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command me to be well

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In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene
Only then I am human

Only then I am clean

 

He tries to kiss Diana on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. They’re in the penthouse, close to one of the windows, and there is water everywhere outside. The sky is black and angry and she’s laughing, says the rumble of thunder reminds her of Zeus. He leans into her warmth, asks wordlessly if he can drink in a little of her sunlight. She presses the heel of her hand to his shoulder and pushes with the softness of an angel, even though she has in her enough strength to crack the earth open. Her eyes are the color of liquid amber, honey-sweet, and she whispers an inch away from his lips, “No.”

He recoils like he’s been burnt, the bitterness of shame heavy on his tongue. She runs her fingers down his lapel, rearranges his tie. Her smile is gentle like a mother’s, and suddenly the corners of his eyes are stinging. She is older than this world, he’s brutally reminded. They are all ants to her. He just attempted to kiss a goddess.

“I don’t know,” he says, turning his face away. “I don’t know what possessed me to—”

“Loneliness,” she says. “She’s an old friend of mine, too.”

In that moment he loves her fiercely, in every way there is. She was right that night, a few light years ago. He had never met anyone like her before, man or woman. It’s not about the raw power she holds in her sternum, and it’s not even about the millennia between them, this time-gap he can never bridge. It’s the pure goodness of her heart, how she is the last breathing being on this planet to do so uncorrupted.

“I miss him,” he says, and it still tastes as awful as it did the first time these very words trickled from his mouth. He’s thinking of the one hour where they were allies. He’s thinking of the two years where they were enemies. He has carried Superman in him for so long, like a torch to his constant inner darkness.

Not for the first time, he wonders why he’s not the one deep in the ground.

 

*

 

Barry Allen is the easiest to find. The location stamp on the surveillance footage Bruce found on Lex’s servers places him in Central City, and from there on it is not hard to cross-reference sightings of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it red streak with reports of ‘magically’ prevented small-time crime.

The kid is finishing his doctorate in Forensic Sciences while working part-time for the CCPD’s CSI lab. He lives alone in a tiny but relatively nice apartment close to the Central City U campus, which is exactly where Bruce decides to ambush him, because it’s remote and neutral enough.

“Holy shit,” Allen swears when he turns on the light to find Batman sitting patiently on his sofa. “Holy shit,” he repeats, “There is no way I am that sleep-deprived.”

“Bartholomew Henry Allen,” Bruce enunciates calmly. “Or do you prefer The Flash?”

“It’s Barry,” Allen—Barry—says automatically. “How did you get in here? How do you know—of course you know, you’re Batman. Holy shit,” he says for the third time, and Bruce is seriously reconsidering this whole thing by now, “Batman is in my living room.”

“I wouldn’t call this a living room,” Bruce mutters in distaste.

“It’s a room, we’re living in it,” Barry says flatly. “And I don’t—I don’t go by the Flash, not really. People have started blogging about me, I guess. Someone came up with it on Twitter, of all things. Hey, are you here to yell at me about vigilantism? Because dude, I hate to break it to you but pot, kettle.”

“I’m here to make you a proposition,” Bruce says, ignoring Barry’s increasingly rapid babbling. The kid talks with his hands, fast and animatedly, like he’s this close to buzzing out of his own skin.

Barry squints. “Is there some sort of top-secret superhero club? Because I don’t know if I’m, like, up for this. I’m writing my thesis right now, it’s kind of time-consuming.”

Bruce raises an eyebrow, unimpressed. “Do you want to do your homework,” he asks, “Or do you want to not die?”

“I’m really into not dying,” Barry says vehemently.

As far as recruitment meetings go, Bruce has had better.

 

*

 

“You’re telling me this dude can breathe underwater?”

“Yes, Barry,” Bruce rolls his eyes, “This is exactly what I am telling you. It is also what I was telling you ten minutes ago, and the ten minutes before that, too.”

“He’s adorable,” Diana giggles, and Bruce can see Alfred smirking in the background, a screwdriver in his hand, and he’s fairly certain this is what being in hell feels like.

“It’s good to see you surrounded by friends again, Master Bruce,” Alfred tells him later, when night has settled over Gotham and Barry has run back to Central City. Diana is off to wherever she goes to when she needs time alone, and Bruce is suiting up, getting ready for patrol.

“Yes,” Bruce agrees, lacing up his boots, because there is no use in lying to Alfred. “It is.”

Alfred hands him his personal cellphone. “May I suggest you make a phone call to Bludhaven, Sir?”

“Now you’re pushing it,” Bruce says, but he’s smiling. “Maybe when I come back, okay?”

He doesn’t call when he gets back, but he does stare at the Robin suit in the glass case for so long it feels like years.

 

*

 

The boy—and it’s a boy, fourteen years old at most—is looking at him with cautious curiosity.

“You’re Jack Drake’s son,” Bruce says finally.

“And you’re Batman,” Timothy Drake shrugs.

Perched on a desk, his legs dangling, Dick scoffs, “I told you.”

He did. He showed up on Bruce’s doorstep after almost a year of silence, looked him in the eye and said, “Someone knows.”

Bruce expected a villain, not a teenager. He doesn’t know how he feels, mostly because he cannot stop staring at Dick with a foreign hunger at the pit of his stomach, a strange longing he thought he’d never have to experience again. Dick is beautiful, like always. He looks older, because he is, and that is like a punch to the gut. Bruce never noticed, before, that Dick was growing, changing. When he could see Dick every day, the differences were too subtle. Now Bruce can’t help but catalogue all the ways in which he’s transformed, in which he’s not Bruce’s anymore.

“Why did you bring him here?” he asks, later.

“Because he’s right,” Dick says hardly. “Batman needs a Robin.”

“There’s no Robin,” Bruce shakes his head. “You left me, and Jason—” he chokes a little on it, swallows back the acrid taste of guilt and loss. “Jason,” he just says again, and knows Dick understands.

“I didn’t leave you, you inimitable douchebag,” Dick groans, pinching the bridge of his nose. “You fired me. You sent me away.”

“We’re not doing this tonight,” Bruce cuts him off curtly. “You brought a civilian into my Cave.”

Dick just observes him for a while, wordless. “I didn’t,” he says finally. “He’d have come anyway, he was just smart enough to figure out who to talk to first.”

“I don’t want him anywhere near what we do. He knows, and there’s nothing we can do about it except instill the fear of God into him, which I expect you will do.” He says that last bit in his Batman voice, the order clear and icy. “But I don’t want to see him again. Is that clear?”

“No,” Dick shakes his head, his voice full of disbelief. “No, what the hell. He’s right. You’re out of control because you’re alone.”

“I’m not alone,” Bruce hisses through gritted teeth. “I’m not,” he repeats, calmer. “So you don’t have to worry, and you can take Timothy Drake away from here.”

Silence settles on the Cave. Dick is staring at him, gaping, and there is a flash of hurt in his blue irises. There is a dark, nasty part of Bruce who’s rejoicing at that fact.

“Do you have a new partner?” he asks, his voice gone awfully quiet.

“Something like that,” he says, but then he cannot take the look of utter betrayal in Dick’s eyes. “Not really,” he admits. “But I’m not alone.”

