He'd never thought of it, not really, but there was a certain beauty that came with age. A kind of peaceful nobility that the ever-young could never attain. That he could never attain. Not under a yellow sun. Not here, where Bruce was and where Bruce could never leave. But Clark understood that. He'd known, all along, that Bruce belonged to Gotham, body and mind, and that he could only ever borrow him, steal his heart and hold it for a few brief moments of glory. Half a lifetime. The only life that mattered.
Bruce's skin had paled with age. After a lifetime of nights, after so long under moonlight and starlight alone, that pale flesh had acquired a translucency, papered over the firm lines of bone, dusted with shadows and the twin traceries of veins and scars. The bones of his face still cleaved to lines of strength and beauty, the architecture of a stubborn, noble soul, but it's clothing had faded. A mapping of lines patterned the corners of his eyes, the lids so thin and pale that the veins glowed pink within them and gave him a perpetually bruised look, over the worried expanse of his brow, down to the corner of his mouth where that smirk used to lurk. He was softer now, less resilient, the burn of weatherbeating on his jaw a burr of frost over powdered snow. So fragile. So beautiful.
A spatter of diamond fell suddenly on that cheek, denting it, and Clark started back, when those bruised eyelids opened and he remembered why Bruce always seemed to glow now. Brilliant blue eyes speared up at him, alive with fire and stubborn will, and Clark saw the star. The star Bruce kept in his heart, a small, fierce thing that over time had gradually come to shine all the clearer as layer and layer of shielding shadow had been stripped from Bruce's life. As secrecy and loneliness and veiling strength had fallen away, as the Bat had sunken deeper to become fully part of him once more, as age had stripped the shield of muscle and youth away, that star had grown until it shone unveiled in Bruce's translucent skin, in his silvered hair, in his sapphire eyes. In his heart.
The lines on his forehead grew a little deeper as Bruce frowned up at Clark, his gaze incisive and and questioning. But before Clark could answer that silent question, Bruce's face cleared, and he closed his eyes again with a faint sigh. "You know I hate that," he murmured, so faint it was little more than an echo of things they had once said over and over to each other, but the quirk of that mouth was still real, the crinkling of lines a reminder of both present and past. Clark gave him a watery smile.
"And you know I can't help it," he said back, with a certain degree of genuine cheer. The words were an old refrain, and comforting in their familiarity. It was still Bruce in there, still Batman, despite his fading, and the strength of him had never been physical.
"Hnh. Yes. I brood, you cry, and somehow the world keeps turning. I remember."
"Of course you do. You never forget anything. Elephants ain't got nothing on Batman."
Bruce could smile without opening his eyes, and he could smile without ever moving his mouth. Sometimes, though, he would smile with both, and it would sear Clark's heart until his fingers ached with the pain and beauty of it. Bruce did that now, as if pulling a shroud from in front of his star, and Clark's heart stopped dead in his chest as he made some tiny, strangled cry, a sob of agony. Bruce never stopped smiling, moving a hand a torturous inch over the blanket to bump it gently against Clark's wrist, unable really to do more. Clark took it with burning hands, a hot pulse of tears in his throat, and gasped a little at the tremulous clasp of bony knuckles and worn palm.
"Crybaby," Bruce murmured, gently, and Clark had to smile. "Now listen up."
"You ... you know I could ... could listen to your voice forever, Bruce," he managed, then had to add it. "Brucie dearest."
Bruce gave an alarming wheeze, and Clark would have dropped his hand in panic, save that he knew what it was. Bruce was laughing, and if the sound of it was ruined, nothing could spoil the suggestive sneer that curled over his features. As he'd aged, Bruce had learned lechery with an almost frightening attention to detail, and it was a measure of his talent that that particular expression could still send a swell of heat through Clark's veins, even set against that pale and peaceful face. Brucie had left a potent legacy indeed.
"Hush up, farmboy. I need you to do something."
"Anything," Clark answered, and it held sincerity and conviction as a force of nature, a compulsion as sure as gravity.
"You made me a promise, once, that some day when our job was done, you'd show me the universe. Do you remember that?" Clark closed his eyes against a brittle stab of pain, but nodded. "Hnh. Seems our jobs never did get done after all, eh? I am sorry for that, Clark." Clark said nothing, but squeezed his hand gently. He'd always know he was only ever going to be able to borrow Bruce. It was a pain he'd learned to live with. "Clark?"
"It's okay, Bruce."
"Hnh. No, it's not. Neither of us made it where we are by breaking promises. We both know that."
"There's ..." Clark began, and swallowed. "There's no more time, Bruce. None left." None at all, because it was their last day.
"Hnh. We'll have to see about that, Clark. But first things first. Take my other hand, would you?"
