We are not permitted to linger, even with what is most intimate.
New Year’s Eve at Wayne Manor…in the present…
He could feel it, in the back of his mind, tickling, echoing. An unwelcome inner vibration that promised—
What? Comfort, safety, an end to loneliness…to never be alone, in his own head, in his own heart—
Bruce Wayne sighed, a tense release of air, grabbed a glass of champagne from a tray as a waiter made his rounds in the crowded exhibition hall and tried to smile at his companion, a certain lovely and talented starlet who was the current darling of the paparazzi. He couldn’t even remember her name.
“Brucie,” she leaned in close to his ear so he could hear her around the noise and the revelry, “it’s almost midnight. I want to be up front when the ball drops.” Her lips formed an artful pout, her long lashes fluttered. “Come with me?”
Bruce grimaced, tried to hide it behind a small cough and a nod, allowed the petite brunette to take his arm, lead him in the proper direction. Her touch burned like a branding, even through the material of his expensive tuxedo, but he didn’t flinch, refused to extricate his arm, even though the roaring in his head was loud, past bearing.
He could do this. He would demonstrate, to himself most importantly, that nothing had changed.
Conversation was easy, vacuous, the excited undulations of the crowd as the night beat down to midnight a welcome barrier to more personal interaction. Still, he could feel Clark like a ghost, like a shadow that lingered even after the setting of the sun.
He’s in Smallville. Home. Family. Such love. He loves his parents so much. So very much.
Bruce felt it as Clark looked up, concentrated, sent a thought through their link that was like a gentle caress, like a whisper of rain against his face, a fall of snowflakes: You’re part of my family, too, Bruce. Don’t—
Bruce clamped down on their connection hard, the way J’onn had taught him, leaving only the reverberation of a disappointment colored by concern, wreathed in…love.
Later, after the countdown to the New Year had come and gone, after he had convinced his companion to accompany him back to his hotel suite, he again tried to banish the echo of Clark from his mind’s eye as he touched her, kissed her desperately, felt the burn, masked the pain, laid her naked body down on the bed, covered her body with his own—
Clark had left the farm. He was flying. He was a star in the sky, falling. He was needed in another part of the world. No rest for Superman…
A cadence, metronomic, even, steady, rather than the usual syncopation that forever sought to strengthen the weakest beat, refused to be silenced in his head as Bruce buried his face in her hair, as he thrust into her, through her. His hands clenched, causing her to cry out in surprise as a sort of stricken longing swept over him, dismantling him, like the lost, bewildered feeling of a child as his mother lets go of his hand on the first day of school.
His heart began a rapid, deep, and painful beating that turned him dizzy. His hold on his companion loosened, fell away. Brightness, the intense brightness of a too bright sun blasted through his boundaries, flooded his mind, scorched his soul, blew the husk of his vision away.
Many months ago, in Washington, DC…
Ironically, it had seemed like a good plan of action at the time, necessary, even. In fact, it was his idea in the first place.
The seven members of the Justice League were meeting at the Themysciran embassy in Washington while they awaited the retrofitting of their new headquarters, the orbital satellite and watchtower that would provide them with an unprecedented ability to protect the Earth, and would serve as the first line of defense against alien invasion. They were arguing training and tactics, and, of course, Superman refused to understand the need for even a modicum of preemptive planning.
“Superman,” Batman said through gritted teeth, “surely even you can understand the need for communication—“
“Stop trying to be insulting, Batman,” Superman bit out. “I understand perfectly the need for communications in the middle of battle. I simply feel that our comm links are enough—“
“What if our electronic uplink fails at a critical moment—?”
“We have the back-up system—"
“The back-up system could fail—"
“The moon could fall from the sky,” Superman snapped, throwing the report he was holding in his hands to the table in exasperation. “But the bottom line is we are all professionals and know how to function in battle. We have a communication system in place that has three levels of redundancies built in, redundancies that you required and designed. Now you’re saying that even those redundancies aren’t enough. Your paranoia—“
Batman got to his feet. “I’ve had enough of this—“
Diana was at his side, with a placating hand on his arm. “Batman, wait,” she said. “Let’s talk about this.”
“I’m done talking, Princess.”
“Then wait and let someone else talk. You’ve presented your case, now let us consider it.”
Batman frowned darkly but took his seat. Diana was always placing herself between him and the Boy Scout in primary colors. When would she ever learn that the two of them were simply fire and ice, oil and water, rational crime fighter and big blue butthead?
“J’onn,” she said, taking her own seat, “is this perfectly safe?”
The Martian spoke gravely, “I have studied human physiology, and this poses no threat. The proposed telepathic link between us seven will allow us to talk to each other mind-to-mind. The benefits include a level of instant communication beyond the capacity of electronic devices that will persist as long as I remain conscious. There are no drawbacks.”
Superman leaned forward. “How do you shield the team from random thoughts that you might not want others to hear? Can we turn it off, block it if it’s not needed? If one person initiates contact, is the other person compelled to respond—“
“Did you even read my report?” Batman asked out loud, in a disgusted, long-suffering voice. “Do you really think I would allow any sort of mental invasion of my brain that I hadn’t fully vetted and narrowly circumscribed?”
“The brain of the Bat is a dark and unwelcome place and not open for visitors…” The Flash said sotto voce. His boredom was evident and his comment punctuated with a sigh.
“I had a meeting with the president—“
“Maybe you should try reading the report before you—“
“Boys,” Diana said, then louder—
“What?” They both turned in her direction.
“Perhaps J’onn could answer Superman’s concerns and then we can vote. There’s no need to argue about this.”
“Fine,” Superman said, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Fine,” Batman said, crossing his own arms over his chest.
J’onn’s eye ridge went up, as if to say, Earthlings, what an interesting species! before he explained in plain terms that the proposed telepathic link would only enable communication if the recipient was receptive; that the exchange was limited to active thoughts alone and that stray thoughts or thoughts below the surface of the active exchange were inaccessible. In that way, the telepathy was very much like a comm link or a telephone connection, even. The Martian made such an effort to reassure Superman of the inaccessibility of stray or underlying thoughts that it caused Batman to wonder what the Man of Steel could be so concerned about hiding. If anyone was an open book, it was Superman. He should be the last one to worry.
They took the vote. The result was unanimous.
“That…didn’t go well,” Clark admitted with a sigh. He was still sitting in his seat at the rectangular conference table, unable to marshal the energy to begin the next part of his day. He was expected at The Daily Planet at two, and sometime before then, he had to write an article about the incursion of Cell Six into Metropolis—and he had yet to finish his research on the matter. Clark laid his head down on his folded arms and closed his eyes.
“You should not take his demeanor so seriously,” J’onn commented from across the room. He was standing quietly by the glass wall, looking out over the Capitol. “He is not angry with you. You are simply the easiest target.”
“It feels like he’s angry with me all the time. I can’t do anything right—”
“It is just his way.”
Clark sat back in his chair, let out a frustrated breath. “I wish he’d find another way, or find someone else to pick on. Perhaps it was a bad idea having us both on the same team…”
“The idea was sound. You two complement each other—”
“Complement?” Clark interrupted incredulously, hands coming down hard on the table. “He doesn’t listen. He’s rude, arrogant, insufferable—he thinks he’s always right. Sometimes, I just want to bash his face in. I’ve never really hated anyone I had to work with before…”
“You do not hate him.”
Silence stretched between them for three heartbeats. “That’s not fair,” Clark said in a low voice. “You’re cheating.”
J’onn’s eye ridge rose. “I am not. I would never invade your mind without your permission. However, we are friends, and I like to think I have a good understanding of your personality. You fight with him so furiously because you care what he thinks. You want his approbation and his friendship. Perversely, Batman withholds these things because he knows you want them, and he is too used to the deprivation that defines his existence to make any personal concession willingly.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“Not at all. It would be simple if you would simply tell Batman how you feel.”
