Comforts of Home

by Chicago

Follows Only Human and Alienated

DC Comics owns the characters. Situation is all my fault. Written for fun, not profit.

Alfred Pennyworth stood for a moment in the long familiar kitchen, his eagle eyes noticing its not-quite-clean-enough state. The smell of kitchen cleanser still lingered with a chemical tang in the air, clearly a product of Bruce's hasty efforts to hide his inept housekeeping. There were still crumbs beneath the toaster and hints of scorched milk in the drip pans of the range, the detritus of meals hastily prepared and clean up forgotten. Bruce could keep a lab spotless, but a kitchen? Alfred shook his head.

He wondered again why he had acquiesced. Surprise, maybe? The odd happiness he felt to pick up the ringing phone and be greeted by Bruce's contrite tones? Or just the nature of the appeal: "I have a friend who needs help." There was something sweet and trusting in that - the idea that what ailed his friend was something only Alfred could tend to - and it had been a long time since Alfred had thought the words "sweet" and "trusting" in association with Master Bruce.

Tim hadn't been thrilled with the temporary loss of his one confidant at Brentwood, although he'd been mollified by Dick's promise to visit over the weekend while Alfred was away. It hadn't helped that Bruce had been closed-mouth about who needed Alfred's help, although now that Alfred knew, he understood why. Any sort of acknowledgement that Bruce Wayne had the last of the Martian race under his roof would raise some eyebrows. It seemed even the blonde bodyguard who had answered the door was in the dark regarding Bruce's "houseguest."

Alfred shook off his reverie and began unpacking the bags of groceries he had picked up on his way to the Manor. He supposed he should have realized who he would be tending when Bruce had made the mysterious request that he pick up several packages of Chocos, but he'd still been surprised to see the broad green face of J'onn J'onzz nestled among the pillows of the guest room bed. He'd been more surprised by the solicitous tones Bruce used to address the Martian after a soft touch to one green cheek had wakened him. J'onn had blinked blearily in Alfred's direction at Bruce's introduction, squinting as if against the light. "He's growing new eyes," Bruce had explained later without waiting for Alfred to ask. "He lost his old ones in the fire."

That piece of information had been enough to ensure that Alfred would stay as long as J'onn needed him. Bruce's further explanation of how J'onn had been the key player in the elimination of the White Martian threat had only cemented Alfred's resolve. The idea of that noble creature - and his nobility was evident from the way he struggled to make words to thank Alfred - enduring so much was almost painful.

Alfred closed his now restocked pantry and looked out to the dining room. The sun had finally broken through the cloud cover, bathing the room in a pleasant light, crisply autumnal. Alfred shook his head at Bruce; he'd left J'onn in a south facing room. It'd be too bright for those still healing eyes. Time to move his charge. The thorough cleaning that the kitchen demanded could wait.

He made his way upstairs, tapping softly on the door before entering the guest room. He did not wait for an answer before he entered, but he was not surprised to see J'onn propped up by the pillows, patiently regarding his entrance. "Mr. Pennyworth," he greeted.

Alfred inclined his head in acknowledgement. "Please, Mr. J'onzz. Call me Alfred."

J'onn nodded. His expression conveyed without words that he would ask to be called J'onn, but would not insist on it. Alfred knew J'onn sensed his approval - and that he would still call him Mr. Pennyworth from the same kind of courtesy that would always prevent Alfred from calling any guest by only a first name.

"I thought you might be more comfortable downstairs," Alfred said quietly, crossing the room to pull the drapes across the bright windows. J'onn seemed palpably relieved as the light dimmed.

"Thank you. I think you are right. Bruce is -" He let the thought trail off, seeming to know that Alfred understood. A telepath, Alfred reminded himself, stationing himself at J'onn's side.

"You can walk?"

"Yes." J'onn accepted Alfred's help in sitting upright, letting the blankets fall away from his bandaged torso as he swung his legs free of the bed.

"I will endeavor to be gentle," Alfred apologized, settling an arm across J'onn's back in order to help him to his feet. How many times had he helped Bruce from his bed over twenty years? Too many, he reflected mournfully, for a moment regretting that he had felt the need to cut Bruce off so completely.

"It was a right decision," J'onn said softly, leaning a little on the gentleman's gentleman as he found his balance.

