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Injustice: Are You My Friend?

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Three months ago:

The portal flickered, emanating a low bone-rattling drone that soon escalated to an eye-watering, tooth-rattling hum. Various members of the Justice League were sucked back towards it, including Batman. However, most of them were able to fly or had some way of avoiding the physics-defying force of the portal. Batman, however, did not.

He had been crouched directly in front of where the portal had appeared. As Hawkgirl, who was second-closest, turned around to assist, Batman was dragged into the primordial hole. He vanished, leaving no more evidence of his existence than a sandcastle erased by an ocean wave: there one moment and gone the next. Hawkgirl was still reaching for what was no longer there a few seconds after. She lowered her hand. All around her, the battle raged on.

~-~-~///~-~-~///~-~-~///~-~-~///~-~-~

For a second, there was nothing but light. Then a stretching sensation through his entire body that strained his muscles, as if Bane had a hold of him and was playing tug-of-war with Grundy. There was a strange high-pitched buzzing in his head, but within a few seconds, it abated as the world came back into focus. Batman stumbled a few steps forward before he regained control and was able to blink the white spots from his vision. The nausea subsided more slowly, but it subsided. His best comparison to the experience was the sensation of being transported via the league’s teleporters.

To Batman’s surprise, it appeared that he was back in Gotham. He frowned because it was too quiet. But that wasn’t it, not completely. He spun in a slow circle, analyzing his surroundings, and staggered to a stop when his gaze crossed the bay. For one, long second, Batman’s mouth fell open. Metropolis— what had been Metropolis— was faintly glowing. And even in the dark, Batman could see that it was nothing more than a gutted, wrecked shell. His stomach churned. He thought, Clark.

And of course, that’s when the real trouble started.

“It’s Batman,” somebody said.

“Not this Batman it isn’t. Take him out,” said another voice.

Batman spun, noting the strange uniforms of his would-be opponents. There was something vaguely familiar about the chest plates they wore, and it was enough to confirm that he definitely wasn’t in his world anymore. As if the smoking— probably radioactive— husk of Clark’s city wasn’t enough. He tried to gauge the skill level of his opponents as they slowly stepped forward. They had weapons, some sort of gun, but weren’t shooting. It was almost as if they were using them as props. It was… odd, and not in a way that Bruce liked. He raised a batarang and that was when they struck.

With speed more akin to Superman’s or Flash’s, they dropped their guns and rushed him. Bruce’s surprise made him take a few initial hits, but once he’d recovered, he was more or less able to adapt. That didn’t mean that he didn’t take more abuse, however, because he was still off-kilter. And this allowed one of them to nail him in the back of the head. Batman dropped to the pavement with a crash.

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Later— he wasn’t sure how much— Bruce came awake with one soft groan. While his head did hurt, the armor had mostly protected him, and he found that he was in much better shape than he could have been, all things considered. Bruce was pretty sure that he’d escaped without a concussion, which was a pleasant surprise considering the strength and apparent determination of his unknown assailants. He’d gotten lucky. He’d gotten lucky in other ways too; if he had landed in Metropolis instead of Gotham… He shuddered. A slight creaking sound tore him from his thoughts. Bruce sat up sharply on the bed. And then Batman was abruptly aware that he wasn’t alone anymore.

“Batman,” said Clark. Only it wasn’t Clark, but an alien who wore his face and a mockery of his costume. The symbol was the same as the one on the chests of Batman’s attackers. Bruce’s feeling of apprehension ticked up a notch. But it wasn’t the costume change that tipped him off, though it certainly didn’t hurt his suspicions. It was the alien’s face, his mannerisms, his way of moving.

The alien had cold eyes and an expression cut from one of Michelangelo’s marble blocks. Clark’s eyes were never that calculating, that opaque. That cold. Despite himself, Bruce felt nervous. He took one breath and it was enough for Superman to advance until he was only a foot away from Batman. Bruce abruptly remembered that he did not have the cowl on. Or, it appeared now, his belt.

