The safe rested on a pedestal in front of them, seemingly innocuous. Clark reached out and put his hands on its sides, feeling the runes carved deeply on its surface--not quite rock, not quite metal, with a faintly oily sheen to it that made his fingers itch.
“I’m not sure I like this,” Batman muttered at his side.
“What’s not to like?” Clark kept his voice light. “It’s just a quick jaunt into a pocket dimension where Euclidean geometry and the laws of physics don’t apply, in order to find a man in the ‘ideaspace’ who’s fused with a nanotech core of genetic material. Talk to him, get his permission to move him to a safer location, pop back out again, we’re finished.”
“I’ve changed my mind,” Batman said dourly. “I’m sure I don’t like this.”
“The Durlans know the genetic material is being held here. Director Faraday has asked us to make sure it’s more secure. You know it’s got to be done.”
“Then let’s get it over with,” Batman said.
Superman opened the safe.
Purple-black wisps of energy came curling from the box like smoke. Clark felt them wrap around his hands and fought a sudden instinctive urge to fight them before the world spun around and they were… elsewhere.
He was floating in a vast space that shaded from lilac to violet, hung with what looked like infinite mirrors slowly turning, each with a different image. He caught a glimpse of Clark Kent in glasses, young Clark running through corn fields, a stern-faced Kal-El in Kryptonian finery. Others were of a man whose laughter didn’t touch his eyes, holding a champagne flute; a grim shadow perched on a tower; a scarred body alone in satin sheets; a small boy on his knees in the dark--
“Unnerving.” Clark turned to see Batman hovering in the infinite space next to him, his cloak curling around him like a living thing.
“I guess it’s a good thing it’s just the two of us,” Clark said wryly.
Batman drifted closer to one of the mirrors and reached out a glove; the image fell into glistening powder that sifted downwards into the void, sparkling. “Faraday mentioned that a person of strong will could shape this world to some extent.” He frowned, and every mirror froze in place, going blank and silver. “Hm.”
“Any idea how we’re going to find Higgins?”
“Faraday said he’d be in his ‘ideaspace.’ Too bad he couldn’t give us a little more than that to go on.”
Clark tried to fly forward and found he couldn’t. Flying obviously didn’t work the same way here. He concentrated, and started to slide forward through the air, still in a standing position. He tried to tilt into the more familiar flying stance and almost overbalanced; the air suddenly seemed to give up on him and he felt himself starting to tumble.
He came up short as Batman grabbed his cape and hauled him back up. “I think it’s easier for me because I’m not used to flying,” Bruce said blandly.
“Thank you for not implying my will is less strong than yours,” Clark said.
“Never,” said Bruce, but he didn’t let go of Superman’s cape. He frowned again, and the mirrors all around them shifted into a swarm of silver bats and began to sail off together. “Interesting. That wasn’t quite what I had in mind,” he said.
“It’s as good a direction as any,” Clark said. “Let’s follow them.”
“Can you keep up?”
Clark gritted his teeth. “Of course,” he said, struggling to exert the will to move. He inched forward, still wobbling.
“Think of it like being on a moving sidewalk,” Bruce said. “Just stand and move.”
Clark tried again and managed a halting forward motion, interrupted by jerking stops that reminded him of when he’d accidentally pop the clutch of his father’s truck.
“Let’s try this,” Bruce said, and transferred his hold from Superman’s cape to take his hand. The leather was warm, his grip steady; the world stabilized immediately and Clark began to move forward at a decent clip.
They sailed through the air together as though standing on some kind of invisible magic carpet, following the flock of silver bats into the violet void.
“I should bring a date here sometime,” Bruce said after a silence broken by occasional random piano chords in the distance. “If I can shape it to my will, it could be rather romantic.”
Clark snorted. In the distance, clouds were assembling on the horizon like a Victorian painting, piles of rose-gold and ivory. “The secret-identity-revealing mirrors might be a challenge.”
“I would never invite someone on a date who didn’t already know my secret identity,” Bruce said. “A real date, I mean. The ones Brucie does for show don’t count.”
His voice was steady, but had his hand tightened very slightly on Clark’s fingers? “And when was the last time you went on a real date?” Clark asked.
A long, thoughtful pause. “A while,” Bruce said eventually.
Clark shook his head affectionately. “And how exactly would your ‘real date’ know this was a ‘real date’?” Clark asked. “It’s very hard to tell with you, you know.”
“So I have been reliably informed,” Bruce said, his voice dry. Ahead of them, the swarm of silver bats was sinking downward to what was slowly resolving into a barren rocky plain dotted with outcroppings of stone, those luscious clouds still far off in the distance. “Well.”
Superman and Batman drifted down after them, and the bats folded themselves up like silver origami as they landed, becoming a field of mirrored roses. Two pairs of boots touched the stony ground with a distinctly odd chiming noise, and Bruce reached down and picked up one of the silvery roses.
“I guess I’d say something like ‘I’d like to show you a silver rose,’” Batman said. He looked down into the heart of the flower, and each petal held a different image of him. “That would be the tipoff.”
“And how exactly would your lucky date know what that meant?” Clark laughed.
Bruce looked up from the flower and met his eyes. “They’d know what I meant,” he said.
