They fly to Atlantis in a puddlejumper because that's how John says the city is meant to be seen. Bruce has to sign an extra form agreeing that the Air Force will not be held liable if anything should happen on the ten minute flight from Area 51 to San Francisco Bay. Specifically, he waives liability in the event that the puddlejumper should explode, crash, vent all oxygen, spontaneously transport itself to an alternate reality, or experience about three dozen other disasters, all carefully printed in four point font at the bottom of the form.
The city is invisible, of course. Otherwise it would be the world's most explosive news item of all time, and while the Stargate program will someday go public—Bruce's invitation to tour the city is a first, ever so tentative step in that direction—that day is not today. With the horizon stretching out in front of them it feels as if they're simply flying out to sea, no destination in sight.
Bruce has flown with John before, but not like this. Not in a ship the other man can control with his mind, a ship that literally acts as an extension of his body. John is at peace, here, in a way that he never is in Gotham.
Eventually they pass through the bubble of invisibility that surrounds Atlantis, and then Bruce finds his breath taken away. John has described Atlantis in the past—in detail, at length, and at every possible opportunity—but seeing it for himself is a whole different experience. The city is like nothing else on Earth, all clean lines and majestic piers. A beautiful behemoth that should not float and yet somehow does. Bruce is enthralled. He wants to wander her every hallway, to see John sit in her control chair—he himself lacks the ATA gene—to feel what it must be like to live in a city that is very nearly alive.
Then he looks at John and his own awe is shattered under a wave of despair. He knows the expression on John's face. That is the bright, blind gaze of a man in love.
"I've been trying to find the right way to tell you," John says, his eyes locked on Atlantis, drinking her in, as if to look at anything else would be a crime.
Bruce forces his voice steady. "Tell me what?"
"General O'Neill called two days ago. He finally won the President over. Atlantis is going back to Pegasus."
Bruce has known for almost a year that this was a possibility. He only met John in the first place because while Atlantis was grounded John had, among other tasks, been assigned to be the government's liaison with Wayne Enterprises, overseeing their production of certain devices whose designs are of extraterrestrial origin. Bruce has known from the first that there was a chance that the government would agree to allow Atlantis to return home—and that of course John would go with her.
For the past three weeks, Bruce has been carrying around a question. A question that might destroy everything between them, the repeal of DADT notwithstanding. A question that would open himself up to the possibility of hurt, the possibility of healing, for the first time since Rachel's death. A question that he has wanted, desperately, to ask, and yet has been afraid to voice.
But he knows the expression on John's face. Bruce, too, knows what it is to love a city more than one loves oneself. And so he quietly, and with much regret, tucks that question away in a dark recess of his mind.
"She's beautiful," he says.
John squeezes Bruce's knee—a casual, pleased touch. "Isn't she, though?"
If he could tear his eyes away from Atlantis he would see Bruce's flinch. But he can't.
Before he ends up in a Chinese prison, before the Batman is born, before his life really begins, Bruce Wayne spends one and a half months at the Air Force Academy. He does it partly on a whim and partly to spite Alfred, who probably would not have made that jibe about Bruce being unable to follow orders if he'd known how Bruce would retaliate.
He gets in on his own merits, his expulsion from Harvard notwithstanding, and adapts to his new situation as effortlessly as he always does. The coursework is easy; Bruce has never in his life struggled academically. He prefers the physical training, though. Running, sparring, they aren't mindless activities for him. He never thinks as hard or as well as he does when his blood is pumping and his muscles are on the verge of exhaustion.
He gets along fine and friendless for about a month—take that, Alfred!—and then he meets John Sheppard, by chance, in the Academy's cafeteria.
Bruce enters alone, as he always does, and fills his tray with a plate of meatloaf and a cup of jello. Then, searching the crowded room for a place where he can spread out his advanced math homework, he spots Sheppard sitting in the corner at a table meant to hold six.
Bruce carries his tray over to the table and sits as far from Sheppard as he can, pulling the heavy math text from his bag. As he leans over again to pull out his notebook and pencil his neck tingles in the way that means he's being watched. He slowly straightens and meets Sheppard's eyes. The other cadet is a few years older than Bruce, lean and handsome, with wild hair so non-regulation Bruce doesn't know how he gets away with it.
"You're Bruce Wayne," Sheppard says. Before Bruce can get annoyed by that—most of his fellow students are too polite to point out that someone of Bruce's wealth and fame has no business being at the Air Force Academy—he adds, "John Sheppard."
Bruce recognizes the name. Patrick Sheppard was good friends with Bruce's father. He also owns one of the largest energy companies in the United States. Rumor has it that his oldest son, John, defied orders by running off to join the military rather than enter the family business. That rumor was partly what had inspired Bruce to apply to the Academy in the first place. It occurs to Bruce that if he wants to make a friend here, Sheppard is the perfect choice.
So, naturally, he scowls at Sheppard and says, "Excuse me, I have work to do."
He opens his math book to a random page and looks down, but not before he catches a glimpse of Sheppard's easy, too-good-to-be-true smile. No one should be that handsome.
"I get it. I'll go," Sheppard drawls, standing and picking up his own lunch tray. "I wasn't looking to form a poor little rich boy clique, if that makes any difference."
Bruce does not watch Sheppard walk away. Barely.
He bumps into Sheppard a couple of times a day after that, and he honestly couldn't say whether the cause is coincidence, Sheppard, or himself. Sheppard doesn't seem to hold Bruce's rudeness against him, but he also doesn't seem to be actively seeking out Bruce's company the way some cadets tried to in Bruce's first weeks at the Academy.
Instead, Bruce finds himself studying Sheppard—whenever he can sneak a glance at him without Sheppard knowing, that is. Sheppard is very intelligent. A surprisingly diligent student. He always seems to have a book in hand or a thoughtful crease to his brow. Bruce does well at the Academy because he breezes through it with the same careless brilliance he shows in every aspect of his life. Sheppard, on the other hand, does well at the Academy because he genuinely cares about joining the Air Force.
And Sheppard likes Bruce. Bruce can tell by the way Sheppard smiles that same smile every time he sees him. It's a smile that hints at something more. An invitation, maybe.
One day, Bruce is feeling a little bored with school, his feet itching as if they have somewhere else to be, and when he bumps into Sheppard on the quad and Sheppard smiles that smile, it seems perfectly normal for him to blink and suddenly find himself around the corner, out of sight of the other students, with his back pressed to a wall and Sheppard kissing the life out of him.
Sheppard's a demanding kisser, one hand on Bruce's face, the other clutching Bruce's neck almost painfully. His tongue sweeps into Bruce's mouth, steals his breath, and for once in his life Bruce yields and lets someone else take charge. The sensations Sheppard drags out of him are sharper, somehow, than anything he's felt in years. It feels good, in sharp contrast to the boredom and depression that always trail him like faithful hounds.
His fingers tangle in Sheppard's hair. He clings to the other man as if to hold onto that feeling forever.
Then Sheppard is stumbling away, his lips redder than usual, eyes wide with something like shock and something like desire and something like horror. "I can't!" he snaps, as if he and Bruce have been fighting, or maybe in response to some voice only he can hear. "I can't," he says again, his face twisting with regret, unable to look at Bruce. "They'd expel us."
They both know it's true. Bruce doesn't care. Sheppard does.
Bruce stays slumped against the wall, panting, and watches Sheppard go.
