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it's a quarter past midnight

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It’s well past what Alfred might politely consider late when Bruce hears the unmistakable sound of a rock being thrown against his bedroom window.

He lays there in the darkness for a moment, staring at the ceiling, until he hears it again, confirming he hadn’t just been imagining things. A glance at his alarm clock declares the time as 12:02 AM in bright, glaringly red numbers.

Not that Bruce had really been asleep, anyways. He never usually got much of it these days.

The sharp tck of a third rock against the glass is what finally rouses Bruce to investigate, even as he harbors a sneaking suspicion as to the cause.

Opening his window, Bruce feels his heart jump at the sight of none other than Harvey Dent shrouded in darkness down below, rugged and a little rough as always, and his arm cocked back in preparation for another throw. His look of intense concentration breaks into a wide smile when he sees Bruce, one that Bruce finds himself nervously echoing.

“Harvey?”

“Hey, Wayne,” Harvey calls up, still grinning.

Bruce looks back towards his bedroom door in a sudden burst of anxiety of being found out, but it remained securely closed, and the hallway beyond safely dark. The excitement of it all, however, keeps his heart beat rapidly.

Harvey—“ Bruce says, turning back, before cutting himself off abruptly with another nervous expression, fidgeting where he stood at the windowsill, and continuing with a lowered voice. “Harvey, what are you doing here? Is something wrong?”

It wouldn’t be the first time, not that Bruce necessarily minded.

They’ve been friends for a little over a year now, since Bruce had made his dubious return to the public sphere at sixteen and Harvey had made what most others at Gotham Academy might have derisively considered the wrong choice to interact with the weird, quiet kid who kept to himself.

These late night visits, subsequently, were nothing new. Harvey made a habit of it, through no fault of his own. Bruce knew about his father, how his fists were quick and his temper quicker. Bruce had made the promise that Harvey was always welcome to stay at the manor, no matter what. They were friends— a notion that felt novel enough that it still made Bruce giddy at the thought.

“Can I come up?” Harvey asks in lieu of an actual response, still smiling. There, in the dark of the manor grounds, three stories below, Bruce can’t make out much more than Harvey’s general shape and expression; if something is wrong, it’s not immediately apparent. Bruce casts one more nervous glance behind him, then quickly beckons Harvey up before they could further risk Alfred hearing either of them.

Alfred had been surprisingly open to the burgeoning friendship, at first, though it could be because Bruce quite literally had zero friends beforehand, years of self-imposed isolation seemingly breaking down all at once, lifting whatever burden that imposed off Alfred’s shoulders at last. Sleepovers, hanging out, just being together-- it was a novel, intoxicating feeling to have an actual friend, and Bruce even dared to think he was beginning to feel the first real sparks of happiness in he didn’t know how long.

Which, of course, meant it wasn’t meant to last for long. The more Alfred found out about Harvey, the more it became obvious that Harvey was beginning to have other effects on Bruce, the more… hesitant he became.

Harvey was lower class, his admission to Gotham Academy precariously resting on a full-ride scholarship from grades gained by sheer hard-won determination— precarious because Harvey unfortunately also had a knack for getting into fights, pure inner-city Gotham grit and the inability to let perceived injustices stand making for a hot-tempered kid who refused to just let things happen.

Harvey fights, and Harvey teaches Bruce how to fight. How to defend and stand up for himself, how to defend others who couldn’t defend themselves. It’s nothing too serious, really, not much more than basic dirty street fighting, how to take a punch and give it back, but it’s far more than any other rich and privileged kid at Gotham Academy knows. It’s a fascinating allure for someone like Bruce, a chubby-cheeked socially awkward seventeen year-old who would still have rather preferred to have his nose stuck in a detective novel-- but the notion of protecting others is something that burrows under his skin, even if he doesn’t know quite what to do with it yet, inspiring a restlessness inside him that goes past the usual aimless purpose he’s had every single day he’s survived since That Night.

It’s a restlessness that’s landed him in the principal’s office on one or two occasions, having sprung in defence of Harvey against upperclassmen who’d seen fit to take issue with his lack of privileged social status, jeering insults calling him poor and Narrows trash until Bruce saw fit to stop it.

It had resulted in Bruce’s first black eye, something he’d decided to wear with defiance when Alfred had come to pick him up later.

The sleepovers were fine. The surprise late night visits, especially after all that, were very much not.

Bruce figured that’s partially why Alfred had let him move back into his old bedroom on the third floor shortly after starting high school, a possible intended deterrent against these clandestine rendezvous and an attempt to keep Harvey from becoming too much of a bad influence.

