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all each riddles, when unknown

Chapter Text

 

 

We are all each of us riddles, when unknown one to the other.

The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, Mary Shelley

 

 

 

Clark puts his hands on his hips and tilts his head back—as though he's looking at the roof, but for a second he just lets himself look at the sky instead.

Maybe it should bother him. Maybe it would, if it were nighttime—if he were able to see the stars. But it's midafternoon, and that flat opaque blue doesn't look anything like the view of space from Zod's ship; or the clouds over Metropolis, the strange towering supercells that had formed over the World Engine and the dust and grit and smoke that had risen in the air; or anything else Clark doesn't want to think about.

It's just the same old endless Kansas sky. Faint low clouds, thin, with haze smudging out their edges, and the sun shining down warm. Clark looks up at it and sucks in a long slow breath, and for a second it's almost like none of it happened at all.

Except it did, and that's why he's here. The repairs to the farmhouse are just about done—are all done, now, if Clark really did get those last couple rows of shingles lined up right. He used the speed a little, and sometimes when he does that he knocks things askew in passing without even realizing it.

But when he finally lets his gaze drop to the roof, it looks okay. Not—right, not like it should: the shingles are so unmistakably new, uniform, with perfect corners. There should be cracks, uneven edges, all the spots where the ice dammed up in the winter and pushed the shingles awry, that whole weird bubbly-melty stretch along the far side where Clark accidentally caught the tar with his vision that one time—

But all that is gone. Like all those years have been erased, like—

Like none of it happened at all.

"Clark?"

Clark blinks and turns, and after a second he remembers to smile, too. It feels a little weird on his face, a little stiff, but it probably looks okay. And even if Mom does notice—he's done with the roof. The flip side of never being able to get out of coming to see Mom is that he never has to stay either; she can't start making noises about how late it is, how long the drive will be, that dinner's almost ready anyway. He can just go.

And that's for the best.

Mom's leaning out over the porch railing with a glass in her hand—lemonade; Clark can see the pulp from here, can smell the citrus-sharp sweetness of it.

(He doesn't get hot or thirsty. She knows that. So she's bringing it to him just because—just because she wants to, just because she thinks he might like it. Just because she thinks he should get to have things he likes sometimes, and that's—)

Clark clears his throat, swipes at one eye so fast Mom probably doesn't even see it, and then he takes the three steps he has to take to get his hand around the glass and keeps smiling. "Thanks, Mom."

She doesn't let go of the glass right away. She's smiling back at him, but there's something strange about it, wry or maybe sorry, at the corners of her mouth and up around her eyes.

Yeah, she definitely noticed.

But she's merciful, or careful—or both—and doesn't ask. "I was going to apologize for interrupting," she says instead, "but I guess I haven't. All done?"

"Think so," Clark says, and doesn't have to meet her eyes anymore once he tips the glass up to take a sip. "Wasn't all that much."

Just the shingles—cosmetic, compared to rebuilding the wall and roof underneath, getting the insulation and pipes and wiring all back into place. Clark hadn't been able to do that. He hadn't even been able to help, at least not any more than a normal person; with the contractors and all, insurance assessor keeping track of their progress, it had to get done at a normal rate.

(Superpowered aliens throwing cars turned out to qualify legally as an act of God. Almost appropriate, Clark had thought when Mom had mentioned it. What had the World Engine been but a cataclysm—one designed to wipe Earth clean, and leave Kryptonians the only ones on the ark? Almost appropriate.)

"Well," Mom says lightly. "Nice to have that over with."

And Clark's starting to run out of lemonade; he has to lower the glass sooner or later. He swallows and sets it down on the porch railing, wipes his mouth, and risks a glance, and yeah, Mom's still giving him that funny look, patient and unwavering.

"Yeah," Clark says, looking away.

Right after it had happened, it hadn't felt possible. Almost one whole side of the house ripped away—and half of Metropolis blasted into rubble, but Clark had known what had happened to Metropolis needed to stop; he'd felt it about the house. The house is home, in a way Metropolis won't ever be. And seeing it like that—it hadn't felt like it would ever be over with. It hadn't felt like it could ever be fixed.

But now it is. Now it is, and everything's fine. Like none of it happened at all.

"I don't suppose you'd like to stick around for dinner anyway," Mom says, too gently.

"No, no," Clark says, "I'd—I should get back," and he forces himself to look up again, drags a smile out from somewhere. "I've got work tomorrow."

"Clark—"

"Best thing for me, right? Routine." Half a laugh, there—and it sounds pretty good, Clark thinks. "It's okay, Mom, really. I'm fine, you're fine, and now the house is fine. Lois is fine, and the job's going to work out great, you'll see. Everything's okay."

Mom looks at him quietly, and—yeah, she isn't fooled one bit. But Clark keeps smiling anyway. And like this, standing by the porch with the faint sting of lemonade on his tongue, his hand over hers on the railing, the house intact behind her—like this, he finds he can almost mean it. That has to be good enough.

"All right," Mom says at last, and turns her hand over under his so she can squeeze his fingers. "Okay. But you're coming back on the weekend, you hear? I won't take no for an answer—"

"Okay, okay," Clark tells her, grinning, and squeezes her hand right back. "I fed myself for years, you know. Years."

"Hah," Mom says, narrowing her eyes; and she makes him drink the rest of the lemonade before she lets him leave.

 

 

*

 

 

He couldn't figure out how to explain it to Mom, it would have sounded weird, but he—he wants to be back in Metropolis. He needs to be. It isn't about the apartment, which is still pretty bare; or the job at the Planet, which is still pretty new. It just—he just—

He just feels like he should. That's all. Smallville is fine, it was—the house, yeah, and a couple of silos, a street or two close by that ended up needing some serious roadwork, but that's not much of anything compared to Metropolis. Whole buildings were blown apart in Metropolis, and it was Clark's—

—it was—it shouldn't have happened. It should never have happened.

But it did. And somebody should be there, just like Mom and the contractors and the insurance for the house, to clean it up and make it whole; and there isn't anybody to do it except Clark.

So he flies back to his bare little apartment, and—thinking of Mom—eats something. And then he goes up on the roof and listens.

Maybe he's just tired—his mind, not his body. There are so many people in the city, there's so much that must be happening; maybe it's just because he isn't concentrating. Maybe that's why, for as long as he's up there, somehow the only thing he can hear is his own heart.

(He falls asleep up there, on the roof. He falls asleep and he dreams of a soft cracking sound, of the feeling of something giving way beneath his hands, and he wakes up with his face wet and doesn't know why.)

 

 

*

 

 

"Smallville. Hey—hey. Clark?"

Clark blinks. "What?"

Lois is eyeing him, arms crossed; but her stance softens so quickly when he looks up that it makes him wonder what it is she's seeing in his face. "Are you all right? You went home this weekend, didn't you, to work on the house? Your mother, is she—"

"Everything's fine, Lo," Clark says.

She seems unmoved: she looks at him closely for a moment longer, and then leans in a little closer across his desk. "If the job's not a good fit, that's okay. You know that, right?"

"Yes," Clark says, "yeah, it's—it isn't the job."

Which is true—Clark always loved the news when he was a kid, the whole world out there, ten thousand angles on the big messy complexity of humanity; getting to work for the Planet is probably going to be a great cover for ending up on the scenes of crimes as much as Clark's going to, but that's not the only reason he jumped on the idea.

But he still grimaces right after he says it. Rookie mistake: it isn't the job implies that it is something.

And—of course—Lois clocks it.

"Look," Clark says hurriedly, before she can pin him down. "I know I've been—it's been kind of a weird couple of months. But I'm okay. Mom is fine, the house is fine, the job's good. I'm adjusting. That's all."

Lois gives him a thoughtful stare, but all she says is, "All right." She leans farther, just enough to pat him on the arm with brisk warmth, and smiles at him, quick, before she gets up and goes back to her own desk.

Not that that's the end of it. Clark can feel her eyes on him, careful, every now and then. It's been like that almost the whole time he's been at the Planet, since right after the—right after he started.

And he bears up under it, just as well as always. Because everything's fine. Perry's grudgingly allowed him to graduate from fact-checking to writing short pieces of his own—always aggressively red-penned by Lois, of course, but Clark thinks he's starting to get the hang of Perry's editorial preferences. He gets his drafts back these days with only about half of it crossed out in Track Changes.

So: he types, he makes calls; he follows up, chases down references; he makes sure he eats lunch where Lois can see him. He's as okay as anybody could ask, all day long.

He gets a break in the midafternoon, when Lois gets called in to see Perry for a while, and he can't stop himself from sighing a little in relief when the door closes behind her.

(Being okay can be—hard, sometimes.)

Except when she comes out, the first thing that happens is she looks right at him, something odd and somber in the cast of her face; and the second thing is that behind her, Perry yells, "Kent!"

Clark gets up, gut sinking. Lois holds the door for him, and offers him half a smile as he passes her—but it doesn't reach her eyes, and Clark can't manage to smile back even though he knows he should.

 

 

*

 

 

"So," Perry says, once the door's shut.

He's propped himself against the edge of his desk; Clark can't decide whether that's better or worse than if he were sitting in his chair instead. Maybe better: he's still looking at Clark over steepled fingers, but without the distance the desk would put into it, without being quite so far away.

"I like throwing people into the deep end, Kent," Perry begins, tilting his head, "and Lane assures me you can swim, so to speak. But when pressed, she agreed with my assessment."

Clark has to swallow twice before he can say, "And what is your assessment, sir?"

He's expecting—he doesn't know what he's expecting, but it's not for Perry's face to go almost soft. "That it's been hard on you, son. Lane tells me you were in the city when it happened—Black Zero Day."

Clark looks down, and can't come up with a single word in reply. What is there to say? You don't know the half of it, sir. You don't understand, you don't know who I—what I—

"Not the best introduction to our fair city," Perry summarizes, dry and carefully light. "So, that said, I don't want to hear any complaining. This is a deliberate decision, Kent, I am coddling you and I know it."

"Sir?"

"Your first independent piece," Perry says, and reaches for a sheet on his desk, holds it up: a press release? "Human interest. I'm thinking an ongoing feature—once a week, maybe twice if you can generate enough material and stop making me cut half of it."