“But I don’t—”
“Life is full of uncertainty, Kal-El. At least, it would put your mind at ease regarding the telepathic link…”
Just then, Kyle Rayner, the newest Green Lantern, re-entered the room with his electronic sketchpad in hand. “Hey, J’onn,” he called out while making a beeline for Clark.
“Clark, I have something for you.” He held out his tablet.
Clark smiled and took the proffered device. Kyle made an excellent Green Lantern, in his opinion. He brought…a fresh perspective to the team and a humility regarding the great power with which he had been gifted. Because of the way the ring came to him, he worked hard to be worthy, and his ego was sometimes a bit delicate. But he was a special person, and a hero, and Clark actually liked him a lot. Besides, they had their work at The Daily Planet in common on the alter-ego side of things.
“What’s this?” He scrolled through a quickly penned comic strip featuring an irate, irrational and foaming-at-the-mouth Batman, reading the blurbs. Then he burst out laughing. “You better not let Batman see that,” Clark said. “He might not appreciate your sense of humor.”
Kyle grinned cheekily, his brown bangs falling into his eyes. “The big bad Bat has already left the building. I checked.”
“Though I’m totally not afraid of him.”
“Of course not.”
“I think you should pound him into next week, though. Maybe he’d stop being such a jerk—“
“Kyle, “ Clark shook his head, “there will be no pounding. We’re all on the same team.”
“Tell him that.”
Clark sighed again. “I’m working on it.”
“Race you back to the Planet?” Kyle asked hopefully. “I thought up this cool new design for a fighter jet…”
Clark agreed and told Kyle he’d meet him on the roof of the building in fifteen minutes. Spending some time with the Lantern was probably a good idea. He wanted to tactfully steer him away from taking sides in his continuing war with Batman—although he very much appreciated the solidarity. It was bad for team dynamics to have some members taking umbrage at others on his behalf, and joking at someone else’s expense behind their back was never a good habit to encourage, but Kyle needed to be handled a certain way, and some gentle guidance would go much further than castigation with him.
“He idolizes you,” J’onn commented after Kyle had exited. Without his exuberance, the room seemed deflated, like a completely different place.
“He’ll get over it. He’s new here. He pretty much idolizes everybody.”
J’onn turned back towards the window. “Perhaps.”
Two days later, a little past eleven o’clock on a dark night when the moon was obscured by cumulous clouds that promised snow by morning, Batman was on the roof of the Gotham Public Library. He was crouched behind a gargoyle, watching the deserted street below, idly bemused by the calm that had descended on his city over the last few days, like the quiet before the storm. He didn’t even bother to look up when the obnoxious Boy Scout in blue tights flitted down out of the night sky like an angel in a piece of particularly bad poetry.
“What are you doing here?”
“I thought we—”
“Don’t think. Just go,” Batman growled. “I’m sure even you would agree we’ve had enough of each other to last the week.”
And that was the crux of it. With the inception of the Justice League, the two of them were forced to spend an inordinate amount of time together. They had known each other for years, both being the most recognizable crime fighters in their respective spheres of influence; they had worked together when necessary, but it had been quite clear from the beginning that their methods and ideologies differed drastically. Consequently, they had maintained an appropriate personal and professional distance at all times, a distance that had effectively been eroded by their current status as “teammates”. The new level of tension between them was…distracting.
“Are you still here?” Batman said, straightening. “I have work to do.”
Superman turned, looked out into the night, on the streets of Gotham. “It’s quiet,” he said, his voice taking on a slightly pleading note that was somewhat surprising when Batman was so used to his teammate’s constant ill-conceived belligerence. “Surely you can spare—“
“What is it, then?” Batman snapped.
“Yes, we’ve established that,” Batman interrupted dryly. “Can you cut to the chase?”
“Would you stop it?”
Batman scoffed, low in his throat, at the way Superman seemed to bristle, the way his eyes glared red. Serves him right, Batman thought, for continuing to float out there, forcing me to look up just to speak to him.
“I just want to talk to you.”
Batman shrugged. “I can’t imagine what could be so important you’d need to come to Gotham. We have a League meeting next week—”
“It’s not about League business, well, not exactly.” Superman bit his lip. Was that a habit? Batman was surprised he had never noticed it before, but he added it to his mental file on the Kryptonian, for future reference.
“It’s about you,” Superman paused. “And me.”
The Man of Steel was still floating in the air, off the edge of the roof, almost as if he were afraid to set feet on solid ground, almost as if by floating, he could assure himself a quick getaway, but he had slowly descended from his loftier angle; Batman could now look him in the eye without having to crane his neck.
Batman waited silently. Superman took a deep breath.
“If you don’t get to the point—”
“Okay,” Superman snapped. “Alright.” He took another deep breath. “Batman—Bruce—”
Bruce? Since when had they evolved to a first name basis?
Suddenly, Batman was swept up in the night, engulfed by shadows, wrapped in arms that stilled his instinctive struggles; he was being kissed.
It lasted an interminable length of time, but, finally, it...ended, leaving him agog, amazed, sputtering like an appalled cat.
“What the hell are you doing? Are you insane?”
Superman was running his hand through his hair, looking abashed and apologetic. Batman simply stared at him, waiting for an explanation—for something so completely inexplicable.
“I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time,” he said, sighing. “This new telepathy we’ll be using—I didn’t want you to find out about how I feel some other way.”
“How you feel?”
Superman nodded slowly. “I’ve…felt this way about you for ages, Bruce. There was never a right time…you…don’t make it easy.”
This had to be a dream, a nightmare. “Batman,” he said. “I’m Batman, not Bruce. And you’re Superman.” Not Clark. “And you’re being absolutely ridiculous. I don’t even like you.”
“Oh, okay, then,” Superman said, with a small, embarrassed upturn to the corner of his mouth, a tilt to the head that had him looking anywhere but directly at his teammate. “I thought—I just wanted you to know. I’ll leave you to your work.”
He was floating high again, turning away.
“I’ll see you at the meeting next week, Batman.”
Batman stood at the edge of the rooftop, staring out over his city. The sky was a wash of stars. It seemed the clouds had dispersed, the moon shone down on everything in all its brilliance and the night in Gotham was, for once, as clear as day.
Clark Kent sat on an asteroid, in the middle of space, staring at a luminous moon. After some interminable length of time spent beating himself up, he was joined by a certain green-skinned Martian who, Clark thought sourly, really should stay away from giving relationship advice.
“I made a fool of myself,” Clark broadcast telepathically. “I always make a fool of myself where he’s concerned. I can’t—”
“Just because his response was not what you expected, does not mean your course of action was flawed, Kal-El. The release of a heartfelt desire has an impact beyond the outcome of any one day.”
“Are you saying with time things might change?”
“With time, anything is possible.”
Clark grinned wryly. “This is The Batman we’re talking about.”
J’onn nodded. “Even so.”
The first time they initiated the telepathic link, it was, in Batman’s estimation, a disaster.
The fight was against Metallo and the Superman Revenge Squad, and, apparently, the only thing worse than watching Superman risk his life by rushing in recklessly against a foe with a Kryptonite power source was knowing in advance that he planned to do so.
Batman could never remember what he had done; it was only afterwards, when he reviewed the tapes, when he forced his teammates to recount every last minute of the encounter at least three times, that he finally had to admit it: perhaps he had been wrong about the usefulness of the link if it could make him lose his mind at the presentation of danger to a teammate.
To have to sit with Superman to debrief on the issue, however, when all of the facts were leading him to the conclusion that he might have been wrong, was undoubtedly the most painful part of the evaluation process.
They met in the embassy conference room an hour before the main JLA meeting. Superman, of course, was precisely on time, but, as was often the case, he was hardly prepared. When the Boy Scout walked into the room with that swagger that set his teeth on edge, Batman was already reviewing the footage, even though by now he had it memorized.
“Is that the fight?” Superman asked, taking up a position over his right shoulder.
“Is there another reason we decided to meet?” Batman turned the monitor so Superman could sit in the chair next to him and still see the screen. Anything was better than having the big blue butthead looming so closely behind him. Superman took his seat, and for a minute they both studied the display as the fight played out.
