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Left Side Advantage

Chapter Text

 

 

Before you begin—know when to use a handshake.

The appropriate times to shake someone's hand include: the first time you meet, when you are introduced; at the beginning of a business or social meeting; to offer congratulations or express gratitude, or as a display of good sportsmanship.

 

"Oh, thank you—thank you so much, Superman!"

"Of course," Clark says, with Superman's grave little smile, touching one woman's shoulder comfortingly.

They're safe, for the moment—both of the women, the three kids who were in the back seat, the guy who was in the second car. Blown tire on an overpass, and Clark would have left it to emergency services except he'd heard metal giving way, one car smashing right through the guard rail and over the side. A whole second disaster waiting to happen when it landed on the highway below, and nobody else would have been able to stop it.

And he'd already been in the bathroom anyway. He'd been able to catch it before it even hit the ground.

Except he'd dented the car a little—hard to avoid, with the speed it had been going. And then he'd had to lift it back up to set it down, and free the second car that had almost followed it through, and make sure everyone was all right. And now he has to shake their hands and smile. Not that he minds, exactly. It's just that there's something a little bit off, and he can't concentrate on it, can't figure out what it is, until they let him go.

He waits with them until the police arrive, until their heartbeats have settled down a bit and their voices aren't shaking quite so much. And then he gives them a reassuring nod and leaps up into the air, and he can finally close his eyes and listen.

What is that? He sets aside everything else, one sound at a time: the wind, his own heartbeat, every identifiable noise of cars and people and Metropolis; a hundred thousand footsteps, the clink of quarters into parking meters, the helpless buzz of ten million flies trapped in ten million windows—

There it is. The faintest little tone, much too soft for anyone else to hear. But there's something familiar about it—electronic, Clark thinks, that tiny hum of active circuitry that everything digital makes when he listens closely enough.

And there's something doubly familiar about this one in particular.

It takes him less than a minute to find it. The first time he hadn't even known what he was looking for; but this is the fourth this month. And this one is even smaller than the first three—he might have missed it if he hadn't caught the gleam of a reflection off the tiny lens.

He plucks the camera off the roofline and stares into it, and feels a shiver of apprehension crawl up the back of his neck. Smaller and better-positioned: lodged in a crevice just in front of where a whole tangle of wiring passes through the interior ceiling. If Clark had been looking for it on a couple of his more interesting wavelengths, he might have dismissed it as part of the building's system and moved on.

And it might have been charging itself off the building's electricity, wireless, but it does have some kind of backup tucked inside its miniscule casing, because he can hear that it's still working even though he's pulled it loose.

"Who are you?" he says into it—pointless, because even if whoever's watching him through it did answer aloud, wherever they are, he'd never be able to pick it out of the hundred thousand conversations happening around him. But these things keep showing up, and he doesn't know why, and it's frustrating. "What are you looking for? Why can't you just leave me alone?"

He shakes his head and crushes it between his fingers, taking a certain petty satisfaction in feeling each and every component get ground into uselessness. And then he sets what's left on the edge of the roof and blasts it neatly into oblivion, just because it makes him feel better.

He hangs there in the air for a moment afterward, watching a little wisp of smoke swirl away and thinking. The first three times, he thought—coincidence. Maybe some kind of Metropolis PD surveillance operation; or maybe something a little less official than that, something he needed to keep an eye out for, but not necessarily anything he had to worry about for his own sake.

But the first two times had been up at the north end of the bay, the third a little further down—and now he's at almost the other end of the shoreline entirely. Which means either whoever's doing this has their fingers in a whole lot of different pies, or—

Or maybe they're just trying to spread a net as wide as they can, trying to catch something they can't catch any other way.

Like Superman.

He decides to take his time heading back to the Planet, and look around as he goes. Maybe he's being paranoid; maybe he won't find anything. Or maybe—

Or maybe there's going to be a suspicious glint right down the block. Clark draws in a slow breath, lets it out, and goes to take a closer look.

 

 

 

There are more of them. Hundreds, in fact. After the first dozen or so, Clark retreats to a higher altitude and uses his vision to look for them instead. And from up there, he starts to get a sense for how they're spaced, the irregular grid that governs their placement—a little too imperfect to predict precisely, and yet there isn't a single gap in the cameras' coverage.

And together, they span almost a third of Metropolis. It's like a growth, the way the web of them spreads outward from the bay into the city.

The whole thing fills Clark with chilly foreboding, somewhere deep in his gut. Because this is—it really is planned, a clear combination of resources and intent. The Metropolis PD couldn't have set this up, let alone afford this kind of equipment; and the scale is beyond any of the criminal elements in the city that Clark's familiar with.

And maybe he's getting a little too big for his boots, after a year of being Superman full-time, but he—he just can't imagine what it could possibly be about, except him. Someone trying to track his movements, or even catch his face on video clearly enough to identify him, or something. Something they're going to keep trying for, or they wouldn't have bothered developing an even subtler version of these things after he found the first three.

Clark rubs a hand across his mouth, and tries to ignore the red tinge developing in the corners of his eyes. He probably should have expected something like this. It was a deliberate decision, after Black Zero, to keep being Superman where people could see him instead of disappearing again. And he doesn't regret it. He wanted to make sure people understood that he—he hadn't meant to cause harm, that he intends to use his abilities to help keep them safe. That he's here to protect Earth, in every way he can. He just—

He just hadn't realized how complicated it would be. The sheer size of Metropolis, the number of things that can go wrong in a day even when there aren't any natural disasters on the other side of the planet. There are so many people who need his help, and he can't do anything but give it—especially here, especially after what Zod and his ship did to this city.

So whoever it is who's doing this, whatever it is they want, he's just going to have to figure out how to deal with it. Superman isn't afraid, and Superman doesn't falter, and that's all there is to it.

