Bruce is in the middle of a meeting in Gotham City when it happens. Everyone’s trying to get on with business as usual—because the world has just found out that aliens exist in the middle of a goddamn work week—when suddenly every cell phone, pager and smart watch starts buzzing all at once. One of the PA’s taking notes gasps from the corner of the room. Another points out the window, and now there’s a chorus of oh my god’s and what’s going on? rushing around the office.
Bruce turns to look.
The hair on the back of his neck stands on end and he can feel his fingers twitching at his side. He doesn’t know how to describe it, but looking out across the bay that Gotham shares with Metropolis, he can see plumes of smoke rising up into the air over the city, and the familiar skyline looks off somehow. Unbalanced.
Bruce realises with a horrible clarity that the skyline looks off because the structures are teetering to one side, and there are gaps where buildings should be and the towers that remain are like tombstones all stood in a row.
There’s something in the sky too, and it’s hovering. It’s too large to be a plane (not that it’s even remotely plane-shaped) and another ship is— oh god.
It’s barrelling through every building in its path—colliding with skyscrapers, and navigating through the sky like it’s on its own superhighway of destruction. Someone switches up the volume on the news that’s been reporting idly in the corner, and now the room is filled with the voice of a confused correspondent introducing the lead anchor in New York. Please be advised, the footage you are about to see is not suitable for children, we go live to the scene and CNN is showing shaky handheld footage until their own cameramen can arrive. The latest development since the unconfirmed footage of aliens earlier on today...
“Everybody stay calm,” Bruce says to the room, staring at the destruction of downtown Metropolis and calculating trajectories in his head while hitting speed-dial on his cell. “Start evacuating the building, we don’t know if Gotham could be a target.”
The call connects and Alfred’s talking before Bruce even has the chance to speak.
“He’s not answering his phone.” Alfred says and Bruce stops stock-still at the words, panic threatening to override all of his senses. He’s safe , is what Bruce had been desperate to hear. He’s fine , he’d wanted Alfred to say.
“I’ve left messages, and ‘Haven PD confirmed that he isn’t scheduled to work today…”
Bruce braces himself against the wall of the corridor and tries to push away the unmistakeable feeling of falling. He knows it’s Dick’s day off—it was always supposed to be his day off.
I’ve been here before.
Bruce had insisted that Richard attend the meeting in Metropolis that morning, while Bruce stayed behind in Gotham— keep the board happy , let the papers report on the Prince of Gotham venturing over to its sister city, instead of the never ending string of tragedies that plague the Wayne family name. Keep up appearances. Do it, for me .
It’s all his fault, and Bruce can’t do this again. He has to find his son. He won’t survive the loss a second time, he knows he won’t.
“Keep trying.” Bruce says brusquely into the phone, before shouting for Grace to get him a chopper, now .
The scene’s even worse from above, and the smoke’s getting darker and darker the closer they get to the city. Tiny cars are abandoned in the street. Tiny people are running for their lives. Tiny fires burn, burn, burn, while fighter jets scramble past them in the air to get into position. It won’t be enough. It never is.
There’s no way the helicopter will make it anywhere near the financial district to the helipads there, so Bruce tells the pilot to drop him off at the port of Metropolis instead, already calling for a car to meet him there. He doesn’t even wait for the chopper to touch down before he’s jumping out the door and taking the keys off of the chauffeur. He drives the range-rover through the Metropolis streets like it’s the goddamn Batmobile—expertly keeping a hold of the steering wheel with one hand and dialling with the other, even when random frenzied eruptions send brick and mortar to block his path.
“Jack?” He shouts into the phone, calling out for his Chief Exec when he hears him answer. The office is in a panic on the other end, and the signal is spotty at best—the explosions sound closer now. “Jack, listen to me, I want you to get everybody out of the building, right now!” He orders, dodging the stumbling civilians that are filing into the streets of downtown Metropolis.
There’s an ominous blue light flashing intermittently in the rearview mirror; destruction following it wherever it goes.
“Jack?” Bruce calls out again, trying to get the man’s attention as he repeats the Boss’ instructions to the workers around him. Let’s go, come on start moving, now people, let’s go!
“Jack!” Bruce tries again. “Is Dick with you?”
Please say no, please say no.
“Jack? Is he clear? Jack! ”
Bruce can still hear activity on the other end of the line— The boss wants us out of the building, so let’s make it happen! —but no one’s answering him anymore, and he drops the phone onto the passenger seat. Two cars collide at the intersection up ahead, and Bruce is forced to make a quick right turn in the wrong direction. Another blast sends fire and debris his way, so he takes a hold of the wheel with both hands—wrenching it to the right as he makes a sharp turn to avoid crashing into the side of a building.
