Alfred had matters well in hand, for a time.
He'd noticed the moment it started, of course. How could he not? He knew himself too well to fail to recognise the signs. A certain warmth, stealing its way into his face, his chest, his hands; a unmistakable tendency on the part of his heart to trip self-indulgently, though it was more than old enough to know better. A persistent preoccupation that would insist on seizing him in his idle moments, his thoughts turning again and again in the same direction.
He didn't waste time taking himself to task over it. To dwell on it would only make it worse. He allowed himself the occasional wallow in rueful self-awareness, but no more than that.
He didn't even regret it. It wasn't as though it were an error in judgement. To act upon it? Yes, of course. But to feel it? Hardly.
Diana was, after all, exceptional, in every possible sense of the word. Strong, intelligent, skilled; generous, diligent, charming, and remarkably, heartbreakingly compassionate. And of course relentlessly, staggeringly beautiful, as if the rest didn't add up to more than enough on its own. He'd lost this battle before it had begun, and he couldn't blame himself in the least. She was frightfully easy to love.
She was—wondrous, he sometimes permitted himself to think, with a wryness proportional to the poor quality of the joke. A joke, and yet not at joke at all: if anyone in the world had earned the appellation of Wonder Woman, it was certainly she.
He wasn't about to lose his head. He understood how he must proceed; he knew how to bear this sort of thing. Patience, dignified silence, quiet courtesy. That was the ticket. It needn't provoke any tension or awkwardness. He would simply refuse to let it.
There was no way to avoid her, even had he wished to. Master Wayne had placed himself squarely at the heart of the operational structure of the brand-new Justice League, and where Master Wayne went, Alfred went. He dealt with data collection, strategic analysis; he performed tactical support, equipment maintenance. And of course half a dozen superheroes required a good more care and feeding than just one, even when that one was Master Wayne.
Among Diana's virtues, Alfred quickly learned to number conscientious attention to her own weapons and armor. And once the renovations to Wayne Manor—to the Hall of Justice, rather—had been completed, she spent a great deal of time in the equipment rooms.
Alfred spoke to her, sometimes. It was only the polite thing to do; he wasn't about to deliberately ignore her, to give her the cold shoulder, just for being so thoroughly herself that he couldn't help but find it compelling.
She liked to have someone to chat to while she sharpened her sword. Or at least she seemed to. She was never visibly displeased to see him—she was always smiling, eyes crinkling warmly at the corners.
Being gracious, as she always was. That was all.
They sat together while they worked, and told each other stories, now and then. Alfred tried to stick to subjects that must plausibly interest her: London, and weaponry, and Master Wayne. She spoke to him of her home, of the people she had left behind; of all sorts of things, legends and small everyday frustrations, mother boxes and tea.
It got worse.
Worse—deeper. Harder to ignore.
Sometimes she came and found him even when her armor had already been oiled and put away, even when her sword was sharp and gleaming. Sometimes she sat beside him and asked him questions: about Master Wayne's equipment, about the repairs and adjustments he was performing. About where he had learned to do it all, and how. About himself.
She was curious. Why shouldn't she be? He answered. He was careful not to go on too long. He never presumed too much, never took advantage of her evident willingness to extend such courtesy.
She came to see Master Wayne at the house, now and then. She never left without speaking to Alfred, even if it was only for a moment, only long enough to smile and ask how he was, and then bid him a good evening.
When they both were in the Hall of a morning, he found himself developing an unfortunate habit: he made her tea, solely for the pleasure of it. Solely for the way she looked at him when he did, soft and dark-eyed and delighted, though by the third time he had surely made himself entirely predictable.
But he hadn't lost his grip on it, not quite. Not yet.
Not until the fourth time.
It was hardly anything. Compared to the way she laughed when he allowed himself a particularly wry comment, the way she listened so intently to all his dull old stories, the way it felt to sit with her in comfortable silence—it was hardly anything. He didn't know why that was what should have done it, of all things.
But the fourth time he brought her tea, in the dim early-morning quiet of the Hall, she curved her hands around his on the mug, slid their fingers together—met his eyes, with a small sweet smile, and murmured, "Thank you, Alfred," with such warmth, and for a moment he thought—
Sanity returned to him almost instantly. Only for the barest fraction of a second had he fooled himself. But that fraction of a second had contracted his heart in his chest, had closed a fist around it; his face was hot, his skin prickling helplessly.
