Alfred examined himself in the mirror, assessing.
Not bad, overall. Of course under normal circumstances, he'd prefer something more subtle; this sort of extravagance and excess wasn't to his taste. The colours alone—if he'd his druthers, that plum shade would have been several degrees darker, and the waistcoat perhaps an understated grey, not this shiny satiny black with all these horribly gaudy buttons.
But the point of this operation wasn't understatement. He needed to look like a self-involved sybarite with money to burn, if they were to gain entry to the establishment where Master Wayne had last been seen. And after years and years of perfecting Master Wayne's impression of the same, Alfred felt reasonably confident in deciding that he'd managed to approximate the spirit of the thing.
He eyed his reflection and tilted his head. The illusion would almost certainly be enhanced if he were to lose the spectacles, and perhaps to colour his hair—the sort of man he endeavoured to resemble would undoubtedly indulge in such minor cosmetic vanities. But that level of detail wasn't required in this particular instance, and Alfred found himself grateful for it.
In its own way, he supposed, his hard-earned comfort with his own age was itself a sort of vanity. Having talked himself into it, having settled into the habit of referring to himself as an old man with wry acceptance rather than dismay, he didn't wish to be confronted by a sudden opportunity to grasp foolishly at some shadow of lost youth. Or lost middle age, at least.
He laughed at the man in the mirror, a quick soft huff of breath, and the man in the mirror laughed back, mouth slanting, and pushed his spectacles very deliberately up his nose. Yes, this would do well enough. There was a chance, depending on exactly where Master Wayne's trail led, that he would in fact still be Alfred Pennyworth tonight, if a slightly different version thereof.
He took one last careful look, from head to toe; smoothed down his tie, pressed a thumb to each glimmering cufflink in turn, and paused for a moment to admire the gleam of his shoes. They hadn't been particularly scuffed, but he'd shined them anyway. Not that it was likely to matter. He was given to understand that clubs of this sort weren't typically well-lit, these days. But—
But he had, perhaps, been afflicted by yet another sort of vanity entirely.
He shook his head at himself as he slid on the suit jacket, and murmured, "Oh, steady on, you old fool." And when he went upstairs at last and found Diana waiting for him, he carefully ignored the reckless optimistic thump of his heart.
She looked beautiful.
Of course she always looked beautiful; he had discovered this over time, and had articulated it to himself in the end with self-aware and wistful resignation. There was simply a certain quality about Diana that could not be ignored, and rendered what should have been improbable devastatingly true: even after she had been thrown through buildings by giant raging monsters from space, was grimy and slightly scorched and covered in radioactive ichor, she was beautiful.
But the overall effect was nevertheless enhanced at moments like this. She hadn't looked over at him yet, and for an instant he could stand there like the hopeless idiot he was and drink it in unobserved. The way she held herself could rarely be described as anything other than "statuesque", and the lines of the long flowing dress she was wearing would have looked almost as stunning as Diana herself, if rendered in marble. And she hadn't been stuck with this garish not-quite-plum—a dark red instead, which naturally was a perfect match to the subtle colour currently applied to her mouth.
Her shoulders were bare, the sleeves of the dress rounding the outsides of her upper arms rather than passing up and over, and all the lovely long line of her collarbone was exposed without interruption. She wore a pair of pale gold bracelets—which Alfred could not help suspecting were capable of expanding into gauntlets, if Diana willed it, but in their passive ornamental state they looked pricelessly delicate. And the looseness of their fit granted the same quality to Diana's wrists and forearms; she had had a great deal of practice de-emphasising her musculature to the casual observer, though Alfred's eyes were no longer fooled.
As he approached, she'd just been reaching up and back, though what precisely she was doing was hidden from Alfred by the tumbling fall of her hair. And then she must have heard him, turned her head and saw him there, and smiled.
Alfred bit the inside of his cheek hard for the moment it took to marshal himself, and ignored the wistful tightening of his chest to smile back at her.
"Alfred," she said, and laughed a little, her voice low and pleased. "Your timing is impeccable, as always. If you would?"
He moved closer, and understood immediately—she had a necklace, the same smooth pale gold as the bracelets. But even Amazonian goddesses had only two hands, and working the clasp while keeping her hair out of the way could not help but present something of a logistical challenge.
