"We are neither of us what we were intended to be."
"Intended by whom?"
"You think I'll say our families, or society, or something like that, don't you?" Alfred smiles easily, removing any need for Lucius to answer that question. "By ourselves, is who I mean."
It's frightening, how often Alfred is right.
Wayne Manor had been built in the Gilded Age, a mansion to rival the American palaces built by Vanderbilt and Whitney. But those great houses were gross with opulence and display, as vulgar in their way as costume jewelry, in Lucius' opinion. Wayne Manor had dignity and even warmth. No one could ever imagine that human beings actually lived in the Vanderbilt and Whitney mansions – but Wayne Manor was undeniably a home.
For instance, on Lucius' first evening there (a wine-and-cheese gathering before the symphony, a few months after he'd joined Wayne Enterprises), he moved toward a chair in the far corner of the room and stepped on something hard. He glanced down in dismay, expecting to see some priceless bit of porcelain that he'd now damaged; instead, he saw a toy submarine.
"Ah," said a Cockney-accented voice behind him. "I see you've found Master Bruce's submarine. Quite clever of you. He'll be relieved."
"Seems to have run aground." Lucius stooped to retrieve it, nearly bumping into the butler, who was just a bit faster. The man had dark-gold hair and merry blue eyes. He did not talk like a butler – his accent was that of a London day-laborer, not a gentleman's gentleman – and he did not look like anyone's servant. And yet he tucked the submarine gently into his pocket, obviously about to take it upstairs at the wishes of a 5-year-old boy.
"We're also missing a very important helicopter," the butler said. "Essential to the toy room's security. Yellow, it is."
"If I find it, I shall alert the proper authorities," Lucius promised. All seriousness, the butler inclined his head in thanks.
Later that night, when Lucius and Thomas talked together in the symphony hall's lobby during intermission, he was able to steer the conversation around to the butler.
"Alfred." Thomas supplied the name without being asked. He leaned against the gilded rail of the crimson-carpeted stairs; above them, crystal chandeliers glittered in the hall's rosy-amber glow. "He's remarkable, isn't he? And you spotted that right away. I like that about you, Lucius; it shows me you're a true judge of character."
"He can't always have been in service."
"He was in the RAF for many years. An injury in his youth kept him from flying for long, though. When my father met him, he was working in the officer's mess – and together they decided that was enough training for a butler. At least, an American one."
"But why –" Lucius waited and considered. "Your father didn't just want a butler, did he?"
"No. He also wanted a bodyguard. Alfred's duties are almost entirely domestic, but – if the need ever arises, I know he's capable of taking care of my wife and son."
Capable. Yes, Lucius decided, that would be one of the words he'd use for the man he met tonight. "Alfred looks as though he knows what's worth taking seriously."
Thomas raised one eyebrow. "And that is?"
They laughed together until the lights were dimmed, to bring them back to their seats. Afterward, other junior executives gossiped jealously about how quickly Lucius had ingratiated himself with the Wayne family. Few of them would have believed that Lucius accomplished this by not attempting to win favor at all, and certainly none of them imagined that paying attention to the butler had anything to do with it.
"I've begun decanting the port, sir," Alfred said as he took Lucius' coat, one night some six months later. "Twenty years old. Should be excellent."
"You remembered that I like a glass of port after dinner."
"It's a butler's job to remember these things, sir."
"I don't see you setting out Mr. Earle's favorite cigars," Lucius pointed out. It wasn't intended as a criticism, but merely an observation.
Alfred obviously understood what had in fact been observed; the corners of his eyes crinkled, hinting at the smile he was too professional to show. "We must all set priorities, sir. Mr. Wayne's other guests are in the conservatory." His hand rested briefly on Lucius' elbow as he steered him in the right direction.
Though Lucius chatted easily with the fellow dinner guests all night, his mind was elsewhere. He was neither an indecisive man nor one lacking in self-knowledge. The nature of his interest in Alfred was clear – at least, to him, and he thought to Alfred as well. Banter and shared glances at Wayne Manor was all well and good, but if anything more were to happen – well, it probably needed to happen soon or not at all.
