Chapter 1: Part I
Commander Clark Kent of the Metropolis Aerial Defense Force stood to one side of the City Bridge, just to the left of Lord Luthor's central dias, and scanned the empty cloudscape beyond the great for'ard Glass. The sun gleamed innocently on the white blanket of stratus oven the Atlantic just east of the Louisianite Desert, touched the great sculpted cumulus towers lightly in passing, and brushed its kindly gaze over the gleaming towers of the SkyCity of Metropolis, as cheerful and bright as if it were unaware of the looming confrontation.
It was that confrontation that lurked in the minds of every citizen of Metropolis, and most certainly the minds of every member of the Flight Crew, the Defense Forces, and the Ruling Council. The air on the Bridge was thick with hushed tension, as they awaited the arrival of their opposition. And privately, most of them thought that a dispute over flightpaths, no matter how wide the area or how frequently they were infringed upon, was worth coming face to face with this particular foe. Even only for talks. Because no-one, no-one at all, wanted to see this City in the light.
She was a new City, the Black Lady. Or rather, a very old city that no-one had seen for nigh on twenty years, after she had disappeared during the Great Upheaval, and never been seen again. Then, some three years ago, she'd come back. Not that people had known her for who she was, at first. It had been rumours. The dark City haunting the Nightside, chasing midnight across the dunes of Earth, following the paths of the stars over the waves. The Midnight Wind, crewed by the damned. And then some poor bastard on a cargosailer off the London flightpath had run into her in the dimness, all ablaze with gaslight stars, her seeker spots great white beams of light prowling over the European dystopia, and at her heart, the unmistakable gothic outline of an ediface from the planet's past. Wayne Tower, flying the black emblem of the Bat.
Gotham had come home, from Hell or Hades or wherever she'd been. And now she ruled the Nightside, even as Metropolis held sway over the daylight paths. And sooner or later, they'd had to meet. The Black Lady and the Shining City. It'd been somewhat inevitable.
That didn't make it any more comfortable a thought.
Suddenly, there was a stir over by the radar-banks. The Flight Crew leapt into activity like a flock of startled birds, darting between controls and Glass, hands flitting over levers and brass keys. The Lenseman set the great Longlass on the South Rampart angling six degrees below the horizonbar and thirty-six east along the x-axis, fiddling until she came into focus on the Bridge Glass.
Clark sucked in a breath in awe, and heard it echoed around the room as Gotham hove into view, drifting up through the stratus at a leisurely pace. One of the Flight Crew cast his right hand hurriedly to his temple in the old blessing, and mutters ran around the room.
"Blessed Winds," the Lenseman breathed. "There she is, the Black Bitch. There she bloody is."
"Quiet," Lord Luthor demanded curtly, his voice absolutely level, but even he watched the Glass with a strange glitter in his eye, as Gotham pulled clear of the cloudbank and hung there for all to see, revealed to the light of the sun for the first time in twenty-three years. She was an incredible sight.
A great black spear of rock hung beneath her, a small inverted mountain, where she'd been ripped from the skin of the Earth in the Great Upheaval. Unlike most modern Cities, she'd not removed it or covered it over with a hull, as Metropolis had. The rock glistened wetly with cloudfrost, a proud declaration of origin, its surface pocked and riddled with black holes, girdled around with skeletal girders and vast beams running back into the mountain, to support the Rampart and presumably the oxygen dome, which for some reason had been pulled down for this encounter. Above the armoured belt of the Rampart, now folded and tucked low, were the vast ribbed contrivances that were rumoured to be some manner of Lightsail, larger versions of the solar sweeps that powered the small boats. And above those again, her towers reached for the sky like great gothic fingers, sunlight flashing off the windows like myriad eyes.
Clark leant forward unconsciously, trying to match what he saw with the myths. There, down in the rock, the faint red glow hinted at in the deeper chasms. Those would be the furnace fires of the massive Flight Engines, leading into the central Engine Chamber, its hellish sweltering depths lorded over by the Fox, Gotham's Enginelord.
And there, the Clocktower, an ancient landmark beneath which, nested in a mass of clicking mechanical arms, the limbless Spider watched over her Glasses, her eyes touching every piece of information on Earth, a datacenter supposedly unmatched even by Metropolis' own Planet Center. Though their dataqueen, Lois Lane, might disagree.
And there. Spearing above all else. The City Bridge. Wayne Tower. Home of the Nightlord, Bruce Wayne, who stood beneath the ancient Bat emblem, proud and ruthless scion of the old dynasties. The man who had taken his City from the Upheaval to Hell itself, if you believed the rumours. The man Lord Luthor wanted to challenge, over the petty disruptions to the Lousianite flightpaths?
Clark shuddered. He didn't want to think of the sheer determination their Lord had to have, to even think about that. He didn't say courage, though. He was reluctant to assign any virtue he himself valued so highly to the cold-eyed Lord of Metropolis. He couldn't say why. But he instinctively did not trust Lord Luthor. Not wholly. A fact which did not make him feel any easier about following him into a confrontation with the Black Lady and her hellspawn Lord.
Clark turned from the Glass sharply at the call. A radarsman turned from the banks, and directed the Lenseman to focus the lesser Longlass on the East Rampart down at the Atlantic Ocean. As the Lenseman complied, dividing the image on the Glass, the radarsman turned back to Lord Luthor.
"The Atlantis Tower is rising, milord," he announced. Luthor nodded curtly, and Clark watched the Glass for confirmation.
The West Atlantis Tower rose sedately above the waves, the water pouring in heavy curtains from the boat platforms at her summit, the encrusted emblem of the Sea King standing out proudly on her flanks. King Arthur, accorded Lord of the SeaCities by the Sea Council, had allowed the use of the surface tower as neutral ground for the meet, and had even agreed to stand as arbiter himself. Which only went to prove the absolute gravity of the situation. The combined power of the Nightlord and Lord Luthor warranted direct monitoring by the only other single power that could match and even exceed them. A mishap here held every potential to start a second Upheaval.
As the Tower settled herself to stand some two hundred feet above sealevel, with a groan Clark almost imagined he could hear even from here, Lord Luthor stood up from the command chair. His deputy, Lady Mercy, immediately flanked him, and every man on the Bridge snapped to attention. Clark stiffened into the appropriate stance, and tried not to wince when Luthor cast his cold eye over them.
"Ready the boat," he commanded sternly. "Landing party with me."
Clark fell in behind him as they headed down to the Rampart and the boat-hangar, along with his counterpart from City Defense Force and an honour guard of six men apiece. A party of sixteen men and women, to meet the greatest scourge the Nightside had ever produced. It was just as well he was as good as he was, Clark thought ruefully, or this could be a long and messy day.
As the boat, Lord Luthor's lightsailer itself, swept down towards the Tower, Clark looked up from his automatic scan of the pilot's actions to see a figure standing alone on the Tower's summit, exactly halfway between the two boat-platforms assigned for their use. As they curved lower, Clark approving instinctively of the smooth path the pilot took them down, he could see the long blond hair and green cloak that only one man on the planet wore. The Sea King himself. King Arthur of Atlantis, come alone to greet them. Clark had to admire his confidence.
The landing went smoothly enough, even if he had to restrain himself from taking the wheel from the pilot's hands at a couple of points, and when it was done he favoured the flushing young woman with a smile of approval. The young pilots were getting better and better these days, as people settled into the pattern of life after the Upheaval. Not that he himself was exactly old. He'd been what, ten, when the cities were torn into flight? But then, he'd always longed to soar anyway. By the rigged lightsail he'd illegally modified in his youth, or the boats he'd piloted as he rose to his current position, or the great SkyCity herself. Metropolis had answered so many of his childhood dreams.
He only wished he could pin down the one hole she had left in his heart, so he could fix that too. The nebulous desire for something more, some unnamed thing that he had yet to find.
But that was neither here nor there, and Lord Luthor was disembarking, striding purposefully towards the silent figure of their host with Mercy at his heels. Clark took up the rear, following the guard as they formed up behind their Lord, and kept his peace as their leader made the courteous greetings required of him. King Arthur inclined his head in response to Luthor's small bow, and nodded regally to everyone in the party. Clark, along with Mercy and his MCDF couterpart, clenched his right fist to his left shoulder in a bow, and the guard swept themselves low at the waist. All perfectly appropriate to their stations. Normally, the archaic forms chaffed at Clark, but the regal nature of the man they faced made it feel natural. The King of Atlantis, the most ancient of Cities, demanded no less.
"Your counterpart is late," the King observed mildly, but with a glint of steel behind it. Luthor gave a small, hard smile.
"He is newly returned to our world, your Majesty. Perhaps it is to be expected?" And for all its politeness, the contempt in his tone could not be fully masked. But Clark, with an eye as always on the sky, saw something to break the momentary tension.
"My Lord," he murmured, nodding respectfully to both. "Is that his boat?"
They looked up, to a man, and stared as Lord Wayne's boat swept down towards them. It was surprisingly nondescript. Oh, elegant, fast, undoubtedly the craft of an aristocrat, but at the same time, it could have belonged to any aristocrat. It was a boat to travel incognito in, not a boat fit for a grand arrival at talks with the potential to set the world to war. And yet ... to Clark's expert eye, it was piloted with incredible grace and skill, and just a touch of showmanship. The curve it made over the Tower was tight and far faster than theirs, expertly controlled, and a stall in the forward motion above the far side of the platform set her down backwards in its exact center. A perfect landing.
And then, as the bay door dropped and the Nightside party disembarked, all two of them, they got their first glimpse of the Nightlord himself. Bruce Wayne.
He was quite handsome, actually, as Clark noted with some surprise. He wasn't quite sure what he'd been expecting. A monster twisted by the embrace of Hell, maybe. But Lord Wayne was something else altogether as he strode out over the platform to meet them, with a proud, stern profile, windswept black hair and eyes alive with a fierce blue fire. He was dressed to match the boat, in a simple white linen shirt and black pants, and then the rich sweep of a midnight-blue cloak with his emblem on the catches. More in line with the Sea King's severe style that Lord Luthor's red-and-gold finery. The girl at his side, silent and watchful, was dressed in even more sober black, but the liquid grace of her movements was in itself impressive enough.
The pair came up beside their party and stopped facing King Arthur and Luthor. Wayne assessed them briefly, a tiny smile maybe catching the edge of his mouth, and then ... He clenched his right fist to his left shoulder and bowed before the Sea King. Arthur blinked in surprise, and wary appraisal.
"That is not required," he noted, unimpressed. Wayne smiled.
"But warranted," he replied softly. "Your position commands respect. Especially from skytrash like us, no?"
"Speak for yourself!" Luthor cut in, affronted. Wayne turned to him, and sketched him a bow, exactly as deep as it had to be and not an inch more. There was an oddly ironic air to him as he did so.
"You don't believe the King of Atlantis deserves our respect?" he asked, something sharp and scornful in his eyes. Clark stared at those eyes in appreciation, even as he flinched from the diplomatic pitfall they'd fallen to before the introductions were even concluded. Or started, for that matter.
Lord Luthor clenched his fist, and the party at his back tensed, but all he did was bring it angrily to his shoulder, and bow stiffly before the Sea King. "My apologies, your Majesty," he murmured. "It was the offensive term of skytrash that I objected to, not the statement that you deserve respect. No offense was intended." Arthur, watching them with something Clark thought might be amusement lurking behind those grave eyes, nodded.
"None was taken," he assured gruffly. "Now. If you gentlemen would like to announce your companions, we will adjourn to the Tower stateroom and ... get down to business. Agreed?" Both Lords nodded.
"My deputy, Lady Mercy of Metropolis," Luthor began, before Wayne could open his mouth. The Nightlord smiled slightly, and greeted her with a nod, which she returned with the appropriate bow. "John Corben, Commander of Metropolis City Defense Forces. Clark Kent, Commander of Metropolis Aerial Defense Forces. And my Guard. Not that I don't trust you, Lord Wayne!" He smiled sharply. "I simply bring them everywhere."
Wayne paused in nodding to each man in turn, and returned the smile with one of his own, bright and veiling. "Of course, Lord Luthor. I never thought otherwise." He looked them over, and for a second Clark felt as if his gaze lingered over him, but that quickly passed. Then he shrugged lightly, and turned to the girl at his side. "This is Cassandra Cain. My ... well. You could call her my bodyguard, I suppose. Not that I don't trust anyone, you understand." The smile turned hard. "I simply bring her everywhere." Luthor nodded stiffly as the girl made her bows, and turned towards the Tower doors without another word.
It was obvious they didn't like each other. Clark only hoped that they didn't dislike each other enough to start a war.
The stateroom was opulent, but in a way that echoed more ancient arts than modern trappings. It was an Atlantean Tower, after all, and its interiors showcased the rich greens, smooth turquoises and pale pinks that spoke of the passing of ages and the fluid shifting of the seas. Great bay windows, made of some thick and oddly organic glass, surrounded the stateroom, affording them an incredible vista of the Atlantic to the east, and the Louisianite Desert to the northwest. Clark, for a moment unable to help himself, stepped up to the window to stare out at the two Cities in the distance. The dark and grim Gotham, and the shimmering spires of his own Metropolis. He wondered for a moment how they would compare to this Tower, to an outside view. To this sentinel of the ancient City of Atlantis, the first of cities.
The Tower was old, in a way few things were after the Upheaval. It was beautiful, and calming in its way. But not calming enough. Not for Lord Luthor.
Before the talks even began, Clark felt a foreboding, and as they wore on he grew stiffer and stiffer as he fought to reign himself in. Luthor appeared to take great pains to circumspectly insult his counterpart, in whatever manner presented itself. It was nothing you could call him on directly, but the intent was obvious. It was rapidly becoming clear that, far from inviting him here to discuss the resolution of a few minor issues, Luthor had arranged to meet Wayne with the specific aim of sounding his weaknesses and those of his City, and in order to provoke the Nightlord.
From their expressions, everyone else in the party had been aware of this. The Guard were remote and professional. Mercy and Corben looked almost eager. And there was a clear light of victory in Luthor's eyes. The only one who hadn't known about it had been Clark himself, and the thought sent a shiver of worry through him. Both because it might mean that Lord Luthor intended to be rid of him, but more importantly because he'd not had time or opportunity to warn his pilots that their Lord might well be deliberately steering them into a war. He clenched his fists beneath the table, and fought to keep his worry from his face.
For his part, and on behalf of his City, however, Wayne did not grant Luthor an inch. That was a relief to Clark in that it might deter Luthor, and a worry in that, should it actually come to a battle ... Well. He wasn't sure he'd like to send his lads into Gotham's teeth, not with this man at her helm. The Nightlord's amiable facade slipped slowly as Luthor's intentions became clear, and a hard intelligence revealed itself in its wake. Wayne's blue eyes turned cool and wary, and utterly contemptuous. He played with his facts with all the misleading talent of a magician, giving Luthor no foothold on his City, to Metropolis' Lord's obvious frustration. Gotham remained a mystery.
Finally, Wayne stood, nodding to King Arthur as he did, and faced Luthor coldly.
"Lord Luthor," he said, quietly. "I understand your concerns over the flightpaths. Gotham has a number of other routes available to her. From now on, our path will not coincide with yours. As I explained from the start, your territories are safe, at least from me. As for your other concerns ... I do not deal with warmongers, Luthor. Nor will I ever."
He turned to Arthur, and offered him again the soldier's bow. "I have given Gotham's resolution on this matter. I hope the arbiter finds it satisfactory?"
The Sea King stood, his gaze cold and harsh as winter seas, and nodded. "For my part?" he said, with a hint of warning growl. "The complaint has been addressed, and I am responsible for no other at this time." Bruce nodded, and turned to leave, but the Atlantean halted him. "But Nightlord?" He waited until Wayne met his gaze, then continued in a low, almost absent tone. "The Upheaval damaged my realm as much as yours. I can no longer afford to remain impartial in surface affairs. Remember that."
Lord Wayne held his gaze for a long moment, frowning slightly, and when he nodded a second time, it was with the weighty deliberation of a man accepting a responsibility. Seeing that, the King of Atlantis released him, and he moved towards the door, the girl prowling warily at his side.
And as he did, Luthor came to his feet, and his entire party came with him, the threat obvious in the mass motion. Clark, unprepared, was slower to stand, and froze as Wayne's eyes swept sharply over him, the blue gaze instantly assessing. Unwilling to bow in the face of it, he straightened to meet those wary eyes, and twitched one shoulder in a faint shrug of unease. Something sparked briefly in the Nightlord's eyes, something quickly veiled as he turned to face Luthor's threat, the girl at his side fluidly shifting her stance in readiness. She looked ... deadly.
"My Lord Arbiter?" Wayne said softly. The Sea King came slowly to his feet, and something in the motion echoed with the rise of the Tower herself in Clark's mind, the readying of a massive force. He shifted instinctively to face the threat, ready to get between Arthur and Luthor. Not that he particularly wanted to protect Luthor at this point, but ... it was his duty. To Metropolis, if not to Luthor himself. And he couldn't bear to fail his City.
But the Sea King did not attack. Instead, his voice boomed out in warning. "You are on accorded neutral ground, Lord Luthor!" He shifted a little, squaring his shoulders, and Clark remembered the rumours of his strength. The pressures of the sea, moulding the man into something greater. "Atlantean ground. And Atlantis takes her duties seriously."
Luthor looked between him and Wayne for a moment, calculating rapidly, but with absolute cool. Then he offered a bright smile, and bowed lightly to the pair of them. "My apologies, your Majesty. It was not my intention to appear ... threatening. I merely intended to offer to escort Lord Wayne to his boat, as his party is so small. As a courtesy."
Wayne studied him for a minute, then straightened, adjusting the line of his cloak with a casual air. "I thank Lord Luthor for his offer," he murmured. "But I'm afraid I must decline. I'm somewhat shy, you see. I don't think I could handle the company." He flashed them a false smile of his own, and with a final nod to the Sea King swept out of the room. Clark stared after him, then turned to face his Lord.
Luthor was watching the Nightlord's retreat with that strange glitter in his eyes, and his expression was nothing short of smug. Clark felt a chill skitter up his spine, and repressed a sudden urge to run after Wayne and see if he was alright. He'd seen that expression on Luthor's face before. But there was nothing he could do. Duty demanded that he remain with his Lord, and running to check if their enemy was alright based on no more than an expression ... There was nothing he could do.
After a fraught pause, Luthor turned to the Sea King to offer his own parting bow. But as he turned to leave, a raised hand forestalled him.
"I would be careful, my Lord Luthor," the King of Atlantis said softly. "I would be careful of starting a war with that man. He is more than he appears."
Luthor smiled. "I assure you, your Majesty," he answered with slow satisfaction. "I have no intention whatsoever of starting a war with him. I wouldn't be so foolish."
Which, really, was no reassurance at all.
Clark's shoulders were tense as they climbed towards the boat platform again. Luthor had done something. He knew it. But he didn't know what. So when they stepped out onto the summit of the Tower to see Wayne's boat rising sedately above them, wheeling to curve out towards home, he sighed under his breath in relief.
About two seconds before the boat's aft exploded.
Chapter 2: Part II
For one dizzy moment as the bits of the boat's steerage rained down into the ocean past the edge of the Tower, Clark felt his muscles tense for action, felt an impossible urge to run to the edge, to leap out and catch the now-falling vessel. As if he could. As if 200ft of empty air and all the weight of a lightsailer meant nothing. It was a ridiculous instinct. But his fingers bit into his palms as he watched the striken boat list drunkenly on its axis and begin the slow tumble to the sea below, and he couldn't help but wish it wasn't impossible.
Behind him, he heard the Sea King gain the summit of the Tower and start bellowing instructions for seaborne rescuers to scramble. With the explosion aft of the cabin, there was every chance of survivors provided Wayne and the girl had had the sense to bail out. The sense, or the ability. But even as orders were relayed down the length of the Tower, Clark felt a wind curl around his back, and looked back to see their own boat lift off. Of course. Their pilot would have been watching, and decent girl that she was, she'd moved to help. With the two cabin crew aboard to man the ladders, she'd have the best chance of getting to survivors in time to do something.
And on the heels of that optimistic thought, a far more chilling one.
He spun to look for Luthor. The Lord of Metropolis stood in the center of the Tower, his face moulded into an expression of shocked concern, barking orders into his personal radioglass. Any survivors were to be taken immediately to Metropolis. The pilot knew best where to find medical facilities in her own City, and time was of the essence. Don't worry about the diplomatic concerns. He'd handle them. Switch channels. Metropolis, send down another boat to pick up the landing party, and prepare for casualties. No. No hostile action.
No hostile action at all.
Clark knew his thoughts were showing on his face, the sick realisation. Luthor caught his eyes as he looked up from the radioglass, and the glittering triumph behind his concerned facade was unmistakable. The tiniest twitch of a smile curved the Lord's lips as he saw the disgust in Clark's face. It didn't matter to him what Clark thought. He'd achieved his aim. He'd successfully managed to either kill or capture Gotham's Lord, without apparently violating neutral territory, and with every appearance of diplomatic integrity. No matter that the ruse fooled the Sea King about as well as it fooled Clark, judging from the hard and violent stare the man directed at Luthor. All that mattered was the appearance, and what could be proven. And they could prove nothing against him, nor prevent him from getting the hostages safely to Metropolis. Not without risking their lives.
Lord Luthor had every reason to feel triumphant. He'd just beaten the Nightlord himself, under the Sea King's very nose, and without breaking a sweat.
Clark did not so much walk back to the group as stalk, his back stiff with anger. And a certain degree of guilt, by association at least. It was his Lord that was responsible. His City. But Metropolis had never been meant for this. That betrayal hit closest.
Luthor smirked at him as they climbed aboard the second boat. "I take it you do not approve, Commander?" he asked quietly. Clark faced him squarely.
"No, my Lord. I do not." Pure truth, and damn the consequences to himself. But Luthor merely shook his head patronisingly, and looked at him as if he were unbearably naive.
"An interesting title, Nightlord," he mused, and smiled at Clark's confusion. "Have you considered it, Commander?" Clark shook his head.
"It's the title for the Lord with a veto on the Council of the Nightside Cities," he answered. "I don't see ..."
"Yes, yes," Luthor waved his hand. "But that is not what you think when you hear the word, is it? It has ... darker connotations, does it not?"
Clark blinked. "I have heard people say that, but there is no reason to suppose ..."
"Isn't there?" Luthor cut in, quietly. "For a man to allow himself to be called such an ominous name ... don't you think it possible that he does so because he intends to live up to it? You know the stories. And while I don't for a second believe that Gotham has literally resurrected herself from Hell ... Her Lord has amassed an awful lot of power in a very short time, has he not? I wonder where he has been, and what he has learned, to garner so much support so quickly. And equally, I wonder what a man of such questionable background intends to do with such power. Gotham's Nightlord. The scourge of the Nightside. Is this the man you would trust with the planet's future?"
Clark opened his mouth to answer, but stopped. Because, put that way ... But that still did not excuse the appalling methods Luthor had used, or the incredible breach of trust ...
Luthor smiled sadly at him. "I do understand, Commander," he said. "You are a relentlessly moral man. But while you may not approve of my means, I assure you that they were necessary. Gotham has too much power to risk a straight confrontation, and with the fate of the world resting on the outcome of this confrontation ... I do as I feel I must, Commander."
And as the boat swung into the hangar, Clark had to leave it at that. He was comforted that at least, if Lord Luthor took the effort to explain, he seemed to forgive Clark his mutinous disrespect. But underneath that relief, he found that he could not quite shake his revulsion for the action Luthor had taken. No matter how potentially justified it had been ... he could not forget the sickening rush of panic as he saw the boat burst into flame, the terror as he watched it sink and thought of the two lives it had tried so valiantly to support.
It was possible that he was naive. Probably unbearably so. But he could not accept such an act, unprovoked and unwarranted. He could not accept the abuse of any man, simply because Luthor was afraid of what he might become. And he could not accept the abuse of Lord Wayne. Because, Nightlord or not, Clark had found himself trusting the man. Instinctively.
Even if he couldn't quite explain why.
Arthur Curry, King of Atlantis, faced the Glass with stern dignity as the image of a City Bridge materialised. Darker than the Metropolis Bridge, lit internally rather than by the refracted natural light of the other City, this command center nevertheless presented an equal air of busy authority. In fact, at the moment, somewhat frantic authority. A harried young man appeared before the Glass, the faint laugh lines at the corner of his eyes belying his current concerned expression. As he recognised Arthur, he blinked, and then offered the same soldier's bow with which Lord Wayne had so cavalierly presented himself. Arthur winced a little internally.
"Your Majesty," Commander Grayson muttered breathlessly. "I apologise for my tardiness." He offered a rueful smile. "We are somewhat disturbed up here, I'm afraid."
"Yes," Arthur answered stiffly. "That is what I wish to speak to you about. Our salvage crews have recovered one of your people."
Instantly, the youth's expression sharpened, his focus razoring in on the King's face. "Alive?" he asked sharply. Arthur nodded, and relief flitted briefly over Grayson's face. "Thank the stars. I assume I can send down a boat for her?"
Arthur frowned. "How did you know it was the female?" he asked, rather brusquely. Grayson smiled bitterly.
"Cynicism, mostly. I guessed Luthor had arranged to have Br... Lord Wayne taken the instant his boat left the Tower. His aims are not exactly opaque. My guess is that Cass was found some distance from the wreakage, with a handsail?" Arthur nodded, frowning, and Grayson smiled again, this time with more life. "She's going to kill him when he gets back," he murmured.
"Excuse me?" the Atlantean barked. Grayson shook his head.
"Long story. Suffice to say, in all likelihood Lord Wayne threw her bodily out of the boat the instant she started to go down. And Cass is not the type of girl to appreciate such gestures, nor the type to bother with words when a good kick can get the point across so much more eloquently. When he gets back, he's going to regret doing that."
Arthur frowned. "You seem confident Lord Wayne will be coming back. You believe Luthor merely intends to give medical aid and release him?"
Grayson snorted. "Do I look like an idiot? Don't answer that! But Bruce has never failed us before. He'll find a way." Then his eyes sharpened again on Arthur's face, and the Sea King felt a discomforting pressure in the gaze. The youth certainly had his Lord's gift for interrogating with a simple look. "But I take it you do not believe Luthor either?"
Arthur stiffened, and bowed his head a little, though there had been no hint of censure in the Commander's tone. "His treachery was obvious to all present," he growled. "But until my crews can retrieve the boat and examine it, I have no proof the sabotage was inacted on Atlantean ground. I cannot act." He raised his head to meet the Gothamite's eyes proudly. "All I can do is offer my apologies that Atlantis allowed this to occur under her watch, and promise that we intend to make restitution for our lapse."
Grayson stared at him for a second, and then shook his head, smiling broadly. "Bruce was right about you," he murmured. "If you'll forgive me, your Majesty, you are indeed a proud bastard, to quote our absent Lord. But you are an honourable one. Bruce was right to trust your authority over these talks. Gotham cannot hold your or your people responsible, your Majesty. We don't hold you responsible. I have no doubt you fulfilled your duty in this matter to the letter, and it's hardly your fault Luthor is a silver-tongued, back-stabbing snake. You have no responsibility to act on our behalf any further."
Arthur blinked, then shook his head with a snort. "You are a better diplomat than your Lord," he commented gruffly, before his tone became grave and vengeful. "But Atlantis will act when she sees fit. Luthor has offended more than Gotham with this act, and I must admit, I would quite like to personally fillet him for it."
Grayson struggled to repress a smirk at that. "In that case, your Majesty, by all means have at him! Gotham will certainly not stand in your way." He smiled. "I don't think we can afford to. But allow us time to extract Lord Wayne before you unleashed the wrath of Atlantis on him, yes? However many pieces he's got left, we'd quite like him to keep them."
Arthur nodded briefly, and his smile was hard and challenging. "Of course. Good luck, Commander Grayson."
Gotham's Commander offered him an ancient salute and a flashing grin. "And you, your Majesty. Happy hunting!"
Arthur gazed at the blank Glass for a few moments after he signed off, a faint smile curving his lips. He could grow to like these Gothamites. Hnh. Proud bastard, eh? He'd been right about Wayne, after all. The man had an ego to match the power of his City. If Atlantis ever had cause for dispute with Gotham, he anticipated a fine challenge in the man. And his command crew, too. That boy had been bright as anything.
But that was not the issue now. The King of Atlantis shook himself, and strode out of the Glass chamber. He had salvage crews to scramble, a forensic unit to get together, and a Tower to make ready for the coming conflict.
Happy hunting. Heh.
Clark stood stiffly to attention in the Interview Hall, just to the left of Luthor's dais, and waited for the ... the prisoner to be brought in. The 'guest', as far as most of Metropolis knew, but Clark knew the truth of the matter. He was dreading the sight of him. He hadn't seen Lord Wayne since the Atlantis Tower, and he was afraid of what the explosion -and Luthor- might have done to that stern, handsome man.
A shuffling sound outside the entrance had his spine straightening further in taut anticipation, and Lord Luthor paused to send him a snide, knowing glance. The Lord of Metropolis had dressed for the occasion, not in the ceremonial and frankly ugly costume he'd worn for the talks, but the more elegant uniform he prefered for City functions. A severe black uniform with the red and gold braiding to stand for Metropolis. He was deliberately aiming to make an impression, to contrast himself with Wayne and clearly announce who held authority over whom.
Though when Wayne was pulled roughly in, it was obvious he needn't have bothered.
Though he looked surprisingly healthy, all things considered, 'battered' was probably still the best word for Lord Wayne. He had lost his regal cloak somewhere along the line, and his shirt had been sacrificed so his chest could be bandaged. The wound, whatever it was, looked to be fairly extensive, and the man bore a number of smaller bruises and lacerations on his face and arms. His left leg looked to be paining him a little, though not enough to impede his walking. It was the harsh grip the guards had on his bound arms and the enforced frogmarch they tugged him in that did that.
And yet, for all that, Wayne's eyes when they met Luthor's were clear and lucid, and bright with contempt.
Lord Luthor steepled his fingers and tapped his lips lightly as he considered his prisoner. He frowned in faux disapproval as the guard dropped Wayne heavily to his knees before the dias, and offered him a smug smile.
"Lord Wayne," he murmured, rich humour riding beneath the patronising concern. "I do apologise for the rough treatment. I'm afraid my men can be ... overzealous."
Wayne dipped his head with a sharp grin at that. "Oh, no need to worry on my account, Lord Luthor. I'm quite comfortable. May I offer you my congratulations on my capture, by the way? That was expertly done." Clark had to admire his composure.
Luthor smiled. "I thought so. A drowning man cannot really pick his rescuer, after all."
Wayne snorted lightly. "Rescuer? Is that what you would call it?"
"You are alive, aren't you?" Luthor responded, and his grin turned threatening. "I have granted you that small mercy."
Wayne raised his head at that, eyes turning grim and sober. "Mercy, Lord Luthor?" he said softly, an air of sudden danger about him. "No. I don't think so. I don't think you know what the word means. You have another aim in mind for me, yes? One, I suspect, that involves my City?"
Luthor's smile slipped away, his own countenance swiftly clouding to match his prisoner. "I have shown you more mercy than you have ever shown anyone, according to my information. You would do well to remember that, Nightlord!"
Wayne blinked at him for a minute, then threw back his head and laughed. Clark jumped a little at the sound, staring at him in amazement, while Luthor looked on with an air of patrician tolerance. Wayne didn't appear to mind either of them, though the pain in his chest strangled some of his guffaws. After a minute, he subsided, wincing, but his eyes were still alive with cynical humour.
"Oh, very nice," he wheezed, one bound arm twitching as if he wanted to bring it to his chest. "Very nice indeed. You are a sly one, Luthor. I'll grant you that. What a leader you must make. A man leading his blinded City by a leash. But a kind voice soothes all ills, does it not?"
Luthor smiled. "That's an interesting accusation, coming from you, Nightlord. Tell me. Where have you led your City, in your time?"
Wayne looked at him, and this time the humour in his eyes was not at all bitter. It was triumphant. "I have taken Gotham to places you will never see, my Lord," he murmured softly, reverently. "Learned things you will never know, and shared them with my City. Gotham is more than you can imagine, Luthor. She is greater than you can imagine." He paused, and smiled a little, before finishing softly. "And she will not bow to you, my Lord. Gotham will never bow to you."
For a second, Luther's face turned ugly with absolute rage. For a second, Clark stared horrified into the mask of fury that transfigured their Lord from a reasoned ruler into a man capable of blowing up a boat, risking the integrity of Metropolis, and flying in the face of Atlantean anger, just to get his hands on one man. The man who knelt injured before him, utterly helpless. As Luther's eyes glittered for a moment with mad fury, he found himself half stepping forward, to come between them.
To protect Wayne.
