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It's Tim who calls him to give him the news, and Dick is already shouldering on his jacket and halfway out the door when Tim says, "He just collapsed in the kitchen, he --"

"I'll be there in ten," Dick says. He doesn't bother asking which hospital, because Bruce wouldn't settle for anything less than the best for Alfred Pennyworth, and neither would Dick.

***

It's the best hospital in Gotham, but waiting rooms are waiting rooms, and they're always filled with misery and worry and a little bit of hope. Tim is huddled in a chair, and sometimes Dick forgets that Tim is all of fourteen, but he looks it, right now -- not an adult, not a child, but somewhere in between and looking lost and tense.

Bruce is sitting on the sofa directly across from Tim, his cell phone in one hand, and Dick experiences a flash of irritation -- why couldn't Bruce have called him? Would Dick even have known if Tim hadn't passed along the word? But then he gets a look at Bruce's face, and knows that's unworthy of him -- Bruce is looking across the waiting room, but his eyes have that unfocused look that tells Dick that he's just as lost as Tim is, if not more so.

So Dick sighs a little, and sits down on the sofa next to Bruce. "What happened?" he asks softly.

He expects Tim to volunteer the information, but it's Bruce who shifts minutely and says in a low monotone, "Possible myocardial infarction."

Tim fidgets in his chair, fingers tapping on the arm. "Don't people get checked for that?" he mutters, sounding aggrieved. "I mean, cholesterol and blood pressure and everything."

Bruce surprises him again by saying, "All within normal limits, although his cholesterol was on the higher end." It surprises Dick not at all that Bruce knows this, although whether Alfred gave this information freely or Bruce independently procured it for himself is another question entirely.

He wants to ask how bad it is, but he suspects they don't know yet -- and even if they did, he doesn't think Bruce would be inclined to tell him in front of Tim. So he says, "Hey, Tim -- why don't you go to the lobby and bring back some coffee. It looks like we're going to be here a while."

Tim opens his mouth and then shuts it when Dick tilts his head ever-so-slightly in Bruce's direction, and then he snags the twenty out of Dick's hand and takes off. He's an excellent Robin, an able partner for Batman, but after all, Dick's known Bruce a lot longer -- and that doesn't necessarily mean Dick knows him better, but there's some comfort in familiarity even after all the terrifyingly stupid crap that has gone down between them.

"I didn't plan for this," Bruce says after a few minutes, and he sounds bewildered.

Of course he didn't plan for this. Bruce has contingency plan upon contingency plan to protect his secret -- their secret -- but when it comes to his heart, he never plans at all.

"I know," Dick says, and he lets his hand rest on the sofa next to Bruce's, so close as to be almost touching but far enough apart to be plausibly deniable -- and that's them, all over.

***

The doctor says encouraging things about how soon Alfred got to the hospital -- Dick doesn't know what kind of traffic laws Bruce broke, but he approves. He also says "thrombolytic therapy" in more pleasant, optimistic tones, and also "non-invasive" -- which sounds even better. Bruce is nodding like he understands everything, and it's entirely possible that he does. Dick doesn't give a damn, as long as they can see Alfred.

The cardiac ward doesn't bear the Wayne name, but the children's wing of the hospital does -- so Dick knows that Alfred will be in the best room there is, with nurses and patient care assistants checking up on him even more frequently than is customary.

Maybe the bed is larger than usual, but Alfred looks slight and thin in it. He's pale and there are IVs and various hospital machines nearby, and it seems wrong because the sun is still shining brightly through the windows.

"He was just doing the dishes," Tim says, looking miserable. Dick wraps one arm around his shoulder -- they'd been so lucky, so lucky that it had been a half day from school, and Tim had been home for lunch. Who knew how long it would have taken Bruce to emerge from his study and find Alfred on the kitchen floor? Dick squeezes Tim's shoulder once, tightly.

They've all faced death more times than Dick cares to count, but that was from insane supervillains, not from something as prosaic and ordinary as a heart attack. And even though Dick has acknowledged that Bruce is fallible and all-too-human (despite his attempts to act otherwise), some part of him still believes that Alfred is untouchable by age, disease, Bruce's moods, and bad manners.

They stand together in the room, Tim tucked against Dick's side, and Bruce raises one hand to rest it on Dick's shoulder. Alfred sleeps on, and when a nurse tells them they can come back in the morning, they file out silently. Tim tells Bruce, "We'll see you back at the manor," and then plunks himself down in the passenger seat of Dick's car -- and that, Dick guesses, is that.

***

His old bedroom is situated halfway between the master suite and Tim's bedroom -- and he's stayed here occasional nights since he left the manor, and it's both achingly familiar and frighteningly unchanged, like a monument to the Boy Wonder he once was. There's no dust, and the bedclothes are pristine and not the slightest bit musty.

He heads back downstairs to the comparative warmth and life of the study, where Bruce is frowning at a laptop and Tim's fingers are flying over the buttons of his calculator while he nibbles on the end of his pencil.

"I'm going to make dinner," Dick announces, because it seems like they should eat -- at the very least Tim should, his latest growth spurt has left him looking gaunt and perpetually hungry.

"Sweet," Tim says with obvious relief, and abandons his homework to bounce up to where Dick is standing in the doorway.

"Any requests?" Dick asks Bruce casually.

Bruce looks at him like he's speaking a language Bruce does not know, but may yet grasp his meaning through judicious use of pantomime. He'd almost given up on Bruce responding when he finally says, "Anything's fine."

Dick smiles tightly at him and pulls Tim off in the direction of the kitchen, which -- okay, Alfred's never willingly let him use, but he should be able to find what he needs.

***

It's true that he didn't learn his meager cooking skills from Alfred, and Bruce -- well, there's a reason Alfred guards the kitchen so fiercely. How anyone with such a thorough understanding of forensic chemistry can be such an unmitigated horror in the realm of culinary arts is really beyond Dick.

