The room buzzed with avid voices. "Is it true that Harley Quinn's body wasn't recovered?" yelled a reporter from the Gotham Gazette.
"The car that Doctor Harleen Quinzel drove off the New Trigate Bridge was empty when we recovered it," said Jim Gordon, squinting out at the popping flashbulbs as he stressed the proper name. If you let the press get away with tacking ridiculous codenames on villains they wouldn't be content until every thug in Gotham had some bizarre alias. "It's likely that her body was swept out to sea."
"Is it possible she was an accomplice to the Joker all along? Did she help him kidnap your children before?"
"--And did Batman try to help Dent save your kids last year?" another reporter added.
"We're looking into how long Dr. Quinzel was working with him, but we have no clear answer to that yet. As to what happened six months ago..." Jim paused for a moment to savor his next line. "You may remember I have always insisted that there was no evidence whatsoever connecting Batman to those crimes. It was dark and events unfolded very quickly. I wouldn't feel comfortable saying exactly what happened."
The reporters muttered amongst themselves, clearly dissatisfied, but they were a clever bunch. They'd find a new narrative that fit.
A reporter raised his hand almost shyly, as if afraid to bother him, and Jim found that too charming to pass up. He nodded to him and the man said "Clark Kent, Metropolis Daily Planet. I was wondering, sir...are your children all right?"
Jim blinked, then said, "They're doing well, thank you for asking." Kent broke into a smile so radiant that Jim found himself smiling back. "They were badly shaken up, of course, but unhurt."
Another reporter cut in. "Are you thinking of getting them out of Gotham, somewhere safe?"
"Well..." As a matter of fact, Jim's wife had mentioned the possibility last night. Babs, however, had thrown something of a temper tantrum at the very thought. "It's my intention to make Gotham safe for all our children, rather than sending mine away to be safe."
A low murmur of mixed approval and disbelief from the crowd. Jim watched their faces as the press conference ended. There would be as many theories as there were people, now. Some would say Batman was innocent of murder. Some would insist he was a killer and should be prosecuted. Others would agree he was a killer and would applaud him for exactly that.
A few people might even guess that Harvey Dent wasn't the paragon of his mythology. But his image would be untarnished a while longer, a beacon that shone when Gotham needed it most.
However, she had other beacons now.
Commissioner James Gordon walked home through the dusk, his head full of plans. He stopped for a moment on the corner and looked at the lights of his little flat, golden in the twilight. His wife's silhouette moved against the curtains, and he could hear his son laughing.
He stood for a moment in the darkness, looking in at the circle of warmth and safety, at the people who cared for him. He shoved his cold hands in his pockets for a moment, then cast a glance to the night sky.
Then Jim Gordon went home.
: : :
"--You didn't ask about Dent."
John "Tiny" Maguire looked down at the reporter, his broad face impassive as it had been throughout the interview. "I don't like to talk about that night," he said, his voice a low rumble. "'Cause when people find out, they always ask about Dent. Like what I did was because he inspired me. Maybe now people'll ask me if I did it because of Batman."
"And, um, did you?"
Maguire's eyes narrowed. "I wasn't thinking about nobody that night except the people on that other boat--" He tapped his chest once, "--and my own soul. I didn't do it for nobody else's sake. And anybody else would have done the same thing. Because we're Gothamites, and--look, we make mistakes. Sure we do. We get desperate. But we don't go blowing other people up just because some nutjob tells us to." He settled backwards and crossed his arms with finality. "Think you can use that in your story?"
Clark Kent nodded. "Yes, Mr. Maguire, I think I can."
: : :
Lucius Fox looked around the conference table at the fidgeting shareholders, keeping his expression placid and calm. Beneath it, however, there was a gnawing anxiety that made him want to drum his fingers on the glossy wood. He had seen Batman disappear into the shadows of the bridge last night, alive. Able to stand. Surely Pennyworth would have gotten in touch with him if things had...
