the elevator at The Wayne Tower, going up.

The higher he rises, the more afraid he gets. The numbness he’s been drowning in for the last few days melts away for a moment, and he finds himself squeezing his hands into fists in his pockets to keep them from shaking. What if all of this is just some kind of a joke played onto him by Bruce? What if the doors open, and Edward finds himself staring at the other boys from school, all of them laughing at him for even thinking that he could be included? How could he be this stupid? There must be something that Bruce – Bruce f*cking Wayne, the Prince of Gotham – is getting out of this, and Edward can’t imagine it to be anything good. In his mind he can see Bruce, laughing, his face twisting up in mockery, even though he has never seen him actually do that.

The doors open. Edward stands still, frozen from fear.

No one is waiting behind the elevator doors. Not even Bruce. Edward stares at the penthouse that opens in front of him but doesn’t move. Is he at the right place? Well, how could he not be?

The elevator doors are about to close, and Edward does nothing to stop them when he hears quick steps coming from somewhere. A second later Bruce emerges into the room with an amused look on his face, which quickly turns into a more neutral one. Edward quickly sticks his foot between the doors and they open again.

“Edward, hi,” Bruce says, not sounding like he knows what to say any better than Edward. “Come in.”

Cautiously, Edward steps into the penthouse, cringing at the way his wet shoes squeak against the checkered stone floor. He had spent a good while trying to figure out what to wear for his visit, which had turned out to be much more difficult than it should’ve been, considering that he owns three t-shirts, two long-sleeved ones, and two sweaters, one of which has the school insignia on it. He had gone with the other sweater, not wanting to seem like he has no life outside of the school (even though that’s how things pretty much are), and one of the three pairs of black pants he owns. Turns out, his efforts were insignificant because Bruce is standing in front of him in sweatpants and a black and white striped shirt, looking like a rejected Nirvana member.

“I can take your coat,” Bruce offers. Another genuine attempt at being friendly.

“Don’t you have a butler to take it or something?” Edward asks. It comes out mean and sarcastic, even though he doesn’t really mean it to. He can’t give in. He can’t look at Bruce and be nice. He just can’t. Bruce stands with his hands awkwardly half-raised and looks at him.

“Alfred is more like an… uncle, or something, than a butler,” he mutters. “But I can get him if you want.”

“Don’t,” Edward says quickly and starts taking his jacket off. Bruce takes it and goes to take it to a closet somewhere, while Edward looks around. It’s almost ridiculous the way the place looks. It’s exactly like you’d expect it to be from the exterior of the building, so much so, that you don’t even think that it would look like it until you see it. The roof looks like one of a Catholic church, with gothic arches stretching towards the sky. The windows follow the same shape, laying the view of the city in front of Edward, who at that moment realizes that he’s never been this high up before. Everything is made of dark wood or stone. Edward sees his reflection in the window and for a moment he looks like a ghost standing in the darkness.

“I can show you around,” says Bruce, who has appeared behind him, making Edward jump a little. He’s become so skittish lately.

“Okay, sure,” Edward says and follows Bruce out of the room they’re in with his book bag swinging on his shoulder.

The place is huge. Edward had known to expect that, but it still takes him by surprise just how much space there is. The rooms are big and everything but comfy. Leather armchairs around a big, empty fireplace, chairs with long, straight backs that give you a military posture. Wide, heavy tables with blurry pictures painted under the old varnish, and chandeliers hanging high above their heads. It doesn’t feel like a home. It’s more like a museum – the museum of Thomas and Martha Wayne. And Bruce is living in it.

“What's in the floors below?” Edward asks, when they’re walking up a stairwell to another floor (because of course even a penthouse has to have two floors). In front of him, Bruce shrugs.

“Guest apartments, WE offices, rental space,” he says. “I don’t really know.”

You live above 49 floors without knowing what’s in them? Edward wants to ask but ends up only humming in an answer.

“This is my room,” Bruce says, opening one of the many doors on the second floor and letting Edward in. The room continues the theme of the apartment by being huge, dark, and not homely. It has a neatly made canopy bed with dark red curtains around it, a soft Persian carpet on the floor, and a big window that takes up most of the side wall. It looks nothing like a normal teenage boy’s room.

Edward tries to look for at least some sign of Bruce’s personality – even though he doesn’t know what it looks like or if it even exists – from the room, the only things even pointing towards that direction being his school bag on the floor next to his bed and an Albert Camus book laying spine up on his bedside table. There’s also a small showcase against one of the walls, and in it, there are several different trophies and medals. A pair of beat-up boxing gloves hang on a hook next to it.

“What are those for?” Edward asks, nodding towards the showcase. A look of pride, concealed by embarrassment, appears on Bruce’s face.

“Kickboxing, taekwondo, stuff like that,” he says and steps towards the glass to point at one of the medals. “I got that last spring.”

WKA US National Youth Championships, the medal says. It’s silver.

“Kind of f*cked that one up,” Bruce sighs.

“You came second place,” Edward says. Bruce just looks at him and nods, as if Edward’s statement doesn’t change anything about his own. Edward just frowns at the collection of trophies, taking in this new piece of information on Bruce. Better not to piss him off, since he really knows how to land a punch, huh?

The last place Bruce shows Edward is the library. It’s a long room with a high ceiling and a carpeted floor. The most distinctive thing about it are of course the bookshelves that take up both of the side walls from the floor to the ceiling. Edward steps into the room with a look of awe on his face, while Bruce stays by the door.

“You can stay here and look around if you want,” Bruce says, his arms crossed over his chest. “I’m gonna… go ask Alfred when the dinner is ready. I’ll come get you then.”

“Okay,” Edward says, not feeling like he has many other options. It could be worse, though. At least the library is a nice and quiet place and doesn’t look like a part of a haunted mansion. Bruce leaves, closing the door behind himself as if he’s in a hurry.

That’s when Edward turns to look above the door and sees a big oil painting hung above it. It’s of Bruce – maybe in pre-school – and his parents, all of them looking down at Edward in their fancy clothes. Edward looks at it for a while, feeling smaller under Thomas Wayne’s immortalized stare, until he starts feeling creeped out and has to turn away. No wonder Bruce didn’t want to spend time in the room and feel his dead parents’ eyes on him at all moments.

Bruce comes to get him almost an hour later. Once again, he silently appears behind Edward, who is half sunken into a big armchair and filling out a crossword book he took with him from the school, too scared to touch any of the books on the shelves.

“The food’s ready,” Bruce says, and Edward almost screams. Why can’t the guy just say “Hi”, or something?

The dinner is quiet with only Edward, Bruce, and Alfred sitting around a table in a room next to the kitchen, where the staff probably used to eat during the glory days of the Tower. Edward doesn’t mind. The room is much nicer and lighter than the huge dining hall that Bruce showed him earlier, and the food is much better than whatever pre-heated stuff Edward would’ve had to eat if he had stayed at the school. Still, his appetite is gone, and he can barely finish half of his plate. He sees that Bruce barely eats, either.

Alfred keeps a light conversation going so that they don’t spend the entire meal in silence. He asks Edward about school, dancing around the topic of Mr. Myers so delicately that Edward barely even notices that he’s avoiding it.

“Where did you grow up?” he asks Edward when all of them have almost finished all they can. Edward feels Bruce glancing at him from the other side of the table. Now that he thinks about it, he’s not sure if his past is even known amongst the boys at the school. Yes, everyone knows that he’s poor and doesn’t have parents, but he’s never actually told anyone where he’s really coming from. How is he going to tell Bruce and his butler that he grew up underneath the Waynes’ roof, just a moment too late?

“I grew up in an orphanage,” he manages to answer, feeling the silver engravings on the handle of his dinner knife with his fingers.

“Oh, really?” Alfred asks, genuinely surprised. “Here in Gotham? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to–”

“It was the one in the old manor,” Edward says, not looking up. A silence falls over the table. He should leave.

“That must’ve been very different than what either of us can imagine,” Alfred says after a moment of total silence. Edward puts his hands into his lap and squeezes his hands into fists before opening them slowly.

He’s eight years old, sitting in the dining room with his hands crossed and head bowed in prayer, thanking God for food that tastes like nothing and doesn’t take away his hunger. He’s nine years old and sucking on the cuts on his fingers from one of the bad-tempered nuns hitting him with a ruler for not focusing during lauds. He’s ten, staying awake in the middle of the night, too cold and scared to close his eyes, listening to the quiet scratching and squeaking of the rats running underneath his bed, and then he’s eleven years old, sitting at the back of a quiet and dark room, watching the news on the morning after Thomas and Martha Wayne’s death, praying for Bruce Wayne and hating him at the same time.

“Yeah,” he says. Silence, again.

“I can take the plates,” Bruce says quietly and stands up, not looking at Edward when he takes his plate from the table.

When they leave the table, Edward counts down the minutes to when it is okay for him to ask to go home. He was right all along. He doesn’t belong here. He has no friends here.

“Edward, can I talk with you for a moment?” Alfred’s voice comes from behind him, startling him again. Edwar spins around and looks at the man like a deer in headlights, but is only met with a pleasant smile.

“Okay,” he manages to whisper and follows Alfred to one of the many sets of couches and armchairs by the windows. Alfred takes the couch and Edward sits down into one of the armchairs. Below them, the city is like a map of the human nervous system made out of light. From up there, Edward can’t even make out the people down on the streets.

“This has been very nice, but I think that I should be going back to the school,” he says, looking at his own reflection on the glass instead of Alfred. He feels like he’s twelve years again and talking to Mr. Waters about his future. He remembers that his bag is still in the library. He’ll have to go and get it before he leaves. Everything is so horrible and embarrassing.

“Already?” Alfred asks, not sounding that surprised. Edward looks down and makes a gesture that is something between a shrug and a nod. Alfred shifts and tilts his head, trying to meet his eyes. “I see. However, I do think that you should stay for the night. I know that we don’t really celebrate Christmas here, but it would be nice to spend it with at least one more person. I think that Bruce thinks that, too, even if he doesn’t say it.”

Edward looks up, frowning. Why can’t you just let me go? he wants to ask. Instead, he says: “We’re not friends. Bruce and me, I mean.”

Alfred doesn’t look surprised about this, either.

“So I’ve heard,” he says. “He thinks that you don’t like him.”

Edward feels embarrassment color him red from the neck up and looks away again. Right, so Bruce possesses some emotional intelligence after all.

“Well, it’s not quite like that… I just… I don’t really like any of the boys from our school,” he mutters down at his hands. Alfred listens.

“Do you have friends somewhere else?” he asks. It’s not asked with bad intent, but to Edward, it feels like a personalized attack.

“It’s kinda hard to get friends anywhere else when you spend nine months holed up with the same rich kids and don’t have money to go anywhere,” he spits, glaring at Alfred from underneath his eyebrows. To his disappointment, Alfred’s expression doesn’t change. Always so understanding.

“I understand,” he says, even though Edward doubts that he really does. “I’m not telling you to be Bruce’s friend, although he is really in need of one. I’m only asking you to not spend Christmas alone.”

“Right, so another Christmas under the Waynes’ roof.” It slips out of Edward’s mouth, sour and spiteful. Now Alfred’s expression changes, the lines on his face deepening. For a moment he looks almost sad.

“Consider this atonement,” he says before standing up from the couch. The decison has already been made. “Bruce can show you your room.”

He gives Edward a quick pat on the shoulder before leaving, and for a second Edward gets a déjà vu. He’s back in the school, talking to Mr. Myers after a class. He says something and Mr. Myers smiles before patting his shoulder and telling him to hurry to his next class. He imagines the brief weight on his shoulder, and that’s when it hits him – the realization that he’s never going to feel it again. For a moment he can’t breathe.

Of course, that’s when Bruce appears again, looking awkward and almost guilty. Edward turns away, rapidly blinking to get rid of the tears that have been involuntarily starting to fill his eyes. He’s not going to cry. Not in front of anyone and especially not in front of Bruce Wayne.

“Do you want to see your room?” Bruce asks quietly.

“Yeah, sure, let’s go,” Edward says quickly, his voice strained, and stands up, stepping past Bruce even though he doesn’t know where he’s supposed to go.

His room turns out to be one of the guest rooms on the second floor. It looks like every other room in the house, with a canopy bed and dark furniture to match. Edward doesn’t think that he’ll sleep a wink in there.

“Do you want to be alone now or… I don’t know, do something, maybe?” Bruce asks, standing awkwardly in the doorframe. For a moment Edward thinks, looking at the room around him. It looks like a cave.

“What ‘something’?” he asks. Bruce shrugs.

“I don’t know. Whatever you want. Do you play anything?”

“You mean, like chess or something? Yeah, I do.”

“I meant more like… video games. But chess is good, too,” Bruce says, nervously scratching the varnish off of the doorframe. “Do you wanna play chess?”

Embarrassment colors Edward red again, mixing with all the horrible feelings that are already bubbling underneath his skin, and for a moment he just wants to scream at Bruce and tell him that he doesn’t want to be here and that he doesn’t want to be his friend or even pretend to be one. Instead, he says: “Yeah, okay.”

Edward used to be in the school chess club during his first year in St. Thomas Aquinas’. He was okay at it, nothing too special, but the other boys didn’t like it when he won, and eventually, he stopped going because one of them would call him a “fatherless fa*g” every time Edward beat him.

Bruce seems to be a better loser than that boy. Maybe he has to be because he’s losing a lot. They’re sitting on the floor of one of the rooms – this one has a huge TV and three different video game consoles plugged into it – and Edward is beating him round after round. It’s almost boring, but it’s entertaining to see that Bruce is actually putting in effort to win. Edward watches the way Bruce’s brows knit together and the way he brushes a stray strand of hair from his face when he tries to think of a move that won’t gain him another loss. Seeing him this close, in his home, makes him seem more like a person – just a normal boy – and not the picture that people have painted of him. Right now he looks quite much better than the picture that Edward has of him in his mind.

“You’re way too good at this,” Bruce huffs, finally making his move. Edward goes back to looking at the board. Maybe Bruce is improving a bit.

“In my defense, you’re really easy to beat,” Edward says, moving his piece. Bruce looks at him from the other side of the board with an unsure smile on his face.

“That’s not fair, you’re just smart,” he says. Edward looks up and squints. The way Bruce says it sounds genuine, just like everything he says, but there must be something behind it.

“Don’t try to flatter me, it’s not gonna make you win,” he says. Bruce looks back at the board, looking slightly defeated. They sit in silence for a couple of turns. It’s a tough game. When Edward has to stop to think, Bruce speaks again.

“I didn’t know about the orphanage thing,” he says. Edward’s head snaps up and he completely loses his footing in the game. Why the f*ck does Bruce want to talk about this now?

“Okay?” he says, trying to keep his voice normal. “And what does that have to do with anything?”

“Well, I mean–” Bruce says, searching for words. “It used to be my family’s home, and you grew up there, and it was funded by my dad, so I just feel like… I don’t know… that there’s, like, a connection. Or something.”

Edward just stares at him. Every conversation with Bruce is like trying to communicate with something from a completely different planet.

“A connection?” he asks finally, fingernails digging into his palms so that he doesn’t lunge at Bruce and wrap his hand around his neck until he stops breathing. “Like, between you and me? You think that we have something in common, because – what? – I grew up in an old, rat-festered house, and your dad threw us a couple of coins every now and then? No, Bruce, there’s no connection.”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Bruce says, looking embarrassed and uncomfortable. Seeing him like that makes Edward feel slightly better. “I mean… I didn’t– I don’t know anything about that. The orphanage, I mean.”

“Right, well, stop trying to pity me because of it, then,” Edward says, finally moving his piece. It’s only a second after when he realizes that it was a stupid move.

“I’m not pitying you,” Bruce says, not paying any attention to the game. “Obviously I feel bad for you, but that’s just because of everything that has happened lately.”

There it is, finally. The topic of Mr. Myers, which neither of them wants to talk about.

“It’s your turn,” Edward says, not looking up. Bruce doesn’t do anything.

“I just feel like… if we hadn’t gone back to the chapel…” he continues. Edward’s breath hitches and his knuckles turn white against the dark carpet underneath his hands.

“Just make your f*cking move,” he croaks, staring at the board and not Bruce. Bruce sighs.

“I just wanted to say that I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t slit his throat, so stop apologizing for it,” Edward snaps, feeling his face warming up. He doesn’t want to talk about this. “Move your piece so that we’ll finish this game one day.”

Bruce doesn’t say anything but does as he’s told.

Neither of them says anything for the rest of the game. Bruce wins.

“You’re getting better,” Edward says dryly and sits up straight, feeling his spine pop. Bruce nods at the floor and starts gathering the pieces into his hands.

“Do you wanna do something else?” he asks, not looking at Edward. Their unfinished conversation hangs in the air, heavy and almost suffocating. Edward doesn’t like it, but he doesn’t want to get back to it, either. It doesn’t matter. He’s going to leave tomorrow and he won’t have to talk to Bruce ever again after that.

“Okay,” he says.

Bruce shows him his collection of video games, none of which Edward is familiar with. He tries to teach Edward to play one of them – some fighting game, where he’s supposed to be one of many weird-looking characters and kick the sh*t out of the others. Edward has never played a console game before, and it’s all too fast-paced for him. Bruce explains to him what buttons he’s supposed to press, but when the game starts, there’s way too much going on for him to remember all that.

“What happened?” he asks Bruce, when after a solid ten seconds of gaming the screen fades to black.

“You, um, well, you died,” Bruce says. “Do you want to try again?”

“No,” Edward says and hands the controller back to Bruce. This is stupid, he wants to say but keeps his mouth this time. He’s tired. “You play. I can watch.”

Bruce doesn’t protest, and so they spend a good hour sitting on the couch, while Bruce shows Edward all of the levels that he has unlocked on the map. Edward doesn’t pay attention to the game but listens to Bruce’s commentary on the different characters and secret power-ups, feeling like he’s going to fall asleep to the sounds of clicking of the controller as Bruce works it so fast that Edward can’t see his thumbs anymore.

It’s not fun, not really, but it’s not bad, either. Edward doesn’t need fun right now. He needs something to distract him, and this is doing the job just fine.

“... and she is my favorite character because she knows wushu, which is pretty cool –” Bruce explains, talking fast and almost excited, when Edward yawns, interrupting him. He turns to look at him as if only now remembering that Edward is still sitting next to him. “Are you tired?”

“A bit. I’m fine,” Edward says, crossing his arms across his chest and pretending to be focused on the screen. Bruce opens the game menu and ends the game without saying anything. For a moment Edward thinks that he’s gotten upset.

“Do you need something to sleep in?” Bruce asks instead. Edward opens his mouth to say ‘no’, but realizes that he didn’t pack a change of clothes with him. He wasn’t planning on staying, after all.

“I guess.”

They go to Bruce’s room, and Edward sits awkwardly on the edge of the bed, while Bruce stands in his walk-in closet and goes through drawers, trying to find a shirt for Edward.

“Do you normally sleep in long or short sleeves?” he asks. Edward feels the itchy scab that is starting to form over the cigarette burn on his wrist.

“Long,” he says. Bruce hums in answer.

Finally, Bruce steps out of the closet with a pair of flannel pajama pants and a dark green college shirt with the words “Gotham City Karate Gym” on it.

“It kinda matches your eyes,” he says as he hands the shirt to him. He says it like it’s a normal thing to say. Like it’s normal that he’s paying attention to the color of Edward’s eyes and that he’s chosen a shirt for him just based on that. Edward only stares at him, feeling heat climb up his neck again. This time it’s different, though, not as painful as the embarrassment he feels way too often, but something sticky and almost nauseating. He takes the shirt and pants, muttering a “thanks” to the floor.

“I’m gonna… go to bed now, so…” he manages to say. “Good night.”

“Good night,” he hears Bruce say after him, as he hurries out of the room with his clothes.

The guest room feels much bigger as Edward is lying down in the bed, looking at the roof of the canopy bed. The heavy curtains have been pulled over the windows – probably by Alfred – and the only light is a small lamp on the desk, which isn’t enough to light up the farthest corners of the room. There had been an unopened toothbrush packet and a new tube of toothpaste on his bed when he had come to change his clothes, and he had brushed his teeth in the guest bathroom, which was full of gray marble and silver accents. Edward has never stayed in a hotel, but this is how he imagines it. Apart from the people who live there. In some weird way he feels almost… cared for.

It’s embarrassing and he knows it. It’s nothing but a feeling stemming from a lack of something. Just like when he used to think of Mr. Myers as something like a father. He’s lost the only person who actually cared for him, so now he’s latching onto the first person who gives him even the slightest bit of sympathy. Unfortunately, the person in the question might be Bruce Wayne, and so Edward fights the feeling, closing his eyes tight.

(When had Bruce even noticed the color of his eyes? He’s terrible with eye contact.)

The sheets he’s lying in are heavy and soft, nothing like the worn-out ones in St. Aquinas’. The bed is huge. He could roll onto his side, then back to the middle, and then onto his other side and he still wouldn’t fall off of it. He does that just to prove it right. Is this what it would be like to be rich? Would he be happier then? Well, probably, but he could be happier in many other situations, too, most of which would include him not growing up in an orphanage. That makes him think about Bruce. Bruce could be happy - he should be - but whenever Edward looks at him, all he sees is the shell of a boy. He thinks about Bruce and the sad look that’s almost always on his face. He thinks about the look in his eyes (something between gray and blue). It's like a candle that has gone out long ago. There used to be someone in there,he thinks.

Edward rolls onto his side and turns off the small lamp on the bedside table. Then he squeezes his eyes closed and tries not to think about Bruce’s always-so-sad face or the slightly less sad one that he was wearing earlier while telling Edward about martial arts or something. Especially he tries not to think about the fact that he’s wearing Bruce’s clothes and sleeping in his home and that tomorrow is Christmas day and it’s the first time in three years that he’s not spending it alone.

Notes:

if it was a crime to set literally every fic around christmas time and make them play chess in it, i would be serving a double life sentence✊
(comments and kudos are always appreciated!)

Chapter 3: christmas kids

Notes:

this is kind of all over the place but i hope you still enjoy it!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

It’s winter in the orphanage and he’s not wearing shoes. Snow has piled against the windows, and the lights have been turned off. Dark and cold, just how he remembers it. Somewhere down the hallway, a baby is crying. He listens to it until it fades into pitiful hiccuping and eventually stops. Shortly after, the crying starts again, this time it’s someone else. Someone is always crying.

“What are you doing here?” someone asks from behind him. He turns and finds himself face to face with Sister Carol, her pale face floating in the dark. “Edward, what are you doing here?”

He doesn’t know how to answer. He doesn’t know why he’s here. Because he’s always been. There is no other place for him. Sister Carol looks at him. She looks older. How long has Edward been gone?

“You should be at the choir practice,” Sister Carol says. Choir. He hasn’t sung in years.

Sister Carol pulls a white cassock from somewhere in the darkness where Edward can’t see and hands it to him.

“Go on. You’re going to be late. Father doesn’t like waiting,” she says. Then she turns, and the darkness swallows her.

Edward puts the cassock on and turns to run down the hallway. The crying is getting louder, the heartbreaking wailing echoing through the cold hallways. He’s going to be late. He doesn’t know where he’s supposed to go. One of the doors is open, and inside the room are only rows of empty beds covered in a veil of snow. He’s going to be late.

He runs, the cold floor creaking underneath his steps. A stray nail nicks the sole of his frozen foot. He doesn’t stop. Someone is singing. Someone is saying a prayer.

He follows the crying and the singing and the praying. They’re all coming from the same place. He runs down another hallway, down a flight of stairs. Someone tries to grab his ankle. He doesn’t stop.

Finally, he comes to a door. All of the voices are coming from behind it, but he can’t make out any words. He pushes it open. The voices stop.

He’s in a chapel. It's not the one in the orphanage, but he’s been in this one too. It’s the one of St. Aquinas’, empty and quiet. Edward steps in, the cold stone freezing underneath his feet. The stained glass windows are dark with no light coming from outside, but Edward can make out the pictures with the light coming from candles that have been put all over the chapel. Stearin is melting all over the floor and the pews, but the nave is clear. He walks down it and towards the altar. Someone is waiting for him there.

“Eddie,” the person says from the shadows, but the voice sounds like it's coming from right next to him. Edward stops. There are no sounds other than the heavy breathing of the man behind the altar.

“Eddie, please,” the man says in a destroyed voice. “Come closer.”

Edward takes a reluctant step forward, then another, until he can make out the shape of the man. He knows him.

“Mr. Myers?” he asks, his voice bouncing off of the walls. He takes another step, and that’s when a hand comes from the shadows and pulls him towards the altar. His knees hit against the cold wood and he tries to strain against the hold the cold hand has on him but to no avail. Something is dripping down his forearm and soaking through the cassock. Another hand comes to grab his free wrist, binding them together in front of him, almost as if in a prayer. The hands holding them are slick with blood and it drips down his wrists.

A face appears in front of him from the dark - pale and gaunt - and Edward knows that it is Mr. Myers but it doesn’t look like him. This thing has been dead for a long time. The thing pulls him closer and when it speaks, there is more blood coming out of its mouth than words.

Eddie, please, help me, please, help me, Edward. Please, please, please, please.

Blood flecks Edward’s face and he tries to turn away, closing his eyes – tries to pull away, but the blood drips down his arms and face, turning the white cassock red. And he screams and cries and thrashes in the hold that won’t break, but still can’t drown out the dead voice begging him.

Please, please, please, please, please…

*

Edward wakes up to the sound of his own voice, screaming. For a moment he doesn’t know where he is. The sheets have wrapped around him like a straight jacket, and the darkness of the room is impenetrable. In his hazy state, he wonders if he is really back in the orphanage, but as his heartbeat slows down and he slowly comes back to his senses, he remembers where he actually is. Somewhere very far from the orphanage, but still surprisingly close. Another Christmas under the Waynes’ roof.

He lies back, sinking into the mattress beneath him, and listens to his own heartbeat, which is still hammering like he has run a marathon. The dream is still hanging above him, and every time he tries to close his eyes, the only thing he sees is Mr. Myers’ dead face. Edward closes his hands around his wrists, reminding himself that there is no blood dripping down them.

He doesn’t know what time it is, but he’s sure that it’s way too early to get up. He also knows that there’s no way that he’s going to fall asleep any time soon. Staring at the dark roof above, he tries to imagine it as the bottom of an upper bunk of a bunk bed, like the ones in the orphanage. He imagines the carvings and tags left behind by many other boys before him, some of them now in new homes. He imagines the sounds of the other sleeping boys around him. It’s not too different from the noises that he listens to every night at St. Aquinas’ – snoring, the rustling of sheets, a door opening somewhere when someone goes to use the bathroom, a floorboard creaking when the night patrol comes to check every floor one by one. He tries to listen for those sounds that remind him of the places that aren’t home but that are still the only places that even resemble one for him. He hears nothing. The Tower is quiet, not even the sounds of the city being audible this high. Edward feels like he’s lying in a tomb.

That’s when he hears a sound – soft footsteps coming from outside his door – and freezes, his heart racing and a sour taste rising to the back of his throat. There is a whisper: “Edward?”

It’s Bruce. Edward relaxes, sighing and closing his eyes in relief, opening them quickly when the picture of Mr. Myers appears again. Never had he thought that he would feel relieved at the sound of Bruce Wayne’s voice.

“Yeah?” he says, his voice hoarse and his mouth dry.

“Is everything okay?” Bruce asks through the door, audibly worried.

“Yeah,” Edward says, rubbing his eyes. Everything is silent for a moment but Edward can’t hear Bruce leave.

“Can I come in for a moment?” Bruce asks finally, and Edward feels all embarrassed and pathetic because somewhere deep inside he had hoped that Bruce would ask that. He is quiet for a moment, waiting for the feeling to wash over him, hoping that he could tell Bruce to go back to sleep.

“Yeah,” he says instead. The door creaks, and he sees Bruce’s shadow step inside. Edward sits up and turns on the lamp on the bedside table, the light making both him and Bruce flinch. Now he can see Bruce – only slightly blurry since he’s not wearing his glasses – standing by the door in a t-shirt and pajama pants, holding a big glass of water in his hand.

“Can I sit down?” Bruce asks, nodding towards an armchair that stands next to the bed.

“It’s your house,” Edward says with a shrug. His answer doesn’t seem to completely convince Bruce, but he still walks over to the armchair and sits into it, pulling his knees to his chest and setting the glass down on the bedside table. He looks very pale and there are dark shadows around his eyes, but when he looks at Edward, there is a slight smile on his face.

“Couldn’t sleep?” he asks. Edward shakes his head. “Me neither. I thought that something was scratching outside my window.”

Edward glances at him. We’re 50 floors up. Be serious, he wants to say.

“I had a nightmare,” he says instead.

“I have those sometimes, too,” Bruce says. Edward doesn’t have to ask to know what all of them are about. Both of them are quiet for a moment until Bruce breaks it.

“Oh, it’s already Christmas Day,” he says, looking at the antique clock on the bedside table. Edward is glad for the change of the subject.

“Merry Christmas,” he says.

“Thanks. You too,” Bruce says and presses his chin against his knees, looking at Edward with a tired but curious look in his eyes. “What… what do you usually do when you’re staying at the school for the holidays?”

Edward looks at him, frowning. He still doesn't understand Bruce’s interest in him. Is it really so hard for him to imagine himself in a poor person’s shoes? Is Edward like an animal in a zoo for him to look and marvel at? Still, the look in Bruce’s eyes is of actual interest, and so Edward decides to answer instead of snapping at him like an angry dog.

“Usually I just stay at the library. Sometimes I take a bus to the city and go to… um, church. You know, to listen to the Christmas gospel,” he mutters, feeling embarrassed out of nowhere. Every time he talks about faith to anyone, he feels like a fraud. An ex-Catholic, who doesn’t go to church but who leans on God when he’s at his lowest. He can wear a rosary, cross his hands, and pray, even though he knows that no one will answer, but some small part of him, the part that grew up in the orphanage with nothing but God to keep him warm, still hopes for something divine to reach out for him. He gets nothing out of it but guilt, but there’s no way to get away from it, and so he keeps doing it

Bruce, however, doesn’t understand it, Edward can see it on his face. He only looks moderately surprised and says: “Oh, we can go to church today if you want.”

“No,” Edward says quickly. “I don’t– I don’t believe in God or anything. It’s just a stupid habit, you know… beats being alone.”

“Okay,” Bruce says, slightly confused.

“What do you normally do? During Christmas, I mean,” Edward says, quickly changing the topic. Bruce only shrugs.

“We don’t really celebrate it. Neither I nor Alfred are really Christmas people, I guess,” he says. There is definitely something behind that, too, but Edward doesn’t ask. Christmas is a family holiday, after all.

“But at least you get gifts, right?” Edward asks, slightly joking.

“Well… not really,” Bruce says. “I don’t really… want anything.”

Yeah, because you already have everything, Edward thinks. He thinks about the lighter that Mr. Myers gave him. It’s somewhere in his bag on the floor. It also reminds him that Mr. Myers had invited him to spend Christmas with his family, and for a moment he wants to rip the skin off of his arms just to feel something else than the horrible emptiness that the thought brings to him.

He thinks about what it would be like to spend Christmas someplace that feels more like a home and less like a museum.

“Are you okay?” he hears Bruce ask, but it all feels very far away. Edward only nods, looking straight ahead and trying to shed the weight that the thought – combined with the still looming feeling of his nightmare – brings to him. From the corner of his eye, he can see Bruce shift a little. “Do you wanna… talk about it?”

“God, no,” Edward mutters and rubs his eyes. The days-old bump on his forehead is starting to ache again. What is it with Bruce always wanting to dig up things that Edward is visibly trying to bury? “Let’s talk about literally anything else.”

“Okay,” Bruce says and seems to be thinking hard. It gives Edward a chance to look at him, to really look at him. Every time he sees Bruce at school, he seems to be hiding behind his hair and turning inwards, as if he doesn’t want to be seen. There’s something pathetic and annoying about it, especially since he has no reason to hide away. He’s the most famous person in the entire school and everyone likes him. Well, almost everyone. Maybe Edward is just tired and not thinking clearly, because even he feels the constantly blazing flame of hatred that he feels towards Bruce smother a little.

Another thing that annoys him about Bruce’s reclusive behavior and the way he tends to hide his face, is the fact that if Edward, for one, looked like that, he definitely wouldn’t hide away. Okay, listen, Edward may not like Bruce, but he’s not blind. There’s nothing wrong with him stating an objective fact, which is that Bruce looks good – basically on every standard, especially now that he’s not drowning in the school sweater and Edward can see the muscles of his arms that tell him that Bruce hasn’t been getting all of those medals from nothing. On top of that, there’s nothing wrong with his face. He’s good-looking in the same way that famous actors were when they were young, only to grow up to look even better. When Edward looks at Bruce, he can’t help but wonder what he’ll look like when he’s older. Probably good, unless he goes bald or something. Edward imagines Bruce’s dad and tries to fit Bruce’s features into his. Thomas Wayne didn’t live old enough to start losing hair.

The thought fills him with pity that he’s never felt towards Bruce before.

“Okay, I’ve got a question,” Bruce says, making Edward snap out of his thoughts abruptly. “What do you wanna study when you get the scholarship?”

Edward scoffs. “No one is saying that I’m getting it for sure.”

“Well, I think you’re going to get it,” Bruce says with a shrug like it’s a fact. “So, what are you gonna do with it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe pure mathematics… or computer science,” Edward says. Bruce raises his eyebrows.

“Pure mathematics? I could never,” he says. Edward looks at him and hums.

“What about you?” he asks and then before Bruce gets to answer: “Wait, let me guess… Business or medicine?”

Bruce smiles and looks away.

“I mean… it's gonna be one of those. I’m just not sure which one I’m gonna choose. Maybe medicine,” he says. Like your dad, Edward thinks.

“Everyone is telling me to do business but… I want to help people, and business school isn’t really that.”

“Yeah, don’t go sell your soul,” Edward says, only half joking. Bruce looks at him and smiles, and Edward feels the bottom of his stomach twisting weirdly. It’s probably nothing. He’s probably just tired.

Bruce stays for a while, and they spend it talking about nothing. Maybe Bruce is just very polite, or he’s actually curious about Edward’s life because he keeps on asking him questions. Edward isn’t used to it and even less used to telling people about himself. When Bruce asks him what kind of music he listens to, Edward has to stop and think for an embarrassingly long time, because he doesn’t really listen to anything, mostly because he doesn’t own a CD- or an mp3-player, and because most of the music from his childhood was either hymns or other types of more or less religious music that the nuns let them listen to and sing. He ends up muttering something about liking The Beatles, even though he absolutely does not listen to them or even really like them, but he can remember singing Let It Be as the last song on his last choir practice, and it’s one of the happy memories that he often comes back to, so it’s the closest to the truth that he can get.

Bruce likes Nirvana, because of course he does, as well as a litany of other bands that Edward hasn’t heard of. When he says this to Bruce, the other boy just smiles and says: “We can listen to them later if you want.” Edward only mutters something illegible to that and turns away, because his face is beginning to feel increasingly warmer again.

Before leaving to go back to bed, Bruce offers Edward half of the class of water that he brought with him. Maybe Edward has let his guard down, or maybe he’s just thirsty because he accepts.

When Bruce finally tells Edward good night again and leaves, Edward feels strangely light. The weight that has been pressing him down ever since he and Bruce found Mr. Myers' body has lifted for a moment, and he feels like he can breathe again. Still, he can’t figure out what Bruce is trying to achieve with all of this friendliness.

Maybe he’s just a genuinely nice person, he thinks as he rolls over to turn off the lamp. It's not so hard for him to believe that anymore.

**

“This sounds so depressing.”

“Oh? I like it.”

Christmas Day noon is bright and snowy as they sit on the floor in Bruce’s room and listen to a vinyl that is spinning in front of them and filling the room with melancholic singing, accompanied by a harsh guitar riff between every verse.

“I mean, it’s good, but if I listened to this all day, I would probably kill myself by the end of the week,” Edward says. Next to him, Bruce makes a faux-shocked face.

“Ouch,” he says. “A tough crowd.”

Edward only hums. He’s feeling better today, not necessarily good, but not as bad as he’s been feeling lately. Maybe it has something to do with not being locked away from people and being left with only his own thoughts, all of which are orbiting the same thing. Now there are two things they’re circling.

Bruce lifts the needle and takes the vinyl off of the player, putting it back into its sleeve before picking up another one.

“I feel like you’ll like this one,” he says before taking it out and putting it onto the player, placing the needle back down.

“How do you know what I like?” Edward asks skeptically. Bruce shakes his head.

“I didn’t say that I know, I just feel like it,” he says. A smile tugs on the corners of Edward’s mouth, and he bites the inside of his cheek to keep it from breaking onto his face.

In this moment he feels like maybe all the deep, burning hatred that he’s been feeling towards Bruce all these years might’ve been just a childish grudge held against a boy who has never actually done anything to him. For a moment he almost feels like they’re friends.

“Well, do you like it?” Bruce asks, pulling Edward out of his thoughts. Edward blinks, realizing that Bruce is talking about the song that is playing. He listens to it for a moment, surprised.

“Um, yeah, actually,” he says. Bruce smiles.

“See, I told you.”

The soft inside of Edward’s cheek breaks and bleeds between his teeth. He swallows the blood and keeps on listening to the song.

Bruce has an electric guitar standing in the corner of his room. Edward didn't notice it yesterday, but now Bruce shows it off to him with the same concealed pride as when he had shown Edward his medals.

“Do you even know how to play that?” Edward asks, slightly teasing. Bruce stands in front of him with the guitar strap around his neck and absently plucks on one of the strings. It doesn’t make a noise. The amplifier sits in the corner of the room collecting dust.

“I used to, but I haven't practiced much lately,” he says with a shrug. “Do you wanna try it?”

Edward shakes his head, and Bruce puts the guitar back onto its stand before sitting back down.

“Do you play anything?” he asks. Edward shakes his head again, and this time Bruce frowns, looking genuinely puzzled by the information. He glances at Edward’s hands that are resting on his thighs before looking back up. “Really? You've always seemed like a piano player to me.”

“Oh,” is all that Edward can say to that because he's too caught up in the fact that Bruce has thought of him before and made his own assumptions about him when they haven’t even talked properly before this December. He’s not sure how he feels about it.

“So, music isn't your thing, or..?” Bruce asks him, crossing his legs. Edward looks away, making a vague gesture that could mean anything, and says nothing. For a moment he almost tells Bruce that he does in fact like music and that he actually loves singing, especially when he’s completely alone at the school and there is no one to hear him. In those moments he can just let it all out and listen to the way his voice echoes through the hallways. He knows that Bruce wouldn't understand it. It’s way too different from the way Bruce listens to music – only as a way to drown out everything else. For Edward, it's something that comes from deep within. Almost like something sacred.

“What do you like to do, then?” Bruce asks.

What do you care? Edward wants to ask but it's more out of habit than out of actual annoyance.

“I like to read and… um, do puzzles and stuff,” he says. Bruce seems to take all of this in like it’s the most important information he's received in a while.

“That’s cool,” he says with a smile. Edward tastes blood again.

**

Sometime in the afternoon when they’re sitting in the game room (or whatever it's actually called) and Edward is winning yet another game of chess, Alfred comes by and tells them that it's about time that they go outside. It's also then that Edward curses his tired past self for even mentioning going to church to Bruce because now the boy brings it up.

“I already said that I don’t want to go,” he comments when Bruce mentions it to Alfred.

“Oh, c’mon, I want to see what it’s like,” Bruce insists.

“You already saw what it was like at the school. It’s the same thing,” Edward tries to argue, even though he knows better than anyone that the school’s Christmas service was nothing like a real one. It’s also no use going there on Christmas Day. If Bruce wants to see what a real mass is like, he should’ve gone to the midnight mass the night before. However, he can see from Bruce’s face that he’s already made up his mind, and as much as he has let Edward push him around in his own house, this is something that isn’t up for discussion. Edward doesn’t know what he had expected. Bruce is a Wayne after all and he will get what he wants.

That’s what leads to the two of them joining the people of Gotham on the freshly snowed streets, Edward in his sh*tty puffer jacket and Bruce in a winter coat that costs probably more than someone’s monthly rent on the east side of the city.

Edward leads the way and Bruce tails him. He has never been to this part of the city, not even during summers when he and his rattling bike go around the city delivering people food – maybe rich people don’t get their food from pizza joints on the other side of the city, where a lunch special is 5$ – but he knows his way around the public transport well enough to catch a bus for Bruce and himself.

“We could’ve taken a car,” Bruce says, when they’re sitting at the back of the swaying and hissing bus, traveling towards North. He looks quite out of place sitting on the stained and torn fabric of the seats, even more so when compared to Edward sitting next to him.

“Are you feeling too much like a peasant?” Edward asks, laughing behind the collar of his jacket when Bruce tries to defend himself from the claim.

It's already getting dark as the bus drives through the high culture district, where Christmas lights light up the posters for upcoming plays and where the tall glass walls of the Museum of Modern Art reflect the orangeness of the streetlights. Next to Edward, Bruce gets quiet and buries his chin into his scarf, staring at his shoes absently. For a moment Edward thinks that he’s just uncomfortable over a homeless man who has taken a seat a few rows in front of them, but that’s when they pass a huge stone building with spotlights illuminating the facade, and he realizes what it’s really about. It’s the theater. The big one. To be precise, the one with the alley where Bruce’s parents were killed. Edward glances at Bruce, feeling like he should say something, but there’s nothing to say. The empty look has returned to Bruce’s eyes, and Edward realizes that he didn't even notice that it was gone before.

They don’t really talk for the entire 30-minute ride that it takes for them to get to The Old Gotham. When they finally get out of the bus, it’s a completely different world than the skyscrapers of the finance district. The place looks like a gingerbread village, with old stone and wood houses covered in snow like frosting sugar, the postcard scenery bathing in the warm hue of the streetlamps. It’s always been strange to Edward how many different worlds can fit into one city.

“Do you come here often?” Bruce asks him when Edward starts leading him up a road lined with more houses.

“Not really, but I like the church here,” Edward says. “And you?”

“Sometimes,” Bruce says with a shrug. “A lot of the guys from school live around here.”

“Oh,” Edward says, slipping a little on the slightly raked road. He wouldn’t know anything about where his classmates live, but it makes sense for them to live in someplace like this – expensive and old and much more beautiful than what they deserve. “They must hold, like, crazy parties and stuff.”

“I guess,” Bruce says, his breath visible in the air. “I don’t really go to those.”

What a surprise, Edward thinks, but keeps his mouth, since he has no business to say that. He’s not even invited to those things.

They climb the road for five minutes until they finally reach their destination: an old stone church on the top of a hill with a tall bell tower reaching towards the sky. There’s a trail of small fires that lead to the front door, which is open with a steady flow of people going in. Edward and Bruce join them.

This is the church where Edward comes when he needs to go to one, mostly because it’s empty a lot of the time and also because it is very beautiful. The high ceiling has been painted to resemble the ideal heaven with a baby blue sky and plump-cheeked angels sitting on clouds, and the tall glass windows are decorated with stained glass images of different saints. It’s nothing like the dark chapel on the school grounds. Edward hears Bruce whisper a quiet “Woah”, as they follow the people in.

One of the altar boys is holding a bowl of holy water by the nave, and Edward crosses himself quickly, feeling even more like a fraud doing it. Bruce struggles to take off his gloves to do the same. Edward is beginning to feel like coming here was a mistake.

The Christmas Day mass is much smaller scale than the Midnight mass, but there is still a choir standing on the loft above the nave. Edward glances at them over his shoulder as he and Bruce take a seat, and for a moment he feels nostalgia grab him by the heart. The boys are standing in their cassocks, talking and play-fighting, until the chorister comes to tell them to be quiet. Edward tries to remember the last time he felt like he belonged somewhere the way he did when he was in the choir but can’t remember. Even though they bullied each other in the orphanage all the time, and Edward almost got pushed off of the loft more than once, when they sang, they were one. They weren’t only orphans but something good, something divine.

“This place is so pretty,” Bruce whispers to him, the sudden breath of air next to his ear making Edward jump.

“Yeah,” he mutters, looking towards the altar. People are taking their places on the pews, their quiet chattering filling the room. Edward feels a familiar sense of peace settling over him. He forgets that Bruce – or anyone else – is there and for a moment it’s just him, alone. It’s the kind of mental place where he used to go often in the orphanage. Only now he’s not afraid of God.

Bruce tries to say something to him, but that’s when the music starts and people stand up. Edward’s muscle memory takes over, and he sings, his eyes following the priest’s back, while Bruce tries to find the song from the hymnal in a slight panic. Edward doesn’t need notes to know the words. They’re all in his head – or maybe in his heart – and he knows that he’ll never forget them, even if he wants to.

Edward can’t even count how many times he’s been to a mass in his life, so nothing about this one is new to him. It feels familiar and nice, even if it’s been a while since he’s had to kneel and stand up this much. When he was younger and had just gotten into St. Aquinas’, he used to go to the town on Sundays to go to the church. It was a sad attempt to replicate the services he had to attend and hold in the orphanage, and he eventually stopped going once he had noticed that he got nothing out of it but an empty, even more lonely feeling. The bus tickets also cost him too much, and he didn’t want to waste his Sundays in the city when he could’ve used them to do schoolwork. Still, today it feels okay, even with Bruce fumbling every step of the service next to him, not knowing when to sit and when to stand or to kneel, not to mention the prayers and hymns.

When it’s time for communion they stand up, and Bruce leans closer to Edward to ask: “Are you gonna take it?”

“Obviously,” Edward hisses, slightly annoyed at Bruce for reminding him of his existence. “You don’t have to. If you have sins or stuff.”

“How do I know if–” Bruce asks, audibly concerned, but Edward hushes him because another song starts. Edward lets the other people in front of them walk over to the altar first, but the longer he waits, the less sure he feels about going up there. Maybe he should only go get blessed or something. It’s not like he really cares about the requirements for taking the communion – he’s definitely sinned enough to not drink the blood of Christ – but once again the gnawing feeling of guilt looms over him, telling him that he’s not worthy to even pretend to believe.

Frozen to the place, he gestures to the people sitting behind them to go first. He needs some time to think. There’s a sound of at least a dozen pairs of shoes squeaking against the floor, and Edward turns to look towards the nave to see a group of children, all of them a couple of years younger than him, walking up to the altar, with a nun leading them. He doesn’t recognize any of their faces but he doesn’t have to. Looking at them is like looking into a mirror. They’re orphans, too. From some other facility than the one where Edward grew up in, but it doesn’t matter. They’re the same as him.

The gnawing feeling inside of Edward turns into nausea, and the song he’s singing gets stuck into his throat. He watches as the children line up for Christ’s body and blood and feels like he’s been sent back in time. He’s eight, he’s nine, he’s ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen. He’s standing by the altar in someone else’s clothes, waiting for the tasteless wafer to melt on his tongue. Back then he believed. Back then he was good.

Next to him, Bruce shifts. He doesn’t even say anything, but his clothes rustle a little, and the noise hits Edward like a needle straight into a nerve. His hands curl into fists, his entire body tenses up, and for a moment he sees nothing but red. The flame of hatred that had been smothered is suddenly blazing again. He can’t look at Bruce, he just can’t, or else he’ll probably dig his thumbs into his eye sockets. He looks at the children in their worn-out, never-quite-clean clothes and then thinks about Bruce in his 500$ winter coat.

What was he thinking of when saying yes to Bruce’s invite? How could he forget who Bruce actually is?

He looks at Bruce, and maybe his face reflects his emotions because the boy looks almost scared. When he looks at Bruce, he sees all of his rooms and clothes and games and music, and suddenly he feels so repulsed that he has to look away.

Have these last four years of living amongst the rich made Edward forget what the real world is like? What his world used to be like for 14 years? How could he forget how many children live and die without having anything to call their own, while Bruce is sitting on all of his money? How could he have forgotten about the white sheets pulled over babies' cold faces or the way it feels to be hungry when you know that the next meal won’t fill your stomach either? Sure, Edward might’ve forgotten, but Bruce doesn’t even know. He’s never had to. He only knows the Tower and the school and all of his rich friends, and Edward hates him for that. He hates him, he hates him, he hates him – so much that it burns through his jacket. He needs to get out.

“Edward?” he hears Bruce whisper, as he steps onto the nave and starts walking towards the door as fast as he can without making a scene. He pretends not to hear it. He feels like he’s simultaneously all of the children standing by the altar, and he can feel the way they pray and hope – pray so hard that it makes them sick, but no one ever answers. Bruce doesn’t have to pray. He doesn’t have to even ask. He wants something and gets it like it’s one of the laws of the universe. Edward may be a fraud with his faith, but Bruce is even worse – he’s a tourist.

It’s snowing lightly when Edward steps outside. He hears the heavy door creak again and knows that Bruce has followed him.

“Edward,” Bruce says again, his voice drilling into Edward’s brain. “Is something wrong?”

“Leave me alone,” Edward snaps, pulling away when Bruce’s hand ghosts over his arm. “Don’t f*cking touch me.”

“Ed– wait,” Bruce tries, chasing Edward down the trail lit by the fires. “Did I do something? I’m sorry, I didn’t know the songs or the prayers or–”

“Then why did you even want to go?” Edward asks, half of his words disappearing into the wind. This isn't really about religion. It's about everything that Bruce is, and Edward sees it again now. “You know nothing, you just want to look at pretty pictures and live in your little bubble, where you don’t have to actually touch anything, while some of us have to wallow in the dirt just to stay alive. Jesus f*cking Christ, and then you think that we have something in common!”

“That’s not–” Bruce says, almost slipping on the sloped road. “Edward, I just want to know what you like. I want to be your friend!”

“Oh, f*ck off!” Edward yells at him over his shoulder. “We’re not friends, you only see me as a charity case who you can invite over for Christmas and then forget about. You’re just like your f*cking dad, and frankly, I don’t want to be your friend, Bruce!”

He feels Bruce’s hand on his shoulder and pulls away, only for the movement to cause him to slip and fall. His knee hits the icy road and his other leg bends weirdly, pain blinding his already poor vision for a moment. It’s all too much. In that moment it all crashes into him – the pain, the anger, and the hurt that he’s been carrying for almost a week – and finally, the tears he’s been holding in for so long, come. He sits slumped down in the middle of the road and feels them rolling down his cheeks, burning against his cold skin.

He doesn’t want to be here. He wants to hide somewhere and curl up and die. He's so tired.

Bruce has crouched down next to him, his hands hovering in the air, trying to touch Edward, but he keeps them off. There’s snow in his hair and eyelashes and he looks startled. He’s so pretty. Edward hates him.

“Are you okay?” Bruce asks. “Does your leg hurt?”

Edward’s glasses are foggy and his nose is running and he hates everything. He hates the winter and he hates Gotham and he hates how Bruce is looking at him with his face sick with worry.

“I’ll call Alfred, he can pick us up,” Bruce says, holding out his hand for Edward to take. Edward looks at it, trying to keep his shuddering breaths stable so that he doesn’t start outright sobbing.

Why are you so nice to me? Why can’t you just let me hate you?

He almost takes the hand. He wants to. He wants to accept Bruce’s friendliness, to take advantage of his forgiveness, but he can’t. He can’t trust the pendulum of his emotions that swings from side to side every time he’s with Bruce. He doesn’t know what to feel – anger or acceptance – and so he goes with the one he’s the most familiar with.

“No, I’m going back to the school,” he says, wiping his nose onto the back of his frayed fabric gloves and pushing himself up. His knee hurts and he can’t put his full weight onto it.

“You– you can’t be serious,” Bruce says and stands up, but Edward has already started to limp down the road. “Edward, please! How are you even supposed to get there?”

“Some of us don’t have a personal chauffeur or a butler and can actually use public transport,” Edward yells into the wind, the tears blurring his vision once again. He hears Bruce following him. The anger inside has lost its shape, and he can’t even place it anymore. He only knows that it’s there and that it’s all he knows. “Don’t follow me, I don’t want to see your f*cking face anymore!”

The steps following him stop. Edward doesn’t turn around, because he knows that he’ll only see Bruce’s eternally sad face and he knows that if he sees it, he’ll have no other choice than to turn back and apologize. He keeps on walking, the taste of tears filling his mouth and the pain radiating up his leg with every step.

*

The bus service is sh*t during the holidays. Edward had taken the first bus that came to the stop, only so that he could get away from Bruce and the horrible feeling that he had managed to wrap around himself, which had led to him having to wait at another stop for 30 minutes for a bus that only comes once an hour. Cold, hurt, and tired, he had also noticed that he had left his bag at the Tower.

When he finally climbs up the hill to the gates of St. Aquinas’, his anger has burned out and all that is left is the pain in his knee and a horrifying, strangling feeling that he’s done something terrible. His own words play in his ears, as he waddles through the snow towards the entrance of the dorm building.

He shouldn’t have said any of that. He feels horrible. He is horrible. Who is Bruce to blame for being so clean and shiny and golden, when Edward is only a maggot-eaten carcass lying in a gutter? f*ck, maybe Bruce is better than him. After all, he’s nice and kind whereas Edward is ugly and terrible. The more he thinks about it, the more unjustified all of his hatred towards Bruce feels. What has Bruce been towards him if not friendly?

Edward unlocks the door to the dorm building, nothing but silence greeting him as he steps inside. He thinks about Bruce’s words. I want to be your friend. No one has ever said that to Edward. No one has ever wanted to be his friend. Bruce had.

It shouldn’t matter anymore, should it? Bruce must hate him now. At least Edward would – God, he has hated Bruce for much less and now he hates himself for the way he treated him, so he can only imagine how Bruce must feel.

The climb to the fifth floor feels ten times rougher than it usually does, and Edward’s knee isn’t helping. When he finally gets to his room, he throws his jacket and outside clothes onto the empty bed, not caring about them soaking the mattress, before going to look for his half-empty pack of cigarettes. He desperately needs a smoke.

He finds the cigarettes but not a lighter. Right, his new one is in his bag, which is currently lying on the guest room floor in the Wayne Tower. That is, if Bruce hasn’t thrown all of his stuff down onto the street already or burned it up in one of his fireplaces. Maybe this is a sign that he should stop smoking. Or maybe it’s just God telling him to kill himself now.

Too tired to even get angry anymore, Edward collapses onto his bed, feeling the mattress slump underneath his weight. Nothing like the bed he slept in last night.

He’s too exhausted to even actively cry, but the tears come nonetheless, dripping down his cheeks and into his pillow. He’s ruined everything, even though he isn’t sure what the ‘everything’ in question is. Still, he knows that there could’ve been something, but that now it can never be, because he got angry and f*cked it up. Just like he always does. A feral dog who doesn’t know how to get close without biting.

**

The next morning Edward wakes up with his head aching and his eyes sealed shut from crying. Once again, he almost steps onto a tray of breakfast outside his door when he goes to wash his face. To his surprise, there’s something else outside his door, too. It’s his bag. He crouches down to look through it, finding all of his stuff exactly how he left it. There’s something else, too. A new puzzle book tucked next to his old one. Edward pulls it out and a small piece of paper falls from between the pages. He takes it into his hand, feeling like someone has taken his heart into their fist. There’s only one word written onto the paper:

Sorry -B

There’s a phone number, too. Edward stares at it and fights the impulse to throw the paper and the puzzle book into the trash. Instead, he holds the note in his hands until it starts getting mushy between his sweaty fingers. He knows that he should call Bruce. He also knows he won’t.

Still, he tapes the paper onto the inside of his closet door. Just in case.

Notes:

if you want to listen to a spotify playlist i made for this fic, you can find it here

Chapter 4: birdhouses

Notes:

i don't know how this one got so long omg... anyway, i hope you enjoy!
(also, comic book readers probably know what's up after this one, but more about that in the end notes)

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The last days of the year go by excruciatingly slow. The sky above Gotham stays stale and gray, always looking like it’s on the brink of snowing but nothing ever falls. Bruce doesn’t go outside – he doesn’t really do anything. Mostly he just sits in his room and tries to read or do something even mildly enjoyable, pretending that he’s not constantly hoping for his phone to ring. It doesn’t.

He doesn’t know why he’s still hoping to hear from Edward. It’s been days since Christmas happened and Edward stormed off, leaving Bruce standing outside the church, not sure what just happened and what he did wrong. He still doesn’t understand, but he does know one thing: Edward doesn’t want to be his friend, and the longer Bruce stays inside and waits for his phone to ring, the stupider he looks. Still, he can’t help it.

Maybe it’s his fault that things turned out this way. What did he even expect to happen? It’s not like Edward has ever liked him, barely even tolerated him during the few moments they had spent together before this Christmas. Still, during the couple of hours that they had gotten along, Bruce had found himself more than intrigued by the boy – almost enchanted. There’s something about Edward that Bruce can’t quite place, often hidden beneath all of the contempt that the boy seems to feel towards him, but it’s still there, and it makes Bruce feel weirdly drawn to him.

Edward is interesting, not just because he’s kind of a mystery to everyone in the school, including Bruce, but also because he’s a genuinely interesting person. Just the couple of conversations they had about nothing in particular had felt more influential to Bruce than half of the ones he’s had with the other boys from the school during the last year. For a moment, when he had been sitting in the guest room and talking to Edward in the middle of the night, Bruce had forgotten that the only reason Edward was even spending Christmas with him was because they had stumbled into the chapel and found Mr. Myers’ body hanging on the wall – in the wrong place at the wrong time. For a moment they had been just talking, like friends do.

And now it’s all back to normal. It shouldn’t hurt the way it does, but Bruce can’t help it. It’s not that he doesn’t have friends. Or, well, he has people who call themselves his friends. He’s not so sure about them. Edward, however, is the first boy he’s ever felt connected to.

It doesn’t matter anymore. Even though everything has changed, things have stayed the same. The year is going to change, life goes on, and Bruce is going to watch it from the sidelines, feeling completely detached from everything. He’ll go back to school, see Edward, and neither of them is going to say anything. Nothing has happened but everything has gone wrong.

*

On New Year’s Eve Bruce wakes up to a weird whistling sound. It’s early, way too early for him to be up during a break. He knows this because Alfred hasn’t come to wake him up yet. The whistling continues, uneven and quiet, but still incredibly distracting. He tries to ignore it and fall back to sleep – it’s been too long since he’s slept through a night peacefully, and he wants to feel at least a little bit more refreshed once school starts – but the noise doesn’t stop.