But before he could finish the move, Lord Luther seemed to calm himself. No. He seemed to disappear behind himself, the stern but fair facade falling neatly over that glimpsed insanity, and a warm and pitying smile made itself known.
"You have damned yourself, Lord Wayne," he observed. "You admit to owning powerful secrets, secrets you intended to deny your equals? Why, unless you intended to use them against us?" He shook his head sadly, and stood, simply watching his prisoner for a moment. Wayne met his gaze with calm amusement, and Luthor's hand tightened briefly, before he loosened it with a smile and walked sedately towards the bound man. He stopped in front of his prisoner, and smiled gently down at him. "You will be held here, Lord Wayne, until your City agrees to surrender to us. And, I am afraid, in the interests of persuading your powerful, forbidden City to stand down before she can harm the citizens of Metropolis, I must enforce that demand by example with every delaying tactic. Do you see?"
Wayne looked up at him for a moment, then dipped his head with a bitter grin. "In short, if Gotham does not surrender, you intend to torture me until they do. For the good of the people, of course. Is that correct?" Clark closed his eyes in anguish.
"It is," Luthor answered, sadly. "For the good of my people." And never did any sentance sound as bitter to Clark's ears, as he watched them pull Wayne roughly to his feet, and saw the strange smile on the condemned man's face. Wayne met Luthor's gaze for an endless instant as they moved to take him away, and suddenly he opened his mouth.
"A moment, my Lord?" he asked brightly. Luthor frowned warily, but nodded. "Just a request, and a thought. Has anyone seen my cloak? The catches are heirlooms. I would not like to lose them."
Luthor sniffed disbelievingly. "That is hardly the greatest of your concerns now, Lord Wayne."
Wayne smiled disarmingly. "I know. But I'd hate to have to tell my dear, departed parents that I hadn't at least tried to find them. It wouldn't seem right, you know?" Clark bit his lip against this announcement, that Wayne fully expected to die here. Murdered, in essence.
Luthor shook his head. "I'm afraid none of my people have the time to look, Lord Wayne. So sorry."
Wayne shrugged, with some difficulty. "Well, I tried," he said brightly. "And Luthor?" He paused until the Lord of Metropolis met his gaze, and then asked with quiet deliberation. "I was wondering ... If the Nightlord is so evil ... If Gotham is so corrupt and threatening ... Why is it that you believe they will surrender their power, just to rescue me?" He smiled gently. "That seems such a humanitarian thing for evil men to do."
Luthor said nothing, his jaw tightening angrily. But as Wayne was dragged away he flashed Clark a searing glance, and smiled slightly when Clark frowned in realisation. His question had never been directed at Luthor. It had been directed at Clark. And the answer was meant to be obvious, even to him. Especially to him.
The Commander of the Metropolis Aerial Defense Forces didn't know why Wayne had singled him out. But he had. All that remained was for Clark to decide what he was going to do about it. He frowned in thought until they were dismissed, ignoring the shrewd glances Luthor sent his way, until finally he came to a decision. Then, determined, he walked outside and headed down to the boat hanger. He had a cloak to find. Midnight blue. Heirloom catches.
That much, at least, Lord Wayne had earned from him.
Chapter 3: Part III
Clark took a handsail down to the Atlantis Tower, settling his feet firmly on the runnerboard and letting the wind in his face calm him until he could think things through. Flying always did that to him, and like this, so free and easy, was the best of all. Up here, there was only him, the movement of the sail under his hands, and the rising wind to carry him where he needed to go. It had been that way every since he had made his first handsail out of the illegally modified lightsail of a cargosailer. He was born to the skies, and sometimes it seemed as if he weighed nothing at all in the air, performing the kinds of manouvers with a handsail that only kids half his size could manage. It had been what had gotten him where he was, that gift for the skies.
It had been what had ultimately brought him to this pretty pass, too.
The Atlantis Tower still stood over the sea, stern and accusing in the fading light. It took him nearly an hour to reach her, with the lesser power of the handsail. Metropolis had moved on from the site, west over the Louisianite Desert, following the path of the sun at a slower pace than normal, but still tied to the daylight paths. Given what Luthor had just done, they could hardly afford to allow the night to catch up to them, and plant them firmly inside Nightside territory. Gotham, on the other hand, had stayed put. He could see her, drifting in the distance over the Atlantic, waiting to slip back into the twilight. He almost felt like she was glaring at him, and under the circumstances could hardly blame her.
He helped steal her Lord, after all.
There was a clamour on the Tower as he swept down onto the west boat platform, as their skyward Longlasses picked up his uniform. After Luthor's little display, and with Gotham standing by, Metropolites were probably not very welcome at the minute. And sure enough, not two minutes after the runningboard had touched the platform, a familiar figure burst through the Tower doors and strode angrily towards him.
Arthur, King of Atlantis, was not happy. His eyes swept over Clark's face, registered him as no less than one of the original landing party, and his features settled themselves into hard, stony lines. He made no effort at all to nod in greeting. "Commander!" he barked, and it was not a welcoming tone.
Clark bowed low, his own expression one of rueful acceptance. "Your Majesty."
The Sea King stared at him, his voice low and dangerous. "You had better have a very good reason for returning here, Metropolite," he warned, and Clark shrugged uneasily.
"Ah, yes," he began, and wondered how to phrase his request. There was probably a very clever, very diplomatic way to do this. But, looking at the angry lines over the Sea King's eyes, and remembering the odd smile on Lord Wayne's battered face, suddenly honesty seemed the best policy. After Luthor's treachery, to treat these people with anything else seemed repugnant.
"And it is ...?" There was no patience in the question.
Clark squared his shoulders and met the King's eyes honestly. "Lord Wayne sent me to fetch his cloak," he said simply.
Arthur stared at him. Clark stared back, face clear and devoid of deceit. The Sea King raised an incredulous eyebrow, but Clark's composure never broke. That was the request he had come here to make, the only request, and it was now up to the other man how he chose to respond to it.
"Lord ... Wayne ... sent you?" the Atlantean finally asked, in obvious disbelief. Clark smiled sheepishly.
"Well, not exactly," he admitted. "He didn't ask me to come here, specifically. But he did ask for the cloak, and since it wasn't with the rescue ... with the boat, I thought you might have found it. So I came to ask."
Arthur just looked at him. "Are you a spy, or an idiot," he wondered, and Clark stiffened in affront.
"Neither, I should hope!" he answered stiffly. "Look. It was Lord Wayne's only request, and Luth ... and no-one else seemed inclined to fulfil it, alright?"
The Sea King studied him for a moment longer, frowning, before turning away with a hard smile to start walking towards the doors to the rest of the Tower. "Then come with me," he called back, over his shoulder, and he seemed almost to be saying 'if you dare'. Clark blinked, then followed with a wry shake of his head. He didn't appear to be making any friends.
He followed the King through halls and stairwells filled with bustling activity, and looked around him with interest and a little awe. The stateroom they had used last time had been purposefully decorated to impress, but even in functionality, Atlantean aesthetics soothed and excited by turns, calling on all the myriad faces of the sea. But her people, here and now, were grim and ready for something, moving with purpose and noting his uniform with hostility. Clark winced internally, and wondered how great an enemy Luthor had just made them. But the potential for Atlantean hostility slipped from his mind as their King led him into a room with only a single occupant, and Clark stared at her in dismay.
Lord Wayne's bodyguard, an injured Cassandra Cain, stared back.
She was in not nearly so bad a condition as her Lord, but Clark flinched from the prominent bruise on one delicate cheekbone, from the slight limp that marred the fluid movement he remembered. She was so young, too. And as he looked at her, he couldn't help but remember the terrifying roar as the boat's aft exploded, the sickening lurch as the only thing that had stood between this young woman and death had slewed around her and fallen burning into the sea. His hands shook. This girl, looking into his eyes, had almost been killed by his Lord.
Her eyes flickered to the stern figure of the Sea King, standing at his shoulder with a dour expression. "Majesty?" she asked, her voice oddly stilted, and Arthur shrugged.
"He claims your Lord sent him," he said, the suspicion ripe in his voice. "Something about a cloak?"
Clark spread his hands helplessly as she looked back at him. "He did ask for it," he tried to explain, and her eyes narrowed on him. He shifted uneasily beneath her gaze, and tried to keep his eyes from that accusing bruise on her cheek, eventually settling on watching his own shuffling feet.
Then, after a moment, she moved, slipping away through the room and into a closet, her stride still graceful despite the marring injury. She reappeared a second later, a length of midnight blue material folded in her arms. Both men stared at her, and she shrugged easily.
"Good man," she explained to the incredulous Sea King, and turned to smile gently at Clark. "Trust him, yes?"
"How can you be sure?" Arthur growled harshly. She ignored his angry stance with more aplomb than Clark could have mustered, and came over to press the cloak gently into his hesitant hands. Clark looked down at her in guilty confusion, and shook his head. Her smile broadened.
"Kind eyes," she murmured, tracing one small hand over his cheek. He flinched in shock, and her smile turned a little sad. "Bruce trust you, yes? You do not fail him." It was half injunction and half assurance, and Clark found himself awed by her calm trust. He felt a sudden need to protect her, this small, deadly young woman, and reached up to take her hand gently. She did not flinch from him, though his uniform gave her definite reason for distrust, and left her hand nestled in his larger one.
"I won't," he promised, a little hoarsely, and she nodded as if this was what she had expected all along, before turning to the Sea King.
"He must leave before boat comes," she said quietly. "Brothers not so understanding."
"Maybe they've reason for that," Arthur observed, but the vehemence had left his tone. Cassandra shook her head with a small smile.
"Bruce need him," she answered, with absolute certainty, and he shrugged.
"Come on, then," he muttered gruffly, and jerked his head to indicate that Clark precede him through the door. With one last gentle squeeze to reassure her that he would at least try to live up to her faith in him, Clark obeyed. Her eyes crinkled at him as he left, lifting the bruise to greater prominence even as her smile denied it's existance, and inside him determination settled over his heart. He wouldn't fail her. He had done it once, in failing to stop his Lord from trying to kill her. He would not do so again.
Back on the summit, the Sea King eyed him curiously as he stowed the cloak in the small storage case on the back of the handsail, and as he straightened Arthur suddenly held out a hand. Clark froze, looking at him, and the Atlantean shrugged uneasily.
"My confidence in Metropolite honour has dipped drastically recently," the Sea King explained harshly, then took a breath to calm himself. "But ... this is an honourable thing to do. You've helped restore my faith, a little." Clark blinked at him in surprise, then took his hand with a smile of gratitude. His heart lifted at the words.
"I'm glad to have done so, your Majesty," he replied, softly and sincerely. Metropolis did not deserve the disdain Luthor had brought on her.
"But!" Arthur warned suddenly. "Note this. If that man dies, having trusted us to keep him safe at least here, where he was taken ..." He paused, and his eyes glittered with fury. When he started again, his tone held dire warning. "If he dies, Metropolis and her traitorous Lord will know the full extent of Atlantean fury, I promise you. If Wayne dies, there will be nowhere on this planet Luthor can run. Not from me. Do you understand!"
"I ... I understand," Clark said quietly. The King of Atlantis smiled harshly at him.
"You tell him that, if you can," he instructed. "Tell Luthor who's coming for him. Atlantis will not stand to be betrayed." And with those parting words, he turned and strode away, his green cloak flapping in the wind, his back stiff with fury. Clark stared after him, his heart filled with sudden dread, and a new determination as he lifted off once more.
He had to save Wayne. Or Metropolis herself would pay the price for Luthor's foolishness.
It took him a little work to get in to see Wayne, but for once Luthor's obsession with order and respect proved useful, and his status as Commander soon persuaded the guards around the guest suite prison to let him through. He paused for a minute to take a deep breath before entering, the cloak tucked securely under his arm, and then opened the door with a knock to warn its occupant.
He stopped just inside the door too. But that was in pure dismay.
Lord Wayne stood slowly from where he had been resting against the far wall, and paced cautiously towards Clark as far as the chains around his wrists would allow. Those were a new fixture, Clark noted absently, and looked so out of place in the opulent furnishings of the suite. But he was preoccupied with the way the man winced and brought one hand to the bandages at his chest as he stood, with what Clark swore was a fresh bruise on one cheek, with the way his lip was split where it hadn't been before. Though the blue eyes were still alive and humourous in the battered face, and the mouth still curved slightly around the bruises at his obvious dismay, Clark still flinched from the mistreatment the man had so clearly suffered. And would continue to suffer, unless something was done.
"Commander Kent," Wayne noted wryly, the humour warm in his tone. "That was a very polite entrance, under the circumstances."
Clark flinched, his head automatically turning a little back towards the door. "Was it?" he managed, and then cursed himself for the foolishness of it. It was obvious the man's other 'visitors' had not been nearly so polite.
"It was," Wayne assured, his smile widening, and raised a questioning eyebrow. "And to what do I owe the pleasure, Commander, of so polite a visit?"
Clark looked down at his feet, the rueful humour of the man only shaming him more, in the face of all that he had allowed to happen to him. With rough movements, he tugged the cloak from under his arm, and held it out in mute appeal and explanation. It suddenly seemed such a paltry gesture.
"You asked for this," he muttered, not meeting the other's eyes as he moved forward to hand it to him. Wayne paused for a minute, before reaching out to lay hands covered in cuts gently over the material. But he didn't take it, and Clark looked up in surprise, to meet the curious gaze of intelligent blue eyes. He froze.
"I did indeed," Wayne said, slowly, consideringly. "And you decided to do as I asked, Commander?" Clark shrugged uneasily.
"I thought ..." He stopped, then decided he might as well finish. "It seemed as if you were asking me, my Lord." Wayne's lips flitted into a brief, delighted smile.
"Did it?" he mused. "I must have been, then. You strike me as a perceptive man, Commander." And he took the weight of the cloak from Clark's unprotesting hands, allowing him to back away from that weighing gaze with relief. "I do hope I didn't put you to any trouble?"
"None at all," Clark answered hurriedly, thinking of the ease of the flight, and how much he would prefer to do it all over again rather than be here this moment. And as he thought of that, something else came to mind. "Oh, and your bodyguard, Cassandra?" Wayne frowned, and nodded. "She's alright, and being well taken care of."
"She's here?" Wayne asked sharply, and Clark hurriedly shook his head as he realised what that sounded like.
"No, no!" he assured, dipping his head. "She was at the Atlantis Tower. The Sea King's salvage crews found her. He had arranged for a boat to come from Gotham to pick her up. I think it was leaving your City just as I pulled away from the Tower."
There was silence for a long minute, until Clark was prompted by it to look up again, and found Wayne staring at him in amazement. He frowned, and Wayne shook his head slightly in disbelief. "You ... went to the Tower, to get me this?" Gotham's Lord asked finally, warmly incredulous. "And considered it no trouble? None at all?"
Clark blinked, and shrugged sheepishly as he tried to explain. "Well, I asked the pilot, and it wasn't with you when you were re... recovered." Wayne grinned sharply at that little evasion. "So I thought it might be on the Tower, and I needed the flight to think, anyway."
Wayne stared at him, shaking his head in amazement. He said nothing for a minute, and Clark watched him nervously. But before either could say anything, there was a noise from further down the corridor, muffled by the door and the walls, and Wayne looked up sharply with worried, determined eyes. Clark looked at him, then turned to face the door.
"If you're going to use that to escape," he said softly, shifting to a defensive stance. "Now would be a very good time."
"It would indeed," came Wayne's wry voice from behind him. "So if you would like to absent yourself, Commander?" Clark shook his head, and that smooth voice took on a pointed edge. "While I appreciate your assistance, Commander, if you do not leave now you will lose all chance to explain yourself adequately to your Lord."
"I know," Clark answered simply. Wayne drew in a sharp breath.
"Don't be stupid!" he barked harshly. "I asked for the cloak because I can use it to escape, and it is an inoffensive thing to give me. A foolish choice, but not a traitorous one. I never intended to put you in any more danger than that! Leave now, while you have the chance!"
"I can't," Clark answered, calmly, and puzzled at the faint clicking as Wayne fiddled with something hurriedly behind him. "Two promises depend on my helping you, I'm afraid." He blinked as Wayne brushed around him suddenly, the shackles hitting the floor with muffled thumps and the clank of chain behind him.
"Promises," Wayne muttered angrily, drawing the cloak around himself with a wince of pain. "What promises, dammit?"
"I promised your bodyguard I'd help you," he answered, and when Wayne opened his mouth to argue, added: "And my oath to protect Metropolis likewise depends on it."
Wayne paused, glancing warily behind him as the guards began to speak with someone outside the door. He looked back at Clark desperately, met his calm, determined gaze, and sighed in frustration. "You are a very foolish man, Commander," he said at last, moving to the suite window and the balcony beyond. Clark, grinning, followed him.
"Lois says that all the time," he answered, and for a second before he stepped out the window, Wayne's face turned anguished. Startled, Clark hopped through after him, catching up to him as the man pulled a line from the lining of the cloak, clipping one end to his belt, and attaching the other to a curved piece of metal he extracted from the catch. Unfolding a retractable arm from the metal, he used it to secure the line to the balustrade, and stood up. Clark, who had watched this little process with fascination, looked up at him.
"Last chance, Commander," Wayne warned, with repressed frustration. Clark just shook his head with a smile, and held out his hand. Wayne looked at it, huffing lightly, then shook it, just as the door opened in the suite behind him. In the moment it took for whoever it was to realise he was gone, Wayne had seized both of Clark's hands, locked them firmly around his own waist, and swung the pair of them out across the balustrade. As panicked guards raced to the window, he muttered a brief 'hold on', and pushed away, dropping them both out of sight.
The first rush of wind as they fell took Clark as it always did, with a surge of unparalleled delight that not even the gravity of the situation could blunt. His arms locked themselves automatically around the other man's waist, eliciting a slight grunt of pain, and then the usual feeling of drifting took over, the lightness he always felt in the air. Wayne grunted in surprise at something, and then the line pulled taut as the clip on his belt slowed their descent, and the man flexed his legs powerfully to cushion them as they came in against the wall, ignoring the judder as the left one gave a little under the pressure. Clark mimicked him, taking some of the force on his own legs beneath Wayne's, and for a second they simply hung there, listening to the clamour above them.
"Are you alright?" Clark asked into the breathless interval. Wayne paused before replying, and his voice was cautious and wondering when he did.
"Yes," he said slowly. "A little ... curious, is all."
"About what?" Clark asked, curious himself, but just then the guards decided to start shooting down at them, and Wayne pushed off again hurriedly to set them absailing down the wall. "Tell you later!" he yelled back over the reports.
A little way down the wall, there was a sudden sharp tug on the line, and Clark looked up to see someone fiddling with it. Then there was the gleam of metal. He swallowed. "Ah, my Lord? What do we do if they cut the line?"
Wayne looked up sharply. "The line is made from a special material," he answered. "It will be difficult to cut." And since they did not immediately plummit to their deaths, despite the obvious efforts above them, Clark was inclined to believe him. But the repressed worry in the man's tone did nothing to reassure him.
Soon enough, they were out of range of the weapons. But the alarm had been sounded, and out here on the face of the building they were sitting ducks, utterly exposed. It seemed Lord Wayne had already thought of that, however, and when he suddenly pushed them sideways instead of out, Clark looked down to see another balcony beneath and a little to the right of them. As Wayne pushed off and released the line, Clark braced himself for the landing, and caught the other man easily as they hit the floor. Wayne grunted as the pressure disturbed his chest wound, and hurriedly freed himself, casting off the line in the same movement.
And then, for a second, they faced each other on the balcony, the alarm clamouring above them. Clark met Wayne's eyes with frank challenge, and Wayne frowned back heavily, balancing warily on the balls of his feet. But behind that cautious dismay, there was a kind of appreciation in those intelligent eyes, as if Clark fascinated him in some way. It was enough to let Clark hope that his help would be accepted.
And after a minute, sure enough, Wayne relented with a huff of pent breath. He stood straight, and shook his head with a wry smile in Clark's direction. "You are indeed a very foolish man, Commander," he repeated, but this time it was warmer.
"Clark," Clark answered, smiling, and Wayne blinked. "I doubt I'll Commander for much longer." And though the mention of it obviously caused the man some pain, Wayne reached out and shook his hand anyway.
"Bruce, then," he answered. "I'm hardly Lord here. Now. Which way would you recommend, Clark? You see, I'm not too familiar with your fine city."
Clark blinked at him, the gestured towards the window into the building with an ironic little bow and a smile. "Shall we, Bruce?"
Lord Wayne certainly had a handsome laugh.
Chapter 4: Part IV
They ducked hurriedly inside the room, and Clark paused for a moment in the middle of the floor, trying to orientate himself and figure out where exactly they were in the Palace. After a minute, the decor and the two floors they had descended outside gave him a fix, and he grimaced.
"What's wrong?" Wayne ... Bruce ... asked sharply. Clark turned to him, blinking to find him sitting on the edge of the bed massaging his left calf, and shook his head.
"You couldn't have picked a worse window to come in," he explained, and shrugged. "This is the Ambassadorial Suite on the 34th floor. Luthor's rooms are not two doors down from here, and heavily guarded!"
Bruce blinked at him for a minute, his hand pausing in its task, and then, abruptly, he burst out laughing. Clark stared at him in shock, but the other man just held up one hand in reassurance, and waited until his mirth had passed. Then he looked back up, his lips still twitching irredeemably, and smiled at a bemused Clark. "I'm sorry," he breathed, pulling himself under control. "I'm sorry. But that's just ... It's just perfect, really. Considering the day I've had. It's just perfect!"
Clark stared, before his own lips twitched, and he sat down beside the other man with a wry shake of the head. "I suppose it is, at that," he murmured. Bruce slid him a sideways glance, the humour dancing in his eyes, and returned to rubbing at his leg. "How bad is that?" Clark asked suddenly.
Bruce didn't look up. "Not bad. A pulled muscle, I think. It's just painful, and a little shaky. I won't be able to run at my best, that's all." He froze, however, when Clark moved to lay a hand over his massaging one, and looked at him sharply. "Comm ... Clark?" Clark smiled gently at him.
"Let me?" he asked. "I'm told I'm very good at massage. According to Lois, anyway. My friend," he explained hurriedly, when Bruce gave him a look. "Something about warm hands?" Bruce looked wary, but shrugged, and Clark set to work with a small smile.
He could feel the tightness in the limb, the heat of abused muscle, and from the feel of it knew that 'a bit painful' was probably something of an understatement. In fact, the man beside him had to be in a lot of pain all 'round. But he didn't show it, except in the obvious fatigue as he sat, or the occasional grunt when Clark accidentally hurt him. As Clark moved his fingers carefully over the injury, doing his best to soothe, he reflected that Lord Wayne appeared to be a very courageous man indeed.
After a moment, Bruce laid a hand on his shoulder, and Clark looked up in confusion. Bruce was watching him with a strange warmth in his eyes, a warmth that did strange things to Clark in turn. Then Bruce gave a rueful smile, and tipped his head towards the door. "That's enough," he said softly. "Thank you. But we have to move."
Clark blinked, then nodded. "Of course. Any ideas about getting past Luthor's chambers?"
Bruce smiled, and paused to pull the edge of the cloak forwards so he could rummage around in its depths. Clark blinked at him as he pulled forth two small ampoules of some clear liquid, and held them up to the light to check them over. Nodding in satisfaction, he handed one to Clark and palmed the other himself.
"What are these?" Clark asked, holding his up to examine it.
"The liquid inside reacts with air to produce a potent sleeping agent," Bruce explained. "We have a very talented bioscientist in Gotham who developed it, a Ms Isley. Anyway. Don't put pressure on the top of the ampoule, unless you urgently need to take a nap. I'm surprised these survived, actually, but since they did ..."
Clark carefully moved his fingers to hold it gingerly around the middle. "How many will they take out?"
"How many do they need to?" Bruce asked. Clark frowned as he brought a picture of the corridor outside to mind.
"Three, usually," he answered slowly. "Provided the alert upstairs hasn't increased it."
"No problem," Bruce smiled. "Just throw yours hard in front of the guards, and try to arrange for it to land top first. But don't worry too much if it doesn't. People usually either step on them or try to pick them up, so they should gas themselves one way or another." Which wasn't at all a cynical viewpoint, but howandever.
They moved cautiously to the door, and peeked out down the corridor. As expected. Three guards. Clark looked once at Bruce, who shrugged, and then tossed his as quietly as possible to land at their feet. It shattered with a light crunch, echoed an instant afterwards by Bruce's, which landed with some precision just beside the farthest guard, who looked down at the pieces with a startled grunt. A grunt that became a bleary snuffle moments later, as the young woman leaned back against the wall and put her hand to her face. Within a few seconds, all three had slid listlessly to the floor.
Clark watched as Bruce moved forwards confidently, wondering at the kind of man who would carry such things on a regular basis, and hurried after him with a frown on his face. A frown that deepened as the Nightlord stopped outside Luthor's door, and started to gently open it.
Clark darted forward as silently as he could, and grabbed Bruce's arm. Whatever else he might be guilty of, he was not going to let the man assassinate the Lord of Metropolis, no matter how justified he would be to do so. But Bruce only put a hasty finger to his lips, and slipped one hand back inside his cloak to pull out what looked like a small glass marble, dressed in copper wire. Clark frowned, but let Bruce roll the microGlass in through the crack in the door. That done, Bruce smiled slightly, and tipped his head back towards the corridor.
As they paused at the intersection, slipping hurriedly into an alcove in case someone passed, Clark turned to whisper urgently to him. "What was that for?" Bruce, leaning heavily against the wall while he pulled in harsh breaths against the wound in his chest, looked up in amusement.
"Know thine enemy, no?" he murmured back. "Now, Commander. Which way?"
Clark watched him for a minute, noting his pale colour with some alarm. Somehow, despite his obviously bad condition, Bruce's utter confidence made it difficult to remember that he was injured at all, let alone as badly as he really was. But the Nightlord was hurt, and whenever they paused to rest, he was showing it. Whatever momentary fears for Luthor's wellbeing Clark might have had fled, and he focused quickly on trying to get Bruce out of here.
"Ah," he murmured, trying to remember if there was anything in the building to help. Then, suddenly, he grinned broadly, ignoring Bruce's raised eyebrow. "Yes. Left to the end of the corridor, then up the stairs!"
"Up the stairs?" Bruce asked, carefully. "As in, back towards my 'guest suite'?" Clark shook his head.
"Past it. We're heading for the roof, Bruce. Trust me."
"I don't seem to have very much choice," Bruce noted absently, but he stepped back out into the corridor. "Lead on, Commander! Lead on." But when he saw Clark's frown of dismay, the distressed realisation of their positions that any other man would probably be taking horrible advantage of, Bruce paused to lay a hand lightly on his arm. "I do trust you, Clark," he reassured quietly. "I'm not sure why. But I do trust you."
Clark nodded slowly, and laid his own hand over that reassuring one to grip it lightly, and meet that calm blue gaze. "Come on then," he said at last, and Bruce smiled.
They made it to the stairs easily enough, and although getting up them was a slightly more fraught endeavour, at one point involving a surprisingly acrobatic vault by Bruce over the railings which had the injured Nightlord wheezing horribly on the last leg, they made it to the roof in relatively good time and, as far as Clark could determine, undetected. Which was just as well, really, as all Bruce could do for the first few minutes was sit in a crumpled heap and breathe, while Clark hovered over him anxiously. This didn't appear to agree with his companion at all, and after a minute Bruce waved an irritable hand in his direction, and pulled himself up to sit straight, scowling ferociously at Clark's concern.
"Well?" he demanded brusquely, then softened with a sigh when Clark raised an eyebrow. "Heh. Sorry. I meant why are we on the roof, oh helpful one?"
"Well," Clark murmured slowly, with an edge of mischief. "Since you ask so nicely ..." Bruce rolled his eyes and glared pointedly, until Clark conceded with a smile. "You seemed to have an excellent head for heights, your Lordship, and if that was you piloting your ... your boat?"
"It was," Bruce noted repressively, and Clark hurriedly moved on.
"How are you with a handsail?" he asked quickly, and smiled when Bruce looked up in sudden interest. Moving over to a storage shed on the far side of the roof, Clark pulled out the two sails it contained, and grinned as Bruce raised a pair of appraising eyebrows in his direction. "I have these stashed all over the City," he explained. "It's good training for the new pilots. Plus, sometimes I ... sometimes I just need to fly, you see?"
Bruce smiled gently, and nodded. "Skyborn," he said softly, warmly, and had Clark flushing. "Very well, oh Lord of the Skies. Just give me one moment?"
Clark stepped back over with a frown, and watched as Bruce fished around in his cloak once more and pulled out a small, low-range radioGlass. "I don't suppose you have a picnic in there, while you're at it?" he asked wryly. Bruce looked up sardonically, and fiddled with the thing in silence for a minute, until a spark flickered in its center and voices curled up through the Glass. Recognising Mercy's, Clark hurriedly came over, and sat beside him to listen in, feeling a vaguely guilty thrill in doing so.
"I've got Wayne's deputy on the Glass, Lord Luthor," Mercy's voice carried through. "Commander Grayson would like to speak with you."
"About time!" Luthor, this time. "Put him through, Mercy." A pause, and then: "You took your time getting back to me, Commander. One would think you were not concerned for the fate of your Lord and Master."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that, Lord Luthor." A young voice, strained but lively. "Lord, certainly, but I've never thought of Lord Wayne as my master." Clark saw Bruce's eyes crinkle in a smile.
"Be that as it may. You understand my terms, Commander?"
"They're hardly ambiguous, Luthor. Yes, we understand."
"And your answer?" Bruce stiffened beside him, listening intently.
"I'm afraid, my Lord," Grayson began, genuine regret in his tone. "That Gotham cannot accede to your ... request. Despite the consequences to our Lord, we will not concede control of the City to you. In fact, and I'm afraid my colleagues have descended into colloquialism here, but I am instructed to tell you that you can 'go to hell'."
There was silence for one ringing instant, and then Luthor replied, stiffly. "That ... is unfortunate. Certainly for Lord Wayne. But perhaps you will change your mind later, no? When you have had a chance to see for yourself these 'consequences' that you cavalierly dismiss?"
"I doubt it," Grayson answered softly. "And there is something you should consider, Luthor. Lord Wayne is more than my Lord. He is my father, in all but blood." Clark sucked in a startled breath, and turned to stare at the man beside him. Bruce ignored him, still listening intently. "Now think, Luthor. What possible reason could a good, dutiful son like me have for abandoning dear old dad to your clutches?" And with that little bombshell, he appeared to have signed off. Clark looked to Bruce in dismay, wondering how he would take to being shunted aside in a powerplay by his son, and blinked to find the man grinning from ear to ear.
"Good boy," Bruce whispered. "Very nice. Very nice indeed." Clark opened his mouth to ask incredulously what he meant, but Bruce held up a forestalling hand, and indictated that Clark keep listening. Mercy and Luthor were talking again, voices harsh and angry.
"That changes things," Mercy noted. "And on top of the escape. We need to alter the plan ..."
"No!" Luthor barked, then went on more slowly. "No. It may yet be bravado, and we've time still. Wayne won't get far, not in this City, and when we recapture him ... We can question him, see if the boy's bluffing. And even if he isn't, I need Wayne to answer my other questions."
"What other questions?" Mercy asked sharply, echoing Clark's sentiment on the roof. "I thought this was a straight takeover bid?"
Luthor sighed audibly. "Mercy, Mercy. You think so small. Of course it's a takeover bid. But it's so much more than that. Can't you see it?" Obviously she didn't, because he went on, in that same patronising tone that had Clark gritting his teeth. "Think of where Gotham has been, Mercy! Think of what that stubborn bastard has learned, what he's done to change her! The power he holds, the power that could be ours!"
"You mean you were listening to that rubbish he spouted in the Interview Hall?" she answered incredulously.
"Not rubbish!" he answered sharply. "Oh, not at all. Mercy, the evidence was before your very eyes! Why do you think I demanded to see Gotham in the light? Think about it. Those ribbed sails that are never raised. The modifications to the Rampart design. The oxygen dome that on the Nightside is used to absorb starlight. The sheer size of those Flight Engines! Gotham is a powerhouse, Mercy! A powerhouse designed to reach something we haven't discovered yet, and I want her! I want her."
As Mercy paused to let this sink in, Bruce straightened, blue eyes turning hard and calculating. "Then," she said slowly. "If we cannot take her using Wayne ..."
"I will blow her out of the skies, if need be," Luthor answered calmly. "While her crew are caught up wondering if I've killed him yet. I will blow her from the skies and wrest her secrets from the wreakage if I have to!"
On the roof, Bruce stood in one fluid movement at that, his injuries ignored, and Clark shied back from the ferocious determination in his chill gaze. To threaten his person was one thing, and the Nightlord took that with admirable and worrying poise, but to threaten his City was quite another. For a moment as he stood there, glaring down at the Glass, Clark was reminded of all those rumours, that here stood a man who had brought his City back from Hell itself. For his fury in that instant, Clark might believe it.
