Note: This story is a sequel to “Shift”, but one does not need to read that story first to be able to understand the events here.

Disclaimer: Superman, Batman, the Justice League, and all characters herein are the property of DC Comics and Time Warner; no copyright is being violated.


 

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

The growl reverberated in the air between them as Batman landed lightly beside the gasping Superman. The Dark Knight shifted easily to avoid an errant power blast that had bounced off Green Lantern’s ring shield, and Superman wrenched his gaze up in time to see him turn his patented Bat-Glare back down on his teammate.

“I should   think it   pretty damned   obvious,” Superman managed to wheeze, still on his knees and not having much luck yet in levering himself to his feet. One arm was pressed tightly over his midriff. “You   wouldn’t have   survi ”

“You idiot, Clark!” Batman hissed, and then from the corner of his eye he saw the column on their immediate right begin to crumble from another of Weapon Master’s stray blasts.

He threw himself into an instant dive onto the Man of Steel, hurling him backwards and knocking them both out of the path of the falling concrete debris. They landed in a tangle, and at that proximity Batman couldn’t miss the grunt of obvious pain that tore out of Superman’s throat at the impact.

He pushed himself up and glared still harder down at the Kryptonian lying splayed beneath him.

“Why did you insist coming on this mission, Clark? You would have done far better providing tactical support back at the Tower.”

Superman’s own eyes narrowed as he met Batman’s infuriated stare. “I was healed, damnit. And Weapons Master   is a Class A menace. The League needed  ”

“The League needed you to stay behind and recover,” Batman snapped. “We would have done just fine. We didn’t need you here, Superman.”

“I’ve roped the cannon!” Wonder Woman shouted from across the marbled hall. “Flash!”

“Get him before he teleports in something else!” cried Kyle from behind them, as a bright green flare momentarily lit up the hall.

“Mine!” Flash shouted as a red blur swept past.

Another blast blew out the wall opposite them and Flash was no longer a blur.

“No, mine!” Aquaman drove in with a hard smile.

The sounds of the ensuing scuffle, punctuated with bursts of profanity from their target, signaled the end of the battle.

“Looks like that’s over then,” Superman remarked almost conversationally. He quirked an eyebrow up at Batman. “Mind getting off me, Bruce?”

Batman clenched his jaw, noting that despite the calm joviality that Superman was striving to project, that his breath was still coming in little laboured hitches.

“Are you going to concede that you were utterly   in the wrong, Clark?”

Superman’s gaze darkened and his own jaw set stubbornly. “Hardly.”

He had been tempted to say “Hell, no,” but it wasn’t really his style. Instead he satisfied himself with wriggling a little to his left for leverage and then abruptly pushing the arm not trapped beneath his hip straight up.

Batman went flying.

Superman started to smile and instantly suppressed it even as the burning in his torso intensified manifold at the sharp movement.

Batman somersaulted in the air and came to a crouched landing, glaring daggers at Superman.

“Kal?” Diana stepped over to him. “Are you all right?”

He sat up with an effort he masked.

“Just a little winded, Diana. Thanks.”

She helped him to his feet, exhibiting all the grace he could not yet muster himself, even as she turned a frown on Batman, who snorted and stalked off over to their new captive, held within a green-energy display case.

“What happened?” she asked quietly, eyeing them both as she coiled her lasso, reattaching it to her belt.

Superman shrugged. “Guess he’s a bit moody today.”

“So what else is new?” Wally quipped as he zipped over to them.

“That was quite the hit you sustained, Kal-El,” J’onn’s soft voice sounded by his ear. “How are you faring?”

Superman let out a breath. Why was everyone hovering over him today?

He called up a grin from somewhere. “I’m fit as a fiddle, J’onn, now that you all took down our rather feistier than normal adversary. Good work, everyone,” he said to the assembling League, straightening with effort. “His weapons packed a bit of a nasty punch this time around.”

“Don’t I know it,” Wally said ruefully, rubbing his head where his mask had been singed away, revealing a shock of red hair.

“Yeah,” Kyle said, seating himself on the ring-willed shelf on top of his construct, heels drumming on the edge, admiring the facets of the case. “If you hadn’t pinpointed his base of Ops, Batman, there’s no telling what kind of damage he could’ve caused down here.”

“And,” Wally added, “if you hadn’t distracted WM by taking those blasts at close range like that, Supes, we probably wouldn’t have gotten the drop on him.”

Batman grunted. “I’m heading back to the Watchtower. You can deal with the trash.”

He threw another hard look at Superman and teleported away.

“What’s with him?” Flash asked, cocking his head.

“That was a reference to Weapons Master and not you, right?” Plastic Man asked, open-mouthed, stretching his neck to peer at Superman, getting right in his face.

“I  ”

“You seem to be doing pretty well lately,” Kyle said, looking over at Superman with a grin. “In the latest ‘Let’s See Who Can Tick Batman Off Most’ pool.”

“Yeah, big winner,” Wally added, as he sped about and piled all the weapons their foe had employed in their fight. “You’re in his very bad bat books. What’s your secret?”

“Thus far,” J’onn said dryly, as Superman was opening his mouth to answer. “It seems to have something to do with the little trick of throwing himself between Batman and certain death.”

Wally blinked. “Oh, yeah. Gotta try that ploy next time.”

Superman snorted at J’onn. “And I was just supposed to stand there and let that cannon dissolve him into a billion or so microscopic bits?”

He shook his head and sighed, folding his arms across his chest, hoping the move looked merely resigned and not agonized.

Diana laid a hand on his shoulder. “Only Batman would be angry at having his life saved, Kal. But  ” She bit her lip.

“But what?” Superman asked a little testily as he turned too quickly and the motion jerked at his ribs.

All right, so maybe he hadn’t yet completely healed

“You have been taking a good many risks of late, Kal,” Diana said, her tone both a little too careful and disapproving all at once.

He frowned. “I have not.”

“Kal  ”

He looked at them. “It’s true I’m not invulnerable to everything they throw at us, and it’s true I’m not infinitely energized, but I do have to pull my weight around here, you know.”

