Chapter 1: Favorite Strangers
Art by goss
Bruce comes to on the floor of the Batcave, with no idea how he came to be there. He had been training, but nothing that could have caused him to black out. To his greater alarm, he can hear someone else moving out in the cave. Someone who is distinctly not Alfred.
He’s not sure what he had been doing that he was even wearing his uniform, but he pulls the cowl up and grabs one of the bo staffs along the wall as he steps out into the main area.
He almost drops it when he sees the intruder.
Dick turns, and his face creases into a smile.
“Bruce! I thought you were out on League business?”
Bruce had finished with Diana and Barry earlier, a simple mission meant more to reinforce them all as a team in the public eye than anything else. He doesn’t know how Dick would even know about it, but Dick has always been resourceful.
“I finished early. What are you doing here?” He winces at how it comes out. Dick is here , he shouldn’t sound so accusatory, shouldn’t chase him off.
“Nothing major, don’t worry. Tim wanted a hand with something, and since I was in town I thought I’d use the computer to chase a lead.”
Was Tim a new friend of his? He had tried to keep track of who Dick knew out in Blüdhaven, but the last few months had gotten away from him. Ever since Superman— he pushes that thought away. “Any success?”
Dick brightens. “Some! Want to come take a look?”
Bruce almost closes his eyes against it. It’s been, god, years, since Dick asked for his help. Even before he left, even before they stopped speaking for good, Dick had only grown more stubborn, more determined to do everything on his own.
“Yeah,” he has to swallow around the heaviness in his voice. “Of course.”
“Thanks, man! You’re sure you don’t have anything better to do?” Dick asks, already walking over to the computer.
“Not for you,” Bruce says honestly. He takes a moment just to look at Dick. He’s seen him a few times, dropped by the Blüdhaven station in disguise, or swung by Dick’s apartment on patrol, but it’s not the same. Dick has updated his suit again, the padding is heavier, more like armor. He’s lost the blue stripes on his fingers.
And then Bruce goes utterly still. The cave is wrong. The structure is the same, all the framework there. But the computer screen is larger. The weapons rack is in the wrong place. There are more syringes, needles and scalpels in the medical section, approximately twice as many as he had last seen. And that’s only the little things.
There is a dinosaur that stretches from the floor all the way to the top of the cave, almost thirty feet up. And, worst and most damning of all, Jason’s suit is gone . He can’t look away from the wall where it should be. It’s not even that the case is empty, it was never there. It’s just a blank stretch of wall. Superman’s suit, which should have been hanging beside it, is gone as well.
He wrenches his gaze back to Dick, who is still chattering away, plugging something into the computer.
Is this a dream?
“Right, Bruce?” Dick asks, and Bruce drags his attention back. Dick had been talking about the readouts from the computer. With an effort, Bruce looks at the screen. It doesn’t seem like a dream. The readouts are perfectly understandable, the rises and dips familiar.
“It does look like a variant on the fear toxin,” Bruce says in answer to Dick’s question. “But it’s not Crane’s. See this, here,” he indicates the base level of the chart. “It’s much weaker than anything he likes to put out.”
“My thought as well. Looks like we have a copycat on our hands.”
Bruce nods. “Crane should still be in Arkham, but I,” he hesitates, then amends to, “we can check his visitor log. If he’s given his formula to someone else, that could explain the discrepancies.”
“Good call. It’ll have to be tomorrow though, the big man said he wanted to talk with us tonight.”
Us. God. Bruce can’t even remember that last time Dick used that word. “Good point.”
He’s about to suggest that Dick come with him on patrol, under some pretense that Dick would absolutely see through but would likely agree to anyway, because Dick has always understood when Bruce was trying. Up until it stopped mattering to him.
“Hey, Bruce?” Dick says, still looking at the screen.
“I am really sorry about this.” And then Dick sprays him in the face.
Bruce comes to again, this time with his hands tied behind his back. He can hear people moving around him. He stifles his instinctive reaction, keeps his breathing level and his muscles lax. He’s bound to a chair, tied for security rather than discomfort. The ropes are tight enough that he can’t wiggle loose, but they don’t bite into the skin or pull his shoulders uncomfortably.
“It shouldn’t have even taken me that long, but he was in the cave!” Dick is saying. Right. Dick, who had drugged him. And apparently tied him up.
He’s wearing his uniform, he can feel the pressure of his cowl on his face. So whatever the hell Dick was playing at didn’t involve unmasking him.
“You figured it out in under 10 minutes, that is nothing to be ashamed of,” says an almost familiar voice.
Dick made a frustrated noise. “Still. He looked like he’d never even see the cave before. I should have known immediately.”
“He’s awake.” The voice is so familiar that his inability to place it is almost more frustrating than being tied up. He never forgets a face or a voice.
There is silence for a long moment. Bruce keeps his breathing level and even, his face still.
“Is he just going to pretend to be asleep?” Dick asks after a moment. Bruce doesn’t move. There is another long silence.
“Apparently he is.” And that voice Bruce knows too. Knows, and had never expected to hear again. His eyes fly open before he can stop himself, shock getting the better of him.
Superman looks back at him, looking every inch the hale and healthy man that Bruce had watched on television for so long.
Beside him, Dick is standing with his arms crossed, scowling. And beside him is—
Bruce blinks. Beside Dick is Batman. The other, familiar voice. Because, of course, Bruce had only heard himself speak distorted through the television or on his vocal notes.
“Zatana has already confirmed you’re from an alternate reality,” Batman says. “But we couldn’t be sure what kind of reality that is.”
Bruce pauses for a moment, absorbing this. That actually explained more than it didn’t. And what has his life become, that alternate reality really is the easiest solution.
“Nightwing believes that you may not even have been aware you had switched.” Batman lets the end of the sentence trail, almost a question. Superman is just watching him, and Bruce finds the cold eyes of Batman’s mask much easier to look at.
“That’s… accurate,” he says succinctly. “An alternate reality does explain a few things.”
“Like what?” Batman demands.
Bruce’s eyes flick to Superman, but he just says “There was a dinosaur in the cave.”
Dick snorts. “I told you it’s weird,” he tells Batman.
“And you didn’t think it was strange?” Batman asks, ignoring Dick.
“I did,” Bruce admit cooly. “I thought it might be a dream.”
Batman turns to Dick. “What else?”
Dick straightens, and it tugs at something in Bruce’s chest. It’s the same pose that Dick has always taken when giving a report, ever since he was a kid. “He seems perturbed by the north-west wall, for some reason. He couldn’t look away. I thought he was just tired. And he mentioned Crane still being in Arkham.”
“And your test?” Batman asked.
“I suggested we put off a patrol because Superman wanted to talk with you, and he agreed,” Dick sounds aggrieved. “It wasn’t hard.”
“I feel like I should be offended,” Superman says. Bruce has never heard him sound like that, easily amused and affectionate. He’d only ever heard anger and pain.
Batman doesn’t reply, just turns back to Bruce.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” he asks.
Bruce scowls. “I’m not answering your questions tied up.”
“And I’m not untying you until you answer my questions,” Batman replies. Behind him, Dick- no, not his Dick, Nightwing- exchanges a look with Superman. The familiarity of the gesture makes him bristle.
“How do I know that you are who you say you are?” Bruce asks. “This could be a trick.” He keeps his eyes on Batman’s cowl with an effort, not looking at either his estranged ward or the man he tried to kill. This would be an elaborate trap, but not an unthinkable one.
“Your name is Bruce Wayne,” Batman says. “There are a number of personal things I could tell you that are public knowledge- the names of your parents. The way they died. But there are things that are not public knowledge. Your butler Alfred helped make your first Batsuit, but Lucius Fox helped to make the one you’re wearing now. You helped to found the Justice League over fifteen years ago, but they didn’t go public until three years later.”
“You tell people your favorite drink is single malt scotch, but it’s really Alfred’s hot chocolate,” Dick says, and shrugs when Batman looks at him as well. “Well, it is.”
Bruce considers this, considers all the things they are telling him about their own world in the exchange. Fifteen years. God. Fifteen years ago it had been just him and ten year old who hadn’t even started patrols yet.
“If you know all this about me, then untie me,” he says.
Batman huffs. “I know that you’re Bruce Wayne, but your world could be nothing like ours. It’s close enough- you knew Nightwing, you have a Justice League communicator. But you have a leadlined cowl. You won’t look at Superman at all. We’ve met enough dopplegangers that are—”
“Batshit crazy,” Dick interjects. “No pun intended.”
“So,” Batman finishes. “Tell us about your world. We’ll know if you’re lying. And if you won’t, Wonder Woman can always be brought in.”
Bruce has only felt the effects of the Lasso once, and he would prefer to avoid repeating the experience.
“My world is… different. We only formed the Justice League a few months ago.”
“Time travel?” Dick says. Then, “no, he recognized me as adult.”
“Who are the members?” Superman asks, and Bruce doesn’t know him well enough to tell the tone of his voice, but he thinks it’s trepidation.
Bruce takes a breath. “Wonder Woman. Myself. The Flash. Arthur. Victor.” He stops, and sees them all wait for him to continue. They still need to come up with names for both Arthur and Victor. The press has started using Aquaman for Arthur, and he really hopes that doesn’t stick.
“And?” Nightwing prompts.
“And nothing. That’s all we have so far.” Barry had only joined them within the last month.
It’s Nightwing who speaks first. “What about Superman?”
Bruce wonders if Nightwing realizes him much he reveals with that question. That Superman had helped found the Justice League here. That it was inconceivable for them to exist without him.
Bruce closes his eyes, safe in the knowledge that they can’t see him do so with the cowl up. “He died. Before the Justice League was formed.”
“How?” Batman’s voice is tight, and all emotion is so ruthlessly crushed from it that it’s more telling than emotion would have been.
“I,” his voice falters. He’s past this. He’s gotten past this. But he can feel Superman’s eyes on him, Batman’s cold disapproval, the open surprise on Dick’s face. “I-”
“You killed him.” Batman’s voice is cold. Bruce could cut himself on it’s razor sharp edges.
Bruce hadn’t. But without his actions, Superman would have survived. He doesn’t answer.
He hears footsteps, sees Superman’s red boots come into his line of sight. Superman crouches down next to him to meet his eyes. Bruce expect anger, condemnation. Instead, Superman’s face is sad.
Bruce almost rears back, he is so surprised. “What?”
“For whatever I did, for whatever made you feel that was your only option. I’m sorry.”
Bruce has to swallow around the lump in his throat. Every time he thinks he has a grasp on who Superman is, who Clark is, he’s proven wrong.
“It wasn’t you,” he says, and his voice comes out as a croak, even with the voice modulator. “It was never you.”
Batman goes tense. “The lead in your cowl,” he says. “You were enemies.”
“I thought we were,” Bruce says, and even now it’s hard to admit. “I was wrong.”
There is a long silence; oppressive, heavy.
Then. “Untie him.”
Bruce keeps his surprised reaction behind his teeth only by years of control and practice.
“Uh, dude.” Nightwing has no such practice. Or, rather, he has the practice, the training. He’s just never seen fit to use it. “He just admitted to killing you.”
Superman stands, but doesn’t move to untie Bruce. Bruce watches as Superman and Nightwing both turn to Batman. Waiting. Is it because this is Batman’s counterpart, or do they always wait for Batman’s permission to move?
“He clearly regrets it,” Superman says.
“Oh good, as long as he regrets killing you,” Batman replies, and his tone is wry. He turns to look back at Bruce, and the others follow his gaze.
Batman strides over to him. Unlike Superman, he doesn’t crouch, doesn’t put them on an equal level.
“Do you?” he asks. “Do you regret killing him?”
“I didn’t kill him,” Bruce says, and it emerges as a croak. “But I do regret what happened.”
“See?” Superman asks. Batman turns to give him a dirty look, clear even through the cowl.
“Have you ever worked against the best interest of Gotham, or against innocent people?”
“Never knowingly,” Bruce replies. Batman looks at Superman, who nods.
“Fine,” Batman snarls to Superman. “But you have to deal with him.” He unties Bruce’s feet, and Bruce holds himself carefully still. This is a test, to see if he’ll kick or lash out.
“Don’t I always?” Superman asks. Nightwing snorts.
“Haha,” Batman says. Bruce has never known he could sound like that while in the suit. Sarcastic. Teasing. Batman moves to untie Bruce’s hands. He raises them to his face, feeling the edges of how cowl.
“If you know who I am, why leave the cowl on?”
Batman gives Superman another dirty look. “The Boyscout here thought you would be more comfortable with it on.”
“We don’t unmask people without their consent,” Superman says.
Bruce hesitates only a second, but untying him was a mark of trust, and it deserves another.
He tugs the cowl off.
“Wow, Bruce,” Nightwing says into the silence. “You look like shit.”
Bruce snorts, and even he can hear the edge it carries. “It’s been a hard year, Dick.”
“Where was I then?” Dick demands, coming closer. Batman moves to flank him. Protective, without interfering. “Why am I not helping you?”
Bruce swallows. “Gone.” At their reaction, at the way that Batman flinches, just barely, he amends. “Not dead. Just—not helping.”
Dick whistles. “Shit, Bruce.”
Bruce stands, but doesn’t move closer. “I’m glad you’re here.” Glad you’re here with Batman, that another Bruce hasn’t lost you entirely. Glad that I get to talk to you now.
Dick reaches out and clasps his shoulder. “I can’t entirely say the same, because we have to get you back to your own world, but yeah. You too.”
“You seem to have a lot of experience with this sort of thing,” he says, turning his head to include Batman and Superman. “Does this happen often?”
Superman smiles at him, and the full effect at short range is devastating. “More often than you’d think.”
“It’s nice to have someone coming to us for a change,” Batman says. “We’ll need to do a full debrief with the League. And,” he pauses for only a second, someone else may have missed it. “We’ll need to know how Superman died. If it’s something that can be avoided here…”
“I’ll tell you everything,” Bruce promises. Superman gives him a slight smile.
“One more thing,” Batman says. “Our League is considerably larger than your little operation. Which means that there are people here who you have never met. You are to make no efforts to learn their civilian identities.”
“B,” Superman says reprovingly.
Batman ignores him, meeting Bruce’s eyes squarely.
Bruce nods, a quick jerk of his head. “Understood.” He needs their cooperation to get out of this strange world. He can abide by their rules. For now. “I do know the identities of everyone in my league.”
“Really?” Superman looks honestly surprised. “It’s been, what, a year?”
Bruce nods, unsure what that has to do with anything.
Superman gives him an appraising look. “And you know who I am?”
Bruce looks at Batman, who crosses his arms over his chest and says nothing.
“Clark Kent,” Bruce says. The late Clark Kent. “Reporter at The Daily Planet .” Former reporter.
Superman turns to Batman. “I always said you were a paranoid bastard.”
“Yes, Kal, this man who killed you is a paragon of trust and virtue.”
Bruce swallows back the automatic response, but Superman turns to look at him as if he had spoken anyway.
“He didn’t kill me,” he tells Batman softly. He’s still looking at Bruce, and Bruce can’t hold his gaze. He looks away. Batman snorts.
“He tried to.”
Bruce flinches. It’s unnerving, to be so accurately pinned.
“You can’t know that,” Superman protests.
“No,” Bruce says. “He’s right.”
They stand there, suspended in silence.
Nightwing whistles under his breath. “Well. This has been sufficiently awkward. What do you say we get this show on the road, guys?”
Batman doesn’t say anything, just turns with one sharp turn of his heel and strides down the hall. Superman and Nightwing exchange a look.
“C’mon,” Nightwing says. “Let’s go meet the Justice League.”
It’s not that Bruce had thought Batman was joking when he said how much bigger this League was. It was simply that he had no scale to understand how much bigger he had meant.
“Are we,” he stares out the window, hardly able to speak around his own surprise, “in space?”
Nightwing comes to stand beside him, staring out the window. “It’s weird to see you surprised. Even an alternate you.” When Bruce only looks at him, Nightwing grins. “You only ask the obvious when you’re surprised. Of course we’re in space!” They look down at the crescent of Earth together.
“How did we get up here?”
“Ah,” Nightwing hesitates. “It’s sort of like teleportation? I don’t really understand it myself. I didn’t realize how normal this has all become to me. Oh, just our secret vigilante headquarters in space, no big deal.”
Bruce allows himself a smile. He’s missed Nightwing, missed his casual way of speaking, his easy humor. “It is impressive.”
“Where does your JL meet?”
Bruce hesitates. He doesn’t think it will sound good to say ‘on the battlefield,’ even if it’s mostly true.
“We haven’t settled on a permanent location yet,” he equivocates.
Nightwing snorts. “Are you hosting them all at the Manor?” he asks, and the easy way it spills off his tongue is almost painful. The Manor. As if Wayne Manor is anything more than a burned out shell, a husk.
“Sometimes,” Bruce lies.
He turns away from the stunning view of Earth to watch the members of this Justice League file into the conference room. The large circular table could fit fifty people, easily. A circular table, God. It’s such a cliche. And yet. And yet, there is something solid about it. Superman isn’t the leader. And, equally comforting, in its own way, neither is Batman. He has people he trusts, relies on. The table says, clear as day, that everyone here is on equal footing.
“Don’t worry,” Nightwing says. “We won’t have the full league here. We only have about ten to twenty for these kinds of meetings. Just the core group, you know?” Bruce does not, in fact, know. A core group of ten to twenty, he can’t even imagine.
He recognizes Diana, but the man in the Flash costume doesn’t look like Barry. There’s no head of the table, but there is a clear front of the room, and Superman has taken a seat at that side of the table. Batman stands in front of a display screen, but the empty seat on Superman’s left gives Bruce an idea of where he usually sits.
Others file in. A man in all green, emanating a faint glow. A blonde woman in fishnets and a leather jacket. A red robot with a large gold T over his chest. A man with green skin. Another woman in fishnets, and Bruce had thought Diana’s outfit was impractical. And-
“Is that Oliver Queen?” Bruce asks, incredulous.
Nightwing snorts. “Yeah, because Bruce Wayne is such a likely candidate for secret vigilante.”
Bruce has to give him that, but still. Oliver Queen. Last time he’d seen Queen, he’d been throwing a multi-million dollar party for all the contenders on America’s Next Top Model. But then, Bruce Wayne had attended that party, so maybe Nightwing had a point.
Everyone settles down at the table with easy familiarity, clearly taking usual seats and talking to one another like old friends. When Batman steps forward, they fall quiet just as easily.
“You may have noticed that we have a guest today.”
As one, they all look at Bruce. He looks back, unflinching.
“Superman and I have already interrogated him, and he seems to have come here by accident. Our goal now is to get him back to his own dimension as quickly as possible.”
“Two Batman’s?” says the man in green. Whatever faint light he emits casts a reflection on the table.
The Flash says “I’ve had nightmares that started like this.” Nightwing, who had settled effortlessly at his side, smacks his shoulder.
Batman ignores him entirely. “We are codenames only until he returns to his own timeline.”
“Because you’re so lenient on it the rest of the time,” Oliver Queen says, rolling his eyes.
Without pausing, Batman goes around the table and introduces everyone by their superhero aliases, and Bruce fixes them firmly in his mind. Oliver Queen is Green Arrow. Dick catches his eyes when Batman gives that name, and he makes a face to indicate that he knows exactly what Bruce is thinking and that, once again, Bruce has no room for judgment.
The names, the brief explanations some people provide, reveal more insight into the Justice League than Batman probably intends. But, no. One look at Batman’s face reveals that he knows exactly what he’s telling Bruce.
The presence of the man known as Martian Manhunter tells Bruce that they have contact with more aliens than just Superman. The brief introduction that the glowing man—Green Lantern—gives of his abilities tells Bruce that the Justice League reaches more than just Earth. Maybe even more than just the Milky Way galaxy. And everyone is so casual about it. It’s not news, nothing out of the ordinary.
Bruce isn’t used to feeling out of his depth, had experienced it last in the shaking streets of Metropolis on the day of Superman’s first appearance, and look how that had gone for him.
Dick meets his eyes and makes a face. Not so goofy as to call attention to himself, but enough to shake Bruce loose. It reminds him of when Dick, his own Dick, had come to the Batcave before he started to patrol with Bruce. On the bad nights, he would do handstands and tell terrible jokes and pull faces to get Bruce to smile, pull him out of whatever mood the night had left him in.
It had worked then, and it works now.
“This is not going to be a long meeting,” Batman says. “This is purely informational. There is another Batman here, and we are doing our best to get him home. Has anyone here heard of any temporal or interdimensional disturbances that could have lead to this?”
Not everyone at the table contributes. Presumably it’s not in their wheelhouse, as unfamiliar to them as it is to Bruce. Well, not completely. No one seems surprised to have an alternate version of their coworker at the table.
Zatana, who he’s pretty sure he recognizes but can’t seem to place, offers a brief description of the kind of energy he’s putting off and what it means for his presence here. Green Lantern replies in the negative but promises to look into it.
The Flash, definitely not Barry now that Bruce has heard him speak, says he’ll ask around the other speedsters, which is an alarming statement in and of itself, but which everyone treats with casual nonchalance.
Once it appears everyone with someone to contribute has spoken, Batman leans forward at the table. “We will continue to pursue this line of investigation. As always, the workshops here are available, but please refrain from purposefully trying to punch a hole in reality.” He says this with a pointed look at the Flash, who raises his hands in a classic ‘unarmed’ gesture.
“Why does he always pick on me,” Flash mutters in an aside to Nightwing once Batman has turned away.
“Because your family is at the center of half our inter-dimensional incidents,” Nightwing replies.
“Harsh, dude.” Flash crosses his arms across his chest and sulks down in his chair.
Bruce turns that over in his head. An entire family of Flashes. He feels a sudden deep and profound relief that this reality is Batman’s problem and not his.
“Where is he staying?” Green Lantern asks.
“I bet it’s with Supes,” Oliver Queen says, and the expression on his face makes it clear what he means by that. It appears that the vigilante lifestyle hasn’t changed him much.
Batman and Bruce both gives him a withering look, and Oliver Queen shivers dramatically. “Oh good, that look comes in stereo now.”
“The matter of Batman, ah, alternate Batman’s, lodgings will be discussed among myself and Batman. Our Batman,” Superman says, his cool tone of authority undercut by his tripping over the names.
“Called it,” Oliver Queen mutters to Black Canary, seated next to him. She punches him in the arm, not appearing to hold back a bit.
“You’ll be helping too?” Flash mutters to Nightwing, soft enough that Bruce only hears because he’s closer to the pair of them. Batman doesn’t appear to have heard, but tha doesn’t mean anything.
Nightwing gives a small shrug, then a nod. “Probably,” he replies.
Flash clasps him on the shoulder in clear commiseration. Nightwing shrugs him off, but he can’t keep the amused smile off his face.
“Now, Batman,” Superman says, addressing Bruce. “We do have some League business to discuss, so if you wouldn’t mind?”
His tone is so polite that it takes Bruce a minute to register that Superman is telling him to leave the room. He bristles. He hasn’t been dismissed, even so politely, in over a decade.
“I’ll go with him,” Oliver Queen says, standing. “I already caught you up on Star City, and most of the bigger stuff won’t involve me. Besides,” he puts his hands on the red head next to him, “Speedy can catch me up later.”
Speedy. Bruce looks speculatively between the him and the Flash. He can see a resemblance, if only in the skin tone and hair color. He doesn’t know what that means for his relationship with Queen though.
“Get off,” Speedy, who Bruce is pretty sure was introduced as Red Arrow, says, waving Queen away.
Queen jerks his head at the door and, reluctantly, Bruce follows him. He’s good, he has no doubts about his own ability. But he’s outnumbered here, and he won’t gain anything by protesting
Queen leads him to what looks like a standard break room, it it weren’t for the view of space out the window.
“You recognize me?” Queen asks, leaning back against one the the couches.
“Unfortunately,” Bruce says. “Can’t imagine a party boy like you fighting crime though.”
Queen laughs. “Look who’s talking!” Bruce tilts his head, conceding the point. “I take it we’re not friends in your reality then?”
“We’re friends here?” Bruce says skeptically.
Queen mimes a shot to the heart. “Harsh. I mean, insomuch as you ever admit to having friends who aren’t Supes, but yeah. I mean, we don’t hang out and watch movies, but.” He grins. “We billionaire playboy heroes have to stick together.”
“Won’t your Batman get mad about you confirming your identity to me?” Bruce asks.
Queen rolls his eyes. “Let him get mad. You need a friend more than you need a lecture.”
“And you’re going to be that friend?”
“Well, it’s not going to be Bruce.”
Bruce leans back on the counter facing Queen. “I don’t need a friend. I need to get home.”
Queen shrugs. “Can’t help you there. I shoot people with arrows, I don’t mess around with this dimensions shit.”
“How did you become a vigilante?” Of all people, he doesn’t say, but the twist of Queen’s mouth suggests he hears it anyway.
“I mean, we really prefer the term heroes,” Queen says. “I take it I’m not active in your world?”
Bruce thinks it over before he answers. He has heard strange rumors coming out of Star City recently. “Not on this scale, no. But from what I’ve seen, everyone is a lot more visible in your world.”
“Are you saying our space headquarters aren’t discreet?”
Bruce looks out the window, the crescent of Earth, the vast infinity of space behind it. “Discreet isn’t the word that comes to mind.”
Queen doesn’t answer, and Bruce looks back to him. He’s studying Bruce, thoughtful. “Your JL is still pretty young, right?” At Bruce’s look, he adds “I mean, Batman wouldn’t have insisted on codenames only if your world was the same. Well. Maybe he would have. He’s paranoid like that. But you looked overwhelmed. For your definition of the world. So your Justice League is smaller, probably only the core group. You haven’t recruited me, or I’m dead.” He grins at Bruce. “I’m not as dumb as I look.”
“That would be quite an accomplishment.”
Queen makes a face. “Don’t be a dick. If, you know, that’s possible. My point is, if I’m still alive over there, you should swing by Star City sometime. If I am dead, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
“Why do you think you’re still a vigilante? You could be living it up with America’s Next Top Model and drinking champagne every night.”