They looked at each other for a moment, and then Clark saw Bruce’s eyes focus on something behind him, his mouth going from wry to scowling in a moment just as Clark heard a clatter of hooves on the ground.
He spun to see two horses cantering up, tossing their manes. One was a white horse with red and royal blue regalia, the other a black horse decorated with yellow and midnight blue. They stopped in perfect unison, looking at Superman and Batman.
“I suspect Doctor Higgins is expecting us,” Bruce said.
The horses bobbed their heads in sync.
There was a sudden snarling noise, and a dozen creatures that looked like a cross between a wolf and a praying mantis appeared from behind a rock outcropping. Batman fell into a defensive crouch. “Can you fly?” he asked Superman as calmly as if discussing new chairs for the Watchtower meeting rooms.
“No,” Superman admitted. “No heat vision, either.”
Batman lifted his hand and with a flourish somehow a crossbow materialized in it. “I suggest you conjure up some weapon and saddle up, then,” he said, and grabbed the mane of the black horse, pulling himself into the saddle.
Clark scrambled onto the back of the white horse, which took off at a gallop. The mantis-wolves, however, were most definitely gaining on them. Clark heard a twang, and one of the pursuing creatures howled and fell back with an arrow in its flank. Weapon, weapon, Clark thought frantically, and held up his hand.
“Did you just conjure up a phaser?” Batman yelled a moment later as orange energy sizzled by him, knocking over a mantis-wolf.
“I happened to be a big fan of Star Trek, okay?” Clark aimed again, but his shot went wide this time.
“I suppose I should just be glad you didn’t end up with a lightsaber,” Batman said, taking out the creature Clark had just missed.
Clark fired again, hitting another monster, and was just about to say something pithy, witty, and suitable for an action hero when his steed shrieked and barely dodged an attack, driving his perfect retort from his head entirely. He gritted his teeth and focused on his aim as the horse charged across the rocky plain. His shots hit fewer than Bruce’s, but he still made a decent showing for himself, and the last mantis-wolf fell hit by an arrow and a phaser blast simultaneously.
Clark’s horse came to a stop and Clark turned to look ahead--and found himself staring at a house perched on the edge of an abyss, its corners and eaves doing odd Escheresque things that made his eyes itch. Sometime during their wild ride, the fluffy pre-Raphaelite clouds had given way to dark swirling masses, purple and green as bruises against the sky. Thunder rumbled ominously.
“I take it that’s where Doctor Higgins is?” Clark said; his horse nodded its head emphatically. “Right.”
They swung themselves off their horses, which immediately folded themselves up and disappeared without a trace. Thunder rolled in the distance. “Are you sure this would be a good spot for a first date?” Clark said, staring up the slope at the looming mansion.
Batman snorted. “It’s no scarier than your average party in Gotham,” he said. “And easier to control.” He stepped forward onto the pavement winding upward; beneath his feet it turned to yellow bricks. He looked down at it, shaking his head. “If I only had a heart,” he said.
On a whim, Clark looped his arm through Bruce’s. Bruce looked at him but didn’t shake him off. “Off to see the wizard, I guess,” said Clark.
“If you try to make me skip,” said Bruce, “So help me, I will--”
“No skipping,” said Clark. “Got it.”
They headed toward the house arm in arm, walking along a path that shifted from yellow brick to red dirt to cobblestones to what looked like obsidian, until they reached the front door and knocked.
Clark wasn’t sure quite what he had expected as a welcome, but it certainly wasn’t the door swinging open to reveal a stout, beaming man with a walrus-like mustache, holding a tray with three steaming mugs on it.
“Gentlemen,” said Doctor Joe Higgins, “You must be weary. Welcome to the ideaspace; would you like some hot chocolate?”
“...it doesn’t pay to be too accessible, after all,” Higgins said, taking a sip of hot chocolate. “Not when you are the guardian of the last pure strain of Durlan genetic material in the universe, you know. They nearly destroyed the Earth to get it last time.”
“So those mantis-wolves were actually working for you? We weren’t in any real danger?” Clark felt irrationally annoyed by this, but Higgins shook his head.
“The safe protects itself; I didn’t put those in place,” he said. “If they’d gotten their mandibles on you, that would have been the end of you.” He peered at them keenly. “I hope you’re not here to try and convince me to release the genetic code to you. I am inclined to trust you, but you know I have no way of being sure you’re not actually Durlans. Dealing with shape shifters is so very tricky.”
“No,” said Bruce, “we just wanted to get your permission to move you to a safer place. Director Faraday has some concerns about security.” Clark resisted the temptation to snort as Bruce elided the long arguments between Batman and Faraday about the best location of the safe and the extremely slow process of building trust between Faraday’s organization and the Justice League; Higgins shot him a keen look and Clark suspected he guessed at most of it anyway. “I also wanted to ask your permission to study the physics of the safe,” Bruce said. “The tesseract technology is...very intriguing.”
He’d spent three hours yesterday talking about how useful it would be in just about every part of his life, from utility belts to low-income housing. Clark had made TARDIS and wardrobe jokes and Bruce had just stared at him blankly before going on to the next potential project.
