Barry eased the crutches out from underneath his arms, grimacing, and slid down against the wall with a sigh.
He was pretty much okay now. Compared to right after, the way he'd hardly been able to move, how much it had hurt—all the bits and pieces of his bones were basically back where they were supposed to be, and he wasn't even bleeding anywhere. He was doing awesome.
And he was going to have some sick scars, too.
He even felt a little badass, sometimes. Not because of the scars, exactly, but just—just because of the fight, because of Darkseid and everything. Which was kind of weird. He probably should have come out of that whole experience even more freaked out than usual: it had been all the worst nightmares he'd ever had rolled into one, after all. He'd tried so hard, done the best he could, and it still hadn't been enough. He'd gotten that shield down, yeah—that part had been pretty cool—and he'd managed to get to one of Steppenwolf's boxes in time to keep it from being used. But after that? After that, it had gotten so much worse, he shivered every time he remembered it. Getting hit by something he couldn't escape, couldn't outrun, something that had hurt him so badly he couldn't get away; and everybody else fighting for their lives, while he was lying there being useless and basically passing out from manly agony. But—
But the thing was, it had happened, and here he was. The worst thing he could imagine, and it had happened to him, and he was okay anyway.
When he thought about it like that, he wasn't scared at all.
But his legs still kind of ached, the bones and the joints, and his muscles felt stiff and sore where they were probably busy stitching themselves back together; and he'd promised Aline he wouldn't run or anything until she said he could.
Which meant he was stuck walking everywhere, with crutches. Just like anybody else, totally normal pace! It was ridiculous.
And kind of exhausting, hence the sitting down.
He tipped his head back against the concrete and closed his eyes, and breathed. It still got the better of him sometimes, if he thought about it too much—how slow he was now, how long it took to get anywhere; how long it would take him to get out of here if he needed to, if he had to run but he couldn't—
Barry opened his eyes and looked up.
It was Curry—no, Arthur, Barry decided. Brave new world and all, and he was—he wanted to be brave along with it, if he could, and also Arthur had sat there and let Barry panic at him, and helped Diana keep Barry from getting crushed like a bug besides; he probably wasn't going to punch Barry in the face or anything for calling him his name.
And Barry'd told Arthur to call him Barry, so. It was probably okay.
"Arthur," he blurted immediately, and he hadn't necessarily intended to put it to the test quite that fast, oops.
But Arthur just stared down at him for a second, and then raised one eyebrow with a majestic sort of gravitas, and said, "Yeah, that's me."
They stared at each other. Arthur stood there for long enough that Barry almost started to think he didn't know what to do next either—and then he cleared his throat and looked away, swung around and sat down smoothly next to Barry, hands clasped, big bare arms propped on his knees.
Did he even own a shirt? Maybe he didn't.
(If he didn't, then Barry kind of hoped it took a long time for anybody to think to offer him one.)
"So," Arthur said, mild. "Told you we wouldn't be dead."
Barry laughed, startled, and then reached up ruefully to rub the back of his neck. "Well, not this time," he said. "'Next time' we saw each other, though, like, next time after two times ago, back in there—almost was then, except you've got really, really good timing. Has anybody ever told you you've got really good timing? Because—"
"But you're okay now," Arthur said, before Barry could really get rolling.
"What? Oh, um, yeah." Barry tipped his chin toward the crutches, leaning against the wall beside them. "I have to keep using those for at least the rest of the day."
"The rest of the day," Arthur repeated.
"I, um. I heal fast?"
Barry glanced down at his legs, his feet, and tipped them one way and then the other, just to say hi. Things looked pretty much fine, from here; you could see the red angry ends of a couple of the wounds where they crossed his ankles, the barest beginnings of the furrows they'd dug into the muscles of his calves. But he had pants on, obviously, and all the really ugly messy stuff was covered up.
"No kidding," Arthur said.
"Right, you—you probably already figured that out," Barry agreed, "since I can stand up and all and it's only been like two days. Anyway, you're right, you were—you were right," and he found himself holding out an optimistic fist. "Go Team Not Dead?"
Arthur looked at his hand, and then at him, and then at his hand. Man, it was amazingly hard to guess what he was thinking; his face was like a statue. A statue of a really, really hot guy who probably didn't have time for this shit.
