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Five Years

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After Martha and Thomas Wayne died, Alfred Pennyworth did a lot of things. He didn't think very much about them. He just did them: he executed wills; he sorted out a funeral and the management of the house; he turned away journalists. And he did whatever Bruce seemed to need. Bruce was thirteen years old, a disarmingly entitled and direct child whose parents’s death had him staring at walls and forgetting to eat. Alfred didn't think about it, he sat next to him, reminded him to eat when he looked hungry. Manhandled him into sweaters when he looked cold. Hugged him when he looked sad. Slept in his room when he had nightmares.

Every day was about making it through to the next. And when Bruce started investigating his parents’s murder, it seemed to wake him up and give him something to live for. Alfred helped him - of course he helped him. Even when Bruce was in danger, Alfred preferred this goal-oriented Bruce to the empty-eyed child he’d been only a few months before.

He preferred this Bruce, that is, until Bruce found the way to his father’s secret basement and it became apparent that this Bruce wasn't so much goal-oriented, as he was driven by a death wish. That’s when Alfred realized that he and Bruce Wayne had something in common, in that they both had one thing they cared about above all others. But the trouble was, for Bruce that thing was justice, while for Alfred, it was Bruce.

*

“Master Bruce -”

Bruce forces himself not to look in Alfred’s direction. “Alfred.”

He feels Alfred approach, and turns towards him slightly. But only slightly. He feels Alfred's hand on his shoulder, and after a moment, feels Alfred’s arms around him. He forces himself not to hug him back. He shies away.

“Everything all right, Master Bruce?”

“Yes, Alfred.” Still he doesn't look at Alfred. “I need to be alone now.”

He’s fourteen and something strange just happened to him, something he can't entirely process but definitely can't discuss with Alfred. He’s fourteen and the only other person in his life is Selina, who is suddenly so much smaller than him, treats him differently than she used to, and to be honest, even if they were both still children like when they met, she couldn’t really help him with this. He’s fourteen and people look at him in a way he thinks he might understand, but doesn't want to think about. Except when he does.

*

He’s not a child anymore, Alfred thinks. He doesn’t want to be coddled, he doesn’t want to be treated like he can't take care of himself. Grown men don't hug their butlers, now, do they?

Their relationship is helplessly codependent but there are very few displays of affection, lately. Gone are the tight hugs of the past. Bruce only really lets Alfred touch him during fight training. Some days he hardly speaks unless it is to tell Alfred something unsettling.

Bruce has to read Oscar Wilde in school; he tells Alfred the story of how they read The Importance of Being Earnest aloud in class, and the teacher spent ages apologizing to Bruce afterwards.

“Apologizing? Whatever for?”

“For the line, to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

Alfred spits out his tea.

“Bruce -“ he says, and he’s never omitted the word Master before. “You still have me.”

He sees Bruce frown. “You’re not my parent.” He says it like he’s… correcting Alfred? Or perhaps reminding him.

Alfred throws himself into fight training. Detailed lesson plans and field trips. Special projects. Bruce will always do exactly as he likes without concern for his safety, and Alfred can't stop him being reckless with his life, but he can make sure he’s as difficult to kill as possible.

If only Bruce didn't have nightmares. Alfred can hear his anguished, nocturnal moans, and Bruce never says so explicitly but Alfred knows he doesn't want him in his bedroom, comforting him. He wants to be self-reliant. He wants to battle his own demons.

And every day when they finish training, Bruce and Alfred spend long evenings in front of the fire, and Alfred finds himself stalling somehow, unwilling to go his separate way for the night. Unwilling to go to a separate place where he can hear Bruce’s distress but cannot help.

*

Bruce had never thought about it, because he just hadn't. When he walked into the nightclub, that night, in search of ‘M Malone,’ at first, all the people he saw registered as information, as obstacles to circumvent only. He followed Jeri into the deeper recesses of the club and saw things, saw people, and it only made him feel worldly and maybe a bit blasé. He was on a mission, he wasn’t here to -

But then something caught his eye. He stopped to see what it was, and it was two people, they were… there was hardly anything shocking about them, they were just near each other, just about to kiss each other. Their clothes were clothes Bruce himself might wear.

It was only that one of them looked barely older than Bruce himself, while the other was perhaps - Bruce couldn't guess. Some of his hair was grey. He was handsome and the look he was giving his companion was devoted. As though the world around them hardly existed. As though to him, the only thing that mattered was that one young man.

Bruce couldn't stay to watch what happened next, he had to question Jeri. But afterwards, as he was leaving, he heard someone call out to him, and it was the older man. The music was loud, he could hardly hear a word, but the man came forward and spoke directly into Bruce’s ear.

“Hi,” he said.

Bruce stammered. “Hello.”

“I think someone as beautiful as you,” he moved closer. “Should be cherished.”

Bruce hardly breathed. “Um.”

“And adored.” He picked up Bruce’s hand and placed a piece of paper in it. “If no one else is caring for you like you deserve.”

