An interstellar pirate fleet that wielded magic was more or less Batman's definition of a worst-case scenario.
He moved soundlessly through the twisted black-and-scarlet corridors of a spaceship that stank of magic so thick even he could smell it: a rank, prickling miasma that no filters could block. Batman slipped into the shadows and waited for two guards--humanoid, hairless, with flat pewter skin--to pass. Then he kept making his way toward where he suspected the prisoners would be kept.
The Justice League had found itself teleported en masse from the Watchtower onto the bridge of one of the ships. The ensuring fight had been pitched but brief, as the alien stun guns had taken down most of the League immediately. Superman and Wonder Woman had held out the longest, but had eventually crumpled as well.
Batman had taken advantage of the showy and doomed last stand to evade capture and slip into the ductwork of the ship. It would do no good to fall with the rest of them, he told himself as he spent the next few days painstakingly mapping the ship and analyzing its weaknesses. What was necessary at this juncture was stealth and information-gathering, not flashy heroics.
When he dozed, tense and on-guard, in the maze of tubes at the heart of the ship, he sometimes heard a voice accusing him of having run away and abandoning his teammates. It was his own voice, which surprised him somewhat: he would have expected Kal's.
It's not like I'm invulnerable, he retorted silently to the voice, and continued to collect information.
: : :
The prisoners had been kept unconscious in stasis cells. The pirates' eventual goal for their spoils was clear; Batman couldn't understand their spoken language well, but Darkseid and Apokolips translated rather easily. Fortunately their controls were in Interlac, or something close to it, so Batman knew where the smaller spacecraft kept for raiding were. It was just a matter of freeing the prisoners here and getting to them.
His skin itched as he made his way toward the prison block. Magic powered the ship and its weapons, magic was as heavy in the air as spring pollen, and it made him want to sneeze in rather the same way.
The aliens guarding the stasis cells fell rather easily--magic weapons could do little if the wielders never got to use them. Batman carefully opened the stasis chambers one by one, releasing each member of the League, still weak and shaking. Martian Manhunter, Hawkgirl, Green Lantern, Flash, Wonder Woman, and the final chamber...
Batman stared at it blankly for a moment. Then he whirled and snatched up one of the guards. "Where is Superman?" he snarled in Interlac as he shook the man until his head lolled. The man groaned and struggled feebly against Batman's grip. "Where is he?"
The guard stammered something in bad Interlac about "the bridge" and "experiments."
Batman pushed him against the wall. "Take the knowledge of how to fly one of the smaller spacecraft from his mind, and how to get to them," he said to J'onn. "Do it," he growled as J'onn hesitated; the Martian grimaced and touched the guard's forehead. "If Superman and I aren't there in five minutes, leave without us," he said as J'onn pulled his hand away. Green Lantern started to speak, but Batman cut him off. "You're in no condition to fight. You've got to get out of here."
J'onn nodded wordlessly and concentrated; his form shimmered into that of the terrified guard. "I shall be escorting our prisoners," he said with a small smile.
Diana laid a hand on Batman's forearm. He set his jaw, expecting arguments; she merely squeezed slightly. "Good luck," she said, then turned to follow J'onn.
The corridors were twisted as if warped by magic; Batman moved toward the bridge steadily, ignoring the nauseating stench of wizardry.
He heard the chanting well before he slipped into the room.
Superman was fastened to the floor of the bridge with chains that glimmered with an oily sheen. Beneath his prone form, the floor was graven with esoteric symbols, a fantastic mandala of shimmering light. On the near side of the magical circle stood a humanoid in red robes, holding a thorny black staff with a red gem pulsing at the tip. He was reciting something in a guttural language; at each beat red flame surged into the boundaries of the circle, making its way toward Kal-El like a crimson serpent. Soon the two curving fingers of red light would meet at Superman's body, completing the circle.