But then one side of his mouth moved just a little, and suddenly Barry was inexplicably one hundred percent sure Arthur had time for this shit, and also maybe like sixty-two percent starting to think it wasn't an accident that Arthur had happened to show up in this hallway and stopped to talk to him.
And then Arthur lifted a hand, and did bump Barry's knuckles with his own after all.
"Taking it easy," he observed, after a second.
"Man, I can't do anything but," Barry said mournfully, stretching his legs out straight, pointing and then flexing his feet. Something burned in his thighs and calves when he did, for a second, but in that soft-edged achy way that meant it was getting better, not worse. "I have to walk everywhere! It takes entire minutes. How does anyone put up with this?"
The corner of Arthur's mouth moved a little more.
"You get used to it," he said, mild.
"Hah," Barry said. "I've never been this slow ever. I think I'm setting a new personal record for the amount of time I've spent in the same place, like, every ten minutes." He paused for a second, tilted his head like he was waiting for something and then raised his eyebrows and did jazz hands. "Right there! Two minutes longer than the longest time I'd ever spent anywhere, a record established two minutes ago—"
"Yeah," Arthur said, "I get the picture."
It could have come out kind of snide, and that would have been totally understandable; but it didn't. He mostly sounded like he thought it was funny, and he looked it, too—not that he was actually smiling or anything ridiculous like that. But his mouth had moved even more, and there were these lines crinkling into place at the corners of his eyes. Friendly lines, Barry decided.
And then they went away, and Arthur looked over at the wall and cleared his throat. "Been thinking I might give that a try myself," he said, kind of more to the hallway in general than to Barry.
Barry stared at him. "Um, record-breaking? Or—oh, uh, you mean—"
Arthur shrugged one shoulder, and kept looking at the wall. "Nice enough place, I guess."
"Sure, yeah, of course," Barry said, probably too fast but he was mostly just trying not to swallow his tongue by mistake. It wasn't like it meant anything that Arthur was telling him this, that Arthur was—was maybe going to stick around for a while. It was nice, that was all. Back in there with Darkseid, yeah, it had been scary, and yeah, it had hurt; but Victor had been there, and then Diana had shown up, and Arthur and Clark. They'd been there, they'd had each other's backs. None of them had been alone. The other stuff had sucked, but that part had been—Barry had never had anything like that before, or at least not for a long time.
Even Wayne counted, kind of: letting those parademons take him like that, because it would help keep the rest of them safe.
It was nice to think it wasn't going to fall apart right away, that it hadn't just been because they'd been in danger and they'd had to. It was nice to think maybe it was the beginning of something better.
And there wasn't any particular reason why Barry's face should be getting all—hot.
"It's, um. Good setup they got here," he managed to fumble out, after a second. "All anybody could ask for, in the middle of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I'm—I've been—" He coughed into his fist, cleared his throat, and tried real hard not to fidget. It kind of worked. "I've been thinking maybe I'd stick around for a while myself." He paused. "Like, um, once my legs are okay and everything, obviously I'm not exactly going anywhere right now—"
"Yeah," Arthur said blandly. "So, two more days."
"I mean, I broke a lot of bones," Barry said. "Maybe three," and he tried to keep it all casual but he was grinning, he couldn't make it stop. Arthur didn't seem to mind too much, though: he was looking at Barry again, instead of at the wall, with that pale steady stare of his, and he hadn't gotten up and walked away. And Barry still couldn't even begin to guess what he was thinking, but that was okay.
Because now, maybe, he was going to have all the time he needed to try to figure it out.
A couple hours out, Twist decided it was about time to stop for some water.
Didn't have to shout it. Didn't even have to say Diana's name. Just shifted gears, slowed the motorcycle, and that was enough: up ahead through the dust, she saw Diana's head turn, dark hair streaming out wild.
She braked, twisted into it a little just for the hell of it—just for the sake of kicking up some gravel under her wheels. Only made her ribs twinge for a second. Worth it.
She had a couple canisters strapped to the bike for later, but there was still some water in the bottle she kept at her hip—couple pints, she judged, shaking it a little to feel the weight. She uncapped it and tipped it up for a sip. And then paused and braced herself, so when Diana landed in front of her in a rush of air, tremble through the ground, she didn't spill any.
"Are you well?" Diana said when it was over, straightening and reaching out to touch the back of Twist's wrist.
