Author's Notes: I have been extremely gratified by the positive reviews for this fic, so thank you to all the readers! I've actually had this part written for MONTHS but my life is – no lie – crazy and getting crazier so I am FINALLY posting.
Kudos to anyone who can find the Amelia Bedilia nod.
And no, you are not seeing things, Raven knows Bruce and Batman are one and the same immediately. He doesn't have to tell her, she just sees it in him.
BTW, per one reviewer, Raven's age in this fic is roughly 11-12 so she is quite a bit younger than she is in the animated series (I put her at about 15-16 there).
Dedicated to Emaniahilel,
The shared-brain, and cell phones
(without which none of this would be possible).
Part I: The Gift
The sun appears and disappears along the horizon as it is wont to do, and Raven reflects that it is just as well she has something familiar to look forward to in the midst of the increasing strangeness.
She is full of questions and shy of asking them in the first days of her acquaintance with the Batman, his other - Bruce Wayne, and the "butler" whom she takes to calling "Uncle Alfred" for no other reason than that is what he feels like. Bruce seems to be amused at the explanation when it is solicited (particularly after she admits she has never known such a relation before), but she has found that many things about her inexplicably amuse him.
For instance, there was the first night when Uncle Alfred had approached her with the statement, "I have drawn you a bath, Miss Raven." She had replied, confused, that while she was certainly appreciative, she was quite stumped as to how a rendering would be useful to her. Uncle Alfred had then quirked a brow while the Batman broke out into a full belly laugh, the strands of their combined auras undulated about, tickling her skin and warming her cold hands.
The two men seemed equally bemused regarding the way she sleeps at the foot of the "bed" on the floor and sprawled out, her length running from east to west in a crooked diagonal tangent to the door; the manner in which she moves into a room, a whisper of bare feet sliding across the "carpet", silent as she awaits acknowledgement rather than announcing - however quietly - that she is there; and the way she takes her food with her hands only after the men of the house have left the "dining room".
And she is chagrined to perceive Uncle Alfred's own brand of delight at her supposed ignorance as well, and cannot fathom how, in her world of origin, she was loathed and respected to the point of near-total isolation; but here, in this too-big house with its maze of rooms and hallways and unnecessary opulence, she has found two taciturn men who see in her something at once odd and endearing. It is not a role that suits her purpose, and she chafes with the foreign sensation of their collective impressions.
"Young master Richard will be here in a few days." Uncle Alfred sets a plate of greasy brown strips and a pile of what looks like yellow mush with a side of halved grapefruit. She stares at the food and remembers her internal vow to blissful ignorance. Though she has never eaten such fare before coming here, she understands that these people eat the flesh of animals and does not wish to offend them unnecessarily with her own dietary customs.
"Is he like Bruce?" Her "English" is stilted and slow; but Uncle Alfred is patient and knows enough "Hebrew" - her language as it is known here - that they may communicate with little difficulty (1).
Uncle Alfred sits to watch her watching the food on her plate. He does not understand her aversion to allowing others to see her taking sustenance, she can tell. "How do you mean?"
She searches for the words to explain the twisted aura of the Batman, how Bruce is more honest when masked than he is when bare. She has never met anyone so complex before, and it irks her that - as an empathic being - she is unable to untangle the proverbial coil of his essence.
"He is . . . complicated."
The clink and tumble of unused, yet somehow unclean, tableware precedes Uncle Alfred to a moderate-sized inset metal basin, placed prominently before a window which - Raven knows - reveals a breathtaking view of the gardens below. "Truer words have never been spoken, Miss Raven."
She suppresses a smile - an occurrence she finds becoming more frequent as of late. If for that reason alone, she knows she cannot allow herself to stay long; and as she thinks it - not for the first time - her mouth slackens into a neutral line again as the thought of leaving fills the space behind her eyes with something dark and heavy, like sleep, but wakeful and shuddering with nightmares.
Unable to do anything else without seeming uncouth, she takes up a strip of lukewarm meat - 'baykun'? - to nibble lightly and pokes at the yellow-ish goop. The small exploration of the morning meal takes her mind from the near unknown and the unwanted promise of repeated loneliness.
She kicks her feet half-heartedly beneath the table - her feet don't reach the floor anyway, abandoning the 'baykun' to her plate and the yellow - what had Bruce called it? - scrambled eggs (Raven remembers thinking that such a thing was a cruel thing to do to bird embryo) as she sighs and listens to the muted sounds of water falling from the spout and the scrape of a knife's edge against Bruce's breakfast plate.
And though the sounds, smells, company, and setting were new, it strikes her as oddly familiar as well. So much so that she imagines Azar's voice humming softly in tandem with the morning birdsong audible through the silent room.
"If I may be so bold, you seem troubled." Her meal plate slides across the table to be lifted by Uncle Alfred's able hand while his other settles a smaller plate - saucer, she thinks - is placed before her, a lovely porcelain cup trimmed in green the size of her fist perched in it. Instantly mesmerized, she stares at the combination of cup and saucer, thinking it looks like a perfect, predominantly white lily pad floating atop the glassy surface of some faraway stream.