“I would have come back,” Dick tells him, his gaze like a brand on Bruce’s skin. “If you had asked, anytime. I would have come back.”

Bruce’s mind flashes back to that time chasing Luthor’s goons and the Kryptonite, how all he wanted in that moment was the steady presence of Dick at his side, always there to catch him. How everything would have gone easier, faster.

How he would have lost Dick for good, probably, one way or another. He doesn’t think he raised a boy who would let him murder even an alien in cold blood. “I know,” he sighs. “That’s why I didn’t.”

 

*

 

It happens in the strangest, most ordinary way. In the morning he leaves with his game face on for a board meeting, and when he comes back the house is silent and dark just like it should be. He takes off his tie and throws it on the table as he walks into the kitchen, pops two buttons of his shirt open and rolls up his sleeves. Alfred is probably already downstairs working on the new cowl—Bruce’s head almost exploded last night when someone shot at him, and he escaped with a killer headache only but that was enough of a close call to warrant an upgrade. When he opens the fridge and takes out a half-full carton of milk, the pale light inside reverberates, and on the shiny chrome surface of the freezer compartment, Bruce can distinguish the reflection of someone sitting right behind him. He doesn’t even have the time to tense up and look for a weapon, because a soft voice resonates in the room, stopping him dead.

“Hello, Bruce.”

Bruce drops the carton and milk spills everywhere.

 

*

 

Diana says, “I know of many warriors who travelled back from the Underworld.”

Barry says, “Enhanced metabolism? Super-healing? Regeneration? Immortality??”

Alfred says, “Welcome back, Mr. Kent.”

Bruce doesn’t say anything. He stares at Superman like a sun-starved man allowed outside for the first time in years. Every time they are in the same room Bruce’s hands shake.

“My name is Kal-El,” Superman tells him. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Wayne.” Bruce has no space left in him for playing pretend.

“Your name is Clark Joseph Kent,” he tells Superman. “And you are dead.”

I saw you die, he wants to say. I held your body in my hands.

His mind wanders to another death, another body. The corpse of a small angry boy he cradled against his chest, tears streaming down his face like acid rain, the salt of blood under his tongue.

“Clark Kent is dead,” Superman agrees. He sounds weary and so, so old. In that moment he reminds Bruce of Atlas, the weight of the world on his shoulders. He hasn’t left Bruce’s house since he showed himself that night, and it’s almost been a week now. Bruce is fairly certain there are only four people in the world who know he’s back, and they all live between these walls. Well, Barry doesn’t, not really, but it’s as good as.

“Clark Kent has a mother,” he says finally. “Martha deserves to know.”

Superman looks away, facing the moon. Bruce watches his profile, the sharp line of his jaw, the prominent vein in his throat that pulses with every heartbeat, irrefutable proof that this isn’t a lie.

“Not now,” Superman says quietly, sadly. “Not yet.”

 

*

 

“I lost something,” Superman tells him. “When I died.”

“You lost your life,” Bruce says flatly. “That’s what dying means.”

He doesn’t say, we all lost something. He doesn’t say, you didn’t sacrifice yourself: humanity gave you up. He doesn’t say, some days I feel like I am the only one who won something that night, and the bare thought of it makes me so angry I could kill.

He doesn’t say, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

 

*

 

Diana gets along with him like they’re siblings, like they’re old friends. Bruce watches them whisper, share stories, two titans in his dining room. He watches them spar, too. Diana is ruthless, the most skillful fighter Bruce has ever seen. She undulates like warm water, strikes like a snake in the desert. Superman fights like a child. He never had to learn discipline, because until his very last moments, he had never encountered a thing stronger than him. Now he knows these monsters are real, and he wants to learn. Diana teaches him how to become one with the blade, even as he insists that he won’t be using weapons.

“This is the first step,” she says. “Your body is your weapon, and you must carry it like a sword.”

Bruce watches him evolve into something unkillable, and imagines telling his past self about the pure, unaltered relief flooding his veins at the concept of Superman being safe from harm.

“I’ve never felt this bisexual in my entire life,” Barry says, pushing himself up on Bruce’s desk. On the ring at the center of the Cave, Diana and Superman are wrestling.

“Get your ass off my things, Allen,” Bruce mutters, but he’s smiling against his will. Sometimes Barry reminds him of Dick, unwavering happiness and willpower made of steel, all that wrapped in a heart of gold. They’re different enough in how they go about things that it isn’t painful to have Barry around, just comforting. Right now he’s wearing sweatpants and his hair is in a messy bun, and he’s sitting on Bruce’s last report eating one of the cranberry and white chocolate cookies Alfred brought downstairs earlier, and Bruce wishes he was mad, but he isn’t.

“I was thinking,” he starts, and Bruce raises an eyebrow.

“That’s always a bad sign,” he deadpans. Behind them, Superman grunts in pain as Diana sends her elbow right into his chin, laughing.

“I have a doctorate,” Barry glowers, offended. “Anyway, as I was saying, I’ve been thinking about your whole beacon theory, how Luthor probably alerted the, err, aliens to our existence?”

“It’s not a theory,” Bruce says long-sufferingly. “It’s a fact. It’s not about if they’re coming, it’s about when.”

“Yes, I know,” Barry says, impatient. “You only talk about it on days that end with Y. Anyway,” he keeps going, ignoring the way Bruce is glaring at him. “You said I can travel through time.”

That is a theory. We’ve talked about this.”

“But listen, it’s the only thing that makes sense. The math checks out, I just need to go faster. You saw me, you couldn’t have hallucinated that, you had no idea who I was at the time.”

“Trust me,” Bruce says darkly, “You have no idea what I am capable of hallucinating.”

He’s still half-convinced this whole thing, Superman being alive, is an elaborate ploy of his mind trying to get him to admit something to himself. He’s not quite sure what, yet. It probably has to do with guilt.

It’s always guilt, he has learned.

“But if I could just—if I could just go. If I could just see. We’d know what to expect.”

“You already told me what to expect, Barry,” Bruce says, lowering his voice. “You told me to find you, and I did. You told me not to trust him, and I got him killed.” His left hand is gripping the arm of his chair now, knuckles turning white. “I am almost sure the future or the dimension you were coming from isn’t ours, and we’re not going to prod, because if there is one thing we do not need to upset right now, it is the space-time continuum. Am I being clear?”

It takes a moment for Barry to reply. “Crystal clear, Boss,” he says eventually, and Bruce has to shake away the image of Dick saying the exact same words to him over and over, the same disappointed expression on his face.

 

*

 

“Are you ever going to look me in the eye?” Superman asks.

“Are you ever going to tell Lois Lane you are alive?”

“Lois buried me. She mourned me. I’m the last thing she needs right now.” He hovers a little above the ground, using his flight power like a human would stretch their legs. It’s a little ridiculous, but it’s also very endearing.

“Let me tell you something, kid. That woman was in love with you. In some capacity, she probably still is. There’s nothing she wants more than to see you again.”

Superman is silent for a long while, and then he says quietly, “Maybe I am not ready to face her yet.”

“Well,” Bruce grimaces, “Maybe I am not ready to look a ghost in the eye just yet, either. There, you have your answer.”

“Do you still want me dead?” Superman asks. “We never talked about it. We didn’t have time.”

