Author's Note: No one gets there alone. In the year it took to write the Truth and Justice trilogy, beta reader arg914 and my son and technical advisor, The Five Foot Ninja, provided constructive advice and unflagging support. There are no words strong enough to express my gratitude. Profound thanks also to reviewers Author376, whose generosity and kindness are unparalleled, Batfan7, who saved a fictional life and in doing so changed the course of this story, LifeBringsMeOnlyTears, GothikStrawberry, jenetri, Naga, LJP, CalypsoHunter, al4, Sakura999, SarahC4321, Naitch03, AngerManagementIssues, Katemary77, HesterPryne, Sarpedon, jvogel54321, IVIaedhros and RandomDave. Your encouraging words will be forever remembered.
Bruce tapped his driver's license idly against the counter as the pinched nurse shrugged into a powder blue button-down sweater and muttered about the air conditioning. It was cranked pretty high, he supposed, but the cool air felt good against the burns healing under his long-sleeved shirt.
The nurse checked the plastic ID against a list of names, then studied Bruce suspiciously before directing him down a short, bright corridor that led to a small wing of private rooms. The door to the second room on the left was propped open. Bruce stood next to it for a moment, listening to the pair of warm voices inside before rapping twice and stepping inside.
"Hey!" Roy shifted himself up against his pillows and offered Bruce a welcoming grin.
Midori was sitting by her husband's left side, her left arm encased in a bulky cast. She smiled at Bruce, tilting her cheek upward as he bent to kiss her, but she did not let go of Roy's hand.
"So." Bruce's eyes moved across the small room. "This is the honeymoon suite."
Roy laughed. "Beats the hell out of the hotel room we reserved in Honolulu." He grinned at Midori, who had already started to evaluate this statement for its possible humor. "Huh, baby?"
"I think the room in Hawaii was a little bigger," she replied, releasing his hand momentarily to scratch under the wrist of her cast.
"We'll get there," Roy promised, recapturing her hand. "You'll have your way with me in the tropics, yet." He looked back up at Bruce. "Food's better here than at the hospital in Phoenix."
Martha had ordered Roy's transfer to Metropolis Medical Center as soon as his doctors declared him stable enough to withstand the flight. Her hometown hospital boasted the most advanced prosthesis technology in the country. The team of specialists treating Roy included the surgeon who had helped her save Bruce's leg.
Bruce pulled a chair up to Roy's bed. "You feeling all right?"
"Yeah." Roy's smile was tired, but genuine. He raised his hand without untangling it from Midori's and indicated the gleaming gold band around his finger. "At least they didn't get my ring hand." He brought Midori's fingers to his lips and the newlyweds shared a tender look.
Lifting his chin toward a pair of prostheses – an impressively human-looking hand and foot strewn carelessly onto the top of a small dresser, Bruce asked, "Those the new body parts?"
"Shhh," Roy whispered as his wife started to scowl. "We don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. Midori's going to whip me up something ten times better."
"They might as well give him a peg leg," she said indignantly. "And a hook."
Bruce tried not to smile. It looked like the manufacturers of Earth's prosthesis technology were about to get the kind of boost its dog-grooming industry now enjoyed.
"I'm gonna get her to build a TV remote into my new hand," Roy confided. "So I can just wiggle my fingers and change the channel."
"That sounds useful," Bruce replied. "Think you'll be able to handle a bow again?"
As Midori nodded confidently, Roy replied, "I'll be able to. Not I sure will."
That wasn't a surprise: Wally had announced his retirement at the debriefing Roy held in his hospital room the day after Brainiac's attack. It was only natural that the wounded archer – who had months of rehab ahead of him no matter how sophisticated Midori's prostheses turned out to be – might consider joining his best friend in the pursuit of a quieter life.
"Maybe just to teach my kid," Roy added meditatively.
Bruce looked inquiringly at Midori. She blushed a dark jade and shook her head: Not yet.
"So when are you getting out of here?" Bruce asked.
Roy gave a small shrug. "A week. Maybe less. They don't like to let the high-profile patients go until they're sure they're stable. I wish I could have gotten out of here a few days ago," he added solemnly. "And made it to those funerals."
