a/n: Read the warnings and have tissues handy.

Title: Cardboard World

Characters: Ensemble, John StewartxHawkgirl, SupermanxBatman

Universe: Justice League mashup with references to Superman/Batman Apocalypse and Crisis on Two Earths

Words: 11,113

Rating: M

Warnings: character death, violence, slash

Description: Peace is only ever a pipe dream. There are some battles not even the Justice League can win.

For ancientlybroken who won the 60K hit on my fanfiction website.


Pain. His world is a kaleidoscope of pain.

From the moment of his maturity, pain has only ever been a distant concept to Clark Kent. He is nearly indestructible, invulnerable to all of man's weapons and even some from worlds beyond. Pain is endured. Pain is nothing.

But Darkseid is no man, no mere mortal, and the pain he can inflict surmounts words. It is beyond definition. It is bone-deep, tearing away all sense of thought, leaving him nothing but agony. More than physical, smashing down walls. Superman's utterly defenseless, each smugly stated word like another blow to his already battered heart.

"How does it feel Superman?" Darkseid asks, circling around Superman, arms folded behind his back, casual as though this were an everyday event for him. He barely glances at Superman, writhing on the ground, every inch of him subject to the indescribable pain.

"You are the last," Darkseid continues, waving one hand in grand exposition. There's no one around to look on, no one left in the rubble of what was once the Daily Planet. "You couldn't save them. And now, there's no one to save you."

He's right. It's no exaggeration. There is no one else. The Justice League is down to Superman alone, their secondary staff just as gone or in hiding for their own safety. The world can only look on, from the safety of their television screens, horrified, terrified, and silent.

Superman coughs up blood, wet and crimson on demolished brick. Somewhere in the distance, he catches the glint of sun on metal, the twisted remains of the Daily Planet's recognizable globe. Somewhere underneath all of that is Lois.

His world blurs, blackness teasing him on the edges. He can hear every grind of Darkseid's boots on the rubble. He can hear the low note of mockery in Darkseid's tone. He's in so much pain he's almost numb. And he's alone.

"Earth's greatest hero." Darkseid sneers and pauses within Superman's limited view, crouching down and grasping the Kryptonian by the throat, immune to his own twisted ability.

He drags Superman upward, writhing in pain as he is, until they are face to face, eye to eye, triumph glowing in Darkseid's demonic facade.

"Pathetic," Darkseid says, his fingers flexing around Superman's throat, sure to bruise though he can't remember the last time he bruised without the use of Kryptonite being involved. "Worthless." He pulls Superman closer, until he can smell the sulfur-ash stench on Darkseid's breath. "You won't even live long enough to watch me destroy this miserable planet. You've been wholly defeated, Kal-el."

He draws back, smirks his victory, and growls, "I've won."

o0o0o

Six Months Ago...

Peace, or some definition thereof, can do strange things to a person. Especially when he is used to fighting every day, defeating some alien threat or even those domestic. When used to staring into a hailstorm of gunfire and mad men determined to destroy everything, peace seems an undefinable concept.

Clark revels in it. There's something to be said for finally finding the time to get Bruce in a bed and keep him there without the billionaire fleeing to the cold, stark confines of his Batcave. Even Gotham, ever dark and filled with crime, has only experienced crimes petty in nature, break-ins and car thefts and the like.

Maybe it's the years creeping up on the villains. Maybe it's the threat of the Justice League and their ever vigilant Watchtower. Maybe even villains get weary of playing the same tired games.

No matter the reason, Clark is simply glad for the peace and quiet. It gives a man time to appreciate the little things.

Little things like the way Bruce is presently perched above him, flushed and bathed in sweat, muscles tensing in ecstasy. The way his blue eyes all but glow with passion, small growls of pleasure leaving his lips. Clark's hands on Bruce's hips, guiding him up and down as he plunges into the warmth that Bruce offers him. Bruce's own palms on Clark's chest, blunt fingers pressing down into skin, the pressure barely noticeable but erotic all the same.

Yes, if this is the sort of thing that peace brings then Clark will enjoy it gladly.

He slides his hands upward, from Bruce's hips to his sides, caressing the heated skin beneath his fingertips. Heat is coiling in Clark's belly, lashing like a wild beast desperate to be freed, and he can tell from Bruce's rapid pulse that his lover is barely clinging to his own control.

"Let go," Clark murmurs, one of his hands sliding upward, gently cupping the back of Bruce's neck, trying to draw him downward into a kiss.

A sharp bark of amusement leaves Bruce's lips. "When have I ever done that so easily?" he returns with an audible, yet shaky exhalation.

"Never," Clark admits with a grin and succeeds in convincing Bruce to join him for a kiss, their lips meeting gently at first before devolving into a hot and desperate joining of their mouths.

Bruce's tongue eagerly surges outward to meet Clark's, tangling together in a wet, sloppy kiss. The slap of flesh on flesh is a soft cadence in the dimly lit night and pleasure spirals outward from Clark's body, seeking to drag Bruce down with him. His hips arch upward, pushing him deeper and deeper, even as Bruce grinds down, tilting his own body to maximum effect.

Releases washes over Clark from head to toe, making him shudder, hips jerking as he spills into the confines of a condom. His moan is muffled by Bruce's lips and he reserves a small portion of his concentration to keep himself from crushing Bruce as all his muscles tense.

He slides fingers between their joined bodies, grabbing Bruce's rigid arousal and stroking him swiftly, surely, all the little tricks that he knows brings Bruce to a quick release. The billionaire draws back from the kiss, panting audibly, eyes bright with arousal. He groans, fingers scraping over Clark's chest and his eyes shutter closed as he comes, spilling over Clark's hand, inner muscles rhythmically clamping down on Clark's spent length.

It takes barely a flex for Clark to tip them on their side, pulling Bruce close, eager to have his mouth on Bruce's again. His lover makes a sound of annoyed protest which is quickly muffled by Clark's lips. His body is thrumming with pleasure, he can't hear any imminent danger and all Clark wants is to enjoy this peace a little longer. It's been hard enough to pin down Bruce as it is, even with the peace. He's going to enjoy this as long as he possibly can.

Bruce, however, is being less than cooperative as always. He's squirming, though he'd never call it a squirm, which is only causing Clark to tighten his hold.

"Give me a minute or two," Clark mumbles into Bruce's throat, the scent of his lover strong and surrounding him.

"I want to get clean," Bruce grumbles, but he stops squirming and lets Clark stroke his back, listen to his heart beat, and relax in the afterglow.

Clark would like to get clean as well. Eventually. Take a shower, dispose of the condom used to keep mess to a minimum, etc, etc. But right now... right now, he just wants a moment.

"Gotham's safe," Clark says in a low tone, knowing that is half of what is driving Bruce to distraction. "No murderous mayhem. No supervillains having a romp. Been like that for weeks now, Bruce."

His lover exhales audibly. "Calm before the storm."

"Have a little optimism."

