In the right circumstance, a tailored Versace suit could be better armor than anything metal-plated. Alfred had taught him this, but Bruce fell in and out of appreciation of that fact. He appreciated it now as he straightened his cuffs and tried to focus on the figures in front of him.
Wearing a suit still felt strange. Bruce had never been much involved in the day-to-day of Wayne Enterprises. Behind the scenes, yes, he had kept a close eye and a tight hand on the overall direction of the company, but he had never been much of an office fixture. It was part of his persona, the dopey but lovable billionaire, to act as the company figurehead and only breeze in a few times a year. And, truth be told, he didn’t have the time for much else.
Those quick public appearances and the exaggerated charade of reluctantly attended board meetings were the totality of Bruce’s business suit-wearing days in his younger years. His gala suit, of course, saw much more wear, but that was a different wardrobe, a different closet, a different facet of his facade.
That was all before, of course. No one expected a grieving father to come into the office, not even for a quick handshake or an important board meeting. Bruce disappeared from the business world, and his suit was carefully pressed and stored away. He spent his days in sweats, or polo shirts, or in the one suit that still mattered.
Today was not his first day back. Bruce had come into the office sporadically over the last month, like an injured athlete easing himself back into the starting lineup. He had braved the tentative approaches of pitying well-wishers and the less-than-subtle glances from their more reserved counterparts, and had finally reached the point where he was, by and large, left alone. But the suit still felt strange.
Bruce flexed his fingers and forced himself to stop fidgeting. He felt like a little boy wasting time at school. The work before him would not change or disappear, no matter the number of times he twirled his cufflinks or tugged on his tie. The sooner he signed off on the data before him, the sooner he could go home and be free of the bedeviled suit.
He had just bent his head to his task once more when his phone rang. Bruce looked up, but the intercom light wasn’t lit, and no line flashed. The phone rang again.
It was his cell phone.
His private cell phone. With his private, blocked, triple-secure number, known only to family and a few world leaders.
Bruce pulled the device from his pocket and stared at the screen. He didn’t recognize the number. He braced for some kind of ransom demand. Or a telemarketer.
“Hi, is this Mister... Bruce Wayne?” It was a woman speaking. There was a rustle of papers on the other end of the line and a hesitation before she said his name.
Bruce parted his lips to confirm, but before he could, the woman spoke again, sounding embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Mr. Wayne, I think there’s been some mistake. Our paperwork has you listed as an emergency contact for one of our students.”
“Who is this?” Bruce asked, still sitting straight in polite forbearance. It must be a mistake. Dick had dropped out of college ages ago, and he was the only person left who might be mistaken for a student and have Bruce’s name listed.
“My name is Amanda Small. I’m calling from administration at Brentwood Academy. I’m trying to reach an emergency contact for a student, Timothy Drake—”
There had been an accident.
Five words. Passive structure. As benign and unthreatening as a dead snake that whips around to bite even after its demise.
There had been an accident. A field trip. A charter bus. A drunk driver or faulty brakes or plain bad luck, no one was sure. Screaming children. Disaster. Call it what it was.
It was an accident, I’m sorry. I’m sorry!
Just an accident, dust yourself off, it’ll be alright.
Like a glass of milk falling to the tile.
There had been an accident.
It had taken an eternity stuffed into a few seconds to convince Amanda Small that she did have the correct number. Bruce didn’t know Tim had put him down as an emergency contact, but such questions could wait. And the questions he had went unanswered.
“No further information at this time... Students are en route... East Side Memorial... Need an adult’s permission... Unable to reach his father...”
The Versace was less a suit of armor and more a hinderance in the hospital lobby. Fame and wealth meant very little to a harried PCL, and dressing as a civilian meant Bruce couldn’t run. The emergency overflow was at the other end of the building. His calves burned from the strain of a normal pace.
No deaths, administrative assistant Amanda Small had reassured. No deaths, but more tests were needed. The boys were being taken to the hospital, and emergency contacts were being notified.
No deaths, but all Bruce could feel were shattered bones. All he could hear was rattling lungs. All he could see was a small body going limp.
He didn’t wait to be ushered into the overflow. Bruce pushed his way past the attendant, ignoring his protests, and plunged behind the partition. Medical professionals in a rainbow of scrubs walked briskly in every direction, and around them were children. Bruce could smell the coppery tang of blood overlaid with the chemical punch of disinfectant.
Tim’s name caught in his throat as Bruce spun in circles. There were boys clustered in chairs, shaken but whole; boys hunched over on gurneys as nurses spoke in low, soothing voices; boys wired and still behind partially drawn curtains, soft groans their only sounds. None were Tim.
“Sir?” A voice spoke at his elbow. “Sir, you can’t be back here.”
