The laser beam was coming straight at them. He had to do something - anything. Now. Without giving it a second thought, Superman did the only thing he could: he flew above the park and stopped, mid-air, right in the laser's trajectory, shielding the crowd from its destructive effects with his own body. And then he braced himself for impact.
A split second later, the thick obsidian ray hit him square in the chest, enveloping him in a dark bubble of light.
People started running, screaming. Some stood, frozen in place, staring at the spandex-clad hero hovering in the afternoon sky. An amateur photographer pointed his camera up and started hitting the shutter button repeatedly, as quickly as he possibly could. Cars came to a screeching halt on every street that bordered the park.
For as long as he could, Superman fought against the powerful force of the laser, even as he was being pushed back toward the ground. With every ounce of his strength, he fought, until he no longer could, and he blacked out, plummeting to the ground and landing in a deep hole created by the impact.
Voices rang in his ears. They had a worried tone to them. He heard his name several times, but he couldn't make out the other words - there were too many people talking, all at the same time. They sounded alarmed. In the distance, he heard a siren. Was someone hurt?
He felt a hand on his arm, as if someone was trying to shake him back to consciousness. Finally, a voice became clearer. A woman's voice. It sounded familiar. Lois.
"Clark? Clark, are you all right?"
Had she just called him Clark? Why would she call him that? Lois couldn't possibly have figured out his secret, could she?
He opened his eyes slowly and squinted against the sunlight. His head felt like it would crack open. "Superman..." he started, wanting to correct her, but his throat was dry and no further words came out.
"Superman saved us as usual," Lois explained, though she sounded frustrated for some reason. When Clark didn't speak, she turned to the crowd of onlookers and shouted, "Hey, we need help over here!"
Clark struggled to sit up. He felt so incredibly weak. He tried pushing against the ground with his hands, but his arms were like jelly and he remained on his back. Someone slipped something soft under his head.
"Are you all right?" she asked again.
"I'm not sure."
He looked down at himself as best he could, and realized that, though he'd been wearing the suit, boots, and cape before he hid the ground, he was now dressed in his usual business suit and colorful tie. What on earth was going on? He struggled to move again, to sit, or better yet stand, but his limbs wouldn't respond.
"Take it easy," Lois told him.
It was more an order than a suggestion and if Clark had learned anything, it was that he'd better heed her words or he'd regret it. He would stay still for the time being. He wouldn't be able to stand anyway, he was sure of it.
"Was anyone injured? Is everyone safe?" he asked, after glancing toward the sky to assure himself that there wasn't any threat to anyone anymore.
"Just you. For God's sake, Clark, couldn't you have had the good sense to move out of the way when Superman dropped from the sky? Like everyone else?" She let out a frustrated sigh. "And I can't believe he just flew off like that. You'd think he would have checked to see if anyone was injured - especially a friend of his! He just mumbled something and flew off like his job was done and he couldn't care less about anyone else."
Clark looked at her, puzzled. She had to be wrong. There was no earthly way Superman could have left the scene; flown away. It was completely illogical. He was Superman, and he was lying right here. Of course, he couldn't explain what he was doing here, dressed his street clothes, either.
The last thing he remembered was trying to resist the force of the laser. And then he'd regained consciousness, in a world that seemed to be making less sense by the minute.
Suddenly, Clark understood. The laser. The laser had done something to him. Whatever that was that had hit him, it had done more to him that simply bathe him in dark light and send him hurtling down to the ground. Something else had happened. Something very, very wrong.
"Are you all right?" Lois asked him again, her expression turning softer.
"No," he told her simply as he fought off a wave of nausea.
A team of EMTs approached him at that moment. They crouched down to his level and started asking him questions to assess the situation. Within a minute of their unceasing interrogation, Clark's head was spinning.
He closed his eyes for a moment. Just the tiniest little moment...
A sudden draft. In the distance, a dull thump and shuffle.
Whispered words; warm breath on his cheek.