"I could eat, like, six of those," Tim says, drawing closer to the stove again even though Dick's already whacked him with the spatula twice in five minutes.

"You're not eating any of them if you don't quit crowding me," Dick says, and turns over two of the sandwiches in the pan, a little of the cheese bubbling out the sides and the smell of mortadella filling the kitchen. But he lets Tim put more sandwiches together and stirs the soup on the stove -- thank god for Alfred and his meticulously marked containers in the freezer.

"I seriously love you," Tim says, although he appears to be talking to the steaming stack of sandwiches on a plate.

"Uh-huh. Set the table," he says, pointing imperiously toward the breakfast nook with the spatula.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Bruce leaning against the door frame, arms crossed casually. "Informal dining tonight?" he asks, and Dick can hear the slight smile in his voice although it's nowhere in evidence on his face.

"Only if some of the food actually makes it to the table," Dick says, and watches Tim try to pretend he didn't just stuff half a sandwich in his mouth.

They sit down to the table, and it's weird -- not that Alfred actually eats with them, no matter how much Tim pesters him (Dick has long since given up hope), but he is usually standing nearby. There's not much in the way of conversation, because Tim has evidently decided to inhale food instead of air, and Bruce isn't much for small talk at the manor. Still, Dick is struck by how much he's missed this -- and no matter how long he's lived on his own, this still feels like home in all the ways that count.

"Is there dessert?" Tim asks through a mouthful of food, and then looks abashed when Bruce raises one mildly disapproving eyebrow at his display of bad manners.

"I bet Alfred still hides the ice cream in the same place," Dick says, and heads off to investigate the freezer.

"You'll be sorry tonight," he overhears Bruce chide Tim.

"No, I won't," Tim says.

***

"Okay, I'm starting to regret it," Robin says in the middle of patrol.

Dick smiles, because Tim is normally so level-headed and efficient, but apparently even Tim's even-temperedness is no match for the excesses of growth spurts. Dick is sitting in the Batcave, splitting his attention between listening to police chatter and watching the feed of Alfred's hospital room. He'd narrowed his eyes when Bruce told him to stay behind to keep an eye on things -- he'd wanted to disapprove of Bruce's rampant and nonconsensual surveillance habit, but he can admit that it makes him a little less anxious to know that Alfred is resting as well as possible in his room, except for the nurses who come in to check his vitals every few hours. Not a restful night, certainly, but a well-monitored one.

"Just give Batman a warning if you're about to blow chunks," he advises over the comm link. "I mean, you accidentally barf on his cape once and he never lets you forget it."

"Twice," Batman corrects, and there's a note in his voice that Dick hasn't heard in a while -- something wry and rueful, more Bruce than Batman.

"Ugh," Robin says. "Can we not talk about it?"

Dick smiles again, and pulls up one leg to rest his chin on his knee. "There's something going down at 18th and Adler -- you might want to go check it out."

And then he's back to watching Alfred sleep, and he has a moment -- a small, tiny moment -- where he wonders if Batman watches Dick while he sleeps, too, and he's not sure how he feels about that. Dick should find the thought unsettling, instead of wondering if Batman finds it reassuring to know his former ward is tucked safe in his bed in Gotham's ugly stepsister of a city.

***

Bruce and Dick arrive at Alfred's hospital room just in time to see a very pretty nurse -- like, the kind that usually appear in semi-tasteful porn -- finish taking Alfred's blood pressure.

Dick knows that Alfred doesn't care to be fussed over, but hell, just because he's old doesn't mean he's dead. Dick gives Bruce one sharp look accompanied by an eyebrow wiggle that is meant to ask, "Did you arrange this?"

Bruce's placid expression and lack of reaction is confirmation enough.

"Master Bruce," Alfred says, and then his eyes widen. "And Master Dick. You didn't have to go to the trouble, really."

Dick refrains from rolling his eyes. Alfred practically raised him and he thinks Dick shouldn't bother when he has a freaking heart attack?

Bruce pulls up a chair to Alfred's bedside -- it's wide with sturdy arms, and more comfortable-looking that Dick would really have expected of a hospital room. The only other chair is across the room and in the opposite corner. He's about to go retrieve it when Bruce sits down, one arm of the chair conspicuously free.

Dick thinks about it for a second, and then he perches on the chair arm like he's sixteen again, back when this kind of closeness had been so normal as to be totally unremarkable. He used to read the newspaper over Bruce's shoulder in the study, but it's been years and he hadn't even been sure how to ask for this again, if he had any sort of right to it.

"It's no trouble, Alfred," Bruce says, and he manages to sound both kind and firm at the same time. "How are you feeling?"

There's a pause, and finally Alfred sighs. "I wish to return to my duties as soon as possible."

From his seat on the chair arm, Dick can watch Bruce's expression up close -- and there's something to the set of his mouth that looks unhappy, or -- that's not quite right.

This is the problem with ambiguous relationships -- Alfred is both Bruce's paternal figure and servant, and there's too much in the way for either of them to say what they really mean, which is that Bruce has been worried and Alfred doesn't want to worry him, and that they both care about each other far more than they know.

"The doctor expects you can come home in the next couple of days, barring any further complications," Bruce says. Dick is struck that Bruce actually said, "come home" instead of "come back to the manor" -- he must be more unsettled than Dick had thought. Dick is perfectly capable of balancing on the chair arm without any help, but he lets his arm rest on the back of the chair, one side of his hand pressed against Bruce's shoulder blade.

Bruce's expression doesn't change -- God knows, Dick spent enough of his adolescence trying to goad a reaction out of him while Bruce turned colder and colder and subsumed himself into Batman -- but he does feel the slight tightening of muscle against his hand.

"Master Bruce--" Alfred begins, and then trails off, looking for once as if he has no idea what to say.

"It'll be okay, Alfred," Dick says, in a weird reversal of their usual roles -- usually it's Alfred trying to smooth things over between Dick and Bruce, not Dick trying to interpret the tangle of emotion between Alfred and Bruce. "You'll be home soon, and I promise not to blow up your kitchen."