Not that it matters any; Harvey scrambles up the side of the manor with all the expertise of a kid who had grown up in the heart of the concrete jungle that was Gotham, as at ease trapezing among any of the rusting and rickety black fire escapes as he was currently climbing up the thick mats of summer ivy which covered the old brick walls.

His breathing is heavy with exertion by the time he hauls himself to the window, though his grin hadn’t waned any, still bright and more than enough to make Bruce’s heart go a little funny in his chest as he steps back to give Harvey room. Illuminated in the soft warm glow of the lamp on Bruce’s nightstand lamp, he can see a bruise blooming fresh just under his jaw; Harvey doesn’t acknowledge it, however, so neither does Bruce.

Harvey brushes himself off as Bruce stands to the side, arms awkwardly at his sides and fists clenching nervously as he watches and tries to think of something to say; talking still didn’t come easily to Bruce, even after all this time. Harvey, thankfully, is patient.

“Is… everything okay?” Bruce asks haltingly, his concern finally prompting the words forward. “Not that-- anything has to be wrong for you to be here, just. Um. Just in case I can do anything?”

“Nah,” Harvey says casually, waving him off. “The old man came home early from the bars, so I split before he could start playing his games. Walked around until I ended up here.”

The Gothamite accent that he tends to suppress at school flows naturally in private, something that Bruce covets, an unspoken show of trust between them. He wishes, sometimes, that Harvey wouldn’t hide it, and even told him as much, but Harvey had high aspirations, and nobody will respect you with a voice like mine. So, Bruce let it drop, and considered himself lucky enough that Harvey lets it slip around him.

Bruce’s only reaction is a minor, incredulous grimace. Sure, he was always distantly aware Harvey must have walked, because how else was he supposed to get here, but Gotham always seemed so much bigger from the backseat of the black Cadillac Alfred drove him around town in, the intricacies of back alley shortcuts and underground subways lost on him through the tinted windows.

“You need to spend the night?” Bruce asks, for lack of anything else to say. “I-- I won’t let Alfred know, if you want--”

“Actually, you wanna get out of here?” Harvey asks suddenly. Bruce just gapes, unsure of what he means or how he’s supposed to respond. He wrings his hands nervously.

“‘Get out of here’?”

“Yeah, I just-- I couldn’t sleep, and you were awake anyways, so I thought…” Now it’s Harvey’s turn to be nervous, looking away momentarily to rub at the back of his neck. “Some fresh air, y’know? We always got our folks breathing down our necks. Haven’t you ever wanted to go out without that butler of yours?”

Bruce opens his mouth to speak before reconsidering. The thing is, he’s never-- thought of it, exactly. Alfred has been such an ever-present constant over the years, both willing and unwilling on Bruce’s end, that it simply stopped occurring to him that he could do something without him. Sneaking out in the middle of the night was, therefore, tantamount to unthinkable.

Going out into Gotham, to dark and damp alleyways, distant police sirens, and faceless men with guns who would shoot you dead for nothing more than a string of pearls? Next to impossible.

But-- it wasn’t as though he’d still be alone. As much as it felt like sometimes, Bruce wasn’t the scared little ten year old boy on his knees anymore, crying out for help that wouldn’t come. He had Harvey, now.

It couldn’t be all bad.

“I-- don’t know,” is what Bruce says instead, casting yet another nervous look behind him at his bedroom door. The thought of breaking away from Alfred for the night is exhilarating, but it wrestles with the lingering fear leftover from all those years ago, and he can already feel the sting of disappointment if caught, and the subsequent frustration that came with having to slowly build up his trust all over again.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Harvey says, and he must pick up on Bruce’s hesitation, that fear Bruce still has of going out into the night, because he steps closer to lay a comforting hand on his shoulder, voice kind and understanding. “I’ll be with you, yeah? Keep you safe, promise.”

Harvey is earnest and warm in that moment, more open and honest than Bruce has ever seen in anyone. He decides, there and then, that he wants to know what it’s like to live for once, abruptly tired of the stuffy manor and the haunting memories that hung around every corner like malignant ghosts, of Alfred always no more than a beck and call away, being unwillingly groomed to one day take over his father’s company.

“I’ll come,” Bruce answers, and the conviction in his words surprises him and Harvey both. The thrill of it all catches up to him and he’s breathless in a second, beginning to bounce on his feet in anticipation. “I’ll-- I’ll come with. Let’s go--”

“Not in your pajamas, I hope?” Harvey cuts in, smirking.

Bruce looks down at himself in startlement, forgetting that, yeah, he was still in his pajamas, the patterned long sleeves and fleece pants a stark difference to Harvey and his dark tee and well-worn jeans.

