Chapter 4: Sober Up Brucie Boy!

'How's Alfred?'

Mr Gladlow smiled politely. It is customary to enquire about family. Bruce had asked after Mrs Gladlow, Jane and Isaac (he forgot the middle two) and Oliver. Jane was a lawyer, Isaac a nature photographer currently in Borneo, and little Ollie was about to start his second year at Oxford. Oh, and Mrs G was going to be a grandma. Jane was due in September. A full and happy house.

'Alfred's fine', replied Bruce. His voice positively downbeat.

'Right.' Mr Gladlow looked at the way Bruce was holding his cocktail. His softly lolling head and rolling stance. Bruce swallowed the liquor before anymore could escape the glass. No how are you Brucie! Mr Gladlow slowly turned away, smiling.

Bruce clicked his tongue, making is right hand into a cowboy-gun.

'Bruce! Bruce!' a sultry voice gasped, pushing its way through silver and green balloons. A red satin glove latched itself to him, and was lost in the carousel of people and confetti-paper curls. At the far end of the ballroom a great banner overhung a smaller one. Metallic writing shone from emerald drapes. 'MENTAL WELLBEING FOR GOTHAM' and 'SUPPORT ARKHAM: 3rd GALA DINNER' gleamed for all to see.

A ching-ching-ching-ching summoned the dancers to the table and they all took their seats. Bruce nearly fell down two steps – independent of one another – and slid his way to his spot at the table. 'BRUCE WAYNE' winked up at him from a little folded card.

'Ladies and Gentleman, thank you for your attendance…'

Bruce studied the back of his hand. It was heavy and when he waved it, it just seemed to go on floating. The audience clapped and he brought his hands together too late.

'Ladies and Gentleman, we have raised so much, and we want to thank each and every one of you for your generosity. Please, everyone: a round of applause for EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU!'

The room erupted. A frantic flapping – and Bruce imagined a million-million bats taking off at once. His own wild clapping went on after everyone stopped. He stopped.

'As customary, we would like to give special thanks to our benefactors.' Another round of applause. '– and to present this small token to the person that has gifted the most. Would you please welcome –.' Bruce made to stand. '– Mr Johan Sundberg!'

Bruce sat again and applauded, ignoring the shocked faces that turned to him and the narrow eyes that accused him. Mr Sundberg was not from Gotham and Bruce wanted to show him his gratitude, so he clapped louder still. The woman to his left full on scowled at him. The tall blonde man strode on stage and accepted the gigantic lily-white bouquet. The speech drew to an end, and the table rose to continue their dancing, drinking and chatter. Confused and hateful whispers made their way from the clusters of people to his ear. He grabbed another cocktail and sunk into a chair at the back.

'Bruce! Oh, Bruce.' A voluptuous, red satin bell sank into the chair next to him. The red dress rustled as it sunk and a woman's laughing face emerged. Brunette curls and perfect teeth, and greedy eyes that didn't match the sexy crook of her smile.

'What happened, Bruce?' Her sultry voice was nothing like Catwoman's, not nearly as sexy or sophisticated. Was she drunk? Of course, everyone was drunk – weren't they?

'Don't feel sad.' Her velvet hand stroked his cheek meaningfully. '– there's too many mean and ungrateful people in the world!'

Her polished scarlet lips were too close to his face. 'I bet you have so much more to give,' and she actually leaned forward and bit his ear.

'Hey!' Bruce pulled away.

'Brucie Baby? Don't you remember me?'

'No,' rumbled Bruce indignantly, trying to brush her persistent hand away. The lights above him were spinning; the crowd on the ballroom floor moving too fast.

Arching her bare-skinned back, she pushed her frilly bosom towards him, clasping his hand to them. 'Let me help you remember.'

A heat was beginning to creep up his neck. A horrible, drum-beat heat.

'Come on playboy – play with me.'

Bruce sat still as stone.

'Come on. Let's go someplace else.'

She took his hand in hers and tried to pull him up. Then her gloved hands snaked under his shirt and satin fingertips found his nipple. Iron-fingers grabbed her by the throat and hurled her from his lap. The cocktail glass smashed. She landed hard with a gasp and Bruce stood, roaring like an animal. The dancing stopped and the whole room fell silent. He could see the whites of everyone's eyes. Red satin shook. The woman crumpled at his feet began to wail. Bruce's mouth hung open and he felt a line of drool stain his chest. Stumbling into chairs – falling twice – he left.

