Actions

Work Header

Scheherazade

Chapter Text

The first night of the first story, as Alfred remembers it, begins over a quiet dinner between the two of them, on an evening when there’s no one in the house save the butler, the pets, and the prodigal child.

Alfred is preparing a simple spaghetti carbonara, always popular among his athletic, calorie-burning charges, and a particular favorite of the one standing a few feet away, chopping salad vegetables with dazzling speed and precision and humming what Alfred thinks is Pink Floyd under his breath. He smiles. “Your knife work has come quite a ways, Master Jason.”

“I picked up a few things here and there,” Jason says. He finishes slicing a juicy Roma tomato and wipes the blade of the chef’s knife on his apron. “I learned to juggle, too.”

Alfred chuckles. “Please don’t. Not with that and not in here. Perhaps you can entertain the children with it some other time.”

“Got any eggs to spare? If I drop one and Damian makes fun of me, I can tag him with the rest.”

“Perish the thought. You’ll be cleaning up the mess if you do, young man.”

Jason palms cherry radishes and moves them to the cutting board. “Pfft, if I tried to stuff the rugrat into a bathtub, he’d gut me. Guess I’d better stick to dazzling everybody with my marksmanship.” To any other member of this extended clan, that might have sounded like a provocation—indeed, directed at any of them, particularly Master Bruce, it might have been intended as one—but Alfred has never shared Bruce’s aversion to firearms, and Alfred knows Jason is genuinely proud of his proficiency with them.

 

Alfred still doesn’t know how Jason acquired it. It's not the first time he's had this thought, nor the first time an evening spent in his grandson’s company has taken on a bitter edge.

Alfred angles himself so he can stir the diced pancetta, sizzling away in the pan, and watch Jason at the same time. “You’ve never shared the particulars of your…missing years.”

"Yeah.” The rhythmic thunk thunk of the knife against the wood falters. “The missing years."

"I wish you would."

Jason’s throat visibly works. "You don't, Alfie. Believe me."

"I care about your well-being, Master Jason—all of us do. It isn't healthy to keep all of your experiences bottled up inside of you."

Jason has forsaken dicing vegetables in favor of making steady eye contact with the wall. "I know you care about me, Alf. You'd think less of me if you knew. And it'll hurt you."

Alfred lays his free hand on Jason's where it is clenched around the chef’s knife. "Nothing will ever make me think less of you, Master Jason. And I don't think you give me enough credit—I've lived through my own share of horrors. I’ve supported this family through a great deal of suffering; I should hope I'm sturdy enough stand up to yours."

Jason only shakes his head, mouth set in a hard line.

Alfred sighs. "Was every moment of it bad? Is there nothing in all those years you feel you can share?"

Jason finally grumbles, "You sound like you're asking about my day at school." He looks away from the wall and back at Alfred. "I did a lot of country-hopping. Met some interesting folks.” He shrugs. “I visited your old stomping grounds.”

“You were in England?”

Jason relaxes minutely, snags a radish and resumes cutting, slower than before. "For a bit. I had a blast in London."

 

The meal is pleasant—the pasta is perfect, and so is Jason’s salad with improvised vinaigrette, and Alfred keeps the conversation light—but Jason goes quiet after they've eaten, while they're washing dishes and picking up the kitchen. As Alfred hands Jason the last bowl to be dried, Jason says, with no warning, "Some of it is missing. A big chunk of it, especially in the beginning."

Alfred makes only the smallest noise of encouragement.

Jason sets the bowl down on the kitchen counter, still wet from the rinse. Alfred can see his hands have started to tremble. Jason scrubs them against his shirt. "I woke up like I'd just been asleep. It was dark. There was hardly any air. I tried to get up, but I realized I could barely move.” Jason drags a hand along the counter. “I was trapped. I put my hand up and I could feel silk, padded silk…and all of a sudden I knew where I was." Jason's eyes close for a moment, and then immediately snap back open again and there is a spark of remembered terror in them. "I didn’t know how I got there. I didn’t remember anything. I just knew I had to get out right away. Or I was going to die there."

Good Lord. They’d never known exactly how; of all the scenarios by which Jason’s buried corpse came to be a living body above ground, this is surely the most nightmarish. It’s a struggle for Alfred not to react, thinking of the panic and fear Jason must had felt, a struggle not to let anything besides sympathy show in his face.

Jason is right. This is going to hurt, even more than Alfred anticipated. But he’d asked for this; as much promised not to burden Jason with his own pain while Jason tells his story. Alfred is here to listen and to give what comfort he can. Alfred will find his own comfort later somewhere else.

"It's patchy, but I remember that part. And Bruce. I yelled for Bruce." Jason’s voice starts to shake. "He didn't come..." A tear snakes its way down his cheek, followed by another and another. "Alfie, he didn't come." Jason jerks his hand over his mouth, but it's not enough to stop the sudden wrenching sob, and he sags back against the counter, grasping blindly at it with his other hand almost missing it.

Alfred wraps his arms around Jason to steady him against the counter. He doesn't say that of course Bruce hadn't come, how could he have possibly known to come? He doesn't say that Jason had been well and truly dead, and no one could have imagined that he'd come alive again in his own coffin, much less made preparations for that. Jason knows all of that. It’s a truth that can’t make this hurt any less. "I'm sorry," Alfred murmurs instead. "I'm so very sorry."

It takes Jason several minutes to pull himself together enough to continue, even as tears continue to track across his cheeks and he struggles and fails to keep his voice steady. "It's blurry after that. I used something to dig through the top, I don't know what. Something hard. And th-then there was dirt. Lots of dirt, falling on top of me and I couldn't breathe. I was panicking and just digging as fast as I could, trying to get to air. It was—it was raining when I got to the surface. The mud made everything slippery, it was hard to pull myself out. And there were worms on the ground. I didn't...notice any while I when digging out but there they were on the ground with me, isn't that funny?" His voice goes very quiet. "I only just remembered the worms. I forgot about the worms."

Alfred rests his hand on Jason's shoulder and bites his tongue on the question he has always longed to ask Jason, ever since Bruce first told him that Jason was alive, that he was the Red Hood, the man terrorizing Gotham.

Why didn't you come back to us?

Jason swipes his hand across his eyes, a little calmer now. "That's all I r-remember for a long time. I-I don't know exactly how long. There's little flashes, but it's mostly just blank. I don't know where I was, or what I was doing, up until...."

Alfred hesitates to push, but—"Master Bruce believes you spent some time training with the League?"

"Yeah," It's a little curt, but Jason seems almost in control of himself again, relaxing slightly against the counter. "Talia put me into the Lazarus Pit. It's the first thing I can concretely remember since the coffin. One of her informants found me wandering catatonic around Gotham," his eyes flick up to meet Alfred's for just a second, "recognized me enough to pass that on to Talia. She came and found me, looked after me for months. Took care of me, waited for me to get better, but I didn't. So she tried plan B. And it worked. Sort of."

Alfred feels a jolt in his chest the moment Jason says Gotham. Dinner shifts uneasily in his gut as he remembers a night Batman had returned from patrol in worse shape than usual, and even more closed off and uncommunicative. Alfred had patched him up, given him painkillers and a sedative and a scolding for his carelessness, and as Bruce was drifting off, he'd confided, "I thought I saw him tonight, Alfred. I thought I saw Jay. It knocked me off my guard."

Just a hallucination born of grief, Alfred had thought, and Bruce never mentioned it again. Perhaps he hadn't even remembered. But it could have been real, he thinks now—dear Lord, what if it had been real? What if they'd both taken that seriously? To think of all that could have been averted if they'd known Jason truly was out there waiting to be found, waiting to be brought home and cared for by the people who loved him.