Batman cursed at his inability to take better stock of the situation, but there was no doubt this ritual needed to be interrupted. He leapt forward, ignoring the startled shouts of guards just alerted to his presence, and wrenched the staff from the sorcerer's hands just as the circle closed, touching Superman's body.
Superman had hauled himself to his knees at the sound of gunfire; he didn't seem to be in pain as scarlet energy crackled between him and the staff in Bruce's hands. In fact, there was a small smile on his face beneath the lurid red light.
Batman whirled and knocked the sorcerer unconscious with his own staff, and the red flames went out immediately. Intuitively, Batman jumped forward to level it at the chains binding Superman. They shattered like ice, and the recoil knocked the staff from Bruce's hands, but that didn't matter because Superman was standing up, unhurt. And then they were dodging gunfire and guards and heading toward the escape pod with time to spare.
: : :
Batman's computer beeped, pulling him from visions of Clark's tranquil face licked by red flame; he grimaced and opened a channel. "What is it?"
"You said you wanted a full status report when complete," J'onn's level voice intoned. "The five of us that were in stasis are fully recovered from the effect of the chambers. However, Kal-El..."
There was a grunt of annoyance and pain from behind J'onn; the Martian stepped aside to reveal Superman snatching a rubber hammer from the Flash. "Stop whacking me with that," he snarled.
Flash shrugged. "It's so rare anyone can get a reaction from you--" he fell silent as Batman interrupted.
"What's the problem?"
Superman crossed his arms across his chest and glowered. "I seem to be...not invulnerable," he said grudgingly. "I can be injured as if I were human now."
Batman's frown matched the Man of Steel's. "Your other powers?"
Superman clenched a fist in front of him, glaring at it. "I still have super-strength, but now my bones can be shattered if I hit something. I can still fly, but the friction of motion will hurt me at high speeds. We decided it was better not to test what heat vision would do to my eyes now."
Bruce frowned more deeply to hide his shudder. "Any leads on what's left you vulnerable?"
"Not invulnerable," Superman corrected him, as if that were an important difference. "It seems the alien sorcerer managed to complete that ritual after all. Jason Blood says that if this is like most magical rituals--and he isn't sure it is--the staff is the key. If we had that and could destroy it, it would break the stricture."
Batman winced mentally at the memory of the twisted black staff bouncing away from him across the floor. If he had held on to it, if he had retrieved it...he was silent, chewing on chagrin, until J'onn spoke again. "Batman, we must retrieve the staff."
"Yes," said Batman, "That seems obvious."
"Hawkgirl, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and I shall attempt to do so if you and Flash are willing to stay here and respond to any crises."
The speedster's head popped into the screen. "We're up to it, right, Bats?"
Batman grunted, torn between an irrational desire to be part of the team that would restore Superman and a realistic assessment than on deep-space missions the metas were often a better choice.
J'onn stepped back into the screen. "Before we go, Batman, I believe you should come here for an examination yourself. After all, you--"
"No time," Bruce said brusquely. "You need to get that staff back." A window flashed urgently on his monitor. "And I need to deal with Killer Croc robbing a bank." He looked at J'onn. "Get that staff back. And good luck." The last thing he saw as he closed the window was Clark's frustrated grimace.
Well, he thought as he raced to confront Croc. Let the Kryptonian know how it feels to be vulnerable for a change. It might even do him good.
: : :
"You're back sooner than anticipated, sir. I take it your opponent offered no meaningful challenge to you?" Alfred poured a cup of coffee for Bruce, who took a long sip.
"Croc went down surprisingly easily," Bruce admitted, frowning over his mug. "Especially considering he's mutated even further away from human. He landed some blows on me but there didn't seem to be any real power behind them; I hardly even felt them." Was it possible that Croc's seeming ferocity had been mostly a show, that despite the razor-sharp claws there wasn't much strength in those scaly arms? He unfastened his cape and draped it across a chair; Alfred tsked absently and went to hang it up.