"Of course," he murmured. And surely it couldn't rightly be considered reckless self-indulgence, when it was only necessary that he should step closer still? He drew a slow breath and touched the backs of her hands, caught the ends of the necklace's clasp between his fingertips; and she didn't move for a strange slow moment, the expression on her face unreadable in profile, and then did, drawing her own hands gently free to catch up that long spill of hair and lift it clear.
It couldn't have lasted as long as it seemed to. The clasp was hardly the most complicated piece of machinery Alfred had dealt with today—and yet it seemed to demand a great deal more concentration from him, framed as it was by the breadth of Diana's bare shoulders, the long elegant lines of her neck. They were nearly of a height, and—
And this was not the moment to dwell absently on whether he could pick out the precise notes that made up the scent of her hair.
Alfred double-checked, conscientious, that the clasp had truly caught, and then cleared his throat and took a very deliberate step away. "That should do," he said, and Diana turned and smiled at him and let her hair tumble gracefully back into place.
"Wonderful," she said. "Thank you," and she reached out and squeezed his hand—and then paused for a moment, and with thoughtful deliberateness, did not pull away but rather slid that gentle grip round the underside of his wrist, up his forearm, until she could curl those long steady fingers into the bend of his elbow. "Well—shall we?"
"But of course," Alfred said, and watched his own hand reach over with blithe imprudence to settle against the back of hers, even though it was as old as all the rest of him and should have known better.
They didn't leave right away. They went down to the Cave first, where Clark was waiting—he'd be leaving separately, through the lake exit, and then follow them to their target location, where he'd be staying up on a nearby roof as backup.
And Clark had said he'd be in there looking over everything Bruce had left behind, just in case anything jumped out. But when they joined him, it took him a long, long moment to look up; and the thing that had engaged his attention so thoroughly wasn't a case file or a computer monitor, but a half-drunk mug of coffee, days-old and horrifying, and still sitting precisely where Master Wayne had left it.
Alfred should have removed it, but hadn't. And Clark was gazing at it, hand extended, fingertips just short of brushing the mug's glazed handle.
"Clark," Diana said quietly, and Clark blinked and met her eyes and let his hand drop.
"You're ready, then," he said.
"Yes," Diana agreed. "We'll see you there—or I suppose you'll see us, at least," and Clark dredged up half a smile to acknowledge the soft teasing but was already tense with impatience.
And then it was time to go.
They'd moved as quickly as they could, but in truth Alfred could sympathise all too well with Clark's barely-leashed frustration. The first twenty-four hours after Master Wayne had failed to return to the house, failed to notify anyone or communicate in any way, had been positively agonising—but that was a threshold Master Wayne had insisted upon long ago. For all the planning that went into the majority of Master Wayne's operations, coincidence and random chance would inevitably have their say now and then, and flexibility was required. Sometimes signals were blocked or jammed, but only temporarily; sometimes Master Wayne couldn't risk drawing attention. Sometimes he couldn't extract himself from a situation in the manner he'd intended, and needed anywhere from thirty minutes' to eighteen hours' grace in which to develop and employ an alternate strategy.
Twenty-four hours. He'd have preferred to make it thirty-six, but Alfred had made of himself a second Gibraltar, and Master Wayne had in the end condescended to agree. So that was the rule, and had been for years: if Master Wayne couldn't deal with whatever snare had raised its ugly head within twenty-four hours, the cavalry was, grudgingly, allowed to charge in.
Alfred had timed those twenty-four hours down to the minute, and had managed to keep Superman from haring off anyway during—despite all Clark's efforts to win an argument that Alfred had known immediately he was attempting to have with Master Wayne by proxy, rather than with Alfred.
And at last they could begin the process of retracing Master Wayne's steps. Which meant, in this case, dressing themselves up in a manner appropriate for a visit to the Nightingale Lounge, where Master Wayne had been intending to identify the primary participants in a human-trafficking ring.
Unfortunately, neither the knowledge that this was a mission of no small importance nor the relentless weight of his own concern for Master Wayne could render the experience wholly unenjoyable. Alfred discovered, with a certain grim and helpless self-awareness, that it was a pleasure to step out of a very expensive car, to turn and reach back through the door and have Diana clasp his hand—to help her out, scrupulously careful of the long draping hem of her dress, and to, for once, not be expected to let go and move away afterward.