“You really…helped me out there,” Superman said as he watched. “I mean, that Kryptonite blast could have killed me.”
“You were stupid to have rushed in without backup,” Batman grumbled.
“Still—thank you.” Superman reached out a hand and placed it on Batman’s arm. Batman shrugged it off.
“We’re on the same team. That’s what teammates do. There’s no need to thank me. Anyway, that’s not why we’re here.” Batman rewound the footage, stopped at a close-up of his own reaction prior to Superman’s frontal attack on Metallo. “What concerns me is that my actions were almost…instinctual. Or, perhaps, it’s better to say I don’t exactly…remember…how I came to the conclusion that I needed to take this course of action in precisely this way.”
Batman nodded. “And I remember everything.”
“But it was the right thing to do. You saved me, saved lives. I’m not exactly sure I would say there’s a problem with the link. Communication of surface thoughts amongst the team is instantaneous. Perhaps…you received the knowledge of my intentions so…quickly…that your brain was unable to…respond in the normal way, and you simply…did what needed to be done. Viewed from that perspective, the link works perfectly.”
Batman was silent for a minute, staring. “Your hypothesis is that I responded automatically to external stimuli, and because my actions worked out for the best, everything is fine?” Batman didn’t even bother to keep the scorn from his voice.
Superman…flushed, or blushed, or did whatever it was that made him duck his head like an overgrown Kansas schoolboy. Then he sighed and lifted his head.
“I think you’re over-analyzing this, Batman. You knew this link would present challenges; that it would present a significantly different way to interact with the team. One instance is not enough to term the experiment a failure, especially when the results achieved are exactly in line with our expectations. The most you can say here is that we need more data. Stop harassing the team about this one incident and figure out a way to work with this new tool—the one you convinced us was so absolutely necessary.
"And try to be civil for a change. You don’t have to like me to be courteous.”
Superman got to his feet and walked out of the room.
Two months after that exchange in the conference room, Clark was surprised to realize that Batman was actually making an effort to be less…Batman-like in their dealings. Even Wally commented upon the new détente between the Big Two, though jokingly. Whatever new day had dawned, team meetings were much less acrimonious, and for that, Clark was grateful, even though Batman’s overt hostility had changed to a sort of watchfulness that had Clark constantly on edge. It was unnerving to turn his head at any moment and catch Batman looking in his direction, studying him from behind the mask and those annoying white lenses that hid his eyes.
The team’s activities were limited to a series of petty incidents that hardly required their collected effort. The rest of their time was taken up by the planning around the new orbital Watchtower that would be their first official home base. The team gravitated naturally to smaller groups to handle anything that didn’t require their full strength, with Batman, Flash, Hawkgirl and Wonder Woman in one group, and Superman, Green Lantern and J’onn in another. Consequently, there was not much of an opportunity to further test the effectiveness of the link, but Clark did spend many days wondering why Batman could manage to be so positively charming to Diana, and why his relationship with Wally contained a tolerance bordering on amusement, and why Shayera’s opinion seemed to merit respect while other opinions were simply disregarded.
Like his own.
Thus, things had reached a sort of equilibrium—until the day Mongul attacked Metropolis.
Clark had to admit: Mongul always worried him. He was strong, and fighting him was never…easy. But when he placed himself between Mongul and his city and took the brunt of the alien's attack upon himself, he knew it simply had to be done, no matter what the cost. He was the only one who could survive the beating, and it gave the others time to—
There was an explosion—which was the least of his worries as he struggled to maintain consciousness, to break the hold around his neck. Not to drown in the blood pouring from his nose, the blood pooling in his mouth. Then he was free, and on the ground—and instead of Mongul moving in for the kill there was Batman, blocking out the sun.
Twenty seconds before everything faded entirely, Clark thought he had died for real this time. Batman—Batman—was by his side, amidst the smoke and the debris, pulling his head into his lap.
“Stupid Boy Scout. What were you thinking?”
Clark coughed, tried to respond but the pounding in his head overtook conscious thought, and the hand in his hair, gently smoothing it back from his face, made it impossible for his eyes to stay open. The very last thing he remembered before his vision faded to black was realizing, wonderingly, that Batman had taken off his gauntlets, and that his hands—his hands—were…
Many hours later, after the re-group, and the cleanup, and the debriefing with the local authorities, Batman asked the Martian to meet him in the conference room at the embassy. He needed answers, and he needed them now. There was no way what had just happened was normal. No way.
Not only had he once again discarded all rational thought, rushed blindly into a fight when Superman was in danger, but he had. He had—
He hadn’t been able to let Clark go. When Diana had tried to take him. With the rest of the team watching.
He could no longer account for his own actions, and that was simply…unacceptable.
When he arrived at the conference room, he found J’onn and Superman waiting.
“Why are you here?” He pointed at Superman. “You’re supposed to be—”
“I’m fine. Almost good as new.”
Batman scoffed, looked the Man of Steel over from head to toe, noting all the little signs that his teammate was still hurting. Liar. But if Superman wanted to act as if he hadn’t just gotten the crap beaten out of him—that he hadn’t almost died…
“I suppose you had to pull yourself out of bed to say I told you so?” he snapped instead.
“Of course not. J’onn—”
“I asked him to come,” J’onn said in his calm voice. “This concerns the both of you.”
“I don’t see why.” Now, he was beyond aggravated, and he wasn’t above letting the Martian know it. “I wanted to talk to you about the link. It doesn’t seem to be working reliably.”
“It works,” J’onn said.
“How can you—”
“It just doesn’t work for you.”
“The link works reliably for everyone but you, Batman. It even works for you, with everyone except Superman.”
Batman eyed the Kryptonian suspiciously. “What do you mean?”
J’onn continued, “For…some reason…what should be a simple surface connection between you and Superman, a link that would allow communication, has…morphed…into a physical as well as a mental binding. Your recent reactions are a result of a sensory overload—with the knowledge and physical impressions of the extreme danger to Superman—and it being imperative that you rescue him.”
“Imperative.” Batman’s voice was flat, unbelieving. “Why only with him?”
J’onn’s brow rose. “Only you can answer that.”
“Break it,” Batman said decisively. “Dissolve the link.”
“That is…not possible. Only you—”
“You said there was no danger.”
“This was unforeseen. There was no way for me to know, absent scanning your mind that you—”
“Stop.” Batman rounded on Superman. “This is your fault,” he accused, pointing a finger. “Your feelings—”
“This is not Superman’s fault,” J’onn said, his tone admonishing.
Superman had his arms crossed and his head down. All Batman wanted to do was punch his lights out.
“If anyone is to blame, Batman, I am afraid it is you. You hold on too tightly. I cannot break the link without hurting you. You will not let me.”
Batman stared at the Martian. “What can be done?” he finally asked. He would not live with some sort of intangible connection to Superman. It was unacceptable.
“There are certain mental exercises that I can teach you to enable you to control the flow of thoughts and emotions—”
“How do I get rid of it?”
J’onn paused. “You cannot simply get rid of it, Batman, at least there is no way of which I am aware.” Again, J’onn paused, seemingly wistful, on the sharp edge of distress. “My people would search a lifetime to find what you have found by accident. I could no more break this binding than I could kill the spirit of an unborn child.”
His mind was processing this information, shifting through the nuances, trying to find some path out of the madness. Still, Superman contemplated the floor. “What will happen?” he asked J’onn. “Over time?”
“Over time the bond will grow, becoming to you the equivalent of an arm or a leg, a vital organ without which life would be possible but meaningless.”
Unacceptable. He hadn’t fought for autonomy all his life, practiced distance from people, entanglements, the way some people practiced the piano, to have it all come down to this—some physical and mental dependency on a super powered alien, even if that alien was Clark—
“You said I could learn a mental technique to control this? How much control? Can I shut it down to a bare minimum?”
