Bruce Wayne was watching Batman train with his Robin when the call came in.
"Bruce? It's...it's me. Could I stop by for a little while?"
Batman was showing Robin an aikido stance. Robin's fiery red hair gleamed as she nodded and launched into the move. Batman stopped her and showed her again, dropping into the stance himself to show her how her legs should be positioned.
"Of course, Clark. I told you to come by anytime."
"I just didn't know if you'd be busy."
Bruce chuckled. "I'm always busy. But nowadays it's rarely something so pressing I can't spend some time with an old friend."
A tiny pause. Then: "I'll be there soon."
Bruce wondered if Clark were at the Fortress. He seemed to spend all his time there since--since the funeral. Bruce remembered his face the day they'd laid Lois Lane to rest: calm, still, and empty, the touch of white at his temples like frost. People had wondered why Superman hadn't come to the funeral, gossiped that maybe the Man of Steel was still pining for the old flame he had lost to Kent so long ago, but Clark had merely watched as they lowered the coffin into the ground, his face remote with a grief so deep it seemed chiseled into his invulnerable bones. He had looked, Bruce had realized with a shock, much, much older overnight.
"Did you see that, Boss?" Robin yelled from the other side of the room. Damian had pulled his cowl off, sweat making curls of dark hair stick to his brow. He was nearly smiling, which made his solemn, almost-sullen face almost handsome. He had resisted taking on a Robin for years after becoming Batman--he claimed he didn't need to get slowed down by some amateur kid; Bruce suspected it was because he didn't trust himself to be a good mentor. And yet here he was, with a Robin under his wing. Must be kismet, Bruce thought wryly.
The latest iteration of the Dynamic Duo went back to training after Bruce smiled and nodded. From the shadows, a voice: "My God, a new Robin?" and Superman stepped up behind Bruce. Bruce resisted startling with an effort: his ears weren't as good as they had once been, but he wasn't going to admit he hadn't heard Clark arrive,
"Hard to believe, isn't it?" Bruce watched the two go through another drill. Batman caught sight of Superman and waved; Robin noticed too and faltered for a moment in her routine, then squared her jaw and continued as if she were not being watched by two of the most venerable and well-respected heroes in the world. She's a good match for Damian, Bruce thought. Out loud, he said, "He got badly hurt one night. She found him bleeding in an alley, took him in, probably saved his life. Insisted he owed her after that."
A chuckle. "They look like a good team."
"So..." Superman hesitated so long Bruce wasn't sure he was going to continue, but he held his tongue. He'd grown more patient over the years. "Are you free?"
Bruce clapped Superman on the shoulder. "You should know by now that Bruce Wayne, aging playboy and infamous hedonist, is never free. But you can probably purchase my time for the cost of a good cup of coffee. A special deal, just for you."
: : :
It was strange to have Superman sitting in his kitchen when he was still dressed in slacks and a polo shirt. He hadn't worn the Batsuit for years, of course, but he still felt underdressed.
He wondered if Clark had worn civilian clothes since Lois's funeral.
"I guess I just needed someone to talk to," said Superman, staring down at the cream swirling in his coffee. "I...I didn't think I'd ever want to talk to anyone again, for a while. I thought I could just be Superman, just focus on saving people as much as possible. But she was right."
Bruce quietly put a cookie on his saucer. Store-bought now, alas, but Superman didn't seem to mind. Bruce waited while he chewed it, not pushing him to say more, and Superman sighed, not looking at him.
"Near the end, she talked a lot about what was going to happen to me. She worried about me so much. She said I had a...tendency to mope." A thin smile. "I told her that was more your thing, and she just laughed." The smile warmed as if he was hearing laughter in his memory, then cooled again. "She told me not to be alone, but...it's been hard to connect with people."
"You want to talk about her and you're afraid you'll annoy people," Bruce said, and Superman looked up from his coffee in surprise.
"Yes, that's it. I just...I'm sure I'll be a terrible bore."
"Not forever," said Bruce. "Clark. It's natural to want to talk about someone loved that's gone, especially someone as amazing as Lois." He handed Clark another cookie, like offering a sugar cube to a restless horse that might bolt and run. "When you need someone to talk to, find me. I can't promise you'll have my undivided attention all the time," he added quickly, raising a warning finger. "But I'll give you at least half of my attention no matter what."
