Do No Harm
Chapter 1: Clip Show
"A 'clip show', Master Tim?"
"Yeah, it's for this Narrative Techniques class I'm auditing. My electives were so stuffy and science heavy. After that whole Ra's mess with the symposium and all the scientists getting kidnapped, I decided I really wanted a new direction. Live a little, try a bit of everything."
Alfred doused his dust rag with the special slime-resistant coating and applied it like furniture polish to the top of Batman's work console.
"An admirable sentiment," he said, switching to a feather duster and attacking the keyboard with gusto. "A liberal arts base is a fine foundation for a well-rounded education. My query was more… What exactly is a 'clip show', Master Tim?"
"It's, like, when a TV sitcom wants to save money, they'll come up with some lame reason for everybody to sit around remembering stuff that happened earlier, and then they get to reuse all this old footage. String it together in this dumb 'let's keep stepmom with a concussion awake for two days so she doesn't fall into a coma' framework."
"I… see," Alfred said skeptically.
"I know, it's kinda trite. But the assignment is really cool. Take that format to present something from one of your other classes. If it's history, you might do World War I, or business students might do the industrial revolution or the great depression. Psychology, start with Freud, Jung, Pavlov, like that."
"I fear an engineering student would have a daunting task before him," Alfred observed dryly.
"I don't think engineers take this class," Tim said with a grin.
"And which of your courses do you plan to explore via this innovative literary style?"
"Rise of the Mystery Men, from the Sociology of Superheroes."
Alfred scowled disapprovingly, and at first, Tim thought it must be the subject of his class project—but then he saw Alfred point the spray can at a stubborn discoloration on the side of a display case. After a sustained spray that looked vindictive, Alfred flipped his featherduster around and scraped the offending spot with the hard ridge of the handle.
"Better," he said finally.
"When do Bruce and Selina get back?" Tim asked, noting his own workstation gleamed with unprecedented luster.
"Master Bruce concluded his business at the London office yesterday. He and Miss Selina are enjoying a final day of sightseeing, and will fly back tonight. Tomorrow is to be spent reacclimating to the Gotham timezone so he may resume his nocturnal schedule in the evening."
"I'm surprised you didn't go with them, Alfred. I mean, London's the old home town, right?"
"Master Bruce did suggest it, but I prefer to take this rare opportunity to give the cave a proper cleaning and see to certain other tasks around the manor that are not practical when the master is in residence."
"Ah, well I'll get out of your way then. If you've only got one more day with him out of your hair, I better let you make the most of it."
*** Years Before***
Alfred hurried past the conservatory windows, around the rose garden, and stamped his feet fiercely on the mat outside the kitchen door. The act offered a double benefit while he fumbled for his key: it knocked the caked mud from his shoes, and it allowed him to feel vigorous. It was still early. Master Bruce would not be back from his holiday for several hours, but Alfred still would have preferred more time to prepare for his homecoming.
It wasn't as though Master Bruce had been away for a long time. Four days, what people with normal work schedules would call a long weekend. It was nothing, as far as the time involved… And it wasn't as if there was any kind of "homecoming" to prepare, either. Whenever Master Bruce returned from a business trip or from a Batman mission outside Gotham, he settled back into his routine as if he'd never left. The only difference this time was that it was a trip undertaken for pleasure. Even that meant nothing as far as Bruce Wayne's public image. As far as the world was concerned, there was very little the billionaire playboy didn't undertake solely for his own pleasure. The reality, of course, was quite different. The reality… that Batman's flirtations with the enigmatic cat burglar had progressed so far that he'd taken her away with him on a vacation, that was unprecedented. Alfred knew better than anyone that Batman was capable of extraordinary compromises where Catwoman was concerned, but he never admitted them. This—inviting her to go away with him—that was an overt act. It wasn't something he could hide, from her, from Alfred, or from himself. It was absolutely unprecedented.
Given the unusual nature of the holiday, it was quite possible, quite probable in fact, that Master Bruce would return in an unpredictable state of mind. Alfred suspected that, rather than settling back into his routine as if he had never left, there would be an onerous push, a disproportionate effort to make up for lost time. It seemed quite likely that, since he had indulged his own desires for once, he would now embark on an irrational and bad-tempered campaign to retroactively erase it.
