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I Would Go in Chains (Just to See You Free)

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I Would Go in Chains (Just to see you free)

By BatsareFluffy

For the SuperBat Bang 2019

Art by frankie_31

 

Prologue: Polcaeca Laasva -- Justice League Mission 14.05

 

The ruined building’s windows let black clouds of soot and smoke rise into the evening sky. The west side was still smoldering. The support beams were blackened, but still holding most of the roof above the battle. A coat of smoky film covered the windows.

From the northern doorway, the commander of the invading forces strode out, barking shrill orders to his followers. Soldiers quickly fell into line behind and beside him: another figure in a tall headpiece dashed out and fell into line behind the commander. The group began marching to the north, the stamping of feet almost drowning out the deep voice from inside.

“Kal!” Batman’s voice was rough from the smoke still pouring off the burning building. “Kal-El, listen to me, you’re stronger than it is, fight it, Kal!”

An inhuman shriek sounded, pain and despair mixed in equal measures.

“Kal - Clark - fight it, come back, listen to me, Clark -”

Another shriek rent the air, echoing off the armour of the local forces finally gathering at the edge of the ruins. Their commander shouted orders, and the first group broke from the ranks and raced into the building.

The Batman was half laid out on the ground, covered in blood and dust. One arm was raised towards Superman, who was kneeling on the ground, clutching at his head. The crouching alien was screaming in a mix of Kryptonian and their attacker’s tongue, rocking back and forth.

“Leave him,” Batman barked as the first scouts came into the room. “Don’t fire!”

The soldiers ignored him, raising their rifles and aiming at Kal-El. One shot rang out before the other’s could fire - someone with a twitching trigger finger - and it bounced off of Kal-El like hail on a windshield.

Kal-El raised his head up, and roared at the soldiers. The black lattice veins surrounding  his eyes made several soldiers back up, shouting back to their commander. His blackend eyes shone wetly as they scanned everything around him. He rose a few inches off the ground, hands fisting at his sides. Kal-El roared again, eyes beginning to light into a blood crimson glow.

Batman, army crawling towards him, tried to shout through the smoke, “Leave! Fall back, he’s not in control of himself!” His words were cut short by violent coughing that forced him prone once more.

Kal-El paid no mind to his injured comrade, and instead focused on the soldiers. One shouted a command, and all opened fire on the Kryptonian. One salvo of shots bounced harmlessly off him, knocking more stones off the crumbling walls. Several smaller rocks fell on the Batman’s cowl and chest, rolling off the kevlar with ease. The Dark Knight continued to crawl forward, one hand clutched around a small lead box.

Kal-El roared again, his eyes shooting crimson beams of heat. The beams sliced through the thatched roof, sweeping down across the room - and through the scouts. The smell of cauterized flesh, while overpowering for the human below him, seemed to not affect the alien.

“Kal - Clark!” Batman tried to yell again, coughing blood onto his gauntlet. “Fight - it, Clark!”

The black veined face turned slowly towards him, body lowering until his knees touched the floor again, beside the fallen Batman.  More mashed Kryptonian and alien language flowed from his mouth as he began to rock back and forth, hands reaching to cover his ears once more.

With one more push, Batman was beside the stricken alien. Yanking his gloves off, he fumbled with the lid to the box, and pulled out the glowing green shard. Pressing it against Kal’s leg, his other hand pulled a syringe filled with blue liquid from another pouch. He pulled the safety cap off with his teeth, and with a lurch, slammed it into Kal’s thigh.

The drug started entering his body.

Kal-El reacted. Half moan, half growl, he tried to stand. He convulsed back onto the ground. Another coughing scream ripped out. Black mist started flowing out of his eyes, ears, and mouth, small tendrils coalescing above him. The wraith screamed once, like claws on glass sharp. It sank back into the smoke that had spawned it an hour ago by enemy hands. 

Clark collapsed beside Bruce, panting and shaking.

The second wave of soldiers entered the burning building, blasters trained on the two heroes.

---

High Court of Polcaeca Laasva

As the afternoon sun filled the courtroom, Superman felt the first twinges of unease. While both Wonder Woman and Green Lantern had taken the stand this week to tell of the events, neither of them had been in the building when -- when he’d lost control. When he’d -- Clark swallowed hard -- killed those soldiers. The only other living witness was Batman-

-- who was not here. 

He’d been hopeful at the beginning. Surely Batman would testify. The older vigilante, despite being a self declared law breaker or criminal (depending on his mood), would not allow an injustice to occur to anyone, least of all a new team mate. The Justice League was still fairly new. Steppenwolf was only 18 months behind them. And they’d been doing alright as team members.

And a little bit more.

The day after his arrest Bruce had been allowed to visit him in the jail. The building would not have held him if he truly wanted to be free. Clark knew, though, that they were trying to instill confidence in the Justice League, as a group that could be trusted without fear or judgement. If that meant going through a trial that would certainly result in Superman being cleared of all guilt, then he could sit here in this dark cell and wait.

Batman had briefed him on what the local traditions were for court, and went over the details as he remembered them. He’d reminded Clark that their version of the Lasso of Hestia would be an asset to him. The Crystal of Laasva would be used if the judges thought that Clark was lying to the court.

At the end, though, it was Bruce who had pulled off a gauntlet and reached through the bars. Curling his fingers around Clark’s neck, he’d pulled him against the bars and rested his head against his forehead.

Clark had smiled softly. “It’ll be alright, B.” The older man’s hand tightened on his nap, as he let out a deep subvocal growl. “Promise, B.”

“I’ll hold you to that, Kal-El,” he muttered, breath ghosting over Clark’s lips. The guards had come in to escort Batman out of the prison. He’d turned without a backward glance and stalked out.

Clark suddenly wished that Bruce was there, if not close enough to touch, then with those steely eyes staring at him. No matter if he was encased in kevlar or an Italian suit, his gaze was a steadying force. A reminder that there was still good, no matter what the situation. That enemies could turn into allies, into friends, into companions - or hopefully, lovers. Clark knew he was getting ahead of himself. They’d shared three stolen moments with each other, when heated breaths turned into ravished mouths. Bruce kissed like he fought - constant and ferocious.

That wasn’t even dating by today’s standard.  And Clark wanted to. He wanted to explore every aspect of the Gotham Bat, the playboy, the very lonely man who gave until he had nothing left, and then found more ways to give.

Right now, though, Superman needed Batman. He needed Batman to walk into the court, and tell them about the enemy priest, the strange smoke that had a voice, and that consumed his every thought. He needed Batman to tell them he’d had no choice. Because he’d been there, he’d tried to stop him, he’d even managed to drive the smoke creature away. Batman knew that. Batman knew he wouldn’t hurt those soldiers on purpose.

Didn’t he?

---

Superman scanned the faces of the judge and jury as the two guards hooked the transporter onto his handcuffs. Not one looked hesitant, not one looked as if they were questioning if this was a good idea.  Their faces hadn’t changed in the eight day long trial. They all believed him guilty, not a shred of doubt. 

Green Lantern was being held in two other guard’s strong grip, his ring encased in a steel box on the judge’s desk. Wonder Woman stood beside him, sword, lasso and vambraces on the tray beside the box. Neither could help him.

And still, no sign of Batman. No sign of Bruce, and wasn’t that damning enough?

The translator began moments after the judge began to speak. “For the crimes committed by the accused, that of manslaughter and reckless endangerment to lives, you are judged guilty. Standard punishment is to be enforced. 187 days in the timeless wasteland, that which is known as the Phantom Zone by the Kryptonians, or until death of your mortal form, whichever is less.”

The judge spoke once more line, one that didn’t need translating, and the room was gone in a flash of blackness. 

---

The last of the coffee pot’s dregs swirled around the bottom as Bruce glared at it, as if offended by its existence. His mood had been sour the whole evening, with Diana, with Clark, with Alfred. Clark was surprised by his friend’s disposition, and even more surprised when Alfred let every snip and snark brush off him, and returned the uneaten dinner to the kitchen.

Now, Diana having left for an antique show in Buffalo, it was only the two superheros in the cave.

“Thought you’d be in a better mood, B,” Clark ventured.

The surly man ignored him and replaced the coffee pot.

“You know, with that big dinner you and Selena are going -”

“We’ve ended relations.”

Clark sank down onto the nearest chair. “I’m sorry, B. What happened?”

Bruce avoided his eyes, returning to the report on the screen. “We had a differing of opinion … I cannot love someone who views other’s lives with such disregard.” His fingers stalled as his shoulders set themselves back. “Love had no place with a murderer.”

Clark rolled his chair closer. His friend had not returned to typing, just staring into the middle distance. Knowing that was all the Bat would want to divulge (heck, that was twenty four more words than he had expected), he peered at the report. “Wind up penguins, huh?” he asked, as a peace offering, a truce on emotions. “Sounds like fun.”

---

The shadows swirled around him, caressing his insubstantial face. He could see everywhere, but he moved not at all. The world swung around him, as if from behind a television screen. Only he was the black and white image. And he had no more backstory than the gent selling soap in the breaks. He was the one that could touch nothing, and static ate his words from his mouth.

Abruptly, technicolour surged into his view. One gleaming ray of colour hurt his eyes to look at, after so much grey. But he had to- he had to reach that ray of light. Because with a look at the light, he remembered. He remembered home, sunlight, and warmth.

The golden light of the Lasso of Truth reached him in the darkness. The muted greys of the Phantom Zone retreated from the vast array of colours right it brought from the outside dimension. With trembling hands he grasped the ends, wrapping it around his wrist as he struggled forward. Every moment he was holding the lasso, he felt weight settle into his bones, his body sank more into the heavy lightness of his youth.

Two massive jerks, and he was stumbling, past the final wisp and screams of other imprisoned souls. The emptiness lifted and dropped him into warm arms.

“Kal-El,” Diana’s voice sounded from above him.

Above? He realized he’d collapsed at her feet.  “Kal-El, you are safe now. You’re home again, you are safe.”

Green light was on the edge of his vision when his eyes closed. Stirring once as he felt himself lift from the ground, he opened blurred eyes to look for a wash of black, but there was nothing.

He hadn’t come.

Kal-El let his eyes close.

When they reopened, he was in the medical bay of the Watchtower, J’onn standing next to him. “Easy, my friend,” the Martian said softly, helping Kal to sit up and swing his legs off the gurney.

“Kal!” Diana walked through the sliding doors, a smile on her face. She gently embraced him, saying, “It is wonderful to have you back amongst us.”

“Yeah, Supes, it’s been too boring!” Flash whined, zipping in and tackle hugging the Kryptonian. “We missed you, big guy!”

“How long was I gone?” Kal asked, squirming out of Barry’s hug.

Diana smiled. “We pulled you out of the Phantom Zone after 34 days. Betwixt Green Lantern, J’onn, and my Lasso, we caught the real perpetrator and handed him over to the authorities. They were quick to reverse your erroneous charges.”

“Hey, Bats helped, too, when he got back,” Flash piped in. “Still amazed what he can  hack into with nothing but a rock -  you know what I mean,” he added at Clark’s look. “Seriously, he’s spooky.”

Clark nodded, and looked around, but there was no sign of Bruce. Diana caught the look and said, “He’s covering for me and J’onn on monitor duty.”

“Okay,” Clark said, trying to sound ok. He knew he didn’t, but Diana didn’t call him on it. She also didn’t keep him long in the medical bay. Begging off his ecstatic friends, he claimed exhaustion. And if the monitor room was kinda sorta on his way to his personal rooms? No one was going to say anything about that.

Bruce was hunched over the keyboard, cup of coffee long abandoned on the table. His fingers continued to fly over the keyboard as Clark settled down next to him. “

“Hey,” Clark said softly. He leaned down a little to try and catch Bruce’s eyes. “I missed you.”

Bruce’s fingers stuttered on the keyboard. “Superman,” he said stiffly. “I’m pleased that you were rescued. My apologies that it took far longer than it should have.”

Clark frowned. “B, we’re alone. Can you take off the cowl - I really need to see you.” He couldn’t even to begin to say how much he had missed Bruce. Even floating in the Phantom Zone, looking at everyone and touching no one, he hadn’t been able to find Bruce. And every day he looked, the ache grew in his chest, until, even though he didn’t need to breathe, he could barely draw air into his lungs.

“Watchtower protocol clearly states that on-duty -”

“Please, B? It’s… it’s been a really long month, and I’d like to see a friendly face I’ve missed.”

Batman swallowed.

Clark was confused, but waited quietly. Something had the Bat all flustered, and pushing never worked.

The gauntlets released the safety latches, and Bruce pulled the cowl off his head. His face was a pale ghost framed by sweaty black and grey locks. “Clark,” he said hoarsely. “I’m - I’m glad they rescued you.”

Clark smiled softly and whispered, “I missed you, B.” He laid a hand on Bruce’s stubbled cheek. “I missed you so much.”

Bruce trembled under his touch, gaze dropping to the floor. He said nothing.

“What’s wrong, B?” Clark wanted to turn his vision to see if Bruce was injured, but he was still too weak. “Tell me, what is it?” When Bruce continued to stare at the floor, he leaned in closer, a kiss dancing through his head. “B?”

Bruce abruptly pulled back, once more out of Clark’s reach. “The team hasn’t been the same without you,” he said, voice rough. “It will be good to have the whole team working again.”

Clark spluttered. “Bruce? What’s wrong? Why are you --”

“Good evening, Bruce,” Diana said from the door. “I thought you were headed to your rooms, Kal-El?” she said with a knowing smirk.

"You're two hours early," Batman growled, despite the lack of cowl.

Diana settled her coffee mug on the empty coaster. "No, Bruce, you're still on half duty."

"I'm fine."

"Tell that to Alfred. I agree with him. You were moderately delusional for nearly a week. Half duty is required until you've fully recovered to J'onn's standards." Diana smiled fondly at him. "You wrote that in the founding laws yourself."

"What happened, B?" Clark asked, getting a tad frustrated with his friend’s reluctance to talk.

Batman tensed. He stood abruptly, fitting the cowl back on. Slipping past Diana, he said, "I'm fine.” He stalked out.

Diana curled herself into the chair. "He'll be fine, Kal-El," she soothed. "He's still coming off a mild drug exposure. Nothing Alfred couldn't handle."

Clark nodded, his gaze still on the closed door.

____

The dust settled over Clark’s shoulders and cape. With both shoulders braced, he framed the winded Bat in red and blue. “Well,” he said, “ that was fun.”

Batman harrumphed and kept panting for breath.

“Alright, so the plummeting four stories to the ground wasn’t fun, but the slide down the roof was invigorating.”

Batman raised one hand and clasped the back of Superman’s neck. One tug pulled the alien’s face closer to him. “Never … do … that again,” he rasped.

Superman smirked. “Y’all can’t tell me you didn’t enjoy it,” he murmured, pressing his body down a bit more.  He could smell the increase in testosterone in the man beneath him, hear his heart begin to pump faster, see the dilating pupils. “Not nice to lie, B,” he said, brushing his lips lightly with his own.

He could taste the smirk on the other man’s face just as much as the salt on his skin.