Eventually, he gets tired of it, throwing the covers off of himself and sitting up, trying to locate the source of the noise in the dark of his room. It sounds like air coming in through a small crack, and so he goes over to the window, pulling the curtains aside. The dull grayness of the city greets him, even the faint morning light making him squint. 50 floors up his window couldn’t possibly be open, and so the mystery of the sound isn’t resolved.

That’s when he notices it. Wedged between the wall and the frame of the window, is a piece of paper fluttering in the wind. It’s been pushed deep, probably making a gap between the window and the wall and causing the whistling. The question, of course, is: How is it there? If it was a flier that had somehow managed to float this high up, it would be stuck onto the glass, at most. The way Bruce sees it is that someone has put it there. That raises another, more sinister question of “Who?” Bruce doesn’t know, but the question isn’t as burning as the need to know the obvious: What does the paper say?

The windows on the halls of the penthouse are sealed and can’t be opened, but the bedroom windows aren’t. It has something to do with fire safety, and it’s also the reason why Bruce can – with a little bit of sweating – crack the tall window open just enough to stick his hand out and grab the damp paper, pulling it in with his eyes watering from the wind.

Once he’s closed the window and has the paper in his hand, Bruce sees that it’s a plain white envelope, made of thick paper with nothing written onto it. Ominous, to say at least, but it only sparks his interest. Sitting down on his bed, he tears it open with his slightly numb fingers, finding a folded sheet of paper inside. It’s the same thick paper as the envelope, and when Bruce unfolds it, he finds three lines of neat typewriter text on it.

Beware of the Court of the Owls, that watches all the time, ruling Gotham from a shadow perch, behind the granite and lime –

There’s more, but that’s the point where Bruce puts the paper down and sighs. Right, this must be another crazy person trying to get his attention or threaten him or whatever they usually want to achieve. There have been such cases in the past, with people approaching him on the street, talking about being his long-lost relatives, and sending him weird letters and whatnot. Now someone has sent him a nursery rhyme for whatever reason. All of the mystery he had briefly felt washes away and the only thing left is annoyance for getting woken up for nothing. He brushes the letter off of his bed, thinking about showing it to Alfred or tearing it up later, and gets back underneath his covers, trying to get his last proper sleep of the year.

And that’s when the noise that he’s been waiting to hear for the past five days starts coming from somewhere in the mess of his clothes and blankets on the other side of his bed. His phone is ringing.

The tiredness and annoyance that the letter and everything about the morning have stirred up inside of him only get stronger as he goes digging through the pile of dark fabric, until he finds his phone, flipping it open and seeing an unknown number on the screen. There’s a moment of hesitation before he answers. No one ever really calls him, apart from Alfred, and no one really knows his number. Unless…

“Hello?” he asks, a mess of anxiety and hope mixing in his chest.

“Bruce?” a slightly crackling voice asks him. “It’s, uh, Edward.”

For a second Bruce feels something almost like relief, but it’s soon drowned out by a wave of anxiety that makes it impossible for him to say anything for a moment. What is he supposed to say? Why is Edward calling him? Is he still angry at Bruce? God, why did Bruce even give him his number in the first place?

“Oh,” he manages to choke out before finally regaining his ability to form words. “Edward. Hi. Is… is everything… good?”

“I’m fine,” Edward says, his voice tinny through the phone. He sounds neither angry nor exceptionally pleased, so Bruce guesses that things are like they were before. Well, apart from the fact that Edward is calling him. Too caught up in his own thoughts, Bruce forgets that he should probably say something, but Edward doesn’t seem to notice and keeps on talking. “Listen, I just called you to…”

Bruce holds his breath.

“... this might be stupid, I don’t know, but…”

Is he going to apologize? Or should it be Bruce doing so? What is going on?

“... I just wanted to ask if you’ve gotten a weird letter today?”

Bruce blinks. “A letter?”

“Yeah, you know, like, an envelope… with a paper inside..?” Edward says before sighing. “Okay, you know what, this is stupid. It’s… it’s nothing. I’ll just…”

“Wait,” Bruce says, scared that Edward is going to hang up before he gets to speak. “I did get a letter this morning. It had a nursery rhyme on it.”

Edward is quiet for a moment.

“Right,” he says, his voice different than before, more urgent. “Was it… sent to you, or–?”

“No, it was left outside my window,” Bruce says before Edward can even finish. “Did you get one, too?”

“Yeah,” Edward breathes out. “Outside my window. Five floors up.”

Neither of them says anything for a moment, but Bruce knows that they’re both thinking about the same thing. Still, he doesn’t want to be the one to say it.

“It could mean nothing,” he says instead. “I get weird stuff like this all the time.”

“That’s because you’re you ,” Edward says with an accusing tone to his voice. “But it doesn’t make sense for me to get this, and even less for the both of us to. There is obviously something behind this. Or someone.”

“Don’t say that you’re talking about the f*cking… Court of Owls,” Bruce says, not knowing whether to laugh or groan. “It’s a nursery rhyme for children to scare each other with.”

“I’m not f*cking stupid,” Edward snaps, the normal contempt back in his voice. “I’m not saying that it’s the contents of the letter that matter, but the person behind them. Whoever it is, they know that we were… there. That we found the body.”

“Where are you getting this from?” Bruce asks, even though the same train of thought has been forming in his mind. “It could be something else, like…”

“Like what, Bruce? What else connects us? And don’t try to start with any of your ‘ooh, we grew up under the same roof and I feel connected to you because of that’ bullsh*t,” Edward says. It hurts a bit. “Don’t you think that it’s really f*cking weird that both of us get these ominous letters a week after the murder? Don’t they feel like a threat to you? Listen to the second verse of the poem–” There’s a sound of rustling paper on the other end of the line. “ ‘They watch you at your hearth, they watch you at your bed, speak not a whispered word or they’ll send The Talon for your head.’ Does that not sound like someone is telling us to shut the f*ck up or we’ll end up mauled and hung onto a wall, too?”

“Okay, I get it,” Bruce says because Edward is starting to sound out of breath. “But what do we even have to fear? I mean, we didn’t see sh*t back in the chapel. You passed out and I had to… whatever. I’m just saying, this shouldn’t matter, should it?”

“Someone is watching us, Bruce,” Edward says. “Doesn’t that sound like something to fear?”

That gets Bruce quiet. If Edward is right, which he might as well be, it means that someone has been following them. Maybe ever since the murder.

“Okay, so, if the person behind this sees us as a threat, then we should just do nothing, right?” he says finally. “We haven’t done anything. We haven’t seen anything. We haven’t been digging around. We should be fine.”

Edward is quiet. Bruce has a bad feeling about it.

“It sounds like you just want to let this be,” Edward says finally, his voice quieter. Bruce swallows.

“That’s what the police are for.”

“The police don't know anything more than we do, don’t you read the paper?” Edward says, the volume of his voice rising again. “Okay, fine, you can do nothing and pretend like this has nothing to do with us, but it definitely does, and I, for one, would like to know what it is.”

“Edward– This is a murder case, you can’t start to look into it, especially if you’re right and someone is after us,” Bruce says, slightly freaking out. It’s way too early for this. “You literally just said that we’re both being threatened and told not to do anything.”

“Yeah, well, it just proves that there’s something to look into,” Edward says. “And unlike some people , I’m not a coward.”

“I’m not a coward,” Bruce says, much more defensive than intended. Edward’s words have hit something raw and hurting – an open wound that hasn’t closed even after all these years. He takes a deep breath. “Listen, can we… talk about this properly? As in, face-to-face?”

Edward is quiet, and for a moment Bruce is scared that he’ll say no. He can’t let this be their last conversation. Finally, Edward sighs.

“Fine.”

“Okay, good,” Bruce says. “I can come pick you up.”

“Don’t,” Edward says quickly. “Let’s just… meet at the City Library. Is 2 pm okay?”

“Yeah… okay. See you,” Bruce says, but the line goes silent before he even gets to finish. He puts the phone down and turns to look over his shoulder and out of the window, where the clouds are slowly moving away, revealing the last morning sun of the year.

He picks up the letter from the floor, reading it from start to finish. Maybe Edward is right and they’re in danger, maybe not. Even so, he should probably inform the police or at least tell Alfred about the letter. Instead, he puts it back into the torn envelope and into his bag before starting to look for clothes to put on. He wouldn’t want to be late.

*

The City Library is on the other side of the City Hall square, not too far from the Tower, so Bruce can make the way on foot. The early afternoon is much busier down in the city than he had expected, as he goes along the steady stream of people walking down the streets, most of them probably running errands and going shopping for the evening. He keeps his head down, even though people rarely recognize him in public anymore, especially if he’s actively trying to hide. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t really resemble the smiling little boy that most people remember him as, or maybe it’s because he’s not standing next to his parents anymore.

Gotham looks incredibly depressing in the pale daylight, with the once-white snow having turned brownish gray, and the Christmas lights hanging above the avenues limp and unlit. The Christmas spirit, which Bruce hasn’t felt in years, has been washed away from the city and replaced by endless hurrying towards the next year, which will hopefully be better and not like every year in Gotham before it. Store windows that were decorated with spray-on snow only a couple of days ago, are now covered with posters screaming “SALE”, and the irritating Christmas Carols have quieted down, leaving only the endless noise of traffic and despair that always fills the city. Bruce is happy when he gets to finally walk up the main stairs of the library and between the classical pillars that stand on both sides of the main entrance before finally stepping into the quietness of the building.

He knows the library like every child who has gone to school in Gotham knows from mandatory field trips and guided tours to the building, but he can’t really remember ever spending time there outside of those visits. The place is big, big enough for Bruce to decide to stay in the entrance hall and wait for Edward, hoping that the other boy isn’t already there and expecting Bruce to find him.

For some reason he finds himself nervous, constantly shifting his weight and taking off his scarf and gloves, just to fondle them in his hands anxiously. It has nothing to do with the letter in his bag, nor the way that the front desk clerk is looking at him from her working spot. He’s nervous because of Edward. It’s not only because of his uncertainty about how Edward feels about him right now but also because of the mere thought of meeting him. He never knows what to say to him. With other people – mainly the boys from school – it’s easy. He’ll just have to follow the script that everyone else is secretly following, which makes every conversation boring and meaningless. However, it doesn’t work with Edward. He sees right through it, and Bruce is left trying to navigate their conversations with no clue on what he’s supposed to say next. Still, he finds himself enjoying those talks much more than the ones that he handles flawlessly.

One minute to the stroke, the main doors open again, and a group of tourists scramble in. In their wake walks Edward, visibly annoyed by his companions and slightly lost. He’s wearing the same puffer jacket as the last time Bruce saw him and a weird, chunky, knitted beanie with a couple of strands of hair peeking from underneath. Bruce raises his hand, not even caring about pulling attention to himself at the moment. Finally, Edward notices him and pushes past the tourists to walk to the nook where Bruce is standing.

“Always so early,” he says. No greetings, no ‘how are you?’ s. At least he doesn’t sound angry.

“I live close,” Bruce says with a shrug. A terrible attempt at humor. Edward doesn’t laugh or even smile, but the look in his eyes is slightly amused for a second. Or maybe Bruce is just seeing things.

“Yeah, right,” Edward says, visibly fighting the urge to roll his eyes, before lowering his voice a bit, even though it’s useless with all the noise the tourists are making. “Do you have the letter with you?”

Bruce only nods and takes the envelope from his bag, handing it over to Edward, who takes it and pulls an identical one from his own bag. They stand by the wall in silence, Edward inspecting the letters, one in each hand, and Bruce looking at him. Edward’s glasses are foggy around the corners and his face is pale, with a red tint to his cheeks and nose. Bruce doesn’t even hear him talk at first, too focused on these details.

“Are you even listening?” Edward asks, and Bruce blinks, just staring at him and not being able to answer. Edward sighs. “I said I need to use the computer room.”

“Oh, right, let’s go,” Bruce says, turning away. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he remembers that they were actually supposed to talk about whatever is going on, instead of jumping to conclusions, but at the moment he doesn’t really care. He’s way too relieved about Edward not telling him to go f*ck himself like last time.

The computer hall is located in the basem*nt, next to the underground archives. It's a dimly lit and slightly claustrophobic space, but Bruce doesn’t mind. There’s always been something strangely comforting about places like that. They also have the place completely to themselves, since no one else seems to be too keen on spending their New Year’s Eve in the basem*nt of a library.

Edward finds a spot that suits him and gets to work, booting the computer and starting to furiously look up things on it. Bruce only sits on a creaky office chair next to him and watches as Edward looks up articles and blog posts about different acts of violence that have happened in the city lately. He isn’t sure what Edward is looking for, but he knows that trying to make sense of the violence that fills the city is useless. Still, he says nothing.

“What are you trying to find?” Bruce asks after fifteen minutes, finally breaking the silence. Edward doesn’t look away from the screen that illuminates his face.

“Connections,” he says dryly. “Similar cases.”

“You think that this is the job of a serial killer or something?” Bruce asks. Edward shrugs.

“When someone is killed like that , it’s probably not the killer's first time doing it.”

“Or the last,” Bruce adds. This time, Edward looks at him.

“Yeah,” he says. The slight approving tone in his voice makes Bruce feel like he’s said something actually smart. It also encourages him to keep on talking.

“Okay, so, if the killer is leaving us letters talking about The Court of Owls, then maybe we should look into that,” he proposes. “You know, connections.”

Edward’s eyes narrow a little, and for a moment Bruce is sure that he’s going to call him an idiot for even considering that, but surprisingly he just lets out a dry ‘hmph’ and nods towards the computer next to him. “Start looking, then.”

They spend the afternoon like that, sitting in a dark, windowless room and scrolling through the few web pages that offer any kind of information. Neither of them talks much, apart from Bruce’s occasional “Anything new?” questions, to which Edward only grunts. To Bruce’s relief, Edward doesn’t seem to be pissed off with him, just really focused on the task at hand. It also motivates Bruce to keep on searching, even though there isn’t much to be found.

The thing is, The Court of Owls is just a Gotham legend, a story that older children tell to the younger ones to scare them, and so there isn’t any proper information about it online. The most Bruce can find is a couple of blog posts talking about the cryptids and myths of the city, as well as some chat forum conversations. It’s nothing he hasn’t heard earlier.

“Anything new?” Edward asks him after 90 minutes of mostly silent scrolling. Bruce sighs and leans back on the chair, the ergonomically designed backpiece bending and creaking under his weight.

“Nothing that I haven’t heard before,” he says, rubbing his eyes which are already straining from looking at the screen for so long. “Theories and stories about the Court, people talking about whether they’re real people or some kind of owl-human hybrids. Most people seem to believe that they’re just a bunch of rich people, a secret society of sorts and that they have secret meetings in the attics of old buildings. Nothing about killings, though.”

To his surprise, Edward turns his chair so that they’re facing each other, a look of sudden interest on his face.

“Rich people and old buildings?” he asks. “You know what that reminds me of?”

Bruce just blinks.

“Our school, Bruce. The oldest private school in Gotham. Full of old money,” Edward says, leaning forward. There’s an almost feverish burn in his eyes, the same kind that Bruce saw in them on Christmas Day, but this time it tells of excitement instead of anger. “I’m not saying that there’s a secret society in the attic, but you can’t tell me that there isn’t at least some kind of a connection here.”

Bruce frowns, but the look in Edward’s eyes makes him consider the possibility again. He doesn’t necessarily believe it, but when put like that, the theory doesn’t sound impossible, only highly unbelievable. If there was a secret society consisting of the cream of Gotham, it would have a branch in St. Thomas Aquinas’, that’s for sure. However, if this was true – which is a big if – Bruce believes that he would have heard of it before. After all, people want him into their circles, even though he doesn’t care about any of them, and what would be a better way to get him all to themselves than inviting him into a secret club?

Also, why would they kill Mr. Myers? It doesn’t make any sense.

He’s not buying it, not really, but the look of trust on Edward’s face – as if he’s already convinced himself that what he’s saying is the truth – makes him slowly warm up to the thought. They’re in Gotham, after all. Sometimes it feels like every myth is real there.

“Maybe we should find something on the school’s history, then?” he proposes. For the first time since Christmas, Edward smiles at him.

They climb out of the basem*nt and find a spot in an almost empty reading hall in the South wing of the library, where the books covering everything about Gotham are located. They go through the shelves, pulling out every book that might have at least something on the history of St. Aquinas’, all the while a couple of tired-looking university students glare at them from a remote corner of the room.

This time the problem isn’t the lack of information on the subject but the abundance of it. St. Aquinas’ has been in use for almost 300 years and has a very colorful history, which means that there’s no way of just quickly paging through it. It’s even more difficult since they don’t really know what they’re looking for. It’s not like any of the books have “Secret Society” or “The Court of Owls” in their index.

It doesn’t stop them from trying, though. For the next two hours, the only thing Bruce sees is either the pages of whichever book he is going through or Edward’s concentrated face on the other side of the table. Edward has taken off his glasses that lay folded shut on a pile of books next to him and is leaning his face onto his palm, his eyebrows are knit together. Bruce doesn’t even notice that he’s staring until Edward suddenly looks up.

“Is Alan Wayne related to you?” It’s the first thing either of them has said in at least 30 minutes.

“Huh?” Bruce asks before registering the question. “Oh, yeah. He was my great-great-grandfather, I think. Why?”

“He funded the building of the students’ dormitory at St. Aquinas’,” Edward says, eyeing the book that is lying open in front of him.

“He funded a lot of buildings,” Bruce points out. Right before he had started studying in St. Aquinas’, Alfred had taught him some of the Wayne family history, just so that he wouldn’t be the one to know the least about it when starting school. Bruce can still remember Alan Wayne, mostly because of his quite unfortunate end. “He built the Tower, too. Then he got old and senile, fell into a sewer, and died.”

“Oh?” Edward lets out, looking slightly taken aback. “That’s… a shame.”

Bruce can’t help but laugh at his reaction. “Yeah, well that was, like, 60 years before I was even born, so it’s not like I knew him.”

Edward only hums, turning back to the book, his expression changing into a slightly puzzled one.

“Look,” he says and turns the book around, pushing it towards Bruce and pointing at one of the pictures. It’s a black-and-white photo of the dorm building of their school, taken from outside. Next to it is another picture, showing one of the carved stone details that garnish the building’s outer walls. Bruce has never paid much attention to them, mostly because they’re quite far up and way too small to be seen from the ground. He doesn’t remember ever seeing this one. It’s an owl sitting with its wings closed and a grim look on its granite face. Bruce looks up at Edward, who is visibly waiting for him to say something.

“It’s an owl,” Bruce notes.

“Exactly,” Edward says, sounding almost excited. “Don’t you see a clear pattern here? The clues just present themselves!”

“Edward…” Bruce says, feeling bad for having to break Edward’s spirit. “That carving probably means nothing. That’s just… Okay, basically, towards the end of his life, Alan went kinda crazy and got obsessed with birds. He was fully paranoid and that’s probably why he fell to his death in the first place. The end.”

Edward looks at him, tilting his head. “Birds?”

Bruce knows what is about to come before Edward even says it. “Listen, it has nothing to do with any of that…”

“You’re such a f*cking skeptic,” Edward snaps at him. “Are you expecting us to find something that straight up tells us who murdered Mr. Myers and sent us those letters? This isn’t a school assignment, Bruce.”

“I just don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing with all of these… clues,” Bruce says. “Are you trying to – what? – find the killer? I don’t think that we’re going to get that far with the clues we have right now.”

Maybe he sounds slightly humored – which he is – because the look on Edward’s face turns sour, and for a moment he looks almost upset. Bruce has seen that look before, and it never means anything good. He fully expects Edward to start yelling at him about how entitled he is (again), but instead Edward stands up and leaves the table to go look through the bookshelves. Bruce goes back to mindlessly paging through the book in front of him, names and dates flashing in front of his eyes, but doesn’t internalize any of it. After a minute or so, Edward comes back, holding a book titled “The Alan Wayne Foundation Catalog”. The only thing Bruce knows about the foundation is that it funds young architects in Gotham. Edward doesn’t say anything but starts paging through the book with a determined look.

Why can’t we do something nice? Bruce wants to ask him before remembering the obvious: they’re not friends. They’re here together only because something is happening around them and they’re a part of it, willingly or not.

Edward has pulled a notebook from his bag and is writing something into it, pausing only to flip through the pages of the book. Bruce tries to read the text upside down but Edward’s handwriting is way too messy for him to understand it. Still, it looks like Edward has found a new lead. Bruce isn’t sure whether that’s a good thing or not.

“Well,” Edward says abruptly, shutting the notebook and slamming the book shut. “I think I know what I’m going to do next, but you don’t have to come, since you’d probably think that it’s a waste of time.”

“What– what are you going to do, then?” Bruce asks, surprised at the change of mood. Edward stands up and starts stacking up the books that lay scattered on the table around them, not answering for a moment.

“I’m going to go and check out some of the buildings funded by the Alan Wayne Foundation,” he says, walking around the table to go put the books back in their places. Bruce turns to look over his shoulder to see him. “You know, all of the buildings with owl symbols on them.”

He turns around, looking at Bruce with a challenging expression. “But you can go home.”

Bruce only looks at him, once again trying to find the lines he’s supposed to say in a situation like this, but can’t find them, since no one has ever put him in a spot like this. Edward is right, he could go home. He could go home and wait until the year changes and watch the fireworks from the main balcony, just like he’s done every year before this. He wouldn’t make any resolutions for the upcoming year and in the morning he would wake up to everything being the same.

Or, he could go with Edward.

Maybe they’ll find something, probably not, but what would the damage be? Just another wasted winter day, but this time he could spend it with Edward, who doesn’t seem to hate him that much anymore.

“I’ll come with you,” he says. Edward turns to look at him in the middle of putting one last book onto the shelf, and maybe Bruce is just seeing things because it looks like the line of his shoulders relaxes.

“Fine,” he says and turns away to push the book into its place, but Bruce still notices that the sour look has disappeared from his face. “Let’s go, then.”

*

It’s late afternoon when they step out of the library, but it’s already dark outside. The Christmas lights that have been hung across the streets make Bruce feel like he’s walking underneath a giant spider web, as he follows Edward down the library stairs and onto the snowy streets.

The first place on Edward’s list is located only a three-minute walk away from the library. It’s a normal fifteen-storey building with a business space on the ground floor and apartments above it. Normally, it wouldn’t catch Bruce’s eye in any way, and even now he blissfully almost passes it, colliding with Edward’s back when the boy in front of him stops abruptly in front of the building. The business place is occupied by some Italian bistro, and the apartment windows above it are as normal as it gets, with houseplants and cats sitting on the windowsills. Still, Edward glares at the building like he’s expecting it to tell him what he wants to know.

“There,” he says suddenly, pointing up and towards something that Bruce can’t see. Bruce steps a bit closer to follow the line of Edward’s arm until he finally catches the thing he’s pointing at. It’s almost covered in snow, but there’s definitely a stone owl sitting in one of the small niches that have been mounted into the wall.

“And now what?” Bruce asks, stepping back when Edward lowers his hand. Edward’s eyes are still glued onto the owl as he shrugs.

“I guess we could investigate the building,” he says but doesn’t sound too sure about it himself. “If someone would let us into the stairwell, so we could…”

Bruce is barely listening. The smell of garlic and food coming from the restaurant in front of them is making him painfully aware of how hungry he is at the moment. It’s almost 6 pm, and he hasn’t eaten anything besides a quick breakfast.

“Do you want to get food first?” he asks, interrupting whatever Edward is saying. Edward turns to look at him with a bewildered expression, which fades away soon enough.

“Well…” he says with a shrug. “Maybe we could get something on the way to the next place. We can come back here later… or something.”

Bruce can almost feel the way that the ice that Edward has put between them starts to crack.

*

It turns out that even with all of his drive and passion to uncover whatever is going on, Edward doesn’t really have a plan. Obviously, he doesn’t admit it himself, but it becomes very clear 20 minutes later when they’re sitting in a diner in West Harlow, looking at the next target on the list, which happens to be another tall building in a row of almost identical looking ones, located on the other side of the street from them. This building is occupied by an insurance firm, so there’s no way they’re going to get in unless one of them is going to pretend to be interested in buying one.

“I don’t think that the killer would be hiding in there,” Bruce says, half joking, but shuts up when he sees Edward’s glum face. “Or I don’t know. There are a lot of buildings in Gotham. He could be anywhere.”

Edward says nothing and keeps on eating his fries, the gloomy look not leaving his face. If Bruce could’ve chosen, they'd have gone to eat at some place nicer, but Edward had chosen this one because of its location and also because he didn’t want to go to “some rich people place where a toast costs seven dollars.” (Seven dollars isn’t even that much, at least Bruce doesn’t think so.) And so there they are, eating greasy fries by a sticky table, the pale fluorescent lights of the place making Bruce feel like they’re sitting in an aquarium of some kind. The food is fine, though. Bruce has already eaten his chicken panini, but Edward’s sandwich is still waiting on his plate with only a couple of bites taken out of it.

“I don’t get it,” Edward says, looking at the dark windows on the higher floors of the building across the street. “There’s a connection between these things – between the murder and the letters and these buildings, I know it – but I don’t understand what Mr. Myers had to do with any of this. Why was killed?”

There’s an almost painful look on his face. Bruce recognizes it. He used to see it for years when looking into the mirror – the look of searching for answers when there are none. Eventually, he had learned that there was nothing to uncover, no secrets or reasons for what had happened to his parents. There had only been two bullets and a third one that Bruce had spent years wishing to come. He doesn’t know how long it’s going to take for Edward to realize the same thing.

“Maybe the killer just chose a target randomly. Bad luck,” Bruce says, taking a sip of his co*ke. Edward gives him a sharp glare.

“Yeah, sure, the killer randomly chose a high school math teacher and decided to kill him in a weird, ritualistic way in the school chapel on the only night of the year when the school is full of people,” he says sarcastically, stuffing a couple more fries into his mouth.

“Well, maybe that’s the point,” Bruce suggests, not even sure why he is trying to defend the theory that he doesn’t really believe in either. “Maybe it had to be in the chapel. A religious fanatic or something. You know, like the guy from Seven. Have you seen that movie?”

“In that case, there would’ve been other reported cases like that,” Edward says absently, not answering Bruce’s question. “No one kills like that if it’s their first time.”

Bruce doesn’t ask how Edward claims to know that, but it still makes sense.

“Maybe he wasn’t even the target. It could’ve been one of the visitors that night,” he says with a shrug, even though it makes even less sense. He’s just throwing out ideas at this point. Edward opens his mouth, undoubtedly about to say something witty, but Bruce interrupts him, nodding towards the half-eaten sandwich on his plate. “You should eat that before it gets cold.”

Edward looks at the sandwich and then back at Bruce with a look that is somewhere between confusion and irritation. “Yeah, I’m about to.”

“Good, I was just saying.”

“Don’t baby me.”

“I’m not babying you, I’m just saying,” Bruce says, feeling an unintentional smile tugging on the corner of his mouth. Edward rolls his eyes and sighs, taking the sandwich and taking a bite. Bruce watches him, the smile not leaving his face even though he tries to keep it away. Edward notices it, too.

“The f*ck are you grinning at?” he asks through a mouthful of bread. He doesn’t sound angry.

“Nothing. It’s not you,” Bruce says and takes another sip of his drink to wash the smile away. “Can I eat your fries?”

“You’re one of the richest people in Gotham and you still want to eat my fries? Wow. That’s the kind of greed they talk about in the Bible,” Edward says and exaggeratedly shakes his head.

“I can pay for your food if you want,” Bruce proposes.

“Don’t,” Edward says and pushes his plate to the middle of the table so that they both can reach it. “Whatever, go ahead.”

They don’t talk about the murder or anything that has something to do with it for the rest of the time they eat. Outside, people walk past in their winter jackets, wearing party clothes underneath. It all feels distant to Bruce, who has been experiencing time in such a distorted way for years and isn’t still able to grasp what it means for a year to change. To him, it means nothing.

“Shouldn’t you be at some charity ball tonight, or something?” Edward asks out of nowhere, brushing leftover bread crumbs onto the floor from the table.

“Not really. I just don’t like those things,” Bruce says with a shrug. “I guess I’ll have to start going to them once I turn eighteen but I’ll try to avoid them for as long as possible.”

“So you’d rather spend your New Year like this, instead of drinking champagne with rich, beautiful people?” Edward scoffs. Bruce looks around the diner, seeing the ugly, yellowish walls and the gray, sticky floor, combined with the peeling green faux leather of the seats, and hears the whirring of a drink fridge mixing with the sloshing of an industrial washing machine somewhere on the back. It’s not a nice place but right now it suits him just fine.

He shrugs. “Yeah.”

Edward rolls his eyes and takes a sip of his drink, unimpressed.

“Damn, those parties must suck ass, then,” he says.

“Is it really so hard to believe that I like hanging out with you?” Bruce asks. It comes out more pressing than he intended. It also makes it sound like he’s still pushing the friend thing, which Edward is not interested in. Edward just looks at him with the cardboard mug still raised to his lips. Did Bruce make this weird again? f*ck, he probably did. He turns to look out of the window, seeing only his own embarrassed reflection on the glass before looking down at the beige surface of the table, which was probably once white. He clears his throat, changing the subject. “What’s– where’s our next stop?”

He feels Edward’s eyes still on him, but the boy doesn’t say anything. Bruce fights the urge to hit his head against the table from embarrassment. Yeah, this is going to be Christmas all over again. Finally, Edward speaks.

“It’s near, but we’ll have to take a bus,” he says. That’s all. No rants, no insults, no storming out. Bruce looks up, confused and relieved at the same time. Edward just keeps on drinking his soda.

“Good,” Bruce manages to say, not wanting to spoil his good luck. The ice between them crackles and breaks.

*

The next place gives them no answer and neither does the place after that. The first one is a small community library near the edge of Old Gotham, unfortunately closed. Edward proposes that they’d try and see if they could get in through the back door, but Bruce dismisses the idea.

“I’m not going to break into any place tonight, thanks,” he says, as they’re standing in a small alley behind the library, the walls of the building behind them hiding them in the shadows.

“You’re no fun,” Edward says, kicking a piece of ice against the library wall. “This is why we’re not getting anywhere; we’re not looking hard enough.”

“Well, the owl is there,” Bruce says, pointing at yet another owl statue sitting above the backdoor. Edward sighs, his breath coming out as a cloud.

“Yeah, I know that, it literally said it in the book and it’s the reason I chose these buildings,” he says. He sounds tired and frustrated. “God, I wish I had a cigarette right now.”

“I didn’t know that you smoke,” Bruce says. Another thing that he likes about Edward is that there’s so much to learn about him. He just needs to pull it out of him. Edward glances at him, his face illuminated by the lights coming from the main street. He has put his beanie into his bag and the tips of his bangs have frost on them.

“Well, there’s a lot of things that you don’t know about me, so…” he says.

“I could learn,” Bruce says, while the voice in his head screams at him to shut up and stop saying weird things. An abrupt laugh escapes from Edward’s mouth, seemingly surprising him as much as Bruce. He turns away and coughs into his hand.

“Right, um, let’s just… go,” he says, voice back to normal. Bruce doesn’t protest, the voice in his head telling him to be normal for once.

The next building is a dormitory that belongs to The Gotham University of Arts. It’s also the only place where they could probably get in since the front door is open and there’s music coming from inside. A party is starting. How long have the two of them been wandering around the city? For Bruce, it feels like two days, even though it’s barely even 9 pm.

“We could go in,” he suggests. They’re standing on the other side of the dorm parking lot, watching colored lights flash in the windows. He gets only an unsure groan in answer, which takes him by surprise, considering that Edward was about to break into a library only moments ago. He turns to look at the boy, who has buried his face into the collar of his jacket. “Or do you not want to?”

“Do you want to?” Edward asks as if he already knows the answer. Well, he would be right: Bruce doesn’t. Crashing a student party sounds even worse to him than breaking into a locked building. Besides, they would get noticed, since the people don’t seem to be drunk enough yet.

“Not really,” he says.

“That’s what I thought.”

“We’re terrible detectives.”

Edward laughs again, tired and quiet, and Bruce finds himself looking at him just so he can see him smile. It’s not a bad sight.

“How many more places do we have to go?” he asks. Edward pulls the notebook from his bag and looks at his list.

“Only one,” he says, sounding disappointed. Bruce is secretly glad upon hearing this. It’s getting late and his feet are cold, but he’s not going to say that and make Edward think of him as even more of a spoiled brat. Edward squints to read the address in the dark. “A place called ‘Harbor House’. It’s by the northeast docks. Great. That’s a… 30-minute train ride.”

“Harbor House?” Bruce asks. It’s like someone has turned on the lights in some distant corner of his mind where his childhood memories are. “I know that place. It’s a social club.”

“Oh?” Edward says, looking up from the notebook. “Have you been there?”

“When I was really young, yeah,” Bruce says. He can remember how the building looked from the outside as well as the big rooms where he used to run around, while his parents mingled. “But I think it has been closed down for at least five years now.”

“Easier for us to get in, then,” Edward says. He seems to have gained more energy from this information. “I have a good feeling about that one. An old social club? That’s like straight out of a detective novel.”

“Yeah, sure,” Bruce says, feeling kind of bad seeing Edward get his hopes up. For him, this is just a way to spend his evening, but Edward has actual hopes for their search. Still, he can’t help but play with the idea that he had spent his childhood running around in that house, while something sinister had been happening in the attic. He feels a small current of excitement running through him as they make their way towards the subway station.

*

The neighborhood around the old docklands on the northeast side of the city mostly consists of old industrial buildings that have been turned into big, trendy apartments with open floor plans for cool, rich, young people. Bruce looks up at the windows of these homes as he and Edward walk down the streets, seeing shapes of people moving to silent music behind the curtains. There are only three hours left of the year. The finality of it is finally starting to creep up on him.

“Do you wanna lead the way?” Edward asks him. “I don’t ever go here.”

“I don’t know if I remember how to get there but sure,” Bruce says. He doesn’t have the same kind of mental map in his head as Edward seems to have. He can’t navigate the entire downtown island with his eyes closed or like a bird of some kind, but as they’re walking down the cold and treeless streets, the past seems to bleed into the present, pulling him in the right direction. He’s a child again, walking with his parents on a Saturday afternoon, except that now it’s a dark Friday night and it’s just him and Edward.

The Harbor House is a four-storey building made of red brick, even though it looks dark blue in the little light of the night. It stands on the edge of the old industrial plant, slightly isolated, trying to replicate the architecture of the older buildings but still sticking out with its tall, arched windows and now dilapidated ornaments that decorate the exterior walls. The thing that makes it the most prominent, however, is the overgrown but dead garden that surrounds it. There’s ivy clinging onto the walls, now covered in snow, and old apple trees standing bare and unkept by the tall metal gates that surround the place.

“That’s creepy,” Edward says, as they stand on the empty street outside the gates. The house doesn’t have any neighbors and stands alone at the end of a road, its only company being a parking lot that isn’t in use anymore. The empty windows of the house stare at Bruce like dead eyes. He’s not so sure about this anymore. This isn’t how he remembers the place. Edward, on the other hand, seems to be more determined than ever, walking over to the locked gate and rattling it for good measure.

“The lock is pretty old,” he says, taking the iron padlock into his hand. “Hold this for me, thanks.”

Bruce does as he’s told, taking the lock but not knowing what is really happening until Edward puts his hand into his bag and rummages around for a bit before pulling out two paper clips.

“I said I wasn’t going to break and enter,” he hisses. Edward doesn’t pay attention to him or his words. He’s holding the other paperclip between his lips while folding the other one out. Bruce feels anxiety making his stomach turn. “Ed…”

“Stop whining, this is not robbery. We’re just going to look around,” Edward says, his words coming out slightly muffled with the paperclip between his teeth. “Hold the lock still.”

Bruce does as he’s told, even though he feels like he’s committing some kind of horrible crime by doing so. Well, okay, they are actually committing a crime by breaking into private property, but it’s not that big of a deal unless someone sees them. Next to him, Edward fiddles with the lock, having bent the paper clips into some kind of tools and poking the insides of the lock with them. As wrong as the whole thing feels, Bruce finds it pretty cool that Edward knows how to do this. They should break into a slightly nicer place next time.

They stand there in silence – apart from Edward’s frustrated huffing and muttering – for a minute or so, the house standing in front of them, waiting. Bruce alternates between glancing at the house and Edward, not sure if he wants this to work. If they get in, Edward will be overjoyed, but it also means that they’ll have to, well, go in.

And that’s when, as if some higher power has heard his thoughts, he hears Edward breathe out a quiet “Yes!” and the lock in his hand opens with a click. Edward straightens his back and lifts his cold hands to his mouth to rub them together and blow air onto them with a victorious smile on his face. Bruce tries to answer the smile, even though the idea of having to step through the gates makes him feel slightly nauseous.

Edward doesn’t seem to share the feeling, because as soon as he’s put his gloves back on, he throws the lock somewhere into the snow and pushes the gate open. The snow around it makes it harder, and Bruce has to help him. Together, they get the gate to move, metal creaking against metal, making an ear-shattering sound, which Bruce is sure is going to get at least someone’s attention.

I don’t think that this is a good idea , he wants to say, but Edward has already slipped through the gate and into the dark garden. Bruce has no other option than to follow him.

The moment they’re inside the gates, all of the noises coming from outside seem to quiet down. Bruce can only hear his own heavy breathing and restless heartbeat, accompanied by the sound of snow scrunching underneath his shoes. It calms him a little bit to notice that the snow, which reaches up to his calves, is untouched, meaning that no one has been in the house for a while.

Bruce can remember the way the garden used to be – green and lush and almost magical. Now it’s white and black and dead.

The closer they get to the house, the worse it looks. The roof tiles are chipped and the windows are covered in a layer of dirt that makes it impossible to see inside. It’s been completely abandoned, nothing more than a wrecked shell of what Bruce remembers from his childhood. It makes him feel empty, knowing that this is also a part of his past that has died.

In some way, he feels like the decline of the club had something to do with the aftermath of his parents’ death, but he has no real proof. He doesn’t know when it shut down – it could've been a little before it or really long after. Maybe it had nothing to do with the social circles crumbling under the loss that the entire city had collectively experienced. For Bruce, everything crumbled then. Sometimes it still feels like he’s standing in the rubble, watching the rest of the world keep going like nothing has happened.

He couldn’t understand it for the longest time – still can’t – the way seasons and years change or the way he keeps getting older. For him, time stopped working properly on that night.

But somehow he is now seventeen and the year is changing again in three hours. In front of him, Edward walks up the front stairs and sticks his hand through a broken window pane on the door, unlocking it from the inside. Bruce is painfully back in the present, his heart hammering in his chest and a sour taste rising into his mouth.

Edward pushes the door open. It’s almost like the house exhales.

Just a moment ago Bruce’s biggest fear regarding the house had been the possibility of someone seeing them entering without permission, but as he watches the open doorway waiting in front of him like an open mouth, he gets a horrible feeling that something might actually be in there. Even if the possibility of them finding the killer had sounded absurd to him only hours ago, he’s now almost completely sure that this is where they’re going to find him. He’s terrified. This was a mistake, he’s not made for this.

Even Edward looks hesitant and tense, and for a moment Bruce is hopeful that he’s going to ditch the whole thing. However, he seems to pull himself together and – to Bruce’s surprise – takes a flashlight from his bag. It’s almost like he had prepared for something like this.

“Come on,” he says, looking at Bruce over his shoulder. He doesn’t give Bruce an option to leave anymore. Bruce isn’t sure he could, anyway. He hesitantly steps up one last stair until he’s standing next to Edward and looking into the house. Edward turns the flashlight on, and they step in.

The first thing they hear is the sound of broken glass underneath their shoes. A shiver runs down Bruce’s spine and he instinctively grabs for Edward’s sleeve in the dark. Edward doesn’t notice, too busy scanning the entrance hall with his flashlight. The place is almost empty, all of the valuable and important things having been taken away. Bruce remembers that there used to be a harpsichord in the hall. Now there’s only stale air and dirty floors.

The house is breathing around them, or maybe it’s Bruce hearing his own breath as he clings onto Edward’s sleeve and is involuntarily led deeper into the dark room. The little light coming in from the street dims with every step they take, and the pale circle of light from Edward’s flashlight is the only thing lighting up the next room. It’s the dining hall, Bruce remembers it, but it’s been stripped of everything that used to make it the center of the parties and meetings. He remembers that there used to be a long table for the adults and a smaller one for the children. He can’t remember any of the children he used to sit with even though he probably should. Half of them probably go to the same school as him. He doesn’t remember a lot of things, but in this house fragments of his past seem to come back to him. He doesn’t like it.

“Someone has been sleeping here,” Edward says, his quiet voice sounding ten times louder in the dusty silence of the house. He points the light towards the corner of the room, where a lonely mattress and a moldy-looking blanket lie. It looks like no one has been sleeping on them for a long time, but Bruce still feels the metallic taste of panic in his mouth.

“Do you think it’s the…” he asks, not wanting to jinx the whole thing by saying ‘murderer’, but Edward shakes his head.

“No, probably just someone homeless.” It does very little to put Bruce at ease.

They walk through the dining hall and back into the dark kitchen. It looks even more sinister than the dining hall, with the harsh metal surfaces gleaming in the light. There’s nothing for them to find there. Bruce feels like he’s in a horror video game. Behind every opening door there could be a person with a knife and every time he looks over his shoulder – which is often – he’s sure he’s going to see something that wasn’t there before. He doesn’t know how Edward manages to stay so, well, if not calm, then at least composed.

“Does this place have a basem*nt?” Edward asks when they’ve gone through all four rooms that make up the downstairs area.

“Jesus, I hope not,” Bruce whispers. He’s seen enough movies to know why going into the basem*nt of a creepy old house would be a bad idea. Also, he has some common sense.

There are three more floors to go through, and even though Bruce feels like he’s going to die from a heart attack when going through the first two, by the third floor he’s starting to feel a little bit easier. Edward, however, seems to be getting more and more tense.

“What are all of these rooms for?” he asks when they’re standing in one of the smaller rooms on the third floor, looking out of the stained window and down into the dead garden. Bruce looks around in the empty room, trying to remember what he was told when he was younger.

“Probably some kinds of offices, I don’t know,” he says. “We weren’t allowed to come up here.”

Edward lets out a hum and turns around. In dim light coming through the window, Bruce can see the way his jaw is clenched and eyebrows furrowed. He’s still looking for something.

The stairs up to the fourth floor are much steeper than the others and creak underneath their steps. Bruce has never even seen the fourth floor and is surprised by how low the roof is there. There are only two rooms, both of which probably used to be break rooms for the staff. Both of them are empty, only a single table being left behind, probably having been too heavy for anyone to bother to carry it downstairs. There’s a thick layer of dust covering the wooden surface. No one has been there in some while.

A feeling of relief settles over Bruce. The house is empty. There’s nothing there apart from memories, and as much as he would like to find answers, he would rather find them in some place less creepy. He turns to Edward, who is standing by the lonely table in the middle of the empty room, and is ready to suggest that they leave. That’s when Edward points the flashlight towards the ceiling. A smile appears on his serious face.

“I knew it,” he says. Bruce looks up at the circle of light and feels his heart sink. There’s a trapdoor on the ceiling. It means that there’s also an attic. Of course there is.

No , Bruce almost says. I’m leaving . God knows he wants to, but when he turns to look at Edward and sees the gleam in his eyes even in the dark, he knows that it’s not an option. They’ve gotten this far and this might be the place where they actually find something. There’s no turning back.

“Hold this,” Edward says and hands the flashlight over to Bruce before climbing onto the table and standing up. Bruce shines the light towards the ceiling, his mouth completely dry as he watches Edward put his hand into a small slot in the wood and pull down.

There’s a horrible creaking sound when the trapdoor opens, as well as a cloud of dust and dirt that rains onto Edward like snow. Edward turns away and lets go of the door, coughing. The square that has opened onto the ceiling closes up again by itself.

“f*ck,” Edward wheezes but doesn’t wait any longer before pulling the door open again. This time he holds it open, and Bruce shines the flashlight into the darkness above them. It looks like a void. As scared as Bruce is and as much as he wants to leave, he knows he can’t. Now that he knows of the attic, he can’t leave the house before seeing it. Something like excitement mixes with the fear he’s feeling, making his heart beat even faster. He might die. Still, he climbs onto the table, which wobbles a bit underneath both of them, well aware of how close he’s to Edward.

“Do you want to go first?” he asks.

“Nah, after you,” Edward says, still holding onto the door, visibly nervous. For a second Bruce wants to say something to calm him down, but there’s really no use since he’s also almost freaking out. Instead, he focuses on the void above them.

He tastes the metallic taste of fear and the sourness of excitement as he raises his hands to grab the edge of the opening, squeezing the flashlight in his fist. With a deep breath, he jumps, getting his elbows over the edge and pulling himself through the square. It’s anything but graceful, but he doesn’t care. His heart is beating like crazy and his lungs are full of dust. He sits up, dusting off the front of his black coat which has turned gray from the dust on the floor, and leans to look down through the hole on the floor. Edward is still standing on the table, looking at him.

“You need a hand?” Bruce asks.

“No, get out of the way,” Edward says. Bruce does as he’s told, shining the flashlight towards the ceiling of the attic. Edward’s hands appear over the edge first, then most of his upper body. Maybe it’s because of his huge puffer jacket and the slippery material, because he struggles quite a bit, not completely able to pull himself through. It’s only when it looks like he’s about to fall back down that Bruce leans forward, grabbing his wrists. Edward yelps, and Bruce leans back, pulling him through using his body weight. It works and Edward gets through the trapdoor, but that’s also when Bruce realizes the position they’ve ended up in. He’s lying on his back on the filthy floor, still holding onto Edward’s wrists, with Edward lying on top of him, looking as disoriented as Bruce feels.

It’s because of the awkwardness and the outright absurdness of the situation that neither of them pays any attention to the trapdoor. Not until it slams shut.

Both of them jolt at the flat bang. Bruce lets go of Edward’s wrists, and Edward rolls off of him without a word, both of them scrambling up onto their knees to look at the spot on the floor that used to be open. Bruce finds the spotlight from the floor, while Edward tries to get the door open again but to no avail. It’s not made to be opened from the inside. Bruce feels cold sweat start forming on his forehead. They’re stuck.

“This is bad,” Edward says quietly and stands up. “Do you have a phone?”

Bruce pulls his phone from his pocket, the metal cold against his hand. He tries to turn it on but it shows no signs of life. The cold has eaten all of the battery.

“You gotta be f*cking kidding me,” he mutters, panic rising up his throat. He looks up at Edward, whose pale face is illuminated by the dim light coming through a singular small window. They’re stuck with no way out.

“Okay,” Edward says, his voice straining to stay calm. “Let’s just… let’s just look around first and figure this out after that.”

Bruce says nothing but stands up. What else is there to do? Maybe they’ll find something useful in getting them out of there.

The attic is one big space with a low ceiling. Bruce can barely stand straight, and Edward has to crouch a little so that he doesn’t hit his head. It’s also very much empty, the only things left up there being a couple of spare chairs, probably from the same set as the table in the room below. Bruce isn’t scared anymore, at least not by the possibility of someone being there with them. The only thing in his head right now is how they’re going to get out. The floorboards creak underneath his shoes as he scours the farthest corners of the room with the flashlight, finding only dust. No one has been up there in years. No one is coming to look for them there.

There are two windows though, both of them on the back walls far away from each other, neither of them having a latch or any kind of an opening mechanism on the inside. Bruce puts his hand against the frozen glass of one of them, leaving a handprint behind. It's a double-pane window, so he’s not going to be able to punch through it without breaking his fingers. Maybe it would be worth it in this situation, but then there’s always the risk that the broken glass is going to slit his wrist and he’s going to bleed out before they even get out. That’s when he remembers the chairs.

“I have an idea,” he says, turning around and shining the flashlight towards the stacked chairs on the other side of the attic. It hits Edward instead. The boy is still standing by the closed trapdoor and doesn’t move, not even when the light hits him. His head is hanging low and his arms hang against his sides with his hands curled into fists. In the silence of the attic, Bruce can hear him take deep and uneven breaths.

“Edward?” Bruce asks, worry filling him, and walks over to him. “Is everything okay?”

Edward says nothing, only looks at the floor, and shakes his head. It looks like he’s shaking. Bruce fights the urge to touch his shoulder.

“What’s wrong?”

Edward takes another shuddering breath, sounding almost pained.

“This is so stupid,” he croaks, voice strained. He still won’t look at Bruce. “There’s nothing here. There’s nothing anywhere.”

He looks and sounds miserable, and Bruce doesn’t know what to do or say to make him feel better.

“It’s okay,” he says because it’s the only thing he knows to say. Edward shakes his hand again and sniffles, wiping his nose on his sleeve.

“No, it’s not,” he says, his voice breaking. And then he’s crying. “There’s nothing. There never was. And I just… I dragged you with me and now we’re stuck here and it’s my fault and it’s just so f*cking… I’m so sorry.”

With that, he hides his face in his hands, and all Bruce hears is heartbreaking sobbing.

“No, Edward…” Bruce tries, panicking and not finding the words he wants to say. His hands keep on reaching towards the boy, but he doesn’t dare to touch him. “It’s not– it’s not your fault. It’s okay, I promise. I’m gonna get us out of here, okay?”

Edward tries to say something but the only thing that comes out is a sob. He looks like he’s going to fall apart completely. Bruce wants to hold him. He knows that he should focus on the task at hand, that being him breaking a window to help them get out, but he can’t leave Edward’s side. He doesn’t want to.

“It’s okay,” he says again and gently touches Edward’s hands with his own shaking ones, then his trembling shoulders. Edward doesn’t flinch or pull away. Instead, he leans into the touch. Something swells in Bruce’s chest, aching. Without thinking or fearing anymore, he wraps his arms around Edward, pulling him close. He doesn’t know what else to do. Edward presses his face against his shoulder, his quiet sobbing getting louder. Bruce has seen him cry when he’s angry and shouting insults at him, but this is so much worse. There, in the dark and quiet attic, he holds Edward like he’s afraid that he’s going to fall to pieces if he doesn’t.

“He’s gone,” he hears Edward choke out against his shoulder. “He’s gone and he’s not coming back and I don’t know what I’m going to do without him.”

Bruce knows that he’s talking about Mr. Myers, but for a moment he hears his own words coming from Edward’s mouth. This is it, the realization that there are no answers.

“I know… I know he’s not coming back but I just… wanted to know what happened to him.” Edward’s voice breaks again. “But I know I never will.”

Bruce is twelve years old again, standing in the alley that he’s seen in his dreams more than in real life. He’s lost everything and it’s never coming back. There’s always going to be a void in him that can’t be filled. He wants to tell Edward this – he wants Edward to know that he knows what he means, what he feels. But he can’t. Instead, he tells Edward the same lie he’s been told all these years.

“It’s okay,” he repeats. It’s not true and never will be, but there is nothing else to say. Edward says nothing. Neither of them do for a while.

The small square lights of apartment windows shine in the darkness somewhere far away. People are celebrating with their friends and family. Bruce and Edward are fading away into the silence of a rotting house.

Finally, Edward calms down and pulls away, taking off his glasses and wiping his face on his sleeve. He still won’t look at Bruce.

“Let’s not talk about this,” he says in a hoarse voice after putting his glasses back on. His face is wet and splotchy, but his expression has gone back to the serious and unreadable one that makes Bruce feel like he can’t really reach him. Bruce’s heart sinks.

“Ed…” he says, trying to touch him again, but Edward turns away. Bruce panics. He can’t let Edward run off again. “Please, wait, we don’t… we don’t have to talk about this again, but please, just… come to the Tower with me. Please. I don’t want you to be alone.”

Edward turns to look at him, the corners of his mouth turning downwards. The look on his face is heartbreaking.

“Why are you so nice to me?” he asks in a strangled voice. It’s a genuine question. Like he really doesn’t know.

“Because–” Bruce tries, words failing him once again. “Because I like you and want to be your friend.” He takes a deep breath. “Please, just… let me be your friend, Edward.”

Edward just looks at him, and for a moment Bruce is sure that he’s going to start crying again, but he seems to be able to pull himself back together.

“Okay,” he breathes out. Bruce feels like something heavy has been lifted from his shoulders. Both of them are quiet for a moment, taking in the meaning of the words. That is until Edward reminds Bruce of the situation they’re still in. “You said that you were going to get us out of here.”

“Oh, yeah, right,” Bruce says, handing the flashlight he’s still holding over to Edward before walking over to the chairs that have been stacked against the wall. He takes one of them and walks over to the window. “Stay back.”

The double-pane windows have nothing against the hardwood chair when it smashes through the glass.

Through the fire escape, through the empty garden, out of the open gate, and back onto the street. Bruce keeps on looking over his shoulder to make sure that Edward is still with him. He is. Something – almost like a magnetic force – keeps making him reach toward Edward’s hand. He sticks his hands into his pockets to make it stop.

The subway is full of people in their party outfits, all of them heading towards the city for the New Year’s celebration. Bruce and Edward stand pressed against the train door, clinging onto the same metal pole for stability, and leave the train with the rest of the people, blending into the crowd. The platform is crowded, and this time Edward holds onto Bruce’s sleeve as they make their way through the mass of people.

The fireworks start by the time they reach the Tower. They watch them down on the street, or, well, Bruce mostly watches them through the reflections on Edward’s glasses.

The year has changed and things aren’t the same anymore.

Notes:

yeah, so if any of you have read "batman: the court of owls" (or the sequels) just know that i'm very much picking and choosing how to use the details from that story in this one and that you shouldn't expect this to be anything like the canon💀 sorry not sorry, i hope you can look past that..
also, i might take a teeny tiny break from this because uni is kind of kicking my ass (read: i'm failing my courses) so i guess i should... study. (i say this, but watch me post a new chapter next month or something lol)
thank you for reading!

Chapter 5: all dogs go to heaven

Notes:

merry christmas to all who celebrate!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The first days of the year are, well, weird. It’s not only because it’s the first time in three years that Edward isn’t spending them alone at the school, wandering the empty halls like a ghost from the past, but because this year he’s spending them with Bruce Wayne in the Wayne Tower. It’s not a situation he thought he would ever get himself into, even less voluntarily, but that’s where he finds himself as he wakes up in the huge guest room bed in the Tower on the first morning of the year. He never thought that he would get so familiar with that room, either.

His first plan is to go and leave. Yeah, it was very noble of Bruce to take him in even after Edward had made him run around the city following mindless clues, gotten them stuck into the attic of an abandoned building and then started wailing against his shoulder like a child. Whatever weird pity Bruce must’ve felt during those late hours has probably washed away with sleep

However, when Edward finally finds Bruce sitting in the kitchen in his pajamas, the boy just smiles at him and says: “Do you drink coffee? Alfred left extra for you.”

And so Edward has no choice but to stay for breakfast.

Bruce doesn’t bring up the topic of last night. Maybe he’s keeping his word or maybe he’s waiting to use it against Edward at some better moment. Instead, they talk about stuff that has nothing to do with anything, like how neither of them has made any New Year’s resolutions and how those are stupid but maybe they should still make them, just in case, you know?

“Oh, right,” Bruce says when Edward is finishing his second piece of toast. “Alfred took your jacket to wash. He said it looked dusty.”

Edward only stares. Well, maybe this is good, because he’s sure that the jacket has never been washed and, yeah, it’s probably covered in whatever dirt and grime was on the floor of the attic, but this also means that he can’t leave yet.

And so he stays for the entire morning and afternoon and then it’s suddenly evening and way too late for him to leave. Besides, Bruce has finally managed to teach him how to play one of his fighting games, and it would be stupid to leave in the middle of their match.

So, when Edward eventually finds himself in the guest room bed again that night, he tells himself that tomorrow he’s going to leave and go back to where he belongs, even though a part of him knows that he won’t.

Of course, that part is right.

It takes Edward a couple of days to internalize the fact that Bruce had actually been serious about wanting to be his friend and that since Edward – in his fragile state of mind – had said yes to it, they’re now apparently exactly that. Friends. It should be weird, at least that’s how Edward sees it, but to his surprise, it feels quite normal. The hatred towards Bruce that has always been smoldering inside of him seems to have gone out, and so now when Edward looks at Bruce, he doesn’t see the same arrogant brat he used to – well, he still sees glimpses of him sometimes – but the boy he’s gotten to actually know during the last two weeks.

This is also the first time that Edward has a friend who wants to be his friend instead of being just forced because of the circ*mstances, like sleeping in the same room or singing the same parts in the choir. He doesn’t exactly know how to be friends with someone, but it turns out to be much easier than he thought, at least with Bruce.

Together they waste the days preceding the beginning of the spring semester, mostly sitting in the game room (Edward still doesn’t know what it’s actually called, but Bruce calls it that too) and playing video games or chess or watching movies from the huge DVD collection that is stored into the drawers mounted into the wall around the TV.

One day Bruce gives Edward a tour of the rest of the floors of the Tower (there’s really not much to see, but they steal cookies from an empty meeting room on the 37th floor) and the other day they drive all the way to the Uptown Island in Bruce’s Porsche (Edward almost gets angry when he sees the car) just because Bruce wants to go to a specific record store to look for some special edition vinyl, even though he already has the normal one. Edward doesn’t mind. Does he think that it’s kind of stupid? Yes. Is it also kind of fun? Also yes. They spend an afternoon in the store and go through the record bins, Edward stopping every once in a while to pick one out and listen to it on the store players with huge earphones on.

“This one’s pretty good,” he says to Bruce about one of them, just to give his opinion. Bruce takes the vinyl and hums and before they leave, he buys it too.

But even though those days are good, better than what Edward can remember having in a while, when he closes his eyes in the night and drifts into sleep, he still finds himself back in the orphanage or the chapel. He thinks that a part of him will always be stuck there.

**

The spring semester starts on the 6th, so the students return to the school on the 5th. It’s a gloomy day, with fog from the sea having settled heavy over the city. Edward sits in the back of a car and watches the ghost-like figures of people standing on the streets. Alfred is driving and Bruce is sitting in the front seat, his duffel bag flung onto the seat next to Edward. They’re talking about Bruce’s kickboxing schedule for the spring. Edward isn’t listening. There is a horrible, gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach that has been there since the morning and it gets stronger as they get closer to the school. He watches Bruce’s face from the side-view mirror and the feeling leaves him almost nauseous.