A good servant anticipated such things. It wasn't certain, but it was possible, and indeed quite probable, that Batman would push all non-Bat considerations into the corner for the next several days, perhaps even a week. It was therefore prudent to complete all the Batcave inventories and cleaning, so as not to be in the master's way once he took up residence in the cave. It would also be prudent to prepare a quantity of sandwiches and cutlets that were suitable for cave-service meals. Alfred would have preferred to spend these days of Master Bruce's absence preparing for his return in just this way. And yet, he himself had gone on holiday. The quaint, Connecticut bed and breakfast was scenic enough, they laid an admirable tea every afternoon, and he learned a few things about heirloom roses. He just didn't want to be there. He wanted to be back at the manor attending to his duties, but instead… what a preposterous waste of time.
He had felt obligated to go away, though. There was simply no denying the fact that he'd deceived Master Bruce in a most underhanded fashion. It was not possible to live two lives as busy and weighted with responsibilities as Bruce Wayne's and Batman's—not to mention keeping one of those lives a secret from the world—without trusting the details to someone like Alfred. And Alfred had absolutely abused that trust.
He pretended Master Dick came up with the idea on his own and that Master Dick already spoken to Bruce about it. Indeed, he pretended Master Dick had spoken to Alfred himself about his plan. The truth was that Alfred had called Dick, not the other way around. Alfred told Master Dick, flat out, that he and Master Tim should plan on covering Batman's patrols the next three nights, enabling Bruce to take a vacation. He told Dick this would be his Father's Day present to Bruce, and that if Bruce asked, Dick should say he'd already mentioned it—twice. If Bruce expressed any skepticism or pressed for details as to where and when this alleged conversation occurred, Master Dick should feel free to express his indignation. It was so typical of Bruce to just pretend he was listening when he was really tuning you out, because you're still a sidekick, after all, and you couldn't possibly have anything to say that the all-mighty Batman hadn't figured out already. So typical, so absolutely typical…
Alfred certainly hoped there would be no such inquisition and no such quarrel, but if he'd learned one thing as confidant to the World's Greatest Strategist, it was to plan for contingencies.
His deception hadn't ended there either. Alfred then went to Bruce, pushing the vacation on him as a fait accompli, and in order to preempt any squiriming, Alfred said how he himself had made plans for a getaway. Since Bruce's reluctance to take any kind of holiday meant that Alfred too never got a vacation… After sinking to such depths, Alfred really felt he had no choice but to pack a bag, drive to Connecticut, and pretend to enjoy himself.
That duty performed, he had been seated in the dining room at 7 a.m., the earliest hour at which the landlady said she would be up preparing breakfast. He checked out immediately after setting down his napkin, and drove back to the manor without stopping. Now, at last, he could get in a good few hours work around the cave and manor before Master Bruce's return.
Alfred had discovered a number of foods that were particularly well suited to being served in the Batcave, foods that could be left for an hour or more and were still tasty and of a pleasant consistency when cooled to room temperature. Chocolate chip scones were not among those dishes, but Alfred made a batch anyway. He knew it was an act borne of guilt, although he wasn't completely sure what associations were at play. Master Bruce was never that interested in scones of any variety—although this recipe was a particular favorite of the late Doctor Wayne.
"Of course," Alfred said aloud as he dropped the last tablespoon of batter onto the cookie sheet. Doctor Wayne… Christmas…
It was mid-December and Mrs. Wayne was out, finishing her Christmas shopping. Doctor Wayne was therefore alone when Alfred brought tea. In those days, Mrs. Ardilla did the baking, mostly from recipes Mrs. Wayne had brought with her from the Van Geissen kitchens.
"If I might have a moment, sir," he began formally.
"Any time, Pennyworth," Dr. Wayne smiled, taking one of the chocolate chip scones onto his plate.