*

“Alfred.”

“Good morning, Master Bruce.”

“Sorry.” His cheeks are pink, like someone particularly well-rested. “Good morning, Alfred.”

“Sleep well?”

He smiles sleepily. “Yes. And you?”

“Very well. Eggs?”

“Yes, thank you.” And then, without the slightest transition, he asks: “Alfred? Have you ever been to Jeri’s nightclub?”

“Sorry?”

“When I was looking for Matches Malone, I went to a nightclub, remember? It didn't have a name, but it was run by a woman named Jeri. Have you been there?”

Alfred cracks open two eggs over boiling water to poach them, the way Bruce likes. “That was months ago, Master Bruce.”

“I know. But have you been there?”

“I haven’t.” After a moment, Alfred fishes the eggs out of the water, puts them on a plate, and hands the plate to Bruce. “May I ask, Master B, what’s making you ask about that place? You're not at an age to go clubbing. And honestly, someone of your station -”

“I saw things there. Did you know that some people engage in romantic relationships - same-sex relationships - with people significantly older or younger than themselves?”

It takes several seconds for the words to register. But the shock, when it does, is - Alfred braces himself on the counter.

“What did he do.”

“No, it wasn’t -”

What did he do.”

“Nothing!”

“Master Bruce, did anyone try anything with you?”

Bruce shakes his head. “No! I just didn’t know that was a thing people did.”

“It’s a thing people do. I’m sorry you had to find out that way.”

Bruce frowns. “Why?”

“Because -” Alfred looks up at the skylight above the kitchen. The sky is still there, morning light coming through the spotless window. “Because sometimes it’s scary to find out new things, and you were all alone.”

“Oh.”

*

Bruce has relied on Alfred ever since his parents died. Relied very much. Relied on him to make sure he had shelter and clothing and food and security, to manage both their lives and the Wayne estate, to anticipate problems. And relied on him to care. To love. And to show his affection.

When that man had given him his phone number, Bruce had known it meant something beyond the sudden discovery that he was now, presumably, old enough and attractive enough to be sexually appealing. He hadn't been sure what it meant, but he’d known it meant something. He’d also known - in a confused, instinctive way - that the casual physical affection he’d been sharing with Alfred couldn't be casual anymore.

*

“Is it just me, or has Bruce been turned into…” Lucius Fox coughs. “Well. Some sort of black-haired Ganymede?”

Alfred takes a seat next to Lucius. Bruce is out for the day, so the two of them are tackling the renovations in the basement (more of a cave, really, in Alfred’s opinion) alone. Alfred doesn’t mind - Lucius is very a very efficient work partner “Beg pardon?”

“Or - no. have you ever seen Death in Venice? Or read the book?”

When Alfred catches on to the reference, he thinks of Bruce, on the lawn outside the mansion last week, wearing a sweater he’d insisted on purchasing on his own. Bruce has been shying away from him for months, and Alfred had thought, at the time, that what he’d felt at the sight of Bruce in that outfit had been the absence of contact, the distance between them. The sweater, made of thick black wool, was form-fitting and made it impossible to ignore Bruce’s height, his shoulders, his arms - it even somehow brought out his cheekbones.

Hearing, now, Lucius compare Bruce to Tadzio from Death in Venice - a character whose entire role is to be a stunningly attractive, underage, object of infatuation - Alfred hears a roaring in his ears. He closes his eyes.

When he opens them, he sees Fox assessing him steadily. “Alfred,” Fox says gently. “If you need someone to talk to…”

The words make Alfred feel pathetically grateful. “Thanks, mate.”

“…I know a good therapist.”

*

A few days before his fifteenth birthday, Bruce is thrown off a balcony, falls three storeys down, and lands in the back of a snow removal truck. He’s driven several blocks before Alfred manages to flag down the truck, and spends an entire minute buried under snow and slush that is being thrown from the street into the truck. Prognosis: shock, brief asphyxiation, and two broken ribs.

Alfred, who was the one to come up with the training exercise that put Bruce there, refuses to leave Bruce’s side at the hospital, and, afterwards, all but carries him home. Bruce lets him. When Alfred sets him up in front of the fireplace, something occurs to Bruce.

Grinning, he asks, “what did you tell them?”

“Beg pardon, Master Bruce?”

“When you brought me to the hospital. What did you tell them?”

“I told them you fell into a snow removal truck.”

Bruce’s grin widens. “They must've thought -”

“Oh.” Alfred stops fussing with the blankets. Bruce can't quite catch his eye. “Yes, they did. However, they didn’t ask anything, so I didn’t -”

Bruce hadn't understood the looks on the faces of the support staff, the nurses, the doctors, at first. But now he realizes - the staff must've thought Alfred was, at best, terribly irresponsible guardian, and at worst -

“We’ll have to think of something,” he says, placing his hand on Alfred’s forearm. “To avoid all the hospitals in Gotham thinking you and I are in some sort of abusive relationship.”