Metropolis - Earth - Daily Planet

With a few well ghost written articles and a ton of research notes, courtesy of Barry, Clark Kent smoothly went back into the daily grind at the Planet. He’d passed off his sudden month long absence as a impromptu story on some convention of scientists - Entomological National Trust, or something like that. Or was it the Epidemiological? Whichever was the ones that talked about how measles was making a come-back, or how the influenza strains were starting to mimic the Spanish plague. He’d had a hard time keeping up with Barry and his enthusiasm.

Either way, he was covered. No one mentioned it after the first day back, and frankly, the pile of stuff he was behind on was driving people away. No one wanted to get roped into helping. Not even Lois was around.

When the bullpen went suddenly quiet, and then people began swearing, Clark immediately stood up. The large screen television had been turned to Channel 45, Gotham’s local news and traffic station. A live reporter was stammering.

“Unknown aircraft above Gotham’s financial district -- several glass fronts of buildings have exploded -- police are urging people to get to shelter immediately --”

Behind the young man, the large emblem of Wayne Enterprises could be seen, as well as the Gotham Stock Exchange down the street. People were running, dashing into the subway system to escape.

Clark could barely breathe - another spaceship, another city, he prayed it wasn’t another General Zod. His phone pinged with the Justice League’s number, rerouted through burner phones, of course. He glanced down at the screen.

Nat from the fashion section swore viciously. Everyone gasped, and Clark looked at the screen again --

The top dozen floors of Wayne Enterprises were being carved off the top of the building like a sardine can. Live. On national television. And Clark was standing, like an idiot, in Metropolis.

No one saw him leave. Everyone saw the Justice League appear, Superman and Wonder Woman at the front.

---

Near the surface of the Earth, an object in free fall in a vacuum will accelerate at approximately 9.8 m/s2, independent of its mass. With air resistance acting on an object that has been dropped, the object will eventually reach a terminal velocity, which is around 53 m/s (195 km/h or 122 mph)...

~”Freefall,” Wikipedia

---

A line of students ran out of the main lobby, bags held over their heads. Bruce spared them a moment’s glance, saw their projected course was clear, and continued to hurry people out of the building. Rubble rained down around them as the towers across the street were hit yet again by alien fire. Glass covered the ground like an ice king had been dancing through Tenth Avenue.

“Look out!” Several tonnes of concrete suddenly slammed into a green net, not even ten feet above the ground. Green Lantern hovered nearby, holding the construct with shaking hands. “Get clear, everybody!!” As more people rushed out of the way, a red blur caught the last few panicked onlookers.

“You’re clear, GL!” Flash shouted before dashing off.

The ground shook under Bruce’s feet as the shock of half an office suite landed in the WE executive parking zone. More people were still coming out of the emergency stairwells. A harried looking older man came stumbling up to Bruce’s side as the second rumble of concrete shook up his legs.

“Everything from 10 on up is clear. I think Ramirez cleared 2 through 4.” He coughed harshly into his arm. “Can’t be sure on 5 through 8, Mr. Wayne.”

“Get to the second bomb shelter, tell Smithwick. Go!”

Sparing a look around for more Leaguers, he bolted towards the far south stairwell. It was one of the few that were left mostly intact, a miracle of engineering right now. Bolting past the few people still coming down, ignoring pleas to turn around, he counted landings. He climbed, heedless of the steadily thickening air or of the harsh chemical smoke from the offices.

At the sixth landing, the door was blocked with rubble.

“Dammit,” he swore, trying to move the top pieces. Wind ruffled his hair as another set of hands appeared.

“I got this one,” Green Lantern said, green construction equipment popping into existence between them. “Get outta here, Bruce.”

Bruce shook his head as his ribs constricted. “Student seminar… eighth floor.” His lungs coughed on dust violently.  “No...word from the super...visors.”

“Shit. Go, I’ll be up in -- soon!”

Nodding, Bruce set himself back up the stairwells, gasping for air at the eighth landing. Slamming his shoulder into the door, he stumbled into the main lobby, then staggered back, cursing. Flames rose from the plush carpets and rained down from the ceiling all across the massive open concept room. Coughing violently, Bruce started to pick his way into the room. Another blast of hot air sent him reeling back into the stairwell.

“Hal!” he choked, pulling back. “Hal, I can’t - can’t get in!”

Hal Jordan flew past him, green shield shimmering with the heat of the fire. “No one’s here, Bruce. Get outta here! Go! Now! I’ll check seven and six!”

Going down was far easier, the air clearing out as he went past massive holes in the outside wall. He could see more of the street now, Superman working with Flash to keep the aliens from targeting the few civilians still not having gone into shelters or evacuated. As he rounded the stairs to the last two floors, he caught up with a few students and their TA. “Stick together, keep going!” he shouted, jumping down the last few steps to them. “Go!”

The students ran faster, one sobbing but still running. What little breath Bruce had went into words to encourage them, “Keep going, forward, you’ll be fine, just get to the lobby, the shelter is right underneath it, keep going!”

The doors yawned open in front of the leaders, and they started to run even faster, heading towards the last few rescue workers. Bruce slowed down, keeping behind the straggling TA with one student who could barely breathe and run.

“I know it’s hard, you can get there--”

“God, I can’t--”

“Yes, you can, you can, you’ll be fine, just keep running!” As he said it, as he tried to make the young student believe him, the horrific happened - the student stumbled, pitching forward into the rubble, gasping.

“Patrick! Get up, c’mon!” The TA pulled the boy’s limp arm up and began to drag the boy along. Bruce dashed to the boy’s other side, and swallowed. The boy’s lips were turning blue. Pulling the limp student between them, the last hundred yards beckoned. Two emergency workers rushed forward to help them.

There was a scream behind him.

Behind the main security desk, a child held their backpack over their head. Three ceiling tiles lay smashed around them. One of the security people yelled, and motioned to the child to come toward them. But they weren’t moving. And Bruce could see a small trail of blood on the white tiled floor.

Sound disappeared.

Bruce turned, all thoughts focused on another child caught behind the lobby desk. 

… Pivot, push forward...

… Oxford’s slipping on the dusty floors...

… Gripping the corner, hurling himself around the back…

… assessing damage...

… Broken leg, rubble strewn around him, concrete, rebar, blood...

… Pushing last chunks away…

… ignore the tearing pain in his back...

… Scooping him up, turning around the other side...

… Stumbling on the turn, slow down…

… straight forward, distance measured...

Sound rushed back into his ears.

“Bruce! Look out!” Superman’s voice screamed from far away. The rumbling of mountains sounded closer than ever before. He slipped around one massive section of concrete and steel.

Looking up, he saw Clark rushing toward him. Bruce pushed himself forward, cradling the boy in his arms. He moved forwards -- four steps, five steps, he could just see the blue arms reaching forward -

He pushed the boy into the safety of those arms, and Bruce flinched violently away. He twisted away, one last push, desperate to keep momentum. He lurched forward, the shelter entrance his final goal, ignoring the pain from falling debris on his back. He ignored the screamed name behind him, ignored the roar of crashing building, ignored everything but the shelter doors.  Slipping on the ground, he scrambled for traction, detachedly watching as his body slipped into a runner’s crouch, leg extended behind him ready to launch him --

-- watching as the 8 foot long section of concrete slammed into the ground --

--onto his leg, into his --

Sound rushed away in white agony.

 

----

I could hear Bruce stirring in his recovery room at Gotham General Hospital, the increase of his heart rate, soft sounds of pain and nausea floating in the air. I can hear Alfred’s Oxford’s squeak on the linoleum as he moved to the bedside, and start to quiet the drugged man. Soft words I try not to hear, I try so hard to listen to the people around me, talking with them, holding their hands, bringing a moment of happiness to a day that has known so much pain. That’s the only thing I can do now.

Clean up is always the hardest part, the threat ended, the aliens banished to whatever universe they crawled out of. The fighting is easy, that part comes with a script that we’ve all followed to win the day. But this part, this is the time when words and routines mean nothing.  I move through the various rooms, checking on patients caught in the explosions, in our battles, console families of those still in surgeries. I offer a shoulder to a scared new mother, offer soft words of hope where there might not be any, but that’s really all Superman can do.

Clark Kent has no place here, no reason to be in the chaos of the hospital now that the story was already in the printer queue. Clark has no reason to be sitting upstairs in ICU, waiting to see those eyes open. Clark can’t be upstairs, can’t be holding Bruce together as Alfred pulls Bruce into a crushing embrace, holding my -- his charge as the news settles into him, as the tears and rage come crashing down on shoulders that have taken too many blows. 

---

Superman walked softly through the ICU waiting room, stopping to talk to people who were waiting for the surgeons to come and talk to them. He praised the nursing staff for their hard work and their spirit, especially during such a catastrophe. He slipped into every hospital ward’s room, talking with every patient, or their families. He tried to instill hope where it was fast being distinguished. After seeing everyone else, he could put it off no longer - and slowly slipped into the last private room.

Dick Grayson sat in the only chair, hands buried in his hair. A brown leather jacket, most likely Jason’s, covered up his police uniform. As the Kryptonian came closer, the young man straightened with a crack.

“Can you stay with him for a minute?” Dick whispered. “I just - I really need to get some coffee, or Red Bull, or--” he choked, and looked away.

“Go on,” Kal said, standing aside. “I’ll be here.”

Up close, Bruce looked nearly translucent beneath the oxygen mask, veins the only thing giving his face any colour. The dark circles under his eyes looked darker than anything face paint could do. Both arms were settled under the flannel blankets, IV lines poking out from either side. Kal looked deeper, noticing the minor crack under the heavy bandages at his temples. Kept his gaze slow, noting the lacerations, the broken ribs along one side that he probably didn’t even feel, the cracked hip bone that already had pins in place.

With a deep shudder, Clark slipped his gaze lower. Both thighs were covered in bandages. The left from surgery needed to remove a section of steel that had lodged too deeply to be easily removed. Those wrapped down to the swollen knee, and the broken ankle, all of it propped on pillows.

The right bandages ended -- Clark swallowed his tears, his scream, his helplessness, and finished his scan. They ended where the calf would have started to taper down,  just after the knee itself--

--had they been able to save the rest of the limb from the ruins of Wayne Tower.

But the crushed remains still lay under tonnes of concrete, dust and rubble, where they would have to wait to be interred with the rest of the Wayne line. The blood would seep into the very foundations of the empire his forefathers built, while Bruce slept, heavily drugged and hooked to machines to keep him safe.

Something Clark hadn’t been able to do. Despite being four feet from him. Despite being Superman. Despite winning the day, saving the world from invasion, Bruce still had to pay for Clark’s failure.

--

In my experiences, it takes three surgeons fourteen to sixteen minutes for a major limb to be amputated when there is serious damage to the limb. Common amputation complications can often lead to a secondary removal of tissue and bone. Causes such as gangrene, infection, and septicemia are to be strictly acted against for the patient’s best interest.

~ Dr. Hoyle Kirkpatrick, Field Surgeon, 1854

----

Four surgeries, and eighteen days later saw Bruce Wayne released from Gotham Memorial Hospital. Only two newspapers caught a few photos of the billionaire being assisted into an old Bentley by his first son and butler. The early spring fog had done it’s best to hide it’s Prince from the cameras. It was remarked on blogs and talk shows that whatever had befallen Gotham’s Prince was terrible. No one had seen him look that ragged, that defeated, before. Or at least, some dared to whisper, not since That Night, so many years ago.

---

Blood was something that always fascinated and repulsed Clark when he was young. All little boys seemed to go through the point of blood being cool, but Clark - he figured out really early that blood was a bad sign. Someone had been hurt. He must have done something wrong, if someone else was bleeding.

The feeling continued even as he watched Bruce start to suture his own calf, brow furrowed. Apparently, the sight of his own blood making tracks into his boot was of little consequence to the Dark Knight.

“You’re not going to faint on me, Kent, are you?” Bruce asked, tying another knot in place.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, B.”

Bruce shrugged. “Dick fainted the first time he watched Alfred giving  me stitches.” He straightened. “At least we could pick him up.”

Clark took Bruce’s chin in his fingers and tilted his face up. “I’m not faint of heart,” he murmured against Bruce’s lips. “Just keep your insides where they are supposed to be.”

Bruce smirked and pressed his lips against Clark’s lightly. “Sure, Farmboy.”

---

Gotham - Earth - Wayne Manor

The first time Clark had tried to see Bruce after he was released from the hospital was met with an apologetic Alfred, who would not let him even climb the staircase to the personal rooms. “Master Bruce is quite unfit for company, Master Clark,” he said solemnly. “He is not recovering well post-surgery.”

“Surgery?” Clark looked up at the older gentleman as he descended the stairs.

Alfred paused, and then delicately answered, “Corrective surgery on his leg, I’m afraid. There was evidence of necrotic tissue in the bone, which was debrided yesterday morning. The dosages of painkillers and antibiotics is affecting his memory.”

Clark nodded, looking to one side as he listened. After homing in on Bruce’s voice, he listened to the slurred ramblings, to Dick’s softer voice reminding him he was home, and  - was that Jason’s voice? The other voice, rougher like unfinished wood, telling him over and over what had happened in the last five days. Bruce seemed to forget everything after only a few minutes, cycling through the same questions and reactions. 

Clark swallowed hard. He wanted to scream, he wanted to cry, he wanted to hide in the darkest hole he could find. Bruce should never - Clark should have stopped the invasion sooner - if he’d -- “I’m - I didn’t know, Alfred,” he choked out. “I’ll - I’m - take care of him?”

Alfred nodded, a softer expression settling over his face. “Of course, Master Clark.” And Clark had bolted into space. No one heard you scream in space. Or cry. Or rage or weep or howl.

The second attempt had been slightly more successful, in that at least he’d been allowed into Bruce’s room. Alfred had held the door for him, after informing him that Bruce might not be in the most cooperative mood. “The brace on the knee was removed yesterday, and physiotherapy has been difficult.”

Clark had nodded, adjusting his collar a little, wishing for glasses to fiddle with. “Alright, I won’t stay long.”

Bruce was half on his side, half twisted on an extra pillow. It was one of those sleeping positions that reminded Clark of a housecat basking in the sun. Just like a cat, his eyes might be closed and breathing regular, but Bruce was quite awake. He could hear the other man’s heart rate pick up when he stepped inside. Quite awake, almost fake sleeping.

“Bruce?” Clark sat down on the edge of the bed. When the other didn’t respond, he continued. “Bruce? I - I just wanted to see how you were doing.”

The other man’s breathing remained constant, heart rate still that little too fast. Clark sat quietly, just taking in all the details on the body before him. The ribs had healed well, as had the minor skull fracture, but his face looked gaunt. With so little activity, Bruce was dropping muscle mass fairly quickly. Even his face showed a thinner look, sallow and dark circles under his eyes. It broke something deep in Clark’s heart to know that he’d done this to his partner.

“I’ll let you get some rest, Bruce,” he whispered after nearly twenty minutes of silence between the two. “I’ll come back, yeah? Another time when you’re awake.”

He ignored the sadness on Alfred’s face as he excused himself from the grounds.