Higgins glowered at him. “I won’t be shaken around like some kind of quantum snowglobe,” he huffed. “But… as long as my life here is not disrupted and the genome is kept out of Durlan hands, I suppose I have no pressing objections.” He finished off his chocolate and stood up with the air of a man politely but firmly dismissing guests. “Thank you for checking with me at all,” he said. “It’s not like I could have vetoed the plan anyway, after all.”
“We wanted you to know, though,” said Clark.
“Are we going to have to fight our way back through more guardians?” Bruce asked.
“No, I have a short cut,” Higgins said, ushering them into a room where…
“Really?” Clark said, delighted.
Batman crossed his arms and scowled at the large piece of furniture. “What is it with wardrobes, anyway?”
Clark was already throwing open the doors and pushing aside the heavy fur coats. “All the best pocket dimensions can be accessed through wardrobes, Batman,” he said. He looked back at Dr. Higgins. “It was a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
Higgins inclined his head with a faint smile. “I feel that I will be in good hands, quite literally,” he said.
Clark pushed his way toward the back of the wardrobe, smelling mothballs and cedar, until the world seemed to tilt sideways and dump him back out on the floor in Faraday’s top-secret military facility.
“Hnh,” Batman said, stepping out of the air beside him. “Interesting. I confess, I might have rather liked the opportunity to explore there more.”
“Well, you can always take your date there later,” Clark said, dusting himself off. “Once you finally find the time to ask them.”
Bruce looked at him for a while. “Not a bad idea,” he said. He looked for a second as though he might say more, then turned and picked up the safe from its pedestal. “Let’s get this back to the cave. Alfred said he was going to make cucumber and watercress sandwiches for you.”
The sandwiches were of course delicious, and just as they were polishing them off Aquaman called with an emergency in the Mediterranean, and everything moved on from there and Clark put pocket dimensions, dates, and silver roses out of his mind for a while.
The Fortress-projected screen hung in midair in front of Superman, glowing in unearthly hues of viridian, magenta, cerulean. Superman re-arranged the different columns and frowned. Barry had asked not to be on monitor duty on Tuesday, and Hal and the other Lanterns could only do it on Thursday before they left for a big meeting on Oa--hopefully this one not a harbinger of an interstellar war for a change. Arranging the duty roster was an annoying job, but after Batman had done it a couple of times, Clark had decided it was probably best for team harmony if he did it instead.
His thoughts turned, as they so often did when he was bored or distracted or--well, at any time at all, to be honest--to Bruce. Bruce surrounded by glittering mirrors, each showing a facet of his complex and fascinating soul. Bruce holding a silver rose, looking into its petals as if the answer to something terribly important lay within. Bruce’s voice…
Clark realized he’d arranged the duty roster into a completely impossible configuration and cursed quietly to himself as he erased it and started over.
“You seem distracted, Kal-El,” said Kelex. The robot hovered nearby. “May I assist you with that task? It would be a simple matter to--”
“No, thank you,” Clark said, trying to keep the testiness from his voice. “It’s my job and I’ll do it.” If I can just keep my mind on my work.
The Fortress chimed, and a warm voice announced “Incoming message from Batman.”
“Hey, B,” Clark said, hoping he sounded neither as delighted nor as alarmed as he felt at this particular interruption. “I swear I’ll have this duty roster together just as soon as--”
“--Can I get teleport access to the Fortress?” Batman’s face as it appeared on the screen was even grimmer than usual. “I need to talk to you in person.”
“What? Oh, sure,” Clark said. “Where are you?”
“I came looking for you in Metropolis.” Batman looked left, then right, uneasily. “I’m on top of the Daily Planet globe.”
“Fortress, can you get a fix on him?”
“Affirmative,” said the Fortress.
“All right, teleport him here,” said Clark.
A patch of air sparkled and coalesced into the familiar pointy-eared shape, cape swirling around his feet. “Thank you,” Batman said, stepping forward. He almost looked like he was going to hug Clark, and Clark felt a delighted smile start to tug at his mouth.
The smile was cut off as he felt an icy pain at his chest. He looked down to see the hilt of a dagger sticking out of his chest.
The blade was glowing a sicky green.
“Wh--” he started to say, but the pain was so intense he couldn’t finish the word. Batman’s mouth below the cowl was curved into a smile full of malice. “Fortress,” Clark managed to croak. “Initiate defensive scenario--”
His voice broke off in a cry of pain as Batman kicked his feet out from under him. He felt his hand splash in a pool of blood as he landed, his flight gone, everything gone but pain and confusion.
“Cancel that command,” he heard his own voice say, and the dagger was wrenched from his shoulder. With a growing sense of unreality, he realized that the boots in front of him were no longer black, but a familiar red. He looked up what seemed to be a thousand miles, across an expanse of scarlet and blue fabric, into his own eyes as he raised the shining green blade again.
“Kal-El,” said Kelex from the doorway, a chime of confusion and concern threaded through its voice. “Until you clarify the parameters of the threat, I cannot allow you to use lethal force. The intruder is disabled.”
For a second, irritation touched the doppelganger's face. Then it nodded and sheathed the Kryptonite dagger at its waist. “The intruder is an escapee from the Phantom Zone,” said the false Superman, looking down at him. “A rogue Kryptonian clone. Please put him back where he belongs.”
“Very well, Kal-El,” said the Kelex.
