title: aftershocks
fandom: DC comics
characters/pairings: Alfred, Tim, Dick, Bruce
rating: G
warnings: aging
summary: Alfred can't always be there for them...
notes: for anthraciteowl, for this request on fic on demand.

It was Sunday. Sunday was roast beef and mashed potatoes. Mrs. Cranston went into a coughing fit during the karaoke hour, and the nurses called for an ambulance.

Master Dick and Master Tim came together in the afternoon, and helped to construct the bookshelves he got. The room was really looking like a home, in many ways. Except.

"This really isn't necessary," Alfred sighed from the bed. "If being old means living like a summer camp resident, perhaps the alternative isn't so distasteful."

The boys looked at each other, and then Master Dick grinned. He was always able to do that. Smile through anything. Almost anything, at least. Alfred remembered a time... "Don't be melodramatic, old man. After all the years you've put in putting up with all of us, it's about time you had some summer camp."

Master Tim was grinning now as well, but Alfred's distress only increased. "Master Dick, I appreciate your concern, everyone's concern, but I simply cannot do this! Master Bruce..."

"Master Bruce is a rational adult, despite all appearances," Master Dick cut him off. "He can take care of himself."

Alfred looked down at his hands. Since when had they gotten so pale, so wrinkled, so spotted, so ugly? He sighed, feeling useless. He couldn't even construct bookshelves...

Master Dick's hand gently squeezed his shoulder. He looked up into Master Dick's blue eyes, into his tight, smart smile. "Alfred. Right now... the best way for you to take care of Master Bruce is to take care of yourself."

Alfred looked away. He hated when his boys were so reasonable. It made them even more recalcitrant. "If this is life after a stroke," he began miserably.

Fortunately, Master Tim cut him off. "Hey." His voice sounded pained. Alfred felt a pang in his chest. He wasn't supposed to be the cause of trouble for his boys. "This life... it's still worth..." He was struggling with words, never a strong suit for those in the clan of the Bat.

Master Dick smiled comfortingly at Master Tim. Alfred took a deep breath. He didn't like feeling useless, and he certainly didn't like seeing someone else take the reigns amongst them. "C'mon. We've still got work to do. We've got to get these shelves up to spec before the whip comes cracking down on us, right?" Master Dick winked at him, and went back to Master Tim, clapping his hand on Master Tim's back.

Alfred looked down at his hands, and he wondered what he was supposed to be doing with them now, after all. Morbidity was best left for later, but he was deeply concerned that morbidity was all that he had left for later.

It was Tuesday, which meant dry fried chicken and cornbread stuffing. Mrs. Peterson's son came to visit her for her anniversary. He brought her a golden brush. She burst into tears, though, because she didn't recognize him, and she didn't like the talk of her being married. He eventually left, but he appeared so disheartened.

Alfred stayed up late, unable to sleep peacefully. He saw the late night news, but he wasn't able to get through to anyone's phone. Of course, that was to be expected, but.

Nightwing came to his window a few hours before dawn. He threw back the heavy quilt and knitted blanket, shivering a tiny bit from the exposure. "Master Dick..." he exhaled, too relieved to be bothered with the etiquette of code names.

"Don't worry," he said, his voice betraying his exhaustion. "She's with Leslie. Cass. Cass'll be fine. Don't worry."

Alfred's shoulders slumped. That was a bit of a relief, and yet. "Master Dick, what happened? They showed only her fall on the news, there were people with huge moth-type wings...?"

Nightwing tossed him something which he caught out of habit, but he juggled it a bit in his hands before he got a good grip. It was heavy, slick, and flat, definitely metallic. It looked a bit like a cell phone.

"Private line. I didn't mean to leave you out of the loop," Master Dick wearily apologized.

Alfred shook his head. It wasn't his place anymore to demand special access. He was a bit of a risk, wasn't he? He still had trouble with his left foot, and if he had another stroke... "I'll be able to contact all of you this way?" he asked, hopeful.

Master Dick paused momentarily. "It's my own private line. I'll be back before the end of the week." He slipped back into the night, considerately closing the door before he left.

Alfred slumped back into bed, examining this 'private line.' There were still a million questions he needed to ask, but living in this place meant that he was in another world than they were.


It was Friday, pasta night. There was chocolate cake for dessert. Mr. Walsh serenaded Mrs. Mayweather. He got a large round of applause. Alfred didn't stay after dinner for movie night. He found A Man for All Seasons to be poorly paced, and, besides, a moral story about a man sacrificing himself for the 'right' left him with a bad taste in his mouth.

