And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue."
-"Little Gidding”, T. S. Eliot
"This is Batman, coming in for emergency landing. I repeat, emergency landing. Can I get a manual override of the airlock speed? Do you copy? Over."
"I repeat, this is Batman, coming in for an emergency landing, the Javelin-7 has been compromised. I need a manual override on the airlock door speed, over."
A spiderweb of crackling bullet-proof glass fills Batman's field of vision. The two outer layers have already shattered, dispersed into the vacuum of space.
A beeping alarm sounds in the whole of the cockpit. The airlock door ahead creeps open with the patience of machinery suspended from time, from gravity, from the atmosphere and urgency of earth.
"I need a override on the airlock door speed." He forces his voice to remain level.
The cracks in the glass grow in length and depth; they crawl like a virus across the surface.
"This is Batman. I have an emergency situation."
Voice still measured, urgent but not panicked. Panic isn't going to help anyone. Breathing exercises for high stress situations are helpful.
He casts a look toward the spacesuit, the helmet and oxygen tank he should have been wearing but rarely does. The trip has been made often enough that he has gotten comfortable. The tank is in one place, hooked to the wall with spares-- the suit and helmet unattached and across the ship. Too far. Not enough time.
The breaking of the glass becomes audible now, a frightening splintering sound that shouts above even the alarm. Too much force could undo it in a breath, not enough force and it will outrun him to his death.
Batman pushes on the controls, edging the Javelin-7 to move just a bit faster. It still seems glacially slow as the Watchtower approaches. He repeats his call over the radio, even now carefully avoiding the use of the word "help." If he is going to die, he is going to die stubborn and proud.
And then he’s there, at the edge of the hangar with the airlock doors not quite open and in less time than a lightning strike takes, he is aware of his phenomenal speed, the persistent slowness of the doors, and the thundering final crack of the splintering glass.
The Javelin-7 cockpit glass sucks inward like the skin of a balloon right before it inflates, then explodes outward into silence, just as the Javelin-7 itself scrapes the airlock doors and spins wildly.
At least there is a seatbelt.
The force rips his body against the restraint. It is freezing, empty, and unbearably strong. Even when he knows that going limp will prevent injury, going limp would also mean giving himself up to space without a fight.
No breath to take, no time to think, to fear, to hope. It is not at all like being underwater, with a sense that the surface is above you, near you-- that oxygen inhabits the liquid too, in some fashion.
Lungs compressing, head pounding, vaguely aware of the Javelin-7 still spinning languidly and furiously at the same time just inside the first airlock doors, he grips the pilot's chair as well as he can.
The restraints are giving. He can feel them shifting, failing on him under the strain.
No one answered the radio call. He is on his own. It is too late to call for help, now. He waited too long. His hands are already numb, but if by some sheer effort of will he could get to the oxygen tank, then maybe, just maybe...
A flash of memory fills his mind, of that Jack London story where the nameless lead can't even build a fire to save himself. Alfred making broad hints about analogous heroes.
He had blacked out for a second, he realizes, as another louder alarm sounds over the chaos. The airlock doors are sliding closed, still slow, scraping against the hull of the Javelin-7 and tilting it, setting it on another route of spinning.
This time it catches the ceiling and now he is in a trapped ping pong ball, the airlock closed enough to prevent the Javelin-7's escape but the atmosphere unbalanced. It ricochets off every surface it touches. Now the safety restraints are really giving up, and in his half-frozen, air-deprived state, real horror truly slams into his gut.
Too closed for the Javelin but not yet closed enough to prevent a body. A human body. Somehow almost making it to safety has exponentially increased the sense of terror.
Now, finally, in the face of his own impending death, Batman attempts to gasp, to suck in air that isn't there. The restraints let go and for a moment he is weightless. Then he is being dragged, away from the chair to the still closing airlock. And his cold hands will not grip and the chair is out of reach.
He is prepared. It took a second, but he is ready to drift out the airlock and never wake again. He had not, in his muddled state, accounted for the still moving Javelin, which now slams against his drifting body and into a wall. And now the airlock is closed.
The manual override for the interior airlock is eight feet below him. Emergency alarms still blare around him, and now he knows they are the Watchtower's own alarms, surely triggered by the Javelin's collision with the doors.