--

Raised voices carried up the elevator shaft as Alfred escorted Clark down to the computer area of the Cave. Sprawling tables full of suits in various states of repair cluttered the usually neat area. Alfred, face carefully blank, sidestepped several of the larger piles of debris, to stand at the edge of the main terminal. “Master Bruce? Mister Kent is here to see you.”

Clark had hung back, suddenly wary of the three men in front of the screens. Bruce sat in the winged chair, shoulders tight and face expressionless. The taller man beside him was dressed in a black suit, with an indigo bird symbol across his torso. He’d never seen Dick in his Nightwing costume before, with the mask off. Dick’s face was still trying to calm down, and his fists were unclenching in a steady rhythm.

 

Clark gave Nightwing a nod, and turned his attention to the other vigilante standing beside Bruce - to see twin barrels pointed straight at his head.

“Master Jason, it is impolite to shoot at one’s guests,” Alfred chided, stepping between them. He pushed both muzzles downward, and raised an eyebrow. “Besides which, it is foolhardy to shoot at something that will ricochet bullets.”

Jason? Clark gaped at the man. He’d never met Jason without the helmet and three layers of kevlar. He knew from Alfred that Jason had been brought back to life, with ‘mixed results,’ but this man - he was nearly as tall as Bruce, and built like a linebacker. Getting body slammed by those muscles would hurt like crazy to a normal human. And even without x ray vision, he could see multiple places where Jason was packing some very impressive weapons.

“Why is the alien here, Alfred?” Jason growled, holstering both guns. Behind him, Bruce’s shoulders relaxed slightly.

“I need to talk with Bruce,” Clark said.

“If it’s something to do with the league, I can tackle that at tomorrow’s meeting, Clark,” Dick said with an exasperated sigh. “You really didn’t need to come make sure my homework was done for school.” He dropped into the computer chair next to Bruce.

“It’s personal, not league stuff,” Clark answered. He tried to make eye contact with Bruce, but the older man’s gaze dropped to the side every time he tried. “Bruce, can we talk, just you -”

“What makes you think that you have any right to?” Jason snarled, stepping forward to block Clark’s path. “We’re sure as hell not going to leave you alone with him.”

“Language, Master Jason,” came the sardonic British voice from within the cave.

“I need to talk with Bruce,” Clark repeated his answer calmly. “Not you.”

Jason’s eyes flashed - was that green? Clark took a step back from the disturbing swirl of sickly green that shone over them. It was that, not the guns, the brawn, or the bluster, that worried him. That green spoke of madness. Or Magic.

Or, Clark thought bitterly, pretty much anything to do with Gotham these days.

Dick stepped in between them. “Alright, enough. Jay, come on, we need to start patrol. I’ll take the shipping yards if you take the money strip.” He tugged on Jason’s coat. “Let’s leave them to it.”

Jason didn’t move.

“Jason, it’s not our business.”

Jason scoffed. “Fuck that, it is our business. It’s our business to look after Gotham, and keep this shit hole from falling even more into the filthy hands of criminals. It's our business to keep people with God complexes out of Gotham. And it's Robin business to keep Batman safe.” Jason pushed past Clark. “Because no one else is gonna fucking to do it.”

Dick's sent an apologetic look to Clark but followed along behind Jason. After donning masks and helmets, Dick gave the all-clear sign and led the way out of the cave. Alfred was already feeding data over the comm links to them. He quite deliberately had his back turned to the two men at the main consoles. Clark waited until the roar of the bikes had faded, and then turned to look at Bruce.

 

Clock turn back to Bruce. “What's going on Bruce?” he asked. “Why haven't you -”

“If this pertains to the league business at all, then I am not the person you need to speak with.” Bruce turned his chair and went back to his monitor.

Clark strode forward and continued. “Don't shut me out Bruce,” Clark said. “You haven’t returned any of my calls, or even talked to me since the Gotham invasion.”

Bruce’s fingers tapped quietly at the keyboard. “There is nothing for us to discuss, Kent.”

Clark strode forward and grabbed the back of the chair, turning it around forcefully. “That’s ludicrous, and you know it. Ever since that mission on Polcaeca Laasva, you’ve barely said ten words to me that weren’t in costume.”

Bruce refused to make eye contact. “I’m not part of the league, I am not - not the person you should be talking with. Dick took the cowl after - after the invasion - for good reason; he’s more than qualified to take on the mantle.”

Clark ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. “It’s not about -- Bruce, it’s about us.We were - we were starting to be involved, Bruce. There were feelings from both of us. And now, you won't come near me." Clark sighed. "You won't answer my calls, and this is the first time that I've come over that you've talked to me. In four months, Bruce. Four months of silence."

Bruce looked pointedly at his lap. He wore a mild look of disdain on his face.

"I meant even before Gotham's attack."

Bruce's eyes were vacant as he answered, "Our work time did not correspond with each other. You were re-establishing yourself at the Daily Planet. Bruce Wayne had

to be at meetings and galas. There hasn't been time."

Clark stalked a few feet away. "Bruce," he ground through his teeth. "That's not the issue. Stop deflecting. What's going on between us?"

Bruce closed his eyes, breathing deeply. Over the silence, Alfred's dry voice could be heard muttering about stupid birds, clipping beaks and admonishments to keep focused on the mission at hand.

 Neither of the men paid much attention to the commentary.

"There's nothing 'going on’ between us, Clark."

"That is," Clark started. "Bruce, that's a load of - why are you shutting me out?" He came back over and crouched down at Bruce's eye level.

This close, Clark saw the strain around his eyes, the hollowed cheeks so much clearer.

Bruce looked away, breath shallow. Long fingers were toying with the edge of the blanket.

Clark waited, waited for Bruce to look at him. When the man wouldn't, he finally asked the one question he didn't want the answer to.

"Was it the mission on  Polcaeca Laasva? Is that why you won't even look at me?"

Bruce flinched.

Clark sank back on his heels. "It is," he said roughly. "This whole thing, it's because I murdered those people. That's why you-"

"You were not responsible for their deaths," Bruce broke in, voice hard. For the first time he looked Clark right in the eye. "You were not responsible, Clark. You were under control by a demigod of death."

"Then why didn't you testify at the trial?"

The bats above them skittered and chattered. Even Alfred was quietly typing.

Clark swallowed. "Why ... didn't you... testify, Bruce?"

Bruce closed his eyes, mouth a grim line.

"You weren't there," Clark said, standing up. "You weren't there because you really think I am guilty. Guilty of something, at least. And you’d have to lie. They'd use the Crystal of Laasva on you, and you'd have to say that I was a monster."

"You're not a mon--"

“You weren’t even at the trial!” Clark snapped. “What am I supposed to think? You were the only one that saw everything! You didn’t defend me - you left it to Hal and Diana and they didn’t see everything.”

Bruce rubbed at the bridge of his nose wearily. “It was unfortunate,” he said, voice rough, “that Hal was too far away to bear witness.”

Clark laughed weakly. “Yeah,” he huffed, “unfortunate. That’s not the word I’d use for it. Unfortunate is when the diner is out of apple pie, not for letting your partner hang for a crime that wasn’t his fault.”

Bruce winced at his choice of words, but remained silent. His eyes were downcast, face an odd greyish hue.

“Unless you thought I was guilty.” Clark swallowed the dread in his throat. “Unless you thought I was in control. That I wanted to - to hurt those - to murder those soldiers?” He swallowed and said hoarsely, “Unless you still think I’m some sort of monster that needs to be put down.”

Bruce shook his head. His fingers were white knuckled on the arms of his chair.


“No, you aren’t, Clark,” he rasped. His voice was as rough as Batman’s would have been with the modulator. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“Then why didn’t you defend me?” Clark bellowed. He ran his hand through his hair. “Why the hell didn’t you say anything in court?”

Bruce closed his eyes, head bowed. His lips were white where he pressed them together, his breath harsh in the sudden silence.

“I thought this was done,” Clark said. “I thought we were past the - the not trusting each other part. I thought we’d gotten past this, Bruce.” He tried to keep the hurt from his voice. He wasn’t successful. He couldn’t stop the defeated sag of his shoulders and Bruce continued to remain silent. “We never will, will we, Bruce?”

A soft cough broke the tension between the two men.

“Mister Kent, if you’ll pardon the intrusion,” Alfred said, stepping forward. “I do need to tend to Master Bruce whilst the boys have Gotham covered. Perhaps,” he continued, picking his words carefully, “it would be prudent to continue this at a later date.”

Clark couldn’t help but notice that the aged butler had neatly put himself between them, blocking Bruce from view.

“Yeah,” he croaked. “Yeah, another time. When you actually want to talk about it, Bruce.” He backed away from the two Gothamites. “Whenever that happens, call for me.”

Without another word, Clark was gone.

----

Clark felt the heat lamps on his skin long long before the idea of waking up popped into his head. Healing warmth, soft sheets under him, no one screaming - really, waking up was not a priority. And he wouldn't have, except for something tapping his face.

"whhha?"

The tapping resumed. It came with sounds. Words - it came with words, his brain finally pointed out.

"naooo," he moaned, trying to turn away.

"Clark," the words said, "wake up, eat something, before I shove this tube down your throat."

Clark smiled. Warmth, soft sheets under him, no one screaming, Bruce being tetchy - really, sleeping another five minutes sounded great. "'ive 'ore min's, Bruce," he slurred, weakly batting at the fingers that poked him.

"You said that three hours ago - don't you dare fall asleep! Clark...."

Clark smiled, and caught one hand. Holding it to his chest, he closed his senses to the world and slept.

-

Gotham - Earth - Wayne Manor

Superman landed on the cobbled path in the garden of Wayne Manor. The light dusting of snow looked more like fine sugar icing over the roses than actual snowfall. The deep reds shone like blood on the stark whiteness. He winced at the thought - that was not the headspace he needed right now.

“Well met,” Diana greeted as she touched down beside him. Like Clark, she had come in armour, ready to do another type of battle - one with words, rather than with swords. The gleam in her eye was always a welcome morale boost. He needed that.

Diana kissed him on the cheek and motioned to the hidden door. “Shall we?” At Clark’s wince, she added, “Clark, I’m sure he will be pleased to see us. It has been nearly half a year since we spoke in person.”

Clark didn't say anything at Diana's words. How could he tell her that he'd tried to come back? How to explain that after a month of silence after their fight in the Cave, Clark had tried to return to Gotham? That late one night, when Gotham had been quiet and Dick went home early, he'd flown towards the cave. He extended his hearing to the underground rooms, just to check, and immediately slammed into a stop mid-air.

"Bruce, no! You can't, the suit isn't built for -" crashes, the soft sort of explosions within an engine, cursing from several voices.

"Jason, get the fire extinguisher!"

"Leave it! Goddamn it, leave it! I just need to get the calibrations right, I just need - I need it - I need it to be re-calibrated - enough! I don't want to get - hands off me!"

"Master Bruce, I'm only moving you out of the sparks ranges. Come on, up you get, at least into a chair. These floors are too cold to be working on."

"I cut power to the welder, it should stop sparking soon."

"Famous last words, Big Bird."

"Master Bruce, please, I know you're frustrated with the suit. Perhaps taking a rest - "

Something slammed the metal table hard, silencing everyone. "I've been convalescencing for 4 months now. I can't sit back and watch everything - I can't - I have to get the suit ready, it's been too long - the mission is important, Gotham is important, I can't leave it to rot from the inside out!"

"Hey, we exist, Old Man. Dickiebird has been wearing himself into paste, if you'd get your head out of you ass long enough to notice."

"Jay, c'mon."

"No. Bruce wants to get right back at killing himself, I get to say my piece. You can't do it, Bruce. You just can't. Your body is not strong enough, so why the hell do you think you'd even be able to get the whole thing on anyway? We can't even get the prosthetic leg to work right!"

"Gotham needs -"

"No, you can't get this through your head! You can't get the suit to work, you can't be rappelling from building to building, and you sure as hell can't land on one leg that still has bloody pins in it!"

"Get your hands off me," Bruce growled.

"Make me, Old Man. No one else is going to say it. You're done. You can't be Batman anymore, you're done, it’s over. I can’t be chirpy Robin anymore. You’re not Batman anymore. Now fucking accept that and move on."

There was silence, and Clark had started to float back to Metropolis. He'd heard too much, been privy to something he shouldn't have.

"I can't - I don't - I don't know - know how." The voice was cracked, splintering from all angles. Repressed energy pushed through the words, and the howl that came next ripped at Clark’s heart. He let the despair follow his trail of heartbreak, back to his perfect city, in perfect dawn light. He never got the courage to go back. 

“He needed the space,” Clark said weakly, holding the door open. “He - they needed to work everything out - as a family, Diana. They didn’t need me getting under foot.” They didn’t need me to be a constant reminder of what Bruce had lost, he left unsaid.

Diana raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

“Everyone’s in the study by the sounds of it.” Clark closed the door softly, and motioned for her to proceed him.

She led the way up the grand staircase and into the wing of Wayne Manor that housed the smaller library. The halls were well lit, and the scent of lavender and pine suggested to them that Alfred had been through recently with his polishing rag. As they approached the open doors, Dick’s voice carried to them.

“I don’t know what tipped them off, Bruce, but they were, like, mortally offended by my presence. They were screaming at Green Lantern so much that he had to stop translating and calm them down first.”

A lower voice replied indistinctly.

“Well, apparently there is.”

Diana knocked lightly on the door frame. “I see that Richard has informed you of our dilemma.”

Dick stood by the door, hands shoved in pockets. He had the frazzled look of a high school teacher with the one brilliant student who wouldn’t be persuaded to just follow the curriculum. “Hey, Diana. Hey, Clark - long time, no see, Supes.”

Clark tried to smile, failed miserably. “Hey, Dick, I, um, didn’t want to intrude.” He looked around the room, and locked eyes with Bruce for a second. “You’re looking well, I mean, good, Bruce.”

Bruce Wayne pushed himself away from behind the old mahogany desk of his father, wrapped in black and grey. His face, while always narrow, had thinned to gauntness in the six months they’d been away. His beard was thin and mostly grey now, and Clark could see more wrinkles and stress lines in his face than ever.

There was a heavy lap blanket tucked around his waist, and a knitted cabled sweater hugged his chest. It hid much of his frame, but from the sag of the shoulders there had been a fair amount of muscle loss in the shoulders. Despite the warmth in the room, Bruce looked like he was freezing. He steered his wheelchair closer to the fireplace. “Diana, Kal-El,” he greeted with a monotone voice, avoiding direct eye contact.

“You are recovering well, Bruce.” Diana settled herself onto the low sofa, stretching out her long legs. “Richard has been kind enough to supply the League with updates this last half year.”

“Ma’am, sirs, coffee and refreshments.” Alfred settled the tray to the low table top. “Master Bruce, I’ve included your afternoon medications in yours. The brown mug, as per usual.”

Bruce nodded and took the mug. “Thank you, Alfred,” he murmured.

Alfred nodded, gave a pointed look at the other two founders and left. Diana and Clark both made up their mugs and held them close. Clark felt like he was waiting on pins and needles for a verdict in a trial - a feeling that he was much to acquainted with.

