He's a man on fire, burning, soaring up, up and away through the Gotham night. A signal flare and distress call. Until the explosion snuffs it all and he falls, gravity stricken, a pockmark in an alleyway. Smoke from his body, asphalt and tar and brick, dust in his mouth.
Someone in the distance screams. Why doesn't anyone help them? But it's his own mouth. It's him.
"Me or the boyfriend, Batsy. Will it be Bachelor #1 or Bachelor #2?" Laughter and everything hurts.
A hand on his back. "Watchtower. Transport. Now."
And everything fades away.
"What do you mean it's permanent?"
"We had to cauterize. He was in shock. Perhaps we could have stimulated regrowth, but chances are he would have died during the procedure. Even at full power, he only has limited regeneration. And he was completely vulnerable at the time."
"But he'll live?"
"All we have now is hope."
"We've decided. We're turning off the machines."
"No. They stay on."
"Only until his family gets here. So they can say goodbye."
"No. The vote wasn't unanimous. They stay on."
"You were the only one who voted against it. He wouldn't want this, Bruce. He needs to move on and you need to let him go. This shouldn't be a warrior's fate."
"Don't give me your ancient Greek platitudes. They stay on."
"He wouldn't do this to you. You wouldn't want this."
"Well none of us are him, are we? Get out."
He has something on his face, in his mouth, in his throat. His legs and one arm are still on fire.
"...For it may be remarked in the course of this little conversation (which took place as the coach rolled along lazily by the riverside) that though Miss Rebecca Sharp has twice had occasion to thank Heaven, it has been, in the first place, for ridding her of some person whom she hated, and secondly, for enabling her to bring her enemies to some sort of perplexity or confusion—"
He opens his eyes, tries to cough and panics. Whatever is in his throat won't come out. It hurts.
"Shhh. You have a breathing tube, Clark. Relax. We'll get it out as soon as we can."
His legs, his left arm, they're on fire. Please.
"Shhh. Don't try to talk. Will someone just get the hell in here? He's awake."
Tube gone, he can breathe, but his mouth. Dry. "Water." Is that his voice? Weak.
"Soon. You're NPO right now."
Someone puts a spoon near his mouth. He opens. Cold. Wonderful.
"Ice chips. Better?"
He swallows. Bad idea.
"Vanity Fair. Why?"
"We finished The Little Prince yesterday."
He nods, as if this makes some kind of sense. He nods off.
"My legs. They hurt."
"Phantom pain. He might not."
"My arm. Fingers. Cramp."
"We have to tell him."
"He'll find out soon enough."
He tries to sit. His right arm braces against the bed, but the fingers on his left hand are numb. He can't feel the sheet. So he looks. And it's gone. He can feel it, but it's gone, no arm below his bicep.
And his legs. Both. Above the knee.
One arm and three stumps. That's all he has left.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"What good would that have done?"
He turns his head, away. "Please, just go."
"I'm taking you home."
Clark attempts a laugh, but it's feeble. "I live in a third-story walk-up." This time the laugh does come. It's not a good sound.
"No, I'm taking you home."
"What would I do in Gotham?"
"What would you do in Metropolis?"
Bruce has installed an elevator off the kitchen. Clark's room is on the second floor in the guest wing. He forgoes the chair, floats up the grand stairs instead. He can no longer fly, but he can float, grip the banister with one hand. The room and adjacent bathroom are furbished for someone in his condition.
He sits on the edge of the bed. It's a queen-size. The edges of his Bermuda shorts flatten out to nothing on the comforter.
"Dinner's at six." Bruce has his arms crossed, leaning against the door frame. "Can I get you anything?"
"No." He remembers his manners. "But thank you."
"You don't have to do this."
"Of course I do. This happened on my watch, Clark."
"Lots of things happen on your watch." And before Bruce can bridle, he adds, "On mine too. Everyone's. That's the risk we take."
"So I should just dump you in some convalescent home?"
"No. I have resources."
"So do I."
Dinner, of course, is a farce. Alfred brings his steak out pre-cut and things go down from there. He stares at his plate.
"Would you rather have used your fork and your teeth? That would have been amusing."
He glares at Bruce, heat rising. He bisects, neatly, a small piece of steak. But he leaves a scorch mark on the Spode beneath.
"Alfred will love that."
