The manor was cavernous and empty, as always. On the third floor, which was for the servants, Bruce had been told, even though only one person worked at the manor anymore, Alfred was asleep. That was one positive of staying in his old room on the second floor; if Bruce wanted out of bed in the middle of the night, as he often did, he wouldn’t be subjected to anyone’s fussing or questioning.
“Your parents trusted me with your care,” Alfred would say on the times when he caught Bruce wandering around the darkened halls, made darker by the mahogany accents one of Bruce’s ancestors must have thought were so elegant, so aristocratic. But Alfred didn’t catch him anymore. Making friends with the ghosts of the manor had that advantage.
Bruce made his way down the front staircase--that was the big grand one that led to the front door, not the homey little one leading to the kitchen--letting the tips of his fingers skate gently over the railing. He ignored the cramping in his feet from the ice-cold marble. Once at the bottom of the stairs he made his way, stepping very deliberately, toward the billiards room.
Sometimes Bruce felt angry, or anxious. Sometimes he felt happy, even, mostly when he was in the steam-warmed kitchen helping Alfred cook. But at certain times of the night he could make himself not feel anything. It wasn’t peaceful, exactly, but it was calm. When he was alone, like now, he could focus his mind onto physical things, like his chilly feet, or the blurring his eyes did with the small bits of light coming in through the tall windows. Then, even if he wasn’t happy, he at least wasn’t sad.
Bruce pushed open the heavy door and wriggled his relieved toes into the hairs of the deep red rugs covering the floor of the billiards room. The ghosts were already having a good time, playing pool or simply enjoying the way their forms blinked out for a second when a pool cue sliced through them.
“It’s Bruce! It’s Bruce!” some of them chanted as he entered.
“Hi,” he said. Over in the corner of the room, Emily looked up and smiled. He made his way over to her, ignoring the shivers that traveled up and down his spine as the friendlier of the ghosts ruffled his hair or gave him a pat on the shoulder while he passed.
“How’s daylight?” she asked.
“I haven’t seen the sun in a week,” Bruce replied.
“Gotham,” she said knowingly. She sighed and tugged at one of the bows of her dress, like she wanted to loosen the tie. But it would never come undone. Emily had died one hundred three years ago in what was now Bruce’s room, of pneumonia. She had been the first ghost Bruce had met, when she’d crept into his room--their room--while he himself had sick with the same illness.
She had been confused, at first, about why Bruce hadn’t seemed particularly concerned for himself. Bruce had then explained to her about the medical advancements that had happened after her death, although, well, he probably wouldn’t have been too worried about dying even if people still often died when they were sick.
She’d continued to visit him at night, and then when he was better, brought him downstairs to meet the other ghosts. She was not the only child--there were a couple babies and toddlers and teenager as well, but she was closest to his age, only a year older than him. Now she was a year younger.
When he’d found out she was dead, Bruce had thought--God, he was so stupid--Bruce had been hopeful. He thought it meant his parents might still be living at home with him. But no one had heard or seen anything of them. Emily had brought Bruce to her father, Nathaniel Corvallis Wayne, Bruce’s great-great-great uncle, a widower at the time of his only daughter’s death who’d apparently died “of grief” only two years later, leaving behind no heir and thereby passing the manor to Bruce’s side of the family. He’d told Bruce, with his blue eyes like Bruce’s own filled with sympathy, that maybe his parents had moved on. Or, he said, sometimes you didn’t haunt where you were buried, but rather where you died, and it was possible they were in Crime Alley.
Bruce didn’t like the thought of his parents spending the afterlife away from their home, and away from Bruce, but he hadn’t yet been able to get himself to go back to Crime Alley to look for them. Every night after Alfred sent him off to bed, he would curl under his blankets, telling himself that once Alfred went to bed he would throw back the covers, get dressed, walk out of the house and off the grounds, and take the bus into Gotham. Every night, after Alfred went to bed, he threw back the covers, went to the bathroom, and sat on the tiles, sobbing and trying to stop himself from shaking. Then he would wash his face and join his huge, warm, dead family for a game of pool.
Ghosts were mostly nocturnal, which Bruce admired, but as a boy forced to go to school he was on a schedule that didn’t encourage staying awake only from dusk til dawn, so Bruce bade goodbye to Emily and the other ghosts and exited back into the cold, dark foyer to go to sleep.
This was Bruce’s schedule for the next year. Being woken by Alfred. School. Homework. Silence. Cooking dinner with Alfred (the one part of the day when Alfred did not observe the strict division between master and butler). Dinner, alone in the dining room. Sent to bed by Alfred. Panic attack in the ensuite. Billiards with dead people more lively than Bruce felt. Bed (for real).
By now he was two years older and three inches taller than Emily, who was cross with him most of the time about both things, although Bruce usually didn’t feel like dealing with her anger and pretended he didn’t notice. He found himself coming to the billiards room with the word patience etched into his brain, and he kept that in mind when he spent time with Emily, who felt very young to him.
It was tiresome. Sometimes he wouldn’t go downstairs at night and just stand by his bedroom window and stare out at the vast property that was his, but Emily would usually wander upstairs to find him on days when he did this, which defeated the whole point of not going downstairs.