“Am I hearing this right?” Wally asked, brows raised. “Superman feels like he’s not doing his share?”

“Man, you’re like on twenty-four, seven,” Kyle added. “You trying to prove something?”

“‘Cuz it’s not like some of the rest of us already feel inadequate or nothing,” Plas said, his hand molding a report card with a sizeable letter D on the front.

Superman closed his eyes and shook his head, swaying slightly. “I’m not trying to  ”

“Perhaps we ought to finish this at the Watchtower,” J’onn broke in calmly, as armoured police officers began to pour into the hall.

Superman sighed. “Yes. Let’s.”

Fifteen minutes later, the entire Justice League was assembled in the conference room. Or nearly the entire League. Superman had finally allowed J’onn to talk him into a brief medical check over.

He came in from the infirmary, J’onn trailing at his back. Batman turned at the sound of the doors with a jerk, then went back to studying the computer, his scowl deepening.

“J’onn,” Superman said, casting a quick glance at Batman with another small sigh, “You’re hovering. Would you please stop playing nursemaid? I’m fine.”

“Then you must have a differing definition of the word than do the rest of us, Kal-El,” came J’onn’s imperturbable response.

Batman grunted almost inaudibly from the corner. Superman rolled his eyes and moved to take his seat, but didn’t argue.

“Okay, people, let’s debrief,” he said tiredly, “and while we’re all here, we’ll get the month’s monitor rotation set and out of the way.”

“Just how I want to spend my evening,” Kyle slumped in his chair. “Setting up shifts. Oh fun.”

“And here everyone thinks the life of a superhero is so glamorous,” Wally grumbled as he got everyone coffee in three seconds flat. “Bored silly already.”

“What took you so long, man?” Kyle ribbed as he blew the steam off the surface of his cup’s contents.

“Had to fix that stuck filter,” Flash answered, thwapping Kyle on the back of his head. “Since Somebody whose turn it was failed to manage it last week.”

“I’m no good at kitchen stuff,” Plas said, failing to look guilty whatsoever. “I knew you could do it.”

“Lazy bastard  ” muttered Wally as Plas’ cup disappeared from in front of him.

“Hey!”

“Let’s get down to business so that we’re not here half the night,” Superman said, turning a mock frown on the three of them as Plas stretched his arms to try and snag Kyle’s cup.

“Gotcha, boss,” said Flash innocently, wrapping his hands around his own. “I’m all ears.”

“Me too,” Plas chirped, his audial appendages immediately quadrupling in size. “Lay it on me.”

The meeting went quickly and smoothly, members reporting details of the battle and the weapons confiscated from their opponent, outlining measures for preventing a like escape from happening again. The new shift schedule was arranged and set with little complaint as Superman skillfully accounted for members’ various non-League occupations and activities.

“Okay, then,” he said at last, draining his mug and gingerly pushing his chair back from the table. “If there are no further orders of business, I think we can call it a day.”

“Good call, Supes,” Wally said with an exaggerated yawn, ignoring Plas’ bad imitation of him. “I’m bushed.”

Everyone began to gather their things and get up from the table.

I have one more ‘order of business’,” rumbled out a quiet voice, cutting through the bustle like a blade.

Superman looked up in surprise. “Batman?”

The Dark Knight sat back, hands flat on the table in front of him. He stared almost challengingly across at Superman, who leaned his weight forward onto his arms as he rose, trying to act nonchalant about his unusual posture.

“You have something you wish to address, Batman?” Diana finally asked, her head tilted in curiosity.

Batman let loose a small hard smile. “I do.” He looked straight ahead, gaze not wavering, pinning Superman with his stare. “I would like the League to instate new strictures on allowing injured, ill, or otherwise incapacitated members into combat situations.”

Superman’s eyes narrowed, and after a second, he slowly sat back down. He said nothing, but his stare locked onto Batman’s. Everyone else stared at them.

“That is not a bad idea, Batman,” J’onn said into the silence that had descended into the room.

Superman jerked his gaze to the Martian. “What?”

“We have never needed such measures before,” Aquaman said with a frown. “It is obvious when we cannot fight. We are all adults here   well, mostly,” he added, looking at Wally, Kyle, and Plastic Man.

“Hey!”

“I second that ‘hey’!”

“Hey, I’m fine with it. Grown-ups are highly overrated, anyways.”

“You’re overreacting,” Superman said quietly, eyes trained on Batman.

“I don’t think so,” Batman returned, equally fixed. “You are solid proof of that.”

Superman’s rare temper flared up, and for once he didn’t bother to suppress it. “I’m fine!”

Batman merely flicked a pointed look at J’onn, who shrugged.

“We both know the truth of that statement, Kal-El.”

Superman ground his teeth.

Diana looked at him in concern. “Are you still in pain, Kal? It is unlike you to take so long to heal. Have you exacerbated your previous injury? You should not have come to join the battle in your cond  ”

“I could handle it,” Superman said, turning to her in exasperation. “I was fit for duty, and could help speed matters along, prevent anyone from getting unnecessarily hurt ”

Batman interrupted with a barbed snort.

“I was fine,” Superman said, and for a moment, the barest hint of crimson flashed in his blue eyes.

“Methinks the lad doth protest too much,” Wally deadpanned, then flinched as Superman turned an uncharacteristic glare on him.

“Hey, Big Guy,” Kyle soothed, laying a hand on his arm. “We just don’t want you to exert yourself when you’re under the weath  ”

“Is everyone ganging up on me here?”

“Poor, poor Superman,” Plas said unsympathetically. “He’s got too many friends.”

“Perhaps you should be taking things a little slower, my friend,” J’onn was saying gently. “At least until you have completed your healing process. As quickly as your body normally recovers, even you need a greater amount of rest than you have recently been allowing yourself.”

Superman opened his mouth to protest again, and then looked across at Batman, who was sitting silently, a slight smirk playing on his lips. He closed his mouth and it tightened.