“I want you to stop asking stupid questions, that’s what I want.”

“It’s not a stupid question,” Superman frowns. “We were allies by necessity. That doesn’t change—that doesn’t change Metropolis. That doesn’t change who I am.”

“I was wrong about you,” Bruce says, and it doesn’t hurt like he expected it to, admitting it. “You’re dangerous, and humanity shouldn’t be defenseless against beings like you, I still stand by that. But I know, now. I saw you.”

Superman’s feet hit the floor so he and Bruce can be at eye level, and he looks right into Bruce’s irises, his gaze light blue like an Arctic sky. “What did you see?” he murmurs, voice as fragile as the wind.

“That you are a man,” Bruce says.

 

*

 

“I want to go on patrol with you,” Superman asks one night as Bruce is taking off the batsuit. It looks like he waited for Bruce all night, sitting on one of the cots. There’s a blanket and a pile of books next to him, and Bruce deciphers Aristotle’s Poetics on the cover of the one at the top.

“And I want the Joker to stop being a pain in my ass, but sadly, we don’t always get what we want in life.”

“Bruce, I want to fly. I want to help.”

“No one’s preventing you from doing that. But not in my city. You can go back to Metropolis, or you can fly to Kansas, for all I care. God knows they’ll be happy to see you.”

Superman shakes his head miserably. “I’m not ready for the openness of the universe just yet.”

Bruce wants to tell him to fuck right off, that he doesn’t get to hide and lick his wounds while people are dying, while Bruce is out there every night, saving as many as he can, cleaning the world with nothing but two human hands and a bat costume. Instead, he hears himself asking, “What happened to you?”

“I died, Bruce,” he says quietly. “I died, and I didn’t come back the same.” His fingers are twirling the hem of his shirt, a beige cashmere sweater he borrowed from Bruce, like most of what he’s been wearing since he came back. “You said you saw, you said you saw me. I’m not sure. I’m not sure I am that person anymore.”

“You came to me,” Bruce realizes. “Why did you come to me?”

“Because I had to stay away from the people I love,” Superman admits. “I had to stay away from the people who love me.” He takes a deep breath, stares into Bruce’s eyes. “I was so cold. I woke up, and everything was so cold. Even after… even after I clawed my way out of the dirt, it took weeks for my body to stop shivering. And some of that coldness stayed with me. It’s still there, deep down. I’ve never felt like that before. I don’t know what it is, and that terrifies me.”

“Some of us have lived like this for years,” Bruce says harshly.

Superman doesn’t take the bait. He just looks endlessly sad, like a tired giant. “You said it yourself. I have the power to annihilate the world. You can afford to have a bad day, Bruce. The worst that can happen is some asshole getting the beating he probably deserved. What happens when I get swallowed by my own darkness?”

Bruce doesn’t say anything. There is a pain nested between two of his ribs, like a small fire. “You think you might be out of control,” he enunciates slowly, eventually, “And you want to unleash that on my city.”

“No,” Superman says. “I just want you by my side. You’re the only one I trust to know when I need to stand down.”

And God, this kid. Because that’s what he is. A kid. Barely thirty, raised under the sun away from urban skies, innocence still blinding even after all he’s seen, even after fucking dying. Bruce is not a monster. He can’t say no to a boy who’s lost his smile.

“Kal,” he says carefully, and oh, it rolls off his tongue like candy, easy and sweet. It’s the very first time he’s called him anything but Superman, and it recalibrates his worldview, shifts the strategically arranged boxes inside his head. “You’re going to need a suit.”

 

*

 

If Kal wants to learn how to be himself again, Bruce can offer him that.

He dresses him in all black with just a touch of blue and red, just enough to remind him what and who he’s fighting for. The suit looks a lot like Dick’s Nightwing one, allowing optimum movement-range, and it’s even more form-fitting than Dick’s because Kal doesn’t need any kind of armor at all. There are two thin lines swirling across his chest, traveling up his arms, like blood and water. His domino is red, too, but without lenses so that he can use his heat-vision if need be. He looks good. He looks nothing like Superman.

He takes it for a test-drive above Bruce’s house, flies in circles and zigzags in the air, the sky opening for him like he’s Hermes coming home. When he lands on the roof, he’s grinning, happier than Bruce has ever seen him. Bruce is no idiot, he knows that happiness won’t last, he knows soon enough Kal-El will need his blue tights and his red cape and his mother’s arms and his fiancée’s love. He knows soon enough he will realize he doesn’t know how to be anything but Clark Kent, farmboy from Kansas, savior of Humanity. But for now, the being in front of Bruce is alien from head to toe, equipped for a battle neither Clark Kent nor Superman have ever fought.

“You’re as ready as you’ll ever be,” Bruce sighs, because he’s not going to kid himself into believing he can teach Kal how to be anything but his own hero. He smirks, wolfish. “We’re going out tonight.”

 

*

 

Bruce stops taking the Batwing out, keeps it for rescue missions only. Now when he needs to fly, he throws himself off buildings without his grapple-gun and Kal catches him under the arms, takes him wherever he needs to go. The comm system they use only goes one way, because Kal can make out Bruce’s voice from miles away, keeps a parcel of his focus on Bruce at all time. It makes them virtually untraceable, which would probably delight Barbara if only Bruce could mention it to her.

Kal doesn’t just punch his way through things. That he’s been training with Diana is evident when one watches him fight, and he has picked up some clues from Bruce, too. He moves like liquid fire, swift and fast, uses all his limbs to strike. He talks, too. Voice steady and powerful like the sea, he can get a petty thief to drop his weapon with one word, and he convinces jumpers to back away from ledges in one careful whisper.

“You know,” he tells Bruce conversationally as they’re getting changed after a particularly boring night, “Before I became Superman, I drifted, for a long while. I didn’t have a name. I didn’t talk to my mother for months. I tried keeping odd jobs, but that didn’t last.” He catches the small bottle of solvent Bruce throws at him without even looking, takes off his mask cautiously. “I was saving people. I’ve never been able to resist someone calling for help. But I wasn’t… I wasn’t Superman. I don’t think I could have been Superman, at the time.”

Bruce unclips his utility belt and puts it next to him on the bench, and then he turns to look at Kal. “Is this what you’re doing, here? Drifting?”

“Maybe,” Kal says, his cool blue eyes like the calm before a storm.

“What you’re talking about, it was a temporary state. A transition. In that aspect, you’re right to compare it to your current situation.”

Kal chuckles darkly. “You really think there’s going to be a Superman again?”

“There has to be,” Bruce says, unwavering. “There has to be a Superman.”

Kal doesn’t reply. He puts his suit away, grabs a towel and heads for the showers wordlessly. An hour later, he finds Bruce in the living room, upstairs, sitting on one of the black leather couches with his tablet open on the stock market news.

“There has to be a Superman?” he just asks, staring at Bruce intently. Bruce raises his head, threads a hand through his hair tiredly.

“Yes,” he says. And because he knows that will never be enough, not to the young man standing in front of him, swallowed by self-doubt and regret, he keeps going, gives Kal a part of his soul. “You gave me hope,” he says, low. “You showed me there was still goodness in this world. I was close to slipping, I had—I had forgotten, what my mission truly was. This city, this world… it has a way of sucking the light out of everything. You made me remember I used to be a good person, once.”