Wait, and the attraction would become more than it was: a passion, something that overwhelmed logic and control, something that rightly belonged to people who truly knew and loved one another. Denied long enough, even the simplest flirtation could acquire dimensions of feeling it didn't deserve.
Lucius was a dreamer by profession – his creations for Wayne Enterprises had to aspire to the level of dreams – and he was well-acquainted with the potential dangers.
After dinner, he enjoyed his port, savoring it while the conversation settled into murmurs around him. Lucius was aware that he was waiting for Alfred – wanting him to enter the room, just for a moment – but he didn't appear. When he turned to remark on this (casually, of course), Thomas spoke before he could get a word out: "I gave Alfred the rest of the evening off. We can manage on our own, can't we?"
The other corporate officers agreed, though Earle looked annoyed at having to refill his own whiskey. Lucius excused himself early.
He watched his reflection in the tall mirrors that lined the hallway, disappearing and reappearing as he walked toward the back of the house. The lights weren't on in many of the side rooms, so he was often no more than a shadow. That felt appropriate, somehow.
Alfred was standing behind the garage, jacket gone, crisp white shirt rolled up at the sleeves and bright in the darkness. He held a glass in one hand and leaned against the stone wall, looking out on the lights of Gotham City. As Lucius approached, Alfred didn't turn his head, merely acknowledged him with a nod. "I take it there's no emergency in the house?"
"No. This is a social call."
Alfred smiled, an expression so roguish that it never peeked through his butler routine – and yet Lucius had always known it was there. "About time."
"I never know how to do this," Lucius confessed. "I'd just begun to acquire the first scraps of sophistication with women when I realized they weren't for me."
He didn't explain how it was different with men; Alfred wouldn't require an explanation. They were both old enough to have come of age in an era when such pursuit was, by its nature, clandestine, furtive, secret. Supposedly the world had become more enlightened, though as far as Lucius could tell this means his inclinations were disapproved of slightly less – while the expectations for his own behavior had become fluid, sophisticated and intimidating.
Alfred smiled and set his glass down on the stone wall enclosing the nearby garden. "I find it's best not to overthink the matter."
As it turns out, Alfred kissed much like he did everything else. Humor and strength and kindness, all of it expressed almost without words. Lucius liked that kiss, the warm solidity of Alfred's body beneath that crisp white shirt, and the sense that his dreaming was, for once, rooted deeply in the earth – tangible, durable, real. Alfred's touch was like his laugh, his embrace like his confidence, his lovemaking as sure and unhurried as his walk. Alfred was the same inside as out.
For the next three years, they were very happy.
Such a simple phrase for a complicated time – and yet Lucius thinks any other way of describing his relationship with Alfred wouldn't quite be the truth, somehow.
He spent only a handful of nights at Wayne Manor. Thomas Wayne always knew the truth, never objected and possibly even approved; at any rate, he made the way easy for them both, asked no unnecessary questions and didn't stick his nose in where it didn't belong. Despite this tacit acceptance, and the comfort of Alfred's simple apartment (white walls, white sheets, heavy oaken furniture, a single painting of sailboats hung on the wall and framed in silver), Lucius was uncomfortable there. He felt better after he invited Alfred to his place for the first time.
Not that it was less awkward; it was more awkward, just as Lucius had known it would be. After a postgraduate education spent being the only black man in a sea of white faces in science class, or the only openly gay man in companies of apparent heterosexuals, Lucius was keenly aware of the finer distinctions of power. Lucius had education, status, money; the outside world would believe that Alfred had none of these things. Therefore, tradition would declare that Alfred's door should always be open to Lucius, but that the reverse should not be true. Those were just the kind of preconceptions they couldn't afford.
"Rather nice, this," Alfred said, when they walked out onto the balcony patio together for the first time.
It was rather nice – an expensive apartment in a fashionable neighborhood. Lucius felt he needed to defend it. "Not much in this world is worth paying so much for, but I couldn't walk away from the view."
