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Chapter One: Hindsight’s a Wonderful Thing

 

~“Where's a good place to begin;

Let's start with the truth cause it gets you in the end.”~ -Bastille

 

The funeral is a quiet affair, the dry scent of flowers and corn husks overwhelming. The plain pine casket is an insult to Clark Kent, Bruce thinks, but then again, so is the gleaming black and silver coffin that the U.S. government provided for Superman. His hands itch with the need to do, the pall overhead is palpable but he holds himself stiff and still. He watches Martha Kent’s stolid strength, Lois Lane’s sorrowful vigil. His eyes are dry, and the taste of failure is heavy in the back of his throat.          

He deserves to feel this, it’s what he’s due for his part in all this. He should have known better. He should have done better, been better. He’s here to pay his respects, to offer what assistance he can, and his comfort is irrelevant. He tells Diana Prince that men are still good, and realizes as he says it that for the first time in years he actually believes it. He has no right to be here, at the service of a man whom he’s tried multiple times to kill, whom he has killed through his actions, but he does have an obligation, and so he touches a hand to the soil when they’ve all gone. It’s warmer than the surrounding ground, most likely due to the friction of movement. He doesn’t permit himself the luxury of imagination.

He heads back towards the small local airport, then at the crossroad he turns right instead of left. It isn’t a whim or a hunch; Martha Kent had been dry-eyed and upright as well, surrounded by loved ones and completely alone. Bruce has been there—he knows. He knows this isn’t his right, either; perhaps she’ll run him out or strike him, but he deserves that too. This is the price for his loss of control. He deserves every ounce of pain that is to come, so that it keeps him from ever making such a feckless, unwise choice again. He looks up at the light shining from the windows of the lower level of the Kent family farm, then leaves the car without allowing himself another moment of procrastination. It’s time to do what’s right. He looks for a doorbell, then in a moment of self-reproach, steps back from the door.

He shouldn’t be here.

When he’s halfway down the porch steps, the door opens. “I know you’re out there, so whatever it is you want, it had better be good.” She doesn’t sound afraid or timid, all alone out here in a quiet field at night, but then she wouldn’t. Not a woman who could raise the man that Bruce met, the man who he had the honor of watching give a sacrifice he hadn’t expected. A man he’d lowered down in his arms, who hadn’t flinched once from doing what was needed. Bruce moves obliquely, hands clasped, makes himself less of a target, and sees the shotgun in her hands before he sees her resigned expression. His world narrows to the yawning dark eye of the bore aimed at him. He watches her eyes instead.

Twelve-gauge, his mind whispers, double-barreled. Break-away, side-by-side configuration. Rifled for increased bullet stability and accuracy. If she fires, he’ll be able to avoid most of the first blast (possibly), but he’s not sanguine about his chances without armor.

“Well, go on,” she says. “Who are you and what do you want?”

“Mrs. Kent,” Bruce is careful not to move. “I’m.” He breathes out through his nose, silently. Repeats the words. “A friend of your son’s.”

To her credit, Martha Kent doesn’t startle. Instead she calmly engages the safety on the shotgun and sets it out of sight beside the door, then opens it wider. “I’d wondered if you’d come. You’re Bruce Wayne, aren’t you?” She looks expectant, but not overly impressed with him, and Bruce really can’t blame her.

“Yes ma’am, I suppose I am.” He still doesn’t move, lets her look her fill of him and make her judgments, from his perfectly styled Uptown haircut to the points of his gleaming understated Testoni Oxfords.

“Oh,” she continues after a moment of intense staring. “I suppose you’d best come in then, young man. It’s not cape weather.” With that, she leaves the door open and drifts further into the house. Bruce takes a careful glance around the perimeter, presses a quick sequence of buttons on his watch to alert the pilot that this is a planned-for layover, then steps into the smell of baking and sorrow.