Clark struggled to say something, anything, but felt himself lifted in robotic arms. The imposter followed behind, smiling as it took in the sights of the Fortress, its technology and secrets. No. No! Clark struggled feebly, stammering weak protests, but it was no good against the strength of the Kryptonian robot, who carried him easily to the room where the Phantom Zone projector was. It pressed the button, worked the controls--and then lifted Clark up and dropped him into the Phantom Zone.
It was like being plunged into icy water; it was like falling into a white-hot flame. The pain of the Kryptonite dagger went numb immediately as cause and effect stopped working. Clark scrambled to his feet and looked around.
From his point of view, it was as if he were still in the Fortress, but everything had gone oddly translucent, desaturated. It was like when Frodo put on the Ring in the Lord of the Rings movies, he thought suddenly, and imagined Bruce’s chuckle if he could hear him: nerd.
That brief flicker of amusement guttered out as the doppleganger--it had to be a Durlan--waved a dismissive hand at Kelex. “Thank you,” he said. “You may go.”
As the robot turned and left, the Durlan wearing Clark’s form stepped smiling toward the Phantom Zone controls. Without thinking, Clark stepped into his path.
The Durlan passed through him as though he wasn’t there. Which he wasn’t, as far as the Durlan could tell.
The Durlan rested his hand on the controls. “Well,” he said softly. “I wish I’d gotten a chance to wrest the information from your writhing body, but it does give me some satisfaction to know that you will be watching and suffering as I loot your precious Fortress and take back what belongs to my people.”
“I’ll get out of here and stop you, I swear,” Clark snarled--or tried to, but there was no air to say it with. Inside the Phantom Zone, everyone was frozen into an eternal Now, unable to advance, unable to affect the world they could see going on without them. Timeless eternity. Flawless immortality.
It was the perfect punishment for tyrants and megalomaniacs, calibrated to inflict the maximum emotional pain. As the Durlan strode from room to room of the Fortress and Clark followed along, helplessly fuming, he experienced first-hand its horrific cruelty.
“How charming,” the Durlan said, looking up at the statue of Jor-El and Lara. “You honor your race while destroying any hope of mine for the future. But I tell you I will find that genetic code and take back what is ours; I will unify the Durlans as their savior!” Superman’s blue eyes glittered dark and feral for a moment as the Durlan smiled in a direction he thought perhaps Clark might be, though he was off by a full meter. “And then all the galaxy will learn to truly fear the new Durlan Empire, under the glorious leadership of Mikl Zav!” He struck himself on the chest, clenching his fist. “And you,” he said, “you can rot there in the Phantom Zone forever, watching.”
Clark watched, seething, as Zav rummaged through all the storage he could find in the Fortress, growing more and more agitated, strewing priceless relics and scientific discoveries carelessly about. “Where is it?” he yelled at Kelex the next time the robot came into view.
“Can we help you locate--”
“It’s a safe,” Zav said. “A dimensional pocket, about this big--” Clark watched his own hands trace a shape in the air with a sense of utter surreality. “Etched stone-like material.”
“There is nothing like that in the Fortress,” the robot said.
Zav made a disgusted noise. “As if he would have told you where it was,” he said. “You’re useless. You’re all worthless!”
Kelex’s head and shoulders dropped as he strode away. “Apologies, Kal-El,” the robot said, chiming sadly.
Oh, you will pay for making Kelex sad, Clark thought, glaring at him. Just as soon as I get out of here and--
Well, that was the catch, wasn’t it? There wasn’t any way out of the Phantom Zone short of someone activating the projector while Clark was near it. And Zav didn’t seem likely to do any such thing. He was currently strolling through the Fortress zoo, admiring the various deadly beasts there: “If I unleashed this shoggoth into your precious Metropolis, I wonder how much damage it would cause? That would be amusing to watch. Not that you could do anything else,” Zav added with a smirk. He cast his gaze around the zoo, looking right through Clark. “Of course, I don’t even know if you’re still here. Perhaps you’ve run away. But I’m betting you’re right here, intangible and furious and utterly helpless.” Clark didn’t at all like the things Zav was doing with Clark’s face; he hoped he had never looked that cruel and taunting. “Your planet and all you love within it will burn for what you have done to my people. I just need to find that genome.”
Zav ransacked the rooms of the Fortress one by one, growing more and more agitated as the safe didn’t turn up. Hours later, he was empty-handed and nearly frothing with anger.
“Where is it?” he screamed, hurling a chair at the statue of Jor-El and Lara while the Fortress robots hovered nearby nervously, unable to fathom the reason for their master’s strange mood. Luckily Durlans couldn’t take on any special powers when they took on a form, or Clark was certain he would have defaced the statue with heat vision, or destroyed it with his bare hands, just to make Clark suffer. “The A.R.G.U.S. records were quite clear that it had been turned over to Superman and Batman--” He stopped dead as the second name left his lips, and Clark felt the icy cold of the Zone congeal even more around him. “Risky,” Zav murmured. “But it might be the only way. If I can just get him to come here...”
Don’t you dare! Clark raged silently as Zav went to the computer console, gazing at the screens. “Fortress,” he said, “get me in contact with Batman.”