 

 

 

Clark destroys one or two more cameras in the same general area as the first, and then goes back to work. He keeps an ear out for anything strange in that direction all day, from his desk and then from the site of an apartment fire, a second and much larger car accident, a near-collision between a couple cargo freighters headed into the port.

But he doesn't catch anything—not until evening.

He gets suited up and then waits in the dark, hovering, the whole city a spangled web of lights spread out beneath him. It's a beautiful night, and he feels his breaths come more easily, tension he hadn't realized he was holding starting to seep from his shoulders.

And then something moves below him.

It takes him a moment to even figure out what drew his eye, what made that particular motion different. Because it isn't any of a million shifting lights; it's the briefest incidental lack of them. Negative space—a silhouette, a slim clean-lined dark shadow interposing itself between Clark and Metropolis. And it's headed right for the blind spot Clark created in the camera net.

Not exactly what Clark was expecting. He watches it for a few more seconds, just to be sure he isn't making things up; and then he swaps over to x-ray and—

Something's wrong. It does have structure, and he can almost pick out the lines of its frame. But the details are—his vision's being obscured. Some kind of coating? Which at least is confirmation that whoever's behind this is interested in Superman, if they've put time and effort into trying to block some of his sensory capabilities.

Great. That's a really reassuring thought.

He drops gradually lower, because who knows what other monitoring devices they've got? He'd rather they didn't notice him until he's had a chance to get a look at them.

Except when that smooth dark thing does ease to a stop, the figure that emerges is covered somehow. Some kind of suit, an odd flowing shadow—a cape? There's something strange about the shape of it, the lines and angles and the top of the head. And whoever they are, the way they move is—Clark has to reach to get even the barest scrape of boot-soles, the whisper of material brushing against itself in motion. Who the hell is this?

And then he catches the tiny dim wink of a reflection: another one of those goddamn cameras. Before he can even second-guess himself, he's diving.

The rush of air must give him away; the shadow on the rooftop has already turned and dropped into a defensive crouch a good half-second before Clark actually lands. And they do seem to have a good grasp of Superman's capabilities, because they don't try to run.

And they don't speak. But then Clark wouldn't necessarily expect someone skulking around the Metropolis skyline at night planting cameras to be the sort of person who's eager to introduce themselves.

"The cameras," Clark says after a moment, when it's clear nothing else will be forthcoming either. "They're yours."

Silence, except for the snap of that long black cape.

"If you were looking for me," Clark adds, "well, here I am," and oh, he shouldn't let that get as sharp as it does. But irritation is burning away dully in the pit of his stomach, a dim red coal, and this is just so—unfair. He doesn't even know who this is, and they're still after him, trying to follow him or track him or whatever it is they're hoping for. He doesn't know what, doesn't know why, and it's infuriating that with all the problems he's already taken responsibility for, some stranger should come along and deliberately make another for him.

Still nothing. The figure in front of him could almost be a statue, if the heart and breath and rush of blood weren't so audible to Clark's ears.

"Who are you? What do you want?"

And nothing again. Clark bites off a sigh and props his fists on his hips, trying to look stern and authoritative instead of tired, confused, frustrated.

"Get out of here and take your cameras with you. I'll destroy any I find from now on. Is that clear?"

There, at last: the faintest creak of enamel. Clark's shadowy friend is gritting their teeth.

"I don't answer to you."

The words are clipped, the voice a soft strange growl—surprisingly low, and Clark's never heard anything quite like it before but he almost thinks it's modified. There's a fuzziness to its edges. Like it's layering over itself, just a little: the real voice, barely audible to Clark in the sliver of space between the vocal cords and whatever altered microphone or modulator is involved, and the disguised result.

Clark raises an eyebrow. "You expect me to just let you keep on—"

"Let me," the figure repeats, flat, the words pointed in their lack of inflection.

"You think I couldn't stop you?" Clark forces a mildness he isn't feeling, keeps his tone bland and even.

But this show of restraint doesn't seem to make the figure any more comfortable—the opposite, even, with the crouch going abruptly tighter, tenser, and the silence hanging between them taking on a certain grimness.

Clark didn't come here to start a fight. That's not the point of this. He repeats this to himself once, twice, and then draws a slow breath and says carefully, "Look, whatever it is you're doing, it needs to stop. I don't know why you're watching me, but I'm willing to let it go if you are. Just—leave me alone."

He doesn't wait for the figure to answer—as if there's any reason to think they're going to. He turns away and steps off the edge of the roof, throws himself into what must look like nothing but a vague blue blur to whoever he's leaving behind him.

He's got a couple hundred cameras to collect. And once they're all gone, hopefully that'll serve to underline just how much he meant it. With any luck, his shadowy friend will get the message and slink off to wherever the hell they came from, and Clark will never have to think about them again.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Bruce climbs back into the Batwing with a cold clear focus that's entirely disproportionate to the task, and steadfastly ignores the way his hands are trembling. Adrenaline. It will fade.

Adrenaline—and perhaps a helping of stark fury alongside.

A year's worth of work. Countless hours of strategizing, of design and development, of surveillance. The moment Superman had discovered even a single camera, Bruce should have changed tacks; but he had convinced himself it could be handled. It wasn't necessarily a disaster. Superman still had no idea who was behind it, or even that it had anything to do with him specifically. And Bruce—

Bruce had to do something. He had to.

Superman had come out of nowhere. Black Zero had been devastating, unbearable, incomprehensible—and Bruce had had no idea it was coming until it was already too late to do anything about it.

Unacceptable. On every possible level, unacceptable. Bruce has spent a lifetime calibrating everything he touches with sufficient precision to ensure that he is never, ever taken by surprise; above all, the Gotham Bat has survived for as long as it has, has accomplished what it has and yet remained at the level of an unconfirmed rumor, because Bruce is prepared. Bruce is always prepared. In situations where any average person might be helpless, Batman remains effective. Otherwise there would be no point.