Gotham stretched out before them, glowing in its restoration; the new train line whizzed by in the distance like a comet. Alfred nodded, as though he'd been asked a question. "I'd say you got a bargain at any price, for something like this."
All Lucius' choices made more sense in Alfred's eyes than in his own. When he was with Alfred, he could almost believe he was living according to a well-thought-out plan, instead of bouncing from project to project with his usual fervor.
Despite all this, certain lines remained uncrossed. Alfred never attended any Wayne Enterprises events as Lucius' escort, at Alfred's own insistence. "Can't make small talk with Mr. Earle at the symphony and then serve him drinks two nights later. Confusing for all involved. Best avoided."
"Nobody can make small talk with Earle," Lucius growled. But he saw Alfred's point.
Their pursuits were simple ones, by and large. They shared similarly eclectic taste in music and were as likely to listen to Chopin, Duke Ellington or the Rolling Stones – sometimes all three in a night. Often they would meet at a nearby bar (Alfred insisted on calling them pubs) for darts or pool; Alfred was better at the former, Lucius at the latter. Some nights, when Lucius was knee-deep in work, caught between heaven and earth in the fantastical projects he strove to bring to reality for Wayne Enterprises, Alfred would come by and make him dinner – as silently and perfectly as he would have served the Wayne family, though it was a different matter altogether. And when Alfred had his appendix out, Lucius took time off work to stay in the hospital with him: that was as close to official as it ever got.
When Lucius looked back, he most often remembered the one day when they both took Master Bruce to the lake. The boy still had that same submarine, and Lucius helped him dive for it. Bruce was an imaginative, moody child, who made up stories about sea monsters and pointed out the grottos of mud and grass where they might dwell; Lucius wondered if he might become a writer. Alfred watched them from the bank – he was never much for swimming – and then they had a picnic. Lucius would have chosen wine and cheese, Alfred bottles of Guinness and roast-beef sandwiches on rye. But they had brought the lunch a little boy would like: cold cuts between slices of Wonder bread, potato chips, ice-cold cans of 7-Up. If any of the families nearby thought them an odd group, nobody said anything or looked askance. It didn't seem like anything so special at the time, but whenever Lucius thought in the abstract of "happiness," he always thought of that day. For whatever reason.
Lucius had been called by two wrong numbers that night, the last fairly late, and in frustration he'd taken the phone off the hook. Therefore, it wasn't until the next morning, when he absent-mindedly snapped on the TV while eating his breakfast, that he learned Thomas and Martha Wayne had been murdered.
Cradling the phone's receiver between shoulder and cheek, Lucius knotted his tie as he told his secretary, "I'm going directly to the house. I won't be in today." She was crying too hard to answer.
A few years later, he realized that Earle had gone to work that day, had begun consolidating his power while the Waynes' bodies still lay in the morgue. Lucius never knew whether to hate the man for that, or to hate himself for not realizing it would happen – for not going straight to Wayne Enterprises and fighting for the company. It was the last real thing he could ever have done for Thomas Wayne, and he failed. He was still idealistic, then.
But as soon as he went to Wayne Manor, Lucius knew he had made a mistake. Distant family members glutted the place, and he found himself thinking of crowds in a museum; the house was already less of a home. They were feigning misery while trying to talk to the various attorneys there, all of them attempting to learn the contents of the wills.
Lucius did not deceive himself that he could give any comfort to Bruce; he'd lost his parents to natural causes when he was a grown man, and even then, the experience was too shattering to describe or even share. A little boy, forced to watch such a thing – it hardly bore thinking about.
He had thought, however, that he might be able to help Alfred in some way. Lucius was willing to be a shoulder to cry on if that was needed; he'd even have made himself useful in the kitchens, just to feel like he had something to do.
Alfred would have none of it. "My place is with Master Bruce," he said in the upstairs hallway, his attention still mostly for the crying child behind the door. "I've no time for this now."
Whatever "this" was. But obviously it was no time to ask.
When the will declared that Alfred Pennyworth would be Bruce's legal guardian, Lucius thought he was possibly the only person who wasn't surprised – besides Alfred, that was. He was certainly the only one besides Alfred and Bruce who was pleased by the news. If he'd known what that meant, even Lucius wouldn't have been pleased, though he would've tried for Bruce's sake.
