Chapter Five: Washing Ashore

"You're sure he didn't say anything else?"

Caroline shoots him that look that says, "For the umpteenth time, yes," but Bruce wishes there was something more. A hidden tone she's not conveying, a double meaning. Something. The woman must be able to feel his unease, as she resigns herself to repeating the message for the third time that morning.

"Mr. Drake called me earlier today. Ten after five in the a.m. He said he wouldn't be able to come in to work today. And no," she starts when Bruce moves to ask—again, "he did not say why, and I did not ask. He sounded neither congested nor otherwise ill, but as you might imagine for five in the morning, he sounded tired. I opted to end the conversation swiftly for his sake, informed him that he was well within his rights to take the day, and I ended the call. That is all I remember. Now, is there anything else you'd like from me, Mr. Wayne, or am I finally allowed to brief you on your meetings for today?"

Bruce slumps back in his chair, capping and uncapping his fountain pen in thought. He's a bit disappointed, a bit worried. It's already eleven, and it feels weird not collecting Tim for lunch. Not even seeing him. He wonders how he's doing, if he's eaten, if he's slept. "No. Thank you for humoring me," Bruce murmurs, staring down a pile of dossiers on his desk. "I'll let you know if I think of anything else."

Caroline observes him with a deadpan look, that one that lets Alfred sleep well at night knowing there's another human being in existence who can cow Bruce into doing his work. The woman's already in soldier mode, pushing a folder in front of him and jabbing at the top with a no-nonsense look. "These are the details for the LexCorp meeting at noon today. Mr. Fox will be there as well, but as the largest shareholder of the company, your opinion will be invaluable." The way she stresses the word includes the meaning, "If you mess it up, I will personally make your life hell."

Bruce nods distractedly in reply, already missing Tim. The teen always phrases these things more amicably, and he can't help imagining where he is. Probably at home, in an empty apartment haunted by old memories. It's the worst feeling in the world, Bruce knows. He remembers losing his own parents, that feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world like a piece of jetsam. Losing Jason is a newer scar that throbs the same, makes everything in life seem insurmountable and lackluster, and he prays these aren't the things Tim is thinking about right now.

I hope he's alright, Bruce almost says aloud.

Caroline pauses in explaining a report to look at him, reading his expression. She merely shakes her head smally and continues, "This is for the next shareholder meeting. It's…."


Tim should call Bruce.

He means to—or at the very least means to ask Ms. Crown to pass on a message for him (a "Thanks for everything," maybe)—but it's too late. He's already ended the call. More than once Tim almost works up the courage to dial Bruce's number himself. He's rehearsed what he would say all morning while ghosting aimlessly about the apartment, the words refined into something close to perfection. Each time he moves to call, though, Tim catches himself with thoughts like, "He's probably busy," or "I'd just be bothering him."

Instead, Tim makes a different call that he knows he can't put off. The caseworker's a nice enough woman from what he can tell over the phone, polite, informed. She treats him like she recognizes he's practically an adult, and that makes for a promising start to the very thing he's been dreading. That doesn't mean Tim dreads it any less, though. The only change it brings is a time penned in on the calendar like a death sentence.

He's got until then to box up his life. Dad and Dana's too.

Tim only finds his way back to the couch, though, sinks down slowly with his hands in his lap while his eyes roam the room. The family photos on the walls. The stacks of Dana's old work-out DVDs under the TV. The lavender smell of her perfume still permeates the air, a wraith imitation of the real thing, and her and Dad's shoes remain in the doorway, a shrine of sorts. Tim can't bear the thought of packing them away, each pair representing the small hope he's got that his family will stroll back through the front door, that somehow, in another world, Dad never would've died in a nameless alley. No, he'd be bustling in right about now in that roughshod way of his, a grin on full display that Tim never appreciated until it was gone.

But…

It's not another world.

It's this world.

It's the one where Dad pulled on his coat, hollered to Tim that he'd be back in an hour, left.

And then never came back.

Tim can still hear Dad's voice as he watches the shoes near the entryway. He can hear the door click and the phone call and the gunshot. He remembers every bit of it.

The grandfather clock in the corner rings, and it jostles Tim out of the memory. It's noon, the hands remind. He and Bruce would be back from lunch by now. He never did call him.