“I see we were finally able to find you,” Not-Clark said softly. This sent dread crashing down Batman’s spine. And Bruce’s instincts, honed by decades of surviving Gotham vigilantism, were rarely incorrect. His first impression of this Not-Clark as being… wrong (twisted, rotten, terrible) was reinforced. It was not the tone, but the attitude behind the statement that made chills run down Bruce’s spine. Not-Clark spoke with ease, satisfaction. Laziness. As if he had all the time in the world, and was finally dealing with a little annoyance, like an itch, or thirst. Like Bruce was nothing but an inconvenience. Like he was nothing compared to a god. Bruce knew that he had to say something, anything. His brain was practically screaming it.

“I don’t know what you mean— it couldn’t have been that hard to find me if I was out in the open already, Clark.” And Bruce’s hunch proved correct when Not-Clark hesitated in his slow, devastating advance forward, actually flinching at his name. The pit of Bruce’s stomach soured. There was definitely something wrong when Clark flinched at the name his human mother, Martha Kent, had given him. Bruce wanted to vomit.

Not-Clark tipped his head sideways, and said curiously, “Oh? Clever Bat… you’re not him.” Bruce stilled completely as Superman took the final few steps between them and lifted up his chin. Bruce, knowing the infinite power contained by those hands, flowed with Superman’s motions as much as he could. Superman stopped and pressed the point of one thumb into Bruce’s neck right above his pulse, which, of course, jackhammered at the unsubtle threat. Not-Clark stilled, and Bruce could feel his icy, sterile gaze scanning him. The situation screamed wrong, wrong, wrong, and Bruce barely stopped his base desire to flinch away from the alien who wore the face of his best friend.

Not-Clark’s lips curled up in a thin smile. This time, Bruce did shiver. He was rewarded for it by increased pressure from Superman’s thumb as it stroked over his jumping pulse. He knew instinctively that it would bruise. “Well,” Not-Clark said, “we’ll just have to make do with you then, I guess. Pray you’re of use to me, Batman. Pray.” He laughed as he meandered out the cell door and out of Bruce’s sight. When Bruce looked down at his black-gloved hands, they were trembling.

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Now:

The Watchtower materialized around Batman, who wheezed and let out one gasping sob. Any onlooker, even the most oblivious, would have immediately realized that Batman was injured, even though his suit was on. Batman’s left cheek was swollen under a purple bruise, the gash above his eyebrow was flecked with dried blood, yellowing thumb-shaped bruises dotted his neck, and deep smudges shadowed his bloodshot eyes. In addition to these were the more surface-level details that told of his beat-up state: the rapid rise and fall of his chest, the scruffy days’ old facial hair, the wideness of his eyes, the disarray of his hair. And these were the more obvious injuries.

There were many more less-apparent injuries. Superman, and Wonder Woman to an extent, had not been gentle. Between… interrogations, Bruce had had time to catalog and categorize every one of his injuries: four broken ribs, one more fractured, a cracked cheekbone, significant bruising that covered the majority of his body, small burns across his wrists and arms, muscle fatigue, dehydration… and there were probably more that he was not currently cognizant enough to categorize. Bruce stumbled out of range of the portal and shakily jabbed the button.

With that done, he dropped the remote onto the ground and stomped and stomped and stomped and stomped until it was nothing but chunks of smoking, sparking electronics. A distant chortling snapped him back and he had the unpleasant realization that the hysterical noise was emanating from his own shaking chest. His last hysterical laugh choked off. He stared at the demolished remote, and the will to destroy it seemed to have been the only thing holding him up, as his legs gave out.

Bruce sagged, nearly crying out at the abrupt, jolting connection between his body and the floor. For a few moments, he could not stop his breath from spiraling toward hyperventilation. As he recovered, Bruce coughed, whining at how his broken ribs rattled. How all of him, in fact, rattled. It was only then that he heard the alarm. He staggered and got halfway up before collapsing again. The aching dullness of his body, the pain in his head, the burning thirst, all slowed his movements to no more than a crawl. Bruce sprawled across the floor with a thud that went through his entire body.

For a few seconds, blackness flooded his vision— but the pain woke him. Bruce moaned, attempted to rise again. The alarm was fuzzy. He tuned it out like most of the Flash’s talking. After his third attempt, Batman was able to rise to his feet. But almost immediately, he fell against the wall, head spinning. Bruce cursed Superman with all his might. It was then that a shocked, horrified, all-too-familiar voice asked, “Bruce?!”