“Hero. And I suppose anything is possible. But I like to think that if I’m not using Oliver Queen as a cover, I’d have grown up a bit more than that. That I would be using the Queen name to do good, in some way. It’s like, can you imagine if you weren’t Batman?”
Bruce can, but it’s a stretch. The timeline would have had to change almost thirty years ago, in a dark alley behind a theatre. And while he’s sure that he would have had the same youthful indiscretions that all boys of their social class are prone to, Queen is right. He wouldn’t be carrying on like that well into his thirties. The Wayne name would mean something.
“Let me prove it. What’s the last time you saw me?”
Bruce’s mouth twitches. “You were living it up with America’s Next Top Model and drinking champagne.”
Queen grins, the party boy grin Bruce is accustomed to, strange and discordant under his domino mask. “That was a hell of a night. I threw that party to distract from the fact that I had been out of town for three weeks, tracking down an enemy. I had twelve stitches in my side, so I wanted a party where no one would expect me to do tricks.”
Bruce casts his mind back, and he had registered that Queen had been unusually stationary. Paired with his sunglasses and 3pm shadow, he’s assumed that Queen’s hangover from the night before had transitioned straight into drunkenness at the party.
Queen takes his silence as assent. “That’s so weird. We’d had the JL for years by that point. But from your point of view, we hardly know one another.”
“We’ll always have the Academy,” Bruce says sardonically.
Queen laughs. “Oh god. I’d forgotten. We only overlapped for, what, 6 months?”
“Almost 8. I moved there after I got kicked out of the last place for starting fights.”
“And then I got kicked out for skinny dipping in the pool.”
“I told you someone was coming.”
Queen flips him the bird. “And you never let me forget it.”
Bruce’s retort is cut off as the door swings open.
“This is cozy,” Batman says. He’s giving Queen a dark look that doesn’t phase him at all.
“Just catching up with your good twin,” Queen says.
Batman hooks a thumb at the door. “Get lost.”
“Yeah, yeah. Call me when you get home, Brucey.” He thumps Batman on the shoulder as he passes. “Give him a break, he’s going through some shit.”
“No one asked you!” Batman calls after him. Queen flips him off as well.
“Ah, the glamor of the hero life,” Nightwing says.
“Is your top secret meeting done with?” Bruce asks, hearing the petulance in his voice and hating it.
Batman doesn’t deign to answer, just closes the door the room like he’s worried they’ll be interrupted. Superman crosses to the window, settling in next to Bruce.
“I’m glad that you still have Green Arrow in your world.”
“Not quite,” Bruce says. “But, maybe.” Queen had seemed sincere in his insistence that Bruce come recruit him. It’s not as though his Justice League is bursting at the seams.
“Can we get back to the matter at hand?” Batman is giving him a look that suggests Bruce is a bigger problem then he’s worth. “We just need to figure out where to keep him for the next few days. It shouldn’t take longer than that for the others to come up with an answer.”
Bruce bristles at the idea of keeping him anywhere, but even he can’t deny the logic. They can hardly have two Bruce Wayne’s wandering around.
“I did volunteer to be responsible for him,” Superman says. “I meant it.”
“And what, he can crash on your couch?” Batman says derisively. “No one will think that’s strange.”
“No one will-”
“How, exactly, will you explain away a billionaire spending a week in your shitty walk-up? Bruce Wayne wouldn’t be caught dead in that place.”
Superman sniffs. “You haven’t complained.”
Batman pinches the bridge of his cowl. “Kal.”
“You just don’t want him to be alone with me,” Superman says, with the air of someone pulling a trump card.
“I have reservations about you sharing an apartment with someone who has already confessed to trying to kill you, yes.” Batman’s voice is harsh. He’s worried about Superman, Bruce realizes, and it’s utterly shocking. Worried about a man who could lift a train car without hesitation, who could shoot lasers out of his eyes. It’s absurd.
Bruce watches in fascination as they just stare at one another, a silent battle of wills. Batman crosses his arms over his chest. Superman straightens his spine, tilts his chin up. Batman’s jaw clenches.
Finally, Superman throws his arms into the air. “Fine! But we can’t leave him alone up here. Neither of us have the time to watch him.”
“I don’t need a minder,” Bruce snaps.
They both look at him, and dismiss him just as easily. Irritation trickles down his spine, and Bruce grits his jaw.
Beside him, Nightwing steps forward.
“There is one place-” he begins, but Batman cuts him off.
“No, absolutely not.
“Come on,” Nightwing protests. “It’s the obvious choice.”
Superman casts a speculative look between Bruce and Batman. “He’s right, B.”
“He could even help!” Nightwing says, bouncing lightly on his toes, buoyed by Superman’s support. “The rumors are starting to pick up again. If you both-”
“No!” This time the anger in Batman’s voice is clear. “I’ll consider letting him—but there is absolutely no way he will help . He’s not suiting up in my city.”
Superman reaches out and and puts a calming hand on Batman’s shoulder. The familiarity of it, the presumption of it, makes Bruce stiffen, his own shoulders going tense like it was him that Superman was touching. But Batman doesn’t tense. No, he actually sighs, his breath going out of him in one long rush.
“Can handle themselves. He’s still Bruce Wayne. He wouldn’t hurt any of them. Or Alfred.”
Abruptly, Bruce realizes where they mean to put him. They want him to stay with Batman, back at the lake house. Perhaps even in the cave. He clenches his fists again, and makes them relax with an effort of will. He needs their help. But the indignity of being taken as a captive to his own home makes him want to hit something. Someone.
“If he already tried to kill you—” Batman says, voice low.
Superman laughs. “We’ve tried to kill each other before, B.”
“Don’t laugh,” Batman says, and his voice is calm and cold and stops Superman completely. Bruce looks at Nightwing, who is carefully not looking at anyone. “Their Superman is dead , Kal.”
Superman clutches Batman’s shoulder again. “He won’t hurt the boys. He won’t hurt Alfred. He’s still Bruce Wayne, still Batman. Whatever happened between him and Superman is over.”
“Because Superman died!”
Bruce flinches. The other two don’t see it, but he’s fairly certain that Nightwing does.
“Yes,” Superman says. “But he’s clearly unhappy about it. I don’t know what happened, why it happened. And at the end of the day, there isn’t anywhere else he can go. You’re right about my apartment, and we can’t leave him here.”
“The Fortress,” Batman suggests, but Bruce can already tell he’s lost the argument.
Superman snorts. “Yes, B. Because if I’m wrong and you’re right, we want to leave him in an alien stronghold with access to Kryptonian weapons.”
“I keep telling you that the Fortress should obey you and you alone-”
“And I keep telling you that you’re a paranoid maniac and I need to have some kind of contingency in case I’m injured.”
Batman rounds on Bruce without responding to that. Over his shoulder, Superman winks at Nightwing. His happiness, his clear trust in Batman, it feels like a slap to the face. Bruce can hardly bear to look at him.
“You will be returning to the Manor with me,” Batman says, his voice once again cold and emotionless. The Manor. Bruce sucks in sharp breath. He had waved it aside when Nightwing had said it. To Dick, the lake house had only ever been an extension of the Manor, and he had always used the two terms interchangeably. But Batman wouldn’t say the Manor if he didn’t mean Wayne Manor itself.
When he’s composed himself, after only a split second, he looks up to see Superman’s eyes on him. He scowls. Superman only gives him a guileless smile in return.
Bruce follows Batman, and Superman falls into step beside him.
“Are you alright?” he asks, and his voice is kind.
“Fine.” Bruce bites off.
“Because I know this must be hard for you.”
“Oh, do you?”
“Well,” Superman’s voice has a sardonic smile in it. “I’ve been in your situation myself a time or two. It’s never pleasant.”
Bruce doesn’t reply.
“At least you’ll be going home,” Superman says, forcing cheer.
“His home,” Bruce corrects. His home with the Manor intact, and Dick dropping in when he’s in the neighborhood, easy as breathing.
“Yes,” Superman says, somber. “But I think it will still be good for you to be with the boys.”
It’s something that Batman and Superman said repeatedly, but he can’t let it pass this time.
The boys are named Tim and Damien, and they stare at him suspiciously across the parlor. He has a son. A son . There is no denying Damien’s heritage, even with his skin tone. The tilt of his chin, the shape of his eyes. Bruce’s lineage is written on his face.
“Father, I don’t see why we must host this interloper—” he says, and he isn’t even talking to Bruce, but hearing is still a shock. It shouldn’t be— he’d already raised two—one—boy. But Dick had never—and Jason had certainly never— it’s almost too much.
Tim is almost more of a shock. He introduces himself as Tim Drake, and his eyes are sharp and assessing. Unlike Damien, he hasn’t protested, only watched with an expression that’s on the amused side of impassive.
A son, Bruce can understand. He’s certainly had enough sex. And if any son of his had needed a home, of course he would have—But to take on another ward, to train another Robin. After what had happened to Jason. He can’t fathom it.
Batman is calming Damien down, explaining the situation to him. Damien seems torn between listening to his father and shooting Bruce venomous looks.
“Coffee, Master Bruce?” Alfred asks, and he is seems in that moment to be the only steady thing in the world, proffering a tray like it could be any other day. Alfred had barely even blinked when they’d come into the cave, Bruce feeling vaguely mortified at having to come out of the passenger side of the Batmobile.
“Another change of clothes, sirs?” was all he’d said.
“Thank you,” Bruce says now, taking the cup. It’s prepared perfectly. He smiles at the first sip, and sees almost invisible lines of tension relax around Alfred’s eyes. “Just because I like my coffee the same doesn’t mean I’m him,” Bruce says.
“I am well aware,” Alfred says, cool and unruffled as ever. “But one finds comfort where they may.”
“Hm.” Bruce takes another sip of the coffee.
“You don’t know me.” Tim appears at Bruce’s elbow, and Bruce is reluctantly impressed. He’d barely seen him move.
“No.” And then, when Tim only looks at him. “I’m sorry.”
Tim’s calm face cracks, and for a horrified second, Bruce is honestly afraid he’s going to cry. But Tim only grins. “Don’t apologize! It’s not something you can help. I’d actually like to sit down and talk about your universe. What was the divergent point? Dick said that your Clark is dead, but that was pretty recent, and I’ve been here for-”
Nightwing comes up behind Tim and wraps an arm around his head, covering his mouth. “Time for little birds to be in bed.” Bruce goes cold at that. Little birds. He had hoped— but no. Batman really is training them. Putting them at risk. Putting everyone at risk. God, Damien can’t be more than twelve.
Tim makes a muffled protest and struggles in the hold. Nightwing only tightens his grip. An ordinary boy would try to bite him, or grab at his hand. Instead, Tim grabs Nightwing’s forearm with both hands, braces his feet, shoves his hip back, and throws Nightwing over his shoulder.
Nightwing goes laughing, coming up in an easy roll. “Good throw! Next time, try pivoting your hip more, dig in with your shoulder. Here,I’ll show—”
“No sparring in the manor,” Alfred says placidly, and they both stop, chagrined.
“Yeah,” Batman says. He has Damien tucked firmly under one arm, thoroughly pinned. “No sparring in the manor.” Damien tries to bite him, and Batman shifts him away without losing a bit of grip. “Did I raise such savages?” he asks Alfred, aggrieved.
“I fear you have, sir.”
“Bedtime,” Batman orders.
“But, Bruce,” Nightwing and Tim protest together. Damien only tries to bite him again. Batman rolls his eyes.
“I have to deal with our guest,” disdain drips from the word, “so. Bed. Dick, you can spend the night here.”
“What if I have a morning shift?”
Tim mutters “Nice try,” under his breath, and Nightwing elbows him in the ribs. Tim moves out of the way, but Nightwing had anticipated that, and still manages to catch him lightly in the chest.
“Damien, will you behave?” Batman asks. Bruce takes one look at the boy’s furious face and guesses that, no, he will not behave. But when Batman puts him down, Damien only straightens his clothes. He gives Bruce one last look, sniffs disdainfully as if to show that he finds Bruce utterly lacking, and stalks out of the room.
Tim rolls his eyes. “He’s always like that,” he tells Bruce. “It’s not personal.” He gives Bruce a sarcastic salute and leaves through a different door.
Nightwing looks between Bruce and Batman. “Right. Well. I had better,” he hooks a thumb at the door Damien went though, “make sure they don’t kill one another.”
“Is that likely?” Bruce asks.
Batman sinks down into one of the armchairs like he doesn’t have a care in the world. “They’ve tried it before,” he says, like it’s nothing. “But neither of them is ever successful.”
“How old is Damien?” Bruce asks.
“He’ll be twelve in the fall.” Only 11. And he clearly knows how to move, how to fight. Dick had been thirteen before Bruce had even thought about bringing him on patrol.
Alfred switches out Bruce’s coffee with a whiskey and leaves. Batman watches him go.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Batman says, after Alfred’s footsteps have faded.
“Damien isn’t a normal child. His mother was Talia al Ghul. He was trained to kill before he could walk.”
“Kill?” Bruce’s own voice is ice cold.
Batman’s gaze sharpens on him. “I don’t think you have any room to talk about killing.”
Bruce’s hands tighten convulsively on the glass, and for a terrible second he can almost feel Superman’s throat under his boot.
Batman gives him a look—not a smile, but a recognition of a point scored. “I don’t kill.”
“And you think I do?”
Batman meets his gaze. In the flickering shadows from the fire, he looks eerie, otherworldly. “Yes.”
Batman takes a sip of his own whiskey. “Alright.” He doesn’t sound like he believes Bruce. “Tell me what happened with Superman.”
Bruce feels the words land on his shoulder, heavy as iron. As steel.
“I didn’t kill him.”
Batman cocks an eyebrow at him. “An interesting place to start. Defensive?”
Bruce doesn’t let himself react. “He was killed by a monster, made from mixing Kryptonian DNA with that of Lex Luthor.” He thinks that he hears Batman draw in a sharp breath, but when he looks up, Batman is still staring at him, implacable. “Superman had a Kryptonite spear.”
Batman’s eyes sharpen on him. “Masterly use of the passive voice. He had a spear. I suppose he found it lying around? Did he bring it himself? A weapon tailor made to destroy him?”
Bruce swallows around the hatred in Batman’s voice. “It was mine.”
“But you didn’t kill him.” Batman takes a cool, measured sip of his whiskey. The ice clinks against the glass.
“We’re not going to get very far if you keep doubting my word,” Bruce says.
Batman leans forward, elbows on his knees. “Why did you make the spear?”
Bruce scoffs. “I don’t for a second believe that you don’t have one as well.”
“I don’t.” Batman’s voice is cold and unyielding as iron.
“I don’t believe you,” Bruce says after a moment. “You would never let a threat like that—a power like that, go without countermeasures.”
Batman gives him a long considering look. He puts his whiskey down and stands, heading towards one of the lesser used entrances to the cave. “Follow me.”
Bruce considers arguing, because he is feeling contrary and Batman pisses him off, but it would gain him nothing. He takes his whiskey with him though.
The Cave is as strange and foreign as he remembers, and he gives the dinosaur a baleful look. He also keeps his eyes carefully averted from the north west wall.
“You’re right,” Batman says, turning to face him in the center of the Cave. “I always have a countermeasure. I have Kryptonite, it would be stupid not to be prepared. But I have never, not once, crafted it into a weapon to use against him. And everytime, every time, I have had to use it, I’ve hated it.”
Bruce doesn’t let a thing show, but for a moment he can feel the rain on his skin, the desperate look on Clark’s face, the rush of triumph when the Kryptonite blade had cut into Clark’s cheek.
“I had acquired Kryptonite on my own, of course,” Batman continues. “But Clark gave me some as well. He knows that if I’m going to use it against him, I’ll have a good reason.” The words, unlike you, hang unspoken between them.
Batman strides over to the medical bay. “This is what I crafted out of the Kryptonite that Clark gave me.” He indicates the extra syringes and scalpels. Closer up, Bruce can just see a sliver of green on the blades’ edge. The syringes look normal, but he is sure that under a microscope they would have a kryptonite tip.
“You looked at him, and all you saw was a monster,” Batman says, and he sounds disgusted. “All that he is—all that you could have done together, and you helped to destroy it.”
Batman doesn’t wait for an answer, just turns and walks out of the Batcave.
Bruce follows, feeling sick. Batman is right. He had only seen Superman—seen Clark—as something to fear. He had never considered that there could be more to him than what Bruce had seen on the surface.
Bruce rarely allows himself the luxury of sleeping late. Between running a fortune 500 company by day, fighting evil by night and spending all of his time pretending he does neither, Bruce rarely has chance.
It should be more difficult to sleep here, in this strange world surrounded by people he only almost knows. But there is something about it. Something in the way the Manor creaks around him, the familiar smell of the sheets, freshly washed with Alfred’s favorite detergent.
When he finally emerges from the guest room, he follows the sound of voices to the casual dining room. He stops at the door, arrested by the sight that greets him.
Dick and Tim are fighting over a basket of rolls, Damien is digging into his omelet like it could be taken from him at any moment. Alfred is casually refilling orange juice, while Batman pretends to be reading the paper. Convincing: if Bruce didn’t know him(self) better, he might even buy it.
And sitting at Bruce’s right, as casual as breathing, is Clark Kent. He also has the newspaper propped up in front of him, but unlike Batman, his reading appears to be genuine. He looks nothing like the dour reporter that Bruce had met at Lex Luthor’s fundraiser, and even less like the alien god that Bruce had tried with all his might to destroy.
Instead, he’s wearing a Metropolis University sweatshirt, sleeves pushed up to reveal strong forearms, and his hair falls in loose curls around his face. He is wearing his glasses though, which baffle Bruce. Everyone here knows who and what he is, why maintain the pretense?
Most unrecognizable of all, he looks happy. Content.
“Good morning, Master Bruce,” Alfred says. Dick and Tim fall quiet to look up at him, which gives Damien enough time to dart forward and seize the basket from between them. Superman only nods to him and continues to peruse the paper in front of him. It is, Bruce is startled to see, in Arabic.
Batman ignores him completely.
“Good morning, Alfred,” Bruce replies, taking the seat that Alfred pulls out for him. It’s closer to Dick and Tim than to anyone else, and Bruce is faintly relieved. Damien is watching him with a fixed glare and ripping into his roll while trying to maintain a direct eye contact. It is unnerving, to say the least. Without missing a beat, Alfred already has a plate of eggs in front of him.
“They can’t both be Master Bruce,” Dick protests. “Won’t that get confusing?”
“No,” Bruce and Batman answer together. They glare at one another. Superman looks between the two of them and very pointedly says nothing.
“He cannot be Master Bruce!” Damien says, unexpectedly. “Father is Master Bruce! This man is an impostor!”
Beside him, Bruce hears Tim lean over to Dick. “It’s almost nice to hear him call someone else that, for a change.”
“He’s not an impostor, Damien,” Superman says. “He’s another version of your-”
“Be silent, alien!” Damien snaps.
Batman snaps his paper closed. “Damien.”
Damien gives his father a vicious glare, but subsides back into his chair, stabbing his knife directly into his omelet.
Batman turns to Bruce. “The League is still working on a way to get you back to your reality. In the meantime, stay in the Manor. You’re not to leave the grounds or venture into the Cave without supervision”
Bruce bristles at his tone. To his surprise, Superman interjects “It’s as much to help you as anything. We still don’t know how you came to be here, or what forces are at work. I’m sure you’d be more comfortable at home.”
Yes. No. His home—the empty lake house with his shrine to the dead in the basement.
“Don’t coddle him, Clark,” Batman snaps.
Superman doesn’t rise to the bait, only sniffs pointedly and raises the newspaper between him and Batman. Dick hides a grin behind his hand.
“I’d like to talk with you, before you go,” Tim says. “I mean, the optimal solution would be getting you home directly after the meeting, so the best time would be before-”
“School, Tim,” Batman interjects.
Tim gives him an almost comically betrayed look. “But Bruce-”
“You may be so over this inter-dimensional travel thing, but this is still new to me!” Tim protests.
Batman looks at him over the top of his paper. “What are the rules?”
“Oh, come on!”
“The rules, Tim?”
Tim gives Bruce an almost embarrassed look and mumbles “Vigilante activity is not to interfere with my school work unless the world is about to end, and only if it looks really, really close.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Bruce sees Superman twitch his newspaper forward so that it hides his mouth. The corners of his eyes are crinkled up behind the glasses.
“No exceptions. But Bruce—”
“No exceptions,” Batman says. “So you better going.”
“You suck,” Tim hisses at him, standing. To Bruce, he adds “if you get a chance, could you please at least leave a list of all the major life events you’ve experienced in the past fifteen years for me?”
Bruce feels momentarily wrong-footed at being stuck in the middle of what is so clearly a family matter. He glances to Dick, who grins at him.
“Sure, kid,” Bruce says.
Tim gives a filthy look. “I’m not a kid,” he says and storms out.
“Wow, Bruce,” Dick says. “You are monumentally bad at this.”
“Thank you,” Bruce replies shortly.
Dick only grins at him, unrepentant. Bruce has missed that smug smile, the way that he leans back ever so slightly when he thinks that he’s scored a point.
“Have you given any thought to my idea?” Dick asks Batman.
Batman actually folds his paper down to look at him. “Yes.” Dick looks excited. “And it is still never going to happen.”
“Oh, come on!” Dick says, and despite almost ten years Dick must have on him, he sounds just like Tim. “Clark agrees with me, don’t you.”
“Don’t bring me into this,” Superman replies without looking up from his paper.
“What idea?” Bruce asks.
“Dick—” Batman says, but Dick is faster.
“The Gotham Foundation for the Arts is having a fundraiser this week. I think that one of you should be there as Bruce Wayne, and we should have the other on standby as Batman. The rumors about Bruce Wayne being the Bat vigilante are going around again.”
“Not going to happen.”
“Just think about it, okay?” Dick asks.
Batman heaves a sigh, as much a show as anything else. “I will think about it. Don’t expect that to change my opinion.”
Bruce stares down at his place to avoid staring. Is this how Batman had kept Dick in his life? These small compromises, the minute concessions? Watching the way Dick grins as he carries his place to the kitchen, the way Batman hardly pauses in his reading, Bruce can see it has cost him nothing. He has promised nothing, but just being willing to listen—it meant the world to Dick.
He takes a bite of his eggs. They’re perfect, of course, and they taste like sand in his mouth. It doesn't matter to him. It’s too late for him.
Bruce is not accustomed to watching fights on television.
Batman had gotten a call on his Justice League communicator and left terse instructions that Bruce was to stay inside, then left. The boys had all left for school or, in Nightwing’s case, for work. Alfred had ushered Bruce into one of the more casual parlors, where a large screen tv was already broadcasting footage of a swarm of robots tearing up Central City.
“He interferes in other people’s cities?” he asks.
“When the others request assistance, yes,” Alfred replies. “That is rather the point of forming a League.”
The Flash, Wonder Woman, the Martian Manhunter and Oliver Queen are already there. Bruce’s first thought is surprise that Superman isn’t there already, but the thought barely has time to process when he flies in—with Batman.
“What the fuck.”
Alfred gives him a faintly disapproving look, but Bruce just scowls.
“He just let’s Superman carry him like that?” he demands. When Alfred only sits there, Bruce turns to him. “Does that happen a lot?”
“Oh, I’m sorry sir,” Alfred says, not sounding in the least bit sorry. “I thought you were speaking to yourself.”
“I believe he has expressed that this method is considerably faster.”
Bruce glares at the screen. Faster it may be, but it’s so undignified.
Alfred must read some of this on his face, because he sighs and adds “I believe that Master Bruce prioritizes the lives he may save by arriving sooner over the image of himself as a lone wolf.”
It’s disconcerting to hear Alfred calling someone else Master Bruce, so Bruce doesn’t reply.
It’s clear from the first few moments that this Justice League has been working together for longer then his has. They move together without needing to consult. In a swarm of over fifty robots converging on them, they never go after the same target. Wonder Woman, Batman and Green Arrow stand back to back, fighting as a team. Green Arrow and Batman use ranged weapons to attack at a distance, while Wonder Woman takes on those that slip through their defenses. The Flash is a scarlet blur that seems to be in all places at once, but always keeping within ten feet of where the others are fighting. The Martian Manhunter and Superman guard the group in the skies, stopping the robots from attacking them from above.
It’s all as seamless as a dance, effortless and beautiful.
Then Batman turns his head up and calls something. Superman stops and looks down. Then he is on the ground beside Batman. Green Arrow instantly adjusts, turning his bow to shoot at the enemy above them. The Flash moves closer to where Green Arrow is, still moving too quickly to pick up easily.
Wonder Woman separates from the group, and Bruce watches as Black Canary joins her. Together, they’re able to slip through the worst of the attacks, and when the camera shifts Bruce can see that they are singling out the leader. This leaves the others to defend themselves against the bulk of the robots, but there isn’t even a pause in their fighting.
If anything, it’s smoother now. Batman and Superman fight back to back, and neither of them hesitates for a second. They have an uncanny ability to always know where the other is. It’s beautiful to watch.
Bruce watches as someone else comes hurtling out of the sky. No, two someones. It’s a less controlled entrance then Superman’s had been, but Bruce is still impressed as the flier drops his passenger from at least thirty feet up. The flier is wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a leather jacket, which Bruce doubt is proper superhero attire, even in this reality.
The person he had dropped is in all red and black, with a cowl pulled up over his face and hair. For a second, his fall looks wild and uncontrolled. Then he shoots out a grappling hook and it turns into a controlled swing, hitting a robot squarely in the chest. It goes down in a shower of sparks, and the man drops to the ground in a flip.
It’s Alfred’s sudden tension that gives Bruce the final clue he needs to the man’s identity. “Is that Tim?”
Alfred lets out a slow breath. “So it would appear.” He glances at the large grandfather clock in the corner. “And it seems he is skipping school.”
“Who’s his friend?” Bruce asks. The news changes to a split screen, showing Wonder Woman and Black Canary in a heated fight with a robot easily twice the size of the others—Superman and Batman fighting back to back—Tim joining Green Arrow and the Flash to their left—the flying stranger and the Martian Manhunter.
