"No," he corrects me, "this is where - "
"Greetings, Kal-El, son of Jor-El," says the small floating robot in a vibrant feminine voice that I recognize instantly. I don't need to see Clark wince to remember the voice of Lois Lane.
" ... this is where Kal-El lives," he says very clearly, after a moment. "Clark Kent lives at 334 Clinton Street, Apartment B ... "
I've known for some time that he isn't human. That he is an alien. That he is the last survivor of a doomed planet called Krypton, circling a giant red star, who was rocketed to safety just before the cataclysm that destroyed his world struck. But this is the first I know of how much more he himself has discovered about his origins.
"Kal-El is your Kryptonian name," I say quietly. He nods and his throat works, as if he wants to say something more. But he holds his silence.
After a moment, he says, "You can call me Kal, if you like." He looks at me as if gathering himself for some great, dangerous task.
"My name is Kal-El," he says again, more firmly this time. "When I'm here ... I'm Kal-El."
I wonder how many he allows to call him that. How many he allows to even know of Kal-El. Not many, I think. Kal-El is a part of him he doesn't trust in the sometimes cruel and capricious hands of most people, I guess. Kal-El is vulnerable The only part of Kal-El that isn't invulnerable is his heart. When you stab him there he bleeds. There he's just like the rest of us. That he wears on the end of his sleeve. Kal-El is a lonely alien, easily feared and distrusted. He hasn't a lot in common with affable, inoffensive Clark Kent of Smallville, Kansas. It takes me a full minute, I'm sorry to say, to realize just what he is telling me.
When he gave me the kryptonite he was trusting me with his physical safety, the safety of his body. Now, he is trusting me with something even more precious.
He is trusting me with his heart.
"I call it my Fortress of Solitude," he tells me, gesturing about him.
"Hello, Kal," I say. My hand shakes only slightly when I sweep back my cowl. "My name is Bruce." The air is cold for a moment on the flesh of my exposed face. I feel naked. But my voice is steady as a rock. There is a very awkward moment when he just stares at me from out of corn-flower blue eyes gone wide and guileless.
"You're beautiful," he breathes, and it is my turn to stare. "Pictures are one thing, but ... "
Somehow, I always just assumed that he knows what I looked like beneath the mask. The man has x-ray vision, after all, and the cowl is kevlar, not lead. But apparently he's never peered beneath my shield. There is no doubt that his reaction is genuine, though.
He takes my hand and begins to show me his home. Like Kal himself, it is an extraordinary blend of common earthly things and intriguing Kryptonian devices whose use I can only guess at. Like Kal, it is a marvel. Robot servitors and a little white mongrel pup he named Krypto who seems determined to savage my cape. Kal has to drag me away, kicking and protesting, from his computers.
"Good God," I cry, "what a database! It makes the Crays in the Batcave look primitive! How do you ... Can we link ..."
"The databases are probably incompatible," he remarks sadly. "Does the Batcomputer speak Kryptonese?"
"It can learn," I promise. "If I ever get it completely back on line, that is."
Kal isn't much of a cook. At least not compared to Alfred. His mother's skill there didn't rub off on him, I'm afraid. Not too surprising. He doesn't, after all, have to eat, strictly speaking. But the tomato soup is hot, the ham and cheese are smoked and the bread is fresh. I don't complain. The conversation is diverting in the extreme. Did you know he likes jazz? So do I. And to say he's well read is an understatement. With all the physical power he possess, it's quite easy to forget how intelligent he is. His casual mention of how Kieseritsky might have won The Immortal Game, that perfect icon of the chess players art, almost makes me drop my spoon. I decide not to play chess with him. Poker, on the other hand ... he has no poker face at all.
His bedroom isn't all that surprising, either; simple really and quite small. Unlike the rest of his home, Kal's personal space, in the form of this unobtrusive, quiet room is easy to understand. Soothing almost. I begin to relax. The matted print of Monet's "Water Lilies" that graces one wall, with it's pale pastels and flowing, liquid lines completes a very restful atmosphere. The most exotic thing in the room turns out to be a small statue of a man and a woman holding aloft the globe representing a large alien world. At first I take it for carved crystal or even diamond, perhaps, but the faint rainbow radiance it throw off tells me that it is nothing Earthly.
"What's this?" I ask, intrigued.
His smile is almost wicked.
"Kryptonite," he says. I do manage not to snatch my hand away as if it has been burned and that is no small accomplishment. Kryptonite is radioactive, after all. Just ask Lex Luthor. But be careful when you do. The robotic prosthesis used to replace his right hand where he wore his signet ring of green kryptonite is quite deadly. Slowly, I lower my hand without touching the statue.
"Kryptonite?" I reply as calmly as I can, and watch him grin at the effectiveness of his joke. "Isn't that rather an odd place to keep it? On your dressing table?"
"Not all kryptonite is deadly," he tells me. "This, I think, is a piece of the Jewel Mountains on the south continent of Urikka. It's harmless. But it is beautiful, isn't it?" I have to agree with that.