He tried to respond, but could not rise above the fog in his brain.
He slipped into darkness again.
A breeze. A thud.
Whispers; different words. Same soft voice.
He couldn't speak. His eyes would not open.
He sank back into oblivion.
Clark opened his eyes briefly and realized he was lying in a hospital room, tubes and needles protruding from his arm.
His head was pounding. His limbs each weighed a ton.
Tired and weak, he closed his eyes again and slid back into unconsciousness.
A gust of cold wind. Another.
Clark shivered involuntarily.
A loud thud, fabric rustling. Coughing.
"Bruce?" he mumbled, barely audibly.
A grunt. One more gust of wind.
His mind wandered into the night once more.
A creaking sound. Footsteps; someone coming.
Clark's eyes fluttered open, but he couldn't see in the darkness.
A whisper. "...awake." Then a sigh of relief.
He reached a hand out toward the shadow.
"...doing everything...promise...soon..." Fingers brushed lightly against his own.
"Bruce?" His voice a raspy whisper.
Clark tried to focus. He looked around the room, now fully awake. He was alone and not quite sure if he'd simply imagined that someone had been standing there, a second ago.
He closed his eyes, frustrated. He lay awake for a long time before succumbing to exhaustion.
When Clark opened his eyes again, the first person he saw was Lois, sitting in a chair by the window. She was flipping through a magazine - one with a supermodel pouting on the glossy cover. A women’s publication that she wouldn’t normally touch unless she was bored. Incredibly bored. She must have been sitting there for a while, he guessed.
"Lois?" he asked.
Her head popped up from behind the magazine. "Hey, sleepy." She gave him a weary smile.
"What are you--" He frowned. She was wearing different clothes than the ones she had on right after the laser had hit. How long had she been sitting there?
"Oh, don't look so surprised, farmboy." Lois unceremoniously dropped the magazine onto the bedside table. "Besides... I'm just keeping the chair warm for your mother."
"My mother?" His eyes widened in surprise.
"Yeah. She refused to get any rest unless someone else stayed here with you." She shrugged. "I volunteered."
"Just how long have I been here?"
"Four days," she said, after a quick glance at her watch. "You were in a coma for two, and then you were mostly out of it anyway. How do you feel?"
"Weak. Tired. I don't know." Clark closed his eyes for one brief moment, trying to make sense of this new information. "What about Superman?" he asked finally.
Lois looked at him, an expression of surprise on her face. "He's fine. I don't know," she answered curtly. She got up from her chair and walked over to a dresser on which sat the latest copy of The Daily Planet. She grabbed it and brought it over to him, showing him the front page. "He's out saving the world. As usual."
"So he's all right?"
"Clark! You've suffered life-threatening injuries - hell, you almost died - and you're worried about Superman? The guy who can swallow a bomb and live to tell the tale? What does it--"
"Just answer the question, Lois," Clark cut in with a frustrated sigh. "Is he all right?"
"I guess. Looks like it."
"But..." he added, knowing there was something she wasn't saying.
"But if you ask my personal opinion, he's been acting all kinds of strange ever since that... thing... hit him."
She shrugged. "I don't know... He seems distant? He never drops by to just... chat. He used to." Lois felt a blush creep across her cheeks. She tried to mask her discomfort with an outpouring of words. "He's barely said more than two words to me - or to any reporter for that matter. He swoops in, saves the day, and flies out immediately. It's just not him. You know? Not to mention he seems to be spending a lot of time with that Batman guy. They've been spotted around the city together a lot. He gives me the creeps that one, I wish he'd go back to Gotham already!"
Clark merely stared at her. Why would Batman be patrolling the city with Superman? He never did that. Batman rarely ever left Gotham. Bruce Wayne did, of course, but he usually left the armor and the cowl at home. What possible reason would he have to take Batman along on a trip to Metropolis this time?
