A/N: I know this isn't exactly the quick update I promised, but my editor got really bogged down with work and couldn't edit this for me until now. Thanks for sticking with me, folks. :-) And now, the final installment…
Batman regained consciousness to find his head buzzing. No…more like, ringing. When he finally came to the conclusion it was actually the sound of sirens he was hearing, he also quickly came to the conclusion that it wasn't in his head. Not all of it, at least.
He could have opened his eyes, and curiosity was encouraging. The pain in his head, however, was against it. So he stayed where he was, and listened to the sirens, heard them come closer, and finally cease. Then doors were opened, and voices surrounded him. Come to think of it, there'd already been voices, hovering somewhere nearby.
Finally, he did open his eyes. And nearly panicked when all he could see was blurry and black. Had he hit his head that hard? Then, events began to fall into place in his disoriented mind, and realized he was looking up into the nighttime sky. It wasn't so dark, either. He followed the brighter flashing lights in his periphery, turning his head gradually to the side.
He took in the commotion surrounding police cars, and fire trucks—and the warehouse. He frowned, as he realized he was some ways off from the warehouse. Hadn't he fallen near it?
Before he could formulate an answer, a new object entered his field of vision. A face to be precise. It was a woman's face, and her expression was concerned—apparently for him, and seemingly just a little for herself.
"Are you alright…sir?"
Batman shifted gingerly, and frowned back up at her, with a grunt that was meant to be an answer in the affirmative, but came out sounding much more pained than he'd intended. He winced, and ground out a weak, "Fine."
The hovering face didn't look reassured. She looked at him, then glanced to the side.
He followed her gaze, tilting his head to the side ever so carefully. A gurney, and several pairs of uniform clad legs entered his sights. As the woman started saying something to her gurney-rolling companions, he found his voice, "No," he barked, trying not to moan at the spike of pain his own elevated tone sent stabbing through his aching head. "I'm not going…where ever you're thinking about taking me."
The woman's face became bemused. "You mean…the emergency room?"
"Yeah. There." He winced as he turned his head back to facing the sky. "By the way, why am I here?"
The concern on the paramedic's face took a nose-dive towards alarm. "You don't remember?" She looked ready to motion for the gurney, against Batman's will or no.
"No—hey, you're not getting me on that thing, so don't even think about it." His glare, though somewhat hampered by the fact that he was flat on his back and wincing at most movement, was still warning enough.
The growl and the glare worked. She spoke slowly, eyeing him anxiously, "You were close to the building when it exploded, and you must have been thrown back, hitting your head. When the police arrived, they dragged you away from the building…"
"Yeah. I remember most of that. Fast forward a bit." He clenched his teeth as he worked his way up into a partial sitting position. He squinted at the smoking warehouse building, and firetrucks, the firefighters still battling the remaining flames. "Did anyone escape?"
She shook her head. "Not that we know of. You're sure you're alright?"
Batman rose, careful not to show any signs of pain that might give the paramedic further cause to demand something ridiculous of him. None of them were getting anywhere near his mask, that was for sure. Already having come to the realization that head movement of any kind was not going to be a good idea in the near future, he gave a curt, "I'm fine." He could almost see Alfred raising his eyebrows at his rudeness, with a formal, "Another fine display of your impeccable manners, Mr. Wayne." He managed a half-polite, "Thanks." Then his attention was drawn back to the warehouse—and a certain friend he hoped was finally out of danger. "There's someone I've got to go see."
Lois was back to square one: musing over paper headlines, and trying to pin down her feelings on the subject they were all proclaiming. This time, at least, Superman was safe—she hoped.
She gazed out across the city from her traditional haunting spot, at the top of the Daily Planet building. Thank God she didn't have to look out and wonder anymore, how much Kryptonite was infecting Metropolis. It was still out there. However, it turned out "Merlin" hadn't been any more successful in his attempts to recreate Kryptonite than anyone before him. Well, perhaps he had been slightly more successful. The Kryptonite had been potent, and its life-span was long, but its effects, however, didn't last forever. Scientists confirmed the fact that this "Kryptonite" was, indeed, losing its original integrity.
