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The Birthday Blues

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Bruce

 

It’s hot outside.

The kind of heat that sits on your skin like a damp blanket you can’t take off. The humidity of recent rain lingers even as uncharacteristic sun beats down on Gotham, and the whole city becomes a makeshift sauna. People step out into the steamy streets for a moment, only to retreat into the air conditioning with sweat peppering their brows. Errands are cut short, long pants are forgone, and the whole of Gotham seems to be grumbling about the heatwave.

Although I’m not a particular fan of heat, it’s a nice change from the rain that Gotham usually wears. The sun has been shining all day in a particularly spotless sky, and seeing as how it’s Saturday, the whole family has enjoyed the opened windows and flipflops only attire.

However, it also happens to be my birthday. And try as I might to forget the event, year after year, Alfred proves infallibly loyal.

He and the boys planned a lazy, quiet day on my behalf. It had begun with the boys piling into my bed in varying states of awake, jabbing me with elbows and knees and smothering me with happy birthday wishes, before dragging me from the warmth of my comforter. We’d eaten breakfast together in the dining room, a rare treat, and spent the early morning packing lunch and gear.

Jason and Dick organized a small fishing trip, just for a few hours, to the lake a half hour outside of Gotham. It was an uneventful three hours, sitting with our legs dangling off a pier, lines straggling lazily in the current. But my father used to take me there as a boy, and there’s something special about visiting that place with my two eldest. We’d talked briefly about mundane things, the stuff of Saturday mornings, and then we’d packed up our things and headed home empty-handed.

I didn’t mind.

The late afternoon I spent with Damian and Tim, playing a very unfairly balanced game of basketball. They’d bested me three times and we’d come inside soaked through with sweat and laughing. It was a gift to see the two cooperating with one another, and I’d been more than happy to lose.

Clark and Diana came over for dinner shortly after, and we all grilled outside. I made the steaks, Alfred the corn on the cob, Dick the fruit salad. Clark brought banana muffins, Diana brought beer. The other three boys squabbled over croquet rackets and sodas. We’d eaten, drank, talked, and basked in the waning sun off the back patio. Everyone wore shorts and t-shirts, talked football and kids’ report cards, commented on the weather and longed for the beach.

It was domestic and normal, and best of all, everything I could have asked for. Just family and friends gathering on a quiet Saturday.

We’ve since retreated inside the house into the sitting room, and I watch the interactions around me with mirth as I sip on an iced tea. Clark is seated on the rug with Tim and Jason, all three engaged in a spirited match of Yahtzee. I’ve been banned from playing because I somehow “cheat”, but it’s still amusing to watch the three of them argue over how they should each use their rolls.

The dice bounce out of Clark’s hands with a clatter, and he leaps from his seat with a shout, “Yahtzee!”

The other two share a glower, and Jason throws down his scorecard with a huff, crossing his arms over his chest, “You cheated.”

Clark, looking genuinely offended, scoffs, “I did not!”

“Totally did. That’s the second one this round.”

“How can you even cheat at Yahtzee? It’s a game of chance.”

I chuckle, arching a brow, “Careful, Clark. Last time I said something like that, I got banned from playing.”

Clark splays his hands in a sign of innocence, and it’s Tim who is sighing and snatching the dice away this time. “Oh, come on Jason. Let’s be good sports.”

“He’s definitely cheating, Tim. No way his luck is that good.”

Tim raises a brow, “Maybe, maybe not. Let’s just play another round and see.” He turns to Clark, offering a smile, “But if you win again, you’re totally cheating.”

Clark starts to argue the statistics of dice rolling with Jason before they even begin the next round, and it’s a familiar scene. I can’t count how many times I’ve been booted out of a game for somehow cheating.

