Alfred knew how a butler was meant to behave. Straight back, pressed suit, polished shoes, no emotion. He was supposed to be a statue, a wooden Pinocchio, only becoming a real boy when the Master calls. That’s what his father taught him, what the sharks of high society Gotham expected. How funny it was, the looks on their faces when he proved himself to be a human being. The way a started hand rushed to press against a sharply risen bosom, the way thick brows knotted together in an offended embrace, accompanied by the twitching of a mustache. Alfred didn’t get that in the Manor. Master Bruce and his young charges were far too used to his snark and sarcasm and passive-aggressive demeanor. Alfred only got the good reactions during a Wayne hosted gala.
Alfred knew how a butler was meant to behave, but he wasn’t perfect at it. He had the posture, the suit, the shoes. He also had emotions. So maybe he wasn’t a typical butler, but that was fine: he didn’t live a typical life, didn’t serve a typical family, didn’t have a typical Master. He also wasn’t just a butler. He was the family chef, the chauffeur, the medic, and the supporter of an entire family of vigilantes. He juggled all of these positions almost flawlessly, placing on the butler mask and never letting his family see him falter. He didn’t stumble in front of them, didn’t hesitate, his hands never shook.
His hands never shook.
Why were his hands shaking?
“Alfie, you gotta take care of yourself,” Master Richard chided, voice light despite the heavy concern in his eyes. Alfred shot him a withering glare that said back off and a raised brow that asked are you seriously telling me to take care of myself? Master Richard smiled in return, having the decency to look sheepish. “Ok, ok, point taken. I’m just worried.”
“You have no reason to be,” Alfred replied, turning half his attention back to the tea cup in his hands. He bit back a grunt of effort as he attempted once more to lift the cup to his lips. His hands shook in protest, and tea that had turned cold ages ago sloshed over the rim, splashing onto his hands and pants.
“Alfie, stop. Please.” Richard’s hands cupped his, stabling the tea cup. His hands were warm with life, the contrast nearly shocking against Alfred’s freezing skin.
“I am fine, Master Richard.” And in that moment he believed it, even if Richard so clearly didn’t. How could he not be fine with his grandson - yes, his grandson - was in front of him, skin warm, eyes alive, chest rising and falling steadily to the rhythm of an undoubtedly beating heart. So many tried to take Richard away from them, from him , but Richard always returned. Always.
“Is everything alright?” a deep voice asked and Alfred went from fine to better than fine. Good. Great, even, as Master Bruce placed a hand on his shoulder. His son’s - his son! Oh how he wished he could see the look on his father’s face if the older man knew how he thought of his Master - hand was larger than Richard’s but just as warm. His blue eyes held the same glint of life, his chest moving to the same rhythm.
Alfred felt as if he could watch the simple movement for hours.
“Alfred’s sick and won’t admit it,” Richard said, bringing him back to the present. Alfred blinked a few times, turning his eyes away from his son’s chest and up towards his face which now wore the same concerned expression. Maybe he was sick, Alfred mused. He never spaced out, always found pride in his ability to focus and multitask. Alfred was grateful every time his family survived another day, came home another night, woke up another morning, but it was never a distraction. If anything, it’s the thing that kept him focus.
“Doesn’t feel feverish,” Bruce said as the back of his hand - Warm. Alive. - pressed against Alfred’s forehead.
“His hands are shaking.” Richard removed his hands from Alfred’s. They began to shake once more, fingers nearly numb with cold. It was as if he was dead and the physical warmth of his family was the only thing animating his frozen corpse.
Alfred set his tea cup down. There was no point in holding it anymore: it was empty, it’s previous contents cold and sticky as it soaked through his trousers.
“Don’t,” Alfred said, after Bruce’s mouth had opened but before any sounds could escape. “Please, don’t.” His hands weren’t shaking anymore, or maybe he simply didn’t notice them shaking anymore as his whole body began to quiver. “I am fine, Master Bruce, I promise. Please do not ruin this nice afternoon with your needless worrying.”
