Thomas Wayne was buried on a rainy day in the spring. Plenty of people attended that had no business being there, but none of them felt more out of place than Tony Stark. At fourteen years old, a funeral for a man he had only met once was already not his idea of a good time; knowing that his father had dragged him and his mother along to make a statement to a former business rival didn't help matters. As soon as he could manage he slipped away, soaking his pants up to the knees in the wilds of Wayne Manor's far lawn. He was tempted to dump his umbrella and ruin the whole suit, but that would probably earn him a talking to at levels not worth the effort. He did spin it, though, watching the rain fly off in all directions.
Tony's idle exploration took him to the rear of the manor, and the greenhouse nestled at the base of a hill. It was only chance that drew his eye to it just as a figure darted inside. He investigated. He could hear shuffling at the back, and followed it until finally coming across a young boy sitting on an old, worn bench along the wall.
They had met only once before, when Tony was ten and Bruce four. Bruce wouldn't remember that Tony had taken him to his room and let him ruin the circuit board he'd been working on while their parents faked pleasantries over wine. He had been a cute kid, and Tony grimaced in sympathy seeing him then, pale-faced in his black mourning suit. It was kind of morbid that they even made such a thing in his size.
"Hey," Tony said awkwardly. He moved closer so that his umbrella covered them both. Asking if he was all right seemed like the worst idea possible, so he tried a different angle. "Your butler know you're out here?"
Bruce didn't look up. He was playing with his jacket cuffs; it was a little too big for him after all. Soaked to the bone as he was, it was hard to tell if he was crying or if it was just the rain.
"Allen?" Tony guessed, leaning forward a little. "Alexander? Alphonse?"
"Alfred," Bruce said quietly.
"Alfred. Yeah, he's probably looking for you." Still Bruce didn't look up, so Tony pushed on his shoulder. "Scoot."
Bruce did so, and when Tony slouched onto the bench next to him he finally looked up. He was pale and his eyes were red, but he didn't seem to be crying at the moment. He looked confused, and he watched as Tony did his best to position the umbrella against the wall. "What do you want?" he asked.
"If I'm here when they find you, they won't be able to say anything," Tony reasoned. "No one can yell at you for running off. You know, make a scene."
Bruce continued to frown at him. "Alfred doesn't yell."
"Yeah. Well." Tony stretched his legs out, watching the rain fall against his shoes. "Then you can keep my old man from yelling at me, how about that?"
"You're using me," Bruce huffed incredulously.
Tony made a face. "You'll get used to it."
Bruce shifted forward, looking ready to abandon Tony, but after some fidgeting he gave up and settled again. He rubbed his face on his sleeve. Tony kept still, not sure what he would do if Bruce started crying. But he was a tough little kid. He stared Tony straight in the face and said, "My dad told me to be careful around you."
Tony blinked. "He did?"
"He said Starks aren't trustworthy," Bruce continued. "Your dad tried to cheat us out of a lot of money." He rubbed his face again. "That's what he said to mom, anyway."
Tony shrugged helplessly. It wasn't anything he hadn't heard before. "Your dad's pretty smart, I guess." After a moment of awkward silence he added, "I'm sorry."
Bruce lowered his head. He still didn't cry, just sat next to Tony in the rain until one of the mourners found them. Alfred came next, and Tony's father. Tony kept his head down--sneaking off had seemed like a better idea at the time than at present--but once Bruce was on his feet, he turned back. "Thanks, Tony," he said. His eyes flickered to Tony's dad, and then he let Alfred lead him out of the greenhouse.
Tony got it. As he followed them out, his dad put his hand on the back of his neck and squeezed with fatherly affection. It might have just been for show, but Tony could eagerly pretend it was sincere. It was a gift. On the worst day of Bruce Wayne's short life he was still willing to do a favor for the troubled teen he'd been warned to stay away from. Because that was what Bruce Wayne was. He could be good for the sake of good. He could see to the heart of a person and still treat them fairly. In the years to come Tony would wonder again and again what Bruce might have become if not for the cruelty inflicted on him in his young years, but more than that, he would never forget that tiny favor granted in a moment of grief.
He would have liked to repay it with one of his own. He would have liked to do old man Wayne a favor and stay the hell away from Bruce. But Tony wasn't Bruce. He wasn't about being good.
Bruce did his best to be the kind of son his father would have raised. He really did.
When the principal offered a tissue, Bruce folded it and shoved it up his sluggishly bleeding nose. He couldn't stop tonguing his split lip as he slumped in the corner of the office, casting glances between the door to the counselor's office, where his similarly bloodied adversary was holed away, and the main door, where Alfred would appear at any moment. He felt sick, and angry, and ashamed. He could hear the kids in the hall talking about him as they gathered outside the auditorium. They'd go home and tell their parents, and then their parents would say, "He's just acting out because he misses his parents. Go easy on him." And he hated that.
The office door opened, and Bruce straightened, silently practicing the explanation he would give to Alfred. It wasn't Alfred that came through; it was a skinny teenager in a suit, followed by an older man with a bald head and full beard. They passed Bruce without seeing him and moved to the receptionist's desk in order to fill out the visitor sign in.
Bruce stared. He had just seen Tony Stark on television the other day and had no trouble recognizing him. Tony signed his name with a flourish and then turned away as Obadiah Stane chatted with the principal. He zeroed in on Bruce and his face registered surprise only for a moment before he smirked. "Hey," he greeted.
Bruce rubbed his mouth self-consciously. "Hey."