There was a pause, and Batman’s face appeared on the screen--still cowled, Clark noticed with relief. “Batman,” said Zav--and for the first time Clark felt some hope, realizing that Zav hadn’t called him “Bruce,” as Clark usually would. That had to be suspicious. There were League protocols in place for determining whether someone was an imposter, if Bruce got specific he’d say the coded sign of the week: I hear Gorilla Grodd’s on the move. If Zav didn’t answer with the correct countersign of We’d better lock up the bananas--really, they needed to have someone other than Flash come up with these signs--Bruce would know something was up.
But Bruce didn’t look suspicious. He looked, in fact, like he’d hardly heard Zav at all, like he had something else occupying his thoughts. “Clark,” he said, and the Durlan’s tiny start of surprise at being given Superman’s real name was almost undetectable, but Clark’s heart sank as he stood right at Zav’s shoulder, willing Bruce to see him, knowing that he wouldn’t. “I’m glad you called. I was just thinking about you and that upcoming conference at the U.N.”
Zav smiled. “I was thinking about you, too,” he said, warm and casual. “Would you be willing to come here to the Fortress for a little while?”
No, don’t! Clark thought as loudly as he could. God, if I could only--
Apparently the intensity of his wish to connect, to somehow reach out and communicate his warning to Bruce, did something, because the world seemed to blur around him and he found himself in the Batcave, standing at Batman’s shoulder instead of Zav’s. He put out a hand in desperate supplication--Bruce. Bruce!--but it passed through Bruce’s shoulder as if Bruce were the phantom instead of him.
Batman was shaking his head, smiling wryly at the image of Superman on the screen. “I’d love to, but preparations for the conference are taking up a lot of energy right now, plus Szasz is on the loose again--but I think I’ve got a lead based on the knife we found at the last crime scene.” Even trapped and panicked, Clark couldn’t help smiling a little as Bruce launched into a long energetic digression about the Linz-Donawitz process of steelmaking and the subtle differences between steel processed in Baosteel factories versus those belonging to Thyssenkrupp. He’d had a lot of conversations like this with Bruce. Zav held himself very still, listening intently, but Clark knew Zav was barely holding his frustration in check.
“...and I’ll go check the waterfront later tonight, after I finish going over the security for the conference.” Bruce sighed slightly. “I’m sorry, it’s been nonstop busy and I’ve barely had a chance to talk to you for days.”
“Well, if you find a moment, we can talk here,” Zav said.
“That would be nice.” Bruce said. “Sometime soon.” He smiled at the being he thought was Superman, an open, un-Batman-like smile that made a stab of yearning sadness go through Clark. “I was hoping to maybe show you a silver rose sometime.”
The world seemed to dim further as Clark realized what Bruce was saying, remembering his face reflected in mirrored petals. They’d know what I meant. Without thinking, he opened his mouth to say something, to blurt out something--
And heard himself laugh. His laughter, coming from Zav’s form. Not an affectionate laugh, but a short, dismissive bark. “I’d think you’d have better things to do with your time,” said the man wearing Clark’s face. “I know I do.”
Bruce’s face went still, the warmth draining from his smile.
“But that’s fine,” the false Superman went on, shaking his head. “When you’re done with whatever you’re working on, come by here so we can talk.”
“Of course,” said Bruce, his voice unruffled. There was only a trace of tightness at the corners of his mouth, a hint of strain so small that you could smooth it away with a finger if you could only touch him, if you could only. The sign, Bruce! Clark realized he was leaning right into Bruce’s face. From a few inches away, Bruce’s eyes looked through him at the imposter. Ask him about Gorilla Grodd!
But Bruce didn’t. He didn’t ask about Gorilla Grodd, and he didn’t denounce Superman as an imposter. He just sat there, making small talk with the monster wearing Clark’s body, until finally they said goodbye and the call ended.
Bruce sat there for a moment, simply looking straight ahead. “Well,” he said very quietly. “That was not good.” He pinched at the bridge of his nose, leaning on his hand, and Clark put his ghostly hand around his, willing the fingers to make contact, feeling nothing. Feeling far too much.
“Did I hear Mr. Kent’s voice?” Alfred was coming down the stairs, mug of coffee on a salver.
“You did,” said Bruce.
“Will he be coming by?”
“No,” said Bruce. “No, he will not.”
Alfred put the mug down at his elbow and looked at his face for a long beat. “Ah,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Bruce made a sound like a knife scraping over stone and picked up the coffee mug. “I am too,” he said.
Clark stood and watched him through the dim and flickering aura of the Phantom Zone until he couldn’t bear it anymore. Then he closed his eyes and willed himself back to the Fortress, back to the side of the monster who’d just broken Bruce’s heart, the monster who looked like him.
He spent the next twenty-four hours following Zav around the Fortress, projecting ice-cold fury at the Durlan and trying to figure out a way to thwart his plans, feeling helpless and sick. Yet whenever his concentrated fury faltered, he would find himself back at Bruce’s side, as if an undercurrent of anguished thoughts were always dragging him back through the Zone to the Dark Knight.
And so he knew that Bruce worked through the night, testing steel alloys with laser-intent, silent focus. As Zav slept in Clark’s bed, murmuring angrily to himself in dreams, Bruce sat in the cave, ignoring Alfred or Dick when they came by to check on him, staring into his microscope as if he could find the secret to his pain there. As Zav ate breakfast, complaining bitterly about the food, Bruce was working out, pummeling a sparring dummy with fierce, angry moves.
