“I don’t know how to use this,” Bruce Wayne said blankly, staring at the compass.
Jason White took it from him. “See, you hold it like this, and the arrow points to north,” he explained patiently.
“But what if I want to go east?”
“Well--” Jason looked like he wanted to either giggle or roll his eyes, but he managed to do neither. “If you know which way is north, you can figure out that this way must be east.”
“Oh,” said Bruce. His eyes widened in epiphany. “Oh!”
Richard White patted his son on the back. “Okay, before we hit the trail, you need to go over the safety procedures with us all.” He beamed with pride as Jason started to explain the importance of staying hydrated in hot weather and how to make sure the campfire was completely out, and Clark felt a slight pang. He shifted his feet and focused on Jason’s explanations instead.
“Good job,” he said as Jason wrapped up. “You’ll get that merit badge in no time.”
Jason looked both happy and embarrassed. “This is just practice, though,” he said. “It doesn’t count unless I go with my patrol.”
“Oh,” said Clark, “I didn’t know that.”
Richard picked up his pack. “You weren’t in the Boy Scouts, Clark?”
“No, I never…” Clark shrugged, remembering: what if he couldn’t control his powers and set the woods on fire? What if he cheated in competitions without even realizing it? “I just never did.”
“Dad was an Eagle Scout!” Jason said, beaming. “That’s the best in the world.”
Richard ruffled Jason’s hair. “Being a Scout isn’t everything, kiddo, and you don’t have to be an Eagle Scout to change the world for the better. Like a reporter! Even back then, I’m sure Clark was making the world a better place in his own way.”
Bruce hoisted his backpack onto his shoulder. “He certainly was,” he said before Clark could say anything.
There were birds singing in the trees, sun glinting through the dark boughs and dappling the path ahead of them. Clark could smell sun-warmed pine needles and loam, and beneath that a heavy green scent of ferns and bracken. Small insects gleamed in the shafts of sun. Beside him, Bruce was striding along, decked out with all of the brand-new gear he’d bought especially for this trip, shiny and unused.
“Are you sure you want to spend two days on a trail away from Gotham?” Clark had asked with some uncertainty as Bruce revealed his haul, cheerfully cutting tags off a pile of L.L. Bean and North Face products. “I can slip away easily and go deal with an emergency, but you--”
“--Well, that’s why I have my very own Kryptonian, to deal with my emergencies, right?” Clark had pulled a face at his chipper tone, and Bruce’s face had softened. “It’s two days,” he said. “You want some time with your--with Jason.”
“I’d like to be in his life,” Clark said. “I’d like to know what kind of kid he’s growing up to be.”
“And I want that time with you,” Bruce had concluded. Then he had frowned. “More seriously, Jason is the only half-Kryptonian the world has ever known, and I’m surprised there hasn’t been any sign of powers developing. If you must find a non-altruistic reason for me to go along, it’s that I’d like the chance to observe him.”
“That sounds more like my Bruce,” Clark had said, smiling.
There was sun in Bruce’s hair now; not something Clark got to see often. The gold and copper lights among the dark waves made Clark want to press a kiss into them. Bruce turned and smiled at him--something caught between Brucie’s careless nonchalant grin and Bruce’s true warmth.
“Whew,” Clark said. “I sure could use a break.”
“Me too,” said Bruce, wiping at his brow. Clark could hear his heartbeat, just as steady as if he’d been sitting still for the last hour, but neither Richard nor Jason had to know that. “Is it going to get even steeper from here?”
“I’m afraid so,” Richard said, sitting down on a fallen tree and taking a long drink of water. “The summit is still a couple of hours away.”
“You guys are doing really well, though,” Jason said encouragingly.
“Agh,” said Bruce, and slapped at his arm. “Maybe staying in motion was a better idea.”
Clark watched as a mosquito landed on his arm, flexed its long legs and surveyed the landscape, trying to find a vulnerable place to bite. After a moment, it thought better of it and flew away again.
“Are you guys able to keep going?” Richard asked after a quiet interval in which the silence was broken only by the wind in the trees and the distant sound of birds.
“I’m up to it if Clark is,” Bruce said, hoisting his pack again.
“Well, I’m not going to let you show me up,” Clark retorted, getting to his feet.
