As he approaches the entrance to their temporary base, the ground under Batman's boots is softer than it was a month ago. Scanning the area for predators, he can see patches where the frozen soil has relaxed into mud. The chill in the wind is slightly less unyielding than it has been; the sun's weak light lingers a little more stubbornly at the end of the day. Signs of spring, of promise.
Batman isn't fooled. He's never been a farmer--though he's observed Alfred planting the manor's herb garden for years-but he knows that early spring is starvation time. The season when the carefully hoarded stocks from the previous harvest begin to give out, and the arrival of new growth to sustain life is still far off. For decades, Gotham has been liberated from dependence on nature, but the events of the past year have thrown them back on this harsh reality. For everyone living in No Man's Land, it is still too soon to hope.
Inside their dimly-lit concrete niche, once a fallout shelter, it's quiet. Tim is staying with Barbara to help her with the increasingly difficult task of patching her systems together, and Dick is late returning from his excursion uptown. Batman feels the faint prickle of worry, but it doesn't change his rote actions as he pushes back his cowl and goes to work storing his load of scavenged goods. Routine has always been one of his mainstays, but now the efficiency it brings is iron necessity; the waste of resources like light and heat is no longer simply foolish, it's lethal. And with his numb and exhausted body, it is a blessing not to have to think.
As he works, the short-term proximity detector gives its strangled chirp, announcing Dick's return.
"Bruce," he greets him as he begins his own careful process of removing weaponry and outer armor. Even these circumstances cannot entirely suppress the spring in his step. Dick has always been lean, but months of dubious nutrition have turned his lines hard and spare. Eyes, hair, skin--all have lost some of their luster under a regimen of limited vitamins and cold water. Still, it is easier for Bruce to look at him than at almost anything else in his great ruin of a city.
"You're late," he says. "Report."
"Yeah. The Museum crowd had some ideas they wanted to talk over. They kept me on for a little while."
Dick sounds only moderately apologetic. Bruce knows that the group holed up in the Gotham Museum of Art are almost the only people Dick's age that he sees on a regular basis. "Plans?"
"They're talking about starting a school when the weather gets warmer. They've got the space, plus the Museum library. Somebody's got to teach the kids left behind, or..." Dick shrugs. "You know."
Dick also refuses to talk as if Gotham didn't have a future. "There would be a lot of problems--"
"Right." Dick pulls off his uniform and slides almost immediately into sweatpants and a sweater. Muffled by the fabric, he says, "You know, we never thought they'd last two weeks in there. They were a bunch of grad students; only a couple of them had any military training at all. But here they are, months later, still kicking around. They've outlasted some of the actual gangs."
"Once the populace figured out that fine art couldn't feed them or heal them, they weren't in much danger."
Dick's head pops out of the sweater. It's a heavy, grey-green, woolen Aran that swallows up his thinner frame and drags at his knuckles. "Maybe. I think it's more than that, Bruce. The fact is, they have something to fight for besides just survival. They really think they're defending the last vestiges of civilization in Gotham. Not just for themselves, for the city."
Bruce turns away and begins counting the number of ampules of penicillin he'd found that day, spread out before him. The question of purpose hangs in the air for all of them. He remembers what drove him when he first returned to Gotham--blind hurt and anger, a disbelief that, for the first time, Bruce Wayne's public folly and weakness had been used against the mission. He'd been determined to restore matters by himself. That had ended in near-catastrophe, and he had relented, calling in Dick and Tim. Now, the mere struggle to hold on looms larger and larger in his vision, threatening to blot out everything else.
"What about you? You must have had a pretty good day--that stuff doesn't exactly fall from the sky around here."
"I ran across a courier for the Penguin."
"In our territory?"
"I think he was making an unauthorized side trip, planning to sell the antibiotics to the Maskers. They need them more."
"But what could they trade that the Penguin--never mind." Dick suppresses a shudder. "What's that? More drugs?"
He's looking at the paper bag. "See for yourself," Bruce says.
Dick unrolls the top casually and peers down. His eyes widen and he plunges his hand in, pulling out the contents a second later. "Is this what I think it is?"
"If you think it's a mango, yes." He remembers seeing it tumble from the courier's load and springing after it, catching it and cradling it as delicately as the graduate students must the Faberge eggs in their collection. There hasn't been any fruit in their stocks since the last canned peaches and withered apples gave out in January.
"Wow." Dick turns it over and over in his hand. "For us?"
"For you. There were two."
Dick sniffs it and audibly swallows. Uncut mangos don't have a strong scent, but Bruce could smell it all the way home. "I'll save half for Tim," he announces, starting to put it down.
Bruce catches his wrist. "You will not. Do you think I haven't noticed you giving him most of your allotment of greens all winter?"
"Come on, Bruce," Dick laughs, "you know I never liked vegetables. Besides, Tim's a growing boy. He needs--"
"So do you." Bruce hasn't let go of him. "I'm sure Barbara is spoiling Tim as we speak. You're going to eat this."
"Well. If that's an order--"
Dick looks longingly at the mango. "All right." He sets it down tenderly and begins hunting for a plate and a knife of the right size.
Bruce steps back as he cuts away the peel, bringing rich orange-yellow flesh to the light. The fruit gleams in the dimness, like a jewel in some lost treasure-cave. Dick's fingers actually tremble a little as he slices it into chunks. Then he picks one up, takes a deep breath, and slips it into his mouth.
His eyes almost roll back into his head. "God, Bruce," he says around the mouthful, "it's--ah-it's hitting tastebuds I forgot I had. It's like my mouth just went from black and white to color!"
