The night started out routine enough. Alfred's employer, Bruce Wayne, had left for his nightly ritual of dressing up in a cape and body armor to investigate the doings of the criminal underworld, and as the butler was not presently needed, he retired upstairs to catch whatever relaxation he could. Despite the horrors Gotham City had endured under the city-wide gang war and the numerous personal complications to affect the family, tonight promised to be a quiet one.
Until the front doorbell rang. It was far too late at night for any courteous guest, so it was with some trepidation that Alfred made his way to the door, which turned into confusion as he drew close enough to hear the commotion on the other side. If his ears could be believed, there was a baby shrieking loud enough to wake a cemetery, but Alfred couldn't imagine what business they or their caretaker could have with the Waynes, let alone why they would choose to come in the dead of night.
And then he heard the young, strained voice, "Come on, bud, just let up for two seconds, I'm begging you..." Alfred flung open the door to reveal Master Dick on the front step, clutching a screaming baby to his chest and juggling a bottle and a diaper bag in the crook of his elbow. His black hair was unkempt, his chin covered in unsightly stubble and Alfred doubted the young sir had changed his jeans or shirt in at least three days. His blue eyes were bloodshot and betrayed sleepless nights and an excess of tears, and he all but collapsed at Alfred's feet when the door opened for him. "I'm sorry, Alfred, but I didn't know where else to go!"
The old butler could only gape at first, but soon recovered his professionalism. "Come inside, my boy, and let me take your things." Dick gratefully hobbled in and let Alfred relieve him of his non-human cargo, which allowed the young man to focus more attention on the still-howling infant in his arms. The sound was as grating as Nature intended it to be, but Alfred was more concerned to see the young master leaning heavily on his good leg despite all these months since the initial gunshot wound. He hadn't heard tell of additional injures, though entirely possible, and he would have thought the leg healed by now. But then again, that assumption was based on a patient who followed orders, rather than backflip off of buildings with little more than a leg brace to hold him up.
"He won't stop crying! Do you think he's sick? I change his diapers and feed him and do all the stuff the baby books say, and I took him to the clinic, but they say he's fine and I don't know what to do..." Alfred watched Master Dick ramble on, still somewhat struck by the young man's presence after so long an absence. He'd always known where Dick was, as his undercover operation as a mob enforcer was at Batman's request, but there was little actual contact with him in that time. In fact, the last time Alfred had seen his young charge was while treating his leg, but soon Master Dick had left and the house was empty once again. Master Bruce retreated into himself, as was his way, but Alfred's heart cried out for the younger master, the light in their dark little cave, who seemed to have lost the very spark that had once defined his character.
It didn't appear much had changed. Master Dick had the demeanor of a dead soul held together by fraying nerves. "Is Bruce here?"
"Master Bruce is currently gallivanting across some rooftop, I'm afraid. I can call him back if you wish."
"No! Oh, God, no!" Master Dick was quick to say, as if Alfred had suggested slathering the boy in bacon and throwing him to the hounds of hell. "You can't tell him anything, Alfred, he can't ever know I was here!"
"My boy, if you're in some kind of trouble, I'm sure he'd race straight home."
"All the quicker to tear my head off, he can't ever know, you can't tell him!" The manner of the young man's speech became increasingly frantic, his eyes wild and his posture suggesting he wanted to collapse and curl into the fetal position. Alfred was becoming more concerned with every second.
"Sir," he slowly pointed out, "This may be harder to conceal than a sub-standard report card." A human child was not easily kept out of sight, and this one was clearly in disagreement with the adage that children be seen and not heard. But Master Dick appeared to stop breathing the second he was presented with the futility of hiding his current predicament, and Alfred decided not to press the issue for the moment.
Instead, he brought up the most glaring question of the whole scenario. "The child... is he-?"
"Mine? Yeah." Alfred didn't know snowmen were capable of looking so pale, let alone a human being. "I didn't know, just found out last week, he hasn't stopped crying since, aren't babies supposed to sleep? He's got to sleep sometime, right? All he does is scream at me, but I swear I've changed diapers and fed him and everything the baby book said, I even took him to the clinic and they said he's fine, but he's not, Alfred! No one cries this much without a reason, something's wrong! It's like he knows!"
"Knows what, sir?"
Master Dick turned his head away, seconds from bursting into tears. "Why is this happening? I can't do this, Alfred. I can't even figure out why he's crying, I can't get him to sleep, he should feel comfortable with me, right? Does he not trust me to keep him safe, is that it? Why is this happening? I didn't ask for this! This wasn't supposed to happen, it's not fair!"