Jason must have thought about this too. Jason must have wondered why it was that Talia found him in Batman's city, not Batman.

Certain things are starting to make themselves horribly clear.

No one ever expected Jason to rise from the dead, Alfred reminds himself fiercely. No one ever expected him to wake up in his own coffin and climb out of it, no one ever expected to find Jason wandering around Gotham, lost in his own mind. No one ever imagined that Jason wouldn't have come back to the home and the father that loved him if he'd been able to.

No one ever expected any of this.

Alfred knows with absolute certainty that he will never mention this maybe-hallucination to Jason, nor bring it up again with Bruce.

“The Pit was—” Jason starts, then stops for a long moment. “Like liquid fire. It was like it had poured into my eyes and ears and throat. All I could see was green, all I could taste was bile, and there were voices in my head, so loud I couldn’t hear myself think.” His hands clench into fists, and he presses them against his thighs. “I can still hear them sometimes, on bad days.”

“I felt like I was drowning. Suffocating again.” His eyes are screwed tightly shut, shoulders stiff and tense. “I’m always suffocating in my dreams, Alfie. Sometimes it’s the Pit, sometimes the room is filled with smoke and I can’t move, sometimes I’m still digging my way out from under the dirt and I don’t make it in time.” His voice has begun to wobble again during this recitation, his breath starting to hitch, and Alfred decides it’s time for a break. He tugs, gently but insistently, on Jason’s arm. Jason lets himself be guided over to sit at the table.

“I’m going to brew a nice cuppa for us both, Master Jason, and then perhaps a little change in venue.”

“The library,” Jason says.

“The library,” Alfred agrees.

As he puts the kettle on to boil and fills a tea egg with loose Darjeeling, Alfred debates the possibility of calling this to a halt for the night—this litany of suffering is clearly taking an emotional toll on Jason. On Alfred himself, as well. But if he stops him now, there is a chance Jason will never speak further on his dreadful secrets. For the moment, at least, he seems willing to go on.

 

Jason insists on carrying the heavy tray with the pot and cups to the library. Alfred would have preferred to carry it himself, but Jason’s arms seem steady enough for this, and it has always pleased Jason to do things for Alfred.

Once they’re in their seats, plush, richly upholstered red armchairs (“The comfiest chairs in the whole MANOR, Alf!” a younger, bright-eyed Jason says in his memory), Jason starts to draw his legs up to his chest. In his mind’s eye, Alfred can see his child-self curled up in these chairs, small enough then to fit his whole body into the seat, whiling away an afternoon with The Chronicles of Narnia and a cup of hot cocoa, or a Rex Stout mystery with a glass of milk (“Detectives drink milk, Alfred.” “Do they?” “Well, Archie does.”) and a plate of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. Jason’s grown far too large for that to be comfortable, though, and after a moment he gives up. He leans forward instead, hunching over his tea, forearms resting along his thighs, and resumes his story.

“Talia was the first thing I saw. I didn’t remember digging myself out of my coffin then, that came later. It was like I went straight from—from the warehouse, watching glowing red numbers ticking down, knowing we weren’t going to make it, and then all of a sudden I was in a cave, in a glowing green pool, and Talia was standing above me. I wanted to ask how I’d gotten there, where Bruce was, but she just dragged me out of there like a bat out of hell. Which,” Jason looks up at Alfred and his mouth quirks into something resembling a smile for the first time since dinner, “is a pretty accurate way of describing it.”

Alfred allows himself a tiny chuckle.

“Talia was definitely not supposed to have put me in the Pit. Ra’s had been there too, and he was furious with her. I don’t know what he was planning for me, but I don’t think it was good. So we took off—I followed her, what the hell else was I supposed to do? I was so fucking confused—‘scuse me, Alf—but I trusted her.” He pauses. “I guess my subconscious remembered that she’d been taking care of me for a long time. Didn’t think she would hurt me. I asked her—I think I asked her where Bruce was. If Bruce knew where I was. She wouldn’t say. It was night, and we were running through the woods from League assassins, and we got up to this cliff over the ocean. Talia shoved a pack into my arms, told me to meet her at a location I would find inside of it. And she said to me: ‘You remain unavenged.’ And then she shoved me off the cliff, into the water.”

Alfred’s grip tightens on the handle of his teacup. Didn’t think Talia would hurt him indeed. Viper.

It’s not lost on Jason, who looks at him very seriously. “I know what you’re thinking, Alf. I get it and I don’t blame you and maybe you’re not wrong. You’re not going to like what comes after this. But I really do think she was trying to do right by me, the only way she knew how.”

Alfred doesn’t want to push him on this, not now, and something that’s been niggling at the back of his mind since the we when he mentioned the warehouse comes to the front. “You said, earlier—about the warehouse. You alluded to your mother—”

Jason cuts him off instantly. “That woman is not my mother.” His fingers dig into his knees. “And that. Her. That’s a conversation for another day,” Jason smiles grimly. “One I hope I don’t live to see.”

Alfred hadn’t expected that, and now he has to wonder why Jason has never spoken of Sheila Haywood in all the time since he’s been back. But that’s a pin in that for now, Alfred supposes. “All right,” he says. “Tell me of your time with Talia, then.”

Chapter Text

The mere mention of Sheila Haywood has dried up Jason's tongue for the night, apparently, although Alfred hopes not for good. Jason's chilling comment that he'd rather die than speak of her is unsettling. Blast it. He'll have to see if he can pry more details from Bruce about Sheila. Bruce had hardly said anything about her when he'd brought Jason's body home, except to say that she'd died in the same explosion that killed Jason and that he'd made arrangements for her burial.

Alfred supposes that if any of them had ever wondered why Jason—mad enough for a mother to run halfway across the planet seeking the mere possibility of one—had never spoken of Sheila since his return to the living, it could be as simple as the fact that she had not followed him back.

Perhaps there's more to it.

After tea, Jason pleads exhaustion—neither of them pretend it isn't emotional in nature—and retreats to his own apartment. Alfred knows better than to try to persuade him to stay the night after all that. One can hardly make a turtle feel safe by stripping him of his shell.

Jason doesn’t renege on his promise to come by on the upcoming Saturday and help Alfred polish the silver, which he takes as a good sign.

 

"Master Bruce," Alfred says, early the next evening, as he delivers a cup of steaming coffee to him in the Cave.

"Hm." Bruce is intent on the screen in front of him, typing rapidly.

"I wonder if I might trouble you, sir. About Sheila Haywood."

"Haywood!" Bruce startles half out of his chair. "Why?"

"Master Jason, sir."

Bruce turns back to the computer and rests his fingers lightly on the keyboard. "Did he...say something?"

"On the contrary,” Alfred says. “Even when prompted, Master Jason declined to comment on Sheila Haywood. Except to say that she was not his mother."

Bruce looks up at him. "Alfred, I don't understand." He pauses. "Her eyes, Alfred. They were Jason's eyes. Once I saw her, once he met her, it was obvious." He looks confused. "Do we need to do a DNA test?"

Alfred softens. "No, Master Bruce. Ms. Haywood's genetic relationship to Master Jason is not currently in question. What I wonder about is...how they behaved towards each other."

Alfred now has Bruce’s undivided attention. "Jason was interested. No—" he corrects himself. “Jason was desperate. He wanted it very badly. He wanted this last possibility, Sheila, to pan out. He wanted her to be his mother." He curls one hand around the steaming mug but does not lift it. "When she confirmed that she was, he threw himself straight into her arms and called her ‘Mother’.”

