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This Side of the Stars

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In Bruce's dreams, it was wildflowers. Every graveyard was the same, a sea of tall grass that lashed about his legs, and as he waded through this testament to neglect, he would gather a fistful of lupines and Queen Anne's lace. He would walk to the grave or into the mausoleum and he would place the bouquet, and he would look at it, leaning spindly and inadequate against a monument to someone he had failed. Sometimes he would touch the name, and sometimes it would change under his fingers.

Then the dream would turn. Beyond that point, no two were the same except for how they ended.

Awake, in a manicured cemetery outside of Smallville, he brought Clark Kent lilies. Winter had crisped the grass to brown, and Bruce's ragged grocery-store bouquet was strikingly white and green against it, the headstone, the overcast sky. The weather was cold and breezy; a ribbon snaked past him in the air, escaped from some other grave offering.

He'd have liked to say something. By rights, he should have been better at talking to graves. In the last year, he'd had a hundred conversations from which Clark had been ringingly, unforgettably absent. Now the man himself lay six feet beneath Bruce's shoes, and—what to say?

Sorry. Things are coming along. I'll do better this time.

This was pointless; he shouldn't have come. He stayed anyway, waiting for words, or a sense of satisfaction, or to wake panting with the feeling of Clark's dead hand around his throat. When he heard a tread on the footpath behind him, he stood still and waited for it to pass by, but it crossed the grass and approached him tentatively. From the sound of the shoes and the length of the stride, probably a woman of above-average height, and not here on business. Not here for Bruce Wayne or for the Bat. When she was just behind him he stepped aside from the foot of the grave, and half-turned to meet the eye of Clark's mother.

She had her hair up, and a couple of tall sunflowers in the crook of her arm. "You're Bruce Wayne," she said, then half-covered her mouth like she'd committed a faux pas.

Not the time to play dumb. "You're Martha Kent," he said, and offered his hand. She shook it; both their hands were chilly. Her gaze bounced from that damn mole on his cheek to the cleft of his chin to his eyes.

"I sent a thank-you note after the funeral, but I don't know if that sort of thing reaches you," she said. "So it's lucky I can thank you in person, I guess."

Bruce put on a smile. "Why would you need to thank me?"

"Oh, come. A billionaire attends the same funeral some mysterious benefactor paid for. Turns out the Wayne Foundation covered half the funeral expenses related to the—" She stopped. The press had a lot of names for the destruction last year. Bruce couldn't blame her for not liking any of them.

"Guilty," he said, rather than make her fumble for the rest of the sentence.

"You and Clark were—friends?"

He had told her that, hadn't he. "He shook me down for sound bites at an event once," Bruce said now. She gave him a narrow, skeptical look, and he went on, "We spoke a few other times. Mostly to disagree. But I think we would have seen eye to eye eventually."

"I'm sorry there wasn't time," Mrs. Kent said, looking at the grave.

Bruce rubbed his face, and didn't speak until he was sure he wouldn't sound angry; he kept the edges of his voice round and soft. "Don't comfort me about the death of your son, Mrs. Kent. I'm—sorry for your loss. You raised a good man. That's all I meant."

"Well, thank you," Martha Kent said, "but I'm still sorry. He was so lost in Metropolis, he could've used a friend."

The low turnout at his funeral had suggested as much. Of course his mother would frame him that way, as her lonely son adrift in the big city, rather than as the sort of distant and forbidding figure—however decent he had turned out to be, however much he had been willing to give up for the lives of others—that people would naturally not flock to socially.

"My shy boy," she said, mostly to herself, and stooped to place one of the sunflowers on Clark's grave, snugging it up against Bruce's staid white lilies. The other one went to the grave directly to the right of Clark's, which Bruce's eye had passed over when he first approached: Jonathan Kent, two decades in the ground this year.

"Anyway," Bruce said, when the silence stretched too long, "I don't mean to intrude. Have a good evening, Mrs. Kent."

He turned away from the grave and the flowers and the mourning woman, and had made it a few strides when Martha Kent said from behind him, "Can I offer you some dinner?"

