Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Lingering Emergencies

Lingering Emergencies
Summary: Sequel to For Emergencies Only (Accumulated livejournal posts: 911, First Responders, Ground zero, Evac). Batman Crossover.

911

4 weeks

As Clark perfectly executed the complicated defensive fall and recovery maneuver, Bruce watched him with concern.
"Excellent, now that will work if you're only dropping a distance of fifteen to twenty feet. For recovering from higher falls, you will need to develop different strategies, based on your surroundings."
As he circled Clark, pressing and gesturing his new student into different defensive positions, Bruce divided his attention between his lecture and his study of the young man. Although only a month had passed, the young man had changed so drastically that Bruce was beginning to suspect a medical cause for his change.

Not that Clark was demonstrating any overt signs of illness or injuries. Quite to the contrary, As they sparred, the fabulous strength that Clark displayed when they first met still seemed prominant enought that Bruce was almost certain that the young man was holding back. His speed and reflexes were astounding, he learned complex maneuvers with less than an hour's practice, and Bruce was certain that with 4 to 6 more months of training, Clark could actually transcend his own mastery of martial arts - requiring training that a only a very few living masters could give. After observing Clark's progress over the month, in fact, Bruce was already consulting two of his mentors on the young man's training schedule.

In addition to Clark's physical training, his general endurance and focus seemed almost inexhaustable. Waking in the pre-dawn hours, Clark regularly filled his twenty to twenty-two hour days with intense workouts, well beyond what Bruce required and concentrated study sessions progressing rapidly through the syllabi that Bruce had saved from the first year of his MBA. In short, the young man seemed as driven as Bruce, and Bruce could well understand why. This wasn't the source of his concern.

Instead, it was the paradoxical feeling he was beginning to have more and more frequently that Clark seemed to be trying to conserve every ounce of energy. While still naturally graceful, Clark's movements were becoming spartan and tightly controlled. And, it showed in every movement. Instead of the buoyant puppy-like nods that were his frequent response to any request, now Clark more often gave a clipped nod that someone could easily miss if not watching him directly. He lengthened his stride to take one step where he would have taken three. His humor though still as prevalent were coming in quieter and briefer bursts and his accompanying smiles was rapidly diminishing from full grins to thin lipped smiles that never reached his eyes.

Somehow, even though Bruce knew that Clark was probably suffering from depression due to his exile from Smallville, his family, and friends, he was beginning that believe that depression was not the sole cause of Clark's change.

9 weeks.

As Bruce stared at the ID photo that he had taken when Clark first arrived, he wondered how, as a detective and a scientist, he had failed to even recognize Clark's physical decline. The signs of that decline were very apparent from the picture, or rather were made obvious by what was missing from the picture: Clark's recent gauntness, bruised eyes, and jaundiced skin. But, despite Bruce's nagging concern for Clark's health, he had practically missed the clues. Despite Clark's declining appetite, Bruce had merely attributed Clark's weight loss to the intense work outs that the young man still performed and the vigorous martial arts training sessions that the he still excelled in. The wide grey circles, which were dark enough to have been painted under his eyes, Bruce had attributed to the Clark's consistent habit of studying late into the evening. And Clark's fading skin-tone seemed the natural result of spending every waking hour in the castle--although even Bruce would have preferred for Clark to have taken more down time, he understood as well as Clark that the young man's stay at Wayne Manor was drawing to a close.

Clark would be welcomed back at the manor anytime, but it was becoming more and more apparent that Lionel suspected Bruce and Lex of engineering Clark's escape. And, they both knew that was only a matter of time before Lionel would build up the nerve to send a team into the manor to search for Clark. Although it went unsaid, Bruce was absolutely certain that Clark was as unwilling as he was to expose the manors' secrets, and he both approved of and appreciated Clark's intensified efforts to prepare himself.

Or more to the point, Bruce had approved of Clark's efforts until that morning when, in the middle of a simple warm-up stretch, Clark collapsed and had to have Bruce's help to stagger to his room. Half an hour later, he was up again apologizing for his momentary weakness, but Bruce refused to be persuaded to restart the morning's training and banned Clark from anything but reading in the library. That was three hours ago. After settling Clark in the library, under Alfred's watchful eye, Bruce had returned to the batcave to finish the last of packet of documents for Clark's new identity.

Even then he had initially missed the seeing - really seeing - the three-month-old image of Clark, until he was checking the false ID for errors, and realized his mistake.

12 weeks.

As Bruce returned from patrol early at Alfred's summons, he was angrily steeling himself for yet another argument with the young man. In the month since Clark's first collapse, it had become increasingly more difficult to contain the young man even though he was visibly deteriorating on an almost daily basis. When Bruce cut back on Clark's training sessions, he discovered the young man in the gym pushing himself in ever harder combinations of complex maneuvers adding height, distance, and speed until Bruce wasn't even certain who would have won if they were evenly matched in strength and speed. When he declared the gym off limits, he immediately began to hear treads through out the manor as Clark turned it's mostly empty hallways into marathon tracks and pushed himself even harder. And when he demanded that Clark submit to a doctors visit from a trusted physician, he and Clark had their first argument- it lasted for over two hours and left both men practically exhausted.

