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Breather

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Condensation glistened on the unopened glass water bottle, seeping down into the stained cork coaster protecting the boardroom table. Bruce ignored it in favor of the triple shot Americano in his hand while he listened to a department head’s complaint about the digital project management website they’d transitioned to over the past quarter. Bruce’s mind felt thick with exhaustion, after an unusually late patrol cut sleep short on one end and reviewing Jason’s history chapter with him cut it short on the other.

Another department head broke in to defend the reduced paper waste and Bruce knew he had a minute at best before he had to play damage control and try to keep both of them happy and still working together. He interrupted the mounting tension in the room by clearing his throat and at that same moment, his phone buzzed in his pocket.

“I’m certain we can find a way to make the new system work for everyone,” he went on, while slipping the phone out to glance at the screen. “IT can…”

The caller ID said Richard Grayson.

“Excuse me,” Bruce cut himself off with a forced, polite smile. “I have to take this.”

He pressed accept and held the phone to his ear, while standing. Dick hadn’t called him in…weeks? It had been weeks, at least, since an actual call and not just a brief exchange of terse texts from either. When the door shut behind him and he was alone in the hallway, he could already hear the argument rising behind him again in his wake.

Worry and irritation warred in his gut when he finally answered into the live line, “Dick.”

“Bruce?”

Any hint of annoyance at the bad timing bottomed out at the tearful rasp in the tone.

“What’s wrong?” Bruce asked. He was already striding down the hall, patting his pocket to make sure his car keys were there and not locked in his office two floors up. They were in the pocket, so he jabbed the elevator button to go down.

“I don’t know,” Dick said, his voice low. “I really don’t feel good.”

“Where are you?” Bruce demanded, waiting for the elevator to finish its descent into the parking garage. He knew it was faster, but even knowing that didn’t change the fact that just standing and waiting felt useless and made him wish he’d sprinted down the stairs instead. For Dick to be hurt and call him, now when they were only managing civil conversations half the time anyway…

“My place,” Dick said. “I didn’t go out last night.”

His voice was still hoarse, scratchy with inflammation of some kind. Bruce heard between the lines, the I didn’t even patrol, I didn’t go to the Tower.

“How bad?” Bruce asked, tendrils of panic creeping around the back of his mind. He shoved it off. It could wait, wait until he’d done something. The car peeled out of the garage and he swerved to grab a spot in the lane he needed. If Dick hadn’t gone out, that meant more than a day, and any injury just sitting increased the risk of infection and he was already running through fastest routes from Dick’s place to the Cave.

“I don’t know,” Dick said again. “It felt like the flu yesterday, but I woke up and I can barely move my head, my neck hurts so much, and I can’t remember anything I did to make it…” he trailed off. There was muffled movement and then the sound of retching.

“Dick?” Bruce said into the silence that followed, thinking shit shit shit the whole time. “Dick.”

“…sorry,” came the miserable reply. “I’m back.”

“I’m on my way,” Bruce said.

“Sorry,” Dick said faintly. “I just didn’t know who— I don’t want the team to…I feel really sick, B.”

“I’ll be there soon,” Bruce promised, his foot pressing on the gas pedal. “It’s alright, Dick.”

When he let himself into the apartment, he stepped over a haphazard pile of shoes by the door and walked past the pile of dishes waiting in the sink. “Dick?”

“Mmf,” came the answer.

He found Dick in the bathroom sitting on the floor, slumped back against the wall with his eyes closed. Bruce crouched in front of him and held a wrist to his forehead. Dick tried to pull away but he winced and didn’t get far.

“I called Leslie. She’s waiting for us. Can you walk?”

Dick cracked his eyes open; they were bloodshot and rimmed red, matching the stark flush of his cheeks and contrasted to his otherwise pale skin.

“Dr. Thompkins? Not Al?”

“How’s your neck?” Bruce asked, instead of answering, instead of thinking about bacterial meningitis and comas and every worst-case scenario springing from ignoring this and just going home.

