All In Our Own Worlds
"At this rate Master Wayne, you're going to have more scars than skin."
Bruce winced – not so much from the jab, but from the feeling of tweezers making their way through muscle. "Scars are still skin Alfred."
"I hope so, for your sake. Because these days, it's hard to find a patch where you haven't been stabbed, shot, or otherwise maimed." He sighed. "Ready?"
Bruce grit his teeth, gripping the sides of his chair. "Just do it Alfred."
"Alright then. Here…we…go."
Bruce grit even harder as the bullet was pulled out – the last of the three that had pierced his batsuit four hours ago. He exhaled as he heard the sound of the projectile landing in a small saucer.
"And another trophy for the ages," Alfred said, as he began sterilizing the tweezers. "We can put it in the exhibit of things that nearly killed Bruce Wayne."
Bruce grunted as Alfred began to put a patch on the bullet wound. Right now, he was too tired to engage in a game of verbal tennis. Sooner Alfred fixed him up, sooner her could get back on the job.
"And there we are," Alfred said. "I'd say to visit me in a week's time, but I'm not expecting to go even that long without doing this again."
"Six days," Bruce murmured. He got up and put a t-shirt on. "I'll try and give you that long at least."
"Do so Master Wayne. As fun as it is to play doctor, one longs for the days of feather dusting and parties."
Bruce smirked. He turned round, and grimaced. And for the first time that night, Alfred looked at him with genuine concern.
"It's fine, Alfred." He winced, as he stumbled back down into the chair, clutching his lower left stomach. "Just give me a second."
Bruce didn't watch him go. Instead he was too busy clutching the wound he'd received two weeks prior. Ironic that he'd managed to avoid being roasted alive by Firefly, only to be stabbed by the bastard before he'd knocked him out and delivered him to Angela Walker. Now, he'd gone through the same rigamarole with Deathstroke. The bastard had had his blades, but while he'd avoided being cut this time, the mask-wearing maniac had let off a burst of shots after he'd supposedly been rendered unconscious by the Batman's fists, three of which had pierced his suit. What followed was a moment of pain, followed in turn by him making sure Lex Luthor's lapdog was fully unconscious. Then, he'd let ARGUS pick him up, and deliver him to Walker. He had no love for the woman, especially after what he'd learnt about her role in the Midway City Incident, but in a world such as this, people like Angela Walker at least kept their guns pointed at the bad guys. Or badder guys, so to speak.
He got to his feet, and stumbled over across the Batcave, before collapsing down in front of the mainframe. The "Bat Computer," he'd called it once, but he'd dropped that ages ago. Now it was just "the mainframe."
"So," Alfred said – he brought a tray over, complete with a corned beef sandwich, orange juice, and even a napkin. "I take it that Luthor's plan didn't work."
"To kill me?" Bruce laid the tray out in front of him and grabbed the sandwich. "I'm standing here, aren't I?"
"Point taken." He took a bite of the sandwich. "Hmm. It's good." He took another bite, woffing it down.
"Is it, Master Wayne?"
He looked at his butler. A man over thirty years his senior, and a man who was one of the few people in this world he could call friend. And having been his confidante that long, Bruce could see when Alfred was bothered.
"Have something to say Alfred, say it."
As in, more bothered than usual. Alfred Pennyworth had been bothered ever since the night Thomas and Martha Wayne were shot in an alley, and since learning that their son wanted to dress up as a man-bat, that level of bother had only increased.
"Master Wayne, does it not strike you as…notable, that this last month has involved you focusing on assassins that want you dead, as opposed to petty criminals?"
Question was, when did the level of bother get so high that Alfred called it quits?
"Do you think that this is perhaps indicative of…changing priorities?"
Bruce sipped the orange juice. "I don't follow."
Alfred sighed. He took a seat opposite Bruce and began cleaning his glasses – something he'd do before one of his heart-to-heart speeches.
"Master Wayne, how long have you been doing this?"
"Twenty-four years," Alfred repeated. "Tell me, after those twenty-four years, would you say that Gotham has gotten better, or worse?"
Bruce scowled. "Alfred, don't-"
"Better, or worse? It's a simple question that even you can answer."
Bruce sighed. "Fine. Better."
"Better," Alfred said.
"Only because the people of Gotham have better icons to look up to now."
Alfred sighed. "Would it be that hard to give yourself some credit?"
"I didn't do this for credit Alfred."
"No. You didn't." Alfred put his glasses back on. "You did it because twenty-four years ago, you said that you had to do something. That Gotham City was dying, that the police were either bought out or too scared, and its people were literally dying in the streets."
"I remember," Bruce murmured.
"You also said that you'd do this…thing, for only as long as it was required of you. That as soon as the city got its act together, as soon as law and order were restored, you'd stop jumping from rooftops and at least try to be a normal human being."
"You have a point, Alfred?"
"Master Wayne, have you considered that such a point has been reached?"
Bruce got to his feet and walked past his butler.
"Master Wayne, you can walk away from me, but you can't lie to me."
Bruce knew that to be true. That was why he kept his silence as he kept walking over to a painting on the wall. One that showed Wayne Manor not as the dilapidated wreck it was now, but as it had been in its heyday. A little memento from the life he'd once led, before the Wayne Residence became the home of both Bruce Wayne and Batman, separated only by what part of the house was above ground.
"How many chairs, Alfred?" he asked.
He looked back at Alfred. "Six chairs," he said. "But room for more."
Alfred frowned. "I don't follow."
Bruce sighed. "I thought there might be something once," he said. "That if this was the new world, then I could adapt. That we might stick together."
Alfred walked up beside him. "You're talking about the League?"
