Author's Note: Tim's POV for the second consecutive chapter. This chapter deals with the fallout of his father's death in Identity Crisis after he goes to live with Bruce. Just when it seems the boy's ready to be swallowed by his grief, Bruce pulls him back with an explanation of how things are and why. Read and Review.
The pencil snaps again. That's number three this evening alone. The music in my ears is not helping me concentrate. The total lack of distractions is not helping me focus on my homework either. Every time I start to roll, start to get a feel for what's expected of me, I see his face. My dad's face. It doesn't always have to be the last time I saw it. It doesn't have to be his death mask to set me off. A lot of the time, I don't even see the boomerang in his chest. I just see him. I see him smiling or laughing. I see him with pride in his eyes, love, and know it's meant for me. Knowing I'll never witness these sights again makes my hand clench too hard. Knowing he's six feet under with my mom and it's my fault snaps the damn pencil.
I'm just glad no-one can see me out here in the stables. I get to vent on my own without hearing any meaningless reassurances or well-intentioned words of advice. I'm just allowed to carry on with things. I put the broken pencil in the desk drawer, get a fresh one from the pot and carry on with the work. Next problem…
I think an hour passes before I claim another victim for my pencil graveyard. Luckily by the time I flare up again, all my homework is pretty much done. There's only an English assignment left, but it can wait. After three hours, I've earned my break. I put my work to one side, put the broken pencil in the drawer and then slouch back in my chair. I take the earbuds out and turn it off. Deathly silence rushes back into the room. I take a deep breath before casting a long sideways look at the photograph on my windowsill. Dad and I look so happy. Everything used to be so perfect…before all the craziness. It's all my fault. I wanted to involve myself in his world. I wanted the job he wanted no-one to ever take again. I strong-armed him into giving me it. Before getting involved, both my parents were alive. I look away from the photograph.
I turn back to Bruce. The cowl makes it hard to tell, but I'm almost certain something about me doesn't agree with him. His jaw is a little too taut for the situation.
He crosses the wasteland of scum at our feet and puts a hand on the back of my neck. He squeezes the flesh once and I instinctively close my eyes to enjoy the comfort it gives me. "You seem listless. Would you like to return to the cave?" He knows I don't want to be out here now. But I know I don't want to go back to my room and sit there either. I open my eyes and shake my head.
"No, I'm fine. Let's push on."
It's close to three when he officially calls it a night. I'm glad: it gives me an excuse to sleep away most of tomorrow. We get in the car and drive back to the cave. Alfred meets us in the cave. The old guy pats my shoulder in the warmest way possible. I give him a half-hearted smile.
"How are you feeling, young man?"
"I'm fine. Thank you."
He opens his mouth to say more, but stops and nods instead. He knows I'm hurting inside, that I'm not too far from the mess I was just after the funeral. He doesn't want to push me back towards that. Neither of them want to hurt me. The medical exams are short and sweet. The turnaround is just as brief. I'm showered and back in civilian clothes inside of a half-hour. As I walk through the library towards the staircase, I am the closest I can be to a living hell. Before I can get through the doorway and out into the parlour, a big hand clamps down on my shoulder from behind. It's my shadow. Bruce has always been my shadow. I don't turn to face him. I just listen.
"This cannot continue." He tells me frankly. I offer him a tired sigh.
"Your current actions will only lead to ruination."
"I don't think it matters anymore: any actions I do tend to lead me to ruination."
"Thinking that way will only lock you into a cycle that eschews healing in favour of deepening already open wounds. Trust me, I know." He didn't need to tell me he knows all about pain and grief from experience. I know he's an expert on emotional stunting and festering anger. With the way I'm going I'll be joining him soon enough.
"I just want to go to bed. I'm tired." I say. His hand doesn't leave my shoulder. A moment later its twin settles on my other shoulder. Before I can guess what's coming next, I'm gently pulled back against his body. As hands leave my shoulders, arms snake over my chest. He squeezes me in his arms.
"I told your father that I would take care of you. He made me promise to look after you as best I could. I will not let you destroy yourself. He would never forgive me for breaking my promise, but he would also never forgive you for submitting to grief so tamely." The big man tells me whilst keeping a firm hold on my body. "He raised you to be stronger than this. You should be proud to be Jack Drake's son. Why are you so afraid of living?"
