It took time for Clark to regain consciousness.
Bruce had anticipated that it might. It had taken a significant supply of kryptonite, multiple explosive traps deployed simultaneously, and what Bruce resented having to acknowledge as a considerable helping of luck to capture Clark alive. Clark had been injured, and badly—and securing him even over the short term required still more kryptonite, enough to keep him from healing the damage away.
Finding an amount sufficient to do the job had taken years. Years, and relentless effort, and several excruciating personal compromises.
But it was worth it. It had to have been worth it.
Bruce refused to recognize any other outcome as a possibility.
He stood and waited, silent, without shifting or fidgeting, and he kept his eyes on Clark.
And eventually, with a strained, agonized sound in the back of his throat, Clark moved.
Moved, blinked. Feebly, at first, eyes fluttering shut again; and then he opened them, and succeeded in keeping them open. He tried to bring his hands forward, perhaps to push himself up off the corrugated metal beneath him, and discovered in the attempt that they were shackled behind him, that he was too weak to free them. The chains clanked, glinting dimly green here and there—kryptonite was too crystalline in structure to be easily worked into links of any strength at all, even if Bruce could have afforded to set enough of it aside for such a purpose, but he'd at least been able to create a dilute alloy that would serve.
Clark coughed, next, curling in on himself, knees drawing in unsteady reflex toward his chest, smearing dark blood across the floor. And then the worst of the spasm eased, and his head lolled back and sideways, and his dim, uncertain gaze came to rest on Bruce.
"Bruce?" he said, voice hoarse and cracking. "Bruce, what—what's happening?" His throat worked. He tried again to move his arms, himself, and failed; again the chains rattled. His gaze flickered away from Bruce, and found the nearest of the open containers that surrounded him: not large, not many, but the mouth of each crate glowed steadily green. "What are you doing? Did I—what did I—" He stopped, squeezing his eyes shut, sucking in an uneven breath. "I don't remember—"
An unsurprising and uninventive tactic. But then Bruce supposed he should've expected as much. "Let go of him," he said, without inflection.
Clark's brow furrowed weakly. "What?" He slackened for an instant, cheek against the metal, looking pale and confused, helpless. "I don't understand. I don't understand any of this. Bruce, please. Help me, I—" He broke off, strained, a ripple of tension passing visibly through him, if anything accentuated by the contours of the suit that still covered his body, the gaps where it was torn over his open and bleeding wounds. "It hurts."
"Then let go of him," Bruce said.
Clark stared at him, bewildered, agonized, betrayed.
It wasn't a bad impression, Bruce thought.
And then, slowly, the look on Clark's face began to change. A narrowing of the eyes, a sharpening of the gaze, as though his mind had begun to clear—as though he'd fought through the worst of his initial disorientation. "I don't remember how I got here," he said unevenly. "But I remember you," and abruptly his mouth twisted, his lip curling. A familiar expression, except that his eyes hadn't heated, weren't glowing. Like this, reduced to a fraction of his power, they were just wet. "I remember what you did. You let her die," and he thrashed, a sudden furious effort even though his every muscle was trembling, as if to test the limit of his chains, the strength of the anchor that bolted them down behind him.
Bruce waited it out, and didn't let himself look away. "Let go of him."
Clark lay there for a long moment, chest heaving, unable to relent in the grip of his rage and yet equally unable to do anything about it.
And then the shape of his mouth changed. Changed, stretched, into a long slow smile.
Bruce had always believed it. But that smile made him sure, and Christ, it was a gift and a nightmare at the same time, his gut lurching, his heart clenching into a fist behind his ribs.
"Why?" Darkseid said, and laughed; Bruce didn't let himself flinch from the sound of it, Clark's voice with nothing that was Clark behind it, but the urge was there. "It makes no difference, you must know that. That's what he would say to you, if he could. That's what he would say to you, while he tore you apart."
"But he can't," Bruce said. "Not like this." He raised an eyebrow. "What good is he to you now? Let go of him."
"How little you understand," Darkseid murmured almost gently, arranging Clark's face into a look of distant pity. "How little you comprehend. He is only the beginning. Soon you will all know Darkseid—soon all your world will be Darkseid."
"So you like to tell me," Bruce bit out, and then he turned on his heel and left.
On the one hand: it was a gift.
Confirmation was invaluable. Bruce had always believed it was Darkseid, for the simple and immovable reason that it couldn't be Clark who had hunted them with such vicious relentlessness; it couldn't be Clark who had cornered Diana, knowing what DeSaad would do to her—who had stood there and allowed Darkseid to cut Arthur apart one piece at a time. It couldn't be. He had been as certain of that as he had ever been of anything in his life.
But that no longer counted for as much as he might have wanted it to. Not even with Bruce himself.
Once, a long time ago, he'd been certain of a lot of other things about Clark, after all.
The driving intensity of his conviction had been inversely proportional to his ability to put that conviction into words. At all, never mind words convincing enough to mean anything, juxtaposed with the very real and inescapable terror that was Superman unleashed, appearing in the sky red-eyed without warning, burning down everything around them over and over and over.
He had remained steadfast. But there had been a price—in the way the rest of them looked at him, the tension that had strained their willingness to trust his judgment, the frustration that had begun to lurk beneath the surface of every interaction with him.
But now he had confirmation. The cameras must have caught that. There could be no mistaking it. They'd hear him out, at least. They'd have to, now.
On the other hand—Christ. He had to hope, grim as it was, that Darkseid had given him something, playacting his way through that ridiculous scene, trying to convince Bruce Clark was himself again: Did I—what did I—I don't remember. Maybe that was how this worked; maybe, once Bruce had pried Darkseid's grip free, Clark would come awake as if from a dream, with no idea what he'd done or what had happened since the moment Darkseid had first touched his mind.
Because as sickening as it was to imagine Clark trapped, unknowing, inside the windowless room of his own body, it was more horrifying still to think he might be looking out of it after all. Watching himself move and speak and act, unable to stop it; screaming, with no one to hear him but Darkseid.
The rest of them were waiting for him in the monitor section.
The convoy was still moving, a reassuring rumble and hiss of wheels over sand. Bruce had left Clark locked up in the middle of the truck, a double-reinforced steel enclosure fixed within the semitrailer, positioned over the middle three pairs of wheels in order to support the weight of it.
A handful of strides through the bare trailer, the merciful rush of noise filling his head, and then he reached the temporary wall, the hatch and rotary lock set into it, and he opened it and stepped through.
They'd been watching. Even if he hadn't known they would be, he'd have been able to tell by the looks on their faces: Barry's wet eyes, the grim soft line of Victor's mouth; the way Mera had lifted her chin, Wilson's set jaw and crossed arms.
"I need time," Bruce said.
Wilson rolled his eyes, scoffing. "You've got to be kidding me."
"We have to try," Barry said unsteadily. "You saw that—it really isn't Clark. None of it was Clark. We have to try."
"Yeah, great," Wilson said, deceptively mild. "Okay, so Superman got mind-controlled instead of just having a psychotic break on his own. Who gives a shit? We don't know how Darkseid did that to him, we don't know how to undo it, and we don't know how to stop it from happening again, even if we can snap him out of it after all. What the fuck is the point?"
