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The fire and the ashes of grace

by Te

[Story Headers]

The fire and the ashes of grace
by Te
August 23, 2004

Disclaimers: So very, very far from mine.

Spoilers: None for the books. See Author's Notes.

Summary: Maybe it was supposed to be like this.

Ratings Note: PG-13.

Author's Note: Mary wrote a story called "Spare" that made my head spin around. This is the result, and won't make any sense whatsoever unless you read "Spare" first.

Acknowledgments: To Jack, Rei, and LC for audiencing and encouragement.

*

Tim knows it isn't his fault.

He wouldn't be here if it was, for... well, for a lot of reasons.

The most important of those reasons is personal, of course. He knew what had to be done before... he knew what had to be done when Dick was still alive. When they all were. But he hadn't done it, and it would've been so very easy to just curl in on himself with the loathing he deserved.

To stay that way.

However, if he had, for any longer...

The papers were full of it, of course. Batman's return. And the editorials had been smirking, hypocritical things full of the dangers of relying on vigilante justice even while ripping Batman a new one for leaving the city in need.

The new Commissioner hasn't said anything about it, either way, of course.

But it wasn't even Thanksgiving before the signal started going on regularly again, before...

Tim spent a lot of time telling himself it wasn't his fault. Because he had to be strong, he had to be sure.

For the new Batman.

And it... it had all seemed so simple. He'd known Jason would put on the suit -- though it isn't the same, he's not an idiot even if everyone else is, and it isn't the same.

Jason had to put on the suit, because he hadn't when Dick and Bruce needed him. He --

He knows it isn't Jason's fault, either.

The truth is, Tim had been wrong about a lot of things, even with all of his research. He'd been right the first time about how Jason probably hadn't wanted to go to Smallville, and about just who Jason was staying with there, for that matter.

But he hadn't realized...

Jason is a stocky, muscular boy covered in the kind of scars that must get him looks when he showers with the other boys at his school. (The school that will be Tim's, as well, just as soon as he finds out just the right way to couch the matter to his parents. It would just make sense.) They're the kind of scars that must've taken precisely as long to recover from as all the time away from Gotham suggested. He shaves every day, not because he's particularly hairy, but because the hair grows in white around the scar looping from beneath his chin to his left ear.

His arms are strong and easily twice as broadly muscular as Tim's own, but if you look closely, if you touch, you can feel that they used to be bigger, stronger. There are more scars on his arms than can easily be counted, and the medical records on the computers -- he can see Bruce inputting them, studying them, he must have -- talk about the pins in his shoulders.

The shrapnel beneath the skin that's still working itself out.

He hasn't seen that for himself, yet.

And Jason is watching Tim study him.

There's an easy, comfortable question in his eyes. Jason doesn't have any problem at all with his... with anything. It's interesting. "Just thinking," he says, and Jason nods and reaches for the shampoo without looking, only frowning a little when he realizes it's the stuff Tim uses.

"Well, now I know why you always smell like peaches, dude." He tosses the bottle at Tim.

Tim catches it. "My mother makes the shopping lists."

Jason nods and sluices himself. "And Alfred got detailed info out of you about what brands you use, because he does that."

There's a slightly less easy question there. Tim knows Jason's worried about Alfred. About what Alfred thinks of him, and thus of Jason's -- their -- choices. He knows what Jason wants to hear.

He knows what he feels like saying, which is absolutely nothing.

He knows it isn't Jason's fault. He -- He scrubs his hair a little harder. "I have to leave soon."

Jason nods again and braces his hands against the tile of the shower. "You did good tonight." It's not really a stretch, he's just rolling his shoulders in the joints, a little. If Alfred isn't already outside the shower with the bandages and his homemade liniment, he will be soon.

"Thank you," Tim says, and steps out of the shower.

Alfred is a shadow next to the stairs, and nods at him as he dresses and heads upstairs. "Master Timothy."

"Alfred."

*

"You can't do that. You're only a fifth-class werewolf, Hudson. My enchanted sword is going to leave you wounded for at least another two turns."

"Ah, you'd think so, my pale, skinny friend, but you've forgotten I hold the gem of healing."

Ives rolls his eyes. "I miss the games where the rules didn't change every five minutes."