“I resigned from the League when Dick took my place. There is no reason for you to be here, or to be ‘keeping tabs’ on my recovery.” Bruce’s voice was softer, lower, and filled with a tiredness that neither Diana or Clark had heard before.

Diana leaned forward, and placed her hand on the wheel of Bruce’s chair. “We ask because we care for you, Bruce, not to spy upon your progress. The whole league is worried for you.”

He pulled his chair back the slightest bit, and she took the hint, leaning back with her mug of coffee.

“The talks with the Lowytians are not progressing. Their ambassador is insisting that it be you and Clark that negotiate the cease-fire. When we informed him that Batman would be there, he directly told us that the young protege that we’ve been having wear the cowl was not acceptable, and would lead to a rearmament of their army.” Diana leaned forward again, and added, “They need Batman there, and they need you.”

Bruce said nothing, hands idly stroking the warm mug. His gaze was fastened on the tray between the three heroes.

“I know from Dick that you are still recovering from your wounds, but I believe that this would be an ideal mission for you. Surely the long hours spent in rest have made you yearn to travel again, Bruce.” Diana reached forward again, and laid her hand on his lap. “To negotiate peace is part of the core beliefs of the Justice League, of which you are still a founder.”

“50 milligrams of nitrofurantoin, four times daily.” Bruce finally lifted his gaze to Diana’s, and continued, monotone.“Oxymorphone hydrochloride, 10 mg, twice daily, dimenhydrinate at the same time. Lorazepam 3 milligrams, every night.” He drained the last of his mug and set it on the table. “I’m uncertain as to why you would even consider that I am fit for any mission, let alone one where planetary peace is on the line.” He pulled back, and pushed his wheelchair away from the table. “I am no longer a part of the League. Dick is more than capable in my place.”

Clark stood up and walked around the armchairs. “B- Bruce,” he said, tripping over the nickname. “We’ve tried everything else that we can think of. They won’t allow anyone else on the planet for negotiations. Even the Lantern Corps aren’t allowed in the system. They will not hear from anyone else, except us.” He stood between Bruce and the only door that he could use to get out of the room. “I know it’s bad timing, and you’re still in recovery, but they need our help.”

Bruce turned his face away from Clark’s pleas with his shoulders bowing into his chest. He seemed to shrink away from Clark, almost as if expecting a blow.

“It should be an easy enough mission. There are a couple of traditions that we might have trouble with, but the talks themselves shouldn’t be hard,” Clark continued, oblivious to Bruce’s reaction.

Diana nodded, and stood as well. “They are quite strict on who they allow to land on their planet. Only those species with previous treaties can land there, which is why Kal-El is allowed. They also allow no electronics, communicators or pads, only paper copies of all relevant details. We need someone who can navigate through reams of paper, and still be able to defend the innocent in this generations-long war.”

“They have a law on the books about no foreigners can ‘set foot’ upon the planet, but they are welcome as soon as they reach neutral ground. They had a trade deal with Krypton, so they think of me as an ally. Zatanna said she might be able to help get you there without having to put your feet down,” Clark finished

Bruce closed his eyes, sinking slightly in his chair. Dick slipped off the desk and crouched down beside Bruce.

Sighing, Bruce looked at Dick. “You’ve read the briefing. What are the travel conditions like?”

Dick grimaced. “Eighteen hours, no safe houses. A couple of oasis spots for water. Mostly flat ground, mid desert conditions. Zatanna has found several avian species that are sacred to them, one of which seems likely to be ok to transform to. She thought it would be easier to fly than walk, or you can take a nap on Clark’s shoulder.” He smiled softly and added, “She’s trying to make sure that you will still be aware through the whole thing. You shouldn’t miss too much time before hand.” He rubbed his face wearily. “The negotiations should be short, from what I’ve read. It just looks like they want someone else to sit there and tell them stuff they already know.”

Bruce nodded, grimacing faintly. “I will consult with Dr. Thompson on the matter,” he said to the floor between the two other League founders, as Alfred opened the door quietly.

“Miss Prince, Mister Kent, please excuse us. Master Bruce,” Alfred said, nodding to each in turn as he walked toward the circle. He took hold of the handles behind Bruce and pulled backwards, enough to clear the wheels of any feet.

“Bruce,” Clark said, reaching out, “this is an urgent situation, these people -” as Diana agreed with “Clark is right, Bruce -”

“Please feel free to finish your refreshments before departing,” Alfred said cooly, turning the wheelchair around and pushing Bruce out of the room. Dick held the door as they passed by.

“Thanks, Alfred,” he said quietly. Bruce caught his eye for a moment and gave a slight nod of thanks. After closing the heavy wooden door, Dick took a deep breath. “Just as an FYI,” he said, voice tight, turning around to face the two. “Next time you really want to demean and humiliate someone in a mobility device, why not add the classic “don’t  worry, the grown ups know best,” to everything else you just did today.”

Clark took a step back from the venom in Dick’s voice. “Dick, I -”

“Just don’t,” Dick snapped. “You both argued with him about what he can do, and you both trapped him. What the hell were you thinking, Clark? You don’t physically block someone from leaving. And Diana,” he said, turning to the Amazonian. “Nicely done, blocking him from behind, cutting off escape routes. You didn’t even bother to respect his personal space. With the two of you towering over him, I’m sure he felt like a valued team member.”

Dick was shaking with pent up anger. “Neither of you have any idea - no fucking idea - how hard it’s been for him. What giving up the cowl these last 6 months have done to him. Neither of you have been there, or even tried! Where were you when he had to have yet another surgery to fix his leg? Or when the second god-damn surgery went so wrong they ended up taking the whole knee joint out, too? Or have another set of pins put into his working knee? Or deal with the anger and - and the self-destruction when even using a temporary prosthetic turned out horribly?   No one but us were there when he torn the suit to pieces trying to make it work, and damn near set fire to the whole cave. It’s been Alfred and Jason, and me, and dammit, it’s sad that Jason has been more of a comfort than either of you.

“You should have been thankful that he let you in the Manor at all, not patronising him right to his face. Every mission he ever got hurt on, you lectured him on respecting his limitations, and the one time he actually says ‘no, I can’t’ you both do your best to intimidate him into agreeing with you.”

Dick drew himself up, trying to regain his temper. “If that’s all, you can show yourselves out. I’ll pass along any messages to the League at the next meeting.” He pulled the door open and stalked out of the silent room.

---

Three turns around the second floor, once up and down the stairs to the cave, and Dick finally felt calm enough to check on Bruce.

Jason was leaning on the wall on the second landing. “You alright, Big Bird?” he asked quietly. “We could hear you up the stairs.”

Dick winced. “Did he -”

“Nah, just me and Alfie. Bruce is…” Jason shook his head. “He didn’t hear you,” he finished. “I’ve got patrol tonight, Dickhead.” Jason headed back down the stairs.

“Jay, about what I - I’m really glad you’re here.”

Jason flipped him the finger and whistled the rest of the way down.

Dick padded up the stairs to the third floor, blandly staring at the paintings as he went. Up in this section of the manor, the paintings were less formal, interspersed with candid shots in black and white. Here was a shot of Bruce’s great-grandfather, in uniform, one hand blurred where he hadn’t stayed still long enough. Beside it a small painting by a great aunt of her favourite pekinese in a rose garden. Three more down the line, a rare colour photo of Martha Kane, on her second date with Thomas Wayne (whom her father had called ‘a local peasant’). 

The door the Bruce’s room was still ajar, as Alfred slipped out of the room with an empty tray. “Master Richard,” he greeted. “Master Bruce has just settled for a rest.”

“I’ll be quiet, Alfie.” Dick slipped past the older man. He padded softly over to the king sized bed, avoiding the parked wheelchair and end table set to one side. He ignored the occupant of the bed in favour of climbing on top of the covers and stretching out on Bruce’s far side. “Hey,” he whispered, propping his elbow on a pillow.

Bruce turned his head towards his eldest. His eyes were glassy, and slightly unfocused. Alfred has obviously supplemented the afternoon painkillers after being up so long. “Did they leave yet?” he said hoarsely.

“Yeah, they did. I made sure on the security feeds, too.” As Bruce’s eyes closed in relief, Dick noticed the wetness on his eyelashes, and the reddened rims of his eyes. He swallowed. “Can- can I stay here a while?” he asked. “I really don’t want to be by myself right now.”

“Me neither, chum,” the older man whispered, choking slightly on the endearment.

Dick nodded, and reached down for the spare quilt folded in the far corner. He caught Alfred’s nod of thanks as he pulled the blanket up to his shoulders. Scooting closer, he laid his head down just above Bruce’s on the wide pillow.

“My pillow,” Bruce whispered with a huffed laugh.

“Comfy pillow, B,” Dick whispered back as if he were his younger self once again. “You should share it.”

“Cheeky monkey.”

“Chirpy Robin,” he finished the old banter. He closed his eyes and snuggled closer, pretending to fall asleep. His breathing was light, regular and constant. He was very good at pretending to sleep.

Dick was also very good at pretending to not notice the slowly growing wet spot on the pillow underneath his chin, or the subtle shaking of the blankets.

----

Jason was taking apart his helmet for the third time that week. The colourful language that drifted to the elevator made both Alfred’s and Bruce’s eyebrows raise.

Bruce wheeled himself over to the work benches. “What’s the issue?” he asked.

“Goddamn circuitry won’t stay functional after -15 fucking degrees. If I wanted it to cut out every fucking time a snowflake hit it -”

“Language, Master Jason.”

Jason just barely managed to not flip the bird at Alfred’s retreating back.

Bruce picked up a discarded chunk. “It’s not the insulation?”

“No. Same stuff as Dickiebird’s.” Jason picked out another fried chip. “What do you want, Old Man?”

Bruce remained silent, turning the piece over in hands.

Jason sighed, stretched his back out and glared at Bruce. “You haven’t been down here in a month. What’s up?”

“The League wants me to go on a mission for them.”

“Screw that.”

Bruce smiled slightly. “It’s peace talks, Jay.”

Jason sighed, grabbed a chair and straddled it. “And what, they can’t handle it to your satisfaction?”

“The leaders of both sides requested my help.”

Jason looked confused. “They want Batman’s help? Then why - “

Bruce frowned. “Somehow they knew that Dick isn’t the original. They refuse to deal with him.”

Jason huffed a laugh. “So he finally found someone who isn’t charmed off the bat with him.”

Bruce’s lip ticked toward a smile. “Seems so.” He still focused on the piece in his hands, pulling bits of wire insulation off absently.

“So, what’s the issue? You retired. It’s not your problem anymore.”

Bruce frowned. He said slowly, “There are so many beings that would know safety … who’ve never known what peaceful times are.” His stare slid to the floor, emotions flickering over his face.  “… that it’s hard … hard to say ‘no more’.”

Jason nodded, solemn. “It would be. But you’re not responsible for everyone’s pain, Bruce.” He waited for a rebuttal. “You are allowed to say no more. You’ve earned that right.”

Bruce shrugged. “Have I?” He sighed deeply. “I don’t know where that line is.”

Jason shrugged. “Where you want it to be.”  When Bruce didn’t answer, he asked, “You gonna tear that up into confetti, or do I get it back?”

“You forgot to put the antifreeze coating on the wires before you encased them.” Bruce handed the striped wired chunk back. “You should rewire the whole thing.”

“Fuck it,” Jason swore.

WatchTower - Earth Orbit

Barry entered the meeting room only a few seconds before Hal did. He sidestepped the empty chair beside Diana and settled down in his usual spot. “Nightbats not coming?” he asked her quietly.

“It would seem not,” Diana answered sadly.

Arthur and Victor settled down into their spots, and J’onn appeared in his a minute later. Clark sighed softly - still no word, then.

“Alright,” Clark began, moving his tablet forward. “Let’s -”

Without a word, a tall figure had stepped out of the hall. Walking the last empty seat, Nightwing stared at Clark, pulled Batman’s chair out and sat down.

“Nightwing,” Diana greeted warmly. “It’s a pleasure to see you out of Gotham.”

“Always a pleasure, Diana,” he answered smoothly.

“What did Bats say?” Hal jumped in. “It’s been over a week. Supes and I can only do so much negotiating via comms and messages, you know. We need to get these peace talks started for real.”

Nightwing ignored him. Looking only at Clark, he began reciting, “After careful consultations with his primary physician and most recent medical evaluations, Batman has been cleared for this peace mission on the following conditions:

“Long distance travel is to be kept to a minimum. Transportation must be arranged.

“The negotiations cannot be longer than four hours at a time. Rest breaks of over two hours each are required at midday.

“You will be responsible, Superman, for maintaining all treatment and medication schedules, despite the patient’s trait of working until exhaustion and collapse.

“If an attack occurs, your only job is to get Batman to safety. He is to be your primary focus at all times.”

Superman took a deep breath. “Please let him know that his safety and wellbeing will always be at the top of my list,” he said, words tasting like ash in his throat. “I’ll make sure he takes care of himself.”

“When can he come up?” Hal asked, pulling up a calendar. “If he can, the 17th lands on one of their holy days. Would be a good idea to take advantage of that.”

Nightwing paused, and then nodded. “That should be possible,” he said slowly. “Have Zatanna come by the cave the day before to start any spellwork prep that she needs.” He stood up, nodded to the group, and left.

Diana reached out a hand to Clark. “It’s a good start, my friend.”

A good start, but a start that was as slow as molasses. Clark had come to the realization that there was no way that the accident in Gotham had been his fault. Actually, Diana and Barry both had hammered that declaration into his head enough times that his guilt just gave up. It was Hal that had said it best: "Spooky would have done the same damn thing in cowl, and you wouldn't feel like shit about it, so stop beating yourself up."

He still couldn’t figure out why Bruce stopped talking to him after the off-world mission. What had changed between them on that planet? And why would Bruce not talk about it? Clark would be happy with a lecture on the strategic value of his imprisonment. Just something. Anything, really.

Clark gripped her hand, and tried to ignore the butterflies inside him.

Inmadduro Lowyta - Ceremonial Landing of Lowtya

 

The early glow from the red sun lit the night sky above them. Superman, Batman, J’onn Jones and Zatanna had taken a Zeta beam to the landing site not more than ten minutes before. Zatanna had floated herself and Bruce off to one side as Clark began to get ready. Now, Diana was efficiently strapping the padded harness onto Clark’s back and shoulders.

Diana started to buckle it into place from the back. “The straps can be loosened from the back, and the whole top can be adjusted to just pull over your head. I’m sure Bruce will be able to help once you get to the capital.” She cinched the last bucket tighter.

“Why do I need this much padding?” Clark could barely move for the stiffness of the leather. The red tint to the sunlight was already draining him, making him actually feel the weight on his shoulders. It was hardly a welcome sensation. “Zatanna said he was going to be changed into something that flies. Wouldn’t a hawk glove be alright?”

Diana smirked. “He’s agreed to be changed into the worshipped kyssato, a hunting avian. They come in a wide range of sizes and weights. Besides which, Clark, he’s never flown before. I doubt he will be flying the entire way, when he manages to figure out the dynamics.”