"Master Dick, I do believe you're supposed to avoid raising my blood pressure," Alfred says, more of his usual dryness back in his voice.

"Tim ate too many sandwiches and almost puked," Dick continues, grinning.

Alfred looks heavenward. "You'll be the--"

And everyone in the room freezes, because what Alfred was about to say -- you'll be the death of me -- that's not just a figure of speech, not now. The muscles of Bruce's back clench tight against Dick's hand, and he actually rubs Bruce's shoulder for one, unthinking moment before he lets his hand fall still.

"We'll be back tomorrow," Dick says after a moment. "Take it easy, okay? Let that nurse do whatever she wants," he says, with just a shade of suggestion.

"Really, Master Dick," Alfred says, but there's a bit of twinkle back in his eye, so Dick counts it as a job well done before Bruce herds him out the door.

***

Wayne Manor is practically the size of a small European country, but that doesn't mean Tim has any difficulty following Dick from room to room with his laptop, getting perfect wireless signal.

"It says we're supposed to watch for depression," he tells Dick, sitting down on the sofa in the study. He frowns. "How would we be able to tell if Alfred was depressed?"

"Bruce would know," Dick says absently, scanning through the papers in his hands. Bruce looks up from his desk at the mention of his name. "I really think we should get a nurse who will do housekeeping," he tells Bruce, parking one hip on the corner of his desk. "I mean, the fewer strangers here, the better, right? And we wouldn't have to necessarily tell Alfred the new help has nursing credentials, would we?"

There's silence in the room for a second, and he realizes that Bruce and Tim are both staring at him. "What?" he asks irritably.

"Wow, Kon's right -- you really can tell who trained you," Tim says, and he sounds fascinated in a horrified way.

"Speak for yourself, little brother," Dick says, and Bruce makes a noise somewhere between a slight cough and an amused exhalation.

"Any candidates?" Bruce asks, nodding to the sheaf of papers in Dick's hand.

Dick shuffles through and plucks three out. "I tried to pick the ones who looked competent but incurious. Which is not actually easy to find on a resume."

Bruce takes the proffered papers, and says, "I trust your judgment." He holds Dick's gaze for a long, long moment, and Dick's breath catches in his throat -- because these are words rarely spoken, and it's almost embarrassing to know how much he likes hearing them.

The moment is broken when Tim says thoughtfully, "What happens when secret nurse goes home for the day? We can't just leave Alfred alone."

"That's true," Dick says slowly. "I mean, you don't want more strangers here, do you, Bruce?"

The look that Bruce aims at him manages to be suspicious and noncommittal all at once.

"I'm going to go get a snack," Tim says, and beats a well-timed retreat. Dick spares a moment to be a little worried that the kid knows when he and Bruce are heading to potential-argument-city, but he's got a point to make.

"I should be here when the nurse isn't," Dick says, figuring he should make his point right off the bat. "You've got Wayne Enterprises to see to, and Tim has school. I'm the only one without commitments."

"Is that so," Bruce says softly, and there's something just a shade dangerous about his tone.

"Haven't you heard? I'm independently wealthy," Dick says, aiming for flippant.

Bruce's lips thin. "You have responsibilities...elsewhere," he says, and that makes Dick wince, because Bruce sounds brittle and resentful and warning, all wrapped together, and Dick knows that if his hand were touching Bruce's back right now, the muscles would be wound tight.

And Dick struggles not to take umbrage at Bruce's declaration, because they've spent years fighting about those responsibilities, and to whom Dick owes them. He certainly doesn't need Bruce reminding him about his duty to protect Bludhaven, a duty that Dick chose for himself in the first place.

But he can admit, too, that this can't be easy for Bruce -- it's true that Bruce fired him when Dick made it clear that he wouldn't give up the life he'd tried to build for himself, but it's also true that Dick is the one who left -- left the manor, left Alfred, left Bruce.

Dick had known how he would take that, and at the time, Dick had taken bitter joy in hurting Bruce as badly as Bruce had hurt him.

So it's not like he doesn't appreciate that it's a little awkward to be arguing for Bruce to let him back in.

"Let me do this," he says, looking Bruce in the eye, knowing his tone is close to pleading. He's taller now -- not of a height with Bruce, but he doesn't have to crane his head up to meet Bruce's gaze. "This is something I can do -- let me do this."

It was the same thing he used to say to Bruce back when he was Robin, when he seized every chance to do whatever he could for Batman, for their partnership.

It takes a moment, but Bruce unclenches his jaw. "I don't want to impose," he says.

Dick squeezes his eyes shut for one insanely frustrated moment, and then he steps forward into Bruce's space. "Nothing's more important than this -- don't you know that?" he asks. Bruce doesn't budge from where he's standing, and Dick swallows once, because it's hard to remember the last time they stood this close without one or both of them bleeding. "Don't you know I'd do anything for Alfred -- for you?" His voice almost cracks at the end, but he can't care, not when he's so desperate for Bruce to understand this central truth.

Bruce looks troubled, and Dick is close enough that he can smell Bruce's aftershave. When Bruce lifts one hand to rest it on Dick's shoulder, it's not a totally unfamiliar touch -- but when Bruce slides his hand across Dick's shoulder to the juncture with his throat, he can't help but gasp.

"So I think we need some kind of schedule," Tim says on his way in the door, and at the sound of his voice, Bruce and Dick both flinch and break apart, like Tim had caught them -- caught them doing what?

He looks at them both with wide eyes, sandwich stopped halfway to his mouth.

Bruce clears his throat and says, "Dick will be staying here for a while to help out."

"That's...good," Tim says cautiously. It's clear that whatever he was expecting to find when he came back, this wasn't it.

"Right," Dick says after another long, uncomfortable moment. "So, a schedule?"

***

"Let's get this show on the road," Dick says, determinedly cheerful.

"Is this really necessary, Master Dick?" Alfred says from his seat in the wheelchair, looking just a bit apprehensive.