Bruce felt himself hyperventilating, felt his pulse racing as he raised one shaky hand and pointed a finger. No. No. No. Not him. Not the wrathful Kryptonian. Not the conqueror, Kal-El, the devil who wore a friend’s face and demanded worship with red eyes of blood and diamond-cracking strength. Whose words were backed up by the absolute terror that was caused by looking into his soulless blue, blue eyes.

Bruce felt his own eyes half-roll back in his head in a moment of weakness, but an adrenaline surge, the urge to survive, kicked his brain awake. “S-stay away from me!” he hissed. Automatically, his hand went to his waist but there was nothing there. Hadn’t been anything there for three months. He was, in all practicality, naked against the otherworldly evil.

The face of his friend, what used to be his friend, stared at him in apparent concern. Bruce thought, for one moment, that maybe he really was back. But possibly (more likely) he had failed and was dead. Either way, he had been fooled by the Janus-faced Kal-El, conqueror and destroyer, too many times to trust what was in front of him.

“Br— Batman. You’re hurt. Let me help you. We need to get you to J’ohn, or Alfred.”

The imposter, who had even taken to wearing his old suit to trick Bruce, stepped forward. And it was enough. Even if he would die from it, or at least shatter his fists, Batman would not be broken. Not-Clark had shaken him, severely, hurt him gravely, left gouges and scars and cracks and bruises, but he had not broken the Batman. Though he’d tried, with the will of a Green Lantern and the patience of an undying god. Bruce hurled himself forward toward Clark— what used to be Clark, what was left of Clark, his best and closest friend— with his fists raised. But his broken ribs twinged, his body ached, and Bruce was weak from hunger and dehydration and was no match for a god.

Even less a match for a wrathful, fallen god.

Batman was an atheist. But when one was a detective, they had to have a wide knowledge-base, so Bruce was familiar with many world religions. He knew that Satan had burned brightest, been named the morning star before he fell. And how the world had burned when God’s brightest had fallen! So Batman, a false-god himself, knew he was no match for the one who had once been the league’s brightest. Not when he had shone brightest, and especially not when he had fallen, burning down the world with fury. Bruce crashed to his knees and was only vaguely aware of Superman through the growing dimness. “S-stay… away f’rm… me…” he managed.

And then he passed out.

~-~-~///~-~-~///~-~-~///~-~-~///~-~-~

Bruce woke up an unknown amount of time later and immediately recognized that he was in the Watchtower’s medical center. Not that it comforted him in the slightest. He had had a Watchtower too. He had had everything Bruce had in his world, only he had corrupted it with his fall, and shaped the ashes of that world in his image. The league, Gotham, even Bruce’s own children. Gone. Controlled. Corrupted. And he’d whispered to Bruce: “You can have it back. You can have it all back if you only tell me how to destroy you.”

But Bruce knew he could not give into Kal-El’s whims, even though they appeared so harmless, so simple. He could not break. Because if Batman broke, it would be like the shattering of a dam, and far less innocent, far less unimportant, information would weep through the cracks. So Batman did not speak. He endured Diana’s lasso, endured Superman’s torture. And Bruce bent— but he did not break.

As he sat up, Bruce was surprised to see that he was unrestrained; even when Superman had cared for him in-between the torture he had been restrained. But while it was advantageous, Bruce knew that it did not change anything in the grand scheme. In fact, it could be considered a psychological attack, a way to give him false hope and then ruin him in the aftermath. However, he sat up anyway and moved to the edge of the bed to attempt to stand. And at that moment, the door parted and there was the terrible and awesome face of the fallen and broken and vengeful god who was called Kal -El.

Bruce froze for a second. Kal mirrored his movements from that first terrible day by taking slow steps forward. Bruce, reacting on pure instinct, lurched to his feet and threw the nearby chair. It hit Kal square in the face and burst into splintery chunks. The alien stopped a moment and blinked, various emotions flashing over his face. But after he shook his head, he continued forward slowly.

“Bruce,” he tried. Bruce grabbed the glass of water off his bedside table, ignoring the alien’s traitorous words, and hurled it at Superman. The glass shattered and Kal-El shook himself clean of the water.

“B, please,” he said more gently, reaching a hand toward Bruce. He did not stop his advance. He did not stop— never stopped. Bruce heard his own animalistic breath.