"Be a little more practical, Clark."

Same tired argument. No, Clark doesn't want to go down this path. So he clamps his mouth shut, which effectively ends the discussion. Can't argue if the other person isn't participating, can you? It'll frustrate Bruce but that's part and parcel to their relationship. They wouldn't get along half as well if they weren't always challenging each other.

A minute or two of soft silence descends in the room. Clark breathes slowly, soaking up the comfort, listening to the continuous tick-tock of the huge grandfather clock in the hall beyond Bruce's massive bedroom. Somewhere a few floors below, Tim is puttering around in his own incessant insomnia, surely acquired from his night-owl master, and still struggling to fill the shoes of a great man gone some decade past.

He's almost lulled into a soft doze when the sound of J'onn's voice explodes into the room. No, not the room. His head.

Superman!

He hisses, hears Bruce do the same and knows that J'onn has contacted his lover as well. Ears ringing, J'onn's voice rattling around inside his brain, Clark pulls back from Bruce. Their moments of quiet are over.

"Yes, J'onn, what is it?" Clark asks aloud, easier that way, especially when he's still locked in a post-coital haze.

It's the Watchtower. It's gone.

Bruce sits up straight, rigid. "What do you mean, gone?" he demands, voice a low growl nearly approaching Batman register.

It was... destroyed. Less than five minutes ago. There is a lengthy pause where Clark can almost hear the sound of J'onn's sorrow. Hawkgirl – Shayera – is gone.

Bruce rolls out of the bed, clipping Clark with an elbow, a nude, prowling shadow that snatches a robe from the floor and tugs it on. "Who?"

Clark follows his lover at a slower pace, heart hammering in his chest. The Watchtower gone? Hawkgirl dead? What in god's name has happened?

It is unclear. I have contacted the others. They are meeting us at the secondary facility in Metropolis as soon as possible.

"Then we'll see you there," Bruce says aloud and shoots a glance at Clark. "I assume you received the same message."

Clark nods, following Bruce out of the bedroom and down the stairs, heading to the secret entrance to the Batcave. "I thought we had protocols. Defenses. How could the Watchtower be destroyed without any warning?"

"I don't know." Bruce's voice is cold, flat, more Batman than Bruce. "But I'm going to find out. There's no one capable of doing such a thing on this planet. At least, not without outside help."

"Outside?"

Pulling aside the massive clock, Bruce pauses in the open doorway, the corridor of the Batcave a dark, gaping maw. "This can only be the beginning, Clark. I feared this would happen."

Clark frowns, vaguely remembering Bruce mentioning a calm before the storm and the need to be prepared for an apocalypse. Considering they stopped cataclysms on a nearly-weekly basis, Clark hadn't been too concerned. Bruce had always been too pessimistic for his own health.

"This? You mean the Watchtower's destruction?"

They start down the stairs, clock swinging shut behind them, but feet so used to the path that they don't once fear tripping. "Not these events exactly but something like them. Peace is always an illusion, a lull between one war and the next."

There it is again, Bruce's bitter pessimism. It makes Clark wonder what exactly Bruce thinks he's fighting for, if he doesn't believe things will eventually get better. Why is he risking his life?

"You can't really believe that."

Bruce doesn't answer, as though he's already shifted into that place where the man called Bruce Wayne fades into the background, and the determined shadow of Batman rises to the forefront. He's all business, all practicality, as he slides into the swivel chair in front of the batcomputer and starts to type.

Clark hovers behind his right shoulder, eyes raised to the array of screens. Something is running an analysis on the far left corner. An image of the globe slowly rotates on the far right, markers appearing to pinpoint something.

In the direct center, Bruce – Batman – is bringing up one television channel after the next. News programming has interrupted regular shows, captions running across the bottom as the cameras show images of debris plummeting through the atmosphere, raining down fire. Pieces of the Watchtower, knocked out of orbit.

"The Watchtower uploads keystrokes and video/audio feed to the Batcomputer every fifteen minutes," Batman says, fingers still flying over the keys. "It's compressed, tagged, and filed away. At the first sign of anything out of normal, the system triggers an emergency dump with a real-time feed. This is what I received."

One of the news vids disappears replaced with images of the Watchtower. Everything looks normal. Hawkgirl is at her post in the main command room, listlessly scanning the many monitors for signs of trouble. There are a few of the support staff going about their duties, displaying no signs of alarm.

Something flashes on the corner of the screen, too bright to comprehend. Heat and pressure readings go off the charts. Hawkgirl straightens, wings rigid and tight above her as she stares at one of the monitors. And then, static.

"The monitoring systems were shorted out first it seems," Batman says. "Possibly even communication lines. She never saw it coming." He rewinds the footage, pauses it the second before the bright flash, and the frantic typing ceases. "They never had a chance."

Grief settles within Clark and he forces his gaze away from the screen. "I'm going to suit up. I'll see you in Metropolis."

"I'll be there," Batman replies, utterly detached as he returns to his typing.

o0o0o

"Someone needs to tell me what the hell is happening here!" John demands, his fist thumping down hard on the conference table, only the fact he's not employing his ring keeping the thin, cheap wood from shattering.

Superman supposes they'll have to actually invest in proper equipment and such for their backup headquarters now. It'll be a long while before they'll be able to build the Watchtower again.

"We would," Diana inserts, sounding cross from where she stands near the large windows, looking out into busy Metropolis, "if any of us had the answers."

"Shayera's strong," Flash says, but his voice is too soft to hold any real hope. "She must have gotten to one of the Javelins in time. Right?"

Superman shakes his head, arms folded over his chest. "They never deployed. None of them did." Or at least, that is what Batman told him over the communicator on his flight over here.

John growls low in his throat. "Who did this?" he demands, eyes flashing bright green at them. The threat in his tone is not at all lessened by the onset of salt and pepper gray in his hair, or the lines of fatigue in his face.

Between he and Batman, Superman can't be sure which of them is aging more gracefully. He doesn't ruminate on it often, because he doesn't like to remind himself of the normal lifespan of a human. Alfred's inevitable passing had been hard enough.

"That's what I am going to find out," Batman says, announces rather, as he strolls into the command room with his usual dramatic entrances. Knows how to steal the room, Batman does. "I can tell you this. I am certain the perpetrator was not of Earth."

Flash frowns, crossing his arms. "What makes you so sure of that, Bats? Not that I'm doubting your detective's skills or anything. Learned my lesson on that front." His joking smile is lopsided and flat. Not even his humor can pierce the black mood of the situation.

"Earth's technology has improved by leaps and bounds," Batman agrees, walking to the main console in the massive room and powering up the device with a few key presses. "But the Watchtower benefited from a mix of origins, including Thanagarian and Kryptonian. No one on Earth, outside of our League, would have the knowledge to bypass the mix of technology to take it down."

Superman tilts his chin. "There is one."

Batman half-turns, the slit of his eye barely visible from the cowl of his mask. "It wasn't Luthor."

