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The house is sweet when I'm with you

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The tight feeling gripping his chest finally started dissolving when Jim sighted the dark and forbidding gate ahead of him.

It was strange how his emotions at the sight had changed in less than two months. Two months and a week ago, 'home' had been Barbara's apartment in Upper Gotham, despite the fact that in Jim’s mind Barbara’s loft had never become 'their’ loft. Somehow, a part of him had realized their relationship wasn't evolving as it should have.

Jim didn't think Wayne Manor was his home either. But, somehow, the gate and the forbidding and imposing magnificence of the Manor was now familiar and welcoming to him in a way Barbara's loft had never been.

He shook his head. Lately, Jim had found himself often following strange and sappy musings - just like the one he'd just had. Jim knew he shouldn't get attached to the place. As much as a part of Jim wanted to, this wasn't his home, and soon he would have to move out. With a slight wince Jim recalled the perfect apartment Harvey had somehow found for him. It had been both very thoughtful and quite uncharacteristic of his partner. A very practical part of Jim recognized that Harvey had found something that fit him quite well: one bedroom plus a little kitchen and bathroom, at a five minute walk from the precinct, at a reasonable price. Harvey had pushed him just this morning into calling the owner and tomorrow Jim would take a look at the place but he already knew it was going to be fine. Harvey knew him and the guy. Jim knew he wasn't going to find anything amiss with the place; he just knew. So, why was a strange feeling of dread clutching at his ribcage?

Jim was now pulling up at the garage of the Manor which was full of the cars Bruce's father had so loved, apparently the only vice the man had indulged himself in, and as every evening since accepting Bruce's offer of a guest room, Jim gave himself a few moments to enjoy the quiet of the saloon and the beauty of the sight in front of him. The place reminded Jim a bit of the car exhibition his father had taken him to before leaving for the first Iraqi invasion and it was a bittersweet memory to recall in a place so loved by another dead man.

He shook himself after a while. Apparently this night Jim was being more morose than usual. With care, he walked among the cars, until he reached the door connecting the garage to the main building. With a sigh he stepped into the corridor leading to the main house already dreading the talk he was going to have that evening.

***

Despite being a little later than usual, Jim saw only Alfred in the kitchen; he stopped on the threshold, too much aware of the fact that he was going to be alone with Alfred in the man's own domain.

Alfred Pennyworth was shorter than him by a few inches, but somehow his posture was still imposing and Jim always felt small, at a disadvantage, when he had Alfred's sharp gaze on him. The fact that they haven't had the easiest interactions since the very first beginning didn't help the uncomfortable sensation Jim had of being found wanting time and time again. The fact that lately the sight of the man caused without fail a slight tightening of his chest and heart, a reaction Jim tried to deny and ignore at all cost because it spelled absolute disaster, wasn't helping. At least, now, Alfred didn't seem to despise him as much as before and the silence that fell between them when Bruce left them after dinner to go to bed was starting to become as welcome to him as the sight of the Manor.

To sum it up nicely and clearly, Jim was in deeper trouble than he thought.

“How was your day, Mr Gordon?”

The voice, sharp and by now very familiar, shook Jim out of his thoughts and made his heart skip a beat. When Jim focused on the present, Alfred was turned towards him, apron as clean as ever with knife in hand and eyebrow slightly quirked, the only sign the man ever gave him that he now cared somehow for the answer.

Jim smiled faintly.

"Boring but fine."

Alfred hummed quietly in reply but didn't get back to the meat he was cutting on the kitchen countertop, as if waiting for something more. That made Jim's cop instincts go up and take notice. Alfred was quite the epitome of what a butler should be: unobtrusive and discrete. Even when Jim's answers about his day were clearly a lie, the man had never called him on it or probed further. He just didn't. That helped in maintaining that distance that at first Jim resented, but now was grateful for. Alfred's cool posture never made him forget Jim was at the Manor as Bruce's guest and only that. He was just a passing figure in Bruce's and Alfred's life at the Manor.

Now though… now, it seemed the status quo was perhaps changing and Jim couldn't allow that. His heart couldn't allow that.

He cleared his throat.