“Talk to me. Tell me something— anything. I am not going to hurt you!” The false god sounded close to tears. Bruce’s eyes flickered rapidly over his immediate surroundings for something, anything. The false alien god stepped closer and he was almost within grabbing-distance of Bruce. Bruce took a step back and his legs hit the edge of the bed. Blindly, he grabbed a pillow and hurled it at the alien. Superman caught the pillow, no longer content to pander to Bruce, and blinked in confusion down at the soft makeshift projectile. As if he couldn’t believe that Batman would stoop so low. As if he were confused that Bruce could be so irrational.

Bruce was balling up the sheets when Superman huffed, finally sounding irritated. Bruce swallowed, raised his hand to throw his last weapon— and wasn’t it a sad one— but Superman had finally had enough. He raised those cold eyes and met Bruce’s. A chill ran down Bruce’s spine, but he held the sheets up. He was not, and would never be, broken. Superman’s brow quirked and he finally shouted, “Goddamn it, B! WOULD YOU STOP FOR A SECOND AND TALK TO ME!!!”

And Bruce finally felt himself crack. The bundled-up sheets fell to the floor and lay in a soft clump. Bruce stared at Clark for a moment, absolutely still. He realized, dizzily, that he had forgotten to breathe. Bruce took in a shuddering breath and sank onto the edge of the bed and wept. Not-Clark was by his side in an instant, one hand burning over his back in a supposed-to-be soothing motion. Not-Clark sounded strangled as he hushed, “God, B, I’m sorry. So sorry. Shh. Shh, it’s okay. I won’t yell again; I shouldn’t have in the first place. I’m not going to hurt you. Shh. Shh. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

And Bruce figured if he were going to die, he could at least pretend that it was still Clark who was talking to him, still Clark who was sitting beside him rubbing comforting circles on his back, still Clark who was rocking him steadily back and forth, and not the terrible, fallen alien god who had made a mockery of the man he had once known. Bruce shut his eyes and let Superman comfort him until he fell asleep.

~-~-~///~-~-~///~-~-~///~-~-~///~-~-~

It was luck that Superman was on the Watchtower when Batman reappeared. After the fiasco that happened after this, however, Superman did not intend to stay. In his text to Alfred Pennyworth, he had hinted at the traumatic nature of Batman’s situation. The butler had promised to keep the family from interfering for as long as possible. Superman had not meant for this to happen but found that he had no ground to argue on; if Alfred thought this to be the best course of action, it probably was.

So Superman had then attempted to contact another leaguer to stay with Batman until he was aware enough to discuss medical treatment. This endeavor had been a failure. All league-members that knew Batman’s civilian identity and would be willing to assist him were either on a mission, listed as being unavailable or simply did not respond to Clark’s plea. Even Wonder Woman was busy, as she was on a pre-scheduled trip to Themiscyra. So Superman was— unfortunately— the only man for the job.

The next time Bruce woke, Cl— Not-Clark was sitting in the newly-replaced guest chair. Bruce jumped, and his heartrate spiraled out of control. He waited for a blow or something. But Clark sat silently, merely observing him for a moment. And his keen gaze almost looked like Clark’s had when he’d caught out Bruce, or had realized something important while writing a story. It made Bruce’s chest ache. His heart stopped racing and he focused on his breathing. If he wasn’t dead, then there was a reason. And if there was a reason, there was hope that he could exploit it and escape. Or maybe, a small voice in his head said, maybe you are home. Though he would like to believe it, Bruce refused to be convinced until he had undeniable, empirical evidence.

Clark— NOT-Clark, saw that he was calm again. He lowered his gaze, so he appeared to be peering demurely at Bruce’s chest. To Batman’s chagrin, it did alleviate some of the tension in his body. Superman asked slowly and calmly, “What would it take for you to believe me, Bruce?”

Bruce immediately bristled at the tone and was on the edge of telling Superman off when he caught himself and remembered what had happened the last time he’d made that mistake. His objection died on his tongue as a strangled sound. He tried to cover it with a throat-clear, but Superman obviously caught on. For an alien menace and murderous dictator, his eyes sure could mimic emotion. Finally though, Bruce had to acknowledge that if he wanted to know one way or another definitively, the only true way to do so was…

“Bring me Lois Lane.”

