It all started with a circus, a fall, and a boy.
Dick remembered faces. Concerned faces, sympathetic faces, horrified and disgusted and traumatized faces. Faces he had never seen before in his life and would never see again.
Some of these faces stood out from the crowd. Like the dark-haired man, one of the only ones who stayed after the fall, whose gaze never once landed on the mangled, broken bodies of Dick’s parents but remained focused solely on Dick, his expression shadowed and impossibly sad. The dark-haired man who stayed even after the crowds cleared out, even after Dick was cleaned up and led to a bench to sit with a blanket around his shoulders and a cup of tasteless cocoa in his hands. The dark-haired man who kept glancing at him while speaking in low tones with the police commissioner and Mr. Haley, and who never gave Dick so much as an encouraging smile but whose unwavering, intense attention somehow made Dick feel a little warm inside.
And then there was the bald man. The one who did offer up encouraging smiles, who braced a hand on Dick’s little shoulder and told him everything would be okay even though Dick knew that was impossible, that nothing would ever be okay, not after this. The bald man who flashed money all around and spoke to the police in a loud voice like he knew what was going on and who kept gesturing toward Dick with a dramatically sympathetic frown. The bald man who slung an arm over Mr. Haley’s shoulders like they were friends, who earned derisive glances both from the nice commissioner and the dark-haired man. Dick felt no warmth from the bald man’s gaze. He felt nothing but emptiness.
So when the bald man sauntered over and sat beside Dick and threw an arm around his shoulders, Dick wanted nothing more than to slide away.
“We’re going to take care of you, son,” the bald man said, and when he said ‘we’ Dick knew he meant ‘I.’ He seemed like that kind of man. “You see,” the man continued, lowering his voice like he was telling a secret, “I have an eye for talent. And I can see that you are destined for great things. If you come with me, you’ll be set for life. I can promise you that.”
Dick stared into his lukewarm cocoa.
Dick’s head snapped up at that cool, authoritative voice, and he saw the dark-haired man and the police commissioner standing before them. It was the dark-haired man who had spoken. The bald man’s arm tightened almost painfully around Dick’s shoulders and this time Dick did sidle away, spilling some of his cocoa as he moved. The police officer held out a hand. Dick got to his feet and grasped it.
“Ah, Mr. Wayne.” Luthor addressed the dark-haired man with a voice like sugarcoated steel. “Still waiting around for your photo op with the little orphan boy?” He slouched comfortably on the bench as he spoke, like he didn’t have a care in the world. Like two people hadn’t just plummeted to their deaths mere yards from where he sat. Dick felt ill. His grip on the commissioner’s hand tightened, and he felt a little squeeze in response.
“Not all of us are here for the P.R., Lex,” Mr. Wayne said with the barest hint of a barbed smile, and the bald man bristled.
“Enough,” said the commissioner. “Mr. Luthor, you have overstayed your welcome here. This is a crime scene, and you are a civilian. It’s time for you to go.”
Luthor shot to his feet. “But the boy –”
“Will be in the custody of Mr. Wayne,” the commissioner said coolly, jerking a thumb toward the dark-haired man. The bald man’s jaw dropped almost comically and he gesticulated like a wild man.
“This incompetent buffoon is to be the boy’s guardian?” he finally spat, flinging one hand toward Mr. Wayne. “He can hardly take care of himself, let alone a child! Why the hell should he have the boy? Surely I’m better suited for guardianship, what with –”
“Your similar lack of child-rearing experience?” the commissioner interjected. “Your multiple criminal offenses? Your recent stint in a Metropolis prison? Please, Mr. Luthor, tell me which of these is the best reason for us to give you custody of the boy.”
The bald man was almost frothing with rage, but the commissioner ignored him, instead turning to crouch in front of Dick, eyes shining sincere behind his glasses.
“Richard,” he said quietly. “You’ll be going to live with Mr. Wayne for a while.” He indicated the dark-haired man, who smiled slightly. Dick’s tummy did a funny flip. He wanted Mr. Wayne to smile at him again. “He will take good care of you, but you need to let me know if there’s anything else you need. If something goes wrong at Mr. Wayne’s house, or you don’t like this arrangement, all you have to do is call me, all right? Here.” He pulled out his wallet and slid a battered business card out of one of the slots. He handed it to Dick, then tapped on it. “This has both my office and home number on it.” Dick memorized the name on the card – Commissioner James Gordon – then stowed it with a little nod. The commissioner, seemingly content with that, squeezed Dick’s shoulder. “Good luck, kid.”
Then the commissioner stood and shook hands with Mr. Wayne. They exchanged a couple of words in low voices that Dick did not catch, and Mr. Wayne nodded a lot. Dick waited, shifting from foot to foot. His gaze slid absently to the man called Luthor and he realized with a start that the bald man was watching him with an expression that could only be called hungry. A chill crawled down Dick’s spine and he stepped hurriedly to Mr. Wayne’s side.
“Ready to go, Richard?” Mr. Wayne asked. This time it was Mr. Wayne who held out his hand, and it was the most natural thing in the world for Dick to take it. Big, strong fingers closed gently around his, and as Mr. Wayne led him away from the seething bald man, for the first time since his parents fell, Dick actually felt okay.
Clark Kent was brushing his teeth when the call came. He paused mid-brush and leaned out of the bathroom to watch his cell phone buzz its way across the coffee table. Grumbling, he spat into the sink and rinsed out his mouth before striding to grab the phone.
There was a slight pause on the other end, and then a low voice said, “It’s me.”
Clark perched on the edge of the couch, scrubbing at his damp hair with the towel around his shoulder. “Bruce? What’s up?”
“I may have done something stupid.”
Clark automatically sat up straighter, tensing in an unconscious preparation for flight as visions of disasters flickered through his mind. “How stupid?”
A huff of self-deprecating laughter. “So stupid, I’m calling you at two o’clock in the morning to talk about it.”
Clark smiled a little at that. “Good point. So what’d you do?”
There was another pause on the other end of the line, and that alone was enough to concern Clark. Very rarely did Bruce Wayne find himself at a loss for words.
“I…” Bruce paused, then let out a heavy sigh. Clark could just picture him, slumped in that huge black chair in that damn, damp cave of his, all alone save for some bats and glowing computer screens. He sounded exhausted, and Clark wondered for the first time if he was injured. He didn’t sound injured, but then Bruce always did have a knack for hiding pain. “Look,” Bruce continued, “it would be easier if you just came over and saw for yourself.”
“Now?” Clark asked, but he was already standing and sweeping the towel from his shoulders as he headed for his bedroom.
“Yes, now.” For the first time that night Bruce sounded kind of irritated, and Clark relaxed slightly; that was more like the Bat he knew. “Unless, of course, you are unable to get away from your busy night life.”
“No, no. I was just getting ready for bed.” Clark grabbed an old Metropolis U sweatshirt from his dresser and tugged it on before putting the phone back to his ear. “I can be there in five minutes, maybe less.”
“Okay. Good. Thanks.”
“Not a problem. See you soon.”
“Come to the Manor. Not the Cave.”
In other words, no costumes. Clark frowned at that, but said, “Sure thing.”
Bruce hung up without saying goodbye – typical – and Clark donned a dark jacket before heading outside into the chilly night air. He shoved his hands casually into his pockets and strolled a couple of blocks away from his apartment before slipping into a darkened alley and taking off for Gotham. He spent the entire flight trying to imagine what Bruce could possibly have done to make him feel the need to call Clark, of all people, in the middle of the night. Each scenario he came up with seemed more unlikely than the last, and all of them made him fly a little faster than usual.
Just in case.
The Manor was dark and peaceful when Clark arrived, so he ruled out a few of his more outlandish ideas, like invaders from space or a surprise ninja-robot attack. He landed discreetly in the wooded grounds before making his way to the front door (Bruce had thrown a fit the last time he had flown directly to the house, even though there were no neighbors around to question why Superman would visit Bruce Wayne), and Alfred opened the door just as Clark was raising a fist to knock. Clark flashed him a sheepish smile.
“Mister Kent.” Alfred stepped aside with a slight bow, waving Clark into the Manor. “Master Wayne awaits you in the library.”
Clark studied Alfred carefully as they walked together through the dimly lit halls of the Manor, but the butler’s expression betrayed nothing.
“So,” he finally said, trying his best to sound casual. “Do you have any idea what Bruce is so worked up about?”
“I think I may have a guess, sir, yes,” Alfred said dryly, but his eyes twinkled when he opened the library door for Clark and Clark couldn’t help but feel a little relieved. Not an emergency, then. Good.
“Mister Kent is here, sir,” Alfred called into the room. Bruce was pacing in front of the floor to ceiling windows across the library, his dressing gown open and billowing behind him like… well, like bat wings. He froze when Clark entered the room. The silvery glow of moonlight through the windows cast his face in shadow and Clark was unable to read his expression.
“Thanks for coming,” Bruce said.
“You know me,” Clark said with a shrug. “I’m always willing to help a friend who calls me in the middle of the night, sounding all vague and frazzled.”
“I am not frazzled.”
“Yes, you are. Look at you. You’re fidgeting.”
Bruce’s fingers dropped from where they had been worrying the tie of his dressing gown. “Do you want to help or not?” he growled.
Clark did his best to sound soothing. “You know I do. Just tell me what happened, and–” He broke off with a frown, cocking his head to the left. Bruce tensed visibly. “Is that…?” Clark murmured. “Is that a heartbeat?”
Before Bruce could stop him, Clark left the library and headed for the stairs, climbing them two at a time until he came to the second level. He followed the steady little beat echoing in his ears and arrived outside a door near the end of the hall. He hesitated for a moment, then gingerly opened it a crack so he could peek inside.
The sliver of light from the hallway shined upon a huge bed covered in downy pillows and blankets. Clark could hear the soft breathing of a small body, the rapid thump-thump-thump of a little heart, and when he opened the door an inch wider he spotted the dark head of a young boy buried among the mounds of pillows, his pale face peaceful in sleep, a stuffed elephant clutched under his chin.
Clark stared wide-eyed at the boy until he heard Bruce come up behind him.
“That’s… there’s a child in there,” Clark hissed.
“I know that.” Bruce reached past Clark and closed the door with a quiet, firm thud. This close, Clark could see the concern in Bruce’s expression, the weariness in his eyes.
“Is that what you called about?” Clark asked. “The boy?”
“His name is Dick.” Bruce sighed and ran a hand through his hair, glancing at the closed door. “And I’m his new guardian.”
Clark gaped. “Wh – How?”
Bruce turned away. “Let’s go downstairs to talk. I don’t want to wake him. He…” Bruce paused, his hands clenching at his sides. “He hasn’t been sleeping well.”
They did not speak until the library door closed behind them. Alfred had started a fire in the grate during their brief absence, and the merry crackling of the flames filled what could have been an awkward silence. Clark lingered near the door, watching his friend carefully. Bruce collapsed onto the settee with a deep sigh and reached with one hand for a half-full tumbler of scotch.
“Well?” Bruce fixed Clark with an expectant look over the rim of his glass, his eyes glinting in the firelight. “Start asking, I know you want to.”
Clark settled on the edge of the high-backed chair opposite the settee. “When did you…? How…?” He stopped, took a deep breath. “What happened?”
Bruce took a sip of the scotch, his eyes fixed on the fire. “Haley’s Circus has been in town for the past week or so. I attended a performance four nights ago. During the trapeze act, a rope snapped and two of the acrobats – John and Mary Grayson – fell to their deaths.” Bruce paused, glanced down at the ice melting in his drink. “They were a family act. The Flying Graysons. And they left behind their eight year-old son.” Bruce met Clark’s eyes, his expression almost challenging. “I couldn’t just leave the boy. I stayed, spoke with the commissioner and Haley, and they agreed to let me have temporary custody of him so he wouldn’t have to go to an orphanage.”
“I know.” Bruce scrubbed a hand over the stubble on his jaw, looking back to the fire. “Damn it, I know. It was rash and stupid and I don’t know the first thing about taking care of a child, but I just… I couldn’t leave him. He’s a good kid, Clark. And it’s not like I don’t have the means to support him.”
