“I can see that you’ve had a bad day today, so let’s start simple, alright?” The doctor’s tone was level, but forceful enough it cut through the haze in his mind. "Can you tell me your name?"
He didn’t answer, he couldn’t seem to pull his eyes away from a notch in the edge of the table. His arms were heavy on the armrests. He tried to get his hand to move, a twitch of a finger, anything. It stayed limp and useless.
“Your name, can you say it to me out loud?” The doctor was calm, white sterile coat draped over the back of her chair. Which didn’t have armrests, he noticed.
“…Tim.” His voice sounded tired to his own ears. Slow. Exhausted. He couldn’t remember how he got here.
“Good, that’s good. Can you tell me how old you are, Tim?”
He tried to think about it, but every thought he started to have fell away like water. How old was he? He couldn’t remember.
Obviously he was taking too long to respond, because the doctor spoke again. “Tim, how old are you?”
His brow tensed as he tried to think about it. Age came with birthdays, right? When was his last birthday? He hadn’t had any in here, he didn’t think, in this white and cold and sterile room, or any of the white and cold and sterile rooms like it. He tried to think back further, and remembered a warm dining area – expensive and old, but warm. With high-backed chairs and a crystal chandelier and a table set for five. There were people there, and they were smiling, but he tried not to think about them smiling. There was an old man, a kind man, setting a cake down in front of him. How many candles were there? How many candles?
Make a wish, Tim.
“Where’s Bruce?” Tim asked suddenly.
“Tim, I’d like you to focus on the question for me.” The doctor’s voice stayed very calm. And it was warm, but not like that other place. Not like home. It was too artificial. Sterile. Clean. “Can you tell me your age?”
Tim wasn’t listening, his thoughts were moving faster now but he still couldn’t catch them. There was just panic and his breaths coming too fast and the growing feeling that something was very very wrong.
“Where’s Bruce?” He asked again, a thread of desperation in his voice. He had tried to demand it, but his voice was weak, tired, desperate. “Where’s-“
“Tim.” The doctor’s voice was firm, and something in Tim stilled at the order. “I will tell you everything you want to know, but first you have to answer some questions, okay?”
She seemed to actually want an answer, so Tim nodded, or at least he tried to. His muscles still felt sluggish and numb.
“How old are you?”
He closed his eyes, the table disappeared. He tried his best to think, even though it was hard. He’s pretty sure it wasn’t this hard before.
How many candles?
“… Thirteen.” He said. Thirteen candles, he was sure of it. Because afterwards Bruce got him ice cream on patrol and made bad deadpan jokes about having to deal with a teenager again. Tim remembered thinking he’d make sure not to go the same way Dick had, although now he’s not sure what that meant. He remembered being excited about getting to patrol on his own a few nights a week. It would only be for a few hours, but still.
Then something had happened to Tim. Something bad. And Tim really didn’t want to think about that, but he wasn’t sure why. He had been on his own, confident, because he’d done this a few times now. He could handle a night on his own. And there was a woman in an alley, and she needed help. But she had a hammer, Tim thought, so why would she need help-
“No, Tim.” The doctor interrupted patiently.
“What?” he’d forgotten what they were talking about.
“You’re sixteen, Tim.”
Tim frowned, that didn’t sound right. There were thirteen candles on that cake, he was sure of it. And Bruce said…
Make a wish, Tim.
There was a sigh from the doctor, and Tim heard the sound of papers being shuffled around. “I can see we aren’t going to get much further, today.”
Tim wasn’t listening, trying to remember the warm heat of the candles, trying to remember what he’d wished for.
“Mr. Pennyworth is here to visit again. Would you like to see him?”
What had he wished for?
There was a scraping noise as the doctor’s chair shifted, then a click as a door opened. A murmured voice, “He’s had a bad day today, the sedatives are still wearing off.” A rustle of cloth shifting, the doctor putting her coat on. “He won’t be very responsive.”
“That’s alright, thank you Dr. Grock.” A new voice, one that felt familiar.
The chair shifted again, and someone else was sitting across from Tim now. Tim knew this man. He was kind, and he came every week.
“Master Tim,” Alfred spoke gently, “How are you feeling?”
Tim forced his eyes up, they weren’t moving without effort, but he wanted to see. Up past the weathered hands that rested on the table, up along the silhouette of an impeccably pressed suit jacket, to meet Alfred’s eyes. He was smiling gently, reassuringly, but the lines around his eyes were so impossibly sad. A lump formed in Tim’s throat.
“I can’t remember what I wished for, Alfred.” He whispered.