“You’re still a good person, Bruce,” Kal whispers.

“I know,” Bruce says, and it takes a herculean effort, but it isn’t a lie. “I wouldn’t trust myself with Gotham if I weren’t.” He turns his face, because the raw look of open need in Kal’s irises is too much. “So this is why there has to be a Superman. The world needs people like me. But people like me, they need Superman.”

The sun is rising, outside. Bruce can hear birds whistling, the slow music of the wind swimming between tree branches. He wonders what it sounds like to Kal, amplified times one thousand.

“Thank you,” Kal says.

Bruce wonders if this is how he loses him, if this is how Kal realizes it is time now to end this charade and become a symbol once again. But Kal just smiles softly at him, wishes him a good night and retires to his bedroom. In the morning, he is waiting for Bruce at the breakfast table, gleefully accepting coffee from Alfred, ten times more awake than should be humanly possible. Bruce’s heart constricts at the image of him in Bruce’s house, in Bruce’s clothes, eating Bruce’s food, alive, here. He sits opposite Kal silently, hopes that Kal knows by now how to read him; knows that Bruce’s companionship isn’t given away freely, knows that this is the closest he’ll ever get to a declaration.

 

*

 

Diana comes back from her trip to the other side of the world wearing an ancient Atlantean relic around her neck and a shit-eating grin on her face.

“He spoke the language of my people,” she tells them, excitement sparkling in her eyes. “He took me underwater and showed me sights I thought I would never lay eyes upon again.”

Barry, who has been walking in increasingly faster circles since he ran into the room, drags his hands down his face. “The lost city of Atlantis is real,” he whimpers. “I think I’m going to pass out.”

“Control yourself,” Bruce mutters. “If you create a typhoon in my Cave—”

“That was one time,” Barry groans. “It wasn’t even really a typhoon, I just got really excited over quantum mechanics and time travel! It was, like, a small hurricane at best.”

Ignoring Barry’s freak-out, Kal asks in a small voice: “Is he… like us?”

Immortal. He means immortal.

“No,” Diana says. “But he is not human, either.”

If he lets that go on, Kal will be moping until sundown, so Bruce interrupts them quickly. “Did he indicate if he’d be willing to help?”

“The Ocean is part of this world,” Diana says. “He will protect his home, and that means he will protect this world.”

“I can’t believe the top-secret superhero club thing is becoming a reality,” Barry mumbles, and then that’s apparently too much for him, because he literally takes off and disappears. Kal watches the empty spot Barry was in half a second ago and raises a dubious eyebrow.

“Yes,” Bruce rolls his eyes, “We are keeping him.”

 

*

 

Diana being back means one more person living in the house. It doesn’t matter that it’s big enough that Bruce could avoid everyone forever if he wants, he feels claustrophobic anyway. They eat dinner together, most of the time. On most evenings Alfred cooks, but lately Kal has started helping, too. Sometimes it’s just Kal, because Alfred is busy with Bruce, and Kal has insisted that he doesn’t mind.

Bruce comes up from the Cave to find him leaning over a pot of boiling sauce, stirring steadily while humming along to some song on the radio. He’s wearing an apron and gloves, even if he could technically put his bare hands in the oven without feeling anything, and that’s what gets Bruce. This little ridiculous detail. There is a hollowness in his chest, like a black hole, hurting. It gets worse every time he looks at Kal, gravity pulling him closer, longing enveloping him like the night. He shakes it away, forces himself to focus.

“I’m making spaghetti,” Kal beams at him.

All Bruce can think about is how human he looks, how soft, how vulnerable. He looks like himself, Bruce realizes.

He looks like Clark Kent.

 

*

 

“I’ve been flying away,” Kal confesses one morning, over coffee. Diana has left for the weekend to God knows where, and it’s just the two of them again, and Alfred. Barry hasn’t dropped by in almost a week, something to do with robberies being at an all-time high in Central City. Bruce will never admit it out loud, but he kind of miss them both. “During the day. All over the world. Saving people.”

“I know,” Bruce says. “How clueless do you think I am, exactly?” His friend just looks away, cheeks bright red. “You’re not my prisoner, Kal. You’re the one who decided you didn’t want to be out there.”

“Well, maybe I’m ready now. I don’t know.” He takes a sip from his coffee. His is still too scalding to even try, so Bruce blows some air on it. “I want to try again.”

Bruce sets down his mug, looks him in the eye. “What changed?”

“I feel happy,” Kal says. “Most of the time, I’m—I’m happy.” His fingers are drumming rhythmically on the glass table, like he’s nervous, like he can’t help it. “I think,” he says, “I think I’m going to tell my mom. That… that I’m back.”

“That’s good,” Bruce hears himself say, but he has no recollection of actually forming the words. It feels like he’s swallowing sand. He has never hated someone as much as he hates himself right at this moment.

“You,” Kal starts, and then he puts his hand on Bruce’s. It’s warm and soft, just like he always thought it’d be. “You saved my life.”

“You’re welcome,” Bruce says dryly, because if he lets himself really talk what will come out is no you did you saved my life you saved me.

Kal laughs. It’s a strong laugh, the kind that shakes your shoulders and reverberates through your entire body. Bruce looks at him and thinks, beautiful things always leave me.

 

*

 

“I’ve never seen her cry like that,” Kal whispers, voice full of terrified wonder.

“Well, you didn’t see her when you were dead,” Bruce says, and he feels guilty that he did, that he knows.

“I never—I never wanted to hurt her. I just wanted her to be proud of me. I just wanted her,” his voice breaks, “I wanted her to be safe.”

Bruce closes his eyes, and behind his eyelids is the image of two dozens white pearls scattering on the pavement. “I know,” he says. “I know.”

 

*

 

Every time they go out on patrol Bruce wonders if it will be the last.

 

*

 

Lois Lane is seeing someone. Bruce has known for a while, because he kept tabs on both her and Martha Kent. It’s very recent, and they’ve only been on a couple of dates for now, nothing serious. But she is moving on. She’s healing, he supposes. She’s an impressive woman, one of the smartest people Bruce has ever met, and he’s happy for her.

He doesn’t know how to tell Kal his window of opportunity is closing without disclosing that he’s been more or less stalking his ex-girlfriend all this time.

“My mother,” Kal tells him over lunch, “She kept the suit. There’s still a gash where it was torn, but. Well.”

“Of course she kept it,” Bruce rolls his eyes. “What did you expect her to do, throw it away?”

“I don’t know,” Kal admits.

It’s a Saturday, and Bruce has nowhere to be until they have to leave for patrol. “Do you want to come into the city with me?” he asks. “No one will recognize you.”

Kal opens his mouth to refuse but hesitates. It’s easy to read the yearning in the look he gives Bruce, full of contained desire. “Do you think so?”

“Your hair’s longer, you’re dressed like someone on the cover of Forbes, and more importantly, everyone thinks you’re dead.”

As they roam the streets of Gotham at sunset, Bruce tries the safest approach. “You told your mother. Why not Miss Lane?”

