Disclaimer: Batman belongs to DC Comics and Warner Bros.
A/N: This oneshot was written for the "Legacy" theme at batfic-contest(dot)livejournal(dot)com.
The Wayne Legacy
The two most striking features of the sitting room were the painting of Thomas and Martha Wayne that hung over the mantel opposite the couch, and an old grandfather clock that had been in the Wayne family for three generations. The clock stood near the bookcase that opened up (when the correct sequence of piano keys were pressed) to a secret passageway that led to the caverns underneath the foundations in the southeast corner of Wayne Manor. Alfred laid out a tray of tea and sandwiches on a table in front of the clock, then sat down on the couch next to a first aid kit and a cell phone with Lucius Fox's number on speed dial (in case of larger emergencies) and began crossing and uncrossing his legs uncomfortably under the unmoving gaze of his departed masters. This had been his early, early morning routine for the past week, ever since Master Bruce had begun his nightly patrols through the Narrows, determined to catch every last killer that had been unleashed from Arkham by the League of Shadows.
Seven nerve-wracking nights… and this made eight. If Master Bruce had barely been getting any sleep, then Alfred was getting even less from worry alone. Neither of them had expected the crusade to last this long. Putting Falcone behind bars was one thing, but all too quickly circumstances had escalated, and Master Bruce has found himself taking on an entire city of evil. He was no longer just hunting criminals—they were hunting him. "The Batman," as the media had dubbed him, was plastered on the front pages of newspapers daily while debates both for and against him raged farther back in the pages of the Editorials. The criminal element knew he was out there, changed their tactics accordingly, and were actively seeking to take him down. And though Master Bruce had accepted the raise in stakes—a little too easily, in Alfred's opinion—Alfred himself was not used to the idea of Master Bruce gallivanting about at all hours of the night, never knowing what condition he might return in, or indeed if he would return at all. The Narrows was the most dangerous place in Gotham City, its criminals made all the more unhinged by the fear toxin that had broken their minds. No telling what kind of psychos lurked just around the corners there…
Something boomed, and Alfred jumped. Just the bloody clock. He cursed himself for being so jittery. The clock boomed twice more, and Alfred clicked his tongue. Three A.M. Master Bruce was late.
An hour later, and still no sight nor sound of him. Alfred had a one-way radio in his pocket that Master Bruce could use to contact him in an emergency, but there had been no signal. He just had to hope and pray that this meant everything was all right…
Suddenly Alfred realized he'd been running his hand absentmindedly over the couch cushion for the past hour. Amazing the old fabric hadn't been worn straight through. He stilled his hand, and was stricken by the strange but unmistakable sensation of déjà vu. He saw an image of himself sitting there on the couch (the fabric a little brighter, perhaps), repeating the same mindless motion with his hand (the skin a bit less wrinkled, perhaps), worrying too much to care about the tea getting cold or the lettuce on the sandwiches losing its crispness, waiting for Master Wayne to come home, many years ago. The room was much the same then as it was now, except there had been no painting over the mantelpiece.
Thomas couldn't have been a surgeon for more than a few weeks at the time, though he was so well suited to the role that he already seemed like an old hand. He rose quickly in respect among his peers, and was already earning a reputation as an uncommonly gifted surgeon at the understaffed, overcrowded Gotham City Hospital. Even when he was off-duty, calls would come in at night. Emergencies. Gotham City was not known for a lack of accidents, disasters, or violence, and at any moment the young Dr. Wayne might be called back to the hospital to help the never ceasing flow of patients. And when these calls came in, and Dr. Wayne rushed out, not knowing what time he might return or how much sleep he would be able to get when he did, Alfred would sit up waiting for him, ready to offer him a much-needed drink or bite to eat.
On this particular night that Alfred remembered, he felt more anxious than usual at Master Wayne's late return. When the doctor finally arrived, his shoulders were slumped and there were dark circles under his eyes that made him appear much older. He shrugged off Alfred's offer of food, and collapsed on the couch, head bent forward.