And Bruce has come to rely on that truth. No matter what the circumstance, to some degree he is always in control. He can hardly remember a time when that wasn't the case

(—except of course he can: a wet dark alley, the impossible loudness of the shots; scattered pearls rolling away, and he hadn't been able to find them all, had still been on his hands and knees looking when the police arrived—)

and it's become as natural to him as breathing; a given, understood.

And then General Zod happened. Black Zero happened. Superman happened, and Bruce had been blindsided, and he'd set everything aside in favor of redressing that sudden feeling of exposure, that critical vulnerability.

And now—what progress can he claim to have made? Yet again, the alien has blown right through whatever flimsy sense of security Bruce might have recouped. No one has ever come so close to the Bat without Bruce intending it; no one's ever seen the Bat without Bruce intending it, let alone stood there and threatened him with a patronizingly impatient expression.

Bruce had known the risk he was running. Superman's frustrated address to the camera had hinted that he might begin putting more effort into determining who'd placed them and why. Bruce had anticipated the possibility of an ambush; it just—

It just hadn't mattered. He's already well aware of how strong the alien is, how fast. Even if he hadn't scraped every recording of the events of Black Zero that he could find, at this point he's got plenty of video footage of his own. He's run simulations, calculations; he's done the math.

But knowing the numbers simply could not have prepared him for the reality. It's down to luck and luck alone that Bruce isn't dead right now, that Alfred isn't at this very moment scraping him off the street somewhere far below the Batwing. If Superman had decided to kill him tonight, there's not a goddamn thing he could have done about it.

He tightens his grip on the Batwing's controls until his knuckles ache. Unacceptable.

And the worst part is that even if he had been able to replace the cameras without interruption, and to continue adding to their number, he's not sure it would have done him any good. He'd hoped that increased coverage might yield results, and he's applied himself to achieving it—but so far the alien's movements have proven incredibly difficult to track. The framerate necessary to detect any sign of him at his usual flight speeds is markedly high, and he's rarely within range for more than a few seconds—he can achieve so much altitude so quickly, g-forces and pressure changes and oxygen content all equally insignificant.

Bruce had thought grimly that he might at least be able to fall back on collating and analyzing the vectors of Superman's arrivals and departures. Assuming, of course, that he could surveil enough of Metropolis to provide him with the necessary data; assuming that it hadn't yet occurred to the alien to put any effort into disguising the directions of his movements—but it was better than nothing, surely.

Except now even that is almost certainly beyond his reach. Superman will be looking for the rest of the cameras, if he hasn't already found them, and said he would destroy them—and Bruce has no reason to doubt it. Which places him, for all intents and purposes, back at square one.

He subvocalized the signal indicating a need for radio silence the moment he'd realized the alien had found him; he doesn't have any solid data regarding Superman's hearing, only conjecture, but the less Superman knows about the Bat's operations, the better.

Superman is gone now, or at least the Batwing's instruments aren't currently detecting him. And the way the alien had turned and flown away—it might have been a ruse. It's possible that he's already doubled back and is trailing Bruce from a distance. But that's only conjecture. It's as safe as it ever might be to give the matching signal indicating resumption of normal operations.

Bruce doesn't bother. He's not particularly interested in unclenching his jaw long enough to do it; and even if he did, he doesn't know what he'd say.

 

 

 

Alfred must realize that operational security is no longer a factor by the time Bruce is nearing the Cave. But he doesn't press, and Bruce returns in unbroken silence.

Until, of course, he's exited the Batwing and shed the suit, at which point he's well aware that Alfred's unlikely to continue to exercise such restraint.

And he's entirely correct. "Ah, Master Wayne," and Alfred's tone is remarkably casual, his attention seemingly fixed fully on the bladed fin of a spare gauntlet—sharpening it, or perhaps just making some adjustment or other. But after a moment his gaze flicks up and finds Bruce; the sensation is comparable, Bruce suspects, to the impact on the husk of a beetle as it's pinned to a mounting card.

Bruce looks away. "You could hear him."

"Yes, I could hear him. I cut my microphone, not my audio feed." Alfred allows a single precise beat of silence, and then sighs. "Sir—"

"Adjustments will have to be made to our strategy," Bruce interrupts. "Passive surveillance is no longer sufficient."

"Passive surveillance is no longer viable, sir," Alfred corrects sharply. "Or did you intend to treat an ultimatum from someone who could kill you onehanded as an optional guideline?"

Bruce clenches his jaw and manages to bite back a snarl. As if he doesn't know how dangerous the alien is, as if he needs to be told—as if that isn't exactly what makes it so important that they succeed in finding something they can use against him. That's why this happened at all, why he kept pushing with the cameras even after Superman discovered the first: because the alien represents so vast and overwhelming a threat that everything Bruce has built, all he has with which to arm and armor himself, dwindles into insignificance in comparison.

"I'm not going to let Superman determine what I do and don't do," he says instead, very evenly. "I won't make my decisions based on his approval or disapproval—"

"And I wouldn't expect it of you," Alfred says to the gauntlet, before sighing again and pressing a thumb tiredly to the bridge of his nose. "I only mean to say that I—worry about you, sir."

Bruce presses his mouth into a line. He's never been particularly good at keeping a grip on his anger in the face of Alfred's earnest concern, however much he wishes it were otherwise. "I'm fine, Alfred," he says after a moment, more quietly.

"Are you?"

Bruce glances up. Alfred's tone was almost pointed—but he's looking Bruce over as if it had been a sincere question, something thoughtful in the furrowing of his brows.

"Having observed that Superman could kill you onehanded," Alfred adds, "and recklessly assuming that your lack of argument constitutes agreement, I must say I can't help but wonder why he didn't."

"Waste of his time," Bruce mutters, sour. Not everyone went to the effort to swat flies. Why bother, when you could leave them to batter themselves to exhaustion against the windowpane?