Tim winces at the guilt there, pulls his knees to his chest and clicks on the flatscreen in hopes of distraction. He finds the sports channel, the same commentators Dad used to listen to providing a familiar comfort, and Tim watches fractions of baseball games with tired half-heartedness. It helps him feel a bit better—or at least, he convinces himself it does. The research he stayed up all night doing on foster families and group homes is splayed out on the coffee table the whole time, a testament to his situation. It's hard to keep himself from glancing at the papers with a twang of stress, the kind that feels like heartburn and existential crisis rolled into one.

After a while, Tim gives up on watching the games and fully loses himself to staring down the paperwork. There's a romantic gold light sprinkling over the sheafs from the window. It's almost mocking, considering what they mean.

Gotham's CB is backlogged something awful, which translates to a good chance that he'll be placed outside of city limits. Probably still in Jersey, his caseworker guessed, but really, it's more a luck of the draw thing. She didn't sound very sure.

Tim's smart enough to fill in the blanks anyway. He'll have to change schools, make new friends, hit restart, essentially. How he can do that, he has no idea. All he has is this premonition that he's cursed, that he's doomed to drifting between foster homes and families without ever taking root. It's almost fitting, in a weird way: the solitude of it all.

He's always had a knack for driving people away.

For whatever reason, the thought doesn't make it easier to say goodbye to this place. To home and family. He realizes then that he won't even have Wayne Enterprises to hold on to. Bruce either. His internship's only extended to Gotham residents, a grassroots program to highlight the city's youth. But if Tim's not in Gotham...

It means he might never see Bruce again.

Instantly, the guilt in Tim's gut jumps into his throat like the snap of an ember, pushing out air.

Bruce has been incredibly generous with both his time and kindness, a light in the dark that Tim never expected and doesn't feel deserving of, especially not now, considering he can't even be upfront with him in return. Dad would be disappointed, Tim thinks, if he could see him now. That fact bites worse than anything.

"What am I doing?" Tim asks the ceiling, self-reprimanding.

At the very least, Bruce deserves a goodbye.

Not a phone call either. Not a letter or a note or something done in hindsight. An actual goodbye.

And despite the lethargy nested in his spine and skull, one minute later finds Tim cramming his feet into a pair of sneakers and checking to make sure the door's locked behind him. He's made the trip to work at least a hundred times over his life, but he's never ridden this line of the Metro in anything less casual than a two-piece suit. Jeans are at least fine for the main lobby, Tim tells himself. Still, walking through the doors of W.E., he can feel himself accruing a hodgepodge of odd looks from people exiting the building. An older gentleman mutters something under his breath about hoodies breaking company policy, another about loitering and riff raff. A familiar face at the front desk is what saves him in the end.

"Tim!" Tam waves from behind a box of files she's looking through. Her smile's peppy as usual, fringed with honest joy at seeing him. "What're you doing here? I heard you weren't coming in today."

Tim can't make it to the front desk fast enough, withering under the appraising gazes. "Yeah, something came up. Is Bruce done with LexCorp yet?"

"As done as he's gonna be," Tam shrugs, a "You know as well as I do," way about her.

"What do you mean?"

"He only showed up for the first fifteen minutes of the meeting," she explains, leaning over the high partition with eager eyes. (Office gossip is the only thing that gets her through some days. With her job being handling Mikalek, Tim can't blame her.) "I thought Dad was gonna have an ulcer over it at first, but Crown agreed to fill in. She's an absolute beast, that woman. Seriously, Luthor left twenty minutes ago looking like he'd been hit by a city bus. Couldn't get her to budge even an inch on selling out to LexAir. Can you believe it?" Tam snorts in blatant amazement. Tim's shock is even more so, perfectly evident because skipping a major meeting doesn't sound at all like something Ms. Crown would let Bruce off the hook for.

"Did Bruce mention where he was going?" Tim manages, fiddling with the pen on the desk. "I really need to talk with him."

Tam frowns, eyes sympathetic as she notes how many times Tim has wound and rewound the pen's chain around his finger. "I didn't ask. He looked like he was in a hurry when he left. Think he was taking the rest of the day off."

Something in Tim's chest shrivels at that. He's probably long gone.