After that last one--after watching Bruce in his white gi, his face stern and opaque and his body whipcrack-tight, all lean muscle and sinews--Clark tried with even more intensity to stay away from Gotham. What good was it doing to watch Bruce, unable to touch him, unable to help him, unable to do anything but suffer? Better to keep an eye on the Durlan, who was currently examining every file in the Fortress computer, clearly in the hope that Superman had moved the genome from the safe into the Fortress system.
Now and then Zav would address the air, clearly hoping Clark could hear him gloating. “You think you’ve got it hidden so well,” he said. “But I’ll rip the knowledge from your friend’s throat while you watch his blood stain the floor. He’ll scream for mercy at your hands, but there will be no mercy, only justice and retribution. He will give me the answer, and then you will watch him die, and remain trapped in the prison your people created while I lead the Durlans to galactic supremacy!” Zav chuckled in delight, the sound a cold and curdled parody of Superman’s voice.
At dusk Clark found himself tugged back to a waterfront in Gotham, where Batman was fighting like a dervish, taking down five armed thugs at once. His movements were economical but full of casual grace, the beauty of a person who knows exactly what they’re doing and how to do it, no motion wasted. Clark found himself staring and realized he rarely had a chance or an excuse to watch Bruce work, watch him fight. Now he could do nothing else, and he stood, trapped and frozen, watching as Batman left all five of them groaning on the pier, looking down at them impassively. Clark moved toward him almost without meaning to, simply drawn by the hints of pain in his stance, but Bruce stepped forward and through him and walked away, and the anguish of it sent Clark spinning back to the Fortress and the usurper there.
A few hours later, though, there he was again, a ghost at a glittering gala, watching Bruce Wayne dancing with a beautiful woman in a ballgown and flirting easily with her. The woman laughed into his eyes, and Bruce smiled back, and Clark felt a terrible, sick fear that Bruce would find comfort in her arms tonight. And could Clark really blame him, after that rebuff? It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me, Bruce! He found himself moving forward, intersecting himself with the woman as if in a vain hope of intercepting Bruce’s smile, of somehow stealing his mouth away before he could lean close and kiss her. But when Bruce actually did start to lean close--no, it was too much, and Clark fled rather than watch; went back to where Zav was ranting under the Northern Lights, wearing Clark’s face, cold and cruel.
The ice of the Phantom Zone seemed to penetrate every fibre of his being as he stood there, willing himself not to go see what Bruce was doing, forcing himself to listen to Zav’s mad dialogue about the greatness of his race while the puzzled robots watched and worried. Nothing to do but watch, Clark thought miserably. Nothing to do but wait for Bruce to show up to talk to the man he felt had rejected him, at which point--
Clark quailed even further at the mental image of Zav using Clark’s form to attack and harm Bruce. No, it wasn’t possible, he had to stop him! For hours, Clark flickered past every person that might have a chance of perceiving him--he went to Oa and screamed at the Guardians, he implored Zatanna, he even sought out the Joker in Arkham, just in case madness somehow made it possible to see into the Phantom Zone. No response. No reaction. No hope.
Without meaning to, his thoughts turned back to Bruce and he found himself by his side again. Clark flinched away mentally before he suddenly realized that Bruce was alone, and in costume. Even more startling, Bruce was in Clark’s apartment, sitting on his ratty sofa, staring straight ahead into space. His cowl was pulled down, and there was a slight frown on his face. Clark moved to position his body as if he were on the sofa next to him, as if the two of them were in the same dimension at all, just two people sitting together. He watched Bruce’s still, weary face through the flickering witchlight of the Phantom Zone, cold and aching.
Finally, Bruce’s shoulders slumped. “Damn it, Clark,” he whispered. Then he nodded, scrubbing his hands across his face. “All right,” he said. “No more putting it off.”
He stood up and pulled on his cowl, tapping at the earpiece to open a channel. “Clark?” he said. “I’m free now, if you’d still like to talk.” He listened intently to the response. “Good, I’m glad. Yes, I’m ready for a teleport.”
He broke up into sparkles and Clark chased them across the world, back to the Fortress.
“Batman,” Zav beamed. “Thank you so much for coming.”
“Always a pleasure,” Bruce said easily, wandering past him, peering at the computer screens. “Where’s Kelex? Usually he can’t wait to welcome me to the Fortress.”
Zav pivoted to keep facing him. “Kelex is dealing with some maintenance outside or I’m sure he’d be here.” Indeed, he had sent all of the robots out to deal with some random snow removal, leaving the Fortress empty except for himself and Batman.
And the furious ghost watching on.
“So what did you want to see me about?” Bruce said.
“Well,” Zav said, “I was working on making a new piece of technology that adapts to its user, and it occurred to me that there might be parallels in Durlan DNA that could help me improve it.”
“Oh, interesting,” said Bruce. “Some adaptive tech would be a real help with the new members on the League.”
“So,” said Zav, “I was hoping to use that Durlan genome to improve it. Do you think that would be a good idea?”
Bruce nodded. “Absolutely.”