There are pictures of Jonathan and Martha Kent and a hologram of a strangely dressed couple that I presume to be Jor-El and Lara, his natural parents. Kal looks a lot like his mother. I gaze about, uneasy for a moment. But there are no photos of Lois to condemn me for what I am about to do. Then the rumors must be true of her coming engagement to Metropolis Police Inspector Sam Henderson. I don't let myself dwell on it overmuch. As the Bard observed, 'the course of true love n'er did run smooth'. Kal's pain about that is a private matter. If he wishes to speak of it I'll listen.
He looks at me, smiling, and begins to remove his boots. I reach out and tap the light node on the wall, plunging the room into darkness and wait for my eyes to adjust. But Kal has other ideas.
"No," he says in a low voice. "Would you mind if we leave the lights on? I want to see you."
My first instinct is to say no. I open my mouth to say it, yes I do. The Batman is a creature of the night. The shadows are my natural element. The darkness of the night is soothing, cool, and concealing. It covers many sins, many flaws. Not for me the harsh, revealing light of day. Kal, on the other hand, is a child of the day, a gift of the sun to her Earthly children. He belongs in the light. I look at my hand still hovering near the light node and remember the scars beneath the kevlar and leather.
I am not a vain man. I'm really not. People tell me that Bruce Wayne is handsome and I occasionally find that useful. Otherwise it doesn't concern me. And yet ... there are more than a few scars on my body. I knew, without having to see the evidence, that there are none on Kal's. Like Michelangelo's "David" his unmarred flesh will be smooth and perfect.
I am not ashamed of my body. But, curiously, I find myself wishing, for his sake, that it was less imperfect, not quite so ... used.
I think of Kal and know that in the shadows, in my darkness, he will wither and die.
Gently I reach out and touched my scarred fingers to the light node. Instantly, the room springs into brilliant illumination.
And Kal's smile is still the brightest thing in the room.
I sit down in a chair and lean down to remove my boots.
"No," says Kal, "let me do that."
Without any trouble at all he kneels and slids the heavy footgear off my feet, leaving them bare. When the cold air hits them I gasp involuntarily and my toes curl. At least I think it is the chill of the air and not Kal's hand on my instep that does that.
"Sorry," he apologizes. His eyes flash red for a moment and a welcome heat begins to emanate from the walls. "Is that better? I don't get many guests, so I don't usually bother with the temperature."
He sets my boots aside, walks and sits on the bed. Surprisingly, it is almost as large as my bed in the master bedroom of Wayne Manor. But then, Kal needs a large bed. I can see Martha Kent's fine hand in the lovingly quilted bed cover depicting a rising sun in bright colors of red and gold. But I discover that I don't need it's softness to warm me. Kal is enough.
Unclothed, Kal is even more ... impressive. Perfectly proportioned, he's like a figure from the hands of the Greek master sculptor Praxiteles. He is right about the lights. I wouldn't have wanted to dim this glory. The rumpled pile of colorful cosume parts we leave on the floor is evidence enough of our impatience, I think. He pulls me down onto the bed and holds me.
"I'd never have taken you for a hedonist," I say, fingering the silk sheets of the large bed. He must hear the smile in my voice, because it never reaches my face, I'm sure of that. I have too much practice at that game.
"I like the feel of silk," he says, reasonably. I am suddenly struck by what it must be like to have his sense of touch, to feel the texture of a thing so completely and I surpress a shiver.
He can't seem to get enough of my body. With his hands, lips and tongue he explores me, caressing his way down slowly, inch by inch. He doesn't miss a spot. His mouth still tastes faintly of the apple from Ivy's Garden. If, as I suspect, it is Lois Lane who taught him to kiss, then I owe her a considerable debt. He tastes of salt and the Earth. When I join my body with his he pulls me in deeper and crys out. When he takes me, I bury my face in an eider down stuffed pillow and tremble like a child.
When we are both spent and exhausted, he fells asleep in my arms.
Bruce Wayne is very good at dealing with "the morning after" blues and the discomfort they bring in their awkward wake. The polite kiss of the hand to raise goose bumps on feminine flesh and the softly murmured "It was lovely, my dear." I, myself, have not dealt with such things but once. And I was very bad at them. Talia's regrets, if she has them, about what happened between us, are her own.
I'm not a sound sleeper. I'm not much of a sleeper at all, actually. The night is when I am most alive. Sleep brings dreams. And I ... don't like dreams. But I watch Kal sleep and it is soothing. Curled into his pillows, he slumberes peacefully, a smile on his lips.
People are vulnerable when they sleep. Perhaps that's one of the reasons that I don't trust it. But then, I don't trust a great many things. In the soft light of his bedroom, I watch the gentle rise and fall of his chest. He is a sprawler, an untidy slumberer, one arm flung casually behind his head. Even when he sleeps he has nothing to hide and doesn't try.
I can't sleep. I toss and turn, decieving myself that it is just the unfamiliar bed that keeps me from finding the comfort of sleep. After a bit, I rise, terrified of waking Kal. Most especially, I don't want to do that. Don't want to face him just yet. I can't seem to sit still. Furiously, I pace at my restlessness, in futile hope of beating it into submission. At the writing desk, I pull out the plain stationary stored there and begin at least a half dozen notes to leave on the pillow or on the dressing table.
