Characters: BB-era Superman (Clark Kent), Bruce Wayne, off-screen Terry, Ace
Rating: K+ for mentions of death and general bitterness
Warnings: Slight author speculations, slight nods to STAS and JLU. Massive spoilers for BB Out of the Past and brief spoilers and slight time-twisting for The Call. B:RotJ continuity excluded from this oneshot. And yes, I know I'm probably hacking up the BB-JLU Once and Future Thing timeline but it has no bearing on the oneshot, and besides that episode was confusing anyway. :P
Summary: Just after the episode Out of the Past, Bruce has a few days left of life as a middle-aged man before returning to his former age. Terry, concerned about Bruce's continual loneliness throughout the years, finally decides to inform an old friend of the temporary change in the old Batman, and bridges the gap caused by Bruce's severance from the outside world many years ago.
A/N: This involves slight speculation on my part. In The Call, Terry apparently has never met the future Justice League, but he does recognize Superman at the start of the episode. Therefore I think he might have had contact with him prior to The Call. Also, since Terry knew enough about Talia to surprise even Bruce during the earlier episode Out of the Past, then I think he would have also read about the clash between Ra's al-Ghul and Superman in the STAS episode The Demon Reborn, and might have decided that Superman would want to know the traumatic story told in OotP.
The rest is just my inner fangirl wanting closure, and something of a happy ending to those bitter later years in the Batman's life. /rambling
His first indication that something was wrong was when Ace's head slowly lifted off his knee. An inquiring whine filled the blue-and-purple of the half-lit cave, but the dog wasn't growling, snarling, or even moving away from his side. Probably just a bat, then. Or Barbara, come to chew him out for Terry's latest escapade with Zeta. "What is it, boy?"
Wurrrf! Sniffing the air, the dog stood with tail uplifted, twitching like a flyswatter about to pounce on a wandering insect.
Then he heard the stealthy movement in the shadows just behind him, and in two seconds he realised both that Terry had left the clock door open upstairs, and that someone was down here – and Barbara knew better than to sneak up on him; Dick never came down the steps, just hollered from the top of them; and Tim…well, he and Tim were still on shaky ground, and hadn't gotten past an occasional phone call yet.
However his attack hound wasn't growling, and the stiff black hairs on the back of the dog's neck was still perfectly flat; curious, not defensive.
But Bruce's reflexes were quicker than this last observation, and the batarang with which he'd been practicing sliced the air into shreds. A large hand reached out, caught it, and then tossed it harmlessly to clatter on the stone floor.
Ace whuffed and, tail wagging, took a few steps forward.
"Well, you know what they say about dogs and children," came an amused voice out of the shadows.
He collapsed back into his chair at the sound of a voice he hadn't heard in almost a year. "Clark?"
"Yeah," came a slightly sheepish mutter, and a figure floated slowly into the blueish light. Tail thumping on the floor, Ace whined and pawed at the edge of a now-black uniform. Superman smiled and bent to pat the dog's head.
He gripped the chair-arms with both hands. "What are you doing here?"
"Would you believe me if I said I was just in the neighborhood?"
"No." He punched the communicator. "McGinnis!"
"Hel-lo. Yeah, boss?" Terry drawled through the link.
"What did you do to the Cave's intruder sensors?!"
"Who, me? I can't even figure out how to print my social studies homework off the computer down there."
"Don't be cute with me."
"I'm the Batman. I don't do cute."
The voice sounded so exactly like a younger Bruce's signature growl that Superman had to hide a laugh behind his hand. He ducked the look of death Bruce sent him as easily as he had ducked the batarang, and hastily lowered his grin back to the dog whose ears he was scratching.
"Funny." He glared at the link, even though it was only audio-feed for now. "You've got some explaining to do when you –"
"Uh-huh, sure – Woah!" Static crackled for a second, along with one of those teenaged near-profanities that he still had no idea how to spell. "Wonderful. Shriek again. So you two have a nice visit, ok?"