He cut off that train of thought before it could run inevitably to internal bleeding, head injuries, collapsed lungs. "I'm sure Mr. Wayne will be here any minute," he noted to the restive shareholders.
Then the phone on the sideboard rang, and Lucius picked it up with hands that didn't shake at all. "Yes?"
"Lucius? That you?" Bruce Wayne's voice rang out over the speaker phone, and Lucius sat down very quickly.
"Yes, Mr. Wayne," he said, forcing a sardonic edge into his voice to hide a gust of relief. "Did you forget we had a meeting this morning?"
"Lucius, I don't know if I can make it. Traffic downtown is terrible. Did you know they closed the bridge?" There was something odd about Wayne's voice that Lucius couldn't quite pin down. Not just the edge of hoarseness to it. Something different.
The shareholders rolled their eyes as Lucius responded, "Didn't you see it on the news last night, Mr. Wayne?"
A rather smug chuckle. "Who has time to watch the news, Lucius?"
"Then I guess you missed Batman saving Gotham from a bomb threat."
"Batman? That menace? Ridiculous. He's responsible for the bridge being shut down? Unbelievable. Gotham would be better off without him."
"With all due respect, sir, I think a lot of people in Gotham would disagree with you this morning. And I must tell you that I am one of them."
In the silence that followed, Lucius heard Bruce Wayne swallow twice. "Well, I guess you're entitled to your opinion, Lucius," he said at last. "But I wouldn't believe everything you see on television."
"I'll keep that in mind." One of the shareholders tapped impatiently on the table, and Lucius cleared his throat. "And...the meeting, Mr. Wayne?"
Another chuckle. "Lucius, after the night I had, I don't think I could even sign my name. I can still hardly see straight," Bruce said with a distinct leer in his voice.
"Quite an eventful evening?" Lucius said dryly.
"You have no idea. There was this girl--Lucius, she was crazy, craaaazy. And she was hitting on me like you would not believe."
He was enjoying himself, Lucius realized. That was the difference in his voice. He sounded playful, in a way he hadn't for a long time. Bruce's gleeful voice continued: "She was doing things to me that I'm pretty sure aren't legal in most states. Whooo-eee."
Lucius wasn't sure whether he wanted to laugh or cry, so he decided to merely raise an eyebrow. "Mr. Wayne, you are aware that you're on a speaker phone right now?"
"I am? Hey, hi everyone!" Lucius was impressed to see one of the shareholders actually bend over and gently knock his forehead against the table. "You don't mind me borrowing Lucius for a couple more minutes here, right?"
"Oh, go ahead," said one of the wealthier women, her voice dripping sarcasm. "We've got nothing better to do."
"Good point," Bruce said cheerfully. "But after all that," he went on, his voice solemn, "she left me hanging. It broke me up inside, it really did. But Lucius, I looked out at the Gotham skyline and I realized that I really loved my life. That I wouldn't change a thing" A gusty sigh. "You know, you told me a few days ago I needed to take a break. Not work so hard."
Lucius ignored the incredulous glances from around the table. "I recall saying something of the sort."
"I'm thinking I might take your advice, take some time off. The Manor is almost rebuilt, and they'll need me to oversee the final touches. And I think I deserve some...personal time. Lucius--" and now his voice was not playful at all, "--At any rate, last night worked out for the best, because I met someone else. And I have to say, I think he's...special. I think he really understands me."
Lucius's eyebrows rose involuntarily this time. "I'm pleased to hear that."
"Yep. Yep. I think it's safe to say I fell pretty hard last night."
"You seem to do that a lot, Mr. Wayne."
A soft laugh. "I do, don't I? But never as hard as this. Anyway, everyone, Lucius has my complete confidence and all that stuff. Lucius, keep making me money!"
As the call ended, Lucius looked up from the phone to the exasperated faces of the shareholders. "As Mr. Wayne is unavoidably detained this morning, we might as well get started," he suggested.