Too much, he thought. It had become too much. Too greedy, too insistent, too reckless. He couldn't trust himself to leash it, not anymore. Not when he had proven able, however briefly, to delude himself into thinking that she might—
No. It was ridiculous. It was laughable.
He needed to be sensible about this. Perhaps she'd noticed; perhaps she hadn't. Either way, it was neither considerate nor reasonable to expect her to break his heart properly. That was hardly her responsibility.
He must do it himself, and do it thoroughly. And then, perhaps, he would at last be able to settle into the resigned acceptance suitable to the circumstances.
His plan of action was simple. Straightforward. Absence made the heart grow fonder, sometimes, but in Alfred's experience it also stood a good chance of rendering the head clearer, too. Without the passive reinforcement of her presence, her face, her voice, every word she spoke within his earshot and every action she took within his line of sight, surely the worst intensity of his captivation would subside. He would face reality, in all its unambiguous clarity, without distraction. And with sufficient determination on his part, no doubt his dazed heart could be made to see sense.
So he went to Master Wayne, and mentioned that he intended to make arrangements for a fortnight's leave of absence.
Master Wayne looked at him, and failed to hide a certain startlement at the notion.
Which was fair enough. Alfred hadn't done such a thing in years, and wouldn't have now, the situation that had pushed him to decide on it notwithstanding, if not for the formation of the League. He knew better than to leave Master Wayne alone in his work.
"I realize it's an unusual request, sir," Alfred said.
Master Wayne's expression altered indefinably. "You don't have to explain yourself to me, Alfred," he said, almost gently. "Take as much time as you need."
"Oh, I expect the fortnight shall be more than sufficient," Alfred murmured.
"I assume you've already decided where you'll be spending it?"
"The lodge, I thought."
Among the many and various properties owned by Master Wayne, there was a hunting lodge in the British countryside, not too far from a charming little village. A bit extravagant, of course, as most of Master Wayne's publicly acknowledged possessions were; but not as excessively so as other residences Alfred could name, and it had stood empty for quite some time. He might as well kill two birds with one stone: check the security systems and perform updates, clean the place up a bit, effect whatever minor repairs or improvements to the buildings and grounds should prove necessary.
It was distance he was after. But he was not built for enforced inactivity. One of the more fundamental traits he and Master Wayne happened to share.
And, indeed, Master Wayne gave him a knowing sideways glance. "Naturally." He paused. "You'll take a communicator."
His tone made it a shade less than an order—but a shade more than a suggestion.
"Oh, I'm well aware I would not be permitted to depart the grounds without one, sir," Alfred said, carefully concealing a smile.
He could hardly take umbrage. It was sweet, really. Master Wayne could be so endearingly transparent, looked at in the right light.
And then Master Wayne looked away from him again, and said, in that same exceptionally steady voice, "Two weeks."
"Two weeks," Alfred agreed. "With sufficient backup, I feel confident you can survive that long without me."
He spoke lightly, evenly, because to do otherwise would be a mistake much too obvious to make; and even that, he saw with instant regret, had brought a brief shadow to Master Wayne's brow. They both remained far too conscious of what "backup" had once meant to the Gotham Batman—and Alfred, at least, felt painfully aware that there were certain other two-week spans about which he could not have said the same.
He reached out, and touched Master Wayne's elbow gently.
"I dare to believe I will never have reason to think otherwise," he added, very quietly.
Not anymore, he did not say. He did not have to.
Master Wayne shook his head. "No promises," he said. But ruefully, without the grim certainty Alfred might have expected; and one corner of his mouth had begun to quirk.
Alfred gave him a long assessing look, deliberate, narrow-eyed. And then he cleared his throat, and raised his eyebrows and said, "In that case, apropos of absolutely nothing, I don't suppose you have any particular idea where I might be able to find Mr. Kent?"
Master Wayne turned a gimlet stare upon him, and said nothing.
Alfred beamed at him, and left, humming under his breath.
He didn't make good on the threat immediately. He packed, first, and made sure everything was in order—both his own affairs, and all matters under his purview at the lake house. He would return to the Hall before he departed, with all due obedience, to pick up a spare League communicator; as long as he timed it right, Clark would be easy to find.
He slept soundly. And if his dreams were full of dark eyes, and gentle steady hands, and tea—well. No one needed to know of it, and he could not begrudge himself at least that much, when it was all he was ever to have.