Alfred’s brow twitched in confusion. Tim tried very hard to keep watching, but his eyes slipped away of their own volition, back down to the white of the table, the white of his clothes, the white of a hospital bracelet around his wrist.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.” Alfred still spoke gently, like if he talked with any force Tim might break. “Can you tell me what you mean?”
And Tim felt in that moment nothing but a longing for Alfred to hold him. He wanted to bury his face in Alfred’s pressed shirt and breathe in the smell of home. He wanted to reach out, tried with all his might to get his arms to move, but they stayed limp at his sides.
Tim felt a sob worming its way up his throat at the same moment his eyes filled with tears.
“Alfred,” his breath hitched, “Something’s wrong.”
And it was. He couldn’t think, he couldn’t move, and looking at Alfred only served to add an acute sort of misery to his growing panic. Everything was falling away and he couldn’t catch it.
“Something’s wrong,” He begged, not able to vocalize a feeling that grew in his chest and grabbed hold of his throat. A feeling of drowning, a feeling of help me.
Make a wish, Tim.
“Master Tim, it’s alright-“
Alfred seemed to pause at this, and there was a silence – a deafening one, a muffling one – that Tim wanted to fill with a scream. With a shout. With a laugh.
“I’ve told you already,” Alfred said softly, somehow sounding more sad than before, “He’ll come soon. This is… it’s very difficult for him. But he will.”
There was a thought that didn’t slip away this time, and Tim clung to it with all his strength. I want my dad, he thought, I want my dad. He opened his mouth, I want my dad I want my dad I want my dad I want - “Something’s wrong, Alfred.”
“I know, Master Tim, I know. But that’s why you have to stay here, so that these people can help you. They know how to help you.” Tim never wanted to hear Alfred this close to tears.
“Can I go home?”
Tim saw in his peripheral as Alfred shook his head,
“No, not quite yet.”
Tim tried his best to breathe, he didn’t remember it being this hard. “How old am I, Alfred?”
A silence. Tim did his best not to laugh. It turned into an aborted cough.
“Well, that’s why I came early this week, Master Tim.” Alfred explained, “You turned sixteen just this morning.” He took Tim’s silence as a sign to continue. “I’ve brought you a gift, from all of us. Master Dick and Miss Gordon… they all wanted to be here, but it seems my presence will have to be enough, for today.”
Something was placed on the table in front of Tim.
“Unfortunately the staff unwrapped it already, as part of their safety procedures, and I’ve been told you can’t keep it in your room with you but…” He trailed off. “But this will have to be enough, I suppose.”
Tim tried to get his vision to focus on the thing in front of him. He recognized it as a picture in a frame. The faces stayed blurry, but he knew who they were. There was a feeling of familiarity, even though their names slipped away from him. Bruce was the only one not smiling for the photo.
Tim must’ve dropped off a little, because between one moment and the next, the doctor was back in the room, speaking in low tones to Alfred. Then Alfred was in front of him, Tim’s chair had been moved so Alfred could kneel and take one of Tim’s hands in his.
“I’m afraid I have to leave now, but I’ll be back next week. I promise.”
“Can I go back with you?”
Alfred shook his head again, “No, I’m sorry. You’re sick now, Master Tim, and you have to stay here until you get better.”
Tim tried to hold Alfred’s hand properly, but only succeeded in getting a few fingers to curl. “When will I be better?”
Alfred pursed his lips. “Soon,” He said, “Quite soon, I hope.”
“You said that last time.” And the sentence was so habitual Tim didn’t even have to think about it. He wondered how many times they’d had this exchange.
“And I hope you’ll allow me to say it once more.” Alfred responded, a small sad smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
Alfred left, then, before Tim could remember to ask for a hug.
Then someone wheeled Tim down a hallway, and someone else lifted him onto a bed. It was almost like when he’d pretend to fall asleep in the Batmobile, and Bruce would carry him up to his room. Almost. Except the arms holding him were impersonal, and the bed under him was starchy and white, and his room at the manor didn’t have an observation window bolted into one wall.
Tim didn’t have the photo anymore, he didn’t know where they’d taken it. But he closed his eyes tight and tried very hard to remember what it looked like, to remember the warmth in their smiles, the familiar planes and angles of their faces, to remember what it was like to be with them.
He curled up on the bed and held Bruce’s stern and warm and stoic expression like a lifeline in his mind.
Make a wish, Tim.
And he buried his face into a thin pillowcase and he brought his still-clumsy hands up to his mouth and whispered to the numb fingertips,
“I wish, I wish, I wish.”