Alfred can finally breathe again once he gets the news.
They have found Jason. He’s all right, and they are bringing him home. There’s obviously more to what happened — Master Bruce only gave him the bare minimum, and even Batman’s flat affect can’t hide how troubled he is from the man who raised him — but Alfred can dive into that once all three of his boys are safely back in the manor.
Much as he wants to wait in the Cave for Batman, Nightwing, and Robin, he remains in the manor proper. He has no doubt that neither Bruce nor Dick have eaten recently. He focuses his efforts on preparing a selection for them — easy food that will last at room temperature, in small portions in case they can’t bring themselves to eat a full meal. As for Jason, he will simply play it by ear. Bruce said he was fine, but “fine” in this family lends itself to a large range of options; Jason may or not be able to keep down food at the moment.
The comm beeps with a message from Batman. They are heading toward the Watchtower’s zetas now.
Alfred puts the finishing touches on the food he’s been preparing, setting the various dishes onto a tray. That finished, he moves to the cupboard and starts assembling the ingredients for a batch of cocoa. Even if Master Jason can’t stomach food, Alfred can at least have this waiting for him. Jason will surely want some—
“We’re back,” Dick says from behind him. Alfred turns. By the dampness of his hair, Dick has taken the time to shower as well as change out of his costume and into civilian clothes. He stands in the kitchen entryway, blocking the hallway behind him.
Dick looks ever so faintly nervous. He has never quite outgrown the expression, not when he thinks he’s going to be in trouble with Alfred for something.
“Welcome home, Master Dick,” Alfred says, and arches an eyebrow at him. Dick is terrible at hiding things from his loved ones. It’s always better for him to come out with it immediately rather than try to dance around it.
Dick winces. Message received. “Right. Uh, so…it’s probably easier to just show you.” He pauses, hastily adds, “It’s all fine. We’ve cleared him. And — he’s real.”
Dick moves out of the entryway, heading toward the counter with its offering of food. He doesn’t pick anything off of the tray, simply waits and watches.
Another man steps into the kitchen, hesitating briefly at the threshold. He is wearing what Alfred recognizes as a pair of Master Bruce’s sweatpants and one of his T-shirts, both items of clothing Alfred habitually leaves in the Cave for Bruce post-patrol. They likely were the only clothes down in the Cave that would have fit him, as he nearly rivals Bruce for height and body type. His hair, like Dick’s, is damp from the shower, darkening the white in his hair, but not disguising it. His eyes are a vivid green.
None of him has changed enough that Alfred wouldn’t recognize him.
“Master Jason,” Alfred breathes out.
“Hiya, Alfie,” Jason says. He aims for a smile; it’s almost too wobbly to be called a proper one.
Alfred steps forward. Cups Jason’s face gently in his hands.
“What has happened to you, my boy?”
He would have missed the tremor that runs briefly through Jason if he wasn’t holding his face in his hands. As it is, Alfred is confident that Dick didn’t see it — and that Jason intended for his brother not to.
Always so reluctant to display any perceived weakness, that one.
“‘M not your Jason,” Jason mumbles. He glances down and away as he continues. “He’s fine. Downstairs. I — I messed up, Alfie. On patrol, I mean. Sorry.” His shoulders hunch as he apologizes.
It isn’t a difficult puzzle to piece together. This Jason is older than the teenager that Alfred has spent three years helping raise. He is markedly different in appearance. And Alfred is well aware of the strange world they live in, so when Jason mentions “messing up” on patrol and he knows that Robin hasn’t patrolled in almost a week, given school and the Team’s mission—
“Time travel, then?” Alfred asks.
“Dimension,” Jason corrects, looking up from his concentrated stare at the floor. “Mine’s ahead of this one, ’s all.”
“Oh, Master Jason,” Alfred says, and then he repeats himself: “What has happened to you, my boy?”
Tears glitter in Jason’s eyes. “A lot,” he says, choked. “Not very much of it good.”
Alfred searches those strange green eyes. There are shadows there; the color change doesn’t hide them, nor does it stop Alfred from being able to see them.
Yes, he’s quite sure this Jason has lived through horrors. He looks haunted.
“I was about to start a batch of cocoa,” Alfred says. “Would you care for some?”
The tiny smile on Jason’s face is more real this time. “I was going to beg some tea off you,” he confesses. “But cocoa sounds even better right now.”
No doubt it would. Fond as Jason always has been of taking tea with Alfred, it’s always been cocoa in the middle of the night, after patrol or bad dreams.
“It will only take a few moments,” Alfred promises, and finally steps away from this grown-up version of his boy. As he does, he shoots a mild look at Dick. A little more warning would not have gone amiss.
Dick raises his hands in surrender, conceding the unspoken point.
Alfred pulled mugs from the cabinets before the boys entered the kitchen; he grabs another for this second version of Jason. As promised, it doesn’t take long before he’s ladling steaming cocoa into them. Jason is already waiting with the various additions for each member of the family — copious marshmallows for Dick, of course, along with a sprinkling of cinnamon. Cinnamon and a pinch of cayenne go into Jason’s mug — mugs, given there are two of him currently. Bruce’s mug gets a dollop of whipped cream and a dusting of dark cocoa powder.
