briarwood: Gal Godot as Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman 1)
Morgan Briarwood ([personal profile] briarwood) wrote2016-07-25 08:39 am
Entry tags:

The Memories That Haunt Us (2/5)

Chapter 2: Beneath The Masks


Washington DC

Six months later


“Why is everyone so mesmerised by a guy in a blue catsuit and red cape?” Bruce squinted against the sunlight as he walked out of the Capitol. He reached into his jacket for a pair of sunglasses.


Senator Finch laughed softly. “I know the attack cost you a lot - ”


“Do you really think I’m here because my profits are down?” Bruce asked, insulted. “Five thousand people died in Metropolis alone, Senator. Five thousand. And that’s just the dead. The people who lost their limbs, the people with spine and brain injuries because they were inside buildings when they fell down, the children who were orphaned, the survivors who seem just fine but will be dealing with the post-traumatic stress for the rest of their lives...they don’t even make it into your statistics. They are the reason I’m here.”


Partway down the Capitol steps, the senator stopped walking and turned to him. “What exactly is it you want, Mr Wayne? Even if I agree that Superman should answer for those lives, how do you propose we make that happen? There’s no prison that could hold him. We can’t even serve him a subpoena because no one knows where he lives.”


She did have a point, though Bruce could have helped her with the address part. “Superman told the world media that he considers himself an American and subject to our laws,” Bruce reminded her. “What I’m suggesting is we put that to the test. You don’t need to serve him, just broadcast your request for him to appear and answer for his part in the destruction. If he doesn’t show up, the world will know his word means nothing.”


“And if he does appear? I come back to my original point: how do we proceed against a man we can’t hold?”


Bruce shrugged, “That’s for you and your committee, senator.”


Her careful politician’s smile turned cynical. “Nice evasion.”


“I don’t believe he is invulnerable. He killed Zod, which proves he’s not immortal. He’s not a god, but we are treating him like one. If anyone else contributed to five thousand deaths and billions in property damage, we would call them to account. Instead, Metropolis is building him a statue and dedicating a park! We do ourselves and our democracy no favours by treating Superman as above the law.”


“That’s a great speech,” Senator Finch said. “You should think about running for office.”


“Senator, I don’t deserve that sarcasm. I have the greatest respect for those like yourself who dedicate themselves to public service. Will you at least consider what I’ve suggested?”


The senator sighed. “I will consider it, Mr Wayne. Now, if you’ll excuse me...”


Bruce stayed where he was while she continued down the steps. She had agreed to think about it. It wasn’t the commitment he wanted, but he could follow up the conversation later. He flipped open his cell phone and scrolled quickly through the missed calls and messages. There were the usual business updates and confirmations of decisions. Only one message was unexpected. He had a text message from Lex Luthor: When she turns you down, call me.


“Lex,” he muttered, “what are you up to now?”


 


 


Bruce touched the limo’s microphone. “Airport, please. My plane.”


“Yes, sir,” the driver answered.


Bruce switched the microphone off and took the secure cell phone from his briefcase. He called Alfred to let him know he was on his way back to Gotham.


“If the jet makes good time I’ll be back before eight,” Bruce reported.


“I’ll see that supper is ready for you, then, Master Wayne. Was your trip productive?”


“Not what I hoped for,” he groused, “but I made some progress with the senator. How are things in Gotham? Is there anything I need to know?”


“Nothing that can’t wait until morning.”


“Have you got any news about Lex? He left a message on my phone.”


“Interesting you should ask about Luthor. Another of the LexCorp board sold to him. That makes five now.”


“Who sold?”


“Armstrong.”


Bruce did the math quickly. That gave Lex thirty five percent of LexCorp, not counting the shares his father had tied up in trust. He needed thirty eight percent to force the board to vote his way.


When Bruce suggested Lex use his trust fund to make his way in business, this was not what he meant. Although, Bruce couldn’t help but admire the kid’s smarts. It took balls, too, to take on the LexCorp board: they were some of the finest business minds in the country. Lex hadn’t tried to start a new company. Instead, he set about acquiring the one he wanted. A controlling interest in LexCorp was tied up in trust until Lex turned twenty five, but that meant that effective control of the company was in the hands of the board, each member of which also owned a significant slice of LexCorp shares. Lex approached each of the board in turn and bought their shares. Bruce couldn’t prove he was using blackmail or threats, but he couldn’t think of another reason for Lex to be so successful. When he had twenty percent, he claimed a seat on the board. He couldn’t force his way into the CEO seat, but he could make damned sure he was at the table. When he had thirty eight percent, he would be able to propose increasing the company’s share capital, and ensure the vote went his way. That would decrease the percentage of shares in the trust, and make it possible for Lex to acquire a controlling interest. If he continued at this rate, he would have it before the year was out.


It was sneaky, underhanded and brilliant. The part of Bruce Wayne that was a billionaire CEO admired Lex for doing it. The part of him that was Batman was terrified of what the young man would do next.


“He only needs one more,” Bruce concluded. He’ll go after Cox. Run a background check, see if she has any obvious weak spots.”


“Already in progress,” Alfred reported. “While we’re on the subject of Luthor, there is one other thing. The MMC auction is tomorrow night. Rumour has it that Luthor is extremely interested in one of the items on sale.”


“Which one?”


“That’s the problem. Rumour isn’t sharing that detail. I have a copy of the auction catalogue but so far I see nothing obviously of interest.”


“Well, that’s helpful.”


“I thought perhaps Miss Prince might have some insight.”


Bruce sighed. “She hasn’t been returning my calls. I’ll try again.”


 

Metropolis


“Good, that’s our front page,” Perry White declared before waving the story aside. “Lane, any follow up on yesterday’s bombing?”


Lois answered crisply. “My source told me there’s evidence linking it to two other attacks. No group has claimed responsibility but I think it’s going to trace back to General Amajagh in Nairomi. I’d like to follow it up, but it will be a long investigation.”


“I’m not flying you to Africa on a hunch, Lois,” Perry said firmly.


“I didn’t ask!” she protested, but her eyes sought Clark’s across the conference table.


Clark shook his head very slightly. I’m not flying you there either.


Lois gave a very small shrug which he interpreted as a girl’s gotta try.


“Kent, I want you on the Metropolis Museum auction tonight.”


Clark groaned inwardly, but he nodded. “No problem. Do you have an angle in mind?”


Perry snorted. “It’s a page ten story at best. Just try to make it interesting. And don’t skip out early this time!”


Clark touched his forehead in a mock-salute. “Yes, sir!”


It was his turn to catch Lois’ eye. She knew why he’d left an assignment early the previous week. One of the cranes on the building site that was downtown Metropolis had fallen, tearing down power lines and endangering hundreds of people. Superman was needed.


Lois returned his look with a private smile.


After the meeting, Lois caught up with him. “The auction. I’m so sorry.”


Clark shrugged. “It’s an assignment.” He was still paying his dues at the Daily Planet and would be for a long time. He was working freelance, paid only for work Perry actually printed so he was lucky to get an assignment at all. Most stringers had to dig up their own stories. If Perry assigned him a job, he would print what Clark wrote, and Clark would get paid. He might actually make rent this month.


“I’m glad to do this one,” he told Lois. “There should be some interesting people there. Maybe I can scoop a good interview.”


Lois clapped him on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit! It should be over by ten. You could join me for a late supper.”


“That sounds lovely.”


“Thai?”


“Takeout? Lois, do you never cook?”


“What for?” she laughed. “Better get started. You’ll need to get all the background reading done before tonight.”


Lois was not kidding about the reading. Jenny gave Clark a file an inch thick: background on the museum, on the items being sold and on the sellers. There was a lot to go through.


About half of the art and artefacts on permanent display at the Metropolis Museum of Culture were owned by the museum. The rest were privately owned and on long-term loan to the museum, often enabling the owners to save on the insurance cost. Not everything loaned to the museum was on public display; some items were for private viewing only, access limited to academic researchers.


The auction was a sale of items from some of those private collections. The auction would benefit a selection of local charities, including the museum itself, but the small print in the catalogue made it clear the sellers could expect to profit, too.


That was one possible angle for his story, Clark thought: the one-percenters using charity as a cover to make more money. But that didn’t feel very satisfying. There had to be a better approach.


 


 


The auction catalogue provided photographs and details of each lot, but many of the items available were on display. It was an eclectic collection with no particular theme or focus, and Diana was shocked to see something she recognised on sale. It was something she could not risk falling into the wrong hands. From her perspective, the eclectic nature of the catalogue was good: it meant that the auction was less likely to attract specialist collectors who would drive the prices up. She could afford to buy lot 31 at fair value, but not if auction made the cost foolishly high.


She accepted a glass of wine from an offered tray and moved to study a set of Japanese prints: an exquisite set of six images depicting the life of a fishing village. They were well preserved, the colours unfaded.


“Beautiful, aren’t they?” a male voice said from beside her.


Diana answered without looking up. “Not one of the best known artists but a superior example of the period. The lines are so simple it’s easy to overlook the detail. See how perfect the perspective is in this one, and how the use of different tones of blue creates an illusion of movement in the water?” She touched the glass above the print then looked up to meet the eyes of the man. Her eyes flew wide in surprise before she could control her expression.


Clark Kent. A man she had been hoping to meet for some time.


A few weeks earlier she had been with Bruce Wayne and caught sight of a dossier he had compiled about Superman. Bruce was convinced he had uncovered Superman’s true identity: Clark Kent. The evidence was convincing, particularly the battle fought in Smallville, Kansas just before the attack on Metropolis, which had been kept out of the national news. Kent was born and raised in Smallville.


He smiled awkwardly, pushing his glasses back into place. “I’m sorry, I don’t have your expertise. I just think they’re lovely.”


“They are.” She offered her hand. “I’m Diana Prince.”


He transferred his drink into his left hand and shook her offered hand. “Clark Kent. I’m a reporter for the Daily Planet. I’m supposed to cover this auction for the paper, but...” his glance swept the room quickly, “I’m a bit out of my depth. I don’t know much about art.”


It was a fascinating performance, Diana thought, and not all of it was performance. He was a big man, not merely tall, but physically imposing, which would tend to create some awkwardness in close quarters. He wore thick-framed glasses he obviously didn’t need, but wearing glasses did change a person’s demeanour. The disguise was as brilliant as it was simple: few people would see the truth and even those who noticed a superficial resemblance between the gawky young journalist and the alien hero would never consider it might be more than coincidence.


Yet, as brilliantly deceptive as he was, Diana sensed his words were honest. Clark Kent was quite the paradox.


“I’ll tell you a secret,” Diana offered with a smile. “You don’t need to study art to understand it. It’s really all about understanding yourself.”


“How so?”


“It’s simple. Great art touches our emotions. Understand how it makes you feel, then analyse why. Since it’s personal, there are no wrong answers.” She leaned a little closer, as if imparting a confidence. “It can make you appear very knowledgeable and sophisticated.”


Clark looked down at the prints. “Mostly I feel it's tragic these things are being sold off. Something so beautiful deserves to be seen, but these will end up hidden in some private collection.”


“That’s not always a bad thing,” Diana said, wondering how she could steer their conversation to more interesting territory. “Private collectors tend to be specialists and will treat what they buy with great respect. Private ownership doesn’t mean they are lost to the public, either. Most of my clients lend to museums and galleries. In fact, private ownership can mean a piece is available to more people than would see it on a permanent display.”


“I didn't realise," he says. "So you're here for a client?”


“I can’t discuss that with the press,” Diana said: truthful, if misleading. “But I’ll be happy to show you some of the best pieces for your story.”


Clark pushed his glasses back into place. “I’d be grateful for the help. I’ve been to auctions before, but not one like this.”


Diana moved them on to the next piece on display. “Until you get to the level where bids can be in the millions, auctions are all much the same. There are a few interesting items here, but nothing valuable enough to be worth headlines.”


He grinned suddenly, “So you’re saying I don’t have a story? What do you think are the interesting lots?”


“Those Japanese prints are probably the most valuable offering. If there are rival bidders they could fetch...” she considered for a moment, “...I would guess up to three hundred thousand, though that’s more than they are worth. There is an Art Deco collection that would be valuable to a collector. As for the rest, I really don’t know. My expertise is historical weaponry.”


Clark flipped through the pages of the catalogue. “I thought I saw a World War One lot. Yes, here it is.” He folded the pages back to show her. “An army uniform, including personal weapons, and other mementos of the war.”


Diana nodded, trying to hide her interest. “They are not rare items but there is a thriving market in war memorabilia and these have a documented history, which makes them more valuable. Most likely that lot will be bought by a dealer who will sell the items on individually.” Her eye fell on the medals displayed with the uniform. “This soldier was a brave man. That’s a medal of honour. A victory medal, too. He survived to the Armistice. Far too many didn’t.” She sighed. Why did people value mementos of such horror? The medals, yes, she understood the pride attached to those, but why hang on to a reminder of the trenches?


She might have asked the question aloud, so strong were her memories, but it was in that moment she heard a familiar voice from somewhere behind her. She glanced back over her shoulder.


“I’m so sorry, Mr Kent. I’ve enjoyed talking with you.”


He frowned in concern. “Is something wrong?”


“No, not at all. Good luck with your article.”


Diana hadn’t learned nearly enough to satisfy her curiosity about Clark Kent, but she had at least made a connection. Perhaps there would be a future opportunity. She walked across the room toward Bruce Wayne, not troubling to hide her irritation from him.


Bruce watched her approach with an appreciative gleam in his eye. He smiled a welcome. “It’s good to see you, Diana.”


“I’m tempted to suggest you are stalking me,” she answered coldly.


Bruce looked genuinely baffled. “I thought we were friends.”


“Do you guard the privacy of all your friends so well?”


“Diana, I did apologise...”


She cut in, “No, you didn’t. You said the words, Bruce. You have to mean them for the apology to be real.”


Bruce took her arm and pulled her into the corridor. If they had been alone, Diana would have broken his arm before she let him manhandle her like that, but, conscious of the others around them, she permitted it to avoid drawing attention. When they had moved far enough to speak privately, Bruce released her. Diana rubbed at her arm; another woman would have been bruised by his grip.