Obadiah turned and, seeing Bruce for the first time, grimaced openly. "That's not Bruce Wayne under that bloody nose, is it?" he said in that overly-friendly way adults think kids liked to be talked to. "Are you all right, son?"
Bruce tried not to grimace back. "I'm fine, sir."
"Junior high," said Tony knowingly. "Hasn't changed."
"Just an isolated incident," Principal Miller said quickly. "Boys will be boys, you know."
Bruce had a pretty decent explanation prepared for Alfred, but he wasn't sure how well it would work on Tony or his guardian. "What are you doing here?" he asked, hoping to change the subject.
"They've got me speaking at the science fair introduction assembly," said Tony. "You know, make a diorama and you'll graduate from MIT by seventeen? I'm contractually obligated."
Obadiah gave him a look. "It's called community service. Will you be at the assembly? Or, well." He winced again. "Is someone coming to pick you up?"
"He can come to the assembly," said Tony. "Right?" He stepped away from the desk and waved for Bruce to stand up, which he did. "We'll just get him a fresh Kleenex and he's good to go."
"His...guardian has been called and is on his way in," said Principal Miller. "I'm afraid he has to wait here."
"Tough break." Tony gave Bruce a pat on the shoulder and headed for the exit. "I'll send you the audio book version."
He left, and Obadiah and the principal followed. "Good to see you, Bruce," Obadiah said along the way.
Bruce moved to the windows, watching as the three of them headed down the hallway toward the auditorium. By then most of the students would have been gathered and in their seats. It didn't seem fair--the other boy had started the fight. There wasn't any reason for Bruce to have to miss out.
"Bruce," said the secretary, "please sit back down. I'm sure he'll be here soon."
Bruce twisted the door open and hurried out. He heard the secretary yell after him but he didn't stop, and he ran to the auditorium, all the way up to the top tier seats reserved for the upperclassmen. Narrowly avoiding the algebra teacher, he crept to the far end and found sanctuary between a pair of sympathetic eighth grade girls.
It took a while for Principal Miller to get control of the room; by then everyone had spotted Tony Stark seated at stage left, and the students buzzed with their parents' gossip. Everyone had a story to tell about the Stark family. Only Bruce kept his to himself. He watched Tony yawn through Principal Miller's introductions and clenched his hands against his knees, wondering what was really going through his mind. Tony must have been a thousand miles away from the full house of rich middle-schoolers.
Because the last time Bruce had seen Tony, it was on a television news report discussing the recent deaths of Howard and Maria Stark, killed in a car crash barely a month earlier. It was impossible to tell by looking at him, and Bruce wanted nothing more than to pull him aside, to ask and to know what he was really feeling beneath his veneer of slick composure. Surely he felt just like Bruce did. He understood. Someone had to understand.
Tony took to the podium amidst curious and eager applause from the students. He eyed the crowd and, impossibly, he seemed to notice Bruce, as his lip quirked in that same little smile from the office. He opened his mouth and Bruce leaned forward, but just as he started speaking, the eighth graders hushed and a hand fell on Bruce's shoulder.
Bruce knew immediately who it was. He didn't need to fake a look of shame as he lifted his head to meet Alfred's disapproving stare.
"Michael started it," Bruce explained as he and Alfred returned to the office. "He said you're not my butler, you're my 'mommy.' And then he asked if you breast-fed me."
Alfred sighed. "That is hardly appropriate," he said, "but it doesn't then follow that he deserves a broken nose."
"It wasn't broken. He was just being dramatic." Bruce glanced over his shoulder. "Can't I finish watching the assembly?" he asked.
"You've had enough school for today, I should think."
The secretaries and building security were waiting for them. Bruce offered apologies, but it was watching Alfred apologize again on his behalf that made him feel truly guilty. They sat down together in the office to wait for the principal to finish with the assembly and return. When it was suggested that Alfred take Bruce home and schedule a meeting for a more convenient day, Alfred refused, saying he wanted the entire matter resolved in as timely a manner as possible. Bruce waited sullenly next to him.
When the bell finally rang and the students were dismissed from the assembly, Principal Miller returned. He invited Alfred into his office so they could have an "adult" chat while building security took over watching Bruce. It wasn't necessary. Bruce stayed still, trying to predict what Miller and Alfred might say to him once they had teamed up. He was deep in thought and didn't notice until the door opened that Tony had returned as well, though he was missing Obadiah.
"Hey," said Tony. "Looks like you missed it after all, huh?"
"Yeah." Bruce stared. He tried to see in Tony's smile all the warnings his father had given him years ago, but he couldn't. "Did you say anything important?"
"Sure. Secrets of the universe. Participate in the science fair, that sort of thing." He cocked his head to the side. "You any good in science?"
Bruce was, but he shrugged. "I guess. I wasn't really thinking of entering, though."
"You should," said Tony. "Science is important. Saves lives, all that jazz." He considered Bruce for a moment longer, his expression easing into something a bit more sincere. "How're you doing, Bruce?"
People asked Bruce that all the time. Sometimes they meant it, but more and more it only seemed to come from people looking to appear sympathetic. Under the slow smiles the message was always the same: It's time for you to get over it.
But that wasn't what Tony was saying, because Tony got it. He had ghosts on his shoulders, too. "I'm okay," said Bruce, and he knew Tony understood what he really meant. He pulled the tissue out of his nose at last and tossed it into the trash. He tried to think of something really meaningful to say, something he would have liked to hear, and ultimately decided it didn't matter.
"I'm sorry about your parents," Bruce said simply.