"Oh, fuck off," Twist told her kindly, and took another sip. "Wouldn't have agreed to come if I weren't. Just thirsty."
Diana ducked her head as if abashed—like hell she was, though, Twist could totally see the corner of her mouth slanting. "You had already been injured by the raiders, even before the battle with Darkseid. And I have, very occasionally, known you to be stubborn—"
Twist made a face at her. "Yeah, well, funny story about that," she said. "See, I figured we were fucked, considering. Yeah, we took those parademons by surprise up there, we brought all the guns we could carry, but there were a lot of them. Even with Steppenwolf distracted, couldn't have been long before they'd rush us, and what the hell were we going to do about it? But then there was this big old blast of light, all red and gold, and they disintegrated. Real convenient. Good timing. Not a scratch on me. Guess I owe whoever set that off a thank-you."
It was true, every word. She'd been pinned down next to Lane; Stone had done good work getting them all up there, and they'd made a dent in the swarm, but not enough of one. They'd been screwed. All of them had known it. About the best they'd been good for had been a distraction—the longer they took to die, the better the shot Superman had.
And then there had been that light. There had been that light, and Twist hadn't had the words for it. Still didn't.
But right now she just meant to tease; so she kept her voice light, easy, and raised her eyebrows. Like it hadn't been impossible, beautiful and terrible at the same time, wondrous. Like Diana hadn't saved her life.
It didn't matter, though. Diana's face went strange and serious, and she gripped Twist's shoulder and said quietly, "No, you don't. You owe me nothing. I couldn't have done it without you—all of you."
"Well," Twist said, "we sure as shit couldn't have put on a lightshow like that without you. Call it even."
Diana smiled—and it was just the corners of her eyes at first, the way Twist was used to; but then it was her mouth, too, her whole face. It was like sunrise.
Twist made herself take another sip instead of staring. And then she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and squinted at Diana, and said, "So. I get that you didn't want to say it back there in the main bay. But now that we're out in the middle of nowhere and all—don't suppose you feel like telling me where the hell we're going?"
Diana was quiet for a moment. Not like she didn't mean to answer; like she wasn't sure where to start when she did.
"My sword," she said at last, reaching to touch the hilt of it where it hung at her side. "It is—not all that I brought with me." She glanced at Twist. "You know I am not ordinary."
"Understatement," Twist agreed.
Diana smiled at her again, like she couldn't help it. "There are other things that are mine. A shield, and a lasso. They meant a great deal to me, but for a time I felt I couldn't carry them. I felt I was no longer fit to. So I hid them away somewhere safe, and left them there. But now—" She stopped, looked down at her hands and flexed them a little, like she wasn't sure she knew what to do with them. "Now I think it's time I took them up again."
Okay. Fair enough.
"Okay," Twist said.
She wasn't going to ask. She knew better than that. She sealed the water back up again, put it away, and was half-ready to kick the bike back to life again when she realized Diana hadn't moved.
She looked up and raised an eyebrow.
"I wanted you to come with me," Diana said, "but that isn't all I wish to ask of you. I have told you very little of myself—"
"Hey, it's fine," Twist said. "Lot about me you don't know either. Though I'm guessing whatever you've got in the rearview is a little more interesting."
"It's not so uncommon a story as that," Diana said slowly. "Not anymore. I was part of something. There were people who meant everything to me. A mother, an aunt, many sisters. I loved them; I lost them, and I grieve them still, and I will never be the same. They are gone, and will not come back. But as long as I still live, and I remember them, something of what they were remains.
"I thought the Amazons had been destroyed. But I was wrong, for I am one and always will be. And perhaps one day there will be Amazons again."
And she looked at Twist and held out her hand, open, palm-up, waiting.
Twist looked at it and then at her.
"You saying what I think you're saying?"
"You do not have to decide now," Diana said, soft. "But know that however you are willing to think of yourself, whether you choose to bear the name of the Amazons or not, I already consider you my sister. Sister by—" She paused. "By heart-truth and shield-right, if not by birth or making."
Twist swallowed, and thought about it; looked at that hand outstretched, and thought about it some more. She didn't know what it even meant to Diana to ask, didn't know what Diana expected of her if she said yes. What did Amazons even do? But—
But she had plenty of time to find out. They all did, now; now that they were safe, now that they had half a chance to try to rebuild the world for real.