“Stiff,” Dick said, grimacing when he pushed himself up from the floor using the wall for balance. His movement was halting and jerky, far from his normal fluidity. “I can make it.”

Bruce had an hand hovering under Dick’s elbow but he kept himself from actually grabbing it. He pulled it back and watched him carefully as they left the bathroom. The trembling in his limbs was obvious even from two or three feet away but Dick kept himself upright all the way to the car.

The car vents churned out warm air against the April chill and Dick curled up in the seat. He huddled in the jacket Bruce had grabbed while he fished with a foot in the pile of shoes for flip flops.

“Thanks for coming,” he mumbled, his face against the cold window.

“Of course,” Bruce said. The fight they’d had recently about college (again) and Dick’s future (again) didn’t seem to matter as much, and Bruce reached over and gave Dick’s knee a gentle squeeze. “Let me know if I need to pull over.”

“Stomach not that bad,” Dick murmured, sounding half-asleep. Or maybe worn out. “Just…achy. And my head.”

Bruce pressed the gas.


It was over eight hours later when they returned to Dick’s apartment. It was twice as hard to not insist on helping Dick stay on his feet as far as his bed, now that he looked even more exhausted.

Aseptic meningitis had been Leslie’s diagnosis, after a battery of tests and waiting with frowns. The less dangerous form, the ‘go home and ride it out’ viral form. Bruce’s heart still skipped little beats in relief every time he thought about it.

When Dick shucked his jacket onto the floor, Bruce paused to pick it up and hunt for a coat rack. He found a hanger in the hall closet, along a row of other coats and jackets proving Dick knew how to hang up things when he was feeling better.

By the time Bruce followed him to the bedroom, Dick was already asleep. He bent over and kissed the fevered forehead, took a moment to be grateful that despite everything, Dick had called him.

“Nnmf,” Dick mumbled, scooting away, his eyes squeezed shut. “Don’t. You’ll get sick.”

“I won’t,” Bruce answered, sitting on the edge of the bed.

They’d not gone back to the Manor specifically to not risk Jason getting sick, but Bruce’s immune system had fought off dozens of things— hundreds, even— by now, and he could handle it.

“Idiot,” Dick murmured, not pulling away this time when Bruce ran a hand over his hair. “More stubborn…than God.”

“Alfred might have me beat on that one,” Bruce said, in a conciliatory tone. Dick, even sick, chuckled at that; a low, hoarse quiet laugh. “I’ll bring some water. I’m staying here tonight.”

“Mmmkay,” Dick agreed, scrunching down beneath the covers. He was still holding his neck rigidly, his usual second pillow thrown to the side. Bruce straightened the edge of the blue blanket and went to the living room, looked around, and went to work.

The dishwasher was humming through the end of its cycle and Bruce was tying off the kitchen trash bag when his phone rang again. He talked Jason through a math problem and asked how his test had gone while trying to make sense of Dick’s complicated paper-sorting piles spread over the dining table.

When Bruce was shuffling utility bills into a neat stack, Dick emerged from the bedroom and leaned against the doorframe with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He surveyed the cleaned living room and kitchen, opened his mouth like he was going to say something, and then bit his lip. A second later, he sighed.

Bruce watched him drag himself over to the couch and flop down. The room was quiet.

“I was just killing time,” Bruce said, dropping the folded bills.

“I didn’t say anything,” Dick answered testily.

Now it was Bruce’s turn to stare hard across the room and weigh his options. Dick made an unhappy noise, rolling over, a grimace of discomfort tugging at his lips and eyes. Bruce let it drop.

“You don’t have to stay tonight,” Dick said, minutes later. Bruce paused in scrolling through an unfamiliar local take-out menu.

“Are you going to be angry if I do?” Bruce asked; now that the sense of emergency was over, it felt like being on thin ice again. He didn’t want either of them— or both of them— to crack the surface and plunge into the frigid depths.