On some level, Bruce thinks, he expected that the thought of people imagining an untoward relationship between them would be troubling to Alfred. But he hadn't expected Alfred to stand up and leave the room.

*

The most difficult moments of his daily life, Alfred would say, are the ones filled with happiness. He learned, long ago, to cope with life’s challenges, but happiness isn't something he entirely knows how to handle. He always forgets himself.

On the day of Alfred’s 45th birthday, Bruce presents him with brogues that match a pair he lost. Beautiful, beautiful shoes, lost in a fight with an assassin, and Alfred would have replaced them himself if the man who made them hadn't retired the year before. Alfred has, privately, mourned the shoes ever since; he would never have guessed that Bruce had noticed, let alone that Bruce that he had any idea where to have a copy made or knew how to purchase them without Alfred‘s knowledge.

“Master Bruce, what -”

When he opens the box and realizes what he's looking at, he's ecstatic, and what he really wants to do is throw his arms around Bruce and hug him. It's such a silly thing to be happy about, but he’s so happy . Which Bruce seems to have anticipated.

“I asked the shoe maker to make one more pair!”

“Master Bruce,” Alfred grins. “You have no business giving me birthday presents.”

When he looks at Bruce, he sees that he’s pleased, in fact he's grinning back at Alfred, and the outside world melts away. They're in a cocoon of shared delight, and Alfred moves to hug Bruce for this stupidly resourceful, considerate gesture. Truth be told, he wants to launch himself into his arms.

He takes a step towards him, and it’s only when he sees something flash in Bruce’s eyes that he remembers that - that he shouldn't. So he steps back, and it feels like he’s crushing his own insides. Devastating, for such a small movement.

Bruce’s expression becomes blank. “I’m glad you like them,” he says flatly.

“This is too kind, Master Bruce.”

“Happy birthday, Alfred.”

“Thank you, Master Bruce.”

*

One night, Bruce decides to find out what happens if, once settled in front of the fire after dinner, he just stays there. If he doesn't get up to retire to his bedroom. If he just stays where he is. Will Alfred say something? Will he tell him to get some rest, and even escort him to his bedroom if needed, like he did when Bruce was thirteen? He’s sixteen now, he’s taller than Alfred and the closest he ever gets to letting Alfred tell him what to do is the occasional situation where he’ll consider changing his plans when, after explaining those plans to Alfred, his response is a pained look and no comment.

What happens is this:

Bruce falls asleep in front of the fire. Slumped over, one hand clutching a copy of The Power Broker, his legs covered with a thick blanket but his shirt hiked up and showing the skin above the waistline of his trousers, he sleeps fitfully until three am. He dreams.

When he wakes up, he opens his eyes, and Alfred is there. Standing a few feet away, one hand on the back of the sofa. It is late enough to feel like it’s nearly tomorrow, but early enough that there isn’t any light on the horizon. Bruce doesn't know what he was dreaming about, but he feels bare somehow, and longing… well, he’s always longing. But more than usual.

When Bruce looks up at Alfred, he doesn’t ask, he doesn’t make any kind of gesture or movement, he just.

He just looks at Alfred.

Alfred’s gaze is unwavering. Perhaps he’s been standing there for a long time. Bruce gazes back at him, steady but utterly unguarded, and breathes in, and out, and then in again. And then, as Bruce watches, Alfred blinks, coughs, and announces that he’ll fetch Master Bruce a glass of water.

*

For Bruce, one day, it’s like a dam breaks. He starts wandering around Wayne manor in t-shirts. Deliberately, with intention, he wears them but he doesn’t really know what his intention is. He orders the t-shirts so thin they’re nearly see-through, in sizes small enough that his figure is clearly visible.

When that doesn’t get a reaction, he changes the rest of his lounging outfit to yoga pants and bare feet. The pants are charcoal grey, in a soft material , and the t-shirts aren’t quite skin tight; they float and move with the slightest gust of air.

The effect is immediate. The first morning he wears the yoga pants, Alfred walks in on him half sprawled across the kitchen counter attempting to catch a nectarine that’s rolled out of his reach. He’s practically straddling the counter, and he hadn't planned anything but still, this isn't like he thought it would be. At first, he panics. But then - Bruce would swear that he can hear Alfred’s brain stutter, halt, and come to a complete stop - he feels triumph. He doesn't really examine why - it's just pure rush, like the first time he jumped off a building.

*

Alfred is a member at a gentleman’s gentleman’s club - like Jeeves - and that's where he goes whenever things get to be a bit... Well. He doesn't even know what's happening to him, the first time, he just knows he needs a drink. He would never tell other members about the way he feels, but -

“In love with your charge, eh?”

The barman just guesses.

Alfred spits out his entire drink. “Mate!”

“No worries,” the barman - Hawksley his name is - turns, wipes off the counter, and serves him an identical drink. All in what seems a single movement.

“Does anyone…?” Alfred asks, glancing around in a minor panic.

“Nah.”

“Sure?”

“I’d say the thirty year age difference curbs their suspicions.”