Kal doesn’t answer for a while, keeps walking, his eyes fixed to the horizon. “I went to see her,” he says eventually. “She moved apartments, but it wasn’t hard to find her. I know her heartbeat better than I know my own.” He stops in front of a little antiques shop, looks through the glass. There’s a bust of Alexander that Bruce knows for sure can’t be older than two centuries, which means it’s ridiculously overpriced, but Kal’s gaze stops on it for a minute. He’s a lover of Classics, Bruce knows by now. He wonders fleetingly if Kal would like a Cycladic statuette for his birthday, and then remembers he’s in no position to be offering this kind of gifts to Superman.

“She wasn’t alone,” he pretends to guess once it becomes clear Kal isn’t going to keep going. He makes his voice gentle, understanding. Kal turns to look at him with his big sad eyes.

“He kissed her at the door,” he says. “Didn’t come up or anything, so I could have waited for her on the balcony, but…”

“But you didn’t want to do that to her,” Bruce finishes softly.

“I died so she could have a life,” Kal says bitterly. “I don’t get to be angry that she did just that. That she kept living.”

“No,” Bruce agrees, not unkindly, “You don’t.” It’s almost dark now, and they should be heading back, but neither of them is moving.

“I think it’s time,” Kal says.

And Bruce is a good person, Bruce has always put the needs of the many above his own, so he swallows back the lump at the base of his throat and lets the rest of the world steal from him the brightest thing he’s ever had and says, “Yes, it is.”

 

*

 

He puts the suit in a display case next to Jason’s and ignores Alfred’s pointed “Master Kal is not dead, Sir.”

 

*

 

SUPERMAN RETURNS?

A NEW HERO IN BLUE SPOTTED IN METROPOLIS

 

*

 

He doesn’t confirm nor deny the rumors, but all those saved by Superman are saying the same thing: he is back. Slowly, the world starts accepting the unimaginable. They all react in different ways, just like Bruce, Diana, Barry and Alfred reacted differently that night six months ago. Some call him a prophet, some call him the Devil. Bruce knows Kal is neither of these things, and that he took much more than three days before walking the earth again. But he is a god to them, to all of them. His mere existence was already a challenge to every belief humanity holds, and his resurrection reignited that flame. Every religion wants to claim him, and those who do not have faith want to use him to kill the idea of God.

Bruce has seen him eat cereal at four in the morning, muttering groggily about wanting warmer milk, wearing his pajama bottoms inside out. He has seen him asleep and he has seen him flying and he has seen him laughing. If he is a god, then Bruce made a god bleed, once upon a time. Bruce gave him a scar.

What does that make him? What do you call a man who gave God shelter and hid him in his house for half a year?

 

*

 

The bullet makes an awful, piercing noise as it flies towards him. He sees it coming, watches it race to catch him in slow motion. When it lodges itself in his stomach, Bruce just grunts and stumbles back, unsurprised.

What does catch him by surprise is how close to the edge of the building he was standing, how it only takes one step before he’s falling into the night, obscurity enveloping him like a coat. He opens his mouth to scream but there is no sound, and he feels like a puppet with cut strings, freefalling into oblivion. Time passes like an eternity, but it’s probably only a few seconds, Bruce knows. His brain is too hazy to do the exact math, but he’s pretty certain he’s going to hit the ground very soon.

He doesn’t. Two strong arms materialize under him, absorbing all the impact.

“Bruce,” a familiar voice orders, “Don’t die.”

 

*

 

He remembers everything turning black. He remembers pain; hot, sharp, blinding pain. He remembers Kal’s voice, anguished, calling his name.

When he comes to, he’s on an operating table. His body is throbbing with hurt, aching all over. He blinks once or twice before his eyes become accustomed to the light again, and then he attempts turning his head.

It’s a mistake.

Water,” he croaks. A straw magically appears against his lips, and he accepts the water gratefully, drinks until it doesn’t feel like his throat is the Sahara anymore.

“Master Bruce,” he hears Alfred say, even if he cannot really see him. There’s a vague shape that looks like Alfred on his right, but he wouldn’t bet his fortune on it or anything. “Welcome back.” He probably intended for it to be sassy, but all Bruce hears is pure utter relief. He’s glad he isn’t dead. It would kill Alfred, probably, and Bruce refuses to be the literal death of him.

“Bruce,” another voice says, and oh, Kal really is here. “Bruce, how do you feel?”

“Like I got shot through the spleen,” Bruce manages to pronounce.

“You did,” Alfred confirms. He sounds entirely too judging. “Armor-piercing bullet. It’s a miracle you’re still alive, with all the blood you lost.”

“Thank God for Air Superman,” Bruce mutters. On his right, Kal coughs faintly.

“You’re welcome,” he says, and then the asshole takes Bruce’s hand in his.

“I thought I was past the dying part. Why are you holding my hand?”

“Shut up. I saved your life, I get to hold your hand. I don’t have to justify myself.”

Bruce’s vision is still fuzzy, but he can see better now. Kal is as beautiful as he remembers, even blurry as he is right now. His hair is shorter than when he was staying with Bruce, but still not as short as Superman’s. He hasn’t slicked it back either, letting it curl lazily along his nape. Bruce wants to touch it, thread his fingers through it. “Am I on pain meds?” he asks.

Alfred just glares at him.

He drifts back to sleep quickly after that, or maybe it is unconsciousness. When he wakes up a second time, he feels significantly less like death warmed over. Kal’s fingers are still linked with his, but at some point the younger man fell asleep, his head resting next to Bruce’s arm. He looks incredibly peaceful, like a painting. Bruce tugs at his hand, nudges him awake.

“Hey,” Kal murmurs, “How are you feeling?”

“Better,” Bruce replies truthfully, voice equally low. He doesn’t know why they’re whispering. “What time is it?”

“Err,” Kal looks around for a watch, ends up untangling his hand from Bruce’s to pick up a cellphone from the table behind them, “Three forty-five in the afternoon. You were out for about a day and a half. Alfred called some doctor lady when I brought you in, I think her name was—”

“Lee,” Bruce completes gratefully. “How did you know I was hit?”

Kal is silent for a long while before he answers, “Your heart stopped.”

“My heart—?”

“Not for long, just a few seconds. But enough that it was scary. Enough for me to have to check.”

“I see.”

“I’m sorry,” Kal says. “I know I should have—said something. I can’t exactly turn it off, it’s always at the back of my head. I thought you knew. I told you about Lois, I thought you understood—that it was like that for you, too.”

“How on earth was I supposed to extrapolate that you’re always listening to my heartbeat from you telling me about how you can locate your girlfriend by hers?”

Kal gapes at him like he’s wondering if maybe Bruce hit his head on the way down from that roof. “I track my mom’s, too. Just to make sure nothing’s happened to her. I didn’t use to, before, but after Luthor… I need to know the people I love are safe, otherwise I cannot do my job, and that’s the only way I know how.”

“You love me,” Bruce repeats dumbly.

“Well, yes,” Kal says, and now he sounds a little embarrassed. “Bruce, you’re my best friend.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever been anyone’s best friend before,” Bruce says quietly. He then proceeds to cough, which in turn awakens the jarring pain in his ribs, which transforms the cough into undignified wheezing. Kal is immediately on his feet, alert.

“Are you alright? Do I need to call Alfred?”

