TO RAISE A PRINCE

*Chapter 4*

Both Alfred and his young charge slept peacefully, Bruce wrapped around Alfred's arm, and Alfred leaning against the bedpost, until about 2AM.

That was when the nightmares started.

Alfred woke to screams unlike anything he had ever heard before. He started at once, trying to keep the blur of panic clouding his own mind at bay in order to focus on the child in front of him.

Bruce was flailing with all of his might, screaming until his throat was long past raw. Alfred jumped into action, calling out in as loud and level a voice as he could muster. "Bruce. BRUCE." He grabbed hold of the thrashing shoulders, trying to prevent the boy from hurting himself, but Bruce was fast, and Alfred was met with an unintentional punch in the face. He backed off for a moment, a hand rising to touch his smarting cheek, but quickly regained composure.

It was at this point that Alfred managed to get hold of the boy's arms, carefully locking him down at his sides. This, however, the feeling of being restrained, only seemed to panic the boy further, and Alfred loosened his grip, wishing that he could rescue the boy from the horrors he was reliving. "Bruce. Bruce," he called, and it was only then that he noticed that the boy's eyes were just now opening, although they did not seem to be registering anything. But Alfred kept his light grip, and after several moments, the violent thrashing abated, leaving only fear in its wake.

Easing off his grip, Alfred watched as Bruce scrambled off the bed and into the corner, tri;;ing over the entangled blankets as he went. Half-facing the wall as if to hide, he curled into himself, head covered with his arms. His small hands covered his ears and his eyes clenched shut. Alfred called out once more, and finally, Bruce looked at him.

Alfred's heart sunk. It was clear that whatever Bruce was seeing in front of him was not Alfred, for he cowered into himself further. "Please don't," he whispered.

Ignoring the creaking of his limbs, Alfred lowered himself onto the floor in front of the boy, leaving a space of several feet between them. "Look at me, Master Bruce. It's just Alfred." Slowly, he raised his hands eye-level in front of him-the last thing that he wanted was to make Bruce feel threatened. "I won't hurt you."

The child didn't seem to comprehend his words, or didn't believe them at any rate, because Alfred was met with only desperate whimpers. "Don't please, please don't." The boy's already-hitching breaths were turning into near-gasps, and Alfred was frantically worried that he would hyperventilate.

Alfred inched closer. "I won't, Bruce. I won't."

"Can you look at me, Bruce? I need you to look at me, sweetheart."

Slowly, cautiously, the boy's eyes locked with his own, and Alfred searched for any sign of recognition—not yet. But trust was a start. If he could just get Bruce to recognize him, Alfred was sure he would wake up…

The boy was so utterly entrenched in whatever world he was in; Alfred could almost see the images that he knew the boy's mind must be projecting. "Don't hurt me…"

"I won't, Bruce. Alfred's here. I would never, ever hurt you."

Alfred watched as some level of recognition flicked across the boy's features, but seemed to be forgotten in the same instant. Nevertheless, it was clear that the boy was starting to regard him as an ally. "He's gonna get me…"

"No, no, absolutely not, Bruce. No one's here. You're safe," he replied, inching ever closer. The boy shrunk back further into the wall. "Listen to me, Bruce. I need you to take a slow, deep breath, alright? I won't hurt you." The boy nodded, but kept his face hidden. "Just listen to how I'm breathing."

Alfred took a series of full breaths, infinitely relieved to see that Bruce was at least making an effort to match his own. "That's a good boy. That's my brave boy."

"Now I'm going to come a little closer, okay? I won't hurt you." He repeated the last sentence like a mantra for Bruce's sake as he shifted himself closer. The haunted eyes followed him as he went, widening in alarm when Alfred stopped right in front of him.

But Bruce still spoke from inside his dream, voice revealing every ounce of his young age. "I-I want my mom. C-can you help?"

Alfred blanched. Mrs. Wayne had always been the one to attend to Bruce's nightmares. He checked himself, searching for a response. At last he settled. "I will do whatever I can to help you, Bruce. Okay? I won't let anyone hurt you, I promise." Not waiting for a reply, Alfred reached out, placing a careful hand on either side of the boy's face. The boy cowered into himself once more, trembling, but Alfred eased the slender face up to look directly at his own.

"Why do we fall, Master Bruce?"

The clouded hazel eyes locked with his own, and Alfred watched as the nightmare loosened its unrelenting grasp. The boy pulled back, blinking rapidly as his eyes filled with tears.

In an instant, Alfred had lifted the child into his lap, and Bruce was once again coming to pieces in his arms, whole body shaking with silent, shuddering sobs. "I've got you. Alfred's got you." He rocked the child gently in his lap, shifting his weight so that Bruce's head rested on his shoulder. "Shhhh, I've got you." Grief poured off the child in waves, and Alfred failed to prevent a few of his own tears from falling. "I know, Bruce. I'm here."

"I want mom…"

He held the boy closer to his chest. "I know, sir. I know."

Gradually, the shuddering breaths began to taper, yet the child said nothing more. He clung to Alfred tightly, yet his head had fallen limp against the older man's shoulder, and Alfred could see that exhaustion was getting the better of him. He continued to rock the boy in his lap, holding him as one would a toddler. He made soft shushing noises as he went, lulling the boy to sleep in his arms.

At long last, Alfred eased the boy back into bed, sleeping soundly once more. Taking a seat alongside the bed, he realized that there was no way he could let himself fall asleep the rest of the night—not with the risk of Bruce waking again in such a state.

Thus, he was left alone with his thoughts, watching over the sleeping child in front of him.

"My brave, brave boy," he whispered. "My brave, brave boy."