It's taken me three years, but I guess I finally got back around to this... there will, however, probably be one more chapter, and I promise I won't wait another three years to finish it.
Anyway, all the same disclaimers, etc.
Somehow, Florence always looked the same. It wasn't, of course; he would note a new building, or some façade that had changed every time he visited. Every year, something small had changed, but Alfred supposed he was a romantic at heart. It was, after all, why he always came to Italy for his vacation. It was why he always sat at the same café, reading his newspaper and drinking a coffee or a glass of wine. It was why, even that year, when everything had changed and his whole world had shattered like so much broken glass, he still sat and waited and watched.
There was always someone who fit the bill. Sometimes it was a man, sitting alone as Alfred himself was, reading a paper, perhaps eating a scone or a pastry. Oftentimes, it was a man in a suit, on a break before he returned to his office and his work. Occasionally, the man he chose had looked up, smiling as he welcomed a beautiful young woman to sit at his side. Once, there had been two young children with her. The boy had looked so much like young Master Bruce had all those long years ago, Alfred had had to leave before he broke down in tears.
He had been here for two weeks and every day, there was a new visitor to the café who reminded him of what he had lost. He knew he should stop this. He knew it was time to return home. There were things to be done. He had agreed to take up a position at the boys' home that would soon inhabit Wayne Manor. He was, he felt, quite qualified to help shepherd a host of small, troublesome boys, and Father Reilly had agreed wholeheartedly.
Perhaps the memories might prove too much in time, but Wayne Manor had been Alfred's home for so long, it was difficult to imagine making a new one elsewhere.
But for now, he stayed in Florence, and every day he went to that little café and watched a different man who reminded him a little of Master Bruce go on about his afternoon.
He was scheduled to return home the next day, so this would be his last visit. Perhaps it was fitting, that they almost missed one another. He had almost given up finding a suitable proxy for the day when he glanced over at the sound of a woman laughing. Her glossy dark ponytail swung as she leaned over to reach for her purse, and as it swung aside, Alfred nearly dropped his glass.
Bruce Wayne just nodded, a faint, knowing sort of smile on his face as he raised his cup towards the old butler. Alfred raised his own little glass of espresso in return, and though his heart suddenly felt lightened, he did not stand up. He did not go over to their table. He noted, with a wry grin of his own, that the woman with Bruce was Selina Kyle, the beguiling cat-burglar who had first managed to draw Bruce out of the East Wing. Perhaps that was fitting too. Perhaps Master Bruce would never have been content with the sort of woman society would have foisted upon him. Perhaps a life in happy exile would do them both some good.
Alfred did rise to visit the restroom, and when he returned for his paper, they were gone. Tucked into the folds of his newspaper, however, was an envelope.
He waited until he returned to his hotel room to open it and read the letter enclosed inside.
Alfred Pennyworth returned to Wayne Manor two days later, and took up the rather daunting task of helping to look after a busload or more of semi-delinquent orphan boys. He did this task with as much poise and gentlemanly grace as he had ever done anything. The boys, in time, would get used to this odd old man who had joined their herd of caretakers, and even grow to love him. But there was another reason he had returned to the Manor.
The first morning of his return, he walked into the upstairs library in the East Wing. This part of the house had been closed off, as it was not yet needed; the only furnishing remaining, other than the bookshelves built into the walls, was a dusty piano that the debt collectors had been unable to pry off the floor. After a few tries, they had given up and left it where it was.
He closed the library door and locked it firmly behind him. He paused by the window to watch the boys playing in on the front lawn, smiling to himself. It was nice to have young people running through these dusty, cloistered halls again. Of course, there was one place they could never go.
He played two keys on the piano and one of the bookcases swung forward on silent hinges from the wall. Alfred went through the doorway it had hidden, pulling it closed behind him, and descended in a creaking freight elevator.
The cave looked the same. He bustled about, tidying things, bringing the secured vaults up from beneath the pools of water in the larger cavern and ensuring their contents were all accounted for and functional. When he was finished, he closed everything back up, and went back upstairs. He would visit every day.
He would be the caretaker of this place, and wait for its new guardian to rise.