Bruce's eyes shifted back to the lifeless mechanical hand. "The rest of us did. You were ably represented by your wife and daughter." As Midori flashed a melancholy smile, he added, "And Kurdoon's culture doesn't hold the same sort of mourning rites."
"I heard he was something," said Roy, his voice filled with admiration and loss. "Taking both of those murdering bastards with him." He looked up at Bruce. "How are you?"
"OK," Bruce said, glancing down at his right side. "Most of the burns ended up looking a lot worse than they actually were." He ignored Roy's skeptical look. "Martha's going to drop by later," he said. "She and her mother had a couple of errands to run."
Roy squinted at him. "What, you're not just up here to visit me? Oh, my God," he added. "It's Sunday."
Bruce felt his face grow warm in the cooled air.
"You're here for Sunday dinner," Roy proclaimed gleefully.
"Yeah," Bruce admitted.
"So, you and Clark all right?" Roy asked
"We're working on it." Bruce got to his feet. "Martha and I are having a barbecue back in Gotham on the Saturday after next. I need you to be there."
It was something that they had planned before the Harpers' wedding and in the aftermath of the attack had considered postponing. Ultimately, they decided that nothing was needed quite so much as an occasion that would bring everyone together. In light of the conversation he had had with Martha earlier that morning, Bruce was glad they had chosen to go forward.
Roy gave the end of his right arm an uncertain glance and said, "We'll try to make it."
"There's no 'try to make it'," Bruce told him. "You'll be there or you'll answer to Lois. She's organizing this thing."
Roy eyed Bruce suspiciously as he returned his chair to its place against the wall. "Why? Is something special going to happen at this barbecue?"
"Just be there." He walked around the bed to kiss Midori goodbye, then he and Roy exchanged a wry left-handed handshake. Bruce was just about to step out of the room, when he turned around with an almost thoughtful expression and leaned against the door frame.
"By the way," he said to Roy. "I earned 400 million dollars last year. I'll take a check."
Roy's face paled against a thatch of fading freckles. Bruce flashed him a modest smile, pushed off against the cool metal frame and rounded into the sunlit hallway.
A burst of wind stirred stray granules of stone from the gargoyle's worn gray head. Batman scrutinized the scowling statue's grainy pate and thought that it might not be a bad time to have all of Gotham's granite guardians refinished. It was as mild a winter as anyone could remember: good weather for that kind of work.
As the rising sun spilled across the Narrows, he made a note to get in touch with someone from the Wayne Foundation's civic improvement group. They were always scouting out those sorts of projects – the ones that combined community service with the arts and even a little local history.
He watched, expectantly, as the lone functioning lamppost switched off at the far end of Crime Alley. Time to go home. Batman unhooked his grappling gun and strode to the south end of the roof, stopping abruptly when he saw the tall shadow slanting out from a smokestack just behind him.
"I knew you were there," he said without turning around.
"I'll bet you did." Superman took a step towards him, grinning. "Happy New Year, Batman."
The Dark Knight acknowledged his words with a nod. Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent had exchanged warmer wishes a few days earlier, at a small New Year's gathering in Metropolis.
"What brings you to Gotham this early in the morning?" Batman asked, as the two men walked toward the center of the rooftop, where they would be less likely to be seen.
Superman assumed the face of Clark Kent, indulgent father. "Just dropped off a freezer full of those milkshakes Martha's been chugging down." He gave a short laugh and shook his head. "Good thing she's got my metabolism."
Some months earlier, Martha had started craving peanut butter and chocolate shakes from her favorite all-night diner in Metropolis. Bruce had arranged for a case of them to be flown in every week. He decided not to share this information when he saw how pleased Clark seemed with himself.
"Thanks," Batman said.
"Of course, she could go there herself if you would let her fly," Superman said archly.
He was teasing, but Bruce couldn't help repeating his side of an ongoing three-way debate between himself, Clark and Koriand'r, both of whom thought his concerns were unfounded and possibly a little silly.
