“You’re not going on patrol tonight,” Bruce said flatly. Dick’s face fell; he was twelve and this was the first time a cold had kept him from patrolling as Robin.
“I’m not sick,” he insisted, and then proved his point by having a coughing fit into his fist and sneezing all over Alfred’s just recently cleaned kitchen counters.
“Of course not,” Alfred told him, whipping off one glove so he could press the back of his hand to Dick’s forehead. His ministrations were allowed with minimal fidgeting. “The thought never entered my mind. Now, it’s off to bed with you, and later there will be chicken soup and plenty of tissues.”
Dick groaned and sniffled, trudging out of the kitchen with a blanket dragging behind him like a cape.
“Master Dick,” Alfred admonished, making shooing motions. Dick looked suitably chastised, especially after he tried to wipe his noise on his sleeve and got a sharp ah-hem in reprimand. “I really must insist you get away from that drafty staircase at once.”
“I’m waiting for Bruce,” Dick insisted, sounding both terribly small and terribly stuffy. Alfred gave him a long hard look, noting the slumped shoulders and the red nose, the arms wrapped around his knees and the look on his face.
There would be no moving him, then. Alfred went to go fetch some supplies.
Dick looked up in surprise when the blanket was draped heavily across his shoulders, but he grabbed the ends and pulled them closer, sniffling out, “Thanks.”
“My pleasure,” Alfred said, gingerly sitting down beside him. There were two cups of hot cocoa with marshmallows in his hands and he intended to spill neither of them. Dick took his with careful fingertips and for a few long moments there was nothing but the sound of quiet slurping and the rustle of bat wings from somewhere far below.
“It’s late,” Dick said at last, staring down the staircase into the gloom of the cave. He leaned a little more heavily on Alfred, dark head resting on his shoulder.
“It is,” Alfred said. “Master Bruce has been back later. So have you.”
Dick was quiet; Alfred thought he might have fallen asleep. He was just about to gather him up and take him back to his room when Dick spoke.
“Is this what it’s like for you?” he asked. “When you’re waiting for us?”
“Sometimes, yes,” Alfred said. Dick nodded, sniffling again.
Alfred decided not to comment when he saw him use the corner of the blanket as a tissue.
“It’s okay, Alfred,” Dick said far too cheerfully for someone caught in a fireman’s carry by the Batman. He gave him a jaunty wave; Alfred was unsurprised to find his hand covered in blood. “This is not my first rodeo!” He paused, then said, “Which is funny because I’m pretty sure this has also happened to me at a rodeo.”
Bruce grunted, placing Dick gently down on the table. “He’s lost a lot of blood,” he said by way of explanation. Alfred gave him a withering look.
“I rather hadn’t noticed, sir,” he said. “And you? Any gaping flesh wounds I should be aware of?”
“I’m fine,” Bruce said tersely. He removed his cowl and looked at Dick with an expression that wasn’t worried so much as it was resigned. “Take care of him.”
“I always manage to, sir,” Alfred said.
The cut was long, but it wasn’t as deep as Alfred had initially feared. Dick barely so much as winced as Alfred set about cleaning the wound, and when it came time for the stitches he merely grit his teeth and gave Alfred the thumbs up.
He was still only fifteen, Alfred thought with a certain kind of bitterness that wasn’t targeted at anyone so much as it just was. Bruce had taken to Batman with an all consuming intensity, the role he’d spent years preparing himself for, an absolute necessity.
Dick had taken to Robin like water; naturally, and with grace.
There would be no stopping either of them, Alfred thought wryly.
“There now,” he said, when the wound was wrapped. “Good as new.”
Dick flexed his leg experimentally, running a hand down the bandage. He smiled brightly at Alfred. “Thanks to you.”
There were plenty of good nights. The nights when Batman came home with the latest case solved, the latest person rescued, the city once again free from the grips of some terrible shadow. The nights when Bruce installed something new in the cave, or cracked a smile and asked Alfred if he’d like to come along for a test ride in the newest Batmobile.
Nights where Dick hung around in the cave with his elbows propped up on the top of Bruce’s chair, the two of them pouring over some new case. Then plenty of nights Dick spent running through training programs with Tim, or daring him in elaborate races across the cave.
One disastrous night where a game of Clue turned into a no-holds-barred rewrite and detective-off; Alfred was hesitant to call that a good night, exactly, but it had certainly been an entertaining one, if not so much after he’d discovered the mess he’d be cleaning up in the morning.
Sometimes, Alfred wondered if the good nights made the terrible ones more bearable, or if the terrible nights made the good ones all that much more treasured.