“I think, perhaps, that he wanted it too much for his own well-being,” Alfred says. “Sir, what do we know about Sheila Haywood?”

Bruce drums his fingers on the surface of the console. “She was a doctor. An aid worker in Ethiopia, assisting famine victims. She’d practiced in Gotham, years before; I believe that’s how she knew Willis Todd. She seemed startled, to see Jason, but on the whole, pleased. I think she’d never expected to see him again. We took her very much by surprise.” His face takes on a melancholy cast. “I was happy for Jason. For them both.”

“They were both pleased by the reunion,” Alfred says, “and yet now, for some reason, Master Jason has disowned her.”

“I didn’t realize,” Bruce says. “He’s never talked about her, it’s true. He doesn’t speak about Catherine very often, does he?”

“Not often, sir, no. But he does, from time to time. With sadness, sometimes, but also warmth.”

Catherine Todd, a drug addict, who, in her final months was so debilitated by her addiction that her ten-year-old son had to care for her alone until she died. And yet, Jason had loved her. Loves her still.

Bruce turns back to the monitor, illuminated by its ghostly light. “After. When I found them—when I was too late—Sheila was still alive. Just barely. She told me it was the Joker, that he’d locked them in the warehouse with the bomb.” His voice is halting at first, but as he speaks, the emotion leaches out of it until it becomes nothing but a dry recitation of facts. “She said Jason had managed to free her from her bonds, and they tried to escape, but they couldn’t get out. She said he shielded her from the brunt of the blast with his own body. She said that he must have really—he must have really loved his mother.”

“He died trying to save his mother. And now he cannot even say her name.”

Bruce looks back at Alfred. “Curious.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Perhaps I should talk to him about it.”

“I think you’d best leave it to me, Master Bruce,” Alfred says.

Bruce nods slowly. “All right.” He swivels his chair to face the console again. As Alfred leaves him, he can hear Bruce resume typing, then stop, then start again, in a different rhythm.

Chapter Text

“What a fu—fine mess, Alf,” Jason says, as he hangs his jacket up in the hall and casts an eye over the silver pieces laid out on the kitchen table.

“I’m glad you could join me, Master Jason,” Alfred says.

Jason sits, picking up a soup spoon and a polishing cloth. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

This is a long-standing arrangement, born in Jason's early years in the Manor and freshly revived. When Jason had first come to the Manor, he’d surprised Alfred by volunteering, in his spare moments, to help Alfred with every task or chore Jason found him at. Several months on, and with extensive prompting, Jason had grudgingly admitted that he’d been trying to make himself as useful as possible, to minimize the possibility that Bruce would chuck him back onto the streets the moment he got fed up with him. Bruce and Alfred had taken pains to assure Jason that said removal would never, ever, ever come to pass. Alfred thought that would be the end of it, but the very next day, when Jason came into the kitchen for an afternoon snack and found Alfred with the family silver scattered around him on the table, Jason hopped into a chair and took up a polishing cloth.

(In his memory, Alfred says, “We’ve talked about this, Master Jason. This is your home now. You needn’t pay your way with labor.”

Child-Jason grins up at him. “Yeah, you said this is my home. But I still ought to help out, right? And I like helping you.”)

Alfred had initially chalked Jason’s strange enthusiasm for domestic labor up to his insatiable curiosity—Jason would try his hand at anything, from krav maga to cleaning grouts—but although polishing silver was a dull and repetitive task, Jason continued to slink into the kitchen to lend a hand to Alfred, whenever he was free. It eventually dawned on Alfred that Jason enjoyed both the domestic routine and Alfred’s company. The extra hands, along with Jason’s bright, chattering voice made time and task fly by, together. He’d enjoyed it.

Normally they would chat, or listen to music—Alfred sometimes singing, Jason constantly humming—but today, they work in silence, with an elephant perched upon the table between them.

“Out with it,” Jason finally says, running a cloth over the bowl of a serving spoon.

Alfred raises an eyebrow.

“I can hear your brain whirring. Just ask, okay?”

Alfred considers his options carefully, and chooses. "What did Talia Al Ghul hope to accomplish by taking you in, but keeping you from Master Bruce?”

“She didn’t mean to keep me from him, I don’t think," Jason says, slowly. "I think she meant to bring me back to him to prove her love to him. But she wanted to return me with my mind intact.” He lays down the serving spoon, shiny-clean, and picks up a butter knife. “And that…never happened.” He pinches the blade between a fold of the polishing cloth blade and pulls it through.

Alfred fixes Jason with a look. He's not going to get away with leaving that hanging.

Jason clearly knows it. "At first, it was the catatonia." He continues to run the knife through the cloth, slowly, methodically. "Ra's was convinced I was brain-dead, a goner. Talia disagreed. She was sure there was something of...me, still inside me, and if she waited long enough, worked with me enough, I'd come back to myself."

"She lost patience?"

"Ra's did. The Pit was a desperate gambit. A last-ditch attempt to fix me before he acted on it."

"I see."

"And it worked. I came out fully conscious.” Jason lays down the knife, gleaming white, and picks up a serving fork. “I wouldn't recommend it. But it worked.”

"And yet Talia still chose not to bring you home to us, or even to tell us you were alive." Alfred scrubs at a ladle, and fixes Jason with a gimlet eye.

Jason looks away. "You'd thank her if you knew why."

“I would,” Alfred says, letting just the tiniest hint of frustration color his tone at Jason's evasiveness, "like to know why I would.”

Jason puts down the fork abruptly and shoves back his chair. Alfred thinks for a moment that he's going to storm out of the kitchen, but instead he stalks over to the kitchen sink, turning the tap to its hottest, and plunges his hands under the water, scrubbing vigorously, with great bubbling handfuls of dish soap, until his hands are clean of tarnish. He snags a dishcloth and carefully dries his hands while he makes his way back to the table and sits across again from Alfred.

Jason says, “I don't know exactly what would have happened if she'd caught up to me right away. But before she did, I found out what she meant by ”‘you remain unavenged.’”

Lord God Almighty. Alfred braces himself.

"I was in a hotel room in France and I found this American newspaper,” Jason says. “The headline was 'BATMAN RETURNS JOKER TO POLICE CUSTODY.'" Jason looks at Alfred and the betrayal on his face is so raw it takes Alfred's breath away. "And I knew nothing had changed. The Joker tortured me and he murdered me and it changed nothing. It meant nothing. I meant nothing."

“Master Jason, that isn’t true.” Alfred knows he shouldn't, but he can't help it. “Master Bruce mourned you so deeply I feared for his sanity. Even for his life, at times."

"But he didn't kill the Joker,” Jason says, starkly.

Why is that the only measure of devotion you can accept? Alfred wants to snap. But this isn't the time for that argument. And it's deflection, anyway.

"No,” he says, simply.

Whatever he meant by starting that old fight again, Jason is apparently content to abandon it there. He resumes his story. "I had what could probably be described as a complete emotional breakdown. I freaked out. I trashed the hotel room. Beat up the men Talia had babysitting me, and a couple of hotel managers to boot. Took off—ditched the men—and used the cash Talia had given me to bribe someone to smuggle me back to Gotham."

"To confront Batman?"

"No," Jason says, finally meeting Alfred's eyes and holding them. "To kill him."