J’onn was quiet a moment, considering. “Theoretically, yes. Depending upon your mental acuity, you could choke the bond, prevent all but the bare minimum to pass through. Eventually, it is possible you will achieve true quiescence, though I cannot believe that such a state would be healthy—“
“That is what we’ll do, then,” Batman interrupted, satisfied. “At least until I can do some more research.”
He watched Superman nod and turn towards the door. It was surprising that the Man of Steel had nothing to say about all of this. The thought was like a blossoming in his head, and, all of a sudden, he was awash in hurt and disappointment, and an acute sadness that colored the edges of his vision gray. He stumbled, but J’onn was there with a hand on his arm. Superman didn’t look back.
“We should start immediately,” J’onn was saying.
Batman straightened. “What about him?” he asked, nodding towards the door.
“Superman is Kryptonian. His is a higher level of mental acuity. He will have no problems controlling the flow of the link. The ability comes to him as a second nature. As I said, this all stems from you. You hold on too tightly…”
I hold on too tightly.
A divine joke, then, at his expense.
J’onn met him the next day for lunch. Of course, he was disguised as a female reporter from Japan. The Martian looked like a beautiful woman, and sounded like one, but she was still J’onn, with all of his concern and relationship advice that was completely divorced from reality. J’onn never really seemed to understand that the inner world and the outer were often…incompatible in the lives of humans. In the case of Batman, the two were irreconcilable.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do at this point. I know you said this situation isn’t my fault, but I can’t help feeling—“
“He’s in love with you,” the Martian calmly stated, over the brim of a teacup.
Clark dropped his knife from nerveless fingers. “Wh-what?”
“He doesn’t just love you—he’s in love with you. Desperately. But you already know this.”
Clark started breathing again. He had stopped, had not realized he had stopped. “Why would you say that? How do you know?” Clark lowered his voice to an appalled whisper. “Did you—?”
“Of course not, Clark. I did nothing unethical, but he broadcasts so loudly. I would have to be deaf not to hear his great distress.”
The young woman ducked her head. “He does not want this. It is impossible for him to admit what he wants out loud.”
Clark nodded, stared off in the distance. “Then what does it matter? Why tell me—“
“I’m telling you nothing you don’t already know, my friend. His inner life is no secret from you—not anymore.” J’onn shrugged. It was a delicate gesture in this other form. “His thoughts and feelings are your own. You’re simply being stubborn and ignoring what you do not believe. However, he loves you and he will never let you go. If this situation is going to be fixed, one of you has to start dealing with reality.”
“Reality.” Clark shook his head. “Reality isn’t some neutral thing I can just decide to start dealing in. To Bruce, reality is simply something to be overcome. To Bruce, reality is whatever he says it is…”
Clark avoided Batman for weeks after that conversation with J’onn, skipped two JLA meetings with very valid excuses, although he had to admit he was grateful to have a reason to do so. He had never been any good at conducting romantic relationships; he was apparently quite awful at conducting romantic relationships that did not yet exist but should exist. If he were lucky…and he wasn’t that lucky.
Because Batman hated him.
Never was this more evident than at the first JLA meeting where they were both present—almost a month after the fight with Mongul. It wasn’t even the things Batman said this time—after all, Clark was pretty much used to bearing the brunt of his sarcasm—it was the vitriol that hit Clark like an omega beam, staggered him not only on the physical plane but also deep inside, along their connection, where his most heartfelt hopes and fears were buried.
“Is stupidity one of your super powers? You seem to be able to take the condition to an unprecedented level—”
“Stop being such an ass—” Clark was on his feet.
“You’re supposed to be the leader of this team—lead with your head for a change.”
Batman was on his feet now, too, and they were yelling at each other verbally and telepathically, and the rest of the JLA were between them, trying to hold them back or separate them, but none were privy to the things that were said in a way no one else could share. When they had yelled themselves out, Clark let Kyle steer him out of the conference room. He felt battered, like he had just gone twelve rounds with Darkseid—and lost it all in the thirteenth on a technical knockout.
He purposely didn’t disable the security system. He knew who was coming—how could he not know?—but he refused to make it any easier. Besides, what better way to test the improvements to the system than with a live test run? Superman wouldn’t be hurt…much.
It was only as he watched Superman’s progress on the monitors that he began to get a little uncomfortable. Any normal person would at least try to avoid—
The air shifted and Superman was in a heap at his feet. Batman was kneeling next to him in a heartbeat.
“You’re supposed to take countermeasures, you stupid—”
Superman coughed up blood as Batman pulled him to his feet. “Seemed you needed to work out some aggression. Thought I’d let you get it over with.”
Batman dragged him to the table by the medical equipment and attempted to maneuver him up.
“I’m fine,” Superman said, trying to shrug his hands away.
“Just get on the table.”
“I said I’m fine.” Superman was stubborn in the face of Batman’s implacable gaze for all of thirty seconds, and then complied with a sigh. “First you try to kill me, and now you’re concerned about my health. What the hell did you hit me with?”
“Kryptonite derivative in a gaseous form. Not enough to do any permanent damage, just enough so you—”
Batman nodded. He turned on the body scanner to get a look at Superman’s lungs.
“No permanent damage,” Batman stated, satisfied.
Superman was watching him, following his movements around the machine with an intensity that made him acutely aware that he wasn’t wearing gloves or cape or cowl. Usually, these were the last things he put on before going out on patrol, as the items were bothersome when he was just working around the cave. But right now, he felt their absence keenly.
“Not physically,” Superman agreed slowly. “I wouldn’t have—you designed this system…just to keep me out?”
Batman decided to ignore the disappointment in that voice, and mentally slapped away the feeling of hurt and confusion that threatened to wash over him.
“Stay there,” Batman said when Superman tried to get up. “This is my workspace. I’ve instituted measures against anyone stumbling in here uninvited. The fact that you’re here, uninvited, proves the security measures are warranted.”
“Right.” Superman nodded, turned his head to glance around the cave, as if he could no longer stand to look at him directly. “This is never going to work, is it? You’re never going to…” The voice was low, resigned.
There was something—beneath the surface. Bubbling up, making his hand move of its own accord, from the ‘S’ on the uniform where it had come to rest minutes ago, to drag a knuckle over the perfect cleft in a perfect chin; in a perfect face that was now looking in his direction, eyes wide in astonishment. He couldn’t quite say what made him lean forward, press lips against startled lips until it all—all of it—went up in flames.
Superman—Clark—swung himself up, pulled Bruce in between his legs where they were on equal footing and could wrap themselves around each other. For three minutes, five, ten—all that mattered were the hands buried in his hair, the feel of lips as they pleasured his own; the way he didn’t need to breathe. Connected like this, what they shared was enough for both of them—
“Oh! My apologies, sir—”
Bruce heard the comment like an echo from the other side of a long tunnel. It was enough to snap him back to reality. He pulled himself out of Superman’s arms—forcefully—and turned away. To the butler standing by the stairs, he said, “That’s fine, Alfred. Please continue.” Then he turned his head in Superman’s direction, refused to look at him.
“He’s such a jerk,” Kyle said as he reached for some popcorn. “He acted like I had murdered the president, when all I did was make a suggestion. Okay, maybe it wasn’t as good as one of his suggestions, but not everyone can be Batman. I think it’s personal.”
Clark grabbed the remote before settling next to Kyle on the sofa. “I don’t think so.”
“I do. He can’t stand that we’re friends.”
Clark smiled at Kyle fondly. His insecurities often led him to impute the wrong motivations to people’s actions. “I don’t think Batman cares that we’re friends. Likely, it bothers him that you always side with me on any vote. Little things like that tend to piss him off.”
“That’s because you’re always right and he’s always a jackass.”
Clark took off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. He decided to leave them off and placed them on the coffee table. “Kyle—”
“I know what you’re going to say. Try harder to get along with Batman.”
“We’re all teammates. We have to trust each other with our lives. I hope my relationship with Batman hasn’t put pressure on you to take sides. I know our constant bickering makes the rest of the team uncomfortable—and I’m sorry about that. I’m working on it—”
“I don’t think you’re going to have much luck,” Kyle said dubiously. “But I hear what you’re saying. Believe it or not, I don’t just side with you to back you up. You can take care of yourself—I know that. I side with you because I believe in you.” Kyle ducked his head. “That’s not going to change.”