"You were right, Alfred," he says later that evening, sitting in his father's study in the mansion in Gotham, unable to help the bitterness in his voice. "I can't follow orders."
"I never said that that was a bad thing, Master Wayne," Alfred tells him, with the same calm good humor that got Bruce through his troubled teenage years more or less in one piece.
Bruce's lips twist. "Yeah, well. The problem is that he can."
Alfred doesn't ask who "he" is. He does, however, bring Bruce a plate of fresh cookies. He lets Bruce sleep late and agrees not to tell Rachel that Bruce is back in town and as disappointing as ever. And one afternoon, a week later, Bruce wakes to find an application to Princeton on his nightstand, the form already filled out and awaiting only his signature.
A mission to prevent the end of the world really shouldn't feel so much like a vacation, Bruce thinks. It's just that Metropolis is so pretty, like a beauty queen trying on her Miss America sash for the first time. Looking at the gleaming city, Bruce sees a shining example for what Gotham might someday become. For now, though, they couldn't be more different.
It isn't often that Batman ventures out of Gotham. His city needs him, and even a brief absence may be enough to undo much of the good he's done. But when Superman—Superman, with all of his awesome powers—asks Batman for his help stopping Lex Luthor from some evil scheme, well, Batman doesn't say no.
Bruce Wayne comes to Metropolis too. Usually he's scrupulous to avoid letting Bruce Wayne and Batman travel to the same place at the same time—if anyone should draw a connection between his two identities, everything he's fought for might be lost. In this particular case, however, Bruce's presence is vital. He and Lex know each other well from their days at boarding school, and it's Bruce's business and personal connections to Lex as much as Batman's looming presence that's going to help them foil his plan, whatever it is.
LexCorp's central offices take up every floor of a tall, gleaming skyscraper. Standing in front of the building and looking up, Bruce thinks that it isn't as impressive as Wayne Tower.
A handsome man in his late thirties—not Lex's usual brand of assistant, if only because Lex has perpetual hair envy and this man has the best hair Bruce has ever seen—meets Bruce in the lobby. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Wayne. I'm John Sheppard," the man says, smiling pleasantly, his intelligent eyes taking in every inch of Bruce's appearance in one swift glance.
John escorts Bruce to Lex's office and leaves when Lex gives him a nod. Since Lex already knows all about his preferences, Bruce doesn't try to prevent his eyes from following John out the door. The other man has a more confident stride than Bruce would expect from one of Lex's minions and there's a bulge in his jacket where he wears a gun in a shoulder holster.
"I see my aide has caught your eye," Lex says.
Bruce shrugs. "You know that I've always had an interest in beautiful people."
"Hmmmm." Lex leans back in his chair, gazing at him speculatively. "I'll assign him to show you around Metropolis. You haven't spent much time in my city, have you?"
"I've jetted in a time or two," Bruce says. "Most cities pale compare to Gotham, but I have to admit that Metropolis comes close."
Lex raises an eyebrow. "I have actually been to Gotham, Bruce," he says dryly. Before Bruce can retort, he continues, "Anyway, let's talk about why you're here."
Bruce leaves Lex's office half an hour later to find John slouching against the wall just outside, waiting for him.
"Bossman says he wants me to give you the grand tour," John drawls.
There's no doubt in Bruce's mind that John is Lex's spy. On the other hand, Lex is sure to have others keeping an eye on Bruce's movements who won't be so obvious. It makes strategic sense, really, to keep John close.
"Sounds like fun," Bruce says with a bright, fake smile.
He follows John through LexCorp's many hallways, up and down its many floors, pretending to pay a lot less attention than he does.
"So what's your story, John?" he asks.
John glances at him sidelong. "How does a guy like me end up running errands for Lex Luthor, you mean?"
"You have to admit it's a little unusual."
John nods a greeting at a passing woman in a suit. "I retired from the Air Force a few years ago and needed a job. Me working for Lex...well, it upset both of our fathers equally, which seemed like the perfect arrangement."
Both of their fathers. Of course. "Your father is Patrick Sheppard?"
Sheppard Industries isn't on par with Wayne Enterprises or LexCorp, but it is a highly successful energy company that Lionel Luthor once tried unsuccessfully to merge with LuthorCorp using underhanded tactics. Lionel never forgave Patrick Sheppard for avoiding his trap.
Lionel hated Bruce's parents too. The one time Bruce remembers Lionel coming to Wayne Manor, he left in a huff, but not before telling Bruce's parents that they were "soft-hearted, sentimental fools." Bruce's father had taken that as a compliment.
One reason Lex is so willing to do business with Wayne Enterprises is because he knows it annoys his father.
It's obvious that John has other talents that make him useful to Lex besides pissing of Lex's father just by existing, though. He seems to be familiar with every facet of LexCorp's operations, can speak knowledgeably with most of the scientists, and is on a first name basis with everyone they encounter.
The end of the tour coincides with the end of the work day, probably not coincidentally.
"I know have plans," John says casually, unbuttoning his suit jacket and loosening his tie with relief, as if they've been strangling him, "but I usually grab a few drinks after work if you're interested."
Bruce Wayne has made arrangements that involve a large tub of champagne and two blondes from the Metropolis Ballet, but he's sure Alfred can find someone else to take his place on short notice.
John doesn't take him to one of the swank nightclubs they could both easily afford. Instead he drives them to a neighborhood bar in a fairly seedy part of town—seedy by Metropolis standards, positively clean and safe by Gotham's—and orders them each a Budweiser. They sit at the bar and relax.
John is surprisingly quiet for someone who is supposed to be grilling Bruce for information. He seems content to drink his beer in silence.
"Why did you leave the Air Force?" Bruce asks, determined to get something from this outing beyond a slight buzz.
John sets his beer on the bar. "We had a falling out," he says. When Bruce just looks at him, not satisfied with his answer, he sighs and explains, "I was in Afghanistan. A chopper with some of our people went down and I defied orders to try to rescue them."
Bruce picks up on John's choice of words with ease. He tried to rescue them—which means that they must have died. "I'm sorry," Bruce says.
John rolls the neck of his empty bottle between his fingers. "They didn't die. I wouldn't have made it in time, but Superman did. He saved their lives. After that, the Air Force made it clear that I could retire quietly or I'd find myself exiled to Antarctica." He waves for the bartender to give him another beer. "You can probably tell which one I picked."
Over the next few days Bruce sees a lot of John. He worries at first that the other man's hovering presence is going to prevent him from hacking Lex's network, but John always manages to be conveniently absent just when Bruce decides to slip into an empty office and install a virus or sneak behind a scientist's computer and dig his way a little further past Lex's security. It's almost too easy. He would wonder whether Lex is deliberately allowing him access, planning to spring some trap on him, except that Lex has never been that subtle. He's more the instant revenge type.
He and Superman avoid contact. They want to keep Lex from realizing that Batman and Superman are working together until the last possible moment.
He goes out for dinner or drinks with John most nights. Despite himself he enjoys John's company—his laconic way of speaking, his quick mind, his occasionally biting humor. It's been a very, very long time since Bruce has been able to talk to a peer like this. He only ever talks to Rachel about corruption, and Gotham, and times past—but with John, who has never been to Gotham and who doesn't buy Bruce's dumb rich boy act for one second, he can talk business, sports, politics. It's remarkably freeing.