“There are other members of the JLA who are more than capable, Kal,” Diana was saying from his other side, eyes full of concern. “Teammates watch out for each other.”

Superman glanced at her and then back at Batman. “New strictures won’t be necessary,” he said tightly. “I’ll get some rest.”

“That is all we ask,” Diana began.

“No, it isn’t,” Superman said, more sharply than he’d intended. He grimaced and then rose from his chair slowly. “Next time you all decide to stage an ‘intervention’, how about centering it around something important.”

He turned to leave.

“And this wasn’t important?” Batman said, unable to resist throwing in the last word.

Superman stiffened slightly, and then swung back to match hard looks with Batman.

“This wasn’t supposed to be a game of one-upmanship, Bruce,” he said softly. “I had your back.”

“And I can handle myself,” Batman snapped, abruptly rising. “I don’t need you getting hurt on my account for ridiculous rheas”

“Let me get this straight,” Superman interrupted. “You’d rather have taken a potentially fatal hit in order to protect your professional pride?”

Batman’s lips thinned.

“I do not think you are getting it straight at all, Kal-El,” J’onn said quietly, obviously attempting to defuse the escalating argument.

“Stay out of this, J’onn,” Batman growled. “Superman has got to learn to recognize his own limitations. This incident today, together with the one earlier this week against Ra’s Al Ghul, has amply illustrated his recent lack of good sense.”

Superman’s brows drew down. “I thought we had come to an understanding about that ‘incident’,” he said through his teeth.

“And I thought you would have learned something from it,” Batman hurled right back. “Apparently you’re slower on the uptake than I’d previously always credited you with.”

“You are unbelievable,” Superman said after a second, voice soft, and eyes anything but.

The other League members sat still, looking back and forth between them and then at each other.

“Gentlemen,” Diana now said, voice very firm. “You both may have a point, but perhaps  ”

“You’re right, Diana,” Superman said, not looking at her. “And I apologize. This is neither the time nor place for such a   discussion.”

He pushed off from the table, expression stony.

“No. It isn’t,” Batman echoed, cowed eyes mere slits. “And once our erstwhile ‘chairman’ here acknowledges his error in judgment, we will have finished it.”

“I don’t understand you,” Superman shot back, voice colder than many there had ever heard. Superman hoped it managed to conceal the huge ball of hurt lodging inside him right at that moment. “What happened today was  ”

“Sheer lunacy on your part,” Batman answered, leaning forward fast over the table.

“If it means saving your   or any   life, then I’ll happily go on being a ‘sheer lunatic’,” Superman said evenly.

Batman’s fists clenched.

“Hey, break it up, you two,” Wally finally broke in, an alarmed look on his face. “Jeez, it’s like supervising a playground fight in here!”

“Yeah,” Kyle chimed in, looking between Batman and Superman anxiously. “We are all on the same side here, you know.”

“Tell him that,” Batman hissed. “And while you’re at it, tell him to stop taking stupid risks. And then remind him that he is neither invincible nor immortal, despite his apparent sudden belief in his own mistaken press.”

He whirled and swiftly disappeared out the door without a glance back.

Superman stood stock still for an instant, expression dark. The silence in the room was deafening. Then, not looking at his teammates, he settled his shoulders, turned a little too carefully, the rest noticed, and strode out the opposite door without a word.

The remaining members of the League sat at the table, looking at each other.

“O-kaaay,” Wally said slowly into the silence. “I was wrong. That was an interesting meeting.”

“What was that all about?” Kyle asked almost plaintively. “I mean, we’ve all seen them fight before  ”

“Regular fireworks ’round here,” agreed Plas, a giant scorecard morphing out of his hands.

”  but that was new,” Kyle finished, throwing Plastic Man an irked look. “I thought if Bats accepted anyone as his friend, it was Supes.”

“There was nearly more in the way of conflict in this room than during the battle with Weapons Master,” Wally said, a worried frown etching its way between his brows.

Aquaman sat back with a grunt, a rather incongruously entertained look on his face. “Quite telling, I think.”

“What?”

Arthur just shrugged.

“More importantly, what can we do about it?” Kyle asked.

J’onn sighed deeply. “Not much, I’m afraid. Let us hope that they work it out between themselves. We can only intervene if the current friction in their partnership affects League performance, after all.”

“That may be true, J’onn,” Diana said unhappily, looking at the closed doors. “But such unaccountable anger on both of their parts is disconcerting, to say the least. And it is   uncomfortable.”

“Speak for yourself, Princess. I kinda liked it,” Plas piped up. “Was fun.”

“Fun?” Kyle stared incredulously at him. “Are you nuts? Wait,” he slapped his forehead. “Who am I talking to?”

“You’re a riot, GL,” Plas said, “but really. It was like watching a well-matched tennis game. Breaks up the monotony. The ball fairly whizzed back and forth over the net there, yeah? Twenty-four love.”

“You’re such a leech,” Kyle muttered, fending off Plas’ suddenly leech-like fingers crawling across the table at him.

Flash stretched and in a half-second, had snatched everyone’s empty mugs. “Well, I hope their little spat gets fixed   and soon. Bats alone is creepy enough to hang with when he’s upset.”

“Just when he’s upset?” Plas popped in, his face now covered with an extra spooky Bat-mask, pointed ears huge and reaching to the ceiling.

“But to throw our usually amiable and easy-goin’ Supes into the mix,” Wally continued with a shake of the head, ignoring Plastic Man. “That’s downright scary.”

“Yeah, what’s the world coming to?” Plas said, flowing from a comical parody of Superman into an over-inflated, crater-pocked beach ball. “Or at least the moon? Flyin’ the not-so friendly skies here.”

“It seems so,” Diana said, concern in her eyes as she stood, “This cannot continue. Perhaps, as Kal rather flippantly stated, an ‘intervention’ of sorts will be required. For both of them.”

“Wait and see,” J’onn said reassuringly, also rising. “For as we all know, time can work many wonders, and heal many hurts.”

But over a week later, the two men in question had still not resolved the issue between them. Both had largely succeeded in avoiding the other, even when JLA business called them each to the moon or to trouble spots around the globe.