The path got steeper and rockier, until it ceased to become a path at all as they neared the summit, a massive dome of granite coated with lichen and moss. Soon they were clambering almost vertically, stepping from root to gnarled root of the trees that clung to the rock. Jason slipped a couple of times and all three adults flinched towards him before he righted himself. Bruce caught Clark’s eye and smiled wryly the second time.
They finally emerged at the top in late afternoon, as the sun was sliding down toward a mass of crimson clouds on the horizon. Below them in every direction, the New England woods stretched out in late-summer glory. Clark could see a logging truck making its way along one lonely stretch of road, but beyond that there was no sign of humanity beyond the four of them, standing on the rocky summit together.
“Mom’s missing out!” Jason said, laughing, the wind in his hair.
Richard laughed too. “She’s going to regret not coming,” he said. “Let’s take a picture for her so she’ll see what she turned down to work on her exposé of lead in New Troy’s drinking water.” He held out his phone. “Clark, could you--?”
“Oh, sure,” said Clark, taking it from him. He held it up, framing Richard and his son, bright and happy against the green vista and blue sky. “Say cheese,” he said, pressing the button to capture them in that moment forever.
Bruce reached out and took the phone from him. “You get in there too,” he said.
“Yeah, yeah!” said Jason, beckoning to him. Clark went and stood behind them, feeling awkward and unsure.
“Smile,” said Bruce.
“Whoo!” yelled Jason, throwing up his arms, and Clark found himself grinning as the shutter clicked.
A chorus of crickets and cicadas sang to the night as they set up their tents; from a pond somewhere nearby a bullfrog added a deep plonking noise. Jason was walking Bruce through the basics of how to make and maintain a safe campfire. Bruce nodded in understanding and approval as Jason instructed him to check the branches above the fire site to make sure sparks couldn’t set them ablaze.
“You’re good at this,” Bruce said after the fire was crackling steady. “Have you thought about doing it for a living someday?”
“What,” Jason laughed, “setting campfires? That’s fun, but--”
“--No, teaching,” Bruce said. “I’m serious, you’re good.”
Jason brightened at the praise, then looked down and scuffed the ground with his shoe. “Actually...” he said, “I’d like to look into entering police academy.”
“Oh?” From the expression on Richard White’s face, this was the first he’d heard of his son’s plans.
“I want to be a detective,” Jason said, and Clark felt his eyebrows go up. Jason had said something like that years ago, but Clark had never thought he was that serious. “I mean it,” Jason added as though someone had argued with him. “It’s what I’m going to do.”
“It’s a really...dangerous job,” Richard said doubtfully.
Jason laughed softly and poked the fire with a stick. “You and mom and Clark get into danger all the time.”
Richard shot Clark a rueful look. “I try not to,” Clark said a bit weakly.
Bruce was looking up into the sky. Clark could see dark shapes winging against the stars: bats out for the evening hunt. “Why do you want to be a detective?” His voice was soft.
“I’m good at noticing details and putting things together. And I want to help people.”
“There are also pretty strict physical requirements,” Bruce said.
“I haven’t needed an inhaler for years,” Jason said as if trying to convince Bruce, or himself. “I’ve been getting stronger, I have! I came in third in high jump at my school’s field day--” He stopped, grimacing as if he suspected that wasn’t convincing enough, and fell silent.
“If you really want to do it, I’m sure you will,” Bruce said. There was no false chipperness to it, no tone of condescension; he met Jason’s eyes levelly and spoke to him like an adult. “You seem like the kind of person who won’t let anything stop them from their dreams.”
“Th--thank you,” Jason faltered, taken aback by this oddly serious Bruce Wayne. “Uh, what did you want to be when you were my age?”
Bruce smiled at him. “Believe it or not, I wanted to be a detective too,” he said.
“Oh.” Jason seemed to be having a hard time keeping a straight face at the image of playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne as a hard-boiled detective. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you,” he said politely.
“It worked out okay,” Bruce said. The firelight touched the small, secret smile Clark loved so much. “I got to meet Clark, didn’t I?”
“Oh man, mushy stuff,” Jason said, rolling his eyes.
“Mushy stuff,” Bruce echoed him, gazing up at the bats silhouetted against the stars.
