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The Bride

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    “He’s such a handsome lad isn’t he, Thomas?” Martha asks distantly. From across the dining room table, on the opposite side from Martha, Thomas sips pleasantly at his tea. He hums to Martha’s question, as if it is an answer to her question. Adjacent from Martha, Bruce sits, legs crossed at the ankles underneath the table. He is a shy boy, just around the age of eighteen. Dark circles below his eyes mark his restlessness. Ever since the news, Bruce has not slept so soundly. 


    “Why, boy, this is a most grand occasion! You are to be wed! What more could a lad like you want?” 


    Bruce could think of several things he’d rather want. There were many books he had never acquired, as well as many figures he had never met. With all the wealth that his family had, surely he could meet a great many authors he admired. There were a few chemists and mathematicians he would see too. He could donate some of his enormous wealth to the poor of the streets or give bread to the widows with children. Yet, most of all things, Bruce should want to be married.


    It is a joke and a cruel one at that.


    “See Bruce, must you be so difficult? We are merely seeking the best for you.” The stone walls echo his mother’s words, akin to a chant heard late at night. He scoffs and takes to the plate in front of him sparsely. There are simply too many things that Bruce can say. He could outright deny the marriage and disappoint his parents in the process. He could very well go through with it and regret it until the day he died. Her face grows grim with distaste. 


    “And I am merely thinking what is best for myself,” he mumbles morosely. Martha’s lips curl in irritation at the notion. She gathers up plates from off the table. She snatches Bruce’s plate before he can eat, leaving him hungry and perturbed all at once. Thomas sits across the table, his face obscured by a newspaper. Bruce deducts that attempts at confiding in either of his parents are a fruitless effort. 


    Nothing will come of it, that I know. 


    As the day passed by, with little to do but read and write in the mansion, Bruce begins pacing. He thinks about Talia Al Ghul, his wife-to-be, and her family. Her father is a gaunt-faced man, known throughout Gotham as one of the wealthiest men in the country. On the other hand, Bruce also finds him to be utterly untrustworthy. His character, while seemingly genuine, strikes Bruce in all the wrong ways.


    In the past, Bruce would chalk such an opinion up as happenstance. But, more and more often, with each long strenuous day passing, Bruce finds himself occupied thoroughly with his own thoughts of suspicion. Ra’s Al Ghul, by all accounts, was an honest man. Yet, everyone who gave him such praise were in his own keep and inner circle. The Cobblepot’s, the Dent’s, and the Crane’s could all attest to his good character while also being under his thumb. 


    Nevertheless, the way the man seemed to leech over each and every movement Bruce made was enough to drive him to wariness. He twirls the family heirloom ring that his great grandmother had worn while she was alive. While Bruce had never met her, he could distantly imagine the kind of woman she would be. His mother was cold and, often, worried more about what was best for herself than what was best for her family. No Wayne has ever deviated from the ones that came before them. 


    His father, Thomas, was a quiet man. Even as a young child, Bruce could remember his father’s obligatory silence. It was unfounded that he spoke on any other terms besides professional. He was a doctor, a valued career in Gotham City and throughout most of the country. Not many were skilled in the art of the body and flesh. Thomas Wayne was exceptionally skilled in this field, which made him one of the most sought after doctors in all of Gotham and beyond. His off-time, if he had any, was spent alone or, if forced into the company of others, silent and brooding. 


    Bruce strives to be different than the crop of his parents and their ancestors before him. He desperately craves an escape from everything that binds him to his namesake. Marrying into another rich family, with such a long legacy and reputation, will only subscribe to everything he despises about his parents and their existence. It didn’t help that his attraction to women had yet to flourish as he had been told it would; no one, to his knowledge, knew this about him. If they did, no one said a word. If anything, Bruce had an intuition that his interests skewed towards the opposite sex. 


    The ring, in Bruce’s complete and utter distraction, falls from his finger and onto the floorboards. It clatters rather anticlimactically against the wood. Bruce stares at it from above. He bends over and pockets the ring in his trousers for safekeeping. He sighs and looks outside the manor grounds. Below and through his window, the leaves had fallen from the trees above, colors of brown and orange and yellow decorating the ground in a dull array. He looks to the trees, with only a few leaves remaining, and shudders at the cold air that permeates through the glass panes.


    The next morning, Bruce awakes to Alfred, his only trusted confidant within Wayne Manor, standing rather anxiously above him. Bruce gets up, knowing that whatever may be on Alfred’s mind, he must see it for himself. He dresses quickly and leaves the manor without breakfast. Alfred, rather like his father, is a man of few words. But, unlike Thomas Wayne, Alfred says everything he needs to with his stances and postures. Bruce can read each and every one of them perfectly. 


    He heads into town on horseback, using only the backroads as to not disturb the quiet city people working. He dismounts his horse in an alleyway and strokes his long black mane. The horse, in response, neighs softly. Bruce smiles and ties the horse to a wooden pillar he finds in the vicinity. He dawns his black boater hat and exits the alleyway in a rather inconspicuous manner. He walks towards the center square with purpose.