Perhaps he was simply going to have to allow it. He and Diana had arrived together, and would most likely need to continue interacting throughout the evening; they were in essence posing as a couple, at least for the next few hours, and if he looked and acted even half as uselessly besotted as he was, that would only enhance the illusion. Perhaps it was all right, this once. Perhaps, for as long as it remained useful, it wouldn't do any harm to indulge—and once they'd found Master Wayne and all this had come to an end, he would take tonight and fold it up and tuck it very carefully away, and only bring it out now and then to check the moths hadn't got to it.
And in all honesty, he should have anticipated this. Diana was terribly easy to be in love with, and especially like this: smiling up at him as the car eased away behind them, pressed comfortably against his side, with that bright intense look she so often got about the eyes on a mission—a look of pleasure in action, of sharing secrets, and even perhaps of mischief.
So he permitted himself to smile at her with all the warmth he might otherwise have restrained, and then he raised an eyebrow. "Shall we?" he said, and she grinned and tucked her hand a bit more securely into the bend of his elbow, and inclined her head in agreement.
There was no trouble at the door.
Not that Alfred had expected any, with Diana on his arm. They were let in almost immediately, as soon as she got a chance to smile at the poor hapless doormen. And then Alfred chose a relaxed, leisurely pace with which they might cross over to the bar, to give his eyes a chance to adjust to the lighting.
It was a beautiful place—sumptuous, Alfred thought, and the dimness suited it: made all the dark hardwood paneling gleam, allowed the eye to catch the sheen of polished leather and the glitter of cut crystal, the muted amber glow of expensive liquor. And yet it prevented the sum from mounting to the point where it might be labeled overwhelming. Fully illuminated, Alfred suspected, the Nightingale Lounge would come across as overdone, as garish as Alfred's current shirt. But as it was, it looked—rich. Sensual. Inviting a closer look, coquettish.
And it had at least two levels, because a balcony overlooked the floor that he and Diana were crossing, curving round the open space where a massive and intricate chandelier hung down. That was going to complicate the task of reconnoitering the establishment somewhat.
Alfred nodded at the bartender and asked for Talisker as if he assumed it would be available—and it was probably far from the most demanding request the woman had heard tonight. He was amused but not terribly surprised when Diana only murmured, "The same," and then shot him an arch little glance. He hadn't seen her drink much whisky, at least not in the time he'd known her, but she'd also not shown much tendency to be wary of new experiences. And if she'd managed to pass a hundred years without trying Talisker, tonight was as good a night for it as any.
He turned toward her, leaning an elbow against the bar, and allowed himself to reach up and catch a stray lock of her hair between his fingertips, guiding it back over her shoulder where it belonged—and taking the opportunity to glance past her and survey the far side of the room quickly. Even in this light, there were a few faces he was reasonably sure he recognised from various of Master Wayne's files, though none of them struck him as likely to pose an imminent danger—
Diana drew a quick breath and then leaned in close, caught his lapel, and it was with an effort that Alfred forced himself to parse the words she was murmuring into his ear: "I see them."
Master Wayne's targets, Alfred inferred. And then he paused and turned that thought over, and frowned. "All of them?"
"Yes," Diana said, and then pulled back far enough to meet his eyes, and added, "Six."
And that did in fact track. Of course these things tended to sprawl out across vast interconnected networks; but six names had been underlined with consistency in the files Master Wayne had left behind him, six faces displayed across one particular screen.
Alfred felt a faint ripple of unease. If they had caught Master Wayne, taken him—surely at least one of them should have been absent, overseeing whatever would have been done with him? And it would be so brazen as to strain suspension of disbelief, that they should all have returned to the scene of such an incident a day later, to carry on their business as if they thought Master Wayne's absence would have gone unnoticed. Alfred and Diana had come here hoping for some sort of clue, a known associate, a trail to follow. But this? This made no sense.
Their drinks arrived. Alfred left one hand against Diana's waist, as if absently, and reached with the other to pluck his glass up off the bar. And then he considered his options, and leaned over a little further to tell the bartender, "Much appreciated. Put it on Bruce Wayne's account, if you would."