He lingers by the closed door, unwilling to intrude further. The smell reminds him of lazy holiday mornings as a child, sitting propped on a stool in the kitchen; in Alfred’s space, as food miraculously emerged from his hands and the oven. The space around Bruce is like few he’s known, neither lavish nor strictly utilitarian. The small rifle rack in the corner by the door has, of all things, flying geese engraved into it. Bright, soft fabrics and cleanly hewn light wood-grain on every surface. Rustic and intimate. It isn’t quaint; the handmade quilt on the back of the sofa has obviously been lovingly repaired many times.

The large rectangular block coffee table in the… is it a front room?  A living room?

The large rectangular block coffee table in the first room is aged but visibly durable and will likely last for decades longer. The fruit in the wooden bowl on the table is real, the notches in the wood wall where someone has measured a child’s incredible growth are real. Everything has an aura of use and potential about it, nothing looks staged or counterfeit. Bruce shifts, light on the balls of his feet, then stills again. His eyes are caught by a framed photograph on the mantel, where a grinning man and woman dressed in denim and plaid stand, windblown, with a familiar dark-haired young man. Clark’s hair is longer in the frame, curled at ends; he’s dressed like something out of Country Living magazine and the smile on his face is radiant. Bruce imprints it into his memory.

She calls out from deeper in the house and Bruce cautiously follows the sound of her voice. “I hope you like lemon chess and custard pie, Mr. Wayne - they’re Clark’s favorites.” She stops for a moment, puts the back of a flour-covered hand to her forehead, bent over. Bruce steps carefully into the airy kitchen, averts his eyes from the woman curled into the shape of pain. He’d promised to look out for Clark Kent’s mother. Pies cover the surface of the wide wooden slab table in the center of the room. “They were his favorites,” Mrs. Kent says firmly, closing her oven. Bruce eyes the pastries and lowers his eyes to the floor. He’s a terrible person.

“Mrs. Kent. Bruce, please,” he murmurs, because the idea that she would give him any sort of title under her roof is just plain wrong on so many levels that it hurts. She owes him nothing, and he can’t take any more from her. He’s here to give help. She shoots him a short probing look and shakes her head, straightening at his voice. She jerks a chin in an unmistakable gesture to the seat opposite her preparations while she washes her hands. Bruce slides onto it, hunched in his heavy winter coat, fully aware of how ridiculous he looks.

“Used to getting your way, aren’t you? No, no—you don’t need to answer that. Mr. Wayne, you may be a friend of Clark’s, but I don’t call strangers by name.” Bruce is silent, unsure of how to reply. She sighs again, a weary wisp of a breath, wipes her palms roughly on the apron across her lap. “The church will be more than happy to take these off of my hands come Sunday, I think. Somebody ought to enjoy them. Alright, Mr. Wayne - I suppose we’ll have to get acquainted, then.”

“Have you known Clark long?” is how she begins.

“Not long,” he says, “-but I know he was a good man.”

“He was,” she agrees. “With everything you get up to in Gotham, are you?” Bruce freezes. “A good man,” she clarifies.

He steels himself and meets her eyes. “No,” he replies truthfully. “But I’m trying to be better.” Martha Kent (née Clark, his mind whispers) takes this in for a moment, then her expression changes and Bruce is at a loss. He knows that emotion, though it’s rarely aimed at him: sympathy.

“Well,” she hums, blowing her hair out of her eyes as she pats his arm companionably. “Nobody’s perfect.”

Bruce stares at her hand on his arm, feeling a curious numbness. “I’m sorry,” he blurts as evenly as he can. “That I didn’t bring your boy home.”

“Oh, Bruce,” she sighs sadly, and slides a pie in front of him. “Have some pie and tell me about Gotham.” He knows he shouldn’t. He does it anyway. He leaves with four pies riding in the passenger seat, and can’t bring himself to give them away.

Kansas is a wide and kind heart, real forgiveness. Pragmatic solutions and pure intentions.

He returns to Kansas often, when the weight of the city and his own demons drag him down. Mrs. Kent is an admirable woman. She shares first, stories he shouldn’t hear, then pictures he should never have seen. Bruce should politely decline; he doesn’t. Bruce is a terrible person, because instead of doing the correct thing, instead of leaving a childless widow to her grief and some possible closure, he becomes friends with her.    