Bruce glanced back at her, standing between the headstones of her husband and son and extending hospitality to him. The wind pulled a lock of her hair free and she corralled it impatiently behind her ear.

"It won't be fancy," she added.

"Well, I was just going to have a protein shake and a martini in my hotel room," he said.

"I've got gin."


He followed her pickup back to the farm in his rental, careful not to drive like he knew the way. Their encounter a year ago had led him here before, though not in person: he knew the Kent farm from stolen satellite photos that showed the hole in the barn roof, the house caved in by a thrown truck, the tree out front in full leaf. Now the tree was bare, the house rebuilt, the barn haphazardly patched; the cornfield that stretched away to the east was shorn down to stubble for the winter.

"It's a bit of a mess," Martha said, hesitating with her key in the lock. A dog whined longingly on the other side of the door.

"I don't plan to look very far past the rim of my glass," Bruce said. She shrugged and led him inside.

It was just a house. Bruce hadn't expected anything else. This was the engine that had propelled Superman, per his research: a home in the country, an anonymous upbringing, all the milestones of a human life measured out upon an alien. He still found himself frozen in the entryway, taking it in, while the dog wriggled up to him and asked to be petted, while Martha hung up his coat. In his mind Clark Kent was a larger-than-life figure in blue and red, ripping open the Batmobile, giving up his life, but he wouldn't have looked like that when he stood where Bruce now stood. He must have fit somehow, among the sheer white curtains and the framed photos.

"Can I help with anything?" said Bruce, once Martha had led him into the kitchen. He made a point of looking around like he had never seen the inside of such a room before.

"How about this," Martha said, gently removing a spatula from his hand. "You're on drinks duty." She rounded up gin, tonic water, tumblers, knife, and popped a tray of ice for him, then transferred a basket of citrus fruit from the counter to the kitchen table with a decisive thump. "Can you—"

Either his posture of helplessness was working better than intended, or she was fucking with him. "I think I can figure it out," he said, with a grin that wouldn't inspire confidence. "I've seen it done enough times." She gave him exactly the look he deserved, but turned to inventory the refrigerator while he cut a lime.

Once Martha had her drink in hand, Bruce waited for her attention to return to her dinner preparations, and wandered out into the living room. He'd pulled this in dozens of mansions and corporate offices, poor Brucie, perpetually looking for the bathroom; it wasn't really the maneuver for a compact farmhouse with only two human occupants, but Martha let him go without comment.

The living room wore the scars of Zod's visit more clearly than the kitchen or entry had. The seam in the northwest corner where new drywall met the old plaster, the spackled pockmarks where debris had peppered the undestroyed wall, the scratches in the floor partly hidden by overlapping throw rugs. He ran his fingers along the contents of two new flat-pack shelf units and the battered hardwood bookcase they stood next to. Tape crackled on the spines of salvaged volumes: westerns, cozy mysteries, airport thrillers, librettos; a scattering of nonfiction, denser as his eye wandered toward the bottom shelves. First classical philosophy, then legal and natural history, then physics and cognitive science. Military science fiction up top, anthropological science fiction down below. Either Martha Kent had a varied palate and an idiosyncratic shelving system, or this library represented the tastes of three people, two of them dead.

He crouched, pulled a book from down low, and scanned the back, then the introduction: a survey of theories of consciousness. Or, to put it another way, a book full of nitty-gritty accounts of how humans experienced their own minds. Something an alien might use to keep his story straight.

"I never did figure out how to throw away a book," Martha said, standing in the doorway with her empty glass in hand.

"Don't you mean 'donate'?" said Bruce, and she laughed.

"It's a little different for the rest of us, Mr. Wayne. I'm not sure anyone needs another Miss Marple I dropped in the bath."

"Call me Bruce." He slid the book back where it had come from. It was enough just to know the title and author, for later.

"Bruce. I'm Martha."

"Can I get you another round?"

Bruce straightened, and she placed her glass in his hand, then walked back into the kitchen, back to whatever she was doing at the counter. Beating egg whites. Souffle?