For a moment, the camera catches on the strangers face and Bruce draws in a breath because he looks almost exactly like the pictures Bruce had once seen at the Kent’s farmhouse. He looks exactly like how Clark had looked in high school.
“That is Superboy,” Alfred says. “Master Tim must have called him.”
“Superman doesn’t look old enough to have kids that old,” Bruce says.
“Hm,” Alfred says noncommittally.
“Doesn’t anyone in the League protest his, ah, dress code?” Bruce asks.
Alfred’s mouth twists in amusement. “One rarely succeeds in telling Superboy what to do.”
“Does he not have a civilian name?” Bruce asks.
“My instructions were not to share any identities you were not already aware of.”
Bruce feels irritation twist in his gut. “I don’t even think this kid exists in my world, I doubt it matters.”
Alfred gives a cool, level look. He doesn’t even need to say anything. Bruce resists the urge to cross his arms and pout like a child. Alfred’s look softens somewhat.
“I know that this must be difficult for you. To be in a place that is both like and unlike the one you are familiar with. To be around people who you believe that you should know, and yet are strangers to you.”
“What do you know about it?” Bruce snaps. Having information kept from him, from Alfred, of all people, grates on his nerves.
Alfred doesn’t rise to the bait, he never does. He only gives Bruce that look that makes him feel like a child having a tantrum.
“It is strange, for me as well. I look at you, and you are so much like the Master Bruce I know. And yet, in other ways you are a stranger.”
Bruce shakes his head. “Is it that obvious?” He watches Batman fight on the screen, surrounded by people he clearly trusts. The question slips out before he can stop it. “Are we so different?”
“Not to me, sir,” Alfred says. “But you are,” he pauses, hesitating over the word, “harder. Colder. Less open.”
Bruce snorts, amused by the idea of any version of himself as open. Alfred smiles, guessing the direction of his thoughts. “Yes, I suppose it must seem strange to you. Master Bruce is not an open person, a sharing person. But you, you seem more closed off than I have seen him in years. I think, perhaps, your life has been more lonely. Not strictly more difficult, for I do not know what you have gone through, nor do you know what he has experienced. But I think that there are less people with whom you can talk in your life.”
This time Bruce does cross his arms over his chest. Alfred can always make him feel like this, stripped open, exposed. “Just you,” he admits.
This, clearly, shocks Alfred. “Only me?” he repeats, as if in disbelief. It’s not like Alfred to repeat others.
“Who else?” Bruce asks.
Alfred turns to look back at the news. Batman and Superman are back to back now, no seams between them, effortlessly picking up where the other leaves off.
“Who else indeed?” Alfred says, and he sounds terribly sad.
The fight ends when Wonder Woman and Black Canary manage to incapacitate the lead robot. Whatever they do to it makes all of the other, smaller robots crumple to the ground, puppets with their strings cut.
The camera lingers on the heroes, even once the fight is over. Bruce watches as Batman strides towards Tim. Superman is still beside him, walking next to him, and his face is impassive, impossible to read. He is the cold and distant god that Bruce had once tried to kill, no sign of the man who had sat in the kitchen this morning and stolen a whole waffle from Dick when he wasn’t looking.
Bruce wonders if he plans to confront Superboy. Bruce wonders what Superboy’s relationship to him is. Are they actually related, or is it just a similar set of power that had earned Superboy his name?
Tim looks over and sees Batman heading towards him. He immediately looks to the sky, puts two fingers in his mouth and whistles. Hardly a blink later, Superboy is there, scooping Tim up and flying him out of range. Even with the distance on the camera, Bruce can tell that Superboy is laughing, wild and carefree.
He’s sure that the casual observer wouldn’t be able to see the way that Batman grits his teeth, but Bruce does. However, anyone would be able to see the way that Superman rests a hand on his shoulder, says something, clearly amused.
Then Superman takes to the air, and heads into the distance.
“Master Bruce will find his own way home,” Alfred says, presumably off of Bruce’s expression.
“What happened to the value of efficiency?” Bruce asks.
“Does not apply to exiting a crisis, only entering,” Alfred’s tone is wry.
Bruce watches the rest of the cleanup on TV, at a loss for what else to do. He hates feeling like this, useless, waiting. Alfred seems to understand, in that cool, implacable way that he has. Even though Bruce knows it’s not his own Alfred, he’s comforted by his presence. Alfred tops off Bruce’s tea and leaves him alone.
Whatever Batman does after the fight, he doesn’t return to the Manor immediately, leaving Bruce to wander the halls, feeling aimless. He can only assume it has something to do with Wayne Enterprises, but what does he know about this reality.
At the thought, he makes a natural, instinctive left down the next hallway. Being in the manor again feels like a toothache, one that he can’t stop prodding, making sure that it still hurts. There is evidence of the same kind of damage that had leveled his own house, entire walls that he can recognize as new, jarring cabinets replacing the ones from his memory, something inexplicable that lingers in the air.
But it is still a faithful recreation, a loving one. It’s more than Bruce has himself. Batman had managed to rebuild, while Bruce himself has turned the burned out shell into a mausoleum of his failures.
The library looks the same as he remembers. There are books missing that Bruce would have expected to see, but the smell, the color of the wood on the walls, the texture of the chairs beneath his fingers, it’s all a perfect recreation.
It’s easy enough to find where Batman keeps the newspapers—more of The Daily Planet than Bruce had kept, equal in number to The Gotham Gazette. Bruce can’t pretend he doesn’t know why.
He reads his way through The Gotham Gazette first, tracking the life and times of Batman, both personally and professionally. He reads about Batman adopting Dick Grayson. He reads about the formation of the Justice League. He reads about the first appearance of Robin, about the first appearance of Nightwing.
He realizes that his fists are clenched, his breaths coming short. He’s braced for it, expecting it, but it still lands like a blow, to see that photo of himself, head bowed at a funeral. It’s almost exactly the same photo that had run in his own world. A picture of a father in grief, capturing his greatest failure.
Bruce makes himself read the headline, read about the loss of Bruce Wayne’s ward, Jason Todd. The tragic, mysterious circumstances of his death.
He had wondered, when he’d seen Tim and Damian, seen how close Dick and Batman still were, if perhaps there had been no Jason Todd. No punk kid trying to steal his tires, no great loss that had rocked him to his core, shaking him loose in a way he hadn’t felt since he’d watched his parents die.
But no. Batman had suffered the same loss, had weathered the same pain. He’d managed to rebuild, literally and figuratively, in a way that Bruce himself had never managed. There was no bloody, painted suit in the cave. No half-home in the lake house, carving out a solitary life that even Alfred had trouble breaching on his bad days.
He sets The Gotham Gazette aside, unable to read what follows. He turns, instead, to The Daily Planet . Stories about Superman feature prominently, going back much further than in his own world. Clark Kent’s byline features heavily as well, chronicling over a decade at the Planet, moving from sports to a brief stint in society to investigative journalism.
Bruce is embarrassed on Batman’s behalf to see that some of the papers, ones where Clark Kent has a front page story, or where Superman pulls off something particularly astounding, are more thoroughly read, evidence of multiple read throughs in the creases of the paper and the worn soft corners.
“Be careful with that one,” a voice from the door makes him jump, all the more startling because he hadn’t heard anyone approaching, and he had been listening. Tim is leaning against the door frame, back in jeans and a t-shirt, hair wet from a shower. “It’s one of his favorites.”
Bruce glances down at the paper in his hands. Nothing about it seems particularly memorable. It’s Kent’s name on the front page by-line again, but Bruce has seen that before, in earlier issues. It looks like any article, detailing corrupt business practices of Luthor Corp, as though that were any surprise. But, sure enough, this one bears those tell-tale marks of frequent rereading.
Bruce has to admit that Kent has an eloquent turn of phrase, a way with words that makes a reader want to care, even if he does tend towards unrealistic idealism.
“Can’t imagine why.” He tosses it, deliberately nonchalant, back on the table. Tim makes a face at him, like he knows what Bruce is doing, and he isn’t impressed. It’s strange to see what is so clearly one of Alfred’s expressions on someone else’s face.
Tim takes the seat across from Bruce and pulls the paper closer to himself. “He and Clark worked this story together. Well, not the story itself, but on the investigation. Bruce wanted to act more directly, but Clark wanted to make the truth public.” He gives Bruce a direct look. “Clark’s big on stuff like that. He’s very careful not to overreach his power, not to interfere in things that law enforcement can handle.” He turns the paper back to face Bruce.
“A week after the article was published, Lex Luthor went to jail. He didn’t stay for long, of course. But Clark was right.” His mouth twitches up in a smile. “I think Bruce likes it when someone proves him wrong. Keeps him on his toes.”
Bruce snorts. He can’t imagine a world like that. Tim grins, like he knows exactly what Bruce is thinking. “Maybe it’s just Clark and us,” he says. “But that’s why he trusts us. He’s not infallible.” This time his stare reminds Bruce of himself, cool and accessing. “You’re not infallible either.”
Bruce’s eyes twitch towards the stack of Gotham Gazette’s , but the story of Jason’s death is buried. “I know.” He is far from infallible. Tim is still watching him, something in his face that reminds Bruce of how Batman had looked at him in the study the other night. “Who told you?”
“Told me what?” Tim asks, all youthful innocence. Bruce knows that trick. He just narrows his eyes. Tim sighs. “I guessed. And also I’ve planted listening devices at the League headquarters.”
Bruce doesn’t let his surprise register. But still, it’s impressive. Tim can’t be older than eighteen.
“I’m a genius,” Tim says, reading Bruce’s face anyway. “And Oracle’s devices are almost impossible to detect, even by Superman.” He gives Bruce a conspiratorial look. “Between you and me, I think he knows anyway. Him and Bruce both.”
Bruce doesn’t know what to say about any of that, least of all the teasingly casual way that Tim talks to him, so different and yet so similar to Dick at that age. “Oracle?” he says.
“Barbara Gordon?” Tim asks, surprised. “Man, if she’s around in your world, you gotta talk to her. I can’t imagine you’d half as good without her. She’s a genius too.”
“The commissioner’s daughter?” Bruce asks, surprised.
“And her own person, too, how about that,” Tim says mildly. “I take it you never had a Batgirl on your team?”
“Batgirl.” Bruce repeats it slowly, incredulously, feeling the unfamiliar weight of it on his tongue.
“Is it really just you and Alfred?” Tim asks, leaning forward, expression eager. “How do you manage?”
“Well, for starters,” Bruce says, not wanting to get into the history of his own team, “I don’t have as much League business to handle as he does.”
“Hm,” Tim says, apparently unsatisfied. He nods towards the stack of papers. “Any idea on a divergence point?”
Part of Bruce flinches from telling him, from discussing this with anyone. But there is something so matter-a-fact about Tim, the way he expects to be included, that he has no doubt that Bruce will share his theories. And more, that Tim has no doubt that he himself will be helpful.
Bruce taps the top paper, a Daily Planet article from a week previous. “It seems Dick’s time travel theory wasn’t fully off. You’re about three years ahead of me.”
Tim’s face creases in thought. “That explains Damian, at least, but not me. I joined almost five years ago, not to mention the rest of the League. Dick said you’d only barely formed a League in your world. And that you and he were estranged, which you haven’t been here since—” he pauses noticeably, then finishes with “since Dick turned twenty one.”
His own Dick is twenty three now, which would put Nightwing at twenty six. That’s five more years that Batman has had with his—with Dick. Two more even when he was at Bruce’s own place in the timeline.
“Superman has clearly been more active in your world than in my own.” He doesn’t know what to think about that. If that truly is the divergent point, if all the things that Batman has are due to the presence of Superman—
“Hm.” Tim pulls the stack of Daily Planets closer to himself, starting to page through them.
“Superman, or Clark Kent?” comes a voice from the door, and Bruce stifles his initial reaction of sheer irritation. From the look on Tim’s face, he’s less than successful. Tim raises a hand to his mouth, trying too late to hide his grin.
“Both,” Bruce says, and his voice comes out neutral enough. Or, at least, until he sees the way that Tim’s eyes crinkle in amusement. He gives Tim a dirty look, but Tim is unphased.
Batman pulls out a chair next to Tim, and reaches for the stack of Daily Planets as well.
“Hey!” Tim doesn’t let them go, trying to pull them closer to himself. Batman doesn’t say anything, just gives Tim a stern look. “I was here first,” Tim grumbles, but he lets the stack go.
Without answering, Batman picks up the top half of the pile and drops it in front of Tim. Tim grins at him, and Bruce doesn’t have to be a detective to read the affection there, the love. Batman is loved by his family.
Bruce consciously relaxes his hands.
Batman sorts through the papers easily, hardly even glancing at them before he easily pulls two out. The first, an almost meaningless front page story about the regional wage gaps. The second, the one Bruce had identified as Superman’s first appearance. Almost as an afterthought, Batman pulls out a third paper—Lois Lane’s front page interview with Superman.
Without asking, or even looking at Batman’s stack, Tim has started flipping through his own pile of papers. He has to spend a bit more time with them, clearly not as familiar with the papers as Batman is, but he extracts two papers of his own. Bruce can only see one of them, a public interview announcing the formation of the Justice League.
“This is Superman’s first public appearance,” Batman says, tapping the article. Bruce had already identified that much. The date on the paper is March, 2001.
“He can’t have been more than 22,” Bruce says, doing quick math.
“21. His birthday is in June.”
God. That’s younger than Dick is now, younger even than Bruce had been when he started, though not by much.
“And this is Clark Kent’s first story with The Daily Planet ,” Batman says, opening regional wage gap paper to page 8. There is something meaningful, something telling, in how easily he turns to that page. In how easily he had pulled these three papers from the stack. When Bruce glances up, Tim meets his eyes, and there is something conspiratorial in his look. Bruce forces his gaze back to the paper, dated August 2001.
“You said that he started later in your world. When was his first public appearance?”
Everything about Batman’s tone makes his bristle, but this is important information.
“2014. Right before Black Zero.”
Tim and Batman exchange a look.
“What was he doing for those thirteen years?”
Bruce wants to claim ignorance, wants to end the conversation. Wants to pretend he had never learned what he did, too late to make a difference.
“Traveling. Helping. Just not,” he gestures, indicating flight.
“So, he wasn’t at the Daily Planet?” Tim clarifies, and Bruce shakes his head.
“He was underground, for most of it. On fishing ships and oil rigs.”
“Metaphorically underground,” Tim says, grinning. “Literally on the water.”
“He was running away,” Batman says. It’s not a question.
“From what?” Tim asks.
Batman drums his fingers on the table. “That is the question, isn’t it?” His gaze sharpens on Bruce’s face. “What about you? When did you first suit up?”
It feels like a million years ago. Even then, Bruce would never have called himself naive, but he’d had no idea what he had left for the world to take.
“That tracks with our timeline,” Tim says. Then, at Batman’s look. “What? It does!”
“If I am going to be stuck here, if I am going to share the details of my world,” Bruce’s voice is hard, “then I expect at least a reciprocal exchange of information.”
Batman gives him a cold look, considering, assessing. Then, without a word, he reaches across the table.
“Be honest with me,” he says, “and I will be honest with you.”
Bruce takes his hand and shakes it. He doesn’t test Batman’s grip, and Batman doesn’t test his. It feels like progress.
Tim mimes wiping a tear away from his eye. “That was a beautiful moment.”
Batman’s gaze snaps over to him. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten that you left school this afternoon.”
Tim stands up, his chair scraping back. “Oh man, do you hear that? It sounds like my homework is calling. Bye, Bruces!”
Bruce and Batman both watch him leave the library, and Bruce’s eyes cut over to Batman. A stranger might call his face impassive, but Bruce can see affection in his face, mirroring the way Tim had looked at Batman earlier. They have a true family here. A loving one.
“Did you have any other questions?” he asks, voice curt.
Batman gives him a considering look. “Tell me about Black Zero.”
This time, Bruce can’t help the way his hands curl into fists. He’s—perhaps not forgiven Superman, but moved past it. He knows now that nothing that happened that day was by choice. But still, the entire day is cloaked in anger and fear, and, now, regret. That day had festered in his mind like Jason’s death had, poisoning his rationality, his objectivity. That day had driven him to the one line he had sworn never to cross. He had stayed just shy of it, but it was only luck and Clark’s damnable empathy that had stopped him.
“I don’t see how that is relevant to getting me home.”
Batman doesn’t answer, instead pulls Tim’s extracted papers towards himself. He turns them both to face Bruce. The first is dated May, 2003, and shows Batman and Superman fighting back to back.
“This wasn’t the first time we met, of course, but it was the first time we fought together,” his mouth twitches, a barest hint of amusement, “instead of just fighting one another.” He looks up, meets Bruce’s eyes. “This was sixteen years ago.”
He picks up the second paper and drops it on top, the announcement of the Justice League, August, 2005. “This was fourteen years ago.” The picture shows what must be the founding members of this Justice League. Superman and Batman are in the front, Arthur and Diana flanking them both. But he can also see Barry, Oliver, and the unknown man in green who, even in the picture, emanates a faint glow.
“I myself have been to three alternate realities. Clark has been to six. The League, cumulatively, is in the double digits. As far as we’ve been able to determine, there are three ways one may end up in an alternate timeline. The first is a magical artifact- don’t laugh.” Bruce wasn’t laughing, but his face must have registered his skepticism. “Aliens have been proven to exist already, what is magic to that? You can’t rule anything out.”
Bruce doesn’t say anything, but Batman doesn’t seem to require his input.
“As I was saying, the first way one might end up in an alternate reality is a magical artifact. The second is speed. If you move fast enough, the barrier between realities becomes, shall we say, flexible. Each reality exists in the same plane, on different frequencies, and with enough speed one can shift from one frequency to another. Clark can do it if he pushes himself. Flash has done it on accident more than once. Now, as you haven’t seen a strange mirror or fought a magic user recently, number one seems out. You aren’t fast enough to stumble into number two, unless our timelines differ more wildly than I thought.” He quirks an eyebrow, and Bruce shakes his head.
“That leaves us with option three.” He leans forward on the table. “This is the most ephemeral, the hardest to explain and the hardest to resolve. There are forces in the world that are impossible to qualify. Superman may have been the first you encounter, but he will not be the last. There are—I suppose one might call them deities, but we call them Forces. Barry, and other Speedsters, are the most familiar with them, the one he calls the Speed Force is the source of their abilities.
“These forces are not sentient, as we understand the concept, but they sense imbalances. On occasion, if a world is sick, or has skewed too far from a designated timeline, they will… interfere.”
Bruce scoffs. “Like destiny?”
Batman makes a face that echoes what Bruce feels on his own. “No. Without free will—without the power of our own choice, we are nothing. This is, a nudge, at most. Sometimes, it comes as a flash, a dream. Sometimes, it’s this,” he gestures around him. “There is no way to predict the duration, when you will be released to your own world. The trigger may be time based, or you may need to learn something from us.”
“That is unacceptable,” Bruce says. “Gotham, my Gotham needs me. I can’t just disappear for an unknown amount of time.”
“I did not say that we would wait for the criteria to be fulfilled. That could take months, and I am not willing to house you for that long. The League is looking into alternative methods to send you home.”
“If you have so much experience with this, shouldn’t it be easy?” Bruce asks.
Batman gives him a hard look. “Easy to send you somewhere, sure. Believe me, it’s tempting. No, we need to find your timeline first. That is what’s difficult, and we don’t have the resources to spare.”
Bruce has seen the size of their Justice League, he doubts that.
“In the meantime, we go over our timelines. We find the differences, the similarities. We find out what it is you need to learn, and we correct it. It’s possible that we can activate the Force before the Leagues efforts come to fruition. Now. Tell me about Black Zero.”
Slowly, haltingly, Bruce does.
He tells him how it seemed like the sky was falling, the world was ending. How gods did battle in the sky above Metropolis and nearly brought the city down around them. He doesn’t tell his own part in it, how he pulled people out of the wreckage, how much he saw, but he doesn’t have to.
Batman listens to it all without comment, without ever looking away. The only reaction he has is when Bruce tells him how the fight had ended.
Batman’s mouth tightens. “He killed Zod?”
Bruce doesn’t know what to make of the expression on his face, if it’s anger or revulsion. Bruce is not in any position to defend Superman.
Batman’s hand twitches on the table, like he wants to curl it into a fist. “What was Zod doing at the time?”
Bruce had pulled the security tapes, had watched them over and over again, using them to fuel his own vendetta. He had called it a scream of rage, of triumph, when Clark had snapped Zod’s neck. It wasn’t until after Clark’s death that he had seen it as despair. He explains how Zod had forced Clark’s hand.
This time, Batman’s hand does curl, and he presses his fist slowly to his mouth, gathering himself. “That must have been hard for him,” is all he says.
“For him ?” Bruce repeats, incredulous. He can still remember the fear on that family’s face, as the gods themselves fought before them, as one was killed, murdered, and— Bruce pushes aside the familiar well of rage and the helplessness that swamped him whenever he thinks of Black Zero.
This time, the look in Batman’s face is unmistakable. It’s anger, and it’s aimed at Bruce.
“You really didn’t know him at all,” he says. “He was given an impossible choice, and he made it. He killed one of the last surviving Kryptonians, to save people—humans. And you think that meant nothing to him? Clark,” he draws in a breath, thoughtful, “Clark values life. More than anything.”
Batman’s eyes fall to the paper still left in front of him, the two of them fighting back to back.
Bruce follows his gaze, looks to the stack of Daily Planet papers to his left. The well-thumbed corners, the slightest curl of Batman’s mouth as he looks at the article, their first fight as allies.
“You’re in love with him.”
The words hang in the air between them, absurd, ridiculous. Bruce can hardly believe himself capable of love at the moment, cannot imagine it of any version of himself. But as soon as he says it, he knows he’s right, can feel the truth of it on his tongue—read the truth of it on Batman’s face.
It’s like watching a portcullis close, watching Batman’s face go stone still, that tell-tale curve of his lips falling away.
“We’re done here.”
Bruce doesn’t watch him go, won’t give him the satisfaction, but when he senses Batman has reached the door, he says “Avoiding it won’t make it any less true.”
In answer, the door to the library swings closed.
Bruce stays in the library for hours. He abandons the newspapers, he doesn’t want to read more about this seemingly perfect world, where he has sons and a home and—a love. He pushes the thought away. He has seen nothing to indicate a relationship, and Batman’s reaction confirms that. But even to be capable of love, of being vulnerable, after Jason. The other Robins, the places Tim and Damian have carved into the Manor, are baffling enough, but to fall in love…
And with Superman. An alien. He understands Clark better now, can see that he had been a good, if flawed, man. A being. Could he even be considered a man? He regrets Superman’s death, regrets the role he played in it. He knows now, he understands, the good they could have done together.
But to love him?
What was there in Superman that could inspire love from a man like Bruce Wayne, even one distorted almost past recognition? What was there in Superman’s proud, arrogant face to bring down a man like Batman? Almost unbidden, Bruce’s mind calls to mind Clark’s face, desperate, fearful. Pleading, not for his own life, but for someone else’s.
He shoves it away. There are plenty of other things that Batman has that have been lost to Bruce; love is only the most surprising. The rest— he traces his fingers down the spine of old books, books he had cherished as a boy, then to books he had devoured as a young man, books he had scoffed at as an adult.
His fingers stop on an old favorite. He had been too young to appreciate it when he had first read it, but it had stuck with him, prone to frequent rereadings all the way up until he left at 17. It had been the first thing he read on his return.
Like his own copy had been, the spine is worn, the pages soft. It makes Bruce think of the papers, the careful way they have been handled and stored and reread, as if they too contain something precious.
He returns the book to the shelf, no longer interested.
Alfred finds him there, hours later. He keeps meaning to read one of the books, but each one invokes a feeling, some too strong to bear, some not strong enough. Instead, he follows the urge to keep perusing, to touch every familiar and new book and let himself feel the memories they invoke.
Alfred has just the right way of entering a room, not so loudly as to disturb him, nor so quietly as to startle him. In some ways, it always feels as though Alfred has already been in the room, simply waiting to be addressed.
“I thought you might want some tea.”
“I’d prefer a good scotch,” Bruce replies. This section had been a favorite of his mother’s. Bruce had never been interested in the contents, romances and historical dramas, until he no longer had the option of reading them. He clears his throat against a sudden tightness.
Alfred does an impeccable job of pretending not to notice. “I’m afraid I left the whiskey on the other tray, sir.”
Bruce’s sigh is mostly for show, but Alfred is as unmoved as ever. “I suppose I’ll take the tea then. What kind is it?”
Alfred sniffs. “It’s earl gray. We aren’t heathens.”
Bruce takes the proffered cup. It is, as always, perfect.
Batman does not do anything so obvious as to avoid eye contact, but after breakfast—mercifully free of Superman, he catches Bruce’s arm.
“Tonight is Thursday.”
Bruce only looks at the hand on his arm, then back at Batman. Batman maintains the grip for long enough to make a point, then lets go.
“It’s family dinner,” he continues. “Clark will be over, along with—”
Bruce feels surge of irritation washing over him. “Clark isn’t family.”
The last family dinner he’d had—Dick and Jason squabbling over the last bread roll, Alfred patiently refilling Bruce’s wine, sticks in his mind like a burr.
The look Batman gives him is cold. “Family has nothing to do with blood.”
As if Bruce needs the reminder.
“I’ll be on my best behavior,” he says snidely, and God, he can hear it in his own voice. He sounds like a petulant child, being told he has to attend one of his parents’ dinner parties.
Batman rolls his eyes. “Yes, I’m sure. I just,” he hesitates, “I wanted to warn you—”
“Yes, yes,” Bruce says, utterly inhabiting Bruce Wayne. He’s tired of Batman stressing his own relationship with Superman. Punishing Bruce for his own failures, making him all too aware of them. “If I breathe a single word of what we discussed last night, you’ll hang me off of a roof.” He pushes past Batman, checking him with a shoulder just because he can. He feels petty even as he does it, but he hates this world, hates that Batman has so much, and Bruce has—
Batman’s face closes off, and in that moment Bruce realizes that his expression hadn’t been anger, hadn’t been threatening.
