It wasn’t that Batman pretended to be angry, night after night. When he came face to face with lawbreakers, it made no difference whether he was facing the latest “costume” on a rampage, or some pre-teen throwing a brick through a store window. Criminals irritated him. On the one hand, it was simple deterrence: commit a crime in Gotham and bring down the wrath of the Bat. The wrath wasn’t feigned and it wasn’t exaggerated. He had no tolerance for illegal activity on Gotham’s streets. However, it was fair to say that, appearances to the contrary, it was rare for him to give way to uncontrolled rage. He might appear to let his anger get away from him, but in reality, he kept it on a tight leash and seldom lost hold of it.
Of course, most criminals knew that there was one night of the year when it was wisest to give Crime Alley a wide berth…
The man tailing him didn’t make a sound as he touched down on the rooftop, but the only tipoff that Batman needed was the way the hairs on the back of his neck pricked up. On any other night, he would have hidden his irritation behind a long-suffering sigh, spun around, and looked to see who had the unmitigated gall to be shadowing him. Tonight though, he let the two red roses fall gently to the pavement and whirled in white-hot fury. His cape billowed behind him as he reached reflexively for a batarang.
His anger did not diminish when he took in the familiar figure in blue, red and yellow. Whatever the Man of Steel was here for, it wasn’t an emergency; his stance was too relaxed for that, although there did seem to be an unaccustomed tension in his pose. “If I’d wanted your company tonight,” Batman snarled, “I would have called you!”
In answer, Superman folded his arms and stepped off the edge of the rooftop, letting gravity carry him to the paved alley below. “Actually,” he returned, “I doubt that. Or at least, I doubt I would have been at the top of your list.”
Batman returned the batarang to his belt pouch, but only because, if Superman provoked him any more than he already had, there was a good chance that he’d throw it—which would accomplish nothing. “Your timing,” he said in a voice that was halfway between a growl and a whisper, “needs work. This is not a good night to pay a social call.”
Superman took a deep breath. “I know, and this isn’t,” he said softly. “Br—” A warning look checked him. “Batman, I… I came to Gotham because I know what tonight means for you, and I-I thought I’d probably find you… here.”
Batman gave him a thunderous look and deliberately turned his back. “And you thought… What? That I’d want a shoulder to cry on or something? Spare me.”
All at once, the Man of Steel was hovering in front of him, just high enough to be able to look down upon him. “Batman—”
He hated it when Superman did that. “You’re pushing, Kal. If you ‘know’ what tonight is about, then you should know to leave me ALONE!”
His grapnel was in his hand in record time. He was about to launch it and swing the hell out of there when Superman shot back, “Not everything that happens is about you!”
For a moment, he felt as though a tractor beam had locked onto him, freezing him in place. Then he realized that he could still lower his arm to reattach the grapnel to his utility belt. Not a tractor beam, then. Slowly, incredulously, he turned back, noticing for the first time the dark circles and the haunted look in his friend’s eyes. He’d seen Clark go for days without sleep and not look this haggard. The pieces of the puzzle whirled, danced, and slowly began to fall into place. Tonight was the anniversary of his parents’ murder, yes, but in just a few short weeks, it would also be the first anniversary of Jonathan Kent’s death.
Memories were tricky things. Over the years, no matter how hard he tried to keep them clear and sharp in his mind, no matter how many techniques he had picked up to give him virtually eidetic recall, if it weren’t for the old photos, he’d probably have forgotten what his parents looked like years ago. Even with the photos to help, his memories of his parents were mostly static images. Sometimes, he wasn’t entirely sure he would recognize their voices if he could hear them now.
But Clark had total recall. For him, especially now, with the date drawing closer, it probably felt as if Jonathan Kent had been alive only yesterday.
Suddenly, Bruce wasn’t standing far enough below Clark. He was still above ground. He pressed his lips together and looked down at the roses on the pavement. “Give me a few minutes, Kent. Then we…” He let out a long breath. “Get changed. I know a place where we can go for coffee.” Just this once, he was sure his parents would understand.
“This doesn’t look like one of your usual haunts,” Clark said, some forty minutes later. “Or is that the point?” The cafe was a few steps up from a greasy spoon, but it was hardly the epitome of excellence. There was a chalkboard menu over the cash register that announced unpretentious drinks and pastries. It wasn’t one of the big chains that had taken up residence on most vacant street corners in Gotham or Metropolis. Still, it was clean, and the service was prompt and polite. After paying for their beverages, the two men found a booth away from the other patrons.
Bruce laid his hand against the side of the earthenware mug, testing the warmth before he took a sip of coffee. “It is and it isn’t,” he said. “It’s part of the tradition. When I finish patrol, I usually stop by the clinic to see Lesl—Dr. Thompkins.” His lips twitched. “If I need it, she… patches me up first, and then we come here. It’s one place where I can be moderately sure of avoiding reporters. No offense,” he added blandly.
