Note: This short story was written in answer to a writing challenge for a group on another site, where we were to reflect the beginnings of a changein the relationship between Superman and Batman. Obviously, it takes place before certain'Crisis' events currently wracking the DCU.
Batman stormed into the infirmary, trailing displeasure like a shroud, and halted to loom over Superman's bed. J'onn took one glance at him and straightened away from his diagnostic panel.
"I shall be in the lab, Kal-El, should you need me."
Superman's mouth twitched in a faint, ironic grimace. "I'll be fine, J'onn. Thank you."
Batman's level stare at the Manhunter's erstwhile patient did not lift as the Martian looked at him and then stepped out of the room.
Superman sighed almost inaudibly and tipped up his chin to meet Batman's hard gaze."Come to berate me for missing my shift?" he tried. Once in a while he was able to defuse the storm before it broke.
Only he could have seen the minute flexing of Batman's fingers within his gloves on the railing of the bed.
Today wasn't one of those days, it seemed. Batman emanated all the telltale signs of a category 5. Superman suppressed another sigh. "You have a question?" he asked mildly.
"Just one. What … WHAT in Heaven's name were you thinking?" The 'question' was more a demand, and Batman's cowled eyes were narrowed dangerously.
Superman's uninjured shoulder lifted in a slight shrug. "Regarding my shift change, or my rather unorthodox use of the teleporter?"
Batman's breath hissed out between his teeth. "You know damned well what I'm talking about. And I want answers."
"Explain the questions and I'll consider it," Superman said, deliberately evasive.
He was beyond fatigued, and every part of his body ached. He so did not feel up to being grilled by Mr. GloomyPuss right then.
Batman's expression remained stony.
"I'm in no mood for any of your games, Clark. Not tonight."
"Well, neither am I!" snapped Superman, surprising them both with his sudden vehemence. After a few seconds, Superman shook his head wearily and lifted a trembling hand to press against his eyes. "Look, Bruce," he muttered, trying to draw strength from who knew where. "I'm kind of having a bad day. And my head feels like it's about to take out the entire Moon. Can we discuss this tomorrow?"
"No. We are going to discuss it NOW." Batman leaned forward, and to anyone else it would have been a most intimidating gesture. "I want to know one thing."
"And what would that be?" Superman asked tiredly.
Batman's voice deepened even further. "Why."
Superman raised his hand from his eyes and gazed up at him for a long moment. He felt like blurting out "Are you serious?" But then again, this WAS Batman he was dealing with.
He sighed again, hand dropping atop his bandaged chest, and only said, "It was the right thing to do."
It was the only thing to do, he thought to himself, and instead of being comforting, the thought left him feeling bleaker than ever.
"You should have waited," Batman said, crossing his arms in front of him. "You should have called for League assistance. You should have …"
"… just stood there and watched that madman rip away your free will and sanity?" tossed in Superman, lifting a brow. "If I'd waited at ALL, you know it would have been too late to stop the process. I wouldn't – couldn't – simply stand by and … spectate." He hoped his expression told Batman exactly what he thought of THAT idea.
"He had you dead to rights," Batman growled. "He was prepared for you. You had to know that. Yet you threw yourself in between us regardless." He stared down at Superman, jaw tight. "It was a completely idiotic and reckless move. There is no excuse."
Superman's rarely-engaged temper snapped taut. Who did Batman think he was? He wasn't his green protégé for god's sakes! He tensed against enflamed muscles and opened his mouth, aware his usual control had long since flown out the nearest porthole.
"Oh yes, I really thought the wisest course of action would be to lounge about, do nothing, and just watch you be irreversibly brainwashed by that …"
"He would not have killed me!" Batman ground out, on the verge of losing control himself. He straightened abruptly, glowering. "But he had no such compunction against YOU."
"Does that really matter?" Superman asked with a faint snort.
Batman moved so fast that had Superman not possessed extraordinary senses, even in his weakened state, he would not have seen him even move. Nevertheless, it was with a disconcerting suddenness that Superman found Batman directly over him, hands flat on the mattress to either side of Superman's head, eyes inches above his own.
"Matter?" Batman hissed, lips drawing back to bare gritted teeth. "By all rights you should be DEAD." He glared. Superman said nothing, their eyes locked. Batman drew a breath, as if centering himself. "Ra's Al Ghul is many things, but a fool he is not. He was prepared for you, Superman. For any of the League, yes, but particularly for you. He is well aware that you and I work together frequently, and on non-League cases. He suspected that you would come after us." He seemed to radiate with intensity. Superman bit back the urge to swallow. "He has the means to hurt you," Batman finally said. "And he knows how to kill you, Clark."
Superman closed his eyes, a small smile escaping the tightness of his mouth. "I know."
He could hear Batman's heart hammering so close to his own. He could hear the pulse throbbing wildly in his throat.