“Fine. Dinner is at seven.”
Bruce gives him a sarcastic salute. “Looking forward to it.”
Bruce spends the rest of the day in the gardens. They’ve been meticulously maintained, just as they had been in Bruce’s time, before—
Still, Alfred is one man, and a busy one beside that. Without Batman, he may have managed to keep the house, make the food, serve Bruce and maintain the garden all at once. Maybe that world exists, somewhere. It’s not here though. There are no weeds, no matter his schedule, Alfred would never permit such a thing, but there is no new growth either. The garden is one of the few things that is entirely frozen in time, exactly as his Mother designed it over thirty years ago.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Bruce doesn’t allow himself to flinch, but he’s startled by Dick’s sudden appearance at his left.
“You should have seen it at full bloom.”
Dick reaches out, traces the petals of one of the roses, grown ever so slightly over the path. “It must have been stunning.”
He doesn’t say that Bruce has told him so before, even though Batman surely had.
“Tim helps out down here, sometimes,” Dick says.
“With the gardening?” Bruce says, surprised. He had sometimes insisted that the boys handle chores, but it always meant cleaning up their rooms or taking care of the dishes, just enough to instill a sense of responsibility. He’s certainly never suggested they help with the household.
“Yep.” Dick tucks his hands into his pockets. He’s changed out of his uniform, and into a pair of jeans and a comfortable looking sweater.
“Alfred must hate it.”
Dick laughs. “He’s learned to tolerate it. Tim’s interests are varied.” He says the last with the air of quoting someone.
“And they include gardening,” Bruce says, skeptical.
Dick shrugs. “He finds it soothing, I guess. I don’t see the appeal, but hey. Whatever makes his little nerd heart happy.”
They continue to walk around the garden, slow and measured.
“He’s the most like you, out of any of us,” Dick says, unprompted.
Bruce stifles his initial response, which is something along the lines of ‘God, help him.’
Dick reads something in his face, because he clasps Bruce on the shoulder, an unfamiliar touch. “He’s a good kid, Bruce. When you get back, you should look into it. Drake, with a k.”
“How else would you spell it?” Bruce asks, amused.
Dick grins. “You always say to be specific.”
Batman always says. Bruce has only had two conversations with this Dick. He keeps letting himself forget that this isn’t his Dick. That his Dick hasn’t spoken to him in years.
He turns away, tucking his own hands into his pockets. With his own dark sweater, he and Dick must look a matched pair.
“I’ll look into it.” It’s a lie. He has no room in his life for another Robin. No room in his house, or in his heart. He’s caused too much death already.
Dick makes a low, skeptical noise.
There is so much Bruce wants to ask him. How did he get over his anger at Batman. How is it that he is here, now, talking to Bruce and spending nights at the Manor like it never stopped being his home.
He shoots a look back to Dick, about to ask—something, something too vague to be of any use, but something— when his eyes catch on Dick’s hair, the cut of the shirt.
“You’re dressed up.” Well, by Dick’s standards. His hair is done up with some product and his sweater is not only warm but fits well, hugging his biceps and cutting in close at his waist.
Dick fidgets, ever so slightly, his training versus Bruce’s observational abilities. “Bruce told you about dinner?”
“He mentioned it.” Oh God. If Dick has dressed up to impress Superman, Bruce might have to bow out, or risk throwing himself out a neighboring window.
“We always dress nice for family night. It’s a gesture.” There is no lie in his face, but Dick has been trained by the best for years, and Bruce can’t trust that. Still, nothing in Dick’s demeanor had suggested he (liked) wanted to impress Superman, so Bruce brushed that horrifying thought aside.
“I’m sure it’s not necessary,” he says, truthfully. He can’t imagine being anything but pleased at having Dick over. (A deliberate self-deception, as though there hadn’t been times that Bruce himself had been the angry party, as if there had never been fights between them that Bruce instigated, but—but he supposed even then, he would have been glad not to have chased Dick off. And happy to see Dick or not, what he was wearing wouldn’t factor into it.)
“Did Bruce tell you about-”
“Yes,” Bruce bites off. He’s getting sick of being so thoroughly managed.
“Alright,” Dick says slowly. “And you’re… fine?”
“I’ll manage,” Bruce says shortly.
Dick rolls his shoulders. He still looks skeptical. “I just wanted to warn you.”
Bruce fights the urge to snap. “Thank you, but I can handle myself.”
Dick lays his hand on Bruce’s shoulder. “If you do need a minute—”
Bruce shrugs him off. “I won’t. Nothing about this is a surprise.” Anymore. It’s not going to be the first time he’ll be seeing Superman, he doesn’t understand why they think this will be the time that gets him.
“Oh.” Dick is surprised, pleased. “Good! That’s great! I didn’t realize he had—I thought, if you and I still weren’t talking, he must still be—but. Well, I’m glad.”
Bruce has utterly lost the thread of the conversation. He grasps for it, turning to ask Dick what he means, or to finally get an answer on why this Dick had found this Bruce worthy of forgiveness.
But then Alfred calls them both from the porch.
“I better go play mediator,” Dick says. “He’ll be here soon.”
As if Batman needed a mediator with Superman. Unless, of course, Dick wanted to be in place to play mediator for Bruce. Bruce tamps down on the rush of irritation that follows, and watches Dick rush back into the house. Bruce stays out for a few more minutes, breathing in the heady smell of the garden.
(He’s not nervous, that would be absurd. But still, it is… jarring, to see Superman. To watch him laugh, and fit so easily into a life that could have been Bruce’s.)
He takes another breath, and turns back to the Manor.
There is a sense of foreboding that sometimes creeps up on Bruce, when his instincts and well-honed senses are all telling him that something is off, even if he hasn’t consciously picked up on it yet. It’s happened more and more rarely over the years, as he gets more practiced with picking up the clues consciously before his subconscious feels the need to get involved.
That sense of foreboding looms on him now, begins when he hears the familiar hum of a motorcycle. Superman does use a motorcycle—or, he had, in Bruce’s world. Martha Kent had shown him a picture, Clark leaning against a bike that was sleek and dark. In his dark leather jacket and windswept hair, he had been devastating—but it still feels off, feels wrong.
The feeling gets worse when the bike pulls to a stop outside the Manor. Bruce hadn’t intended to be watching it pull up, but Dick had already been waiting in the foyer, and Bruce had wanted to prove a point.
This bike is nice, gorgeous, but it’s off. It’s smaller than Clark’s had been, better for city driving than the open road, and Clark Kent of The Daily Planet wouldn’t ride a motorcycle, so that would be all but useless to him. Instead of dark paint and chrome lines, this bike is mostly red, black appearing only as a rare accent.
When the figure swings off the bike, Bruce is suddenly sure that things are about to go terribly wrong. That’s not Clark’s build, a different breadth to the shoulders, a few inches less height. A vastly different way of moving, all cocky attitude that Superman at his worst had never reached. There is something familiar about it, ever so slightly, but Bruce can’t make the connection.
Then the helmet comes off, and Bruce’s knees buckle.
Jason, older, broader. A man, when he had died as a boy. His hair is cut short, bleached white in the front. He fills out his leather jacket, more muscle on him than he’d ever been able to maintain at 15. He’s scowling, but even with the distortion of years, Bruce knows that scowl. It’s a default expression, not meaning any displeasure.
He is familiar. Known. Alive.
“Oh, fuck,” Dick says, and catches him as he goes down.
“What’s wrong with him?” Jason asks. His voice is deeper, more gravel in it than he should have, but still familiar.
“Don’t just stand there, asshole, help me!” Dick snaps, still struggling with Bruce’s weight. There is static in his brain, and he tries to find his footing—literally and metaphorically. He fails—literally and metaphorically.
“You like my ass,” Jason replies, but he takes Bruce’s over arm and pulls it over his shoulder. Without having the worry about supporting Bruce’s whole weight, it’s easy enough for Dick to do the same.
“You said you’d be fine,” Dick says accusingly.
“I can’t believe you fell for that,” Jason says. Together, they get Bruce back into the foyer. The humiliation of being dragged along by his—by his—Bruce’s mind statics out again, but he manages to get to his feet. He wants to say something, but he’s afraid if he opens his mouth, he’ll start crying.
“Is this other-Bruce?” Jason asks, and he cranes around to look Bruce in the face. Bruce can hardly look at him. He can’t look away.
“Oh, dear.” Good, more company. Alfred and Batman stand in the doorway, Batman in a neat suit.
“You said you warned him,” Dick snaps.
“I tried,” Batman replies. “I figured you would handle it.”
“You can’t leave it to me to handle all the emotional shit you’re too repressed to deal with.”
“History suggests otherwise,” Jason mutters, and Dick gives him a dirty look.
“I’m—” fine almost comes out of his mouth, but Bruce can’t quite manage it. He steps away from both Dick and Jason, and it’s only a little like the world is spinning around him. “I—you’re alive.” Jesus.
Jason looks down at himself, then back at Bruce. The smirk curling at his mouth is familiar, but it’s much more refined than he could have managed as a child. “Last I checked.”
“Don’t—” Dick starts.
“How?” Bruce cuts him off.
Jason looks at Dick, then shrugs. “Good luck?”
He had been dead. This wasn’t a divergent point, Bruce had seen the news articles. He had died, and yet here he was, hale and healthy. Even more cocky and arrogant than he had been at 15, which had seemed impossible at the time.
Bruce had buried him. Had grieved him.
“Is, ah, is now a bad time?”
And, of course, at the door is the other man that Bruce had buried before his time. Superman comes up to Jason’s side, and the two of them, there together—neither of them are in costume, but side by side, they could be in the glass cases that had stood in the Batcave.
He blinks, and he can almost see it. Jason, with the Joker’s last laugh painted onto his blood-covered suit. Clark, with his chest split open.
“I need.” He takes a step back, reeling. It’s too much. “Excuse me, I need a moment.”
He barely makes it to the bathroom before he throws up.
When Bruce emerges from the bathroom, having splashed water on his face and given himself a stern talking to, there is another person in the living room. She looks to be about Dick’s age, with striking red hair and bright eyes.
It takes a moment to place her as the commissioner’s daughter, the wheelchair throwing him off.
“You must be Barbara,” he says politely, taking her hand. She exchanges a look with Dick.
“I see what you mean.” Then, to Bruce, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, I guess.”
She pulls her hand free, but as she wheels away, he’d hears her mutter, “nice to meet a man I’ve known half my life, jesus, this job never stops being weird.”
Bruce had looked around, startled, to find Superman already watching him, amusement clear in his gaze. There is something conspiratorial in the look, a way that suggests a shared language to looks that he is used to exchanging. Bruce doesn’t know his half of the exchange, and he looks away, uncomfortable.
Dinner is marginally better, if only because there are enough people around to carry a conversation, even when Bruce feels like he’s underwater.
He’s a stranger here, in the midst of what is unmistakably a family. Batman talks with Superman in a low voice, both of them oriented close to one another in a way that almost hurts to look at. Tim and Barbara talk about people Bruce has never heard of, then into a discussion that Bruce only half understands about surveillance equipment.
Damien sits between Dick and Jason, and over the past few days, it’s become clear that Batman and Dick are the only ones able to exercise any measure of control over the boy. Jason doesn’t even try, just rolls with the punches. At one point, Damien aims a stab at him with a fork that Jason deflects long enough for Dick to reach over and take the fork away from him.
Conversation flows around the table, setting Bruce easily outside of it. Superman asks about Tim’s school, Barbara tells Dick about a new computer system she’s installed, Jason holds a basket of rolls out of Damien’s reach. That particular game comes to an end when Damien jumps onto his chair, and only subsides when Batman snaps his name across the table.
There seems to be a no-work rule at the table. Or, at least no capes, he realizes as he listens to Superman share a story about Lois Lane and how they had ended up hiding in a dumpster for a half-hour. They all skirt the edge of the rule, but then someone else will clear their throat or change the topic, and conversation moves on.
Bruce has no place in it.
They try to draw him in; Barbara asks about what philanthropic investments Wayne Industries has been pursuing in his reality, Tim eagerly tells him about his recent research into, of all things, the history of the trebuchet.
“And is that for…strategic purposes?” he asks hesitantly, trying to imagine integrating that into the Batmobile.
Jason and Dick both snort in unison, but Tim just blinks at him.
“No? It’s just for fun.”
Fun. Of course.
“Timboy is a nerd,” Jason explains, and every time he addresses Bruce directly, it’s like a blow.
It’s surreal, to watch Superman chat so easily with Dick, asking about his recent cases and sharing his own anecdotes. It’s worse to watch the way that Dick and Jason squabble over food, casual and easy with one another.
In the brief time between when Dick had left to be Nightwing and the day he had stopped speaking to Bruce for good, there had been a time when Dick had come by the Manor to check on Jason. He’d still been mad about Bruce taking on a new Robin, about giving away what Dick felt was his name and his costume, but he hadn’t taken that anger out on Jason.
Their relationship had never been easy, with Dick’s resentment and Jason’s trust issues between them, but they’d almost been friends before—before.
Now, it’s not quite easy, but there is no tension there. No resentment. They elbow one another and talk about mutual acquaintances, and it’s so much like the future that Bruce had envisioned for them that Bruce can hardly stand it.
Bruce makes it through dinner. He’s long since perfected how to move food on his plate to make it look like he’s eaten. (Carefully ignoring, of course, that Alfred has an equal amount of experience watching Bruce do this. It is polite fiction at best.) He couldn’t make himself try more than a few bites, sick with longing and regret as he watches how easily he too could have had this, or something like it.
“Movie?” Barbara asks, already heading to the entertainment room.
“Sure,” Superman says, stretching. Bruce’s eyes follow the way that his shirt rides up over his hips, and he tears his eyes away. Batman isn’t watching, but that seems too deliberate to be anything other than a tell.
Dick catches Bruce’s eyes and makes an exasperated face, as if inviting Bruce in on the joke. His throat feels tight.
“I’m in, but we’re not watching any Pixar shit this week,” Jason says, already following Barbara. “Explosions, or I’m walking.”
“Good, walk,” Dick says.
“I vote Star Wars,” Tim suggests, and everyone groans. “What! Things explode.”
“We’re watching The Fast and the Furious,” Batman says with authority.
“As if you need any ideas,” Jason mutters, and Bruce can’t do this.
He hooks a thumb at the door. “I’m just going to—” He can’t finish the sentence. He can already feel his breathing changing, and he locks it down, controls it.
He doesn’t wait for anyone to reply, just turns on his heel and heads for the door. Once he’s out of sight of everyone—not Superman, never Superman, and that thought makes the familiar prickle of anger and fear creep up his spine—he slumps against the wall and tries to breathe.
In the end, he returns to the garden. It’s the one part of the house that doesn’t feel like he’s been transported back in time, sickeningly stuck in a place he’s lost. One that he has burned and razed to the the ground.
Even the garden is a reminder, not the overgrown tangle of Bruce’s timeline, but it’s closer than anything else. (He and his Alfred pretend that he doesn’t know Alfred still tends to the garden. Alfred is careful not to make it too much a part of his routine and Bruce—Bruce has gotten good at pretending.)
His breathing doesn’t change. But then, Bruce has gotten very good at controlling it. His heart is racing, his palms are clammy. He feels sick his stomach, hot to the touch. He takes in a deep breath, feeling the cool air in his lungs, on his face. It helps, but not enough.
He hears footsteps on the path behind him, and turns to look.
Jason looks like a ghost, silhouetted in the moonlight, and Bruce flinches back from him before he can help it. Jason just watches him, his hands tucked into his pockets, eyes shadowed in the low light.
“You’ll miss the movie,” Bruce says stupidly.
Jason waves a hand. “It’s Fast and Furious, they’ll drive some cars, blow some things up and say a lot of things about family. I’m not missing anything.”
Bruce hasn’t watched a lot of movies in the past decade, so he’ll take Jason’s word on it.
“They didn’t tell you I was back.”
Bruce shrugs, like it doesn’t matter. Like it hasn’t rocked him to his core. “They tried,” because that seems blindingly obvious in hindsight.
Jason barks a laugh, nothing like how he’s laughed as a kid. Bruce has no idea who this man it. He doesn’t know him, doesn’t know how to talk to him. But then, he never knew how to talk to Jason. Maybe if he did, he’d still be alive.
“I’m sorry.” The words burst from him, fully formed. If he were in a better place, he might have been able to reel them in, but as it is, he can only hear them leave his mouth, hanging in the night air.
Jason rocks back on his heels, startled. “Wow. Uh. Wow.” He stares at Bruce. “I didn’t think I would ever hear you say that. Not even an alternate version of you.”
Bruce doesn’t have an answer to that, so he doesn’t say anything.
Jason seems just as uncomfortable. “I was sent to come get you.”
“Did Superman tell you where I was?” Bruce asks, and it comes out stronger than he intends. He doesn’t dislike Superman anymore, doesn’t truly distrust him, but the knowledge that he can see Bruce, hear him, as he has a quiet meltdown is almost unbearable.
“Uh, no? I mean, you’re not that hard to predict. You don’t have a room here, and you wouldn’t feel comfortable in the Cave so. Garden or Library.” He pauses. “You’re allowed to call him Clark, you know. He prefers it.”
Bruce has a vast list of things he would prefer, but there’s no point in getting into that.
“So did you want to head in, or keep wandering the rose garden like you’re in a fucking Jane Austen novel?”
“He never apologized?” Bruce asks.
“Jesus,” Jason says, with feeling. “No. Bruce never,” he scuffs his foot on the ground, looking more like the boy Bruce remembers. “He never did.”
“You died,” Bruce says, and his voice cracks.
“Yeah. Yeah, I did.”
The date on the newspaper was the same as Bruce’s. The same time, the same death.
“He— when you,” he stumbles over the words, “came back, he never said—”
Jason had died slowly, agonizingly. He had died, and it had been Bruce’s fault. He had died, and he had only been 15. Bruce doesn’t like apologies, but Jason, of all people, deserved one.
“Whatever you’re imagining, it wasn’t like that,” Jason says. “When I came back- it wasn’t. I wasn’t. It’s not like whatever you’re thinking.”
“What was it like?” He has to know, has to understand.
Jason pushes a hand through his hair. “Jesus, I guess we’re doing this.” He looks around him, as if looking for support from the garden. “God, I feel like we’re in a fucking Victorian novel. Sure, let’s do the dramatic confrontation in a goddamn garden.”
“Well, I promise not to kiss you,” Bruce says. Jason stares at him, then gives another of his deep, single laughs.
“You can be so weird sometimes.”
“Did you want to,” Bruce gestures at the path.
Jason makes a face, presumably at the idea of strolling around the garden. “No, thanks. That’s much worse.” He sucks in a deep breath, then another. “Look, it wasn’t like my, my return, or whatever, was this big fucking beautiful moment. It was—it was bad.”
Bruce can’t imagine a situation in which Jason’s return wouldn’t be a gift, a revelation.
“But you died,” is all he says.
“Yes.” Easy, no hesitation.
“You died, and it was my—” he chokes on it. “His fault. And he didn’t even—couldn’t even.”
He doesn’t realize he’s struggling until Jason puts a hand on his shoulder, warm and solid. Real. He pushes, and Bruce follows until his knees hit one of the stone benches.
“You asked for it,” Jason says, and sits next to him. “I don’t think I can stress how angry I was. The way I came back, it’s—” he shutters. “It’s terrible. It changes you, twists you. Add to that, the way I died,” he looks away. “I didn’t come back as the kid you buried, Bruce. I’m certainly not that kid now.”
“No,” Bruce rasps, “that much is obvious.”
Jason snorts. Then he look away, his gaze going distant. “When I came back, and the Joker was in Arkhham, and you’d already picked up another Robin, I could hardly think. I was so furious. I hated you. I hated Tim. Well, I didn’t know Tim. I hated the idea of Tim. Of another Robin.”
Bruce listens, frozen, as Jason explains the first months of his return, of fighting Tim, of confronting Bruce, of installing and maintaining a regime in the criminal underworld.
“So, you see,” Jason shrugs, and there is nothing casual about it. “Apologetic wasn’t Bruce’s primary emotion. I doubt he even cared I was back.”
Bruce shakes his head. “Ja-” His voice catches. “Jason. I—if there is any part of him that is like me,” and there is, Bruce has seen that much, seen it too much, “then no matter what you did, no matter what it cost, he was glad to have you back. And.” He swallows. “And no part of him that wasn’t sorry.”
There is a lump in his throat.
“Then why didn’t he ever act like it?” Jason snaps, and this time his voice breaks. Bruce looks at him, and Jason looks away and grimaces, like he hates that he said it. “It’s fine,” Jason says after a moment. “I’m over it.”
“When you died,” Bruce has to swallow around the lump in his throat, before it came out in other ways, “it was hard for me.” What a pretty way to say that it nearly broke him. That he had felt, for a long time, like nothing in the world mattered.
“Did you kill the Joker?” Jason asks.
He thinks he knows what answer Jason wants. He can’t give it. “No.”
Jason laughs, and it cracks and shakes around the edges. “Then what does it matter?”
“Do you want me to have killed him?”
“No.” Jason says, an automatic reaction. A trained reaction. Then. “Yes! I want you to have—to fucking care. He killed me, he tortured me, and your stupid code, your fucking morals mattered more to you then your own—your—”
Bruce puts a hand on his shoulder, and turns Jason into him. Jason is an adult, 21 at least, but in this moment he could be 15 again. He turns his face into Bruce’s neck. He doesn’t cry, just breathes. Bruce slowly, carefully, puts his arms around Jason, pulls him into a hug. It’s been so long—
“I’m sorry,” he says again. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you.”
Jason pulls back after a long moment. “You’re not sorry you didn’t kill the Joker?”
Bruce thinks about it. It’s not as though the idea never crossed his mind. “No.”
He doesn’t let Jason turn away, even when he tries. “But don’t ever, ever, think that means I didn’t care. That I don’t care.”
“Whatever,” Jason says softly, but there is no heat to it.
Bruce considers him, the moonlight making the white streak in his hair glow. “How long ago did you come back?” Bruce asks.
“Three years,” Bruce repeats, slowly. “Three years ago, for me, you died.” Jason sucks in a breath, but Bruce doesn’t let him speak. “I buried my son. He was only 15. I thought—I didn’t think I would ever recover.” It’s easier to talk if he doesn’t look at Jason. He thinks maybe Jason needs to hear it. He think maybe he needs to say it. “I didn’t kill the Joker. I wanted to. God, I wanted to. But if I did something like that, just because I wanted to, what would that make me? Where would the line be?”
“I don’t get that.” Jason says. “He killed people. It’s not a dubious case, it’s not hearsay. He killed people and he deserves to die.”
“Maybe.” Bruce says. “But that’s a hard line to come back from.”
“A year after that, Superman appeared. It was—” no words can express the feeling of watching gods battle in the sky above him. “It was terrifying.”
“Clark?” Jason asks, incredulous. Bruce reflects briefly on the timeline Tim had given him, and realizes that Superman would have been a staple in Jason’s childhood, a part of his life. Not a creature to fear, but a man to admire.
“I can’t explain. It’s so different here. But that first day, it was a fight. He was fighting another Kryptonian, and just between the two of them, they almost destroyed Metropolis.”
“ Clark ?” Jason repeats again.
“And I thought of you,” Bruce says softly, and Jason falls quiet. “And I thought of how certain I was that I shouldn’t kill, and how, through my inaction, you had died. And Superman was so, so strong. If there was any chance that it was a ruse—any chance at all. It wasn’t like the Joker. If Superman decided to kill people, he could do it in the millions. And I thought about what it had been like to bury you, and know it was my fault.” He closes his eyes. “I couldn’t do it again, couldn’t let my inaction have such a cost again.”
There is a beat, as his words process. Then. “You tried to kill Superman?”
Bruce can only nod.
“Jesus,” Jason says, shaking his head. “Jesus, Bruce, when you break your moral code, you don’t do it by halves, do you?” He laughs. “Not enough that you kill someone, you go after an invulnerable man who likes to save kittens from trees.”
He laughs, and keeps laughing. It seems absurd when Jason says it like that. Watching him laugh, watching the hysteria bleed out of him, hearing it laid out like Bruce is a crazy person, he can’t help but laugh as well. The two of them lean against one another until the laughter dies out.
“What stopped you?” Jason asks after awhile.
“Superman is dead in my world,” Bruce says, because it feels important.
“I know. Dick told me.”
“And you don’t think I killed him.” It would be a logical transition, from the conversation they’ve had. Even Batman had believed it of him.
Jason looks at him, full in the face, eyes searching. “No, I don’t. I know you better than that. I know, I’ve known, why you didn’t kill the Joker. I don’t think you’d have killed Superman. What stopped you?”
“He did. Not like,” he indicates fighting. “He reminded me he was a person. He asked,” Bruce looks away, “I could have killed him, and he asked for me to save his mother. I hadn’t thought of him as someone with a mother.”
“Ah.” After a moment, Jason says. “The Joker doesn’t have a mother.”
Bruce has to laugh at that.
“I mean it, Bruce. I do get why you let him live. It’s not my way, it won’t ever be. That road’s closed to me now. But I get it.”
Bruce clasps his shoulder. “Then why did you bring it up.”
When Jason meets his gaze, his eyes look a bit damp. “I really am over it. But sometimes,” he pushes a hand through his hair, “sometimes I forget. It’s so easy to think of,” he looks away, “of love or whatever, in terms of revenge. I get that language. Sometimes, I think it would be easier to understand a Bruce who killed people. But,” he shrugs. “I guess I’ll live with the Bruce I got.”
“Well, as a Bruce who’s tried to kill people, I don’t recommend it.” He gets off the bench, stretching. “You should have this conversation with your Bruce.”
Jason stands as well, and heads back towards the Manor. “Nah.”