"My hand, Clark." The exasperation in his tone was all testy Bat, despite the wheeze. "Pick it up." Clark obeyed, mouth twitching slightly, gently gathering the curled fingers into his own. "You remember the ring you once gave me? Put your life in my hands? That ring?"
"Yes," Clark answered softly. That, he couldn't forget. It was the first real sign of trust he'd ever given Bruce. The first real gift, and the first real burden. Bruce had never failed either of them.
"Open my hand, Clark," Bruce whispered, and Clark did, tenderly, hearing the crackle of abused knuckles, and gasped. "Had Dick give it to me before he left," Bruce explained softly. "Damn kid burst into tears on top of me. It was embarrassing." Clark managed a flash of smile, because the 'kid' was now in his fifties, and lifted the object reverently, holding it up to the light.
It was a ring. Antique silver, quite heavy. A man's ring, maybe a Wayne ancestor. And it held the most beautiful sapphire Clark had ever seen. A deep, dark richness, midnight blue, and at its center the white flare of a captured star.
"Called a star sapphire, for obvious reasons. Used to be one of a pair, but the other was lost. That one's all alone, now." Clark closed his eyes against the tears. "You always insisted on comparing my eyes to the things. Especially later. Sapphires, with stars in them."
"A star," Clark whispered.
"Not stars. A star. Your star."
Bruce was silent for a minute, and Clark thought he might have seen a tear in his eye, for the first time. "Okay. A star. Okay, Clark. My point ... Hnh. I had a point?"
Clark laughed softly. "I don't know. It's a little late to propose, Bruce. We've been married thirty-six years, remember?"
"Never forgot. You always reminded me. But I remember now. You have to promise me something."
"Anything. You know that."
"Good. I know. You have to promise me you'll keep that other promise. You have to show me the universe."
Clark bowed his head. “How?"
Bruce's voice was soft. "I gave Gotham my life, Clark, a long time ago, when I was eight. I promised it to her, and she took every drop." Clark didn't answer. He knew this. Always had. "I gave Gotham my life, but you managed to steal my heart. I still don't know how, but you did. So now it seems only fair that I give you my soul, too."
Clark's head shot up, and Bruce smiled that Batman smile, the one that meant ‘now I have your attention, so listen up'. Clark had always been secretly fond of that smug smile, in between moments of wanting to wipe it forcibly off the man's face.
"I've been talking to a few people. Magicians. Apparently there's rules to doing this, but it can be done. So I've done it." He saw Clark's baffled look, and smiled sadly. "Don't worry about it, Clark. You'll understand after the funeral. Just wear that, and remember what you promised me."
"Bruce ..." Clark began, the mention of the funeral a hard blow, but Bruce shushed him.
"Just remember, Boy Scout. Okay?"
Clark didn't answer.
"Okay, Bruce. Alright."
Bruce stared into his eyes for a long minute, that particular gaze that reached into your soul and rummaged around until it had found what it was looking for. Then he seemed to find it, and his face lit up, eyes shining radiantly, and Clark knew he'd do anything Bruce wanted. Anything at all. He slipped the ring onto his finger, over his wedding band.
"Alright then. Help me up, Boy Scout."
Clark stood hurriedly. "What!?" Bruce glared up at him, and if he could have moved on his own, he'd have been toe to toe with the Man of Steel seconds ago.
"You think I'm going to die on my back, Clark, you can damn well think again!" he fumed, eyes twin blue beams boring furiously into him, alive with all the will of the Batman. "Now help me the hell up!"
Clark stared down at him for the longest time, amazed all over again by him, by the strength of him, the stubborn beauty. Then he smiled, and leaned down to scoop his lover up into his arms, cradling the now-frail form as if it were the most precious thing in the universe.
Because it was.
Bruce huffed a bit, biting his lower lip against the pain of movement, and glared some more. "Not like that, Clark! Do I look a blushing bride? On my feet, dammit!"
Grinning now, Clark complied, shifting Bruce against him until the man stood before him, supported by an arm around his waist, and another around his shoulders. There was no better use for Superman's strength, nothing more appropriate than for all that power to hold the man he loved and keep him safe. Bruce smiled into his neck, brushing his lips gently over Clark's pulse and laughing a bit.
"My arms. Put my arms around your neck. Good. Now dance with me, Clark."
"Dance?" Clark asked, warily, and in answer Bruce began to hum. Haltingly, because his breathing was far from steady, but Clark could make out the tune. It was the Blue Danube, the music they'd waltzed to on their wedding day. Clark remembered it so well. Bruce had insisted, because at heart the Waynes were traditionalists, and because Alfred would have wanted them to. But Bruce couldn't stop there. He'd scoured the Fortress, in secret, until he'd found the old Kryptonian music collection. The instruments. And he'd found a set of musicians, and he had them train until they were proficient, and when they'd pulled them out on the day, just for the grooms' dance, Bruce had looked at him, and Clark hadn't known what to think. He'd been torn between being profoundly touched by his husband's caring, and amused by the defensive shrug of Bruce's shoulders. In the end, he'd settled on both, and love besides, and they'd danced for a long time to the sound of two planet's blessing them.