Hanging upside-down by his knees from a training trapeze, Dick called out. "Bruce? There's a rip in the back of your suit."
"What?" Bruce reached to touch his back and found a jagged rent in the gray cloth, the edges sliced as if by claws. "That's odd."
Dick flipped off the trapeze to stand behind Bruce. ""Wow, that's a nasty tear." He reached out and touched Bruce's back, the skin exposed by the ripped cloth. "But you don't even have a mark on you."
"That doesn't seem likely," Bruce frowned. And yet...it did seem strange that in the hailstorm of blows and bites Croc had delivered, he would emerge entirely uninjured. He walked to a workbench and picked up a scalpel, drew it cautiously across the back of his hand, hard enough to just score the skin. The skin remained unmarked; he could feel the slide of metal across the skin and yet there was no effect. He drew the blade slightly harder, and then hard enough that it should have broken the skin, with the same results: he could feel the touch, and yet no harm seemed to come to him.
"Weird," breathed Dick, standing next to him. "What's going on?"
Bruce rolled up his sleeve and jabbed at his forearm with the scalpel; once, twice, three times, each time with more force. The blade should have pierced almost through his arm, and yet it merely stopped dead on his skin. On the fourth strike the stressed metal crumpled, and Bruce stared at the ruined blade, startled.
Dick whistled in astonishment. "You're invulnerable."
"It seems so." Bruce was still examining the bent scalpel as if looking for tricks.
"It hardly seems a coincidence, sir," said Alfred, "That you become invulnerable just as Superman loses that very ability."
Bruce frowned and said nothing, but went to the computer and opened a channel to the Watchtower. "Bats!" said Flash's cheerful voice. The monitors were a flickering jumble of images as the speedster watched different feeds. "Just back from an earthquake site. How's your end?"
"Is Superman there?"
"Nope, he was gone when I got back. Left a message saying he was teleporting to the Fortress. Whoops, gotta run--" a scarlet flash, and the screen was empty again.
Bruce switched the channel to the Fortress. "Clark?"
The screen stayed black, but Clark's voice came through. "Yeah, Bruce?"
Bruce frowned. "We don't have visual."
Clark's voice was curt. "Give me a second."
There was a rather long pause, and then Clark's face appeared on the screen, the camera close and tight enough that the livid bruise on his cheekbone seemed to leap out at Bruce. "What the hell," he growled as Dick whistled in appreciation. "What happened to you?" He felt somewhat ill, looking at the broken capillaries and mottled bruised skin. It wasn't right.
"I felt like taking a shower," Clark said, and Bruce noticed his hair was dripping wet. That would explain why the camera stopped at Clark's chin as well. Usually the image of Clark sitting around the Fortress in a towel would be amusingly incongruous, but right now Bruce was in no mood for irony.
"I don't mean what were you doing," Bruce growled. "What happened to your damn face?"
Clark looked annoyed. The man really didn't take being helpless well. "Would you believe I walked into an open medicine cabinet at the Watchtower?" He winced. "This whole non-invulnerability thing is going to take some getting used to."
Bruce fought the urge to avert his gaze from the battered face. "There's a new wrinkle to this...situation. I just finished up a fight with Killer Croc and took no damage at all."
A flicker of humor. "Did you call me just to brag of your martial prowess, Bruce?"
Bruce bit back a growl. Clark could get flippant at the strangest times. "I should have gotten hurt. I just tried to put a scalpel through my arm and failed utterly. I seem to have gotten your invulnerability."
"You...put a scalpel through your arm?"
"Well, I tried to. Just managed to blunt the scalpel. Here, I can show you again--"
"That's fine," said Clark hastily, grimacing. "I don't need to see it." There was a long silence. Bruce expected Clark to sound annoyed when he continued; after all, Bruce had taken something valuable of his, even if he hadn't meant to. But when Clark spoke again, he merely sounded...tired. "Well. Looks like you'll have to be the hero for both of us while the League is trying to get that staff back, then."