There was a beat of silence.
“So I’ll just get it,” Zav said. “Or I suppose you can. Out of…” He let the sentence hang in the air, unfinished.
Batman laughed and shook a finger at him playfully. “No, no, no. I’m not going to fail your pathetic security checks. I don’t need to get lectured by you for weeks about how I might have given away classified information to a possible Durlan. I mean, honestly--”
Still chuckling, he turned his back on Zav. And with a growl of frustration, the Durlan wearing Superman’s form stepped forward and clubbed him across the back of the head.
Batman went down with a cry of pain, rolling instinctively away from his assailant as Clark strained to yell curses in the airless, timeless space of the Zone. “What the hell,” Batman gasped, dodging another punch. “Clark, what are you doing?”
“Curse you, Terran filth,” Zav snarled, and with a nauseating writhing motion shrugged off his disguise and, sprouting a myriad of green tentacles and a beaked mouth above baleful red eyes. ”Tell me where the genome is.”
He lashed out with one of his tentacles and Bruce dodged, only to get hit squarely with another, knocking him across the room and into a wall with a thud.
Don’t you dare touch him, Clark thought with all his might, putting himself between Zav and Bruce, but it was no good, the Durlan stepped through him and slapped contemptuously at Batman, rocking him backwards.
Batman fought back, flinging batarangs and smoke bombs at the Durlan, but he was dazed and off-balance. From the very first moments it was clear he was outmatched by the Durlan, struggling just to survive. Trails of blood inched from beneath his cowl, streaking his face, and he favored one arm as though it might be broken. His breath hissed between his teeth as he fought, and Clark willed him to continue with all his might, his soul aching.
The battle raged through the Fortress: past the exotic creatures of the zoo that roared and raged at them; through the armory where Batman lunged for a freeze ray but got slammed into another wall instead; under the statue of Jor-El and Lara. Zav hurled Batman at the statue as if hoping to break both of them, and the Kryptonian marble ripped a huge gash in Bruce’s suit, blood staining the dark Kevlar. Bruce’s movements were growing more sluggish, more exhausted; the Durlan seemed full of furious energy, sensing his goal was finally within reach. “Where is the genome?” he howled, battering at Bruce’s body. “Where is what I seek?”
Bruce breathed a bitter curse at him. “What… did you do to Superman?” The words touched his lips with scarlet as he staggered to his feet once more.
Zav moved forward again, his tentacles cracking like whips in the silence of the Fortress, and Batman gasped in pain, struggling to dodge them. With a desperate burst of energy, he sprinted, limping, into the main storage room, filled with alien technology gleaned from dozens of worlds: memory-recorders, spectrum-analyzers, replicators--and the Phantom Zone projector. The Durlan moved forward again, and this time Bruce couldn’t dodge; tentacles twined around his arms and legs, wrenching him until Clark could hear joints popping.
Zav dropped him like a broken doll and Bruce fell limp onto the floor, his breathing harsh and agonized in the silence of the Fortress. “Tell me,” Zav snarled, his voice still a cruel bubbling parody of Clark’s. “Tell me where the Durlan genome is hidden!”
It was only the tiniest motion, but Clark could see Bruce’s head turn as his gaze flicked over to the Phantom Zone projector as though he couldn’t help himself.
Zav saw it too, and his laugh congealed like cold oil. “So,” he sneered, “You give yourself away. You hid it in the Phantom Zone. How ironic.” He moved forward again. “I shall kill you and then--”
With a desperate lurch, Bruce dodged the tentacles that came slashing at him. He rolled across the floor, leaving smudges of blood in his wake, and threw himself forward. “Clark! Get ready!” he yelled.
He hit the button on the projector and the screen whirled into lurid life.
From Clark’s point of view, it was as if color suddenly bloomed into a desaturated world: a maelstrom of purples, blues, and reds erupting in the center of the room. He dashed toward it as Bruce flung himself forward, struggling with all of his will to grasp the hand that stretched through the portal, reaching out to him.
In the frozen, timeless desolation of the Phantom Zone, he felt the pressure of Bruce’s hand clasping his, the leather warm and soft beneath his desperate fingers; the only real thing, the only true thing in any world.
Bruce hauled him out of the Phantom Zone, back into the world of colors and light and air and time once more.
Sprawled on the floor, Clark dragged in a breath and savored the terrible pain of it, felt the wound in his shoulder spring into vivid anguish once more. Zav howled and Bruce threw himself across Clark’s body, shielding him from the lashing tentacles. Then they both came to their feet together, in sync as always, no words needed. Batman hurled himself over the Durlan in an arcing tumble that left a trail of red droplets in its wake as Superman dodged another tentacle and grabbed hold of it. One--two--three concussive batarangs hit Zav in the chest, causing him to convulse into a writhing mass. Clark could hardly breathe, could feel his strength ebbing. With the last of his adrenaline, he whipped the Durlan into a long, spinning arc, right into the swirling portal to the Phantom Zone.
Zav’s shriek dopplered out as he vanished. In its wake there was only silence.
His knees hurt. Clark looked down and realized that the floor of the Fortress was far too close. he had fallen to his knees. I’m going to fall on my face next, aren’t I? he thought with a strange crystalline clarity, and then did so.