Tony lowered his eyes. "Thanks."
The door to the principal's office opened, and Mr. Miller gestured for Bruce to join them. Bruce gulped and pushed to his feet. Before he got too far, though, Tony cleared his throat.
"Bruce." Bruce turned, and Tony smiled. "I'm pretty good in science," he said.
Bruce smiled back.
Gotham was only tolerable in the winter. Tony was no fan of the snow, but he preferred it to Gotham in its summer months, when the streets reeked of oil, and crowding skyscrapers made him long for dry, open desert. With Christmas around the corner even the country's darkest pit of high-level corruption and overpriced menswear became...well, not pleasant. But approaching as close to pleasant as it was capable.
"Tony," Bruce grumbled from the bed.
Tony turned away from the frosty window, sucking on a bottle of cream soda--the closest to a proper drink he could get on a high school campus. "What? You're doing fine."
Bruce rolled onto his back, abandoning his laptop and the slew of books surrounding it. "I thought you came here to help me."
"I'm 'here' in Gotham trying to lure an old fox out of his den," Tony said. "Do me a favor when you're in charge and fire that idiot so he can come work for me." He crossed the obscenely penthouse-like dorm room, dodging open boxes and nudging a few more strewn books aside with his toe. "Just so happened I got your call on a lunch break." He stopped next to the bed. "So what is it? You're not in junior high anymore, you know. I'm not winning any more science fairs for you."
Bruce rolled his eyes up at him. At fifteen he was a very different beast than when Tony first met him. Over the past several years they had seen each other a handful of times, mostly in more formal situations than the one presently. Even with that limited contact Tony couldn't help but feel that he'd been a negative influence. As a sophomore Bruce was already on his second high school, having been politely invited to leave his former one following a homecoming altercation that no one quite knew the details of. Even seeing Bruce then, collapsed on the bed, his uniform helplessly rumpled and eyes dull and bitter, it was hard to remember the grieving boy Tony found in a rainy greenhouse. Even harder to remember the curious and affectionate four-year-old before that.
"It's math," said Bruce. He waved vaguely at the laptop. "Imaginary numbers."
Tony thumped onto the bed and looked over the laptop screen. "What's so hard about that?"
Bruce wriggled closer, his shoulder warm against Tony's bent knee. "It's not hard," he said. "It's just...pointless."
Tony took another sip of his drink, and when Bruce waved at him, he relinquished it. "I know you know this stuff," said Tony. "You helped me reprogram HAL's AI last summer. So what's the problem?"
"If you know I know it, what does it matter if I do it?" countered Bruce. "It's a waste of time."
"I'm not the one giving you a grade." Tony watched as Bruce tipped the bottle very carefully to get a few sips out without spilling and without sitting up. He smacked him in the ribs at just the right time to splash cream soda up his nose. "Come on. Just get it done."
Bruce coughed and snorted. "Can't you just do it? It'll get done so much faster." He flashed a winning smile. "See? I'm practicing micromanagement for my business class."
Tony rolled his eyes. Bruce was going to drop panties with that innocent smile of his one day, if he wasn't already. "I don't work for you," he said, but then his eyes danced to the first problem on the screen, and his fingers twitched. He filled in the answer and tried not to notice Bruce smirking at him as he went on to the next.
Bruce finished off the soda and let the bottle drop to the floor. For a few minutes they sat in silence, with only the gentle hum of the city and occasional tap of the keyboard as backdrop. Then Bruce shifted and said, "Guess I won't be able to con you into this by next year, huh?"
"Flat out asking me is not a con," Tony replied, but there was no point dodging the real question. "But yeah, they're handing me the reigns come January first. It's a shame you're not drinking age--my New Year's party is going to be otherworldly."
Bruce chuckled. "You're going to show up to the paperwork signing hung over? Uncle Obi will love that."
"Trust me," Tony teased back, "no one is going to drink that night more than Obi."
Bruce was quiet for another beat, smiling at the ceiling. "It's really something. You, a CEO."
Tony's lip quirked. "Yeah, something else. It'll be you, too, eventually."
He glanced down in time to see the humor drain from Bruce's smile. Those bright blue eyes glossed over and he suddenly looked even younger. "Yeah," Bruce mumbled. "Eventually."
"Sooner," Tony prodded, "if you'd do your own damn homework."
Bruce craned his head back. "How's it coming, by the way?"
"Get me another drink and I'll tell you."
Bruce scoffed. He didn't move. Tony knew he wouldn't, but he kept at the problems anyway. "Don't bust my balls, Tony," said Bruce as he settled even more comfortably against Tony's knee. "You did everything at the last minute in school, too. I remember why you had me help you with that AI last summer, you know."
Tony shook his head, but Bruce was right. Bruce always had his number, even back when they were both kids. That was another thing immediately apparent about Bruce Wayne: whether he admitted it or not, whether he liked it or not, he knew people. He could flash his smile and those baby blues and have the world, if only he would want it. He could wrap man or woman around his finger if he cared enough to beckon. The world ought to have been grateful that Bruce didn't want and didn't beckon. Tony sure as hell was.
"So how is the new school?" asked Tony, preferring not to linger on the subject of the almost-too-accurately-named HAL mishap of the year previous. "As bad as you feared?"
"I like it fine," Bruce replied, without any inflection to indicate he meant it. "It's school. I'm just not sure it will really mean anything, in the end." Before Tony could begin to roll his eyes, he added, "But at least I got laid."