“Yeah, um,” Bruce hums, face going red as he shuffles off towards his closet. “I’ll go… change.”

---

A change of clothes is quick, though into nothing near as effortless and casual as what Harvey is wearing. Bruce, regrettably, doesn’t quite know casual yet, most of what he wears still picked out with Alfred at his side. Slacks, because no denim to speak of, and a black sweater with the sleeves pulled down as far as they’ll go. Even his shoes seem too nice for what Bruce is preparing to embark on: pristine, seldom-worn athletic shoes that are laughably neat compared to Harvey’s dirty sneakers.

Nonetheless, as Bruce comes out of his closet, reflexively tugging at his sleeves, Harvey is there waiting for him, leaning against the windowsill, and when he smiles at Bruce it’s genuine, not at all pitying or indulging or strained, as Alfred and so many others are when they see him trying his best but not quite managing it. Bruce feels himself smiling back, less and less tentative each time.

The alarm clock blinks 12:15 AM as he follows Harvey out the window.

---

Climbing down the side of the manor, however, is easier said than done.

While sneaking past Alfred’s bedroom might have presented its own risks and challenges, this was a daunting task all on its own. Harvey is there, luckily, to encourage Bruce on through each fistful of tightly-grasped ivy.

Harvey is also there, rather unluckily, when Bruce inevitably loses his grip a little less than ten feet from the ground and lands right on top of him, knocking them both to the ground in a heap. Harvey only laughs, a warm and breathless little huff, as he helps Bruce back up, and Bruce, red-faced and panting, laughs too. They trek across the manor grounds together, shoulders brushing, and Bruce doesn’t look back once.

---

Wayne Manor sits just outside of Gotham City proper. By car, it’s barely more than a ten minute drive. On foot-- well, Bruce suspects somewhat longer. He sticks close to Harvey, who walks with a sort of self-determination known only to someone who’s made the journey dozens of times already. The city looms a formidable distance ahead, dimly glittering amongst the smog and seemingly ever-constant cloud cover.

They walk in companionable silence for most of the way, Bruce content to simply let Harvey lead on, up until they reach the suburbs of the outskirts of the city and he cuts towards what Bruce can only interpret as an ominously lit hole in the ground with a grimy staircase descending into depths unknown. He trails behind at the top of the stairs, regarding the path forward dubiously.

Harvey senses something amiss pretty quickly, looking behind when he gets a handful of steps down and realizes Bruce is no longer keeping pace. His expression denotes nothing but understanding concern, but Bruce can’t help but feel silly for his hesitation anyways.

“You ever been on the subway?” Harvey asks.

Bruce only shakes his head slightly, looking up at the mildly decrepit signage declaring it the Brown Line Entrance to Gotham. Alfred took him everywhere. Muddled, long ago memories of toddling after his mother as she shopped in the Fashion District might have inclined a different answer if he cared to examine them in depth, but his father personally saw no reason to use public transportation so long as they had a personal driver. There was that night, the night, Bruce thinks they might have taken it to the theater...

“Normally, I would walk,” Harvey continues, casual, thumbs loosely hooked into his pockets as he leans against the stair railing. “But, see-- I wanted to try taking you to this diner I like, but walking there would take like… an hour, maybe? There’s this lady waitress there who always gives me a free slice of pie and she’d be off by then if we took that long. ”

Bruce perks despite himself. “Free pie?”

Alfred tended to be stingy with his deserts, citing Bruce’s already somewhat husky disposition as the reason. Which, of course, Bruce thought was ridiculous.

What was one more rule to break?

Harvey smiles, pleased with himself. “Thought you’d like that. I know you’ve got money, but nothing tastes better than free pie, right?”

Bruce can only nod emphatically in agreement, and follows Harvey down the stairs.

---

The subway isn’t so terrible as Bruce fears. At that hour of the night there’s hardly anyone else to be found, and the two of them are afforded the luxury of an empty car. He’s still absorbed by the novelty of it all when Harvey leaps at one of the center poles and uses it to swing around, laughing high and bright before jumping to hang from the hand railings.

There’s a half-second where Bruce thinks to ask whether this is allowed, years of having to behave at galas and other public functions weighing heavily on his shoulders until Harvey looks at him, grinning and eyes glittering, and all that weight is gone in an instant. Bruce grins back, as tentative as it remains, and decides maybe rules as a concept altogether could be forgotten for the night.

Bruce jumps to hang from the railings alongside Harvey, and for the rest of that ten minute train ride into Gotham, it becomes their own personal little jungle gym.