He wonders how much Lex pays John. He wonders whether John, who doesn't seem to care much about Lex, can be bought. He wonders whether John tastes as good as he looks.
Four days after his meeting with Lex, Bruce breaks through the last of Lex's firewalls and figures out Lex's plan. He makes a careful sketch of the designs he finds—can't risk printing them out—and logs out of the computer just before John wanders into Lex's office. Bruce freezes, his face flushing, caught red-handed.
John doesn't ask what Bruce is doing behind Lex's desk, doesn't call for security or reach for his gun. He just says, "Beer?"
Bruce tells himself he only agrees to try to avoid suspicion. Maybe John thinks Bruce has Lex's permission to be snooping on his computer. Yeah, right.
At their usual bar, Bruce feels the plans burning a hole in his pocket. Even as he mechanically sips his beer he's thinking ahead to what will happen when he calls Superman. He and John drink in silence—Bruce is always the one to direct their conversation, and tonight he's too distracted to do so.
John tilts back his beer to catch the last few drops on his tongue and sighs. That sigh, which sounds weary and almost resigned, reminds Bruce that this could be the last time he sees John, perhaps ever. If he's going to make a move, he has to do so now.
"John," he says, nervousness making his pulse quicken. "I'm going back to Gotham soon. I'd like you to come with me."
"I'll beat whatever Lex pays you," Bruce continues quickly. "I think you'd be a real asset to Wayne Enterprises, and...I enjoy your company."
John's face looks pained. "Bruce, I'm in a relationship."
Bruce feels as if he's been punched in the solar plexus. "With Lex?" he guesses, because that would explain a lot.
John laughs. "No."
But, then—"Why have you never mentioned this before?"
"You didn't ask."
Bruce can't stop staring incredulously at the other man. He's used to playing the fool, but he isn't used to feeling like one. He doesn't enjoy it. "Do I know the lucky man—or is it a woman?" For some reason he's never paused to wonder whether John might be straight.
John shakes his head, a refusal to answer the question rather than a denial. "Finish your beer," he says. "Superman's waiting for us."
Bruce coughs. "Excuse me?"
Now John looks amused. "You don't really think you could have gotten through Lex's security so easily without some inside help, do you?"
"I work with Superman, yes. Come on, I'll explain in the car."
Somewhat dazedly, Bruce allows himself to be led from the bar to John's car. He climbs in and fastens the seatbelt mechanically. John peels away from the curb.
"After Superman saved my people, he and I talked a little. Then when the Air Force gave me that ultimatum, we talked some more. He told me that he needed me, that I could help him save lives by being his eyes and ears in LexCorp. He'd done his research and knew that I was the perfect corporate spy." John shrugs. "I owed him, and helping people sounded better than being a glorified taxi driver in Antarctica."
Bruce's eyes narrow. "If he already had you, why did he need my help? You could have gotten the plans more easily than I did."
"Not without blowing my cover. As it is, I have aliases for every time a security breach occurred."
It takes Bruce a while to realize that John is driving them to Bruce's hotel. "We're meeting him here?"
John pulls smoothly into the underground parking garage. "He figured you'd need to change into your costume."
They take the elevator up to the penthouse. The sliding glass door to the balcony is open, a faint breeze blowing at the curtain. In the center of the living room stands Superman, in all of his inhumanly perfect, garish red and blue glory.
"Bruce," Superman says with a smile, "thank you for coming. John tells me you've figured out Lex's plan?"
Bruce pulls the plans from his pocket and spreads them out on the coffee table. John sits next to him. Superman remains standing, peering down at the plans as though to commit them to memory.
"I can't be sure, but I believe he's constructed a device intended to draw power from subspace," Bruce explains. He taps the center of the design. "He's using kryptonite to increase the strength of the device. The problem is that I've read a paper about a machine like this that a prominent physicist tried to construct. He turned it on at a scientific conference and it nearly killed everyone present. With kryptonite at its core, I don't want to imagine how dangerous this device could be."
Superman nods decisively. "We'll have to destroy it."
Bruce can't help but smirk at the superhero's blind optimism. "One problem. If there's kryptonite in the machine you can bet there will be a larger supply in the lab. You won't be able to get close."
"I know," Superman says. "I can fly you in past most of the guards and take care of the perimeter, but I need you to do the actual destruction. Is that going to be a problem?"
Bruce glances at John, who gazes back calmly, as if the prospect of danger doesn't phase him at all. But then, the man had been a helicopter pilot in some of the most dangerous places on Earth.
"No," Bruce says. "Not a problem."
He leaves John and Superman in the living room and goes into his bedroom to change into his armor. Not for the first time he envies Superman's ability to super speed into his uniform. When he comes back out, the two men are standing a little too close together. He strains his ears to catch what John is saying.
"I should be there. I'm not exactly a novice when it comes to explosives."
"Batman will handle it," Superman says with finality. "You've done enough, John."
Bruce lets his voice drop to a growl and his transformation to Batman is complete. "Let's go," he says.
The plan goes off without a hitch right up to the part where a set of glowing green bars slam down from the ceiling of Lex's diabolical lab, imprisoning Batman in a cage. He tries to saw through it but his knife melts against the bars. After that he's careful not to touch them with his skin.
"Well, well, well."
Batman turns slowly to see Lex Luthor standing just beyond the bars, his hand resting on the device Batman came to destroy.
"I have to admit," Lex says, "I was expecting someone else, but I suppose you'll do. I really didn't think Superman would have the brains to call for your help, Batman."
"That machine won't work," Batman growls. "If you turn it on you're going to kill a lot of people."
Lex cocks his head, a faint smile playing along his lips. "Perhaps. Or perhaps I'll have made the greatest discovery of all time."
"You won't be able to hold me forever," Batman warns.
"Oh, I know that," Lex says lightly. "I can knock you out, though. And once I've done that it should be easy enough to unmask the Bat. Your true identity is a piece of very valuable information, wouldn't you agree?"
He presses a button and an eerie green gas starts to seep out of a vent in the ceiling. Bruce tries to hold his breath but quickly finds himself weakening. Before he can pass out, he hears a sickening crunch and looks up just in time to see Lex's eyes roll back as he collapses to the floor.
Behind him is John, holding his gun by the barrel. He must have whacked Lex on the back of the head.
John quickly punches a few buttons on a console and the gas stops pouring out. Then there's a whirring sound and it gets sucked back into the vent and the bars rise as quickly as they came down.
John pulls a few bricks of C-4 from his pocket and places them strategically throughout the lab, then he walks over to Batman and hauls him to his feet. Batman sways, lightheaded, so John wraps an arm around his waist to keep him upright.
"We need to go right now," John says.
He and Batman stumble toward the door, pausing only long enough for John to lean down and pick up Lex's unconscious body, throwing him over his shoulder in a fireman's carry and staggering a little at the weight. John steadies Batman again and they make their slow escape.
"How did you get here?" Batman asks. The lab is located near Smallville, a tiny town a good distance from Metropolis.
John gives him a look that says he's being stupid. "I am a pilot, you know."
They get clear of the building and John tosses Lex on the ground then presses the detonator. The facility goes up in a blaze of light. A moment later Superman swoops down to land beside them, his perfect face drawn into an incongruous scowl.
"What are you doing here, John?" he demands.
"Saving the day," Batman interjects. "You should have more faith in your sidekick, Superman. John's the one who did all the hard work."