Dick is waiting for them, hovering at the door to the Manor. He looks them both over like he expects to see blood.
“Did you have a good talk?” he asks, tentative.
Jason clasps him on the shoulder as he goes past. “It was just grand, Dicky.”
Dick shrugs Jason’s hand off of him. “Don’t call me that.”
“You worry too much,” Jason says, already headed deeper into the Manor. Bruce can’t help but wonder—does he use his old room, or have they set aside a new room for him? Bruce himself had never managed to get clean out Jason’s old things, until the fire took care of it for him.
Dick doesn’t answer him, just looks at Bruce. “All good?”
Bruce stifles the instinctive irritation. Dick’s intentions are good. They always have been “All good.”
A smile spreads over Dick’s face, warm and sincere. “Good.”
He turns on his heel and Bruce follows him back to the entertainment room.
As they approach, he hears Jason says “Oh, come on.”
A closer look reveals that the TV has been turned to Brave.
“I specifically said no Pixar!”
“You forfeited your rights when you left the Manor,” Tim says primly.
Jason makes a disgusted noise and drops down onto the couch, shoving Damien and Tim to either side to fit between them. “I can’t believe,” he trails off into mutters. Out of the corner of his eye, Bruce sees Superman raise a hand to his mouth, covering a grin. “You can’t possibly like this baby shit,” Jason says to Damien.
Damien sniffs. “I enjoy the exhibition of skill.” After a long pause, he adds, “I find the narrative of Merida saving her family… compelling.”
As one, Jason, Barbara, Tim and Dick make a cooing noise. Dick leans over the back of the couch to ruffle Damien’s hair, which Damien surprisingly endures.
Torn between amusement, affection and something a lot like longing, Bruce takes the free armchair in the corner. He can see that Batman and Superman have both taken the other two armchairs, a careful distance between them. But even with that, they’ve oriented to one another, their dark heads bowed together as they talk lowly throughout the movie.
Bruce tears his gaze away, and watches the movie. He’s missed the first half, he has no idea what’s going on.
He’s getting used to the feeling.
Bruce is awoken the next morning by Alfred placing a cup of coffee on the bedside table. It’s something Alfred does in his own time, both of them knowing that just another presence in the room would wake him. Both of them knowing that touching Bruce would be a mistake.
Bruce sits up. “Alfred?” So far, Alfred has left him to his own devices, let him sleep in, in so much as Bruce ever sleeps in.
“I believe that you may have obligations in a few minutes,” Alfred says, and he hands Bruce the coffee cup.
Bruce take a sip. It is, of course, perfect. “Any idea what those obligations might be?”
Alfred doesn’t answer, just moves to the closet that Bruce has taken over in his few days here. After the second day, it had been filled with enough of Batman’s clothes to keep him clothed for weeks, if he needed. He hoped he wouldn’t need.
Alfred opens up the hidden wall and pulls out Bruce’s Batsuit. Bruce had refused to let them store it in the Cave, out of his site and reach, and Batman had refused to keep it in the public section of the Manor. In compromise, Bruce had taken the spare bedroom with the bolt hole.
“Ah. That kind of obligation.”
He highly doubts Batman has changed his stance on letting Bruce fight, which means this is League business.
He reaches for it, and Alfred pointedly moves it out of range. “Not in the Manor.”
Bruce rolls his eyes. Alfred, any Alfred, has a way of making him feel like a child.
“I know that.”
Alfred raises an eyebrow. Then, pointedly, he lays out a set of casual clothes.
“Yeah, yeah,” Bruce grumbles. He changes into the casual clothes as Alfred puts the Batsuit into, of all things, a garment bag.
“Breakfast is being served downstairs.” After a moment, Alfred adds, “The majority of our guests stayed over.”
The careful tone means Clark or Jason. Probably both. For a moment, he contemplates just skipping breakfast and waiting until they come get him for whatever it is they’ve got planned. The only thing that stops him is the fact that everyone would know what that meant, would think he was hiding. Which is unacceptable.
“Does Superman always stay for breakfast?” he asks, because he’s confident he would have noticed a romantic relationship, but this is the second time in a week that Superman has been at breakfast.
Alfred raises a brow, but whatever prompts the expression, he keeps to himself. “Rarely. I believe that earlier this week was out of concern for you. And of course, this morning he has obligations that are more easily handled from here.”
“I don’t want his concern,” he says, pulling a sweater on.
When he emerges, Alfred is giving him a Look. Bruce hates that Look. “Nevertheless, you have it.”
It feels like a rebuke, and Bruce hears what Alfred didn’t say as well. He doesn’t have a reply.
Instead, he leaves the room, heading towards the breakfast room.
It could be a mirror image of his first morning here, Tim and Damien fighting over rolls, Dick mediating, Clark with his paper, Batman with his.
The only differences are Jason, at the other head of table with a stack of pancakes that towers over anyone else's, and Barbara with a sensible omelet and toast.
“Look who finally decided to join us,” Jason greets, his mouth full. It’s devastatingly familiar, and Bruce feels his heart jump. He doesn’t miss the way that Superman’s eyes dart to him, then away.
If Bruce needed a confirmation about how much of him Superman could read, he has it.
He takes a deep breath, and tamps down on any reflexive reaction that could betray him. As before, the second he sits down, there is a plate of eggs in front of him. It’s like magic, considering that Alfred had just been helping him get dressed in an entirely different wing.
He doesn’t speak during breakfast, just watches the chaos of the breakfast table unfold around him. Jason says something that prompts Damien to hurl a roll at him with impressive force, which almost starts a food fight. Barbara talks conspiratorially to Dick, saying something too low for Bruce to catch, but which makes him blush.
Tim and Damien both take their plates into the kitchen early to get ready for school, and after a moment Dick excuses himself to go to work.
Jason and Barbara linger longer, Jason still working through his ungodly stack of pancakes and Barbara teasing him over it.
Bruce almost asks Jason what he does, but after their conversation yesterday, he’s pretty sure that he doesn’t want to know. Instead, he watches as Superman and Batman read their respective papers. He keeps expecting more, somehow. After his revelation about Batman’s feelings— well, he’s not sure what he expects. Batman is him, after all. A different version of him, granted, but him nonetheless. Batman is no more likely to wear his heart on his sleeve then Bruce is. Especially if, as seems to be the case, he doesn’t want Superman to know.
How does he hide it, from a man like Superman? There are physical symptoms of attraction that would be hard to mask from someone with his senses. The race of a heart, the scent of arousal, the dilation of pupils. Or is it that Batman, with over a decade of exposure, has learned how to disguise such reactions?
After awhile, Jason stands, gives them a sarcastic salute, and takes his own dishes to the kitchen.
Barbara stays at the table, picking at her eggs. “Tim says I’m not on your team, in your reality.”
Without a word, Superman gets up from the table and takes his own plate into the kitchen. After a beat, he comes back in, takes Batman’s plate pointedly and leaves again. Batman rolls his eyes, but follows him out.
Barbara twists her hands in front of her. “How do you manage information?”
He looks at her face, drawn, tired. He’s only met her in his reality a few times, but the wheelchair is a conspicuous difference. It’s clear what this life has cost her, and he owes her his honesty.
“It’s difficult. Sometimes we miss things.” Sometimes he misses big things, like an entire plot designed entirely to turn him against a potential ally. “It’s just me and Alfred.”
“Yikes,” she says, bluntly, then winces. “Not like, yikes, just. Wow. When do you sleep?”
“Yikes,” she says again. He grins. She grins back. “Do you know me? Or, know Barbara Gordon?”
“We’ve met. I think you’re a librarian at the Gotham Central Library.”
Barbara turns her gaze to her hands again. “I was going to major in library sciences, once.” Then, at whatever she sees on Bruce’s face. “I don’t regret anything. I loved being Batgirl, and I love being Oracle. You need me.” She grins. “You guys would be totally lost without me.”
The size of Batman’s operation is ludicrous. Bruce doesn’t doubt her for a second. “I believe you.”
“When you get back, you should see if I want a job. Maybe not as Batgirl, I’m probably horribly out of shape, and it could never- the timeline isn’t right, anymore. But you could use someone on tech.”
Bruce snorts, trying to imagine approaching the Commissioner’s daughter, who had only ever met him in public and formed her opinion accordingly. “I’ll think about it.”
Barbara rolls back from the table, putting her plate in her lap. “Do that.” It’s clear she doesn’t believe him. She wheels into the kitchen, leaving Bruce alone at the table. He’s not sure where Alfred went, or when he left.
“Are we done with the heart to heart?” Batman asks from the doorway. He’s lounging on the door jam, the picture of indulgence. An unnecessary performance, for an audience of himself. Bruce resists the urge to roll his eyes and pushes away from the table. When he picks up the plate, Batman tells him to leave it. “We have to go.”
“Go where?” he asks, following Batman through the halls, down to one of the cave entrances.
“Headquarters,” Batman says shortly. Then, “Barbara’s right. You could use her help.”
“I’ll think about it,” Bruce says again.
Batman snorts. “No, you won’t.”
Bruce stays silent. He’s not sure if Batman is playing him, but the instinctive urge to go seek out Barbara Gordon, Librarian, as soon as he gets back rises in him, just to wipe that smug certainty out of Batman’s voice.
When they get into the cave, Superman is already suited up, and poking around on Batman’s computer. It puts Bruce’s hackles up, but Batman doesn’t seem to care. “Anything interesting?” he asks as he strips down.
“Luthor made some interesting investments yesterday, which I’ll leave to you. And JLI has put in another request for diplomatic aid.”
Batman snorts. “Which I will leave to you.”
“Oh, come on, B, you can be charming when it suits you.”
Superman has, Bruce notices, not turned around since he and Batman began to undress. Has, in fact, pointedly and deliberately kept his eyes on the screen.
“I don’t get paid enough to deal with Booster Gold.”
“Oh, we’re getting paid for this now?”
Batman ignores this. “Put Hal on it, if you’re not interested. I’m pretty sure that ‘diplomatic interference’ is part of his job description.”
“In theory,” Superman says slowly.
“In practice,” Batman says firmly, discussion over. “What else?”
“Just the usual, some chatter at the Pier. Barbara forwarded over some of the surveillance footage.”
Batman, fully dressed in the Batsuit, cowl up, comes to stand behind Superman, looking over his shoulder. “That level of hardware isn’t usual, even for Gotham.”
Superman grins up at him. “All guns look the same to me. What’s one harmless weapon over another?”
Batman gives him an unimpressed look. “Bullshit. What else.”
“It looks like heavy artillery. At least 25 AR-15s per box, at with five boxes of that size. And that one looks like it could hold a mounted weapon.” For all his claims, he knows what he’s talking about.
He and Batman exchange theories and solutions for the shipment, and Bruce hangs back. Not only is Superman interfering in Gotham, but Batman is inviting it, inviting him. It’s not letting Superman pick up criminals off the streets, but it’s close.
“B, you know what this means,” Superman says, after the third round of ideas has been debated and eventually discarded.
“You can’t be stubborn about this. Tim isn’t ready for this kind of machinery, and Dick has a stakeout tonight.”
“It’s him or J’onn, and you know it.” As one they both turn to look at Bruce, who has, in his opinion, been very patient with all of this.
“J’onn can’t loosen enough for this,” Batman snaps, turning his gaze back to Superman. Superman gives him a look like Batman proved his point, and Batman grimaces. “We have to go.”
Superman rolls his eyes. “Sure, B.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“Okay,” Superman says easily, and Batman gives him a dirty look. Bruce ducks his head to hide whatever expression he can feel on his face.
“Come here,” Batman says to Bruce, indicating an area that has been cleared aside in the Cave. Bruce eyes it suspiciously, but grudgingly steps onto a raised platform.
When the three of them are clustered together, Superman presses something and says clearly “Three to beam up,” and Batman rolls his eyes so extensively that Bruce can see it out of the corner of his eyes.
Then everything dissolves into light and the peculiar and uncomfortable sensation of being stretched.
When Bruce blinks his eyes clear of the light, he’s in the Justice League headquarters. In space. God, this reality is insane.
Batman and Superman lead the way to the same conference room as before, silent but clearly comfortable in it. It’s just another day at the office.
The meeting this time isn’t as big, only filling half the seats at table. He recognizes Wonder Woman and the Flash, Oliver Queen, Green Lantern, Zatana and the alien they’d identified as the Martian Manhunter.
They’ve all been engage in idle chatter, but it falls quiet as the three of them walk in. Bruce doesn’t think it’s him.
Sure enough, Batman and Superman both take seats beside one another with authority. The table is round, but they manage to make it look as though they’re seated at the head of the table anyway.
“As you can see,” Batman says, “our uninvited guest is still here. Do we have any updates on his situation?”
Bruce can read the answer on the faces around the table even before everyone responds in the negative. He hadn’t expected otherwise, he has enough faith in these familiar strangers to believe that they would have contacted Batman with information if they had it.
“Theories?” Superman asks.
“I asked around,” the Flash says. “I’m not making any promises, but if he starts getting time sick, I might be able to slingshot him back? If I’m careful?”
“Is that a question or an answer?” Superman asks.
“An answer?” Flash says, tone distinctly unsure.
“Chances of slingshotting him into a completely different reality, not his own?”
“Well. Ah. Then he’s their problem?”
Batman lets out a long breath. “Anyone else?”
“Lantern computer says that there will be a solar flair that will disrupt the Boom Tubes and create a temporal imbalance that could be used to send him back.” Green Lantern says, “But that’s in another six months.”
“He’ll start getting time sick before then,” Zatana says.
“Time is sick is when you’re stuck too long out of your own time or reality,” Queen says to Bruce, tone low. “Time sick isn’t really accurate, but reality sick sounded worse.”
“Hey, Barry came up with time sick!” Flash protests, and Bruce tries not to look too interested. So Barry had, at one point, been a part of this reality, of this League. Where was he now, then?
“Yeah, and he came up with it before we even got into alternate realities. He was working with limited information.”
“It’s gnarly shit,” Flash says. “You face will melt off.”
“Your face will not melt off,” Wonder Woman says. After a moment, she adds, “Much.”
Green Lantern snorts, and Queen grins down at the table.
“Face melting aside,” Batman says, “does anyone have anything helpful to contribute?”
Bruce would really rather they circle back to the relative probability of his face melting off.
“I’m surprised his Superman hasn’t like, come busting out of a portal to reclaim him,” Green Lantern says. It’s clearly a joke, he’s clearly waiting for Superman or Batman to make a response in kind. But it’s the kind of joke that only works if everyone knows that the basis for it is strong.
The basis being that Superman would punch a hole in reality to save Bruce. Batman.
Superman and Batman exchange a look.
“Superman is not around in that reality,” Superman says delicately.
There is a moment of stunned silence, then everyone speaks at once, demanding to know where Superman is.
Bruce’s voice seems to echo in the room. It cuts through everyone else, and the words land heavy on the table.
They’re all staring at him. Shocked. Appalled.
“Um. Are you sure?” Flash asks. “Did you. You know. Leave him out in the sun for a few days?”
Queen laughs nervously, then quickly stifles it.
Bruce’s throat feels tight. He doesn’t have a reply, and he can’t make himself look at Superman.
“The point is that Superman will not be able to provide aid from that side. Given the state of the Justice League as Batman has explained it, the return journey will be on us,” Batman says firmly.
There is another moment of quiet, before Zatana leans forward. “Of course, we should continue to pursue other options. But if this is not the result of technology, as seems to be the case, there is always the chance that he will simply return in his own time.”
“That’s what happened to me,” Green Lantern offers. “I just snapped back.”
“Like a rubber band,” Queen agrees.
Batman frowns. “Let’s keep pursuing a more definite answer.”
Green Lantern offers a sarcastic salute.
“Now,” Superman says. “The JLI has requested a diplomatic party on their next visit to Thanar.”
Bruce watches as Batman and Superman raise some of the topics they had touched on in the Cave, resolve them, and move on. They work together seamlessly, playing off one another, keeping everyone focused.
They don’t ask Bruce to leave this time, presumably having figured out he doesn’t intend to harm them, and it’s worth it just to watch how this League works. Superman and Batman may be the leaders, but decisions are made by committee. When there are disagreements, and there are, it’s handled calmly, and everyone will explain their reasoning.
The last League meeting at Bruce’s world had been almost entirely for press, a way to establish themselves, and had still ended with Arthur pushing Barry off a pier once the cameras were off them.
“J’onn, stay a moment,” Batman says, once the rest of the meeting has been dismissed.
“I cannot believe you,” Superman hisses, and Batman ignores him.
Bruce is startled to see that the one remaining- J’onn- is the Martian Manhunter.
“How can I be of assistance?” the man- being?- asks. His voice is strangely formal, and Bruce realizes that this is the first time that Bruce has heard him speak.
“There is a situation in Gotham that I have to handle personally this evening,” Batman says. Superman throws up his arms in exasperation and walks away from the table. Batman ignores him. “Bruce Wayne is expected at a Gala this evening. If it weren’t a charity event, I wouldn’t ask but.”
Martian Manhunter’s eyes dart from Batman to Bruce, but he doesn’t ask the obvious question. “I would if I were able, but I have prior obligations,” his mouth twists into a smile, unnerving on his alien face. “I have promised to be at M’gann’s birthday, barring a world ending disaster. I do not believe your event qualifies.”
“You’d be surprised,” Batman mutters, looking distinctly put out.
“Besides,” Martian Manhunter says, standing, “I do not have your flair for the dramatic. I would hate to improve Bruce Wayne’s public standing.”
“Oh, get out,” Batman says waspishly.
Once the door has closed behind him, Superman says “I told you so.”
Batman makes a low, irritated noise that Bruce might even call a growl. “Fine. Fine!” He turns on Bruce. “Meet up with Alfred when we return. You’re going to the Gala.”
Bruce lets his mouth tilt up, purely to annoy Batman. “I’ll try not to improve your reputation.”
He feels vindicated when Superman laughs.
Alfred helps him get ready for the Gala, which is telling enough on it’s own. Alfred is too indispensable in his time to do anything else while Bruce is on patrol. When Bruce mentions it, protesting he can get himself dressed, Alfred says that Tim and Barbara are running support.
“And Damien will be with him in person, of course.”
“Is that a good idea?” Bruce asks. He’s seen how Damien moves, how he acts, but there is still the part of him that balks at him fighting so young.
“I have found that the consequences of leaving him behind are far worse,” Alfred says calmly. He slips another suit jacket over Bruce’s shoulders and makes a low tutting noise. “I will have to find an older jacket. We don’t have time to make alterations, and it appears that your shoulders are more broad.”
Bruce tries not to feel smug about that. From the look Alfred gives him, he fails.
“So,” Alfred says, as he helps Bruce into the final shirt. His tone is careful, wary. “How long ago was the fire, for you?”
Bruce freezes, and it’s only the matter-a-fact way that Alfred keeps going that keeps it from being noticeable. “A little over two years. Almost a year after after Jason-” his voice catches. God, when will he be over this? This is why he never talks about it. It always leaves him too vulnerable, too exposed.
Alfred doesn’t seem to notice, but it’s a polite fiction and they both know it. “That is quite a while,” Alfred says, threading the cufflinks.
“Yes.” Bruce straightens the cuffs, even though he doesn’t need to.
“A long time to resist rebuilding,” Alfred says. He’s behind Bruce, helping him into the jacket, and Bruce is so glad Alfred can’t see his face. He doubts that’s by chance.
“Yes,” Bruce says again. He’s not…unaware, of his flaws. His own Alfred had never mentioned it. When Alfred doesn’t push, doesn’t say anything else, Bruce forces out, “What gave it away.”
“Little things, sir. The library. Certain rooms. We had a fire here too, of course.”
And rebuilt, he kindly doesn’t say. But then, he doesn’t have to. The reminder is all around them.
“What changed?” It’s a nonsensical question. Alfred can hardly know the differences between their two realities. But Alfred doesn’t hesitate when he says,
“I believe that Master Bruce had people to rebuild for. Master Tim, of course, when he needed somewhere to live. And Master Clark, who came by regularly. Perhaps, on my own, I would not have pushed. I,” he hesitates, “I, too, grieved. But, with help, we were able to rebuild.”
Bruce’s throat feels tight. He straightens his cuffs again, even more unnecessarily than the first time. With help. God.
What help does Bruce have? With one son who won’t speak to him and another in the ground. With Superman in the ground as well.
Alfred reaches out and straightens his bowtie, and Bruce realizes that he is being an idiot. He’s never been alone, without help. He has Alfred.
Alfred, who would have grieved Jason’s loss along with him, if Bruce had let him, but had instead been forced to grieve alone. Who had spent more of his life at Wayne Manor than Bruce had and would have grieved that loss as well. Alfred, who always wanted to help and rebuild and move forward, and had instead been working in Bruce’s mausoleum.
Alfred reads some of his thoughts on his face, even though Bruce would have called it impassive.
“None of that, Master Bruce. Whatever the reality, whatever the time, it is my honor, my privilege, to help you. Perhaps you have been unable to rebuild before this, and I don’t doubt that your Mr. Pennysworth understands this better than most. I only meant that, perhaps, you may want to think about it. It doesn’t do to dwell in the past.”
Bruce chokes out a laugh, feels it catch. “There are a lot of things I’m supposed to be thinking about, when I get back.”
Alfred gives him an amused look. “Good thing you’re so clever then.”
Bruce meets Alfred’s gaze in the mirror, unable to look at him directly. “Good thing I have such clever friends.” And pretends not to notice the way Alfred’s eyes gleam.
Batman gives him an insultingly long breakdown of the Gala, the guests, and the behavior he expects from Bruce. Bruce has trained himself into years of patience and waiting, but he does not like Batman, and it’s more than clear that Batman does not like, or trust, him.
Still, he listens to the entire condescending lecture, saved only by an unwillingness to break before Batman. That and the way that Tim stands on the stairs just behind Bruce, rolling his eyes and occasionally flapping his hand in the universal ‘talking’ gesture.
Batman concludes with “Clark will be there, but don’t talk to him. Don’t talk to anyone.”
Bruce resists his own eye roll at that. “I imagine that would make the requisite socializing difficult.”
“Figure it out,” Batman growls, and turns on his heel to head back into the manner.
“How does he do that?” Tim asks, coming to Bruce’s side and watching Batman stalk away.
“He’s in a suit, how does he always manage to look like he’s wearing a cape?”
“Practice,” Bruce replies, deadpan. He fights down a grin at the withering look that Tim gives him. He doesn’t want to stay here, his own Gotham needs him, his own reality. But still, there are… benefits.
“You better go,” Tim says. “Alfred already has the car ready.”
Bruce reaches out and ruffles Tim’s hair, knowing it will annoy him. “You’re a good kid.”
“Get off,” Tim says, pushing Bruce away. He straightens his hair, although it’s default style is so tousled it’s impossible to tell the difference. “You’re supposed to be leaving!” He plants both hands on Bruce’s back and pushes him towards the door.
Bruce grins, openly this time, and lets Tim push him. “Don’t get shot,” he says as he leaves.
The last thing he sees before he closes it behind him is Tim rolling his eyes, “As if.”
“Teenages get stranger and stranger every year,” he says to Alfred as he slides into the backseat.
Alfred gives him an unimpressed look in the mirror, as if to say that Bruce has no room to call anyone else strange. Bruce straightens his cufflinks rather than answer.
He’s surprised that Batman has been willing to part with Alfred for the evening, with the alleged importance of the bust he’s making. But apparently, Barbara does most of the tech support that his own Alfred provides, while this Alfred is in charge of the household, the Cave and any number of standard butler duties. It makes sense, with an two teenagers living in the house full time, and any number of guests ready to drop by at any moment.
“You seem to be getting along well with the boys,” Alfred says, voice a touch cautious.
“They’re good kids,” he hesitates. “Batman did a good job with them. As did you.”
Alfred’s gaze is firmly on the road. “You’re too kind.”
Bruce doesn’t reply, just stares out the window. Gotham look as she always does, the old buildings, the crumbling stone. Majestic, proud. He could be back home, on his way to any of his usual Bruce Wayne functions.
The rest of the drive passes in silence, Alfred expertly navigating turns, and Bruce silently noting changes. There were very few. Gotham had stood for over a century, and if he had any say, she would stand for centuries more.
It seems too soon that they arrive at the Gotham Opera House. “I will be here, when you require me,” Alfred says. It’s an unnecessary remark, as Alfred always waits at such events, but Bruce is glad for it. Alfred could have felt an obligation to Batman, could easily have left Bruce to his own devices.
“I’ll be home by midnight,” he promises.
“If you’re tardy, I will endeavour not to turn back into a mouse.”
Bruce closes the door rather than dignify that with an answer.
The Gala is already in full swing, Bruce is tastefully late as always. It looks exactly like any other Gala that Bruce has been to over the years. Even the guests are the same, the same glittering dresses and fake laughs.
The biggest difference, one his eyes immediately and incriminating catch on, is the presence of Clark Kent. Bruce had only met him that one time, both of them in public. That Kent had been an unsettling mix of awkward and proud, unsure how to act at a party like this, and heavy with his palpable dislike of Bruce.
This Clark has been a reporter for more than a decade, has years of society pages and Gala events under his belt. He meets Bruce’s eyes briefly, and he’s not so sloppy as to nod or wink, but there is something conspiratorial in his look. An acknowledgment, a recognition.
His suit is terrible. The fabric itself could be considered nice, it could even have been expensive. Clark would never dishonor the Planet by wearing a cheap suit. But it’s at least four years out of date, and that’s from through eyes of Bruce’s reality, which is three years behind. The jacket is too large, and considering the breadth of Clark’s shoulders, that’s no easy task. The pants are too short, without being too tight.
In contrast, Bruce is wearing a suit that could be considered too tight, if it weren’t cut so as to be very misleading as to the specificities of his physique. It accentuates the long lines of his body, draws attention away from the uncharacteristic bulk, makes him appear slim and tall, rather than a wall of pure muscle.
Bruce is hardly there for a moment before Clarice Beaumont is at his side, two champagne glasses in her hands.