"I thought you should be informed, sir, that young Master Bruce is polling the staff regarding certain inconsistencies in the Santa Claus matter. The number of homes with children, the aggregate weight of two presents per child results in a sizable payload, far beyond the capabilities of eight reindeer. The size of the earth is also a point of concern, necessitating travel well in excess of the speed of sound."
"Magic, Pennyworth. Santa is magical."
"Yes, sir. I shall inform the staff."
"The weight of the gifts… My son is a very bright boy, Pennyworth."
"Indeed he is, sir. Is it entirely wise to… deceive him?"
"About Santa Claus?"
"About anything, sir. It occurs to me that a child depends on the adults around him to teach him about the world."
"Primum non nocere, Pennyworth. That's the first principle of medicine. It means 'first, do no harm.' It exists because one of the first things you learn as a doctor is that there are very few things in this world that are, by their nature, wholly good or wholly bad. Alcohol in excess is a poison, so is the tannin in this tea. But in moderation, the person who enjoys a glass of red wine every day, despite the presence of both alcohol and tannins, is actually healthier than a teetotaler. That's not a rare, outlying case, either. Other than firing a bullet into a healthy body, there is almost nothing a doctor can point to and say 'that is always going to be a bad thing'. You have to exercise judgment, case by case, so we have these guidelines to help us judge. First: do no harm.
"What I've told Bruce about Santa may not be strictly factual and scientifically verified, but its purpose is to make him happy. I don't see any harm in that, do you?"
"Not at all, sir."
At the time, Alfred thought nothing of the exchange. A few minutes of idle conversation while Doctor Wayne drank his tea... After the tragedy, such casual remarks took on new meaning. "You have to exercise judgment, case by case, so we have these guidelines to help us…"
Thomas Wayne valued his son's happiness.
Alfred picked up the tray of scones and turned to put the cookie sheet into the oven. His lie had done no harm, surely. And it was in the interests of Bruce's hap—
Behind him, he heard the door from the dining door swing open, and the heavy step of Master Bruce's foot on the kitchen floor.
"I see you are back, sir," Alfred began, turning back towards the door. "I trust you had a pleasant… weekend."
The pause was infinitesimal, and apart from a momentary widening of the pupils, there was no sign of surprise that non-kryptonian senses could detect. But the surprise was there all the same: Bruce wasn't alone.
"Selina Kyle, whom I may have mentioned from time to time," Bruce said with a relaxed easy manner Alfred seldom saw when a fop performance was not in progress.
"Very pleased to meet you, miss," Alfred said, with the same composure he would assume to greet any young woman Master Bruce brought home. Except Bruce Wayne had not brought this woman home—at least, Bruce Wayne had not gone away with her, Batman had. Alfred had packed his bag: an arab headdress to conceal his hair, band-style sunglasses to conceal his eyes, and triple check that no Wayne Tech polo shirt had slipped into the bag.
First: Do no harm.
Master Bruce had gone into this vacation fully intending to keep his identity concealed. What could have happened?
First: Do no harm.
"How do you do," Selina said, smiling.
First: Do no harm.
Well, she was glowing, and Master Bruce's arm had slid around her waist the moment they were both inside the door, so one thing that apparently happened was sex.
First: Do no harm.
"Alfred Pennyworth," Bruce was saying. "Alfred does everything around here. I couldn't get through the day without him…"
Sex happened. That should surprise no one. The attraction had been perfectly obvious the night Batman returned from his first encounter with the cat burglar, and the sexual tension that built over the years was more than apparent without Alfred's ever seeing them together.
First: Do no harm.
What did he expect to happen now that he'd thrust them together for a long weekend at a remote, idyllic resort? Sex, obviously.
First: Do no harm.
But there was no reason to believe Bruce would overturn his intention to keep his identity a secret.
Alfred concealed any sign of surprise or alarm, and offered Bruce and Selina tea.
"Oh no," Bruce said quickly. "We don't want to make you work. I just wanted Selina to meet you. Take your time here, I'm not even back as far as you're concerned. I'm going to give her the rest of the tour, and we'll wind up downstairs."
"Very good, sir," Alfred said formally. "A pleasure to meet you, miss."