"Tell you what else you can do for me," she said. "Clark's room is the first on the right, at the top of the stairs. There's a stack of boxes, you can't miss them. Pack one for yourself."

Bruce froze with a wedge of lime half-squeezed in his hand. "Mrs. Kent—"

"Martha," she said again.

"I didn't come here hunting for mementos."

"You'd be doing me a favor," she said, intent upon the eggs. "There's so much to go through, and it's just going to gather dust up there while I avoid it."

"I can't ... I can't take your son's things."

"They're just things, Bruce." She sighed; her whisk paused, then resumed. "You wouldn't be drinking my gin right now if I thought you'd come just for souvenirs. Even if you had, it's mostly books. You came because you wanted to know about Clark, not to have dinner with an old woman, and that's fine."

Bruce refrained from informing her that there was no alcohol in his drink, which he hadn't touched anyway. He topped topped up her second round and hesitated behind her with it in his hand. "You could always just talk to me about him." He imagined he could hear Alfred somewhere in the distance, laughing bitterly into a glass of scotch.

"I could, and there's a whole room of starting points up there that I can't bear to look at myself. So go right ahead. Maybe—" Her voice wavered, and she looked up at the ceiling, blinking. "Every boy has secrets from his mother, and God knows I haven't been over that room with a fine-toothed comb. Maybe you'll be able to tell me something about him I don't know, and it'll be—it'll be like—" She inhaled like it hurt her. "I really hoped he would make friends in Metropolis."

Bruce couldn't say no to that. He left her drink on the counter near the stove, and dragged himself bleeding up the stairs.

"Soup's on," she called up, after maybe thirty minutes. The house had smelled of bacon for the last ten. Bruce came back down the stairs with a box under his arm; Martha watched him, silently, as he put the box in the entryway under the hook where his coat hung, then held her again-empty glass out to him when he turned toward the kitchen.

"Belgian waffles?" he said, when she stepped back and he saw what was on the table.

"I panicked," she said unrepentantly. "They're the best thing I make, so we're having brunch. How do you take your eggs?"

"However you're making them is fine."

"Sunny side up it is."

Bruce pried more ice cubes out of the tray for round three and waited for her to ask, but she just cracked four eggs into a skillet with the casual smoothness of a closeup magician, and said nothing. The silence wasn't uncomfortable, but it was heavy with un-begun conversations. Once he'd presented Martha with her drink and had nothing to do with himself anymore, Bruce could take no more of it.

"I didn't want to help myself to anything too personal," he said, half into his glass of tonic water and lime. "But I noticed some binders marked The Smallville Torch—local paper?"

"High school paper," Martha said.

"Right. And some that look like fiction. I thought...." There had also been over a dozen journals, jammed into a cinderblock bookshelf that Bruce had rearranged slightly to correct its sag. He had thumbed through a few of the journals while he was at it, then put them back on the shelf. Not yet. He had that luxury. If he had still been investigating Clark, it would have been crucial to get at the heart of him as quickly as possible, but Clark was gone and there was no reason not to make a slower introduction.

Martha nodded, and the atmosphere eased. Maybe this had been a test. Per Lois Lane's article and Bruce's own research, the pattern of unexplained phenomena that marked out Clark's global wanderings had begun the summer of his eighteenth year; he hadn't been home much since he left for college. Most of the teenage detritus in that room had been corralled enough that Bruce could imagine a grown man sleeping there when he visited, but it was still a time capsule of a seventeen-year-old Clark Kent and the things that were important to him. His books, his games, a box of model kits, a signed baseball, a defunct laptop. A mobile of papier-mâché planets. Bruce could have chosen any number of things. The tension leaving Martha's shoulders told him he'd picked right.

"He was always such a writer. Told me he wanted to be the next LeGuin. Go ahead and sit down, get started. This'll just be a minute."

Bruce did as instructed. There were bowls of fruit and whipped cream on the table and it probably would have been rude to ignore them. "I've read some of the work he did for the Planet. He was sharp. Did he ever publish any fiction?"