Clark nodded, and picked up the pack that contained everything they would both need when they got to the capital. “Alright, but I doubt he’s going to want to be on my shoulder for any longer than he has to be.”

Diana frowned, but said nothing.

--

Zatanna levitated cross legged, looking perplexed as Diana reached her. “Is Batman ready?” Diana called out.

“I -- yes. I don’t think I can fix it anymore than what I’ve done.”

Clark joined them, shifting the pack on his back. “What’s wrong? What needs fixing?”

Zatanna gestured to the left, around a collection of standing stones. “Some of the transformation went a little overboard. Nothing damaging, but from his reaction you’d think I’d turned him into a fish on the desert wastelands. He’s over there, pissed off at me, but the kyssato aren’t known for their calm demeanors. Good luck, Superman, you’re gonna need it.”

Clark huffed, but started walking. “B? We’re all set, it’s almost - shit.”

The kyssato came in several colour schemes, all various tones of browns and tans, but Bruce was none of them. His wings were half way extended, shivering in the pre-dawn light. White and black streaks wove down the long flight feathers, and joined at the shoulder blades with the rosette patterns on his fur. Dextrous front limbs were stretching their claws out, pulling them through the sand in front of him. One muscled rear leg was tucked tightly up, white paw large and fluffy. The other remainder of Bruce’s leg was hidden by what looked like the largest fluffy tail Clark has ever seen on a cat.

That’s what he looked like, Clark realized. He looked like a snow leopard with wings.

“Nice fur, B-” and he choked. Bruce’s whole head swivelled around, revealing not a snout, or whiskers or oval eyes. It was the face of an owl, and a pissed off one at that. Huge gold eyes locked on his, and the ear feathers flattened instantly. A pewter beak opened to reveal pearl white teeth as an unholy shriek sounded. “I - um, wow, Bruce.”

Bruce slowly turned around and sank down into a strange sitting, ready to fly position. His head swivelled at both wings, and he snapped at them, as if trying to get them to fold up and behave themselves.

Clark stepped forward slowly. Bruce’s head came halfway up his chest, and his wings must have been at least six feet across. “Wow. You’re - just- bigger than I thought you’d be. Diana mentioned kyssato get to a wingspan of three to four feet.” He rubbed his neck nervously. “You’re twice that,” he finished awkwardly.

 

“Yeah, like I said, some of it got a little out of hand. I’m not even sure that he can understand you, Clark. He’s got a different hearing range, much higher than normal.”

Zatanna drifted forward and produced what looked like two leather bracelets, each with a white spotted black stone set on them. “I’m not even sure he’ll be able to hold a conversation, he might be too changed over, but if he can, these will allow you to communicate psychically. Just watch it,” she added. “There’s not going to be much of a filter; what you think is what he hears, both ways.

“The magical charm on it will keep Bruce in this form until you take it off him. When you do, keep them both on your wrist, Clark, so they stay linked. To reactivate the spell, simply fasten it back around his wrist, and step back.”

Bruce slowly lifted one front leg, retracting his claws as Zatanna knelt in front of him. Tilting his head, he watched avidly as she buckled it beneath his leg feathers. As Clark finished securing his own buckle, the silence was broken with faint echoes of thoughts.

--settles above the wrist carpal joint - keeps from removal, save from extreme extension of the front radius - tight take it off - magical anchor for the necessary duration of the mission - off off off off how to hunt with this thing on off off - necessary--

“Bruce?”

--necessary - what?- busy need to analyse, anticipate forward momentum in conjunction with wind speed - can we just get this over with? I am not hunting anything - not hungry yet - play? - bored --

Zatanna straightened up. “You boys are all set. Better get ready to start walking, sun’s almost up.”

---

The official witnesses were lined up at the beginning of the sacred path. Superman, kyssato on his back and pack hanging from one shoulder, stood beside the monument and looked over the long thin road.

The Martian Manhunter stood behind them and translated as the witnesses started to speak. “Taking nothing of inauthentic build, only that which comes from the hands of the creators themselves, these two walk into enlightenment. They walk toward peace, and away from perjury, prejudice and malice. We welcome the insight they will bring to the leaders as equals in our desire for peace.”

The taller of the witnesses stepped forward and offered Superman a metal coin on a woven tie.

“To be given to the council of peace upon your arrival,” J’onn translated. “Take this and go forward as the sun kisses the ground with life.”

Superman nodded, taking the coin and slipping it into his pack. Turning, he shared a look with the martian before passing the monument and stepping onto the path as the sun cleared the horizon, Batman tucked tightly against his shoulder.

The red tinted sun shone warmly down on the path. The temperature reminded him of fine spring days after planting, when you could work without dying of thirst, but feel the strain in your muscles from a good day’s work.

“Do - um, do you wanna try flying?” Clark ventured after an hour of restless silent cat-bird on his back. Clark could barely carry the kyssato on one arm. Bruce kept having to shift and settle on a constant basis.

The red tinted sun was draining him slowly It made him feel an ache he hadn’t felt in years.  His back felt like he was once again 10 years old and helping Pa on the tractor all day, bringing in stones from the fields back to the stream bed. He was absurdly grateful that Diana had insisted on the full shoulder harness.

As it was, Bruce’s front feet were driving their claws into the thick leather, and the back paw claw’s were fully extended to grip one of the shoulder pads. His wings kept flapping, as he tried to balance himself.

-- no --

“It’s just, you are kinda heavy, B.”

-- no -- winds right for take off -- no experience to base educated attempt -- warm air from the grass, faster -- not going to risk injury --

Clark frowned, reaching a hand back to steady Bruce more firmly on his shoulder. “You know, this could be your only time to try it. You’d be wasting a glorious information gathering opportunity.” He smirked and sweetened his argument. “Might lead to improvements in your own gliding gear. And give you a better insight into how to plan for flight capabilities.”

--tt--

“So that’s where Damian got that sound from.”

-- Immaterial data, bipedal flight is different from … this -- warmth, sun light, wings sore -- no -- wanna fly --

Clark smiled. “We’ve got 18 hours of walking ahead of us. Sunrise to sunset. Surely you can try a few times.”

Bruce ignored him, burying his head behind Clark’s. He stayed that way for another fifteen minutes, shifting his clawed feet every. Clark kept to the flat road that lead to the capital, careful of any pits or rises. The scrub brush on either side of the road made following the meandering path easy.

At the same moment Clark heard the faintest rustling sound, Bruce’s head rose up, jerking toward the creature. Ear feathers flattened, his head lowering down Clark’s chest, the kyssato stared at the brush. Clark stopped moving, and whispered, “Bruce?”

--fourteen thirteen tail winds beside closer wait wait wait twelve tail-- The feathered head followed the movement in the plants. -- thirteen twelve...eight tails perfect -- With no warning, Bruce launched from Clark’s shoulder, huge wings beating frantically to catch any air. The powerful rear leg propelled him forward -- on an angle. Long front claws extended as the huge creature crashed into the bushes, three feet west of the sound.

Some version of a mouse scurried halfway across the path, looked back, and ran the rest of the way across.

Clark tried very hard not to laugh. He tried, but he failed as soon as he spotted Bruce on his back, feathers all askew in the thorny bushes, lying half on his back with his front legs pawing uselessly at the air.

“So, that went well.”

Bruce shrieked once, getting a wince from Clark as he went higher in pitch. He started shifting, rolling, and finally got the wings tucked enough to roll over. Panting, he began limping down the path.

Clark let him get about 40 feet before he caught up. “C’mon, Bruce, up you get.” He lifted the squirming avain back up to his shoulder. After scrabbling for a foothold, Bruce settled back down, beak hidden from view.

“I’m sorry I laughed at you. My first flights weren’t pretty either.”

--the man of steel not completely perfect all the time? -- doubt, regret -- your fans must be devastated -- can’t fly, wings useless --

Clark laughed to himself. “Yeah, well, I never claimed to be perfect.”

--tt--

They continued in silence until the midday meal. There was an imposing stone table set beside the road, with a clear fountain running through the cracks. Settling down at a stone mark, Clark pulled out dried meats and vegetables from his pack. Diana had been foresighted enough to slip in a large bowl to pour water into. Hal had said the water would be fine to drink in the short term. With a bit of maneuvering, he started to fill the bowl.

Bruce eagerly downed the water, and Clark refilled it twice from the stream before Bruce started slowing down. He ignored the vegetables laid out, and dry swallowed several strips of jerky before curling around his tail.

-- sleepy, warm -- we’re making good time, aren’t we? -- rock ledge safe, midday heat refreshing --

Clark downed another glass of water. “Why does it feel like I’m having two conversations with you?”

Bruce tilted his head, front paw just touching the ear feathers.  -- what do you mean? -- itchy itchy --

Clark shook his head. “Right now. You asked me what I meant and told me you were itchy at the same time.” Clark shrugged casually. “Don’t you hear me through the bracelet?”

The paw scratched at more feathers before he responded. -- It’s annoying, yes -- itchy itchy -- you’re in stereo -- itchy itchy itchy --I’m not … I don’t hear it -- itchy itchy stupid sand -- Zatanna said I’d be fine like this -- Bruce shifted uneasily. -- If that’s the case, this could affect everything -- nervous, storm coming? -- I need… it can’t affect my mind -- danger where is it? -- I need my brain, it’s all that I’ve got left -- danger danger ready fly?--

The wing feathers were starting to get puffed up in agitation as Bruce’s head started to dark back and forth. The avian side of him was convinced that something was nearby. It just needed to find it. Bruce, however, sounded like the mental equivalent of hyperventilating. -- no, she promised, she’s always been -- danger, fly fly fly -- I can’t give this up, please -- attack? fly? -- not my mind, intelligence --

Clark quickly reached over. Holding the beaked face still, he said, “It’s ok, Bruce. You’re still you, I’m sure it will wear off when the spell is released.”

-- lower communication, faulting mental screening -- danger danger somewhere -- she said that it wouldn’t affect my mind, she promised -- danger danger flee -- what use am I if even my mind is damaged -- retreat retreat retreat --

“Bruce, please, Bruce listen to me. You’re fine. It’s only a side effect of the magic.”

--useless, burden, no point failed failed failed -- always falling, no winds, nestmates gone --  can’t be this brok - useless -- danger must flee!!!--

Clark started to stroke the feathers down around his eyes. “Bruce, stay with me, don’t fly away, you’re ok. It will wear off, Z promised.” The kyssato squirmed, but didn’t use full strength. Some part of him was slowly calming down again.

-- shouldn’t have come -- useless -- you can finish these talks on your own, don’t need me to distract from peaceful missions -- too old, burden --

“You are not a burden, you’re not useless, and you’re not backing out,” Clark ordered. “The mission comes first, remember?”

-- yes -- the softest whisper caressing Clark’s mind.

“Just breathe, relax, this will be fine when we get there. You’re going to be fine. Once you don’t have feathers, you’ll be good. Z promised, remember?”

--yes-- The kyssato started to slump to the ground, panting.

Clark guided the head to rest on the pack. “That’s it, just breathe. I know, it’s overwhelming. But we’ll fix this, I promise.”

--tired--

“We can rest here for about an hour. We’re ahead of schedule,” Clark said, checking the sun placement in the south. He continued smoothing the feathers as the large eyes began to close. “Just rest,” he murmured.

--

The UV lamps were still on high as Clark awoke. Blinking around the grit in his eyes, he groaned. "Felt like someone dropped a milk truck on me," he muttered.

" At least 40 tonnes of rubble, by my estimate," Bruce said from beside him.

Clark huffed a laugh. "You try it with a bullet made out of kryptonite in your leg, and you'll see my point." he looked over at his companion. "Everyone else ok?"

Bruce nodded. "Just you and Barry's blood sugar levels." He raised a hand and started to slowly stroke his face. "Just get some rest."

Clark sighed. "Not like I can say no," he said, a yawn cracking through the last word. "Always wondered why that worked," he murmured.

"C fibre nerves transmit the recording of pleasure if stimulated in four second segments."

Clark huffed another laugh. "Only you, Bruce, would know the answer to that." Letting his eyes close, he leaned into the touch. "Still feels nice, B."

--

Capital of Inmadduro Lowyta

As they passed under the great stone arch, a deep voice called out, “Welcome, weary travellers.”

“Well met, Ambassador,” Superman answered, holding the coin in his left hand. “I bring this token of peace in these troubled times.”

-- after 18 hours of walking through heat - too warm, need winds, cool off - so cliche - hot, tired, want dinner hunt? - Can it get anymore predictable? --

“We await your words of enlightenment,” the Ambassador finished, unaware of Bruce’s exhausted grumblings. Dropping the coin into an ornate bowl, he ushered them forward. “I’m sure you are both exhausted from your travels. Come this way, I will show you to the suite of rooms for guests.” Two younger members of staff took up Clark’s pack and followed behind them. Bruce remained on his shoulder after hissing at the other helper.

-- hands off -- threat? Youngling, assess -- I’m not luggage --

They walked on through the darkening streets, and past what looked like a marketplace. Superman could hear the whispers from around them, as beings fell back from the group.

“My pardon,” the ambassador said softly as they continued. “Your companion is a rare sight these days, and it has been many years since one as large has been seen. The people are understandably enraptured.”

-- can’t escape being stared at here, either. Just once would like to walk down a street without being stared at --

The words were grumbled in Clark’s mind, and Clark had to raise a hand and stroke the closest paw. “Almost there, B,” he whispered soothingly.

Even as he lowered his hand, the Ambassador stopped at a gate, bowing. “Your residence, honoured guests. None shall enter but those who bring us peace. The heralds will call for you tomorrow for the talks. Until tomorrow, gentle beings.”

Superman pushed the gates open and walked up the well-tended path. Different plants lined the route to the main doors and Clark wished that he could take pictures for Ma. She’d love the design of the place.

Bruce, after a shaking of limbs, slowly jumped to the ground and slipped into the main room. As soon as the large exterior doors closed, Bruce started biting at the enchanted bracelet around his foreleg. Odd growling chirps came from him as he shifted back and forth, shaking both the offending leather and the whole leg at the same time. Clark settled the pack down by the seating area and watched at Bruce began to circle slowly, trying to reach, bite, and remove the bracelet.

“B, let me do that.”

A shriek and a hiss followed that request.

“Zatanna charmed it to only be removed by Kryptonian hands, so unless you’ve stashed Kara in your feathers, you need me to take it off.” Clark crouched down in front of him.

After a moment, Bruce slowly offered his leg, beak clicking softly, like he was grumbling in bird-speak.

Two buckles slipped out, and the collar was off. Clark hastily buckled it around his own wrist, next to the one he already wore, as it began to shrink to fit him. “Well, that answers that question,” Clark muttered. He looked up to see the avain sink to the floor, head bowed and wings shaking. “B?”

Within moments, the fur and feathers were gone, replaced with the nomex bodysuit that Bruce wore under his armour. The tufts of feathers had shifted to become the greying hair of the vigilante. Bruce himself half lay on the carpet, arms shaking as they tried to hold him up. With a groan, Bruce slumped to the floor, eyes closed.

“Bruce?” Clark reached forward. “Is - what’s wrong?”

