Title: Those things don't just fade away
Summary: "Fuck the tea, there's a ghost in your kitchen".
Notes: Title and inspiration from "The Delusions of Alfred Pennyworth" (black and white story published in Gotham Knights #34); Alfred sometimes sees Jason's ghost around the Manor, while a robin bird helps Batman catch a crook. AU around Under the Hood, AU of War Games (Steph died).
Alfred barely pauses at Jason's cursing. "Is there?" he asks, way too mildly for Jason's announcement, what the fuck. "Well, that is strange."
"The hell it is," Jason mutters. He still takes the cup of tea, because Alfred is looking at him with a raised eyebrow. He toys with the wish of coffee, but the day of coming back to the Manor for the first time since… well, since, doesn't seem the perfect time to be a spoilt brat. If Alfred had wanted him to have coffee, he would have made them coffee. (The rule used to be: no coffee past six, unless it was patrol night. Unless you were Bruce. For a master at manipulation, Bruce was deeply thick about some of the unsaid stuff.)
Metaphorical ghosts were one thing. Like you could live in Wayne Manor for a week without knowing about Bruce's parents. Actual, supernatural ghosts? Yeah, Jason had heard that there'd been weird stuff going on with the dead in Gotham since he died – and look, he'd come back, so he knew clearly some stuff could happen, even in Gotham, motherland of the creepy-freaky-yet-entirely-mundane – but he hadn't expected in Wayne fucking Manor.
He passes his tongue over his lips, and chooses to ask. "Bruce know?" Feeling stupid as he does, feeling stupid for even entertaining the thought that maybe Bruce doesn't.
Pensively, Alfred takes a sip from his tea. Jason knows better than to do the same; Alfred drinks his tea scalding hot. "I daresay he doesn't."
Jason lets out an incredulous laugh. "And you're not more—that's it? That is strange, ghost in your kitchen, and that is it?"
The gaze Alfred levels at him makes Jason want to fidget. It's considering, and a little bit sad. It's worse to bear than the way Alfred looked at him before he let him in. The disappointment, he didn't try to hide, and he always wielded it as a punishment. It's no wonder, when you think about it, that Bruce is so good at guilt. Alfred really encourages that in a guy.
"It would hardly be the first time," Alfred says, quiet. The corner of his lips contracts like it used to when Bruce turned down Alfred's suggestion of going to sleep for the fourth time, or when Bruce cut himself off when Jason and he were swapping stories about their childhood, or when Jason would tell Alfred that Bruce was in the sitting room, and they both knew that meant Bruce would be staring at his parents' portrait. "I'd imagined your return might have... but, well, yours is no longer our only loss."
There's so much there, Jason doesn't know where to start.
He busies himself with swirling his tea around to make the sugar blend faster, and swallows past the knot in his throat.
And promptly spits his mouthful out, spluttering. "Fuck, salt!"
"Ah. It would appear Miss Stephanie's resemblance to you goes further than her treatment of her gauntlets." Losing his faraway expression, Alfred looks at Jason with the focus Jason once knew to expect from Bruce. "It isMiss Stephanie, isn't it."
Behind Alfred, the ghost appears briefly – the same fair-haired girl Robin as before – and she grins cheekily at him, before nodding toward Jason's spilled tea, and applauding mockingly. It's like watching a silent movie, except she doesn't much look like Charlie Chaplin's girlfriends.
"…Yeah, it is," he settles on.
Girl Robin raises three fingers at him, and makes a menacing grimace, mimicking slitting a throat with a finger. When Jason stares, she scowls and points at herself with her thumb, raising four fingers, points at Jason and raises two, and vehemently jabs three fingers in the air again, lips twisted in a furious snarl. Jason's research told him girl Robin used to date boy Robin, before that fell by the wayside, the way all romances do in the shadow of Gotham. She wants him to step off the boyfriend, and he looks back to Alfred rather than give anything away.
He finds Alfred staring at him, his eyes almost shining. Something of that must show on his face; Alfred clears his throat, and stands up, taking Jason's salted tea away. The chair drags on the tiled floor. "I'll pour you another cup," he says, turning away to empty the cup in the sink.
Alfred's voice is rough as sand-paper.
Jason's shoulders hunch on themselves; he casts around for a distraction, but the kitchen is empty. The girl-Robin ghost has disappeared, leaving him alone, with his grown body taking too much room on a kitchen chair, and Alfred's stiff, thin shoulders.