"Oh, no. That was when he was fourteen, and he came to me a year later and told me he didn't have what it took to write fiction and he was devoting everything he had to the Torch." Martha used her spatula to separate the eggs; they joined the bacon on two plates. "He was heartbroken, but I couldn't talk him out of it."

"What does it take to write fiction?"

"Probably being less hard on yourself about the first thing you try that doesn't come easy," Martha said, a little offhandedly, a little sharply, then sighed. She shut off the stove, and transferred her glass and both plates to the kitchen table in one trip with no juggling or apparent thought. "That's not fair. I don't know. He never met an essay he couldn't make shine. Maybe that doesn't translate. How do you write a novel? I've driven a tractor but I couldn't tell you how to build one, and I don't imagine it'd be riveting to watch me guess at that secondhand either."

"I did ask," Bruce said.

"That you did."

They ate for a while in that busy silence that follows the commencement of a meal. The dog crept up next to Bruce and put its head in his lap. "Just push her off if she's annoying you," Martha said; Bruce stroked the dog's ears instead, and cut his food with his other hand. Martha's best was more than respectable, though he still would've laid odds on Alfred.

Bruce let the imaginary gin in his drink kick in, let it soften his posture, smiled more. He loosened his tie, pocketed his collar bar. When the conversation resumed, he played the affable businessman and drew Martha out about the Kent farm's fortunes; it took some maneuvering to get her to mention her job at the diner without letting on that he already knew, and he wasn't sure whether her resistance was the caginess of wounded pride, or an attempt to get him to show his hand first.

"One old woman can't run a farm this size," she said. The sky had cleared a little, and a sunset slanted in through the window behind her. "So I sold the cows about ten years ago—Clark was not pleased, they were his babies—and I've been renting the fields to that place down the road. That plus four shifts a week just about keeps a roof over my head."

Not to Beverly and Jim or to the Johnson farm, but to that place down the road. Bruce took his hand off the dog, which thumped its tail and quietly voiced the agony of betrayal, so he could fish his phone out of his pocket for a little research. Martha was halfway into round four and showed no evidence of caring about brunch-table smartphone etiquette. "So, that barn...."

"Tornado," she said, too promptly. He imagined she'd dissemble better if he hadn't been getting her drunk. "Almost two years ago now. Clark's—Clark wasn't handy like his father, but there are no cows to keep the rain off anymore, so here we are. Oh no you don't. I don't need to know you to know that look, young man."

"You're not exactly the only person in this room with a few grey hairs," Bruce said, because there was no point in denying that there was a look.

"I guess the dog's getting up in years too. That barn is fine and I will not have you charging in here with your money and trying to fix my life because you spoke to my son a few times."

"You won't take a favor for a favor?"

"I don't see that I've done you one. Tell you what I will trade, though: brunch for brunch. I'll be in Metropolis in a few weeks, and if you're free that day, it'd be nice to see a friendly face."

"Expecting a lot of unfriendly ones?" said Bruce, unlocking his phone again.

"We're mopping up the remains of the Extranormal Science Transparency Act," Martha said, and Bruce went still, with his thumb hovering over the icon for his scheduling app. "I'm going to be yelling at politicians all day, in uncomfortable shoes."

"I don't think I've heard anything about that," Bruce said, which wasn't completely untrue. He had pegged it as probably doomed.

"It would have required disclosure of alien artifacts, and made some kinds of research illegal." Martha rattled this sound bite off like she'd done it a hundred times. Bruce imagined her delivering it five times a day, at the diner, at the supermarket, until the edges of it wore smooth from use.

"Sounds like a good idea."

"Shame it was always going to fail," Martha said, and Bruce looked at her squarely for the first time since he'd taken out his phone. "But it started the discussion, attracted some attention. Now that it's dead, someone who actually knows how to make a law work steps in and maybe we get something done, finally."

"'We'?" said Bruce, and then, before she could reply, "'Someone who knows how to make a law work', hm?"