Alfred knows the things Jason did when he came to Gotham as the Red Hood. He fully appreciates how dangerous Jason can be, how lethal, how utterly ruthless. He knows Jason has directed brutal violence at people Bruce holds as his family, even if perhaps Jason had not shared that view at the time. But to think Jason had ever harbored the clear intention of murdering his own father…for a long and terrible minute, Alfred cannot breathe.

Jason is still watching Alfred's face. He can't have missed the flinch, or the cessation of breath.

Jason has been expecting this reaction. This whole time, knowing he was leading up to an admission he thinks Alfred can't possibly forgive.

He looks sad.

You'd think less of me if you knew.

Jason had warned him. He had feared this moment. Feared the loss of Alfred's esteem. And yet he’d chosen to tell this story anyway, because Alfred asked it of him.

This won't destroy them, whatever Jason thinks. Alfred vows it.

Alfred clears his throat. “Well, that didn't come about, obviously. Tell me what happened.”

“I had a plan." Jason says, and that word does nothing to dispel Alfred's apprehension. "I knew there was a weakness in the security of the Batmobile. It had those motion sensors, but if you approach it slowly enough—five seconds per inch slow—they don’t go off. I spent a couple of weeks setting up a fake arms deal big enough to get Batman’s attention, and in the same time, I built myself a bomb. And on the night that Batman was tied up for hours with the case, I very, very slowly, and very methodically approached the car and planted the bomb on the fuel lines. No timer. I held the trigger. I was going to watch, and wait, and when Batman got back and got into the car, I was going to blow him to kingdom come.”

Jason's horrifying monologue shifts Alfred a step off himself, as if he is half a second out of sync with time, or phased slightly askew into another dimension.

He says, his voice feeling as if was coming from far away from his own throat, “You didn’t, though.”

“No. I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“You know, it’s funny, Talia asked me the same question, when we finally met up again.” Jason tilts his head back, as if considering the answer for the first time. “I told her that if I’d killed Bruce with that bomb, he wouldn’t have seen it coming. Wouldn’t know who was killing him, or why. I said I wanted to do it properly, to confront him, to make him look at what he’d done to me. I asked her for help. Training. If I was going to go head to head with Batman, I had to be so much better than I was. She promised me whatever I needed.”

“Was any of that true?”

“I did want to confront him, that part was true. I never stopped obsessing over that. As you know.” Jason picks up one of the polished forks and fiddles with it. “But no, that wasn’t really why. After all that planning and building, and the hours I spent inching towards the car in a thermal suit, absolutely hating Bruce and wishing him dead…” Jason prods the fork ungently into the web between his thumb and his finger. “...when I saw him—for the first time since I’d crawled out of my own grave, some part of me realized—I didn’t want him dead. And that part wouldn’t let me press the button. Because I still loved him. I missed him.” Jason jabs the fork harder against his hand. “I think I missed him even when I wasn’t in my own head. Even if he didn’t love me, I loved him and I wanted…” He shakes his head. “I wanted what I still want, Alfred.”

Alfred’s hands are stained with silver tarnish, but he reaches across the table and takes Jason’s scrubbed-pink hands in his own, as the fork clatters to the table. “You have it, Master Jason,” he tells him gently. “I know you often doubt it, but you have it. Always.”

Jason clutches at Alfred’s hands, as tears start to gather in his eyes. “Okay,” he says softly. “Yeah. Okay.”

They sit this way for one minute, maybe two. Finally, Jason pulls his hands free and sighs. “Obviously I wasn’t thinking that way at the time. It was true, but I couldn’t admit it to myself, much less to Talia. I didn’t even think about why Talia agreed to help train me to kill the love of her life.” He rolls his eyes. “In retrospect, she was obviously stalling me.”

“Ah.”

“Everything she did at first, she did for Bruce, because she loved him. Ra’s wouldn’t let her near him after I died, but she still kept tabs on him; she worried about him. I found out about all that later. When she happened across me, her purpose in looking after me, helping me, trying to restore my mind—all of that was for Bruce. I guess she got attached, or…” Jason shudders unconsciously, “...maybe the idea of killing me was unpalatable to her, knowing what I meant to Bruce, and she wouldn’t do it even if he’d never know. But for whatever reason, she didn’t have me killed when I swore in front of her that I was going to kill her beloved. Instead, she delayed me as long as she could, hoping I would change my mind.”

Perhaps there was some method to Talia’s madness after all. It irritates Alfred to think so. Blasted woman.

“She gave me teachers. Close combat instructors, teachers of poisons, firearms, explosives…everything I asked for. I learned how to kill.” He pauses, as if gauging Alfred’s reaction. “The first person I ever killed was my hand-to-hand trainer, Egon, the man who taught me how to maim, how to land a killing blow. What a twist, huh?” His voice turns intense. “I promise you, Alfred, that man deserved to die. He had money, but he kidnapped little kids and he sold them to pedophiles anyway. He and his men were careless around me; they didn’t know how good my German was. When I found out, I wrecked his operation. I saved forty-two kids from hell.” Jason smiles, and it’s vicious. “And then I poisoned that slimy piece of shit’s Gatorade and I watched him die.”

Chapter Text

Anger crawls through Alfred like the Thames, vast and slow, as it has ever since Jason first confirmed Talia’s part in his return to life. She'd kept Jason from them. From Bruce. From Alfred and Bruce both. Damn that woman. Damn her plans, her agendas, damn her for every minute of Jason's life that she'd denied them. Damn her for the formative moments lost to them.

Bruce and Alfred had raised that boy for three precious years. They had struggled to earn his trust and love and devotion, but earned it they had. It should have been them guiding Jason into adulthood. Talia had stolen that from them and sent Jason careening down a dark and twisted path. He should never have set foot upon it.

And yet…Talia had, by Jason’s account, acted to save Bruce’s life, and perhaps Jason’s soul. Had been trying to protect Bruce from Jason’s psychosis, to hold Jason back from a mortal sin.

You’d thank her if you knew why.

He's exhausted. He looks back at the remaining unpolished silver and finds he lacks the energy to resume cleaning it. He starts to collect it to put it away. He'll finish it later. Work is normally his solace, but the lingering thought of Jason scrubbing at his hands and confessing his near-patricide puts him off it.

Shortly after narrating the death of Egon—a death Alfred can hardly find it in him to regret, even if he regrets that it was at Jason’s hands—Jason had declared "story time" to be over, snatched his jacket, and left the Manor so quickly Alfred barely had a chance to grasp his arm.

"We're not done yet, young man," he'd murmured into Jason's shoulder, then straightened. "I know you have more to tell me. When you're ready, I'll be here to hear it."

Jason had pulled away roughly, but met his eyes and nodded. He tossed Alfred a two-fingered salute out the door.

Jason had been an impulsive child at times. He felt things strongly, expressed them openly, acted on them, often without hesitation. And his burning rage at the discovery that his killer still lived, Alfred could understand. But impulse could not have sustained him through weeks of careful planning to murder his own father, a man he admits to have never stopped loving.

Something is missing here.

Or someone. A certain someone that Jason has conspicuously refused to talk about.

What happened with Sheila Haywood?

Chapter Text

Jason disappears.

For three weeks, Jason appears to ignore all texts, calls, voicemails, comm hails, emails, and even Dick’s last-ditch private Facebook Messages to Jason’s fake Facebook account that as far as anyone knew, Jason hadn’t looked at once since he created it as a favor for Oracle.

Alfred tells himself at first that Jason has most likely gone to ground. He’d confessed something awful. He would need time and space, might think that Alfred needed it himself.