Superman no longer had a second life - they'd apparently been split apart at the atomic level. He couldn't be Clark Kent, since it was a known fact that Clark was lying in a hospital bed. That meant he was Superman around the clock now. And for Bruce to be able to spend any time with him... he'd have to do it as Batman.
They couldn't be seen together otherwise. And Bruce would never, ever, let Superman spend more than a few short moments in Gotham. Clark Kent, sure. The Man of Steel, never. Gotham was Dark Knight territory - he needed to assure everyone that he was the one in control there. He couldn't afford to look weak, to appear as though he needed any sort of help. Except that of Robin, perhaps. The boy was clearly not the strongest member of the Dynamic Duo; he was just the trusted sidekick.
So Batman had been prowling in Metropolis, alongside his invulnerable companion.
Clark gasped. There were tubes and needles in his arm. He had almost died. He wasn't anything near invulnerable anymore - quite the contrary. He was fragile, weak, and just as slow-paced as any normal human being. There wasn't a thing left that was super about him. That part of him was flying around Metropolis in blue tights and a red cape.
And as if it wasn't bad enough that Clark had lost his powers, he was also losing the person that mattered most to him - all to an exact duplicate of himself. Bruce Wayne had no need for poor, vulnerable Clark Kent, when he could have the strong and invulnerable Superman. He'd obviously made his choice already, or he wouldn't have been spending so much time in Metropolis, hanging out with the city's resident superhero.
If he hadn't already been convinced of it before, he was now: Clark Kent was absolutely nothing without Superman.
"Any of these you want to keep?" Lois asked, pointing toward some of the many bouquets of flowers and potted plants Clark had received during his hospital stay.
He looked around the room for something that would catch his eye, but they all seemed similar to him. "Not really, no."
"That'll be a blow to all your female admirers."
"Let's see, there's Lana, Rachel, even Cat Grant... A Mrs. Mitchell - your neighbor, I believe? Your mom, of course. Oh and the girls from research, too," she explained, a bit contemptuously.
"I, uh, I haven't even had time to read all the cards," Clark admitted, a wave of guilt washing over him. The fact that he'd gotten so many was a little bit overwhelming.
Lois looked at him, one eyebrow raised. "Really?"
Clark shrugged. "I'll just grab the cards, read them at home so I can thank everyone."
"Way ahead of you." She handed him a neat pile of cards.
He flipped through them rapidly, barely glancing at them long enough to make out the sender's names on them. It seemed everyone he knew had sent something.
Well, no, not everyone... Only those people who didn't need to hide the fact that they knew him. Or had a relationship with him. Damned secrets!
Unbeknownst to him, Lois had found a single black rose on his bedside table, the first morning she'd come. There wasn't a card. It had looked creepy to her - like someone's idea of a sick joke. These things didn't grow in nature; someone had to have dyed it somehow, and to have picked that color was just too odd. She'd taken it in to one of her contacts at STAR Labs for analysis, on the off chance that it might offer some sort of clue as to who was responsible for the black laser beam. When that didn't pan out, she'd just banished the awful thing from memory.
When Clark walked into his apartment, he was surprised to find Superman asleep on his couch. The man awoke at the sound of the door being closed, and before Clark even realized it, Superman was standing just a few feet away.
They looked at one another for a second, as though each of them was looking back at his own reflection. Except there wasn't a mirror there and they were far from being identical copies of each other.
Clark shook his head dejectedly. No, they were definitely not identical. The man standing at the bottom of the stairs had everything that he no longer had - the strength, the speed, the ability to fly; heck, he'd even pocketed his love interest.
The part of him that was Superman possessed everything that made Clark special, while the part that was Clark Kent was left powerless, normal - and alone. That would have been more than enough for him to despise the superhero, but his heart reached out to him instead.
"Oh, I- I'm sorry, I've been sleeping on your couch. I, uh, didn't know where else to go," Superman said apologetically. He seemed unsure of himself. Almost uncharacteristically so, from Clark's point of view.