Master Bruce blinked. Then he blinked again. His mouth open, closed, open, closed. No words came out. Then he looked around, taking in the lovely afternoon that Alfred had decided to fully embrace by having his tea outside. He looked down, eyes searching Alfred before moving onto his eldest son, who had joined Alfred without invitation but with much welcome. Looked at the large blanket they sat on in the middle of the great lawn. He shrugged and joined them on it.
“Okay,” was all he said but Alfred could tell that he wasn’t going to let it go. It wouldn’t be Master Bruce - his son , his son! - if he did. Bruce sat closer than necessary, shoulder-to-shoulder with his elder, no doubt to catch him if he were to faint or something. On any other day Alfred would chide him for it, just a simple look that demanded his space. Bruce would receive the look loud and clear and Alfred would truly know how bad he looked depending on Bruce’s reaction. Today, though, Alfred simply let the man fret, welcoming any warmth his family could provide his old bones.
Time ticked by. Master Bruce and Master Richard shared the rest of the tea, Alfred accepting that he could not partake. He closed his eyes and listened to the amiable chatter. It was suggested that Alfred moved inside for his own sake, but Alfred refused. He couldn’t move, didn’t want to move, not when they wouldn’t move with him. Going inside meant ending the moment. With his eyes closed, Alfred could make this moment last forever, even if that meant worrying his family with his stillness. So instead of moving, he sat there and listened to the chaos that was his family as their group got bigger.
“Father, I demand you eject Drake from the family!”
“I’m not going anywhere! Tell him, Bruce!”
“Yeah, tell him Bruce!”
Alfred sighed, but he couldn’t even pretend to be annoyed as the rest of his grandsons did what they all did best and destroyed the peace. Master Damian first, still struggling with his insecurities and not quite able to grasp the idea that he could have his own place in the family without someone else losing theirs. Then Master Tim, feigning confidence but requesting validation all the same. And finally Master Jason, instigating as always and still unsure of how to interact with the family in any other way. It was all apart of his facade, Alfred knew. He instigated and laughed at the chaos he caused, pretending he only stuck around for a laugh when they all knew otherwise.
Facades. Everyone in this family had one, and that wasn’t including their vigilante masks.
The fight continued. Bruce and Richard broke it up. The three young masters joined them on the blanket. More tea was brought out. The air turned crisp as the sun set. And through it all Alfred kept his eyes closed, too focused on those around him for it to be considered meditating. His hands still shook and every now and then Master Bruce would give them a comforting squeeze. Alfred would squeeze back. It was the least he could do to calm his son’s worries. For once, Alfred couldn’t even call it paranoia. Bruce had every right to be worried: Alfred was acting strangely and the older gent knew it. He was becoming all to aware of it, of the situation around him and the actuality of it.
The actuality of it was what made Alfred refuse to open his eyes.
“Alfred. Time to go inside,” Master Bruce eventually said, when the sun had gone down and the cold breeze made Alfred’s shaking even worse. The elder knew there would be no delaying it anymore. Bruce’s voice had become fainter, a whisper against his ears. His grandsons had gone silent. How Alfred hated the silence.
Alfred opened his eyes and glared at the ground. He ignored the burning behind his eyes as he got up and packed his tea kit into the picnic basket. No one offered to help, not like they used to. They couldn’t help anymore. A ghost of a touch landed on his shoulder and Bruce spoke again, voice even fainter as Alfred greeted reality.
“Same time and place tomorrow?”
“Of course.” It was not as if Alfred had responsibilities anymore. Not as if they could meet anywhere else.
Alfred shouldered the basket and brushed off his suit, nearly seething at how his hands still shook. His suit was stiff where the tea had dried. The elderly man straightened his spine and turned to bid his family farewell. No one was there.
With a bitter chuckle, Alfred readjusted his grip on the basket and left the graveyard.