Still, as the days creep on, he starts to worry. In this lifestyle, there are always…grimmer possibilities when there is a disappearance. Jason’s mental state might be compromised more than Alfred had realized. He knows Bruce worries, too. It’s true that every one of the children has disappeared at one point or another.

But only one of them went away and didn’t come back.

 

Three weeks to the day after vanishing, Jason finally surfaces, pointedly walking past a traffic camera and waving at it. Oracle doesn’t see the computer-flagged footage until hours later, but when she does, she passes it on to Bruce.

 

The next evening, Jason knocks on the kitchen door with a raised elbow. When Alfred opens the door, he sees Jason’s arms are loaded down with brown paper grocery bags.

“Home delivery,” he says. “How thoughtful of you.”

“You know, a lot of grocery stores actually do delivery these days,” Jason says. “If you and B weren’t so paranoid about letting people onto the property, you could take advantage. Save yourself some shopping trips.”

“I prefer to be able to inspect things personally before I purchase them," Alfred says. "And do you avail yourself of grocery delivery?”

“Hell no. I don’t want anyone knowing where I live.” Jason thumps down the bags on the counter and starts unpacking them. He pulls out chicken thighs, a round red pomegranate, walnuts, and a small bottle of something dark and syrupy, labeled in Arabic script.

“Yes, I’m aware of that,” Alfred says dryly. “On that subject, we would have appreciated a warning that you were planning on falling off the face of the Earth for three weeks."

Jason winces. “Sorry. It wasn’t planned.” Concern must show on Alfred’s face, because Jason immediately continues, “I didn't get bashed up or anything. I just needed time get my head clear. I’m fine, I promise.”

Alfred chooses to accept this at face value. “What have you brought me here?” he asks.

“Ingredients. It's pomegranate season." Jason grins at him. "I figured I could teach you how to make fesenjen. It's that chicken-and-walnut stew I made for you last year."

"Ah, I recall. It was exquisite." Not very impressive to look at, admittedly, but the flavor more than compensated.

"Yeah, you said. I thought..." Jason trails off. "You asked me if there was anything good I could share with you about my time away. Well, I learned to cook a whole bunch of different things in between, um, other lessons. From some of my hosts. Or sometimes, when I'd get street food, if I liked it, I'd hang around the vendors and watch them cook. Ask them questions as much as I'd could, depending on good my grasp of the vernacular was. My Spanish is pretty good. My Hindi—" Jason waggles his hand, "—not so much. And the spicing on stuff when I was in India, that's pretty layered. I could make you an okay dosa but I wouldn't know where to start with lamb do pyaza."

"Well, I'd start with two onions," Alfred says, prompting Jason to roll his eyes. "As for the spices, if you could identify them by smell, we could probably find most of them at Frederica's Spice Shop on Third," Alfred says. "Some of my stock could use replacing."

Jason pinks a little. "Yeah. That'd be great. I'll take you up on that sometime."

Jason describes the recipe while setting up his mise en place. Chicken legs, washed, patted dry and salted on the sideboard; diced onions in a heap; walnuts toasting in a pan; chicken stock and the bottle—Jason identifies it as pomegranate molasses—standing by. Alfred enjoys his chatter as he prepares rice with saffron. And once Jason is firmly into the rhythm of cooking, eyes fixed firmly on the stove, he begins to talk again.

"I told you about Egon. What I did to him." Jason turns a chicken thigh with meat tongs. "I did that to a bunch of them. The teachers Talia sent me to. She knew they were...look, a lot of them were complete fucking psychopaths. After Egon, she knew what would probably happen if she pointed me at them."

"You’d learn all you could from them, and kill them. And she sent you to them anyway," Alfred says.

Jason lifts the last piece of chicken out of the pan and scoops the onions to sizzle in the oil and chicken fat. "Well, she was a woman on a mission to deflect. And I think at least a part of her thought it was kind of—" Jason stops abruptly, but Alfred thinks the next word on his tongue was "funny".

Jason looks over at him, reading the disapproval on Alfred's face, then knocking the wooden spoon against the pan to shake off sticky pieces of onion. "She was raised by crazy assassins, okay?" he says, sounding cross. "So she had a sense of humor about it sometimes." He shakes his head. "This one guy, he taught me all about explosives," and there is an infinitesimal catch in the word, "and he was in something big and bad, Alfie. He was setting up bombs for a bunch of Russian mobsters in London. They were framing innocent kids. Brown kids—teenage British Arabs—to take the fall for the bombings. Make sure everybody was worked up about scary Muslims so MI5 would focus more on them than on the Russian mob’s operations in Britain. I found out and I stopped them." He scrapes the spoon viciously across the pan. "I can hear you not asking all the way over the sound of these onions."

Alfred says, mildly, "I take it you killed at least some of them." He lifts the lid off the fragrant rice and gives it a brief stir.

"Yup," Jason says. "But this one guy, at the end...he begged for his life." Jason shoots Alfred a challenging look. "He kept offering me shit to not kill him. Money. Drugs. Better money. Bounty intel. I kept turning him down. And then he told me knew where the Joker would be."

Alfred can't stop full-body shudder of horror. "Oh Master Jason, no. Please tell me you didn’t…”

Jason isn't looking at him now; he's forking seared chicken pieces back into the pan with the onions and pouring stock over them. He places a lid over the pan with unnecessary firmness. "Could you set a timer for twenty, please?"

As Alfred does so, Jason starts gathering used cooking utensils and dumps them into the sink.

"Master Jason. Please."

Jason shakes his head. "Not until after dinner, or it'll burn." He takes up a soapy sponge and attacks the dishes.

 

Alfred dutifully waits until after dinner. They've heaped the remaining dishes in the sink. Leftovers are packed safely into the refrigerator in neat Tupperware containers; Bruce will find them when he comes looking for a post-patrol meal.

Jason is sniffing his way through the spice cabinet. He hadn't been shy about spices as a child, although perhaps a little more conservative in what he liked. Young Jason had liked oregano, parsley, thyme; chili flakes and cayenne and paprika. Adult Jason wrinkles his nose at Alfred's dried bay leaves. "The hell…” He puts the bottle down with unnecessary force. "It smells like literally nothing. You need to replace your bay leaves, Alfred." He flicks open a bottle of cardamom and groans in delight. “Okay, that's definitely one of them."

Alfred chuckles. “Cardamom? I’d expect it."

Jason puts down the cardamom and picks up cumin. "Oh boy, yeah. Cumin, no fucking kidding, how did I miss that.”

"Master Jason," Alfred says.

“I apologize for swearing, and honestly, we could probably skip Frederica's. You've got everything. Except fresh bay leaves."

Master Jason,” Alfred says, very firmly.

Jason flinches. "Okay." He places the cumin back onto the counter, carefully. He wipes his hands against his jeans and leans on the counter. "Okay."

He laughs, nervously. “So, I took the Joker intel, and I stalked him, and I crashed one of his ops. I don’t know if you guys know about this, because I put a spoke in it—he was gonna buy up this chemical agent that sets fire to water. Pour it into Gotham’s water supply and watch a million people get their faces burned off when they turned on the taps to brush their teeth and wash their dishes. I had his location, I had numbers on his men, I was gonna…I was gonna take him someplace no one could hear him scream.” Jason drums his fingers violently on the counter. “Didn’t work out. Obviously. Shit went extremely wrong.”

“You were forced to abandon the plan?”