Clark was silent for a moment, watching the play of firelight on Bruce’s face. Clark knew the real reason Bruce took the boy in, of course. He knew the story of Bruce’s childhood, knew that Bruce probably saw himself in that poor boy, both of them forced to watch as their parents were ripped from them all too soon. Clark looked down at his folded hands, remembering that tiny form buried in blankets upstairs.
“I’m so sorry, Bruce,” he said. “That’s terrible. The accident, I mean.”
“It wasn’t an accident.” Bruce’s knuckles went white as his grip on the tumbler tightened. “I returned to the scene after everyone left and checked the broken ropes. They weren’t worn or frayed, and the ends were slightly blackened. They smelled of acid.”
Clark’s eyebrows lifted. “You think it was murder?”
“Looks like it.”
“But who would want to kill two innocent acrobats?”
“I’m not sure, but… Luthor was there.”
Clark’s brow darkened. “What? Why?”
Bruce shrugged. “Apparently he’s in Gotham for business. However, said ‘business’ has been completely off my radar, both as Bruce Wayne and as Batman.”
“Which means it’s most likely a cover for something else,” Clark said; if Bruce did not know about Luthor’s business in Gotham, it could only mean there was none.
“Precisely. He showed a keen interest in Dick, after the fall. He even tried to talk Gordon into letting him adopt the boy. Luckily the commissioner knew who he was and Dick came with me instead.” Bruce shook his head, his lip curling in disgust. “But what the hell would Luthor want with an eight year-old boy?”
“Everyone needs a successor,” Clark said quietly, revulsion curling in his gut at the mere idea of innocent little Dick in Luthor’s custody.
“Well, that’s a terrifying prospect.” Bruce paused, staring into his drink. “Clark, I think Dick is in danger. The way Luthor watched him that night…” He closed his eyes, looking about as sick as Clark felt. “It made my skin crawl. I have a feeling that as long as Luthor’s in Gotham, Dick isn’t safe.”
Clark bobbed his head slowly, brow furrowed in thought. “How long do you think he’ll stay?”
“I’ll know for sure tomorrow morning,” Bruce said with a grim smile. “Apparently Luthor wants to meet with me in order to propose an alliance between our two great companies.”
“And you’re really going to meet with him?”
“Yes. I need to know what he’s planning. If I can find enough evidence that he’s doing something underhanded, then I can get him away from Gotham and away from Dick.”
Clark pressed his palms together, his brow deeply creased. “I don’t like it. This is just you setting yourself up for trouble, isn’t it? You’re going to piss off Luthor as Bruce Wayne in order to make him do something rash so you can catch him red-handed and get him out of Gotham. Am I right?”
Bruce said nothing. He stood and stepped over to the fireplace, grabbing the iron poker to invigorate the guttering flames.
“I hope you haven’t forgotten how dangerous Luthor can be, Bruce,” Clark said, his eyes narrowing. “I know you can take care of yourself, but as Bruce Wayne –”
“This isn’t about Bruce Wayne,” Bruce said, his voice firm. “This is about Dick.”
Clark sighed and ran a hand through his hair, making it stand up at odd angles. “Fine. If you want to endanger yourself, Rao knows there’s nothing I can do to stop you.”
“However,” Clark continued, fixing Bruce with a stern look, “as much as I trust you, I don’t trust Luthor, so I’ll be sticking around for a little while as back-up.” He held a hand up when Bruce opened his mouth to protest. “I promise I’ll only intervene if you need me. This is just to make myself feel better, okay? Besides,” Clark said with a crooked smile, “if Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor are discussing some sort of partnership, then Clark Kent should probably get the story, don’t you think?”
Bruce sighed, replacing the poker with a clang. “Unfortunately, that sounds reasonable.”
“It’s settled, then,” Clark said, rising. “I’d better head back to Metropolis and talk to Perry. At least that way the story will be legitimate.”
“And if said story happens to change into an exposé on Luthor’s attempted crimes in Gotham…?” Bruce prompted.
Clark shrugged. “Then I guess I’ll just have to roll with it.” He smiled and held out his hand. “Just… be careful, all right? Luthor’s scum. I’d hate for something to happen to you. Or to Dick.”
Bruce cocked an eyebrow. “You really don’t think I can handle Luthor?”
“I didn’t say that. I just told you to be careful. And don’t forget, you have someone else to take care of now.”
Bruce gripped Clark’s hand so hard it would have hurt anyone else. “Thanks for the concern, Clark. But I’ll be fine.”
“Just remember who called whom.”
Bruce made a face. “Right.”
After a farewell to Alfred and a promise to be back in Gotham by the next evening, Clark lifted off into the slowly lightening night sky. He paused just before leaving the property and looked back toward the Manor in time to watch Bruce step quietly into Dick’s room, checking on him one last time before going to bed.
Clark smiled when Bruce rested a hand on the boy’s tousled head, and after one more fleeting look he sped off for Metropolis.
The soft padding of bare feet on carpet woke Bruce from his doze. He blinked rapidly and cleared his throat, then finished rinsing the shaving cream from his jaw just as Dick – still clad in striped pajamas, one hand holding his stuffed elephant and the other rubbing sleepily at his eyes – appeared in the doorway of the bathroom.
“Good morning,” Bruce said, already formulating a multitude of reasons for why the boy would be awake at five o’clock in the morning. None of them were good.
“Morning,” Dick mumbled. He squinted against the bright light of the vanity as he tried to look Bruce in the eye. “Are you leaving?”
“Soon.” Bruce reached up to button the collar of his shirt. “I have to go into the office today.”
Dick frowned at that. “Oh.” He gathered the stuffed elephant close to his chest. “Will you be back later?”
“I’ll be home around four.” Bruce stepped around the boy into the bedroom, pressing a hand to Dick’s mussed dark hair as he passed.
“Okay.” Dick watched with impossibly big eyes as Bruce selected a slim dark tie from his wardrobe and fastened it around his throat, tugging and knotting with practiced ease.
Bruce hesitated before shrugging into his suit coat. “Dick, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Dick said unconvincingly, still hugging the elephant. “It’s just that this house is really big and I’m afraid I’ll get lost without you here.”
Bruce was silent for a moment, absently straightening his jacket, before he said, “Why don’t you spend today with Alfred, then? He won’t get you lost. And when I get home this evening, I’ll take you on a tour of the whole Manor. Okay?”
Dick’s entire face lit up. “Okay! Where’s Alfred?”
“Go throw on a robe while I finish getting ready, and I’ll take you down to find him.”
“Okay!” Dick said, and bolted from the room. Bruce watched him go with a little smile. Maybe he would get the hang of this, after all.
* * *
Few men could walk into another man’s company and act like they owned the place.
Lex Luthor was apparently one of those men.
Bruce watched Luthor’s entrance from his office on the top floor, his eyes narrowed, fingers tented before him. He had long ago hacked into the Wayne Enterprises security feed on his laptop, so with only a series of clicks he was able to watch Luthor’s progression through his company. The other man shook hands with random suits, flashed lascivious grins to secretaries, and threw his arm over the shoulders of the security guards in a manner that spoke of years of arrogance and undisputed power.
It was a sickening display.
Lucius Fox stood silent beside Bruce’s huge mahogany desk, his hands folded behind his back. Although he could not see Bruce’s computer screen from where he was standing, he knew his boss well enough to guess what was making him glare.
“Do you know why he’s here, sir?” he asked, keeping his voice low.
“I believe so.”
“He’s going to offer what he believes to be a lucrative business proposal, isn’t he?”
“And are you going to work with him?”
“Of course not.”
“Then why did you agree to meet with him?”
Bruce just smiled, and Lucius tried not to roll his eyes. It was hopeless, of course, trying to understand Bruce Wayne’s reasoning, but the young man had yet to steer them wrong, so Lucius let it slide.
Bruce closed the security feeds on his laptop just as his secretary announced that Lex Luthor had arrived, and Luthor strode into the office with a blinding grin, arms spread wide.
“Bruce, my boy!” he said, reaching out to grip Bruce’s hand. “How has life been treating you?”
“Very well, Mr. Luthor,” Bruce said, flashing a brilliant smile. Lucius took a moment to marvel at the dichotomy between the polite, wide-eyed man shaking Luthor’s hand and the predatory expression Bruce had worn only seconds earlier. But then Luthor looked away for a second and the fierceness settled briefly back into Bruce’s eyes, and Lucius had to smile; that was the Bruce Wayne he knew.
“So,” Luthor began, reclining into one of the leather chairs in front of Bruce’s desk. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m here in Gotham.”
“For the circus?” Bruce said with a disarmingly ingenuous smile.
Luthor laughed. “Perhaps at first, yes. But that was such a tragedy. How is the boy?”
“He’s doing fine.”
“Good, good.” Luthor leaned further back in the chair, folding his hands across one knee. “I was going to leave that night, you know. But then seeing you there, and the way you took the initiative with that poor little orphan boy…” Luthor shook his head, and Lucius saw the faintest sign of tension in Bruce’s shoulders. “It made me realize just how useful an ally you could be, and how much good our companies could do together.” Luthor spread his hands. “So I decided to come down here and pay you a visit.”
Bruce smiled, folded his hands on his desk. “That’s very flattering, Mr. Luthor. What exactly did you have in mind?”
A slight frown creased Bruce’s forehead. “Space?”
“The final frontier,” Luthor said with a dramatic hand wave. “Think about the possibilities, Bruce. If we combine our technology, our brightest minds –”
“Our funding,” Lucius cut in; Luthor ignored him.
“– we could accomplish great things together.” Luthor leaned forward, his eyes bright. “Think about it, Mr. Wayne. We could make new strides in everything from space exploration to orbital weapons manufacturing. We could rule the field.”
Bruce said nothing, but Lucius could see the calculation behind his eyes.
“Why now?” Bruce asked. “Why this sudden interest in space exploration?” Bruce smiled, and Lucius could see the fangs hidden in that smile. “Are you getting so tired of trying to take over this world that you’ve set your sights on another?”
Luthor’s eyes darkened. “I see you are not to be fooled, Mr. Wayne. Fine. Truthfully, I’m only trying to level the playing field. I see no reason why we should allow the Justice League to have control of our skies, when they are a team made up of aliens and exiles. The two of us, together…” Luthor leaned forward to thump a fist against Bruce’s desk. “We could take back our planet. We could make our planet safe again. What do you say?”
Bruce stood, tight-lipped, and turned away to look out the window.
“You should not assume that everyone shares your mistrust of the League, Luthor,” he said. “If you were actually looking to make progress in space exploration, I might have been able to consider working with you. But I know you.” Bruce turned to him, eyes glinting. “All you want to do is spit in the eye of the League, and I’m not willing to risk my company and my reputation for your petulant feud. So my answer is no.”
Luthor’s jaw clenched. “Bruce, surely –”
“That’s ‘Mr. Wayne,’ to you,” Bruce said. He turned back to the window, crossing his arms over his chest. “We’re done here. Enjoy the rest of your stay in Gotham.”
Luthor stood, shoving his chair back so hard it almost toppled. His nostrils flared as he struggled to contain his fury.
“Very well then, Mr. Wayne,” he said, sketching a mocking bow. “But my offer still stands. I will be in Gotham for a few weeks due to other business, so you can contact me when you change your mind.” He paused on his way out the door, glancing back with a smirk. “Oh, and just a word to the wise. You’ll want to be a bit more careful with yourself now that you have a little one depending on you. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to you or the boy, now, would we?”
Bruce glared out the window long after the door closed on Luthor. Lucius sighed and slumped into the chair Luthor had vacated.
“You did that on purpose, didn’t you?” he asked, rubbing a tired hand over his eyes.
Bruce blinked at him, his glare disappearing into feigned innocence. “Did what?”
“Egged him on like that. Targeted his pride. You’re planning something, aren’t you? You wanted him to leave here furious.”
Bruce turned toward the window again, but not before Lucius caught the hint of a smile.
“Mr. Fox, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about.”
* * *
Later that night, Anthony Zucco sat in his office puffing on a cigar, blowing smoke rings into the lazily spinning fan above his head. A ratty newspaper spread before him on his cheap desk, and he gripped a ballpoint pen in one meaty hand, poised over the half-completed crossword. He was just glaring at one of the spaces – surely there weren’t more than five letters in ‘rodeo’? – when the door to his shabby office slammed open, making him jump to his feet and drop his pen.
