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Alone Together

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“Come along now, Master Dick. Master Bruce has some work to get done and it is time for your lunch. Let us give him an hour to devote his time to company matters.”

Bruce caught Alfred’s eye with a grateful look and turned into his study without a word. He didn’t close the door fully, leaving it open a crack, a sign that Dick was allowed back whenever he desired – that had been the study door rule that had been laid down since the start. He just needed a moment to breath.

Dick skipped down the hall cheerily, sat down at the table and dug into his meal with relish. He chatted with Alfred through his entire lunch, between mouthfuls, about what he and Bruce had done that morning so far. They had done gymnastics in the Cave. They had played hide and seek. They had played Nintendo. They had worked on their fort in the woods. They hadn’t stopped for an instant all morning and the child hadn’t even slowed down in the slightest. To be honest, it seemed as if Dick hadn’t stopped in weeks. The energy the boy had was boggling and endless and Alfred was rather exhausted just by listening to all they had done.

The boy was even talking faster the more he went along.

Bruce hadn’t been anything like that as a boy, but Alfred had always considered him to be a bizarre child, rather introspective and withdrawn, even before his parents death, preferring to read and ponder instead of run and play. This child was just as odd, just at the other end of the spectrum. Boisterous and loud both in volume and in presence all of the time, even at his most grief stricken moments he had been a whirl of energy.

To his credit, Bruce hadn’t breathed a word of anything close to negative about their new normal, but Alfred had known exactly what he needed to do, anticipating his needs as always, and a little white lie to the child wouldn’t matter in the long run. There was no pressing WE business that needed Bruce’ attention right now; the new guardian was just a little overwhelmed and Alfred could relate.

Finished with his meal, Dick put his plate and cup in the dishwasher before rocking on his heels. “Thanks Alfred! Lunch was great!”

“Where are you off to now, Master Dick?”

“To see if Bruce is done his work and wants to play Legos!” The boy darted across the room, and Alfred had to act quick if he was going to give Bruce even just a slighter longer reprieve, as there would be no possible way that he would deny the boy’s eagerness to spend time with him. The two were inseparable, different as they were. A pea and a bean in a pod.

“I have an idea,” said Alfred carefully. Dick paused at the door to look back with interest and Alfred met him with a gentle smile. “Why don’t you bring them in here and I shall play with them with you for a bit. It has been ages since I played with Legos.”

The small face brightened wide with the suggestion. “Really?”

“Of course.” Alfred was a solid fixture in the boy’s life, and they had grown rather attached to each other almost as quick as Bruce and Dick had, but he was the one who primarily cared for the boy’s physical needs, making sure that he was fed and clothed and had been a great confident to share with, but not the one who usually satisfied his needs for play and curiosity. As expected, Dick jumped at the chance to play with him, without noticing that he was giving Bruce a break while doing so.

Dick fled and returned after a few moments, struggling slightly with the heavy bin of blocks but set it on the kitchen table with a huge grin before popping the lid off and digging through the pieces. “I’m going to build the Fortress of Solitude!” he exclaimed, pulling out a mini figure out of Superman before hitting Alfred with a questioning look. “Does Bruce know Superman? He won’t tell me, but I think he has to.”

“Do you now?” Alfred settled in the chair and pulled out a random handful of bricks, casually wondering what he should build. He quickly decided that he would try his hand at a spaceship, if his young charge was going with a Superman theme.

“I do. I bet they have some sort of club or secret handshake or something cool that he’s not telling me about.” This child was as quick as a whip and Alfred must have been struggling to keep a neutral face and Dick gasped loudly. “I knew it.”

“I said nothing of the sort,” said Alfred, digging through the bin, trying to avoid looking at Dick while pretending to look for a piece suitable for the nose of a spaceship. “But if you were going to build a Fortress of Solitude, it might be nice if you gave Superman a pet. I think he would like a dog to keep him company. ”

“Superman has a dog?” Dick squealed with delight, and Alfred couldn’t hold back a grin. “Can we get a dog?”

That was a can of worms that he should have foreseen. Bruce had always been after Alfred to get a dog as well. “Maybe that is something we could discuss another day.”

Twenty minutes later, there was a rather impressive looking fortress and a dismal looking spaceship on the table between them. The Fortress, in Alfred’s opinion, looked brilliant, especially considering they didn’t have a kit for it and were going purely off the child’s imagination. White and clear bricks spiralled up, and while Alfred had never been there, it seemed very close to what had been described to him by Bruce. Alfred was about to tell him how great it was when Dick interrupted his thoughts. “Alfred?” He suddenly sounded sad, not like he had during their Lego building. “Does Bruce not want to play with me anymore?”