When he drew back, Diana was looking at him speculatively. And then she let her gaze drop, eyelashes a lush curved smudge against her cheek in the dimness, and murmured, "Will that help?"
Alfred shrugged a shoulder and took a sip of the Talisker. God, he loved that taste, that hint of sea that came just before his mouth filled up with oranges and smoke and peat. "It might," he said.
They had to wait a little while. Something had gone on here that they didn't fully understand, and when that was true, in Alfred's experience, it was best not to rush matters. Earlier, he'd thought perhaps they might split up, cover more ground, speak idly to a few of the other patrons or buy a round of drinks for some table in pretended error; but circumstances had changed. He'd taken a chance and laid some bait, and it would take time to discover whether anyone were inclined to bite.
So they moved to the far end of the bar. Diana arranged herself artfully on one of the tall gleaming chrome stools, and Alfred stood close—too close, far closer than he would have on any other evening, so that they were positioned in the manner of people between whom there was no longer any need to preserve a courteous distance.
And it wasn't so very unusual, in a sense, that they should spend time together and talk. They did as much all the time. Except—
Except not like this. In the Cave, seated together at a worktable; over a morning cuppa, looking out at the sunlit mist rising off the lake. Under circumstances that were neutral, comfortable. Bearable.
Alfred had never felt himself so helplessly compelled to trace the lines of Diana's face with his eyes, nor so unsettlingly drawn to—to touch her; not in any manner that might be considered inappropriate, he hadn't gone entirely mad, but—keeping a hand at her elbow where she'd rested it on the bar, fingertips or the side of a knuckle grazing her skin almost constantly. Leaning in to murmur some wry observation in her ear and letting the carefully clean-shaven hinge of his jaw brush for an instant against her cheek.
It was stupid. Impossibly stupid. He told himself this again and again, and yet it made no difference to the slow heat stealing over his skin, the reckless speed of his heart.
So it was probably for the best, that at last they were interrupted.
"So you work for Bruce Wayne, hm?"
Alfred paused, and met Diana's gaze for a long deliberate moment, and of course they must be cautious—but for an instant he wanted nothing more than to laugh, looking into those warm steady eyes, seeing the intrigued and even invitational slant to the corners of her mouth. Well—shall we? that look said, as clearly as Diana had said it aloud not two hours ago, and of course there was nothing to be done with it but gladly accept.
And then he turned and looked over his shoulder, raising an eyebrow, and cast a glance from the man's face to his feet and back again. "Indeed I do," he said. "And if I may be so bold as to inquire—who's asking?"
The man didn't answer, just looked at him for a moment and then said, "Buy you a drink, Pennyworth."
And that was interesting, Alfred thought. Usually he could rely upon a certain degree of anonymity, until he chose to introduce himself; most everyone who occupied Master Wayne's social circles had never looked twice at Alfred Pennyworth, and wouldn't have recognised the name if it had been told to them.
Diana had noticed it, too—he knew it by the way she was pressing her arm with ever so slightly more firmness than previous against his hand, the hint of tension in the muscle of her forearm. And he felt the beginnings of a hunch creeping up on him, a hypothesis of suddenly increased soundness.
"Certainly," he said aloud, to the man, and in a moment he was no longer looking at an empty glass where Talisker had once been.
"You're looking for him," the man said more quietly, almost too quietly to be heard over the music. "Aren't you?"
Alfred took the full glass and sipped, without looking away. "Who's asking," he said again, mild but flat.
And again the man appeared disinclined to answer. "I know where he is. Let's talk—alone."
Ah, how convenient. A trap.
Alfred sipped again, and thought about it. On the one hand: a trap. On the other hand—a trap that might in fact yield a location, or at least a lead to follow. And Alfred had Wonder Woman at his elbow, and Superman undoubtedly listening to every word of this conversation from the roof. In a certain sense, very few people in the world had ever been safer than he was at this moment.
He set the glass down again on the bartop and met the man's eyes, one sharp deliberate glance; and then he turned back toward Diana. The man had clearly assumed she was nothing more than pleasant company for the evening, and judging by that "alone", he expected Alfred to tell her she was no longer required. Which made for a perfect opportunity to lean in, cup her shoulder in one hand and murmur into her ear, "I think I'd better take the bait. Don't spook them, please. One hour."