He fell into the nearest hired Sedan.

The chauffeur turned to him. 'Wayne Manor, Sir?'

'No. Just drive.'

A taxi brought Bruce back. The gates of Wayne Manor opened and he rolled onto the stone and mid giggle promptly vomited down himself. He vaguely remembered a hand leading him back to the house, and him fighting with that hand until it gave up on him. Laughing and shouting, angry and paralysed at the hilarity of the world, he found the most gregarious artist among the towering cd racks and turned 'Ricky Martin' up to an obnoxious volume. And then: he danced. Bruce thought he was putting on quite a show. His moves were slick, and when he bumped into furniture – smashing a couple of vases – he simply took another swig. Then the music stopped. The hand was back. He swiped and fought, but eventually he let it guide him to a bathroom where he was violently sick. Some vomit missed and Bruce felt it squelching under his palms. Time became impossible. Somewhere between having cold water splashed in his face, a facecloth rubbing his mouth, and his clothes taken off him, he found himself in bed. Then he found himself asleep. Then he found himself back in the abandoned subway where The Pact had made base. Old Five Points. He was naked, but had Selina Kyles boots on…and Bane was pugnaciously throwing bottles at him while he danced. John wasn't there, but Harley Quinn was accusing him…and he was sure Batman was in the background…but wearing Joker's make-up…and finally…finally he woke up and saw the afternoon sun. Oh…SHIT!

He rolled back across the covers. He was done. He had to be.

The pounding in his head constricted. Every time he moved it seared him. He made himself get up and go to the bathroom, drinking as many pints from the tap as his stomach could hold. Moaning, he lay back down across the sheets.

He would be good now. He would be a gentleman. Press ups, meetings at the office – he'd help Alfred round the house – he would present a confident, sober face. He would be respectful and respected.

John?

Something unfurled and twisted in his belly. Silently, two fat tears fell past his eyes and shakily he pushed them back up. John. Why hadn't he visited John. He was so distant now. Lost. Did his silence mean John felt for him? What, what, what did John feel for him?

That night in the control room of Ace Chemicals – when betrayal had been a sharp tang – wounding them both – there had been connection. No Harley, or Alfred. There had been understanding, and, bitterly, they had seen each other honestly.

As painful as that first meeting in Arkham had been, it was a moment Bruce would cherish.

All traces of Joker had been wiped from John's face. His slender body had been fitted with garments of pale cream, angles squaring the cloth, collar bone protruding – and his right hand, like a swollen marshmallow, wrapped in bandages. His green eyes were round with surprise – narrowed with suspicion – when Bruce had come to see him. Delighted when he had stayed.

'Bruce?!'

Fragility flickered across John's face. His shoulders hunched and his upper body bobbed. A pale hand fidgeted along the side of his seat, like the chair he sat on was a boat and he had to keep himself steady on water.

'Hi John.' Bruce was timid at first, they both were. They stared at each other not knowing how the other was going to react. Bruce cleared his throat, but it was John who spoke first.

'Why?' His thin voice was high, like a child, innocent of any reason why Bruce would bother to show for someone like him. John knew he was a loser, knew what people thought…and wanting to be anything else had somehow made him a villain as well.

'Why?' John repeated. Dazed.

Thick fingers fiddled with the end of a pin-striped tie. Bruce smoothed it out repeatedly, trying to think of the right words or find the courage.

'I wanted to make sure you were alright.' The front of the tie could do to be a little longer. 'It wasn't fair what happened.'

John looked astounded; one eye large, one eye squinting. 'Are you apologising?'

Bruce dropped his hands and made himself look at John. He wanted to be truthful. 'In a way, yes.'

The milky face was caught between delight and something bitter.

'Are you sorry?' Bruce asked.

'WELL! In a way, I accept your apology!' beamed John, showing his teeth. John waited for Bruce to express gratitude; he guessed a face-twitch was as good as anything. 'You're welcome!'

'– for the people who died?'

John ignored him. 'You know, you were pretty good at being criminal. That Wayne charm – gets 'em every time.' He held his left hand up, spreading his fingers like they do in showbiz. Then he glowered, 'you certainly knew how to work me…'

'I am sorry John.'