Tony's eyebrows perked, but he didn't stop working, even when his imagination betrayed him with rather vivid speculation. He vowed to kick his own ass as soon as he left. "Oh yeah? That friend Rachel of yours?"
Bruce harrumphed in the way that only teenagers can. "Rachel hasn't even talked to me since freshman year," he said, as if it were a lifetime ago.
"So who's the lucky lady?"
Bruce went still next to him. "Tommy Elliot."
Tony stopped working. His chest gave a twinge as he looked down, unable to avoid Bruce's penetrating stare. "Oh," he said. Danger lights flashed before his eyes and he could just hear Rhodey's voice in his ear, proclaiming him the world's worst giver of advice. He was not prepared for this conversation. "Okay. I honestly didn't expect that."
Bruce continued to stare at him, not exactly breathless but definitely tense. Waiting. Tony cleared his throat, doing his best not to think of his father, glancing at him out of the corner of his eye. Of Obidiah's subtle shake of his head as he retreated from Tony's bedroom doorway. He gulped. "So, what? Did he blow you or something?"
The corner of Bruce's mouth quirked in an almost imperceptible smile. "Yeah. That counts, doesn't it?"
"Well, sure. It's called oral sex for a reason." Bruce didn't move, but Tony was eerily positive he could feel him beckoning. He might have been on his way toward getting arrested, but he asked anyway: "So how was he? Any good? Though I guess any time you don't get bit or puked on can't be that bad."
"It was okay. He didn't really know what he was doing." Bruce shrugged against Tony's knee. "It was his first time, too." He picked at his uniform tie. "Have you ever blown a guy, Tony?"
Tony started to answer, but stopped himself with the reminder that he had no idea what he was doing and had to be the wrong person to be having this heart-to-heart with. "Don't you have a dorm mentor or something that you can talk to about this stuff?" he asked.
"No," said Bruce seriously. "I don't."
Tony shifted uncomfortably and at last sighed. "Listen, Bruce. It's not as bad as it used to be, and you have enough money that no one's going to shit on you for it. Just know when to keep it in your pants, you know what I mean? And for Christ's sake, use protection. Here." He pulled out his wallet and tossed his "just-in-case" condom onto Bruce's chest. "Keep that, and you'll never have the excuse you weren't prepared. All right?"
Bruce held the package up over his head to scrutinize it. "What size is this?"
Tony smacked him in the ribs again. "Big enough, smart ass."
He tucked the condom into his shirt pocket. "So is that the speech Uncle Obi gave you?"
"A variation of it," Tony said as he filled in another problem. He frowned thoughtfully. "Does Alfred know?"
"No." Bruce squirmed. "I mean, he knows about me. But he doesn't know about Tommy."
Bruce was quiet for only a beat, and yet Tony felt gravity reverse. His eyes snapped onto Tony's and wouldn't let go. "Or you," he said.
Tony stopped. Before he could respond, Bruce put his hand on Tony's thigh and pushed himself upright. White noise flooded between his ears and then Bruce was leaning into his shoulder, his pale, slender cheek brushing the stubble along Tony's jaw. Tony's breath seized in his lungs and his stomach dropped, but just when Bruce started to turn his head, he jarred to life, grabbing Bruce's elbow. "Stop," he said, sharp and almost panicked.
Bruce's breath emptied against Tony's ear in a quiet huff of laughter. "I'm just messing with you," he said, relaxing into place. He rested his chin on Tony's shoulder, but it wasn't until he moved his hand to the bed that Tony lowered his guard. "You're too old for me."
"Of course I am," said Tony lamely. He shifted just enough to accept Bruce's weight against him and did his best to focus back on the laptop. "You can do better than me, anyway. Plenty of nice young rich boys out there for you to seduce."
Bruce snorted, and when he spoke again, his voice had lowered. "It's not... I mean, I'm not gay. I still like girls."
"So seduce the rich girls, too."
Bruce tilted his head, even though there was no way he could have seen Tony's face from their current position. "I can do that, right? I can be...."
"Bruce, you can do whatever you want," said Tony, and he meant it. "You can be whatever you want. Be with whoever you want. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise." His arm was trapped against Bruce's body, but he gave it a turn, nudging Bruce's ribs with the backs of his knuckles. "Guys like us can afford to. It'd be a waste if even we didn't live exactly the way we wanted to, wouldn't it?"
They were still pressed so close that Tony could feel Bruce frown. A long moment of silence stretched between them, and then Bruce fell away, flopping onto his back again. He stared up at the ceiling in distant contemplation. Tony watched, waiting for him to respond, but Bruce said nothing and Tony wasn't sharp enough to read it in his face. When he couldn't be patient any longer, he said, "What?"
Bruce took in a slow breath. There was something on his mind and on his tongue, maybe the truth of why he had really called Tony over. Tony watched it cycle across Bruce's face, but then Bruce swallowed it back. Bruce knew people. He didn't quite know himself yet.
"Do you ever miss your dad, Tony?" he asked.
Tony's eyelids drooped. The question squirmed through him and left him cold and hollow. Either answer should have been easy and obvious. Both answers were the truth. He took in a deep breath. "Yeah," he said. "I do."
Bruce closed his eyes. He nodded, letting the words me, too, lie unspoken in the air between them. Tony gave his shoulder a squeeze and then went back to work. Even when he finished with the math he stayed on Bruce's computer, checking his emails and stocks, keeping the room one step above silent. Bruce fell asleep against his knee. In the end, he assumed that was all Bruce had wanted out of him.