Lex Luthor stormed into the office, eyes blazing, jacket flaring out behind him.
One of Zucco’s lackeys flailed impotently behind Luthor, grabbing for his arm. “Hey! You can’t go in there without permission – Boss’ orders!”
Luthor just shoved the lackey through the doorway and slammed it shut in his face.
“Zucco,” he snarled, rounding on the mob boss, who collapsed heavily into his rickety desk chair, sweat beading in the wrinkles on his forehead. “You told me I would have the boy!”
“I – I thought you would,” Zucco stammered, piggy little eyes darting round. “How was I s’posed to know Wayne would jump in an’ snatch the boy out from under you, huh?”
Luthor growled and turned away, stepping over to the grimy window. He straightened his shoulders and folded his hands placidly behind his back, looking out over the foggy lights of downtown Gotham.
“Of course you could never have known that,” he said quietly. “My mistake. What was I thinking?”
“It’s not a big deal anyway, right? I mean, it’s just a kid. Plenty o’ those around here, if that’s what you want.”
“No, Mr. Zucco,” Luthor said. “It has to be him.”
“Fine, fine. Look, I can still get the kid for ya,” Zucco said in a frantic voice, unnerved by Luthor’s sudden calm. “All we gotta do is snatch ‘im and bolt, right?”
“Don’t be an idiot.” Luthor turned back to him, a deadly gleam in his eye. “This isn’t a simple job anymore. No one cares if a young orphaned Romany boy disappears from a circus tent, but as soon as Wayne’s young ward gets kidnapped the media will be all over the case. We would never get away with it.” He paused, rubbing his jaw with one hand. “All we need is a different approach.”
“Wha’d you have in mind?” Zucco asked. He wiped at the sweat on his jowls and hoped his trembling hand was not too obvious.
“I’m working on a deal that will merge LexCorp and Wayne Enterprises,” Luthor said. “If I can get a foot in the door there, then once Bruce Wayne is out of the picture, everything he owns could become mine.”
Zucco’s eyes bugged. “Wait a sec. You’re gonna kill Bruce Wayne?”
Luthor hummed in his throat, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “Hm… Maybe not ‘kill,’ per se. But at the very least we will make him… disappear. And I won’t be doing the actual act, of course.” A shark-like smile spread across Luthor’s face. “You will.”
“Wha–? No.” Zucco shook his head, jowls jiggling. “No, no, no. That’s one surefire way to get the Bat on my tail, and I’d like to avoid that at all costs, thank you very much.”
“You’re really afraid of him, aren’t you?”
Zucco said nothing, but his wide-eyed glance at the window and the sweat beading on his upper lip spoke volumes.
Luthor cocked an eyebrow. “Anthony, I am surprised at you. He is a man in a costume. You should be relieved you don’t have to deal with anything more than that. Like, say, a super-powered alien who believes he is a god among men and won’t leave well enough alone.” Luthor’s hands clenched at his sides as he spoke, veins straining against the delicate skin on the back of his hands, but then he shook his head with a smirk. “Perhaps I should just relocate here. Crime would be so much easier with only a mortal vigilante to worry about.”
Zucco paled at the notion of Luthor staying permanently in Gotham, and Luthor laughed, smacking him genially on one fat cheek. “Ah, don’t worry. I’m much more at home in Metropolis, alien or no. However, I do have a solution to your Bat problem.” A sharp smile. “You just leave him to me.”
“Then what do you want me to do?” Zucco asked.
“Wait for my call. And if Batman comes snooping around, don’t tell him anything. Whatever he does to you would be child’s play compared to my retribution. Understand?”
Zucco gulped. “Yes, sir.”
Luthor smiled. “Wonderful. Until later, then.” He slipped out the door.
Zucco stared at the closed door for two minutes after Luthor left, then sprang to his feet with as much agility as his extra pounds would allow and bolted the door. Huffing slightly, Zucco sagged against the doorframe before dragging himself back to his rickety chair and waiting crossword puzzle. His hand shook slightly around his pen, but he did his best to ignore it. He would calm down eventually.
Behind him, a shadow passed over the window, followed by the faintest hiss of a grapple line being released and the whisper of air rustling through silk. Zucco never heard it, of course. Only the most attentive listener would.
“Don’t come back unless you have a story.”
Clark heaved a sigh as Perry’s parting words ran through his mind yet again. The chief had been less than thrilled to send one of his reporters winging off to Gotham to chase down a possibly non-existent story involving Lex Luthor, but in the end he had relented; the possibility of an exposé on Luthor was too good to pass up.
Clark tossed his bag onto the bed in his cheap hotel room and winced when the frame gave a mournful creak. Maybe he could talk Bruce into letting him stay at the Manor for a while…
Speaking of the Manor… Clark checked his watch and cursed softly, already heading out the door. He was late for dinner.
Wayne Manor was much brighter than it had been during his last visit. Sunlight flamed against the windows as the sun sank toward the horizon, and Clark could see movement in one of the front rooms. When he knocked he was – surprisingly – not greeted by Alfred, but by a small dark-haired boy.
“Hi,” the boy said. “Are you Mr. Kent?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Good. Because Alfred said it was okay for me to open the door but only if it was you.” The boy – Dick, presumably – stepped aside to let Clark enter. “Alfred’s getting dinner ready, so he told me to let you in and take your coat.”
“Sorry, but I’m not wearing a coat.” Clark spread his arms, fighting to keep from smiling; the kid looked very serious about his duty.
“Oh.” Dick’s brow furrowed slightly, as though he were trying to solve a great problem. “Why aren’t you wearing a coat? Isn’t it cold out?”
“It’s not too bad.”
“Oh. Okay. We should tell Bruce you’re here,” Dick said, waving for Clark to follow him. “Are you one of his friends from work? He works a lot, so I haven’t gotten to see him much lately, but he did take me on a tour of the house when he got home today and that was fun. Did you know there are eight bedrooms in this place? That’s a lot of bedrooms.” Dick’s chest puffed out slightly. “Mine’s one of the biggest.”
“Is it now?” Clark said, finally allowing himself to grin. They had arrived at the first floor study now, and Dick knocked three times before opening the door.
“Mr. Kent’s here!” he called into the room, grabbing Clark’s sleeve to tug him close. Bruce stood behind the desk, leaning over some papers. He looked up when Dick and Clark entered the study.
“Is dinner ready?” he asked.
“Not yet,” Dick said, scurrying over to one of the large leather chairs in front of the fireplace and leaping into it in one fluid motion. “But Alfred told me it would be ready in ten minutes so we can eat then.”
“Why don’t you go see if he needs any help?”
“Okay!” Dick hopped down from the chair and ran for the door.
Clark watched him go with a smile. “Cute kid.”
“Yeah. He’s great.” Something like affection shined on Bruce’s face for a moment, but in the next moment it was gone and Bruce’s brow darkened into its usual grimness. “I have a lead on Luthor’s plans.”
“What’d you find?”
“Luthor definitely set up the murder.” Bruce tossed a hefty file onto his desk, and Clark stepped over to pick it up. Inside was a blurred photograph of a hefty Italian man in an ill-fitting suit, clipped to multiple police records for a man named Anthony Zucco. Bruce tapped the photo. “Anthony Zucco is a local mob boss. I’ve busted him at least three times before. Luthor paid him to threaten Haley and kill the Graysons so he could gain custody of Dick.”
Clark frowned. “But… why? It seems so random, especially for Luthor. I mean, why Dick? Why not some other kid?”
“I don’t know,” Bruce growled, clearly exasperated. “It doesn’t add up. Luthor has always been logical in the past. He usually has a plan of some sort, some selfish reason for committing a crime. But this…” Bruce shook his head. “This makes no sense.”
“Maybe he knows something we don’t,” Clark said, tapping the closed file against the desk as he thought. “Have you noticed anything different about Dick?”
“You mean like… super powers?” Clark shrugged, and Bruce’s brow knit. “No, not that I’ve seen.”
Before Clark could speak again, Dick burst into the room with a triumphant cry of “Dinner!” and the subject was dropped.
Dick chatted nonstop during the meal, about everything from the elephants at Haley’s Circus (mostly his favorite, named Zitka) to how many bathrooms he had counted in the Manor and how he was on a mission to use every single one at least once. Bruce choked slightly on his steak at that pronouncement, and Clark thought he might have seen Alfred’s eye twitch. Clark, however, leaned close to the boy and confessed in a loud conspiratorial whisper, “I’ve already used ten.” That earned him a pleased grin and a low-five under the table from Dick, along with a glare from Bruce.
“So do you and Bruce work together, Mr. Kent?” Dick finally asked as he dug into his ice cream.
“Call me Clark. And yes,” Clark said, his lips twitching into a half-smile as he side-eyed Bruce, “you could say that.”
“That’s cool.” Dick shoveled a dripping spoonful of ice cream and sprinkles into his mouth. “Can I come see where you work sometime?”
Bruce scowled at Clark. “We’ll see.”
Alfred slipped into the room, his face rather pale, and cleared his throat. “Sir? You have a phone call, in the downstairs study.”
Bruce’s face went carefully blank. He rose, placed his napkin beside his empty coffee cup, and headed for the door.
“Sorry,” he said, pausing at the doorway. “I have to take this. Please, enjoy the rest of your meal.” With that, he disappeared, Alfred at his heels.
Dick drooped slightly in his chair, his face clouding. He jabbed mournfully at his soupy ice cream. Clark took a moment to glance through the walls of the Manor and into the night sky and was unsurprised to spot the Bat Signal, floating ominously in the clouds above Gotham.
“Alfred tells me Bruce is really important,” Dick mumbled, still stirring his ice cream. “That’s why he gets important phone calls all the time and has to go into the office at weird hours.” He glanced up at Clark, his blue eyes dispirited. “Do you have to go into work at weird hours, too?”
Clark smiled, but he had a feeling it did not reach his eyes. “Sometimes.”
“Oh.” Dick looked down at the tablecloth, and Clark’s heart ached at the dejection in the boy’s posture.
“Does it bother you?” he asked, keeping his voice soft. “That Bruce isn’t around much?”
Dick fiddled with the spoon. “No. Not really. I get that he’s busy, and he’s not used to having me around, but my parents…” Dick broke off and swiped at his eyes. “They were… they were always there.” He sniffled, straightened a bit in his chair. “I’ll just have to get used to it, that’s all.” He stopped suddenly and looked over at Clark with horrified, teary eyes. “Please don’t tell Bruce I said that. He’s been great, he really has.”
“I won’t say a thing,” Clark said.
Clark held up a pinkie. “I promise.”
Dick’s face brightened and he curled his tiny pinkie around Clark’s.
“Mister Kent?” Alfred had returned, standing stiffly in the doorway. “There is something happening downtown that I think you might like to see. We can use the television in the living room, if that is all right.”
Clark’s jaw clenched as he got to his feet. “Of course.”
“Wait.” Dick climbed down from his chair and hurried over to Clark’s side, grabbing his hand. “I want to watch, too.”
Clark glanced at Alfred, then squeezed Dick’s hand. “All right. Come on.”
* * *
Despite the sounds of wailing sirens, panicked cries and hissing feedback filling the cockpit – the products of a hacked police scanner – Batman took a moment to relish the way his jet purred as he flew to the east side of Gotham. And then the moment was ruined.
“You sure you don’t need any help?” Clark asked, his voice cutting crisply through the mayhem.
“If I can handle this on my own, no one has to know you’re in Gotham. I’d like to keep you as my ace in the hole for as long as possible. And besides…” A wry smirk played on Batman’s lips. “You’re not supposed to be in my city anyway, remember? Big macho turf wars, and all that.”
A sigh. “Fine. But I’ll be watching. Be careful, B.”
“You seem to be saying that a lot lately.”
“Yeah, well, Alfred and I aren’t the only ones waiting for you to come home anymore.”
Batman’s smirk faded. “I’ll keep that in mind. Batman out.”
