A/N: A story I seem to have forgotten to post... For any Supernatural fans, this one's based on the episode "What is and What Should Never Be." Although I think there was an episode in Batman: The Animated Series similar to this.
Bruce Wayne woke up to the smell of pancakes and sausage. He breathed in deeply, savoring the delicious aromas. The air was chilly and he felt goosebumps rising up on his skin as he swung his legs over the side of the bed, remembering to move slowly to avoid painful reminders of last night's patrol. He stretched gingerly, and allowed himself a relieved smile when there were barely any aches.
"Bruce!" someone called from downstairs and his vision went slightly grey on the edges.
Bruce was still frozen, staring at the doorway, eyes wide when the door opened and his mother walked in.
At the table, Bruce drank his coffee and ate his pancakes mechanically, mind whirling in a heady mix of fear and anger and uncertainty. His parents watched with concerned expressions on their faces, as if he was the one acting strange, as if he wasn't the one who had just had his world turned upside down. His parents. Bruce closed his eyes and felt his heart trembling in his chest, pounding fit to burst. Distantly, he wondered whether Clark would hear it all the way in Metropolis, pick it out from the rhythmic beats of millions of others. Then he realized that his dead parents had apparently come back to life and he was thinking about Superman listening in on his heartbeat. He felt a giddy, hysterical laugh bubbling up from somewhere deep inside him.
"Bruce?" his mother asked, putting a warm, slender hand on his. He almost recoiled at the touch, but restrained himself just in time; there was no point giving away that he was onto them, onto whoever had conjured up this sick, cruel, beautiful fantasy. He let himself relax, pretend to take comfort from her touch, even while his stomach churned. How could he hate and love this person, whatever this thing was, so much?
"Are you finished, Master Bruce?" Alfred suddenly materialized near him. Bruce realized he was talking about his half-eaten plate.
"Yes, yes," he said, distracted. How much did Alfred know? Was he even the real Alfred? Bruce hated to admit it, but he was out of his depths. He needed to talk to Clark. If anyone had experience with strange worlds and alternate universes, it was Superman.
There was no Cave.
Bruce stared blankly at the hidden door that refused to open for him. A terrifying thought occurred to him and he ran for a computer, because in this world, he carried no comlink or communicator in case of emergencies even at breakfast.
In this world, he wasn't Batman, he realized, as he scrolled frantically through pages of news articles. The JLA existed, with all of its members minus Batman.
Bruce breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the grainy photo of Superman, eyes aflame and fists clenched, standing his ground before a massive robot that held a car in each of its three hands, feeling the visual reassurance settle in his heart. Yes, Clark would know what to do.
He reached for the phone and dialed Clark's office number from memory. "Daily Planet, Clark Kent speaking," Clark's voice came through.
Bruce hesitated for a second, as it occurred to him that this Clark might not be real either. He lowered his voice into Batman's growl. "Do you know who I am?"
There was a long pause from the other end. "...No?" Clark said. "Who is this?"
Bruce shut his eyes for a second. "Never mind," he said, so quietly that it was almost incomprehensible, but he knew Clark could hear him anyways.
His parents insisted that they spend the rest of the morning together, before "the company stole him away again," as his father put it.
"What?" Bruce asked before he could stop himself.
His father laughed. "Don't tell me you've forgotten about Wayne Enterprises!" he teased.
"Let's hurry up and get him out the door before his memory comes back," his mother suggested with a smile. Bruce allowed himself to be towed out the door to the waiting car.
The man who drove the three of them to the park was a stranger. Bruce wanted to know who he was but thought it would be strange if he were to ask. He couldn't even remember the last time they'd kept staff.
They took a stroll around the park, enjoying the sunlight and the sounds of children playing. a boy tossed a Frisbee to his dog, who ran and caught it with a leap, inciting delighted claps from the boy's little sister.
"Commissioner Gordon!" his father said, spotting the man playing catch with his daughter and son.
"Mr. Wayne," Gordon said politely but warmly, shaking the proffered hand. He smiled at Bruce's mother and shook hands with Bruce as well.
