Oswald Cobblepot was not a happy man.
The mercenaries and thugs that loitered in the sparse corridor of the abandoned factory that served as Two Face's temporary base stepped respectfully out of his way. He had blood on his mind and they were accustomed enough with violence to see that.
They knew better than to bite the hand that feeds.
There was no grinning or muffled guffaws at his waddle or squawking grunts now as he strode to the cavernous assembly that served as the audition room.
He, Oswald Cobblepot had been reduced to a bumbling stooge by that showboat Dent. Well he could shove it! Dent expected subservience just because he had negotiated his bail?
Pah! Cobblepot had better lawyers than Dent on his speed dial. No, he would be bullied, cajoled and threatened no more. He would set his plan in motion soon and then show that pizza faced freak who really ran the show in Gotham.
Still, for the moment it was probably best to present a façade of capitulation. Play the good little caged bird. Dent was nuts, of that there was no question, but his mind was as still as sharp as it had been in his best courtroom days. No, he would wait for the freak to drop his guard, inveigle himself further into Dent's criminal infrastructure, bury himself like a tick into the organisation and then, when he was placed to do the most damage, he would send Two Face's entire organisation falling down around him like a house of cards.
Cobblepot allowed himself a little smile.
Soon. Very soon!
For the moment he had a job to do. His webbed flipper of a hand rested on the handle of a heavy iron door. Dent's plan, the plan he was at that very moment broadcasting to the cowed peons of Gotham was to murder Gotham's youngest twins. Those born closest to the time of broadcast. He needed to find a thug with the stomach and finesse to turn the maternity unit of Gotham general into a slaughterhouse. Dent's people had set up the audition. It would no doubt be the usual carnival of jaded hit men, rejects from the League of Shadows and half a dozen two bit hoods looking for their big break.
With an avian grunt he pushed the door open. The motion sent something skittering wetly across the floor.
The Penguin stood framed in the doorway, his jowls quaking in horror and awe.
Before him lay a tableaux that told of the aftermath of some unimaginable carnage.
The bullet pocked walls were streaked with blood.
Smouldering weapons littered the floor in many cases attached to the hands of their owners.
The face of severed head that he had disturbed upon entering was twisted with terror.
Amidst the gore and viscera a lithe figure stood lazily twirling a pair of katana blades.
"I got kinda bored so I…"
The sentence needed no conclusion.
Slowly, a smile spread across The Penguin's face and he clapped his shaking flippers together in sincere applause.
It was in moments like this, when things seemed at their most desperate, that Alfred found himself wondering what his life would have been like if Freddie Newman hadn't died.
It had been a time of war. One of the more justified, or perhaps merely least atrocious conflicts. Newman had been his platoon's combat medic, a gentle giant of a man whose colossal stature had proved his undoing when he was unable to find sufficient cover during an enemy barrage.
The boys had dutifully buried his remains and collected his kit. As they debated who should carry on Freddie's duties Private Alfred Pennyworth had made the mistake of joking that he had played Dr Watson at the Old Vic and so the role of combat medic had fallen upon him.
Fortunately he had had to face few skirmishes since then, having to perform no procedure more taking than applying a bandage to shrapnel wound.
It was during this task, performed impromptu in torrential rain in a hastily assembled allied camp, that a deep, American voice said in friendly derision;
"You call that a field dressing?"
This had been his introduction to Flight Surgeon Thomas Wayne, a tall handsome man whose reputation as an outstanding field doctor was preceded only by his reputation as a wealthy industrialist and heir to the Wayne business empire.
If the American servicemen had been unsure what to make of Wayne with his stoic manner, unnerving confidence and assured billions then the Brits were outright hostile towards 'the rich Yank'. For whatever reason Alfred had been able to see straight past the minutia of things that his peers found so intimidating from the very beginning and the two quickly became firm friends. Wayne took Pennyworth under his wing, schooling him in the most common procedures in field surgery and a few of the more esoteric.
And it was one of these very techniques with which Thomas Wayne had saved his life when a stray bullet had found its way into his long intestine.
The other men had wanted to abandon their post, or to overdose Alfred with enough morphine to put him out of his misery but Thomas has steadfastly refused to abandon his friend.
"No soldier will die on my watch, gentlemen. Not while there's breath in my lungs."
So steely was Wayne in his conviction that they held their post.
And, eventually Corporal Alfred Pennyworth was healed.
With time the horrors of war were dulled by the salve of peace and both men returned to civilian life.
But he had never forgotten his duty to his friend and no matter how shy or bashful Thomas became when the matter was brought up Alfred never relented in his insistence that he owed Thomas Wayne his life.
So intent upon repaying his debt was he that when Thomas half jokingly said over a crackly transatlantic line;
"You know Al; we could always use some good staff at Wayne Manor. My butler's getting a little old now and-"
He hadn't needed to finish the sentence. Alfred had caught the next available flight to the states and begun life anew in Gotham.