“You need help carrying everything down?” Jason asks. Just the way he always does, when he’s upstairs in the kitchen with Alfred. Alfred hasn’t the heart to turn him down.
There is something so terribly fragile about this Jason. Alfred can see it with barely a glance. It nearly breaks his heart.
“Thank you, Master Jason,” Alfred says. He ignores Dick as he slides a cookie off one of the trays and stuffs it in his mouth. He would prefer it to have been one of the healthier offerings Alfred had laid out, but getting any food into his boys is a victory. If that victory occurs by allowing Dick to think he’s slipped something past Alfred — well, he’ll allow it.
The three of them make their way downstairs. Bruce is not at the computer; instead, he’s in the med bay with Jason. The younger Jason.
That’s going to be confusing, Alfred acknowledges.
They, like the others, are out of uniform and obviously still fresh from the showers. Bruce is holding an icepack to one side of Jason’s ribs while Jason handles the other side.
“Hiya, Alfie,” Jason says. A yawn breaks his greeting in half. He winces as his ribcage fully expands on the inhale. He’s wearing a loose shirt that disguises whatever damage his torso must have taken to require the icepacks; instead, what strikes Alfred most is the redness of his wrists, evidence of handcuffs clenched cruelly tight.
“Master Jason,” Alfred says, not at all disguising his relief. He sets his tray down, stepping closer to the med bay cot. Dick follows him. Behind them both, the elder Jason sets down his own tray, but he hangs back several feet.
“What happened?” Alfred asks. He only knows the barest details: Robin was on a mission with the Team; he was kidnapped by the Joker; Batman and Nightwing were looking for him for the better part of a day; Batman called to say that Jason was safe and they were returning home. Somewhere in there, the elder Jason appeared.
“The Joker…” Jason says, ever so slowly.
Hurt him, Alfred knows. The evidence is written over Jason’s body, a dedication to the clown’s sadism.
The Joker was stopped. Alfred knows this, too. Jason was rescued, because—
“I killed him,” the elder Jason says. He’s edged closer to the med bay while Alfred wasn’t looking, but still stands at a further distance than Dick or Alfred does. “I killed the Joker. Grabbed Robin and ran, then called his team for the pickup.”
Oh, Alfred thinks. Those shadows in the elder Jason’s eyes — no wonder Alfred had recognized them. Oh, my boy…
“I kinda made Flamebird promise to break me out of the infirmary,” Jason says, purposefully skipping ahead. Dick or Bruce must have confirmed the elder Jason’s — Flamebird’s? — story while Robin was in the infirmary. Dick had said they’d cleared him. “Then we got back here and a shower sounded really good.”
“And now it’s time to get you back in bed, kiddo,” Bruce says fondly.
“Hm,” Jason says, but doesn’t argue.
There are significant details still missing from the story. Alfred isn’t going to press. Not tonight. He has sufficient information for the moment.
“You may as well take your cocoa with you, Master Jason,” Alfred says.
“Cocoa?” Jason repeats, perking up. He reaches out, making grabby hands in Dick’s direction, but he winces before Alfred can even think to reprimand him for his manners. “Ow.”
Alfred shoots a sharp look at Bruce. He can safely assume that Bruce made sure Jason’s injuries have been treated, but Alfred will be wanting a full accounting of those injuries anyway. It likely wouldn’t hurt to call in Doctor Thompkins as well.
“C’mon, Jay,” Dick says. “I’ll help you carry it upstairs.”
“Yeah, all right,” Jason says. He gets off the cot gingerly; Bruce hands him the icepack he’d been holding to Jason’s left side. Alfred makes a mental note to leave Jason some water and ibuprofen for the morning. Before Jason moves away from the cot, he grabs the leather jacket that was lying at his side and offers it to Flamebird.
“Thanks,” Jason says.
“Told you already, kid,” Flamebird says. “You don’t need to thank me.” He takes the jacket, folding it over one arm instead of putting it on. He stays in the Cave as Dick helps Jason up to the manor, two mugs and one of the plates of food carried away with them.
Only once they’re fully gone does Flamebird turn to Bruce and say, “I’m sure you have questions.” He says it almost combatively, squaring his shoulders like he’s getting ready for a fight.
“I do,” Bruce says.
Flamebird tenses further.
“But they can wait,” Bruce adds.
Flamebird doesn’t relax. He scowls. “Ask, old man,” he says.
“Jay-lad, I don’t even know what all I want to ask,” Bruce says baldly.
Flamebird blinks, seemingly thrown by that.
“It’s been a long night,” Bruce says. “Get some rest. We can talk tomorrow, after we’ve all had a little time to settle ourselves.”
Flamebird opens his mouth. Closes it again. Finally says, “Okay,” sounding nothing so much as utterly bemused.