    This morning, Alfred also had handed him a note, as his parents forbid him to speak to Bruce ever since he was a child. He told Bruce, on this piece of paper, that someone strange had come into the city. Someone that everyone has their eyes on. Bruce, naturally, was intrigued by the note. Gotham City had many visitors, from all around the globe. 


    Whoever could it be that has all of Gotham astir? What makes them so special?


    Bruce makes his way, avoiding any and all contact that braces him. He hangs his head low, listening in closely to the unfamiliar sounds that creep closer. From behind a few buildings, Bruce could see sparks flying up into the air. The sound of children laughing accompanied it. As he draws nearer, Bruce feels a strange inkling in his bones. His intuition kicks up, firing him into a plethora of confusing emotions. He is unsure of himself as he inches closer and closer to the display.


    Then, he sees it in full. The stage is a converted wagon, a sign of older times, and from the left and right side, tubular wooden structures jut out and shoot fireworks into the sky. The stage has purple curtains and a hefty crowd surrounding it. Bruce pushes through a few of the bystanders to get a closer look. 


    “From the flickering candlelight, he heard it!” The man onstage is a peculiar one at that. His face is quite pale, almost deathly so. His hair is gelled in the front and curled at the bottom, which hangs just below his neckline. His eyes are dark and scan the crowd expertly. He seems content with all the eyes latched onto his position. He does not stutter a single word or miss a single beat. His expressions and movements capture the crowd effortlessly. He is an utterly perfect performer. 


    Yet, what he performs is even more peculiar. He does not enact a play or play tricks as one might expect. He simply tells stories, from what Bruce can muster so far. But, the stories he tells are so grisly and grim that everyone who hears cannot contain curiosity. He attracts the audience in with his first tale, the one of the Night Rider.


    “The flame flickered so, and Mr. Henry Hale ran to open the doors,” the man started. “He was a militant man, not shy of thirty-three. His face was gaunt and his posture poised. He swore he could hear the soft tread of horses from outside his window. But, when he arrived, he found no such horses.” The man eyes Bruce from out of the crowd. Bruce, undeterred, stares back at him fearlessly. This seems to catch the man off guard, but not enough to gain any sort of pause.


    “When he returned to rest, the lamp flickered once more, and a sound of wheels turning entered his ears. He ran out of his bedroom and back outside” –– the man ran to the other side of the stage –– “only to find nothing and no one had been there. Then, once he returned back to rest, under the warmth of his quilts and sheets, he heard a noise of a cracking whip. Only this time, he decided to remain in bed. He squeezed his eyes shut as a draft billowed his curtains…” He looks at Bruce again, deliberately following his eyes as he continues his tale.


    “When he opened his eyes, Mr. Henry Hale saw it. The Night Rider!” Fireworks flew through the wooden tubes and exploded in the air, spooking the crowd. Many gasps are heard and tenseness can be seen in the eyes of many bystanders. But Bruce remains unaffected by the story, more intrigued by the man himself than the tale. “A tall black figure, with ears pointed and faceless curiosity. It found its prey, in the form of poor poor Mr. Hale!” The curtains were drawn and more fireworks flung from the wooden tubes. The crowd slowly scattered as the wagon converted back to its original form. 


    I wonder who this man could be.


    Bruce, full of curiosity, inspects the wagon further as the rest of the stragglers return to their own affairs. He walks to the back of the wagon and spots the door. He hesitates slightly and, as he does, the door flings open. The man stands in the doorway, a smug grin on his features. Up close, the man looks rather gauntly. He appears to be older than Bruce, but not by any more than a decade. His lips are dry and his face prickly. 


    “Aye, well, I am sure happy to see you!” the man greets. “I saw you in the crowd. You weren’t very shaken, were you?” He smiles and holds out his hand. “I’m Napier, Jack Napier.” Bruce shakes his hand, noticing his strong grip. His father always told him that men with strong grips are the ones to fear, for they will gain anything they seek. Bruce can understand that notion in regards to the man in front of him. His dress shirt sleeves are pulled up to his elbows and his copper suit vest is stained with some kind of pigment. 


    “I’m Bruce,” he answers. He looks past Jack and into the wagon’s interior. “Bruce Wayne.” Jack crosses his arms and gasps in a rather dramatic way. He lets go of Jack’s hand. 


    “Wayne, you say!” exclaims Jack. Bruce raises an eyebrow at the shock he displays. Jack shrugs in response. “Why, I never would’ve guessed.” He moves his body to lean against the doorway in such a fashion that it blocks Bruce’s view of the wagon’s interior. “A bit too curious than they usually are.” He licks his lips and pauses.


    “I’m not like any other Wayne,” Bruce comments irritably. Jack narrows his eyes and laughs, a sound that seems to reverberate around the quiet square. 


