Alfred shook out another set of linens that hadn’t been aired in too long.
It was one of the tasks that fell by the wayside when you were caring for so much space and so many people putting themselves through so much, and only had a cleaning service in to help every other Monday. There were always floors and dusting and general household maintenance to see to; getting the bedding that was actually in use laundered on a sufficiently regular basis was task enough, without keeping up regular cleaning of the spare sheets and blankets packed carefully away against future need.
Such as the sudden designation of Wayne Manor as a field hospital, or the sort of drawn-out house parties Bruce had never thrown, but his parents had.
But this evening the family had nearly doubled in size, and more beds would be called for within a few hours, when children began to drop from weariness.
The logistics were challenging. There weren’t enough rooms left in the wing where the family all slept when at home, to merely assign a spare to everyone. The pairs could only be so far apart, and so he couldn’t open up rooms outside the family wing unless he meant to put both…halves of a family member there.
He could put both of young Stephanie there, in the blue and lilac rooms perhaps, since she didn’t have a room of her own already, but putting her there alone would be an obvious snub, which he certainly did not intend. Young Master Jason might want to stay in his own room, but he might not, and the older instance of him certainly would not.
It seemed unwise to put them in the same room alone together, not because Alfred did not trust Jason but because he knew how much the boy had always needed time alone to clear his head after an argument, and that if they were alone together they would certainly argue. And so it would be most unfair to leave either with nowhere private to retreat to from the other’s presence.
Young Master Bruce might not mind being housed in the same room as his older self, but Alfred didn’t think he would welcome it either, especially not as it was the master bedroom where his parents had once slept.
And too that arrangement would deny him the comfort of other children his age. Alfred remembered what a difficult time Master Bruce had had making friends, even when very small, and how much harder it had become after the loss of his parents. Or perhaps it had not become so very difficult, and he had merely tried less often. It was…good, to see him reaching out, even in such a unique circumstance, when the bond couldn’t be expected to last.
Master Timothy at least was easy, and would undoubtedly be comfortable on a cot in his own room, where he could watch his own back. Alfred had a suspicion that that partnership was a little more strained than either of the parties allowed to become evident, but nevertheless Timothy always had known his own mind.
He was an odd one out among the family that way, rarely defiant but barely more obedient than any of the other children—certainly less so than young Master Richard had been, at that same age. Authority rarely offended him, but tended to slide off his back like water did off a duck’s, as though he thought it wasn’t really aimed at him. Alfred had appreciated the child’s tendency to avoid arguments even as the tendency to a complete lack of warning before he did something mad had made its own contribution to his greying.
Expecting the elder Damian Wayne to sleep on a cot in his own room, however, seemed like a recipe for disaster, not least because Alfred did not have any folding cots large enough to accommodate the young master’s eventual bulk. Master Damian’s own bed would serve that role, but asking the child to give up his space to his older self would be indelicate even with a child less jealous of his prerogatives, and less sensitive to every small rejection, than Damian Wayne.
Overall, it was like a massively expanded version of the problem of crossing a river with the wolf, the sheep, and the cabbage. Balancing competing needs to arrive at a harmonious solution was exactly the sort of thing a butler was supposed to specialize in, in theory, but it had rarely come up in this form in all his years at the role, even as the family grew larger again.
Alfred was genuinely considering inflating the rubber mattress set in the ballroom, providing roughly one hundred pillows and some sort of film projector, and declaring a slumber party. Anyone not in the mood for company could retreat outside the ballroom, possibly as far as ground-floor bedrooms that Alfred could then arrange for them on an individual basis.
Of course, alternately he could go downstairs and discuss the issue with his charges until he knew exactly what everyone wanted, and could address the logistics from a more informed perspective. An actual grandfather in his position probably would have done. It was the sensible thing.
But he’d been leaning on his own father’s lessons in managing a household far too long to break the habit of working to anticipate every need. It was what they expected from him. It was how he made his family feel safe. He couldn’t, in a disruptive moment like this, appear uncertain.
And he wasn’t sure his heart could take seeing so many children he’d since watched grow and strive and be beaten down by life. Not again, not just yet. He smoothed a crease out of the softness of a pale blue linen-cotton blend pillow case, knowing that really he should be ironing the lot, before making up beds with them.
He couldn’t really afford the time. He doubted any of the children would notice or care that their bedding showed signs of having been left folded for well over a year.
It would buy him more time to shuffle possible sleeping arrangements in his mind, though. Alfred turned to lift the iron off the wall, pressing the electrical plug into place, and flicked it on, before turning to lay the first pillow case across the ironing board.
This much, he could do. And then he would do the next task in front of him, and the next after that. Just as he always had done.
Master Bruce’s tears had not quite dried from his waistcoat. He did not reach up to touch them again.
Bruce was shadowing his son.
It was something he’d spent a lot more of his life doing than any normal father, between training them to pick up tails, watching over them when they didn’t want company, and the times when he was too much of a coward to start a conversation he knew needed to be had.
This was not quite any of these things, though it had a lot in common with both of the latter.
Bruce felt some awkward amalgam of pleased and frustrated that this successor Batman had—apparently, so far—failed to realize that his father was lurking in the shadows of the Cave, watching him pace out along the shadowed paths that led toward certain escape tunnels, as far as his tether to the current Robin would let him go. He hadn’t reached his limit yet.
Considering their current position, this suggested the era-correct Damian had left Stephanie’s supervision.
Since Bruce hadn’t actually ordered him to work with her, specifically so that Damian would have the option of giving himself some space rather than lashing out, Batman could hardly in justice reprimand him for that. So he wouldn’t. Easily decided.