It's a statement of banal profundity, just another one of those moments when his life away from the Cave reflects too neatly, too perfectly.

Jason calls it 'secret identity vertigo.' Or rather, he'd called it that once, and then told Tim about the conversation he'd had with Dick when Dick had called it that.

He talks about Dick like a much older big brother of the sort who went off to college before you hit puberty. He talks about Dick too much.

It isn't his fault.

Tim knows he would, too.

It isn't Tim's fault, either.

It isn't --

"Earth to Drake, come in, Drake..." Ives is laughing.

Hudson huffs like a small person-shaped bellows. "Your anachronisms wound me to the very quick, Sir Ives."

Tim pastes on the smile he's come to think of as "I'm a normal boy who was probably thinking of sex" and picks up the dice. "A thousand pardons to you both, I'm sure."

In his head, Jason is snorting, but it's vague.

The Jason in his head is also just... looking.

*

"So what's the deal, Robin?"

The body is cold, and only the fact that he's naked is telling him that the man used to be Caucasian. It's really amazing how much discoloration strangulation can cause. "I don't think it's the same killer," he says.

Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Jason folding the cape around himself. Beneath it, he'll be tapping the fingers of his left hand against his right arm. Jason doesn't have anything resembling innate stillness, but he does a good job of compensating.

"Unless this one made him angry."

"You think anger would be enough to make him ditch the rope?"

No. He doesn't.

"Because I think our guy would just get a little vicious with it, like that accountant guy down on Grant."

According to reports, the funeral home had suggested the family bury the man in a turtleneck. Not all of the rope fibers had been removed. Tim nods.

"Which, of course, you knew. Your teaching methods are..." Jason laughs softly, and Tim feels Jason's eyes on his back.

The laugh is only cut off by the sound of approaching police cars. "I have everything I need here, I think," Tim says.

Jason nods and gestures toward the car.

Tim fires up the laptop remotely, so that by the time he's buckled in it's almost finished booting up.

"Am I just driving around, or...?"

Tim frowns at the monitor. It's a useless question. Jason knows... Jason is attempting to make conversation. "His apartment," Tim says, and winces internally at his tone.

"Right," Jason says and beats a brief tattoo on the steering wheel, and doesn't say anything else.

The apartment reveals a drawer-full of letters from a woman named 'Avery,' and a few incriminating photographs, which are easy enough to match to driver's licenses. And hospital records.

Mrs. Avery Williams was checked into Mercy General by a distraught sister. Whether or not she'll wake up is an open question.

Mr. Robert Williams won't be especially difficult to find. It's ugly, sordid, and small, and it's something the police won't have to worry about.

And it's something that makes Jason refocus in ways both predictable and comforting. Violence against women always puts him in precisely the right sort of mood to leave Tim alone with his thoughts.

When they find Williams doing an admirably thorough job of trying to scrub off in a bus station bathroom, Tim returns the favor by waiting outside while Jason... does what he does.

He wishes it made him more uncomfortable. It doesn't really fit, after all, with the images he'd had of what Batman and Robin do, of who they are and who they should be.

But Batman and Robin are dead.

And maybe this is the way it always should've been.

Maybe if it was --

The soft, meaty sounds slow and fade. Tim takes out his cell-phone and calls the Commissioner's direct line, and focuses on keeping his voice low and professional until the usual song and dance about parents and law-breaking is done.

In the background, he can hear the water running again.

Over the phone, Commissioner Essen is sighing.

Tim gives her the address and hangs up.

Behind him, around him, Jason is starting to pace. Williams must not have put up enough of a fight. But then, they never really do. Tim tosses the phone from hand to hand and waits.

"Are we tossing that one, too?" Jason's voice is a low growl, and only the underlying sullen restlessness makes it wrong for Batman.

The fact that the accuracy is, at this point, probably accidental is... is. Tim's not sure. He nods, and on the next toss Jason snatches the phone out of the air. There's a crunch of plastic and Tim takes a breath. "Maybe not the next one," he says, carefully.

"It's about fucking time she's getting with the program. I just --"

Tim closes his eyes behind the mask. "Batman."

Jason freezes, and looks at him. The lenses on the cowl are blank and perfect, but Tim knows Jason's expression is anything but. There's still a little water on the cowl from where Jason wiped the blood off. Tim keeps his own expression as even as possible.