Superman shoots him a scornful look—Batman isn't sure which part of what he said Superman disagrees with—and then he pulls John into his arms and proceeds to kiss the life out of him. Despite his lack of superpowers, John seems to be doing a pretty good job of giving as good as he's getting.
Oh. Superman isn't being overprotective of his sidekick. He's being overprotective of his boyfriend.
Envy churns in Batman's stomach as he watches the two of them. Of course John is in a relationship with Superman, the one being on Earth neither Bruce Wayne nor Batman has any hope of competing against. Superman is Bruce's opposite in every way—pure and perfect and superhuman.
"It was a group effort," John says once he's done being thoroughly kissed. He leans against Superman the same way Bruce has seen him lean casually against a wall. "We couldn't have done it without your help, Batman."
His quiet praise doesn't do Bruce one bit of good.
There's not a lot of clean up to do. Superman zips off to leave Lex at a hospital—if only they could pin some sort of charges on him, Bruce thinks, but there's nothing that would stick—and John gives Bruce a ride back to Metropolis in his two seat plane. In the hangar on the outskirts of Metropolis Bruce changes out of his gear and stuffs it haphazardly into a large duffel bag that John produces out of nowhere.
"It's been a pleasure working with you," John says when they're once again parked in Bruce's hotel's parking garage, sounding more formal than he has since Bruce met him.
Bruce forces a smile. "You, too. Give Superman my regards."
"If you ever need help, you've got my number," John offers.
Bruce knows that he'll never call for John's help. It would be too painful. He wants to steal a kiss. He forces himself out of the car.
He had made plans to stay in Metropolis through the weekend. Instead he calls his pilot the moment he reaches his room, arranging to fly back to Gotham tonight. He can't bear the thought of staying in this bright, clean, shining city one minute longer than he must.
At fifteen, Bruce realizes he's gay, falls in love, and gets kidnapped. Not in that order.
He's kidnapped from his bed in the middle of the night by men wearing ski masks and carrying some sort of tranquilizer that knocks him out before he can shout for Alfred. He wakes once, nauseated, in the back of a van, and just has time to puke on one of his kidnapper's shoes before they sedate him again. The second time he wakes to find himself inside a tiny shed, a dark figure leaning over him.
He lashes out instinctively, landing a decent punch on the figure's chin and leaping—well, stumbling—to his feet, ready to continue his attack.
"What the hell?" the guy exclaims, stumbling back into a thin beam of moonlight shining through a gap in the shed's roof.
Bruce's fists unclench instantly. The other guy is a teenager too, no older than Bruce. His face is mottled with bruises, the blossoming one from Bruce's punch barely visible among the rest. His hair is tousled as if he had also been unceremoniously yanked from his bed. He's taller than Bruce but very thin.
"Sorry," Bruce says. "I thought—I'm sorry."
The other boy cautiously takes a step forward as if he half expects Bruce to attack him again. "Don't be—it's nice to know you're not too scared to fight back the way some of them are." He bites his lip. "I'm John Sheppard."
The name sounds vaguely familiar, but Bruce can't place it. "Bruce Wayne," he replies.
John's eyes widen. "They went for the big money with you, didn't they?"
"Money? Is that what this is about? Who are they, anyway? How long have you been here? Where are we?" Bruce can't help but bombard John with questions, his initial relief at finding that he isn't alone fading fast.
"Woah, slow down," John says, holding up his hands. "I don't know who they are, but they're trying to ransom us off. I have no idea where we are. Somewhere isolated, that's for sure. They've had me...eight or nine days. It's hard to keep track. A few other kids have come and gone while I've been here."
"Why haven't they given you back?" Bruce demands.
John shrugs. "I guess my dad isn't paying my ransom." He tries to sound nonchalant about it, but he can't look Bruce in the eye. "I don't think you'll have that problem."
He's right. Alfred will handle this, will pay whatever needs to be paid to bring Bruce home safely.
"If it gets paid immediately, how long do I have to stay here?"
"A day, maybe."
A day. Bruce already feels like he's going stir crazy and it's been about three minutes since he woke up. He can't imagine how John must feel. He squints through the gloom, trying to make out John's face again, but the darkness is too deep.
"Why did they do that to your face?" he says.
There's a long silence, and for a moment Bruce feels as if he's here alone, trapped, and starts to panic. Then John says, "I tried to run. They got mad."
Bruce shivers. John sounds so stoic, but Bruce knows the other boy has to be in pain, has to have other bruises, other injuries, that Bruce didn't see.
He explores their miniscule prison blindly, his arms extended, until he reaches a corner and slides to the ground, hugging his knees to his chest. His mouth is dry. He wants to ask whether there's any water, but he's too afraid that John will say no, will tell him that their captors don't feed them.
"What—what are they going to do to you?" he croaks. "If your dad won't pay your ransom?"
"I don't know," John says, walking over to sit next to him, and though it's a lie Bruce doesn't call him on it.
"Alfred will pay for you too, if I tell him to," Bruce says, inspiration striking.
John laughs bitterly. "How are you going to get him a message?"
"Well, what are you going to do, then?" Bruce snaps. "What's your plan?"
"Nothing." John's voice is so cold now, like he's wishing he was alone. "You should try to sleep. The drugs they gave you don't really make you feel rested, and you'll want to be at your best when they come for you."
Bruce opens his mouth to object, but now that John mentions it, his eyelids do feel kind of heavy.
He wakes sometime later—impossible to guess how long he slept—to a low, repetitive sound. It's too dark for him to make out what it is, so he whispers, "John?"
The noise stops.
"Bruce," John says. "You're awake." He sounds annoyed.
Bruce pushes himself to his feet, a little weak from hunger. More time must have passed since his kidnapping than he'd thought. He feels his way across the floor to the opposite wall, where he can vaguely make out John's crouching figure.
"What are you doing?" he asks.
"Nothing!" John hisses.
Bruce ignores the other boy's protestations, reaching out to touch the wall, exploring with his fingers until they land on a hole of some sort in the wood. He only has time to trace it a few inches before he feels John grab him and shove him against the wall, his fingers digging painfully into Bruce's shoulders.
"Leave it alone," John growls, his breath hot on Bruce's face. He's trembling, with anger or maybe fear.
Bruce's breath catches in his throat and for a moment he expects...something. He isn't sure what—not violence—but John is so close and tensions are running high and then—
—then John is letting go and moving away.
"You're going to run again," Bruce says. Now that John seems to have backed off he feels more comfortable kneeling in front of the hole in the wall and tracing its path. It's almost finished, a square with the floor as the fourth side, barely large enough for John to squeeze through.
He fumbles on the ground until he finds the tool Johnhas been using, a piece of metal smaller than his palm that feels as if it came from a shelving unit and whose end John somehow managed to sharpen.
"Why would you hide this from me?" Bruce says. "I can help!"
"Last time," John says hoarsely, "I told Victoria King. And she told the bad guys."
Bruce gapes. "Wh—why would she do that?"
"She wanted food. And she got it."
Remembering John's battered face, Bruce doesn't have to ask what their kidnappers did to punish him. Despite the beating he endured the last time, though, the other boy is going to run again. Bruce can't help but admire him.
"Let me help," Bruce insists. "Please, John. You can trust me."
There's a long, considering pause. Then, John says, "Yeah. Okay."