Diana let out a breathy little sigh, as if in disappointment at having her night cut short; and then she drew away a bit and caught Alfred's chin with her fingers. "Forty-five minutes," she said, very low, one eyebrow gracefully arching—and if he tried to insist, he thought, she'd nod along very seriously and then come in forty-five minutes anyway.
"Yes, all right," he allowed softly, and she smiled at him, small but warm, eyes crinkling just the way he had come to love best.
And then she kissed him.
It made sense. It wasn't out of place considering the scenario, the fact that they were being watched, the roles in which they'd positioned themselves. But it was hardly necessary, and she had to know it—
And then he couldn't—couldn't think anymore, couldn't manage to hold himself at a sufficient distance from it to examine it that way. Her mouth was warm, generous, and she kissed with such focus, such intensity; as wholeheartedly as she fought, as if in the moment she couldn't conceive of anything that mattered to her more. He'd leaned into it already without even intending to, and felt more than heard the pleased little laugh against his mouth—and then she bit down, just barely, the sweetest teasing sting of teeth into his lip, before she drew away.
She'd linked her hands round his neck at some point, he realised dimly: she stopped and smoothed her fingertips along the shoulders of his suit, down the lapels, a thumb skimming the line of his tie just above where it vanished behind the waistcoat. "Be careful," she said quietly, though her eyes were still bright, steady, a little amused.
Alfred cleared his throat, and managed somehow or other to raise an eyebrow, to put some sort of look on his face that was acceptable in company. "Aren't I always?" he said, as if offended—though letting himself end up here like this with Diana in and of itself gave it the lie, he supposed.
And, true to form, Diana didn't seem fooled. "Mm." She smiled at him a moment longer, quick and private—and then patted his chest once more and turned and strode away.
"Nice piece you got there," Alfred heard the man, who was still waiting behind him, say.
And he should perhaps have been irritated on Diana's behalf; but he found all he could muster was a sort of sage amusement. As if this idiot's misjudgment and choice of vocabulary mattered a whit or meant anything, except that he was an idiot. "Yes, well," he said vaguely, and turned, and picked up his glass again, distantly grateful to have something to do with his hands. "Where are we off to, then?"
"No rush," the man said. "Good whisky."
It was; but Master Wayne had waited twenty-four hours—twenty-six, more like, by now—and Alfred was disinclined to dally. He knocked back the rest, easy, and then set the glass down and said, "Where to?"
"This way," the man said. And of course he led Alfred down a dim back hallway; and of course there was a service exit there; and of course Alfred had only just stepped through it when there was a pinch at the side of his neck—jab of a needle, he thought—and everything went away.
He came to with only the barest sense of nausea, which was rather nice. Usually injections weren't nearly so merciful.
He stayed still, breathed slow, and kept his eyes closed, and tried to determine what he could from there. No sense in letting anyone know he'd come round right away if he didn't have to. He was slumped against a wall, with one leg folded rather awkwardly beneath him, and he seemed to be secured with something, probably zipties; but nothing was missing and nothing hurt beyond a vague ache, so nothing seemed to have been done with him while he was unconscious.
Except, of course, that he'd been moved here. Wherever "here" was.
And there was someone else with him. Several someone elses; a scuff of boot-soles from one corner, low voices talking in another direction entirely. Muffled a little, he thought, perhaps issuing from beyond a door that had been left ajar.
A shift, clothing brushing round with soft sounds as someone moved, and then a wonderfully familiar voice said, "Christ, how long's he going to take to wake up? What did you even do to him?"
Alfred tried very hard not to smile. The drawl, the conversational and absently intrigued tone—and of course it was very courteous of Master Wayne, to let Alfred know that he knew Alfred was awake, and that the room was occupied.
"He's fine," someone else said. "Should be up and at 'em any minute," and Alfred heard the footsteps coming and was ready for it, limp and nonresponsive, when he was slapped ungently about the face. "Come on already," and another slap, and this time Alfred rocked away from it a little and groaned, and cracked an eye.