She found herself grinning quite often now, simply with the sheer relief of it all. Although her previous fears had often been shoved to the background by her sub-conscious, she certainly wasn't trying to ignore the almost giddy happiness she felt now.
Of course, there was one thing that brought her joy down a notch. She did have a blood-thirsty streak, and this Dr. Devian—though she hadn't been able to formerly put that name to the nemeses—had brought out something particularly nasty in her. Alright, so maybe she hadn't really been expecting to be able to mete out justice on the doctor with her bare hands. But having him die in an explosion, before he was even brought to trial… That seemed a bit too merciful.
Never mind all that. She could have swallowed her thirst for vengeance, and forgotten the man who'd been premeditating Superman's death. Forgetting him would have been easier than dealing with the gnawing feeling she had in the pit of her stomach, as she tried to ignore the insidious voice of pessimistic fear that was whispering in her ear. What if Tristain Devian wasn't dead? The official report had yet to come in, on whether or not one of charred remains found in the warehouse was indeed Devian's. She felt morbidly prepared for, and expectant of, the worst-case scenario. But if he had escaped, what could be done? There'd be a price on his head, certainly. But Devian would know that, and, obviously intelligent as he was, he'd disappear. For a while, at least.
The greeting was quiet, almost diffident, as if he was trying not to intrude on her solitude, but it made Lois start in surprise all the same. She must have been truly lost in thought not to have either heard the rustle of his cape, or seen him out of the corner of her eyes as he approached. Now, as she turned, Superman's expression was as uncertain as his voice, giving her the impression he must have been standing there for a while. Since his recent return, there'd been an instinctive amount of decorum and formality between them. No doubt most of that formality had been caused by her initial reception of him. Or rather her rejection. At that moment, however, she could have kissed him. Instead, she settled for a ridiculously wide smile, that hopefully expressed at least a little of her happiness at seeing him alive and well.
Superman looked oddly unnerved upon receiving a full-watt, and apparently genuine, smile from her. His reaction made Lois laugh a little inwardly, and wince at the same time. He really didn't seem in the least certain of where he stood with her, or of how she might respond to him. She wasn't entirely certain herself, and had been even less so a couple of weeks ago. Now, although she wasn't certain, she knew enough. She knew the world would be a much worse place in his absence, and that she, personally, dreaded the thought of losing him. However he fit into her life, it was an important gap he filled.
"Hi," she replied, equally quiet. "You look a lot better." Thank God it was the truth.
"Thanks. I had a few people looking out for me."
She nodded in acknowledgment. When he said "thanks", he didn't just say it for the sake of etiquette, he said it because he meant it, and he said it like he meant it. She could feel his gratitude, solemn and sincere. It warmed her, and at simultaneously made her self-conscious. "It's not like you haven't watched out for a few people yourself."
"It's not like those people asked for it." He looked rather self-conscious himself, but now in more pleased manner, rather than with his former discomfort.
"Neither did you. We were all more than glad to have the opportunity to help." Realizing how the sentence might have been misconstrued, she amended quickly, "Not that we were glad there was need for our help…"
Why did even the shortest of his sentences convey so much more then many of her longest? Honestly, the man should try his hand at journalism. That thought came with a set of mental images she decided it would be best to sort through, and snicker over, later. Right now she couldn't afford to confuse him with any more impromptu outbursts of erratic female behavior. "It just good to see you. Alive. But you've got to stop visiting the hospital so often. They're going to start reserving you a room—maybe put a commemorative plaque above the bed."
"Bars on the windows?"
She looked at him quizzically. "How did you get out this time? You didn't just…fly off again, did you?"
"No, of course not."
She raised an eyebrow. The picture of Superman formally checking himself out of the hospital was almost as ludicrous as the picture of him having a desk job as a writer.
"I didn't. I waited until the nurse came, told her I was leaving, and then I flew off."
She laughed outright, shaking her head. It felt good to give in helplessly to smiling and laughing, after all the near-catastrophes they'd just narrowly escaped from.
He didn't laugh, but his smile was as genuine as hers.