"Why not?" Wonder Woman asks, and holds up her hand, starting to tick reasons off her fingers. "He's got the money. The influence. And he's not stupid. Megalomaniacal but not stupid."

"One could argue on that last one," Flash mutters, but not so quiet that Superman doesn't hear him. How easy it is still, after all these years, to forget how very powerful they all are.

"It wasn't Luthor," Batman insists and turns back to the console. No other explanation is given.

Superman takes a step forward, eyes narrowing. He has his suspicions. "You asked him. Didn't you?"

Only he can read the subtle tensing in Batman's shoulders. Years of intimate knowledge of Batman has made a good bit of his mysterious behavior interpretable to Superman if no one else.

"Whoa. Asked him?" Flash says and suddenly appears next to Batman faster than Superman can blink, half-leaning on the console as he stares at the Dark Knight's face. "Since when have you and Luthor been best friends?"

"You are missing the larger picture." Batman presses a key and the Justice League symbol phases off the screen, replaced by two separate images. One listing all of the known supervillains still living and the second highlighting points of impact for the Watchtower debris. "This is only the beginning."

"The beginning of what?" J'onn asks.

Superman resists the urge to throw his hands up in the air out of sheer exasperation. "Nothing," he says before Batman can manage a word or two. "It was an attack by a mad man, someone with a grudge. Not like we've never fought one of those before."

Batman goes utterly still, the temperature in the room dropping into frigid ranges. "Someone mad? Yes. A man? Hardly." He snorts.

"Look," John hisses, cutting into their discussion. "I don't want to hear you two sniping again. I don't want harebrained theories. I want answers, damn it!" He turns on a heel, striding toward the doorway. "So call me when you get them."

"Hey, GL! Where are you going?"

"To see if I can find anything of my wife to bury," John snarls and pauses in the doorway, the pain etched into his expression enough to make Superman's own heart ache. "And to tell our son what happened."

The door slams shut behind him, echoing in the silence of the conference room.

"I could use some of the debris for analysis," Batman says, his detached tones an eerie ring in the silence. "J'onn, perhaps you could pick something up from them as well."

Mourn? Mourning is for the weak. Superman can all but see these thoughts bouncing around in Batman's head. Would he even stop to truly acknowledge Shayera's death? No. Not until later. Not until the world was saved.

It's so damned frustrating. Yet, there's nothing Superman can do. He understands it. Of them, someone has to be the voice of reason, the hardhearted block of rationale.

Superman sighs. "I'll see what I can find."

"I'll give you a hand," Diana offers.

"I'll help GL," Flash says, and is gone as quick as his namesake, no doubt eager to escape the volatile emotions present in the room. At least John won't be alone.

Batman says nothing else. And Superman doesn't press him. There will be plenty of time for discussions later. First, answers must be had and a funeral planned. Somewhere in there, Superman intends to mourn.

o0o0o

One Year Ago...

Bruce is cooking. Clark isn't sure what the billionaire is making – it's always amused him that Bruce can cook for himself considering how much he relied upon Alfred – but it smells good and there is lots of cheese.

There's something alluring about seeing Bruce standing at the stove, idly stirring something in a skillet, sweater sleeves rolled back to his elbow. Even at home, he doesn't wander around in pajamas and slippers like Clark does. He's total business. The Bruce Wayne persona. He's adorable.

Clark just can't help himself. The broad lines of Bruce's back are so appealing. Clark presses against him, feeling Bruce's heat through the thick sweater, and curls his arms around Bruce, splaying his hands over the billionaire's flat abdomen.

"Mmm," he says, inhaling both Bruce's woodsy cologne, expensive shampoo, and the spicy scent of the food, which spits and crackles in the skillet. "What're you making?"

"Dinner," Bruce replies curtly.

Clark chuckles and nibbles at Bruce's right ear, a spot sure to invoke a shiver in his recalcitrant partner. "I know that. What kind of dinner?" And what a luxury this is, too, for Bruce to cook for him. Usually, Clark is the one whipping up all kinds of home-cooked delights courtesy of Ma Kent's skilled teachings.

"The edible kind."

Clark outright laughs. Luckily, he can hear the mischief in Bruce's tone. Someone else might only hear irritation but Clark knows the truth. "I see. Is it ready yet?"

He feels Bruce twitch. "It would be ready faster if you'd stop groping me."

"This isn't groping," Clark teases and his right hand ventures lower, palming Bruce's groin through his slacks. "But this is."

Bruce promptly elbows him in the stomach, not that it has much effect. "I can't cook if you're distracting me."

"Can't help it," Clark rumbles, nuzzling into the side of Bruce's neck, where tender skin is ripe for the nipping. "You hear that? It's the sound of quiet. Of peace. No intergalactic wars that only we can solve. No planetary dangers. No murderous outlaws. Nothing. Just you and me and whatever's sizzling in that skillet."

Bruce snorts, but some of the tension eases out of him. He reaches for a packet of spices, dumping more on the food as he stirs. "It just means that we're due."

Clark rolls his eyes. "You're paranoid."

"No. I'm logical." Bruce sets his spatula aside, and Clark can all but hear the cogs turning in his head, facts leaping to conclusions and shifting into speculation. "Quiet breeds contemplation breeds restlessness breeds mayhem."

"You've been spending too much time with the Question," Clark accuses, pressing more firmly against Bruce's back. "Can't you just enjoy it?"

Bruce leans forward, cutting off the heat and shifting the skillet to a cold range. "I am enjoying it. But I know to be prepared, too."

"And they call me the Boy Scout."

"Ha, ha. Leave the one-liners to Wally. They suit him better." He elbows Clark again, a playful nudge this time. "Get the sour cream out of the fridge."

Smirking, Clark does as bid, reluctantly withdrawing from the embrace. "Yes, dear."

o0o0o

Five Months Ago...

The smell of ash is thick in the air, sharp on Superman's tongue. Sulfur and char and the underlying odor of arson. It doesn't have a definable scent, nothing no scientist can define or human can detect, but Superman can sense it. This was no accident.

It's a bitter day. Overcast, dim, threatening rain. Ironic really. They could have used some rain. Not that it would have helped. The fire burned bright, quickly, engulfing the modest home in a matter of minutes. No human could have survived.

And the last Martian certainly didn't.

"They knew," Batman says from beside Superman, clinging to the shadows of the apartment's overhang. "They knew his weakness."

Superman's gaze shifts to his partner. "Who?"

"I don't know yet," he bites out, frustration clear in every line of tension in his body. That masked cowl looks straight at Superman. "Still think I'm paranoid?"

"This is not the time for 'I told you so'!" Superman snaps, whirling toward his lover. "J'onn's dead!"

Batman is as impassive as ever, but Superman can see the tightness around his eyes, the way his shoulders slump. Of them all, perhaps he understood J'onn the best.

