Tucking in Master Wayne

"Alfred?" a tired voice called out as Alfred entered the bunker.

"Master Bruce," Alfred sighed with relief. Thank God, he made it home.

"Alfred," he repeated, the pain showing clearly in his voice. As Alfred emerged from the secret trapdoor he saw that Bruce was still fully clothed as Batman nearly half an hour after he called Alfred telling him to come, which meant that he was in too much pain to take the armor off himself. Alfred sighed. He may have never been through the observation training that his young master had, but he could still spot some things.

"The news isn't showing the result very clearly yet sir," Alfred began, helping him remove his chest plate, "How did you do?"

"I got him;" Master Bruce replied wearily, "The Joker is in custody."

"Good news, sir," Alfred replied, "but to I detect a hint of melancholy in your voice?"

"Harvey Dent is dead, Alfred."

Alfred closed his eyes. The guilt he heard in his voice was almost as clear as the day of his parents' funeral. Every time Alfred heard it reappear he felt a pang of guilt in his own heart.

"It's my fault, Alfred," Bruce Wayne said heavily.

"No, Master Wayne," Alfred replied as he always did, "This was the Joker's doing, not yours. I'll have none of this self-accusation."

Bruce stripped off the batman armor and Alfred almost gasped when he saw the bruises. Long, painful looking bruises glided down his back and stomach, already turning a dark hue of purple. Jagged, animal-made cuts crisscrossed his arms and legs. He had a deep-looking wound close to the hip on the left side which looked alarmingly like a bullet wound and on his back there was almost no ordinary colored skin, all of it bearing dark bruises and small punctures. He looked as though he had broken ribs from the way he was holding his chest and he favored his right leg badly.

"Were you hit by a truck again sir?" he asked, in as casual a tone as he could muster.

"The Joker stole the Russian's dogs," he replied.

"Will you require help with the stitches on these ones, sir?" Alfred asked gently.

"Yes," Bruce replied, seeming distracted.

Alfred set to work of the cuts, wincing as he heard the hiss of the alcohol stinging. Not surprisingly, Bruce didn't even wince. I don't care that he thinks himself some sort of ninja. That bloody well hurts.

He looked again at the long, straight bruises. They looked painfully dark and tender, and must have stung when the disinfectant touched them, but Bruce didn't move at all. It almost seemed he wasn't breathing.

"May I be so bold as to ask where those bruises came from?" he tried desperately to get the boy to speak to him.

"A pipe," he replied.

"A pipe, sir?" Alfred said, hoping to keep him from the depression he was sinking into.

"A metal pipe, like something from plumbing," he explained, sounding exceedingly tired and worn.

Alfred winced at the thought. Bruce had always been one to seek for adventure. Even as a young boy, Alfred could remember the trouble he would get into at school. He had been a rather small boy for his age, but it never occurred to him. He would come home with a black eye, or a bloody nose, but Alfred would always know that the other kid looked worse. It seemed that that sort of thing had been much rarer before his parents had died. After that night Bruce had never really seemed to be the same. He only smiled on occasion and would make of habit of bothering the biggest boys in the school. Whenever Alfred had asked him what the fight was about he simply said that the other had started it.

Alfred began to work on his back, soaking a daub of gauze with disinfectant and aiming for the sources of the blood that thinly coated his shoulders and lower back. He began to feel the sides of Bruce's back for broken ribs and cringed when he heard an ominous soft grinding. Bruce winced, barely perceptible, like what most men would give to an accidental cut while carving. But Alfred both knew and dreaded that sound. It meant broken bones.

"Do you have any idea which bones they are, sir?" he asked grimly.

Usually Bruce could find and identify his wounds faster than most surgeons, but this time he slowly, painfully, shook his head.

"Didn't have time," he explained, "Had to run."

"Run, sir?" Alfred questioned, half fearing the answer Bruce would give to him.

Bruce sighed and seemed about to launch into a long, complicated account of what had happened when the TV partially answered for him.

