A battle raged across the plains and fields of Kansas. The ground was littered with the detritus of the conflict as people fled from the explosions and destruction that was consuming their towns and cities and farms. Pastures were torn apart and pitted with blackened holes while buildings were flattened to broken spars of wood, shattered stones, and twisted metal. Many of those who had been unable to flee lay still in pools of blood or moaned with injuries that would shortly take their lives. Others keened over their beloved dead, clutching the hands of their wives and husbands and children, having been unable to protect them from the violence that had taken their lives.
Kansas was desolated, but it had not been a battle between two armies that had brought such grievous woe to the state and nation. Instead, it was a conflict between a man who was a near demi-god, a bold, red iconic 'S' on a field of yellow emblazoned on his chest, the symbol of his House, and a red cape, torn and frayed now. He was big man, this so-called hero, but he was dwarfed by his opponent, a creature from Humanity's grimmest fears. Grey-skinned, he was an ivory-spiked demon with pitiless malice and cruelty burning in his red eyes, bred as an engine of murder and genocide.
Both cocked a fist, rearing back and pausing infinitesimally at the apex of their swings. They released their punches. Air, superheated by the speed of their blurring arms, concussed outward, bending stalks of wheat and lifting rubble into the air. But that was nothing compared to the explosive shockwave that thundered in a discharge of heat and sound and fury when their fists connected each others faces.
The fields surrounding them were instantly flattened and burnt. The graveled rubble was lifted higher and blasted to sand, exploding outward, leaving a crater, a perfect circle over a half-mile in radius and cleared of everything. A moonscape had been wrought with ashes floating like grey snow, an incongruent reminder of winter on this hot summer day.
At the heart of it, the two beings, slumped against one another, leaned over each other like two old friends , too weary to continue on. Slowly, they slid down and apart. It was over and both were dead.
The shockwave of their last exchange rumbled on, rattling and shattering windows hundreds of miles away, but closer by, a grief-stricken "NO!" could be heard. It was a cry echoed by the few other souls who had been able to bear witness. For these others, though, they did not mourn the death of the two titans who had wrought such devastation. Their sorrow was closer to home, and they cried for the loss of loved ones. They wept and bitterly railed at the Faustian bargain that had brought such 'superheroes' to their world at the cost of such villains. The price had been too high.
There was one other, though, who had watched the raging battle with a dim satisfaction. True happiness was impossible for one such as he, and contentment was the closest he allowed himself to experience true joy. He was a soulless evil, a being deemed by many to be a God, and he had earned his name the hard way, with countless cruel deaths and an iron will forged for domination. He was Darkseid. And throughout the Net of Creation, that final punch that had destroyed so much, would end up destroying so much more. For in this realm, this Darkseid chuckled when the two had fallen, seeing something no other could. It took him many millennia, but in the end, he achieved his aims and became Finality, snuffing out all light and life throughout all the worlds and universes of Creation until all that was left was oblivion.
In the darkness, after he had unleashed his final solution upon the maddeningly chaotic question of life, Darkseid rotted away, dissoluted by his inability to create, and the one Being, standing outside of Creation and witness to its destruction, wept.
He wept, not for the ending of all life but because Heaven was empty of all the souls who should have resided there, and yet did not.
The Being thought long and hard about what had happened. Free will by necessity would allow many like Darkseid to rise. That was the price of His greatest gift. Without freedom, the life He created would simply be a gross and fleshly shell, and not the work of art of which the Seraphim sang.
He pondered what to do. The cross had not been enough. He gathered together all the lost souls, and when the Gupf was full once more, He alighted on a decision: this time there would be but one Universe.
He spoke: "Let there be light." And there was light, and it was good…
"It's about friendship," Diana said. She rapped the table and a furrow of annoyance marred the smooth perfection of her proud forehead. "Are you even listening to me, Kal?"
Kal-El had been aimlessly moving his food around on his plate, and he looked up at her. He was struck again by her beauty, a moment of surprised recognition that seemed to occur every time he looked at her.
Most men would have considered themselves lucky to have been seated across from Diana, a beautiful woman by any standard. Legend had it that the few remaining old Gods had fashioned her from the clay of Themiscyara, the mystical home of the Amazons, breathing life into their last creation and making her as perfect as possible. They had succeeded. Despite being taller than most men, she moved with the unconscious grace of a dancer. She was athletic and slim and toned, but only a blind man would fail to notice her feminine curves. Her naturally wavy ebony hair tumbled down over her shoulders and back, and her face, sculpted with high cheeks and full, rose-colored lips, would have put fair Helen to shame. Kal stared at her, entranced as always, looking into her startling blue eyes, made vivid by her olive complexion, as she gazed back at him with unmasked intelligence and curiosity.