"Yes, he is," Batman replies, his voice more hoarse than usual. "He's not the only one. And if they have their way, we all will be eventually. "

Shayera. Yes, Superman remembers her all too sadly. Barely a month ago, they had buried Hawkgirl. Her loss is felt keenly, the six of them functioning with the tangible reminder of the empty space where she used to stand. Missing the sound of her voice and watching John become a shell of the man he used to be.

He's still a Green Lantern, but Superman fears that is all John is allowing himself to be. Just the name, the persona, the man who is John Stewart disappearing behind the black mask that he never wore prior. He does now though. And Superman doesn't like the change.

"I don't mean Hawkgirl."

Superman startles, swinging toward Batman. "Who?"

That dark gaze shifts to the burnt remains of J'onn's home away from home, his refuge. "Vigilante. Huntress. Shining Knight. Doctor Light."

Superman exhales sharply. "How? When?"

"Seemingly random criminal behavior over the past month."

"But it's not."

"No. It isn't." Batman turns away from the scene of arson in front of him, disappearing more into the shadows of the overhang, only the edges of his cape visible. "I'm going back to the Batcave. Tell everyone to be careful. I don't know who's next."

Superman's hands draw into fists at his side. "You're certain someone is."

"I give it a forty-five percent chance." He lifts a hand, activating a grapple and pulling himself to a rooftop, effectively ending the conversation.

A steel-band wraps itself around Superman's heart. They've faced threats against their welfare before. They are superheroes after all. But never has any one villain been successful. Never has anyone managed to assassinate two of their core members in such a short span of time.

He wishes Batman was mistaken. Except that he's never wrong.

o0o0o

Nine Months Ago...

It's always cool in the Batcave, even to Superman with his higher internal body temperature. How does Batman stand it? How did Alfred suffer it? And not only cool, but unforgivably damp as well. The twittering bats up in the distant, dark ceiling only add to the atmosphere. A cave suitable for a bat.

Superman sighs. It is a small wonder that Batman radiates dreary pessimism all the time, since this environment is where he spends the majority of his waking hours.

"I've been trying to contact you for three days," Superman says to break the silence because it's obvious at this point that Batman isn't going to acknowledge his presence.

At the computer, Batman's eyes are riveted on his screen and the scrolling text. "I've received your messages."

"You couldn't respond?"

"I was busy."

"Doing what?"

Batman doesn't answer. The steady motion of his keys are a quiet, repeated staccato in the cave. Superman takes a moment to look around, at the stacks of books on top of the consoles, at the papers taped here and there, some with diagrams, others with formulas and notations. He hasn't seen the Batcave so disorganized before. Not even after Alfred's death.

It better resembles, in a bizarre and frightening manner, the Question's collection of conspiracy theories.

Superman frowns. "Let me amend that. What are you researching?" What else can all this mess be but research?

"A matter of utmost importance," Batman answers, and there's a quiet click as his printer suddenly starts spitting out sheets of paper, scrawled over with graphs. Batman snatches them up, his frown completely visible as he has thrown back his cowl. "One could even say our lives depend upon it."

"Funny. I don't recall someone making threats recently. Or even evidence of an impending invasion."

Batman pauses, gaze flicking to Superman. "Preventative measures, Clark. Contingency plans. We have to be prepared."

"I understand being prepared." He takes a step forward, unable to hide his frustration as he nears his errant lover. "But I've not seen you in a month and you don't even have trouble in Gotham or the Wayne Foundation to use as an excuse." He pauses, debating his next words. "This is starting to become an obsession. And I don't think you need anymore."

Batman's lips form a thin line and he presents Superman his back. "So says the man who thinks every battle can be fixed with his fists and general thick-headed stubbornness."

"Why can't you accept that things have changed?"

Silence. Batman ignores him for several long moments, typing again at his computer, occasionally glancing at whatever he's recently printed out. Schematics start to appear on the screen but Superman can't make heads or tails of them. Whatever Batman is devising in that genius head of his, Superman can't guess.

Exhaling loudly, Superman whirls on a heel. He won't be getting answers out of Batman today. No force on earth can force Batman to speak when he doesn't want to, not even the unconquerable Superman.

"Because men don't change," Batman says before Superman can so much as lift his feet from the floor. "They only delay for a little while."

o0o0o

Four Months Ago...

Booster Gold. Elongated Man. Aztek. Fire. Stargirl and S.T.R.I.P.E.

Flash.

Superman feels as though he has been punched in the gut with a Kryptonite fist. Ragged strips of bright red cloth paint a garish picture across churned up pavement. To his right, a tarnished bolt crest barely glints in the late afternoon sun. Of their bearer, nothing has been found.

He watches Batman step delicately around the battlefield, gathering evidence and scraps of their long-time friend. Scraps of his recognizable uniform. The shattered remnants of his other bolt crest. Batman is careful to avoid the glistening splatters of blood.

Nausea rises up within Superman, fighting for precedence over the grief. Words are lodged in his throat. Diana is a mask of restraint, the silent tears a testament to her own sorrow, the white-knuckles of her fists telegraphing her fury. Green Lantern, John, is gone. One look at the scene, a brief second of indescribable emotion, and then he left in a blur of bright green.

Flash, Wally, had been like a kid brother to John. They fought and they bickered, but they were close. They all are close in a way but each of them had developed different flavors of intimacy over the course of their league.

First his wife and now his pseudo-brother. Surely John must feel as if someone has ripped out his heart and stomped upon it.

Superman is sure they all feel the same.

Shayera had been their courage.

J'onn had been their patience.

And Flash had been their heart.

o0o0o

His back hits the wall with a solid thump. It doesn't hurt. It doesn't have to.

"Why didn't you save him?" John snarls, his eyes flashing a broken fury, his restraint gone with the wind. Abandoned in the wake of tatters of a red uniform.

Superman registers the hands bunching in the fist of his uniform, keeping him pinned to the wall, and he doesn't fight back. "You know I would have."

"But you didn't!" He presses Superman harder against the wall, anger making him tremble. Or is that grief? Superman would call it both.

"John," Diana says, oh so gently, her voice thick. "It's not his fault." She puts a hand on John's shoulder, maybe to restrain, maybe to comfort. Either way, he shakes her off as though it had been a violent blow.

"Of course it isn't." John lets go of Superman with a rough thrust, whirling away from him. "The Greatest Superhero that ever lived and he couldn't even protect one of our own." His voice is filled with so much disgust. And Superman knows, he does, that John needs somewhere to place the blame.

Because guilt shared is better than guilt suffered alone.

Diana casts Superman an apologetic look, but it's not her place to soothe over the tensions. Superman rubs a hand over his chest, though John's grip hadn't hurt.

"I never claimed to be such."

"You didn't have to!" John hisses and turns his attention outward. "We all have our monikers. You couldn't save him and the World's Greatest Detective can't give us a damned clue about who is behind it!"

Batman doesn't flinch. He's used to vitriol and blame. If there's someone who does self-recrimination better than anyone, it is Batman. He already blames himself. He already feels guilty. Superman can see it in Batman's eyes, can see their haunted look, can all but hear the questions racing through Batman's head.