His timing the following morning was as good as could be asked. Clark always checked in at the Hall before proceeding to his day job, and was difficult to miss. He came to a stop the moment Alfred called his name, and listened to Alfred's explanation of the situation with ready attention. The first thing he said was, "That's wonderful, Alfred—have a fantastic trip!" And the second, quite unprompted and the more pleasing for it, was, "I'll make sure he eats."
"I appreciate that more than I can tell you, Mr. Kent," Alfred said. "And certainly more than he will."
Clark grinned, and clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't I know it," he agreed.
And then Alfred bid him farewell, and turned round, and standing there in the middle of the hall was Diana.
"Miss Prince," Alfred said, and congratulated himself silently on the steadiness of his voice. A little too much warmth in it, perhaps; but he could forgive himself that much, as long as yearning remained entirely excised.
"Diana," she told him, with a chiding slant of her mouth, a shake of her head. "How many times must I say it, Alfred?"
She reached out, and clasped his hand.
"Diana," he heard himself say.
She smiled, just wide enough to provoke the barest dent of a dimple. He hung on, and managed by the skin of his teeth to survive it.
And then the smile fell away, and she was simply standing there, looking at him.
"Taking a bit of a holiday," he said, mustering a smile of his own. "That's all. A fortnight—you'll hardly notice I'm gone."
Something passed across her face that he could not name; it felt dangerous to even dare to try. "I will notice every moment," she said softly.
He met her eyes, incautious, unthinking, and then cursed himself for a fool and jerked his gaze away. He was almost able to wish that she hadn't been here, that he'd been able to vanish unnoticed and leave it to Master Wayne to mention it to her, except—
Except that would have been unkind. If he wanted that, it was selfishly, without consideration; she'd done nothing to merit such discourtesy. Whatever else the ache in his chest had the audacity to long for, the truth remained that they were friends, and Alfred didn't intend that that should change. And he should not have liked to leave a friend without a word in farewell.
He cleared his throat, and pinned the smile he had let slip back into place where it had been, only a little the worse for wear. "You are too kind, as always," he said.
She went still. Only for a moment, but it was impossible to miss. He looked at her again, and this time it was deliberate, a silent and tentative inquiry.
She drew a quick breath, and released his hand, and took a strange, stilted half-step back—there was no other way to describe it, and it was peculiar to watch. Some part of him was surprised to think it was possible for her to move gracelessly. She bit her lip; and then her face smoothed itself out neatly, and the belated curving of her mouth would almost have been believable were it not for the look in her eyes, the soft wistful furrow that had settled across her brow.
"I hope you find what you are looking for," she said quietly, oddly formal.
And it was entirely unaccountable, utterly incomprehensible; but he could have sworn her last look spoke of wordless apology, before she stepped aside and let him go.
The lodge was in decent shape.
The strangest thing about returning to the English countryside wasn't that it was English, but that it was countryside. Alfred had never felt the distance between himself and Britain with particular acuteness, and so the disappearance of that distance was counterintuitively unremarkable; but he was so very used to Gotham now. Even at the lake house, set apart from the city, its presence was palpable. And when he wasn't there in fact, he was there in spirit—watching Master Wayne work his way through streets and back alleys, over apartment blocks and beneath subways, a dozen different cameras and scanners aimed as precisely as if they were Alfred's own eyes.
But the lodge was in decent shape, and familiar to him besides. And it would be good for him, no doubt: to breathe the clean fresh air, to absorb greenness and growth. To relax, in peaceful solitude, rather than staying up nights locked in a secret basement, watching Master Wayne find a half-dozen new ways to brush shoulders with Death.
The flight had been bearable, the rental car ready and waiting, and the drive downright pleasant. It did not trouble him to enter the lodge and find himself surrounded by neatly covered furniture, undisturbed, unused. There was something appealing in the idea of stripping and making up only what he needed, and no more; of making himself comfortable, and caring not a whit whether the results were presentable. With anyone else about, a show to make for the sake of Master Wayne's public persona or guests whose needs he must attend to—he'd have had to go to proper lengths, then. But when it was only himself? He could indulge in the luxury of laziness.
There was no generator to start up; Master Wayne had had the old one replaced with solar panels years ago, connected to an energy storage unit he'd designed himself. The lights came on at the flick of a switch, and Alfred only needed to run the taps for a minute before the plumbing ceased its grumbling. He brought in his things and then, daring, left them by the door—drew a single drop sheet free of one extremely large sofa in the main room, and settled in immediately for a nap, though it was midafternoon.