"How generous of you," Superman said, but he was smiling again, a genuine smile. He finished the coffee and stood up. "I'll take you up on that, Bruce, but only if you promise to tell me to go away when I'm annoying you."
"Deal," said Bruce, holding out his hand. After a moment, Clark took it and pressed it. "Oh, but I have one stipulation," he added.
"Next time I see you, it's as Clark. Not as Superman. No cape."
A hesitation, and once again Bruce wondered how long it had been since the man in front of him had worn glasses. Then: "All right."
: : :
Clark showed up a few days after that--really Clark, wearing the glasses and a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. They sat in the library in front of a glowing fire and Clark talked about Lois, telling stories about how they met, how they started dating, about the moment he knew he was in love with her. Bruce had heard most of these stories before, but he listened anyway, nodding and asking questions to keep Clark talking when it looked like he might lapse into silent grief. When an alarm came of a massive Arkham breakout, Clark stood up as if to go, but Bruce held up his hand to forestall him.
"Come down to the cave with me. We can talk as I track escapees and dispatch people to stop them." He grinned. "Come on, Clark. After all this time you think my family and I can't handle a little Arkham breakout?"
Clark shook his head, but walked down into the shadow-rustling cave with Bruce. Bruce couldn't listen as closely while scanning his banks of cameras and sensors and communicating with his teams on the ground, but he could still listen well enough to ask a question here and there. For his part, Clark broke off his storytelling now and then to note where he heard a commotion and suggest Bruce switch to that camera. Somehow it felt very natural, this interweaving of grief and work. And when the Hunter looked like he might be overpowered by a Riddlerbot, there was a quiet "Excuse me," and a sudden space at Bruce's elbow. One broken bot later, Clark was back at the chair next to Bruce's with a sheepish smile on his face. "Sorry," he said, "I know he could have handled it."
"Not a problem," said Bruce. "Balancing getting involved with letting the next generation stretch their wings is an ongoing process." And an easier decision without flight or superspeed, he added silently. He switched between cameras, checking. "Things seem under control," he said. "So you were telling me about that earthquake that happened on your first anniversary?"
: : :
After that, Clark showed up most days to talk. Sometimes it was at the Manor, sometimes they worked together at the Watchtower, sometimes Bruce would come up to the Fortress to run experiments. Slowly, the conversation began to include other topics besides memories and grief: discussions of training the next generation, arguments about the future of the superhero community, reminisces of adventures together. Lois was still the bright hub of pain around which Clark's thoughts spiraled, but he smiled more often, interacted with the younger heroes who came by to get advice or just to gawk, and seemed--implausibly--to be enjoying his time with Bruce.
For his part, Bruce was mostly happy to have someone to talk to as well. Now and then he wished he had a little more time to spend in undivided concentration, but it was...enjoyable to talk with someone of his generation. Most other heroes were busy with their own circle of friends and family, and although Bruce got to spend a lot of time with the younger generation, they knew him largely as "the founder of Batman Inc." or "Batman's father" or even "the older Batman's mentor." Sometimes, Bruce had to admit, it was good to spend time with someone who remembered when he had been Batman.
"I appreciate your turning up the heat a bit here," said Bruce during dinner at the Fortress one night. "You'd be surprised how much the cold can make the old worn-out joints ache. Especially the knees. Years of dramatic landings in front of criminals takes its toll." He stretched one leg gingerly, feeling it twinge. Above them, the Northern Lights were flickering in the crystal-refracted sky, distant and eerie.
"Lois's joints caused her a lot of pain too, near the end." Clark had stopped hesitating before mentioning her name. "She liked it when I rubbed them, although I don't think it actually helped the pain."
"Hm." Bruce took another bite of steak, watching sadness and love chase across Clark's face like the evanescent lights above them. "You never know."
Clark looked up at the sky. "She told me I had to date again," he said.
"Did she?" That didn't surprise Bruce, although this was the first time Clark had mentioned it. Lois would have thought about it, worried about it, would probably have made a whole plan about how Clark's love life should go in the future, most likely with time tables and bullet points.