"I promise not to take the corners too fast," Dick says soothingly, and pushes the wheelchair out of the room down the hall.

They continue down the hall, and Bruce is waiting in the Rolls Royce by the curbside. It's weird to see Bruce in the driver's seat instead of Alfred, but Dick pushes the thought aside as he opens the car door and helps Alfred into the backseat. He surrenders the wheelchair to a nearby employee, and slides into the passenger seat next to Bruce, looking over his shoulder and giving Alfred what he hopes is a reassuring smile before he buckles in.

"Bruce is going to drop us at the manor," Dick says after a few moments, trying not to fidget in the odd mood in the car. "I know you'll miss that nurse, Alfred, but at least you'll be back in your own bed, right?"

Alfred, rather uncharacteristically, choose not to respond to him, but instead says, "Master Bruce, you really didn't have to do this."

Bruce is silent.

"I can't fulfill my duties in this state," Alfred says, and there's a heartbreaking note in his voice that Dick's never heard before. "I can't--"

"Let me do this," Bruce says, so gently, and Dick turns his head in surprise at hearing his own plea from Bruce's lips. He meets Dick's eyes for a long moment, and something passes between them, some warm sense of connection that Dick didn't know how much he missed until it was gone. Bruce turns his eyes back to the rear view mirror, and says, "Let me do this, Alfred."

Dick can't see Alfred's expression without turning around, but he can imagine. Finally Alfred says, "Very well, sir."

Dick smiles in relief at that, and knows that Bruce sees that smile out of the corner of his eye. The silence on the way back to the manor isn't heavy at all.

***

Alfred figures out that the new help is a nurse in the first five minutes.

"I told you Alfred was going to super hate this," Tim mutters to Dick. Even down the hall, they can still hear Alfred giving the poor guy crisp instructions on what he is to do, and apparently furtive diagnostics are not on the list.

"I was trying to make this less uncomfortable for him," Dick says defensively.

"Yeah, okay, there was zero chance of that happening, just so you know."

Dick sighs. "Bruce is giving you a ride to school, right?"

"Yup," Tim says, and then smiles sympathetically. "Have fun in there."

"I did volunteer for this," Dick reminds himself before going to Alfred's door.

Will the not-so-secret nurse is standing by Alfred's bedside, and he's attempting to smile patiently but it looks a little strained. "I'll go take care of the kitchen now, and then I'll be back to take your blood pressure," he says.

Alfred looks ready to object before he sees Dick standing there, watching. "Go on, then," he says briskly, and Will doesn't waste any time in leaving the room. "Master Dick, might I inquire as to whose idea this attempt at subterfuge was?"

Dick winces. "Uh, mine," he says, because it's no use lying to Alfred. "I just thought -- I just thought you might like to be home and not feel like you were being checked up on all the time."

"Might I recommend that the next time you pick an employee based on what I'm sure is a lack of intellectual curiosity on certain issues, that you remember that said individual is unlikely to be able to dissemble with any skill whatsoever?" Alfred's expression is stern, but suggests Dick will be forgiven in roughly the next five minutes.

"Right. Sorry," Dick says, and means it. He gives Alfred a shamefaced look that has worked well for him in the past, and Alfred's expression does indeed soften a bit.

"The manor has always been open to you, of course, but I confess to some surprise to find you here," Alfred says after a moment. "Master Bruce indicated that you would be here for the...duration." There's a very delicate question in there, with a certain nuance that takes Dick by surprise.

"Um, right," Dick says faintly. He and Bruce hadn't exactly hammered out any details yet, but of course, the implications of staying for Alfred's recovery could be interpreted that way. "We're...getting along, I suppose," he says, a little uncomfortable. It's a nice way of saying that they're not at each other's throats, for once, nor are they behaving with cold professionalism, or even alternating between both.

"I'm very pleased to hear that," Alfred says gently, and Dick knows that it's been trying for him to see Dick and Bruce at odds with each other.

He sits down on the side of Alfred's bed and smoothes non-existent wrinkles from the blankets tucked around Alfred. "Well, now that you know Will's a nurse, you're not going to give him any guff, right?"

"Regarding his health care professional duties? Certainly not. I have some degree of common sense," Alfred says, and the dryness in his voice suggests he may be the only one in the household to be so blessed.

"Good," Dick says, and smiles brightly at him.

"In the matter of household duties, however, I will insist on maintaining certain standards," Alfred says primly.

Dick slumps. "Oh god, Alfred, don't make him quit. And don't make Bruce fire him. We need him, just until you're back on your feet. And I know you must have heard this from Bruce already, but no pushing it, okay? You're supposed to take it easy," he says, aware that he sounds like he's begging, which maybe he is.

"Really, Master Dick, it isn't so dire as all--"

"Promise me," Dick says, grasping Alfred's callused hand, square and still strong amid the wrinkles.

Alfred is quiet for a moment, and then he says with all gravity, "Very well. I promise."

Dick doesn't move to hug him -- when he had first come to the manor, he'd tried to hug Alfred several times and Alfred had borne it, stoically, but never returned it beyond a pat on the head. Still, despite that, he's never once doubted that Alfred cares, and it's a measure of his own affection for Alfred that he doesn't make him suffer through enthusiastic hugs anymore.

"Get some rest, then, and don't terrorize the nurse too much," Dick says, squeezing Alfred's hand once before standing up.

"Where will I find my fun?" Alfred asks on his way out the door, and Dick doesn't bother to hide his laugh -- Alfred is one of them, after all.

***

Dick takes a long nap in the middle of the day -- he's been sleeping even less than usual since Alfred was admitted to the hospital, and it's catching up to him. He pauses outside the master suite on his way to his bedroom, and gently pushes the door open. It looks the same as ever, although much different in the light of day. When he was younger, he used to go look in on Bruce after a particularly bad nightmare, just to reassure himself that Bruce was still there, still in one piece. It was only years later that Bruce mentioned he did the same, and Dick wasn't altogether certain that moving to Bludhaven had prevented Bruce from continuing to do so.

