The squeaking drew him to the upper parlor as surely as the servants’ bell could.
Gliding up the stairs, Alfred kept a firm hand on the railing. He was hardly out of breath when he reached the landing, a victory in and of itself.
The door to the parlor was open wide, swinging lazily in the breeze. The squeaking--clearly animal in nature, if not origin--was slightly muffled now. Strange.
Alfred scanned the room, his eyes landing on an overturned vase in the corner. The vase, after a brief pause, decided to emit another muffled squeak. A rather indignant squeak.
The sight of Martha Wayne’s china balanced precariously over what had to be a rodent of some sort was almost too ridiculous to behold. Alfred began rolling up his sleeves, putting a brief thought toward where the second floor broom set had wandered of to as he stepped into the room--
A sword shot out beneath his arms, edging him back across the threshold. A familiar head of black hair bristled under his shocked expression, pushing him with the blunt of the blade when he didn’t move quickly enough.
“Pennyworth,” Damian hissed, leaping in between him and the doorway. The sword hung between them, nearly as long as the boy himself. “How could you be so foolish?”
Alfred held his hands up, backing up until he was assuaged. The sword dipped slightly, no longer pointing at his throat.
“Forgive me, Master Damian,” he said, “but I would need you to specify what it is, exactly, I am being foolish about.”
“That,” Damian said, his voice dripping with derision, pointing the sword into the parlor, “that--that creature is clearly dangerous! What if I hadn’t trapped it before your entrance? What then, Pennyworth?”
Alfred glanced around the upper landing, surmising that reinforcements were unlikely. He dropped his hands to his sides.
“The creature is a bat,” the butler said, nodding at the vase. “They invade the house quite often, I’m afraid. It’s the weather.”
“I know what it is,” Damian bit back, flushing to the tips of his ears. “I trapped the foul thing.”
At Alfred’s quirked brow, the boy set his jaw proudly. He saw Bruce in the expression like an afterimage -- bright and stubborn. Gone in a flash.
“And it’s secure?” he asked Damian. “Under the...vase?”
“Under the entrapment, yes,” Damian corrected. “I would not get close, Pennyworth. It seemed angered by the covering.”
Before the boy could catch him, he stepped over the threshold, crossing to the center of the room.
The bat began squeaking again at the sound of his footsteps, rattling the upturned china against the hardwood. Alfred felt a small amount of sympathy for the animal as he crouched down next to the vase, examining the “trap”.
When he turned, Damian was hesitating at the doorway, his blade trembling slightly. His face was white.
He recalled Thomas and Martha’s well-intentioned consolations and chidings -- little snippets of it’s just a bat and it won’t hurt you intermixed with please, just go to sleep, Bruce, I’ve checked all the windows, it’s silly--- and discarded them with a pang.
They hadn’t helped Bruce, after all.
“If the creature is so dangerous,” Alfred said neutrally, surfacing from the memory. “We’ll need to get it out of the house. For the safety of the others.”
“...For safety, yes,” Damian said. When he turned around, the paleness in the boy’s face had faded. He seemed burgeoned by the impending responsibility. “I will assist you, of course.”
Alfred nodded. Yet Damian didn’t move, clinging to the doorway like it was a life raft. His eyes were still caught on the small, squeaking vase. For once, he looked his age.
Alfred pushed up from the floor, exiting into the hallway. He patted the carpet, sinking to his knees with a wince. The boy joined him instantly, torn from the vase.
“Would you like to hear a story?” he asked, smiling softly. Damian bit his lip.
“If it is for strategic purposes, then...I suppose.”
“Very well,” Alfred said, “I will leave only the tactically-essential points.”
“As you should in any story,” Damian bit back, a dig at his previous storytelling experiences. Alfred nodded gracefully, taking the bravado for what it was -- poorly-concealed fear.
“Thirty years ago,” he began, “it was a dark and stormy night. Winds and hail befell the Wayne Manor unlike any other.”
Damian relaxed microscopically into his crouch.
“Is this a ghost story?”
“Would you like it to be?”
Damian wrinkled his nose. “Of course not.”
Alfred fought the urge to grin, continuing.
“As I was saying -- it was storming quite badly. The creek had flooded down by the gardens, and it was just your father and I in the manor that night. The other staff had all gone home.”
“Why?” Damian asked.
“Another story, I’m afraid,” Alfred said, his heart missing a painful beat. “Despite the noise, your father -- then just as young as yourself, I believe -- managed to fall asleep in one of the rooms on this very floor.”
“Clearly a tactical mistake on his behalf,” Damian muttered, glancing at the windows. “Who would protect you?”
