If Alfred stayed up worrying every time Batman didn’t return until dawn, he would collapse from sleep deprivation on a regular basis. Fortunately, he was a naturally light sleeper and his subconscious had learned to register the pattern of sounds that signaled Bruce’s return:
-squeak, fourth step from the top of the main staircase
-one step on the hardwood floor of the landing
-soft brush of a heavy wooden door against the edge of the too-thick hallway rug
-faint gargle of water through pipe
Once he’d heard these sounds, Alfred’s subconscious stopped listening for the Batcave intercom that would mean Bruce was home but in need of medical attention.
Alfred was unaware he did this, so he certainly wasn’t aware that he hadn’t heard the sequence of sounds the previous night. He just knew when he awoke that something wasn’t right. Rather than dressing and preparing a breakfast tray, he grabbed a bathrobe and went straight to Bruce’s room -only to discover that the bed hadn’t been slept in.
He raced downstairs faster than was prudent for a man his age, collected the newspaper from the stoop, and saw with relief a picture of President Luthor misspelling the word “Potato” while visiting a junior high school in Utah. In Gotham City, any episode involving the Joker, Two-Face, Poison Ivy or other villains likely to do Batman harm would have dispatched Luthor’s faux pas to Page 3.
Alfred was about to check the cave when a hunch told him to go to the kitchen instead. There he found Bruce, still in costume but with the cowl pulled back, hunched over a cup of day-old coffee. Alfred’s relief that his employer was not dead was immediately displaced with a pang: Bruce looked younger and more lost than he’d seen him in many years. Alfred realized the reason with a start: Bruce’s position at the kitchen table and the way he’d looked up when Alfred entered the room had flashed him back to when Bruce was a boy, waiting for the butler to fix him breakfast before going to school.
The words too, and the inflection, took Alfred back the earlier time. In those days Bruce was always the first in the household to wake up, so eager to start the day, so hopeful and energetic.
Alfred deftly removed the coffee mug and replaced it with a glass of orange juice. He glanced at the cup: dregs with little bits of coffee grounds floating on the top. He thought about asking why Bruce would be drinking this revolting muck, but there was little point. It was most certainly the same reason he hadn’t changed out of his Batman costume in the cave, and Alfred knew he wouldn’t get an answer if he asked about that either.
“I’m sorry if I scared you, Old Friend, I didn’t think there was any point in going to bed. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep.”
Then again, perhaps a few questions would be productive. Evidently Bruce wanted to talk, or possibly to listen. That’s why he was in the kitchen. It’s where he would go as a boy if he was lonely or confused and needed a friend.
“I was not unduly concerned, sir,” Alfred lied.
Bruce looked pointedly at the bathrobe Alfred still wore, an obvious accusation that the butler had been worried or he would have dressed before coming downstairs. Alfred just as pointedly kicked the corner of Batman’s cape out of his way as he laid out plate, fork and napkin for his employer’s breakfast.
Bruce knew when he was beaten. He might be a match for psychopaths, megalomaniacs, and interplanetary demigods, but he would never get the better of the man who raised him. Like a schoolboy who tried to waive the house rules “just this once” and failed, Bruce retired to the cave to change. When he returned to the kitchen, Alfred too had changed into his work clothes and had somehow finished preparing breakfast as well. How that was possible Bruce couldn’t imagine, but he didn’t know enough about cooking to know if the feat was really out of the ordinary.
“So, young sir,” Alfred announced, setting a plate of French toast on the table, “suppose you tell me to what I owe the pleasure of having company this early in the day.”
“She was there last night.”
Alfred didn’t need to ask who. There was only one ‘She’ in the manor or the cave these days. If you meant Harley Quinn or Wonder Woman or Lois Lane you said so. She was Selina.
“A not unexpected development, sir. You said yourself she could hardly pass up feline icons made by catwomen.”
“It was bad. She was so flippant and I was so angry with her, with not being able to make her understand—I nearly hit her.”
“Surely you’ve traded blows before, sir.”