“Brucie!” She pushes one glass into his hand and uses the newly freed arm to wrap around his. “It’s been simply too long.”
It’s going to be a long evening. Bruce downs the champagne in one go, glad that doing so is only too in character for him.
As he lowers the glass onto a passing tray, he catches Clark’s eyes again, and Clark’s are gleaming with humor.
The night passes in much the same manner. It’s the annual fundraiser for the Opera, and a Wayne has been in attendance since its inception. His absence would have been noted, his appearance was important, but that doesn’t make the event itself important.
He drifts along on autopilot, glad for the Bruce Wayne public persona to make any slips a part of the act, a social gaffe rather than a problem that could reveal him.
The strangest part, the part that sets this night aside from any other, is Clark Kent.
They don’t speak to one another, aside from a brief interaction where Clark asks for a statement, and Bruce gives him the same bland support of the Opera that he gives every year. From the look Clark gives him, it’s the same quote Batman gives him as well.
But there is a language of looks, an entire history written out in the easy way Clark turns to him. It’s subtle, so subtle that he doubts anyone else would notice. But when he puts on the Brucie act a little too thick, Clark gives him a conspiratorial smile. When one of socialites that circle around him makes a particularly stupid remark, he sees Clark snort discreetly into his drink.
It is so familiar, so practiced. It reminds Bruce, at every turn, that he isn’t alone here. That, no matter what happens, he has an ally in the room, backup.
When one of the women staggers into him, drunk, and he has to stagger as well, pretending to be equally drunk, he almost goes over, but is stopped by a calm, supporting hand on his elbow.
“Careful, Mr. Wayne,” Clark says, and his eyes are sparkling. For a terrible moment, Bruce feels like he might actually be drunk, momentarily distracted by that look, amused and affectionate and so carefully contained that only Bruce would see it.
He realizes, perhaps for the first time, that Clark is as controlled as he is, as Batman is. That every moment for him is as much an act as the Brucie Wayne party persona is. That, for the first time, there might be someone who really, truly understands him.
He pushes himself off of Clark with a sloppy grace, but he lets his fingers catch on Clark’s wrist, lets himself squeeze once.
It is, for a moment, easy to pretend. Easy to pretend that this is his own timeline, his own reality. That he hadn’t let Clark die in front of him, that they may have shared these small exchanges, may have come to trust one another. That, over time, he too could have loved Clark.
Clark makes a show of steadying him, and Bruce makes a show of needing it, and then Clark is gone, back into the crowd.
As he told Alfred, he only stays until midnight. The party will continue, but it’s already dwindling down to the younger crowd, the ones with nothing to do in the morning and plenty left to do tonight.
“Did you enjoy yourself, sir?” Alfred asks, already waiting outside.
Bruce thinks about, giving the question more consideration than the idle aside warrants. He finds, on reflection, that he rather did. “It was fine,” he says, and lets Gotham surround him all the way back to the Manor.
To his great surprise, though clearly not Alfred’s, Clark is waiting at the Manor when they return.
“It’s tradition,” Alfred says, reading whatever expression Bruce makes.
“Master Clark has said that he needs to ‘wash off the money smell,’” Alfred says, mouth twitching.
Bruce looks at the Manor, it’s opulence and splendor. “This seems an inefficient place to do so.”
“I believe what he meant is that,” Alfred purses his lips in thought “you both find the necessity of the charade tiring at times, and such events can be particularly draining. I believe that you both find comfort in being honest together.”
Bruce doesn’t know what do say to that, so he says nothing. He has found, over the years, that these events can be more tiring that they used to be. That the simple act of pretending to be someone else and knowing, knowing that no one here would ever know the truth can be more exhausting that a fight. He would rather suit up as Batman than suit up as Bruce Wayne, any day.
He looks up to where Clark is waiting for him, and gets out of the car, letting Alfred pull into the garage without him.
“Don’t you have a key?”
“That would be rude. There’s no one home.”
“Well.” He realizes, belatedly, that he doesn’t have a key either. Not only would Batman not have entrusted one to him, he hasn’t ever carried one. Alfred is always there.
He’s saved from that embarrassing explanation when the front door swings open.
“Please, come in,” Alfred says. When Bruce passes him, Alfred winks.
Clark greets Alfred with easy familiarity, which Alfred returns. It’s another reminder at how much Clark fits into this life, this house. More than Bruce himself does, certainly.
As if to cement this thought, it is Clark who leads the way down the hall, and Bruce who follows him. Clark heads directly to the Green Study, arguably Bruce’s favorite, when such a thing had mattered. There are two armchairs pulled up to the fire, and more alcohol in the wet bar than Bruce had kept stocked. There is a small stack of books that Bruce hasn’t read on the table between the chairs, which are both worn more than even the extra three years would account for. Worn with use, repeated and frequent.
Clark settles into the left hand chair, with the easy expectation that Bruce won’t object, In the face of such certainty, Bruce can only take the right hand chair, feeling the way it has conformed to his body.
“Would you like a fire?” Clark asks. It’s getting into late fall, and the chill in the air lingers, even here. Bruce moves as if to stand, meaning to light it himself, but Clark waves him down. “I can get it.”
Bruce is about to protest- guests don’t do work- but Clark looks over the rim of his glasses and a red beam shoots from his eyes to the fire, catching on the starter log and setting the whole thing ablaze.
Bruce doesn’t jump, doesn’t startle, but his heart leaps in his chest, an ingrained reaction of over a year of hating and fearing every alien thing Superman could do.
Clark must hear it, because he jerks his head towards Bruce, and then his face floods with contrition. “Oh. I’m sorry. I should have asked-”
Bruce waves him off, letting his heart settle. Yes, he would have preferred if Clark asked, but he understands why he didn’t. Clark has his own years of ingrained habits in the Manor, of being comfortable with himself and his powers between these walls.
‘Comfort in being honest together,’ Alfred had said, and Bruce can see it. Clark does look comfortable, not hunching his shoulders or curling in like he had at the Gala. Not holding his spine straight and his chin up like he does as Superman.
“Does it make you uncomfortable?” Clark asks, idly loosening his tie. Bruce follows his fingers, traces the lines of him before he jerks his attention back. Perhaps Batman had years to become accustomed to his own attraction, but Bruce doesn’t, every surge of it taking him by surprise.
He had, on occasion, found Superman attractive before his death, but that feeling had blended just as easily into the hatred and fear. It had been the dangerous beauty of an apex predator, an alien beauty designed to lure humanity to trust and worship.
It’s far and away from being caught by blue eyes and the grace of his hands. Bruce hadn’t let himself think about how Superman might take , might push him down and hold him there and— it had been unthinkable, incompatible with his mission.
Clark, with his wide open face and bright smile. With an ill-fitting suit unbuttoned just enough to show defined collar bones. Clark is much more dangerous. Clark wouldn’t take. He’s beginning to understand that Clark would give , and that is infinitely worse.
Batman has known Clark for over fifteen years, has watched Clark grown from almost a boy to a man. Has grown into a man beside him. Bruce remembers himself at twenty-three, idealistic in a way that, at the time, he thought he’d grown out of. Ready to change the world with his fists and determination.
He’s changed so much from the boy he was then, for all he had called himself a man. Batman would have changed as well, would have had Clark at his side as he did. Batman is as comfortable and easy with Clark, with his alienness and his powers and his kindness, as Bruce is comfortable with Alfred and Dick.
It’s unfathomable, as absurd and out of reach as a headquarters in space.
Bruce jolts back to the present. “Sorry, I was thinking.”
Clark grins, and the effect at short range, lit from the fire, is devastating. Is it so brilliant to Batman, who must have gotten used to it, or is a new revelation each time? “Penny for your thoughts?”
“I’d like to think my thoughts are worth a bit more than that.”
“I don’t think I could afford your thoughts at a fair market price. You’ll have to give me the friends discount.”
Bruce makes a thoughtful noise, and Clark cocks his head, inviting him to share.
“That’s exactly what I was considering, actually.”
“The fair market value for Bruce Wayne’s time?” Clark sounds amused.
“Our friendship,” Bruce gestures at the two of them, in the well-worn chairs. “Or, rather, your friendship with Batman.”
“Is it really so strange to you?” Clark asks, rising. With the ease of familiarity, he pours them both a few fingers of scotch. After a brief pause, he adds another splash to one and hands that one to Bruce.
“Is it strange to you that it’s strange to me?” Bruce asks.
Clark laughs. “You know, it really is? I’ve known Bruce almost half my life. I can’t imagine doing this without him. Being,” he indicates his chest, where his sigil would be on the suit.
“You weren’t very good at it,” Bruce says.
“No, it doesn’t sound like it.” He turns, angling his body towards Bruce. “But it doesn’t sound like you were working at your best either. We’re always better together, Bruce. Always.”
Bruce doesn’t let himself turn away, feels the swamping wave of emotion crash over him, lets it break. “That’s not an option for me.”
Clark makes a thoughtful, noncommittal noise into his drink, one Bruce instinctively wants to follow up on. But he doesn’t want to talk about Superman’s death, doesn’t want to make Clark talk about how another version of him died, broken open and alone.
“I have been told I’m not an easy friend to have.”
“I can’t say I disagree,” Clark says, and laughs at the expression that crosses Bruce’s face. “Oh, don’t look like that. You—” he cuts himself off, “I mean, Bruce—Rao, this is confusing—Bruce has always been worth the effort. I’m sure the same can be said for you.”
Clark glances away, into the fire. Bruce watches his face, an idea blooming in the back of his mind. A revelation. He doesn’t look at, knows with years of honed practice to let it form in his subconscious, to let all the pieces fall together.
“It’s strange,” Bruce admits, “to see this life. To see the Manor,” again, he almost says, but bites it back, “filled with people.”
“You haven’t even met everyone. There’s also Stephanie, Cassandra, Duke. The Batcow.”
“I’m sorry, the what?”
“The Batcow!” Glee is spreading over Clark’s face. “I can’t believe you don’t have a Batcow in your reality. You’re missing out.”
“The Batcow,” Bruce repeats it, slowly, unsure if Clark is messing with him.
“You’ll have to get Damian to tell you the full story, I don’t know all of it. He’s pretty proud of her though.”
“Yes, obviously. I’ve helped milk her a few times, before Damian learned how.” At Bruce’s expression, he says defensively “well, it gets uncomfortable otherwise.”
Bruce looks down at his drink, and downs the rest of it. “Just when I think this reality can’t get more absurd.”
“I dunno,” Clark says, looking back at the fire. “I like it.”
“Yes, well.” Bruce wishes he could say the same of his own reality. It’s his, and he cares for it with a fierce and terrible love, the same way he cares for Gotham. Desperately, and in spite of its flaws. He hates to be away from it, but he can’t deny that this reality has its charms.
“Tell me how you and Batman became friends.” It’s a way to torture himself, the kind of self-flagellation that Alfred despairs of. But he needs to know. Needs to fully comprehend everything that he has lost. Everything that he took from himself, from the world, when he stepped onto a path of revenge and hate.
Clark is still staring into the fire, fingers tapping idly at his glass.
“It’s hard to say,” he says. A smile blooms over his face, slow and a bit ironic. “I was in the middle of it before I knew I had begun.”
Bruce’s heart trips over, because the reference— Clark is a writer, he knows what that quote is from, what it means. But nothing on Clark’s face betrays him, nothing to indicate even that he’d heard Bruce react. He feels those pieces in his mind shift again, a picture becoming clear. It seems impossible.
“Tell me how it began, then.”
“It won’t surprise you to hear that we didn’t get along at first.”
“No,” Bruce says, miming shock. Clark laughs, and the sound rumbles through him. Rumbles through Bruce.
He gets up and pours himself another drink, and settles back into the chair. He listens to Clark outline almost twenty years of friendship.
As Clark talks about Batman’s courage, his heart, his strength, the pieces fall into perfect clarity, every impossible bit of it easy to see.
“He amazes me, every day. He’s had so many reasons to turn back, so many times he could have stopped, or retired, but every time he gets back up and looks for the next injustice to right.”
The look on his face is open and soft, his mouth curved into a smile.
“You’re in love with him,” Bruce says, and it sounds absurd, spoken aloud.
Clark looks startled, caught out, but not panicked. His smile is still fond, even as he looks a Bruce, who is far from the man he admires.
“Yes.” He doesn’t try to deny it, doesn’t duck his head, or hide from it. Bruce could as well be remarking on the color of his eyes, an undeniable facet of his being.
“He doesn’t deserve you,”
Clark stares down at his glass, rueful. “Maybe. And maybe I don’t deserve him. But that’s not for anyone to say.” He sets the glass down with a sense of finality. “It’s impossible, anyway. He’s straight.”
Bruce snorts. “He’s really not.”
“I— oh.” It’s the first time that Bruce has truly shocked him. Even Bruce’s arrival here had been treated as another part of Clark’s superhero life. Clark’s mouth works, before he finally gets out “You?”
Bruce grins, “I believe the term is bisexual.”
“That is a term, yes. I didn’t realize—”
“It’s not a secret, where I’m from. I wonder why your Bruce keeps it hidden.” He has a few suspicions, actually, but they all have to do with the man in front of him, and Bruce has always kept his own counsel, though never this literally.
For the first time this entire conversation, Clark’s cheeks go red. “He’s not my Bruce.” Between the blush and the wistful tone in his voice, Bruce knows how badly he wants that. This isn’t a slight infatuation, no socialite crush. Clark Kent is truly, deeply in love with Bruce Wayne. And it’s baffling, incomprehensible. That any version of him is the recipient of such love. From anyone. From a man like Clark Kent. He fights down the urge to demand why. What is there in him, about him, that Clark could find worthy of love.
“Do you think—” Clark starts, then bites his lip.
“No, it’s— it’s nothing.” He frowns into his glass. “I don’t know why he didn’t tell me.”
“I like my privacy,” Bruce says. “I imagine he does as well.”
“It’s not telling the world, Bruce. It’s telling me.” Clark shakes his head. “Did he think I would react poorly?”
God, Bruce does not want to be caught in the middle of this. The truth is that Batman probably thought Clark would catch on if he knew that Clark was so solidly his type, even without his courage and his smile and his stubborn instance on always doing the right thing, no matter the cost.
Clark continues without Bruce’s input “Unless, maybe,” he trails off, “unless that’s another difference in our realities. I’ve never seen him— he’s never.” He looks miserable.
“As far as I can tell, the first major point of divergence was your first appearance as Superman.”
“Still,” Clark says.
Bruce can’t imagine a version of himself that is only attracted to women, who doesn’t have his pulse race at the way a man’s muscles fill out a suit, the hint of stubble on a jaw as he kisses them, the feel of another man’s cock pressed against his own, but he’s not telling that to Clark.
“It seems unlikely that one thing would be different, when everything else would be the same.”
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” Clark says, as if he hadn’t heard. “Even if—” he shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter.”
He’s not sure who Clark is trying to convince, Bruce or himself, but Bruce doesn’t think it’s very effective, either way. But he knows what it looks like when someone tries to shake off an impossible hope, so he doesn’t press.
“So the major difference, all of this,” Clark waves a hand, as if he can indicate the whole of this reality, “is because I didn’t wait to suit up?”
Bruce lets him change the subject. “That’s putting it mildly. The major difference is that this world had Superman for almost twenty years more than my reality did.”
“I wonder what your Clark was running from,” he says, voice soft.
“You were 21 when you became Superman?” Bruce asks, though he already knows.
“Yes. I- after my father died. I needed something to, to tie me to him. I needed someone I could save.” He looks down at his hands. “It took me a long time to accept that it doesn’t always work like that.”
“How did he die?” It feels like the edge of a precipice. It feels important, to hear Clark say it. He’d read, in an old Smallville newspaper, about how local farmer Jonathan Kent had been lost to the twister, leaving behind a wife and son.
So when Clark says, “He had a heart attack, right after I turned twenty,” it strikes through Bruce like lightning. This is the missing piece, the first moment that had torn this future, with the Manor and the boys and Clark, away from Bruce. He barely hears as Clark says, “he never even got to see me in the suit.”
“That’s it,” Bruce says. He must have cut Clark off, but Clark doesn’t seem to mind. “Was there a tornado, that year? About June?”
Clark frowns, brow creasing in concentration. “I think so? It tore up the field pretty good.”
“In my timeline, Jonathan Kent died in that storm.”
He’s staring into the fire, but he hears Clark’s sudden intake of breath.
“I was there, that day,” Clark says, soft. “He told me not to save him. He never wanted me to use my powers, but there was no one around. I did it anyway. God, he was so mad. He yelled at me something awful,” he smiles, mouth twisting around a fond memory, “and then Ma yelled at him, saying he shouldn’t throw his life away for stupid reasons. Said I was always made to help people, no reason not to start now.”
He takes a fortifying gulp of his drink.
“I became Superman because my father’s death was so outside my control. That, with all my powers and all I can do, I can’t start a damaged heart or will a body back to life. I needed to find people I could save.” His mouth twists, “But if I could have saved him, and I chose not to… If he died because of inaction on my part—I can see how I would run from that. How I could take off and never come back.”
“You did,” Bruce reaches out, grips Clark’s wrist. “You did come back. When the world needed you.”
“You’ve never given empty platitudes before, Bruce, don’t start now. You already told me about Black Zero. That was hardly a choice at all.”
“Not everyone would see it that way.”
Clark doesn’t answer, just stares down at Bruce’s hand on his arm. “Maybe.”
There are a hundred things that Bruce wants to say, a hundred ways he wants to defend Superman, all he lost and all it cost their world, but he can’t form the words. What right does he have to speak in Superman’s defense, what right does he have to list out his virtues, when he himself had been so slow to see them.
He opens his mouth to say something, anything, but he’s cut off by a throat clearing. He’s too well trained to let his head jerk up, but his feels the muscles in his shoulder tense.
Batman is standing in the doorway, back in casual jeans and sweater, glaring at them both. “Doesn’t this look cozy.”
Bruce looks down to where his hand is still on Clark’s, and very deliberately doesn’t move it. Clark follows his gaze, and his face flames up before he tugs his hand away.
“Bruce.” Clark actually gets to his feet. Clark sounds absurdly guilty, for all that nothing had happened. Bruce watches with amusement as Batman’s jaw clenches, then deliberately relaxes. Clark takes a step forward, and it’s like Bruce isn’t even there anymore. Superman can see all the way to Metropolis from here if he tried, and in a room with Batman, Bruce disappears. Batman has no reason to be jealous.
Clark doesn’t, quite, rush to his side like a worried wife, but it’s close. “How was patrol?”
“Fine,” Batman says gruffly, shrugging off Clark’s worry like it’s nothing. “I see the gala went well.” Someone less versed in his mannerisms might miss the way that his gaze flits over Clark, cataloging his open collar, the long, rumpled lines of his suit. But Bruce doesn’t
“Well enough,” Bruce says, and Batman’s gaze flicks to him in irritation. Bruce smirks at him. “I can give you the full report, if you like.” He knows what the answer will be, but he likes to see Batman’s dislike of him warring with his need to have all the facts.
“Yes.” Batman crosses the room, leaving Clark behind, and pours himself a drink. Clark falters for a moment, and Bruce wonders if he’s thinking back to their conversation, fighting off a new wave of hope, because he’s never seen him falter in this reality before.
Batman drops down into the chair that Clark had vacated.
“I guess I’ll just,” Clark jerks his thumb at the door. Bruce could never have imagined a world like this, where Superman, capable of bending steel and lifting buildings, could be so endearingly awkward. Clark takes a step back, turns to go.
“Clark,” Batman says, and Clark goes still. “You’ll be back for dinner tomorrow?” There is the barest pause before he says dinner, as if he wanted to suggest another meal, but Clark doesn’t seem to catch it. He looks over his shoulder, and gives another one of his beaming smiles. Bruce doesn’t know how he could have missed it, the warmth shining from his eyes— the love. It’s so different from how he looks at Bruce.
Batman waits before Clark’s footsteps pass down the hall, and then longer, the two of them sipping their drinks in an uncomfortable silence. How Batman would know when Clark is out of his considerable hearing ranger, Bruce has no idea, but he’s fine to wait.
“What were you two talking about?” Batman asks, when enough time has passed.
“He’s gone?” Bruce asks, more of curiosity than suspicion.
“He could hear us, if he wanted,” Batman replies. “But he won’t. What were you talking about.”
Bruce thinks about how much to tell him. He is tempted to give the full truth, spill Clark’s love out between them. He doesn’t like Batman much (and he knows what that says about him, knows what any shrink would say) but he doesn’t want him to actively be unhappy. And he’d like, if possible, for Clark to be happy. In this reality, at least.
“The Gala. Our pasts.” He takes a sip of his drink. “The death of his father.”
Batman draws in a breath, and Bruce wonders how much Clark has talked to him about that. If it’s something they’ve talked about at all. He doubts it.
“That was the tipping point,” he says. “The point where everything changed.”
“Why haven’t you told him you like men as well?” Bruce asks, all innocence, and the way that Batman chokes on his drink is so, so satisfying.
“You know why,” Batman growls.
“I don’t think he would guess,” Bruce says mildly, aware he’s treading dangerous ground. “I know the MO— it’s always those blonde, waifish boys in public.” He takes a careful sip of his drink, pausing for effect. “That wouldn’t give away that you like men who can—”
“Enough.” There is real anger in Batman’s voice, and that’s enough to stop him. “It’s none of Clark’s business, who I sleep with.”
Bruce snorts. God, this whole thing is so high school, so juvenile. Maybe he’ll slip Clark a note at the next Justice League meeting, ‘do you like me, check yes or no.’
“What did you tell him?” Batman demands.
“I told him I was bisexual,” Bruce says. “I’m sure he drew his own conclusions.”
Batman’s hand tightens into a fist, and Bruce watches as he very deliberately shuts down his anger. “It’s none of his business.”
“It was my business to tell,” Bruce replies. “I’ll keep your secrets, but I’m far past keeping that one. Let Clark draw whatever conclusions he wants to. I’m not staying in a closet because you’re so deep in yours.”
“I’m not—” Batman cuts himself off, takes a deep breath. “This is not your reality. You have no business meddling.”
Bruce shrugs. “And if you were in my place, I suppose you’d just sit in a corner, being a good little boy?”
“I’m not in your place,” Batman spits, and the venom in his voice surprises Bruce, for all that he’s been walking the edge of Batman’s anger this entire time. “I didn’t try to kill my Superman.”
“He isn’t yours,” Bruce says, not giving away how much that sticks.
“He certainly isn’t yours.”
“No.” Bruce downs the rest of his drink. “He’s not. You’re right, I lost my chance. My chance at a friendship that shapes realities, that changes the world. I lost my chance at a Justice League like yours, and I certainly lost my chance at anything more. Which is why it is so baffling to me that you won’t take yours.”
He gets up rather than wait for Batman’s reaction, leaves him sitting in Clark’s chair, staring into the fire. He hopes he’s given him something to think about.
“So, are you going to tell me why you’ve been avoiding me?”
Bruce carefully lowered the weight bar onto it’s supports. “I haven’t been avoiding you.”
Dick snorts. “Yeah, okay. Try that on someone who doesn’t know you so well.”
His own Dick had known him that well, once. Until he had figured out that Bruce wasn’t worth the effort. Bruce sits up on the bench, absently wiping sweat out of his eyes. “I wasn’t purposefully avoiding you.”
Dick rolls his eyes. “Granted, you haven’t run in the opposite direction when I come talk to you, but that’s not the same thing.” He peers at Bruce’s face. “Jesus, you don’t even realize you’re doing it. You’re so fucked up, Bruce.”
“We knew that already,” Bruce says dryly. Dick grins, and holds out a hand. Bruce hardly needs a hand to stand up from a workbench, but he takes it, lets Dick pull him to his feet.
“Want to spar?” Dick asks. Bruce hesitates. He does, badly. He’s missed Dick, with a bone-deep hurt that still aches when he presses on it. But he also knows that look on Dick’s face, and he knows that it means Dick wants to talk about his feelings. And, worse, he wants Bruce to talk about them too.
Dick just watches him, calm and expectant. What the hell. It’s not like he’ll have the opportunity to do this in his own reality. It’s not like anything he says here really matters. He can’t carry this with him when he goes.
He pushes past Dick, moving to Batman’s weapons rack. He’d been surprised that Batman had granted access to the cave, when he obviously distrusts Bruce, but maybe that Gala had changed something. It’s a relief just to be moving, working his muscles again.
Without a word, he tosses Dick a pair of practice escrima sticks and takes a bo staff for himself, heading for the practice mats Batman has set up. Bruce doesn’t have mats like this in his own cave, but then, it’s been awhile since he’s had to be responsible for the training of others. Since he had anyone to spar with.
“I’ll have an advantage on you there,” Dick says, indicating the bo staff. “Tim’s been training on that for years.”
“You should be equally prepared for any weapon,” Bruce responds, falling easily into a ready stance. Dick rolls his eyes.
He doesn’t wait for a go word. He never does. He just launches forward, and Bruce meets the strike of his left stick with the bo staff. He swings the butt around, aiming for Dick’s gut, but Dick is already out of range.
“Is it because of your Dick?” Dick immediately makes a face. “I mean, the Dick from your reality. Not like, your junk.”
Bruce is not even going to dignify that with an answer. He swings the bo staff wide, knowing Dick will evade it. He does, but Bruce was expecting him to dodge. Instead, he leaps over it, using the momentum to carry him into the air. If he’s showing off, and he probably is, it’s effective. Age makes people go stiff, but it seems to have only made Dick more flexible, made him faster.
“Because you said he hadn’t talked to you in years, when you got here.” Dick catches Bruce’s downward strike on his crossed sticks, a bad habit that Bruce has never been able to train him out of. He’s usually good enough that it doesn’t matter, but one day he won’t be. One day, one bad habit could mean the difference between life and death- could leave him lying in a pool of his own blood and-
Bruce kicks at Dick’s exposed left side, but Dick drops his arm and knocks his leg away.
“I know, I know,” Dick says, amused exasperation in his voice. “Using both to block leaves me open.” He pulls back, as easy as flowing water. “What happened between you and the other Dick?”