Such were the thrills a true holiday was made of, he thought wryly, just before he drifted off entirely.
He gave himself a day to simply putter about, adjusting himself to the time difference and shedding what remained of his jetlag. After that, it wasn't difficult to establish a basic routine.
He rose early, made himself tea, and did not think about Diana. He went out, if the day was fine, and rambled round checking the property line, enjoying the woods and rolling slopes, and thinking not at all about Diana. When it rained, he stayed in, and made himself cozy, and picked out something from among the books he'd brought with him; he read, and did not think about Diana. He cooked barely at all, took five minutes to throw together beans on toast and ate standing at the counter, and didn't think about Diana.
It worked, mostly.
He caught himself in the occasional daydream, the odd wistful remembrance. Picturing how she might laugh, seeing him skidding about on the polished wood floor in his sock feet, or the way her eyes might crinkle at the corners and give her away as she attempted to accept an offering of beans on toast with the appropriate solemnity. Wondering what she might think of such-and-such a passage in one of the books; whether she might sit and let him read it to her, listening in that sweet grave way she had, as if every word he spoke were of the utmost importance.
Every time it happened, he paused, and drew a long slow breath, and brought himself gently back to earth. It wouldn't happen that way. It couldn't. Flights of fancy were permissible, simply because he understood that he would never be able to prevent them entirely. But he must always remain aware that that was what they were. Pleasant thoughts, idle surmises—but not wishes. Not desires. That implied that he might make them reality, given the opportunity. No; acceptance. Acceptance. That was the order of the day. That was what was called for. All else must be set aside.
All told, the time passed quietly, comfortably. After a week, he only thought of what it might have been like to come here with Diana perhaps half a dozen times a day.
And it was around then, naturally, when the fabric of reality tore itself apart, and an army made of shadows came creeping out from among the downs.
The first wave came upon the lodge in the early morning.
Alfred couldn't have said precisely what it was that caught his attention. At a distance, it was nearly impossible to tell them apart from the mist, swirling along in slow curling waves. Perhaps it was simply the silence, the way the birds had all gone quiet, the flat cold circle of the sun low and dull in the sky.
There was a shotgun, several cases of shells, in a cabinet. Alfred found himself reaching for it, wanting to have it to hand; and he couldn't have quantified it, but there was something about the way it felt to break it, load it, snap it closed again, that only made him more certain he was about to need it. The way the sounds cracked through that hard, thick silence, and the echoes they left behind them.
There was no breeze. But that dark mist moved, and moved, and then suddenly one of them surged free of it and came for him.
He'd been trying to decide whether it was worth it to look out the door—whether it was irrational and paranoid to succumb to his sudden urge to fortify, flip a table or two on its side for cover, instead. The lodge had several massive bay windows: previously a feature that had made his mornings more pleasant, permitting him to wake readily with the sunrise, but now a blaringly obvious tactical disadvantage.
That was where it came in. Passed through the window entirely, as though the glass weren't there at all, and even as Alfred jerked into motion, leveled the shotgun and squeezed the trigger, part of him was already grimly wondering what damage it could possibly do. A physical projectile seemed unlikely to do the trick against something that paid walls no heed.
But the shell did strike, somehow, and there was a noise beyond hearing, a high soft shriek, as the deepest darkest heart of the thing was shredded abruptly thin.
The air moved. Icy, Alfred registered, already firing again. Perhaps that was it: perhaps it was the heat of the shell, not the matter it was made of, that somehow could not pass through the shadows—that generated impact enough to detonate the powder, and disperse the shot within the shell further still.
The mist rolled closer. The sun grew dimmer. Alfred reloaded, and tried to assess the odds that he could reach the communicator unimpeded—it lay innocently upon the kitchen counter, where he had set it intending shortly to begin making his breakfast, before the hairs had begun to stand up on the nape of his neck.
They were probably not particularly good. But then his odds of surviving whatever in the world this was if he failed to alert the League to it were undoubtedly worse.
He paused, and considered his options.
Entering the kitchen would bring him too close to the bay window for comfort. But he didn't need to enter it to put the communicator within his line of sight. He had a shotgun. And among the features Master Wayne had insisted on was what Alfred had taken to referring to as a dead man's switch: the League communicators were in fact pinging the Hall's systems at consistent intervals, several times a second. If that interaction ceased for any reason, it prompted the same level of emergency alert as a deliberate communication of distress.