Alfred almost choked. He had thought that Dick hadn’t noticed that this was a bit of a distraction, but apparently that was not the case. Dick was intuitive and smart, maybe too much so for a child his age, but he hadn’t come to the right conclusion, even if he had most of the facts. “Of course he does, child.” Alfred gently pulled Dick off his own chair and into Alfred’s lap, giving him a light hug, and Dick snuggled into his arms a bit. Such a cuddly child. “I think he likes playing with you quite a bit. Even more than he lets on. But some people need some alone time in order to recharge. Just give him a little while to be by himself and he’ll be back again to play with you with just as much enthusiasm as before. Probably more.” Alfred released his grip and Dick sluggishly made his way back to his own chair, deep in thought.

“Oh,” said Dick quietly, assembling some of the loose pieces in front of him randomly together as he considered Alfred’s words. He was afraid that he had said the wrong thing, but then Dick’s hand’s froze and he sat up straight in his seat, eyes wide, something apparently locking into place in his mind like the Lego bricks. “Ohhhh.” Without warning, Dick started to pack up all the Lego back into the box, carefully placing his Fortress on the top before closing the lid. “Alfred, do we have any colouring books?”

“I believe we do.” It was an odd request from the boy. In the two months that he had been with them so far, Dick hadn’t shown any interest in colouring, but there had been some art supplies that Alfred had purchased when he had joined the household, before Alfred really knew what he liked and didn’t like for entertainment. “There are some in the playroom, in the second drawer of the white cupboard. Would you like me to fetch one for you?”

“No, thanks. I can get it myself. I have to put these away anyway.” Dick picked up the heavy Lego box again and left the room, leaving Alfred alone and a little bewildered at the second sudden change in attitude. A small voice called back, chirping, “Thank you for playing with me!” which made Alfred smile. Such a kind boy. Strange, but kind.

Alfred put Bruce’s lunch onto a tray and took to down the hall to the study, knocking once because opening the door fully to enter. Bruce was sitting at his desk, but his computer was closed and he appeared to be reading something from the library. A book of poetry if Alfred were to hazard a guess.

“Lunch, Master Bruce.”

“Thanks, Al.” Bruce shut his book and set it aside, accepting the plate from Alfred. “For this and for Dick. I needed a moment. It’s just…” Bruce looked hesitant and then simply leaned his head back onto his chair and closed his eyes. He didn’t want to say the words, but the evidence in Bruce’s face, posture and demeanor was clear as day to Alfred. The man was a little drained and worn out. It was a different sort than not getting enough sleep or being injured from his nightly activities. This was more similar to when he had been playing his role as Gotham Elite for too long and needed some time to himself.

Bruce was simply people’d out.  Alfred was surprised that it had taken this long. It was probably due to the positive influence that they were having on each other, but it was a crash that had been inevitable.

“No need to apologize. I understand, sir.” Alfred sat down and Bruce took a bit of his sandwich. “We played Legos.”

Bruce nodded, chewing carefully and swallowed. “I’m a little sad I missed that. I like Legos.”

“I know you do. There will always be more time for Legos, I assure you.”

“What is he doing now?”

Alfred wasn’t entirely sure other than ‘colouring’ but no answer was needed however, as Dick came into the room as soon as the question was spoken, arms full of colouring books and supplies, but he seemed different than earlier. Less of a bounce in his step and silent socked covered footfalls instead of the loud barefooted running sounds he usually made. It reminded Alfred a little bit of the way that Dick behaved in his first weeks at the manor – a little hesitant, timid and discreet. Or at least more so than his regular disposition.

Bruce noticed the change as well, leaning forward in his chair to observe the boy better, but neither man noticed any other signs of distress on the child. “Is everything alright, Dick?”

“Yep.” Dick plopped down on the floor, stretching out on his stomach and flipped his colouring book to a page that found interesting before opening his box of new pencil crayons and pouring them onto the carpet silently and went to work without another word.

Bruce shot a quick glance to Alfred, who simply shrugged in response, as baffled as him, because Dick had mostly been his normal self when he had last been in the kitchen. Was this more demure version of the boy somehow their fault? Had something happened that they had missed for him to become withdrawn in the past ten minutes? Or had he not believe Alfred’s explanation?

