Untitled

by Chicago


There was a certain spot in the Cave.

Alfred had found it when he first began haunting the deep cavern, dusting and cleaning to keep himself busy during the hours that his employer and surrogate son performed similar tasks for the streets of Gotham. He hummed as he worked, and one day the actor's ears, rusty from years away from the stage, recognized something. Acoustic perfection.

Just there, that one spot in the Cave.

It became a secret indulgence - to pause in the night's labors and stand in that spot and declaim the famous speeches of Shakespeare. Other nights he would recite poetry, or read aloud a favorite passage from a novel. Sometimes he would sing. The performer's blood in him imagined an audience in the bats that learned to ignore him, pictured the crowd breathlessly hanging on his words. The fancy of a younger time, perhaps, but a pleasant one, nonetheless. It eased the waiting.

He had not had time for such play in recent months; there had been too many changes to the staid life of Wayne Manor. Alfred was likely to nod off during any respite he found, even down in the dankness beneath the house. Tonight, however? Tonight he felt like singing.

He thought about arias he had mastered, could render passably well in his light baritone, but when he stepped into his imagined spotlight, the lyrics of his young adulthood came to him. Songs he knew, not because he had studied them, but because once he had been a young man learning the Lindy hop and revelling in a new life as a rising young stage actor. Songs he had learned even earlier, in bunkers during the war, sung with now long-dead comrades in arms.

He lost himself in those songs, but as he finished the final sad bars of the "White Cliffs of Dover," he felt another presence in the Cave. Jarred from the moment, he turned toward the stairs to see - "Master Dick! You'll never get well if you persist in coming down here in your bare feet!" he bustled, hiding his embarrassment.

The bleary-eyed little boy did not respond beyond an unconscious sniffle of his runny nose. Before Alfred could reach him with a handkerchief, he wiped his nose on his sleeve, never once taking his eyes off the spot Alfred had occupied.

"Master Dick," Alfred chided. "You should be in bed-"

"I woke up," the boy said simply, finally looking to Alfred's eyes. "You were an actor."

"Of course, my boy. You know that. Now-"

"No. You were -" Dick gestured toward the place where Alfred had been singing. "You were a performer. A showman."

Alfred hesitated, arresting his impulse to herd the youngster back up the stairs. Instead, he followed Dick's gaze. "Yes..."

"Do you miss it?" Dick asked, again turning too serious eyes to Alfred's face.

Dignity for the moment forgotten, Alfred sat on the steps, pulling an unprotesting Dick onto his lap to get those bare feet off the cold floor.

"Yes," he sighed, feeling the weight of this question no one had bothered to ask him in years, "sometimes I truly do."

Dick leaned his head against Alfred's shoulder, coughing a little but this time accepting Alfred's proffered handkerchief. "I miss the audience," he said. "The crowds."

"The applause," Alfred added.

"The applause," Dick agreed.

Alfred tightened his grip around the little boy who had turned his world topsy-turvy in the past few months, feeling a sudden kindred with him. Dick sneezed and leaned forward to blow his nose, then settled back into Alfred's embrace.

"Master Bruce will be unhappy to find you awake with this cold," Alfred reminded gently.

"I know."

They sat for a moment longer.

"Alfred?"

"Yes, Master Dick?"

"Can you tuck me in again?"

"I always intended to."

"And-"

"What is it?"

"Can you - I mean, would you mind -?"

"I cannot say unless you ask, Master Dick."

There was a brief pause, then, "My mom used to sing some of those songs."

"Would you like me to sing you to sleep, Master Dick?"

He felt the boy nod against his chest, and he wondered in this moment if the accompanying sniffle was prompted by Dick's cold. Regardless, he responded by making his manner brisk. "Well, let's back to bed then," he ordered, shifting Dick to his feet and rising to take the youngster's hand.

Dick obeyed wordlessly, climbing the steps to match the pace of his foster father's valet. Except, Alfred reflected, he wasn't just a valet, or even the "gentleman's gentleman" he styled himself to be. He was more than just Alfred Pennyworth, former actor. More even than trusted confidant of the mysterious Batman. He was now the man who knew the words of the songs that a little boy's mother used to sing, and that, he thought, might be the most important role he would ever play.


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