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Clark Kent. Lois Lane. Clark and Lois. Kent and Lane. Superstar reporters. Superman and his damsel in distress. Kal-El and his one true love. The romance of the century. The perfect couple. Good for each other. Well-matched. How happy they all were for them, in that other world. Before. It still amazed Bruce how elegant, how simple really, that Joker’s plan had been, in a twisted, sick way. Batman could almost follow the logic of it, something that made his guts churn. How deadly it was. How destructive it turned out. How utterly chaotic it had all been. And the astounding thing, of all the many astounding things, was that the universe’s fate had all rested. On. One. Woman. Well, really on Lois and the unborn half-god child of Kal-El.

Bruce’s breath stuttered, and he willed the little flame of hope flickering in his chest to gutter out. Because he could not, would not be broken. And if Kal— Clark— could not bring him Lois… Bruce forced his thoughts elsewhere, trying to ignore the hurts in his body. If Clark could bring him Lois, then he would know he was back. Lois Lane, both the key to and destructor of universes. Bruce eased himself back against the pillows and focused on controlling his breathing.

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Although the medical center was state-of-the-art, soundproofed, and had abundant privacy measures, there was only so much the league, or Batman, could do when it was in a space-sensitive location. The Watchtower, even for Bruce, had been incredibly expensive. At the end of the day, while soundproofing was nice, it was not truly necessary. If it was quiet enough, leaguers could pick up on the noise that filtered through the outside halls. So when Superman returned, Bruce picked up on the sound of low voices. He discerned Clark’s mumbled speech, and a woman’s more clipped, sharp tone. Despite himself, Bruce’s heart soared. That sounded like Lois. As the voices grew closer, Bruce sat up further and cleansed all emotion from his face.

Just in case.

Again, the door slid open, and Bruce heard the no-nonsense clack of heels across the floor. He took in the business wear, the face, the hair. Clark hesitated before slinking into the room. He stayed back in the corner. Lois Lane’s confused, suspicious face slackened when she saw Bruce. Her mouth dropped open for a brief moment before she shut it, and concealed everything behind her eyes. “Bruce,” she gasped, moving forward all at once. Then Bruce was enveloped in her slightly-lavender-scented arms, and her hair was spilling over his neck, brushing against his cheek. And he gasped because even Lois’s gentle hug had jostled him and his many broken pieces. The broken pieces he had mostly managed to ignore because Superman had distracted him.

“Lois, his ribs!” Clark urged. Bruce stiffened at the warning in that voice.

Lois cursed softly. She stepped back and said, “I’m sorry, Bruce. What happened to you?”

Bruce couldn’t help the accusatory slide of his eyes to Kal. “He did,” and Clark did a rather good impression of a dog with its tail between its legs and Lois gasped, actually jerking back a little, “or at least… it’s looking more like his alternate did. I’m not sure. I need to ask you some questions, first.” Lois peered at him with concern and seemed to be chewing something over in her head for one long second. Clark was still doing his chastened dog impression in the corner.

Finally, Lois asked, “Why me? What’s so important about—”

“YOU DIED. You, the baby, and all of Met— you died… And then he ruined everything,” Bruce interrupted. Clark made a strangled sound in the corner and Lois gasped. Bruce ignored this and stared at her like a drowning man at a lifeboat. “When were you born? How did you meet Clark? Where do you work? What do you hate?”

Lois, the professional that she was, recovered from her shock quickly. “1985. At work, he ran into me in the elevator on his first day. Nearly spilled coffee all over me and wouldn’t stop apologizing. I am a reporter at The Daily Planet. I hate being rescued.” Bruce nodded, more appeased but not quite satisfied. All her answers were right.

“How did you meet me?”

Lois took the question as intended. “You were working a case in Metropolis with— you were working a case, and you had to rescue me from one of Luthor’s robots in the Planet’s printing room. Your cape got stuck in one of the printing presses and you had to take the cowl off.”

Bruce scrutinized her for a moment longer but his ribs, hell, his body was killing him, and he was tired and emotionally exhausted. He nodded. “Okay.” Lois looked relieved. Out of the corner of Bruce’s eye, he could see Clark sag from relief. Very deliberately, Bruce turned his gaze to Ka— Super— Clark. He moderated his tone, kept his heart rate steady, and was proud of how calmly his voice came out. “Clark. Bring me my tablet.”