Bruce whirled, but his gaze rested on the tech for only a moment before roving onward. “I’m looking for—my—he—”
“Your son?” The tech finished. Yes. No. He didn’t know. “What’s his name?”
“Tim. Timothy Jackson Drake.” Help. This person could help. Bruce finally made eye contact, clinging to the connection like a drowning man to a rope.
Some detached part of himself noted that, outwardly, he would appear almost stoic, if a little disjointed. Amazing, considering the way panic pressed at the underside of his craw like a bubble about to burst. His jaw was the Tin Man’s hinge, nearly rusted shut.
“He’s, he’s about this tall,” Bruce rasped, waving a hand around his ribcage. “Black hair. Blue eyes. I received a call.”
“The bus crash.” The tech nodded. “Let’s check with the desk. Follow me.”
No deaths, Amanda Small had said, but that was an eternity ago, and death happened in an instant.
He couldn’t remember the last thing he had said to Tim. Something gruff and pointless, probably. An order or a dismissal.
His last words to Jason had been an order. His last words to his parents had been a joke.
Why did he never learn his lesson?
The woman at the desk didn’t have a Tim Drake on her list. Bruce gripped the lip of the counter until his knuckles blanched white.
“Check again,” he ordered, voice gravelly and Batman-strict. “They called me. They told me to come here.”
“Sir, I don’t have that name. But the ambulances are still returning from the scene. He may still be on his way.”
Bruce wanted to reach across the divide and shake her, this innocent woman with half-rim glasses who had done nothing wrong beyond telling him what he didn’t want to hear. He was here, therefore Tim must be as well. They were… They had to stay together… He had come and…
Bruce pressed a hard breath out through his nose and spun away. He had to remain calm. Panicking wouldn’t help Tim.
The ordered chaos of the ER throbbed around him as technicians and doctors called to each other and as other parents filtered in to find their children. The doors on either end of the overflow hissed open as patients returned from tests or were admitted from the ambulance bay.
Bruce was on the verge of storming out to the parking lot and driving to the site of the crash himself when the bay doors opened again and ushered in another small clutch of students. At the back was a boy, shorter than the others, with lank black hair.
Bruce could count on one hand the times he had raised his voice. He hadn’t needed to. His work was better done at a low growl. But now his call boomed down the hallway.
The head snapped up, black strands of hair pushed out of red-rimmed eyes. “Bruce?”
Bruce pushed through the crowd and was at Tim’s side in the space between breaths. He didn’t think before sweeping the boy up into a hug.
Not dead, not dead, not dead. Tim was alive. He was conscious. He was standing on his own feet. Bruce choked back a prickle of tears and buried his face in the top of Tim’s head.
It had been an age since Bruce had hugged anyone. Not since… He and Tim didn’t hug. That wasn’t their relationship. He felt sorely out of practice, and the embrace itself felt… different. The height was wrong, and the build, and the way Tim froze against his chest. His sons, they had always hugged back. But Bruce didn’t let go. He couldn’t, just yet. The cheek against his chest was warm with living. He cradled the back of Tim’s head, holding him in place just long enough to convince his racing heart that this was real.
“Bruce?” Tim’s muffled voice filtered up, hesitant and uncertain. “What are you doing here?”
“Your school called.” Bruce let go only just enough to ease Tim back to arm’s length, his hands still clutching his boy’s bony shoulders. He squatted, eyes searching Tim’s face. There was a plaster over Tim’s right eye, disappearing back into his hair, but his gaze was clear and focused. “I was your emergency contact.”
“Oh.” Tim’s face flushed pink. “Sorry.”
“You must be Dad.”
Bruce lifted his head to see a hospital resident watching them, a slight smile crinkling the corners of her eyes. He straightened, but kept a protective arm around Tim’s shoulders.
“I’m Doctor Hill,” she said, and extended her hand. Bruce shook it.
“I’m—” Bruce began, not knowing what he would say, but Tim interrupted.
“This is Bruce. He’s my emergency contact.”
The doctor, to her credit, seemed to take the correction in stride as she flipped open a small notebook in her hands. “I see. Well, the EMTs called in vitals on the ride over, so let’s go over Tim’s chart. Would you like to sit?”
She gestured toward a small grouping of oatmeal-colored vinyl chairs in a side hallway. Bruce and Tim sat. Bruce kept his arm around Tim. He could feel Tim shift and glance up at him. Bruce didn’t let go.
“Tim was a lucky boy,” Doctor Hill said, smiling. “No broken bones, no internal bleeding, or anything else too concerning, which is why he was part of the final group to arrive. Standard triage procedures. You hit your head in the crash, you said?”
Tim nodded. “We went sideways. I was in a window seat.”