Wonder Woman finally had succumbed to her need for peacemaking, and attempted to talk to both of them. Predictably, she had been met with cool stubbornness from Batman. And although she encountered a warmer response from Superman, he was no less obstinate. Neither would concede to being in the wrong, and neither was willing to back down, not even in the interests of relieving the tension that filled the Watchtower whenever either was present. She felt that Batman’s constant projection of anger and coldness was primarily a shield, and that Superman seemed more bewildered than truly angry at Batman’s response to his actions. But still she could not get them to compromise.

Despite all of her entreaties, they each refused to approach the other to work out any kind of reconciliation. J’onn, much to her surprise, had likewise declined to speak with them, or assist her in urging their teammates to reach an amicable solution to their disagreement.

“I trust they will resolve things on their own, eventually,” the Martian only said when she pressed. “And truthfully, it is rather none of our business. It is not their working relationship that at stake here, Diana, but their friendship. That is at the heart of the matter. And without either of their express invitation, there I shall not tread.”

Batman had heard of his response, and was grateful for J’onn’s decision to not interfere, though of course he would never voice it. He understood Diana’s position as well, and privately appreciated her concern for his welfare, and Kal’s, but it was far simpler to avoid her and her attempts at mediation.

He had become a master of avoidance in his life, after all. He had been doing his level best to not only avoid an encounter with Superman, but to even think about him. Or about the root of the actual problem between them. As it stood, he was none too happy with himself that he had allowed his views to get so adamantly public during the debriefing session. He had allowed himself to become   emotional. And in front of the League at that.

He growled low in his throat at the memory. Only Superman could arouse that level of

He cut off the thought. There he went again. He had been trying to not think about Superman, and yet there he persisted in creeping in. Again.

He clenched his fists, and forced his mind to concentrate on his readouts his computer in the Batcave was currently displaying.

He had now been able to avoid Superman for over two weeks, and was determined to not let himself dwell on him.

It seemed he was much more successful with the former than with the latter. He could keep out of Superman’s way, made easier by the fact that it was obvious that the Man of Steel was doing the same. But he couldn’t seem to avoid him in his thoughts.

Batman had attempted to busy himself with a heavy workload of both criminal cases and Wayne Enterprises in nature. But lately every little thing seemed to serve as a reminder of   him. Every newsflash, whether from Metropolis or internationally, seemed to either contain a mention of Superman, or be written by Clark Kent, Lois Lane, or a number of other professional associates of his. Even the sight of a Daily Planet newsbox on a street corner or in the lobby of his building seemed to send a jolt down his spine.

Then there was all the merchandising. Never mind that there were plenty of images of other League or JSA or Titans members, even of himself, but the plethora of t-shirts, ballcaps, mugs, and assorted other products with Superman’s shield or likeness on them had seemed to have increased tenfold in the past month. He couldn’t get away from it. Even a glimpse of the stars above on a clear night, and his mind would return to Superman with an almost painful predictability and ridiculous frequency.

At the point where his colleague began appearing in his dreams night after day, and indeed whenever he tried to catch a wink of sleep, he knew avoidance and distraction were no longer working. If indeed they ever had.

At the point where even Alfred began commenting on his surliness, and both Dick and Barbara had point blank asked him what was up with him   having heard through the grapevine that he’d had a falling out of sorts with Superman   he knew he couldn’t let it go any longer. He had to try to rid himself of the constant specter of Superman, especially the specter of him being hurt or tortured or   or killed in front of his eyes, usually because of some foolhardy attempt to save him. He had to do something.

What, he hadn’t the faintest.

That alone was unusual enough for him that he determined to take action, to excise the haunting presence of a certain Kryptonian from his head if he at all could. But what to do? He still had no clue. And that was completely unacceptable for the World’s Greatest Detective. He smiled in grim irony.

Gathering evidence was generally the first task one undertook. This was, however, far from an ordinary case. Even if it was more personal than usual, he figured that he would still be able to be objective. But all the objectivity in the world still didn’t help him determine a viable course of action.

So it was that Batman found himself one November-cold night letting himself silently into Clark Kent’s Metropolis apartment, having rather cleverly discovered that both owners would be out for the evening, Lois out covering a story, and Clark working late in both of his capacities.

He stood in the darkened apartment and realized he had no idea why he was really there. He had simply felt   compelled. Compelled to come and study Superman, perhaps in the hope that with clearer understanding of the man and his motivations, he would be able to calculate why all of what had happened was affecting him so profoundly. Perhaps by studying Superman’s home, he himself would gain some insight into his own   unrest.

He also felt he was working to a deadline. It seemed that the League had conspired to set them both up after all, J’onn having re-scheduled the shift rotation. His Martian teammate had claimed that due to personal reasons he would be unable to fill one of his required monitor duties that he routinely shared with Batman, and so had pencilled in Superman to take his place. As soon as he was informed of the shift change, Batman had immediately attempted to rearrange his own, but not a single member would agree to take his stint. Each begged off with claims of prior commitments. He had discovered that Superman had tried to do the same, and also been met with failure. The League, it appeared, was determined to get them in the same room together, and force them to work out their differences.

Batman wanted to settle things, at the very least in his own head, before that dreaded shift would occur.

He sighed inaudibly as he glanced around at the darkened living room. It was ironic, really. He had known and worked with Superman for a number of years. He probably already knew the man about as well as he was ever going to. Spying on him wasn’t likely to reveal anything amazingly new.

He moved from room to room, noting the changes in décor and furnishings from when he had last set foot there. He tried not to feel too guilty about his trespass, and gave a mental shrug. It wouldn’t be the first time.

He paced through the quiet rooms, glad that the Dog no longer lived in the apartment but had instead taken up residence at the Fortress. Invading Superman’s primary residence wouldn’t have been so welcome a thought had a fiercely-protective and territorial mutt with super-powers been guarding the place.

And so Batman was understandably surprised when an unexpected sound rose from the couch in the living room. He whirled instantly, Batarang in hand, as a dark shape flowed from the couch and moved across the floor towards him.

