Endless thanks to beta reader arg914 and technical advisor, The Five Foot Ninja. Here we go again, guys.
This story is dedicated to Kent and Andy.
"And you save me in the nick of time."
-"I'm Feeling You," Carlos Santana
The siren cut off in mid-keen as the ambulance skidded sideways against the curb of Gotham General Hospital's emergency room entrance and the back doors exploded open. The driver, a lanky Latino woman in her late 20s, jumped out of the cab and rushed to help the paramedic ease the gurney onto the concrete sidewalk. They were met halfway across the ER floor by a worn young resident as they rolled the patient urgently toward an empty bed.
"Booze and barbs," said the paramedic, as the doctor aimed a penlight at the unconscious man's pupils.
Shaking his head, the resident popped the sterile wrapper from a naso-gastric tube and started easing it down his patient's nose. He did not wonder why the man had tried to kill himself. There were only a handful of reasons and he'd heard them all.
"Any idea what he took?" the resident asked, glancing down at the large, lifeless middle-aged man.
"Pentobarbital," replied the driver. "Looks like he helped himself to leftovers from some surgery his butler had a while back."
The resident gave her a quizzical look as he fastened a bag of saline and a vacuum pump to the nasal tube. "Butler? Who is this guy?"
"Bruce Wayne," said the driver.
The paramedic shrugged. "Even billionaires get the blues."
It was not Lois Lane's job to scan the wire services for news; an assistant city editor had been assigned that responsibility. This did not stop Lois from spending most mornings obsessively refreshing her link to the Associated Press newswire. If she had a fault as managing editor of the Daily Planet, it was her inability to delegate. She was aware that this tendency to over-manage irritated some of the city desk staff, and she usually tried to restrain herself, but Lois had backslid considerably since returning to work the week before. The reaction to her intrusiveness had been less defensive than usual; everyone understood that she was trying to cope with the loss of her daughter.
She had probably gone overboard the previous day, sharpening all of her secretary's pencils while she was at lunch, but when Nadia returned to her desk a few minutes early, she had merely looked at Lois through sympathetic hazel eyes and waited for her boss to mumble an excuse and hurry back to her office.
Today she was on a mission: Clark and their son, Clay, had finally returned to work. Lois wanted them to have a good first day back, as much as they could have a good anything at this point, and she was combing the wire service for stories that they would find engaging, without being too demanding. She had eliminated a few stories that were intriguing, but involved a death, and had sent Clay out not long ago to interview the latest rap star to become infatuated with the struggle for social justice. Lois had confused the rapper for a rocker Clay liked; he had apathetically explained the difference and gone off to do the interview. Now she was looking for an assignment for Clark, with less success: She couldn't find a single story among the latest batch that didn't somehow involve death or superheroes.
"So the boys are back today." Nadia stood by Lois' door, a steaming mug in her hand. Nadia had been at the Planet longer than Lois; she had been Perry White's secretary. Lois had made it clear that she did not expect her to fetch coffee, but Nadia was old school. She considered it part of her job.
Lois looked up from her computer. "How are they doing out there?"
Nadia handed slid a coaster toward Lois and carefully lowered the cup of black coffee. "Clay was hanging with some of the guys before you sent him out. But Clark…. He's just sitting at his desk, pretending to read the paper. He doesn't look like he wants anyone to talk to him."
Lois nodded. "It's been… hard."
"I know," said Nadia. She had lost her husband of 41 years a few months earlier. "Becca asked if you'd be willing to move the budget meeting to 10:30."
Lois's eyes slide to the clock on the bottom corner of her computer. It was a few minutes before nine. "Sure. Anything else?"
Nadia shook her head. "Want me to close the door?"
"Please," Lois said. She waited until she was alone to press both palms against her eyes. Then she returned her attention to her computer. The screen had refreshed itself while she'd been talking; three new bulletins sat at the top of the queue: Midvale Mayor Marches for School Funding; Metros' Quarterback Faces Shoulder Surgery, Gotham Billionaire Attempts Suicide.
Lois seized her mouse and clicked frantically on the third item. As soon as the window opened, her eyes found the billionaire's name. It was only a two-sentence blurb, but Lois did not bother to read it. She scrambled to the door and flung it open, shouting across the crowded newsroom for her husband.
Clark tugged his tie up against the bottom of his collar as he hurried down the fire stairs from the roof of Gotham General's towering parking garage. He had just gotten off the phone with Lois, who had reported being stonewalled by the hospital's patient information desk. Operators had been fielding inquiries all morning from callers nosing for details about Bruce Wayne's apparent attempt to kill himself. She had not been able to find out what floor he was on, or even how he was doing.