She becomes even more focused when the pale liquid contents of the cup steam up to tickle her nose with a perplexing scent that is heavy and hollow and bitter and sweet and pure and relaxing all at once. Her eyes meet Uncle Alfred's for a heartbeat before she allows her normally neutral mask to dip into a frown. "Why would you say that?"
When they first met, she had assumed his way was much the same as hers, his face frozen into an expression equal parts subdued amusement and indifference-bordering-on-arrogance; however, she now knows that assessment to be flawed. His aura speaks of a subtle but complete kindness and care, a gentle warmth that flushes her cheeks and forces her fingers to relax.
She wonders often but briefly how the two men of the house came to be so close despite the obvious subterfuge. To Bruce, Alfred is security and comfort - a more sturdy sanctuary than the manor walls. To Alfred, Bruce is a son. Yet, for all of that, secrets mangle and tangle about them, into the fabric and mortar without perceivable end.
Azar had once said that secrets are poison, decaying the soul until nothing but carrion is left for the demon to consume; but Raven feels no decay, no death or evil. The men merely inspire a twisted sort of confusion like a toy she was once given by the Temple priests - a stick with only one end (2).
Uncle Alfred does not sit or gesture, merely sniffs delicately and pushes the saucer with its cup and cooling drink a little closer to her with the tip of a rather elegant index finger. "You have not relaxed since Master Bruce arrived with you in tow. I fear your spine will break if your posture were any more rigid."
Her gaze drops down to her hands, palms grasping at the loose folds of her robes. "There is . . . much I must consider before -" moving on. The words are sour on her tongue and her lips pucker against them. "There is much I must consider."
She cannot see him from her current vantage point, but the shining threads of his aura that reach to embrace her as she sits, still and tense, tell her that he's smiling. "Well, then, where I come from, there is a very popular saying that I have yet to see proven untrue: There are few problems that cannot be solved over a cup of tea."
"Tea?" Blinking up at him, Raven feels the muscles between her shoulders loosen under the pressure of his calming essence. She thinks that perhaps she is beginning to understand Bruce's attachment to the older man.
Chuckling slightly under his breath, the first time Raven has ever heard such a sound from him - it is a wheezy, chafing thing, Uncle Alfred lowers himself to sit next to her at the dining table (a revolutionary idea to one such as she who had only eaten with a bowl balanced atop her knees) before sliding her saucer and cup toward him. His other hand is suddenly busy with a tray she had not noticed before as he asks her in a clipped, efficient sort of way whether she likes honey or sugar, milk or lemon.
She tells him, equally succinctly, that she isn't certain as she has never had tea; and when he looks over to her with an expression akin to horror, she finds that she is not as immune to it as she should be. Her laugh is much like his - a chafing thing, fighting to be released and hoarse due to disuse.
Later, in reflection, she will note that her upbringing was orchestrated by Azar and the Temple priests, and always they safeguarded their emotions behind a standard non-expression as an example to her. She had rarely experienced the plethora of expressions that the people of this world allowed so often and so varied; and though Alfred and Bruce are both adepts at hiding in the same manner as her teachers, she finds their occasional release gives her an internal tickle.
In the face of her ignorance, Uncle Alfred steps away to the cupboards and acquires four more cups and four more saucers. He reunites them with their matching-but-full brethren and fills them as well from an equally lovely - though strangely shaped - gourd with a spout like a swan's extended neck.
He aims a small grin at her - an echo of Bruce's jauntily crooked one - and answers her unspoken question, "The better to experiment, my dear."
Gingerly, she takes up the original cup and watches the liquid dance in time with the slight shaking of her hands. "But this will take time."
"One should never rush when drinking tea, Miss Raven. One should savor every drop as it unravels whatever difficulty currently plagues one's mind."
She takes his words to heart as quickly and deeply as she had always taken Azar's bits of wisdom. They settle into her ears, her mind, her skin and blood and seethe into the remnants of her soul that still belong to her and her alone.
Her first sip reminds her of cresting Nettle's hill for the first time with the wind pulling at the ends of her hair and the dancing hem of her robes billowing about her ankles, the feel of the cool grass blades bowing below her feet and the singular sight of the Blue River - a glimmering ribbon of azure - curving about the nearby mountain range as the reeds sang a sweet discordant song.
In a word: bliss.
She licks her lips and asks, "Is it supposed to feel . . . " Her knowledge of the language is too spare to truly communicate the ball of surging warmth enveloping her chest. She suddenly understands what is meant by the word 'homesick'.
Uncle Alfred touches the back of her hand with the tips of his fingers, briefly, though the strands of his aura tighten just a bit about her like a cocoon - protective and nurturing. "Yes, it's supposed to feel exactly like that."
Coming Soon . . . Part 2 – The Lesson
While I know the idea that the people of Azarath were of Hebrew descent is a very flimsy comic-based theory, I find myself compelled to perpetuate it in my fics. I think it might be due to the fact that I'm a historian and I like to find excuses to link Azarath and Azar with the "real" world.
The toy Raven is referring to was borrowed from David Eddings' series The Belgariad and The Mallorean. I was used to keep a very young Polgara occupied.