Tony Stark was a lot of things. He had a lot of money and knew a lot about science and people and business. But he wasn't right all the time, and his advice was only ever halfway sound. He wasn't any good at leading by example. As the CEO of his father's company it wasn't long before the name Tony Stark became synonymous with everything Americana had to offer, from million dollar homes to extravagant parties to every possible thing that could go boom or make a crater. He was a celebrity. He was practically a way of life.
He was far removed from Bruce. Bruce continued through his posh private schools and didn't hear as much from Tony anymore. Alfred had told him to expect it. The world's richest weapons manufacturer didn't have time to waste on high school chemistry. Bruce didn't mind. He had plenty of classmates to keep at a comfortable distance and engage with as necessary. But sometimes when he flipped on the television or glanced at a gossip rag and saw the latest of Tony's misadventures he couldn't help but scowl and think if that was what Tony meant by living exactly the way you wanted.
Graduation came. Bruce would have liked to let the occasion pass without ceremony, but enough of his so-called friends said a party was a good idea that it was easier to have one than otherwise. It wasn't the sort of gathering tabloids would talk about. Alfred knew a thing or two about hosting the kind of parties Waynes were known for, with hors d'oeuvres arranged in courses served by waiters in black ties and white gloves. In addition to Gotham's brightest and best (or at least richest) and their parents, business associates and socialites were invited, until the entire mansion promised to be filled with every prospective employer and potential ass-kisser.
"Mr. Agner said I'd better start sucking up now, before anyone looks at my grades," Bruce told Tony by way of explanation. It shouldn't have mattered what Tony thought, but Bruce still wanted him to know the whole affair wasn't his idea. "You've got to come, Tony. You know I'll never survive these people without you."
"They're your people," said Tony over the phone. "You're not going to score any points with them by having me there."
"You said you wanted to gloat over Mr. Earle for beating him to the defense contract," Bruce persisted. "The whole board of directors will be here. And I know how you love to gloat."
Tony heaved a long-suffering sigh. "Guess I'd better find a date."
Bruce tried to explain that you didn't need to bring a date to someone's high school graduation party, but was unsuccessful.
It didn't matter. Tony showed up with a model on his arm, mostly on time, just as the rest of Bruce's more conventional guests were being served their first round of champagne. As Bruce had hoped, the entrance raised a few eyebrows. Tony swaggered into the front hall as if it were a Hollywood red carpet and greeted everyone like longtime friends that personal boundaries didn't apply to. He was bright and charming and more than one father of a blushing graduate could be seen clenching his teeth.
Bruce didn't rush to meet him. He leaned against the banister and watched Tony smirk in the face of the old money goons. This was Tony's graduation gift to him. Watching Gotham's elite squirm and nose-crinkle in the wake of a man so much smarter and savvier than anything they had to offer made Bruce beam internally with vindication. Outside of Gotham these people had and meant nothing; they depended on their connections and corruption to earn the mangled scraps of their reputations. Tony needed none of that. Tony could twist a screw and have the world, and still these bottom feeders shunned him. They were all idiots, and even if Bruce had to savor the joke with himself, it made the evening worthwhile.
Tony finally spotted Bruce and gave him the get your ass down here look. Bruce obliged and tried not to look too smug as everyone watched them shake hands. "Glad you could make it, Mr. Stark," he greeted.
"Barely," said Tony. He introduced his date, a European model Bruce remembered from a recent ad campaign. Bruce in turn introduced his eager classmates, and the "party" carried on.
Everyone ate, and laughed, and bullshitted each other like pros that evening. It was fun for the first two hours, up until Bruce reached for a champagne flute and found Alfred on the other end.
"Enjoying yourself, Master Bruce?" Alfred asked in that manner peculiar to him that bordered subservience and sarcasm.
"Of course." Bruce took a sip of the alcohol, watching to see if Alfred would stop or admonish him. He didn't. "Some of them are wearing out their welcome, though."
"Such as, Mr. Stark?" suggested Alfred hopefully.
Bruce glanced over the remaining guests and didn't spot Tony, though he was certain he'd been nearby a moment ago. "Did he leave?"
"I'm afraid I didn't notice."
Bruce handed the champagne back. He'd never cared for it anyway. "I'll find him."
Alfred straightened up. "Master Bruce," he said, sternly, so that Bruce had no choice but to stop and give up his full attention. "I think," Alfred continued, "that your time might be better spent with your other guests."
"You don't think I've..." A look from Alfred reminded him to be cautious of his word choice. "...catered to them enough already? This is supposed to be my party, Alfred. And they're exhausting." He glanced over the room again. "I just want to make sure Tony didn't leave without saying anything."
Alfred sighed, and though Bruce wasn't in the mood for another lecture on the subject, he wasn't fast enough to slip away. "I know you're rather fond of Mr. Stark," said Alfred. "But his company is a direct rival to your own. He knows this."
"Keep your enemies close," said Bruce distractedly.
"Keep your friends close," Alfred corrected him. He smiled grimly. "Like it or not, Master Bruce, you're going to have to become friends with at least a handful of the people in this room eventually. They are the ones that make up Gotham, not Tony Stark."
Bruce frowned. It was by far not the first time Alfred had tried to gentle him away from Tony, but as he stared at the room beyond and its dwindling crowd, Alfred's words clenched in his stomach with a cold, almost panicked sensation. He took a deep breath. "They are, aren't they?"
"They are." Alfred patted him on the shoulder. "I know it's asking a lot, to wade through this pit of vipers," he said, only half in jest. "But your father learned to charm them better than anyone. In time, you will, too."