There had been many terrible nights in the Batcave, and there would be without a doubt many more. Alfred steeled himself for them, but that didn’t make them easier.
Dick shivered and shook, curled up on his side. His dark hair was matted to his forehead with sweat, his hands balled in the sheets, held captive in his own nightmares. At least the worst of it was over – he’d been screaming when Batman and Robin had first rushed him into the cave, flailing violently until he’d been sedated.
Bruce, now sitting stonily in his chair with his head bowed and his hands clasped beneath his chin, was sporting a new bruise high across one cheekbone.
“Nothing to now but wait,” he’d said. “The antidote should kick in in a few hours.”
“If it doesn’t?” Alfred asked, pulling the sheets higher up over Dick’s shoulders.
“It will,” Bruce had promised.
Now it was almost daybreak and Alfred remained on watch. Tim slept fitfully in another corner of the cave, having finally fallen asleep in his chair by Nightwing’s bedside. There was nothing to do, true to Bruce's words, except wait, but the minutes dragged on like hours and the echoes in the cave sounded more like a young man’s shouts than the cries of bats.
Alfred was weary down to his bones. He took Tim’s abandoned chair, pulling it up close the bed.
He didn’t mean to close his eyes. Not for more than a minute.
He woke with a start when a hand touched his own. Blinking, he found Dick’s eyes still closed, but his face more peaceful. He had covered Alfred’s hand with his own.
“Hello again, Master Dick,” he said. Dick’s mouth curved into a thin smile.
“Hey yourself, Alf,” he said, his voice rough and cracked. "Why the long face?"
Alfred smiled. "No reason at all, dear boy. None at all."
The Christmas Charity Ball and Masquerade at Wayne Manor was not exactly going according to plan. Alfred grabbed a serving platter in time to block a sword strike, but found himself unfortunately backed into a very literal corner.
“Gentlemen,” he said, giving the assassins before him a cool look. They were waiting for his first move, and he for theirs. He caught the briefest twitch of fingers, the shifting of weight – and threw the tray like a discus, knocking one man down, then sprang for the door.
His way was blocked. Alfred braced himself for impact.
A dark shape dropped down from behind the doorway, and within minutes Alfred had six unconscious assassins littering his kitchen floor. He retrieved his serving tray and tucked it beneath his arm.
“A bit last minute, wouldn’t you say?” he said. Nightwing grinned at him.
“I had to put on my party clothes,” he said, gesturing to his costume. “Come on, we’re not out of the woods yet. We’ve still got some party crashers to take care of.”
“Deck the halls with deadly assassins,” Alfred said dryly. “Fa la la la la.”
“Christmas in Gotham,” Dick said as the clock struck midnight, shaking his head. He accepted the mug of cocoa Alfred gave him and held it cradled between his hands. Alfred was struck by memories of a much smaller boy doing the same on many a dark night. “Always a celebration.”
“One day, I hope to have a holiday I don’t spend steaming blood out of the carpets, yes,” Alfred said, sitting down across from him. Dick grinned at him.
“That is such a lie,” he said. “You love the steamer.”
“It was a very practical holiday gift from Master Bruce,” Alfred sniffed, giving Dick a wry eyebrow. He set a tray of cookies down on the table and found his wrist seized. Dick’s forehead creased in concern.
Alfred glanced curiously down at his arm.
“So I am, it seems,” he said. There was a long thin cut running up his arm, and the sleeve of his shirt was ruined. He remembered a glancing blow back in the kitchen, but in the rush of things he hadn’t thought much of it. “Barely a scratch.”
“I’ll get the bandages.” Dick rose from his seat, heading for the drawer where they kept the emergency supplies.
“I will get the bandages,” Alfred insisted. “You will sit down and enjoy your cocoa.”
Dick tossed him a look that was half-amused, half-exasperated.
“I’m getting the bandages,” he said. “You can’t treat me like I’m twelve, Alfie.”
He rolled back Alfred’s sleeve with gentle fingers, inspecting the wound and then applying antiseptic.
“Nonsense,” Alfred said, feeling terribly sad and terribly old and terribly proud as Dick expertly wrapped his arm. “I can do whatever I please.”
“Sometimes,” Dick said, when Alfred’s arm was properly bandaged up and no worse for the wear, “I think I might know where Bruce gets all his damn stubbornness from.”
Alfred sniffed and didn’t let his smile show. “I don’t know what you mean. Now eat your cookies, before the others find out I had extra stashed away.”
Dick laughed, snagging one off the plate. His eyes danced. “Merry Christmas, Alfred.”