So vivid was Alfred's memory that he felt as though Master Thomas were sitting beside him now. He remembered the questions that followed, the anguish on his master's face as he told Alfred what had happened. A kid had been brought into the Emergency Room with a case of appendicitis. That same night, there had been a massive fire downtown with dozens of wounded. Too many patients… not enough doctors… Thomas had been called back in. But by the time he got to the boy…. He did everything he could, but it was just too late. He couldn't forgive himself. He kept saying to Alfred, over and over, that if he had just gotten there sooner, he could have saved him. He had never lost a patient before, and his conscience was facing a crisis. He had taken an oath to save lives, and he had failed. It was to be the first of many hard cases, but Alfred felt that this one had always weighed heavily on Master Thomas's mind. He couldn't get that anguished look out of his head…
Suddenly Alfred was snapped back to the present by the sound of the bookcase sliding open. Master Bruce was home. He hadn't even bothered to change out of his Kevlar, though he'd taken off the mask and cape. Alfred stood up at his arrival, gesturing to the tray while Bruce sat down without a word. The grandfather clock read a few minutes after five.
"I don't suppose I could persuade you to eat something before you pass out, Master Wayne? You did leave in such a hurry, and that was so many hours ago…"
Bruce let out a low, indecipherable grunt.
Bruce raised his head slightly, his weary eyes meeting Alfred's. "I failed," he said quietly.
Alfred sat down next to him. "What's this now?"
"I failed," Bruce said louder. "I was on the rooftops… tracking a lead… heard a yell, a struggle… I rushed as fast as I could…. It was some mugger, not just some average scum, this one was… deranged…." Bruce balled his fists and muttered, "Thanks to Crane," before continuing. "If I'd gotten there a second sooner, I could have stopped it, the knife. He stabbed the guy… so I returned the favor…" Bruce opened one of his hands to reveal a Batarang, its silver metal surface tarnished by the criminal's dark blood. "Caught him in the shoulder, kept him from getting away. Gordon was able to pick him up, confirmed it was one of Arkham's escapees. But the victim… it was too late…" Bruce closed his fist again.
"You did everything you could—" Alfred began.
"Everything I could is not enough," Bruce said, raising his eyes toward the painting looming over his lowered head. "I couldn't save him. I haven't lived up to my father at all."
Suddenly Bruce felt his hands being pried apart. The Batarang was tugged out of them and dropped to the floor. Alfred was holding him by the wrists, pulling his arms so that his hands were in plain view. "Look at your hands, sir."
"What are you doing, Alfred?"
"With all due respect, Master Bruce, shut up. Now look at your hands."
Bruce cast him a bemused look, but obliged.
"I assisted Thomas Wayne sometimes in surgery. In emergencies, at home, on the road… I've seen your father at work. I've seen him perform complicated operations at a pinch. I've seen his hands do dangerous, difficult, exacting, minutely detailed work."
Bruce opened his mouth to object, but Alfred wouldn't let him.
"These are your father's hands. I've seen you perform movements with these like it was surgery. Dexterous and swift. Careful when you need to be, full of precision." Alfred dropped Bruce's wrists and brought a hand to his forehead. "And I've seen you use your brain—on occasion, mind you—just like Thomas would. Smart, calculating, never room for an error. But this," Alfred said, letting his hand fall and tapping Bruce once on the chest, "this is where the Wayne legacy lives, Master Bruce. Thomas Wayne was the finest surgeon I've ever seen. There was something special about him, his relentless drive to save the lives of Gotham. He could take cases other doctors wouldn't touch. And every night, when he was called to the hospital, he faced unknown challenges, never hesitating, never faltering. Always with courage and determination, with his unique knowledge and ability. And he learned that every time he stepped into the operating room, there was a chance, even if he did everything in his power to help, that the patient wouldn't make it. There were lives, Master Bruce, that were out of his hands, but he tried when no one else could. It was hard for him to accept that, being a brilliant man as he were, but he did in time. And you will, too."
Alfred stood up to leave. "Now I suggest, Master Wayne, that you get some sleep." Alfred yawned. "You gave me quite a fright last night; I think I'll be sleeping in today. Don't wake me."
Bruce managed a small smile. "Good night, Alfred."
Alfred left the room, muttering exaggeratedly for Bruce to hear. "Good night, he says, at five in the bloody morning…"
When he was gone, Bruce reached over to the tray, downed some cold tea, and stuffed one or two tiny sandwiches into his mouth. He got up to leave when his foot hit something on the floor. The Batarang. He kneeled down to pick it up. When he raised his head, he saw Thomas Wayne watching over him from the mantel. The hands in the painting were the same ones that had once handed him a stethoscope and let him listen to the sound of his heart.
The pounding of his father's heart was in his ears as he left the room.