“I don’t know,” Dick snapped. “Are you going to be angry if you do?”

Bruce didn’t answer, waiting to see which direction it would go if he left it. He kept his eyes on the phone screen, pretending to consider miso soup or ramen.

On the couch, Dick sat up abruptly, and then froze. Bruce’s phone went back in his pocket and he could tell just by the gray pallor of Dick’s face what was going to happen next. Before he could move to offer a trash can, Dick bolted for the bathroom, leaving the tangled blanket behind.

The hot glass from the clean dishwasher cooled rapidly in his hand as Bruce filled it with water from the tap. He set it on the bathroom counter a moment later and crouched down next to Dick, who was slouched over the toilet with a hand pressed against his forehead.

“Done?” Bruce asked, one hand on the flush lever. Dick nodded and sat back, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.

“I want you to stay,” he said, his tone limp and full of misery. “I’m sorry I was trying to pick a fight.”

“You didn’t scare me off,” Bruce said. He stood and offered an arm. Dick grasped his wrist and pulled himself up, and then staggered ahead to the couch without help. Bruce followed with the glass of water and mentally decided on just miso broth.

“Thanks for coming,” Dick mumbled, when Bruce sat on one end of the couch. Bruce had barely settled against the threadbare cushions when Dick tipped sideways to use Bruce’s thigh as a pillow. “I hope I didn’t interrupt anything important.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Bruce said. He put his hand on Dick’s hair and left it there. “You up for watching something?”

“Tell me about a case. Something you’re stuck on.”

“I don’t have anything I’m stuck on.”

“You’re lying,” Dick accused without ire. “And I feel like shit and want to work, so spill.”

“Why did you have to get all of my bad habits?” Bruce asked. “I raised you to be better than me.”

“I am,” Dick twisted a little to give him a tired grin. “So. Something you’re stuck on.”

“The Knights’ pre-games look like we’re in for a good season,” Bruce said.

“Bruce,” Dick whined. “I don’t feel good. Don’t make me fight for this.”

“Pratto in particular has been—”

“Pratto’s a hack and you know it. They shouldn’t have traded Schmidt. It’s going to come back to bite them. And when it does, I’m going to call Clark and tell him exactly what you—”

“Okay, okay,” Bruce relented. “A case. Let me think.”

He was only halfway through the evidence when a gentle snore interrupted him. Bruce turned the TV on, volume low, and flipped through channels before finding a Kurosawa marathon.

“Sorry,” Dick mumbled, when he stirred thirty minutes later.

“Get some more sleep,” Bruce said, not moving.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Dick said. There was a long silence and Bruce guessed that Dick was watching the movie with him now.

“I’m…” Bruce frowned at the businessman on the screen, at the argument the character was having with a detective. The man was weeping, openly. “I’m glad you called, Dick. Call anytime.”

“Thanks,” Dick said quietly. “Love you, B.”

“I…”

“Don’t hurt yourself. I know.”

Bruce squeezed Dick’s shoulder. Dick hummed in answer and curled up more, his head still resting on Bruce’s leg.

“I’ll order dinner, if you’re hungry,” Bruce said. “It’s not Alfred’s broth, but it might help.”

“How far above the speed limit did you drive on the way here?” Dick asked.

“I didn’t even look at the speedometer.” Bruce was rubbing a hand up and down Dick’s upper arm, and he suddenly stopped, worried it might be bothering him. Dick jostled his arm with a small, irritated noise, and Bruce resumed the motion with a brief, amused smirk.

“Nice evasion tactic,” Dick commented, about the speed. “Soup sounds good. And can you turn the volume up?”

“Read the subtitles,” Bruce said. “Since when are you fluent in Japanese?”

“I like the noise. And maybe I am. Maybe I’ve been learning. Don’t give me a hard time, I’m sick.”

Bruce turned the volume up.