“I’ve done my job, Alfred. I’ve never… lost my temper. Not with her. But then, well, things happened… We got past it somehow. We talked.” He smiled at the oddity of it, as if he was describing levitation. “We talked all night, in fact.”
“Then progress is being made, I take it?”
“She invited me in; that was a first… ‘for coffee’…. I thought it was a come on, but y’know, when I entered her apartment she was almost… shy.” There was wonder in his voice. “And she made coffee and we talked like normal people. And neither of us screwed it up, can you believe that. It was–” for the first time in years Bruce Wayne laughed, “–it was great.”
“Then progress is indeed being made, sir. I’m delighted to hear you and Ms. Kyle are finally pursuing a few of the more conventional courtship activities.”
Alfred cleared the empty plates in front of him and began washing up with a quiet smile. He knew better than to ruin so promising a development by making too much of it, but he felt like laughing at the absurdity. The source of all Bruce’s befuddled confusion was that he’d had a good time last night, and he was happy.
Long before becoming butler to the Wayne family, Alfred Pennyworth was a great fan of the most famous literary manservant: Jeeves. Jeeves organized (some might say manipulated) his employer’s lovelife and personal relationships with the same ease and grace with which he managed his wardrobe. And Jeeves didn’t have 1/20th the affection for Bertie Wooster that Alfred had for Bruce Wayne.
Bruce was happy. That wasn’t a development to be brushed aside lightly. Alfred had never met Catwoman, but he was aware of Batman’s preoccupation with her. In the beginning he had mixed feelings about it: after the years of preparation, Bruce had been pouring himself into his mission with an intensity Alfred found alarming. This less-than-professional interest in the catburglar was at least a sign that there was still a human being in there who had not been wholly engulfed in “the crusade.” Nevertheless, Alfred’s principle concern had always been for Bruce’s safety, and there was no denying that being physically and emotionally drawn to an enemy was supremely dangerous.
It was Dick who put Alfred’s fears to rest. Like any young man, Dick was unsure of himself when he first began taking an interest in the opposite sex. He wanted advice, if only to ignore it, from an older, more-experienced man. Bruce was hopelessly ill-equipped for the job. Not only had he flummoxed all his own relationships with women, The World’s Greatest Detective hadn’t even noticed (or didn’t realize the significance of) Dick suddenly sporting a new wardrobe, combing his hair with Pythagorean precision, and asking to take out the Jaguar instead of the Porsche (bench vs. bucket seats). Alfred did see the significance, and he quietly instituted a new ritual: every Thursday while Dick was doing his homework, Alfred brought the boy a sandwich or a cold drink. He laid it on the desk next to him and then simply neglected to leave. Dick was a naturally amiable and outgoing kid. He lacked Bruce’s ability to coldly ignore another person hovering three feet away. Very soon they’d be talking about whatever was on Dick’s mind, and like most boys his age, what was on his mind was girls. About a month into the ritual, their talks expanded to include the women in that other half of Dick’s life: A healthy teenage male could hardly fail to notice the attributes of gorgeous athletic females in tight revealing costumes, regardless of their criminal or crimefighting affiliations. It was during one of these talks that Dick confided, with much amusement, that Catwoman was every bit as taken with Batman as he was with her.
Alfred was both relieved and piqued at the revelation. Batman was evidently not in danger of being killed by this feline fatale, well and good. But from the sounds of it, the lady was every bit as romantically inept as Master Bruce. What is the world coming to, he wondered, when grown men and women can’t manage so basic a human activity as coupling.
Alfred had watched the dramas and denials in the years that followed, but whatever his private feelings, he never seriously concerned himself in a matter that was, ultimately, none of his business.
That was about to change.
In recent months, the tempo of the whatever-it-was between Batman and Catwoman had quickened—with the unprecedented result of Bruce appearing in the kitchen before dawn, smiling, laughing, and describing something, anything, that happened in an evening spent as Batman as “great.”
Silencing a momentary qualm that interfering in Batman’s private life was something not even Superman would attempt, Alfred phoned Dick Grayson and told the boy, flat out, what he would be giving his mentor as a Fathers’ Day gift.