"It's fine," Clark said with a wave of the hand. "It's your home too."
"No, it's not. It's yours. I don't have a home." He took a deep breath. "I don't have a real life, a real name, a home... I'm just the powers; the part you can do without."
"If you only knew how wrong you are," Clark told him as he walked over to his other self. "I'm just the ordinary guy - I'm the one slowing you down. You could do so much more without being anchored to my life. You're doing so much more. So much more than I ever could."
"This is a silly argument, I think." Superman gave him a lopsided smile. "Neither of us is complete without the other one."
"We were never meant to be without the other one," Clark reminded him. "And we're going to have to find a way to fix that, too."
"All taken care of," Superman said. "Well, not all. But it will be, you'll--" He stopped abruptly, cocking his head to the side the same way he always did when his super hearing picked up on something. "I have to--"
"Yeah, I know," Clark cut in. "Go."
In a flash, Superman was gone and Clark was left standing there by himself, desperately trying not to give in to the awful feeling of uselessness and inadequacy that was starting to fester inside him.
Clark had been sitting on his balcony, in the dark, for hours now. The TV was on in the living room, and every once in a while he could make out a few words.
He'd watched the news reports on LNN for some time, as a means to catch up with what had been going on in the world while he'd been "out". For a moment it had provided him with a distraction as well - something to keep his mind off what had happened to him. And then they'd shown footage from an explosion that had occurred earlier, in Suicide Slum. Footage, which mostly consisted of images of Superman handling the rescue operation.
At first, Clark had simply sat there, staring at the screen, contemplating the fact that, under normal circumstances, it would have been him out there. And not simply a part of him. He shouldn't have been sitting there, looking at live images of himself, participating in a rescue - he should have been on the scene, saving people. It's what he did. Or what he used to do, he had reminded himself.
Clark had paced his living room for a while after that, wondering how he'd ever be able to go on like this. How he was supposed to exist as only half of his former self? As the powerless, weak half. The half that wasn't of any use to anyone anymore.
He'd tried to convince himself that they'd find a way to fix this, though his morale was slowly taking a nosedive. It sank way below sea level when he caught a glimpse of Batman on the news, after he'd apprehended the arsonist.
Clark's first reaction had been to kick the couch, angrily. He'd let out a loud yelp the moment his foot had connected with the hard wooden leg of the sofa. He had then proceeded to limp away from the living room - and the TV - and out onto his balcony, where he had slumped down to the ground.
The night air had gotten a lot cooler. He'd never really realized that it did that before now. He was so used to having an invulnerability aura to protect him from heat and cold - and from sofa legs, too. Oh, sure, there had been that one time in Smallville, when he'd lost his powers after being exposed to Kryptonite, but it had been a lot warmer then. Tonight was very chilly in comparison.
Rubbing his hands on his arms for warmth, Clark decided it would probably be a good idea for him to go back inside - or at least get a coat. He got up and reached for the door, but before his hand even made contact with the metallic handle, there was a noise just behind him. A noise he recognized instantly: boots hitting the ground.
He turned, expecting to find Superman standing there. His expression turned to one of near shock at the sight of a man in a black Kevlar armor and black graphite mask. Batman.
"What are you doing here?" Clark asked bitterly.
"Wanted to make sure you were okay."
There was a bit of uncertainty in the other man's voice, as though he wasn't sure why he was there - or that he wasn't telling the truth. Without the ability to hear his heartbeat, Clark could hardly tell which of the two hypotheses was the right one.
"Sure," Clark shot back immediately. "You don't have to pretend you care, you know. Just go back to--"
"Pretend? With you?" Bruce was completely taken aback. Had he missed something? Why would Clark think such a thing? "Clark... you're the only person I never pretend with."
