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Despite this Cruel World

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"We are going to die, aren't we?" Wally asks casually, as if the question isn't all that important, just something to keep conversation going.

His hands press against the large cut on his side, the blood dripping down anyway, over his bruised fingers, leaving dark red stains on the bright red costume. His eyes focus on the smoke dancing around their heads.

Bruce swallows, tries to catch his breath and fails. He nods solemnly. "Most likely."

"It's less tragic than I thought it would be," Wally continues, one eye swollen shut, the other still bright. His leg twitches, the fabric of his costume ripped away where he's been hit. They are waiting for it to heal sufficiently for him to run again, for whatever good that would do. "I mean, if this is the end of us, of the whole world, it's very anti-climatic. I expected more fireworks."

Bruce can't look away, even though the quiet acquiescence, the brightness of his open eye is too much, breaks his heart is ways he can't explain, makes him furious with something that is nothing like anger.

"I never expected it at all," he admits, and it embarrasses him more than it should. He stares at his hands, bloodied and dirtied, the large holes in the gloves where he's been burnt.

Wally laughs, the blood in his mouth and his inability to breathe properly making it sound bubbly and raspy and halfway through it turns into a harsh cough. He doubles forward and spits blood on the ground.

Bruce doesn't want to lose this, this person who can laugh at the end of the world, who can laugh with punctured lungs. He should've realised it sooner, how important this has always been to him, how it made him believe that the world must be a wonderful place if someone could laugh like that, how it eased some of the burden that weighed his heart down. He should've protected it sooner, protected it better.

If there is anything left to protect at all, it will always be his smile.

"And here I thought you were the kind of person who even expected the Spanish Inquisition," Wally says. If it's a joke, and Bruce suspects it is by the way his open green eye lights up, he doesn't understand.

"I always thought we would be able to prevent it from coming this far. I," he hesitates, catches his breath, suddenly feeling like he's being difficult, like Wally's trying very hard not to be scared and here he is, whining like a child. "I promised myself it would never come to this."

He doesn't say he promised himself he would never let this happen again to people he loved.

"You tried," Wally says and there is no laughter in his voice now. He shrugs, but Bruce knows he must have regretted that decision when his face distorts in pain. "We all tried. We can't win all our battles."

He wants to know how to do this. He wants to know how you take a horrible thing and dismiss it. He wants to know how you move on, he's always wanted to know, and he knows Wally could have taught him, could have told him all about it.

He wants to know how to not over-think, how to not feel so damn guilty all the time, to not take a scenario and repeat it in your mind again and again and again and retrace all the steps and ask, where did I go wrong, where did I mess up?

He wants to know how he can say: I can't win all my battles.

"We were supposed to, but we failed. We let everyone down," he says instead.

"Oh, don't," Wally says, in the exact same voice he tells the kids at the Central City Orphanage to not run with scissors, that stern and gentle mix only Wally gets right, only he can pull off. There is no one quite like him and Bruce thinks it to be pathetic that he's always known this and only now dares to admit it.

He is always supposed to be the stronger one, but Wally always proves that wrong.

"We tried," Wally repeats. "We're still trying, we're still breathing and we aren't going to despair until the very moment we see the light at the end of the tunnel. We'll have a nice freak out then, politely decline the offer and walk away from it, okay?"

Bruce smiles. He can feel them coming closer. He doesn't need to see them to know. It won't be long before their ridiculously bad hiding spot (which is the only wall still standing of the ruin) is discovered, it won't be long before they see that light.

Everyone's gone, he knows that, and he knows Wally knows that. He knows Alfred is dead, he knows the Manor is in ruins. He knows that not a single child that Wally raised from the very start they walked into the orphanage is still alive to demand tales to be told at night. One by one, the League got separated and somehow Bruce knows they're dead. Somehow he knows they're the last ones standing.

It isn't what he expected either.

Everything and everyone he knows and loves is gone, except for the person next to him, leaning heavily against his shoulder.

He wonders if Wally will listen to him just this once if he tells him to run, to run to the ends of the earths and never look back over his shoulder, but when he opens his mouth he can't, he just says: "I never got to beat Tommy at Stratego."

He wants to tell himself it doesn't matter, but he doesn't. He doesn't want to die alone, he doesn't want to be alone anymore. There is nowhere left to hide anymore.

"I never got to watch Breakfast at Tiffany's with John," Wally replies, then smirks. "Shut up, Audrey Hepburn is the cutest thing and you know it."

"I liked the book better."

"There's a book?" Wally wondered out loud, snorting slightly.

"There's a book," Bruce confirms and when he blinks, he drags out the process, feeling tired, feeling dizzy.

The world is reduced to ashes and flames and bloodstained dirt, and he feels no fear. A little note of sadness, maybe, a little hint of disappointment, and perhaps regret. He's been a fool for so long, he should've done it better, he should've done it differently.

He should've told Alfred that from the very moment he was ten years old to the moment he would die, he pretended he was his father, not to fill a void after losing his biological one, but because it was the only way he could describe what he meant to him.