He turns down an alleyway and he has no choice but to ram the car door that’s been left ajar and in his way. Broken shards of glass fly up onto the windscreen, and Bruce can feel the car juddering as it runs over the falling rubble from the horrors above. He turns again past the exit for the Mortimer Bridge Overpass, and then makes a left at the City Municipal Building. He’s close, he’s so close. He might not know these streets as well as he knows Gotham’s, but he knows he’s close.
He has to slam his foot on the breaks when he sees the large crowd up ahead. They’re blocking the road as well as the sidewalk and he has no choice but to slow down. He abandons the car, grabs his phone and joins the crowd in staring skywards. The rhythmic attack of the ship has stopped, but as they’re looking up, something breaks the sound barrier, and the blast smashes every window within reach.
He’ll never get through the throng of people in the car, so Bruce starts to run instead—in the opposite direction to almost everyone else. There are men in uniform ushering people to safety, and every time Bruce turns a corner he sees another set of flashing lights; more sirens, all singing and screeching out of sync. He sees Dick’s favourite hot dog cart toppled over on its side—and the broken shop window where he once admired a pair of cufflinks for Alfred. There’s blood smeared along the sidewalk, and papers and spreadsheets and post it notes—half-burnt, still smoking—are floating through the air as they fall from the nearby buildings.
Bruce hits speed dial on his cell again, and tries not to yell in frustration when he hears the same thing he’s been hearing for the last half an hour, “Hey, this is Dick, sorry I can’t come to the phone right now — ”
He tries Jack again, and this time he gets the automated message that the call cannot connect. We’re sorry, please try again later.
The ship’s still there, in the sky—cylindrical at its peak, and curving downwards into a point—but now there’s...something small floating above it. Two somethings. Two figures in flight nestled amongst the falling fiery wreckage. One barrels into the other, a streak of red hitting a blob of black and sending the two of them careening down into the tower of Wayne Financial. Bruce can see hundreds of people fleeing the exits, dodging debris, and he starts pushing through the dazed crowd to get closer. He starts running again, as fast as his feet will take him. The fires are spreading, the city is falling. No, no, no.
“Oh my god,” says the man to Bruce’s right. “Oh my...oh my god.”
There’s a beam of light that starts cutting through the side of the Wayne building like it’s made of paper instead of steel. It’s searing through glass, sending more rubble and remains to rain down on the ground below. Bruce can hear the ominous screech of metal bending unnaturally before the building starts to topple like a house of cards.
There’s a loud earth shattering boom. The ground shakes, and then…
“No!” He yells. He screams.
Before a heavy silence descends on the city, and ash falls like snow on the makeshift graves of the fallen.
The smog is thick as it thunders forwards, like a great groundswell—only the tide is a cloud of cement, not water—and a great big grey plume obscures the street and swallows the sounds of sirens. Bruce can’t help but breathe it in and all he can taste is copper and ash. There’s a high-pitched whine that he can’t discern, and he’s tripping over god knows what underfoot as he heads off in the direction of his Metropolis subsidiary. He hears the hoofbeats of a horse trot past him in the mist—let loose from its carriage in the chaos. A string of children are lead to safety by their teacher, and there’s a man covered in dust—chalk faced and gaping—staring at everything. At nothing. He looks lost and afraid.
And Bruce can’t see his son anywhere.
A hundred thousand possibilities run through his head as he spins around in search of a familiar face, but he knows with a sickening level of clarity that if Dick had made it out, then he’d be out here , helping the injured, combing through the rubble for survivors. And Bruce doesn’t see him. He can barely see his own hand in front of his face but he knows Batman didn’t prepare Robin for this, and Batman should have known better, especially after...after...
It’s happening all over again and Bruce is starting to panic. He’s floundering, and the air is too thin. If this is a test, he has failed.
“Dick?” He calls out through the fog. Through the dust. His voice sounds muted and hoarse, and he coughs harshly, having breathed in too much of the contaminated air. For a moment he thinks he’s in the desert, tasting sulphur on his tongue, and he almost calls out the wrong name by mistake. He takes another breath before calling out again, louder this time. “Dick!”
No one answers. Metropolis’ financial district has been all but levelled, and Bruce stumbles through the graveyard of what’s left. Steel girders stand like skeletal scentrees amidst the carnage, and the air is nothing but a powdered haze.