"It has to count for something," Victor said. "If it wasn't him, if he didn't want to be doing what he did." He met Wilson's eyes, unflinching, and then Bruce's. It wasn't exactly hard to guess why he was saying it. "That has to matter. I don't want us to act like it doesn't."
"You remember him as he was," Mera said to Victor. "You, all of you who were part of the Justice League then. After Steppenwolf—it was nearly two years before Darkseid came at last. You knew him, you befriended him; you look at him and see what he once was, not what he is."
"Exactly," Wilson said. "We've got the means, we've got the opportunity, and if we fuck this up, we might not get either of those things again. We have to kill him, and we have to do it now."
"Hold on a second," Victor said sharply.
"You can't just—just—" Barry started, overlapping.
"Agreed," Bruce said.
Everyone fell silent.
"If this doesn't work," Bruce clarified. "I need time. That isn't something we have to spare. If this doesn't work, if I can't do it fast enough, then yes. I'll kill him myself, if that's the only way to get him out of Darkseid's hands."
"Great to hear you haven't completely fuckin' lost it," Wilson congratulated him, flat. "But I didn't say if, Wayne. Say you figure this out, hit him on the head real hard and knock Darkseid out of there—then what? We can't use him. He can't fight for us, when as far as we know Darkseid could stick a hand up his ass and turn him into a puppet again in the blink of an eye. He's probably sending a swarm to collect his toy for him right now. Say we can fight them off, say we don't all die doing it, fine; he sends more. We throw everything we've got at playing keep-away, protecting this guy, and what the fuck do we get to show for it?"
It was an impossible question to answer, precisely because the answer was so simple.
Bruce understood exactly how little that would mean to Wilson, how little it was in the objective scheme of things. It was just that it didn't matter. It was just that every cell in him, every inch of his body, utterly rebelled at the idea that that was in any way not worth every possible effort they could bring to bear to make it happen.
He held it back. He swallowed it down. He reined himself carefully in, and he met Wilson's eyes and said, "Three days."
"Three—come the fuck on—"
"We can do three days," Barry said quickly. "We can totally do three days."
"Three days," Victor agreed, and cut Wilson a glance. "If it doesn't work, he dies. Bruce already agreed to that. And you don't think it's going to work. So what do you have to lose?"
"Three fuckin' days I wouldn't need to waste on this bullshit if he would get a goddamn grip already," Wilson muttered, but coming from him it was concession, however grudgingly offered.
Only one voice still silent. Bruce turned to look at Mera.
And she was looking back at him. Staring at him, eyes narrowed searchingly, and he had no idea why.
"All right," she said at last, slowly. "Three days."
They didn't adjourn, not as the League had. They all knew when a conversation was over, and acted accordingly; there was too much to do, too much at stake, not to.
Barry flickered out first, and then Victor, who gave Bruce a nod, and Wilson, who didn't.
Mera didn't move.
PPerhaps she thought she could talk him out of it more easily without Wilson's helpful interjections. Perhaps she meant to try to whittle him down to two days, or even thirty-six hours.
It wouldn't work. He would fight for every second of those three days, every tick of the clock. He couldn't do less, for Clark.
But she only looked at him, for a long moment, still in that strange searching way. And when she spoke, what she said was, "When I asked you that question, I didn't think it had an answer."
Bruce went still.
Who have you ever loved?
It had more than one answer, in point of fact. And when she'd asked it, when he had been standing there knowing he was about to come face-to-face with the Joker, only one of those answers had felt relevant, though there had been no way he could bring himself to give it.
But that had been then. The Joker had done what Bruce had needed him to do, and Bruce had accepted that necessity and then had kept the promise he'd made to Harley Quinn. The Joker was dead.
Almost every answer he had no longer mattered. His parents. Dick. Agonies so old that the ache was a part of him. And now, since Darkseid, even Alfred—
But not Clark.
And she'd seen it in him. She must have. That moment, that moment of barely-controlled wordless reaction to Wilson; she'd recognized it for what it was, when Wilson, Barry, even Victor, hadn't.
He didn't say anything. He didn't need to.
"If it isn't enough," she said, low and even, "I'm—sorry."
Bruce made himself meet her eyes, for as long as he could stand to do it: an instant. And then he looked away again, and she left.
He began with the option he hated most: pain.
It was too obvious a possibility to ignore simply because everything else about it was abhorrent. If it worked, and he discovered as much only after having put it off for two days out of three, due to nothing more than personal reluctance, he'd be furious with himself. To eliminate it from contention as quickly as possible seemed preferable by far.
But if physical agony served in any way to lessen Darkseid's grip on Clark's mind, it was impossible to tell. Bruce caused no damage that would last, at least not once the kryptonite was removed from Clark's vicinity; even moving the mineral itself close enough to Clark's body, with Clark still wounded, bleeding and bleeding and bleeding, caused Clark—Darkseid—the body chained in front of Bruce to writhe and spasm and cry out in pain.
"You can't touch me this way," Darkseid would say, in between, grinning, Clark's teeth bloody where they'd bitten into Clark's own mouth, his tongue, his cheek. "Don't you understand that? I can let him have this. I can let him feel this." Darkseid would push Clark's body up, levering on one trembling elbow, and whisper, "He doesn't understand what's happening. He thinks you're torturing him. He doesn't know you can't hear him screaming for you to stop—pleading with you, begging you. He's starting to think you're enjoying it."
Bruce kept trying, until he felt he had exhausted this particular angle of attack. Not out of a sense of restraint, nor an inability to proceed further; he would do anything for Clark. But there were limits. There had to be, when he no longer had access to a mother box, and therefore couldn't count on being able to raise Clark from the dead if he pushed past the sum of Clark's body's capacity to absorb damage.
If Darkseid was telling him the truth, that was fine. Clark could do whatever he wanted to do to Bruce, once he was alone in his body and able to do it of his own free will. That was the goal. Everything else was secondary.
Next, he made what could only be categorized as emotional appeals. As precisely targeted as he could make them, of course, though that didn't stop the attempts from feeling pathetic, feeble, excruciatingly unequal to the task at hand. But he couldn't afford to dismiss the possibility.
That was what had stopped him, after all. Even if it had been unintentional on Clark's part. Even if in his case he had lacked the excuse of an alien tyrant, had surrendered control of himself not to psionic power capable of crushing a mind entirely but rather to the innate mire of his own nature.
Martha, first. Then Lois. Reminders of who they were, what they had been like; audio recordings of their voices, scrounged from the wreckage of the lake house and then the Hall of Justice.
Clark had survived what had happened to Martha, barely. It was Lois's death that had wrenched him apart the rest of the way—that had crumbled the walls of his mind and allowed Darkseid in. But either, or both, might be the key. Bruce couldn't discount it.
In some ways, these attempts were worse than inflicting physical pain on Clark had been. Darkseid never seemed to tire of it. Bruce wasted almost fourteen hours watching Clark scream at him furiously, wet-eyed, and then collapse; waiting, not able to dare to hope, until Clark came around—until what seemed like it might potentially be Clark came around. But Bruce refused to let his guard drop, and inevitably Darkseid gave in to his own smug desire to reveal that Bruce had failed yet again.