It’s only now that Edward is starting to realize what going back to school really means. Maybe these couple of days in the Tower have made him think that he and Bruce are on the same level, but that’s not how things really are. Edward knows that the moment they drive through the school gates, he’s going to come crashing down back to where he really is compared to Bruce. It’s whatever. It’s inevitable. What he’s actually worried about is what is going to happen once Bruce realizes it too.

Alfred drops them off at the gates with a quick pat on both of their shoulders. Edward’s legs feel numb as he and Bruce start walking up the road towards the school building. There are boys walking and running and dragging their bags all around them, most of them calling out Bruce’s name as a greeting when they see him. Edward keeps his head down, looking at his feet so that he doesn’t slip. It’s only a matter of time until Bruce remembers who he really is – the prince of the city, while Edward is just a charity case. When a group of boys from their year reach them and start walking up the hill with them, Edward thinks the moment has come and deliberately stays behind. It’s whatever. It’s inevitable. To his surprise, Bruce looks over his shoulder and stops, waving at the other boys to keep going but staying to wait for Edward. It’s a small gesture but it eases Edward’s mind and suddenly his steps feel much lighter.

That is until they step into the entrance hall. Edward sees that Bruce notices it too; a veil that has settled over the school and everyone in it. It’s the feeling of death, hovering above everything, even if everyone doesn’t recognize it. The stream of boys making their way through the hall and into the underground corridor to the dorm building is abnormally quiet, almost as if no one dares to speak in anything but whispers. Edward feels like he’s in a church. He and Bruce follow the line of people silently until they part ways on the third floor, where Bruce’s room is.

“See you at dinner,” Bruce says with a wave of his hand before disappearing into the maze of corridors, while Edward has to keep on climbing. By the time he reaches the fifth floor, he’s all sweaty and pissed off, and the sight of his room doesn’t make him feel any better. He doesn’t know how it’s even possible for him to forget how it looks, but when he steps in, he’s surprised by how small and dull it really is. Well, at least compared to the huge guest room he’s been sleeping in for almost a week. His dorm room is also quite chilly, as it always is during the winter, and Edward shivers as he changes out of the sweater he’s been wearing and into his school clothes for dinner. He wonders if Bruce feels the same disappointment as him every time he comes back to his room after spending the weekend in the Tower or if it doesn’t matter to him since he knows that he can always go back to the penthouse above the city.

Edward never enjoys the big dinners where the entire school is eating at the same time – for example, the first dinner of the year – but today he feels that everyone else is feeling the discomfort, too. Bruce is sitting next to him, tense and nervous, as the school principal, Mr. Gould stands up to give his speech. Edward only stares at the stitchings on the tablecloth, not wanting to listen but having no choice.

“We’re starting this semester with sad news. I assume that by now all of you have heard of the death of our school’s math teacher, Rober Myers.”

Edward tries to focus on picking on his cuticles and keeping his breathing steady.

“The police are still looking into his death, and I want all of you to know that if there is anything you have heard or seen that might further the investigation, you’re obliged to tell it either to them or the school staff.”

Edward thinks about the envelope that is crumpled and forgotten in the bottom of his bookbag.

“I understand that all of this is very shocking. If any of you feel the need to talk about it, you can always turn to us, the teachers and the staff. During these dark times, it is important to take care of yourself and each other, and I hope that you do just that.

Edward glances at Bruce, who is staring at his empty plate with empty eyes.

“Lastly, I want to inform all senior year students who were in Mr. Myers’ AP math classes that they’re invited to his funeral next Sunday to represent the school. Attendance is not mandatory, but I wish that everyone comes to pay their respects to him and his loved ones. More information can be found on the board in the main hall. Thank you.”

When Mr. Gould finally sits down, the hall fills with whispering, the students still too cautious to talk loudly. The cuticles on Edward’s thumb are bleeding and he puts it against his lips. His head is filled with quiet buzzing.

“Why is the funeral so late? It has been, what, almost three weeks?” someone asks from the other side of the table.

“The police have probably had the body in custody until now,” Edward hears Bruce say quietly. After that, no one really says anything.

**

On the first day of classes, Edward wakes up on his lumpy mattress to the familiar noises of life in St. Aquinas’. Doors opening, footsteps, tired voices, water flowing. Life has returned to the school. Sitting on the edge of his bed in his dark room, it all feels very distant to Edward.

The fifth-floor bathroom is steamy and swarming with boys as Edward tries to wash his face without someone – more or less accidentally – spitting toothpaste onto his head while he’s leaning down. Maybe he’s gotten used to the luxury of having the entire Wayne Tower guest bathroom to himself because the experience feels even more hectic than usual. There’s something else, too. A pause in the general conversation every time he steps in. It’s new and makes Edward slightly nervous. He can guess what it’s about, and his assumption is proved right when he’s about to leave and one of the boys – Roberts, the one who locked him into the biology class closet three years ago – stops him at the doorway.

“Nashton, is it true that you found the body?” he asks, leaning onto the doorway and twirling his toothbrush between his fingers. Edward looks at him, trying to find the punchline to whatever joke he’s about to tell from the boy’s face, but only sees real interest. He also notices that it has gotten really quiet in the bathroom, even the water has stopped flowing.

“Yeah,” he says, well aware of the fact that everyone is listening.

“What did it look like?” Roberts asks. Everyone is quiet and staring, and Edward realizes that this could be the moment that they let him in. If he tells what he saw, he will be a part of something important and they’ll have to let him in.

“Like none of your business,” he says and steps past Roberts. The moment and all of its possibilities are gone forever.

The lessons offer Edward a good distraction from everything, even though most of them are just the teachers going through the syllabus, and he finds himself zoning out and looking out of the window to see the way the sun is weakly trying to rise from behind the clouds. His second class of the day is English, and he can see the chapel from the window. The police tapes have been taken away and there are no new footsteps in the gray snow around the building. For a moment it’s almost as if nothing’s changed.

That is, until his third class, which is math. It was supposed to be taught by Mr. Myers, with his name still printed onto everyone’s schedules, but for obvious reasons, the teacher has been changed to another math teacher, whose name Edward doesn’t remember or care to know. Seeing the new teacher’s foreign handwriting on the blackboard makes the empty feeling that has been quietly sitting inside of Edward for a couple of days flare up again. For a moment he can’t breathe. He can’t stay there.

He’s almost ready to take his bag and get out of the class when a knock on the door interrupts the barely-started lesson. To Edward’s surprise – and apparently to the teacher’s, too – the person coming in late is Bruce.

“Oh, Wayne, you’re… not in this group, I think,” the teacher says.

“No, I changed to this one this morning,” Bruce says, slightly out of breath. “It fits my schedule better.”

“Well, if it’s so,” the teacher says with a tired look on his face. “Take a seat, then. There’s a free place next to –”

Bruce doesn’t stay to listen to him and walks straight to the empty desk next to Edward. The lesson proceeds.

“Hi,” he whispers to Edward with a small smile and pulls his book from his bag.

“Hi,” Edward answers, biting the inside of his cheek to keep himself smiling. “It’s the first day of classes and you’re already changing groups?”

“Well, this one suited me better,” Bruce says with a shrug.

“Oh, yeah?” Edward chuckles, not paying attention to whatever is happening on the blackboard.

“Yeah, I mean, you are here,” Bruce says. Edward says nothing to that and turns to look forward, hoping that Bruce doesn’t notice the way his face is turning pink.

**

Even with everything that has happened, school is very much the same. During the classes, the topic of Mr. Myers isn’t brought up, but the moment the bell rings, it’s impossible to not hear his name in the halls. That’s why Edward spends most of his free time in the library, where he can enjoy the silence. What has changed, however, is the fact that he’s not alone. Bruce is there, too. It’s strange having someone to sit with and talk to during lunch and between classes. Edward has never had that before. He tries not to overthink it, but can’t help feeling like it's all on borrowed time.

On Saturday morning Edward wakes up way too early to someone knocking on his door. He rolls onto his side, ignoring it, until he hears Bruce’s voice coming from outside.

“Edward? Are you awake?”

Edward sits up, puts on his glasses, and walks over to the door, simultaneously very pissed about being woken up and nervous about what Bruce has to say to him this early.

“I am now,” he croaks and opens the door. Bruce is standing in the hall, wearing sweatpants and a hoodie with an open puffer jacket on top and a gym bag on his shoulder. A pair of boxing gloves are hanging against his leg.

“Sorry,” he says with an apologetic smile, and Edward can’t find it in himself to be mad at him anymore. “I have kickboxing practice in the city and was just wondering if you have any, I don’t know, business there and need a ride? Ali is coming to get me in five minutes.”

“Oh,” Edward says, rubbing his eyes and trying to get his brain to work. Jesus, how can Bruce function this early on a day off, not to mention, do sports? “Yeah, I have to, um, go and buy a suit for the funeral.”

“A suit?” Bruce says, looking surprised. “If you need one, you can just borrow one of mine. I have, like, ten of those.”

Edward blinks at him, ready to refuse – it’s not like he hadn’t been wearing Bruce’s clothes for most of his stay during the holidays, but it’s not a habit he’s planning on continuing – but then he starts to calculate the amount of money he’s spent lately (on bus and train tickets and that stupid sandwich) and comes to the conclusion that there are better ways he could spend his allowance (20 dollars a month, which is integrated into the amount of money Mr. Waters left for his studies and other possible fees).

“Okay,” he ends up saying. “Thanks.”

“Right, I’ll let you go back to sleep, then,” Bruce says with a slight smile. “See you at lunch.”

With that, he leaves, the boxing gloves swinging along with his steps. Edward stays in the doorway, his brain still foggy from sleep, trying to remember what he’s supposed to do now. Somewhere down the hall another door opens, accompanied by tired voices. Edward closes the door and goes back to bed but can’t fall asleep.

He stares at the cracking paint on the ceiling and thinks about the funeral. He’s seen dead people, he’s known them, but none of them had gotten a funeral, at least not in the orphanage. Every winter, when a baby died, the nuns wept around the small body covered with a sheet, until men dressed in black came and took it away. Edward didn’t understand it back then, but he understood the way the nuns told them to pray for the little ones who had gone away. “Where?” one of the girls had once asked, and one of the nuns had just wiped her eyes and said: “To a better place.” Even after Edward had stopped believing in God, he still believed that the nun had been right.

The noises coming from the hall get louder with more people waking up. Edward gets up again and goes down for breakfast.

**

Sunday mornings are usually quiet at the school with most students being home for the weekend. This Sunday, however, the halls are full of boys wearing white button-downs and dark pants with serious looks on their faces. The showers on the ground floor are full, too, and Edward has to wait in line for almost 20 minutes, only to take one of the quickest and most unpleasant showers of his life – people are telling him to hurry the f*ck up on the other side of the curtain and the water turns cold halfway through. When he gets out, he’s somehow feeling even worse than before. Ever since coming back to the school, he’s been feeling like sh*t and it’s only been five days. He tries not to think about it as he quickly brushes his teeth by one of the sinks, squeezed between boys trying to comb their hair and shave their face (Edward doesn’t have to worry about that – he’s been unable to grow any facial hair despite his efforts). That’s also when he remembers that he still has to go and get the suit from Bruce.

The third floor is quiet compared to the first when Edward goes to knock on Bruce’s door.

“Morning,” he says when the door opens. Bruce is standing in the doorway, one hand on the door handle and the other doing the upper buttons of his shirt. Edward catches a glimpse of his pale collarbone and forgets what he’s doing there for a moment.

“Uh, the… the suit. You have it?” he asks clumsily.

“Oh, yeah, I forgot to give it yesterday, sorry,” Bruce says, stepping out of the doorway. (They had spent the Saturday sitting in the student lounge in the dorm building’s basem*nt, Edward reading and Bruce pretending to do so too but actually just watching whatever sport the other boys were watching from an old and grainy TV that someone had brought there sometime during the fall semester and which was still working somehow.) “Come in.”

Stepping into Bruce’s room, Edward realizes that he’s never been in anyone else’s room but his own. It’s also the first time that he realizes how dull and empty his room is, with no decorations or pictures on the walls. Nothing to make it look like his own.

He doesn’t know what he had expected Bruce’s room to look like, but based on the lack of personality in his room in the Tower, he had expected this one to be as bare as that one. That’s why he’s surprised when he sees the posters and pictures Bruce has put up on the walls, as well as the number of books and CDs piled onto his desk and the windowsill. There’s only one bed in the room.

“You’re without a roommate, too,” he points out, standing slightly awkwardly in the middle of the room, while Bruce opens his closet and moves hangers around.

“Yeah,” Bruce says, pulling a suit from the closet and handing it over to Edward, who takes it. “When I came here, I used to have these… well, nightmares, and I would wake up in the middle of the night super scared and screaming and stuff. I got my own room because it could’ve been kinda disturbing to other people. I can show you…”

He walks over to his bed and leans over to peel off the corner of a Kill Bill Vol.1 poster that is plastered onto the wall right next to it.

“See,” he laughs, and Edward sees that there’s a hole in the wall where the drywall has been punched in. Bruce puts the poster back down so that it covers the hole. “It used to be pretty intense.”

“Yeah,” Edward says, thinking about how he was crying his pillow wet every night for the entire first month of school while his roommate slept on the other side of the room. “I can imagine.”

“Well, it’s whatever,” Bruce says quickly, turning away. “You can change here if you want.”

“No, I’ll just… I have to get some stuff from my room,” Edward says, feeling the thick fabric of the suit underneath his fingers. Luckily, Bruce doesn’t push it.

“See you down at breakfast,” Edward manages to mutter before slipping out of the room and hurrying two floors up into his room.

He smokes one emergency cigarette while leaning out of his window in his pajamas, before putting on the suit. It’s nice and fits him well. Not as well as it would fit Bruce, that’s for sure, but it’s fine. Still, looking at himself in the mirror on the inside of his closet door, Edward can’t help but think about how rich and put-together Bruce looked in just his shirt and pants, whereas he looks only sad and miserable. He’s wearing his own dress shirt but it still fits him all weird. Maybe it’s because he still hasn’t gained back all the weight he lost during the summer. It happens every year – that’s just what delivery boy work combined with the poor conditions of the St. Jude’s boys’ home does to him – but usually, he would be back to his normal weight by now. He feels like something has been eating him from the inside lately.

He closes the closet door and leaves the room.

“Do I smell like smoke?” he asks Bruce when they’re waiting in the school parking lot for Alfred to come pick them up. The day is cloudy but light and the temperature has gone up enough for the snow to have started melting a bit, covering the entire lot in gray slush. A couple of steps away from them stands their theology teacher, Mr. Awlyn, who is going to the funeral on the same ride. Bruce glances at him cautiously before leaning a little closer to Edward and sniffing.

“I don’t know,” he says quietly with an uncertain look on his face. “Maybe a little… I don’t know. I think you’re fine.”

“f*cking great,” Edward mutters.

The drive to the cemetery is quiet, with Alfred making small conversation with Mr. Awlyn on the front, and Edward and Bruce sitting quietly in the back. They’re on the highway, driving towards the cemetery, when it starts lightly raining. Edward closes his eyes and imagines himself somewhere far away for a moment.

The funeral service is held in a big chapel on the grounds of the biggest cemetery in Gotham – the one where all important people are buried. As far as Edward knows, the school is paying for it. It’s all foggy for him – the speeches by people he doesn’t recognize and the songs he can’t sing because the words get stuck in his throat. He doesn’t cry, not anymore. It’s different to cry in front of one person than in front of his entire class. He just stares at the altarpiece without seeing anything, until the closed casket is carried out of the chapel with everyone following it.

It’s only when the dark wood box is lowered into the ground that it really hits Edward: Mr. Myers is really gone, he's not here anymore. There is nothing left of him other than his memory. His body will forever be stuck underground and Edward will never see him again, never talk to him again. The last time Edward saw him, he didn’t even see his face, only the blood on his shirt.

Edward puts the back of his cold hand against his lips and tries to keep his breathing steady. He feels a hand on his shoulder and knows that it’s Bruce’s but can’t turn to look at him. He stares at the dark ground that swallows the casket whole and feels like a part of him is gone forever.

When the last words have been said by the priest, the crowd around the grave slowly scatters. Edward can’t move, not even when he feels Bruce squeeze his shoulder lightly.

“Do you want to be alone?” he hears Bruce ask quietly. Edward just shrugs. He doesn’t want to do anything. He wants to go and find some dark corner and curl up and never be seen again. Bruce’s hand leaves his shoulder.

“I’m gonna… I’ll just go see mom and dad,” he says, voice quiet and strained. “See you back at the car, okay?”

“Okay,” Edward says and only turns to look when he hears Bruce’s steps receding in the snow. He used to think that the thing that set him and Bruce apart was the fact that Bruce had lost something, whereas Edward had never had anything to begin with. Now that line doesn’t exist anymore.

Only a few people are standing around the grave anymore. Edward doesn’t know any of them. He takes one last look at the open grave and the empty headstone and is about to walk away when he catches a glimpse of a woman standing by the grave. He’s never seen her but he still recognizes her; she’s Anne, Mr. Myers’ wife. She is standing alone on the other side of the grave, wearing a dark, long coat and a hat with a black veil. Edward isn’t sure what makes him walk over to her, it’s just something that he feels like he needs to do.

“Mrs. Myers,” he hears himself saying, his voice sounding foreign in his ears. Anne looks up, the skin around her pale eyes all red and raw. Edward has seen her in only one picture, the wedding one, and she looks different now. Maybe it’s the grief making her look older. Edward feels like it has the opposite effect on him. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Oh,” Anne breathes out. There’s a hazy look in her eyes. “Thank you. You must be from the school, yes? What’s your name?”

“Edward,” Edward answers. The look in Anne’s eyes changes.

“Edward Nashton?” she asks. Edward just looks at her and nods.

“Oh,” she says again, a wavering smile appearing on her face and her eyes tearing up a little. “Robert used to talk about you a lot. He was… very fond of you.”

Edward can’t say anything, he only looks at his feet and nods. He can hear Anne sniffle.

“I heard… I heard about you finding him and… It’s horrible, I can’t– I–” her voice breaks. Edward can’t look at her. “He spoke about you so kindly and I always wanted to meet you, but not like this, not like–”

“I’m so sorry,” Edward says, not sure what about. His voice doesn’t sound like his own.

“No, no, don’t say that,” Anne says between sobs and reaches to take his hand into her gloved one. Edward looks at her pale and splotchy face and feels sickening pity for the both of them. How cruel it is that we’re left here without him, he thinks.

“Please, come visit sometime. There are things he wanted to show you, but now… I’m so sorry we had to meet like this,” Anne says, her voice now stable even though there are still tears rolling down her cheeks. “It would mean the world to me, Edward.”

“I will,” Edward says, even though he barely understands the meaning of those words. Anne gives him another sad smile and lets go of his hand. “Goodbye.”

He doesn’t go back to the car. He doesn’t know where he is going. His feet take him away, down the endless rows of graves that stretch all around him and towards the farthest corners of the cemetery. It’s very quiet out there, the only noises being his own steps in the snow and the distant sounds of cars coming from the highway. He walks down a path mindlessly, looking at the gravestones covered in snow, dead flowers, and old candles around them. He stops to look at one grave, which has a low fence surrounding it and a small bench for sitting down. There’s something quite sad about it – spending so much time amongst the dead. He steps away and keeps on walking, catching a glimpse of people standing a couple of rows away from him. It takes him a second to recognize them as Bruce and Alfred. Edward slips between two graves to get closer, watching them from a distance but not wanting himself to be seen.

Thomas and Martha Wayne’s grave is almost like a monument amongst the others, with two tall headstones standing over their graves that lay side by side and are covered by huge stone slabs. Bruce and Alfred are standing by them, Alfred’s arm wrapped around Bruce’s shoulders, both of them still and quiet. The graves look somehow isolated from the ones around them, and for a moment Edward wonders if it’s just to make them stand out, but that’s when he realizes that it’s actually so there would be room for one more. A family grave. The thought is enough to send a shiver down Edward’s spine and make him turn away. He’s not supposed to see this.

There are no flowers left on the graves during a season this cold, but as Edward makes his way away from the Waynes’ grave and towards the parking lot, his eye catches onto a fresh rose that someone has left on the stairs of a small mausoleum that stands out from even the biggest and most imposing headstones around it. Edward looks at the rose, which looks lonely and out of place in the dirty snow. Someone must’ve placed it there only moments ago, at least deducing by the fresh looks of it. Edward looks up at the mausoleum, only mildly interested in which dead person had been distinguished enough to be buried in a small house, but completely stills when he sees the name Alan Wayne carved into the stone. Oh, Alan Wayne, the man who made him and Bruce run around the city, like some bootleg Hardy Boys. Well, at least the mausoleum makes sense – he was a man of architecture, after all. And filthy rich, Edward adds in his head but shakes it away. It feels bad to think ill of the dead.

That’s when he sees it, carved into the stone above the door: the face of an owl scowling at him. Edward only stares at it, the weird detachment he's been feeling all day suddenly gone. What did Bruce tell him in the library on New Year’s Eve about Alan Wayne getting obsessed with birds and dying? Right, this must have something to do with that. Edward isn’t going to start jumping to conclusions again, he’s learned his lesson. Still, the image of the owl and the red rose in the snow won’t leave his mind as he makes his way back to the parking lot.

Bruce and Alfred show up to the car a moment after him. Edward searches for signs of tears or grief on Bruce’s face, but the boy’s eyes are dry and his face is calm, even though the empty look in his eyes has come back briefly. It makes Edward wonder if the veil of grief ever lifts or if hiding it just gets easier.

They’re getting back into the car when something strange happens. Edward is already sitting at the back, and Bruce is about to get in when a man appears out of nowhere and grabs his attention. Edward watches from the car, as the man grips Bruce’s arm and holds it almost desperately, leaning closer to say something to him. The man's words are too quiet for Edward to hear but he can see the way Bruce furrows his eyebrows and tries to pull back with a slightly disturbed look on his face. That’s when Alfred comes and breaks the hold the man has on Bruce, showing him away and asking what he’s on about. The man just apologizes and leaves without another word. The moment is over, but the weird feeling persists.

“Who was that?” Edward asks when Bruce finally gets into the car.

“I don’t know, never met him,” Bruce says with a thoughtful look on his face as he puts on his seatbelt.

“What did he say, then?”

Bruce is quiet for a second too long for it to sound true when he says: “Just wanted to give his condolences, I guess.”

*

Once they’re back at the school, Edward drags himself up into his room, takes off the suit jacket and pants, and collapses onto his bed. He wasn’t supposed to fall asleep, but the moment he hits the mattress, it’s like his body just shuts itself off. Maybe it’s his mind being merciful to him because for the first time in weeks, he doesn’t dream of anything.

*

When he wakes up, God knows how many hours later, it’s already dark outside and someone is knocking on his door. Edward feels like half of him has melted onto the mattress, his mouth dry, his eyes puffy, and his glasses all greasy from where they have been digging into his face. He has sweated through his dress shirt and his hair is sticking in ten different directions. He feels like he’s just been raised from the dead. The knocking doesn’t stop.

“f*ck off,” he croaks and sits up, looking at the huge splotch of drool on his pillowcase. The knocking stops, but the next thing he hears is – you guessed it – Bruce’s voice.

“Is everything okay?”

“Yeah,” Edward says, standing up and looking for a pair of pants to put on. “Just… wait a second.”

Finally clothed enough to open the door, he finds Bruce waiting outside with a tray of food.

“You didn’t come down for dinner, but I thought that you would still want to eat, so…” Bruce says and hands the tray over to Edward. To be honest, Edward isn’t hungry in the slightest, but how could he refuse Bruce’s kindness?

“Oh, thanks,” he says, looking at the plate on the tray. It has potatoes and some kind of stew on it. Bruce is still standing by the doorway, curiously peeking over Edward’s shoulder and into his room.

“Can I come in?” he asks cautiously. It’s been a conscious decision on Edward’s part not to let Bruce into his room, mostly because of its messy state and overall depressing look, but right now refusing seems really rude. Also, he’s half asleep and doesn’t care enough about what Bruce might think.

“Yeah, okay, whatever,” he says and steps out of the doorway, turning the lights on with his elbow and simultaneously revealing the mess of clothes and books on his floor, desk, and the empty bed on the other side of the room.

“Just throw that stuff onto the floor,” he says to Bruce and pushes his physics homework out of the way so that he can set the tray down on his desk. Bruce carefully pushes aside a pile of clothes and sits down on the empty bed, while Edward sits down by the desk and picks up a fork.

“I’m not hungry, really,” he confesses, sticking the fork into a piece of potato but not picking it up.

“Yeah, I figured,” Bruce says. “But just eat some, you’ll feel better.”

Edward just hums and takes a bite of the potato. Bruce has pulled his legs up onto the bed and crossed them, looking around the room like there’s anything to see. Edward eats half of his plate slowly, while Bruce pages through a puzzle book he’s found on the bed.

“I gave you this one, right?” he asks. Edward nods. “Did I choose well?”

“Yeah, it’s fine. A bit too easy,” Edward says, and Bruce scoffs.

“Everything’s too easy for you,” he says. Edward stifles a smile and shakes his head. Something about the puzzle book takes him back to the New Year and the owls and Alan Wayne, and for a moment he wants to tell Bruce about the rose by the mausoleum and the owl carving. Before he can do that, however, he remembers something more important.

“Bruce,” he says, putting his fork down. Bruce turns to look at him with his eyebrows raised. “What did that man actually say to you at the cemetery?”

Bruce looks at him with his eyes wide, so visibly caught in a lie that Edward almost laughs. Edward tilts his head and gives him an unimpressed look.

“You’re a terrible liar,” he says. “C’mon, just tell me.”

“Wh– Okay, fine,” Bruce says, dropping the innocent act before even starting it. “It was… weird. I don’t know who he was, probably some crazy person, but the only thing he said was, um…” He takes a moment to look for the words. “‘They’re real, they’re everywhere, and they’re sending him for you, both of you.’ That’s what he said.”

Edward only looks at him, trying to see if he’s joking, but the look on Bruce’s face is honest.

“Oh,” he says finally, suddenly feeling really cold and not just because of the poor heating of his room. “Yeah, that’s… weird.”

Bruce shrugs, and both of them are quiet for a moment.

“But it was probably nothing serious,” Bruce says quickly, even though Edward can see that he doesn’t believe in it, either. “Weirdos come up to me all the time.”

“Yeah,” Edward says, frowning. His school bag is lying on the floor with the mysterious letter still in its pocket. “You’re right. It’s probably nothing.”

Notes:

picking up the pace after this one i think .. thank you for reading!!

Chapter 6: bite the hand

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

The only good thing that comes out of any of the winter’s events is that Edward gets permission not to attend gym class. It’s the most the school does to give either him or Bruce any kind of special support, apart from the school social worker – a woman called Brianna, whose open office hours are twice a week but who seems to be away during those, too – having a quick conversation with them both and telling them that they can always talk to her if they feel the need. It takes all of Edward’s self-control for him not to roll his eyes while sitting in her office.

He doesn’t believe that talking is going to fix anything. It’s not going to bring Mr. Myers back, and even though there are days when Edward feels like his bed is a casket and his room is a grave and all he wants is to sleep forever, there’s nothing else he can do other than to keep going. When it gets tough, he reminds himself that it’s what Mr. Myers would want him to do. He always believed in Edward, and there’s no greater fear for Edward than to disappoint him beyond the grave.

“You know, it actually helps. Talking, I mean,” Bruce tries to tell him one evening in late January, when they’re doing homework in Bruce’s room, Bruce sitting on the bed underneath a picture of Kurt Cobain, while Edward is lying on his stomach on the carpet. “Sometimes I talk to this woman, okay, well, she is a licensed therapist but… anyway, her name is Kim and she’s super nice. You could talk to her, too, if you want.”

“Oh, shut up,” Edward groans without lifting his gaze from his physics book. “Unlike some people , I’m completely mentally well and stable and don’t need a shrink.”

He looks up and sees Bruce smiling, which makes him laugh, and then they’re both laughing because everything is bad and horrible but at least they’re friends so there must be something good, too.

Bruce doesn’t take the bail from gym classes, and so three times a week Edward has to spend his free period alone. It shouldn’t be anything unusual for him, after all, before this year he would spend every moment outside the classes alone, but for some reason now he finds himself spending all 60 minutes of Bruce’s absence waiting for him to come back, like a dog waiting for its owner.

It’s pathetic and embarrassing and he knows it, but it’s not even the worst thing. There’s another feeling, too, a hot and sticky one that has been growing in the pit of his stomach during the weeks he’s spent with Bruce. It makes his skin tingle and his face burn, and he feels nauseous every time he becomes aware of its presence. It’s accompanied by a constant feeling of dirtiness, a feeling which Edward has gotten so used to ever since he was a child that he barely even pays attention to it anymore, but now it has flared up, making him want to pray properly for the first time in years.

Then there’s also the fear of someone finding out. Maybe they already know, maybe they can smell it off of him. It’s not a new feeling, but for the first time, Edward is beginning to understand it.

It shouldn’t matter. Nothing is going to come out of it anyway. If he just keeps quiet and pushes the feeling down until it eats him alive, Bruce doesn’t have to know. He’s the best and only friend Edward has, and Edward can’t afford to lose him because of something as stupid as a crush . Maybe if he just ignores it, it will go away. Who knows?

**

It’s early February when Edward gets a call from Anne Myers. He has to take the call in the teacher’s break room, standing awkwardly by the landline, around the corner from his teachers chatting during their coffee break. Anne tells him that she is moving out and would like for Edward to come over and see some of Mr. Myers’ things.

“I don’t want to throw them away but I can’t take them all with me. It’s mostly just books. Robert loved his books,” she says, laughing sadly.

It’s not like Edward has any other choice than to go, so this time he accepts Bruce’s usual offer of getting a ride to the city on a Saturday morning and goes to visit Anne.

She lives in an old three-floor townhouse squeezed between a funeral home and a kebab place, with three nameplates decorating the door. When Edward rings the doorbell, a small granny with a thick Russian accent and a sharp glare comes to open the door. The twenty seconds that Edward has to stand in the doorway with her are probably the longest of his life until Anne finally comes to rescue him.

Anne looks better now, more alive with color back on her face, even though she sounds tired, talking about how she should be moving on Monday but how she’s not even halfway done with packing. Her apartment is on the third floor and consists of two rooms with no bathroom or kitchen. She says that those are on the first floor and shared by all of the residents. Still, since they’re in Gotham, Edward is sure that the rent is insane. The two rooms are full of cardboard boxes labeled with words or single letters. Books, tableware, clothes. R. Anne weaves through them, while Edward does his best not to trip and fall.

“Robert told me that you like math,” she says, picking up a heavy-looking box and carrying it over to a spot that looks like the living room part of the apartment, with two plush vintage armchairs and a worn-out couch squeezed beside an empty bookshelf. “He has– had a ton of books about all of that, so I’m sure you’ll find something. I’ve never been good with numbers.” She laughs.

Being in his teacher’s apartment would be strange in any context, but Edward can’t imagine it getting any stranger than this. Or sadder. As he looks through the box, picking out books that he remembers Mr. Myers mentioning in class and reading the notes written into the marginals in the same handwriting that used to correct his math tests, he feels like he’s collecting pieces of the man. He’s gone but he’s also everywhere, fragments of him scattered all around. It’s a strangely comforting thought.

While Edward goes through the boxes, Anne walks around the apartment, talking and putting stuff into boxes.

“I never liked this place, I mean, it’s horribly cramped and inconvenient and the only reason we managed to stay here for so long was because Robert was mostly living at the school,” she rambles, talking more to herself than to Edward. Still, Edward takes in every piece of information about her and Mr. Myers’ life. “But now I see how many memories this place holds and it’s just… I don’t know which would be worse, moving out or staying here with all of those memories.”

The pale February sun catches on the dust dancing in the air and onto Anne’s hair, making the red of it look like fire. For a moment Edward feels a dull ache for a life he never had and never will.

“Oh, this box was sent from the school. Go ahead, I don’t want it,” Anne says, carrying another box over to Edward and dropping it down, sounding slightly pained. Edward does as he’s told, finding more papers, books, and lesson notes for classes that Mr. Myers never got to teach. He tries not to think about how these things mean nothing to anyone else but to him.

There’s one book on the bottom of the box that catches his attention. It’s The Alan Wayne Foundation Catalog , the same book that Edward thought would lead him and Bruce to the Owls. He’s surprised that Mr. Myers had it.

“Interested in architecture?” Anne asks him from the other side of the room, where she is wrapping tea cups into old newspapers.

“Not really,” Edward says, paging through the book absently.

“Oh, well, I got him that,” Anne says with a shrug. “I used to work in an architecture firm and they had those lying around. It surprised me how much Robert liked that one. He wasn’t one for architecture, either.”

Edward only hums, smoothing his thumb over a corner of a page that has been dog-eared. The page is about the students’ dorm building in St. Aquinas’. He doesn’t think about it too much but puts the book into the pile of things he wants to keep anyway.

When the doorbell rings two hours later, and the granny yells from downstairs that another boy is asking for Anne, Edward knows that it’s time to leave. Bruce is waiting for him outside the door, looking as uneasy as Edward did when standing in his place, and smiles in relief upon seeing Edward.

“It was so good seeing you, Edward,” Anne says, when Edward has gotten his jacket back on, and before Edward can really prepare for it, hugs him. “I wish for nothing but good things to happen to you.”

She lets go, and Edward follows Bruce out of the door and into the chill winter air. The warmth of the hug persists.

**

On Valentine’s Day, St. Aquinas’ hosts its annual dance in tandem with Gotham’s oldest all-girls boarding school, St. Bernadette’s. Its original purpose in history was to get young people to meet the opposite sex in a virtuous and controlled setting but over the years it has turned into a slightly awkward prom night, which usually ends with half of the students from both schools secretly getting drunk by the bleachers.

Edward has never taken an actual part in the dance, always having snuck out of the dining hall-turned-into-a-dance-floor and back into his room. Bruce – of course – has, and Edward is sure that he’s going to do so this year, too. That’s why he’s surprised when Bruce suggests that they skip the whole thing.

“Really? Shouldn’t the Prince of Gotham be there to keep up his appearances?” Edward asks, slightly mocking. They’re sitting in his room, not really doing their homework or anything, just hanging out. That’s a new thing for him, too.

“I’m turning eighteen in a week, this is the last time I don’t have to show my face at an event,” Bruce says.

“Your life must be so hard,” Edward says, getting a pillow thrown at him in return.

Of course, he goes along with Bruce’s plan.

On the Valentine’s Day evening, when the school has been decorated with fairy lights and lanterns in shades of red and pink, and the halls are full of boys in their tuxedos, looking more or less bored and uncomfortable, Bruce and Edward sneak out of the school through a hole in the fence behind the football field. Edward feels giddy, almost drunk, as they slide down the snowy hill, both of them laughing and hushing each other, even though there is no one to hear them anyway.

It’s snowing lightly when they catch a bus on the main road at the bottom of the hill. Sitting on the back and going towards the city, they can see a line of fancy cars driving towards the school.

“Must be the girls,” Bruce says, turning around in his seat to look at the tail lights of the cars through the dirty window. Edward only hums, not even turning to look. He knows that it’s stupid to feel jealous of the girls for getting Bruce's attention. After all, Bruce is there with him, so Edward must have something that they don’t.

They drive all the way to Midtown Island because Bruce says that he knows a good movie theater there. Edward knows the place, too, because a block away from it there’s a Chinese restaurant that he sometimes does deliveries for during summer. He doesn’t tell this to Bruce. The Edward that Bruce knows is very different from the Edward he is during summer.

The only movies showing that night are a romantic comedy, a romantic drama, and one about the Zodiac Killer. Edward and Bruce choose the latter. While Edward ponders the candy selection, Bruce goes and buys them both tickets and a bucket of overpriced popcorn, not telling Edward until he has them and refusing to take the money Edward tries to give him for the tickets. Edward wants to be angry at him for it – he knows that Bruce won’t ask him to pay him back, but it only makes him feel like he owes him even more – but the auditorium doors open and he doesn’t get the chance.

Even the Zodiac Killer movie screening is full of couples, which makes Edward wonder if there really is no place for lonely people to go today, other than home. Well, he’s not lonely, he’s with Bruce, but that’s different. It’s not a date , it’s just two friends hanging out, except that the other friend is constantly fighting the urge to lean over and kiss the other.

Oh God, when did it get this bad for him?

The movie is long and surprisingly uneventful, and Edward finds himself being more interested in the way Bruce picks up handfuls of popcorn from their shared bucket and eats them straight from his palm with his eyes glued onto the screen. The sticky feeling swells inside of him, making him want to stick his hand into the bucket with Bruce’s and intertwine their fingers, their hands covered in butter and salt. He turns away, making a face to himself, and tries to focus on whatever the detective character is doing on the screen.

It’s sad, really, the way he’s clinging onto the first person who is nice to him. He likes Bruce, he really does, but not in the right way. Envy gnaws on the bottom of his stomach as he thinks about other boys and the way they can laugh and hug and wrestle without it meaning anything. He thinks about the school soccer match last spring and how he had sat by the bleachers and watched how one of the boys scored a goal, mud all over his shin guards, and how the rest of his team had run over to him, almost knocking him over with the force they had hugged him with. That’s when Edward had understood the root of the disconnection he had been feeling for most of his life.

Almost three hours later, the auditorium lights turn on, and Edward’s feelings slither back into the dark where no one can see them. Next to him, Bruce stretches and yawns.

“Let’s go eat something, I’m starving,” he says. Edward thinks about licking the salt and butter from his fingers.

“Okay, you choose the place,” he says instead.

They end up just getting hot dogs from a steaming street food cart and eating them while wandering the busy streets where couples are laughing and clinging onto each other and stressed-out men are running with flower bouquets and chocolate boxes that have been bought too late to mean anything. Edward has always found Gotham to be unbearably ugly, especially the areas where he spends his free time, brown and gray concrete combined with all the trash, dirt, and despair on the streets, but tonight, in the red and pink glow of store windows and restaurants’ neon signs, it looks almost nice.

“The others are probably getting drunk by now,” Bruce says when church bells ring nine times from a few blocks away.

“Were you with them last year when Mr. Awlyn caught them under the bleachers and gave almost half of the class detention?” Edward asks, flicking a piece of fried onion away from the front of his jacket. There’s always a tightness in his chest when he thinks about the way Bruce is friends with the boys from the school, the same people who hate Edward.

“No, I just went back to my room after the dance,” Bruce says and throws his empty food wrapper into an overflowing trash can. “I don’t like being drunk, anyway. I hate the loss of control, you know?”

“Yeah, no, I get it,” Edward says absently. When he was twelve years old, he and two other kids from the orphanage picked the lock of the closet where the nuns kept the sacramental wine and drank three-quarters of a bottle, until one of the sisters caught them. He remembers the fuzzy feeling the lukewarm liquid gave him, as well as the sting of a belt against his back later. Last summer he and some boys from St. Jude’s hid on the concrete roof of the building and drank a bottle of cheap, disgusting vodka together. It resulted in him having a medium hangover the next day, which wouldn’t have been that big of a problem if he hadn’t had work and had to cycle around the city in suffocating heat until he ended up throwing up in the bathroom of a pizza joint while waiting for his next customer’s lunch deliver to get ready. He imagines Bruce in turn, cheeks flushed and a hazy look in his eyes with gold flakes stuck onto his teeth. He wonders what loss of control means for Bruce.

It’s getting late, but neither of them brings it up. Instead, they find themselves standing outside a jazz bar, listening to the music coming from inside as Edward – who ran out of cigarettes a week ago – passively smokes in a cloud of smoke that a group of young adults standing by them are causing. The venue is 18+ only, so they couldn’t get in even if they wanted to, but Edward doesn’t mind. They can still hear the music, and he can watch the way the neon lights of the place illuminate Bruce’s face.

“In a week you can get in,” he points out to Bruce, who just hums, not looking happy about being reminded about his birthday.

“Yeah, that’s about the only good thing about it,” he says and turns his face away from the doorway, leaning back against the wall and looking out onto the street. “Otherwise it’s just going to be people asking me if I’m going to study business and take the company, even though every time I think about it, the less I want anything to do with it.”

Two months ago Edward would’ve probably just rolled his eyes upon hearing this, wondering how Bruce Wayne could complain about having a billion-dollar company in the palm of his hand. However, now that he actually knows Bruce, he understands him. Bruce never wished for any of this. All of the money he has is piled onto his parents’ graves.

“And then there’s that stupid f*cking charity ball, oh my God. I’m going to die there, I’m sure,” Bruce groans, pushing himself away from the wall and stepping onto the street. Edward follows him, feeling guilty for bringing the topic up. For the entire month, Bruce has been more or less wired up about his birthday and especially about the Wayne Enterprises charity ball, which he has mentioned to Edward only briefly, always getting quiet and glum when it's brought up.

“Tell everyone that it’s a masquerade so that they’re all wearing masks and no one will even notice that you’re not there,” Edward says in an attempt to make Bruce feel better. The other boy gives him half of an unhappy smile, his hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his jacket. They walk in silence for some time without a direction, until Bruce suddenly turns to look at Edward, his eyes lighting up.

“You should come there, though, to the ball, I mean,” he says. “I know it’s a charity event and full of boring people, but it would suck less if you were there, too.”

The words make Edward’s face feel warm, and he’s glad for the darkness that prevents Bruce from seeing the way his face flushes, but he also feels his stomach twist a bit. He imagines a ballroom full of rich, beautiful people, Bruce in the center of it all, and then imagines himself, standing in a corner because he doesn’t belong there.

“I don’t know about that… I mean, I would but… I don’t have anything to give to charity, you know…” he tries, hoping for Bruce to catch what he means.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Bruce says, turning around, so that he’s walking backward, and takes Edward’s hands into his. “Please, Edward, please please,” he begs, trying to look pleading, even though a hopeful smile tries to break onto his face.

“Yeah, yeah, fine,” Edward laughs, trying not to look down where Bruce’s hands are holding onto his. “I’ll think about it.”

Bruce smiles at him victoriously and lets go of his hands, going back to walking by Edward’s side, while Edward tries not to feel guilty for getting his hopes up.

**

For the following week, the upcoming party looms over Edward like a dark cloud. Every time he goes outside into the thawing winter air, he hopes to catch a cold so that he would have an excuse not to go without hurting Bruce’s feelings.

“I don’t even have anything to wear,” he complains to Bruce one afternoon when they’re sitting in the library and writing a reflective essay about Theseus and the Minotaur for a history project.

“You can borrow my suit again, it’s not a big deal,” Bruce says, not looking up from his paper. “It’s not like it’s a fashion show.”

“I’m gonna look like a Mormon anyway,” Edward whines as his last attempt to get his invitation pulled back. Bruce only laughs, and the librarian hushes at him from between the shelves.

Edward doesn’t know why it is such a big problem for him. After all, going to a stupid party is the least he can do to give Bruce back something for all the things the other boy has done for him. Still, every time he thinks about it, he’s filled with anxiety and contempt. He remembers the charity events where the orphanage choir would perform when he was a kid. Those weren’t as grand as Bruce’s birthday party, that’s for sure, but he can still remember all the rich people in their expensive clothes and hundred-dollar haircuts watching them sing with pity on their faces, only to go back to chatting and eating hors d'oeuvres, while the choir got ordered back into a bus and driven back to the orphanage. Nothing ever changed for them, and Edward can’t believe that the people watching them have changed, either.

“You’re gonna catch a cold if you go out like this,” Bruce says to him one day after a gym class, which Edward had spent sitting on the bleachers with his jacket open and watching Bruce and the rest of his class run laps around the football field. Bruce’s cheeks are flushed from the cold and the exercise as he walks up the stairs to Edward. He looks like straight out of a health education textbook chapter talking about how important physical exercise is. Edward, on the other hand, sits on the slightly damp plastic seat and shivers in the wind coming from the sea, looking more or less anemic.

“Are you my mom or what?” he asks glumly. It’s only two days until the party and he still hasn’t told Bruce that he’s not coming. Bruce only scoffs, slightly humored, and reaches to pull the zipper of Edward’s jacket up to his chin. Edward’s heart skips a beat before starting to race.

“Oh, Jesus Christ, cut that out already,” he says, standing up and turning away so that Bruce doesn’t see the way his face changes color.

Lying in his bed later that night, Edward curses his own cowardice. He should just tell Bruce that he’s not going to the party. That’s the only solution to his situation. No, wait, he’s not going to say that to Bruce – he’s going to go and hate every second of it but at least he’s being a good friend by doing that. Yeah, that’s how it’s going to go.

*

On Bruce’s birthday, Edward finds himself sitting on the edge of his bed in his own clothes, the suit still hanging on his closet door. He’s supposed to be leaving with Bruce in ten minutes. He doesn’t think he’s going to do it.

Five minutes before he's supposed to leave, there is a knock on his door. Edward goes to open it, his chest feeling tight. Bruce is outside, his hair combed, wearing a dress shirt and pants but no jacket. His entire presence is tense, and the grave look on his face changes to confusion when he looks at Edward’s clothes.

“Why haven’t you changed yet?” he asks.

“I don’t… I don’t want to go,” Edward says quietly, looking at the floor.

“What?” Bruce asks.

“I don’t feel so good,” Edward says a little bit louder, looking up. Bruce looks at him with his brows furrowed and jaw clenched. Edward knows that he’s wired up about the party and that this is probably the last thing he wants to hear, but it’s already been said, so what else is there to do?

Bruce looks at his watch, then back at Edward, and sighs. Then he pushes past him and into the room.

“And you call me a terrible liar,” he says dryly and sits down on Edward’s bed. “What’s this really about?”

Edward takes a deep breath and closes the door, trying to not look guilty even though it’s all he feels.

“I can’t come to the party,” he says.

“Why?” Bruce asks, frustration visibly starting to rise within him.

“Does it matter?” Edward asks, looking away. Oh god, he’s a horrible friend.

“Yeah, it does, Edward!” Bruce snaps, throwing his hands in the air. “You can’t just leave me hanging at the last minute and not tell me why.”

“Okay, well, I don’t want to go,” Edward says, crossing his arms across his chest. Might as well tell the truth. “I don’t want to go to your rich people party, where all of the people think that they’re doing something noble by dressing up and giving away a fraction of their wealth, even though they’re really not changing anything. I’m not one of them and they all know it.”

Bruce just stares at him, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Are you being serious right now?” he asks. “Edward, it’s not going to be like that, I promise. Now c’mon, just put on the suit so we can leave.”

“Are you listening to anything I say?” Edward snaps, Bruce’s frustration rubbing off onto him. “I don’t want to go to a charity party while wearing your suit! I don’t want to be there, surrounded by rich people, and feel like a charity case! That's how I feel every single day in this school and I hate it, Bruce, I hate it!”

Bruce blinks at him, his expression softening a bit, and for a second Edward thinks that he understands. Instead, he stands up and says: “I get it, but can we talk about this in the car or something? Please?”

Edward feels something dark red slosh inside of him, making his hands shake.

“I’m not your dog on a leash, Bruce! I don’t have to go just because you want me to!” The anger and disdain that have been sleeping inside of him so peacefully that he’s already forgotten about them flare up again, and he sees Bruce the way he used to before the rose-colored glasses of a pathetic crush blinded his vision. He might be Edward’s friend, but he’s still a rich boy who will never understand what it means to have nothing.

Bruce’s face drops to that, and for the first time ever he looks like Edward has genuinely hurt him.

“What– what is that supposed to mean?” he asks, taking a step towards Edward, who feels trapped with his back against the door. For a moment Edward is sure that Bruce is going to punch his teeth in or start crying or both.

“I'm not going,” he manages to say, even though the words try to catch in his throat. His face feels hot and he's painfully aware about how close they're standing. Bruce only stares at him, and Edward thinks about how he could just lean in and kiss his stupid face and ruin this whole thing for good.

“f*cking fine,” Bruce says finally and steps back, letting Edward move out of the way so that he can open the door. “If you feel that way, then whatever.”

And then he’s gone, the door closing behind him with a flat bang. Edward stands frozen in place, the warmth of the anger fading away almost immediately and leaving him shaking.

He should go. He should open the door and go after Bruce and fix this while he still can, but he can’t move. The moment passes and then it’s too late. In his mind, he can see Bruce walking down the stairs all the way to the first floor, through the underground corridor to the entrance hall, and finally outside, where a car is waiting for him. He drives away. Edward still hasn’t moved.

He’s done it again – ruined everything just because he felt bad. It’s actually a miracle that Bruce has tolerated him this long, considering that Edward has never done anything for him. He couldn’t even go to his birthday party, even though Bruce basically begged him to come, for God’s sake. Oh, he’s really f*cked it up now.

Feeling is coming back to Edward’s limbs but he still doesn’t move. He's just going to stay here and wait until he dies, which will hopefully be before the party ends so that he doesn’t have to worry about confronting Bruce. He lets out an unintentional and pathetic sniffle and slowly takes off his glasses. It’s stupid, everything is so stupid, him on the top of the list. Jesus Christ, why didn't he just go ?

The suit is still hanging on his closet door, a constant reminder that he made the wrong choice. Disappointment mills inside of him until it turns into something dark red and burning. It's not completely his fault, is it, though? Maybe if Bruce could've been a little less Wayne and tried to emphasize with him, they wouldn't be in this situation right now. Maybe if he hadn’t looked at Edward like a kicked puppy, he wouldn't be feeling like sh*t right now. Maybe if they hadn't worked on the Christmas service together and gone back to the chapel and found Mr. Myers’ body, unwillingly tangling themselves into the web of whatever is going on and simultaneously tying themselves to each other, they wouldn’t be friends and everything would be fine.

Well, none of that matters anymore, does it?

He thinks about Sister Carol and the words she said to him a million years ago in the orphanage. “You will get so many new friends, of course you will.” He wonders what she would think of him now.

He doesn’t go down for dinner, only lies in a fetal position on his bed and stares at the opposite wall, watching it get darker along the sky outside. He wonders if Bruce is going to come get his suit or if he is going to have to go give it back himself. Everything is so horrible and embarrassing.

Eventually, he gets tired of thinking and closes his eyes, not really intending to sleep but not wanting to stay awake either. Disappointment and sadness settle over him like a blanket, and he can’t move underneath it.

The glowing numbers of his alarm clock tell him that it’s twenty minutes past midnight when someone knocks on his door. Edward stirs from his slumber and puts on his glasses, still in his day clothes, trying to figure out who the f*ck could be outside his door at this hour. He doesn’t know why he’s so surprised – shocked, almost – when he goes to open the door and finds Bruce standing in the dark corridor.

“Hi,” Bruce says, quiet and slightly awkward. His hair looks a bit disheveled even though it’s been visibly slicked back with gel, a couple of stiff strands falling onto his face. He’s wearing an open winter coat over his dress shirt. Edward looks at him like he’s seen a ghost. A really good-looking ghost, but still.

“Why aren’t you at the party?” he asks, nervously glancing over Bruce’s shoulder and into the hallway. It might be the weekend, but the night patrol doesn't allow sneaking around even then. Bruce shrugs, his hands deep in his pockets.

“I left early. Took a cab,” he says, like it’s nothing, and looks over his shoulder. “Can I come in before someone catches me and gives both of us detention?”

Edward says nothing, only steps back, letting him in. His heart is racing and his arms feel numb. What is going on? What is Bruce doing in his room?

“Are you mad at me?” he blurts out when they’re both inside and the door is closed. Bruce turns to look at him, the little light coming from outside illuminating his amused features.

“Why would I be?” he asks, genuinely baffled. Edward blinks at him. Is this a test? A joke or something? Is Bruce acting stupid on purpose?

“Because I blew you off on your birthday and was being such a sh*t friend and–” he begins, the list getting longer the more he thinks about it. He doesn’t get to continue, however, because Bruce stops him, putting his hands on Edward’s shoulders and centering his attention.

“I’m not mad at you because of a party, Edward,” he says, almost laughing. “It sucked, anyway. It was just like you said it would be, even though it would've been better if you had been there.”

“Still, it’s your party,” Edward says. The warmth of Bruce’s hands feels like it could burn through his sweater. “You should be there.”

“It was the company’s party, really. I didn’t have anything to do with it except for being the one to cut the cake,” Bruce says with a shrug. “And besides, I’d rather be here.”

Thank God it’s dark because Edward feels blood rush to his face so fast that he feels like his nose is going to start bleeding. How does Bruce always say these things like they’re completely normal?

“I don’t understand you,” he mutters, looking down between them and seeing his own socked feet opposite to Bruce’s shiny dress shoes. “I don’t understand why you put up with me.”

Bruce’s hands trail down Edward’s arms, and Edward feels like there’s an electric current running through him. He’s never been good with touch, not wanting anyone to get too close to him. Bruce might be the first one.

“Because you’re my friend and because I want to,” Bruce says like it’s obvious. Like it’s really that simple. Edward looks up at him and scoffs.

“Sounds like a lot of work,” he says. It’s mostly a joke, but Bruce looks at him with his eyes wide and shakes his head.

“It really isn’t,” he says. He’s still holding onto Edward, and Edward feels the horrible, sticky, and filthy feeling rise within him.

It feels wrong to have Bruce thinking so highly of him, to have him caring about him this much. It feels like cheating, and maybe Edward wants to prove him wrong, to tell him: No, I will actually ruin this and then you’ll understand.

Maybe that’s why he leans in and kisses him.

It’s more like a crash than a kiss, fast, uncoordinated, and much more aggressive than intended. It’s definitely not the kiss Edward has imagined embarrassingly often in his head before falling asleep but at the moment he doesn’t care. Bruce lets out a surprised noise against his lips and his hold of Edward’s arms loosens, and that’s when Edward realizes what he’s really done. Fear fills him until it’s all he can feel, and he pulls back. For a second he stands frozen in place and looks at Bruce’s face, his wide eyes and parted lips. He’s so pretty like this. Then the adrenaline kicks in and he bolts towards the door.

He doesn’t know where he would go, they’re in his room, after all, not to mention that it’s the middle of the night. All he knows is that he has to get out. He pulls the door open, revealing the dark corridor behind it, his escape route. Before he can get out, however, Bruce’s hand appears from behind him and slams the door shut in front of him. The sound is like a gunshot, echoing in the silence of the night.

And there Edward is, trapped between Bruce and the door, feeling like a rabbit that knows it’s going to be mauled to death soon. Bruce’s hand is still on the door, caging Edward with no way out, and Edward feels oh so small. He imagines how it would feel if Bruce punched through him, like Edward’s just a piece of drywall.

He opens his mouth, his entire body shaking. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to, please, Bruce –

But before he gets to speak, Bruce’s mouth is on his.

This must be a dream or a hallucination. He must’ve hit his head and is actually lying on the floor, bleeding out, this scene being the last one his brain plays for him to see before he goes. This isn’t real.

Bruce touches his face, his hand warm against Edward’s cheek. This is all very much real.

The kiss lasts simultaneously forever and not long enough. When Bruce finally pulls back, Edward feels dizzy and out of breath and doesn’t know how to do anything but stare at the other boy. Bruce is still holding his face in his hands, looking almost as shocked as Edward, as if he can’t believe what he’s just done. Edward opens his mouth, not even sure what he’s going to say, but Bruce raises a finger to his lips quickly. The sound of floorboards creaking is coming from somewhere down the hall. Someone is coming up the stairs.

They stand in silence, frozen in place, listening to the footsteps that have reached the fifth floor and are getting closer. The sound of the door must’ve alarmed the night patrol. If they get caught in the same room in the middle of the night, there are going to be consequences. Edward isn’t exactly sure what those consequences will be but isn’t keen on finding out, either. The footsteps stop outside the door. A floorboard creaks. Both Edward and Bruce are holding their breaths. The silence stretches and stretches, and for a moment Edward is sure that the next thing he’s going to hear is a knock on the door. Then, finally, the footsteps start going back down the hall towards the stairs. Edward and Bruce don’t move or make a sound until the steps have become inaudible.

“That was close,” Bruce whispers, stepping back and wiping his forehead on the sleeve of his coat. Edward doesn’t move, all the adrenaline in his body making him tremble silently. Bruce gives him a worried look. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Edward breathes out, mindlessly raising his hand to touch his lips. He can still feel Bruce’s lips against them. “Listen, I’m– I’m sorry.”

Bruce blinks at him. “About the party still?”

“No, you idiot,” Edward says, his face burning in the dark and his hands coiling into fists from embarrassment. “About kissing you.”

“Oh,” Bruce says, and then: “Why? I mean, I kissed you back, didn’t I?”

Edward doesn’t know what to say to that. Could it be that Bruce has been wanting the same things as him the whole time? That every time that he has said or done something that has made Edward blush and feel like he’s going crazy, it’s been on purpose? Could it really be?

“Yeah… I guess,” he says finally, scared that he’s going to break some kind of a spell by doing so.

“So, there’s no problem?” Bruce asks, a cautious smile appearing on his face.

“I guess,” Edward says, and the same smile breaks onto his face slowly. He’s having a hard time believing it, but it’s true. There is no punishment, no humiliation. He’s gotten what he wants this once.

Bruce smiles at him, suddenly looking all shy. Edward wants to devour him completely.

“I still feel bad for leaving you here today, though,” Bruce says suddenly. “I mean, I was being kind of a dick and–”

“Oh, shut up about that already,” Edward says, almost laughing and pushes himself off of the door, stepping towards Bruce. This time he allows himself to get closer than before without feeling like he’s doing something wrong, allows himself to touch Bruce and take off his winter coat without the fear of being pushed away. Bruce lets him.

“Do you think that I would get caught sneaking back into my room?” he asks, the coat falling from his shoulders. Edward looks at him and finds him smiling.

“Better play it safe,” he says, a smile appearing on his face, too. His heartbeat is racing as he lets his fingers brush against the skin of Bruce’s neck above the collar of his shirt. He feels Bruce’s heartbeat drumming underneath his fingertips and watches the way his Adam’s apple bobs as he unbuttons the top button of the shirt. His pale skin looks like marble in the dim light but is warm to the touch.

*

They sleep in Edward’s bed, Bruce wearing one of Edward’s few thrift store t-shirts with a faded logo on it, his arm wrapped around Edward so that he doesn’t fall out of the bed, which is not made for two people to sleep in.

It’s early, the sun not even having risen yet when Bruce has to sneak out of the room. Edward lies in the bed, watching as he puts on the rumpled dress shirt and pants from last night.

“See you down at breakfast,” Bruce says with a smile before slipping out of the room.