"I'm going to freshen up and change before dinner." Jim said in the silence of the kitchen.

Alfred's eyes didn't leave his face and Jim was the first to look away.

"Of course, Mr Gordon. Dinner is at half past seven as usual."

Jim bobbed his head and retreated, not once looking at the man haunting now his thoughts.

***

By the time he had to get down, Jim had lost the little force of will he'd had to announce he was going to move out, probably in a few days.

Actually, he didn't even want to get down in the first place, but it would be very rude of him and Jim knew Bruce liked having him there. Bruce wasn't an expressive kid by any means and not prone to show his real emotions if he could prevent it. Jim didn't know if the kid had always been like that or if the loss of his parents had changed him but even Bruce couldn't hide the joy lightening up his eyes when he told Jim about his day. And Jim couldn't deny he was pleased when he saw it. It was nice that someone enjoyed his company in such a simple and innocent way.

In the end, Jim went down with a few minutes to spare and Bruce was still missing from the small living room where they used to take their meals. The kitchen, Jim had understood, was Alfred's complete domain and the man only allowed the room to be used to eat in the mornings where they were late. So, mostly never.

Alfred was finishing putting the bread and salad on the table when Jim entered the room and he quickly went to his seat, hoping Bruce would appear soon. By the slight quirk of lips Jim could see from the corner of his eye, he realized this was the first evening he hadn't asked Alfred if he could help in some way.

Jim gave an internal sigh. If he went on like that, everyone would know something was wrong, even if Jim himself didn't know what.

But then Bruce entered the room and with a small smile greeted him. The sight made Jim warmer and, with an honest smile of his, Jim greeted the kid back. By the time Bruce was seated, Alfred was walking towards Jim, tray full of goodies as always. That particular evening Alfred had gone for something Italian and the smell was making Jim's mouth water.

He swallowed. How many things Jim was going to miss very soon.

"It smells heavenly." he offered when Alfred was serving him his portion, too close for Jim's comfort.

"Thank you." the man replied and, while his face didn't show anything, the fact that he hadn't tacked "sir" or "Mr Gordon" at the end, Jim hoped was a sign his compliment had been well received.

The rest of the evening passed quietly, Bruce talking about his day and what he'd learned at school, while Alfred ate silently (Jim suspected Alfred had rarely eaten with Bruce before he'd come to the Manor) and Jim hummed and replied when it was appropriate. He'd thought he'd behaved as naturally as usual, when Bruce interrupted his story of a science experiment.

"Is everything all right, Mr Gordon?" the boy asked, quietly and clearly puzzled.

The name dismayed Jim: until a few minutes ago, Bruce had called him by his given name. It had taken Jim a while to convince the boy it was okay and he wondered how it was possible that tonight he was making everyone behave so uncharacteristically.

Jim sighed.

"I'm fine, Bruce." he replied. "So go on, tell me if your experiment was successful." he tried, smiling.

Bruce's eyes narrowed slightly and Jim wondered if he would let it go or not. He wondered if it would be easy to lie further to the kid, too perceptive for his own good, or not.

Bruce, thankfully, let it go.

When Jim took on his meal again, while Bruce went on talking about boiling temperatures and whatnot, he saw something in the corner of his eye and turned slightly, seeing Alfred watching him quietly and too sharply for Jim's peace of mind. While the man had never been a cop, he'd been part of a military elite force and he was too apt at noticing things.

Jim swallowed and took another fork of his scaloppine.

***

By the end of the meal, Jim realized that either he was going to say it now or he never would.

By the time Alfred was taking out the dessert (a heart attack of cream and chocolate), Jim was as ready as he could be.

"I've found a nice apartment." Jim started in the silence of the room, and he saw the slight jerking of Alfred's arm serving Bruce. The man didn't raise his eyes, going on with his task as if Jim hadn't said anything, but the movement had been there.

The shuttered look on Bruce's face, quickly disappearing as if never there, was still a punch in the gut for Jim.

"Oh?" Bruce said after clearing his throat. "And how did you find it?"

"Harvey found it for me."

"You haven't been searching then?" Bruce asked, looking at him, and Bruce's dark eyes and question pinned Jim on the spot. He couldn't answer, without lying or betraying more than he was ready to acknowledge.