"Yeah, yeah," Clark answered dismissively. "You say that, but really, how do I know? I mean, if you can pull off the skirt-chaser routine well enough to fool absolutely everyone, who's to say--"
"You don't seriously think that I--" Bruce let out a frustrated sigh. "You know what? Suit yourself. I am not going to stand here and attempt to prove that I'm telling the truth. I never needed to before, and I'm certainly not going to start tonight." He shook his head and reached for the grapple gun on his utility belt.
A moment later, Batman had disappeared into the night again, and Clark was left wondering if perhaps he'd just made a monumental error.
It didn't matter, he decided, as he walked back into his apartment. Bruce would simply go back to Superman; go on playing partners with him. Even if he had truly shown up here wondering if Clark was all right or not, what use would Bruce have for the weakling Clark Kent had been reduced to? He was painfully aware that things would never go back to the way they'd been between them before the accident.
For a long time, Clark sat on his couch, his head tilted back, staring at the ceiling. The only light in the room came from the TV set, which was still on though the sound was now muted. His phone had rang, but he hadn't bothered to get up and answer, letting the machine pick up instead. He could just tell his folks he'd been sleeping when he'd call them back. They'd understand.
He was about to turn the TV off and head to bed, when Superman landed rather abruptly in the living room. Clark's head snapped up immediately.
"Did I wake you?" the Man of Steel asked, somewhat embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I should have been more careful."
"You look tired," Superman said matter-of-factly. "Maybe you should rest?"
"Speak for yourself," Clark answered after turning a lamp on and taking a good look at the man standing before him.
The superhero was in a sorry state - his suit blackened, his cape ripped and torn. But what was worse was the haunted look he had, and the deep, dark circles under his eyes. Had he seemed so exhausted before the rescue? Clark couldn't remember.
Superman shrugged. "I'm used to it. I don't sleep well anymore."
Clark remembered that he'd found him asleep on his couch when he'd come home, several hours earlier. Perhaps sleeping in a real bed might help cure the fatigue, he thought.
"You can crash in the bedroom," he told Superman.
"Me?" Superman frowned, surprised. "No. I'll be fine on the couch, if you can spare it."
"No, no. You had a tough night, you deserve it."
"You had a head injury!" the Man of Steel protested vehemently. There was no way he would let Clark sleep on the sofa while he slept in his bed. He didn't need the comfort - even the floor would do fine - all he required was somewhere he could lie down.
"Don't treat me like I'm fragile!" Clark shot back. "Besides, if you haven't been sleeping well, then all the more reason for you to take the bed."
"Comfort has nothing to do with it."
"Your point being?" Clark asked, somewhat defiantly. "Look, for all we know you'll wake up to the sounds of some emergency in a few hours anyway. Get some rest, would you? I'm not tired anyway."
Superman walked over to the couch and sat down, crossing his arms in front of his chest, resolutely. "Fine. Then I'll just sit here and wait until you come to your senses. Or until you're tired enough to go to bed. Doesn't matter to me."
"Are you always this stubborn?"
"You should know." Superman chuckled lightly. "I'm you."
"Then you probably know you're going to be sitting there for a long while." Clark sneered.
Superman rolled his eyes. "No, I won't. In fact, I'm going to go and take a shower now."
He got up, walked over to the secret closet where his suits were stored and grabbed a new one before heading toward the bathroom.
When Superman came back out to the living room, a good twenty minutes later, he was pleased to notice that Clark had fallen asleep. He smiled, satisfied with himself for opting to take a shower at normal, human speed - it had obviously been the right decision.
"You should have gone to bed, Clark," he whispered softly, as he walked over to his other self, slumped on the sofa. It felt strange calling this man by what had been his own name until not so long ago. It felt strange just seeing him there - a near exact duplicate of himself... Like a twin, but different.
For a moment, Superman stood there, marveling at the fact that the man sleeping there on the couch had once been part of what made him whole. A part he needed - missed, even. Clark was exactly what Superman had always wanted to be: normal. Human. And adjusting to life without that half of himself had so far been less than easy. Clark was his compass, his balance. The part that was sensible and wise - the part he needed to be able to control his powers and his actions.