When he’s gone, the small bed feels awfully empty and cold. Edward knows that he’s not going to get any more sleep, so he sits up, picks up his book bag from the floor, and sticks his hand into the side pocket, feeling the smooth metal surface of his lighter in his palm. He pulls it out and flicks it open, watching the flame in the pale morning light and smoothing his thumb over the carvings on the side. With a deep breath, he lifts his other hand and hovers it over the flame, palm facing down, lowering it until the heat on his skin turns into pain. The flame licks his palm, a flash of pain making him pull his hand away. He hisses and flicks the lighter back shut. There’s an ugly, red splotch on his palm and it’s most likely going to become a blister. Edward looks at it and smiles. This is real.

Notes:

i haven't forgotten about the actual plot, dw
thank you for reading! lmk what you think

Chapter 7: keeping secrets

Chapter Text

Bruce doesn’t consider himself a secretive person. Private, maybe, but not someone who keeps secrets. A lot of people have called him those things, sometimes even mysterious if they’re feeling dramatic. It's been mostly by the press – reporters running after him on the streets, asking him all kinds of stupid questions, like “What kind of secrets is the young Prince of the city hiding.” Bruce hates the nickname, he hates those reporters, and he has no secrets. There is a difference between knowingly withholding some kind of important information from his friends and loved ones, and then there is him not telling something because it’s not really relevant or important.

But now he has a secret, a big one, and it’s only between him and Edward. He thought that keeping something secret would feel crushing and suffocating, but it really doesn’t. It’s almost fun knowing something that no one else knows. Sometimes, when they’re in the morning assembly and he’s standing a couple of rows ahead of Edward, he’ll look over his shoulder, see the other boy, and smile, and Edward will smile back, only the two of them knowing what it really means.

It’s a little bit thrilling, too, especially when they’re in his or Edward’s room and Edward’s lips are on his neck and his hands are underneath his shirt, and Bruce can hear the people walking and talking outside the door, none of them knowing what’s happening inside. Maybe it’s kind of dangerous, too. He’s not sure if the school rule book has a section forbidding relationships between students – most likely not, since St. Aquinas’ used to be a Catholic all-boys school and such a thing didn’t even come into question – but the other students would probably have their word on the matter, for better or worse. To be honest, someone finding out wouldn’t be that big of a deal for Bruce, but it is for Edward, so it’s just better to keep quiet about it. Bruce doesn’t mind – it’s nice having Edward all to himself.

Still, maybe he’s not that good at keeping secrets, or maybe it’s just this one, because one day in mid-March, when he’s putting his shirt on in the locker room after a gym class, a voice booms from behind him, loud enough for everyone else in the steamy room to hear.

“Wayne’s got a girl!”

The conversation stops, and Bruce turns around to see the talker. It’s James, who is drowning himself in Calvin Klein One body spray and grinning at him. Normally Bruce would just let the remark go unnoticed but this time it hits a sore spot.

“And where did you get that from?” he asks, trying to sound as unbothered as he can.

“I can see it right from your face, man,” James says. “And you also have a hickey.”

Bruce instinctively touches his collarbone through his shirt, feeling his face get warmer, half from embarrassment and half from annoyance from seeing James’ stupid smile. Bruce doesn’t know why the guy thinks that they’re friends or at least the kind of friends who can talk about these things. The only thing that they have in common is that they were lab partners during the second chemistry course during freshman year.

“C’mon, who is she?” James asks. Bruce is embarrassingly aware of the fact that the other boys are also listening to the conversation.

“None of your business, Jimmy,” he says, ready to leave, but is once again denied the chance.

“No, let me guess,” James says. “Is she… a redhead? You liked that one redhead once, right?”

Honestly, Bruce has no idea what James is going on about. He hasn’t had any crushes in the last six years and can’t remember any that might’ve been before. He only gives James a tired look. The guy is probably doing this just because Bruce blocked him too many times during a basketball game earlier.

“Give me at least some clue! Is she from the f*cking… kickboxing sh*t? Someone sporty?” he keeps on asking before turning to look up at a boy who is standing on one of the locker room benches so that he can smoke a cigarette through a ventilation window. “Roberts, place your bets. What kind of a girl is Brucie seeing without telling us?”

Roberts gives the both of them a slightly amused look from the heights.

“A girl?” he asks skeptically. “Well, I’d say that it’s some nerd with mousy hair. Maybe glasses.” He looks at Bruce. “Would fit the profile, right?”

“Oh, f*ck off, both of you,” Bruce says, finally getting enough and storming out. Edward always complains about how he’s friends with assholes, and Bruce is starting to agree with him more every day. They’re not even his friends, not really, just people who he was friends with once and who have stuck around for the same reason that their parents stuck around for Bruce’s parents – it’s all about the name and the money and the connections. Bruce despises it, the life that he was given but which he doesn’t want.

He doesn’t tell Edward about the locker room conversation, because he knows that he would get worked up about it, but he still complains about the boys to him, since he knows that Edward loves talking sh*t about them.

“Sometimes I just want to punch their teeth in,” he says to him after the dinner when they’re lying in Edward’s cramped bed, his back against Edward’s chest, staring at the cracks in the ceiling.

“Now, if I said that, you would say that I have ‘anger management issues’,” Edward says, playing with Bruce’s fingers and absently running his thumb over his knuckles.

“No, I’m managing my anger just fine,” Bruce says. “I’m just saying that I’m thinking about it.”

He thinks about his monthly check-ups with Kim, where he sits in her forest green office and listens to her ask something along the lines of: “How’s school been? Good? Okay. And how about the feelings of anger?”

He’s not an angry person, or at least he doesn’t lash out, but sometimes he feels it, like some kind of heat in his veins, and he has to push it down before it bubbles to the surface. He’s not an angry person but when he gets angry, something breaks.

**

Early spring is pretty that year, or maybe it’s just a relief to see some sun after such a harsh winter. It’s time for the students to crawl out of their dorms and the library and spend their afternoons outside on the damp grass and sunshine that is getting warmer with every passing day. Bruce isn’t a huge fan of the outdoors but even he finds himself sitting by one of the slowly decaying picnic tables that sit underneath the old oak trees growing on the school grounds. On the other side of the table, Edward sits with his puzzle book, trying to hold the pages down in the slightly chill wind coming from the sea.

“Do you think that they’re going to hold the Easter service this year?” Bruce asks, looking down the hill, where the chapel is standing, dark and quiet in the afternoon sun. Even before the winter’s events, the building was left almost abandoned, but now it seems that everyone from the students to the teachers is consciously avoiding going near it.

“I guess, but probably in the assembly hall or something,” Edward says, not looking up from the book. “Mr. Awlyn asked me to sing there but I said no.”

“I didn’t know that you could sing,” Bruce says, genuinely surprised. He has a faint memory of Edward telling him that he’s not that musical.

“I was in a choir as a kid,” Edward says with a shrug.

“I didn’t know that either.”

This time, Edward looks at him. “Well, it’s not really important.”

“Maybe, but it’s still a nice thing to know,” Bruce says, getting a scoff in answer.

“Right, whatever,” Edward says before going back to scribbling down words into the book.

That’s the thing about Edward: Everything is a secret to him. At first, Bruce thought that Edward didn’t tell him about himself because they weren’t friends but would eventually open up about certain things. Of course, he knows Edward better now. He knows the movies and books he likes, as well as the fact that he sleeps curled up, as if to take up as little space as possible, and that he has an old rosary hanging on the inside of his closet door but that he never wears it. Still, there are things that he doesn’t know, things that most people let slip out when telling a story or a funny anecdote. Edward, on the other hand, keeps those things close to himself, and Bruce has to almost pull them out of him.

Edward almost never voluntarily talks about his childhood in the orphanage or the way he spends his summers. Bruce knows that during summer he lives in a boys’ home, but that’s about it. He once tried to ask about it and the things that Edward does during the summer but the only answer he got was: “I work, Bruce. What did you think I’d do? f*cking scuba diving?” Bruce had known better than to press it because that usually ends with Edward yelling at him to mind his own business.

There, in the windy spring afternoon, Bruce watches Edward, and the way his brows knit together when he thinks about something really hard, and wonders how little he really knows about the boy. It should probably make him feel uneasy or at least slightly bitter. After all, he’s let Edward completely into his life and into his home, whereas Edward has barely even cracked the door for him. However, he doesn’t. Maybe that’s the thing he likes about Edward, along with everything else. He’s not easy. Edward likes to say difficult, but it has such a negative ring to it that Bruce dislikes it. The thing is, everyone always wants to get close to Bruce, they always want to know things about him without really knowing him. Edward was never like that. Bruce doesn’t think that they would even be here right now if Edward hadn’t hated him so much at the start.

“I think you should sing there,” Bruce says after a long silence. Edward looks up again with a sigh.

“Oh, shut the f*ck up already,” he says but when he looks back down, Bruce can see a smile on the corner of his mouth. He gently kicks Edward’s foot underneath the table, and Edward kicks him back.

**

They spend one full weekend in the Tower for no other reason than that there’s only so much time they can spend in each other’s room at school without someone getting suspicious. It’s also because there’s a kickboxing tournament coming up, and even though it’s just a local small-scale thing, Bruce wants to practice for it.

“Are you holding back or are you just getting soft? C’mon, now,” his trainer, Raya, scolds him after a set. “Also, your hair is getting long. Are you going to cut it before the tournament?”

“I don’t think so,” Bruce says between heavy breaths. He thinks about Edward’s hair, which has grown over his ears and is long enough on the back so that Bruce can playfully pull on it, which always makes Edward try to land a punch on him. It’s not like it’s against the rules of St. Aquinas’ to have long hair, but having a clean cut is part of the status quo in the same way that not wearing thrifted clothes is. It’s not Edward’s fault that he’s going against it. It’s stupid anyway, and so Bruce is letting his hair grow, too.

“Fine, just don’t let it get into your eyes,” Raya says. “Now, let’s try again. A little more rage this time.”

Even though they’re in the Tower and no one is there to see them, Edward still pretends to go to sleep in his own room (at this point that’s what Bruce calls the guest room, since Edward is the first person to sleep there in maybe six years) before sneaking into Bruce’s room in the evening. They laugh and hush at each other underneath the covers, even though no one is there to hear them.

Edward doesn’t let Bruce see him without a shirt on. He can only touch him. That’s how a lot of things are with Edward; Bruce is allowed to touch but not really see them. He’s tried to ask about it, but those are the moments when Edward closes up almost completely, and so Bruce doesn’t push that either. It doesn’t matter, not really. When they’re in his bed and his hands are underneath Edward’s shirt, while Edward’s hand is down his pants, feeling him is enough.

“It’s so weird to think about how much I used to hate you,” Edward whispers when the lights are off and they’re lying under the covers. He lifts his hand and moves a strand of hair away from Bruce’s face, gently tucking it behind his ear. Bruce looks at him through his half-open eyelids, waiting for him to continue, but instead, Edward changes the subject and says: “I like your hair when it’s long. It looks good.”

“You think so?” Bruce mumbles into his pillow. He’s so close to falling asleep. “I think it looks better on you.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Edward laughs, pulling his hand away. “I just keep it that way because it would be useless to get it cut more often than once a year.”

“You’re pretty anyway,” Bruce says but doesn’t hear what Edward answers because he’s already drifting to sleep.

They return to the school on Sunday evening right before the dinner. They walk up the hill from the parking lot side to side, but when they reach the main building door, Edward takes a step away from Bruce and lets him go in first. Even though the distance between them has barely changed, Bruce can still feel that something else has. The weekend getaway is over and they’re back to normal.

His dorm room and bed are absolutely miniscule compared to the ones at the Tower, but that night the room feels bigger than usual and his bed is cold. He stares at the patterns that the dim lights coming from outside reflect onto his ceiling, unable to fall asleep. He knows that Edward is sleeping only two floors above him, but the distance feels unbearable at the moment. Bruce doesn’t think that he’s felt this kind of attachment to anyone since his parents and at this moment he remembers why he had made that choice. It’s a horrible feeling to miss someone like this.

**

The kickboxing tournament is one of those annoying, mid-week ones, with the first match on Wednesday, the second on Thursday and the last two ones on Friday before the finale on Sunday. That’s just how local amateur tournaments are, and Bruce wouldn’t be so pissed off about getting to skip class, if it meant that Edward could come with him, too. Unfortunately, Edward doesn’t get permission to go, and so it’s just Alfred and Raya with him at the event during the week.

The matches go just fine. Not that Bruce really expected anything else. He knows he’s good, and even though Raya has told him not to get too confident just because he has a shelf full of medals, it still puts Bruce in a certain type of peace to know that he’ll do well no matter what. It’s not like kickboxing or karate or any of the martial arts that he’s tried have been some kind of a passion for him. They’re more like an outlet.

(Once after a practice Raya had asked him: “Who are you fighting when you’re in the ring?”

“I don’t know. The opponent?” Bruce had said, even though he had known what Raya meant as well as the real answer. When he’s in the ring, he’s in the same dark alley as six years ago, but this time he’s not helpless. It doesn’t change anything, but it makes him angry, and anger makes him win.)

When he gets back to school on Friday evening, he’s tired and sore but also has a spot in the finale.

It’s that time of the evening when most of the students have gone home for the weekend or are still hanging out in the basem*nt or the living rooms on the floors above, which means that the halls are empty, but Bruce can still hear talking and laughter echoing through them. As tempting as his own bed sounds like right now and as much as he hates climbing up any more flights of stairs, he still finds himself knocking onto Edward’s door. He knows that Edward isn’t going to be with the others and is proven right when the door opens.

“How did it go?” is the first thing Edward asks him as he lets Bruce in.

“Good. Are you gonna come see the finale on Sunday?” Bruce says, slumping down onto Edward’s bed and dropping his gym bag onto the floor.

“Well, obviously,” Edward says. “You better win, then.”

“I’ll try,” Bruce says, kicking his shoes off and lying down on the bed, trying to pull Edward with him. “C’mere.”

“I have to finish my homework,” Edward protests.

“You can do them in bed.”

You haven’t even started yours.”

“I’ll do them tomorrow.”

“It’s chemistry. No one wants to spend their Saturday doing that.”

“I’m good at chemistry,” Bruce says, finally winning the tug-war and pulling Edward onto the bed.

“Okay, whatever, Mr. Med School Prep Course,” Edward mutters. He tries to wrestle Bruce onto the other side of the narrow bed, but Bruce manages to get him into a light headlock. Edward can only kick his feet and curse at him, while Bruce laughs and leans down to gently bite his earlobe. Edward stops fighting and sighs, his hands holding onto Bruce’s forearm.

“You’re such a freak.”

“And still you kissed me first.” Edward bends his neck to look at him.

“Doesn’t make it any less true.”

**

Usually, Bruce isn’t that nervous about matches, not even about the big and important ones, but on Sunday he’s a little wired up while sitting in the locker room with Raya and putting on his hand wraps.

“Everything good?” Raya asks him. The announcer’s voice booms outside the door.

“Yeah,” Bruce says, taking his mouthguard out of its case.

“I saw your friend earlier. He seemed nice,” Raya says, probably trying to ease Bruce up a little by talking, but it only makes Bruce feel even more nervous. He can’t remember the last time he wanted to prove himself this much. He only hums as an answer and puts on the mouthguard.

All of the nervousness finally bubbles onto the surface by the time he gets into the ring, the tension breaking when the bell chimes and the first round starts. The sound is like a sign for him to let go and let some of the ever-present anger drip out.

It’s an easy fight, or maybe he’s just going harder than usual. After the third round, Raya gestures to him to crouch down so that she can talk to him from the ground.

“Jesus, where was this energy in the nationals?” she asks, while Bruce takes a sip from his water bottle. “No, but seriously. Calm down a little or the judge is going to interrupt the fight as unbalanced.”

“I thought you said that I was getting soft,” Bruce says, standing back up and putting the mouthguard on. The bell chimes again.

He holds back a little for the last two rounds, but it’s already over for his opponent. When the fight is over and the points have been counted, it’s Bruce who gets the gold medal. The color of it doesn’t really mean anything to him, at least when compared to the smile Edward gives him when Bruce finally gets to him after all the ceremonials and photographs.

“You really beat that guy’s ass,” Edward says with a grin. He lifts his hand and for a moment Bruce thinks that he’s going to touch his face, but instead, he takes the medal that is hanging around Bruce’s neck and weights it in his hand. “Heavy.”

“Yeah,” Bruce says, doing his best not to close the distance between them. Instead, he just accepts the pat on the shoulder that Alfred gives him, and leaves him and Edward to talk with Raya, while he goes to shower and change out of his sweaty clothes.

They go out to eat afterward, all four of them. Nothing fancy, just some nice Italian. It’s very good, both the company and the food, and afterward Bruce feels overall happy and satisfied. The evening is pretty and the weather is good when they walk down a couple of blocks to the parking lot where Alfred left the car. The spring is nice, even though it means that the rats are back on the streets and the smell of garbage is more prominent. Bruce doesn’t pay attention to those things. All he cares about is that the winter and the cold are gone along with all the horrible things that they remind him of.

His mood doesn’t waver even when they arrive back at the school, where they’re greeted by the glum Sunday evening feeling that hangs over the dorm building, reminding the students of the upcoming school week. He and Edward sneak up into Edward’s room and make out on his bed until their lips are numb.

“You should go back to your room,” Edward says to him when the sun has already gone down and it’s only fifteen minutes until the lights go out. After that, it’ll be too late.

“Yeah,” Bruce says but does nothing to leave. The day is starting to get to him, and it’s so much nicer to lay underneath Edward without doing anything. Edward doesn’t move either, way too interested in the carvings on the gold medal that he has taken from Bruce.

When the voice of the night guard finally booms from the hall, telling everyone that it’s time to turn off the lights, Edward sits up and asks if Bruce needs a shirt to sleep in.

They sleep in Edward’s bed like they slept on the night of Bruce’s birthday. No one has to find out, as long as Bruce wakes up before the others.

Before he falls asleep, Bruce wonders how strange it is that if something horrible hadn’t happened, he wouldn’t be lying there next to Edward right now.

*

The sounds of doors slamming, and people walking and talking frantically in the halls wake Bruce up abruptly. It’s not morning yet, it can’t be. The glowing numbers of Edward’s alarm clock claim it to be only 3 am, but it sounds like half of the school is already awake. At first, he thinks that there’s a fire somewhere in the building, even though he can’t hear the alarm. He shakes Edward awake but that’s when he hears his own name in the conversation happening outside.

“What’s happening?” he hears someone’s sleepy voice in the hall.

“Where the f*ck is Wayne? Everyone is looking for him,” says another voice.

Next to Bruce, Edward finally stirs, mumbling a confused “What?” when Bruce climbs over him to get out of the bed and to the door. The halls are dark and full of boys standing in their pajamas and socks, everyone seemingly as confused as Bruce, who hurries past them without paying mind to whoever might see him coming out of Edward’s room in the middle of the night. He hears the same questions repeated all around him – What’s going on? Where is everyone going? – along with his name.

Everyone seems to be trying to get downstairs, and so Bruce follows them, hoping to get some answers there. He pushes past the people, all of whom are going to the third floor. He feels a tight ball in his chest when he finally gets to the third floor and sees a small crowd gathered outside one of the rooms. His room.

“Everyone, go back to your rooms now!” one of the night guards standing by the open door tries to order, but it only causes more people to appear. “And has anyone seen Bruce Wayne?”

“I’m here,” Bruce calls out, pushing through the crowd. The bad feeling swells in his chest, making him feel nauseous. Finally, he gets to the doorway to see what is going on. What he sees is his room, but not the way he left it.

There’s glass on the floor, glimmering in the dim lights coming from outside like ice. Bruce can feel the cold night air on his face. Someone has broken the window completely, only a couple of sharp shards still attached to the frame. The blinders have been torn off, lying on his messed up desk. He can’t step inside but he can still see enough. All of his stuff has been scattered onto the floor, books lying face down on the carpet, and CD cases shattered. His posters have been torn down from the walls. And then there is his bed. The covers have been pulled aside, revealing the mattress, which has been slashed open – gutted. His pillow has also been cut open, feathers covering the desk and bed like snow. Bruce can only stare at the sight in front of him. He doesn’t understand it.

“What the f*ck?” he hears a whisper and sees Edward, who has appeared next to him. His eyes look huge in the dark. “What is this?”

“I don’t know,” Bruce says quietly, staring at what used to be his mattress. The springs are sticking out of the cut like bones. He doesn’t even dare to imagine how it would look if he had been sleeping there.

“– and I just heard this loud noise and glass breaking and went ‘what the hell, dude?’” he hears someone, most likely James, explain behind his back. There are more confused voices asking questions, but Bruce closes his ears from them. Finally, the principal – Mr. Gould – appears at the scene and questions the night guard before ordering everyone to go back to their rooms.

“Mr. Wayne, come here,” he tells Bruce, pulling him aside. He looks much older in his morning robe.

“Where in God's name were you, when this happened?” he asks, sounding somewhere between angry and relieved.

“I was… I was sleeping in Nashton’s room on the fifth floor, sir,” Bruce says, too distraught to even try to come up with a lie. “He has a spare bed there.”

Mr. Gould looks at him, but Bruce can’t quite make out his expression in the dark. After a moment, he sighs.

“That obviously goes against the school rules, but whatever happened in your room seems to be so much worse that I think we’ll be able to overlook it this time,” he says. “There really isn’t anything we can do about this until the morning when the police arrive, so I would suggest that you go back to Mr. Nashton’s room since you’ve already made yourself at home there. I’m sure that things will look much clearer in the morning.”

“Yes, sir,” Bruce says. Confusion and fear have taken up all the space inside of him and he can’t even feel relieved. He climbs up the stairs to the fifth floor, and even though silence has fallen over the school again, he can tell that nobody is really sleeping.

**

The first thing Edward sees when he wakes up is Bruce sleeping in the normally empty bed on the other side of the room. He hasn’t put any bedsheets on and is laying on the bare mattress with a pile of Edward’s clothes and books kicked to the foot of the bed. For a moment Edward can’t understand why he’s sleeping there, but then the events of last night come back to him. Glass on the floor, feathers in the air. Edward feels cold even under the covers.

There are only so many things that he can brush off as a coincidence. Something is happening or has been happening ever since Christmas. First Mr. Myers, now Bruce. Edward feels suddenly sick.

“Bruce,” he says, and the other boy opens his eyes slowly.

“Hm?” Bruce makes a noise against his pillow. All of the words Edward wants to say get stuck into his throat. He can’t let them out, can’t spell out his fears, because it would make them all real.

“Let’s go down for breakfast,” he says instead.

The dorm halls are even more chaotic than on most mornings. The main reason for this is that one of the third-floor corridors has been proclaimed as a crime scene, and therefore students aren’t allowed to go there. Even so, Edward and Bruce try to see what is going on there.

“Keep moving, boys,” a young police officer tells them when they approach the tape-lined corridor. Edward recognizes him as Officer Gordon from the night of Mr. Myers’ death. Gordon seems to recognize them, too, because his expression changes into a less stern one when he says: “Go to the main building to give your testimonies.”

“When can I go get my clothes and stuff?” Bruce asks him. He is wearing Edward’s school sweater without the standard button-down shirt or a tie. Gordon looks over his shoulder and into the room, where the crime scene investigators are standing in their white overalls.

“We’ll inform you then,” he says and nudges his head towards the stairwell.

The school entrance hall is crowded with students, teachers, and police officers. Mr. Gloud is standing by the dining hall door and telling people where to go if they have seen or heard anything that might help the police. When he sees Edward and Bruce, he stops them and says: “Boys, the DI is waiting for you in the common room.”

The only person in the common room is the school secretary, who gives both of them a nervous smile as they step in. She doesn’t get to say anything to them before the door to the principal’s office opens, and DI Ramos steps out.

“Right, Mr. Wayne, if you could come in for a moment,” he says, gesturing towards the office. He gives Edward a quick look before saying: “You just sit tight.”

The door closes behind them, and Edward is left in the common room with the secretary. He sits down on a coffee-stained couch and listens to the quiet ticking of a clock on the wall.

“Have you eaten yet, dear?” the secretary asks him from behind her desk after a moment of uncomfortable silence. Edward shakes his head silently, and she lets out an exaggeratedly disappointed huff. “Oh, that’s not right. I’ll go get you something so that you don’t starve before going to class, alright?”

“Yes, thank you,” Edward manages to say. With that, the secretary leaves the room, and Edward is all alone. He listens to the clicking of her heels recede and finally fade away, before standing up and sneaking over to the office door. He presses his ear into the seam between the door and the doorframe and listens to the muffled voices coming from inside.

“– but this is also a question of your safety,” he hears Ramos’ voice say, “and therefore I would like to talk to you at the station. I know that you’re a legal adult now, but if you want or see the need to, you can bring a guardian of some kind with you.”

“But why?” asks Bruce’s voice in return. “I’m not going to be pulled out of school because of this if that’s what you’re getting at.”

There’s a brief moment of silence until Ramos talks again.

“You’re an adult, so I’m going to be straight with you, Bruce,” he says. “I obviously cannot tell you the details of this investigation, but as far as we know, there is evidence that could link this possible attempt on your life to the open murder case that happened here last December.”

“You think that this has something to do with Mr. Myers’ death?” Bruce asks after a brief pause. “As in, there’s a serial killer, who killed him and is now after me?”

“I can’t say anything yet,” Ramos says dryly. “I would rather discuss this at the station later today if possible.”

Bruce is quiet, and Edward can feel that he wants to know more, just as Edward does, but ends up only saying: “Fine.”

The sound of chair legs scraping against the floor makes Edward step away from the door and quickly sit back down on the couch, trying to look as if he’s been there the whole time. The door opens, and Bruce steps out, looking more glum than usual.

“Mr. Nashton, your turn,” Ramos’ voice calls from inside.

The moment he steps into the office, Edward gets a weird feeling. For a second he can almost smell the lingering smell of cinnamon and candles and feel a bruise on his forehead. It’s Christmas all over again. Ramos is sitting on the other side of the table, just as he was the last time, and gestures to Edward to sit down. He starts by taking Edward’s description of last night, even though Edward doesn’t really have anything to tell. Finally, he gets to the real questions.

“This might seem strange and irrelevant, but since you were one of the main witnesses in the Myers case, I want to ask you if you have had any strange encounters or received any kinds of threats since then. I don’t mean to alarm you in any way, we’re just collecting evidence,” he says.

Edward only looks at him. He could tell Ramos about the letters both he and Bruce received. Those were threats, maybe even noteworthy ones now that Mr. Myers’ death seems to have something to do with all of this. He could also tell about the man who came to talk to Bruce at the cemetery, or about all of the little details that have struck out lately.

“No, I haven’t,” he says instead, and then, just out of pure curiosity: “Do you have any suspects in the case? Do you know who murdered Mr. Myers?”

“I cannot answer that.”

“So you don’t have any leads,” Edward says, leaning back in the chair. He’s been following the news and reading true crime message boards in the computer hall during his free periods, so he knows this already. There has been nothing new reported on the case since early January. Ramos’ eyebrows knit together and he presses his lips into a thin line.

“You’re Bruce Wayne’s friend, right?” he asks, ignoring Edward’s remark. Edward only nods. Ramos hums and scratches his stubble. “He refuses to leave the school, so all I can hope is that you two look after each other. It seems that you’re always at the scene when we arrive. That’s all, then, unless there’s something else you want to tell.”

“I don’t,” Edward says blankly. “Can I go now?”

“Sure, thank you,” Ramos says with a heavy sigh.

Bruce is sitting on the couch and talking on the phone with someone – most likely Alfred – when Edward steps out of the office. The secretary is back, gesturing towards a plate of sandwiches on the table. Edward takes one, even though he’s not even remotely hungry anymore. A nervous buzzing has set underneath his skin, and all he can think of is the shadowy figure hanging on the chapel wall and the sight of Bruce’s demolished room. The feeling that he’s been right since the beginning is starting to take root in him.

“Yeah, bye, see you then,” Bruce ends the call before turning to look up at Edward. “Well?”

Edward glances at the secretary and then at the office door.

“Let’s go to class,” he says without answering Bruce's question.

They leave the common room just as the bell rings and the halls empty of students. Edward sees this as an opportunity and pulls Bruce into one of the second-floor bathrooms without a word. It’s empty, only the citrusy smell of cleaning spray lingering. Bruce gives him a confused look when Edward closes and locks the door.

“What’s this?” he asks. “We should be in class.”

“You don’t even have your books, so I don’t think we’re gonna miss out much,” Edward says, leaning back against the sink and throwing the uneaten sandwich into the trash. “Besides, this is more important. Even the DI thinks that whoever broke in and tried to slit your stomach open is the same person who killed Mr. Myers.”

“Jesus Christ, Edward, don’t say it like that,” Bruce mutters, looking at his shoes on the slightly wet floor tiles. The pale yellow ceiling light makes him look tired and slightly sickly. “It sounds like you’re excited about it.”

“I’m not,” Edward says quickly. Of course, he isn’t happy about someone possibly trying to kill Bruce, but he can feel a glint of smugness somewhere deep within himself from having been right from the start. At least to a degree. Maybe this isn’t the work of some kind of a secret society, but it certainly has something to do with the two of them. Or at least Bruce, but at this point he and Edward are a package deal. Bruce crosses his arms across his chest but keeps his gaze down.

“Alfred is freaking out, obviously. He wants to pull me out from school for safety reasons,” he says and sighs, turning to look up towards the flickering light. “I’m not going to, but still… I just don’t understand this.”

He looks at Edward, and the look on his face is like that of a child who is lost at a grocery store. Edward feels his heart sink a little. He stands up straight and reaches to touch Bruce’s arms.

“Hey, it’s okay,” he says. “At least now the police have more clues and stuff. They’ll figure this out.”

He’s not sure if he believes it, but it’s all he knows to say.

“Did you tell them about the letters?” Bruce asks. Edward blinks at him.

“No,” he says finally. “Did you?”

“No,” Bruce says. “I mean, they could probably do something with them, but I knew that you wouldn’t tell, either.” He gives Edward a pungent stare. “I think that you still want to try and solve this case by yourself.”

“I don’t,” Edward insists, letting go of Bruce. It’s almost the truth. “Listen, I was being childish back then but now I… I don’t care about what happens, I only care about you.”

He means it. He has never considered himself a necessarily self-sacrificing person but for Bruce he could be one. A small smile breaks onto Bruce’s face.

“No need to get romantic in a bathroom,” he says. “It’s fine. Just don’t go running around in abandoned buildings without me.”

“I’m never going to live that one down, am I?” Edward says, almost smiling. “Okay, let’s go to class.”

The school day goes by like in a dream. Edward’s thoughts are somewhere far away, blurry with snow, dust, and feathers. Of course, he’s not going to try and catch the murderer, he’s not stupid nor suicidal. Still, it doesn’t mean that he can’t think about it. The entire case is strange. Maybe Mr. Myers’ death was an isolated incident, maybe it was the work of a serial killer, who seems to be after people connected to St. Aquinas’. Maybe the letters have something to do with it, maybe not, but if they do, why was Edward included?

Edward’s head hurts from thinking that has nothing to do with schoolwork by the time he sits down for lunch with Bruce. He’s not hungry, either, and ends up only moving his mashed potatoes around on his plate. A group of boys are sitting around him and Bruce, trying to pry out any bits of information about last night, but neither of them gives them anything.

When they’re out of the dining hall and can finally breathe without someone being right on their faces, Bruce asks if Edward wants to come to the police station with him after class.

“I didn’t really get an invite,” Edward says, but Bruce looks so pitiful and pleading that he can’t help but follow up with: “But yeah, I can. It’s my free period, anyway.”

The drive to the police station is quiet and tense. Alfred is driving, and Edward can see his grave profile from the backseat. It probably has something to do with the fact that Bruce wants to stay at school, and Edward has a feeling that one of the reasons why Bruce wanted him to come with him was so that he could dodge the conversation with Alfred.

The beautiful spring weather that made yesterday so bright has hidden behind a fleet of gray clouds in the sky, making the city look as miserable as always. The police station stands tall and dark in the middle of it all, just the sight of it making Edward feel uneasy. He can barely remember anything about his last visit there – his memories of those days are foggy, even though it’s been only three months – but he can recall that it wasn’t pleasant in the slightest.

“Do you wanna come in or…?” Bruce asks him, already standing by the door with Alfred, while Edward is still at the bottom of the stairs. Edward looks at the slightly menacing building standing in front of him, imagining sitting outside DI Ramos’ office and listening to the yelling of the people in the drunk tank.

“I think I’ll go buy coffee or something,” he says, sticking his hands into the pockets of his jacket. It’s that awkward time of year when it’s too warm for him to wear his winter jacket but his military surplus jacket is still slightly too cold.

“Oh, okay,” Bruce says, sounding a bit disappointed, and pulls his phone from his pocket, stepping down the stairs to give it to Edward. “Take this. I’ll call from Alfred’s phone when we’re done, okay?”

“Right,” Edward says, looking at the phone and feeling the buttons with his thumb. Bruce gives him a close-mouthed smile before hurrying back up the stairs and stepping through the doors with Alfred, leaving Edward standing in the gray afternoon.

It’s been some while since Edward has been alone in the city. It feels weirdly calming walking down the cracked sidewalks and listening to the noises of everyday life coming from apartment windows and trains riding above his head. It reminds him that even if it seems like things aren’t making any sense at the moment, it’s actually how they always are in Gotham. Living with rich kids and being shielded away from the chaos of the city has apparently made him forget about the hecticness of everyday life.

He finds a small store around a corner and pays some day drunk sitting outside to go in and buy him two packs of cigarettes. He hasn’t smoked in over a month because his stash ran out then and Bruce has refused to buy him cigarettes, even though it’s the only thing Edward has ever asked him to buy.

He lets the man keep the change after getting the cigarettes and keeps on walking, pocketing one of the packs and tearing the plastic off the other one as he goes. The area around him looks strangely familiar, but in his disoriented state, he can’t remember why.

A gust of wind makes him shiver and turn around another corner so that he can stop and light his cigarette. When he looks up and breathes in the smoke, he finally realizes where he is and why the part of the city is so familiar to him. On the other side of the street stands a hideous, five-story building with beige concrete walls and bars over the windows. There’s a metal plate bolted onto the wall next to the door with the words “St. Jude’s Boys’ Home” carved into it. Edward stares at the building in disgust. He should’ve gone in the opposite direction. However, curiosity gets the best of him, and so he keeps on walking on the other side of the street, watching the house where he spends the worst months of his year.

He’s never seen the place outside the summer months. It has been a conscious decision, and now he comes to the conclusion that he hasn’t been missing out much. St. Jude’s looks exactly like it does during summer, maybe even worse. Edward takes a drag from his cigarette, too focused on eyeing the dented trashcans outside the building to notice someone waving at him through the bars on one of the third-floor windows. It’s only when he hears his name called that he understands to look up.

“Nashton! f*cking look here, man!” someone yells at him. All Edward sees is a waving hand that is soon pulled inside. The same voice yells: “Wait there!”

Edward should probably leave while he still can. This is exactly the kind of mixing that he doesn’t want happening between his life during the school year and the one he lives during the summer. Still, for some reason, he crosses the street and walks over to the front stairs of the building, just as a boy bursts out of the front door.

“I knew it was you! Even though you don’t have that girly hair now,” the boy says, leaning against the railing of the stairs as he catches his breath. It takes Edward a second to recognize him. It’s Leon, one of the six guys who he shared the room with last summer. He looks different now than he did the last time that Edward saw him. Back then his hair was in twists and he had a black eye that he had gotten a week before Edward returned to St. Aquinas’. Now his hair is cut short and he has a patchy mustache that isn’t exactly flattering on him. Edward finds himself smiling at him, if not out of delight, then at least out of surprise.

“I thought that you would be out of here by now,” he says.

“Nah, I still have 25 days until I’m a legal adult. Until then I’m a prisoner,” Leon says with a shrug. He’s wearing his FedEx uniform jacket over a tank top, probably leaving for work soon. “The question is, why are you here? I thought you’d be at your rich-boy school. Don’t say that you got kicked out or something. That would be hilarious.”

“I’m just waiting for my friend,” Edward says, getting an amused look from Leon.

“Oh, you have those now?” he says. “I thought that those kids were all – what did you call them? – ‘braindead co*keheads’?”

“No, that was just my old roommate,” Edward says, putting the cigarette back to his lips so that it doesn’t go out. He doesn’t exactly remember what he has told about his school life to the boys at St. Jude’s, but it’s definitely nothing good.

“Right,” Leon says, straightening his back and looking at the cigarette hungrily. “You wouldn’t happen to have more of those? f*cking Jones confiscated mine last week.”

Edward remembers Jones, one of the social workers in St. Jude, an angry man built like a wall. He made Edward clean the toilets at least ten times last summer after he found him smoking under the extractor hood in the kitchen. Edward pulls the opened cigarette pack from his pocket and offers it to Leon, who finally comes down the stairs and takes one. Edward offers him his lighter and watches as Leon lights his cigarette.

“This is a nice one,” Leon notes, looking at the lighter and running his thumb over the carvings on the silver cover.

“I know, give it back,” Edward says because even though he knows that Leon isn’t the biggest kleptomaniac in St. Jude’s, he’s not going to take any risks. He gets the lighter back without any protests and pockets it. Then they sit down on the stairs and for a moment it’s summer again. Edward can imagine the oppressive heat of a July afternoon and the impatient feeling he gets when he’s waiting for one of the other boys to come back so that he can take his bike and leave for work.

“So, do you have an apartment already, since you're almost free?” he asks Leon. It’s true that most kids who get out of St. Jude’s end up straight on the streets, but those who are smart enough know to apply for city-funded housing. Leon has always been on the smarter end of the spectrum.

“Yeah, almost. I talked to that one city-worker lady and she said that I might get a room in some sh*thole in Tricorner. At least it's better than this place,” Leon says and turns to look at Edward through a cloud of smoke. “What about you? Do you already have a spot in some fancy college where you can hang out with more sh*thead rich kids?”

“I'm working on it,” Edward says. Honestly, he hasn’t even started writing his scholarship application. It can wait a couple of weeks longer. “But I'm coming back here for the summer until I turn eighteen. I need to get some money.”

He doesn’t like reminding himself of the fact that getting his diploma doesn’t make him actually free. Leon gives him a slightly pitying look.

“You could go and work in the sewers. A lot of guys who have left here say that they get pretty decent money down there.”

“Ew, f*ck no. What do they even do down there?” Edward says, a shiver running down his back just from the thought of the dark, smelly, and rat-festered sewers that lie underneath Gotham – a circulatory system pumping the endless stream of filth out of the city.

“Dunno, but Skinny – you remember Skinny? – left in October and the last time I saw him he said that he was doing construction or something. Talked about sawing marble and stuff, I don't know,” Leon says, taking another drag from his cigarette. Edward has no idea who ‘Skinny’ is but doesn’t care enough to ask. Every time he comes back to the house for the summer, there are at least a dozen new boys with an empty or slightly insane look in their eyes. Edward never bothers to learn all their names.

“Right. Well, I'm not going into the sewers, no matter how much they pay me,” he says, flicking what’s left of his cigarette down onto the street. Leon only chuckles.

“Whatever, man. You can keep on sucking people off in your little delivery boy uniform if that suits you better.”

“Shut the f*ck up, I'm not sucking anyone off!” Edward snaps at him, and Leon laughs the same laugh he did last summer when they were standing on the roof of the building behind them with a bottle of horrible vodka and smelling like cheap weed. There’s something calming about it. Maybe it’s just the familiarity of it, which Edward’s life has been lacking lately.

“Not judging, man. Whatever it takes to get that coin.”

“As if you're any better,” Edward bites back. Obviously, he’s not sucked anyone off, not while at work or any other time, either, but he knows what Leon is referring to. It’s the echoing stairwells of buildings during summer and the doors that open into dark and stuffy apartments. It’s the lingering touch of sweaty fingers against his palm when he gets paid and a brief silence when the door should be closed already but isn’t. A dry cough before a quiet question. Are you thirsty? I have lemonade if you come in.

“I didn't say I was,” Leon says and grins. This time Edward laughs, too. It feels strange being here now that the weather isn’t hot yet and he is still wearing his better shoes instead of his sneakers that are falling apart in the back of his closet. He’s not the boy he’s during summer but at the moment he’s not really the same person he is when he’s in school, either. Edward from school has never gotten detention, he’s never skipped class before and he does all his schoolwork excellently. Edward from St. Jude’s steals people’s unlocked bikes from the streets to go to work and pays for only half of the stuff he takes with him from the grocery store. They’re two different people and they shouldn’t meet.

“No, but seriously, Ed, if you need a place to stay during summer, you can sleep on my floor or something. Wouldn't be the first time we share a room,” Leon says, waking Edward from his thoughts. This time he sounds serious. “Unless that rich friend, whose name you won't tell me, has a nicer place.”

Edward doesn’t get to answer, because as if God has heard their conversation, the phone in his pocket starts buzzing. He pulls it out and answers.

“Where are you?” Bruce’s voice asks from the other end of the line. Edward stands up, suddenly coming back to his senses. He shouldn’t be here.

“I’m at a store. I’m leaving now,” he says. He really doesn’t want Bruce to show up right now. “Just… wait at the station, I’ll be there in two minutes.”

He doesn’t let Bruce say anything and ends the call before turning to Leon, who is looking at him curiously.

“I really gotta go. My friend is looking for me,” he says, trying to keep his cool instead of running away as fast as he can. Leon just nods and reaches out his hand for Edward to grab. Edward takes it and squeezes.

“Good seeing you, man,” Leon says with a half a grin on his face. “And remember, if you need a great roommate for another summer, just hit me up.”

“Yeah, I will,” Edward says. He can remember the summer Leon arrived at St. Jude’s with bruised knuckles and a loud voice. It was also Edward’s first summer there. They had shared a bunk bed then, too, and Edward had gotten the bottom bunk, as always. Once Leon had asked him about the cross that Edward used to wear around his neck back then. He had said: “My mom, she killed herself, and people say… They say that she’s in Hell because of that. I don’t believe that. If she’s in Hell, it’s because she used to hit me with a belt.” And then he showed Edward the scars on his back, letting Edward trace his fingers along them.

Edward lets go of his hand, turning away and hurrying back to the direction he came from. By the time he reaches the police station, he’s back to the self he’s supposed to be.

The drive back to the school is quiet, but this time the silence is different. Edward can see Bruce’s reflection in the window, noticing how pale and upset he looks. He can also see the worried look on Alfred’s face, which tells him that whatever is bothering Bruce, he hasn’t told it to him either.

The classes have ended by the time they arrive, but Edward doesn’t really get a chance to ask Bruce about what happened in the station, because they have to spend the majority of the late afternoon moving Bruce’s stuff into Edward’s room – or their room, which it is now. The police have left, but the nervous atmosphere hasn’t changed at all. While Edward and Bruce crouch on the floor of Bruce’s old room and stuff his CDs and books into their bags, an endless stream of boys comes by, all of them asking the same, stupid questions, until Edward gets tired of it and tells all of them to f*ck off before slamming the door in their faces so that he and Bruce can continue their work in silence.

It’s only in the evening, when it’s only the two of them in their room in their pajamas, that Edward can finally talk to Bruce in peace.

“So, what did the cops say?” he asks. Bruce is lying on his back on his new bed, which finally has actual covers and everything, and is pretending to read, even though his eyes aren’t moving and he hasn’t turned the page in the last ten minutes. He puts the book down and sighs, sitting up.

“Do you remember the guy who came to talk to me at the cemetery after Mr. Myers’ funeral?” he asks Edward, looking pale and slightly unwell. Edward nods. “Well, he’s dead. Murdered. They showed me a photo of him – when he was alive, I mean – and asked me if I knew him.”

Edward only stares at him. This is not what he thought he was going to hear. “What… what did you tell them, then?”

“The same I told you at first – that he talked to me and wanted to give his condolences,” Bruce says with a limp shrug. “Then they showed me an evidence photo of a weapon found in the murder scene, and I swear to God, Edward, it was the same kind of knife as the ones that were stabbed through Mr. Myers’ wrists in the chapel. They knew it, too, but they wanted my word on it.”

Silence falls into the room.

“What?” Edward asks finally, feeling a little out of breath.

“But that’s not everything, because… they found another one of those knives from the tear in my mattress,” Bruce says. “It’s the same guy. The same killer. Even the police say so.”

Edward can only stare. It sounds unbelievable, but he knows better than to deny it. The case is starting to take a form, there’s a certain structure now, but somehow everything is even more complicated and confusing than before. And scary.

“Did you remember what that guy told me at the cemetery?” Bruce asks, leaning forward, the look on his face gradually getting more pleading, as if he’s waiting for Edward to tell that none of this is actually true. “‘They’re real, they’re everywhere, and they’re sending him for you, both of you.’ I don’t think that he was just a crazy person. I think that we’re both in danger.”

“Bruce…” Edward says, standing up and taking one and a half steps across the room to sit down next to him. “The police will catch whoever the killer is, I’m sure.”

He doesn’t believe the words even as they come out of his mouth and he knows that Burce doesn’t either. If there are two bodies and a bunch of evidence but no suspects, it’s not looking too good. Still, Bruce nods and leans against Edward when he wraps an arm around him.

“I just didn’t think that my senior year would go like this,” Bruce says. “I mean, I didn’t have any expectations, but…”

“Yeah, well, none of this was in the curriculum,” Edward says. It’s not funny, not really, but he can still feel Bruce shake a little from laughter.

When the lights go out, Edward goes back to his own bed, but neither of them sleeps. It’s strange sharing a room with someone after such a long time.

“You know what this kinda reminds me of?” he whispers. “The orphanage. Two orphans sharing a room.” He doesn’t mention that there were more of them in one room in the orphanage. He can hear Bruce hum in answer.

“Where did you sleep as a child?” he asks from the other side of the room.

“In a bunk bed, bottom bunk,” Edward says. “And you?”

“Between my parents,” Bruce says quietly, and Edward hears him let out an almost inaudible sob somewhere in the dark. It’s unexpected, and makes his heart sink. He’s never seen or heard Bruce cry.

“Do you miss them?” he asks carefully. Bruce rarely mentions his parents, and Edward never really asks about them. It’s not like he’d have anything to contribute to that conversation.

“Yeah, like, all the time,” Bruce says in a strained voice. Edward can’t take it anymore. He gets out of his bed and sneaks over to Bruce’s bed, lifting the covers a little and lying down next to Bruce, who is curled up with his face against the wall. He wraps his arms around Bruce and rests his cheek against his shoulder. Bruce is taking deep, uneven breaths and holds Edward’s hands.

When Edward was small, he used to go to the nursery at the orphanage with Sister Carol to see the babies. “Hold them like this,” she would tell him. “If they cry, just sing to them, and they’ll calm down.”

He hasn’t sung to anyone in years, not since his choir days, but in this moment a melody finds its way out of his chest. He doesn’t remember the name of the song but it doesn’t matter. He hums it against Bruce’s shoulder, quiet and wordless. Slowly, Bruce’s breathing calms down and his hold on Edward’s hands softens. Edward can feel him drifting away in his arms and hopes that he'll dream of something good.

Chapter 8: bloodbath for birds

Notes:

cw/ f slur

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Edward gets the flu in early April when the weather is already warm but the heavy rain makes everything colder. It’s nothing serious, just a couple of days of lying under covers with a fever and a bottle of Tylenol from the school nurse, but Bruce is worried about him nevertheless. He brings Edward food all the way from the dining hall during his lunch breaks and puts his hand on his forehead to try his temperature when he thinks that Edward is sleeping.

“Have you considered becoming a nurse?” Edward comments from underneath the covers (both his and Bruce’s blankets have been piled on top of him and make him feel like he’s in a panini press) when Bruce spends an entire evening fussing around in their room as if that’s any help. “Calm down before you catch something, too.”

“I miss kissing you,” Bruce says, sitting down on his knees on the floor and leaning against Edward’s bed like a character from a melodramatic period-piece movie. Edward only laughs and pulls his hand out from underneath the covers, cupping Bruce’s cheek and watching how he leans into the touch. It’s in moments like this that Edward realizes – over and over again – that he has a boyfriend, someone who likes him so much that he wants to spend all his time with him. He doesn’t call Bruce that, though. To him, Bruce is just Bruce, which means more than calling him his boyfriend. Besides, in what situation would Edward even call him that?

Maybe it’s just that he’s not a romantic person and doesn’t really know how to be one. He doesn’t know how to say sweet things without sounding at least somewhat sarcastic, he’s not good with physical touch most of the time, and he still can’t let Bruce see him without a shirt on just because of how much he dislikes the way he looks underneath it. He doesn’t know how to be together with someone, but it doesn’t seem to bother Bruce.

“You can kiss me when I’m better,” Edward says. Bruce only hums and moves Edward’s hand away from his face to take it into his hands, absently feeling the underside of his forearm with his thumb. It’s Edward’s clean wrist, so he lets Bruce do it until he gets tired of it.

*

On his last day of being ill, when he’s lying in bed with the remains of fever still making him feel weak and tired, and a strong wind whistling outside the window, he has a strange dream. It’s almost more like a memory than a dream. In it, he’s standing in Mr. Myers’ classroom, just like he has done dozens of times after class when waiting in the halls felt too unsafe and uncomfortable for him. Mr. Myers is there too, of course, sitting by his desk next to a pile of unsorted papers and books and paging through one of them. For a moment, things are just like they used to be.

“Have you read this one, Eddie?” Mr. Myers asks, closing the book so that Edward can see the name on the cover. It’s The Alan Wayne Foundation Catalog, the same exact book that Edward took with him from Anne’s apartment.

“No, I haven’t,” Edward answers, and Mr. Myers hums, opening the book again. The classroom is bathing in the late afternoon sun.

“I thought that you might find this interesting, because…” he looks for a page and finally finds it. “This is where you used to live, am I correct?”

Edward looks down at the page and sees that it’s about Wayne Manor, or the orphanage, as he knows it.

“Yes,” he says.

“Did you ever go down to the basem*nt?”

Edward looks at Mr. Myers and blinks. A cloud covers the sun.

“There was no basem*nt,” he says. Mr. Myers tilts his head with a slightly amused look on his face, as if Edward has just approached him with a theory that isn’t completely correct. But Edward knows that he’s right. There was no basem*nt in the orphanage. He lived there for 14 years, so he would know.

“Of course there is,” Mr. Myers says and keeps on paging through the book absently. “Everyone is just always paying attention to the attics.”

Edward says nothing, only stands there and watches the man, until the bell rings and he wakes up in his bed, sweaty and disoriented.

His copy (or Mr. Myers’ copy) of The Alan Wayne Foundation Catalog is lying on the bottom of one of his desk drawers, and he has to empty half of the assorted books, papers, and trinkets from it in order to get the book out. Finally, he sits down on the edge of his bed and starts paging through the book. It takes him a while to realize that the page about Wayne Manor doesn’t in fact exist and was only a figment of his imagination. After all, the manor was built a long time before Alan Wayne was even born. Still, the strange feeling from the dream lingers. Edward keeps on turning the pages, stopping to look at the one about St. Aquinas’ dorm building and the small owl garnishes on its walls. For a moment he’s back in the City Library with Bruce on New Year’s Eve. It feels like an eternity ago. There’s a faint line on the corner of the page where it used to be dog-eared. Edward looks at the black and white photo of the owl, wondering where exactly it is, and simultaneously trying to tell himself that he’s not still trying to find possible leads.

Lessons have ended for the day and there are noises coming from the halls as students retreat into their rooms, but Edward doesn’t really pay attention to it until the door to their room opens and Bruce steps in. Edward quickly hides the book underneath his pillow and turns to look at him.

“Hey,” he says, feeling like he’s done something criminal. They haven’t really talked about any of the murders or the night when someone broke into Bruce’s room and possibly tried to kill him, mostly because Bruce gets really distressed when Edward even mentions it. Edward understands it, but at the same time, there’s constantly a certain type of tugging on the back of his mind telling him that there is something that he isn’t seeing even though he should.

“Hi,” Bruce says, dropping his bag onto the floor and loosening his tie. Everyone has changed into their spring uniforms, which are the same as the winter ones but with a sweater vest over a button-down instead of a full sweater. Edward doesn’t know how he’s going to dodge wearing the short-sleeved summer uniform, but that’s a problem for a later time. “Do you feel any better?”

“Um, yeah, actually,” Edward says. It’s true, almost as if the last fever-hazed dream took away the rest of his sickness. “Might actually be able to go to class tomorrow.”

“That’s good,” Bruce says, stepping over to Edward’s bed and leaning against the edge, one knee on the mattress as if he’s going to crawl on top of Edward. He doesn’t, but Edward can see from his face that he’s thinking about it. Bruce has that small, shy smile on his face that he often has when he wants to kiss Edward but is waiting for him to go for it first. Edward only tilts his head and looks up at Bruce with a smile, until the boy breaks and leans down to kiss him. Edward pulls him down by his tie, and Bruce finally crawls on top of him, until they’re lying on the bed in a slightly awkward position. Edward can feel the book underneath his pillow, but ignores it and focuses on kissing Bruce.

The dream still lingers.

*

The window of Bruce’s old room gets fixed, but he doesn’t move back in. Edward isn’t sure how much of it is because he wants to keep on sharing a room and how much because he’s afraid of going back into the old one. The thing is, if the person who tried to attack Bruce knew his old room, he’s going to find out the new one, too. Whoever it was, he was somehow able to climb up the outside wall for three floors and get out the same way without being seen. If he really wants Bruce dead, he’ll find a way. Edward doesn’t say his thoughts out loud. He doesn’t even want to think about them, but somehow they always find their way back into his head when he’s lying awake at night and listening to Bruce’s steady breathing.

The more he thinks about it, the more paralyzed he feels. The police are doing nothing, or at least they’re getting nowhere. There are no suspects, no new reports on the case, or anything new in general. There’s also nothing Edward can do about it, but he still feels like he should. Instead, he tries to focus on school. There are only a little more than two months of the spring semester left, which means that he should be thinking about college. At least that’s something he can actually control, unlike the moves of a mysterious serial killer, who is possibly after his boyfriend.

He tries to keep himself busy by drafting his scholarship application letter, but it turns out to be much more difficult than it should be. If he tried, he could make his entire life seem like one big sob story and get a fully funded scholarship with tears and flowers, but he’s never been good at writing. How could he compress his entire life into a thousand-word letter? He also doesn’t want to make himself seem like the poor little orphan that everyone has been seeing him as for the last four years, or for his entire life, to be honest.

The stress doesn’t necessarily make him feel any better, especially not when combined with the looming fear that has been hanging over him ever since the break-in, but it distracts and confuses his feelings enough to make him almost forget about the murders and threats and owls. That is, until the spring break.

He and Bruce go to The Tower for the week, and Edward realizes that it’s already the second school break he’s spending there. Maybe he could even spend the summer there instead of St. Jude’s. He hasn’t gotten around to asking Bruce about it yet, but it’s not like Bruce would say no. They spend the break a lot like they spend the days after New Year’s, except now there is more kissing. Edward is pretty sure that Alfred has found out about them already, even though the butler doesn’t bring it up and pretends to not notice the fact that Edward is not sleeping in the guest room anymore.

Then, one morning, Edward wakes up alone in Bruce’s bed to a blood-curdling shriek. The noise is like nothing he’s heard before, making his heart race and the hairs on the back of his neck stand up as he jolts awake. He’s looking for his glasses from the bedside table, ready to run out of the room to see what is going on, when the door opens, and Bruce steps in, still wearing his pajamas but looking otherwise just fine.

“What the f*ck was that?” Edward asks, his heartbeat still much above average.

“Oh, it’s nothing. Just a bird that got in,” Bruce says with a wave of a hand and shuts the door, getting back to the bed with Edward. “Alfred called the animal rescue.”

The screech sounds again, this time even more horrifying than before. It makes Edward’s blood run cold and forces him to cover his ears.

“What kind of a bird even makes a noise like that?” he asks once it’s quiet again.

“I don’t know, I think it was like… an owl. Or something,” Bruce says. Edward can see that he instantly regrets telling it.

“An owl?” Edward asks blankly. Bruce sighs and leans back on the pillows, not looking at him. “What kind of an owl?”

“Well, you know, one of those medium-sized ones with white faces. I don’t know what they’re called,” Bruce says, waving his hand in front of his face as if that’s supposed to support his description in any way.

“A barn owl?”

“I guess.”

“Do those get in often?”

“How would I know?” Bruce asks, visibly not wanting to keep on talking about the topic. “Listen, the animal rescue people are going to come and get it soon. Let’s just stay here until then.”

“An owl just randomly got in?” Edward keeps on asking. “I don’t know if it’s just me, but that sounds really weird, especially considering the stuff that has been going on lately and – I don’t know – the fact that the both of us already got threats mentioning The Court of Owls–”

“Stop that,” Bruce snaps, sounding uncharacteristically frustrated. “I don’t want to hear any conspiracy theories about how some secret society is sending us threats. I’m already freaking out over the fact that - you know - someone tried to stab me in my sleep.”

He sounds and looks genuinely stressed out, and so Edward leaves it be. Still, he can’t stop thinking about it. He thinks about it even after people dressed in green overalls and earmuffs come and take the owl away. He thinks about it for the remaining days of the break when he and Bruce walk around Central Park to see the remaining cherry blossoms that haven’t yet flown away with the wind. He thinks about it when they’re at a record store or a bakery and when Bruce feeds him half of a pain au chocolat while they walk down the streets and back towards The Tower.

When they arrive back at the school on Sunday, Edward quietly finds the letter he’s hidden in his bottom drawer and reads it again in secret.

Beware of the Court of the Owls, that watches all the time, ruling Gotham from a shadow perch, behind the granite and lime. They watch you at your hearth, they watch you at your bed, speak not a whispered word or they’ll send The Talon for your head.

Owls. They keep popping up time after time. At first, it might’ve been only a coincidence, but it’s getting harder for Edward to believe. The buildings funded by Bruce’s great-great-grandfather with owls on their walls, the strange letters pushed between window frames five and fifty floors up, two murders and one attempt, and now a wild owl in Bruce’s home. Edward had told himself that he wouldn’t jump to conclusions again, but this doesn’t feel like that anymore. Maybe the police aren’t getting anywhere with the case, because they’re missing a crucial part of it. Maybe Edward should go to them and tell them everything he knows.