Bruce doesn’t answer, just circles, waiting for an opening. Dick lets him, circles opposite him. It’s familiar, soothing in it’s own way. He’s sure that Batman doesn’t lack for sparring partners, but it’s been a long time since Bruce fought with anyone without an intent to take them down.
He’s missed it.
Dick feints at his left, then spins around to aim a kick at Bruce’s face. It’s an effective move. He’s only gotten faster since Bruce sparred with him last, and Bruce barely dodges in time.
“So when did it start? Probably when I left to be Nightwing, right? That’s when I stopped talking to my Bruce.”
Bruce almost falters, because somehow it hadn’t occurred to him that Batman could also have gone through the same things. That Dick would have turned from this and his perfect life like Bruce’s Dick had. But he’s too well trained to let his emotions get the better of him, and he’s ready for Dick’s next attack.
“Of course, we started again when he took in Jason. Not all good, as I’m sure you know.”
Bruce doesn’t know. Bruce has no idea.
“I mean, Wally was probably 60% responsible. ‘Don’t hold it in, man,’ ‘Go yell at that Bat asshole, Dick,’” Dick makes a face. “Sometimes I think half of my bad decisions are his idea.”
“Wally- the Flash?” Bruce says.
“Well, Kid Flash, back then. But yeah. He’s big on things like, airing your feelings. But then, Team Flash is probably a lot more emotionally stable than Team Bat. Relatively speaking.”
“Team Bat,” Bruce repeats skeptically. He manages to make his next swipe connect, hitting Dick’s shoulder, but Dick moves back again before he can press the advantage.
“Yeah, you know. Team Bat. I don’t really feel like that needs follow-up?”
Well. Bruce supposes it doesn’t. It’s only. He can’t imagine it, when its been him and Alfred for so long.
“So, I’m guessing that he left to be Nightwing, and sulked for awhile. And you sulked for awhile, and then you took in Jason, and he sulked even more. How am I doing so far?”
“I don’t sulk.”
“Sorry, brood then. You brooded for awhile, then took in Jason.” Dick shakes his head. “God, I was so pissed when you did that. I didn’t get it. It felt like so personal. I think I thought that you’d done it as this personal attack? To get back at me.”
This time Bruce actually does falter. “No! Dick, of course not.”
“Well, yeah, I know that now .” Dick says, letting his own sticks fall, not pressing the advantage. “But I had only just gotten over it when Jason, you know.”
Died. When Jason died. When he was brutally murdered, for the crime of being in Bruce’s life. For being on Team Bat, as Dick had called it.
“And if I didn’t have Wally, and he hadn’t pushed me to talk to you, and I hadn’t talked to Jason, and liked him.”
“He did talk to Jason,” Bruce says, before he can stop himself. He’d pretended not to know, hadn’t wanted to interrupt whatever relationship the boys were building, but Bruce had known every time that Dick had helped Jason on patrol, had snuck into the Manor to help him train or just to talk. “It was just me.”
“And then Jason died,” Dick says softly, and Bruce has to fight not to show how much of a blow it still is.
“And then Jason died,” Bruce agrees.
“He blamed you?” Dick asks, and he’s gotten closer while Bruce was lost in his own regrets.
“Who else?” Bruce asks, because he’s never had any doubts about his own culpability.
“Who else?” Dick repeats, incredulous. Bruce almost flinches when Dick puts a hand on his shoulder, shaking him slightly. “Bruce, you can’t really believe that?”
Bruce meets his eyes, startled. For years, he’s carried around the knowledge that Dick blames him for Jason’s death. Blames him, and hates him for it. This isn’t his Dick, but he’s close, and the look in his eyes says that he doesn’t blame Bruce, not at all.
“Bruce, you didn’t kill him. You loved him. And if your Dick still isn’t talking to you, I promise, that’s not—” he cuts himself off, searching for words. “He doesn’t blame you, not anymore.”
“You can’t know that.”
“Hm, my alternate reality self, my call. Pretty sure I can.”
“Then why—” Why hasn’t Dick come to talk to him? Why does he stay away, when surely he must know how much Bruce lo— how much Bruce cares for him? How much he wants to see him, needs him by his side. Look at what he had done, left to his own devices, with only Alfred to be the voice of reason.
Dick sighs. “Look, I can’t say for sure. It’s probably- you haven’t contacted him either, right? He probably thinks that you don’t want to talk to him?”
Bruce feels at a loss for words. How could Dick ever think that? How could he doubt his place in Bruce’s life, on his team? But then, it’s been six years, and a lot has changed.
“A lot has happened, since then.”
“The whole Superman thing,” Dick nods. “I wish he had been there. It’s easy to get caught up in everything, when you’re alone.” He grins, mischievous. “It’s why one of us always try to drop in on Jason.”
Jason had told him some of it, had looked at Bruce like he expected rejection, repudiation. Bruce hadn’t been able to. He’s given in to some of his own worst instincts, how can he blame Jason for doing the same? Jason’s targets had been a lot more deserving than Bruce’s.
“You should talk to him,” Dick says, tightening his grip on Bruce’s shoulder.
“I can’t—too much time has passed. Too much has happened.” I’ve done too much, changed too much, he doesn’t say, but Dick hears it anyway. He always has, 12 years old and too smart for his own good. Much too smart for Bruce’s own good.
“You still do that creepy thing you do? Where you drop by my apartment or the station or on patrol and I pretend not to see you?”
Dick gives him a pitying look. “Yeah, Bruce. I can’t say I noticed every time, how would I know? But I definitely noticed at least once a week. If he hasn’t called you on it, he doesn’t mind.”
There are a lot of differences between this reality and his own, spanning twenty years and the family that Bruce has long since given up on. But there are things that Bruce can do, can work at to bring this reality a little closer.
After his talk with Dick, Bruce feels too restless and keyed up to stay in the cave, surrounded by unfamiliar equipment and the trappings of someone else’s life.
What he wants to do is get out of here, break out of these walls and take out his anger by keeping his city safe.
But then— this isn’t his city.
And what is there to be gained from sneaking out of the Manor, to stalking the streets of Gotham, and to having the entire might of this expanded Justice League brought to bear on him. He’s sure he could evade them for a time, but to what end. To prove a point? To sate his own impatience?
So he spends his time wandering the Manor, taking in all the parts of it he had forgotten, the hidden corners and abandoned wings and darkened rooms. Less of it is left empty than had been the case the last time he’d seen it, rooms filled with the boys’ belongings and all the assorted mess that come with teenage boys.
One of the old parlors, a particularly stuffy ones that even his parents had hated, has been transformed into a game room.
He walks through rooms that would have gathered dust in any other house, if Alfred weren’t so diligent, trails his fingers over his mother’s piano, his father’s chess set, perfectly recreated from loving memory. It’s pure sentiment, they serve no purpose here. Bruce, and Batman, would never touch either. But it’s a sentiment that Bruce can’t begrudge him.
On one such walk, well into the afternoon, he hears voices, not raised but carefully controlled in such a way that it has the same effect.
He already walks quietly. It’s easy enough to make his footsteps silent, to stay light and keep to the shadows as he moves closer.
It’s Clark and Batman, facing off against one another, each of them crackling with anger. Just seeing it, feeling the tension in the room, makes Bruce’s stomach lurch. This isn’t his own reality, not his own time, but he can still recall that anger, directed at Superman and—
But of course, it’s not the same. Anger might be fueling Batman, but not rage. Not hatred, or fear. They may fight, but it would be like Dick and Bruce fight, not like how Bruce had fought his own Superman.
“—can’t dictate who I talk to, Bruce,” Clark is saying, words made sharp with temper. Or, perhaps, with holding his temper back.
Bruce feels himself tense, and it takes him a moment to realize that it’s not over Clark’s anger, but an anticipation of his own reaction to it. He’s waiting for the sickening lurch that always accompanied thoughts of Superman’s anger, for the thoughts of what a loss of control could mean. But, here and now, he’s not afraid. He looks at the clench of Clark’s jaw and the tension in his shoulders and Bruce is—fine.
Batman, clearly, does not fear Clark’s temper either, rises to meet it with his own.
“I don’t trust him, don’t like him. If you—”
Clark cuts him off with a laugh. “Jesus, Bruce. He’s you.”
“He’s not me,” Batman says, and the words snap out like a whip, true fury in them.
“You need so many therapists.”
“The things he’s done, after he, after he tried kill you-”
“You can’t keep using that as this, this trump card,” Clark says. “I think we can solidly put that under extenuating circumstances.”
“You’re always too fucking trusting,” Batman says, and he sounds exhausted.
“You’re always a paranoid lunatic,” Clark replies. “But he hasn’t done a single thing since arriving in this timeline to justify this hatred you have towards him.”
“I don’t hate him,” Batman says, which is patently untrue.
“Then what is your issue?” Clark takes a step forward, and from his vantage point, Bruce can see as Batman consciously chooses not to take a reciprocal step back. “Because I’m used to you being a paranoid lunatic, but this is a lot, even for you.”
“I’m a paranoid lunatic up until I’m right and I’m the only one with a contingency plan.”
“No,” Clark says, and some of the anger is draining away from him, replaced by fond resignation. “Then you’re just a paranoid lunatic who is right. Even a broken clock and all that.”
“Fuck you,” Batman says, not picking up, or more likely not caring about, Clark’s change in tone.
“What do you think he’ll do, Bruce? Do you really, I mean really honestly think he’s going to try and kill me too?”
“You can’t underestimate him,” Batman snaps, and Clark laughs. There is still an edge to it, but it’s softened.
“I know better by now than to underestimate any Batman,” he says.
“Clark,” there is a note in Batman’s voice that Bruce has never heard before, something tender and desperate. “He’s dangerous .”
“What are you so afraid of, Bruce?” Clark asks, taking another step forward.
“I hate the way that he looks at you,” Batman says, as if the words have been torn from him.
Clark stops, rocking back on his heels. “How does he look at me?”
“Like you’re, like you’re everything.” Batman’s voice breaks, and Bruce flushes hot with embarrassment.
Clark makes an incredulous noise. “He does not.”
“He does,” Batman says, soft and sincere. “He’s—he’s every bad mistake I’ve ever made, could ever make, and he wants you and he can’t have you .” He snarls out the last few words.
Clark takes another step forward, and he’s right in front of Batman now.
“He’s not so bad as all that. He’s made some mistakes, but he’s lost so much.” God, listening to this is like being flayed open and exposed, but Bruce can’t look away. “But you’re right about one thing. He can’t have me. Because, god, Bruce. You have you have to know I’m yours.”
To Batman’s credit, he only stares incredulously for a moment before he wraps his hand around the back of Clark’s neck and pulls him into a kiss.
Bruce isn’t sure what the most prominent emotion he feels is. Lingering embarrassment, happiness for Clark—and Batman, to a lesser degree—jealousy and something a lot like relief.
He lingers while he sorts through it briefly, as Clark backs Batman into a wall, as Batman’s hands fall to Clark’s hips and pull him, desperately, closer.
It’s too much, in almost every way.
Batman and Clark are late to dinner, almost two hours later. Batman manages to look presentable, if slightly ruffled, but even the briefest glance at Clark gives the game away.
His hair is no messier than usual, his mouth incapable of being kissed red and raw, but he still manages to look thoroughly tousled. More than that, there is a satisfied, happy aura to him, and he keeps shooting beaming smiles at Batman.
Bruce sees Tim and Dick exchange a look. Tim jerks his head, Dick makes a face, and Bruce feels the displacement of air past his leg as Tim lands a solid kick on Dick’s shin.
“So, uh,” Dick gestures with his fork between Batman and Clark, “is this a thing now, or?”
“Yes,” Clark says at the same time that Batman says
“That’s none of your business.”
Dick breaks out into a grin. “I fucking knew it. Tim, you owe me $30.”
“You bet against them?” Bruce asks, genuinely surprised.
“I bet against them getting together this calendar year,” Tim replies, grumbling. “Your arrival skewed the results.”
“You were betting on my love life?” Batman asks dangerously.
“Arguably, we were betting on Clark’s love life, and you were collateral?” Tim offers.
Batman gives him a skeptical glare, but lets the matter drop. It’s a mark of how happy he must be, even if it’s not showing on his face. Bruce would have pushed harder.
Bruce can’t help watching them, watching the way that they orient close to one another, the way that they lean in unnecessarily to make small comments. It’s not so different from how they were before, and it’s almost worse than if everything had changed. All the pieces were there the entire time, they just fit together now.
Batman catches his look. He’s not so obvious as to lay his hand over Clark’s, but Bruce gets the distinct impression he wants to. Bruce raises his eyebrow at Batman, amused by his possessiveness in spite of himself. Batman just gives him a flat look in return.
Clark catches the exchange and rolls his eyes. He has no compunction about placing his hand over Batman’s, but the move is soothing rather than possessive. Bruce has to look away as he sees Clark gently smooth his thumb over Batman’s. It’s not something that he thought he had wanted, but seeing it is devastating, leaves him cleaved open and raw with longing.
He turns his attention back to his meal. He doesn’t feel very hungry anymore.
When Bruce wakes up the next day, he first thinks of the clasp of Clark’s hand over Batman’s. Of all the things that this reality has, that are absent in his own reality. All the things he is going to leave behind.
He can’t stay here, can’t even want to, when he has his own world and his own Gotham and his own Justice League to get back to. He lets that thought sweep over him. That, for all the things he could have here, he still needs—wants—to go back.
He lies in the guest bed, trying to sort out the complicated mix of emotions. Relief. Disappointment. Loss. He’s going to lose the Manor again. Lose Dick. Lose Tim and Damian, the family he hadn’t even known he wanted. He’s going to lose Jason , return to a world where Jason is cold and dead in the ground. Return to a world where Clark is gone, and the only thing that stands between the world and destruction are five people too stubborn to quit.
No vast Justice League, four deep in heroes ready to step up.
He had been coping in his own reality, but he hadn’t known what he was missing. And could he even call what he had been doing coping, when he had made so many devastating mistakes?
“Knock, knock?” Comes a voice from the door, and Bruce turns his head to see Tim, nudging the door open with his hip and carrying a tray.
Bruce pushes himself into a sitting position. “Aren’t I a bit old for breakfast in bed?”
“You’re never too old for breakfast in bed,” Tim says primly. He pulls himself onto the bed beside Bruce, setting the tray between them and sitting crosslegged.
Bruce looks at the plate of toast, eggs, bacon, and a bowl of fruit. “What’s the occasion?”
“I figure you don’t have much time left.” Tim picks out a piece of bacon and chews it contentedly. “You’ve talked with Jason, with Dick, with Clark. You even, however indirectly, helped Bruce and Clark get their shit together. I doubt you have much unfinished business left here.”
“Plus, it’s fun.” Dick is carrying four cups of coffee, each balanced more precariously than the last. He passes one to Bruce, another to Tim, and keeps the last two for himself as he sits on the edge of the bed.
Bruce doesn’t even have time to ask who the last cup is for before Jason and Damian are entering. Damian is carrying a second tray almost as big as he is, and Jason is carrying a single cup of orange juice.
Damian unceremoniously pushes the tray into Bruce’s hands and climbs onto the bed, managing to elbow Tim and knee Dick in the stomach. Bruce takes a sip of his coffee to hide his grin.
“Fucking brat,” Jason says affectionately. He reaches out to ruffle Damian’s hair, and Bruce is honestly worried he’s going to lose a hand over it.
“You know, there’s a perfectly good table downstairs,” Bruce says as Jason gets onto the bed himself. It’s a big bed, but it’s starting to feel a bit crowded. Dick takes the tray from him and puts it down in the middle of the group. This one has biscuits and an even bigger pile of bacon.
“Yeah, but Bruce and Clark are being all gross down there,” Jason says. “All happy and shit.”
“I cannot believe Father is lowering himself to be with that alien,” Damian says, taking a roll and biting it with unnecessary vigor.
“He’s lowering himself to something,” Jason leers, and Dick punches him in the arm.
“What, gross, those are our dads!” Tim protests, and Bruce chokes on his coffee.
“I mean,” Tim flushes. “Whatever, you were all thinking it.”
“I really was not, but thanks for that image,” Jason says.
Dick is outright laughing, and Damian looks a little green.
“That’s not—he won’t. Father wouldn’t. He’s not going to— to—”
“To marry Clark and make him move in here and be your step-dad?” Jason asks, grinning broadly as Damian makes a distressed noise. “I mean, he’s not going to not do that.”
Damian stands on the bed. “I have to access the emergency Kryptonite immediately.”
Bruce has a moment to feel alarmed before Dick grabs the back of Damian’s pajama shirt and pulls him back down.
“Don’t be dramatic. Clark’s not going to move in, he’s needed in Metropolis, and it’s not like the commute is a problem for him. It’s not going to be too different from how it’s always been, except they’ll both be happier.” Dick gives Damian a stern look. “Don’t you want Bruce to be happy?”
Damian squirms, clearly uncomfortable with the thought of Batman having emotions. “Whatever,” he mumbles, before shoving an entire biscuit into his mouth and avoiding everyone’s eyes.
“Do you really, is he really around that much?” Bruce asks, tentative. He can’t stop hearing Tim says the word ‘dads’ over and over. It’s not—he doesn’t even know how he feels about that fact that Tim considers Batman a father figure, much less Clark.
“I don’t really, it’s not like he’s really—it’s just,” Tim falters, and Dick puts a hand on his shoulder.
“Clark practically helped raise us. I mean, obviously Bruce was our dad, and of course Alfred was there for us. But so was Clark.”
“It was crazy at first,” Jason picks up, and Bruce wasn’t expecting him to say anything. “I mean, it was Superman . Even Dickie here had a bit of a hero crush on Superman before he started coming around as much.”
“Did not,” Dick grumbles. “It was just, he was Superman before he was Clark. Obviously.” He grins down at his plate. “God, Bruce hated him when I came to live here.”
“Oh?” Bruce says, carefully spreading jam on a biscuit and trying not to look too interested. Batman always made it sound like they’d been bosom buddies since their first meeting.
“I mean, even before I figured out the whole,” Dick makes a gesture that Bruce can only conclude is supposed to mean ‘the concept of Batman and secret vigilante lifestyle,’ “I knew that. He was always muttering about how Superman was a showoff and a menace and would, you know, end the world as we know it.” His tone makes it clear what he thinks about that. But even under that, it’s fond amusement, like he’s inviting Bruce to share in a joke. How ridiculous is it, that he thought that, Dick seems to say.
As if Bruce doesn’t remember, intimately, what it felt like to hate and fear Superman.
“And then I figured out about Batman and he talked about it even more.” Dick takes a sip of his coffee, looking thoughtful. “I’m not actually sure when it changed. But next thing I knew, they’d formed the Justice League together. I still don’t think Bruce trusted him or anything. It was at least a year after that before Clark started coming by the Manor, but,” he shrugs. “Clark was just there , you know.”
Bruce doesn’t know. Bruce can hardly even imagine. He’s never had regular guests to the Manor, has only ever shared that space with Alfred and Dick.
“Well I still don’t trust him,” Damian says imperiously, and tries to steal Dick’s coffee.
It breaks the mood that has settled over Bruce, watching as Dick holds the coffee over Damians’s head.
“No coffee for preteens,” Dick says, and then Damian stands up again and the resulting scuffle ends with one of the trays knocked over and eggs all over the bedspread as Tim and Jason howl with laughter and Bruce can’t help but laugh himself, knowing that he will miss this family desperately when he goes.
When they finally head down, once Dick has made Damian clean up the spilled food and Jason has finished off the last of the bacon and Tim has snuck the last of Dick’s coffee while Dick was wrangling Damian, it’s to find Batman finishing off the last of his breakfast at the kitchen table. Clark is nowhere to be seen.
“Chase him off already?” Jason asks, heading straight for the coffee pot to fill up another mug. He smacks away Damian’s hands as Damian moves to do the same.
“Clark does have a job,” Bruce says mildly. “Unlike you layabouts.”
“Hey!” Dick protests.
“I have a job,” Jason says. “Selling weapons on the black market is hard work.”
Bruce is close enough to see the way Batman’s shoulders tense at the reminder, but he doesn’t say anything.
“Isn’t it Sunday?” Tim asks, leaning over Batman’s shoulder to steal the rest of the toast off his plate. Bruce remembers what it was like, trying to keep a growing vigilante boy fed. He doesn’t envy Batman that particular task.
Batman’s mouth twists wryly. “Apparently investigative reporting waits for no man.”
“Not even Superman?” Dick asks, dropping into the chair across from Batman.
“Not even Superman.”
When Dick tries to pull the same move as Tim, reaching over to Batman’s plate, Batman hits his fingers with the flat of his fork.
“Get your own,” he says as Dick shakes out his hand.
“Mean,” Dick mutters, getting up to fix himself another plate.
“How are you still hungry?” Bruce asks in amazement, watching as Jason and Tim follow suit.
“Well, someone did destroy half of our breakfast,” Jason says.
“And you ate it off the floor anyway,” Tim says, hip checking Jason away from the stove.
Jason shrugs. “Like the floors in this house aren’t cleaner than any restaurant table in Gotham.”
“A sad remark on the dining industry,” Alfred says.
“Just a compliment to your amazing skills.”
“Sir is too kind.” Alfred’s tone is as dry as the desert.
“Is it always like this?” Bruce asks in an aside to Batman. It’s only when Batman looks up at him, brows raised, that Bruce registers how casually he’d done that. As if Batman was someone he talked with regularly, easily.
But, then, it was hard to hate someone who loved his family so clearly. Who had a family that so clearly loved him back.
Batman looks over at the boys, watching with Bruce as they move around the kitchen and playfully fight over the rest of the food.
“They aren’t usually all here together. But yes. It’s almost always just like this.”
“It’s nice,” Bruce says. A peace offering, between them.
“It is,” Batman agrees.
Bruce settles back in his chair and sips his coffee, letting the chaos wash over him.
Once everyone has finished eating and begins to go their separate ways—Dick has an afternoon shift, Tim says something about visiting a friend and ignores the ribbing he gets— something from Jason about keeping it all in the family that Bruce doesn’t get— and Jason being carefully evasive about his plans—Bruce joins Alfred at the sink.
“Need some help?” he asks, pushing his sleeves up his arms.
“Certainly not,” Alfred says, before his mouth twists into a smile. “But your company is not unwelcome. You can dry.”
He passes Bruce a dish cloth, and they stand in silence, cleaning the breakfast dishes. The Manor has had a dishwasher for decades, but Alfred is a traditionalist. He carefully washes the dishes in one side of the sink, rinses it on the other and passes it to Bruce.
Bruce, in turn, dries it carefully, and sets it down. There is history here, being passed between them. It may not be his parents’ china, that would have been destroyed in the same fire that took them in Bruce’s reality, but there is a weight to them all the same.
The china has been chosen carefully to fit into the decor of the manor, classic and timeless and well used by a proper family. Nothing like the modern plates that Bruce had carelessly ordered on the internet over Alfred’s protests.
The only sounds in the kitchen are the clink of the plates, the gentle sound of water moving, the drag of cloth across the plates.
“You said something about rebuilding,” Bruce says carefully. There only a few plates left.
“I did,” Alfred says, not looking at him. Bruce is grateful.
“How does it—sometimes it hardly feels worth it. The time, the effort. I have a place to sleep, a place to work. It doesn’t seem like something I need.”
Alfred is silent as he washes another plate, and Bruce waits. Alfred waits until Bruce has dried it and placed it down before he says, slowly, picking each word, “You said nothing about a place to live .”
Bruce draws in a sharp breath, because of course he hadn’t meant it like that, but Alfred cuts him off.
“It’s not always about what you need, sir. Sometimes, it can just be about what you want. About what can make you happy.”
“I don’t know what makes me happy,” Bruce admits.
Alfred makes a soft sound, and when he turns and pulls Bruce into a hug, Bruce lets him.
“Perhaps it’s time you found out,” Alfred says, and Bruce tucks his head in and takes slow, careful breaths.
Bruce is looking through the library again, remembering lost moments from his childhood— Father used to sit here, Mother loved this book in particular—when Damian sticks his head around the door frame.
He’s far too well trained to be so obvious if he didn’t want to be seen, so Bruce lets his gaze fall on him, waiting as Damian shuffles into the room.
“Drake believes that you’ll be gone soon, impostor,” Damian says.
“He mentioned as much,” Bruce replies.
“Good,” Damian says, then scuffs his foot on the floor. Bruce waits him out, turning his attention back to the books. Then, “is Superman really dead in your world?”
“Yes,” Bruce says shortly. He’s not sure he wants to have this conversation. He’s heard Damian’s opinions of Clark.
“But are you sure?” Damian presses. There is something almost vulnerable in his tone, and Bruce turns to him in surprise.
“Yes,” he replies, more carefully this time. “I was there. I helped to bury him.”
“It’s just,” Damian hesitates. “I’ve seen him die before. He usually gets better.”
Bruce thinks of Clark’s chest, broken open and bleeding, illuminated in sickly green. “There are some things even Superman can’t come back from.”
“You should check, though!” Damian says, and Bruce doesn’t know where this urgency is coming from, what to do with it. “Make sure if, if he’s getting enough sunlight.”
Bruce doesn’t want to insult Damian by crouching to his level, so he moves to one of the large chairs that are placed throughout the library.
“I’ll check on him when I get home,” he promises. He would have anyway, has visited Clark’s headstone often over the last few months. “Why is this so important to you?”
“It’s not!” Damian says. His hands are clenched into fists. ‘He practically helped to raise us,’ Dick had said. And Damian was the youngest, would have never known Bruce without Superman. Without Clark.
“Well, if it’s not important, I don’t have to go by. It’s a long way to Kansas.”
Damian stomps his foot. “You have to! You have to go, and get him, and let him get sunlight until he comes back!”
“I didn’t think you liked Superman,” Bruce says softly.
Damian sniffs, putting his nose in the air haughtily. “Don’t be gross. It’s just, you’re so,” he gestures at Bruce.