“Not quite,” Jason says. “No. I got him. He never saw me coming,” Jason laughs again. It sounds like rocks shifting. “And I got him, and I dragged him into a nearby—I had maybe fifteen minutes to do it. It was supposed to be a day. I had him all tied up. I—I doused him with gasoline. And I had a lighter right there in my hand. And I wanted to kill him.” He looks confused. “I wanted to kill him so much. That was why I was there! I wanted to make him suffer, but I wanted him dead so much more than that. And I…couldn’t.” Jason puts his hands over his face and wails like a frustrated child. “I can't! I still can’t! Not him.” He slams the back of his head against the cabinet. Alfred starts towards him in alarm. "Why not him?” Jason asks. “I’ve done it before so many times. Why not him?” He slams his head again, before Alfred manages to slip a hand between Jason’s head and the cabinet.

“Stop that at once, Master Jason,” he tells him sternly. “You’ll crush my old bones if you don’t.”

Jason makes a broken sound. “I can never get his voice out of my head. It doesn’t matter if he’s tied up, if I’ve beaten him bloody, if I have a gun to his head, it doesn’t matter. When he’s there, I’m on the floor, and he’s standing over me with a crowbar covered in my blood, laughing, while I die.”

Alfred pulls a shaking Jason into his arms, presses Jason’s face against his chest and makes soothing noises. He runs a hand over the back of Jason’s skull where he’d hit it. That’s going to bruise, he thinks.

Jason’s outburst frightens him. Jason has always had easy access to his emotions, rarely hesitating to act on them, but normally, even his fits of anger and grief were outwardly directed. He’s never seen them drive Jason to self-harm before. What is it about the Joker that makes Jason feel so helpless that he turns his violence against himsel—oh.

He feels the perfect fool. It all makes sense now. They’ve been so blind, all of them, to what suddenly seems shockingly obvious. The whole campaign was never about forcing Bruce to cross his line to make a point, never about revenge on Bruce for failing him, or making Bruce kill the Joker to prove his love for Jason. Jason has been asking, brokenly—perhaps without even consciously understanding himself—for Bruce to do this for him because he knows Bruce loves him. To kill the Joker for him, because Jason cannot do it himself.

It’s only natural that even now, Jason instinctively looks to Bruce for protection. Bruce had made Jason feel safe in a terrifying world that had left Jason to fend for himself for far too long, far too young. It had taken time, and effort, but they’d given him safety. Given him the stability and security he needed to feel freedom. To feel joy.

The Joker took that all away, in the most brutal fashion imaginable. This was what Jason had been saying all this time, clear as a bell, and they never heard it: If you love me, you won’t ask me to live in a world where my murderer still walks the earth.

Chapter Text

He'll do it himself, if he ever has a chance, Alfred vows. He isn't mad; he won't go chasing after the Joker on his own. But if he should, by some happenstance, find himself together in a room with the Joker and a shotgun, he won’t hesitate to pull the trigger on that festering blight on humanity. And he'll do it for Jason.

Bruce won't like it.

Bruce is wrong sometimes.

 

He's gotten Jason calmed down, slumped over a cup of steaming hot tea, both hands wrapped around it in a death grip. Now that Jason has regained some semblance of equilibrium, his eyes keep flicking towards the door, and Alfred can tell he's thinking about making a break for it. And perhaps he ought to let him run away again, ought not to press too hard again—but damn it, no, he needs to know, and he won't chance Jason vanishing for weeks again, when Alfred knows he's hurting.

Alfred lays a hand against the table, and Jason looks up at him. He says, "Master Jason, I think it's time for you to tell me about Sheila Haywood."

Jason's face instantly darkens. "I already said I'm not going to talk about that."

"You've told me about digging your way out of your own grave,” Alfred points out. “A more hideous experience I cannot imagine. You’ve told me about trying to kill Master Bruce, which I know you regret deeply.” He lets frustration creep into his voice. "Tell me, Master Jason, what's so terrible about Sheila Haywood that you won't even say her name."

"I am not having this conversation," Jason hisses. He stands up and turns towards the door.

"Jason Peter Todd," Alfred says sharply, “Sit down.

Jason sits.

"Why was she in the warehouse with you?"

Jason shakes his head mutely.

Alfred sighs. "Please, Master Jason. Talk to me. You need to talk about this. I need to know."

Jason rests his elbows on the table, covering his face with both hands. “Alfie, please.”

“I know this is painful. That much is clear. And that is why, Master Jason, you shouldn’t carry this alone anymore, whatever it is.” He reaches across the table and pulls Jason’s hands away from his face. Is that panic he sees, creeping back into Jason's eyes? "Was she in imminent danger? Were you attempting to rescue her?"

Jason lets out a bark of laughter. "You might say that.” Just like that, his resistance melts away like frost in the morning sun.

(Strike now, before night falls again.)

Jason stands again, but not to run this time. He strides over to the pantry and rummages until he finds the bottle of Irish whiskey Alfred has hidden behind the onion cellar. Alfred's not even a little surprised that he knows it was there. On his way back, he gropes blindly in the nearest dish cupboard and comes up with two mugs. He brings the mugs and bottle over to the table. He pours two fingers of whiskey into each mug, and shoves one over to Alfred. "You're probably going to want that." He drains his own and pours himself another.

Jason takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. "She was in the warehouse because I followed her there."

“Was she…”

"She was working with the Joker."

Alfred had come to suspect as much, but the confirmation is still enough to make him pick up the mug and down its contents in one swallow. He holds it out mutely for a refill. Jason obliges, taking another swig of his own.

"I didn't tell Bruce about that. I didn't have a chance. The Joker was blackmailing her, that's why she was helping him. He said something about...a dead teenager and a botched operation that the GPD was interested in." Jason stares into his mug. "I didn't care. I just wanted to…after Bruce left, I went to her and told her I knew about the Joker. I said that I could help her. She thought that was ridiculous, of course—I was just some kid, what could I possibly do against the Joker? So I told her. I told her I was Robin." He knocks back his mug, then slams it so hard against the table that the ceramic bottom chips and leaves a scar along the grain of the wood. He pours again.

Alfred wouldn't dream of stopping him.

“She just looked at me, and then she told me to follow her. And I did. I followed her into the warehouse. I—I said it was too dangerous, that the Joker was in there. She said it was all right, that he was gone. I believed her. I was a stupid, naïve, trusting little idiot and even when we went inside and of course the Joker and his men were still there, it didn't occur to me that she'd lied until she pointed a gun at me."

Christ in his Heaven. Alfred closes his eyes.

"See, she'd been stealing funds from the aid organization," Jason continues. "The Joker was blackmailing her about that, too. She was from Gotham, she knew all about Batman and Robin and the Joker, and she thought she could get him off her back by giving him something he wanted—Robin. Me.” He looks up at Alfred. "She stood there and watched the whole time.” Jason’s voice trembles. "She smoked a cigarette." He takes another drink. "And when it was all over, she was surprised to find out he was going to kill her too. Stupid, naïve, trusting little—I guess I got it from her."

"Oh Jason," Alfred murmurs. What an unbelievable stroke of misfortune. The unfairness of it all leaves him almost speechless. All Jason had ever wanted—needed—was a safe home and a loving family. The Lord had given unto him, and then the Lord had taken away parent after parent from Jason, one after another. Abandonment, death, vile betrayal.

"You know what the best part is?" Jason asks, bitterly. "I still tried to save her. I couldn't defuse the bomb. There wasn't enough time, and I couldn't think straight even if there was. I could barely move. But before the bomb went off, I untied her and told her to run.”