Taking turns, they manage to finish carving the escape hole in less than an hour. Cool, fresh air breezes in and they both take a deep breath.
"Thank you," John says, sounding almost surprised that Bruce hasn't blown the whistle yet.
Bruce moves out of the way so John can lie on his stomach and wiggle through their makeshift exit. Bruce feels John's absence keenly, the shed suddenly seeming much more frightening and somehow even smaller.
"Goodbye," John says softly.
"Wait," Bruce hisses. Before he really has time to think about what he's doing, he's squeezing through the hole. Once on the other side, he climbs to his feet, wincing as dried grasses prickles against the soles of his bare feet.
It's the middle of the night. The moon is full and high in the sky and the stars are brighter than Bruce has ever seen them. They must be a long way from any city.
He's able to see John's face more clearly now. The other boy looks like he went six rounds with Mike Tyson. His eyes are very green, and his hair isn't just tousled, it's wild. Oh, and he's scowling.
"What the hell are you doing?" John hisses. "Get back in there."
Bruce squares his shoulders. "I'm coming with you."
"No, you're not."
"Yes, I am."
"No." John glares at him. "Bruce, get back in the shed. They're going to send you home tomorrow. There's no reason for you to run."
John's right. Bruce should stay here, safe and sound in his little cell, and wait to be rescued. But the thought of John out there alone, on the run, is enough to make his gut clench.
"You can't make me stay, John," Bruce says. "Now, come on. We're wasting time."
He picks a random direction and starts walking. He makes it maybe three steps before a hand closes on his shoulder.
"You're going the wrong way," John murmurs, squeezing once before dropping his hand.
"How do you know?"
"That way's east," John says, pointing in the opposite direction. "We're almost certainly west of Gotham and Greenwich."
Bruce doesn't point out that they could be in Kansas for all either of them knows, so "head east" isn't that great a plan. He doesn't have any better ideas, though. Obviously John knows more about the outdoors than Bruce does—at least, he can tell east from west—so for now Bruce is content to follow his lead.
They set out toward a copse of trees as stealthily as they can. John, despite being hungrier and more battered than Bruce, still manages to move faster.
They walk for about an hour before they have to take a break, huddling in the shelter of a large tree.
"We've just got to make it to a house. Anywhere with a phone," John pants, clutching at his side as if he has a cramp.
Bruce hopes the other boy's ribs aren't injured. He knows there's a good chance they're bruised or cracked, maybe even broken. He knows that it's sheer determination keeping John upright. He find's John's endurance impressive.
"You seem to know a lot about the outdoors," Bruce observes, trying to take the other boy's mind off of his pain.
John prods his side gingerly, hissing when he touches a particularly bad spot. "My mother used to take me camping when I was younger. She loved being outside."
Bruce takes note of John's use of the past tense. "Your dad..." he says, trailing off in the hope that John will explain why, exactly, his father has not paid his ransom.
John doesn't seem to want to take the hint. "We should keep moving," he says briskly, levering himself to his feet with a wince. "It'll be dawn soon."
Bruce stands painfully as well. His feet are cut and raw from walking over the rough ground. He and John wrapped pieces of their shirts around them for padding when they first set out, but the cloth provides little protection.
John leads the way, warning Bruce about treacherous footing and holding branches out of the way so Bruce doesn't get slapped in the face. For lack of anything better to do, Bruce finds himself watching the other boy, admiring his steady strides, his messy hair, his ass.
Wait. Why is Bruce admiring John's ass? He tries to stop doing it, tries to look at the trees, the dirt under his bleeding feet, his own hands as they swing at his sides, but every time his gaze is drawn back to that same target. Once John looks back and catches Bruce staring, making Bruce blush. At least John has the decency not to say anything.
It seems like hours later that they finally reach a break in the woods. On the other side is an open field, and in the center of the field is a house.
John and Bruce exchange an excited glance and start running. Adrenaline carries them over the field, gives them strength as they pound on the door, shouting, "Help us, please! Help!"
Somewhere inside a light flickers on. The floorboards creak as someone walks to the door. It swings open and an old woman gapes at them, astonished by their injured and disheveled appearances.
"What on Earth—"
"Please, we need to use your phone," John says urgently. "We're being chased."
To her credit, she barely hesitates before letting them inside and leading them into the kitchen, where an old rotary phone hangs on the wall.
Bruce picks up the phone and dials home. He taps his knuckles anxiously against the wall as the phone rings once, twice—
He's never been so relieved to hear Alfred's voice. The old butler sounds exhausted and worried.
"Master Wayne? Oh, thank goodness. Where are you?"
"We escaped, Alfred," Bruce says. "They're probably chasing us right now. We need you to send help. We're at—" Realizing he has no idea where they are, he looks to the old woman, who rattles off an address in Vermont. He repeats the address for Alfred.
"You stay right where you are, Master Wayne," Alfred says. "I'll phone the police immediately."
They settle in at the kitchen table to wait. Mrs. Harper, the old lady, introduces herself, looking quite distraught, then pulls a casserole out of the fridge and heats it up for them. She pours each of them a huge glass of milk. They thank her and try to warn that their presence might be putting her in danger, but she dismisses their concern.
"My Johnny went off to war when he wasn't much older than you are," she tells them, patting Bruce on the head as if he were a much younger boy. "He would want me to look out for you."
The first spray of bullets takes them all by surprise. It manages to miss the three of them, but does a number on the fridge, sink, and John's glass of milk. Bruce barely has time to register what just happened before there's a second round of gunfire and John tackles him to the floor. For one treacherous moment Bruce enjoys the feeling of the other boy on top of them. Then something warm and liquid touches his hand and he looks over and Mrs. Harper's wide, vacant eyes stare back at him.
He screams. John covers Bruce's eyes with his hand, makes calming noises, and the kitchen continues to be peppered with bullets whizzing just above their heads. Then there's more gunfire, this time not directed at the house, and loud sirens, and then the bullets stop and the only sounds are Bruce's panicked gasps for air and the little moan that alerts Bruce to the fact that John was shot.
After that, things get hazy. Police swarm the building and Bruce blinks and finds that he's been swaddled in an enormous blanket. Another blink and John is unconscious on a stretcher being loaded into the back of an ambulance and the EMT is trying to urge Bruce into a different ambulance but the thought of losing sight of John is terrifying and so he pulls himself from their gentle grip and climbs in after John and grabs John's limp hand and no one is cruel enough to make him move.
Then they're at the hospital and John is being rushed off to surgery and Bruce is on a lumpy bed with an IV sticking out of his arm, and then Alfred is there—how could Alfred have arrived so quickly?—and he's pulling Bruce into his arms and Bruce, for reasons he can't explain, feels like he's just lost his parents all over again.
"John," Bruce says. "What about John? Is John okay?"
Somehow Alfred knows who John is. He strokes Bruce's hair and tells him, "John is going to be all right. His doctors tell me he'll have a long recuperation ahead of him, but he should recover fully, in time."
He goes on to explain that the doctors want to keep Bruce another night for observation —he's been there over a day already, though he doesn't really remember it—but then they can fly home to Gotham. Other than dehydration, Bruce's only injuries are the superficial cuts on his feet.
"We'll bring John back with us, won't we, Alfred?" Bruce says. "He needs us."
Alfred looks worried. "We'll see, Master Wayne. We'll see."