"I can take a message for him if you want," Tam offers, looking like it's somehow her fault that Bruce isn't here.

"No, that's okay." Tim extricates the pen from his grip, setting it back in its holder. "It's more of an in-person kind of thing, you know?"

"I gotcha. Well, he's supposed to stop in tomorrow morning for a while to make up some work." (Tim winces. The teen probably won't be in Gotham by then.) "In the meantime, you just rest up, and we'll see you soon, okay?"

Tim and Tam have known each other for years. They're good friends, but when it comes to this moment, Tim would rather not have a breakdown in the middle of W.E.'s main lobby. Ultimately, he doesn't say anything more revealing than a "Thanks, Tam," before he's trudging back out onto the street. He'll have to visit her at her college sometime, apologize for not leveling with her. Tim just doesn't have it in him right now, not while he's thinking about having missed his opportunity to see Bruce one last time.

It's a wistful motif that sets the tone for his way back. It's the last time he'll step out of W.E., the last time he'll get swept up in the flood of business people talking stocks and bonds and feel the faint spray of the fountain outside the entrance on his face. Even the train ride back is nostalgic, Tim not able to do anything more than absorb it all, because of course, he forgot his phone at home. All he can do is people watch and catch advertisements streaming by outside the subway windows, trying to commit it all to memory while secretly knowing he can't.

By the end of it all, climbing the stairs up to his apartment feels like a monumental task. He's only got a few more hours before the caseworker picks him up, a few hours to finish packing away as much as he can and say his goodbyes to the place he's called home for years.

Tim bounces the apartment key in his hand once. The action itself nearly breaks him right there, but he's almost at his floor and it's better to lose face when there's no one there to see it. He's grateful he's so close to home when he opens the stairwell door.

It's a peripheral thing, something he notices without lingering on it, but Tim registers someone else in the hall. It's probably just his neighbor, the one that has a tendency to lock himself out, because the figure's talking on the phone with a bag in his hand. That's nothing unusual.

What's unusual is that, the closer Tim gets, the more the voice starts to process ("—Just call me back when you can, alright?"), and although it's a slow realization, he realizes he knows who it is and it's not who he thought.

"...Bruce?"

The man glances his way, phone still pressed to his ear while his eyes are hewed with worry.

"Tim," Bruce exhales, instantly sounding relieved. He stuffs his phone in the pocket of his suit pants. It looks like he hasn't changed since he left work. "Are you okay? I couldn't get ahold of you."

"Yeah. Sorry, I just… I forgot my phone at home." Tim gestures lamely to the door between them, shuffling his weight to a different foot. "I was at W.E., actually. I thought you'd still be in the meeting with Luthor."

It's Bruce's turn to shift uncomfortably, a rarity for him. "I was there for a while," he admits while admiring the wallpaper trim outside the door like the acorn-print is something esoteric. "I said my peace about it, and well, Lucius and Caroline can speak for me on the particulars. I had something more important to do, anyway."

Tim takes a step closer on instinct, earnest. "Is it something I can help you with?"

Bruce flinches a smile at the offer before shaking his head and drawing up the plastic bag he's got in his hand. Now that he looks closer, Tim can tell it's chock-full of smaller boxes (Thankfully it's double-bagged.), and he slowly realizes whatever's inside smells amazing. Like cinnamon, pandan, and something warm. "No, I only needed to drop these off for you."

The statement takes a moment to click. Tim blinks at Bruce, then blinks at the bag. The man gestures for him to take it, maneuvering so that Tim almost has to. "I wasn't sure what you'd be hungry for," Bruce says to fill the silence, still looking a bit out of place, "so I got a variety. I hope that's alright."

"Ye—yeah," Tim murmurs hastily. He can see through the packaging now exactly what all Bruce got. It looks like he culled something from each place they visited this week, everything still steaming, The plastic's coated from the condensation. "Bruce, this must've taken you ages to get."

"Don't worry about it," the man waves off, back to his debonair self. "I just figured whatever you didn't want you could save for later. I understand how hard it can be to take care of yourself, especially when you're alone."

"Alone…right."

Bruce still has no clue how true that is.