    “No… you’re being too much fun,” Jack says quietly. “Please, come in. I love guests.” He removes his weight from the door frame and positions himself to the side, allowing Bruce to enter. Bruce accepts the request silently, allowing himself inside the wagon. Inside it, the place is disheveled and rather unorganized. Bruce immediately notices the easel and canvas. It is covered in layers of paint, creating a deformed bat-like creature. Jack clicks his tongue and points to the painting. “Night Rider.” Bruce nods his head in his direction, walking towards the canvas and inspecting it. He can see it is still wet.


    “Oil?” Bruce asks. Jack nods behind him but Bruce does not turn to see his answer; his focus is intensely pulled to the Night Rider. His eyes are small and white, staring back at Bruce with harshness. The rest of his body is black, with shades and tints of gray throughout. “What does it mean to you?” Bruce asks softly. Jack pauses and joins him at his side. He looks at his own painting in a strange kind of dullness, as if unsatisfied with the result.


    “It doesn’t really come through, does it?” Jack eyes it with some distaste, then turns his eyes to Bruce. “We all have a Night Rider within us. Waiting to come out, at the proper… moment.” He turns his eyes back to the painting. Bruce, for the first time in an eternity, feels rather featherlight. He isn’t sure what it is, or what it means, but he knows the feeling. The kind they talk about in books, paintings, and letters. He refrains from expressing that feeling aloud. 


    “Do you take suggestions?” Bruce asks. He swallows dryly, attempting to dispel his bizarre thoughts that accompany the feeling. 


    “Anything helps,” he says distantly. 


    “Give it some sort of human trait. It can be subtle or however you like, but it must have that connection to draw the attention,” Bruce speaks. “Without that, it looks like too far of a jump in reality and will result in an incorrect comprehension.” Jack nods soundlessly and then turns to Bruce.


    “I have an idea,” says Jack excitedly. “You’ll be my model, I’ll need one for what I’m going to do.” Bruce is hesitant about the way Jack seems so thrilled. But, on the other side of things, it could be an entertaining excursion from the deathly dull surroundings of the Manor and the empty company his parents keep. 


    “Are you sure that I am the man you need? Perhaps someone who needs the money––“ Jack cackles and hangs his head back as he does. 


    “I do not intend to pay you, I rather think you enjoy being outside of the coop, do you not?” Bruce swallows once more, unable to fully answer that. He doesn’t like how well he reads him. 


    If he could read that, could he read me as a––


    “Something else on your mind, Wayne?” Jack questions further. Bruce nods briefly. 


    “There is,” Bruce speaks slowly. “Why me?” Bruce successfully diverts his own invasive thinking. “What about me?” Jack clicks his tongue again and walks towards Bruce; he grasps his hand and pulls him over to a mirror. It has a black frame, styled like branching vines. Jack places his hand on Bruce’s shoulder and uses his other hand to tilt Bruce’s chin. He holds his chin in place.


    “You may not see it, Bruce Wayne, but I do. There is a little Night Rider within you, begging to get out,” he speaks. “I am most interested to know what he will do when he comes out.” Jack smiles and backs away, leaving Bruce to stare at his own reflection. He never tends to look at himself in the mirror and, if he ever does, it never is for long. “Do you see it now?” Bruce shakes his head. Without flinching, Jack responds. “You will.” 


    Bruce turns to him looking at him like Jack did at him in the mirror. He notices his weight first. Jack is strangely frail and thin, as if he never eats at all. His skin is pale and his eyes are almost sunken. His hair is dirty blond and his clothes are tightly fitting, as if tailored. He is rather tall but not taller than Bruce himself. His shoes are black, dirty with time, and in sore need of polish. His smile shows his teeth, which are yellowing but not too horribly. Overall, he looks rather ill. Bruce finds himself liking the person in front of him more for it, for whatever reason that may entail. 


    “So, Bruce, would you like to be my model?” Bruce does not think, he only speaks.


    “Yes, what time shall I arrive?” Bruce questions. 


    “I think tomorrow shall be best. Before noon, a quarter to nine, sharp. I don’t like waiting.” Bruce smirks at that.


    “I am never late.” 




    Bruce awakes that morning with a pleasant attitude. It is a rather unusual predisposition for him. Whatever the encounter with Jack Napier sparked within Bruce, it won’t seem to budge. The feeling of elation and euphoria seems most intense while in his company, something he had not expected. He hops out of bed and dresses with haste, mentally preparing himself for the upcoming session. He isn’t quite sure what made him accept the offer the day before but he knows that, whatever the reasoning, it surely better than what his parents have in store for him. 


    Tomorrow, Bruce is to wed Talia in a private ceremony as their families are not large or very expanding. On both of his parents’ sides, his extended family have all deceased or been murdered. Maintaining the Wayne’s lineage had always been hard because of this. Their reputation and hold over Gotham makes them prime targets for political assassinations and blackmail. Bruce can hardly blame them.


    We deserve it.