Alfred drains his mug again, stands, and comes around to Jason’s side of the table. He wraps his arms around Jason’s head and shoulders. He can feel Jason shaking beneath him. “Oh Jason,” he says again, helplessly. “Oh my dear boy.” Jason leans into him, overwhelmed by alcohol and emotion, and slides off the chair. Alfred kneels slowly, guiding Jason to the floor. He can feel wetness soaking into his shirt; Jason is weeping against his chest. “My dear boy." Alfred closes his eyes and holds his grandson. He says, fiercely, "She didn’t deserve you. You were a gift, Jason Todd; you still are. That woman never deserved you.” He rocks him, running his hand up and down Jason’s spine. “I’m so sorry."

Time passes. Gradually, Jason’s breathing starts to even out, and the shaking lessens. He lets Alfred tilt his head back and examine his face. “A glass of water, and then bed, young master,” Alfred tells him. Jason closes his eyes and nods weakly. Alfred helps him to his feet. He downs the glass Alfred hands him, and follows him dutifully out of the kitchen.

It's perhaps unfortunate that their path takes them past Bruce’s study at just the moment Bruce comes out of it.

One look at Jason’s tear-streaked face freezes Bruce like a deer in the headlights. “Ah, staying the night, Jay?”

“Why not,” Jason says, dully.

Bruce clears his throat. “You’re always welcome here, you know that.” He looks out of the corner of his eye at Alfred. Alfred nods slightly. Bruce reaches out and strokes Jason’s upper arm. Jason’s eyes flick to Bruce’s. “This is your home, Jason.”

As sudden as a striking snake, Jason seizes Bruce’s hand and yanks Bruce into a crushing hug. Bruce makes an undignified sound, and staggers slightly, but doesn’t resist the embrace. His arms curl up against Jason’s back. A moment later, though, he wrinkles his nose. “Have you been drinking?"

“It’s been something of a night, Master Bruce,” Alfred murmurs. “Let me get this one to bed.”

Bruce gently pries Jason off of him. Jason resists for a moment, then lets himself be pried. Bruce looks into his eyes and smiles a little. “Goodnight, Jason. I love you.” He pulls Jason’s head down a little, and kisses his forehead.

Jason’s starting to look a little watery again, so Alfred takes him by the arm and pulls him onwards.

“G’night, Bruce,” Jason says over his shoulder.

Alfred hesitates once they’re upstairs. “Master Jason, would you prefer a guest room, or—“

“My room is fine. My old room,” Jason says. “As long as the sheets are clean.”

“They always are,” Alfred tells him. They've reached the room. He opens the door and pushes Jason gently towards his bed. "Get yourself changed for bed. Left upper drawer, my lad. Same as always."

Jason stumbles a little, and turns back to him. "Thanks, Alfred."

Alfred smiles, and shuts the door behind him.

Chapter Text

Alfred makes his way back towards the kitchen. He's not surprised to find Bruce rooting around in the refrigerator, looking for a post-patrol snack.

"Let me, Master Bruce," he says.

"I think I've got it, Alfred," Bruce says, scraping stew and rice onto a plate and popping it into the microwave. "By the way, what is this?"

Alfred sighs, and sinks into his chair. "Master Jason prepared it. Chicken and walnuts with—there's pomegranate seeds there to go on top. It's Iranian."

“It smells good," Bruce says. "Why is Jason drunk?"

Alfred almost laughs. He picks up his empty mug from earlier, takes up the bottle, still sitting on the table where they'd left it, and fills the mug halfway.

“Frankly, he deserves to be," he says.

"Alfred, are you drunk?"

"No, although I also bloody well deserve to be. And probably shall be, before this night is out."

Bruce sits down cautiously across from Alfred, and looks at him in concern, starting to shove his plate of fesenjen and rice to the side.

"Bloody eat it, Master Bruce," Alfred says sharply. "Master Jason brought everything over and cooked it himself. He..." Alfred finds himself at a loss for words. He takes another swig of whiskey.

Bruce takes a bite, then another. He grunts, happily. "It's good."

"Tell him so tomorrow," Alfred says, wearily.

"Alfred, if you'd kindly tell me what on earth—"

"He told me things," Alfred says. "He's been...he's been telling me things about himself. Such terrible things. Because I asked him to tell me."

Bruce has stopped eating. He watches Alfred. “Is this about Sheila...?"

"Just lately," Alfred says. The drink is starting to go to his head. He hopes it stays there. "Tonight. I'm afraid it's rather terrible. It's all been rather terrible."

Bruce pushes his plate to the side and regards Alfred. "And were you planning to tell me anything you've learned about my son?" he says, in an ominous voice, as if that ever worked on Alfred.

Alfred slides the bottle of whiskey over towards Bruce. "You'll need that."

Bruce eyes the bottle, which is almost empty. "If I'll need this, I'll need more than this." He takes the bottle, drains the remaining inch of liquor, tosses it towards the recycling bin—hits it of course—and slips out of the room. He returns a minute later with two bottles of Glenmorangie in hand. "All right, old friend. Time for a report."

A report. Where to start.

"His mother sold him out to the Joker," he says. Well, he hadn't meant to start there. But it's been hardly an hour and he's still reeling. "He found out the Joker was blackmailing her and he tried to convince her that he could help. She was skeptical, so he told her that he was Robin. It took her of all of two minutes to decide the ideal solution to her dilemma was to hand over Robin to the Joker in exchange for an end to the blackmail. She lured him into the warehouse where the Joker was and held a gun on him." He sips his whiskey. "He told me that she smoked a cigarette while she watched that piece of filth beat him to death."

Bruce has gone as still and pale as a marble statue. "She said—she said he tried to get her out. She said he shielded her with his own body."

"I don't know if he remembers that part, Master Bruce," Alfred says, sighing. "I'm not at all sure it would be helpful if he did."

Bruce clutches a fork in one hand so hard his knuckles are turning white. Alfred raps his mug against the table in the direction of the scotch. Bruce drops the fork and cracks open one of the bottles and takes a deep swig. "All right," he rasps. "Go on."

Doing this drunk may have been a mistake. There are things Bruce needs to hear, and things Bruce does not need to hear, both for his own sake and Jason’s, and in his increasing blurry state of mind, he worries he’ll mix them up.

He considers.

“We’d speculated about the mechanism by which Master Jason returned,” Alfred finally says. “I don’t have an answer for how. I’m not sure he does. What he told me was that he awoke in his coffin, and that he…made his way out of it on his own.”

Bruce flinches violently. “Oh God,” he says. “No. No, Alfred, no. He didn’t have to—”

Alfred thanks the Lord after all for the fuzzy edge of whiskey between him and Bruce. “He did. He remembers that, at least in part. And precious little else between that, and Talia Al Ghul laying him into the Lazarus Pit.” He reaches over and takes the scotch, pours himself another round, probably too much. “Before we even get started, Master Bruce, he told me a great deal about his time with her, and while I strenuously disapprove of many of her actions while he was in her care…you and I both have reason to be grateful to that woman. He’s rather fond of her.” He sips. “I’d advise against any digging in that area. If he thinks you’re going after her, he’ll fight you.”

Bruce makes a displeased noise. “So he has no other memories between—death, and the Pit, except—that?” He gropes towards the scotch.

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Alfred says. “From Master Jason’s perspective, the sequence of events appears to have been this: he met his long-lost mother, who immediately betrayed him, and stood by and watched, cool as a cucumber, as the Joker beat the life out of him. Literally the next thing he knew, he was alone, terrified, and suffocating six feet underground. Then Talia al Ghul hauled him out of the Lazarus Pit by the collar, and the day after that, he read in a bloody Parisian paper that his murderer was still bloody alive.” He knocks his mug against the edge of the table. “Which perhaps explains some of the reasoning behind his subsequent choices.”