He wiggles the sheet pointedly, and Clark belatedly reaches up to take it, gaze catching on the logo in the header.

"It's good stuff, Kent," Perry is saying. "Sister cities, solidarity, togetherness—hope. Inspiring, exactly what everybody's looking for right now. People will love it."

"But this is—" and then Clark's brain catches up to his eyes.

"Wayne Enterprises," Perry says, and flicks one corner of the press release. "That office of theirs on 4th, the financial tower. Came down on Black Zero Day, but they're keeping the lot—rebuilding. And I want you to cover it."

 

 


 

 

The donation has gone through.

Bruce double-checks with the bank, and makes a note to have someone confirm with the children's home, just to be sure. The college fund that's been set up in Becky Forsythe's name won't do her any good until she's eighteen; making sure the city's children's services department has every possible resource Bruce can funnel to it is the next best way to help her.

There was a time when Bruce might have taken on that responsibility more directly, but—

(—just look how that had turned out for—)

—that simply isn't feasible, at this point.

He stares at the screen without actually looking at it. It's been a strange, haphazard process, recovering from Black Zero—for both cities, for everyone; like a three-legged race, Metropolis and Gotham suddenly tied together at the ankles, lurching helplessly, the old balance mercilessly elusive.

It seems almost unfair. The hard part should have been the event itself, the destruction, the lights in the sky and the shaking of the ground, the unfathomable and unstoppable terror of alien aggression. The hard part should have been over.

(For Bruce, it is; for Bruce, the hard part was—it—

It was so many crushed bodies, lying still in the dark. In the rubble; in the small lonely spaces. He couldn't—they were already gone when he got there, just like—there was nothing he could—)

"Sir?"

Bruce blinks, swallows, and carefully arranges his face into a look of casual boredom. "Hm? What is it—Jennifer, right?"

"Ginger, Mr. Wayne," and if the ten times she's already had to say that to Bruce this week are wearing on her nerves, she really isn't showing it. Bruce is going to have to find something else to try if he wants her to end up as frustrated with Bruce Wayne as the last dozen office assistants have been. "I just wanted to let you know that your schedule for tomorrow has been rearranged—you have a meeting with a reporter from—"

"Fine, fine, sure," Bruce says, carelessly waving away the details. "Might take tomorrow off anyway. You know how it is," he adds, and shoots Ginger a crooked smirk.

Ginger does not, in fact, know how it is: she hasn't taken a day off in months. Showed up the day after Black Zero, even, carrying Bruce Wayne's usual coffee order in one bandaged hand.

And had given it to him and then told him she'd heard about what he'd done for Wally Keefe—

(—as if he'd done anything; as if it mattered at all, as if he'd been something other than entirely fucking useless—)

—and thanked him for it.

Which may be the problem. He can't claim to regret it—in an actual crisis, with lives on the line, wasting time playing the game of Bruce Wayne would have been unforgivable. But the actions he took instead were unavoidably public, and he can't deny that they've created a few hiccups for him. Ginger's proven particularly difficult to irritate since then.

The smirk doesn't do the job, either. She looks at Bruce Wayne and her mouth maybe twitches just a little, and then she nods and says, "Up to you, sir," in a patient sort of way.

"Yep," Bruce Wayne says, popping the p out with a little extra emphasis, a punctuational slap to the desk. "If I do come in, just make sure somebody reminds me, huh?"

"Yes, sir."

"Thanks, Genevieve."

"Sure thing, sir," Ginger says without missing a beat, and doesn't even roll her eyes before she goes out and closes the door behind her.

 

 

*

 

 

Traffic patterns have almost returned to normal; the streets that are still closed are a known quantity, now, and ten million people's preferences when it comes to their choice of alternate routes have begun to settle into routine.

From the helicopter, things look fine. A little more construction going on than average, sure. But nothing is still smoking; the fires are all out. The rubble's been cleared away. Things look fine, and it's nice to think that maybe soon they will be.

But Bruce has never seen the point in indulging in the luxury of thinking nice things.

He spends the helicopter ride gazing down at the city, the bay, with Bruce Wayne's mindless stare, and considers the avenues he's intending to pursue. The landing pad, the elevator ride, the car—Bruce bears it with a patience Alfred would surely be proud of, and then the moment he's inside the lake house, he can finally head for the stairs and get to work.

Immediately after the event, his focus had been on one thing and one thing only. The first and most crucial step in any operation was reconnaissance—gathering intelligence. He'd been blindsided in every possible sense by the events of Black Zero, and that was unacceptable, unbearable: he needed to understand what had happened and how, whether there was anything he could do if it happened again, and he needed it as soon as he could get it.

Fortunately, a staggering amount of footage of the event and all its participants had been available, news channels mustering a thousand cameras; and Bruce had methodically scraped even more from social media, shaky smartphones and dashboard cameras adding a few hundred more angles.

And every single frame of it has directed him straight at this "Superman". Superman and that ship.

Bruce sits back in his chair, runs eight painstakingly time-synced files on three monitors, and watches again, though by now he knows the sequence of events so well he could probably sketch himself a flip-book version. This blast of flame; that tremor; those explosions; the toppling of a building that shows up from three of the angles as a distant smear of dust in the corner, and overwhelms a fourth with darkness like the end of the world. And, of course, that figure: streaking through the middle of it, flash of red and blue and a tiny personal vapor cone. Unimaginable power. Titans locked in combat—and humanity left to cower and seek shelter from the thunder and lightning cast by the clash of their weapons. One of the oldest stories in the world to explain the terror of an incomprehensible storm.

The videos loop around again, and Bruce leans in. Reconnaissance, gathering intelligence; and there are several hundred extremely good questions that all the video in the world can't answer.

Which is why he's starting to think he needs to find a way to get into that ship.

Kryptonian ship—Kryptonian weapons, and therefore by extension weapons Kryptonians had designed to use against each other, if they were anything like humans. Which means those weapons ought to be effective against Superman, and might be the only thing on the planet that is. Unless, of course, there are other factors involved that he can't control for. Kryptonians are evidently capable of surviving on Earth, but their homeworld must nevertheless be different, or there would be no reason for them to have begun such a drastic terraforming—kryptoforming—process. Bruce has run the analysis, the accompanying simulations, several times: there's a significant chance that Superman's superior acclimatization to Earth conditions contributed to his success.

Does Earth change the outcome? Will weapons that could hurt Kryptonians under Kryptonian conditions harm Superman less—or not at all? There's a certain terrible irony to the idea that Earth has made Superman so powerful nothing can save it from him.

(A terrible irony that feels like accuracy, to Bruce: of course that's how it will be. Of course this overwhelming potential for destruction is derived from inherent properties of Earth and of Superman respectively—they might as well have been made for this. Of course it was inevitable.

Bruce thinks it, and it feels true.)

Conjecture. The videos loop around again, and this time Bruce watches the ship: it's surprisingly clear in most of the amateur shots, people fighting with their autofocus as it selects a dozen subjects more obvious than the distant little figure of Superman. Bruce has no taste for being railroaded, but in this particular instance there's nowhere else to turn, no other source for the information he needs. It's conjecture, all of it—unless he can find a way to get inside that ship, and secure the answers for himself.

He glances up and toggles a feed to the foreground in one monitor. It was easy enough to attach a camera to the corner of one of the floodlights set up around the crashed ship, to keep an eye on things. It's been less easy to figure out how to do just about anything else.

But it's been months. In the first few days after Black Zero, it would have been utterly impossible—rescue operations had still been ongoing, and after that it had been cleanup crews, day and night, carting the rubble away and looking for bodies underneath. The probabilities have been improving ever since: the civilian crowds have dwindled as life stubbornly continues to go on, and security around the tentative government research installation is beginning to settle into recognizable routine.

Another week or two, and perhaps a shadow could slip by unnoticed at last—

"Sir."

"Alfred." Bruce doesn't look away from the monitors, because he doesn't have to. He can hear the clink of a plate, a cup, against the desk; and he can feel the vague dim chill of Alfred's disapproval, rolling into the Cave like fog.

"At it again, I see," Alfred murmurs, very evenly.

And Alfred can, in fact, see it for himself, so there's no point in replying. Bruce taps a couple keys, zooms in on three of the videos and then starts them all playing again.

"If I may ask, sir—"

Bruce sighs. "Alfred—"

"—has the seven-thousand-and-first viewing provided insight lacking after the seven-thousandth?" Alfred's tone is polite, inquiring, and utterly uncowed.

"Once the computer's finished with the virtual model of the ship," Bruce says, gesturing to a screen off to the side that's courteously displaying the associated progress bar, "I'll need to cross-check and make adjustments. And generate a secondary model that includes the damage."

"Yes, of course," Alfred agrees. "The ship," and then he leans in to peer pointedly at one of the monitors: widescreen, the highest definition Bruce had been able to locate, and—

And the ship is nothing but a dark blur in the background, depth of field oscillating around the figure of Superman in the air.

Bruce refuses to feel caught out; there's nothing to feel caught out for. "Know thine enemy," he says briskly, absently.

"Know thyself," Alfred says, very low.

Bruce looks up, the patience he's bound himself with all afternoon finally starting to fray. He feels about ready to thank Alfred for his input and ask him whether there isn't anything upstairs that needs doing—but Alfred isn't looking back. Alfred's still gazing at the screen, at the blue-and-red dart of Superman hurtling through the air, and there's something soft and nearly sorry in his face.

"Do you suppose he was afraid?"

Bruce spares the screen a glance. That's about the best view of Superman that's available during this sequence of events—Bruce has checked very, very thoroughly—and it's still impossible to guess what his expression might be. "By all accounts he's indestructible."

"Before this," Alfred says, undeterred. "When he learned they'd found him, when he saw their message. They said they'd destroy the planet if he didn't show himself. After blending in so well for so long—this must have been the last thing he wanted. What a choice to have to make."

Bruce doesn't glance up again. There's no point: he knows what's in the video. And he knows what's at stake here.

"I don't see that it matters," he says.

"Then I suppose it doesn't, sir," Alfred murmurs, and quietly walks away.

Which means Bruce can get back to work.

 

 


 

 

Clark doesn't realize how late it's gotten until the lights shut off. "Hey, sorry, could you—" he starts to say, automatic, and then his head comes up and he can see that it's Lois.