"We don't know what kind of effect high-speed flight would have on the baby," he said."Martha agrees with me." Or she was humoring him. Either way, she had promised to hold off on flying for the duration of her pregnancy.
"Yeah, well, your wife spoils –" Superman perked an ear, frowning. "Someone just cocked a gun."
Bruce Wayne snapped back into Batman. "Where?"
"Here." With a quick jerk of his chin, Superman indicated the floors beneath them. "In this building."
The old Masonic Temple had been vacant for years, but it was well secured. Batman couldn't remember the last time someone had succeeded in breaking into it. He felt an almost personal sense of violation at the presence of intruders.
"What floor?" he asked.
Superman's eyes appeared to sweep back and forth over a patch of roof just in front of his feet. Having seen him do this before, Batman knew he was combing through the building floor-by-floor.
"Two guys moving from the second floor to the third," Superman said. He looked up at Batman and raised an inviting eyebrow. "Shall we?"
Superman could have scooped up the burglars, dumped them at a police station and landed back on the roof while Batman was still forming an answer. But the Man of Steel had always been respectful of his colleagues' territories, Batman reflected as he glided down the steep stairwell. And Clark hated to seem like a show-off.
Batman moved cautiously into the dark third floor landing, listening for activity. He was reaching for the knob of the fire door when he heard the cry of surprise, the scrambling and then the shot. He crouched low as he threw open the door and another shot echoed through the gutted building.
The fight itself lasted seconds. Superman dropped one of the burglars with a finger flick and waited patiently for his companion to snap the heel of his hand into the second intruder's chin. Batman didn't wait to watch his opponent fall. He walked, frowning, back to the fire door.
There was a small bullet-hole a few centimeters to the left of the knob. Almost carelessly, Batman ran a hand across the side of his mask, stopping to finger a slight tear in the fabric above his temple.
Superman was immediately beside him, his eyes moving from the hole in the door to Batman's fingers.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
When Batman didn't answer, Superman added, "Armor-piercing. But – neither of them took a shot in this direction. It must have ricocheted –" He stopped. There was only one thing in the dilapidated room that could have repelled an armor-piercing bullet. "– off me," he whispered. "Bruce –"
Batman jerked off a glove and brought his hand back to the tiny rip, his faintly curious expression turning rapidly to one of disbelief. People had been trying to kill him for half a century and now a stray bullet had nearly ended his life. Had nearly left his unborn child without a father.
"I'm out of my mind," he said incredulously. He started tearing at his mask where it met the top of his fighting suit.
Superman grabbed his wrists. "What are you doing?" he asked, glancing back to make sure their captives were still unconscious.
"I quit," Bruce said flatly.
"Good," Superman said, with a little amusement and a lot of relief. "But save the strip show for the cave. I don't want to have to arrest Batman for indecent exposure at the end of his last night out."
Lakeeta Reardon stuck her bare feet in the shoes her husband routinely left by the door, pulled the thick blue terrycloth bathrobe tightly across her chest and opened her front door. She braced against the frigid morning winds and made a pained face as she spotted the rolled-up newspaper lying in the middle of her yard. In her attempt to get to it swiftly and then retreat into the warmth of her house, she nearly tripped over the large box lying on her doorstep.
Reardon studied the package. It was made of thin, white cardboard, like an oversized shirt box. She was sure as hell not expecting an early morning laundry delivery.
Her husband was in the shower. Reardon wasn't sure if it was safe to leave the porch for the time it would take to warn him to get out of the house. He wouldn't leave anyway, without her.
The police commissioner nearly jumped when her cell phone rang; she didn't remember putting it in her bathrobe pocket. Instinctively, she knew that answering the phone would not activate the box of explosives that was probably lying a foot away from her. She had barely pressed the small receiver to her ear when she heard the low, terse voice and found herself able to breathe again.
"Batman," Reardon said.
"It's not a bomb," he told her. "Commissioner…."
"Yes?" she asked, squatting down to get a better look at the package.
"Thank you." He cut the line.