"We will stop him," he said quietly, and tried not to flinch when that searing stare swung on him. "Trust me. Metropolis depends on it as much as Gotham. For our Cities, my Lord, we will not fail!"
"Really?" drawled another voice, cold and sneering, and both of them swung towards the doors, dropping instinctively into identical defensive crouches. Bruce's eyes were flat and wary as he surveyed the intruder, but Clark felt his own widen in dismay as John Corben smirked nastily and stepped fully through the door, looking the pair of them over. "I can't say I like your chances, boys."
"Commander," Bruce said softly, with just a flicker of the eyes to warn Clark that this was not their first close encounter, and suddenly he had no doubt whatsoever that Corben was responsible for some of those fresher bruises on the Nightlord's face. But the MCDF Commander didn't seem to care about Wayne at all. His focus was entirely on Clark.
"I've been waiting so long for this," the older man noted with barely-leashed eagerness, as he carefully closed and bolted the doors behind him. He took a step or two towards Clark, testing, and sneered when Bruce automatically shifted to cover his companion better. "I've been waiting for years for you to outlive your usefulness, Kent. I must say, I didn't quite anticipate that some exotic Nightsider would be your reason, but hey! I'll take what I can get."
Clark paused in watching him flex powerful fists to send Wayne a panicked, apologetic glance. That had not been what he intended! But Bruce only smirked lightly, and shook his head, his eyes never leaving their foe.
Which was just as well, as Corben obviously wasn't in a talkative mood. With a heavy gait that was shockingly fast, the Commander ran them, one great fist swinging powerfully towards Clark's head. Clark ducked rapidly, and then Bruce's foot buried itself in Corben's side, shunting the man sideways. By about an inch. As the Nightlord backed off again in sudden dismay and rapid calculation, the MCDF man turned back to Clark with a hard smile.
"Not very familiar with Metropolite ways, is he?" he sneered. "Even after I broke his cheekbone for 'im." Clark found his own fists clenching, the image of Bruce in that room, prowling warily towards him, and the thought of how much courage that must have taken if Corben had been his last 'visitor' ...
"No indeed," Bruce said, with a definite sneer. "I generally don't make a habit of studying frost-maggots." Corben snarled, and rushed him, ugly intent in his eyes. With a roar, Clark seized the back of his uniform and pulled for all he was worth, even as Bruce flowed smoothly underneath the blow. Though the manouver only barely checked Corben's advance, it did have one other startling effect. It ripped away the disguising cloth, and bared Corben's back and shoulder to the air. Corben's metallic back and shoulder.
The man was made of brass.
Staring, both Clark and Bruce backed up, letting the ... creature turn after them, Corben smirking at their shocked appraisal. The mechanoid looked at them, then down at the cloth hanging limply from the gleaming brass rise of his shoulder, the copper wires that served as his tendons and nerves glittering in the sunlight. With a strange smile, Corben ripped the remains of the sleeve from his uniform in one harsh movement, and held up his mechanical arm in pride. Clark stared in fascination at the whirring of mechanisms beneath the cage of brass, the lazy curl of current along the wire nerves, glancing sideways to find Bruce frowning with concentration at the man.
Corben turned glittering, hateful eyes on Clark, that incredible arm swinging down to point at him accusingly. "Don't suppose you remember that little lightsailer accident sixteen years ago?" he asked bitterly. Clark shook his head, mind rushing desperately as he tried to figure out what the man was talking about. "No? Well, that's a damn shame, Kent. That really is a shame. Because you're going to die for it!"
He rushed them again, but this time, he wasn't aiming to hit them. Even as Clark ducked away from the flashing arc of one arm, the other scythed in underneath and locked fast around his throat. The vengeful Commander swept him off his feet to swing helplessly in the air, and pulled him in until he was face to face with that snarling countenance. Clark's hands sprang to the uniformed arm holding him, as Bruce leapt in from the side, trying to break Corben's grip on Clark's throat. The mechanoid didn't even look at him, just smashed one heavy metal fist into his chest. Though Bruce swayed back from most of it, still the hard metal kissed the bandage over his torso in passing, and the Nightlord fell back with an agonised grunt to land on all fours, barely able to suck in a breath.
Corben snarled into Clark's face, before the harsh lines of his face curved themselves into a triumphant smirk, and the mechanoid turned to drag him over to the handsails he had so recently pulled out of hiding. Grabbing one of them, he snapped the heavy sailbar with one hand, rendering it largely uncontrollable for anyone trying to fly it, and with a satisfied smirk started to drag both Clark and the sail towards the edge of the roof.
"That accident you don't remember," he started, conversationally. "Any idea what might have happened in it?" Clark tried to say something through the strangling grasp of his hands, but Corben wasn't really interested in a response. "I'll tell you. You and your bloody flyboys crashed a boat on me. Dogfight with the Shanghai forces, I think, back in that little incident over the Mongolian desert paths. Almost killed me, you did. Hah! Almost, I say!" He turned at the edge of the roof, shaking Clark like a leaf, and grinned toothily. "You did fucking kill me. And now?" He flipped the sail over the edge and caught it with one foot so that it lay horizontally out over the City, and swung Clark out after it until his feet rested lightly on the center of the damaged board. As soon as Corben released Clark, he was going to go arcing out over a skyscraper's worth of empty air on an uncontrollable handsail. "Now I'm going to kill you," Corben finished softly, as Clark stared at him in horror.
"Hey, ticktock man?" came a soft, conversational voice behind them. "Got any silver on you?"
Corben turned his head slightly to eye the Nightlord, as Bruce pulled himself staggeringly to his feet, and sneered. "No. Why?"
"Because you're going to need it," Bruce replied gently, and suddenly one arm snaked out from beneath the cloak, slinging a small black object directly at Corben. Bruce was already running as Corben released Clark to try and catch it. Clark missed a lot of what happened in the next second, as he started to fall and a panicked realisation of gravity fought with his instinctive acceptance of flight. But he noticed when a concussive blast propelled Corben out over the edge past him, one metal arm catching the sail in passing and ripping it out from under him.
For an endless second, Clark seemed to hang motionless in the air, watching the man drift away at an impossibly slow speed beneath him, and dimly recognised that he was going to die following him. Then a hand wrapped itself with bruising force around his upflung wrist, and reality returned as he hit the side of a building with a horrible smack, and almost tore himself and his rescuer loose. Above him, someone bit back a harsh gasp of pain, turning it into a heavy grunt.
After a moment, as his sight returned, Clark looked up, to see Bruce straining out over the lip of the building, his chest pressing painfully into the edge of the wall as he struggled to keep his tentative grip on Clark's arm. For a second, neither of them said anything. Then Bruce pulled in a strained breath, and managed a small smile.
"Well, Commander? What now?"
Chapter 5: Part V
Clark stared up at the Nightlord's strained features, and shook his head with a wry smile. "What now?" he answered softly. "Now, my Lord, you let go, before you start to follow me."
Bruce shook his head adamantly. "Not happening!" he growled, his fingers taut around Clark's wrist as he struggled to pull him upwards. But the Nightlord wasn't in the best of conditions, and Clark was not exactly a small man. There was no way Bruce was going to be able to lift him, or even hold him for very long.
"Either I fall or we both do," Clark noted softly, reasonably enough. Bruce snarled at him.
"I'm already aware you're a brave man, Commander," he growled. "So stop trying to prove it, and start trying to get out of this alive!"
Clark looked up at him, at the stubborn cast of straining features, and had to smile. "If you insist, my Lord," he murmured. "Any ideas?" Bruce frowned, and Clark stared in fascination as his blue eyes went distant with calculation. For a moment, despite the perilous knowledge of exactly how far he had to fall that was the blessing and curse of every flyer, he simply had to appreciate the aura of capability about the man. It was almost enough to make him hope.
"As a matter of fact ..." Bruce said slowly, and his eyes focused with an odd intensity on Clark's face. "I think I do. I think, Commander, that instead of either of us going down ... you should come up."
Clark blinked. "Ah, not exactly a new idea, my Lord?" he asked, and Bruce huffed.
"Listen to me! This is hardly a joke!" And when Clark nodded, he went on. "Earlier, when we climbed down from the balcony. You got lighter as we hit the air, remember?"
"I did?" Clark frowned, and above him Bruce rolled his eyes.
"You did. And I'll bet you always feel lighter in the air, don't you? You've always been able to move through the air in ways other people haven't, as if you never really needed the handsail or the boat at all, right?" His eyes glittered oddly as he watched Clark's face, as he watched the affirmation in his eyes. "I don't think you ever did need them, Clark," he finished softly. "It's time for you to come up, Commander. It's time for you to feel lighter again."
Clark looked up at him, at the eyes that gleamed with absolute certainty and confidence in a face snarled by strain, and even if he had no real idea what the other man was talking about, if he believed it so strongly it had to be worth a try. So he closed his eyes, feeling the air around him, and tried to imagine he was flying instead of in very real danger of falling. He tried to remember the feeling of lightness that caught him every time his hands touched a sail, the feeling of power that accompanied every swoop and rise as he flew. He remembered how the rush of wind excited him, how the sun always felt warmer on his face in the air. He remembered why flying had always calmed him, made him feel freer, faster, more powerful. More joyful. He remembered flying ...
"Clark? I think you can stop now," came Bruce's voice, warm and slightly awed. And beneath him.
His eyes flaring open, Clark looked around wildly, to find himself hovering gently in the air over the rooftop, the Nightlord's fierce grip no longer holding Clark over the edge but holding himself three inches off the rooftop, his eyes fixed on Clark's face with a broad and triumphant smile on his own. As Clark met his awed gaze with a panicked one of his own, Bruce started laughing, a rich crow of victory and pride. Even as the shock ripped the sensation of flight from Clark, and Bruce's heels hit the roof with a thud while he swung Clark in to land in a heap at his feet, that fierce elation never left his battered features. As Clark lay there dazed and watched, the Nightlord sank down beside him, one arm guarding an injured chest, and held out a hand for Clark to shake. Bemused, Clark took it.
"Nicely done, Commander!" Bruce wheezed in delight. "Nicely done!"
"What ... What happened?" Clark demanded, confused and not a little frightened. "What did you do?" Bruce raised an eyebrow at that, still grinning.
"I? I did nothing, Commander! It was all you, I'm afraid. Congratulations!"
But Clark scrambled back from him, shaking his head in adamant denial, and suddenly every tale he'd heard about this man, and about the City he'd piloted back from Hell, all of them leapt to the front of his mind. Because who else but a demon could manage what he'd just done? "What did you do!" he yelled, and all traces of humour fled from the Nightlord's eyes as he registered Clark's very real fear.
"Clark?" Bruce asked softly, his features becoming concerned. "What's wrong?" Clark shook his head.
"What did you do to me?" he whispered. "I'm not a demon. I'm not a monster."
"Clark, what are you talking about?" Bruce pressed, and there was a snap of urgency in his voice.
Suddenly, Clark was furious. He surged to his feet and took the two steps needed to loom dangerously over the other man before he'd even registered that he was moving at all, his hands clenching themselves into fists. Bruce looked up at him sharply, that one arm jerking instinctively higher to guard his wounded chest, but for once the wounds and bruises didn't deter Clark. Against the fear that squalled in his breast, nothing could have.
"Humans can't fly!" he spat, and watched as comprehension dawned in those intelligent eyes. "What. Did. You. DO!"
Clark wasn't prepared for what happened then. Bruce did not get angry, or try to give him a comforting lie, or even try to calm him. Instead, those blue eyes clouded with pity, and the Nightlord looked away as if terribly saddened. "I'm sorry, Clark," he said quietly, and looked up to meet Clark's confused gaze sadly. "It's been so much a part of my life, that I forget how much you people don't know. I didn't think how it would affect you if I was right. I'm sorry. I should have warned you."
Clark's anger leeched away, and he sank back down to sit beside the other man with a sigh. "Warned me of what?" he asked tiredly. "That you thought I might be a demon?"
"I thought no such thing!" the Nightlord cut in angrily, though he flinched a little when Clark's shoulders tightened. "And neither should you!" His voice softened. "Clark ... I have seen things, these past twenty years, that people here are still afraid to consider. I've grown to know people with abilities, like yours, and those abilities do not make them monsters. Look at Arthur! Do you think him a monster, just because the sea has made him strong enough to rule her?"
"I do not live underwater," Clark said quietly. "And I do not want to know where you have been, Nightlord. It's not a thought that makes me feel any better."
Bruce looked at him in confusion for a moment, before understanding filled those blue eyes, and he looked away with a bitter smile. "Ah. I see. You are one of those who hold the opinion that I have taken my City to Hell and back, yes? And this would be where I get my knowledge of demons, of course. I am sorry. I should have realised this immediately, and not wasted either of our times trying to explain!"
"Stop it! Clark said sharply, cutting through the venemous tirade. "No-one knows where you've been, Lord Wayne. If we presumed Gotham sank to Hell in the Upheaval, what of it! Where else was she supposed to have gone?"
Bruce turned to stare at him for a minute, his gaze suddenly sharp and heavy with meaning. He looked at Clark as if searching for something inside him, as if weighing every act that had come before and would come after. Clark stared back, determined and incomprehending. He didn't know what Wayne was, what he wanted or what they were going to do now. But he did know he wasn't going to be intimidated by the man.
Suddenly, Wayne nodded to himself, and without looking at Clark, pulled himself labouriously to his feet. Clark sprang up after him, hands reaching out instinctively to steady him and then stopping, an inch from his shoulder. Bruce smiled sadly, and turned to walk to the roof edge. The same edge Clark had almost plummited to his death over minutes before, and where this same man had risked his life to catch him. Clark stared after him, heart heavy.
"Gotham did not go to Hell, Commander," Wayne said at last, looking out over Clark's City as if, for a moment, he saw his own. "She went somewhere else altogether. I ... I cannot tell you now. Not so close to Luthor. But I will. When the time is right, I will. You deserve to know." He turned back to Clark, as serious as the Commander had ever seen him. "For now, just believe me when I tell you that the ability to fly by no means makes you a demon. What you have is a gift, an ability, nothing more, and what counts with abilities is what you use them for, not what they are. You don't feel any more urge to do evil than you did before, do you?"
Clark blinked, then looked down in sudden shame. "You mean, besides wanting to hit you just now?" he asked, and was oddly reassured that the bruises that shifted with the man's small grin were once again the deterant to violence that they should have been all along.
"That, I think we can forgive," Bruce noted wryly, then drew himself up with weary pride. "Trust me, Commander. As much as I have had to trust you, trust me now!"
And put like that, how could Clark refuse. Dipping his head, he spread his hands in a helpless shrug, and nodded. "I do trust you," he said softly, and tried a small smile. "Though I've no idea why."
"Good." Bruce's shoulders slumped in relief. "That makes two of us. Now, Commander, can you please tell me where to point that handsail, before someone thinks to check why our friend just took a header off the Palace roof?" Clark started abruptly, and looked hastily towards the door Corben had locked. No sound came through it, and Bruce smiled gently at him. "You're not really used to all this sneaking around in your own city, are you?" he noted, and Clark flushed.
"Not really, no," he said shortly, and retrieved the sail. "I've a better idea, though. How about I fly, and you just ..."
"Hold on tight?" Bruce grinned, then sobered. "You know, it'll fly slower with two ..."
"Not when I'm flying," Clark said quickly, and his expression clearly stated that he was not going to even think about the other option. He didn't want to think about the fact that there was another option at all! Bruce looked at him for a minute, and nodded slowly.
"Alright," he said softly. "Alright."
And with some relief, Clark felt the man settle behind him with odd ease, and set the sail on a roundabout course to the closest thing to normalcy he could think of. The great globe of the Planet Center, and the one woman he trusted to be able to set things right.
He just hoped Lois was in the mood for uninvited guests.
He knew every dodge and side route in the air over Metropolis, having played the training version of hide-and-seek with his boys too many times to count, and even with the unaccustomed weight of Bruce on the back of the board he was still the fastest thing in the skies. They made it undetected to the shelter of the Planet, and Lois was obviously expecting them, because Jimmy was waiting on the roof to show them in. Clark handed the sail to him with a sigh of relief, and smiled as the younger man tried unsuccessfully to hide his awe at Bruce's presence. He even offered the bow due a City Lord before he left them, which a surprised and somewhat amused Bruce returned in equal depth, to Jimmy's obvious delight.
They stepped through the roof entrance, and into the lair proper. Not that Lois would ever call it such a thing, but in his mind Clark always thought of the Planet as 'her lair'. He very carefully never mentioned this to her, mind. But between her and Perry's influence, it was obvious that this was a shrine to the art of data-sharing, with radioGlasses on every corridor junction and the air of expectancy as information ran through the warren of data-sorting beneath them. It was a fascinating place, one where Clark had always felt at home, but they weren't headed into that labyrinth now. They were heading for the penultimate level, the nerve center, through which all the information channelled through the great refraction Glass of the globe above was passed.
They were headed for the home of Lois Lane, Dataqueen of Metropolis.
Who had quite obviously been waiting for them, because they had hardly thought about knocking on her door when her voice came through the small Glass beside it. "Come in, Clark. The door's open. And welcome to Metropolis, Lord Wayne." The two men looked at each other in bemusement, before Clark gestured as if to say 'after you', and with a wry shake of his head Bruce stepped through.
She was in her usual spot, pacing before her Glass wall, her hands darting through the warm golden light of the room to touch levers and switches on the databoard that curved around the room just out from the Glasses themselves. And what Glasses! Clark was always vaguely awed by the range of them, large and small, information refracted through the multiple facets of the globe above from points all over Metropolis and the world just outside. Every time the City moved into a new zone, the Glasses tied to the exterior changed. Currently, it looked like they were passing Singapore, the Asian City moving in the opposite direction, curling in her usual daylight route over the Western Pacific. Clark blinked to realise how far they'd moved, how far they were from Gotham and the confrontation that still echoed in his mind.
Bruce, on the other hand, hardly seemed fazed at all. He moved directly to the databoard, though he took care not to touch it, and waited patiently for Lois to turn to him. Clark nearly winced, because the last time he'd tried that when Lois was busy with something, she'd driven a pointed elbow into his ribs, which had rather gotten her message across even if it hadn't really hurt. Lois did not usually like to be interupted.
However, since she turned to face him almost immediately, it seemed she might make an exception for the Lord of Gotham.
"Lord Wayne," she opened briskly, and held out one hand for him to shake, not bothering to even attempt a bow. Bruce took it with a small smile, and nodded.
"Ms Lane," he murmured. "I've heard great things about you." She raised an eyebrow.
"And I've been hearing terrible things about you," she shot back, and then tipped her head to indicate a chair behind her. It was the one she used when she was feeling tired, a wheeled thing that allowed her almost as good an access to her board as her typical pacing did. "Why don't you sit down before you fall down, and start telling me how to plan to get yourself and both our Cities out of this mess you've made? And Clark, will you please come over where I don't have to crane my neck to talk to you!"
Bemused, Bruce looked briefly to Clark, who was grinning from ear to ear, and did as she said. Clark moved over to stand beside him, and met the sudden piercing stare Lois sent him with an amiable shrug. If Bruce was planning to go toe to toe with her in his condition, he was going to need all the help he could get. Lois frowned at him for a minute, with an appraising look in her eyes that he'd never seen before, before turning back to Bruce.
"So," she started. "You managed to convince flyboy here to help you escape the Palace. Nicely done, I suppose, considering the risks involved." Bruce flinched a little. "What were you planning on for the encore?"
"Ms Lane," Bruce began, one hand coming up instinctively to worry at his temple, before it encountered the lump just under his hairline and he jerked it away in annoyance. "In the first place, I would say this mess is more Luthor's fault than mine. And secondly, I did not persuade him to help. I persuaded him to get me a cloak, and did my best to get rid of him thereafter! No offense, Clark."
"None taken," Clark said, then grinned. "After all, you did see sense and stop trying to prove how brave you are in favour of getting out alive, didn't you?" Bruce sent him a very unfriendly look at that, and Lois blinked in confusion at the pair of them.
"Well," she continued, after a short interlude during which he glared at both of them. "All I will say to the first is that if you didn't expect Luthor to play dirty, you're an idiot."
"Oh, I expected him to play dirty, all right," Bruce cut in. "I just expected him to play a smarter kind of dirty, rather than set his City on a collision course with both Gotham, and in all probability Atlantis as well. I don't expect Arthur was best pleased with his little stunt on the Tower."
"No," Clark murmured, and both Bruce and Lois shot searching glances his way. Raising his hands in instinctive defense, he tried to explain. "When I went to the Tower for the cloak, he sort of told me to tell Luthor that if Bruce died as a result of this, then there was nowhere on the planet he could hide from the power of Atlantis. That's what I meant when I told you that to protect Metropolis, I had to protect you, Bruce. The King of the Seas is, ah, a little pissed off with her at the minute."
Bruce nodded with a frown, as Lois instinctively moved to her board to do a sweep of her information, adding this in through one of the smaller Glasses on the board itself. "I thought something like that might be it," Gotham's Lord mused. "I never thought Luthor would risk so much. I underestimated how much he wants my City, and the secrets she holds."
"Though I can't blame him for that one," Lois commented, still scouring her dataset. "There's a few things about your City I'd like to know myself. Such as how the Spider has access to my refraction net even from the Nightside, when no terrestrial net has that kind of reach?" She turned to face Bruce, an interrogative cast to her features. The Nightlord shook his head.
"If Barbara didn't tell you, I'm certainly not going to," he answered, his own features set and determined. "But while we're on the subject ..."
Lois studied him, as if measuring the will set against her, and after a moment conceded the battle. Aside from anything else, his face bore adequate testimony to his ability to keep secrets from the most ardent of questioners. It was time to try a different tack. "All right," she muttered at last. "I'll see if I can reach her." She turned to her board, moving along it to one of the smaller internal Glasses, one focused on information from the Palace district, muttering to herself. "Let's see. She usually has a mirror around here, especially with recent events ..." The images on the Glass shifted, reflecting multiple views of the Palace. Clark noted that there was indeed a City Patrol hovering near the roof now, and shot Bruce a nervous glance. Bruce shrugged back.
"Ah ha!" Lois punched a switch hard in triumph, the image freezing on the top ten floors of the Palace. "Gotcha, sweetheart! See the slight refraction on the edge of the image? She's got a mirror locked on the beam somewhere, I'd bet on it!" Her fingers flew over a small keypad, and words skipped over the smaller Glass on the board, presumably feeding into the target Glass. "Now just to get her attention, get her to angle that mirror in to speak directly ... There we go!" Lois stepped back from her board in triumph, while the image on the Palace Glass changed altogether.
Clark stared as another room materialised, an warped echo of theirs. A datacenter unparalleled on the planet, quite obviously larger and more intricate than the Planet Center they currently occupied. He could see Glasses covering most of the walls, and the sights he made out covered things he wasn't sure he'd ever seen before. But by far the most impressive aspect of that room was the woman at its center.
The myths hadn't been completely accurate, he noted. The young woman Lois called the Spider and Bruce called Barbara was not limbless, nor was she nested in a clicking mass of brass arms. Instead, she occupied a large, functional chair, most of it obscured beneath the mechanical shifting of the layered databoards that moved in synchronised orbits around her, guided by the touch of clever and very human fingers. She smiled up at them, one hand coming up to adjust the lenses over her eyes and brush a wisp of red hair out of her way.
"Lois," she greeted, her smile edged with cheerful competitiveness. "You're getting worryingly good, you know that?"
"One tries," Lois grinned back, coming around the board to stand before the Glass and perching herself on the far edge of her databoard. "I still have to find out how you manage to get mirrors into my net in the first place. Which I have determined to do, I warn you!"
Barbara tipped her head back with a laugh. "All in good time, my dear! I've got to keep some kind of edge, you know. But I believe you mentioned a rather more pressing issue?"
"I should hope she did," Bruce noted wryly, coming to stand behind Lois on their side of the board. Clark, curious, moved to stand with him, and watched as a number of emotions flickered in quick succession over the woman's face, emotions including concern, anxiety, a hint of anger, and a overwhelming surge of relief. For his part, Bruce's expression softened, some of the tension Clark had barely realised was there faded from the line of his shoulders, and he gave her a slight smile. "How are you and the boys getting on, running my City alone?"
She stared at him, propping her chin in one hand to obscure a wondering smile, and her eyes beneath the lenses shone with relief and honest happiness. It made Clark realise, just for a moment, how indescribably beautiful she was. He had always noticed that, that people who cared always looked more beautiful when they let it show. As both Barbara and Bruce did now. There had been an instant leap of connection between them, the recognition of family, of safety, of the familiar, and it had taken the edge of ironic bitterness from the Nightlord's demeanor, had lifted his features a little beyond the masking injuries, and given him back something Clark had barely realised he was missing. A kind of completeness.
And for some reason, in that instant, Clark wished it was something he had been able to bring to the other man himself. He wished that Bruce could look at him, and find that same wholeness.
"Terribly, Bruce," Barbara murmured softly. "We've been doing terribly. When do you think you'll be home, to fix it?" He smiled wryly, and looked from her to Lois to Clark, and back again, that calculating look back in his eyes.
"Yes," he said softly. "Let's talk about that."
Chapter 6: Part VI
"Yes," Bruce said softly. "Let's talk about that."
"Indeed," Lois cut in, her voice sharpening. "And I hope you don't mind if Clark and I weigh in on this little discussion? Because it does appear that we have a hefty interest in how this turns out."
Bruce blinked at her, then tipped his head in wry acquiesance. "Of course, Ms Lane," he murmured, and turned back to Barbara with a frown. "After overhearing certain conversations recently, I will agree that matters have become a little more complicated, for both Cities."
The Spider's gaze sharpened as she came to attention. "In what way, Bruce?"
The Nightlord's hands clenched unconsciously into fists as he considered his answer, and his face darkened. Clark, understanding, reached out to lay a calming hand on his shoulder, and was pleased when grateful blue eyes cut up to meet his for a brief moment, before Bruce turned his attention back to the matter at hand.
"In short?" he began brusquely. "If I escape, or die, before Luthor gets control or access to control of Gotham, he intends to blow her out of the sky rather than let her escape." Barbara stiffened in her seat, expression cooling rapidly to one of calm outrage and determination. "While Arthur, on the other hand, apparently intends to avenge Atlantean honour by blowing Metropolis out of the sky, also if I die." He smiled ruefully. "My life has apparently just become the lynchpin in deciding the fates of two Cities. I'm not sure how to feel about that."
"How about very, very worried?" Lois suggested dryly, her furrowed brow announcing clearly that she was taking her own advice. "You're absolutely sure about Luthor? How?"
"He's sure," Clark confirmed heavily. "He slipped a microGlass into Luthor's appartments as we passed. We both heard him." Both Lois and Barbara pricked their ears at that.
"Which frequency?" the Spider asked, even as Lois chimed in with: "What range?" Clark blinked a bit, as Bruce smiled and pulled out the radioGlass he'd used on the Palace roof.
"Usual frequency," he murmured to Barbara, and offered Lois the reciever. "Tied to this Glass. Should still reach it, but the range is very low. You'd be better using one of your own devices."
"What makes you think I have them?" Lois asked coyly, taking the proffered Glass. Bruce merely looked at her. "But you're right. And I'm sure if I activate them, the Spider here will pick them up too, and not bother trying to track this one?"
"Would I do that to you?" Barbara smiled.
"In a heartbeat, darling," Lois purred, her fingers already moving over her board. "I've learned to accept the fact, and not let it spoil our working relationship."
"Ever gracious, my dear. Thank you."
"If you two are done flirting?" Bruce cut in, in tones drier than any desert. Both women sent him such withering looks that Clark was tempted to duck away out of the line of fire, and then Lois curled her fingers onto her hip to send him his own look.
"Look who's talking," she said pointedly, and Clark looked at Bruce in bemusment. Bruce looked back, and shrugged as if to say, women, what are you going to do?
"As I was saying," the Nightlord went on, effectively flattening that avenue of conversation. "If we could get back to the issue of my death equalling the destruction of two Cities, and work from there? I'd like to have a plan of action before Luthor starts getting bored and trigger-happy."
"Obviously, our first priority has to be keeping you alive," Clark said, slowly, his hand tightening instinctively on Bruce's shoulder. "If you die, everyone pays."
Lois and Barbara nodded, even if Bruce himself looked dubious. "And Metropolis is not the best place to manage that one," her Dataqueen noted softly. "We need to get him out of the City, flyboy, and before we come back in range of the Atlantis Tower." Clark nodded rapidly.
"If I can get him to the boat hangar, I can manage that one," he started, when Bruce raised one hand imperiously.
"Wait!" he barked. "Before we go any farther. There's more than one City at stake here, remember?"
"What does that mean?" Lois asked sharply, and it was Barbara who answered her, in calm, reasonable tones.
"It means that even if Bruce's escape guarantees Metropolis' safety, Gotham might still be at risk. If Luthor sees that he's lost him, with no chance of getting him back, it may push him into doing something rash."
"Like trying to blow Gotham out of the sky," Bruce finished harshly. "And with Arthur in the mood he is, I'm guessing that won't turn out to be very healthy for Metropolis, either." Lois and Clark looked at each other, and nodded in dismay. "Even Dick's little game to shake his confidence in my importance might backfire if we push him too far. And actually, while we're on the subject, Barbara, if you could tell him how pleased I am to have such a loyal, dutiful son?"
"You heard that, huh?" she murmured, a glimmer of a smile returning to her grave features. "I think he knows, Bruce."
The Nightlord nodded, his own features lightening briefly too. Then he was back to business, turning slightly so he could look at Clark. "So we have two goals," he said quietly, and his expression turned sad. "And I'm afraid one of them, Clark, requires you to be far more traitorous than I think you can manage."
Clark looked back at him, and swallowed. "We have to get rid of Luthor, don't we?" he said, and it wasn't really the question he tried to pretend it was. To stop war erupting between the three Cities involved, the Lord of his City, his Metropolis, was going to have to be stopped, and Clark was going to have to help do it. And in doing so, he was going to have to betray everything he had ever been taught to accept as right. Bruce met his gaze steadily, and there was sorrow in his eyes, for forcing Clark to this. And despite everything, that sorrow lifted Clark's heart, to see that much caring, for him, in the eyes of this man.
"No," came a slow, considering voice, and all of them turned to stare at Lois in surprise. The dataqueen tapped her fingers lightly on the board, her eyes watching the two of them with an odd expression, and determination settled over her features. "No, we don't. Or rather, you don't, Clark."
"Explain," Bruce demanded, his gaze zeroing in on her face. Lois shrugged it off easily, one hand coming up to tap lightly at her chin, the way it did when a plan had begun to resolve itself in her quick and rather devious mind. Clark knew the mannerism well, having seen it more than once, and always on memorable occasions.
"Luthor has to go, we're all agreed?" she said finally, not bothering to count the nods. "He's risked too much, damaged too much, and put too many lives in danger. It's not the act of traitor to be rid of him, not when Metropolis' continued existance depends on it. But that's not going to matter to any of you, I'm afraid. Because that, my friends, is going to be my concern."
Clark stared at her, stunned and a little dismayed. "Lois," he started, and she cut him off with a smile, seeing the concern for her safety in his eyes. He supposed it wasn't really hidden. "Are you sure you can?" he finished finally, and tried not to wince at the arch look he got in reply.
"Clark, dear, if I can regulate air traffic over Metropolis when your boys are in the air, I think I can be trusted to organise a revolution," She smiled gently at him. "Besides, you never were all that interested in politics, were you? No. You leave that part to me. You've got your own job to do."
"Namely?" Bruce cut in, still sharp, but his eyes had warmed considerably towards her. Lois perched one hip on her databoard, and curved her lips into a confident smirk.
"Namely, Nightlord, to get your aristocratic ass out of my City, and back where you came from."
Clark spluttered, and tried not to laugh as Bruce raised both eyebrows in a mix of affront and grudging amusement. Behind Lois, Barbara wasn't nearly so restrained. "Well, that's telling you, my Lord," she murmured, eyes twinkling merrily beneath their veiling lenses.
"Yes, thank you," Bruce drawled. And then the humour in his eyes receded a little, and they focused on some distant thing in calculation. "Can anyone tell me where we are?"
Lois blinked, then turned towards one of the external Glasses. "Cruising the 1pm line, over the West Pacific. Roughly over the Japanese sinkhole, by the looks of things." He nodded.
Barbara took that one. "Stationary over the West Atlantic. Paris just passed us to the south, riding 11pm west towards Mexico."