“But—” Bruce glared. Lois spun, shooting Clark a look. Clark put his hands up, and a bit of the remaining ice inside Bruce melted. “Fine.” He slowly, deliberately, crossed the room and was gone.

Bruce paused a moment. Then he lunged forward and grabbed Lois’s hand. She looked startled by the fire in his eyes. “Promise me,” Bruce said urgently, “if you are in danger, call me. If you need ANYTHING— I don’t care if it’s a ride across the goddamned street— you call me. Understand?” Lois at first looked insulted, then confused. Bruce gripped harder. “Promise me, Lois. Please.”

It was that last, quiet ‘please,’ in conjunction with the fierce look in his eyes, that did it. “I— alright,” Lois agreed. Bruce sank back in relief. Lois moved with him, and this time, she was the one who held tight to his hand. She sat at the edge of the bed and started rubbing circles across one of Bruce’s palms. If she noticed the burns from Diana’s lasso, she did not comment.

“Thank you,” Bruce said. Lois merely hummed. When Clark came back, she stood and moved protectively between Bruce and him. A small part of Bruce wanted to weep at the kindness. Clark slowly reached out with Bruce’s tablet, and though Bruce’s heart raced, his hands only shook a little as he reached out and took the device.

“Are you sure you’re—”

“Yes,” Bruce said impatiently. In spite of the aching of his burns, Bruce was already typing furiously. Compared to the rest of him, this pain was insignificant. He did not notice Lois’s soft whisper that it was time to go or Clark’s equally soft protest. He barely heard as the door shut. Bruce was too busy writing. Expunging it, all of it, the madness, the terror, the pain, the path that had turned Clark, morning star, into the wrathful fallen god Kal-El. His experience would not be wasted. Bruce paused a moment to shiver.

Forty pages later, he was done. He had typed everything that had happened to him, all that he’d learned. With weak fingers, he logged onto the league database and sent off his data. He set the tablet on the bedside table with a clatter. Bruce exhaled and allowed himself to sink back into bed and breathe. He shut his eyes.

~-~-~///~-~-~///~-~-~///~-~-~///~-~-~

A week later, all the founding members were assembled in the Watchtower’s formal meeting room to hear Batman’s report. Diana (and Clark) had protested at having the meeting so soon— Batman had been released from the medical center three days ago— but Bruce had insisted. And in this case, Clark was not very inclined to disagree with his friend; he probably wouldn’t be for a while, not when Batman’s heart still raced half the time in his presence, not when he jumped when Clark showed up unexpectedly. So, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Flash, and the Martian Manhunter, were all assembled.

Batman was seated at the head of the table, and for once, looked as if he wouldn’t be standing for the briefing. He was not even wearing the suit, as it could prove detrimental to his recovery. Instead, he had teleported directly here (J’ohn had temporarily rerouted the teleporters for him) from the manor. And so, every single league member could see just how bad it was.

Most of the bruising on Bruce’s neck was hidden by his turtleneck sweater, though a few yellow thumbprints stood out against the black. The wrapping on his ribs was extensive, and the bulk was obvious under the sweater. His cheek, though less swollen now, was still an ugly shade of plum-purple. The cut above his brow had a bandage. In short, Batman looked a mess, physically, and his expression spoke of a man that was a mess in more than just physical ways. Bruce glanced up as the last founding member, Aquaman, took his seat.

He shuffled the stack of papers before him awkwardly, firmly ignoring the stares of his co-founders. Most of them had not seen him in person yet, so shock and dismay were to be expected. However, when he sensed distraction because of his… condition, Bruce decided it was time to redirect. He cleared his throat and the returning silence nearly echoed.

“I’m sure you all know why we’re here. And for efficiency’s sake: yes, I am recovering well, and yes, it is good to be back.” There was scattered nervous laughter. Bruce ignored it. “My time with the… Injustice League, made several things become quite painfully apparent. One: current security measures are not enough. Two: current contingency plans are not enough. Three: current global monitoring systems are not enough. This statement coming from me, I realize, must sound paranoid. I assure you, it is not. The Injustice League was once just like us. Until one day, something changed catastrophically.”