He heard a soft click and managed to turn his head enough to see that the portal had disappeared. “Fortress,” croaked a voice which sounded a lot like Bruce’s, “dispatch medical bots.”
Clark tried to move but discovered it was far too difficult. There was liquid beneath his cheek, warm and metallic-scented. “Buh,” he said, but couldn’t seem to finish the word.
“Hold still,” Bruce said from far above him. “You’re losing a lot of blood. That bastard--” His voice broke off. Black silk whispered in front of Clark’s eyes and then he felt Bruce’s fingers in his hair, soothing. “Fortress,” Bruce said, “intensify yellow sunlight.”
Brilliance flooded the room, touching Clark with gentle warmth. He could hear robots humming nearby. The pain in his shoulder had become quite bad indeed. He could hear Bruce’s voice nearby, saying soothing nonsense about sunlight and crystals and healing, how it was all right now, it was all going to be all right.
The Fortress chimed. “Kal-El is stabilized,” it announced. “Administering a sedative.” A quiet hiss and Clark smelled lavender and ozone. The pain seemed to detach itself from him: not gone, but somehow unimportant.
“Good,” said Bruce. “I suppose--” He broke off into a wet cough for a second. “I suppose you might want to take a look at me next. I think I-- I think--”
Black silk billowed around Clark’s face and he heard a distant thump, and then the whir of the robots springing back into action before everything faded off into darkness.
He woke in a dazzle of bright artificial sunlight. Turning his head, he realized he was on a platform in the medical lab. Bruce was lying on a platform nearby, the cowl off, his face still and pale. Unmoving.
“Bruce.” Clark jumped off the platform--or tried to, but instead all of his muscles betrayed him and he slithered onto the floor like some kind of Kryptonian liquid. “Fortress, is Batman--”
“Batman is recuperating,” said Kelex’s voice behind him as Clark managed to get to his hands and knees with some effort. “He suffered a great deal of damage, but should make a full recovery.”
Clark tried to get to his feet, but it was no good. With Kelex protesting all the way, he crawled across the medlab until he got to where Bruce was lying. Panting, he put his back against the crystal base of the platform and tried to catch his breath.
“Clark,” he heard above him, and felt a hand fall on his shoulder. He managed to get to his knees, holding tight to the platform, and found Bruce looking at him with a small smile on his face.
“Thank you,” Clark said.
“I knew it wasn’t you,” Bruce said as if it were more important to clarify that than anything else. “Even before I came to the Fortress, I knew it wasn’t you.”
“Wait, you knew?” Clark stared at him. “Then how did he take you by surprise?”
“Nothing takes me by surprise, Clark,” Bruce chided him. “I needed him to think that I was utterly defeated. I had a feeling you were in the Zone--the intruder had clearly ambushed you in the Fortress, and during the course of the battle I’d checked all the other options. But I knew I’d only get one shot at getting you out, so I needed to trick him into confirming he knew what it was and thought of it as a place you’d put something...” His voice faltered for a moment, “...precious.”
“You let him nearly kill you just to confirm I was trapped in the Zone?” Clark felt his knees go even weaker; he sagged against the platform. “What if I’d been dead? Then you would have died too.”
Bruce’s shrug was barely visible.
“You…” Clark shook his head. “You said you knew it wasn’t me, but you didn’t use the sign. You didn’t mention Gorilla Grodd.”
“I didn’t need to,” Bruce said, almost impatiently. He took a breath. “When I mentioned the rose. You were cruel to me for no reason at all. So obviously it wasn’t you. Why risk saying something odd and possibly raising his suspicions?” His smile was wan, but to Clark it seemed the only warm thing in all the Fortress. “You might have rejected me, but you would have been kind about it. That could never have been you.”
“No,” Clark blurted out. He put his head on Bruce’s shoulder, breathing in the scent of antiseptic and sweat and blood. There was a rent in the armor there; without letting himself think, Clark touched his lips to the skin that gleamed through. “No,” he said again. “I would never have rejected you.”
“Ah,” said Bruce. He cleared his throat and said simply: “I’m glad.”
For a long moment, the room was silent except for the soft crystalline hum of the machinery, the soft incredible sound of Bruce’s breath and heartbeat. Clark felt Bruce touch his hair. There was the faintest tremor in his fingertips. “You should be resting,” Bruce said at last, “not crouching next to my sickbed.”
Clark shook his head, then chuckled weakly. “I’ll be honest, Bruce: I’m not sure I can get back across the room.”
“Then come here,” Bruce said, and shifted to make room for Clark on his platform.
Carefully, carefully, Clark pulled himself up next to Bruce. There was just room for both of them to lie side by side, staring up at the arched-crystal ceiling. “It was horrible,” Clark said softly after a moment. “Seeing you suffering and being invisible, not being able to make you hear me. Not being able to touch you…”
Warm fingers wrapped around his, and he closed his eyes at the bliss of it. “Well,” said Bruce. “That’s over now. I promise.”
“Bruce,” Clark said, “when we’re healed up.”
“Yes?” Bruce said when he paused.
“Will you show me a silver rose?”
With some effort, Bruce raised Clark’s hand to his mouth, brushing the knuckles with a kiss.
“I would like nothing better,” Bruce said.