In the distance someone is screaming, and then just like that, the spell is broken and the smothered sound is suddenly set free. It rushes towards him all at once, like his ears have popped, and the cacophony is almost deafening. More shouting, more rumbling as the aftershocks of tumbling buildings makes itself known. People are stumbling around in a daze, some clutching at head wounds, others limping with scraped knees—business suits torn and shredded, tourists staring in disbelief. Someone cries out, “Mr. Wayne! Mr. Wayne!” and Bruce can linger no more. He jumps into the fray.
There’s a man trapped under a girder, crying out that he can’t feel his legs, and his name tag says Wallis, “What do they call you? Wally?”
Dick has a friend called Wally, Bruce thinks, as he tries to comfort the man—straining to lift the fallen remnants of Wayne Financial off of the guy’s trapped legs. Two other passers-by help drag his body out from underneath, and Bruce swallows the bile in his throat at the sight of the man’s mangled knees. Wally says you’re the boss, boss, while he’s clutching at Bruce’s sleeve and his heart aches for another lost son who used to call him that.
Stay focused, he remembers telling Jason not unkindly, peering over the edge of a building they’d been perched on during patrol. Whatever you say boss-man, the boy had replied with a mock-salute.
The pain in Bruce’s chest increases ten-fold. He shakes his head free from the memory, and looks up—staring at every onlooker, praying to see his son in the crowd.
He sees a little girl instead, standing stock-still, frozen in place, staring up at the sky. There’s a tower of rubble slipping behind her, screeching as it moves, and she doesn’t know, she doesn’t see. Bruce darts forward, Batman’s speed and agility propelling him towards her. He reaches out, grabs her around her middle, and launches them both out of the way as the debris crashes to the ground behind them.
Something catches in his shirt, pulling at his waistcoat for a second and he feels a sharp scratch that makes him gasp—but it doesn’t matter. It’s not important.
“You’re okay,” he assures the child, because she needs to hear it, and Bruce needs to say it, because she’s shaking and her face is streaked with dirt. Because she’s so small, and because his own son is missing—and it doesn’t matter that Dick isn’t a little boy anymore, or that he can take care of himself. Not when Bruce is the one who insisted Dick attend the board meeting in the first place, not when they’re both still grieving. The city around them— the whole of downtown —is crumbling and no one knows what the hell is going on, and Dick, where are you?
“You’re safe, you’re okay.”
And then he asks her where her mom is, and she points up to the toppled tower above, to the burning mess of an office block that hasn’t survived in the onslaught of this attack. The sky is burning, and the city beneath their feet is little more than a cindered mess.
You’re safe, you’re okay.
In the end, Bruce makes it back to Gotham on foot.
He spends hours combing through the rubble with emergency services and volunteers, and he doesn’t remember most of the journey back, but with the roads being so manic, walking home had made the most sense at the time. If his knees ache, he can’t feel it anymore. The only thing he does feel is unseasonably warm—the back of his shirt and waistcoat are sticking to his skin, and when he finally makes it back to the lake-house on the edge of the Wayne estate, Alfred is waiting outside with his arms crossed and his mouth set in a thin line.
“Where the hell have you been?” Alfred asks, cursing through his concern. “We’ve been calling for hours, the roads are blocked—there’s no way into the city. We only knew you were alive because you were on on the bloody six o’clock news—”
But Bruce can’t answer. He can’t explain that his phone had died, or that he’d been searching through the destruction with a kind of half-mad single-mindedness that Alfred would never have approved of. He can’t describe the desperation he’d felt—his chest so tight with grief and fear that it was all he could do not to choke, leaving him wheezing in the fumes of the rubble and dust. He can’t say that the only reason he stopped at all is because his arms were too weak and he was only getting in the way of the rest of the relief effort.
He can’t say that he wanted to get Bruce Wayne home so that he could send the Batman out instead.
He can’t say any of it, because all he can see is Richard running out the front door to meet him. His jet black hair is sticking up in all angles and he looks just as wild-eyed and worried as Alfred does. He’s wearing an old Gotham Academy hoodie over what Bruce suspects may be his Nightwing suit, and he’s holding his cell phone tight in his closed fist. He’s saying something, Bruce is sure of it—he can see the boy’s mouth moving—but he can’t hear anything past the ringing in his ears. The rushing of blood to his head.
His son. His son is safe and sound and alive and Bruce’s resolve shatters as his knees finally give out and he tumbles forward onto the hard ground. He doesn’t feel the gravel of the driveway digging into his knees, but the earth seems to have tilted on its axis, and no matter how hard he tries he just can’t regain his footing.
“Master Wayne!” Alfred exclaims, darting forward.