Bruce flexed his uninjured arm. "I'm not exactly comfortable with this, Clark. I can't become dependent on some kind of super-power; I can't afford that kind of crutch. What if it gives out in mid-fight? I--"
Clark cut him off, "--Look, Bruce. I understand your reluctance to...be dependent. But with so many of us off in space--trying to help me--and with myself out of commission, you're just going to have to swallow your pride and deal with it." He paused and the blue eyes above the wounded cheekbone softened for a moment. "If it's any consolation, I'm...glad my invulnerability is keeping you safe."
A flashing light on the screen. "Damn. Clark, it looks like the Penguin is up to something. I have to go." He shot Clark a glare. "You. Be more careful."
Later he would remember the wry laughter running under Clark's voice and curse the man. "I'm just sitting up here resting. I think you're the one that needs to be careful."
: : :
"What are you doing, Bruce?" Dick peered over his shoulder at the computer screen. The mop-up of the Penguin had gone particularly well; Bruce had been unable to resist enjoying the startled look on Cobblepot's face when he had landed a hard blow to the shoulder with one of his sword-umbrellas, to no effect at all. He wouldn't want to get used to being invulnerable; it made you sloppy.
But it apparently could be fun sometimes as well.
"I'm trying to translate the ritual the sorcerer was doing, the one that transferred Superman's invulnerability to me." He had finally located a dictionary for the alien race that had kidnapped them and was translating what he could remember of the snatches of chant he had overheard. "It's possible there's some clue as to how to counteract the spell there." He rubbed his forehead. "It's a nightmare of a language though. The grammar is incredibly convoluted."
"This from the one human to master Kryptonian," Dick said with a smile.
"Yes, well. That took me months," Bruce said, keeping a perfect poker face. Dick whacked him on the shoulder and went through an elaborate pantomime of hurting his hand.
Three hours later, Dick was studying chemistry when Bruce stood up so abruptly it made him jerk in surprise. "No," snarled Bruce. "You son of a bitch. No." He whirled away from the computer screen. "I'm taking the jet to the Fortress," he barked at the startled Robin. Dick opened his mouth to ask why--and the computer alert started flashing again: a minor break-in at a mansion on the edge of town.
Batman stared at the monitor, breathing heavily. "Hey, Bruce," Dick said. "I can handle it, Nothing major."
Bruce flashed him a look of such relief that Dick was taken aback. "Thank you," he said, tugging up the cowl.
He broke into a run as he headed toward the hanger.
As Robin buckled on his utility belt, he looked at the computer screen, wondering what had prompted Bruce's sudden outburst.
The thorny letters of the alien chant writhed on the screen. Beneath them was the English translation Bruce had put together. There were gaps between some of the words, but Dick could read:
The circle between us...souls linked/encircled [?]...your strength mine, my weakness yours to...[?] ...
As long as the circle is unbroken, you shall bear my pain and take my wounds upon your body.
: : :
Bruce's boots rang on the Fortress floor. "Clark?" Silence. He yanked off the cowl as if somehow it would make his voice carry farther. "Clark?"
A dim blue-green light leaked from one of the Fortress rooms. Inside--
Bruce stopped dead in the doorway. Inside was an alien network of tubes and pods, pulsing a calm, peaceful aquamarine. In the center of the room was a clear, almost organic-looking capsule, and at the center of it floated Kal, naked, his eyes closed. His mouth was covered with a breathing apparatus, and a rosy light glowed over his heart where wires and electrodes met.
By the eerie blue-green light Bruce could easily see the four gashes in Kal's forearm, deep cuts that could have been inflicted by a knife.
Or by a scalpel, cutting into flesh. Stabbing--
Something like a howl hammered at the back of Bruce's throat as he approached the capsule. Clark's pale body was marked with scratches and contusions, the usual small damages Batman received every night marring the alien skin. Bruce could see the deep stab wound in the shoulder, in the place where Penguin's umbrella had crumpled against Batman.