He gave Bruce's shoulder a squeeze and moved off. He was always doing that: delivering sage advice and then scuttling off to tend to one thing or the other. Bruce had learned to expect it, and yet somehow he still managed to be caught off guard. He remembered skirting the edges of parties like these when he was a young boy. His mother would dress him in his suit and comb his hair. His father would smirk at him through the mirror as he fastened his necktie while Bruce struggled with his own. The festivities themselves were always strange, fractured things in his memory, but when he closed his eyes he could imagine his father winking at him in the glass, as if he was sharing a joke Bruce was too young to understand. Bruce would wink back just to be a part of it.
Bruce slipped past a couple that was trying to get his attention and began a hunt through the foyer. Tony still wasn't in sight, but once he moved to the edge of the gathering he spotted Tony's date, rolling her eyes as she stalked back from the west corridor. Bruce waited for her to move on and retraced her steps to the open door to the study. "Tony?"
There were no lights on inside, but Bruce was certain the door had been closed during preparations, so he investigated. He found Tony slumped in one corner of an old leather sofa, his chin tipped to his chest, legs stretched out in front of him, eyes closed. He was snoring quietly and a pair of empty glasses smelled of scotch on the nearby table. When Bruce came closer, he saw that Tony's shirt was halfway unbuttoned and his fly was open. Thankfully his date hadn't gone any further before giving up on him.
Bruce sighed and kicked Tony's foot. It would be just his luck if Alfred showed up in time to say I told you so. "Hey. Tony."
Tony grunted but didn't stir. He looked tiny and pathetic passed out in Thomas Wayne's oldest and favorite piece of furniture, and for a brief moment, Bruce hated him. He got over it enough to lean down and make sure Tony was tucked away before zipping his fly back up.
Tony's hand snapped around Bruce's wrist. He stared blearily up at Bruce, and recognizing who he was he tensed all over again. It might have even been guilt twisting in the corners of his mouth. "What the hell are you doing?" he grunted.
With raised eyebrows Bruce let go of Tony's pants and eased the heavy fingers off him. "Nothing," he said. If he weren't already irritated he might have teased or played along, but instead he calmly buttoned Tony's shirt up to the neck. "Just glad you're enjoying the booze."
Tony harrumphed and tilted his chin back. "It's good stuff," he admitted. "Mind if I take a case back with me?"
"If you want. You're the only one drinking it." Bruce gripped Tony's tie and drew it tight--probably tighter than it needed to be--just to see Tony squirm a little. "I'm sure Alfred will be glad to have it off his hands."
The knot bobbed when Tony swallowed. "Thanks."
Bruce turned and dropped onto the sofa. He leaned into Tony's shoulder, and though he could feel Tony's discomfort radiating like microwaves, it passed and they both relaxed, begrudgingly, into each other.
"This party is pretty horrible, huh," said Bruce.
"The worst," Tony agreed. He stared at the last few drops of scotch in his glass as if debating whether they were worth the effort of moving. "A houseful of boring assholes circle-jerking to elevator music? Killer."
Bruce slumped deeper into the leather and tipped his head back, watching the light from the hall crash against the chandelier overhead. "They're pretty horrible."
"The worst." Tony sighed and resettled; he'd given up on the scotch. "You poor bastard. How are you going to put up with those people?"
"I was wondering the same thing." Bruce could still taste the bitterness of the champagne at the back of his throat, no matter how he tried to swallow it down. Electricity burned under his skin and reminded him of that initial clenching of panic as he looked out over a sea of faces he despised. "How do you do it, Tony?"
"I...don't?" Tony folded his hands over his stomach and closed his eyes. "I'm in here while they're out there, aren't I? Fuck those people." He grumbled something unintelligible.
Bruce cocked an eye at him. Tony's face was tight, his thumbs tracing tiny circles against his knuckles. It was the way he sometimes looked when he thought no one was watching, like he was resigning himself to some kind of apology he didn't know how to say. Bruce hated that look. It made him want to pry Tony open with his bare hands.
"Are the people you deal with any better?" Bruce asked. "Or is it just fucked all over?"
"Yeah, that." Tony's voice grew lower and rougher as he drifted back to sleep. "Sorry, Bruce. We're all fucked. Happy graduation."
Tony fell asleep after that. Bruce stayed with him, staring into nothing. He could feel the rest of the manor close in around them, and he imagined claws ripping through the foundations, tearing the old building from the grounds and dragging it, crippled and bleeding, back into the heart of Gotham where it belonged. He pictured Mr. Earle and his board of directors smarming over their drinks as the rafters shook and shed debris over their pinstripes and tiepins. He felt the vibration in his bones. And he knew that Tony was right, and Alfred was right, and between the two of them he was totally fucked.
His future was a bleak desert of surface charms and empty promises. His world was populated by vultures and thieves. He could learn to charm the vipers, as his father hand. He could turn his back on them and still suffer the venom like his inebriated friend. Neither path had anything to offer him. He had no choice but to let Gotham sink its teeth in him, stripping away everything that mattered until he was just as soulless and alone as each pathetic swindler in his midst. Nothing would change, and he was angry, from his fingertips down to his guts, that this was the world his father had left for him.
Tony slept on, oblivious. Bruce quaked beside him, his eyes hard and wet with emotion he had no means to express as his breath set fire to his throat. Rabid, twitching things gnawed at his insides and he hated--just hated, everyone and everything, with bitterness so potent it was debilitating. He was helpless and he wanted to scream.