The fourth time through this excruciating routine, Darkseid laughed longer than usual, Clark's mouth twisting, Clark's eyes cold. "Astounding," he murmured. "What a talent you have for torment. Perhaps you're on the wrong side of this war. Perhaps you've already given more of yourself to me than you know."
Bruce bit down on the flood of scorn and derision he could have unleashed at that.
He knew himself. As if Darkseid's influence were necessary to make him into this—as if it hadn't been within him all along.
"He wants to kill you right now, you know," Darkseid added, in a gleefully amused tone.
Nothing he hadn't said before; he seemed to enjoy emphasizing the possibility of Clark's retribution, once Bruce had succeeded.
Which did imply that he considered it plausible. That was almost reassuring.
And then Bruce paused, and thought about it.
Darkseid had brought up the idea of Clark killing him almost from the beginning. That's what he would say to you, while he tore you apart. And yet—
Bruce had considered it himself. Whatever Clark wanted to do to him for this, Bruce would let him.
But it was hard to imagine that Clark's response would take the form of murder.
They'd had two years. Two years, after defeating Steppenwolf and sending his head rolling to the feet of his master, before Darkseid had come. Two years that were inevitably golden in Bruce's subjective memory, no matter how many struggles and petty frustrations they'd actually contained.
Two years, in which Clark had spoken to Bruce about Black Zero only once. But that once had proven unforgettable.
Clark had been, on any given day, generous. Generous, forthright, friendly. Pleasant to be around; dedicated to the League, and to helping make sure it ran smoothly. Inoffensive, courteous, attentive. But that day—
That day, Bruce had found him sitting alone on the roof. Curled in on himself, those broad shoulders bowed as if beneath too much weight for even Superman to carry.
Clark had tried to put it away, as soon as he'd realized Bruce was there. (Telling, in and of itself, that he hadn't known the moment Bruce had come within fifty feet of him.) But in the end, he'd told Bruce about it. About that day, about Zod. How frightened he'd been, how helpless he'd felt. How relentlessly agonizing it had been, even after everything Zod had done to him and to the world he loved, to kill Zod with his bare hands.
He'd come to help them with Steppenwolf. But what he'd done had been to prevent Steppenwolf from hurting the rest of them, holding him off to give them breathing room. Clark had struck him, yes. Beaten him, until he stayed down, and burned him, sliced a horn clean off. But it was Arthur who'd impaled him, and Diana who'd dealt the true killing blow in severing Steppenwolf's head from his body.
The first time Clark had killed an enemy, it had wrecked him. And the second time, he'd died. Little wonder he intended never to do so again if he could help it.
And he still hadn't. He had captured Diana and turned her over, yes; he had stood by and let Arthur die. Horrifying in and of itself—and yet, looked at in the right light, also a quiet suggestion that there were lengths to which even Darkseid's grip on his mind and body could not force him to go.
Which meant that if there was any chance left to break him free of that grip, that was where it lay.
And by the third day, Bruce had nothing left to lose.
He asked Mera to stand outside.
She gave him a narrow-eyed look for it, which was fair enough. He hadn't asked anyone to guard the strongbox that held Clark the first two days; he'd only gone in, and done what he had to do.
"I'm going to do something stupid," he said, because that was a framing with which she wouldn't disagree.
And, sure enough, her eyebrows rose. "At least this time you admit it," she murmured.
"I need someone here in case it doesn't work. Don't open the hatch again, no matter what happens. And if I don't come back out, if you hear him at the door instead, then blow it and take him down."
The enclosure had been wired all along, with the leftover kryptonite explosives; Bruce tried never to underestimate the importance of failsafes. Mera looked at the trigger switch, and then at him.
"All right," she said.
Then he went in.
It was all just as it had been since the first day. Clark lay, slack, head lolling, on the corrugated metal floor. His arms were chained behind him, his wrists shackled; the remains of the Superman suit clung to him, soaked with blood. None of his wounds had closed—they couldn't, with crates of kryptonite surrounding him, soft green light that made all that blood look almost black.
Bruce went to him. Clark's eyes opened, and for an instant, Bruce could almost believe it was Clark who looked up at him. At least until Clark's lip began to curl, a sneer carving itself across a face to which it could never plausibly belong.
Bruce knelt by Clark's head, and reached for the nearest kryptonite container, and closed the lid.
A shudder ran through Clark's body; the breath caught in Clark's throat. "Oh," Darkseid sighed, and then Clark's eyes fixed Bruce with a sharp blue gaze. "Do you have any idea what you're doing?"
"Yes," Bruce said, and reached for the next.
There were eight crates. When he had closed three, Clark's body had strength enough to curl up off the floor, and the deepest wound across Clark's forehead had closed, leaving only a smeared trickle of blood behind.
That had to be enough.
He reached for Clark's wrists next, pressed his thumb to the hidden biometric seal and cracked one shackle open.
And within an instant, Clark's hand had jerked itself free and closed around Bruce's throat.
The enclosure, the trailer, seemed to move around him. He was slammed to the floor, pinned, the full weight of Clark's body holding him down. Clark's other arm was still chained, twisted behind him, but it didn't matter; his hand was iron, his fingers and thumb digging in with bruising relentlessness at either side of Bruce's throat, his palm inexorably closing off Bruce's trachea between.
Bruce's hands came up to grasp his forearm, useless reflex. Bruce did what he could to control the way his body wanted to thrash, pointless as it was under the circumstances.
"Incredible," Darkseid spat in his face, Clark's mouth twisting. "You honestly thought you could save him. You honestly thought you could free him. Such arrogance. But then I suppose it's no surprise that you find yourself unable to truly grasp the power of Darkseid—"
Bruce gripped Clark's wrist, throat spasming, and hung on, with every ounce of grim determination he could bring to bear. The skin of his face had gone tight, straining, and was undoubtedly red, the circulation of blood cut off almost as thoroughly as his air supply; his head pounded with it. He felt a muscle spasm, somewhere in the distant remainder of his body. But he couldn't struggle. He couldn't waste air.
He had to give Clark as much time as he could.
"I could take you now," Darkseid was saying, leaning down, breathing the words against Bruce's jaw. "I could break you open, the same way I broke him. But I think I like this better. I think I'll enjoy this more. There's a certain symmetry in it: that you should be killed at last by exactly the same thing that you believed would be your salvation. I couldn't have orchestrated a better punishment myself."
Bruce's chest clenched, his ribs aching. One leg tensed in an involuntary and ill-coordinated kick, even though it was trapped by Clark's knee and could do no damage whatsoever. Soon, he thought distantly, he'd begin seizing.
But Mera was outside, and she knew what to do. Clark would be saved after all; Bruce could do at least that much for him, however appallingly little it amounted to.
And then he realized dimly that Darkseid had stopped talking.
He tried to force his weak, blurring eyes to focus. Clark's face had changed; there was tension in it now, in the set of his jaw and the lines around his eyes. The pressure of his grasp around Bruce's throat faltered for an instant—and then it redoubled, and blackness swallowed the edges of Bruce's vision, Bruce's eyes rolling back helplessly in his head—
No. He couldn't let go now. He had to give Clark more time.