The flight had not exerted Clark, but as he walked into the hospital lobby, his heart was galloping. He looked past the admissions desk, then up at the ceiling, searching through the hospital's cinderblock walls for a sign of Alfred. On his third sweep of the hospital, Clark saw Dick Grayson and Tim Drake standing alone in a sixth floor waiting room. Dick looked sad and worried; Tim furious. Clark shut his eyes for a moment, blocking out hundreds of other voices to focus on their conversation.
"… should have known better than to get involved with anyone that close to Lian," Tim was saying bitterly. "What the hell did she do to him?"
Clark opened hardened eyes as Dick's fading voice protested, "It wasn't like that…."
As the elevator doors closed behind him, Clark leaned back against the padded elevator wall, tilting his face toward the ceiling. Just days before Martha's death at the hands of Parallax, Lois had come to the conclusion, with almost no evidence, that Bruce had somehow maneuvered their daughter into bed. Clark had not believed it, had in fact considered the idea preposterous. But reports of Bruce's quiet melt-down at Martha's funeral – and now this… overdose – forced Clark to admit there had probably been more going on between the two of them than he had wanted to believe. Tim seemed to think so. He and Dick obviously knew more than Clark about his daughter's relationship with their mentor.
He did not understand how it had happened; the last time he had seen Martha and Bruce together, they had been arguing so vehemently that Clark felt he had to step in for the good of the team. He had asked them to stop fighting. Numbness spread across his chest. He should have left them alone. This was probably his fault.
The door slid open with a ding, and Clark walked leadenly down the hallway toward the waiting room. A hospital security guard stood beside the door. He stepped forward as Clark approached.
"You have a badge?" he asked, staring pointedly at Clark's empty lapels. Before he could answer, a tired voice behind him said, "It's OK. He's family."
Clark had rocketed to Gotham General truly fearing for his colleague's life, but being characterized as a member of Bruce's family suddenly offended him. He forced his lips together against a bitter denial and turned to a washed-out looking Roy Harper, who had apparently just walked off another elevator. Roy gave him a one-armed hug that Clark did not return.
"It had to be an accident," Roy told him. "He wouldn't…." He broke off and stared at the floor, then looked back at Clark, who had still not uttered a word.
"I hate to ask you," Roy said awkwardly. "But now that you're here, I kind of need your help."
The pain came first, dragging him into an unwilling consciousness. His nose and throat were burning; his stomach raw. Everything hurt – his screaming head, his constricting chest. And he was in a hospital. He could smell it: the Lysol and the latex.
"He's waking up. Mr. Wayne?"
"My…," Bruce whispered through cracked lips. "My doctor…."
"I'll get him."
No, he thought as he felt the nurse leave the room. His doctor was a woman. He tried to open his eyes, but the glare of sun coming through the hospital window stung and he kept them closed. A second nurse in the room apparently noticed his discomfort. He could hear the blinds closing and he tried again to open his eyes.
"Arkham… Asylum," he managed. "My doctor..."
The nurse standing next to him was very quiet for a moment. "Your doctor here is Dr. Marcos. He's on his way."
And Bruce remembered: Martha had been his doctor and she was dead. Suddenly the physical pain wasn't enough, he needed more; he needed it to hurt so much that he couldn't think, so badly that it would eclipse the anguish that was spreading through him with more force than mere bodily injury could ever bring.
There was whispering at the door, and footsteps, then the scrape of metal against tile and a heavier presence by his bed.
Bruce opened his eyes. A squat, balding man sat next to him, an open chart in his hand.
"I'm Dr. Marcos," the man said. "Do you know why you're here?"
Bruce rolled his head toward him. "I… ah… fell." His eyes moved to a bandage wrapped around his left forearm. "I… there was broken glass?"
Dr. Marcos' impassive eyes darted from the chart to Bruce. "What kind of glass?"
He tried to remember. He had been so tired. "I couldn't sleep."
"And so you…"
"I had something to drink." He had downed an entire bottle of brandy. Bruce blinked. "And I took something else. Melatonin." Alfred had been taking the herbal supplement as a sleep aid. Martha's death had been devastating to the old man; he had loved her dearly. No one at Wayne Manor had been sleeping well since Parallax had taken her from them. Bruce had not expected the melatonin pills to work for him, but he had been desperate enough to sneak into Alfred's bathroom and swallow a handful of them.
"Melatonin." The doctor's voice sounded skeptical.
Bruce frowned at the man's tone. "I think I took too much."