Clark smiled. Having Kyle around was like having a younger brother. He wasn’t much for the fan adulation of strangers, but he found Kyle’s simple belief in him to be…endearing. J’onn had always been his closest confidante on the team, but Clark had to admit he enjoyed the time he spent with Kyle just as much—though it filled a different need. He was glad he had invited Kyle over to watch the game.
Hours later, after the sun had set and full darkness had settled over the apartment, broken only by the illumination from the television broadcasting the last few minutes of the game, Kyle sat forward, seemed to build up his courage—and the next thing Clark knew, Kyle was on his knees in front of Clark and the couch…leaning in and kissing him.
Perhaps Clark should have expected it—but, honestly, it hadn’t even occurred to him. As he gently disentangled himself, he wondered what in the world he should say.
Kyle fell back onto his side of the sofa. “Can’t we forget I did that?” he enquired with an embarrassed cough.
“Don’t feel that way about me. I know. Why would you? I mean, you’re Superman.”
“And you’re the Green Lantern. Don’t put me up on some sort of pedestal, Kyle. I hope that’s not what this is about. Misplaced hero-worship isn’t a good reason to—”
“It’s not that,” Kyle interrupted, sitting forward. “Or, at least, it’s not that anymore. Now I know you, both as Superman and as Clark Kent. So give me some credit—I know how I feel.”
There wasn’t much Clark could say to Kyle’s fierce pronouncement. “Kyle, I—”
“Don’t feel the same way. Yeah, I sort of figured that out from the whole deer-in-headlights look on your face.” He fell back onto the sofa, visibly deflated. “I really messed this whole thing up.”
They were both silent as the after-game commentary started up on the television screen. A good ten minutes went by before Kyle said anything, or even turned to look in Clark’s direction.
“Why him? He’s a jackass. He doesn’t deserve you.”
Clark sighed. Did everyone know? “It’s…not like I have a choice.”
Kyle got to his feet, looked down at Clark with amusement in his eyes. “Now you do have a choice,” he said cheekily. “And maybe, one day, I’ll have a chance. No one could tolerate Batman’s abuse forever. Not even Superman.”
In a burst of green, Kyle was in costume. “I’m going to head out,” he said. “I feel like…flying. I don’t suppose you want to join me?”
Clark shook his head. “But I know that feeling.” He thought of Bruce, that last time, in the cave. “Have fun.”
Clark watched as the Lantern went through the balcony doors and up into the sky.
Batman hit a button on his computer console, ending the feed from Clark’s apartment. It wasn’t that he cared at all what some outclassed kid whose only claim to fame was that he happened to be in the right place at the right time thought about him—what Kyle had to say about him behind his back was immaterial. It was the fact that Clark didn’t even have enough sense to put the kid in his place when he had so clearly overstepped. Kyle Rayner wasn’t worthy to stand in the same room as Superman, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that Clark always took up for the kid, Batman would have had him moved to the Teen Titans long ago.
Now this—this infatuation with Clark. It had to end.
Later that week, at the JLA meeting, Batman made his case, made the motion, and asked for a vote. He completely ignored the fact that Rayner was in the room, sitting too close to Superman, touching him and whispering in his ear at every opportunity; ignored Rayner’s shocked expression and indignant exclamation; ignored it when he stomped from the room like the child he was. Batman merely sat in his seat with his hands folded on the table, waiting for his colleagues to address his motion. He only had eyes for Superman.
“I need a moment alone with Batman,” Superman announced. He waited for his teammates to file out of the room and then stalked to the window, where Batman was now standing.
“You can’t treat Kyle like he’s some second class citizen, Batman. He deserves the same respect as anyone else. He’s a full member of the team—”
“Not yet he isn’t.”
“That’s a technicality—”
“—that was put in place for a reason. The first year he’s on probation. I think there’s enough clear evidence to support the conclusion that the appropriate place for Kyle Rayner is with the Teen Titans, for at least another two years. John Stewart is a better candidate for this team, and he’s available again.”
Superman was silent, staring at him. Batman had the uncomfortable feeling that his every motivation was being read like a book, but he didn’t care. He was right. The kid’s insecurities were a menace at this level.
“You’re pushing this for the good of the team.”
“You’re a liar, Bruce. And the worst part of all, you lie to yourself.”
It was almost—more than he could bear, to have Superman take Rayner’s side like this when he was so clearly right. “Don’t act like you don’t love having him all over you, following you around like a puppy,” Batman accused, finger pointing at Superman’s chest. “You don’t want me to send him down so you don’t have to lose your lapdog.”
Superman stared. “I can’t believe this—you’re jealous,” a hand through his hair, “and you’re taking it out on Kyle. I won’t let you punish him—”
“You won’t let—”
“I won’t let you punish him because you’re too scared to take what you want—”
“And I suppose Rayner is so brave. That’s why he was all over you the other night in your apartment.”
“Did you think I wouldn’t know the minute he kissed you? Did you think you could hide how much you liked kissing him?”
“You were…spying on me?”
Batman didn’t bother to reveal the extent of his electronic surveillance of his colleague’s life, and simply focused on what was most relevant. “Did you forget our link, Superman? Or isn’t your Kryptonian brain bothered with all of this extraneous information? I wish I could stop spying on you.”
Superman was silent, studying him. “Do what you have to do, Batman, but know I’ll fight you on this all the way. If Kyle goes, I go.” He shrugged. “Perhaps that’s exactly what you want.
The next few weeks were occupied with the provisioning of the Watchtower to prepare the orbital facility to go fully operational. Batman was scarce, as he was fully occupied with the final on-site testing in his costumed persona, and was also behind the scenes covering the money trail to WayneTech as a civilian. Clark very much appreciated the respite from the tension. He was able to settle the team down and allay Kyle’s fear of being bumped off the team without Batman’s antagonistic presence fighting him at every turn.
Two days before the official power up of all systems, however, a pervasive sense of loneliness assaulted him, as he was sitting at his desk at The Daily Planet. The feeling was so keen, so resigned…so absolute, it brought tears to his eyes.
Clark took half the day off from work, changed into his costume and flew into space.
He found Batman in the forward section of the Watchtower, in the main monitor room, on his back with his head underneath an electronic console. As he approached, Batman pulled away from what he was doing and sat up. Clark saw that he was out of costume, and dirty, and his hair was messy and had fallen into his eyes. The sight was enough to take his breath away.
Clark held out a hand. Bruce stared at it a moment before taking it and allowing Clark to pull him to his feet. It was a small thing to keep pulling until Bruce was within the circle of his arms.
“What are you doing here?” Bruce said. His voice was gruff, dry and disused, and Clark wondered whether there was even any food or water on the station yet, or whether Bruce had simply been working too hard to check.
Clark answered carefully, but shortly. He wanted to say the right thing, but he also wanted to skip the words. With Bruce in his arms—
“I thought you might want some company.”
Then they were kissing, like they had never been fighting, like kissing each other was all they ever did or ever wanted to do. The t-shirt and jeans—so unlike the inaccessibility of the Batsuit—enabled Clark’s hands to roam, to find a way underneath and across skin, until they were both breathing hard and had to pull away. Clark could see it in Bruce’s eyes—the war within that demanded he stop this now; that it was a worthless distraction with no future, only a downward spiral of dependency. If only this time he could find the right thing to say…
“She’s beautiful, Bruce. From the plans—I didn’t realize how impressive it would all be. Is that…the defense grid?”
And just like that, he was past the first hurdle, because Bruce did love his toys, and there was apparently no end to the time he would spend talking about the tech schema he had put in place for his team to be successful and to protect his planet. Alone in this place, there seemed no reason for them to fight. They toured the entire facility, and Bruce explained every redundancy and failsafe in detail, and the way he didn’t pause or make concessions told Clark more than any blunt statement that he respected Clark’s extraordinary intelligence and was well aware that his recall was eidetic.