Alfred could see Bruce's attention had obviously moved on to the next thing, "the tour" presumably, but this Selina met Alfred's eyes with a pleasant curiosity.
"What are you baking?" she asked, half-nodding at the empty bowl of batter.
"Chocolate chip scones, miss. Also an assortment of turnovers, cheese straws, pasties..." he began pointing to the plates of cooling delicacies. "And a few cutlets."
His attention drawn to the food, Bruce helped himself to a turnover. He said it was delicious. Then he steered Selina out of the kitchen, his hand grazing her hip as they went… leaving Alfred to ponder. He was not so old that he didn't remember the heady physical infatuation in the first days of a love affair. Clearly, years of Batman and Catwoman physicality on rooftops did not negate that magnetic draw to a new lover's body. As a butler, that was absolutely none of Alfred's business, other than it necessitated certain precautions before entering a room that he'd never had to worry about before in the service of this particular employer.
But Alfred was a great deal more than Bruce Wayne's butler, and it was that part of him who served as teacher, doctor, confidant, father confessor, and most recently, interfering matchmaker which didn't know what to make of this.
Initially, he'd viewed Bruce's obvious weakness for the cat burglar with concern. Being physically and emotionally drawn to an enemy is inherently dangerous. It was many years later that Master Dick dismissed that worry, laughing that Catwoman was every bit as taken with Batman as he was with her. In that moment of revelation, another aspect of the matter suddenly clarified in Alfred's mind:
The boy he knew as Doctor Wayne's son Bruce had slowly disappeared into this Batman. But there was no "Mission" in his attraction to the cat burglar. There was no crimefighting in it, no justice, and no Bat. It was the yearning of a man, and for years, the only sign there had really been of Batman's core humanity. Alfred had been distracted by his concern that Catwoman might take advantage of the weakness and harm him. Now that that worry was removed, he realized he'd been cherishing that spark of humanity gleaming under all Batman's scowling denials.
Alfred found himself staring at a plate of turnovers, then at the door where Bruce had left the kitchen. On the one hand, there it was: prophesy fulfilled. Bruce hadn't even noticed the food until Selina asked about it, but after her chance remark…
On the other hand, he had gone away planning to keep his identity a secret, and after a few days alone with her, came back parading her into the kitchen and was giving her—the most notorious thief in the country—a tour of the manor. It might be possible for Batman to be a bit too human underneath. A reverse of the earlier phenomenon occurred, with the worry for Bruce's safety blotting out any satisfaction in his emerging humanity. Alfred decided he could no longer trust a teenage Robin's judgment of Catwoman's feelings, whatever they might be. He would have to talk to her himself.
"Hey, Alfred," Selina called moments before the kitchen door swung open. "We're home. Early, I know, but don't worry. We're not officially here until tonight, so don't worry about dinner plans or anything like that. I'm just going to unpack and give Whiskers and Nutmeg their presents, then catch up with him in town."
"Miss Selina?" Alfred said, unflappable as always, although another man would have at least gasped at the unexpected entrance of one he thought out of the country. "When last I checked, Wayne One is equipped with no fewer than fourteen methods of communicating with the surface. Surely in the course of a seven hour flight, you could have sent word."
"I'm sorry, Alfred. He's incredibly worked up. Big breakthrough in London. He says he's been working on the mystery for ten years. We found the source—the original source—of all Jonathan Crane's chemical formulas. He didn't want to waste any time, so we pushed up our departure and he was hard at work the whole flight. He's gone straight to the satellite cave. I'm not even sure he's going to patrol tonight if he's on a roll."
Alfred's eyes narrowed in a way that was slightly reminiscent of Batman confronted with a dubious alibi.
"I see, miss. And while Master Bruce was thus occupied, you yourself were incapacitated by a debilitating fear of telephones?"
Catlike, Selina pffted off the rebuke as she would Batman's rooftop censures about other people's property.
"I was excited, too," she shrugged without apology. "I haven't seen him like that for a long time. I don't think he's been that excited since the Sherlock Holmes exhibit at the folklore museum."