'– but I bet you use a LOT of people,' John continued. 'I bet you HAVE TO use a lot of people. For the greater good. FOR JUSTICE! Nothing personal about it. Ain't that right, Bruce?' John's voice was sly, or maybe it was thoughtful. He didn't seem angry.

Be honest. 'Yes. I suppose I do. Did.'

John raised a green eyebrow in question. Those teacup ears never missed a thing.

Be honest. 'I am retired.'

Pale lips made a great round 'O' and John clapped his hand to his open mouth, giggling franticly. 'Whoa! BOY!' The giggles turned to cackles. '– that's a shocker.'

He couldn't help it, Bruce smiled and then he began to laugh too. Sounding like every other madman in this place.

John brought the laughter to a close. 'So HOW are you going to be interesting now? I mean I have my green HAIR – you have LOTS of green smackers! What CAN money buy that is more interesting than:' and John flapped his elbows, squeaking like a rodent.

Bruce smiled. It was a good question. 'I don't know, John.'

'Hey! What happened to Dr Leyland?'

Taken aback by the sudden change of topic, Bruce brought his hand to his head, thinking. 'Requested transfer after Lady Arkham's riot – I think – a lot of doctors did.'

'Oh, shame. SO, what now? You and Cat-lady? Puurweow!'

Bruce shook his head. 'No, I don't think so.'

'Urgh! Tie the knot already!' John flopped his good hand over in disgust. 'Treat her to a weekend in Paris and let her steal something expensive', he suggested. 'I've never been to Paris. This guy had though – APPARENTLY the Frenchies are RUDE! – and there are these mimes everywhere. Sprayed grey like stone!'

Posing like a statue, John made his eyes glaze over. His great mittened hand rigid until he winced.

'Oww!'

Bruce sighed. 'No. No night in Paris.'

'Aww. Get a dog THEN. Turn Wayne Manor into a sanctuary for orphaned dogs – or cats – or exotic mice no one wants – or whatever!'

'John?'

'Yes, Bruce?'

'Do you want me to come and visit again?'

'Oh, am I talking too much?' and John looked genuinely apologetic.

'No, that's not what I meant. Do you want me to visit you again?'

'Yes,' said John abruptly. His body rapt with attention. Even his breathing was deliberate. 'You really meant what you said back at the plant?' Lustrous eyes bored into him, looking for an answer. 'You really considered me your friend…even if it was only for a moment?'

'Yes. More than a moment, John.'

White face slackened. Thin lips speechless. His green eyes shone like pale jade, a little wet at the edges.

'Why?' asked John's voice, confused.

'Just let me be your friend,' and Bruce held out his wide-knuckled hand to John. John took it cackling.

'Ok, Brucie Boy!

Brucie Boy. Bruce hated 'Brucie', but not so much from John. It was something the boys at school called him, and then again at college – not offensively, they just did. Every so often somebody would call him this; being too familiar or trying to flirt with him. His head was still pounding, but if he lay really still it was a drum-beat and not an anvil. He spread his thick fingers in the empty space next to him, stroking the bed sheets and then, quite unexpectedly, he began crying. Bolting upright, his head seared as if struck with a sledgehammer. He imagined Harley Quin's revenge.

Stop it. He had to stop crying.

Taking several blinding steps to his sacred draw he lifted the musky cigar box and took it blindly back to his bed. He placed the dead bat in the centre of his palm and let its magic work. As with a crucifix, he bowed his head and let his thumb explore the hairy chest, needle teeth, and leather skin. The tips of its fingers ended in tiny pin-like claws. He was no longer crying. He was calm. The Batcave invaded his brain and he felt a bloom of dread flare in his chest, but he kept hold of the bat and soon even this melted away. Eventually he was able to put the dead bat back in its cigar box, back in the draw. The cigar box had been his Father's.

He would get dressed. Tomorrow was a new day. The day he would wake up when his alarm sounded, put on a clean suit and drink nothing but water. Lots, and lots of water.