"McGinnis…" he drew out the syllables through clenched teeth, but the link had been shut off on the other end. The boy was more than capable now, and he would be the first to admit it – but he still never liked that significant moment when he relinquished full control of the suit, the Batmobile, and a young life, into another person's less-experienced hands.
"He's good, Bruce," Clark observed quietly from behind him. Moving to perch on the edge of the counter, he made sure to stay at a safe distance from Bruce's oversized personal space bubble.
"He's young, and inexperienced, and cocky." Like Dick had been…
He shook his head to get rid of a memory, even if it was pleasant, and folded his arms across his chest. "What are you doing here, Kent? I specifically told you and everyone else that I didn't want –"
"I know, I know!" Clark held both hands up defensively. "But just hear me out, will you? Then if you want me to leave, I'll leave, I promise. Deal?"
His head jerked upward in a curt nod. Something wet nuzzled his hand, and he looked down into mournful doggie eyes; the canine could sense the tension between the two men, one of whom he knew he could trust on sight (so why couldn't his master?), and didn't like the hostility.
Clark watched Bruce's eyes soften as he rubbed the dog's head, and waited a minute to speak. "Bruce, I know you asked us all not to visit you anymore those years ago…" he began quietly. The words rang through the silence of the cave, dislodging a bat or two, and a few ghosts of the past…
"You…you can't be serious, Bruce!"
"I'm deathly serious," he snapped as strongly as he was able. "I don't want you or anyone else to –"
"Bruce, your blood pressure!" Clark had exclaimed, holding out a hand as if to physically stop the increasingly emotional tirade.
When he'd come to visit Bruce Wayne in hospital, having flown back all the way from a different solar system the moment he'd been contacted about the heart attack, he had certainly not expected to be greeted with bitter commands for him to leave, and not come back – ever.
The hurt in those wide eyes was what stopped Bruce's angry venting, not the fact that medically he could not afford to exert the stress. "Clark, listen…" he sighed. "It…it isn't you, or anything you've done, just –"
"What, do you think I'm going to see you as weak, just because you pushed yourself over the edge into a heart attack?" Kent demanded furiously. "You should know me better than that!"
He did, of course. "I –"
"Or is it that stupid pride you can't seem to get rid of, and you just don't want me to watch you get older? Is that it? Thinking only about yourself, again?"
He winced, because that had hit the nail of truth on the head, and driven the last one into the coffin with super-force. Clark's eyes, blurrily burning with indignation and hurt, seared into his memory and remained for months afterwards – but right now, he only closed his own against what he'd done, knowing it was for the best, for all of them.
He opened his eyes again when the comforting presence left his bedside. Superman stood by the open window, looking back at him from a ray of far-too-cheerful sunlight. "Someday, Bruce," Clark said in a low voice, "you're going to regret pushing away every last person in your life who loves you."
Now that he already knew, but had long ago blown any chance of recovering the majority of the damage. "Clark…"
Broad shoulders slumped, and Superman looked away from the bed. "I'm glad you're okay," he whispered, and flew away without another word, back into the sky and back toward the two warring planets he'd left mid-battle in the other solar system.
He followed Bruce's wishes, as he always had, and never visited; and they didn't speak again until nearly two years later, when Dick Grayson convinced him to call the old man on his birthday. They'd patched things up, but it had never been quite the same after that…
"I never agreed with your reasons, you know."
"And that's supposed to matter to me how?"
Kent's eyes flashed a dark red for a minute. "Darn it, Bruce, can't you get it through your head that I don't care how old you get, it doesn't change anything?"
"It changes everything!" he rumbled, and the dog whimpered by his feet, laying a dark head on one shoe. "You're a near-immortal. I wouldn't expect you to understand the reasons."