Alfred eased his way along the length of the sofa until he could see the counter, and the communicator upon it. He aimed, and fired, and blew it neatly to smithereens.
The counter was going to need resurfacing. But he suspected Master Wayne would forgive him.
The shadows swarmed nearer. None of them seemed inclined to be the next to pass through the bay window. Perhaps he had bought himself a few minutes' time.
If only he had a meaningful way to use it. But his nearest neighbor was several kilometres distant, and the village centre further still. He had no way to assess how far the shadows might already have spread, how many of them there were, what they wanted or where they were going; they appeared to be coming from the east, moving west, but that was pitifully little to go on.
The glass clouded, and then was obscured entirely. This shadow-thing was larger—or perhaps it was several of them, all swarming him at once. Alfred brought the shotgun to bear, drew a steadying breath, and fired. Even more effective, this time: they were rent apart, shrieking, the air clearing in a scattershot constellation that definitely resembled the ballistics dispersal pattern of shotgun ammunition. Reloaded, and he could feel the heat of the barrels now against his fingertips. Perhaps that was helping.
There was a sound, somewhere in the distance. Alfred couldn't spare it any attention. It was increasingly difficult to grasp the movement of the shadows beyond the window, somehow. It was as though the closer they came, and the more distinct they were from the morning mist that had camouflaged them at first, the more disorienting it was to look at them directly—the void of them, the increasingly oppressive lightlessness, made it almost impossible to focus his gaze upon them. They had no form, no meaningful substance. It was dizzying, headache-inducing, and it played merry hell with his depth perception, to boot.
There were more of them, now. He couldn't count on them to stick to the window alone for long. That had been the entry point for the leading edge of their line, that was all; there was nothing to prevent them from coming in through the walls, surrounding him on all sides.
A matter of time, then. He could only hope to last long enough for the League to arrive.
It was a close thing, in the end.
Alfred couldn't be entirely certain how close. Too close for comfort, to be sure. But once they'd surrounded him, once they had him, it was—they seemed able to pass through his skin, through him, as readily as they had through everything else. His mind felt cold, and dark, and empty, and he couldn't have said how long it lasted, what else he might have perceived while it was happening. He had fallen into shadow, and there was no way out.
And then, abruptly, hot golden light blazed through him. He felt jolted to life, gasping for breath, heart pounding in his chest; he clung to that light, scrambled along frantically in its wake, and found himself blinking his eyes open.
He was—he was prone on the floor, or nearly so. His hands, his arms, his legs, felt stiff, and ached with cold, bone-deep. The shotgun had tumbled down beside him, and was lying there coated white with frost.
And looped round him, bright and steady, was Diana's lariat. Warmth seeped into him, from the lariat. From the lariat, and from Diana's arm beneath his shoulders, Diana's palm spread broad and strong across his chest.
She had come for him; and for a long moment, unthinking, dimly grateful, he lay there curled against her and did nothing but drink her in.
"Alfred," she said softly.
He blinked again. The ice that had formed across his eyelashes was melting steadily, dripping away.
"Alfred, are you all right?"
He closed his eyes, and swallowed. His throat felt tight, raw. He couldn't remember screaming—but then again, perhaps he simply hadn't been able to hear himself doing it. Perhaps the lightless silence had eaten the sound, the same way it had eaten everything else.
"Yes." It came out scraped, hoarse, but audible.
He risked a glance. Diana met his eyes, and let out a breath; lifted her hand from his chest and touched his face with two fingertips, a thumb, and bent close, eyes falling briefly shut, until their foreheads touched.
"I'm all right," he repeated, low, into the space between them, and he managed to fumble one half-numb hand up to close around her wrist.
God, she was warm. Warm, and close, right here beside him. He never wanted to move again.
Which meant, of course, that he had better, and sooner rather than later.
He cleared his throat, and shifted in her arms, and she took the cue for precisely what it was and eased away—helped him sit, and let the lariat slide loose so he could lift the loops of it off of himself.
He kept them wrapped round his hands afterward, relishing the heat of them, until all the feeling had come back into his fingers.
"I'm sorry," she said, after a moment.
Alfred looked at her, and raised an eyebrow.
"It is a shame that your holiday should be interrupted," she clarified, mouth slanting. But there was a soft shadow lingering around her eyes, and he thought involuntarily of the way she had looked at him in the Hall, just before he'd left.