"I've had a thought about the new training school," Bruce's father said to Gordon, drawing him aside.
Bruce turned to his mother. "Training school?" he asked.
"Oh, Bruce," she said fondly. "We told you about this just yesterday! I'm not surprised you don't remember though, what with you so busy all the time. I swear, your father never put in the hours you do!"
"I...work all the time?" Bruce asked, disbelieving. If he could have his parents back he would spend all the time he could with them. Then he realized that he could do that in this world and felt a confusion sweep over him.
"Yes, dear," his mother said, still smiling as if nothing was wrong. "The company is doing quite well, I must say. Your father made the right decision when he passed it on to you." she touched his cheek. "We're so very proud of you."
Bruce felt himself trembling at the words. Then-
"Watch out!" and his hand reached out and he snatched the ball going straight for Gordon's face out of the air without looking.
Barbara ran up and he handed it to her. "Sorry dad!" she said, and Gordon just frowned, shaking his head a little. "Nice catch!" she said to Bruce cheerfully, running back to where her brother was standing with baseball glove in hand. Bruce watched her go, uncomfortably aware that his parents and Gordon were all staring at him.
"I didn't know you played baseball, Mr. Wayne," Gordon said, but Bruce knew he was actually saying, "I didn't know you could do anything," because it was the same tone he used when Brucie engaged him in conversation at his parties or charity events. It had never bothered him before; but now it stung.
"Yes well," he said, shrugging. "Adrenaline, I suppose."
In the ensuing silence, Bruce's father invited Gordon and his family to join them in their picnic. "Laura always packs too much anyway," Bruce's mother explained gaily, overriding Gordon's protests.
Bruce suppressed the "Who?" before it left his lips. He doubted that Gordon would look at him more favorably if he voiced that question aloud. In any case, he was the world's greatest detective and he could surely figure these things out for himself. For now though, he would choose his questions wisely and pretend to enjoy himself.
By the time his father had looked at his watch and exclaimed, "My god, Bruce, don't you have a meeting in half an hour?" Bruce had long since stopped pretending. He regretfully stood up from where he was sitting on the blanket with his back to a massive tree trunk listening to Barbara tell him about what she wanted to be when she grew up. And by the time he got back to Wayne Manor, he was doubting his determination to find out what was wrong with this world.
Because quite honestly, unlike his own, there was not much wrong with this Bruce Wayne's life.
When Bruce returned to the Manor after a long, boring Board meeting, he was met by a frantic Alfred at the door. "What is it?" he said sharply, alarmed. His mind flicked from another mass breakout from Arkham to an alien invasion.
Alfred looked confused at the tone. "Are you feeling out of sorts, Master Bruce?" he asked.
Bruce shook his head, remembering that he was in an alternate reality. This Alfred didn't know he was Batman, he realized, heart sinking as he crossed another name off his list he trusted. "Sorry Alfred, long day." He forced a smile. "What is it?"
"The dinner starts in ten minutes," Alfred said. "Your parents have already left. I think it best you put on the suit I have laid out for you and join them."
"Right, yeah. It completely slipped my mind!" Bruce ran up the stairs to his bedroom, where Alfred had indeed prepared an outfit for him. He shrugged off his business suit and into the new suit even though he wanted to collapse on his bed and hope that when he woke up, the world would make sense again. He didn't know how much more of this he could take.
The same man who had taken them to the park that morning drove Bruce to the restaurant. "Thanks," Bruce said awkwardly, belatedly remembering that he still didn't know the man's name. The man just nodded and drove off though, so maybe he didn't think Bruce was acting much different from usual. Bruce took a deep breath and walked into the restaurant, smoothing his rumpled tie as he went.
Bruce sucked in a sharp breath when a waiter ushered him to their table on the roof of the restaurant and he saw who was sitting with his parents. Superman. A Superman who didn't know him. As well as dozens of others of Gotham's elite. A charity dinner then. Bruce felt the beginning of a headache starting up.
"Ah Bruce," his father said, spotting him.