The crimson clouds on the horizon had rolled in by the time they were getting their sleeping bags unrolled in the tents, and soon the relative silence had changed to the steady rattle of rain across nylon. Clark was almost glad of the blanket of sound that muffled their quiet conversation. “He’s a good kid,” he said softly.
“He is,” Bruce agreed.
“You think he really wants to be a detective?” Clark felt a pang at the idea of Jason choosing a life of danger, but he tamped it down ruthlessly.
“I do, actually,” Bruce said. He was curled up on his side in his mint-condition sleeping bag that was far too advanced for a one-night trip, the kind of sleeping bag a wealthy and ignorant person would buy if they wanted to be on the safe side. “I talked to him some more while you and Richard were cleaning up. Apparently he’s looked up how to apply to police academies and everything. This isn’t just a childish whim.” A pause. “He told me he wanted to go to Gotham Academy.”
Clark felt something complicated twist inside him. “Really?”
“He says it’s the best.” A quiet chuckle in the rain-hammered dark. “He’s right.”
Thunder growled somewhere in the distance. Clark heard Bruce yawn, felt him reach out and take Clark’s hand in the space between their sleeping bags. “Six hours of sleep tonight. I haven’t had that much sleep in years. I’m not sure I’ll even be able to sleep that much. But…” He paused and Clark waited for him to continue the sentence.
When Bruce’s breaths settled down into the long, slow sound of sleep, Clark smiled into the dark.
He thought he’d been almost silent slipping out of the sleeping bag, but he heard Bruce’s breathing shift and saw his eyes open into the darkness. The rain was coming down harder now, but Bruce didn’t raise his voice, knowing Clark could hear him: “Is there a problem?”
Clark bent closer. “No, I just wanted to go check, see if there’s anything that needs taking care of. I don’t hear anything big, though.”
Bruce nodded. “Come back safe,” he said.
“Always,” Clark responded. Their ritual farewells, the request they both knew they shouldn’t make; the promise they both knew they couldn’t keep.
Clark slipped out into the rain-drenched night, moving a little way into the trees so there was no chance of anyone seeing Superman emerging from his tent--that would be hard to explain. He put his civilian clothes under a boulder to keep them more or less dry, and soon Superman was headed into the sky.
The storm roiled around him, rain whispering off his cape until he emerged on the other side, above the clouds. Looking down, he could see lightning turning the clouds translucent here and there. Then he turned his gaze upward and soared higher, the rain on his clothes turning to feathers of ice as the air thinned and the stars became clearer. They tugged at him, a crystalline siren’s song just beyond his hearing, but he refused to listen. Bruce’s heartbeat tethered him to the earth, the constant low drumbeat underpinning and defining all of the chaotic symphony of life below. Looking down, he listened, sorting through screams and prayers and cheers. Then he focused and darted downward once more.
For a little while, he did what he could.
And then, just as he deposited a foundering boat on the shore in Okinawa, he heard Bruce’s heartbeat suddenly pick up, heard him call out from the other side of the world: “Clark!”
The Pacific streaked by beneath him, the Rockies flashed under him, and he fell like a stooping falcon to where he could already see the little campsite battered by a muddy landslide, boulders tumbling past the tents, striking at the bright cloth.
Throwing himself between the tents and the mud and stones, he tried to stem the tide of destruction. He could hear Jason screaming behind him, and he wanted to turn to look, but didn’t dare miss blocking a single stone. Time seemed to slow down as he frantically fought against the earth itself; mud filled his mouth and its stench filled his nostrils. Where was Bruce? Was he--
He heard Bruce’s heartbeat under the rattle and roar of debris; seizing it, he calmed himself until he could pick out two others, shaky and rapid but steady. He dared a quick look back and caught a glimpse of all three of them between the flying rocks and branches: Richard had picked up Jason, and Bruce had more or less picked up Richard in the chaos, staggering behind a boulder for shelter.
Once Clark could see they were safe and the landslide was coming to an end, he moved through the flowing earth and stones and got out on the other side.
He almost went to his knees then--not with exhaustion but with sheer reaction. But no, there was no time. Already he heard Richard calling out “Clark? Where’s Clark?”
