Alfred Pennyworth did not watch cartoons, or perhaps, it was more accurate to say that he did not watch cartoons alone. He hadn’t ever watched cartoons until Bruce had taken in a grieving, angry, and active circus kid. His first charge had brought the new orphan into the manor because in a rare moment, Bruce felt empathy for this child that just watched his parents fall to their deaths. Bruce had remarked how similar he and the child were. Alfred, as the one who raised Bruce, was far too often struck by their differences than their similarities.
Bruce preferred solitude and study, while Dick preferred movement and people. It wasn’t that Dick wasn’t smart, heavens no. The boy had absorbed information like a sponge and loved learning, but the child had also loathed silence, solitude, and sitting still, which presented a problem when Dick first hurt his knee. The child simply refused to stay in bed and rest the joint, so Alfred had bargained watching a movie of Dick’s choice together. The 11-year-old had picked some animated feature that Alfred fell asleep to.
Over the years, Alfred’s knowledge of animated ‘classics’ grew considerably, and the old butler could admit that a select few cartoons were quality films, but mostly he enjoyed how much Dick would smile when they watched a film or show together. It was this knowledge that allowed him to identify the toy zebra waiting outside his bedroom as Zecora; the character the ponies had misjudged as a scary witch rather than a sage mentor. Alfred smiled. Having raised Batman, he understood apologetic gestures when they were offered. Cassandra hadn’t trusted him, especially his ascertains that the manor was completely safe. He had pushed harder than Bruce because the man with a genius IQ couldn’t recognize that a cave was no place for a child to reside. Genius, indeed.
He picked up the horse and set it on the right side of his mantle. He placed it behind twelve-year-old Dick Grayson’s first foray into robotics, which was a crude impersonation of a robotic Alfred pulling cookies out of the oven, and the teacup with “I can no other answer make but thanks” printed along the inside rim that Jason had given him after they had attended their first Shakespearean play together. To the left of these dearly loved trinkets, in the center of the mantle, his Jesus icon rested as a reminder to pray for his charges.
Oh Lord, thank you for these precious children. Help me to guide them. They need you now more than ever.
Turning his attention to his newest acquisition, he was reminded of his new favorite home video. Once Master Bruce discovered that the young girl liked Dick’s old My Little Pony shows, he had decided to acquire all the horses, characters, and multiple accessories for her. Cass had looked confused at the presents. The poor child had never seen a toy before, so Bruce responded by sitting on the floor and demonstrated how one might play with a toy horse – if one was an almost 40-year-old man who had never much played with toys himself. The girl watched him in confusion, while Alfred silently recorded the whole thing. The sight had warmed his old heart, and well, it never hurt to have blackmail material.
Eventually, Cassandra had understood the horses were somehow supposed to make her happy. Then when Tim, who she had taken an instant liking to, disappeared from the cave, she had bravely snuck into the manor and began delivering horses to Tim’s room. Alfred wasn’t sure Tim had noticed that his room had slowly been taken over by multi-colored horses, but the old butler appreciated that Cass was trying to help in her own small way. Heavens knew, Tim needed it.
Descending the stairs, Alfred’s knees creaked. He ignored his aging body and wondered what he could cook this evening to tempt Timothy to more than a few bites of his food. It was an unfortunate repetition of this household; a child lost his parents and then lost the desire to eat. Looking through the fridge, he decided on a stir-fry with plenty of protein and vegetables. He lit the burner on the stove when the appearance of Cassandra startled him. Not even Master Bruce could successfully sneak up on Alfred, but this girl moved silently. He didn’t react more than an inclined head towards her.
“Tim hurt?” She asked with intense eyes.
Alfred sighed. “Yes, Master Timothy is hurt, but not physically.”
Cass studied him. “How?”
“His parents recently died,” Alfred explained.
She blinked at him. Cassandra, who had David Cain for a father, didn’t seem to understand.
“He’s sad, my dear.”
