Clark Kent was sitting in the Gotham Public library, staring unseeingly at a history of the philanthropy in Gotham. The picture in the book in front of him was of a young couple opening a hospital, bright smiles on their faces. "Thomas and Martha Wayne open the Gotham Central Hospital," read the caption. The silence of the library was soothing to Clark's jangled nerves as his mind went over and over the greatest mystery of Gotham, a mystery with dark hair and cheerful, dissolute eyes.
A mystery of sadness beneath the cheer, a dark chasm of loss that Clark had only briefly glimpsed behind that dazzling smile.
His eyes traced the image again as if looking for clues: the smiling couple, the crowds. He frowned as he saw a face in the crowd, gazing at the Waynes with affection, even pride. A familiar face.
He glanced up at that moment to see the same face, worn with years, walking through the library.
Clark Kent was not a believer in signs or omens, but he was a reporter, and he knew an opportunity when he saw one. Quietly, he followed Alfred Pennyworth through the library.
Bruce Wayne's butler made his way deep to the heart of the library, where few people ever went. He climbed the spiral ladder that rose upward through the towering bookcases, his footfalls purposeful in the silence. Clark followed him without a sound, eventually stopping on the other side of a bookcase from Alfred. As he readied himself to confront the butler, the books in front of his face were suddenly jerked away to reveal a very annoyed face. "Mr. Kent," hissed Alfred, "Is Mr. Wayne going to have to put a restraining order on you?"
Clark startled, his stealthy offense turned to alarmed defense in an instant. "I'm just trying to bring the truth to light," he snarled back. "It's your boss who's pulled the plug on my story!" He moved around the bookcase to confront Alfred directly. "I have to talk to him." Ever since Perry White had regretfully told Clark that the Batman story had been canned, Clark had been trying to reach Bruce Wayne with no luck. "Mr. Wayne bought a controlling interest in the Daily Planet just to shut down my story--don't deny it, I know it's true," he said to Alfred's outraged face. "Why would he do such a thing?"
"Mr. Wayne has his reasons," Alfred said stiffly, turning away from Clark to examine the bookcases once more. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm looking for a book."
Clark glanced at the spines of the books in front of him. "Why are you doing research on the Borel–Kolmogorov paradox and probability theory?"
Alfred looked annoyed for a moment, then was all business again. "Just because I am a butler doesn't mean I cannot have an interest in mathematics, Mr. Kent."
"No, no, of course not!" Clark waved his hands apologetically before remembering to frown. "But that's besides the point. I need to know why Mr. Wayne killed my story!"
Alfred pushed past him and moved to another bookcase, his posture and demeanor making it clear he and Clark Kent were no longer part of the same universe. Clark continued to follow, frustration driving him to grasp at Alfred's sleeve. Alfred looked coldly from the hand on his sleeve to Clark's face, his eyes narrowed. "Mr. Kent--"
"--Why won't you listen to me?" Clark felt his voice almost shaking with urgency. All those leads followed, all those clues painstakingly assembled, all that work--for nothing, thanks to a spoiled, selfish billionaire with sad eyes Clark couldn't read. "Don't you care about the truth? Batman didn't kill those people." The hissed whisper echoed around the library oddly and Alfred winced. "Why is Wayne letting him be crucified for something he didn't do? It isn't fair, it isn't just, it's a travesty! And I thought--" His voice faltered suddenly and he paused, feeling emotions he didn't want to acknowledge trembling too close to the surface, "I thought Bruce--Mr. Wayne--I know I only met him a few times, but I felt like...he could understand that." A memory: Bruce Wayne's eyes as he looked at the Gotham skyline fading into dusk. "He's a good man, I can tell. Why won't he show it?"
Alfred's hand closed on his, but to Clark's surprise he didn't shake it off. Instead he gripped it tightly, and when Clark looked up at him he saw the older man's face was taut with some emotion that looked almost like anguish. "Mr. Kent," he said hoarsely, "I appreciate your desire for the truth. Please believe me. And I...appreciate your faith in Mr. Wayne's heart. More than I can say. But you are not able to understand him, not able to...to save him. He is--"
Clark felt it in the split-second before the shock wave hit: the air trembled and gasped as the oxygen was leached from it. Then the muffled thud of an explosion some stories down; the building rocked and the air filled with the sound of tortured metal and concrete.
Then the screams started.
"Maroni," Alfred said in a voice that couldn't have been heard over the chaos by anyone else. "Damn him."
He had to get away. Clark turned to run downstairs, painting terror and panic on his face like a mask. But now Alfred caught at him, his hand like a vise on his wrist. "Not down," he barked, looking more like a drill sergeant than a butler. "We have to get to the roof." Clark gabbled something and tried to believably break the grip on his wrist. "This is no time to panic," Alfred yelled over the sound of rising flame. "The roof!"
Something in his eyes made Clark fear that if he "panicked" and ran into the flames, Alfred would follow him into danger. Clark swallowed. He'd get to the roof and get away.
They emerged onto the roof moments later, smoke already billowing around them, and ran to the edge. Alfred's face was streaked with soot and tears as he stared across the gap between the library roof and the roof of the nearest building. "Someone needs to talk to the city about more strictly enforcing fire escape code," he said, his voice strangely matter-of-fact.
"I'll write an expose of it after we get out of here," Clark said.
"Yes. About that--" There was a shudder and the roof beneath their feet sagged alarmingly. "I'm not so sure--"
Clark hooked his arm under Alfred's arms. "Hold on."
"What? No, there's no way, you can't--" Alfred stared at the drop, then back at Clark.
"Trust me, I'm a really good jumper," Clark urged. "I can make this." A sharp creak; smoke and sparks erupted somewhere just behind them.