"I see, miss," Alfred repeated with a humoring smile. "In that case, if you will permit me to assist with your unpacking—"
"Oh, no, no," Selina interrupted. "There are more presents in the luggage besides Whiskers and Nutmeg's, but he'll want to give you that himself. So no touching."
"Very well, miss. While you unpack, I shall prepare you a picnic basket, so you may both enjoy a proper dinner. If you can get him up to the penthouse, there will be a braised chicken. If you cannot, I will enclose an assortment of cold cutlets."
* * *
Alfred guessed that "the tour" Bruce was giving would conclude in the Batcave. He thought he'd allowed ample time for touring the public rooms on the ground floor, then proceeding to the cave, viewing the central cavern, gymnasium, chemistry lab, medical, Batmobile hangar, and trophy room. But when he brought a tray of refreshments down to the cave, Bruce and Selina were still in the main chamber. Bruce was seated at his workstation, with footage of a leopard grooming her cubs on the giant viewscreen.
"I can't believe it," Selina giggled in delight. "It's the raw footage from Big Cat Diary. Those are Half-Tail's new cubs, they weren't born last season. How could you possibly—this hasn't aired yet."
"That's what you asked for," Bruce graveled.
"I didn't think you could actually do it. You wanted a dare. How could you possibly… Wait, don't say it."
"Walked right into it."
Alfred withdrew quietly, Bruce's explanation of the auto-downloads fading into the distance as he left.
"Massive amounts of data are downloaded each night from various sources, then sifted, categorized, and indexed… I never would have found it that fast without it already being in the system… all of this material originally tagged for keywords related to Doctor Minerva, then the auxiliary filters catch outlying factors." "Like Amber being a real cheetah instead of a bipolar anthropologist with bloodlust issues." "Yes, like that."
Eventually, Bruce returned to the kitchen, alone this time and later than Alfred would have expected, considering Batman had been away from Gotham for several days. Alfred knew he would be anxious to get back in action. Bruce said he was giving Selina a ride back to the city and he would "go from there," i.e. suit up in the satellite cave. He left through the kitchen door to bring the Porsche around. It was a shorter walk to the garage, which meant Selina would be waiting alone out front, giving Alfred the opening he'd been waiting for to speak to her privately.
"I thought you might like to take some scones with you," he began—and Selina started before turning slowly to face him.
"That's where he gets it," she said, her eyes wide.
"I beg your pardon, miss?"
"Nothing. It's been a weekend of soul-splitting shocks and surprises, I'm building up a tolerance."
"I see, miss."
They stood in awkward silence for a moment, then Alfred repeated his offer of scones, and handed over a small plate covered in foil.
"Thank you," Selina said shyly.
"If I may say, miss, you are not quite what one expected."
"See above, lots of… really… hard to process shocks in the last few days. This isn't really me, this is 'just walked out of the Batcave' me… And 'just walked out of the Batcave' Selina is new to me, too."
"I imagine it is a very foreign world in which you find yourself, miss. But not as foreign to you as it would be to most."
"No, I suppose not," she smiled.
"Indeed, your history with Master Bruce dates back much longer than any woman he has seen socially."
"I… suppose," Selina said, uncertainly. "Except it wasn't exactly a social relationship. And it wasn't exactly with Bruce."
"Wasn't it?" Alfred asked sharply.
Selina tilted her head at the change of tone. Vaguely hostile, but here at last was something solid she could grab onto, find some stability in this whirlwind she'd been caught in since "My name is Bruce".
"Hell, I don't know," she said, each word charged with a strange emphasis... "I don't know anything at this point," …a helpless but emphatic surrender to raw confusion.
Alfred was taken aback. He meant to challenge her, and he'd obviously achieved a result. But the result was… What was this woman saying?
"He, he had footage down there," she gestured helplessly towards the ground, as if pointing uncertainly in the direction of the cave. "Half-Tail the leopard from Big Cat Diary… First season, experts were totally flummoxed, because leopards are solitary. When they hunt, when they prowl, when they mark out their territories… Experts study these animals for decades and come away with a thorough understanding of the species—that's totally wrong. No, not… It's not 'wrong' exactly, but it's laughably incomplete. Because it's only when you see leopards with other leopards that their playfulness comes out. And that never happens except when they've got a litter, and they hide those cubs. The 'experts' that imagine they know everything there is to know never see that behavior, so it doesn't fit their ideas of what leopards do, and… Oh my god, I sound like a total Arkham case, don't I?"