    He sighs deeply and dawns an all-encompassing trench coat. He looks at himself in the mirror a little too long, adjusting his appearance slightly. He tosses his hair around and picks at his face, as if he will care at all. As if it matters what he looks like to Jack Napier. A nervous feeling develops in the pit of his stomach. He doesn’t like the suggestion it all cultivates. 


    Am I really doing this?


    Without another thought, he exits the bathroom with a speed to his steps, defiantly so. He leaves the manor, without notice, and goes to the stable where Ace resides. He rides the stallion to the town and prays silently that the wind does not knock him down. There is a fog over Gotham, making it harder to assess his surroundings. He makes it to the square in due time and leads his stallion to the wagon. It remains in the same spot as it did before. Without a second thought, he ties Ace onto the tubular structures and walks over to the door. He knocks this time, not without ever so conscious effort, and seals his fate. 


    “Why, come in, Mr. Wayne!” Jack says from behind the door. Bruce places his hand on the rusty doorknob and turns it. Inside, the room is a bit neater than it was before. Books no longer occupy a space on the floor. The small cot’s blankets are not carelessly tossed astray on the floor either. Yet, even with the effort, it still manages to remain chaotic. Jack rushes to him and takes his hand, smearing bits of paint onto Bruce’s hand in result. “On time it appears. A Wayne true to their word.”


    “I am no Wayne,” Bruce comments snidely. Jack’s eyes stare with a strange yet profound intensity. He holds Bruce’s grip. 


    “Yes, why, we’re about to see who you truly are… Bruce.” The way he speaks his name catches Bruce off guard. Jack pulls Bruce by the hand to a chair with black velvet curtains. The chair is of light mahogany wood with a yellow fabric cushion. Jack leaves him standing in front of the chair, rushing to the other side of the wagon to retrieve clothing. From across the wagon, Jack throws a black veil and a strange dress. Bruce doesn’t speak for a moment, in a slight bit of shock.


    “A dress?” He asks confusedly. “Are you chiding me?” Bruce asks. “Is this some kind of jape?” Jack turns, sincerity against his features, as if he took offense by the claims.


    “There is no chide, Mr. Wayne. I simply have picked out what I think is best for you,” Jack replies. “It may seem improper but it is not meant to abash you.” Jack steps closer, slowly but surely inching closer to Bruce. Bruce’s senses are heightened, his posture stick straight. If anyone were to look inside the wagon, if anyone were to see what the suggestion Jack implies, if anyone were to––


    What does it matter what others think of me?


    It is then that Bruce fully understands Jack’s intentions. Earlier, he touched a sensitive side to Bruce. He doesn’t like his namesake and nor does he intend to fulfill what his parents’ desires are for him and his future. But, what Bruce can do is very limited. He does not wish to ape off their money or beg them for forgiveness for his sins. He is tainted, by even sharing his presence with Jack Napier, a common man with no namesake or reputation to hold. Bruce, without hesitating any further, allows Jack to move closer. 


    A man with no reputation is a man who is free. 


    “I will guide you, it is not as hard as one might think,” says Jack softly. Bruce raises a brow slightly but says nothing. His mind becomes blank, too preoccupied with the senses of his body. Bruce doesn’t want him to touch. Otherwise, he fears he might succumb to his more lewd temptations. Jack, while seemingly disenchanted with societal expectations, does not strike Bruce in that way and, even if he did, he is unsure of whether it would be wise to engage him on such a front. 


    He unbuttons his dress shirt first, seemingly unaware of Bruce’s tenseness. Jack successfully avoids touching Bruce’s skin at all. There is a considerable amount of attention to detail that Jack takes in undressing Bruce that he cannot help but find sensual. There is a care and gentleness, a clear admiration of Bruce shining through every little action. 


    Soon, Bruce is down to his undergarments; he expects to see some sort of look of disgust for his body. Some sort of disappointment in what Jack is seeing. Bruce’s body is anything but special. He may be lean but he’s no strongman. The more Jack stays silent, the more Bruce can feel the last of his ego leave him. He cannot say yet if that is the intended effect.


    “You’re so fragile,” he whispers first. Bruce feels like breaking when he says it. “Yet… you still remain. How I marvel you…” Then, Jack holds out the dress for Bruce to step into. The interior of the dress is black satin, running against Bruce’s skin smoothly as Jack lifts it. He does not give the look of the dress much thought until Jack is done lacing it from the back. The ribbons do not harm him as he’d expect. Corsets are typically worn under dresses if Bruce knows anything regarding the matters. 


    Most proper girls wear corsets… but I’m no––


    “All done,” Jack whispers. He’s strangely close to Bruce. “Would you like to see yourself?” asks Jack. Bruce nods soundlessly. Jack steps back from him and pushes him towards the mirror on the other side of the wagon. Bruce smirks slightly as he does, acknowledging the absurdity of the situation. Jack places one of his hands over his eyes, shielding his view until they reach the mirror. “It must be a surprise, Bruce.”