Marcos skimmed the chart again, then closed it. "Mr. Wayne. We found six partially digested Pentobarbital capsules in your stomach."
"Pento…" The name sounded familiar. Bruce could not remember why.
"Barbiturates," said Marcos, examining him openly now. "Which in combination with alcohol generally equals death." He added gently. "You've had a loss recently."
Bruce strained against a fog of confusion and pain to put these seemingly disparate statements together. It took him nearly a minute to understand what the doctor was getting at.
Alarmed, he said, "I didn't try to kill myself."
Marcos' expression did not change. "A lot of people find it difficult –"
"I did not try to kill myself," Bruce repeated, more adamantly. He stared at the doctor in disbelief. Is that what everyone would think?
In a soft voice Bruce found patronizing, Marcos asked, "Tell me about Martha."
Bruce squeezed his eyelids together. "Get out of here," he whispered fiercely.
The doctor sat there for a few moments, then Bruce heard the legs of the chair drag across the floor again and the sound of rubber soles moving away from him.
He thought about the orange Rite Aid bottle with the torn label and realized now what he had not in his drunken state: Melatonin did not come in pharmacy vials. Alfred had needed something stronger to cope with Martha's death and he hadn't wanted Bruce to worry about him. Bruce understood. He had been hiding his drinking from Alfred for the same reason. He wondered where the old man was now; he must be frantic.
Bruce had spent almost two years fighting his feelings for Martha Kent, but Alfred had been determined to bring them together from the moment she walked into his kitchen. He believed her Bruce's last chance to find love and he did not care that she was half Bruce's age or Clark's daughter. When Alfred learned that Martha was Superwoman, he had considered it confirmation that his instincts were correct: She would understand Bruce and his life's work more than anyone else possibly could: They walked the same path.
Alfred had been right, Bruce thought. And he had been a fool. He had fled from the one woman who might truly be called the love of his life and his change of heart had come too late. In truth, death would have been a welcome respite from the loss and regret that overwhelmed him. But not by his own hand. He would never to that to Alfred, or to Dick or Tim. And he could not do that to Martha, who would have been horrified to see how badly Bruce was reacting to her death.
He needed to talk to Alfred right away; he had to make sure the old man was all right. Bruce flexed his fingers toward the button that would bring the nurse, but his arm felt so heavy that he could not move it, and the sleep that had eluded him for nearly three weeks engulfed him.
He knew it was a dream, but when he saw her, suspended in light and fog, he pushed irresistibly toward her.
He knew it was a dream, but when he saw her, suspended in light and fog, he pushed irresistibly toward her.
"Bruce," Martha asked, her voice an ache in his chest. "Why wouldn't you let us be together?"
He could not seem to reach her. She did not move, but no matter how many forward steps he took, she seemed just as far away.
"I was afraid that I was too old for you," he said. "That being with me would destroy your relationship with your family… and I was afraid… I would mess it up."
Martha's dark brown eyes merged with his. "You were just afraid," she said, and disappeared.
She ran her hand through her tangled brown hair, shaking out a shower of dirt and sand, brushing stray grains away from her face. It was a futile gesture – the relentless winds wove hundreds of new granules into her curls and clothes with every gust, and they were endless.
For as long has she had been here, there had been no night, just an eternal murky day. It might have been months, and it was certainly weeks, since the explosion of light and pain had brought her here; she had expected to be rescued long ago. It was only her sitting practice, the hours of meditation, that had steadied her mind over the long wait.
She was hungry, now, a feeling she had been ignoring, as the one source of nutrition on this world was an olive-colored cactus-like tree whose fruit was bitter and spongy. Aversion, she thought, as she slogged across the sand, doesn't do a thing to make it taste any better.
She tugged a chunk of flesh from the plant and brought it to her mouth, feeling, rather than hearing the presence behind her.
"Kind of short for Superman's daughter, aren't you?" asked Parallax, stepping over to the tree and tearing free a piece of fruit.
Martha Kent tilted her head toward him and offered him an open smile. "You've come crawling back, I see," she said.
It was only the second time she'd seen him since they'd arrived at this place. The first time, Martha had expected him to kill her, but he had merely mocked her as she sat in meditation and then flown away. She had not been able to follow him. Unlike Parallax, Martha could not breathe beyond the planet's atmosphere and the perennial clouds of dust and sand had blocked a sun that, from what she could tell, was at least yellow. She was at nowhere near full strength. She had quickly determined that if a means of escape existed, it was not in her power to find it.