"I'm afraid you'll get little sympathy from me with that kind of talk," Alfred sniffed. "Enjoying such adult pleasures without accepting the possible consequences is very childish of you. You were the one who decided he was grown up enough to handle intimacy. This might be unexpected, but certainly not unfair." Master Dick looked like he'd been slapped in the face, and Alfred relented. The boy's emotional state was far too fragile to handle much more than breathing. "But we can discuss that later. Let's retire to the kitchen for now." And he helped young man and baby along, Master Dick limping heavily the entire way, while the child wailed. "You say nothing has quieted him down?"
"He likes it when I bounce him like this," Dick demonstrated for a second, "Sometimes, anyway. But I've been doing that for hours and it puts all this pressure on my leg and I don't think I can stay awake another second, I don't know how he's still awake-"
"Sit down before you become hysterical." Alfred ushered his charge into a kitchen chair, and placed the baby accessories on the table, then put a kettle on while several attempts to soothe and comfort a wailing infant proved fruitless. Alfred took pity after a few minutes and pulled up a chair for himself. "May I?"
For a second, Master Dick seemed reluctant to entrust the child to anyone else, but soon acquiesced, and seemed grateful to be relieved of the burden. Alfred took a soft blanket from Dick's bag and swaddled the young child until it was in a tight cocoon, and gently rocked him for a few seconds. A little shushing, and Alfred was pleased to hear the shrieks die down to some tired whimpers. He'd always had a gift for colicky infants, and even Master Bruce himself went down with little fuss when in Alfred's hands.
As an adult, however, his employer was sadly beyond anyone's wrangling. "Does this young one have a name?"
"Yeah, I call him RJ."
"Richard John?" Alfred asked, and Dick blushed a little, ducking his head.
"Not at all. It's a fine, classic name and I am confident he will wear it to distinction." Hearing so brought a smile to Master Dick's face, before he dropped his head into his hands.
"This has got to be wizardry, Alfred. I've been trying for the past two days to get him to quiet down. I think he hates me or something."
"Now that is simply not true." His words had no effect on Dick. The young man practically dripped with self-condemnation. "He may be crying because he wants to sleep, contradictory as that might seem. Or he could just be overwhelmed by this strange new world he's found himself in. It is perfectly normal for babies to cry, and you shouldn't take it as a reflection of yourself." But it seemed the baby was more easily soothed than Dick, and Alfred decided to distract with a change of subject. "Is the young lady someone I know?"
"Who?" came the lackluster reply, Dick's head still hung in exhaustion and defeat.
"RJ's mother." That caused Master Dick to freeze. And after a second of tense silence, to shake. "Master Dick?"
"Uh, I don't think you ever met her... maybe, I can't remember..." the young man stammered out. He clasped his hands together as if wringing them would somehow give him the strength necessary to lift his eyes. "It doesn't matter, though, she's not... She's not going to be hanging around..."
"I see." Already unprepared for the role of father to be thrust on him, life as a single parent had to be especially daunting. Alfred remembered his own moment of soul-curdling terror at the thought of raising Master Bruce, when the whole of time seemed to stretch before him and decorate itself with potential failures. He placed a hand on Dick's knee. "I'm sorry to hear that. But I'm proud to know that you would step up to your responsibilities, even under difficult circumstances. You are a good man, and will make an excellent father." Dick was not comforted, rather, he began to cry. "I promise, you will make it through this trying time."
"It's not me I'm worried about, it's RJ. This is all my fault! He shouldn't cry so much, I have to be doing something wrong!"
"From what you've told me, you've done nothing wrong. Sometimes babies cry for no reason." Alfred gripped Dick's elbow and forced the young man to look up. "You are doing all the right things. Keep doing them, and you will be just fine. Colic should dissipate in a few weeks-"
"A few weeks!"
"It will end, Master Dick. Take some deep breaths, and you can endure." He smiled a little when the young man gulped down some air and nodded. "I do have a recipe for gripe water that worked wonders on Master Bruce, and rather simple. But I recommend you discuss it with your pediatrician first, allergies may also be a factor here."
Now Dick fidgeted and his confidence waned even further. "We just go to the free clinic up the way," he confessed in shame, "We don't have a pediatrician, I don't have insurance... I just got out of working for the mob, I don't have anything..." Alfred frowned, the bleak attitude suddenly making a bit more sense. For the sake of the mission, all the Bats and Birds tended to neglect their personal lives, Master Bruce most of all. But Bruce Wayne had a large fortune to support him and any pursuits he might take on, while Dick Grayson was a fired police officer with less than a semester's worth of college education. Very little job history or accolades, at least on paper.