Clark didn’t dare touch Bruce again—having his companionship and hearing his voice not raised in anger was enough—but when they ended their tour in the hanger bay, and it was clear Bruce felt their time together had come to an end, Clark couldn’t help wishing they could be stuck on the Watchtower like this forever, alone in space.
“I guess I had better go,” Clark said.
Bruce nodded, hands in the pockets of his jeans. “I have to get back to work.”
“When are you—coming back?”
“When I finish. We go fully operational in two days and I have a lot to do.”
“You don’t want…company?”
There was a small upturn at the corner of his mouth, a bit of a wry tone. “I work better alone.”
Clark turned to leave.
He stopped, turned around. Bruce’s startling blue eyes were serious, determined.
“This changes nothing.”
Clark smiled, and if his smile was a bit wistful, it was only just. “I know,” he said. And he didn’t care. This would be a day that would linger in his heart, in his mind, long after everything else had returned to normal.
Batman had thought knowing Superman was going to do something incredibly stupid in advance was the worst part of their telepathic link. He was wrong.
The worst part of his connection to Superman was knowing he was going to do something incredibly stupid and not being the person who was able to save him from himself.
The worst part was having Kyle Rayner be that person.
Less than a week after the Watchtower went operational, before they had time to fully settle in, Lex Luthor attacked.
Batman doubted they would ever be able to trace the attack back to the bald-headed megalomaniac, but its virulence and focus on Superman screamed Luthor more than any paper trail.
It was the Lantern who saved the Man of Steel, Kyle who found his body in space. It was Rayner who kept Clark breathing long enough for more mundane help to arrive.
It was Kyle’s name that first fell from Clark’s lips when Clark finally opened his eyes.
Batman—he kept his distance. And watched. Studied the Lantern like he would study any adversary. Noticed how much closer the two of them seemed after “the incident,” and though Batman knew it was just Clark’s nature to be appreciative, he wondered.
And the wondering was driving him crazy.
Because now—with their new orbital facility, patterns of behavior were developing. Clark’s locker was right next to Kyle’s in the shower room, and their small apartments were directly across from each other on the same floor of the Watchtower. They often had lunch together in the cafeteria, and could be caught…laughing, with their heads closely inclined. They would come and go at the same time, ostensibly to head to and from The Daily Planet. They often shared monitor duty, and sparred together in the simulation room.
All of this Batman merely noted, from a distance, his intentions inchoate. Later, he would probably say that it was their frequent forays into space, where the two of them would fly amongst the stars together, that sent him over the edge.
Clark felt the presence in the building. He couldn’t imagine what it meant for Bruce to be closeted with Perry White—he had only ever visited the paper once since acquiring it—but the roiled up feelings passing through the link didn’t bode well.
A couple of hours later, and Bruce was standing by his desk.
Clark closed his laptop and gave his colleague his full attention.
“Visiting your investment?”
“I had some business to take care of.” Bruce rearranged his suit jacket over his arm. “Do you have time for lunch?”
Before Clark could answer, he noticed Kyle exiting the elevator onto the floor. The artist started moving in the direction of Perry’s office.
Clark turned to Bruce, his hackles raised. “What…did you do?”
“I had him transferred to New York.”
“Had him transferred. It’s a much better position for his career.”
Clark sat back in his chair, appalled. “I can’t believe you.”
Bruce’s voice had lowered to a harsh, almost imperceptible whisper. “Time to break the umbilical cord before his fascination with you gets you or him killed—”
“Now, you want to pick my friends, who I work with—”
“The two of you are too close.”
“Who are you to decide that—?”
“I’m the owner of this paper, and if I want him out of here—”
Their words were coming fast and furious, low in volume but the intensity of the confrontation was starting to draw stares. Clark was about to hustle Bruce to the elevator and out of the building so they could argue in private, when Kyle exited Perry’s office and made straight for them.
“You had me transferred! You goddamn sonofabitch! You self-entitled asshole! You don’t even want him!”
Kyle took a wild swing. Bruce blocked, but Clark could see he was thrilled to finally have an excuse to bash his nemesis into the ground. He placed his body between the two of them in a Clark Kent sort of way, but now they were both shouting—about him, though that fact wasn’t quite obvious, thankfully—and when Bruce actually got around him and managed to land a punch, Clark knew Kyle was two seconds from going for the ring, and that would be a disaster.
Clark did the only thing he could do. He used his super speed and flattened Bruce with a quick right hook to the jaw. Then he took care of Kyle. He caught the billionaire before he hit the floor.
“Mr Wayne—can you hear me? Bruce—?”
Bruce slowly regained perspective in a room with white walls. Clark’s blue eyes were gazing down at him worriedly through those silly glasses. His hair had fallen into his eyes—and Bruce wondered yet again, for the thousandth time, how anyone could miss that Clark Kent was Superman…
“Good. You’re in the hospital—”
“You hit me.”
Clark chuckled lightly. “Uh—no. Now why would I do that? You’re not fully recovered—”
Bruce struggled to sit up. A heavy and immovable hand pressed him back to the bed.
“Do you remember what happened?”
“You hit me.”
“Actually, I can only lay claim to catching you as you were falling. You got into a scuffle with an irate employee. You knocked each other out. Quite amazing, really. I don’t think I’ve ever seen—do you remember now?”
Oh, he remembered. He glared daggers at Clark. He moved his head, glancing to the left. There was another occupant in the room, on the other bed, also knocked out.
It was Rayner. The Green Lantern.
One look and Clark snatched his hand from his chest like it had been burned. There was another female reporter in the room, and that was the only thing that saved Clark from his wrath. Bruce got to his feet, felt his jaw for tenderness, took one look in the mirror to assess a truly spectacular bruise covering his entire right cheek.
“I won’t be pressing charges,” Bruce said as he gathered his belongings. “But I expect Mr Rayner to report to the New York bureau immediately as instructed or he’s free to find himself other employment. I’m sure he’s very attached to…Metropolis…but we must often make sacrifices to further our careers. Isn’t that right, Mr Kent?”
Bruce didn’t bother waiting for Clark’s response. He was finished here, and with one last look in Rayner’s direction, he exited the room. He was actually quite happy with the day’s outcome. It had been a frustrating few weeks, watching Rayner with Clark. Now that he had one aspect of the problem solved, had put Rayner in his place, he felt positively rejuvenated. After all, energy blocked in one direction is equally viable when released in another.
“If I knew what to do,” Clark sighed, “I wouldn’t be asking you what to do.”
“You are both stubborn.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
J’onn phased through the floor and then returned momentarily with a bottle of water in his hand. He passed it to Clark.
“I hesitate to offer any advice, my friend. I would have to say at this point, you know him best.”
“He showed up at my job. Fired a teammate then tried to beat a kid ten years younger than him into a bloody pulp.” Clark shook his head. “I don’t know this Batman.”
“Perhaps you should stay away from Kyle, at least until Batman and I reach the part of his training that will teach him to control his emotions. He has a possessive streak, and his inability to control what is happening is bringing out his worst side.”
“A possessive steak,” Clark muttered. “That’s an understatement.” He sipped his water. “How’s the training coming?”
“Very well. Batman is a quick study.”
“So you think—I was hoping…”
“That he would come to understand and appreciate your connection?
Clark felt the heat rise to his face. “Something like that.”
Clark sighed, deflated.
“I wish I could offer you more hope, my friend.”
“That’s okay. I just—I never wanted anyone before. Not like this. I can’t eat; I can’t sleep. I try to respect his privacy but sometimes…”
Clark folded his hands behind his back. Looked through the observation window and out into space. “Sometimes it’s hard.”
He turned towards J’onn again. “Kyle said something to me the other day. He said, Now I know you, both as Superman and as Clark Kent, and it got me thinking: there’s another side of me. I’m also Kal-El, of Krypton. You might be the only one who acknowledges that fact on a regular basis.”