He slowed the jet on approach. A quick glance out the window showed a chaotic tableau of flashing lights, intermittent gunshots and fleeing pedestrians. Batman set the jet to autopilot and jerked a lever beneath his seat. The floor of the jet dropped out from beneath him and he slid out into midair, whipping his cape out like a glider until he alighted on a nearby rooftop.
Clayface was battling on a street corner far below, defending himself against the hordes of Gotham policemen who had him surrounded and were wasting their time filling him with bullets. Batman located Gordon among them, glasses gleaming in the whirling lights as he spoke tersely into a radio.
Batman reached back into a pocket on his belt. He selected a Batarang, flicked a switch on the sleek black underside, and whipped it through the air. It struck Clayface directly in the chest just as he was rearing up for an attack. The creature stared down at it for a moment, shocked at the sudden pain, and then the Batarang flashed and released an electric shock that made Clayface roar and thrash in pain.
Gordon and his policemen whirled, searching the rooftops, and Batman rose to his feet, allowing himself to be seen. The wind caught his cape in an impressive billow, and he suppressed a satisfied smile.
“Finally,” Clayface growled, his grimace slowly transforming into a grin, and with one muddy limp be swatted the Batarang from his chest and launched himself toward Batman.
He landed heavily on the rooftop, shaking the entire building, and sank into a defensive crouch.
“You never could leave well enough alone, could you?” he said in a guttural rumble.
Batman glared, reached beneath his cape for another Batarang. “I could say the same about you.”
“Ah, yes, but this time I’m only doing a favor for a friend. And I’m getting paid for expediency, so…” Clayface’s grin spread and he lashed out with one muddy arm. Batman ducked and rolled, then flung a Batarang at Clayface’s chest. Clayface smacked it out of the air and it landed on the roof with a metallic clang. “Don’t you have any other tricks?” he growled, spreading the clay of his arms into hard, sharp talons.
“A few.” Batman dodged a slice from the clay talons and aimed a taser-like gun between Clayface’s eyes. Two slim wires shot out of the end and burrowed into Clayface’s gooey flesh, followed rapidly by a white-hot electric current. Clayface screamed, grabbed with one hand for the offending wires, and shot the other for Batman’s face. Batman tried to avoid the strike, but Clayface was too fast.
“Shi–” was all Batman managed to say before clay smothered him from the neck up, pinning him to a nearby wall. Globs of clay forced their way into his mouth and he choked around it, clawing for something in his belt that could help. His fingers scrabbled against one of the pockets at the small of his back, and he managed to release the catch and grab the Batarang located inside. Praying he was making a good choice, he stabbed the projectile blindly into Clayface’s arm. The monster hissed in pain as his entire arm froze, and Batman shattered the limb with one well-placed punch. Clayface reared away with a roar. Released from his hold, Batman dropped to the rooftop, gasping and coughing raggedly.
“Enough!” Clayface growled. Before Batman could get his breath back, solid clay closed like a vice around his throat, heaving him into the air. “And before I forget…” Clayface latched a newly formed limb around Batman’s utility belt and ripped it off with a bruising jerk, then tossed it over the rooftop to the street below. “This is going to be so sweet,” he said, his mushy face splitting in a broad grin as he walked over to the rooftop and dangled Batman over the edge.
Batman clawed at the clay around his neck, only managing to gouge small grooves into the hardened limb. His vision was beginning to gray out and his lungs felt like they were shriveling in his chest, but he managed to get one hand up to the comm. button on his cowl and choke out something that sounded vaguely like “Clk” before realizing that was the wrong name to be asking for.
“I’m on my way, B,” Clark said through the rushing in Bruce’s ears, somehow managing to sound both anxious and reassuring. Batman let his hand drop to his side, weak with relief and lack of air. “I’m on my way. Just hold on. I’ll be there soon. Hold on.”
“I have no idea why it’s taken so long for someone to do this,” Clayface was saying, still grinning. “I’m gonna be a legend, you know. A very rich legend.” His grip on Batman’s throat tightened even more and Batman bucked as armor dug agonizingly into the flesh around his neck. Black light flashed before his eyes, and he knew he was going to faint soon.
“So long, Batman,” Clayface said. Then the clay around his throat receded, and Bruce began to fall.
* * *
Clark had almost forgotten how hard it was to sit on the sidelines and watch as others fought.
When Clayface tried to smother Batman, Clark would have bent the back of the sofa in the living room if not for Alfred’s firm grip on his shoulder. A quick glance at the tight-lipped butler, then at the child sitting on the sofa watching the battle with terrified eyes, was all he needed to calm down.
“Sorry,” he murmured to Alfred, and the older man allowed himself a quick smile.
“Mister Kent,” he said, keeping his voice low, “I have broken far too many dishes watching my boy fight to ever blame you. Believe me, there is nothing to apologize for.”
“Yes!” Dick fist-pumped in the air and Clark whirled back to the television just in time to watch Clayface rear back, one of his arms shattered into ice crystals. Clark let out a little breath, but sucked it back in when Clayface grabbed Batman around the neck, tore off his utility belt, and dragged him toward the roof’s edge.
“Is he…” Dick’s little voice broke. “Is he gonna fall?” His face was ashen, his eyes round and terrified, and Clark remembered with a jolt the murder that had brought this boy here, yet another tragedy caused by a long and deadly fall.
The comm. in Clark’s ear buzzed slightly, and Clark heard a tiny choked sound that could have been his name. His heart leapt into his throat, pounding way too fast.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, exchanging a meaningful look with Alfred. Alfred nodded solemnly and went to get Dick, gently coaxing the wide-eyed boy away from the television.
Clark slipped into the hallway, already heading for the front door. He couldn’t hear Bruce anymore, but he knew the other man was listening – had to be listening – so he just kept spouting reassuring nonsense. Then from the living room he heard a sharp intake of breath and Dick’s helpless cry and he simply knew.
Batman was falling. Bruce was falling. And he had no way to catch himself.
Clark was out the door before he even knew what he was doing. He shed his civvies midflight, abandoning shirt and pants and shoes to the trees around Wayne Manor, and was soon clad only in red and blue, streaking for the city.
Panic urged him on, and within seconds he was speeding through buildings and then there was a solid weight in his arms, limp and heavy in unconsciousness but mercifully alive. Superman clutched Batman close to his chest, barely slowing his flight as he continued away from Clayface and the drop that had almost killed his best friend. Impossibly strong fingers curled into dark armor, leaving little dents, but Superman hardly noticed and did not lessen his grip.
He almost hadn’t made it.
Still panicking slightly, he took a moment to bury his face against Batman’s cowl, to listen to the soothing sounds of his friend’s heartbeat (a little rapid) and breathing (ragged, of course, but even). He breathed deeply, calming himself, then sped for the Manor, intending to drop Batman off and deal with Clayface himself.
Alfred met him in the Cave, his grim expression fading into relief as soon as he saw the dark bundle in Superman’s arms.
“Oh, thank God,” he mumbled, stepping over to rest a hand on Bruce’s head. His eyes closed, briefly. “Thank you.”
Superman laid Bruce out gently on one of the surgical cots and turned away, already striding for the exit.
“He should be fine,” he said over his shoulder. “I’m going back to deal with Clayface.”
“There’s no need,” Alfred called after him. “The commissioner ordered liquid nitrogen to be brought to the scene and it changed the course of the fight. Clayface is frozen and on his way back to Arkham as we speak.”
Superman paused, still facing away.
“Damn,” he muttered, fists clenching.
Alfred frowned. “I’m sorry?”
“Nothing. It’s just…” Superman turned back, and his blue eyes blazed. “I really wanted to hit him.”
Glass shattered against the wall of the hotel room. Whiskey streaked the plasma screen television and ran in rivulets down the wall, staining the expensive wallpaper.
Lex Luthor was on his feet in front of the television, seething. His arms curled at his sides, his eyes wide and raging.
“Superman,” he growled. Then, louder, “Superman?”
He spun and lashed out, knocking a lamp off the table beside the couch. The loud crash made him pause and he took a moment to catch his breath before turning back to the television, which was still broadcasting replays of the fight between Batman and Clayface. Luthor lowered himself slowly onto the couch and watched as the newscast replayed in slow motion the moment when Batman was spirited away by a blur of red and blue. Even in slow motion, the rescue only took a few frames, but Luthor saw enough to know what had happened.
The entire situation was… improbable. Impossible. Why the hell would Superman be rescuing Batman? The two heroes were always at odds with each other, and Batman was notoriously territorial when it came to the Kryptonian’s presence in Gotham. Not to mention that the only way Superman could have known to fly to Batman’s aid at such short notice was if he had been watching the battle, and even then, why would he have assumed that the normally independent Batman would accept his help?
Luthor sat up straighter, an idea suddenly coming to mind.
They’re working together.
Luthor rushed to his computer and pulled up the files he had received almost three months ago, hidden behind complex password combinations and firewalls to keep away any prying eyes. He opened one of the files – the first email, the one that had convinced him of the authenticity of this entire endeavor, the one featuring his own digital signature, years more advanced than his current one but still unmistakable – and started scrolling through it, searching for any information about the future relationship between Superman and Batman.
After two minutes of useless searching, Luthor sighed and slumped back in his chair. There was nothing about Superman in any of the emails; they were all concentrated on the evolution of young Dick Grayson into the hero Nightwing, and finally into the Batman himself. Luthor reread the first email one more time, the one that contained the order from his future self to either destroy the young Dick Grayson or adopt him as his own, to raise him away from the influence of the Bat in Gotham.
Luthor paused and read that line again, then again, his eyes narrowing.
… raise him away from the influence of the Bat in Gotham…
… the influence of the Bat…
… the Bat…
“Wayne,” Luthor said, his eyes going suddenly wide. Of course. Of course.
Bruce Wayne adopts Dick Grayson. Dick Grayson becomes Robin. Which means Bruce Wayne must be…
“Oh, yes,” Luthor mumbled, a slow smile spreading across his face. He no longer minded that Superman appeared to be working with Batman. In fact, it made his plans that much sweeter.
At last, he could rid himself of the two biggest thorns in his side.
And their partnership would help him succeed.
* * *
The chandelier creaked a steady rhythm above Dick, swinging like a pendulum from the Manor’s grand ceiling. Dick curled his legs tighter around the gilded branch he was hanging from and tugged his sweater over his stomach, holding it there to keep it from slipping down to his armpits. He craned his neck, arcing his body into a graceful curve so he could watch the hardwood floor swing dizzily far below. He closed his eyes, losing himself in the sensation of the swing, that moment of stomach-lurching freefall when the chandelier reached its highest point. If he reached out he could almost feel strong hands grasping his wrists, ready to pull him into a familiar routine of midair somersaults, flipping him to another sure grip, to whispered encouragement and bright smiles.
But of course there were no hands waiting, and the chandelier swung him away once more.
Dick sighed and tugged his sweater back into position again.
“Alfred,” he called, and he still was not used to the way his voice echoed through Bruce Wayne’s huge house.
Measured footsteps approach from the second floor and then Alfred appeared on the landing. His eyes widened when he spied Dick hanging from the chandelier, but he did not comment. By now the sight of Dick perched in some precarious position around the Manor had become quite normal.
“Yes, Master Richard?” Alfred said.
Dick waited until the chandelier swung close to Alfred before asking, “Is Bruce coming home tonight?”
A strange expression came over Alfred’s face before Dick swung away. It almost looked like sadness, but it was gone in a moment.
“Actually, he is home right now, and he would like to see you,” Alfred said. “Why don’t you come down for a while?”
Dick gripped another gilded branch of the chandelier, let his legs fall, and somersaulted onto the landing beside Alfred. Alfred held out a hand and Dick took it, but he did not speak as they descended toward the study.
“What does he want to talk to me about?” Dick asked finally.
“Something very important,” Alfred said.
Dick was quiet for a moment, then asked, very softly, “Do I have to leave?”
Alfred stopped in his tracks and crouched down in front of the boy, placing his hands on Dick’s shoulders.
“My boy, you will never have to leave this house unless you wish it,” he said. “This is your home, and it will be for as long as you want. All right?”
Dick nodded mutely. His throat felt thick and fuzzy.
“Now then.” Alfred straightened the collar of Dick’s sweater and brushed nonexistent lint from the fuzzy blue fabric. He rose and held out his hand with a smile. “Shall we?”