No,” Bruce hisses through clenched teeth, grabbing him by the arm. “No, I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine, you—”

“I’m fine. I’ve had worse.”

His chest feels like a battlefield, like a hundred horses just ran through it. He tightens his grip on Kal’s forearm, holds on to him through waves of hurt.

“Can I at least up your morphine?” Kal inquires anxiously. Bruce must look like hell.

“No,” he refuses. Morphine will put him to sleep, and who knows if Kal will still be there when he wakes up.

Kal huffs, exasperated. “I don’t have the patience for your usual martyrdom, B. Alfred said to press the button if you’re in pain.”

“You literally died for our sins,” Bruce slurs, “Look who’s talking about martyrs.”

Kal gives him a severe look and sits down again, puts his elbows on the mattress and his chin in his hands. “If you don’t shut up and go to sleep, I’m going tell you a story from my childhood, and I grew up in Kansas. It’s going to involve a lot of corn and white people being white people, so I suggest you take the easy way out.”

“I’ve never taken the easy way out,” Bruce protests, but he closes his eyes anyway and lets the numbness take him.

 

*

 

“I had to learn from Jason,” Dick yells at him, livid. “You almost died, and you didn’t think it would be a good idea to call me?”

“What do you mean you had to learn from Jason?” Bruce pushes himself up, but the lower part of his body decides this is a very bad idea and that he needs to be punished for it. He flops back down on the bed regretfully. “How does Jason know?”

“Jason shot the asshole who did this to you in the head, because Jason apparently knows what family means, even if he shows it in a really fucked-up way. Unlike someone here I will not name.”

“I didn’t want to worry you,” Bruce winces.

“Well congratulations, I am not only worried, I am also fucking furious.” He sits at the edge of the bed, looks at Bruce intently. “Are you okay?”

“I will be.” He doesn’t have time to explain himself further or apologize like he knows he should, because he hears the characteristic poof sound a speedster makes as he slows down, so he closes his eyes and waits for all the parts of his life to collide like a catastrophic car accident he can watch but not prevent.

“Alfred said you were going to need comfort food,” Barry says cheerfully, “So I brought you a poutine directly from Montreal.” He stops dead when he sees Dick, frowning in a way that could be deemed comical if Bruce wasn’t preparing himself for the longest hour of his life.

“Who are you,” Dick says, his tone too flat to be a question.

“Who are you,” Barry scowls.

“I asked you first.”

“I asked you second,” Barry leers. “I can do this all day.”

“Barry,” Bruce sighs, already feeling tired, “You have the patience of a toddler. You absolutely cannot do this all day.”

Dude,” Barry groans, “Not cool, you gave him my name!”

“That’s my son,” Bruce glares.

Barry gasps, “You have a son?”

Bruce,” Dick hisses, irritated. “Who is that guy?”

“Barry Allen, nice to meet you,” Barry extends his hand. Dick shakes it automatically, looking a bit stricken. “People call me the Flash, I guess. Bruce,” he says, depositing a yellow box from which a very alluring smell is escaping on the nightstand, “Your poutine is getting cold.”

“Thank you,” Bruce says. “I’m going to need a fork.”

“If that’s still of any interest to anyone in this room,” Dick says, “My name is Dick Grayson, and I still have no flipping idea what exactly is going on.”

“There’s a plastic fork in the box,” Barry tells Bruce. “You’re going to have to make do like us plebes, I’m not running downstairs after doing the round-trip to and from Canada in one day.”

“I’ll get you a fork,” Kal says, popping his head into the room and then disappearing again. Bruce didn’t even know he was in the house.

Dick’s eyes are so wide it’s kind of ridiculous. “Was that Superman?”

“He’s a friend,” Bruce nods.

Dick just stares at him. “I leave one year.”

Kal enters the room again, and he brought not only an actual fork, but also a tray with an empty bowl and an embroidered napkin and a glass of water. Bruce could kiss him. “I don’t know you,” he tells Dick as he empties the plastic container into the bowl. He passes the tray to Bruce and then turns to Dick again, smiles. “Hi, I’m Clark.”

“You’re… not dead,” Dick says, dumbfounded.

Kal’s smile doesn’t falter. “I get that a lot.”

“Sorry, crap,” Dick catches himself. “I’m Dick. I mean Richard. I mean Nightwing. Oh my God, I’m so sorry. It’s just such an honor to meet you.”

“This is embarrassing,” Barry remarks in the background. “I’m going to check if Alfred needs help with anything.”

“It’s very nice to meet you,” Kal chuckles. “Your father talks about you all the time.”

“He does?”

“I don’t,” Bruce mumbles grimly.

“You’re the first Robin, aren’t you?” he inquires. Dick shoots a sideway glance to Bruce and nods when Bruce shows no sign of unease. “Then yes, he does.”

“Bruce,” Dick says very slowly, “Did you show my baby pictures to Superman?”

“You don’t have baby pictures,” Bruce mutters, “I took you in when you were eight.”

“I have Robin pictures,” Dick whimpers, horrified.

Bruce eats a fry dripping with gravy innocently. “There might have been some I promised to destroy but kept for prosperity,” he smirks.

Kal takes pity on Dick and pats him on the shoulder reassuringly. “There was one story about a giant plastic dinosaur, but I am fairly certain that’s the extent of the humiliating childhood memories I was made privy to.”

Dick doesn’t look relieved at all. “I should have burned the damn thing when I had the chance,” he laments.

He leaves an hour later, after making Bruce promise him that he’ll get update on his health. Bruce wants to say something once it’s just him and Kal in the room, something light like I knew you’d get along or So, did I raise my boy right?

Instead he bites the inside of his mouth and says, “You’re going by Clark now, huh?”

“Yeah,” Clark replies, looking at his shoes. “I’m back living with my mom, and that’s the name she gave me, you know?”

“Does this mean you’re feeling like you again?”

“No,” Clark says. “But I’m getting closer.”

 

*

 

Diana sits at his bedside and muses, “I keep forgetting how breakable you are.”

“Humans?” Bruce asks.

“No,” she smiles sadly, kindness in the curl of her mouth. “You.”

 

*

 

He gets better. The wound closes, heals, becomes a scar. He puts on his suit, laces up his boots, and jumps into the night again like nothing happened. A thug sends him flying into a wall and his body screams; he lands wrongly on his side and his bones feel like dust the next morning when he wakes up.

Suit up, rinse and repeat.

This is what we do.

 

*

 

There are easy nights, calm nights. There are days where the world is restful. On these rare occasions, Batman waits by the gargoyles on the cathedral once his patrol is over, and as the sun comes up, a figure in blue appears in the horizon.

Clark tells him about Martha, about the farm, about how everyone in Smallville knows but no one says anything. He tells Bruce about Lois, how she slapped him when he finally showed himself, unveiled, unguarded. How she cried into his chest, clasping him tight, keeping him close, closer. How she still wears his ring on a chain around her neck. How she kissed his cheek and took his face between her hands, touched their foreheads together and whispered “In another life”. How he loves her more than the sun loves the earth but doesn’t know how to touch her anymore, how he is both grateful and devastated. He tells Bruce about the kids he saves, the ones who call him Mister Superman, the ones who call him Jesus, the ones who do not call, just cry. He tells Bruce about the deep exhaustion in his bones, how his skeleton feels like a temple, how people want to pray inside his body but sometimes all he wants is just to sleep, alone. Away.