The man cringes at the word choice anyway. "That wasn't what I… I mean…" Bruce gives up in the end, rubbing out a crick in his neck with a self-frustrated grimace and a sigh. It sounds defeated. "Just take care of yourself, alright? If you ever need anything, don't be afraid to give Alfred or I a call, and well, I guess we'll be seeing you next summer, anyway. Don't be a stranger, though."

Tim nods quietly, biting his lip in thought. He spares a moment to glance in the direction of the apartment where he knows the foster program papers are, something he hasn't told anyone about and, honestly, doesn't know if he has it in him to.

Tim forces himself to face forward again.

Bruce has obviously picked up that something is off. Tim's pretty sure the man can discern the exhaustion haunting Tim's frame, the hollowed look in his eyes. There's really no use hiding it.

"I should get going," Bruce says cautiously, giving Tim an out. "I imagine you want some time to yourself."

It's a thoughtful action, but it makes Tim break out in a cold sweat. He still hasn't told him; this might be the last time they see each other, and Bruce doesn't even know.

In hindsight, Tim's not really sure how he does it. It almost feels like his body moves on its own or like the air pushes him forward a fraction, maneuvering his hand to fit the key in the lock. Tim forces the words out before he can take them back. "Actually, do you have time to talk?"

A split second eclipses the atmosphere, one in which Bruce analyzes him carefully, worry re-tacked to his face. "Of course."

The teen wars with himself momentarily over shouting out, "Nevermind," and ending things there. Anxiety's fizzling in his stomach, but the hardest part was just admitting that there was something more to be said. It's a start.

The reality of where Tim's been living is quickly obvious the instant he lets Bruce in. The teen's been to Wayne Manor before, and by sheer juxtaposition, the Drake's apartment right now is charmingly domestic at best and embarrassing at worst: Dishes dogpile in the sink, papers canvas the dining and coffee tables, and cardboard boxes are already stacked in the corner in anticipation, partially filled.

"Sorry about the mess," Tim excuses lamely, his mouth pulled to the side to imply, "Yep. This is it," as he picks his way over the shoes in the entry to pull off his sneakers and put the food on the counter. Bruce doesn't seem bothered, thankfully. He's busy absorbing every inch of the living room with as polite an air as possible, gleaning over what Tim now realizes is a Cubs game on the TV and the packing boxes towering like Jenga pieces ready to fall. It's not until Tim starts shuffling some of the papers together on the dining table, the crisp crinkling breaking the atmosphere, that Bruce looks his way.

Tim gestures for him to take a seat, and the teen drifts into the chair kitty-corner to him. That's as far as things go for a while, because that's as far as Tim planned. His mind scrambles to recollect the words he'd picked earlier this morning when he was thinking about calling, but they're washing away faster than he can remember them. Instead, Tim fiddles with one of Dana's hairbands he found earlier when he was packing some of the bathroom away. It snaps funny against his wrist, but it's something to do.

"Would you want some tea?" Tim stalls eventually, twirling the band around a finger. "I think we might have that Earl Grey you like. Or water, maybe?"

"I'm fine, thank you."

Tim nods in turn, taking a breath so deep that it doesn't really stay in his lungs. Just buys him another second.

"So," Bruce prods gently, putting his elbows on the table as he leans forward, "what is it you wanted to talk about?"

Tim swallows hard at that. It's funny, because as much as Tim's the one who invited Bruce in, he can't fight off the cagey feeling he's struck with. He's not good at opening up—never has been. It's closer to pulling teeth than talking, actually, and Tim's second guessing why he feels like he owes an explanation to his boss. Bruce has been a good friend, though. The man deserves as much.

"Dana… She's not getting better. Not getting any worse either, but…" Tim nods shortly, attention riveted to the sheen of the maple tabletop. "It could be a while, and technically, we're only related through my dad, so stuff's kinda complicated right now, legally speaking."

It's a good thing all those galas have trained Bruce to be clever when it comes to conversation, if not too clinical. "…What does that mean for you?"

Tim thinks of a way to explain his situation, but he can't come up with one: Explaining is like admitting to himself it's the truth. In the end, the teen simply waves to the pile of research that's been exorcised to the edge of the table, giving Bruce permission to look it over. The shifting of papers is audible in the next instant, a thoughtful slowness in the way Bruce scans them. Tim can't bear to watch the man put the pieces together, so he simply lets his forehead slip into one of his hands and holds his breath.