Bruce didn’t open his eyes. “ s’tired,” he whispered. “Just - give me a moment. It will pass.” His skin was both sheet white and clammy, and Clark could see the beads of sweat that were collecting at his temple.

Clark swore softly. “You’re exhausted and dehydrated. C’mon, let’s get you onto the bed.”

Bruce shook his head, but offered no resistance as Clark slipped his arms under him. “Tired,” he murmured. “Been a while.”

Clark hummed as he used his hip to open the door to the resting area. “Alfred warned me you never did do well with magic.” The bed was already turned down. As he settled Bruce down onto the much softer surface, he heard Bruce murmur.

“...awhile since out so long....”

Clark hummed as he pulled a small travel case from his pack. “We’ve got 15 hours until talks begin, so you should get some sleep--” he stopped as Bruce’s soft snores reached him. For a moment, all he could see was Bruce’s bed, stacked with pillows. He was laying against them, eyes heavy. An Alfred special concoction would be flowing through his veins, as Clark talked about nothing and everything that would lull the ever vigilant Bat to sleep. There would be soft words, and long pauses, maybe a good night kiss. With a sigh, he pulled himself away from the memory.

 “Hey,” he said, poking Bruce, “pills, water, then sleep. Alfred’s orders.”

Bruce grumbled, but propped himself up enough to accept the small container of pills and a glass of water. His hands shook as he drank the last of the water, and passed the glass back. “Satisfied?” he muttered, collapsing back onto the pillow.

“Mostly.” Clark pulled the spare blanket from the foot of the bed and draped it over him. “I’ll wake you up in 10 hours to prepare.”

“Six.”

“Ten.”

“Nine,” Bruce slurred, pills already pulling him down into slumber.

“Eight,” Clark said. He waited for the next bargain, but after a few murmured sounds, Bruce was snoring softly. “Give or take,” he added, closing the door.

___

The next morning, Bruce was already sitting at the small table when Clark came out. He was wearing the suit, sans cowl, as he scanned through a notebook. “Good morning,” Clark said as he walked over the bowl of food left out by their hosts.

“Hrm.”

Clark ignored his grunt in favour of looking Bruce’s new suit over. Lighter fabric and hardly any kevlar to be seen, the suit almost looked like it was supposed to be the casual version of the night version. The cape looked different, draped over the back of the chair, but Clark wasn’t sure. It certainly wasn’t heavy glider that he prefered.

“New suit, Batman?”

Bruce looked down as the suit and then back at the log. “Lighter weave, less defensive capabilities, easier movement, greater lumbar support, reinforced gauntlets for grip and manual dexterity.” Each attribute sounded like a part of list he’d memorized.

“I’ll keep that in mind if there’s any trouble.”

Another grunt, and Batman flipped the page.

“Speaking of which, how are you doing?”

Total silence met his question mid-air and swallowed it.

Clark settled down opposite him, and picked up another notebook. “Which part are you dealing with?” he asked, resigned to not getting a personal response.

“Trade routes during the Jalarka meteor showers,” Batman replied, monotone.

Clark nodded. “I’ve got an idea on that one,” he began.

____

Superman adjusted his cape for the fourth time, and finally pushed open the door to the main rooms. His stomach twisted like it was his fourth grade poem recital all over again. He knew that it wasn't the talks that were making him nervous- he felt that there was nothing else that he could do to prepare for those. If he were being honest, which his Ma had always told him to be, it was Bruce. Working beside Bruce again stripped him of his assurance that this was going to go to plan.

"Batman, are you ready?" he called out, looking around the barren living quarters.

Bruce's door opened. "Let's get this over with," he growled. With two faint clicks, he stepped through the door. The pair of elbow crutches gleamed subtly in the low light, high polished wood stained nearly black. Steel tips provided grip on the smooth floor. 

"Are the Lowytian ambassadors going to be alright with those?" Superman asked, gesturing to the crutches. "They were rather specific about technology."

Batman moved past him and out the main doors. "They are hand crafted and forged in traditional methods of British woodturning. The feet are a steel alloy that are similarly hand forged. Nightwing ensured that they met with the standards."

Superman nodded. "Is that the same wood that Tim uses for his staff?" He followed behind as they made their way to the main road.

"Allocasuarina luehmannii," Batman said.

The hardest wood that's available. “Good choice."

Batman grunted, as the ambassador's aides appeared, ready to lead them to the conference rooms.

----

Superman stretched outside the Hall, pulling kinks out of his back. The morning had gone smoothly enough. The Lowytians were happy to have someone at the talks, and happy that they were neutral to both sides. He gathered that they’d tried to use their own ambassadors. It hadn’t gone well.

Actually, the second continent war was the result.

So really, Clark mused, they were doing great. No war, no blood shed in the room, and nothing broken. Only calmly discussing point after point. Batman a dark shadow at his side, all the journals spread out with his notes. He’d have every article ready for Clark, every reference to past treaties at hand. In short, the first four hours had run as smoothly as possible.

So why was he so irritated at Bruce?

Superman continued his walk around the grounds, stretching out sore leg muscles. No one could say that Bruce did anything wrong. He was helpful in the way Google was helpful, Clark realized sadly. A fountain of knowledge, ready to be accessed, but with no personality. None of the brilliance of a tactician. No intuitive leaps, no low words of command. Actually, Clark realized, Batman had said only 18 words in the whole morning. And that included introducing himself.

He’d just spent four hours with a Batman Robot.

Clark sighed, and returned to the Hall for lunch.

----

The sun was just past its zenith when Clark started to look for Bruce. He hadn’t gone to their suite, as Clark had expected, for the midday meal and rest. He hadn’t been in the dining hall, either, continuing his work with a half eaten plate forgotten beside him. With a few discrete questions, two aides directed him toward the meditation gardens.

As he reached the entrance to the tranquil space, soft voices caught his attention. They were whispering encouragements, a soft litany of, “easy, yes, slowly now, shift towards, yes, lean on us…”

Bruce. Clark knew that it was his frie… companion that they were talking to. Sure enough, making his slow way across the span of the walkway, Bruce leaned on his elbow crutches, panting in the midday heat. His shoulders sagged, and his arms were trembling under his cape. Two more aides from the conference flanked him, careful to keep their long robes from tangling in the crutches. Even as Clark opened his mouth to call out, Bruce’s dark form shuddered once and began to fall to the ground.

The aides caught him just as Clark ran forward. “Hush, yes, good,” they murmured. “Much farther, very good, progress,” in their broken common language.

“Batman!” Clark crouched down. “What - are you ok?”

Batman’s eyes were closed, his face pasty white beneath the cowl. “Superman,” he said softly.

“What happened?”

The aides looked at each other, and one spoke. “The gravity of the talks overwhelmed the honourable Batman,” one said slowly, in the diplomatic speech patterns. “We assisted in aiding in returning to his quarters.”

Superman frowned: more likely, he thought, Bruce had skipped lunch and his painkillers. “Thank you,” he said aloud, “for your assistance. I’m sure my companion is very grateful for your aid. Please, allow me to assist him to his suite. Perhaps you could carry his staves,” he added, remembering there was no word for crutch in their language.

Batman didn’t make eye contact as Superman scooped him into a bridal carry and began walking. He made no comment as they walked the back paths of the gardens into the ambassador’s garden space. With a careful bow, they left the crutches at the edge of the property, and departed.

Clark pushed the door open with his hip and settled Bruce on the lounge in the main room. He slipped back out, fetched the walking aids, and came back inside.

Bruce was hunched forward, hands clenching in the fabric of his cape. Sweat was dripping off his face, twisting through the grimace of pain, and onto his lap.

“Bruce? What’s wrong?” Clark crouched in front of him.

Bruce shook his head, and attempted to curl tighter into himself.

Clark sighed, suddenly bone weary. “You didn’t take your afternoon dose, did you?”

Bruce shook his head again.

Clark swore under his breath. “Stupid of me to think you’d look after yourself,” he muttered at himself. “Stay here.” He returned with a glass of water and the dose for the afternoon. “Swallow.”

Bruce uncurled enough to take the glass, hands shaking. Clark placed his own hand around his, ignoring the flinch at contact. “Easy,” he said, holding up the small cap of pills. Between the two of them, Bruce swallowed them and drowned them with the rest of the glass.

Clark stood up, and returned the glass to the kitchenette. “Have you eaten anything yet? Those pills settle better if you’ve had at least a snack.” He opened the refrigerated cupboard. “They sent us a platter of their cheese and fruit, that could be something we could...” He trailed off, looking around the now empty room. The door to Bruce’s room was slowly sliding closed.

“...share.”

---

The talks had gone on for four days, and Clark was beginning to think that Hal was right. They only really needed someone to act like a kindergarten teacher and stop squables before they destroyed everything. Every meeting had been the same, the same placating gestures, the same sharing of grievances and the same steady agreement on the treaty arrangements that were already written down. Superman and Batman at the table, shepherding these peoples into a peace they both wanted and both couldn’t accept.

Well, to be fair, Clark thought, watching the door to Bruce’s room close again without a single word being uttered, Superman was the one herding this along. Batman had instead instead done a great job at being his silent shadow for the whole peace talk process.

Now, as the sun set on another productive day, Clark stormed into his room. He tried to slam his own room’s door, despite the auto-closing mechanism. Pacing back and forth in the tiny room, he fought to get his temper under control. Damnit, he thought he was over this. It was eight months ago. It’s obviously over between them. But goddamnit, he wished that Bruce would at least look him in the face. He was always polite, professional, and to anyone else, it would look like a fine working relationship.

Bruce never made eye contact. Never argued with him. Never gave a dissenting opinion in meetings. Even before the accident on Gotham, he’d stayed away from Clark, save for three JL meetings. And his body language - Clark covered his eyes, standing in the middle of the room. Neutral, almost fearful at times - shoulders tensed under armour, poised to move out his range at a moment’s notice. If Superman raised his voice, there had been a few times that he’d actually flinched. Like Batman was expecting to be attacked in his own meeting.

 

Clark slumped onto his bed. There was just no way around it - Bruce hated him. He must still believe that he killed those people. Despite the proof, despite his protestations, despite everything - Batman thought he was a killer. A Murderer. A criminal worth no more respect than any other of Gotham’s rogues.

He gave himself a few minutes to compose himself. Breathing in the stillness, breathing out the frustration, just like Ma had taught him years and years ago. Hold onto it for a minute, hun, she’d said. It’s okay to be frustrated, we all get it, but you gotta let it out afterwards. So shove it out through that big nose of yours.

Mind settling, he reached for his pack, meaning to pull out the last batch of files they'd brought with them. If all went well, the talks and signing ceremony would be in two more days, and then they could go home. His fingers found the edge of an envelope, and he tugged it free.

 

Dick had slipped the file into his pile of documents, and told him to read it after the majority of the talks were done. Despite being a fully grown man with his own city to look after and superheros to train, he still reminded Clark of a gangly teenager, still enthralled with everything about being a hero.

“Trust me,” he’d said, sliding the sealed envelope into the pile. “Read it before you get back to the beam site. You really need to read it, because apparently, talking about stuff is fatal to Gothamites.”

Shrugging, he’d slipped it into his pack and frankly forgotten about it. Now, as the sun set outside his window, he pulled the white envelope out and placed it on the desk in front of him. Dick’s handwriting was across the top, a simple “Clark’s copy” giving no clue as to the contents. He slipped the seal off, and pulled out a sheaf of bound papers.

The trial of Kal-El of Krypton and Earth, date 58393.2638 in our glorious war against the void.

Testimonials and statements

Clark almost burned it right then and there. He’d read the court documents already, he knew what they said. And who didn’t have anything to say in the matter at all, apparently. He fanned the pages, more to do something with his hands than what he wanted to do.

Something at the back caught his eye. Whole pages of blacked out text. Skimming back to the beginning of the new section, he found the title page.

Redacted testimonial of Batman of Gotham, Earth, 58394.2991 in our glorious war against the void.

“Why…” he trailed off, flipping to the next page.

Court persidings

Judge 215: It has been brought to the court’s attention that you have a romantic attachment to the one called Kal-El. A security recording of your visit was submitted, showing close, non platonic contact was initiated by both parties. The law of Hiro, case 27131 clearly states that no witness shall come forth whom is in relations with the accused. The witness must be examined regarding this new information.

Batman: (Crystal of Laasva placed in left open palm).

Judge 215: Are you in a relationship with the alien being Kal-El?

Batman: He is my partner in the Justice League.

(CoL shows no falsehood)

Judge 215: Are you currently in an intimate relationship with the alien being Kal-El?

Batman: We are not currently in an intimate relationship.

(CoL shows mild level of deceit)

Judge 215: Are you in a non-platonic, non-work related relationship with the alien being Kal-El?

Batman: --

(CoL shows deceit)

Judge 215: You are commanded to answer, Batman of Gotham. The Crystal of Hytarous will force the answer from you should you choose to be unwilling.

Batman: --

(CoL shows deceit)

Judge 215: Let it be known that the holy magic of the Crystal shall be invoked. (activates CoL)

Batman: We are -- currently -- no.

(CoL shows deceit)

Judge 215: Answer the question. Are you in a non-platonic, non-work related relationship with the alien being Kal-El? You will answer truthfully.

Batman: Yes. We are currently in a non-platonic relationship.

(CoL shows no falsehood)

Judge 215: Is this a romantic relationship? You will answer.

Batman: Yes.

(CoL shows no falsehood)

Judge 215: (deactivates CoL) Let the official record show that due to the conflict of relations with the accused, all testimony from the being known as Batman of Gotham, Earth, are to be redacted from all records, and not to be given to the ruling council for their perusal for their verdict.

Judge 215: Batman of Gotham, Earth, you are remanded to custody for your deception in this trial.

Clark drew a slow, rattling breath as the paper fell from nerveless fingers. Redacted, at least 45 pages of testimony, by his estimate. Pulled out of the trial before they had even brought Clark in for questioning. Being held for, basically, contempt of court, while Clark was on the stand.

“Why..” he whispered to the empty room. “Why not tell me, Bruce?”

The dark sky gave no answers.

___

Four days and two hours before dawn, a soft gong was struck just outside the garden wall. Clark, who hadn't actually slept that night, turned on the main light.  Stretching out the kinks in his back, Clark looked out into the darkness. The talks were done. Batman and Superman had saved the day. Peace in the valley. He snorted at his own whimsy.

Clark had packed up all the paper documents by the time Bruce came out. The second half of the pack was awkwardly slung over his shoulder. With careful precision, he moved the crutches forward, but he wavered, leaning heavily on the door frame. He stayed there, eyes closed. After a few breathes he pulled himself back up, and continued toward the center of the room.

Bruce shuffled the crutches in his hands, and managed to drop the pack near Clark's without falling over.

"Everything ready?" Clark asked, replacing the water flasks.

"Momentarily." He sunk onto the sofa area, and with two clicks, collapsed one crutch. Three more clicks, and the second was equally compacted.

"Have to say, that's mighty convenient. Must make storage on planes easier."

Bruce nodded, stuffing them into the bag with the rest of his armor. "Indeed."

Clark fastened the packs back together as Bruce watched. "Just need to put the harness back on. Can you help with tightening the straps?"