How he flies to the stratosphere when the voices in his head start clashing with each other, how one day he cut a cloud in two and made rain fall, how even up in the stars if he concentrates he can still hear Bruce breathe, steady as the wind.

Bruce watches him and wonders, Lord, Lord, is it sinning to want him to love only me? Lord, is it sinning to want Your son to touch me?

 

*

 

When a man surrounded by a green halo of light shows up in Gotham one day, Bruce’s first thought is For fuck’s sake, this one wasn’t in Luthor’s files.

“This city is mine,” he growls when the stranger starts waving around some sort of green astral projection that can actually punch holes through buildings. “Take your glow stick and go.”

“Uhm, actually,” the guy smirks, “I’m Green Lantern? So this entire space sector is my turf. Sorry.” Bruce ignores him and shoots a line, balances himself onto a rooftop. The asshole levitates to join him. “Have you seen a giant flying monster?” he has the audacity to ask.

“I’ve seen you,” Bruce mutters. “Does that count?”

Green Lantern gives him a dry look. “Ha, ha. Very funny. Listen, Bats, I know you’re supposedly kind of a big deal around here, but I don’t have time for your little alpha-male trip. I’m looking for a creature, most likely alien. Word is you’re not a big fan, so why don’t you let me do my job?”

“You’d be surprised,” Bruce says wryly. He literally doesn’t have time to say anything else, because apparently Green Lantern wasn’t lying, and there actually is a giant flying monster in Gotham, and it is currently charging right at them. “Duck,” Bruce yells, but Lantern doesn’t duck, he just extends his arm and constructs a neon green cube around the both of them for the thing to bounce on, leaving them both unscathed. The same thing can’t be said for the building the creature lands on. Concrete cracks under its weight, projectiles flying everywhere. “Get us to the port!” he shouts to Green Lantern. “Quickly, we need to get it away from civilians!” The cube immediately takes flight, but the monster jumps and lands on top of it, shaking it considerably. On Bruce’s right, Green Lantern’s shoulders tense visibly as he tries to focus on his construct while the world around them quivers like it’s the end of days.

Master Bruce,” Alfred says in his ear, “I lost visual.”

“Hold that thought,” Bruce answers through clenched teeth. “Lantern.”

“I’m trying.”

“Try harder,” Bruce orders icily. “We need to get it away from the city.”

The cube holds until they crash onto the docks, but only barely. Bruce rolls away just fast enough not to become bat-puree as the monster tumbles down with them when the construct disintegrates.

It is not a fair fight. Green Lantern keeps fabricating bright green object to smash the creature with, and Bruce throws gadget after gadget, but it doesn’t budge. If anything, it seems to be getting angrier. At least it is showing exactly zero interest in wanting to return back to where it could hurt more people, seemingly satisfied with throwing Bruce into brick walls.

Master Bruce,” Alfred hisses through the comm link after Bruce lands on his face for the third time in two minutes, “I am calling in reinforcements.

Bruce shuts his eyelids for one microsecond, but it’s enough for the image of Doomsday’s claw piercing through Clark’s chest to flash before his eyes. “No,” he grunts. “We have this under control.”

You don’t,” Alfred says coolly, and then he shuts Bruce out.

 

*

 

The sky opens and Diana descends, like an apparition, like an angel. She is wearing full armor, magnificent and golden, and she roars as she raises her sword. The creature’s head fall at Bruce’s feet and there is fire in Diana’s gaze and a splatter of blood on her face.

“That was easy,” she grins.

That’s when the portal opens.

 

*

 

There are monsters everywhere. Flying, screeching, clawing at them like vultures, like bats. Suddenly Bruce knows where the strange sense of familiarity he’s been feeling all along came from—these are the winged creatures from his nightmare, the one he had right before he saw Barry. There is no time to analyze what it means, not even for a mind as fast as Bruce’s, because there is a hole in the fabric of the world and these things keep storming out of it.

“Alfred!” Bruce yells as he kicks a monster in the sternum, sending it tumbling into Diana who slices it in two with her blade. “Alfred, where is the Flash?”

Mr. Allen is facing his own fair share of creatures in Central City, Sir.

“Superman?”

Metropolis is also under attack.”

The channel sizzles and eats the end of Alfred’s sentences, and suddenly there is another voice, younger and slightly panicked. “Batman? Batman, come in. B, please respond.

He bows to avoid getting knocked out by a leg, shoots a cable and pulls himself up on a zinc-plated gable above a warehouse. “Nightwing, this is Batman. Status report.”

B, thank God. There are flying lizards all over the place and people are saying you’re dead.”

“I’m not dead,” Bruce grits. “Can you hold your own where you are?”

Yeah,” Dick says. Bruce can hear his hesitation, even if it only lasts a few seconds. “I’m not alone,” continues, “Babs is watching over me.

Five stories down, Green Lantern is yelling. “Bats, a hand?”

“Be careful,” Bruce tells Dick, preparing himself to jump into battle again.

You too,” Dick says, but Bruce doesn’t hear him, already making his way through corpses and scales.

 

*

 

There is a man, his body half-machine. He says he can close the portal. He says there is worse to come.

Bruce doesn’t trust him, but Barry does, Barry says he’s been fighting by the Flash’s side since the first beast flew through the air.

His name is Victor Stone, and he is the boy from the third file in Luthor’s meta-human database, the one Bruce couldn’t find anywhere. His mind runs on quantum mechanics and half his face is swallowed by white metal. He can shoot laser beams out of his steel-covered hands and there is a rocket encased in his back, but in the middle of this chaos, covered in gore, he kneels in front of a lost little kid and shields him long enough to explain what is happening before flying him to safety.

There is still good to be found in this world, Bruce had said to Diana as they were burying Clark.

It is a battle for gods, for giants. Bruce is surrounded by beings larger-than-life, people that could set the world on fire in one move, people he calls his friends. One monster gets him in the arm, just a small gash but enough to slow him down for a minute, clutching at his bloodied suit, and Diana snarls and throws herself at the creature, strangles it with her lasso.

“I can take care of myself,” Bruce mumbles when she lands on her knees next to him, the carcass of her kill crumbling to pieces. He means thank you.

“You’re welcome,” she laughs, as beautiful as thunder. In another life, it would have been her, he knows. He would have laid the world at her feet for just one of her smiles.

But this is this life, this is this universe.

In this universe, Superman falls from the sky like a drone, and Bruce’s heart flutters with the illusion of safety. Even as he walks among the remains of extra-dimensional invaders, even as more and more of them keep pouring out of a portal they are still struggling to close; Superman appears and Bruce’s heartbeat races for a millisecond before it settles down, beating to the rhythm of certainty, of sureness, of faith.

 

*

 

They fight back to back, like a well-oiled machine. Their bodies work in tandem, and it’s all muscle memory. Bruce whispers and Clark hits. Bruce sprays gas and Clark slices through the hazy cloud like a razor, monsters dropping wherever he appears. Bruce jumps and Clark catches him, always. It’s an easy choreography, repeated to perfection, like all their shared nights on patrol were always meant to lead to this, like this is the zenith of their collaboration. Red oozing from his eyes, Clark is Ares, Clark is war personified. Bruce is his shadow, Bruce is his cape, Bruce is the deity of death that always follows War.