Bruce was not in his study. Dick frowned at the empty room and was about to ask a question when Alfred stepped over to the old grandfather clock and – shockingly – swung it open like a door. Dick’s eyes widened.
“Is that a secret passageway?” he asked.
“Of a sort.”
Dick crept forward, craning his neck to see down the shadowed steps. “What’s down there?”
“Answers.” Alfred gestured toward the stairwell, but when Dick made no movement, he frowned. “You don’t have to go down if you don’t want to. I will simply inform Master Bruce, and he –”
“I want to go.” Dick hurried to the stairs and started down them. He paused after four steps and glanced back, but Alfred was already following. The butler flashed him a reassuring smile, which Dick returned before hurrying further down the steps.
His heart beat rapidly and his skin tingled with excitement. He trailed his fingers along the cool stone wall. The deeper he went, the chillier the air became, and he thought he could hear the screeching of bats and the rushing of what sounded like a really big waterfall. He bit his lower lip and quickened his pace, practically bouncing down the steps in his eagerness.
The stairway opened into a great, dark cavern, and Dick froze, still ten steps from the cave floor.
“Whoa,” he breathed. His eyes went wide as he took in the huge bank of glowing computer monitors in front of him. Beyond the computers he could see platforms rising from the depths of a huge chasm, each supporting a car or a plane or some other vehicle Dick could not even assign a name to. To his right he could see the waterfall, surrounded by mist and filling the cave with a rumbling echo, and past it stood a giant penny and a giant playing card. To Dick’s left was a collection of training equipment, complete with mats and parallel bars and rings and a pommel horse. Bats flitted through the stalactites hanging far above and around the top of the giant penny, and standing in the midst of it all – clad, impossibly, in Batman’s uniform, or at least everything but the cape and cowl – was Bruce.
Dick just stared, his jaw hanging open. Bruce ran a gauntleted hand through his hair. He actually looked nervous. It was the first time Dick had seen his guardian look anything less than collected.
“I… I thought you should know,” Bruce said.
“You’re Batman?” Dick asked, descending one more step.
Bruce glanced away for a moment before meeting Dick’s eyes. “Yes.”
“Oh.” Dick’s eyes widened as realization came. “Oh! That’s why you’re away so much. You’re not actually going into the office at weird hours, you’re…” Dick waved a hand, looking around the cave. “… doing this. Fighting.”
“So then that was you…” Dick paused, going a little pale. He crossed his arms across his chest, making himself smaller. “That was you fighting that monster the other night.”
“Yeah, that. You… you fell. You almost died.” Dick’s voice broke. He kept seeing it in his head, kept seeing Batman – no, Bruce – falling through the air, without a line, without a net. Just like his parents. Dick shivered. “You could have died,” he said. Another home gone…
“I know,” Bruce said quietly. “And I’m sorry. But that’s why I needed to tell you about all of this. That way…” Bruce sighed. “That way if something does happen to me, at least you’ll know the truth. You deserve that.”
Dick nodded, then walked determinedly down the rest of the steps and over to Bruce. He looked up at the livid bruises ringing Bruce’s neck, his blue eyes over-bright, and then wound his arms around Bruce’s waist and hid his face against the dark armor over Bruce’s stomach. Stunned, Bruce rested a hand gently on the boy’s head.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Dick muttered into the armor. His arms tightened. “It’s just… this is a little scary.”
“I understand.” Bruce paused, glanced at Alfred still waiting on the stairs. “Do you want to look around?”
Dick nodded and pulled away, but he seized Bruce’s hand and would not let go as they wandered through the cave. Dick’s questions started out shy, but within minutes he was bouncing along beside Bruce, pointing out everything and growing more and more excited with each new discovery. Alfred slipped unnoticed back up to the Manor, smiling as he went.
Bruce and Dick eventually ended up sitting together in the large black swivel chair in front of the main bank of computer screens. Dick was curled in Bruce’s lap, fingering an early prototype of a Batarang, scratched up and dulled with age. Bruce was looking up some old files for the League.
“Who’s that?” Dick asked, glancing up at the screen.
“His name is Lobo,” Bruce said, unable to keep the annoyance from his voice. “He’s a bounty hunter.”
“Is he in the Justice League with you?”
Dick turned the Batarang in his fingers. “Wait.” Dick looked up at him, eyes shining. “Superman’s in the Justice League, right? Does that mean you know Superman?”
Dick gasped and turned in Bruce’s lap so he was facing him directly. “Can I meet him?”
Bruce’s mouth quirked into a reluctant smile. “Maybe someday.”
Content with that, Dick snuggled against Bruce’s chest and closed his eyes, curling one hand into the front of Bruce’s uniform as he drowsed.
“Thanks for telling me,” he said. He traced the outline of the bat on Bruce’s chest. “This is actually pretty cool.”
Bruce looked down at him with a smile. “Yeah,” he said, tightening his arms around Dick. “Yeah, this is cool.”
* * *
Clayface paced his cell, muttering to himself. Across the way he could hear the Riddler chortling at something or other, and he wanted nothing more than to cross the hall and strangle him.
“I know a word of letters three. Add two, and fewer there will be!” the Riddler squealed with a chuckle, and Clayface roared.
The butt of a rifle rattled the plexiglass wall of his cage, and Clayface subsided with a growl.
“Shut-up, you,” said the guard with a sneer. “Lights out.”
Moments after he said it, the lights in Arkham snapped off with a series of echoing clangs, throwing odd shadows through the halls. The guard disappeared with a final derisive laugh, and Clayface was left alone with only the haunting chuckles of the Riddler as company.
He slumped against the side of his cell, smushing his head against his hands. He had finally unfrozen that morning, and – after a consultation with a couple of Arkham’s best psychologists – the guards in Arkham had reluctantly agreed to let him remain that way. Even so, he knew that at any moment, a guard could put in a bad word and he would be trapped once again.
He hated this place.
A shadow peeled away from the darkness to loom just outside Clayface’s cell. Clayface tensed, at first suspecting a figment of his imagination, some product of Arkham’s hysteria. But then he saw two glaring white eyes gleaming eerily in the darkness, and a smile spread across his face.
“Damn,” he rumbled. “I was so sure I’d gotten rid of you.”
“Who hired you to kill me?”
Clayface snorted. “Right. Like I’m gonna tell you that.”
“I am willing to make a deal for the information.”
“Oh yeah? What kind of deal?” Clayface spread his arms. “I’m already in the loony bin. What’re you gonna do, get me a reduced sentence? You know I’ll just come after you once I’m out. That’s how this whole thing works, right?”
“I can get you cured.”
That made Clayface pause. “Say what?”
“I know some of the most prominent scientists in the country. With a little persuasion, I can convince them to make your case a priority. If you cooperate.”
Clayface said nothing. He stared at his hands – not hands, never hands, only hands if I shape them that way – then at the rest of his misshapen body. He shot the shadow a mistrustful look.
“How do I know you’ll keep your word?” he asked.
“You don’t. But I will.”
Clayface clenched his hands – not hands – into a semblance of fists.
“Fine,” he said. “I don’t know who hired me. I was given a ten thousand dollar deposit from an anonymous bank account. It’s probably been closed by now. There was supposed to be another thirty thousand in the deal if I finished you off.”
Clayface hesitated, then added, “I can’t tell you how I know this, but the guy who talked to me… well, he was one of Tony Zucco’s guys. And he mentioned something about a vendetta against Bruce Wayne, and something about a kidnapping. And that’s all I know. But you’re not gonna tell anyone I blabbed, right?” Clayface looked up. “I mean–” He broke off, his muddy eyes going wide.
The hall was empty, the shadows once again merely shadows.
“I hate this place,” he muttered, and sank down against the wall once more.
Clark was fidgeting. His left knee bounced at near supersonic speed, blurring the cheap blue fabric of his pants, and the thud of his heel against the floor created a low rumble that vibrated the entire office.
“Stop that,” Bruce said, not even looking away from his computer screen. “You’ll bring down the whole building.”
“How can you be so calm?” Clark lurched to his feet and started pacing. “You just found out that Clayface was hired by Luthor to kill Batman, and that Luthor is still trying to get rid of Bruce Wayne in order to get to Dick. Luthor is determined to kill you, and two days ago he almost succeeded. You almost died, Bruce. Remember?”
Bruce absently lifted a hand to his starched collar and the dark, angry bruises beneath. “I remember.”
“Don’t you care?”
“Of course I care.” Bruce followed Clark’s path with his eyes. “But I’m fine, and I already thanked you for that, so it’s time to let it go.”
Clark growled and threw himself violently back into his chair, slumped like a petulant child. Bruce’s mouth twitched in barely veiled amusement.
“What about this kidnapping, then?” Clark asked. “How do we stop it?”
“We don’t,” Bruce said. Clark just stared at him.
“You mean… you’re going to let yourself get kidnapped.”
Clark buried his face in his hands and let out an incoherent sound of despair. “You’re insane,” he said in a muffled voice.
“Listen, Clark. If Bruce Wayne gets kidnapped, that means there’s a good reason for Superman to swoop in and save him, thus proving Luthor’s underhanded dealings in Gotham and earning him a one-way ticket out of my city and into prison.”
“I hate that your reasoning makes so much sense,” Clark said darkly, still speaking mostly into his hands. “But what if he kills you?”
Clark glared at him. “How do you know?”
“I don’t. But I’ll be all right.” Bruce grinned wryly. “Surely Superman will save me.”
Clark grunted, still looking less than convinced. “What about Zucco? Are you just going to let him go?”
“Zucco will go down when Luthor does. You have my word on that.” Bruce’s smile faded and he looked down at his hands, folded on his desk. “Clark… if you don’t want a part in this, I understand. Technically it isn’t any of your business, and I can come up with another plan if–”
“None of my business?” Clark’s voice was low, deadly, and Bruce could not help but meet his gaze. Blue eyes blazed dangerously behind those thick-rimmed glasses, and Bruce doubted anyone would question Clark’s true identity if he looked like that more often. “Bruce, Luthor made this my business when he tried to kill you. I’m not leaving until this is solved and you’re safe. I’m staying with or without your permission. You’ll just have to deal with it.”
Bruce said nothing. He knew his role in this little exchange. This was where he would scoff and make some cutting remark about how he could take care of himself, about how Clark was being a mother hen and his concern was unwelcome and unnecessary. But something stopped him.
Bruce remembered waking up after the fight with Clayface. He remembered how nice it had felt to know that Superman was there watching over him, like Bruce was important, like he was something precious that needed to be protected. Bruce had felt completely, impossibly, wonderfully safe, and when he had opened his eyes and seen the naked, unashamed relief breaking over Clark’s face, lighting his entire countenance, he had been unable to quell the strange emotion that burned in his chest.
It had felt almost like gratitude. Or affection.
Bruce smiled slightly, shaking his head. Maybe he was growing soft.
“Thanks, Clark,” he said finally, and it should not have made him feel so good, seeing Clark beam like that.
“Mr. Wayne?” Bruce’s secretary popped her head into the office. “You have a visitor.”
“I already have a visitor,” Bruce said, gesturing at Clark.
“I’m very sorry, Mr. Wayne, but he insists.” She lowered her voice. “It’s Lex Luthor, sir.”
Clark’s hands clenched around the arms of his chair and Bruce held up a hand to calm him before he crumpled the metal.
“Show him in,” he said.
“What?” Clark hissed when the secretary disappeared. “No. You can’t be serious.”
Bruce shot him one warning glance, then got to his feet just as Lex Luthor burst into the room, teeth flashing and arms spread wide.
“Brucie!” he crowed, and promptly crushed Bruce’s hand in his. Bruce feigned a wince and Luthor’s smile spread. He turned to Clark, then, and his smile went tight. “And you… I recognize your face. You’re that reporter for the Planet. It’s Brent, right?”
“Kent.” Clark stood, and Bruce could see the thinly veiled pleasure in his expression when he loomed over Luthor. They clasped hands and Luthor clearly tried to crush his hand, as well, but whereas the normal Clark Kent would have winced and shuffled away, properly cowed, this Clark simply matched the grip and smiled. Luthor’s brow furrowed, and he surreptitiously flexed his hand at his side when Clark let go.