“You make it easy for everyone to forget you are not from this world.”
“I was thinking—maybe—Bruce would be interested in knowing a little more about that side.” Maybe what he needed was to get to know him better. Certainly, it couldn’t make things worse, and besides, he had been meaning to trust Batman with more of his secrets.
J’onn nodded. “I think that sounds like an excellent course of action.”
Later, Clark sent a high priority note to Batman in Gotham via the JLA intranet.
Meet me at these coordinates.
Explanations were unnecessary. Bruce would figure out that the coordinates didn’t exist on any known map, and no satellite could be tasked to view the exact spot. Curiosity would get the better of him.
Superman was sure he could get Bruce out to the Fortress, but he certainly wasn’t sure he could get the man to stay.
Batman touched the Batwing down on a stable ice sheet in the middle of the Antarctic, cursing Superman the entire time. Visibility was zero and he dared not try to get any closer to the set of coordinates Superman had provided for fear there wouldn’t be a suitable place to land the jet. But the thought of trekking through the snow and the swirling wind to a set of coordinates that did not exist had substantially soured an already sour disposition. He didn’t have time to play hide and seek with Superman.
Properly attired and armed with his datapad to provide accurate navigation, he exited the plane and started the short hike to the coordinates. It was midday, and but for the snow, he would be able to see for miles in any direction. It took ten minutes to crest the hill so he could make out an object in the distance.
It was a castle. An amazing castle made of ice, or some sort of crystal. Batman immediately knew it was Superman’s Fortress of Solitude but, for some reason, he never thought Clark would invite him here. The knowledge of where he was going quickened his step. Before too long, he had reached some sort of entranceway.
Superman was waiting there.
“You made it.”
Bruce stopped in front of his teammate, pulled back the weather guard that protected his face. “Why did you bring me here?”
Clark’s face fell, and Bruce almost felt bad, but it wasn’t as if he had said he was leaving—
“You showed me around the Watchtower, and I’ve been to the Cave often enough. I thought—maybe—I could return the favor. Show you something of mine.” His tone was hopeful.
“I thought you were still mad at me over the Rayner incident.”
“I am, but that’s besides the point. Can’t we just—” Clark made a hand gesture, indicating that Bruce could follow him inside, if he wanted to. Bruce considered for a moment, but, really, he was curious, and a tour of a Kryptonian structure certainly would be a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The interior of the building was much…bigger than it seemed from the outside. As he and Clark talked about everything from the statues of his parents to the Fortress’ Kryptonian computers, from the crystals to the regenerating sunstone, from the robots to Kryptonian customs and legends, he came back around to that fact. Clark explained that the Fortress existed in a tesseract, outside of time and space, very comparable to the construct of the Phantom Zone. It was the reason why no one could find the Fortress unless they knew where to look for it.
“An infinite amount of space; right out of line with normal time?”
“Exactly. We could stay in here…forever…and when we went back out, we’d be right at the same point as when we left—unless we told the computer to keep us in line with normal time. Usually, I have that set as the default. It gets…complicated otherwise.”
“We’re outside of time.”
“So we could stay here as long as we want?”
Bruce watched the heat rise in Clark’s face.
Bruce nodded. “There’s food here?”
Clark led the way.
They ate, probably some of the best food Bruce had ever eaten, though it was all Kryptonian, and made by robots, so he was unsure if the comparison was valid. Afterwards, he convinced Clark to let him play with the computer, and he was pleased that his host left him to it for many hours, never bothering him but simply watching from the other side of the great hall as Clark worked on a portable device that looked very much like a laptop.
But, eventually, he pulled himself away from the computer, walked over to Clark, who watched his advance warily.
Clark closed the device and got to his feet.
When Bruce was within an arm’s length, he asked, “Why did you bring me here, Clark?”
“What do you mean? I thought you might like—”
Bruce shook his head, interrupted. “What do you want from me?”
“I don’t want anything.”
That was blatantly not true. Clark offered everything, wanted everything in return, and Bruce had nothing to give.
“It’s not going to work out the way you want it to—anything we do here. It won’t change anything. I’ve done this a thousand times before, Clark. I have a reputation, and I cultivate it religiously. It never means anything to me in the morning.” His voice had become harsh. “Is that what you want?”
Clark reached out. His hand started at the shoulder and moved surely to the base of his throat, where fingers worked free the fastening that secured cape and cowl. They both fell away. “I want whatever you want.”
The next few hours were…singularly remarkable in every way, at least, in Bruce’s estimation, and he’d had his fair share of experience with which to compare. Clark led him to what could only be termed a bedroom, but it was unlike any bedroom on Earth. Prismatic light in rainbow shades, and the distinct feeling of floating in starlight. And Clark—how anyone could reach twenty-nine years of age and still be so…innocent, so untouched, was simply beyond comprehension. When everything in the world had become jaded and worn, somehow Clark had remained innocent and new to every intimate experience.
It was…more than he thought to be given, and as they stripped each other of the trappings of their outside life and fell onto the bed, Bruce felt his inner life shift, shape itself to the stars in Clark’s eyes.
And it scared him to death.
It was the reason why he refused to stay; the reason he completely ignored the hurt and only sought to drive the wedge deeper.
“I don’t want to stay, Clark. I thought I made that plain at the beginning…”
It was the reason why he was hiking back to the jet in the freezing cold, feeling like he had just wrecked his whole life. Knowing he couldn’t stop himself from doing so, even if he wanted to, because to fail once was to fail forever. To fall once was to fall forever.
Weeks passed, and Batman pushed himself harder than ever. In Gotham, with the JLA, with troubleshooting the Watchtower systems—he left not a spare moment to dwell on the situation with Superman, not a moment to remember what it felt like to be with him, to touch him, to be touched by him. He spared no sympathy for Clark’s feelings, for the dreadful depression he seemed to be in, that Batman could feel along their link like it was his own.
Yet, nothing changed. The situation didn’t get any better. In fact, scientifically speaking, Batman would have to say his symptoms were getting progressively worse.
It wasn’t only the ability of another person’s thoughts and feelings to overwhelm him at any moment—when he was on patrol, when he was in the Batcave, when he was at home in bed at night, when he was at a meeting and he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the blue mirrors that reflected himself both inside and out—it was the fierce sense of possessiveness, the almost animal attraction that seemed to draw him towards Clark as if they were negatively charged. Even when he knew, rationally, that he had no cause to be—what?—possessive, obsessive, out of control, he couldn’t seem to help himself.
The team—they learned quickly to stay as far away from Superman as was possible. Even Kyle, who was often belligerent and would take up a position close to Clark just for spite, eventually learned that the stakes were higher than he realized, and that he played a dangerous game when even sitting with Clark in the cafeteria caused Batman to hover nearby, incandescent, with such jealousy and rage as he had never dreamed could touch him.
The only thing he could think to do was what he always did to surpass any obstacle—he worked harder. With J’onn, on the mental exercises that were supposed to teach him control but which were having no affect whatsoever. But it was the only plan he had.
Three weeks later, a JLA mission went to pieces and Batman was hurt. If Superman would have known that this would be the tipping point for Bruce he might have let him fight his way out of difficulty, but Clark was never one to let people in his care sink or swim, and rescuing a teammate, making sure he wasn’t injured further, was second nature.
Back at the Watchtower, Clark…indulged himself, and sent everyone else away, so he could be alone with Bruce when he woke up. Obviously, that was his second mistake.
“This is all your fault,” Bruce said, voice vicious as he tried to lever himself up and out of the bed. His ribs were wrapped and getting up wasn’t easy. Clark had hands on him, trying to keep him down without hurting him, but Bruce gritted his teeth and shrugged him off.
“Get off me, Clark. I’ve had enough of this crap. Keep your hands to yourself; stay out of my head. In fact, leave me the fuck alone—”
Clark stepped away. “What the hell did I do to you?” His voice was indignant. “I just saved your life. Excuse me for wanting to make sure you’re okay.”