Obviously, he doesn’t. Instead, the next time he has to attend the IT club (the only club he agreed to attend after his short and unfortunate run in the chess club), he makes it his mission to log onto a chat forum on one of the school computers. While the teacher stands in the front and tries to explain Java to the group, Edward searches up a forum, where people are discussing – as it says in the description – ‘all things strange in Gotham’, and writes a quick message before closing the browser. He’ll have to come back for it later when he has the time.

He gets the chance to do so two days later during his free period when Bruce is at gym class, and the computer hall is empty but the door is still unlocked. Edward sits in the dark room, where dust floats against the stray rays of spring sun coming in through the half-closed blinds, and boots one of the computers up, constantly glancing over his shoulder. There’s a high chance that he hasn’t gotten any responses, or at least anything actually helpful, but he’s still feeling hopeful as he logs back onto the forum. He finds his own message soon enough and, to his delight, some answers.

[3n1gm4]: Hi, does anyone have anything on “The Court Of Owls”? I haven’t been able to find any info on it, even though it’s a pretty popular urban legend. Anyone on here think that there might be some truth to it or is it just bs? Also, what is “The Talon” mentioned in the nursery rhyme? Thanks.

[mothdiaries]: i think it’s a sex thing

[chrissss]: yeah, definitely like a sex cult thing for the rich.

[birdwatcher]: Not a sex thing but a cult/secret society kinda thing where the rich decide on the city’s things. They’re the real decision-makers, and the city officials have to listen to them because otherwise The Court gets them. That’s what The Talon is for, an assassin of sorts.

[ra1n]: The reason no one actually talks about them is because they would probably be found dead the next morning. Anyone who knows too much is GONE. Pretty sure that happened to the Waynes.

[birdwatcher]: I would say that the Waynes themselves were part of The Court if anything.

[ra1n]: You’d think so, but Thomas Wayne was doing too much sh*t for the city for them to like it. Like the renewal fund? Too much money dripping down.

[XXy99]: i saw the talon once. He was wearing a mask and had a knife. and also wings.

[lovelylovelylovely]: @birdwatcher I think that what you’re talking about is actually the mafia. I know that it’s not as exciting as the whole secret society theory, but it’s true. The city isn’t run by the elected officials but it sure as hell isn’t ruled by some birds, either.

[birdwatcher]: The Court has been around for much longer than the mafia, believe me. There are traces of it all the way back to the mid-1800s. They’re everywhere but they’re good at staying hidden.

[lovelylovelylovely]: And where are you getting all of this from?

[birdwatcher]: Just read some books about the history of Gotham and you’ll start seeing clues. I’m not going to keep on talking about this. I like being alive.

Edward reads the messages over and over again, wishing that there were more, and ends up writing down the main points in his chemistry notebook – assassin, secret society, the Waynes, history. Then he deletes his message and shuts down the computer, leaving the class the way it was before him.

He doesn’t tell Bruce about any of this, it's really for the best. He knows that Bruce would only get upset and worry about him, saying something like: “You really should talk to someone professional, Edward. It actually helps.”

So, he keeps on working on the case in secret, collecting more clues. He reads about the history of Gotham and tries to find connections that could somehow verify the existence of a secret society or cult or whatever group of people who are living in the shadows and deciding who gets to live and who has to die. It’s difficult and almost hopeless – like trying to find his surroundings in the dark with only touch – but he still does it, sitting in the library for hours and ignoring Bruce’s tired suggestions that they go back to their room already. He tells Bruce that it’s a project for a social studies class and that if he’s so tired, he can go up without Edward.

He knows that Bruce isn’t stupid and that he understands that there is something weird about the case – he basically said it himself when telling about the man from the cemetery – but he just refuses to see it. Sure, whatever. Bruce can close his eyes and hide underneath the covers if he wants, but Edward wants to find out what is actually going on. He’s not going to just sit and wait until something bad happens to the both of them and he’s not going to let Mr. Myers’ death become yet another unsolved murder case.

**

“Edward.”

There are a couple of white clouds floating in the otherwise bright sky. The smell of the sea always gets more prominent during spring, and now it can be smelled even up on the hill. Edward lies on his back in the grass underneath an oak tree and watches the clouds from between the fresh leaves on the branches above. His mind is down in the chapel, as it has been for over a week now, wondering what really happened there on that winter night. Did Mr. Myers know something? Was he killed for it?

“Edward? Hello?”

Edward flinches when a jelly bean is thrown at him and hits the left lens of his glasses. He turns to look and sees Bruce sitting next to him on the grass, ready to flick another candy at him.

“Where did you go?” Bruce asks him.

“What? I’m right here,” Edward says, leaning back on his elbows. This time it’s Bruce who had dragged him out of the library to see the outside world for once.

“Yeah, but you’re not really here,” Bruce says, taking a handful of jelly beans from a bag that is lying on the ground next to him and picking out all the cinnamon ones that Edward doesn’t like. “It’s like you’re… slipping away.”

“I’m not. I’m here,” Edward says. (And who was the man at the cemetery? Why did he warn Bruce? Did he die for that?) Bruce hands the jelly beans over to him and sighs like he doesn’t believe what Edward is saying. “I’m serious.”

“You’re doing something and you’re not telling me what it is,” Bruce says, with an accusing ring to his words. “Either you’re doing it in secret or you think that I’m too stupid to notice.”

“I don’t think that you’re stupid,” Edward says, more defensive than compassionate. “I just… It’s just…”

Edward isn’t a liar. He doesn’t lie, especially not to Bruce, but he’s not telling the truth when he says: “It’s just that there’s been so much stuff on my mind lately, with the scholarship and housing applications and college planning. Sorry.”

The truth is, he hasn’t been working on any of those things, even though the deadline for all of them is approaching at an alarming rate. He’s been too busy with more important stuff. That’s why he feels even worse when the look on Bruce’s face softens with sympathy.

“Oh, Ed…” he says. “You know… Last year Mr. Myers told me that you were applying for the scholarship. He probably wanted me to help.”

“I know what you’re trying to do. Don’t do that,” Edward says, sorting the jelly beans by color on his palm.

“What?” Bruce asks. He’s so sh*t at lying.

“You’re trying to make me take your money by saying that it’s what he would’ve wanted.”

“No!” Bruce says, none more convincing. “It’s not my money, anyway. It’s the foundation’s money.”

“Same difference,” Edward says and throws the handful of jelly beans into his mouth.

“Okay, fine,” Bruce says, finally giving up. “But if you need anything, just tell me, and I’ll talk to some people, and then maybe –”

“I don’t doubt that,” Edward says through a mouthful of sticky sugar, making it clear that the conversation is over. All of the different flavors of the candy mix together in his mouth, tasting like nothing.

**

He doesn’t sleep well anymore. It’s not like he’s been sleeping that peacefully ever since Mr. Myers’ death, but now it’s almost impossible for him to sleep peacefully through the night. He has nightmares, which aren’t anything new, but he didn’t use to have them every night. In them, he’s back in the orphanage, lying in the bottom bunk and listening to the sound of something clawing on the window, or back in the chapel, walking down the aisle again and again, always coming to the horrifying realization of who is hanging on the wall in front of him.

On most nights he wakes up in cold sweat and terrified, the room around him looking strange and unfamiliar, until he sees Bruce sleeping on the other side of it. On some nights he sneaks over to his closet and takes the rosary hanging on the door, holding it in his fist as he tries to fall asleep and wakes up with an imprint of a cross on his palm.

“You look like you’re on the brink of death,” Bruce says one day when they’re waiting outside math class, audibly worried. Edward leans against the wall with his hands crossed across his chest and his eyes shut, the sun shining through the windows making his eyes hurt.

“I didn’t sleep well.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” Bruce says. “You’re putting too much stress onto yourself.”

“f*ck else can I do?” Edward asks, cracking one eyelid and glancing at him. “You could give me some of those pills you have.”

He’s talking about the little orange bottles of mirtazapine that roll around in Bruce’s desk drawer when he opens it before bed. Bruce looks at him and makes a face.

“Jesus, no, Ed,” he mutters. The classroom door opens, and they don’t talk about the subject anymore.

Edward keeps on spending his days in the library, which gets emptier as April passes and the weather gets warmer. At this point, he doesn’t even know what he’s looking for, but it doesn’t mean that he stops looking. He’s probably gone through every book that the school has about Gotham’s history, from politics to architecture, and even the small section about occultism and witchcraft. Half of his chemistry notebook is filled with notes that have nothing to do with chemical compounds or calculations. For the first time ever, he’s forgotten to do his math homework. It all seems irrelevant to him now.

He knows that there is an answer hidden somewhere. A key that is going to help him decipher all of this. Hell, he’s even read a book about different kinds of owls, just in case. Maybe he should go back to see the houses that he and Bruce investigated – even though quite poorly – during the New Year’s. At least this time he would have a little more idea of what he is looking for.

Everything else becomes background noise to him, half because he’s so exhausted all the time and half because he just can’t bother to care about anything else. He can feel Bruce trying to reach towards him through the noise, but it’s not quite enough. He’s alone in the middle of it all.

The first day of May is another pretty and sunny one that Edward spends crouched over a book about biblical symbolism in a quiet corner of the library that the sunlight coming in through the arched windows doesn’t reach. The book has nothing new to offer to him – it’s not like he didn’t grow up surrounded by those things – but he’s still immersed enough to not hear the footsteps coming from behind him until someone slams their palms onto his shoulders. Edward almost jumps out of his skin and turns around, ready to punch whoever thought that it would be funny to scare him like that, but stops when he sees that it’s just Bruce.

“Don’t f*cking do that,” he says to him, his heart still beating like crazy.

“Sorry,” Bruce says with an apologetic smile and reaches out to fix Edward’s askew glasses. He’s rolled the sleeves of his shirt up to his elbows. Edward sighs and pushes his hand away, turning back to the book while Bruce pulls out a chair for himself and sits down next to him.

“Can I check your chemistry homework? I’m not sure about the potassium chlorate one,” Bruce asks. Edward only hums, not listening anymore. It’s only when he sees Bruce reaching for his chemistry notebook that he wakes from his thoughts.

“Wait, what are you doing?” he asks, trying to take the notebook back, but Bruce has already taken it and is paging through it to find the exercise he’s looking for.

“Looking for that one exercise about the old cameras and the chemicals in them,” Bruce says, flipping through the pages of Edward’s messy handwriting. “Have you done it?”

“I haven’t. Give it back,” Edward says, feeling incredibly tense. He doesn’t want Bruce to get to the pages where he’s written his other notes. He’s ready to reach over and rip the notebook from Bruce’s hands, when Bruce stops, his eyebrows furrowing in confusion. He looks at Edward from behind the notebook, the corners of his mouth turning downwards ever so slightly.

“What’s this?” he asks finally, turning the notebook so that Edward can see the spread where he’s written everything he has gathered about The Owls and the rest of the case.

“It’s nothing, give it back,” Edward says, trying to take the notebook back, but Bruce pulls it away from his reach.

This is what you’ve been doing the entire time?” Bruce asks with a slightly appalled look on his face. “f*cking conspiracy theories?”

“Jesus Christ, stop being so dramatic,” Edward hisses at him, finally getting the notebook back. “You know that it’s more than that.”

“That’s insane, Edward. Like, literally delusional,” Bruce says. “You– you’re not sleeping, you’re not talking to me, all because of this?”

“I don’t want to talk about this if you’re going to be like that,” Edward says. A constant headache that has been brewing behind his forehead is starting to get more prominent. He closes the book in front of him and starts stuffing his things back into his bag. He wishes that Bruce would just let it be, but of course, he doesn’t.

“No, Edward, we need to talk about this. You can’t just run away like you always do,” Bruce says, standing up when Edward stands up to leave.

“Oh, shut the f*ck up,” Edward says and starts making his way towards the library door. Bruce follows on his heels, not giving up.

“No, seriously, listen to me,” he tries to whisper. “If you’re not going to talk to me about this, then at least talk to someone professional.”

There it is. Edward says nothing, only pushes the library doors open, and keeps on walking down the stuffy and warm school halls.

“Have you even done all the stuff that you told me you’ve been doing? The scholarship applications and whatnot?” Bruce keeps on asking, his voice louder now.

“You don’t even know how those things work, so don’t try to lecture me on them,” Edward says, not looking at him. Stupid f*cking rich people.

“Okay, fine, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t be worried about you,” Bruce says, following him down a flight of stairs and down to the entrance hall. “This thing is really f*cking with your head, I can see it.”

“Can’t you go a minute without calling me crazy?” Edward snaps, heading towards the underground corridor and the dorm building. He can feel Bruce trying to grab him by the arm. “Don’t f*cking touch me.”

“You think that there are birds in the walls listening to you and trying to kill you. I don’t think that I’m being that unreasonable anymore,” Bruce says, sounding more tense than Edward has ever heard him. It hits deeper than Edward wants to admit. “Please, talk to me.”

“You’re such a clingy pain in the ass, leave me alone,” Edward hisses at him and hurries down the stairs to the corridor. He can hear Bruce’s steps stop for a second before he continues following him.

“Maybe I wouldn’t have to be like this if you hadn’t been avoiding me and lying to me for half of a month.”

“The only reason why I didn’t tell you about this is because you would’ve freaked out and started crying,” Edward says, getting a couple of strange looks from the people walking in the opposite direction. He knows he’s being mean but he can’t stop it.

“Why are you like this?” Bruce asks him, sounding genuinely hurt. Edward knows that he only wants to help. It just makes everything worse.

“Stop following me,” he says instead as he climbs up the stairs to the dorm building. “Go to your room or something.”

“It’s our room, Edward! Where the f*ck am I supposed to go?”

“To your old room, I don’t know! Do I look like I f*cking care?” Edward says, pushing past people on the stairs. He needs to be alone. He needs to sleep, and maybe after that, they can figure this out.

“To the same room where someone tried to kill me?” Bruce almost shouts after him, scaring a group of freshmen who are coming down from the second floor. Edward turns around, looking down at him.

“How can you be mad at me for wanting to know who did it? Someone came in through your window with the intention of gutting you like a fish, but all of this is my fault?”

He turns away and keeps on climbing, hearing Bruce mutter a quiet “Jesus Christ” behind him.

“Right, so… What are you trying to achieve with this, then?” Bruce says, following him. “You’re gonna – what? – figure out the killer and go and catch him? Be serious, Ed.”

“What do you want me to do, then? Go to the police and tell them about this?” Edward asks, out of breath. He’s only halfway to the fourth floor. The climb to the top has never felt this long. “They would laugh at me.”

“That’s because it sounds insane,” Bruce says, almost laughing. Edward wants to turn around and push him down the stairs. Instead, he just keeps on climbing. When he finally reaches the fifth floor, he’s sweaty, dizzy, and angry. Bruce follows him not long after, looking much better than him, as always. Edward can’t stand him. “Ed, please. Just let this thing be and let the cops take care of it. They’ll catch the guy. It’s their job.”

“Oh, just like they caught the guy who shot your parents?” Edward spits at him. He’s gone too far and he knows it, but he’s still not prepared for it when Bruce grabs him by the upper arm hard enough for it to hurt.

“Don’t bring my parents into this. What the f*ck is wrong with you?” Bruce hisses at him. He looks angry and hurt, and Edward wants to apologize, but he just can’t. He squirms in the hold and watches the way Bruce’s free hand coils into a fist against his thigh. He thought that it would be impossible for him to seriously piss off Bruce, but now he’s really done it.

“Do you want to hit me?” he asks, quiet and low. Bruce blinks at him in confusion. “Go on, do it. Do it here where everyone can see.”

The anger melts away from Bruce’s face and all that is left is a heartbreakingly sad look. He lets go of Edward, and Edward pulls away. For a moment they just look at each other, until Edward can’t do it anymore and turns away, walking towards their room. He pushes past Roberts, who is standing in the doorframe of his room with a sneer on his face. Edward’s hand is on the door handle, when he hears a voice from down the hall, saying: “I don’t understand why you bother keeping up with that f*cking fa*ggot anyway, Wayne.”

Edward turns to look over his shoulder to say something, just in time to see Bruce’s fist colliding with Roberts’ left cheekbone.

*

Apparently, it’s a custom for rich people to threaten to sue each other for the smallest things. At least that’s what Roberts does through tears, after Edward has managed to drag Bruce away from him. He quiets down only after getting an ice pack for his face from the school nurse, and by the time all three of them are sitting outside the principal’s office, none of them says anything.

The atmosphere gets even heavier when they’re finally invited in and have to stand in front of Mr. Gould’s desk, while the man in question glares at them with a grave look on his face. The lecture they get from him is quite useless (“We do not tolerate any kind of… hate-speech or physical violence in our school. I am very disappointed in both of you, especially you, Mr. Wayne, this is unheard-of…”), but at least afterward no one is trying to sue anyone anymore.

By the end of it all, Edward gets a lukewarm apology from Roberts – muttered from behind the ice pack. Bruce, on the other hand, gets expelled for a month. Starting tonight.

It’s all very quiet when they climb back to their room.

Edward sits on the edge of his bed and watches as Bruce stuffs his clothes into his gym bag without folding them. None of this feels real. None of this feels right. Once he used to wonder what Bruce meant when he talked about “a loss of control”. Now he believes he’s seen a glimpse of that.

“This is so bullsh*t,” he hears Bruce mutter as he empties his desk drawer into the bag. “I pulled that punch, anyway.”

“You shouldn’t have punched him at all,” Edward says. Bruce straightens his back and looks at him.

“So, I should’ve just listened to him say those things about you?” he asks, crossing his arms across his chest. Edward can’t help but laugh, even though there is nothing funny about the situation.

“Do you really think that Roberts and his stupid friends haven’t called me worse things than a ‘f*cking fa*ggot’? You have so much faith in people, Bruce,” he says. Bruce just sighs and goes back to packing, looking even more miserable than before. Their earlier argument is still hanging above them, but Edward doesn’t want to acknowledge it.

It’s only when Bruce zips his bag that Edward starts realizing the real weight of the situation. Bruce is leaving. He is leaving and Edward will be left alone. He feels sudden panic rising within himself.

“Wait,” he says and stands up. “Wait. Bruce, please.”

Bruce stops putting on his jacket and lets out a surprised sound when Edward hugs him tight. Edward knows that there is nothing he can do to keep him from leaving but for a second he lets himself imagine that if he doesn’t let go of Bruce, they’ll stay like this forever.

“I’m sorry,” Edward says against his shoulder. “I don’t… I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t want you to go.”

“It’s okay,” Bruce says, and then: “You’re kind of choking me right now.”

“Sorry,” Edward says again and lets go of him. “I really f*cked it up this time.”

“Oh, don’t say that. I did this to myself,” Bruce says with a wavering smile and lifts his hand to show his bruised knuckles. “Besides, a month isn’t really that long of a time.”

“That’s almost the rest of the school year,” Edward mutters, looking at the floor.

“You can come see me on the weekends, it’s not as bad as it seems, I promise,” Bruce says and puts his hands on Edward’s shoulders. Edward looks at him, probably looking completely defeated because Bruce leans in to kiss him. It doesn’t fix anything, but Edward feels a little better as he leans into the kiss and backs Bruce up against the door. Bruce always forgives him so easily, but Edward isn’t sure that he can forgive himself this time. The white noise that has clouded his mind fades for the first time in weeks, and Edward can finally reach Bruce through it, but it’s too late now.

They kiss until Bruce’s phone buzzes in his pocket and Edward has to step back so that he can check it.

“Alfred is here,” Bruce says, looking at the screen. “I think it’s better that I go downstairs alone. He’s not happy.”

“Okay,” Edward says, absently wiping his lips onto the back of his hand. He’s never seen Alfred angry and to be honest, he’s not keen on finding out what he’s like then. Bruce gives him a pitying look before taking Edward’s hand and putting the phone onto his palm, closing Edward’s fingers around the plastic.

“So that I can call you,” he says when Edward gives him a confused look. “I’ll get myself a new one or something.”

“Right,” Edward says, staring at the scratched screen of the phone. He’s never had a cell phone before. The device is still warm from Bruce’s touch.

With that, Bruce puts on his jacket, takes his bag, and presses one last kiss on Edward’s cheek, before opening the door and stepping out. When the door closes, the room feels two times bigger than before.

Notes:

(if you've never heard barn owl's screech, you should look it up)

Chapter 9: destroy everything you touch

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

For his first three years in St. Aquinas’ Edward shared his room with a boy named Joseph, who used to spend his nights talking on the phone with his girlfriends – of which there were many, sometimes even at the same time. Edward didn’t understand him back then, mostly only getting annoyed when his sleep was disturbed by Joseph whispering cheesy things into the phone, so when the boy had been suddenly sent to rehab at the end of their third year and didn’t come back after the summer, Edward was mostly relieved.

He doesn’t miss his old roommate but he feels like he understands him better now that Bruce is away and the only way Edward can reach him is by calling him. He’s never liked talking with people on the phone (mostly because the only people he ever has to talk with are social workers) but talking with Bruce is different. Every night Edward lies in his bed or walks around their once-shared room while talking to him and pretending that they aren’t miles away from each other. It’s not like there is much to tell, but somehow they still end up talking until the night guard tells everyone to turn off the lights. It’s a lifeline for Edward, whose life has gotten considerably worse after Bruce’s expulsion.

Being Bruce’s friend had made him untouchable in some way, or at least it had made the other boys stop pushing him around and yelling at him in the school hallways, but now that Bruce is gone – and Roberts and his friends are feeling especially vengeful – things have gone back to the way they were before, maybe even worse. Edward doesn’t tell Bruce about any of this, because he knows that it would upset him, but also because he’s not sure he could say it without sounding at least a little bit accusing.

Yeah, sure, maybe he should feel flattered over Bruce feeling the need to “protect his honor” or something, but when he’s picking up his books from the floor for the third time during the same day just because he keeps on getting pushed or tripped over on purpose, it’s pretty difficult to feel grateful.

Even though they talk every day, it’s not enough to make Edward feel less lonely. He’s been alone for his entire life, but it feels worse now that he’s gotten a taste of what it feels not to be. For the last five months, Bruce has constantly been by his side – sitting next to Edward in class and whispering to him while the teacher talks, doing homework with him at the library, eating lunch with him, and peeling an apple with a dinner knife before splitting it in two to give the other half to Edward, or just hanging out in Edward’s room before they even shared it – and so Edward still finds himself turning to say something to him when he’s walking to class, or looking for him before dinnertime. Hearing Bruce’s voice once a day isn’t enough, and holding the phone isn’t the same as holding him.

It’s not like Bruce is happy about how things are, either. When Edward goes to visit him over the weekend, he finds the boy wandering around the penthouse, glum and lonely. A prince in a haunted tower.

“I hate being without you. Nothing feels like anything,” Bruce says against Edward’s neck when they’re sitting on the game room couch with some action movie that neither of them is paying attention to playing in the background. Edward doesn’t get to answer that, because Bruce’s lips are on his neck, and Edward has to pull him away by his hair so that he doesn’t leave marks.

“Yeah, yeah, I missed you, too,” he laughs, even though what he really means is “All I do is miss you.” He pulls Bruce closer, and Bruce kisses him like he’s starving.

*

With only a little over a month of the school year left, the atmosphere at the school is getting lighter and more restless. The classrooms are warm and stuffy from the sun and students are wearing their summer uniforms, more than ready for the summer break. Edward, on the other hand, is sweating through his long-sleeved spring uniform, still knee-deep in his missed assignments. He hasn’t forgotten about the Owls or the murder case but he has to push those things to the side to make room for the things that he really needs to get done before the summer. The other reason for pausing his investigation is the fact that he’s too scared to go to the school library alone. With less than 50 days of school left, he’s not going to take the risk that Roberts and his minions are going to beat him up between the history and linguistics shelves.

Even though he’s catching up on school stuff at the last minute, Edward keeps feeling like he’s forgetting something – something important that has nothing to do with his biology assignments. He’s pretty sure that it has something to do with the murder, but no matter how hard he tries, he can’t remember what it is.

In the second week of May (or the second week of Bruce’s absence, as Edward has started measuring time), when Edward is leaving his history class, he’s pulled aside by the school’s student counselor – a bald man named David, who insists the students just call him ‘Dave’.

“Edward, do you have a minute?” Dave asks him when he steps out of the classroom. His tone is light, but Edward feels anxious about this unplanned encounter. Still, it's not like he's too keen on listening to the insults his classmates have been throwing at him between classes lately so he just shrugs and follows Dave into an empty classroom.

“Is this about my grades?” he asks when the door closes behind them. He knows that his grades dropped at the end of last term, but he’s been picking them up. Dave leans against one of the empty desks and shakes his head at Edward’s worried expression.

“No, no, you've been doing great,” he says. “I just wanted to check up on you and your scholarship application. How's that coming along?”

That's when Edward remembers what he’s been forgetting all this time. The scholarship application letter. The thing that is supposed to define his future.

“Yeah, it’s– it’s going good,” he manages to say. It feels like all the dust floating in the sunlight is getting stuck in his throat. The truth is that he hasn’t even started writing the letter. First, he was too numbed by Mr. Myers’ death, then too occupied with his feelings considering Bruce, and then everything else became secondary when he started looking into the murder case. He simply hasn’t had the time, but it’s not too late yet, right?

“Oh, that’s good,” Dave says with a pleased smile. “Do you want me to proofread it for you before you print it?”

“No. I mean, I have already printed it, actually,” Edward stammers, not sure why he’s even lying about it. Maybe because it’s really f*cking stupid and embarrassing that he’s forgotten about the thing that he’s been thinking about for the last four years.

“Well, that’s just amazing!” Dave says, his face lighting up. “I was just checking up because the deadline is tomorrow, but you probably already knew that.”

Edward just stares at him, feeling like someone has hit him on the back of the head with a crowbar. Tomorrow? How is this even possible? For almost four years he’s been thinking about how to put his life down onto paper so that he might get a good college spot – it’s literally the reason Mr. Waters even paid for his place in St. Aquinas’ – and now Edward has somehow forgotten about the entire thing.

“You better send it today,” he hears Dave say, but the words mean nothing to him. He’s really f*cked up this time. f*ckign Dave, why couldn’t he remind Edward earlier? Everyone in this school is so f*cking useless.

“Yeah, I will,” Edward manages to say. “I… I have to go to class now.”

He spends his entire biology lesson drafting the letter on the last pages of his notebook but gives up halfway through, feeling like he’s going to have an anxiety attack if he has to think about the letter or his future for a second longer. He’s never been good at writing, and now he’s supposed to condense his entire life into 1500 words, not to mention that those words are supposed to get him the funds to live for the next four years.

He doesn’t go to dinner that night but spends his entire evening in the computer hall, writing until the letters blur together and his head hurts. The text sucks and he knows it even as he stands by the hiccuping school printer and watches as it spits out the papers with his past and future on them. It’s even worse when he can hold the text and feel every pathetically pleading sentence between his sweaty fingers. He didn’t want to make himself sound like another poor orphan begging for something that is being held above his head, too high up for him to reach, but that’s exactly how he ended up sounding. There are probably thousands of children applying for the same fully funded scholarship as him, and even though Edward sticks out in a place like St. Aquinas’, where nobody else has to worry about their future because their parents have banks and charity funds named after them, outside its walls, there are hundreds of thousands of children like Edward, his words blending into theirs as they all beg for the same thing.

He feels like he’s going to cry as he seals the letter and the rest of the needed papers into an envelope in the common room before leaving it on the school secretary’s table with the mail that is going to be sent out tomorrow. It’s not like this is the end – there is also an interview that is a part of the application process, but if Edward has never been good at writing, he’s even worse at talking to people, not to mention making them like him. There have been maybe four people who have actually believed in him, those being Sister Carol, Mr. Waters, Mr. Myers, and Bruce, and now he feels like he’s let all of them down simultaneously.

When Bruce calls him that evening, Edward tells him that he’s tired and can’t talk for long. He can hear that Bruce is disappointed upon hearing it, but Edward just can’t bring himself to talk to him right now. He doesn’t want to tell Bruce about the scholarship or the fact that he’s gone and f*cked everything up. Bruce doesn’t understand things like that, no matter how hard he tries, and as much as Edward likes him, he feels like he might smash his phone against the wall if he has to listen to Bruce try and help him with things he knows nothing about, especially if he tries to offer Edward money. Sure, Edward needs money, but he’s not going to take it from Bruce. Bruce might not understand it, but there’s a difference between getting a scholarship for his hard work and getting money handed to him by his rich boyfriend. If he took Bruce’s money, he’d be in debt forever, and even if Bruce doesn't see it that way, Edward would feel it weighing him down every time he kisses him or sleeps in his bed or in any way enjoys the rich lifestyle that doesn’t belong to him.

He ends up spending his evening leaning out of his window and smoking since Bruce isn’t there to scold him over it. The school grounds bathe in the last orange hues of the sun, and Edward thinks about how he’ll soon be returning to St. Jude’s, where he’ll share a room with six other boys with only a loud fan whirring on the windowsill keeping the boiling hot and stuffy room somehow habitable. Then he thinks about Bruce’s bedroom at The Tower, always quiet and dim and never too hot or cold. Edward knows that he doesn’t belong there, but God, he hopes he could spend at least the first days of summer there until he turns eighteen and can get his own place. That reminds him about the fact that he also has to call some social worker and talk about his housing application. He flicks the rest of the cigarette out of the window and goes to sleep feeling hungry and sick.

*

The horrible, anxious feeling doesn’t leave him alone the next day, either, and follows him all the way from the school to The Tower, where he goes to spend his weekend again. Not even seeing Bruce makes Edward feel any more at ease, if anything, it reminds him of the fact that once they graduate, Bruce is going to go to some fancy school and live in a new and completely white apartment like the guy from American Psycho until he can become a doctor or the CEO of the company that carries his family’s name, whereas Edward is going to live in a sh*tty one room apartment given to him by the city housing project, while working as a delivery boy for the rest of his life, probably also having a second job on the side – something stupid and mind-numbing like a barista or a sandwich shop worker or a grocery store cashier – so that he can pay off the debt that he’s gotten himself into before even having the chance to decide otherwise.

He doesn’t tell any of this to Bruce, of course. Instead, he just lies on the boy’s bed wearing Bruce’s basketball shorts and stares at the ceiling, while Bruce sits on the floor and tries to play the guitar riff to some song that Edward doesn’t recognize. The room is messier than Edward has ever seen it, with clothes and magazines scattered across the floor, covering the Persian rug almost completely. He turns to look at Bruce’s normally empty bedside table, which is now cluttered with half-empty glasses of water and a stack of books that is on the brink of falling over and knocking everything off of the table in the process. Edward reaches over to straighten the pile and takes the one lying on the top of the pile, titled “Anger Unmasked: Strategies for Effective Anger Management”. The spine cracks when he opens it.

“Kim gave me that,” Bruce says. He’s stopped playing and has climbed on the bed, sitting on his knees next to Edward. “As if I’m just gonna go and beat people up for no reason now.”

Edward hums in answer and pages through the book, his mind stuck in a sweaty room in mid-July, only looking up when he feels Bruce smooth his hand up and down his leg. He’s never been good with touch, but he’s found himself craving it lately. Maybe it’s just one of the things he misses when he’s missing Bruce.

“Is everything okay?” Bruce asks him, and Edward feels bad, because no, everything isn’t okay, but he’s not going to tell Bruce that.

“Yeah, it’s just… school stuff,” he says and puts the book down, trying not to break while Bruce looks at him with the same kind of worry on his face as he did when Edward was sick under the covers. The evening sun coming in through the windows lights up one side of Bruce’s face, catching onto his eyelashes and making him look out of this world, like from a movie or a painting. Pretty. He might be the first pretty thing Edward has ever had all to himself.

“Oh,” he says. His hand has stopped on Edward’s thigh where the skin meets the fabric of the shorts. “Do you… wanna talk about it?”

“Do I look like I wanna talk about it?” Edward scoffs and sits up, leaning against the headboard. The worried look doesn’t leave Bruce’s face until Edward pulls him on top of himself. Edward can feel Bruce’s eyelashes flutter against his cheek and the breathless laugh the boy lets out against his neck when they roll around on the bed, doing something between wrestling and making out. The feeling doesn’t leave him but lifts for a moment. Edward appreciates the distraction.

A sudden knock on the door startles the both of them and makes them quickly pull away from each other, Bruce removing his hands from underneath Edward’s shirt, and Edward pretending like his hands weren’t going for the waistband of Bruce’s sweatpants just a second ago.

“Can I come in?” asks Alfred’s voice from the other side of the door. Edward grabs the book from the bed and opens it on a random page, while Bruce wipes his mouth onto the back of his hand and clears his throat.

“Yeah,” Bruce says. The door opens.

“Oh, hello, Edward. Good to see you again,” Alfred says from the doorway, politely pretending not to notice the disheveled state of the two of them, before turning to look at Bruce. “I just wanted to remind you that Lucius is coming over for dinner tomorrow, so please be home then. Both of you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bruce says, his cheeks burning red. “We will.”

“And there’s food in the kitchen if you get hungry,” Alfred adds.

“Yeah, thanks, Alfred,” Bruce says impatiently. The door closes, and Edward puts the book down, grinning at the embarrassed look on Bruce’s face.

“At least he knocked,” he says, getting an almost pained groan in answer. He turns to lie on his side and leans his head against his hand, looking at Bruce, who has thrown his arm over his eyes. “Who’s Lucius?”

“He’s the business manager at WE,” Bruce says, finally getting over his embarrassment and moving his arm away from his face. “He was dad’s friend. He’s also the guy Alfred tells to talk to me about the company stuff. He’s probably trying to get me to attend the shareholder meetings now that I’m eighteen or something.”

“Oh, okay,” Edward says, thinking about how there’s probably an influx of money flowing into Bruce’s bank account while they’re doing nothing in his room. It doesn’t feel like something that should be real, and for a moment Edward doesn’t understand how he even got here in the first place. What is he doing in Bruce Wayne’s bedroom, wearing his shorts?

“But he’s a nice guy, really, so don’t worry about it,” Bruce says, seemingly interpreting Edward’s absent stare as a sign of discomfort. Well, maybe it’s also that but in a different way. “He’s chill.”

“Yeah,” Edward says. He should probably ask Bruce about the summer and whether or not he could spend it with him, but can’t just bring himself to think about that right now. Honestly, he doesn’t want to think about anything anymore. He wants to be distracted, and Bruce is really good at that.

He pushes himself off of the bed and walks over to the door to lock it before climbing back onto the bed and taking off his glasses. Then he takes off his shirt. He doesn’t think about it, he doesn’t want to. It’s strange feeling both the sun and Bruce’s hands on his skin at the same time. He focuses on the feeling and lets his mind finally go blank.

*

Lucius Fox is a man in his late forties with dark, freckled skin and intelligent eyes who takes one quick look at Edward from behind his glasses before reaching out his hand for Edward to shake when they meet for the first time in front of the penthouse elevator on Saturday afternoon.

“Nice to meet you,” he says to Edward when he introduces himself. He’s wearing a loose, light gray summer suit, and Edward is glad that Bruce lent him a linen button-down from his closet so that he looks a little bit more like a boarding school student and less like someone’s 12-year-old brother who has wandered into the penthouse from the street.

It’s the first time Edward has ever eaten in the actual dining hall of The Tower despite having stayed there numerous times by now. Usually, they just eat either in the staff kitchen or in whatever room they feel like hanging out in with no need to set the table. The dining hall is just as big and cold as it was when Edward first saw it on Christmas Eve, even though the curtains have been pulled away from the windows, revealing the city below. The four of them aren’t nearly enough to fill the long table, but the dinner isn’t as uncomfortable as Edward had feared – there aren’t even more than two sets of forks and knives for the different foods, and no one judges him for not knowing dinner-party etiquette.

Bruce wasn’t lying about Lucius being a nice man. He keeps the conversation light, talking about the shareholder meetings – just as Bruce had predicted – and occasionally asking Edward questions about his future but nothing about his past, which Edward appreciates, even though he doesn’t really want to talk about his future, either. He ends up telling Lucius about his plans for college and his dream majors – the same things he has been telling everyone who has asked him for the last four years. He used to be so sure that those things would happen, but now they have begun feeling more like a distant dream. Lucius doesn’t know this, of course. He thinks that Edward is like Bruce, with his parents probably living in a manor somewhere too far away for Edward to visit them during the semester. Or maybe he sees what Edward really is but is too polite to bring it up. Maybe he can see that Edward’s shirt fits him wrong and that his glasses have the cheapest frames available. After all, he’s a businessman. Edward is sure that he can smell money or the lack of it from a person.

They’re eating the dessert, when Lucius turns to Bruce and asks: “So, what do you think about the summer tour?”

“I think it’ll be interesting,” Bruce says with a shrug. Edward turns to look at him, a spoonful of ice cream having stopped halfway to his mouth.

“What summer tour?” he asks Bruce, but it’s Lucius who answers.

“Just a little trip to show Bruce the different WE offices and facilities around the country now that he’s of age,” Lucius says, taking a sip of his decaf coffee. “It was initially Thomas’ idea and he would’ve been the one to take Bruce there, but now it’s my honor.”

“Oh,” Edward says, a nauseous feeling that has nothing to do with eating too much sweet rising somewhere within him. “When… When is it? How long?”

“After graduation,” Lucius says, making an unsure gesture with his hand. “Probably from July to mid-August. Something like that.”

Edward can only nod and put the spoon down, his mouth suddenly completely dry and tasting like ash. The conversation proceeds but he doesn’t partake anymore. There is nothing more to say. He stares at the dark stained surface of the table and sees everything falling apart slowly but steadily. He can see it all before him: Bruce is going away for the summer, and Edward is going to be left behind. He’ll go back to St. Jude’s and then to some sh*thole apartment with mold on the walls, while Bruce flies around the country on his private jet. By the time Bruce comes back to Gotham, he has probably realized who he really is and forgotten about Edward, who was never anyone to begin with.

The rest of the evening is nothing but a haze for Edward, who has a lump in his throat as he thinks about the downward spiral of his life, which he’s sliding down at an accelerating pace. He wakes from his thoughts only when he’s standing outside the elevator doors again and shaking Lucius’ hand as a goodbye.

“It was nice meeting you, Edward,” the man says, smiling with his eyes. Edward stares at him blankly.

You’re going to take him away from me, he thinks, squeezing Lucius’ hand like he’s trying to break his fingers. What he manages to say is: “You too.”

He doesn’t say anything even after Lucius has left, but Bruce isn’t blind.

“What’s wrong?” Bruce asks him when they’re back in his room. Edward doesn’t say anything, only paces around the cluttered room and tries to take deep breaths so that he doesn’t break down the moment he starts talking.

“Why didn’t you tell me that you’re going away for the summer?” he asks finally, turning to look at Bruce, who is still standing by the closed door.

“I’m not ‘going away for the summer’. It’s only a bit over a month,” Bruce says like it’s not that big of a deal.

“That’s a long time, Bruce!” Edward snaps at him, feeling blood rush to his face. Doesn’t Bruce understand what this means for him– What it means for them? Or does he not care?

“Okay, well, I didn’t say anything about it because I don’t want to think about it,” Bruce says, crossing his arms across his chest. “I don’t like talking about company stuff, and you never want to talk about summer, so why would I?”

“Yeah, okay, f*cking fine,” Edward says, trying to keep his voice down. “So, you’re going away for a month. And what am I supposed to do?”

“I thought… Well, I thought you could come with me,” Bruce says as if it’s really that simple. The look on his face is innocent and sincere, but Edward can’t help but let out a sour laugh.

“Oh, don’t be stupid. I can’t go with you,” he says. Bruce blinks at him and lets his arms fall to his sides.

“Why not?”

“Because I have to work, Bruce! I have no money and after I graduate I’ll have nothing at all!” Edward screams at him, the frustration finally taking over. Once he's bought his graduation cap and gown, the money left for him by Mr. Waters has been used and he'll have nothing but the pathetic couple hundred that he’s been able to save during the last four years. Of course, Bruce can’t understand something like this. Of course. “I’m not like you. Money doesn’t just appear in my bank account while I sit and play games or get laid or something.”

“If it’s about money, I can help you–” Bruce says, trying to step over to Edward, but Edward pushes him away.

“Oh my f*cking God. Who do you think you’re talking to right now?” he spits at Bruce. The familiar anger is bubbling to the surface. He knows that this isn’t going to end well, but he can’t stop it. “I’m not going to take your money.”

“Well, do you have a trust fund or something–” Bruce tires and Edward sees red.

“Do I look like I have a f*cking trust fund?” he yells at him and points at himself. “Jesus f*cking Christ, sometimes talking to you is like talking to something from a different f*cking planet!”

Bruce looks at him with a helpless look on his face. It only makes Edward feel worse.

“Edward… Please,” he says in a small voice and tries to reach towards Edward, but Edward turns away, and Bruce’s hand falls back down. “I’m sorry, okay? I… I won’t go. I’ll stay in Gotham.”

“f*cking whatever,” Edward mutters. The fabric of the shirt feels all wrong against his skin.

“What– what do you want me to do, then? I don’t understand what you want! Do you want me to stay or go? Just say a word and I’ll do it,” Bruce says to him, sounding genuinely desperate for an answer. Edward looks at him and feels like he’s going to start crying out of frustration and fear. Stay, stay, please stay, I don’t know what I’ll do without you, please.

Instead, he says: “Just… just shut the f*ck up and leave me alone.”

“Ed… Please, don’t be mad at me. Why are you mad at me? Come here. Please,” Bruce begs him and sits down on the bed, but Edward grabs his shirt and shorts from the bed and turns towards the door. He can’t be here. He can’t be in Bruce’s bedroom if he knows how it’s all going to end.

“No, I’m going to sleep in the guest room because I’m your guest and not a f*cking pet,” he spits and opens the door. He hears Bruce call after him but doesn’t stop.

He regrets it by the time he turns off the lights and tries to fall asleep in the guest room bed. The room is clean and quiet, just as it always is, but all Edward can do is stare at the ceiling and feel a horrible, sour feeling rise in him like vomit. He wants to sneak back into Bruce’s room, to sleep in his bed against his warmth, and be forgiven – because Bruce always forgives him – but something keeps him from doing that.

He ends up falling into restless sleep after hours of trying and wakes up feeling even more tired than before.

“Are you still angry at me?” Bruce asks him after a quiet and slightly awkward day when it’s Edward’s time to leave. The look on his face is heartbroken, and Edward feels like he deserves to die just for making Bruce feel like that.

“No, I’m not,” he says and lets Bruce hug and kiss him as a goodbye.

*

The sun is setting by the time the car drops him off at the school. Everyone is probably eating dinner right now, because the school grounds are completely empty, the evening sun making everything look pretty. Edward isn’t hungry nor does he care about the look of the place. He doesn’t want to be here. He doesn’t want to go back to his room – their room – and see all of Bruce’s things there. He doesn’t want to think about the boy at all. It’s not like this is the end, but it sure feels like it. Two more weeks until Bruce comes back, then three more until their graduation, and then Bruce is going to leave again. It doesn’t matter that he promised to stay if Edward wanted him to because it isn’t right. Nothing about this is right.

They’re not the same. It might not be noticeable when they’re wearing the same school uniform, but once they’re out of school Bruce is going to continue being rich and beautiful, while Edward is going to fall back to the bottom where he belongs. It doesn’t matter if Edward tries to hang onto Bruce or drag him down with him, because in the end, Bruce will always float and Edward will sink. Honestly, it’s a miracle that they’re even together, and the more Edward thinks about it, the more it feels like something that shouldn’t have happened. Not because he doesn’t like Bruce – he’s the only person Edward even cares about – but because it was doomed from the beginning. The only reason they got close to begin with was because they found a dead body in the school chapel.

The chapel. Edward never thought that he would approach the building again, but somehow he finds himself standing on the top of the hill where he can see the chapel quietly standing in the shadow of the dorm building. It looks much smaller in the summer evening than how it looks in Edward’s nightmares. Maybe it’s the harmless look of the place or just Edward’s distant state of mind that makes him walk down the hill and approach it. The grass has grown tall around the chapel, reaching up to Edward’s ankles when he peeks in through the stained glass windows but sees nothing through the dirt. This is where it all began. Maybe it should end there, too.

The door isn’t locked and opens with a creak when Edward tentatively puts his hand against it and pushes. The smell is the first thing that greets him in the doorway – dust, old wood, damp stone, and underneath them all: the faint but metallic smell of blood. It might just be his imagination, but Edward still feels like he might throw up. Looking down the nave, he’s almost expecting to see the shape of a man standing against the altarpiece, but there is no one there. The altarpiece has also been taken away, and all that is left is a blank stone wall. He takes a deep breath, the musty air filling his lungs, and steps into the dim building, letting the door close behind him.

Even before the murder, Edward never came to the chapel to pray or to try and feel any kind of spiritual connection. Maybe it was because of the possible presence of his peers or the overall coldness of the place that made it impossible for him to even attempt to find inner peace there. He’s not feeling especially peaceful right now, either. He feels like he’s in one of his nightmares, where he’s in the chapel and there’s a corpse on the wall, calling out for him and begging for help. He doesn’t want to be here. Still, it feels like something he has to do before the end of the school year and with that his time in St. Aquinas’.

(There’s a room in The Tower with a sealed door. Edward didn’t notice it until his second visit and didn’t ask about it until the third. “It’s mom and dad’s room,” Bruce had said without looking at him. “I haven’t been there since… that.” Maybe the chapel is like the sealed room for Edward.)

With his heart racing he sits down on one of the pews and bows his head. He didn’t come here to pray, but something about the air around him makes him cross his hands. He’s eleven years old again, kneeling by his bed in the orphanage, the floor hard underneath his knees. The prayer comes from somewhere deep inside of him, a place that he thought he had lost. Please, tell me what to do. There is nowhere for me to go, everything feels wrong. I tried to be good but everything has gone wrong. Please, just tell me what to do and where to go and I’ll be good, I promise.

He feels empty and lost as he pulls his phone out of his pocket. The nuns always told them how wrong it is to have your phone out in church, even though none of the kids had phones, and so it feels even more wrong to sit in the chapel and look at the glow of the screen. For a moment Edward considers just going outside to do this but his limbs feel heavy and numb and he can’t bring himself to get up. Instead, he stays put, feeling weirdly detached from himself and everything around him as he opens Bruce’s contact and writes him a message:

I don't think this is going to work out.

He stares at the letters on the screen for a while and feels like he’s slowly sinking into something he’s not going to get out of. Then he hits send. When he lifts his gaze, the bare altar greets him, once again reminding him of the night he wishes to forget. He looks at the floor in front of the altar and imagines himself lying there after fainting at the sight of Mr. Myers’ body.

He never asked Bruce how he managed to get him back to the school building. It felt secondary compared to everything else that happened on that night, but now Edward can’t stop wondering about it. Did Bruce carry him through the snowstorm? They weren’t friends back then, but Edward can’t imagine Bruce leaving him there alone with the dead body to go get help from the school. Ever since the beginning, Bruce has been much nicer than Edward has deserved from him. He asked Edward to come over for Christmas, talked with him when he woke up from a nightmare, and let himself be dragged around the city just because of Edward’s flimsy theory, all of this even after Edward had been nothing but bitter and angry towards him. Bruce – kind and smart and pretty and clean. Bruce, who is the first person to ever want Edward.

Edward looks back down at the text on his screen, the realization of what he’s done hitting him like a truck. What the f*ck does he think he’s doing? Is he really breaking up with Bruce with a text? And for what? Because he thinks it’s going to happen anyway? Is he really going to drive away the only person who cares about him? Jesus f*cking Christ, maybe this is why nothing good ever lasts for him – he never lets it.

His hands are shaking when he quickly types another message, praying that Bruce hasn’t seen the first one yet.

I don’t know why I said that I didn’t mean it sorry sorry please I just don’t want you to go away please don’t

He’s still writing the message when a sudden noise makes his head snap up and his heart jump. It sounds like something heavy being pushed around on the stone floor, furniture or such, rough and dragging. The hairs on the back of his neck stand up, and he looks around frantically, trying to locate the source of the noise. All he sees are rows of pews standing behind him in the dark. The noise stops as suddenly as it began, but Edward’s heartbeat is still racing. He also has a horrible feeling that it’s not just him in the chapel anymore.

What he should do is get out of the building and go to his room. He should send the message to Bruce or call him or do literally anything else than stand up and try to figure out where the sound is coming from. Of course, he does the latter.

Edward squeezes his phone in his hand as he stands up and takes another look around the dim room. It doesn’t take him long to come to the conclusion that he’s the only one there, but the feeling doesn’t leave him alone. He sneaks over to the altar and peeks behind it, finding nothing but dust. Somehow the whole thing reminds him of New Year’s Eve, when he and Bruce got stuck in the attic of the abandoned social club. It feels like an eternity ago.

There’s nothing more to see from the front of the chapel, either, and so Edward doesn’t get an answer for his question. Maybe the noise came from outside or maybe it was just the old structures creaking under their own weight. Edward doesn’t believe either of those explanations, but since he isn’t seeing anything unusual, he might as well leave.

That’s when he remembers the sacristy.

He hesitates for just a moment with his hand on the door handle of the sacristy, preparing him for whatever he might find in there. Most likely it’s going to be nothing at all, but it might also be a prank pulled by the other students. Maybe someone saw him going into the chapel and decided to go in through the back door to scare him, who knows? Edward takes a deep breath and pushes the heavy door open.

The sacristy looks the same it did on the night of the Christmas service with the chalices and altar pall laid onto a big, wooden table just the way Edward left them, but one thing is drastically different. There’s a hole in the floor.

Well, it’s not really a hole, more like an entrance to a basem*nt. The only problem is that the chapel doesn’t have a basem*nt. Edward has read everything about the school’s history and its architecture, so he would know. He stares at the opening on the floor, noticing that one of the big and heavy stone slabs that make up the floor has been moved aside, probably having covered the opening before. There’s nothing but darkness down there, but Edward can see the beginning of a stone stairwell going into the dark. He feels his entire body go cold with dread.

His first question is: What is this?

His second question – the more important one – is: Who did this? Unfortunately, it comes a second too late. The only thing he gets to see is a sudden movement in the corner of his eye before the door slams shut behind him and a hand comes from behind him to cover his nose and mouth.

The phone falls from Edward’s hand as he tries to pry the hand away from his face and run away, adrenaline rushing in his veins, but the attacker has already wrapped an arm around his torso, making it impossible for Edward to escape. He tries to scream, but the noise is muffled against the leather glove pressed against his face. He tries to kick his way out but doesn’t hit anything. The stranger has an iron hold of him, and the more Edward struggles, the tighter it gets. It’s like trying to fight a stone wall, and Edward has never been a good fighter to begin with. He feels tears of panic rolling down his cheeks. What is this? Why is this happening? Why is no one there to help him?

He hears a deep inhale right next to his ear and then a voice, low and muffled, like the person is speaking from behind a gas mask.

“Take a deep breath.”

Edward shakes his head as frantically as he can and holds his breath, but his lungs are starting to burn from the lack of air. The stranger holds him still, like Edward’s fighting is barely even bothering him, and Edward soon realizes that he’s not going to escape. He feels like he’s on the verge of blacking out from the lack of oxygen, black spots swimming in his vision and the dim room in front of him slowly blurring. Finally, his reflexes take over, and he sucks in a deep breath. The glove pressed over his mouth and nose smells strange and sweet, and it’s too late that Edward realizes that he’s probably breathing in chloroform.

(“Actually, nowadays chloroform isn’t that popular of an anesthetic,” the words of his chemistry teacher play somewhere on the back of his mind as the world around him gets blurrier. “Most people use either halothane or desflurane…”)

The last thing he sees is his phone lying on the floor, the unsent message still waiting on the shattered screen.

**

What do you mean?

Edward?

What do you mean this isn’t going to work out?

Can you answer my calls, please?

Ed, please?

Are you angry at me?

Did I do something wrong?

Can we talk?

Please call me.

Okay, whatever.

I’ll call you in the morning.

Bruce can’t believe it. Or more than that, he can’t understand it. They were just fine earlier during the day when Edward left – maybe still recovering from last night’s argument, but nothing worse than that – and now Edward is trying to – what? – break up with him? Just like that? It doesn’t make sense.

Is it something Bruce did? Is Edward breaking up with him because he’s going away for the summer? Because if that’s the reason, Bruce can stay in Gotham just fine. Sure, he likes Lucius and all, but he’s not too keen on spending his last summer before college walking around the Wayne Enterprises buildings around the country and listening to people tell him about all the things he’s expected to take care of eventually. He would much rather spend his summer in Gotham with Edward. They could go swimming at the country club where Bruce hasn’t gone in years and he could teach Edward how to play golf or tennis. They could read for entrance exams together or do whatever they want. Whatever Edward wants.

Or is it something he said the night before when Edward took off his shirt and Bruce could feel him closer than ever before? Did he say something wrong or did he not say enough? Did he not hold Edward right? If he did something wrong, he wants to know what it was, but Edward isn’t answering him.

If Edward thinks that this is all going to end with a text message, he’s wrong. Bruce isn’t going to let it. At least not until they can properly talk about it. Maybe Edward is just in one of his moods when he gets angry and unpredictable. Bruce is familiar with those already, but never before has Edward tried to actually break up with him. Usually, he pushes Bruce away but eventually calms down and things go back to normal. Bruce hopes that this is one of those instances.

Still, the longer his phone stays silent, the more restless Bruce gets. He’s been walking around his room in circles for hours like a dog waiting for its owner, feeling everything from sadness and acceptance to anger and defeat. He’s tried calling Edward at least six times during the last four hours, all of his attempts going to the voicemail. Outside his window, the sun is setting and making the city bathe in a beautiful golden glow, but Bruce barely even notices it. By the time the idea of calling the school landline even crosses his mind, it’s too late to do that. Besides, Edward is probably sleeping by now. How can he go to sleep after sending Bruce something like that? What if he was being serious? What if the next time they meet is when Bruce is finally allowed back in the school, only for Edward to give him a cold shoulder? What if things are going to go back to the way they were before Christmas? They didn’t even know each other back then, but Edward was still seething with resentment towards Bruce. Bruce doesn’t want to imagine how much it would hurt him now to see Edward give the same kind of cold glare he did when they first talked in the chapel.

He has never had a friend like Edward. He’s never had anyone like Edward. Before him, Bruce hadn’t even realized how alone he had actually been and now there’s nothing he’s more afraid of than being alone again.

He has almost given up waiting for an answer and moved on mindlessly staring at the dark ceiling of his room, when his phone suddenly buzzes on the bedside table. Bruce lunges at it, almost knocking an empty glass down from the table in the process but catches it in time before taking the phone. He sits up on the edge of his bed and squeezes the phone in his hands but doesn’t look at the screen for a while. He doesn’t dare to. He’s prepared for the worst, but takes a deep breath and tries to tell himself that whatever Edward says, they can figure this out. Then he reads the message.

Okay, let’s talk. Meet me at the cemetery.

Bruce blinks at the screen, not understanding what he’s seeing. He reads the message until he’s sure that there is no hidden meaning behind it or that Edward hasn’t made a misleading typo. Cemetery? Why does Edward want to talk there? How did he even get there in the first place?

Bruce tries to call him again, but the call is declined right away. There is another ominous message:

I’m waiting.

At this point, the alarms in Bruce’s head should be going off. Something is wrong. Well, a lot of things are wrong, but they only keep on getting weirder. Edward isn’t okay, that’s for sure. Bruce doesn’t know what’s up with him – has he taken something? Is he drunk or on drugs? Is he hurt?

There’s a quiet, rational voice on the back of his head telling him that he should not go to the cemetery, but his worry towards Edward drowns it out. It’s almost midnight, and Edward is waiting for him there, god knows in what state of mind. Bruce has to go and get him out of there. Everything else comes after that.

He puts a hoodie over his t-shirt, takes his car keys from the bedside table, and types an answer to Edward’s text:

I’ll be there in 20.

Then he sneaks out of his room and out of the dark penthouse, careful not to wake Alfred up.

The horrible, restless, and confused feeling that has been wallowing inside of him for the entire night doesn’t leave him alone even when he drives out of the underground garage and onto the nightly streets of Gotham. He’s been going on night drives lately, since there’s really nothing else to do and since he doesn’t need to wake up early for school. Usually it helps him put his mind at peace, but not tonight.

It’s too late for traffic, and so he gets onto the highway soon enough. Maybe he’s speeding a bit, who gives a sh*t? He just wants to see Edward and make sure that he’s okay before getting him out of there. Nothing else matters to him right now.

The cemetery is a dark spot in otherwise glowing nightly Gotham, which does nothing to make it appear less creepy. However, the place itself doesn’t scare Bruce. He used to come here quite a lot after the death of his parents and that’s also why he knows the area around it so well. He doesn’t park his car in the guest parking lot, which is brightly lit but empty at this hour, but instead drives further away to the corner of the cemetery, where a chapel stands, and parks on a spot that is usually reserved for whoever tends the building. A tall fence and the closed gates of the cemetery keep him from entering, but it’s not going to be a problem.

He has taken a flashlight from the car and uses it to navigate his way in the dark, the lights of the parking lot only a dim glow in the distance. May nights aren’t as warm as he had expected, and he shivers a bit in his hoodie and sweatpants as he sneaks along the fence, looking for a spot that he knows to be there. Finally, the tall, spiky metal gates meet an older brick wall, which is a little lower and easier to climb. Bruce hasn’t actually climbed many walls before – none, to be frank – but it’s surprisingly easy. It’s only when he falls onto the damp grass on the other side of the wall that he realizes that Edward didn’t actually specify which cemetery they were supposed to meet at. Bruce just assumed that it would be the big one – the one where his parents and Mr. Myers are buried.

It’s eerily quiet at the cemetery, the noises of daily life absent. It’s not even as if there is no life there, but almost as if death is seeping through the ground. Bruce has never felt like that here, the place usually having been only sad and strangely comforting, as it’s the only place he can be close to his parents anymore. Now it feels all wrong. He tries not to think about it as he walks down one of the paths lined with graves, the flashlight not showing the way too well but still making him visible to whoever might be there with him. He’s at a cemetery in the middle of the night, looking for his boyfriend who is not in his right mind. Oh, this is a bad idea. He’s seen enough horror movies to know that this is how the third act starts.

