The snow drifted down slowly and Clark took a moment to take a deep breath of the fresh air before following his father back into the house. He was glad that he had made the decision to come home for Christmas. Everything smelled cleaner, he felt the pressure lifting from his shoulders, and he found himself simply enjoying things for the sake of it. He hadn't realized he'd been so stressed but that was the nature of his job.
"Everything done?" Martha asked the boys as they trooped in, toed off snow covered boots, and hung up wet coats. Clark smiled widely at her.
"Yes, Ma," he said. "Now we just need to finish the pie."
"Here, here," Jonathan agreed. Martha smiled and gestured to the kitchen counter before exiting to the living room where she could watch her Christmas movies on the Lifetime Movie Network. This was her favorite time of year and Clark was glad she was finally taking a moment to breathe and relax.
"How's everything been Dad?" he asked preparing two plates of apple pie for him and his father.
"Same as always," Jonathan replied. "How's that new project you have going on been?"
Clark smiled a little at the thought of that new 'project'. The Justice League had finally been able to move into a more proper headquarters and everything was up and running smoothly.
"Very well," he told his father truthfully, proud of the team in a way he'd never really been proud of something before.
"Everyone works well together then?" Jonathan asked and Clark had a feeling that his father had an answer to his own question before he'd even asked it. He just wanted Clark's personal version of the story.
"I guess," he said, stalling by chewing on a slice of apple. "Everybody has a different style so it can get a little tense. But we all have the same goal in the end."
"Even that one guy? From Gotham?"
"You mean Batman?"
"Is there another guy from Gotham?"
Clark blushed a little but he had honestly been hoping his father had wanted to talk about someone else. Everyone was still uncertain about the Batman. There were so many rumors concerning who he was and what he really did in the back alleys of Gotham. Half the newspapers in the country believed he was just a very brilliant crime boss trying to put his competition out of business. Clark knew better of course but there was still a wariness between them that made working together awkward.
"No, sir," Clark finally responded. "Batman is...well, he's Batman. He's not very easy to get to know."
"Most Gothamites aren't," Jonathan replied. Clark crinkled his eyebrows.
"Do you know someone from Gotham?" he asked, curious. Clark had only ever known his father as a farmer. Sometimes it was good to remember that he hadn't always been like the man Clark knew. He'd been young once. He'd explored.
"Yes, a long time ago in college," Jonathan said. "Some spunky girl from Crime Alley. Going to Metropolis University had been her dream but she talked funny and she said weird things. It was hard for people to get to know her because she never had the patience to explain herself."
"What do you mean?" Clark asked, interested. "What did she say?"
"Just slang," Jonathan elaborated. "Words they used to describe things in Gotham. She was also really defensive of the place. Nobody could ever say a bad word about it or she'd blow a gasket. Sometimes I thought she was obsessed with it. She eventually dropped out and went home."
"Are they really that attached to the place?" Clark asked. He loved his own chosen city quite dearly but he didn't have an obsession with it.
"Mmmhmm," Jonathan hummed and nodded. "The point is son, I want you to be careful around those Gotham people. They've been through a lot and they don't need anyone else making them look any worse than already look."
"Do you like the Batman, Dad?"
"Never met him."
"Just based off of what you know," Clark pressed, "do you think he's a good person?"
"That's a loaded question Clark."
"Because Batman is single handedly trying to save a city so far gone most 'good' peoples wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot-pole. To clean up something that dirty, you have to get a little dirty yourself."
Clark couldn't help but stare at his father in wonderment. Jonathan had always seemed to have a very simple and black and white outlook on justice. He had never imagined that his father's worldview could possibly have an exception. But then Gotham City always did seem to be the exception.
Jonathan was done with the conversation after that and he left his son to his thoughts in the kitchen. Clark must have sat there for at least an hour, pondering everything he knew about Batman and all the frustration he'd felt towards his teammate.
What were Batman's reasons for doing what he did? Clark had never asked and he was pretty sure no one else had either. That was just how it was. Batman was tolerated but he wasn't friends with anyone; he was too uncomfortable to be around.
But Clark was sometimes uncomfortable to be around too, with all that power. It only happened every now and then because he made a legitimate effort to be as friendly as he could but Batman didn't have that luxury. Not if he really did want to clean up Gotham.
