Title: To Be Continued…
Author: DC Luder
Summary: Alfred tells his youngest charge a fairy tale. Bludhaven's Fairy Tale Challenge.
Infringements: All recognizable characters belong to DC Comics, not DC Luder.
Author's Note: I'm back… finally.
A/N 2: Part of the fairy tale that Alfred tells is based on one I had him share in the epilogue of "What Lies Ahead" so I have in fact stolen material from myself. How dare I. Here, the fairy tale is expanded and told to a very different person for very different reasons.
"Life itself is the most wonderful fairytale of all."
Hans Christian Anderson
For nearly a year, I ended my evening by following a precise order of tasks.
With the kitchen and dining room tended to following the day's final meal, I visited each room of the ground floor to assure the lights were dimmed for the night. From there, I made a final trip to the laundry room to see to it that both washer and dryer were empty and that all items were taken to their appropriate rooms and closets. Afterwards, I trekked to the study and allowed myself a moment to glance up at an oil portrait of the late Dr. and Mrs. Wayne. Evenings following particularly difficult days, I also granted a brief appraisal of the massive oak desk by the bay window, particularly at a trio of silver framed photographs.
Departed souls permanently preserved in bliss.
The only true change that had taken place in my nightly routine was instituted just under a year ago. Before than, once the house was in order, I would retire to my quarters for a long bath, a few chapters of any one of the great classics and finally sleep.
And then everything changed in a blink of an eye.
Rather than bid goodnight to the old manor, the routine was altered to include taking the elevator to the third floor in order to tuck my youngest charge into bed. A tradition that had religiously been carried out by his parents for eight years was now on my shoulders. They had always devoted their afternoons and early evenings to him, no matter how hectic their schedules. Out of the chaos of their combined lives, they had managed to produce their very own miracle, one they had never taken for granted.
Wanting to carry on tradition as best as I could, I had always offered to read with him before being tucked in for the night. As expected, the young master politely declined more often than he had accepted. There was a great deal of his father in him in that respect, with his innate self-reliance and preference for solitude. I had hoped to have been able to guide him to an alternate path so that he would not only enjoy the company of others, but that he longed for it.
The others in the family had also made similar attempts, not willing to give up on the young lad. It wasn't in their nature to surrender, not matter how futile their efforts were. In the shadow of their fallen mentor, they had done a remarkable job of persevering, of pushing forward in the wake of tragedy. As I had done several times before, my mourning and suffering had been easily cast aside in order to care for a young boy in need of guidance.
But for the first time, I wasn't alone in watching over an orphaned charge.
After knocking softly on his bedroom door, I waited to be acknowledged before entering, "Good evening, sir."
At eight years of age, there was no need to ask if he had washed and brushed his teeth, nor was it necessary to inquire if his studies were complete. He had always been very responsible, even before his life had been forever changed. Willing to please, never questioning authority and never one to act out were practically the only ways in which he differed from his parents. His father had once remarked that for once, my rigorous etiquette regimens had finally latched hold of a pupil.
How right you were, sir…
I was surprised to find him that evening dressed in blue cotton pajamas and sitting on the floor beside his bed. He glanced up at me briefly and offered a faux smile before looking back down at his lap. As I approached, I noticed he was looking through the scrap book that had been kept from his birth onward. Pictures of every milestone he had accomplished, every school event, every soccer game and every Halloween outing. About a hundred pages into the big binder, the photographs gave way to newspaper clippings, documenting tragedy in the most cold and calculating of ways. From there, they evolved into articles about the city's great guardian and his allies, loosely tracking their vigilantism.
Even before he had learned the truth on that dreadful night, he had always had a passion for heroes and villains, something that had only been fueled after the death of-.
A quiet yawn interrupted my morbid line of thought.
I forced my gaze from the laminated pages as he looked up at me with piercing blue eyes, partially disclosed by unruly bangs. He had not had his hair trimmed in the last twelve months, something I had yet to find the courage to force upon him. Since the first time scissors touched his dark locks, he had always gone to the barber in Bristol with his father. His binder featured a page marking the first tiny hairs that had been taken from his scalp, preserved forever beside a picture of the toddler sitting proudly in the black leather barber's chair.