"You know." Batman said, a deathly quiet menace in his voice. "Yet you flew in anyway, disregarding the consequences. You didn't wait for backup, or to analyze the situation, or scan the area for weapons. You did not use that alien excuse for a brain at all." Superman inwardly winced. The reference to being alien hurt. "You just barged on in, intent on saving the day, putting yourself at greater risk than I ever was."
Superman opened his eyes. His stare pierced into Batman's own. He could see Batman react to what must have been burning in the blue depths. "But I did, Bruce," he said calmly. "I looked. I saw everything. You should remember it doesn't take me long to calculate options. There were none. I knew what could happen. What WOULD've happened if Kyle hadn't arrived early to take my shift, and followed my trace down. But that knowledge didn't change anything. Never would have."
Batman stared at him. For several long, beating moments, neither moved.
"No?" he said at last. Silence, then a deep breath. "Why? Why the hell did you do it?"
Superman shut his eyes tightly, trying to shut out the horrific vision imprinted on his mind from that day, of what very nearly had happened. It had been so close …
"There was no choice," he answered simply.
Batman snarled. "Of course there was, you fool! There's always a choice."
"Not to me," Superman said quietly, steadfast. "There wasn't."
For several churning seconds, neither spoke, at an impasse. Batman radiated anger, but underneath was something … else. And Superman remained resolute. Then Batman abruptly moved, and tore his fists up from the bed, and twisted away to face the wall of the infirmary.
The only sounds in the room were the steady beeping of the bed monitor over Superman's head, and their twinned harsh breathing. Then Batman spoke again, voice gravelly, as if it was being dragged over rubble. "You took a bullet for me today. And not for the first time. But you … you would have died for me." He swallowed hard. "And not just to save my life. For my freedom." He paused. "You very nearly did."
Superman shrugged, knowing Batman would still hear it. "Well, what are friends for?"
Batman swept around, and Superman felt the impertinent grin fade from his face at the look in that grim visage. He sighed and reached up his hand again to press over his aching eyes. "Batman, look. I don't have the energy to fight about it just now. Let's save it for another day, shall we? If you want me to apologize, fine. I will. But I'm not sorry to have made that decision. And given the same situation, I'd do it again. I know that's unacceptable behaviour for you, but … it is what it is. You're just going to have to stomp off to your Cave and do your brooding thing, and get over it. Sulk if you like. At least you can still CHOOSE to do that. You won't be Ra's' puppet."
Batman didn't say anything.
After a second more, Superman, wincing a bit in pain, started to lower his hand from his forehead. Suddenly he felt it caught, and enfolded in leather. He eyes shot open to see Batman directly against the rail again, hand grasping Superman's.
"Kal," he said hoarsely.
No other words seemed able to work their way out, but his grip tightened convulsively over Superman's hand.
Surprised beyond words, Superman stared up at him, eyes wide.
Batman was not the easiest of friends. Nor the most demonstrative of people. But right then, in that moment, Superman saw something indefinable shift in his hidden eyes, and could hear it, clear as a bell, in the timbre of his voice.
Then, before Superman could begin trying to fathom what it might mean, Batman abruptly straightened as if realizing something, and released his hand. He was at the door before Superman could say anything, and then stopped at the threshold, back stiff.
"You had best recover quickly, Superman," he said gruffly, not turning around. "The Tower's picked up some disturbing signals that may be the precursor to major League activity. We'll be needing you." He paused, but still did not turn. "I will assume the remainder of your monitor duty."
Then he was gone. Superman stared after him.
What could that have meant? Could he …? No, surely not. Batman? He may as well be convinced that a stone could bleed.
J'onn glided back in, silent as a ghost, studying Superman.
"Have you then survived your interrogation session with the Bat?" he asked, amusement in his tone.
Superman smiled, and wrestled his racing heart back under control. Then hissed out a breath of pain as he shifted on the narrow bed. "You know Bruce. He needs to get those pressing lectures out of his system every now and again. And it seems I'm an exceptionally easy target."
His gaze returned to the empty doorway. J'onn watched him.
"Are you all right?"
Superman tore his gaze away and met J'onn's inquiring look.
"Well, other than accepting the fact that Bruce has a funny way of saying thanks, I'm okay, J'onn. Thank you."
He thought of the strange look on Batman's face behind the mask, suddenly so unguarded and open to x-ray eyes. He could still feel the odd warmth and pressure of a gloved hand on his. The old familiar bleakness and depression where his friendship with Bruce was concerned had inexplicably melted away. As if shifted into … what? He wasn't sure. But his dark mood had curiously lifted for it. "More than okay," he murmured aloud.
J'onn regarded him. Superman glanced up and could have sworn he sensed a smile lingering behind the usually impassive expression. "Rest well, Kal-El. I shall oversee your duties for the time being until your energies are restored and you are, as they say, back on your feet."
Superman laughed, despite the hot protest of his healing ribs.
"Don't worry about it, J'onn." He grinned at his friend, heart inexplicably lighter. "I've got my shift covered."