And waits.

Jason takes a deep, shuddery breath, and straightens visibly. "Let's go."

By the time Tim can see the lights on the black-and-whites in the rearview displays, Jason is...

'Calm' isn't the word.

'Quiet' would imply he'd ever been especially loud.

The closest Tim can come to an accurate description is 'back to something he can deal with.'

*

There are three messages from Ives on his answering machine when he slips back in to his window, and Tim has a moment of panicked irritation before he remembers that he does, in fact, always turn the ringer on his phone off before slipping out, and that the cordless is beneath his pillow, besides.

He's calm by the time he plays them back for the second time. Ives' voice is perfectly normal and absurdly intimate through the headphones.

The first message reminds him of the party he's supposed to be attending Saturday afternoon -- tomorrow. The second and third are both roundabout apologies full of wince-worthy phrases like "I know you have a lot on your mind, lately."

Which, of course, means that there's nothing short of emergency that can keep him from going to the party.

Which means he's back to being irritated. There's a lot of training he still needs, that they both still need, and he's barely begun working on the sort of regimens he'd been able to extrapolate from books.

The panic is back, too.

Tim listens, carefully, until he's absolutely sure that his parents are, in fact, still gone, and that Mrs. Mac is sleeping off her mild, Friday-night drunk -- when he presses his ear to the vent in the baseboard, he can hear her faintly musical snores -- and then he sits on the bed, and wraps his arms around his knees.

And shakes.

*

Jason moves quietly when he wants to, and it's only his scent and the shifting shadows that alerts Tim to his presence, looming over him while he does his push-ups.

The gaze on his back is most probably a critical one, but the critique has next to nothing to do with him. Tim knows this. Jason has never actually felt Tim had much room for improvement, beyond things beyond their control.

Tim isn't growing fast enough for either of them, and a week ago Tim had overheard a soft argument between Jason and Alfred about the pros and cons of carbo-loading. Tim mostly agrees with Alfred on the matter.

Growth hormone, on the other hand...

Well, he's reasonably sure he'll be able to talk his father into it when they get home, especially if he and Tim's mother are still fighting. There have always been any number of ways Tim can use his physical resemblance to his mother.

Jason crouches beside him and the scent is stronger.

It's Sunday, and even though Tim's been here since a little after four... Jason almost always sleeps in on Sundays.

Jason smells like the room Tim knows used to belong to Bruce. Jason --

His hand is light on Tim's shoulder. Warm, even though Tim's already warmed-up. Tim does another ten push-ups and moves to sit back on his heels.

"We have to talk," Jason says.

Tim raises an eyebrow.

"I went through the files you brought here."

He'd never tried to hide them. Tim had, after all, brought them in the beginning. Back when he'd thought he'd have something to prove to Jason Todd.

Jason is staring at the console, and after a moment he sighs and scrubs a hand back through his hair. The sweatpants he's wearing are ragged at the ankles, and tied on. Tim is reasonably sure they're increasing the lingering scent of dead hero.

"We never talked about this. Them. Not really."

"No," Tim says, and knows he could have said it in a stronger tone.

"And I know you don't want to." There's a small smile at the corner of Jason's mouth.

Possibly his tone wouldn't have mattered.

"You're doing this for Dick. For..." When Jason does look at him, his eyes are wide and hard. Focused. "Did you ever get to speak to him? After the first time?"

Tim feels his hands twitching at his sides and thinks about moving to the free weights.

"Tim..."

"No." His hands are fists, now, and there's nothing he can do about that.

The smile on Jason's face is much, much closer to a smirk. "And now you're thinking... what? I'm going to rag on you for your schoolboy crush? Tell you it's time for you to get the fuck over it?"

The thing about the beating the Joker had given Jason is that he never would've been able to go out in the Robin suit anymore. Not the old one. He has far, far too many weak spots now.

"For a genius, you're pretty fucking stupid sometimes," Jason says and stands up, offering his hand. "Come on."

Tim stares at Jason's hand and breathes. And takes it.

Jason leads him to the door Tim has extrapolated leads to the room that used to be Dick's. It's always closed.

Jason opens it, and pushes Tim inside.