Clark smiled. “None taken. And I… I hope you know I didn’t intend any… earlier.”
“Yes.” He shifted uncomfortably. “I’m not sure what kind of help you think I’ll be,” he admitted. “I presume you observed me for awhile before making your presence known.” He waited for Clark to nod before taking another sip of coffee. He set the mug down a bit more heavily this time. “In all honesty, if you’re looking for… for coping mechanisms, you’ve probably come to the wrong person.”
Clark gulped his own coffee. “Earlier today,” he said haltingly, “I stopped a plane from crashing. Three engines were gone. Another few seconds and it would have been too late. I was in time to save most of the passengers.”
Bruce frowned. “Most,” he repeated, phrasing it as a statement rather than a question.
“One passenger had a heart condition. The strain was too much. It…” He set the mug down. “It’s not the first time it’s happened. We both know that no matter how hard we try, sometimes we can’t help everyone. But ever since Pa died I’ve been…” He let his voice trail off. “If I’d got there a minute faster… I keep telling myself it wouldn’t have made a difference, but I keep wondering if that’s true. Maybe there was something I could have done.”
Bruce shook his head. “I know you, Clark. If there was something you could have done, then you would have done it. You said it yourself. You can’t save everyone. At the end of the day, all you can do is try. And know that sometimes… we all… fail. We do everything we can to minimize that possibility, but we can never eliminate it.”
“So… how do you keep from second-guessing yourself?”
Bruce smiled bitterly. “I think I told you a minute ago that you might have come to the wrong person. This is why.”
Clark drained his mug and set it back down with a sigh. “You do this every year? The patrol, the roses, the…”
Bruce took another sip. His mug was still nearly half-full. “Before that night,” he said, “this used to be one of Gotham’s better neighborhoods. But after the shooting, people grew nervous. Over time, they moved out, and crime moved in. I promised myself that I would make Gotham a place where no other child would have to face what I did.” His lip curled bitterly. “I suppose we’re all optimistic in our youth. This place is a… a paradox of sorts. It’s where I lost the two people who meant the most to me, but it’s also where one of my oldest and closest friends found me that night and helped me to…” his voice dropped to a whisper.”…hope.” He shook his head. “Leslie. She still lives here, you know—a stone’s throw from the clinic.”
Clark nodded, encouraging Bruce to continue.
“Part of me loathes this place for what it took from me; but when I step into the alley, I…” he couldn’t believe that he was telling this to him, “I can almost feel them looking out for me. Even now.”
Clark slumped against the padded chair. “If I’d known that,” he said, “I wouldn’t have confronted you there earlier. I didn’t realize what I was intruding on.”
Bruce waved his hand wearily. “It’s not like I advertise it,” he said. He took a long swig of coffee. “Just let it go.” He finished the mug. “Come on. Let’s get some air.”
“I guess the anniversary’s been preying on me for the last few weeks,” Clark admitted. They were walking past the alley now, nearly halfway to the clinic. “I just keep thinking… all these things I can do. All these powers. And I couldn’t even save him.”
Bruce nodded. “Sometimes, I think it’s the second-guessing that’s the worst of it. Looking back now, there were so many things I could have done—would have done—if I’d had the training then that I have now. And if seeing that man come out of the shadows with the revolver hadn’t startled me. And if my father hadn’t already pushed me out of the line of—”
“Bruce,” Clark interrupted. “I’m sorry, but, how old were you?”
Bruce looked at the ground. “Eight. Almost nine. It was an… early birthday present. Father was afraid that,” he thought back, “between his work for the company and his private practice, he was often absent from family celebrations. That one time, he wanted to be early instead of late.”
Clark shook his head. “And you blame yourself for—”
“I don’t know! Damn it! All I know is that the movie was for me, and if I hadn’t been there, none of it would have happened.” He slammed his fist into the wall and drew his breath in sharply.
“You didn’t break anything,” Clark said. “Apart from the skin on your knuckles.”
Bruce grimaced. Then he sighed. “Good to know. And yes. I do realize how… silly my reasons must sound to you.”
“About as silly as mine do to you?” Clark asked.
Bruce grunted. “And you still can’t believe me.”
Clark sighed. “I wish I could. But I still can’t help replaying it all and wondering whether there wasn’t something else…”
“So,” Clark raised an eyebrow, “You told me earlier that I was coming to the wrong person for coping secrets, but come on. I mean you must have some.”
Bruce shook his head. “Basically? I head into what is now probably the worst part of the city and look for people to hurt. That’s hardly what I’d call a secret. It works for a while, though.” He frowned. “Have you come up with anything on your own?”
Clark smiled. “Yes, as a matter of fact. I… I guess I’ve been flying around all night, through some of the worst parts of town and looking for people to help.”
Bruce shot him a sharp glance, which quickly morphed to a scowl.
Clark looked away with a shrug.
The scowl gave way to rueful appreciation. “Well,” Bruce said slowly, “whatever works…”