“I was younger then,” Alfred said, with a smile. “And I believe we’re missing the forest for the trees, Master Damian.”
“I dislike that metaphor.”
“Alas,”Alfred shrugged. “Where were we?”
“Father was asleep.”
“Yes,” Alfred said, “and sleeping quite restlessly. He heard the window in this room break despite the wind, and awoke to inspect the damage.”
“Indeed. But when young Master Wayne stepped into the parlor here, he was met with an unexpected guest.”
“A bat.” Damian guessed, holding his sword tight by his knees. Alfred pretended not to notice. “Of course, they would seek shelter from a storm.”
“A bat,” Alfred agreed. “And do you know what he did?”
“He beat the creature into submission and cast it out the broken window.”
“I’m afraid not.”
Damian frowned. “He...burned it in the fireplace?”
“He ran like the wind and found me in my rooms, crying so hard he could barely speak.” Alfred smiled at the memory, watching Damian’s face fall in disbelief. “It took twenty minutes and some tea for me to even figure out what was wrong.”
“You’re--you’re lying,” Damian rebutted, shaking his head. “Father isn’t scared of anything.”
“But he was,” Alfred said, “Terrified, really. It took everything he had to come back upstairs with me.”
Damian glanced at the vase, suspicious. “And then he vanquished the foul pest.”
“Not quite,” Alfred winked. “Thankfully, I had a secret method to get rid of such creatures. And that night, we used it together.”
Damian sat up straighter.
“A method we could apply...here?”
“You’ve already implemented the first step.” Alfred offered, deliberate, “It would be quite easy to proceed with the others.”
Damian stood suddenly, brushing off his knees. He lifted his sword again, brandishing it toward the vase.
“Proceed, Pennyworth, and show me this method.”
“I will need assistance,” Alfred cautioned. “And an important material.”
“Of course.” Damian said haughtily, his earlier panic forgotten in the face of a new task. “Whatever you require.”
A piece of paper in hand, Damian dashed back up the stairs in record time, looking quite confused, yet utterly serious.
“Will this suffice?”
“It will.” Alfred took the sheet from him with a grim nod, gesturing toward the vase. “Let’s begin.”
Damian followed him into the room, hovering a few feet from the vase, which had begun squeaking again. “What should I do?”
“When I tell you to, grasp the vase and lift it slightly,” Alfred said, brandishing the sheet. “I will slide the paper underneath.”
Damian placed his hands on the top of the vase. Alfred pretended not to notice the boy’s flinch as the bat began squeaking again, startled by the slight movement.
Damian cleared his throat. “Yes.”
Damian tilted the vase, lifting the china just enough for Alfred to slide the paper through. The bat made an offended noise as the paper slid past it, settling on top of the material as he pushed it to the other side of the vase.
When it was done, Alfred nodded for Damian to drop the vase. He did so gingerly, stepping back a full pace.
“Now,” Alfred said, rubbing his hands together, “We have one last step.”
Damian looked mystified.
“We bind it tightly in the vase and throw it in the pool.”
“Absolutely not,” Alfred said. “This is your grandmother’s china.”
Before Damian could reach for his sword, Alfred stooped down and scooped the vase up, holding the paper tightly to the brim. With a step toward the window, he gave the vase a light shake and lifted the paper.
The bat, after a baffled moment, wisely chose newfound freedom and leapt out the window, flapping madly. When it was out of sight, Alfred set down the vase, shut the window, and clapped his hands together.
“Well,” he said, smiling. “That’s it, I’m afraid. Nothing more complicated than that.”
Damian looked absolutely flabbergasted.
“You just...released it?”
“It wasn’t doing anyone any good in here, was it?” Alfred asked. “It was just lost.”
“It was... dangerous …”
“It was confused,” he assured the boy. “Did you know that bats aren’t actually blind? They’re quite sensitive to light. All the squeaking and flying around you saw was because it was frightened.”
“I trapped it,” Damian said, looking forlorn. “Do you think...do you think I hurt it?”
“It flew just fine. Any damage would be incidental.”
The room fell into silence. Alfred waited patiently, watching Damian think the events through. The eventual question was inevitable.
“And Father was scared of these poor, pitiful creatures?” Damian asked suddenly, turning toward the window. “Really?”
Alfred raised his eyebrows.
“How silly. They couldn’t even hurt you.”
With that, Damian turned and headed for the stairs, his sword an afterthought by his side, muttering about sand creatures and interdimensional demons and ridiculous, pitiful mammals--
Alfred waited until he disappeared around the railing, then set the vase back in its proper position. He picked up the lone sheet of paper, let out a breath, and glanced at his watch, feeling older than he’d ever been.
Half past eleven.
It was time to wake the bat.