Bruce's knees felt oddly weak and he sagged against the capsule, his forehead against the cool, slick material. "You bastard," he snarled. Or tried to snarl. It sounded more like a sob. "You don't have the right to take my pain. You don't have the right!"
Inches from his, the unbreakable glass between them, Clark's eyes opened. They were full of worry--not for himself, but for Bruce, and Bruce felt an unendurable anguish that transmuted into anger before he could fully recognize it. "Damn it," he growled again, bringing a fist up against the shining glass. "You damn fool martyr. You could have told me!"
"Would you have stopped the Penguin if you had known?" Clark said, his voice transmitted from behind the respirator. "Would you have gone out there to stop him?"
"Of course I would have," Bruce gritted, the lie like sandpaper in his mouth.
Behind the respirator, Clark's mouth curved in a smile. "That's your problem, Bruce. You care too much about your friends."
Bruce looked away from that smile, the warmth in those blue eyes. "Idiot," he growled. He stood and paced around the capsule, glaring at Clark's wounds. They were stabilized and healing, the Fortress somehow keeping Clark safe. He stopped at the far side of the capsule, frowning at Clark's back. The slash gotten from Croc earlier had healed into a thin, silvery scar. "How long will it take for the scars to go away?"
A slight hesitation. "They won't. The Fortress can stabilize major wounds and speed healing, but the scars will remain."
Bruce crossed his arms and glared at the small, shining scar as if it were a rip in the space-time continuum. It was wrong to have Kal's perfect skin marked. The normal laws of the universe didn't apply if Superman had scars. He found the sight...deeply unsettling.
He couldn't stand still. He paced angrily around the room as if he were patrolling against evils in the Fortress. "Go home, Bruce," said Clark.
"Like hell," snarled Bruce. "I'm not leaving your goddamn masochistic side until they get back with that staff."
Clark closed his eyes again, leaving Bruce free to watch him unobserved as he floated. The patterns of light playing across his skin, the gentle curve of the arch of his feet, the dark drift of his hair--vulnerable. So vulnerable.
Bruce's restlessness increased, but no matter where he paced or quick his strides were, he couldn't seem to get away from the revelation that was dogging his footsteps, waiting for him to pause long enough to seize him.
: : :
Bruce was sitting with his back against the healing pod, arms crossed, half-dozing, when the Fortress computer's voice filled the air. it said in mellow Kryptonian, and Bruce snapped fully awake. "That'll be Robin checking in," he said.
"On screen," said Clark's drowsy voice.
Alfred's face snapped onto a monitor in a corner of the room. He looked superficially unruffled, but Bruce knew him well enough to jump to his feet. "What is it?"
"It's Robin, sir. The robbery was apparently a trap. We have a message here..." Alfred leaned over and his face was replaced by a grainy video: Joker's visage grinned out of the screen. He was wearing a small party hat.
"What better way to celebrate an Arkham breakout than by throwing a party? And look, we've even got a pinata!" The camera pulled back to reveal Robin dangling upside-down, swaying slightly. Killer Croc stood next to him, the party hat on his deformed, long-jawed head particularly grotesque. He was holding a baseball bat. Dick made muffled noises of outrage as Croc prodded him slightly with the bat, and the Joker continued, "I've invited all my dearest and oldest friends--Two-Face, Mr. Freeze, The Ventriloquist, Scarecrow--and we're going to take turns seeing just who can break him open. Party starts in an hour at the Civic Center, Bats, don't be late!"
Batman was already opening a channel to the Watchtower. No one answered. "Flash. When you get back, go to the Gotham Civic Center. Robin is being held hostage by most of the Arkham crowd." He didn't know how long it would take Flash to finish the latest emergency, if he'd even have time between emergencies to help.
He knew, even before he turned to meet Clark's gaze, what he would find there. Acceptance. Encouragement.
God help him, trust.
