Superman hovered on the outskirts of the city, watching from afar the familiar silhouette of Wayne Manor high up on the hill. He didn’t fly into the estate, not yet, even if it was probable that Bruce already knew he was here.
He had been here that night too, after the League had taken care of Arkham’s inmates. Once they had been relocated Clark flew away without a word, but he was sure everyone had known where he was headed.
Clark had hovered outside the Manor then as he heard Bruce’s heartbreaking sobs mixed with Alfred’s quiet weeping.
Look through the walls showed him a crude picture; Bruce had dropped to his knees just a few feet away from the plane, his son’s dead body cradled tightly in his arms as he murmured apologies into Dick’s dark hair. The domino mask lying on the floor at his side.
With a lump in his throat, he flew away to search for Catwoman instead of flying into the cave and dropping to his knees at Bruce’s side, telling him how sorry he was over and over.
Selina showed up in the Manor twenty minutes later, and he knew that before he had been there, watching. She arrived just seconds before he broke into the cave to stop Bruce from hurting himself further with the wooden post he had been hitting. Clark followed her every move, hearing her short talk with Alfred before she walked down to the cave.
The Kryptonian heard her call Bruce’s name; watched as she pried him away from the bloody post and hugged him tightly as he crumble to the ground. He flew away then, heading toward the Fortress and his parents.
Three days had passed since that night, and he wasn’t planning to stay outside this time. He was even surprised when he found no obstacles as he flew inside.
“What are you doing here?” Batman growled without turning around, voice hoarse.
Clark landed softly, red boots touching down on the dusty ground of the cave. “I came to see how you’re doing.”
There was no answer from the man watching the bank of monitors before him- Not that Clark had expected there to be. He crossed the distance that still separated them with slow but firm steps and came to a stop only a couple of feet away behind Bruce’s chair, just like the last time he had been here.
“I’m very sorry about what happened to Dick,” Clark winced a little. His voice was too loud in the silent cave. “I know it’s not the same, but he was special for me too. He was special for everyone in the League.” The corner of Clark’s lips curled up briefly. The small, bittersweet smile was gone before it even formed.
“Is that all?”
Clark swallowed hard, watching only the back of Bruce’s head covered by the cowl. The rasp of Bruce’s voice was almost painful to hear. It lacked the power and deep cadence of Batman’s usual growl. Instead, it was just a hollow and muted whisper.
He had thought that after losing almost everything he loved he couldn’t hurt more, but he had been wrong.
He had watched Dick grown up from a mischievous, bright little boy, with his easy smiles and cartwheels into a fine young man, his kind spirit and bravery growing even stronger, just as his desire to help others did. Clark had always thought of him as his little nephew and now, his death added yet another layer to the pain he had been living with since he lost his family and his city.
See Bruce’s raw pain made him want to reach out to him, to hug his friend and comfort him, but also receive the solace he so desperately needed.
He did none of that.
“No. No, it’s not. I- The League is going to hold a memorial in his honor. Nothing public, just members of the League would be present in the Watchtower. I thought maybe you would like to come.”
Batman turned his head slightly to the side, letting the Kryptonian see his profile and catch a glimpse of the growth of stubble on his face. “I’m not part of the League.”
“I know,” Clark replied after a pause. It wasn’t easy to hear him say that even now. “But this is the least Dick deserves. I think you should be there.”
Once again, there was no reply. Batman simply turned his head away and toward the monitors.
“It’s tomorrow afternoon. Unless you’d like to suggest another time.”
Clark looked down. He didn’t need Bruce to say the words to know he wasn’t planning to come. He knew him too well to hear the unspoken decision. A part of him had even known this was the most likely answer he was going to get with everything that was going on.
Diana’s silent look before he left had told him the same.
He knew he was taking controversial decisions and acting harshly, and he even could respect Bruce’s decision not to take part in any of it, even if he could not understand it. Still, he had convinced himself that once Bruce saw the results; when he saw all the lives that had been saved and the conflicts that had been solved thanks to the actions of the League, he would realize that what they were doing was the right thing and would go back to stand by his side. But now, after what happened to Dick, he wasn’t so sure anymore.
“Okay, I…” Clark trailed off, looking back at Bruce. The cowl was lead-lined, but he didn’t need to see Bruce’s face to know the other man had not slept or eaten since he returned to the cave with his son’s dead body in his arms. He probably hadn’t left the cave or even taken off the suit. The gloves he was wearing were intact, and a peek with his x-ray vision showed him the injuries on his hands seemed to have been treated, at least.
“Damian is fine. He’s in the Watchtower with the League.” He hadn’t planned to mention that, yet he couldn’t stop himself from at least trying to offer some kind of comfort to Bruce somehow.
“He- I talked with him. It was an accident. He didn’t mean to-”
It was then that Clark realized the full extent of what happened that night in Arkham Asylum.
Even though there was no point of comparison in the reasons that led to it, Bruce had lost both of his sons that night. Or at least, Bruce thought he had. And no matter how bad he was at showing it, Clark had always known how much he loved and cared for each of them.
There was no reason for him to mention Damian had refused to return home even now when Bruce already knew that. If he thought even for a second that they were holding Damian against his will, Bruce would be up in the Watchtower in no time, and would have brought his son back home.
Because, when it came about feelings and personal matters, Bruce tended to react without thinking clearly and, more often than not ruthlessly, especially toward the people he loved. By now, he surely had gotten past the initial shock and grief and had started to think past Dick’s death. Started to think about his other son; the son he had pushed away, disregarding his sorrow and tearful apology. The same son he hadn’t spared a second glance for as he walked away with Dick’s body in his arms.
It was very likely it hadn’t crossed Bruce’s mind even for a second that Damian’s refusal to return home could be fueled by honest fear of being rejected by his father.
