Bruce Wayne always thought his career as Batman would end with his life. Or, barring death in the field, a grievous wound or injury like the loss of an arm or a shattered knee. But death hadn’t come for him yet and though he’d broken his shoulder twice in the past six years, his arm was not ruined. When he’d shattered his kneecap while off-world with the League, technology had advanced enough that Dev had sat in the medbay of the Watchtower and molded a synthetic bone replacement while he slept drugged out of his senses on painkillers.
No, he’d always thought he’d meet a certain end; he’d imagined hundreds of them. And in the actual end, none of them ended up being the truth. It didn’t surprise him, really, because if there’s anything he knew with certainty it was how often he was wrong. He’d just gotten pretty adept at hiding it.
No, the real end was messier and more complicated and more drawn out and more…
Simple. It was just simple. No emergency, no death.
He should have seen it coming, if not the details, then the hulk of the thing itself. But he didn’t, really. In retrospect, it would be nice to be able to say that it wasn’t coincidence it happened in the year following the one in which he bought the cottage in Normandy-- that maybe he’d had a premonition or foresight. But no, the two were unrelated, because if he was good at being wrong, he was also good at compartmentalizing, and Normandy was the pinnacle of his life’s work on that point.
Normandy assumed he’d wear the cowl until his dying day. When he bought it, he thought of it as an escape from usual life, not a substitute. When he’d taken Selina there, false passports in his hand, and the thrill of more secret lives on top of secret lives, it had found that sweet spot for the both of them in being untethered and in having a place to find each other. They’d be married in France and then they’d go home to not being married, and how long they ever stayed in either state of being was entirely up to them.
But no, Normandy wasn’t a sign that he knew. It was just Normandy. Separate. Which was the point.
It was a long string of things, to be honest.
The first was the week he’d woken up every day with pain in his back so intense and blinding it had taken internal pep talks to get out of bed. He thought he’d hidden it (managed it) pretty well, but the end of that week was the first time Dev broached the subject.
“I think you ought to start considering retirement,” Dev had said quietly from the medbay in the Cave. Bruce had been working on the Batmobile, but after a day of pretending not to have a care in the world at the office (much less back trouble), he had stopped bent over the exposed wires of the naked dash just to breathe for a minute.
Bruce had scowled at him and gone back to working on the car.
“I’m not retiring,” he had said, when he stood up again ten minutes later, forcibly keeping a grimace from his face. What was that song Tim used to play? That one that always got stuck in his head, just that one line, sugar, we’re going down swinging? That’s how he was going to leave the game.
Dev hadn’t looked up or even turned around when he had replied, “Then we ought to bloody talk about long term chronic pain management. It’s rather time to start some regular medications. How do you feel about medical marijuana?”
“My back is sore. That’s all,” Bruce had replied, but he hadn’t had the energy or willpower to sound anything more than resigned.
Then Dev had swiveled to make eye contact, and had said levelly, “And your right shoulder the week before. Your leg two days before that. The whole week before that with a headache. I’m sodding sorry to break it to you, but it only worsens from here on out.”
So Bruce had sighed and thought about his back and how many times in the past month he’d skipped meals because he was too restless and aching to sit still, and he nodded.
“Alright,” he had said. “Let’s limit the habit-forming options, though.”
It wasn’t until he had been upstairs and brushing his teeth, after deciding to take the night off, that he realized he couldn’t tell if Dev’s original suggestion had been genuine or the equivalent of market-place haggling, disarming Bruce with the steeper price so he’d readily accept the supposed compromise of daily medication.
But hell, his back hurt. So he didn’t go back on his agreement to start something.
And Dev didn’t bring up retirement again. Not while treating a gunshot wound that tore a long gash across Bruce’s side, not during or after treating a fractured tibia, not following the treatment of third degree burns along his forearm.
Another year of injuries went by, with recoveries that were never complete recoveries anymore, and Bruce should have known how seriously he was starting to consider it when he let himself talk about it with Clark.
It had been over Thanksgiving, at the Kent farm that would eventually be Damian’s farm, continuing twelve years of holiday tradition. Dinner had been served and eaten and most of the members of the two families had gone into Wichita to see a movie.