Grabbing his civilian clothes at superspeed, he changed and then called out in a voice he didn’t have to try and make shaky: “Guys? Is everyone okay?”
“Oh thank God,” said Richard from behind the boulder. “Can you get to us without jarring anything more loose? Are you injured?”
Clark started to pick his way down the slope to them with infinite caution, hovering slightly if it looked like there was any instability in the debris. “I’m not hurt,” he called. “I got caught in some mud--” That was putting it mildly, he thought ruefully as dirty water trickled down his face from his sodden hair, “--but I seem to be fine. Are you guys--”
“Jason and I are fine,” Richard said, “But Bruce--”
“--I, uh, might have sprained my ankle,” Bruce’s voice came from the behind the rock. He sounded like he was gritting his teeth, and beneath that was a sort of dry irony. He looked up at Clark as Clark finally got to them, his smile wry: Can you believe this?
“You’ll be fine,” Richard said in a reassuring voice clearly meant to keep the city slicker from panicking.
Jason cleared his throat. “The first thing we need to do is get away from the landslide site to somewhere safer.”
All three adults blinked at him. Jason’s face was very pale beneath the streaks of dirt, but he stood up and said, “We need to get away and then we’ll get a brace on Mr. Wayne’s foot and maybe make a crutch for him.”
“Right,” said Richard. “Clark, on your way here did you see if there was anything left of our tents?”
Clark shook his head. “There’s a mountain’s worth of rock on top of them.”
“No phones,” said Richard. “And we can’t get back to the trail across the slide.”
“So we get somewhere safe and go from there,” Bruce said, reaching up for Clark to help him to his feet. He hissed a little as they started to walk and his foot came down on the rocks, and Clark felt a brief, odd flare of pride: Batman wouldn’t have made a sound if you cut his arm off, but Bruce’s stoicism had to be telegraphed.
Clark felt Bruce’s hand tighten on his arm as they limped away down the mountain. He squeezed back, knowing they both were thinking the same thing: Superman could come to save the day, and he will if necessary. But for now as long as we’re safe… just keep going like this.
The downpour was giving way to a slow drizzle by the time they stopped at a small brook a safe distance from the landslide. Jason immediately started looking for a branch in the darkness that could work as a crutch for Bruce as Clark helped him sit down on a rock.
“It happened so fast,” Richard said, still looking shaken. “We were just lucky Bruce shoved us behind that rock.”
“Just running on instinct, I guess,” Bruce said.
“You got caught in it, Clark?” Richard said.
Clark wrung some more mud out of his hair, grimaced around the taste of it still in his mouth. “I wasn’t caught in it. I just fell in the mud trying to find you.” Relieved that in the dark no one could see that his glasses and clothes were miraculously unmuddied, he cautiously took a moment to smear both of them with dirt as much as possible.
“So,” Bruce said after a moment, “we’ve got no supplies and we’ve lost the trail. What’s next?”
“We follow the running water downhill,” said Jason. He’d found a sturdy branch and was breaking it into something the right height to support Bruce. “Right, Dad?”
Richard chuckled. “Good advice, kiddo. Either that or stay and wait for rescue. But we know where this brook ends up, right?”
Jason cast his eyes upward, remembering. “Based on the maps we studied, it intersects with the path just a little before the trailhead.”
“So then I’d say it’s up to Bruce, since he’s the one that’s got to walk on that sprain. What do you say, Bruce? Do we wait for dawn and then walk down, or do we stay here and wait for rescue?”
Bruce flexed his foot and grimaced. “On the whole, I prefer to be doing something rather than just sitting and waiting for someone to help me. Besides, I’ve got Jason’s crutch to help--and if all else fails, I can lean on Clark.” He shot a laughing glance at Clark. “You make a decent crutch,” he said.
“Thank you so much,” Clark said, combing more mud out of his hair.
They waited in the darkened woods until the sky started to lighten. Jason even dozed on his father’s shoulder a little as the adrenaline ebbed. “Okay,” Richard said softly once there was enough light to clearly see each other’s faces. “Time to get moving.”