And whatever it was that came next, she'd rather do it with Diana than without.
"Okay," she said aloud, and clasped Diana's arm, and Diana's grasp was warm and steady against her forearm in return. "Okay, you got it. Sister."
The smile came back in full force, brilliant, blinding. "Thank you," Diana said, and she reached out with her free hand and caught the nape of Twist's neck, leaned in past the motorcycle's handlebar and tipped their foreheads together. "Thank you."
"Sure thing," Twist said, which was stupid; but if being stupid now and then was a dealbreaker for this whole sister thing, then Diana probably would have said so upfront.
And Diana laughed a little and let go, and then tilted her head and said, "Race you?"
"What? How's that fair?" Twist demanded. "You didn't actually tell me where you left this stuff you hid, you know," but she'd already tipped the bike back to a level, kicked it awake; and when she revved it, Diana threw her head back and laughed.
"I will give you a head start," she called. Like that was going to make a difference when she was—some kind of Amazon goddess or something. Twist shook her head and grinned, gunned the engine anyway and took off in a spray of dust, and the whole horizon spread itself out wide and open in front of her, waiting.
"Okay, Victor. Let's give this a try, shall we?"
> all right, what do you think?
> we got this?
> yeah, that's kind of what i figured you'd say
> that's right
> it's safe here
> all four of you are safe here
> and so am i
> and there's nothing else on this planet that can fix this
> so you better be up to the job
> come on
> come on
"Holy shit. Holy shit, I can't believe that worked. Look at this, this is—oh, jesus, Lane, get your head on straight, you need samples—"
"God. That sure as hell feels like grass. I can't even remember the last time I stood on grass."
"You're a huge cliché. You realize that, right? How many kinds of wildflowers did you pack in here? And a spring? Ten minutes and we're going to have a little chuckling stream going. What is this, a Kinkade print?"
"Victor?" she said.
She'd twisted around to look at him. She was standing there with her shoes off, pale bare toes curling into the—the grass. She'd brought him here with the boxes. He remembered that. She'd brought him here with the boxes to see whether they could undo what Steppenwolf had done. He could feel them without even looking: three of them, hovering above him, spinning slowly; and the fourth one, inside him, right where it was supposed to be—twined through him like veins on a leaf, him and not-him at the same time.
It had all been dead. This place, this rocky little hollow, it had been bare and dry and lifeless. He remembered that, too.
But it wasn't anymore.
(The boxes hadn't understood, that was all. Not until Victor's box had explained it to them. What safety was, what destruction meant; that what Steppenwolf had done with them had been wrong, had hurt, but if they could fix it—)
Victor looked at Lois, and blinked.
"Hi," he said unsteadily.
And Lois stared at him, eyes wet, and then tilted her head back and laughed. "You're a goddamn miracle, Victor Stone," she said, and took his metal hand, pressed it down into the fresh green grass barely an inch from where clear cold water was splashing down over the stone; and he hardly even had any skin anymore, but it didn't matter. He felt it, he felt it, and he smiled.
Kent was going to leave.
Bruce knew it even before Kent came looking for him—he had known it all along. It had been entirely predictable based on even the most cursory analysis: he'd agreed to the deal Bruce had proposed, after all. On the off chance that they survived Darkseid's arrival, it would come into effect. Kent would kill him and then go; why shouldn't he? He'd probably take Lane with him. Repair the ship at last, perhaps, and leave the planet entirely—go find another one that was in better shape, and rule it as a god. Yellow suns were a dime a dozen. Or, of course, he might venture further afield than that. For all anyone knew, a pulsar or a blue giant would render his capabilities even more unthinkably impressive. No reason he shouldn't go find out.
Bruce was ready for it. Not that he wasted his time anticipating it. He hadn't seen Kent since Kent had left his quarters three days ago—had touched his face, silent, and then looked away and walked out. Perhaps Kent was already gone; perhaps that was his idea of mercy. Perhaps he was still here, and simply biding his time. It didn't matter.
Bruce had recovered well enough. He'd barely even been injured, except by his own hand—the wounds he'd bitten into his mouth and his tongue, the way he'd dug his nails into his palms, the muscle strain he'd given himself tensing against his shackles. A few scrapes, where he'd been dragged across stone; the occasional pricking puncture where thorny Apokoliptian metal had caught his skin or forced its way through the undersuit.