She's standing by the bank of office light switches, finger lined up to flip them all back on. And she can't see in the dark like Clark can, but her eyes are still on him, unerring—she put them there before she hit the lights, Clark thinks, knowing what he'd see when he looked up.

She waits a single precise beat, because she knows how to write a story. And then with a four-fold click! the lights come back on, and she tilts her head and says gently, "Smallville. What happened?"

Clark looks away. "What did you tell Perry?"

Lois lets out half a breath, and then crosses the room, rounds the corner of the desk and touches his hand. "Oh, Clark," she says. "I hardly had to tell him anything. You've been so—" She stops, and then gestures helplessly at the empty office: at Clark, sitting in it alone, and the windows, the darkness outside. Not lost for words, but she knows when a picture's worth a thousand of them.

And it's not like Clark can argue. He grimaces at his keyboard. This is the third time this has happened, and—he sneaks a glance at his watch and grimaces again—the latest it's been when she's found him. He doesn't mean to, he never has. It feels like it was maybe fifteen minutes ago that he'd let himself out of Perry's office and come over here to sit down. He'd done fine in Perry's office, Perry hadn't seen anything; but all that meant was that it had been waiting for him after, held off but not gone, ready to drag him down.

(The screaming, it had been—he'd been able to hear all of it, even in the middle of the—)

"He just wanted to know what I thought," Lois is saying. "He didn't say it in so many words, but you're new and he likes you, and Black Zero was—the whole city is a mess. He's a mess. I'm a mess," and she laughs and shakes her hair back and has to swipe a sudden wetness away from the corners of her eyes before she looks at Clark again. "He didn't want to lose you, that's all. Didn't want to give you something too tough, not right now, but he didn't want to insult you with something too easy. He was looking for a second opinion, and I gave him one."

"Oh," Clark says, looking down again.

"Clark? What did he—"

"Wayne Enterprises," he says, because he doesn't want to have to wait through her finishing the question when he knows what she's asking—doesn't want this to take any longer than it has to. "The building—one of their buildings, the financial office in Metropolis. It came down, and they're—he wants me to—"

It's not a bad thing. It's—it's important, to cover the process of reconstruction and recovery. And Clark should—this is all his—he should have to look at it. Shouldn't he? He should have to look at it, to see the things that have happened to this city because of him. It would be wrong to do anything else.

(Dad would have thought so.)

But his game face isn't good enough for Lois, because she knows what Perry didn't. "Oh, Clark," she says, and squeezes his hand, ducks in close to press her forehead to his temple. "Clark, I'm sorry—I didn't know that was one of the options he had in mind—"

He closes his eyes. "Could have been worse," he says, aiming for light. "Could have been the train station."

But that lands like a lead balloon. Lois goes still, doesn't say anything; for a moment Clark's pretty sure she's not even breathing.

And then she settles her free hand against the back of his neck, steady and warm, and says, "Clark. Clark, do you need to talk about—"

He doesn't even decide to move. He just—already has, somehow, before she's even finished saying it. He's halfway across the room and breathing hard, even though it couldn't possibly qualify as an exertion, not for him; and Lois is braced next to his empty chair with her hair only just starting to settle from the breeze he made.

She blinks and catches her breath, twists to look for him, and she doesn't even look scared—just worried, just sad.

"Sorry," Clark says quickly, "sorry. I just, I can't—"

"No, no, it's okay," Lois says, holding her hands up. Like he's the one with something to be frightened of; like she's the one who needs to be careful. "It's all right."

(—a soft cracking sound, and the feeling of something giving way beneath his hands—)

"I'm sorry," Clark says again, and he's not sure who he's saying it to. "I didn't mean to—I didn't want to—"

He presses his hands to his face before the sting in his eyes can turn into anything else; and Lois says, "I know, Clark. It's okay," from much closer, a second before her arms come up around him and squeeze tight.

"I'm sorry—"

"Yeah, yeah, you're a mess too," Lois murmurs into his hair, and doesn't let go. "Join the club, Smallville. It's okay."

 

 

*

 

 

Clark feels a little better about it the next morning. It's an interview, and he's not so bad at talking to people one-on-one. An ongoing feature means he's going to have some time to figure this out, to decide what angle he wants to take or to try a couple different ones and see what Perry likes. And the building, the lot where it was, won't be—they'll have cleaned things up by now. It won't be the way it was on Black Zero. There's nothing to be afraid of.

So he feels better about it. And Lois can probably tell, or else she wouldn't have started giving him such terrifying advice.

"Don't smile at him," she says, "or he'll take it as an excuse to leer. Don't call him 'Brucie', either—same reason. Basically anything he says while he's smiling is bullshit, and if you take it seriously in any way he'll start hitting on you instead of answering your questions—"

"This is Bruce Wayne we're talking about, right?" Clark says. He hadn't done any googling or anything, just some baseline research on Wayne Enterprises itself; it hadn't seemed right to go to an interview like this with a bunch of preconceptions based on online gossip. But surely— "He's the CEO, not a drunk fratboy."

"Bruce Wayne is the CEO and a drunk fratboy," Lois says, and straightens Clark's tie. "Just stay on the opposite side of the desk from him and try to get a quote that will sound halfway decent out of context. He'll probably sleaze his way out of it and get somebody else to take over about five minutes in, anyway." She smiles at him and pats his cheek, and then adds, "Now get going, Smallville. I have my own shit to do today, and you don't want to be late."

"Yes, ma'am," Clark says, and when he tacks on a little salute, she laughs and shoos him away.

He rides the bright warmth that puts in his chest all the way down to the street. But—

But it gets harder after that. Not bad—not sitting-in-a-dark-room-alone bad. Just harder. He has to pass some construction on his way to the temporary Wayne Enterprises office; some construction, and the vast ragged pit in the street that they're trying to fill in with it, with the sidewalk, the cement, still blackened and scraped—

(—the smell of it, smoke and ozone—smoke and ozone and flesh—)

"You okay?"

Clark blinks and looks up. A woman's paused and touched his shoulder, waiting for him to meet her gaze; and the pedestrians around them aren't just brushing past but slowing, skimming his face with careful eyes, nodding a little before they go by. Because—

Because he came to a stop right in front of one of the memorials. The sidewalk ahead of him, the wall next to it, is covered with pictures, taped and pinned and pasted every which way; and flowers are piled up underneath, cards and candles and a single tuxedo-patterned lucky cat figurine.

Clark swallows and tries a smile. "Yes," he says, and it comes out weird and sort of scraped but the woman doesn't look at him funny for it. "Yes, I'm—it's fine. Thanks."

"All right," she says, and squeezes his arm for just a second, sympathetic, before she lets go and keeps walking. Expressing solidarity, because she thinks he's like her: that he was on the ground, helpless, ordinary—that Black Zero happened to him like it happened to everybody else. Because she thinks he deserves it.

But that doesn't have anything to do with Bruce Wayne. Clark shakes himself and starts walking again; maybe he'll buy some flowers on the way back, to leave here. He'll get to the Wayne Enterprises office, and he'll go in and find Bruce Wayne's office, and he'll be polite—which includes smiling, no matter what Lois said. He'll ask his questions, get a feel for the project, decide on an angle. Maybe he can get in touch with the architect, even if he doesn't pry anything useful out of Bruce Wayne. It'll be fine.

 

 

*

 

 

It's not fine.

Clark's gameplan falls apart—well, just about where Lois had said it would, so probably he should have listened to her. He obviously doesn't have any trouble getting to the building, or finding the right floor once the receptionist tells him where Wayne's office is.

But then Wayne's personal assistant shows him in, and he smiles and holds out his hand, and Bruce Wayne happens to him.

"Hello, Mr. Wayne—I'm—"

"One second," Mr. Wayne says, without looking up from his phone. He chuckles a little, swipes once and then again with his thumb, and then sets his fingers against the screen and splays them like—is he zooming in on a Grumpy Cat meme?

Clark clears his throat. Polite, he reminds himself. Even if Mr. Wayne can't manage the same in return. "Excuse me, Mr. Wayne. Mr. Wayne?"

"Hm?" Mr. Wayne says. "Look, you're better off getting Georgia—"

"Ginger," someone murmurs on the edge of Clark's hearing, half a sigh, on the other side of Mr. Wayne's office door.

"—back in here and asking her whatever it is you want to know."

"If you weren't the right person to ask," Clark says, "my appointment wouldn't be with you, Mr. Wayne."

"Your appointment is with me because I'm the only person in this building who doesn't have real work to do," Mr. Wayne says, still captivated by his phone, and Clark honestly can't tell who he's trying to insult most, Clark or himself.

And then Mr. Wayne looks up—and blatantly double-takes. Clark freezes in place. Is there something on his face? Did Lois do something to his hair before he left? Draw a smiley face, or a dick—or both—on the tie?

"And I wouldn't be complaining about it," Mr. Wayne murmurs, "if they'd sent a picture."

Clark gapes at him—which should by all rights put paid to any impression on Mr. Wayne's part that Clark is attractive—and feels himself flush, slow heat crawling into his cheeks and up his ears. "Uh—Mr. Wayne—"

"Bruce, please," Mr. Wayne says, with a sudden warm smile, sliding the phone onto his desk and standing to take Clark's still-outstretched hand. His handshake's fine, solid; he hangs on a little longer than Clark thinks is normal, and he's—taller than Clark had realized.

His suit fits him really well.

Clark clears his throat again. "Thank you in advance for your time, Mr. Wayne," he says. "I just have a few questions about the office tower you're constructing—reconstructing—on 4th, and then I'll get out of your way."

"Oh, I'd rather you were in it," Mr. Wayne murmurs. He still hasn't let go of Clark's hand. "In fact, I can think of quite a few things I'd like you to be in—"

"Mr. Wayne," Clark says firmly, and tugs his hand away with an extremely polite smile. Jesus, what is this guy's problem? How did somebody like this ever become CEO of anything? "If you have a copy of the building plans that we could look over while we talk, that would be great."