Yes, most men would have considered themselves lucky, but then most men weren't Kal-El, or as the world knew him, Superman. He was a big man, standing a full hand taller than Diana's six feet; muscular without being bulky, he somehow seemed lean and even when motionless, he conveyed the sense of coiled explosive movement, fierce and fluid and with a grace to match hers. His dark hair was pulled back into a short ponytail – all but the annoying cowlick that rebelliously flopped over his forehead, and which Diana continuously brushed aside. His eyes, a cerulean blue, almost gemlike and equally as intelligent as hers, sparkled with amusement.
"I'm listening, Di, but I can't help but think about another talk I once had about friendship with someone who I once thought of as a brother."
The smile left his face. "It was a long time ago," he said. His lips pursed into a frown. "A lifetime."
She reached out and took one of his hands in both of hers. Her voice, a confident contralto, was warm and mellow and throbbed with sorrow. "Bruce won't be that way," she said. "Not like Lex. Bruce is a good man."
Kal's lips formed a smirk. "He is a good man," he agreed. "It's just that…I've been on leave from the League and from work for the past year, and I'm still trying to get used to all the changes that have happened. Like the fact that Bruce has you."
Diana suddenly pulled away from him, letting go of his hand and frowning. "And you have Lois," she said.
"I have Lois," Kal-El replied. Once, just a few years ago, saying that would have brought him great joy. It still did, but there was also a feeling of unfulfilled loss associated with it. Lois was a wonderful person. She was bright and funny and brave, and they shared a deep and rich history. Sometimes, though, it didn't seem like that was enough anymore. He glanced at Diana, who was still frowning. One of the reasons for that was seated across the table from him: Diana, the Princess of Themiscyara. The other was the man she was dating: Bruce Wayne.
Kal-El, though he had a Nietzchian name and bore the mythical title 'The Last Son of Krypton', was at heart, a farmer, and his father, Jonathon, had taught him was that farmers don't get too proud. Romancing a Princess, much less an immortal Princess, beloved of the Gods would definitely count as being overly proud. She was far, far above his station, but his feelings for her, always hidden, were undeniable.
Bruce had always been more bold than he, he mused. The heir to a billionaire fortune, apparently, he had not hesitated once Kal-El had stepped aside, and Diana had allowed herself to become available.
Kal forced a smile on his face, one that didn't touch his eyes. "Did I ever tell you about that talk?"
"Which one? With Lex?"
She shook her head 'no'.
"It was when I was a teenager, back in Smallville." He smiled in fond remembrance, this time his eyes warming. "Lex and I met two men, two of the Five Hundred, who, when they had been young, had been the best of friends." He shrugged. "Things went sour for them, and they had a falling out. Eventually, one killed the other, and Lex and I got caught in the crossfire." He paused again, thinking back on the events of that night. "After the murder, Lex, stopped by the barn to make sure I was alright."
Diana smiled gently. "Let me guess. You were up in the loft looking at the stars." Her eyes gleamed with sudden amusement. "Or were you looking at Lana?"
Kal-El grinned sheepishly. "Trust you to know all my secrets," he said.
Diana sniffed. "That is what best friends are best at, you know?"
"Well, anyway, I asked Lex if he thought he and I could ever become enemies like that." He smiled wryly. "Even now, all these years later, I remember exactly what he said. He told me, 'No, Clark, I think history will describe our friendship as legendary'. The irony of those words never ceases to amaze." A bitter grimace crossed his face and he didn't bother to mask his frustration and sadness.
It was one of the things Diana loved about him: how he was incapable of true falsehood. Yes, he lied, and he did so quite regularly, but not to her. Never to her. With her, for whatever reason, he didn't bother hiding his feelings, or at least didn't do so very often. He allowed her to see him as vulnerable and insecure, something she suspected he greatly needed given how everyone else treated him. His openness with her was something she cherished, just as his honesty and underlying decency was something she respected and admired.
So why hadn't it worked out between them? His explanations of her being too high above his station rang false. He claimed that he was Clark Kent, a simple farmboy, and while that was true, he was also Kal-El, the Last Son of Krypton as well as Superman, a hero beloved by almost all and to whom presidents and prime ministers and kings and world leaders all listened: he was too important to ignore. No, he was much more complex than he let on.
So, why hadn't he ever sought her out the way he had Lois?