“Diana, I am sorry,” Bruce said, and despite his rough treatment of her Diana read sincerity in his eyes. “It’s not an excuse, but I...I have been deceived before. You’re very secretive and it made me suspicious. I wanted to be sure about you. I crossed a line and you have every right to be angry. I’m sorry.”


It was well said and Diana softened. “Thank you.”


“Will you allow me to make it up to you?” Bruce offered his hand.


“After the auction, perhaps. For now...” she placed her hand in his, “you can escort me like a gentleman.”


He stifled a chuckle. “Like a gentleman?” he asked with raised eyebrows.


Diana couldn’t help smiling. “Fake it, Mr Wayne.”


He laughed and led her into the auction room.


 


 


Diana waited for Bruce to sit and took the aisle seat beside him. He had chosen a seat near the back of the room and was searching the rows in front of them. Diana felt him tense when he located his target: an Asian-American woman who wore a Bluetooth device clipped to one ear. Bruce gave no indication of why he was interested in her.


The first time the woman he was watching placed a bid, Bruce leaned over and, speaking very quietly, asked Diana her opinion of the item on the block. She whispered back, giving him a quick assessment of its value. The woman’s winning bid was just below the figure Diana gave him.


The first real bidding war began over a set of letters that dated back to the Civil War. They were of little interest to Diana and when her phone vibrated in her purse she glanced quickly at the display. It wasn’t a call, but rather the news app with an alert. Diana scanned the headline quickly. She whispered an apology to Bruce, indicating the phone as if she had an urgent call. Then she rose from her seat and moved quickly to the back of the room. But she wasn’t looking for privacy. She was looking for Clark Kent.


She couldn’t talk to him in front of all these people, but there was another way. Diana put the phone to her ear as she reached the door and spoke so quietly no one could possibly hear.


“Kal-El,” she said, watching him.


Kent reacted as if she’d slapped him; his head jerked around, his eyes found her, then he belatedly tried to make the movement look natural.


“Kal-El, you are needed,” she said.


He was at her side almost at once. “How - ?”


Diana showed him the headline displayed on her phone. There was a fire at a stadium two states away, with thirty thousand people trapped inside. “We can talk later,” she said.


His eyes were hard flints behind the fake glasses. “We will,” he said firmly, but left quickly.


Diana waited a little longer then returned to her seat beside Bruce. She had butterflies in her stomach. That was not how she intended to reveal herself, but perhaps it was best. She took a deep breath to steady herself. She turned her phone off, just as the auctioneer called Lot 31: the collection of World War One memorabilia.


Diana let the first few bids go by before she raised her paddle to place her first bid. The woman Bruce was watching placed the next bid. Diana waited two more bids before placing her next. The Asian-American woman outbid her again. The bids had begun very low but before long the price was high enough to make Diana nervous. She could not afford to  let the collection fall into other hands, but her funds were limited. There was also the problem of drawing attention to how badly she wanted it. If she bid too high and then lost it...


She raised her paddle again. Now the bidding was over the resale value of the collection. It couldn’t go much higher. With a sinking heart she saw the other woman bid again. Diana followed with a fresh bid, and that was as high as she could afford to go. It was no surprise when she was immediately outbid.


The auctioneer’s eyes turned to her expectantly. Diana reluctantly shook her head.


Bruce raised his paddle, placing a bid.


“What are you doing?” Diana hissed as the other woman bid again.


“You want it, don’t you?” He signalled another bid.


Diana put her hand over his paddle. “Please don’t.” The only thing worse than losing the collection would be losing it to Bruce, even if his intention were to make a gift of it. He would be bound to examine what he bought and then...


Bruce was outbid again, and now the price was far more than any normal dealer or collector would pay. He looked at Diana, then signalled to the auctioneer that he was done bidding.


He called the lot one last time. “Going...sold.”


 


 


Outside the building where Diana now lived, she unlocked her seatbelt and reached for the door of Bruce’s car. “Thank you for the ride.”


“Join me for a late dinner?” Bruce offered.


“Not tonight,” she demurred.


“I think we should talk, Diana. I want to clear the air between us.”


She hesitated. “I would like that, Bruce, but not tonight. I'm tired.” And she was expecting company, but she could not tell Bruce that.


Bruce nodded, clearly not happy his famous charm was failing him. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”


She climbed out of his car with relief and hurried into the apartment building.


Diana needed to make a decision about her friendship with Bruce Wayne. When they first met it had been a harmless flirtation; he made no secret of his interest in her and once she became aware of his playboy reputation Diana let him know that she had no intention of becoming his latest tabloid girlfriend. Many men would have taken that as a challenge, but Bruce seemed to respect her for drawing the line clearly. That was the first of many contradictions in his character.


They continued to spend time together, not much and not frequently, but when they attended the same events they inevitably sought each other out, and she enjoyed sharing an occasional drink with him. He was an intelligent man, and good company.


Over time, she became aware that there was much more to Bruce than she initially suspected. He rarely let personal information slip. Another contradiction: when they talked about the poverty and crime in Gotham he showed real anger but didn't seem prepared to do anything, and a man of his wealth and influence might have done a great deal.


And Bruce had been sufficiently worried by Diana’s reluctance to discuss her own past to have her investigated. She would have been less angry if he wasn’t keeping so many secrets of his own. That was when she stopped returning his calls, at least for a time.


If she wanted to continue their friendship, she had to be willing to tell Bruce at least some of her secrets, because if she didn't he would never stop prying. She trusted Bruce, but could she trust him that much?


In her apartment, Diana slipped her feet out of the high heeled shoes and removed her jewellery. She turned on the television and did not even have to search for a report on the stadium fire: it was live news. The reporter on the scene was framed by the lights of emergency vehicles, but it was clear that the fire itself was out. She reported that though officials were unable to confirm it at this time, they were cautiously optimistic that with Superman’s help everyone was safely evacuated. Satisfied, Diana turned the sound down, but she still watched the footage of Superman appearing above the burning stadium then flying inside. There was a cut, and then shaky cell phone video of him inside, holding the structure up as flames surrounded him and people rushed to an exit that had been blocked a moment before.


When a flicker of red at the window caught her eye she saw him outside with no surprise. She rose and opened the balcony door.


“Have you told anyone?” Superman asked her. He landed lightly on the balcony and walked inside.


Diana was clumsy, revealing herself in the way she did, but she had always known that when the moment came, she would hide nothing from him. She gave silent thanks that he had asked the question in that way: asked if she had told his secret, not whether others knew it. She would be able to answer without lying.


So she met his eyes as if she didn’t see his fear of what she knew, and answered truthfully. “I have told no one and I never will without your consent. You have my word.”


He didn’t know her, so he had no reason to trust her word, but perhaps he had something of her ability to sense a lie because his frown relaxed. “Thank you. How did you know? What gave me away?”


Oh, that was a harder question. She couldn’t betray Bruce Wayne. But knowing his suspicion had only steered her toward Clark Kent. She hadn’t been sure Kent was Kal-El until they met face to face.


Diana said, “Those of us who wear an identity as a mask tend to recognise it in others. I am, like you, more than human. I have worn a costume to fight for others, as you do.”


It wasn’t what he expected to hear. She saw the surprise cross his face, followed by confusion. “You’re not... You can’t be...”


“From your world? No. I was born here on Earth. I am special, or different, because my people have abilities most humans lost centuries ago.”


The frown was back. “I don't understand. Who are you, really? What are you?”


Diana crossed the room to the table and sat down. “My name is Diana Prince. Today, I am what you saw at the auction, just a woman. But a century ago, I fought in the Great War. Men had another name for me then. Wonder Woman.”


She saw his quick smile. “It’s no sillier than Superman, and it served the same purpose.”


He came closer to the table, but didn’t sit, though there was a chair he could have taken. “Why have I never heard about you? How much are you like me? What can you do? How...?”


Diana held out her hand in a stop gesture. “Please, one question at a time!”


“I’m sorry, I just...I have a lot of questions.” He took a breath. “I spent years looking for others like me and never found anything. I would have remembered a name like Wonder Woman.”


“If you research the Great War, look for the stories told by the men returning home. You might find me that way, but no one believes those tales now. There’s no one left alive to testify to the truth of it.”


“When you talked about the war, I remember thinking you looked...like it meant more to you than artefacts in a museum.”


“It was a terrible war. I lost many friends.”


“Why are you here in Metropolis, Diana? Why now?”


“Because of you, of course.”


“I don't understand.”


“When Zod’s message was broadcast, no one knew anything about you. I retired as Wonder Woman a hundred years ago, but I believed I would be needed to join the fight against Zod. I thought I was the only one who might be able to fight him. I was actually waiting for a flight to the USA when the news broadcast the battle in Metropolis. I didn’t know then what kind of person you are. You might have been every bit the threat Zod was. So I came.”


“You mean you came to kill me?”


Diana shook her head. “No, Kal, I came to observe. Yes, I thought it might be necessary to fight you, but I didn't come with that plan.”


“What about now? Do you still think I’m dangerous?”


That was a difficult question and Diana turned away to give herself a moment to think.


“You do.”


She looked back at him: the appearance of a handsome young man and all the power of a god. “Of course you are dangerous!” she pointed out. “The power you have will always make you dangerous. Every day of your life you have to decide how you will use that power. The choices won’t always be easy, and from my perspective...you are very young. You won’t always make the right choices.”


“I’m trying to help people.”


“I know you are. Why do you think I told you about the fire tonight?”


“You could have handled it yourself, couldn’t you?”


Diana smiled. “No, the stadium was too far away and I can’t fly. Not without a plane, anyway. Besides, I haven’t done that kind of thing for...well, a long time.”


“You still want to help people. That’s why you risked telling me about the fire. You miss being able to act.”


“I do,” she admitted wryly.


“Then you should think about acting. There are a lot of people who need help.”


Diana bowed her head. “I was badly hurt in the war. Not physically. It was everyone I lost only to see the politicians betray everything we fought for... I suppose it’s cowardice, but I don’t know if I’m ready to risk that again.”


Superman sat down in the chair opposite her. He reached across the table for her hand. “You’re ready, but you’re still waiting for something. Don’t wait too long, Diana.”


She could feel the strength in his touch and couldn’t help wondering how well matched they might be. There was no question that he had powers she would never have, but on strength she might equal him. She wasn’t curious enough to test it, though. Not yet. Slowly, she withdrew her hand from under his.


“Can I ask you one more thing? Something personal?” He was frowning again.


Diana nodded. “You can ask me anything. I don’t promise an answer.”


“At the auction, the man you were with. You implied he was a stalker.”


It wasn’t a question, but Diana understood him. “That was a private conversation,” she said sternly.


“I know.” He didn’t apologise for listening.


She sighed. “If any man threatens me, believe me, I can take care of it myself. But Bruce hasn’t threatened me. He’s just being an ass.”


“I had to ask. Diana, I need to go, but can we talk again?”


“Of course.”


Left alone, Diana opened the closet and pulled out the trunk she had left, unopened, at the bottom. She lifted it easily onto the bed and deftly turned the dials on the combination locks. The clasps opened with twin snicks. She raised the lid and for a long time simply gazed at the costume within.


Superman spoke the truth: she did miss it. Diana lifted the lasso and ran its silky length through her fingers. Then she picked up one of the bracelets, the weight familiar in her hand.


A memory of running, not fast enough, knowing she wouldn’t make it in time. Of leaping forward, almost flying, her hand reaching out in desperation to deflect a bullet. Of feeling the impact in her wrist, hitting the floor, rolling, and looking up into blue eyes wide with shock.


She fitted the bracelet over her wrist. She had been ready to take back the mantle of Wonder Woman for a long time. All she needed was a reason.


 


 

Gotham City


“Left! Take the bridge.”


The Batmobile’s tyres squealed as he made the turn. His headlights illuminated a barrier that stretched across the road.


“The bridge that’s closed?” he yelped.


“It’s closed, not missing,” Alfred pointed out reasonably.


It was too late anyway. The car smashed through the barrier and Batman floored the gas launching the car into the air and over the detritus left behind by the work crew. The suspension bounced as the car hit the road.


“Shipyard or freight?” he demanded, adrenaline coursing through him. The police system had picked up the gunfire just as he did. They would not respond quickly to this part of Gotham, but they would respond. Batman had to be there first.


“Freight,” Alfred said.


“Almost there. Get me a location.”


The freight yard was the border of no-man’s-land, a maze of steel shipping containers surrounded by the old warehouses from the days when Gotham’s port was a thriving centre of international trade. The only international trade coming through this part of the port in the current century was drugs, illegal weapons and slaves.


He steered through the narrow pathways between the containers. He had no need of directions here: one of those containers was his. A signal from the car opened it and he hit the brake. The car slid across the steel. Batman checked his gear and got out of the container, fast. It slammed closed, concealing the car.


Batman fired a grapple and flew upward, to land on the top of the stacked containers. He crouched at the edge and his cape pooled around him. “Which way?”


“To your left, five rows over.”


The gaps between the rows of containers were just wide enough to make the jump challenging, but it was nothing the Batman hadn't done many times before. He leapt over the first and used the momentum of the first jump to keep going. The second gap was wider and his foot slipped a little on the edge. For an instant he felt his balance go. He recovered quickly, swore, and kept going over the third gap and the next.


Gunfire exploded ahead of him and he heard screams. A throwing blade was in his hand as he sprang from the top of the container, turning in the air as he dropped so he would land facing the entrance.


Everything happened very fast.


The Batman took in the scene in an instant. At the back of the container was a cage and inside it were children, screaming. In the space outside the cage, there were three men. Two were down, at least one of them bleeding. The third was against the wall, sliding a fresh clip into a semi-automatic. And there was a woman, wearing a hooded cloak over some kind of costume, reaching for a rope that hung in loops on her hip. There was an honest-to-god brazier, like something from a medieval dungeon: a metal bowl on a stand filled with glowing coals; and a thing like a bed with chains attached to it. Lastly, a video camera on a tripod.