It is a matter of seconds before he blacks out again. The whole thing has taken place in the span of two minutes, maybe less, but even he has limits where oxygen is concerned.
The second airlock door slides open, pulling the Javelin on a diagonal down and in. This is faster than usual, much faster, with no proper time to pressurize the room.
Like the Javelin, he goes down and in, skidding across the floor as he takes in deep gulps of air. He is aware now of how cold he is, how much his lungs hurt, how his head aches.
It is against a far wall that his momentum is interrupted and he is unceremoniously on the floor, already conscious enough to regulate his gasping into even breathing. One sob, mainly to speed the delivery of oxygen into his system, is all that escapes and then he is motionless and breathing steadily.
After a moment, he lifts his head, aware that he is being watched. The entire JLA stands a mere two yards from him, faces stricken. If he had been unconscious, they would have rushed to help, to lift him, to administer aid.
But he is awake and they are not certain of the line between rendering assistance and trampling pride. He slowly climbs to his feet, making an effort not to stagger.
"We heard the alarm," Wonder Woman says quickly, "and overrode the interior airlock. What happened?"
"Space debris," he says, as if this is enough. He wants to demand to know who should have been in the control room. If anyone else's life had been at risk, he would have.
"Well, I'm glad you made it," Superman says with a warm grin. He clasps Batman's arm and the moment of worry that passes between them escapes the rest of them, held in Superman's eyes and deflected by Batman's stony stare.
"I'm fine," Batman says to no one in particular and everyone at once. "We have a crisis to deal with, don't we?"
Uncertain, but unwilling to protest, the rest of the team takes a step back and they leave the battered Javelin behind. More pressing concerns now fill their minds and they hurry, in continued silence, to the conference room. On the way there, Superman trails behind and notes that Batman's gloved hands are trembling, just slightly.
He says nothing.
Much like Batman, who sits mostly silent for the rest of the meeting about tackling an alien life form threatening to overrun the southern US coast and sprawl into Texas or Mexico depending on its whims. His few contributions are apt, intelligent and so nothing seems that much out of the ordinary aside from the broken Javelin that hangs on Superman's mind like a toothache.
They all staunchly avoid any mention of it throughout the meeting. No further apologies or acknowledgements are made. Superman senses, as the rest of them must, that this is Batman's preference, as if both his survival and their silence are brought about by a sheer act of his will. Maybe this, Superman muses, is Bruce's superpower.
A plan is made, roles assigned, as usual. Wonder Woman offers, in a moment that violates the unwritten agreement, to let Batman take J’onn’s place at the command center, to sit this one out.
Superman doesn't need super-vision to see the hurt in J’onn’s face or the anger simmering on Batman's. Wonder Woman realizes, backpedals, with practiced grace and diplomacy.
"No," Batman says, no elaboration, just as she says, "I thought perhaps J’onn was missing the action."
And it is over, declined, relief on J’onn’s face that Batman at least still trusts him, Wonder Woman gracious in her show of masked concern.
They disperse, details to be sorted out individually before a rendezvous. That is, they make a pretense of dispersing. Minutes later, Superman is standing outside a door in a hallway while the Flash and Wonder Woman quietly argue.
"Someone should check on him," she insists.
"He's gonna ice you or yell at you," Flash warns, reluctant but clearly concerned enough to be having the conversation.
"He's fine. I'll talk to him," Superman says, from behind them. They whirl, neither exactly startled but leaning in an attempt to ease him into their conspiratorial tones.
"Of course he's fine. He's only ever fine." Wonder Woman exhales noisily. "And if you go talk to him, you'll both come out and be like, 'I'm fine, he's fine. It's fine.'" Her voice dropped an octave and a half for the imitation and Superman chuckles.
"Is that what we sound like to you? I'll check on him. Later. Give him some space. If he needs help, he'll ask."
The Flash and Wonder Woman both snort at this, not unkindly, but neither directly challenge it.
"I think I should check on him," she repeats after a moment.
"He's gonna bite your head off," the Flash cautions, "or I'd go myself."
"Don't," Superman encourages firmly. "Give him space. Think about how you'd feel."
"It's not exactly the same," she replies, but she stops insisting. "But you're probably right. Let me know if you change your mind. In the meantime, I have some warriors to contact."