A small smile, not directed at him. "She even had the person picked out. I remember she grabbed my hands and pulled me close--it was near the end--and she told me she knew I'd always...cared about this person too, and I should just go to them and say, 'Sorry it took me so long. I'm yours, if you'll have me.'"
"But you haven't," Bruce said, taking a sip of wine. A very nice Shiraz with a velvety finish.
Clark chuckled, a little sadly. "I don't feel ready yet, I guess. I don't know what it is. Just...not ready to move on yet."
Bruce put down his wine glass. "You can't push things like that, Clark. No one can. The heart has its reasons. The right time is the right time."
"You've become quite the sage, haven't you?"
"A platitude for every occasion, that's me," said Bruce, spearing a stalk of asparagus. "Sometimes more than one."
: : :
"--Remember the look on his face when the beam bounced right off me?"
"I thought he was going to break it across his knee," laughed Superman. They were standing in the Justice League's trophy room, wandering from exhibit to exhibit and reminiscing. All of the other major superheroes had been called to a massive emergency on Oa, and Superman had stayed behind to guard Earth.
Batman turned from Desaad's Excruciatron and found himself face to face with a glass case holding his original suit. The yellow circle gleamed as if burnished, the leather and cloth brushed and shining. Even the utility belt was in place, one glove resting on it as though to throw down a smoke bomb and disappear forever.
"Do you miss it?" Superman's voice broke into Bruce's thoughts and he realized that he'd been staring at the suit for a long time. He shook his head and smiled.
"Not often. I'm too busy to yearn for days spent on long stakeouts in the cold, or nights stitching up my own wounds. It was a good run." Superman looked like he was going to say something else, but Bruce cut him off: "We'd better get back to the Monitor Womb and keep an eye on things."
But they found things remarkably peaceful on Earth: the neophyte heroes were doing a fine job of keeping things under control. Bruce scanned through the monitors and Superman stifled a yawn as he floated in the air behind him. Idly checking the Watchtower diagnostics, Bruce frowned. "There's some kind of blip on the Promenade." He switched to those cameras, but saw nothing.
"I'll go check it out," said Superman.
The Watchtower was eerily silent with him gone, and Bruce couldn't shake a growing ominous feeling. He watched the cameras as Superman flew along the Promenade, his eyes narrowed in concentration--but even then he almost missed the moment when the air sparkled and Von Bach stepped out from behind thin air with a glittering green sword in his hand.
"Kal!" The cry echoed through the Monitor Womb, and Superman turned--and the sword missed his heart and sank into his arm. Superman grunted with pain and lurched forward, but Von Bach stepped out of the way and stabbed him again, holding up a left hand clenched around something shining green. Blood spattered to the steel floor and Superman slumped to his knees, clutching his shoulder.
"You are quite alone, Man of Steel," said Von Bach, his German-accented bass voice booming. "All of your League is light-years from here. I have been waiting many years for the chance to find you undefended."
"How--how did you--"
"--Gain access to your precious Watchtower?" Von Bach chuckled and prodded Superman with the tip of the Kryptonite sword; Superman gritted his teeth. "Let me have some mystery, Superman." He raised his hand so the green light leaking around his fingers fell full on Superman's face, and Superman made a small, choked sound.
"You should just--just kill me and get it over with," gasped Superman. There was red froth on his lips.
"I know," said Von Bach, "But it is so much more fun to make you suffer a while. There will be no easy death for you today."
"No," said Superman, "I meant you--you won't have a very big--window of opportunity." His breath was hitching in his lungs, but his gaze was steady and undaunted.
Von Bach sneered down at him. "You are in no position to make boasts--" There was a sharp ting and Von Bach cried out in pain, staring wildly at the shadowed edges of the Promenade. "What? Show yourself, coward! Who dares?" Another sharp sound, and the chunk of Kryptonite fell from his hand to the floor; he bellowed in rage. "Who are you?"
It was too good a line to pass up. From his perch in the shadows, he smiled and lowered his voice. "I am vengeance," he whispered, letting the sound scurry all around the Promenade. "I am the night."
Von Bach paled, staring around him. "No!" he cried. "No, he is not here, he is in another galaxy!"
Superman's eyes were half-closed against the pain, but he was smiling.
