Two months, and he still hadn’t slept in his bed since it happened. He’d leaned his head on the sofa arm and surrendered to his exhaustion for what he intended to be a minute, but he wasn’t certain how long he’d been asleep when he woke to the howl of a dog outside in the deep night. Titus, he realized, when he rubbed his eyes to look through the living room window.
The great dane sat at the wrought-iron gate, his back to the window as he seemed to hunt for something beyond the lane. Titus dropped low on his haunches and let loose another wailing call, and Bruce knew the dog finally understood.
Frost crunched underfoot as Bruce crossed the grounds, hands shoved into the pockets of his trenchcoat. The midwinter chill bit his nose and ears, and the anxious puffs of Titus’ breath were visible on the air. The dog met him halfway, looking expectant, looking desperate. Maybe he still didn’t understand at all.
“I don’t have him,” Bruce said, the painful truth of those words falling leaden in the stillness. “He’s not here. He’s not coming home.”
Titus sat and tilted his head, inquisitive yaps squeaking high from his throat. He knew Bruce was talking to him. He was trying to talk back. Someone knew where Damian was, and Titus wanted to know, too. “He’s gone, you stupid dog,” Bruce snapped, swiping at him. Titus yelped and retreated a few steps at the swat on his nose, but it deterred him for only a second. He circled Bruce, then, searching, always searching. He’d been searching for two months.
Bruce had been angry when he’d entered Damian’s room a few weeks after his death, only to find Titus had shredded the boy’s blankets and pillows, had torn holes in the mattress and pulled the curtains from the rods. It took a few minutes, but Bruce’s anger ebbed when he understood. Titus was hunting for him. He thought Damian was hiding somewhere, curled in a blanket or tucked behind a curtain, and the game had gone on long enough.
Bruce had told Alfred to leave everything as the dog had arranged it. Titus slept in there still, nesting in the frayed fragments of Damian’s life and waiting for his boy to emerge from the shadows once more.
“Titus, come,” Bruce ordered, and the dog followed at once. He was close on Bruce’s heels as they took the lane leading out of the Manor grounds and through the woods of the estate, sometimes running ahead in his eagerness and tripping Bruce in the darkness. Bruce didn’t chide him too harshly. He was glad to have him alongside, to be alone and not alone.
The walk to the family graveyard was a long one, and Bruce’s fingers were numb by the time he and Titus passed under the arch. The obelisk that marked Damian’s resting place was tall enough to be seen from any spot in the cemetery, drawing Bruce’s gaze as soon as it was in his field of vision. No way to avoid it. No way to forget a child lay sleeping in the long shadow it cast beneath the winter moon.
Titus wagged his tail and tipped his head again when Bruce knelt near the grave. The grass was short and fresh, but hardened by the frost of January. The ice soaked through the knees of his khaki pants at once, and he endured the wet chill as a mild form of penance. “Here,” he told Titus, patting the glassy ground over Damian’s grave. “Here’s your pup, so stop looking for him.”
Titus circled the obelisk once as if he expected Damian to spring out from behind it before inspecting the dirt around Bruce’s hand. He burrowed his snout into the ground, sniffing, sniffing, and then his massive paws were digging into the frozen earth. The dog was going to delve into the ground that trapped his boy and free him from his prison. And rather than stop him, Bruce joined him, fingers scrabbling wildly through the hard ground, dirt and blood caking beneath his nails.
“No,” he said when he regained his control, and he shoved Titus away, smoothing over the small trench they’d opened over Damian’s grave. “No, he’s dead, Titus. He’s dead.”
Titus stilled to listen to Bruce once more, and Bruce saw the struggle for comprehension in the dog’s eyes. They were tired eyes. Titus hadn’t been sleeping well, either.
He thought of the few times he’d observed Damian with Titus, the inflections and gestures Damian would use when convincing his dog that whatever treat he’d been sharing with him was depleted. Titus was difficult to persuade on this front, it seemed. Bruce had watched as Damian opened and closed his hands. “Gone, gone,” he’d said, and Bruce remembered laughing at the uncharacteristic chime in the boy’s voice. A tone reserved for his dog alone. “Gone, gone, Titus.”
Bruce scruffed the sides of Titus’ face before parroting his son’s explanation in a bid to help the animal understand. “Gone, gone, Titus,” he said softly, fingers clenching before fanning wide. “Our boy is gone, gone.”
Titus yowled once and licked at Bruce’s hand, and Bruce calmly repeated himself. Titus went rigid, staring off into the trees beyond the graveyard, before all the tension seemed to drain from him at once. The nervous energy he’d maintained for two months melted from him, and he sagged to the ground in its absence. He whimpered and laid his massive head in the dirt he’d upturned.
Titus stopped searching, and Bruce knew the dog finally understood.
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