When his eyes fell away again, he closed the leather binder's cover then rose to his feet. Hefting the book in his arms, he carried it to the desk on the far side of the room, gently setting it in the center of a leather blotter. While turning to face me, he inquired, "Was Dick coming home tomorrow?"
"Yes, sir," I replied as the boy crossed the room to his bed. "Given the forecast, he hoped to entice you into taking a trip into the city for the day."
Climbing onto his bed, the boy nodded, "Yeah… that sounds like fun."
He forced a warm look to his face but his voice let the lie fall flat. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy spending time with Master Dick, as I knew for a fact that it was one of the few things he truly enjoyed. The young boy's face lit up nearly as brightly as did his older sibling's whether they be racing after a ball in the lawn or trying to out belch one another after guzzling root beer. It was then, perhaps, that it pained me the most.
Seeing them so happy and knowing that my former charge was unable to.
For the last week, Master Dick had been away tending to matters in Europe, placating the shareholders overseas with his brilliant smile and bottomless charisma. Where Master Tim flourished with his responsibilities at Wayne Enterprises in heading Applied Sciences, Master Dick loathed his position on the board. His inheritance and its associated pressures had bestowed upon him a role that forced his involvement in corporate matters.
As droll as the tasks were, he had quickly learned to follow the footsteps of his mentor by utilizing them in a manner that also benefited the life he led after business hours. Multi-tasking, as he had claimed, although I doubted he was dividing his focus equally. The venture in Europe included visiting offices and divisions in Paris, Berlin, Rome and London, smiling for the press, attending luncheons and shaking all of the right hands. When he traded Gucci for Kevlar, he worked endlessly on gathering evidence on an international drug ring. Formidable work, but all the more rewarding.
His call earlier that afternoon had been from London's Heathrow airport, specifically from a gift shop. Rather than boast about his crime fighting accomplishments, he had simply been calling to inform me that the Gulfstream would touch down on time in Gotham just after one in the morning. Given that he had driven himself before departing a week earlier, he would not be in need of transportation, allowing me to enjoy my evening.
That, and to inquire as to what trinket my young charge would enjoy the most.
"Big Ben paperweight… good call, Al."
I watched on as the young boy situated the covers over his legs, sitting upright against a mountain of down sheathed in silk pillowcases the color of the Mediterranean Sea. Where his father had always been fond of dark grays and black and his mother cherished rich greens and purples, their son had forged his own preference with a wide variety of blues. Master Dick had often joked that he had been behind it but I knew it was just the boy taking his own course.
His face was motionless but his eyes were alive with thought. Not certain as to how he would respond, I tentatively sat on the edge of the mattress. When he only looked up at me, waiting for me to speak, I offered, "Sir, you do know that Master Dick would do anything to be here with you… to be-."
"I know… he's busy…" the boy paused before adding in a whisper, "He has to juggle two lives, it's hard to squeeze in a third burden."
Without hesitation, I set my hand on his small shoulder, "You are in no way a burden to him… to me… to anyone."
He glanced at his lap, quickly responding, "I… I'm sorry."
Giving the shoulder a final squeeze, I released him and said, "There is no reason to be ashamed. You have been a very brave young man this past year… far braver than many your age… and those much older."
"Brave… like Dad," he smirked sadly.
"Yes, sir, very much like your father."
Given the length of the silence that fell between us, I was prepared to rise to my feet and bid him good night. There was no sense in pressuring him to confess his woes, nor was there any point in pretending there were none being suffered. Quiet nights such as the ones he had endured all week were stark reminders of all he had lost. In the morning, he would be reunited with Master Dick, over a hearty breakfast, and laughter would once more echo through the great halls.
Before I could move so much as a finger, the look on his face stopped me, as did his words, "Alfred… could you tell me the story."
"The story, sir?"
He smiled, if only for a second, "The greatest story."
Glancing at his bedside clock, I replied, "It is already half past nine, sir."
"And tomorrow is a Saturday… And we both know Dick won't get out of bed early, not with jet lag." When I neither confirmed or denied his request, the smile returned to his lips, "Please, Alfred?"
Unable to deny the boy anything, I forced a sigh of reluctance before nodding, "Very well, young sir."
"From the beginning. The very beginning."
Chuckling softly, I responded, "As you wish."
While he pushed himself further into the pillows, I drew a slow breath, allowing my aged mind to travel back decades, to the very beginning.