Alfred winces. Bruce is - he hasn’t even finished growing. Why must Alfred respond to him the way he does? Why? Why won’t it stop?

Later, Hawksley serves Alfred another glass. “I’m sorry this is happening to you.”

“I’m bleeding… sad. Sometimes.”

*

When Bruce turns 17, he buys himself dildos in five different sizes.

He hasn’t really thought of his libido much until now. Back when his puberty happened, everything that happened every day was about his parents dying, and things have been complicated ever since. Things have happened to him, sure, but that’s just it. Things have happened to him. He hasn’t made decisions and he hasn’t taken responsibility.

But now it’s time to figure some things out.

It’s the middle of the night after his birthday dinner when he decides to sort it out. He can’t sleep, he decides to look up butt plugs, and he must have been thinking about it for a long time, if only somewhere in the back of his mind, because he chooses what he wants really quickly. He also gets three kinds of lubricant and a new lock for his door. A birthday gift for himself.

Well - technically a birthday gift for the alias Lucius made him for the purposes of anonymity.

When he gets them the next day, Bruce skips dinner and takes his purchases up to his room. He’s impatient - no - he’s angry. Which is unexpected, but he takes it in stride; uses it. He sets the boxes down on his bed and opens them one by one, methodically, feeling the anger roiling inside himself, and he starts to consciously control his breathing. He installs the new lock, and when that’s done he takes everything else out out of the boxes and lines them up. There’s a small dildo that’s about the size of his big toe with a flared base, a slightly larger one that’s curved, a metal one that looks like mushroom at the end of a stem (with a handle), a rippled one, and a large glass dildo. He looks at them and thinks, I don’t care if this takes all night.

He strips down to his t-shirt and boxers, and realizes that he’s been aroused ever since he picked up the boxes with the dildos in them. He puts his hand on his cock, but he doesn’t allow himself to move it. Not yet.

There is no clear goal here, he realizes. That is - there is, but it can’t be achieved by completing a succession of predetermined tasks. There’s just - him on one side, orgasms on the other, a fuzzy haze in the middle. He wants - he wants to figure out what’s in that haze. Maybe that's his goal: to know why he wants things, instead of just confusedly wanting them. Like how he knew he wanted these dildos. He knew he wanted them, he just - he just -

Grabbing the smallest butt plug, he pulls down his boxers, drips about a third of one of the bottles of lube onto the plug. And, in one movement, shoves it up himself. “Oh.

*

It’s a beautiful spring day. An hour before lunch, the sun is streaming in through the windows in the conservatory, and Alfred is teaching Bruce to manipulate his opponents into positions to be blinded by the sunlight. Bruce catches on quickly. They're going a few rounds while the sun is bright.

Something about Bruce’s energy has been different lately, ever since his birthday. Today included - something Alfred can't quite put his finger on, something live and crackling. Something hungry. Something that can’t quite be explained by the violence, destruction, and vigilantism of their daily lives.

Bruce has been isolating himself in his bedroom more often - he even put in a new lock - a need for things Alfred has forbidden himself to think about, certainly, but also for solitude. Bruce’s father had the basement to work on his projects in total isolation, but Bruce has nothing like that.

With a perfectly-executed feint, Bruce is forcing him into a sunlit corner, and Alfred is blind. Eyes closed, he throws a punch far enough to the right that he knows he will hit nothing but air, knowing that Bruce will catch his arm to jerk off balance. When that happens, Alfred leans in instead of resisting, and pulls Bruce along.

That is, he tries to pull Bruce along. To Alfred’s surprise, Bruce doesn't even come close to losing his balance. He is just - unmoving. It’s like trying to pull a rock.

Thrilled - he loves being surprised by Bruce - Alfred goes to plan B: immobilize him on the floor with the sun shining directly into his eyes. It’s the kind of thing that’s much easier now that Bruce is bigger; push in the right place and he tips right over.

At first it goes exactly as expected. Alfred moves into Bruce’s space, hooks a foot behind Bruce’s knee, tugs, and they both go tumbling down. In theory, Alfred has them both in the right angle to pin Bruce down once they're on the floor. But Bruce pushes him mid-fall and comes crashing down on top of him instead.

Before Alfred can entirely understand what’s happening, things are the opposite of what he’s planned - he is flat on his back, pinned down, and Bruce is on top of him. Bruce has incapacitated him. And Bruce has an absolutely massive erection.

They freeze. Alfred cannot pretend not to feel Bruce’s dick, and Bruce cannot pretend that Alfred is unaware of it. It’s - it’s - Bruce in on top of him. Bruce is aroused. On top of him.

*

The first time Bruce requested fighting lessons from Alfred, he didn’t know what he was asking. He hadn’t thought about it at all - on some level, he suspects, he requested the lessons just to find out if, in Alfred’s opinion, he had the necessary potential. He didn’t think of the actual training.