“Just be with him,” Alfred offered. There wasn’t much any of them could do. Nothing sliced to the bone more quickly than the death of a parent, except perhaps, the death of a child. Thank you, Father, for returning Jason to me. It was not the first time, nor the last time he would pray that prayer. Despite all Jason’s pain, despite the murders, Alfred would never stop being grateful his grandson was returned to him. There were still times he was surprised the house had survived Jason’s death and the aftermath. It almost hadn’t. Oh Lord, thank you.
Cassandra disappeared without a comment, and Alfred imagined she would spend the majority of her time keeping guard over Timothy’s room, and poor Master Timothy probably wouldn’t notice her. Alfred wished that his multitudes of experience with the recently orphaned would make this process easier, alas it only made it familiar.
Alfred delivered two bowls of stir-fry to Timothy’s room. As he suspected, Cassandra had taken a crouching position on top of Tim’s desk where she could keep her eyes on all entrances of the room. He placed her bowl next to her, and she offered a small nod of thanks. Unfortunately, he was also correct about Master Timothy’s lack of observational skills.
He cleared his throat rather loudly. “Master Timothy.”
Tim blinked into awareness, although his eyes still looked lost. It ached Alfred’s heart to see it. The boy didn’t deserve this. None of them did.
“You must eat something.” Alfred allowed his voice into a softer tone he didn’t often use.
“I’m not hungry.”
If Alfred never heard those words from any of his charges again, it would be too soon. “Nevertheless, you must eat.”
Tim’s whole body sighed as he crumpled but accepted the food. Alfred stayed and watched him until he consumed half of the bowl. Then he departed to eat his own dinner before relieving Bruce.
Descending the stairs into the Batcave, Alfred heard his knees creak again and refrained from sighing. He was getting old, and there was only so much denial one could maintain about that reality. Alfred approached the Batcomputer and noted the vast array of activities Batman was engaged in. There were screens monitoring the hallways and exterior exits of Arkham Asylum. Two small red beeping dots on a map in the corner were labeled N and H. Another computer window had the text of some sort on it. Even benched the man didn’t rest. Neither did his children. Again, Alfred refrained from sighing.
“There’s nothing to report,” Tigress’s voice carried through the speakers. She had agreed to patrol Gotham, while the others were benched. Batgirl had reinjured her shoulder pushing too hard in physical therapy and followed the doctor's recommendation to rest the joint for an additional week. Batman had pushed to have her return to patrol Gotham.
Barbara had looked at Batman with an extremely unimpressed look and told him, “I’m not going to permanently injure my shoulder because you refuse to work with a hero you didn’t personally train. We both know Tigress is fully capable of handling Gotham.”
Alfred had bake his finest beef wellington for the girl. If only his charges could fine a lick of common sense in their over intelligent brains.
Batman grunted in reply to Tigress’s report, undoubtedly wishing that one of his proteges were sweeping the scene instead.
“It’s only a matter of time before someone in Arkham makes a move. Keep searching,” he ordered.
“Has it occurred to you that criminals are now afraid that Batman will kill them? Have you heard the rumors on the streets about the Joker’s death?” Tigress asked.
“Yes,” Batman growled.
“I’ve got a live feed on Arkham up here. It’s probably more prudent to have Tigress patrol Gotham until someone stirs in Arkham,” Batgirl replied from her position on the Watch Tower. As much as Alfred admired Barbara’s willingness to allow her body the time to heal, the young woman was the same as her mentor with regards to resting.
“Fine,” Batman growled and muted the microphones in the cave.
“Have you tried being grateful for the reprieve instead of hunting shadows?” Alfred queried.
Predictably, Bruce glared at him. “No. It’s too quiet.”
“Perhaps, Tigress is right. Perhaps, those in Arkham are worried, they will not return should they anger the Bat again,” Alfred stated.
Bruce didn’t respond to that, and it may have been unfair to reiterate the point. Bruce had never wanted the reputation of a killer. Alfred decided to change the subject.
“Your dinner is upstairs. I shall take over here while you eat it and check-in on your new charges.”
Standing up to move out of the way, Bruce nodded and headed towards the stairs. Then an alarm pinged on the computer, and Bruce dashed to the computer as fast as his booted leg would allow. The small map at the bottom of the screen enlarged and the dot labeled N was flashing. Alfred moved out of the way to allow Batman access to the computer.