Reardon gave the phone a puzzled stare – she wasn't sure what Batman had to thank her for – then slipped it into her bathrobe pocket. Almost experimentally, she gave the lid of the box an upward tug. It came free immediately.
A stream of morning sunlight splashed onto a patch of black fabric. Reardon drew a short, sharp breath. She was looking at Batman's fighting suit.
She pressed a thumb and forefinger against her eyes and then gazed again at the neatly folded costume. A sturdy square of white paper had been placed upon the dark emblem in the center of the chest plate. Reardon recognized the writer's firm cursive scrawl. His message was characteristically brief:
Reardon felt a sudden surge of loneliness but found it inexplicably replaced by a wave of hope. Batman would not leave his city unless it could be safely left.
She hoisted up the heavy box, taking care not to jostle the garment inside. The resilient black fabric had withstood the force of bullets, knives, acids and bombs, but Reardon carried it as though it was the most fragile treasure: She knew what she held in her arms that morning was the spirit of Gotham City.
Alfred straightened over the tall pile of strawberries he was slicing as Bruce walked into the kitchen through the service door.
"Commissioner Reardon received the package?" Alfred asked. Bruce shrugged out of his ebony cashmere coat and draped it carefully across the back of a kitchen chair. He looked over at the older man and nodded.
"How did she react?" Alfred asked.
"A little floored," Bruce said, brushing a small black thread from the chest of his charcoal sweater.
The elderly butler stepped out from behind the kitchen island. "And how do you feel?"
"A little floored," Bruce admitted.
Although he had responded to Bruce's retirement announcement with hearty approval, uncertainty – and a trace of sadness – now drifted across Alfred's withered feathers.
"So it's over then?" he asked. "Our magnificent adventure?"
"It is," Bruce said. "But don't plan on going anywhere. I can't handle the next one without you."
On Alfred's baffled look, Bruce added. "Being a father. I plan to learn from the best."
Tears blurred the old man's pale blue eyes. Bruce gave him a self-conscious grin. The two men stood in awkward emotion, not quite sure what they were supposed to do next.
"Would it kill you two to hug each other?" Martha, as teary-eyed as Alfred, stood against the swinging kitchen door, her slender arms folded over her jutting belly.
"Probably," said Bruce, as Alfred, turning away, replied, "Most assuredly" and hurried into the pantry.
As her husband ambled over to join her at the kitchen door, Martha studied the smile hiding in the faint lines around his eyes. "You're OK with this?"
Bruce's fingers grazed the curve of her belly and his smile traveled to the corners of his mouth.
"Yes," he said firmly. "My kids don't grow up without a father."
Martha flattened his hand against the rounded flesh just above her navel. He felt a tentative poke from the other side of her swollen tummy and laughed softly.
"You're already planning our second one?" she asked.
"Thought I'd give Roy a chance to go double or nothing," Bruce said, running his thumb across the spot where the baby had stirred, as if he could coax it to move again.
Martha chuckled. "It's a good thing you're used to sleepless nights. You've got a lot of them coming up."
"A lot of good nights," he said, lifting his eyes to hers.
They would be nights filled with love instead of violence, life instead of death. Nights with a family no one could take away from him.
Martha's fingers tightened around Bruce's hand. "They will be," she promised. "Good nights."
Superman had been delayed by a hostage situation in a school just outside of Portland, but a quick look through walls of the Watchtower told him that the meeting hadn't started. Everyone seemed to be there, though, milling around in the conference room. They were probably waiting for him.
He strode down the hallway at close to normal speed, needing the time to transition from crisis mode to a mindset that was a little more serene. He could still hear terrified mothers whimpering behind a hastily drawn police line. Superman had managed to get all of the children out safely, but incidents like these always left him rattled.
A few parents had vowed not to bring their children back to the school. It was close enough to the end of May that they'd probably get away with it, Superman thought as he stepped into the conference room.
"Hey!" Roy Harper, clad in jeans and a golf shirt, strode across the room to greet him. Superman could detect neither a limp in his friend's gait, nor anything mechanical in the warm clasp of his hand.
"Since when do they let civilians up here?" the Man of Steel asked with a grin.