I shake my head with a smirk, turning my gaze to Diana and Damian who are seated on the loveseat they’ve dragged in front of the television, playing a racing game with remotes clicking steadily. Diana is struggling to hold onto eighth place, being unfamiliar with the controls, and to my immense pride, Damian has straggled to seventh place to show her the shortcuts on his own side of the screen. They bump shoulders as they slowly climb the ranks, sharing a few chuckles when Diana finally learns how to fire missiles at other opponents.

“Excellent! Take the next left and you can avoid the landmines.”

“Landmines?”

“Watch for the guy behind you. He’s holding a red shell.”

“What does that do?”

“You don’t want to find out.”

It does my heart good to see them getting along with each other so well, and I feel even more softened when they place together in the top five and they share a high five. Damian looks like he’s actually enjoying himself, and there’s a strange twisting in my chest when he looks back at me during the next round and nods with a little smirk. He’s always had a hard time trusting females after the impression Talia left, so to get at least this subtle stamp of approval from him is momentous. Diana will be pleased to know how much he likes her.

The last of my children is seated on the couch, laying with his head in my lap and his legs crossed at the knee. He’s reading a novel that’s frayed around the edges, and I recognize it as a loan from Jason’s library. I card a hand through Dick’s dark hair absently, warmed when his blue eyes jump from the book to me and he smiles.

He lowers the book slightly and quirks a brow, “Had a good day?”

I nod, “Yeah. It was good.”

Dick smiles, reaching up a hand to pat my shoulder, “Good.” His eyes drop back to his book and he resumes reading.

It’s a few minutes later, when I’ve finished my iced tea and Dick’s shifted to draping his legs over mine that I feel the need to get some air. I excuse myself quietly, and I’m pleased when no one asks me where I’m going or how long I’ll be. They let me slip away for a few minutes without explanation, and I inevitably find myself on the back veranda again.

The air has turned balmy now that the sun has set behind the bay, and I inhale a breath of the briny air as it blows off the waters. It smells like saltwater and sun, wet stone and mist. The scent grounds me like a tether to the paving stones beneath me, and I seat myself on the edge of the patio steps quietly.

I look up at the moon above me, just a sliver hidden partially by trees, but it’s rare to see the moon so clearly in Gotham. Her skies are usually cloudy with smog and rain, so I take my time in studying the shape. I trace the constellations with my tired eyes, and I listen to the sound of breeze off the bay whispering through the gardens. I can still hear the faint sound of laughing from the manor behind me, the warm tones of conversation like a pleasant murmuring at my back.

It’s been a perfect day. But I still feel the tug of pain in my middle as acutely as I did this morning, and to some extent, it’s made it hard to enjoy the festivities. Hard to connect and embrace the moment when you’re thinking about the past.

 

Clark

 

I find him outside, sitting on the steps of the veranda with hands braced behind him. He’s tilted his head back to the stars, watching the heavens with pale grey eyes, and I know immediately that he’s thinking about his parents. Their memory, when he visits it, tends to cling to him like a second skin, pulling his shoulders in a little tighter, pressing the wrinkle between his brows a little deeper. His demeanor becomes softer all at once, more befitting of loss than gain, and it’s always hard for me to know what to do.

Usually, I just offer my company, and this time is no different.

I seat myself next to Bruce quietly, mimicking his posture of star-gazing. We sit this way for several minutes silently, content to study the cosmos without the pressure of conversation. Eventually though, Bruce’s eyes dip to me and his mouth presses into a small frown.

“It was a good day.”

“Yeah? Alfred told me you went fishing.”

Bruce nods lightly, “The eldest boys took me.”

“Did you catch anything?”

He smiles distantly but it doesn’t reach his eyes, “No, but it was nice to visit. My father used to take me when I was a child.”

I hum, chest feeling heavy. “Is that why you’ve been so quiet?”

Bruce inhales a sigh, smoothing a hand over his jaw absently. His eyes have gone to a washed out grey, like rain clouds or cotton, and it makes him look tremulous even when his mouth presses into a line and he lifts a shoulder. “I’m older now than my father ever was.”