“Is Master Dick in trouble?” Alfred asked.
Bruce’s hands tightened into fists. “No, he’s at a bar,” he growled.
A part of Alfred wished he was surprised that Bruce had programed his trackers to alert him for such an occasion. A larger part of him was profoundly saddened by the young man’s life choices.
Abruptly, Bruce stood up.
“Where are you going, Sir?”
“To put a stop to this.”
This time Alfred did sigh. “By causing a scene at a seedy bar?”
“If that’s what it takes.” Bruce started walking towards the Zeta tube.
“Need I remind you that Timothy just lost his parents, and you are a foster father again. How quickly do you think Timothy will be removed if the tabloids catch you dragging your son out of a bar?” Alfred reasoned.
Bruce stopped, tense muscles shaking. Then he deflated with a sigh and turned to look at his father figure. “Why is he doing this, Al?”
“I don’t know, but you are doing what you can.”
“It’s not enough.” Bruce’s fleeting moment of vulnerability faded, and the anger returned. Alfred wondered how much of that anger was directed inward.
“You can’t save him, Bruce. He is responsible for his own choices. The only person you can change is yourself,” Alfred offered, voice soft.
The younger man left the cave without another word. The older stayed and watched the blinking dot until it left the bar, praying the young man didn’t do anything he’d regret.
Alfred awoke abruptly, his eyes wide in the darkness. He couldn’t remember a dream or nightmare that woke him, but he knew he was awake. Very awake. He wouldn’t be falling back asleep. Used to waking up at the same time daily, the elderly gentlemen knew it was very early in the morning. He stepped out of bed and grabbed his phone.
It was 2:33 in the morning. It was far too early to be awake, and yet awake he was. He grabbed his robe and house slippers and decided the prudent thing would be to check on his charges.
As suspected, Timothy was a small form fast asleep on his oversized bed, and Cassandra had been sleeping on the floor between Tim and the window, but she jumped over the bed silently to land between the unidentified intruder and her friend. She relaxed immediately on seeing Alfred.
“I apologize for waking you, Miss Cassandra. I am just making the rounds,” he informed her quietly as not to wake Tim.
Cassandra beamed at him and nodded. He did not know if his meaning transferred, but the girl appeared to approve of his actions, and she returned to her self-directed guard duty. Shutting Timothy’s door, Alfred wondered if he should bother checking Bruce’s room or just head downstairs.
In order to spare his knees, in the unlikely event that his eldest charge had developed an understanding of the importance of rest, he checked the master bedroom. To his complete and utter lack of surprise, the room was empty. He headed to the Batcave to urge his charge to rest. Unless something drastic had changed in the last few hours, Gotham didn’t need Batman to obsessively hover over his large computer fretting over the lack of activity from Arkham Asylum.
As soon as he opened the secret entrance, raised voices and the particularly colorful language of one Jason Todd greeted his ears. As Alfred descended the steps, Jason’s language proceeded to worsen. The amount of vulgar and deplorable words his grandson spewed snapped something inside him.
“JASON PETER TODD,” his voice boomed and echoed around the cave.
The scene below froze. Jason’s weight shifted to lean further from Bruce, and Dick let go of Jason’s arms, undoubtedly trying to hold his brother back unsuccessfully. There was no doubt which of the two men were currently stronger. Half of Bruce’s face was red and already swelling. The man had clearly made no move to defend himself. Alfred just barely prevented himself from snapping at Bruce. The man’s bloody guilt would destroy him.
“Master Jason, you will go upstairs and fix a pot of tea. You and I will discuss your outburst shortly,” Alfred ordered.
Tight muscles shook with the fury Jason contained. He didn’t say a word to anyone and stomped out of the Cave in a barely concealed rage.
“If you both would follow me.” He turned on his heel, uncaring that the moved looked bloody ridiculous in house-slippers and led the two men to the medical portion of the cave. He handed Bruce an icepack for his face, and then pulled out a breathalyzer for Richard, who balked.
Alfred raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “Earlier this evening, you went to a bar. This will tell us how much you drank.”
Dick’s voice went hard and unyielding, similar to the Bat voice. “You could ask,” Dick growled. “I expect this from him, but I thought you were better than this Alfred.”