Gathering himself, he came soaring from his hiding place straight at Von Bach, the cloak from the trophy room suit writhing around him like living shadow. "I...am...Batman!"
Von Bach stared in shock and horror as Batman's boot connected squarely with his face. Batman rolled as he hit the ground, his knees screaming agony: Von Bach wouldn't be taken out by one kick to the face. He dodged a blow from an arm like a bludgeon and struck again, this time a surgical strike at Von Bach's wrist. Von Bach howled and the Kryptonite blade clattered to the ground. Batman kicked it far across the Promenade and off, hearing the echoes of its fall. Now he just had to get to the chunk of Kryptonite on the floor near Clark--
A fist grazed his face as he dodged again. His heart was pounding and there was a stitch in his side; he stomped at Von Bach's foot and rolled as fast as possible. Von Bach screamed a curse in German and this time his fist connected with Batman's side: Bruce's breath rushed from his lungs and the world went gray and dim around the edges. He slid across the floor into the green rock glowing on the floor and scooped it up, hurling it far away as he prolonged the slide--
He caught a glimpse of Clark's eyes as he sailed past, a brief flash of startled, almost awe-struck blue, and time seemed to slow down for just a moment.
--and then he was past Superman and the Kryptonite was rattling further and further away, and Batman came up from the slide with his fists clenched as Von Bach pounded toward him like an enraged rhino. He put everything into the punch, everything he had, striking past the stitch in his side and the numbness in his arm and connecting, and Von Bach was sliding to the floor, his eyes glassy.
Batman put his foot on Von Bach's throat. "You're just some punk," he said, and was relieved it wasn't a wheeze, that it sounded strong and true even though the stitch in his side was getting worse, much worse, squeezing his breath, "And I'm Batman."
And he was grateful he was able to step away and find a wall to lean against, because he couldn't seem to breathe at all. His knees hurt and then somehow he was on the floor, he didn't remember sitting down, there was something heavy on his chest and he swiped at it, but nothing seemed to be there. "Bruce? Bruce!" Clark's voice was far away; Bruce wanted to reassure him but the world seemed to be fading out and it was hard to think. The memory of his cloak snapping around him, of Von Bach's frightened face and the crunch of his boot against it, flickered by him, and he smiled.
That felt good, he thought, and the darkness closed over him.
: : :
A steady beeping sound brought him back to consciousness. White walls swam around him--the infirmary. Apparently he wasn't dead. He felt a rush of relief that almost surprised him, after a life spent being ready to die. He took mental inventory: his knees hurt more than usual, and his chest felt like an elephant had stepped on it. All his limbs seemed to be there and working, though.
"Bruce?" Bruce blinked and squinted and Clark's face coalesced into his field of vision.
"You're okay," Bruce said--or tried to, but his voice was a hoarse bark without words. Clark spooned some ice chips into his mouth and Bruce closed his eyes for a moment as cool water trickled blissfully down his throat.
"Yes, I'm fine," said Superman. "Just a stab wound, nothing major. Most of the bleeding stopped when you got the Kryptonite away from me. Von Bach's in a cell. You, uh..."
"Heart attack," Bruce croaked. "Know the symptoms."
Clark's eyes flicked to the EKG and back. "It looks like it was a minor one. I've got you stabilized and Pieter will be here soon to do a full check."
Bruce nodded, and for a moment they sat in silence. His hands were warm; slowly he became aware that it was because Clark was holding them. He squeezed them slightly and Clark squeezed back. Superman's hands were trembling, which made no sense since it was Bruce that was old and sick. "I was glad," Bruce said, and had to stop for breath. "To be Batman. One last time."
Something splashed on his hand and he heard Clark make a small sound. "You idiot," said Clark. "You're always Batman. You're the only Batman."
Bruce considered that. "Damn straight," he said after a while.
"Bruce. I told you Lois said I had to date again. I didn't tell you who she had in mind."
Bruce smiled, although it seemed to take a lot of effort to do so. "You didn't have to," he said.
A small silence. "I'm sorry it took me so long," Clark said, his voice hoarse. "I'm--" He stopped and swallowed hard, and Bruce pressed his hand again and finished for him.
"I'm yours," said Batman. "If you'll have me."