"Not at all, miss, you sound like a young woman with a passionate interest in leopards, who is, perhaps, a little overtired and should spend the evening relaxing with a plate of fresh scones and a pot of hot tea."
"Hot tea," Selina blinked.
"Yes, miss. For future reference, might one inquire what kind of teas you enjoy?"
"Oh, um, Darjeeling's my favorite. Or Earl Gray, whatever you have, really," Selina said simply.
Alfred beamed. He had seen ghastly herbal blends in the corner of Harriman's Gourmet Pantry, and was fully expecting her to request "catnip" or "catnip and chamomile" or some similar abomination.
"Very good, miss," he nodded. Then he studied her for a moment more. On the one hand, she had said nothing to confirm his fears, but she hadn't said anything to dispel them either. He decided a direct approach was called for.
"I don't know if Master Bruce informed you that I have been with the Wayne family for many years. I served his parents," he began.
"He didn't have to tell me," Selina interrupted. "He calls you Alfred. Our housekeeper was Sarah. And, I haven't seen her since I was twelve, but I know if I saw her today, my tongue would snap off before I could call her 'Walsh' like my parents did."
"I see, miss." Alfred could think of very few reasons a young person might not have seen a family servant for many years, and only one of those would freeze the age they were in the young person's mind. It was not something he would normally ask. As a butler, it was not his place to be so inquisitive. But he had left the role of butler in the kitchen. "Your parents, miss…" he said gently.
"Like his. He was ten, I was twelve. Not violent, but it hurts just as much."
"I am very sorry, miss."
That was that. On her next visit, Alfred would have some estate reserve Darjeeling.
* * *
With Selina doing the unpacking after the London trip, and none of Bruce's clothing to collect from the cave, Alfred settled into his pantry for his end-of-day routine much earlier than usual. It was too early for his customary hot milk, so he'd made a small pot of tea. He had just powered up the laptop to print out Master Bruce's schedule for the following day, when he heard a soft noise coming from the kitchen.
Thinking it was Miss Nutmeg, who often joined him for this nightly ritual, he reached out to push the door open wider. Through it, he saw a much larger cat had snuck into the kitchen. For her part, Catwoman saw the additional light streaming in from the pantry.
"Caught me," she smiled. "I was just returning the picnic basket. The cutlets were very good."
"Ah, I confess I thought that would be the case."
"It's who he is, Alfred. He wasn't going to leave that lab for anything less than an Arkham outbreak. But glass half full: he isn't going to be there 'til dawn. He's already put the Scarecrow stuff to bed for the night. He's getting a quick patrol in, but then he's coming home—early, acknowledging time zones and jetlag. Tell me that's not progress."
* * *
Alfred was startled by the knock at the kitchen door. Guests to the manor always used the front entrance, where Alfred could observe them on the closed circuit cameras, and if necessary, interview them over the intercom about their business on the property before making the trek to the front door. The only people who used the kitchen door were Masters Bruce and Dick, who both had keys.
Alfred opened the curtains curiously and saw it was Miss Selina.
"I brought your plate back," she announced with a bright smile as he opened the door. "The scones were really wonderful."
"How good of you to say, miss," Alfred murmured as he ushered her in. "But I do hope you did not make a special trip."
"I've been trying for days to get it back to you. Won't fit in my purse when Bruce takes me to d'Annunzio's, will fit in my loot satchel if I pretend it's a Maya artifact—but then it wouldn't fit in his belt. Plus, I don't think he'd see the funny if I gave him something like that to bring home. It was easier to just drive out here myself."
"Indeed, miss." Alfred nodded, sensing that this entertaining tale was a well-designed subterfuge.
"How is Bruce?" she asked casually.
"I regret he is not at home, miss. A board meeting for the foundation."
"I know, he did mention it last night. I meant more in general. How is he?"