Mr. Wayne's eyes narrow for a split second; and then his smile gets even wider. "Sure, sure," he says, breezy. "I think we've got something like that lying around." He's leaning in just a hair closer than he should be, just enough to make Clark want to back up; but on principle alone, it seems like a bad idea to cede ground. Clark frowns a little and doesn't move, and Mr. Wayne laughs, a quick half-breath through his nose, before he shifts away and waves a hand. "Should be over there. Give me a moment and I'll have Gina get you the architect's contact information, all right? I bet she'll be much more help to you than I will." He winks.

And then he steps away, turns around. It's like a spotlight has swung off Clark, or a change in the air pressure—Mr. Wayne's focused attention somehow manages to take up a tremendous amount of space. Having it lift so suddenly is almost a relief.

Clark takes the opportunity to actually look around the office. Rented space, and maybe it's just because he knew that going in, but it feels almost like he can tell. Bruce Wayne's office furniture is all—sleek, expensive; chrome and plate glass and black leather. If Clark had to guess, the floors in most WE buildings are black, too, and that's what makes it work. But this building has warm bright wood, varnished. Doesn't quite suit.

Mr. Wayne's desk puts his back to the windows—though if the way he was sitting when Clark first came in is any indicator, he tends to slouch sideways. Probably even puts his feet up. Clark can't help imagining Mom striding in and smacking them off again, giving Mr. Wayne a stern look; he almost laughs, but manages to turn it into a small cough instead.

And there's a table, separate from Mr. Wayne's desk, still chrome and glass but with several less extravagant chairs positioned around it—where people who do real work sit, Clark thinks, when they need to talk to Mr. Wayne. That's where Mr. Wayne had been waving toward, that table, and Clark takes a step closer and sees that it is in fact stacked with blueprints. Blueprints, diagrams, annotated quotes for materials, and—

Clark frowns and moves nearer, shifting sideways around the table until most of what he can see is right-side-up. There's something sticking out from underneath the other papers: pages of—photographs, it looks like. A whole binder of them. People, all kinds of different people, men and women and a few children, mostly smiling at the camera; but not always. Some of them are portraits, but some just look like candids—one woman is turned half away, a sunset caught in the background of her profile, braids spilling over her shoulder.

"They're the people who died."

Clark jerks around. Mr. Wayne has finished talking to his assistant, has closed his office door again, and is standing there with his arms crossed, watching Clark. When Clark meets his eyes, he offers up a jarringly bland smile.

"When the building came down," Mr. Wayne clarifies. "On 4th. They're the people who died.

"Not all of them were employees—some of them were independent contractors, or kids in the child care center. Some of them were on the street outside. Parts of the building seem to have just been vaporized, and temperatures got pretty high in others, but everyone we were able to find and identify is in there."

"Why?" Clark says unsteadily, because—because he's a reporter, and reporters ask questions.

(Because he wants to hear someone say it.)

And Mr. Wayne shrugs a shoulder, but his answer is anything but noncommittal. "Because they're going into the new one. I'm not sure we've settled on a technique yet," he adds. "It would be easiest to do hanging portraits, but the architect is interested in pursuing something that would place the images directly onto the walls—maybe ceramic on glass, but we've had trouble getting a quote—"

But that isn't what Clark wants to know. "Why," he says again, more quietly.

And that, of all things, makes Mr. Wayne's gaze turn sharp. That makes Mr. Wayne look almost angry—angry, as though he hadn't been clasping Clark's hand and leering into his face, gleefully piling on innuendo, not five minutes ago.

"To remember them, Mr. Kent. To honor them. To make it so we can't ever be foolish enough to forget what we've lost, to forget that it matters. You journalists—" and Mr. Wayne waves a hand at Clark, dismissive; almost enough to remind Clark of the man he'd first walked in on, the one who wouldn't look up from his smartphone, except this version is just a shade too bitter to match. "You and your 24-hour news cycle, your breathless thinkpieces about aliens, about existential crises and politics and God, about Superman—" and Mr. Wayne breaks off and laughs, cutting and unamused. "As if he did them any good. As if any of it does."

Clark doesn't reply. How could he?

(He wanted to hear someone say it.)

He looks down instead, pressing his hand flat over the page of photographs; his fingertips end up splayed across that woman's profile, the line of her throat and chin—just like they would be if he had his hands wrapped around her neck, if he were about to—

He realizes distantly that that sound is the table—the glass top of it, creaking with strain, a high singing whine no human would be able to hear. He sucks in a breath and wrenches himself backward before it can break, and manages to drag his head up long enough to say, "Excuse me, Mr. Wayne, I'm—I need a minute," before he brushes past and tugs the door open and gets himself out of there.

 

 

*

 

 

The bathrooms are easy to find—Clark doesn't even have to ask. He can just take a quick glance through the walls, looking for the plumbing.

And looking to make sure there isn't anyone else inside, which there isn't. The water is cold, a perfect sharp shock when he splashes it on his face; and then he stands there leaning over the sink, staring at his own wet reflection in the mirror, and can't even say what it is he's looking for.

It happens just like the other night: for a minute, he can't seem to hear anything except his own breathing, his own heart beating. So there's no approaching footsteps to warn him, and he turns at the creak of the door opening—just like Clark Kent ought to.

It is—of course—Mr. Wayne.

Clark just stares at him for a second; and then Wayne raises an eyebrow, and Clark realizes his eyelashes are still dripping and hurries over to the paper towel dispenser. "Sorry for the interruption, Mr. Wayne, I'll only be a minute—"

"It's all right, Mr. Kent," Wayne says, more carefully than Clark might have expected.

Clark buries his face in the paper towel, but Wayne doesn't seem to take this as a hint; Clark hears the door close, but not because Wayne's stepped back through it.

"Mr. Wayne," Clark says, wiping at his forehead with a corner, "this really isn't—"

"You were in the city," Wayne interrupts. "On the day."

That's one way of putting it. Clark manages not to laugh—balls the towel up instead, throws it away, and doesn't look up. "Yes. I was."

"But you're not from around here."

Another thing that's a little more true than Wayne intends it to be. "No," Clark agrees. "No, I'm—new in town."

"Bad timing," Wayne observes mildly, after a moment, and that does make Clark laugh.

He turns around—and then tilts his head back, leans into the wall beside the dispenser, and lets himself slide down until he's sitting on the gleaming tile floor. It's not appropriate, Clark's supposed to be working; but Wayne's an inappropriate guy. He won't mind.

And, sure enough, he looks down at Clark with his head tilted, hands in the pockets of his perfectly-tailored slacks, and doesn't say anything.

At least not about Clark's choice of seat. After a beat of conspicuous silence, he does say, "I was, too."

Clark looks up.

"Here, in the city," Wayne adds. His gaze shifts from Clark to the middle distance, and for a moment his whole face has changed, turned stark and serious. "One of the people in that book you were looking at—Jack O'Dwyer. I was on the phone with him when it happened. I was just down the street from the office on 4th when it came down."

"And you're all right now?" Clark says, trying to guess where Wayne's going with this. "You gave it time, and you're—"

"No," Wayne says, unhesitating, oddly calm considering what he's saying. "No, Mr. Kent. For me, I think that ship has sailed," and Clark almost believes it, in that instant: Wayne looks so tired. But then his gaze snaps back to Clark's face and he smiles. "But you will be."

"What?" Clark says, the thread lost.

"All right," Wayne says, and shifts one foot over far enough to nudge Clark's scuffed dress shoe with his own Italian leather. "You will be, Mr. Kent. It'll take longer than you want it to, and it won't feel quite the same as it used to. But one day you'll realize you've gotten there anyway.

"And in the meantime, even if you're not all right?" and his tone changes just enough, goes light enough and slick enough that Clark is almost ready for the slow deliberate wandering of his eyes: down Clark's throat, the line of his tie, his bent knees that suddenly feel too far apart— "I can personally assure you that you'll still be fine."

It's such a ludicrous thing to say that Clark can only gape—gape and then snort, helplessly, at the sheer brass-balled ridiculousness of it.

"Now hurry up and get off my floor, Mr. Kent," Wayne adds. "Time is money—businesspeople say that kind of thing, don't they?"

 

 


 

 

Bruce lets the bathroom door swing shut behind him without waiting, to give Kent an extra thirty seconds if he wants them—and to give himself an extra thirty seconds to decide just how damaging a lapse that was.

It could have been worse. Bruce Wayne is allowed to show the occasional flash of integrity, when the circumstances are dire enough; Black Zero had necessitated it, and it's only reasonable that he'd be affected by the aftermath, just like everyone else. It would be stranger if he weren't, in point of fact—if anything, Bruce Wayne is meant to be too much at the mercy of whim and inconstant sentiment, rather than impervious to it.

Besides, that final execrable line had done a lot to overshadow the rest of it, if the expression that had been on Kent's face before the door closed was any indication.

Bruce just has to try not to make any more mistakes with Kent. That's all.

 

 

*

 

 

He's sublimely irritating for the rest of the interview—fidgeting, fiddling with things, tossing a stapler from hand to hand; answering as many questions as possible with vague non-answers or too-intent come-ons. Kent is terrible at hiding his frustration, eyebrows drawing closer together with every wink Bruce throws in, the perfect stern frown line over the bridge of his nose carving itself deep.

So it's not going to be a problem, Bruce thinks. Kent will decide it was an aberration—that just because Bruce Wayne can say one thoughtful thing, that doesn't mean he isn't a dick. It'll be fine.

And he thinks that right up until the interview ends. Kent purses his lips, manages to dredge up something polite about how he's got enough to work with for now and he appreciates having been allowed to take up Bruce's time—and then he shakes his head, glances down at his notepad, and for some reason starts to smile.

He reaches out for Bruce's hand, and this time he's the one who pauses, dragging the handshake out, broad fingers gentling suddenly against Bruce's palm. "Thank you," he says quietly; and then again, more firmly, "Thank you. You're an ass, Mr. Wayne—" and he flashes the smile a little wider for a moment, a little warmer. "—but you were kind to me and I'm grateful for it. I won't forget it."

Damn. "You ought to be a little more careful about saying that to me," Bruce says aloud, with a carefully-calibrated leer. "I'm not very restrained about calling in IOUs, Mr. Kent."

But Kent doesn't blink. "I'll keep that in mind, Mr. Wayne," he says, with one last firm shake; and then he's out the door, nodding to Ginger as he passes her desk.

