Title: Porridge (New and Improved)
Author: Renaissance Makoto
Pairing: Kal-El/Bruce and Bruce and Bruce and…(Other characters: Zatanna, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Diana)
Warnings: Violence, spoilers, language. And it's dark. It's supposed to be a little humorous, too, but mostly it's just dark. Character death. Not beta-read and long.
Summary: But this one was juuust right.
Author's Note: Okay, this Clark is based, loosely, on the one from the Superman/Batman comic where future!Superman comes back to kill himself. And the one who tried to take over the world that one time. Riiight. It's also got a lot of "Kingdom Come" and Frank Miller. The universe I've created is really messed up because I did whatever the hell I wanted. Enjoy! Feedback would be great on this one.
Porridge (New and Improved)
Diana was never more inhuman than when she was uncomfortable. She kept her arms close to her body and never strayed too far from the teleport booth.
"So this is the finished product?" she asked and did not quite manage to hide her contempt.
"The prototype you saw has been improved. This is the first fully functional version."
Kal-El smiled. He'd been told his eyes were dead long ago so he did not try to make it look sincere. "The tech you brought came in handy. Thank you."
The Fortress was different now. The computer was cold and dully glinting metal, like stainless steel except for where it looked almost alive. She had once made the mistake of opening one of the panels that ran along the leftmost wall and what had pulsed and moved in that cave of wires and circuitry had made her stumble away. She never wanted to look again because she knew it had grown since then. It was alive in ways that…
Well, it was too easy to say that it was alive like its creator was not.
She shuddered and looked again at the machine.
It was ingenious. Nowhere in the world was there a computer like this. A perfect mutt of tech with a strong Kryptonian base and more than a little WayneTech disregard for the laws of physics. She knew how much of the Crays was in here; she had brought it herself as a favor, thinking it might help Kal cope. Martian, Themyscirian and Thanagarian technology as well as the technology of New Genesis and Apokolips were merged in this machine, forced to cooperate. It overpowered anything on the Watchtower, and how was that even possible?
She wanted to escape but could not think of a polite way to do so.
The most impressive feature of the system was the screens. They overlapped each other and overtook an entire wall. Behind the fizzing and the data that flowed endlessly across the flat panels, Diana could see that Kal's obsession had taken on a life of its own.
An intense blue eye there behind a streaming video from Nigeria. Fading into a surveillance video of the Daily Planet newsroom was a devil-may-care smile. A flat, white eye narrowed at the room from a sea of black. It was not a complete picture; it was the idea of a person and only if you knew what to look for.
"Cold?" Kal asked.
"A little," she lied.
"Ask him to turn up the heat."
"Him…?" Her eyes were imploring him not to do this, not to have taken this last, terrible step. His challenged her to call him on it. Perhaps part of him knew he was too far into his own obsession and was daring her to fight with him about it. She wondered if there was a part of Kal that wanted to be saved and cursed herself for being too much a coward to do it.
"Go ahead," he goaded when she failed yet again to be the friend he needed. "Ask."
"Computer," she began, but Kal interrupted.
"He has a name."
The long moment that followed found Diana's heart racing out of control and she knew Kal could hear it. His eyes were terrible. He blinked slowly and rarely, as if he feared to look away. Kal was a man with enemies everywhere.
She swallowed. "B-Bruce," she finally croaked.
"Yes, Diana?" came from all around. It was in stereo and, frankly, unnerving; he had added a voice. It was so very near to the voice of her memory as to make her want to look for a human source. The only flaw was in the ambiguity. If this voice had a body, would it wear black armor, or black silk?
Diana could not say. That alone ruined the deception.
Slowly and clearly she said, "Please turn up the heat."
"Increasing the temperature to 75 degrees Fahrenheit," Bruce said and then fell quiet.
Kal was watching her. "Well?" he asked and took a step closer. It took considerable effort not to back away from him.
"You have made some improvements."
"Yes. Yes, I have. He does more than just reason like Batman. Analytically, conversationally, he's more and more like Br—Batman."
"I…yes. I can see that. It is uncanny."
"So why do you seem upset?"
Her laugh was hollow even to her own ears. "I wonder if he would be flattered, or disturbed."
Kal had never looked at her so coldly. It was the computer, however, who answered.
"I believe the Creator would be quite pleased to see his plans taken to their logical conclusion. I am the ultimate realization of his genius. Bruce Wayne envisioned a machine like me. Kal-El has made that a reality."
Diana had been backing away slowly as the computer spoke. She shook her head in confusion.
"Kal, why are you doing this?"
He wore such a condescending expression that Diana felt her eyes water.
"'Why?' I thought you of all people would understand. You haven't been the same, either! Nothing's been the same."
"It was not anyone's fault!"
"Yes, well." He stared into the shadows of the room. "Bruce's plans were always good. Until no one listened to them. He just made it so difficult to listen to him. I-I never said 'Goodbye,' Diana. And it's terrible here. There aren't any shadows. There's all this light and it blinds me. I don't know who I am anymore."
Her lips parted but no sound came out. The machine was spreading, she felt. Inside the Fortress, and inside Kal, it was taking on a life more wrong and unnatural than even when Kal's obsession first began. Finally, she said, "How does this madness help with that?"
"Because HE knew. HE knew."
She faded away with one last sobbed, "Kal, please." And then the fortress was empty.
Her cry echoed through the tall, crystalline hall. The statues of his parents were obscured, slightly, by the wiring it took to run the fans that cooled the computer.
He looked again to the dominating screens where he could see something taking shape. Someone. He felt a strange lightness of being and smiled. It reached his eyes.
"Bruce," he said.
"Show me the Metropolis skyline."
Instantly, a skyline unlike any other in the world stretched and blazed before him and a perfect sunrise reflected off the crystal. A plume of black smoke alone marred the view.
"Analyze." The view sharpened, moved in closer.
"An apartment fire. There are two life forms still inside. One is most likely a house pet. The other is a young male."
"Chance of survival?"
"If you leave now?" Bruce said pointedly. "It's 67. Keep waiting around and it will drop incrementally every ten seconds. Feel like being a hero today, Clark? Or would you rather hang around talking to me all day?"
Kal gasped. For seconds he could feel, he felt powerless and incapable of motion or thought. Thishe had not programmed. The sarcasm; the controlled, time-bomb anger. This had been learned, adapted, ingrained somehow. He was aware of but didn't necessarily hear the organic thundering behind the casing and wondered how it had grown since the day before. He both thrilled at and feared the idea that it was becoming more than the sum of its parts. More like what it was meant to be.
And no one called him 'Clark.'
No one still breathing, at least.
He felt a cold shiver go up and down his spine and then took off. His hearing stayed tuned to the Fortress so that Bruce's analysis was loud and clear. "Down to 40, Superman."
Kal picked up speed but wanted nothing more than to do exactly what the computer had accused him of.
He wanted to go back and talk.
He wanted to be called 'Clark' again. He wanted to know if the man that Lois had loved was somewhere inside him, still good, only just a little tarnished.
And quite suddenly, he realized that a voice and the hint of a face alone would never be—could never be—enough.
Numbers One through Ten were not worth mentioning though they had taught him quite a lot.
Tim had been very helpful in those early days.
There was a strange timelessness about Wayne Manor. There would always be an old-fashioned phone in the study no matter what marvels of communication technology were entombed six floors down.
Older than his age, Tim had carefully kept his voice neutral. They'd reminisced and pretended to care about dusty memories before Tim had tired of the game and asked him what he wanted.
Obligingly, Kal explained.
In the background, the sound of a young, energetic voice could be heard making airplane noises.
"How many…?" Kal asked, but his attention was divided. The boy tearing through the mansion shouted, "Hey, Rob! Off the phone, old man!"
Tim coughed a laugh and then coughed an old man cough. "Coming!" he hollered. "Sorry, Kal. He's a handful, this one. Just turned 12. Acts like he invented flying and can't wait to fine-tune it. How many? I'd tell you the number, but that would discourage you. This one's lasted longer. Seems…real. More real."
In the Fortress, on one of the screens behind him, Bruce Wayne was giving a speech. The footage was old enough that he hadn't gotten the scars across his jaw yet, the ones that had never faded and had always ached. He was imploring lobbyists to fight for a quake-devastated Gotham and looked like a movie star.
On the next screen, Batman was running a training simulation in the Watchtower at his peak. He'd been unbeatable. Superman had changed his martial arts prowess rating to 17 that year. It had been, perhaps, an inadequate rating. The rest of the screens were crammed with streams of data, breaking news, and videos from around the world. He barely looked at them.
"I'm not going flying," Tim said suddenly. Kal could tell he had covered the mouthpiece of the phone. He imagined the scene in his mind: the gray-haired old man in his worn chair and the young, dark-haired youth who was always provided with an endless wardrobe of black and red, standing before him with begging eyes.
"I don't wanna go flying!" the boy whined. "Let's go to the Cave! I wanna see the one you built. The one that looks like a tank."
"You know the way. What am I, your babysitter? Go down there and look at the damn thing yourself."
"I want you to come, too!"
"On the phone. Go away."
There were shuffling footsteps and then Tim was talking to him again. "Sorry."
And Kal was charmed and scared all at once. "It's…not a problem. He doesn't know about me, does he?"
"He knows about you, but he worships Superman. See the trouble already, don't you?" Kal winced, but Tim pressed on. "Hah! I'd let you meet him, but…there's no telling how long he'll…" Tim went quiet and covered the awkward moment with a cough. "So, I'll send you my research and you'll let me get some sleep?"
"I'd appreciate it, Tim."
"Yeah, yeah. Everybody needs a favor from Batman two-point-oh. I'll put it on your tab. I've got to go pull a dust cover off a car. Like I can take the steps with my knees like they are. Youth is wasted on the young. You take care, Kal."
"What? What now? You want me to bake you some cookies too? Haven't inconvenienced an old man enough, yet? Huh?"
"No, that not…that is…" Dick had always been more accommodating, helpful, even. Kal almost changed his mind and then blurted, "Is it worth it? Even with…the failures, is it worth it?"
Tim smacked his lips around teeth that were over half of them synthetic and made a long, thoughtful, "Hmmmm."
After a moment he answered.
"Kal," he said, "I'm an old man. I'm going to die—very likely soon—and what will I have to show for it? A cabinet full of pain medication and a big, empty house that belonged to a guy crazier than me. But let me tell you something: that idiot boy down there makes me happy. I guess I deserve that much for my trouble. I've got so many pins in my back I set off metal detectors ten feet away from me!"
He laughed and then a fit of convulsive hacking interrupted his answer. He continued with a slightly raspier voice: "Kal, you're going to live forever. And you're doing a good job at making sure it's alone."
"Shut up, you big, blue moron. You asked a question. I'm answering. You want to know if this obsessed project that ruined every friendship I've ever had was worth it? Want to know if all the blood on my hands has been justified?"
Suddenly, another youthful shout filled Kal's ears. "Hey, Rob! If I can't see the car, can I see your old bike? The red one like in the pictures? Pleeeeease?"
"Leave me the hell alone!" Tim screamed back. To Kal he said, quite calmly, "Was it worth it? I wouldn't change a goddamn thing."
Kal hung up (was hung up on, first) and wondered why he felt like he could finally, finally breathe.
When the research and notes arrived, Bruce analyzed them at a speed computers at the Pentagon would envy.
An eyebrow that was barely there behind all the flashing numbers raised and stayed raised.
"A new project, Kal?"
Kal nodded. "Yes. I'll need your help."