Someone standing over him, naturally. Master Wayne on a diagonal, clearly visible, also ziptied. And a bit the worse for wear, to judge by the bruises coming up dark just above his collar, along his jaw and the opposite cheek and just starting to swell at the corner of one eye. But they must have only just started beating him, for the bruises to look that way at the twenty-six-hours-and-change mark. And he was awake, aware, and could still talk. All in all, far better condition than Alfred had been braced for.
Because, Alfred thought, they needed Bruce Wayne. And as long as there were enough of them, that was exactly who Master Wayne would have been, much as it frustrated him, for all those long twenty-six hours.
He'd approached the shape of the thing after all, with that hunch that had come over him at the bar in the Nightingale Lounge. The complete unconcern of Master Wayne's actual targets; and then Alfred had used Master Wayne's name to pay for his drinks, and someone had been paying attention, approached him. Master Wayne would never have been taken by surprise—if the criminals he'd been there to investigate had tried anything. But a third party, a third party committing a simple and unpredictable crime of opportunity and kidnapping Bruce Wayne—
He had to bite the inside of his cheek so as not to laugh, and for a moment Master Wayne's gaze took on a sour and withering quality. Oh, dear. Of course it didn't please Alfred to see that he'd been hurt; but it was such a great relief, after spending a full day helplessly concocting ever more troubling scenarios, to learn that the thing that had kept Master Wayne trapped in a way he could not escape was nothing more than his own identity.
Though in that case, he couldn't imagine why he hadn't been contacted. Surely they hadn't expected a ransom to just be delivered silently to their doorstep?
"There you go," said the man looming over Alfred, and then he gave Alfred a surprisingly pleasant smile. "Missed the boss, eh? Enough to drown your sorrows with a night out, at least. His fault you're here, you know."
"Is that so?" Alfred murmured, as if he were honestly curious. "Fascinating. I myself was inclined to attribute the blame to the fellow who attacked me in that hallway and drugged me. Was that you, sir?"
"Can't say it was, Pennyworth," Master Wayne said blandly, agreeable.
"Funny man," said the man looming over Alfred, and then he tilted his head, looking almost contemplative, and slapped Alfred again, harder.
Ah. So that's how this was going to go.
"Oh, for—really?" Master Wayne said, and he sounded nothing but exasperated, though Alfred had seen the way his shoulders tensed the instant before the blow had landed. "Pennyworth's the butler, you idiots. He doesn't handle my accounts either!"
"You see," said the man looming over Alfred, as if Master Wayne hadn't spoken, "we figured somebody might pay up for this useless sack of shit you work for—but that's high-profile, am I right? Phone calls get made, cops get involved, it's a mess." He dropped into a crouch and clapped Alfred on the shoulder. "Probably trouble we don't need. But who's a man's life worth the most to?"
Alfred studiously gave every appearance of intent thought. "The circle of friends and companions who love and value him," he suggested after a moment.
"Himself," the man said, flat. "Figured it ought to be easy enough—take him, set him up here, make him authorise the transfer out of his accounts himself, let him go. Except," and he twisted to point two fingers at Master Wayne, "this tool says he doesn't know. Doesn't know his own account numbers, doesn't know how to reach 'em, doesn't know shit."
"Ah," Alfred said. "That must have been very frustrating for you."
"It's good to see that you understand," the man said, "that you're picking up what I'm putting down. I like that."
"Man, it's like I told you," Master Wayne interrupted, with an edge of impatience. "He can't do it either. You think my butler does my taxes? Are you fucking kidding me?"
"Someone shut him up, please," the man said, very even, without looking away from Alfred; and he had a moment's warning in the way another of them moved, the way he'd hefted the very large gun he had in his hands, to brace himself for the flat unpleasant sound the stock of it made striking Master Wayne's face.
Master Wayne could bear it. Of course he could. He'd been hurt much more severely than this, and more times than Alfred much cared to try to count.
But Alfred felt his jaw tense anyway at that sound, that awful sound; and there was a dim pain, the zipties cutting into his wrists, which he realised distantly was because of the way he'd clenched his fists.
Forty-five minutes. How long had he been unconscious? Surely it must be almost time, or a little past—and perhaps Diana and Clark had run into trouble of their own, but if they had it wouldn't take them long to sort it. Any minute now, most likely.
Master Wayne groaned a little, because of course Bruce Wayne wouldn't be expected to bear that sort of treatment in silence. And if Alfred gave him too long he'd only make a spectacle of himself some other way, because of course he would.