Alfred no longer went to the pub, came over for dinner, spent long nights with Lucius in the penthouse apartment. He had a child to care for. Lucius considered that only appropriate. But when he tried to invite himself over, he found he was welcome less often. Their nights together took on all the poisonous shades of furtiveness and shame that Lucius had thought he'd never have to face again. It never stopped being strange to him that it was only that way after the Waynes died, when it had never been that way before. Finally, one night about six months in, Lucius pressed the issue.
"It's not good for Master Bruce," Alfred said. "To be around this sort of thing."
"What sort of thing is that?" Lucius folded his arms; the long mirrors in their gilded frames showed half a dozen arms crossing themselves. "Our relationship?"
"You say that as if you didn't know better."
Lucius was too angry to think – it was the only time he was ever angry at Alfred, but it was the only time that ever counted. "I expect those kinds of attitudes from some people, but from you –"
"Listen to yourself." They both had a habit of speaking more quietly when they were mad; the conversation was now almost in whispers. "Two dozen families are waiting in the wings, hoping to find a reason to take Master Bruce away, so they can control him and his money. One newspaper report that his guardian's a fag, and that's it. End of story. End of Master Bruce having any kind of a life."
He'd never used a word like "fag" before. It sounded uglier coming from him. "You won't even try to think of a way."
"You won't see sense."
And it was over – three years, ended by the pull of a trigger, just that quick.
Lucius still had some of Alfred's things at the house – a toothbrush, a belt, a few paperbacks that all seemed to be about ships at sea – and for a few weeks he considered sending them to Alfred by messenger, perhaps with a note asking if this was really his final decision. He put it off until it was too late to ask at all. Throwing everything out seemed wrong, so he boxed them up, sealed the box with duct tape, and set it in the back of his closet, behind the shoeshine kit, where it remained undisturbed for a very long time.
During the next two decades, they saw one another from time to time.
Not in the romantic sense – Lucius and Alfred still lived in one another's orbit. As Bruce became a little older, he sometimes toured the company; Lucius was usually the only executive willing to take the time to walk the halls with him. Alfred sometimes came long, walking side by side with Lucius, as properly as if he were escorting him through Wayne Manor again. Sometimes he ran other errands, but arrived to pick Bruce up at the end. They would nod at each other, friendly acquaintances, no more.
If Alfred felt any of the terrible longing Lucius knew, he gave no sign. Lucius sometimes wondered if Alfred could ever have loved him at all, to have walked away from him so easily. They'd rarely used words like "love," and at the time Lucius didn't feel the lack; later he wished they'd done a better job of defining themselves, if only so that he'd recognize precisely what it was he'd lost.
Lucius found other lovers – younger and older, smarter or handsomer – men who seemed superficially to belong in his world far more than Alfred did. Yet none of them fit, not really.
He went out less, fell out of practice at darts and pool. His work at Wayne Enterprises became more arcane, at first by his own design – where else could he indulge himself? – and later by Earle's decree. Gray began to appear in his hair. Finding new men began to seem like more trouble than it was worth. Despite his good work for the company, the sizable personal estate he'd put together and the research papers he still published frequently, Lucius sometimes had the sense that something had passed him by, a gold ring he'd never grab for again. It wasn't Alfred, exactly – more something he'd had when Alfred was there.
Bruce had been at college for almost a year before it occurred to Lucius that he might have called Alfred and asked for another chance. Having waited a year, he felt that he had more or less missed the window of opportunity, assuming it had ever existed.
When Earle banished Lucius to the basement – sidelining him and his projects permanently – it didn't feel like a demotion. It felt like a confirmation of what Lucius already knew. The best was over. Well, so be it. Happens to everyone, really; it just takes different shapes.
Every once in a great while, Lucius wondered what it would take to bring him and Alfred together again. He came up with scenarios both mundane and elaborate – but never anything either as outlandish or as effective as Bruce's project.