Bruce had rested, made a few phone calls on Wayne Enterprises business, and retired to the cave to analyze shipping records he’d downloaded for a smuggling case. He was scrolling through screens of data, not reading but looking for patterns and deviations, when he heard a soft cough. He spoke without removing his eyes, or his attention, from the monitor.
“I’m not hungry, Alfred; just leave it on the table.”
“No sir, I’ve not brought you dinner. I wish to discuss the arrangements for the weekend.”
“What? What arrangements?”
“This weekend, sir. Master Dick informed you he and Master Timothy would be patrolling the city in your stead so you could have some time to yourself—or perhaps not entirely to yourself, if I may be so bold to suggest it.”
Bruce blinked and turned from the monitor in total confusion. Time to himself… Dick and Tim… patrolling… what the hell was Alfred blithering about?
Alfred repeated his statement, slowly and distinctly:
“Master Dick informed you last week, sir, that his Fathers’ Day gift to you would be Nightwing and Robin watching over the city so you could have some time to yourself. As you may recall, sir, he attempted to surprise you with this kind of effort once before, but because of the surprise element you were not able to really enjoy it. He therefore told you in advance this time, with the understanding that you will take advantage of the situation by giving Batman a few days off.”
Dick hadn’t said anything of the kind, Bruce was certain…
But Alfred wouldn’t lie, would he?
And, of course, Bruce wasn’t above feigning attention when he was engrossed in work. Possibly Dick had mentioned something.
“I must say, sir,” Alfred continued without a pause or a blush, “Master Dick was surprised and quite pleased when you agreed, as am I. I would never venture to bring up such a matter myself, but your own reluctance to take any manner of holiday does mean that I too never get any type of respite. I am somewhat anxious to begin this unexpected treat, so if you would be so kind as to decide where you are going, I can pack your things before I leave myself.”
Catwoman returned from her evening prowl, pulled off her mask, left the terrace doors open, and walked to the kitchen. She took a chilled bottle from the refrigerator and returned to the living room.
“I just noticed something–”
Did he always have to sneak up like that!
She held up a finger that warned “Don’t say a single word” and walked deliberately up to him until the finger touched his lips. She took his hand in hers, and walked him to the doorframe, formed the hand into a fist and methodically rapped the gloved knuckles into the wood.
“This,” she said, “is called KNOCKING.”
More and more often now, he stopped in after what he called his “late patrol.” They chatted (sometimes easily, sometimes awkwardly), and they flirted (always easily, they had so much practice). But he hadn’t tried to touch her since the episode in the vault. This was as physical as they’d been since that night, and both were suddenly, acutely, aware of that fact.
Can she feel my pulse racing through the glove?
Hand. Let go of the hand. Oh Hell.
How do eyes get to be that green?
How long have we been standing here? Somebody has to talk.
“You, ah, just noticed something?” Selina asked in desperation.
Why oh why
oh why did I think this was going to be easier
if we got past the claws and the Batarangs.
“Yeah, um, cat stuff, you don’t have a lot of cat stuff around your apartment. I always figured you would.”
Cat stuff? I’ve been
thrown out of the finest prepatory schools
on the Eastern seaboard. I run a Fortune 500 company. I outthink
Ra’s al Ghul. Why can’t I string a coherent sentence together
when I look into those damn green eyes?
“Well, this isn’t a hideout; this is my home.”
The incongruity of the thought had shattered the mood and Selina’s tone changed entirely. She wasn’t angry, like Catwoman clawing at his eyeballs angry; she was miffed, like, like girlfriend miffed. Batman wasn’t used to needing rescuing, but this was one instance where he was quite clueless! And his inexperienced fumbling was a danger to himself and others. Fortunately Bruce Wayne came swinging to the rescue:
Yo, Caped Crusader! You see that gimlet
look in those green
eyes you were just admiring? That look means you’ve said
something WRONG and you need to figure out what and FIX IT—right now.
“Oh I didn’t mean stolen cat stuff…”
Inwardly Bruce shook his head in his hands.