The first time Bruce watched Alfred give a practical demonstration, Bruce was transfixed. He could hardly breathe. Alfred’s eyes turned to him, over and over, and every time Bruce was shaken. It was so intimate, Alfred using his skills here like that, in front of Bruce, while talking to him. Like he was giving Bruce advice on winning a fight but really what he was saying was, I’m demonstrating my superiority over this man and I’m thinking of you.

Bruce had watched, his heart beating wildly, and he’d thought, wow.

Years later came the first time Bruce successfully disarmed Alfred. He’d felt wild, uncontrollable exhilaration. No - euphoria. He’d disarmed Alfred, and then had stared, first at Alfred, then at his stick-fighting stick on the floor, and finally back at Alfred, and he’d felt such a rush. A rush of power, but also of an achieved goal.

The first time Bruce overpowers Alfred and pins him down - not just disarming him, but incapacitating him - something completely different happens.

*

Once, during one of her visits, Selina Kyle had said something about, Alfred supposes, the look on his face. The three of them had been having lunch in the kitchen and Bruce had gone off to fetch something from the library, and Selina had turned to Alfred and asked, “what are you, his butler? Or his jealous boyfriend?”

He'd said, “I’m his guardian,” but the words had gotten stuck in his throat.

Bruce was barely sixteen then. Selina had said it only to provoke Alfred, with that sixth sense she had about people and the things they leave unsaid. She’d probably forgotten it the minute she’d said it. She probably hadn't thought about it since. She most certainly never anticipated that one day Bruce would be pinning Alfred down on the floor of the conservatory, a massive erection poking firmly into Alfred’s thigh; that Alfred would be staring up into Bruce’s eyes, and Bruce staring back, wordless, unblinking, gasping for air. That Bruce’s pupils would be huge. Alfred certainly never anticipated it. He never anticipated that, with Bruce on top of him like that, he would feel something hot running through his entire body, loosening his limbs, and that he would want, above all things, to just close his eyes and surrender to it.

In any case, he doesn’t. He coughs and pointedly looks away. And when Bruce stands and walks out of the room, he says nothing.

 

*

Bruce stays in his room for over twelve hours. He sleeps, does utterly obscene things with the help of significant amounts of lube, and sleeps again. Then he goes down to his study and waits for Alfred to appear.

Alfred doesn’t appear. Alfred has left a note on the kitchen table explaining that he is helping Lucius Fox with research into new tools for Bruce. That he will also be consulting with Lucius Fox’s cousin, who is an engineer who might be particularly useful to Bruce’s mission.

Bruce has several queries about this cousin, whom he has never heard Lucius mention. What are this person’s qualifications? How does Alfred know to trust them? What do they look like?

He picks at a sandwich and, for a full five minutes, wonders what’s wrong with him that Alfred turned away from him. It’s self-indulgent to brood, but Bruce can’t help wondering if there’s something wrong with him, with what he felt the day before. Alfred, he knows, thinks Bruce is a pure, unblemished person, who needs to be protected. But he isn’t. He just isn’t. And, Bruce decides, there’s nothing wrong with him.

*

For over twenty four hours, Alfred indulges the part of him that cannot face looking Bruce in the eye again. He won't be able to stop his emotions from showing in his eyes, he knows it, and he doesn't - there’s no protocol for this. So he makes the best of it, spends a productive day in the lab with Lucius and his rather attractive cousin.

By dinnertime, the day after the fight training in the conservatory, Alfred is back at the manor. He’s at the kitchen door, his hand paused over the door handle. He’s squeezing his eyes shut, waiting for the courage to turn it.

His mind is calm, he tells himself. Inappropriate erections are normal teen occurrences. He’ll consult with his therapist at his next appointment. This is fine.

Then he’s inside, flipping a light switch. Determined. Bruce is on a mission to help the people of Gotham, and Alfred is the man bringing him new technology to assist him in his endeavour. No distractions.

*

Two months before Bruce’s eighteenth birthday, he wakes up in the middle of the night. Something… something seems… there is an odd smell. It’s late December, after the first snowfall, and the special hush that settles over everything with the fresh snow outside makes the house feel unusually quiet. Like the entire world is standing still.

It’s late, very late, nearly morning, and maybe the quiet woke Bruce, or maybe the smell, or maybe a dream he can’t remember, but whatever it is - he gets up to investigate. He wanders up and down the hallways in bare feet, his steps as soundless as he can make them in the faint light of blinking holiday decorations. The smell - it’s like a burnt smell, like burning plastic. Faint, but worrying. What makes a burning plastic smell?

He soon zeroes in on a light-up ornament with frayed wiring that is slowly burning the plastic around electrical socket it’s plugged into. There is even some acrid smoke starting to rise. A vintage reindeer with all its original paint - a lovely piece in the Manor’s holiday collection, except for the part where it’s about to start a house fire.

“Huh,” Bruce says.

After unplugging it, he does a complete circuit of the manor to check the rest of the decorations. Then he heads to Alfred’s room. Should they shut down the breakers, just in case? He knocks on the door. He knocks again. He calls out. “Alfred?”