Alfred watched as Bruce stood, rounded the desk and then sat on the sofa behind where Dick had settled on the carpet. Dick ignored him and continued to colour with meticulous precision. He was wiggling his toes as he worked, and his tongue was poking out a smidge, but for the most part he was remaining fairly still. More still than Alfred had thought possibly based on the past two months at least. “Are you sure that everything is fine?” Alfred caught a better glimpse at the book that Dick had and his heart froze; it was a circus themed and he silently swore at himself for picking such an unthoughtful item. It must be the cause of his quieter demeanor when he discovered its subject of the book.

“Shh,” shushed Dick, not looking up from his work. “We’re having Introvert Time.”

Bruce blinked. And then he blinked again and shook his head, full of disbelief at the words the boy had said. “I’m sorry,” he chuckled softly. “We’re what?”

Rolling on his side to look back to Bruce on the couch, Dick paused his colouring. “Alfred said that you needed some alone time to feel better. My dad did too. My mom always called it Introvert Time.” Dick swallowed hard and looked back towards the book. “But the thing about being alone is that you don’t need to do it by yourself. I used to colour in our trailer when my dad needed his quiet time. He said I was a good person to be alone with.” For a few moments, Dick traced his fingers over the picture that he had started to colour, a picture of a lion in front of a flaming hoop. He eventually turned back to Bruce, eyes shining, but a small smile on his face. “Sorry that I didn’t notice that you needed it before. There aren’t a lot of quiet people at the circus. My dad was really the only one.”

“Dick… I.” Bruce was at a loss for words, because what could one say in response to something like that. The intuitiveness of Dick was alarming, and yet he was apologizing for not noticing sooner? There were only a handful of people on the planet who knew that Bruce wasn’t the person that he presented in public and it was understood this quickly by an eight year old boy? It was astounding. “Thank you for understanding,” Bruce eventually landed on, and reached down to squeeze Dick’s shoulder lightly, and Dick leaned into the touch. “You have to know that I do like having loud fun with you. I like it a lot.”

“I know.” Dick rolled back onto his stomach and picked up a blue pencil, focus turning back towards the book. “But now we are having quiet fun together. It’s good too.”

“Can I colour with you?” asked Bruce quietly, sliding to the floor silently beside Dick.

“You are doing an awful lot of talking for Introvert Time,” said Dick, but slid another book towards Bruce.  “Sure. If you want to. I’m fine by myself too. You can do whatever you want.”

Bruce laid down, mirroring Dick’s position, and opened his book and set to work on a rather simple looking farm picture with a determined look. Alfred left the room and returned to the kitchen to begin to prep dinner for the evening. An hour later, chicken marinating, vegetables chopped and grocery delivery for later in the week ordered, Alfred returned to the study, three cups of tea on a tray and was surprised to see the two still in the same positions, though both had moved on to different pictures. Alfred set the tray on the desk and handed each of them their drinks as they both shifted into sitting positions, before sitting on the couch himself, all of them taking a moment to drink.

“Thanks for the tea, Al,” said Bruce quietly and Dick nodded in agreement, but stayed quiet, not even slurping his drink in the slightest. Alfred raised an eyebrow at Bruce who just shook his head slightly. It was nice, but strange, this position that they were in. Alfred had been unaware that Dick was even capable of being this still for so long, let alone seeming to enjoy it.

“How long does Introvert Time last?” whispered Bruce as he nudged Dick gently in the side.

“That’s not up to me,” Dick responded in the same hushed tone. “You are the one who gets to decide. It lasts as long as it needs to.” He looked back down to the books beside them, considering the material. “Though if we’re going to do this more often, I may need more colouring books. And a pencil sharpener.”

Bruce hummed in agreement. “I think I need a just little more time today.” Dick nodded in understanding. No argument about doing something more active or loud, no insistence that it was his turn to pick an activity, just accepting the answer that he got. “Do you want to watch a movie in the den with me?”

“Sounds good.” Dick picked up the crayons and put them back in the box with care, individually in an attempt to make less noise possibly, and then stacked them with the books on the coffee table, apparently deciding that this is where they should be stored now. “I’ll get us a snack. You can pick the movie and I’ll meet you in there.”

“You don’t want to pick the movie?”

“The Introvert gets to pick during Introvert Time, Bruce. Everyone knows that.” Dick walked quietly out of the room. He got perhaps five paces from the door before Alfred could hear the steps pick up, and small feet started thundering down the hall in the direction of the kitchen.

“Alfred…” Bruce was staring at the empty doorway in wonder and Alfred squeeze his should, just as Bruce had done earlier to Dick. Alfred had recognized the movement in an instant. Bruce leaned into the touch just as the boy had done.

“I know, lad. He’s quite remarkable.” Alfred squeezed once more, saying more than either of them ever had with their words. “He’s good for you. Just as you are good for him.”