Had one of Superman’s enemies discovered where he lived? He tensed.

A soft mew drifted up towards him from the shadows and he relaxed.

Right. He had nearly forgotten that the Kents kept a cat. The animal meowed imperiously at him for a moment, then stalked off haughtily with its tail in the air when he didn’t stop down to pet it. Two yellow-green eyes caught the reflection from the faint nightlight in the hallway and stared balefully at him from a chair.

He holstered his weapon, and resumed his exploration, but he had stopped seeing, and wandered, deep in thought.

A noise from the balcony doors alerted him, and with a speed the Flash would have been proud of, melted instantly into the shadows.

Muscles tense, he watched as the glass doors slid open and Superman stepped through, uniform and hair sodden with rain, and expression and posture tellingly weary. Batman frowned.

He had earlier heard on the MPD bandwidth of the day’s battle against Metallo, and could well guess at the toll taken by a tussle with the Kryptonite-powered villain. Never mind that the knowledge had aided in his unfathomable decision to visit Metropolis. He hadn’t, however, expected Superman to be back so soon. He knew that his customary nightly patrol generally went on much longer. Or had Batman miscalculated? He frowned. Why would he have done that?

He looked back at Superman.

He must be tired, he thought. He watched Superman’s slow movements critically. Or hurt. Again.

He sighed noiselessly. For a man with a patented invulnerability, Superman certainly seemed to have a penchant for injury.

He watched broodingly as Superman wandered almost aimlessly through the darkened apartment, not bothering to turn on any of the lights. And how after a few minutes he had given a deep sigh of his own and ended up at the doors again, staring out into the night through the rain-spattered glass.

The cat jumped off the chair and began to wind itself about Superman’s legs. His mouth twitched into a small smile as he crouched, reaching out to stroke the cat’s fur gently. A loud purr emanated from the creature.

“Hey, Leroy,” Superman said softly. “A little lonely, were you? Tell me about it.”

He scratched the cat behind the ears, and then rose back to his feet, looking like all the weight of the world was on his shoulders as he did.

Batman watched as Superman reached up a hand to rub at the back of his neck, and then with another sigh, fingered the collar of his uniform as if it were irritating the skin there. Then he slid his fingers underneath and deftly detached the heavy cape from his neck. He ran a hand down a long rip to the tattered ends, and then dropped it over the back of a chair, the material draping down in damp folds and trailing onto the floor. He stood still for a long moment, outlined in stark relief against the lights of the city. Rivulets of rain running down the windows were reflected back onto the side of his face and neck, making it appear as if ghostly tears were running down his skin and costume.

Batman’s eyes hooded. He flicked a look out the window and wondered how far Superman was seeing, or if he was seeing anything at all.

After a few moments, Superman shifted his shoulders and moved away from the windows. He stepped over to his desk against the wall, sank into a chair, and flipped on his computer. He bent his head to study a sheaf of paper notes on the desktop, before opening a file and beginning to type speedily.

Batman remained motionless, watching him. He found himself mesmerized by the superspeed rhythmic tap-tapping of Superman’s fingers on the keyboard, and by the eerie way the light from the screen limned the angled, chiseled planes of his face, highlighting the otherworldly blue of his eyes. The expression of concentration was mixed with one of almost   contentment? and Batman wondered, not for the first time, if Superman felt true joy in his writing, if it was the one area where he excelled that had little to do with his alien heritage and was therefore purely an ability on which he could be judged fairly, humanly.

After about fifteen minutes, Superman stopped writing, and reading a new file that he had called up, snorted faintly. He typed another minute, and then leaned back. A grimace of discomfort crossed his face and he sat up immediately. Shaking his head with another little sigh escaping his lips, he abruptly pushed his chair back and stood. He stretched out his neck from side to side, as if sore, and rotated his shoulders back as if they were stiff. Did Superman sometimes experience muscle pain as normal men did? Batman couldn’t recall if he had ever heard him complain about aches or not. He frowned again. He should remember things like that.

He stealthily moved to the side to better see as Superman stepped into the open-walled kitchen, set down a bowl of food for the meowing cat, flick on the light above the stove, and fill a kettle with water from the tap. A soft homey glow filled the space, and Batman saw Superman go still for a moment. He couldn’t see what he was staring at. There didn’t seem to be anything particular within his line of sight. And he couldn’t possibly be aware of Batman’s covert presence.

After a moment, Superman returned to motion and set the kettle on an element to boil. Batman wondered why he didn’t simply heat the water up in an instant with his heat vision. It would have been much faster and more efficient.

Batman glided back to the shadow of the closet and watched as Superman returned to the living area, moving a little less wearily, his usual panther-grace evident in the way his long legs strode across the floor. Superman glanced at his computer for a moment, and then leaned down to switch on a table lamp. He then stood there for a moment, almost hesitant, as his gaze returned to the dark windows and the balcony and city beyond. He let out a huff of air abruptly, frowning down at the floor as if frustrated about something. Then his shoulders lifted slightly. Turning, his hands went to his waist and loosened his belt, yanking out his shirt ends. He pulled his uniform shirt over his head, stripping it off in an economical movement. He looked down at the shirt in his hands for a moment, the red and yellow-emblazoned ‘S’ staring back at him. He turned it over and fingered a long rent in the material. Batman peered closer at it. Was that a bloodstain?

Batman clenched his teeth as the memory of the battle against Ra’s weeks before loomed up unbidden in his mind. The wounds he had witnessed the Kryptonian suffer for his sake   he shuddered slightly and pushed the memory down. He watched as Superman abruptly bunched the fabric in his hands, staring down at it with an expression Batman couldn’t quite decipher. He frowned as Superman threw the balled shirt onto the couch with enough force to send the uniform bouncing off the cushion and onto the floor. Superman left it there. Batman saw the long line of a healing scar dissecting the small of his back as he turned. His gaze narrowed.