Still shaking her head slightly, Lois said, with far more fondness than authority, "You've been doing that a lot lately, too—flying off without a word."
He sobered immediately, his speech pattern assumed a thoughtful, slightly stumbling cadence. "I know we talked about it before, but I just…I wanted to say again…I'm sorry for not saying anything before I—"
She held up a hand, halting him with the firm gesture. "No. I don't want you to apologize again. We did talk about it, and… I overacted." She met his eyes with an unwavering look. "That doesn't mean you should do it again. But I do understand better now, I think. I mean, I still think it was incredibly thoughtless of you just to…go, like that, without a word." He winced, and she felt herself soften. "But you did have every right to go. You had every right to go, and see if there were any survivors. I'm just sorry you didn't find anyone."
He didn't try to keep from showing his sorrow. "I am too."
"But you know, you don't have to feel like… I mean, you're not alone."
A smile crept back into his eyes. "Someone said something very similar to me once before."
"Well, they were right."
"I know," he said again, voice full of solid assurance. "At first it was hard to accept, that I was the last. But I returned and…I didn't feel like I'd ever left. Earth is my home now."
He gazed out at the city, managing to look simultaneously protective and almost fond. Lois' gaze instinctively followed his. Metropolis. This was her city. Her home. Their home. Analyzing her feelings now, she could see fear had been the true cause of her anger. Fear that she'd been assuming something was real when it wasn't. When he'd left so unexpectedly, without a word, she'd expected him to come back. This was his city after all, wasn't it? She was… We'll, she'd meant something to him, hadn't she? All those beliefs had been shaken. And now? Now she knew she'd been right all along.
Eventually, the morbid sound of sirens caught their attention. His look was one of uncertainty. Hers was one of assurance.
"What are you waiting for?"
He was gone with last smile of gratitude. As for her…she was content. Metropolis had its champion back, and she was his own personal media contact…and maybe just a little more to him, besides. She crossed her arms and closed her eyes, leaning into the wind that was whipping at her face. Yeah. There was definitely something a little bit…more between them. But therein were a multitude of inhibitions and uncertainties she was content to battle another day.
By the time Bruce made it up the stairs to Clark's apartment door, he wasn't quite wishing he'd taken the woman up on the gurney offer, but he was wishing for more Tylenol. His head pounded angrily, and he could feel the beginnings of a rather large bump where he'd hit his head in the fall.
For once, he was actually grateful to have the door opened in his face, no knocking required. The rock 'n roll that had vibrated the hallway outside one of the previous apartment doors had been quite enough noise. He wasn't looking forward to listening to the sound of his own voice. Maybe he should have considered the option of the emergency room more seriously… Nah. He'd be fine.
"Bruce…" Clark had apparently been waiting for him. "Where were you?"
Clark's inquiry wasn't shouted, or even spoken loudly, but it seemed to slice through the throbbing mess that had temporarily become Bruce's brain. He probably shouldn't have come, concussed as he probably was. Too late to turn back now, though. "Well 'hi' to you too. Can I come in?"
Clark stepped aside, but continued to watch him with close scrutiny. Bruce was already preparing for the expected "Are you alright?", ready to refute it with the traditional "I'm fine", when Martha Kent entered the room.
"Mr. Wayne, you look simply awful!"
Bruce had a feeling "I'm fine" wasn't going to quite cut it for this new progression of events. Sounding more pained than he'd intended to, he grunted, "It's Bruce, remember?"
It was the wrong thing to say if he'd been looking to get her off his case. Her face softened a little, something he couldn't quite decipher stirring in her old eyes. "Yes, Bruce, and you're going to come sit down before you collapse."
Bruce didn't really see the point in arguing, so he sat where directed in the small living room, trying to avoid eye-contact with the still-watchful Clark, who sat down opposite him. Martha remained standing, a concerned frown on her face.
"Look, both of you, I appreciate the concern but really…I've just got a hangover." Now Martha was the one Bruce didn't want to make eye-contact with. He was surprised at himself for how much he really didn't want to see the disapproval he was certain was on her face now. He looked anyways, expecting her to leave the room. Then he and Clark could have their conversation, and he could go home and bury his head under a pillow until the throbbing went away.