His tone colors a shade of blue around the phrase, like even saying it is like chewing on glass, and I feel my chest bind with grief for him. Most people outlive their parents, true, but not everyone has to watch them die at such a young age. Not everyone has to bear the weight of every birthday, knowing it leads them further and further away from their parents.

But Bruce does, and tonight, it shows.

I don’t know what to say, so I just offer a soft, “Oh.”

Bruce nods, and it’s several more moments before he speaks again. This time his eyes are back on the stars, and he traces and retraces a constellation compulsively. “It’s strange, knowing I’ve made it farther than he ever did. I’ve had most of my birthdays without him, but he still always felt older than me. Untouchable.” He frowns, mouth flattening into a line, “Now I’m older than he was when he died, and something has shifted in me. It feels…wrong.”

I sigh, chest heavy and burdened when those eyes like tarnished silver flick to me and hold. “Your dad would be proud of you, Bruce…You have four beautiful children, a woman that loves you, a legacy that will last far beyond your years... That’s something to be proud of.”

“I know. I do.” He nods stiffly, voice sounding rough and strange. “I just never thought I’d make it this far, Clark. I genuinely never believed I would surpass his years, and yet here I am.”

Bruce swallows, fingers tracing the edge of a paving stone over and over. His eyes remain downcast. His voice is raw. “I’m…happy. Honestly happy, and I just…wish they were here to see it.”

I don’t have words that will make the pain less, nor do I have an ability to bring back what Bruce lost, so I do what I am capable of. I take his hand tightly in mine, and I let him grieve quietly. I don’t look at him—I don’t need to. I feel his gratitude in how he squeezes my hand back. I feel it in how he doesn’t bother to hide the few tears that do escape, and even more in how he doesn’t ask me to leave.

We share the silence of the patio for a few minutes, thinking about things lost and people we’ll never see, and eventually, Bruce withdraws his hand from mine. When I meet his gaze again, his eyes have returned to a darker shade, something less fragile, more grounded.

He offers me a half-hearted smile and sighs, “We should go inside.”

“Yeah, probably. The boys were worried.”

Bruce frowns, already straightening to a stand and brushing off the backs of his shorts. “Why?”

I shrug, smiling sadly, “They know you. And they know when something’s bothering you.” His expression pitches a bit too close to guilt, and I shake my head, “They understand why, Bruce. You don’t have to explain or feel guilty for mourning. Your kids, of all people, understand that kind of grief.”

He frowns, eyes shaded when he looks back to the house. Laughter bubbles out of the open window, mingled with the sounds of cursing. “I wish they didn’t have to.”

I press a hand to his shoulder, “I know. But they have you, and you’re teaching them how to heal better than anyone ever taught you, Bruce. You’re doing a great job. Really.”

Bruce nods, pushing a hand through his hair. He’s never taken compliments well, but that’s never stopped me from giving them when they need to be heard. I don’t expect any more response from him than this, and so I’m not particularly surprised when his eyes flicker up to mine and he gives another brief nod.

We turn for the house, making our way back to the sitting room in a quiet haze. When we enter, we find that the boys have pushed the furniture together and turned out the lights. The menu screen for the Mark of Zorro is casting the room in blue hues and Alfred has supplied the boys and Diana with popcorn and M&Ms. Bruce is pulled down into the couch by a flurry of limbs, and it isn’t long before he’s crammed in the middle of all four boys who are bickering over who gets to sit next to him.

I seat myself with Diana on the other sofa, watching the chaos with a smile as Bruce delegates seats and takes responsibility for the candy and popcorn. It’s a few moments before the movie starts, but when it does, the sounds of arguing die to the murmurs of whispered conversation and crunching wrappers. The opening theme blares from the television loudly and I glance over at Bruce. He’s got his children tucked around him comfortably, and it’s hard to tell in the darkness of the room, but I would bet my life that he’s smiling.