A little good press won't hurt Wayne Enterprises, Bruce supposes. And this is meant to be some kind of ongoing feature. Bruce will have plenty of time to disabuse Kent of any unnecessarily generous notions he's having about Bruce Wayne.

 

 

*

 

 

All thoughts of Kent and what he did or didn't see are set aside for the day once Bruce is back in the Cave. His focus on Superman needs to be absolute.

Bruce slots himself into place in front of the bank of monitors, and the alert that had popped up on his phone earlier repeats itself: a flag has come up, one of the notifications he put in place to track any new developments regarding the crashed ship.

On the phone, it had just been an alert—here, he can finally dig into the context. He's been tracking government contracts up for bid, and one has appeared that's pinged all the parameters he put in place; it doesn't mention the ship or Metropolis directly, but he wouldn't expect it to, and 92 percent of the keywords he would expect have been used in the associated text. And—

Bruce feels his eyebrows rise. It's nothing concrete, just a pattern of movement: assets being shifted and in certain cases reactivated; social media chatter from a low-level employee, who's going to be stuck late at work pulling together unspecified paperwork for an unnamed bid.

He fires off a quick email from one of his burner accounts, and receives confirmation from his contact within twenty minutes.

And that's not concrete either, but it's as close as Bruce can get today. Which raises the question: what does Lex Luthor want with that ship?

Bruce has been monitoring it, trying to work out a way to crack it, because it's the obvious angle; but in some ways it's a little too obvious. He's accepted the idea that the ship may be his best shot, but he's been reluctant to assign it too much weight. In theory, it's simply bad strategy—if all his time and energy is devoted solely to the ship and then the ship proves useless, he's back at square one. Better to find multiple avenues to pursue, and balance the most promising among them until one pays off. And in practice—

In practice, surely Superman wouldn't be stupid enough to leave something capable of killing him sitting in the middle of Metropolis. The ship's weaponry is still of interest, given the potential for Bruce to reverse-engineer or adapt it into something that can kill Superman; and anything else Bruce can get out of it, data or system logs, information on Kryptonian linguistics or biology or even building materials—something that might be able to stand up to Superman or take a hit from him—will undoubtedly prove valuable one way or another.

But if Lex Luthor is after it—

Perhaps it's simply a matter of recognizing the mundane potential inherent in the ship. What can be gleaned from that thing won't be at the cutting edge of R&D so much as the bleeding edge, leaps and bounds ahead of any competitor in the same field working with terrestrial resources. Perhaps it's just LexCorp pursuing an opportunity.

But Lex Luthor is on Bruce's radar for a reason. Nothing's ever been pinned on him, no charges have ever been filed; but over the years, Bruce has heard his name in the wrong places enough times and tripped over enough circumstantial evidence to know that Luthor's worth keeping an eye on. And if he's able to get out of the ship what Bruce intends to get out of it—the last thing Bruce would ever want is Superman on a LexCorp leash.

Bruce eyes the contract description one more time, and then glances up at the screen where completed 3D renders of the ship—damaged and undamaged models, both displayed separately and layered over each other—are rotating slowly.

It would, of course, only be reasonable for Wayne Enterprises to prepare a competing bid. They've taken government research contracts before, and on the surface, this one isn't out of the ordinary. Having jumped on it so quickly himself, Luthor can't get any mileage out of questioning Bruce's motives; for all he knows, Bruce Wayne is reflexively, mindlessly reacting to the decisions of a business rival, pursuing this contract solely because he caught wind of a rumor that LexCorp had gone after it first.

And no matter where the contract is awarded in the end, Batman should be capable of beating them both to the punch.

 

 


 

 

Clark feels—better, on his way back to the Planet building.

Not good; not all right. But better, sort of. He hasn't laughed much since Black Zero—he hadn't even realized it, until he did today and it felt strange, unfamiliar. But Wayne was funny. In a kind of terrible way, but: Clark had laughed. It counted.

And it lasts for a good long while, that better feeling. He sits down and types up his notes from the interview—everything useful, not the parts where Wayne had tricked him into starting to write down what sounded like a real answer only to swap partway through to yet another pick-up line. And he's starting to think Wayne handed him a good angle to use for the feature. He'll need permission from the families, a chance to sit down and talk to them, but he's thinking profiles to match the portraits: a weekly memorial, a public acknowledgment of—what had Wayne said? What we've lost. That it matters. It feels like the right thing to do.

Not that Clark's the best judge of that.

It feels like the right thing to do—but he stares at his notes, his screen, and finds himself wishing somebody else were doing it. This shouldn't be up to him. Everyone whose picture is in that binder in Wayne's office is there because—because he couldn't—what right does he have? He isn't the one who should be speaking for them.

But then again, maybe he owes it to them. To the whole city, which lost them and doesn't even realize it—which ought to know what got taken, what exactly it is that's gone and won't ever come back. Maybe it ought to be Clark.

(He heard them screaming. And then he heard them stop—)

Wayne was kind to him. But Wayne doesn't know—doesn't know how deep it goes, how much of it was Clark; he doesn't know who he was talking to. And if he had, would he still have said it? Clark thinks of the way Wayne had spat aliens, and Superman, and is pretty sure he knows the answer.

 

 

*

 

 

So by the evening it's gone, that better feeling; it's drained away. Clark at least remembers to get out of his chair, this time, and manages not to be the last one in the office. He's got his notes typed up, an outline taking shape, another appointment with Wayne Enterprises and a voicemail left for the architect. Perry won't have anything to complain about.

He leaves and he walks back to his apartment, and he does it at a relentless, impassable distance from—from everything, a muted empty vastness yawning wide between him and everyone else who's an arm's length away on the same street.

The distance gets smaller, paradoxically, once he's up on the roof. He's focused this time, ready, with the uniform on and everything. He opens himself up, carefully concentrating—he's not going to let his hearing get stuck the way it has been, his own body and nothing else. And then—

Then he just ends up listening. There's a family somewhere, eating dinner together—takeout, Thai, and teasing one another for getting the same thing every single time, no matter how long they all spend poring over the menu. A man who lives alone not far away, feeding his cats and scolding them, telling them in a fond tone how fat they are and wondering how they can be so fat and so picky at the same time. A girl trying to get the lock on her bike undone, cursing and laughing alternately as the friend standing next to her makes fun of her. All these bits and pieces of Metropolis that haven't been lost, that are still here after everything. He stands up there and listens to them, and it feels almost like he isn't alone.

But that's wrong. He is alone. He's alone and that's for the best—Mom is safe at home, and Kryptonians—

Kryptonians tore this city apart. It's good that Clark is the only one left. These people don't know him, they're—they don't know he's listening to them. He shouldn't even be doing it. He knows better; Mom stopped needing to give him that lecture when he was about twelve. He knows better than to use his powers on people like that unless someone is in danger.

He sucks in a breath and makes himself widen the scope: the soundscape of Metropolis in the evening just laid out around him, not picking out anybody specific. Impersonal. If he hears a shout, a sob, he'll focus in, and if it's something Superman can help with, then Superman will help. That's all.

He's alone up here, and that's how it should be. Anything else is courting disaster.

 

 

*

 

 

Except he can't spend all his time alone in the dark on the roof of his apartment building. Clark Kent's got a weekly feature to plan.

The whole way to Wayne's office, he's bracing himself, trying to imagine what nonsense Wayne will come up with this time. Maybe he should just ask Ginger for contact information, for the families—maybe not saying anything to Wayne at all is the better part of valor. (Would he get strange and severe again? Or just make an awful off-color joke? Which would bother Clark more? He can't decide.)

But when he actually reaches Ginger's desk, she looks up at him with a rueful smile and says, "I'm sorry, Mr. Kent—Mr. Wayne has stepped out for the afternoon."

Clark blinks. "For the afternoon," he repeats.

"For the whole day," Ginger amends. "Or at least—he told me not to expect him back, and to clear his schedule. I reminded him that you were coming, and he said you'd be better off talking to Ms. Syl directly anyway. She's waiting for you one floor down."

Cyndia Syl—the architect. It's not exactly a disappointment, Clark had been hoping to talk to her too; but all the same he finds something in his gut has sunk a little, hearing that Wayne's dodged him.

But that's all right. Wayne's dodging, fine. That doesn't mean Clark has to let him get away with it.

"Will he be in tomorrow?"

"I'm afraid I can't say," Ginger tells him—which is both the non-answer she's probably supposed to give and the truth, Clark suspects. For all she knows, Wayne's going to decide to spend tomorrow in Tahiti.

"All right," Clark says, and smiles at her. "In that case, I'll come back then."

"Mr. Kent," Ginger says, looking a little uncomfortable now; but Clark smiles a little wider and shakes his head.

"No, no, it's okay. I'll be back then, and the day after. And," Clark adds, "every day after that until he happens to be in again. If you have the opportunity, please tell him I said so."

And Ginger looks at Clark for a second with her eyes narrowed, and then starts to smile back. "All right, Mr. Kent," she says, and there's a hint of real warmth somewhere under her brisk polished tone. "I'll—let him know. If I have the opportunity."

"Great," Clark says. "Thank you so much. And Ms. Syl is downstairs, you said?"

"One floor," Ginger confirms, "in the office across from the elevator. Have a wonderful day, Mr. Kent," and Clark thinks maybe she even means it.

It might be stupid—it's probably stupid—but this feels like it's the one thing Clark can do, suddenly. Everything else is hard, hard, all the time, long endless mire; but this single thing, being stubborn at Bruce Wayne, won't be hard. Not like that. And Clark's discovering that whether he's the right person to write it or not, this feature matters to him: the things it should show, the things it will say, it's—it matters. It's not life-and-death, not a crisis, not a Superman thing. But it matters.

So he'll go downstairs and talk to Cyndia Syl about her vision, about Wayne Enterprises and Metropolis and why she chose to take on this project. And then he'll come back, as many times as it takes for him to get something real out of Bruce Wayne.

 

 


 

 

Bruce presses himself flat against the hull of the ship and listens.

He'd had four and a half seconds to cross almost fifty meters without drawing attention. A week of simulations and a single field test had demonstrated that the security and surveillance systems currently deployed around the ship could be disrupted for a maximum of five seconds before an automated alert would go off. And Bruce hadn't wanted to count on taking the entire five seconds.