Martha didn't leave, however. She remained their, arms crossed, shaking her head…smiling. "Despite the fact that Clark never gave me any opportunities to hone my skills, my mother's intuition for lies is as intact as ever. And you, Bruce Wayne, are a terrible liar."
Well that was a hard insult to stomach. A terrible liar? He smiled wryly. "Alright. You want the truth, then? I'll give you the whole story, I swear." He looked pointedly at her, eyebrows slightly raised. "But, I'll have you know, I was telling part of the truth. You see I was at this party, lasted most of the night… Managed to restrain myself pretty good about the booze, but I was still a little worse for wear by the time I was leaving. As I was going out the revolving door, there was this guy behind me, and when I paused—hesitated for just minute—he kept right on going." He reached up to gingerly touch the back of his head with a theatrical wince. "Bashed me right in the head, the idiot…"
He had a completely unconvinced audience.
He sighed heavily. "Hey, it hurt."
Martha turned towards the kitchen with a simple, "I'll go get you an icepack for that."
Clark didn't pry further, but there was a knowing look in his eyes. Both of their gazes drifted momentarily towards the newspaper lying on the coffee table between them. Headlines declared cheerfully that Superman was safe again, the problem solved thanks to Batman, the police, and citizens of Metropolis. Clark gave a slight smile and nod of gratitude. Then Martha was back with the icepack, holding it out to Bruce, and then just as quickly pulling it back to move closer and apply it herself.
"Hold this here now."
Bruce accepted her ministrations long-sufferingly. "Thanks, Mrs. Kent."
"Martha." She stepped back and glanced sagely between the two of them. "Now you two talk about whatever you have to talk about, and I'll bring you some Tylenol before you leave." Before she turned to go, she met Bruce's gaze solidly—and he could have sworn he heard her whisper a heart-felt "thank you". He turned to Clark after she'd left. "Do you think she knows?"
"About your alter-ego? Who knows. All I know is that it's never wise to underestimate her."
"I believe it." Bruce cleared his throat. "Now…"
"There's one thing I've been meaning to talk to you about ever since this whole mess happened."
Clark looked at him in apprehensive bemusement. "Oh?"
Bruce's gaze roved around the room. "Your apartment."
"What about it?"
"If you're not going to move, then I think Wayne Industries is going to have to do some serious remodeling."
Clark stared. "You're not serious…"
"Oh I am."
"Bruce, the danger's over, I don't think—"
"—but I do think it might be very necessary. And how do you know the danger's over? Don't tell me, on top of everything else, you've developed the ability to foresee the future?"
Clark ignored the last statement. "But what do you mean by 'remodel'?"
"Well…" Bruce gave the room another assessing glance. "we'd have to buy the building first. This place is kind…seedy, though, don't you think?"
"It's fine, Bruce. I'm not actually here all that often, anyways."
"Ah, come on, if we're going to line the walls with lead we might as well do it on a little more up-scale kind of place. We could charge more for the apartments, making the renovations on the basis of protecting us 'normal' humans from the possible effects Kryptonite might have on us, should there be another outbreak… Besides, there'd be additional sound-dampening benefits, as well."
Clark tuned out of the conversation around the point where Bruce started talking about "solar-spectrum lights" and "lead-impregnated glass". He could try to collapse all Bruce's arguments later. After all, who would believe Clark Kent was making enough money to afford something like that? Right now, though, it was actually rather comforting to be sitting next to a friend who obviously cared so much about what happened to him. Bruce's litany continued. Clark smiled. He would never be alone.
Thank you all so much for the tremendous feedback! I'm not sure if I'll be writing more Superman fics or not, but you've made writing in this fandom extremely attractive with all the encouraging reviews. I really appreciate it! I think I'll probably at least end up dabbling around with some one-shots sometime. ;-)
My gratitude goes once more to my dear sister Imbecamiel for all her patient beta'ing, and I'd also like to acknowledge JamesTKent for giving me the wholr idea for the apartment renovation, which I included in the end scene. :-)