Fury filled him as the meaning of the scene crashed down on him. The Batman raised his hand, preparing to throw the batarang.


The man with the gun slammed the clip home and took aim at the woman. The Batman threw his blade. The woman moved, the man fired the gun. Children screamed. The woman moved in a blur. Sparks flew and bullets ricocheted off her.


How the hell?


Batman felt the impact of bullets on his armour. The woman’s momentum brought her into the path of his flying batarang.. It bounced off the metal at her wrist, just like the bullets. The blade landed in the brazier, sending out a shower of hot sparks. Children screamed.


Batman moved forward, intending to take down the gunman. The woman got in his way and flung the rope. It looped around the gunman. The gun clattered to the ground and the gunman stopped moving.


The whole thing took less than a second.


Batman caught his breath. He moved forward as the mystery woman jerked on her rope. She pulled the man toward that travesty of a bed. He moved without resistance until he stumbled, caught himself on the frame and sat.


She stepped toward him and pulled the rope tight, which pinned his arms to his sides. That wouldn’t hold him for long, Batman thought.


She pointed to the camera. “I want a full confession. Start with your name.”


Batman scoffed. Getting a confession from this kind of scum was never that easy. She had stunned him, but any moment now he would go for the fallen gun.


The woman, still holding the rope, moved behind the camera and turned it on. “Begin,” she ordered. The rope glowed with an eerie golden light.


And Batman watched, amazed, as her prisoner raised his eyes to the camera and started to talk.


That was a hell of a trick. The woman’s face was covered by her hood, but her voice...


He heard sirens. “Police,” he warned. He moved toward the man. He kept talking to the camera as if unaware of the movement behind him. Batman lifted one of the chains attached to the bed. It ended in a handcuff bracelet. While the man described the vile things he did to children, Batman snapped the handcuff around his wrist.


The sirens were getting close.


She did something with the rope and it fell away from the prisoner. Immediately he started to spew obscenities and tried to get up. Batman punched him, putting his whole weight behind the blow. The prisoner crumpled, his eyes rolling back in his head.


Before Batman could move, the woman was running out of the container.


“Wait!” Batman called after her.


She crouched, leaped upward, and was gone.


Her voice...


It couldn’t be...


But if it was...


The police would be on the scene in seconds. He had no time to consider alternatives. With a sweep of his hand, the Batman knocked the brazier to the ground. Red hot coals scattered across the floor and among them was his batarang, now glowing red. He picked it up, able to feel some of the heat even through his thick glove. He crossed the container in two strides and thrust the hot metal into the unconscious prisoner’s cheek. The smell of burning flesh filled the air.


It was extreme, but that was the point. The cops would know this scene was his. As long as the woman wasn’t visible on the tape, they would never know anyone but the Batman had been here. He glanced at the coals on the floor, making sure there was no danger of the fire spreading. Then he strode out of the container just as the lights of the police cars rounded the corner. Behind him, the children were still screaming.


The Batman waited, a dark silhouette against the light inside the container. He heard more than saw the first cop get out of the car.


“It’s all yours,” the Batman said. “Check out his home videos. You’ll find all the evidence you need.” He flew upward, leaving the cops to do their job.


 


 


Diana slowed the car when she glimpsed the mansion ahead: she wanted a better look. The building was burned out and derelict, surrounded by fields of untended grass, but she could see its former elegance in the scorched remains, like a French chateau gone to seed.


“My family home,” Bruce said from the passenger seat beside her, and she heard the bitterness in his voice.


“What happened?”


“There was a fire about eight years ago.” Bruce frowned as he gazed at the manor. “I thought about rebuilding it, but for what? Wayne Manor was a family home. Living there alone was...like being a ghost. Follow the road around.”


Sensing he didn’t want to discuss the house, she obligingly accelerated. The road led through a thickly wooded area and then opened up to a wide parking lot with a covered car port and two garage doors. She steered under the car port and stopped.


An elderly man waited at the door. He approached Diana’s side of the car and opened her door for her. “Welcome, Miss Prince.”


“Alfred Pennyworth,” Bruce said as he climbed out of the car. “My butler.” He smiled at the older man. “Also foster father, teacher, and world’s greatest nag,” he said, with obvious affection.


It was the first time Diana had seen Bruce display such unguarded friendship for anyone. This man was important to Bruce, and his opinion of Diana would count for a great deal. She allowed Alfred to help her out of the car and thanked him politely.


“I didn’t expect you until later, Master Wayne. Will you and Miss Prince require dinner?”


Bruce glanced at Diana and for some reason he seemed nervous. “I hope so,” he answered. He led the way inside.


Diana knew when she saw the manor that the home Bruce referred to as “the cabin” would be far more palatial than she had pictured from his description. The cabin was a lake house, and quite magnificent. On the south side that overlooked the water was a single, huge open-plan room, walled in glass. She saw a comfortable lounge area with an entertainment centre, a dining table big enough to seat ten and a large bed set up against the window. Sleeping there would feel like you were lying on the lake itself and she was sure it would be a water bed. Outside, the lake was mirror-still, edged with rushes and trees, making the lake house utterly private.


“The bathroom is over there, Diana, if you want to freshen up,” Bruce suggested.


She didn’t need to, but took the hint. The bathroom held a tub easily big enough for two as well as a separate shower, and a floor-to-ceiling mirror. Diana checked her makeup and pulled the pins out of her hair, letting the dark waves fall loose around her shoulders. While she teased out the curls with her fingers, she listened for the reason Bruce had wanted her out of the way.


“I’m going to show her downstairs, Alfred,” Bruce said. His voice was quiet, and a normal human could not have heard him through the closed door.


“Master Wayne!” The old butler sounded shocked.


“It’s on me. You don't have to be involved.”


“That’s not a good idea, sir.”


“If I’m right about her, she already suspects something.”


“Suspicion is not proof, and what if you’re mistaken? There’s more at stake than just you.”


“It’s worth the risk, Alfred. Even if I’m wrong, I trust Diana. She might never speak to me again, but she’ll keep the secret.”


Diana warmed to those words; his trust mattered to her. She was also intrigued; she thought the invitation to his home had meant something very different, which was why she insisted on driving her own car. She put the hair pins away in her purse and walked out of the bathroom.


Bruce came toward her. He had removed his jacket and tie and his grey shirt was unbuttoned. It transformed him completely. She had never seen him so relaxed and understood that even this small thing was a glimpse of a very private man.


“Diana, there’s something I want to tell you. I, uh, well, you were right when you said I have secrets...”


She interrupted. “You’re entitled to keep your secrets, Bruce.”


“I want you to know. But I think it would be easier to show you.” He offered his arm. “Please?”


Diana linked her arm with his and he led her to what appeared to be a blank wall. At some signal she neither saw nor heard, the wall split open to reveal an elevator within. They stepped inside, the door silently closed and the elevator descended.


When the door opened again, Diana walked out into a cavernous space could only be below the lake. At first, she wasn’t sure what she was seeing. There were twenty or more screens above a console that looked like a plane’s control board. She saw all kinds of weapons in endless racks along one wall. There was a long workbench with electronic equipment in various states of assembly. And then she saw the black costume and halberd in a display case, words scrawled across the costume in yellow spray paint: Ha ha jokes on you Batman. She read the awful, taunting words, saw the shape of the mask. Finally, the pieces clicked together in her mind.


Diana turned to Bruce. “You are the Gotham Bat.”


All the contradictions she observed in him were suddenly explained. Now she understood his nervousness, and the butler’s objections to her seeing this. In showing her this place, Bruce was trusting her with his life, and perhaps with much more. Which could only mean he recognised her that night at the freight yard.


Bruce said simply, “Yes.” His body was very tense.


Diana moved away from him. “You use something to alter your voice. I didn’t recognise you.”


“Yes. That was you at the port, wasn’t it?”


Knowing he trusted her, Diana could not lie to him. She nodded. “Yes.”


He visibly relaxed and Diana laughed. “You weren't sure?”


“About eighty percent. I know your voice, especially your accent, but I never saw your face. Diana, I thought Superman was the only one, but what you can do - ”


“Is very different,” she interrupted. “I’m not like him.”


She saw something darker in his eyes. “Do you know him?”


Diana knew Bruce was not a fan of Superman, but she answered honestly. She wouldn’t dissemble with him again. “I have met him. We talked. But I’m not connected or allied with him.”


“Will you tell me about yourself?”


She looked around the cave. She had so many questions! “Quid pro quo,” she agreed.


 


 


They talked for hours. Alfred served a wonderful meal and Bruce opened a bottle of vintage wine which they shared. The wine gave him a light buzz, but he felt no need for something stronger. He told Diana something of his past, what led him to take on the Batman identity. She told him about her past, and Bruce was glad of the emotional buffer the alcohol provided. If Diana claimed to be another alien like Superman, it would not have surprised him. To learn that she was something else opened a whole lot of other possibilities. She came from an island where there were others like her. She was human, or so she believed, but more than human. It made Bruce uneasy. She wasn't the first human with strange abilities he had come across, but the others were not good people. Just the opposite.


“The First World War?” Bruce shared the last of the wine between their glasses. “Diana, just how old are you?”


Diana lifted her glass, but didn’t drink from it. “That’s not a question a gentleman asks a lady,” she said primly.


Bruce grinned. “We’ve already established that I’m not a gentleman. And you’re no southern belle.”


“True,” she conceded. “Can we just say I’m older than I look?”


That made him even more curious, but he should let her have some secrets. After all, he wasn’t volunteering details of his own life, either. Some things were just...private.


“Alright,” he agreed, but then he frowned. “Wait. That lot you wanted at the auction was from that war. Was there something in the collection that’s important to you?”


Diana sipped her wine. “Yes,” she answered simply.


“Then why did you stop me bidding?”


“It was private. It’s not just a collection of war memorabilia, it was the property of a man I knew. Someone I fought beside. They weren’t pictured in the catalogue, but the pre auction display included some photographs taken the day of the Armistice.”


“A photo of you?” Bruce guessed and his heart sank. “And you didn’t want me to buy it because you were afraid I would see it.”


“I’m sorry - ” Diana began.


“Don’t apologise. I understand. But you might have a problem.”


“What problem?” It was Diana’s turn to frown.


“The woman who outbid you is Mercy Graves. She works for Lex Luthor.”


Diana looked interested, but not worried. “As in LexCorp? I thought he was dead.”


She didn’t understand how serious this was. “He is. Superman levelled LexCorp tower with him inside it. I’m talking about his son.”


“You’ll have to explain. Why are you so concerned, Bruce?”


He saw Alfred hovering and glanced at his watch. Past midnight. Where did the night go? Bruce beckoned Alfred over. “I’m not going out tonight, Alfred. You should turn in.”


Alfred picked up the empty wine bottle. “I’m glad to hear it, Master Wayne.” He added the bottle and the remains of their meal to a tray and disappeared into the kitchen.


Alfred was grumpy tonight. Bruce was used to his oldest friend commenting on his drinking, but half a bottle of wine wasn’t excessive. Nor was the late hour unusual; in fact they were rarely asleep much before dawn.


Bruce turned his attention back to Diana. “I wasn’t at the auction to see you. I was there because I knew Lex had sent Mercy to acquire something and I wanted to know what it was. You see, Lex has been spending a lot of money trying to take control of the company. For him to spend so much on this auction, he had to want it very badly.”


“Is there any chance he’s just a big fan of war memorabilia?” Diana asked, without much hope.


“It’s unlikely. His father was the Al Capone of Metropolis. LexCorp is a legitimate business that he used to cover a whole lot of illegitimate.”


“And you think the son is the same?”


Bruce sighed, because it didn’t make sense that Lex could have taken over his father’s criminal empire so quickly. But how else could he be getting so much money? A trust fund was never that generous. He answered as simply as he could. “I don’t know, Diana, but that’s what I’m afraid of. What I do know is he wanted that collection very badly.”


“He did pay far more than its value,” Diana agreed. “But how could he have known that collection held anything of interest?”


“I don’t know that either. But I’m going to find out.”


Diana nodded. “It’s getting late.” She rose gracefully to her feet. “I think I should go.”


Bruce walked with her to the door. “About the photographs. Don’t do anything stupid, will you? I can help.”


“I’m  not a thief,” Diana began, then apparently she reconsidered. “But perhaps I can learn. I’ll be grateful for your help.” Diana paused at the door and met his eyes. “Thank you for showing me who you really are,” she said.


Bruce had no idea how to respond. You're welcome, seemed ridiculous and not entirely true. He was glad to have the air clear between them, but showing her his secret wasn’t a gesture of trust so much as a calculated risk: he had been almost certain she was the woman in the freight yard, and weighed his need to know for sure against the risk that Diana might betray him. Diana was not the type of woman who would betray a confidence.


“It’s a relief,” he admitted, “to have someone other than Alfred who knows...” and his voice faltered as he felt her warm fingers on his arm. What was wrong with him? Too much damn honesty, that's what. In dropping his mask for Diana, he had lost the easy confidence and charming phrases he could hide behind when playing the part of Bruce Wayne, billionaire.


“It’s not good to do something like this alone,” she said.


Bruce was too aware of how close they were standing. He could feel the warmth of her body. When he raised his hand to her waist, it was not entirely a voluntary movement: his body was moving a few steps ahead of his conscious mind the way it always did in a fight. Diana didn’t resist when he drew her body to his, but he saw her surprise. It was too late to stop himself. He leaned in and pressed his lips to hers.


For an endless moment, Diana didn’t react. Then her lips parted under his and her hand slid up his arm to curl around his shoulder.


That instant of consent broke something inside Bruce and he moved them to the door, crushing her body against it, his lips hungry on hers. He genuinely hadn’t known how badly he wanted her. Diana was his friend, and he had convinced himself he was happy with her friendship and no more. Until that moment when she kissed him back. Diana held him, kept their bodies together, her tongue on his making his body heat. Oh, he wanted her! Their bodies fit together, her hips pressed to his so he knew she could feel how hard he was. He raised one hand to her thick hair, tangling his fingers in the waves and controlling the kiss.