"Where are you living now?"
"In a motel off the highway. I wasn't planning for any of this. I'm only in Gotham because Bruce asked me to help." At the mention of his mentor, Dick's shoulders began to shake. "Oh, he's going to kill me, there's no way I can be Nightwing now."
"It does seem that priorities will have to shift." Alfred wanted to say that Master Bruce would be compassionate and understanding, and overjoyed to see his adopted son with a child of his own, but he knew there were some gambles not worth taking. Who knew how the Batman would react to this news? "But save those worries for another time. This little bundle is the only thing you need to focus on." He smiled, but an odor soon twisted the corners of his mouth back down.
"That little bundle needs a diaper change," Dick said with a tired smirk, his first act of mirth all evening. He wearily pushed himself to his feet and reached for the diaper bag. "Come on, little guy. Can't be doing your business in the kitchen."
"May I, Master Dick?" Alfred stood and held out a hand for the bag. "You look dead on your feet."
"No, you don't have to. I've already imposed on you enough." But he didn't deny Alfred was right.
"Please, sir. I assure you, I know what I'm doing." He took the bag from Dick's indecisive hand and gestured for him to sit back down. "Relax a moment, and then we can discuss things over a cup of tea. I insist."
Dick finally agreed, and Alfred left him to go care for the now-fussy infant. Apparently young Master RJ did not enjoy the diaper changing process, and made his displeasure known. If this was the sound ringing in Dick's ears for the past week or so, it was no small wonder he was so close to hysterics now. "I'm sure you can't help it, my child, but do try to go easy on your poor father," Alfred told RJ, once the baby had been cleaned up. "He does the best he can, and he's as new to this as you are." RJ wrinkled his tiny nose and mewled in response.
But he soon quieted down, and Alfred thought they might even be lucky enough to put him down for a nap within the half-hour, so it was with a smug triumph that he returned to the kitchen. Years had gone by, a generation in fact, but he still had it.
Master Dick was unable to appreciate that, however. Alfred returned to find him face down on the table, snoring softly. A boneless form, with his arms just dangling off of the table, it was almost comical. Alfred reached down and placed a hand on Dick's shoulder to rouse him, but there was no response. Some harder shaking only resulted in a soft moan.
"Dear me, Master RJ, it seems he is as much in need of a nap as you are." Though the current position looked horribly uncomfortable. Alfred couldn't carry Master Dick's weight on his own, but he was reluctant to wake the young man up when he saw the peaceful look on his face.
Peace was something Alfred hadn't seen in this boy for a long time.
"Rest now, my dear child," he spoke softly. There would be time later to try and force him into a guest room. "You were right to come here. I promise you, all will be well."
But Alfred's promise was short-lived. Master Dick didn't stay asleep for long, and he woke up in pure panic. "I fell asleep! What time is it? Is Bruce home yet?"
"I am expecting him shortly-" Nothing more needed to be said. Dick was on his feet, stiff as his one leg was, and gathered up all he'd brought with him, including the baby. "What has gotten into you?"
"I can't stay, Alfred, I never should have come! I'm so sorry, this was a mistake!" As frantic as he was, the words were spoken with sincerity, the boy was truly apologetic, if needlessly so. "I shouldn't have bothered you, we're just gonna go..."
"Sir, I insist you stay. It is far too late for you to be out walking, and Master Bruce will be home any minute-"
"Don't you see? That's why I have to go! I can't face him, Alfred, he can't ever know I was here!" Despite Alfred's protests, Dick was almost to the door, and his blue eyes pleaded for understanding. "You can't tell him I was here! He'd kill me if he ever found out!"
"Found out what? That you're human?"
"I'm so far from humanity, you don't even know," Dick all but sobbed, and he shook his head. "No, he can't know about this, I shouldn't have come. Don't tell anybody, I just need to get away before I poison anything else!" He stepped out the door and almost disappeared into the night, but Alfred grabbed his elbow at the last second.
"My dear boy, you are not well," he insisted. "Let us help you. No one will condemn you for some small mistake."
Dick's eyes were wider than the furthest reaches of space, deeper than the ocean floor, and somehow, completely empty. "It's not a small mistake. Not even a lot of small mistakes. And he's never going to forgive me for any of it." Dick shrugged out of Alfred's grip and started running. "I'm sorry for everything..."
If he had been younger, faster, stronger, he might have been able to give chase and call Dick back. But as he was, all Alfred could do was stare out at the blackness of Gotham and pray his boys passed safely through.