"Sorry I'm late," Bruce said. "The company—"
"It's fine. We know how important the company is to you," his mother said, smiling. Bruce felt his heart constrict painfully as he looked at her, radiant in a simple but elegant white dress, wearing the pearls from the day of her murder. He suppressed a shudder.
"Mr. Wayne," Superman said, standing up to shake his hand.
"Superman," Bruce greeted, taking the hand automatically.
"Bruce!" a woman cried. "We thought you would never arrive!"
"Well, I'm here now," Bruce said, smiling blandly, searching through his memory to see if he knew her in his world, but coming up with a blank. He took the empty seat next to the woman and across from Superman.
"Have you thought about what we talked about last time?" the woman said, leaning in close.
"Uh—" Bruce began, desperately trying to think of something to distract her with, but he needn't have bothered, as she didn't bother waiting for a response before launching into a story involving several names Bruce had never heard of. He listened with a half an ear while keeping a close eye on Superman.
Bruce felt a wave of rage sweep over him when he heard the casual exclamations of horror and disgust about the crime and poverty levels in Gotham from the wealthy businessmen, the heiresses glittering with diamonds, the movie stars. No matter how many times he heard it, had to pretend to be one of them, it never got any better. Up here in the extravagant settings against a starry sky, it was easy to speak of the poverty and criminals that plagued Gotham.
And in this world, he was one of these people. One of these useless, pointless cream of society who understood nothing. Superman looked at all of them with the same politely bland gaze. Bruce looked down at his own plate and stopped watching the Man of Steel after that; for some reason, he felt ashamed.
"I really appreciate you all coming to this dinner," Superman said. "The money raised will greatly benefit the children in need here."
There was applause after that statement, as people hastened to shake Superman's hand and tell him how thankful they were to be able to help their fellow Gothamites with falsely sympathetic smiles.
Suddenly Superman stood up, eyes distant. "I'm sorry," he told them. "I have to go; there's a situation." Bruce felt his heart leap with adrenaline, before he remembered that he wasn't Batman in this world. Superman flew off without a second glance.
The dinner continued on without pause after Superman left, but Bruce couldn't stand it anymore. He stood up, excusing himself from the table. The woman who had been talking at him nonstop for the past hour looked put out while his mother looked at him worriedly but didn't say anything.
He turned on the news when he returned home. "—an explosion. Several people are injured, with two dead. The Justice League is at the scene, helping to clear up the wreckage in the hopes of finding people still alive," the reporter was saying when he switched on the news.
"My word," Alfred exclaimed when he walked in and saw the footage. "Terrible, terrible," he said and continued dusting the furniture. Bruce put his head in his hands until a horrifying thought struck him. He calmly turned off the television and went to his office, pulling up Google.
"No..." he whispered, staring at the images and old obituaries in the newspapers. He had saved these people. The woman wearing the red and white striped scarf, victim of a mugging. The little boy who had been kidnapped while he was playing in the street. The visiting diplomat who had been the target of an assassination. Bruce felt a wave of vertigo sweep through him at the conflict in the news articles and his memories. These people were still alive in his world because no matter how dark the shadows got in Gotham, Batman was also there, little more than a shadow himself, to bring justice even to the twisted alleys and winding streets.
There was no Batman in this world. Bruce pushed his chair away from the desk and felt a wave of nausea.
Bruce had the nameless driver take him to the site of his parents' graves late after he had forced himself to stop looking up the names of all the people he had ever saved. It was all in the past and there was nothing he could do to change it. There had never been a day when Bruce had visited his parents' graves when he hadn't wished them to still be alive; now the small rosebush growing where their gravestones had been seemed to mock him. He felt a tide of emotion engulf him at the sight so that he wanted to scream at the sky. If he had been Superman, he would have incinerated the rosebush, he thought. Except if he was Superman, he wouldn't be having these thoughts. These forbidden thoughts, questions that he refused to allow himself to ask. But now they came tearing through his mental shields as an unstoppable force, and he realized with a detached sense of horror that he was weeping.