They stride away and Superman goes the opposite direction, toward Batman's living quarters. Immediately. Those trembling hands are still bothering him, as is the cold that radiated from Batman's arm even through the suit earlier. Regardless of what he said to Wonder Woman to delay her, he's not wasting time.
He rounds the hallway in view of the door just as it hisses closed. Batman must have made really slow time after out of everyone's eyeshot. This is additionally worrying.
Superman pauses for just a moment outside the door, knowing it is locked, not wanting to knock and be denied. After a second's thought, he shifts his demeanor, making a decision. He doesn't bother getting glasses, but he doesn't need a disguise, exactly. Just himself. He forces the door open and then quickly pulls it shut behind him.
The room is quiet, still, dim. He taps a command panel on the wall and raises the temperature about ten degrees. He steps further into the room. The bathroom door is ajar and through the narrow opening, he can see a dark form bent over and then he hears the sound of retching.
Clark is not an idiot. Kind, but not an idiot. He's not a concerned girlfriend or doting mother, come to hold hair back or offer water or a toothbrush, so he sits in a chair outside of the bathroom and he waits.
There are two possibilities here and they are that Bruce is aware he came in and is not protesting for whatever reason, or his capacity for attention is so damaged at this moment that he is not aware and definitely needs some kind of supervision, no pun intended.
There's a pause, then more retching noises. Clark shifts uncomfortably in his seat, feeling both necessary and useless. The table next to him is empty except for one thing-- a cape and cowl, looking a bit like they were thrown and not set down with care. He stands, shakes out the cape gently, finds a hook on the wall across the room.
The bathroom is quiet. Clark returns to his seat, opting for a spring-into-action hardback chair rather than the couch in the middle of the room. It looks comfortable but has an air of decoration, as if it was put there because the room needed one rather than because it would be used. In the bathroom, the faucet runs for a moment.
Clark is aware of the room getting hotter, though it doesn't bother him much. He pushes his hair back out of habit, a gesture that has seen more use in the Daily Planet bullpen than the Watchtower.
The bathroom door swings open and Bruce, in his suit still from his neck down, makes the briefest of eye contact conveying some mix of gratitude and permission, before half-walking, half-dragging himself to the couch and dropping his whole weight onto it without much grace.
"I was afraid you were Diana," he mutters a bit woodenly, as he stretches out on his back, one arm bent beneath his head. He lifts his head a bit, looks around, "Did you change the thermostat? Of course you did."
They are both silent for a moment, Clark sitting with his elbows on his knees, in a slouch that would be at home in Greenwich Village, and Bruce lying still, not moving.
"Diana was going to come,” Clark says. “I intervened.”
"Of course she was,” Bruce says. “Thank you.”
"But then again, maybe she'd be useful right now,” Clark says.
Bruce's entire body shudders, apparently involuntarily, and he claps a hand over his mouth. Clark tenses, ready to jump up, but then Bruce shivers once and drops his hand.
"Like, Diana would probably just get you a blanket without asking. She'd insist. Me, well. Do you need a blanket? You were like ice even through your gloves earlier."
"The suit has a heat shield," Bruce reminds him. "Gotham gets cold. Rooftop stakeouts get long. I turned it on right after."
Clark takes this as a refusal but doesn’t relax yet.
"But it was damaged and it's not working very well. A blanket is a good idea."
Clark notices that this has been carefully worded as an acknowledgement and not a request or a plea. He doesn't bother looking for spares, he just drags one off the bed in the corner of the room and throws it at Bruce.
With the practiced motion of someone used to moving capes around, Bruce snaps it open and then lets it fall over him. He drags a hand across his eyes and then tucks both hands under his armpits beneath the blanket.
"What else do you need?” Clark asks.
Bruce is tugging gloves off his hands, dropping them to the floor, and says, "There’s scotch in that cabinet.”
So it’s pretty bad. Clark stands and heads to the cabinet that is clearly a liquor cabinet, but only contains a small bottle of scotch mostly full and then mostly first aid supplies and packs of spearmint gum.
He pours a small scotch and carries it over to Bruce, gingerly as if it is a snake or a bomb. He doesn't know what he expected to happen, but the reality is anticlimactic. Bruce takes it without sitting up and throws the whole shot back in one go, and then makes a face that assures Clark he hasn't discovered a case of high-functioning alcoholism.
Because it would, actually, explain a lot.