"Begging your pardon, Master Wayne," Alfred says, "but if efficiency were his primary concern, he needn't have spoken to you at all."

And at that, Bruce can't help but let his mouth twist. Christ, not this conversation again. "I'm not interested in sitting back and relying on Superman's sense of fair play and good will, Alfred—"

"But if there's a chance that he could be reasoned with, sir—"

"—then what?" Bruce says loudly, slamming a hand against the table with a crack. "What? Maybe he'll pinky-swear not to bring down a city? A government? Cross his heart and hope to die, and then we'll still be at his mercy if he should happen to change his mind one day." He shakes his head, punctuational. "No. No. I can't accept that. There has to be some way we can be sure. Something this critical, with consequences this severe—we can't leave it to chance. We can't."

Alfred is silent for a moment, and Bruce dares to hope he's managed to make his point in a way that will stick. But then Alfred reaches for the gauntlet again, runs a finger lightly alone the gleaming fin-blade, and says, low, "Yes. I suppose it is a little much to ask, that he should believe the best of us when we refuse to do the same for him. You cannot bring yourself to stay your hand—why then should he?"

Bruce sighs sharply through his nose and turns away. Enough. Alfred should know better than to try to change Bruce's mind about a thing like this. "I'll be down on the lower level if you need me," he says. Even if Superman is at this very moment systematically frying every camera Bruce set up, he can at least review today's footage for anything that might be useful.

"As you say, sir," Alfred murmurs behind him, and Bruce walks away without looking back.

 

 

 


 

 

 

"—and it turned out he was the one who'd been putting up all the cameras—"

"Wait a second," Lois says, holding up a hand. "Hang on, back up. You said this guy was dressed all in black?"

Clark blinks at her. "Yeah."

"And there was something weird about his head."

"Yeah," Clark agrees. "He had this helmet, or—cowl, or something. I don't know exactly what it was. But it had ears on it. Or horns, maybe."

And it sounds kind of stupid when he says it out loud, which isn't right. It hadn't looked stupid. Maybe the black suit, the cape, the dark of night, had helped with that; somehow it had been unsettling instead, the strange shape to the head. Like he hadn't been facing a person in a helmet so much as a gargoyle, a creature. Something just a little elemental, the barest critical fraction larger than life.

But Lois doesn't laugh. Her eyebrows jump, and then she looks at him sharply for a second, like she thinks there's a chance he's about to grin and say Gotcha!

He stares at her blankly instead, and that just makes her eyebrows climb even higher.

"Huh," she says. "I'll be damned."

"What?" It doesn't make any sense, but the only guess Clark can venture is— "You know him?"

"No, of course not," she says, and then, with a grin, "I haven't made a habit out of befriending guys who like to spend their spare time hanging out on roofs wearing capes, Clark. You're the exception, not the rule."

Clark rolls his eyes, but he can feel the corner of his mouth twitching up.

"No, I don't know him," Lois repeats, more slowly. "But it sounds like—"

She's interrupted by a phone ringing; and it wouldn't matter except that it's the one right by her hip, which is her desk phone.

She cranes her head around to read the caller ID, and then her eyes widen and she slides off the desk to her feet. "Mayor's office—I'd better take this," she says, already reaching for the handset and making an apologetic little face.

Clark raises his hands, accepting, and backs away toward his own desk. He'd gotten sidetracked, telling Lois all about his encounter with the Creepy Cameraman—half the office has stepped out at the same time, and he hadn't wanted to miss his chance to bring it up while there was nobody close enough to hear. But Perry's going to get after him if he doesn't have a draft of this school attendance piece by this afternoon—

Lois's hand comes up, sudden pale flash of her palm in his peripheral vision, and he stops short. For a moment nothing happens; her gaze is still off in the middle distance, mouth pinched in concentration. But then she looks at Clark and dips her chin in the tiniest little nod.

Ah. One of those calls.

Clark manages not to heave a sigh. Ever since Lois went to break her alien story with Woodburn, and General Zod showed up right after—and then she'd disappeared with the military, and come right back in the middle of Metropolis with Superman, and, well. It would be asking a lot to expect everybody to take two and two and pretend it didn't make four.

Which means anyone who's serious about getting in touch with Superman calls Lois Lane, these days. And Lois has a great game face; Clark can't count the number of times he's listened to her calmly tell somebody she's afraid she can't help them, so sorry, right before she hangs up.

But every now and then it's somebody worth listening to. And it's the mayor's office, this time—what could they possibly want with him?

"Yes," Lois says into the phone, "yes, of course," but Clark waits for her to meet his eyes again, tap the phone and then her free ear to ask him to listen in, before he opens up far enough to catch the voice on the other end of the line.

"—will be hosting a commemorative gala on the anniversary?"

"Yes, I've heard," Lois agrees. "Cat Grant will be handling our coverage, I believe."

"Of course," says the voice—the mayor's aide, Clark thinks, because he's pretty sure he can hear the mayor even further in the background, partway through a meeting. "I'm calling because the mayor's office would like to extend an invitation to—well, to you, of course, Ms. Lane. And on the behalf of the city of Metropolis, to Superman, as our guest of honor."

"I see," Lois says carefully.

She's still watching Clark, and her expression is almost neutral; except her eyes are just a little too wide, concerned.

Clark swallows and looks away.

"I appreciate your call," he hears Lois say, as if from far away. "Could I call you back at this number to confirm?"

"Of course," the mayor's aide says, and then half a dozen more polite pleasantries that slide past Clark like white noise, and then all at once he's jerked back by the decisive clunk of Lois hanging up.

"Clark—"

"I'm fine," Clark says automatically. And then, belatedly, "Yes."

"Yes," Lois repeats gently, raising an eyebrow.

"Yes, I'll go. I mean—Superman will."

"You don't have to."