Slices of hours he scavenges from his duties in order to make it on time (because Martha Kent should never wait for Bruce again) to breakfasts where Bruce does his best to be well-mannered and still stick to his diet. Solid rancher dinners followed by family movies that Bruce should never have watched. Richly decadent desserts that he always has to work three times as hard to burn off, once he’s gone back to glass and gargoyles. He makes stilted-feeling jokes that he should not share; gains memories that he doesn’t deserve. He learns the impossible: that Superman was raised here, in the heartland; that his mother is a woman from the same social circles as Bruce’s mother; that she’s trustworthy.

He assures reasonable diligence on improvements to the farm’s infrastructure, that he signs off on without asking, so that he can accept her furious censure in silence until she sighs and lets him in the door. Eats pies that he can never tell Alfred that he’s eaten; that he can’t share are just as good as those made in his own kitchen, but in a completely different way. Repairs the combine and the snowplow for the truck and does what he thinks is minor maintenance before the frost comes in, only to be reprimanded for not asking permission again. Bruce is stubborn too, though—she can’t send back work that’s already been done, and when she sees that he’s biting his tongue, in the face of her tirade, she laughs at him, and suddenly the small yard and house don’t feel as if they’re pressing in on him anymore.

She hands him an itemized list of necessary repairs the very next week, smiles and pats his arm fondly as though she knows what a kindness she’s doing him. Doesn’t offend his abilities or his means by doing him the disservice of thanking him for doing what needs to be done. Segues into a rousing conversation about the rising instances of Meta-related incidents in major cities and how the current judicial precedents being set are overly punitive.

She’s a straight shooter—it’s been a long time since he’s spoken to anyone who didn’t already know him, who wasn’t afraid of him on some level. They discuss it over lunch, of course—she seems to think it’s a sin to have him here without setting a plate in front of him. Bruce finds that their core values aren’t as different as he’d surmised. Mrs. Kent is an exceptionally admirable woman.

Correction: she’s an admirable woman and an ethically complex one, as well. It’s fortifying; even though he doesn’t deserve her trust and the weight of it staggers him, he’s not discourteous enough to reject it. Bruce attends personally to the contractors with minimal interference.

He thinks about well-meaning neighbors who drop in without announcement, about potential enemies with the ability to strike now, while Clark is no longer able to protect his family, and government surveillance—Bruce has seen the DOD footage of Clark’s brief incarceration for the crime of being too powerful to be trustworthy. It’s not much of a leap to surmise who’s been harassing Martha Kent enough for her to open her door packing heat. It nags at him, a hook in his mind when he considers his own actions in that light.

He doesn’t hide what he’s doing to keep it from Mrs. Kent; he simply never mentions the bullet-proof barn and home doors, the biometrics on the storage units and handles of every door or the various detectors installed in the new fencing: the motion-sensors, the CO2 and water sensors in the sweetwater well, the networked cameras (both night-vision and infrared) all connected to Bruce’s personal surveillance interface.

After due consideration, he replaces her shotgun with a auto-locking shortgun taser of his own design; with detaching leads and at 50 million volts (and 4.7 milliamps), it should be enough to handle any unexpected visitors. He’s proud of his workmanship—it’s a model that requires her voice, distinctive finger, palm-print and hand geometry before the safety can be disengaged. With further consideration, he uses the voice sample from the recorder in his watch—from when he was the one at the end of her barrel—to be sure the gun won’t fire if there’s a hint that she is being forced to use it under duress.

The old Kent shotgun he unloads, hiding his distaste, and stores in the lock-box in the barn. He’s certain that Mrs. Kent is aware of these things, but she never says a word to Bruce regarding overstepping his bounds when it comes to security. He wonders if she’ll let him get away with installing bullet-proof glass in the kitchen windows; one can never be too safe, after all.