"Of course you will." He seemed to think and only electronic noises could be heard. The flow of data paused on a particularly controversial procedure. "The Creator would not be pleased with what you're planning."
Kal chuckled deeply. "Yeah, well, I can handle him."
They put their heads together, figuratively, of course.
Bruce might have shrugged, had he had shoulders. "The research shows that they're more stable if you let them mature naturally from infancy."
Kal wore a difficult expression. "No. Just…no. I'm not looking for a son."
Bruce Wayne, faced with the same declaration, might have appeared all too knowing; the computer just sounded sardonic. "I'm sure you're not," he said. "Well, if you insist on having it spring forth like Athena, there will be complications."
"I'm aware of that. Do you think we can handle them?"
"I think we can handle them."
"You always say that."
There was a smile in his voice. "And I'm always right."
Kal inclined his head in agreement. That was why he had built him, after all.
Since the day of Diana's last visit, Bruce had not called him 'Clark.' That was fine. He had a different plan now. Something else to occupy his thoughts.
Number 30 was the turning point.
Working together, he and the computer finally found a way to deal with the aging process more efficiently.
"Physically, I'd say he's 35," Bruce said. A three-dimensional diagram rotated on the center screen. Kal looked at the long legs and the narrow waist. Not enough muscle, but that could not be made so easily as everything else had been. It had to be trained into him. Other than that, physically, it was almost perfect.
It had no obvious flaws, weaknesses, or maladies.
He shook himself. Not 'it', but 'he.' He was almost perfect.
The 'almost' was something that gave him pause every time: he'd had to come to terms with the…scars, to make due without them. Some things couldn't and shouldn't be duplicated.
Behind the glass screen, Number 30 squirmed and then sat up. As always, he looked around him in bewildered silence.
"Good morning," he said cautiously. He still seemed shaken by yesterday. The tests had been yesterday and he had disliked all of them. Kal understood his aversion, but he also understood how necessary they were. Experience had taught him the importance of tests.
"Good morning, Bruce," Kal said. He took a step closer to the glass. "How are you?"
Kal looked sympathetically at the thin man on the bed. "I know, but it will all be better soon."
Number 30 liked Krypto. Worse, Krypto liked him back. That alone was enough to make Kal cringe.
But he overlooked it. The eyes were almost perfect, after all. Maybe not as blue as his mind imagined them to be, but just so very close.
And the way he laughed when the dog licked his face was charming.
Number 30 liked to read, but had no patience for works on math or science. He preferred horror stories and even Grisham. These were all tolerable differences.
Physically, he was quite good at every form of martial arts that Kal could throw his way. Jason sparred with him when he had the time, when he wasn't guarding or overusing the pits.
Just as young and handsome as he had no right to be when his father was dead—when everyone was dead—Jason seemed almost as enthusiastic about the project as Kal. He stripped off his shirt, faced Number 30 and smiled his wild, cruel smile. Kal had come to understand that it was a sign of affection with Jason.
Sometimes, he caught Jason staring at Number 30 with something like longing in his eyes. It made him nervous.
"He's not like him," Jason said one day. Sweat dripped down his smooth chest and Kal had to wonder why Tim had never partaken of the secrets Jason kept. Why he and Dick had both died old men, naturally, slowly. It probably had something to do with how very unalike his father Jason was. And how Tim had been too much like him and had tried too hard to hide it. Dick, well, Kal just didn't know.
Like Ra's before him, Jason would live for centuries. The company would be nice, Kal guessed. Jason could be ruthless, true. But then so could he.
Across the room, Number 30 tried a flip that should have been easy. He failed, but tried again. "Keep your knees soft!" Jason shouted.
"No, he's not," Kal agreed. "There are differences."
"But he's stable? There haven't been any…complications?"
"He's lasted longer. Has a stronger heart, too. He'll survive."
"But he's not quite right."
"No. Not quite."
Jason wiped the sweat off his face and eyed Kal secretly. "Ever wonder what will make you happy?"
"No," Kal answered with a sigh. "I already know what will."
Number 30 landed the flip at last. He didn't rejoice as Number 28 sometimes had. Instead, he shook his head, looked at Jason and said, "I can do better."
Jason's wild smile was back, but this time it was hungry. "Yes. I know you can."
Kal suppressed the anxious, joyful fluttering in his chest that those words provoked. They almost caused him to overlook the glaring mistakes—no, differences—that made the little room in the corner so very necessary. He never talked about it, though it never stopped being a dark shadow in his mind.
It looked innocuous enough. It even looked comfortable inside.
He knew Jason understood what the room was for. Why it sealed from the outside and had no handle on the inside. He knew Jason respected the need for it. Knew, as well, that Tim would not have condemned him for creating it.
He'd tried to be humane. He'd tried to make it painless.
But perhaps he would never need that room again.
There had to be more tests.
30 slept. The Fortress was quiet. There were shadows now thanks to a small trip he had made to Gotham one very bad night so very long ago. The giant penny actually created shadows in a building seemingly made of light. The t-rex did a pretty good job, too.
Kal studied the ice cream cone and wondered how Bruce had talked him into this. Just a voice and screens and data. Just a running interpretation of all of the files from the Cave; all Batman's reports and diaries brought to life and sprinkled with Kal's memories as a topping. And yet he was damn persuasive.
"It's cheating, you know, when you have a supercomputer for a brain and can calculate probability in seconds."
The computer seemed to think. "You could just fly at the speed of light and go look at what I have. Or in the envelope. My cameras wouldn't even see it. And I'm much faster than that. I calculated the probability in well under a nanosecond."
"Next, you'll tell me that you can hack into the Pentagon."
"I can. I do. I just have. Eight interns are downloading pornography."
"Hey!" Kal began with warning in his voice. Then he seemed to reconsider and looked a little sneaky. "Heeeey. What's President Aston doing?"
Bruce paused. His external cameras turned on Kal with the steadily shrinking cone of vanilla ice cream. There was the click, click, whirr of them zooming in and something condescending about the final whirr. "Kal, the current president is Oliver Kline."
"Kline? God, they're all starting to look the same."
"You're getting old, Superman."
"Don't I know it."
"Now what is your answer?"
Kal sighed dramatically. "Colonel Mustard, in the conservatory, with the rope…?"
Whirr, click, whirr. "Is that your final answer?"
"Yes, that's my final answer!"
Whirr. Click. "Wrong."
"Dammit. You're cheating."
On the center screen there was the shadow of a smirk. "Yes. Yes, I really am."
The smoke in the room obscured everything.
Kal could see and what he saw made him very angry. He had enemies, but he was accustomed to facing them on his terms. When they attacked his Fortress—invaded his home—he had to contend with a rage both rare and awesome. His enemies also had to contend with it. He was disinclined to mercy.
They called themselves the "New Society of Justice" and they considered him a relic. The Age of Heroes was over and they rejoiced in it. Superman, they said, no longer stood for anything. He was the hero of a nation better known for tyranny than justice. Worse, Superman was a tool for politicians and bureaucrats.
Far off, the poor excuse for a Beetle was removing panels, fiddling with wires. The Fortress defenses activated.
"Stop," said a voice like poison wind.
Beetle dropped his tools and his eyes widened. He crab-walked backwards.
"Y-you're dead," he stuttered at the looming shadow in the corner. The jagged edge of a cape flickered. "You're dead!"
"We've all got our problems. What have you done to Superman?"
"I-I…you can't be here!"
Cold eyes narrowed from the inky darkness. "Wrong answer."
Kal heard a scream from somewhere inside the wall of smoke, wondered about it, but had his own concerns.
The new Lantern had cornered him, pulled a lasso from the ether and trapped him with it. Green eyes, green hair, green nails. Kal wondered if this was taking things too far, though he could feel that the lasso was green for more than just artistic flare. Embedding Kryptonite in the Ring was a trick he was glad none of the other Lanterns had bothered with. This Lantern was just crazy enough to risk the side effects of exposure to the deadly mineral.
"You used to be a hero," she said. "You used to stand for something! Now look at you. You're an abomination, Superman."
"And you're not as strong as Kyle," he snarled back. The ropes snapped and Lantern had a full second to look surprised before her jaw shattered against his fist.
He stepped over her unconscious form and then over Hawkman and the newest Nightwing (who Jason called, "That idiot with the Mohawk"). He made his way towards the whimpering.
There, tucked into a corner in a puddle of his own urine, was Bruce Wayne. He was folded in on himself, shivering and crying steadily. His shining dark hair was frazzled and his blue, blue eyes were bloodshot.
Kal moved to stand over him, but stopped where the puddle started. His nostrils curled up in disgust. He couldn't bring himself to touch him, could barely stand to look at him.
"Did you try to fight?" he whispered.
"T-they came f-from nowhere. Like s-smoke. I was so s-scared. It was terrible. Kal, p-please…"
Kal flexed his fist and the bones cracked loudly. "All your training and you didn't fight. You didn't plan. You didn't think."
The experiment ran his big, handsome hand under his nose, wiping away the snot. "I was afraid. So afraid," he quivered. His eyes were pleading for understanding and Kal had none.
He turned away. "We'll discuss this when I return."
He left Number 30 (he couldn't call him Bruce, could he?) sobbing on the floor. The computer told him that the experiment was undergoing an advanced form of post-traumatic shock. His vitals made for an interesting study.
The data would help with later experiments.
Bound together, they weighed about as much as a four-door sedan. The New Society of Justice fit in with the rest of the goons and monsters in the Gulag. He didn't ask Bruce about what had happened to the Beetle. The man had been babbling and glassy-eyed. Kal figured it was best not to know.
And then there was nothing to do but discuss his next step with Bruce.
He didn't always agree with Bruce. But his reasoning was flawless, logical. Hopefully he would understand why he had to do what he had to do.
The computer hadn't changed much internally in the past decade. Cosmetically, there were some major alterations. A holographic Bruce stood straight and tall in a flattering business suit of coal grey. He sometimes flickered in the fluctuating lights of the Fortress. His face was flat and basic, almost pixilated at times. From time to time, entire patches of it and of his legs and shoulder faded into nothingness, leaving a hole-filled specter.
"Welcome back, Kal. I trust the border guards left you alone today?"
"No. But then again, they can't catch me, can they?"
"Not anymore, I suppose. You spend too much time near the sun. You've gotten stronger. Again."
The corner of Kal's mouth pulled up slightly. "You never did like that. Who polices the police? Something like that."
He moved to stand before the hologram that reacted as any human would, his eyes shifting up, his pupils adjusting. "I have never expressed a complaint about your powers developing, Kal. Batman, on the other hand…"
Kal's face turned to stone. "Okay, so you're going to be like that today. Fine."
"Where are you going, Kal?"
"To wake him. To say goodbye."
"But Number 30 is in perfect health and—"
"Not perfect," Kal growled. And he'd been lying to himself: he didn't want to listen to Bruce's reasoning. It was too far removed from emotion and now emotion ruled him.
"I must protest. There is still much to learn from—"
"Ready. The. Chamber." With that last whispered order, he took off for the room where Number 30 now slept. It was a classic bedchamber with antique furniture. Tim would have recognized it as his adopted father's from long ago. Jason never went into this room, shied away from it like it contained the plague.
Krypto was curled up at the foot of Number 30's bed. It was testament to their bond that the dog growled softly at Kal when he approached. Still his loyalty to Kal pacified him when the sleeping man was pulled into his arms.
It was a tender moment when the experiment's dark head was against his shoulder, the texture the only thing to differentiate it from the black of his current uniform. He carried him gently through the halls of the Fortress.
"I'm sorry I didn't fight," Number 30 said with real regret in his deep voice. "I just didn't know what to do."