When he wakes, the sun is lower in the sky, and he feels groggier than he did this morning. Still, it will be enough to keep him going during patrol tonight, and that's what matters.

Tim has some after-school project he's working on, and Bruce habitually doesn't come home until 7, at the earliest. So Dick wanders downstairs, stopping at Alfred's room and finding him asleep, before continuing on to the kitchen.

Will the not-secret-nurse is checking on something in the oven, humming quietly to himself.

"Hey," Dick says after Will shuts the oven, not wanting to startle him.

Will jumps just a little, and then looks abashed. "I'm sorry, I didn't even notice you were there -- did you need something?"

Dick shakes his head, and gets himself a glass of water. "How's Alfred doing?"

"He's responding very well to the medication," Will says, and he gives Dick a warm smile. "He's going to be fine." Then, as though Alfred's long list of instructions is ticking through his head, he says, "Are you sure I can't get you anything? Anything at all? I'm really new to this whole butler thing -- I mean, the suit thing every day, wow, I usually just wear scrubs and --"

He stops talking when Dick laughs, low in his throat. "You're doing just fine -- don't worry about me."

Will looks almost pathetically grateful. "Just let me know if there's anything I can do. Are you usually home during the day?"

"For the foreseeable future," Dick says, and finishes the last of his water.

"Do you work for Mr. Wayne?" Will asks hesitantly, and Dick remembers that his resume indicated he was only recently of Gotham and therefore probably wouldn't know.

"Oh, no," Dick says. "I'm Bruce's--" he stops, because ex-ward sounds kind of weird.

"He's my partner," Bruce says from the kitchen doorway, and even though Will is the only one who is visibly startled, Dick is also surprised -- he hadn't expected Bruce home for another four hours.

"We'll be in the study," Dick says abruptly, and walks past Bruce into the hallway, knowing that Bruce is right on his heels. "Partner?" he asks, almost under his breath. "I seem to remember one of us unilaterally dissolving that partnership when I was eighteen."

Bruce catches him by the shoulder when they enter the study, and Dick stops in his tracks. "Then what would you call it?" Bruce asks.

Dick can't stop the quick shiver that runs down his spine, but he does actually think seriously about the question. Because this thing they do -- lending a hand when needed, teaming up when necessary, even Dick just occasionally dropping by the Batcave to train with Tim or with no pretext whatsoever -- what would he call that?

"I don't know," he says honestly.

"Hmm," Bruce says, in yet another sterling example of his ability to communicate clearly. His hands drop from Dick's shoulders, and he walks over to his desk to turn on the computer.

Dick scowls at him, but Bruce isn't looking, so he settles for sitting down on the sofa with the newspaper.

He's in the middle of an article about the Gotham Knights' winning streak when Will comes in, bearing Alfred's favorite silver serving tray. "Coffee?" Will asks, smiling pleasantly.

"Please," Dick says, looking up from the paper to give an answering smile.

"Cream or sugar?"

"Yes, please, and two lumps," Dick says out of habit. It's not that he can't drink his coffee black, but he doesn't enjoy it. Bruce thinks what he does to his coffee to make it palatable is frankly horrifying, but Dick finds it comforting.

"Cookies?"

So that was what was in the oven earlier. It's likely that they won't be as good as Alfred's, but he's never been able to turn down homemade cookies. "Yes, please," he says, still smiling brightly at Will.

Will sets down the cup and saucer and little plate of cookies at his elbow, and Dick realizes that there's a slight flush across the bridge of Will's nose.

And more interesting than that, Bruce appears to be glaring at them. So sue him for living, Dick thinks irritably, and take a large, defiant bite of a cookie.

"Mr. Wayne?" Will says nervously, apparently having picked up on Bruce's look of death. "Would you like some coffee?"

"He takes it black," Dick volunteers sweetly. "And he has an aversion to pastry in most forms."

Will looks exceedingly grateful for Dick's interference, but Bruce just aims the scowl entirely in Dick's direction. The cup and saucer rattle a bit when Will sets them on Bruce's desk, and then he leaves the room as swiftly as decorum allows.

"Honestly, Bruce, I thought I had to worry about Alfred making him quit," Dick says after washing down a mouthful of cookie with sweet, milky coffee. "What's your problem?"

Bruce looks up from his computer and gives him a long, steady stare.

Dick rolls his eyes and goes back to the paper.

***

"I don't think Bruce likes Will," Tim says to Dick after dinner.

"Bruce doesn't like anyone," Dick mutters, which is untrue. Bruce actually likes a number of people, even people Batman has declared morally bankrupt -- Dick's pretty sure, for instance, that Bruce thinks Lex Luthor is hilarious when he's not being actively evil.

Tim gets a funny look on his face, like the first time he was confronted with a place setting with more than one fork. "Anyone who comes near you, maybe."

Dick frowns at him. "What?"

Tim opens his mouth and then shuts it just as quickly. He keeps it shut until they're down in the Batcave, and then he says quietly, "I think he misses you."

Dick hunches his shoulders for a second, uncomfortable, because it's not as though he hasn't missed Bruce, too, not to mention Alfred and Tim. "He's got you, now. You're a great Robin, Tim."

"That's not what I'm talking about," Tim says, and he sounds disconcertingly mature. "I mean, I'm sure that's part of it, but that's not all of it. It doesn't matter how good I am -- I'll never be you, after all."

Dick stops him with one hand on his elbow. "Hey," he says gently, concerned. "That's not -- I really mean it, Tim. You're great, and you guys make a good team."

"I know," Tim says calmly. "And it's not a matter of replacing you, because we're different Robins and I couldn't, even if I wanted to. But you're not listening to me -- he misses you."

"Tim," Bruce says behind them, and it's half a growl.

"I'm going to go warm up," Tim tells Dick, and takes off for the mats in a half-jog.