Tim pushes his plate away. "Excuse me." He leaves the table and the room.
"Feel like a man now?"
Clark leaves the room too, a little less politely.
"Look, I know this can't be easy for you." Bruce sets a dinner tray on the bed. "But you can try to be gracious in my house. You hurt Alfred's feelings. And Tim's."
"Then I'll apologize to them when I see them."
"Fine. Have yourself a good sulk. I don't have time for this."
"I never asked you to."
"Oh, so you want to scurry back to your little farm and put your parents through this?"
"That's not fair."
"Life's not fair, Clark. Deal with it."
He's on fire in the skies above Gotham. He crashes down. Dust in his mouth. Laughter in his ears.
"Shhh. Move over."
He does and a body presses against him, arm wrapping around.
"What time is it?"
"Go back to sleep."
When he wakes, the bed is empty beside him. But when he rolls, he can feel fading warmth.
Down the hall, from the master, the shower turns on.
He's bored. He leaves the morning papers untouched, lets the news of the world slip away. His ears aren't what they once were and he can't hear them anymore. The pleas, the screaming. Only this house, the woods surrounding it. Outside of that, nothing. He's glad for the silence.
He thumbs the remote, gliding through channels. He likes the classic movies best, the romantic comedies. Banter and conflict, but it all works out in the end. 'The End' appearing over a kiss, black and white.
"How can you watch that trash?"
"It's not. You'd prefer noir, I suppose?"
"A little more realistic, yes."
"I've had enough realism for a while."
"It's another one of those days, isn't it? We should find something useful for you to do."
Useful turns out to be an ergonomic keyboard and sorting through Bruce's data files. He's a little less bored, but not by much.
"You have a good eye for this."
His eye only correlates statistics, crime, psychological profiles. It's depressing and dry.
"I wouldn't say that."
"Have you tried the pool yet?"
He spends hours swimming. Bruce sits in a lounge chair, reading a corporate report, intent. He makes notes, talks for a while on his cell phone.
Clark idles to the edge of the pool when Bruce places the phone down on a glass table, eyes back on his report. He scoops a handful of water and aims.
Bruce leaps up, spluttering, storms forward. "Why you idiotic, childish—" And he stops. Clark is still giggling.
"Clark...Jesus." And he kneels down, one knee, hand reaching out, tentative. Clark stops giggling, only looks at Bruce.
Bruce pulls his hand away before it reaches anything. He stands. "I'll bring him down. I promise you that." He leaves, phone and report forgotten.
Clark bobs in the pool like a cork.
"You need to think about prosthetics."
"There might be some problems."
"You used to be an optimist."
He breaks the first set in only two falls.
"You did that on purpose."
"There goes my ice skating career."
Bruce startles out of his frown into a rusty laugh.
They try the Fortress, but the AI gives vague, curt answers at best.
"He never did like me."
"It's a machine, Bruce."
"Can't he see that his cooperation is necessary? His useless territorial spats only hurt you."
"Bruce, it's a machine."
"Maybe he'd prefer Diana."
Clark sighs. "If you think that would help."
Bruce is having another one of his parties. Laughter and the clink of glasses waft up from the floor below. Clark does his best to read a book. He ends up turning out the light and staring at the ceiling.
He's down at the party in a rented tuxedo. Bruce, in his playboy drawl, makes a snide remark about silk purses and sows' ears. Clark laughs it off. He has a glass of champagne in his hand. Lois drifts over.
"You clean up nice, Smallville. So how about it?" She extends her hand.
They're on the dance floor, the music in his body, feet on the floor. He isn't awkward at all. Bruce eyes them over the edge of his glass, blue eyes smoldering and his voice a smoky whisper for Clark's ears alone. Clark flushes.
It's the smoky whisper that wakes him. But the words aren't for Clark.
Bruce is out in the darkened hallway, leaning against a wall, drink in hand. Someone is kneeling in front of Bruce, opening up his trousers. It's not a woman.
Clark arches, a silent gasp, from his sudden erection.
He can't. But he is. He closes his eyes, but he can still hear it, that whisper. His hand moves faster than his shame. He hasn't touched himself, not once, since that night.
He comes when Bruce does and the sheet is a mess. The shame catches up with him. And the crashing realization that, now, he can never have this with anyone. Not the way he is. He'll never dance, no matter how awkwardly. He has no knees to kneel with.