His muscled body slid down Kal's as he was lowered to the floor, but there was no tingle of one body responding to another, no spark. His dark blue eyes fluttered closed as Kal caressed his cheek. "Shhh. I told you it would all be better soon."
The caress turned into a shove, Kal's big hand a mask across Number 30's face. Just enough pressure and he went careening back into the chamber.
The curved glass door closed immediately, sealing them both on opposite sides of a situation that Kal realized was hardly fair. Number 30 slammed his fists against the glass and his pretty lips moved around, but the noise didn't penetrate, not even to Superman's ears. The soundproofing had become necessary after Number Ten. Kal tried not to think about what his screams had sounded like. It was a blessing, the silence.
Now it was always this way, noiselessly watching the gas swirl up from the ground like fog on a London street. Their eyes locked and there was fear and betrayal in Number 30's. And then there was nothing at all. The soft thud of his body hitting the ground was hidden from Kal's ears as well.
The first time this had happened, he had sobbed long into the night, his mind filled with a collage of Batman's body splintering to pieces and experiment Alpha's wide, simple eyes forming their first real expression, that of confusion.
"Kaw?" Alpha had asked, still incapable of saying his name, of even walking unassisted. "Kaw? Where we go?"
And he'd screamed and screamed having to watch the man die twice. And then endlessly as the numbers got higher. Poor sightless Number Six and the brilliant but deformed Number Eight. Kal refused to look away, almost as if he was punishing himself for failing once again.
Once the smoke cleared, he gathered the body of Number 30, heavier with inertness, into his arms and cradled it against his chest.
"I'm sorry," he said. Back through the Fortress he moved, past the hulking screens of the computer. The disapproving hologram.
"Well, I guess that's done, then." Bruce sounded superior and disgusted. "I hope you realize how much data you lost being sentimental."
"He was a coward," Kal said, but shifted the weight in his arms to push a soft lock of hair out of 30's face.
"How was he supposed to be a warrior without having ever seen a war before? He was mentally about 10 years old."
"Bruce was brave at the age of 10."
The computer sighed and Kal wondered when it became capable of such subtleties. "No, I wasn't."
Kal's eyes snapped up and stared at the hologram. Its sardonic brow quirked at him. "Not you," he said softly. "Bruce. Bruce Wayne."
"I can't please you, can I? Either you want me to be Bruce, or you don't. Choose." Now the computer laughed. "Come on! I'm more him than those puppets you keep making. When are you going to realize that?"
Kal clung to the body in his arms. Even lifeless, it felt good to hold something again. Like he held Lois so long ago. Like he held his Ma and Pa.
"Never," Kal said, and escaped, taking Number 30 to join his brothers at rest for eternity.
After a long mission in deep space, it was always nice to come home to something familiar. Bruce was informative and sly, as always. He greeted him in a cold, suave baritone that Kal understood hid affection. It always had.
A small malfunction with the Martian technology had formed a gaping hole where his heart would have been and gave his left hand an eerie greenish tint.
Even that couldn't destroy the feeling of peace Kal had coming home now. Things were so good. So comfortable.
Kal turned half an ear to Bruce's report and immediately removed his cape. He tossed it and laughed when Krypto caught it, coming out of nowhere like a bullet. He rolled on it and exposed his belly. Kal was more than happy to give him a good, hearty scratch and rub, cooing nonsense the entire time.
"Who's a good puppy? Who's a GREAT puppy? Who does daddy love?"
"That's just adorable. I don't have a camera, but if I did…"
Kal looked up at the figure leaning in the doorway. He was wearing a pair of dark slacks and his hair was damp. His eyes were flirtatious and his mouth quirked in a half smile. The computer's report trailed off, annoyance in his tone. Kal didn't notice.
"Hey," he said, still smiling.
"Hey, yourself. Just re-entered the atmosphere?"
"Yeah," Kal said apologetically. "I'll need a shower before—"
"Understood. I'm not interested in picking up space germs. Even from you in interesting ways." With that, Number 36 turned and strutted away. Kal watched him go, felt a strange prickling of worry interrupt his calm. He couldn't place it until half an hour later over dinner.
"You took them out," Kal said. He sat his fork down and it clanged loudly. He hadn't meant to do that which meant he needed to calm down, regain control. "Why?"
"Oh this again. Kal, you ought to be glad I like you at all. Listen, they hurt. I've tried to wear them but they don't serve any purpose. I have perfect vision."
"I-I know you do. It's just…important to me." Kal struggled with the words and found it impossible to look directly at the other man. He stared at the table instead, down at the dog by his knee.
"You know, you never call me by my name."
"You have super-hearing and yet you can't hear me at all." He stood abruptly, pushed so hard his chair fell back against the floor. For a moment, he stood there mutely, clenching and unclenching his fists. "If it's okay with you, I'd like it if you slept somewhere else tonight."
It was a stiff, angry walk that took him from the room, leaving Kal and Krypto alone over a quickly cooling dinner.
"Dammit," Kal cursed. The dog whimpered in agreement.
Jason raised an eyebrow and his eyes twinkled elfishly. "Is that a gray hair, old man?"
Jason. Unchanged. Healthy. Handsome like his father. Just handsome and so…
So very corrupt.
Kal looked up and his eyes crossed a little as he focused on the curl. It was a gesture like one he would have made long ago and Jason smiled softly, more like a boy in love with the world and in awe of his father—his father's amazing friends—than an assassin. For a moment, Kal remembered when Jason had been the Boy Wonder and couldn't understand where all the years had gone.
"I don't know," Kal said.
"Yeah, well, you're getting old. Some of us, like me, can pull off gray and look so, so handsome. Then there's you." He waved dismissively at Kal and pointed to his own lock of gray hair, offering the two up for comparison. "Now this guy here," he started and finished with an appreciative whistle. "You're looking good."
Bruce smiled winningly. "Thank you, Jason."
The computer's newest manifestation reacted to light as a human would. No longer did it flicker or fluctuate. His face was perfect, not formless or patchy. Upon seeing Bruce, most people wanted to touch the soft fabric of the black jacket he wore just to see if it felt as real as it looked. Kal could never reproduce the effect, but once Bruce had crossed his arms, revealing a sturdy wrist covered in scars.
As it had never happened again, Kal began to doubt it had ever happened at all. Sometimes he wondered…
Jason, the same height as Bruce, came to stand before him. His shadow fell across Bruce's shoulder. "Look at you," he said softly. "You're very…you're very handsome."
Bruce's face transformed into a secret smile. "I could say the same to you. For a man of your age."
Jason laughed at the joke with the vigor of the young man he appeared to be. "What happened to 36?"
Bruce looked cautiously at Kal and then stage whispered to Jason, "Sadly, he had green eyes."
"Oh," Jason said with a frown. "You know, that happened to Tim once, too."
The computer nodded once. "Yes, I found mention of similar troubles in his research. 'Pigmentation is often affected by lab conditions.' From what I understand, Tim had to deal with a blond."
Jason scratched his head at the memory. "Cute kid, but dumb as a box of rocks."
"Like Kal, eh?" Bruce said with a playful roll of his eyes.
"More like D—"
Kal cleared his throat. "As charming as this conversation is, the reason you're here is in the other room, Jason," he said.
"Oh, right. Okay, Bruce, gotta go. Talk at ya later."
"Always a pleasure, son."
Jason followed after Kal, but his head twisted back to the hologram on every other step, incapable of looking away. Bruce stared right back.
Jason's reaction to number 37 was lukewarm, considering how his eyes had come alive for the hologram.
Behind the glass of the observation room, Number 37 played with an abacus. He was unaware of the audience. His fingers blurred with speed.
"Division," Kal said helpfully. "His IQ is off the charts."
"He looks great," Jason said haltingly.
"Wait. The computer makes you go all breathy but a perfect, living replica looks 'great'?"
Jason shrugged and then struggled for the right words. "Come on, man. Number 80 in there has all the right looks, but Bruce—that computer in there, man—he's got the right stuff. The attitude. The…arrogance. The light behind his eyes. That computer is more Bruce then that experiment will ever be."
Kal's face became a hard mask. "Don't say that."
"I'm only telling you what you already know. But come on, let's go meet this newest experiment. I'm curious."
Number 37 was so close—closer than any of the others—that Kal had to make himself behave.
Because he looked enough like Bruce—talked enough like Batman—that Kal wondered if maybe he even fucked like Matches Malone.
He had yet to beat him at chess. Only when he played against Bruce did 37 appear challenged at all.
Jason trained him with memories of 30 in mind. Then he found that the standards set by 30 were so far below what 37 could do that he picked up the pace.
And life went on. The tests weren't as painful for 37.
Kal came down to the Fortress Mainframe when he didn't feel like sleeping. When he could no longer stand the endless drifting in space, close to the sun like a leech, always needing more and never sure why. 37's deep sleep was a background noise he refused to tune out, even up there in the dark blue. It was always so even and undisturbed and that was a blessing and a curse. Bruce Wayne had never slept well; he had suffered through nightmares his entire life. The fact that 37 could sleep the sleep of the innocent punctuated how unlike the original he was. It also relieved Kal. If only he could have always had Batman without the pain that had created him. He didn't see how such a thing was possible, but thought 37 was a start.
Long into the night, he talked to the computer and felt a strange sense of peace. Bruce was so familiar, the greatest creation of his time and he was Kal's.
The computer, for his part, chided him, taught him, listened to him, and seemed sad when he finally retired for the night. He was gone again before the experiment awoke, afraid of himself around the man.
In Kal's long absences, 37 took to studying the newsfeeds. Watching the large screens that had once been the only façade of Bruce, 37 was merely curious at first. Then he became engaged. Bruce was forced to stay visible and close during all newsfeeds as 37 threw questions at him like batarangs.
"And why did the judge rule that way?" 37 asked. "The evidence pointed to that man being guilty."
"That man," Bruce said, "has diplomatic immunity. He should go to jail. In a fair world he would go to jail. In this world, he won't."
37 watched Bruce walk across the rainbow lit floor of the Fortress to come stand before him. The hologram wore a sympathetic expression. "You're learning what all of those before you have learned. It's a hard lesson, and I'm sorry."
A flawless fist clenched in anger. "It's wrong," he said. "How will he pay for his crimes if the system is on his side? Does Kal do anything?"
"Kal doesn't fight that fight anymore," Bruce tried to explain.
"What does he do? Serve those corrupt monsters in congress and negotiate with aliens? How will that help anything? Everyday rapists and murderers go free." He stood and looked Bruce in the eye. Mirror images regarded each other, one with livid anger and the other with understanding, inhuman calm. "Tell me who does fight that fight! Tell me!"
Bruce's mouth opened and then shut. "The Age of Heroes is over. You can't find what you're seeking anymore. Not out there. For that, hit the history books."
"Figure of speech." He gestured to his console, disappeared and reappeared standing beside it. "My database is yours to peruse."
37 walked cautiously to the computer. He had never accessed it before as most everything could be accomplished through voice commands. He touched the keys with the barest pressure. "Is there anything else in the world like you?"
Bruce didn't even pretend to think. "I am unique," he said with a shrug. "An original."
"And you can show me where the heroes are?"
Bruce smiled. "Heroes you want?"
The screen burst to life with color and motion. Capes rippled in the air, masks hid eyes that sparkled with knowledge, power, and mischief. It seemed to 37 that he had found Olympus and that the gods had arrived at last. A dark corner stood out, a cluster of men and women cloaked in shadow. They mesmerized him.
"Heroes you shall have," Bruce finished. A chair slid across the floor and caught 37 as his knees went out from under him.
