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The Surgeon's Knife

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Alfred found him in the portrait hall, the lights still off except for the soft glow of the sconces above each painting. Instinct alone had driven him to search the house for Bruce when he woke an hour before his alarm. He’d checked six rooms before this one, but wasn’t very surprised to find him there, staring up at the wedding portrait of Thomas and Martha Wayne.

There was no visible blood trail, which was a relief. Bruce clutched a thick blanket around him, his wire-frame glasses perched on the end of his nose like he’d been reading and forgotten to take them off. He was barefoot on the wooden floor, his hair disheveled. He needed a trim.

Without a word, Alfred approached him, letting his feet fall heavy as a warning, the echoing slap of his own slippers chasing his ears like staccato iambs of poetry. There was a slight revulsion in him at the suspicion that he could be described as padding across the floor, that verb that belonged to children and aged men. He resented the reminder that he belonged to the latter and its looming promise of dependence.

Bruce’s attention flicked over to him for just an instant, when Alfred stopped at his side. The younger man’s eyes were rimmed red, the color a deep bloody burgundy in the cast from the splayed spotlight. They stood shoulder to shoulder, looking up at Thomas and Martha Wayne, while the happy young couple beamed out into the darkness of the room.

They were so very young. Martha’s high-collared wedding dress, the height of fashion at the time, showcased her slender white neck. Thomas, despite his mustache, was boyish and bright in his tuxedo. Their son, beneath them in the real life of the hall, was hunched, with scars snaking under his chin and knotted, bruised knuckles gripping his blanket. Creases pinched around his eyes and his hair was tinged now with grayish silver.

Somehow, he looked even younger than they, gazing up at them in their immortalized youth.

Alfred waited, and considered them, and Bruce. Something had drawn him here. The room felt thick with it. It chilled him a little to think how long Bruce might have been standing alone with the nearly palpable burden.

After several minutes, Bruce pressed his lips together and drew a breath in through his crooked, oft-broken nose.

“I saw them. Again,” he said, so softly the Manor nearly drowned it out. Bruce pulled the blanket more tightly around his shoulders.

“Hmm,” Alfred said, as acknowledgment that he’d heard. What else was there to say? It wasn’t the first time that history or space or consciousness had displaced Bruce enough to encounter his parents. His state afterward depended very greatly on the state they had been in.

Beside him, Bruce swayed alarmingly, and Alfred gripped his elbow through the blanket. Bruce stiffened all over.

“I’m up,” he said hoarsely.

“Let’s sit, all the same,” Alfred said, releasing his arm, and gesturing with a shoulder to the decorative padded benches in the middle of the room. They weren’t the most comfortable but they were better than the floor.

Bruce shuffled backwards until his legs hit the bench, and he lowered himself slowly. He folded his glasses and set them aside, rubbing his eyes after. Alfred sat down beside him.

For several minutes, the silence stretched on, and Alfred would have thought Bruce asleep if he hadn’t been intently studying his hands in the dim light.

“I don’t…” Bruce trailed off, swallowed, and frowned at the painting. “I don’t think they’d be very proud of me.”

Nonsense, Alfred wanted to say. Of course they would be. I am.

Instead, he said only, “It is hard to know what they’d say for themselves, but I am inclined to believe they would be.”

Bruce ran a thumb over swollen knuckles. He shook his head.

“No. Dad liked fixing things. He hated it when I broke anything, even if he wasn’t cruel, I could tell.”

Alfred thought Bruce frequently thought people were upset when him when they weren’t, but he held his tongue. Some reminders needed other times.

“You don’t think they would be proud of you, then, of what you’ve built in Gotham?” Alfred prodded gently.

“Built?” Bruce echoed. “No.”

Alfred’s heart ached, and he almost put a hand on Bruce’s shoulder then. There was something still chewing him alive inside, and Alfred couldn’t quite discern what yet. He was reluctant to stem the tide of Bruce’s shared reflections; his mind was so often a complex puzzle and as well as Alfred knew him, there were still times he didn’t know which way a thing needed to twist or turn to fit.

“You remember the story of King David,” Bruce said abruptly, if quietly.

Alfred blinked. “There are several, my boy,” he said, with an edge of teasing. It worked, and just a flicker of a smile tugged Bruce’s mouth, gone almost as soon as it had come. It was enough for now.

“He wanted to build the temple,” Bruce said. “Even after he pled for it, he wasn’t given blessing to build it.”

“The blood,” Alfred said, realizing. A part of the puzzle clicked.

“Hn.” Bruce nodded, his chin tucked against the blanket. It was drawn around him again, his hands buried in its folds. “He had too much blood on his hands. The job of building passed to his son.”

He looked up at the portrait of his parents.