Alfred looked up and met the man's eyes, and said, "As it happens, in this as in so many other respects, Master Wayne's assumptions are mistaken. I can make the transfer for you, in any amount you like."
"Now there's the words I've been waiting all day to hear," the man said warmly, grinning.
Alfred smiled back at him. And then added, tone thoughtful, "But, of course, just because I can—that doesn't mean I will."
The man stared at him and blew out a breath. "You sure you want to be stubborn about this, old man?"
"Yes," Alfred said. "Yes, I'm quite committed to it."
And of course they'd try, whatever Master Wayne said. Because he was an old man. An easier target, and a far more disposable one—if they made a mistake, worked him over too hard and killed him, well, that was all right.
They'd try, for a little while. And a little while was all it was going to take for the cavalry to arrive, so Alfred was still smiling a little bit when the man sighed and stood up and then abruptly swung one heavy booted foot into his ribs.
He let it go away, a bit. Which wasn't to say he couldn't feel it, or that it didn't hurt. Only that it wasn't all that close to him, that he'd opened a bit of space between it and himself where most of him could sit and count the seconds, and think: ah. Ouch. Oh, yes, that was going to bruise. And that, too, more than likely. And that as well. He'd be a bit careful going up and down stairs for a while, if one of them caught him in the thigh like that again.
"For fuck's sake, we don't have time for this," someone groused, after far fewer seconds than Alfred had been expecting. "We going to waste a day on this one, too?"
"No," came the voice of the man who'd been talking to Alfred, and it did sound as though his patience had been tried and was wanting, the grim flat way he said it. "No, we aren't," and then hands grabbed Alfred, and he was dragged up into a sitting position again and propped against the wall—lovely, cool, steady wall—and he took a careful breath that wouldn't jostle his ribs too badly and then opened his eyes. "We aren't," the man repeated, and drew a gun.
Not the same sort Master Wayne had been struck with. Just a handgun—not, Alfred supposed, that it would be able to shoot him any less dead.
The man met Alfred's eyes, and without looking away, reached out and pressed the mouth of it to Alfred's temple. "So, just how stubborn are you, old man?" he said, very evenly, and Alfred was trying to decide which of a handful of answers would annoy him the most when about ten things happened at once.
Three or four of them could be summarised thusly: Master Wayne decisively and unambiguously broke character, rolling all at once to his feet with his hands still bound behind him until suddenly they weren't—of the half-dozen men in the room, he took one down in three strikes and the next in two.
And even as he moved, something else was happening. Alfred became aware of a sound, a sound that had been somewhere on the periphery for perhaps thirty seconds but was no longer content to remain there; and then it became multiple sounds, shouting, frantic footsteps, an odd crunching grinding rumble—and then suddenly fully three-quarters of the ceiling had simply torn away entirely, and someone had landed on one knee off toward the far side of the hole.
Alfred thought at first that he'd been hit in the head again, that that was why his eyes seemed to have stopped working, why the room was filling up with rose-gold light. A wave of it, and it threw men and guns, a few stray metal chairs, across the room as if they weighed nothing—but when it reached Alfred it passed across him like a breeze, the sensation of sunshine, the sound of a laugh.
Ah. "Diana," he said, and hadn't meant it to be aloud but it was; and then she was there, kneeling down beside him and lifting him carefully away from the wall, gauntleted hand to his face, fingertips gentle against the place on his cheek where he would shortly be sporting a spectacular bruise.
"You said you'd be careful," she murmured, warm and chiding.
"I meant to," he said, and she shook her head, reached and snapped the zipties loose with a jerk of one hand, and he relaxed into her grip and let himself drift gratefully away.
This time, coming round was both more and less pleasant. Less, because he ached a great deal, and could feel all sort of places that didn't quite hurt yet but would soon. More, because he knew at once—some combination of sound and smell, perhaps, an indefinable but undeniable familiarity—where he was, and that he was safe and would be all right.
And besides, he suspected the fingers moving gently through his hair were Diana's, and they felt wonderful.
He allowed himself to appreciate the sensation for perhaps too long a moment. And then, as he inevitably must, he opened his eyes and turned his head, shifted just a little bit away, until she was no longer quite touching him.