Alfred was scanning the roof as if he were looking for some other means of escape, or as if he expected a random rescue to come swooping in out of nowhere. "It's impossible, no one could ever--"
"Trust me!" Clark yelled over the sound of crumbling brick. Alfred tried to duck under his arm and swayed on the edge of the precipice; chunks of mortar broke loose under his feet and disappeared below them. "I'm Superman!" Clark cried, desperate to get him to stop struggling.
As Alfred stared at him, he scooped him up in his arms and leaped lightly to the next building.
Alfred's face was very pale as Clark set him down safely. "You--" he started, his voice shaking, wild conjecture in his eyes.
Clark smiled dismissively and shrugged as if embarrassed. "Wow, that was lucky," he said. "Um...I'm not really Superman," he added sheepishly. "I just said that to get you to trust me." Alfred was shaking his head slowly. "There was a...updraft due to the heat, it lifted us up, couldn't you feel it?"
Alfred's eyes narrowed further. "Mr. Kent, I have...some intimate knowledge of the limits of the human body, and there is no way a human being could make that leap."
"--No. You were calm and confident of your ability. You are--" Alfred Pennyworth stepped forward and seized Clark's collar, tearing open his shirt to reveal the bright insignia. "My God," he said blankly.
There was a rumbling roar from the library. "I have to help," Clark said.
"Of course. Of course."
He was still staring after Superman as he went to battle the flames.
: : :
The library was in ruins, flames greedily consuming books. Superman made his way through the sparks and smoke, putting out flames where he could, bits of burning paper floating by. For a surreal instant a photograph of Bruce Wayne, torn from some society magazine, drifted in front of his eyes, the edges crumbling into flame and then the center eaten away, gone.
Under the roar of flame he heard a rustling silken sound and looked up to see dark wings silhouetted against the blaze, infernolight running along the black silk like water. Batman swooped soundlessly through the furnace, holding a tiny bundle under one arm. Superman stared, almost disbelieving his eyes--in weeks of research he had never seen the elusive vigilante--and as he did Batman's gaze locked briefly with his, a timeless instant that was over before Clark could register it, the dark shape vanishing toward the door like a shadow among the heat-haze.
Clark heard someone sobbing in the distance. No time to confront the Bat. Instead he plunged further into the fire, searching for the terrified heartbeats he could hear, leaping like flames about to be extinguished.
: : :
The last survivors were getting treatment, the flames dying down out of the gutted building, when Clark Kent--in a hastily replaced shirt--found Alfred Pennyworth again. The butler was helping the wounded that weren't in immediate danger, bandaging a young woman's burned arm with efficient tenderness. Clark waited patiently until he finished; when he looked up, Clark said, "When you're free, we--"
"--need to talk, I know," Alfred said, sounding weary. He stood, stretching his back. "I believe the paramedics have the worst under control." He smiled at Clark: a smile mixed equally of wonder and exasperation. "Shall we talk?"
: : :
"...and that's why I have to find Batman, have to contact him somehow." They were walking in the park, along white-graveled paths. "He's the only other person out there who's--at all like me. And he can't defend himself publicly from the accusations against him, accusations that I know are false, Mr. Pennyworth! I want to help him, somehow."
"And what if Batman doesn't want your help?" Alfred said with a bitter twist to his mouth.
Clark shook his head. "Then I just want to...talk to him. He deserves to have someone listen to his side of the story. And I can't do that with Mr. Wayne interfering." He glared at Alfred, but the other man seemed more tired than defensive.
"Mr. Kent," Alfred said. "I believe that if you were to be more honest with Mr. Wayne, if you were to reveal to him your secret--"
"--No." Clark shook his head emphatically. "Promise me you won't tell him about me." Alfred looked out over the gardens. "Promise me! Please, I've risked so much just letting you know. I need you to promise."
Alfred sighed. "I...promise I won't tell him about your secret," he said reluctantly. "Promises and secrets," he added in a mutter as if tasting gall.
"Look, I like Bruce. He seems..." Clark faltered. "He seems...special." Alfred eyed him narrowly as he blundered on, "But I don't understand him, and I can't trust someone that I can't understand."
"And I tell you, Mr. Kent, that you will never understand him until you trust him." Alfred's face was both concerned and stern. "You are going to have to make a leap of faith. Only then will the two of you--" He broke off and walked for a few steps, his gaze distant. "I believe you two could...be something for each other that no one else can," he said eventually.
Clark snorted, which made Alfred look at him reprovingly. "I don't think he needs a Kansas farm boy for a friend. Or an alien superhero, for that matter."
Alfred's feet grated on the gravel as he stopped suddenly, turning to glare at Clark. "Begging your pardon, sir, you know nothing at all about what Bruce Wayne needs. And until you can bring yourself to trust him, Mr. Kent, despite all your powers and abilities you will be lost in the darkness, unable to be what he needs."
Bruce Wayne's eyes in the azure twilight, watching the city. At that moment Clark had stepped forward without thinking, as if to catch him. To catch a man who wasn't even falling. "I...want to understand."
Alfred rested his hands on Clark's shoulders, briefly. "Then trust him, Mr. Kent. He needs someone to trust him. And someone he can trust." A brief, weary smile. "Such people are in short supply." He glanced at his watch. "Forgive me, but I must be home to serve Mr. Wayne supper soon."
Clark watched him walk away, his back straight and his stride as steady as if his clothes weren't covered in soot and blood. Only after he was out of sight did Clark realize that he hadn't given any answers about Clark's buried story.
The evening shadows fell across Gotham, indigo and sapphire, cloaking the bright buildings in dusk. Clark watched the city slowly glimmer into shadowed light and thought about trust and understanding and secrets, and about eyes that looked like a long fall into darkness, past all hope of rescue or recovery.