 

*

 

One of the monsters buries its talon in Clark’s shoulder and Clark cries out in pain as his assailant flaps his wings and takes off with his prize. Diana throws her lasso and catches them both, drags them back on the ground. They crash and roll, Clark kicking the monster with all his might, the claw still deep in his flesh, gripping him.

Kal,” Bruce exhales, very softly, so softly only someone with super-hearing would perceive it, someone already tuned to his frequency.

Clark freezes, looks at him. It’s all Bruce needs, that one flicker in time, that second of stillness. He takes aim and shoots, and the creature’s head explodes in a very satisfying geyser of blood.

There is a hole in Clark’s shoulder, but Bruce has seen him die. Compartmentalizing is easy. Fight first, worry later.

“I’m fine, I just need some sun,” Clark says when he catches Bruce staring.

“If we survive this,” Bruce shouts as Clark takes flight again, sprinting to collide with one particularly big creature, “I’ll take you to the Bahamas.”

On Bruce’s right, Green Lantern snorts. “Jesus, get a room.”

Bruce thinks he could get used to this. Minus the evil flying insectoids, evidently. Having a team.

You’ve always had a team, a small voice at the back of his head says. It sounds suspiciously like Alfred. No, he wants to reply, what I had was family.

 

*

 

When the portal closes, Clark falls to his knees. It’s like all his strength has left him all at once, leaving his body like a disarticulated marionette. His left shoulder is still a bloody mangled mess, and his chest is heaving. Bruce has never seen him try and catch his breath before. Not since—not since that night.

(He remembers. He remembers that Clark’s skin had bruised, that his hands had shook. He remembers how Clark had dragged his beaten body on the floor, trying to get away from him. He remembers Clark’s fingers digging into his forearm, how he had thought he would feel alive again if he could just prove the alien was neither a god nor a man, how he had failed on both fronts.)

“I’m fine,” Clark says again when Diana squats next to him, her hand on his face. He leans into the touch, rests his cheek on her palm.

The sky is pitch black, has been for a while. What Clark needs is sunlight.

“Lantern,” Bruce asks, “Can you fly him up? He needs solar energy to regenerate.”

Green Lantern nods wordlessly and walks to Clark, but Clark shakes his head, still in Diana’s embrace. “No,” he winces. “Civilians first. I’m not in danger.” He opens his eyes, searches for Bruce’s gaze. “Bruce,” he just says.

Bruce kneels by his side, one foot on the ground. He takes off one gauntlet, carefully raises his hand to brush Clark’s hair back from his forehead. There’s dirt and blood on his face, and Bruce doesn’t know how much of it is his. He wants to kiss him. He wants to lick him clean.

He doesn’t do either of these things. Instead, he murmurs, “You need to rest.”

“Help the others,” Clark says. “Then come back and take me home.”

 

*

 

When they step into the cave, Diana takes off her armor in front of them, plate after plate. Clark is only half-conscious, his face pressed against Bruce’s shoulder, and Bruce is too exhausted to care that she’s naked and covered in grit in the middle of his basement, nor that she apparently decided to skip the showers and make a beeline for her room still looking like a Viking headed for Valhalla.

“Come on,” he whispers into Clark’s hair, “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

Under the hot spray, washing away the red, Clark looks human again, soft and innocent. Bruce soaps himself quickly and efficiently, shoots him glances from time to time to make sure he hasn’t slipped and brained himself on the tiled floor. When they step out to dry themselves, Clark’s muscles are glistening under the artificial light, droplets running down his torso.

“Stop,” he says when he catches Bruce staring again, and Bruce’s stomach twists with unease. He opens his mouth to apologize, but Clark keeps going. “I’m not going to die again.”

“I didn’t—”

“You haven’t stopped looking at me since I got hit. I’m fine.” He puts on the pair of clean boxers Alfred left out for him, throws his towel in the laundry basket. “Even if I did die, it wouldn’t be your fault. Just like it wasn’t the first time.”

“That’s a lie,” Bruce grits, jaw clenched, “And we both know it.”

Clark watches him without a word for a while and then he turns his face, defeated. “Not tonight. Please? I can’t do it tonight.”

“Not tonight,” Bruce agrees. Tonight is a figure of speech anyway. The clock on the wall indicates five thirty-nine, which means there will be sunrays filtering in through the curtains when he gets Clark to the guest room he used to sleep in when he was still living at the house. He wonders if he can convince him to sleep on the veranda. Probably not. He’ll want the comfort of a mattress. “Come on,” he pushes, hoping his tone comes out gentle, teasing. “I’m an old man, I can’t stay awake this long.”

“Bruce,” Clark says when they reach his door, his fingers curling around Bruce’s wrist. “I asked you to take me home.”

I did, Bruce’s first reflex is to protest, I did. For a fraction of a second, he thinks he fucked up, miscalculated; that Clark wanted to be brought back at the farm. But Clark’s blue eyes are searing on his skin, intense like a flame. His index is pressing against Bruce’s pulse point. His body is arched like a question mark, like a parenthesis, his back against the door.

“Yes,” Bruce says, “You did.”

He lets Clark keep his hand around his wrist, and keeps advancing down the corridor. Clark doesn’t let go of him when Bruce pushes his own door open, doesn’t let go of him when Bruce sits down on his bed.

“I’m not good company,” Bruce says, looking away, to the window through which the clouds are pink and orange.

“I know about the nightmares,” Clark shrugs. “And you can kick me in your sleep if you want, I don’t bruise,” he grins, wolfish.

“There are better men to love,” Bruce says, and how did the words slip away so easily? How did they fall from his lips like water, when all this time they’ve felt like fire in his veins, like poison, like damnation?

“I don’t want better,” Clark says. “You told me one day Superman exists for men like you.”

His hand is still linked to Bruce’s, his thumb now tracing fiery patterns on Bruce’s palm.

“Let me sleep next to you,” he whispers. His voice breaks a little, just like that time he told Bruce about the coldness in his bones. “I’m tired, Bruce. I just want to feel safe.”

When he molds his body to Bruce’s, when his breath hits the nape of Bruce’s neck, the dull ache in Bruce’s sternum lifts away, like a dying black hole. The room is bathed in sunlight, purple slowly turning to yellow. Outside, Bruce knows, the city is waking up, already thinking about rebuilding. Outside, Bruce knows, the world believes in the god sleeping in Bruce’s bed.

 

*

 

Bruce tried to kiss Diana, once, on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. Some divine figures are out of humanity’s reach, he told himself that night. Some idols you can make sacrifices to, but you cannot love.

Kal-El of Krypton kisses him on a sunny Thursday evening. There is a fresh scar on his left shoulder, and Bruce did not put it there. His hands are scorching on Bruce’s back, like being enveloped by Helios himself. Bruce calls him by both his names and kisses his throat, kisses his spine, kisses the inside of his thighs.

Kal-El’s eyes are the color of the Indian Ocean, lagoon-blue, and he whispers an inch away from Bruce’s lips, “Yes.”