He clawed his way back into himself, sheer stubborn refusal to submit. Above him, Clark's teeth gritted, Clark's eyes narrowing to a squint and his head turning as if to shield him from a blinding light. Bruce had one hand twisted, spasming, into the cuff of the Superman suit around Clark's wrist; the other, he discovered himself closing over the back of Clark's, across the span of his throat, as if to help Clark strangle him.
Clark's entire body convulsed, once and then again—the first time, barely a shiver, but the second a true paroxysm, racking him furiously. Clark's eyes met Bruce's, and Clark's teeth dug so deeply into Clark's mouth that like this, still surrounded by five open containers of kryptonite, still chained with it, Clark's lip tore open and bled freely—
And then Clark made a ragged, anguished, terrified sound, hoarse in the back of his throat, and his hand opened.
He ripped himself away from Bruce in a clank of chains, a thunk of metal as he struck the floor. Bruce couldn't follow, couldn't move at all, for a long moment; he lay there and gasped helplessly, chest heaving, a landed fish. He was trembling all over, and he couldn't make it stop, couldn't force either his mind or his body into motion.
But he had air again. He sucked it in, coughed it back out, once and then again, and at last he was able to tip himself onto his side. He pushed himself up with one arm, steadied himself, and reached for Clark, heart pounding.
Clark was lying there half-curled, one arm still chained behind him, his face hidden in the crook of the other. He wasn't making a sound, and for an instant Bruce couldn't tell whether he was breathing—thought perhaps the effort of banishing Darkseid from him had killed him after all.
But at the first touch of Bruce's hand against his back, he shuddered. Bruce fumbled closer, abruptly desperate, dragging him up; his face was wet, blank. He was weeping, silent shocked tears spilling from dazed eyes. He wasn't looking at Bruce, and then was. And then his eyes dropped to Bruce's throat, to whatever spectacular marks must be beginning to make themselves visible there, and he let out an awful ragged sound and tried to twist away. "Bruce, god—"
Bruce couldn't let him go. He should have. Every line of Clark's body was asking him to. But he couldn't. "Clark," he said, hoarse and helpless, swept up in a sudden brimming tide of overwhelming relief, and he clutched Clark to him and held on.
Clark didn't know where he was.
He didn't know what was happening. He didn't know why Bruce was—how Bruce could even stand to be near him, how Bruce could bear to touch him when he had—after he had—
He couldn't stop himself from leaning into Bruce's hands on him, even though it was the last thing he ought to let himself do. For all that he'd been limp on the floor with Clark's hand crushing the life out of him not thirty seconds ago, he felt warm and solid, strong, curled around Clark the way he was, as if he didn't care what Clark had done to him, as if he wasn't going to stop.
Bruce spoke. Clark couldn't make himself listen to it. If Bruce was telling him to get up, to let go, he didn't want to hear it.
There was a sound. A sound, repeated: once, twice, three times. Clark understood abruptly what it was and jerked in Bruce's grip, pushed himself up and caught at Bruce's wrist.
Eight crates. Six were closed, now, and Bruce had one hand still closed around Clark's shoulder and the other on the lid of the seventh.
"No," Clark said, sharp, panicked. "Stop. Bruce—"
He could feel it already, the throb and ache of his body easing, the strength flooding him. He was hurt, bleeding, but the wounds were closing, in step with the kryptonite as Bruce shut it away behind lead.
It made Clark sick. He couldn't stand it. He wanted to grab a piece and swallow it, just to make sure Bruce couldn't take it away from him.
"Don't," he said.
Bruce looked at him. "I was going to leave the last."
"Leave two," Clark said. "Please."
"All right," Bruce said slowly.
He drew his hand away from the crate—and then he touched Clark's face with it, made Clark meet his eyes.
"I won't risk you if I can help it, Clark. You can trust that. I won't let him get in again, no matter what I have to do."
Clark squeezed his eyes shut. His stomach rolled. He could still feel the crisp resistance of Bruce's trachea under his hand, there but not nearly enough to stop him. He had a pretty good idea exactly how far Bruce would go, if he thought it would get Clark away from—away from—
Clark found himself grateful, distantly, that Bruce hadn't said the name. He couldn't make himself think it; it felt like it would be an invitation.
He couldn't remember. It wasn't that easy, that simple. The awareness of what had happened was in him—he could feel it there, roiling jagged edges, too sharp to touch without being cut to the bone. It would eat him from the inside out, if he let it.
But whatever he could or couldn't pick free of it, he knew what had happened to him. The presence that had taken up all the space in him, the cold seeping dark that had filled him up until he'd drowned in it.
And Bruce had finally found enough kryptonite to stop him anyway. Having it there, the green glow of it, the awareness of everything it took from him when it was this close to him—it was a gift, and he was going to cling to it with both hands.
Another noise. Clark looked up.
He and Bruce were locked inside a metal box. But there was a hatch in one side, where Bruce had been coming in and out, and someone had opened it.
Clark knew her, and didn't. Arthur had brought her by—showed off the Hall to her, introduced her to the League. She'd helped them out a couple times, showed up looking for Arthur and ended up waiting for him, sitting with Clark in the lounge—
But everything had changed, and Arthur was dead, and Mera was standing there staring at him with hard eyes, trident braced in her hands like she would put it through him if he moved.
He almost hoped she would do it anyway.
"I thought I said not to open the hatch again," Bruce said to her.
"I don't take orders from you unless I wish to," she said evenly. "I heard you say his name."
"Yes," Bruce said, and his hand tightened, a brief flicker of unconscious pressure, around Clark's arm. "It's him."
Mera lifted her chin a little. "Is it."
"Yes," Bruce bit out.
"And how long will it be him?"
"I need to clean him up," Bruce said, and Mera let out a frustrated breath through her nose.
"If you cannot find a way to answer that question, Wilson will ensure it doesn't need an answer," she warned him.
But she let the tips of the trident drop low, and then she turned and walked away; and when she came back, she was holding a canister of water, a handful of rags, and a battered first aid kit instead.
Bruce did clean him up.
He was gentler, more careful, than he needed to be. Clark was covered in blood, but nearly everywhere he'd been wounded, the wounds had closed. Some of them looked days old, despite the fresh blood Bruce had to wipe away from their edges; some of them were gone entirely.
But there were still two open crates, and the chains that shackled one of Clark's wrists to the floor behind him itched and burned against his skin in a way he recognized. The deepest injury he had, wet and open all the way through his thigh, was still bleeding in a sluggish trickle.
Bruce dealt with that one first, cleaned it and wrapped it in gauze so white it didn't quite look real.
Then he got the rest of the rags wet, too, and he—started.
Clark's knee, his shin. The sole of his foot, where the boot that hardened out of the uniform's material as it stretched down his legs had been split open. The other foot, and Bruce was being brisk, efficient, clinical, but jesus, Clark wanted to shove him away, to ask him what the hell he thought he was doing, kneeling there with the shape of Clark's handprint coming up dark in a ring around his throat and washing Clark's feet.