As he opened the meeting, he remembered the look that passed between Superman and Batman in that moment under the bridge last night. He remembered the wry, gentle laughter in Bruce Wayne's voice.
As he ran the meeting with businesslike precision, it was all he could do to keep from smiling.
: : :
"There. You should have called him last night."
"I believe last night I had other priorities, Master Wayne."
Clark Kent peeked in the door of the penthouse bedroom as Alfred Pennyworth hung up the phone. Bruce Wayne was in the bed, both arms heavily bandaged and lying immobilized at his sides. His face was still reddened and blistered, his hair sweaty and sticking up.
He smiled when he saw Clark, a smile that transformed his face from handsome into beautiful, into something Clark had never seen before. "Clark," he said.
"Hello," said Clark, feeling awkward and oddly shy. "I'm glad to see you're awake."
"I've been up for a while," Bruce said. "Though I can't get anything done if Alfred won't let me move my arms." He cast a glare at Alfred. "I have to get into Arkham's mainframe, find out if security's been compromised. And like Gordon said, we have to find out how far back Quinzel and the Joker go. I need to check current and tide information for the mouth of the river." He shifted restlessly and made an aborted movement as if to lift his arms, then winced and stopped. "Plus there are the contractors for the Manor to think of. They want me to pick out tile for the entrance hall," he said to Clark. Then his eyes kindled as though seeing Clark had reminded him, "And I want to know all about Kryptonian tech. Is it true it's crystal-based? Do you have any I can study? I had heard Luthor destroyed your Fortress, it would be such a shame if that were all lost. Oh, and Kryptonian! Do you have any glossaries, can you teach me some? Think of the advantages of being the only two people who could speak a language!"
His voice was enthused and energetic, not the frenetic, aimless energy Clark had seen before but a purposeful zeal. He looked...alive. Renewed.
Bruce was searching Clark's face, looking slightly worried. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't presume," he said. "It's just...there's so much to do. So much we can do. I don't mean to--"
"That's okay," Clark said hastily. "I'd love it if someone else could speak Kryptonian. And I have no problems with you studying the crystals I still have. No secrets," he said.
"No secrets," Bruce repeated.
Alfred Pennyworth looked from one man to the other and cleared his throat. "I'll be off to start dinner, then," he said. He looked sternly at Clark. "Do not let him get out of bed or use his arms, no matter how much he sulks."
"I don't sulk," stated Bruce. "I express moderated disapproval."
He sulks, Alfred mouthed at Clark, and exited with a wink.
"Okay, I might sulk a little," Bruce muttered. "But who wouldn't sulk, with so much that needs to be done and no way to do most of it? I need to ask Lucius to whip up a better voice-recognition program for web pages and email, I'll go crazy if I can't get on the Internet, and Alfred will quit if he has to read me web pages all day."
"You've been bedridden for..." Clark looked at his watch. "Almost twelve hours."
"Thirteen and a half," Bruce sighed. He tilted his bruised face, looking at Clark. "Show me again," he said.
"I still can hardly believe it." He pointed upward with his chin. "You know."
"Oh." Clark lifted off the floor slightly. "I don't do this often in civilian clothes. It feels strange," he said.
Bruce shook his head. "Right in front of me," he said. "I thought I had such a huge secret."
"You do." Clark drifted toward Bruce until he was hovering a few feet above him. "I'm glad you decided to share it with me."
Bruce looked up at him. "I've been thinking," he said. "And I believe Quinzel was right about one thing: we are defined by the choices we make." He was silent a long time, looking at Clark. "The choices we make," he repeated, softly.
"You said you wanted to learn Kryptonian?" At Bruce's nod, Clark continued: "There's a Kryptonian word, yrrelossan. It's not exactly translatable, but it means something like... 'The moment in which you realize that someone is worthy of your complete trust.' It was considered more precious than even love in Kryptonian society, and more rare."
"Yrrelossan," Bruce echoed. He closed his eyes as if to commit it to memory. "Yes. That."