Muscles gently sore from calisthenics, Bruce pushed through the doors of Wayne Enterprises with his head held high. He seized control of the board room, listened respectfully to other people's opinion and steered company projects in the right direction. He caught up with Tiffany, ignored her looks of concern, and praised her for her commitment and ingenuity. Lucius Fox, your daughter is a genius and she is making us all proud. He finished work with a pint of water and a kale-tropical fruit smoothie. Now he would buy flowers.

Sitting at the steering wheel of his car, he mastered the weight of guilt in his chest. He would apologise when he was at their feet. Great finger-like shadows washed over him as he passed the graves. He came to stand at Martha's and Thomas's own marble face. It was surprisingly simple: neat and black with grey veins, and two vessels cut from the same stone that were intended to hold flowers. Bruce stopped. He'd expected to see the last set of flowers he brought dried and withered – instead there were two freshly cut bunches. Alfred. In a spasm of shame he brought his hands to his face, and then slid them into a prayer, bending one knee as he sunk closer to his parents. Silently he prayed, letting the wetness creep down at the corner of his eyes. He would do better. He, who never forgot his duty, would find a way.

Please, just tell me if I can have John?

He had said what he had come to say. The grass had a flattened patch where he had knelt. He had asked forgiveness and he had been honest. Bruce brought his fingers to his lips and then back down to kiss his parents tomb.

Alfred never spoke about the past month, and when Bruce asked him to get rid of the liquor he liked to drink, Alfred did so without question or retort. In truth Alfred had being doing so in secret, but every time a bottle was removed, two more would appear. Both men slipped into a new normal, more or less like the old normal – but without Batman or Batmobile or Batcomputer. That was until Alfred approached him one afternoon, teetering towards him with a small paper file.

'Master Bruce. I took the liberty of researching people you may find suitable – I hope you don't mind?'

Bruce looked up from the chesterfield, puzzled. He put the newspaper to one side and prepared to listen.

Encouraged Alfred continued, opening the file. 'It may not be my place to do so, Sir, but I rather thought these men could be a suitable date?'

Oh my god.

'William is a very promising young poet, studied classics at Cambridge and is making the rounds of all the major cities across the US. Juan is the son of a billionaire, Spanish, but loves taking his fashion to new places – he is in Gotham this fall. Erm. Akimitsu is –.'

'ALFRED!'

His butler paused respectfully, crossing his hands.

'Should I leave the file here, Sir?' and he tilted the handsome prospects towards Bruce.

'No, Alfred, you should not!' Bruce rubbed his face, trying to get his tomato-cheeks back to normal.

'May I ask what Master Bruce is looking for?' Alfred enquired, tentatively. 'It would help me when I am searching?'

God he was embarrassed. And now he could feel two hot tears at the crook of each eye. He reached for his throat that was closing.

Gently, his butler sank into the chair opposite. Putting the file down on the glass table.

'It's John,' asked Alfred softly, 'isn't it?'

Bruce nodded. He barely moved his head, but he nodded.

'But why, Alfred?' Bruce's voice was pained, disbelieving. 'Pale, lanky, uneducated…violent!'

'It's because he's damaged, Bruce.'

Wayne's eyes widened and he looked fleetingly like a skull with glass marbles popping out the sockets.

'Alfred, that is cruel!' the indignation in his voice shook.

He could not believe these words had been spoken by Alfred. Not by his butler, not by his friend. Not by the person who knew him best.

Alfred swallowed, 'Cruel these words may be, Sir, but they are the truth non the less.'

Bruce railed. 'You're saying I am like him! – like them!' Spit escaped with every acid word. 'What! – that I have some kind of hard-on for killers and criminals?!'

With his whole left arm quaking Alfred held it steady with his right, and with the resolve of a father he forced himself to look Bruce deep in the eye. He chose his next words with great deliberation:

'I am saying you could have been like them. I think Batman was as much Bruce Wayne's enforcer as he was the criminals he fought. I watched a perfect little boy have his perfect world shattered. I watched that same boy grow up in perfect misery. I always knew his darkness would have to come out – he would take someone else's life or his own! I feared it more than I can put into words. That's why I encouraged Batman. Batman saved Bruce Wayne and that is more important to me than him saving Gotham.'

Shining, livid eyes watched the tears roll down Alfred's face. Bruce was perfectly horrified. Unable to think. Unable to know his own feeling. He wanted to throttle the man. He wanted to hug him. Undeniably, Bruce had never, ever loved or hated Alfred more clearly than he did in that moment.