He crouched next to the sofa and, as delicately as he was able to, picked up his other self in his arms. Clark stirred ever so lightly, but did not wake up. Superman carried him, cradled against his chest, all the way to the bedroom, where he set him down onto the soft bed. He considered undressing him, but decided against it, seeing as though it was likely to wake him up. Instead, he took off the man's shoes and then covered him with a blanket.
As he sat on the edge of the bed, looking upon his other half - his better half - Superman could only ask himself why Clark would think that, without a human life and anchor, Superman could be so much more than before. The truth was that Superman needed his human half desperately. Without it, he was just a machine - and a somewhat dangerous one, at that.
The first night he'd gone out to help, he'd found that he couldn't control his strength very well. Lifting an overturned car to place it back down, right-side-up, seemed simple enough in theory, but his fists had crushed the metal when he had tried to pick it up, pulverizing parts of the bodywork. And then when he'd managed to lift it up without tearing the vehicle apart, he had set it down so hard that all the windows had shattered. Lucky there hadn't been anyone in the car at the time, or he would have seriously injured them, he was sure of it.
Things had taken a turn for the worse when he'd apprehended a criminal, after a robbery. In an uncharacteristic fit of anger, after having had to chase the man for a minute or two, Superman had grabbed the thief by the throat and hoisted him up in the air. Had Batman not elected to show up right then, and instructed the Man of Steel to loosen his grip, it was very likely he would have killed the criminal - crushing his airway and blocking blood flow to his brain.
After then, Batman had made a point of shadowing him everywhere he went. The Dark Knight had followed Superman on every one of his outings - making sure there were no more "incidents". And while he loved the man dearly, having him there, looking over his shoulder all the time, was getting to be incredibly annoying. Worse yet was that he never saw the man unless they were on the scene of a crime, or a rescue. They never spoke anymore, and definitely never touched. It was as though Superman wasn't good enough for Batman anymore, and though he never had a chance to say so, Superman felt terribly rejected.
His only hope was that Batman would eventually figure out a way to make Superman and Clark a single, whole person again. With all the knowledge he had, and the technology he could access, surely he'd be able to fix this mess. If anyone could, it was Batman. He was the World's Greatest Detective, after all. And then, when Clark Kent and Superman were finally reunited, then maybe Bruce Wayne wouldn't be so cold and distant anymore.
Superman ran his hand lightly through Clark's hair. "Sleep well," he said before getting up from the bed and going to lie on the couch.
A few minutes later, Superman was sleeping just as soundly as Clark.
At 1 a.m., Superman was awoken by frantic screams. Immediately, he made for the balcony and flew out into the night sky. A train had derailed - its cars now just a heap of crumpled metal on the side of the track. Passengers were stuck inside, injured, and screaming for Superman to save them.
He worked as fast and as efficiently as he could, trying to get people out of the wreckage. Batman, as usual, never far away, supervised his every move.
Once the very last passenger had been taken care of, Superman grabbed Batman by the cape and gave him a piece of his mind - once and for all. Sure, he might have needed the Dark Knight around at first, acting as a conscience of sorts, but he was doing well enough on his own now. He told Batman that he should go back to Gotham and find a solution to Superman and Clark's current predicament. That this was a lot more useful work than acting like a shadow to the Man of Steel.
They'd argued, even yelled at one another for a short while. In the end, Superman had managed to anger Batman to the point where he'd walked off, furious, into the darkness, but not before swearing that, being as though he was intent on being stupid and ungrateful, that this was the last Superman would see of Batman for a very long time.
Superman was left standing there, wondering if perhaps he'd just made a monumental error.
Before he had time to analyze the situation more carefully, however, a small, strangled cry caught his ear. He cocked his head to the side, just as he always did, and concentrated on the sound. When he heard it again, he realized that it came from a child who was likely caught somewhere under the debris. A child who wasn't on the passengers' list and for whom no one had thought to look for.