Bruce had made it to his feet. He located his uniform and started the arduous task of putting it on. Clark was standing there, watching.
“You’re going to get me killed,” Bruce said, matter-of-factly. “I can’t think when you’re around. I can’t think when you aren’t. I do the craziest things—all because of you.” His voice had risen, and he couldn’t seem to control it. “I’ve lost my focus, the one thing I need to keep my head in the game. And what do I have to show for a lifetime of sacrifice? Some goddamn link with an indestructible alien that has fucked up everything I’ve worked for.”
Now, Bruce was shouting, while Clark was simply standing there, face completely devoid of color. Was this really how Bruce felt? Was the link, his…affection…for the man going to end up getting him killed?
Clark watched Bruce steady himself by taking a deep breath.
“I’m going back to Gotham,” he said. “Don’t call me.”
After that, Batman refused to answer any summons from the JLA.
Clark spoke to J’onn one last time before he left for the Fortress.
“I’m leaving,” he said. “You know how to contact me if anything comes up.”
J’onn was clearly still worried about this plan of his. “I am not convinced this is the best course of action,” he said.
Clark’s tone was admonishing. “We talked about this. If I’m in the Fortress, the link will go dormant. I’ll technically no longer be here to provide stimuli to keep it active. Maybe that will allow you and Batman to get a handle on his training.” Clark turned away. “I can’t be the reason he loses everything he’s worked for.”
“I understand,” J’onn said. “But we need you here.”
“I’ll come back whenever you need me. Simply send the signal.”
J’onn nodded, but Clark could see he remained unconvinced. The Martian was very sensitive, and Clark supposed he was picking up on Clark’s fear that one day he would walk out of the Fortress to find that everything had changed, that thousands of years had passed while he had been frozen in time. Perhaps his fear stemmed from the years he had lost during his training, but whatever the case, he would never voluntarily spend any extended time alone in the Fortress, but it was the best solution in this case.
“Where’s Superman?” Batman bit out as he exited the teleportation chamber. His heart was pounding with fear, and it was only his extraordinary training that kept his breathing normal. He certainly felt like he could start hyperventilating at any moment. And the Martian’s unflappable demeanor was not helping.
He advanced on J’onn. “What happened? Why didn’t anyone call me?”
“Superman is fine,” J’onn stated calmly, “and even had we called you, I suspect you would have continued to ignore us as you have for the past few weeks.”
“That was different.”
Batman waited. J’onn stared at him steadily.
“So where is he?” Batman broke first, and this time, he didn’t care. The link was like a dead thing inside his chest. He couldn't stand not knowing what had happened.
“Superman has taken himself away to the Fortress, and removed the structure from our timeline.”
“To achieve what I suspect has been achieved: breaking the link. At least, until he returns.”
Batman felt his heart rate slow. At least Clark was okay. “Which will be…when?”
“I do not know. He promised to return if we should need him.”
He promised. “And you agreed with this?” Batman said, incredulously.
“I did not agree with anything. Though I admit I saw no other choice. He could not bear your accusations, and this seemed the only solution. So, I’m glad to see you returned to the Watchtower, Batman. We can restart your training without the distraction of an active link. The sooner you learn to control yourself, the sooner Superman can return.” J’onn turned his back.
“Superman is the last son of Krypton, but his heritage is cold and dead. He is not meant to be alone.”
Batman stood frozen, J’onn’s admonishment ringing in his ears. Then he headed up to his apartment to access the computer and come up with a training schedule.
Despite J’onn’s concerns, Superman was in attendance whenever the JLA needed him, which wasn’t as often as they would have liked since they respected his wish to remain inactive and only called on him in the most dire of circumstances. The more time he spent in the Fortress, the further removed he felt from the human life he had spent so many years cultivating. It was a…syndrome particular to the sunstone construction, almost as if the rays of the sun, refracted by this remaining bit of Krypton, could laser away his humanity, bit by bit, given enough time and exposure, until the perfect Kryptonian, the last son of the House of El, could be revealed.
Seeing Batman those few times he left the Fortress was the same as taking the last sip of water in the desert. He kept his distance, however, and the distance seemed easier than it had been. Until one day Batman approached him after a mission debrief and right before he was to return to his self-imposed exile.
“Take someone with you,” Batman said, without preamble. “Not Kyle.”
The man was so predictable. “It almost sounds like you care,” Superman responded, voice mocking.
“I don’t,” Batman snapped. “Do whatever you want.”
Superman watched him walk away, and wondered if he wasn’t, perhaps, right. He always suspected that the Phantom Zone—being trapped outside of normal time—somehow contributed to the special madness that seemed to afflict anyone relegated to that place. The Fortress was based on the same tesseract technology—and wouldn’t it be ironic if he spent all this time away to allow Batman to regain his sanity simply to drive himself crazy?
He spoke to J’onn. They decided distance was a reasonable substitute for time, and he left with Kyle on a trip to the Green Lantern Corps headquarters on Oa.
Ever since Superman had left the solar system, communication along the link was a manageable trickle, a faint echo. It was just enough for Bruce to know that Clark was alive and well; it was just enough for him to know that being with Kyle made Clark happy.
The knowledge that Kyle could make Clark laugh was driving Bruce crazy.
Every morning, he looked in the mirror and saw the face of a stranger staring back at him. Every morning he wondered if this would be the day he would find his way back to his real self, his old self.
He tried—he put all his considerable willpower to the task—to speed up the process of gutting the connection between himself and Clark, smothering it, making it so that it was a non-issue and he could return to the way things used to be, before he had been introduced to this new part of himself—a part inside that wanted a life beyond his mission.
Slowly, it was working, he could tell. As long as Superman kept his distance, and even when he eventually returned from outer space, right before the holidays, it was all so much different. The two of them rarely had cause to be in the same place at the same time.
And days passed by, until one day Batman was alone on the Watchtower doing monitor duty and he found he was truly…alone.
It was then he decided to return to his regular routine, the one that he had perfected in his years as the Dark Knight of Gotham, in his years as Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy. And he was satisfied.
The Gotham Regency Hotel…New Year’s Day…in the present…
Slowly, Bruce Wayne opened his eyes. He was wrapped in warmth, soothed by hands that stroked his back, the length of his hip, hands that paused at the curve of his waist, waiting. His head was resting on a broad chest, and nothing—nothing—had ever felt so perfect; nothing had ever felt so true. Bruce raised his head and looked up, and eyes the color of carmine flames with a blue base pulled him in, destroying him.
“Where…?” His voice was dry, gravely, like sand in the desert.
“I sent her away,” Clark said, with a small smile. “She thought you were on drugs and had had some sort of a seizure. She couldn’t get out of here fast enough.”
An eyebrow went up, but then Bruce settled back down between Clark’s legs, rested his head at the crook of neck and chest, where it fit like a piece to a puzzle, to the inaudible clicking, the interconnection of the missing half of his soul. Who cared about the girl? She was extraneous, and better off gone. She had only been an instrument, the instrument of the breaking, and her song had served its purpose.
“Shh,” Clark hushed him, stroking. His voice was low in the dark, a deep rumble like the movement of earth. “I've been thinking about this for months, for the entire time I was visiting Oa. You may hate me but we…need each other. It’s not a simple matter of some mental technique. You can fight it all you want but…” this nail passes through the both of us.
“I’m not trying to hurt you.”
Bruce closed his eyes, felt his heart shiver instead of beat at the strong ebb and flow of exchanges, now that he was so close to the source, the terrible space he had carried in his heart for years, since he was a young boy—filled. With truth.
When I need a shoulder to lean on; when I think the night might break me; when my heart bleeds and the tears fall like rain, he’ll be there.
“Clark,” he whispered. The soft stroking, the slow opening of a door in his mind and the gentle wind that passed through, was his only response. “I don’t hate you.”
“I don’t…hate you either, Bruce.”
Bruce smiled, slipped into the quiet place that preceded a deep, cleansing sleep, content in the knowledge that the New Year would bring change. Inexplicable change. The new year would bring love.