But before John wakes up, his father arrives. Bruce is in a wheelchair, sitting at John's side, when Patrick Sheppard storms in, takes one look at John, and tells a harried looking doctor, "Prepare my son to be airlifted to Connecticut immediately. My own doctor will be taking over his care."
Bruce tries to introduce himself, but Sheppard exits as brusquely as he entered and leaves Bruce gaping after him. John is loaded into a helicopter and flown away just an hour later.
Alfred squeezes Bruce's shoulder. Bruce remembers when John did that, out in the forest, and imagines he can feel the other boy's phantom touch.
"He'll be all right, Master Wayne," Alfred says. "I'm sure you two will see each other again."
A week later finds Bruce back at Wayne Manor, being spoiled tremendously by Alfred and Rachel as he recuperates from his ordeal. He leaves only to go to the funeral of Edna Harper—he is one of the only attendees, as she has no living relatives—and is devastated when John isn't there. He's on edge every moment of every day, waiting for news about John, and every time the phone rings he's the first to pick it up, only to be disappointed.
Until Friday evening.
"Are you okay?" John demands before Bruce can finish saying "hello."
"John?" Bruce says, clutching the handset. "What do you mean, am I okay? I'm fine. Are you okay?"
"You're fine," John repeats, sounding so relieved it makes Bruce's heart hurt. "Thank God."
"Are you okay?" Bruce says again.
"I will be," John says, dismissing his injury as if it was nothing. He hesitates. "Listen, I'm sorry."
Bruce blinks. "Sorry for what?"
"It was my fault you were in danger. I never should have let you come with me."
Bruce has never heard anything so ridiculous in his entire life. "John, you saved my life. And you know you couldn't have stopped me."
"I should have found a way," John insists. He sighs. "I'm glad you're okay, Bruce." His words have an ominous feeling of finality to them.
"Listen, I want to see you," Bruce bursts in before John can say something that means he'll never talk to Bruce again, something like goodbye. "I can be in Connecticut later today."
"No. I don't want you to come. Just—look, just forget that you ever met me, okay?"
Before Bruce can protest he hears the click of John hanging up.
He spends the next seven years trying to get in touch with John, but it turns out that no one can do avoidance quite as well as John Sheppard. His letters go unanswered, his phone calls unreturned. Even his attempts to visit John in person just get him rebuffed at the door by a butler far more dour than Alfred. Over the years he keeps track of John as best he can nevertheless, notes with interest his graduation from the Air Force Academy.
Then one day Rachel leaves Bruce standing on a stinking street in one of Gotham's worst neighborhoods and Bruce makes the decision to stop being the person he's been and try to be someone like John—noble, self-sacrificing, determined. In the years that follow, he molds himself into that person, and somehow in the process he manages to push thoughts of John to the back of his mind. By the time he becomes Batman, John has been firmly relegated to his past.
Despite everything, though, he never forgets John. And he never stops hoping that one day they will meet again.
The worst thing about the zombie apocalypse, Bruce thinks glumly, is not the death of everyone he ever cared about, or the threat of being gnawed to death, or even the misery of being trapped in a grocery store with a group of escaped prisoners, terrified civilians, and one hotter-than-hell Air Force colonel. No, the worst part is that the zombies have somehow, inexplicably, cobbled together a megaphone and record player and they keep playing the same fucking song over and over and over again.
Slow down, you move too fast
Sheppard's footsteps are whisper quiet, but Bruce's senses have been honed by years spent prowling the night.
"Any change?" the colonel says, leaning over Bruce's shoulder to peer through the makeshift blinds at the slavering horde outside.
"If they don't stop playing that song soon, people are going to start to lose it." Sheppard sighs. "I'm starting to lose it myself."
Bruce is keenly aware of the warmth of the other man's lean body pressing up against his. He'd gone too long without any significant form of physical contact before the zombie apocalypse, and the three weeks since—especially the six days spent in this miserable siege—have left him oversensitized.
You've got to make the morning last
They'd met purely by chance, a week and a half after the Kavanagh Virus ravaged the country. Each had been herding a small group of the uninfected across Ohio. They'd been cautious at first when they'd encountered each other—it had seemed almost too good to be true that there were other survivors—but they'd quickly joined forces when a mob of zombies had attacked, managing to kill them through a combination of C-4, the last of Bruce's Batman gear, and a conveniently placed storm cellar.
Bruce had given up on his plan to sneak his people into Canada and altered their course to match Sheppard's. Sheppard insisted that he knew of a place in Colorado Springs where they could be safe, well-armed, and perhaps even find others who were uninfected.
They didn't make it to Colorado.
Just kicking down the cobble stones
"Most of the natives asleep?" Bruce asks, turning from the window to look at Sheppard. The colonel is thin, his face almost hard. He looks not unlike Bruce himself. Even the intensity in their eyes matches.
Sheppard's lips twitch. "I got them all to lie down, at least."
They stand there without speaking, just looking at each other and trying not to listen to that godforsaken song. After it's played through twice, Bruce shakes his head. "I never thought it would end like this."
Sheppard snorts. "I never expected to live this long. My last siege was a killer."
There's a whole story there, Bruce knows, but he lacks the energy to ask for it. In another time, he would learn every detail there was to know about this man. They'll never have that time now. In all likelihood they won't survive another three days.
They reach for each other simultaneously. Lips, teeth, and tongues clash violently. Bruce shoves Sheppard against the window, pulling at the other man's shirt. Not to be outdone, Sheppard blindly reaches down to undo Bruce's buckle.
"We're supposed to be keeping watch," Sheppard gasps, unzipping Bruce's fly.
Bruce bites down on Sheppard's neck. "We can multitask."
Sheppard grins, and if his eyes are wide and a little crazed, well, so are Bruce's. "Groovy."
Lookin' for fun and feeling groovy
Bruce has not left the mansion in almost a week. He hasn't got the energy to go to school, is barely able to pry himself out of bed at all. Rachel's come and gone a few times but he has nothing to say to her—she keeps trying to cheer him up, and the last thing he wants right now is to feel cheerful, or to have to pretend for her sake.
He does feel bad about making Alfred worry. The old butler is grieving, too—he knew Bruce's parents longer than Bruce did, after all—but instead of taking a few days off or looking after himself he spends all of his time taking care of Bruce.
Bruce hears a step on the landing and squeezes himself tighter into the corner, clutching the pillow to his chest. It still smells like his mother, carrying the faintest hint of her perfume.
There's a knock on the door. A moment later it swings open. "Master Wayne?"
"Go away, Alfred," Bruce mumbles into the pillow. He's on the far side of the room from the door and his parents' bed obscures his view of the man except for his polished shoes.
"You have a guest, Master Wayne," Alfred says.
"I don't want to see Rachel."
"It isn't Miss Rachel." There's a pause, then those shoes start moving around the bed until Alfred is looking down on him, the same kindness in his eyes that he showed when he told Bruce that what happened to his parents wasn't his fault. "Master Wayne, your visitor is someone you will want to meet. Trust me?"
If he can't trust Alfred, he can't trust anyone. He gives the faintest nod and holds out one of his hands. Alfred pulls him to his feet. Bruce sets the pillow on the foot of the bed as they walk past, then, because Alfred says he'll be glad to meet whoever's visiting, straightens his shirt and runs his hand through his hair.