When the silence had gone on for too long, damning Jim in any case, Bruce added quietly, looking down at his plate and forgotten dessert.

"You don't need to go. We have the space."

The voice didn't tremble. Almost. A vice around Jim's heart tightened, because he knew what Bruce was saying in his own way. We have the space. We want you here.

Jim glanced towards Alfred, now standing as a statue behind Bruce, because as much as this was Bruce's Manor, it was also Alfred's home even if no one said it aloud.

The man's expression was as blank as a wall and that made his heart tighten in an altogether, painful way.

Jim swallowed.

"Thank you." he blurted out. "I'll think about it, I don't want to impose."

"You don't." Bruce replied fiercely.

And Jim might have believed him, if Alfred hadn't been standing right there.

***

Bruce retired shortly thereafter, bidding Jim a warm goodnight.

As any other evening, Alfred asked Jim if he wanted a nightcap. He usually refused. This time Jim didn't. He needed it for what was coming.

"A whiskey, if you have it."

"Of course."

Alfred took out a bottle that looked older than Jim and Bruce combined, already open, and wondered who had been the lover of whiskey, if it had been Mr Wayne, his wife or both. He wondered why every night Alfred offered him the Wayne's favorites. They were dead, of course, but in Alfred's shoes he would have kept or drunk those bottles himself.

When Alfred handed him the glass, Jim found he couldn't stay silent.

"Tomorrow I'm going to see the apartment. I think I'll move out by this weekend."

This time Jim was looking up while speaking and he saw the tightening of Alfred's expression.

The man backed away and went near the windows looking out at the garden behind the manor. Obviously he wouldn't join Jim in a nightcap. They weren't friends. Barely acquaintances, probably, in Alfred's opinion. A strange kind of sadness and resignation pervaded Jim.

"Master Bruce offered earnestly." Alfred volunteered at last.

Jim sighed quietly and twirled his glass. The whiskey made a beautiful, amber spiral.

"I know." Jim decided that it wouldn't hurt this time to be honest. He probably wouldn't see much of Bruce or Alfred in the future. "But this isn't just his home."

Alfred quickly turned towards him.

"What do you mean?"

Jim looked away and cleared his throat.

"Someone should be comfortable in his own home."

"And you think I'm not?" Alfred asked, cool and sharp as arctic wind.

Maybe being honest was turning out to be a mistake. Jim got out of the chair and turned to look at the man. This wasn't a talk he wanted to have seated.

"It's quite clear you don't like me, Mr Pennyworth." Jim bit out, but didn't even have the satisfaction of seeing Alfred react at the use of his surname. Oh, what a fool he'd been! There was nothing here, nothing but politeness for the sake of it and proper education.

"I won't stay where I'm not wanted." he ground out and when no answer was forthcoming, Jim decided he'd had enough and it was time to give up. He was almost at the door when a quiet voice, not as sure as Jim was used to hearing, made him stop.

"But you are." was stated.

Jim's eyes widened and his heart thumped more loudly in his chest. He was still turned towards the door, frozen in place.

After Jim didn't know how long, a light touch on his shoulder made him twirl around. Alfred was right in front of him as unsettled as Jim had ever seen the man: the man was looking somewhere over his shoulder, back slightly slumped. But what fascinated Jim were the man's hands in front of him, clutched tightly together, as if to keep them in their place.

Alfred's eyes darted towards his and the sight was a punch: the usually cool gray eyes were dark, as stormy as a sea in rage. Jim had never seen them so expressive, so soulful.

But now that they were in this standoff, Jim wondered if what he had heard had been just wishful thinking.

"Are you..." Jim croaked out, voice hoarse in emotion.

Alfred looked away, then at him again. One of his hands started moving towards Jim, but stopped midway. Before it could go down, something in Jim made him reach out and take Alfred's hand. The touch froze them both, and Alfred looked at their hands, joined.

Jim could swear that time and even his heart had stopped beating in that moment. In the clear, heavy silence of the room, Alfred's hoarse voice was like an oasis in the desert.

"You are wanted here. Stay."