Scanning around with his x-ray vision, Superman quickly located the small boy. He rushed over and pulled him out from under a pile of the train's remains. The child was in poor shape, with fractured bones and numerous deep cuts from which blood was gushing. He picked him up, telling him that everything would be okay. The boy smiled at his hero before lapsing into unconsciousness.
It was a very broken superhero who came back to Clark's apartment, in the early-morning light. He'd lost too much tonight to be able to cope with it all. This wasn't Superman's strength, coping. It was Clark's. And after Superman had managed to alienate his closest, truest friend - push away the person for whom his heart beat - the biggest blow had come when the small boy he'd saved had died in his arms.
How Clark ever got through things like this, survived the pain and the heartbreak, was beyond him. He couldn't do it, himself. The emotions were so overwhelming. The feelings of guilt and inadequacy, over the death of this poor, innocent little boy, were stronger and more powerful than anything he'd felt - at least since Clark had been ripped away from him. And he just couldn't cope. Not alone.
Superman walked toward the bedroom where Clark was still sleeping and unaware of the events that had taken place. In desperate need for comfort, Superman dragged himself all the way to the foot of the bed. Convinced that Clark wouldn't mind, that he'd be the first to tell him that this was the sensible thing to do, Superman shed his bloodied suit and then crawled under the sheets.
As his head fell onto the pillow, the strongest man on earth dissolved into tears.
Awoken by muffled sounds he couldn't identify, Clark slowly emerged from a dreamless sleep. He opened his eyes to find his other self, lying beside him, sobbing uncontrollably into a pillow. Instinctively, he reached out his hand and rubbed the other man's arm lightly.
"What's wrong?" he asked, his voice thick with sleep.
Superman looked up at him, tears streaming down on his cheeks. "Too much...to cope with...can't do it," he hiccupped.
"Cope?" Clark looked at him, puzzled. "What happened? What's wrong?"
"Died...he died...and I cou-couldn't...I wasn't fast enough...couldn't save him."
"Who? Who died?" Clark asked, panic rising inside him suddenly. Who could possibly have died that would turn Superman into a crying mess? His heart nearly stopped when he realized he knew only one person who fit the bill - Bruce.
"A boy," Superman choked out. "Young boy...in the wreckage...died in my arms."
"How did it--" Clark stopped and looked at Superman, making no attempt to hide his confusion. "Wait...it was just a boy?" So Bruce was okay, then?
Superman nodded. "A child. Who d-did...you th-think?" he asked, in between shuddering breaths.
"No one," Clark lied. "Doesn't matter." He frowned, trying to understand why, after all the horrors he'd witnessed, this would be what broke him.
"I wish..." Superman wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and he sniffed loudly. "I wish I cou-could be...strong...like you."
Suddenly things became very clear to Clark. When they'd been split apart, each one of them had been left with their own strengths and abilities. Superman had superpowers - physical powers. And Clark had the intellect, the strength of character, the ability to deal with whatever difficulties life threw at him.
"He was...so small...and fragile," Superman continued. "I couldn't...save him." He had a haunted look in his eyes, as though he was reliving the events.
"It's not your fault," Clark told Superman, gently stroking his arm to comfort him.
Superman shook his head dejectedly. "I failed."
"You didn't fail," Clark insisted. "You did everything you could. You have to remember that: you did everything you could possibly do. But people die, and sometimes even when you try your best, there's just nothing that can be done to prevent it."
"You're strong...and good. And I'm just--" He took a deep breath. "I'm just the...muscles. Useless with...no brains."
"Don't say that," Clark said softly, his heart breaking for the man lying next to him. "You're so important to so many people. You have to realize how much of a difference you make, how much good you do."
"Can't do it without you." Superman looked up at Clark, his eyes filling with tears again. "Can't...don't know how."
"Shh, it's okay." Clark moved in closer and wrapped his arm over his other self's side, stroking his back gently as he whispered comforting, calming words.