It was too much. With a scrape of wood on polished wood he made to leave.

'Don't! Please sit! We need to do this…don't walk out on me now!' the older man begged.

Straight backed, the shirt collar crisp at his jaw line, Bruce strode seven heavy steps to the farthest wall.

'I can't look at you, Alfred.'

'Then don't look – listen.' Alfred's voice was desperate, panicked. Unconsciously his hands clasped and unclasped as he brought his body to the very edge of his seat, leaning as closely as he could towards the other man's back, with its sharp contours and impressive width. The steel shoulders stretched every inch of the expensive fabric to a shuddering, gilt formality. Then quite suddenly the back-lit figure bellowed.

'YOU ARE NOT MY FATHER!'

There was a whining noise and it took Alfred several heady heart beats to realise that the sound was not coming from himself. Alfred saw the tears rolling frantically onto Master Wayne's polished loafers and he made towards him with his arms outstretched. The thick elbow lunched suddenly backward and with a splintering rasp a hole appeared in the wall next to the trembling, uberman's shoulders.

Mr Wayne fell deathly silent.

The only sound in the room was the tick-ticking of the grandfather clock and of Alfred's own heart beat that seemed to pound throughout every cell of his body and out – out – out into the twinkling light of the room. After what seemed like an hour, Bruce finally turned around. His face mask-like and handsomely composed.

'I am going for a drive and then I am going to see John. Don't put yourself out, I am eating out tonight.'

'Bruce –.'

'I am going for a drive and then I am going to see John. And tomorrow I am going to fix that. It will be like it never happened.'

'Bruce –.'

'I mean it: don't put yourself out. Do something you enjoy. I've purchased that new book you wanted and there is an unopened bottle of Cointreau at the back of the bar – I don't know how you can drink that shit – but hey, I know you like it,' said Bruce cracking a smile.

'You're unbelievable,' murmured Alfred, clutching his chest. 'You're killing me…'

'I am not killing you, Alfred,' said Bruce Wayne smiling. 'You'll be here when I get back, you'll be here tomorrow. You'll be here for years to come.'

'That's not what I mean…' said Alfred faintly and he sank back into the smart leather seat. '– and no, my darling boy. I will not be here forever. You need someone…'

Bruce stood casually with his hands in his pockets. 'Yeah, you will. You'll be here.'

The clock chimed five.

'Right! I am going for a drive and I am off to see John!' Bruce turned jovially to Alfred and waited expectantly for some positive remark or acknowledgment from his butler.

'Drive sensibly…for god's sake be safe.'

'Always! Enjoy your evening and don't drink the Cointreau in one go! See you soon, Al.'

Turning and with a bounce in his heal, Master Wayne strode from the room, leaving Alfred to wearily cradle his head. When the footsteps faded out of hearing and the room fell silent, a part from the tick-ticking of the great clock, Alfred uttered: 'You are not fair Master Bruce…and yes, you are killing me.'

Vroom-vroom-vrooooom. Chiga-chiga-chiga.

The smart, swanking-red of Wayne's sports car glided past Arkham's notorious iron gates and into a reserved parking bay at the back of the hospital. Since John had been incarcerated, he had insisted it be reserved all the time, in exchange for a generous donation and double the pay of the bay of course. Bruce was sure the doctors and nurses regarded him with suspicion, but he didn't care.

Professional footsteps mingled oddly with devilish laughter and spasmic, anguished shouts. A sound that came from every fault in the white-washed walls and up between the cracks in the tiles. Bruce hated the tiles. They were that insipid sea-sick green that accompanied the elderly and the dying; on hospital curtains and on carpets in care homes. It was an interior far from the smart, polished walnut of Wayne Manor. God, he wanted John away from this place.

I've got your back john.

'Mr Wayne! But visiting hours are almost over!' the receptionist said with a start.

'I know. I'll make it quick. I have to see John.'

'John Doe? Well yes, but he's just got settled – not been too good this past day or two! Gives the good Doctors a lot of lip. He could be less physical too, you know.'

'I'll make it quick,' assured Bruce and he slid a generous quantity of crisp-green notes towards the receptionist. She raised one plucked eyebrow and faintly sneered at the money – halting at the look in Wayne's eye. There was a steel there she thought mad.