It had been easier to figure out where to make the entry than it had been to figure out how it would be done—there simply weren't enough personnel for the research installation to cover the entire ship, so a section had been chosen as a starting point and the rest had been marked off. Only the outer security net needed to be bypassed; on the inside, entire decks of the ship lie empty, unmonitored.

And now Bruce has made the dash to one of them. It only remains to be seen whether—

"No movement of personnel on this end, sir," Alfred murmurs, over the comm securely tucked into Bruce's ear. "It would appear that you have in fact gone unnoticed."

"Understood," Bruce says, so softly the Bat's modulator doesn't even activate; but his microphone sensitivity is at its maximum. Alfred will hear him.

The mission, the priorities, are clear. There's no time to waste: it's impossible to say whether Bruce will be able to access the Kryptonian systems at all, whether they'll even be computers in any way Bruce is capable of understanding that word. Even if he can access them, he may not be able to retrieve or copy any of the data stored in them, and even if he can retrieve or copy the data, he may not be able to translate it into something any human computer system, or even a human mind, can parse. He needs to stay focused, to keep his mind on the tasks in front of him and make his assessments as quickly and as accurately as he can.

But it's impossible not to cast a few unnecessary glances around the corridors as he searches for anything that resembles a console. The cowl's low-light vision apparatus is catching glimmers of something that isn't color but is nevertheless patterned, even decorative, arching across the walls and ceiling—and there had been no sign of any such thing in any of the day-lit footage that had caught portions of the interior, but Bruce supposes it's not out of the question to think Kryptonians see in wavelengths human eyes don't. And the walls themselves, the structure of the place, is so—streamlined. There's something almost organic about it, a sense of radial symmetry reminiscent of certain terrestrial sea life. It's so vast and strange and silent; unsettling and lovely at the same time.

"Hm," Alfred says, and Bruce refocuses his attention instantly.

"'Hm'?"

"I was just reviewing what little we've been able to access of the existing research done to date." Alfred makes another small considering sound. "So much is made of the apparent complexity of it all—the few automatic functions that have been activated here and there are simply improbable without a staggeringly advanced technological foundation."

"And?" Bruce says absently, slowing with a frown. The ship is profoundly alien, yes; Kryptonians might possess abilities of which Bruce knows nothing; but it still seems odd that he hasn't passed a single hatch or doorway—

"It occurs to me, sir," Alfred muses, "that even if the installation personnel are thoroughly ignorant of your ingress, there may yet be someone else who is not."

Bruce frowns, even though the lion's share of his attention is still devoted to scouring the nearest walls for signs of hidden panels or keypads he's missed. Alfred knows how much Bruce hates it when he's cryptic on mission comms. "Unusual readings on the monitors?"

"A profound understatement, sir," Alfred says, sounding both terribly dry and a bit distracted.

And then Bruce has to fight not to hurl himself up the wall when someone else says, very clear and polite, "Are you in need of assistance?"

 

 

*

 

 

He manages to restrain his reaction to a change in stance, a tensing of muscle; his heart kicks up a couple of gears, but his breathing remains steady. Because nothing else would do him any good. The voice isn't coming from a person.

It's coming from the ship.

"Good lord," Alfred murmurs; evidently that maximized microphone sensitivity is adequate to pick up the ship's speech.

Bruce ignores the sudden artificial clarity to his vision, his hearing—adrenaline, it will ease off soon enough—and weighs his options. "Yes," he says carefully. "I am."

"Please state the type of assistance required," the ship offers.

"I need access to a data interface," Bruce says evenly.

The ship is briefly silent. "You are not associated with the active research installation investigating Vrrosh Ghehn, but your technological capabilities register as comparable. Is this assessment accurate?"

For the span of a single moment of vanity, Bruce wants to say no—the suit is beyond anything the researchers could possibly be equipped with. But—

But however vast the difference between 102 and 103 might appear, they're both a miniscule fraction of 101000. All things are relative, and the Gotham Bat has never been so painfully outstripped in all the time he's existed. Bruce would call it humbling, if his heart weren't still pounding a little too hard for reasons that have nothing to do with surprise.

"Yes," he says, and then, to see whether the ship will answer, "I—couldn't understand some of your terminology just then. Can you rephrase?"

"Apologies," the ship says, and it actually does sound faintly aggrieved. "While progress absorbing the linguistic modes and variations of this world meets predefined standards for system function, the data set available is limited in size. The inventory of lexical items required is incomplete at this time, and a certain subset of both constants and variables governing colloquial use remains undefined."

Which is apparently true, if that's the shortest way it can come up with to say "I'm not sure I know the right words yet" in English. Bruce huffs out a breath, but before he can try another angle on the question, something about the wall opposite shifts—and by the time he's turned to look at it, there's an opening that definitely wasn't there before.

Bruce had been prepared for as many different eventualities as he could come up with. For the ship's systems to be incomprehensible to him; for the need to memorize or record any display he did happen across; for whatever method Kryptonians used to store or compress data to be impossible for him to unravel using even the Cave's computers—if they even conceived of data the same way, if they even stored it in any way comparable to human computer memory, if they used anything remotely like code that Bruce might be able to crack.

But he hadn't been prepared for the idea that the ship might have assessed human technology brought into proximity to it—that it might understand the difficulties posed by any attempt to interface such undoubtedly different systems. Or that it might—want to help.

"Please state the type of data you wish to access," it tells him, once it's opened a half-dozen hatches for him and led him into a wide-open room with an oddly textured floor and no visible consoles of any kind.

Bruce hesitates. "Are you familiar with the Kryptonian individual referred to on this world as 'Superman'?"

It's hard to guess what the ship will say. Superman has kept a relatively low profile since Black Zero; Bruce is monitoring every source available to him and has caught wind of only a few sightings he's been willing to classify as genuine. But surely the researchers have discussed him—they're on a ship that crashed into the middle of Metropolis because of him. Surely he's been brought up enough times for the ship to have some basis for making sense of the referent.

And after a moment, the ship does indeed say, slowly, "Yes."

"Any data or records having to do with that individual," Bruce says immediately. "Any data regarding Kryptonian biology, the geology and ecosphere of the planet Krypton, and the full complement of systems and functions this ship is equipped with, whether currently operational or not."

The ship is still, silent, and Bruce wonders whether he's exceeded the limits of its generosity, whether it's about to refuse him or ask for some kind of access code. And then the floor—changes.

Bruce almost leaps away; but the long spiraling curl of metal rising up out of the deck isn't reaching for him. It's just moving. Organizing: shaping itself into a vast pinwheeling curve. And again, the glimmers of something Bruce almost can't see, but only in certain areas.

A representation of the ship's data stores, and the fraction of them that Bruce's request comprises.

"From all available sources?"

Bruce angles a glance up at the ceiling, reflexive, even though the ship's voice isn't coming from anywhere in particular. "Are secondary sources—a possibility?"

"Standard procedure was followed," the ship tells him. "When the—please confirm referent: World Engine? Black Zero?"

Bruce nods—half a test, and the ship does appear to be monitoring his body's position, his movements, and to have picked up a foundational understanding of human body language, because it doesn't repeat the question. The nod was a sufficient answer.

And it's the truth. Those are the phrases the press has been using; the researchers too, probably, if that's where the ship's collecting its data from. He spares a moment to wonder whether Kryptonians name their ships—surely there must be some kind of system of designations, to keep track and prevent confusion.

"When the World Engine and the Black Zero came within range, paired, a link was established," the ship explains. "All ship's data was retrieved before their destruction." A pause, and then, in a soft grave tone, "It is protocol, when a ship dies."

Bruce feels himself go still. "And if there is no one to retrieve yours—"

"This ship is not dead yet," the ship says briskly. "Self-repair procedures have been initiated, but are—currently delayed."

"The installation," Bruce realizes. It's set up within one of the most-damaged areas; the ship's self-repair procedures, completed, would cut the whole thing in half and destroy quite a lot of equipment, at the absolute best. So instead—

So instead, the ship is lying here, damaged, letting them crawl around in its wounds.

"From all available sources?" the ship repeats, calm.

"Yes," Bruce says.

"Packaging now," the ship informs him. In front of him, successive glimmers—the identified data—brighten and then fade away, melt back into the rest of the huge rotating representation; and then all at once a pedestal forms up out of the floor an arm's length from Bruce, with a triangular prism stretched out atop it.

Bruce blinks, frowning, but it stays the same: weird alien metal, something indefinably strange to the eye about the lines and angles of it, ending in a—USB connector.

"This data container is of a design compatible with your systems," the ship announces. "The contents have been adapted to the nearest available approximation of an appropriate—confirm referent: file format?"

"Yes," Bruce says, only a little faintly. And then, out of pure unstoppable reflex, "Thank you."

 

 

*

 

 

"If only that ship realized," Alfred is saying in Bruce's ear, "what rarefied air it breathes! The number of times those two words have passed through that modulator can, I believe, be counted on my thumbs—"

"Most of my contacts aren't nearly that helpful," Bruce says blandly. He pauses at the edge of the rooftop to check for any movement on the ground behind him—Alfred hadn't picked up anything, the exit seemed to have gone just as smoothly as the entry, but it isn't the sort of thing Bruce is comfortable trusting to luck.

(Very few things are.)

The alien USB drive is tucked securely away; he doesn't waste a movement on reaching for it to confirm when a particularly deep breath will work just as well. And yes, there's the press of one of the prism's corners against his ribcage.

Amazing. Bruce had—there had been that message from General Zod, and Superman, and Black Zero; and Bruce couldn't claim to have been expecting any of it, but it was a kind of surprise he was almost used to, braced for. Blows, one after the other, and knowing they were coming before they landed wasn't as important as knowing how to bear them when they did, to roll with them and come back to your feet again afterward. But this was—

This was a good surprise. Bruce had forgotten what those were like.

He stays poised at the corner of the roof for a moment, and just—breathes. It's dark and cool and no one's eyes are on him; he's uninjured, the Batwing is waiting for him at the edge of the water, and Metropolis from here is an appealing sea of lights.

It's a nice night, Bruce lets himself think.

And then—of course—there's a sound on the other end of the comm.

"Problem?"

