The tray is cluttered with trimmed ends of silver suture and bloody gauze, two empty syringes, and antiseptic wipes.
Alfred Pennyworth ties off a stitch and pushes the needle through the skin for the next and final suture. He glances up at the face of the man he is sewing back together, expecting to see him unconscious.
But Bruce is awake, a distant expression on his face.
The sutured gash isn't that deep or serious, but is long and has taken some time to stitch. With the painkillers and the anesthetic, it wouldn’t have been surprising for Bruce to drift off, especially after such a long night. It would have been equally unsurprising if he had brooded darkly, spoken almost incessantly as a way to destress, sighed angrily, or talked methodically about what he was going to do next.
But the emotion emanating from him now is one Alfred cannot quite place, and that worries him. As far as he can recall, Bruce has not actually spoken a single word since pulling into the Batcave. If the silence were coupled with a furious scowl, then that would at least make sense.
But this is just a kind of blankness.
When he dabs medicine on the wound, Bruce hisses softly, but doesn't speak. Alfred tapes gauze over the wound, but Bruce doesn't speak.
And then without a word, he gets up and walks upstairs.
Alfred cleans up the mess left behind and follows him.
The most likely places are the study, the kitchen, or the master bedroom.
It's the bedroom. And it's locked.
He knocks and asks,
“Master Bruce? Would you care for some water?”
There's no answer except that underneath the edge of the door, the glow of light extinguishes. Bruce has turned the lights off.
Alfred Pennyworth is worried.
He goes to bed worried. He wakes up worried. He makes brunch and serves it, while worried.
It is early afternoon when he is walking down the hall carrying a basket full of linens to iron and store, when Bruce is coming down the stairs toward him with that same distant, blank expression and Alfred is starting to worry specifically about mind control, that Bruce falls.
It isn’t a simple stumble from distraction or a trip on a misplaced shoe; Bruce goes down without agency, no hands up to break his fall, and he clatters down the last eight or nine steps and skids onto the floor at the bottom.
Alfred is kneeling at his head, linen basket tipped sideways on the floor behind him, when Bruce opens his eyes and blinks. Alfred realizes he’s been repeatedly saying Bruce’s name, even though it’s only been mere seconds.
Bruce’s expression goes from disoriented to furious in a single breath. He rolls over, pushing himself up off the ground and onto his feet, rubbing his arm as if to dislodge pain.
“I’m fine,” he says to Alfred.
“No,” Alfred says. “You aren’t.”
But Bruce doesn’t listen.
When he goes out on patrol that night, Alfred does not come down to see him off. He slams some dishes around while washing them, and when he picks one up to rinse it, it slips out of his hands onto the floor, shattering.
He puts his hands on either side of the kitchen sink, gripping the counter’s edge until his knuckles are white. He takes a deep breath.
And then, subdued, he cleans up the shards of plate and throws them away, finishes the dishes, goes down to the Batcave to wait.
Bruce comes back that night, still unusually quiet. Damian is glowering at him and stomps off as soon as they are out of the Batmobile. Alfred chases him down, gets him to bed, doesn’t ask questions.
Bruce wakes up in the morning. Alfred brings breakfast to the room, sets it on a table. When he tugs the curtains open across the southern wall, Bruce staggers out of bed and throws up in a trashcan.
There is a brief exchange of fear and worry between them, a slight wisp of expression and facial movement. Then Bruce turns to stone, determination chiseled out of rock. Alfred sees it as denial. But Alfred does not push, does not bring it up-- yet. If Alfred has learned anything in the years of service to the Wayne family, it is patience. He no longer considers it a virtue. It’s a carefully wielded tool. Now that he has accepted his worry, settled into it, it will stop catching him off guard and he can bide his time.
That night, Bruce goes on patrol again. Alfred is grateful for uneventful evenings.
The next morning, Bruce throws up again; this time, he makes it to the bathroom.
Damian sulks around the house all day, lounging with Titus and scowling at everything.
“Pennyworth,” he demands, while Alfred is making dinner. His voice has the remnant of an older, more arrogant attitude, driven there by his own bad day. “I want you to ask Father why he’s mad at me.”
“He’s not mad at you,” Alfred says calmly, peeling stringy strands from the back of celery stalks.
“Tt.” Damian answers, sitting on a stool. His cat joins him, curled on the smallest Wayne’s lap. “Seems like he is.”
“He’s not,” Alfred says again, turning to him. “Not at you. Keep that cat off my counters.”
This seems to reassure Damian more than longer speeches might have. He nods, petting the cat between the ears. When Alfred is chopping celery, he is aware that Damian is off the stool, trying to sneak a bag of gummi worms out of the cabinet with the candy stash. Alfred lets him.
Alfred does not go down to the Batcave when Bruce is getting ready to go on patrol that night. He cleans Damian’s room, digging out a horde of empty candy wrappers from under the mattress, dusting the dresser, picking stray LEGOs off the carpet, gathering all the bits and pieces of wire and battery and metal from projects into a small bin.
The first surprise of the evening is when he returns downstairs, to the main floor of the house, to clean the study. Superman is just pushing the grandfather clock back against the wall, a frown on his face.
“Alfred!” he says. “Just the man I wanted to see.”
“What can I do for you, Master Kent?” Alfred smiles. It’s a good surprise. It would be better if Superman didn’t look so pensive. “Tea?”
“No,” he says, looking back at the clock. “Just…well…”
“What brings you to town?” Alfred asks, beginning to polish the desk. The activity seems to put Superman at ease and he collects himself.
“Does Bruce seem off to you?” Superman asks bluntly. “I came up to ask him about something, but he seems not himself. Maybe it’s just me.”
“No,” Alfred says quietly. There is a mix of emotion in him, a relief and a dread, at having company in his feelings and in needing company. “It’s not just you. But as to what, precisely, is troubling Master Bruce, I am unaware.”
“Hm. Alright,” Superman says, watching the night sky out the window. “Well. I’ll swing by again soon. Thanks, Alfred.”
Alfred nods at him. “Go ahead, go out the french doors. No need to go back downstairs. We won’t tell him.”
When Superman is gone, Alfred sits in Bruce’s chair at the desk and leans back, thinking, deciding, resolving. The time for patience has graduated to the time for action. This morning, when they return from patrol, he will use every method in his arsenal to get Bruce to sit, to talk, to get to the bottom of this, whatever it is, hanging over him like a storm.