Dick just stays where he is, still looking behind at Bruce. He's not entirely sure how to peg the set of Bruce's shoulders -- he looks almost discomfited. "Bruce?" he asks softly.

Bruce takes a few steps toward him, so that they're side-by-side, both facing forward. "Come out with me on patrol tonight," he says, somewhere between a command and a request. "Tim can stay here and watch Alfred."

"Okay," Dick says cautiously.

***

Patrol is easy and familiar -- even when their personal relationship was at its most fractious, their working relationship was characterized by being so in tune with each other that they barely needed the comm link to communicate. And despite several years of patrolling Bludhaven, Dick still knows Gotham intimately, and there's a certain comfort in crossing such familiar terrain.

"It's quiet tonight," he says to Batman.

Batman drops to a crouch on a ledge above him. "It has been, since that drug bust last week."

Dick nods, understanding from years of experience that lulls in crime tend to happen after something so public.

"We could go," Batman says suddenly. "To Bludhaven."

Dick frowns, even though Batman isn't looking at his face and thus misses it. "I can handle it by myself."

There's a small sound, like half a sigh. "I know you can."

He bristles at that, and snaps, "Then why do you -- look, how many times do we need to go through this? I don't need you to babysit me -- I didn't need it when I was eighteen, and I don't need it now."

"That's not what I--" Batman stops, and then jumps down from the ledge to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Dick on the roof. He's silent for a few moments, and Dick almost thinks they're going to continue patrolling and leave it at that, when Batman says quietly, "I handled it all wrong."

"Excuse me?" Dick says faintly. It's not like being Batman means never having to say you're sorry, but it sure feels like it sometimes.

"When you were eighteen. I couldn't give you what you wanted -- I couldn't let you go," Batman says quietly, almost meditative.

"So you fired me?" Dick demands incredulously. "You realize that makes no sense, right?"

Batman is quiet again, and Dick keeps stealing glances at his face, trying to make some sense of this unexpected confession.

"Nothing in this world is permanent -- I know that, better than anyone," Batman says, and Dick knows he's thinking of his slain parents. "So do you. But even still, I took Alfred for granted. I thought he'd always be there."

"He's...he's going to be fine," Dick says, but his throat feels tight. It's the only thing he can think to say, though -- and he has to believe that Alfred will be with them for a long time ahead, because the alternative is unthinkable.

"What if it had been you? What if I had no more chances to make things right, to make you understand?"

"Make me understand what?" Dick asks, and even he can hear the shakiness in his voice.

Batman turns to face him, then, and Dick can't see his eyes behind the mask, but the rueful twist of his mouth seems more vulnerable than sardonic. "I didn't want to let you go. I never have."

Just that much honest emotion from Batman is almost an embarrassment of riches -- and for a moment, Dick thinks of his first Christmas at Wayne Manor, when all he could do was stare slack-jawed at the small mountain of presents under the tree, hardly able to believe they were all for him. It feels a bit like that now, his heart beating as fast as it did then.

"It's not that I never wanted to come back," Dick says quietly, determined to return truth for truth. "I just wanted--"

He trails off, struggling to get the words right in his head before he says them, because these moments between them are frighteningly scarce and he doesn't want to mess it up. Batman is waiting, still as the night around them, and for all that he's the iconic Caped Crusader, when Dick looks at him, he's keenly aware that those are Bruce's lips. He knows the strong curve of Bruce's jaw almost better than he knows his own, like he's learned it with his fingers and not just his eyes. He used to practice sketching for their detective work, and he doesn't know how many times his pencil roughed out Bruce's profile.

He steps closer, and cautiously raises his fingertips to Batman's jaw, feeling the beginnings of stubble. Batman inhales sharply at that -- too controlled to really be a gasp, but even that display is enough to make Dick remember how he'd shivered when Bruce had curled his fingers against the nape of his neck, just days before. Dick lets his other hand rest on Batman's chest, where he can only feel the steady rise and fall of Batman's breath. There's too much armor and rubber in the way to feel any body heat, but he thinks he feels warm enough for the both of them.

How long, he wonders, has he wanted everything and not even known it?

He's not a boy wonder anymore, aiming to distract the enemy. He's Nightwing, he's Dick Grayson, and he's faced villains both super and not, and he's not going to run from what he wants. So he leans up, and slowly, carefully presses their lips together, one hand still on Batman's bare cheek, the other smoothing up the suit to grip his shoulder. For one terrifying moment, Batman is almost unresponsive -- and then his arms come up to pull Dick tight against him, and Dick's clutching at Batman's shoulders, trying to get even closer. The relative chasteness of the initial kiss is long gone, replaced by something that feels like desperation and acute longing, and he's not sure how long they spend kissing on a Gotham rooftop before the comm link in their ears clicks on.

"Batman, Nightwing, there's a disturbance six blocks west of your location," Robin reports.

Batman breathes in deep, and then says, "Understood," in a normal tone.

"So," Dick says, catching his breath. "Bad guys?"

"Bad guys," Batman confirms, and lets go of Dick almost reluctantly.

Dick takes a step to the roof ledge, and looks back at Batman over his shoulder. "And then?"

Batman's mouth quirks into a hint of a smile.

***

They do make an abbreviated patrol of Bludhaven before they head back to the Batcave, and it goes smoothly, aside from the entirely different kind of tension vibrating between them.

Tim is sitting at the computer when they arrive, running through surveillance video. And for all that they were perfectly in sync while out on patrol, it seems they do nothing but nearly trip over each other after Bruce strips off and stores both cape and cowl. Still, rules are rules, and Bruce has already unbent far more than expected for one night. So Dick sits down at another station and obediently writes up his report, and if Bruce happens to stand over his shoulder to offer additions and revisions rather more than he is usually wont, well -- Dick isn't going to complain.

Tim, however, might die of curiosity. He's already darted several suspicious looks Dick's way, and it's not like he doesn't have cause -- Bruce did suddenly rearrange Tim's meticulous and color-coded schedule so that Dick went out on patrol with him tonight instead of Tim. And for all that he and Bruce are giving their best shot at a performance of nothing-to-see-here, move-along, he doesn't think Tim is buying what they're selling.