The poster over the bed is the one he used to have. Two of the CDs in the rack are bands Dick mentioned listening to in an interview he'd clearly given solely because it was expected of the ward to Bruce Wayne, billionaire.

Music he'd grown out of, perhaps.

The room doesn't smell like anything, not even dust. Tim swallows.

"Yeah, I know. He never slept here while... before," Jason says, and sits down on Dick's neatly-made bed. "He never stayed over, at all. Even when he worked late in Gotham."

"Because of you and Bruce?"

"I thought so, for a while," Jason says, and picks up a model plane and makes it fly through the air in small loops. "More because of him and Bruce, though. Dick was pretty pissed off."

Tim forces himself to nod, and not to rip the plane out of Jason's hands.

"You were, too, I bet."

"Yes."

Jason nods and puts the plane back down, letting himself fall back on his elbows. His t-shirt rides up, Bruce's sweats ride down. Two of the scars on his abdomen are visible, including the one that cuts a smooth, hairless line beneath his navel. "Here's the deal. There's no one for you to talk to, about any of this."

"Except for you."

"Yep."

"I don't want to talk to you. Not..." Not until I can stop hating you for living. Tim focuses on the CDs.

"Yeah, well... tough. You're good. You're damned good. But you're not good enough to work alone, and you're not my partner."

Tim bites his lip against the flush he feels rising on his face.

"Yet. You're not my partner yet," Jason says, and kicks idly at Tim's shins.

"What do you want me to do."

Jason's sigh sounds like it might have been a laugh, once upon a time, and Tim can see him scrubbing his hands over his face, out of the corner of his eye.

"Just tell me."

"All right, Robin. Think of it as an assignment. Write me a letter, or just write yourself a speech where you tell me off for not being good enough and not being Dick, and then deliver that fucker. Say everything, every nasty little true thing your freaky little head can come up with.

"Make me cry like the little bitch I am."

Tim bites his lip harder to keep from snorting. "And then what?"

Jason shrugs and bends a knee up so he can scratch his calf. "And then who the fuck knows? We both know I'm just making this up as I go along."

Tim nods and Jason springs up and off the bed, and walks past him. Tim feels him pausing in the doorway, but he doesn't say anything else.

He closes the door behind him, and Tim straightens the covers on Dick's bed.

And then curls up on it, himself.

*

Alfred is very, very good at disappearing, which makes perfect sense for a man whose records are a near perfect blank between signing up for military service and reappearing in America to take over for his own father with the Waynes.

There are a lot of secrets in the man's head that probably have nothing whatsoever to do with the Cave and everything in it, and, when he'd thought about it, Tim hadn't been surprised to discover just how large a role Alfred Pennyworth played in the continuing successes of the Batman.

Batmen.

Tim has been quietly shadowing him all day, offering his assistance whenever an opening presented itself, and being allowed to give it approximately three times out of five.

Alfred has never been anything less than... correct with him.

That isn't enough, anymore.

He watches Alfred place a lovely, filigreed silver platter back where it belongs, and doesn't -- quite -- catch what the man does with the rag he was using to clean the faint tarnish off the thing.

Tim gets ready to follow him to another room, but Alfred sighs.

His shoulders don't so much slump as give the impression that they want to do so.

"What did you wish to discuss, Master Timothy?"

He doesn't bother saying anything as useless as 'was I that obvious,' because, of course, he was. "Your thoughts."

Alfred turns around, eyebrow raised perfectly. "You might consider a greater degree of specificity."

"Your thoughts about my place here, your objections to it, and what I can do to... change them."

"You have a surprising degree of focus on the brooding thoughts of an old man for --"

"Alfred."

The expression on the man's face is a strange one, a mixture of irritation and fondness and grief. It settles to a businesslike formality quickly enough. "Very well. You've undoubtedly discerned that I was not best pleased by Master Jason's decision to take up that aspect of Master Bruce's legacy."

Tim nods.

"Before your... arrival, I'd allowed myself to harbor some degree of hope that the countless injuries Master Jason was coming home with, night after night, would eventually dissuade him into some other path."

"I've made him better."

Alfred's look is cold, and shrewd, and direct. "No, Master Timothy, you've sacrificed your own youth and health to make him safer. In a world where even two fully-trained adults were not, in fact, safe enough to survive."