The blast of light blinded him. It was white so pure it seemed to resonate and spread. Superman staggered back, raised his arm and waited out the storm. Finally, the anomaly that had brought him here made itself visible.
There were so many of them: stone-like ships kicking up dust and debris in their wake. They were huge in the way of meteors and they blocked out the sky, obliterated the view of the stars and space behind them. His teeth clenched together so tightly he felt as if his molars might break.
Finally, a voice spoke to him in every language of Earth and beyond all at once. Somewhere in the cacophony, he caught a hint of Kryptonian, Swahili, and Japanese. The English filtered through last.
"We seek allies, Kal-El, last son of Krypton."
The light flared and his eyes watered. And suddenly, the dust stopped swirling and beating against his skin. The particles hovered, suspended in the air. Everything went horribly, unquestionably still. The moon beneath his feet was suddenly unaffected by every force, as if it was holding its breath. With his keen eyes, he could see the light of the sun, frozen in its path, motionless. Far down on the blue sphere that was the Earth, the tides had ceased to roll in and birds were blurred statues in the air. For an instant so brief his eyes dilated and contracted again before he could catch his breath, eternity tunneled out before him, a golden stretch of past merging to present. It condensed and spun out, formed an orb of pure light he thought he could almost touch. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
"Will you join us, Kal-El?"
It was with growing fear and awe that he realized that time itself was waiting for his answer.
Bruce was pacing. Number 37 was watching him with that blank, calculating way of his. He had taken to wearing black turtlenecks and slate gray pants. He looked very elite when he wasn't frowning in concentration. Just frowning in general, actually.
Kal crossed his arms and waited. The two of them would give their input eventually, Bruce with any number of snappy one-liners and 37 coldly. As far as conversations went, 37 didn't have much to say. He liked to talk about logic and numbers and Justice (where the capital was audible). Sometimes, it made Kal nostalgic.
"I don't trust them," Bruce said. In his irritation, he actually flickered, something Kal hadn't seen in at least ten years. More? Time had a way of slipping away from him.
"They're powerful," Kal said and watched the long line of Bruce's back as he stooped to sit in a chair that materialized out of nowhere. It was a familiar black leather chair and Kal wasn't certain he remembered programming it.
The hologram looked like a king in his throne. "Great, because that's the last thing we need: the most powerful being in this galaxy having a tea party with the most powerful beings from theirs."
37 rolled his eyes, but Bruce was hardly done. "There's more to this than you wanting an ally. There's something about them you're not telling me."
Kal's reply was a steady, "No, Bruce. Why would I hide something from you?"
"Because you seem to enjoy making me scramble to repair your mistakes."
37 stood and cut a glare at his electronic double. "You're missing the point, Bruce. If Kal can take advantage of their technology and resources, there's nothing he couldn't do. Imagine the people he could help."
Kal was surprised enough to stutter a sincere, "Thanks." It was nice to have someone on his side for once.
37 waved it away. "Just strategy, Kal." His long-legged stalk carried him away from them.
He was out of earshot when Bruce caught Kal's eye and said in a deadly serious voice, "That man is dangerous."
Kal smiled a thin, wild smile. "Yes," he said and stared after 37 with a wistful expression. "I'd say he's the most dangerous man alive, wouldn't you?"
Bruce snorted in disbelief. "Jason Todd is still hanging around." On the large screens that served only as background to Bruce, the statistics on Jason's intelligence and prowess shuffled in sequence. His martial arts rating was finally equivalent to what his father's had been, something Jason liked to boast about, even when reminded of how many decades it had taken.
Kal only gave the screen an indifferent once-over. "Jason has never thought like Bruce thought."
With that, he took off, leaving the hologram to lounge thoughtfully in his chair. "37 doesn't think like me, either, Kal," he whispered, knew he was heard, and knew Kal would never comment on it.
The Allies nursed him back to health after yet another battle with the beings they called "The Travelers." He didn't understand their grudge and they seemed reluctant to talk about it. They were grateful for his assistance, they said.
Kal dreamt about time.
In the dream, time was not merely a concept, something constructed by mankind to make them feel as if they had some control in a mad, mad world. Time was a thing. It was golden and fit in the palm of his hand, heavy and cool to the touch.
When he ran his thumb over the strange symbols etched into the surface of time, it was his to control. It moved forward and he saw the sun implode. He went far back and saw the Ice Age. A gentle push brought him to the final moments of the Age of Heroes.
He lifted his thumb and the scene froze. There he was, the man he longed to see, alive, solid, virile. Over the wreckage of the battle a younger, foolish Superman darted forward and, calmly, Kal knew he was doomed to fail.
If he lowered his thumb, Batman would get caught, take a bolt through his body, splinter and dissolve. There would be nothing to bury.
But if he darted in now, Kal thought, he could change things. This was the turning point, where things started to go wrong, where the Heroes lost direction. He took a step forward, felt like he was floating on a narrow stream that led right to the black leather figure.
Closer and closer he moved, a sense of irrepressible urgency spurring him on. Suddenly, a voice rang out:
"Last son of Krypton, this is something you cannot change."
The force that had led him forward now pushed him back and he struggled against it, squinting into the distance that seemed hazy now.
His eyes flared red. "Why? Why? All the times I've gone back, changed things, saved the world, why can't I do this one thing for myself?"
There was the strange clicking of voices, the overlap of languages. They were discussing. "How," they began finally, "would you have found the Orb if you had not met us? How would you meet us if he had not died this way? The end of the Age of Heroes was the beginning of our interest in your world. These events cannot be changed."
The force increased so that he was sliding backwards too quickly and then tumbling backwards. He screamed and screamed.
Woke up screaming.
"Why?" he whispered but there was no answer on the Watchtower.
37 wore only black now.
He took to an intense training regiment. Bruce noted that it was unusual for an experiment to be as single-minded about his training as 37 was. Kal countered that the subliminal conditioning in incubation could explain it. Bruce called him a blind fool and asked if he paid attention to anything that happened around here.
37 bulked up extremely, read like a madman and daily noticed some new Injustice that made him scowl at the newsfeeds.
When asked why the wrongs of the world bothered him so, his expression was like that of a lost boy. He couldn't say why, but knew he wanted them stopped.
Kal still found it difficult to be in the same room with 37. Still took long flights, leaving Bruce and 37 to each other's company. And while Bruce taught 37 about the Heroes, 37 grew colder.
Sometimes Kal came back with news of the Allies, which was the only word in English, he said, that could explain what they were. Sometimes the pair could watch his journeys on the news, his random appearances in the American Congress or in the new Senate of Cuba.
Sometimes he disappeared to Gotham, but never spoke about those days. It was obvious when he had been to see Jason: he smiled more.
He touched down in the Fortress and moved to where the computer loomed. Instantly, Bruce's holographic form appeared to greet him. "Welcome back," he said with an edge to his voice that Kal knew all too well.
"What happened? Where is he?"
Bruce studied his fingernails. "The Dark Knight? Oh, he's in his workroom."
That stopped Kal in his tracks. "What did you call him?"
Bruce shook his head and faded away. "You're a fool, Kal," were his parting words. They echoed until they too were gone.
Kal was there in the blink of an eye. The access codes on the workroom had been changed and the room was soundproofed; he punched his fist through the door and ripped it off its hinges.
The figure inside turned towards him slowly. There was a snap as a sturdy yellow utility belt was secured around a muscled waist.
The cowl was down and so the view was one that tortured Kal: the best of both worlds, the Dark Knight and Bruce Wayne co-existing. The gloves on his hands squeaked when his fingers flexed.
On a small, bright screen behind Batman, schematics twirled. The wingspan was unbelievable.
"How fast will it go?" Kal asked at last.
Batman smirked. "Very, very fast." He thought and then added, "Faster than the last model built by the second Batman."
Kal swallowed. "You know about Tim Drake?"
"I know everything about who I was meant to be."
Kal took a step closer. His eyes roamed over the cape and the stylized bat on his broad chest. The man seemed to melt into the shadows and it made Kal's throat dry.
"I know who you were once, too."
"What do you mean?" Kal asked and had to fight not to reach out, to run his fingertips along the gauntlets.
"Never mind, Kal." The cowl came up and the transformation was complete. "I have a mission. I'm going to Gotham. I'm going to my home. You can stand beside me, or fall before me."
He had more reason to go to Gotham now. Jason commented on the new frequency of his visits with a leer. Kal ignored him.
The town was abuzz with news of the sudden activity at Wayne Manor, a landmark that had gone silent since the last heir had died. They talked of ghosts. Kal could see the irony.
Batman never seemed unhappy to see him, just indifferent. All of his actions and thoughts were tuned to his mission. Kal hadn't had the heart to stop him from leaving in the new plane that had, as predicted, gone very, very fast. As the first experiment to take the training and education to its logical conclusion, Kal had forced himself to be understanding. He had wanted Batman back, hadn't he? And so here he was. The unease Kal felt was just another thing he had to live with.
The Cave smelled strange with age. The bat sanctuary was overpopulated and it took quite a lot of work to clear out the toxic gases made from their waste. After a few weeks, the Cave was ready to be used by a new Batman, something Gotham hadn't seen in far too long.
Kal had looked at the newly improved costume, scanned the armor for flaws. There were none.
This new Dark Knight reminded Kal of Batman in those first early years: a little cautious, certainly not brutal. This was a Batman who had yet to be hardened by the cruelty of the streets. More than that, he was a Batman who had never lived with the pain of his parents' death or the death of Jason Todd.
In fact, Jason was a frequent visitor. It was bizarre to think of Batman taking Jason for granted.
To put it simply, he was a Batman who believed in Justice for the sake of Justice and in his own abilities. He didn't believe in vengeance. His mission was everything, true, but it wasn't a mission born of something that cut to the bone, something thicker than water. He was not unlike the original, and yet so far removed as to be unrecognizable behind the cowl. The eyes weren't hard enough, the mouth not grim enough.
Altogether, this Batman was too soft and Kal feared for him.
Saying as much got him thrown out of the Cave without apology so he learned to stop saying anything at all.
It shouldn't have been awkward, but it was. Kal remembered embracing his wife like this, but she had been so small and curvy and soft. 36 had been very slender, with sharp bones at his back.
37 was hard, lean muscle with shoulders as broad as Kal needed them to be. He still weighed ten pounds less than Bruce at his peak, but it was possible that several pounds of that had been the pins in his back and knees and the titanium in his teeth and jaw.
He could barely get his arms around Batman's shoulders and so he moved them down to his waist instead and just held him.
"Shhh," he said and then kissed him. He hadn't softened his lips for a kiss in so long, he knew the initial press must have felt like granite to—
"Bruce…" he moaned and angled to slide his tongue in, run it along smooth, white teeth. He tasted clean and alive and so warm.
Only as an afterthought did he notice Batman pushing him away. In between the wet sound of lips together, there were words.
"Stop. Kal, stop."
He let go reluctantly, licking the flavor of the man off his own lips.
"Superman. I'm grateful to you for everything you've done for me. But I don't feel that way about you."
Kal stared at him. Took a step back.
This, he realized, was what they meant when they spoke of the best-laid plans.
"I watched you fly from Gotham," Bruce said. "You seemed troubled."
"It's nothing," Kal lied. "Stop spying on me."
"What's the point in the satellites if I can't use them? Besides, even without them, I can tell when something's bothering you."
"I'm sure you can."
"It's the way I'm built."
"I'm aware of that."
"Tell me what's wrong. I know you too well, I'll figure it out one way or the other."
"Then I'll leave you to play detective."