"Once upon a time, there were a king and a queen that lived in a grand castle overlooking their kingdom. The king and queen were very kind people and most generous to those in need. In fact, rather than act solely as a ruler, the king chose to study and become a physician in order to better help the people of his kingdom."
"And the queen?" he asked, already knowing the words I would answer with.
"The queen also did her part to help the kingdom by collecting money and donations for the less fortunate. Since she and the king were very wealthy, she felt it was their responsibility to give back to the people that looked up to them for guidance. One day, not long after the king and queen were married, they had a son…"
"The prince," he smirked.
"Indeed, a young prince. He had dark hair and bright blue eyes and he was a very smart boy, and very energetic… much like yourself, young sir. But above all else, the prince loved his parents very much… in fact they were the most important things in his entire life."
Fighting back a flash of images of the "young prince", I swallowed the frog in my throat before proceeding, "One day… the king and queen treated the prince to a night out in the kingdom proper, not with an extravagant ball or feast but by visiting the theatre. Following the performance, the royal family made their way back to the horses and coach that had brought them down from the castle."
The young boy allowed his head to sip back into the pillows, the light in his eyes genuine as he imagined the words in his bright mind.
Clearing my throat, I proceeded, "Unfortunately, the kingdom was not entirely made of good people… there were still criminals and thieves lurking about the streets, willing to do anything to steal gold coins and fine jewels. And unfortunately, one of these criminals came upon the royal family. The criminal did not recognize the king and queen and the young prince… and demanded they give him their gold and jewels."
He had heard the story countless times over and yet the same apprehension came over his eyes. I continued, doing my best to pretend it was all a fairy tale, "Now even though the king did as he was told, the criminal went to pull at a necklace that was around the queen's neck. In order to protect his wife, the king dove in front of her, frightening the criminal so much that he… killed the good king. In a state of panic, he then proceeded to kill the queen."
"Leaving the prince alone," he stated the next line.
I nodded, "As the criminal realized what he had done, he fled the street, leaving the young prince alone… The prince's world had been forever shattered as those he loved most were now gone. The young prince returned to the castle, no longer the bright, happy boy but a sad, quiet one."
For the duration of my post at Wayne Manor, I had raised far too many sad, quiet boys.
And just when I had anticipated never having to do so again, tragedy had struck once more…
"His loyal servant, who had looked over him since he had been born, was certain there was no way to comfort the young prince but he did his best. Rather than crying or turning his back on the kingdom, the young prince made a promise to his late parents… that he would make sure that no other person, no matter if they were royalty or simple townsfolk, would ever suffer as he had."
The boy before me whispered, "The war on crime."
"To prepare for his war on crime, he traveled the world, leaving behind the castle and kingdom he had lived in his entire life. There he began a different sort of education… he began to master all forms of fighting and defense, escape artistry and man hunting… science, language and arts… the young prince sought out every master of every skill that may help him in his quest to defend the people of his kingdom. After seven long years, the young prince returned to the kingdom, but not as a boy as he was now a man grown."
"The young king..." he started softly, no doubt picturing his father just as I was.
"The young king knew he would not be able to become a city knight, not only because he was royalty but because he also knew that the criminals did not fear the city knights. The young king needed to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, in order to assure that he would be able to keep his promise to his parents."
He fought a yawn while saying, "The dark knight."
"Yes, he became the dark knight. Rather than touring the streets by daylight, he prowled them at night, as did most of the criminals. By day, however, the young king upheld his royal duties, ruling the kingdom in his father's place. But as night fell, he removed his brightly colored cloaks and dressed in black armor and a cape to help conceal him in the shadows. The dark knight used his perfected skills in order to hunt down the criminals that dared to strike out at his kingdom."
Eyelids growing heavy, the boy reminded me, "And the captain of the guards… don't forget about him."
"It would be impossible to do so, young sir. Although the kingdom's guards were prone to bribery and letting criminals slip through the cracks, there was one that stood out as being honorable and good. In fact, he was the only one whom the dark knight trusted enough to befriend, although he never revealed his true identity as the young king. Together, the noble city knight and the dark knight began to weed out the corrupt individuals of the guardsmen, leaving behind only those that were loyal and just. Rewarded for his ambition and determination to keep the kingdom safe, the noble knight was given the position as captain of the guards."