When Tony went from "Stark's kid" to billionaire CEO, he lost track of a lot of people. Bruce Wayne just happened to be one of them. He got the occasional update via Alfred and, occasionally, the tabloids. "Bruce Wayne, world's richest bisexual" never made it to the front cover, so he assumed Bruce had taken at least some of his advice. He put in a few good words when Bruce applied to Harvard. Had to eat a few when Bruce left barely a year later. Sometimes he told himself that Bruce was better off without him in his life anyway. Sometimes, he believed it.
Chance put Tony on the east coast again just in time for Princeton's winter break. Figuring it would only be another year or two before he and Bruce were finally in the same arena, he decided it was time for another face to face visit.
"I know I missed your twenty-first," Tony said over the phone. "But let me take you out for a drink now. We can catch up."
"Whatever you want, Tony," Bruce replied, and he hung up.
Tony frowned at his phone, but he got the address from Alfred and drove over. Bruce had spent his first semester living in a condo just off campus that he had no trouble finding. It smelled like old money, the kind Tony had spent the last seven years wrinkling his nose at. A stuffy doorman let him up and he knocked on Bruce's door.
Bruce answered. He looked like shit, and when Tony said so, he couldn't even muster a sarcastic response. "Come on in," he said, already heading back to the living room. "Let's drink."
Tony closed the door behind him and followed. The hairs prickled on the back of his neck when he noticed the room was full of loaded boxes, and the condo was free of most possessions. He poked one with his toe, but before he could ask about them, his gaze fell on the living room table Bruce had sat himself down in front of. It was covered in bottles of booze.
"Looks like you got started without me," Tony remarked as he picked up a half empty bottle of whiskey. He tasted it and made a face at the burn. "Wow. What are we celebrating?"
Bruce held his hand up and Tony reluctantly passed him the bottle. "I'm drinking to my dad," he said.
Tony heard warning bells. "Did something happen?" he asked, looking around the room again. "Are you moving? I thought you've only been here a semester."
"I'm leaving," said Bruce.
Tony scoffed. "You won't get a better deal on a condo this close to the school."
"I'm not going to school here anymore."
Tony stopped and stared; the answer was immediately obvious. He let out a huff of incredulous, humorless laughter. "They kicked you out, didn't they."
Bruce glared sullenly at the table of bottles. Tony shook his head.
"What the hell is the matter with you anyway?" Tony said, exasperated. "I know you're smarter than this. Do you think because you have a billion dollars waiting at home you don't have to go through the same system as everyone else? You could have everything you wanted by now and then some if you weren't such a..."
He trailed off, unsure of where his sudden anger was coming from. He just wanted to let it die and get the hell out of there, but when he looked up, Bruce was watching him with those piercing blue eyes of his. Their steady gaze was like being caught in a bear trap.
"Such a what?" Bruce prompted coldly.
"Forget it." Tony waved a hand and turned back toward the door. "Forget everything."
"A what?" Bruce repeated. He craned his head back, but not enough that he could actually see Tony retreating. "Because you really shouldn't talk, Tony, seriously."
It was a mistake to stop, but Tony did anyway. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I mean, maybe I realized that all this is pointless," Bruce carried on, motioning to the room around him with his whiskey. "What good does it do me to go through all this schooling, just to be another rich asswipe like you?" He settled deeper into the sofa. "Whose only benefit to the world is drunken frat parties and a whole lot of corpses?"
Tony was grateful that Bruce wasn't able to see his expression then. He shook it off. "Sounds like instead of going to class you've been reading tabloids," he grunted. "No wonder they're kicking you out."
"Tell me I'm wrong." Bruce paused for a gulp from the bottle. "Tell me the world could use another one of you."
Something cold and all too familiar slunk into Tony's stomach. "The hell does this have to do with me?" He couldn't help himself--he marched back in front of Bruce. "You are flunking out of your life all on your own, pal. I put my work in--you think I didn't fight for every dollar I have now? Don't you dare judge me when you're the one throwing away every possible opportunity, you fucking disappointment."
There. He had said it. Bruce flinched beneath the word, almost seemed to cower in the face of it. His cheeks were already flushed with the drink but they darkened further, and his eyes glazed over with bitter emotion. "Say that again," he said.
"You are a disappointment," Tony obliged, punctuating with his finger. He suddenly felt as if the words had been years in the making, fermenting in some dark corner of his ribs. He hated himself but he couldn't stop. "You're an embarrassment, and if your father were still alive he'd be ashamed of you."
Bruce clanged the bottle of whiskey back onto the table, rattling its peers ominously. For the first time he realized that Bruce's eyes were bloodshot from more than the alcohol. His voice was thick and hoarse as he said, "You don't get to talk about my father."
"Do you think because your parents are dead, the world owes you something?" Tony continued regardless. "It's not like you're the only one, you know. I've been there. I know what you went through, but this--"
"No you don't," Bruce interrupted sharply. He pushed to his feet and clamored over the coffee table, kicking bottles aside in the process. "You have no idea what it's like." When Tony backed away, he pursued, until there was nowhere else to go.
"My father was a good man who loved me," Bruce growled, and his hands felt huge when they took fistfuls of Tony's shirt, shoving him up against the wall. "You never had what I had--you didn't lose what I lost, so don't you dare tell me how I'm supposed to feel!"
Tony shuddered between him and the wall; Bruce was taller and stronger than him, and his breath reeked of the alcohol. For a moment, he was honestly afraid of him, though not so much because he thought Bruce would really hurt him. He stared into Bruce's angry, tear-red eyes and he wanted nothing more than to escape. "Fuck you," he retorted, the only coherent thought he could muster. "Fuck you."