She's crossed the space between their desks in a few quick steps, and her tone is soft, careful. After a second she lays one hand carefully over the back of Clark's—on the edge of his desk, and he can hear something cracking somewhere—

Oh. Huh. He hadn't realized he'd been gripping the desk quite that hard.

"It's fine," he tells Lois's wrist, staring down at it blankly. "It's about Black Zero. Right? The anniversary. That's what she said."

"Yeah," Lois says, and then, more quietly, "Doesn't feel like a year, does it?"

Clark doesn't answer. He doesn't know how to. It feels like a lifetime ago; it feels like it was yesterday. He can, dimly, if he tries, remember what it had been like to be a version of himself Black Zero hadn't happened to—but the distance between him and that Clark is incomprehensible, uncrossable.

He'd known, afterward. Kneeling there with Zod's body, Lois's footsteps in the distance drawing closer, staring down at his shaking hands; he'd known nothing would ever be the same.

And there wasn't any going back—only forward. He'd known that, too, and he'd known there was nothing he could do about it but come to terms with it.

He's Superman. He does his best. That's all that matters now.

"They're probably hoping to reframe the narrative a little," Lois is saying thoughtfully. "Now that it's been a while, and everybody knows you're sticking around."

Clark looks away. "Sticking around," he repeats.

"You know," Lois says. "In Metropolis. Clark—" and then she stops and Clark can practically feel the way her gaze softens, and can definitely hear her sigh, right before she leans in to squeeze his shoulder. "Clark. People didn't know what was going to happen after Black Zero. They didn't know what to think. No one was expecting you, and no one knew whether you were going to stay, or go, or—I don't know, build yourself a vacation home on the moon—"

Clark snorts, helpless, and looks up; Lois grins back at him for a second, and then her expression turns sober, sweet, a little sorry.

"I know you've been doing your best to help us, since Black Zero," she says quietly. "You've been doing your best to help everyone. You've saved a lot of lives and done a lot of good, and I know there are a lot of things you feel like nobody else can do—"

"Nobody else can do them, Lo," Clark interrupts, shaking his head. "If I don't, there's no one. I have to. That's all there is to it."

"Okay," Lois says, tone even—acknowledging, Clark thinks, but not agreeing. "I just don't want you thinking it's your fault. All right? Some people still don't know what to think of Superman, but it's not because you aren't trying hard enough."

"Isn't it?"

"No. Clark, Black Zero was huge and frightening and confusing, and three-quarters of the context people need to understand it is still classified." She squeezes his shoulder again, and doesn't ease off until he gives in and meets her eyes again. "Almost nobody really knows what happened. And the US military might owe them an explanation, but you don't.

"You saved the world. You don't have anything to make up for. And if you don't want to go to this gala—"

"No," Clark says instantly, shaking his head. "No, I—it's important. It's the city's way of acknowledging everyone who died, honoring them. Superman should be there. It's fine."

And Lois looks at him for a long moment like she's the one with x-ray vision: like she can see right through him. But all she does, in the end, is tighten her grip on his shoulder one more time and say, "All right. I'll call the mayor's office back and let them know."

"Okay. Thanks," Clark adds, and reaches up to squeeze her hand right back. And then, finally, he can move away, put his desk between himself and that knowing stare, and get back to work.

 

 

 

He ducks out of the office at the end of the day with a guilty sense of relief. Usually he likes being at the Planet, likes being so aggressively ordinary; usually it's nice to have somewhere where he's so definitively not Superman.

But Lois's concerned gaze kept catching on him all afternoon, absent, in the brief moments when she hadn't been in the middle of anything pressing. And it added up, cumulative, to a weight Clark's glad to get out from underneath.

And when he does leave, he knows exactly where he's headed.

It's almost funny. A year ago, he'd have done anything to stay away from Heroes Park; he'd avoided it, hadn't wanted to have anything to do with it. He'd told himself it was just practical: Clark Kent shouldn't show too much interest in Kryptonian things, shouldn't get caught poking around in the rubble or hanging around the crashed scout ship.

But after a while, he'd found himself almost eager to go back. Just to make sure everything was all right, that nothing had gone wrong with the ship. There had still been a perimeter established, security for the research installation—there still is now. But of course Clark could get in and out in the blink of an eye with no trouble, and then he'd discovered the ship was still working.

Not well. Or at least it hadn't been, six months ago. He's managed to get it to tell him what he can do for it, how to help it start to repair itself, and more and more of its systems have started coming back online. And it's—it's surprisingly useful. It knows things; it has sensors, it can keep track of things on the other side of the world, follow up with forecasts and update him about half a dozen situations at once in real time. And—

And he likes it. The ship itself, and being inside it—it knows who he is, what he can do, and he doesn't have to worry about using his powers or who can see him or whether to lie. It's Kryptonian, but not in a way where he needs to worry about it getting delusions of grandeur and trying to reshape Earth; it traveled a long way to get here, and it can't get back, and nobody will leave it alone now that they know it's here. And Black Zero broke it, it's banged up and busted open and it's got some holes in it, but it's getting better. Clark is helping it get better—no timetable, nobody's life on the line, just—helping.

Plus he's starting to think maybe it likes him, too.

"Okay, how about now?" he calls out.

"Secondary data drive inoperable," the ship says, not unkindly.

Clark stares up into the gap behind the wall—bulkhead? Hull? He's really not qualified for this—and sighs. As far as he can tell, Kryptonian technology operates mostly on principles involving smooth shimmery trails of gleaming motes, lots of tiny pieces aligning and dealigning and realigning. He can see the secondary data drive, or at least he's pretty sure that's what this glittering knot of light is. But it's as big around as a hula hoop and there are at least a dozen strands of something holding it suspended that look oddly dull, dark.