"It has to be you, Bruce," whispered Clark through the pale blue light that filled Bruce's eyes as if with water. "You have to save him. Neither of us would ever forgive ourselves." It was the voice of the Man of Steel, no matter how vulnerable Clark was.
"I'll go get extra armor. I'll--"
Clark's hair wavered as he shook his head. "No time. And it would make it more dangerous. With armor you wouldn't feel the blows at all. I could be beaten to death without you even noticing." He ignored Bruce's wince. "The Fortress will heal most of the damage. Dodge as much as you can. Hurry."
Bruce put one hand on the shining curve of glass separating him from Clark. "I'll be back as soon as I can." He whirled and left the room, Clark's voice drifting behind him:
"I'll wait for you."
: : :
They were lying in wait for him through the streets of Gotham, and he fought the ones he couldn't elude, dispatching them as quickly as possible, fear for both Clark and Dick burning through him. He twisted and dodged with an agility born of desperation, making his way toward the Civic Center, feeling each impact, each tear, as if it were across his own heart.
He kept a channel open to the Fortress. Clark's breathing was a blue-green thread of sound in his ear. "Kal," he whispered.
"I'm fine." The warmth in Clark's voice couldn't entirely cover the underlying strain. Bruce could hear the edges fraying, blurring into pain. "Don't worry about me."
Was there a point the Fortress couldn't keep up, when the damage might be too much? Would Bruce return to find Kal's body cooling in the crystalline light, gone forever?
When Harley Quinn leapt on him from behind, her arms throttling him, the attack was almost a welcome distraction from the visions in his mind. Clark's breathing went hoarse and labored and Batman slammed Harley back against a wall until she fell away, gasping. "I'm...all right," Clark said before Bruce could ask. Clark should keep quiet and not waste his energy reassuring him, Bruce knew. But he also knew he needed those reassurances, needed to know Clark was still there, still alive, that it wasn't too late.
On to the next enemy. Dodge. Evade. Don't let them touch you. Don't let anyone near you.
Batarangs and tear gas pellets took case of most of the crowd, but the Joker surprised Batman as he swung down into the Civic Center. Bruce felt the knife rip through the cloth of his inner thigh, twisting against impermeable skin. Not the femoral artery, not that, no. He lashed out with his other leg, fury and something close to panic adding strength to the blow, and the Joker dropped with a thump.
Batman sliced the rope Robin was hanging from with a well-placed batarang, and Robin landed on his feet like a cat, yellow cape fluttering.
"How much damage do you think you took?" Robin asked as Bruce ripped off his gag, his worried tone evidence enough that he knew the price being paid for his rescue.
Batman said nothing as he cut the ropes on Dick's hands, listening. Listening.
Sirens closing in couldn't drown out the silence in Batman's ears. "The police and I will do mop-up," Robin said. "Get back to the Fortress." Ribbons of blood in cool blue-green, turquoise eyes drifting closed, trust betrayed--"Batman," Robin said urgently, shaking him slightly and dissipating the visions. "Get back and check on him."
"Yes," said Batman. "Yes."
Stumbling, all agility gone in the shock of adrenaline and despair, Batman fled back toward the jet and whatever awaited him in the Arctic.
: : :
By the time he reached the Fortress again, the revelation that had been stalking him had long since caught and devoured him. The Arctic air was as cool as a crypt, and the silence caused Bruce's heart to tighten in his chest. "Clark," he whispered as he ran toward the room with the healing capsule.
Clark was there, floating in aquamarine still slightly tainted with scarlet from wounds that were now closed and healing. The scrolling Kryptonian monitors indicated he'd gone into shock and been put into hibernation mode, all life-signs slowed to almost nothing while he healed. Bruce stopped to take a deep breath, trying to diffuse the pain that clutched at him. If he couldn't be hurt, why did he feel so vulnerable?
As his shadow fell across Clark's face, the bright eyes opened, dulled with pain and weariness.
"Dick..." Clark murmured.