"Eleven hours?" the Nightlord mused, blinking in surprise. "Has it been that long? But never mind. So. East, we have ten hours back to Gotham, flying into the night. And west, fourteen, and we'd have to outpace Metropolis herself. How fast can you do the run, Clark? Assuming, of course, that you agree to do it at all."
Clark blinked, then smiled softly, and stroked his thumb gently over the back of Bruce's shoulder. "I told you I'd promised to see you safe, didn't I?" he murmured, and smiled deeper as something in the Nightlord's gaze went warm and liquid, before Bruce hurriedly hid it. "Give me the right boat, and I can take you anywhere on the planet in under six hours, my Lord."
"Give him any boat and he'll do it," Lois muttered. "I really don't understand why men insist on having better toys, when the basics do the job just as well."
"Says the controller of the best datacenter outside of Gotham herself," Barbara commented innocently behind her. Lois huffed loudly, and both Clark and Bruce hurriedly assumed equally straight and innocent expressions. It didn't fool her in the slightest.
"Better equipment allows for more security, and a more comfortable cushion for planning," Bruce cut in repressively, deadpan. "The more we can rely on the boat as well as Clark's skills, the tighter we can cut the timing, and the more risks and unexpected elements we can cope with."
Clark, ignoring the hint of knowing in his voice, still trying to forget that he apparently had more skills in the air than he'd thought he had, zeroed in on one particular statement. "Why might we need to cut the timing?"
Bruce looked up at him, and then turned his head slowly towards Lois, a hint of steel glimmering in his eyes. "Because," he said slowly, watching her. Clark followed his gaze. "I think there is more to Ms Lane's plan than she's told us, no? So far, so straight-forward, and I get the impression you're rather more devious than that."
"Why, thank you," Lois murmured, meeting his eyes coolly, her smirk still confidently in place. "And you're correct, of course. I get the impression you often are. You and Clark will have more to do than just cruise home, I'm afraid. I can't get things in motion in time here, unless ..."
"Unless you have a distraction," Clark exclaimed, catching on. Lois smiled sharply at him.
"Got it in one, flyboy. Time it right, make it flashy enough, and Luthor might send enough of his guys out to reclaim their missing captive to make my job easier. We don't have too many options, or I wouldn't suggest it, but ..."
"But more than our lives are at stake," Bruce finished wearily. Clark frowned down at him in concern, remembering suddenly how injured the man was. Bruce caught his gaze, and blinked, his shoulders instinctively straightening and the tiredness vanishing miraculously from his eyes.
But it was too late. Clark had seen it, and he wondered suddenly exactly how much of it Bruce had been hiding. Exactly how hurt and tired was the Nightlord, and how had Clark managed to forget that he was at all? It was the air of capability, that's what it was, the impression the man instinctively gave that he was capable of anything you might ask of him. It was an incredible disguise, but that was no excuse! No excuse for Clark to ignore how vulnerable he was.
"Bruce?" he started softly, and the Nightlord shifted warily. "Are you sure you're up to this?"
Bruce stiffened, his brows drawing down into a rigid frown. "Of course!" he snapped, looking away quickly from Clark's knowing gaze. "I'm fine, Commander. So if we could get back to business ...?"
"How hurt is he?" Barbara cut in suddenly, and Clark looked up at the screen in surprise. The Spider was watching her Lord in blatant concern, her sharp eyes scrutinising him from head to toe. "You didn't mention it was more than just some roughing up!"
"It's not bad," Bruce growled back, and Clark frowned.
"What about that chest wound?" he asked, and Barbara swung to stare at him incredulously.
"Chest wound?" she barked. "As in ribs? Lungs? What, exactly, are we talking here, Bruce?"
"It's nothing!" the Nightlord growled, defensively. "I'm not incapacitated. I just caught some debris on the way down after the boat exploded. Heavy bruising, mostly, but a rib's upset, and there were some minor lacerations. It's nothing I can't work around, and the doctors here took care of most of it." Clark flinched, and stared at him in awe and a bit of anger.
"You didn't think to tell me this earlier?" he asked, quietly. Bruce turned to snarl up at him, and paused in surprise at the expression on his face. It must have been a little shock, alright. Clark didn't particularly care. "When you took that hit from Corben, and then my weight on the ledge ... you didn't think that telling me your chest was that badly hurt might be a good idea?" he went on, and to his own surprise, found his fists were clenched. Bruce blinked at him in shock.
"Well," he began, warily. "We did, ah, have another issue to sort out first, if you remember?" Clark flinched again, and growled angrily.
"This is more important!" he hissed. "You should have told me! You should have said it, instead of letting me ... instead of ..." He stopped, whitening, and stared down at his fists in shame. He remembered the feeling of wanting to hit Bruce, after the man had allowed himself to be hurt further on his behalf, just because he'd been frightened of something that had saved his life. Just because ...
"No," Bruce said softly, and reached out to lay one hand over Clark's shaking fist. "It wasn't more important. And you were hardly to blame, Clark." He sighed heavily. "I have so much I have to explain to you, so much I owe you ..." Clark started to shake his head, but Bruce tightened his grip on his hand to stop him. "I do, Clark. And I will repay you, I promise. After we finish this."
Clark blinked, and almost growled again, despite the warmth that seemed to be growing in his own chest. "You're hurt," he said again, pointedly. Bruce smiled, and shrugged.
"But not dead. And that's the most important point, isn't it?" He shook his head at Clark's glare, and looked up at all of them. Clark blinked, remembering all at once that the two women were still there, but he never looked away from those tired blue eyes, even as purpose hardened in them. "With two Cities in the balance if I die, believe me, Clark, I've no intention of allowing myself to be killed. And Ms Lane's plan sounds good enough for the job."
"It can be adjusted," Lois commented softly. "I can help you get into the boat hangar undetected, and you wouldn't have to make any flashy moves until after you're in the boat, where ..."
"Where I can take over," Clark said, firmly. Bruce stared hard at him, but Clark wasn't about to relent and after a moment, the Nightlord let himself slump a little, which Clark was rapidly recognising as a sign of accquiesance and trust. He would have been gratified by it, if it didn't worry him so much. Then he turned to Lois. "But there is one slight problem," he admitted, ruefully. "If we're already in the boat when we're seen, we'll be outside MCDF juristiction. He'll be sending my own boys after me. I trained them well, Lois."
She shook her head with a smile. "I'm sure you did, Clark. But it won't matter. Luthor's too paranoid to send men after their own commander. He'll fully expect them to join you rather than take you. He'll have his own forces to go after you. I'm full sure he has his own private boats secluded through the Rampart. I've had my eye on a couple of places for a while."
"Very probably," Bruce commented. "But Luthor is not acting predictably. I never expected him to go as far as he did on the Tower, remember, and look where that got me. Something's pushing Luthor to act fast on Gotham, and I've yet to figure out what. Until I do, Luthor is a rogue element, and highly unpredictable. He might send the MADF."
"It's not that much of a worry," Clark said quickly. "I'm still the fastest thing in the sky. I'll get you through, Bruce." It wasn't boasting. It was just that he was the fastest thing in the sky, or the fastest he'd ever encountered, anyway. And there was apparently a reason for that, too, which Clark really was going to have to let himself think about some time soon. He knew that. But there were bigger concerns first. "It's just ... I don't like the thought of having to fight my own, you know?" Bruce smiled sadly at him.
"Will it be alright, if we do some of the fighting for you?" Barbara asked, and both men looked up to see her databoards moving around her as her fingers darted over them. "I can arrange to have Tim take his fleet out for you, after leaving enough time for Gotham to conceivably have heard the news. If you can make it that far?"
Lois frowned, her own fingers tapping. "Might be wise. But leave that a minute. First, we need to figure out when you're going."
Bruce blinked at her. "As soon as possible, I presume," he said, dryly. Lois shook her head, and eyed both him and Clark for a second. Clark raised an eyebrow in question.
"Lois?" he asked, carefully. She started, as if she'd been deep in thought.
"Right!" She shook herself. "No. You can't leave right away. I'll need an hour or so to lay the groundwork, get things moving before you make your grand exit."
Bruce frowned. "The longer we leave it, the closer Metropolis moves back around towards Gotham and the Tower."
Lois shook her head. "Can't be helped. I need the time. And so, my Lord, do you." She stared at him pointedly, and Bruce had to tighten his jaw, but he didn't disagree. Which was probably a good idea, if Clark had any say in the matter. "I was thinking if we left it for about two hours or so," she went on. "Metropolis is steady at 1pm, and it'll take her the fourteen to come around. Well, thirteen to come in range, maybe. Even going back east, if you leave in two to three hours, you should make it with plenty of time to spare. A ten hour cushion should do, right Clark?"
Clark shrugged. "I said six hours would be all I needed, and I meant it. Even if we have to manouver along the way, I can get us there in under eight, so it's plenty. But why east? That'll be the long way around by then."
"But logical," Bruce noted. "I am the Nightlord, after all. Heading back through the night would be exactly what I'd be expected to do, and we don't want to alarm Luthor too much before the time is right. It'll mean we'd need a full boat, with engines, rather than just a lightsailer. Can you ...?"
"Not a problem," Lois announced. And then turned that strange, appraising stare back on the two of them. "Alright," she said softly. "I'll have everything ready by then. So ... Clark, I think you should show Lord Wayne to his bed now, don't you?"
Clark spluttered, as a wicked grin made itself known on her sharp little features. "What!?"
"Indeed!" Bruce echoed beside him. Lois just grinned.
"Well, you quite obviously need the rest, my Lord," she murmured, faintly laughing. "And Clark knows where the crashroom is. I was simply suggesting that he escort you there, that's all. Why? Something wrong with the idea?"
"Not at all," Clark muttered quickly, trying to stem his sudden blush, and glaring as she smirked at him. Bruce looked up at him in wary confusion, and Clark shrugged uncomfortably, his face burning. "No. I'll ... Right. Ah. Lord Wayne?"
Bruce blinked at him, then, slowly, a smile curled its way over his face, and he stood. Clark hurriedly put out a hand to steady him, wrapping it carefully around his elbow, and was pleasantly surprised when Bruce didn't glare at him for it. Bruce made it to his feet, and stood for a small second just looking at him, his eyes sparkling with humour and something deeper that Clark couldn't name. Something that warmed him, right down to his toes. "What happened to calling me Bruce, Commander?" the Nightlord murmured gently, and smiled at Clark's blush.
"Ah, automatic reaction?" he asked, and ducked his head. Bruce laughed lightly.
"I see. Well then, lead on, Commander mine! Lead on!" He bowed just a touch, an oddly playful gesture, and motioned for Clark to take the lead. Which Clark did, glaring steadily as Lois snickered, and Barbara watched them with her chin cupped in her hand and her eyes smiling gently down at them. "In two hours, ladies," Bruce nodded, a brief return to seriousness.
"Three hours," Barbara agreed, moving her hand to nod. Lois tipped them a salute, and then shooed them away. She had turned back to her board before they'd even stepped outside the door.
In the corridor, Clark paused, and just looked at the Nightlord for a long minute. Just thinking. Eleven hours, he had said. Eleven hours since the Tower, and their first sight of each other. Just half a day, and this injured, tired man at his side had changed his life and his world in more ways than he could currently count. It was ... amazing. And more than a little frightening.
Bruce tilted his head, his eyes querying, and Clark shook his head. "This way," he said softly, angling down the corridor. Bruce nodded, smiling oddly, and motioned silently that he'd follow. Shrugging, Clark started down the hall, trying to ignore the comfortable itch that defined the man's presence as he fell in behind him. He had a feeling he was starting to get far too used to that presence.
Odd, then, that it didn't worry him half as much as it should.
Chapter 7: Part VII
When he stepped back into her lair twenty minutes later, Lois was on her own again, pacing to and fro across the room, tapping and muttering to herself. She was as happily and determinedly busy as he'd ever seen her, and the sight made him smile a little. But when she turned and saw him, she didn't smile back. Her first expression was surprise, and that rapidly morphed into exasperation as he stood in the doorway and shuffled.
"Clark, honey," she said finally, perching one annoyed hip on her board. "You really can't take a hint, can you?"
He shifted, his mouth curving ruefully. "Oh, I can," he murmured, and he could. He knew exactly what she'd been hinting at, and he had very nearly gone with it, too. "Just, not now, okay?"
She sighed. "Why not now, flyboy? You mightn't get the chance, later."
He nodded sadly, and then tried a faint smile. "I know. It's just ... it feels too much like ... like taking advantage of him. He's hurt, he's alone, he needs us to help him. I just ... I couldn't." He'd stood in the doorway, watching Bruce make his way to the bed, trying to work up to asking. Then Bruce had turned to him, in the dim golden light, reaching up stiffly to pull off the cloak, his bruised face curious and composed. And Clark couldn't. He just couldn't, no matter that it might be his last chance, no matter how badly he wanted to. He couldn't take advantage of that suddenly visible vulnerability. And there had been something in Bruce's eyes, as he'd helped him sit down, that had seen it in him. He couldn't tell if the man had been grateful or disappointed. And he was almost afraid to find out.
Lois watched him as he remembered, and shook her head. When she looked back up at him, there was such softness in her eyes, such warm and exasperated caring, that he didn't know what to do. "Flyboy," she said quietly. "I swear, you really are the most idiotic, blind, romantic lump I've ever met. You really, really are."
He blinked, and grinned a little. "Well, that's why you love me, isn't it?"
She laughed, and turned back to her Glasses, shaking her head. "It's a good job I'm not in love with you, or I can see I'd be in for a long haul, flyboy. And since you're here, you wouldn't come over and help me out, would you? My shoulders are knotting horribly."
He reached up to scrub one hand through his hair in wonder, and walked over to her smiling. "Sure," he murmured, and laid his hands gently on her shoulders, brushing his thumbs lightly over the back of her neck, feeling the tightness there. She arched her neck a little, settling in to the sensation, and immediately got back to work.
"You should give him one of these," she muttered quietly, her body arching a little as he hit a sore spot. "He'd follow you into Hell."
"I think he's already been there," Clark murmured back. Then his hands went still on her shoulders, and his face creased into a frown.
"Clark?" she asked, turning her head a little to look back at him. "What's wrong?" He looked down at her, and bit his lip, gnawing worriedly. She turned to him more fully, concern rapidly filling her sharp eyes. "Clark?"
"Lois, I ..." he started, and sighed, firming his resolve. He had to tell someone. "Lois, I think he did something to me," he said at last, very quietly. She stared over her shoulder at him for a second, then spun all at once to seize hold of his uniform.
"Did something?" she asked harshly. "Did what? Clark, if he hurt you ..."
"No!" he exclaimed hurriedly, then quieted. "No. It's not like that. It's just ... You know the rumours, that he took Gotham to Hell and back? That he's some kind of demon?"
"Ye-es," she said slowly, deliberately, and he flushed a little.
"Do you think he can turn other people into demons too?" he asked, shifting uncomfortably. She just stared at him, utterly incomprehending and more than a little worried, and he sighed. Looking to one side, he stepped back a bit, and held up a hand. "Lois, just ... just watch, okay? And then tell me. Alright?" She nodded warily, and he bit his lip again, closing his eyes.
And focused on feeling light.
When he opened them again, hovering a couple of inches off the floor, she was still staring at him. But instead of the shock and horror he'd expected, she had pressed a hand to her mouth, partially disguising a smile of the strangest mix of sorrow and pity and joy he'd ever seen. He blinked. "Lois, is this normal?"
She shook her head, unable to speak for a minute, still staring at him. Then she lowered that disguising hand to smile openly, and stepped up to lay it gently on his floating chest. "For you, flyboy?" she murmured thickly. "I think it is. I really think it is." He blinked at her in shock, and her smile turned a little rueful as she tried to explain. "Clark, you know how some people talk in their sleep? Well, honey ... you fly." She patted him gently. "You always have. I thought you knew."
His heels hit the floor with a thud as he gaped at her. "What?" he whispered, hoarsely. She stepped back a little from his confusion, and shrugged helplessly.
"I honestly thought you knew," she said, her hand waving aimlessly as if trying to grab the right words. "You hid it on the ground, so well nobody would suspect, but in the air ... Clark, there's nothing like you in the air. I've never seen you do it without a sail, except those couple of times in your sleep when you'd crashed on the cot, but ... somehow, flyboy, I'm not surprised. But ... you really never knew? Never even suspected?" There was a hint of incredulity in her voice. He shook his head desperately.
"No, I didn't!" he said, controlling the panic in his voice with difficulty. "Lois, I never knew. Not until he told me. Not until him."
"Then," she said, slowly and gently, "I think you might owe him some thanks, flyboy, don't you? He's handed you back the sky. That's a hell of first date, don't you think?"
He blinked, and looked down at his hands. Slowly, he curled one into a fist, and raised it as if to study it, his face red with shame and amazement. "I almost hit him for it," he admitted, rich wonder threading through his voice. "I thought he'd turned me into a demon. I almost hit him."
Lois snorted, her eyes still shining at him, though there was just a hint of teasing now. "Clark, honey, only you. Only you. What the hell made you think he was a demon in the first place? Does he strike you as one?"
"No," Clark started, then slowed, musing. He thought back on the last twelve hours of his life, and the man who had figured so largely in them. "No, he doesn't. He strikes me as ... courageous. Determined. Fierce. Protective, maybe too much so. Honourable ..."
"Gorgeous? Dreamy? The love of your life?" Lois finished, and laughed when the flush climbed past his ears. Smiling broadly, her eyes shining with love, she stepped forward and reached up to take his face between her hands, pulling him down so she could press his burning forehead to hers. "Clark, honey. I gotta tell you something. The man is not a demon. He is not weak. I doubt there is a single person on this planet who could manage to take and keep an advantage over him. And I'm fairly sure he thinks you're the most gorgeous, awesome human being he has ever met. If, by the end of this, you have not kissed him into submission at the very least, I am going to be severely disappointed in you! Understood?" Blinking, staring into her serious, laughing eyes an inch from his, he nodded, and she tipped her head up a little further to kiss his forehead before letting go. "Good," was all she said, and turned back to work.
Bemused, he stared after her, one hand coming hesitantly up to brush in wonder over his forehead. Bringing it down to stare at it for a minute, he looked back over at her, and smiled.
"Lois?" he said softly.
"Flyboy," she answered back, not turning around. His smile deepened into something mischievious.
"You and the Spider ... Barbara ... how's that going?"
She turned to him then, her lips curving into a full, challenging smirk, her hand settling combatively on her hip. "That," she enunciated, and grinned at him, "is an entirely professional relationship, and absolutely none of your business!"
He nodded sagely, manouvering towards the door before she could find something to throw. "Of course it is," he managed, ducking out of the room as she flipped a nasty gesture at his head, both of them laughing. But he was pretty sure that his eyes as he left had been saying something quite different.
He was pretty sure they'd been saying thank you.
Two and a half hours later, he went to wake Bruce up. Well, technically, two hours and twenty minutes later, he went to wake Bruce up. If he happened to spend ten minutes just standing there, studying the man, well, it hurt no-one. They had a little time left, and he just ... wanted to watch him. Bruce was different when he was asleep, he thought. Less guarded. Less ... intense. But not by much. There was so much leashed energy in this man. So much power and ferocity. And all of it channeled into protecting what he cared about. He was vulnerable now, hurt and sleeping, open to attack, but somehow not. Even now, Bruce looked as if he could face whatever came. It was something Clark had to admire, even as he wished he knew how to make it unnecessary.
After a few minutes, duty prompted him to move forward. They had work to do, risks to run, wars to prevent, even if he didn't really want them to have to do any of it. Bruce looked so tired ... But it had to be done.
He stepped up beside the cot, and blinked in surprise. A pair of hooded blue eyes stared up at him, life drifting back up into them as he watched. Bruce was more than half awake already, and seemed to be studying him as avidly in turn as he'd been studied. Clark flushed a little, staring down at him, and Bruce smiled softly, his expression strangely open. The look sent a thick ribbon of warmth curling immovably around Clark's chest, and he smiled back, unguardedly delighted.
"Time to go?" Bruce whispered. It seemed fitting. It was a quiet moment.
"Time to go," Clark affirmed softly, and grimaced lightly. Bruce chuckled ruefully, and reached up to pull himself free of the blankets. Clark stared at the chest the motion revealed, mostly disguised beneath white bandages, which had been adjusted recently. He looked up at Bruce's face sharply, concern and shame in his frown. The Nightlord shook his head ruefully.
"Needed some tweaking after Corben," he explained easily. "Five minutes work, that's all. I'm good to go."
Clark stared at him, oddly disappointed and disapproving. "Do you ever ask anyone for help?" he asked, a hint of temper showing. "Or think to tell them you need it in the first place?"
Bruce ignored him for a second as he heaved himself into a sitting position on the edge of the cot, grunting with the effort. Then he looked up at Clark with a strange expression, a kind of wondering frown. "Yes," he said quietly. "I once asked an enemy Commander to help me get a cloak."
Clark blinked, then swallowed. "And why ... why did you do a thing like that?" he asked thickly. Bruce met his gaze for a long minute, and his smile was warm, hesitant.
"Because I was a little desperate," he murmured. "And he had honest eyes."
Clark stared at him. Kind eyes, whispered another, female voice in his head, and he remembered the touch of a small, courageous hand on his cheek. Who were these people, to show such courage, such trust? And how was it that he, of all people, had earned it from them. That wounded girl, this damaged man. How had he managed to let them think him worthy of the trust they gave? And how was he now supposed to live up to it? But he had to. And ... he could. Because there was something powerful about being trusted, something warm and wonderful about having someone believe in you that much. And this man ...
He smiled back, and reached out wordlessly to take Bruce's hand and pull him gently to his feet. The other man came easily, the rest having returned some of the grace and power to his movements, and for a moment they stood there, in that small room, their hands clasped firmly together. Clark watched those blue eyes, just for a moment absorbing the life and ferocity and strength that lived in them, and smiled deeply.
"Come, my Lord," he murmured quietly, the warmth inside him spilling inevitably into his tone, but he didn't mind that. "Let's get our Cities back."
For a second, Bruce's hand firmed around his, a strong clasp of emotion, and then the Nightlord disengaged with a rich smile. He stepped back, and swept Clark a deep and courtly bow, holding one arm out towards the door. "Lead on, Commander mine," he laughed, rich and proud and warm. "Lead away!"
Lois looked them over critically as they prepared to head out. Or rather, up. Jimmy'd managed to acquire a second handsail for Bruce, and they were leaving from the roof within the half hour. But the Dataqueen wanted to give them one last briefing beforehand. It was her only way of showing nerves, and it made Clark want to hug her.
"Remember," she commanded briskly. "I'll be monitoring the beams between the air patrols, confusing them if need be. But that doesn't give you any room to be stupid, either. Most of them are Clark's boys. They are not idiots. Keep quiet, stay unobtrusive. And for Wind's sake, try to keep my migraines to a minimum!"
"Yes, Ma'am," Clark deadpanned, and nearly earned himself a knee where it'd cost him. When it came to fighting, Lois was not above dirty tactics. Almost made you sorry for Luthor, until you remembered who you were talking about. Bruce merely raised a tolerant eyebrow, risking joining Clark on the floor, but he had the air of command to carry it off. Lois huffed at the pair of them.
"Just ... be careful, alright!" she finished in exasperation, and from the way one hand reached up as if to try and cradle the opposite elbow, Clark realised she really was worried sick about them.
"Lois," he said softly, and stepped forward to touch her shoulder lightly. She looked up at him, her expression firmly one of aggravation, but that faded as she recognised his concern. Her stern features softened for a moment, the worry and caring clear for a second in her eyes, and as he pulled her gently into a hug, he had to smile. She was such a fierce, protective woman, his Lois. It was a wonder she and Bruce didn't get on better. But no wonder at all that he loved them both so much. So instantly, so completely.
When she thumped his arm gently a moment later for him to let her go, her face was calm and composed once more. And determined. She straightened herself proudly, as if disclaiming any responsibility for what had just happened, and turned to Bruce with a glint in her eye. "Clark, honey, would you just go check those sails for a minute?"
He blinked. "Jimmy and I just ..." he started, and caught the needle-sharp look she sent him. "Sure thing, Lois!" But he watched closely, walking away, as she stepped right up into Bruce's space, obviously resisting poking him in the chest with difficulty, and started to murmur to him in a low, fierce tone. The Nightlord's expression rapidly flitted from wary to affronted to astonished to wondering, before finally settling on warm determination as his eyes drifted over to meet Clark's. Clark frowned back at him, but Bruce only smiled faintly, happily, and looked back down solemnly at Lois, his fist rising to his chest as if swearing an oath. She stared up at him for a minute longer, as if trying to pin that oath, whatever it had been, to the inside of his skull, before nodding sharply and stalking away as if nothing had happened.
Clark shot Bruce a questioning look as the Nightlord stepped up to take his sail, but the man only shook his head. "A private matter," he muttered, and smiled disarmingly at Clark. Who wasn't impressed, for all the dent it made in the man's aplomb. "Shall we, Commander mine?"
Clark frowned down at him in frustration, shot one last look across the roof to where Lois stood with Jimmy, proud and confident with one hand resting combatively on her hip, and shrugged. "As you wish, my Lord." A short, powerful run later, they swept out over the parapet, catching the updraft around the building to curl up around the globe. As they came back around, Clark looked down to see Lois raise a hand in a short, jerky wave, before she brought it back down and strode determinedly back into her lair.
It had begun. And now they all had their jobs to do, their risks to run. A mistake from here could cost two Cities their existance.
So they would just have to avoid making any.
Thankfully, for the first leg of this journey, that didn't look like it was going to be a problem. Bruce lived up to Clark's judgement on the Atlantis Tower, guiding the sail confidently and purposefully. He even negotiated the tricky crosswind down Fifth without too much of a problem, which not many of Clark's boys had managed. Soon enough, Clark felt confident enough in his partner's skills to take the necessary lead, trusting that Bruce would follow.
Which was just as well, because the skylanes out towards the Ramparts were becoming increasingly active. Looked like word of the escape had finally spread to the lower echleons. Clark wondered how Luthor had explained that one, that their injured guest was now a fugitive. But then ... the Nightlord's reputation did rather lend itself to tales of supposed infamy. He was guilty of assuming the worst himself, after all. But he hadn't realised how quickly it could spread, how soon an entire City could be made to believe the worst of a man. How easily they could be made to attack for a lie. It was ... terrifying.
He glanced over at Bruce as he dipped to take the first of the winding rat-runs that hopefully would get them through unseen. The Nightlord's expression had changed, becoming hard and focused and alert, and he followed Clark with intelligent precision. Bruce knew exactly how much danger he was in. He always had, Clark realised. He'd expected to stand alone against a City from the start. But it was only now, only seeing the air thick with people hunting for them, that Clark understood what that meant, how much fear and courage that entailed.
They were getting through, he decided. Instantly. Absolutely. Bruce was not falling to Luthor again.
They dipped down to street level, Clark guiding them along the twisting routes he knew like the back of his hand, but careful to use the ones he mostly kept to himself, his secret paths through the City. He flew through them with ease, light as air, every trick and swirl of wind through the streets memorised and instinctive. There was power to this, he thought suddenly. Power in knowing something no-one else did, power in using it to pass without fear. Or as much fear as there would have been otherwise, anyway. And that was what this was about, wasn't it. Secrets, and the power they held. The power Luthor wanted, the power Bruce wanted to keep from him. Gotham's power. Even Clark's power, his secret that he hadn't even known he'd held. So many secrets, unfurling all of a sudden.
And all linking back to the man who swooped low behind him, eyes watching his surroundings warily, body tuned to the flight but also singing with ready energy, prepared to take a blow, to fight. Bruce looked up suddenly, catching Clark's eyes as he looked over his shoulder. Clark looked away again hurriedly, turning his attention back to their path. But the incisive cut of those eyes, the way they had gone from cold assessment to concern to warmth in a bare instant, stayed with him. Bruce was a man used to secrets, used to fighting. Used to being in danger. Used to being next to alone in unfriendly territory.
Clark had to wonder why.
But those were concerns for later, when they had time. The Ramparts were looming close ahead, showing the darker gaps where the City handsails swept along the channels into the boat hangars on the far side, the smaller hangars facing Cityward for the sails of maintainence workers, boat pilots, Dome Engineers, Lensemen, and all the myriad others who lived and worked in the great flight-ring. This was Clark's second home, after the Planet Center. This was where he was in his element, where he worked and fought and flew, where he took his boats out to defend his City. This was his place.
Which was suddenly, as long as he stayed with Bruce, full of potential enemies. A place to walk cautiously, conscious of threat. That ... hurt. A surprising amount. But there was nothing he could do, save remember that Lois would have changed that by the time he returned, and get on with the job.
He came up out of the warren of lesser housing immediately beneath the inner wall of the Rampart, taking his sail daringly up its face to land her in one of the smaller hangars, looking back down to see Bruce taking a less ambitious, if equally effective, route. He smiled sheepishly as the other man pulled in beside him, shooting him a long look in the process. Bruce shrugged it off, his cool focus slipping back into place. They were far from done yet. And none of it was going to be easy.
Quite suddenly, Clark was glad of that annoying air of capability the Nightlord wore like a cloak. He had a feeling they were going to need every ounce of Bruce's confidence.
Luckily, he had plenty.
Chapter 8: Part VIII
It was a mistake many people made, thinking the Ramparts were solid. They weren't. Oh, some had solid sections, and some of the richer Cities had more cohesive ones than others, but the simple fact of the matter was that Ramparts couldn't be completely solid, not if they were to function as more than just something to keep the City in the air. Most of them were in fact major centers of civil and commercial activity. The main hangars were usually on their outer skins, as well the Longlasses and the defenses, while the inner sections behind the broken bands of silver at their centers typically housed commercial shipping docks, the engines for raising and lowering the oxygen domes, hangars serving the Cities themselves, even some of the smaller manufacturing and warehousing facilities. The flight-ring of any of the major Cities was in fact a complex honeycomb of perpetual activity, frequented by thousands of employees, passengers, traders and guards.
It was a nightmare to patrol. A fact which played handily into the Nightlord's hands. Clark's too, but he didn't want to think of it that way. He didn't want to think of these people, his people, as enemies. He didn't want to have to fight them.
Fortunately, fighting didn't seem to be in Bruce's plans either. The Nightlord appeared to have a positive gift for infiltration without discovery, an instinct for how to make use of his surroundings to pass unnoticed, or simply unseen altogether. It was one of those things he needed to talk to Bruce about, like the sleep ampoules, the knowledge of Clark's own abilities, and the whereabouts of the Black City over the past twenty odd years. But for now, it was certainly useful. Combined with Clark's encylopedic knowledge of the Ramparts themselves, it meant they were making fast work of the inner skin, almost past the silver core and into the main activity center surrounding the hangars. Which was probably going to be something more of a problem.
They paused in a service corridor just off one of the smaller commercial docks to recoup and think ahead a little. Bruce leaned against the wall, his breathing harsh but steady, and watched the comings and goings beyond the service entrance with a cool and calculating expression. It was mildly worrying, that look.
"What now?" Clark asked softly, watching himself. All those people. Oblivious to their plight, to the powerplays in motion, to the looming threat Luthor had brought to swing over their heads. All those innocents. Standing between the one man who could save them and his freedom to do it. The irony rankled.
Bruce turned to look at him consideringly, his eyes narrowed and intense, utterly professional. "Lois said they don't know about your ... that you're with me, right?" Clark tried very hard not to flinch, but didn't quite manage it. His betrayal, he finished silently. They didn't know about his betrayal. Bruce went on, but his eyes were apologising silently. "Only the high ranks have heard. Luthor didn't want to risk splitting his forces between your men and his, correct?"
Clark nodded, swallowing. "Right," he said, softly, and it was Bruce who tried not to wince. The Nightlord managed it better.
"Then those people," he went on hoarsely, nodding out to the thoroughfare, "don't know you're not still Commander Kent of MADF. They don't know you're not against me, and they certainly don't know that you're actively helping me." Which didn't smack of betrayal at all, Clark thought wryly. "We can use that, Clark. We can use who they think you are to get us through. If they see you, one of the most powerful, respectable men in the City, a man charged with her defense, leading me, her most wanted villain ... they'll see what they want to see. They'll see their City triumphing over the enemy. They'll let us through, Clark."
Clark didn't doubt it. It sounded like exactly the kind of thing that would work. It just ... sickened him, a little, to use his own reputation, one he'd earned, to essentially betray his City. But more than that, it terrified him to realise how easily it could be done, how vulnerable his City really was to betrayal. People like Luthor, people like Corben, even Bruce if he decided to ... how easily people like that could destroy her. People who could twist the brightest aspect of her, the thing that should be cherished the most in her people, the fact that they trusted the authority of those over them, and use it to ruin her.