    When they stop entirely, Jack removes his hand from Bruce’s eyes. Bruce sees his own reflection, stark and uncompromising. He isn’t quite sure who is looking back at him. The dress is long, black, and billows slightly at the hips. It is made up of gray-tinted bridal illusion fabric. The top is made up more satin, all the color of Gotham’s stormy rainclouds, and the straps of satin that touch his broad shoulders feel oddly pleasant against his skin. Jack eyes him curiously in the mirror, his lips agape and a thumb between his teeth.




    “Do you like it?” he asks. He is almost hesitant to question him at all; he is afraid of what Bruce will think. That power is suddenly very important to Bruce. He doesn’t refrain from answering, even despite his uncertainty. Bruce would rather be honest with Jack than to lie to him. 


    “I don’t know,” Bruce says softly. “I like how it makes me feel… I suppose.” He moves on his own in the dress, the fabric swaying as Bruce does. Jack smiles behind him, seemingly satisfied with his answer; if Bruce looks a little more closely, he might notice some other implication in it. He doesn’t and he won’t. Bruce does not wish to satisfy himself. 


    “Yes,” Jack whispers. “But, I didn’t hear what it makes you feel. What does it make you feel, son?” His quasi-parental tone sends shivers down Bruce’s spine. The gap between them in age seems more obvious than it did before. The question is uncomfortable and Bruce supposes that he is probably damned to hell at this juncture anyway. There is no salvation in expressing the truth because there is no salvation. But the truth is still hard to spit out, even when he wishes it to spill from his lips.


    “Light… airy I suppose. It feels like I am–– I am breaking some kind of shield,” he answers. Jack’s smile, if any more possible, occupies his entire face. Bruce looks at him in the mirror, Jack’s reflection staring back at Bruce. It is a strange pause that occurs, as if time stops altogether. For a brief and inexplicable moment, time waits for both of them. They are still, silent, and the world around them mimics them. Then, all at once, the moment is over and Jack returns to talking.


    “Let us get painting, shall we?” Bruce nods without a word, walking slowly to the chair and curtains. As he does, he feels the weight of the fabric behind him dragging against the floor. He sits in the chair, with little idea of etiquette or properness. Jack aligns himself with a blank canvas and an easel and positions himself in front of Bruce. In his right hand, he holds the palate; on the left, he holds the brush. “Cross your legs,” he instructs. Bruce does as told, crossing his legs at the knees as to not sacrifice his own comfort. “Good.”


    “Are you left-handed?” Bruce inquires. Jack hums a positive note and pours a glass bottle of yellow oil onto the palate. Bruce, unsure of what to do, sat quietly. Jack creates his base, slathering the canvas in a light shade of gray. Bruce sighs deeply and waits for the time to pass. It is a grueling task but far better than any time he spends in the Manor. Here, he pleasantly enjoys the view and silent company of a man who never makes anything seem dull. It is rather refreshing and he hopes that the future will provide him more of Jack’s time. 


    I hope he does not get bored of me.


    Then, rather abruptly, Jack stops working on the painting and looks over to Bruce. He meets Bruce’s eye in the same way he did when he saw Bruce in the crowd yesterday. It isn’t quite fear but surprise. Bruce is unsure what could surprise him exactly. Jack gets up from his chair and gently places down his brushes and palate on the creaky desk. He approaches Bruce methodically, studying him as he does so. It is strangely alluring to Bruce. He takes to uncrossing his legs and places them in such a fashion that his knees touch each other; Bruce leans forward in the chair. He sits down on the ground in front of Bruce in a rather childlike position. His head is bent low, as if ashamed of himself. 


    Is this another test?


    “I do not know you, do I?” Jack asks absently. “If I do not know you, there is no point to painting you, is there?” Bruce furrows his brows and keeps silent. “Come now, tell me about yourself, Bruce Wayne.” His eyes still face the ground beneath him.


    “I– I am unsure of what you want to hear,” Bruce relents. Jack sighs and finally looks up; he has a glint of sorrow in his eyes, as if plagued with something. Bruce desperately wishes to quell whatever that sorrow is. It is a feeling he has never had before. It is jarringly foreign to him. For as long as Bruce could remember, empathy had rarely needed a place in his life. He never needed it, for whatever he did. Now, he craves to have it in spades, for an odd man in front of him who has shown him rather sinful things. Bruce should be followed by shame and anxiety for being where he is and being dressed in what he is wearing. He doesn’t feel either of those things; all he can feel is pity for Jack Napier.


    “Anything, everything…” he speaks. “There must be something––“


    “There is,” Bruce interrupts. “There is… I am due to be married on the morrow.” 


    “Are you?” His strange stupor is not ailed by this information.


    Have I said the wrong thing?


    “I do not wish to be, my parents have a-arranged it.” Jack laughs mirthlessly to himself. It doesn’t frighten Bruce, as it should. Instead, it makes him more determined to please him. “To Talia Al Ghul.” In a quick motion, Jack’s head lifts up and cocks to the side. 