His heart is hammering in his chest and all he can hear is the sound of blood flowing in his ears, but he doesn’t stop. He needs to find Edward, which is easier said than done. The cemetery is huge and Bruce has no idea where Edward is waiting for him. He tries to call out the boy’s name a couple of times but gets no answer. In the dark, it’s impossible for him to know where he’s exactly, but something – maybe muscle memory, maybe something else – keeps on pulling him towards the corner of the cemetery where his parents’ graves stand.

Every once in a while, it sounds like someone’s footsteps are following him, and Bruce has to turn around only to see nothing but darkness. He hates this, oh, he hates this. With one shaking hand he pulls his phone from his pocket, clicks on Edward’s contact, and calls him again. He stands still in the dark, headstones with dead people’s names on them staring at him from the ground. And that’s when he hears it, quiet but audible: the ringtone that he picked out for his old phone a long time ago. Edward hasn’t changed it.

Bruce doesn’t even think before starting to follow the sound, which is hopefully going to lead him to Edward. The question of why Edward isn’t picking up doesn’t cross his mind, either. He just wants to get out of here. The sound keeps on getting louder as Bruce approaches the area where he knows his parents’ graves to be, but cuts off before he can find its source. Disappointment floods Bruce but doesn’t last long, because something catches his eye a couple of rows away from him. It’s light – dim and wavering, but it looks bright in the summer night. Bruce’s heart is beating out of his chest as he starts making his way towards it, stumbling in the dark and almost tripping over a headstone that is half sunken into the grass.

“Ed?” he calls out, hurrying towards the light. To his disappointment, he doesn’t find Edward there, only a lonely candle that is sitting on the stairs of a small mausoleum. Of course, someone has left it there to commemorate whoever has been buried here. Out of mild interest, Bruce looks up and is greeted by the sight of his own last name carved onto the stone above the mausoleum door. Alan Wayne, it says. It’s not strange, Bruce has seen the mausoleum countless times. What is strange, however, is that this time the door is slightly open.

Bruce stares at the door and the crack that reveals nothing but darkness, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. No. f*ck no. He’s going to get out of here right now. Maybe this was all just some weird, twisted prank pulled on him by Edward and the boy isn’t even here. A way of seeing what Bruce is ready to do for him. A lot, apparently.

He’s about to do so – to leave – but that’s when he sees it. There is something lying on the top step of the stairs, right in the shadow of the door. Bruce shines the flashlight towards it and feels his heart drop. It’s a phone. Edward’s phone. He’s here. Or at least has been.

A sour taste rises into his mouth as he walks up a couple of stairs to pick up the phone. When he opens the screen, it reads: Missed calls: Bruce (8).

“Edward?” he calls out again and looks around frantically but to no avail. There is no sign of the boy anywhere. Slowly, Bruce turns to look at the open door. How can a mausoleum door even be opened? Could Edward have done it alone? Why would he have done it?

Bruce should get out of here. He should call the cops and tell them that Edward is missing.

Instead, he puts his hand against the door and pushes.

It’s heavy, just as he had expected, but he manages to push it open enough to peek inside. He’s never seen the inside of a mausoleum, at least not the one of any private one. Still, he’s pretty sure that what he sees isn’t normal.

The stone coffin where Alan Wayne’s remains are resting should be standing in the middle of the small room – that much Bruce knows. What he sees, however, is the coffin pushed aside, revealing something that Bruce can’t quite comprehend. A stairwell going underground.

He stands frozen in place and shines the flashlight into the darkness, but sees nothing apart from the decades of dirt and dust that cover every surface of the small room. A shiver runs down his back. Is there a secret crypt underneath the mausoleum that no one knows about? Who has pushed the coffin aside? Where is Edward?

He should get out of here.

His heart is beating in his ears and hears the footsteps coming from behind him a second too late. All he gets to do is turn halfway around and blindly swing the flashlight toward the person coming from behind him, but it’s no use. He feels a sharp shove on his back and stumbles forward for a couple of steps before the floor disappears from underneath his feet and he falls into the void he was looking at just a moment ago. He shrieks, trying to grapple for anything in the dark, but all he feels is the rough stone that hits his knees first, then his hands, then his shoulder and back, as he falls down the stairs endlessly.

Finally, he hits the ground, gasping for air and trying to look for his phone or the flashlight in the darkness that surrounds him. He’s bleeding but not sure where. He manages to roll onto his back – his entire body hurting – and sees a slight glimpse of light coming from the top of the stairs far above him. There’s a sound of something heavy being pushed echoing in the space around Bruce, making him feel like his head is going to explode. Then light disappears and he’s left in the dark.

Notes:

this one took so long bc i wanted to get the next chapter mostly done before posting this (it's gonna be kind of weird (maybe?) since it's kind of based on the comic but bear with me please)

Chapter 10: you want it darker

Notes:

if there are any comic readers here, please don't crucify me (more about that in the end notes). and everyone else... just know that this part is based on a comic but i also tried to ground it and fit it into the story as much as i could... but it's a batman comic so it's just very out of pocket no matter how hard i tried. i hope you enjoy anyway!
cw/ quite graphic depictions violence and also this is long as sh*t

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Gotham is a city consisting of three islands, covering an area not much bigger than thirteen square miles, and a population nearing five million. It stands separated from the mainland, like three molars in a human mouth, their roots digging deep into the ground. It’s an old city, where the history is drowning underneath new skyscrapers and apartment buildings, slowly becoming less and less visible. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t all still there. Underneath the concrete, below the subway tracks, tangled with the sewer system, there is something that has been there for a long time and will continue to exist even after all of those structures have fallen down and left to rot.

It’s a noisy city. Something is always happening, and most people don’t have the time to pay attention to anything but the moment. They don’t see or hear the quiet murmurs that conduct everything, even the noise that keeps them from noticing it. Everyone wants to build the city up, to build skyscrapers and towers towards the sky, hoping that reaching up will make the city rise from the dirt it’s been drowning in for years. No one ever looks down to see the rotting roots.

**

Bruce doesn’t know how long he lies in the dark or when he blacks out but when he gains consciousness again, he’s being carried. His entire body is heavy and hurting and he can’t open his eyes, but he’s definitely being carried. There is an arm underneath his knees and his back, and his feet aren’t touching the ground. For a moment he slips away again, past blurring with present, and he’s five years old again, getting carried to bed by his father after falling asleep in the backseat of their car after a long dinner or an opera night.

The next time he comes back to his body, he’s lying on something hard and cold, and there is a voice calling out his name.

Bruce? Oh my God, is that you?

Bruce’s head rolls to the side, feeling slowly coming back to his body, pain above everything else. The voice keeps on repeating his name, and Bruce slowly recognizes it as Edward’s.

It doesn’t come off as strange at first, of course, Edward is there, he always is. It’s only when the begging tone of the boy’s words catches up to Bruce that he remembers the text message, the cemetery, and the mausoleum. He opens his eyes.

“Ed?” he calls out, seeing nothing but darkness. His voice echoes a bit in the space around him. There’s a quiet flick and tsk sound before a sudden light appears above him. It’s nothing but a flickering flame, but he can see Edward’s face illuminated by it. Relief is nothing but an aftertaste compared to the confusion Bruce is feeling. “What’s this?”

Edward’s eyes look huge, and even in the poor lighting Bruce can tell that he’s been crying, his bottom lashes stuck together and his eyes puffy behind his glasses. He shakes his head at Bruce’s question, the corners of his mouth turning downwards.

“I don’t know,” he says, his voice shaking. Bruce doesn’t think he’s ever seen him this frightened. Even though he hasn’t yet quite grasped the situation they’re in, the feeling is starting to rub off onto him, too. Edward lets out a pained hiss and the flame goes out. The darkness suddenly feels suffocating around Bruce and he fumbles for Edward in it, until he finds the boy’s hand, clutching it hard.

“How did they get you?” Edward asks him through the darkness. Bruce doesn’t understand the question.

“What?”

“How did you end up here?”

“There was a secret underground stairwell in Alan Wayne’s mausoleum and someone pushed me down it,” Bruce says.

Edward is quiet for a moment before asking: “Why on earth were you in Alan Wayne’s mausoleum in the first place?”

“I– you sent me a message and I came looking for you.”

Another silence.

“I didn’t send you anything,” Edward says, sounding frustrated and confused but pauses when he realizes something. “They took my phone. They lured you here. Oh God, no…”

His breathing becomes uneven and it sounds like he’s going to start crying again. Bruce pushes himself up onto his knees and feels the darkness around him until he finds Edward in it and grabs him by the shoulders. His arm hurts when he lifts it but he doesn’t focus on the feeling.

“Edward,” he says, trying to sound calm and grounded, even though he can feel panic rising up his throat like bile. “Calm down. Just… just tell me what happened? How did you get here?”

Edward’s breathing evens out and he tells Bruce about how he went down to the school chapel and saw a stairwell going underground before someone drugged him. It sounds awfully similar to what happened to Bruce.

“I woke up here and… and I almost tripped over you and I thought… I thought…” his voice shakes and his hands come up to cling onto Bruce’s shoulders. Absently, Bruce notices that he’s not wearing his hoodie anymore, only the t-shirt underneath. He lets go of Edward briefly to pat through his pockets, only to find out that there’s nothing in them. No car keys and – more importantly – no phone. He can feel something in Edward’s hand where it presses against his shoulder – his lighter. Edward is rambling now, steering out of control again. “I didn’t– I didn’t mean it when I sent you the text about breaking up, I didn’t–”

“It’s okay, Edward. It’s okay,” Bruce says, bringing his hands up so that he’s holding Edward’s face. He’s not thinking about the text anymore, it’s fine, but in general, nothing is okay. They have been kidnapped and locked away somewhere by God knows who. Bruce swallows the panic and tries to come up with a plan. “Do you… Did they take your stuff, too?”

He can feel Edward nod. “Everything but the lighter. They didn’t find it in my pocket, I guess.”

“Okay, that’s good, that’s something,” Bruce says. He never got proper training for what to do if he ever got into a kidnapping situation, even though the need for one was discussed more than once by Alfred and some people from the WE behind closed doors, while Bruce secretly listened from the outside. He had once asked Alfred about what to do in a situation like that because even though Alfred never really talks about his past, he knows a lot of things about combat and survival. “Stay calm, get to know your surroundings, and try to find a way to call for help,” had been all that Alfred had told him. It’s not much, but it’s something.

“It’s the f*cking court,” Edward says, out of breath. Bruce doesn’t understand what he’s talking about before he says: “The Court of Owls. I know it.”

Bruce stifles a groan. This really isn’t the time for conspiracy theories.

“We don’t know that,” he says. He would like to deny it completely, but to be honest, things are looking way too strange for him to do that. This doesn’t seem like a normal kidnapping situation, even though Bruce doesn’t know how to define “normal” in that context. He was pushed down a secret stairwell in his great-great-grandfather’s mausoleum and now he’s locked in a dark room. Who knows who is behind all this. “Let’s just… focus on the things we know.”

First of all, they’re not tied up. It means that whoever put them here doesn’t think of them as that big of a threat. It might also mean that there is more than one person behind this, which could mean that Edward is right. Bruce doesn’t want to think about that.

Secondly, they’re in a medium-sized room – judging by the echo – probably underground, since there are no sounds coming in from outside. It doesn’t feel like a basem*nt nor smell like one. When Edward flicks his lighter open again, they can see that there’s a marble wall next to them. The floor is also made of marble. It could be a crypt of some kind, but Bruce has a feeling that it’s used for something else, too.

Thirdly, there is a door. They don’t notice it before it opens and the room is flooded with bright light, blinding the both of them and making them press up against the back wall. Edward grips Bruce’s arm almost painfully hard, and from the corner of his eye, Bruce can see how he pockets the lighter. Against the light stand two men, their faces obscured by the shadows.

Fear paralyzes Bruce completely. It locks his muscles and makes him feel small. He’s 12 years old again and terrified.

The men don’t say anything, only come forward. Neither of them looks particularly big nor threatening, but something about them makes Bruce back up even further against the wall, hoping that a secret door would open behind him and let him through.

“No,” he hears Edward choke out when the men finally get to them and grab them by their arms, pulling both of them up from the floor. A silent voice is screaming in the back of Bruce’s mind, telling him to fight, but his body doesn’t comply. Instead, he just lets the man pull his limp body up. His limbs feel numb and his body doesn’t feel like his own when the man walks him to the door. The marble floor is cold underneath his socks, and it’s only then that he realizes that his shoes have been taken, along with all his other things. He feels cold all over. This means that whoever took them here doesn’t want them to run or at least to get far.

He doesn’t understand this. He doesn’t understand what is happening or why it’s happening.

When they step out of the dark room, the brightness of the outside almost blinds Bruce. For a second he thinks that the light might actually be from the sun and that they’re outside – the thought is almost relieving – but once his eyes get used to the brightness, he sees that it’s not the case.

They are in another room, much bigger than the first one. The first thing that comes to his mind is a church, but not like any he’s ever seen. The room is completely made of white marble, all the way to the rows of pews that face them. A high ceiling arches above their heads, seemingly endless, making Bruce wonder how deep underground they are. There are no windows, and even though the space is big, it feels claustrophobic. Like an underground bomb shelter. For a moment the fear is replaced by confusion, but comes back when Bruce’s eyes land on the choir loft that overlooks the hall.

There are people standing on the loft, maybe two dozen of them, men and women, all of them dressed in evening wear and looking down at Bruce and Edward. Their presence alone would be enough to make Bruce’s blood run cold, but there is something else, too. Their faces – or the lack of them, to be precise. Each and every one of them is wearing a white mask with no mouth or nose on it, only two beady eyes staring down at them. In the light, Bruce can see that the men holding onto him and Edward are wearing them, too.

Bruce feels panic suffocating him. His legs might give out at any moment. This isn’t real. This isn’t something that can happen. This must be some elaborate prank, a TV show or something, and the fourth wall is going to fall down soon, revealing a studio audience.

A woman’s voice booms through the cloud of panic that is fogging Bruce’s mind and makes him turn around towards its source. The man holding onto him lets go, but Bruce barely even notices it. All of his attention is on the front of the room, where he sees something resembling an altar. In front of it, stands a woman. She is wearing a red dress, like a drop of blood on snow, her face hidden by the same mask as everyone else’s. She stands still with her hands underneath her chest, pale fingers intertwined, like a dinner guest, but something about her makes Bruce shake even though he’s not cold.

There is something else, too, that makes dread settle over Bruce in the form of cold sweat. Behind her, where the altarpiece would be hanging in a normal church, there is a giant marble statue carved out of the wall. It’s an owl, the same kind as the small ones hidden into the exterior walls of the buildings funded by the Alan Wayne Foundation that Bruce and Edward toured during New Year’s Eve. It also looks very much like the live one that got into The Tower during the spring break. Bruce’s legs feel weak and he gets a horrible feeling that Edward might’ve been right about some things. Maybe about everything.

“Welcome,” the woman speaks, the voice coming from somewhere behind her mouthless face. “We apologize for keeping you waiting for so long. It took some time to get everyone here.”

None of her words make any sense to Bruce. Who are these people? What do they want? It’s not cold in the room, but his skin is on goosebumps.

"I'm insured against kidnapping, so if– if this is about money–" The words come out of his mouth before he can even think about them. He’s not actually even sure if it’s true but he hopes to god that it is. The scraps of an escape plan that he had been drafting in his head have disappeared completely.

"This isn’t about money. This is about you," the woman says. Her voice is calm and she remains still, but it only makes her seem more sinister and uncanny. The hairs on the back of Bruce’s neck stand up. "You see, we’ve been watching both of you for some while now and we know you have been looking for us."

It takes impossibly long for her words to make their way to Bruce’s brain and be processed, and even after that, they make no sense.

"No, we haven’t, we don’t know who you even are!" Edward says from Bruce’s side, his voice full of panic. His hand has found Bruce’s arm again and his nails are digging into his skin almost painfully, assuring Bruce that all of this is very real and not just a dream. The Red Lady lets out an amused chuckle and turns to look over her shoulder at the stone owl.

"Oh, I think you do,” she says lightly.

In front of them, the statue grows impossibly tall, until it’s all Bruce can see. It stares into his soul, its marble eyes mocking him for not believing what Edward had been telling him for months. There’s a saying: In Gotham, every urban legend is true. Bruce is starting to feel that there might be some truth to that. He doesn’t want to believe it but he just might have to.

"Just let us go, please," he says, surprised by how small his voice sounds. The Red Lady turns to look back at them and tilts her head slightly.

"Oh? So much work trying to find us, and now that we're here, you want out," she says with faux disapproval. She speaks as if it’s all a joke. Bruce wishes that it was actually one, instead of whatever cruel game she and the rest of the masked people – the Court – are playing.

"Why are we here? Please, just..." he tries, but the Red Lady cuts him off, her voice now completely different – loud and menacing.

“Five days before Christmas you walked into the chapel and found your teacher’s body. His death had nothing to do with you, and so if you had just believed the letters we sent you, you might’ve been spared of all of this, but no, you started digging deeper, until you finally ended up here. You were looking for us, and here we are.”

This is a confession. This is where they find out what really happened that night in the chapel. Bruce gets no relief out of the thought. He doesn’t believe that these people are going to tell them all this and then let them go.

"You killed Mr. Myers?" Edward asks, breathless, his hold of Bruce’s arm loosening a little. “Wh– why?”

"For the same reason we're going to kill you: He got too curious about things that are hidden for a reason. There’s a reason that some things are only spoken about in nursery rhymes, but neither he nor you seemed to understand that. The only difference between you and him is that he wasn’t given the honor of being taken down here," the Red Lady says, turning to look at Bruce. "This isn’t actually the first time we have a Wayne down here. The last one was Alan, your great-great-grandfather. Funny, isn’t it?"

Bruce doesn’t understand what she’s saying. The only thing in his head is the knowledge that these people are going to kill them.

"Alan Wayne fell into a sewer and died," he says, and this time the Red Lady laughs. Bruce feels his blood freezing in his veins when the Court joins her laughter, the nightmarish cacophony of their voices echoing through the hall. He thinks about the screams of the barn owl in the dining room of The Tower.

"And you died falling down the stairs in his mausoleum,” she says once she’s calmed down. The haunting sound of the laughter still echoes in Bruce’s ears. “These things just happen. Bad luck, the Wayne curse, or whatever you want to call it.”

Another confession that Bruce would rather not hear. Before this year he hadn’t given any thought to Alan Wayne and, to be honest, he could’ve lived his life in peace without ever knowing the real circ*mstances of his death, but now he knows the truth, and the more he and Edward know, the smaller their chances of survival are. These people just said that they are going to kill them the same way they killed Bruce’s great-great-grandfather. They’re going to kill them and throw them into the Gotham River, where their bodies will be found, and no one is going to know what happened to them. Just as no one knew what happened to Alan.

"I don’t– I don’t understand why... Why do you need to kill us? We haven’t done anything. We don’t know anything,” Edward insists, sounding like he might start crying any second. The Red Lady turns to look at him.

“But now you know. Isn’t this what you wanted? Isn’t this what you were looking for from those abandoned buildings and books? Isn’t that why you sent those message board posts?” she says, her voice getting higher. Bruce glances at Edward, whose face has gone as white as the marble around him. “Oh, we know you and we know that you wanted to know what happened to your teacher. You wanted to know so desperately that you fell into the same hands that killed him. And now you know.”

“No, I– I didn’t–” Edward tries, turning to look at Bruce and then over his shoulder to the loft. “I didn’t try to find you, I just–”

The Red Lady makes a gesture with her hand, and Edward stops talking. There’s a new sound that echoes through the hall – the sound of stone grinding together. It makes Bruce and Edward turn to look over their shoulders and towards the back wall of the room. Hidden in the shadow of the choir loft stands a previously invisible door – it’s not even really a door, more like a seam in the stone that slowly opens. Bruce’s heartbeat picks up. A way out.

“But as you can see, we’re not unfair. I know that you didn’t want to come down here. So, we’re giving you an opportunity to get out,” The Red Lady speaks. Bruce turns to look at her, not believing his ears. “If you get above ground and out of here, you’re free. We won’t come after you. But if he catches you before that… Well, let’s say that none of the people we’ve brought down here have survived him.” There is humor in her voice. “You would be the first ones to get out.”

Bruce barely even hears the rest of her words. His mind is stuck on the words “opportunity to get out” and “you’re free”. Nothing else matters right now. They’re going to get out.

He doesn’t let the Red Lady keep on talking. Instead, he grabs Edward’s clammy hand and pulls the boy with him as he sprints towards the door. His socks slip a little on the marble, but it barely slows him down. His heart is beating in his ears and his muscles are burning with a sudden burst of adrenaline.

As they bolt out of the room, the crowd on the loft breaks into cheers, their voices sounding animalistic as they yell and shriek: “Good luck! Give us a good show!”

The noise follows them out of the room and tails them for a long time.

Behind the door, there is a dimly lit corridor that keeps on going endlessly in front of them. Bruce doesn’t think about where he’s going, some animal instinct telling him to keep on running until they find a way out. He has tunnel vision and a death grip on Edward’s sweaty hand as he drags the boy with him all the way to the end of the corridor, the bright light coming from the room behind them slowly becoming nothing but a distant glow. They need to hide.

Finally, the corridor ends, dividing into two identical ones. Bruce, led by only his instincts, chooses the left one without thinking. The tall marble walls around them look somewhere between gray and dirty brown in the dim lighting. At every turn, Bruce expects to see either a way out or something horrible that is going to be the end of them. This is like a nightmare where something invisible is chasing them and where no matter how fast Bruce runs, he gets nowhere.

After the corridor there is another, then another, and so on. It’s an endless maze of narrow hallways, the patterns of the stone blurring in Bruce’s eyes as he and Edward run down them. It’s almost like the walls keep on getting closer together, but Bruce doesn’t know if it’s just his imagination. He keeps on looking for stairwells or any places where the floor is sloped upwards, but none come across. There must be at least two of those, one of them going up to Alan Wayne’s mausoleum and one to the chapel at St. Aquinas’. The only problem is how they’re going to find them. His lungs and muscles are burning but he can’t stop. He can hear Edward’s labored breathing coming from behind him and more than once feels the boy’s hand almost slipping from his hold when he’s about to be left behind. Bruce doesn’t let him.

He doesn’t know how long they’ve been running – time moves strangely in the maze – before Edward’s hand finally slips from his hold completely. Bruce stops running but slides forward on the slippery floor for a second before turning around. Edward has fallen onto his knees on the floor, his forehead and palms pressed against the marble. Bruce can hear his wheezing breath and the sound of his irregular sobbing bouncing off of the marble.

“Ed…” he says between heavy breaths. It’s only now that he’s stopped running that he realizes how out of breath and tired he is. He walks over to Edward and grabs his shoulder, trying to pull him into a sitting position. “We need to… we need to keep going.”

“I can’t– I can’t,” Edward sobs against the floor, his voice wet with tears and snot. Bruce pulls his hand away, but that’s when Edward springs up, his hand coming to grab Bruce’s wrist. His face is wet and splotchy and full of terror. “No! Don’t– don’t leave me here, please!”

“I’m not leaving you,” Bruce says crouching down next to Edward, his muscles straining and his legs almost giving out. He would also like to fall onto the ground and start crying but now is not the time. Fear is like a second heart that is beating inside of him. He looks up and down the hallway, wondering how much time they have. Whoever the “him” the Red Lady was talking about is, he is going to try and find them. They cannot stop. “We need to keep going.”

“I know, I know,” Edward sobs, pushing himself up onto his knees and taking off his glasses to wipe his face on his sleeve. He is wearing the pants and shirt from his school uniform, the same clothes he left The Tower in. The back of his shirt is almost transparent with sweat. Bruce wonders how long they’ve been down here. How long until someone notices that they’re missing? He feels his heart sink when he remembers that he didn’t tell Alfred where he was going, only disappeared into the night.

“I was right,” Edward says, his breathing still erratic. “I was right about everything.”

“Sit up,” Bruce says. They can’t keep going before Edward has calmed down. Edward does as he’s told, his entire body shaking when Bruce puts his hand on the back of his neck gently and guides his head down so that he’s resting it between his bent knees. “Breathe.”

He remembers sitting like this on the floor next to a boxing ring with Raya’s hand on the back of his neck when he used to get panic attacks out of nowhere. It was maybe three years ago, but right now it feels like a lifetime, or like it happened to someone else, not him.

Bruce’s pulse is drowning out all the other sounds around them and he keeps on looking up and down the hallway, so sure that they’re not going to be alone there for long. This is a game, like that one movie of the Japanese kids on the island that he and Edward watched but Bruce never got to see the ending because he fell asleep. The point is, they’re being hunted, that’s for sure.

Edward’s breathing has calmed down, and when Bruce moves his hand to feel the pulse on his neck, he finds that it’s still fast but not as high as before. He takes his hand away and touches Edward’s shoulder.

“Let’s go.”

Their legs and lungs are burning and their feet ache, so they don’t run but hold hands anyway. It’s the only comfort they can find in the situation they’re in. Bruce’s heart is still beating like crazy and all of his senses feel heightened. Now that they’re going slower, he can pay more attention to the place they’re in. The corridors are long, some stretching further ahead than others. There is dirt and dust collected in the seams between the floor and the walls, some of it probably decades old, and a slightly musty smell that hangs in the air. There are no windows or doors. After some time it starts feeling like they’re walking in a circle, even though they’ve been taking an opposite turn at every crossroad.

“These must cover the entire downtown island,” Edward says when they’ve been walking for what feels like hours. Bruce isn’t good at grasping the distances between different places, especially not when walking and trapped in an underground maze, but he believes that Edward is right. He wonders how long these corridors have been here. For almost a century, he supposes, considering that Alan Wayne died here. The reminder of his great-great-grandfather’s death makes the fear beat harder in his chest, and he grips Edward’s hand tighter, picking up a pace again.

*

One of the most unnerving things about the maze itself is the silence that fills it. There are no sounds of traffic, no distant whirring of an AC, or water flowing in pipes. The only sounds Bruce can hear are the ones that he and Edward make. In silence like that, he starts hearing things. Every once in a while he stops in his tracks and puts his finger to his lips so that Edward knows to be quiet and listen, but all he can hear is the sound of his own heartbeat. If there is someone in the maze with them, he’s incredibly quiet or far enough for them to be safe.

The complete, numbing stillness of the maze also plays tricks on Bruce’s head. More than once he’s sure that he sees someone running past the end of the hallway they’re in, and has to pull Edward back into the previous hallway, just to be sure. After an hour or two, his senses have calmed down a little, and he doesn’t see a danger behind every turn. That’s also when he sees something that he doesn’t understand right away.

There is an open door at the end of the corridor they’ve chosen at this crossroad. White light is pouring out of it, and Bruce doesn’t even think about what he’s doing before sprinting toward the light and dragging Edward with him.

Disappointment hits him instantly when they step through the door frame. They’re not outside, not even in a lobby of some kind. They’re in another brightly lit marble hall, quite much like the one where the Court welcomed them. This one, however, doesn’t resemble a church, instead, all of the walls are covered in framed pictures.

“What–” Bruce hears Edward whisper, slightly out of breath. The pictures have been hung onto the walls in neat rows, the lines of them reaching from the ceiling to almost the floor. Bruce and Edward stand frozen in place for a moment, before stepping in properly to take a better look. Now that he’s closer, Bruce can see that all of the pictures are camera portraits of people, all of them in identical picture frames made out of dark wood. There must be hundreds of them. Men and women, young and old, no physical feature connecting them apart from a look of pure terror on all of their faces. Bruce looks at them, the feeling of dread swelling in his stomach and making him sick as he comes to a realization.

“These are their victims.” Edward turns to look at him but says nothing. The look on his face mirrors the ones from the pictures.

The hundreds of terrified faces stare at them as they walk through the room. Bruce doesn’t know if he should look and try to remember them, or if it’s better to not know. He settles for looking forward. There is another opening on the other side of the room, and when they pass through, they’re in another corridor. The air feels thicker there, or maybe it’s just the feeling the room left Bruce with. Neither he nor Edward say anything as they keep on walking a little faster than before, the eyes of the dead follow them long after. If all of this had felt like a nightmare before, it’s now starting to feel painfully real.

Corridor after corridor after corridor. Left, right, left, right. Hunger, thirst, and exhaustion are starting to get to Bruce, but fear is like an electric current that runs through him and makes it impossible for him to stop. They’re going to stop once they get out and in order to get out, they have to keep on moving.

*

Another hour passes before Edward suddenly stops. This time it’s not because his legs give out but because something has caught his attention.

“Look,” he says, making Bruce stop, too. They’re standing at yet another crossroad. Edward points at one of the stone walls, and when Bruce follows his finger, he can see what he means. Carved into the stone, maybe thirteen feet up, are letters. Bruce squints and takes a couple of steps around, his eyes glued onto the letters until he can finally make up the words they spell out.

Gotham University of Arts,” he reads, confused.

“Wait, there’s another one,” Edward says, standing by the hallway leading in the opposite direction. “Old Gotham Community Library.”

They turn to look at each other. There is something strangely familiar about those places, even though Bruce can’t remember if he’s ever been to either of them. Edward remembers it before he does.

“The buildings funded by the Alan Wayne Foundation,” he says quickly, his face lighting up. “You remember? We went to these places on New Year’s Eve!”

Bruce remembers. The gears in his head are starting to turn slowly.

“We were looking for attics, when all the while they were hiding in the basem*nts,” Edward says and walks over to Bruce to put his hands onto his shoulders, excitement bleeding through the fear in his voice. “The school chapel… It was restored when the dorm building was built, and the dorm was funded by the foundation. I read about that”

“And Alan’s Mausoleum…” Bruce says. It’s starting to make sense – well, maybe not quite that, but the puzzle pieces are starting to fit together, even though the picture they make up is still incomprehensible. “Do you think he was a part of this?”

Edward looks like he’s thinking.

“I don’t know. Maybe. But why would they have killed him if he was one of them?”

“I think these people will kill anyone who poses a threat to them,” Bruce says. They should really keep moving now that they have some direction. “Which one do we choose? The university dorm building or the library?”

“There might be more people at the university dorm. Let’s go there,” Edward says.

They keep on going, their walking soon turning into light jogging. The fear that has been driving Bruce for the past hours has been pushed aside to give room for something almost like excitement. They’re going to get out of here.

Even though they now have a direction, they don’t know how long it is going to take for them to reach their destination. As far as Bruce can remember, the distances between the houses they toured during the New Year were quite long, but it doesn’t matter. After all, it's not like the downtown island is that big.

“Who are these people, really?” he wonders out loud after a long stretch of silence.

“The Court?” Edward asks between breaths. “The popular theory is that they’re the cream of Gotham. Maybe you know some of them.”

“God, I hope not,” Bruce says. The thought of some of the people behind the masks being people he’s seen at parties makes him feel cold despite the fact he’s sweating. Neither of them says anything for some while.

Five more turns, five more corridors, and that’s when they see it. A stairwell. Bruce almost screams out of happiness, relief making him feel lightheaded. They’ve done it, they’ve found a way out. The bad dream is over. He pulls Edward into a hug, feeling the boy either laugh or cry against his shoulder, before pulling away and grabbing Edward’s wrist, pulling him towards the stairwell in front of them.

The words Gotham University of Arts are carved into the stone above the stairwell entrance. The stairwell itself doesn’t have any lights, but Bruce can see that it keeps on going upwards for god knows how long. It doesn’t matter. No climb can keep him from getting out of here.

He goes first but holds Edward’s hand as they start climbing. The edges of the stairs have gotten rounder, probably from decades of use, but Bruce doesn’t get to wonder at them for long, because the light coming from down soon fades, and he has to slow down his pace so that he doesn’t fall in the dark.

His heart is beating in his chest like a bird waiting to get out of its cage. All of this feels like a strange dream. There is a maze underneath Gotham, connecting buildings to each other for an insane, bird-obsessed cult to use? That’s like straight out of a movie or a comic book. If he and Edward didn’t know the entrances, there would be no way the police would believe a word they say.

“You see anything?” he hears Edward asking a step behind him.

No, Bruce is about to say but that’s when he feels it. He doesn’t know what it is at first, but he gets a feeling – a horrible one, like a prey animal when it knows that it’s being stalked but cannot yet see the predator. Maybe it’s a slight shift in the temperature, maybe a silent breath, or an almost inaudible sound of leather shifting, that makes Bruce aware of the presence of something. He stops, his skin on goosebumps and his eyes wide, trying to see into the darkness beyond him to find whatever is waiting for them there. He doesn’t see it, but he knows it’s there. No, not it – him.

He’s been waiting for them there the entire time. He’s been following them and this is where he gets them, right on the stairs leading up to their freedom.

“Go back,” Bruce manages to say to Edward and hears the boy’s confused “What?” coming from behind him just as the sound of heavy steps coming down the stairs makes his instincts take over.

“Go, go, go,” he hisses, grabbing Edward’s shoulder and forcing him to start stumbling down the stairs. The marble is slippery underneath Bruce’s socks and the rounded edges of the stairs make it none easier to go down them without falling. He can hear the steps approaching, accompanied by the sound of heavy breathing.

He can already see the lights of the hallway when he feels a sharp shove on his back and falls forward. He tries to grab the wall, but there is nothing to hold onto. His chest collides with Edward’s back, the both of them flying down the remaining ten stairs.

His landing is barely softened by Edward, who hits the marble first, Bruce’s cheekbone crashing against his shoulder when he lands on the floor a second later.

“What the f*ck!?” Edward screams at him and pushes himself onto his knees, picking his glasses up from the floor. His teeth have hit his lower lip, which is bleeding. Bruce doesn’t answer. The animal instinct is still holding onto him and telling him to run. He scrambles onto his feet and pulls Edward up. They have to find another exit, maybe the library one.

He turns to the direction he thinks they came from, trying to pull Edward along, but the boy doesn’t move.

“Edward, f*cking come on, we need to–” he says, panic taking over. The boy doesn’t move. Bruce turns to look over his shoulder and that’s when he sees what Edward is seeing. Terror freezes him completely and feeling disappears from all his limbs.

Standing in the stairwell, half hidden in the shadows, stands a man. He is tall, the top of his head almost touching the top of the opening on the wall, and standing slightly hunched and completely still, like a predator waiting to strike. It’s not only his physique that makes Bruce stop breathing in the hopes that standing still and quiet would make the man not notice him – it’s what he’s wearing. The man is completely draped in black leather – from his combat boots and elbow-length gloves to his face, which is hidden behind a hood of some kind. It makes Bruce think of the pictures of medieval executioners from his middle school history books.

Slowly, the man turns his head and looks at them. Bruce looks back, unable to look away, but can’t see the man’s eyes. They’re covered by two tinted lenses, and in their reflection, Bruce can see himself. For a moment, he recalls the last lines of the nursery rhyme that was sent to them as a threat.

Speak not a whispered word or they’ll send the Talon for your head.

It’s him. He has come for them.

The sound of leather bending as the Talon steps down the last step wakes Bruce from the trance he’s in. He grips Edward’s hand and starts running in the direction they came from. This time, Edward follows.

The tunnel vision is back, and all Bruce sees is the end of the corridor. He is a rabbit being hunted and nothing else matters other than him making it out of here alive. That is, until he feels Edward’s hand slipping from his and hears the blood-curdling shriek the boy lets out. Bruce spins around, just in time to see the way the Talon strikes the back of his hand across Edward’s face and the way Edward slumps onto his knees. Unceremoniously, the Talon grabs Edward by the upper arm and starts dragging him in the opposite direction.

The stairwell is unguarded and the Talon isn’t coming after Bruce. He should get out and get help. Instead, he runs past the stairwell and towards Edward, who is trying to kick and scream his way out.

The Talon pretends that he doesn’t even notice it when Bruce grabs the hand that is closed around Edward’s forearm and tries to break the hold that the man’s hand has of him. He almost manages to pull back the fingers that have been wrapped around Edward’s arm in an iron grip, but that’s when the Talon suddenly moves, not giving Bruce any time to react before striking his free hand across Bruce’s face with a force that makes him fall onto the floor.

Bruce barely even hears Edward yell something unintelligible from the ringing in his ears as he lies on the floor and stares at the ceiling far above in a daze. His face feels numb for a moment before it starts to sting. He only wakes when he feels a hand grabbing him by the ankle and then he’s being dragged across the marble floor.

Getting up from the floor is impossible, and no matter how hard Bruce tries to kick, the hold on him doesn’t loosen. The marble is smooth underneath his hands and there is nothing to hold onto. He can see the Talon’s back and hear the sounds of Edward’s protests, which grow more panicked with every passing second. The Talon is dragging them down a hallway, and Bruce is prepared to grab the corner when they have to eventually turn, but his plans crumble to dust, when the Talon doesn’t take the turn but instead pushes his shoulder against the solid-looking wall at the end of the corridor. The stone gives in against his weight, and a hidden door opens. The Talon drags them inside.

Bruce flinches when the dim lights of the hallway are replaced by the same, bright, white ones as the lights in the church room and the room with the photographs. The confusion he’s feeling keeps him from grabbing the doorframe, and the thought doesn’t even cross his mind before he hears the stone door sliding back shut with a heavy thud. The Talon lets go of him and Edward but keeps on walking. Bruce can feel his heartbeat on his face as he scrambles onto his feet and tries to blink away the spots that the bright lights have left on his retinas to see the room they’re in.

It’s another big, white marble room, this time completely empty. There are no pews, no altars, or pictures on the walls. It’s only him, Edward, and the Talon, who has wordlessly left Edward and Bruce in the middle of the room and is now silently walking by the back wall, waiting. Bruce can’t take his eyes off of the man, sure that he’s going to attack the moment Bruce’s attention is turned. Edward, on the other hand, sprints right back to the wall where the door was only moments ago.

“Bruce, help me,” he begs, and Bruce has no choice but to stiffly walk to the wall without taking his eyes off of the Talon.

There is no door handle or even a slot to use to pull the door open. Bruce and Edward try to stick their fingers into the seam between the door and the wall and pull, but it’s no use. The door doesn’t open. The sour taste of panic rises into Bruce’s mouth. This is like when they got stuck in the attic, only this time there are no windows to break. Also, this time they’re trapped underground with a man trying to probably kill them.

“f*ck, f*ck, f*ck!” Edward whispers, his bleeding fingertips uselessly scratching the marble. Bruce doesn’t share his feeling of despair – his attention is grabbed by the sound of a blade being pulled out of its sheath.

He turns, seeing the Talon leisurely approaching them. He is holding a knife, a long one, and Bruce recognizes it as the same kind as the ones pierced through Mr. Myers’ wrists in the chapel, as well as the one the police found inside of his mattress after the night when someone broke into his room. Well, that someone is standing in front of him right now and getting closer every second.

The panic that has been rising inside of Bruce reaches its peak. There is no escape. Not as long as the Talon is in the room with them. The blade glimmers when the light hits it. For a moment Bruce is back in the alley where he’s been every night for the last six years.

The Talon turns his face upwards towards the light, almost as if looking for something, and Bruce mimics him. Through the brightness of the lights, he can see something near the line of the ceiling – round holes in the walls, evenly spaced and big enough for a person to look through them. Even though Bruce can’t see anyone, he’s quite sure that that’s exactly what is happening. They’re being watched. The fear milling inside of him mixes with something else. Anger. These people think that this is a game. First, they want to see Bruce and Edward get chased down a maze and then they want to see them killed in some pseudo-gladiator fight, where they have no chance of winning.

They aren’t in a boxing ring – he’s not wearing hand wraps or a helmet or even shoes – but somewhere in the back of his mind he can hear the distant sound of a bell chiming. The Talon is looking at him now, like a viper ready to strike, and Bruce sees the inevitable. It doesn’t matter how this ends, the only way is through. He squeezes his hands into fists.

The Talon doesn’t wait for him to get into a position before lunging at him. Bruce dodges, the blade of the knife swinging a few inches past his left side. There is no time for him to come up with a tactic or a set of movements before the Talon swings the blade towards him again. He is fast and his movements are calculated. He’s good, very good. Bruce dodges again but barely. His mouth is dry and his socks slip a little on the marble, but there’s no time to feel fear. Instead, he tries to remember the three training sessions Raya spent teaching him how to disarm someone with a knife, even though those were more of tactics for winning a street fight, not for fighting a possibly trained killer.

When the knife comes at him for the third time, Bruce grabs the Talon’s forearm and pulls down. It’s not enough to make the man let go of the knife, but it seems to catch him by surprise. Bruce doesn’t get to feel any victory over it, because the next thing he feels is a fist sinking into his left cheekbone and the way he falls onto the floor. The force of the punch is much harder than the one in the hallway, but that isn’t the reason that makes Bruce try and scramble onto his feet and try to find a place to hide, involuntary tears filling his eyes. It’s the violence behind it. This isn’t a competition, they’re not equals fighting for the same price. This isn’t an act of desperation or fear on the man’s part. He wants to hurt Bruce just because he can. And he will.

Bruce sees nothing but the knife anymore and the way it’s coming down. There is no anger left, only fear, the small animal in him looking into the mouth of a predator. He shields his face and chest with his crossed forearms and pulls his knees to his chest. He feels the blade cutting into the side of his arm – a flesh wound – but the pain is barely noticeable. All he cares about is the fact that the tip of the knife has stopped before sinking into his shoulder. The Talon is above him, braced on one knee and the other one bent, and Bruce knows that if he gets to straddle him, there is no way for him to get free. He doesn’t know if it’s a very calculated and rational choice, or if he’s just driven by immense fear when he straightens his leg and aims a kick towards the man’s masked face.

There’s an ugly cracking sound and an almost animalistic howl when the heel of Bruce’s foot hits something underneath the mask, but all he can focus on is the way the knife falls from the Talon’s hold and scrapes Bruce’s shoulder before falling onto the floor. Bruce grabs it, the smooth handle slippery in his hands, and scrambles onto his feet. Past the Talon, who is still collecting himself and fixing his mask, he can see Edward standing with his back pressed against the wall on the other side of the room. For a second the fear is pushed aside by something else, but Bruce doesn’t get to recognize the feeling before the Talon lunges at him again.

Bruce swings the knife at the man instinctively, feeling it cut into the thick leather glove that reaches up to the Talon’s elbows, but before he can try and land a more tactical strike, a fist sinks into his side, emptying his lungs of air, and then he’s on the floor again. The knife flies out of his hand but he doesn’t hear the sound. His ears are ringing and he can’t breathe. He feels like he’s drowning, not sure if he’s going to get air into his lungs ever again.

He does, but the first gasp of air comes with another punch to his face. This time he screams, tasting blood. The pain is sharp and different than any of the times he’s gotten punched at practice or tournaments. He shields his face with his arms, only for the next blow to be a kick on his ribs. He curls into himself, gasping for air, every lungful making pain radiate from his chest to his entire body.

This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. They’re supposed to get out of here – him and Edward together. He pushes himself onto his feet with shaky arms and coils his hands into fists. Another punch lands onto his jaw and his teeth bite into his tongue, hard. The marble feels almost soft this time when he collapses onto it.

“Please, stop,” he manages to gasp through the blood in his mouth. If this was a competition, the fight would’ve been cut off already.

But this isn’t a fair fight, and the man isn’t going to stop once Bruce taps out. Bruce realizes this when he can’t push himself up from the floor anymore, blood and sweat dripping down his face and his body hurting so much he can’t move. His muscles and lungs are burning, and every time he breathes in, he tastes blood. He manages to push himself up onto his knees, but before he can even look up to see the masked face of his opponent, he feels a leather boot sinking into his side with a force that makes him fly onto his side and land back onto the cold marble. All he feels is pain – white and hot and all-consuming. It feels like something breaking inside of him. He lies on his back with his ears ringing and black spots swimming in his vision, drowning in the pain, and in that moment he realizes something that might be the truth. He’s going to die here. He’s going to be hit and kicked and stabbed until he can’t take it anymore, and then he’s going to die. Here, underground, where no one is going to find him.

When he rolls onto his side and coughs, red splatters all over the white marble. He knows that he won’t be getting up again. His lungs ache as he sucks in a breath and his ribs hurt so much he can’t do anything but cry, the tears mercifully blinding him from what he knows to come. He curls into himself, trying to shield himself from the second kick that lands on his ribs, but it doesn’t spare him from another flash of pain that makes him scream. Tears, blood, and snot mix on his face and he can’t wipe them away anymore. He can’t fight anymore. With every sob and cough he lets out, more blood drips onto the floor. He’s going to die here, there is no running away from it. After this, he won’t be anything at all, only the bloody remains of what used to be a boy. All he hopes for is for the pain to stop. He hopes it happens fast.

He can barely keep his eyes open anymore. His body is trying to save him by failing him. Even still, he can hear Edward’s voice echoing all around him – screaming, begging, crying. For a moment, Bruce hears his mother.

For so many years he’s tortured himself by thinking what his parents’ last moments were like. How would it have felt if the bullet had ripped through Bruce instead? What if it had been him who bled out in the dark alley, not them? He’s heard his mother’s last screams in his dreams so many times that he remembers them better than how her voice sounded when she told him good night. He’s been in that alley for years, waiting for the bullet that never comes. Finally, he can see the end, the barrel of the gun pressed against his forehead. He’s not getting spared this time. He hopes that Edward is.

His body is completely limp when a hand wraps around his neck and picks him up. The pain has faded along with his consciousness, and when he sees the masked face in front of him through his barely open eyelids, he barely even understands what is happening. The hold around his neck tightens. His feet aren’t touching the ground, he can’t breathe.

From somewhere on the edge of his consciousness, from underneath all the pain and terror, one last lucid thought emerges: He doesn’t want to die. For so many years he wanted to be dead, but never did he want to die. He wants to live, he wants it so badly it hurts, but it’s too late now. This is going to be the last thing he feels – the hand around his throat squeezing harder and harder.

His vision fades into darkness. There is no hand choking him, only a gentle one on his shoulder. His mother’s voice. Bruce, darling, let’s go home.

He wants to go. He turns to look at her, but something makes him turn back. A guttural scream coming from somewhere far away. The pressure around his throat suddenly stops, and Bruce is back in the maze. He catches a glimpse of a white marble wall before his body falls onto the floor, limp and unconscious.

*

Upon his arrival at St. Aquinas' Edward had been like an exotic animal for the other boys to marvel at. He was the first one to come from outside of their already established circles, the first one to come from somewhere lower. At first, Edward had thought that their curiosity towards him was genuine interest but he had soon found out that it wasn’t that. The boys only wanted to poke him with sticks to see how he would react. That was the reason why Edward had come up with the story about stabbing a guy who tried to mug him when he was 12 years old. After that, most of the boys left him alone for a while.

The truth is, he’s never actually stabbed anyone. He hasn’t even seen it happen on the streets, only heard stories from the boys in St. Jude’s. He doesn’t know what it feels like to sink a blade into someone else’s flesh. Not until now.

The Talon’s knife is long and sharp and weighs much less than Edward had expected it to when he picks it up from the floor. It also cuts through the leather of the Talon’s uniform with ease when Edward bolts towards him and sinks it into his back, right underneath the man’s bottom left rib. He doesn’t know how he does it but he knows that it makes the Talon let go of Bruce, who falls onto the floor like a ragdoll. Edward gets to take one look at the boy’s bloodied face, before the Talon turns around, his hand grappling for the knife sticking out of his back. He’s still moving. Why is he still moving? Edward has never stabbed anyone, but he thought that this would be enough to make the man stop.

The Talon doesn’t stop. He never will, and Edward can either accept it and give up now or live his last moments terrified and in pain. A gloved hand reaches towards him, but he flinches away, backing against the wall, away from the man who towers above him. The marble is cold against his back. There is no escape.

There’s a sound of metal against stone when the Talon finally pulls the knife out of his back and tosses it onto the floor. Masked eyes turn to look at Edward, and all Edward sees is his own fear and pain reflecting from the lenses. There is no shelter in the marble box, nowhere to hide. For his entire life, he’s been looking for a place to hide from those who have wanted to hurt him. He’s never punched back, he doesn’t know how to. Now he doesn’t have a choice.

Blood drips onto the floor with every step the Talon takes towards him. Edward imagines how it’s going to feel when the fist covered in leather sinks into his face, crushing his skull and breaking all the delicate bones that make up the face that he used to hate when looking in the mirror. He imagines what he’s going to look like when his body is found washed ashore weeks later, waterlogged and unrecognizable, with no one to come and recognize him for the police, because all the people he’s ever known are gone, the last one of them lying on the other side of the room, half-dead.

He catches a glimpse of Bruce, just a stain of dark hair and blood on the marble floor before the Talon covers his entire field of vision and all he sees is his approaching death.

The Talon doesn’t look hurt but he doesn’t move, either. He’s standing three feet away from Edward and looking at him, waiting like a cat wanting to see what the mouse is going to do. Edward stands frozen in place, tears silently streaming down his face. He’s not going to make it out of here and he knows it, but it’s almost like his mind won’t really accept it. He sees the glimmering of the blade in the corner of his eye. He’s not going to make it. He’s going to die here, thirty feet away from Bruce, hidden underground.

But there is something desperate in him that just can’t give up. It wants him to survive, even though the chances are less than zero. It’s that small, desperate thing beating inside of him that makes him lunge towards the knife lying fifteen feet away from him.

The Talon reaches for him the moment Edward moves, grabbing the back of his shirt and pulling him back, but Edward doesn’t stop. He hears the fabric tear and falls onto his hands and knees on the floor but keeps on scrambling towards the knife, not even sure what he is going to do once he gets a hold of it. His fingers brush against the handle, but that’s when a hand grabs him by the ankle and drags him back.

Edward screams, more out of some primal need than fear, the noise bouncing off of the walls until it’s all he can hear. He kicks and tries to dig his fingers into the smooth marble to get a hold of something, but there is nothing to grab. He doesn’t look over his shoulder. He doesn’t want to see the Talon. Instead, he keeps his eyes on the knife, reaching for it as it gets further away from him. He keeps on kicking, his socked feet hitting nothing.

That is until there’s a flat thump and the feeling of his heel hitting something hard. The hold around his ankle loosens up for just a second, but it’s enough for Edward to pull himself free and scrabble towards the knife on his hands and knees. His hand closes around the handle, and he sees that they’re covered in the same blood.

He doesn’t get to look at it for any longer, because the hand pulls him back by his ankle, flipping him onto his back like he weighs nothing. Against the bright ceiling lights, Edward sees the Talon’s figure towering over him and hears his own voice crying and begging.

Please, don’t, please, stop, stop, please, please, please…

The Talon grabs him by the front of his torn shirt, picking him up, and even though there is nothing around Edward’s neck, he feels like he’s choking. There is nothing looking at him through the glass eyes, no remorse, no mercy. The last thing he’s going to see is the reflection of his own tear-stained face.

The Talon raises his hand. Edward squeezes his eyes shut, the hand squeezing the knife rising, too, out of his control. He swings his hand blindly. The fist draped in leather meets his face as the knife meets the side of the Talon’s neck. Edward can hear the horrible crack of his nose breaking against the impact, the pain completely blinding him for a moment, but even underneath all of it, he can feel the way the knife sinks into the Talon’s neck. Skin, muscle, tendon, veins, and finally the cartilage of the trachea – he feels it piercing through it all.

The hand holding him up lets go of him, and he falls onto the ground, blood spraying out of his broken nose like a fountain and his shattered glasses sliding down his face. Through the pain, he sees the Talon standing over him, still and slightly hunched over, the knife sticking out of his neck, his hand slowly coming up to touch it. Edward watches, completely frozen, as the man carefully wraps his hand around the handle and slowly pulls the blade out with a horrifying, gurgled scream.

The knife falls onto the floor, and for an agonizingly long moment, it looks like it didn’t do any harm. The Talon is still standing and grasping his neck with one hand, blood barely visible as it runs down the front of his suit. Then, finally, he lets out another gurgling sound and falls onto his knees.

Edward barely gets to move out of the way before the man completely collapses onto the marble with a thud that shakes the floor.

He cannot move, he cannot blink, he cannot look away from the man lying on the floor. All he can do is stare at the twitching body and the pool of blood that is starting to form on the marble. It’s so dark and fresh that it looks almost black against the whiteness of the floor. The blood seeps closer to Edward, but he can’t move, not even when it touches his hand, which is already stained with it. He can hear the Talon breathe in the blood, the noise sounding like someone sucking the last drops of a drink through a straw. The body twitches one last time.

Then it’s finally quiet.

All Edward can taste is blood when he rolls away from the body and retches until his face is wet with sweat, tears, and blood. He’s shaking so much he can’t even get up from the floor, feeling the blood from his nose and the floor seeping into his torn shirt. If there is anything good about his broken nose, it’s him not being able to smell his own stomach acid.

He’s alive. The monster is dead and he’s alive.

What happens now?

He manages to sit up, the world swaying all around him, the smell and taste of blood overpowering his senses. He feels like he might throw up again. That’s when he looks past the Talon’s body and onto the other side of the room where another, much smaller body lies.

Bruce.

All of Edward’s powerlessness disappears as he almost crawls over to the boy on his hands and knees, leaving a trail of red on the floor. His heart is beating so fast he thinks he might die, his pulse making his nose throb. He knows he shouldn’t touch Bruce to avoid causing more damage, but he can’t keep himself from taking his face into his shaking hands.

Bruce’s eyes are closed and his skin is cold, but the blood on his face is still warm. His lip is busted, there are impact wounds on his cheeks and nose, and his left eye is almost swollen shut. Tears mix with the blood dripping from Edward’s nose as he tries to wipe the blood off Bruce’s face but only manages to stain it with the blood on his hands. Panic rises in his chest – white and cold – and comes out as erratic sobbing. He takes off his shattered and ruined glasses and throws them away before putting his head onto Bruce’s chest and praying, praying, praying.

Please, God, please, please, don’t take him away from me, please help, someone help, please–

He can barely hear it through his own heavy breathing, but there it is: A quiet, steady heartbeat.

Relief floods Edward, and he slumps onto the floor, clinging onto Bruce with his last bits of strength. They’re alive. They’re alive but they’re never getting out of here. They’re going to rot in this room with the corpse of the man assigned to kill them. They got so far for nothing. But at least they’re together.

He doesn’t know how long he spends lying on the cold floor and wailing against Bruce’s unmoving side. All he knows is that his nose has stopped bleeding but the pain is still present and he’s tired and hurting. The small, beating thing inside of him that has made him fight for this long has quietly died. He buries his face into the clammy crook of Bruce’s neck and whispers a prayer there, hoping that it will reach someone even through all the stone and ground above them. With his ear against the marble, he can hear something strangely familiar. He holds his breath and listens. It’s the sound of flowing water. There’s a river or a sewer underneath them. As well as probably three feet of marble. He listens to the sound and closes his eyes.

He’s not here, he can’t be. He’s lying in his bed in his dorm bed and holding Bruce, not because they’re on the brink of death but because the bed is too small for the both of them. The marble underneath them is actually his flimsy mattress, and the sound of water is just the wind and rain outside. And Bruce is there, warm and breathing, saying something that Edward isn’t paying attention to. Everything bad that has happened to them is in the past, and neither of them can get hurt anymore.

There’s a sound – a low wail – that makes Edward open his eyes, the everlasting brightness of the room almost blinding him. The sound repeats, and Edward realizes that it’s Bruce. He pushes himself onto his knees and looks at Bruce’s face, seeing his eyebrows knit together and the way pain takes over his expression the moment he becomes conscious.

“Don’t move,” Edward whispers to him, his voice nasal since he can’t breathe through his nose. Bruce’s eyelashes flutter a little before he opens his eyes as much as he can. They look bright blue against the darkened red on his face and are full of panic.

“Your face…” he says in a destroyed voice, his teeth covered in blood, and it’s only then that Edward realizes how ghastly he probably looks with his broken nose and blood crusted all over his face.

“I’m fine, I promise,” Edward says, pushing Bruce’s hand back down when the boy tries to lift it with great effort. He can taste the tears that have started flowing again. “Everything is… It’s okay. Just… Don’t move, please.”

Nothing is okay, but the look in Bruce’s eyes tells him that he’s not completely lucid and there’s no way he’s going to be able to stand up, not to mention walk. Besides, there’s no way for them to get out of the room. There is nothing else to do than to wait for something.

That something happens sooner than Edward had expected. He is carefully brushing Bruce’s bloodied hair out of the boy’s face, when the sound of stone grinding together makes him jump and look around. The door they came in through has opened again. A small glint of hope lights up in Edward’s chest – maybe this is their reward, maybe they get to leave – but dies down almost immediately and turns into panic, when three people step in through the door. Even without his glasses, Edward can recognize the first person as the Red Lady.

“Oh,” he hears her gasp as she and her two companions – a man and another woman, as far as Edward can tell by their blurry shapes – step into the room and are immediately greeted by the Talon’s body lying on their feet. Edward watches them circle the body, none of them expressing any kind of grief or loss, only mild disappointment.

“Well,” the Red Lady says with a breathy laugh that makes the hairs on the back of Edward’s neck stand up. “This was… unexpected. But quite a show, I must say.”

She and the other people turn to look at Edward, who moves so that he’s covering as much of Bruce as he can while still sitting on his knees. The heels of the Red Lady’s shoes make a loud noise against the floor with every step she takes towards them, stopping before getting close enough for Edward to grab her ankle. She is holding her hands in front of her stomach politely and looking down at the two boys.

“You ruined quite an investment on our part,” she says and nudges her head towards the Talon’s body, her tone somewhere between scolding and amused. Somehow it’s even more terrifying than if she was screaming her lungs out. Edward only stares at her, trying not to look as scared as he feels. The woman tilts her head and takes a look at Bruce, who is looking at her through his half-closed eyelids. “We really can’t get rid of you two, can we?”

“Please,” Edward hears himself saying, his voice trembling so much it’s a miracle that his words are even coherent. “Just let us go.”

The Red Lady lets out another amused laugh and shakes her head. The gesture is like a king telling an executioner to chop someone’s head off.

“Oh, I can’t let you go,” she says. “I told you: No one gets out.”

“I– I don’t understand,” Edward says, his voice breaking. The tears are back, blurring his already poor vision, but he can still see the emotionless whiteness of the Red Lady’s mask. “Why can’t you just let us go? Please, I… We won’t tell anyone, I promise.” He knows that it’s useless, but a small part of him hopes that it would spark something in the woman behind the mask. Maybe she is a mother, and maybe there's a way to make her not hurt a crying child.

Edward flinches back when the Red Lady suddenly crouches down so that they’re at the same eye level. He can’t see anything behind the black, beady eyes of her mask. No recognition, no empathy, no mercy.