"You shouldn't be sorry," he said. "You should never be sorry. I'm glad you're here. I missed you," and it was only then that he realized the damned lariat was still in his hands, wrapped around them, looped between his fingers.
He jerked free of it, and it slid to the floor between them. His hands felt cold without it, cold and conspicuously empty, and he clasped them round each other and cleared his throat.
Diana looked at him steadily, searchingly, and he willed himself to bear it without flinching. She still held one end of the lariat, and she began coiling it up again in her hands without looking away. "It seems a doorway has been opened," she said. "Bruce is trying to work out how. Victor and Arthur are slowing down the shadow soldiers, and Clark and Barry are evacuating the area." She paused, and for a moment her expression turned almost rueful. "I was—close. I knew I would be able to reach you. And I wished to."
Alfred's heart pressed itself hard against the inside of his ribs; Alfred cursed it silently for its reckless enthusiasm, and tried not to let too much sopping panting warmth show on his face.
But he didn't like to let her think it didn't matter to him at all. Surely that was only the bare minimum of courtesy worth extending to someone who'd saved your life.
"I appreciate it," he allowed himself to say, "believe me," and a quick smile, a touch to the back of her hand—that couldn't possibly cross a line, he told himself, and ignored the unsteadiness of his arm, his voice. He was shivering. That was all.
She tilted her head. "And if I said the next thing I wished to do was to deliver you to safety?"
"I would earnestly and politely wish you the best of luck," Alfred informed her, and reached for the shotgun. Still a smattering of frost; but most of it had already melted away, and the basic mechanisms appeared functional upon inspection.
"I thought you might say something like that," Diana murmured, soft and fond, and helped him to his feet.
They'd have had a bit of a battle ahead of them even if Alfred had been in a cooperative mood, as it turned out, for the lodge was entirely surrounded.
Diana had an earpiece for him, in lieu of what remained of the communicator that had taken that shotgun blast; Alfred accepted it gratefully and eased it into place with increasingly steady hands, and the first thing he said, loudly enough for the miniaturised built-in mic to pick it up, was, "I'm all right, sir."
"A," Master Wayne acknowledged, because of course these were mission comms, even if the mission had been an unanticipated one. "Good to hear it," and it was barked out in the sharp flat way he spoke when he was concentrating, when the Bat was in his element, but that diminished the sentiment not at all.
Alfred smiled to hear it. And then he looked up, and found Diana watching him, and there was such tender warmth in her expression, caught in an instant when she must not have expected him to see, that for a long moment he could not look away again.
The shotgun worked. The lasso worked. Diana's sword and shield, in and of themselves, were useless—but looped a few times round with the trailing end of the lasso, until they glowed, they held off the shadow soldiers readily enough.
Diana, naturally, took point. Alfred fell back reflexively into the tactical support position from which he had always done his best work. He shouted warnings to her when they were necessary, and kept the shadow soldiers off her back, working neatly in the lee of her, covering the few angles she could not.
And, because Alfred hadn't been in a cooperative mood, they fought their way toward the deepest, thickest shadows instead of away.
To think he'd considered the countryside strange in and of itself when it was green and alive—Alfred could have laughed. It looked like another world, now, shadow soldiers filling the sky like smoke, the sunlight slant and dim and bloody in the rare places it shone. Even at Diana's side, where the warm light of the lasso fell upon him, the air was cold; he could see his breath. The trees, the grass, looked black except where they glittered with frost, and crunched a little underfoot.
Alfred spared no conscious thought for how Diana fought, how she moved. He was simply aware of it, helplessly, persistently. Distance hadn't cured him. He hadn't expected it to. But like this, at her shoulder, the more aware of her presence for the entirely literal dimness everything else possessed by contrast—whatever ground it was he might claimed to have gained slipped from his grasp, and he was hardly even able to regret it, though he knew he should. All he found within himself was gratitude: to be near her, to be trusted by her, to see her like this.
Lord. Perhaps, he thought distantly, he'd best give up all hope that his wayward heart could be corralled. Perhaps there was simply no way out except to make a fool of himself—perhaps one was in fact never too old to be thoroughly importuned by love.
Diana had spoken of an opened doorway. This was, no doubt, the truth of the matter in a metaphysical sense.
But to all appearances, it was less a doorway and more a dizzying, lightless mire. The shadows were coming from beneath, from the ground; the rolling rise and fall of the downs gave way as if to a sinkhole, an abyss, a blackness so dark it was both endless and depthless.
