July 27th, 1985
It had been three weeks since Jason had been taken in.
Bruce rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hands, sighing deeply.
Three weeks. Three weeks of dull silence and zero eye contact. Three weeks of the boy sitting at the table, still as a log, muscles tense and rigidly cold. One week of denial, the second week of coaxing, and the final week of acceptance.
Jason Todd was his own man, and could not be convinced to open up.
Bruce took a sip of his coffee.
Three weeks of peace and quiet, more or less.
Because today, Jason Todd, who was his own man, had decided to send that sentiment straight to hell.
“I ain’t eating this.”
“You will eat as your schedule requires, sir.”
Jason leaned back in his chair, clenching his hands. The snarl took up half of his face, eyes large between his jutting cheekbones. “I ain’t a dog,” he hissed, pushing himself to stand. “Schedules do not dictate my life. Ya hear me? I’m not eating this.”
Alfred’s face was impassive. “Would you find something else to your liking, sir?”
“Then kindly resume with your dinner.”
Small hands slammed against the tabletop. “I already told ya—”
Bruce shook his head tiredly, chair scraping back as he stood and exited the dining room. Just as he passed the threshold, Alfred turned. The older man sent a look of pure disappointment, brown eyes tinged with hurt.
Bruce’s heart quivered. He shook his head once more as he exited, Jason’s raspy voice rising to shouts. ‘I can’t, dear old friend,’ he mentally apologized. ‘I can’t.’
The grandfather clock chimed.
Jason gnawed at his lip, head nestled between his outstretched arms. The aroma of stale food tickled his nostrils and made his stomach queasy.
Dong, dong, dong, dong.
Nine, ten, eleven, twelve.
He shifted in his seat, legs long since gone numb. His feet buzzed with sleep, like the static of a TV. A smile curled across his lips. Mom used to sit down in front of the TV and make up shows and storylines to make him laugh. The roar of the static would be drowned out by her gasps and funny voices while she rubbed warmth back into his feet. He shifted, setting his chin on the table. It was always so cold in their apartment. That and the fumes never helped Mom’s cough. He remembered when she would cough so much that she would vomit, and he held her hair back as she trembled above the toilet.
Jason closed his eyes, the threat of tears close by. He cleared his throat to stave them off. He wasn’t upset. Mom was gone. Gone. Okay? He was fine. He was fine on his own, he didn’t need help. He didn’t need someone telling him when to eat and when to sleep and when to “take your vitamins, Master Jason.” He didn’t need someone regimenting him into a system, like he had no thoughts or mind or feelings.
He wasn’t stupid. He could take care of himself. He had been taking care of himself. Very well, he might add! What other twelve year old had an entire room to himself? And in Crime Alley?
He scoffed. No one, that’s who. No one except Jason Todd.
Bruce would probably be home in a couple hours. Not that it mattered, he probably would just leave him here. Jason glowered at the meal plate, recollecting how Bruce had just stood and left earlier that evening. Without a word to anyone or nothing. Jason was left alone, and it wasn’t long after that that the butler had firmly ordered that Jason sit until he finished his meal with “absolutely no exceptions, young master.”
Seven hours later and Jason’s back ached.
He didn’t know why he was still sitting here. He could get up and leave, and no one would be the wiser. Bruce wouldn’t have to feel guilty because of the malnourished street kid. Pennyworth could return to his duties and not have to strong-arm a kid into going to sleep at a proper time and eating when he was supposed to and following rules and not bring up stupid stuff from the past—
The kitchen light clicked on.
Jason stiffened. He sat up. Maybe the old man had had enough. Maybe he was coming in to beat Jason with a spatula. Or to force live mice down his throat.
Or to kick him out.
Jason swallowed. Truthfully, he didn’t know which was worse.
Pennyworth stepped into the dining room, in matching blue slippers and dressing gown. His face was worn and drawn. He looked tired.
Jason’s ears burned in shame. He had done that. He opened his mouth to speak, but snapped it close when the man set his gaze on him.
There was a deep silence between them.
It was shattered by the man’s polite inquiry: “A glass of water, Master Jason?”
Jason started. “Uh…” he trailed off, eyes round with surprise. “Is it gonna be thrown in my face or somethin’? Chinese water torture? Poison?”
“No, no, and no, sir.”
The boy hesitated. He had behaved awfully, and being beholden to the man wasn’t the best idea. But he seemed to be genuine… Jason shrugged. “Sure,” he replied hoarsely, suddenly aware of the dryness of his throat.
Pennyworth tilted his head and momentarily returned with a glass of water, which Jason eyed before sipping slowly.
“Thanks,” he said softly, kneading his fingers together. He looked down at his lap.
The chair to his left squeaked and soon had Pennyworth as an occupant. He was staring off in the distance, dark eyes mired in the past.
Jason swallowed, feeling nervous. He had not been expecting this. Some more shouting, maybe a clobber to the head, but not this…quiet. And the weirdest part was that it didn’t feel weird. It felt like two friends having a midnight snack.
Except it wasn’t, because Jason wasn’t the man’s friend and never would be thanks to the dinner debacle.
He always screwed everything up.
The boy blinked down at the table, shadows outlining the tips of his curls. Mom used to brush her cool, soft hands through his hair whenever he was upset. Or when they did not have food.