And that was when she turned her head away and pushed against his chest with a force he was unprepared for. Bruce staggered back and almost lost his balance.


Diana reached behind her to open the door. “I’m sorry, Bruce,” she said with ice-queen dignity. She walked away from him.


Bruce let her go.


 


 


Diana could hear her own breathing, rapid and loud in the close confines of the car. She was shaking. She gripped the wheel with one hand but did not dare to start the engine. She couldn’t trust herself to drive.


Her fingers danced across her lips where the sense-memory of Bruce’s kiss still lingered. She closed her eyes and saw his face, his lips smeared with her lipstick, his eyes dark with desire. She remembered his hardness against her body, and her own answering longing.


But there were older memories, too, and although she had opened up to Bruce and he to her, although they exchanged truths and left the lies behind, that could not erase all of the lines between them.


Before, Bruce Wayne was an entertaining companion, a diversion she could enjoy and a way to get access the upper echelons of Gotham and Metropolis society. Before, she might  have been able to enjoy a night in his bed, knowing they could both walk away in the morning.


No more. Bruce changed all that by showing her the truth of him. Now he was a man worthy of her. A warrior. A man she might love.


But Bruce was also mortal and Diana was not. She looked half his age now; and she would appear this young for the next thousand years. He would age. He would weaken. In so little time as measured against her own lifespan, he would die.


Diana blinked the tears from her eyes, started the engine and fled, as she had a hundred years before, from pain.


 


 


Bruce heard the car engine rev and the tyres squeal on his driveway.


He curled his hand into a tight fist. What was he thinking? His fist hit the wall and the panel cracked. What was wrong with him?


His eyes fell on the cracked wall and he found enough restraint to take himself down to the cave. In the cave he could work off this rage without destroying his home.


Bruce took on the heaviest punching bag. He didn’t bother with gloves.


Punch! The impact shuddered up his whole arm.


He knew Diana didn’t want that kind of relationship with him. He knew it! So why had he kissed her?


Punch! with his left. The bag swung and his knuckles smarted.


He just couldn’t keep his mind out of his pants, could he?


Punch! The skin over his right fist split. A smear of blood appeared on the leather.


Punch! Punch! Punch! Pain exploded in his torn hand and his fist slipped in the blood as the bag swung back and forth under the assault.


But she kissed him back! He hadn't imagined that. She wanted him.


He caught the bag as it swung back and hung on to it, breathing hard. He stared at the streaks of his own blood.


Why did she leave?


What had he done wrong?


 


 

Metropolis


The small piece of rock glowed green with some light of its own. Lex watched it through the glass of the display case. The light pulsed faintly, almost as if the stone were alive. Fascinating.


“We can’t identify it,” Doctor Emmet said bluntly. "The GC mass. spec. identified traces of known elements on the outside, but the rock itself is not known.”


“Not on Earth, you mean,” Lex concluded. “It’s alien. Is it dangerous?”


“Potentially, yes.”


Lex huffed impatiently. “Potentially? What does that mean, potentially? I want facts, Emmet. Facts, facts, facts!”


Doctor Emmet touched a control panel and a lead cover slid over the display case. “The element is in a state of radioactive decay. If we were talking about plutonium, for example, that would mean yes, it’s dangerous. Eukaryotic cells exposed to it become damaged.”


“Yes! Radiation sickness is bad.” Lex glared at the doctor. “Skip to the part I don’t know.”


“Well, we took a few chips from the rock for testing. We exposed lab mice to the radiation and so far we haven't observed any deleterious effects. It's emitting radiation, but apparently not of a type that’s harmful to us. But we can only say that with confidence about short term exposure. If you hung that thing around your neck and wore it for a few years...well, that could be really bad for you.”


Safe for humans. Maybe not so safe for aliens. It was very interesting news.


“I don’t plan to wear it as a necklace,” Lex said blandly. “Green just isn’t my colour. How long until you can tell me about more than short term effects? And on people, not mice.”


Emmet adjusted her lab coat nervously. “That’s difficult to say, sir. I can increase the intensity of exposure for the mice, but a study of long-term effects by definition requires time.”


“Yes, yes,” Lex gestured dismissively. “If this element is of alien origin how do you suppose it would affect alien cells?”


She frowned. “Impossible to say. Unless you know where I can find alien mice, I’m not sure how - ”


Lex cut in. “What happened to the body of General Zod? He’s an alien.”


Her eyes went wide. “I...I have no idea.”


“Doctor, when you called me you said you had some exciting information to share. I strongly recommend you look those words up in a dictionary. So far you have been neither exciting nor informative.”


“I...”


“If you had access to the alien remains, could you determine whether this form of radiation would be harmful to Kryptonians?”


Doctor Emmet finally figured out that he expected actual science. “Yes, sir. I can.”


“Good. Then I will arrange it. How much more of this rock do we have?”


“This is the only sample, Mr Luthor, except the small chips I removed for testing. If it came from the Kryptonian ship, there might not be any more.”


“Hm. Zod’s ship is gone but there are two others. I’ll have to get people on that, too.” Lex turned to leave. “I want those results by the end of the month, Doctor.”


“Of course, sir.”


He sighed as he left the lab. Amateurs. He would just have to do it himself.


 


 


Clark was only half listening to the news report as he made breakfast for Lois and himself. The Gotham vigilante they called the Bat brutalised the leaders of a paedophile ring. One died of his injuries before he reached hospital. Another was seriously injured. The third had been knocked unconscious and his face branded with the symbol of the Bat. Six children with ages ranging from three to twelve, had been rescued.


Clark wasn’t likely to weep over a gang of child rapists, but vigilante justice offended him deeply. Those men should have been arrested and brought to trial. Not been beaten and branded.


He carried both breakfast plates to the table. “Lois, what’s the deal with this Bat character?” he asked, but the look on her face drove the news report out of his thoughts.


Lois was holding a letter in her hand. “The senate is going to hold hearings about Zod’s invasion,” Lois said, looking up as Clark slid a plate in front of her.


Clark set his own plate down, went back for the juice and poured two glasses.


“That makes sense,” he commented. “A lot of people still don’t understand what happened. Getting it out in the open might help.”


“They want me to testify - next week. It’s not much time to prepare.”


Clark nodded. “You were the only human who went aboard Zod’s ship. No one else can testify to what happened there.”


Lois tossed the letter down and picked up a fork. “Yes, but...Clark, how much am I supposed to say?”


He saw what was worrying her. “You’re a journalist, and you have a right to protect your sources. If they get too close, use that.”


She gathered some scrambled egg onto her fork. “That’s a pretty fine line to walk.”


“Talk to Perry. He’ll get you legal help. And I can go with you.”


Her fork clattered to the table. “No, you can’t! Superman was such a huge part of it, Clark, you can’t let other people control your side of the story. We’ve worked too hard to make Superman a hero.”


He frowned, wondering how exactly anyone could call him to testify. Clark Kent wasn’t involved with what happened. “They can’t send Superman a summons in the mail.” he pointed out calmly.


“They’ll come up with something. And if they don’t, Superman still has to be there.”


She pushed the letter toward him across the table. “Once this becomes public, you’ll see statements from a lot of people. Oh, hell. I need to call this into the Planet. It’s too late for the morning edition but we can get it on the website.” She rushed for her phone.


Clark picked up the letter and read it quickly.


It was not a subpoena. It was a letter from General Swanwick warning Lois to expect one. An email would have been faster, so his use of the regular mail both stressed the gravity of the situation and - possibly - suggested he didn’t want his letter intercepted, as was all too easy with email. In the letter, the General explained that he had strongly opposed the hearings but had now been overruled. He had, however, succeeded in securing closed doors for at least part of the investigation, to protect “certain information” vital to national security. Most of the hearings would still be public sessions.


Reading between the lines, Clark hoped that the battle in Smallville was part of the information the General was working to suppress. He had kept it quiet so far: he had ensured generous government funding was available to rebuild the town, on condition that no one speak to the press. He told Lois he had done it to minimise panic, saying that if people thought Metropolis was the only city the aliens attacked, it would be easier to contain. Given how hard he tried to track Superman, Clark wasn't so sure that was the general’s real reason. However, if Swanwick knew Clark’s identity he was keeping it to himself.


“You have to take a leap of faith,” Father Leone had told him. “Trust comes later.” Words to remember.


General Swanwick had earned Clark’s trust. He was doing so again, by giving Lois this heads-up.


 


 


News of the Senate hearings hit the offices of the Daily Planet like a hurricane.


By the time Clark and Lois reached the office, the exclusive, breaking news was live on the Planet’s web site. Senator Finch had been contacted, confirmed the story and provided a statement. Perry scrapped his tentative plans for the next issue and had roughed out a new layout focussed on the hearings. He wanted reactions from the key leaders of Metropolis, from people on the streets, from military leaders and godammit from Superman himself! He wanted legal analysis on what might happen, he wanted retrospectives on the incident, he wanted facts and numbers.


“Lane, you’ll be there, but as a witness. I still want your perspective but make it personal.”


Lois got that stubborn look in her eyes. “Perry, no one knows this story better than I do.”


“Because you’re involved,” Perry pointed out. “We need someone objective on the main story.” He looked around the conference table. “Anyone. Kent?”


It was a huge offer and Clark should have jumped at the opportunity to get his byline on the front page. He shook his head with a show of reluctance. “I’ve been on the Heroes’ Park story. I really want to follow through and the opening is next week.”


Perry’s eyebrows shot up and Clark knew it was a weak excuse. He held the editor’s gaze for a moment, then looked down, adjusting his glasses.


Perry sighed. “Alright. Lombard?”


“Love to,” Steve Lombard answered instantly. “Should be fun, eh, Lois?”


She rolled her eyes. “Separate rooms. Separate hotels, if possible.”


“Separate rooms,” Perry confirmed without missing a beat. “Lois, plan to stay in Washington until the hearings are over.”


She glanced at Clark across the table. “I will.”


 


 


“I wish I were coming with you.” Clark, holding Lois in his arms.


“So do I,” she said. She lifted her face for a kiss, ignoring Lombard waiting impatiently at the departure gate.


Clark kissed her, slow and lingering. “I’ll see you tonight, Lo,” he whispered against her cheek.


Lois drew back, just a little. “No, tonight I’m going to be busy. I’ve got to track down my contacts on Capitol Hill and figure out what I’m going to say...”


“And I’d be a distraction,” Clark concluded, disappointed but understanding. “Tomorrow night, then?”


“I’ll look forward to it,” she said, reaching up to kiss him once more, a quick touch of her lips to his.


Clark handed over her hand luggage and pushed his glasses back into place. “If you need me...” he said, raising a hand to his ear to mimic making a phone call.


Lois smiled, the wide, beautiful smile that told him she understood all the layers under the words. She said nothing more but turned and walked through the gate.


 


 


Designed by a local architect and built on the site of downtown Metropolis that was levelled by Zod’s world engine, the new Heroes’ Park was described as both a memorial for the dead and a celebration of the city’s regeneration.


The world engine would have reshaped the entire planet, but it began by pounding the buildings beneath it into rubble. To prevent global disaster, the US military, helped by Superman, flew the engine of the ship that brought Clark to Earth into Zod’s ship, creating a singularity that pulled everything - ship, buildings and people - into the Phantom Zone. What it left behind was a large, empty space: a blank slate to build upon. Instead of rebuilding those skyscrapers, the city authorities chose to transform the site into a public space.


All this, Clark knew. Everyone in Metropolis knew, and Clark had seen something of the construction from the air. But this was to be his first look at the park as others would experience it.


Accompanied by Jimmy Olsen, the Planet’s star photographer, he walked through the tall wood barrier that marked off the construction site. The space was dominated by the huge statue of Superman, posed down on one knee as if he had just dropped from the sky, one hand reaching out as if to offer help, the other stretching to the sky above. They had the details of his costume right: the texture of the alien cloth, the detail of the wrists and boots were all perfectly rendered in stone. But the face, Clark was relieved to see, looked nothing like him.


He heard the click of Jimmy’s camera beside him and tore his gaze from the statue to examine the rest of the park.


It was a green space with paths cutting through the neat beds of grass like the spokes of a wheel. In the centre stood a granite foundation for the statue. On one side the granite sloped gently; on the other it was built into steps, so the space would be fully accessible. The statue itself was flanked by a semi-circular wall, curved like a ribbon, which bore the names of everyone who died that day.


Clark walked through the shade of the statue to the wall. He took his time reading the names. Though each name was carved in neat, precise letters into the granite, they were only names, with nothing to indicate who they were, no ages, or hints of families, no way to know which of them were at work and who were just visitors on the unluckiest day of their lives. But Clark knew that behind every name was a life, and a story. There were so many, he couldn’t read them all.


He found a name he recognised: Colonel Nathan Hardy. He reached out and touched the neatly etched letters, remembering. This man is not our enemy. With a sudden burst of inspiration, Clark knew the article he was going to write to commemorate the opening. That the colonel's name appeared on the wall was testimony to the diligence of whomever put this together, because that name wouldn't have been on any public list of bodies identified or citizens still missing. In a very real sense, Colonel Hardy was the man who saved Metropolis, far more so than Clark himself. He didn’t know how to include that detail in his story without revealing how he knew it, but he could honour the colonel as he deserved.


He watched Jimmy photographing the park and its statue. Clark used his phone to take some shots of the memorial wall, close-up images to capture the names. He asked Jimmy to do the same and briefly explained what he hoped to do with them.


Satisfied, Clark headed back to the Daily Planet to research and write his story.


 


 


“Clark, the files you wanted are on your drive now,” Jenny called from her desk.


He leaned back in his chair so he could see her. “Thanks, Jenny.”


The television screens that lined the far end of the room suddenly filled with the face of Senator Finch. Clark turned back to his computer screen as if what she had to say meant nothing to him, but he focussed his hearing on the screens.


“...to an understanding of the events that caused so many deaths. In this country we do not compile evidence to support a predetermined conclusion. We examine all of the evidence and hear from everyone involved. To that end, I appeal to Superman to appear before this committee. The American people have a right to know what happened and there are things only he can tell us. Superman has told us that he respects our constitution. I ask him to show that respect to Congress and the Senate. We will be waiting. Thank you.”