Those early years at Wayne Manor had been amongst the happiest in his life.
Hobnobbing with Wayne's fascinating high society friends, the women all so glamorous in their pearls and cocktail dresses. Meeting his friend's fiancée the devastatingly beautiful Martha, being best man at their wedding and sharing in their joy when Thomas delivered baby Bruce into the world.
The battlefield had never been Pennyworth's arena and as much as he had enjoyed treading the boards at the Old Vic and the Drury Lane Theatre it was for the first time in a long time that he felt that he had finally found himself at home at Wayne Manor.
It was a simple and pure kind of happiness that had been wholly shattered by something as simple and arbitrary as a desperate man and two bullets.
As Alfred polished unused silverware wrought generations ago, it seemed as though the warped, hollow eyed reflection staring back at him mirrored the stricken hollowed eyed face of the boy who had looked up at him on that fateful night over twenty years ago and asked;
"Why did they have to die Alfred?"
What could he say? What words of comfort could he impart to a young boy so uncomprehending of the unthinking, unfeeling horrors of violence and crime? He had elected to say nothing but to simply put his arms around the boy and feel something cold and hard forming in his tiny chest, a tiny spark that would later blossom into fury, guilt and anger. Alfred feared what he felt as he held the boy.
On that stormy and terrible night, after leaving Bruce to his troubled sleep he had stood at the graves of his friends and made a silent promise to watch over the boy, to do his utmost to raise him as Thomas and Martha would have, to tutor him in benevolence and compassion.
The very next morning he had woken Bruce with a hearty breakfast which, of course, the boy refused. He merely stared at the wall, a cold nascent hatred in his red rimmed eyes. Alfred had set the tray aside and put a hand on the boy's shoulder;
"I can't say that the pain will go away Bruce… But it will get better. You will smile again. I will help you through this;"
Tears streamed down his tiny face and his arms clamped hard around the butler.
"You will never be alone Bruce. That is my promise to you."
It was a difficult and heartbreaking experience guiding young Bruce through his pain and anger, to temper his rage with compassion and morality. To sow the seeds of what would become the Batman.
Yes, he acknowledged with no little regret that he had indulged Bruce's vengeful quest, even encouraged it. Why shouldn't the lad turn the horror of his personal tragedy into a symbol to inspire good? To save lives?
He had, perhaps wilfully, ignored the danger signs over the years, the sleep deprivation, the denial of food, hobbling from one stimulant to the next, Bruce pushing his tired and broken body beyond its limits. As the years went on Alfred found himself setting more and more broken bones, stitching more and more knife wounds. It eventually reached the point where he begged the younger man to take an evening off, thrusting a ticket to the Haly's Circus into his hand. With a tired smile, Bruce acquiesced.
That night tragedy struck again and he found himself staring into another pale, hollow eyed face as Bruce brought the young Dick Grayson, orphaned son of murdered trapeze artists, home. Alfred had prepared a modest meal for young Master Grayson and brought it through to the drawing room of Wayne Manor where Bruce knelt in front of the boy. As Alfred got closer he noticed Bruce point at the large oil painting of his parents that hung above the grand fireplace and his heart swelled as he heard the words Bruce spoke to the boy.
"I can't say that the pain will go away Dick… But it will get better. You will smile again. I will help you through this. You will never be alone… That is my promise to you."
Alfred was neither foolish nor naïve. He did not kid himself that Dick's arrival negated Bruce's dark obsession but he noticed a change in the younger man both as Bruce Wayne and Batman. He seemed… happier with Robin by his side.
Now things had gone so terribly wrong between them.
Alfred was shaken out of his reverie by a muted whirring coming from the kitchen, designed to sound like a noisy refrigerator motor.
It was, in fact an alarm.
The cave's security had been breached.
Time was running out but still Robin could not resist a stolen glance at his old costume, encased in plastic glass like a museum piece.
He's trying to shut me away like that Scarface doll or one of Cobblepot's trick umbrellas. He thinks he can denigrate me to a memento of times gone by.
Still even as he looked, the bold colours, the vivid scarlet of the chest piece, the lemon yellow of the cape, so very different to the costume he now wore brought back memories of simpler times.
He fought the urge to smash open the case and reclaim the suit. It was his design after all, even if the technology used to build it was based on Batman's own. But that was not what he had come here for.
He had expected Batman to have adapted the Redbird for his own needs or, worse still, dismantled it completely but pulling that same lever caused it to rise up from the smooth stone floor in its metal cocoon which cracked open with a hydraulic hiss.
He was glad to see the old bike and surprised by how much he missed it. Just looking at it he could feel the wind in his hair and the sense of exhilaration that came from burning through the streets of Gotham on it.
He sat astride the vehicle. It had a full tank of gas and the mechanics and computer had been well maintained. Probably by Alfred. Bless the old coot!
