The butler, who’s just opened the window to ventilate the room, raises his gaze at the door, startled.
“Master Bruce?” he asks in surprise, returning to his chair by the bedside as he watches him cautiously closing the door behind him. “Aren’t you supposed to be on patrol, sir?”
Bruce Wayne, and not Batman, makes a nervous gesture with his hand, as if the thought is irritating, nothing but an annoying fly. “There’s nothing out there. I swear I’ve never seen a quieter Saturday night in Gotham,” he says, approaching. “How are we?”
The real reason behind the admittedly early return -it’s not even 2:00 a.m. yet- is more than obvious, and Alfred all but smirks. “Fever withdrew, for a while. Chills started coming back soon after you left. Half an hour ago, we were at 39,2 °C.”
Bruce shoots him a shocked look. “Are you serious?”
“I’m afraid so,” he nods in confirmation.
Bruce looks absolutely devastated, let alone worried beyond words can describe. Alfred watches him taking a seat on the bed, beside Jason’s sleeping form. The child is all-curled up in his heavy, warm duvet, cheeks flushed and lips slightly parted, breathing somewhat hoarse. He reaches out one hand to gently brush away the black strands falling over his forehead. “Oh, my boy. My little boy…”
“He will be a lot better in the next measurement,” Alfred reassures him.
Bruce doesn’t seem at all relieved. “Should we call a doctor, Alfred?”
“I have already contacted Miss Thompkins. As quiet as the streets are tonight, hospitals don’t seem to rest at all. She will be here as soon as she can, which is, supposedly, in the morning. However, she was not at all worried upon hearing the symptoms, she expects this to be gone within the next few days. I directly followed her own instructions and gave him an Anasol.”
Bruce huffs before he speaks, voice always kept low. “Listen… I know what you're going to say, but… remember last week, when we raided Scarecrow’s lab?”
Alfred narrows his eyes. “Sir. As you very correctly observed, this happened last week. Master Jason fell ill a day ago. He did not have any fever until today, which is eight days later. There are no signs of infection. It is probably something he picked up at school.”
Bruce frowns. “Right. Right.” A long pause. “What is your opinion about homeschooling?”
Alfred looks at him expressionless, drained of energy. “Master Bruce. It’s just the flu.”
Bruce tuts. “I know, I know. I’m just… wondering.”
“Very well, then. My opinion about homeschooling is that you’re overreacting, sir,” he weights in. “Master Jason loves school, so it would most probably upset him, to say the least. You do not need to worry that much. Young master will be up and running again before you know it. I guarantee that.”
Still unconvinced, Bruce rubs a hand over his chest. “If this goes on for another day after tomorrow, I’m taking him to a hospital.”
Alfred has been raising that man long enough to have trained himself not to ever let himself get too surprised in anything. “Very well, sir,” he stoically retorts. “Both you and I have previous experiences with children getting sick, but if you need to hear it from a doctor as well…”
“Dick never had such high fever,” Bruce snorts defensively.
“Indeed. You, on the other hand, were not as lucky. Remember your tenth-grade graduation?”
Bruce grimaces at the obvious flashback. Back then, he’d spent an entire week bedridden, burning with fever and constantly throwing up due to food poisoning. He’d ended up missing the graduation party, and his date at the time.
“I was older than twelve back then, and, as a matter of fact…”
He spins within an instant, attention fully focused on the boy. Jason’s eyes are glimmering in their feverish haze, eyelids heavy.
“Hey there, Jaylad,” he says warmly, leaning over to place a tender kiss on Jason’s forehead. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you up. How are you feeling?”
Jason pouts, just a little. “Tired… so cold…”
“I know, chum, I know,” Bruce says, combing back the boy’s hair. “If you’re not better in the morning, we’ll go see a doctor. I promise.”
Alfred rolls his eyes at how the ‘another day after tomorrow’ had been turned into ‘in the morning’.
“I’m not a baby!” Jason protests, as much as he can. “I don’t need a doc—”
His words are choked in a sudden storm of cough. He spasms and covers his mouth, curling tighter in the covers.
“All right, that’s it, doctor, first thing in the morning,” Bruce declares.
“Alfreeed, tell him!” Jason groans.
“Believe me, Master Jason, I am trying.”
Jason looks like he has further things to say, but eventually gives up, losing the battle to exhaustion. “… ‘s no big deal,” he shrugs. “Last Christmas I was so sick I was hallucinating, and the blanket I had was always kind of wet, because rain fell from a crack on the ceiling in the building I was crushing… and then some lady from the drug store in the corner gave me something, and I got better… so I’ll definitely get better now, too…”
Alfred crosses hands behind his back, gritting his teeth. He watches Bruce going stiff. Alfred knew he couldn’t bear imagining the child, Jason, his Jason, living in such conditions -and that made two of them. He could also swear that the shockingly casual way Jason sometimes used to refer to the tragedies of his past life was deeply upsetting to Bruce. Like he was afraid that there was any chance that Jason would somehow get snatched away from them and returned back to that.