The boy nodded but remained silent.
"However, it wasn't long before the dark knight became consumed by his quest, allowing the darkness of his life to overpower the light. Just as it seemed there was nothing left of the young king, he came upon another young boy, much like himself, who had lost his parents. The boy had been part of the traveling carnival and he and his parents had been the acrobatic act, flying high on the trapeze. A criminal had cut through the trapeze swing in order to threaten the carnival's owner and when the young boys parents went to perform, the rope snapped and they fell."
I waited to see if he would make a note of the progress of the story, but when he simply looked up at me with anticipation, I proceeded, "After seeing how very similar his life had been to the boy from the carnival, the young king took the boy to live with him as his ward. Having never been a child himself, the young king found it difficult to raise the boy, leaning heavily on his servant for guidance. The boy, although not bound by blood, exhibited many of the same traits as the young king, something the servant was quick to recognize. It wasn't long after that the young king allowed the boy to know of his true life, the life as a dark knight…"
"Robin," he said softly.
"The young king began to teach the boy all which he had learned in his travels, in order to prepare him to join his war on crime as his squire… as Robin."
By the time the boy drifted off to sleep, I had recounted the history of Batman, in fable terms, to the point where Master Dick had left to spread his wings. Adjusting the covers over him, I turned off the bedside lamp before rising to my feet. Staring at him in the near darkness, I smiled weakly, "To be continued, young sir."
Leaving the room, I mused over the fact that no matter how often I told the tale, it seemed that the ending point for each session revolved around one Robin leaving while another entered. I had started telling the story to my youngest charge when he had still been a toddler, entertaining him with my vocal theatrics more than the actual words. When he had learned the truth behind the fairy tale, it had made it much easier to come to terms with the tragedy that had befallen his young life.
Namely the deaths of his parents.
Thankfully, each time we approached the actual end of the greatest story ever told, the young master requested me to start over. I knew it was his way of avoiding the latest chapter of the Family's saga, the part that hurt the most. Even after a year, the very thought that the master bedroom was empty or that there were two more costumes displayed in glass cases robbed me of my ability to breathe. A factor that was infinitely doubled for the young boy, losing his parents to unprecedented violence. Losing them so suddenly and without warning...
Someday, when he was older, the young master would allow me to continue the tale, holding his breath while the latest tragedy to befall the young king was dictated. Being the brave soul that he was, he would sit quietly beside me while I fictionalized how his mother and father had fallen to the villainous Dr. Thomas Elliott. And how afterwards, the squires and pupils of the dark knight had held tightly to the reins of the war on crime, keeping the kingdom safe for many years to come.
But no matter how old the young master was when he finally allowed me to move forward with the greatest story, I would still remove the unnecessary details.
A weak attempt to make their deaths a fraction less tragic.
Naturally, I would have to emphasize that they had died with honor, fighting for good, justice and love.
Never would I speak on how Master Bruce's nemesis had slain his lover before his very eyes, driving him into a maddening rage. Nor would I go into detail on how both he and Dr. Elliot had been fatally wounded in their final confrontation. Or that Master Bruce had bled out long before his allies had been able to find him.
Never would I speak of how upon arriving at the abattoir, Masters Dick and Tim and Miss Cassandra had found their mentor's limp arm reaching out to Ms. Selina as she lay so very still, not two feet away.
The story would haveto move forward after a necessary moment of silence to recount how the squires had altered the incident to make it appear as if the evil doctor had been holding the king and his long time love interest hostage. That it had regrettably ended in tragedy, one which the city knights had never been able to understand in full detail. It would have been proper to revel in the memorials that were held for the kingdom's noble ruler, with nary a royal subject learning of how the king had lost his life. The story then would have to cover how the eldest squire, and heir to throne, had stepped up to keep the kingdom safe by day and night.
And that of all of the innocent lives he was responsible for, the one he cherished most of all was his much younger sibling, his godson.
Painfully, I would have to draw some sort of conclusion that perhaps fate had struck its harsh blow once more by slaying the Master Bruce and Ms. Selina, leaving their son an orphan in order to start the story anew.
A new prince to grow into a new king who would masquerade as a new dark knight.
After all, the greatest story ever told, much like the Batman himself, would carry on forever.