"Maybe I don't," Clark agreed heatedly. One large hand clenched on the edge of the counter, and it creaked in protest. "But I don't think you've ever thought of anyone's side but your own in this; do you think I want to watch you or anyone else grow old and die, alone and bitter like you are now? You always enjoyed being the loner – I don't! But I will be, in the end," he finished sadly, watching Ace's ears twitching back and forth between the speakers. His voice dropped to a reverential whisper. "We're the only ones left, Bruce. Wally…John and Shayera…Alfred…" Here he quieted even further, his voice hitching in the back of his throat. "…Lois…even Diana. We're all that's left, you and I."
Bruce turned his chair to face the monitor and not those sad blue eyes that brought another, gentler, pair into his mind, and bowed his head in resignation. "I know."
"Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
"It means things change. People change. They move on. They die." Even he couldn't believe how flat and chilled his voice was, and the dog cocked a disapproving ear in his direction. "Nothing can fix that…" He swallowed, forced the admittance of his recent activities into the open. "Nothing that's morally right, anyway."
Soft footsteps behind his chair. A hand that could bend titanium into taffy strings resting so gently on his shoulder he barely felt it through his suit. "Terry told me about Ra's...and what happened this week." He clenched the armrests again, but didn't try to break free of Superman's grip. "You did the right thing, you know, ending those Lazarus pits. But then," and Clark's voice softened, "you always did the right thing, somehow."
"You did where it mattered, Bruce." He looked up to see Clark smiling sadly down at Ace, and knew they both were thinking of the disturbed little girl whose name he'd given to his last remaining friend, the only one he would allow to see him growing old and absent-minded and slow.
But he didn't like reliving the past, any of it. The present and his nightmares were painful enough without dredging the pond of memory up during the waking hours. "Is that the only reason you're here, Kent? Moral reassurance that I'm not going to try something like this again?"
Superman sighed. "That isn't it at all, and you know it," he replied, voice sorrowful and pensive. Bruce turned the chair to face him, steepling his fingers together. "I just thought that…well, with you being so much younger now for a few days at least…that you might agree to let me visit you, that's all." Clark shrugged, eyeing him for any response save that cold, impassive glare – the mask of the Batman, despite a lack of physical material between their gazes.
"It's not like I have the power to stop you," he growled at length, and pulled up a map of Gotham to check the progress of emergency vehicles to his young student's location with Shriek.
"And…I promised Terry I'd try to get you out of this cave for a few hours," Clark added after a few moments of silence broken only by Ace's quizzical whines and the beeping of monitors. "He's worried about you, Bruce."
"I don't need anyone worrying about me. And I'm not going anywhere. So get that through your impenetrable head, and tell Terry to mind his own business." He viciously punched in coordinates for a break-in at the Gotham Aerodrome and sent them to the Batmobile.
Silence. Then the saddest sigh he had ever heard in his life, and a quiet "All right, Bruce, if that's the way you really want it."
In the reflection of the slightly dusty screen (how he missed Alfred more every day!), he saw Superman's shoulders slump. The Man of Steel hovered for a moment in the air, opened his mouth to say something, and then apparently changed his mind, wheeling dejectedly toward the stairs up to the Manor.
Ace left Bruce's feet, whimpering and tail drooping, to follow a few paces and send a protesting bark after the retreating shadow. Great. Even the dog was on Kent's side.
He whirled around in his chair. "Clark."
Superman paused, halfway to the glass cases holding the old costumes of those long-dead golden years. "Yeah?"
To his surprise, he found it wasn't as hard to get the nerve to say it as he had thought it would be. "I…I'm sorry." And more surprisingly, he really was, for more than just that last remark, or the last one of so many years ago.
Clark was so shocked he dropped back to the ground with a thump that caused a small earthquake in the Carolinas and toppled the glass case holding Penguin's umbrella. Ace barked in mild alarm and dashed to fetch the souvenir, placing it carefully on a nearby table so Master Terry could fix it when he returned.
The side of Bruce's mouth twitched, as if going to slide into a smirk but not quite making it due to a lack of practice. "Nice going."
A half-hesitant chuckle. "…Sorry."
"Mmhm." It still amused him how the Boy Scout could blush so sheepishly, and so easily. "Well, sit down or something. You're giving me a pain in the neck having to look up at you."