"Fine. I'd leave you to play Boy Scout, but you're not so good at that anymore, are you?"
"Goodnight, Bruce," he hissed.
"Goodnight, Kal. Sweet dreams."
Back above the blue and white, plunging down past satellites and planes he barely noticed, spinning the atmosphere around him and letting gravity affect him as he landed. Coming back to Earth was always good.
Even when he wasn't sure what he was looking forward to. Old memories refused to fade. They hung on, took shape in the clouds.
The first thing he did was a flyover of Metropolis. He toyed with the idea of veering off to Gotham, but knew that although he was not unwelcome, that the reason he wanted to go was.
The Fortress, finally, and the first thing Bruce did was direct Kal's attention to the newsfeeds.
He watched the report and didn't know what to think. Only six months after his return, Gotham's new Batman had been injured in the worst gang fight of the century.
Footage showed him swamped and swallowed in a mob of criminals, still fighting, but slowing. His exit from the scene had been observed, but his whereabouts were unknown. Kal didn't do it consciously, but his hearing tuned to Gotham. He listened for the sound of a riot, a mob, a battle of any kind.
But Gotham was silent. Like a funeral as the pallbearers exited the church, there was no sound in the streets. The dark city was in mourning. And he thought—
He thought that had he been the real Batman, he would have wanted it bad enough to win. He would have had anger and violence and viciousness and darkness inside him, deep enough that no mob would ever defeat him, no matter their numbers.
The real Batman would have won somehow.
Kal wasn't aware of lashing out. He wasn't aware until much later of the broken souvenirs he had taken as his own the night he destroyed Alpha. The cracked and jagged giant penny; the incinerated t-rex; the sleek black car melted and unrecognizable. A glass case lay in shatters, red and green and yellow pooling out of it like blood.
In a circle of shards, the rainbow light of the Fortress glinting off each ragged surface, Kal knelt. He stared at his hands, wondering; the destruction he had caused seemed so far removed from him, like another person had been the culprit. Bruce manifested and joined him on the ground. The reflected light ruined the projection just enough so that Bruce had patches of discolored skin. It made Kal angrier.
"I can't hear his heartbeat," Kal said after a moment. He reached towards Bruce's cheek, wanted nothing more than to feel skin, but his fingers thrust into the middle of Bruce's face. There was warmth, the heat from the bulbs and the machinery, but nothing more. He pulled back jerkily. "It's my fault. I wasn't there in time to save him. I lost him again."
Bruce shook his head. "He was never going to live very long. His death was always going to be violent. He was what he was."
Kal looked up, eyes begging for something that made sense. "What was he?"
Bruce's answer was slow in coming. He took a deep breath he didn't need. "Someone playing at being a legend."
His breath staggered and rattled in his chest. "But he was almost perfect."
"Almost," Bruce said quietly, "never counts."
Finding her had not been easy. Once he did track her down, he was surprised that it was in a seedy little dive in Star City.
She said she owned the place, booked magicians now and then, never performed herself. Then she took him to the back and asked him what he wanted. There was something in her voice that told him to be honest.
"I…I need a way to steal memories," Kal said. "No. More than that. I need to steal an entire mind."
Her expression went from curious to stormy.
Zatanna Zatara was not how she had first appeared to him. Then she had been shapely and dark-haired and lovely with eyes that revealed her as a master of esoteric arts. Now she was disappointingly small and red-haired and frail. Young, but bland. Only the voice remained the same. Kal wanted to ask why her magic would not allow her to look as she once had, to look beautiful again. Something about the haggard look in her eyes stopped him.
"I don't do such things anymore," she said. There were youthful freckles across her nose but they only made her seem common. "You know that."
"I can't do this without you."
"Because you're the only one with the skill and understanding of—"
She waved an irritated hand and Kal felt unbalanced, like he didn't even know who this woman was. "That's not what I meant. I mean why? Why do this?"
Her eyes widened. "Bruce wouldn't want you to do this. Bruce wouldn't want me to break my promise to him."
He looked puzzled. "What did you promise?"
"Kal, please! We became friends again! After everything I did to him, he trusted me and it took years for that to happen. And…I told him I would never do to another human what I did to him. It hurts too many people. I almost lost him."
Kal shook his head and his shoulders sagged. "This isn't taking anything away. This is giving it back. I…I have a way to…"
"Ahhh," she said with an arched brow. For a moment there was the hint of the old Zatanna about her eyes. "You are playing with time again. I don't have to tell you how unwise that is."
"I won't change anything. I just need an instant, however long, for you to take what made him him."
"You think you're the only one in pain? You think you have some right to do this?"
"Please," he said in a small voice. "I'm not hurting anyone."
Zatanna walked towards him, two heads shorter and so very thin. She smelled like lavender and he took a deep whiff of it when she touched his cheek almost reverently. "You look the same," she said. "You've always been so handsome, just like he was."
Their eyes caught and she saw something in his that just made her smile sadly.
He pulled her hand away. "I'm sorry," he said and shook his head. "I'm sorry," he repeated because there was nothing else to say.
She only looked resigned.
"Yes, I know. We'll neither of us ever be what the other wants. And I cannot help you, even though it would solve both our problems. Goodbye, Kal. Do take care."
He watched her walk away (walk, like she couldn't even be bothered to use magic on herself ) and suddenly recalled the old cartoons.
Back to the old drawing board, he thought, and wondered if it had ever been funny.
Kal threw himself into the experiments. Bruce let him. There was a reluctance about his assistance that Kal couldn't place.
This one was such a success that Kal invited Diana, extended the olive branch. He realized it was a mistake within five minutes of her visit, her first in over 20 years.
38 looked at Diana and kept on looking. "Charmed," he said and bent over her hand. The kiss was long and sensual and moved further up her arm before he pulled away. Diana flushed a deep pink.
"Well, yes. Thank you…"
"Call me 'Bruce'," he said. His eyes were actually smoldering. The computer made a rude noise, but both Diana and 38 ignored it.
"Bruce. Oh. Yes…" she said breathlessly and she still hadn't let go of his hand. "I am Diana."
"A lovely name for a woman of your beauty. I've been studying ballroom dancing," 38 said. "I don't suppose you'd like to join me some night? I'd make it worth your while."
Diana ducked her head, moved closer as if compelled. "Well, I cannot see any reason to say 'no'…"
Kal shared a look with the computer. The hologram ran his finger across his neck with a bloodthirsty expression and Kal blinked once, slowly.
39 stormed into the room. "Oh, God are you really wearing that?" he asked and waved a hand up and down indicating Kal's uniform.
"It's soooo out of style. The S? What does it mean? What are you trying to say? Where's the style?"
Hands on his hips, he stalked up to Kal who wore the expression of a deer in headlights. "Ummm. I always wear this?"
"Trust me: I've noticed! Haven't you ever wanted to wear a pair of jeans? A flattering pair of khakis? Capes are soooo last century! And what is this curl? You're really quite handsome but you're ruining the effect! If you want to show off that ass, lose the cape. At least you're wearing black again. It's better than the blue!"
He brushed a piece of lint off Kal's shoulder, muttering to himself about hiring a tailor.
Kal looked away, frantically searching for something. Finally, he sighed in relief. Bruce had faded into sight, leaning against a doorframe with his arms crossed. The scars were there and Kal was staring at them; the thick one that ran from his thumb to his elbow. The one from Darkseid.
He remembered that fight, thrilled that there was someone else who did too, even if it was just his own memory dumped into a database.
The hologram shook his head and then smiled a sharp, knowing smile.
39 was still talking, but Kal had stopped listening, decided he never wanted to listen again.
40 looked up from where he slumped over his soggy cereal. "I hate this place," he said. "You're lousy company. And what do I have to live for? I read my files. My parents are dead. All my partners are dead. You never even let me leave the Fortress.
"And what kind of name is that? 'Fortress' sounds kind of militaristic. I mean, you're just trying to make me act more like that computer and you spend all your time with him, anyway. He sasses me. Do you know what it feels like to be sassed by a computer that looks just like you?"
He waved his spoon emphatically. "It sucks."
He took a bite and milk slid down his stubbled chin. "And that Jason guy? He's a sociopath. Do you know what that means? One day, you're gonna wake up with one of his fancy knives in your back and you're gonna think, 'Boy, should have listened to Bruce. This guy's freakin' crazy. Stabbed me in the back and everything.'"
40 took a long, sloppy gulp of juice. "Hey, why aren't you saying anything?"
Kal sat forward and was wearing an expression feral enough to make 40 sit back. "Uhh, Kal?"
"Eat your breakfast," Kal bit off finally. Reflected in the glass of the cabinet, Bruce watched him with hard eyes that belonged behind a cowl. Their eyes caught and Kal nodded in understanding.
41 looked at Kal with handsome seriousness, crossed his arms over his broad chest and said, "Okay, don't take this the wrong way, but is that Jason guy single?"
He waggled his eyebrows, which was the deciding factor.
The Fortress was quiet without an experiment in process. Bruce seemed bored. Sometimes he paced. At others, he lounged in his big chair and looked daggers at Kal.
"I don't suppose you could hang around a bit more or just whip me up a Jimmy Olsen type to talk to? Your computer could use a Best Pal. I'm just batting ideas around, here. Hrn." He paused with mock thoughtfulness, his left eyebrow disappearing behind a shining lock of hair. "'Bat-ting'. That's good. I'll have to save that to my memory banks. Oh, wait! I've got an idea! Maybe one of those Robins. I like the file on Dick Grayson. He sounds like he was a party guy. Think you could throw together an Original Robin for me?"
"Shut up, Bruce."
"Okay. Fine. No Dick. Guess he'd be competition for my affection? Well I'm not picky. Umm…lessee. Alfred? Nah, too stodgy. Robin 2 would kind of freak Jason out, huh? And what a shame 'cause that kid had spunk. Naughty Robin, and all that, right?"
"You're not funny when you try to be Brucie."
"I'm adorable," Bruce said. He stood, adjusted his cravat, and swirled brandy in a snifter. "It would be nice to talk to Tim again. He was always so serious. I could cheer him up. 'Don't worry about your inferiority complex! You did a fine job as Batman and nobody compared you to the original and found you lacking. Honest!' Think he'd buy utter garbage like that?"
"Bruce, I'm warning you…"
Bruce took a long sip and licked his lips. He made it almost obscene. "Question: why are you talking to me if I bother you so much?"
Kal laughed but it only sounded defeated. "Who else am I going to talk to?"
Eyes narrowed, Bruce answered, "Very flattering. But you have a point. All your friends are dead or afraid of you. And as for the experiments, you've killed them all, haven't you? Well, the taco incident wasn't your fault, but the others you've ixnayed."
"You don't understand. They weren't—"
"They weren't me," the computer said and it was the voice. It made Kal gasp and stand up and back away. The computer had never used it before and it sent shivers all along his nerve endings, heat pooling in his belly.
"Shut up, Clark." The hologram flickered black and slit eyes of flat white gazed at him coldly from the dark. The voice was gravel and asphalt and the smog of Gotham City. "Look at you. Punch drunk on the idea that you can have both."
"I can. If I could just—" Kal tried weakly, but he was moving towards the hologram as if in a trance, one hand extended. "You're so beautiful like this."
Batman's voice was unforgiving. "You'll never succeed," he said. "The experiments will never be enough. Because you want to touch me so much you can taste it."
"Yes," Kal muttered and then shook his head. "No! You're…you're means to an end…I want him back."
"And what makes you think he'll want you?" the voice whispered. All the lights in the Fortress crashed into darkness and Kal stumbled forward, arms wrapping around the emptiness where Batman had been. He went down on his knees and had no energy to get back up again.