Clark drew in a deep breath. You were right, Lois. She found a way. With that very public appeal, the senator had backed him into a corner. If Superman failed to respond, the committee would see that as a sign of culpability. If he did show up, he would have to go along with this whole process: testify in public and under oath. In theory, Clark had no problem with that.  In practice, it would be difficult to keep secret the things he had to keep secret and not look like he was lying.


He reached for the phone and dialled Lois’ cell.


“Clark?” She answered.


It was so good to hear her voice. “Can you talk?” He kept his voice low.


“Yes, I’m in my hotel room. I just saw the broadcast.”


“So did I.” He couldn't say much more with so many people around him.


“Word is Senator Finch is tough but fair. She’s big on transparency and truth. I don’t think she’s out to railroad Superman.”


“She’s not the only person involved in this, though. If it was only about finding the truth they would have held these hearings months ago. There must be something else behind it.”


“Or someone else, you mean?”


“It’s what I’m worried about.”


“Want me to dig around?”


“Yes, but there isn’t time. Lois, what do you think...?” he hesitated, but there was no one close enough to overhear. “What should I do?”


“I think Superman has to appear. For what it’s worth, General Swanwick is just as concerned about containing information about Superman. His reasons are different but I think he’ll help.”


“He already has,” Clark said. “Thanks, Lois. I’ll see you...when I see you.”


 


 

Gotham City


“I hate to bring this up, but there’s a good chance Lex has already scanned and digitised those photographs,” Alfred said.


Bruce had invited Diana into his cavern to go over their plans. He hadn’t mentioned the kiss they shared or her abrupt departure but he was trying a bit too hard to behave normally. Diana knew she had hurt him: his feelings as well as his ego, but she didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t apologise for leaving because the apology would be hollow. She didn’t want to lose his friendship.


“I don’t think that matters,” Diana answered. “A digital image from 1918 cannot possibly be authenticated. It’s too easy to alter a digital picture. As long as Luthor doesn’t have the original it can’t be used against me.” She looked at Bruce. “Besides, I want the photograph. It’s a memory.”


“I can understand that,” Bruce agreed. He brought up the display. “We can get into the building easily enough but it’s going to take some time to find the photographs once we’re inside. Our best window will be when Lex isn’t home.”


“He will be in Washington for Senator Finch’s hearings,” Alfred volunteered.


Bruce nodded. “The trouble is, so will I. I have to be at the opening sessions and likely one or two days after that.” He looked at the floor plan displayed on his screen. “If we have the jet standing by and I leave as soon as I can, I could be back before dark. Lex will probably stay in Washington.”


“I’ve analysed the surveillance, sir.” Alfred took a seat at the console, his hands moving across the controls with practiced ease. “Young Lex spends a lot of time in his father’s study, here.” The display changed to a wireframe image of the mansion with the room in question highlighted. “That’s the most likely place. There’s also his bedroom, here...” A second room lit up. “...and what appears to be some kind of panic room.”


The plan of the house might be obtained legitimately, Diana knew, but this was too much. “You have surveillance inside Luthor’s home?”


Bruce glanced at her sideways. “It’s not quite what you think.”


“Really? Because it looks like you’ve been planning this heist for a long time.”


“Oh, no. This has been in place for a couple of years. I was watching his father. Luthor was behind a lot of the organised crime in Gotham. I knew it for years, but proving it was more difficult. I had a DA willing to to take the case, but the evidence had to be airtight, no way for him to buy his way out or push suspicion onto someone else.”


“But you never did press charges?”


“No, he died before I finished compiling the evidence, but that’s why I’ve got surveillance cameras and mics all around the house. The system here has been recording all this time but I haven’t been watching. Until now.”


Diana accepted the explanation, but she wasn’t thrilled that Bruce could so casually spy on someone else. The crime boss, perhaps, but there must have been plenty of opportunity for Bruce to disable all this since his death. The son hadn’t done anything to justify this invasion of privacy. It was a side of Bruce she didn’t like, and that it was now working to her benefit made her uncomfortable.


She focussed on the display, pushing her misgivings aside. “How do we get into the building?”


“By air,” Bruce told her. “That’s the easy part. What we need to figure out is how to find the photographs before Lex’s security finds us.”


“It will be quickest to split up once we’re inside,” Diana suggested.


“I agree. We can stay in contact on comms, and Alfred can direct us.” Bruce pointed to the screen. “Alfred, if you drop us here...”


 


 


Metropolis: City of Heroes


By Clark Kent


 


The atmosphere at the dedication of Metropolis’s Heroes Park was the strangest I have experienced. People were both happy and sad, excited and somber. The day was both a memorial for our many dead and a celebration of our resilience.


Metropolis will not forget those who died. A wall now bears their names for all to see. Many of us continue to mourn and many who attended today’s ceremony brought with them flowers, candles and other small gifts for the dead. The ground around the memorial wall is thick with them, a garden built in hours atop the rock.


Before this wall stands the statue of our new hero, Superman. At first sight, the statue overshadows the memorial, and some will no doubt feel it is wrong to place the hero above the remembrance. But to feel this way is to miss the context. This statue of a hero Metropolis has claimed as our own stands for more than just one man, no matter how remarkable. In Heroes’ Park, Superman stands for all the heroes of that terrible day.


Before the ceremony, I spent some time at the memorial wall, reading the names of the dead engraved there. The human loss represented in stone is heartbreaking. But there are also some remarkable stories behind the names, and Superman was far from the only hero in Metropolis that day.


Mary Tan worked in the coffee shop beneath the Metropolis Transport Authority. Everyone who bought their coffee there will remember her, even if they never knew her name. She was always friendly and ready to share a smile or a joke. Her many friends in Metropolis may not know that on the day she died, Mary opened the basement to her customers and directed them into the old metro tunnels. She saved the lives of more than a hundred people and her name is on the memorial wall because, as the MTA building fell, she was still trying to usher people to safety.


William Kant was a creature of habit. At lunchtime, whatever the weather, Bill bought a sandwich from the street vendor at the harbour gate and would walk around the quays watching the boats while he ate. Most of the boats in that part of the harbour are privately owned and a few are people’s homes. Bill was a familiar sight to the boat owners and he died helping them to escape after an alien ship appeared in their sky.


Nathan Hardy had never visited Metropolis before the day he died here. His name is honoured on the wall alongside those of our lost citizens. A decorated war hero, Colonel Hardy commanded the mission that ultimately saved the city. He gave his life on that mission. While the details may never be known, Colonel Hardy and his team deserve to be honoured for their sacrifice. Everyone in Metropolis who survived that day owes them their lives.


There are other heroes from that day, more stories than I can possibly tell. In Heroes’ Park we mourn those who lost their lives and we honour each and every hero who helped ensure that list of the dead was not longer.


 


 

Washington DC


A huge crowd had gathered outside the Capitol. Behind the barrier men and women waved banners bearing legends that ran the gamut from “We love you Superman” to “Aliens are not welcome in America”.


Lois pushed her way through the crowd to the gate. When asked for ID she showed her press credentials without thinking about it, and the guard tried to direct her to the press cordon.


“Oh, no, I’m Lois Lane. I’ve been called to testify.” She waited while he checked his list.


“Lane...yes. Go ahead, Ms Lane.”


She had to walk past the press and as she got close she could see a correspondent wielding a microphone and speaking excitedly to a camera.


“...and of course the question on everyone’s lips this morning is will Superman make an appearance?” She saw Lois and pounced. “Lois Lane! Carrie Birmingham, HLN. Will Superman be here today?” She shoved the microphone at Lois.


Lois stopped walking. “I’m sure Superman got Senator Finch’s message. Whether he will come, your guess is as good as mine.”


“Have you seen Superman? Have you talked to him?” Carrie demanded, determined to get more than a two-second soundbite.


“Not for some time,” Lois answered. That was vague enough to be true. “Please excuse me: I don’t want to be late.” She hurried onward, up the Capitol steps.


She knew she would have to go through security and was prepared for it, but it seemed to her the checks were more thorough than usual. She was still waiting for her purse even though it was almost empty when she caught sight of General Swanwick. She raised her hand, hoping to get his attention. He saw her and waited.


Lois retrieved her purse and walked quickly toward the general.


“Miss Lane, it’s good to see you again.”


Lois smiled. “Thanks for the letter. And congratulations. I just heard about your nomination.” Secretary of Defence, though nothing had been announced yet. After the role he played in the invasion, it was almost certain the Senate would confirm his nomination.


Swanwick raised an eyebrow. “That’s not official yet,” he pointed out.


“I know,” she grinned.


“Can I ask you...?” he began.


Lois knew what he wanted to ask. “He’ll be here,” she answered quickly, careful not to name Superman since they were in a crowded corridor. “He wants to be seen to cooperate but he’s worried about what he might be asked. He has a family to protect.”


Swanwick’s expression turned grim. “Yes, I’m aware of that. I’ve explained our position to - ” He broke off as a young man in uniform approached. Lois checked out the gold bar on his shoulder: lieutenant.


“General, they’re waiting for you,” the lieutenant said, coming to attention.


“Yes, of course,” Swanwick said. “Good catching up with you, Ms Lane.”


Left alone, Lois continued on her way to the room where the hearings were to be held. There were a lot of people headed to the same place. She saw Lex Luthor, accompanied by his bodyguard and an older man with grey hair and glasses.


For a moment, Lois hesitated. Should she approach him? An interview with Lex Luthor would be quite the scoop: he had avoided the press since his father died. She shouldn’t waste the opportunity. On the other hand, she was here as a witness, not as a journalist. She would write about the hearings - just try to stop her! - but it would be a personal perspective, not objective journalism. Perry had been right about that. She needed to focus on what she was going to say to the committee. It was going to be very difficult to be truthful without revealing too much about Clark. Reluctantly, she decided to leave Lex Luthor alone...this time.


She passed him, walking quickly.


“Lois Lane!” Luthor called after her. His voice was oddly high-pitched.


Lois turned to see him walking toward her, flanked by his bodyguard: an Asian American woman Lois had seen before, but whom she knew nothing about.


Lois composed herself quickly, offering a professional smile. “Mr Luthor.”


“Oh, Lex, please. People call me mister, I still look around for my daddy.” He grasped both of her shoulders as if holding her at arm’s length. “The woman who brought Superman to Metropolis. I am so happy to meet you.”


His touch made her uncomfortable and she fought an impulse to squirm away.


“Satisfy my curiosity, Lois. Are you and Superman still in touch?” Lex asked. “I did so enjoy your profile of him.”


Lois had “interviewed” Superman for the series of articles that introduced him to the world. The articles made it sound like a series of formal interviews but of course the reality was very different. She and Clark worked hard on those articles together, trying to explain Superman, his origins and his powers, his intentions and desire to help, without revealing too much. It was honest journalism, but consciously spun to give a positive impression of Superman in those early days when no one quite knew what to make of the man who could fly, whose appearance coincided with such devastation.


“No, not really,” Lois answered. “I’ve spoken with him occasionally, but I can’t say we’re in contact.”


Lex looked at her with narrowed eyes. “I wonder...” he mused. Without asking permission, he linked his arm with hers and continued to walk down the corridor, forcing her to walk with him. “Would you consider writing a feature or two about me, Lois? I’ve been thinking it’s time to introduce the new CEO of LexCorp to the world.”


“You’re not CEO, yet,” Lois pointed out, then thought better of it. She let her eyes go wide, a faux-innocent look that usually worked with men. “Are you?”


His eyes had gone hard. He didn’t like her contradicting him. “Very soon, Ms Lane, very soon. What do you say? An interview? I’m an open book.”


Lois’s head was spinning. Perry would kill her if she turned him down, but he made her skin crawl and Lois had learned to trust her instincts about people. Still, the opportunity to get to the bottom of some of the rumours flying about him, to learn who this man really was...


“I’d like that, Lex,” she said.


“Excellent!” He squeezed her arm before - finally - letting her go. “I will have my people call you and set it up. You can visit me at home.”


There was no way in hell she was going to be alone with him in his own home, but they were almost at the door so Lois answered, “Sounds good. I’ll look forward to it.”


As she walked through the doorway to the large, ornate room where the hearing was to begin, Lois heard the sonic boom that signalled Superman’s arrival. She looked up, though of course she couldn’t see through the ceiling, and she smiled.


 


 


Superman hovered above the Capitol just long enough to be sure those waiting below noticed him. It was more than enough time for him to take in the banners and shouts from below. He looked for the cameras and landed nearby.


Immediately the air was full of shouted questions. He paid no attention but sought out the camera for a national channel and chose that to make his statement.


“I’m here because I was asked to come,” he said to the camera. “I know there are questions about what happened six months ago in Metropolis and I hope I will be able to provide answers. I have no further comment before the hearing, but once this process is over I will be happy to hold a press conference and answer whatever questions you have. Thank you for your patience until then.”


He turned and walked up the steps, as ordinary as it was possible to be in a bright red cape.


 


 


He actually came, Bruce thought, passing the red-caped figure as he took his place on the witness stand. He had pushed hard for these hearings and the outcome mattered to him a great deal, but on this day his schedule was very tight and they were running late.


The committee had caved in to General Swanwick’s insistence that key parts of the hearing be held behind closed doors. As a result, the opening session was delayed while the details were negotiated and the next day’s hearing would be closed. Bruce would not be able to attend unless invited.


Bruce sent a pre-arranged text message to Alfred, relieved that he had a cell signal. He turned the phone to vibrate and set it on the table as he took his seat.


After the usual preliminaries, Senator Finch asked Bruce for his statement about the events in Metropolis. Bruce did not look at Superman while he spoke. Instead, he kept his eyes on the senator or on the cameras as he begins his story. He explained that he was expected at a meeting in the Wayne Financial building and was en route by helicopter when he first saw the alien ship. He described his drive toward the office through streets filled with increasingly panicked citizens and how he was forced to abandon the Jeep a few blocks from his destination to continue on foot.