BREAKING NEWS: NEW INFORMATION RELEASED BY THE POLICE STATES THAT THE NIGHT WAS FILLED WITH THE DESTRUCTION OF NOT ONE, BUT TWO DERANGED MANIACS. GOTHAM IN SHOCK AS THE HERO OF THE NIGHT TIME STREETS, BATMAN, IS SAID TO HAVE MURDERED FIVE PEOPLE TONIGHT, IN ADDITION TO ENDING THE RAMPAGE OF THE DREADED JOKER.

Alfred looked over to Bruce with tired, sad looking eyes, asking a question he already knew the answer to. What he really wanted to know was not if this was true, for he knew it to be false with every bit of his being. He wanted to know who had done this, and if Batman had been able to stop him as well as the Joker. Seeing the look on Bruce's face, however, a queer look of pain and curiosity, he remained silent as the rest of the broadcast played out.

ALTHOUGH THE POLICE HAVE NOT RELEASED THEIR POSSIBLE MOTIVES FOR THESE MURDERS, GOTHAM CITY CIVILIANS ALREADY BEGIN TO SUPPLY THEIR STORIES OF VIOLENT ENCOUNTERS WITH OUR FORMER HERO.

At the word "former" Alfred winced, but Bruce kept watching.

"I was just walking the streets and I saw this, like, massive dude holdin' this guy up by the neck and sorta yellin' an' shakin' 'im. I didn't know who it was then, but when headlines started to come out 'bout 'im I knew it was the Batman."

"Well Ah saw dis man, big man, draggin' this fello out from an alley an' tyin' him up. Ah knew who it was, so Ah started to cheer 'cause Ah thought he'd caught some sorta criminal. But then, he did somethin' really out there; he didn't put him in da car, like Ah thought he was goin' to, he tied 'im to da bumper, got in da car, an' drove away, wit da guy draggin' behind. Ah couldn't believe it, an' nobody believed me until now,"

The fake stories of these "good citizens" went on and on. Alfred felt a tear role down his cheek and was glad that it was on the side that Bruce could not see. All of them were lies, all of them, and just so that the contributors could make a few bucks and get some TV time. Finally, he grew tired of Bruce's streak of masochism and turned the television off. Bruce made no protest, already tired by his long night and wanting to tell Alfred the true version.

"You know that's all lies, right?" he said, looking at Alfred in a way that made Alfred cringe, in a way that suggested he felt the need to ask that question.

"Yes, Master Bruce, I know that it was not true. I knew that you were not capable of such things, and if you were I would know and turn you in, just as we have always discussed," Alfred replied in a sarcastic voice, trying to break the grim mood in the room.

Bruce looked gratefully at Alfred and began to relate to him the tale of all that had happened that night. When he finally came to the end, Alfred was more proud of him than Bruce would ever know. He had spared Harvey Dent the posthumous humiliation of his dying insanity and saved Gotham City's hope, not to mention saving the city itself. He had stopped a raving madman and still not broken his rule that he would never kill. He had accomplished what the police had been trying to do for months in one night and still thought he should have done more.

Alfred finished wrapping Wayne's ribs in silence and watched the minor expressions on his face, satisfied that part of the crease in his brow had disappeared when he told someone the truthful story. He was also satisfied that some of the pain lines on his face went away as well.

"Feeling better, sir?" he asked, looking down at the face of the boy he once knew.

"A bit," he replied slowly, "I think I'll just try to sleep."

Bruce got up and walked out of the room, with Alfred following, to the garage where the ordinary car was kept, not wincing a bit and his wounds made themselves known. When they got to the penthouse, he lay down in bed and tried to sleep, eventually succeeding through his complete exhaustion. All the while Alfred sat in the door, looking on in silent vigil. When he was sure he had finally fallen asleep, Alfred walked quietly over to the bed and pulled the covers up over his shoulders. He stopped for a minute and looked at the Batman, sleeping peacefully in his bed.

"Goodnight, Master Wayne," he said simply, unplugging his alarm clock.

"Goodnight, Alfred," he replied in his sleep, something he hadn't done since he was a boy.