This had not concerned Martha at first; she was sure her Justice League teammates would save her. Her father would never give up on finding her, nor would Lian or the man she hoped would soon be her lover. They must be struggling, frustrated by their inability to reach her. Wherever she was, it was nowhere near Earth. Martha had tirelessly tried to contact Meera Buhpathi, the team's telepath, with no success. She had hoped that Midori, her brilliant teammate from Colu, might have been able to trace the path of particles from the explosion, but even if she had, they might be having trouble reaching her. Parallax had disabled their shuttle.
But that still left Gren, Martha thought, as she winced through a mouthful of the unpleasantly pungent fruit. A Green Lantern didn't need a spaceship to get around.
Parallax studied her grimace, looked at the chunk of plant in his own hand and concentrated until it had changed form, morphing into what appeared to be a dark green chicken leg. Martha smirked.
"It doesn't make it taste any better," Parallax informed her. He took a bite and added, "So it turns out, Dr. Kent, that this planet is the jewel of this particular universe."
Martha frowned. "Universe? Or do you mean galaxy?"
Parallax shrugged. "I can usually get around the galaxies in our universe," he said. "What's the matter?" he added as her face grew tense. "Am I extinguishing your dreams of a blissful reunion with Dad and your friends?"
The hours of meditation had been useful: Martha felt the panic before it consumed her and breathed it away.
"They'll find me," she said.
"They've most likely had your funeral by now," Parallax countered. "That explosion you made probably looked pretty fatal."
Martha squinted at him through a veil of sand. "I made? Whose bomb was it?"
"That wasn't a bomb, Dr. Kent," Parallax said irritably. "You made it explode by slamming it into me."
Martha averted her stunned face and wrapped her arms around her thin shoulders. "What was it?"
"I'm not quite ready to reveal my nefarious plans," Parallax said sardonically. "In the movies, that's always where the villain goes wrong."
She looked up at him. "Are you a villain? I thought you envisioned yourself as some kind of savior."
Parallax gave her a wise smile. "You work at Arkham, don't you? Criminal psychiatrist?"
"I'm not a criminal," Parallax said. And with a glance upwards, he hurtled away. Martha walked slowly back to the spot where she'd been sitting. It took a long time for her to calm her mind; Parallax had given her too much to think about.
It was dark when Bruce opened his eyes again; only a muted emergency light illuminated the room from a rectangular ceiling panel. A soft hum emanated from the ventilation system and he could hear the muffled voices of tired nurses outside his closed door. His eyes dropped to the back of his right hand; he hadn't noticed the IV before. He wondered what they were giving him. Whatever it was had seemed to make his headache fade. His nose and throat still hurt, though, from the tube he supposed they'd used to pump his stomach. He turned his head to see if there was water by his bedside.
His eyes moved immediately past the night table; he was not alone. Clark sat in a dark, battered visitor's chair, his forehead cradled against a large palm, his glasses dangling from his fingertips. Bruce hadn't seen him since the funeral. Even in the dark, he could see the hollow rings around Clark's eyes and the streak of gray in his stubble that had not been there before. The death of his daughter had aged Superman as time could not.
He was resting, but not asleep. Bruce continued to study him until Clark sensed that he was being watched and looked up. His eyes reflected a spectrum of pain – mostly grief, but also bewilderment and the kind of hurt that comes from having been unexpectedly betrayed.
"You didn't have to come here," Bruce said. "You have enough to…" His eyes fell to the blanket that was bunched up around his waist. "I wasn't trying to kill myself."
"I know," Clark said quietly.
"How do you know?" Bruce asked. He was sure Marcos had described him as suicidal.
"You're still alive," Clark said. He twirled his glasses between a thumb and forefinger.
Bruce nodded, but he was not relieved. Clark had come here for answers. He deserved them. But Bruce did not feel capable of giving them yet.
"Was this because of Martha?" Clark asked tentatively.
Bruce rolled his head away.
A tremor in his voice, Clark asked, "Were you lovers?"
After a moment, Bruce said, "No." He was no longer sure this was true, but Clark needed the simpler answer.
It took them both a while to recover from the question. In the silence, the whirr of the ventilation system seemed abnormally loud.
"But you were in love with her," Clark said finally.
Bruce didn't answer. After a few moments, Clark stood up.
"Get some rest," he said. "I'll let everyone know you're awake."
As he reached the door, Bruce whispered, "I told her… I wasn't." Clark stopped. "Right before we got the call… about Parallax."
Clark turned to look at him and his features were as impassive as Batman's had ever been.
"I'm sure she could tell," he said, "That you were lying."
Next Chapter: Paths to peace and the road to Hell.