'Alright, if you insist,' she said unwillingly. Plump hand resting importantly on her chest, she continued: 'You know something, Mr Wayne? I don't think your wellness-crusade is helping. We see a lot of patients come and go, but we see an awful lot more come and stay. I don't think Mr Doe is leaving any side of this century. Maybe you should let the professionals handle him.'

'What? Professionals like Dr Harleen Quinzel,' Bruce said tersely.

The receptionist coughed affectedly. 'Yes, well, the Doctor doesn't like lip. I am assuming with that –,' she said looking at the money, '– you'll be wanting to see John outside his cell?'

'Why yes,' and Bruce leaned forward to look pointedly at the receptionist's name badge, 'Emma, I do.'

'Ok, you know the routine,' and she quickly rustled the money away beneath her desk.

'Take care, Mr Wayne.'

'Bruce!'

'Hi John'

Bruce pulled the chair the guard had set closer to the opened hatch at the cell door. John's room was grim, with mismatched green and grime-white tiles along the walls, a grimier tile floor and a window that constantly cast a set of long cylindrical shadows made by the bars placed on the inside of the frame.

'Well this is unexpected,' said John beaming manically. 'What gives? Did I miss something?'

'No – I just wanted to see you. I have something I need to ask you and I am not sure how to…' Bruce's voice trailed off as his brow creased pensively.

Looking first confused and then concerned, John nodded encouragingly. 'Ok BRUCE – fire away!'

'We're friends aren't we, John? Despite everything that happened, we're friends? But here's the thing, John…certain things have been laid to rest and my future is taking a new direction…a more stable, secure, solitary direction.'

Smiling, John nodded for Bruce to continue.

'Do you want to be more than friends, is what I am trying to say,' quavered Bruce.

'Well sure – BEST FRIENDS it is!' said John promptly.

'No! No. That's not what I am trying to say…' Bruce's voice trembled. 'Look – I…' and he rubbed his brow and the back of his neck, trying to soothe the cocktail of emotions bubbling inside him. Wayne leant his face closer to John, so his mouth was at the edge of the hatch.

'Do you have more to give?' he appealed meaningfully.

'More, Bruce?' exclaimed John, clearly puzzled by this game. 'This is it! This is ME? – and hell, I don't even know who me is half the time! There are a heck of a lot of me's in here Brucie, let me TELL you! I thought you knew that?'

'That's not what I mean. IF you ever get out of here: do you have more to give me? Do you want to have more to give me?'

John looked muddled and then he slowly smiled. 'Well, let me tell you: I can do some pretty neat balloon animals – I'll even make you a tommy gun!'

'No! That's not what I mean!' Bruce hissed, banging his fist on the cell door. 'Have you ever thought what it would be like to kiss me?' and his gut clenched as he finished the sentence. A small voice berated him for betraying himself like this.

Explosive laughter erupted from behind the cell-door 'Bruce! You're making me blush. Well, SURE – I'll kiss you if it'll make you happy! ANYTHING FOR BRUCIE BOY!' and John puckered his lips to the hole.

'NO! Are you gay?! If you're medicated enough will you settle?' Bruce's voice was near hysterical. 'Do you want to settle with me?'

For the first time John's face went still and with a look of utmost concern he ruminated for a full five minutes.

'This morning, I woke up to several mice, all in LITTLE sassy JAZZ costumes, dancing along the edges of my bed…just for me. It was hilarious, and the voices thought so too! They LAUGHED and then they kept shouting. Then suddenly they're telling me I am worthless and that I have to do something about the mice and then the mice start cutting each other up. They're pulling each other's heads off and twisting and screaming. And then I remember – I think it was my Father – telling me what he'd do if I didn't behave myself and then he showed me: he took my mouse and he took a meat cleaver and he separated that mouse from its head. And I am laughing and I am thinking about all the nurses who float past my door every hour and I am thinking how funny it would be to twist their heads clean off! And then all the sassy-little-jazz-mice are suddenly TERRIFIED of me – and I am trying to explain myself – and then I am stepping on them – and before they go POP their eyes are ballooning out of their heads – you know – like a cartoon. It wasn't funny…and then before you know it – it's time for the meds! And I spend the rest of my day comatosed…just sat in a chair…with nothing in my mind…and the day is over before I had chance to wake up…So, BRUCE!'