He closes his eyes and settles his hand against the wall. He's learned that there aren't really controls, as such. He can reach out anywhere and something will form up helpfully under his fingertips, contact points that seem to function as a group. He doesn't have to type or press, it's more abstract than that: there's a representation in his head that gets clearer every time he does this, and he's pretty sure it's the ship putting it there. He wouldn't be able to keep track of that many drifting flows of light on his own.

And they used to just slip through his fingers, so to speak, but he's gotten better and better at manipulating them, at understanding how he can move them and cross them and rearrange them. He works his way carefully through half a dozen configurations, trial and error, cracking an eye now and then to see whether anything's changed—and then the seventh time, something has. Something's lit up that wasn't before.

"Ship?"

"Secondary data drive inoperable," the ship repeats. But then it adds slowly, "Data cache specifications detected."

Clark swallows hard. "Is the backup intact? Did it cache the projection program?"

"Unknown."

Right. Right, okay, because who knows what data cache specifications might mean? Still, it can't be a bad sign. "But there is data on it?" Clark says. "You just don't know what?"

"Confirmed. Chances of successful data recovery now twenty-nine percent."

Clark blinks. "What were they to start with?"

"Eleven percent."

Clark aims a narrow-eyed glance up at the ceiling. "I'm not sure whether that makes me feel better or worse. You really didn't expect me to be able to figure this out, huh?"

The ship is silent for a moment. And then it says quietly, "The initial calculation was done during assessments immediately following the damage incurred. Whether you would return and assist was at that time unknown."

"Oh." Clark hesitates, and then, on a whim, smooths his hand away from the control contacts and along the wall. "Well. Here I am."

"Yes," the ship agrees, and Clark's probably kidding himself, but its tone sounds pleased to him, maybe even a little smug.

He works for maybe another half an hour, but doesn't stumble across any other particularly fruitful arrangements of light. It doesn't help that his concentration keeps straying, and after the third or fourth time he tries to push the same light-strand into a position it really doesn't want to be in, he decides to take a break.

He walks back through the ship, trailing his hands idly along its walls, until he reaches the central room—or at least that's how he thinks of it, though he doesn't know whether that reflects any use it might actually have had. It's the room where Jor-El—the projection of Jor-El, that is—had explained to him about Krypton, the ship, everything. He'd come back afterward a couple of times with more questions, to the same room, and it had started to feel comfortably familiar.

And Jor-El isn't there anymore, but Clark still likes to go there. It still makes him think of the first time, of finally being handed the answers to questions he'd thought he'd never be able to ask.

He stands in the entryway for a moment, just looking at it. And then he walks in and sits on the floor—which flexes a little underneath him, accommodating. He can't get the thought of the gala out of his head. That's the problem.

The gala, and everything Lois said, Black Zero and Metropolis and the way people see Superman, all tangled up in one big ugly knot. And it's ridiculous, but the thing he keeps circling back to is—

What the hell is he going to wear?

Maybe because it's basically the smallest problem he's got right now—or at least the one he's the most likely to be able to solve. It does matter: it's not like he can show up dressed like Clark Kent, but he wears the uniform every time people see him as Superman. The gala's going to be a special occasion.

And he was wearing the uniform during Black Zero. He should—he should probably try to come up with something else.

Besides, it would be a good idea for other reasons. Wouldn't it? If Superman has formal clothes of his own, he looks—well, he looks less like Clark Kent, for one thing, but he also looks more like his own person. Like someone who's living his own distinctly alien life as something other than a reporter, deliberately making the time to help people, instead of some kind of anomaly that pops up when there's a crisis and then vanishes again.

He angles a glance up at the ceiling. "Ship, that pod where my uniform was stored—was it here the whole time? Were there members of the House of El on your crew?"

"There were," the ship confirms. "Fabrication pods may be used for storage as needed; however—"

"Fabrication?" Clark interrupts. "So you can make things in them, then."

"Yes."

"Out of the same material?"

"Any material with specifications accessible in operating databanks may be generated in fabrication pods."

"And—designs?"

He feels kind of sheepish for asking; but the ship seems to take it as a perfectly normal database query. "From which era of Kryptonian civilization?"

Clark blinks. "How many eras are there?"

"Per the most recent databank update transmission in system logs, Kryptonian scholars were generally agreed upon forty-nine, with some restricting the number to as few as thirty-three and others placing the total as high as fifty-six—"

And Clark supposes that shouldn't be a surprise. What had Jor-El said? For a hundred thousand years, our civilization flourished—

"How about you, uh. Pick something random from one of the early ones? Let's say the first fifteen," Clark ventures. He's learned that it's a good idea to give the ship a few parameters to work with, even when he doesn't know enough about what he's asking to be specific.

The floor wavers a little in front of him, and then all at once changes: the smooth interlocking pieces that make it up shift and surge and rise, and form themselves gracefully into a figure. A Kryptonian, his face probably a composite formed by combining some batch of records the ship has, and he's wearing something long and flowing, seemingly fastened by circlets around his upper arms, his throat—and it layers in a way Clark can't quite figure out, tucked and folded, an overskirt splitting to show an underskirt and some kind of pleating involved at the waist.

Not that it doesn't look comfortable, but Clark's not entirely sure he'd be able to put that on without strangling himself. Plus there's a kind of hat-thing that, uh. "Top hat" isn't right, "hennin" isn't right, but he's not sure there's a word for something that's doing its best to split the difference. And Statue Guy is pulling it off okay, that distant dignified expression managing to assert that if you had any sense you'd get your own brimmed mini-hennin, but Clark's not sure he himself is up to it.

"Um, let's try something from one of the next ten?" he says, and can't quite stop staring at the hat, transfixed, until it melts away.

And then he blinks. Apparently Krypton went through a pretty conservative phase at some point, because this guy is buttoned up all the way to his ears, just about. This time the skirt's got more of a severe business aesthetic, pencil-style but all the way to the ankles, and Clark suspects there might be another, or maybe a slim pair of slacks, underneath it. Sleeves to the wrists, a strip of heavy tight fastenings along the front of the jacket, and the collar goes right up to the chin, straight except where it flares to follow the line of the throat.