"Clark," Bruce called, quietly, and Clark shook himself free of his thoughts to find the Nightlord watching him sadly, his face furrowed with sorrow and guilt. "Clark, I know it doesn't mean much, but I'm ... I'm sorry I got you into this. I'm sorry you have to make this choice because of me." His voice was vibrant with sincerity, his eyes ... forgiving. A choice, he said. To do or not to do. A choice of who to betray. Luthor ... or Bruce.
Suddenly terribly angry, terribly sad, terribly in love, Clark stepped up to him. He raised a hand to Bruce's face, tracing the bruises lightly while those blue eyes watched him with absolute trust, a sudden knot of tears blocking his throat. He rubbed his thumb gently over the edge of Bruce's jaw, and let his hand fall to rest lightly on the man's shoulder.
"I'm not," he said softly, and watched those eyes soften and shine in fierce gratitude. Clark smiled at him for a second. He couldn't help it. Then, gently, he pushed on Bruce's shoulder until the man had turned away from him, and reached down to gather the Nightlord's wrists into his grasp. Letting his smile turn a little sad as Bruce straightened proudly in front of him, he stroked the man's pulse for a moment, before firming his grip into that of a guard with his prisoner.
"Let's go, my Lord," he said quietly, determinedly. And though he couldn't see it, he was sure Bruce smiled.
They marched out onto the thoroughfare as if they had every right, nay, duty to be there, Clark's face firmed into stern determination. They drew instant attention, attracting gazes from more or less everyone in the immediate vicinity. Metropolites stared in awe at the figure of the semi-mythical Nightlord, hands fluttering to brows in the old salute, voices muttering to the Winds to preserve them. Bruce stared them down proudly. Clark's grip on his hands behind his back had pulled the cloak with them, baring his injured chest to the crowds, and the recent exertions had weakened his left leg again. And yet, despite all of that, despite everything, he was still easily the most imposing figure there.
Clark pushed him hurriedly through the crowd, aiming determinedly for the continuing service tunnel on the far side. He made sure to keep his expression calm and stern, his movements purposeful but never furtive. He was in a hurry, but to bring the man in his grasp to justice, not to escape. Both their lives depended on it. But it still hit him like a blow to the chest when a low, ragged cheer rippled out around them. When they clapped him on the shoulder in passing, and spit in Bruce's face. When a boy, a child, darted in to kick at Bruce's left ankle, almost toppling the man. Clark held on to his wrists as he staggered, pulling him roughly back to his feet, but his face wanted to burn with sick embarrassment. He barked harshly for them to clear the way.
They did, parting ahead to let him through, their faces suddenly torn between triumph, confusion and shame. He was fiercely glad of that last, glad that his people could feel shame for wanting to hurt even an enemy. Glad that Luthor hadn't completely ruined them.
They were almost across the tunnel, almost safe, when Clark heard it. A call, from farther up the dock. His grip tightened instinctively on Bruce's arms in a possessive gesture, the Nightlord stiffening in reaction, as he realised who it was.
Two of his boys coming off shift had spotted him. Had seen him escorting the demonic Nightlord to justice. They were rapidly approaching, calling behind them to attract more attention from the other lads, coming to help and congratulate him. Bringing half the MADF down on him and his fugitive companion.
There were times when it just did not pay to be popular.
Ahead of him, Bruce stopped, raising his head slowly, proud and desperate, waiting for him to move. Waiting for Clark to decide what he wanted to do. Waiting, even now, to be betrayed. Clark's hands clenched around the man's wrists before he fully knew what he was doing, angry and ashamed. And determined. It was the last thing he had ever wanted to do, and for a moment there he had let himself believe that there was still a chance he wouldn't have to, that Lois would fix things before he had to show his alliegance, but there was no more choice.
Shooting one last look at the MADF boys, at his men, Clark made his decision.
In one swift move, he released Bruce's wrists, shoving him forward a little so that he could catch the Nightlord's arm as he started running, pulling the momentarily stunned man after him as he raced away from his people towards the service corridor. Bruce, practical to the last, caught on quickly, much quicker than his boys did. He could hear them shout and mill around in confusion behind him, could see the shocked looks on the faces of civilians as he rushed past, and forced himself not to care. That could come later, when they'd gotten out of this place alive.
The MADF boys weren't all that long in catching on, despite having trusted him. He'd trained them well, after all, and tried not to be too bitter about it as they started closing in on Bruce and him. The Nightlord had gathered his cloak close into his body to prevent it from being grabbed, sheer determination overruling the obvious shake in his left leg. Bruce wasn't going to be fast enough, he saw. Not against the fittest force in Metropolis. But there was little he could do about it, short of trying to carry the man.
They made the service tunnel, diving gladly into the narrower space where they couldn't be surrounded easily. Clark tried to stop and hang back, let Bruce go first, but the Nightlord shoved impatiently at his shoulder, moving him forward. When two of his men clattered into the corridor behind them, Clark stopped arguing and ran, leading Bruce through the maze.
Twice, they were caught up as they plunged through the flight-ring corridors. Twice, Bruce spun and dispatched their pursuers, ruthless and desperate, lashing out with deadly precision until they fell back and let the Nightlord go. Helpless in the tight quarters, Clark had to settle for pulling the tired man behind him when it happened, so they could keep up the pace until Bruce got his rhythm back enough to keep up on his own. The Nightlord's features had settled into a grim determination that wouldn't be swayed, and it was all Clark could do to keep ahead of him.
But it couldn't last. Even with their signals scrambled courtesy of one pissed-off dataqueen, the MADF had the numbers and the knowledge of the ring to close in around them. Clark could feel it before he saw it, knew instinctively what his boys would have done. And sure enough, as they rounded a corner about a corridor ahead of pursuit, heading out onto a catwalk over one of the gear shafts for the Dome Engines, he heard another patrol approaching in the opposite direction to cut them off. He skidded to a halt, grunting as Bruce ploughed into his back, and cast about frantically for an exit he knew wasn't there.
There was nowhere for them to go.
Realising what had happened, Bruce wasted no time on disappointment. Spinning so he was back to back with Clark, facing back the way they'd come, the Nightlord prepared to fight for his life. As he'd more than once proved he was perfectly capable of doing. Clark really didn't want it to come to that. But there was nothing he could do, nowhere to run ...
Swallowing hard as he remembered something, keeping an ear out as the patrols came close, Clark tilted his head back to look up, twenty feet or so, into the great mechanisms that ground slowly above their heads. He didn't want to do this. It was too soon, too fresh a worry. But ... there was no choice.
Bruce gasped a bit in shock as he felt himself being seized, struggling instinctively before he realised who it was. Clark held on to him tightly as they started rising, and carefully did not look at his face, focusing on feeling light, on reaching the cover of one of the huge brass flywheels before the patrols passed beneath them. There had to be cover. MADF would think to look up, unlike most people. He'd made sure of that. But it was alright. From the safety of the mechanism, he watched them as they went by, as they met in confusion below. There was a long moment of aching tension, of holding breath, before they turned back their separate ways, thinking their quarry must have taken a different direction after all. Only after he was sure they were gone, only when the danger had passed and with it his excuse for avoiding this, only then did he turn to look at the Nightlord wrapped in his arms.
Bruce was staring at him, his expression something liquid and undefinable. Those fierce blue eyes pierced his, full of stunned gratitude, and awe, and something else. Something Clark had never seen before, something that made this terrifying gift suddenly natural, something that made it worthwhile, something that made him want to protect this man for eternity. Bruce stared at him, and Clark swore he could see love in his eyes.
"Clark," Bruce murmured, throatily. His hand reached up to touch Clark's face as they floated above the shaft, his thumb brushing over his cheek so softly, so tenderly, his hand shaking. "Commander mine." And because it seemed natural, because it seemed the perfect thing to do, Clark turned his head to press a gentle kiss to that trembling palm. Bruce blinked at him, his mouth opening but no sound coming out, his eyes fierce and a little wild. Feeling a dam breaking inside him, hesitation unmoored by fear and adrenalin and love, Clark leaned in all the way, and kissed him properly.
For an instant, it was soft, gentle. For an instant, neither of them could give more than stunned tenderness, fearful gentleness. For only an instant, before their fiercer natures leapt within them, the warrior and guardian, and Clark had to be so very careful to keep himself from crushing Bruce's wounded chest against his own. Lightheaded, it was only when his head bumped gently against the metal arm above them that Clark realised he'd forgotten where they were, what he was doing.
Nothing had ever made him forget he was flying before.
Blushing as Bruce chuckled lightly, as the Nightlord's eyes shone gently at him, Clark focused enough to bring them drifting back down onto the catwalk. For a moment after their feet touched the floor, Clark didn't let go, wanting to just hold this incredible man a little longer. Wanting to stay close. And for a moment, Bruce let him. Then he shook his head, and carefully disentangled himself, holding on to Clark's hand a second longer. Clark watched him silently.
"Come, Commander mine," the Nightlord said abruptly, stepping back to bow at him in courtly desperation. Bruce met his eyes in an odd mix of fear, regret and caring, and gestured towards the corridor beyond. "We've a job to do yet, I'm afraid."
"Of course," Clark said, quietly, and tried not to be too disappointed. Bruce flinched a little, trying to smile at him in encouragement, and settled on touching Clark's shoulder, squeezing lightly as his other hand clenched automatically in a fist at his own shoulder, that gesture of oathmaking he remembered with Lois. A promise, desperate and proud. It was enough.
They moved faster through the outer skin after that. The worst had already happened, after all. All the important decisions had already been made, and try as he might Clark couldn't quite bring himself to regret them. Using his newfound gift of flight was becoming more natural, now that he had finally chosen to use it of his own will, like a body-memory of something his mind had forgotten. Avoiding his men was like a training exercise, as much habit as anything else. And though he tried not to think about it, Clark found it was easy to do these things, and more, for the sake of the man at his side. He wondered where he'd draw the line, what Bruce could ask of him that he'd refuse. He knew it would come, sooner or later. The Nightlord was simply that kind of man.
They made the boat hangar rapidly enough, ghosting in through the steam vents overhead while pilots and traders milled around on the hangar floor, and one of the smaller boats raised herself gracefully for launch. Clark watched as she swept away, out into the sunlit air, her gliding descent taking her skimming down over the Mongolian desert just visible below, and despite himself his heart leapt at the sight. This was where he belonged, places like this. The hangars. The sky.
Beside him, one arm wrapped around Clark's shoulders as they hovered, Bruce pointed to one of the boats in dock. Her steering sails swept out to her sides, back around the brass bulge of the engine to her rear, her hull the long, smooth shape of a small cruiser. She'd be fast, right enough, and from the shape and line of her sails, she'd be manouverable too. Just what they needed.
Bruce tapped him lightly on the shoulder, gesturing silently to a large pipe traversing the hangar roof, running almost directly over their boat. Clark nodded rapidly, firming his grip around Bruce's waist as he negotiated the mess of pipes and lighting gantries until they connected with the larger one. Following its path across the hangar, hiding in its shadow, they made short work of what would have been an almost impossible crossing had they been on foot. For a brief moment, Clark wondered what Bruce had planned to do had he not decided to use his ability. Looking at the cool glitter of determination in those professional eyes, he thought he might not want to know.
There were two men, technicians, moving over the hull of their boat, getting her rigged for launch. They let them work, let them finish, and watched intently as they called in to the pilot and crew when they were done. Three, from the sounds of things. Three names called, anyway, in friendly and teasing complaint. Three to deal with.
Bruce nodded tightly, and gestured for Clark to put them down on the far side of the boat, between it and the wall. There was a smaller hatch just forward of the engine, in case the main entrance on the other side was blocked in a crash. The Nightlord pulled it open silently, and motioned for Clark to stay put while he went in. Clark frowned heavily, almost protesting, but Bruce's eyes were hard and grim, and he had to nod. Bruce flashed him the tiniest of smiles, his face softening for the barest instant, before the Nightlord stepped casually inside and disappeared from view.
Clark listened intently at the hatch, waiting for the cries of challenge, of alarm. They never came. Instead, moments after Bruce had gone inside, there came a series of soft thuds, interspersed with one or two sharp cracks, but nothing that would draw attention. Confused and anxious, Clark moved to go inside himself, to see what was going on. But before he could, the Nightlord reappeared, rubbing the edge of his hand gently, cursing silently as his left leg shook under him. Blinking at Clark's worried frown, Bruce paused to smile in reassurance, that competent air back in force, and gesture for him to come inside.
Two of the crew sat propped against the seats in the main cabin, slumped unconscious. The third man, the pilot, was sitting against the door through to the cockpit, a bruise beginning to show on his temple, alive but as out of it as his crew. While Clark stared in awe, and a little fear, Bruce moved to the first of them, and turned to ask Clark to help him move her. For a second, Clark could only stare.
"Clark?" Bruce repeated, slowly, concern in his voice. Clark shook himself, pulling his eyes away from the bruise on the pilot's head, and moved to the Nightlord's side. Bruce frowned at him, concerned and wary, but nodded and gestured for Clark to help him manouver her to the hatch so they could lay her gently outside, far enough away that she wouldn't be caught when the boat moved. The other two rapidly followed, until they were alone in their new boat. Clark stopped in the main cabin, looking around him in mild confusion, stunned by the efficiency of it.
"Well, Commander?" Bruce asked softly beside him, and Clark turned to look at him. "Will she do? Can you get us out of here, and give Lois her distraction?"
Clark blinked, staring at him, and then turned to move past him. He stepped into the cockpit, running his fingers lightly over the gleaming instruments, the guidance Glasses, the radarbank. The wheel. He ran his hands over her, getting to know her, getting the feel of the boat as he sat down. Dimly, he felt Bruce's presence behind him, felt the Nightlord watching him as he settled into her, and smiled slightly. He mightn't be able to take out three people in absolute silence, but no-one questioned him at the helm of a boat.
Turning to the other man, he tipped his head to the seat beside him, grinning. Raising his eyebrows in wry question, Bruce sat down, watching him as he prepared her for launch. Prepared to ignore every code of hangar behaviour, every launch rule, every traffic control system. Eyes suddenly alight, Clark set his eyes on the sky outside, pointing her to sweep like a hawk through a cloud of sailers and lesser boats.
Oh, yes indeed. He'd give Lois he distraction.
"Hold on," he commanded softly. "The radio is to your right. Think you're up to a little goodbye speech? Wishing Metropolis well, and all that?"
Bruce stared at him in turn, and then, slowly, a fierce grin spread over his battered face. "Oh, I think I could manage that," he nodded. Clark smiled at him.
"Alright. Then just trust me to do the rest."
And as he started the engine with a sudden roar, the sails leaping out to the sides as she began to move forward, Bruce smiled back, and nodded. "I do," the Nightlord said softly.
Chapter 9: Part IX
She lifted like a dream, this new boat of theirs. Straight for the roof, then diving forward like a hawk through gulls. The handsails leapt out of the way, the boats skewing sideways as they struggled to clear a path. Part of Clark was shouting regulations to himself slightly hysterically, while a bigger part was gleefully ignoring them. Beside him, Bruce's hands leapt to the armrests, his knuckles white as a feral grin stretched over his features. He shot Clark a blazing look, a bare instant long, and reached forward to flip the switch for the boat radio. Outside, his aristocratic voice blared clear and contemptuous through the panicked hangar.
"This is Bruce Wayne. Nightlord and Lord of Gotham. I'd just like to thank Metropolis for her wonderful hospitality, and congratulate Lord Luthor on pissing off just about every superpower on the planet. Your Lord makes a wonderful warmonger. You should be proud. Winds by with you! You're going to need them."
The Nightlord's face was dark and satisfied as he turned the radio back off, listening to the panicked roar that came though in the seconds after his announcement. Clark swallowed heavily, not daring to turn his head to look at him, all his focus on the steep dive to the desert sands below. A pair of blips screamed at him from the radarbank, two MADF fliers plunging clear of the City behind him. They must have been patrollers, just getting ready to go as he pulled his little stunt. Face set, trying not to think about Bruce's particular choice of words, he began maneuvers.
The sails flared out to the boat's sides as she pulled up, catching sun for power and air to steer simultaneously, her sleek form pulling low through the swoop to skim just over the dunes. Clark raised the port sail to bring them around in a tight, almost suicidal turn. They'd deliberately come out the west hangar, on the far side of the City from where they needed to go, just so he could swing around under Metropolis herself and use her to his own advantage.
Behind him, the two fliers turned to follow, banking wide. Newbies, he thought. Then he was in under his City, taking the boat up to almost caress her hull, ignoring Bruce as the Nightlord stiffened beside him. They plunged in through a cloud of steam from one of the steering vents, the instruments screaming for a panicked instant in reaction. Clark paid them no heed, memory steering him with absolute surety beneath the ridged lines of his City's hull, Metropolis herself protecting them as they fled her Lord. He smiled at that, murmuring silent thanks to her.
The fliers behind them had gotten lost in the venting, one of them just visible as a shadow behind the cloud. But there was no time to feel victorious, or even disappointed in their performance. Because, spilling determinedly from the hangars on the East Rampart, a small fleet of boats turned to greet them. And not his boats. Not MADF. These things were leaner, faster-looking than anything Luthor had ever given the MADF, and their spines above the steering sails bristled with weaponry.
"I guess your dataqueen was correct in her suspicions," Bruce commented lightly beside him, steely blue eyes fixed on the line of enemy ships. Clark didn't answer, his jaw set as fury and insult curled up through him. He reached to one side, and touched a number of instruments with deliberate precision, cold with anger. The sound of the boat changed around them, deepening and singing with power. He'd brought the engine online, the sails flashing white for a second as they connected with the powersink inside the brass bulge, feeding back into the self-contained engine, the two powersources working in perfect tandem. A small smile meandered onto his face as he took her up around the last of the vents, before they dove out of Metropolis' shadow to sweep straight into the jaws of the enemy.
He'd show Luthor what a MADF Commander was capable of. The Lord should never have gone behind his back with this.
Two of Luthor's boats opened fire as they plunged towards them, their sails flashing as solar energy was redirected into narrow beams from the cannon on their spines. Clark dropped the boat fifty feet, sweeping down to the desert and curling her sideways around a dune. Bruce grunted as the movement threw him into the side of his chair, and Clark shot him a brief look of concern. The Nightlord shook his head rapidly, his focus all for the enemy, and Clark quickly followed suit.
They rocketed forwards underneath the line of boats, the lean, vicious shadows passing over their sails as they flew. Above them, boats screamed and wheeled, turning to follow them, beams hissing as they kissed the sands. Clark ran their boat side-on up a dune, cresting it and sweeping into the air just as a boat came in range, their underbelly crackling as he swept her over the other, ripping the enemy sail clean off. The stricken vessel squalled sideways into the sand, her crew scrambling to get clear as fire set in above the engine. Clark winced, hoping as always that they would survive. He didn't like killing, even an enemy.
He kept her low, kept her running just ahead of the minor sandstorm kicked up by her passing, trying to keep the enemy reliant on radar alone. Lois had taught him a few tricks for dealing with that. Sweeping her from side to side, broadening the scope of the storm, he smiled grimly as they came in close to find him. He could feel the Nightlord's eyes on him as he did so, could feel the wary appraisal in Bruce's stare, and tried not to smirk. He might not be good at sneaking through his own City, but he'd been flying as long as he'd been alive. No-one could beat him in the air.
As he proved when, sending out a scrambling signal courtesy of Lois, he pulled her into a sudden, sharp ascent, shooting straight up into the wide blue, cresting in their blindspot to turn and dive at them out of the sun. Ever ready, Bruce leapt to their own weapon, their much smaller beam lancing out to wreak havoc among the milling enemy ships. Eyes sharp and cold, the Nightlord capitalised on Clark's maneuver to take out the sails on three of the enemy, and managed to rupture the lead ship's engine while he was at it. Grinning fiercely as they ploughed through the flock of disabled ships, Clark reached blindly sideways to squeeze the other man's shoulder as he pulled them out of the dive and back on course. Bruce said nothing, but a hand reached up to squeeze his in return.
There were four boats remaining, rising up out of the wreckage of their comrades to come after them again, rising high out of the sand to keep a real eye on their quarry. They weren't about to be fooled by the same trick twice. But Clark had hardly expected anything different. He had something else in mind entirely.
The engine roared behind him, power building through her as he ramped the ship up to Cityspeed, and then beyond. Bruce leaned back against his seat, knuckles whitening again as they powered clear of the Mongolian Desert and lunged out over the Japanese sinkhole beyond. Keeping half an eye on the radarbank, watching the enemy blips, Clark took her down into the perpetual maelstrom, the steam and roiling spray of the Pacific Ring of Fire rushing to meet them. The vicious tides of the volcanic whirlpool threw steam and fire into the air around them, and Clark hissed through his teeth as something, a rock, clanged distressingly off the engine. But their speed was up to twice that of Metropolis, capable of lapping the planet in under twelve hours, and the sinkhole wasn't wide enough to truly challenge them for long. Fists clenching in relief as they pulled clear of its angry grip, Clark winced as one of the blips disappeared behind them. Japan mustn't have liked them as much.
The Pacific piled away beneath them, its calm surface ripped by their passing, twin arcs of spray marking their path clearly to the three remaining followers. But Clark's focus lay ahead of them, to the dark line that seemed to rush forward to greet them. Dusk, racing around the globe, pulling the night behind it to sweep in silent majesty over the land. He could feel Bruce straighten in his seat, could feel the quiver of anticipation through the Nightlord. Clark couldn't blame him, despite his own irrational burst of anxiety. Metropolis had not passed through the Nightside in over fifteen years, the night unfamiliar and haunted territory to her Commander, but to Bruce it must have been like coming home.
Movement on the radar caught Clark's eye, and he blinked as two of their three pursuers banked suddenly, peeling away to the sides. Clark had time enough before they passed out of range to realise that they weren't sweeping wide to flank him. They were heading back to Metropolis. Giving up the chase.
It seemed Luthor was more afraid of the Nightside than he was.
The last boat didn't turn back. But neither did it speed up. Whoever it was, they weren't aiming to overtake. More like shadowing them, staying just in radar range. Watching them as they fled, making sure they were headed where Luthor thought they were headed. It was an ominous sign, but there was nothing Clark could do about it. He didn't want to decelerate to turn back and deal with them, not now. They had to be in Gotham before Metropolis came in range of her. One ship wasn't worth risking that.
Sighing heavily, feeling the muscles in his back unknot, Clark settled back in his seat, relaxing his deathgrip on the wheel. He felt more than saw Bruce slump beside him, the ebbing adrenalin hitting the Nightlord's wounded system hard. Locking the wheel to keep them on course, free to let the guidance systems take over now that he didn't have to maneuver, Clark turned his seat to look at his companion in concern.
Bruce leaned back against his seat, his eyes closed in momentary exhaustion. His hands were slack against the rests, his shoulders slumped and almost curled forward around his injured chest. Clark flinched a little, remembering promising to keep him safe, to do all the work. Looking back on events since leaving Lois' lair, the Nightlord seemed to have taken a far greater share of action on himself than Clark should have allowed him to. He was paying for it now, the exhaustion and pain writ large in his slumped form. The Nightlord wasn't going to be running around anytime soon.
Something heavy weighing in his chest, eyes crinkled with raw concern, Clark reached out to gently brush the backs of his knuckles over Bruce's cheek. Those vibrant eyes flared open, weariness instantly and forcibly dispelled as wariness took its place. Clark didn't flinch, kept his hand resting lightly against the other man's face, and smiled gently when Bruce relaxed into his touch. Grinning slightly at the man's rueful look, brushing his thumb over the high edge of Bruce's intact cheekbone, Clark shook his head in mild exasperation.
"Alright?" he asked softly, letting the concern show rich and gentle in his voice. Bruce blinked at him, the rushing half-light painting wounded shadows across his face, and nodded.
"Oh, indeed, Commander mine," he murmured, with quiet humour. "I've never been better." Clark opened his mouth to reply, and then stopped. Because in that moment the boat pushed past the line of dusk, and the darkness swept in around them with the night. And with it, Bruce changed.
In that single moment, in the rush of darkness, the Nightlord straightened in his seat. His pale face glowed like the moon in the light of the instruments, and Bruce lifted his head as life flooded back into him, filling his eyes until they shone like blue stars in the night. He turned to look at Clark, and the Commander bit his lip in realisation. It was relief he was seeing, in those shining eyes. Profound relief, a lifting burden, freedom returning to the battered face. Luthor had faded behind them with the light, his power clinging to the daylight paths, and the Nightlord was free again. Safe, beneath the stars.
Clark smiled at him then, unable to help himself. Reaching down with his free hand, keeping the other cupped gently around Bruce's cheek, he circled his fingers around one bare wrist, where shackles had been not hours before. Raising that free hand to the light between them, he smiled deeply as comprehension flared in that shadowed face.
"Welcome home, my Lord," he whispered, and meant it.
Bruce exhaled, sliding helplessly back into his seat as if all the energy had left him with that breath, and turned his head a little to press a grateful kiss to Clark's cradling palm. He smiled up at Clark, resting his head completely in his grasp, his eyes shining softly in the darkness. "It's good to be home, Commander mine," he answered, and a wry smile flickered over his face. "You've no idea how much."
Clark looked at him. He remembered the sight of him on the Atlantis Tower, stiff and ready for confrontation, He remembered him in Luthor's hall, battered and defiant, anger and humour coiled within him as he knelt helpless before his enemy. He remembered him in that room, chains around his wrists, a cheekbone broken by an enemy hand. He remembered holding him as a prisoner in the Ramparts, the pride and despair of the man as he faced a hateful crowd. He remembered him fighting for his life in the tunnels, no time wasted on disappointment or anger, just raw desperation leashed to precise action. He remembered all that, recognising that as long as Clark had known him, Bruce had been a prisoner, of circumstance or Luthor or both. He remembered that, and thought about seeing him now, alive and grateful for the night. "Oh, I think I do," he said, quietly. "I think I can see."
Bruce blinked at him, and nodded. Then, smiling richly, he reached out to let his hand hover gently over Clark's face, a questioning gesture. At Clark's surprised nod, the Nightlord gently trailed his fingers over Clark's face, frowning as they trembled slightly. Clark sighed a little, leaning into that caressing hand, and smiled as Bruce chuckled lightly in awe.
"Commander mine," Bruce murmured, brushing his thumb over Clark's lips, his eyes full as Clark kissed the tip. "Clark."
"My lord," Clark whispered back, feeling his heart rising inexorably within him. Then, stronger and louder as he reached out to pull the shaking man into his arms, being careful, so careful of his wounds. "Bruce." And thought his heart might break altogether when the Nightlord curled into him and rested his head tiredly on his shoulder. They stayed silent for a long minute, Clark holding Bruce, the starlight glimmering with quiet happiness over them.
It was Bruce who broke that silence, eventually. Without looking at Clark, his face nestled in the crook where shoulder met throat, the Nightlord sighed gently. "I owe you so much, Commander mine," he said, quietly. Clark tried to shake his head, tried to open his mouth to explain that he had done nothing, nothing close to what the man deserved, but Bruce was inexorable. "My life. My freedom. At the cost of your home, your past, everything you believed. I've cost you rather a lot, Clark."
Clark swallowed hard, and forced his voice to work, pushed it out past the tears in his throat. "No," he said, thickly. "No, Bruce."
The man chuckled softly against his pulse, his own voice nearly as shaky as Clark's. "Oh, I think I have, Commander mine. I really do."
"You've cost me nothing save my illusions," Clark managed, sincerity flooding his words. "You've cost me nothing, and gave me the sky. If anyone owes anyone, it's me."
Bruce lifted his head, then, to stare at Clark in astonishment. Clark looked down at him, trying to show the other man how much he meant what he said, how grateful he really was. For Bruce, for the sky, for a free Metropolis ... what he had gained from Bruce's captivity, from his suffering, far outweighed any paltry gesture he could possibly have made. Unable to speak, he settled for pulling the injured man closer, his hand stroking instinctively over Bruce's shoulder, and looked away so Bruce wouldn't see the tear that made its way over his cheek. How much he owed this man, how much he wanted to give, how little he seemed able to ...
A hand touched his damp cheek, fingers shaking as they curled to catch the moisture, and Clark looked down in shock to find Bruce staring up at him in awe. Shifting a little in Clark's arms, so he could rise, so he could meet his eyes, the Nightlord stared at him, and his eyes were so full of love and amazement that Clark shook with it.
"Clark," Bruce wondered, his hand firming on Clark's cheek, his face so close ... "You've been hurt so much by this," he observed quietly, and shook his head as Clark opened his mouth to deny it. "So much you could have been spared, had I never met you. So ... why is that I cannot regret it, despite that? Why can I not regret your being here, even knowing what it costs you? Am I that cruel, Clark? That selfish?"
Clark blinked at him, and smiled. Softly. Deeply. "Not cruel," he murmured, love and laughter rich in his voice. "Never that. Just perceptive."
"Oh?" Bruce asked, his nose brushing Clark's.
"Of course," Clark whispered, leaning in to press his lips to Bruce's, the faintest of kisses, there and gone again. "You cannot regret for me what I do not regret for myself."
Bruce closed his eyes, then, closed them as starlight shone on his tears, and his hand was desperate and tender as it curled through Clark's hair and held tight. "No," he murmured, resting his forehead against Clark's, his heart beating through the bandages until it seemed to vibrate in Clark's own chest. "No. But give me leave to try, Commander mine." He opened his eyes again, to gaze in hopeless love at the man who held him. "You deserve that much at least."
Clark nodded silently. And this time, the kiss was not faint. It wasn't fleeting. It was tender and burning with desperation, with the need to be close, full of love and relief and the simple joy that the other was near. That they were safe, and free, and together. Whatever the next hour might bring, whatever new fight they would have to face, in that moment, in the space of that kiss, they were happy. And when they pulled back, just a little, it was with a smile.
For a few minutes after that, Bruce seemed perfectly content just to look at him, his hand slipping down to rest on Clark's shoulder, his legs curled beneath him. And for a few minutes, Clark was perfectly content to sit and let him, and try not to smile at the incongruity of a Metropolis Commander flying through the night with a lap full of Nightlord.
Life with Bruce was good, he realised. Strange, but good. And on the heels of that thought, Bruce opened his mouth.
"I almost forgot," the Nightlord murmured, humour and surprise in his quiet voice. "You make me forget things, Clark. No-one does that."
Clark grinned, and hugged him a little. "Glad to be of service, my Lord," he answered, happy that at least he wasn't the only one forgetting things, then. "What have you forgotten?" Bruce looked at him, pulling back and straightening a bit, his gaze suddenly intense. Clark blinked at the change. "Bruce?"
"A debt," Bruce said at last, slowly and consideringly. "Something promised. Something owed."
Clark frowned. "To who?"
"To whom," the Nightlord corrected, and then grimaced as he realised what he'd done. Shaking his head, ignoring Clark's fleeting smirk, he went on. "To you, Commander mine. I made you a promise, and I almost forgot."
"What promise?" Clark asked, his brows lowering as he readied himself to wave it off. The Nightlord was going to have to stop obsessing over this! But Bruce just shook his head, and suddenly there was such an expression of hope and almost triumph on his face that Clark paused in his protest.
"On the roof," Bruce reminded gently. "I promised you I'd tell you what you deserved to know. Where Gotham has been. Where ... where you may have come from, Clark."
Clark stiffened, sudden fear curling through him. He wasn't sure he wanted to know. He didn't need to. He could learn to live with the flying. According to Lois, he'd already learned to live with it. He could fly, he had Bruce, and with Lois at work, he'd soon have Metropolis back, too. He was happy. He didn't need to know anything else!
The panicked whirl of thoughts ground to a sudden halt when, with infinite tenderness, Bruce reached up to brush a soothing hand over Clark's cheek. "Hush now, Commander mine. Don't do that. Don't fear me. Clark, you don't have to be afraid of me."
"I'm not," Clark said, striving to reassure, to explain. "But I don't need to know, Bruce. Not anymore. It doesn't matter."
Bruce pulled back a little, an expression of mock hurt flashing over his features, and then a gentler one, still triumphant. "It does to me, Commander mine. A promise is a promise, after all." And as Clark winced, he smiled. "You needn't worry, Clark. We've already established that neither of us are demons from Hell, remember? No matter what Luthor would have you think. You, of all people, have no reason to fear knowing who you are."
Clark paused, listening to the admiration and love in his voice, wondering at the fierce pride and power in his eyes. Bruce gazed at him, straight and proud, every inch the Nightlord, every atom Gotham's ruler. No prisoner, this man. Not bowed to duty, but proud of it, eager, ready to give. As if what he had to say was no burden, but a gift. A gift he desperately wanted to give to Clark, a secret he wanted to share. The secret, Clark remembered suddenly. The one he had taken all those blows to keep from Luthor, the secret he had fought his way through an enemy City to preserve. A secret he intended to entrust to Clark, a secret he was proud to share.
Knowing that, seeing that much trust, Clark could hardly refuse.