“...and as I got my first sight of the tower I saw...light streaking through the building, maybe the fourth or fifth floor. It was bright like burning magnesium and lasted maybe three seconds. I didn’t realise at first what had happened. Then I heard this sound, I can’t even describe it. It was the steel in the building coming apart. The tower just...”


Bruce’s phone buzzed. He glanced at it quickly to confirm it was Alfred calling, then swiped the screen to reject the call.


“I’m sorry.” He made a show of embarrassment before picking up his story. “The top of the tower just slid off, like a tree sawn in two. There was a little girl standing right underneath. I hadn’t seen her before. I was close enough to pull her to safety...” He scoffed, reconsidering the word. “Well, out of immediate danger, anyway. The noise was incredible and I thought we were all going to die. The building just fell to pieces. When the dust cleared, most of the tower was gone. I was still holding that little girl. I remember asking her where her parents were. She pointed up, to where my building used to be.”


Bruce took a deep breath and his phone buzzed again. He swiped the screen again. “I looked up where she pointed and that’s when I saw them: Superman and Zod, though at the time I had no idea what I was seeing. Two men flying through the air, and then through the wall of another building. I thought I was seeing things, it was insane.”


For the first time, Bruce looked at Superman. “We’ve been told that what I saw was a battle to the death, that Superman fought to defend us against Zod. All I can say is what I saw didn’t seem that way. I think I can speak for everyone on the ground with me when I say we didn't feel defended.” His phone buzzed a third time and this time he let it repeat twice before he swiped to stop it. “My apologies, Senator, but this seems like an urgent call. Could I please take a moment to find out what’s happening?” This was a gamble. Bruce thought the Senator would go along but he wasn’t certain. It was a breach of protocol to even have a phone in the chamber, but a billionaire can get away with a lot. That didn’t mean Senator Finch wouldn’t punish him for it.


Finch made him wait while she conferred with her colleagues. Finally, she switched her mic back on. “We’ll take a short recess. Fifteen minutes, Mr Wayne, but you will turn your phone off when we reconvene or it will be taken from you.”


She sounded like a schoolteacher. Bruce nodded. “Of course, Senator. Again, I apologise.”


Bruce didn’t actually need to return the call; the interruption was a planned strategy. He made a show of it because there was bound to be someone watching him. While he pretended to speak to someone on the phone, his eyes searched for the Senator. She had probably taken advantage of the break to freshen up. When he saw her heading back to the chamber he pocketed the phone and walked quickly to intercept her.


She saw him coming and her mouth settled into a hard line. She wasn’t happy with him. No surprise there.


“Are you done, Mr Wayne?”


“I really am sorry,” he said again. “I told my people not to contact me for anything less than the sky falling.”


“And is the sky falling?” she asked archly.


Perfect. “There is a crisis and they were right to call me,” Bruce lied, “but what’s happening here is more important. Senator, I’m willing to stay and answer any questions you have but I would consider it a great favour if I could leave soon to deal with things at my company. I can return tomorrow. Or another day.”


He watched her consider his words. She wanted to refuse, retribution for his rudeness in letting the call, however important, interrupt her hearing. But Senator Finch was politician enough to recognise the value of having the CEO of Wayne Enterprises owe her a favour. Eventually she nodded. “I only have a few questions for you. I think we can dispose of them quickly.”


Bruce gave her his most charming smile. “I owe you one.”


Her look told him she planned to collect, but she said nothing more.


Bruce sent Alfred a text to confirm the plan was on, turned his phone off and returned to the chamber.


 


 

Gotham City


Bruce had seen Diana in her Wonder Woman persona before, that night in the freight yard, but seeing her like this in the bright lights of his cave was very different. This time she wasn’t trying to hide, and yet he wasn’t certain he would recognise her if he didn’t already know this was the woman he knew.


The widow’s peak band she wore across her forehead subtly changed the shape of her face and her hair was loose. Her shoulders and upper arms were bare and her forearms covered from wrist to elbow with leather covered by bracelets of a metal Bruce couldn’t identify. Her leather bodice was tight enough to distract any man’s attention from her face and its lower half was a gladiator-style skirt. She wore armoured boots that came up over her knees and although the boots were practically low, not high-heeled, the whole effect somehow made Diana seem taller. The lasso he saw her use in the freight yard hung at her side, but she carried no other offensive weapons. As Bruce watched, she shook out her hooded cape and flung it over her shoulders. It was made of a heavy material and textured to look almost like feathers.


It was a surprisingly effective disguise.


Bruce pulled the Bat helmet on over his head, completing his own transformation into the Batman. He offered Diana a communication device: a microphone that fitted invisibly into the ear.


“The three of us can stay in contact using these. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but no names on comms. It’s very unlikely this channel could be intercepted, but it’s not impossible.”


Diana fitted the device into her ear. “Can you hear me?”


“Loud and clear,” Batman agreed. Her voice sounded the same and her accent, a mix of French and something else European, was distinctive. That would give her away.


He looked at Alfred, who nodded to confirm the comm circuit was working.


“Let’s go,” Batman said.


Batman’s plane was designed for two, but it was a long time since he had flown with a passenger. Memories of Jason crowded him as he went through the preflight routine. A smart-mouthed kid with so much potential. His second, and last, “Robin”. A friend... a student... almost a son. The one he failed. The one who died alone, horribly. The one he was too late to save.


The plane rose up - no need for anything as old-fashioned as a runway - the exit opened and water from the lake above spilled through the opening. Batman flew through the curtain of water and into the air. Behind them, the concealed opening closed and the system began its work to reclaim the water and pump it back into the lake. As the plane climbed swiftly into the night sky, Batman glanced over to Diana. To Wonder Woman.


He must not allow memories of Jason to dent his confidence now. This was a simple mission. Break in, find what they need, get out. He would not fail tonight.


He couldn’t resist pushing the plane faster than usual. G-force took hold as the plane zoomed upward. Diana laughed exuberantly and Batman turned them toward the bay and pushed the acceleration just that little bit more. The plane could go hypersonic but that would get them noticed and the mission required stealth. They sped over the water toward Metropolis.


 


 

Metropolis


Batman slowed their flight, circled the Luthor estate at altitude and relinquished the controls to Alfred, back at the cave. “The plane is yours,” he said.


“Drone mode active,” Alfred confirmed and seamlessly took them down toward the house.


The architect who designed the Luthor mansion had been very fond of curves. The front of the building was a crescent and the roof was constructed in undulating strips of grass, stone and glass. It looked like an ocean in the moonlight.


The plane’s windshield slid open. Batman rose from the cockpit and stepped out onto the front of the plane. Wonder Woman followed his example. As the plane hovered over the roof, they looked at each other and leapt at the same moment from the plane down to the roof. The plane rose into the air and away.


Batman crouched as his boots hit the stone, straightened and ran lightly across the roof to the security control panel. He opened it and set to work. Lex had a good security system but it wasn’t the best available and presented no problem to someone with Batman’s experience. The system had three layers: a standard intruder and fire alarm which would automatically summon police or fire services when triggered; cameras which recorded all activity with redundant backups; and motion sensors.


Batman disabled the perimeter alarm by looping the signal wire. A slight blip would register if anyone was actively monitoring the system during the instant he flipped the switch but otherwise the alarm was now useless. He unscrewed the main plate to expose the fibre-optic cable. He carefully unscrewed the cable without breaking the connection, then set his own device on top of the panel. Working swiftly he spliced his device into the cables. The screen of his device flickered on and an image of a hallway inside the house appeared.


“Monitoring security,” he reported, keeping his voice low.


Alfred acknowledged, “Beginning recording. One hundred and eighty seconds.”


Wonder Woman reached his side as the image switched to a different internal camera. With a gesture, Batman warned her to be quiet. She nodded and raised her hood to conceal her face. They watched the view on the tiny screen change from camera to camera. Batman saw no sign that Lex was home. In fact, it appeared that no one was home.


“Twenty seconds,” Alfred said after what felt like ten minutes. “Ten seconds. Eight... seven...”


Batman rested his thumb on the device’s control. As the countdown reached zero he clicked the button, taking over the security monitoring and feeding the system the recorded footage on a continuous loop. Now, even if someone was watching the cameras, or checked the recording later, they would see nothing untoward.


“Loop in place,” he reported for Alfred’s benefit. Then, to Wonder Woman, “Your turn.”


Wonder Woman crossed the roof to where the glass strip began. Had Batman been doing this alone, he would have broken the glass to get inside, but Diana persuaded him to utilise her special skills. She paused, studying the way the glass panels were put together then she walked out onto the glass. She crouched where two panels joined. Batman couldn’t see exactly what she was doing, but he did see her lift the heavy glass panel with her hands as if it weighed nothing. The glass was several centimetres thick.


It wasn’t how he would have done it, but it was effective. She dropped through the opening she’d made. Batman followed her.


Once inside, they headed in different directions, as planned. Wonder Woman was going to search Lex’s bedroom and the fortified room they identified as a possible panic room. Batman would take the study downstairs, plus one side-mission of his own. If neither of them found the photographs, the next step would depend on whether there was any response from security or cops. If there was time, they could search the rest of the house. If not, they would move on to search the LexCorp offices.


“Sit. rep,” Batman ordered as he headed swiftly down the stairs.


“All clear,” Alfred reported. There was no silent alarm summoning the law, no sign their presence had been detected. Good.


Batman went past the study and found the steps to the basement level. Lex had a server room underneath the main house. While the photographs were the primary mission, Batman couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get into Lex’s files. He wanted to know where Lex was getting his money and this was the quickest way. Inside the server room he worked quickly. Each server slid out of its slot; he attached a data mining device then slid the server back into place. The devices would transmit everything to Batman’s system, where his algorithms could sift through the data and extract what he needed. It would take a few days, perhaps weeks, depending on how much data was there.


With his first mission accomplished, Batman made his way to the study. Most of the house was decorated with clean lines and minimalist decor, but the study was furnished like an old-fashioned library. There were floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filling one wall, filled with leather-bound books. A large stained-oak desk with a laptop and telephone dominated one side of the room. On the other side was a huge faux-fireplace and hanging on the wall above it, a painting depicting a scene from Paradise Lost: Lucifer’s escape from Hell. A short distance from the desk was a leather armchair and a dresser with a crystal whiskey decanter and several matching glasses.


Bruce started with the desk. The drawers were locked but the locks were easily picked. He searched each thoroughly, but found nothing of any interest. He checked the desk for secret compartments. He moved on.


The dresser held nothing but alcohol, mixers and ice.


The bookshelves would take a long time to search if he had to check every book. But as he got close to the shelves he saw dust clinging to the wood. Not much, but whoever cleaned in here didn’t do a great job of it. So instead of examining the books, he examined the shelves. He found a set of books that had recently been removed, leaving trails in the dust. Carefully he removed the same books, stacking them on the floor. Hidden behind them was a thin, fabric-bound book. He pulled it out and it fell open in his hands.


Got it! He knew at once this was the photograph album they were looking for. Each page held four photographs, all very old and held in place with those little paper corners. Tissue paper separated the pages, reminding him of a wedding album. The pictures showed people in military uniforms, but there was no sign of Diana in them. Batman had difficulty turning the pages with the heavy gloves on his hands, but he wouldn’t risk removing them and leaving his prints behind.


He was beginning to think the photograph Diana wanted wasn’t there when he turned a page and saw her face. She was unmistakeable, yet this wasn’t the Diana he knew. This was Wonder Woman. She stood with four men in what looked like the rubble of a bombed-out building. Two of the men were young and in uniform. One might have been native American, though that was hard to tell in the faded picture. The last was older, dressed as a civilian. None of them was smiling. Wonder Woman gazed into the camera and her eyes were haunted.


The lack of smiles was normal for the period, Batman recalled. This would have been in the days when it took far more than a fraction of a second to expose the film in a camera. Pictures had to be posed, and the subjects had to remain still for quite a while. Still, this didn’t seem like a happy picture.


Batman removed it from the album and turned the page. The next picture showed Diana with just one of the men from the first photograph. She was looking at the camera, but he was looking at her, and it was a look Bruce recognised. He was in love with her. There was no indication of whether the feeling was mutual.


Just how old are you, Diana?


It was the only question he had asked that Diana evaded. Yes, she had almost certainly been selective about what she told him. He did the same when he answered her questions. They both had secrets they weren’t ready to share. But she had told him a lot and he did not believe she had lied to him. He remembered Diana talking about the island where she was raised: an island with no men, just women like her. He remembered his struggle not to ask the obvious question about life on a lonely island of women - the question that any red-blooded man would ask. He remembered her laughing when she understood what he was thinking and how frankly she answered the question he hadn’t asked.


So why conceal her age? He didn’t buy the “a lady doesn’t tell” line for a second. Diana was every inch a lady...but not that kind.


The next photograph swept his doubts away. This one was taken indoors and Diana posed with the man as if they were a couple, their bodies turned toward each other. Again, no smiles, but she was happy, radiantly so.


And then he understood. He had been thinking of Diana as maybe 150 years old, a stunning age when she looked no older than thirty, but not mind-blowing. But what if she was older? What if she was a lot older? What would that mean for her love affair with a soldier?


Wonder Woman’s voice came over the comm. “I’ve got nothing here.”


“I do. I have the album. There are three photographs so far. Do you know if there are more?”


“I only saw one in the catalogue. There are others?”


“Yes.” Batman turned the page and found that was the last. “I’m done. Let’s get out of here.”


Then Alfred’s voice broke in. “Quickly! You have company.”


 


 


“Quickly! You have company.”


Wonder Woman was in the panic room when Alfred’s warning cracked across the comm. The room was about three metres square and bore a strong resemblance to a bank vault: steel reinforced walls and a solid steel door that could be sealed from the inside with a large wheel. One wall of the room was full of screens showing the security feeds from throughout the house, but it was the looped footage Batman imposed on the system, not the live feed it should have been.


She was about to ask Alfred for more details about the “company” he warned of when Batman did it for her.


“Details. How long?”


“Inside the house. Five armed hostiles on the upper floor. Three downstairs.”


The panic room door began to close. Someone was controlling it remotely. Wonder Woman streaked across the room to stop it before she was trapped.