“My hands are…I’ve…all I’ve done all my life is break things. I’m not the sort of man Dad wanted me to be. I don’t think I know how to build what I want for Gotham. I’m just burning the chaff.”

“Master Bruce,” Alfred said, his heart now as heavy as the room.

“Damian. Damian will build something,” Bruce said, his face still bent to the floor. “They all will, together, if they don’t tear each other apart first. Gotham needs someone who knows how to build, after me.”

“Master Bruce,” Alfred said again, now letting his hand fall on the curved, hard shoulder under the soft blanket. “Knowing my past as you do, do you think I wanted to raise a violent man? Do you think I wanted that for you?”

“No,” Bruce said roughly. “God, no, Al, I’m sorry, you know I didn’t give you much—”

“I wasn’t finished,” Alfred said, chiding. “I do believe I raised you to at least recognize a rhetorical question. If they aren’t here to settle your mind on the matter, allow me. I am proud of you, Master Bruce. I am, despite what I’d hoped for you when you were young and all the ways you defied those wishes. I believe they would be, even if they didn’t understand, because that is how one feels about the privilege of knowing a good man.”

“He was a doctor,” Bruce said helplessly, sounding choked.

“He was, at that, and he knew when to wound with the scalpel to address a deeper problem. Now, with that considered, do you fear that your father wouldn’t be proud of you because you sincerely doubt it, or because you find yourself not proud of you?”

The sudden breath in which Bruce’s head snapped up, his eyes wide, told Alfred his question had solidly hit a key junction of the puzzle.

“I…” Bruce let his gaze drift from Alfred back up to the painting. His mouth clamped shut and he sagged like a puppet with cut strings.

“You foolish boy,” Alfred said, putting an arm around his shoulders and drawing him close. Bruce resisted, stiff for a second, and then leaned into him. “Of course they’d be proud of you, just as you’re proud of Damian. He’s hardly an angel, you may have noticed.”

There was a shaky nod and a coughed laugh against his own shoulder. Alfred put his other arm around Bruce, hugging him close against his chest. He tucked his chin against the dark, tousled hair, and for several minutes they sat like that without moving.

“It was a party,” Bruce said. “They didn’t know who I was.”

“How were they?” Alfred asked.

“Wonderful,” Bruce said. “Laughing. Dad spilled wine on someone who was being rude to her. Pretended he was tipsy.”

“It’s an inherited skill, then,” Alfred said, inhaling the scent of oaky shampoo and sweat. He rarely held him, anymore; he couldn’t remember the last time, only then he’d probably scolded himself to savor it and remember it then, too.

“Yeah,” Bruce said, with a yawn. “Something like that. Fuck, I’m tired. I have a board meeting in four hours.”

“Displaced in time isn’t a good enough reason to miss a meeting, I suppose,” Alfred said, with an air of regret. He stole a moment to press a kiss to the crown of Bruce’s head. “Pity.”

“Fine, fine,” Bruce mumbled. “Call and tell them I’m hungover, or something. What haven’t we used for a while? Oh. Say Damian has an emergency dentist appointment.”

“Both,” Alfred said, and Bruce laughed, a genuine bark of laughter that turned into a cough, and then as if flung off a cliff, into a sob. Alfred’s arms tightened around him for a minute of sniffled trembling.

“I’m fine,” Bruce said, his voice cracking, as he inhaled long and slow. “I need to stretch.”

And like that, it was over. He was standing, leaving the blanket on the bench— he was in nothing but boxers and the ridiculous pink robe, and he pulled one arm across his chest to stretch his back.

Alfred sat for a moment longer, then stood. Bruce turned abruptly and dropped his forehead on Alfred’s shoulder from the side.

“I…I mean, thank you…for…you’re…”

With a pat, Alfred put him out of his misery. “I know, Master Bruce. Shall I put on some tea?”

“Do we have cookies?” Bruce asked.

“You ought to eat something more substantial,” Alfred said, raising an eyebrow.

“Al,” Bruce said, a tinge of whine in his tone. “Time traveling. There were no cookies in time traveling.”

If Alfred had been a less mannered man, he would have rolled his eyes. He settled for casting them to heaven in mock supplication instead.

“If you are so very deprived, I suppose a batch wouldn’t take terribly long.”

“I’ll catch up with you, then,” Bruce said, picking up the blanket and dragging it around himself again.

Alfred sensed the need for solitude after the past half an hour, and he nodded. “Don’t fall asleep on the floor, sir. It’s a wonder you aren’t freezing already.”

“I won’t be long,” Bruce said, already distracted again by the portrait.

Alfred only got as far as the next hall before Bruce’s steps fell in with his, the soft padding of footfalls filling the halls together in the Manor that didn’t sleep.