I'm not a young man by any means, and many of my faculties have lost their luster. But there are some things that will never leave a man - for me, the memory of the day that Master Bruce brought home the most unexpected surprise will always be with me.
I remember everything about that day as if it were only yesterday, though no inconsiderable number of years have passed since. I remember that it began with a chilling fog and ended in the most fearful downpour. I remember that Master Bruce was late returning from his brisk morning run about the region, causing his breakfast to turn cold and setting me into chastising him for working an old man so hard for nothing. I remember that he'd half-chuckled and claimed that nothing I made could ever be less than delicious, regardless of temperature - he would know.
It was always in the mornings when he would let the Batman and Wayne masks fall just enough to remind me that my young Master Bruce was still there beneath it all.
I remember a great many other things about that day, but the more important one was that Bruce Wayne had an engagement with some high-rolling corporate executives whom he was determined to woo into donating to his arts charity for inner-city children, and they were going to the circus. Nobody had an inkling of the tragedy that was to take place that night under the big top.
He arrived back late again, but I was floored to see that he wasn't alone.
The boy looked just like him, and after taking in the absolutely lost and desolate little face, I would have sworn that I was right back on that similar stormy night twenty years ago.
I remember what Master Bruce said to me, after leading the rain-and-tear soaked boy into the kitchen and seeing him comfortable next to the fire. I will never forget the words he said with the most heartfelt conviction I'd ever heard him use in his whole life, then or since.
"He's alone now, Alfred. But I'm going to make sure he's alright."
Master Richard turned out to be only ten years old - barely older than Master Bruce had been, and though they looked so alike, the differences between them would have filled several books. The boy had an unbreakable spirit; even after witnessing such a trauma as he had suffered, he was up and exploring every nook and cranny of the manor before the week was out. He was so curious and avid in his game of discovery that I had to gather up all the case files and accessories that had found their way up from the cave, and even then he required a constant eye to make sure he wouldn't grab the wrong book or touch the wrong statue and tumble into Master Bruce's labyrinth of hidden passageways by accident.
It was a change, but Master Richard breathed such a life into these drafty halls the like of which hadn't been felt in too long. He took to following me around during the day, asking questions and telling young boy jokes and sharing fantastic stories of flying or riding elephants. Whenever Master Bruce was around, which wasn't often, much to the poor boy's disappointment - he had rather imprinted upon my distanced employer - he was constantly at the man's elbow with the brightest pair of singing blue eyes.
I must confess that it put Master Bruce quite at a loss. He'd always moved in an adult world, even when he'd been a child himself; he simply didn't know what to do with his new shadow. It was I who suggested that he try spending some time with the boy - they had so much to bond over - though if I had known what it would lead to, I'm sure I never would have opened my mouth.
"Absolutely not," I told him as the blood ran cold in my veins. Master Richard had only been with us for a week, but it would only have taken a few minutes with that boy to have built the attachment I already had for him - he was just that kind of warmhearted person.
Master Bruce had known how I'd react to his asinine plan. He knew, and he'd made all the preparations anyway.
"This is what he needs, Alfred," I remember him saying to me, but I saw the look in his eyes.
"Is it what he needs, or what you needed?"
He didn't have an answer for that.
For weeks after that, I watched as Master Bruce put his other obligations on hold so he could train his enthusiastic ward. I watched the master's surprise as he learned early on how talented our Master Richard was. I watched how the boy in my master returned to marvel at something so simple as Master Richard soaring through the air in the gym with all the ease and aplomb of the acrobat he was, just as he'd sworn he could.
Any other man wouldn't have been able to see it, that stoic excitement in Master Bruce's hardened eyes, but my old spectacles just managed to catch the impressed glint in them, though the moment was fleeting. Once Master Richard had his feet planted firmly on the ground again, it was right back to drills.
I wouldn't have thought it possible that such a gentle soul would be up to the strain, but Master Richard soaked up the combat training as if it were the antidote to a deadly poison. He learned quickly and practiced hard; never once did he complain about the work or the hours or the responsibility of the hero he was being primed to become, but he had an endless arsenal of questions.
"Will I get my own costume? How did you get all that stuff down those little shafts in the Cave? Where do the Bat-a-rangs come from? When do I get to drive the Batmobile?"
Ah, I'd forgotten that those little nicknames had come from him. Bat-a-rangs, Batmobile, Bat-grapple, Bat-computer - he had a Bat-themed name for everything. And the Cave. That sunken place will always be the Cave to him, the boy who brought light into the dingy dark hole.
I remember the first night they went out together. I'd sewn the outfit just like Master Richard had drawn, and the siren-bright colors and terrifyingly little Kevlar about the stomach had nearly given me a heart attack. Master Bruce had given some curt excuse about mobility, but I'd been imagining bullets and pocketknives ever since the insane plan had invaded my ears - I was still rigidly opposed to the whole thing. But I remember how excited he was, prancing and bouncing and cartwheeling about, laughing at himself in the reflective bumper of the black car and kickboxing invisible foes. And I remember Master Bruce, smiling and proud and confident.
He returned a wreck. A wreck for him, I should clarify - by any regular person's standards, he would have appeared only mildly stressed.
"He must've turned his back on the guns a dozen times," he'd groaned as he collapsed into his chair at the monitors an hour before dawn. I'd been up waiting, preparing and re-preparing the medical supplies, though my fears were at last abated as they'd both miraculously made it through the night without a scratch.
"Beginning to regret your decision, sir?" It was all I'd wanted out of my humble life at that point - that Master Richard might be released from the dangerous life that was beginning to unfold before him.
"He's just so fearless," Master Bruce had continued in his gravelly tone, as if I hadn't spoken. He always was a rotten listener.
But again, for the umpteenth time since our duo had become three, I deduced something secret from Master Bruce's stony expression and carefully composed tone. It was admiration, of the subtlest and truest kind, of the boy that neither of us had seen coming. At first I'd been surprised, but now I see that it was only natural. The man who built himself on fear and regret would have to come to admire a soul who is free of both. Whether or not that soul was inside a ten year old in tights.