The parademons hadn't hurt him, hadn't started stripping the flesh from him. They only did that to enhance the feeding experience for themselves. To make the fear more intense.
With him—they hadn't needed to.
Security was still a concern; less of one, granted, now that the compound found itself in possession of four mother boxes. But there were still raiders, and not all the parademons had died in the battle. Stray half-swarms had already been spotted in the distance, searching for the mind that had always given them their orders and unable to find it.
Teams still needed to be coordinated. Resources were still at a premium. Stone had proven himself more than capable of linking to all four boxes at once, of using their combined power to accomplish things that should have been impossible—the first test had rendered almost half an acre of dead dusty ground abruptly green and fertile, altered down to the quality of the soil, the small aquifer now detectable in the stone below, the freshwater spring that flowed from it. Lane had never delivered a report to Bruce so readily—had never smiled at him with such warmth while she did it. But it was only right to proceed with caution, to make such alterations slowly and with care; and in the meantime they all still needed to eat.
So: he worked, once he could sit up long enough without excessive pain distracting him—once he'd proven to his own satisfaction that he could keep his hands steady. He received reports; he coordinated intelligence operations with Lane. He took shifts in the security room, as he always had. He patrolled the courtyard, the cliff, the compound walls, just as he always had.
And when Kent came to tell him, he was ready for it.
He was out on the wall. Just surveying the horizon; alert for any sign of distant motion, whether on the ground or in the sky, but there had been none. Not even a dust storm—he suspected Stone had begun to do something to the air, too, because the haze didn't seem as thick or the sun as dim as it once had.
Another few months of Stone's efforts, and maybe the storms wouldn't bring dust but rain.
Bruce couldn't remember the last time it had rained.
(The night he'd killed Superman—it had rained then. Ridiculous thing to remember, after everything, but he did: could picture it, the slick wetness of Kent's skin, the damp curl of his hair—)
And then he heard something; a rush of air, the scrape of a boot. He turned, and he looked, and Kent was there.
So he hadn't left yet, Bruce thought. But he would.
He had to.
(What could keep him here? Lane would go with him, surely; he only had to ask, to—to tell her he still loved her just as he always had, and carry her away. There was nothing else to tempt him, nothing else that could be worth staying for.
Certainly not the man who'd killed him. Who'd dragged him back screaming; who'd promised to do both, either, as many times as it took—)
"Bruce," Kent said.
And Bruce flicked a cool glance across him, head to foot, and didn't let the look on his face change; turned to gaze out across the wasteland again, and said, "When?"
"When," Bruce repeated. And then, when Kent's blank stare forced him to elaborate, "When are you leaving."
It wasn't a question. A statement explaining what he had meant, that was all. He didn't need an answer; didn't want one.
Kent was silent for a moment. "Soon," he said at last, very quietly. "I—I think it should be soon."
"Have you told Lane?"
"Lois?" Bruce risked a glance; Kent's expression was startled, faintly puzzled. "No, not yet. I haven't told anyone. I—" Kent stopped, and reached up to rub a hand against the nape of his neck, looking rueful. "I wasn't even sure whether I was going to tell you, when I came up here. I thought about just—doing it. Going, without saying anything at all. But I thought you should know."
"You thought I should know," Bruce echoed, very flat.
Kent bit his lip, and looked away. "I didn't want you to think—I didn't want you to have to—" He cut himself off sharply, shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut, drove the heels of his hands into the sockets. "I know you're afraid of me."
Bruce kept his face impassive, but he felt briefly and wildly disoriented. It was true; Kent knew it, Bruce knew it. But what possible relevance could that particular truth have to—
"You think I'm going to hurt you. You think I—you think I'm going to kill you." Kent's voice sounded like it was being scraped out of his throat by the dull side of a knife, hoarse and tight and tired. There wasn't any reason for him to sound like that, Bruce thought distantly, stating such staid and unremarkable facts. "You killed me. You—you made yourself kill me. That's the person I make you into. That's the person you think you need to be, when I'm around, and I don't—"
"You're leaving," Bruce said, with deliberate and exacting precision, "because you think staying will make me unhappy."
Kent rubbed his eyes harder, and then slid a hand down over his mouth and rubbed that too, huffed a soft breath that wasn't quite a laugh into his own palm; and then he looked up and met Bruce's eyes.