He paused and handed out his stack of papers. It was a typed timeline of what had happened. The papers were passed around and after everyone had glanced at them, Bruce continued, “The Joker happened. He used fear gas on Super— Kal-El and rigged a nuclear bomb to explode when Lois Lane’s heartbeat stopped. Kal-El was tricked into believing his pregnant wife was Doomsday, and he killed her. And when she died, so did Metropolis.” Bruce swallowed as his ribs twinged, and he felt, once again, overcome by that statement. By how easily the Joker had won.

“After this tragic event, Kal-El fell. It happened slowly, so slowly that none of the league foresaw what was happening, except for their Batman. He formed the insurgency. It was not enough to stop Kal-El’s madness. From what I gathered, Kal-El was calling himself the master of Earth. But this still leaves the question: why was I transported there?”

Bruce flicked on the screen behind him, and a report and a reconstructed model of a device appeared over his shoulder. “Super— Kal-El, was trying to capture his Batman. As far as I can discern, something went wrong with the process, or their Batman had a tool that could block such things from happening. I must have been the closest alternate, and so I was the one transported. On-screen is a reconstructed blueprint of the device they had. If my plans were successful, it should be destroyed now. I also smashed its remote as soon as I was through the portal. I do not believe they have plans to meddle with this universe anymore, as the regime has been on a warpath against Batman’s insurgency since its inception.”

Throughout Bruce’s speech, he had kept Clark in his peripheral vision. The man had sunk progressively lower in his seat as Bruce continued to lay out the brutal facts. Now the other man looked as though he’d recently been exposed to kryptonite. Bruce felt bad, he really did, but a small part of him was also pettily glad that Clark was hearing this. So Clark knew how Bruce had suffered. So he knew that Bruce had so many goddamned contingencies for a reason. The rest of the league were silent, and occasionally shot concerned glances between Superman and Bruce. Bruce took a moment to readjust, and couldn’t help the sharp inhale of breath as his ribs ground together. Clark met his eyes for a brief moment, then looked away.

Finally, Flash said, “I just don’t understand why he would keep you there, Bats. I mean, you’re the wrong guy.” Bruce, momentarily forgetting he did not have the cowl on, closed his eyes. Oh, he’d wondered the same thing too, at the beginning. He almost wanted to let out a bitter chuckle. Bruce remembered that he did not, in fact, have the cowl on, and so everyone could see his disturbed expression.

“He realized that I could be useful.” And those chilling words made Bruce’s skin go up in goosebumps. Useful, Kal had said, pray you’re useful.

“What did he want?” J’ohn asked. Bruce blinked. He smiled. It was not a happy smile.

“Information. He wanted to know how to destroy Batman. He wanted to know, to a lesser degree, how our league functioned.”

Diana let out a sharp exhale. “Did I assist Superman—”

Bruce’s eyes went to Clark, who was now looking at him with an odd mix of sorrow and horror. “KAL-EL. His name is Kal-El, Diana. It was— he was… Any resemblance to Superman was surface level. His name is Kal-El.” Bruce blinked, realizing that now everyone, including Clark, was staring. He shut his mouth and nodded: continue. Diana, bless her, obliged.

“Did my alternate assist Kal-El in…” Bruce got the hint.

“Yes. She did. However, I was able to answer subversively. They know nothing useful about our league.” Bruce put one heavy hand on the table and stood with the barest hint of a wince. “If there is nothing else…” he said, gazing at each founder. No one objected. Carefully, Bruce shuffled out of the meeting room.

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The original plan had been for Bruce to not be as dramatic during the meeting. But, he had not realized how… intensely his experience had affected him, and so he had displayed rather more emotion than he’d wanted to. Also, the original plan had included him leaving the Watchtower after the meeting. Both so Alfred and his children could fuss over him more— Bruce knew there was no avoiding this— and so he would spare himself, and his fellow founders, the embarrassment of trying to talk post-meeting. The original plan had been to get in and to get out. That did not happen.

The moment Bruce had stood in the meeting room was the moment he knew that he would not be going home after the meeting. His ribs, tightly taped as they were, shifted. He felt something grinding together and it hurt. It hurt so badly that he saw spots in his vision. Bruce barely got a quarter of the way down the hall before a spell of dizziness overcame him and he had to stop and lean against the wall for a long moment. Thankfully, no other leaguers were in sight. Bruce realized at this moment that he had forgotten, again, that he was unmasked. This information was enough to get him to push off the wall with a hushed curse and continue shuffling down the hall.