    “Al Ghul, you say?” Jack asks. Bruce nods without a moment’s pause. Jack moves his thighs and knees against the planks beneath him and shuffles towards Bruce. Once he reaches Bruce, he lays his forearms across Bruce’s knees and rests his chin on arms, the fabric of the dress rough against his pale skin. “We can’t have that now, can we?” Bruce meets his eyes hesitantly. 


    “I have… I have always wondered about Ra’s Al Ghul,” remarks Bruce cautiously. Jack snickers and lifts his head to hover just barely above his own arms. 


    “You’ve got intuition, Bruce. I’m glad you listen to it…” Bruce eyes him with intensity. Jack smiles nervously. “What?”


    “I want to know,” says Bruce seriously. “What has he done?” Jack’s amusement fades into a bitter quiet, the kind that Bruce cannot handle for long.


    “He has done quite a lot. Which story are you most interested in?” Jack speaks coldly. Yet, despite his tone, Jack doesn’t move away from Bruce.


    “Yours,” answers Bruce. Jack, undeterred and somewhat estranged from the topic, eyes Bruce harshly. Bruce plummets through it, attempting to get to the source of his sorrowfulness; he knows they are entwined, as much as Jack might try to deny it. Whatever it may be, Bruce is surely not one to judge. “I have struck a nerve, yes?” Jack doesn’t answer but Bruce can deduce it anyway. “I must know what has happened to you so I won’t let it happen again.” Jack snickers once more.


    “And what do you intend to do about it?” he asks. His tone is laced with sarcasm. Bruce means his words. If he didn’t he would let it be known. He does not wish to lose the only thing in his life that makes him feel . He does not wish to lose Jack Napier, a man he has only met the day before. Jack, a man no short of oddities and quirks, makes Bruce’s dull and empty existence filled with some unnamable euphoria. Time passes with ease instead of strain and he no longer feels restless, searching for something he does not know; he has found the something and he intends to keep it, no matter the consequences. 


    “I intend to do whatever is necessary,” says Bruce defiantly. Jack smirks briefly.


    “It appears that Bruce Wayne is smitten with me,” Jack spits. “Is that so?” He almost seems irritated. Bruce, chancing everything in only a few words, challenges Jack.


    “And if I am?” Bruce snaps back. Jack’s eyes widen, a solemn silence quieting him. “I intend to do whatever is necessary...” Jack seems to fret, looking down and tapping his fingers against Bruce’s thigh. 


    Anything, anything, anything…


    “You didn’t say that, you haven’t said a word,” he mutters to himself. Bruce leans forward in the chair and pulls Jack to face him by the collar of his shirt.


    “I mean everything I say to you, Jack Napier. I do not wish for you to cast doubt upon me. It would be the most unfortunate mistake if I let you run away.” Bruce isn’t used to so much control; all of his life, his actions and decisions have been made for him. He never gets to make choices, his parents did. He walks through life untouched by anything. He craves, more than anything, to combat all of it. He longs to destroy the safety net his parents have hung for him. Bruce desperately wants to fall and never stop falling, a constant motion; he never wants to be passive or quiet in the room. Bruce can see that opportunity in Jack Napier and will do everything and anything to achieve it. He has found the something


    “You’re not bluffing?” Jack asks shyly. Bruce shakes his head and tucks a stray strand of Jack’s hair behind his ear. His dark eyes glisten with a glassy look, as if unable to comprehend the situation. He turns to face away from Bruce and leans back into his touch. His expression is enveloped in his shock, his lips parted and his eyes unblinking. “Oh… well, I suppose I should take that offer, shouldn’t I?” he mutters. Bruce leans down next to his right ear. 


    “You don’t have a choice,” Bruce whispers. A shiver runs through Jack’s body and Bruce likes it. He isn’t sure when the power switched but he knows that he intends to keep it on his side. “Will you tell me your story now?” Bruce asks. Jack sighs, shuddering his voice and body as he does, looking up at the wagon’s curved ceiling. 


    “I was–– I was painting Ra’s, as he commissioned me to do so. He never really paid for it though…” he trails off. “He liked me and I liked him… until he didn’t like me anymore. Then, he left me in the morning with nothing but my skin.” Bruce understands the atmosphere in the room and how it shifts once more; Jack is suddenly uncomfortable again but no longer in a defensive and irritable way. He has no defense and it makes him vulnerable. Bruce enjoys it, more than he likes himself for. But he also seems to feel deeply for his words and wounds. Jack laughs mirthlessly, as if only to fill the silence. “I suppose you find me improper.”


    “I do not find you improper. Who is and isn’t proper is far from my mind at the moment,” Bruce replies. “I think we shall teach him a lesson…” Bruce says. His tone is darker, to match his thoughts; Jack seems to notice and turns to face him. Bruce has a fierce sense of Jack Napier and who may hurt him. Whatever opposition he has, Bruce will take out swiftly. He will do it and he is not foaming at the mouth with reassuring words and no action. He is foaming at the mouth for a chance of something and holding onto something forever. 