Zatanna found him that way. It registered in the back of her mind that the Fortress was in a shambles, that the souvenirs from the Cave had been broken and left where they fell, but she had more pressing concerns.
There was always heartbreak in seeing Superman defeated, in seeing him sprawled and unconscious. She approached cautiously from the teleport booth and crouched down beside the hunched figure in black.
"Clark," she said and shook him a little. "What have you done to yourself?"
She pushed her limp hair behind one ear and looked around. "Computer? Oops," she whispered and tried again. "Bruce?"
"Um. What happened? He's not moving."
"I'm afraid he's had a rough night. Some guys just can't hold their liquor."
Zatanna bit her lip and looked again at her friend's slack face. Still so handsome and strong, but with deep grooves around his mouth that looked foreign. "You sound strange, Bruce. What's wrong with your voice?"
He barked a laugh but it ended in a growl. "You try being the A.I. version of a man with as many personalities as Bruce Wayne. Every day's an adventure! I'm stuck in Playboy mode right now. All I want is to talk to the ladies and play golf. And you've really let yourself go, haven't you, dear?"
She sighed and shook her head. "Bruce, can you summon Kelex? I need him to move Clark."
In an instant, Bruce was standing beside her. He was indeed dressed like a playboy from the 21st century, but there was something about his eyes that ruined the effect. "Kelex?" he asked. "I'm afraid I disabled him. He wasn't doing anybody any good. And aren't you a magician? Can't you just…say something backwards and make a bed pop up or something? Am I the only one who thinks around here?" The last was said with a thick Jersey accent, like something from an old mobster movie.
It was with a troubled expression that Zatanna magicked Kal to his own quarters. The words came haltingly, as if she was no longer used to saying them at all. With her own strength, she arranged him into what she hoped was a comfortable position and was breathless with the exertion once he looked restful. She propped herself against the head of his large bed and pulled him into her arms. He was trembling and sweat poured down his face.
"Batman," he muttered. "I'm sorry."
"Shh," she said. "It's okay. Everything's okay now. I've come to help. The world is a mess, Clark. The world needs Superman, like he used to be. We never stopped needing you. If…if he's what it will takes to get you back, we'll go get him, okay? We'll bring him back. Shhh…"
And time passed, silent like night after a storm.
This was, she realized, the longest she had ever spent in the Fortress. It was probably her bad luck that dictated it had to be for such terrible reasons. She rocked him like a mother and whispered soothing words she wasn't sure he could hear.
Halfway through the night, Kal stirred in her arms. Her right one had passed 'numb' half an hour ago and had moved onto to 'questionably attached'. Sometimes she looked down just to be certain it was still there. She didn't mind, really, that Kal was heavy and hot like a sun in human shape. She didn't mind that he smelled ever so slightly of ozone.
He blinked up at her owlishly.
"Hiya, stranger," she said. It was a sad attempt at brevity and Kal wasn't biting. His eyes seemed to look right into her, so very blue (different from Bruce's) and clear and open.
"What happened to you?" Kal asked softly. "Why did you stop using your magic?"
Zatanna's dismissive wave at the question barely hid the hurt in her eyes. "Well! Well, it didn't save them, did it? The heroes, I mean. It certainly didn't save him. He was the best of us and we never noticed until he was gone."
"He's not gone," Kal said. "He's still..." and here he stopped and just looked confused. "I was dreaming."
Her fingers were long and cool and thin through his hair. "Anything good?"
"I saw Batman. Bruce, not Tim. He was wearing a black armband for me. Do you remember?"
She nodded once but kept her lips pressed together tightly, knowing that he wanted to talk.
"I never wore one for him. I never mourned him. I just…"
She leaned over, pressed a dry kiss to his forehead. "He never mourned you. He never believed you were gone. Bruce, of all of us, knew you'd come back." She laughed, the sound sultry, and it made him see her in his mind the way she had once been. "And you did. Bruce was very rarely wrong."
Kal nodded once as if that was what he'd needed to hear. He buried his big body against hers, like a child. His cheek rubbed against her arm once, twice, and then the soft sound of his breathing filled the Fortress again. She continued to stroke his hair, uncertain if that was what had comforted him or if it had been her words, empty but nice-sounding nonetheless.
She looked up to the bland crystal ceiling of his chambers and let out a sigh.
"Damn you," she said and wondered who she was talking about.
It took some work to wiggle herself out from under him. It took even more for the blood to return to her limbs. When she could feel her fingers again, she wandered. Kal's parents were just as imposing and strong as they had ever been, but the wires at their feet were disturbing. She wondered for a moment if Kal could hear the steady thud-thud, thud-thud that sounded from underneath the console, muffled but still so intrusive. Perhaps it had become another noise he could block out, like the birds in trees around the world, the sound of the planet rotating.
The computer didn't materialize to bother her and she guessed that he was lost in his data-streams, off being Batman right now, strong and silent in a cyber-world.
And still upset with her?
She scolded herself for thinking of the computer in terms of the man, but he was the closest thing they had, wasn't he?
A sharp corner took Zatanna through to what looked remarkably like a hospital.
She was aware that Bruce had been a handsome young man. Before the mission and the scars, he had been like a movie star. But at the age this man was—perhaps 25, perhaps younger—he had already been marked, had already broken bones and lost teeth. The man floating in the greenish fluid in the corner of the room was Bruce as she had never really known him. It was difficult to imagine the Bruce she remembered ever being so still and lifeless. So unblemished. Tubes protruded from his arms and legs and seemed to go deep for bandages wound up and up around his limbs, holding them in place. She'd lost the ability to blush about nudity long ago (several bodies ago, three of them male), but this was so voyeuristic that she wished something covered his sex.
With his eyes closed, he looked asleep.
Or dead. "My god," she said. Zatanna had never seen one of them before, what Diana called 'the experiments', always said derisively.
She approached the apparatus as a little girl stumbling on a cottage in the woods, with unbridled curiosity and fear spurring her on. A neat printed label at the bottom left of the tube identified this as Number 42.
Something made her press her fingertips against the surface. It was cold to the touch and she hissed in surprise and pulled her hand back. Eerie didn't even begin to describe what seeing this Bruce-who-never-was floating before her eyes. Her fingerprints faded quickly. And it was all making more sense now, what Kal planned to do.
And he'd said that the Allies were very powerful, that they felt obligated to him.
That they owed him a favor.
Looking at this Sleeping Beauty behind glass, she finally understood that this was, all at once, an example of the greatest and most terrifying thing about Superman:
He never did things by halves and he didn't give up, even if he maybe should. She remembered watching him fight Doomsday, amazed that anyone could be so relentless in the face of odds like that. Superman was hope. Even at his worst, he could guide the world into the future.
He'd given the world the body of Bruce Wayne—of Batman—once more.
She took a deep breath and decided that the least she could do was give the world his mind as well.
The floor was cool, but not nearly as cold as the chamber that held the experiment. She took a seat, wrapped her arms around her raised knees and just watched.
From what she understood, Kal had spent the morning removing 42 from the tube.
There was a lot of noise—wet slushing sounds and metallic clanging and a long painful sounding groan. Zatanna decided not to go in and see what it took to bring a lifeless clone to life.
And this one, she knew, had to remain…
Well, he couldn't be allowed to develop his own personality, could he? Kal had made that very clear. He was to remain what he had been when she first laid eyes on him in the tube.
After that, there was very little left to do. Another day, another blink of an eye in a life extended far beyond the norm. She thought about the wrongness of spells that couldn't be undone, wondered who she'd be next lifetime and if Clark and Jason would still be there.
If Batman would be there.
And then it was time.
"Where are you going, Zatanna?" Bruce asked. The voice was that strange mix of dark and vapid. It was so close—and so very far away—from what she wanted to hear. Zatanna took a step back from the projection. "I'm just…" And here she was at a loss and how long had it been since she last performed.
"That is, I'm…you know…" She thought about the Fortress' defenses, how willing Bruce was to use them.
She sighed and gave up. She kept it with her for sentimental reasons. That's what the peace-loving club owner in her mind told her. The League member in her mind told her that she kept it just for situations like this.
Zatanna aimed the wand at the computer and spoke, "Ekat a kaerb."
There was sudden silence that was alarming. Had the computer really made so much noise? The rhythmic thumping was overwhelming in its absence, so subdued had it been before. Now the space pulsed with eerie stillness. "Bruce?" she whispered. Only after there was no reply did she turn to her companion who had stirred the air with his arrival.
"Just got here, did you, Johnny-come-lately?" she asked. "And you…have it?"
"I have it," he said. He held out his hand and the room turned molten and heavy with light. It mesmerized her, this Orb, so much so that it took her a minute to speak again.
"Well, while you were out playing negotiator, I had to deal with your watchdog. He's not very friendly, is he?"
"Who, Bruce?" Kal asked. He looked tired and the black of his costume made him look paler than ever. "Was he ever friendly?"
Her smile was sweet and almost pretty. "No. No, he never was." She gave a long side-eye to Kal. "Shall we go and get him back? The real one, I mean."
"Yes," Kal said with a heaviness that suggested he'd wanted to say it for a very long time. He raised his hand and the Orb glinted gold.
The Orb flashed and Zatanna gasped. Her arms around his neck were frail and sharp-boned, but she held tight. He pulled her closer.
Then there was the sensation of falling up, of crashing through a wall of light both brittle and soft into a cool pool of soundless dark. He fought a rippling tide, tried to move forward and thought he was screaming, but that too was absorbed into the abyss.
There was drag like planetary gravity on his body and it pierced to the bone until he imagined his skeleton marching forward stoically while a thin stretch of skin and broad swath of muscle fought to catch up. Swimming through jelly, drowning in it, struggling to the surface, deprived of air, of even a center to balance on...
Zatanna made a startled noise and almost slipped from his grasp. He scrambled to catch her, realized he was facing the wrong way and righted himself. They had arrived and he held her like she was a lifeline to everything that made sense. Together they hovered there, looking down on a world long gone.
The smell was familiar before anything else. It was the burnt and bloodied smell of a battlefield. He landed on a low cliff and set her down gently.
"No," Zatanna whispered and he could feel her shaking her head, denying what she saw. He understood her feeling; he never wanted to see this gruesome scene again. In his long life, he had never known an age to end peacefully. This one had been no different.
The heroes had gone in a blaze. They had burned brightest at their last.
The Orb in his hand pulsed like it was alive. And Kal understood that it was telling him that he was in control. Complete control.
Down below, Batman was lunging. In another five seconds, Superman would appear, too late to do anything but see the results of his own foolishness.
"Do it now!" he cried to Zantanna. She frowned and hesitated, but soon her wand was aimed at Batman.
Nothing moved faster than Superman, so he watched the energy flare out and move as if watching a film in slow motion, one frame per second. Batman's forward momentum never faltered.
He had complete control and the understanding that it didn't have to be like this.
The Orb wasn't hot but he felt it should have been as it glowed an aching gold. Instead, there was a reassuring coolness. He squeezed.
"No," he said and time stopped.
To his left, The Green Lantern crouched and stayed that way. In fact, all across the battlefield, his companions failed to complete their cries of pain or triumph. Fists never connected, falls never ended. Halfway around the world, Lois never took another breath after her deep exhale as she turned over in bed. The sunlight was stale and there was no breeze.
He circled Zatanna once, her plain face frozen as she finished the command. The spell she had cast looked so solid that Kal wanted to touch it, to feel the thing that would bring Bruce back to him.