They sit in silence a bit longer. Clark is just beginning to wonder if Bruce has fallen asleep when the other man stirs. He puts a hand over his eyes again and says so quietly Clark only hears because he's paying attention, and has better than average hearing,
"That was the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to me."
Clark is aware of the magnitude both of this admission and the scope of events that it claims to surpass.
"Then again, I think that after two or three things a year. It might take a while to top this one, though."
"Is that supposed to reassure me or you?" Clark asks.
"I'm not sure it's reassuring at all," Bruce answers.
"You know, I think the others would have felt better if you had yelled at them a bit. 'Eff you and the effing Watchtower and can't you do your effing jobs.'"
"Clark!" Bruce has raised his head for the first time since collapsing onto the couch. Clark grins at him. It has had the intended effect. Quickly, though, the grin fades.
"I'm so sorry, Bruce. I don't know what happened. We should have been paying more attention. Somebody should have noticed. Someone should have been manning the radio. You did attempt radio contact, didn't you?"
"Yes," Bruce says, wearily, dropping his head back. "I did. And I should be angry. But I'm not. I might be later."
"They all think you're furious. It's like waiting for a hurricane to hit."
"Let them think it," Bruce snaps, a bit bitterly.
Clark doesn't retract anything or try to soothe. His journalism skills sometimes pay off, in the mix of prodding and waiting he has learned.
"I'd rather them think I'm angry than start to consider that I might be a liability. The anger is a good distraction."
Clark wants to protest this, but he doesn't. He senses that they both recognize the truth of it and that right now, Bruce is not open to hearing about the things that outweigh that fact.
"Not that I'm trying to pawn you off, but do you think talking to Barry might help?"
Bruce begins shaking and Clark leaps to his feet, fearing an emergency-- a seizure or delayed shock. Then he realizes it is laughter. It is not loud and does not grow, but fades. Bruce exhales as if he'd just heard a good joke.
"No," he says, a mix of humor and regret in his tone. "No, Barry is so close to human that he doesn't realize how far away he is from it. You're a good friend, Clark. You're doing fine. Don't let anyone else know I told you."
"Is this what you're like after a single scotch?"
"This is what I'm like after almost dying. Ask Alfred."
"Sentimental and weepy after near death experiences. Never would have guessed."
Clark sits back down, feeling slightly at ease now. He thinks of his Ma, urging people to eat to make them feel comfortable, or welcome, and he's about to offer to make a sandwich or broth or something, when sudden movement makes him think Bruce is laughing again. He looks up just in time to see the other man stagger into the bathroom again and this time, slam the door.
There's a minute of retching that sounds more like dry heaving, that leaves Clark tapping his foot and shifting uncomfortably again. Then the bathroom faucet runs and shuts off.
The voice from the bathroom is the most hesitant Clark has ever in his life heard Bruce sound. He imagines Bruce literally physically dragging the words out of his own throat.
"I can't, uh." Clark is already at the door, tempted to use super vision but it seems a violation.
"I'm in shock and I can't move my legs." The tone is suddenly professional, almost as if it is a doctor speaking about a patient. "Mixed with the moderate hypothermia, which alone would be manageable, it's possible my heart might stop."
"What can I do?" Clark offers, hoping there is also a solution offered. Just guessing, he'd say the willingness to involve the rest of the JLA or medflight someone...from space...is a bit out of the question.
"There's a box of syringes in the cabinet labeled atropine."
Clark has the box and the bathroom door open before Bruce can blink. Bruce is sitting on the bathroom floor, leaning against the edge of a sink, which looks weirdly suburban and abnormal for a space station. Clark takes a syringe out of the box and is trying to decide what to do with it when Bruce pulls the top half of his suit over his head, tosses it in the corner, and takes the syringe. He pushes the needle into his own arm, depresses the plunger, and lets his head fall back and the needle clatter to the floor.
"Well, I've never felt more like an enabler than I do right this second," Clark says wryly, trying to hide his concern.
"I'm gonna take a shower," Bruce announces after few deep breaths. "It'll help the medicine work faster."
"Uh," now Clark is acutely aware of his own hesitance, "do you need help?"
Bruce drags himself to his feet, swaying slightly.
"Clark, thanks. Now get out."
The bathroom door closed behind him, Clark manages to find some broth and an electric kettle in a tiny kitchenette tucked into a corner. He ponders the power and vastness of space while warming the broth and feeling absolutely nothing like his Ma, despite trying to take cues from his memories of her care.