"I'm not a civilian," Roy replied loftily. "I'm a consultant."
He nodded across the room, where Wally, also in street clothes, stood talking to Blitz and Gren. "Mr. West has also agreed to return in an advisory capacity."
Superman was glad to hear it. He hadn't seen Roy or Wally on the Watchtower for close to a year. Roy had spent a lot of that time in physical therapy; Wally had been training his younger son, who was soon to join the Titans. The League's new leaders were doing an exemplary job, Superman thought. But the team could only benefit from the decades of experience and wisdom these two veterans had to share.
"So," Roy asked. "How's your granddaughter?"
Superman's face burst into a rapturous smile. "She's beautiful."
"Started to fly yet?" Roy asked.
"She's only six weeks old," Clark reminded him. "But it looks like she's going to be stronger than Martha."
Roy inclined an orange eyebrow, "How can you tell?"
"She grabbed onto Clay's finger and kind of… broke it," Superman said. "And if you stand her in her crib, she can stay up on her own."
Roy whistled. "Time to break out the silver bracelet for little Jordan Ella."
Superman nodded. "Cadmus said they'd have one ready in another day or two. And they're developing a more flexible band; something that will grow along with her."
"Good," Roy said. "Midori and I have started working on a playmate for her. Don't want my kid coming home from Wayne Manor with a black eye. Bruce is handling retirement a lot better than I thought," he added.
"I think he was a little bored until the baby came," Superman said. He saw that Quiver had broken off her conversation with Meera and Wonder Woman and was heading over to the conference table. "But he's got his hands full now, between being a dad and helping Martha with her research and training, um… Dragonfly."
Having overheard this last part, Gren stepped into the conversation. "I can't believe Martha named herself after an insect," he said. "Cool costume, though. She say when she's coming back?"
"She says soon." Superman shook his head. "But I don't know. She's going to find it hard enough to balance her family life with work and taking care of Gotham."
Quiver had started waving people over to the conference table. "Gren," she called. "Let's get started."
As Gren sauntered toward the end of the table opposite Lian, Superman saw Wally zip toward the back of the room and grab a pair of folded lawn chairs.
"Here you go," he holding one of the chairs out to Roy, who nodded with mock gravity, settled into the nylon lattice and held out his left hand. A second later, he clutched a bottle of non-alcoholic beer so cold that Superman could see the ribbon of frost wafting into the air. Wally, sitting beside his friend, held a second ersatz lager.
"These things are foul," he informed an amused Superman. "But our mighty leaders –" he looked from Gren to Quiver, who were now visibly waiting for the Man of Steel to join them. "– need clear heads. Even from their esteemed advisors."
Superman tried not to laugh as he took his place at the table. They were a good team, he thought. Almost as good as the last one. His eyes moved from Quiver, who was calling the meeting to order, to Meera and Midori, who were either side of her. Wonder Woman, who had agreed again to fill in for Martha, sat beside Blitz, their newest member. Wally's daughter was looking intently at the tabletop, where Midori had recently installed an upgraded monitor.
Gren scowled at the group as Quiver turned the meeting over to him. "I'm surrounded by women," he complained.
Superman leaned forward. "Do I look like a woman to you?"
Before Gren could stammer an answer, Blitz announced, "Uh-oh," and a Claxton-like alarm began to bleat. She palmed a switch and the horn went silent. Everyone was on their feet, waiting.
"Marauding robot army," she reported, squinting at the screen. "They just got into some mammoth weapons stores in the middle of Siberia."
Quiver looked across the table at Gren. "Let's go," she said. "Groundhogs on the shuttle."
Midori stopped to give her husband a quick kiss, then raced to join her teammates on the Javelin-13. Gren nodded to Superman and Wonder Woman; they were gone before Roy and Wally could raise their bottles in heartfelt salute.
The players had changed – they would again as the years passed by too quickly for anyone's liking – but the mission endured: Defend the weak, protect the innocent and, occasionally, save the world. It was a straightforward task, but never an easy one. There would always be a price in battered hearts, torn limbs and ended lives.
But it would get done, every time, as long as there was a Justice League.