He clenches his teeth and turns into the pillow, face tight, arm blindly reaching for tissues to clean up the remains of his now and future sex life.
There are murmurs in the hallway, but Clark doesn't listen.
A minute later, there's a knock on his door. Clark doesn't answer, just turns further into the pillow. Whoever they are, they'll go away, find a room that's empty.
Bruce opens the door. "Clark—" He stops. The room reeks of what Clark has just done. "I should have been more discreet. I'm sorry." He steps forward, places his drink on the nightstand, sits on the edge of the bed.
Clark can't look at him, clings to the pillow with his one arm. It's all he has.
"I'm intruding. I'll go." Bruce picks up his drink, footsteps to the door.
"Before, I used to think it was possible."
Bruce stops. "Did you have someone specific in mind?"
"No. Yes. It doesn't matter."
"Can you? With someone human?"
"I didn't just put a hole in your ceiling. So yes, in theory."
Bruce turns. He doesn't say anything for a moment. "You mean you've never...?"
Bruce sips his drink but doesn't move. Clark only looks at him from the corner of his eye. Bruce is calm, radiant. Beautiful. Whole. Impossible.
"Not everyone's that shallow, Clark. You shouldn't rule it out."
Clark lets that statement sink into him, a stone and intractable. He says nothing.
"Sexually, yes, I am shallow. That's all it ever is for me. Beautiful people and no strings."
Clark says nothing again. His voice will betray him if he does.
"But with you, you'd enter into it with your whole heart. There will be someone who values that." He sips his drink again, silent for a minute, then two. "The party's clearing out. I should get ready for patrol."
He leaves, closing the door gently behind him.
"What time is it?"
"Late. Early. Go back to sleep."
He's outside in the gardens. The scent of cherry blossoms and new-budded roses. The elusive sun of Gotham makes an appearance. He soaks in it, leaning back against a chair and closing his eyes. His skin tingles, an unrechargeable solar battery. He wonders if he is, fading. A bang and then a whimper, cinder and dying ember. He sighs. He is what he is now. Put out to pasture. It could be worse.
"So you're out here." Bruce puts down his coffee cup on the wrought-iron table and sits.
"You're up early."
"It's been known to happen. On occasion." He sips his coffee, reads the paper. "I have to go into the office today."
"No one's stopping you, Bruce."
"Did you want to go into town with me?"
Clark has an image of himself hung on a coat rack or put in a box like a puppy that can't be left to its own devices all day. He laughs, quiet. "And do what, exactly?"
"I'm not sure. There's a bookstore down the street, unfortunately corporate and bland, but it's large, has a coffee shop."
Clark's tempted. "I'd need to take the chair."
"This is a test, isn't it?"
He's in the poetry section, reaching for a book, when someone takes it down for him.
"Afghanistan or Iraq?"
Clark takes the book, looks over and up. A blond man and tall. He only answers with "Thank you."
"Iraq, for me. I know a fellow soldier when I see one. Ground or air?"
"Air," Clark says. He should dispel the illusion, correct the assumption. But for some reason, he doesn't.
"I'm BK myself, but only the one. You double-AK guys have it rough. And they got your arm too. Bastards." He rolls up his pants leg, metal and plastic. "I got drunk off my ass on my Alive Day. You?"
"It's only been two months."
"Jesus. Explains the chair. They fit you yet?"
"They didn't work. It's okay."
"C-legs are supposed to be the shit. Yeah, right. I only have to worry about my ankle and it never rotates right, you know?"
The man laughs. "Hey, I'm only in the boat. You bought the yacht. Come on, I'll buy you a cup of that expensive crap they call coffee. Exchange horror stories."
Clark doesn't say much, mostly listens. He insists on paying with the platinum debit card that Bruce gave him. His name on the card, but Bruce's money. He should feel bad about that, and he probably will when the conversation's over.
It's only fifteen minutes, and Charlie—that's the man's name—leaves with a clap to Clark's good shoulder. "Take care," Charlie says, "You'll talk about it when you're ready. Next time, I'll get you a cold one."
"I'm not much of a drinker."
"Good. Don't start. You might not be able to stop."
Clark just looks at him.
"I tell myself that I've got a handle on it, but that's a lie. I'll do AA when I'm ready. But a man's got to have something." He pauses. "You've got my number. Call or don't. It's all good."