The going was almost tedious compared to the excitement of the landslide, but Clark certainly wasn’t complaining. They limped down the slope (“Don’t stay too close to the water,” Jason pointed out, “It can be slippery and we might encounter wild animals.”), picking their way carefully across roots and stones. Birds started to sing in the trees, welcoming the dawn as if the terrible storm of the night before were completely gone from their memories. The drizzle faded away, and the sun finally came over the horizon to bathe everything in golden light. It would have been perfectly peaceful if Bruce, Richard and Jason weren’t covered in scratches and bruises that made Clark’s heart ache. Bruce leaned on both Jason’s crutch and Clark at different times, trying not to jar his rapidly-swelling foot too badly. When they finally spotted the trail again, Jason let out an exhausted whoop of happiness.
“I claim this trail in the name of the Lane-White-Kent-Wayne party!” he declared, planting his foot solidly on it in triumph.
Bruce’s face was drawn and pale, but he smiled. “We’re lucky you were with us, Jason,” he said as they made their way down the path.
Jason tossed his head dismissively, but Richard echoed him: “You did great, kiddo. You remembered all your survival and first-aid tips and you helped get us out. I’m proud of you.”
“Aw,” said Jason, blushing.
“You’re an honorary Eagle Scout to us,” Clark said, as the trailhead and parking lot came at last into view, and Jason beamed at him in shy delight.
Bruce sighed with relief as they settled him in the passenger seat, but brushed off any concerns: “I’m fine,” he said. “I’ve sprained my ankle worse playing golf.” The long ride back to Gotham was quiet, and eventually Jason fell asleep on Clark’s shoulder. Clark looked at his tired, muddy face, at the gangling limbs relaxed in sleep. I’m proud of you too, he thought.
“Goodness!” Alfred stood on the front steps of Wayne Manor, looking horrified as Clark helped a muddy, limping Bruce out of the car.
“Sorry, Mr. Pennyworth,” said Richard. “I’m afraid we’re returning him a little worse for wear.”
“I’m fine,” Bruce said with a touch of irritation that told Clark his patience at being fussed over was coming to an end.
“Master Bruce,” Alfred said reprovingly, “You really must be more careful.”
Bruce laughed softly, leaning on Clark. “I’ve heard that one before.”
Alfred’s lips thinned slightly and he turned away from Bruce to address Richard. “Mr. White, would you and the young lad like to clean yourselves up a bit?”
“Actually, if you’d let me borrow a phone, I probably have to tell Lois why we’re going to get home a little early,” Richard said with a grimace. “And then I think I’d rather get home as soon as possible and clean up there.”
“Me too,” Jason said with a yawn.
“Ms Lane gave me her number,” said Alfred, producing a phone out of what seemed to be thin air. “She is your co-worker,” she said at Clark’s raised eyebrow, “and most likely to know what trouble you may be getting yourself into.”
A brief and apologetic phone call later, Jason was giving Bruce and Clark muddy hugs goodbye. “I’m sorry it was such a bad trip,” he said, muffled against Clark’s chest.
“Bad things happen sometimes,” Clark said. “We get through them. You handled yourself really well. Thank you.” He ruffled Jason’s muddy hair and Jason gave him a wan smile, then turned to get back in the car with his father.
Alfred, Bruce and Clark waved goodbye as they drove off, and Clark waited until the car was just out of sight before scooping Bruce up into a bridal carry. “Hey,” Bruce said, but he sounded more relieved than annoyed.
“Do you have any idea how hard it was to not carry you down that mountain?” Clark said as he carried Bruce up the stairs and into the Manor.
“It’s always hard to watch the people we care about suffer,” Bruce said into Clark’s shoulder.
“Indeed, sir,” Alfred observed, his voice dry. “Shall I draw a nice hot bath and make you some breakfast?”
“That would be very welcome,” Bruce said. He laughed under his breath as Clark carried him up the stairs. “The funny thing is, I actually was a Cub Scout. Never made it to Boy Scout, though. But I still remember the pledge.” He took a breath and recited in a sing-song voice: “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” A pause as Clark pushed open the bathroom door, where there was already steaming hot water pouring into the tub. “Funny what the mind retains,” Bruce said sleepily.
“Well,” said Clark. “It sounds to me like you’re doing a good job of fulfilling that pledge.”
“I’ll be a squeaky-clean Eagle Scout in no time,” Bruce said, and kissed Clark, muddy lips and all.