He tilted his head to look down at Bruce, wonder in his eyes as they traced the aged, familiar features. "Bruce?"
"Get your feet off the floor, Superman," Bruce huffed, that tracery at the corner of his mouth growing a little deeper as he smiled. "I think I told you to dance with me."
So Clark did. As Bruce gently hummed the old tune, he raised them both to float gently above the floor, and began to sway them. Moving in slow circles, his legs tangled around Bruce's helpless ones, his arms wrapped around the bony frame, he danced them both, staring in rapture at Bruce's upturned face.
And for a while, he could see another man overlaid on the pale, fragile features, could feel dark silk over the coarse whiteness of Bruce's hair, could hear a rich baritone laugh over the broken humming, could see a strong, full face over the aged translucency of this ghost in his arms. Bruce smiled at him, and though a part of him realised it was only his own tears blurring and refracting the light around them, still Bruce was suddenly incandescent to him, a pale burning shadow dancing in the gloom with him, a star for him to hold.
He knew it the moment it happened. He heard the hum falter and stop, heard the final beat of that ancient heart, saw the light fade in his lover's eyes. He knew the moment Bruce died, dancing in his arms, the last star of the evening. But he finished out the waltz, listening to the echo of the Blue Danube in his memory, because Bruce had always been a perfectionist, and would frown on leaving a thing half-done. He finished out the waltz, and then kept going, the tears a silent flow down his cheeks as he tucked the white head beneath his chin, and cradled the body in his arms, and danced to phantom music.
Hours later, that was how the others found them, their friends and children and grandchildren, the legacy of their lives. And he knew they were crying for them, knew they were grieving, but he didn't care. There was nothing left but the husk he held, and the memories, and the black ache of his heart.
Because Bruce was gone. And there was no more time.
The funeral was a simple affair. Batman had never been content to stand on ceremony, and Clark supposed he'd seen no reason to start now. He'd asked for a Viking funeral, though Clark didn't know why. The ashes were to be buried with Alfred and Bruce's parents, on the family plot. Gotham was going to keep her protector. Even in death. It was hard for Clark not to begrudge her that, but for Dick's sake, for the clan, he understood. Bruce belonged here, to them.
He always had.
There were friends here, too. The remains of the old League, the beginnings of newer ones. Officers of the GCPD. Not Jim, though. Jim was buried on the other side of the hill. Bruce used to visit his grave in the summer, back when he'd still been able to go out. Afterwards, Dick had done it, and Barbara. Taking the roses on the anniversaries. Clark hadn't. It hadn't been his place.
There were other people here. So many. Clark couldn't keep it all in his mind, couldn't concentrate long enough to remember who they all were. It didn't matter. He stared at the shrouded form on the pyre, and never made a sound. And never cried.
Diana laid a hand on his shoulder as they put a torch to the base, and J'onn stepped right up beside the blaze to say those last few words, that final wish goodbye. The lump in Clark's throat threatened to strangle him, but he shed not a single tear. He was cried out, empty and exhausted. And Bruce was gone, and had said goodbye to him days ago. This was for them, for those who hadn't held him as he died, for those who hadn't heard his last breath whispering a waltz in his lover's ear. This wasn't for him. But he'd promised.
It was Dick who noticed first. Clark was too husked out to pay attention, and everyone else was watching the flames with a kind of tortured fascination. But Dick was crying, and had to look away, and he saw it. It was he who caught Clark's eye, who made the heartsick husband pay attention. Who made him see why Bruce had told him to come.
His sapphire was shining. Not powerfully bright, but it was shining, blue-white like a small, fierce star in the heart of a ghost. And Bruce's voice in his head told him to hush up, Boy Scout. Pay attention.
Remember what you promised me.
They all looked at it, and Dick was smiling suddenly through his tears, and Diana was staring in awe, and J'onn was looking at him with infinite love and compassion. And the sapphire glowed in serene counterpoint to the flickering of farewell-flames, and if Bruce had been standing beside them he would have been smiling that proud, embarrassed smile he'd worn when he'd managed to show how much he cared, and stunned them all into silence. And Clark pressed the glowing stone to his lips, and held it there as he cried.
You never even liked magic, Bruce.
What's that got to do with anything?
Nothing. Nothing at all. Just saying.
Gonna keep your promise? Gonna show me the universe, Clark?
... What do you think?
Hnh. You know what?
I think I love you, Clark. That's what I think.
... I love you too, Bruce.