Jason glanced at the plate. He was upset now because he had food. How ironic.
He sighed deeply. He was frustrated. He was exhausted. He was disappointed. He had wanted to prove a point, but all he had proven was how stupid and unworthy he was.
Mom wouldn’t be proud of him.
The tears rushed forth now, hot and heavy. Jason sniffled a couple times, turning his head into his shoulder so that Pennyworth couldn’t see. He bit down on the inside of his cheek. Get it together, get it together—
“I joined the war when I was sixteen,” Pennyworth announced matter-of-factly.
Jason scrubbed his eyes. “Oh yeah?”
“My mother signed a special dispensation. I was picked out early because I spoke both French and German.” He set his hands upon the table, eyes still searching out the distance. “I was part of the Special Operations Executive, stationed in Germany. We were a troop of fifteen, mostly used for military intelligence.”
Jason blinked away his stray tears, scooting closer. “What happened to ‘em?”
The butler inclined his head. “They all were killed.”
“Were they your friends?” asked hesitantly.
“Indeed, they were,” confirmed with a touch of sadness.
“It is hardly a twelve year old boy’s fault.”
The grandfather clock ticked in the background.
Jason crossed his legs in his chair. This was much more comfortable; he didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it before. He peered at Pennyworth. He inhaled.
“Would you please tell me about them?”
“…Of course, sir.”
“By April of 1944 only Don and I remained. We were being held in a prisoner of war camp in Dulag Luft, having been mistaken as Airforce. There had been several escape attempts before our arrival, but we managed what others did not and it was through sheer bloody daring. Pneumonia had swept across the camp and killed German and prisoner alike. We stole dead officers’ uniforms, walking straight out into the woods. Oberursel was nearby, and we highjacked a car and made it to outside Paris before 7:00 AM.”
Jason nodded, hoping to banish any sleep from his mind. It was getting fuzzy after an hour of storytelling. He picked up his fork, silver reflecting the kitchen light.
Alfred continued, leaning back into his seat, arms crossed. “Don wasn’t much older than I, and had been referred to SOE due to his poor conduct in the force. He could not stand for injustice. His hand at espionage was rubbish, no way around it. The only reason he was chosen was because he was a talented petty criminal who could pick any lock and mouth off to any official while still sounding charming. I think Don knew, in some way, that he wouldn’t make it back to England. Wild boys always have that way about them, knowing things we gentler folk will never understand.”
The boy dragged his fork through his spinach considerately. It wasn’t until he noticed the quiet that he looked up.
Alfred was looking upon him, brown eyes squinting. “I am afraid,” he began gravelly, “That I cannot go on.”
Jason closed his eyes and nodded, thoroughly disappointed. His toes curled into his jeans. He had abandoned his shoes forty minutes before, letting them plop on the floor. They had been burning his feet in that antifreeze way, and he had only kept them on in case something happened. And pride. That had been a factor too. But now the man had been beside him for a while now, so there was no point in pretending after he had cried.
He bit his lip.
A cleared throat.
“I cannot go on…without a cup of tea.”
The clock struck two. The kitchen was bathed in warm light. Two cups of tea steamed into the night air.
“I remember looking down on him. Don had always been…” Alfred trailed off. “And right then, he wasn’t. He wasn’t dead yet either, despite what they believed. The poor sod had more blood out than in, and still he smiled at me that same way. ‘Go on, Alfie,’ he cajoled. ‘Do what you need to do.’” Here the older man stopped. He could still feel the nippy morning air encasing his lungs. The black gun in his hand. He closed his weathered eyes.
Skip that bit.
“I made it to Normandy beach within two days.”
Alfred blinked. He was back in the Manor. Back with Jason.
The man swept a glance at Jason’s plate. The contents had disappeared.
He met the boy’s eyes. “I swam across the English Channel.”
Dong, dong, dong.
“By the time I was back in England, my troop was gone. My military intelligence was spotty, as we had been away from developments for too long. My skills as a paratrooper, however, proved to be of use. I descended with 13th Parachute Battalion on June 6th, 1944.”
“D-Day, right?” Jason asked groggily, head placed on his hand. His elbow was slowly sliding across the table, slipping along with his bristly reserve.
Alfred watched him.
The house was dark.
Alfred stretched, keen ears discerning the rustle of the dog rolling over his bed in the kitchen. Even man's best friend was a victim to time. That is how one knows that the world truly is not fair, leaving those full of love touched by the same shadows as others. Ace's fur was graying, along with his sight.
Master Dick had not been home for months. He would not take his beloved dog's affliction well, even if it was merely age.
Ah, well. Alfred stood, retying his dressing gown. Another problem for another day.
The man slid his gaze over the nearby chair's occupant. Messy-haired, skinny, and heart bright enough to burn.
And drooling on the tablecloth.
Alfred allowed a small smile of fondness.
Two boys had been plenty. But two had not been enough.
He patted the dark head, heading down to meet Master Bruce.
Jason, he believed, knew that life had more in store for him.
Wild boys always have that way about them, knowing things we gentler folk will never understand.
“There are plenty of battles to fight, Master Jason. The importance of recognizing one from a war changes one's life."