Tim acknowledges the rebuke and waits.

"Master Bruce and Master Dick were the sons of my heart, Miss Barbara the daughter I never expected. And now they are dead."

"And you feel that Jason and I are being... suicidal? Reckless?"

Alfred's glance flits around the room with something that probably only looks like distraction before settling on him again. "'Thoughtless,' would, perhaps, be the word I'd choose. Your parents are distressingly careless with you, but have you given any thought whatsoever to how they would feel were they confronted with your maimed corpse?"

"Yes."

Alfred's gaze on him isn't distracted, at all, anymore. "I see. And the friends you've mentioned, once or twice?"

"I don't want to hurt anyone, Alfred. But Gotham needs a Batman."

"And Batman needs a Robin?" The smile on Alfred's face is humorless. "Yes, Master Jason saw fit to share that intriguing little quote of yours."

Tim nods slowly. "You believe we don't understand the selfish aspects of what we're doing."

Alfred plucks a cloth -- a different one -- from his sleeve, and turns to attack the dust that could not have had more than a few days to settle on the breakfront. "Master Timothy, I choose to believe the two of you have failed to understand the selfish aspects of your lifestyle choices. The alternative is, quite frankly, terribly depressing."

And disturbing, Tim imagines. "Thank you, Alfred."

When Alfred stiffens, it's immensely obvious. "You're welcome, Master Timothy."

It's a dismissal, but... but. "I did have one more question."

"Yes?"

"Do you feel I could be... a better partner for Jason?"

Alfred doesn't so much as pause. "Master Dick was a friend to Master Bruce, and something quite like a son. Master Jason and Master Bruce..." Alfred sighs, and moves to wipe briskly at another portion of the breakfront. "Master Jason loved Master Bruce quite deeply, as I'm sure is clear to a young man of your intelligence.

"You, in your turn, have done an admirable job of keeping Master Jason from coming home with more scars."

Tim stares at the floor, and breathes.

It... he hadn't, actually, expected a different answer. He can question -- and has questioned -- the training Jason had received on the more intellectual aspects of this work, but his instincts are...

Tim swallows. When he looks up, he sees that Alfred has slipped on a white glove, and is examining the drapes. "Thank you, Alfred. Again. Your opinion means... a great deal. To me."

Alfred pauses, but doesn't turn around. "You're welcome, Master Timothy. Again."

*

He gets home from patrol approximately half an hour before his parents' taxi pulls in to the driveway.

When he was younger, he wouldn't bother with the pretense of sleep.

When he was younger, he'd slip down the stairs in his pajamas and help his parents unpack. He likes the way they feel when they return from a trip, the way a long flight leaves them faintly sweaty and mussed, so that long after they'd stopped hugging him he could still smell them on himself, and tuck that smell under the covers with him until the morning's shower.

He's a bit too old for that, now, and it's not like they'll truly be unpacking.

Their flight to Port-au-Prince leaves in another six hours. If he stays in his room, they will assume he's sleeping, and... there.

His mother is hushing his father.

If he stays here, ostensibly asleep, he won't actually see them until they return from Haiti. If he goes downstairs, they'll be distracted, anyway.

Assuming they don't ask uncomfortable questions about why he isn't asleep.

He takes his cordless off the base and dials a phone number only three people in the world are actually aware of.

Jason picks up on the second ring. In the background, Tim can hear him moving papers around. Chances are, it's nothing more important than the homework he has due on Monday. "Tim...?"

"Yes."

"Is something... is everything all right?"

No, it isn't, and you know that. You -- "I couldn't sleep. I thought... we could talk."

Jason blows out a breath. "Hey," he says. "Anytime."

Tim closes his eyes, and wraps his free arm around his knees.

"So," Jason says. "What's up?"

end.

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Fandom:  Batman
Title:  The fire and the ashes of grace
Author:  Te   [email]   [website]
Details:  Series  |  PG-13  |  *slash*  |  23k  |  08/23/04
Characters:  Tim, Jason, Alfred
Pairings:  Bruce/Jason
Summary:  Maybe it was always supposed to be like this.
Notes:  Sequel to "Spare" by Mary. Available here: http://www.livejournal.com/users/monkeycrackmary/458559.html

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