Alfred has a sixth sense about Bruce’s whereabouts or even state of mind, normally, no matter the time of day or night. He’s prone to appear just as Bruce is about to call out his name, like he just knows. Why isn’t he answering?

Bruce doesn’t stop to think about it, he turns the door handle, and tentatively pushes on the door. “Alfred?”

The door creaks, and the inside of Alfred’s bedroom is darker than the hallway. Bruce pushes it further open. He steps inside.

“In the name of all the elves in Christendom, what on earth - Bruce?”

It’s only once he’s inside that Bruce realizes that he’s never been in here, not once. He’s never even seen Alfred’s bedroom. It’s small, but the ceiling is high, and the curtain-covered windows take up almost an entire wall. There is a four poster bed, with heavy velvet curtains, and between them Bruce can see Alfred sitting up, slowly. Shadows move around him and he looks like Alfred, but different, and Bruce realizes that he isn’t wearing a shirt.

There is a thick carpet on the floor. Bruce moves towards Alfred, his bare toes sinking into the fabric. Alfred looks heavy-eyed and rumpled. The sight of him like this is unspeakably endearing, and Bruce is briefly struck dumb.

Then he remembers why he is here, and he holds out the reindeer. “This was on fire.”

“Is that… a reindeer?”

“Something from our holiday collection.”

“Bloody nostalgia.” Alfred sits up taller, and in the moonlight Bruce sees scars crisscrossing his chest, and tattoos on both his arms. The angle of the light makes his muscles stand out but he looks vulnerable like this.

And that’s when Bruce knows. When he knows. That he wants - he wants to climb onto Alfred’s bed, pull the curtains shut, and do things to him.

The realization makes him angry. It’s sudden, and he doesn’t like sudden things. So he apologizes for waking Alfred, turns around, and leaves.

*

Two weeks before Christmas, Alfred finds issues of a Japanese manga in Bruce’s room which, to his everlasting regret, he takes the time to flip through before tidying. It depicts a relationship between a teenage boy with alarmingly large eyes, and an older man who always seems to be wearing a waistcoat.

“Look at you.” Hawksley the bartender shakes his head at Alfred. “Why is the only person you’ve ever loved your underage employer? Are you a masochist?”

Alfred hasn't been sleeping well. His appetite has all but disappeared.

“That's not what -”

“That is exactly what it is. He’s the only person on earth you're genuinely not allowed to have.” Hawksley’s head snaps up. “Oh man, tell me you’ve never -”

“CHRIST, no.”

“You are a masochist, though. Have you read Sacher-Masoch? The defining feature isn’t the whips and furs, you know. It’s the way that everything sounds a little bit doomed. Like he won’t say he’s deeply in love, he’ll say ‘my love seems to me like a deep, bottomless abyss, into which I subside deeper and deeper. There is nothing now which could save me from it.’”

Alfred blinks. “What are you - German studies lecturer by day, bartender by night?”

*

A week before Christmas, Bruce nearly dies.

He’s leaving the climbing gym downtown when he hears someone shout, and he starts running in the direction of the shout. He’s wearing something nondescript, he thinks, no one will recognize him, it’ll be fine. He can just help whoever is in distress and then go home. Just another kind of practical lesson, like practicing jumping off buildings. Except it’s helping people.

He does save the person. It’s just that he saves him (a tech CEO from France, he learns later, called Mathieu Sansouçi) by getting held for ransom instead of him. Unintentionally.

Bruce has been captured before, but this is different, because he’s anonymous. His wallet was in the bag he handed to Alfred before running towards danger, and he can tell that none of his captors recognize him. So he refuses to tell them who he is, and continues to refuse, no matter what they threaten him with.

His total lack of response to their threats really annoys them, and soon they’re hitting him harder and harder, giving in to their anger. They’re trying to get a rise out them him, he realizes, and Bruce thinks: he’s the one getting a rise out of them, really. He’d be proud of it, if he could think of a way to use it, just now.

When Alfred bursts in the door, one of Bruce’s captors has just produced a large blade, and the next thing Bruce knows, he’s waking up in the hospital with knife injuries. A forlorn-looking Alfred is sleeping in a chair by the hospital bed. And red and green Christmas lights, strung up in the window, blink on and off.

*

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour

When Alfred closes his eyes, he sees, in his mind’s eye, the way Bruce looked after the first time he jumped off a building. Laughing wildly, happy, as though all his burdens had finally been lifted, even if only for a moment. It didn’t matter that it was only for a moment; Bruce’s delight had been formidable enough that even now, Alfred can feel it. He’d been happy. And in that moment, that happiness had been infinite.

Some are Born to sweet delight 
Some are Born to Endless Night 

Alfred only reads Blake when times are truly bleak. He doesn’t even like William Blake, whom he considers irritatingly self-indulgent. But he brought only a battered copy of Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake to the train station for reading material when Bruce fired him. And now, at the hospital, watching a parade of medical professionals fuss over Bruce as he lays unconscious and defenseless, he brought it again.

Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine 

Alfred whispers to Bruce’s sleeping form. “You’re everything to me.”

Some people - the really lucky people - can go through their entire lives without ever deciding what is important to them, and what is not. What matters to them and what does not. Some people can get through every day without ever truly knowing, in a way they can articulate to themselves, who they are. But that isn’t - it was never an option for someone like Alfred. Every time he has to watch Bruce do something unsafe, he has to ask himself: what’s really important? Is it his happiness? Is it Bruce’s happiness?

Who is Alfred Pennyworth, really? That’s the real question. What matters to him, and what doesn't? He’s thought about it long and hard, and this is what he knows about himself: what’s important to him, and what he wants, are two completely different things.

And who is Bruce Wayne? Someone for whom inner peace was never an option.

*

At Christmas, they exchange gifts. Alfred offers Bruce fire resistant pajamas with a matching robe. Lucius Fox had the material in Wayne Enterprises’s research division - something about research done for a potential defense contract.

“Something warmer than those t-shirts and dance tights you’ve taken to wearing, Master Bruce.”

“Thank you, Alfred.

*

Alfred doesn’t know what he expected when he opened the envelope from Bruce, but it wasn’t this.

“They’re open destination and open ended.”

Flight tickets - no destination or date written anywhere. Like some sort of airport gift card. Alfred holds them, dumbfounded.

“I thought you might need a break. Take them whenever you want. You don't even have to tell me where you go.”

“Ah. And you could do with a vacation from me as well, I’m sure.”

“I’d rather have you by my side, Alfred, but only if you want to be there.”

“Thank you for the gift, Sir. It’s far too generous.”

*

The night Bruce turns eighteen, he knocks at the door of Alfred’s bedroom.

Alfred blinks, then frowns, then a whole world of information passes through his face. His eyes just - “No.”

“I’m not pure and innocent, Alfred.”

No.

“It's my birthday, Alfred. I have legal control over my person, action, and decisions.” Bruce takes a breath. “You’re not my guardian any more.”

Before Alfred can say another word, Bruce licks his lips, and takes a step forward and leans in. Direct. His eyes on Alfred’s mouth, he starts to close the distance between them.

“Master Bruce!” Alfred pushes him away, hard. Bruce staggers back. “Master Bruce, it isn't so simple.”

“Yes it is! Yes it is simple. I know what you want, Alfred. I want it too.”

“You have too many secrets…“ He’s standing close enough to hear that Alfred’s breaths are shallow, and come quicker and quicker. “You have too many secrets to keep as it is.”

“Alfred.”

“You hide everything from the world. You can't - this would marginalize, this would isolate you even more.”

Bruce moves towards Alfred, again. He can see Alfred’s chest rising and falling with every breath. “Alfred, I keep secrets because I have a mission that’s greater than myself.”

“Yes, precisely, why would you ask for more -“

Bruce raises his voice. “And for that mission I don’t only do things that are emotionally painful, I do things that are physically painful.”

“Don’t guilt trip -“

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to guilt trip, I just mean - I regularly put myself in danger, Alfred, I’ve nearly died, I -“

“Yes, you nearly died. I think of little else.”

Bruce is beside himself. Why won’t Alfred listen. “I could die tomorrow.”

Alfred stares, apparently dumbstruck.

“I could die tomorrow, Alfred. And I would never have shown you how much I love you.

As he says it, Bruce’s self-control leaves him. He - he’s been in perfect control for years, but he isn’t now, he isn’t. His shoulders droop, he can feel tears streak down his face. What if he’s horribly misunderstood everything about the way Alfred looks at him? What if Alfred closes the door?

But instead, Alfred is stepping out into the hallway, closing the distance between them. He’s touching his arm. “Bruce -” Alfred says, gently.

Bruce blurts it out. “I’m in love with you.”

“Oh.”

Bruce hiccups wetly, and says it again for good measure. “I love you.”

“And I, you.” Alfred’s tone is unreadable.

Bruce takes a ragged breath. Alfred’s tone is the same one he uses to tell him what he’s prepared for lunch. No - if possible, he said it with less feeling that when he tells Bruce what’s for lunch. It’s - it isn’t fair. It isn’t. Bruce has been so in love for so long. Alfred can’t just say ‘and I, you’ like it’s nothing.

Drawing himself up to his full height, Bruce commands. “Say it.”

“Sir?” Alfred prevaricates.

Say. It.

Alfred swallows thickly. And then he says it. “I’m in love with you.”

*

Alfred is letting himself be walked backwards into his own bedroom.

“Let me show you. Let me show you.” Bruce whispers fervently.

It’s dark in the bedroom, and everything is muted. Everything is touch. Alfred can barely see Bruce and their footsteps on the carpet aren’t making any sounds. There is only the feeling of Bruce’s hands on his shoulders, pushing him, the heat radiating from him, the slight shift in the air from his whispers.