"I'm not afraid. I'm just…tired of hurting everybody around me. I'm starting to think I should've never bothered you in the first place. Maybe if I had…"
"Hindsight is always cruel to people like us. Always. The danger we face is always so high that the odds are stacked against us ever having happy lives. Our lives and the way we choose to live them are never without casualties. Somebody always pays the price for our mistakes and our choices. But that is weighed against the lives we save. You alone have saved hundreds of people from death. You have kept wives from losing their children, husbands from losing their wives and children from losing their parents. And you have saved me, Tim. Jason's death set me on the same path you are walking now. If I had continued down it, I would not be here now. You rescued me from the dark, like Dick did before you. Except you owed me nothing. I had never saved you or your family prior to our first meeting, never taken you into my home and yet you were willing to help me. Such selfishness is rare, even amongst the most pious of individuals." He pauses to slightly adjust his hold on me. I can feel the moral of this fable only moments away.
"The more you give away, Tim, the more is taken from you. It is an inevitable part of what we do. What is important is not how much you lose, but how you take stock of what you have left. If your reaction to losing your father is to simply journey through your remaining years on autopilot, time will go very slowly and very painfully for you. If however you realise what you have left is still greater than what most people have in their lives, you will find a way through this. Hell is not a place, Tim, it is merely a state of mind. Please do not make it yours." The arms release me without resistance and I am left with the choice of continuing on to bed or turning to face the man trying to return a favour I once granted him. I turn around.
Bruce is just standing there, like he always is when I'm looking for him. His eyes stare into mine and I see what he means. Hell is a state of mind. Bruce has been there more times than anyone else. He's watched his actions devastate those around him, kill those he loves too many times before. He's watched me lose my parents, my friends and my loved ones. He's watched Dick go through the same awful things. He's watched Jason die. The city has burned before his eyes a million times before and he has watched the darkness consume it whole a million times more. And still, here and now, he is trying to pull me out of the abyss I'm trying to fall down, the same one he has escaped every time it seemed impossible to do anything but fall deeper. If a man with as much pain as he has endured still doesn't want company in the depths of despair, I suppose I shouldn't argue with him. I nod my head in understanding.
"You've got me, right?"
"Who's got you?"
"Until recently, it was you. I am hoping it is only an aberration and that you will have my back again. I need you, Tim, not a copy of me. Do you understand?" He's trying to help. I know he wants me to be myself again. But that kid I was before all this feels like a lifetime ago. It's hard to remember being happy. It feels like I've always been sad. I sigh and hug him around the waist, closing my eyes and welcoming the dark.
"It just hurts so much, Bruce. It just…really cuts deep." He closes his arms around me and emits a sigh of his own.
"I know. Grief is normal, Tim. It is even healthy. However blaming yourself for its source, forcing the weight of responsibility upon your shoulders, twists it into something that is nothing but poisonous. What happened to your father is not your fault. No tragedy that has befallen you is your fault. You must accept that you are not to blame. If you are ever to recover fully, you must let go of that responsibility."
"Why? You haven't."
"And look what that has done to me. I will never truly be happy, Tim. I will never truly be able to heal. I will always be broken inside. I will always be apart from the rest of humanity and their contentment in simplicity. You can still be a part of the human race. You can still be happy. All you have to do is let go." He loves me, I know. Maybe in the beginning of our relationship it was the last thing he ever wanted, after Jason. But he loves me now. And him not giving up on me, not letting me stay in the dark too long, means something. Coming from him, a man who lives his whole life in the blackness of human gloom, it's a hell of a compliment too. I squeeze him tight to show my appreciation.
"Darkest before the dawn, right?" I say looking up at him. He nods.
"Very much so."
"You promise to keep giving me warnings when I wander too close to the edge and I promise I'll keep trying to find my way back to the light. Deal?" I say offering up a smile from somewhere deep inside the pit. He smiles back and claps my back with a massive hand.
I decide to sleep in the house instead of the stables tonight. We walk up the staircase together and stop outside my old room. I'm not fixed just like that. The pain and the grief and the hellish state of mind are all still there. They just seem less noticeable now, less overwhelming. Eventually, with time, I think I'll barely notice them at all. All thanks to my shadow. I turn to Bruce.
"Thanks for not giving up on me, Bruce." He nods and pats my shoulder amicably, like Alfred.
"I will always be here for you." He tells me without it sounding anything but sincere. Then, without wanting or expecting a reply, he turns away and begins to walk back into the darkness, "Good night, Tim." I watch him get swallowed whole by the black corridor, but still hear his footsteps pressing onwards. I nod.
"Night, big guy."