By the time they've finished up reports and some detective legwork for tomorrow evening, as well as gotten out of costume and into the shower, Tim is yawning a little. The three of them head up to the manor in their bathrobes, stopping by Alfred's door to look in on him silently before continuing upstairs. Tim disappears into his bedroom with another yawn and a muffled, "G'night," and Bruce and Dick continue down the hallway.

Dick's steps slow once they reach his bedroom, because he's really not entirely sure -- for god's sake, they barely talked about it, they just kissed on a freaking rooftop and now what? But when he pauses in front of his door, Bruce stops too, his eyes searching Dick's face. Whatever he sees there, it's enough to make him say, "Dick," his voice gravelly, his hand coming up to rest gently at the small of Dick's back.

So Dick swallows once, and then they move further down the hall to the master suite.

Wayne Manor actually has two such suites -- the one that belonged to Bruce's parents is actually closer to Tim's bedroom. Bruce's, however, has only ever had one inhabitant, as far as Dick knows. Bruce has dated scores of socialites and had a few flings with women on the shadier side of the law, but he doesn't bring them back to his rooms in the manor, not ever.

When Bruce shuts the door behind them and turns the key in the lock, Dick thinks maybe he ought to feel just a little jumpy -- but instead he feels secure, like neither of them can run from this now. The lights remain off, but the moon is almost full and its light is enough that Dick can find his way over to the bed with no difficulty, if sense memory wasn't already sufficient.

Bruce follows, and they're standing beside the bed, and Dick's not entirely sure what Bruce is waiting for. In the shadows, he's half-Batman, half-Bruce Wayne, but entirely himself when he places one hand on Dick's hip and pulls him closer. Bruce had told Dick that he couldn't let him go -- but he couldn't, wouldn't ask for this either, Dick realizes.

So he curls one hand around the nape of Bruce's neck and pulls him down into a kiss, and down further still on to the bed, so that Dick is leaning back on the bed, and Bruce has one knee between Dick's thighs and Bruce is kissing him like this might be his only chance. Dick doesn't know how to quiet that desperation except to reassure him that Dick wants this as much as he does, chiefly by wrapping one leg around Bruce's hip and pulling him closer still, groaning when Bruce's bare thigh rubs against his cock through his robe.

He's not a virgin, and hasn't been in years -- he slept with an alien princess, for god's sake, and she didn't have any preconceived notions about human sexual behavior, which meant that Dick's education was decidedly thorough and varied. He's no stranger to sex with men, either, but there's something about the motions of Bruce's hands along his body that make Dick think that this is something Bruce has studied, but not necessarily experienced to any large degree. In fact, he'd say that Bruce is studying him now -- and if he didn't know Bruce so well, maybe he wouldn't notice the slight, minuscule pauses that follow every touch, a human experiment in trial and error. No one has ever accused Bruce of being anything other than a quick learner, so when Dick nearly comes off the bed as Bruce bites gently at his neck, Bruce holds Dick's shoulders down against the bed and does it again and again until Dick is writhing beneath him, gasping.

When Bruce moves on, sliding one hand under Dick's robe and up his thigh, Dick grabs the belt of Bruce's robe and yanks it open. It's not like he's never seen Bruce naked before, but there's a world of difference between communal showers and Bruce leaning over him, robe open and looking at Dick like a starving man who has still has enough presence of mind to plan how he's going to attack a feast.

Dick reaches out and wraps one hand around Bruce's cock, and says quietly, "Aren't you tired of only looking?"

"Habit," Bruce says, voice low and a little roughened.

It's the most confession that Dick thinks he's going to get. "You know what they say about habits, don't you?"

Bruce rubs his thumb in a slow, torturous circle on the back of Dick's thigh where it's hitched up around Bruce's hip. "What's that?"

"Takes fourteen days to break 'em," Dick says, cracking a smile.

Bruce's eyebrows raise, and then he leans over to open the drawer of the nightstand. "In that case--"

He doesn't stop watching, although he does mercifully progress on to actually doing something, sliding slick fingers into Dick and moving them steadily, still listening for Dick's every sigh.

Eventually, though, in the face of Bruce's almost mesmerized look, Dick says, "Look, I know you always want to be prepared as possible, but can we please--"

Dick has long counted his flexibility among his assets in fighting crime, but it's nice to put it to alternative uses -- really nice, he mentally revises as Bruce pushes his knees toward his chest. And then there's the crinkle of a condom wrapper, and then slowly, achingly slowly, Bruce is inside him. He breathes for a moment, adjusting, and then he hooks his knees over Bruce's shoulders and says, "Are you waiting for a written invit--"

He breaks off mid-word when Bruce withdraws a little and pushes back in, thrusting slowly and evenly a few times, and then it's -- okay, really, he gets that Bruce has been around the block more than a few times, and again with being a fast learner and also having trained his body to within an inch of his life, but it doesn't seem fair that he found the right, no, the best angle in under a minute flat, and it's almost an embarrassingly short period of time before Dick starts making all sorts of noise. He has some sort of vague idea that he should try to be quiet, because no matter how far away the other occupied rooms in the manor are, well, things echo -- but then he thinks that if Bruce likes watching, he probably likes listening too. But it's not as though Dick doesn't like watching, too -- he's put on muscle, but it's nothing like the sheer solid wall that is Bruce, the easy strength that keeps him steady over Dick, even as his hips snap forward with increasing urgency. And Bruce doesn't make much noise, but that makes Dick want to hear the quiet groans all the more.

Dick barely gets the chance to say, "I need--" before Bruce slides one of Dick's legs off his shoulder and wraps it around his waist, before kneeling up and giving Dick what he needs, a tight, perfect grip around his cock. And that's it, that's more than he can bear -- Bruce in him and around him and still looking at him, really looking at him, and it's too dark to see but he knows Bruce's eyes are so blue--

He moans low in his throat, almost guttural, when he comes in Bruce's hand, and it's not long after that Bruce stills above him, and he's sweaty and imperfect and human and so handsome that it makes Dick's heart ache.