Bruce nodded distractedly. Between the two of them, they managed to get everything settled just as the next hour gong sounded off. Clark fidgeted with the bracelet, a half grimace on his face. "I'm sorry, but we need to get the process started."

Bruce huffed, but nodded. He didn't move, though.

Clark knelt in front of him. "Only 18 hours, B. We can probably make it in 14 if we push."

"I know."

"It's the dual mind thing, isn't it?"

Bruce nodded, fingers tightening. "But it's not permanent," he murmured.

"Yep. And you can sleep the effects off in the Watchtower in peace."

With a shudder that he couldn't hide, Bruce nodded. "It's easier to just start on the floor," he said, looking uncomfortable. "Could you -"

Clark nodded, and slipped an arm around him. "No problem." As gently as he could, he eased Bruce down onto the middle of the main room carpet. He slipped the bracelet from his own wrist. He locked it around Bruce's. Scrabbling back, the air pricked like tiny fire sparklers on his skin. 

Bruce's whole body stiffened. Panting, he threw his head back as the magic pulsed through him. A guttural scream; his bones visibly moved. Another wash of fire-air, and Clark couldn't properly see Bruce anymore. A half cry, half screech assaulted his ears. Clark threw his hands up  as the last pulse of fluorescent magic threw him back into the sofa. 

"B?" Clark called, coughing a little on the air.

-- hurts hurts hurts hurts hurts --

Clark moved closer, heedless of the black spots in his vision. "You with me, Bruce?"

-- hurts hurts -- nest hide -- hurts -- hide hurts hide nest -- hate magic hate it so much --

The black and white kyssato was twisted on the floor, wings half extended. His tail was curled around his body, and the large paws had all claws extended. The sharp beak was half open, panting onto Clark's hand.

"It'll pass, Bruce. Just breathe."

-- everything passes -- hurts hurts -- or get worse -- hurts hurts wings stiff -- or it kills you --

"That's the spirit."

Bruce hissed weakly at him, but made no reply. Clark ignored the hiss. Bruce grumbled no matter the form. Soon enough, Bruce lifted his head and attempted to sit up.

--let’s get this over with -- hurt hurt -- ceremony again? -- stiff, feathers hurt, claws hurt teeth hurt --

Clark hoisted the large pack up. “Alright, let’s go.” Bruce crawled up onto the sofa and managed the short hop onto Clark’s outstretched arm.

--sorry-- thin, no feathers, naked thing -- can’t retract the claws that well -- cold --

Clark laughed. “Not today, I won’t be. Not after carrying you around all day.” Clark winced - that had not come out right.

-- tt --

The morning dawn gong rang outside, and they stepped out to meet the ambassadors.

---

The morning had passed smoothly enough. The locals had, once again, stared and pointed at the kyssato. Bruce grumbled into his feathers again. For the most part, Clark felt relaxed this time. These people would, hopefully, never know war again. And he’d been a part of that. That was something to be proud of.

He’d spent the night debating the Polcaecian trial, and his imprisonment. The pros of talking to Bruce versus the pros of leaving it alone. Did he want to even try again with Bruce? Well, that had been an easy decision - his heart had broken anew at the thought of saying goodbye again. Check mark beside one love struck fool.

A fool that had jumped to conclusions, and let Bruce’s silence damn him.

Clark wasn’t one to shy away from something just because it hurt. His Ma had taught him better than that. She’s also taught him that walking and talking often got more results than sitting around staring at the fields.

The afternoon sun was settled happily at shoulder height before Clark decided to broach the subject. Bruce was settled mostly on one shoulder, looking around more as a habit than anything else. He’d given up walking on the hot ground for the most part, content to purr quietly to himself.   Clark fiddled with the arm bracelet that connected them psychically before taking a deep breathe. “Why didn't you tell me?”

--need more information than that -- sun’s warm, sleepy -- topics are always a good idea --

“Dick gave me a copy of the trial.” Clark paused for a moment and then continued. “Why didn't you tell me that you did testify?” He kept walking, not turning to look at his companion. If he looked, if he saw anything on the kyssato’s that resembled Bruce right now, he didn’t think he’d have the nerve to continue, to get to the bottom of this whole mess that was the last year.

 

Bruce stilled, talons gripping his shoulder tightly. Clark could feel that he’d stopped breathing, head swiveled forward. Every muscle was tensing.

“Bruce, there were - dammit - three times I accused you of not caring - I yelled at you for not defending me in court! Why didn't you say something before, why did you just stay quiet and not answer?” He couldn’t help the hurt tone leaching into his voice. He kept walking, not turning to look at his companion.

Clark had only a moment’s notice from tensing limbs before Bruce was launching from his shoulders. Large wings and uncoordinated limbs looking like they were scrambling for purchase in the air. He could hear over the bond that they shared a litany of -- no no no no no -- as he tried to gain air space.

Clark lunged forward and caught the last few inches of Bruce’s tail. “No, you're not flying off on me, Bruce. We need to talk about this!”

-- no -- must fly must flee danger danger must fly -- there's nothing to discuss -- let me go --

Clark barked a short, harsh laugh. “There is plenty to discuss! I'm not letting you fly off and ignore this. I saw the other documents from the earlier parts of the trial. I read the judge’s ruling, that they took out all your testimony!”

 

Bruce, who has been struggling this whole time trying to free his tail suddenly landed heavily on the ground. His wings ruffled toward his body and Clark let him get balanced again before talking. “I saw the 45 pages of redacted testimony. I saw the meeting between you and the judge where they struck everything out. Why didn't you tell me?” he pleaded.

-- no -- defend, threat, defend, go -- no I am not, I will not discuss this --

The kyssato began to skitter sideways, fur and feathers puffing up. Even his tail look three times wider than it usually was. He started clicking his beak, snapping at the 10 feet of distance between them. He glared at Clark the whole time, crab walking back and forth, a low hissing growl coming from his throat.

“Bruce, stop it! You look like I'm going to hit you with a broom for stealing cream.”

-- no, I can’t I can’t -- stay away -- no more! -- stay away, not safe, not safe --

 

“What’s not safe, Bruce? You know I’d never hurt you,” he whispered forlornly.

-- not safe with me, not safe, no more, no more --

Clark caught the distinct feeling of self-hatred in Bruce's tone. “Why won't you talk about this, Bruce? I don't understand. Why would you let me yell at you and break everything up when the truth made so much more sense!”

-- no, no, not right, no, horrible mistake, no, enough Clark, leave it, leave it -- hide hide hide --

Clark threw his hands up in exasperation, stalking away and back towards their goal. “God dammit, Bruce, what was this horrible mistake?! The only mistake I see here is not talking to me!”

-- my fault! My fault! -- defend, threat, defend, -- 

That stopped Clark in his tracks. “How on Earth do you figure--”

-- my fault! my emotions, my self delusions, safer if no emotions, get everything loved killed taken -- fly, hide fly go go !! --  The giant wings spread again, trying to catch a breeze.

Clark turned to look over his shoulder at the panting avain, stunned. “How can you -- what is your fault? You’ve done nothing wrong.” He turned around, facing him. “You did everything you could, except tell me afterwards.”

The giant wings folded downwards, as the whole body of the kyssato slumped to the ground. --no, my fault, my feelings, if I’d been silent, you would have been safe -- tired, so tired -- if you’d been killed, hurt, it’s my fault, my lack of control -- tired, hurts so much --

Clark sank to his knees beside Bruce, running a hand softly down the feathered head, tracing the dividing swirls between fur and feathers. “Because you kissed me a year ago, it’s your fault I got framed for being a mass murder? Bruce, that, that doesn’t make any sense. That’s like saying someone got shot because they were wearing a red shirt that reminded their shooter of their mother. That wasn’t their fault, and this wasn’t yours.”

-- self control leads to safety, self control leads to control, control leads to no surprises, no heartbreak, no death -- hurts hurt hurts --

Clark lowered his head, foreheads touching. “Oh Bruce, I wish the world worked that way. You have no idea how much I wish that, but you know that’s not life, that’s not real.”

-- my world works that way --

Clark shook his head. “No, Bruce, you… you...bird-brain.”

-- every time I love someone -- nest mate, family -- they leave, they get hurt -- anguish, cublets, gone gone gone -- I bring nothing but misery -- blood everywhere,

 cublet still too still gone gone gone --

Clark held onto the trembling body. "No, that's not your fault. It's cruel and heartbreaking, but Bruce - it's not your fault." Bruce buried his beak as Clark continued. "And you're wrong. Not everyone leaves. Alfred is still here, and Dick, and I'm here, Bruce. I'm not going anywhere."

-- the world almost lost you because of my stupid emotions -- nest mate still, blood everywhere, no light -- it's always best to stay away -- anguish hide hide --  and Alfred has to stay --

Clark barked a laugh. "Alfred does not have to do anything. He'd rat you out to Wikileaks and retire to some British isle he owns."

-- French riviera --

Clark kept laughing. "He's already got it all planned, huh?"

-- it's a threat he used to use -- affection, warmth -- he's even bought the property -- warmth sun perches to hide -- it's nice --

Clark had to smile at that. Of course Alfred would have it all worked out. Bruce learned more than he let on from the older man. Unfortunately, he also learned how to shove his emotions deep underground, pour cement over them, and then build a skyscraper over top. Clark sighed, leaning back against the rock outcropping. He wore half his heart on his sleeve, and watched it bleed every day.

"I thought you hated me, Bruce," he said, swallowing. "I thought - you thought I was a monster. Like some dark lord who loved other's pain. Like I'd just been hiding it all

along."

Bruce pulled away to face him. He tilted his head to see Clark. -- I'm the monster, Clark, never you --

Clark scowled; quick as light, he whacked Bruce's beak hard enough to bring tears to the avian eyes. "Don't call yourself that."

-- it's true -- fight fight loose hurt -- I bring fear and pain to all those I touch -- darkness, hidden safe --

Clark shook his head exasperatedly. “You know that’s not true.  You bring hope and inspiration to Gotham and her people.”

-- it’s true -- hide hide no one find -- then why did my cublets have to suffer -- my Robins, my fault -- hide nest away, sorrow, never find them -- The large wings shifted, almost completely covering his back. -- better away, keep away from me -- sorrow sorrow regret -- stay away and everything is fine --  

“Bruce, you’re not some … some angel of death, you know. People do not stay safe because you push them away.”

-- you would have -- no death -- keep you safe -- sorrow -- regret -- not good at being good -- regret -- I couldn’t help you at the trial -- sorrow -- all I did was make it worse --

“You could have been there,” Clark croaked. “Just knowing you didn’t believe them -- that I didn’t --” Clark ruffled a few feathers, choking on the last words. “You weren’t at the trial, Bruce,” he whispered. “I thought that you - you thought I’d killed those people. That I was the monster after all.” His voice roughened. “I didn’t know where you were.”

-- prison, for lying -- cold, dark space, no wind -- they wouldn’t let me out until after the sentencing --

Clark nodded, but buried his face into the soft fur. “Contempt of court, I read about it.”

--the first time--

Clark raised his head. “What?”

--I escaped, trying to tell Lantern and Diana about the testimony -- break the box felt good to fly -- and I was caught. -- stupid box, stupid room, no light, no air, no wind --

“Bruce, what is it that you always tell me? Use your brain, not your fists? What happened then?”

-- 31 days solitary confinement -- no light -- enforced --

Clark did some mental math and sat back. “I was in the Phantom zone for 34 days, so you were locked up for that whole time?” he sighed. “You must have had more than enough time to twist everything into self blame and torture yourself with it.”

-- in between the drug, yes --

“Drugs?” When Bruce bowed his head, as if expecting his beak to be given another whack, Clark repeated. “What drugs? Oh, sweet lord - they drugged you to keep you in solitary, didn’t they?”

-- hallucinogens, mostly -- scary dreamtime -- extends the prison sentence without undue stress on the legal system -- dreams in dreams, no waking -- never sure what happened and what didn’t -- still dreaming of it, no light --

Clark sighed. “That’s what Diana meant, when I came back. You were still having hallucinations.”

-- Alfred is too protective -- dreamtime forever -- I knew that the voices weren’t real -- chatter chatter shadows chatter -- I could have continued in the rescue--

“Bird brain.” Clark laughed, burying his face in the thick fur.

---

Clark packed up the rest of the supplies. "Hey," he called, " are you about ready to head out?"

-- dirty, sticky, clean first -- no--

Clark looked over at Bruce. He'd twisted his head around and under the small stream of water, washing with one paw the edge of his beak. "Want a hand? You know, from someone with thumbs?"

--are you this nasty to the cats you rescue from tree tops? -- sticky, go away--

Clark pulled a spare handkerchief from his pack. "C'mere, before you soak your feathers."

Grumbling, Bruce untwisted and let Clark scrub off the offending sap. It took a few runs with the cloth before it started to peel away from the steel grey beak. The feathers under his hand felt soft, and slightly damp. Sliding the cloth over the bristle feathers at the edge of his beak, he smiled as the wide eyes closed in contentment. After a few more strokes, Clark could have sworn he heard the start of a trilling purr.

"What do they feel like, your feathers?" he asked quietly.

-- stiff and soft at the same time -- like three day stumble, that feels every breeze, but keeps you warm -- feel the breeze, the air, constant motion -- don't stop -- contentment, safety --

Clark smiled. "Would you like a sun beam to nap in for a bit?" He laughed as Bruce's beak snapped close to his fingers. "Alright, I'm sorry, but I just had to ask."

The kyssato fluffed up the head feathers, ears widening, and then shook the excess drops off.

Clark slung the padded harness onto his back once more. "I'll be glad when I don't have to wear this thing anymore. It feels like I'm wearing half your armour, B."

Bruce tilted his head, watching him struggle with the final buckles. --I'd help, but as you pointed out, I'm not someone with thumbs -- looks heavy, no wonder you don't fly --

Clark smiled. "It is heavy. No wonder your shoulders hurt after missions."

Bruce looked away, wings opening and closing slowly. -- we've made good time -- sun four wings above the horizon -- and we don't have to keep to the 18 hour limit, do we? -- warm air is fading --

Clark nodded. "Yeah, we can take as long as we like. Not sure how we'd shorten the trip anymore."

-- you could walk faster if you weren't carrying me --

Clark looked up sharply. "What are you thinking?”The fur on the kyssato's back started to stand on edge. --you are feeling the effects of the red sun -- warmth -- it's been over a fortnight, you're weaker --

"That's not what I meant."

-- I could attempt to glide, the winds feel warm enough -- calm winds, warmth, kiss the clouds, fly fly fly fly -- Despite his calm tone, every feather was puffed up. His tail looked like he'd stuck a claw in an electric socket. -- energy efficient travel -- let the winds take us, warmth and winds --

Clark knelt down in front of him. "Hey, shush. It's alright, I don't mind carrying you.”

-- I know -- winds soft -- but you’re right -- let’s go -- I’ll never have another chance -- The kyssato clicked his beak lightly in Clark’s hair. -- Clark -- nestmate, safety warmth -- I … help me? … please --

Clark felt as light as one of Bruce’s feathers. “I’m always here for you, B.”