Dear Clark, Last night was wonderful, but ...
Dear Clark, I'm so sorry to do this ... Again, no.
I crumple every one of them and throw them all in the small plastic waste can sitting beside the desk. The words won't come.
"Coward!" I accuse with a hissing breath. "Bloody, bleeding coward. You never could face your own mistakes, could you? And just how in the name of anything Holy were you planning to sneak off into the night, anyway, you idiot! You're somewhere south of Little America on the Antarctic continent. What were you going to do? Walk home?"
Silently, I dress myself in the suit, my protection, my armor, and go to wait for Kal in the kitchen. He's not a late sleeper, so I don't have to wait for very long.
Padding into the kitchen on bare feet, yawning and stretching, he sleepily smiles at me in passing and damn near breaks my heart. Odd isn't it? There are many of people who'd tell you that I don't have a heart. Just a refrigeration pump for the ice water in my veins.
Yesterday, I'd have been one of them.
He pours milk over his cereal and I clear my throat.
"Clark, I ... "
When I call him Clark, he looks up and I force myself to met his eyes. I owe him that much at least. But it is one of the hardest things I've ever done. Suddenly, I long for the insanity dancing in the depths of the Joker's eyes or the hellish torment burning in the eyes of my friend, Harvey Dent, Two Face. Anything but the calm acceptance and resignation in those bright blue eyes sitting across the table from me now. He nods, almost imperceptibly and I watch the brightness, the eagerness, in his eyes fade just a bit.
"I - guess I should take you home," he says, softly.
He looks away and I can tell that I have hurt him, deeply. But, of course, he says nothing. Not even with his eyes does he accuse me of cowardice; of failing him. What I see there is only regret. Regret and acceptance of another lost opportunity, another denial of his humanity, his personhood. Never anger or recrimination. He lowers hs head back to his milk and cereal.
I think too much. It's my gravest fault. Even as a child I was guilty of it. I can't seem to stop. My mind races forward in fits and starts and sometimes the rest of me must struggle to keep pace. My mother urged me to paint and sculpt to draw me out of myself. I did it to please her and it worked quite well.
"This is lovely, Bruce," she hugged me as I flushed with pleasure at her praise. The sculpture in question was a bust of her, full of her beauty and my love for her. "You should do this more often!"
I am thinking now. I am thinking of Kal. Without meaning to I have wounded him, greiviously. What I can't quite understand is, why. The knot slowly tightening in my belly grows even colder and more tense. Why have I done it? Have I merely used him to assuage my own lonli - weakness? I don't want it to be as simple as that. Have I fallen prey to his need? His desire to touch and be touched?
Its easy to be overawed by Kal. Most people are. His powers lend him a presence and a gravity that are hard to ignore. It's easy to lose sight of the man in the looming shadow of Superman. He's rarely allowed to be himself. And here I am, about to deny him yet again. I feel ... I feel, somehow, as if I have failed at some simple task, been unable to see something quite obvious or solve a rudimentary puzzle. I feel myself ... lacking ....
I'm not a man who abides failure.
So why have I done this? And, more importantly, why am I trying to deny it, now? Never before have I shared my body with another man. And yet .. it is easier than I thought. Being with Kal feels natural, somehow, like a gust of that strong wind that sweeps the Kansas prairie he so loves. I - didn't expected that.
I don't make it easy for people to know me. The better others know you, the more of yourself you show them, the easier it is for them to weaken you. To - hurt you. I'm reckoned a fearless man by many people. Even I'm not *that* brave, though. But Kal is. His openness makes Kal one of the most courageous men I know, I suspect.
Am I ashamed of what I have done? Of making love to Kal?
Does it frighten me?
I made a bad mistake once. One that hurt someone I care for very deeply, wounded them even more sharply than I am about to wound Kal. Without any conscious effort, I conjure the feel of Dick Grayson's hand on my cheek, the sight of such pain in his blue eyes ...
"I love you, Bruce. And I know you love me. Not the way I wish you loved me ... You - can't. No, don't be sorry. It's all right. But I want you to make me a promise, okay? Don't shut everyone out. Find somebody and let them love you. Before it's too late. You couldn't save your parents, there was nothing you could have done. You can stop punishing little Bruce Wayne for that, now. Promise me."
I watch Kal eating his breakfast. With the tart scent of apples and sweet cinnamon wafting from the cereal comes memories of Kal striding through Ivy's Garden almost a part of the natural beauty growing there.
I remember his body arching beneath mine, his head thrown back in bliss. I remember the many small gasps of passion I wrest from him and the feel of his hands whispering down my body. I remember the look of transcendent joy shining on his face as he shares himself ... all of himself ... with me.
I remember the trust that lives in his eyes and his heart.
Startled, he looks up with wide crystal blue eyes, spilling milk on his chin that dripped off the dimple there back down into the cereal bowl.
I lift one sardonic eyebrow.
His blue eyes widen even further in hope filled expectation and he holds his breath.
"Shut up and eat your Cheerios."