The jingling voice dropped to a single sober tone.

'Do you really think I have the brain-space I need to wonder if I am gay? Do you really THINK I can answer a single one of your questions? I mean I WANT to – ,' said Joker quickly, looking at the expression on Bruce Wayne's face, '– but do you really think I can?'

Joker finished earnestly. Really, really earnestly.

Sobered in a way he had not been since he laid Batman to rest, Bruce sat still, going over and over things in his mind. Loosing himself in the two green pools that were John's eyes, he let the silence make sense of things.

'John. I am sorry.'

'No – don't. Don't. You're sad, you're going to MAKE me sad – and – GOD DAMN IT – this is supposed to be happy! A SURPRISE VISIT FROM BRUCE! Happy! Happy!'

Violently folding his arms, John echoed Bruce's own pained expression. 'Bruce, did I do something wrong?' he asked.

'No,' said Bruce quickly.

'Oh, good. Then LET me tell you a joke.'

'John.'

'Yes, old sport!'

'I'd take it all away if I could.'

'Alright, let's talk.'

Alfred woke with a start and blearily tried to smarten himself in his chair. The grandfather clock read seven minutes past three. It was still dark outside and the numerous owls that inhabited the estate were calling to each other. Languidly Bruce slumped in his chair. It was a pose so uncharacteristically slovenly that his butler looked him full in the face in question.

'Bruce! My god – your eye?! Did John hurt you?'

Lazily and, according to Alfred, a little too sinisterly, Bruce grinned.

'No,' said Bruce softly, and he clinked the bottle Alfred had only just noticed to his lips.

'But –.'

'Alfred!' and Bruce half-slapped the side of his chair, before relaxing into another ridiculous grin. 'I accept that I will never, ever, ever be settling down with John.'

With a hiccup, Bruce brought his hand quickly to his mouth. Burp suppressed, he continued: 'IF he EVER, gets released, well then, he'll live in a child's…state. He has a child's mind, Al. Mind that is occasionally interrupted by moments of clear and wonderful lucidity – this I ache for – but for the most part, Al, he NEEDS a child's state.'

The old man's face slackened with such sadness that it almost made Bruce cry, something he had vowed not to do tonight. Instead he pulled a wide and wicked smile.

'You know what I'd like to do, Al?' said Bruce slyly. 'I'd like to get Selina all riled up and creaming her panties for me, and then I'd like her to walk in on me balls deep – no – being ridden – like a shiny, black stallion…and she'd just be like – Oh!'

This said, Bruce erupted into a lascivious fit of giggles. Snorting while his head rolled.

'Sir, that's –.'

'I know, I know,' Bruce whined mockingly. 'I am an awful, disgusting person…'

The bottle was raised again and Master Wayne's brow curved in stern contemplation. 'It's the expectation I'd like to shatter, Al…the god damn awful presumption…'

'Sir,' asked Alfred gently, 'how much have you had to drink?'

Master Wayne looked offended. 'Enough Alfred! Enough!' He scowled before lapsing into another cheeky grin, 'but I can always have more!'

Alfred rose and made to take the bottle.

'Leave me be Alfred!' Bruce hissed. 'You wanted me to spill my heart, well, here I am, booze in hand!'

Clearly bested in this round of take-the-bottle, Alfred returned to his seat. He sighed and softly rested his hands in his lap, thinking.

'But Bruce, John is so vulnerable – childlike, as you say – how do you know – erm – you simply don't just want to cuddle him?'

'Oh, I do!' reassured Bruce. 'I wanna cuddle with him. I wanna protect him. But I wanna do things to him too – I want to ride him!'

'Yes, your stallion analogy is quite vivid, Sir. But, have you ever actually…erm…and what about those women you take to the parties, Sir?'

Wayne stared at him incredulously with one eyebrow raised as if his virility being questioned stung his ego. Virility among men that is. He smiled at his old man's innocence.

'Have I ever actually fucked a man, Alfred? Yes – and been fucked…and the girls…well they're escorts. They ESCORT me and then I send them on home! Occasionally, if I am horny and if I am drunk enough, I let them touch me…I have a real stallion-cock when I am horny!'