As Bruce’s room came into sight, he found that he had to rest again. He slid against the wall with a mild thump and gasped. He removed his phone to let Alfred know that he would not be returning but dropped it. For one moment, Bruce stared down at the floor dumbly. Then, reacting on instinct, he bent down to retrieve the device. This turned out to be what Dick called a Very Stupid Decision.

Bruce’s vision whited out, then his knees gave out, and he ended up half-stumbling, half-falling to the floor. He blinked the few traitorous tears from his eyes, grabbed his phone, and moved to stand. His ribs screamed. Bruce hissed, and a few more tears slid from his eyes. His head thunked back against the wall and for a moment, Bruce let himself be. Of course, this was when plan 2.0 went to shit. “Bruce!” called a too-familiar voice. Bruce’s heartbeat sped for half a second before he reined it in. Bruce blinked open his eyes and stared up at the concerned face of one Clark Kent.

“What happened? Why are you on the ground!” Clark exclaimed.

Bruce took a deep breath, and answered, “I dropped my phone and momentarily forgot that bending over wasn’t a good idea right now.” There was a beat of silence.

Then: “Oh. Want a hand up?”

Bruce closed his eyes a moment, so he didn’t have to see Clark’s face. “I can’t.”

“What do you mean you ‘can’t,’ Bruce. You don’t have the cowl— ah. Oh. You can’t. Can’t get up.” And there it was. Bruce could feel the self-hatred seeping out of Clark’s tone. With a sigh, he opened his eyes.

Clark sensed his gaze because he fixed a brittle smile in place and bent down, scooping Bruce up into a bridal carry. Ordinarily, Bruce would have protested, but the position was a relief to his molten-lava ribs, and he was also focused on not freaking out on his best friend again. So, too busy to protest. Superman got them the last few feet to Bruce’s door and let them in.

He set Bruce on his bed and disappeared into the bathroom. He came back with painkillers and a glass of water. Bruce accepted both without protest and downed the pills and water. With a wince, he settled back against the pillows. Clark had taken a seat at Bruce’s desk chair. They were silent for a moment. Bruce knew that Clark needed to say something and so he kept quiet to encourage Clark to fill the silence. It worked.

Clark sighed, and Bruce heard his desk chair squeak. He kept his eyes shut, focusing on Clark. His ribs still ached and burned, and would until the pills kicked in. Best to ignore it. “I’m sorry,” Clark began, “so sorry. I can’t even begin to imagine—”

“Stop,” Bruce said weakly. Clark stopped.

“When I’m being a goddamned idiot you yell at me and tell me to listen. While I can’t yell at you right now to shut up and listen, I can say some things in a forceful tone. So listen. It wasn’t your fault. There was nothing you could have done to prevent it, either. And no, I don’t blame you. Yes, I will be… a little jumpy around you for a while, yes, I have more security concerns now, and yes, I am hurt. But it wasn’t you, Clark. You didn’t hurt me. He did. And though he has your face, Kal is not you.” Bruce cracked one eye open.

Clark was staring pensively at him. He saw Bruce’s gaze and met it with a nod. “Fine,” he said, sounding like he was holding back more. “Do you mind if I—” he gestured to the bed.

“Not at all,” Bruce invited. In a blink, Clark was by his side and helped him scoot over. He put an arm around Bruce’s shoulders. They sat like that so long that Bruce found himself nodding off on Clark’s shoulder.

He realized that Clark had been saying something. “What?”

Clark’s laughter rumbled through Bruce, and his ribs ached, though it was more distant. The pills must have kicked in. Bruce blinked, and caught the end of Clark’s statement: “—should go.”

“Mm, no. ’m just tired… hard to sleep with t’ ribs messed up. Feels… nice, like this.”

Clark was quiet for another moment, and Bruce felt his head drifting towards the other man’s shoulder again. Then: “Okay.”

Bruce nestled closer, appreciating how the support eased the pressure on his ribs. Clark regulated his breathing to match Bruce’s. Absently, Bruce hoped he didn’t drool. Then, he slipped into sleep.

A faint, pained smile appeared on Clark’s face as he looked at his exhausted, injured friend. Cautiously, he thought, We’ll be alright. It’ll just take a little more time.