He looked down and almost wanted to laugh. Batman looked like the cover of some over-the-top comic with his muscles straining and his body wedged in mid-air. Neither of his feet were on the ground and his torso was twisted with the stretch of his arm forward. He was reaching to stop the chaos, only five seconds away from stopping the explosion. Three away from getting caught in a beam of power strong enough to incinerate a spaceship.
He looked like Kansas and Metropolis and even the startling beauty of Gotham and he looked like warm towels just off the line and clandestine meetings in dark alleys and the sunset over Egypt and the way a thousand mosque bells sound at dawn when they ring with hope and a home-cooked meal like the kind he hadn't had in so very long and like Lois' sleepy-eyed smiles first thing in the morning after a night of making love…
Batman looked like all the things he had forgotten he needed—the sunrise just as the light hit the Daily Planet building; the sky at dusk with a black cape flickering before it and—
And it was all about to end.
Kal took a breath, tried to calm down.
Because part of the deal was—
Well, yes. Part of the deal was that he couldn't take him back with him, couldn't change the past. But he wanted to. How easy would it be just to grab him, activate the Orb and go?
He shut his eyes and squeezed them tight. He was moving without meaning to. He jumped off of the cliff, moved closer to the tableau. All he had to do was reach out his hand and hang the rest—the rules the obligations.
But the plan was flawed for so many reasons and none of them were new ideas. The prevailing reason was this:
One day, no matter how he prevented his death today, Bruce Wayne would still die. Just as 37 had died, the original would too. At most, by stealing him away, he was only buying Clark Kent another decade or two with the man. Batman would continue to fight a war he couldn't win and would be killed when the Joker got lucky or when a bank robber had a once in a lifetime shot and didn't hesitate to take it. Or, in the best case scenario, Bruce would just grow old like Tim and limp about his stately manor with a cane.
But he'd still die.
The Orb in his hand glowed bright, too bright, for an instant.
Time didn't start again, but Batman did. He landed at last, skidded and kicked up dust in his wake. The stillness of the device in front of him stayed his hand when he would have tried to disarm it right away.
The shock of it all, of seeing him move again, alive, made the Orb slip from Kal's fingers Batman turned quickly, defensive. The mask hid whatever reaction there was.
"Superman," he began. "I told you to go to the Watchtower."
Kal winced. Batman was angry with him for disobeying. He had no idea how right he was to feel that way. Only after Superman stood motionless, gawking, for over ten seconds did Batman begin to question what his eyes were seeing, the differences, the inconsistencies with Superman himself and the terrible wrongness of the still world around him.
He tilted his head up, trying to spy the plane where it should have circled overhead. There is a plane, Kal thought, but it's as unresponsive as everything else now.
Everything but us.
"Computer, code six, full scan," Batman said and when that failed, reached for his belt. And that was Bruce to a T.
"Don't," Kal said hoarsely and took a step forward. "Doesn't work," he added to clarify. "Kryptonite, I mean. You…" and there he had to stop because it hadn't been Batman who had helped him overcome that particular weakness. It had been Bruce, using Batman's research, long after the original was dead (not dead, here, alive, looking at him). "No effect," he said after a moment's confusion.
Batman seemed to be gauging the validity of that. He crouched. By the time he was ready to pull the ring, it was too late.
Kal was already there, grabbing his shoulders, breathing in the smell of him, of battle-worn leather and Kevlar and of the powder it took to get the gauntlets on. The Kryptonite ring was in Batman's hand when his back hit the crumbling wall that stretched across the battlefield; a lesser mortal would have dropped it. Nothing about Bruce had ever been lesser.
Kal felt the familiar sting of exposure, but it never worsened. It stayed a mild pain while his eyes drank in Bruce Wayne under the cowl.
He knew the man's left pinky was broken, that his ankle was sprained, and that he couldn't feel a large section of his jaw. That the length of his spine was covered in minute stitching and that he had eight teeth that weren't real. Sweat plastered his hair to his head under that heavy cowl and he smelled like he'd forgotten what a shower even looked like.
He was beautiful.
He slid his fingers down Batman's arms, caught him around the wrists. The tendons there jerked and lifted to the surface like canyons as he struggled. "Who are you?" Batman growled.
"Who do you think?" Kal asked and then kissed him.
And Kal's mind couldn't get a grip on this, something several hundred years in the making. There were sensations, but it was like a million perfumes flooding the air at once, too many scents and variations to detect just one. What was making him harder than he'd ever been in his life was the fact that there was no resistance as there should have been. Batman was letting this happen when he could have said or done dozens of things to end the kiss. And his body was so solid and his armor so cool against Kal who always felt hot like sunlight through glass.
Their heartbeats thudded together and Kal pressed closer, angled his head to stab his tongue in and thrust it in and out, claiming Batman's mouth hard. The kiss was wet and breathy, more than a little noisy. Batman was going to have bruises around his wrists and at his hip from where Kal dropped his hand and squeezed.
Knowing that Batman was kissing him back caused Kal to temporarily lose control of his voice. He moaned low and long, broke the kiss to give Batman time to breathe, and then went right back, deeper, just a little nastier. He needed this, was too desperate to make it about anything other than gratification. Part of him thought of letting Batman's wrists go, just to see what he would do with his hands free. The rest of him wasn't thinking about what Batman wanted, only what Kal wanted.
Which was Batman, restrained and accessible to kisses, touches, hard grinds of cock to cock. Kal pushed his thigh in higher and tighter, wasn't gentle when he rocked it back and forth. He knew he had to be just a little rough to get through the Kevlar, to make it count.
Batman made a noise that was as close to a whimper as Kal had ever heard the man make. He pulled back, saw the question on his flushed face and decided to answer it before Batman stifled the urge to ask.
"Because. Just because," he said softly, struggling for air. "Because I've wanted to do that for centuries."
Batman's eyes were sharp and knowing behind the cowl. He pushed against Kal's chest and Kal let him, stepped back and released his wrists.
"I don't live through today," Batman said. The fact that it wasn't a question made Kal's heart skip a beat.
"Don't think about today," Kal answered back. His feet left the ground, and his cape flared out. "Think about the future." He'd lost him so many times that he could trick himself into thinking this was easy. Easier because he knew it was the solution.
Kal leaned down, clutched the Orb in one strong hand. "Come on, Bruce," he said. "Finish what you started." Then he pointed, like the third ghost portentously at the tombstone. Batman followed his finger to the device he had yet to reach. Without hesitation, he went charging for it again. He never considered he could lose, even when he knew he was about to.
Kal turned away, refused to watch this twice as again the Orb thrilled to life. Kal calculated the duration of seconds. Zatanna's spell hit Batman in the first.
Batman's fingers—just a body, a shell caught in a kinetic rush—brushed the surface of the machine on the second.
That young, foolish Superman screamed on the third.
Batman would never scream again after the fourth as a beam from high above caught him, decimated his body. Never smirk or growl or kiss.
The weapons of the Watchtower should have been disarmed. Superman should have—
All hell broke loose on the fifth. Kal decided to leave before the lawless moments when he had forgotten his upbringing in favor of feeling those at fault fall before his fists.
"My god," Zatanna sobbed. He caught her up and she turned her face into his neck. The air was cold against her skin as they went higher and higher.
"Did it work?" When she didn't answer right away, he shook her a little. "Did it work?"
"Yes. Yes," she cried back. I have him here." In her hand was a globe of tendrils twisting together, some of them black and the others white. They shone dully.
"You! You killed him!" Superman bellowed from below and then there was the sickening sound of bones slamming into soft tissue. "How dare you!"
Zatanna raised her head, made to see around him.
"Not anymore. We don't have to stay and watch this. Hold tight, Zee," he whispered. The world fell away, turned thin, and tunneled out. And it was like the trip there only in reverse and faster and somehow more disorienting. Their progress slowed abruptly.
"Kal!" Zatanna screamed and he looked down. The mass of white and black that she had taken from Bruce was under attack.
What looked like inky hands with distorted fingers reached from the nowhere all around them, stretched forward through time and dragged at the essence. She tugged at it, felt it slipping through her fingers.
Kal's punches were ineffective. "They're trying to pull it back to where it belongs!"
Zatanna's eyes sparked with energy. "I don't think so." For a curious moment, she was stronger than anything, stronger than him. She broke away—pushed him away hard—and hovered.
This was a spell with no backwards words. It emanated from her body's core and traveled up and out. She folded in on herself and then flared out, power shooting out with her. The darkness screeched and then receded.
Then she slumped. Her last motion was to throw her hand forward, trying to reach for Kal who was speeding to her, his own hand extended. Their fingers brushed and then…
Light seeped out of the world and then flooded back.
Zatanna wrapped her body around the essence, looked up drowsily to see Superman screaming at her but no sound made it through the gossamer veils of radiance. Then he was as small as a freckle, smaller, not there at all and she felt wind rushing up and past her. She knew she was falling, had no idea to where. She flailed and it only made this worse, the force wrenching her downwards. Panic set in and it was worse than anything because she could recall a time when panic was the last thing she would do. Once, she had been the greatest magician in the world.
A member of the Justice League.
With the last of her strength she reached for her wand.
Then she thought of a structure of pure light, surrounded by ice. She thought of the man inside it, lifeless on a table.
She thought of home.
She whispered a spell and, later, even if asked, she couldn't tell you what it had been.
Zatanna made a soft, girlish "Oof" as she landed, tumbled, and came to a skidding stop right before the hulk that was the computer called Bruce. A fearful glance at the computer showed her that it was still under her spell. Nothing beeped or clicked in the Fortress.
The essence remained under her arm. She retrieved it carefully and even stroked it reverently. It was light as air, warm like the surface of a pool in summer. She held it before her face, stood and looked to the room where she knew he was asleep, waiting to become something more.
She stepped lightly and with purpose, knowing what she had to do.
Once it was done, ever so softly she whispered another spell, and faded away like sand on the wind.
Kal didn't know where he was, couldn't tell left from right. He knew he was lying in a crater of his own making and that steam streamed off his skin.
"Superman? Qu'est-ce que tu fais ici?" a scruffy man with a beard asked as he stepped closer. He carried a fishing pole in one hand, a pipe in the other and had deep groves around his eyes. The old man peeked down into the crater and smiled at the man he still considered a hero. Even in black like a villain, he was an impressive figure, larger than life.
Kal shook his head to try to knock the world back into focus and felt hot all over. There were spots of color before his eyes, gold and green.
He scrambled in alarm, looked with his superior vision and his x-ray vision everywhere.
The Orb was gone. And he felt hotter than before. The Frenchman was looking at him curiously, asking if he could help.
Kal stood, leapt from the crater to stand before the old man who merely tilted his head back to take in the sight of him.
Kal focused on the Fortress, heard Bruce kick on, his sensors sweep and his defenses activate.
"No," he hissed and then took off, cracking the ground at the old man's feet in the force of his liftoff. His cape was like a banner in the wind, as red as the red in his country's flag. Like the colors of victory and sacrifice. Pipe clenched between his teeth, he took a step back when the breeze hit him square in his chest. Then he laughed. He was an old man and nothing really surprised him anymore. He remembered when they used to say that Superman was faster than a speeding bullet. With his old eyes he had seen what an understatement that was.
He didn't remember them saying that the hero glowed golden, but perhaps his memory was faulty. He threw his pole over his shoulder and went home to tell his wife his story. She would believe him because she loved him. This he knew for certain.
Kal was off somewhere. Again. It was a terrible feeling for Bruce, but he didn't have a name he was comfortable with applying to the emotion.