"It hasn't been used," he said. "And do you know why?"
"Because you're terrible at parties?"
"Because no-one needs it," Bruce said. "Arthur's spending his time beneath the sea, and we're probably all still alive because of that. Clark can get anywhere at anytime, and he's saved more lives in two years than I have in twenty. Barry's still running in circles in Central City, and Victor…heck, he's off the grid entirely at this point, and I didn't think that was possible for a mechanical Frankenstein."
"Frankenstein was the doctor Master Wayne, not the monster."
Bruce scowled. "Don't get cute Alfred."
"Cute. Of course." After a smirk, Alfred asked, "and Diana?"
Bruce ignored him. "We've all got our own battles to fight," he said. "They're battling them, I'm battling mine."
"Fighting a battle that no longer needs to be fought."
Bruce grunted and walked over to one of a series of capsules, each containing a suit of armour of various form and function. One in particular, containing the suit he'd worn tonight.
"Master Wayne, how long do you think you can keep doing this?"
Bruce said nothing. He just stood there. The suit, the Batman, looked back at him. Whispering to him. Reminding him that he needed it. That he needed to embrace who he truly was, and not wear the mask of Bruce Wayne.
"You're nearly fifty."
The capsules had once contained suits of another kind, Bruce reflected. But one of those suits had been turned from red to blue. Another was on display elsewhere in the cave – a reminder of his failure. A reminder that he could never put another person's life in danger by drawing them into his battle. Dick Grayson had been the first Robin. Jason Todd would forever be the last.
The billionaire looked at Alfred, the lack of a "Master" not lost on him. Nor was the desperation in Alfred's eyes.
"Did you lie to me?" he said. "All those years ago, were you lying?"
Bruce looked back at the suit.
"Is this the plan?" Alfred asked. "To keep doing this until you're dead?"
"Maybe." Bruce took a step to the suit. "It's not me out there, Alfred, it's Batman."
"Batman is a symbol," Bruce said. "Someone always has to be able to wear this suit, even if it isn't me." He looked at Alfred. "You want to know why I'm still doing this Alfred? That's why. Because if Bruce Wayne died tonight, the tabloids would have their fun, you'd be free to pursue a career path that didn't involve criminal activity, and the world would move on. But if Batman died…" He sighed. "Ideas don't die Alfred. Principles don't die."
"But you will," Alfred said. "One way or another, you will."
"Oh, I know," he said. "But not tonight. Not yet. Not while I can still be the symbol Gotham needs."
"But does it need it?"
"Long as the symbol exists, the weeds in the garden won't grow. Soon as it falls, soon as the moon can shine without that symbol, they'll spread as they always do." He shrugged. "Or I'm wrong. Maybe with symbols of hope in this world, that's all the people need."
"But it wasn't about hope, was it?" Alfred asked.
"No." Bruce walked back to the computer. "It was about justice. It's always been about justice. If the Batman can't give Gotham hope, then he can give it fear." He sat back down and rubbed his eyes. He'd gone for over twenty years with as little sleep as possible, but even as his body's natural rhythm had adjusted, the fact was that the human body wasn't designed to get four to six hours of sleep a day. Nevertheless, he had more work to do. So he drew up the files he'd retrieved from Philadelphia, dated December 16, 2018. A collection of videos and images, all of them showing a black-haired man with a red suit and white cape.
"Here's the person I'm most worried about now," Bruce said. He looked at Alfred. "Superman two-point-oh."
Alfred scowled. "Shall I prep the power suit again master? Another spot of hunting with glowing green spears?"
"No, not yet." He watched a video feed from a toy store, as the man in red threw Batman figurines at his pursuer. He scowled – haven't worn that suit since the nineties, he reflected. If they wanted a toy of me, couldn't they have got it right?
"So if we're not sending David up against Goliath, what are we doing, if anything?" Alfred asked.
"Waiting," Bruce said.
"I've sent Diana to Philadelphia. She thinks that there's magic at work here, so way I see it, it's in her ballpark."
"Oh, so you do keep in contact with Miss Prince," Alfred said, smirking. "Keep a seat for her at the table as well?"
"Diana's an asset. I use assets."
"Some assets more than others I imagine." Bruce glared at Alfred, but the butler was smirking too much to care. "Of course, what you do with your time and money is up to you, Master Wayne. But usually when men are infatuated with women, they give them flowers rather than invisible jets."
"It's not an invisible jet, it's a plane equipped with a cloaking…" Bruce sighed. "Point is, she's on her way to meet Captain Sparklefingers."
Bruce gestured to a video of the twat shooting lightning up into the sky for money. "It works for now. Besides, I've fought villains named after birds and plants, so it isn't too far out of bounds."
"Yes sir. Of course sir."
Bruce was glad that Alfred was dropping the point. On the subject of the magic-user on the screen, and on the subject of romantic entanglements. Because whether it be as Batman or Bruce Wayne, it never worked out. From journalists, psychologists, and lawyers, to cat-burglars, assassins, and now, demi-gods, experience had taught him it was best to keep loved ones at arm's length. Because the best case scenario was fleeting glimpses across the rooftops. The worst case scenario…
He winced, and closed the file. He didn't want to think about worst case scenarios. He'd spent over twenty years thinking about them, and he had no desire to add more worst-case scenarios to the list of eventualities he had to prepare for. Quiet as Gotham was right now, he was still living in a world where he was becoming increasingly irrelevant, while Gotham City, peaceful as it was right now, could descend into crime as soon as its criminals believed they could walk safely at night. People might look to the sky and sea, but his eyes had to always be focused on the ground.
Even as his body edged ever closer to being buried in it.