There's a hint of style in the lines of it—the ship made it fit Statue Guy perfectly, and he looks sort of sweepingly intimidating in it. But if Clark put it on, he suspects he'd mostly look uncomfortable. And then he'd be uncomfortable, after about half an hour.

"Next ten, please," he tells the ship diplomatically, and the new suit melts obediently away and is replaced by—

Clark almost swallows his tongue.

That hypothetical conservative phase apparently was followed by the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction.

Far in the opposite direction.

The one piece of fabric Clark can see is—well-tailored. Highly-embroidered, or at least some kind of fantastically complex and flowing pattern is decorating it somehow. That's nice, he thinks distantly.

"So Kryptonian ideas about how much nudity was nudity—um, varied, over time."

"The development of the technologies that would be refined into the Codex system altered cultural taboos relating to sexual reproduction," the ship agrees placidly. "Primary and secondary sexual characteristics were gradually treated as less and less distinct from any other part of the body—"

"Okay," Clark says, keeping his eyes trained carefully above Statue Guy's waist. He doesn't really want to know exactly how anatomically correct the ship decided to make its model. If nothing else, it seems a little disrespectful toward whatever long-dead Kryptonian provided the inspiration. Even if that long-dead Kryptonian might not have minded all that much. "Well, I definitely can't wear that in public on this particular planet."

And maybe he's making this more complicated than it needs to be. When he'd first found the ship, figured out what he could do with it—the projection it had created of Jor-El had been wearing clothes. Clark hadn't paid them any particular attention, not next to everything Jor-El had been telling him and showing him. But that meant they hadn't demanded it. Which, he definitely would've noticed if Jor-El had been wearing something like, uh, this.

"How about something from the most recent era? The, um—my father, what he programmed himself wearing. Do you remember that?"

"While projection data is no longer accessible, internal sensor records should suffice," the ship agrees, and in the space of a breath Statue Guy's non-clothing has reformed across his figure into something that does look kind of familiar. The panels across the chest, the contoured collar; the single broad slash in each sleeve of the jacket, curving into the cuffs at the wrists.

Definitely better. Clark eyes it for a minute, thoughtful, and then rolls to his feet to inspect it more carefully. The more he thinks about it, the more he likes the idea—not just something Kryptonian but something Jor-El wore. Because in its own way, Superman was his dream more than anyone else's: a Kryptonian who'd learn to love Earth, who'd understand what was best and most beautiful about it, who would defend it no matter the cost. It seems right that he should be there, at a gala honoring Superman, even if nobody's going to know it but Clark.

"Okay," Clark says. "That might work. Can you—change it a little, though?"

"Certainly. Please describe the modifications you require."

Clark hesitates. "Could you compare it to the database? Is there anything similar in there?"

A moment, and then graceful additions trace themselves out across the surface. Armor, almost, or something like it: pauldrons, on the shoulders, and something that's almost a chestplate, and the cuffs of the sleeves look abruptly more like gauntlets than before, though whether they've actually changed or it's just Clark's impression of them that's different, Clark isn't sure. And then it keeps going, the panels across the chest altering, the whole cut of the outer robe changing—

"No, no, stop," Clark says, and the transformation obediently halts. "Go back a little bit. Keep the shoulders, that's fine, but—yes, perfect. The chestplate and the shoulders, those should have the House of El insignia, right?"

"Records indicate it would not be out of place," the ship agrees, and in an instant the intricate twining curves of Kryptonian heraldry are shaping themselves out of nothing.

"And—could it be red?"

 

 

 


 

 

 

Bruce examines the latest design render with a critical eye, and then brushes a finger against the touchscreen to rotate it. He won't bother with a 3D wireframe projection until he's settled on a basic outline that satisfies him.

Not that satisfaction in this particular respect is all that likely. He's been meaning to upgrade the basic design for the suit's armor plates for a while—more MR fluid, less Kevlar plating, because the liquid armor formula is so much easier to improve and test, and the gains in flexibility and movement speed really are dramatic. But—

But every time he looks at the numbers, he can feel his lip curl.

As if it matters. As if eight percent here, eleven percent there, a distinctly increased ability to withstand both acceleration and impact, means a goddamn thing except that it might take the alien a nanosecond longer to kill him. In the next five minutes, Superman could blow a hole through the ground right into the Batcave, drag Bruce out, and twist his head off like a bottlecap. What could stop him? What kind of countermeasure could possibly be developed that's even remotely capable of containing that kind of power?

Bruce sighs, sharp, through his nose, and spins the render the other direction. He's never liked questions he doesn't know the answers to. And this one is suffocatingly unignorable. The urgency of it is relentless, pressing in on him from every direction; that was true even before Superman had become aware of Bruce's efforts, and now it's truer still. It's been nearly a year, and there's—there's still so much he doesn't know, it's staggering.

Bruce can't even be certain he understands the full depth and breadth of everything the alien is capable of. Since Black Zero, Superman has intervened in dozens of incidents all around the world, from natural disasters to hostage situations, bank robberies to suicide bombings. A core set of commonly-used powers was easy to tally up—the speed, the strength, the invulnerability, the flight—and yet the evidence suggests a grab-bag of less obvious abilities. Superman clearly has some kind of long-distance sensory capability, though whether it's hearing, sight, or both is difficult to pin down. Or, of course, it could be some kind of mental extension; and if the alien has the ability to touch human minds, to perceive what they perceive—who's to say he can't exert his will upon them? Why should he draw a line between suggestion and compulsion?

But there isn't any evidence for or against. Not yet.