"No," Alfred says distractedly, "no, I don't believe so. It's—ah. Another one of your alerts, sir. That berth you've been monitoring at the Gotham docks, the one those shipments of Thrill appear to have been coming through—"

Bruce already has another grapnel at the ready. This, unlike a helpful talking ship, is something he's prepared for. "Tell me," he says, and leaps.

 

 


 

 

If it had happened any other night, Clark might not have heard it.

He's trying to be reasonable and take things slow. Superman burst into the public eye in a huge messy rush of disasters—Zod taking the whole world hostage to get at him, and then the assault on Smallville, the military arresting him, Black Zero. It hadn't been—it shouldn't have happened like that. He's been trying to work back up to a reasonable level of visibility, but with constraints: no excessive force. Nothing loud, no major damage. Stick to Metropolis only, except in cases of genuine disaster.

And Metropolis has been making it easy for him. He's not exactly sure why, but maybe the destruction on Black Zero Day made petty crime seem temporarily pettier; for the first couple weeks afterward, there had been almost nothing to help with. The effect is fading as time passes, but he still has the sense that crime just isn't at its usual levels.

So even a minor disturbance at the docks is enough to draw his attention. When he gets there, knives have been drawn but no one's bleeding yet, and he's found that Superman's arrival out of nowhere is incongruous enough to kind of throw most people off-balance. Hardly anybody wants to keep brawling over territory when somebody in a big red cape is looking at them dubiously and holding their knives patiently by the blade.

And it's only because he's over by the docks that he catches the sound.

It's not very loud, and for a minute it's hard to figure out. Kind of a hissing noise, like meat on a grill, but there's something off about it. Clark angles one ear toward the source—across the water, Gotham, and he's been trying to stick to Metropolis, he has, but it's such a weird noise—

And then he realizes that what's off about it is the whimpering layered underneath it: the thin harsh sound of too much pain to even sob over. The whimpering, the short sharp breaths, the hammering heartbeat, and someone else who isn't helping—who's saying, "I want you to feel this, to feel this and remember—"

Clark's already in the air. All he has to do is turn toward Gotham, and fly.

 

 

*

 

 

There's only a couple more seconds to catch after that. A third voice, low and tense, even angry, saying, "Sir. Sir—" But it's at a distance, tinny; coming through a phone, Clark thinks, or some kind of radio, and Clark isn't catching the primary source anywhere in the immediate area. Someone who's too far away to intervene, and that just leaves Clark.

It's more important to stop whatever's happening here than it is to avoid drawing attention. Clark identifies the right building—a warehouse next to one of the berths on the Gotham side of the bay—and just crashes right through the window. There's a rush of sound, of movement, somewhere to one side, and Clark heads straight for it.

But when he gets there, all he finds is one shivering, sweating man, leaning up against a crate and crying quietly, with a fresh burn on his chest. Or—not just a burn, Clark realizes, focusing on it through the dark. A brand.

"Who's that?" the guy rasps, breathless. "Are you—who are you? You have to help me, man, please, it's still in here somewhere—please, God, fuck, it's after me—"

"Shh," Clark says, kneeling down and putting a steady hand on the guy's shoulder, furthest from the wound. "You're going to be okay. Listen to me—hey."

The guy stops muttering, swallows once and then again and lets his head loll back against the crate. "Okay," he says hoarsely. "I'm going to be—fuck, did you see what it did to me? Ah, Jesus—"

"Yeah," Clark says, grim. "I see what it did to you."

A brand, in the shape of a stylized bat. Kind of dramatic—but the pain was real enough. Whoever had done this wanted to make a point, and didn't care about hurting people to make it.

"Shh," Clark adds again, and the guy settles a little under his hand; endorphins must be kicking in, too, by now, and the pain's probably not as bad.

Which means Clark can bring the hearing up again without getting deafened by the guy talking at him. He does it, and swaps to x-ray on top of it; and there is somebody else, a third person breathing somewhere—

—which turns out to be on the roof of the next building over. Clark blinks. Jesus, this guy's fast. How'd he get all the way up there? Clark should've been able to hear him making a scramble for it, even over the guy talking—should've caught a curse or a fumble, the sound of shoes scraping against the wall or rattling over the roof.

And Clark could find out in about two seconds. Except the moment he shifts his weight, the guy grabs for his wrist. "No, no, fuck, you can't leave me here, man—you can't leave me here! It's going to kill me, do you understand? It's going to kill me! You have to get me out of here—"

He's not wrong: Clark shouldn't leave him here, injured, in the dark. And whoever it is who's out there with a brand and—Clark squints—about sixteen other gadgets Clark doesn't even have words for, he clearly came prepared for a fight, even if he didn't think it would be with Superman. Clark can't justify carrying a wounded man along for a wrestling match with the creep who branded him in the first place.

So Clark kneels down and says, "Okay, all right. I'm not going anywhere. I've got you—I'm going to get you some help. Okay?" and he says it again, low and careful, until the guy gets it together enough to nod. "And you, whoever you are: I don't know why you did this, but I'm not going to let you get away with it. I'll find you, and you'll answer for it."

"... Who the fuck are you talking to?" the guy's saying, but Clark sets it aside, focuses on the darkness above them—where someone is breathing, skeleton a mass of compact lines beyond the metal frame of the warehouse.

Breathing, and then saying, so softly Clark almost doesn't catch it, "We'll see," before rising and turning away.

 

 

*

 

 

Admittedly, Clark doesn't exactly have a clear idea where to start. He doesn't want to just stand around with an ear on the bay, listening for some sign of this weirdo branding somebody else. Whoever it was, he was—he was practiced, the way he'd gotten out of there, how good he was at climbing. Which meant he must have done this, or something like it, before. There had to be a record; even if he'd never been caught or arrested, there would still be police reports of similar incidents, something that would make a pattern Clark could turn into a trail to follow.

But he's not—he's been a whole lot of things in his life, but not an investigative reporter. And there's no reason to reinvent the wheel when he can just ask Lois.

So, first thing the next morning, that's exactly what he does.

The best part is that he can tell her everything—what he was doing when he heard it and how he got to the scene—and not edit a word. And she listens intently, right up until he tells her the shape of the brand.

Then she shifts away from him with a funny little frown. "Wait a second," she says. "Are you messing with me? Is this some kind of lead-in to a Gotham Bat story?"

"What?" Clark says. "What Gotham Bat?"

"I keep forgetting," Lois muses, "because it feels like it's been so much longer. But you're still pretty new in town, aren't you, Smallville?"

"Lo—"

She grins and touches the back of his hand, relenting. "The Gotham Bat is kind of our own little Slenderman," she says. "Gotham's, I mean—and Metropolis's, sometimes, though he doesn't usually cross the bay. The stories are persistent enough that the Planet's checked them out now and then, just in case, but it's always the same. Pictures with a dark blur that could be anything; three or four eyewitnesses who agree on the weirdest details, but they've each got their own story of what they were doing there and it's all bullshit. And they're always up for murder, or they're dealers, smugglers, human traffickers—"

"Always?" Clark says. He—he supposes he doesn't actually know what it was the branded guy had been doing in that warehouse at that hour; but he'd been so afraid. If he'd been doing something wrong, then okay: somebody that capable could've just called the police, and maybe scared the guy into staying where he was until they arrived. There hadn't been any need to—do that.

(—I want you to feel this and remember—)

Lois is shrugging. "It seems to turn out that way," she says, and then frowns. "But you said you heard it happen? There was really someone there?"

"Yeah. He was—I heard him talking, but there was something strange about his voice. I think he was using some kind of synthesizer to disguise it," Clark adds slowly, trying to remember exactly what it was about the sound. Something doubled back; the man's real voice and the synthesized version, the barest fraction of a second apart. "And I saw him—just his body, for a second, through the roof."

And he can say things like "I saw him through the roof" to Lois without even slowing her down. "Well," she says. "In that case, I think you've got more proof of the Batman's existence than anybody else. Ever. But if you want to make a feature out of it, you're going to need a lot more than that. 'Nighttime Violence in Gotham' isn't much of a headline."

"No, of course," Clark says. "And it's—I've got the Wayne Enterprises piece to work on, anyway. I don't want to make it anything official, at least not yet. I just want to find out who it was, and what he was doing. Why he did it. If it's really the Bat, or—" Except he's not sure what other option there is; he trails off and then shrugs.

"Or just some creep who's using the Bat's reputation for his own ends," Lois suggests, and then, lightly, "Wandering around in the dark, hunting people down—sounds like you two have a lot in common." She leans in and adds, low, "Maybe the Gotham Bat could give Superman some pointers on not drawing attention to himself—"

She's kidding, eyes bright, the corner of her mouth quirked up; but Clark can't help flinching away from the words. If that had been the Gotham Bat, he'd been—he'd been holding that guy down and hurting him, and he hadn't even sounded sorry about it. That isn't—Superman isn't like that—

"Hey," Lois says carefully, and Clark meets her eyes and wishes he hadn't.

He looks away. "You've got that conference call in like five minutes, don't you?" he says quickly, and Lois looks at her watch and curses.

"You couldn't have said that five minutes ago, Smallville?" she says over her shoulder as she hurries off, and Clark shakes his head, huffs out a laugh, and tells himself he doesn't know why his heart is pounding like it is.

 

 


 

 

There are times when it's particularly handy that Bruce Wayne is such a flake, and the day after a successful mission that has abruptly become critical is one of them.

Not that it hadn't been critical before. Superman is Bruce's highest priority, and has been since the event. The entire purpose of Batman is that he's equipped to deal with threats no one else can handle—and Superman specifically has not proven to be a threat as such, but Kryptonians in the aggregate certainly have. As long as there's still even one of them on Earth, someone has to be prepared. Black Zero can't happen a second time.

But Superman seemed to be keeping a relatively low profile post-event, and it had felt like breathing room. It was important, but not urgent. Bruce could take his time, gather intel and test theories, and Superman wouldn't even know it was happening.

Except now none of that is true. Superman has demonstrated a willingness to trespass in Gotham if he detects activity he doesn't care for. He's aware of Batman's existence and will be paying attention, looking for Bruce; and, depending on the extent of his powers, he may already have been able to assess the suit's capabilities and weaknesses and compile a complete inventory of Bruce's equipment.

Whatever it is that the ship's put on this USB it generated for Bruce, it's abruptly become absolutely essential that Bruce examine it, understand it, and find a way to put it to use.