Alfred leads Bruce to his father's library—his library, now. A woman is sitting in an armchair but stands with a smile when Bruce walks in. She's about the same age as Bruce's mother—as Bruce's mother was—and very pretty, with long, wavy black hair.
"Mrs. Sheppard, this is Bruce Wayne," Alfred says. "Master Wayne, this is Mary Sheppard."
"Hello Bruce," Mrs. Sheppard says gently.
Bruce nods shyly.
"I was friends with your mother," she tells him. "I am so sorry for your loss."
"You knew my mom?"
Her smile is warm. It reminds him of his mother. "We went to school together. I was a bridesmaid at your parents' wedding."
"Master Wayne," Alfred says, "Mrs. Sheppard has invited you to come and stay with her and her family for a while."
Panic fills him. Is Alfred—could Alfred be sending him away? Has he grown tired of Bruce's moping and decided to get rid of him?
"Of course Alfred would come as well," Mrs. Sheppard says, reading Bruce's expression.
Alfred hastens to say, "Of course. I would not be parted from you, Master Wayne."
"My husband is in Metropolis for the winter on business," Mrs. Sheppard adds. "It would be just you, Alfred, my two boys, and me. It might be good for you to get away from Gotham for a little while."
Bruce bites his lip and glances at Alfred.
"It's up to you, Master Wayne," the butler tells him. "I think it would be good for you."
Bruce wants to say no, but the weariness on Alfred's face makes him hesitate. "How long?" he asks, his voice barely above a whisper.
"As long as you want," Mrs. Sheppard says.
Three days later, Bruce and Alfred disembark from Bruce's parents' plane. Mrs. Sheppard is waiting for them on the landing strip. To Bruce's surprise, she doesn't have a limousine or chauffeur, but instead helps carry Bruce's luggage to a classic Mustang. They load the bags into the trunk and then Bruce, after a moment's hesitation, slips into the passenger seat while Alfred climbs into the back.
Mrs. Sheppard drives them about fifteen miles to a sprawling ranch house, Johnny Cash playing on the speakers the whole way.
"The boys are at school," she says as she pulls into the long driveway. "They should be home in an hour, so you can settle in first."
She gives Bruce and Alfred two large, pleasantly furnished rooms side by side. Alfred unpacks Bruce's clothes first, carefully folding each item and arranging them neatly in a dark oak dresser, then goes to his own room to unpack. Bruce sits on the large, comfortable bed for a few minutes, his legs swinging over the edge, then slides to his feet and decides to explore.
He's never been in a house like this. It's homey in a way Wayne Manor really isn't. Oh, Bruce loves the manor and it will always be his home, but the Sheppard ranch is warm where the manor is austere. He passes a few more guest rooms, an office, a library, a family room with couch and television.
Eventually he wanders out of the house and over to one of the fields they passed on the drive in. He leans against the wooden fence, admiring the horses as they graze on the lush grass. The air here smells fresher than in Gotham and there's a pleasant breeze that tousles his hair.
The tightness in his chest loosens just a bit.
He loses himself for a while, until the crunching of gravel under a car's tires pulls his attention away. He turns to see a town car pull up the drive. Two boys clamber out, one tall and lean, the other shorter and a little stocky. The shorter one is about Bruce's age; the other looks two or three years older. The shorter one starts to head into the house, but the other drops his backpack on the side of the driveway and looks to the field, his eyes widening when he catches sight of Bruce.
"Dave," he calls after his brother.
Dave turns around. The taller one gestures with his head at Bruce. Dave breaks into a grin and together the brothers join Bruce at the fence.
"Hey there!" Dave says cheerfully. "You must be Bruce!"
Bruce shrinks back, finding Dave's boisterous welcome to be a little too much.
The other boy falters a little but doesn't lose his grin. "I'm Dave," he says. Then, in a mock whisper, "I'm the fun one."
The taller one rolls his eyes, accustomed to his brother's antics. "I'm John," he drawls. "Nice to meet you."
"Nerd," Dave coughs under his breath.
John gives his brother a look. "Don't you have homework to do?"
Dave makes a face. "Don't you have anything better to do than steal Dad's lines?"
John elbows him. "If I don't make you do it, Mom'll have to. Midget."
John mock scowls. "That's crossing the line, hobbit." He points at the house. "Homework. Go."
Dave grins and bounds away, seemingly spilling over with energy.
Moving much more sedately, John leans against the fence with his elbows on the top rail. Bruce turns so he's facing the same direction and mirrors the older boy's posture.
"Sorry about that," John says. "Dave means well, but he can be a bit much."
His throat closing, Bruce shrugs.
They stand in silence for a few minutes, watching the horses.
"You like horses?" John asks.
Bruce wants to say yes, but the word won't come out. He shrugs again.
"Ever ridden one?"
Bruce shakes his head.
"You want to learn?"
He stares at John, surprised by the offer.
John seems a little uncomfortable under his scrutiny. "I ride every day," he explains. "Mom comes sometimes, but she hasn't been feeling all that good lately. Dave's allergic to horses. I could teach you, if you want."
Bruce bites his lip. The idea of volunteering to spend time with someone else fills him with dread, but at least John is quiet. And the big horses with their calm eyes appeal to him in a way that nothing has since his parents died.
Biting his lip, he nods.
John smiles faintly. "Welcome to the family."
Bruce licks his lips. There's a sweet, coppery taste on his tongue. Something warm is dribbling down his face, but his body is strangely cold. A damp cloth gently dabs against his forehead, his upper lip.
His eyes flutter open weakly. For a moment all he can see is a blob, but he blinks a few times and the blob resolves itself into a blurry but familiar face.
"John." The name comes out as a whisper. He's so weak.
"I'm here, Bruce."
John squeezes Bruce's hand. Bruce can barely feel it.
"I love you, you know," Bruce says. Every breath sends a stab of pain through his chest.
John lets out a choked cry. "I know. And you know that I—that I—" Even now, he can't say the words.
"I know." Bruce blinks again but the world keeps getting darker. His time is running out. He hates himself for what he's about to do. "John—Gotham needs Batman."
It takes a moment for John to understand. "Bruce—no," he says.
Bruce knows what he's asking, knows that the John Sheppard who returned to Gotham eight months ago was not the same man who'd gone to Atlantis seven years before. Something happened to him, something John still can't talk about, and since then John hasn't held a weapon, hasn't thrown a punch, hasn't so much as watched an action movie. And he's clung to Bruce in a way that he never did before, not even when they were kids and John's mother died.
He's not just doing this for Gotham, Bruce tells himself. He's doing it for John too. The other man will need something besides Sheppard Industries to hold onto when Bruce is gone.
"Promise me," Bruce says.
"I promise." John's voice sounds broken. "As long as I'm alive, Gotham will have Batman."
Bruce lets out a sigh of relief that ends on a rattling cough. "Thank you. Thank you."
John's lips brush against his. It is their first and last kiss and it says everything they have always been too emotionally stunted to say. Bruce swallows, smiles.
"Tell Alfred—" he manages, and then all is peace.
8. Your Choice (Escape)
Bruce doesn't come out and make an announcement or anything, but by the time they've been in hyperspace for two days everyone in the city knows that he's Batman. He thought about just letting Batman disappear—pretending that Gotham's protector never evacuated, maybe—except that right now people need hope and heroes more than ever. Even though Batman's sticking around, though, it just doesn't make sense for him to don the cape and mask anymore. Not now, and certainly not here. Not on Atlantis.