"He's safe. He's fine." Bruce's hands scrabbled aimlessly across the clear, smooth surface between them. "Clark. Are you?-- Can you?-- Because I need to--" He broke off again, the howl at the back of his throat threatening to break free. "--Need to be sure you're okay." Clark looked puzzled. "Need to touch you," Bruce said desperately, "To be sure."
Clark still looked puzzled, but he reached out to thumb a button and the liquid started to drain away. The capsule opened and Bruce reached in to wrap his cape around the wet Kryptonian and lift him out. Then his knees gave way and he sank to the floor, shaking, his arms around Clark. "I thought you'd die," he whispered. His voice hardly sounded like his own. "I'd come back and find you gone and it would be my fault, all mine, and I'd have to live the rest of my life knowing I'd never told you, never told you, never realized." He put his lips to the four clean scars in Clark's forearm, hardly aware what he was doing, hearing Clark's sharp intake of breath as if from far away. "The idea that a bond between us would bring you only pain, I can't--can't--"
"Sh." Clark's hand covered his mouth with warmth. "You don't need to--"
"I do." He was rocking slightly, holding the dark cape around Clark like a shroud. "I do. I don't want to bring you pain. This circle between us, this link, we'll break it somehow, and you won't suffer because of me again."
"You can't break the circle between us, Bruce." Clark's smile was dazzling. "Not the one that matters. Not the one that makes me feel like this."
He drew Bruce's lips to his and the suffering was eclipsed by joy.
: : :
Clark's face was drawn in sympathy as Bruce pressed the blood-red ruby to his forearm. Beneath its baleful reflection, a scar appeared on Bruce's arm to match the one that had just been erased from Clark's. "I'm sorry. Does it hurt much? I don't know why you feel you have to--"
"--They're my scars," Bruce said brusquely. "I won't have you bearing my mistakes. And no, it doesn't hurt as much as the original wounds, I'm sure." It hurt a little, but it was a good hurt. A clean hurt. Taking back what was his. "Besides," he said, "Now that I know how sexy scars are on one's lover, I have to make sure you don't keep any. Wouldn't want a battle-scarred Superman driving everyone wild with desire."
Clark's eyes darkened with pleasure, and Bruce knew he was remembering the hours they had spent, Bruce's hands and lips and tongue tracing his marked body, kissing the scars like he could sear devotion into them forever. The return of the JLA with the ruby-tipped staff and some hasty consultation with Jason Blood had necessitated a pause, but now they were curled up on a bed in the Fortress together, bare skin on bare skin, as Bruce eased the marks from Clark's body and took them on his own.
He kissed another silver stripe on Clark's arm, then caressed it with the ruby, reveling in the way the skin smoothed and brightened back into perfection. His hands, bringing healing and balm.
"I was happy for the chance," Clark said, his voice very low.
"Chance?" Bruce applied the ruby to his own arm, tracing the path the scar would take.
"To keep you safe. I know usually I can't. I liked...being able to stand between you and harm, just this once. For a little while."
Not trusting his voice, Bruce bent to kiss the final scar, the one carved by the Joker into Clark's inner thigh. The twisting knife had left a deep, silvery circle on the skin. "Last one," he said.
Clark's hand stopped the ruby's descent. "Bruce. I'd...like to keep this one. Please. Just this one." His eyes were beseeching. "A...souvenir, of sorts." A glint of humor sparked in his eyes. "No one but you will ever see it. Your mark on me."
Bruce closed his eyes against the wave of emotion that swept through him. "Is it that important to you?"
"Very well." Bruce handed Clark the ruby, closed his fingers over it. "Crush it and let this circle be broken."
Clark's fingers tightened and glittering ruby dust sifted between them and was gone.
Bruce traced his fingers around the silver scar, remembering silence and panic. Clark moaned and arched into the touch. It was true, Bruce thought as they started the cycle of desire and passion anew.
The circle that mattered could never be broken.