When the bathroom door opens a while later, Bruce emerges looking pale but steady, in lounge pants and a t-shirt he had somewhere. Clark wonders briefly if his own quarters are so carefully stocked.
He wordlessly accepts the offered broth and sits on the couch, drains the whole mug in thirty seconds.
"I'm fine," he says.
"You're not a liability," Clark replies. "You're just not invincible. And outer space is the least habitable place for you, but you make it here, every time, just like the rest of us."
“And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat,” Bruce replies, as if to himself, staring at the bottom of an empty mug.
"Call for me next time. I don't have to involve the others. And I'm sorry. It shouldn't have happened on home turf, so to speak."
"Let's go save the planet," Bruce says, standing. He sets the mug on the table. He stops there and turns to face him, and makes full eye contact, enough for Clark to know he's not brushing him off.
"I should have been wearing the helmet and tank. I should have yelled for you before the glass broke." Bruce says, in a voice Clark imagines Dick or Tim have probably heard more than anyone else, and even them only rarely. It is a kind of accepting responsibility that is not whining or seeking pity. "I'm a liability when I forget my limitations. It won't happen again."
"And don't forget you're allowed to need help," Clark replies levelly. He is not offended at the tone, but he is not Tim. He's a peer.
"I rarely get to forget." Bruce returns. "But thank you."
They stand regarding each other. Bruce is the first to move, to a closet he tugs open. Inside is another suit, complete with cape and cowl.
Reaching for the suit, his hand trembles just slightly and he pauses and clenches his fist. As he flexes his hand, steadying it and himself, accounting for his emotional state and the medicine speeding his heart, he feels a weight on his shoulder.
Clark says nothing more, but leaves his hand on Bruce's shoulder for a moment and then leaves the room, letting the door hiss shut behind him.
Twenty minutes later, the JLA has mostly reassembled in the hangar where the Javelin-7 is still tipped sideways and upside down, the glass over the cockpit gone and the restraint belts shredded. The Flash examines it and the deep scratches on the airlock door and whistles.
Superman picks the Javelin up and slides it out of the way, clearing access for some of the smaller spaceworthy craft that resides in the hangar bay.
Wonder Woman jokes about him denting the Invisible Jet and there is some scattered laughter.
Batman walks into the hangar and all the laughter cuts out, as if muted. He looks around, makes a brief point to glance at the Javelin-7, and then says to the unspoken question,
Wonder Woman raises an eyebrow, and Green Lantern and J’onn exchange some look Superman cannot decode. The Flash is sitting in the Javelin-7's pilot seat and then standing next to Batman, and there is a moment's hesitation, then he barrels in.
"But Bats, you coulda died. At least have the decency to act like you're rattled. Be a little human. Throw the rest of us a bone. A little sobbing, you know, for our sake. The rest of us don't handle pressure like you."
He's back on the Javelin now, out of reach in case his prodding turns things physical.
"Are you sure?" Wonder Woman asks, well-intentioned but full of concern. It's clear she didn't expect him to make a reappearance so soon, was probably counting on checking in on him later.
"He's fine," Superman repeats, from across the hangar.
The withering look she gives him is from Diana, not Wonder Woman, and though her two personas may intersect more clearly than any other dual identities on the team, he can still tell.
"Ugh, MEN." She exclaims, throwing her hands in the air. "Did I not say they would do this? I said they would do exactly this."
But he thinks she maybe seems relieved.
Batman crosses the hangar and climbs into one of the smaller craft, tugging on a helmet and oxygen tank. He doesn't hesitate or slow. And then Superman knows he is fine, he actually will be as fine as any of them ever are. For now.
"Flash, you coming?" The radio crackles through the room, through the headset inside the helmet.
Flash glances at the Javelin-7, surveys the mood in the room, and is already behind Batman with a helmet on.
"I can't wait until we get those teleporters fixed," he complains loudly, pointedly, through the headset. The cockpit closes with a hydraulic whine and the engines roar to life.
"He's fine," Superman repeats to Wonder Woman, as they step back to clear the airlock.
"I know. When is he not?" she answers, watching quietly as the door closes. She slaps Superman hard, harder than she needs to, across the chest. "Come on, we have some invaders to vanquish."