"Alright," he whispered, and smiled when Bruce's eyes flashed proudly. "Tell me. Where has you City been, my Lord?"
Bruce smiled at him, a secretive, sly smile, and turned his head to gaze out at the coast rushing towards them. "Look," he commanded softly. "Look out, Clark. Tell me what you see."
Bemused, Clark turned to do as he asked. "We're coming up on the Lousianite Desert," he noted, bewildered. Bruce laughed.
"Up, Clark," he murmured, amused. "Look up."
Clark looked up, at the night sky he hadn't seen in over a decade, in almost half his lifetime. He looked up at the stars that twinkled down at them, at the silent sweep of black that cradled them. And his heart surged within him as, in a single rush, he thought he saw. Thought he understood.
"Yes," Bruce whispered, and Clark turned to look at him, to the deep happiness, the pride and joy in his face. "Welcome home, Commander mine. Welcome to the True Night. Welcome, Clark, to the stars."
Chapter 10: Part X
The stars, Clark. Welcome home.
Clark stared at him, unable to speak. There ... there was too much to say, too many questions, too much ... The thought of it spiralled through him, like the galaxies wheeling above them. The stars. The City of the Stars. To fly that high, to see that much, to see all the world at once ... Something deep inside him sang at the thought, some remembered yearning climbing through him. The stars. The stars ...
Bruce was smiling at him, so clear, so deep. There was such pride in his face, such powerful love. Welcome, Commander mine. He knew. Somehow, though they had only met a day ago, hours, the man saw inside him. Saw the need, the unformed longing. Because it echoed in them both. Because this man, this fragile creature he held, had taken his City to the stars, and made them his. He couldn't not understand.
The Nightlord stood, then, pulling gently back from Clark to perch himself on the control board, careful not to disrupt the instruments. Unconsciously precise. He smiled, and looked out at the night sky unfurled above them, his home.
"It was the Upheaval, of course," he started, almost absently, still looking out at the stars. Clark leant forward, arms resting on knees suddenly chilled by Bruce's absence. He listened, watched the man's face. The stern pride of it, the faint bitterness that came. "When the Cities were flung into the skies, Gotham was thrown highest of all." He chuckled lightly, but it was not a happy sound. "Either some celestial force really wanted us, or some terrestrial one really didn't. I can guess the popular opinion on that one."
"They don't know," Clark cut in, gently. There should be no place for bitterness in this man. Bruce had stood up for too long, made something of nothing too many times. As far as Clark was concerned, no ill opinion of him could be anything other than ignorance. Bruce smiled at him for a second, something rueful and warning in his eyes, as if he didn't quite believe that, but he continued anyway.
"Like the other Cities, the ... the magic, whatever it was, held Gotham in stasis for a while. On Earth, that time was used to build the Ramparts, yes? But we had a different problem. We were stable, orbiting the world. We had no fear of falling. Our fear ... was the void." He turned back to look at Clark, and there was darkness in his eyes, a remembered terror, a remembered pain. "Humans don't do well in space, Commander mine. We knew it was coming, but nothing we had ... we had air while the magic lasted, but nothing more. Nothing to hold us past its fading. We were doomed, and we knew it. We lost ... so many. Before the magic ever failed. Killed themselves. Killed each other. The blood drifted through our streets, the madness ... they are not far wrong when they say Gotham went to hell, Clark. But it was no mystical realm. It was a hell entirely of our own making, and we paid for it."
Clark stood, his face white. He could hear it, could feel it as Bruce described it, a dull terror pulsing through him. Bruce stared at him, eyes burning in a pale face, and Clark remembered how young Bruce must have been at the time. No more than a child ... He reached out, wrapped his arms around Bruce, pulled him close against the remembered cold of a dark time. Bruce was still and stiff in his arms, his hands hesitant as they came up to fist themselves in Clark's cloak. "I'm sorry," Clark whispered, hoarse with emotion. "I'm so sorry."
Bruce swallowed hard, turning his face away to rest it against Clark's shoulder. "Don't be," he said, quietly. "We survived. That's all that matters."
"Yes," Clark murmured back, holding him close, trying to imagine having never met him, trying to imagine a world that had never known this man. The thought actually hurt. "Yes. You're alive."
"And aiming to stay that way," Bruce managed, with a strange attempt at humour. "But it's alright, Clark. Gotham made it through. I made it through. Don't let yourself be hurt for things that never happened."
Clark pulled back, looking down at him, his eyes clear and grave. "It happened to you," he said softly. "You were hurt. That matters to me. That hurts me." And for a moment, he could swear Bruce blushed. The sight brought an involuntary twitch of a smile, and Bruce shook his head, awe and humour. The pain of the moment broke, and the Nightlord pulled back a little to finish his explanation. Clark let him go, sitting back down to watch him, smiling gently.
"It was one like you who saved us," Bruce went on, gruffly, and grinned a little when Clark straightened, shock and half-yearning flitting across his features. He didn't know why. Up until a few hours ago, he'd always thought he'd been human. He didn't know why it should suddenly excite him that not only was he not, but there were others as different as he.
Then again, maybe that did make sense. It was a lonely feeling, being alone in your difference.
"His name was J'onn," Bruce continued, his eyes warm and gentle. "He was from Mars, as it happened." Clark jumped a little, surprised. So strange, to think of someone from so far away, someone who knew where they were from. "He'd been trapped in Gotham years before, thrown there by someone. He never said who. But he'd been hiding, and when we were lost, he came forward. He knew things we didn't, you see. How to build things, how to create the Dome. Between him and Lucius, and what was left of the Wayne legacy ... we managed to save ourselves. We saved Gotham. Almost ... almost too late, but we did. And then ... all we had to do was rebuild, those of us that were left. Rebuild, and find a way to live out there."
He shrugged, as if that were all there was to it, as if it had been that simple. Clark looked at him, thinking of the skills the man had shown. The readiness for pain, the ability to fight. The scars he had seen, beneath the fresh wounds of captivity. The eyes constantly watching, ready for danger. He didn't think it had been easy at all. In fact, he was in awe of the struggle he sensed inside the man, the strength of what they had accomplished. Gotham. City of the Night. So very nearly the City of the Dead.
"And you?" he asked, suddenly curious how this man, who must have been no more than a boy, had come to stand so proudly as Gotham's ruler. Bruce winced a little, and looked away.
"Those left needed a symbol, to pull them together. Gotham was shattered, and she needed ... continuity. Tradition. Strength. The Waynes were an old family, long regarded as the first family of Gotham, and between Lucius and Alfred we'd helped the City survive to start with. It was decided that a Wayne should stand as ruler, be the symbol the City needed. That's all."
Clark frowned, sensing something deeper, sensing an old pain. "Why you?" he asked, not because he believed even the youth Bruce had been couldn't have done it, but because he could sense ... something. Something about Bruce's ascension, that hurt him deeply.
Bruce looked at him, and his eyes were suddenly old. He smiled a little, a sharp thing that held no joy. "By that time," he said, very quietly. "I was the only Wayne left. Gotham had to make do, I'm afraid."
For the second time, Clark was striken by sympathy and a chord of shared pain. Bruce faced him, proud and stark in his pain, his eyes defiantly bright. Without words, Clark reached out, gathered Bruce's hand in his, pulled it close so he could press a kiss to strong, scarred fingers.
"She could not have done better, my Lord," he whispered, and his voice throbbed with sincerity. No City could ask for better than this man as her Lord, ask for more than he gave for her sake. Gotham had better realise that, he thought fiercely, suddenly angry at her. She had better know what loyalty and strength she had found, whether or not she deserved it. She had better deserve it. Clark couldn't bear to think that Bruce's struggle might be in vain. The Black Lady had to be worth it.
Bruce smiled down at him strangely, reaching out to rest a shaking hand against Clark's cheek, brushing gently at tears Clark hadn't realised he'd shed. "As you say, Commander mine," he said, voice rough. "I hope you are right."
"I am," Clark answered, fiercely. He had never been more sure of anything that he was of this. "I'm right, and you're going to prove it for me!" He stood, his eyes blazing as they met Bruce's stunned ones. "When we save Gotham and Metropolis both. When we beat Luthor. Then, my Lord, you had better believe me when I say there could have no better ruler for your City!" Bruce blinked at him, more than a little surprised at the ferocity in Clark's voice, stunned by the depth of sincerity he found there. Clark met his eyes, refusing to look away, daring Bruce to disagree.
"Well," Bruce murmured at last, rather faintly. "As you say, Commander mine." Then he smiled a little, a teasing glint appearing in those stunned blue eyes. "I don't think I dare fail, now. I'd hate to disappoint you." And though it was said jokingly, there was something in his face that said he meant every word.
And then, as if to ask him to prove how much, the radioGlass on the control board crackled into life, and mocking tones that were damnably familiar wound their way through the static into the safety of the cockpit.
"Howdee, boys," John Corben cackled. "Look sharp ahead, flyboy. I wanted you to see it before you went." Bruce was already at the radioGlass, his bearing fierce and almost hawklike as he bent over it, but at those words they both instinctively looked ahead.
Rushing towards them, a glimmer on the horizon, growing larger and brighter every second, came the dawn. The light poured across the desert as it came for them, and as they broke through it, out beyond the coast, they saw something else. A familiar sight, both anticipated and feared. Distant yet, the tall, slender height of the Atlantis Tower, a dark shape on the horizon, and to the south of it, drifting in the morning light ... the Black Lady herself. Gotham, waiting for her Lord to return. The grim City stared out at them, almost reaching for them, the connection humming between them, and behind ... Corben laughed, a vicious, ugly sound, full of triumph. On the radar, the blip of Luthor's remaining ship suddenly leapt forward, coming for them at last.
Clark was already at the controls, disengaging the guidance systems, ignoring the scream of the ship around him as she protested the sudden jump. Bruce was back in his seat, his eyes sharp and cold as they ran over the instruments, the weapon's controls open beneath his hand in readiness. His expression was grim as he tilted his head to listen as Corben continued his little rant.
"Didn't think I'd be that easy to get rid of, didya, Kent?" the Brass Man spat. "Go on. Take a good look at her. Almost made it, you did. Made it right through the night, clean away from Luthor. Man's a superstitious bastard. But me ... I ain't Luthor, boys. I ain't Luthor, and you ain't making it!"
"He's banking high," Bruce observed clinically, watching the radarbank. Clark nodded wordlessly, the wheel vibrating beneath his hands. Their boat tipped to the side, manouvering as he knew she could. He took her down again, diving for the dunes, towards the crash of the angry Atlantic. Corben was slower at the wheel than he was, his turns less intuitive, and they gained back a second of a lead. But Corben had a faster ship than they had, the lean lines of her deliberately designed for ruthless speed. In a straight line, Corben had the advantage.
Too bad Clark didn't mean to let him keep it. His boat didn't like the tight turn he took her through, not at all, but she gamely went through with it, racing back on a collision course with the enemy vessel. The Nightlord took rapid advantage, the hissing line of their beam tearing a deep scar along the spine of the other ship. Corben's bark of a laugh came through the radio as he veered away, a sharp hiss of challenge, and Clark scrambled to swing them clear of the return volley, almost ploughing them into a dune in the process. Bruce grunted beside him, eyes fixed to the radar.
"Where are they?" the Nightlord muttered, frustration clear beneath the almost clinical detachment of his voice. His eyes had taken back that cold, professional cast, his bearing hard and ready.
"Where are who?" Clark barked back, wrenching them up twenty feet, the hiss of Corben's beam singing the underside of the hull.
"Our escort," Bruce snapped, fingers twitching towards the radar as if he wanted to adjust it, but with Corben so hot on their backs he didn't dare. Clark blinked for a second, then remembered. The Spider, fingers flying over keys. Promising to send someone called Tim out to meet them, bring them home. Now that he thought about it, he should have expected that relief an hour ago. Bruce was right. Where were they?
But there was no time to think about it. As the two boat circled higher and higher, darting around each other, Clark was rapidly realising that Corben had another advantage over them, besides the superior ship and weaponry. They'd beaten those two before, handily enough. Superior skill topped superior equipment, any day of the week. But Corben had something Clark didn't know how to beat.
The man was clearly insane.
The Brass Man obviously had no care at all for his own life. He'd been dead once before, Clark supposed. Maybe it wasn't such a big deal to him. And since he'd survived both Bruce's concussion blast and the fall on the damaged sail ... maybe he was justified in his recklessness. Either way, he was flying that vicious boat of his as if he wanted to crash her, couldn't care less, as long as he took Clark down with him.
That wasn't something Clark was going to let him do. But when the Nightlord recoiled from the suddenly sparking controls as Corben successfully destroyed their only weapon, he wondered if he'd have a choice in the matter.
Bruce wheeled clear of the smouldering controls, reaching behind him for a fire suppressant and angrily snapping it open. The board spat fitfully at him as it cooled, but there was no doubt it was unusable. The cannon on their spine was probably slagged, and the conducted heat through the switch looked to have taken one of the controls for the sail motors with it, a suspicion rapidly confirmed by the ragged roar of their next turn. Clark cursed roundly under his breath, the Winds probably blushing, but he wasn't exactly concerned about that. He took her down, fast, sweeping the sails out to catch her a little earlier than he would have, to compensate.
Bruce looked at him steadily as they swept forward, the dawn now fully upon them, facing towards the Atlantic. Clark didn't look back, his shoulders stiff as he wrenched the boat from side to side, gritting his teeth against the Brass Man's laugh through the radio. If this kept up ... they were going to have to do something drastic. He knew it. The Nightlord knew it.
Didn't mean either of them had to like it.
"Commander," Bruce said softly, heavily. A gentle prompt.
"I know," Clark snapped, unaccountably angry. He didn't like being hunted, he'd discovered. And he liked it even less when someone he cared about stood to be hurt for his mistakes, should he make them. He didn't like that Bruce stood to die if he didn't get this right. And for some reason, the absolute trust in the man's gaze only made it worse.
How was he supposed to bear failing someone who believed in him that much?
"Alright!" he said, suddenly, turning his head to look at Bruce. The Nightlord met his eyes calmly, smiling slightly, that fierce look about him that constantly awed Clark. To hell and back, that look said. Take me to hell and back, and I'll be standing at the end. "Alright," Clark said again, quietly. "Get ready, my Lord."
Bruce grinned at him, vicious and proud. "As you wish, Commander mine!" He reached out, standing behind Clark's chair, to rest his hand on Clark's shoulder, his grip strong and reassuring. Clark shook his head, feeling a fierce grin stretch his own lips, lightheaded with adrenalin. For some reason, with this man at his side, he felt as if he could do anything. Even wheel the boat around, lock his hands firmly around the wheel, and send them both careening straight at Corben. It took the Brass Man a second to realise what they were doing. He obviously wasn't used to someone else being suicidal for a change. But Clark had no intention of committing suicide.
Just something really, really close to it.
The Brass Man whooped into the radio, laughing at them as they raced for him, coming up out of the dunes at a steep angle direct for his underbelly. He dipped his boat, diving for them, and Clark held tight as the ship screamed, a sail spinning away into the dust as Corben's cannon lanced out at them. He dropped the other one, the engine whining beneath them. A straight line it was, then. Where Corben had the advantage. Unless, of course, you weren't planning to be dependant on a boat.
The enemy ship plunged for them, Corben not realising what Clark planned to do. But Clark couldn't blame him for that, because no-one knew he could do it, except for Lois and the man who stood ready at his side. Corben wasn't using his cannon. He liked this game, apparently. A game of chicken, where he thought he couldn't lose.
"Overconfident," Bruce murmured. "They're always so overconfident."
"Where as you're fully justified in your confidence," Clark muttered back wryly, and smiled as Bruce chuckled. The wheel juddered under his hands, the boat roaring valiantly as he locked it, pointed straight for hell. Corben was so close they could nearly see his leering face through the glass of the cabin.
That was about as close as Clark planned on getting.
Bruce was ready as Clark leapt to his feet and caught him around the shoulders, pulling them both towards the hatch, laughing as they dashed for it. A second before he swung it open, Clark looked into Bruce's eyes, amazed at what he was going to do, amazed at the man who had taught him to do it, amazed that all he felt in this moment wasn't fear or confusion, only triumph. Bruce looked back, fierce and proud, locking his arms around Clark's shoulder, ready for anything the Commander could do. Clark had to smile.
"Ready, my Lord?" he asked, his quiet voice somehow audible over the scream of the tortured ship around them.
"Always, Commander mine."
The wind howled around them, the morning heat drowned by it. Clark held Bruce close, wrapped his arms as tight around him as he could, trying not to hurt him, desperate not to drop him. Bruce held him back, his arms tight around Clark's shoulders, his face buried in Clark's neck. His cloak wrapped around them as they plummeted, flapping around Clark's ears, disorienting him, and for a second Clark was terrified that he was falling the wrong way, that his new gift would send them spiraling out into the skies, and he'd kill Bruce.
Then the boat slammed into Corben's above them, a scream of tortured metal, a dull roar of explosion. The shockwave hit them with a dull whump, driving them towards the dunes, and Clark's world righted itself. He knew which way was up again. More importantly, he knew which way was down.
He pulled them up five feet above the desert, the sand swirling around them in the wind from the explosion, stinging Clark's eyes. He dipped his head instinctively as he darted higher, and found himself staring into Bruce's eyes. The Nightlord stared up at him, battered and bruised, and grinning from ear to ear, his smile all for Clark. The adrenalin was singing through their veins, the winds wrapping them in a cocoon of cloak, heat and metal raining in strange silence around them. For a second, flying free for the first ever time in his life, through the wild skies, Clark felt a moment that was just for him, just for them. It was too much, too strong, too rich a feeling. He didn't know how to deal with it.
So he kissed Bruce instead, figuring that that way, at least one of them would know what they were doing.
Clark pulled back after a moment, the blood roaring in his ears. Or maybe that was just sound coming back after the explosion. Clark didn't particularly care. He felt alive, powerful, ready for anything, and Bruce was right there, smiling in his arms. There was no more perfect moment, Clark thought dizzily. Nothing better than this, nothing more right.
Which was exactly why it couldn't last.
Bruce turned his head first, ever alert. Clark followed his gaze, catching the sound and understanding what it meant a second behind the Nightlord. Bruce turned himself in Clark's arms, unwrapping himself slightly so he could see better, his hand reaching down instinctively to rest on another surprise concealed in his cloak. Clark didn't have a weapon, except for the mostly ceremonial knife on his belt. It occurred to him that he probably should have gotten something before leaving Metropolis. But it was too late now, and besides. He trusted Bruce to have something up his sleeve.
The sound was laughter. Wracked, maddened laughter, and for a second Clark couldn't tell where it was coming from. He couldn't see anything ... But there. In the wreckage. A piece of the boat's hull slid aside with a clang, a flash of gold as untouched sand shone through the blackened detritus. And inside it, a flash of brass.
Clark stared down, his arm wrapped protectively around Bruce, and watched John Corben stand up. His uniform was gone, sloughed off like snakeskin, and after it, his skin itself. Or whatever it had been. And the true John Corben shone through in its stead, the Brass Man. He was an incredible machine, Clark thought absently, watching the lazy shimmers of lightning inside the gleaming metal skin, the glitter and clank of thousands of tiny gears. The Brass Man was an incredible machine. Inhabited by a complete madman.
John laughed at them, throwing his metallic head back and roaring with tinny laughter, his brass arms pressed to a chest that couldn't possibly be suffering from the vibrations. But the habits of humanity died hard. And then he turned, facing out towards the Atlantic, not two miles away, and the twin monoliths beyond its boundary. He raised one arm to point, laughing all the while, and both Clark and Bruce turned to follow that molten, gleaming signpost.
They looked out across the sea to the City, to Gotham as she flew.
To the flashes and roars of the battle that raged beyond her, the black flecks of boats filling the skies around her.
Luthor had taken a shortcut, it appeared.
Chapter 11: Part XI
For a moment, they just stared out at it. Hanging in midair. Just watching the distant battle rage over the seas around Gotham, listening to the cackle of the madman beneath them. For a moment, Clark just drifted, feeling Bruce slowly freeze over in his arms, feeling the rage coalescese inside the man. Maybe it was shock. Maybe it was fear. But whatever it was, a moment was all it could hold them for.
Bruce turned his head to look at him, his eyes bleak and coldly furious. He said nothing. But Clark understood anyway.
Together, they flew into the maelstrom.
Luthor's boats, definitely. Clones of the boat they had just sent to the dunes, though probably not piloted by similar men. Clark doubted there were many like John Corben. And against them, Gotham's forces. Elegant, functional boats, smaller and more maneuverable that Luthor's. And outnumbered, by the looks of things.
Clark flew them into the midst of the battle, dodging and weaving through the beams and roar of boats. He was clumsier than normal, unused to flying quite like this. It nearly cost them. One of Gotham's boats screamed past them, an inch shy, the slipstream buffetting them away, almost into the beam from the pursuing ship. It took every ounce of Clark's skill to pull them up out of range, and he was sweating in raw terror at the miss. So close. Too close. He needed to be better than this. He had to be, or they were both dead.
"Left," Bruce yelled hoarsely in his ear, struggling to be heard over the cacophony of battle. Clark dodged instantly to the left, not questioning him. No time for that. Only time to trust him. The beam lanced through two feet to their right, and Clark instinctively darted up and back to get clear of the following boat. Another warning from Bruce, and they wove rapidly to the side to avoid a rain of debris. And then again, shying away from twin cannon beams. And down and through, around a sinking Luthoran ship.
Battle was more difficult without a boat, he was discovering. Easier to maneuver, sure, but one hit ...
"There," Bruce growled, pointing through a gap in the fighting where two boats had taken each other out. The dark bulk of Gotham's rock base was visible as a black silhouette just ahead, framed by the dazzle of the rising sun. Bruce had raised one hand to shield his eyes. Clark didn't need to.
Destination in sight, a new determination came over Clark. He was tired of drifting and floundering, fighting just to find his way. He was Commander of MADF. He'd made his name in the skies, in battles just like this one. The mere fact that he hadn't a boat this time around was no excuse. It was time to see what the limits of this new ability were.
He dove for the gap, all at once, feeling more than hearing Bruce suppress a gasp. The Nightlord wrapped himself tighter against him, pulled his cloak in close to reduce the drag. Clark smiled grimly, firming his own grip around the man as he felt power rush through him. He turned his face into the sun, felt energy pour over him like molten light, and arrowed himself along its path to safety.
The wind pulled against them, stealing breath. Fast. He could fly so fast, like this. So free ... A ship, thundering past to his left, and he rolled aside without thinking, curling Bruce into his chest, and dove low to avoid the sweep of her sail. He rushed down over the surface of the Atlantic, seeing a wake, a wake, part the water beneath them at the force of his passing. He felt a sudden, ridiculous urge to whoop with joy, lunging with ease through skies dark with boats and beams and debris, a wall of noise pressing around them, roar and crackle and shriek, and laughter. His, he realised abruptly. He was laughing. He hadn't even noticed.
Then Bruce stiffened in his arms, as they swept into Gotham's shadow. Something catching his eye, the Nightlord looked straight up, his sharp eyes piercing the darkness beneath her bulk. He turned his head to catch Clark's eye, jerking it in a sharp motion to go up, straight up. They were moving too fast for him to pull his arm free to gesture. Clark obeyed, his trust implicit, pulling up in one rushing movement to spiral skyward into the press of battle.
Bruce kept his eyes on whatever had caught his attention, tracking his prize with glittering intensity as they rose, and without looking he tugged at Clark to show him the way, to direct left a little, higher, all so fast, so ready. And Clark went with it, went with him, his eyes struggling in the sudden dimness to see what it was that Bruce saw. And then, suddenly, the Nightlord turned in his arms. Turned into him, stared right into his eyes, and pulled his hands around to rest against Clark's chest. The Commander had all of a second to blink at him in confusion, before every ounce of strength in that hardened frame pulsed through those braced arms, and Bruce spun away from him in a whirl of wind.
Clark stared in shock.
The Nightlord turned in the air, facing back down towards the sea that waited below, wrapping his cloak tight around him to plunge through the sky at speed, then snapping it out to slow his descent, looking for a second like the Bat of his emblem. Clark shook his head, snapping out of it, but before he could move to dive after him, a ship rushed in from the side, just beneath the wayward Nightlord. A Luthoran ship. And without a second's hesitation that Clark could see, as if he'd been aiming for that exact circumstance, Bruce pulled the cloak tight again to drop like a hawk feet-first onto the upper slope of the boat's spine. Then, as Clark watched in something like awe, he caught his balance and skidded down the spine to the cannon, wrenching it off its path just as the pilot fired.
The beam lanced out from the misdirected weapon, and missed a Gothamite ship by bare millimeters. The startled pilot of the saved vessel started to pull her into a turn, but Clark wasn't watching him.
Job done, the Nightlord slipped a hand inside his cloak, pulled out something small and black to plant it inside the cannon's casing, and looked up. Straight at Clark, his eyes boring into the Commander's thirty feet above, and Clark swore he could see that faint, familiar smile on those distant features. He was moving before he even realised it, diving through the air, and Bruce was already leaping, plunging free of the ship as the device inside the cannon exploded. The heat wrapped around Clark like a blanket as he ploughed into it, the concussion sweeping out from the stricken ship to catch the Nightlord and tumble him through the air, and then Clark had him, caught his flailing hand, wrapped his arms around him through the tangle of cloak.
They had pulled up, a bare twenty feet from the surface of the sea, before he remembered how to breathe again. There was a moment of shock, of hollow silence, and then the fury hit him. Anger so deep and powerful it blinded him, and it was all he could do not to shake the Nightlord like a ragdoll, not to crush Bruce against him in trembling terror.
"Don't you ever do that to me again!" he roared, pushing the sound past the ringing in his ears, and felt Bruce laugh against his chest. He tried to shake the man, infuriated, but his arms were too tangled in the cloak and Bruce's hands, and Bruce was looking up at him and smiling, defiant, the excitement and power in every line of his face, and Clark couldn't remember why he was angry, and Bruce had disentangled a hand to reach up towards his face ...
A young voice battered its way through the roar to reach them, slicing through the moment, and Clark came back to reality with a hollow thud. He looked up, Bruce already watching the skies, to see the Gothamite ship the Nightlord had just saved sweeping low to hover above them, her sails pulling wide and level to catch her. A boy stood at the hatch, a young man wearing the uniform of an Air Commander, in Gotham's black and silver, an expression of relief and residual battle-detachment on his face. Clark blinked at him.
"Bruce?" the boy asked again, staring hard at the figure in Clark's arms.
"Mind your back, Tim!" the Nightlord bellowed back, so suddenly Clark almost dropped him. "How many times do I have to tell you!" And Clark wondered how many people would have thought him angry, who didn't know him. But he could hear the fear and relief in Bruce's voice, echoes of everything he had just felt in his turn, and he realised that this boy, this Tim, was someone who meant quite a bit to his Nightlord. And on the tails of that realisation, he pulled the man close to him and darted up to meet the descending ship.
He pulled up just opposite the hatch, hovering in empty space ten feet out from the boat's hull with the Nightlord in his arms, and watched the boy's expression go from surprise to wariness to readiness, all in a few seconds. Oh yes. He could see Bruce's training in him already, and he hadn't even met him yet.
"Bruce?" Tim asked, for the third time, but this one was different. More of a 'are you in the hands of an enemy, Bruce?' than a 'Bruce, is that you?'. Clark smiled at him, and watched him blink uncertainly. Bruce looked from one to the other of them, and his smile had definitely edged into smirk. Clark frowned down at him, but it made little dent in the expression.
The Nightlord turned to his Air Commander as one of those strange lulls dropped over the battlefield. "Timothy Drake," he said, with a wry smile. "Commander of the Gotham Aerial Forces. Meet Clark Kent, Commander of the Metropolis Aerial Defense Forces. My friend."
Tim looked at him, his expression unreadable, and then at Clark, who almost dropped Bruce before he could check the impulse to offer his hand. Then, with an air of one who had gotten used to the vagaries of his Lord, the boy shook his head in exasperation, and offered Clark a smile of his own.
"Pleased to meet you, Mr Kent," he smiled, and muttered in an aside to Bruce, "You always manage to find the weird ones, don't you?" Clark blinked at him.
"Ah, pleased to meet you too?" he asked, frowning slightly, and Bruce laughed. Low and delighted, almost drowned by an explosion above their heads. The eye had passed, brief and fluttering, and the storm of fighting wrapped itself around them again. Tim never hesitated, already leaping back inside his ship, the sails pulling through the air beneath Clark's feet as his copilot pulled her around to bank upwards. Clark dodged back from her wake, darting high and swift to anticipate her path and keep pace.
And as they turned upwards into the fighting, ready to rejoin the battle, a flash of light to the east caught all eyes not yet preoccupied with impending death. Clark turned his head, echoed by every pilot and fighter in range, and stared out across the sunlit Atlantic at the majestic shape that hove into view.
A ship, flanked by swarming allies. No. Bigger than that. She was huge, Clark realised, a great hulking shape in the air, lean for her length, with engine after engine along the sweeping lines of her wings. His mind searched for a name for her, searched for something to describe the size of what he was seeing, and from the dim recesses of his memory came one word, from the ships that had once sailed the seas. A battlecruiser. Such a thing ... she was impossible, she couldn't be. Nothing like this existed anymore, nothing since before the Upheaval, and never in the air. She shouldn't fly, the sheer bulk of her impossible ...
"Silver," Bruce said, quietly, beside him, and Clark looked at him sharply. The Nightlord nodded out at the graceful giantess bearing serenely down on them. "Along the hull. Look."
Clark turned his eyes back to her, focusing, wishing idly for a LongGlass. But as she neared, as the great bulk of her came into clear view, he saw what Bruce meant. Scrolled over her hull, gleaming in the sunlight, were the narrow veins of silver that had to be the only thing keeping her in the air. Woven and interwoven, almost delicate looking, spread far and narrow to make the weight count for distance, the tracery was almost a work of art. Craftsmanship of the highest order, beautiful and functional ... and completely illegal. Because every spare scrap of silver that could be found on the planet had been channeled into the Ramparts of the Cities, and for this vessel to carry so much so proudly, it had to have been stolen, siphoned from the Ramparts, taken from the only things keeping thousands of lives in the air ...
She was monstrous, he thought. Beautiful, wonderful, and utterly monstrous. And there was only one man he knew who would fly such a thing as this wicked beauty.
"Luthor," he said softly, and wondered how Lois had missed this. Beside him, Bruce smiled sharply, his eyes quietly blazing. "It's Luthor." And in blithe confirmation of his statement, a huge radio crackled into life somewhere inside that bulk, and the familiar urbane voice of Lex Luthor poured like honey out over the battlefield.
"This is Lex Luthor, Lord of Metropolis," the man said calmly, and Clark could imagine him, somewhere inside that thing, gazing out at his enemy's City with a determined and faintly sad expression. He felt sick that he had ever been taken in by it. "I realise that you've all got other problems at the minute, but if you could take a moment to listen to me, I'd be grateful."
"Hah!" Bruce barked beside him, derision and pain in his voice, a bitter smirk twisting his features. He shook his head. "Who does he think he's fooling?"
Clark looked at the Lord in his arms, and out at the beautiful ship that bore down on them, and up at the black bulk of Gotham behind them. He felt suddenly old, and terribly sad. "Everyone," he said, quietly. "He's always fooled everyone. Everyone who thought they knew him." And Bruce looked at him, shaking his head helplessly, sadness in his eyes as if he felt Clark's pain. Clark hugged him close, and nearly cried as the man winced. Not healed yet, and why did he keep forgetting? But Luthor was continuing, and everyone stopped to listen, the silence complete save for that honeyed voice, and the groans as damaged ships sank gracelessly into the sea.
"I did not want this war," that smooth voice went on, gentle and sad. "I had hoped for a peaceful union between the Day and the Night. But the Nightlord has forced my hand." His voice rose, passion coming into it, anger. A faint glimpse of the madness that lurked beneath. "The Nightlord came to my City helpless, was brought back to health by the efforts of my people. And in return, he has turned my City to ruin! Even now, Metropolis lies behind me, in the grips of rebel forces swayed by his black influence, traitors. Fighters of Metropolis, I come to tell you that your City has fallen! Metropolis has fallen!"
A horrified silence swept out at those words. Clark drifted numb, vaguely aware that what Luthor said was good, that it meant Lois had succeeded, but somewhere deeper than that, where he held the faith that had carried him through the last two decades, all he heard were those words. Metropolis has fallen. Metropolis has fallen. His City, his life ... Luthor was good, he thought, absently. He knew right where to hit people so it hurt. Exactly how to wound ...