If this was any other time, Clark would keep talking. Would voice that thought and more, and wouldn’t stop talking until Bruce saw and acknowledged his mistake and agreed to at least try to fix it somehow. He had never been afraid of telling Bruce off when he was wrong, as it was proven by the legendary fights they had during League meetings.
A voice in his head -a voice that sounded uncannily like Diana’s- reminded him of the possible advantages of having a bat among them, even if he wasn’t the one he wanted, but that wasn’t what stopped him. The truth was, he was too tired to try to help Bruce work through his issues.
He was going to have to manage on his own this time.
Clark turned around without a word and set to leave the cave as silently as he had arrived.
The sound of his name being called stopped him. He turned around, hiding his surprise when he saw Bruce was looking back at him, the cowl that had been covering his face gone. He really didn’t look good.
“I’m sorry, Clark.”
Clark gave him a wary look. Bruce had never been one to offer apologies so easily. He could admit to being wrong-begrudgingly-but receive an apology from him was almost impossible. Yet, he had gotten two in a matter of days.
Bruce was standing now, his usually sharp and piercing eyes now bloodshot and tired, but still alert as they met his own. “Because I didn’t stop you from killing him.”
His gaze hardened immediately. “What are you talking about. I didn’t need you to stop me.”
“After what he did to Jason …” Clark saw him swallow before continuing. “I was ready to kill him. I wanted to kill him. And you were there to stop me.”
Clark flinched as if the words were an accusation. “And I will regret it for the rest of my life,” He stated solemnly. “How many people would still be alive if I hadn’t stopped you then? Lois and- Lois and my son would be alive now. Metropolis and its people would still be here if I had let you do what should have been done so long ago!”
Bruce did not cower. He never had. “You shouldn’t be. I’m grateful for what you did.”
The Kryptonian stood before him just a second later, azure eye sparkling a dangerous crimson. “Shut up! Don’t- don’t say that. You can’t.”
“I am.” Bruce held Clark’s gaze unblinking. “Because you save me from making the worst mistake of my life.”
“How can you say that? After what he did? After everything he did to tear you apart.” Bruce’s calm was only making Clark angrier. “The Joker was a sick bastard and he deserved to die!”
“This was never about the Joker or what he deserved.”
“You’re defending him! I can’t believe you’re defending that monster. You’re just as sick as he was!”
The last time he had been in the cave, he accused Bruce of loving the clown; of being in mourning because of him instead of the thousands of people that die in Metropolis that day. He hadn’t meant it, of course. He had said it simply to get a reaction from Bruce.
“I’m not defending him. He was a murderer and a psychopath, and he deserved to pay for his crimes-”
Bruce glared at him, but said nothing. It was a rare thing to see him hesitate before speaking. “I’m-I’m relieved he’s dead. He deserved to die.” He stressed. “There was no question about that for me.”
As soon as the anger had come it was gone, leaving Clark confused as he looked at his friend. “Then why-”
“Because kill or not kill him was never about the Joker, but about me. About us. Did I want to kill him? Yes. Yes, I did. Many times. But I was afraid. Afraid of what I would become if I crossed that line.”
“And you let your fear destroy Metropolis and my family,” He growled.
“I’m deeply sorry about what he did. You know I am. And I fully accept my responsibility for it-”
“I don’t care! That doesn’t bring my family back!”
“I know.” Bruce lowered his eyes.
“When I started this, I imposed myself one rule and one rule only. Not because I was afraid of killing, but because I was afraid of what would happen after I did. Because if I allowed myself to take the power to choose over the life of just one person, what would stop me from justify killing again the next time Harvey or Crane did something monstrous too.”
“Then it’s a good thing you don’t have to worry about any of those maniacs anymore,” Clark growled back.
“You’re right, I don’t,” Bruce replied flatly. “Now I have to worry about people attacking or killing random muggers all around the city over a wallet or a watch. Or people beating up anyone who looks suspicious around their neighborhood using bats and pipes.”
Clark tried to conceal his surprise and dread about what he was hearing, but the look on Bruce’s face told him he had failed.
He had been so busy dealing with international conflicts and other bigger issues to worry about minor crimes such as the ones Bruce was describing. No one in the League had mentioned anything like that either, but then again, they had been just as busy as him. And this was Gotham. Things always got worst here and faster.
That was no excuse, though. He had thought that taking away the insane criminals in Arkham would be a start to solve the city’s problems, but clearly he had been wrong. They would need to keep a closer eye on Gotham.
“That’s the way justice looks now.”
Clark narrowed his eyes. He could see clearly what Bruce was trying to do, and he felt rage filling him once again.
Bruce was trying to manipulate him like he always did. Like he had done with Arthur before. Manipulate him to make him turn his back on what he was trying to accomplish by placing the blame on him for what was happening in Gotham. As if him killing that fucking clown had given people free rein to do the same with any other criminal.
It had been a mistake coming here, that was clear now, but he wasn’t going to give Bruce what he wanted.
“I do not condone such acts, but perhaps they are for the best. Criminals have been preying on innocent people for too long because they know their victims can do nothing against them, and because they rarely are punished for his crimes. But maybe now that people are defending themselves criminals would think before acting.”
Bruce was watching him as if he was seeing him for the first time, and he clearly didn’t like what he saw. Good. That was good. But he wasn’t done yet.
“Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have been happy if your parents had had a way to defend themselves that night.”
Clark had expected Bruce’s anger, but the ferocity of his glare gave him pause. He had never seen him so angry before. So angry and … hurt.
“Get out. Now.”
Clark opened his mouth to say something, but simply closed it again when nothing came out. Clark lifted from the floor, taking one last look at Bruce before flying away.
He had won, and yet, he felt nothing as he exited the cave, leaving behind his best friend.