Abruptly, Alfred realizes that Flamebird needs somewhere to sleep. He cannot sleep in his own room, as it is already occupied by his younger self.
“If you’ll excuse me, Master Jason, Master Bruce,” Alfred says. “I need to prepare a room.” He turns away to leave.
“Wait,” Flamebird says. Alfred looks back over his shoulder. “Um. I—” He hesitates. “I changed rooms, after — when —” He shakes his head. “Can I — I don’t want someone else’s room.”
There is no one else living in the manor for Flamebird to have to worry about taking their room. Perhaps he simply means he wants whatever new room he moved into? Or perhaps he means something entirely different; Bruce must know something Alfred doesn’t, because he looks startled and then a bit thoughtful at that.
It is no hardship for Alfred to allow Flamebird to pick his room. He allowed Jason the same when he first came to the manor, and Alfred has no idea how long this version of Jason is going to be staying with them. He should be comfortable with them.
“Of course, Master Jason,” Alfred says.
He rather means for Flamebird to simply tell him which room he would like, but instead, Flamebird walks away from Bruce. Evidently he means to accompany Alfred. Evidently, if his father is not going to be asking any questions tonight, Flamebird means to get away from him.
Something is wrong between Flamebird and Bruce. It doesn’t take a detective to see it. Alfred doesn’t know what it could possibly be.
Alfred allows Flamebird to lead the way. Flamebird heads unerringly through the family wing once they exit Bruce’s study, but doesn’t go near his room. Instead he goes directly toward one of the rooms near the edge of the family’s wing, far from Bruce, Dick, or his younger self.
“You needn’t be so far away,” Alfred says, abruptly unsure whether he can trust that Flamebird truly wants this room, or if he simply thinks they wouldn’t want him near them.
If they didn’t want him with them, Flamebird wouldn’t have a room in the family wing. Simply having a room here is a declaration.
“It’s fine, Alfred,” Flamebird says. “I didn’t want…” He trails off. He does that an awful lot around Alfred. Alfred wonders what is so terrible that Flamebird won’t speak of it around him. “I chose this room, when I—” Again, he stops.
“You needn’t censor yourself for my sake, Master Jason,” Alfred says, gentle, afraid of pressing too hard against one of Flamebird’s obvious fracture points.
Flamebird bites his lip. Shakes his head. He suddenly looks so young.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he says. “I won’t.”
Alfred recognizes the particular stubbornness that makes its way onto Flamebird’s face as he says that. He’s not going to say anything else, and nothing Alfred might tell him will change his mind. He’ll only open up when or if he decides to do so.
“Very well,” Alfred says, practiced at dealing with Jason’s intractability. “Let us get you settled in.”
Later, Alfred goes back down to the Cave. As expected, Bruce is still there. Whatever he may have told his children, he had never intended to follow his own advice and rest.
He hasn’t even touched his cocoa, much less any of the food Alfred prepared.
“Master Bruce,” Alfred says, and nothing more.
“…we were almost too late,” Bruce says. “We were too late. If it wasn’t for Flamebird—”
Alfred closes his eyes.
I don’t want to hurt you, Flamebird said.
“Master Jason is here, safe and secure,” Alfred says firmly. “Both of them.”
Bruce finally turns to face him. His eye are faintly red.
“Flamebird knew what was going to happen because he’d already lived it. My counterpart was too late for him, too.” His voice breaks. “My son, Alfred. The Joker killed my son.”
Several bits of information about Flamebird click into place. Alfred’s heart aches.
What has happened to you?
A lot. Not very much of it good.
And yet — Alfred’s point remains.
“Not here,” Alfred says. Bruce, if left to his own devices, will spiral down into worst-case scenarios. He’ll get lost inside his own head and forget the blessing that Jason is here. Two versions of him, both hurt but home.
“Not here, Master Bruce,” Alfred repeats.
I killed him, Flamebird said.
The Joker will never harm another member of their family again.
Bruce rubs a hand over his face. Alfred is not so foolish as to believe Bruce’s grief is so easily dealt with, but thankfully he doesn’t see fit to argue with Alfred. No doubt any details he pulls from Flamebird tomorrow will sending him spiraling again; Alfred will have to make sure someone runs interference.
He is equally sure Flamebird is going to fight him on that.
That’s tomorrow’s worry.
“I believe it’s well past time for you to take you own advice and get some rest,” Alfred says. “Your children are already abed.”
“…you’re right, Alfred,” Bruce says. He tries for a smile. Like Flamebird’s, it isn’t a particularly good one. Like Flamebird’s, Alfred can forgive that and appreciate the gesture for what it is.
Flamebird is so much his father’s son. Different dimension or not, Flamebird is Jason, and so clearly Bruce’s it hurts. It makes the apparent damage to their relationship that much more heartbreaking.
“Of course I am,” Alfred says primly, burying all those thoughts to be dealt with later. “Good night.”
Tomorrow will come for them all soon enough.