Superman’s hands reached behind him to trace the wound, eyes staring out into the city. He began a series of slow stretches, muscles flexing, almost as if testing himself. He arched his back, and then straightened, moving not so decisively, again in that weary, slow fashion as he headed into the master bedroom. A moment later, Batman heard the sound of a shower starting.

Trying to suppress the unaccustomed guilt at his furtiveness, Batman stepped over to view the contents of Superman’s computer. He knew that now would be an ideal time to make his unseen and unheard exit while Superman was occupied with showering. But first he would just take a quick look at whatever Clark was writing before he escaped, purely, of course, to assuage his curiosity.

He had been working on his Intergang story, Batman saw. Hmm. He thumbed through the papers on the desk, and then scrolled up the screen, scanning the article. Clark had managed to amass some credible evidence against Intergang in recent months, and the expose was beginning to take damned fine shape. He smirked. It was always good to see the national crime cartel taken down a peg by non-superheroic means. Means that would stick in court.

He straightened, preparing to leave.

Then he spotted, open on a scaled-down screen, a file marked ‘kryp.doc’. He paused for a moment. It could be files on the effects and properties of Kryptonite. Or simply information on what to feed the Dog.

It might be nothing. Or it could be Superman’s private journal. Or it could be nothing. He paused, staring at it. But then again, it might prove to be invaluable to his   investigation. It might prove to be what he had come here for. It would undoubtedly prove fascinating reading if nothing else. He hesitated one more moment, everything Alfred had ever drummed into him about invasion of privacy and dangerous control freak tendencies swirling through his mind. He couldn’t leave a possible avenue of knowledge untapped. But he wouldn’t go too far into the file. It would take only a moment to memorize the screen, and then he could take his leave.

He maximized the window. Pulse speeding up a little, he waited, and then Kryptonian symbols filled the screen. He deflated, a little surprised by how great the sense of disappointment was. He had mastered a fair amount of spoken Kryptonese over the past year, but reading huge amounts of text in the difficult alien language in under a minute confounded even him. He would have to come back, with his translation program and a copy disk.

If I care to go that far, I mean.

He frowned.

How deep am I willing to dig for this?

He sighed regretfully, tapped a key to minimize the screen again, and then nearly leaped onto the ceiling as the teakettle whistle began to shrill.

Damnit.

He shut off the monitor quickly and began to edge silently towards the balcony doors, the kettle still whistling merrily away on the stove. Then suddenly, there was a peripheral blur, and a breath of wind washed over him. Batman went still, and Superman was once more in the kitchen, reaching at normal speed to turn off the stove and lift the kettle away. He was still damp from the shower, clad in an old t-shirt and sweatpants, and absently running a towel through the wet black strands of his hair. He reached up into an overhead cupboard for a teabag and a mug, turned to fill it from the kettle, and suddenly froze.

He was staring straight at Batman. Who stared right back at him, unmoving.

Neither moved nor spoke for several seconds. Then Superman’s wide, surprised eyes narrowed. He lowered the towel from his tousled head and with deliberate precision, carefully set his cup down the counter’s Formica surface.

“Batman,” he said, and there wasn’t exactly a world of warm welcome in that voice. So different than what he had heard in the past. Superman stepped into the glow of the living room, eyes not leaving Batman, who still had not moved. “Something I can help you with?” he asked pointedly.

Batman’s face creased in an outward scowl even as he uncharacteristically floundered for a believable excuse for his presence. Why had he come here?

Superman cast a quick glance around the apartment as if to assure himself that no one else had snuck in while he had been in the shower, presumably any others of the Bat clan. “Well?”

“I have some information on Intergang for you,” Batman said at last, keeping his voice gruff. Intimidation usually worked wonders for him in similar circumstances.

Superman only lifted a brow and he glanced at his desk. “You were aware that I was conducting an investigation into new Gang activity?”

Batman emitted a very convincingly grouchy harrumph. “Of course. I keep informed on all current national criminal doings. Given your previous series of investigations and the attempt on your life that resulted, it was only a matter of deduction to conclude that you would be following up on the rise of Gang-patterned crimes.”

It was a little too wordy for Batman to have normally said, but there was little help for it now, so he merely waited, brazening it out, arms folded, and didn’t waver in his own stare.

Superman all but snorted. “Fine. It’s true I could use a bit more background for the story. Give me what you’ve got.”

“You’re still not in the mood for a civilized conversation, I see,” Batman said shortly, and whirled around to make his exit.

He was two steps from the glass doors when he felt a hand lightly grip his arm. He swept around in sudden anger to meet Superman’s hard stare.

“Exactly why are you here, Bruce?”

Batman’s lips compressed into a hard line of his own.

“I told you wh-”

“Uh huh. How about the truth this time.” Batman looked at him, eyes flaring. Superman didn’t seem to notice. “Does it have anything to do with why you’ve masked your respiration and heartbeat from me?” he demanded. “Or are you just out to test your newest toys on me tonight, the ignorant guinea pig once again?”

Batman bristled.

“Contrary to your belief,” he snapped. “I don’t revolve my life   or all of my inventions   around you.”

“Nor I you,” Superman all but snarled. “And I’m so sorry if I wasn’t quite oblivious enough to make for a successful experiment for you.”

Batman drew himself up. “It is important to know when my equipment will work against meta-powered adversaries,” he shot back, having no idea that those words had been about to come out of his mouth. And how often did that happen, that he didn’t pre-plan every sentence? He had to get out of there, now.

Superman was staring at him, a torrent of different emotions playing across his too-expressive face, and in his eyes, clear as a summer’s sky.

How could he possibly clarify to Superman the reason for his espionage when he himself didn’t understand it? “Unlike some,” he heard himself hissing, stepping back towards the doors, “I don’t have powers to rely on in a combat situation with super-villains.”

“And I’m suddenly an adversary now, is that it?”

There was suddenly, clear as daylight, bright pain behind the surface anger in those eyes, Batman now saw, and it stopped him from saying the first thing that leapt to mind. But he couldn’t allow it to stop him from leaving. Or his purpose   whatever that really was.

He shook his head, mind flailing.