“It doesn’t matter if you went and told everyone what you saw, little boy,” she says, her voice low and sickly sweet. Her neatly manicured nails come up to brush a strand of bloodied hair from Edward’s face. Edward sits, frozen in place, his skin on goosebumps, but doesn’t move. “Who would believe you? You’re no one, just a little orphan boy. Maybe all you saw was a man get beat to death on the street but your mind turned it into something else. Oh, yes, we know you, Edward, and we know that there is no one waiting for you to come home.”

Edward can only stare at her, silent tears rolling down his cheeks.

“Wait–” he gasps when the Red Lady stands up and turns away. He’s been right all along, ever since New Year’s Eve, when the idea of the Owls came to him. They’ve been behind all of this, they’ve been watching him and Bruce, but in the end, none of it matters. It doesn’t matter that he now knows what happened to Mr. Myers – he and Bruce are going to die here anyway, and their deaths will be added to the case that will forever remain unsolved.

“Let’s take the photo now,” the Red Lady calls out to the other woman, who is still examining the Talon’s body. The woman walks closer until Edward can see that she is holding a camera. It’s an old one, basically an antique relic, with a big, separate flash on the side. Edward stares at it in confusion and fear, both of which only get stronger when he remembers the room he and Bruce ran through earlier – the one with the walls full of framed photos of the Court’s victims. He and Bruce are going to become a part of that collection.

“Such a pretty face. What a shame,” the woman says and tries to get closer so that she can take a picture of Bruce’s bloodied face. Something dark red sloshed inside of Edward. It doesn’t matter if they’re going to die here, but he’s not going to let them take their pictures. He and Bruce aren’t going to be faces on the wall for the next victim to discover.

“Stay away from him!” he shrieks, his bloody hand coming up to push her away. The woman lets out a surprised yelp and flinches back before Edward gets to stain her white shirt. The camera slips from her hold and falls onto the floor in front of her, the flash bulb shattering onto the marble.

“Oh, please,” the Red Lady sighs, irritation seeping into her tone for the first time. “That camera has been in use for decades. It’s very sentimental.”

“f*ck you,” Edward spits at her. These people think that this is some kind of a game they can play. Edward might die there but he’s not going to be their pawn.

“Fine,” the Red Lady says coldly and gestures to the man standing by the Talon’s body to come closer. “Let’s just get this over with. It was fun while it lasted, but I’m tired now.”

The man walks closer, and Edward feels the sour taste of panic rising up his throat when he sees him put on a pair of leather gloves. He doesn’t want to fight anymore. He only wants to get out.

He doesn’t even see Bruce moving until he feels the boy’s hand trying to find something from Edward’s pants pocket. Edward doesn’t look away from the man approaching them, but fumbles for Bruce’s hand feeling a piece of warm metal between their palms. He looks down and sees that it’s his lighter. Bruce’s dry lips move to form the outline of a word, but Edward can’t hear it. He leans closer to him, his heart beating out of his chest.

“What?” he whispers, squeezing the lighter in his fist. Bruce turns his head to the side and barely visibly nods towards the shattered camera lying just within Edward’s reach.

“Light it up,” he says, so quiet that Edward thinks he’s misheard him until Bruce says: “Trust me.”

Edward blinks at him before looking at the lighter in his hand and then at the camera on the floor. The man with the gloves cracks his knuckles. Edward flicks the lighter open, barely getting it to light up with how much his hand is shaking. It does, eventually. The flame looks bright yellow in contrast to the whiteness of the room.

“I thought you took all of their belongings,” he hears the man say to the woman dressed in white.

“I did,” the woman says defensively.

“What are you planning on doing with that?” the Red Lady asks Edward and nods towards the lighter in his hand. Her tone is dismissive but she and the other Owls are visibly tense, none of them moving.

Edward feels the outline of the snake carved onto the silver underneath his thumb. Maybe I should have given it as a graduation gift, Mr. Myers had said about the lighter. It had been only hours before Edward and Bruce had found his body. Now none of them will be seeing the graduation day.

He glances at Bruce, who has closed his eyes. Trust me. What other choice does he have?

He shakes his head at the Owls before letting go of the lighter and throwing it onto the camera, not knowing what is going to happen. He feels Bruce grabbing his arm and turns to look at him just as the sound of an explosion tears through the room.

(The thing about old cameras, which Edward would know if he had finished his last chemistry coursework, is that some of them contain potassium chlorate in the flashbar. Potassium chlorate is, among other things, an explosive. Edward doesn’t know this. It’s Bruce who has always been the one who’s good at chemistry.)

First, he feels the heat, then the pressure wave, which throws him over Bruce, covering him. It’s all over before he even registers that it has happened, but for a moment he just lays still with his hands covering his head. He doesn’t know what hit him, but his ears are ringing, and the air smells of smoke. He keeps his head down, feeling small stone fragments rain onto him. Underneath him, Bruce coughs and groans in pain, the noises ringing hollow in Edward’s ears. His heartbeat drowns out all other sounds almost completely.

He’s dizzy and disoriented as he pushes himself up, his bloody hands now covered in a sheet of white dust. When he looks over his shoulder to the spot where the camera was lying a second ago, he doesn’t see the camera or the lighter but a rough-edged hole in the marble, and beyond it only darkness. It’s not big, but it’s still big enough for a person to get through and even over the ringing in his ears, Edward can hear the sound of flowing water coming from somewhere below.

The sound of rough coughing makes him look onto the other side of the hole, where he sees three people lying, marble dust settling over them like powdered sugar. Edward blinks the same dust away from his eyes and sees to his horror one of the people sitting up. It’s the man. He straightens his mask but doesn’t stand up. Still, it doesn’t mean that he’s not going to.

Edward can’t make out the outlines of the door on the other side of the room, even though he knows that it’s there. He turns to look at Bruce, who looks even paler and worse with white dust all over his face. There’s no way they’re going to be able to find their way out of the maze before the rest of the Court finds them, especially not with Bruce barely able to walk. He looks at the hole on the floor, seeing nothing but darkness down there. He can smell the water, filthy and dangerous, but that’s also when he sees the man push himself up onto his knees. Panic works like an adrenaline shot, giving Edward the strength to pull Bruce up.

There is only one way out.

Bruce is as cooperative as he can as they crawl over to the hole, the sound of water coming from God knows how much below them. Edward feels the blood running in his veins turn cold and his heart gets stuck in his throat as he imagines the fall. Maybe there is water down there but only a small river with sharp stones like teeth around it, and they’re going to fall to their death. He can feel Bruce squeeze the arm that Edward has wrapped around his torso. They’re either going to die in the maze or somewhere else. Edward would rather it be anywhere else. He pulls Bruce close so that he’s almost sitting on his lap, both of their legs dangling over the edge.

He sees the masked man getting onto his feet and trying to lunge at them. Edward leans forward and the stone ledge disappears from underneath him and Bruce.

They slip into darkness, and for a moment Edward is weightless. He hears his own screaming and feels the way Bruce clings to him, but his mind is somewhere far away from his body. The moment stretches into infinity, the same way death does, and Edward expects to see the film reel of his short and miserable life in front of his eyes. He doesn’t. All he sees is darkness.

Time goes back to working like it’s supposed to, and Edward and Bruce hit the cold water beneath them, sinking like two sacks of rocks.

Edward doesn’t even feel himself letting go of Bruce. He doesn’t feel anything but the need to get to the surface and panic when he realizes that he has no idea which direction is up and which is down. The freezing cold water is milling around him and pulling him deeper. No one ever taught him how to swim.

He breaks the surface by accident, getting a lungful of air before going underwater again. The water is taking him somewhere but he has no idea where. When he gets to the surface again, he sees a glimpse of light at the end of an impossibly long tunnel. Then he’s going under again and can’t be sure if the light was real to begin with.

It doesn’t matter if his eyes are open or not or if he’s underwater or on the surface – he can’t see anything. He breathes the water in and coughs it up, hands trying to grab anything in the darkness around him. His hair is in his eyes and he can taste blood in his mouth. From somewhere through the mass of water swirling around him, he feels a hand grabbing his arm, pulling him underwater again. He feels the hand with his own and knows that if he wants to get back to the surface, he’s going to have to break the hold. He also knows that it’s Bruce’s hand he’s holding. He doesn’t let go.

On the first winter of his life that Edward can remember, someone left a baby on the stairs of the orphanage for the nuns to find. It was a windy and cold day and no one heard the crying coming from outside until it stopped. The baby had gone cold by the time one of the sisters brought it in, and it didn’t matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t get it to warm up again. Edward remembers wanting to go to the nursery to see the new baby – just as he often did with Sister Carol – but the door had stayed shut even after he had tried knocking on it. When he had opened it and peeked inside, he had seen the nuns standing around a crib but no baby. Only a lump covered with a white sheet. He had only gotten a glimpse of it before Sister Carol had noticed him and swept him out of the doorway on her way out of the room. Her eyes had been red and raw. When Edward had asked her what had happened, she had been quiet for a moment before saying: Just pray, Edward. Just pray.

The water swallows Edward deeper until he’s sure that he’s not going to see the surface again. This is the end, but maybe all of this happened to him a long time ago. Maybe he died on the stairs of the orphanage before even getting a name to be buried with. Maybe all of this has been nothing but a dream, a vision of the life he would’ve had, shown to him as an apology from God. And now he’s finally going to his final home, the one where everything is bright and good and warm and where there are no sick kids or strange men around him.

He almost gives up to the thought, he almost stops moving, but something stronger keeps him going. He doesn’t want to go. If this is a dream – even though it feels like a nightmare – he would much rather keep on dreaming. He doesn’t want to die, God, he can’t be left down here where no one will find him. He wants to see the sun one more time, to feel the wind on his face, and to hear the sounds of the city above him. He wants to hold Bruce’s hand and see him smile and he doesn’t want to die, oh God, he doesn’t want to die, he doesn’t want to die, he doesn’t –

Notes:

yeah okay so, the original plan was to make this chapter more like the maze part from the "batman: the cour of owls" comic and to also make the court (and the talon) more like it's in the comics, but to be honest, it just didn't fit the vibe of the story at all so i had to change a *lot* of things (their motives and stuff and also the fact that the talon is like... superhuman and could have easily killed two defensless teenage boys). to be honest, if anyone is offended by those changes, i don't know why you thought that this story would be a comic-accurate potrayal of any of the characters in the first place lol
(also, original plan was for this fic to have 11 chapters, but i decided to write a separate epilogue, so now it's 12)

Chapter 11: hand covers bruise

Chapter Text

The October night washes over Bruce, cold and sharp, when he steps out through the back door of the theater. The rain that was pouring when they arrived has turned into nothing but a slight dribble, but he still keeps his head down. His father’s hand is heavy on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” he says, the remains of his earlier panic turning into embarrassment.

“No need to be,” his father says as they walk down the couple of concrete stairs that lead down to an empty alley. “Opera can be intense sometimes.”

“I needed some fresh air, too,” his mother says a step behind them, her heels making a sound with every step. Bruce says nothing, only fiddles with the buttons of his open sailor coat. He’s twelve years old, so he shouldn’t get scared at an opera anymore. Now they’re standing in a dark alley in the rain and it’s his fault.

“We could go back in,” he mutters.

“Let’s just get a cab from the main street,” his father says lightly. Bruce sighs in relief but conceals it as disappointment. “Come on now, Bruce, there will be other shows.”

“Darling, your coat is open, you’ll get a cold,” his mother says before they can start walking towards the street. She crouches down in front of him, the hem of her long winter jacket touching the wet asphalt, and starts buttoning Bruce’s jacket. It’s kind of embarrassing, really. Bruce is old enough to do that himself, but he doesn’t move his mother’s hands away. By the time she’s done, Bruce is warm again.

“Thank you,” he mumbles, the sounds of cars passing by drowning out his words. He looks up from her familiar hands to her kind face, but it’s not his mother's eyes that look back at him. These eyes are unnaturally big and round and where they should be white, they’re the color of amber.

Bruce flinches back, but his father’s hand on his shoulder prevents him from getting away. When he turns to look, he sees that it’s not a hand, but a bird foot, three talons digging into his shoulder painfully. He screams in terror, but his voice is drowned out by animalistic screeching that rings all around him. His parents aren’t there anymore. There are only flapping wings, feathers that get into his eyes, and sharp beaks and claws that scratch his skin and tear his clothes. He screams and cries and tries to cover his face with his hands, but the birds sink their talons into his flesh and scratch until it rips. All he sees is blood and feathers and all he feels is fear and pain and through it all he keeps on calling out for his parents, but no one answers.

**

The first thing he sees is a white ceiling, blurry and dim above him. After that comes the feeling and then comes the panic. There is something shoved into his mouth and deep down his throat, suffocating him. He tries to pull it out, but there are ropes or wires or chains holding his hands down. He can’t be back. He can’t be down there again. He can’t, he can’t, he can’t.

Everything is strange and blurry around him. His body feels weird and heavy as he tries to make it obey him. Screaming only makes him feel like he’s going to choke. He needs to get out, he needs to go home.

There are sounds, people are talking around him, and hands are pushing him back down onto something soft. He can’t see any of their faces clearly, all of them nothing but a blurry mess. Who are these people? What are they doing to him? Someone holds his wrist. He pulls his hand free and swings it blindly towards his captor. There is an exclamation, and then more hands come to hold him down. He trashes against the hold, panic swelling inside of him.

Calm down, a voice that he doesn’t recognize tells him. He doesn’t stop. Bruce, it’s okay. It’s okay, you’re safe now, it’s okay.

There’s something in his veins making his body feel light and soft. The white ceiling above him fades to black.

*

Waking up feels like he’s rising from a pool of something dark, dense, and sticky. He has to pull himself free from it with great effort, the world getting lighter around him with every stiff blink. He is greeted by the same white ceiling as before, even though he doesn’t remember the first time he saw it. He stares at it for a long time, focusing on the way rays of sunlight paint patterns on the tiles. For a while, his mind is completely empty. There is nothing in his mouth anymore, but his face feels numb and weird.

The question of where he is doesn’t even cross his mind before he hears someone say his name. This time he recognizes the voice.

“Alfred?” he asks, trying to turn towards the voice. His throat is sore and dry and aching, and his body feels heavy as he finally manages to turn his head to the side. Against the light coming in through the closed blinds of the room, sits a man. Bruce blinks again to see him more clearly. “Alfred.”

“Bruce, oh god,” Alfred says. There is a look somewhere between heartbreak and relief on his face. Bruce doesn’t understand it. He only looks at the man, who looks more disheveled than Bruce has ever seen him, which isn’t much on Alfred’s standards, but he’s wearing a polo shirt and a cardigan and his beard isn’t trimmed, and for a moment that’s the strangest thing about all of this. He feels Alfred take his hand and when he looks down, he sees an IV below his bruised knuckles. A question is starting to form in his head, his brain slowly stirring awake.

“Where am I?” he asks. His voice sounds destroyed and there’s a weird taste in his mouth. He coughs a little and his ribs ache dully.

“A hospital,” Alfred says. “Gotham General.”

“Huh,” Bruce says. He doesn’t know why he is there, but it doesn’t matter to him at the moment. “Dad used to work here.”

Alfred only nods, looking so impossibly sad. Bruce wants to ask him what’s wrong, but that’s when the door to the room opens and someone steps in.

“Is everything okay, Mr. Pennyworth?” a voice asks, and when Bruce turns to look, he sees a woman in a nurse’s uniform standing in the doorway. She looks back at him with a look of surprise on her face. “Oh! He is awake.”

“Yes,” Alfred says. “Miss Yeo, could you go get Doctor Sharma, thank you. And a glass of water, please.”

The woman leaves the room with a nod, and Bruce is left staring at the closed door. Another question is forming in his mind. If Alfred is here, then…

“Where’s Edward?”

He turns to look at Alfred, who sighs.

“Edward is fine. I spoke to him earlier today, but I don’t think he’s in a good enough shape to come see you yet,” he says. Bruce only blinks, not quite understanding. Where is Edward if not here? He is about to ask again, but sudden sounds of disturbance coming from outside the door grab his attention. Three voices are arguing, one of them rising above the others.

“He woke up? Why didn’t anyone tell me? No– No, I want to see him– What do you mean ‘not now’? I want to– Don’t f*cking touch me!”

The door opens again, this time with a bang, and in the doorway stands a boy in hospital clothes. Bruce knows that it’s Edward, but he doesn’t recognize him. The left side of his face is swollen and dark with bruises, and he isn’t wearing his glasses, probably because they wouldn’t stay up on his nose, which is covered by a nose brace. Bruce blinks at him. What happened to you? he wants to ask but doesn’t get to, because that’s when Edward lunges at him, almost throwing himself onto the hospital bed with Bruce, his arms wrapping around him. The sudden weight on top of Bruce makes him wince in pain that he didn’t feel before, but he doesn’t try to push Edward away. With great effort, he raises his hand and touches Edward’s back, feeling his familiar warmth through the thin fabric.

There is a memory or more of a feeling he gets in that moment. Pain, the faint smell of blood, a white ceiling high above him. He blinks. Why are he and Edward here?

He can hear Alfred’s worried voice saying: “Oh dear, Edward, you’re bleeding”, followed by the nurse’s voice: “He ripped the IV out of his arm.” None of the words mean anything to Bruce. He closes his eyes and buries his face into Edward’s shoulder, while the boy’s breathless voice whispers words into the crook of his neck: Lord, you brought him back to me, thank you. Thank you God for not letting him drown and thank you for not letting me live without him. I am forever grateful. Amen.

*

A dog-walker found them underneath the Midtown Bridge around four in the morning, beat up and half-dead. They hadn’t even been reported missing yet. By the time the ambulance and paramedics arrived, there was no guarantee of their survival, but once they had been gotten to the ER, it had been clear that they were going to live. When it came to them waking up, however…

This is what DI Ramos tells Bruce and Edward when he and Officer Gordon – now apparently Detective Gordon – come see them two days after Bruce wakes up. The four of them sit in Dr. Sharma’s office with the blinds half shut, the afternoon sun trying to get in. There’s a horribly pitying look on both of the men’s faces as they look at Bruce and Edward, who sit side to side on the other side of Dr. Sharma’s desk. Bruce knows that both of them look like sh*t – both of their faces are messed up and littered with bruises that have turned red, purple, and yellow like the skin of a plum, Bruce can still barely see through his left eye even with the swelling having gone down, and Edward’s nose is still very much broken. Bruce’s ribs are bruised, Edward’s right pinky is fractured, and both of them probably have sepsis from the time they spent floating in the river. It’s a miracle that Bruce still has all of his teeth.

The worst thing, however, is the stupid wheelchair that Bruce has to sit in, combined with a neck brace that the doctor is making him wear “just in case”. They make him look f*cking stupid and are also useless because he can walk just fine.

(He’s been complaining about this to Edward, who claims to believe him but who also insists on pushing Bruce around in the chair. Every time Bruce tries to protest and tell him that he can walk himself, Edward says: “Just let me take care of you this time.” He can’t argue with that.)

It’s safe to say that neither of them is in good shape, but Bruce still doesn’t like the looks they get.

DI Ramos’ tone reflects the look on his face as he leans forward with his hands crossed on the table and asks how much the two of them remember about the events that led to them floating in the river. Bruce glances at Edward, who looks pale and slightly nauseous, probably from the antibiotics that the nurses inject in them every three hours. During the two and half days Bruce has been awake, neither of them has talked about what happened. At first, it was because Bruce couldn’t remember and therefore couldn’t talk about it, but now it’s more because neither of them wants to. Now it looks like they have no choice.

Bruce has started to remember things – blurry and isolated, like scenes from a movie he watched half asleep. He can remember going to the cemetery to look for Edward and falling down a flight of stairs. He can remember faceless people, their nightmarish figures stretching impossibly tall above him and their voices ringing around him, shrill and animalistic. He can remember endless corridors and a man wearing a black hood over his face. He remembers all-consuming pain and hoping for nothing else than for it to stop. The film reel that is his memory has been cut, burned, and water-damaged in many places. He can’t remember everything, but he can remember the feeling of panic. It still comes over him out of the blue, a white flash of fear that makes him wake up in the middle of the night, scared and confused in his hospital bed until a nurse comes to calm him down.

He doesn’t know how he’s supposed to tell this to the police. He doesn’t know how much of it is even real. He can remember a sudden flash of heat and the sound of something breaking, as well as the feeling of ice-cold water pulling him deeper, but he doesn’t know what either of those means.

(“Several hits to the head, no detected brain damage,” Dr. Sharma had told him and Alfred as a part of the depressingly long list of injuries Bruce had suffered. He can certainly remember the punches he took or at least the pain.)

“You could start from the beginning. What is the first thing you can remember?” Ramos says when neither of them opens their mouths. There’s an audio recorder waiting on the table in front of them. Edward looks at Bruce, the look on his face saying you first.

And so Bruce starts from the beginning. He tells about the graveyard, Alan Wayne’s mausoleum, and the stairwell going underground. That much is clear in his head. He can remember waking up in a dark room and Edward’s scared voice, but that’s where things start getting difficult – not only remembering what happened but also talking about it. Bruce feels it, like some kind of a weight on his tongue, when he tries to speak. His lips form an outline of a word but no sound comes out. A part of him shuts off. This isn’t new for him.

“Sorry,” he manages to say, no other words making it past his lips. He gestures towards a pile of paper and a pen that is lying on the desk, and Ramos hands them to him willingly. He can’t help but feel embarrassed knowing that everyone else in the room is watching him as he scribbles isolated sentences and words down onto the paper. He’s twelve years old again, trying to describe the death of his parents on paper. He thought he would’ve gotten over this already but now he feels himself locking up the same way he did back then.

His hands are covered in different kinds of cuts and bruises and are shaking so much that it takes him almost ten minutes to write down everything he remembers. When he finally puts the pen down, Ramos takes the paper and eyes through it like a teacher grading an essay.

“Thank you, Bruce,” he says and puts the paper down before turning to Edward. “We would also like to hear your version of the story, Edward. Written or spoken, whichever suits you.”

The bruises on Edward’s face look darker with how pale he has gone. Bruce can see that he’s nervous but there’s obviously something more to it, too. Edward squeezes his hands into fists, the movement clearly hurting his fractured finger, before relaxing and looking back at Ramos.

Edward’s story starts at the chapel. He tells about a strange noise he heard coming from the sacristy, a hole in the floor, and a hand over his mouth. It looks like Ramos wants to cut him off there to ask him a question, but Edward doesn’t stop. He’s staring at the audio recorder and gripping the fabric of the sweatpants Alfred brought for him when the hospital garments started getting too uncomfortable. The stream of words coming from his mouth is endless, his voice breathless and slightly manic. Bruce listens to him speak, Edward’s words finding their places within his memory and filling out the blanks. He tells about the Court, the maze, the photos of dead people on the walls, and the buildings connected by the corridors. He tells about how he and Bruce almost got out and how the Talon got them, but that’s where he stops.

“The man in the black hood that the both of you mentioned,” Ramos says when Edward doesn’t continue for a while. “What happened to him?”

Edward has crossed his arms so that he can wrap his hands around the opposite wrists, his nails digging into his bruised skin. He stares at the recorder, not blinking.

“I…” he starts, his voice different than before – slower and more thoughtful. Calculating. “I stabbed him.”

The words don’t bring up any memories for Bruce. He doesn’t remember what happened to the Talon, only a scream and the feeling of a grip around his windpipe loosening. He looks at Edward, and so does Ramos.

“Stabbed?” Ramos asks and lifts his eyebrows ever so slightly. Edward nods.

“Yes. To the side. With his own knife,” he says. A beat. “He… he couldn’t move after that. Then the masked people came back in.”

He tells the rest about the Court and the camera and the explosion that Bruce faintly registered. The last thing he tells is the fall into the water and then he’s done. It’s dead quiet in the room for a while. Bruce can see Ramos looking past them and at Gordon with an unreadable look on his face before saying: “Thank you, boys. That was… We’ll look into those buildings and see what we find.”

They leave the room wordlessly, Edward pushing Bruce’s chair to the elevators that take them one floor up to a special ward where they’re staying. He’s silent until the elevator doors close and it’s only the two of them in the metal box.

“They don’t believe us,” he says. Bruce looks at him through the reflection in the elevator mirror and sees that Edward is looking at him, too. It’s not that Bruce disagrees with him – he could see the slight skepticism on Ramos's face as he listened to them – but there’s something else, too. He’s not sure if Edward is telling him or the police everything.

He wants to ask about it but the words never make it out of his mouth. The lock that keeps him from speaking isn’t as heavy as it was when he was a child and he could probably get it to open if he just tried hard enough, but by the time they get to his hospital room, flooded by the late-May sun, and Edward helps him onto his bed, the feeling fades. It doesn’t go away, not completely, but Bruce wants to believe that Edward is telling the truth and that’s enough.

**

Edward should tell Bruce. He wants to. He was going to tell the truth, the real truth in front of the police, but something had pulled him back at the last second. He could blame it on his memory being a little foggy, but he knows it’s not that. He can remember the knife in his hand and he knows that he didn’t stab the Talon with it just once. The movement and the feeling are stored in his body and will forever remain there, deep in his muscles, so that he will never forget what it felt like when the knife sunk through the layers of leather and skin.

It was self-defense, right? The man was trying to kill them! After Everything he and Bruce had told the cops, he’d think that they would understand why he had done what he did. Still, something about the slight look of disbelief on Ramos’ face had made Edward reconsider his story. Self-defense or not, he had killed a man. Maybe he wouldn’t get punished for it, but it would be part of him for the rest of his life – the first thing anyone would find out about him when looking up his name, and a possible reason his school and job applications would get denied. He already knows what he’s done and that burden is enough even if he doesn’t officially admit to it. Lying to the police isn’t right, but it’s not something Edward wouldn’t do in order to protect himself. However, even if the police don’t need to know the truth, Bruce should.

A guilty feeling hangs over Edward for the rest of the day that he spends in Bruce’s room, watching blurry shapes on TV while lying side to side in Bruce’s cramped hospital bed. One of their nurses – a young woman named Linda – comes in at some point to put the IV for antibiotics in them for a moment, before leaving them alone again. Bruce has gone quiet, a certain sense of absence emitting from him as he holds Edward’s hand like a child afraid of getting lost. There’s a look in his eyes that Edward remembers from the days preceding Christmas, when they first spoke – a distant one that tells him that Bruce isn’t really there. He hadn’t even noticed that it had disappeared until now that it has come back. The feeling swells inside of him when he thinks about the glimpse he caught of Bruce’s torso the day before when he accidentally walked into the boy’s room while a nurse was changing his bandages. The memory of deep red and purple bruises and chafes all over the boy’s ribs and chest haunts him.

It’s not the way Bruce looks that upsets Edward – God knows he would find Bruce pretty even if his jaw was sewn together with wire – but the knowledge of what happened to him. There’s no way to unsee that violence. Bruce carries it in his body, and Edward knows that it will be there even after the bruises have healed and the cuts have closed up. He doesn’t want to make Bruce carry it in his mind, too.

He says nothing.

Ramos and Gordon come by the next day with a manila folder full of photos that they want Edward and Bruce to look at. There’s a new look on their faces, and Edward knows that they’ve found the maze even before they show them the pictures. He almost feels a small spark of satisfaction from having been right the entire time, but it soon fades as Ramos shows him a photo of a marble room, which could be any of the many ones hidden in the maze, if not for the blood smeared all across the marble – now the color of rust – and a rough-edged hole on the floor. A sour taste rises into Edward’s mouth and he can only nod when he's asked if he recognizes the room in question.

There are more photos of identical corridors and different rooms, some of which Edward recognizes and some of which he’s not so sure of.

“Did you find any people there?” he asks Ramos, who only shakes his head. No suspects, no corpses. No one knows of the blood in his hands except for him and the people whose faces he never saw. He doesn’t know where those people are now or what they’re going to do, but if there’s one thing he knows, it’s that they aren’t going to come forward and talk to the police about what happened in the maze. Edward’s secret will forever remain buried underground.

He isn’t sure which feeling is stronger in him, fear or relief, when Ramos and Gordon finally leave and he and Bruce can go back to their rooms. Whichever it is, it floods him by the time he gets to his room, the feeling so intense that he throws up into the sink in his bathroom. When Linda finds him sitting on the cold tile floor, he tells her that it’s the antibiotics making him feel sick.

*

The hospital reminds him of the maze in a way – long, windowless corridors intersecting, a weird smell that hangs in the air, and the faux-marble pattern of the linoleum floor. During the day the feeling isn’t as strong, mostly because of the sounds of life that constantly ring around him. Edward knows that Bruce finds those sounds irritating, but to him, they’re strangely calming. The squeaking of nurses’ sneakers against the floor, the rattling of food and laundry carts, and the sounds of TV coming from other rooms make him remember that he’s safe now. However, once the lights turn off and those sounds quiet down, Edward feels like he’s deep underground again.

He dreams about it every night. Most of the time the dreams are of him running down the endless corridors alone and looking for Bruce, the sound of someone’s heavy breathing coming from behind him and getting closer every second. They always end with a hand grabbing him by the arm and pulling him back, the sound of his own screaming waking him up. Sometimes he’s back in the marble room, pressing his ear against Bruce’s limp body, trying to listen for a heartbeat but hearing nothing. Those are the dreams from which he wakes in a cold sweat, shaking in silent terror before kicking off the thin hospital covers and wandering into the empty hallway to go to Bruce’s room just to see if the boy is still there.

“Edward, what are you doing?” the voice of the night guard – a man named Mickey – asks from down the hall, when Edward is yet again standing in Bruce’s doorway one night and watching the boy sleep.

“I just wanted to see him,” Edward says quietly. For a moment he’s eight years old and back in the orphanage nursery with Sister Carol, putting his fingers underneath a baby’s nose to make sure that it’s only sleeping.

“You’ll see him in the morning,” Mickey says, his voice low and gentle. He’s careful not to touch Edward when he guides him out of the doorway. “Let’s get you back to bed.”

*

Even though Edward doesn’t enjoy staying in the hospital, he enjoys the routine he and Bruce have fallen into. In the morning, Linda comes to give him his first antibiotics and then – if Edward isn’t feeling too nauseous – a breakfast. Then Edward and Bruce sit in the day room, either watching reruns of some old people series on TV or doing something else – playing cards or taking turns on Mario Kart on Bruce’s Nintendo DS – before one of them has to leave for physical therapy or to meet Kim.

Right, Kim, Bruce’s old and Edward’s new therapist. She comes to the hospital every two days, always wearing something so yellow that it hurts Edward’s eyes, and talks to both of them separately for 45 minutes in a small room with a window that overlooks five lanes of highway that runs next to the hospital. She is nice and professional, and Edward could probably even see himself liking her if not for the fact that she has been Bruce’s therapist for longer than Edward has known the boy. That’s also one of the reasons why he can’t bring himself to open up to her, and the more she tries to coax things out of him, the tighter Edward coils into himself. He sticks to the story he told the police and does the mental exercises she gives him (feel, deal, heal, and seal) but that’s it. If Kim tries to ask him about things that have nothing to do with what happened in the maze, such as his childhood, he closes up completely. She doesn’t know him and he doesn’t know her and Edward has no problem with things staying that way.

Sometimes, when Bruce isn’t there to keep Edward company, Edward wanders down to the hospital chapel on the fourth floor. It’s a stuffy, windowless room with beige walls, a carpeted floor, and a couple of hard, wooden chairs that face a wall with a boring, protestant wood cross hanging on it. The place doesn’t make Edward feel any more spiritually connected than his hospital room does, but when he sits down on one of the chairs and crosses his hands, a familiar sense of calmness settles over him. It’s been forever since he last felt it.

Praying makes him feel like a fraud, but he still does it. He knows that if there is someone who hears his words, it also means that he’s going to burn in Hell for the things he’s done, but despite it, he still whispers a quiet thank you under his breath before leaving the chapel. Gratitude is a new feeling for him.

*

The story of the network of tunnels underneath Gotham hits the news the day after Ramos comes to visit them with the photos, but it takes some time for the press to find out about Edward and Bruce’s part in it. Well, the press doesn’t actually know anything apart from the fact that Edward and Bruce were found floating in the river and that there’s something suspicious behind that, but it doesn’t keep them from writing about it. That’s also why Edward doesn’t know about the entire thing until their second week in the hospital when he walks into the day room and spots his and Bruce’s faces on the front page of Gotham Daily that is lying on a table next to a half-finished puzzle and a worn out deck of cards.

The photos used are their school pictures from the fall semester. Both of them had shorter hair back then, Bruce’s neatly cut and combed, whereas Edward’s is slightly choppy even in the photo from the scissors of a barber student, who gave him twenty percent off for the haircut. Looking at his own expressionless face feels like looking at a stranger.

Following the news, Edward’s and Bruce’s hospital rooms start filling with visitors. Alfred has been there to see them every day since they first arrived at the hospital, but now other people are let in, too. Most of them are there to see Bruce – including Lucius Fox and other people from WE – but Edward gets his fair share of sympathy from them, too. He even gets a flower arrangement from someone in the company – probably so that he doesn’t feel left out – with lavender and lupine in different shades of purple. It stands on his bedside table, while he lies in bed and listens to the chatter coming from Bruce’s room.

It’s not that Edward is expecting anyone to come visit him but he also can’t help but feel slightly down as he looks at the people walking past his open door to get to Bruce’s room. The Red Lady’s words echo in his head, no matter how hard he tries not to listen: We know you, Edward, and we know that there is no one waiting for you to come home.

That’s why it’s such a pleasant surprise when on the second day of visitors he hears a knock from his door and sees Anne Myers standing in the doorway. She is wearing a long, flowy summer dress and a jean jacket and her hair is shorter than it was when Edward last saw her back in February. She hugs Edward carefully as a greeting and when she pulls back, there’s a heartbroken look on her face.

“Oh, dear,” she says, looking at his face. “Does it hurt?”

Edward only shrugs. By now the pain is barely even noticeable, even though his dosage of painkillers has been slowly lowered. Most of the bruises have turned yellowish green, which makes him look slightly sickly, but it’s much better than the dark blotches that they used to be. He’s hoping to get the nose brace off by the end of next week.

He and Anne talk for a while, the afternoon sun coming through the window making the room look and feel a little more lively, or maybe that’s just the effect Anne has. Edward respects the way she doesn’t ask about what happened to him, but at the same time, he feels like he should tell her about what he found out regarding Mr. Myers’ death. He told the police about it, but it’s clear that they haven’t told Anne. Maybe it’s because of the lack of suspects or other evidence apart from Edward and Bruce’s words. Still, it doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t know.

He should tell her. Maybe it would put her more at ease. Instead, he asks her how she’s been. She smiles and tells him about it.

Before leaving, Anne reaches for her purse and pulls out something before handing it to Edward. It’s a small teddy bear, its plastic fur shining in the sun.

“I didn’t find anything more appropriate,” she says with an apologetic look on her face, while Edward holds the stuffed animal in his hand and wonders at the small heart it is holding in its paws. “Sorry if it’s too childish.”

“No, it’s very nice, thank you,” Edward says and smiles at her. It’s true. Anne looks a little more at ease and gives him another hug before leaving.

When she’s gone, Edward puts the bear on his bedside table next to the flowers and looks at it with his head full of brighter thoughts, until his other nurse – Sandy – comes to give him his antibiotics.

On the third day, most of the visitors are boys from their school. Bruce begs Edward to come to his room so that he doesn’t have to talk to them alone, and Edward agrees, even though he knows that none of the boys are there to meet him.

He can’t say that he’s happy to see any of his classmates, and that’s why their newfound friendliness towards him takes him by surprise. Even Roberts, who comes in with a gift bag of some expensive chocolate from his mom, gives him only a slightly awkward half-hug and says something along the lines of “Good to see you, man”. Edward only hums in answer. Apparently getting kidnapped and almost drowning was the thing that made him evolve from a “f*cking fa*ggot” into a normal – maybe even respectable – person in Roberts’ eyes.

The surprises don’t end there. As Edward and Bruce eat the chocolate and listen to their next visitor, James, gab about the things that have been happening at the school during their absence (“They’re probably going to tear the whole chapel down. Crazy, right?”), Sandy’s voice comes from the door and interrupts the one-sided conversation.

“Edward, a visitor.”

When Edward turns to look towards the door, he sees Leon standing in the door frame in a tank top and cargo pants. Something between glee and panic fills Edward, and he springs up from the chair he’s been sitting in, making both Bruce and James look at him and then at Leon. Edward mumbles something barely audible about leaving the two of them to it before hurrying out of the room and snatching Leon with him.

“What are you doing here?” he asks when they’re standing in the corridor, far enough from Bruce’s room.

“Jesus, man, I just wanted to be nice for once,” Leon says and twists himself out of Edward’s hold, sounding slightly insulted. Edward sighs. It’s not that he’s not happy to see Leon – he is, more than he even wants to admit – it’s just that he wasn’t expecting him to walk into Bruce’s hospital room unannounced. He’s not ashamed, per se, but having Leon and Bruce in the same room is like his two worlds colliding with possibly catastrophic consequences.

“Right, yeah, sorry,” he says, scratching the skin around the nose brace. “Do you wanna… Go downstairs? It’s kinda crowded here.”

They make their way down to the ground floor and end up in the hospital courtyard. It’s not pretty, only some cracked concrete and a sticky bench underneath a poorly tended tulip tree, but it’s a pleasant change from the smell of disinfectant and microwaved food of the ward that Edward has gotten sick of. They sit down on the bench, and Leon pulls something from the pockets of his baggy pants.

“Got these for you,” he says and hands Edward a slightly squashed pack of mint-flavored nicotine gum and a sweating can of Pepsi, which he probably bought from the hospital cafeteria before coming up. It’s not grand, but it means much more to Edward than the flower arrangements and sweets from people he has never even met.

“Thanks,” he says and opens the can. Leon has found a cigarette for himself and lights it before swatting Edward’s words away.

“Don’t mention it,” he says through a cloud of smoke, and then: “You look gnarly, I’m not gonna lie.”

“Oh? At least I have a reason to look like sh*t. What’s with the beard?” Edward says, referring to the horrible goatee that Leon has managed to grow and which somehow looks even less flattering than the mustache Edward saw on him the last time they met. Leon snorts and elbows him on the side, accidentally hitting a sore spot and making Edward spill half of the soda onto the (Bruce’s) shorts he’s wearing. Leon gives him half of his cigarette as an apology.

“You’re kind of a celebrity now,” he notes after giving Edward a brief summary of what has been going on in his life for the past two months. (He has a one-room apartment in a city-funded apartment complex and a junkie neighbor, as well as a new job as a line cook at some hamburger joint in Tricorner. He’s doing better than Edward had expected.) “I barely even got through all the reporters at the front door.”

“Yeah,” Edward says, coughing a little from the smoke. Both he and Bruce have been begged to tell their story to the press, but neither of them has gone forward. He hands the rest of the cigarette back to Leon, who takes it gratefully. For a moment it feels like they’re both fifteen years old again and sharing a cigarette behind a Chinese restaurant while waiting for an order to deliver. Edward used to feel like he was two people at the same time – the boy he’s during the school year and the boy he’s at St. Jude’s. Now he feels like he’s neither. The boy who came back from the maze is someone different, someone who Edward doesn’t always recognize in the mirror.

“You know, when you mentioned your friend last time, I didn’t think that it would be Bruce f*cking Wayne,” Leon says after a brief moment of silence, making Edward wake from his thoughts before stifling a smile. Leon only looks at him, seemingly waiting for him to say something, but when Edward doesn’t speak, he only shrugs and says: “Good for you, man.” Maybe Edward is reading into it too much, but it feels like Leon is congratulating him for more than just a friendship.

They sit there for a while until Leon has to leave for work. As Edward walks him to the street, he remembers something.

“Leo,” he says, making the boy stop. “That guy you mentioned last time, the one who was working in the sewers and sawing marble or something… Where’s he now?”

Leon gives him a confused look. “Oh, Skinny? Haven’t heard from him. Why?”

Edward shrugs, an uneasy feeling getting to him even in the sun. “Nothing, just wondering.”

*

By the beginning of their third week in the hospital, the stream of visitors dies down and it’s just Edward, Bruce, and Alfred again. Edward gets the nose brace taken off, his nose sore and slightly bruised underneath it, but at least one of the doctors had set it before the brace was put on, so the bridge isn’t crooked. He’s more than happy about not having to keep the distracting and itchy thing on his face anymore, but now that one more of his injuries has healed and he doesn’t need antibiotics anymore, there’s a new worry in his mind: Where is he supposed to go when he gets out of the hospital? It’s not like they’re going to keep him there because of one fractured finger.

The moment of truth comes at the beginning of the week, when Alfred comes to visit the two of them again, this time wanting to talk to Edward alone. To be honest, Edward had expected Dr. Sharma to be the one to talk to him about the matter at hand, but in the end, it doesn’t matter who tells it to him.

He tries to ignore the looming feeling of dread that follows him as they go down to the hospital cafeteria where Alfred buys himself a coffee and Edward a blueberry muffin before sitting down at one of the small tables with coffee stains and who knows what sticky substance stuck on the surface. Edward picks on the muffin, too anxious to eat it, his fingers stained blue, while Alfred takes a couple of sips from his coffee before speaking.

“I’ve talked with Dr. Sharma. He said that you’ve healed very well and that he sees no reason to keep you in the ward for longer,” he says. Edward says nothing, a nauseous feeling rising within him. This is exactly what he was afraid of. Alfred continues talking. “Mr. Gould says that you’re welcome to return to school for the remaining two weeks of the semester if you feel like that, but Dr. Sharma doesn’t know if the school environment is ideal for you right now. There are other, alternative options, too. You could go back to St. Jude’s Boys’ Home, if that would fit you better, or you could be placed into a foster family for the remaining time before you turn eighteen.”

Edward’s fingers are sticky from the muffin and he mindlessly wipes them onto a napkin while thinking. Going back to St. Aquinas’ would probably be the best choice, at least when considering his other options. He’s going to go back to St. Jude’s for summer, anyway, and there’s no way in hell he’s going to a foster family. It’s way too late for that. He’s about to tell Alfred his choice, but the man keeps on talking before he gets the chance.

“I’ve also been discussing this with people from child welfare, and since you’re turning eighteen in less than two months, they proposed that one possible solution would be someone becoming your temporary guardian for that time. I could be that person,” Alfred says. Edward stares at the sticky surface of the table, the words slowly starting to gain meaning in his head. Finally, he looks up at Alfred, not sure if he’s understood this right. Alfred looks at him over the edge of his coffee cup. “In the end, the choice is yours, of course. I won’t get offended if you say no.”

“I… You would be my guardian? I could stay at the Tower?” Edward asks, so scared of having misunderstood something. Alfred gives him a nod. There’s a shadow of a smile on his face.

“If you wish. All it takes is some paperwork.”

“I…” Edward manages to say, but his mouth twists into a smile before he can say anything else. Does this mean that he could spend the summer there, too? It’s not like Bruce is going to be able to travel now, which means that he can’t go away for the summer. The relief the thought brings Edward makes him feel guilty, and the smile disappears from his face. He clears his throat and pulls himself together. “I would like that.”

“That’s nice to hear,” Alfred says with another small smile. “Dr. Sharma was talking about letting you go tomorrow, so I suppose you should start packing.”

Edward takes it as permission to leave a table. The chair legs scrape against the cafeteria floor loudly, as he thanks Alfred three times in a row before stuffing half of the muffin into his mouth and sprinting out of the cafeteria and into the stairwell, the elevators feeling too slow for him. He regrets his choice by the time he reaches the sixth floor, his ribs aching and his lungs burning.

“What?” Bruce asks from his bed, when Edward appears in his room, sweaty and panting like he has run a marathon. Edward doesn’t answer, only climbs on the bed with him and straddles him, careful to not put any weight onto Bruce’s ribs. Bruce looks up at him, his eyes full of confusion and something almost like worry. “Is everything okay?”

Edward only laughs – relief and joy bubbling to the surface – and takes Bruce’s face into his hands before leaning down to kiss his lips and face for the first time since their arrival at the hospital. When he pulls back, he can imagine that the bruises on his face are nothing but kiss marks.

*

Edward’s joy doesn’t last for long. Turns out that even though he’s allowed to leave, Dr. Sharma wants to keep Bruce in the hospital for an additional three days, just to observe his state. Maybe it’s good, at least considering the possible muscle damage on his torso, but acknowledging it doesn’t make Edward feel any less devastated.

“It’s such bullsh*t. I’m literally fine,” Bruce mutters when they’re both sitting on his bed, Edward’s packed bag (well, the bag is actually Bruce’s, just like all the clothes in it) waiting on the floor. Edward says nothing. Three days isn’t a long time, but the thought of being away from Bruce fills him with a sense of dread that wasn’t there before.

“I’ll come see you tomorrow,” he says, trying to push the feeling away. Bruce says nothing, only sulks and limply holds Edward’s hand. Edward would like to kiss him but he can see Alfred’s blurry figure standing in the doorframe, waiting. Instead, he only squeezes Bruce’s hand one last time before standing up and taking his bag. “I’ll call you, okay?”

The ride to the Tower is quiet with only Edward and Alfred in the car. This time Edward gets to sit at the front, the city stretching open in front of him as they drive across the Midtown Bridge. It has rained during the night, fog rising from the streets as they get warmer with the sun. Edward can only look at the river that runs below them, his stomach twisting when he thinks about how lucky they were to wash ashore instead of floating away and eventually sinking to the bottom of the river with old bicycles and nameless, unhappy people.

The feeling of dread doesn’t leave him alone, either, only growing stronger when they reach the Downtown Island. He knows almost the entire island like the back of his hand and that has brought him comfort over the years – Gotham is his home, and no matter how lost he feels, the city is still the same – but now that has changed. Underneath these streets and buildings that he has known for his entire life lies something unknown and sinister. He’s been down there but can’t see it anymore. He doesn’t know where those veins run and it makes him feel like the ground might give out underneath him at any moment, making him fall back into the maze.

The feeling eases a little when they get to the Tower, half of it because of the distance from the ground, and half because the feeling is pushed aside by an uncomfortable awkwardness that takes over him when he realizes that this is the first time he’s in Bruce’s home without the boy himself. How is he supposed to act with Alfred, who is Bruce’s butler, but who is now also assigned to look after Edward? Why can’t things be easy and normal for him for once?

Luckily, Alfred doesn’t seem to take his new role that seriously, and the day goes just as it would if Bruce was there. They eat a quiet lunch together, after which Edward wanders around the penthouse, trying to feel at home but failing miserably. He doesn’t feel like he should be there. Maybe he shouldn't.

Sometime in the afternoon, Alfred finds Edward reading in the library and asks if he would like to go to an optician. To be honest, during the almost three weeks he’s spent without his glasses, Edward has almost forgotten his need for them, the blurry world around him has become the norm, but now it’s probably time to get him new ones.

So, he quietly agrees and lets Alfred take him to some private and way too fancy optics store, where all of the frames in the display cases are designer brands and cost more than all of Edward’s prescription lenses and frames from the last ten years combined. Still, he obediently lets the optician measure his vision – she is much nicer than the doctors who used to examine his eyes back in the orphanage when he first noticed that he couldn’t see the blackboard at school or read the numbers on a hymn board at church – and then spends a good while trying to find the cheapest frames available in the store. He finds a pair of oval, wire frame glasses that are almost affordable and makes him look only slightly stupid, but when the cashier combines the price with the lenses, it’s still high enough for Edward to feel like the worst person alive as he watches Alfred swipe his card at the counter.

“I can… I’ll pay you back when I get my last allowance and…” he tries to say, as they step out of the store after having been told to come back in a couple of days to get the finished glasses. He doesn’t actually know if he has enough money to pay for them but he hopes so. Alfred only swats his words away. “No, I’m serious, I will –”

“Edward, you can either let me pay for them or you can be blind, it’s your choice,” Alfred cuts him off, his voice stern but calm. “If it makes you feel any better, you can think of them as an early graduation present.”

Edward only nods, feeling something between embarrassed and relieved.

The evening goes the same: They eat a quiet but nice dinner – after three weeks of hospital food Edward has forgotten that food can actually taste good – and then Edward sits in the game room, where he has dragged one of the landlines, and talks with Bruce about a TV show the both of them are watching, even though miles away from each other. They’re not even really talking, and most of the call goes with neither of them saying anything, but just feeling the other’s presence through the phone is enough. Edward notices it, when they finally end the call, and the room around him feels twice bigger than before.

The silence of the Tower really hits him only when he goes to bed that night, the huge guest bedroom feeling like a tomb as he lies in the bed three times the size of the hospital one he’s already gotten used to. The sheets are soft and smell like clean cotton and not like medicine, disinfectant, or fabric softener, and Edward finally drifts into a restless sleep.

*

“I had a dream about you last night,” Bruce tells Edward the next day when he and Alfred go to the hospital to see him. It’s towards the end of their visit, and Alfred is talking to Dr. Sharma, so it’s just the two of them in the room.

“Oh?” Edward asks, feeling a bit leery. In his dreams, he either has to look for Bruce in the maze or try to review his dead body. He doesn’t want to tell Bruce about those.

“Yeah,” Bruce says. Words come easily for him today. He’s sitting with his knees pulled to his chest and his chin resting on them. “I don’t really remember what happened in it, but we were both little and standing underneath a tree, I think. I don’t… I don’t remember more but I know that we were little and we were friends.”

He gives Edward a boyish, almost shy smile, and it takes all of Edward’s self-control for him not to run to Dr. Sharma’s office and beg for him to let Bruce come home already. Instead, he tugs a strand of Bruce’s overgrown hair behind his ear and carefully traces his fingertips over the shadow of a bruise underneath the boy’s left eye.

*

The next day, after visiting Bruce once again, Edward and Alfred go to St. Aquinas’ to empty out Edward and Bruce’s room. It’s now official that neither of them is going back for the remaining days of the semester, so it’s better to get their things before everyone else gets the same idea the day before graduation.

Edward has been gone for only three and a half weeks, but it feels like a much longer time. When they step through the main doors, he gets a faint feeling of homecoming. The dorm building is quiet as they climb to the fifth floor, and when Edward finally opens the door to his and Bruce’s room, it greets him, warm and much smaller than he remembers it. No one has been there since he left – his book bag is still on the floor next to his bed and his history textbook is open on his desk. Edward doesn’t quite understand how everything has changed but things have still stayed the same.

All of Edward’s earthly possessions fit into a travel bag that he has stuffed into the back of his closet. His clothes smell foreign and look even more worn out than he remembered after weeks of wearing Bruce’s clothes that Alfred brought for him to the hospital. He folds them neatly and puts them into the bag, along with all of the books that don’t belong to the school – four paperbacks and his Bible – and his personal hygiene things. Lastly, he stuffs his rosary into a small pocket and zips the bag.

There isn’t anything important in his desk drawers, only papers and school things, and so he stuffs them all into his book bag without a second thought. It’s only when he spots his chemistry notebook amongst the papers that he feels his heart sink. It’s the notebook where he wrote down all of the things he found out about the Court. It’s also the reason he and Bruce were dragged underground and the reason that Bruce is still in the hospital.

For a moment Edward feels so repulsed by the notebook that he wants to tear it apart, God, he would burn it right now if he had a lighter, but alas his lighter is now nothing but shards of metal at the bottom of Gotham River. He stares at his name on the cover of the notebook, the repulsive feeling shifting from the notebook onto himself. He did this. He caused this. All of this suffering could’ve been prevented if he had understood that there are things that he doesn’t need to know about. Now he knows the truth, but he’s paid the price and so has Bruce, who didn’t even want to play a part in all this.

Anger and disgust flood Edward, and for a moment he doesn’t see or hear anything. When he finally comes back to his senses, his hands are dry and covered in paper cuts, and the notebook is in shreds on the floor. Alfred, who has been packing Bruce’s CD collection into a cardboard box, has stopped with a puzzled and slightly worried look on his face.

“Sorry,” Edward mutters and throws the shreds of paper into his half-full trash can before moving on to helping Alfred with Bruce’s things.

They’re done with the room in no time, the only signs of life left behind being the unwashed sheets and the almost full trash can. Alfred carries the box of Bruce’s things downstairs, but Edward hangs back to take one last look at the room where he’s spent the majority of the last four years of his life. It’s not his home, never has been, but it’s probably the closest of one that he’s had ever since he left the orphanage. The room looks pathetically small in the afternoon sun, dust floating in the air and sticking onto a lonely spiderweb on the windowsill.

He can remember being so happy for only having to share a room with one person upon his arrival at the school during his freshman year, while all the other boys complained about having roommates at all. Since then, he’s spent hours wishing to get out of the room and the school, counting years and months, and days until he’s free. However, if someone told him now that he could spend another four years in that room, sleeping, eating, and studying with a concrete goal, he would take the offer immediately.

He closes the door for the last time and walks down the stairs.

*

Edward gets his new glasses on the same day that Bruce gets out of the hospital. It takes him the entire car ride to the hospital to get used to the newfound sharpness of the world around him. He can now read the names on the street signs and store windows and see the faces of children waiting at bus stops in their school clothes. He sees the individual fruits in street vendors’ stalls and the overflowing trash cans that are getting warm and disgusting in the summer heat. This is the city he knows and recognizes, but something is still off. He doesn’t feel the familiar pulse of it underneath his feet. Something has died deep in the heart of Gotham and begun to rot. Edward pretends not to notice it.

Bruce is waiting for them with his bag packed when they come to get him. Dr. Sharma is there, too, and talks with Alfred about continuing both physical and psychotherapy as a part of both Bruce’s and Edward’s treatment, while Edward and Bruce wait in the hallway.

“I like your glasses,” Bruce says, leaning one shoulder against the wall. In his sweatpants and black t-shirt and with his gym bag on his shoulder, he looks almost the same as on all of those Saturday mornings at school, when he came knocking on Edward’s door to ask if he needed a ride to the city. The only difference is the still visible bruising on his neck and the almost healed cuts on his cheeks and above his eyebrows. Despite all that, he still looks good, and when he smiles at Edward, the light behind his eyes is back.

“Thanks,” Edward says and smiles at his shoes, suddenly feeling shy in the same way when he was still hiding his crush from Bruce.

Living in the Tower is less awkward now that Bruce is there again. The first thing Edward does when they get back there is drag all of his things from the guest room into Bruce’s bedroom, which he hasn’t dared to go into without the boy present. The second thing he does is lock the door, crawl on top of Bruce, and make out with him until he’s scared that his lip is going to split open again.

Maybe hospitals make people look fundamentally sick because now that Bruce is out of the ward, he looks much healthier. Things almost feel like they were before when they walk in Central Park together, enjoying the sun, or when the sun is setting and Bruce is sitting on the floor with his guitar, trying to learn the chords for a new song, while Edward lies in his bed with a puzzle book. Almost.

Edward wakes up in the middle of the night to a sudden stab of pain in his ribs and the feeling of a tight hold around his wrist, almost painful.

“What?” he croaks, blinking in the darkness of Bruce’s bedroom. In the little light coming in through the thick curtains, he can see Bruce sitting next to him with a bewildered look on his pale face. He’s tense, one hand gripping Edward’s wrist and one pulled back, almost as if ready for a punch. Edward looks at him, not understanding what is happening. Bruce looks back at him, and for a second it looks like he doesn’t recognize Edward. Then he blinks and the look is gone.

“sh*t,” he whispers, startled. The hold around Edward’s wrist loosens. “I’m… sorry. Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Edward manages to say. There’s a dull ache in his ribs. He’s pretty sure Bruce elbowed him there.

“I’m sorry,” Bruce repeats, still slightly distraught. The line of his shoulders relaxes and he hangs his head low, running his fingers through his hair. “I didn’t… I didn’t mean to do that, but… I just forgot where I was for a moment.

“It’s okay,” Edward says and pushes himself up, but Bruce won’t look at him. “Just go back to sleep.”

Eventually, Bruce obeys, falling back onto the pillows and gently pulling Edward down with him. His breathing evens out soon enough, one arm draped over Edward apologetically while unintentionally pressing the aching spot on his ribs. Edward doesn’t sleep, the covers and Bruce are too warm around him. He stares at the glow of the city sneaking in through the curtain, a horrible feeling gnawing on his insides like a starving dog.

He thinks about the confused look in Bruce’s eyes and then about the absent one he’s seen in them more and more often lately, which makes him want to ask him: Where have you gone? Something is wrong, they came back from the maze wrong. Edward isn’t the boy he was when he went underground, he doesn’t know what he is doing here, in the Tower. Why isn’t he in his bedroom at the school? Why hasn’t he heard anything from the scholarship program? Where is he going to go when summer ends and he finds himself without a school spot?

He thinks about Leon and the things he told about his sh*tty little room of an apartment and dead-end job. Edward is going to end up there, too. The more he thinks about it, the less bad it sounds. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not how things were supposed to turn out for him. He was supposed to be an exception, the one to break out of the system. He endured all of those years of loneliness and bullying at St. Aquinas’ and the sweaty summers at St. Jude’s, only with the power of the thought that one day it would all be worth it – he would get the scholarship and go to college and his past would cease to exist. But instead, he fell underground and now it feels that a part of him will forever be down there.

Next to him, Bruce mumbles something in his sleep, his nose brushing against the back of Edward’s neck, and Edward’s heart aches so hard he thinks he might die. Why Bruce? Why not some boy from St. Jude’s, who he would’ve known for a summer and who would’ve taught him how to shotgun weed and disappeared by the time Edward came back for the next summer? Or why couldn’t he and Bruce meet differently? They had spent three and half years in the same school but the only reason they got close to begin with was because they were the first ones to walk to a murder scene.

Finding the body in the chapel might’ve been the worst thing to happen to him, but it also resulted in the only good thing he’s ever had. He squeezes his eyes shut, crosses his hands underneath his chin, and this time he asks for something.

Please, just let me have this. Let me have this one thing, this one summer, and I won’t ask for anything else. Amen.

*

The week before their graduation goes by fast. Edward lets it. He goes to buy the graduation caps and gowns with Bruce, simultaneously spending the rest of the money left to him by Mr. Waters, listens to the plans Alfred has for their small, shared graduation party, and gets one of Bruce’s suits fitted for him. (Bruce had offered to buy him a new suit, but Edward had turned the offer down. What is he going to do with a suit after this, anyway?) He spends three hours of the week sitting in Kim’s completely green office in her suburban home on Uptown Island and another three hours doing physical therapy – which he hates – at some clinic with Bruce and an overly excited personal trainer. He falls asleep next to Bruce every night, but neither of them usually sleeps peacefully through the night.