Clark blinks at his empty coffee cup for a good five minutes after. He's about to wheel away from the table when a tall latté lands gently in front of him.
"Vanilla, low-fat, if I remember correctly."
Lex Luthor sits across from him, a cappuccino in his hand. "Hello, Clark. So, he finally let you out of the house."
"What are you doing here, Lex?"
"Curiosity. Some things, a man has to see for himself."
Clark looks over his shoulder. Mercy sits three tables away, glaring. "She honestly thinks you have something to worry about?"
"These are dangerous times."
"I suppose they are. Well, now you've seen."
Lex sips his cappuccino. He swallows, long and hard, after setting it down on the table. "I want you to know that I had nothing to do with this."
"I'm sure that bothers you."
"I would have done a better job."
"Yes, I'm still breathing. That must be hard for you."
Lex drums his fingers on the table. "Get out of that house of horrors, Clark. Come home."
"I'd rather not live at a LexCorp facility, thank you."
"I've taken over your lease. Your apartment's still there, just as you left it. The building has an elevator now."
"And a new state-of-the-art security system, complete with cameras, I'm sure."
"Of course. I have to look out for my property."
"I'm not your property, Lex."
"There you go, always jumping to dire conclusions. Frankly, I'm bored. I haven't had to replace my crystal barware set for months. I miss the satisfaction of throwing a tumbler at the wall."
"I'm afraid I'm not entertaining in that way anymore. Besides, Lois should be keeping you busy."
"She should, but she's off her game. Apparently, she misses her partner. I take it you haven't kept in touch?"
Clark sniffs his latté, decides to take a chance and drinks. It's good. "I haven't talked to her since I quit the Planet."
"And you haven't wondered why she hasn't attempted to see you?"
"It's not like I invited her."
"Since when has that ever stopped the incorrigible Ms. Lane? Could it be that the walls of Wayne Manor are that unscaleable?"
"What are you saying?"
Lex leans forward, face intent. "He's fucking you, Clark. Don't deny it. He never did care for competition. He must be ecstatic now that he gets to keep you as his pet."
Clark's eyes widen and he laughs, a single bray, shocked. "Now who's jumping to dire conclusions? He does what he wants, but not with me. My virtue's intact. Come on, Lex, just look at me."
Lex sips his cappuccino again. "I am."
"Well, there you go."
"I see Clark Kent. I always have."
"If he's telling you that you're undesirable, then he's lying just to break you. Have I ever been that cruel?"
Clark blinks, swallows. "Worse."
"Well, I'm a liar. We both know that. But I'm being honest now. Come home, Clark."
"Get the fuck away from him, Lex. Now."
Bruce is at the table, trench coat, face furious, fists clenched at his sides. Mercy is right behind him. He whirls, puts her in an arm lock. She struggles, cursing, but can't break free. The entire café gasps.
Lex stays where he is, makes a point of finishing off his cappuccino, foam on his lip. He wipes it away. "You're making a scene, Bruce. This is a public place, daytime, and you're not dressed for such activities."
"I'll break her arm, Lex. Get the fuck away."
"Go ahead. I haven't had the pleasure of suing you for quite some time."
Clark places his hand on a wheel of his chair, turns, and rolls away.
Two voices behind him. "Clark!"
They drive in silence, on the outskirts of Gotham now. Bruce's hands are white-knuckled on the wheel. He stares straight ahead. Clark stares out the window.
Before they reach the manor, Bruce pulls over to the side of the road. He rests his head against the wheel, breathes. Clark turns, looks at him. Outside, nothing but trees. A bird sings. It's quiet.
"If that's what you want, you can have it. Condoms are in the glove compartment." Bruce's head is still against the wheel, hands gripping it. He doesn't look at Clark.
"I can't believe you." Clark undoes his seatbelt, opens the door and falls out of the car onto the shoulder of the road. He floats up, but not above the treeline, toward the manor. Behind him, he hears the car door slam, the engine restart. Bruce keeps pace, then guns the engine, races past him, driver's side window down. A hand, one finger raised to the sky, toward Clark, stays in place the entire time to the gates.
"So you're taking off."
Bruce leans against the door frame, watching Clark attempt to pack a suitcase one-handed.
"Why should I stay?"
"Yes, she tried to see you. And no, I wouldn't let her."