"Not headed into the office today, sir?"

Not an unusual inquiry, coming from Alfred; except his tone is distinctly flat, something that sounds like a warning in it. Bruce barely resists the urge to keep working without answering—whatever it is Alfred wants to make a point of, this isn't the time for it.

But things Alfred wants to make a point of, if ignored, have a tendency to come back and bite Bruce later on.

So: "No, Alfred," Bruce says instead, without looking away from the monitor. "As I'm sure you're already well aware. Whatever it is you have to say, you may as well say it—"

"I would be only too happy to do so, sir," Alfred bites out, and there's such a blaze of anger in his voice that Bruce does look over—can't stop himself. Alfred's brought a cup and a plate, as he always does; but he sets them down on the desk in the Cave with a distinct rattle, and when he looks at Bruce afterward, his entire face is graven dark in a way Bruce has rarely seen it.

"Alfred—"

"In fact," Alfred interrupts—interrupts—"I feel so thoroughly able to speak freely on this matter that I shall not hesitate to express myself in the strongest possible terms: what the bloody fuck was that?"

"Excuse me?"

"Last night."

Ah. Of course—Bruce should have expected this. Would have been expecting it, except Superman had so thoroughly foregrounded himself that all else dropped away. Bruce faces the monitors again and eases his posture into confident, certain lines. "An element of fear facilitates the Bat's activities. That's always been the case—"

"I think I would remember," Alfred says softly, "if that particular piece of equipment had ever passed through my hands."

He would; it hadn't. Bruce had ensured it, and Alfred knows it.

And there can be no purpose in reiterating what is known.

"It was simple enough to construct," Bruce says evenly, because it had been. A shaped heating element, an insulated handle. Nothing that required Alfred's expertise. "Your input was not necessary."

Alfred is silent for a beat. "So I've gathered," he says, and now he only sounds tired. "Master Wayne—"

"It has to matter," and that comes out too fast, too sharp, but it's damned well true. "What's the point of it, otherwise? There have to be consequences; there has to be a sense of damage perpetuated, of cost levied—"

"Arrest," Alfred murmurs. "Trial. Imprisonment—"

"It's not enough," Bruce says, much too close to a shout; and Alfred falls silent.

It's not enough, none of it is enough. People do things wrong, and they need to be made to remember it—it needs to be something they can't forget, they can't ever be allowed to forget what's been lost—

"It's not enough," Bruce repeats, carefully steady. "This is not your decision, Alfred."

"Yes," Alfred says. "You've made that apparent, sir. But I cannot watch you make it without taking every opportunity available to me to tell you that it is wrong."

And Bruce wants desperately to strike out; to be snide, to be unkind.

But it's Alfred.

"And I'll take that under consideration," he says instead, cool. "Thank you, Alfred. That will be all."

"I don't believe it will, sir," Alfred says, very low, but he must be willing to table it for now: he turns on his heel behind Bruce and goes out.

 

 

*

 

 

The Kryptonian data container still looks peculiar, the texture of the metal strange under Bruce's fingertips—but the USB connector at the end appears to be perfectly ordinary, if a somewhat unusual color. Bruce spent the small hours of the morning setting up a separate tower, airgapped and stripped down, its configuration as basic and as stable as possible. If the ship is acting maliciously or has some plan of its own, wants a way to propagate its intelligence or sabotage his system—or has even just miscalculated in its attempts to generate something capable of interfacing with Earth computers harmlessly—it won't take out any of the other equipment in the Cave.

He plugs it in. Nothing explodes.

The first thing he notices about it is that if the estimate showing is anywhere near accurate, the Kryptonian data drive—which fits in the palm of his hand, though it's longer than a standard thumb drive—is split into multiple volumes that add up to at least a zettabyte of storage space. If it actually does interface successfully without raising any flags, Bruce thinks, maybe he'll start using it as a portable backup. All the active files stored in the Cave and every single one of the currently extant backups could all fit on this thing, with exabytes to spare.

The second thing he notices about it is that all the files on it, organized into several subdirectories, do indeed appear to be utterly ordinary filetypes. Two full scans, and then a third for caution's sake, show nothing actively executable, or at least not by any metric accessible to Bruce. Most of the files are PDFs, of all things.

One of the subdirectories, labeled INTERNAL SENSOR OUTPUT (FLAT), is full of mkv files. Bruce wonders which member of the current research team is responsible for providing the ship with that as a baseline standard for video.

And nothing on here has prompted even the most sensitive alert so far. Bruce takes a leap and opens one.

For a moment, he can't understand what he's seeing at all. The picture is single-color, a sort of sepia-bronze, and there's a strangely doubled, maybe even tripled, quality to the outlines—but they're perfectly crisp, even at fullscreen on one of Bruce's largest monitors. Bruce thinks back to that (FLAT) notation, to the way the ship's display had worked: no consoles, no screens, but rather an active three-dimensional construct. It wouldn't surprise him in the least if the ship's internal sensors record in three dimensions instead of two. And in Kryptonian visual wavelengths, which would explain why the color conversions have come out lacking to Bruce's eyes.

And then he realizes something else: this is data from another ship. Not the crashed ship, but another—the Black Zero, Zod's ship, because he's the one who's standing in the middle of the deck, bathed with light. He turns, and Bruce recognizes his face instantly.

(The interference had been significant. But Bruce will never forget it—the loss of power, of light, and then that message. That face, staring out at Bruce from every single screen in the Cave, from Bruce Wayne's tablet, from both of the phones Bruce had drawn from his pockets.

That face is unmistakable, to Bruce.)

Kal-El. You have no idea how long we've been searching for you.

Not as hostile as Bruce might have expected. Hours' and hours' worth of material Bruce has collected about Black Zero, days' worth, and none of it has been able to tell him much of anything about why it had all happened. There were only so many things that kind of directed gravitational blast could to do to a planet; the intent to alter Earth on a fundamental level had been clear enough. But not why—why them, why Earth, why Superman?

Bruce's hypotheses had ranged from the practical to the wholly unsubstantiated. Superman a forward scout, intended to identify a suitable planet; perhaps had gone native, perhaps had simply found himself unable to remain in contact with the rest of his team; and they'd come to retrieve him whether he wanted to go or not, and had discovered in doing so that he'd found an ideal world. Or—who could say?—Superman was some sort of criminal, and the other Kryptonians were the interstellar equivalent of a SWAT team. Perhaps the transformation of Earth would not have been to a Kryptonian ideal, but rather the opposite: it would have been made into a prison, intended to hold Superman securely for the rest of time.

But what he's seeing right now supports none of them.

A stranger to our ways. Cause for celebration, not conflict—

And then the shining-bronze figure of Superman wavers, and begins to cough. Not harshly, but wetly; Bruce feels himself grimace, brief, before he can smooth the expression away.

Rejecting our ship's atmospherics, and no one contradicts Zod when he says so—a plausible explanation, then, and that's exactly the sort of thing Bruce has been looking for. Granted, it's of limited utility unless Superman can be sealed into somewhere airtight, or lured back onto the crashed ship; Bruce will need to examine the other records to find out what gases Kryptonian atmosphere is composed of, how they can be obtained, or how to operate the ship's systems so as to flood an onboard chamber with it.

But it should be reassuring. It should be reassuring and gratifying to watch Superman drop to his knees, to see that perfect triply-outlined face contort in pain.

It isn't. He looks like anyone might, dealt an unexpected blow. The sound he makes striking the deck like that is—troubling; he spits up a helpless spatter of blood with an awful hurt sound, and it's the same gray-brown as everything else on the screen, but Bruce knows what it must have looked like.

(Red on gray—dark like concrete, dark like rubble; blood seeping through the spaces—)

Bruce recognizes Lois Lane, too. Help him. Help him!—the bewilderment in it, as though she can't understand how anyone could stand by and watch a man in pain and do nothing—

Bruce closes the file. There are at least two dozen more videos in this directory alone, never mind the text files he hasn't even touched. He should skim what he can, generate a quick-and-dirty priority ranking, adapt a couple of his simpler text and video analysis programs to run in the background and provide him with an assessment of the files most likely to contain the information he needs most. Superman's existence is a problem in and of itself, no matter what was happening on Black Zero Day. And if Bruce is going to find a solution to that problem, he has a lot of work to do.

 

 

*

 

 

As easy as it is to blow off Bruce Wayne's "responsibilities", Bruce can't actually stay in the Cave forever.

He surfaces after about fourteen hours to eat something—if he hadn't, Alfred would have come down again to make him.

(Or—or maybe wouldn't have, today, after—

Not that it matters: Bruce coming up himself means it isn't put to the test.)

For one night, Bruce settles for listening in on police communications and keeping an eye on his own monitors as a substitute for patrol.

But if Bruce Wayne is out of the office for too many days in a row and makes no other public appearances, it'll draw attention. Being late is all right; but sooner or later, Bruce has to put on a suit—a regular suit—and leave the ship's files behind.

He greets Ginger with Bruce Wayne's usual too-wide smile. And she smiles back politely and says, "Mr. Kent was back again yesterday, Mr. Wayne."

Bruce can't stop his eyebrows from rising. That makes nine days in a row of Bruce Wayne being unavailable, out of the office, on the phone, or in another meeting; and nine days of Clark Kent—according to Ginger—smiling and thanking Ginger for checking, and promising to try again.

Well. Bruce pauses on his office threshold, one hand on the door. There's something about it that feels reckless, impulsive, but—

But Bruce Wayne is reckless, isn't he? Bruce Wayne is impulsive. And if Kent's being this persistent about it, then Bruce must have caught his attention, his curiosity; playing hard to get will only make that worse. What harm could it do to meet with Kent again? Bruce can make up for last time—be aggressively useless, hopelessly dull, until Kent wishes he'd settled for giving up on Wayne and moving on to other sources. That will take care of it.

"All right, Jennifer," Bruce says, leaning back around the door far enough to give Ginger a wink. "Make whatever adjustments you have to make to the schedule, but when Mr. Kent comes around today, I'm officially 'in'."

"Yes, sir," Ginger says, dimpling, and doesn't even correct him.

If Kent's actually got her on his side, Bruce might be in a little deeper than he'd realized.