“Roof,” Batman snapped. “One minute.”


“Coming in,” Alfred’s voice confirmed.


Wonder Woman just barely got her bracelet into the doorway before the reinforced door slammed shut. It was still trying to close itself, but the bracelet would not give under pressure. It bought her time, but now she was trapped with her wrist between two plates of steel. She worked her free hand into the gap and pushed. She strained against the heavy door. It moved back a little, enough to free her wrist but she kept her bracelet in the crack. She shoved against the door with all her might. The strain pulled a cry from her and the door gave under her superhuman strength.


“What’s wrong?” Batman’s concern came through even with the voice scrambler he used.


Wonder Woman stepped through the broken door. “I had a fight with a door. Heading your way now.”


The thunder of automatic gunfire exploded nearby. She ran toward the sound. In the hallway she saw six men and women in black combat gear, all with guns aimed at Batman.


“Hey!” she shouted and most of the guns turned her way.


Reflex and instinct took over. She moved in a blur, deflecting the bullets that got close enough to threaten her and letting the rest pass her to pepper the wall behind. Batman moved toward the hostiles. His armour protected him from the bullets but most men would still have been knocked off their feet by the impact. He simply moved, implacable.


Their opponents were plainly not used to dealing with opponents who didn’t fall down when shot.


Wonder Woman took advantage of their shock to take the guns from the first three. She threw the broken guns down the hallway behind her. The third man lunged at her. She twisted to avoid the blow, grabbed his arm and added her strength to his momentum to throw him into the others. They fell like dominos.


“Nice.” Batman approved.


Together they ran to the open panel of the roof. She was faster and reached the opening first. She could hear the plane hovering above, ready for them. But the ceiling was high and to get up there it was a big jump straight up with nothing to hold onto. An easy jump for Wonder Woman, but could Batman do it? He used ropes and grapples in ways she had never seen before, but he couldn’t actually fly. They hadn’t discussed the details of how to extract.


Wonder Woman placed herself under the open panel, crossed her hands to make a platform and looked at him. “Jump!”


Batman didn’t hesitate. Later, when she replayed the events in her mind, she would remember that trust with gratitude. She crouched as he ran to her and planted one boot on her braced hands. Wonder Woman lifted him, using her whole body to thrust upward. Batman flew up through the glass and into the night.


Those few seconds were enough to bring the others - Luthor’s security, she assumed - to her. Once again, she was engulfed in a rain of bullets. As she danced, deflecting the assault, she heard weapons fire outside as well.


Alfred’s voice came through the comm. “The plane is taking damage. Get out!”


Batman shouted back, “She’s still inside!”


Wonder Woman dived toward the nearest gunman. “Go!” she ordered Batman. “I’ll catch up.”


“I won’t leave you.”


Oh, stubborn, stubborn man. “Go! Now!” she yelled, cursing him for distracting her as a bullet grazed her upper arm. She leapt into the air, over her assailants and ran down the hallway. She darted around a corner and into the nearest room. She barely noticed the details of the room itself. She ran for the window and launched herself straight at the glass. The window shattered into a thousand shards. Wonder Woman curled her body into a tuck, somersaulted in the air, hit the ground, rolled to absorb the impact, leapt to her feet and kept running, her cape streaming out behind her.


Ahead of her the Batplane was visible against the night sky.


“I’m out,” Wonder Woman reported. “Keep going.”


“What are you going to do?” Batman demanded.


“Hold your height and velocity steady,” she instructed as she ran. “I’m coming aboard.” The ground ahead was clear, at least until the plane reached the trees that marked the perimeter of the estate.


“Steady!” he snapped.


Wonder Woman took the lasso from her side, just in case she missed her target. She only had one chance to do this right. She put on a fresh burst of speed and jumped. She flung out the lasso as she reached the height of the plane and the cord looped around the wing tip. But she didn’t need it. She landed dead on target - on top of the plane.


“Shit!” Batman’s voice exclaimed.


Wonder Woman pulled her lasso free. As the plane windshield opened she slid down and dropped easily into the co-pilot seat. She laughed. “Nice catch, Batman.”


He growled something obscene, closed the windshield and took the plane straight up so fast she felt gravity shove her down into the seat.


“Heading back to the barn,” he reported.


 


 

Gotham City


Diana was hurt.


The thought burned in Batman’s mind all the way back to the Batcave. He saw blood on her skin as she dropped into the co-pilot’s seat, before she covered it with her cape. While they were in the air he had no way to tell how serious it was or whether the blood he saw was her only injury.


Lights beneath the lake guided him to the cave entrance and he held his breath involuntarily as the plane plunged through the curtain of water. He had done that manoeuvre a hundred times or more but it was always risky and he just couldn’t breathe until they were safely inside.


He landed quickly on the pad and opened the cockpit. Alfred waited on the platform above. Batman wanted to demand answers from him at once. He was angry that Alfred’s warning had come so late. What was the point of having all his surveillance technology if the man watching it fell asleep on the job? Diana was hurt because of that late warning.


He pulled the Bat mask off as Diana reached his side. “You’re hurt,” he said.


“I’m fine,” Diana insisted.


Bruce pulled the cape away from her arm, revealing the blood. “You’re hurt, Diana. Let’s take care of it.”


She shook off the cape and looked at the injury, probing around the gash with her fingers. “It’s nothing. I heal quickly. I just need to clean it.”


“Then let us take care of you,” Bruce said patiently. He led her to the corner of the cave they kept sterile for medical procedures. He pulled his gloves off and detached the batwing cape as they walked.


Diana permitted him to examine the wound on her arm while Alfred prepared an antiseptic wash. It was a bullet graze, deep enough to scar, but not bad enough to cause permanent damage.


“When you said you heal quickly...” Bruce picked up a swab and dipped it in the antiseptic, “...do you mean human fast, or better than that?”


Diana winced when the antiseptic stung her raw flesh. “I don't get hurt easily. My body heals damage only a little faster than normal for a human, when it happens. But I’m immune to most toxins and I don’t get infections.”


“That’s good to know. This isn’t serious, but a couple of stitches would help it heal.” He changed to a fresh swab and began cleaning the blood from where it dripped down her arm.


“Stitches aren’t necessary,” Diana said mildly.


“Your call,” he shrugged, then as he continued to work, spoke to Alfred. “What happened out there?”


“The sensors did not detect anyone inside the house, but they were there. I couldn’t see them until they were visible on the cameras.”


“How is that possible? We’ve got sensors all through the house.”


“I have a guess, Master Wayne. Someone may have located your sensors and interfered with the transmission, much as you did with the cameras.”


“That’s - ” Bruce began, but stopped himself before he said impossible. It wasn’t impossible. It wasn’t even unlikely. He hadn’t been watching the sensor feeds closely since Luthor died. Someone might have found his devices, but why screw with the feeds instead of just removing them? Unless...


“We were expected,” Diana said, exactly as Bruce reached the same conclusion.


“I think you’re right,” Bruce agreed. “Is this your only injury, Diana?” The bullet graze was no longer bleeding, but he covered it with a wound dressing and reached for a bandage.


“I don’t need that,” Diana objected.


“Will you stop arguing with me on this?” Bruce handed her the foil the dressing had been wrapped in. “It’s something my R and D came up with for battlefield surgery. The dressing is impregnated with a gel that will help the skin heal and minimise scarring. You can remove it in a couple of hours if you must.”


She gave a small smile. “Fine. Thank you.” She allowed him to bandage her arm.


When he was done, he lifted her wrist and examined the bracelet she wore. “There's not even a scratch on this! What is it made of? I don't recognise the metal.”


“It's not found anywhere except my home,” Diana told him. “It's the hardest substance on earth, and the secret of shaping the metal is known only to a few. I am not one of them.”


“I could use a little of that for my armour,” Bruce said enviously. He was unstrapping the bullet-ridden chest plate as he spoke. The armour was scored where bullets had hit and been repelled but there were at least six embedded in the chestplate.


He passed the chestplate to Alfred. “The extra layer of kevlar worked, though. The bullets never touched me.”


“That,” Alfred admonished, “was more luck than kevlar. This is not designed for you to walk into a hail of bullets. What if they had armour-piercing rounds?”


“It’s designed to be frightening,” Bruce argued. “And ignoring their bullets did scare them.” He groaned as he lifted the collar over his head. He stripped off the black undershirt and rubbed at his bare chest. “But I’m going to be bruised.”


“That happens when bullets don’t touch you,” Alfred said sarcastically. “Do try to recall the laws of physics next time. Are you sure you didn’t break your ribs?”


“No, it’s not that bad.” He stripped off the rest of the uniform quickly and pulled on a pair of loose sweat pants. He reached for a T-shirt and felt a light touch on the skin of his back. He turned to see Diana. She was staring at his scars.


Bruce knew his back was a sight. Wounds from bullets and knives, burn scars and bites and even laser scars from the removal of an involuntary tattoo. His life as Batman, written on his flesh. There was more on his chest and arms.


“Twenty years of war leaves a mark,” Bruce said self-consciously and pulled the T-shirt over his head, covering most of the scars.


Alfred pried a bullet loose from the chest plate and it fell to the ground with a ping. “Lucky you have a few spares. This is ruined.” He showed it to Bruce. “One more shot here, or here, and it wouldn’t have held up.”


Bruce took the chest plate from him and pushed at the areas he indicated. He did feel it buckle a little. He pushed harder and felt it crack. “You could be right,” he admitted. “It needs better reinforcement. I’ll look at it tomorrow.”


He retrieved the stolen photographs and looked for Diana. She had moved away from them while he examined the armour and was standing in front of the glass case where he kept Robin’s last uniform. Jason’s. The one the Joker left for him to find, graffitied with his taunting words. Bruce had kept it in the cave since Jason’s funeral. A reminder. A remembrance. A promise. Diana had seen it before, but she hadn’t asked him about it. Bruce guessed she was going to ask now.


He walked to her side. “His name was Jason,” he said to stop her asking. “I found him on the streets about a year after my previous ward moved out. Jason had been through a lot and he was an angry kid. I thought I could give him a way to channel that anger. I think we were getting there, but then he...” Bruce rubbed a hand over his face. “I tried to save him. I was too late.”


“I thought perhaps he’s the one you left behind,” Diana said softly.


“What?”


“At the house, you refused to leave me behind.” She turned to face him. “Bruce, it’s not that I don’t appreciate it, but it’s important that you understand. I was not in danger. You could have left me there and I would have been fine.”


“You got shot, Diana,” he pointed out.


“It’s a scratch.”


Bruce looked at the suit again. “I didn’t leave him behind,” he told her. “But I’d rather not talk about it. Let’s go upstairs so you can change.”


Diana disappeared into his bathroom. Bruce still hadn’t given her the photographs. He laid them on the dining table and went into the kitchen to select a bottle of wine. He found that Alfred had already set out fixings for a meal - when did he have the time? Bruce opened a bottle of Spanish red and assembled the meal. There wasn’t much to do except warm the bread and add dressing to the salad. By the time Diana emerged with all traces of Wonder Woman gone, Bruce had the table set. Diana wore a silver-grey blouse and plain charcoal slacks. In her ears were the simple diamonds she had been wearing the night they met. She was elegant and lovely.


Bruce had put the photographs beside her plate. Diana picked them up, handling them delicately by the edges. She gasped and laid the pictures down side by side on the table.


“Bruce, I never thought I would see these again. I owe you a debt.” Her eyes were bright with unshed tears.


He poured wine into her glass. “You can repay me by answering a question,” he suggested.


She looked up from the photographs. “It must be a terribly important question.”


Bruce indicated the photographs with a look. “What happened to him?” he asked gently, aware that he had avoided a similarly personal question.


Diana sighed and touched the group photograph with one fingertip. “This was the day of the Armistice. November eleventh 1918. We believed it was over. The war was won. So many were lost, but the six of us survived.”


“Six?” he asked. The photograph showed five.


She smiled distantly. “Charlie was behind the camera.”


“So...what happened?”


Diana was silent for a long time. “Mustard gas,” she said eventually. “Most people exposed to it died on the battlefield, quickly. But Steve... He only caught the edge of the cloud. We thought he was lucky but it turned out he breathed enough to damage his lungs. He died...a few years later.”


“I’m sorry.”


She closed her eyes and he watched a single tear fall. “Thank you,” she said.


Bruce wanted to say more. He wanted to tell her he understood how that kind of loss could change a person. He wanted to say that sometimes you couldn’t get past the loss; no matter what the shrinks say some pain never goes away, but you could move past the person. You could let someone take their place. It would never be the same, but it could be good.


He couldn’t say any of those things. Not out loud. All he could do was watch that tear shine on her cheek.


“Master Bruce, I’m sorry to interrupt,” Alfred appeared in the kitchen doorway. “Senator Finch is on the line. She called earlier while you were in Metropolis. I gave her the usual excuse. Should I put her off again?”


Bruce sighed and gave Diana an apologetic look. “No, I’d better talk to her. Excuse me, Diana.” He rose from the table, grabbed a swallow of the wine and took the phone from Alfred.


The usual excuse was that the billionaire playboy was busy with a woman and it was more than his butler’s life was worth to interrupt his fun. Which meant that, on top of the stunt he pulled at the hearing, Senator Finch would have come to an obvious, wrong conclusion and was likely very annoyed with him.


Bruce punched the button to take the call off hold and lifted the phone to his ear. “Bruce Wayne speaking. Senator?”


“I’m sorry to call so late, but this is urgent.”


“I am at your disposal, Senator.”


“I’m so glad you said that,” she told him. “There’s going to be a meeting at nine tomorrow morning. I want you there.”


9am meant Bruce would have to leave at once, but he couldn’t refuse. “Of course. Email me the details. I’ll be there.”


“Good. Have a safe flight, Mr Wayne.” She hung up without saying goodbye. Yeah, he had pissed her off.


Scrambling the jet at this hour would mean dragging the pilots out of bed, which didn’t make for a safe flight, but the Wayne Enterprises helicopter was on twenty-four hour standby.