Was Batman lonely?
Did he care that he was lonely if he was?
Clark didn't know. He didn't know Batman well enough to say one way or the other.
When his monitor shift rolled around the next week Superman decided he was going to make an actual, honest to god effort to be friendly to Batman. They would be working the shift together. One would monitor the deep space instruments and the other would monitor Earth. Then they would switch every three hours for the next twelve hours. It was tedious and often boring but it had to be done if they were going to do this superhero team thing right.
"Hello," he greeted pleasantly. Batman grunted, his eyes glued to the Earth monitor. Superman automatically took his seat at the bank of computers to Batman's immediate right. "How was your Christmas?"
Batman actually looked up at him. It wasn't because was going to reply, no, it was because he was surprised enough that Superman had even asked him that. The team had been working with each other for over a year and nobody had ever asked Batman questions like these.
"Fine," he said slowly as if the word was unfamiliar to him. He was cautious, unsure where this was going. Superman actually felt sad for him. "How was yours?"
His sentence picked up a little in pace. Batman at least knew how to be polite when he needed to be.
"Great," Superman said, glad that he had an excuse not to look at Batman without seeming like he was blowing him off. "Spent it with my folks."
"It was," Superman continued encouraged by the civil tone Batman was using. "What did you do?"
"I caught a serial killer."
Superman's head whirled around so fast he wasn't sure if it had happened at super-speed or not. Had he heard that correctly?
"What?" he asked.
"I caught a serial killer," Batman repeated and this time Superman could detect an underlying note of pride in his voice. Batman was proud and maybe a bit excited that he had someone to share this news with. "It was a difficult case. Took me twenty years."
"Why did it take you so long?" Superman asked hoping Batman wouldn't think it was a rude question. After all, everyone knew that Batman was probably the best detective they would ever know. Flash was fond of saying that nobody was truly missing until the Batman couldn't find them. He may have meant it as a cute joke but it rang with an uncomfortable truth as well.
"Because he was good and he only hunts on Christmas Eve," Batman said, his shoulders relaxed and his brow less creased. "I worked on it year round of course but the real work always happens on Christmas Eve and even the next day as well."
"So you've spent the last twenty Christmases working on a serial murder case?" Superman asked incredulously. It was so ridiculously Batman that it was actually hard to believe. If Batman had told him that he'd gotten tipsy on eggnog or spent the day with some family, Superman would have been able to swallow that much easier than what he was being told now. Maybe because he actually wanted Batman to just be a jerk and not the isolated genius he appeared to be.
"Yes," Batman said, cutting into his thoughts. "Since I was a boy."
"That's the saddest tradition I've ever heard," Superman told him before he could filter his words. He didn't want to pick a fight.
"I know," the Dark Knight agreed. "But he ran wild in Gotham for twenty years. Now people won't have to worry about it anymore."
The Kryptonian eyed the other man. He couldn't imagine spending twenty years hunting someone. Not to mention doing it on Christmas. It was truly saddening to him that Batman probably didn't have any other holiday traditions.
"So what are you going to do next year for Christmas?" he asked. "Now that your usual case is closed."
"I don't know," Batman replied. "Monitor duty I guess."
"You should spend it with someone," Superman blurted. "I mean, as a real holiday. Take a break for once."
"I don't celebrate anything," the human admitted. Superman's brows crinkled. What did he mean?
"Because there's nothing left to celebrate," he said. He was serious. More serious than Superman had ever seen him.
"What about friends, family, and good times?"
"I don't have any of those."
"Oh c'mon!" Superman exclaimed, suddenly convinced that Batman was playing some dark joke on him. "Even you have to have good times some of the year? Isn't there anything you want to look back on from this year and just revel in it? Isn't there something that just makes you feel home? Or at peace? Something you can be thankful for?"
"What?" he asked excitedly. He wanted to know, truly, what Batman thought about during the year. What brought him peace?
"I caught my serial killer."
Superman pursed his lips in annoyance. It was rather confusing to him, trying to appeal to the humanity of a man who didn't seem to have much left when he himself wasn't human at all.
"Fine," Superman acquiesced. "If you want to do a performance review go ahead. At least it's something."