"Alfred, I know I'm new to this side of his life, but I do know the other side. Like, I know that cowl is reinforced but there's a limit. I mean, if he gets hit hard enough, he'll fall down, even pass out."
"Ah, I begin to understand," Alfred said dryly. "Last night, Master Bruce took you to The Bristol Country Club, did he not?"
"At establishments of that kind, Master Bruce is apt to run into old school friends, miss. Young ladies with whom he was at dancing school, those he escorted to debutante balls, in short, the circle into which he was born, the friends of his late parents and their children."
"Yes, I get that, he introduced me to several. But Alfred, he seemed to think Scandinavia was a country and Yugoslavia wasn't. And then he confused Los Alamos with The Alamo, and when my oysters came, he sort of… babbled about them. We had a history of the oyster from Ancient Rome up through Casanova, including a treatise on its reputation as an aphrodisiac, how pearls are made, mating habits of the oyster, the small crabs that share their shells. It was… pretty creepy."
"Yes, miss. You encountered the fop."
"The fop," she repeated dully.
"Yes, miss. Master Bruce thinks it prudent to conceal his intelligence, as well as other qualities he shares with Batman. Most of the time, this camouflage is measured, but when he is surrounded by those who knew him in earlier days when he was unguarded, he is sometimes apt to overcompensate."
"Mhm," Selina said tersely. "So he didn't hit his head, he doesn't have a concussion, he hasn't got some Brainiac microchip frying his synapses. He does it on purpose."
"It can be difficult for one who knows his true character to see him present such a regrettable figure to the world," Alfred said diplomatically, "but yes, it is done on purpose."
"Jackass," Selina said under her breath.
"Nothing," she smiled. "You know it's funny, I've seen him over the years at parties and gallery openings, been to a couple Wayne fundraisers, he never came off that way. I mean, he was with some real ditzypoofs on a few of those occasions, and I guess if I heard him say anything dumb, I must have chalked it up to that. Playing down to the bimbo on his arm…"
"That is unusual, miss. You gave him the benefit of the doubt. Not many do."
Selina looked off to the side thoughtfully, remembering.
"I guess I did. Even when people said things about him, I… I guess I shrugged it off."
It was perfectly obvious to Alfred that, knowing Batman as well as she did, she must have sensed something in Bruce Wayne, sensed his true qualities under the sham of the fop. But it was also perfectly obvious that she rivaled Master Bruce when it came to denial. If she had been performing the same mental contortions he had over the years, a light touch was certainly called for. Alfred began by offering tea, claiming he was eager to sample a new tin of estate reserve he had purchased, but would feel guilty brewing a pot of such a rare blend for himself. She saw through his subterfuge as easily as he had seen through hers, but catlike, she smiled knowingly rather than pretending she hadn't noticed.
The tea was soon brewed and more scones set out, lemon poppyseed this time, which Alfred preferred. As Selina sipped, he studied her.
"You are still quite different from what one expected, miss," he said bluntly.
"And what did 'one expect'?" Selina asked playfully, as if accepting a dare. "Hissing and scratching at table?"
"No miss, no shortcomings of that kind. As I told you the last time we spoke, I have known Master Bruce for many years, literally from the day his name was inscribed in the family bible. I daresay I know him better than anyone, and I have a good idea what qualities a woman must possess to capture his attention as you have.
"I would not normally make reference to the female companions Bruce Wayne has made use of to accessorize his public image. But as you have already introduced the subject, miss, I might, perhaps take advantage of the opening to underline that which you yourself noted: the young women were not conspicuously favored in the areas of intellect, sophistication, and breeding. Squandering time and money on such creatures reveals a startling lack of judgment, miss. Yet another example where Batman differs greatly from the public image he presents as Bruce Wayne.
"I knew before I met you what qualities you must have to rate Master Bruce's good opinion. When I say you are not what I expected, I do not speak of table manners or intellect. I mean, Miss Selina, that you do not strike me as a thief."
Selina set down her cup and met his eye, not angry but certainly intrigued.
"What would a thief do that I haven't?" she asked finally.