Bruce saw the impact. Broken glass. Blood. Screaming.
Doctor Hill continued on breezily. “Good thing you were wearing a seatbelt, but the inertia caught you pretty good. There will be some bruising and soreness for the next couple weeks. You’ll stiffen up in the next day or two, and that’ll be the worst of it. You’ll have a prescription for painkillers to take the edge off.”
She flipped to the next page of her notes. “You field tested for a mild to moderate concussion. We’ll monitor you here for a few hours, just to be sure, then send you home with some paperwork on what to watch for. Get lots of rest and don’t overexert yourself and you should be fine.”
She nodded once at the pages and then flipped the notebook shut. “Any questions?”
“That’s it?” Bruce asked. “You don’t want to run an x-ray or a CAT scan or…”
Doctor Hill smiled, coffee-stained teeth crooked and friendly in an understanding face. “I don’t think that’s necessary, though I understand your concern. Like I said, we’ll keep an eye on him for the next few hours and reevaluate if we need to, but he’ll be just fine with a few days to heal and rest up.”
She hesitated then, only briefly, but the change caught Bruce’s attention. “I assume, once we clear him, you have the proper permissions to sign Tim out and take him home?”
Did he? If he didn’t, surely the army of lawyers he kept on retainer could—
“He’s my emergency contact,” Tim repeated. “He watches me when my dad’s out of town. It’s fine.”
“I see,” Doctor Hill said again. “And your mom…?”
“Dead.” Tim’s voice was chillier now, a reserved, disapproving man speaking from the throat of a little boy. “Like I said, Bruce has got it covered. Thanks, Doctor Hill.”
“Ah. Alright then.” Another smile, this time a little more brittle. Dead mothers tended to do that. “A CNA will be by as soon as we have a stretcher for you to rest on. I’ll be back in a couple hours to discharge you.”
They weren’t alone for more than a breath before Tim pulled away, swiveling in his chair to face Bruce fully.
“I’m really sorry. I didn’t think they’d ever have to call you for anything. They just needed two names, and after Janet died, I didn’t… It was just supposed to be, like, a formality, and—”
“Tim. It’s fine. I’m glad they called me.”
Tim sucked in a breath, pink lips pursing in his pale face as he studied Bruce’s expression. “You are?”
“Where is your father?” It was the question he didn’t want to ask, for fear of the answer. Jack Drake had improved—slightly—in the past few months, but he was still too absent for Bruce’s taste.
“Austin? Or maybe Phoenix. I don’t remember.” Tim had started picking at the callous on his thumb but widened his eyes at the look on Bruce’s face. “It’s just overnight, I swear. I would’ve said something if it were longer.”
Bruce believed him. There had been talks—and repercussions—revolving around Tim’s unwillingness to admit when he was left home alone. But Bruce also knew Jack’s travels had a history of extending at the last minute.
“You’re coming back to the Manor,” Bruce said and didn’t miss the way Tim’s thin shoulders slumped in relief.
“Are you sure?” Tim asked. He did that often, still unwilling to trust his welcome. Well, some of that was Bruce’s fault. Tim hadn’t been welcome at first, but that was ancient history.
Bruce smiled, close-lipped but soft. “Of course.” He reached out and touched his fingertips to the bandage adhesive, then cupped Tim’s cheek. “I’m glad you’re alright.”
Tim flushed again and ducked his head. “Sorry for screwing up your day.” His gaze flicked to Bruce’s suit, now rumpled and sweat-stained. “Office?”
“Nothing important,” Bruce assured him. His hand returned to his side. “I came as soon as they called.”
Tim grimaced and rubbed at his eye. “Sorry if you got worried.”
If. Like Bruce hadn’t gone numb from head to toe and was still trying to thaw out. Like he hadn’t died and resurrected ten times over in the last half hour.
“I’m just glad you’re okay,” Bruce repeated softly. A glance at the corridor confirmed that no CNA was on their way with directions to an open stretcher, so Bruce sat back in his chair and held out an arm. “You should rest that head.”
When Tim stared blankly, Bruce sighed and gave the boy a tug until he rested back against Bruce’s chest. “Take it from someone with experience,” Bruce murmured as he scraped Tim’s hair off his forehead, “you’re going to be feeling worse soon. Rest while you can.”
Tim hummed and Bruce felt him slowly relax, inch by inch. After a moment’s hesitation, Bruce ran his fingers through Tim’s hair again, fingertips dragging along the boy’s scalp, and was rewarded with a quiet sigh.
“Thanks for coming, Bruce,” Tim whispered.
Bruce didn’t answer immediately, throat bobbing painfully as he pictured, for one brief moment more, what could have been.
“Always, Tim. Always.”