“Bruce!” Dick shouts, reaching him first, and grabbing a hold of his father’s shoulders to stop him from falling forward any further.
“You—you’re here …” Bruce whispers, in something akin to wonder, staring up at Dick’s face. He reaches up to trace his fingers along the frown lines at the corner of his son’s mouth while his own head lolls to one side. He tries to discern exactly when it was that the little boy he adopted all those years ago grew into a man, but his head’s spinning and he can’t shake the feeling that he’s about to be sick, cradled in his eldests arms.
“My god,” Alfred mutters from above when Dick holds up his palm, smeared with blood. Bruce wonders who it must belong to, and how he didn’t notice it before. “Quick, get him inside.” Alfred says, helping Dick to ease Bruce upright. The movement brings with it a sudden intense pain and Bruce gasps as his vision goes white. The ringing in his ears is more like a screeching choir now, and that feeling of falling has returned full force.
“Stay awake, Bruce,” he hears his son beg, but his voice sounds warbled and far away. “Stay...stay with me.”
He’s falling again.
His feet scramble for purchase, rushing through the forest past the old gnarled trees behind Wayne Manor, desperately trying to put distance between himself and the funeral procession. He stumbles, and the wood covering the old-well is rotten and crumbling, and he falls straight through.
He closes his eyes, prepares for impact, but there is none. He opens his eyes to find that he’s back in the city. He’s back in Metropolis, and he’s surrounded by that cement smog once more, struggling to see, hear or breathe through the haze. A faceless man is screaming at his feet—an inhumane bat-like screeching that Bruce knows all too well. The man’s trapped, and Bruce has to save him. He’s lost his boys in the confusion, but he can’t leave this man to die.
“Have you seen my boys?” He asks the man, grabbing at the fallen girder, and pulling with all his might to free the injured party. The mist swirls around him, and he can hear the flapping of wings echoing through the smoke—only it’s not smoke at all, and it’s not a cloud of bats either—it’s sand. And the desert wind is harsh as it whips past him.
With a grunt, he finally pulls the metal free, except when he looks down, it’s not the metal he’s holding at all, and the weight of steel is nothing compared to the weight of his fifteen year old son lying prone in his arms. The ‘R’ on his chest is splattered with blood, and the godawful yellow spray paint is still wet and dripping.
Jokes on you, Batman.
Jason’s feet are dirty from running barefoot in the garage when he should have been in bed asleep— No, that’s not right — His feet are dirty from where he’s been dragging himself across the floor of the warehouse where he’d been left to die, desperately trying to escape the clutches of the madman that took him.
Bruce breaks the link of the handcuffs around the boy’s wrists, and pulls him closer.
His body feels so cold, but the expression on his face looks peaceful, like's he's just sleeping.
Wake up, please, wake up.
“No, no, no,” Bruce mutters, his head shifting weakly from side to side. Dick tries to shush him, gently pressing him back down against the sheets and trying to coax him out of his nightmare.
“Bruce? Can you hear me?” Dick asks, as Bruce’s eyelids flutter open, his gaze far off and drifting. He tries to move, groaning as the wound in his back is jostled. “Woah, hey,” Dick says, “take it easy, take it easy.”
“Your brother…” Bruce starts to mutter, “...I have to…” but his eyes are already rolling into the back of his head.
“What?” Dick asks, his voice pained, cracking as he speaks. “Bruce, Jason—Jason isn’t here.”
And Bruce thinks of course not , as he slips back under. I killed him already.
In his dreams Bruce walks through the ruined remains of Wayne Manor.
The home he grew up in, the home his sons lived in, is a crumbled mess that he cannot bear to have rebuilt. Instead he wades through the weeds, to his family’s tomb, and the nettles sting his ankles as he goes by. Thorns catch in the sleeves of his jacket, tearing at the tender skin at his wrists and by the time he arrives at his family’s final resting place, the bright flowers in his hands are dead and dying. Slender stems wilt away from his touch, bent and broken in hands that don’t know their own strength. That aren’t strong enough.
He takes the sorry bunch over to the gravestones that bookend the tomb. He reads each name etched in stone, committing them to memory, his parents, his grandparents, uncles and aunts.
His fingers reach out to trace the letters, here lies Jason Peter —
The headstone shatters into a thousand pieces as the demon that haunts his dreams, comes flying forward from out behind the rock. The thing has a familiar laugh, crazed and awful, with its teeth bared—gnashing at him like a shark—reaching for him until he wakes up alone, shaking in his own bed—disappointed to find that there’s no half opened bottle of whisky on the bedside table.