A flicker of an impression: Darkseid offering him exactly that, a warm coaxing whisper deep in Clark's head. Telling him he could have what he wanted, that Bruce would fall on his knees and worship Clark like a god, if Clark would only—
"I was going to tell you I couldn't put the kryptonite away entirely," Bruce said, quiet. "I intended to apologize for it. I don't know whether Darkseid can find you again, whether he needs to see you or touch you, or whether he left himself a trail of breadcrumbs the first time that he can follow back to you whenever he wants to. But I take it I don't need to."
Clark shook his head, convulsive, and trapped a strung-out laugh behind his teeth.
He'd make a coffin out of kryptonite and bury himself in it, if he thought Bruce would let him. Two crates, the chains, were going to have to cut it instead.
Bruce moved up to Clark's hip, a crust of old dark blood that slanted across it in a spatter from what had been an open wound in Clark's gut. His gaze flicked up to meet Clark's.
"You remember," he said.
It wasn't a question, not quite. A statement, but one he was putting out there so Clark could agree or disagree with it, so Clark's reaction to it could tell Bruce the answer he couldn't ask for directly.
"I—know," Clark said. "It's not in order. I couldn't tell it to you. I can't—" He had to stop; his throat had closed, rebellious. "I can't think about it," he managed at last. "But I know. I know what I did."
"Clark," Bruce said, very low.
"I know what I did," Clark repeated, louder. It had been him. His hands, his eyes; his powers. Bruce couldn't argue with that, no matter how much he seemed to want to. And Clark didn't want to have that power back, didn't want to be able to—
"I know," he said again, but it came out strange, strained, and then he was—he twisted under Bruce's hands, rolled to one side and threw up, even though he didn't think he'd eaten anything in weeks, even though there was nothing in him but bile.
Literally and figuratively, he thought distantly, panting, mouth sour.
Bruce's hands were warm, steady, against his shoulder, the back of his neck. Clark hated how good it felt, the comfort of it—hated that Bruce could offer that to him so readily, even now.
"All right," Bruce said. "Okay."
He helped Clark sit up, against the wall this time so Clark didn't have to hold himself up. The wet rags were cool, soft, soothing, across Clark's waist, over the bare span across his ribs where something had sliced raggedly through the suit.
God, Clark thought hazily, with something that was almost anger. What the hell was wrong with Bruce?
But when he opened his mouth, that wasn't the question that came out of it.
Bruce met his eyes.
"Why? Come on, Bruce. You know," Clark insisted. "You know there were easier ways to stop me. What did you—what the hell even made you think—?"
He didn't know how to say it; his tongue couldn't find the words. What the hell even made you think that you could save me? What the hell even made you think that there was anything left to save?
On one level, it made as much sense as anything. Bruce had always been like this: got an idea in his head, and once he'd settled on it, once he'd decided what he was going to do, he couldn't be stopped until he'd done it, and damn anything that got in the way. But—
But Clark had learned that because the first time he'd seen it in action, the thing Bruce had decided to do was kill him.
The next thing had been to bring him back. To bring him back, form the League, defeat Steppenwolf.
Two years. But Clark had never quite been able to set aside the knowledge of what Bruce had seen in him, the things Bruce had believed him capable of.
And now Darkseid had proven Bruce had been right all along. Bruce's nightmare, even if it had a new angle to it—even if Bruce had always imagined Clark doing it deliberately.
But if anything, didn't that make it worse? Didn't Bruce understand how much more frightening it was, that Clark didn't even have to decide to destroy the world, that he could be made to—
"Clark," Bruce said, somewhere incredibly far away. "Clark."
A strong, sure hand against Clark's jaw. The reassuring warmth and weight of a body; god, Clark had been alone inside himself for so long, hadn't touched or been touched since Darkseid's palm had settled over his shoulder. He couldn't help but reach for it blindly, clutch at it.
Bruce's breath hitched in his throat, an inch from Clark's face. Because, Clark understood distantly, he'd let Clark grab him and huddle pathetically in the lee of his shoulder.
"I knew," Bruce said, against Clark's temple. "Understand? I knew you were alive. I knew it wasn't you. And I'd have killed you if I had to, if that was the only way to get you out. I'd never have let him keep you, no matter what it took."
It was terrifying, unfathomable. That Bruce should have believed in him, should have kept believing in him, should have dedicated so much to the effort to save him one way or another even as Clark had been proving to him relentlessly how little he deserved it—
It made Clark sick, and furious, and horribly, desperately grateful; his eyes stung hot, and he should have had the strength to explain to Bruce what a foolish mistake he'd made, but he knew already that he didn't.
Bruce touched his face, his hair, gently, and eased back to reach for the canister of water—touched a fresh cool rag to the hollow of Clark's throat and the sticky blood there, and Clark let him do it and didn't tell him to stop.
He didn't want to leave the room.
He didn't even want to take the chains off. One shackled wrist didn't seem like enough, but Bruce didn't put the other shackle back on. Sitting against the wall with the anchor that bolted the chains to the floor in front of him, the best Clark could do was to gather the length of it up, settle the weight of it over his legs. Touching it hurt; that was a comforting reminder. It could hold him, at least for now.
Barry was still alive. Clark hadn't been sure that was true—most of the images in his head were real, but he was starting to think that sometimes it had been Darkseid, showing Clark what he wanted Clark to see, hoping it would crumble what was left of Clark a little further.
As if he'd needed to.
Victor was still alive, too. Barry was a flicker, flashing into place just long enough for Clark to see his face, his wet eyes, and suck in a breath—just long enough for his weight to touch Clark in a split-second hug, before he was gone again. But Victor came in and sat with him; touched the back of his hand, blinking hard, and said, "I'm glad Bruce was right."
Victor was the one who told him what was happening. About the rest of the people Bruce had found and rescued, the convoy Bruce had arranged, the reason behind the rumble of constant motion around them; that they had to keep moving, had to keep Clark moving, had to try to keep ahead of the parademon swarms Darkseid had no doubt sent out looking for him.
When he was done, Clark couldn't look at him. "You shouldn't be," he managed. "You shouldn't be doing any of this. Bruce shouldn't be making you—"
Victor snorted, a wry half-breath through his nose. "Now you sound like Wilson," he said, and then clarified, "Slade," when Clark gave him an uncertain look. "He doesn't see the point."
Clark let his head tip back against the wall, and closed his eyes. "He's right. You can't even use me in a fight. I could get—it could happen again any minute. He's right."
Victor was quiet, for a minute. "Maybe," he said at last. "But we can't do this forever without reminding ourselves what the fuck it is we're fighting for. And if that's you, for Bruce, then that's good enough for me."
"Victor," Clark said, hoarse.
"There's not a lot left out there," Victor said. "There's not a lot left of us, either. I've thought about how I might end up dying. Kind of hard to avoid it. And I think I'd rather do it for something that matters to me than just because I can't keep going anymore."
After Victor left, Clark couldn't get the words, the way his voice had sounded saying them, out of his head.
Maybe that was why it happened.
Or maybe it was just because Clark was fucking terrified. Maybe some part of him could feel what was coming for him; maybe for all that he was Superman, Bruce was the one who seemed solid, strong, unstoppable. Maybe if anybody was going to own him, hold him, take him, then there was only one person left he wanted it to be.