He cleared his throat. "I'll live, then?"
But she was already frowning at him, looking down with graven severity, mouth pressed flat. Still in most of the armor, though the gauntlets and tiara were gone; and she was seated on the edge of the bed where he lay, outside the exam room in the Cave, one bare foot tucked underneath her and the other presumably pressed to the floor.
"Alfred," she said, and reached again, the backs of her fingers against his cheek—and he could feel the expression he was too slow to stop from crossing his face, could see her perceive it. "Alfred, I thought—was it wrong of me to kiss you? I wanted to, but perhaps I was too hasty. You and I, we haven't talked about this, but I thought that you—"
"I do," he said, before she could say it—before he had to hear it, in her voice, on the admittedly slim chance that would make this easier. "Of course I do."
And oh, the slow dawn lighting up her face, it was almost more than he could bear; lucky, then, that she paused and said slowly, "But now I cannot touch you."
He closed his eyes.
"I didn't mean to presume," she murmured after a moment. "They were more difficult to track than we'd expected, and there were many of them. They seemed to have had some larger operation they meant to undertake—that's what Bruce's money would have funded." She went quiet, and then added, "Forty-five minutes. I was late, Alfred—I'm sorry."
"I'll be fine," he said gently. "And Master Wayne will, too, I'm sure?"
"Yes, of course," she said, and even though he didn't dare look he could hear the smile in her voice. "He's upstairs. Clark had—opinions of Bruce's handling of the situation that he wished to share," and yes, all right, now that he tried, Alfred could hear distant shouting. "He was very concerned," she added, and then, more softly, "As was I."
Damn it all.
"I appreciate it," Alfred said aloud, and oh, they were soft sopping milquetoast words compared to how it had felt, what it had meant to him to know she had come for him and would carry him safely away; that it hadn't been the last time after all, the last time they would drink tea or sit together and talk about wars and London in the springtime, the last time he'd get to see her wear that red dress—
But it would be. Someday it would be.
He opened his eyes and looked up at her, and said, "Diana—I do. Of course I do. But you must understand, I'm an old man."
Her brow furrowed, and she looked at him in a steady serious way that said she didn't understand at all but wished to, and would try hard. "And depending on how you choose to measure," she said at last, "I'm a very, very, very old woman."
He smiled, helpless, even though he shouldn't have. "That's not what I mean," he said carefully. "You've told me how difficult it was for you, after Steve. How badly it hurt you to lose him, how much you struggled with it. And—Diana," he repeated, willing her to understand, "Diana: I am an old man."
And yes, there was the ripple of comprehension across her face. She drew a slow, measured breath and didn't look away from him, and then reached for him again—and this time he couldn't bring himself to move away, as she settled her palm across his chest. "Alfred," she said, and then paused, jaw working for a moment, evidently trying to work out how to say what she wanted to say. "Yes, it hurt. It has hurt, and it—and it will hurt. Tonight, in there, you let yourself be hurt. Didn't you?"
"Yes," he conceded.
"For Bruce," she said. "Because you had decided it was worth it."
He bit his cheek, and didn't reply.
"Alfred," she said again, and caught his face in her free hand before he could look away. "Yes, it's true. Time is short—but time is always short, there is always so little of it, no matter what you do. Which means it is precious, and it should not be wasted.
"I knew Steve for—for days, hardly any time at all. But within that very little—" She stopped and shook her head, and laughed a little, suddenly smiling. "Within that very little we had, there was so much. Such irreplaceable vastness, and I would not trade it for a hundred thousand years of a life where I had not known him."
She shook her head again, and she was—her thumb had found the corner of his mouth, was smoothing back and forth along his cheek, and he discovered dimly that he was utterly helpless beneath it.
"Nor would I ever trade you," she murmured, "you stubborn old man," and when she leaned down and kissed him this time—
He hadn't reached back, before. In the Nightingale Lounge, she had reached for him first, touched his face, his chest, put her arms round his shoulders. But he hadn't reached back, he couldn't have let himself.
This time there was nothing to stop him; and he closed his eyes and reached for her, buried a hand in her hair and skimmed his thumb along the line of her throat, felt her shiver, and perhaps she wasn't wrong. Perhaps this would be more than worth it after all.