On the morning of their graduation day, Edward wakes up in an empty bed. It’s not rare for Bruce to wake up before him, but this morning the mattress beside him has already gone cold, meaning that no one has been sleeping there for a while.

Edward wanders down to the kitchen in his pajama pants and old t-shirt, expecting to find Bruce there, but only finds Alfred drinking coffee and reading the paper.

“I haven’t seen him yet this morning,” the man says when Edward asks him where Bruce is. Edward searches the first floor of the penthouse, just to make sure that Bruce isn’t in the game room or in the library. He isn’t. He isn’t in the upstairs bathroom or the guest room, either. Edward feels panic gradually rising within him as he roams the penthouse, trying to find the boy. Some reasonable possibilities pass his mind – for example, that Bruce snuck out to go to the gym after he and Alfred argued about it for half an hour yesterday – but the ones that stick are the bad ones, such as the possibility that some crazy underground cult members snuck into the penthouse and took Bruce away in the dark of the night. It might sound crazy, but in light of recent events, it really isn’t.

The panic is about to reach its peak when Edward finds himself in one of the second-floor hallways where he almost never goes. It’s the one where Bruce’s parents’ bedroom is located. This is also the first time Edward sees the double doors to the room unlocked, the chains normally holding them shut now hanging limply on the door handles. Edward looks at them from the distance for a moment, confusion having replaced the panic, before consciously walking to the open doors.

He’s never seen the inside of the room, but the sight of it doesn’t surprise him all that much. It looks a lot like the other bedrooms, only slightly bigger with more furniture and dust. It’s also left completely untouched, almost as if Thomas and Martha Wayne had left for the opera only hours ago. The curtains on the tall windows aren’t completely closed, the morning sun making the room look slightly dreamy. There’s a full bookshelf full of medical publications, a couple of them missing from their designated spots and sitting on a table next to a plush armchair. An old newspaper is still resting on the armrest of the chair, and a black morning robe hangs on a bench at the foot of a king-size canopy bed. It’s like a museum or a diorama of something that no longer exists. In the middle of it all, on the big, cold mattress, lies Bruce with his back towards the door.

He looks small, like a child, curled up underneath a blanket that leaves his ankles and feet exposed. He’s sleeping. Edward supposes that he’s been there for most of the night. It’s probably time to wake him up, but Edward doesn’t find it in himself to do so. Instead, he goes back downstairs for breakfast and pretends not to know anything when Bruce wanders into the kitchen twenty minutes later with his cheeks still warm from sleep and his hair sticking into five different directions but looking otherwise well-rested.

The graduation ceremony is held on an outside stage that has been put up on the school football field. Edward is sweating underneath his graduation gown in the sunny noon weather, while a group of his and Bruce’s classmates swarm around them on the lawn and talk about something pointless, such as a family trip to Italy or Greece or God knows where. His mind is stuck on the chapel that he saw when they walked past the dorm building earlier today. There was a bulldozer parked next to it, waiting. Maybe James wasn’t exaggerating when he said that the whole chapel is going to be demolished. Edward wonders what they’re going to do to the underground entrance.

Mr. Gould’s amplified voice calls out from the stage and tells the students to take their places on the folding chairs arranged in front of the stage. Edward can hear Bruce’s relieved sigh when they can finally leave the circle of people.

“Jesus, I had already forgotten how much those guys love to talk,” Bruce says quietly and pushes his sunglasses up a bit. He looks like the singer of some well-behaved rock band with his hair loosely brushed back with gel, whereas Edward feels like someone’s once divorced dad who has been turned into a 17-year-old boy. He smiles a little at Bruce’s words and follows him to their seats.

There are way too many different speeches and songs during the ceremony. Edward gets bored halfway through, the sun shining into his eyes uncomfortably and making him painfully aware of the fact that he should’ve put on sunscreen. Next to him, Bruce sits polite and still but from the corner of his eye Edward can see him picking on the scabs on his hands nervously. Edward keeps his eyes on the student speaker standing on the stage and gently moves Bruce’s hands apart. Bruce gives him an amused glance before moving on to fiddling with the cuffs of his gown.

It’s only when students start getting called onto the stage to receive their diplomas that the feeling of finality catches up to Edward. This is it, the point he’s been waiting to reach for the last four years. He’s finally reached it and can now see the rest of his life stretching in front of him, impossibly long and with no other defining landmarks to reach. The thought keeps him occupied enough for him to almost jump out of his skin when his name is called. He stands up, barely even hearing Bruce’s “good luck” from the sound of blood pumping in his ears. The walk to the stage is the longest of his life, and he’s sure that he’s going to fall over at least by the time he has to walk up the stairs to the stage, but everything goes fine and he stays upright. His hands are sweaty and shaking as he takes his diploma and shakes hands with Mr. Gould.

From the stage, he can see his entire class sitting on the lawn and their parents and friends on the bleachers behind them. He catches a glimpse of Bruce’s beaming face in the crowd before instinctively looking at the front row, where the teachers are sitting in their formal wear. For a moment he looks for a face that he knows to not be there anymore.

*

Their graduation party is held in the penthouse in the evening. There are more guests than Edward would’ve guessed, most of them from WE, as expected, but more and more of his and Bruce’s classmates show up along the evening. There are servers carrying trays with champagne glasses and hors d’oeuvres, and after an hour, Edward feels slightly sick from eating too much cake, because it keeps him from needing to talk with people he doesn’t know. He would like to talk to Bruce for a change, but the boy is constantly occupied with other people.

It’s strange, the way people come and talk to Edward like they know him now. Edward is as polite as he can be and drags on a pointless conversation with Lucius Fox for way too long, just because he’s one of the few people he already knows. He supposes that this is how Bruce always feels. He also has a couple of more or less awkward conversations with his classmates, who don’t seem to know how to talk to him any more than he knows how to talk to them, and so everything they say to him sounds either really weird and stiff or like they’re still secretly making fun of him. (“So, Nashton, are you gonna go to… um, City College or what?”)

After two hours, it gets exhausting, and Edward is glad when Alfred comes to him to tell him that there’s a call waiting for him on the landline. He retreats into one of the sitting rooms that is empty of guests and answers the phone. He says his name and a woman’s voice answers.

“Hello, Edward, this is Cindy from the Inspire Tomorrow Fund, we’ve been trying to reach you concerning your scholarship application.”

“Oh?” Edward says, suddenly feeling very weak. He had already given up hope regarding the scholarship and pushed it out of his mind, the disappointment having been too heavy for him to bear.

“The phone number you gave us wasn’t working and you had only given us your school’s address, so we couldn’t invite you in for an interview, but we have been following the news and seen what you’ve been going through lately. We got this number from the hospital, and I called you to –”

Edward listens to her speak, the noises of the party coming through the door sounding distant and pointless. He doesn’t know how long the phone call lasts until he hears himself saying: “Yes, thank you, good night.” He puts the receiver down and leaves the room.

Most of the remaining guests are boys from the school, some of them probably having drunk more champagne than needed, at least judging by the volume of their conversation in the main hall, as well as the atrocious dance moves James is trying to show off, even though the music doesn’t fit them. Edward wanders past them all, not hearing Bruce call after him and heads towards the west wing (no one calls it that but Alfred) and the doors to the main balcony, where he usually never goes.

The sun is setting, painting the city rose gold. Edward stuffs his hand into the inside breast pocket of his suit and pulls out the pack of nicotine gum Leon gifted him. He puts one warm piece into his mouth and chews on it while leaning his elbows against the stone railing of the huge balcony. It’s windy up there, but he’s warm in his suit.

He stands there for a while, doing nothing but staring at the slowly darkening sky. There’s the sound of the balcony door opening and footsteps approaching him.

“It’s just me,” he hears Bruce’s voice say before his hands come up from behind him and wrap around his waist. Normally, Edward would shake him off, especially if there’s a possibility that one of their (now old) classmates could see them, but now he lets him be. That might also be why Bruce asks: “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Edward says, and then: “I got it.”

“Got what?” Bruce asks, his hair brushing against Edward’s cheek as he rests his chin on Edward’s shoulder. Edward is silent for a moment, scared that saying it loud is going to jinx the whole thing somehow.

“The scholarship,” he says finally. Now that he’s said it, it feels real. A smile breaks onto his face as Bruce pulls back to spin him around by his shoulders so that they’re facing each other.

“Wait, really?” Bruce asks, his eyes bright in the dark. Edward can only smile and nod. “That’s– that’s amazing, Ed! I mean, I knew you would get it, but still, I… What’s wrong?”

The smile on Edward’s face has changed to tears. He tries to wipe them off, but they won’t stop coming. The relief he’s feeling has opened the door for every other emotion he’s been keeping in ever since he woke up in the hospital. It’s like a tourniquet has been taken off of him and he’s bleeding all over the place. Relief, sadness, and fear all mix together, until he doesn’t even know what he’s feeling.

“Oh God,” he manages to gasp, taking off his glasses before hiding his eyes in his palm. Everything is right but also wrong at the same time. So many bad things have happened that this doesn’t feel like a reward. He’s done so many bad things. Bruce’s hands are on his shoulders, pulling him closer.

“Oh, Edward, tell me what’s wrong, please,” he says helplessly. Edward wishes he could tell. He wishes he knew.

“I don’t understand,” he says, voice wet with tears. “I feel– I feel like I’m f*cking suffocating here. Like, I can’t walk on the street, because I feel like it’s going to fall apart underneath me and those people are going to get me again and then I’m going to be back in the dark, alone. It’s just… f*ck, I can’t stay here, I can’t. But I can’t leave. I can’t leave you.”

He can feel Bruce’s hand on the back of his neck and then the boy’s shoulder against his face. He leans into the touch.

“Let me go with you, then,” Bruce says after a moment, and Edward stops crying.

“What?” he asks, pulling back and wiping his nose on his sleeve, ruining the suit in the process. Bruce is still holding onto him, the look on his face is sad but completely sincere.

“Let’s go somewhere else for the summer, hide away,” he says. Edward only looks at him.

“I… I can’t leave Gotham,” he says.

“Why not?” Bruce asks, pleading. Edward opens his mouth, but there’s no answer. “Please, Edward, let me do this for you. Let me take you somewhere, just for the summer, please. I mean… I can’t breathe here, either.”

Edward looks at Bruce, his vision blurry with tears and from the lack of glasses, and tries to find some small sign of hesitation or dishonesty on his face, but doesn’t find it. Bruce means it, just as he always means it when he says something nice to Edward. Edward doesn’t know why it’s always as difficult for him to believe it.

This is it, the thing he’s been praying for, the summer that doesn’t smell like sweat and exhaust fumes and deep-fried food in styrofoam boxes. Bruce is offering it to him and asking for nothing but for Edward to take the offer. Edward wants to take it, but it’s like there’s a string around his neck, pulling him back and strangling him. He’s never left Gotham and the last time he didn’t spend the summer working was when he was twelve years old. This doesn’t feel like something that should happen to him. This isn’t something he gets to have. He’s already had one good thing happen to him today, two is almost too many.

He can see that Bruce notices the hesitation on his face, too, and for a moment he’s sure that Bruce is just going to let go of him and leave him there. That’s what Edward deserves for never taking the easy way out. Instead, Bruce looks down at the ground, his voice quiet when he says: “But if you wanna stay here, I’ll stay with you.”

The string around Edward’s neck snaps.

“I think… I think we should leave,” he says. Bruce lifts his head and looks at him, the corners of his eyes crinkling. Edward lets himself smile again. “I mean, it gets way too hot here during summer, anyway.”

He can feel Bruce smiling when he presses his lips against his wet cheek. Below them, the neverending rumbling of the city drowns out whatever whispers might be coming from underground.

Chapter 12: true blue

Notes:

this is kind of an epilogue-thing, i hope you enjoy!
[cw for some drug use]

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Edward has never been out of Gotham. He hasn’t even crossed the bridge to the mainland before this summer. It’s strange to think how small his life has been until now, condensed into those three islands as if that’s all there is. Leaving that life – even just for a while – is both exciting and slightly unnerving. He has also never sat in a car for this long.

To be honest, he doesn’t have a clear picture of where they’re actually even going. Bruce was talking about a house somewhere northwest, where he used to go with his parents when he was little, but that’s about all Edward knows. The original plan was for him and Bruce to go together, just the two of them, but Alfred had stepped in and pointed out that it would most likely end up more or less catastrophically, considering the fact that neither of them knows how to cook or do laundry. So, now it’s the three of them driving away from Gotham. Two hours have passed and there are five more left.

The sky looks bigger out there, stretching wide and blue above them. Edward can’t stop looking at it through the sunroof of the car, the vastness of it making him feel strangely small as the car speeds down a highway that seems to never end. Next to him on the backseat, Bruce sits with his headphones on and eyebrows knit together as he tries to read a book that’s the size of a concrete brick and titled something along the lines of "Foundations of Medicine: A Comprehensive Preparatory Guide". Edward, on the other hand, tries not to think about school or the fact that they’re not going to be on the same campus when the semester starts. Well, maybe it’s a refreshing change, considering that they lived in the same school building for four years.

They stop at a gas station after three hours of driving and eat slightly disgusting hamburgers, surrounded by families with children crying for overpriced candy and truckers watching sports on a small TV bolted high up on the wall. Bruce buys them a bag of candy before leaving, and they eat it in the backseat, as the view around them changes from bare highways to quieter, forest-lined roads. Edward doesn’t think he’s ever seen this much green in his entire life – Central Park doesn’t count, it’s just a small, human-made spot of green in the middle of the concrete jungle that is Gotham.

Bruce falls asleep five hours into the drive, his cheek pressed against the car window and a slight pink tint on his face from the sun. His headphones have fallen out and Edward can hear the music still playing. He takes them to himself and listens to Bruce’s summer mix (the exact same songs Edward heard him listening through the winter and spring), while the trees disappear for a moment and they drive through a city that looks way too small to be even called one. When they stop again a bit over an hour before reaching their destination, Edward wakes Bruce up, and they sit outside another gas station drinking soda from a shared can, while Alfred goes inside to pay for gas. The sun is about to set, but the weather is still warm. It’s different than in Gotham, where it’s not always as hot, but the heat is always humid and heavy.

Edward points this out to Bruce, who hands the rest of the soda over to him with a shrug and says: “I think that everything feels kinda heavy in Gotham.”

Edward dozes off for the last hour of the drive and when he wakes up, it’s dark outside and the car has stopped. He blinks himself awake and looks through the windshield to see a house standing in the dark in front of them. Next to him, Bruce stretches and yawns before unbuckling his seatbelt and gesturing to Edward to get out of the car with him. Edward does so, the warm night air and the sweet scent of night-blooming flowers hitting him when he gets out of the car. It feels like he’s still asleep when Bruce walks him over to the house and opens the door with a key he’s found underneath a flowerpot.

Edward doesn’t know what he had expected the house to look like, but based on the almost militant gothicness of the Tower, this wasn’t it. Even from the doorway, he can see light wood floors and paneling on the walls, as well as all kinds of round and soft-looking furniture in warm and earthy shades. Even though Edward is barely even inside yet, the house feels much more like a home than the penthouse ever has.

Bruce gives him a quick tour of the house; a kitchen with deep orange cabinet doors, a bathroom with lime green tiles on the walls, and a living room with an honest-to-God conversation pit, like straight out of a 70s interior design catalog. Edward is surprised by how much he doesn’t hate it. Actually, he finds it quite amusing imagining Thomas Wayne choosing the cushions for the colorful couch in the fire room. What catches his attention the most, however, is the view that opens from the floor-to-ceiling windows of the living room. Beyond a desolated patio and neatly mowed lawn that looks blue in the dark, Edward can see the still surface of a lake. It looks like black glass in the night. Bruce hadn’t mentioned that part. He doesn’t get to take the sight in for any longer, because Bruce is already pulling him up a flight of stairs.

The upstairs follows the same color scheme, and the main corridor, along which all of the bedrooms are located, is lined with potted plants. Edward wonders if the plants are new or if someone comes here every week to water them and tend the house that has undoubtedly been empty for years.

When Bruce opens the door to his bedroom, Edward catches a glimpse into his childhood summers. There is a low, neatly made bed with a round canvas headboard and framed posters of vintage cars above it, as well as a bookshelf full of children’s books. A few aesthetically pleasing toys have been put on the shelf for display, while the rest are left in a crate in the corner of the room. The room looks more like a child’s bedroom than the cave of a room where Bruce lives in the Tower, but Edward still gets a strange, sad feeling there. It’s almost like a ghost of the past, the version of the boy that Bruce no longer is.

“I forgot that I don’t have a double bed here,” Bruce says after a short pause. He lets go of Edward’s hand and steps into the room with his hands in his pockets. (Edward thinks of the police series they used to watch in the hospital, where the detectives would be careful not to touch anything upon arriving at a crime scene.) “It’s… been so long since the last time I was here.”

“When was that?” Edward asks carefully. He can guess that it was when Bruce’s parents were still alive. Bruce shrugs, looking slightly lost in the room.

“When I was maybe ten, I don’t know. We used to come here during summers, and sometimes when mom wasn’t doing so well,” he says, rubbing his socked foot against the cream-colored carpet. Edward doesn’t get to say anything to that, because with that, Bruce takes his hand again and pulls him back into the hallway, closing the door behind them.

“Well, whatever, we can take the upstairs guest room, and Alfred can sleep downstairs,” he says quickly, not looking back. They walk down the hallway until Bruce opens the door to the guest room – a double bed, orange carpet, and big windows. There’s one last door at the end of the corridor.

“What room is that?” Edward asks, even though he thinks he already knows. Bruce glances at it and turns away.

“Well, it’s mom and dad’s room,” he says with a half of a shrug. “Let’s just… Let’s go downstairs to get the bags.”

There are pictures on the walls downstairs, a lot of them of Bruce and his parents. Edward looks at them, while Bruce and Alfred discuss the sleeping arrangements.

Martha and Thomas Wayne lying on sun decks on the patio in their expensive summer clothes, Alfred’s shadow falling over them from behind the camera. Martha and Thomas, both of them holding Bruce’s – maybe six years old – hands so that he’s floating off of the ground for the moment that it took to take the photo. Bruce, maybe a couple of years older now, standing on a beach in his shark print swimming shorts and pointing a plastic water gun towards the camera with one eye closed and a wide enough smile on his face so that Edward can see that he’s missing his upper left canine.

Edward stares at the photo, thinking about the eight-year-old version of himself wearing the choir boy's cassock and sitting on his knees next to his bed every night, praying for something good – a good meal, for the big boys not to push him onto the ground the next day at school, a friend. He thinks about the dream Bruce told him about some time ago. We were both little and standing underneath a tree, I think, I don’t remember more but I know that we were little and we were friends. Could’ve they been that – friends – and stood underneath some imaginary tree in the middle of the concrete and filth of Gotham, years before Bruce watched his parents bleed out in front of him and years before the world carved faith out of Edward’s chest and replaced it with something angry and bitter? Edward will never know.

**

Bruce doesn’t tell this to Edward – there’s no reason for Edward to know it – but he feels closer to his parents in the lake house. Maybe it’s because he’s never been there without them before, or because every memory he has of the house is connected to them. It reminds him of the feeling he used to get often right after their death when he would hear their voices or see them in the corner of his eye. Ghosts, memories, reflections. He gets the same feeling here, but it’s slightly different. It’s less heavy and doesn’t ache the way it used to. Here it’s comforting.

Bruce doesn’t believe in ghosts or the afterlife, not even Heaven or Hell, but he believes that the past can bleed into the present sometimes. Maybe one day they will mix for good.

On some nights, when he wakes up in cold sweat and walks downstairs to get a glass of water from the kitchen, he thinks that he can see the faint glow of living room lights in the dark hallway. If he stands still enough and doesn’t breathe, he can hear his father’s quiet voice calling for him from the other room.

Bruce? What are you doing up so late?

He doesn’t move, he doesn’t breathe, and he doesn’t turn around. He can feel them there and if he turns, he might even see them, but he still doesn’t. He knows better than that. He stands in the dark hallway and lets the feeling – the only thing he has left of them – slowly fade and disappear.

**

Edward has spent his last five summers doing two things: working and avoiding the sweaty sleeping halls at St. Jude’s, so it’s strange to wake up in the big, comfortable guest room bed with Bruce sprawled on the mattress next to him with no hurry in the world. He’s not used to this kind of idleness and even though he knows that he should feel relieved and relaxed, there’s a certain feeling of unease that hangs over him for the first two weeks of their vacation.

The town they’re staying in circles around the lake, and it doesn’t take Edward long to realize that the Waynes weren’t the only rich people who had chosen it as the perfect place for their vacation home. When he and Bruce ride their bikes – or Bruce’s parents’ bikes – to a tennis court that is part of a local hotel complex, Edward catches glimpses of other big, architecturally impressive houses from between the trees that hide them away from the road.

“Do you know these people?” he asks Bruce after some friendly, older lady comes to talk to them when they’re packing their things at the tennis court.

“Not really, but apparently they know me,” Bruce says with a shadow on his face, his tone indicating that he had wished that people wouldn’t recognize him outside of Gotham. They stay out of the court after that, and Edward doesn’t complain. He hates tennis.

It’s not only the idleness that Edward is experiencing for the first time that makes him feel restless. He doesn’t want to admit it, but the element of water still unnerves him, and here its presence constantly looms over him in the shape of the lake that is visible from most parts of the house. It’s not that the view isn’t pretty, but Edward can’t bring himself to enjoy it. Every time he looks at the serene sight of pale blue water that opens in front of him when he sits on the patio, all he can think of is the feeling of drowning. He hadn’t thought that it would bother him this much anymore. Back in the hospital, he could barely even take a shower without getting a panic attack from the feeling of water on his face, but he should be over that by now, right?

Overall, it feels like such a stupid fear that he doesn’t even tell Bruce about it (they barely talk about the maze at all) but he still feels his body go cold when Bruce one day says that he wants to go swimming on a small bay by the house. For a moment he almost tells Bruce not to go but decides to keep his mouth. After all, if Bruce can do it, then good for him. Edward, on the other hand, feels cold and almost seasick as he sits on one of the big stones at the bay, as far away from the water as possible, while still having his eyes on Bruce, who is wading deeper into the water.

“The water is so warm!” Bruce shouts at him and shields his eyes from the sun. He looks like a statue of some kind standing in the middle of the glimmering water. The bruises on his torso and neck have faded away, almost completely invisible by now, but Edward can still see them, like a negative of a picture burned onto his retinas. He gives Bruce a thumbs up, shivering a little while simultaneously sweating through his t-shirt. He hates this.

With that, Bruce dives into the water and disappears from Edward’s sight. Edward feels panic rising within him even though he is actively assuring himself that Bruce can swim and isn’t going to drown. Even so, he holds his breath without even realizing, until Bruce resurfaces and flips his wet hair away from his face.

“Are you sure you don’t wanna try?” Bruce calls out after wiping a hand across his face, chest deep in the water, his wet skin glistening in the sun. He’s already burnt his shoulders.

“Yeah, like, one hundred percent sure,” Edward answers. Bruce splashes the water up a little, none of it reaching even close to Edward.

“Not to even dip your toe?”

“No, not to even dip my toe,” Edward says, laughing at Bruce’s disappointed face. The anxiety of seeing him in the water still doesn’t lift. “C’mere.”

Bruce does as he’s told, and Edward doesn’t realize his mistake until Bruce wraps his cold arms around him, dripping water all over him. Edward shrieks and tries to push him away before all of his clothes get wet but ends up only laughing with Bruce’s lips against his, the water on Bruce’s skin finally soaking through his clothes. The fear leaves him alone for a moment.

*

It gets dark in the town around the lake like it never does in Gotham. The yard lights around the house turn on and the air smells of moonflowers as Edward and Bruce sit on the roof of the house, looking past the treetops and towards the town, away from the lake with a shared blanket on their shoulders. Alfred left earlier during the evening to go over to some old friends’ house for dinner, not too sorry over Bruce and Edward turning the invitation down. (This is the first time Edward has seen the man living his own life. It’s both strange and good to see.)

The moon is only a thin sickle in the sky and Edward can see a couple of stars already. His mind is completely empty and he’s not ready for it when Bruce suddenly asks: “Do you miss Gotham?”

“Why?” Edward asks, turning to look at him. Bruce is resting his chin on his knees with his arms wrapped around them. His long hair falls onto his face when he gives Edward a limp shrug in answer.

“I was just wondering because, well… I feel like I shouldn’t miss it, especially not with all the stuff… you know,” he says, shaking his hand as a very vague gesture that Edward still understands to be a reference to the maze. “But I still miss it. I mean, I don’t want to go back now, but if I knew that I could never return there, I would feel bad, like I was missing a part of myself or something, you know?”

“Yeah,” Edward says absently. The thing is, he’s hated Gotham and everything it resembles for his entire life, and in light of recent events he probably should swear to never return. After all, in what other city could he get abducted by a cult and put into an underground maze to die? What has Gotham done for him apart from kicking him when he’s already down? He hates the trash, filth, and despair of the city, but at the same time, it’s all he knows. He’s never had a home, not like most people do, always having been moved from one institution to another and not given the time to root anywhere. There has never been a house he could call home, but as long as he’s in Gotham, he feels like he belongs there. If he could live anywhere else, he would, but deep down he knows that Gotham will always be his only true home. “I think I know what you mean.”

*

June stretches and drags, hot and dull. Edward feels more at ease, or maybe it’s just the heat making him docile. Sunny days and blue nights blur together, and he can’t tell them apart. It doesn’t really matter. He floats through them all.

On some days it feels like this is how things have always been. Like it’s always been just him and Bruce playing minigolf on a sun-bleached course or driving out of town to go see a drive-in movie on a field with dozens of other people sitting on the hoods and roofs of their cars and pickup trucks. He’s never had a summer like this before and he’s starting to realize how many things he’s missed out on. More than once, Bruce gives him a look that is something between confusion and amusem*nt after he asks Edward something that starts with the words: “Have you ever gone to…?” and gets a negative answer and more than once Edward wants to snap at him and tell him that some people can’t spend their entire summers playing tennis or going mountain biking because they have to work, but most of the time his words get cut off because Bruce is already dragging him along to show him something new. Edward doesn’t mind.

It’s here that he sees a new side of Bruce, or maybe not a side but a version that he didn’t think existed anymore – the boy before the tragedy. There’s a new kind of light behind his eyes, and he talks about his parents more than ever in Gotham, sometimes happily but sometimes like he’s lost in a memory, wanting to get out. Maybe being out of Gotham does good for him, at least that’s what Edward thinks.

That’s why it feels like a punch in the stomach every time he’s reminded of the things that have stayed the same, no matter if they’re out of Gotham or not. He has almost gotten used to the nightmares he has every night – most of the time he’s back in the maze, but sometimes he’s back in the school chapel or the orphanage – so much so, that he’s not even scared most of the time, only tired and begging for them to stop already. Kim was talking to him about how “healing isn’t linear” and how “the goal isn’t to forget but to learn to live with it” during their weekly check-up phone calls which Edward doesn’t enjoy. He hadn’t told her that it’s not his own problems that bother him.

So what if he’s scared of water and feels paranoid whenever he’s in public or if he doesn’t trust himself with a knife, just in case muscle memory kicks and he stabs Alfred in the neck while they’re making dinner? So what if he’s scared of water and birds and loud noises? If it was just that, he could live with it just fine. However, there is more to it than just the aftermath of what happened to them. It doesn’t matter that people keep on repeating how what happened to him and Bruce wasn’t their fault. They don’t know the full picture. If they knew, they would understand that in the end, it was Edward and his actions that put them into the maze and that he’s the reason why they’re both forever broken and bruised.

On most days, he can push the guilt away and not look it in the eye, but on some days Bruce says something, and it flares up again.

“When it starts, I can’t stop thinking about it, and the more I think about it, the more it hurts,” Bruce says to him on one windy afternoon, lying on the fire room couch with an ice pack wrapped in a towel on his chest. “Kinda like a panic attack or something, but it’s just this dull ache that keeps on getting sharper.”

Edward sits on his knees on the floor next to the couch and says nothing. Every once in a while, Bruce complains about pain around his ribs or neck, and even though it goes away after he’s taken painkillers and laid down, Edward can never shake the feeling that it’s all his fault.

“Doctor Sharma says that the pain can come back periodically. It might be chronic,” he had once heard Alfred say to Bruce when neither of them had known that he was listening, followed by Bruce’s almost angry words: “Well, it better f*cking not be.”

Bruce, of course, never blames Edward for anything that happened. Edward isn’t even sure if he remembers what happened in the maze well enough to do so. It just makes everything worse, because now Edward can’t apologize to him about it. He tries to, hoping that it would make the self-hatred that has been following him around tone down, but it never works.

“I don’t… I don’t understand what you’re apologizing for,” Bruce says to him, his eyebrows slightly furrowed in confusion when they’re sitting on the patio, enjoying the late afternoon sun filtering through the trees. A moment earlier Edward had tried to touch his neck – well, not even his neck, he was just trying to tug a strand of hair behind Bruce’s ear – and Bruce had flinched away as if Edward had given him a small electric shock. The feeling of guilt is like a hungry animal trying to gnaw its way through Edward’s stomach. Bruce tilts his head, trying to meet Edward’s eyes. “It’s okay, you didn't do anything other than startle me a bit.”

“It’s not that,” Edward mutters and watches the way his knuckles turn white when he squeezes his hands into fists. The confusion on Bruce’s face deepens.

“Then what is it?” he asks. Edward can’t answer, he can barely even look at him. Just the small movement has unleashed every bad feeling he’s been keeping in with varying degrees of success.

He’s a liar and he’s a killer. How can Bruce let him sleep in the same bed as him after all of the things Edward has done? What is he even doing here? He should be at St. Jude’s and enjoying his last month until turning eighteen and getting thrown on the street, just like every other boy who has stayed under the same concrete roof. Or even better, he should be in jail for killing a man (just like most of the boys from St. Jude’s, too). No, actually he should be dead at the bottom of the Gotham River. That’s what he deserves.

“Ed, come on, where are you going?” Bruce calls after him when Edward stands up and leaves the patio. He tries to grab Edward’s wrist, but this time it’s Edward’s turn to flinch away.

“Don’t touch me,” he snaps much more aggressively than intended. What he doesn’t say is: I don’t want you to get blood all over your hands, too. Bruce pulls his hand away and looks at him, confused and hurt, and Edward feels like the worst person in the world. “Sorry,” he says again and hurries onto the other side of the house before Bruce gets to say anything.

He feels like he might cry or throw up. Instead, he takes the bike he’s claimed as his own – a really nice one with twelve gears and a carbon fiber frame, nothing like the rattling and broken ones he steals off of streets to get to work during most summers – and drives away. The road to the town is mostly empty of cars, which is good since Edward is way too distraught to pay attention to his surroundings. The sun is too bright. He feels horrible. He doesn’t know what to do. He should probably go and drown himself in the lake to fulfill whatever prophecy he managed to evade by listening to Bruce and blowing up the maze floor. Maybe then the horrible curse that has been cast over everyone would lift and they could be finally at peace.

Instead, he rides the bike to the town and stops at a corner store to buy a pack of cigarettes, because he has learned that the girl working behind the counter likes him and always only smiles at him stupidly instead of asking for his ID. Then he cycles around the town mindlessly until finally finds a desolate parking lot in front of a motel-bar-complex (a much less pretty place than the hotel complex built right by the lake, along with a spa, bowling alley, tennis court, and a golf course) and sits down on a bench with his cigarettes and his new lighter (the same plastic kind as the one he had before the beautiful silver one Mr. Myers gave him). The urge to burn a hole into his wrist has come back, like a blow of cold air from last winter, but it’s too hot to wear long sleeves, and so he just lets the cold air blow. Instead, he smokes until he calms down and then he smokes some more until he’s sick and the bartender comes outside to yell at him about how she is going to call his parents if he doesn’t stop loitering around.

Good luck with that, Edward wants to say, but instead takes his bike and leaves willingly.

By the time he comes back to the lake house, all of the bad feelings have faded into a dull ache that scrapes on the bottom of his stomach along with hunger and nausea. He’s sweaty and dusty, and above all, ashamed as he drags his feet to the living room, where he finds Bruce watching TV alone. The boy bends his neck over the edge of the conversation pit and gives Edward an unimpressed look that barely conceals the worry beneath it.

“Where did you go?” he asks when Edward just stands on the edge of the pit with his hands in the pockets of his baggy shorts. Edward only shrugs. The back of his t-shirt is cold and damp against his skin, and he kind of wants to cry for no reason at all. Bruce only looks at him. (Do his eyes look more blue than they did in Gotham, or is Edward only imagining things?) There’s an accusing edge to his words when he says: “You smell like smoke.”

“Sorry,” Edward mutters, looking at his feet. Bruce only sighs, the look on his face softening, and lifts his hand to smooth it down Edward’s dusty calf. Once again, Edward is forgiven, even though he doesn’t deserve it.

“You got to stop saying that,” Bruce says before climbing out of the pit. “Alfred went golfing with some people. Do you wanna go get food?”

Edward only nods, a certain sense of relief pushing the guilt aside when Bruce wraps his arm around his shoulders and they walk into the garage to take the car and go buy themselves hamburgers. The bad feelings retreat back into the pit of his stomach, and for a while, it’s a normal summer again.

**

On some days Bruce wakes up and the world feels like a dream, and not in the romantic sense of the word. On good mornings, when he wakes up and sees Edward’s sleeping face, he knows that he’s not in a nightmare anymore. This is real. On bad mornings, however, he wakes up and feels like he’s looking at a stranger, not sure if he’s awake or dreaming.

Time moves weirdly on those days. It skips and jumps, like a broken CD. He wakes up in a bed he recognizes only faintly, his body feeling like someone else’s. He blinks and when he opens his eyes again, he’s eating breakfast that tastes like ash. People are sitting at the table with him, and Bruce knows that they’re Edward and Alfred, even though he doesn’t really recognize them. He’s not in his body. The face he sees in the mirror isn’t his but someone else’s. Someone older.

It’s a scary feeling. On those days, he mostly just stays in bed. The broken disk that is his mind skips again, and he is deep in the past, where nothing bad has happened yet. The light coming in through the guest room curtains is warm and hazy, but he’s not sure why he is in that room to begin with. His limbs feel strangely long and heavy as he walks past the closed door of his parent’s room and into the small bedroom he used to call his. He feels too big for the bed as he lies down, the covers leaving his feet exposed and cold. Still, he curls up and closes his eyes and for a while, he thinks he can hear his parents talking downstairs.

When he wakes up, his sweaty hair stuck to his forehead and a pool of drool on the limp pillow beneath him, time has gone back onto its right rails, and he’s eighteen again, sleeping in a bed he no longer fits in.

Edward is sitting on the porch with a puzzle book, late afternoon sun coming from behind him and forming a halo around his head when he turns to look over his shoulder and at Bruce, who has stepped onto the porch without socks.

“Hi,” he says softly like Bruce has been gone for a while. “How are you feeling?”

“Good,” Bruce says and sits down next to him before correcting himself: “Better.”

Edward hums as an answer. His hand has found the back of Bruce’s neck and his fingers are gently detangling the knots in his unbrushed hair. Neither of them says anything, there is no need for that. Birds are chirping on the trees around them, and the smell of food is floating out of the kitchen window. Bruce feels like he has died a bit and come back to life. For so many years he felt like he was somewhere between those two spaces, not dead but not really a part of the living either. Sometimes he still feels like he’s walking that line. Edward’s fingers brush against the back of his neck lightly, and Bruce feels himself stepping on the side of life again.

**

July comes in, hanging heavy over the town. Edward feels the end of his childhood approaching at an alarming speed as they get closer to his eighteenth birthday. It shouldn’t mean anything, at least not mentally, considering that he hasn’t felt like a child in a very long time, but this summer and all of the experiences that have come with it have made him realize how many childhood and youth experiences he’s missed and how he’s never getting that time back.

Maybe that feeling and the need to get the most out of the last days before stepping into adulthood are the reason why he doesn’t protest when on the Fourth of July Bruce asks him if he wants to go check out a party one of his old friends – or more like some boy Bruce used to play with as a child and who came to talk to the two of them when they were eating ice cream at the town square a week back – is hosting at his parents’ vacation home. Maybe it’s also because he needs something to distract himself from the feelings of guilt gnawing on his insides, or because the barbecue party they’re currently at with Alfred – whose acquaintance is hosting it – is boring him halfway to death. And so, they sneak out of the backyard that smells like grilled food and walk over to the other house without anyone noticing.

“Do I look stupid?” Edward asks, feeling more nervous than he wants to admit as they stand on the driveway, the music coming from the house audible in the darkening evening. Bruce looks at him like he doesn’t understand what Edward is saying. He, of course, looks rich and pretty even in his jeans that hang low on his hips and a black t-shirt that fits a little loose on him. For a moment Edward wants to get angry at him just for that.

“What? No, you look great,” Bruce says and lifts his hand to fix the collar of Edward’s t-shirt, even though Edward is pretty sure there is nothing to fix and Bruce only wants an excuse to brush his thumb against his jawline. “C’mon, let’s go.”

Edward has never been to a house party, mostly because none of the people he has hung out with for most of his life even lived in a house other than some institution, and so all of his experiences that could even be counted as parties have been just him and some boys from St. Jude’s smoking and drinking on the roof until someone throws up or one of the social workers shows up. That being said, the party he finds himself in now is quite underwhelming.

The house is big and there are a lot of people there, probably all of the children of the families staying by the lake and maybe some locals, too, most of them behaving pretty well even with all the alcohol. No one has been thrown through the living room window or anything that could happen in the movies Edward and Bruce have been watching lately. Edward feels out of place as he tails Bruce to the kitchen and gets a cup of beer pushed into his hand without needing to ask. At least the cup is red. That’s about as close to living in a coming-of-age movie as Edward thinks he’s ever going to get.

The host of the party is a guy named Theo, who shows up out of nowhere to greet Bruce, visibly buzzed and drags the two of them around to introduce them to people. It’s all horribly awkward to Edward, who needs two beers until he’s even able to talk to the people around him. Once he’s crossed that line, the party becomes much more bearable. He might not know the people there, but quite many of them recognize him as “Bruce Wayne’s friend who also got kidnapped by a cult”. It doesn’t even bother him as much as it usually would.

Bruce doesn’t really drink. After downing his welcome beer, he mostly just keeps his hands in his pockets and refuses any drinks offered to him. Edward takes them, instead. The party is starting to get almost fun, the mood getting higher as the hours pass. Edward feels good, like a normal teenage boy for the first time ever. On the back of his head, a voice keeps on telling him that this doesn’t change anything and he’ll be back to his old miserable self the next morning, accompanied by a hangover, but the music and alcohol drown it out.

At some point, Bruce pushes a glass of water into his hand, tells him to drink it, and sit down for a moment, before disappearing to go to the bathroom and leaving Edward on a beige leather couch in the living room, where people are playing a drinking game around a glass coffee table. Edward doesn’t partake but watches from the sidelines, only mildly interested. He’s starting to sober up ever so slightly, which feels just fine until someone sits down next to him and starts a conversation with him. It’s the girl working at the corner store, her smile obnoxiously wide as she looks at Edward with her bare knee pressed against his.

“Didn’t think I’d see you here,” she says, followed by a hoarse laugh. She has a hazy look in her eyes and color high on her cheeks. Edward only stares at her, but she doesn’t seem to mind, because she only keeps on talking, constantly pulling her denim miniskirt lower and her red and white striped tube top higher. “You’re from Gotham, right? I haven’t seen you here before, I mean, during previous summers. The same people always come here, it’s so boring” – she looks around at the partygoers and smacks her lips – “but that’s why it’s so nice to see new people. What’s your name?”

Edward answers, while simultaneously trying to search for Bruce in the crowd. He doesn’t find him or anyone who could give him a drink. The girl keeps on gabbing, most of it going right past Edward’s ears. Gotham must be so exciting, I would love to go there. Nothing ever happens here outside of summer. I mean, I almost wish that they found some underground cult here so that there would be at least something to talk about…

Edward’s eyes finally land on Bruce, who is standing in the doorway to the kitchen and talking to a group of people with his back half turned towards the living room. He doesn’t see Edward, who hopes that he could send mental signals to him so that he could get out of this stupid f*cking conversation. The girl is just leaning closer to him, her hoop earrings glimmering in the dim lights of the room, and asking him if he came to the party with someone, when her attention is grabbed by someone calling out “Holly!” from the kitchen. Edward sees this as his opportunity and leaves the couch, taking the quickest exit out of the living room through the open glass doors that lead to the patio.

The evening air is slightly chilly but also sobering, and he has to stand still for a moment to take it in. People are smoking on the patio, and Edward thinks about joining them when a different smell floats from the back of the backyard, where a gazebo stands near the treeline. Without thinking much, Edward walks through the burnt grass that looks light blue in the dark, and steps into the gazebo, where a bunch of people are sitting around a mosquito-repellent lamp, the slightly bitter smell of weed hanging in the air.

“Ed, my guy!” one of the people says and stands up to pull him into a sweaty hug. It’s Theo, who is even more gone at this point. He pulls Edward to sit down with him, the people shimmying closer to each other to give them room. “Do you smoke? We got some good stuff here.”

“It’s not for everyone,” says a girl from the other side of the circle, her glasses reflecting the blue light of the lamp. “Sarah already almost got a panic attack.”

“Bullsh*t. She’s such a lightweight, anyway,” Theo says, talking fast, and reaches out to snatch one of the half-burnt joints that are making their way through the circle from someone else’s hand before handing it over to Edward. “Bruce doesn’t even drink, what a f*cking guy, but you seem like more of a party boy.”

Instead of correcting him, Edward only nods and takes a hit. It makes him cough a bit but not enough for it to be embarrassing. He hands the joint to the next person, the second one making its way to him before he’s even gotten used to the harsh feeling of smoke in his lungs. He’s reminded of last summer and the warmth of St. Jude’s concrete roof underneath his back after he and Leon had smoked a pathetically small joint after a work shift and spent an hour just lying there and listening to the sounds of the city. He’s not sure what that stuff was or where Leon had gotten it, but it had made him feel good and relaxed. This stuff, on the other hand, has quite the opposite effect on him. He realizes it after taking his fourth hit when his heart suddenly starts beating so fast he’s sure that he’s going to suffer a heart attack any second.

“What is this stuff?” he asks, his voice barely audible through the sound of blood pumping in his ears. The world around him blurs for a moment before sharpening again, the blue glow of the lamp making everyone’s faces look sickly and weird. Theo only laughs, like any of this is funny, while the girl with the glasses gives him a wordless look that says: I tried to warn you. Edward tries to breathe in through his nose to calm down, but that’s when a high-pitched whistling sound, followed by the pop and boom of an explosion tears through the night.

Edward instinctively shields his head with his arms, expecting fire and a pressure wave to throw them all out of the gazebo, but neither of those things comes. Around him, people cheer and laugh, and when he looks up, he sees the colorful sparkles of fireworks lighting up the sky. The realization makes him feel only marginally better. His heart is still going crazy. He can feel his pulse everywhere – on his neck, cheeks, and wrist – and the smell that has settled over the gazebo’s roof does nothing to calm him down. His entire body is shaking when he stands up and stumbles out onto the lawn, Theo’s disappointed voice calling after him.

Going back into the house sounds like a nightmare, and so Edward goes around it and pushes through a white cedar fence to get out onto the driveway. The music coming from inside is off-beat with his heartbeat, which makes him feel like he’s suffering from dysrhythmia. He needs to get out of here. The whistling of fireworks comes from somewhere nearby again, the little stars exploding all across the sky and then falling down making Edward think of the pieces of marble that rained over him as he lied on top of Bruce on the blood-stained floor. He presses his palms against his ears, his heartbeat getting louder, and keeps on walking down the driveway and toward the street.

He doesn’t remember which direction he and Bruce came from or where he even really is, but the panic that is swelling in his chest like a balloon ready to burst keeps him moving. He chooses the direction he thinks is towards the lake house and starts wandering down the dark street. Trees are swinging in the wind, the orange street lights look like they’re pulsing, and Edward can hear sounds of celebration coming from houses as he passes them. He doesn’t know where he is. His vision is blurry and he can’t read the street signs, even though he doesn’t think that they would help him to locate himself any better. The streets are empty and dark, and he’s starting to consider the possibility that he’s never going to find his way back. That’s also when he remembers Bruce. Where is he? Did Edward leave him to the party? Oh f*ck, he did. He has to go back, otherwise, he’s going to wander around here for the rest of the night.

He’s about to turn around, when another whistle, followed by a boom! sounds from somewhere behind him and send a flock of birds flying from a tree they were sleeping in, the sound of their wings flapping making Edward slip into a state of panic that he hasn’t experienced since the maze. The thought of going back to the party vanishes from his mind and all that is left is the primal urge to run and hide. He follows that urge and runs, his heart slamming against his ribs like it’s trying to escape from his chest, and the world blurring around him until it’s nothing but shades of black, blue, and glimpses of orange all mixing together.

When Edward comes back to his senses again, he’s sitting somewhere with his arms wrapped around his knees and his head pressed against them. Looking up, he can see a slanted metal slab leaning over him, with dried-up chewing gum, candy wrappers, and scraped or written tags covering it. It takes him a moment to understand that he’s sitting underneath a slide at an empty playground. He doesn’t know how he ended up there or where he actually is. His chest aches dully, the weed-induced panic having turned into a normal and a little less aggressive one, and the paranoia that made him almost lose his mind earlier has toned down to the average levels that he feels every day when walking outside. He doesn’t feel like he’s going to die anymore, but he can’t move, either.

He sits there and listens, hard gravel trying to poke through his shorts. He’s sobered up by now, the remains of alcohol leaving him shivering and cold. The fireworks have stopped and the parties have ended. Everyone has gone home. It’s just him, alone, with nowhere to go.

He is turning eighteen in two weeks, but for a moment he is eight years old again, sitting on a bench outside the orphanage, while the other children play in the yard, and waiting for someone to come and take him away. He spent an entire summer and fall sitting there until it got too cold and he realized that he had been waiting for nothing. He had told himself that he had given up the hope, but it had still lived inside of him for years in the form of pathetic glimpses of joy every time a nice-looking couple came to the orphanage, only for them to choose someone younger and leave Edward sleeping in the cold bottom bunk instead of taking him to a warm house where he would’ve had his own room and bed and toys and mom and dad who could’ve tucked him in.

From some hollow part deep in his chest, a small sob escapes and makes its way out of his mouth. What is he doing here? Why is he alone in the dark again? Why is no one looking for him?

The tears come without him wanting them to, but he doesn’t wipe them away, either. He’s never had anyone to wipe away his tears, and for most of his life he’s felt some kind of pride for never needing anyone to do that and for always being able to take care of himself, but now, during his last days before adulthood, he wishes for nothing but for someone to take care of him for this once. Why does he have to be alone? Which pieces in him are wrong and always make people leave him, his mother the first to do so?

Somewhere through his erratic sobbing, he hears the gravel crunching underneath someone’s footsteps. He stops crying and puts his hand over his mouth, a muscle memory from the recesses at primary school. Who else could be here at this time of night? What do they want? The footsteps are slow and careful, coming from in front of him where the slide covers his vision. The panic from earlier is starting to come back, a sour taste rising into Edward’s mouth. He should’ve gotten out of here when he still had the chance.

Finally, a pair of beat-up but expensive sneakers appear and stop next to him. Edward doesn’t breathe. The slide hides the person from the waist up, but Edward recognizes the cautious voice that speaks after a second of silence.

“Ed?”

It’s Bruce, of course it is. Relief floods Edward, and he breathes out a sigh that sounds more like a sob. Bruce crouches down, and now Edward can see the mix of confusion and worry on his face.

“What on earth are you doing here?” Bruce asks, not sounding angry, only relieved. “I looked for you at the party but Theo said that you just ran away, and when I called Alfred, he said that you weren’t back at the house, so I came looking for you and– Are you crying?”

“No,” Edward says, but his strangled voice gives him away. “Yes.”

Bruce doesn’t say anything. Instead, he crawls underneath the slide with Edward, the cramped space way too small for the both of them. His hand is warm when it touches Edward’s cheek and wipes away the tears. Edward’s chest aches again, but this time out of something else than fear.

“What happened?” Bruce asks him, and Edward can’t look at him, because otherwise he might tell him everything – not the thing about smoking weed and getting scared, but every secret he’s been keeping from Bruce until now.

“Nothing, it’s stupid,” Edward says, wiping his nose on his wrist. Bruce’s hands are still on his face, brushing sweaty hair out of Edward’s eyes.

“No, please, tell me,” he says, and Edward breaks again. Bruce is here, he came looking for him, just like he did at the cemetery in Gotham before everything went to sh*t. Edward doesn’t deserve him, he never has.

“I don’t understand,” he chokes out, the tears dripping down his chin. “I don’t understand why I’m here, I don’t– I don’t understand why you’re keeping me around. I’m not… I’m not a good person, Bruce. You don’t even… you don’t even know what I’ve done, and I can’t let you think that I’m a good person, I can’t…”

He looks at Bruce, but can’t see anything but a collection of blurry shapes and colors through his tears.

“I f*cking dragged you down there, oh God. It’s my fault and I know it and I know I should’ve died down there, but now I have this blood in my hands and it will never wash off and everything is ruined and I just… I don’t understand why you still want me here when all I do is f*ck things up and hurt you and… and…”

Maybe most people understood all of this earlier and managed to leave in time. Bruce wasn’t as quick and for that he suffered the fall that everyone else probably saw in Edward and which made them realize to stay away. Edward wipes his nose again, trying to pull himself together.

“What I’m trying to say is… You should go. I mean, I should go and disappear and let you live without needing to be reminded of all this sh*t.”

For a moment, Bruce says nothing nor lets go of Edward. The playground is quiet, only the wind in the trees making any sound. The air smells of incoming rain. Edward feels like someone has taken out all of his insides and carved everything out, leaving nothing but the shell of a boy. He can see Bruce’s face better now, still a little blurry in the dark, like a watercolor painting. He waits for him to stand up and leave. Instead, Bruce moves his hand underneath Edward’s chin and wipes the tears away.

“Please don’t say that,” he says. He’s not looking into Edward’s eyes, but once he does, it looks like he might start crying, too. “Why would you ask me to leave? And why would you say that you’d be better off dead? Do you think… Do you think that it would make me feel better?

He pulls his other hand away to wipe his eyes, both of their tears smeared over his cheekbones. His voice is strained when he talks.

“I don’t care about what you’ve done. You… you don’t have to tell me, but if you do, it won’t change anything, because– because there are, like, two people still on this earth who I care about, and you’re one of them, and I don’t know what I would even be doing here if you were gone.” He wipes his eyes again, a bit more aggressively this time. “No one understands it, I mean, there’s no one else who has gone through it, and if you weren’t here, I… I would be alone. Like, if you hadn’t washed ashore with me, I just… I wouldn’t have woken up, I know it. I would’ve just slipped into somewhere dark where there is no time and waited for you.”

Edward wants to say something, not even sure what, but Bruce keeps on talking.

“And I’m not stupid, Edward. I knew what I was getting into right from the beginning when we snuck into that abandoned house and I could’ve turned away there, but I didn’t, so it’s not your fault that we both ended up down there. ” He sounds almost angry, not at Edward, but about the things he’s assumed of him. The tears have become a continuous stream, and he keeps on trying to wipe them away until eventually realizes that it’s no use. This is the first time Edward has seen him really cry without blood on his face. He’s pretty even now with his bottom lashes stuck together and the dim lights of the playground illuminating half of his wet face. Edward feels like he’s shot an angel.

“But I don’t get it,” Edward says, his voice hoarse and raw. “You do all these sweet things for me and give me things and let me sleep in your bed, even though there is nothing I can give back to you. So why do you even do them?”

Bruce only looks at him, his eyes wide and wet in the dark and his hair falling onto his face. He wipes his face dry again.

“Why do I do those things?” he asks as if he can’t believe that Edward is asking him this. His voice breaks when he speaks. “Because… Because I love you, Edward, that’s why.”

Something sparks into life in Edward’s hollow chest, something that has been waiting in there, so small and malnourished that he had never noticed it, but now he can feel it in him so strongly that his ribs ache. No one has ever told him that they love him, not even once. He had thought that those three words were just that: words - and that neither the presence nor the lack of them in his life would matter, but now that Bruce says them out loud to him while they’re sitting on the cold gravel at an empty playground, Edward realizes how long he’s been waiting for someone to say them and to prove something wrong.

He’s not cold or scared anymore. There’s a light in his chest, the same kind as the one he would feel shining dimly through his choirboy’s cassock as a child when he sang hymns during the Sunday service.

Bruce is still talking, his eyes down on his hands that are resting on his thighs. He is picking on his cuticles again.

“I… I said that because I want you to know, but if you… You don’t have to say it back if you don’t want to,” he says quietly, visibly nervous. Edward reaches to take his hands and pulls them apart, making Bruce look at him before kissing him. Both of their lips are wet with tears and probably snot and it would all be pretty disgusting to Edward if any of that mattered to him right now, but it doesn’t. Nothing else matters but Bruce, whose cheeks are warm and wet when Edward holds them in his hands. The breath of air that Edward takes when they part feels like the first he’s ever taken.

It’s dark, but Edward could still count all of Bruce’s eyelashes from this close. The space between their lips could hold the entire world.

“I love you,” Edward says and he means it more than any prayer he’s ever said. Bruce blinks at him before letting out a breathless laugh full of relief and wrapping his arms around Edward, both of them clinging onto each other, the gravel sinking into their knees painfully. Edward barely even feels it.

It has begun to rain, the droplets beating against the slide and making the same sound as against a tin roof. The slide isn’t a good shelter, and Edward can feel the rain starting to soak through the legs of his shorts, but he doesn’t move. If he could choose, they would stay like this forever, tangled together below the disgusting underside of a playground slide in July rain, where he would never need to grow up.

*

Edward wakes up with a medium hangover and slightly damp hair, Bruce’s arm wrapped around him, like he’s scared that Edward is going to run away. The morning sun coming in through the curtains is pale, and the room smells of their wet clothes that are scattered across the floor from last night. Edward blinks slowly, the memory of last night mixing with a dream that still lingers in his mind.

In it, he was back at St. Aquinas’, sitting in the chapel and looking at the empty spot where the altarpiece used to be. Next to him, Mr. Myers sat with his arms crossed and his ankle resting on his knee, a calm but thoughtful look on his face.

Did you know about them? The Owls? Edward asked him, his breath visible in the air, even though he couldn’t feel the cold. A small smile appeared on Mr. Myers’ face.

I was merely curious about them in the same way some people are curious about whether or not God exists. I wasn't trying to find them, I had no interest in that, but I guess they took it personally, he said, like it was all something that had happened such a long time ago that there was no use in holding grudges anymore. It was a horrible way to die, truly, but for my whole life I’ve wanted to know the truth of things and in that last moment I got just that. It brings me some comfort.

*

The lake is like an open mouth with rocks like gray teeth around it, waiting for Edward to step in. The afternoon sun is shining through the trees, but Edward still shivers in his new swimming shorts, arms wrapped around himself, and doesn’t step into the water. It’s just him and Bruce at the bay, as usual, the other boy already knee-deep in the lake.

“Are you coming or not?” Bruce calls from the water with hands on his hips.

“Yeah, just… give me a second,” Edward yells back. He thinks that he’s going to need more time than that.

“I’m gonna count to ten,” Bruce tells him and grins when Edward exclaims in protest. “One…”

He makes it to seven before Edward finally steps into the water. It’s not as warm as he had assumed from Bruce’s description, and he feels a little betrayed. A violent shiver runs up his spine, and he stops right there with the water barely reaching up to his ankles. Bruce wades closer to him and gives him his hand. Edward takes it. There is no backing up now.

The water gets gradually deeper, and Edward stops after every three steps to get used to it. It’s not that bad, not really, at least not until he’s deep enough for it to reach up to his navel.

“f*ck, it’s cold,” he hisses, gripping Bruce’s hand so hard his knuckles turn white. The water isn’t actually even that cold, but it’s not comfortable, either. With every step he takes, Edward is also more convinced that he’s going to slip on a rock and drown or be washed away by the current, even though the water is completely still by the bay and all of the rocks are small and smooth underneath his feet.

“Do you wanna go deeper?” Bruce asks him. Edward nods, even though he doesn’t necessarily want to. None of this is about him wanting to do this as much as it is about him needing to do it. He’s turning eighteen in a week and isn’t planning on being an adult who is afraid of bodies of water. Bruce gives him his other hand, and they keep on going deeper, one step at a time.

“This would be a good spot for swimming,” Bruce says when the water is reaching up to their armpits. Edward barely hears him from the blood pumping in his ears.

“What? No, I don’t… I don’t actually know how to swim,” he admits, trying to act less panicked than what he actually is. f*ck, this is so embarrassing.

“That’s okay,” Bruce says softly, and when Edward looks up from the water and to his face, he finds him smiling with one eye closed to keep the sun from blinding him. He’s holding Edward by his elbows and when he takes a step deeper, Edward feels his feet leaving the rocky bottom of the lake.

“I’m gonna die,” Edward blurts out and grips Bruce’s biceps so hard that his fingerprints are probably going to be visible on his skin for the next week.

“You’re not gonna die. See? I’ve got you,” Bruce laughs. Edward looks down into the water between them and sees their bodies, pale and distorted and striped with sunlight, floating a few inches off of the bottom. He takes a deep breath and eases his hold of Bruce ever so slightly. The water doesn’t feel so cold anymore.

Bruce lets go of his elbows and slides his hands down Edward’s forearms until they’re holding hands instead of clinging to each other. The water doesn’t feel like it’s trying to pull Edward under anymore. He feels weightless. A nervous laugh escapes from his mouth, his chest light with relief. Bruce is smiling at him with water droplets shining on his shoulders, his hands warm against Edward’s even underwater. Neither of them sinks. They just float.

Notes:

thank you all so much for reading and leaving kudos and comments!! to be honest, when i started writing this, it was all for me, and i didn't think that this many people would actually tune in, so thank you! (also, how did this become +100k words??)
you can find me on twitter and tumblr

a lullaby for suffering - BL00DINTHECUT (2024)
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