He should've told Dick how proud he was of the boy, how he never for a second regretted taking him in. Should've told him how in his mind he will always be his son, how he's the only thing in his life he ever got right.

He should've told Selena that the sight of her along the rooftops would be enough to keep him going at times. Should've told her about how the way she smiled at him from across the room could make an entire evening of listening to idiots who never suffered in their life pretend they understood what the world was all about worth while.

He should've said so much but he didn't and now he's just another clichéd story of a man who thought he was doing everything right, only to realise he has always been wrong when it was too late. He's a cliché of the worst kind.

And yet, he thinks, the very thing that makes him smile is that he knows they knew. He knows he loved them because they knew.

He loved Alfred because he knows that Alfred thought of him as his son, that it was the very reason he would never give up on him. He is sure of it - the way he is never sure of anything - that Alfred died knowing how much his life has meant on this earth.

He knows Dick has learnt to read his actions, to read between the lines, that he doesn't need everything spelled out for him, that he's so much smarter, so much better than anyone could have ever anticipated.

He knows Selena looked back sometimes, knew exactly what he was looking at, and even though there was no way she could have made out the ghost of a smile on his lips, she always knew she mattered to him. They were never alone.

"So, what's the plan?" Wally asks, shaking Bruce out of his reverie.

"I'm out of plans," Bruce admits. "I've worked from A to Z and from 1 to infinity."

Wally laughs again, calmer now so it doesn't turn into a cough.

"That rhymes," he points out and in a sing-song voice adds: "A to Z, 1 to infinity."

Bruce nods, because it does rhyme, even though the comedy of that is lost on him.

He wants to ask Wally how he does it, how he always did, how he took this cruel world as it is and found things to smile at, but he knows the answer won't be anything that he can understand. He knows Wally loves in a way he can't understand, in a sense far beyond any limits he has made. He shouldn't be surprised, but he is, taken off guard just by how perfect the man beside him is. He always is.

No one surprises him anymore, unless Wally does. No one makes him feel anymore, unless Wally does.

"How's your leg?" he asks.

"Just a little longer," Wally says, but this time he does sound desperate, like he's begging, like he's a child and he knows he's going to have to sleep soon, and he doesn't want to, just doesn't want to, a little longer, a little longer, and Bruce thinks he'll always want a little longer. A little longer of sitting here, a little haven of calm and serenity at the end of the world.

It's more than Bruce would've imagined he was worth, it's so much more than he can take. It's too much, and it just isn't enough.

"Alright," Bruce allows. "A little longer."

Something more alive than silence swallows their conversation as Wally lays his head on Bruce's shoulder, breathes in and out deliberately, slides his hand over his, and Bruce feels where it's sticky with blood, feels how warm it is, feels how raw it is, turns his hand so he can hold Wally's properly, bloody fingers entwined, raw wounds on bruises, and it's the only thing that feels real and solid. He can't look away.

"I'm glad it's you," Wally says, his voice quiet, barely audible over the roar of fires. "I'm glad it's you at my side at the end of it."

Bruce nods and smiles slightly. "I'm glad, too."

"Bruce," Wally says, and it's the tone he's been waiting to hear for years and his heart clenches at the fact he only hears it now. "I just want you to know, before we die that I-"

"You don't have to say it," Bruce says, staring at the smoke twirling around in the sky, his eyes burning, his head aching, listening to them coming closer, still. "We went our wholes lives without saying it, didn't we? It will just sound hollow now."

"Would it?" Wally says, but there is no hurt in his voice, just a quiet understanding, and Bruce's heart might be the only thing that isn't broken and bruised in his entire body, the only thing that seems to keep healing itself.

"I think it would," Bruce says. "And I know. I've always known."

"Yeah," Wally laughs quietly. "Me too."

He keeps silent for a while and Bruce can feel them closing in, knows it is only a matter of minutes now. He breathes.

"Do you think it would've been very different?" Wally asks, "I mean, if we said it?"

"Perhaps," Bruce says, wonders about the possibility for a second. "How is your leg now?"

"Fine," Wally says and nods. "I can run. What about you? Got any gadgets left in there?"

"Five batarangs and two explosives."

"That's not a lot," Wally says, straightening up. "That's not a lot at all."

"No," Bruce admits, pushing himself up and pulling Wally up along with him, their hands still linked. "That's not a lot at all."

They are close now, Bruce knows, and the shouts mean they've been found. This is the end.

"Ready, old man?" Wally laughs and squeezes his hand.

"Just try to keep up with me, alright?" Bruce fires back.

"I'll see you on the other side," Wally says, always needs the last words, always needs to tell the last joke, and Bruce is fine with this, Bruce has always been fine with this.

Wally grins at him and Bruce takes in the sight, wants to make sure that this beautiful smile, this smile that says everything will be alright, that says, I love you, that says, I'm sorry, is the last thing he will ever see in his life. He can't imagine a more beautiful sight.

He inhales.


And lets his fingers slip from Wally's hand, as he replaces the warmth of a human touch with the cold steel of a batarang.

It's the end of the world and Bruce thinks there should be more fireworks.