"Miss you," Superman said, in a long, heartbroken sigh.
"I know. I miss you, too."
Superman clung to Clark tightly, burying his head in the crook of his neck. "Need...you..."
"I'm right here. Always."
Clark brushed a quick kiss against the other man's forehead. It was a natural gesture; something he'd done so many nights before when he attempted to comfort Bruce from one of the horrible nightmares that haunted him constantly.
What happened next, however, he hadn't planned for.
Superman looked up, eyes red and puffy, pleading for acceptance; begging for someone to care for him, in a world where he wasn't fully himself. A world where neither of them truly fit in anymore. For a long moment, the broken superhero looked at the stronger-willed man before him, and the man looked back at him, an eyebrow raised slightly as if to assure him that he understood; that he cared.
Slowly, hesitantly, and without breaking eye contact until the very last moment, Superman reached up and pressed his lips to Clark's. For a second, Clark froze, and Superman immediately concluded he had done wrong. He was about to pull away, apologize, and retreat to the living room, when Clark started relaxing - and responding.
Hesitant, shy kisses turned heated and passionate. Hands explored bodies they knew as their own, lingering in just the right places to elicit the desired responses.
For a moment, that evening, both men found comfort in the arms of someone who was, in essence, a part of themselves. Both of them desperate to be needed - to belong. And the one person they needed - ached for - the most, was that part of themselves that had been ripped away from them. Forced to exist as a separate being. The part of themselves they both viewed as their better half. The one neither knew how to live without.
On the roof of a nearby building, hidden in the shadows, a dark figure sat, his head in his hands. His heart slowly breaking in his chest.
How could they? Why? Did he not count for anything?
In an uncharacteristic act of sensitivity, he had come here, intent on apologizing for his lapses in judgment. And for the way he'd treated both men, unable as he had been to adjust to the change; to the fact that the person he had known - and loved - was no longer just one person.
Superman had nothing left of the man Bruce had fallen in love with in the first place. Try as he might, he had simply not been able to act the same around him. The man was dangerous if not properly supervised - they both knew it - and so he had taken on the role of a conscience, instead of that of a friend, a lover.
And Clark... Clark had literally rejected him. He didn't even understand why. He'd gone out of his way to show the man that he cared, something Bruce Wayne wasn't in the habit of doing - for anyone. He'd done it anyway. Because it was important. But all it had earned him were accusations. So, angry and hurt, he'd thrown some accusations of his own and had taken off into the night, when he knew he should have remained calm and tried to talk things through instead.
And now this. Proof irrefutable that there was no use for him anymore, now that Clark Kent and Superman existed as two different people. Two different people who belonged together. It was as obvious as it was logical. They'd be happy together, just as they'd been a well-adjusted person when both halves of the man had still been one.
He could never compete with that. He'd always lose. He was dark, moody - difficult. Putting up with him had never been easy for anyone; he was perfectly aware of it. Yet somehow - before the black Kryptonite ray had turned all their lives upside-down - he'd managed to earn the trust, the respect, and most importantly, the love of one man, one truly special man, who accepted him for who he was, deep down, under the layers of masks he wore. One man who stuck by him, always. Who never left. One man who, though he himself wasn't really one at all, made everyone around him better human beings - especially Bruce Wayne.
One man who was no longer one. Who had been made into two and who had found in one another what they'd both likely always needed, craved. Something Bruce Wayne could never give them. A sense of completion, of truly belonging. A sense of happiness.
Since he hadn't been able to give it to them himself, then perhaps he ought to let them be happy together, just as he knew they would be. Perhaps he wouldn't tell them about the cure he had found earlier that evening.
They deserved to be happy. He'd have to rip his own heart out of his chest to make it happen, but if that's what it took, then he would. He owed it to them.
Yes, he'd keep the cure a secret.
- The End -
(yes, before you want to beat me with a stick, there will be a sequel to this.)