Bruce adored the boy. Alfred believed he was actively trying to spoil him. He quite obviously wanted to offer Jason everything he had been deprived of up until then, from the natural parental care and affection to literally any material thing a child his age could ever want, which was a task quite difficult, since, unlike Dick, who never hesitated in politely asking for something when he needed it, Jason was never asking for anything. Everything they gave, he happily took, but that was it. At some point, the boy had confessed to Alfred that he was considering it rude to ask for anything, from the people that were already giving him so much.
Having Jason in their lives for almost six months now, had been a blessing. The liveliness and joy that Dick had taken with him once he decided to leave had returned. And even though Jason didn’t have the loudness and cheerfulness that characterized his predecessor, there were so many other lovable things about him.
Jason, due to his rougher upbringing and harsh life that had taught him to fend for himself, had been more independent than Dick, lacking the first Robin’s constant need for attention, (which, as much as he loved Dick, Alfred had to admit, became exhausting at times). He was a quitter, subtler child. More studious, inquiring and focused -so focused. He always asked all the right questions, always with a purpose behind them, something that had impressed Alfred from the very beginning. And, beyond the whole street-kid toughness, you’d find that he also secretly stored a childish heart, unimaginably gentle and kind, as well as a masterfully hidden longing for love and acceptance.
Despite all that, Jason sure was a much more difficult child to handle and raise. His temper was one special thing, for example, but the trust issues were, understandably enough, the hardest to overcome. Alfred was positive that, at least during the first month -maybe the second too- the boy half expected to be kicked out, beaten or otherwise punished at even the slightest misstep.
And so, earning his trust was not an easy thing to achieve, especially when it came to Bruce. Both him and Jason had been spending ridiculous amounts of time training themselves on how to mask their emotions, each one for his own reasons. Once Bruce decided that the best method of approach was to let his guard down and simply be honest and real, Jason had instantly followed his example. After that, everything rolled delightfully smooth. Jason was now doing exceptionally better, and frankly… they were also doing better with him around.
“Well,” Bruce says mildly, “now you’re here, in your home, with me, and things are going to be done the right way.”
Jason gives a weary, but heartfelt smile, right before his expression suddenly turns into pure agony. “Wait… what time is it?” he requests, glancing at his alarm clock over the bed stand before he picks himself up on his elbows. “Bruce… Bruce, are you hurt?”
“What? No?” he lifts an eyebrow, briefly glancing down his torso, as if doubting it himself. “I mean, no, I am not. Why would you think that?”
Jason scans him with caution, rubbing his eyes to clear his vision. “If you’re alright, why did you come home so early? I mean… yesterday you took the night off, and today… is everything okay?”
Bruce looks down, saying nothing. He uses his hand, still buried in the boy’s hair, to gently push him back. “Lie back down, Jason,” he says softly.
Jason does, allowing him to fix his pillows and cover him again. “I’m sorry I got sick. I know it’s trouble,” he murmurs. “And now you have to do everything by yourself…”
Bruce laughs through his teeth, pressing another kiss at his forehead. “What do you think I did before Robin?”
“If I might,” Alfred interferes, moving to close the window once more, “I believe the most proper answer to that would be ‘making your most dangerous enemies’.”
Bruce grimaces, clearly unable to deny that, and Jason giggles, then yawns.
“Go back to sleep, buddy,” Bruce says quietly, stroking his burning forehead.
Jason sighs. “Okay,” he gives in, closing his eyes. “Your hands are cool,” he purrs, already sleepy.
Bruce keeps stroking him, until his breathing signals he’s drifted off for good.
“Since you have come back early, sir,” Alfred suggests after a little while, “how about getting yourself some proper sleep, for a change?”
“Yeah, right!” Bruce frowns, shaking his head. “I’m staying with him. You go get some sleep, Alfred, you need rest too.”
Alfred knows this stubborn tone, as he also knows that he would get a better chance of catching one of Batman’s rogues completely on his own than removing the Knight from the boy’s side at that very moment.
“Very well, sir,” he says, trying to contain another smile. “Don’t forget, please, that as soon as the fever drops, and he sweats…”
“… he needs to change clothes, yes, I remember…”
“… and sheets, most probably. You can always call for me…”
“I can do this!”
“Of course, Master Bruce. Of course. Then, I suppose I will leave you to it. Do you need anything?”
Bruce shakes his head, reaching with one hand for the small basin of cool water and the compress in it. “Goodnight, Alfred.”
“Goodnight, Master Bruce.”
Alfred, eventually, doesn’t sleep much. He wakes up at 5:30 a.m., approximately three hours later, with no bloody mood for further sleep whatsoever. His eyes are instantly wide open, his mind heading upstairs.