---

The Narrows aren’t any less foreboding in the years since Bruce last stepped foot there. Park Row, now since popularly dubbed Crime Alley according to Harvey, who’s taken to aimlessly talking to fill the silence left by Bruce, sits adjacent. Not close, but enough. It’s a few blocks off, he knows.

He knows. The path is still a well-remembered one. Thomas giving Alfred the rare night off, Martha gently tsk-ing at the rundown appearance of their surroundings, both of them indulging their son and his incessant obsession with a movie nearly older than the two of them combined.

The cut through an alleyway. The gleam of a gun. A muffled shriek. His father’s watch--

“Bruce?”

Bruce blinks, back in the present. Harvey in staring at him, brows drawing together. Bruce realizes, then, that his hands are shoved deep into his pockets, his shoulders hunched near his ears. It takes effort to relax them.

“You okay?” Harvey’s pace slows, but they’re still walking. He’s concerned, obviously, but-- casual about it; the way he’s learned to be around Bruce.

The words won’t come, so Bruce just shrugs. Harvey would probably guess the source of his discomfort soon enough anyways.

“Yeah,” Harvey goes on to say, shrugging himself. He slows some more until they’re shoulder to shoulder, the warmth of his broad frame seeping through; whatever the intended effect is, it serves to calm Bruce regardless. “This part of Gotham is a right dump, I know, but I swear Al’s Diner has got the best cherry pie out of anyplace. You’ll lose your mind.”

---

Al’s Diner proves to do just that to Bruce all on its own by sheer virtue of the fact he’s fairly certain he’s never been anywhere like it.

It’s a vision out of those old-timey restaurants Bruce sometimes catches on TV, dilapidated like the rest of the surrounding area but somehow still stubbornly clinging to the remnants of its heyday. The air is thick with the smell of food, coffee and frying grease and sugar converging with enough force to make his mouth water in an instant. A run-down jukebox sits off to the side, mournfully warbling a song while a waitress who had been wiping down the counter looks up to see them walk in. She barks out a loud laugh, then calls out a greeting to Harvey in a Gotham accent so thick it’s nearly indecipherable to Bruce’s ears.

Whatever it is that she says, Harvey laughs back and greets her similarly, easily sliding onto a stool at the counter that Bruce can only assume is his usual spot; lacking much else to do, Bruce climbs onto the stool next to him, and watches as the interaction unfolds.

“Harv, hon, where ya been?” the waitress asks, all smiles and smelling faintly of cigarette smoke. She was older and somewhat portly, with kind eyes and greying hair, exuding a sort of motherly air about her that makes Bruce feel slightly more at ease. Her attentions then turn to Bruce, eyebrows raised. “Oh? And who’s your friend?”

Bruce feels himself blush, unused to not being known for once, and feels that blush deepen when Harvey proceeds to throw an arm around his shoulders and bring him in close. “This is Bruce, and I was just telling him all about your famous pie…”

---

The cherry pie, as it turns out, is delicious, and after finishing the two free slices Harvey had cajoled out of his favorite waitress, Bruce proceeded to order pancakes for the both of them with the money he had squirreled away in his pockets, which he devours with a fervor even he thought was impossible.

“Y’know, I thought the whole point of having a butler was that he’d do whatever you want,” Harvey says as they’re both scraping the syrup-soaked remnants of their two AM breakfast around their plates. “You never had him make pancakes?”

“It’s… complicated,” Bruce answers haltingly; it’s not something he ever really gave thought to, before. Alfred doing what he said more or less necessitated Bruce actually telling him what to do in the first place, and he had a hard enough time talking as it was. “He… does do what I say, but he’s my guardian, so I have to do what he says…” Bruce shakes his head, making a face. It was confusing enough to so suddenly have the family butler step up and parent him, and thinking about it any longer than he had to made him feel queasy. “Hey, can you show me how to use the jukebox?”

---

As it turns out, whatever camaraderie the waitstaff of Al’s Diner feel towards a one Harvey Dent and his new friend Bruce Wayne only extends as far as the first five times in a row What’s New Pussycat is played on the jukebox before they’re both run out of the restaurant laughing by an incensed chef waving around a dirty spatula.

---

It’s a spur of the moment decision to climb atop the billboard. Bruce mentions not having seen Gotham at night since that one fatal occasion and Harvey offers to show him, and-- well, he can’t refuse.

It’s not quite the same as some of the nights they spend up on the manor’s roof, just far enough away from the city that the smog clears just enough to let the stars through. The grime from the rusted wrought-iron ladder stains his pants and dirties his hands, and the billboard at their backs has been pasted over and torn away so many times over the years that the original message has long since been rendered indecipherable. This deep into Gotham, the sky almost glows, bereft of starlight but making up for it with the glittering of car headlights, the dull buzzing of street lamps, and the ever-changing patchwork of the lit windows of buildings.