 

She invites him back when the repairs are done and gives him a glass of something refreshingly icy and disgustingly sweet. He forces himself to swallow the first mouthful and the taste lingers, cloying. It’s revolting.

“Interesting,” is what he settles on. Bruce uses a great deal of concentration to repress his shudder, keeps his expression clear and holds the rest in hand until Mrs. Kent gently takes it from him and replaces it with a mug of strong unsweetened black tea. He sips it with a speed that’s just the right side of decent while she pats his arm comfortingly.

“No sweet-tea, then?” He can hear the smile.

“No,” Bruce agrees, eyes on the repaired ceiling. The work is above par; he’ll make sure to employ the same company again in the future. Mrs. Kent is tolerant of most of his eccentricities; those that she isn’t tolerant of, she draws a hard line at and informs him exactly when he steps over. Satisfying, reliable. Bruce shouldn’t let his guard down; he does.

In time, it becomes a another of his rituals: fund modernism and compassionate assistance; keep WayneTech plugging ahead at the forefront of the possible; research the Others; fight and train and bleed for his city, then in the spaces when he feels insubstantial: visit Kansas.

Jonathan Kent, Bruce learns, was an uncomplicated man. Uncomplicated, but not a simple man. He’d enjoyed days in the field and pastures, harvest-time cider, his insular family, draft beer and NASCAR. He was a farmer’s son by birth, a farmer by trade, a homesteader by tradition and he’d married a city woman from the East Coast. Martha’s family had all but disowned her for marrying Jonathan Kent; they hadn’t understood what she’d seen in him. Bruce saw it; he understood: Jonathan Kent had been a good neighbor, a man of conviction, a stalwart protector and a loving husband. He’d also been an extremely pragmatic and calculating man; excellent at advanced maths and chemistry, which is where he’d met young Martha Kent (then Martha Clark), as she’d studied for her letters in Law. Jonathan hadn’t hidden his concerns about the intentions of the people who’d sent Clark to them; he hadn’t quibbled for a moment about whether government agency involvement was appropriate (hell no).

Once Jonathan had made the decision that Martha was right and Clark was theirs, their boy, he’d known how people would react to their son. He’d known what to do: lie, lie, lie some more, then lie with a smile.

Birth records were easy to acquire; babies were born in the dead of winter in Kansas every year with no doctors or L&D ward present. It would have been an easy sell: keep the baby at home and put a birth notice in the Smallville Ledger; file a request for a Delayed Certificate of Birth and pay off a notary for the signed records—with the Kent’s townie connections, facilely done. Keep the child home-schooled until he knew how to act normal enough. Done. Socialize him, but keep him away from other children’s cruelties as much as possible. Done (as much as possible). Make sure that Clark feared exposure more than he feared any authority figure, monster in the dark or scary movie. Obviously, done.

Over time, from the bits and pieces that Martha lets slip, Bruce concludes that Jonathan had never done any of it for the ease of life of his son or for their happiness—he’d always believed, she said, that there was more at stake, that Clark’s coming meant that the world was to be tested at some point soon. That Clark would be needed; that he would have to make a choice, and he could not be allowed to think only of himself or only of his family.

That, Bruce thinks sardonically, had worked out spectacularly well.

 

~

 

One is naturally tempted to say that if a pain is not being felt by its owner then it does not exist. 

Once, Bruce would have said the same.

 

~

 

It’s simpler than it should be, to slip into the Kryptonian ship in the aftermath of the disaster and acquire the main data core. The AI aboard doesn’t want to be erased any more than a human would have in its place. It shows Bruce how to disable the onboard flight systems and remove the data core with little loyalty to its former masters; Bruce files it away for careful consideration at a future time. There’s no time to manually sift through the massive library revealed, so he takes everything: every data crystal and memory cube he can find. He makes sure to copy and remove traces of all language and medical data as well, then grudgingly brings the AI’s storage with him, unsure what he’ll do with the gritty-feeling data stick but unwilling to leave it behind for less capable hands. He’ll have to figure out a way to contain it.

He returns to his city with no one the wiser.