He looks around the dark room, before focusing on the strip of golden light at the bottom of the door. He can see the shadows of someone pacing back and forth, and then he hears the muffled sounds of his eldest speaking.
“What the hell was he thinking?” Dick asks. “He could have gotten himself killed—”
“He thought you were there.” Is the simple answer he receives from Alfred.
“What?” Dick’s voice sounds strangled now.
“The board meeting with Jack, and Mr Donoghue and the others. You were supposed to be there.”
“I—oh my god,” Bruce hears Dick say. He sounds muffled and Bruce thinks his hand must be over his mouth. “I forgot about that. I covered the night shift at the precinct, I was asleep when all of this...god, I was sleeping .” Dick’s voice is low now, hardly above a whisper, and to Bruce’s ears it sounds like a confession.
“Thank god you did, lad.” Alfred says, almost guiltily, and Bruce can’t help but silently agree.
“I’m sorry Bruce, I’m sorry for scaring you.” Dick says, when he thinks Bruce is still asleep, still out cold. “I promise you won’t lose me too.” Dick’s fingers squeeze Bruce’s hand. “I’m right here.”
The whispered assurance does nothing to quell the strange staccato building beneath Bruce’s ribs. Batman wasn’t prepared this time, or last time, but he won’t be caught out again. He has to make preparations, he has to make the world a safer place for his sons.
By any means necessary.
“It would appear as though a sharp piece of rebar nicked you in the back, Sir.” Alfred explains the next morning, as he hands him a glass of water, and two pills held out in his open palm. “It’s a wonder you stayed upright for as long as you did, but you’re nothing if not stubborn. A little blood loss, and twelve stitches—nothing myself and Master Dick couldn’t handle.”
“Years of experience.” Dick remarks lightly, helping Bruce out of bed when he asks, and leading him over to the breakfast table. “But maybe we should look into getting Bruce Wayne some armoured waistcoats, what do you think?”
There’s a low hanging mist drifting over the lake in the pre-dawn light and beyond the outcrop of trees, the burnt out remnants of their past looms over them. Bruce tries to hide his wince as he sits down at the table, feeling every one of those stitches pull at his skin beneath the bandages as he reaches for the pot of freshly brewed coffee. Dick looks on in concern.
“You’ll have a hellova scar.” He remarks.
Bruce huffs in agreement. He has so many now, he’s quickly losing track. At least this one will be visible. It’s the ones he can’t see that seem to fester. The jagged kind that come from loss, the ones that run a little deeper than most, the ones that never truly heal.
“I was serious about the armoured waistcoats, you know. If you’re gonna start saving the world in a three-piece-suit then we need to be prepared.”
“I wasn’t thinking.” Bruce admits.
“I know.” Dick says, looking away, and staring at the small collection of photo-frames on the corner table that have more to do with Alfred’s sneaky decorating than Bruce’s own sentimentality. Dick’s eyes linger on their last family portrait—the paper that has already started to fade from sunlight; the photograph ageing in a way that Jason never would.
Alfred drops the morning paper in Bruce’s lap, and Batman takes the coward's way out and stops mid-sentence. Of course there’s a picture of Bruce Wayne picking through the rubble on the front page of the Gotham Free Press. Gotham’s darling, they call him, praising his efforts in the aftermath of the battle of Metropolis. A hero.
If only they knew.
Later the news will report in detail on the presence of Superman in their midst, and the world will begin anew—a new dawn, a new frontier—the human race armed with the knowledge that they are not alone in the universe, rallying behind the god among them, and his flowing red cape.
Bruce will not be so gullible, and his rage will not fade. He’ll cross lines and cut corners, until finally Dick will confront him about his fervour, about his newfound tendency to brand criminals with the sign of the Bat.
You’re spiralling! Dick will shout at the top of his lungs in the rain. They’ll both of them be hiding behind their masks, shaking with something so much worse than rage.
Don’t you have your own city to patrol, Nightwing? Bruce will shout back, pretending he doesn’t see the way his eldest will flinch at the disappointment in his tone. You walked away once, go do it again.
Is that what you think I did? Dick will say, dejected because really this should have brought them closer together, but it’s here that they start drifting further apart.
And later still, when Bruce has finally made progress in his search for the white portuguese, and he hasn’t spoken to Dick in months, Alfred will sigh and say, “ pushing him away won’t make the pain hurt any less, Master Bruce.”
But that’s later, and for now, they’ll all three of them eat their breakfast in a comfortable silence, together, whilst beyond the city limits and across the bay, Metropolis starts to rebuild.