“Right,” he said. “Well, if you wouldn’t mind, I have some business to discuss with Mr. Wayne. In private.”
“I do mind, actually,” Clark said. He sat and crossed his legs, clearly getting comfortable, then flashed Luthor a saccharine smile. “Mr. Wayne mentioned something about your potential partnership and I’m not leaving until I get the story.”
Luthor’s eyebrow twitched and he threw Bruce a dark look, but Bruce just shrugged.
“I tried to get him to leave when I first heard you were here, but he’s a stubborn fellow.” He gestured to the chair beside Clark’s. “Please, sit.”
Luthor hesitated before taking his seat, clearly trying to decide whether or not to be insulted, but he eventually settled himself primly in the chair and smiled at Bruce. They chatted politely for a bit, Luthor enthusiastically telling complex tales of his time in Gotham with Bruce smiling politely along. Clark was fidgeting again, and he kept shooting uneasy glances at Luthor. Whenever Luthor was distracted with a particularly elaborate story, Bruce would meet Clark’s gaze with a reassuring smile, but Clark appeared anything but reassured.
“So.” Luthor finally stopped spinning tales and spread his hands, getting down to business. “Have you thought any more about my business proposition?”
“I thought we settled that the last time you came.”
Luthor frowned. “Then your answer is still no?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Luthor sat forward in his chair, his face going pale with barely concealed fury. “Then why am I even here?”
Bruce cocked an eyebrow. “How should I know? You’re the one who came to see me.”
“But you promised this buffoon–” Luthor flung a hand in Clark’s direction, “–a story!”
“No, I just told you he wouldn’t leave. That doesn’t mean I promised him a story.”
Luthor took a deep breath and got to his feet. He adjusted the lapels of his suit jacket, fixed his cuffs, and by the time he looked back to Bruce, he was smiling again.
“Well.” He held out his hand and Bruce gripped it once more. Luthor covered Bruce’s hand with both of his, and Bruce saw Clark go ramrod straight in his seat, his eyes briefly flashing a deadly crimson. “I figured I would pay you one last visit before I leave your illustrious city, but I can tell when I am not welcome. I will be back in Metropolis in two days’ time. You take care of yourself, Bruce.” His hands tightened around Bruce’s, and his eyes gleamed. “I’d hate for anything to happen to you and your new ward.”
“Thank you, Lex,” Bruce said. “Have a nice trip home.”
Luthor left without even a glance at Clark, and Bruce was about to scold Clark for unnecessary posturing when Clark held up a hand and mouthed, ‘Wait.’ His head cocked slightly and his eyes went distant, and Bruce knew he was listening to things no human could hear. Then Clark’s jaw clenched. His hands curled around the arms of his chair, crumpling the steel like paper.
“Damn it,” he hissed. His eyes refocused and he looked at Bruce, his expression almost helpless. “Luthor just called Zucco. They’re planning to kidnap you tomorrow.”
“Good.” Bruce sat down once more, turning absently to his computer. “I’d rather get it over with.”
“Good?” Clark closed his eyes, clearly trying to calm himself. “Bruce, this whole plot is anything but ‘good.’ I know you think you have to do this, and I trust your judgment, I do, but when I see him with you, touching you, pretending like everything is okay… it makes me sick.” Clark looked up at him, his blue eyes pleading. “It’s just… he’s destroyed so many things in my life. Please don’t let him destroy you, too.”
“It’ll be okay, Clark.” Bruce kept his voice gentle, unused to seeing Clark so desperate. “I’ll be careful. I promise. But you know I have to go through with this.”
“I know, I know.” Clark buried his head in his hands for a moment, then ran his hands through his hair and lurched to his feet. “I’m going to get ready for tomorrow. Take care of yourself as best you can, okay? I’ll see you soon.”
“Sure,” Bruce said, his brow knitting in concern, but Clark was already gone.
* * *
Superman hovered outside Wayne Manor later that night, watching the house in silence. A chilly breeze caught his cape, rippling the red fabric around his shoulders. He wrapped the cape around himself and drifted a little closer to the Manor. He kept telling himself he was there to keep an eye on Bruce and Dick, to make sure nothing happened to Bruce while the boy was nearby, but he was doing a poor job of convincing himself.
He knew why he was really there.
With his x-ray vision, he could see Bruce and Dick in the second floor library, curled up on a sofa in front of the fire. Dick was snuggled against Bruce’s chest and a book was spread in Dick’s lap, and if Superman concentrated, he could hear Dick reading the story aloud. It sounded like one of the Harry Potter books, though Clark could not tell which. Dick stumbled over a word and Bruce peered over his shoulder and helped him sound it out, and then Dick beamed up at Bruce and something warm fluttered in Superman’s stomach.
He realized it now, of course. After witnessing Luthor’s slimy chit-chat with Bruce, after hearing him say, “Pull the plug” to Tony Zucco right outside Bruce’s office, thus handing Bruce’s fate over to ruthless gangsters and – as much as Bruce might deny it – possibly condemning the man to death, there was no way Clark could not know.
He just wished it had taken something less consequential than Bruce’s life being in danger.
Because now Clark knew he was well and truly smitten. He knew it as he watched Bruce laugh with Dick over something in the book. He suspected he had known it that first night, when Bruce had called him at two in the morning, fretting and worried for his new young ward. And he had definitely known it when he had seen Batman falling, when he had been forced to admit that the sheer amount of pure, cold-blooded panic he had felt at that moment, that he felt now – waiting for Bruce to get kidnapped, injured, maybe killed – was greater than what he should feel for a man who was just a colleague, or even just a friend.
Bruce had to be something more. Clark wanted him to be something more.
And for some reason, that frightened Clark almost as much as the thought of Bruce’s kidnapping.
Superman’s hands clenched around the fabric of his cape as he thought of Luthor getting his hands on Bruce. The man had ruined so many things in Clark’s life already. He had desecrated his Fortress, threatened his city, attacked his teammates, and now… now he was after Bruce. The very idea of Luthor getting anywhere near Bruce made Clark’s skin crawl. It was a miracle he had managed to keep his cool during the meeting, when Luthor had had the audacity to touch Bruce, to pretend that everything was okay when really he was plotting his downfall. Clark had wanted nothing more than to incinerate the man on the spot.
Clark breathed in deeply, counting on the crisp night air to calm his mind.
He could do this. He could stand by and watch his best friend (more than friend) get kidnapped by his mortal enemy. Because it was part of the plan. And after the kidnapping, when enough time had passed, Superman would be allowed to fly to Bruce Wayne’s rescue, just like he wanted.
Surely that was all that mattered. He could wait. He could.
“Bruce?” Dick said, pausing his reading.
“Hm?” Bruce’s voice was warm, sleepy, and it did funny things to Clark’s pulse.
“I know you’re busy with work, and with… you know.” He tapped Bruce’s chest, where the Bat symbol would have been, and Clark felt a jolt of surprise (and a bit of jealousy) that Bruce had already told this boy his biggest secret. “But can you promise me something?”
“Promise me you won’t leave me all alone.”
Clark’s jaw clenched as images of Bruce in a gangster’s hands, in Zucco’s hands, in Luthor’s hands, flashed in his mind. He watched with bated breath as Bruce silently tugged Dick closer against his chest.
“Dick…” Bruce sighed, closed his eyes. “I can’t promise that I will always be here. There are dangers in my line of work, and I think you understand that. But as long as I can help it, as long as it is in my power to protect you, I will not leave you alone. I promise.”
Dick set aside the book and snuggled closer to Bruce. “Okay.”
Superman watched them for one moment more, unable to breathe, then flew away, headed north. Perhaps a few hours in the Fortress would calm him.
* * *
Dick was in bed. Bruce stood in the windows of the second floor library and looked out over the dark grounds, searching for… something. A flash of crimson. A hint of blue. An unnatural breeze. Anything. He had felt eyes on him while reading with Dick, and he suspected he knew the spy, but the grounds were motionless. Silent. Bruce felt a small, inexplicable twinge of disappointment at that.
Moonlight shimmered through the trees in the garden, and Bruce headed downstairs and into the yard. He breathed deeply, enjoying the chilly air on his skin, the slight breeze ruffling his hair.
A whisper of displaced air was the only warning of attack. Bruce dropped instinctively into a crouch and pivoted, lashing out with one leg. The blow caught his assailant on the kneecap with a sickening crack and the man toppled, howling.
Too much, Bruce scolded himself. He rose from his crouch to face the other men, who were approaching him with much more care. Clearly they had not expected resistance from Gotham’s infamous feckless playboy, and their eyes kept shifting warily to their whimpering comrade. Fuming (he would have liked nothing better than to strew these men all over the Manor grounds), Bruce tooled his expression from a battle-ready scowl to wide-eyed terror, and the thugs relaxed a bit, undoubtedly writing their partner’s injury off as a fluke.
They circled Bruce, eyes flashing behind dark ski masks, and one of them let out a malicious little laugh.
“Got in a lucky hit there, didn’t ya, Mr. Wayne?” the man growled, keeping his voice low and rough, barely recognizable. Bruce realized with some amusement that the man might have picked up the technique from Batman.
“What do you want with me?” Bruce asked in a tremulous voice. He caught a glimpse of a blindfold and duct tape in the hands of Thug #1. These were the kidnappers, then. Bruce’s brow furrowed slightly. They were striking earlier than expected.
“Isn’t it obvious?” growled Thug #2. A needle glinted menacingly in his hand.
Ah, hell, Bruce thought grimly. He knew he had to go through with this, knew Clark was in on the plan and would never let anything happen to Dick while Bruce was gone, knew Superman would come for him before too long… but damn, he hated getting drugged.
“Enough,” rasped Thug #1, also disguising his voice. “Grab ‘im.”
Bruce let himself be caught from behind, grimacing as the thug who seized him yanked his arms back at an agonizing angle. A sweaty hand clapped over his mouth to keep him from crying out and Thug #2 approached, syringe in hand. Bruce barely had time to feign a struggle before he felt the sharp slide of the needle in his throat. The drugs took effect immediately, so quick that Bruce did not even have to playact sagging in his captor’s grip, his vision blurring and fading to gray around the edges. His assailants shoved him into the waiting car, and just before the door closed Bruce caught a glimpse of a pale, wide-eyed face in one of the second story windows of the Manor.
“Dick,” Bruce slurred, barely even aware of what he was saying, and then the car door slammed shut and the world went dark.
* * *
Dick watched, frozen in terror, as the biggest man seized Bruce from behind. Then another man stepped in way too close – Dick’s hands went automatically against the window, pressing hard, trying to reach – and then Bruce slumped forward, maybe unconscious, maybe dead –
Dick clenched his hands into fists and tried his best to ignore the wave of sheer devastation that racked his body at that thought. It wouldn’t happen. Bruce had promised – he promised – he would never leave Dick all alone. And Bruce would never break his promise. He wouldn’t.
But then Dick let out a quiet, helpless cry as one of the men hefted Bruce’s limp body into his arms and deposited him in the dark car, and then another thug grabbed his downed companion and they all sped away.
Dick stared after the fading taillights and felt despair building in his throat, threatening to choke him. His breath came in rapid, shallow gusts. His eyes prickled and his hands were shaking but he swallowed down his pain and threw himself away from the window, unable to look anymore at the empty grounds.
He couldn’t fall apart now. Bruce needed him.
For a moment Dick thought of the business card tucked away in his dresser drawer, the one given to him by the kind, bespectacled commissioner who had told him to call if he ever needed anything, but Dick thought this was probably bigger than James Gordon. This, he suspected, was a Batman problem.
And Dick knew how to handle that kind of problem.
It took mere moments for Dick to hurtle down the stairs, into the study, past the clock and into the Cave. For once Dick ignored the bats and the cool cars and the giant penny and went straight for the huge collection of monitors that Bruce had never actually allowed him to touch before, but Dick had to touch them now, had to use them, had to get a hold of someone who could help.
Dick eyed Bruce’s huge black swivel chair for only a second before bypassing it completely (he could never fit in it without Bruce’s lap to sit on, anyway; it wouldn’t be right) and heading straight for the keyboards. He licked his lips nervously and scanned the myriad of buttons, wondering which one would work.