"Why—" he began, but he couldn't bring himself to finish the question, the question that had been burning in his heart and being ever since the day that had shattered his life. The question that he had never, ever once allowed himself to voice.
The words sprang to his lips again, but he ruthlessly locked it away and dragged a hand roughly across his face. There was no point in asking himself this.
He had been standing in front of the rosebush for awhile when someone coughed behind him. He whirled.
"Are you alright Mr. Wayne?" Superman asked, head tilted. His eyes flicked to the rosebush that Bruce was standing over and his brow furrowed slightly.
"I'm fine," Bruce said stiffly and realized he was shivering with cold. How long had it been? Then he remembered the dinner earlier and Superman's abrupt departure. "The explosion?"
"Cleared up as best it could be," Superman said, looking exhausted. "I looked at the case the police had been putting together on the people responsible and all the evidence was there! It's just…" he trailed off, looking frustrated.
I understand, Bruce wanted to say, but the words stuck in his throat. "So why're you here?" he asked instead.
"Oh. I was flying back to Metropolis and I didn't want..." Superman trailed off and then took a step back, looking awkward. "Never mind. Sorry for the intrusion." Bruce grabbed his wrist as he made to take off, taking Superman by surprise by the way his eyes widened.
"What is it?"
"Dinner tonight. You intrigued me," Superman admitted.
"Really," Bruce said flatly. What in the vapid, useless playboy act had intrigued this Superman, who didn't even know Batman?
"Your heartbeat," he explained. "You weren't pretending like the rest of them. I guess I just wanted to talk to someone who understood."
Bruce frowned. "What about the rest of the League?"
Superman laughed shortly. "You know we're not really a team right? We just work together sometimes. The media labeled us the Justice League and all that."
"Well why don't you form a team then?" Bruce asked. "It would make more sense to combine resources. That way no one has to stand alone against threats."
"You would think so, don't you?" Superman sighed. "It's not that easy though."
"Nothing about doing this is easy," Bruce said sharply. "But you don't have to make it more difficult for yourself."
Superman looked at him oddly, and Bruce realized he had no right to talk to Superman like that in this reality.
"You're a good man, Mr. Wayne," he said instead of rebuking Bruce. Bruce snorted. "It's true," he insisted.
Bruce hesitated for a moment. "This might seem like an odd question," he said and Superman laughed.
"I think I've heard every strange question there is. Go for it."
"Do you believe in parallel realities?"
Superman was quiet. Then he said, "What do you mean?"
"Do you believe that you could just wake up one day, in a whole new life? One where you had everything you ever wanted?"
Superman, who had been listening intently, shakes his head sharply at that. "No," he said. "I don't think so. I've travelled to parallel universes and all that, but a world like what you just described? I doubt it. Although…"
"Yes?" Bruce prompted him.
"There were these aliens," Superman said. "I'd heard about them, but I don't remember their names. I think they had gone extinct, actually. They were parasites. They'd go to other planets and hide there, taking people and sucking the life out of them. And to stop their victims from escaping or struggling, they'd cast a spell that would make the victim believe they were living in a completely different life. Like an extended dream."
Bruce frowned. That sounded familiar. Vague ideas began to take shape in his head. What had he been doing before he had woken up this morning? He certainly hadn't gone to sleep… He had been at one of Wayne Enterprises warehouses. But not as Bruce Wayne.
"Thanks for the chat, Superman," Bruce said. "But I really must be going now."
"Want a lift?" Superman asked and Bruce hesitated a moment before shrugging.
The Waynes didn't keep guns in the Manor, so Bruce grabbed a knife and slipped it into his boot. Since he couldn't find any street clothes to let himself fit in better, he needed to be able to defend himself. And if his suspicions were correct, he would need the knife very soon.
The first thugs that tried to mug him ended up unconscious and stashed in an alley somewhere, one of them minus his clothes. Bruce didn't attract glances after that.