The physical therapy had been taxing that morning. Nothing made him feel older than trying to recover from the effects of his age. He decided to catch up on his correspondences. He never cared too much for email, but it was easier to type with one good hand and one less certain hand than it was to write on paper. Master Tim sent him an email nearly every other day now that he was working with S.T.A.R. labs. His epistles were most often filled with vague comments about the projects he was working on, as well as what might be deemed as 'superhero gossip' from all the teams he coordinated. He always asked many questions, about half of which Alfred answered. He made references to neurological and neuromuscular research they were doing at S.T.A.R. labs, presumably offering help with rehabilitation, but Alfred never picked up on those suggestions. It was most likely stubbornness on his part, but that wasn't the only reason.

He was an old man. His pride was old, too. It was difficult from his position to explain to someone in Master Tim's position that there was a form of dignity that could only be possessed by someone in his position. A term such as quality of life was teaching him about a new form of grace he was trying to embrace, and thus he was unable to discuss his outlook with any of his 'children.'

He did his best, never the less, to respond thoroughly to Master Tim, as he did feel an inexpressible gratitude to him for situating himself so securely. After writing to Master Tim, he had a sundry small replies to make to other acquaintances and friends of various levels. He finished by replying to Lucius' letter, the only one he took the time to reply to by hand, since Lucius paid him that respect. He got out an ink pen, and carefully adjusted the nib before writing. He forsook his normal cursive, and resorted to printing, concentrating on each neat letter so that it became surreal to consider them as part of a communicative whole. The letter was short, uninformative, and filled a note card with an ink blotting on the cover. He secured the envelope with a monogram seal, and addressed it with as much care as he had written it. He had a roll of stamps in the back of his drawer, but he didn't bother fishing it out just yet, as he wouldn't be able to mail the letter until tomorrow, anyway.

There was some truth to the convenience of the modern era.

He was about to turn out the light when a small, gold foil wrapped package was placed on the desk next to him.

"Really, Master Dick. You should not test an old man's heart like that," he dryly sighed.

He looked up, distressed to see the lines on Master Dick's face. If he wasn't wearing his mask, Alfred was sure he'd see the bags under his eyes, too. "Hey, if we don't test it every so often, who's to say it's still working?" he teased back, tired. "Sorry I wasn't here earlier..."

"At my age, it's a blessing when these times are forgotten," Alfred assured him, eyeing the gift.

"Don't say that," Master Dick shook his head. He sat down on the corner of Alfred's bed, and it was as if Alfred could hear his joints crackling. "We wouldn't forget."

Alfred raised an eyebrow. "Oh, has Master Bruce remembered as well? I was given to understand from the news that he was quite busy..."

Uncharacteristically, though, Master Dick cut him off harshly. "Don't believe everything you see on television." He rubbed his face, peeling off his mask.

Alfred's heart sank. He looked even more tired than he had suspected.

"You know Bruce," Master Dick said, pleading. "You don't need to..." He lost his words, looking away as he tried to collect his thoughts into something organized enough to express.

Alfred reached out, putting his hand on Master Dick's knee. "I do understand. But Master Dick, I'm concerned. You can't do it all on your own. I don't like to see this. This isn't what you chose for your life."

Master Dick looked up and beamed brightly at him. "Don't be silly. I have chosen. I've chosen to stand with my family. Go on. Open your gift."

Alfred sighed, and turned to pick up the package. It wasn't that he wanted to die, as he felt incomplete still. Yet, the marking of a passage of a year didn't warrant commemoration.

It was Monday. Meatloaf and pasta night. Mrs. Sakamoto got a package from Japan, which she opened in the community room. She put on the silk kimono over her clothes for everyone to see. The nurses helped her to stand long enough to get it on, and brought her a mirror to see it. She cried with happiness.

Mr. Schmitt died sometime between lunch and dinner. It was quiet afterward. The gurney, covered with a blanket, rolled noisily past the main rec room.

Alfred stayed downstairs all night, feeling slightly chilled in a way that apparently was alleviated by company. He talked to Mr. Moretti until closing hours for the rec room, surprised to learn that not only had he performed Rigoletto at the Met, but he'd also become a citizen during the war by joining the Army, somewhat forcibly. The stories the man wove were a welcome distraction from the news.

Though he was tired when he was getting into bed, he was surprised by how happy he was to hear the window opening.

"How long has this been going on?" He tiredly asked.

The boot that came down onto the floor was heavy, its tread bearing down with dread in Alfred's heart. The cape dripped onto his carpet, but he wasn't concerned. The cowl closed down more over his face, which was just as well, Alfred supposed, but it made it nearly impossible to read the young man before him.

"It's temporary," Master Dick said gruffly. Even his voice was changing. Alfred cringed. "Bruce just needs..."