The bottle slipped in Bruce's hand as he collapsed into a fresh fit of giggles, snorting like a horse between laughs.

'This is all getting rather lewd, Sir.'

'Alfred! You wanted me to talk and here I am – drunk? – yes – embarrassed? – no! – well only in the morning – but I am here….AND…I have accepted the situation with John.' In a tone that was the epitome of reason, Bruce finished: 'that's what you wanted isn't it? Acceptance of the things I can't change…'

'Well, Sir. I have to say that I am pleased you are finding animals other than bats to be suitable allegories for yourself…because if it was called Bat-dick I don't think I could look you so easily in the eye again.'

Alarmed at just how much mirth he had caused, Alfred stared at Bruce, who was currently laughing so hard that his breath was coming out in a pained whistle. He was looking dangerously close to falling out of his chair too.

'Oh! My God – my prudish butler!'

'What I am trying to ask, Sir, is that you have an outlet? You have men you see?'

The giggles subsided as Bruce fort to regain some measure of composure. He straightened himself, respectfully, and confirmed: 'Yes Alfred.'

'And do you – can you – cuddle with any of these men?'

'No. These are big men Alfred. Depending on what I ask for depends on who takes the beating. We fuck furiously and we fuck hard…and when I am ready for the next round, I pay up front. It's as simple as that. Nothing cushy like emotions are ever present – just a need that gets sorted.'

Catching the growing horror in Alfred's face, Bruce added, '– but this is once in a blue moon you have to understand. Really Alfred – I haven't been to them in over 6 months – well a part from tonight…I had need tonight.'

Alfred let out a half-gasp, half-sigh exclamation of dismay.

'My god Bruce! Is there no one you can me soft with? Anyone at all you can share a bit of your heart with?'

Thick, angular fingers played with the empty bottle.

'My heart isn't easily shared, Alfred, you should know that. That is why Selina is so easy – it's a game – it's a flirtation! It isn't real.'

'I think it may be real for Miss Kyle, Sir,' Alfred warned.

'I know, and that's why I am a terrible person,' said Bruce earnestly. 'I play games Alfred…I always have… Bruce: The Charmer.'

Silence resumed as the two men sat for a while. The air outside was still and Bruce was sure the owls were enjoying a goodnights hunt. He was also sure he could hear the distant call of a fox wandering on the fringes of the woods that surrounded Wayne Manor. It was something Bruce rather enjoyed: catching a glimpse of a fox, or some other twilight beast, as he returned home from a long, hard night as Batman. Bruce loved the secret worlds that went on turning in the half-lit corners of the Earth. Despite appearances, he was quite the nature lover.

It was Alfred who was first to speak and his amused tenor pulled Bruce back from slumber: 'Who'd have thought, eh? Gay Batman!'

'No Alfred. Batman isn't gay. Batman can't be gay. Batman can't be anything,' said Bruce yawing so wide Alfred feared he might be swallowed.

'Oh. I see, Sir.'

The butler saw it was time for Master Wayne to have some much needed sleep and he got up to find the blanket he kept spare. With his boy safely tucked in he made to leave, then reconsidered. The butler turned: 'Bruce?'

'Ehemmm?' came a dreamy voice.

'Batman hasn't retired, has he? You're going to suit-up again soon. Aren't you, Sir?

'Yes Alfred.'

'Bruce?'

'Yeah?'

'Promise me something?'

Bruce half-opened his eyes. 'I'll try…you know I'll try.'

'Promise me you'll find someone to settle down with, when the time is right to…and if you can't do that, promise me you'll try to find someone that you can be soft with – someone that makes you happy?'

Taking a deep breath, Bruce answered. 'It'll be hard Alfred, but for you –,' and Master Wayne cocked and fired his hand that he had made into a pistol, '– I'll try.'

Smiling a small, sad smile, Alfred watched his boy's breath slow to a soft rhythm, and, satisfied Master Wayne had been tended to, the butler quietly turned to leave.

'Alfred!' cried Bruce suddenly.

'Yes, Sir?'

'Don't let me kill you.'

The butler paused and straighten himself up. 'I'll try my best, Sir,' and then he added, 'You have me for as long as I am alive, Sir.'

'Thanks, Al.'