It’s… nice, Bruce realizes.

Maybe Gotham isn’t that terrible beast of his dreams that it used to be.

“Do you think Gotham can change?” Bruce asks suddenly. He’s sat with his knees hugged to his chest, looking out over the city. Harvey is next to him, close by, letting his legs hang over the edge of the railing and swinging them freely.

“Hm?” Harvey says. “Change how?”

“Better,” Bruce starts, then thinks better of it. “Safer. Where nobody would have to worry about what-- happened to us, to happen to them.”

Harvey hums as he considers it. “Y’know, actually, I think so.”

Bruce’s eyes widen as he looks over. “Really?”

Harvey grins, cocksure in that way Bruce has always been envious of. “Of course. And if it’s us two doing the changing, I know so.”

Bruce can’t help but smile back because-- something about Harvey makes him believe it.

---

As mostly aimless as the rest of their late-night wanderings have been, exploring the side of Gotham Bruce had never before gotten to see, as the night stretches on, Harvey decides there’s one last thing he wants to show Bruce.

The air gradually thickens with the cloying scent of salt and sea air, yet it’s not until he and Harvey break through the treeline into a clearing that Bruce realizes where they are.

It’s a cliff overlooking the ocean, the water below crashing over the rocks in sleepy, rhythmic motions, inky black in the darkness. The breeze is cool, and while the still glows with the unnatural light of the city behind them, they’re just far enough out that the ever-constant droning noise of traffic blends in with the rest of it.

Bruce hangs back by a tree, puzzled by the purpose of the detour. Harvey merely sits in a patch of grass and reclines. After a moment, he looks behind him towards Bruce. “Well, you coming?”

Quietly, he sits next to Harvey.

“Whenever my pops would get too much, I’d come here,” Harvey explains. “It’s out of the way, y’know, and… it’s just nice. Soothing, I think. Almost sweet.”

Bruce nods. He can… see that. Romantic is almost the word he wants to use, even if it doesn’t seem quite… applicable. The description persists in his mind regardless.

“Plus, like,” Harvey continues, quiet. “When the moon’s out, it’s beautiful, the reflection over the water, and when the sunrise comes around…”

As if on cue, Bruce looks out towards the horizon just as the sky begins to turn-- deep indigo gradually lightening into gentle violets and vibrant oranges, the first beginnings of unmistakable sunlight peeking over the horizon.

They both watch, entranced, breath held, as the run slowly rose and heralded the new day in.

If they both, at some point, glanced over at the other, words at the tip of their tongue waiting to be said, neither mentioned it. They leaned close to each other, and silently relished the shared warmth.

“...Thank you, Harvey,” Bruce speaks up after a few moments, subdued. “For, um. Everything, tonight.”

Harvey only smiles, warm, and puts an arm around Bruce’s shoulders. Together, they watch the morning breathe the world to life, and Bruce is certain he’s never been happier.

---

They have to go home eventually, of course. As much as Bruce wanted to stay, overcome by the desire to do everything but return to the manor, to try and cling to that idea of helping Gotham change with Harvey at his side, he knows he can’t do anything as he is now: barely over seventeen and so much of his life still dictated by others.

It would be easy to change that, if only Bruce had the confidence to figure out how. The opportunity was yet to present itself.

“You sure you’ll be alright?” Harvey asks again, lingering at the entrance of the subway, his expression that of tentative concern. “I can take the blame, if you’re worried about getting in trouble…”

“I… I don’t think I’m worried,” Bruce says, and smiles when he realizes he isn’t. He’s-- happy, still, so much so that he feels full of it, warm and light. He, at least for the moment, doesn’t care what Alfred will think of him. Scuffed pants, dirty shoes, grass stains-- none of it matters. “I had fun tonight. I’d do it again.”

Harvey smiles back, at ease. “You’re something else, Wayne.”

When he opens his arms in cautious invitation, Bruce accepts it immediately, and throws himself into the embrace. They bid each other goodbye, and Bruce walks the rest of the way home in the early dawn light.

Alfred, predictably, is mad, but it’s overshadowed by his visible relief in just having Bruce home. His words are terse and short and full of half-meaning threats but when he pulls Bruce in it’s to hug him tightly.

Bruce supposes he should feel bad, even guilty, putting Alfred through the frantic panic of suddenly discovering that your charge isn’t where he should be on top of everything else he’s put him through by sheer virtue of having to raise him, but… Bruce doesn’t, for once.

He thinks he has a little more to live for, now.