At first, Bruce's fascination with his toys delighted Lucius on the most simple level: the ego. Damn straight, the Tumbler could roll.
However, as the project took shape – and a unique shape it was – Lucius found himself falling in love with it, the dangerous kind of love he'd never had an appetite for as a young man. Ordering mass weapons shipments over the border? Patching body armor from bullet nicks? Painting the tumbler a lean matte black? No doubt Bruce's nighttime adventures were more exciting than this, but Lucius' tasks held their own magic.
When the Bat began appearing in newspapers, Lucius felt as though the blurry image in the black-and-white snapshots was his own. Not that he didn't give Bruce the credit – the guy deserved it, for both its bravery and its insanity. All the same, Lucius thought a little pride was only his due.
And then, one day, he got a call from Alfred. "Bruce isn't well at all," he said. "Last night's patrol did not proceed as planned."
Lucius found himself wholly unsurprised that Alfred knew. "Be right there." They might have last talked a few hours ago.
Once Bruce was back to himself, they did a fair bit of tactical talking, the three of them. Lucius was surprised at some of the flights of imagination Alfred had come up with, how many of the more baroque details of "Batman" were his creation, rather than Bruce's. He suspected Alfred was equally surprised at his ability to adapt Bruce's plans to the new facts at hand.
"No more castles in the air, I see," Alfred said as they walked down the hall later.
"Plenty of them," Lucius replied. "I just built some stairs."
They smiled. Alfred's gold hair had turned gray too, and the pounds Lucius could no longer keep now hung about Alfred's waistline. In the smoky old mirrors that still lined the hallway, Lucius saw them side-by-side and thought they still looked rather fine.
That night, Lucius found it hard to get to sleep. I am grinning like a schoolboy, he thought; thank God nobody can see me.
A few days later, when he absent-mindedly turned on the television over breakfast, Lucius learned that Wayne Manor has burned down.
In the one terrible moment, Lucius saw all the lost possibilities. And then they were reborn, with Bruce and Alfred, as soon as the anchors began laughing about a drunken playboy's mistake.
He wanted to rush out there immediately, but as fate would have it, he'd just become a CEO. So Lucius went to the office, held the right meetings, fired Earle with sincere relish and moved a few things into the swanky office. Then, exercising the ultimate prerogative of power, he calmly asked his new secretary to push any more meetings until tomorrow and called the car service for his trip to the remains of Wayne Manor.
"And there you are," Alfred said, stepping gingerly over a charred gray thing that might once have been a ceiling beam. "Mister Wayne and I have begun discussing some improvements to the cellar. Reinforcements, you might say."
"I'll work up some blueprints," Lucius replied, before kissing him hard on the mouth.
Now they are all conspirators, vigilantes, a family with a tree more twisted than most.
Bruce knows about them, just as his father knew, and he is as wordless in his acquiescence. Lucius suspects that the younger Wayne is not as easy with the knowledge as the elder was, perhaps merely because he spends more time with them together. But Lucius suspects it isn't homophobia or prudishness that sometimes darkens Bruce's face when he observes them; it's simply the evidence of intimacy. Bruce finds that disturbing, and given some of the things the young man is comfortable with, Lucius thinks, you do have to wonder.
Now it is Alfred who has the wild dreams, and Lucius who grounds them in reality, with Bruce walking his terrifyingly high tightrope between the two. Bruce lives out their lives for them in one sense – his fists, his words, his caped silhouette looming from the side of a building in the night. Alfred and Lucius live out what Bruce will not, when they lie together in bed.
Alfred says, "We are neither of us what we were intended to be."
"Intended by whom?"
"You think I'll say our families, or society, or something like that, don't you? By ourselves, is who I mean."
"How could we have known to expect this?" Lucius waves at the ceiling, a hand gesture encompassing their pasts, the Batcave, all of it.
"We'd have been rather odd if we did expect it." Alfred gives him his most roguish grin. "But we might not have been such fools as to think we knew what to expect from fate. Who ever does?"
It's frightening, how often Alfred is right. But Lucius doesn't mind that, not at all.