Robin's smile dropped, however when he heard the metallic clunk of a rifle being cocked.
"Whoever it is down there, I feel I should warn you that I am carrying a Winchester model 70 and I'm an excellent marksman."
Alfred moved cautiously down the cave's stone steps and hoped that whoever the intruder was they believed his hollow boast because the truth was that he hadn't fired a rifle in over thirty years and that in the dark of the cave he could easily miss the broad side of a barn door.
The matter of his marksmanship became academic, however, when an unseen force whisked the weapon right out of his hands with a force that threatened to send him careening down into the darkness. A strong arm shot out and steadied him.
"You could hurt someone with that thing Al."
Alfred turned with a start at the sound of the familiar voice.
"Master Dick, you're back! But your costume it's-"
"Just the start of the changes I'm going to be making."
Robin turned and Alfred noticed the wound above his ear where a thug had landed a lucky blow.
"You're injured, Master Dick. Let me dress that for you."
Robin descended the steps, making for the Redbird.
"I'm taking the bike, Alfred. I think Two Face's next target will be-"
"The maternity wing of Gotham General Hospital sir, yes. Master Bruce had reached the very same conclusion. In his broadcast Two Face said that his next target would be Gotham's newest pair, Master Bruce surmised that that would mean Gotham's newest born twins."
Robin stopped, turned.
"He did? When?"
"Two Face broadcast his ransom demand less than twenty minutes ago. I believe he worked it out soon after."
Robin cocked his head then smiled and pumped his fist.
"World's Greatest Detective, my ass! I got him beat by nearly half an hour."
He stood next to the bike, Alfred at his heels.
"This is not a game Master Dick. You of all people should know how dangerous Two Face is."
"I know, Alfred. But I need… I need to do this. I need to prove that Robin is his own man, that he doesn't need to live in Batman's shadow."
"Master Bruce has been a stern teacher. But surely you must understand that he would never have shared his secret with you, not to mention the streets of Gotham if he didn't believe you were worthy."
A worthy what? Alfred wondered. Partner? Successor? Or did Bruce merely see a skilled, angry young man so much like himself who could easily become a terrible adversary were he not shown the right path. Was Robin nothing more than Bruce's attempts at damage limitation.
Robin hung his head as if he had read the older man's thoughts.
"I know Al and… Thanks. But maybe it's not just Bruce that I need to prove it to."
He was about to sit astride the motorcycle but hesitated.
"You know I uh… I don't have a lot of equipment other than what I can find the time to make for myself. Do you think Bruce could spare-"
"I could never knowingly steal from my employer Master Dick, not even for you!"
Robin smiled shyly. It had been worth a shot.
"Yeah, I kinda thought you'd say that."
Alfred turned on his heel.
"I will now, however now leave the cave unattended while I mop up in the kitchen. And if I happen to remind myself out loud that the code for the armoury is 05-19-39 then my conscience will be completely clear."
He took two steps forward before Robin sprinted over and embraced him.
Wanda Mae Riggs was many things. A good wife, a good mother to her four beautiful children and the best damn cook this side of Paris and you could keep your fancy Metropolis fine dining, thank you very much!
But what she prided herself on most was being a good judge of character.
And this new doctor trying to get into the newborns' enclosure of the maternity wing without the proper authorisation was fast becoming a pain in her ass.
"I understand what you're saying Dr… Hillard," she glanced imperiously at the name on his badge "But those twins are in incubators right now, in a very vulnerable state and I've been asked not to let anyone in to see them without the proper authorisation from Dr Sinclair."
She fixed him with her very best stare and was fairly certain that she saw him physically shrink in front of her.
Beneath a layer of latex and a false beard The Batman fought the urge to just stride past her. A touch of the button would bring the hospital's security and while they were certainly no physical threat to him, it would take time that he did not have to subdue them. Time that was fast running out. He could make a reasonable assumption that Dent… Two Face would not come for the twins himself. His appearance was hardly inconspicuous and even if he came in with enough artillery to murder every doctor, nurse and patient in Gotham General he would not risk someone spiriting the children away while he murdered his way to the secure maternity wing.
No, Two Face would most likely send an assassin to do the job. Someone trained in the ways of stealth and disguise who was also unscrupulous enough to slaughter two newborn babies. Some renegade from The League of Assassins was the most likely candidate. If that were the case then he was on borrowed time already. He felt sure that Two Face would give him time to react after his broadcast but not much. For all he knew the assassin could be on his way already.
"Please, Ma'am. I have to get in to see those twins." The belt was equipped with an EMP that could take out all the lights in the entire wing, allowing him to slip past her, but it was not an option. The pulse would also disable patients' life support equipment. "It's an emergency."
"And like I said, if it's an emergency then why hasn't Dr Sinclair come down to tell me about it herself? Now I told that new intern and I'm telling you, nobody gets in there without authorisation."
The Batman's eyes widened in horror.
The assassin was here already.