“It explains why you’re drunk,” Bruce says, hollowly. He swigs straight from the bottle again, and clutches the neck of it. “Oh God. Alfred, I…I’ve been a damned idiot.”

“Master Bruce?”

“I’ve been a god-damned idiot. I kept blaming myself for not—I kept telling myself I should have trained Jason out of his recklessness. If only he’d been more careful. If I’d only taught him to be careful…Alfred, I lectured the others, time and again, on not repeating Jason’s mistakes. All this time, I’ve been blaming him for not knowing something that neither of us could possibly have known.” His voice is heavy with guilt.

Alfred grimaces at his whiskey, “At least you’ve never said it to Master Jason’s face.”

Bruce makes a pained sound into his own drink.

Alfred sits up. “Master Bruce. What did you do.”

Bruce squeezes his eyes closed. “We had a terrible fight, Alfred.” He grinds his knuckles against the table. “He’d done something so damned careless, he’d nearly died, and I was—I was terrified. I was furious. I raged at him. I called him names. I said I was ashamed of him. Ashamed he could be so reckless with his own life, again. I threw Sheila in his face.”

“What did he do?”

“He didn’t do anything. My God, Alfred, the look on his face, like I’d stabbed him in the gut. He didn’t say anything. Didn’t yell, didn’t correct me. Just left without saying anything. I didn’t see him for months.”

Alfred runs his fingertips along his mug. “Tomorrow, when you’re thanking him for tonight’s dinner,” he finally says, “bloody take it back.”

“He’ll never forgive me,” Bruce says, morosely.

“Perhaps not. But you should do it anyway. Apologize. You owe him that much.”

Bruce groans. “Any other dramatic revelations for me tonight?”

“Mmm. Just one. He had an opportunity to kill the Joker once, before he returned to Gotham as the Red Hood. Made himself an opportunity, I should say. He had a chance. And he couldn’t go through with it.” Alfred shakes his head. “I don’t think he’s psychologically able to, Master Bruce, much as he wants to.”

“Had he already…”

“Yes, he’d killed before that. That started with a particularly noxious human trafficker, apparently.”

“I see.” Bruce broods into his scotch, which he is still drinking straight from the bottle.

“Do you, sir? He said that he still hears the Joker’s laughter in his head. That whenever he sees the Joker, he feels he’s still—still on the floor where he died. Helpless and afraid.”

“I understand, dammit!” Bruce snaps. “But you know this doesn’t change anything. You know I still cannot cross that line, not even for Jason!”

“I know you can’t. I’m not telling you to cross it. But you’re wrong to think that it changes nothing. This stubborn, persistent demand that you break your most sacred rule and kill the Joker—it’s not to hurt you. He just needs to feel safe. After all this time, after everything, some part of Jason still looks to you for that.”

“How do you think it makes me feel, knowing that my son needs something from me I can never give him?”

“Oh Master Bruce,” Alfred says, letting sympathy creep into his voice. “Remember of whom you ask that question.”

Bruce winces slightly. “Ah.”

“Take some consolation in knowing that he still needs you. As his father.”

Bruce reaches across the table and squeezes Alfred’s arm. “Sons always need their fathers.”

“Indeed, sir. All I ask is that you remember what I’ve told you tonight, and try to better understand Jason’s choices, in light of it. He’s still struggling, and he needs you.”

Bruce nods, solemnly. “I will.” He eyeballs the scotch bottle, and pushes it away as he stands. He hesitates. “I’m aware you’re not telling me everything, and I understand why. But you’ll tell me anything that I need to know?”

“You have my word, Master Bruce,” Alfred promises. “I’ve gotten the story out of him, finally, as much as he was willing to tell me, at least. Trust me to carry the burden of secrets for the time being.”

“I do,” Bruce says. “Trust you. All right. I’ll see you in the morning, Alfred.”

Alfred putters about the kitchen for a few more minutes, cleaning up the remains of the impromptu drinking sessions and rinsing the dishes left in the sink. He finds himself idly thinking of Kipling. “This, O Beloved of mine, ends the first part of the tale!” he recites softly.

There will be more nights, and more stories. As long as Jason is here to tell them.

Chapter Text

It's a cold, cloudy morning in the park, but Alfred has on a warm cashmere sweater—a birthday present from Bruce three years ago—and the sweater and the walk are keeping him warm. Jason is next to him, hands stuffed into the pockets of his leather jacket. Alfred can see a bit of the red-and-green striped, hand-knitted scarf Stephanie had given Jason last Christmas peeking out at the throat.

Jason had been quiet on the drive, a flavor of quiet Alfred has learned to recognize as the harbinger of a heavy moment. Not sulking, but working himself up towards something difficult. They're most of a lap around the bird pond before Jason finally speaks.

“You still haven’t asked me how.”

“Dear me, I haven’t, have I." They stop walking. Alfred watches a duck placidly paddle towards them. "I suppose I thought you’d have told me if you'd known.”

Jason kicks a rock down the dirt path. It tumbles and bounces for several feet, landing near another duck—this one dozing on shore—prompting her to squawk, get up, ruffle her feathers, and then tuck herself back down again. “I don’t. I don’t know how, and I don’t know why. I think it was some kind of…cosmic accident. I don’t like thinking about it.”

“Yet you brought it up just now.”

“You were going to ask eventually. Figured I’d get out ahead of it.”

“Mmm.”

“If it was on purpose—if there was a purpose to it—“ Jason turns his head up to the grey sky. “Don’t you think they would have done it better? Dug up the coffin first. Brought back my mind, so Talia didn’t have to.” His voice turns bitter. “Not left me alone through it all.”

“It could have been done better,” Alfred concedes. He pats Jason’s wrist. “I won't argue your right to...nitpick the method of your resurrection. Heaven knows, if anybody ought to complain, it’s you. But may I say, Master Jason, that even if the experience left something to be desired, I am exceedingly grateful that it happened.” He turns Jason to face him square-on, one hand on Jason’s shoulder and the other cupping his face. "I am exceedingly grateful that you’re alive and standing here before me now.”

Jason manages a tiny smile. “Thanks, Alf.”

They resume their slow stroll. Alfred says, “As long as we’re on the thorny questions, I must ask, do you have any memory of—“

“Of being dead?" Jason cuts him off. "Of the afterlife?”

“Yes.”

“No. Nothing," Jason says. "I’ve tried to find it a couple of times. When I was feeling especially morbid. And, uh, drunk. It’s like the moment you fall asleep, you can never actually remember that, even though it obviously happened. Except…”

“Except?”

“I think there was a woman there. Not her. Someone else. I can’t remember her face. She had dark hair. And she was kind." He blows out a long breath. "That’s it.”

“Kind.” Alfred contemplates this for a moment. “I hope there’s a moment of kindness for all of us at the end. Perhaps she’ll be there for me when my time comes.”

Jason looks alarmed by this. “Don’t even talk about that, Alfie.”

“I won't go on forever, you know," Alfred tells him.

Jason blows a raspberry at him, and for a moment, all Alfred can see is his 12-year-old self in front of him again. There you are, he thinks fondly. "Uh, pretty sure you will, Alf. You'll outlive us all."

Perish the thought. If Alfred never has to bury another person he loves, it will still be too soon. "I'd prefer not to," he says.

"Whatever, Bartleby." Jason nudges him with his elbow. "Want to skip some rocks?"