They both catch their breath, and then Bruce pulls out carefully, and makes some noises about cleaning up, but Dick just rolls over and fluffs one of the pillows before settling down.

"Dick," Bruce says after a few more minutes, sounding awkward but determined.

Dick opens one eye. "Really?" he asks, skeptical. "You want to talk now? I've got news for you, Bruce -- you and me aren't so good with words."

Bruce looks like he's actually thinking about that for a moment, and then his mouth curves into the barest hint of a smile as he says, "True enough," and wraps one arm around Dick's waist, and Dick falls sleep between one moment and the next.

***

Dick is not a morning person. Alfred knows this, Tim knows this, and Bruce knows this especially, which is probably why Bruce leaves him to sleep instead of tendering some clumsy-yet-hot invitation to shower together in the morning. So when Dick wakes up, the sun is streaming in the windows and the bed is overwarm, and he shuffles into Bruce's shower and sometime later, he is presentable, albeit highly undercaffeinated.

He wanders downstairs to the kitchens to behold a truly unusual sight -- Alfred is sitting at the breakfast table with Bruce and Tim. He doesn't look precisely happy about it, but that could be in part because Tim is eating a sugary breakfast cereal of the kind that Alfred will re-ban from the manor when he's master of the kitchen again.

"Morning," Dick says, and pulls out the chair next to Bruce.

Bruce lowers the paper and pours Dick a cup of coffee before Will can bustle over to do it, and drops in two lumps of sugar and a judicious splash of cream before handing the cup and saucer over. Dick is already halfway through the cup before he realizes that Alfred and Tim are looking at him like they've had some sort of epiphany, and he definitely hasn't had enough coffee to deal with this yet.

Some part of him is secretly hoping for some of the cereal Tim is eating, but Will sets down an omelet in front of him, made mostly the way he likes it. He shudders to think of how much instruction Alfred gave Will on the subject, and then wonders if Alfred is engaging in a little bit of professional sabotage to convince them to let him get back to work sooner.

He's halfway through a second cup of coffee and making inroads on his breakfast when his brain wakes up enough for polite conversation, and he says to Alfred, "Nice to see you at the table."

Tim doesn't really hide his wince and Bruce appears to suddenly find an article about bridge repairs incredibly interesting. Alfred says frostily, "Young William advised me that he could complete his duties more efficiently if all his charges were in one place."

Will clearly has more spine than Dick suspected, even if he is currently scrubbing dishes with more attention than is probably strictly necessary.

"You going out with your friends this weekend?" Dick asks Tim. He'd thought he'd seen time blocked out for the Titans on Tim's anal-retentive schedule.

"Yup," Tim says, and he looks cheerful in a way that Dick increasingly suspects has to do with the prospect of spending time with Kon.

"Master Bruce mentioned that you might work on one of the cars this weekend," Alfred says, managing to sound off-hand.

The car in question is undoubtedly the Batmobile, and Dick doesn't smother his surprised pleasure at the idea, even if the invitation is a little indirect. "Sounds like fun," he says to Bruce, and he's being honest -- he'd loved working on the Batmobile when he was Robin, and even though he now has a few vehicles of his own, they'll never quite compare.

Bruce meets his eyes for a few intense seconds, and to his horror, Dick feels his face warm a little.

Tim is looking at him shrewdly. "Can I have your toast?"

"Uh-huh," Dick says absently, trying to will his blush down, then yelps, "What? No, get your own!"

It's too late, though -- Tim devours it in two bites, and then Will says, "Oh, I could have made more," before the space-age oven starts making angry noises, and Alfred is looking heavenward, but at least nobody is paying attention to the hand that Bruce lays on Dick's knee.

***

Will has gone home for the day, and Bruce is on a conference call in his study, so Dick stops by Alfred's room to see how he's doing.

"Hey, Alfred," he says, leaning in the doorway.

"Master Dick, do come in," Alfred says.

Dick takes a seat on the chair opposite the small sofa that Alfred is propped up in. "How are you feeling?" he says, even though he keeps asking Alfred the same thing and he's probably sick of answering.

"Perhaps I should ask you how you are feeling," Alfred says, very serious.

Dick thinks about deflecting the inquiry, but he knows from experience that Alfred won't let up until he answers the question. "Good," he says carefully. "I mean, I think -- well, you know Bruce."

"Indeed I do," Alfred says. His eyelids fall half-shut, and he says, "You know, Master Bruce has contemplated adopting you at various points."

"Um, what?" Dick asks in a strangled voice.

"Nothing in this world is permanent," Alfred says, his tone contemplative, in an eerie echo of Bruce's words. "But I don't think I'm wrong in venturing to say that Master Bruce has always wished to make your relationship so."

Dick is simultaneously touched and a little weirded out. "Uh. I mean, it's a nice thought, but obviously, we're not -- um."

Alfred saves him from himself and says dryly, "When it comes to you, I'm afraid Master Bruce's contingency plans leave something to be desired."

That surprises a laugh out of Dick, and when he looks up, Bruce is watching them both from the doorway.

"Hey," Dick says. "Ready to get dirty?"

Bruce raises an eyebrow and Alfred says, "Really, Master Dick."

"I meant the car!" Dick protests, jumping up out of his seat and giving Alfred a scandalized look.

"We'll be downstairs," Bruce says to Alfred, looking over his shoulder as he guides Dick out the door with one hand on the small of his back.

"I'll be sure to wave vigorously at the camera should I require assistance," Alfred calls after them.

"Can't put anything past him," Dick says as they make their way into the elevator.

"It's fortunate, I suppose," Bruce says, and then he kisses Dick like the kind of work they'll be doing on the Batmobile isn't of the mechanical variety, at least until the elevator dings and they walk out into the Batcave together again.