"Well makes you feel at home?" Batman asked, seemingly trying to understand what Superman was saying to him as much as Superman was trying to understand what Batman was saying. "You're the lone survivor of a dead planet pretending to be human."
"What?" Batman asked, his own brow furrowed in a puzzled expression.
"Apple pie makes me feel at home."
"You're a simpleton at heart, aren't you?"
"Yes, I am," Superman replied a goofy grin on his face. That time it had been easy to tell that Batman was just poking fun at him and not making an overly harsh criticism. It was starting to get easier to speak with him and Superman would later marvel at how remarkably simple it had been to get the man to open up. "But seriously. You should spend the holiday with someone. Make a tradition that doesn't involve murderers. You'll feel better. I promise."
"Well if you promise," Batman replied sarcastically, shaking his head at the monitor.
"Who are you going to spend it with?"
"I don't know," he said. "My family died twenty years ago."
It didn't surprise Superman. He'd figured Batman didn't have anyone but everyone had at least one person they could care about. Didn't they?
"Well it doesn't have to be a family member. It can be anyone you care about, anyone you trust and trusts you back. You have someone like that right?"
"I guess," Batman mumbled. Superman marveled at the fact that the other man seemed to suddenly get a little shy about it.
"See! All it takes is a little effort. And if you really don't have any plans for next Christmas you can always spend it with my me and my family."
"Seriously?" Batman questioned sounding just as guarded and uncertain as he had at the beginning of the conversation. "You would trust me that much?"
"Why not?" Superman said more carelessly than he probably should have. He couldn't help it. His gut was telling him to trust Batman at least a little. There was something good there; even Jonathan Kent knew it all the way from his farmhouse. "We're teammates."
Batman just eyed him. Superman knew the look. He was calculating the risks, the benefits, and everything in between. He just let him do it. Batman would eventually finish with the inner monologue and rejoin him in reality.
"Alright," he finally said. Superman smiled in satisfaction. For some reason it felt as if he'd just won a battle nobody else would. "Are you going to tell me where I'll spending my next Christmas?"
"And deprive you of the satisfaction you'll get from figuring out the identity of the Superman? Who do you think I am? The Grinch?"
If he hadn't had super hearing he never would have heard it but it had happened. A breath of air that escaped so sharply it couldn't have been anything but the beginning of a laugh. He wondered if Batman had a full laugh. If he did, what did it sound like?
"I guess it's on then."
"Luck has nothing to do with it. It's pure skill."
Batman never came that next Christmas. But the Kents had gotten a very nice holiday cheese platter from a company that they could never afford to buy from. Martha had been quite pleased with the gift and immediately started handing out samples of the fancy stuff. Clark didn't much care for most of it.
The card it had come with simply read:
Thanks for the invitation. Something came up.
Clark had known immediately that Bruce Wayne was Batman. It wasn't a big surprise now that he thought of it. He hadn't shown his parents the card not wanting them to be privy to information as dangerous as this. He had torture proof skin; they did not. They were simply satisfied with an explanation that a teammate had sent the gift. He'd then agreed to pass along their thanks.
While they built their little plates of cheese snacks, Clark went into the living room and turned on the news. The story of what was happening in Gotham had made national news. Apparently, the city had traded in a serial killer for an arsonist. A good chunk of the subway was gone and there would be some serious backups to the morning commute but nobody had been killed.
The newscasters were interviewing citizens but no one seemed particularly worried about it.
"Batman will get 'im," one man said. "He's always doing that kind of stuff. Even on Christmas."
Clark smiled to himself. He doubted that man knew exactly how right he was. When they're next monitoring shift came around Superman passed along his message and then proceeded to tell Batman that the invitation was open for next year as well.
"Thanks," was the only reply he ever got.
But by the Dark Knight would never make it to the Kent Farm for Christmas. By the time it had rolled around again Batman had a child under his roof that needed Christmas more the Bruce Wayne needed Batman. And so the man had reportedly drug decades old ornaments from the attic and let the boy decorate a tree.
After that, there wasn't even a reason to extend an invitation to Batman anymore. Because now he didn't spend his Christmases hunting killers, he spent them at home. Just like everybody else.