Then his nose twitched and his brow wrinkled in consternation. His eyes flew open and he looked imploringly at Clark, who gazed back in alarm.
"My nose," Bruce said.
"It itches." Bruce wriggled, scrunching his face up. "Could you--could you scratch it? It's torture, I tell you." Clark reached down and ran his finger up and down Bruce's nose, and Bruce sighed luxuriously. "Thank you."
"You're going to be an unbearable patient, aren't you?"
"Don't be ridiculous," huffed Bruce. "If I can take pepper spray to the face and bat blows to the head, surely I can take a little bed rest. Besides, I'll be up and back on the streets in a day or two." Clark cast him a dubious look. "Okay, maybe a week. But no more."
"Unbearable," said Clark.
Bruce's mouth twitched, but bit his lip and didn't laugh. Then he sighed tragically.
"What is it now, Bruce?"
"My lips," pouted Bruce. "They itch."
Clark rubbed Bruce's mouth with his finger. Bruce took the opportunity to nibble on it, and Clark found his ability to stay steady in the air severely compromised.
"I think your mouth might work better," Bruce suggested.
"Maybe," agreed Clark, and lowered himself inch by inch until his lips were brushing Bruce's.
"I like this," Bruce murmured against them.
Much later, he whispered, "Yrrelossan," as if it were an endearment.
: : :
Bruce climbed the stairs to Wayne Manor with Clark at his side. Clark's eyes widened as the beige stone loomed up in his vision--Bruce had insisted he stay away until the day it was completed. As they neared the top of the stairs, Bruce started taking them two at a time, bounding with only the slightest hitch in his gait.
The night before, he and Alfred had exchanged sharp words about his readiness to don the suit again. Bruce had appealed to Clark to break the stalemate, but Clark had remained carefully neutral.
He had quickly learned that it was unwise to cross Alfred Pennyworth.
Bruce had scowled and glowered at Alfred's rebuke, but had finally been convinced that at least one more evening of physical therapy would be wise.
Considering Bruce liked to perform "physical therapy" in the nude and with help from Clark, Clark had no complaints at all.
Clark tore his thoughts away from the memory of Bruce dripping sweat as he hung from a chin-up bar, his bare legs wrapped around Clark's waist, and nodded.
Bruce put the key in the door and turned it, and together they entered Wayne Manor.
They spent the evening exploring every room. Bruce pointed out the wainscoting, the lintels, the balustrades. He inspected every fireplace, opened and closed each window, got down on his hands and knees to look at the parquet floors of the ballroom. Clark nodded and asked questions, but he was more entranced by the absorbed delight on Bruce's face than the house itself.
"And this is my bedroom," said Bruce, opening a heavy wooden door and ushering Clark into a surprisingly small and cozy room. The four-poster bed was covered with a burgundy brocade, and there were two small desks, side by side. "I thought you might like a place to work when you were staying here," Bruce said at Clark's raised eyebrow, looking away.
Clark touched the gleaming wood. "Thank you," he said.
Bruce sat down on the bed. "Come here." He took Clark's hand and pulled him into a long kiss. "Welcome to my home," he murmured, his hands busy on Clark's clothing, deftly unbuttoning and unzipping.
"Welcome home," Clark whispered back, leaning into the kiss.
: : :
Clark propped himself up on one elbow and watched Bruce's sleeping face in the darkness, his skin pale against the deep red cloth. The superficial scratches and bruises were healed for the moment, but the scars gleamed silver in the dark. There was a faint smile on Bruce's face: he looked happy, Clark thought.
Outside the window, there was a flicker in the night sky, a light against the clouds. As Clark looked, the light coalesced against the shadows, a bright circle with a dark shape at its center. He watched the reflected glow touch Bruce Wayne's sleeping face, limning his features.
Bruce's eyes came open at Clark's light touch on his cheek. His gaze went to the window, to the call piercing the night.
Clark watched as the happiness in Bruce's face deepened into joy.
"Welcome home," Clark said again.
This time it was true.