“You don’t understand,” he could only say, fists tight at his sides.

Superman made a small, unidentifiable sound. “Then help me understand.”

Batman’s head came up at the new notes, the hidden plea that had threaded the strident words. He turned almost against his will to stare into Clark’s eyes, so open right at that moment, so clear, so very vulnerable.

I could hurt him so easily, Batman realized right then. He’s so guarded in public, but with those he trusts, he wears his heart on his sleeve. And despite everything I am, he trusts me. Despite everything I’ve done, he trusts me.

Superman took a step closer, eyes searching, anguished. “I thought we were more than just colleagues, more than simple teammates, Bruce,” Superman said, voice quiet. “I thought something had shifted in you a few weeks ago. That you had finally and truly accepted my friendship.” He swallowed visibly. “So tell me.” Those blue eyes stared into his own, so penetratingly, as if staring straight into his heart. “Tell me what I’ve done that’s so wrong.”

He could hear the pain, the fear of loss resonating in that timbre-soft voice. It nearly undid him. How on earth could he not respond to it? He hissed silently and strengthened his resolve, meeting Superman’s gaze unflinchingly. “I’ve told you time and again that I do not need your protection in battle, Superman. Yet still you refuse to listen.”

He watched as Clark released a slow breath, the blue brightness of his gaze shuttered as he lowered his head.

“And just what was I supposed to do, Bruce?” the question was so quiet Batman had to strain to hear it. Superman stared at the floor. “Let you get hurt or   or even die when it was within my power to save you?”

Unaccountable anger swept unbidden through Batman. “I don’t need saving, Clark. Especially not by you.”

He whirled again and strode towards the balcony doors, intent on getting out as quickly as he could.

“Oh, so you really mean it would be all right if it was by anyone else?” Clark said challengingly. “You wouldn’t be having such a problem with being rescued if it was carried out by J’onn or Diana or Kyle who was doing the saving?”

Batman stopped in his tracks.

“Drop it, Superman.”

“Why are you here, Batman?” The voice was flat, uncompromising.

Batman swung around and stared back, not giving ground.

For a moment, they both stood still, neither moving, and it seemed a moment fraught with possibilities and consequences. Batman closed his eyes, every instinct screaming at him to flee.

I should leave. But if I do   if I do, then we’ll be right back to where we started from. Nothing will have changed.

Gritting his teeth, acting against his better judgement, he lowered his head and deliberately relaxed his stance from its antagonistic one.

“Clark. You are still not listening to me.” He took a step closer, unwavering now, spearing Superman with his gaze. This is right. “That’s not what I mean at all.”

Superman said nothing, his eyes searching Batman’s face, a quieter look stealing over his own, as if realizing the concession Batman was making by the sheer virtue of his remaining. Batman finally released a long sigh and focused on a point over Superman’s shoulder. How he hated having to explain himself!

But it’s necessary. And   he deserves it. And maybe   so do I.

“It’s not the saving I have a   problem with,” he said at last.” He pushed out a breath. “It’s the manner in which you go about doing it.”

Superman’s brows knitted together. “The manner?”

Batman set his teeth. Did he really have to spell it out?

“You do not seem to care that your actions put you squarely in the line of fire, Superman. A line of fire that can injure or   take out even you. You don’t seem to care how hurt you get. Or about the   risk you take.”

Superman’s brows drew further in. “Risk? But I don’t   I mean, to save your life, I don’t  ”

“Exactly,” Batman snapped. He twisted away abruptly, finding it more difficult to suppress the minute shaking in his shoulders.

“Wait, you mean  ” Superman cut himself off and there was a brief pause. “Oh,” he breathed, and Batman could practically hear the light dawning in the exhalation of that soft word.

They stood unspeaking and the silence stretched unbroken for several long moments. The cat padded in from the kitchen and purring, began to wind itself about both of their legs. Then Batman heard Superman step closer behind him. He flinched slightly as a warm hand was laid lightly on his shoulder after an instant’s hesitation.

“I’m not planning on dying on you, Bruce,” Superman said, a quiet solemnity in his voice. He paused and Batman could nearly hear the wry smile that appeared. “Been there, done that.”

Batman whirled around and Superman let his hand fall away at the look in his eyes. “You don’t get to joke about it,” he hissed. “Especially not when you seem to be doing everything you can to make it a probability all over again.”

Superman looked at him and let out a slow breath of his own. The anger and pain had been replaced by something softer and more indefinable   but no less dangerous   in the blue depths of his gaze.

“We risk our lives everyday,” he said, tone incongruently reasonable. “To save complete strangers. It’s what we do. I could do no less for  ”

Batman let out a snarl and sidestepped Superman to get to the door. Before he could reach for the handle, his immediate vision was abruptly filled with a determined Kryptonian firmly blocking his exit.

“Get out of my way,” he said coldly.

“No,” Superman answered calmly. “Not until we   resolve things.” He folded his arms across his chest.

They stared unyieldingly at each other for a tense instant, and after a second, Batman fractionally leaned back. Superman saw it and smiled gently.

“You’re not playing fair, Clark.”

“Oh, and breaking into my apartment and spying on me without explanation is ‘fair’?” They stared at each other until Superman sighed. “Do I have to forcibly seat you on the couch, Bruce? Or do we argue semantics until you’re blue in the face?”

Bruce shut his eyes. He was so tired of fighting with Superman, and even more tired of denying, of pushing away his   fear.

He opened his eyes and glared hard at Clark for good measure before striding over to the overstuffed armchair. He sat on the very edge of the cushion as if he were facing an execution, back ramrod straight. He caught Superman’s small smile, and ground his teeth but forced himself to sit still, despite nearly every part of him shouting at him to escape. Heart-to-hearts were definitely not his forté. But he knew he couldn’t keep going on the way he had been either.

The next instant he was holding a steaming mug in one hand, and Superman was seated across from him on the sofa, a second mug on the coffee table before him.

He waited for Clark to say something, but the Man of Steel only sat back, regarding him silently as he lifted his mug to his lips.