People here have a tendency to treat him with a mixture of caution and hero worship. Not the Stargate people, for the most part—the Air Force and Richard Woolsey and his people have been remarkably calm and competent throughout this process—but the evacuees. It would help if Gordon or Alfred were on Atlantis, but last he'd heard Gordon was on the Odyssey, and Alfred...
Well. The old Englishman is cleverer than any butler has a right to be. Bruce is sure that Alfred made it off the planet. Between thirty-six hyperspace-ready ships, Atlantis, and the Stargate, and with plenty of warning about the Zendark's plan to destroy Earth, almost 90% of the planet's population was safely evacuated.
Atlantis is filled to capacity, but Bruce keeps to his old nocturnal schedule, which means that he often finds himself eating powdered eggs alone at his favorite table on the balcony. Like tonight.
He's been gradually working his way through the Atlantis Expedition's mission reports since he was told that he'd been chosen to evacuate on Atlantis. He would think that the reports were fairytales if he weren't sitting on Atlantis himself, watching the stars zip by. Right now he's using his tablet to read up on a Wraith that all of the expedition members, for reasons beyond Bruce's comprehension, refer to as "Todd."
"Mind if I join you?"
He looks up and feels his heart begin to pound at the sight of John Sheppard standing uncertainly on the other side of the table.
"John," he breathes before he can stop himself.
John smiles that crooked smile of his and spins the chair around so he can sit on it backwards, facing Bruce. "It's been a while," he says.
"A lifetime," Bruce agrees, because that's what it feels like.
How long has he imagined seeing John Sheppard again? Imagined how the other man would look, the life he would be leading sans Bruce. Imagined having the opportunity to tell him how he really feels about him—has felt for him for what feels like forever.
He's seen John around the city, of course—whatever the official documentation might say about Richard Woolsey being in charge, the bureaucrat's not the one everyone is relying on, and John, probably sensing that, has been a visible presence since the evacuees arrived—but he's managed to keep his distance until tonight. It's not that he and John parted on bad terms the last time they saw each other, it's just that—well, it's been years. And last time, John broke his heart.
"So," Bruce says when the silence between them stretches on a bit too long. "Brigadier General? How'd that happen?"
"General O'Neill." John watches him through lazy eyes. "Thirty-eight ways to escape Earth and you end up on my ship. How'd that happen?"
Bruce shrugs and leans back in his chair. "General O'Neill."
They share a smirk and it's almost like old times.
It's possible that in Bruce's imaginings about what a reunion between the two of them would be like he's dreamed that they would fall into bed with each other pretty much immediately. That isn't what happens. They make awkward small talk for only a few more minutes before John gets a funny look in his eye and then says, "Yeah, I'm on my way. Ronon, don't touch anything!"
Over the next weeks of their voyage, Bruce works hard to carve out a place for himself on Atlantis. If part of that involves trying to endear himself to John's friends, well, it only makes sense for him to try to familiarize himself with the most powerful people in the city. He spars with Ronon Dex, whose fierce loyalty to John he can't help but admire. He attends Teyla Emmagen's lectures on the history of the city and has tea with her twice. He doesn't even have to seek out Rodney McKay—the scientist made a beeline for Bruce as soon as he found out that Bruce is Batman, and has been embarrassingly impressed by Bruce ever since. McKay turns out to be an excellent source of information, though, so Bruce endures his hero worship with good grace.
The Earth fleet's destination is a planet whose existence was reported by an Ancient ship called the Destiny. Even with the modified hyperdrives on each ship it will take them well over two years to reach the planet. Bruce only hopes that when they arrive it turns out to be all that was promised.
The next time he talks to John, Bruce is on one of the peers, balancing on the edge and looking down.
"This is where I taught Rodney to swim," John says from behind him, apparently trusting that Bruce won't be taken by surprise and fall off. "The city's awesome when she flies, but she's at her most beautiful on water."
By the sound of his voice, Bruce estimates that John is standing about five feet behind him. He should turn around, but he doesn't. It's easier to talk to John when Bruce doesn't have to look him in the eye.
"I kept hoping you would call me," Bruce says.
"You know why I didn't."
Bruce laughs bitterly. "General John Sheppard. Too busy saving everyone else to let himself be happy."
John takes a few steps closer, puts his hand on Bruce's shoulder. His touch is electrifying, makes every atom of Bruce's being come alive.
"Ask me why General O'Neill assigned you to Atlantis," John murmurs.
Bruce turns slowly. He has to see John's face. "Why did General O'Neill assign me to Atlantis?" he asks, fighting to keep his voice steady.
"Because I asked him to," John says, and kisses him.
"I do," John says, and a moment later Bruce says it as well.
Then there's a kiss, clapping, congratulations. Dinner and dancing—Bruce and John, Rodney McKay and Rachel Dawes, Clark Kent and Lex Luthor, Alfred waltzing with Samantha Carter—and a cake vaguely shaped like Atlantis. Wayne Manor is more alive than Bruce has ever seen it, banners and streamers strewn across the lawn and foyer, confetti everywhere.
Bruce and John call it a night around 2 a.m., though the party is still going strong. They sneak up to their room like children, hand in hand, the music booming behind them, as Tony Stark leads Teyla Emmagen in a sultry tango that has everyone in the ballroom staring.
They collapse onto their king size bed, laughing, kissing breathlessly. John lost his bowtie hours ago. Bruce pushes John's jacket off of his shoulders between kisses, then pulls away long enough to remove his own bowtie.
"Let me see it again," Bruce says, shrugging out of his jacket and tossing it on the floor.
John smirks and rolls over, opening the drawer to his nightstand and pulling out a sheet of paper. While John has his back turned, Bruce wriggles out of his shirt and shoes. John rolls back over and hands Bruce the paper.
Bruce twists until he's lying with his head and upper back on John's chest, then holds the paper up to the light. John splays his hand on Bruce's chest, making him shiver.
"I, John Sheppard," Bruce reads.
John flicks his thumb across Bruce's nipple. "Promise to always love Bruce Wayne," he murmurs.
"I promise to do my best not to think about Atlantis when I'm with Bruce, and to think about Bruce as much as I can when I'm on Atlantis."
"And I promise to do my damnedest not to get myself killed through stupid, self-sacrificing heroism," John finishes. He tugs at Bruce's hair. "Did you have to word it that way?"
Bruce climbs on top of John, lying between the other man's parted legs, and uses one hand to unbutton John's dress shirt. He kisses his way down John's chest, grinning at John's moan. Then he kisses his way back up, ending on John's lips.
"As if your wording was any better," he whispers.
John's laughter rumbles through his chest, making Bruce's skin tingle. "I, Bruce Wayne," John says.
"Promise to love John Sheppard forever and ever," Bruce continues.
"I promise to do my best not to think about Gotham when I'm with John, and to think about John as much as I can when I'm in my giant bat costume."
Bruce scowls and pinches John's nipple, making him yelp.
"And I promise," Bruce says, "that if anyone tries to kill me I'll kill them first. Unless they're smarter, bigger, and/or stronger than I am, in which case I'll run in the other direction like a bat out of hell."
John snorts. Bruce laughs. They kiss, and it isn't long before they shed the rest of their clothes.
"Best prenup ever," John gasps, arching against Bruce.
"Of course," Bruce says, smiling at his husband. "It's ours."