There. Dick scrambled over the keyboard, trying not to press anything else, and slammed his palm over the button labeled “Comm 1.” The big middle screen hummed to life and Dick waited, bouncing on the balls of his feet, as a ring-like tone echoed through the cave once, twice, three times, before…
“What is it, B?”
Dick almost fainted in relief when he heard Superman’s calm, smooth voice over the link.
“Superman?” he said. “I need your help.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line, and then the glowing screen shifted and Dick found himself looking into an icy fortress, with Superman – resplendent as always and wonderfully, wonderfully real – standing in front of the screen, his brow dark with worry.
“Dick, is that you? What’s wrong? What happened?”
Dick didn’t even bother to wonder how Superman knew his name. He hugged himself with trembling arms, his panic finally starting to catch up with him.
“Some… some guys came to the Manor and attacked Br – Batman.” Dick heard a small intake of breath from the monitor, and he looked up at Superman with tears in his eyes. “They took him, Superman. Can you… can you find him?”
“I’ll be there soon,” said Superman, already stepping away from the screen. “Just stay where you are. Okay?”
Dick sniffled and hugged his arms tighter around himself. “Okay.”
The screen went dark, throwing the cave into shadow, and Dick shut his eyes. The kidnapping kept replaying in his mind, and he wondered for the first time why Bruce hadn’t fought back. Bruce was Batman. And no one beat Batman.
There was a gust of frigid wind and then Superman was crouching in front of Dick, looking worried. Big, warm hands rested on Dick’s shoulders and Dick found himself staring into impossibly blue eyes.
“Are you all right?” Superman asked, and he sounded so genuinely concerned that Dick couldn’t help but lurch forward and fling his arms around Superman’s broad shoulders, burying his face into the silky red fabric of his cape. Arms that could crush steel closed gently around him, holding him close, and Superman shushed him as he cried. One hand brushed lightly through Dick’s hair – just like Bruce had done on that first night, so gentle, so careful – and Dick’s shoulders shook.
“Please save him, Superman,” Dick whispered, voice muffled against red fabric. “He’s… he’s all I have.”
Superman’s arms tightened just barely around Dick’s trembling form. “I will,” Superman said. “I’ll save him. I promise.”
Dick finally relaxed against him, still sniffling, but if he had been paying closer attention he would have heard Superman draw in an unsteady breath, would have felt those strong hands clutch at him in something akin to panic.
“I promise,” Superman whispered again. And Dick knew he meant it.
Bruce opened his eyes to darkness. His head was pounding and his stomach heaved. Bile burned the back of his throat and Bruce clenched his eyes shut, pressing his lips together to keep from vomiting. The nausea gradually lessened, and Bruce took some time to twitch his fingers, only to find them tied tightly to a metal pole behind him. No surprise there. He shifted slightly, trying to find other bonds, and realized that – save for his bound hands – he was relatively free. A small smile crossed his face as he silently thanked Luthor’s hubris.
His eyes began to adjust to the darkness, revealing a barren, metallic room with stairs opposite, leading up to a closed door. A dim thread of light shined beneath the door, and Bruce could see shadows moving around up above.
Bruce closed his eyes and tentatively got his feet beneath him, then heaved himself upright. His head reeled and his stomach churned, but before he could recover properly the entire room shifted. Bruce almost fell, and he grunted when his bound hands snagged on the metal pole, lurching him backward. It took him a moment to regain his balance. He froze and listened, trying to hear beyond the voices and stomping footsteps above.
There. Very faintly, he could hear the rush of waves breaking on a hull in time with the subtle rock of the room.
He was on a boat, then. That was unexpected, but not unworkable.
The door slammed open, and Bruce winced; the sound hit him like a blow to the skull. A man came down the stairs, silhouetted against the bright light in the doorway, and it did not take long for Bruce to recognize Lex Luthor.
“L-Luthor?” Bruce barely had to feign his raspy voice, but he blinked blearily at Luthor in an attempt to look pathetic and dazed.
“Good morning, Mr. Wayne,” said Luthor, casually slipping his hands into the pockets of his overcoat. “I hope you’re enjoying the accommodations.”
Bruce squinted up at him. “Where am I?”
“Just outside Gotham Harbor. Where no one can hear you scream.” Luthor let out an abashed little chuckle. “Sorry. It’s just that I so rarely get to enjoy a victory this sweet.”
“Victory?” Bruce shook his head slowly, trying not to exacerbate his headache. “What are you talking about? Why am I here?”
“Ah, ah, ah.” Luthor held up a finger, grinning wickedly. “One question at a time.”
Bruce bit his tongue to keep from blurting anything too damning. “Why am I here?”
“Because you stole something from me,” Luthor said. “The boy should have been mine. And now – with you out of the picture – he will be.”
“Boy? What boy? Wait…” Bruce glared, allowing some fire to show through his façade; it wouldn’t be too farfetched to suppose that Bruce Wayne would be protective of his ward. “You’re talking about Dick, aren’t you? What the hell could you possibly want with him?”
“Let’s just say I have it on good authority that the boy will grow up to be a thorn in my side, much like his heroic predecessor, Batman.” A snide smile spread across Luthor’s face as he spoke, and Bruce wondered just who this ‘good authority’ was. “So I have decided to take the boy under my own wing and raise him away from bad influences like you.”
Bruce’s brow knit. “I don’t understand. How could anyone know what Dick will be like when he grows up?”
“That is no concern of yours,” Luthor snapped, but then his expression turned pensive. “Or perhaps it is… after all, mysteries like time travel must be intriguing to a talented crime fighter like yourself.”
Bruce’s blood turned to ice, but he managed to maintain a look of innocent bewilderment. “What in the world are you talking about?”
“Don’t play coy with me, Mr. Wayne.” Luthor stepped forward and parted Bruce’s collar, brushing light fingers over the fading bruises around Bruce’s throat. “What interesting wounds you have here. The product of some late night excitement, I’m sure.”
Bruce’s cheeks flushed in feigned embarrassment. “What I do in the privacy of my bedroom is no–“
Luthor backhanded him hard, cutting him off. Bruce’s entire upper body jerked to the side and his bound hands caught on the metal pole again, wrenching his left shoulder painfully. He kept his eyes averted afterwards so Luthor wouldn’t see the fury in his eyes. He tasted blood.
“Don’t lie to me, Bruce,” Luthor said quietly. “I know who you are. I know what you’re planning for that boy. And I know that you’ve been working with Superman.” He leaned in close and Bruce could smell brandy on his breath, sickeningly sweet. “You’re bait, Mr. Wayne. For a much bigger fish. And once I’ve taken care of both you and the alien, I will sail back into Gotham and take care of your little ward, as well.”
Bruce whipped his head around to glare at Luthor, hardly even bothering to hide his rage.
“You won’t touch him,” he growled. “I’ll kill you first.”
Luthor grinned and stepped back. “Big words for a playboy, Mr. Wayne. I rather think you’re showing your hand.”
Bruce bit his tongue and looked down again, seething.
“But perhaps it is too much of a risk leaving you alive,” Luthor said thoughtfully. “I’m sure Superman will come for you either way, so…”
Suddenly there was a gun in Luthor’s hand, the muzzle a mere hairsbreadth from Bruce’s forehead. Bruce’s blood ran cold and his mind shifted automatically into battle mode, formulating possible ways to escape: If I dart to the right the bullet will only graze me. I can disarm Luthor with a well-placed kick. It’ll be painful, and I might pull a muscle or two, but the gun would be gone and Luthor would be stunned and I’d have a minute to free myself and get away –
“No,” Luthor said, and the gun lowered a few inches. “No, I guess I do need you alive if my trap is to work properly. So instead…”
The gun fired, deafening in the metal room, and Bruce let out a strangled cry as his right leg exploded in pain.
“That will at least ensure that Batman does not show up, I think,” Luthor said.
“You’re insane,” Bruce snarled through gritted teeth.
Luthor smiled darkly. “We’ll see.” He stowed the gun and patted Bruce congenially on the cheek, then disappeared above deck once more.
Bruce glanced down at his leg to survey the damage. There was a small hole in his thigh and dark blood blossomed against the fabric of his pant leg, dripping steadily into a shadowy pool on the floor. He couldn’t tell if the bullet had gone through or not, but his entire leg throbbed in time with his pulse. Clenching his jaw against the pain, he pressed his right heel against the cool metal floor and felt the telltale click of the homing device hidden in his sock as it blinked to life. Then he sank to the ground with a groan, already feeling lightheaded, and prayed that Superman didn’t take his time.
* * *
Superman was hovering impatiently over Gotham when he heard the high-frequency tracking device suddenly activate.
“Finally,” he muttered, and shot off in the direction of Gotham harbor, ready to play his part.
He had left a frantic Dick with a slightly less frantic Alfred, and the promise that Superman would bring Bruce back alive and well. Clark prayed that did not turn out to be a lie. He knew Luthor well. Too well, in fact. The man ruined everything he touched, and now that he had his hands on Bruce…
Bruce is well enough to activate the device, he told himself. He’s not dead. He’s not dead.
Gotham harbor was mostly empty, the waves shining golden in the faint light of dawn, but beyond the mouth of the harbor proper floated a large dark freight boat. Superman squinted against the sunlight and saw that the boat had no identification numbers, and Luthor was traipsing about on the deck, surrounded by black-clad gangsters. Superman decided that these men were probably the kidnappers, and his vision flashed crimson as rage stirred in his chest. He x-rayed the hull of the ship and found Bruce bound in an empty room, apparently unconscious and – Superman’s heart stuttered – bleeding from a wound on his leg.
Without another thought, Superman sped for the boat. Within seconds he found himself with an armful of stunned, terrified gangsters, and he dropped them unceremoniously into the sea. He repeated this until only Luthor was left on deck, then – on a whim – dropped one lifeboat in the midst of the panicked, water-treading gangsters. As much as he loathed them for what they did to Bruce, he wasn’t out to kill anyone today.
The entire task took about a minute.
When he was finished, he descended slowly in front of Luthor, who was watching him with crossed arms and a smug smile.
“I knew you’d come,” Luthor said. “Couldn’t leave your buddy to die, could you?”
“I have no idea what you’re trying to accomplish here, Lex,” Clark said in his best booming Superman voice, loud enough that he was sure Bruce would hear (if he’s alive, added a terrible little voice in Superman’s head; he ignored it). “But I will only ask you once to let Mr. Wayne go.”
“I don’t think I will,” Luthor said. “You see, I know how important he is to you. I want to see how much I can make you squirm.” He clapped his hands and a big man burst through the door leading from the hull, dragging a bound and limping Bruce. Superman’s throat clenched when he caught sight of how pale his friend was, but at least he was conscious, and a tourniquet had been tied haphazardly around his leg. Icy blue eyes met his, fierce and determined, and Superman felt a little better.
“Are you all right, Mr. Wayne?” Superman called.
“I’ve been better,” Bruce said.
“Your ward is safe,” Superman added; that was something he could know, right? Either way, the relief that came across Bruce’s face when he said it was enough to make it worthwhile.
“Enough of this.” Luthor waved at the big man holding Bruce and the thug shifted his grip, hooking a meaty arm around Bruce’s neck and flicking open a knife to hold very close against Bruce’s throat. “If you don’t give up and surrender yourself to me, Superman, I’ll tell Nick here to carve open your friend Batman’s throat. How does that sound?”
Superman’s blood froze; Luthor knew about Batman? His eyes met Bruce’s and he saw a warning there, so he threw on a puzzled expression. “I’m sorry, what?”
Luthor sighed. “Honestly, you two. I’ve already told you that I know Bruce Wayne’s secret, and still you deny it. Fine. Why don’t we start with this: if you don’t admit that Bruce Wayne is Batman, I’ll kill him. Deal?”
Thug Nick tightened his grip around Bruce and the knife nicked Bruce’s pale skin, and Superman fought down his panic. He could handle this.
“Enough,” he said, glaring at Luthor, and he blurred forward, catching Thug Nick off guard. One solid hit on the jaw was enough to knock the big man off his feet, and then Bruce was safely in his arms and Superman was high above the ship.
“Come back, you coward!” Luthor shouted, waving a gun at them.