Finally Selina spoke.
“I have two house cats, Whiskers and Nutmeg—also a small curio in the bedroom…”
…which we won’t be seeing anytime soon, thank you Dark Knight.
“…with figurines, and a not so small preserve upstate where the wild cats live.”
“Really a preserve, now that I’d like to see sometime.”
Inner-Bruce’s head shot up. Batman had said something right!
The gimlet look melted into a warm smile.
Now! Ask her now, before you can mess it up again.
“Anyway, I wanted to ask you something. It’s going to sound odd, but… Remember the night at the museum when you said most people that want a change go on vacation?”
“The words ring a distant bell.”
“I was thinking of taking one. Actually I think I’ve been tricked into taking one. And I wondered if, I mean, I said it was going to sound odd and all, but I wondered if maybe, just—for a weekend, a longish weekend, a long-weekend-ish… thing…”
He ran out of syntax. Fortunately Selina was too busy laughing to notice.
Most educated people know Xanadu as either the name of the mythical pleasure dome built by Kubla Kahn or else as the equally spectacular residence of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Only a few hundred people in the world ever heard of the real Xanadu, a resort on a very private island offering a hot spring, beach, mud baths, grotto, nature trails, and five-star dining—but most of all absolute privacy for movie stars, royalty, heads of state, and others for whom privacy is a virtual impossibility. The guests are known and referred to only by letters (“Mr and Mrs M will be dining in the grotto at 8:30.”), and rarely glimpse any of the hotel staff or each other.
As one of the true elite that knew of Xanadu’s existence, Bruce Wayne had occasionally thought about telling others in the JLA. No mere rock star had the privacy problems or the need for discretion presented by a dual identity. But what was the point? He was the only one who could possibly afford it. And besides, it would only take one tactless hero (Clark!) to go marching in there looking for a suspect and the place was dead.
Bruce never dreamed he would have cause to go to Xanadu himself. His appearances with the flavor of the month debutantes, supermodels, and divorcees (or “the bimbos” as they were universally known in the inner circle) were meant for the paparazzi cameras. Privacy was the last thing he wanted when he escorted a Gretta, Bambi or Candace to the Tommy Hilfiger party at Lot 61.
But the unexpected change in his relationship with Selina occurring just as Dick’s Fathers’ Day stunt forced this vacation on him had started him thinking. And the more he thought about it, the more tantalizing the idea became.
Hence, on Friday afternoon, “Mr. B” and his guest checked into Bungalow #4. They arrived in a private, chartered plane, prepaid by a numbered offshore account. Mr. B wore an Arab dish-dash and a black band that appeared to be the most outrageously expensive designer sunglasses on the planet, concealing his face from the bridge of the nose to the top of the eyebrow. The woman’s hair was wrapped in an elaborate silk scarf and she too wore sunglasses day and night. By Xanadu’s standards, they were a most unremarkable couple.
The understanding that was slowly evolving since the breakthrough in the vault was almost entirely between Bruce and Selina. Batman and Catwoman had stayed out of it, until now.
“I absolutely guarantee you will enjoy this a hundred times more without the shoes and socks.”
They were walking on the beach. Selina immediately kicked off her sandals and walked where the surf would lick her ankles. Bruce walked on the dry sand. Apart from the headgear, he was wearing what he wore at corporate retreats: polo shirt, casual slacks, boat shoes and dress socks.
“C’mon, kick ‘em off and walk with me in the surf.” The intonation was precisely the same as when she once said “You’re part of the night, just like me.”
“My slacks will get wet.” The intonation was precisely the same as when he had replied “You’re a thief.”
He might have read the determined glint in her eyes if they weren’t hidden behind dark glasses. As it was, he could only register the slight tilt of her head before he was thrown on his back, one shoe off and a pantcuff rolled up to his knee. He easily flipped her over, pinning her arms and legs beneath him, and coolly pointed out that she’d only got one shoe and no one ever, EVER gets the drop on him twice.
