|Mon, 02 Aug 1999
[KnightList] "Nightly" 1/1
They're DC's. No money. Don't sue.
Another short li'l Gotham story. One of these days I'll try to write one of significant length, I swear...
Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write me. I like it.
"And how did you earn this one, Master Bruce?"
Pierce flesh. Press through. Draw out. Pull tight.
"I was careless." The habitual answer, which was hardly ever true. "I let one of them get too close."
Tie off. Ignore the blood. Pierce flesh.
"They seem rather more numerous tonight, actually." Finding four square inches of unmarred flesh was probably a hopeless venture. "Perhaps the lack of sleep is catching up with you."
"I sleep enough." It was a lie. He knew nearly to the minute exactly how much Bruce slept, and calling that 'enough' turned over a cold and heavy stone in his stomach.
So he told him that, the only way he could. "Enough for a zombie, I think. Or maybe, more accurately, a machine."
"I'm fine, Alfred."
Tie off. Dab blood. Shift and rethread. Pierce the flesh.
"So you keep insisting. Every day." Because every day Alfred had reason to say otherwise. Never was there a surcease of any length. Never a vacation, because 'crime never takes a holiday, Alfred, don't you know that, don't you know that I can't rest until they do?' was a silent understanding between them, and one he hated.
One of many things he hated.
Draw out. Pull tight. Tie off.
"Have you spoken to Master Timothy? It's been a while since you've worked together." And now he offered more children to the lions, without hesitation, because somehow that (hope) youth and (faith) energy and (friendship) outside perspective helped this man, made him more cautious, reminded him that he wasn't alone out there in the dark... "Or with Master Dick, actually. I realize there's been some tension there, but surely he could--"
"He's busy." A restless shift until Alfred dropped a steadying hand to his shoulder, then stiff stillness. "He's got his own life. And Tim's got a lot going on with his father right now..."
"Of course." Excuses. Either one of those young men would have dropped everything in a heartbeat to be here, if only he'd ask. Inspiring loyalty was _not_ an area in which Bruce was lacking.
Believing he could call on that loyalty... was.
Dab the blood.
"How many is that?" Bruce made a rare attempt at humor. Bruce wasn't very good at humor. "Enough for the Guinness Book yet?"
"Quite." Tie it off. Dab the blood. Ignore the scars. _Ignore_ the scars. "I believe you flattened the competition for enduring bodily harm years ago."
"Alfred." The mildest of reproofs, nearly a request. The pain wasn't important to Bruce. The injuries didn't matter. The scars were mild irritations at most.
Bruce didn't stare at them nightly while his fingers picked a careful path across damaged skin and drew sterile thread through flesh. Bruce didn't hear himself moaning in his sleep. Bruce didn't remember that his body had once been smooth and unmarred, as had his heart.
Tie the thread.
He made himself remember, because to forget was to surrender.
"Are you nearly done?" The impatience already. He'd spend hours in the cave now, pouring over records. Staring at those computer screens as if they spewed out whatever sustenance he needed. And when a tray of real food was put before him he'd eat automatically, mechanically, as indifferent to palate as to quantity. He'd eat until the plate was empty, or until something on those screens distracted him, or until he simply forgot.
"Nearly." Tie the thread. Dab the blood. "I'd caution you to take it easy for a few days to avoid tearing these, but I might as well be asking for the return of my hair."
Shoulders flexed, muscles rolling and pulling at stitches experimentally. "That feels good." 'Only marginally painful' equaled 'good' -- that made perfect sense in Bruce's world. "Thank you, old friend."
He thanked him for helping him go out to get hurt again. That made perfect sense in Bruce's world, too.
"Will you be taking to your bed, then?" Of course not. But he had to ask. "I already have a meal ready if you'd like to dine first."
"No thank you." Bruce could be quite polite when he tried. "I've got some work to do in the cave."
"I'll bring your meal down to you."
Complete disinterest. "All right." Already his mind was traveling the deductive paths he'd follow for the rest of the night, shutting out this house upstairs and immersing him only in the mask. The face.
"Very well, sir." And he watched him walk confidently away.
Stripping himself to bare essentials and turning flesh and bone to a thing of steel. Every night, with days never long enough to undo that strain. Beyond desire, beyond duty, beyond obligation, until he simply _was_; a man with more humanity than any dozen men... and less than any single hopeful child. Someone he felt unending pride for. Someone who crushed him nightly with worry.
'A man must stand,' Alfred's father had said. 'Be he the first to stand or the last, a man must stand. And if there is only one man, then that man must stand alone.'
Alfred had lived his life by those words. He thought it would not be a bad thing to die by them, either.
But while he lived he would see to it that this one man wouldn't stand alone. Like it or not. And he wouldn't fight alone, and he wouldn't bleed alone, and he, God willing, wouldn't die alone.
Dab the blood.
Hiding scars beneath tailored suits.
Gather the thread.
Punishing himself for every loss that he had no rational obligation to try to win.
Wipe the needle.
Proving with every near-escape that should have been death that the ingenuity and tenacity of the human spirit could accomplish the most _amazing_ things...
Pack the hydrogen peroxide.
And forgetting with the ease of a man possessed that Alfred had _raised him,_ had _cared for him,_ had held the young boy in his arms after his parents' funeral and cried real tears when that broken, lost voice had told him, "Hold me, Alfred. I need strength."
Bruce knew, Alfred believed, that Alfred was the closest thing he had to a father.
He never quite realized that he was the closest thing Alfred had to a son.
Close the medical kit. Walk to the bathroom. Wash off the blood.