That was another thing that still intrigued him – even in the velvet darkness of the cave, and despite the change of costume from that awful red-and-blue into the more sedate black-and-white, no one could light up a room with pure happiness like Clark could. The man was like a walking sunburst, and Bruce suddenly realized how much he had missed working in the daylight after the days of the old Justice League had come to an end.
He blinked in amusement as Clark absently pulled up a large chunk of unused cave wall and perched on it while he returned to checking on Terry's vitals – still strong, and he was halfway across town. Good, that meant Shriek was in custody.
"So…" he heard Clark gulp awkwardly, and then continue, "you look…good, Bruce."
"Thanks," he replied dryly.
"I mean…well, I'm curious. How does it feel?"
"Good," he admitted grudgingly. Too good. "But it's wrong."
"I don't think so, not if it's temporary." Clark's voice was gentle, and soothing to his irritated conscience. "You deserve a break as much as the rest of us. Deserve it more, actually."
He looked sideways at his oldest friend and teammate for a moment. He felt the kindly ghost of a cowl appear over his eyes and nose, and then sighed as the familiar sensation flitted away as quickly as it had come. "It won't last more than a few days."
"But in those few days?"
He paused, finger on a keypad. "What are you driving at, Clark?"
Squirming slightly, the retired newspaper reporter broke off a small chunk of rock to fiddle with. "Just that…well, I'd have thought you would be out there doing something, not sitting here moping in the dark. You've got the rest of your life to do this."
He tossed the pebble, and Ace dashed after it, barking delightedly.
"I think that would raise some attention, don't you?" Sarcasm was his one weapon that had improved with age, and he wielded it to its most extreme potential. "Wandering around Gotham looking thirty years younger than I'm supposed to be?"
"Maybe…unless you went somewhere no one would know you were Bruce Wayne. Good boy, good boy!" Clark added with an almost childish smile, patting Ace's head as the dog leapt up with his front paws on the boulder to drop the pebble in Clark's lap.
"No. I'm needed in Gotham." He leaned back, watching the flashing pinpoints on the monitor that told him where Terry was stopping and for how long.
Superman hopped off the boulder, and sent it down into the cavernous depths of the Batcave with a small nudge. "Then stay in Gotham, but get out of the cave for a little while, Bruce. Go do something, or go somewhere. You know you want to take advantage of this. I'm surprised you're not in that old suit over there, booting the kid for an evening or two."
That he wanted to was true enough, though he would never admit it. "You know this isn't my city now; it's Terry's. And I told you, I can't. If I'm recognized it would be all over the tabloids."
"You were often enough in the old days," Clark dead-panned mischievously, with one wiggling eyebrow.
He received the famed Bat-glare, which unfortunately for Bruce no longer intimidated anyone who knew him well and/or cared about him enough to look past it (Dick had only laughed the last time, darn him). "Funny."
Clark looked at him for a minute with those impossible eyes, sympathetic and sad and nostalgic and caring all at once, and then offered him one of his old Metropolis-poster-boy smiles of brilliance. "Well then," he suggested quietly, hovering about a foot off the stone floor, "since your heart can stand the strain now…would you like to go flying for a little while?"
He bit down on his first instinctive response, which was a resounding NO. Because…once more in his mind he could picture Gotham from the air, as he had so many years ago: the downtown at night, the rush, the freedom that came with his suit and his plane, in those years that now were only remembered in history discs and by people like him and the man waiting patiently in mid-air for his decision.
The cave resounded with a small clang as he leaned his cane against the counter. He pocketed a communicator in case the Batman of this new Gotham had an emergency.
And then he looked up at Clark's outstretched hand, half-smiled, and finally took it.
Across Gotham City, zooming under a bridge after a group of joyriding Jokerz, Terry McGinnis grinned and finally switched off his comm-link for the night. Max had called his subterfuge underhanded manipulation, and to that crime he'd just added shameless eavesdropping.
But, after all, those were trademarks of the Batman.
And he was the Batman.