“Master Richard.” Alfred could not keep his anger and disappointment out of his tone. “Over the last year, I have watched you ignore all basic human needs, lie to everyone around you, and by your own admission, patrol without armor, which easily could have led to your death. Your coping mechanisms leave much to be desired. I plan to stop this nonsense before it plunges further into madness.”
Grabbing the breathalyzer out of Alfred’s hands, Dick fumed, “I didn’t drink anything.”
He breathed into the device and tossed it on the medical cot before storming up the stairs to the manor. Bruce grabbed the breathalyzer first. After a quick glance, he turned the device so Alfred could read the results. 0.00. The old man sighed and deflated. He had been far too hasty.
“What happened, Bruce?” This should have been his first question.
The billionaire turned vigilante hedged. Alfred knew whatever came out of his month would skirt the truth, but he was too tired and worn to muster much of an objection.
“Jason discovered a severe error on my part,” Bruce stated.
Alfred rubbed the place on his forehead where a headache was forming. “So you let him hit you?”
Bruce grunted and handed the older man two tablets and a bottle of water. “Here.”
He swallowed the pills gratefully. Then turned to his first charge. “Your guilt will kill you and them.”
Instead of replying, Bruce grunted again, and Alfred’s frayed patience vanished.
“With all due respect, Sir, grow up!”
Alfred allowed himself to take a few breaths before joining Jason at the small circular table in the kitchen. Once composed he stepped into the kitchen and grabbed the teacup Jason had already prepared. The sweet peppermint aroma floated towards his nose, and he took a grateful sip before addressing the troubled young man at the table.
Angry hands clutched the teacup in front of him in a white-knuckled grip. Jason stared into his tea and made no move to acknowledge the older man. Not wanting to repeat his mistake with Dick, he sat next to Jason and gathered more information.
“Bruce is an ass,” Jason hissed, tightening his grip on his cup.
“Perhaps you could tell me what your father –”
“He is not my father!”
Adoption papers said otherwise, but Alfred let the matter drop. “Very well. Perhaps you could tell me what he did that has upset you?”
Jason gave a humorless laugh. “He didn’t adopt Dick.”
“He has adopted Dick,” Alfred corrected.
“Yeah, a month ago. What the hell is wrong with him? Dick was here years before me. Why didn’t he adopt him?”
“I’m afraid the matter is complicated.”
Alfred sipped his tea, allowing the liquid to warm him before replying. “Why does it bother you?”
It was the wrong question to ask. Jason erupted. The teacup smashed against the wall of the kitchen.
“Why does it bother me? Why does it bother me? Because Dick almost threw himself off a bridge when Bruce adopted me!”
The world stilled. A shrill ringing filled Alfred’s ears.
“Oh shit!” He heard Jason yell above the piercing sound in his ear. “You didn’t know?! How did you not know? You know everything!”
There would be time to process the information later. Right now, one of his charges needed him. “Master Jason, please calm down. I would bet a year’s salary that Richard is currently nestled in Timothy’s bed, and I know Cassandra is keeping guard over that bedroom. No harm will come to any of them tonight.”
“I still think Bruce deserves more than a punch to the face,” Jason sulked.
“Depression, similar to all mental illness, is a multifaceted condition. Master Bruce’s error may have contributed to Dick’s unfortunate reaction, but he cannot be held solely responsible. The best we can do is help Richard get the help that he needs,” Alfred explained, a yawn threatening to escape in his exhaustion. “Perhaps, it would be best if we both retired for the evening and allowed cooler heads to prevail in the morning.”
“Yeah, fine,” Jason grunted and trudged up the stairs.
The elderly British gentlemen would bet the entire Wayne fortune that Jason went to share in guard duty with Cassandra. He smiled to himself as he swept up the broken teacup and mopped the spilt tea.
Exhaustion flooded his body, but Alfred knew he would not be able to sleep until he processed some of the night’s revelations. Returning to his room, Alfred pulled his small book of Psalms and his Anglican Book of Common Prayer off his shelf, and for the last few hours of the early morning, he prayed, crying out for help for he lacked the wisdom he needed.