"Master Bruce needs more than any of us can fully give him," Alfred warned. "Please, Master Dick. Don't forget about yourself!"

"I'm taking care of myself," Master Dick decisively said. "I'm taking care of myself by taking care of him."

Alfred's head shook involuntarily. "Both of you will suffer."

"Well. We always have been," Master Dick wryly said.

"I'm aware, sir. I've been there all this time," Alfred warned him. At least that stayed the boy's tongue. "You can't make things better for either of you by letting him have so much control! What about your own life? What about... what about Miss Gordon? Surely she doesn't approve," Alfred asked, hoping that there was still a thread of hope there.

"Babs? Well, I'm sure she doesn't. But you know... she's not in Gotham anymore. She's in Langley, running Oracle through a joint CIA/FBI/Interpol super secret cabal. She's saving the world on global scale now. I mean, even more than before. She's basically the mind behind the power for... everything associated with justice now." His voice was touched with pride and despair.

Alfred's shoulders sagged. "I see... I correspond with her only through email. I suppose there was no need for a change of address, then. Her father..."

"The commish and I are on the same page with this. Leslie retired, but there's still people I can trust in Gotham. And." His gloved hand appeared from somewhere behind his cape. He presented Alfred with a formal invitation card.

He looked it over carefully, taking in the impressive engraving more readily than the words before him. He wanted to think it was a trick of the poor light.

"It's for the best," Master Dick said, his voice tight.

"You never had a moment's interest in Wayne Enterprises," Alfred quickly rejoined. He held the invitation to Richard Grayson's induction to the board of directors' soirée back to Master Dick, unwilling to accept it. "What does this mean? That you've become... nothing more than..."

"Nothing has changed," Master Dick cut him off. That was becoming more common. "I am still who I am. I am his partner. This is what I need to do."

Alfred shook his head, but it was useless to argue. "So, you take this path to support and defend him. And who, pray tell, is supporting you?" Everyone else had left Gotham. Was there anyone close...?

"I'm not exactly like him. I can take care of myself," Master Dick replied with some weary humor.

"I'm afraid that line is not convincing when you are in this garb," Alfred spat back, now truly exhausted.

It was Thursday. The soup was split pea, and the salad was Caesar. Alfred skipped dinner, and stayed in his bed, catching up on his reading.

He had a tray to hold the book, since the last stroke had rendered his left side useless. He sipped the thick, shake-like liquid from the cup near him, detesting the overly sweet flavor, but grateful for the convenience. So few things in life were convenient, anymore.

It was just about six when the nurse knocked on the door, announcing a visitor. He happily pushed the tray aside, because when Master Dick visited by entering via the front door, it was bound to be a pleasant visit.

It was not, however, Master Dick.

Bruce had gained some weight, and his hair was now streaked with grey, which was more engineered to make Alfred feel old than even his useless limbs. He stiffly put his jacket on the hook on the back of the door, and then looked around somewhat futilely as if he had many options as to where to sit.

Alfred stretched his good hand in the direction the room's sole armchair. Clumsily, Master Bruce sat down, pulling the chair close to the bed. For a few moments, silence stretched between them; Alfred was loath to speak first, since Master Bruce had not yet heard his post-stroke voice.

For his part, though, Master Bruce also seemed disinclined to disturb the uncomfortable silence, though he kept looking around for some relief from it. Finally, he reached out, and put his hand around Alfred's arm. Though time was showing its affects on his skin, the hand itself was still large and strong, and the warm presence reminded Alfred of a time when Master Bruce's hand on his arm was a small thing.

"I'm sorry. It's been so long and I haven't... I didn't know how to face you. All this time, you've cared for me when I've needed you, and when you needed me..." His voice broke off, it broke. Fortunately, Master Bruce had taken a hold of his bad arm, so Alfred was able to put his hand over Master Bruce's and squeeze it reassuringly.

"I. Have. Always. Under... stood." Alfred spoke slowly to be distinct. He was still afraid, though, that his voice sounded scary.

His fears seemed to be realized for a moment as Master Bruce's eyes widened, but then he bent his head down, putting his forehead down on the back of Alfred's hand. There was a space of time when it seemed possible that he might break down and cry, but what came out instead was a steady stream of words, a confession of sorts to cover the few years that Alfred had been gone from Wayne Manor, and all of the sins of conscience that Master Bruce had allowed to accumulate.

Alfred let him speak, let him let out all of his concerns, feeling touched, and deeply relieved. If Master Bruce was at the point where he could even admit that he had failings, then maybe Master Dick was doing a better job of taking care of him than Alfred had suspected. And if Master Bruce was aware, then maybe he would be ready to take care of Master Dick, after all.

Stubborn mules sometimes needed each other to make it.