Half an hour later, once again properly suited, he -very cautiously- finds himself opening the door to Jason’s bedroom. Unsurprisingly enough, there are two sleeping forms over the bed now. Bruce, face buried at the top of Jason’s head and his arm around him, rubbing at his back, and Jason, having slightly uncovered himself, one fist bunched in Bruce’s t-shirt.
He approaches and carefully places a hand over Jason’s forehead, eagerly finding out that his skin is now cool and clammy. He uses that same hand to lightly nudge Bruce’s shoulder.
“I’m not sleeping,” he mumbles roughly, sleepy eyes popping open immediately.
“Of course not, sir. Although, it does seem to have skipped your attention that Master Jason’s fever seems to have currently retreated. We need to wake him up to change and take his temperature.”
“Oh,” Bruce says, slowly picking himself up. “That’s my boy. Great. This is just…”
His sentence gets abruptly cut off by a sneeze.
Alfred lifts an eyebrow.
Humming softly, Bruce weakly turns his head, harking at the rapid footsteps approaching from the corridor outside his bedroom. Stuck in there for two days now, this is the only joy he’s expecting.
Not half a minute later, the door is kicked open and Jason, hair all messy, still in his school uniform, presents himself at the doorway.
“HA!” he yelps, utterly amused, pointing a finger at him, a sneaky grin on his face. “I got you down good, old man!”
“Why, thank you very much,” he grunts, raising an eyebrow. “You don’t need to look that happy.”
Jason laughs and dumps his school bag down at the floor on his way to the bed. He jumps up and lands next to him, kicking his shoes away before he kneels beside him on the mattress. “Well, it’s gotta be your fault, you know? You must have done something wrong. I mean, Alfred sat with me all day, every day, and not even a sneeze. Right, Alf?”
“Absolutely, Master Jason,” says the butler, entering the room and picking up the dumped bag.
Jason studies him carefully, and then his expression turns to something less sneaky, more childish and tender, as he lies down on his chest, hugging him. “How are you feeling?”
Bruce smiles faintly, tussling his hair. Horrible, would be the honest answer to that. He’s nauseated, appetite lost for good, and he doesn’t even want to think about how much of a ruin he must be looking like. He’d forgotten how annoying fever is, the exhaustion that comes with it, or how it turns anyone utterly underproductive. And yet, despite all that, he can’t fake his delight that he and Jason have reached at this point by now.
Five months and twenty-four days.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
“I’ve been better. But it’ll pass,” he promises. “How was school?”
Jason smiles subtly, lightly biting his bottom lip, a pale pink color rising on his cheeks as he passes him the sheet of paper he’s been holding in his hand, that hadn’t really caught Bruce’s attention up until now.
“This is an essay we had to write on our opinion over a book of our choice,” he explains. “Alfred suggested me Oliver Twist. Bruce, this Dickens guy rocks! Mister Kellerman said it was the most full-fledged, well-rounded thing he’s read by a kid our age in years!”
Bruce’s eyes open just a little wider as he shifts on the bed, sitting up as much as he can. He’s staring at the notes at the top, written in red ink:
Exceptional enunciation, powerful ideas and thoughts! Obvious passion. Keep up just like that!
He can’t remember the last time he’d been so excited. “Jason!” he lets out a small exhausted laugh, raising his free hand to cup his face. "Chum, this is great! I am so proud of you!”
Jason’s face shines in obvious happiness, his smile widening. Somewhere behind him, Alfred pretty much shares the same mood.
“Six pages!” Bruce gasps, flipping through it, already knowing that he’s going to read each and every one of them at least ten times. And maybe put them in frames in his office. “Jason! You really liked it, didn’t you?”
Jason vividly nods. “And the funny thing is, I almost dropped it a couple of times, while I was halfway through.”
“It was… very sad,” he frowns. “There were times that… I thought it was going to end badly for Oliver, and… I didn’t want to. But Alfred urged me to go on, and I’m glad I did. He found a dad!”
Bruce tunnels his hand through the boy’s hair. “Yeah,” he smiles warmly. “Yeah, he did.”
Jason wets his lips, the perfect picture of someone who wants to say something but hesitates. “If you aren’t too tired, I was wondering… you know… if you wanna watch a movie, maybe?”
Bruce puts the essay on the bedside table, to save it for later. “I’d love that,” he agrees with a nod.
Jason, much more joyous and relaxed, turns to Alfred. “Can I eat here, please? Just this once?”
Alfred, who normally wouldn’t approve of taking any meal on the bed, waffles on it for a while, before he eventually gives in, unable to deny Jason at this point. “We can make this happen. Just this once.”
The movie of choice is Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Jason sits cross legged and devours hastily (much to Alfred’s disapproval) from the tray he serves him in, while Bruce reluctantly sips more hot soup. By the time the kids in the movie collect the Ferrari, Jason’s curled up against his side, head bowed against his shoulder, commenting on how he loves cars, and how he one day intends to drive not only the Batmobile, but every single one of the cars Bruce possesses in his collection.
Little does he know that, with a little more gentle pleading, Bruce would be half-ready to even let him do it now.