“I’ll be back for you once I get Mr. Wayne safely to the city,” Superman said, and he flew off, ignoring the screams at his back.
“That went well,” Bruce said.
Superman glared at him. “It could have gone better. You got shot.”
Bruce shrugged. “I’ve had worse.” He paused, then looked down at the water streaking past beneath them. “Wait, stop. Let me go.”
“What?” Superman halted in midair, hovering about twenty feet above the water.
“Drop me. There’s something I need to do.”
Superman stared at him. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am. Trust me. Just look down.” Superman did, and he caught sight of a dark shadow just below the surface of the water, which looked vaguely like…
“How long has that been there?” he asked. Bruce grinned and showed him the tiny blinking device in his hands, which were by now freed from their bonds.
“About two minutes. Now drop me.”
Superman sighed and lowered himself until he was five feet up from the water, then let go of Bruce. The other man disappeared under the waves just above the Batplane, and Superman waited until he saw the plane light up and pull away before heading back to Luthor’s ship.
Luthor was still yelling and frothing by the time Superman returned.
“I’ll be taking you to the Gotham PD now,” Superman said, hovering just over the bow of the ship. “And I’ll ensure that you get sent directly to Metropolis, so that both Mr. Wayne and his ward remain safe. You can either come quietly, or with a fight. It’s your choice.”
“You’re an idiot for actually coming back,” Luthor said with a grin, twirling the gun in one hand.
Superman frowned. “What?”
“I knew you’d come for him,” Luthor said with a manic laugh. “I knew you were partners. So I made plans for this. And since Batman is injured…” He leveled the gun at Superman. “There’s no one to save you now.”
The gun cracked three times in quick succession. The first bullet caught Superman in the arm as he tried to dodge, and the next two caught him in the leg and side. He plummeted to the deck with a cry, writhing in agony. Kryptonite seared like poison through his veins, and his whole body felt like it was on fire. He tried to crawl away, tried to regain his feet, but his limbs shook and his vision blurred and he sank weakly to the deck.
“I’ve waited so long for this,” Luthor said, stepping over to him. He aimed a kick at the bullet wound in Superman’s side and Superman let out a strangled yell, rolling away in an attempt to protect himself. “Look how pathetic you are. I could kill you right now, you know. It would be so easy…” Luthor lifted the gun again and pointed it at Superman’s forehead, but then a low drone filled the air and he looked up in time to watch as the Batplane zoomed by overhead. A dark shadow detached from the plane, and Luthor barely raised his arms in time to catch the black-booted kick aimed at his head. The blow knocked him off his feet, and the gun rattled away across the deck.
Batman landed with a solid thump in front of Superman, crouched in a fighting stance, dark cape flaring.
“It’s over, Luthor,” Batman growled. “Come quietly.”
“But…” Luthor struggled into a sitting position, bleeding from a cut over his eyebrow. “But… your leg…”
Batman stalked over to him and slammed a foot down on Luthor’s hand as he tried to reach for the gun. “What about my leg?” he asked over Luthor’s howls.
“Shot you… didn’t I shoot…?” Luthor trailed off, looking dazed. “But Wayne…”
“Is safely back in Gotham, reporting this to the police as we speak.”
“No… I was sure… Wayne…” Batman sneered and lashed out with his other leg, and Luthor collapsed to the deck with a thud.
Batman grabbed the gun, checked to make sure it was out of cartridges, then hurled it into the water before hurrying over to Superman’s side.
“Clark,” he whispered, already digging in his belt for tweezers and a scalpel. “Clark, can you hear me?”
Superman groaned and opened his eyes, blinking blearily. He was far too pale and shivering so hard his teeth chattered, but he managed a small smile.
“Your l-leg…” he stuttered, and Batman cut him off with a glance.
“Is fine. Hold still. This is going to hurt.”
Superman closed his eyes as Batman leaned over him. He hissed when he felt the smooth slide of a scalpel over his skin, opening the bullet wound in his arm, but he concentrated instead on the close, comforting smell of leather and Kevlar, and the knowledge that Bruce was all right.
“P-plan worked,” he said. Batman grunted, and Superman heard the creak of hinges and then the tiny tinkle of a bullet against lead. He kept his eyes closed, but he sensed movement as Batman shifted to remove the bullet in his side next. Silk slid over Superman’s fingers and Superman clutched at it, tugged a little.
“You okay?” Batman asked when he felt the tug.
“Yes.” Superman bit down on a yelp at the sensation of tweezers digging deep into his skin, but relief came soon after, accompanied by another clink of a bullet being dropped into the lead box.
“You’re lucky these didn’t hit bone and shatter,” Batman said, turning his attention to Superman’s leg. The silk in Superman’s fingers threatened to slide away with the motion, but Superman clutched it tight, unwilling to let go just yet.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Don’t thank me yet,” Batman muttered. Superman clenched his teeth and tried not to anticipate the scalpel this time, but there it was – the painful tug of skin, the heady smell of his own blood, and then – Superman grunted – the tweezers, deft and sure and mercifully quick, and then…
Superman sighed and opened his eyes to watch Batman deposit the last bullet into the little lead box and stow it in his belt, along with the scalpel and tweezers. A fleeting smile played over Batman’s stern lips, and Superman felt his heart skip.
“Better?” Batman asked.
“Much.” Superman started to sit up and Batman helped him, gripping him firmly by the bicep. Feeling ambitious, Superman managed to gain his feet soon after. He lifted Batman easily up with him, but then the boat swayed and Batman staggered against him, biting back a pained grunt.
Superman held him steady, his brow knitting in worry. “What’s wrong?”
“The adrenaline injection is wearing off,” Batman said, his voice tight with barely suppressed agony. His face was pale and sweaty behind the mask.
“And that means…”
“It means my leg hurts.”
Superman blanched. “You mean that wasn’t a fake out for Luthor? You actually got shot?”
Superman gathered Batman into his arms, ignoring the other man’s protests, and muttered, “You’re such an idiot.” Then he took to the sky.
“Wait. Where are you going?” Batman asked.
“I’m taking you to Alfred.”
“But what about Luthor?”
“He’s not going anywhere.”
Batman glared at him. “Don’t you think it’s more important to get him to jail than to–”
Superman shut him up with a kiss. It wasn’t a very good kiss, really. It was hard to get the right angle with Batman tucked in his arms, and there was some clashing of teeth and a startled sound from Batman’s end, but the most important thing was that Batman didn’t pull away first. And even when Superman did manage to pull away, slightly flushed but completely unrepentant, Batman only half-smiled and said, “Hn.”
“Never tell me you’re not important again,” Superman said sternly. “You’re one of the most important people I know, and if I want to take care of you before hauling Luthor into jail, then damn it, I’m going to take care of you.” Then he kissed Batman one more time and descended to the Manor. He landed on the balcony outside Bruce’s bedroom and gently forced the doors open, then carried Batman to the bed. He settled him tenderly on top of the covers, then paused and cocked his head slightly, listening.
“I set off the perimeter alarm,” he said, “so Alfred’s on his way. I’ll be back soon.” He pointed a threatening finger at Batman’s injured leg. “Don’t use that leg while I’m gone.”
“Clark, wait.” Superman turned back. Batman heaved himself off the bed and limped over to his side. Superman opened his mouth to scold him, but then a strong hand caught him by the back of the neck and reeled him in for a crushing kiss. Superman thought he might have made an embarrassing sound, but he was far beyond caring now. He gently slid the cowl back and buried his fingers in Bruce’s sweat-dampened hair, then looped one arm tight around Bruce’s waist, tugging him close.
“I’m so glad you’re okay,” he whispered against Bruce’s lips, and he felt Bruce smile.
“Same.” Bruce pressed a kiss to the corner of Superman’s mouth, then shoved him away. “Now go get our criminal.”
Superman grinned. “Yes, sir.”
“Look, look! Are you watching?”
Dick dashed over to the pommel horse, a blur of yellow, red, and green in the dim light of the Cave. He broke into a series of flips and ended up upside down on the pommel horse, balanced on both hands, then only one. His yellow cape drooped over the pommel horse and he giggled, then spun on one hand, tangling his arms in the bright yellow fabric.
“Careful,” Bruce called from his seat near the computer console, but it wasn’t really necessary; Dick propelled himself neatly off the pommel horse and landed without an extra step, still laughing. He immediately started cartwheeling around the mats.
“This is so cool!” he chirped. “I really like my cape.”
“I’m glad,” Bruce said. He turned back to the computer screen, clicking through the messages he had missed while he had been forced to stay in bed and heal. His hand drifted idly down to the sore spot on his thigh; the bullet had passed through as cleanly as could be hoped, but it had still torn through muscles and nerve-endings that would ache for weeks to come.
“Does it hurt?”
Bruce glanced at Clark, who was watching him with a concerned frown.
“It’s fine,” Bruce told him. “I just need to exercise it, that’s all.”
“If you don’t want to patrol tonight, I can go again. It’s really no trouble.”
Bruce raised a hand, stopping his assurances. “Clark, I’m bored. I’m going out. Plus, it’s Dick’s first night out as Robin. I want to be there with him.”
“Does that mean you’re definitely coming with me tonight?” Dick bounded over, his blue eyes bright with excitement behind the black domino mask.
Bruce grinned at him; his enthusiasm was contagious. “That’s right, kiddo. You ready?”
“Am I ever!” Dick tumbled out three back flips, then skipped back to stand in front of Bruce, his expression suddenly serious. “You’re sure your leg is okay, though? I mean, if Superman’s still worried…”
“Clark is always worried,” Bruce said, emphasizing the name; they had told Dick about Clark’s secret identity, but the boy still had a tendency to only refer to his hero as Superman.
“Well, someone has to worry about you,” Clark protested. “Lord knows you never do.”
Bruce just glared at him and got to his feet, moving swiftly to the lockers across the Cave.
“Keep loosening up, Dick,” he called over his shoulder. “We head out in ten.”
Clark caught up with him while he was changing. He leaned casually against a locker and watched as Bruce slid easily into his armor.
“What?” Bruce finally asked.
“I know you hate it when I say this, but please be careful,” Clark said. He stepped forward and grabbed Bruce’s wrist before he could finish fastening his utility belt, making the other man meet his gaze. “Please?”
Bruce’s glare softened and he leaned up to place a gentle kiss on Clark’s lips. “I’m always careful,” he said, then hesitated. “But just in case something goes wrong, since it’s Dick’s first night out, could you…?”
Clark smiled and wrapped his arms around Bruce. “I’ll keep an eye on you both.”
Bruce sighed and relaxed against Clark’s broad chest. “Thank you.”
Not five minutes later, Batman strode away from the lockers, tugging the cowl over his head, his mouth already set in a grim line.
“Let’s go,” he said to Dick, his voice dark and gravelly, and the boy let out a whoop and sprinted for the Batmobile. He slid neatly across the hood and ducked into the passenger seat before Batman even approached the car.
“Wish me luck!” Dick called to Clark, and Clark grinned and waved at them both.
“Good luck!” he called.
As Dick buckled himself in (after Batman’s gruff command), Batman glanced back and made eye contact with Clark one last time. His lips twitched into the barest hint of a smile and he nodded, then the Batmobile sped off into the night.
Clark watched them go with a smile on his face. He waited for a minute, then two, then slowly stripped out of his flannel shirt and jeans, revealing sleek blue and red underneath, and took to the sky.
Just in case.
* * *
The Metropolis prison cell was cold and barren, but at least it had a small television in one corner. Lex Luthor huddled under his threadbare blanket and flipped on the news. The picture was grainy at best and the sound muffled, but it helped to pass the time.
“– were apprehended by Gotham’s very own Batman, and his young partner, a brightly dressed boy who calls himself ‘Robin.’”
Luthor sat up straighter, and turned the volume up. The reporter described the capture of a well-known Gotham drug ring, which was of little interest to Luthor, but the image they showed of the Bat and his young partner…
“Grayson?” Luthor muttered. He slid forward on his cot, squinting at the television, but the reception was too poor and the screen too grainy to make out any details, and then the image was replaced with a commercial for cat food.
Luthor sat back, staring into space. It wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be. Could it…?
His eyes narrowed and a slow smile spread across his face, the first one in weeks.