At the warehouse, he picked the lock and slipped inside. As this was a mostly unused one, the security on it wasn't very tight. He paced around the wide cement floor, looking at the dusty crates. A naked light bulb flickered in a corner. Bruce walked over to it, keeping a sharp eye on his surroundings.
He stood directly below it and looked up. It looked so familiar…
He stumbled backwards as a sight assaulted him, too vivid to be a memory. The same lightbulb, still hanging above him. And yet it was different.
He slipped the blade of his boot, studied it and then the light bulb. He pressed it to his wrist.
"Bruce?" his mother said, looking horrified. Bruce jumped and cut himself a little. Blood dripped onto the floor. He narrowed his eyes at her.
"Easy there, Bruce," his father said gently, holding his hands up. "Let's just talk this through now."
"There's nothing to talk about," Bruce said wearily. "You're not real."
They exchanged a look and Superman stepped out of the shadows.
"Is this because of what we talked about?" Superman said, eyes wide with guilt and Bruce was moving the blade away before he realized what he was doing.
He shifted it so that he could feel the edge of it through the thin fabric of his shirt covering his heart.
"This is a dream, and when you die in a dream, you wake up," Bruce explained to them, not able to completely ignore the small gasp of horror his mother made at the motion. "Don't worry."
Superman's expression changed. "Why couldn't you just let it be, Bruce?" he asked sadly. "Why couldn't you just accept it? You were happy here, could have had the life you should have had, one of love and happiness. Your parents would have been alive, Bruce. Alive! The one thing you've always wished for above all else in the deepest part of your heart. You wouldn't have had been so alone here."
Bruce smiled slightly. "I'm not alone, Kal," he said softly, watching Superman shiver as he said his real name. "I won't let you be alone either."
And for the first and last time, Superman didn't reach out to save a person who needed saving, merely standing there watching as Bruce plunged the knife into his own heart.
Bruce opened his eyes to find the same pair of bright blue eyes staring at him worriedly. "Kal," he breathed, before Superman could say anything.
"Are you alright?' Concern flitted over his face before it settled on a frown.
"Better than fine," Bruce said, his voice a dry croak, and shocking Clark by grinning widely, even as his heart broke, despite his very real happiness, at the life that could have been his but never could be. Because this one was real, and this one had the potential for something greater.
"Something greater," Bruce repeated quietly aloud, and Clark quickly broke the chains that bound Batman. He carefully scooped him up in his arms, carefully wrapping his cape around Bruce.
He floated there for a moment, trying to decide whether to take him to Alfred or the Fortress. The Fortress would be better, he decided. He didn't like the look of those bloody runes painted on the floor where Batman had been chained.
He called Alfred as soon as he arrived at the Fortress, letting him know that Bruce was safe. "I knew I could count on you, Master Clark," Alfred said, which was all the thanks that Clark could ever accept for saving Bruce's life.
"Oh Bruce," he said in annoyed exasperation. "Why don't you ever tell anyone about what you're up to? You scared Alfred half to death." He looked at Bruce but he was still unconscious. "You scared me half to death," he said quietly.
He ran a scan on Bruce and read Bruce's files on the creature that he had been following while it worked. "He is healthy," the computer proclaimed. "If he managed to break the effects of the spell himself, he should suffer no ill effects. Scans indicate minor dehydration and malnourishment."
Right on cue, Bruce groaned and tried to sit up. Clark was there in a flash, pushing him back down. "Don't strain yourself. You've been out for awhile and I don't think you're up for anything just yet."
Bruce obediently lay back and closed his eyes. "Exactly," Clark murmured, amused.
He set up an IV drip and then alerted the rest of the League that Batman had been found.
The spell that Bruce had been under let him think he was living his ideal life. That must have been that his parents had been still alive. How had Bruce managed to find the strength to break free of that? Clark didn't think that he would have been able to snap out of a spell that let him live in a Krypton that had never died. To have his planet back, to see his parents again…
And yet…and yet he never would have been Superman then, would never have come to Earth and saved people. Would never have met Bruce.
Clark smiled slightly and listened to the reassuring beats of Bruce's heart, knowing that he had everything he could wish for with him right now.