A negotiation commenced: to get the other shoe off she had to tell him the whereabouts of some Roman mosaics never recovered from a robbery at the history museum two years before. The socks cost her an opal tiara. He would have claimed an Etruscan vase for the second pantleg, but for the impossibility of saying “Etruscan” with another person’s tongue in your mouth.
They were exploring a nature trail near the lighthouse.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” he asked suddenly.
“You can ask. I don’t guarantee I’ll answer.”
“‘Cause I want to hear the question before I commit to answering.”
“No, I mean ‘Why Catwoman?’”
“Oh. I have no idea.”
“Seriously, Why did you become Catwoman?”
“Seriously, I have no idea. There’s no way to answer a question like that.”
“Sure there is. Look, first time you put on the mask: why did you do it?”
“Why does anybody do anything: it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“I’m self-aware. There is no true answer to a question like that. Anybody who tells you otherwise is deluding themselves.”
“If you ask me ‘Why Batman,’ I could tell you in one sentence.”
“Then you’re deluding yourself. And P.S., I’m not asking.”
It took exactly nine seconds to make the decision. Bruce had come this far into the weekend without showing his face or revealing any specifics that could expose his identity. He would never consider doing so now just to win a point in a fairly lighthearted argument. But there was something deeper at work—a truth to be defended. Or maybe it was a part of himself he wanted to share, wanted her to understand:
“When I was ten my parents were shot to death in a smalltime mugging. Happened right in front of me.”
Selina was stunned—not just by the revelation itself, but that he would make it. She had no desire to make light of a personal tragedy, but she could see from his manner that she was expected to genuflect to this as the supreme end to all argument. That’s undoubtedly what everyone in his inner circle did. At the end of the day he was Batman, and Batman was the final answer to all questions by authority of this awful thing that had happened to him. And in a flash of insight she knew, as certainly as she’d ever known anything, that what he needed from her was to not be another acolyte at the sacred temple of his … Loss.
“Let’s go back to that fork and go the other way.”
Bruce was confused. He’d made this huge personal revelation. She considered him for half a minute then changed the subject entirely, like it was nothing. Like telling her about the murder of his parents before his eyes was nothing at all. And here they were ten minutes down a new path, more trees, lots of birds twittering, a creek of sorts, more or less the same stuff that was on the other side. There didn’t look to be anything special here, but she seemed to know the way, was practically racing down the path, getting farther and farther ahead of him. Finally he actually lost sight of her—lost sight of her altogether—until she bobbed in front of him, upside down, legs suspended from a tree, and kissed him full on the lips.
“How did you come to be standing on that rockbed, Handsome?”
He smiled, seeing instantly where this is going. They were still talking about Batman and Catwoman.
“I followed you.”
“I didn’t know that bed was there; I’ve never been here before. You took us left to the lighthouse. This is the other path and I wanted to see where it leads.”
“I get it.”
“Not yet, you only think you get it. So you chose a path at a fork in the road. The rockbed isn’t here because of the fork or the path. The creek made it long before the path existed. The hot spring in the grotto made the creek; continental drift made the hot spring. And people made the path by chance cutting from the grotto out to the lighthouse, SO…”
Bruce was now beaming. “No easy answer, I get it.” She nonchalantly lowered herself from the tree, and he gave her an affectionate peck on the cheek. “Next question: How did you get to be so wise, anyway?”
“I’m not wise, I just don’t think there are any simple answers where people are concerned. They’re too complicated for that. You cannot sum up a human being’s existence in a sentence like a listing in the TV Guide. What’s that saying: If you accept one truth to the exclusion of all others, you make the truth a falsehood, and you become a fanatic. Something like that—The exception makes the rule, and the contradiction makes the truth.”
“Like a crimefighter loving a thief.”
“I’ve been avoiding that word.”
“I’m not. I love you, Selina.”
… Then an impossibly understated smile.
“And I love you.”
“My name is Bruce. We’re alone in the middle of nowhere; nobody can overhear. I’d like to hear you say it.”
“I love you, Bruce.”
And the creek beside the rockbed trickled from the hot spring into the sea.