Alfred shuddered, unable to prevent it. The cold was palpable, sinking to the bone. His hands shook. He found he couldn't look at the center of it head-on—merely to attempt it made him sway a little, disorientated, and his head, his eyes, pulsed with a sick sharp pain that was nearly enough to make him gag.
Master Wayne was speaking, somewhere that seemed terribly far away. "—should be right there," he was saying. "Close. Perhaps more than one, positioned around the edges—"
If the doorway had any effect on Diana, she didn't show it. Her brow was furrowed a little, but in determination rather than discomfort; she was illuminated by her lasso where it coiled round her waist, but as she pressed forward, with that steady intent look upon her face, the quality of the light began to change. It wasn't only the lasso, not any longer. It was her. Soft-edged but unmistakable, red-gold, it pulsed from her in a slow wave, and the deepest of the shadows were pressed back.
That high thin sound they made when they were displeased came again. They roiled. A dark furious arrow began to press itself forward, toward the small of her back—where the light was dimmest, for she meant to use it to push ahead, not to back away—
Alfred forced his hands to steadiness, and raised the shotgun, and blasted it apart.
And then Diana lowered herself to one armored knee, and reached down, and touched something.
Alfred could not discern anything about it. It was—it was like a knot in the shadowed void, somehow, as if emptiness had somehow taken on sufficient solidity for Diana to lift it with one hand.
"I have it," she said, to Master Wayne. "One of them. It feels as though they are connected."
"How far has it spread?"
Master Wayne fell silent.
"This isn't like my power," she said. "But it's even less like yours. This is not something that can be solved by taking it to your lab and running scans. We need to close the shadow door, and we need to do it now. Who else would you have make the attempt?"
And Alfred knew as soon as she asked the question that there could be no answer.
"Be careful," Master Wayne bit out instead.
Diana smiled, small and fond. And then she looked up, and the smile slid away. "Alfred—I don't know what will happen."
"I understand," he said, and took a moment to reload the shotgun, just in case.
He met her eyes again when he was done, and then they simply looked at each other, trapped within a well of swirling shadows. He spared an instant to wish uselessly that he could take her hand, lend her whatever comfort it could provide a goddess shimmering with her own divine power to know that she had a shivering butler at her side.
But she had caught up the knot of shadows in both her cupped palms, and there was no time. She drew a breath, and did not look away from him; and then she curled her hands, dug her fingertips deep within the shadow-mass, let her eyes fall shut, and came alight.
It was as though she had ignited. It was brilliant, blinding. She was made of light, she had become it: she'd driven it deep into the heart of the shadow-mass, prying into it with fingers forged of white-gold fire. Suddenly it was clear what she had meant in saying it feels as though they are connected. The shadow-mass wasn't just brimming over with shadow-mist, it was—there were links, shadow-chains that hung from it, and as it began to crack apart, scored through with light, the shadow-chains likewise were starting to glow dimly, as if from within. As if Diana poured molten light down some hidden channel at the center of them, and they could not hold fast against it.
It felt less like a sound this time, even a sound at the edge of hearing, and more like a straightforward scraping of every nerve in his body at once. As if he'd scratched not only his nails but every bone he possessed against a slate. He shook helplessly, seized by it, and was dimly grateful the shadows seemed to be doing the same; he couldn't have shot straight at that moment if his life depended on it. Nor even if her life had.
The light grew impossibly brighter. Alfred perceived another knot of it in the distance, another, another. Shadow-masses, thrown like—like anchors, like grappling hooks, from somewhere within the nothingness of that vast abyss, holding the shadow door open.
And the light was finding them, one by one, and tearing them apart.
The air felt taut, thin. There was a tension in it. And then—a sudden sharp wave of pressure, so that Alfred's ears popped; the darkness swelled, and then receded as abruptly. The shadow soldiers, Alfred realized belatedly, gathered up and drawn back all at once, and then everything went white.
The first thing he knew was that he ached.
He tried to move, and caught a noise of complaint between his teeth before it could escape.
The second thing was that the sun was in his eyes, and he didn't know why that should be a surprise. And the third was that someone was touching him.
He tried to move again. It worked better this time. He came up onto his elbows, and was helped by an arm round his shoulders.
Diana, he thought, and blinked, and squinted, and at last something other than sunlight swam into focus in his view.
"Diana," he said.