"We don't even know what happened to him!" John continues, throwing his hands into the air, radiating an energy of pain and despair. "We don't even have a body to bury."

"No one saw anything," Diana says softly. "Or if they did, they aren't coming forward. Either way, we don't know anything for certain. He could-"

"-What? Still be alive?" John turns on a heel toward Diana, his tone acidic and words equally so. "Don't be a fool, princess. Someone with a grudge is killing us. All we can do is wait our turn."

Superman's had enough. His hand whips through the air. "That's enough, John. You're grieving, we all are, but we have to stick together. Attacking each other about it isn't going to help anyone."

"We're not doing anything to help anyone right now," John argues, his fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. "Our supporting members are running scared. They're dying in the streets. We're being targeted. It's been three months and no one can tell me why!"

"I have answers," Batman interjects, his voice deceptively calm. "But they won't help us."

"Why not?" Diana asks.

"Because whoever is behind this is killing off his lackeys, too." Batman shifts toward his computer screen, pressing a single button.

An image flickers into view. Hawkgirl, J'onn, and Flash. Beside each of their faces are several arrows pointing to other pictures, these of recognizable villains of various misdeeds. Under each image is a caption: deceased.

"He, or she, is covering his tracks. Every time I manage to link one of them to this, they mysteriously meet an untimely end." Batman's gaze tilts toward the ground, his expression hidden from them.

Superman sighs, rubbing fingers over his forehead. "The President wants answers. The media is relentless in their inquiries. The public wonder if we are going to be able to keep them safe."

"At this point, we can't even keep ourselves safe," John mutters bitterly.

Superman is hard-pressed to disagree.

o0o0o

Three Months Ago...

"The smarter ones have gone into hiding. Abandoning their costumes. I don't blame them," Diana says, her voice hoarse from crying, her face still streaked with tears. "John was right. It's only a matter of time."

Superman slumps in his chair, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Three. They are down to three now. Most of the supplemental crew that haven't been murdered are wising up, going deep underground. Against a faceless, nameless enemy, Superman can't fault them. He wishes he could protect them all.

His failure keeps staring him in the face.

Green Lantern. John. Gunned down in broad daylight. He'd been found several feet from his dark and cold ring. How their enemy had gotten it off him, Superman doesn't know. He can't begin to guess.

The Corps are sure to activate his backup, get in contact with Hal who is off-world or perhaps assign another to inherit John's ring. But for now, Superman keeps it in a hidden pocket on his suit.

He doesn't know what to think. It never really occurred to him how very fragile his fellow Leaguers are. J'onn had always seemed unstoppable. No one could ever catch Flash. Hawkgirl never surrendered. John's willpower was beyond limits.

Diana is strong and nearly immortal herself. But now Superman looks at her with new eyes, worried eyes, that can only catalogue weaknesses and wonder how the murderer could exploit them. And Batman... he's only human. Equipment and intellect aside, a well-placed bullet or explosion could steal his life in a moment.

Superman himself is not without his weaknesses. Kryptonite can be a death sentence to him. Together, they've always been able to destroy anything that dared threaten their home, their people, and their lives. Now they've been systematically murdered one by one, without even prior knowledge of it enough to keep them safe.

"There's only one comfort I can offer," Batman says, his tones heavy, his expression as defeated as theirs. "I have a name."

Diana's head snaps up, revenge blazing in her eyes. "Who?"

"Darkseid."

The name reverberates with a sinister echo. Superman feels a chill creep down his spine. Darkseid. Of course, it would have to be Darkseid. The warlord is one of the few who has the grudge, the resources, and the power to commit all of these murders. He's blackhearted and without morals. He's damn near a god.

And he's the one opponent Superman has never been able to defeat in a straightforward encounter. One time, Darkseid had met his end with Brainiac. That hadn't been enough. Another, he'd been sent tumbling endlessly through space courtesy of a Boom Tube. And yet he keeps coming back, like a plague of death and destruction.

In the end, Darkseid is the only one who makes sense. His grudges are only a means to an end. With no superheroes on Earth to stop him, finding the Anti-Life Equation should be a breeze. If it truly does exist here after all.

"He must be here on Earth somewhere," Diana says, resolve making her sit up straight, chasing away some of the shadows in her eyes. "All we have to do is find him."

"Easier said than done." Batman snorts. "He is the mastermind. He doesn't like to get his own hands dirty. Finding him will be difficult. Flushing him out even harder."

Superman feels ill to his very core. "We already know what he wants."

"You mean to suggest we use ourselves as bait?" Diana demands, jaw dropping out of sheer disbelief.

"What other choice to do we have?" Superman rises to his feet, turning sharply toward the window and looking out at an anxious Metropolis. "It's either go after him, or wait for him to come after us."

Leather creaks as Batman's hands form fists. "There's no choice at all."

o0o0o

Two Months Ago...

Superman's gaze sweeps over the deceptively innocent scene in front of him. It would almost look like Diana were sleeping, were it not for the fact she had fallen in the middle of her den, shattering a coffee table in her fall. Her eyes are closed, her black hair a halo around her head and she's still warm. She's not garbed as Wonder Woman, though the glint of her armlets are still visible on her wrists.

There's not a mark on her, not one that Superman can see, not even with his x-ray vision. There's no blood. The air smells thickly of flowers. She's holding her communicator in her right hand, still flashing the emergency beacon.

Something is laying on the floor next to her head. A small, white card.

Superman crouches, reaching for the item.

"Don't."

He pauses, fingers inches from the card. "What?"

"Don't touch it," Batman says from behind Superman. "It might have been the medium."

Superman rises to his feet, turning toward his partner. "For what?"

Standing in the hallway, Batman stares at the huge vase of flowers on the small table. "For the poison Darkseid used." He pulls a small kit from his utility belt, carefully taking a sample of a few leaves and a flower petal, though making sure not to touch it with bare skin or possibly leave any residue behind. "It was probably transmitted through contact with the skin. Or it was inhaled. In which case we'll be dead soon, too."

"Flowers," Superman murmurs, shifting his gaze back to the fallen Diana, her expression lax with peace.

"Yes," Batman answers. His tone is thick, words clipped. "It is her birthday. She probably thought they were from us."

Superman frowns, watching as Batman steps carefully into the room and delicately draws some blood from Diana. Likely for analysis as well.

"Or Darkseid has a rather twisted sense of humor," Batman adds, his expression grave as he tucks away the evidence into his utility belt. "Deceive her with a gift of honor that'll double as decoration for her grave."

"That sick bastard," Superman growls.

Batman makes a low noise of agreement in his throat. "Lilies," he says, so detached that Superman wonders if Bruce is so far gone that nothing remains of him but the Dark Knight. "They're her favorite."

o0o0o

Seven Weeks Ago...