Clark sinks onto the bed, suddenly tired, head in his hand.
"You would have proposed, Clark. And then you would have been divorced in less than a year. You would have been back on my doorstep with a broken heart on top of everything else."
"Who are you to decide my life? You have no idea how any of that would have turned out."
"Yes, I do. It's my job to observe human nature."
"Get a new one then. I'm not human, if you haven't noticed."
"So you're going to run off to sleep with the enemy just because you're lonely. That's disgustingly human. But you're not going to do that. I'll physically restrain you until some sense crawls back inside your brain. Yes, I know all about your adolescent flirtation and how that fuels his obsession with you. But that's not love, Clark. Don't kid yourself."
"I know what he is. And no, I'm not going to do that."
"Really. Because that's what it looks like from over here. You want a woman, Clark? A man? Both? I can get you anything you want if it'll help get your head out of your ass."
Clark looks up, glares. Bruce is still in the doorway, arms crossed. "That's not what I'm about."
"Of course not. You sit in your fairytale castle singing 'Someday My Prince Will Come'. But take a good look in the mirror, that's not going to happen."
"Oh, so your little pep talk the other night was pure bull? Thanks a lot, Bruce. I look in the mirror every day, I don't need you to hold it up for me."
"I hurt you. I had to say something."
"So then what was your little offer in the car about? Prostituting yourself for the greater good?"
Bruce stands away from the door, crosses the threshold. "I've always wanted to fuck you. That's been obvious for years. Don't pretend you didn't notice. I tolerated your passive rejection in the name of friendship."
Clark says nothing for a moment. "That may have been true once. But not now."
"Get off the bed."
"Get off the bed, Clark."
Clark floats away, sinks into the armchair by the wall. Bruce strides, purposeful, flings the suitcase onto the floor so that its few contents spill out. He turns down the comforter, the sheet beneath it. "What do you see?"
"Bruce, I don't want to play twenty questions with you."
"Two dips, Clark. Two. I crawl into this bed almost every night. What does that tell you?"
"That you're capable of human comfort. Bruce, where are you going with this?"
"If you had one erection, Clark, just one during that entire time, I would have taken care of it."
"I was asleep!"
"So asleep that you couldn't be aroused by a warm body lying next to you? Don't tell me that your sudden interest has nothing to do with self-pity and loneliness, misplaced gratitude."
"Do I look grateful?"
"No. You've been a pain in the ass the whole time. Now get in this bed."
"What are you trying to prove?"
"That what was true once is still true. Will always be true. You could be a brain in a jar and I'd still want you. Which is a hell of a lot more than you can say. Now get in this bed."
"Is this your way of physically restraining me?"
"Get. In. This. Bed."
Clark clings to the chair with his one good arm. "Are you always this romantic?"
"Clark Kent. Now."
"I'm not about to run out to the florist or have Alfred permanently bar me from the kitchen by attempting some foolhardy home-cooked meal just to placate you. What the hell do you want?"
He rises, his one hand a fist, floats in the air just inches from Bruce. "What do I want? I want to run again, to make an idiot of myself on the dance floor with my two left feet. I want two arms to hold someone with. I want to fly so high up that the Earth is silent below me. I want to fill out a suit. Any suit. I want to be able to help people again. I want to hear my name whispered on the other side of the planet so that I can drop everything and be there. I want—"
Bruce just looks at him, whispers. "If I could give that to you, I would. I've relived that night a thousand times. I've had to fight myself every night not to cross that line, find him and kill him in the most painful way possible. I forced myself to watch as they cut and burned away what was left just to save you. I watched a machine breathe for you. I stopped them from turning it off. Jesus, Clark, I read Thackeray to you just in the hope that you'd wake up and tell me to shut the hell up."
Clark smiles, despite himself. "I think Vanity Fair did the trick. I didn't let you get very far."
"I was desperate."
"Bruce, I never knew."
"That I had a copy of Vanity Fair?"
"J'onn's the mind-reader, not me. You flirted with everyone but me. In fact, you hardly ever had a kind word."
"That's what made it obvious."
"I can't believe I'm about to kiss a twelve-year old."
"I'm only emotionally stunted. Physically—"
Clark doesn't let him finish that. He leans in, the kiss soft and tentative, still a question.
Bruce answers by falling back and pulling Clark down on the bed with him.