And then, a soft, wounded voice cut through the daze, and he turned to look at the man in his arms. Bruce stared up at him, face carefully composed, but for the eyes that shone with tears at the stark pain they found in his face. "I'm sorry," the Nightlord said again, and his voice broke gently on the words. And something shattered in Clark's heart, some fog, and he saw clear at last. Clear of the spell that for years Luthor had woven over his City, clear of the corruption that had slipped unknowing into his heart, disguised as faith. He felt his eyes harden, felt the glare as it formed and arrowed out to the beauty and sadness that masked a monster.
Metropolis had not fallen. She had been freed. Reborn, after years under this man's thumb. After years of blindness deeper than any Night, Clark finally saw her for what she had been, and what she now was. Metropolis was free, and Luthor deserved no part of her!
And no part of Gotham, either. He looked down again into the Nightlord's eyes, into Bruce's eyes, and smiled. Free and clear and determined, and there was the answering smile, surprised and loving and fierce. They had a mission yet, a battle left to fight. This man, this gentle monster, would not lay another hand on either of their Cities. They would make sure of it.
If they could.
"That is why," Luthor continued, his voice once again returned to its calm, sorrowful cadence, "I have been forced to take this final, unfortunate action. I do not want this. I have never been a man of war. But Metropolis will be avenged!"
And at those words, a great hiss and clang carried out over the wind from his battlecruiser, as all along her spine and bows ports flared open. Clark darted higher without thought, instinct driving him, and Bruce stiffened in his arms as a roar shuddered through Luthor's vessel. There was a stillness beneath the thunder, as if thousands had drawn in their collective breath, and then a scream as the first of Luthor's weapons roared forth. They had time for a glimpse of it, for a second of confused incomprehension as the object rushed towards them at a deceptively fast pace, and then the battlecruiser convulsed, and dozens spilled forth to tear towards them in a cloud of death.
"Missiles!" Bruce roared in disbelief beside him. "Those are missiles!" But Clark was already moving, already spinning away from the advancing cloud, hearing the tearing groans around him as boats struggled to turn. Beams lanced out sporadically as a number of Gothamite pilots attempted to stem to tide, and behind them explosions roared as missiles, whatever Bruce meant by that, were picked out of the air, but it wasn't enough. It wasn't enough.
And then Bruce was tugging at his arm, roaring in his ear, and he couldn't hear it but the desperation demanded that he try, and Tim pulled alongside as they flew blindly, and there was a moment of panicked maneuvering before he managed to pull them in through the hatch, and Bruce was already clambering desperately forward to the cockpit, reaching for the radio ...
"All Gotham boats, turn and fight!" he roared, his voice crackling out over the airwaves through the chaos of harried retreat. "I repeat, turn and fight. Take them out! The target is Gotham. Turn! Turn!"
Clark gasped in horror, echoed by Tim, and the pilot was already turning, already trying, and through the hatch he could see them react, see it as every slim, elegant boat bearing the Bat emblem fought to turn, sails sweeping out blindly, uncaringly. A missile swept past the opening, and Clark caught the glimpse of it, of the slim brass cylinder with its fragile solar fins, and it was gone again before he could make sense of it. Bruce was barking orders, and beams lanced out from ships half-turned, firing broadside, and then a beam hit the boat above and to their right, and Clark remembered the other battle, the older battle, remembered Luthor's ships ...
They had no chance. He knew that immediately. He'd seen so many battles, fought in the air so many times, and even if he had seen nothing like this, he knew defeat when it was staring them in the face. He felt it coming, as the boats fell around them, and beams hissed through the air, and the missiles screamed on their way, and Bruce roared out into the ether, and the Gotham ships were fighting, focusing all their efforts on stopping the missiles, even as enemy vessels tore them from the air, and they were turning again themselves, racing towards the City, trying to catch the ones that had slipped through, desperate to be in time ...
And then, it happened. As it had to. As he'd sensed it would, as Bruce had felt it would. They were facing her, looking right into her silent, dark majesty as the fire-flowers bloomed on her flanks, as the missiles even the valiant efforts of dozens of doomed pilots couldn't stop impacted. They hit the rock of her base, her Ramparts, maybe fifteen explosions ...
Gotham shuddered, blind and stunned by the assault on her person. A stillness fell as they watched her, as the dust and debris rained almost silently from behind the clouds of smoke, and then, with a groan that seemed to vibrate out from her very core, she started to sink. Clark watched, his hand at his mouth, his heart screaming in his chest, as Gotham, City of the Night, rolled strikenly sideways towards the shore. He gasped, biting his hand until the blood flowed, as the tip of her underspire tore through the waves with a booming crash, and she lolled drunkenly, striving to hold herself above the earth, striving to keep herself in the air. She teetered, on the verge of falling so that she'd never get up again ... and stopped as steam screamed out from the vents just beneath the Ramparts on the leaning side, halting the fall.
She stopped, holding herself back from the final fall, the Black Lady standing wounded but not dead. Not yet.
Clark turned to Bruce, to the Nightlord as he stood silent as if carved from stone behind them. The radioglass had fallen unremarked from his hand, his fists clenched as he watched the fall of his City, his mouth thin and bloodless. His eyes ... his eyes were desolate.
"Bruce?" Clark asked, softly, gently. Blue eyes snapped around to meet his, the pain and rage in them freezing the air between them, but Clark didn't care. He reached out, stretched out his hand from where he was lying on the floor of the boat, and took that cold, shaking fist in his. "My Lord?"
The Nightlord stared down at him, as the shock cleared from his features, and all that was left was pained determination. "Clark," he rasped, and shook his head as if to clear it. "Clark," he said again, and it was firmer. "Take me to my City, Clark. Now. Plea ... please."
Clark stood without a word, held out his arms, and pulled the Nightlord out into the silent, screaming air.
Chapter 12: Part XII
They fell through the air, almost drifting, the silence that wrapped around them broken only by the crumble and splash as debris continued to fall from the City's flanks into the surf. No ships were firing, no beams hissing. There was nothing, save the ruin of Gotham, and Clark felt the fine, delicate tremors as Bruce shook in his arms. He pulled him close, held him as gently as he could, and tried not to feel the blue fire of the man's eyes against his cheek.
They passed a Luthoran boat, passed right over its spine, its cockpit. Inside, the pilot was staring blankly out through the Glass, his mouth open, his eyes dull, and Clark realised distantly that they hadn't expected it. Even Luthor's forces hadn't known, hadn't understood the destructive power that hovered at their backs. These missiles ... there had been nothing like them, no force of war, of raw death to match them. He felt an instant of vertigo, felt the future spiralling away into the maelstrom of Luthor's dark intent, a foreboding so deep and terrible that it froze his spine.
What wars would come, now? Who stood to die for offending the exiled Lord? Atlantis? New York? London?
And then she loomed above them. The Black Lady, shuddering and wounded. Gotham. He flew in close, letting the touch of Bruce's hands direct him, and drifted through the hollow silence over her shaking sides. Around her, curling underneath to survey the stricken parts of her. His eyes followed Bruce's as they traced the damage through the veiling shadows, as they picked out the great rents torn into her. Steam hissed and swarmed around them, escaping directionless from damaged vents, the broken ends extruding from the glistening rock beneath them in helpless desperation. She was disabled, it was obvious. Even without the damage to the Ramparts, even without the precious silver lost and raining as so much useless debris into the sea and sand, Gotham could not fly again. Not like this. She would flounder, helpless and lost, unable to steer herself.
The Black Lady had not fallen. But she was grounded, and completely at Luthor's mercy.
"There," Bruce said hoarsely, pointing upwards to the Ramparts, past the dull shine of exposed silver, to the entrance to one of the boat hangars. Clark nodded silently, still stunned, still afraid. He said nothing, flying straight towards the gap, all his focus on getting his Lord home. To whatever was left of it.
The hangar was deserted as they flew inside. Deserted, except for the bodies. Dome workers, servicemen. Caught as the fire-flowers took the ground from beneath their feet, the walls from over their heads. No sign of wounded. Maybe there had been none. They were close enough to one of the impacts ... Clark shook his head, trying not to wonder, trying not to see, and drifted to a halt as Bruce clenched his fists in Clark's uniform. He settled them down, picking his spot amongst the debris, and gently let go of Bruce.
Freed, the Nightlord stood for a moment on the tilting floor, staring out at the destruction. At the bodies of his people, the wounds of his City. He was shaking, silently, as Clark watched him, his face a frozen mask of fury and grim determination. The warm light of morning filtered around them, pooled gently among the fallen, and Bruce's eyes shone fierce and desolate from the shadows it traced over his face. He stood for a moment as if grieving, as if honouring his fallen. And then he straightened.
Clark met his eyes as Bruce turned to him, met the icy intent in them, and nodded silently. Bruce held his gaze for a moment, some warmth struggling to the surface of him, a yearning that Clark leant instinctively forward to answer. But it slipped away, and Bruce was once again the Nightlord, wounded and angry.
"This way," he said brusquely, turning away, and there was nothing Clark could do save follow him.
They scrambled up the slight tilt to floor of the hangar, feet skidding in the dust and debris, making their way around the bodies. Clark tried not to look at them, but he couldn't help it. So young, many of them. He found himself saluting them as he passed, the old gesture, an instinctive offering of respect. Once, it almost caused him to slip, sending him skittering into Bruce as he struggled not to fall to his knees, and the Nightlord caught him by the shoulder to pull him up, something strange in his eyes. Clark shrugged sheepishly, his own emotions still storming so clearly in his face, and followed again as Bruce kept going. It occurred to him, half way up the hangar, that he could have simply kept flying, saved both of them all this trouble, but somehow that seemed ... wrong. To take it easy, when all around them had died so uselessly ... He kept his feet resolutely on the ground, and fought it through the old fashioned way.
The silence of the dead hangar fled as they passed through into the thoroughfare, heading into the Ramparts proper. It was slow in coming, the noise, but it grew with every step they took, swelling into a dull roar from somewhere beyond the walls that surrounded them. And then, far sooner than Clark would have expected, Bruce led him past the silver core, and the corridors opened up around them, swarming with people.
It was different, Clark realised dazedly. It wasn't a Rampart like those he knew. The silver skin was no more than that, a pretty extra despite its essentiality, and inside activity swirled around huge Dome Engines, and vast ribbed contrivances that he had never seen before. The sails, he remembered. Gotham had sails.
But more than that, it was the people that caught his eye. He and the Nightlord had fallen out into a river of them, flowing from the outer skin in towards the City itself, milling and frantic. There were wounded here, alright, propped into niches along the corridors or carried along by their fellows, their sick cries blending into the wall of noise that surrounded them. There were alarms blaring, somewhere, and the constant hiss of steam, and the panicked babble. For a second, it was too much, overwhelming, and Clark lost his way in the press, dizzy and almost afraid.
Then Bruce caught his arm as he turned, and pulled him close, raising his voice in a booming cry that cut through the surrounding din. "Silence!" he roared, and after a moment shocked stillness bloomed in a circle around him as people turned to see who was shouting at them. A momentary silence, and then ...
"It's Lord Wayne!
Clark stood dazed in the center of a widening circle, listening as the mutter spread around them, voices whispering in awed realisation, relief, excitement. Lord Wayne. Lord Wayne's back! He escaped! That'll teach the bloody bastards! Lord Wayne ...
Clark looked at Bruce, trying to see his face, his expression as he stared out at the sea of his people, at their palpable relief at his presence. But the Nightlord only looked calmly out at them, waiting patiently for them to subside, waiting to speak. "I need to know the nearest operable rail line to the City Bridge," he called when they stilled, straight to business, the urgency practically humming through him. No mention of his absence, no words to soothe them after the attack. Just raw efficiency, brusque command. And to Clark's surprise, they responded. Instantly. The crowd parted, melted around the lines carrying the wounded to medical stations, and a path clear for their Lord to follow.
"Third mono off the East Rampart's still running, sir," said a Dome Engineer off to their right, dipping his head respectfully. Bruce nodded his thanks, already moving. Clark hesitated a second, conscious that they were watching him, noting the Metropolis uniform he wore, but no-one moved to touch him. He looked around, confused, and saw Bruce, standing poised to move, watching him, waiting impatiently. There was no animosity whatsoever in the Nightlord's face, only calm expectance, and Clark realised that was what stayed their hands. Their Lord trusted him. Even if his people had just nearly sent them into the sea, slaughtered their brothers, that was enough for them. They let him pass.
He stepped slowly up to Bruce, feeling their eyes follow him, the suspicion of them, but Bruce was waiting, his eyes holding Clark's, his hand reaching out for him, to pull him forward. Clark took it, feeling the warmth of it, feeling the compassion in those harried blue eyes. He smiled, once, shyly, and saw Bruce smile back for the barest of seconds.
And then they were running.
People cleared the path ahead of them, the word already spreading through the Ramparts. Bruce ignored it, ignored the whispers that followed them, all his focus on what lay ahead. On his City, and his duty to save her. His urgency spilled over into those around them, into Clark as he followed behind, and it felt as if the itch between his shoulder blades was Luthor's dark gaze on his back, the great battlecruiser out beyond these walls readying the final salvo. He felt Bruce speed up, heard his harsh rasps of breath through the surrounding noise, and without even consciously deciding it he was in the air. He caught Bruce up as he swept forward, ducking low beneath the steel beams that crisscrossed the ceilings as they ran. The Nightlord didn't even bother to be surprised, only turned himself awkwardly to call hoarse directions in Clark's ear, his need and his trust equal and desperate. Clark held him close and obeyed.
They burst clear of the Ramparts in minutes, arching out into the City airspace beyond, and Clark tumbled through the air before he could pull up, surprised again by the speed of it. Not his City. He wasn't comfortable enough with Gotham. But Bruce didn't seem to mind, pointing off to one side, to the steel path of a monorail curving out from the Ramparts behind them, stretching forward into the City. Clark didn't bother landing, didn't bother trying to board the train. He just held tight to the man in his arms, and flew down over the line, following it into the heart of Gotham.
He could feel her around them as they flew, her towers filled with panicked people, her rails and airways buzzing with emergency servicemen. The mono dove almost to her base, down beneath the auspices of her buildings, curving through the higher towers at her center to the looming height of the Wayne Tower, the Bat emblem still flying proud at its summit. The City Bridge. Clark watched it as its shadow fell over them, and tried not to feel as if the blind eyes of its windows were accusing him.
"Up," Bruce said quietly. "Sail hangar on the thirtieth floor." Clark nodded silently, climbing already. The building rushed past beside them, expectantly, and Clark wondered what was waiting for them inside. But there was no time to hesitate, nothing left to fear except what lay behind them, and he carried them both to the landing without a word.
An old man stood waiting for them, standing silent and watchful in a severe black suit, only the muted gleam of silver at his high collar to marr the sobriety of him.
Bruce paused when he saw him, staggering a little as Clark let him gently down, one arm still wrapped around Clark's shoulders. The elderly gentleman said nothing, moving forward without a sound, reaching out gently to touch the Nightlord's shoulder. Clark felt a tiny tremor pass through the man at his side, enough that he almost moved to block the older man, but then Bruce was reaching out, reaching to grasp the man's hand firmly, stepping forward into his embrace for the smallest moment. Then he stepped back, his flank warm against Clark's side, and shook his head.
"Alfred," he said, softly, and Clark wondered at the shaking warmth of it.
"It's good to see you back among us, sir," Alfred replied, quietly. Almost inflectionless. But there was a softness in his eyes, a relief that let Clark understand that, like Tim, this Alfred was someone Bruce loved. Then he blinked in surprise, as the man turned to face him. "And you, Master Kent." He inclined his head gracefully in Clark's direction, a gesture of such quiet dignity that Clark bowed back instinctively, and smiled warmly at him. "I must thank you for bringing Bruce here back in more or less one piece. That is not an easy thing to accomplish, and we're grateful."
"Ah, you're welcome?" Clark managed, and felt warmth flash through him when the anxious lines of Bruce's face softened for a moment in gentle amusement. "Sir?"
"Alfred," the man corrected, gently. "A simple Alfred will do nicely, sir."
"Alfred," Clark repeated, bemused. But Bruce was moving, walking past Alfred into the building proper, and Clark's feet had started to follow him before he knew it, the habits of the last day already deeply ingrained. Alfred smiled sadly at him as he passed, turning to follow them both with a silent, graceful stride. It reminded Clark a little of Cassandra, the bodyguard, and he wondered if everyone in this City was as ready for violence as those who surrounded her Lord.
"What's happening?" Bruce asked quietly, striding confidently towards some destination of his own inside the City Bridge. Clark watched that confidence, stricken by it. In the unfamiliar surroundings of Metropolis, Bruce had been commanding enough. Here, in his own City ... he truly was Lord, here. It almost made Clark fear. In Metropolis, he had had something to offer, some expertise. What could he offer the Lord of Gotham in his own City? Then Alfred answered, behind him, and Clark shoved all such concerns aside. They had far bigger problems.
"Luthor has been demanding our immediate surrender, sir. With frequent hints as to the consequences should we refuse. To be frank, I believe he is taking the opportunity to gloat, at some length." Clark winced, anger rising again in his own chest. "Master Dick has been playing rather masterfully to that, to buy time for Master Tim to finish bringing his boats in." His voice softened, became sad and quiet. "Not that he needs too much time for that, now," he finished softly, and they all knew exactly what he meant. There weren't too many boats left for the young air commander to bring in.
Bruce stopped outside a large set of doors, plain and functional, his head bowed as he paused to rest his hand lightly on the handle. He didn't open it, didn't turn around. "No," he said, very quietly, and Clark flinched from the sound of it, his hand pausing where he had been reaching out to touch the man's shoulder. But he didn't fear Bruce, was never going to, and his hand found its own way to rest gently on the curve of the dark cloak, his thumb rubbing soothingly at the back of Bruce's neck, and couldn't help but smile when the man tipped his head back into the touch. Bruce turned to look at him, gratitude warring with the cool determination in his eyes, and smiled as he turned back to open the door.
The first thing they saw, looking in, was Luthor. His face filled the for'ard Glass, exactly as Clark had imagined him outside, his features moulded into patrician sadness, and his eyes glittering with the madness that floated beneath. In front of him, standing firm beneath that insane stare, was a young man Clark had never seen before, a man in the uniform of a Commander. And though his head was bowed as if in surrender, there was a angry edge to the taut line of his shoulders that denied the seeming subservience.
"I would advise leaving Master Dick the floor for the moment, sir," Alfred advised softly, appearing at Bruce's side, though Clark could swear he had never heard him move. "We've got the terminal to the Clocktower running the connection down to Lucius in the Engine Room. Miss Barbara will put you through."
Bruce nodded silently, his eyes fixed on the young man, but he made no move to interrupt. Instead, he turned left, skirting cautiously around the edge of the room, that same instinct for invisibility that Clark had seen in Metropolis coming again to the fore. He did his best to follow, and since Luthor didn't shout after them, he assumed he'd gotten away with it. And as they moved into the blindspot of the Glass, into the Commander's peripheral vision, he saw a flicker of connection, of recognition between him and Bruce. He might have imagined it, but he thought the tension ebbed a little in those taut shoulders.
The radioGlass to the Engine Room showed what looked for all the world like a vision of Hell. Steam billowed around the lower terminal, with men in bulky black suits rushing through it in blurred shadows in the background. Bruce tapped a signal into his end, frowning heavily as he surveyed the damage, and a man nearing Alfred's age appeared in front of the Glass, the heavy lines of his face seamed into a frown of concentration. That frown slipped for a second as he saw who he was speaking to, and a smile broke free.
"Bruce!" the man rumbled, his voice soft and round and a little cracked. "Back in the land of the living, I see!"
"Evidently," the Nightlord replied, wryly, and Clark saw again the ease with which he connected with these people. This was Bruce's City, to his core. "What's the situation down there, Lucius?"
And just like that, the frown was back. "We're sitting ducks, I'm afraid," the Enginelord said, shaking his head. "Three of our upper vents were torn apart, and two of the lower steering vents are currently up to their necks in sand and seawater. The Engines are vastly overheated. I've got Victor up inside the cooling systems, trying to keep her under control. No. I'm afraid we're not going to be moving any time soon, Bruce. We're stuck waiting for that little monster to fire, unless you've got an idea up your sleeve that you're not telling us about?"
Bruce shook his head gruffly. "Working on it. What about the lance? Can she fire?" Clark looked at him oddly, at that, but Lucius was already shaking his head.
"She's a space weapon, Bruce, like everything else we have. We fire her down here, she'll vaporise the Atlantic within a ten mile radius of the beam, and quite possibly punch a hole up through the atmosphere while she's at it." His expression was grave and sad. "I don't think we want to be firing something like that, not with his paranoid highness out there."
"No," Bruce agreed, softly. "No."
"So then what?" Clark asked, frowning as Bruce turned to look at him. "You're helpless?" The Nightlord shook his head, a bitter smile flitting over his features, as Luthor's voice continued to taunt them in the background.
"Unless we want to destroy this entire section of the planet ..." he said, and looked away again. "Yes. We are." And Clark had no idea what he was meant to say, what he was meant to do. He was standing in a doomed City, looking at her helpless Lord, a man he cared about with a depth and ferocity that frightened him, and he had no idea what to say.
And then it seemed no-one else did either, because silence fell over the Bridge so suddenly that Clark could feel his ears ringing with it, and he realised that Luthor had stopped talking, cutting himself off mid-sentance with no warning whatsoever. All eyes turned to the Glass, Bruce beside him stepping forward to frown as his eyes searched the man's face, but all of Luthor's attention was behind him, at his own bridge, and then a yell went up from the radarbanks, and they realised why.
"It's a City, sir!" a radarsman shouted up to the Commander, not having seen Bruce come in. "Coming in behind Luthor. It looks like ... I could swear it's Metropolis!" Clark started. Metropolis. His City ... He turned to Bruce, spinning on his heel, his eyes wide and excited. Bruce looked back at him, suspicion lingering in his eyes, but Clark didn't care. He knew, he knew ...
And then he heard it. The most beautiful sound in the world, stretching out across the ether to reach every radioGlass in range, echoing through Gotham's and Luthor's bridges alike.
"This is Lois Lane, Lord of Metropolis!" her voice rang out over the airwaves, stern and commanding, and Clark felt such a thrill of pride and hope that he almost lifted off the floor. Even Bruce, grim and suspicious beside him, couldn't help the smile that flitted onto his features. "I repeat, this is Lord Lois Lane, commanding all Metropolite forces to stand down! Immediately! Any Metropolite ship continuing this illegal attack on the City of Gotham will face immediate exile, and will henceforth be banned from every returning to Metropolis!"
Luthor leapt to his feet on the other bridge, fury shattering his controlled mask in an instant, drawing the stunned attention of everyone on either bridge. He stabbed his fingers at his own Glass, his voice a twisted growl of rage as it speared through the ether in response. "Woman!" he spat. "Traitor! What right have you ... how dare you ..." He didn't seem to be very coherent, Clark noted wryly. Which Lois immediately capitalised on with her usual aplomb.
"I dare, Mr Luthor," she answered coldly, "because your illegal actions have put the City of Metropolis at too great a risk to ignore, let alone forgive! You have brought us to the brink of destruction, challenged every major power on the planet, and for what? A grudge? No, Luthor, you are not fit to lead a City. And you shall not!"
"Now that's telling him," the young Commander noted, a smirk curling over features that had abandoned their pretended defeat entirely. Bruce flicked a glance in his direction, pride and warning in his eyes, but it was too late. Luthor had already been driven past tolerance, past madness.
The ex-Lord of Metropolis stilled, his features freezing for a long moment, the hatred flashing in his eyes the only animated part of him. And then, he smiled. Slowly, quietly. Bruce leapt forward, his mouth shaping a warning, as they saw Luthor's hand move over the controls ...
The battlecruiser visible in the LongGlass view in a corner of the Glass shuddered, and Clark gasped as he understood, as he saw. The ports flared along her, ready, waiting ... She was ready to fire again.
And there was nowhere for Gotham to go to evade her.
Chapter 13: Part XIII
There was a ringing in Clark's ears as he watched the Glass, as he saw the battlecruiser convulse as it had before, as he sensed death once again readying for flight. His world narrowed unbearably, soundless and stretched, all his focus on the flaring ports along that silver, beautiful length. Luthor smiled, mad and triumphant, and then ...
A roar of sound unlike anything he'd ever heard, a sound so great and all-encompassing it was nearly a silence, boomed out across the skies. The Glass flared with white light, pure and intense, and every alarm the Bridge had seemed to blare into life all at once, pointlessly, as the sound swallowed their paltry screams into its massive self. Blinded, dazed, Clark found himself crouching instinctively, his hands raised and fluttering at his head, trying to decide whether his eyes or his ears needed shielding more. But before he could decide, it was gone again.
It took a second for him to realise it. A second for him to realise that the ringing in his head was aftershock, not the sound itself. A second for the remembered cacophony to fade, and his senses to reconnect to the world around him.
The first thing he heard were the alarms, and several people cursing inventively in several languages, as the Bridge crew pulled themselves together and started running checks. And then, in front of him, the unmistakable sound of Bruce's voice.
"What the hell was that!?!" the Nightlord demanded, vaulting from his crouch into the center of the Bridge, standing beside his Commander as he stared out at the image that returned in stops and starts to the Glass. Clark staggered to his feet to follow him, shaking his head to try and disperse the fog. He'd always been somewhat more susceptible to noise than his fellows. But to be fair, he'd never before had to deal with something like that.
"It wasn't Luthor, whatever it was," one of the lensemen muttered. "He hasn't moved."
"It came from the south," someone else cut in. "Seared right across our path, between us and Luthor. Some kind of focused beam ...? Like a ship's cannon, but big." Really, really big, Clark thought, and could see it echoed around the room. Whatever it had been ...
"Hah!" the young Commander at Bruce's side suddenly exclaimed, thumping his fist on his hip in seeming delight. Everyone on the bridge turned to face him, his Lord first of all, and the young man turned to Bruce with a grin so wide it threatened to divide his face in two. Bruce stared at him, Clark not far behind.
"Dick?" Bruce said, slowly and cautiously. "Am I to take it you know what that was?"
His commander grinned. "That," he said, the repressed triumph clear as a bell in his voice, "was what happens when you piss off the King of the Seas!" And on the heels of that announcement, as if cued by it, the image on the Glass focused to show the stern, unyielding features of one Arthur Curry, King of Atlantis. Some quick lenseman focused one of the lesser LongGlasses to the south, to the Atlantis Tower where she reared crackling above the sea, a great Glass at her summit still bristling with leftover force. Clark stared in trepidation, and not a little awe.
"Luthor!" Arthur boomed, not bothering at all with such niceties as identifying himself. With that much power apparently at his disposal, Clark figured maybe he was justified. "That would not be wise!" He didn't really need to add the 'or else', and the Sea King was not a man to waste words.
On the Gotham Bridge, while they waited for Luthor to get his equipment in order enough to reply, Bruce turned to Dick long enough to give him a wondering look, answered by a head tipped sideways in a grinning salute, and faced back for the terminal to Lucius and Barbara. Clark stayed in place, the habits of a Bridge officer coming back to him, but his eyes followed Bruce instead of the Glass.
"Barbara," the Nightlord began, brusquely. "Is Tim onboard?"
"Five minutes ago, Bruce," the Spider's voice came back, crackling as it came through the radioGlass. "Why?" But the Nightlord ignored the question, turning instead to his Enginelord.
"Lucius, are we too damaged to seal up? Can we raise the dome?" He fired the questions rapidly, urgency in his voice, and Clark could feel all the attention in the room gravitating to a Lord many of them hadn't even realised was there until he'd spoken minutes before. Bruce's shoulders were taut, with none of the relief Arthur's entrance had engendered in his fellows, and Clark frowned in concern. He trusted Bruce's instincts enough for that to really worry him, and the rapid mutters that rushed around the room in the wake of those questions didn't help.
"The Dome? But in sunlight ... won't that ..."
"No, and yes," Lucius replied, unperturbed. "I've already sealed the lower vents against the sea, and the secondary doors in the higher reaches remain undamaged. The Dome might be a small problem, because one of the Eastern pistons is damaged, but give me two minutes and I can raise her. Now. Do you want to tell us all why?"
Bruce turned back to face the Bridge, his bearing stiff and trembling with leashed energy, his eyes catching and meeting the gaze of every officer in the room. Last of all were Dick, and Clark, and if it seemed that he lingered longer there ... perhaps Clark only imagined it from the intensity of his stare. Then Bruce lifted his chin proudly, determined and ready, and addressed them.
"Luthor is not going to stand down," he said, quietly. "No matter the threat. Even if he dies for it. What I've seen of him ... wouldn't you agree, Commander mine?" He turned slightly to Clark, and the eyes of his people followed him. Clark swallowed, and thought. He thought of Luthor. Of the madness in his eyes. Of how ardent his voice had been when he told Mercy of how much he wanted Gotham. Of the sad determination he had seen on the way to that first meeting with Bruce. He remembered thinking it, so long ago, that Luthor did not lack for determination, a determination he had hesitated to call courage at the time. Now ... was madness the same as courage?
"No," he answered, softly, as he understood what Bruce meant. "He will not back down." And he flinched inside as the faces ringing the room fell, as the hope of reprieve they had clutched so briefly fell away. But Bruce was not dismayed.
"So!" he commanded, his voice ringing as he recaptured their attention, their faith. "We cannot depend on Arthur stopping him. The beam is impressive. But it is a single beam. If even a few of those missiles get through ... I doubt Gotham could survive a second barrage. We're not clear yet. But!" And he smiled, rich and vicious. "We will be. I promise you. The Sea King has bought us time. Lets show them how we intend to use it! All hands!"
They leapt to attention, every last one of them. Every man and woman on the Bridge, everyone who called Gotham their home, everyone willing to fight for her. And Clark ... his hand clenched itself into a fist, his arm coming up to press it to his left shoulder as he bowed, a Commander to his Lord, a servant to his City. Gotham was not his home. But he stood on her Bridge, with her Lord as his Lord. He would serve them as he could.
And then there was a hand on his fist where he held it in the bow, a hand that shook, and he looked up in startlement to find himself staring into Bruce's full, shining eyes. He straightened, surprised, as Bruce seemed to hold his hand like a lifeline, as pain and pride seemed to fight in equal measure in his expression. Clark frowned, uncaring of the audience, and reached up to touch his Lord's face, gently. Bruce flinched, a little. And as he opened his mouth to ask what was the matter, to ask what hurt Bruce, the Glass behind them crackled once again into life, and Lois' voice cut across his own. He flinched instinctively, his hand tightening in Bruce's, and the Nightlord's eyes were so sad as they looked at him ...
"This is Lord Lois, of Metropolis," she called out. "Seeking permission from the Sea King for all Metropolite fighters who no longer wish to involve themselves in this illegal conflict to be allowed to retreat to Metropolis herself." Clark half turned, to look at her face in its corner of the Glass, to see the fierce determination that lived there, to save as many of her people as she could. Such a true Lord, his Lois. And Arthur, as he watched her, seemed to see it too, seemed to know that here was a Lord he could respect ... but before he could grant permission, Luthor managed to get his communications array back online, and his voice cried out across the ether in bitter anger.
"Yes indeed!" he spat. "Any Metropolite who wishes to join forces with the traitors who would put their City at the mercy of these ... these people, these beggar-lords, by all means move now!"
The boats surrounding Luthor's battlecruiser milled for a long moment, while the eyes of every participant in this farcical war watched them with baited breath. Clark found his hand clenched tight inside Bruce's, watching the fliers, wondering how many he had trained, how many he had known ... and when the first of them, a proud ship at Luthor's left flank, turned her face to the Shining City, turned away from the carnage he offered ... he could feel the cheer inside him, the pride that rose irrepressibly to the surface. He turned to look at the Nightlord, to share the joy, the pride, but all that was in Bruce's eyes was a kind of bitter happiness. Clark turned fully to him, let the drama play out behind him unwatched, and raised his hand to touch that stern face once again.
"My Lord?" he asked, quietly. "Bruce?"
Bruce smiled sadly, and pressed a kiss to Clark's hand as it passed. "It's time, Commander mine," he answered, soft and sad. "You need to go, now."
Clark blinked, frowned at him. "Go where?" he asked, but suddenly, as if he couldn't bear it, Bruce turned away. Pulled his hand free of Clark's, clapping his own together sharply to draw the attention of his crew. Behind them, Luthor roared after his ships as they abandoned him, one by one.
"Lucius!" the Nightlord snapped briskly. "Seal her up, and start raising the Dome!" He turned in place, towards the radarbanks. "Navigation, plot us straight for the ceiling, as close as you can to the vertical. Barbara! Contact Tim and tell him to get his people battened down, and send out the launch alert on the City system. Tell all civilians to prepare for crisis lift. Alfred, the same for Wayne Tower. Dick, think you can give this King of yours a cryptic enough warning?"