Her funeral is a quiet, subdued affair. There have been too many and Superman can't bear any more dramatic, large mournings. Besides, the world is too scared right now to properly honor Diana as she deserves. They can't bury her here anyway.

Superman had taken Diana back to Themyscira. Queen Hippolyta had said nothing and Superman matched her silence. He couldn't apologize. He couldn't promise revenge. He could only hand over her only daughter's body and leave before his own grief overcame him.

Two. There are only two of them left. Just Batman and Superman. Their supplementary crews have either gone into hiding or Batman forbade them from helping, much like he locked the Batclan from the Batcave and told them to stop their patrols.

Batman can risk his life as much as he wants, but he refuses to allow Dick or Tim or Barbara to risk theirs. No matter how much they argue or threaten or sulk or scream.

They don't dare go anywhere alone. Superman won't say how much comfort he takes in having Batman within shouting distance. He hadn't been able to protect the others, his surrogate family. It would break him to fail Bruce as well.

Bruce who hasn't even taken the time to process his grief. Bruce who only bends his unbowing will to investigation, to pinpointing the exact location of Darkseid. He spends hours crouched over his computers, having taken over Clark's office. He mutters to himself, checks and cross-checks his own findings, barely eating, barely sleeping. He's more machine than man and Clark doesn't know what to do.

He stands at the glass doors of his balcony and looks out at sleeping Metropolis, still new and bright even in the dead of night. The Daily Planet is in view from here, aglow and vibrant. Lois is working late because her useless partner is off doing who knows what again. Clark can practically hear her grumbling from here.

Not that the stories have changed. Number one on the whole world's mind is the vanishing of the minor superheroes and the rather public deaths of the founding members of the Justice League. They are all wondering Who's Next?

Clark sighs, hearing Bruce pounding away at the keys in the other room.

Who's next? There's only two of them left. A 50/50 chance. Clark doesn't like those odds.

o0o0o

Six Weeks Ago...

Clark jerks out of a fitful sleep to the feel of the bed dipping. He easily makes out Bruce despite the dark and blearily reaches for his lover.

Bruce comes to him willingly, nude to Clark's surprise, and pressing up against Clark as though he seeks to climb inside the Kryptonian's skin.

"Bruce?"

"Don't talk," Bruce replies, voice hoarse, his heart hammering in his chest. "Just... no words."

He kisses Clark, with a passion and neediness he's never displayed before. His hands roam and stroke, igniting heat with every skilled pass of his fingers. Clark groans, wrapping his arms around Bruce, deepening the kiss.

He understands; he does. They are the last, just the two of them. What use are words now? They've been together long enough to know all the important things without them. And if Darkseid has his way...

No, Clark refuses to even consider that.

Instead Clark wraps Bruce up in his arms and makes the moment count. He surrenders to the feel of Bruce's skin beneath his fingertips, the taste of Bruce on his tongue, the sound of Bruce's increased pulse.

Comfort me, Bruce's actions seem to say. We are the last.

Clark's wordless reply begs for the same.

o0o0o

A Month Ago...

"I knew you'd come."

Darkseid's laughter spills into the muggy afternoon, his parademon troops spilling into the streets of Gotham and sending the masses into a terrorized frenzy.

Superman growls with rage, barreling headfirst into the nearest cluster of parademons, vicious fists sending them flying. This is Batman's town, his home. Superman will defend it to the last. And he knows that Batman will, too.

Darkseid is watching them, his beady eyes dark and merciless, a smirk on his lips. He's finally shown his face.

Everything is chaos. Smoke rises from destroyed buildings. Blood paints the streets. Glass and rubble make for treacherous pathways. And parademons sweep across the ground, a horde of murderous beasts.

Superman tries to stop them, but for every four that he blasts with his heat vision or bashes across the skull, ten more spring up to take their place. He can't see Batman anymore, can hardly hear the Dark Knight over the battle cries of the parademons.

There are too many of them and the Justice League is down to two.

Superman doesn't see the shot coming. He only notices, with a glance, that Darkseid is no longer lording over them from a nearby rooftop. His heart hammers in his chest and he leaps into the air, frantically scanning the battlefield for both villain and ally.

Something slams into Superman from behind. Something made of fire and acid, burning as it pours over his skin and wracks him with pain. He cries out, head spinning, and drops from the sky, landing with a harsh thud in the middle of a sidewalk. Concrete splinters beneath him, and the pain increases, like a thousand electrical shocks under his skin, making his pulse race and his body writhe.

Kryptonite. He should have known.

Gasping for breath, Superman forces himself onto his hands and knees, struggling to rise to his feet. He's surrounded by parademons, but they aren't attacking. They're staring at him, gripping their weapons, making odd noises that he can't identify. Or maybe that's the blood rushing through Superman's ears. The pain makes him dizzy, makes it hard to focus.

"For a long time, Superman, I pondered which of them meant more to you." Darkseid's voice rises above the din of the parademons, who make a path for their lord and master as Darkseid strides among them, dragging something behind him. "Rumors abounded here on Earth but the media could never be certain if it was the woman or the Bat that you cared more about."

Darkseid comes to a halt about five feet away from Superman, in front of where he kneels, still wracked with pain. "World's Finest," Darkseid mocks. "Has a certain ring to it, doesn't it? That's what they call you."

Dread curdles in Superman's belly. He tries to push himself upward, rise to his feet, get back on solid ground. Something hits him from behind again, the coward, and he arches, pain crawling over his nerves.

He hears a gasp of pain. A gasp that's not his own.

Superman's head snaps up, bleary eyes focusing on the dark mass in Darkseid's grip. A black cape flutters in a weak wind, spattered with blood.

"No," Superman says, hoarsely and coughs, copper thick on his tongue.

"Imagine my surprise when I discover it wasn't the Amazon who meant the most to you but this." Darkseid sneers, holding up Batman by a firm grip on his costume, the dark knight twitching, broken and barely clinging to life. "This human. Did you want to be one of them that badly, Kal-el? One of these fragile, mortal beings?"

Superman growls, his eyes focused only on Batman. He can hear and see Batman's vital signs growing weaker. He can read the intent in Darkseid's actions.

He ignores the pain, forces himself to his feet, wavering where he stands. "You wouldn't understand," Superman gasps out, struggling to make his double-vision condense into a single image. "You're only a monster."

"One man's insult is another man's compliment," Darkseid says and his free hand lifts, pointing a firearm directly at Superman's chest, though not one of any design Superman's seen before. "Watch and see."

Darkseid fires with no other warning and not even Superman is fast enough to avoid the bullet that slams into his upper chest, driving him backward, forcing the air out of his lungs. His head is spinning and spinning, noise roaring in his ears. He hits the ground hard, but it's only a distant sensation. Pain and boiling heat spread out from the bullet wound.

And then there's nothing but the dark.

o0o0o

He wakes to still and quiet, the ash-heavy odor of burned buildings and in the far-off distance, the sound of police sirens growing louder.

He's not dead. Why isn't he dead?