And his sensors were sluggish. They told him all at once that Kal was indeed on Earth (in five different places, no less), and nowhere on the planet at all.
What Bruce was certain of, deep in his processor, was that Kal had taken the latest experiment out of the fridge and disappeared.
And the Fortress was quiet, in its own way—the most prominent sound being the straining inhale, exhale coming from the table. He wondered how he was supposed to take care of Kal if he kept flitting off to places unknown.
But Bruce's days were never so very different. Even when an experiment was up and running, things were constant. All he had was the endless progression of minutes. All he had to do was wait for Kal to realize that this new one—and the one after that, repeating—would never be good enough. No matter how much they looked like him or sounded like him, they never were him.
And that was the problem with surrounding yourself with legends, he supposed. They were irreplaceable. Had any Robin ever been as good as the original? Bruce had decided 'no' long ago. The same went for Batman.
The closest thing Kal had, Bruce knew, was himself, a computer. And ancient now by any standard, he was set in his ways. He didn't like change. Kal and Krypto and even Jason Todd were the only creatures he welcomed. They were safe.
Number 42, however, was not. He monitored the brain activities of this experiment carefully and knew—absolutely knew—that something was different. There were pathways that shouldn't have existed in someone who hadn't spoken. Worse, there were pathways hinting that Number 42 spoke considerably more than just one language.
Overwhelming evidence that 42 dreamed nightmares in terrible, excruciating detail. They sent his heart rate racing and his eyelids fluttering.
Worse, Bruce felt like…time was incorrect. It was a simple discrepancy of ten seconds and he'd reset all his clocks to show the error and had run a full diagnostic, but…
The most he could tell was that the battery on his motherboard was in need of replacing or possibly his reserve power cells. Yes, those were all logical explanations.
And none of them sat right with him. And 42 was different. Unlike even 30; nothing like 37. If brain activity was any indication, 42 was an honest impossibility, something akin to bumblebees in full flight.
Still, he remained unresponsive while Bruce ran his diagnostics on his ailing system, which was some solace. Experiments had been kept vegetative after retrieval since the early days in order to detect physical impairments and to acclimatize them to the laboratory conditions in a controlled manner. Then it would take days and—in one extreme case, weeks—before they would first react to noise, light, and touch.
So on that first quiet day when the body on the table stirred and sat up, Bruce was on edge.
He watched as the experiment stumbled down—and full mobility without guidance?—hissed at the cold floor against its bare feet. The bandages around its wrists trailed across the ground. It was a cautious turn, squinting at the brightness of the Fortress, that brought its slow movements to a halt. Bruce watched something like understanding dawn on the experiment's features.
The experiment looked down at its arms, turned them this way and that and frowned deeply. Wiggled its thumb and found that even more distressing. When it touched its jaw and then poked at it, it glared.
Its entire body stiffened, like prey aware of a predator nearby. Its eyes scanned first all along the walls, followed the wires coiled here and there, and then slid up to the ceiling where the projectors were installed.
And then the expression went beyond understanding: it was keen knowledge that bloomed and then was shuttered away behind blandness. With these schooled features, the experiment made its way to the primary controls. Bruce remained unseen and silent as files were accessed. The initial files were basic: date, location, current presidents and events. After that, the experiment's movements became more assured and the searches became very specific.
Alfred Pennyworth. Wayne Manor. Timothy Drake. Richard Grayson. Barbara Gordon. Harvey Dent. Gotham.
All these names were entered with ease and speed. The results were devoured in tense minutes. Then the search became technical. His archives, which had been security locked, spilled data in streams as if Bruce himself had thrown open a door. And it was interesting and curious enough that Bruce decided to keep watching. He was the most advanced computer in the world: when he wanted to put an end to this, he would.
Next, his config files were plowed through and then downright hacked. Encrypted and protected files bled their secrets; his core program and processing bank were batted around like a child's toys. His defense system and his satellites prodded, poked. Bruce formed the equivalent of a digital frown because, well, anyone having a look a these files would get the idea that he was somehow unfriendly. Maybe a little paranoid. Possessive and overprotective of Superman.
And it was all going so quickly. Too quickly, and maybe he should…
No. He would remain calm. This thing was no match for him.
But by the time the experiment began scratching at the surface of his very personality, Bruce decided he had finally had enough and tried to lock down. Tried and failed; he found himself caged. It was like being inside a glass box just his size. Only the most basic of functions were left to him. He was quarantined inside his own coding.
And like a spark, humor bubbled up in Bruce's circuitry.
Things were beginning to make a twisted, sci-fi sense to him. Ten seconds was quite a long time for someone to do quite a lot of damage provided that someone was a skilled magician working in cahoots with the strongest man alive.
He piled up into visibility, starting at his feet, lights stacking up like yarn on a loom until he was whole. He shot out his cuffs and dusted his shoulders off. With the posture of Alexander surveying his kingdom, he looked at the experiment that was becoming more and more like a man. Like himself.
"I don't like surprises," Bruce said. "But I'm willing to forgive Kal if this is his idea of a joke."
The experiment didn't answer. Its fingers moved faster and an additional layer of shielding encased Bruce, closing off his backdoors. He struggled once, found it looked unbecoming and sighed.
"Okay, so you play rough. Actually, you cheat. That you, Manhunter, old buddy? I've got a flamethrower around here somewhere."
When the schematics on his intelligence chip flashed on the centermost screen, and a diagnostic began, he had to admit that this guy was good. Too good.
"Oh, I see. It's you. Really you. My predecessor. Or should I say father? Either way, welcome to the future. Is it as bleak as you always imagined? And what did Kal do to achieve this particular miracle?" There was in increase in the organized data onscreen, a symphony of streaming numbers and color. "Ahhh," the computer said after a moment's processing. "The Allies. I knew he was keeping something from me. And now I do have to scramble to repair his mistake. That's you if you were wondering."
The experiment didn't even bother to cut a glare at the hologram that hovered nearby, and then too close, watching over his shoulder as he worked. His unnaturally handsome face sneered and it showed in his voice.
"I can see how you think. You're doing what I would do: silently gauging the situation, taking stock of all the variables. Clever. But moot."
Records opened, showed what some might consider cruelty on his part, but he had just been acting in Kal's best interest and in his own best interest.
Bruce tried to look unflustered, but maybe he felt it. Just a little. "You," he began with disdain. "Emotionally unavailable, certainly physically unavailable. You, as is, can never be enough. Given a choice, who do you think he'd pick? Any mission I might have takes second place to keeping Kal happy. You never gave him anything. Your secrets and your mission always came first. So as you can see, I'm you without all the drawbacks, which is exactly what Kal needs. I'm smart, I'm capable, I'm witty and just a little dangerous. And I know him better than you. In time, we'll find a way to wire me into some body. I'll persuade him, and then the whole experiment will end."
When there was still no response, the computer continued. "I think the way you think. I know everything that you know and more. I'm new and improved."
42 looked up and his eyes seemed to say, "Yeah, but I know a trick you don't know."
Apparently, the trick was that light projections, no matter how advanced, were still incapable of unplugging a cord.
He returned to the Fortress at such speed that the ground splintered when he landed. He didn't stop running. And always there was the thudding—
Thud, thud, thud—
Until, abruptly, it sped and then slowed. Around the corners he flew until he rounded the last.
Nude and soft like a newborn, Number 42 stood before the sparking chrome shell of the computer. The massive screens were a chaos of numbers and images. A face, distorted by the errors onscreen, stared out at them fading as the light dimmed.
There was a large panel on the floor, dented and cracked with a fist-sized hole through its center. The bolts that had held it in place were still connected to the main console and bits of the panel were left beneath them, jagged and shattered. A few pieces of debris rolled on the floor, sad and misplaced. Inside the cavern once covered by the panel there was a strange, organic mess, dripping and oozing onto the floor of the Fortress. The color of oil mixed with blood, it stank in an acrid way, sizzled like acid as it crept.
In 42's hand was something that still shuddered, thudded and convulsed. In its death throws, it looked like a giant heart hemorrhaging more of the liquid onto the floor. The experiment's fingers were painted with it and it stained the bandages that wound around his forearms.
With a final squeeze, the last of the fluids gushed out in a rush of steaming color and gore.
The last, fading expression Bruce made was tragic, lost, and betrayed. It froze on the screen, shrunk to a pinpoint of white light. Disappeared. And then there was silence. Only in its absence did Kal realize that the whirring of the computer had always been there, constant and groaning. Worse than just a whirring, there had been an ominous, organic noise, of something growing and thriving.
Without it, the room felt more open, less claustrophobic.
The final experiment turned to face him, moving as if underwater. He let the tangle of red and black fall from his hand. It hit with a wet squish.
"Clark," Bruce said with nothing like humor in his voice. His vocal chords weren't ready for the exercise, had never been used before, and he swallowed hard before beginning again. "I leave you alone for a few centuries and look what happens."
And then Bruce was quiet, the gravel of his voice just a memory while Kal thought and looked and thought some more.
What he thought was this: Idiosyncrasies were never so permanent. Kal knew this because people changed. Certainly he was proof of that. As was Jason Todd with his blind stumbling through an endless life with no purpose and no goal.
And this knowledge informed him that Bruce was an anomaly, the only thing exactly as he had always been long after his time. And maybe that made him a mistake.
Kal thought lots of things.
He thought about how minutes only mattered long after they passed and you wished you could relive them. And time was never so malleable to him as now. He understood where the Orb was finally, saw his fingers as they really looked, gold and energized. He could turn it off, press the power down, down until even the glow dampened. Or he could let it blaze. Every little thing could be manipulated, if not changed. If only, if only—
If only he had an angle or a plan or someone to plan for him since his mind was just a jumble of bad memories and regrets now. Bruce had always planned for him. Batman had planned for him before that.
He thought how strange it was that some emotions burned up like moon rocks entering the atmosphere too fast while others endured, stubborn like volcanoes and ultimately as useless.
He wondered where this thing between him and Bruce fell.
Overwhelmingly, his thoughts were of his computer, not even sparking to show a fight, just lying cold and dead. In comparison to how long he had known it, his friendship with the real Bruce Wayne seemed like a blink of an eye. The computer wasn't beyond repair, that he knew. And he was old even if he didn't look it and far too familiar with the taste of temptation.
And he thought of Tim, hunched over in his chair with a blanket over his lap and his scowl firmly in place. He'd always just accepted it, never questioned or condemned like Diana. Once, he had asked Tim, "Don't you ever wonder why I'm doing this? Don't you want to know the reason?"
"Way I figure is this," the old man had rasped. "Batman needs a Robin and the world needs Superman. So what do you think Superman needs?"
And here Bruce was, alive once again. Strong enough to fight. Strong enough to fight himself and win. Bruce's eyes (perfectly blue) and his mouth (just perfect) worked in tandem (perfectly) to look superior.
And he was staring at Kal expectantly only…
Only he'd called him "Clark." The sound of it had chipped away years, had made him want to plunge down under his skin and rip that quiet, generous man upwards, back to the surface where everybody could see that he was. That he'd never gone away, only gotten a little lost.
He was Superman still, yes, which meant that somewhere he was still Clark Kent, the man Lois had loved. The man Batman had confided in.
Kal's eyes strayed to the chamber. He took a deep breath and settled into the idea of never using it again. Wrapped it around himself like a blanket, like coming back to a warm place you'd forgotten you always needed.
And it didn't take any effort, as much or as little as it had taken Bruce Wayne to destroy several lifetimes of work. Easy, then, to open his mouth and speak with honesty.
And so it was Clark Kent who said, "Welcome home, Bruce," and meant it.