When they had first met, she'd felt certain that the Gods must have intended for them to be together. In her youthful naiveté, she had assumed that since they were so well-matched in their gifts and skills, they must be destined for each other. Time and experience had brought her wisdom, and she now realized how foolish and simple that was. Similarity of power wasn't enough of a foundation on which to build a true relationship. Even their similar ambitions of bringing hope and peace and justice to the world weren't enough. After all, she shared that same desire with the other members of the Justice League.
They had always had something special, and once she would have assumed that it would have been the basis for something…more? Now, though, she didn't think that would ever be the case. He never saw her that way. Whatever existed between the two of them was an indefinable deepness. She knew they worked well together, slipping into their roles like two pieces of a puzzle. His common touch and compassion and willingness to offer forgiveness were balanced by her ability to see the bigger picture and her warrior's ethos. Even now, it was generally to one another that they shared their worries and fears and angst. They trusted each other in a way they didn't trust anyone else.
Even Lois had only recently been told that Clark Kent was also Superman.
So, why not her? Why had Kal always looked at as a trusted friend and never as a woman? Why had he chosen someone else? Despite her Gods-granted beauty, she was woman enough to feel doubt about her own worth in the matter.
"Hello, Clark. Hello, Diana," a deep, husky voice said. Bruce Wayne, the Batman, glided toward them on silent feet.
Of course, his feet weren't silent to Kal-El. He had heard him getting off the elevator, and before that, he'd heard his heartbeat as he left the monitor station at the center of the Watchtower, the Justice League's space station hanging in geosynchronous orbit above the Earth.
The heart, Kal-El mused. It is as unique as fingerprints. He'd long ago memorized the heartbeats of all those he loved as well as those most dangerous to him. Bruce existed in both categories.
Diana smiled and allowed Bruce to place a chaste kiss on her cheek. She had been seeing Bruce on a romantic basis for several months now. It had taken her that long, five years since the formation of the Justice League, to understand that life should be lived fully and experienced as deeply as possible. The strangely intense intimate relationship she had with Kal-El, didn't preclude relationships with other men, and so, she was with Bruce, a man she'd grown to trust completely.
Still, even now, when she and Bruce kissed, desire would only rarely rise, and more often than not, there was a sense of a missing passion, a holding back on both their parts. And far too frequently than she was comfortable to admit to anyone, it was another she imagined…she quickly cut off that train of thought. "Kal was just telling me a story from when he lived in Smallville."
"Was it one about Lex Luthor or Lana Lang?" Bruce asked.
Kal-El smiled, unsurprised at his friend's deductive reasoning. "Because if it's Smallville, it has to be Lex or Lana related, right?"
Bruce smiled briefly. "So, you've noticed that habit of yours."
"Or sometimes it's Chloe," Diana said, smiling as well. "I like her. She's a lovely person."
"I like her, too," Kal said. "I'm glad she and Pete are doing fine after all the trouble they went through being friends with me."
"Being at the epicenter of the birth of the Five Hundred, like you were in Smallville, couldn't have been easy on a couple of kids like them," Bruce said. "Too bad, you couldn't have come to Earth without all that green kryptonite screwing up all those people."
"Well, I'm glad he came," Diana said, coming to Kal's defense. "Who else would fly shotgun with me if he hadn't?"
"Hal could," Kal answered.
"So could J'onn or Shayera," Bruce added.
"It's not the same," Diana disagreed. "They all can fly with me, but Kal was my first. That means something."
Kal coughed delicately in his hand. "Uh, Diana, in the future, you may not want to discuss longing for your 'first' in front of your boyfriend like that. Those kind of things have been known to cause jealous feelings." At Diana's startled and horrified gasp, Kal stood up. "I think I'll leave you too alone now," he said chuckling softly.
Bruce graced him with a flat glare, but his lips twitched into a half-smile. "See what you've done, Clark? How's a normal man supposed to compete with someone like you."
Clark laughed, not sure how serious Bruce was. "You're many things, Bruce, but a normal man isn't one of them."
As he left, he could hear Diana's earnest pleas and Bruce's quiet words of understanding. They made a good couple, Clark thought. Bruce could give Diana everything that she was probably used to as a princess. A lot more than he could considering his reporter's salary at the Daily Planet. She was worthy of so much more than Clark could offer.
Of course, if it was money that Clark wanted, than he could have corrected that very easily. If instead of just wearing his simple blue Kryptonian armor, he took to wearing a cape as well, where various companies could place ads, he'd be rolling in dough. The head of Nike had once offered him a nearly nine figure contract to replace the 'S' on his chest with a 'Swoosh'.
Some 'heroes' had succumbed to that kind of marketing pressure, like the Flash, who had a registered trademark as the "Fastest Man in the Universe"® and hawked anything and everything. He shook his head at the inanity of it.