"Foster care?"

Tim nods weakly. It feels condemning when said aloud, even more so when it's said by someone else. It might not even be that bad, really. He could end up with a good family and a good life, but it's the virtue of the thing, of changes and instability, that get Tim more than anything else.

In the next instant, the papers are set aside with a painful kind of calm, and Tim can hear the contemplation in Bruce's voice. "When did you find out?"

"Last night. I called the caseworker this morning." Tim's hand falls back to the table, lifeless. He feels even worse somehow now that he's gotten it off his chest, and he can't bear to look Bruce in the eye. "I don't really know how long I've got left here. It's kinda last minute, so there's no guarantee I can stay in Gotham. Probably'll have to change schools." Tim motions to the apartment lamely. "Definitely can't stay here."

Bruce stays quiet for a moment, considering. The silence has a measurable weight to it that's shrouding the light out of the air. "They still haven't found someone for you yet, then?"

"No. I'm getting picked up at six tonight, though. They're setting me up in a temp home on the mainland, just until they find a place."

Bruce goes quiet again, working his jaw.

Tim doesn't expect him to say anything that'll make this better, so he decides to save the man the pressure. Tim inhales swiftly, pushing himself up from his chair. "Anyway, I just… I thought you should know that. I don't know if I'll be able to intern next summer, so…you know."

Bruce's eyes snap to him suddenly, register the meaning there. This is goodbye, is what Tim's implying. The teen waits there awkwardly for a moment, not quite sure what parting words to use. Bruce looks like he feels the same as he shifts to a stand, even more so when Tim offers to shake his hand.

It's oddly similar to the first time they met, only Tim never would've guessed this would be how they'd part ways. He imagined something more sterile when he started this job. A curt goodbye in passing. A nod of acknowledgement, maybe. He hadn't anticipated the hollow ache in his chest, like someone else in his life has died and he's only now realized he needs to mourn the loss.

"Thank you," Tim works out. The words rub against the rising tightness in his throat, but he needs to say them. "Really, I… Thank you. For everything."

Bruce doesn't move, just studies Tim's still-extended hand with pinched eyebrows. Tim's arm starts getting tired from being raised for so long. Right before he considers dropping it altogether, Bruce's gaze flickers up.

"Where do I sign?"

Tim freezes instantly. "What?"

Bruce doesn't even flinch, calm as ever like this is the only sensible thing in the world. "I'll adopt you. You can stay in Gotham that way, still go to school here."

Tim feels like his stomach's hit his feet. He shouldn't have told him, shouldn't have made himself out to be a charity case, because Bruce is too sacrificial at all the worst times; the last thing Tim wants to be is an inconvenience. "Bruce, you don't… It's fine. Seriously. You've already done more than enough for me. You don't have to do that."

The man instantly shakes his head. "No, I don't have to. But I want to." His eyes are hardened with some kind of truth that seems as though it's only welling up for the first time. Tim spends a second searching Bruce's expression, anyway, hunting for something that says the words aren't honest, but they are. "It's up to you, of course. The last thing I want is to force you to do something you don't want to do. But, on the off chance that it is, I'd be more than happy to have you. You're a good kid, Tim, and..." Bruce looks tentative, candid. "I'll owe you for that more than you'll ever know."

Tim understands what he's referring to, but it still hits him hard. Tim didn't do much for him, really, when they first met. All he did was shoot Bruce small smiles and tiny waves when the man seemed down. Nothing invasive or overly personal, but it must have meant a lot. Tim never realized how much.

"There's plenty of space at the Manor, too," Bruce continues hesitantly, building a case. "Money wouldn't be an obstacle, and I'm sure Alfred would love to have you with us."

The man keeps talking, mentioning small things that Tim only half-grasps because there's an empty, isolated part of himself that's struggling to hold everything together. He's been putting his emotions in a box all week, attempting to tie them up in knots that unravel and constrict him instead. They've been crushing the air in his lungs, turning it heavy and solid, and it's the same now.

Tim's got his head ducked, trying to hide the wash of emotions flooding his face. He wants to tell Bruce to stop talking, to turn away and close the door behind him, because the man's probably thinking they're having a breakthrough of sorts when all that's happening is Tim breaking apart in the exact way he's been trying not to. Somehow, he knows he's fighting a losing battle.