"I'm not sure," Alfred admitted. "I can tell you, returning briefly to the subject of the playboy, that Master Bruce is not the womanizer he pretends to be. A woman of your intelligence must have gleaned that the women he is photographed with so frequently are his alibi."
"Alfred, I'm the last person you have to tell that Page Six is a tissue of lies. I did a whole stage show on the subject."
"Knowing that the Post's version of things does not reflect the truth is not the same as knowing what the truth is, miss. In this case, it is true the master deliberately projects the image of a womanizing playboy. It is true he does this so the world believes it knows how Bruce Wayne spends his nights. You are now aware what he really does with his time, but that is not the same as… Miss Selina, Master Bruce does not welcome intimacy. He is slow to reveal his true nature, and I am not referring only to Batman. He is reluctant to speak his thoughts or to share his feelings. Yet you, he has invited into his life, into his secrets."
"Ah, I think I see where this is going. 'A thief' takes what isn't given, is that it? A thief would be taking advantage of the unlocked door, coolly filling her bag with all she could get?"
"Yes, miss. I suppose that is the essence of the matter."
"How do you know I'm not?" she asked.
"Again, I am not sure," Alfred said, sitting back with a piercing stare, as if from this angle he could see into her soul. "But you aren't."
"And that's why I get tea," Selina said, sounding as if she was placing a piece into jigsaw puzzle. "Okay then," she nodded suddenly. "No concussion, no Brainiac chip… Fop. No ditzypoof, no coldhearted, thieving bitch… Tea. I think I'm getting the hang of it. You're both very strange, but that's okay, 'cause it's a lovable strange, and normal is overrated anyway."
She grinned, Cheshire style. And Alfred scowled, Bat style.
"Miss Selina, in the course of serving Master Bruce, I have stitched up and salved every injury and contusion a body may suffer, but there is one I would not have the first notion how to treat."
"A broken heart," she declared, anticipating him. "Alfred, I love him, I wouldn't hurt him for the world. For the record, my heart can break too."
"Perhaps that is the quality I did not expect, miss."
Many things had changed since Miss Selina moved into the manor, but Alfred still left his bedroom door open. It was psychological. He couldn't actually hear anything in the distant cave. If Master Bruce returned injured, the auto-alerts in the Batmobile would inform him that the car was returning on autopilot, and if Master Bruce returned on his own power but still required assistance, he would use the intercom. There was no logical need to leave the door open, Alfred simply felt better for doing it.
Tonight, he was glad he did, for if he hadn't, he would have missed the extraordinary spectacle: the creak of the fourth step from the top of the main staircase, one step on the hardwood floor of the landing and soft brush of a heavy wooden door against the edge of the too-thick hallway rug. All these registered in his subconscious: Master Bruce was home, Alfred did not even notice that he noticed. He didn't look up from his book… until the next sound deviated from the well-known script. Rather than the faint gargle of water through pipe, Alfred heard the heavy door open again. He glanced down the hall, and saw Master Bruce—still in costume, minus the cape, cowl, and gloves—exiting his bedroom with a number of shopping bags. He turned and walked up the hall towards Alfred's room.
"Knock, knock," he said, rapping lightly on the door frame. "I saw your light was on. Figured we should talk now, since I'll probably sleep through tomorrow. I need to get back on Gotham time before the board meeting Thursday."
"Welcome home, sir," Alfred said warmly. "I do apologize for the oversight, I see you had no change of clothes in the cave."
Bruce dismissed that nonsense with a grunt, and started pulling boxes from the shopping bags and stacking them on Alfred's bed.
"The top one is from Selina," he pointed. "I mention it because she went shopping in the arcade while I was getting fitted for my suits. I trust you see the significance."
"Burlington Arcade, sir?" Alfred said, pulling a magnificent cashmere sweater from an elegant box with the simple label: Berk.
Bruce grunted. Nothing more needed to be said. The arcade contained a half dozen of the most prestigious jewelers in Europe. Selina bypassed them and went into Berk Cashmere to buy Alfred a sweater.
"I shall thank her appropriately," Alfred said with a hint of a blush.
...to be continued...