One Thursday night, it had been a week since he’d spoken to anybody but Alfred and Emily. The former was angry with Bruce because he had been suspended for throwing a rock through the window of his headmaster’s office, and coolly disinvited him from dinner preparations every night when Bruce tried to enter the kitchen. The latter wouldn’t stop talking about the most trivial things, like how much she longed to see daylight, but bright lights did funny things to a ghost’s corporeal form, so she hadn’t seen it since she’d been alive. What did daylight matter to Bruce? Nothing mattered to Bruce except the one thing that Alfred had taken away from him. Besides, it wasn’t like Emily had it so bad, hanging around in Bruce’s house, spending eternity with her father. Bruce walked around boiling with anger. Not his usual low, simmering anger, but a hot, unmanageable anger that could send fat tears running down his face at any moment. His usual anger was like a shield. It kept him from caring too much. This anger made him feel exposed.
One thing was clear: if Bruce spent another minute with Emily he was going to scream at her, say something hurtful, and they would never be able to be near each other again, which was inconvenient considering they shared a home. So that Thursday night, Bruce did what he always told himself he would do: he threw back the covers, he pulled on a pair of sturdy boots and a coat, and he left.
God, how freeing! Here, outside the manor grounds, Emily couldn’t follow. Alfred had no idea where he was. Bruce imagined for a self-indulgent minute Alfred waking up and going to check on Bruce, only to find him not in bed, not by his parents’ graves, nowhere on the property, in fact. He imagined Alfred calling the police, imagined the panic in his voice. Would serve him right .
The bus driver didn’t so much as look at Bruce as he boarded the bus. As he was sitting in the back row, looking out the window as the Gotham skyline came into view, he had to choke down his panic. Once at his stop, he stood on the last step with one foot dangling over the ground for a solid fifteen seconds before the driver barked a coarse, “Kid!” at him, and then he stepped off the bus, directly into a puddle.
Bruce hadn’t been to Crime Alley since that night. He had thought that he remembered every detail, but his surroundings looked completely different than he remembered. Still, though, he found the spot, and stood there, right where he’d been standing when his mother’s brains were splattered across his face, and looked around.
There were plenty of ghosts around; he could see their faded bodies moving around the darkest corners of the alley, but none of them were his parents.
“Mom? Dad?” he called softly, experimentally. Nothing.
The alley smelled bad, like piss and pot. Bruce could also smell his mother’s perfume, subtle undertones to the thick metallic scent of blood, but he was pretty sure those last two things were his imagination. Suddenly he was choking, breath coming out in gasps. He sank to his knees, his chest struggling to fill. People walked by every so often. They all looked at him. No one spoke to him. No one touched him. Bruce wasn’t sure if that was a relief or not but he couldn’t focus on that question, couldn’t focus on anything.
Bruce didn’t know how much time had passed before he felt a warm hand on each of his shoulders. He tried to scream but it was hoarse; his breathing had rubbed his throat raw.
“Master Bruce, it’s me,” a smooth English voice said, and Bruce stopped struggling and sank back into Alfred’s arms. They sat there until Bruce had calmed, and then Alfred lifted him to his feet and walked him to one of his cars. The dim streetlamps were blurring with his tears, but he felt oddly calm, thinking about nothing as Alfred guided him away.
He was folded into the backseat, and then the car bumped down the belgian block-paved streets. Bruce watched the city turn to water turn to countryside turn to the gates of Wayne Manor, as the sky grew lighter. It was very early when Alfred drove up to the main entrance and walked Bruce up to his bedroom, where he helped him take off his clothes and put him in fresh pajamas, and then lay him down in his bed. Eventually, eventually, Bruce fell asleep.
When he woke up the clock said 4:12. He had slept nearly twelve hours, twice what he usually slept. He had a moment of worry about having missed school, then remembered he was suspended.
He took the back staircase down to the kitchen. Alfred turned from the counter when he heard Bruce enter. The butler didn’t seem to know what to say.
“I’m sorry,” Bruce said, very quietly. He wasn’t angry anymore, just sad.
“I’m sorry too. I’m sorry I--that I haven’t been a good guardian. I don’t know what to do.” Alfred took a step forward. “I could have lost you last night. I was afraid for you. I was afraid I had done wrong by your parents and by you.”
“They’re not here, Alfred,” Bruce said. “They’re not there, either.”
“No, they aren’t,” Alfred replied, not aware of the ghosts.
They didn’t speak anymore, neither knowing what to say. Alfred let Bruce chop onions that evening, and even let him eat in the kitchen with Alfred, and then Bruce said he was going back to bed, and Alfred said he would be in his room if he was needed.
Bruce sat down on his bed and stared into space for a while, until the sun set and he became aware of a presence in his room.
“I got the butler to see you were gone,” Emily said. “I knocked something over so he would wake up. Are you upset?”
“No,” said Bruce.
“I’m sorry I’m not good enough for you anymore,” Emily said.
“I’m sorry,” said Bruce.
Bruce didn’t go downstairs at night for a long time after that. He’d had his fill with ghosts. But Wayne Manor was old and collected ghosts as Bruce had once collected leaves and rocks and dead bugs from the grounds.
One night, many years later, he heard laughter from the billiards room, and peeked in to see Dick, tongue stuck out in concentration, aiming the cue at a corner pocket. There was a game ongoing with an invisible opponent, one Dick was losing badly. Bruce quietly closed the door and went back to his room, the same one he’d had as a child, the same one in which he occasionally heard the floorboards creaking for no reason, or a dip in his mattress when no one was on the bed, or a whispered question about the daytime in his ear when he was home alone.