Superman sits up, coughing, pain exploding in his chest. He winces, reaching for the wound sluggishly pulsing blood. He cringes as he digs his fingers in, pulling out a massive bullet that glows a weak green. Enough to pierce his skin, injure him, knock him out, but not enough to kill him.

Mercy? Not from Darkseid.

The parademons are gone. Darkseid is gone.

Superman's gaze lands on a dark, crumpled heap. His heart leaps into his throat and he scrambles to his feet, still dizzy from the Kryptonite, limbs feeling heavy and weak.

"No..." He stumbles toward the black mass, dropping to his knees, reaching with shaky fingers for an answer he already knows.

Batman's cowl is gone, torn away, leaving Bruce's pale, damaged face staring back up at Clark. His eyes are closed, head lolling at an odd angle, and a quick glance with x-ray vision shows a myriad of broken bones. There is no heart beat, no sign of breath. He's already growing cold.

Something squeezes Clark's chest tight and he bows his head. Heat banks behind his eyes, a shudder wracking his frame. A cry builds within his throat, but he locks it down.

He feels numb. Full of rage. Empty. He feels nothing and everything and can't find the words to express himself.

Biting his lip, he carefully wraps Bruce's broken body in the tattered remnants of his cape and pulls Bruce into his arms. He rises into the air, heading for the only place he knows to go: Wayne Manor.

o0o0o

They all know that what they do is dangerous. Standing up against villains is never safe, never wise, but they do it anyway. Because they are brave and strong and determined. For some it is easier than others. For some it takes more courage.

Superman, Clark, has always disdained some of the accolades that Earth's media give him. He's not as brave as they think him to be. It's easier for him to have this courage because he's immune to bullets and explosions and anything Earth's villains can throw at him. He can survive damn near anything.

In their eyes, he might as well be a god.

Bruce... Bruce is different. He is human like the rest of them. He has no special talents, no magically granted abilities or artifacts. Everything he has, he's made with his own two hands. Every ability he uses, he's learned and practiced until it became second nature. Everything he knows is from research and endless study. He's a man who became more than a man, but in the end, is human like the rest of them.

He bleeds. He's vulnerable. He has a shorter lifespan than all of them.

He's dead.

They all knew, one way or another, that something like this would happen someday. Superman would like to say he was prepared for it. But he isn't. It's too soon. It's unexpected.

He hadn't been able to save him. Not protect. No, Bruce would have disdained the idea of protection. Truth be told, he would have argued against saving, too. He would have grudgingly accepted assistance, his pride a talent in itself.

Neither Superman nor Clark have the answers to give Dick and Tim when he arrives at Wayne Manor, offering them the beaten body of their mentor and their parent.

"He left instructions," Dick says softly when Tim leaves the Cave to call Barbara and let her know what happened. Likely, she'll be on her way soon. "What to do in the case of his death, with the corporation and his estate. Cover stories. You know how prepared he liked to be."

Clark's not even looking at Dick, staring instead at the empty chair in front of the Batcomputer. Something is still gripping his chest, making it hard to breathe, and he knows it's not a physical ailment. It's something no medicine can cure.

"I'm sorry," Dick adds.

"I owe you the apology," Clark replies, voice thick. "I should have-"

"Whatever happened," Dick interrupts, his voice gentle. "You would have done the best you could. I know that, Clark. This was Darkseid."

Clark resists the urge to sneer. "My best wasn't good enough."

Dick's eyes narrow. "Then you're going to have to do better. You're the last of them, Clark. You know Darkseid will be aiming for you next."

Silence fills the Batcave. Clark refuses to admit that he's not certain he can defeat Darkseid. What will happen to Earth then? Who will defend it?

"I don't know what will stop that monster," Dick continues with a low hiss. "But I can guarantee that Bruce did."

"Everyone has a weakness," Clark murmurs, reciting what he's heard Bruce say over and over again. "All we have to do is find it."

There is a light click as Dick sets something on top of the console between them. A keycard with a single distinguishing mark, Clark's birth name in Kryptonian.

"I'm guessing that this is where we can start," Dick says.

Clark picks up the keycard, turning it over and over in his hands. "I assume you know what it opens. Show me."

He doesn't have to ask twice.

There's a door in the back of the Batcave, hidden in the shadows by the costume display cases and embedded in the jagged rock. A small electronic console requests a keycard. Clark obliges and the door swings open.

"Why didn't you open it yourself?" he asks as lights tick on and Dick follows him inside the narrow corridor.

"Couldn't," Dick answers shortly, his eyes as curious as Clark's. Obviously, he's never seen this before either. "Don't ask me how but the old man coded it to your bio-signature. I don't even know where he got that technology from."

"Bruce always did have his secrets."

Dick snorts. "He hoarded them like precious jewels. A rightful dragon."

A small, fond smile curves the corner of Clark's mouth, before it is quickly whisked away. Bruce is gone. He won't be here to snark at them anymore. Or protect his secrets.

The mood shifts back melancholy. In front of them, another door is closed. The moment Clark steps in front of it, he feels something scan him from head to toe before it slides open. Keyed to him again? Bruce always was paranoid.

Stepping inside reveals a painfully small room, barely large enough for he and Dick to stand comfortably inside. It's bare of decoration and furniture, and all that Clark can see are labeled files embedded in the wall, and a single computer screen which soon flickers to life.

Bruce appears on the screen, a sad look in his eyes, the image of him as fresh as if it had been taken yesterday. "I can assume that since you've accessed this room that events have gone exactly as I feared they would," he starts to speak, voice echoing hollowly in the tiny room. "It would mean that I have been killed. We all knew this would happen someday though not the circumstances. The peace couldn't last." He pauses, eyes shifting away from the screen as though troubled. "It never does."

Clark swallows thickly, taking a step closer to the screen. The sound of Bruce's voice makes him ache, makes him wish he could reach through the monitor and pull his lover back to life. He lifts a hand toward the screen, only to drop it again, fingers curling into a loose fist.

"Everyone has a weakness, remember, Clark?" Bruce continues, with a half-smile that doesn't reach his eyes. "And I've spent the last year devoting all my free time to finding them. For every major villain still living, and even a few who could potentially become problems. Make no mistake, Clark, the answers I found aren't stopgaps. They aren't prisons. They are meant to kill." He pauses again, takes a deep breath. "Sometimes, there is no other way."

Dick inhales sharply beside Clark, but he refrains some speaking. Clark does, however, catch Dick shooting him a glance. They'll discuss this later.

"Don't look here for answers if you aren't prepared to do what it takes," Bruce continues, and one hand comes into view, gesturing around him. "Each of these files are labeled. Each drawer continues a means to destroy. This is your last resort, Clark. I know you'll make the right choice."

There's another longer pause where Bruce sits back as though intending to end the recording. Clark expects the screen to go blank on them, or perhaps bring up some sort of file listing or something technical.