Bruce has wrestled with the urge to catastrophize; Superman may be the stuff of nightmares, but despair is hardly a productive reaction. After the first six months, he had even felt able to tentatively downgrade the risk of invasion. In all the footage he'd been able to secure, the number of distinctly identifiable alien individuals had never exceeded half a dozen. Evidently a scouting team of some kind, but their attempts to alter the planet to suit their needs had failed—and in that case, surely it's reasonable to assume that no colonization effort will be forthcoming. Not until after another team has been sent and has succeeded, at least.

And the first had failed because Superman had opposed them. Bruce just doesn't know why. What does the alien hope to get out of it? What are his intentions? It's easy enough to extrapolate the broad strokes: on a world populated by his own kind, Superman would hardly be pre-eminent; but on Earth, and an Earth where his capabilities are unmatched, whatever he pleases is his for the taking. Surely it's only a matter of time before he makes his move—but that's where the details become increasingly crucial. Without some way to clarify his motives, his interests, his desires, all Bruce can do is guess.

And with the fate of the world on the line, guessing isn't good enough. Bruce can't counter an enemy he can't predict; and whether Superman intends to set himself up as some kind of god-king or is content to hold world governments hostage behind the scenes, someone has to be prepared. Someone has to be ready to do what's necessary to bring him down.

Bruce stares at the screen, and then adjusts the render settings to generate a smoother line. With as little information as he has—who knows? Maybe the upgrades will be worth it after all. Maybe a nanosecond just before his own death is exactly what Bruce will need.

There's no telling just yet, and he can't afford to count anything out.

 

 

 

The sun is rising somewhere over the lake, by the time the newest designs are ready for trial fabrication.

Bruce can't see it, obviously; but Alfred mentions as much, with a certain acrid pointedness, when he comes downstairs. Bruce absently accepts the cup of coffee and ignores the buttered toast and the commentary in equal measure.

He takes a sip, and idly adjusts his system settings off of what Alfred likes to call Archimedes-in-a-bathtub mode—now that he's no longer actively at work on a high-priority project, there's no need to suppress lower-level notifications and alerts.

A digest of everything that's been held back in the intervening hours pops up, and he flicks through its contents, most of his attention admittedly directed toward the coffee, the way it feels to take that first smooth dark swallow. A few developments he'll be checking out on his next patrol night, a tip from the ever-generous Gordon, a couple social media flags, and—

Bruce doesn't jerk or startle. He finishes swallowing, sets the coffee carefully on the desk, and only then clicks through.

He scrapes for every mention of Superman he can find, every hashtag, every blurry photo and argumentative comment ("that's a bird, dude" "NO IT'S AN AIRPLANE ARE YOU BLIND" "i tagged it #superman for a reason ok i know what i saw!!!!"). But there's a lot of it, and at least three-quarters is bullshit; he developed an algorithm, set up a utility to run it all through, and only Priority 3 and above get redirected anywhere where he can see them.

But this is Priority 1—confirmed sightings, local, in which Batman might be able to intervene. And there aren't a lot of Priority 1s. Usually Superman leaves the scene much too quickly for Bruce to be anything but too late.

Then again, this isn't a situation Bruce had anticipated.

pleased to confirm the attendance of our guests of honor (Loreena Davitz, Raul Garza, and Superman) at the First Annual Metropolis City Memorial Gala

Confirmed sighting; local; and Bruce has more than enough time to intervene, given that the gala is more than a week away.

"Sir? Sir."

Bruce glances up. Alfred is watching him, eyebrows raised.

"Something of interest, sir?"

"An opportunity," Bruce says briskly, looking back at the screen. The more he considers the idea, the more perfect it seems. Batman has been trying for nearly a year to get close enough to observe Superman properly, and has only managed to find himself caught out, exposed, with nothing whatsoever to show for it. But Bruce Wayne—

Batman has no real hope of defeating Superman in combat—not yet, at least. But Bruce Wayne won't have to. Bruce Wayne will be just another civilian at a party, and the alien has absolutely no reason to be suspicious of him. And Wayne has made appearances at things like this before, if only because his PR people have told him to. Besides, after what happened to the Wayne Enterprises financial tower in Metropolis on Black Zero, Wayne's as likely to pop up at this kind of event as any actual Metropolis citizen.

He's already turning over the options in his mind. There has to be some kind of way to secure a miniature scanner or sensor on Bruce Wayne's person—disguised by a tie pin or a cufflink, even, so whatever additional senses the alien has are less likely to discern it. He should be able to reach very close range, this way; what better opportunity is he ever going to have to take detailed readings of Superman? Anything that can give him a useful hint as to the mechanisms underlying the alien's biology would be welcome, at this point—

"I assume it's already pointless to try to talk you out of this," Alfred is saying with a sigh, over Bruce's shoulder.

"Yes," Bruce says, without looking away from the screen. "For once, we know exactly where Superman is going to be and when, and I'll have an opportunity to approach him without putting him on his guard. I'm not going to pass that up."

"And if he realizes why you're there? Or who you are? Depending on exactly how enhanced his senses are, there are a dozen ways he might recognize you, sir, despite every precaution we take—"

"He can hardly murder Bruce Wayne in front of a roomful of the most important people in the metro area," Bruce says. "And if he does—"

He cuts himself off, a little too late. The point is salient: even that will work to our advantage, he would have said, if his true nature is exposed to the world by it.

But Alfred doesn't like it when Bruce talks about those kinds of hypotheticals too much.

He risks a glance, and yes, there's the grim and disapproving stare he was expecting. "I'm sure you know what you're doing, sir," Alfred murmurs, in a tone that says he's sure of nothing of the kind—but he opens the door, and he can't blame Bruce for stepping through it.

"I do, Alfred, thank you," Bruce says evenly, and then turns back to the monitors. He's got work to do, and it's important; and Alfred does understand that, however much he might imply otherwise. Alfred will forgive him, in time, and right now he has a gala appearance to plan.