He works his tongue around, swallows, and immediately reaches for another piece. It won't keep, of course; every minute exposed to the cold air means a loss of flavor and texture; there's no use in parcelling it out slowly. So Dick shamelessly eats the pieces one after another, with a rhapsodic concentration, juice spilling down his chin, his fingers turning a distinctly citrus color. Bruce watches, soaking it in, and when Dick sighs, "I think every cell in my body is waking up," Bruce is ready to agree.
Then he opens his half-closed eyes further and looks down at the last piece on the plate. "Are you sure you don't want this?"
"I'm sure," Bruce says, though his mouth is watering.
Dick picks it up and steps closer. "It's really good."
"I told you, there were two. I already had one."
Dick raises an eyebrow. "Do you think I can't tell when you're lying, Bruce? At least sometimes?"
He feels a rush of mixed annoyance and pleasure. "Think what you like."
Dick actually waves it under his nose. "Come on. It's fantastic."
Bruce has to catch his wrist again and hold it out away from him. It's pure self-defense. Dick's eyes are sparkling up at him; there's more color in his cheeks than Bruce has seen there in weeks. His mouth is curved into a grin.
Bruce leans down and kisses him, and the surge of sweetness nearly knocks him to his knees. He catches Dick's shoulder with his other hand to steady himself, and drags his tongue hungrily over Dick's sticky chin, tasting the hopelessly commingled brightness of the juices and of Dick himself.
"Eep," Dick says, or something like it. Bruce sees that he's involuntarily squashed the last slice in his hand, sending pulp flying. Bruce pulls that hand in and nudges the fingers away from the palm. He draws one into his mouth to swirl his tongue around it, sucking away all the flavor. Then he licks at Dick's palm, capturing the last remnants of the slice.
When he's finished, he looks back at Dick. His mouth is half-open with shock; his eyes are huge. He knows this is the point where he could break it off, pretend that he'd succumbed to a temporary mango-madness, stalk away into the darkness. But everywhere he's touched Dick, his skin is lit up with pleasure, tingling with life. Certain distinctions that once seemed so vital have been worn away to nothing by the past months' unrelenting scour. Dick is the only spot of color he can see in this grey world. So he kisses him again, savoring even the ghost of the sweetness.
This time, Dick's arms come up around him. With that license, he burrows his hands beneath Dick's sweater, greedy for the feel of the smooth muscle of his back. Dick's skin is roughened by harsh soap, and he smells faintly musty, of clothing dried in a damp cold place, but he's still vital, the muscles playing strongly beneath Bruce's fingers. Bruce pulls at the sweater. Dick laughs and moves back a little, raising his arms to let Bruce lift it over his head. Then he steps in again immediately, molding himself to Bruce's body, nuzzling at Bruce's neck.
It's obvious in an instant why that's a necessity as well as a pleasure; Dick starts to shiver almost at once. Bruce walks them backwards towards his cot. They're both already hard, and he marvels in the back of his mind that they even have it in them. It seems impossibly wasteful and prodigal, and he can't help revelling in it.
They spill onto the cot, and Bruce immediately drags the blankets closed behind them. He has Dick half-pinned against the wall, which clearly disconcerts his fighter's instincts. He squirms and jostles against Bruce, who holds him down, wanting to flood him with all the warmth he has while they grind together. Dick is panting against his cheek, thrusting. He knows this can't last too long, and he's momentarily suspended with indecision, like someone who thinks he's too hungry to choose what to eat. It's an unimaginably luxurious state of mind.
"Bruce," Dick says, and Bruce kisses him again, because Dick gives his whole body up to it, because his breath is warm and he's gotten one arm free to rub his fingers gently through Bruce's hair, simply because he can. He reaches down and tugs at Dick's sweats, his boxers beneath. Dick arches up to let him, conveniently pressing his cock against Bruce's belly. When the clothing is at Dick's knees, he moves his hand to his own waist, freeing himself.
Their cocks touch, and for a moment, it's as if the wires are crossed in his brain; he can't remember what nerves command his hands, he can only groan and buck his hips. Dick gasps, and he recovers himself, pushing gently with both hands as he slides down a few inches. Dick complies, spreading his legs slightly. Bruce guides himself between them.
Dick's thighs are warm and enticing. Compared to the rough wool of the blankets, the scrape of clothes washed in cheap detergent, the skin there is softer than he would have thought possible. Every ripple of his muscles caresses the bare skin of Bruce's cock as he rocks himself back and forth, reluctant to pull too far away from Dick at any moment. Dick moans softly every time his own cock brushes Bruce's undershirt, and it's perfect. For once, there is no present of pinching want and necessity, no future trailing off into bleakness. There is only this timeless plunge into Dick, and he can't imagine desiring more.
When he comes, it's an almost painful rush, an outpouring of resources of the kind his mind automatically registers as dangerous and protests against. In the glow, he defies it, defies everything, whispers "I love you" as he curls his fingers around Dick's cock. Dick jerks at once, violently, and he feels the warmth soaking through to his chest.
"I--I've always--" Dick says. Bruce knows he shouldn't have said it, that he shouldn't let himself hear it, but he surrenders, drowns in the improvidence of it all. He wraps his arm around Dick and closes his eyes tightly, his cheek against Dick's chest. Though wedged in tightly, Dick doesn't move. Bruce can hear his ecstatic heartbeat, quietly slowing into a contented rhythm.
After a while, he becomes aware of icy air at the back of his neck. He moves over, repositioning the blankets, letting Dick roll into a more natural position against him. Calories, he thinks muzzily. They must have wasted some ridiculous amount with this. And more--and the chill that touches his heart is dispelled as Dick reaches over to smoothe the hair at his temple.
They won't starve. And, as Dick lies close, for the first time since his return to Gotham, Bruce feels the promise of thaw in his bones.