Instead, it appears more footage remains. Bruce looks away from the corner, staring at something only his eyes can see. He appears to be debating internally. Clark knows that look. He's seen it so many times before. He aches to see it now.

"I trust you, Clark. I always have."

The screen goes dark before cutting itself off, leaving the only sound in the room that of he and Dick's off-rhythm breathing.

Beside him, Dick takes a step forward, eyes scanning the wall. "Darkseid," he says, and points to a drawer nestled somewhere near the top. Alphabetized of course. "Do you want me to...?"

Clark shakes himself out of his fugue. He doesn't even have to think about it. "Yes. Let's see what last bastion of hope Bruce left for us."

o0o0o

There is something to be said for the strength of will that the entire Batclan possesses. Clark can only watch as they tend to their fallen mentor, taking away the tattered Batsuit, replacing it with fresh clothing. Cleaning his body of all evidence of altercation, covering bruising with carefully applied makeup. Contacting the proper authorities with one of many contingency plans Bruce had set up ahead of time.

He'll be cremated, his ashes divided. Half to be interned with his parents. The other half with his other family, the markers of the fallen members of the Justice League, though Batman himself wouldn't have a gravestone.

Clark sits, head bowed, shoulders slumped. He feels like Atlas, the world resting on his shoulders, and it's a heavy burden. He has to defeat Darkseid; he can thanks to Bruce. He's going to defend Earth to the last breath though nothing remains for him here.

He doesn't know what to say. He's beyond words. They never needed them and Bruce can't hear them anyway. His throat is thick and tight, eyes prickling with heat. He wants to roar his rage and pain to the heavens. He wants to streak out of here and pummel something, anything with his fists. He wants to cry until there are no tears left in him.

Clark does none of these things.

He sits, head bowed, chest feeling tighter and tighter, as he mourns a future without Bruce in it.

o0o0o

Present...

"I've won," Darksaid gloats, and certainly the devastation around him seems a testament to that fact. The dead bodies and the mourning and the destruction of everything that Superman and Clark Kent holds dear.

It would seem very much that Darkseid has won.

Superman starts to laugh. It's a grating chuckle, one that expels blood with every scraping exhalation. He's in more pain than he can bear, but it's not the worst of what Darkseid has done to him. The physical is nothing. It's all that Darkseid has left to make.

Darkseid's smirk melts into a frown. "Why are you laughing?" He doesn't sound disturbed, but perplexed. A touch annoyed perhaps.

"You've won nothing," Superman grits out, each word a practice in determination, "but your own defeat."

Dark eyes narrow to thin slits of disdain. "I've addled your brains, Kryptonian."

"Have you?" A flick of his wrist and Bruce's weapon slides into his hand, so innocuous for the threat it supposedly is to Darkseid. It pulses a pale blue, so different than Kryptonite, but according to Bruce, equally deadly.

Darkseid drops him, takes a step back. "Impossible!" he snarls, hand whipping through the air, fear so tangible in the air around him that Superman feels the urge to laugh all over again. "That doesn't exist in this universe!"

It takes great effort to straighten himself, to face Darkseid head on, lifting his hand and pointing the radion gun directly at the tyrant. "There are other universes," Superman says. "And you've left me no choice."

Darkseid stares at him before clasping his hands behind his back, squaring his shoulders, tilting his chin. Looking for all the world as though he isn't staring death in the face.

"Lethal action?" Darkseid makes a noise of disdain. "It's not in you, Superman. Kal-El. Clark Kent. Whatever name you hide behind."

There's a place inside of Superman where none of those names exist. Where he's not Kal-El or Clark Kent or Superman. He's just a man, a being, who grew up with some of the best parents in all the universes, who had some of the best friends a person could ask for, and who was in love with a great man.

A being who has none of those things anymore.

"Those men are dead," Superman says, and surprises himself without how cold his voice is. Detached. Like it's not even him speaking but someone else. "All that's left is a ghost."

He pulls the trigger. It takes no second thought. He doesn't even blink as the radion bullet is fired, slamming into Darkseid's chest and sending the tyrant flying backward.

Darkseid hits the ground hard, cutting a groove in the debris, his body flailing and writhing like he's been given a dose of his own medicine. Visible cracks appear in his flesh, blood seeping out. Darkseid howls, a sound of unimaginable agony, hands scrabbling at his chest. As though he can dig out the radion with his own two hands and save himself.

He won't be able to.

Superman turns his back on the dying tyrant, ignoring the hoarse shouts of fury and pain. It doesn't feel like a victory. He doesn't desire any celebration. He'd meant what he said.

Superman, Clark Kent, Kal-El. They don't exist anymore.

He's just a ghost.

o0o0o

It's been ten years. Clark is not coming back and Dick can't say that he's surprised. There's nothing left on Earth for Clark now. Not with his parents dead, his friends killed, his lover murdered. His legacy remains. History books will forever extol the last great battle between Superman and Darkseid.

They always conveniently forget the radion and the gun and the merciless way Superman ended the tyrant's life. They turn the stories into a grand battle, one where Darkseid orchestrates his own demise. Maybe it's better that way, maybe it's not.

Life is quieter now. Not peaceful because after the destruction of the Justice League, criminals around the world thought they had free rein. The newly-instated league has been keeping busy, their hands are full. But... it's definitely quieter.

Wayne Manor is far too large. The new Watchtower echoes with memories and ghosts.

The Batsuit doesn't fit right. It's been tailored to Dick since Bruce's death. Accurately measured to match his height, weight, and muscle mass. But it doesn't fit right. It never will and Dick is glad for that.

He's Batman, but he's not The Batman. The world won't know the difference, but he does.

Green Arrow does. And Kyle, who took up John Stewart's mantle. Bart knows it, too, every time he looks in the mirror at his own bright red and gold costume. Warhawk's itching to take up his mother's mace. Black Canary is trying to fill boots several sizes too large.

They are all struggling to match up to the world's expectations.

"And here I thought you were too stubborn to die," Dick murmurs. He crouches, laying a bouquet of white roses on the grave that marks Bruce Wayne's tombstone.

Officially, Bruce was killed when Darkseid attacked Gotham, one of many citizens to lose their life that day. The best lies are those mixed with the truth after all. And with Dick to take on the Batman mantle, no one ever knew that the Dark Knight had been killed. The rest of the Justice League has been honored by an ostentatious memorial in Metropolis.

They would have hated it.

Dick rises to his feet, shoving his hands in his pockets. It's getting cold again. And the sun is setting. He'll be due for patrol soon. Best to let the dead rest in peace.

Or whatever qualifies as it.


a/n: I don't know why I enjoy writing such angst. I just do. This fic is a mash-up of pretty much every tidbit of information I gleaned from dc-wikia and what I've seen in the Animated 'verse, those connected and not. I must emphasize that I haven't read any of the comics, so what references I might have used here and took from the wikia. I don't claim to be an expert at all.

Feedback is welcome. I hope that this entertained, even if it was rather bleak.