---

Clark held out a wing, as Bruce's beak fluffed a feather back into place. "Everything looks good, Bruce," he said.

--preparation means likelihood of success increases -- feathers itchy, need to clean -- the more prepared, the less injuries are sustained -- winds fresh, winds brush the world away -- they're not perfect --

"Bruce, you're stalling."

-- kyssato are kept in aviaries, not stalls -- safe nest, warm nest --

Clark spluttered a laugh. "I'm sorry., but Did you just try to make a pun?"

Bruce ignored him and went back to his first wing. Clark watched him preen for another minute, and then sighed. "Okay, enough." He physically pulled Bruce's beak away from his wings and made him look up at Clark. "Your wings are fine, your tail is fine, the wind is fine, the air is fine, you are going to do this."

-- splat --

Damn your dark twisted sense of humour, Clark thought.  He held the beak closed with his hands. "No splat. You'll be fine. I got the hang of it, and I didn't have wings."

-- what was your first time like? --

Clark grimaced. "I wasn't trying to fly so much as just launch straight up, you know. And I got pretty high the first time."

The kyssato tilted his head. -- you fell, didn't you?--

"That's not the point."

--from how high up? -- falling, diving, prey, hungry? no, fly--

Clark rubbed the back of his neck. "I went too high up into the stratosphere. You won't have that problem."

--if I fall, I get to spend time in a body cast. if you fall you get to spend two hours under a lamp. -- nest bound, warmth, mate, safety -- hardly seems worth it.--

Clark laughed a little. "I have faith in you, Bruce. If anyone could do it, you can. Besides, you've got instincts and a partial avian thought process right now. So, stop thinking and do it."

Bruce ruffled both wings and shook the dust from his tail. -- if I fall --

"You won't."

-- if I fall, it's not your fault--

Clark nodded slightly. "same as every time you rappel down a building. It's always been your choice."

-- alright --

Clark picked him up, and lifted him onto the large outcropping of rock. Bruce managed to scramble up the last few rocks to the peak. 

The large wings lifted out, spreading to their full width. It seemed like he was shrugging his shoulders, loosening the joints. Curling them halfway into his body, stretching out, curling back in, and finally shuffling his way forward. 

--alright-- he whispered in Clark's mind. -- wait, wait, wind not right, wait, soon -- Clark moved back, and held his breath.

Somehow, Bruce made himself smaller, crouching on the rock with all three legs tucked tight. His wings were tightly tucked up, almost shaping himself into a triangle. Clark watched with bated breath as he coiled tighter, each muscle group getting ready. The softest gust of wind ruffled his hair.

The kyssato launched from the outcropping, wings cupping large swathes of air, tail fully fanned out. He immediately fell halfway to the ground. But even as Clark lunged forward, a gust of wind, a push with wings, and suddenly he was airborne, pulled five, ten feet into the air.

--winds warm, stretch, freedom--

Clark laughed, a huge grin on his face. "I told you you wouldn't want to pass this up."

--sun two wings low, plenty of wind to soar, no dust, warmth of sunlight -- the huge wings flapped a few more times, and then caught a current. Extended fully, he soared in spirals overhead.

Clark laughed, grinning like an idiot. That tiny speck up there was an ill mannered, grouchy nocturnal vigilante. And he was flying. In broad daylight. In sunlight.

And loving it.

 

Clark could hear the lower conversation running through his mind.  The emotions and feelings and experiences in the moment that his avian mind cherished. There was a playful mantra of -- catch it catch it catch it MINE!-- during a chase of a wind tossed feather. -- up up up drop drop faster faster!! -- sounded loud and clear as the kyssato caught an updraft and dropped out of the spiral. Scattered throughout, brief mentions of happiness, content, warmth and comfort soothed something deep inside Clark.

Clark leaned back against the warm rocks, content to watch Bruce dip and rise on the currents. 

After several minutes, the kyssato's wings started to flap erratically. "Just keep calm," Clark said through the bracelet’s magic.

--how did! Clark! no! no safety lines! must get!!--

Clark held onto the bracelet a little tighter. "Stretch your wings back out, feel the winds. Catch the winds under you again." He watched the frantic wings trying to straighten and flap at the same time. “Bruce, just stop using your brain."

-- god damn it, I can't -- falling, falling, panic -- I can't get coordinated --  The kyssato, only a few hundred feet up now, flapped wildly in complete dichotomy.

"Bruce, use your wings like your cape - the one that you glide with. Just swoop with

them down in circles." Clark shaded his eyes. "Keep your head down, into the wind."

No answer.

"Open your wings, Bruce, keep them open."

Still no answer.

Three hundred more feet, and Clark was seriously worried that Bruce had panicked so

badly he'd passed out. Two hundred feet, he yelled through the mental link. "Bruce, glide, you're going to hit something! Open your wings! Now!"

-- too fast --

"Just like a falcon, B, like you were catching a fish."

-- too fast -- wind wind falling falling -- I'll ... They'll break --

"Just turn your direction, B, don't stop. Just turn one hundred and eighty, you can do that." Clark kept his voice firm. "Bank to the north."

-- too fast, Clark -- falling fast fast fast -- not your fault --

Clark clenched his fists, helpless. "Bruce, don't you dare crash."

-- I can't ... nothing works right... Clark! -- scared scared ground too fast too fast  fast too fast --

Clark growled in frustration and anger - he was not going to let Bruce down again. He swallowed hard, ignoring the kyssato’s panic. “Batman! Four o’clock!” he yelled, both in Bruce’s mind and into the stale air.

Finally, something clicked. Finally, Bruce listened. He listened to Clark, and more importantly, to Superman. Decades of honed reflexes kicked in, wings snapping wide open and cupped the air. The sudden air resistance threw him to the left, faster than a grapple line had through Gotham’s peak.

-- too much -- faster? -- too much -- warm winds, catch an updraft? -- Clark… I … thank you… Clark? -- Bruce’s voice was fading, sounding groggy.

“It’s alright, just turn on your Four again, don’t flap, just circle. Just like going around the church spires.” Clark spoke firmly, keeping the lightest touch of Superman in his voice. The avian listened, and slowly turned the mile-encompassing path to something manageable.

“See? Knew you could do it if your just listened to all parts,” Clark said smiling. “I’ll catch up to you - I think you’re about two miles ahead on the path.”

-- just … just keep banking -- warmth, lazy days -- I can do that -- warm currents tickles feathers -- I have to land this impossible body? --

Clark laughed lowly. “Yeah, but I’m going to help with that. I’ll give you a soft landing.”

The kyssato swung in another lazy arch above Clark, wings silent. Clark shouldered the pack, and began walking. The land in front of him was covered in low rising hills, covered in low growing grass like plants. Clark wondered idly if it was early in their growing season or if this was as high as it got.

-- smooth glide -- warm winds, sun set --

Clark looked up as he reached the peak on the next hillock. "Doing better up there?"

-- glide, wind gliding, hang gliding, it's the same, it's the same, it's the same -- not comfy, soaring? hunting? --

Clark slid down the rocky path. "You want to tell me what happened?"

--not really--

Clark huffed a laugh. "I asked, didn't I." He tried again. "What happened, Bruce?"

-- not comfy, need to land soon --

"Was it something to do with magic, or something to do with you?"

-- ... me... -- tired --  ... it was me... --

The voice in Clark's mind was small, and fragile. It felt cool, like dew on grass. A breeze would blow the words away in a heartbeat. He chose his words carefully, his tone even more. "Your panic attacks are coming back?"

The silence was broken by faint whispers from the kyssato's avian side, looking for an oasis.

"Bruce," Clark said softly. "Alfred told me that you have had them in the past. That they come and go. No one who has lived our type of lives doesn't have them. It's nothing to be hidden away." He drew a deep breath. "I can help, even if it's just someone to yell at."

--not your fault --

"Not yours, either."

-- you set that up -- warmth, nest mate, warmth -- ... you're right -- He banked past Clark again, lower to the ground.  -- they've been getting worse -- tired, tired, water? -- and the medications interacted with the antibiotics and pain meds, ... hard to keep them stable -- tired tired tired need water, coolness --

Clark sighed. "That's a fine bucket of worms." He crested the next hill. "We need to get you grounded. Do you see the next oasis?"

The kyssato swung past his head again, and flapped a few times northward.  -- yes -- water, water, rest -- about .... I... I'm not sure, how far -- tired tired tired rest -- at least three hills --

"I'll follow the path and catch up to you. Circle the meet up place, I'll find you."

Two more hills were conquered quickly, Clark pushing himself. He knew Bruce was exhausted. If he was honest, so was he. But this would be the last break before they reached the meeting place. And then they could go home. The thought invigorated him.

-- there are tents at the oasis -- warning, warning, territory, mine! -- they don't look familiar --

Clark hurried his pace even more. "Try to get a look at them, but stay airborne. I'm about 5 minutes away."

--Lowyatians, but not officials -- mine mine mine -- tradespeople? merchants? plenty of pack animals -- protect water, protect life, mine! -- they've spotted me -- no cover, no clouds -- and it stirred them up, seven or eight figures --

Clark crested the last hill. Half a mile down the slope, four tents were erected by the only water source in the area. "All right, I'll let them know who we are and then I'll help you to land."

-- I'm going higher -- gaining ground attack -- need to put space bet--!! -- alarmalarmalarm!!! flyflyfly!!! --

"Bruce!" Clark yelled, looking for the kyssato.

An inhuman shriek shattered the air.

The yelling from the camp sounded -- no, Clark thought.

No, it couldn’t be.

It sounded familiar.

Like the guys back home in October, bringing home the first ducks.

Like they'd gotten their prize.

A second shriek, and Clark was running forward, pack forgotten on the hill, eyes only on the plummeting kyssato.

Looking only at Bruce's wings, black-tipped white feathers --

-- and the flowing river of crimson blood staining their purity.

 

Inmadduro Lowyta - Ceremonial Landing Zone

The last of the sun’s rays fell over the small ceremonial space. Clark carried the wounded kyssato over the final steps and under the stonework arches. Waiting for them, Zatanna and J’onn stood with blankets and water at the ready. “We were starting to worry you had run into something,” Zatanna said, walking forward. J’onn moved quickly to stand beside Superman.

Clark swayed into J’onn’s waiting arms. “It’s been a long day,” he huffed. Clark sank to his knees in front of them, J’onn helping him settle his friend down. “He passed out an  hour ago, Z.” He brushed back a clump of black feathers on the right wing. “Got caught by a hunting party who thought Bruce would be a great trophy. They got him with an arrow, of all things.”

J’onn probed the wound with gentle fingers. “I was under the impression that kyssato were sacred beings.”

Clark huffed a laugh. “Apparently a tasty one, too. They’ve been hunted to endangered levels in the north.”

Zatanna’s fingers glowed over the wound. “Let’s get him back to the Javelin,” she intererupted.  “I’m not sure where the damage will be when he changes back.”

Clark tried to slide his friend back into his arms.

“Kal-El,” J’onn said kindly, “Allow me to carry him for a time. You are exhausted. If he is injured, we will need you to assist in keeping him stationary. You must be conscious to do so.”

Clark ran his fingers over the soft feathers behind B’s ears. “Yeah, you’re right.”

The Javelin’s small medical ensuite was bright with welcome light. The UV lamps were set high enough that Clark could actually feel the energy coursing through him again. This must be what being a battery must feel like, he mused.

J’onn lowered the unconscious form onto the table, carefully arranging the wings. His mental voice reached out to Clark as Zatanna stepped up and started casting. She is stabilizing the magic that holds him, so that we may remove the charms. Be prepared to calm him.

Clark nodded, and watched with bated breath. Another barrage of blue light settled over the kyssato, and Zatanna stepped back. “Clark, remove the charms now - his first.”

Clark nodded and stepped forward, J’onn moved to behind the injured being. With shaking fingers, Clark unbuckled the bracelet, and slipped it out from under the paw. He slipped his own off and dropped them onto a tray Zatanna was holding. There was a shiver, and the air moved around the table, and suddenly fur and feathers were receding, and soft cloth settled around shifting limbs.

Bruce’s eyes were half open as a low cry wrenched itself out of his throat. He looked around, eyes unfocused. “Clark?” he moaned, “Clark, what happened?”

Clark cradled his face as J’onn moved to look at the bloody section of cloth. “I’m here, B, I’m here. You’re back on the Javelin, we made it.”

Bruce’s face was sheet white, sweat beading on his face. “Clark,” he breathed. “I can’t … need to get …”

Clark shushed him. “It’s okay, J’onn is looking after you. You’re going to be ok, promise.”

J’onn spoke from Bruce’s other side. “The arrowhead has penetrated past your ribs, Batman, and will need to be removed in surgery. I am uncertain as to any organ damages. A more thorough exam will be required.”

Bruce’s eyes slid shut. “Hurts….don’t go… let go? … don’t….”

Clark leaned his head on Bruce’s. “I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. Just rest, I’ll be here when you wake up.”

“...promise?...”

“Scout’s honour,” Clark whispered, brushing his lips on the feverish brow. 

 

Epilogue - Watchtower - Earth Orbit

The heart rate monitor is a slow metronome, marking moments in time as clearly as each page in my horribly predictable romance does for the story. The faintest hissing, probably only audible this close, provides a steady drone of sound underneath the beeping. This time I can stay here, at his side, waiting for the fluttering consciousness to return Bruce back to reality. I don't have to pretend that he's just another victim, or that he means nothing to me.  I shift a little in the hard chair, rocking my shoulders back. I might be Superman, but even my back gets sore from Rubbermaid chairs.

Bruce is asleep, wrapped tightly in the med bay's warm flannel blankets. J'onn repaired most of the damage the arrow had done. Thankfully, no internal organs were hit - Nightwing and Red Hood would have Superman's head for that. They would have to wait, I'm sure, behind Alfred's stern disapproval and disappointment. I'm sure he's taken a few tips from Ma about that look.

 

The heart rate monitor doesn't change as Bruce slowly blinks crusted eyes open. I slip forward, hand carding through oily locks. "I'm here, Bruce, you're safe," I whisper in his ear. “We're back on the Watchtower. Z got rid of the feathers, you're back to being you.”

 

He leans infinitesimally into my hand. His gaze slides limply around the room, a frown slowly settling over his face. I watch as he takes in what’s around him. His fingers uncurl, reaching up off the blanket beside me. Smiling, I take his hand, holding it gently. "Go back to sleep," I whisper again. "It's ok, you're safe."

His eyes focus on mine. They are clouded, and hardly focusing on me, but at least he's aware of my presence. He stares for a long time - six or seven slow blinks worth. Finally, though, the warmth of the room and the quiet helps his eyes slip closed. With only a gust of air and a brief tightening of his fingers, he whispers, “...stay?”

 

“Always, B.”

 

_


 

Link to Art coming later tonight

Kyssato Image 1

Kyssato Image 2

Author’s Notes:

Title from the song, “The Big Ones get away” by Buffy Sainte-Marie

Now if I were the

Queen of all the world

I would go in chains

just to see you free

of the ropes that bind you

and the role you play

and the pride that hooks you

while the big ones get away