All he knew was that he sat there for what felt like a long time, and the longer he did, the longer he thought about it, the more something welled up in him—something that felt a little like fear, and a little like desperation, and tied a hot heavy knot in his gut. And then he heard a sound, and looked up, and the hatch opened.
It was Bruce, coming back. He was in the undersuit, cowl off, the way he always seemed to be now; as if he wanted to make a point of it, wanted to prove he didn't need to have armor to be willing to come within arm's reach of Clark.
His face was harder, sterner, than it used to be. His hair was grayer, his body leaner and stronger. There were too many lines around his eyes—sharp lines, sad lines.
But he still looked at Clark the same way he had after Clark had come back to life in front of him. Two years, and that look had never gone away: like he was grateful.
Clark couldn't stand to think he was going to regret it.
"Bruce," he said.
Bruce must have heard something in his voice. Bruce's brow drew down, half a frown, and he crossed the room to Clark, gaze searching as it flicked back and forth across Clark's face. "What is it?"
Clark could guess, abruptly, what he was looking for—and jesus, if that was it, what the hell was he doing coming closer? "No, it's not that," he managed to say, eyes hot. "It's not him. I'm fine."
Bruce let out a slow breath; the line of his shoulders lost some indefinable tension. "Clark—"
"Do you know why it worked? How he got in?"
Bruce looked at him cautiously, almost warily, and then offered, "Grief."
"Close," Clark acknowledged, hoarse, and then bit his lip. "I guess it's the same thing, in a way. But I think it was—I think it was because the moment she died, the moment I understood that she had, I was alone."
Something crossed Bruce's face. He knelt just where he was for a second, without moving. And then he reached out and clasped his hand around the nape of Clark's neck, and he said, "You aren't."
"I know," Clark said. "That was true then, too. But I didn't feel it. I felt alone. I broke, and he knew it, and he pried the pieces apart—"
"Clark," Bruce said quietly, and Clark became aware only then that he was shivering in Bruce's grip, full-body, involuntary.
"Please," Clark heard himself say.
Bruce went still.
"Please. Give me something. Give me something, I need—I have to have something. I have to have something to hold onto. I can't—" He broke off, voice cracking, and shook his head. His vision was blurring, his eyes spilling over, and he fumbled for Bruce's wrist, hung on for all he was worth. "If he does come for me, I don't want to be empty. I don't want there to be room for him. I want it to be you. I want it to be you instead. I want you to—"
He didn't know what to say, how to put it into words Bruce would listen to. I want you to be the one that owns me, if someone's going to. I want to belong to you. I want you to be so deep inside me that if he comes back he won't be able to root you out, and he didn't mean that he wanted Bruce to fuck him except in all the ways he did.
But that was stupid, irrational. There was no reason to think that was going to make a difference. Bruce was about to point that out, and he was going to do it so carefully, so logically, that Clark would have no choice but to agree with him. And then when Darkseid did come, Clark wouldn't have anything left at all—
Bruce's hand shifted on the back of Clark's neck; Bruce's fingers slid into Clark's hair and curled there, tight, a sharp anchoring pressure. Clark followed that pressure mindlessly, his head tipping back, his mouth parting helplessly.
Bruce kissed him.
It was as hard, as thorough, as relentlessly uncompromising, as everything Bruce did. It was the easiest thing in the world to surrender to it; and surely, surely, if Clark only handed himself over to Bruce completely enough, there wouldn't be anything left that wasn't Bruce's, that didn't have Bruce all over it. Darkseid wouldn't be able to take him, if he'd already given himself away.
It didn't make sense anywhere except Clark's head. But wasn't that the only place that mattered? It was how Clark felt about it that counted, deep down in the wordless heart of him that couldn't be reasoned with. That was what had broken in him, when Lois had died. That was where Darkseid had taken him over, reached into him from—that was the part of him that couldn't stand to kill Bruce, that had turned itself inside out rather than let that happen.
Clark didn't know whether Bruce understood any of that. But if he didn't, he didn't seem to need to. He held Clark's face where he wanted it, and he kissed Clark, hard and then softer and then hard again, until Clark had sunk into it utterly, following his lead without having to think about it, alive to the barest pressure of Bruce's mouth.
He touched Clark with his hands—skimmed them over the uniform first, unhesitating, certain, as if there were no question that they were allowed wherever he chose to put them. As if he were assessing something that already belonged to him.
The suit was still torn, slashed open here and there, gaping holes crossing Clark's torso and arm and thigh. Clark hadn't thought twice about it, hadn't had the presence of mind to care what he looked like or to even consider it suggestive of anything. That had been so far from the reality he inhabited that it would've been laughable. But—
But it was starting to feel a lot less funny, when Bruce slid his fingers into the largest slash across Clark's chest and then flattened his whole hand against Clark skin-to-skin.
Clark's breath caught. His heart was pounding. He hadn't thought—he'd asked Bruce for this because somewhere in his head, he'd been sure he needed it. But only in his head, in his mind. He hadn't thought he was going to want it.
Two years; Bruce had insisted on learning how to remove the suit from Clark in cases of serious injury or emergency after a month. He kept one hand against Clark's chest, roaming the curves and angles of muscle, and with the other he touched the suit in exactly the place Clark had once showed him, moved his fingers across the surface of it in the pattern that would make it come apart for him.
It felt like it was working on Clark, too: like Bruce knew just how to move his hands over Clark to make Clark come apart.
He stripped Clark most of the way out of the suit, but he left the chain, the shackle that enclosed Clark's wrist, alone. Clark could guess Bruce had been paying enough attention to realize Clark wanted it on, but in his gut, in the mindless frantic part of him that needed this so badly, it sent hot fierce sparks through him to feel it there—to have Bruce catch the chain in his hand, wrap it around Clark's other wrist, a facsimile of the second shackle that Bruce didn't want to close. He pulled it tight, forced Clark's hands into the small of Clark's back and then pinned Clark down on top of them. The kryptonite in them bit and fizzed along Clark's nerves, and there were still two open crates in the room; Clark's arms ached and tingled, and Clark couldn't pull away, couldn't push him off. Clark couldn't hurt him, couldn't do anything to him, and the relief of that was so intense, a peak as sharp as pleasure ever could have been, that Clark almost sobbed with it.
And then Bruce kneed his thighs apart, the chain in one hand and the freshly-bared curve of Clark's ass in the other, and fucked him.
Clark had expected—he didn't know what he'd expected. But it hadn't been that he'd find himself so hard; that the body that had been taken from him, the body Darkseid had been using as a weapon against everything he had ever cared about, could feel so good again. It hadn't been Bruce's eyes on his face, dark and intent, or Bruce's mouth on his temple, his cheek, his jaw, by turns.
And it hadn't been the way Bruce held him, the devastatingly precise pace Bruce set: one slow, deep thrust at a time, without haste or urgency, as if they had all the time in the world. As if Bruce did own him, and always would.
The day after Bruce fucked him, the swarm arrived.
Clark didn't know that was what was happening, at first. He felt a hitch in the motion of the trailer around him, but his senses were dulled too far by the kryptonite for him to guess what had caused it, to hear anything that was happening outside or to look through the trailer and see for himself.