"I was afraid of you, too, at first," he said quietly. "I remember how it felt. I hated it, then. I hated myself, I hated you. I couldn't stand it. I don't want that. I don't want you to look at me and feel like that. I want—"
He stopped again; his eyes were wet, his mouth was red. The power he'd soaked up from Stone had only just begun to fade, he was invulnerable—he wasn't in pain. He couldn't be.
He stared at Bruce for a long moment. And then he screwed his eyes shut again, and twisted his face away. "Jesus," he said softly. "I don't know what I want. It doesn't matter. I don't want you to feel that way about me, that's all."
(As if that did matter—as if it had ever mattered how Bruce fucking felt about any of it—)
Kent was operating under a misapprehension. It would be irrational to refrain from correcting him. There was no risk involved. He would leave anyway. Of course he would.
"I am afraid of you," Bruce said.
Kent looked at him.
"But not because I think you're going to kill me." Christ, if only he would. He'd agreed, goddammit; they'd had a deal. Kent was the one who'd broken his word, in the end—Kent was the one who'd ruined everything—
"Bruce," Kent said slowly.
Bruce followed his glance down. Bruce's hands were shaking.
He clasped them, clenched them tight around each other; his knuckles went white, but it helped.
"Because you won't," he heard himself say. "Because I know—I know you won't," and even saying it, even that much, made his chest tight; his throat ached, his stomach rolled. He couldn't stop it. Because it was so hopelessly, profoundly horrifying, this life sentence Kent intended to condemn him to—
"Bruce," Kent repeated, soft, uncertain. "Bruce, what—"
"You don't even want to," Bruce spat at him, and he was—he sounded furious with Kent, tone harsh and accusatory. "You never did. Not until I—"
He couldn't say it. He couldn't. Kent reached for him, he was—when had he gotten so close? Bruce jerked back an awkward half-stride, flinched away from those open outstretched hands; god, he couldn't stand it.
"Leave," he bit out. "You were right. Leave. Get out of here."
"No," Kent said, because he was nothing if not remorselessly contrary. "Bruce—"
Christ. Why didn't he understand? Why couldn't the alien get it through his thick head?
"If you won't do it," Bruce said, and then stopped. He squeezed his eyes shut, dug his teeth into his lip. It was already unbearable enough without having to explain it, right to Kent's impossibly perfect face. "If you won't do it, then it was—it was all for nothing."
Because Kent hadn't been wrong. The things he'd said in Bruce's quarters, he'd been—he did understand. He understood almost everything, except for this.
Bruce had made himself kill the alien. He'd seen what needed to be done, and he'd forged himself into a person who was capable of it, who was capable of deciding to, who was able to believe that it was right. Who was able to believe that it could be again.
Except he'd done it on the strength of a single proposition: that the alien was not only capable of causing harm, but willing to. Willing in even the smallest part, the first skidding step of the slippery slope; the bare minimum of justification required.
The man Bruce had thought he was killing then would have killed him in return ten times over—wouldn't even have needed the excuse of a deal, to exact entirely legitimate retribution.
But Kent wasn't that man. Kent wasn't that man and never had been. Bruce had gone to all that effort, had forced himself to become the thing he despised above all else, because he had believed it was right; and it had worked, he'd succeeded. It had worked. And it had been worthless.
That was the thing had nearly driven him mad, in the pit beneath Steppenwolf's palace. The dream, the dream, had been a plague, and then proof, and then reassurance: because if Superman had come to him there in the dark and murdered him after all, then at least Bruce would have died knowing that he'd seen the alien clearly. That the potential for disaster had been there after all, and what he'd done had averted it, if only for a time.
But Kent had broken his chains instead. Had held him carefully and touched his face, said his name; and Bruce had been stricken with a terror far more profound: with the implication that all those terrible struggles, all the vile and excruciating labor to which he'd bent his will, had instead resulted in an unfathomably hideous mistake—
"Bruce," Kent said, almost gentle.
Fingertips skimmed Bruce's cheek. He flinched from them like a wild animal; but Kent didn't withdraw. He waited Bruce out, touched him again—more softly still, as if that were more bearable, as if Bruce wouldn't have preferred a thousand times over to be struck—
"Bruce," Kent whispered, and kissed him.