Bruce is still saying something. Tim's been listening against his better judgement, because a portion of him wants to know, needs to, and the instant Bruce mentions Dad, admits he could never replace him but would try to—That's what undoes him.

And that's really all Tim hears.

Because some dam in him breaks, shatters right then and there, and the force of it pushes him to take a step forward. Bruce must think Tim is falling, because he meets him halfway, and it's easy to choke out a laugh at that. Tim doesn't know why it's that way, but even though he knows he's crying, laughing is somehow easier now than it was a moment ago, like emotions flipped back on and he hadn't realized how many feelings he was actually experiencing.

Bruce has to think he's lost it. But for whatever reason, he doesn't let him go, and Tim's too far gone to look up and meet his expression for an answer as to why. There's still something nice about being this close to someone, despite it being simpler to run clear the other way. It's a warmth that Tim drowns in for a while, unsure how much it's welcomed, but Bruce is hugging him back. He's slightly gauche about it like embraces aren't something he's familiar with but is willing to learn. There's something to be said for that.

It takes a full minute for Tim to start feeling embarrassed, and he slowly pushes himself back, wiping at his eyes with the heel of his palm.

"You're fine," Bruce insists when Tim tries to apologize. He whisks out a pocket square and hands it to him.

Tim's voice is still too tight to do much more than thank him, eyes overlayed with a thin coating of saline, but he feels better than he did earlier.

Bruce gives him time to get himself back in check before talking again. "You're getting picked up at six, you said?" Tim affirms it with a bob of his head. "I understand that this is a big decision. If you need time to think things over, you should probably go with the caseworker and sleep on it. Or talk to your stepmother and see what she has to say. Like I said, it's up to you. You won't hurt my feelings either way."

Tim rubs the pocket square between his fingers pensively, watching the silvery paisley dance in the light. Dana's words from the other day are setting in, and there's a deep-seated grain of truth in them. "I think Dana'd want me to," Tim says quietly, folding the cloth and handing it back. "My dad too. They'd want me to be happy." It's the first time Tim's been able to look Bruce in the eye for a while now, and he's surprised that he can pull off a smile, however small. "Let's do it."

Bruce seems surprised. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah." It's a decision that comes out in a syllable but immediately lifts a huge weight off Tim's shoulders. It's still nerve-wracking but a different breed of it, one that's more hopeful and fits, like there's no other answer Tim could possibly give.

"Alright then," Bruce breathes, reeling slightly as if he's shocked how smoothly the whole thing went over. Tim can practically see the check list running behind the man's pupils as he pulls out his phone. "Could you give me the contact information for your caseworker? I'll have to call her as soon as possible, and I'll need to get in touch with my lawyer, too."

Tim spends a hot second scrambling to find the business card in his pile of papers, and once he does, Bruce excuses himself to a different room to make the calls. The man uses his free hand to gesticulate toward the bag of food Tim had placed on the counter earlier ("You can start without me.") before he disappears.

Tim will eat some, but for the moment, he flops back into his dining chair, dumbfounded by the way the past ten minutes have gone. It's a lot of emotions to sort through, although perhaps that's not such a bad thing. Tim's beginning to process them all while vetting the footwear in the entryway. Dad and Dana's shoes remain preserved in their places like statues. The difference is that Bruce's are there now too, a reminder that Tim's not alone anymore, that he doesn't have to be.

Tim's hasty to rub away the new wave of tears that try to eek out. They're from happiness more than anything else, and the change of pace is one Tim can enjoy.

Of course, his stomach butts into the moment with a dying-animal whine. It's pathetic enough that it spurs Tim into a laugh. He quickly decides food isn't such a bad idea after all and nestles himself on the counter with a bowl of curry, chewing it slowly.

He can catch the low rumble of Bruce's voice in the other room through the walls. The sound's a comforting one, familiar, and it makes the apartment feel lived in again the way it used to, the way he wants to remember it. Tim feels like he can say goodbye to the place now without any regrets, so he closes his eyes and listens to the soft voice of someone who cares about him. The reality of it reassures him that things will be okay, and maybe, just maybe, Tim's starting to believe it.