And then there was a squealing sound, and he felt the wheels of the truck slewing sideways beneath him. He had an instant to realize something had to be genuinely wrong, to catch his breath, and then the truck was overturned.
The world blurred. He fell, struck something, fell again. The chain, the shackle that was still around his wrist, jerked taut, and he was grateful for the anchor—he hung onto it as the trailer flipped, landed, flipped again. One of the heavy lead-lined kryptonite crates struck him hard, leaving a hot throbbing stroke across his ribs; the ones that were closed were just toppling past him and clanging off the metal walls that closed him in, but the open ones had spilled, rough crystalline chunks of kryptonite tumbling through the air and scattering in sprays of wild green light.
And then, before it had even come to a stop, the motion of the trailer reversed itself. Metal screamed, the artificial lights in the corners of the enclosure that held Clark flickering and going dim at the same time that a sudden spill of actual sunlight left him blinking, vision full of spots.
The side of the trailer had been ripped open, peeled up like the top of a tin can, and one wall's worth of reinforced steel had bent with it. Even if that hadn't been enough to let Clark hear the flutter of wings, he could see the flitting, wavering shadows crossing back and forth through that spill of daylight.
Clark wanted to scrabble for the kryptonite that lay tossed around him, to crouch in the corner furthest from that thick sunlight and pile it up around himself. But would that help? On the one hand, even if Darkseid did take his mind again, Clark wouldn't do him much good, bolted to a wall by a chain he could make sure he was too weak to break. On the other hand—
That was another sound Clark recognized. Thrumming, reverberating, fundamentally alien. The same thing Steppenwolf had used to move around, that column of light.
The parademons screeched, crowded thickly around the hole they'd made and tore at the edges of it with claws that shrieked against the metal. A moment later, another side of the trailer was gone, and two of them darted in to lunge at Clark—he grabbed the closest latched crate of kryptonite and slammed it into them, and he had just enough of the strength, like this, to send them hurtling away.
The next one that came at him dissolved before it could reach him, in a blast of golden heat.
The wind had whipped up, and the air was full of dust. But Clark spotted the silver gleam of Victor's body through it after a second. Slade Wilson was at his back, a sword in each hand, mouth twisted in a shout, with a slice across his forehead already dripping blood—maybe the parademons had gotten a hit in, or maybe he'd just been caught by an edge of metal or a spray of glass when the truck had crashed.
Barry was there, in the form of a blue-white flicker that kept sputtering its way across Clark's field of vision. Clark had no idea where Bruce was.
And Mera was right in front of him, teeth bared, spearing two parademons at once on the length of her trident.
There was another one coming at her back. Wilson saw it, shouted something to Victor, and Victor turned to fire at it—but that left Wilson's back open for a second in turn, and three more parademons spotted as much in the same instant Clark did.
He was frozen for a second, wrist tense against the chain. He had to stay here. Didn't he? That was safer for him, safer for all of them.
But god, all the time Darkseid had had him, he'd been stuck just like this: trapped in his body, watching. He couldn't stand by and let something happen right in front of him, not when he could stop it.
He squeezed his eyes shut, and strained. He felt skin break, the slick sudden heat of blood as the shackle bit into the ridge of his knuckles. And then something gave in his hand with a sharp cracking sound, and the shackle slid off, and he was free.
He grabbed a crate of kryptonite. One stride, and jesus, his body ached and his broken hand was blazing with agony; but two strides, three, and he'd cleared most of the loose kryptonite covering what was now the bottom side of the trailer. A fourth, and he was standing in sunlight.
His hand put itself back together. The crate in his hands weighed nothing. The parademons throwing themselves at Wilson were screaming, closing in, and Wilson had turned to face them with a yell, swords high.
Clark was there before Wilson could swing.
He dropped the crate at Wilson's feet, because he remembered what Victor had said; Wilson would do what needed doing, if he had to.
The parademons were almost frozen in space, when Clark was moving this fast. He still had plenty of time to lift his head, face them, and come off his feet and into the air, easy as breathing.
He struck them. They tumbled away, wailing. A dozen more pairs of red whirling eyes came to rest on him, but they weren't what he was afraid of, and the sudden fluttering mass of them surrounding him couldn't help them consume him.
The sun was still touching him. The dust in the air changed the cast of it, made it duller and redder, but there was still more than enough yellow light in it for him. He felt soaked with it, after all those long days in the trailer surrounded by four walls and piles of kryptonite, and his vision washed readily scarlet; he burned them apart in the air, the shredded smoking remains of them blasted away from him by the force of it.
"Fuckin' A," Wilson said below him, grudgingly appreciative.
And then Clark heard him curse, heard his armored hands fumbling for the crate Clark had given him, an instant before Clark was showered with soft blue light—and then hammered straight down into the ground.
Rock cracked underneath him. It was a good thing he didn't need to breathe, because he couldn't. A huge gray hand had closed around his throat, and Darkseid's coal-bright eyes were boring into him, Darkseid's mouth curling into a sneer.
"You believed you could defy Darkseid," he gritted out. "You believed you could escape Darkseid. You are wrong, Kryptonian."
No. No. Clark thrashed, frantic, and swung an arm as hard as he could—he struck Darkseid, and was rewarded with a grimace, a furious growl. At least Darkseid had felt it, but god, there was no way that was going to be enough for Clark to have any hope of prying him off, and a second later Darkseid had caught Clark's arm in his free hand, was squeezing so hard Clark could hear his own bones starting to crack with the strain.
"You were Darkseid, and you will be Darkseid again. You will."
Clark screwed his eyes shut, and a frantic, ragged sound tore itself from his throat. He could hear Wilson shouting, the crackle of Barry's lightning and the hum of Victor's body powering up, the pitch of it changing. And he could feel it, just the same way it had happened before: the icy lightless void that was Darkseid, pooling in the back of his head, groping with a million shadowed fingers for the slightest crack in his mind.
And there were cracks. Of course there were. He'd been shattered a thousand times over, had only barely started trying to figure out how to put himself back together; it hardly even felt possible that he could.
He felt Darkseid find them, felt the black pulsing pressure of Darkseid seep its way into them.
Last time, there hadn't been anything he could do about it. He hadn't been able to, hadn't had the presence of mind to even want to. There hadn't been anything left in him except the ashes where Lois wasn't, and Darkseid had swept through him like a wave.
But this time, he felt it happening, and he hated it, because if there was one thing in his head right now, it was Bruce.
Bruce. Bruce, and the terrible, impossible lengths he'd gone to in trying to save Clark; the color of his eyes, the touch of his hands. The people he'd saved, people whose names Clark didn't even know, who were out there right now in what was left of Bruce's convoy, fighting and dying. The rest of the League-that-wasn't, hard-edged and ground down, who were probably trying right this second to figure out how to shoot enough kryptonite into Clark to kill him before Darkseid could finish taking him over—and the least, the absolute least that Clark could do for them was try to slow Darkseid down—
That was all he was trying to do. Stopping Darkseid entirely wasn't even on his radar; he wouldn't have thought it was possible.
But suddenly, within the space of that set of thoughts, that flicker of grim determination coming alight inside Clark, Darkseid recoiled from him.