She was leaning in close; she had a hand against his jaw. He'd half expected a smile, but she looked terribly grave, dark-eyed, mouth flat. When he spoke her name, she drew a sharp breath, and her eyes closed, and then—then it was just like when she had found him in the lodge, the way she bent and pressed her brow to his.
"Alfred," she said again, and this time it was not a plea, not an admonishment. It was as if she simply wished to say it—
Oh, good lord. That was quite enough of that, he told himself sternly.
"Alfred, I'm sorry."
"I thought I told you there was no need for that sort of nonsense," he murmured, hoarse.
He ought to move away. He could support his own weight, there was no reason she must hold him the way she was. He should make that clear, and move away.
"That was before I tore apart a shadow door and knocked you unconscious," she said, equally low, and did not move either.
He reached up clumsily, fumblingly, and clasped a hand at the nape of her neck, her hair tumbling thick and smooth over the backs of his fingers. "Diana," he managed, and oh, he was about to do something foolish indeed—
"I'm sorry you left," she said. "I didn't mean to make you."
He went still, and swallowed.
She eased back, far enough to meet his eyes, and offered him half a smile: wistful, knowing. Resigned.
"So it was me, then."
"It wasn't you," Alfred said, and then stopped. "It wasn't your fault," he amended, because that was the truer statement of the two.
"I presumed too much," Diana said softly. "I overstepped. I overindulged."
"Overindulged," Alfred repeated.
Her mouth quirked; her gaze warmed, though it was still too solemn for his liking. "I don't know what else to call it," she said. "To drink too deeply of simple pleasures—even the pleasure of good company must qualify. I made you unhappy. I already had, a dozen different times, asking too much, lingering too long; but you always forgave me. I should not have taken advantage of that generosity."
Alfred let his eyes fall shut.
He'd thought she hadn't noticed. Or had, but had graciously chosen to grant him the benefit of the doubt—to assume he was less foolhardy than he was.
The fourth time he had brought her tea, that was what had jolted him to his senses. But the reason it had happened then wasn't because that had been the first time he had caught himself at the edge of a precipice, had carefully backed away; rather, it had been the first time he'd perceived himself as deluded enough to believe she stood beside him on that edge.
What had been discomfort with his own idiocy, deliberate effort to rein himself in before he could take that last step and tumble—she had observed it. She had observed it, but misattributed it.
"So you took your holiday," she murmured, into the stillness left where he had not replied aloud. "And I couldn't leave you to even that in peace."
He couldn't help it. He laughed, and shook his head a little, and dared to let the tips of his fingers, there at the nape of her neck, smooth their way into her hair.
"I didn't want you to," he said, and looked at her. "Diana—I didn't want you to. I thought it would be wise, that was all. You heard me. I know you heard me," and he reached out with his other hand, slid his fingers between the loops of the lasso and the smooth cool weight of the armor at her waist, and said it again: "I missed you." He bit the inside of his cheek, let the sting of heat build, and it was sweet relief to let the truth spill free. "I didn't want to leave you. I never want to leave you."
She stared down at him, wide-eyed. And then she said, "Alfred," almost chiding, and she kissed him.
A sweet soft brush of her mouth, at first. That was all. But it was enough; a fine shiver worked its way through him, and a small yearning sound caught in his throat.
And then she kissed him again. Longer, longer. Eased away, ventured to his cheek, his jaw, and then returned to the corner of his mouth, and he twisted helplessly into it, surged within her grasp and drew himself up toward her, and kissed back.
"Alfred," she murmured again, when she was done with him, and this time it was low and honeyed, wonderfully self-satisfied.
"I thought it would be wise," he said again. "I didn't want to ruin it. And I couldn't see that there was any reason why you should want me, of all the world."
She pursed her lips; but her eyes had crinkled up, as though she wished instead to smile. "Well," she said. "Perhaps a little less wisdom would do us both good, then."
She stood, and drew him to his feet likewise. He realized, looking about them belatedly, that all sign of the shadow army had gone. The hills were whole again, and the frozen dark that had settled on them was lifted; only the wet of the grass, gleaming droplets that were no longer frost, remained to suggest any of it had happened at all.
The shotgun was there. He picked it up, and cleared his throat.
"I arranged with Master Wayne for a fortnight's holiday," he said. "I've a week yet."
And she looked at him and raised her eyebrows, mouth slanting. "I don't suppose you might care for some company," she said.
He made a show of thinking it over. "If you insist, I suppose," he allowed at last, and she laughed, and drew him close to kiss him again.