The adult version of Damian was, against all odds, harder to deal with.
They’d argued three times already, and Bruce still felt he didn’t understand the young man (not so young, but still younger than him, which was a relief; he could hardly imagine dealing with Damian at fifty) at all.
He was Batman, indubitably, and that filled Bruce with equal parts pride and horror. And both those, especially the latter, left him irritated with himself. What had he thought would happen? He knew this was what Damian wanted. What Talia had brought him up to want. It was a terrible burden to pass on to his child.
It was an immense triumph that his son had accepted his ideals enough that he could bear his name, and not disgrace it.
(Bruce felt ashamed of having feared that Damian would. But the boy had come to him already blood-dyed and not yet ten, and unable to understand why that was a horror; had burst into his life trying to murder Tim and take his place, had erupted into his awareness an evidence of a trespass against Bruce himself that he had tried to believe, until this proof arrived, had never happened. Damian was justly terrifying.
Having felt the fear wasn’t wrong. Letting it control him had been.)
This Damian was Batman, and Bruce understood him as absolutely as if this was his own other self, instead of the ridiculous brat in the waistcoat who seemed to regard him (justly) as a bizarre sort of nightmare. And yet at the same time, the adult Damian was completely beyond his understanding, remote across the abyss of two hard-lived decades of experience Bruce could only guess at.
It was terrible.
It was nearly as terrible as having to look at the Jason who’d just come under his protection a year ago and trusted in it absolutely, contrasted against the Jason who was only now beginning to heal from all the harm Bruce had wound up causing him.
Nearly as terrible, but not quite, which was probably why this was the displaced son he was following through the far reaches of the Batcave, watching.
Trying to figure out what to say.
That they’d argued as they tried to work this case together wasn’t surprising. They argued even when Damian was a child who had agreed to take direction from him. The adult version had more self-restraint, more sense of…of the way the world continued existing beyond his immediate reach, but his pride had only been brought under his control, not diminished. If anything, it had grown, his insecurities salved by time and accomplishment.
And he was no longer used to deferring to anyone else—especially here, in this Cave that had become his, with everyone else that belonged to it gone.
Damian’s broad-shouldered figure on the path below turned a corner, and checked his next step, cape swirling about his ankles. Bruce had to push himself to the limit of his skills to dart and duck hastily through the stalactites to a position that let him see up the half-tunnel, without giving himself away.
What had given the other Batman pause, it turned out, was the sturdy little figure of a Robin, just inside the place where the path dove into rock and became a tunnel, leaning back against the stone wall, his arms folded over his chest. There was a light source somewhere behind him, one of the dim chemical emergency lights he must have activated so that there would be visibility enough to know he was there, but not enough to show him as anything more distinct than a shadow.
Even before he spoke it was obvious, even from this distance, which one it was. More thickly built than his peers, and the only one whose profile was marked by the presence of a capacious hood. He straightened, turned, a flash of shadowed face showing deep within the hood in the light the young Batman had carried down the path with him, chin stubborn and set. “You.”
“You,” the Batman returned, with a little sardonic burr of riposte and a stronger tone of affirmation to the way he said it, so that it was less ‘and you as well’ and more ‘yes, indeed: I, who am you.’
Damian had obviously been lying intentionally in wait for himself, which was impressively done—he’d stayed within the fifty-yard limit for the entire process, must have done, and neither Batman had spotted him. Or perhaps Bruce was getting old, and his son had known all along. Perhaps he’d been following his own mysterious tether this way.
“Weren’t you helping with the other Robins,” asked the older Damian after a silence had drawn out for four seconds. Calm, without any derisive edge; stepping sideways out of the power game of waiting for the other one to speak first, rather than feeling the need to break out of it violently, or letting it silence him. Growth.
Robin shrugged. “Tt. Batgirl came back and now they’re all sparring, and not being serious about it. She wouldn’t let me fight Father, probably because she doesn’t trust me not to break his bones. You don’t have that problem.”
The older Damian tilted his head carefully, the length of his costume’s ears vanishing and standing out by turns as he passed across the patches of light. Bruce began to move again, seeking a new position where he could see both their faces—or if he had to choose, due to the limitations imposed by the hood, the Batman’s face only.
He knew the thirteen-year-old better, after all. He needed less to read him.
“You want me to help you break Father’s bones?” the young Bat asked archly. Mocking. “Or are you challenging me to a bout?”
“No. I want to talk. First of all.” Damian paused for a split second, truculent hesitation, and then plunged on. “Your Robin. Benjamin.”
Future Batman watched Current Robin flatly, not answering a question that hadn’t yet been articulated, stubborn now as he had not been a moment ago until the boy cracked and settled back against the cave wall again with a sniff, to articulate his demand into a specific question. “How did he join our family?”
“In the usual way.”
“Father found him in a ditch, then?”
The grown Damian snorted, amusement just showing at one corner of his mouth and in the tuck of his jaw, if you knew how to look. It was like Damian, but equally like Dick, and Bruce thought he saw something of himself there as well. Or perhaps he only wished he did. “Mother sold him to me, actually. He never met Father.” Unspoken, Father was dead by then.
(When had Bruce died? How? He knew better than to ask. He wanted to know.)
Robin straightened sharply. “He’s related on that side?” The word ‘sold’ hadn’t even raised a flicker of interest, or dismay. Oh, son.
Damian frowned, undoubtedly aware that his older self was deliberately provoking him with his ambiguity, but apparently understanding much better than Bruce did.
What. What could that possibly…
Robin said, “He should only be ten years younger.”