After an instant, Batman lifted his own cup to take a cautious sip.

“Careful. It’s hot.”

He stopped and then blew the steam from the surface of the liquid. He supposed Superman seldom had to worry about scalding his tongue. He was suddenly struck with the absurdity, the surreality of the situation: here he was, the Dark Knight, in full Batman regalia, sitting in a living room sharing a cup of tea with a disarmingly casual Superman. He nearly snorted out his mouthful of Earl Grey.

Clark swallowed another sip and then leaned forward, elbows resting on knees, cradling his mug between his hands. He looked up at Batman, and this time did not break his gaze, holding his eyes steadily. When he spoke at last, his voice sounded infinitely weary.

“Look. Bruce. I’m tired of beating around the bush here. Exhausted by all the dancing we’ve been doing around the heart of the issue you seem to be having with me. And as good a dance partner as you are, I think we mesh better as work and fighting partners, don’t you? I’m a decent waltzer, though I doubt I could do a tango half so well as you, and honestly, I prefer a more direct sport.” His mouth twitched into a small grin, the sudden change making his face look almost boyish. “So let me be frank.” He met Batman’s eyes, seriousness replacing the flash of humour. “I understand your   discomfort. I’ve been there myself. But whether you are willing to acknowledge it or not, Bruce,   I am your friend.” He paused and ducked his head down to take another sip of tea. Bruce wondered if that was as much effort to spare him as to take a drink. “And as one,” Superman continued, swallowing. “I naturally don’t want anything to happen to you. If it’s within my power, I will prevent harm from coming to you. That’s just not going to change.” He sighed and looked back down at his hands. “I don’t let my friends go easily. I don’t let my closest ones go at all, if I can help it. It’s who I am, Bruce,” he murmured. “Please don’t ask me to change that.”

There was a silence. Batman looked at him, and then took a slow, deliberate drink of his tea. He didn’t say anything. He hoped his outwardly stoic silence exuded calm, when inside he was feeling anything but.

“So,” Superman finally said, setting down his mug. “Tell me. Why is it different when I put myself on the line to save you   whether I’m truly in any danger or not   than when any of the others do so?” Batman didn’t answer. Superman leaned forward further. “And more significantly, how is it different from when you take a bullet for me?”

It was a neat argument, and there was no amount of logic or explanation to counter it. How could there be, when the reason was a purely emotional one? But he couldn’t say that. He couldn’t ever say that.

Batman growled low in his throat and shook his head. “It just is.” Superman just looked at him mutely. Batman hissed out a breath. “You’ll just have to accept that, Clark. Fairness be damned.”

Superman nodded slowly. But to Batman’s relief he looked neither affronted or hurt. “All right. I   guess I don’t need you to elaborate on that, much as there’s a part of me, a masochistic part apparently, that longs to hear you just spit it out and tell me.” He ran a rueful hand through his wet hair, but didn’t say anything further.

Batman watched him, a million thoughts and emotions roiling within him.

After a moment, he was surprised to hear himself speak, his own voice low and gravelly. “I didn’t want your care, your concern, Clark. I didn’t want your friendship.”

Superman looked at him, and then unexpectedly smiled before lowering his head. Batman saw that the smile hadn’t reached his eyes. “I know. But as much as you hate it, some things are simply beyond your control.” He raised his gaze. “You have it nonetheless.”

Batman took another small sip, trying to distract himself. Unsuccessfully. After several minutes of silence, he leaned forward. Superman’s head jerked up from his contemplation of the coffee table. But after a second, Batman only carefully set down his mug on the table’s surface before rising soundlessly to his feet.

“Thanks for the tea.”

He turned towards the balcony doors and stepped over to the rain-washed glass, reaching for the handle. He pulled open the sliding door, the golden light of the apartment spilling out into the night. Then he saw in the glass’ reflection that Clark hadn’t moved, but only sat watching him leave, hunched over his empty cup, an infinitely sorrowful expression on his face, as if all the world had deserted him. He hesitated, and then abruptly turned around, and the look was instantly gone, and Superman was only looking back at him with a resigned look in his eyes, and with a little sad twist on his mouth.

The wind blew Batman’s cape back in dark streams into the apartment, and neither spoke.

There’s so much I should say, Batman thought suddenly. So much I want to say to him. But I can’t. I can’t

After a second, he saw Superman drop his head and stare down at the empty mug in his hands.

“Good night, Bruce. Keep well.”

Batman stood frozen for another moment, and then strode into sudden motion, surprising both Superman and himself. He walked into the kitchen, deliberately picked up the teapot beside the stove, and brought it back to the living room. He stepped over Superman and pushing his hand roughly out of the way, tipped the pot and poured until Clark’s mug was again full. He set the drained teapot on the coffee table and straightened. Superman sat still, looking up at him, his eyes swirling with a dozen questions. Batman drew a breath, and then impulsively reached out and rested a hand on Superman’s shoulder.

“Kal.”

For an instant they looked at each other, and Batman hoped enough was conveyed by his single word, a universe’s worth of telling, explaining all of the things of which he was not capable. Then, unable to bear the profoundly thick silence any longer, he turned in a quick staccato movement and swept out the doors, not looking back.

He plummeted into the black, the cold rain whipping past him as he fell. He swung onto his line, the light from Superman’s windows above dispelling the absolute darkness of the night. He could almost feel that light above steal into him, warming him to his core.

“I guess we’ll survive our shift together after all,” he murmured, knowing that Kal would hear.

It wasn’t easy for him to accept true friendship, not from anyone, but he had faced his innermost fear, and forced his perspective to adapt, to change, out of necessity, out of   perhaps something more. And he knew   he couldn’t keep pushing Kal away any longer, for both their sakes. He suddenly realized he no longer wanted to, not any more, not even, at last, to protect himself. Maybe maybe change could be good.

Batman smiled slowly, the first genuine smile he had given in a very long time, and even as he melted into the shadows of the night, the warmth somehow stayed with him.

He figured it was a shift he could live with.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

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THE END……………..

 

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