    “Really?” Napier asks quietly. 


    “Yes,” Bruce answers. Jack stares at him with the eyes of a youth, naive and innocent. It is a drastic change from the man on stage and the man staring at him in the mirror; Bruce partially wonders which is the act. 


    The artist or the needy?


    He does not come to an answer. Jack lunges at him, with distinct sloppy desperation. Bruce cannot say much more himself. His lips feel as dry as they looked when he entered the wagon. He can feel hands and, as such, responds with hands. Fingers touch the back of his neck and his thigh. Bruce places his fingers on the back of Jack’s head, grasping his hair gently. His other hand braces Jack’s hip. His tongue tastes like cinnamon and alcohol, a strange combination of flavors. By contact alone, Bruce feels intoxicated. He slips his hand to Jack’s other hip and lifts him up. Instinctually, Jack’s legs wrap around Bruce’s waist. Neither stops what they are doing in the process, as if what they are doing is habitual. 


    I wonder… which one is the truth and which one is the lie?




    Alfred, somehow, managed to clear away all of the leaves that covered the grounds while he was gone. Bruce quietly treads towards the Manor through the garden, Jack tagging just a few paces behind him. Bruce’s dress trails behind him and, every so often, snags on broken tree branches and bushes. From the outside, Bruce can see the illuminated windows, a yellow glow just insight. It looks so much warmer within the Manor, a strange contrast from the coldness that always settled in his bones whenever he stayed within his home. A deep-seated feeling of discomfort starts to become more and more noticeable as Bruce continues walking. The dusk around them is below tolerably cool, and the chill that accompanies it only serves to make Bruce feel cornered. Jack pulls Bruce back by tugging on his forearm. 


    I have made a promise. Why do I now have doubts?


    “Bruce,” he says. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Jack looks at him with a crippling kind of vulnerability. It dispels Bruce’s doubts completely and permanently. He smirks back at Jack, with newfound and shaky confidence.


    “Y-yes,” Bruce answers. He breathes out a shuddering breath. He quells his racing thoughts and stares quite blankly back at Jack as he does. Jack snickers and Bruce leans down, planting a kiss on his forehead. A wind begins to pick up its pace around them and Bruce quickly pulls away, not lingering a moment as to not waste time. He gets to the greenhouse doors and, once inside, begins looking for the hedge trimmers. Warmth surrounds them instantly. Jack spins around in awe, eyeing each and everything plant that remains within the greenhouse. Jack strokes the leaves of some of them. Bruce, unable to see him as he searches desperately, does not notice his next action. He finds the hedge trimmers and grasps them with satisfaction. Jack looks to him with an equally pleased expression. “Jack,” Bruce says. “Do not lay a finger on Alfred. He has never wronged me.” A glimmer of some unknown emotion flickers across his face. 


    “I would never do such a thing,” replies Jack. They leave the greenhouse promptly afterward, exiting back into the bitter cold. They travel up to the grand entrance door and both stop and stand in front of it, as if hesitating. Jack seems rather subdued, drastically different than Bruce’s current emotion. Nerves wreck him and his thoughts, the tremor of his hands growing greater in the little heat provided. Despite his dispelled doubts, he could still feel the pit in his stomach increasing the closer they came.


    Whatever it is, it shall pass.


    He palms the key from within his sock, hiking up his dress in the process. Jack, distractingly, stares as he does. Bruce uses the key and the door unlocks swiftly, the dark oak wood revealing a crack of bright warm light. He turns to Jack briefly, for confirmation, and he nods. Bruce enters first, his footfalls echoing against the marble flooring. He can distantly hear a commotion from the dining room, the sounds of chatter and silverware clinking hitting Bruce’s senses. 


    Jack enters just a few moments later. Bruce finds himself in the middle of the entrance and, disturbingly, everything looks foreign; the staircase he had played on as a child, the floors he had slept on when his room was too quiet, and the brass chandelier that lit his way through every step of his journey were all present. Each marks the times he has spent within the manor’s large study rooms, corridors, spare rooms, and nooks. Each mark the house with an ominous feeling, one that immediately seems to stagnate throughout the atmosphere.


    I must return to the task at hand.


    “Through the study,” Bruce whispers. He points to the room to the left, Jack nods and follows him rapidly. Bruce can sense the urgency of their plan finally bubbling to the surface. He fully takes in what the consequences of his action will be; he can never be seen as Bruce Wayne. He can never be seen with Jack. They can never openly display their strange companionship. Bruce expected a few of those things. He never could have imagined abandoning his namesake. It is a change he has desired but, does not know yet what it could possibly entail for the future.


    They stop in the study room and survey the dining room from an awkwardly placed mirror. It reflects the back of his father’s neck. He’s dressed properly for the occasion, a black blazer and a white dress shirt especially tailored for him and him only. His hair is parted down the middle and gelled to stay wavy at the edges of his bangs. The wave is subtle but present, a distractingly not is or quirk regarding his appearance. To Bruce, it merely shows his lack of selfless and his ultimate distaste for those below him.