That lightless pressure in Clark's head eased. Darkseid's hand loosened, and Clark gripped Darkseid's wrist and wrenched it an inch further from his throat, gasping for air.
"Stop that," Darkseid hissed, furious. "Give me your hatred, your anger, your fear. Give me your despair—"
The black frozen mass of him in Clark's mind was scrabbling now, digging its claws in. Clark didn't know whether he could shove it out, didn't know how to begin to try; and then Darkseid made an irritated sound and shrank from him.
It was sheer stupid reflex, the contrary impulse to do the opposite of whatever Darkseid seemed to want, that drove Clark to grab after him. Literally, Clark's grip tightening on Darkseid's gauntleted wrist, but also in the space inside him, clutching what he could of that pooling nothingness and hanging on. He understood in an instant that it was—that it counted, that Darkseid would have to pull free of him there also before Darkseid would be able to move away from him physically, and it wasn't much of an advantage, but it was something.
And then, somewhere that it took Clark a moment to understand was outside of him, Bruce shouted, "Now."
Clark heard a wet, thick sound. The pressure of Darkseid's mind flared and vanished, and at the same time, Darkseid howled, jerked away from him and was gone. Clark used the speed and the flight simultaneously, came to his feet with a thought, and Darkseid was on the ground a stride away, with Mera's trident thrust through his back, the triple points jutting out through his chestplate coated in black blood.
Mera was still gripping it. She yanked it out, expressionless, and then shoved Darkseid onto his back with one foot and impaled him again.
"No," Darkseid spat, but it was choked, spoken through a mouthful of blood.
"Yes," Mera said evenly, and then did it again.
And this time Darkseid seized, the breath passing from him, and then went still, and his eyes went dark, the light gone out of them.
For an instant, the silence held. And then every single parademon in the air around them screamed, thin and scraping, ten thousand nails on a chalkboard, and came apart into a burst of dust and ash.
"Well," Wilson said, after a moment. "That's going to save us a lot of work." He sniffed, and stepped over to Darkseid—shoved one sword, and then the other, into Darkseid's chest, one above Mera's trident and one below.
"Dude, he's dead," Barry said, unsteady with shock.
"Just checking," Wilson said. "Never hurts to be thorough, kid."
"Clark," Bruce said.
Clark couldn't look at him. Clark couldn't figure out how to look at him.
It was good. It was—it was incredible. It beggared belief. Darkseid was dead, gone. Clark didn't know why he was shaking, why he couldn't breathe.
"Clark," Bruce said again, and Clark didn't know when he'd moved, but he had. He'd suited up for the fight, and he was right there, familiar cowl, familiar chin, gloved hand closing carefully around Clark's arm. "It's fine. You're okay."
"I'm okay," Clark repeated, and it was astounding, a miracle he'd never have thought to beg the universe for, to hear himself say it, to understand that it was even almost true.
Bruce had a compound, not far from what used to be Metropolis.
There was no danger anymore, or at least not anything Clark couldn't handle. Not now that it was safe for him to. He could pick up each of the trucks that had formed the convoy and set them upright on their wheels—push the dents out of fenders, hoods, axles, with one hand. He still had the suit on, and people were looking at him warily, but it was almost—
It was almost like he was Superman again, in the ways that actually counted.
He still kind of wanted a piece of kryptonite. Just to have, to carry around. Just in case.
But he could settle for watching Slade Wilson latch a crate back up and carry it away instead of returning it to the semitrailer with the rest of them.
It felt strange, quiet. The calm after the storm, the slow stunned understanding that it was over and it hadn't taken you with it.
At last there was nothing left to do but drive. On autopilot, Clark climbed back into the semitrailer—he'd bent the sides back into place, welded them together with his eyes so it almost looked whole again. But he stalled out standing in what was left of the steel-reinforced room he'd been living in.
The chain, the shackles, were lying where he'd left them. He felt the impulse to put them back on, to make himself safe again; except at this point that was closing the barn door after the horse was already in the next county over.
He knelt down, and touched them. There was still something reassuring about the bite of the kryptonite worked into them—about the fact that Bruce had made them.
Bruce knew how to hold him. Bruce had been able to take his powers away from him, when he hadn't been able to stop himself. Bruce had gotten him back, when he couldn't have done it on his own.
Not that it was the first time. Bruce was two for two on that score.
Maybe that was why it had been so easy, Clark thought, following the shape of one shackle with his fingertip. Maybe he'd already been Bruce's, one way or another, and he just hadn't known it yet.
"Clark," Bruce said.
Clark turned and looked over his shoulder.
Bruce was watching him. His voice had been carefully modulated, colorless, but his eyes always looked so much starker, almost more expressive, in the cowl; there was something uncertain in them, in the way they flicked down to the chain and then back up to Clark's face.
"It's fine," Clark said, and then let his mouth slant the way it wanted to. "You were right. I'm okay. I'll—I'll be okay." He swallowed, and then added, more quietly, "Thank you."
A flash of something, intense but hard to catch, hard to understand with so much of Bruce's face covered. Clark was startled by the tone of Bruce's voice, the way he gritted out the words: "Christ, don't thank me."
Bruce turned on his heel. But Clark was almost as fast as he'd ever been, and within a blink he was in front of Bruce, settling a careful hand in the middle of Bruce's chest.
"Bruce," he said again, cautious.
He reached for the nape of Bruce's neck with his other hand. Bruce's breath hitched; but he didn't tell Clark to stop, and Clark found the catch, drew the cowl away.
Bruce met his eyes, jaw set.
"Don't thank me," he said again, but this time it was quiet, almost soft. "I have every single thing left in the world that I want. And what did I do to deserve it? I was stubborn; as if that's a virtue, in me. I was stubborn, I refused to listen to anyone who wanted to stop me, you needed someone and there I was—"
Clark shook his head, throat tight. "You believed in me," he forced out, hoarse. "Even after everything, you had faith in me, you—" He bit his lip. He'd been so deep in his head, so afraid and so frantic, that he'd barely understood it at the time. But now it felt obvious: the way Bruce had looked at him, touched him, fucked him. "You wanted me," he made himself say, because it felt like it couldn't be true, as wrecked as he'd been, as wrecked as he was, and yet he couldn't shake it.
And Bruce didn't spit it back in his face. Bruce didn't do anything. He stood there, and then he let his eyes fall shut. "That was the easiest part of all."
His voice was shockingly normal, even conversational. It was almost hard for Clark to understand what he'd said.
Clark drew a sharp breath, filled with bright relief, shy heat, a grateful searing spark of something he wasn't sure he could name. He swallowed, and moved his hand: up the familiar, battered arcs of the chestplate of Bruce's suit. It hadn't been long enough that there wasn't still a shadow in the shape of his palm, his fingers, ringing Bruce's throat, and he touched it as gently as he knew how and felt a hitch, a slow shiver of reaction that made his heart pound.
"Clark," Bruce said unevenly, and Clark kissed him.
He'd thought his world had ended; he hadn't known how to go on, hadn't thought he even could.
But now he was starting to understand that he'd been wrong.
"You saved me," he murmured against the corner of Bruce's mouth, and his voice cracked under the wonder of it; and Bruce reached out and gripped his shoulders, held on, and kissed him back.