Robin, Alfred Pennyworth, and Batman are the property of DC Comics.
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Her knuckles balled white around the hem of her skirt and pulled it over her knees, which in turn bounced in time with the ticking of the clock. Three-fifteen was the cue for dismissal, save for one who had been removed from class early and was seated in the main foyer.
Rory Colburn tucked her hair behind her ear and exhaled through her nostrils. She closed her eyes, grit her teeth and contorted her brow, straightening herself again to remain still for as long as she pulled her arms tawt.
She arched like a cat at the whine of the brakes. Through the window she spied a black luxury car pulled by the curb, and from the driver’s seat a blonde haired man in a suit and tie. Most mightn’t have known from a glance, but the young woman recognised him through the disguise.
“Good afternoon, Miss,” he hummed. “I trust you’re anxious to return home.”
“Yeah, I was starting to forget what home looked like.” Her laugh lacked the vigor it carried a week ago.
After packing her case in the trunk the driver opened the rear passenger door for the young woman, allowed her to sit, and returned to his place behind the wheel. Moments later they pulled away, down the driveway, and through the gates of the prestigious school.
Alfred Pennyworth pulled off his wig and peeled the false brows from his face. “Damnable things,” he muttered to himself before turning his attention to the rear view mirror. “I took the liberty of preparing a change of clothing, Master Dick. One imagines how eager you must be to resume your former life.”
The girl shrunk into her shoulders and forced a smile. She didn’t look back as she snorted, “Thanks, Alfred.” She remained tense, like a bowstring waiting release. Words and silence danced in her throat but started to sink. They squashed her lungs and made her breath shallow, try as she might to conceal the fact.
Rory, if she could even call herself that, looked up and hummed through a tight lipped smile; the kind that betrayed her to a friend who knew better.
“Is there something the matter?” he pressed. “That is to say, is there something that I can help you with?”
The smile was broken by her toothy chuckle. Rory Colburn threw her shoulders into the leather seat and crossed her legs. She waved waved him off and rolled her eyes at the question. “I just spent a whole glorious week cohabitating with smart, funny, incredible girls. I mean, apart from the fact I had to pretend to be one of them, what could possibly be wrong?”
‘Pretend’; the word stuck in her maw like a chisel.
Alfred smirked and looked to the road. “I see some things never change.”
She turned back to the window; not to the hedges and brownstones of the uptown Gotham district, but her own reflection for as long as it would last. Soon she would part with the auburn strands; she wouldn’t have to worry about wearing just enough makeup to look ‘natural’, nor would she have to shave her legs or pluck her eyebrows, or worry about detention, even if sneaking out with friends for midnight movies was totally worth it.
The car turned into the nearest fast food outlet and pulled to a stop. Alfred straightened his jacket, leaving his charge in the back seat to collect herself.
“Colossal Burger? Alfred, what happened? Did the kitchen burn down?”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures, Miss.”
Rory paused. “Miss?”
After purchasing what passed for food, at least to the younger of the pair, they moved on to a nearby park and were seated at a picnic table under a tree. The illusion of Rory’s delicate femininity vanished the moment she opened her mouth to inhale the faux-meat-salad-bread combination. Meanwhile, Alfred sat across from her, prodding the patty as though it would eat him first.
“You really didn’t have to,” Rory said. “I’m fine. Just a bit shaken. It happens on undercover cases.”
“Having seen Master Bruce acclimatise to various roles I’m familiar with the process,” Alfred informed her. “However, it is quite rare to see your wit so dull, Miss; this melancholy is different than any I’ve seen you suffer.”
The girl smirked. “What are you, my shrink?”
“Merely someone who cares for you a great deal.” Alfred placed his burger back in its box and reached for Rory’s hand. He gave it a squeeze, the kind that made a promise without the use of words; the kind that made something swell inside the girl’s chest.
She laughed and pulled her hand away. “Seriously, I’m okay,” she lied, stuffing more fries into her face.
Alfred raised his head and smiled to the simplicity of nature. “When I was your age I attended a segregated boarding school,” he started. “It was an all male college just south of Oxford. Frustrating as it was to be a young man removed from the other sex they were halcyon days, and I learned a great deal.”
Rory swallowed her food and leaned forward.
“Well, such as what it meant to be a man,” he mused. “Ironically I learned a great deal about manhood by portraying women on stage. Gaining that perspective helped to quell a number of insecurities about masculinity.”
The girl paused, and searched him. “Do you think that’s what’s happening to me?”
“Perhaps, perhaps not. You see, the same experience might teach a different lesson to somebody else. It depends entirely on the student.”
“What do you mean?”
Alfred smiled and leaned forward. “Take for example my dear friend Oliver. When I played the queen of Denmark, he played Ophelia. Where I played Ariel, he played Miranda. To my Lady Capulet he was Juliet, and so forth.”
“So you were just a couple of guys having adventures in cross-dressing,” Rory grinned. “Sounds about as normal as fighting crime in spandex.”
“Indeed,” the butler hummed, “but where I learned the nature of masculinity, Oliver learned something else entirely. It was during our senior year he learned that despite his beginnings perhaps manhood was not his destiny.”
She reached for the paper cup like a cat passing through reeds and held it like a shield. “So… what did Oliver find out about himself?”
Alfred beamed across the table. “I suspect you already know, Miss.”
Her eyes fell; Alfred ducked to seek them out.
“You’ve yet to correct me, Miss” he said. “Is that your preferred title?”
Rory placed her cup down and folded her arms, pulling away from the gentleman with a sigh. Her gaze turned and sharpened on nothing in particular. “It’s that obvious, huh?”
“Only for one who knows what to look for,” Alfred concluded. “As I said, this is something I’ve seen before.”
The girl’s jaw tightened. “And Bruce?”
“It’s difficult to say. He may be the world’s greatest detective, but his notice often gleams over those in his personal life; not to mention his, what should we call it, lapses, in emotional intelligence.”
That sacred knowledge cracked her demeanour. Rory turned back and looked to the butler.
“So what happened to Oliver?”
“Gwenyth, as she is now known, went on to appear on London’s West End for a number of years,” Alfred said. “Since then she married a man, Matthew, with whom she now runs a stable in Kent. Last I heard they were remarkably happy.”
Rory eased into a sigh and resumed her soda. “I guess it’s not all doom and gloom then.”
“Not even slightly,” the old man said.
The sun drew across the afternoon, and the two shared their time, but not before Rory asked the most important question; “Hey, Alfred. Are you going to eat that?”
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