Bruce’s ribs had been aching enough that he poured a glass of red wine to take out with him to the bonfire, where Clark was sitting and watching the flames. He’d winced and grunted a little sitting down, and it was only because it was just Clark there that he’d allowed himself even that.
“Who this time?” Clark had asked when Bruce had settled back into the camp chair, wineglass cupped in his hand. He’d sipped it before answering.
There had been a long silence and he could feel Clark weighing it, trying to decide what to ask and how to ask it. So Bruce had answered what Clark couldn’t put into words.
“Something always hurts now,” he had said. “Being human is hell, Clark.”
“Hm,” Clark had said. “I’m sorry.”
Bruce hadn’t deflected the apology because he had known Clark meant it sincerely and that dismissing it wouldn’t get either of them anywhere.
“Dev told me a while ago I should think about retiring,” Bruce had admitted and he had known as soon as he’d said it that he would be, that he’d be voluntarily giving up the cowl sometime in the next several months. He hadn’t been sure exactly when, but saying it to Clark made him aware that he’d been thinking about it enough to…well, say something to Clark.
Clark had chuckled.
“I’ve never been able to figure out if he’s brave or stupid when it comes to you.”
“He’s practical,” Bruce had answered. “And if I do give it up, I want you to help Cass make the transition to the League.”
If, he had said, still if because he knew he’d be suspended in denial until weeks after he’d actually made the decision.
“Cass? Not Dick?” Clark had asked.
“Cass,” Bruce had confirmed. And then they’d moved on to other topics while Bruce had sipped his wine and tried not to breathe too deeply or jostle his ribs. And it was unavoidable, because it had been years since their relationship was merely terse exchanges of information and within twenty minutes they were swapping stories and laughing. Bruce’s right ribs, 4-7, hurt all night long.
Even with the meds, two weeks later, he’d skipped a morning meeting because of his femur. A few days after that, he’d limped down the stairs avoiding putting stress on the ligaments in his ankle. And after that, it had been another headache that lasted for an entire weekend. Then his back again, and a week when he was nauseous every time he stood for too long. Every stinging scar, inside and out, was the chart of overdue payments, the loans given on Gotham’s behalf.
It had been four months after Thanksgiving that he’d come home from work to eat lunch and work out before sleeping for four hours and then going on to patrol and his whole left arm had been stiff with an aching deep in his bones all day.
He’d stood in front of the weights just staring at them, thinking about how much he didn’t want to lift anything at all, and rubbing his arm.
Bruce had stood there long enough that Dev, who was working on something in vials in the medical unit for the afternoon, had noticed and asked in a bit of an urgent tone,
“Mate, you’re not having a bloody myocardial infarction, are you?”
“No,” Bruce had said. “It’s that damn fracture.”
And he’d walked away from the weights.
When he sat at the computer, Dev had come over and used the edge of the desk as a seat to lean on.
“You had a good run, Wayne,” he had said quietly and when Bruce looked up, the eyes that met his were sad and not triumphant.
“Yeah,” Bruce had said. “I did.”
He had packed the suits away that night, alone, and messaged Cass and told her to come for dinner and then he’d left for Normandy the next day. It wouldn’t be forever, but he needed time-- to adjust, to not change his mind out of panic.
Selina met him there three days later and she didn’t bring it up. When they went home two weeks later, they went together. She didn’t leave the manor for her apartment and without discussing it, he knew that she wasn’t planning to do anything other than just keep staying.
And he misses it now, misses the rooftops, but he distracts himself with talking to Tim at work, with reading to Jason’s kids, with eating breakfast with Selina. The distractions fill his days until they become his days, the thing he does instead, and it’s not as awful as he had dreaded it would be. Work is worth showing up for and he enjoys it, and at the Manor, somebody is always home or stopping by or staying for dinner. He can spend the night in the cave monitoring things from the computer and he does sometimes, the knot in his hip or the throb in his calf reminding him why he’d given it up if he gets nostalgic. But most nights, he just enjoys going to bed when normal people sleep and waking up hurting, but not exhausted. He was afraid he’d slip away, not recognize himself, but he finds himself to be more than the mask after all and he can grasp who he is and do something new with it.
And he holds.