To his surprise and relief, Bruce relented. With one last, half-hearted shove Bruce leaned back and finally turned away entirely. "My parents were murdered," he mumbled as he returned to the sofa. "It wasn't just some accident, a man took them away from me." He fell into the cushions with a thump. "And now they're letting him go."
Heat flared up the back of Tony's neck. "What?"
"Chill," said Bruce. He reached for his whiskey and, realizing it had fallen from the table when he scaled it, chose a scotch instead. "The man that shot my parents. The DA's office is offering him early parole in exchange for testimony. I got the call an hour ago."
Tony eased away from the wall. "Jesus."
"Yeah." Bruce slumped back. "Fuck."
He raised the bottle to his lips, but he didn't drink. His face contorted into something pained, and by the time Tony was there, easing the liquor out of his hands, he didn't protest. He curled in on himself, shaking, and without a word Tony joined him on the sofa. All Tony's bitterness and frustration leaked out of him and he wrapped his arm around Bruce's shoulders in a gesture that was as much a headlock as it was an embrace. He pulled Bruce in and held him until he'd stopped choking on his own throat, and thought that maybe Bruce was right. Tony knew what it was like to lose family, to live by someone else's expectations. He didn't know so much about living with ghosts.
"So," said Tony after what felt like an hour had passed. "There'll be a hearing."
By then Bruce was on his back, knees draped over the armrest, his head pillowed on Tony's thigh. "In a few weeks."
"Are you going?"
"Of course I'm going," Bruce said sharply. Anger twisted his face again. "I can't just let him go."
Tony grimaced and wished he could reach the alcohol. "Do you want me to come, too?"
Bruce harrumphed just like a teenager. "You've barely spoken to me in years," he grumbled, though it wasn't hurt straining his voice, of that Tony was certain. "And this isn't exactly like my school science fair."
"Does that mean yes?" Tony retorted.
Bruce considered for a long time, his gaze distant. "No," he said at long last. "I don't want you to be there." He closed his eyes. "In fact, it'd probably be better if we went back to not speaking to each other."
Tony felt something in his chest tighten and wasn't sure why. If Bruce hadn't been pressed so close, he would have squirmed. "Fair enough," he said. His hand fell to Bruce's chest, and he watched it rise and fall with each of Bruce's slow breaths. "I don't like you anyway."
Bruce's lip curled. He didn't fall asleep, but he pretended like he had, and Tony used the opportunity to sneak out. He took the bottles with him.
The hearing came. Tony watched the news coverage from his kitchen, going through coffee like it was going out of style. It went the way that everyone expected, including Joe Chill being shot by a Falcone goon on his way out of the courthouse. Gotham City. It never changed.
Tony tried to go on with his day, but the caffeine had him wired and he couldn't stop thinking about Bruce getting drunk somewhere with that pretty Dawes girl. In the end he called up Rhodes and bugged him until they'd scheduled a night of drinks and brunettes. That got Bruce off his mind for a few hours at least. By seven in the morning the phone was ringing, and he wouldn't have answered if not for Rhodes kicking him from the other end of the couch. He pressed his cell mostly to his ear and grumbled, "Hello?"
"I'm sorry to call so early in the morning, Mr. Stark," came a precise, accented voice. "This is Alfred Pennyworth, of the Wayne estate. I was wondering if you'd heard from Mr. Wayne?"
That woke Tony up. "What do you mean? Where is he?"
"I was hoping you could tell me, Mr. Stark."
Rhodes raised his eyebrows questioningly, but Tony ignored him. "Sorry, Alfred, but I haven't talked to Bruce in weeks," he said. "Have you tried his DA friend?"
"I have." Alfred sighed. "If you do hear from him, won't you please let me know?"
"Yeah." Tony rubbed his whiskers. "Sure, no problem."
"Thank you. I won't take up any more of your time." Alfred hung up.
Tony stared at his phone for a long moment, his lips pursed. Then Rhodes kicked him again.
"What's going on?"
"I'm not sure," said Tony.
He dialed Bruce's number but it went straight to voicemail. He checked his email and even flipped on the morning news. There was a blurb about the hearing the day before and a "Bruce Wayne couldn't be reached for comment" and that was it.
"Tony, I'm sure he's fine," said Rhodes as he dragged himself into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. "He got himself drunk somewhere and he'll turn up in a few hours. The kid's entitled to it, don't you think?"
"Yeah," said Tony, still watching the news. "You're right."
But he couldn't shake the feeling that something had gone wrong. Forty-eight hours later, when news broke that Alfred had filed a missing person's report, it wasn't vindication he felt so much as a slow-burning panic. He called in every favor owed to him and three weeks later learned that Bruce Wayne had appeared somewhere in the Far East. Fucking Hong Kong. And then he was gone.
Life went on, such as it was. Gotham mourned its prince for a while but not long. Within a few months Tony was back to letting his assistants check his voicemail for him. Wayne Enterprises grew under the guidance of its board of directors and Stark Industries rose to meet it. Business boomed and the press moved on and soon it was as if Bruce Wayne had never survived the death of his parents at all.
But sometimes, when it rained, Tony would stand at the window and watch it fall. He'd draw equations in the condensation and imagine long fingers sneaking in to fill in the missing pieces. Most of all, he'd wonder what he should have done--if there was anything he could have said or been that would have changed the past. He never came up with an answer.