“I tell myself that everything I do, I do it because it’s the best thing for everyone. But it isn't, is it?” Bruce says, pushing Alfred back another step and closing the door behind them. “It’s what’s best for other people. Other people who aren't us.”

“Bruce, you still have to live with those people -”

But Bruce keeps pushing Alfred back. “I’ve wanted you for so long.”

“I know, I know, but -” Alfred says, and his legs hit the bed.

And Bruce pushes him down onto the bed and climbs up on top of him, straddling him, just like he did that day in the conservatory. “Alfred. I will give my life for the well-being of the people of Gotham, but I refuse to let the people of Gotham decide whether or not I should love you”

“Oh.”

It’s more of an exhalation than a word, and at the sound of it, Bruce leans in and presses his mouth against Alfred’s. He’s in Alfred’s space, he’s single-minded, he’s solid, and he makes a sound like a groan that resonates through his entire body. Alfred put his arms around him before he’s even realized that he’s doing, runs his hands down from Bruce’s shoulder blades to the small of his back. Bruce gently cradle his head, and sighs. And then they’re kissing, open-mouthed and passionate.

“I’ve wanted you to touch me for so long.” Bruce says, deftly undoing Alfred’s belt. “I wanted you to put your hands on me, Alfred, I wanted -“

Underneath his t-shirt, Bruce is hot to the touch. Alfred interrupts him to say, “I just wanted you not to die, to be honest.”

Bruce covers Alfred’s body with his own, as though to shield him from the world. As though attempting to will into being a world in which all that matters is their devotion to each other. He nuzzles Alfred gently, kisses Alfred behind his ear, breathes hotly against Alfred’s neck, and hugs him tightly. Oddly enough, this - not the declaration of love, not Bruce’s hard dick, no, this hug - is when Alfred lets himself fully realize how much he’s wanted this. And suddenly, Alfred is about to burst into tears. He never thought - he never even imagined he’d ever be holding Bruce in his arms this way.

“It’s okay. Shhhhh - it’s okay.” Bruce’s face is hot and there are tears at the corners of his eyes.

Alfred thought his feelings were unrequited. He thought that the way Bruce looked at him was a phase. Now, sprawled beneath him, on his back, he says, “I never meant for this to happen, Master Bruce, I just wanted to take care of you.”

Ungh.”

“Please -“

Bruce doesn’t respond. Still sitting on Alfred, he moves his hands gently over him. He moves back and forth, making throaty sounds, and Alfred tries to roll them over, to be on top.

But Bruce doesn’t let him. Bruce drags him bodily to the middle of the bed, holds him down with one hand, and takes his top off with the other. The thin material slips off him like it's being carried by the air that surrounds them.

One hand pinning him down, Bruce deftly undoes Alfred’s belt. “I’m sure you would never let yourself think inappropriate thoughts about me, Alfred, but I want you to know -“ he says, slipping his fingers inside Alfred’s pants and pulling out his cock. “That I’ve thought of doing this to you many, many times.”

“I see.“

Bruce reaches back and drips a generous amount of lube onto his backside. “Don’t move.”

It’s lewd - Bruce’s fingers make squelching sounds which fill the quiet of Alfred’s bedroom. Alfred shudders. Bruce moves to line himself up. Then he pushes down.

“Oh, God.”

Bruce covers Alfred’s mouth with his hand. “Shhhh.”

And lifts himself up, and pushes down again, without doubt or hesitation. In and out, in and out. Single-minded.

“Mpfff.” Alfred moans against Bruce’s hand, the sound high-pitched in a way that would be deeply embarrassing, had he any capacity for self-reflection left.

Bruce lifts his hand and looks down at Alfred accusingly. “You kept pretending that you didn't want me, Alfred.”

“Sorry, Sir.”

“How could you - how could you, Alfred?” He demands, breathlessly.

“I thought it was for the best, I thought - you’re so beautiful, you would find someone else…”

Bruce plasters himself against Alfred and kisses him, thrusting his tongue deep. Demanding. Alfred moans, clutches helplessly at Bruce’s hands, trying to thread their fingers together, but Bruce instead grabs his wrists and pins them down.

He lifts himself and stares Alfred down. “Is that what you want? For me to find someone else?”

No.”

“Good.” Bruce starts moving up and down again, but he’s shaking slightly.

And then everything becomes a blur. Alfred hears himself whispering “my darling” over and over, and he feels Bruce biting him, marking him. He comes, violently, and feels, moments later, Bruce jerk forward and slump over him.

*

In the morning, the house is quiet. Sunlight filters through the curtains. Bruce bends Alfred over the side of the bed, slathers him with lube, and fucks him hard.

Halfway through he stops, just to see what Alfred will do. Alfred groans, pushes himself back to take Bruce in deeper. And then, slowly, he contracts around Bruce’s cock.

Oh my god.” Bruce blurts out.

“Please, Sir.”

Bruce can’t quite make his voice steady. “Please what?”

“Please fuck me, Master Bruce.”