The younger Commander nodded in bemusement, a silence holding throughout the Bridge as people stood frozen, watching their Lord, wondering what he was doing, why his voice seemed to break around his orders ... Bruce had no patience for it. He thumped his thigh angrily, glaring at them as the urgency vibrated through him. "Move, people! Ready for launch! Move, move, move!" And they did, leaping to attention. Then, and only then, did Bruce turn back to Clark.
"Time to fly, Commander Kent," he said, brisk and unconcerned, except for the eyes that shone wetly. Not Clark, or Commander mine. Commander Kent. "As fast as you can fly. You've two minutes to clear the Dome, because I've no wish to explain to Lord Lois why I've kidnapped you!"
And, that quickly, Clark understood. Understood the goodbye, understood the pain. Launch. The stars our home, Commander mine. I don't want to explain why I've kidnapped you. Oh, Bruce ...
"So," Luthor said, an inexpressible sadness in his smooth voice, and Clark couldn't help but turn back to the Glass, to Luthor's battleship as she drifted alone through the skies between her three enemies, her fleet fleeing ship by ship to the safety of their City under the grim gaze of the Sea King. Luthor was watching them too, watching as he was abandoned, and the hatred that glittered in his eyes was terrifying in its chill concentration. "I am betrayed, am I?"
Bruce gripped Clark's shoulder tightly, his fingers digging into the skin, and his voice was harsh and urgent as he spoke. "Move now, Commander. He's going to strike! Move now, before it's too late. Two minutes, Clark! Please, please, as you love me! Move now!"
"I would have fought for you," Luthor went on, sad and quiet. "All of you. You don't understand, don't see. You are slaves to your fears, to the fear of the power these people, these creatures hold. The Sea King. The Nightlord. Hellspawn, both of them."
"Move, Clark," Bruce whispered, agonised, and there was a great groan through Gotham as the great engines out at the Ramparts shuddered into life, as the edge of the oxygen Dome cleared the lip of its housing.
"The Upheaval showed us what creatures such as these could do." Luthor was inexorable, all the pain, the uncertainty of that cataclysmic event in his voice. "A judgement on mankind, a power from beyond that judged us by criteria we didn't understand! But no more!" His voice rose, the madness, the passion cresting in it as his eyes shone with insane light. And Clark recognised it, saw it for what it was. No simple madness. It was the madness of conviction, a passion of belief. "You saw! You saw what I did, what a man can do! How a man can challenge the gods themselves, no matter how powerful, how just they think they are. You saw! And yet you choose in fear to ignore it?"
"Clark!" Bruce was desperate now, the Dome beyond the Glass raised halfway across the City, and Clark couldn't bear it, couldn't stand the pain in that proud voice, those piercing eyes. He turned, catching the man's hands in his own, pulling him as close as he could, as near to him as breathing. Bruce stopped, stunned, his eyes wide as he struggled instinctively in Clark's grasp, but Clark had no intention of releasing him, of ever letting go of this powerful, passionate man. He leaned in, into Bruce's confused face, into his open mouth ... he could taste his Lord's fear in the kiss, taste the love and desperation of him, the desire to protect Clark. He felt it all, and smiled softly.
"No," he whispered, so quietly, as he pulled back. "No, Bruce, my Lord. I'm here, and I'm staying."
"You bow before these Lords, and all their secrets? You choose to obey out of fear, and ignore everything you yourselves are capable of, everything a man can do! But not I! No, oh no. I will not bow before them."
"You must, Commander mine. Clark!" Bruce was still so close, so near, and the pain in his eyes was not lessened by Clark's promise. If anything, it increased.
Luthor stood, his head tossed back in defiant pride as he stared out at them through the Glass, his eyes glowing as his speech reached its impassioned zenith, and a dull thud echoed through Gotham as the Dome settled home above them, flashing as the lightpanels flared into life within it. A hum coursed through the bridge as instruments registered the flow of power flooding down through it into the Engines, raw sunlight through a system that had been designed to take the hollow light of stars. Gotham shuddered around them, her underspire jerking half-clear of the surf as the power, channeled through the remaining vents open on her lower side, juddered her vertical. Bruce stared at Clark, at his Commander, and everyone on the Bridge stared at the pair of them.
"If I must die for daring to challenge these people you fear so much," Luthor said, softly, fiercely. "Then so be it! But I will show you mercy. I will give you the secrets they would keep from you, give you the power the Nightlord wants to hoard for himself. And when you have seen it, when you understand what your fear might have cost you, remember me! Remember the Lord who served you to the last. Remember!"
The ports flared along his battlecruiser once more, the weapons held within them ready for their master's call. The Bridge crew turned to Bruce, waiting for the order, needing his word to fly, and Clark stared into his anguished eyes, held his hands close in a gentle grip.
"You haven't time to argue, my Lord," he prompted, gently, and Bruce turned from him with a shudder, ripped his hands clear of Clark's grip, and faced his crew, his people. And though his features were still heavy with pain, his voice was clear and powerful as a clarion call.
And Gotham roared, screamed as a pulse of raw power poured down from her Engines, pushed inexorably at the sand and sea beneath her, pushed furiously at all that sought to hold her down, a fierce cry of challenge and triumph.
"Fire!" Luthor roared, behind them, panic and fury in his voice as he saw them lift, as he saw his quarry about to escape. His ship convulsed, obedient to his command, striving to destroy what had so offended her master. The cloud of death screamed free of her embrace, her deadly children spiralling out into the skies to rush headlong for the City that rose with impossible slowness from the Earth. Clark staggered as a force unlike anything he had ever felt pushed down on him, flattened him to his knees, his eyes streaming as he watched in horrified anticipation as the missiles approached ...
"Lucius!" Bruce shouted behind him, through Gotham's angry booming. "Sails! Sails!" A sharp clank tore through the City, as the great ribs of the vast solar sails to either side of her raised themselves, barely fifteen feet, but power flashed through Gotham in response, speed building and the terrible force with it. The City pulled free of the last grip of the earth, tearing free with a force that almost shook her from the skies, and Clark curled into a ball on the floor of the Bridge, watching the Glass through streaming eyes as they shot skyward, as the sea and Luthor began to sink beneath them, the missiles suddenly seeming to aim too low, far too low ...
There was a roar of fury, of harsh desperation as Luthor watched them fly, as he saw everything he had fought for slip irretrievably from his grasp. There was such loss in his eyes, at that moment, as if all the dreams of mankind had been ripped from him. Such pain, as the realisation of defeat crashed down on him, everything he had done now for nothing. And then, an echo, pure fury, as the Sea King's terrible justice broke through the last frayed shred of restraint, and the great beam lanced through the skies towards its prey. It struck Luthor's battlecruiser broadside, her outline seeming to glow with dark light against the glare, and Luthor's image broke into static on the Glass.
They watched, in hollow awe, as the light died, and the great and terrible beauty that had carried her master to his end began to sink, gracelessly, into the sea. Her side was near melted, the silver dripping from her tortured flanks as she fell, a brittle scream ripped from her as she broke in two. She hit the water, a great plume of spray and steam thrown up from her impact, and as Gotham soared for the stars, flying fierce and triumphant through the skies above her shattered form, the great battleship sank at last out of sight, beneath the waves of the unforgiving sea.
Luthor ... was gone.
For a moment, as the terrible force that pushed at him began to lessen, all Clark could do was stare at the Glass, stare at the image of the broken ship until they moved out of range, until the Glass went dark, and flowered again showing only the earth, receding beneath him. As he had never seen it before. And for some reason, all he felt was an indescribable agony, a black well of grief that bubbled up through him for no reason at all. He saw Luthor's eyes, saw again the pain and loss in them, and watched his planet, the only one he had ever know, fall away beneath him, like a broken ship.
He stood, staggering to his feet, noting dully that the others were standing too around him, but it was the earth that held his gaze, and the memory of a man he had once served with all the joy in his heart. He had not been wrong, he thought distantly. Luthor hadn't been wrong. His aims, his pain, his goals ... he had wanted to serve his City, his people. His only flaw ... the madness, that drove him to forget who it was for, to see the goal and not the people that made it worthwhile. Not so alien a crime, perhaps. So human ...
And then, through the pain, through the grief, he raised his hand to his forehead. The old salute, one comrade to another. A soldier to his Lord. The tears slid silently down his cheeks, unbidden, unnoticed, as he paid his last respects to the man who had shaped so much of his life.
He felt movement at his side, caught sight of Bruce's face in the corner of his eye. The sadness there, the strange pity. The love. He knew he was being watched, knew what the others would be seeing. A man in a Metropolis uniform, saluting his fallen Lord. Their enemy, who had so nearly destroyed them. But he couldn't stop, couldn't lower his hand, not yet ... It was his right, to grieve. His heart, to mourn a man who had wounded him, who in the end had hated him, perhaps. But it was not Luthor's feelings that mattered, but his own. He looked at Bruce, his eyes trying to apologise, to explain, his hand shaking slightly as he held it determinedly to his brow.
His Lord looked back at him, his eyes so fierce, so clear, and then ... Bruce raised a hand, slowly, deliberately, and placed it to his own temple, echoing Clark's salute. A valediction, for his fallen enemy. And a gesture, to honour the grieving of the man he loved. As you mourn, so shall I, Commander mine. And somehow, through all his tears, Clark found strength to smile.
"My Lord," he whispered, a goodbye and a greeting, a releasing of the past to seize hold of the future. "My Lord."
"Welcome home, Commander mine," Bruce whispered, softly, and caught Clark's hand as he lowered it out of the salute. He pulled it close, held it tight, and reached out to take Clark's shoulder with the other, to curl it around Clark's neck as he stepped into the embrace, as he dipped his head to Bruce's shoulder and wept.
They held each other, there in the silence, as the sun rose over the City of the Night as just another star.
Chapter 14: Part XIV
Clark watched in the silence as Bruce stepped up onto the base of the repaired Eastern piston, facing the crowd of Dome Engineers, Rampart workers, and the remains of Tim's flyers. The rest of his City was watching via the Glasses, courtesy of a gadget or sixteen from Barbara. The Lord of Gotham stood there for a long, silent minute, his face calm and stern, his eyes shining with tears Clark wondered how many people could see.
He did. He saw them. All his focus was on the man, his Lord, his Bruce. He saw the tears. He saw the way the shoulders were stiff and tense beneath the rich black drape of the cloak of his dress uniform. He was quite a sight, the Lord of Gotham. So different from the battered, exhausted man who had fled through an enemy City at Clark's side. No aged bandages wrapped around the chest in lieu of a shirt, only the deep black of his military coat, the shine of silver braiding. And no blue cloak, heirloom catches, only a sweep of black velvet that glinted gently at the edges where silver thread had been woven into it. No. This was the Nightlord in all his tired glory, standing for his people.
But it was still Bruce, to Clark. He was still that man, for all that he didn't look it. It was there, in the sad humour of the eyes, the glinting passion. It was there in the way Bruce's eyes lingered on him, for the smallest of moments, before he turned back to his people, for this, the last goodbye.
It was a funeral. For all they had lost.
"Gotham," Bruce said, quiet and carrying, Barbara's Glasses catching his voice to carry it out across the City. "My City." He paused, swallowing, his throat heavy with words, and Clark ached to fly to him, to stand beside him and help him do this. But Bruce was the Lord of Gotham. He had been so for a long time, through so many of her struggles. He would stand for her again.
"Here we are again," the Nightlord went on, softly, maybe a little sadly, but there was a smile there, in the corner of his mouth. "Right back where we started, floating damaged over a world that decided to kick us out." He smiled a little, half bitter and half joking. "I feel so rejected." A low murmur went up, laughter and grumbles spreading in rings out from him, and Clark watched the humour in tired, worn faces. So used to fighting, these people.
"But this time, it's different," Bruce continued, when they'd settled back down. "This time, it meant something. This time, my people, my friends ... this time, we accomplished something." His eyes went back to Clark's, warm and vivid, and Clark stared mutely back. "This time," Bruce said softly, "we changed the world. Gotham showed them what was possible. She showed them the way forward. And our people, our friends and loved ones, those who died ... They died for that. More than just to save our City. More than just to protect us. What they did had meaning. And it always will. It always will ..."
He trailed off, bowing his head, his grief and pride so obvious and so powerful that it was echoed all through the City, all through the crowd, and Clark felt those same emotions settle in his own chest, wrap themselves gently around his aching heart. Not for nothing. Despite it all, you did not die for nothing. Oh, Bruce ...
The Nightlord turned, then, to the looming metal piston behind him, his eyes tracing it up into the shadows of the Ramparts, to the mechanical darkness that housed the great Dome that shielded them from the hollow stars. He reached out, laid his hand gently against the metal, and the names that were etched there. The names of the fallen. All the fallen, all who had lost their lives in Luthor's last, desperate gamble. Gothamite and Metropolite alike. Clark knew. He'd seen them, traced the letters with his fingers, the names of men he'd known, the names he saw mourned in Bruce's eyes as his Lord held tight to his shoulder. The names of the dead, etched into the rebuilt City, into the very thing that kept the rest of them alive.
"You will be remembered," the Lord of Gotham finished, quietly, echoingly. "What you died to protect will be fought for, defended, as long as I live, as long as Gotham lives. I swear it."
And around him, around Clark, the voices of the people of Gotham rose into a sad, joyful chorus as they repeated the words, as they echoed their Lord in his promise to the fallen. And Clark, tears streaming silently down his cheeks, lifted his voice with theirs. One of them in grief and pride and promise, his uniform irrelevant, his allegiance of no consequence.
What they had fought for, the lives they had died to protect, all of them, were his to defend for as long as he was able.
Clark stood at the window, looking out on a view he had never thought to see in his life. His reflection watched him back, a phantom against the vast wheel of stars, and the glow of a City at home with the darkness. He watched Gotham as she rotated gently, smiling at the life he could still see in her. He heard someone come in behind him, the door of the Rampart apartment opening with deceptive quiet, but there was no mistaking the sound of feet on his carpet. He tilted his head, to watch for their reflection as they entered his room, and smiled when he met Bruce's eyes over his shoulder.
"Commander mine?" Bruce said, softly, asking permission to enter. Clark shook his head with the smallest of smiles, and turned to greet him. And stopped, as he finally saw, close up, the man Bruce had become. When he'd left Bruce before, when Alfred had run him off for treatment, the man had been thin and haunted, dressed in the cloak and some very worn bandages, dirty and tired. Now ... the Lord of Gotham watched him from the doorway, his uniform as black as night, his dress-cloak a sweeping shadow from his shoulders, the only gleam of brightness the rich silver of his braiding and the trim of that velvet sweep, and the quiet shine of eyes that at last looked whole. Clark blinked in awe, shaking his head a little at the sight. He felt rather tawdry, suddenly, his dress whites feeling dusty and ill-kempt.
"My lord," he whispered, surprised to find himself hoarse, wondering at the sudden emotion that seized in his throat.
The Nightlord stepped softly into the room, moving towards Clark with that liquid gait that all his people seemed to have, his face wary and sad as he watched his Commander's eyes. Clark stared back, silent and wondering, until Bruce moved past him to stare blindly out the window. There was silence for a long moment, while Clark struggled to resist the urge to touch the man, hold him until Bruce told him what was wrong. The funeral ... but it was more than that. He could see it.
"J'onn will be here soon," Bruce said, suddenly, his voice quiet and noncommittal. Clark blinked.
"Yes?" he asked, wondering why that was important. He wanted to meet this man, certainly, this alien who knew his origins, who might know Clark's. But there was something more in what Bruce was saying, something J'onn's arrival meant that Clark didn't understand. He waited for Bruce to explain it to him.
"He'll be arriving in the Javelin, or one of them," the Nightlord continued, still not looking at Clark. "She's part of our space fleet, one of sixteen boats we have capable of space flight." Clark nodded, his professional curiosity rearing its head, and he knew his eyes were shining eagerly. But boats, flight ... always his love. "And ..." Bruce started, and paused to swallow. "And planet landings. She'll be heading to Earth for a meeting with the Sea King. Barbara arranged it."
Clark looked at him, feeling his head start to shake, feeling ... he didn't know what he was feeling. Confusion, maybe? Mostly confusion. Shock. Hurt? Maybe that too. But mostly ... confusion. He knew what that meant, knew what choices were suddenly opened to him, choices he had never expected to have again ...
"Then why?" he asked, hearing his voice crack a little. Bruce's shoulders tightened. He knew what Clark meant, but he wasn't going to answer until Clark asked. "Down there ... with Luthor ... why did you want me to leave so badly? Why did you ... Why did you want to send me away?" His hand touched that velvet cloak before he knew he had reached, a plaintive, questioning grip. Why didn't you want me? Why ...
"I had to," Bruce said, suddenly, harshly, turning his head rapidly away so he wouldn't have to see Clark's reflection. In his own, Clark could see that his eyes were tightly closed.
"Why?" he asked again, sadly, simply. He didn't understand this. But Bruce wheeled away, back into the center of the room, his face heavy and hard. He looked hunted, like the man Clark had seen flying through an enemy City. Bruce looked back up at him, and his eyes were hollow.
"I had to," he repeated. "I had to try ... I had to try to let you go. Clark ... look around you, Commander mine. Look where you are. In my City. In my hands. Up here ... I had to give you the choice down there, because up here ... Up here, Commander, no-one could stop me from keeping you." He stopped, looking at Clark, and the longing in his eyes, the conflict ... Clark ached for him. "I could keep you," Bruce finished, softly. "I might never let you go, and you could never escape. Not here. That boat ... she's going back to Earth. And I could keep you."
Clark looked at him for the longest moment, seeing the sadness in him, the pain and desire. Seeing the desperate intimacy of the man. Then, he stepped forward, stepped right up to the Lord of Gotham who stood between him and the door. He looked into Bruce's eyes, his faith shining in his face.
"Then do," he said, very, very quietly. "My Lord, keep me."
And after a second, his expression an agony of longing ... Bruce stepped aside. He bowed his head, his eyes downcast, and opened the path to the door, and the ship that waited beyond. He let Clark go. And Clark, smiling as though his heart were about to break, moved in to wrap his arms around the man and hold him close. His hand came up to stroke absently at Bruce's hair, his heart aching as he felt the man he loved shake against him.
"Such an idiot," he murmured, gently, hearing the echo of Lois in his own voice. "My Lord ... Bruce. Ask me to stay. But ask me to stay, and I will never leave your side." And, hearing some murmur Bruce couldn't hold back, he leaned back a little to look at his face, to see those fierce blue eyes shining at him. "Ask me, and I will be as happy as I have ever been," he finished, soft and sincere, his voice full and heavy with love. His smile turned fierce as he saw it echoed, but Bruce pulled back, pulled away, and moved again to the window. Clark stared after him, trying hard not to be frustrated.
"No," Bruce said, suddenly. "Commander mine, I could not ask you to abandon your City. Gotham and I ... we lost each other, recently. I could not ask that of you." Clark stepped forward, to disagree, to say something, but Bruce was continuing. "However ..." the Nightlord went on, determinedly not looking at Clark. "I thought, hoped, that you might be willing to serve Metropolis in a slightly different capacity, Commander Kent."
"What do you mean?" Clark asked, frowning, reaching out to touch Bruce's shoulder gently and turn him so he could see his face. The Nightlord looked at him with fierce, determined eyes, gleaming with delight and hope, and Clark needed to know what he meant, needed to understand what Bruce wanted so much from him. He would give it, anything he could, but he could not give what he did not understand. "Bruce?"
"Gotham fought for her place out here, did you know that?" the Nightlord answered, quietly, after a long moment. "We had no choice, of course. Fight or perish, and despite our losses, despite our despair, we were not quite ready to die. Not then. Not now. So we fought. We remade our City into something that could sail the stars, something that could stand up to whatever came for her. Gotham has made a place for herself out here, Commander mine, one that we never intended to surrender."
"I know," Clark whispered. He'd seen them. Seen the names, the readiness. He didn't know why this was so important now, but he knew that his Bruce had fought for a long time for his City. Bruce smiled gently at him.
"I know, Clark. I know you do. But there is so much you don't know. Not yet. You didn't know about the Javelins. You didn't know about J'onn. You still don't know that we have been on Earth for many years." He smiled at Clark's stunned look. "Oh, yes. Where do you think most of our people came from? We were decimated, after the Upheaval. We'd lost so many. We had to make it up somehow. So we built the ships, the fleet. And we went back to Earth. Our people have been rotating between the City and Earth, and a couple of other colonies, for nearly a decade, Commander mine." He smiled gently. "Dick was from Earth, you know. And Cassandra. We ... borrowed them. The unwanted. The lost. Those abandoned to the deserts, to the ruins of those Cities that never made it to the skies. Gotham ... she has more of a history with Earth than you, or anyone else, know. And that is going to continue."
"Why?" Clark whispered, confused, sensing ... something. Something in Bruce, some elation, some triumph. "Bruce, what are you doing? What is Gotham ... What is it you want for Earth?"
The Nightlord looked at him, his eyes dark and intense, as fierce and powerful as Clark had ever seen him. "The stars, Commander mine," he said, softly. "For everyone. For humanity. Because we don't have much time, you know. Luthor knew it, I think. Luthor knew that our time on Earth was limited, that he had to find another power, another way to live. He wanted Gotham for that, and he tried to take her. Because Earth is changing. The Cities ... they were not meant to fly. The force of them, pushing their way through the air ... they are changing the world, Commander. Changing the climate, forcing the world into shock. The deserts are spreading, the atmosphere shifting desperately around the intrusions of mankind. Even Arthur's kingdom ... the planet will be a long time recovering from the Upheaval. And humanity might not be able to survive the changes in between."
Clark stared at him, stunned, wondering. He had never thought, never known ... no wonder the Sea King disliked skytrash so. And Bruce ... "What then?" he asked. "What now? What ... what do we do?" The Nightlord smiled, sadly, joyfully.
"We go to the stars, Commander mine. We take ourselves out into the universe, and leave Earth to those who will care for her. Arthur, and those like him. Those who will see her through her rebirth, while we seek our place in the wider universe."
"How?" Clark whispered. So much, so wide ... he had never dreamed of so wide a world as the one that opened in front of him now, never thought to walk so hard and meaningful a road as Bruce asked him to. But at the same time ... he yearned for it, he realised. He always had. That hollow place in his heart, the need Metropolis had never been able to fulfil ... this was it. This was what he had sensed, waiting for him for all those years. And as much as it terrified him, he longed for it.
"Gotham has begun it," Bruce went on, seeing the change in Clark, seeing the elation. He was smiling, almost laughing, the pride Clark remembered from when he had flown for the first time, as fearful and determined then as he was now. "She's taken the first steps, made the beginnings of the path." He smiled a little. "She had very little choice. But we've made contact, out here. Touched civilisations. The Lanterns. The Gods. Others. We've made our place, found acceptance, to a degree. We've had to fight for it. We'll always have to fight for it. But it's there, and now it's time for the rest of Earth to follow us. It's time, Commander, for your people to follow ours."
"Metropolis," Clark realised, his hands beginning to shake. "You mean Metropolis."
"To start with," Bruce nodded. "Metropolis is a City of considerable renown. Luthor, whatever else he may have done, saw to that, and I've no doubt Lord Lois will continue the trend. Metropolis is a symbol for Earth in a way Gotham could never be. We've been gone too long, grown too fearsome for them to trust us. But Metropolis ... It will take time, though. Your City will need time to recover, need time to make herself again what she was before Luthor's madness. And beyond that, she will need time to learn what we have learned, to become as ready for the stars as Gotham. Metropolis has a long road ahead of her, Commander mine. If she chooses to walk it at all. I'll be taking that up with her Lord, of course. But ... in the meantime ... there was the question of your role?"
Clark shook his head, confused, awed, fear and wonder and longing and dread tangling together in his chest. The thought of it ... his City, his Metropolis, a City of the stars ... he could feel the universe unfolding around him, sense a vastness that he had never touched before, a depth of time and challenge that was greater than anything he or his City had ever faced. And maybe it was only his pride ... but he believed it could be done. He believed in Bruce, in Lois, in Gotham and Metropolis and all the desperate brilliance of humanity. It could be done. And he would do anything in his power to help.
"What do I need to do?" he asked, quietly, the depth of his emotion shaking in his voice, his heart pushing so insistently against the walls of his chest that it was a wonder he could speak at all. "What do you need, my Lord?"
Bruce came to him, stood close to him, taking Clark's shaking hands in his own so that he could hold them to his chest, to his heart. He swallowed, shaking his head, the emotion storming through him as powerfully as it did through Clark, the strength of it stunning them both.
"I thought," he started, his voice low and almost drowned. "I wondered if you might be willing to serve your City as an ambassador. Her Ambassador to the Stars. And if you were, if you could do that ... Gotham would be proud to bear you, Commander mine. Anywhere. Everywhere." His voice broke, died, and he could only lean into Clark, only lean against the shaking strength of him. Clark couldn't speak, couldn't say anything, his heart so full it had to burst, had to break, but it didn't ... It wouldn't. Not so long as this man was by his side. Not so long as Bruce was with him.
He could do anything, for that.
"Bruce," he managed, strangled and full. "My Lord ... I will. I do. I ... anything. Anywhere. My Lord ..." And he couldn't continue, couldn't say a thing, his words too deep, too tangled, and all he could do was tip his head forward, hold the man close to him, as close as he could, as near as breathing, meaning so much, holding so much ... He felt the thud as his knees hit the carpet, heard Bruce give a strangled, gasping chuckle, and hugged him tight, hugged him close. His Lord. His Bruce.
The stars wheeled beyond the window, the lights of Gotham dancing as she smiled in at them, as their damaged lady bore them through the turning of the universe, the turning of fate upon a single choice, and Clark held tight to Bruce, and Bruce reached up to kiss him, to give back, the beating of two hearts so strong and fragile and determined. And through all the vastness of the universe, they were no more than two men, and all the weight of the choices they made was no more important than the love that built and bloomed and shattered between them.
They were Gotham and Metropolis.
They were Lord and Commander.
They were Bruce and Clark.
And they loved each other.
Chapter 15: Epilogue
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Arthur stood at the summit of the Atlantis Tower, the wind whistling and snatching at his cloak, the chill in the air utterly ignored by the King of the Seas. He was watching the boat as it descended, watching the sleek lines of the alien craft as she swept down through the skies towards him. Gotham's delegation, the Nightlord returning to Earth for negotiations that would change the world. Again. Arthur watched them come, listening to the thunder of the wild seas against the base of his Tower, and smiled fiercely. It was about time.
The Javelin wheeled to a landing, with that same touch of showmanship that the Sea King recognised from her ill-fated sister, and the landing a bare three days before. So much had changed, in that time, so much of the world rewritten ... but the Nightlord was the same arrogant bastard as ever. The thought made him grin. He was looking forward to this encounter.
They disembarked. A far larger party this time. And a far more gracious one. There was the Nightlord, in full dress uniform, rather than the rakish gear from their last meeting. Bruce strode over to Arthur without hesitation, and offered, with a wry and wicked smile, the bow due between equals. Arthur bent his head in return, baring his teeth as he recognised the difference, as he realised exactly how much the Lord of Gotham had intended to rile Luthor the last time around. He was almost gratified by the efforts the man had gone to in order to limit the insult to Luthor alone, and not to him. For a man so proud as Wayne, that soldier's bow must have cost him.
And then, at his side ... the Metropolite. Commander Kent, whose honour Arthur had tested and not found wanting. He smiled, a genuine, proud smile, and took the man's hand as he came up from his soldier's bow to shake it firmly. This man had earned his respect, and Arthur was not too proud to show it. He noticed, too, how the Nightlord's eyes shone with honest pride as he did so, and smiled secretly. So that was it. He had wondered.
And there, the last two members of the party ...
"Commander Grayson!" he boomed, striding past a bemused Nightlord to approach the grinning youth, holding out his hand to clasp the man's forearm in a brotherly welcome. Grayson laughed exuberantly, bowing low with a rakish smile, his hand firm and strong on Arthur's arm.
"Your majesty," he replied, his eyes twinkling. "May I congratulate you on the quality of your aim and timing? You couldn't have chosen a more opportune moment to end your hunt!"
Arthur grinned. "Son of a shark was asking for it. I warned you Atlantis wouldn't stand to be betrayed."
"A warning I have taken firmly to heart, your majesty," Dick laughed, holding his fist to his chest to demonstrate. "Remind me to be careful not to annoy you, yes?" Arthur chuckled.
"I'll do that," he nodded, and turned to the final member of the party, feeling the Gotham Commander fall easily into step beside him. He looked down, at the young woman in her brass chair, at the serious and intelligent eyes that looked knowingly up at him as he surveyed the injury that had caged her, and found himself bowing in instinctive respect. This was beyond the forms and manners of position. This was a recognition of the strength and pride of a spirit that demanded his respect, and Arthur gave it freely, smiling at her stunned look as she awkwardly made her own bow.
"Lady Gordon," he greeted, gently. "Welcome."
"Thank you, your majesty," she replied, still bemused, and Arthur had to smile. Oh, yes. He could respect the people of Gotham, alright. No doubt about it.
"Your majesty?" a dry, impatient voice sounded at his back, and Arthur turned to raise an eyebrow at the Nightlord. "Have our counterparts arrived, or are we early for once?"
"You are not! You're being fashionably late, as usual!" They turned as a man to the door down into the Tower, and the woman who stood there with her hand on her hip and an expression that was trying very hard to be disapproving, but the relief and joy kept getting in the way. Lord Lois Lane of Metropolis strode confidently forward, the white of her full dress uniform seeming to glow in the sunlight, and stopped just short of the main party, pausing only to bow to the King. Arthur bowed back with a wry chuckle. Another woman he'd been rather forced to respect. It seemed a trifle risky to do otherwise.
"Well?" she asked, pointedly, looking at the Nightlord and the man who stood beside him, his face a picture of awe and stunned happiness. "I see you've returned my Commander, Lord Wayne. After kidnapping him in the first place, mind you."
Bruce shook his head, bowing slightly lower than he needed to. "I rather think he stowed away, Lord Lane. I couldn't be rid of him, you see. He's stubborn that way."
"Yes," she smiled, and looked at the Commander in question. "He is. Well, Clark? Aren't you going to say hello?" The man shook his head in confusion, and started to bow as if to his Lord, but her loud harumph stopped him in his tracks. "Oh no you don't!" she exclaimed. "Don't you dare, flyboy! That might be cute with him, but not with me!" And while he stared at her, she held out both arms towards him, her smile suddenly breaking free to shine clear and powerful and relieved on her face. Clark stared at her for a bare second, before straightening and running forward to scoop her up into the air. The Lord of Metropolis laughed breathlessly as he swung her, wrapping her arms around her friend's neck and hugging him tight in relief and joy.
"Lois!" he laughed, holding her almost tight enough to crush her. "My Lord Lois Lane!" He laughed again, so proud and fierce and delighted. "Woman, do you have any idea how incredible you are?"
"Certainly," she sniffed, but she was so happy, so pleased it couldn't be hidden. Though she tried. "And don't you forget it!"
"Never," he swore, hugging her once more before placing her back on her feet, biting his lip as he straightened her rumpled coat. "Never." And as he put her down, as he released her, her eyes went beyond him, to meet the eyes of another proud and beautiful woman, and as deep as the love already shone in her, now it deepened. Seeing it, understanding, the joy as plain in his own features, Clark stepped back beside Bruce, stepped back into the embrace of his lover, and watched as Lois approached Barbara.
"Lord Lane," the Spider smiled, holding up a hand in greeting. Lois took it with a strange smile, holding it lightly as she saw the truth of her friend's condition, as she saw what a Glass had never revealed. Barbara watched her warily, sadly, and blinked as the woman in white knelt smoothly before her, as Lois took that clever hand and kissed it.
"You look beautiful," the Lord of Metropolis whispered. "Regal. I had no idea." Barbara shook her head, smiling, crying, and tipped her head to the side as her shining eyes met those of the other woman.
"You don't look so bad yourself," she whispered, and fell silent, the pair doing nothing only watch each other, while Bruce and Clark, Dick and Arthur all smiled at them. The moment stretched happily into a small eternity, and they were perfectly content to let it. But they had business yet to do, and it wasn't long before they remembered it.
"Shall we?" Lois asked, abruptly, standing again and holding out her hand to Barbara so she could weave her fingers through hers. They looked at the others, at the Nightlord and his future Ambassador, at the Sea King and his Commander, and shook their heads with twin smiles.
"Let's get this show on the road, gentlemen," Lois said, confidence and power in every inch of her. "We've got the fate of a world to decide, after all!"
Oh, yes. The fate of a world to decide, and all the future to live before them. Arthur smiled deeply as he followed them, hearing the sea singing around him, sensing the future unfolding ahead of them.
It was enough to bring even him hope.
Woof! Sorry for the posting in a big splurge. *smiles sheepishly*