“Alfred, call the chopper. I’ve got to be in DC by nine.” He handed the receiver back to Alfred and returned to the table. “Diana, I - ” he began and broke off when he saw she was on a call of her own.


“Yes, of course,” she said. She glanced at Bruce and made a gesture to indicate she wouldn’t be long. “I’m not at home right now, but I’ll call you as soon as I’ve checked my files. An hour? Yes. My pleasure. I’ll speak to you soon.” She lowered the Blackberry.


“You have to go?” Bruce smiled regretfully.


“I’m afraid so. A client in India.”


India explained the call in the pre-dawn hours. Bruce was relieved, since he had to leave himself. He retrieved her costume, now carefully packed in its locked case, from the bathroom and walked with her to her car.


“I’m sorry I have to leave so quickly,” Diana said.


“Well, I have to fly myself so it’s fine. I’m going to be in Washington for a few days. I’ll call you when I get back.”


“I will look forward to it.” Diana reached up to touch his face. She had never done that before. Her fingers cupped his cheek warmly. Bruce felt his heart speed up. She kissed him lightly on his lips. “Thank you for tonight.”


It was all he could do to keep the unexpected kiss chaste. Bruce was good at self-control, very, very good. But his control wasn’t so great when it came to sex and desire. He forced himself to remain where he was until her car was out of sight. By then, he could hear the approaching helicopter.


“Should I pack a bag for you, Master Wayne?”


Bruce turned back to the house. “No, thanks, Alfred. I have what I need at the hotel in DC. Don’t worry about the armour. I’ll look at that when I get back. But keep an eye on the sensors and data from Lex’s house. I want to know what’s going on.”


“Of course, sir.”


 


 


Superman hovered above the apartment building until he saw Diana’s car disappear into the garage beneath it. He flew down and as Clark Kent walked quickly into the garage. He was waiting at the elevator when she walked his way, carrying a metal case like the kind professionals used for video equipment.


Diana looked as fresh as if it were morning, though her hair was a little windblown. She smiled when she saw him. “You’re early.”


“I’m fast,” he answered with a grin. “Thank you for letting me come. I know it’s late and since you weren’t home when I called I guess I interrupted something.”


“You did, but nothing that couldn’t wait. Come upstairs.”


In her apartment, Diana asked him to wait while she changed.


“Would you like me to make coffee?” Clark offered.


“Goodness, no, not unless it’s for you. There’s chamomile in the second cupboard. I would enjoy some tea. Help yourself to anything you’d like. I won’t be long.”


Clark was grateful for something to do while he waited. He found a teapot and made chamomile tea for two. Herbal teas took a few minutes to brew, so it wasn’t quite ready when Diana returned. She was wearing silk pyjamas and a full length robe.


“Sorry to keep you waiting. It’s just been a long night. What can I do for you, Kal?”


He felt guilty for interrupting her, but he was here now. “You know about the Senate hearings?”


“Of course. It must be difficult for you.”


Clark poured tea through a strainer into two mugs. “No. It’s not fun, listening to so many people who were hurt that day, but I understand why it’s important to get the story out in the open.” He offered her one of the mugs. “There’s a conference tomorrow Senator Finch asked me to come to. She wants to discuss my accountability for what I do.”


Diana nodded gravely. “I see.”


“Usually I’d talk things over with my mom, or with Lois, but this time I really need a perspective from someone...like me.”


Diana led the way into her living room. “I’m happy to help.” She sat down in an armchair and curled her legs underneath her. “This is about who you are now, about Superman, not just the invasion?”


Clark nodded, taking a seat on the couch. “She said what I do, not what I did.”


“Accountability suggests the senator is looking for some kind of authority over you.”


“That’s what I thought, too. I can’t let that happen. It would only be a matter of time before they try to use me as a weapon.”


“Yes, eventually, that will happen.”


“You think that’s okay?”


Diana sipped her tea. “Kal, I was raised as a warrior and when I left Themyscira it was to fight in a war. For me, if the cause is just I believe in fighting. But what’s right for me may not be right for you.”


“It isn’t.” Clark had absolutely no doubt of that. He wasn’t cut out to fight, but even if he were, letting someone order him to kill went against everything he believed.


“In one way, the answer is simple. You already know that no one on Earth has the power to compel you. Any arrangement you come to depends on your agreement and cooperation.”


“So you think I should negotiate?”


“In a conference? No. Negotiating with a committee is like trying to hold water in a sieve.”


“A committee is what I have to deal with. If I refuse to negotiate with them...”


“Don't refuse, not directly. But don't speak to the group. Figure out who is the smartest woman, or man, in the room, and negotiate with that person, even if they are also the least powerful. But first, be clear in your mind what you want and where you can compromise.”


Clark nodded. “That makes sense.”


She set her cup on the table. “Is there any leadership you think you could accept? Let’s begin there.”


 


 

Washington DC


It was a breakfast meeting, held in a small conference room in the Capitol. On one side of the room a breakfast buffet had been laid out. The conference table had seating for just eight people, and not all of the seats were filled. Senators Finch and Barrow, General Swanwick and Colonel Kiernan of the Air Force, Clark himself, in his Superman guise, Edward Doren, the Vice President and Bruce Wayne. Clark felt better about this meeting since talking with Diana, but he was still worried. He doubted this was going to be good for him.


Finch began by pointing out the breakfast buffet. “This is an informal meeting, off the record. Help yourselves to anything you want.”


There was a pause while several people did as she suggested.


The senator continued, “I wanted to bring us all together to talk about what happens after these hearings conclude. It’s clear to me that we will be able to establish a narrative of what happened. The facts, or most of them,” she glanced at Swanwick, “can be made public. But once our conclusions are published, there are going to be calls for action. I think we all need to be prepared for that.”


“Senator.” Bruce Wayne was pouring coffee into a mug as he spoke. “Can I ask a question before you go on?”


“Ask away,” she said impatiently.


“Why isn’t Lex Luthor here? He’s the best representative of business in Metropolis and he’s here in Washington.”


She sighed. “Lex Luthor is a kid. I want people here who will take this matter seriously.”


Wayne chose a seat. “Yes, he’s young. He’s also got his father’s ruthless streak and he’s a lot smarter than he seems to be. You might regret not inviting him today. But let’s proceed.” He drank his coffee and poured more.


“What kind of call to action are you expecting, Senator?” asked Swanwick.


“I wish I knew. It’s never easy to predict how the media will spin a story but I think a few things are inevitable. One is how to prepare for the next alien incursion. Another is whether Superman should be held responsible for the deaths.”


Swanwick interrupted. “Superman was acting nominally under my orders, Senator, and in a time of war. He can no more be held personally responsible than any other soldier following orders.”


Superman looked at him gratefully. That was help he had not expected.


Finch nodded, but said, “If that sticks, it leads to the next problem, which is how far we are able to control what Superman does in the future.” She looked at Clark. “This is why we need this meeting. We will need your cooperation with whatever action we decide to take.”


“I understand, Senator,” Superman said cautiously. He was afraid he did understand. This meeting was all about how they were going to control him, and he knew he couldn’t accept that.


“Can we expect your cooperation?” she pressed tensely.


Clark raised his hands in an open gesture. “I don’t know what I'm being asked to cooperate with, yet. This is politics, and I try not to get involved with politics.” He went on quickly, seeing the senator was about to interrupt him. “I know, this time I am involved and I can’t avoid that. But want to hear from everyone before I weigh in. You understand the ramifications. I’m not sure I do.” Maybe that was a little too ingenuous. Clark did understand the ramifications, but from his own perspective. He needed to understand theirs.


So they talked, and Superman listened. The discussion went on for some time. The senators were most concerned about being seen to do something; for them it was all about the PR. Swanwick and the colonel wanted some kind of assurance that Superman’s power couldn’t be used against the USA. Swanwick mentioned the spy satellite Superman destroyed. Bruce Wayne talked about the collateral damage from the battle in Metropolis and his fears of what could happen in future.


Some of them seemed to forget that Superman was in the room when they talked about how any agreement to control him might work. Who would be in charge? Under what circumstances should Superman seek permission before acting? There was no real consensus at the table, but a lot of people pretending they agreed with each other.


It was exactly, Clark thought gloomily, as Diana predicted. What did they really expect him to say to this? Did any of them think he would meekly buckle under? If he were that type of person, he wouldn’t have fought Zod.


It had gone on long enough. Clark turned his eyes to Bruce Wayne. Almost at once, the other man became aware of his attention and met his eyes.


“Mr Wayne,” Clark said, just loud enough to cut through the chatter. Silence fell in the room.


“Mr Wayne,” Clark repeated, “if you were in my shoes, would you be okay with this?”


He heard Wayne’s heart speed up, just for a moment. “Why are you asking me?”


“Because I’ve been listening, and you’re the smartest person in this room.”


Oddly, Wayne seemed to relax at that. He didn’t answer Clark’s question, though, just held his gaze steadily.


“Would you?” Clark pushed. It was a gamble, singling out this man who seemed to fear and dislike him in equal measure.


Wayne’s gaze dropped to the table as he considered. When he looked up, his expression was absolutely unreadable, a perfect poker face. “No,” he said. “In your place, I wouldn’t submit to anything we’ve discussed so far.”


Clark felt the relief wash over him. “Why not?”


“When there’s a nuke headed for a city, or a plane falling out of the sky, you can’t wait for a committee. You have to be free to act instantly. When people are dying, if you stop to think about the rules, you’re letting them die.” His eyes narrowed as he looked at Superman. “But let me turn that around. If you were faced with a creature capable of destroying the world...”


Clark interrupted, frowning. “I was. I killed him.”


And the look of triumph that flitted across Wayne’s expression told Clark he’d fallen right into a trap.


Wayne said flatly, “Then you understand our position.”


Smartest person in the room. Best ally...most dangerous enemy. Which was he, really?


Wayne turned to the others. “The only way this can work is if any oversight is retroactive. And that’s not something the American people will accept as having any real force.”


“Retroactive,” Swanwick said. “You’re suggesting, what? That every time Superman acts, a committee gets together after the fact and decides whether it was okay?”


Wayne shrugged. “Given that nothing can work unless Superman agrees to it, I don’t think there’s any other way.”


“And when the committee decides he’s done something wrong?” Swanwick asked.


“You’d best hope that doesn’t happen, General. We don’t have any weapon that would be effective against Superman and it would be asinine to develop one.”


“Why do you say that?” Vice President Doren asked sharply.


Clark didn’t like the turn the meeting had taken. It was predictable, though. Sooner or later they would want to know Superman’s weaknesses.


“There is no way to keep weapons technology secret in the long term,” Wayne declared. “It’s never happened in the whole history of war. If you had something that would be effective against him,” Wayne nodded toward Superman, “can you imagine what it would do to our own troops? Or to our citizens, in terrorist hands? You’d make the mutually assured destruction of our nuclear arms race look like children fighting over toys.” Wayne shook his head. “That’s one scenario. The other may be worse.”


Swanwick looked very grim. “The other?” he asked, but Senator Finch cut in before Wayne could respond.


“We’re out of time, gentlemen. I don’t know about the rest of you but I need some time to think about this. Can we meet again on Friday?” She looked around the table. No one spoke, but no one refused her suggestion, so she took that as agreement. “I’ll set it up.” She looked at Wayne. “And I’ll include Lex Luthor this time.”


Wayne nodded. “That’s good.” He sounded wary.


Clark hung back as everyone filed out of the room. Bruce Wayne was the last of them to head for the door.


“Why are you so afraid of me?” Clark asked impulsively.


Wayne, almost out the door, turned around. “I’m not afraid of you.”


“You defended my position, but you keep stressing how powerless everyone is,” Clark pointed out. “If that’s not fear, what is it?”


Wayne closed the door, sealing the room. “You want to use your power for the greater good. You want to help.”


“I do.” So why did Wayne make that sound like the worst of insults?


“Maybe if you save enough lives, someday you’ll be able to forget the dead of Metropolis, is that it?”


“No!” Clark was shocked by his cynicism. “I’ll never forget them. But that wasn’t my fault. I mean...”


“Or maybe you are what you want everyone to believe. Maybe you’re just that good. You’re a hero, a saviour.”


“Is that bad?” Clark was trying to puzzle this out and he knew he was missing something important.


“Yes, damn it, that’s bad. That’s worse. I know, I’ve seen how easy it is for the very best of men to turn into the worst. What it takes is so simple, Superman. You may be bullet-proof. You may be immune to every weapon those men can imagine, but you’re not immune to that so simple thing.”


Clark swallowed. “What? What does it take?” He wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answer.


Wayne stepped closer, into Clark’s personal space. His eyes burned into Clark’s and Clark saw the depth of rage inside him, the fury he somehow hid from the world most of the time.


“One. Bad. Day,” Wayne said and it was as if each word was ripped from him, causing pain, making him bleed.


For all his strength, Clark felt weak as the meaning of those words crashed in on him. Involuntarily, he took a step back. If he were human, he would be trembling. Because Wayne was right. Everyone had a breaking point, even Clark. He found his when Zod threatened his family, and again when they fought and Zod threatened everything else Clark cared for.


Clark knew his understanding was written all over him, because Wayne backed off, a look of satisfaction in his eyes. He didn't say another word. He turned on his heel, wrenched the door open and left Clark alone in the room.


I know what it takes to turn the best of men into the worst. One bad day.


Clark sank into the nearest chair.



Diana’s history - I obviously have no idea how her story is going to play out in canon. My version is what seemed to fit who she had become both in the BvS movie and in my story.

One Bad Day. For those who don't recognise it, Bruce is quoting The Joker. Though he never spoke the line in the Dark Knight movie, Heath Ledger’s Joker used Harvey Dent to prove his thesis: that all it takes to turn a hero into a villain is one bad day. In the comics, of course, the most famous story is The Killing Joke, in which he tried to drive Jim Gordon mad to prove the same point. And in comic canon, Batman always, always proves him wrong. So this is Bruce Wayne’s rock bottom: the moment he allows himself to become the villain. For me, it's more effective than a physical battle, and the effect will last longer. Read on...


Read Chapter 3



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