“So?” Bruce prompts.
“So stupid!” Damian bursts out, then flushes. “And, and weak , compared to Father. And you don’t have any Robins and that’s not right. And I heard you, you said that it was because there was no Superman. You said!”
Bruce had said that, but only to Batman. He’s almost proud of Damian, for eavesdropping so effectively on the two of them.
“Maybe,” he says. “Maybe not. But that’s with twenty years of history. Even if he could come back, nothing can account for that.”
“It’s worth a try,” Damian says, and he crosses his arms over his chest.
“What is this really about?” Bruce asks.
“I,” Damian looks at him, then away. “You should already have Drake by now, and you don’t. What if—what if you don’t want any Robins, ever? What if—”
‘What if you don’t want me,’ he doesn’t say. But Bruce hears it, reads it the set of his shoulders, the way he won’t meet Bruce’s eyes.
Bruce doesn’t know how to reassure him. Doesn’t know how to say what Damian needs to hear, when Damian won’t even admit what the problem is.
“I haven’t had the opportunity to meet Tim, in my time,” he says carefully. “But I’m sure if I met him, I wouldn’t send him away.” I won’t send you away, he wants to say, and doesn’t. “I could—I could have another Robin, again.”
The words almost catch in his throat, clogged with old grief and regret. But, as soon as he says them, he knows they’re true. Before this, he never would have imagined, never would have even considered another ward, much less training another Robin. But Jason is here, strong and healthy. Tim and Damian are alive, are happy here with Bruce. Possibly happier than they would be without him.
If he does meet a Tim Drake, if a young Damian Wayne appears, he’ll take them in and be glad to do it.
“Good,” Damian says to the far wall. Then, “because Drake is basically useless. He needs you a lot.” He clears his throat. “It’s really pathetic.” Damian moves towards the door and adds, “Plus, it wouldn’t be terrible. You know, if the alien came back. He’s pretty strong, I guess.”
Bruce doesn’t smile, but only because Damian would take it the wrong way. “I guess he is.”
“Only a bit though!” Damian says, and almost runs out the door.
Bruce lets a smile bloom across his face. “Yeah,” he says, even though Damian can’t hear him. “Only a little bit.”
Clark ends up coming back, towards the end of the day. Presumably after whatever reporterly things he was working on are over.
Bruce finds this out when he walks in on Batman and Clark kissing. He takes an instinctive step back, and stops. Clark’s eyelashes are a dark sweep across his face, his cheeks flushed attractively pink. It’s not Bruce he’s kissing, but—
And then Batman’s eyes open, meet Bruce’s with a burning heat. As Bruce watches, Batman moves a hand from Clark’s waist to his ass, pulling him closer. Clark makes a desperate noise that makes Bruce flush.
Bruce knows what this is. He knows himself too well to misunderstand. Not just possessiveness. Not just a final punctuation on all the things Batman has said to him, but a deliberate message. That Batman may understand why Bruce lived the way he had, but he’ll never forgive him for it.
This as much a punishment as it is a message. Look what you lost. Look what you gave up, the second you turned the Kryptonite against him.
Bruce backs out of the room.
Dinner isn’t awkward, not exactly. But it’s easy to see what Jason had been talking about this morning. There is a palpable sense of happiness that’s hard to miss. It’s not the smug satisfaction of the recently kissed from the previous night, it’s quieter and somehow all the more noticeable for it.
It, agonizingly, reminds Bruce of dinner with his parents, the way they never even needed to talk to one another.
It’s only Tim and Damian, of the boys, at the table, and the usual chaos that occurs whenever the two of them are in a room long enough helps to keep Bruce preoccupied, but he can’t stop the way his eyes cut back to Clark and Batman. It’s not even as though they’re too caught up in one another. Clark asks Tim about a project he’s working on, and Batman asks Damian about his school work, but there is something. In the pauses, in the quiet moments.
Bruce excuses himself from the table early, and heads back up to the guest room he’s been staying in.
He must be imagining it, because Alfred is too thorough for it to be anything else, but the room still smells faintly of bacon.
Bruce drops down onto the bed and reaches for book he’d taken from the library. It’s another old favorite, a first edition that must have been hell to track down after losing the original. The pages are dogeared from a previous owner, and Bruce smoothes them out absently as he reads
He’s not too surprised at the knock on his door, as he looks up to see Clark standing there.
“Tim thinks you’re going home soon,” Clark offers by way of explanation
“Kid’s going to be really embarrassed if I’m still here tomorrow,” Bruce says, setting the book aside.
Clark shrugs. “Tim’s usually right.” His teeth flash in a grin. “He learned from the best.”
“Who said I meant you?”
Bruce grins in spite of himself. “Did you come to say goodbye?”
“Something like that.” Clark sits on the edge of the bed. “I guess it’s more like, good luck. It sounds like you’ve had a rough time of it in your world. I hope it gets better.”
Bruce thinks of a mansion he still has time to rebuild, a family he has yet to meet. Of the Justice League he has, smaller than this reality’s but still strong. “Me too.”
Clark looks at him. Then, “You told me you were bi on purpose, didn’t you?”
“Well, it’s not like it just slipped out,” Bruce says.
Clark laughs. “You know what I mean, you ass.” A pause, and then. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it. No. Really. Please, never mention it.”
Clark laughs again, and Bruce silently resigns himself to never hearing it again.
“You’re by far the best extra-dimensional visitor we’ve had.”
“Well, to begin with, you didn’t try to take over the world even once.”
Bruce pretends to think it over. “There’s still time for that.”
“Yeah, right. You’d hate it. All paperwork and no time to go punch bad guys in the face.”
“I’ll have to save it for the next reality I visit.”
“About that,” Clark says. “If you do have this happen again, or if someone else shows up in your timeline. Just—be careful, okay? Not every doppleganger can be trusted.”
“You’re warning me about being careful?” Bruce asks, incredulous.
Clark holds up his hands. “Fine, fine. Wing it.”
In the time that Bruce has been here, he’s come up no less than sixteen different contingencies for his own reality. “I’ll do that.”
“See that you do.” Clark gets to his feet. “There’s someone else who wants to talk to you.” He offers his hand. “It’s been a pleasure, Bruce Wayne.”
“An experience, at the least,” Bruce agrees, shaking his hand. He doesn’t let his grip linger, doesn’t try to impress the memory of Clark’s palm, warm and broad, into his memory.
Clark gives him a little motion as he leaves that vaguely resembles someone tipping their hat, and Bruce smiles, briefly swamped by affection, by a sudden feeling of loss. Batman’s message earlier had been unnecessary. He’s well aware of what he’s lost.
He’s not anymore surprised when Batman comes in than he had been by Clark.
“I assume you’re not here to wish me luck?” He asks.
Batman shrugs. “I’m not not here to wish you luck.” At whatever he sees on Bruce’s face, he says, “I don’t wish you harm.”
“You just don’t want me near your family.” Or Clark.
“Can you blame me?”
The thing is, Bruce can’t. He wouldn’t want him near Batman’s family either. He shrugs.
Batman comes closer. “I misjudged you.”
Batman scowls. “I’m not saying it again. I thought you were—well. It doesn’t matter. But you care about Clark. You’ve been good to the boys. Whatever changed in your timeline. I’m sorry.”
“It’s too easy to see how I could be you,” Batman says, and Bruce’s eyes jerk to his face. “The other ones, the few other Bruce Waynes I’ve met have either been almost exactly the same, or so different it doesn’t matter. Megalomaniacs, crazy men. Men I could never be. But you. You’re the worst case scenario.”
“Thanks,” Bruce says, wry. His throat feel rough.
“If I didn’t have anyone, if it was up to Alfred to try and keep everything together, I can’t say I wouldn’t—” he shrugs. “I understand you. More than I’m comfortable with.” His mouth twists into a smile. “I’ll be happy when you’re gone.”
“Seriously,” Bruce says, desperate to break the mood, “Tim is going to look really foolish at breakfast.”
Batman doesn’t justify that with a reply. “You know what you have to do, right?”
If he’d said that even a day ago, Bruce would have bristled. He doesn’t have to do anything. But he understands Batman too. “Yes.” It’s a long list.
Batman nods. “Good.”
He turns to go, and stops. “One more thing. What Wally said—he thinks he was joking, but,” he hesitates, so unlike them both that Bruce can’t help but pay attention, “just, think about it, okay?”
He closes the door behind him, and Bruce lies back on the bed. He knows what Wally had said, a sarcastic comment, off the cuff. But Damian had much the same thing. And Batman would never have brought it up again if it didn’t hold weight.
Bruce gets up to turn the light off, and lies down.
It’s a long time before he falls asleep.
When Bruce wakes up in a pile of burnt tinder and rubble in what was once the guest wing of Wayne Manor, his first thought is that Tim will unbearably smug at breakfast.
And then, with a jolt in his stomach, the thought that Tim may be smug at breakfast, but Bruce won’t be there to see it. That he won’t ever meet Tim, won’t see Jason smirking at him, cocky and arrogant. Won’t ever see Clark Kent, smiling at him over a morning cup of coffee.
For a moment, he lies there, in the wreckage of his former home. God, if Alfred could see him now, just as dramatic as he’s always accuses Bruce of being.
Bruce sucks in a breath, then another. He’s gotten used to breathing through the hurt. Gotham needs him.
He gets to his feet. He feels like he just went another six rounds with, well, with Superman. Every inch of him aches, muscles strained, skin bruised, hollowed open. He looks at his hands. Whatever trip he’s gone on had left him, visually, unscarred.
He picks his way out of the rubble. The years have blown away loose ashes and cinders, only rubble remains. With the memory the Manor so freshly in his mind, it seems unthinkable that he’s left it like this so long, open to the elements.
As he walks, careful of loose beams and unstable ground, he thinks. His watch shows it’s the same day he remembers last being in his own timeline. It’s been six hours. An hour for every day he was away.
If he weren’t in the Manor, exactly where he had gone to sleep in a real bed, he might have thought it was a dream. It could still be a dream. A veritable Christmas Carol, to press home his failings, to set him on a new path.
Bruce comes to the edge of the rubble, hesitating before he steps onto stable ground once more. Dream or not, the path is before him now. He can move forward, as Batman had. Or he can—not. He can leave the Manor as it is, a broken relic to his failures. He can keep spotlights up on Jason’s suit, on Superman’s suit. He can stare his own mistakes in the face, again and again.
Or he can work to fix them.
He takes a step forward, onto stable ground.
Chapter 2: An Epilogue, In Snapshots
Dick is on alert the second his key starts to turn in the lock. It’s nothing specific, nothing he could put a name to, but he’s too well trained not to trust the feeling.
He keeps his gun locked at the station, and the escrima sticks are inside the apartment. His hands go instead to a small tazer he keeps on his belt. Modified as it is, it could take down an elephant. Not as elegant as his sticks, but effective.
He unlocks the door and braces himself before he opens it.
“You’ve gotten sloppy,” Bruce says. He’s perched himself on Dick’s couch, illuminated by the street light from the window.
“Jesus, Bruce.” Dick turns on the light, feeling the familiar irritation rise up in him. Four years since they’ve talked, and that’s all Bruce has to say to him. “Have you been in the dark this entire time?”
“Your neighbors might have seen a light.”
Like his neighbors would give two shits. Someone could rob the place blind and leave their name and number with the people across the hall and his neighbors still wouldn’t do a thing.
“Not in this neighborhood.” Dick drops his duffle onto the ground. He can’t imagine why Bruce is here. It can’t be anything urgent. He has his League for that now. It’s not like he’s needed Dick’s help with anything else over the years. Not when dealing with Jason’s loss, or when taking on a god in the streets of Gotham.
Bruce gets to his feet, and Dick is struck by how pale he looks, how drawn. On the news, he’s always looked fine. Strong. But then, that’s always been part of the Bruce Wayne brand, the performance that Bruce has always been so good at.
And then he opens his mouth. “If it’s money you need-”
“I don’t need money,” Dick snaps. “I’m doing fine.”
Bruce eyes an empty pizza box, left on the kitchen counter. “So I see.”
Dick runs his hand through his hair, and takes a deep breath. “Why are you here, Bruce?”
Bruce gets to his feet, and opens his mouth. He closes it again. Dick watches his shoulder roll in the smallest shrug and realizes that Bruce is nervous. “I wanted to,” Bruce stops, and swallows. “I thought—”
Dick takes pity on him. “Do you want some water?”
“Please,” Bruce says, with evident relief. He seems to regret it, however, when Dick goes to fill a glass from the sink. Dick hands it to him anyway, daring him to say anything.
For something to do, Dick gets himself a glass as well.
“Is this—is something wrong?” Dick asks.
“No. Not—no.” Bruce looks to the window, the dark alley of Blüdhaven that is Dick’s view, the rusted fire escape. “I came to apologize.”
Dick knows how much those words must cost him, but he can’t help blurting out “ What ?”
Bruce’s shoulders tense, then deliberately relax. When he turns to face Dick again, his face is calm, but his knuckles are white on the glass in his hand. “I’m sorry. For, for everything.”
“For,” Dick laughs, and even to his own ears, it sounds strained. “Jesus, Bruce.”
Bruce doesn’t answer. Dick knows him well enough to know he won’t. He’ll wait for Dick to accept his apology or reject it. If Dick wants to push his luck, Bruce might offer an explanation.
Dick thinks he’s earned a little luck.
“Why now? After years of,” he gestures out the window, indicating the roof across the way where Bruce ‘just stops by’ on patrols. “You have your League now.”
Bruce swallows. “I’ve. I’ve lost a lot, Dick. I’ve missed out on a lot. I don’t want to miss out on anymore.”
Dick can only stare at him, incredulous. From Bruce, it might as well be a weeping declaration. He doesn’t know what to do with it.
Bruce shifts his gaze, takes a sip of the water. “After Jason. I couldn’t handle it. Couldn’t handle much of anything,” he laughs, bitter and sharp. “But. I miss you. And if you’re willing to, to come by the Manor, perhaps on weekends, well. Alfred and I would love to have you.”
Dick can’t think of anything to say, can only stare, mouth agape.
When he’d first left to be Nightwing, he’d imagined Bruce chasing after him. Saying he couldn’t do it alone, that he needed a partner, an equal. That he knew how much Dick had grown, that he wasn’t a kid anymore.
When Jason had died, when Dick had been broken and aching with his loss, he had just wanted to have Bruce there, to grieve with him. But when Bruce had shown no sign of—of anything, Dick had resigned himself to Blüdhaven, to life as Nightwing.
Even with Bruce checking in—spying on—him once a week, he hadn’t thought—hadn’t truly expected—
Bruce mouth twists. “I understand,” he says softly. “I will see myself out, then.”
Dick is still standing by the door, and even Bruce isn’t so dramatic as to throw himself out the window to get away from an emotional confrontation, so Bruce has to cross right by him to get out.
Throat tight with emotion, still unable to think of a single goddamn word to say, Dick catches Bruce’s arm, turns Bruce to face him.
He wouldn’t be able to move Bruce if Bruce didn’t allow it, but Bruce turns. Bruce lets Dick pull him into a hug.
Dick’s childhood dreams of a growth spurt that would put him level with Bruce never came to fruition, and Bruce will always be broader than him. When Bruce’s hands close around him, a hand on the back of his head and the other around his back, it feels just like when he was small. When he had a nightmare, and Bruce would tell him it was alright to cry, but he didn’t need to be scared. When Bruce would give him a hug and everything would feel just a bit better.
“I would love to come for dinner,” Dick says tightly.
Bruce’s arms tighten around him. “I’ll tell Alfred to set an extra place..”
Dick thinks of the kid who’s started to follow him around, who Dick has started to show basic holds and throws to, and almost asks for Bruce to set two.
He decides against it. He should probably ease into that one.
When Clark comes to, he can feel the sun on his face, and almost nothing else. He’s accustomed to waking up with the sounds of the city in his ears, the feel of blankets rough on his skin, all the familiar touches of having super senses.
Now, he can’t even feel his toes.
It’s a struggle just to open his eyes, but when he manages it, he’s faced with an unfamiliar ceiling, frosted glass and steel beams. He tries to sit up, to turn his head. He can’t.
It’s his mother’s voice, and he tries to turn towards it, to acknowledge her. She sounds desperate, disbelieving. He wants to help her.
“Clark!” Then she’s there, standing above him. Her hand in on his, and he knows that she must be clutching tight, but he can’t feel it. “Clark, God. Clark.” She bows her head until it touches his chest, and he can hear her sobbing.
It takes a monumental effort just to twitch his fingers under her hand, to give some indication that he can hear her, that he’s okay. She gasps, and cups his face in her hands, peering into his eyes. “Can you hear me?”
He squeeze her hand again, and she pulls back.
“Bruce! Bruce, he’s awake!”
With the sun warm on his face, he can turn his head just enough to keep her in his sight. She has her hands clasped over her mouth, and she’s turned slightly to the door.
He opens his mouth, and for a terrifying second nothing comes out. His tongue is heavy in his mouth, and he can’t seem to form words, can’t do anything.
Then he manages, “Since when does the farm have a greenhouse?”
Or rather, that’s what he intends. It comes out more garbled than that, barely comprehensible.
Ma smiles at him, tears in her eyes. “I couldn’t understand that,” she says, but she still sounds delighted.
“He’s asking about the greenhouse.”
Clark lolls his head over a bit more and sees—Bruce Wayne. He gapes. Or, he would, if his mouth were fully under his control.
“I’m afraid that is my contribution, Mr. Kent,” Wayne says, coming closer. He’s carrying a glass of water with a colorful straw, and he’s more dressed down than Clark has ever seen him, in dark jeans and a flannel that looks distinctly like one of Clark’s. He comes to stand by Clark’s Ma, who doesn’t seem the least bit surprised to have a millionaire standing beside her. “You must be thirsty,” Wayne continues.
Whatever surface Clark is on, it’s higher than a standard bed, so Wayne barely has to bend put the straw at mouth level. Now that he mentions it, Clark is incredibly thirsty. He takes slow slips, squinting suspiciously at Wayne as he does. There is something about him, something important. Something that Clark should remember.
Wayne takes the glass away once Clark’s done and for a moment, they look at one another in silence. Clark and his Ma and Bruce Fucking Wayne.
“Greenhouse,” he forces out again.
“Ah.” Wayne makes an expression that Clark has never seen on his face before, and it takes Clark a moment is realize it’s embarrassment. “Well. You were. It seemed the most… efficient way to get you recovered.” He looks rueful. “Apparently all one needs do is leave you in the sun for a few weeks.”
“But, with the snow,” Ma adds. “And to just leave you out there, I couldn’t— Bruce has been such a help. Without him, I don’t know if,” she cuts herself off, hand going back to her mouth.
Clark tries to sit up, feeling his muscles fight him, every cell protesting movement.
Wayne puts a gentle hand on Clark’s shoulder, not pushing him down. “Don’t push yourself. There are still a few hours of sunlight left today, you should get more feeling back.”
Clark feels that sink in, first with relief, then dawning horror. “You know?” he slurs.
For a moment, Wayne looks taken aback, and he looks over to Ma, as if checking in with her. “Yes. I. Yes.”
Ma comes up at Bruce’s side. “Bruce is in the same line of work, sweetheart. He saved you.”
Clark isn’t used to requiring saving, and he rolls the thought around in head for a moment.
Then he remembers the thing about Wayne that had been so important.
“You—” he draws in a breath, and it catches in his frozen lungs. “You’re Batman.”
Wayne closes his eyes as if letting a blow land. “Yes.” He crouches down so that he’s at Clark’s eye level. “And I know I was,” he has to swallow to get the words out, “wrong. But I would like to start over. I would like to be friends.” Clark realizes that his hearing has already improved some when he hears the way Wayne’s pulse jumps at that. But it doesn’t sound like a lie. “I only hope that I have already begun to make amends.”
“Of course you have,” Ma says, putting a comforting hand on Bruce’s shoulder. “More than enough.”
Bruce doesn’t look at her, is still looking at Clark, when he says “There is no such thing.”
There is something in his eyes, the intensity, the sincerity. Clark believes him. And he wants what he’s offering. He doesn’t want to do this alone anymore.
“Friends?” he repeats.
A smile, or something a lot like it, breaks across Wayne’s face. It changes the lines of him completely, takes him from something haughty and untouchable to something warm and approachable and all too touchable. It’s breathtaking.
Though that could be Clark’s frozen up lungs again.
“Friends,” Wayne confirms. They can’t shake on it, but Wayne clasps him on the shoulder and, when the sun starts to go down a few hours later, he helps Clark sit up enough to walk into the farmhouse.
Oliver’s not proud of it, but he nearly falls off the roof he’s on when motherfucking Batman drops out of the sky to land next to him.
“What the hell ,” he says, with feeling. He turns around to level his bow at Batman. Batman, who doesn’t seem remotely phased to have a weapon pointing at him.
Though, given his lifestyle, that’s probably a daily experience.
“Green Arrow,” Batman says.
“Uh. It’s just Arrow, actually. The Arrow.” He feels stupid just saying it, but it’s not like he picked the name himself. At last he’s not Batman.
He can’t stop staring. There had been a time, hearing rumors out of Gotham that surpassed even the ones from Star City, when he’d thought Batman was a myth. Before Batman came out of the shadows and teamed up with more biceps that Oliver had ever seen in one place.
“What are you doing here?” he asks, when Batman just stares at him. Oliver hasn’t lowered his bow, but Batman doesn’t seem to expect him to.
“You’ve heard about the Justice League.” He says it as a statement, not a question.
“I hadn’t heard it had a dumb name like that, but yeah.”
Batman scowls at him, but Oliver has no regrets. The Justice League , Jesus. He’s feeling less foolish about Arrow with every second.
“You’ve done good work here,” Batman says. Which is kind of him. Oliver sometimes feels like he doesn’t make a difference. There’s always crime, always new battles to fight, always someone being hurt that he’s too slow to save.
“Thank you?” Oliver offes, when Batman just stares at him. Oliver lowers the bow. Whatever Batman is here for, ihe doesn’t seem to have bad intentions. Awkward intentions, maybe, but now bad.
“I think. We think, that you could do more work. With the League. That we could help one another.”
The pieces fall into place. This is a recruitment pitch. A very bad one. Is this the first time that Batman has done this?
“Pass. Thanks though. I keep to my city, and I like it that way.” Star City needs him, and with the Justice League going around and Superman back, the world is doing just fine without his help. He reaches for one of the grappling arrows, prepared to leave. Batman could follow him, but hopefully he’ll get the messge.
“Wait,” Batman says.
Oliver turns back to him. His mouth, the only feature Oliver can make out clearly, is pinched, and he seems to be struggling with something.
Then he reaches for the lower part of his cowl and pulls it off.
Oliver actually does fall off the roof, and only Batman’s— Bruce Wayne’s— quick lunge forward stops him from going over the edge.
“What the fuck,” he says, with feeling. “You are Batman? But you’re all—” he makes a loose gesture that he hopes indicated Bruce Wayne’s last public appearance. He’d gotten drunk and fallen off the stage. It had been hilarious.
Bruce quirks an eyebrow, a familiar gesture from their years of running in tangential circles on an unfamiliar face. “You’re one to talk.”
And, oh God , he knows. How the hell does he know. Oliver is starting to think that the rumors that came out of Gotham, which he’d dismissed as hyperbole and exaggeration, didn’t do the man justice.
When Oliver just gapes at him, Bruce fucking Wayne holds out a hand. It’s cased in a heavy glove, nothing like the cleanly manicured hand he’s shaken at so many society functions. “We were friends once,” Batman says, which is a generous description of their school boy relationship, “I think we can be friends again.”
Oliver looks at his hand, and think about the League, sorry, the Justice League he’s seen on tv. He could do worse.
“Fine.” He takes Batman’s hand. “I’ll join your club. But I’m not calling myself the Green Arrow.”
Batman grins, all Bruce for just a moment. “We’ll see.”
Tim is almost shaking with nerves the first time Dick takes him to meet Batman. Bruce Wayne. He’d figured it out, of course, had known before he approached Nightwing that first time, but there is knowing and there is seeing.
“I’ve told him about you, of course,” Dick says. “He actually seemed much more chill about than I expected. I thought he’d flip over training someone else.”
Tim had thought about approaching Bruce Wayne years ago, about asking Dick to take him to be the next Robin, when Batman so clearly needed one. And then Superman had happened, and Batman had only spiralled darker and Tim—Tim couldn’t be what a man like that needed.
But it’s been a year and some change and Superman is—impossibly, amazingly—alive. And more than that, unmistakably allied with Batman and the rest of the League.
When his parents died, when he was left with an empty house and more empty hours than he knew how to spend, it had been Dick’s idea to take him to meet Bruce. Tim is ready now. And, more importantly, he thinks Bruce might be ready as well.
“You’re sure about this?” he asks Dick, staring out the window as they pass from Blüdhaven into Gotham.
“Nope!” Dick says cheerfully. “That’s what makes it fun.”
Tim turns to give him the filthiest look he can manage, and Dick grins and reaches over to ruffle his hair.
“Get off!” Tim says, pushing his hand away and trying to straighten it. He tried to make himself all presentable and everything.
“It’ll be fine. I actually think Batman is excited to meet you.”
He always does that, calls him Batman to Tim, even though Tim has told him again and again that he know who he is. Even though they’re clearly going to the Wayne estate.
As they get closer, Tim is surprised to see, not the burnt wreckage that the Wayne Manor had been the last time he’d been here, but a solid wooden scaffolding, the clear bones of a house under construction.
“Well, yeah,” Dick says, as though it’s obvious. “He can hardly make you live in the lake house.”
He says it as though it’s a given, a done deal that Bruce will like Tim, will take him as a ward in addition to a Robin.
“Oh,” Tim says, throat tight. He clears it, blinking quickly. “Cool.”
Dick reaches out to ruffle his hair again, and Tim knocks it away this time.
When they pull up to the Lake House, Tim takes a deep breath.
“Ready?” Dick asks.
“Ready,” Tim confirms, and gets out of the car.