"Well," Martha said, chasing a slice of strawberry around her plate. "I'm more modest about it when I'm sober."

"I'll bite." Bruce illustratively forked the last of his waffle into his mouth.

"This is usually when I have to promise not to start talking legalese, and maybe change the subject," Martha said, but Bruce looked at her so expectantly and was so pointedly unable to complain around his mouthful of food that she shrugged. "Well, ESTA was proposed as an Act of Congress. Most times, you can push one of those through quickly after a—a tragedy, because no one wants to look like they don't care. But this one makes life difficult for a lot of government agencies, who we know are holding alien artifacts and Lord knows what else. There's too much resistance to get anything done at the federal level.

"But we need legislation," she went on, really warming to it now, "because they're still making damnfool decisions about this stuff—rumor mill says they're finally planning to move the ship in Metropolis somewhere more secure, and LexCorp of all people is oh so helpfully offering to transport it for free— Oh my goodness, Bruce, I could've told you that was a bad idea. Take a sip of your drink."

"I'm fine," Bruce croaked, and coughed one more time. "Sorry to interrupt. So you, what, sweeten the deal? Soften your terms?"

"You make an end run around them," Martha said, in tones of satisfaction. "Wouldn't work if Gotham and Metropolis weren't on either side of the state line—but they are, so we get a revised ESTA passed in just two states, which forms an interstate compact. Still needs congressional approval, but support is so high there after all the destruction that they'll throw us a bone. Then our foot's in the door. Other states that come on have to respect the terms of the law as written. Adoption in all fifty states is rare, but it's not impossible, like ESTA was."

"And there's your federal law," Bruce said.

"Just about."

"Clever. Be careful I don't hire you."

"Oh, I think I'm safe. I'm not even licensed to practice law. I'm just helping out, you know how it goes. Put a face to the families. Anyway, I didn't say it was my idea," Martha said. Bruce gave her a look. She shrugged, and added into her drink, "Maybe I also rewrote it."

"I take it you're where your son got it?"

"Lord, no," Martha said, laughing. "I'm dry as a bone. But I taught constitutional law, once upon a time, and I haven't forgotten everything."

"Is there anything the Wayne Foundation can do to help?"

"Bruce—" she began.

"Martha," he shot back, and something about it, something about the way he said that name, stopped her cold. "This is why the Wayne Foundation exists. If this law could prevent another Doomsday Event, and you really think you can make it happen, I'd want to help you no matter what I thought of your son. At least let me give you some people you can email if you need anything."

"All right. But you're still on the hook for brunch."

"Of course. What day?"

They spent a minute sorting out the details. Bruce rearranged his schedule, and a server back in Gotham notified his personal assistant that she'd need to make an apologetic phone call. The dog's anguish reached a nearly ultrasonic crescendo and then cut off when he pocketed his phone and put his hand back on her head. "Don't give her any bacon, you'll never know another minute of rest," Martha said. Bruce snuck half his remaining rasher under the table when Martha got up to find him a pad to write email addresses on.

She escorted him to the door when the food was gone. Bruce had expected to spend another hour refilling her glass and obliquely prying into her life, but some feat of Midwestern politeness aikido transformed his attempt to help her with the dishes into a gentle expulsion from her house.

"You're sure you're all right to drive?" she said as he shrugged into his coat, exactly like someone who wasn't kicking him out of her home. She was in the entryway with him, looking through the box Bruce had packed and touching the notebooks and binders inside it with just the tips of her fingers, as though she might damage them, or they might burn her.

"I'll pull over and call someone if it turns out I'm not," Bruce said, by rote. He put his hands on the box, and Martha stilled, but he didn't take it from her yet. "I could come back and read these here. You don't have to give them to me."

"With your schedule?" said Martha. She leaned up suddenly and hugged him; Bruce froze. The box was an awkward obstruction between them, and it spared him from reciprocating. "Take good care of them," she said into his ear, then pulled away, smoothing her hair and pulling her cardigan closer about herself.

"See you in a few weeks," he said inadequately, and made his escape into the clear winter night.