    Jack tilts the mirror soundlessly, spotting Talia Al Ghul at the table. She is staring down at her bowl and nothing and no one else. Her dress is an asparagus color, complimenting her olive skin tone. She eats her soup meekly as her father beside her watches intently. Ra’s Al Ghul, with a thick and graying beard, looks rather polished. His suit and his etiquette are masterful, as well as the way he carries the room with his words. Bruce can easily deduce why Jack had become so easily smitten with him.  Even now, Jack seems to eye him with interest; there is a lingering lust behind his glare, intentionally spiteful in nature. It makes Bruce uneasy. He looks above the fireplace and spots the hunting rifle. He retrieves it silently and checks for ammo and gunpowder. Bruce knows it is loaded; he checks it despite his memory. Bruce aims first at his father’s head. 


    I hope he relishes it.


    Alfred stops in front of him. He is unsure where he came from or the reasoning for his staying behind. He should’ve have known, by seeing Bruce, that is was best to leave; he made the active choice to stay. Bruce doesn’t like it, not one bit. Alfred’s hand stretches out and Bruce can feel a surge of emotions enter his conscious. Alfred has many emotions stored on his face and posture as well and, as always, Bruce can read them perfectly. This time, it proves to be unhelpful. He is confused, afraid, and seeking something human within Bruce desperately. 


    What will he find?


    “Bruce,” Jack says from behind him. Bruce doesn’t turn to face him, his eyes tearing at the corners. The intensity of everything becomes suddenly overwhelming and Bruce is rendered speechless, plagued with infinite thoughts, all racing faster than he can process them. Jack steps closer to him, just beside him, and hovers next to Bruce’s ear. “What is next?” The question is jarring, for the moment and the person speaking it. Not that long ago, Bruce had warned Jack against this moment. But, now, it is all in his hands. “Bruce.”


    And… I am lost.


    Everything vibrates and is shaken by the next action taken. The rifle fires and hits Alfred directly in the chest, hot red blood splattering against Bruce’s face. He falls to the floor with a resounding thud. Bruce doesn’t stop firing. He needs to hear the sound so he can’t hear anything else. So he cannot think. Therefore, he cannot stop or go back. The room is loud and then, all in an instant, is uneasily quiet. His mother and father lay against the floor, blood leaking from their bodies into ever-expanding puddles. Ra’s and Talia lay across the room, bodies constricted by the chairs and leaning forward against the table. It implies that his parents died trying to getaway. Bruce wouldn’t know; he wasn’t looking. For whatever reason, Bruce’s racing thoughts seem to silence entirely. The scene in front of him doesn’t feel real. None of what has occurred feels real . It all feels like a chide, a mockery even.


    This isn’t–– this isn’t what I––


    A hand lays against Bruce’s shoulder. Jack, the only other living person in the room, looks at him with a subtle kind of smile, the kind absolutely inappropriate for the moment Bruce is having. He wants to feel angry with him, he wants to squeeze his throat and wipe the smile off his gaunt face. But, he finds no will left in his body for violence. He has already done enough of it, all by his own free choice. He had the choice and he was the one with the gun. He had every single opportunity to stop himself. Suddenly, the world around him doesn’t seem so small. It feels horrifically large and he feels claustrophobic with even Jack touching him. 


    He brushes off his touch, a tremor making its way through his body. Bruce drops the gun and it clatters to the floor, empty of ammo. He kneels slowly down to Alfred’s still body, stroking back a piece of his hair, stuck to his forehead. The tears fall and never seem to stop, trailing down his face and falling from off his chin. Jack, still standing, doesn’t speak or move; he analyzes him and his slow movements. Bruce pulls up his head and hugs him, the sob coming without any self-preservation in mind. Bruce cannot hear the footsteps or see Jack. He vanishes and leaves Bruce alone with his own thoughts.


    The artist. He is the truth, the controller and the manipulator. He is the one that knew, from the very start, how everything would go. He sought to me and knew that I would do everything and everything he asked with the lie. The lie is the needy. The lie was me. I was never in control, never could be. I never will be. It was merely an illusion of control, an attractant to give him everything he wants. I am just a tool, always have been. Why did I think that I could have anything else? Why did I think that there was more to this? Why did I let this happen? What––what have I done?


    He walks away from the body, almost burned by the touch of Alfred and his blood, leaving a kiss on his forehead. His dress is soaked with the metallic smell and stained with crimson. He goes to the entrance and opens the door with a heavy hand. Outside, leaning against the stone, Jack looks to him. A pipe is in his mouth and smoke billows from it. Bruce walks to him and Jack faces him fully, staring at him with critical eyes. He uses his fingers to pull Bruce’s mouth into the shape of a smile. Bruce smiles against them and Jack smiles back, turning away from him and walking away from the Manor. Once he isn’t looking his smile falls. 


    He found the Night Rider.