Alfred shot a surprised glance at the Martian's placid face. He gave no sign of the pain Alfred felt he must feel from the pressure of Alfred's arm across his burned flesh, nor did he lean as heavily as Alfred suspected he should. He was much like Bruce in that way-

"You are surprised at Bruce," J'onn commented wryly.

Distracting himself, Alfred thought, gently urging him toward the door and - he decided - the elevator. But he answered the Martian anyway.

"A little," he confessed.

"As am I, a little." J'onn's eyes looked glassy, but his face wore a faint smile. "He is a rather - unique - man."

Alfred snorted, steering J'onn down the hall. "Yes. Rather."

J'onn's gait turned more toward shuffling as they finally reached the elevator, and he leaned heavily on the wall when they entered the lift.

"I am sorry," he whispered. "I had to shift shape when we came here..."

Of course, Alfred thought, letting the elevator doors close. Miss Bordeaux might be in the know about some things, but a lady friend would be easier for her to accept in Bruce's guest room than the truth. And from what Bruce had said, maintaining a smaller mass for even the brief time needed to fool the bodyguard must have exhausted J'onn's physical resources. "No need for apology," he said kindly.

J'onn nodded, his eyes closed. The rich green of his skin had a pallid look to it.

"Here we are," Alfred announced, opening the elevator door on the ground floor. "Just a short jaunt down this hall." He again stationed himself to support what part of J'onn's weight he'd dare lean on him and led him to the quiet north study. He was pleased to find the meticulous orders he'd left for Bruce's day staff had been followed, and the room was readied to receive guests. He maneuvered J'onn toward the sofa, settling him on it and pulling some quilts out of the cedar chest beneath the broad windows looking out over the estate. J'onn's eyes were already drooping shut as Alfred tucked the quilts over him, and a hint of moisture gleamed on J'onn's cheek.

"I'll be back shortly with Chocos," Alfred told him.

"Thank you," J'onn whispered back.

Alfred slipped from the room and returned to the kitchen.

Surprised at Bruce? Yes, he was, although somehow not surprised that J'onn J'onzz had provoked tenderness from the Bat. He put a pan of milk on the stove to warm.

Batman had always held the Martian Manhunter in the highest regard; he was one of the few members of the JLA about whom Alfred had never heard Batman make a caustic remark. There had even been occasions when Alfred thought he detected a tone almost like awe in Batman's tone when he was discussing something the Martian had done or said.

Alfred pulled down a tea tray and began laying fudge-dipped Chocos on a plate. He wondered what it was that made Batman so critical of Superman and so accepting of J'onn. Both aliens were the last of their race, and more to the point, were aliens, and yet somehow Batman had never used that uniquely disdainful tone for J'onn's alien-ness that he had for Superman's. Maybe it was because J'onn was so very alien? And yet somehow that had not kept Bruce and J'onn -

Face it, old man, Alfred ordered himself, turning a practiced eye to the milk on the stove. They have become lovers. He chewed on the idea for a moment, adding a judicious amount of chocolate powder to the heating milk. Bruce had had lovers before, but always either "cover" girlfriends, dutifully dated because he should date, or - more troubling - bad girls who had gotten under the suit, objects of lust or bizarre fascination rather than true loves. Always second to the mission. Always.

But J'onn wasn't. J'onn so much wasn't that Bruce had swallowed his stubborn pride and asked Alfred to come back - not for his own sake - but -

The hot chocolate began to bubble at the edges and Alfred hastily turned off the flame, mentally scolding himelf for the moment's distraction. He found an appropriate serving pitcher for the cocoa and transferred the beverage to it.

Bruce had called Alfred for approval. Yes, he wanted someone to look after J'onn, but it needed to be Alfred, he needed Alfred to see.

Alfred set the pitcher and a mug on the tea tray, then filled a matching stoneware bowl with miniature marshmallows. He looked around the kitchen - what used to be his kitchen - and realized it wasn't anymore. Bruce didn't need him anymore. He wanted him around, but not as a father figure. Not anymore. As a friend.

And despite the fact that it was what Alfred had hoped for, he felt a pang of loss.

The kitchen still needed a good cleaning. And J'onn needed attention. And Bruce, when he got home - Alfred and Bruce would have to talk. After all, how else could Alfred ask for his job back?

He picked up the tea tray, back straight and chin up, and headed down the hall.


Return to Chicago's Library