It was almost impossible to even think the word. Bruce felt the pressure of Kent's mouth and for a long stunned moment couldn't—couldn't even understand it, couldn't grasp what Kent was doing. It was such a small, stupid thing, kissing, indulgent and pointless and unnecessary; not the sort of thing that happened anymore, not now that everything was harsh and wasted, ruined.
But Kent didn't seem to realize it. And if there were anyone who was unbound by the rules, Bruce thought dimly, unrestrained by them—if there were anyone who was able to trod on what should have been reality without even noticing they'd done it—it was Kent.
Kent broke away. Bruce hadn't moved; he should have. He should have pushed Kent off, should have shouted at him to go. This wasn't the way this conversation ended.
He opened his eyes. And Kent looked at him, drew the backs of two knuckles lightly, gently, along the line of Bruce's jaw, and said, very low, "I'll go if you want me to. Tell me you want me to."
A direct request. Bruce could fulfill it easily; Kent had given him the words with which to do it, intolerably generous. Bruce could say it. He could. He should.
He stared at Kent, and a long shuddering breath was pressed from him, his heart squeezed tight in his chest, and he said nothing.
Kent kissed him again. He held still beneath it, he survived it.
"Tell me," Kent said, almost sharply, against his cheek; and Bruce gripped him by the shoulder, the wrist, turned into Kent's touch, and—god, he couldn't, he couldn't; he had to—held him there, pressed his mouth to Kent's and was seared by it.
Everything ended. Bruce's parents had taught him that, and he'd never forgotten the lesson. Everything ended, and you couldn't stop it, couldn't prevent it; nothing you could do would ever be good enough. You could make yourself stronger, faster. You could delay it, turn it aside for a while, brace yourself for it. But the end was always there ahead of you, always coming.
(The joke was always on you.)
He'd known it. And he'd spent so long preparing himself for it: for failure, for endings that had felt inevitable. His own; the world's. At Superman's hands, at Doomsday's. At Steppenwolf's, and then at Darkseid's. One way or another, surely, it would all be torn from him. There was no avoiding it. He'd fight anyway—but sooner or later, he'd lose.
This, Kent. The things Bruce wanted from him; the things Bruce felt about him. This had to end, too. He'd known it, and he'd steeled himself for it.
But perhaps this wasn't that end. Not yet. Perhaps this—aching, tentative, unfamiliar and unearned, thoroughly incomprehensible—was, somehow, a beginning.
Kent drew away a little; kissed Bruce's mouth softly, quickly, once and then again, and then the corner of it, Bruce's stubble-scrape of a cheek, the angle of Bruce's jaw. He hesitated a little between, each time, as though he couldn't quite believe he'd dared—as though, after he'd harnessed the power of three mother boxes to exile Darkseid from reality itself, it was at all plausible that Bruce still frightened him.
"All right," Kent murmured at last, unsteady, "I take it back. Say whatever you want, you're stuck with me. I changed my mind."
Bruce swallowed. He was still holding onto Kent, he was—his grip was too tight. He couldn't make himself let go. "Your prerogative," he managed.
And Kent laughed. Not loudly, hardly voiced at all. A breath of it, half through his nose; but his face was so close, their cheeks scraping; Bruce could feel it when he smiled.
"Watch it, or I'm going to get tired of all this sweet-talking out of you," he said, soft, and his fingers were curling into Bruce's hair, his thumb sweeping in gentle arcs along the skin just under Bruce's ear.
Bruce looked at him. Kent was looking back, so close it was almost disorienting—but then everything about Kent was disorienting, and always had been. He was watching Bruce, gaze flicking back and forth over Bruce's face in a tentative, searching way. He lifted his other hand, touched Bruce's cheek, his mouth.
"Bruce," he said, very quietly.
Bruce dug his teeth into his lip, just shy of Kent's fingertip, and closed his eyes. "Clark," he made himself say, low: testing it, tasting it; not the alien, not Superman, not even Kent. Clark.
It should have hurt somehow—to concede even that much, to allow it, to crack himself open that way. But all that happened was that Clark's breath caught, audible; and he held Bruce by the nape of the neck, tipped their foreheads together.
His hands were warm.
Bruce didn't pull away. He stood there with Clark's hands on him, Clark against him, and held on; and deep within the ashes of himself, something stirred as if to rise anew: the quiet miracle of water in a wasteland, welling up in the middle of dead dry ground, overflowing.