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What Hurts Most

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Alfred never left Bruce alone. The man's innate, precise ability to appear only when needed had vanished entirely.

Standing ramrod straight in his severe butler's outfit, gray mustache trimmed into sharp, symmetrical perfection, Alfred inquired about such things as Bruce's food intake and how much sleep he'd gotten. He ignored Bruce's incredulous looks, his lifted brow and terse replies.

Alfred sounded, in fact, much the same as he had when addressing Dick as a boy. It was almost intolerable, but Bruce kept the peace. He knew why Alfred worried.

There was no need.

Bruce stood at the window, looking out over the city and the sly, winking lights of nighttime Gotham. He'd been Bruce Wayne for three solid days, no breaks to let the Batman out. His skin felt tight; his fingers itched for the utility belt. He closed his eyes. He could feel the buffeting changes in air pressure against his body, swooping through the city.

Gotham remained quiet, uncharacteristically so, as if the city had taken a deep breath after the chaos brought about by the Black Mask, Jason and--

Bruce's hand tensed, iron circle around his cup.

It's a hell of my own making--

My fault.

"Is there anything I can do for you, sir?"

The cup shattered. The Joker whooped insane laughter in his head.

Bruce stared at it, at the spilled liquid on the floor. Watched it spread, mix with droplets of his blood.

The Joker kept on laughing.