Ironically, even in his weakening condition, it was clearly apparent that Clark's strength and speed far out-stripped Bruce's own- even more so because it was equally obvious that Clark was holding back. And, due to his recent mood swings, that fact was dwelling on Bruce's mind. It wasn't that he believed Clark would ever attempt to harm Alfred, Dick, or himself. Instead, with Lionel's increasing surveillance of the manor, Bruce was worried that Clark would finally lose his patience with the whole concept of being exiled, and take out his frustration on one of Lionel's employee's.

But, as he stepped off of the elevator from the batcave, scanning the hallway- he realized his second mistake. If Clark had building up for an argument, he would have called himself and he would have met Bruce at the elevator. Bruce almost smiled at that thought. Clark was still a little in awe of Bruce as the Batman, and although he knew the truth of their identities, he always showed the utmost respect to Bruce when he was in costume. Clark never intruded on the Batman's inner sanctum to argue, and never argued with Batman, only with Bruce. It was both a comforting and an amusing detail of their relationship, that helped Bruce understand what Lex may have enjoyed in Clark's friendship.
With Clark, when Bruce was out of costume, he didn't feel like the Batman or the billionaire or the industrialist or even the scientist... he was simply Bruce, the friend, mentor, and guardian of a young man who was trying very hard to be up to the nearly impossible challenge of taking Lionel Luthor on and winning. Of a young man... who was not waiting at the elevator to start another argument over Bruce's newest limitation: an eleven o'clock bedtime. It seemed slightly ridiculous even to Bruce, when Alfred suggested it, but he had to admit that Clark clearly needed additional rest. But, if Clark wasn't ready for a fight, then... why?

"Alfred?"

"Oh, Sunshine... Weeee're up heeeere?" A sickening jolt of fear ran up Bruce's spine as recognized the Joker's voice.

It was too late for him to go back to the batcave, and he couldn't be certain whether Joker had tied Bruce Wayne to the Batman, so he had no choice but to face Joker as is. Plucking what weapons he could from their convenient hiding places, in full sight, hanging on the walls as museum relics, Bruce tucked them into every free pocket he could find, up his sleeve and into his boots.

"What do you want, Joker?" He called as he carefully climbed the stairs watching every shadow for an ambush.

"Oh, it's not what I want this time. Oh well, maybe it is. A very jolly fellow from the heartland has offered me quite a bundle to retrieve a little puppy dog that got away from him. And I want his money." In his sickening, sing song Joker warbled, "OoooohhhhH, how much is that puhp-pee in the winnnddow? Oh, how much is that puh-uh-uhhp-pee... Can you see?"

As Bruce turned the corner, he saw the Joker press the back of Clark's neck holding him tightly against the window, which was bathed a quick splash of light. He could barely hear a terse answer, but Joker's answer was an ecstatic "Oooh Gooodiee" as he turned dropping Clark, who crumpled to the floor barely conscious and frighteningly pale in the eerie green light flashing from the Joker's necklace. Into the bizarre cell-phone he had flattening a patch of wiry his green hair, Joker asked, "And the others?... Even better."

Grinning, Joker snappped the phone shut and tossed it on the bed. "Golly, Golly, Golly, isn't this my lucky day. Three for the price of one. Boys, take the puppy down to its new owner, but don't hand him over until I get there."
As eight bizarrely dressed thugs came out of the shadows, Bruce suddenly understood why there hadn't been an ambush: from the shredded state of their clothing, their rumpled hair, and bruised faces, it clearly taken all eight to subdue Clark and Alfred. As they lifted Clark's supine form, Bruce wasn't certain, but thought that he detected a slight stretch as they moved further toward the door.

"Sunshine, I just have to thank you for this lovely night. If you hadn't taken in that stray, I wouldn't have five million dollars whisking its way into a Swiss bank account right now...Just for that, I'll give you two extra minutes to untie Jeeves, and get him out before this gloomy place gets a little illumination."
Following the Joker's pointing chin, Bruce realized he had no choice: he would have to let Clark go back to Lionel. Alfred was thoroughly-tied, sitting indian style, on the ground with his arms and legs bent around a large simulation of the Joker's face. A large digital clock that replaced his teeth first read :23 seconds then 1:23, then 2:23. He simply couldn't free them both and Lionel presumably wanted Clark alive for the moment.

As he dashed over and dropped to his knees by Alfred, Joker and the other 5 thugs left. As the Joker walked out, Bruce could have sworn he was singing "You are my sunshine... my only sunshine....."

First Responders

At the door, Joker paused with a grin and asked "We can't make it too easy, now can we? Nooo. That wouldn't do at all."

Grabbing a fire poker from one of his remaining thug's hands, Joker set the door's lock, then with a vicious swing broke the lock before closing it behind their retreating forms. In the distance, Bruce thought he could hear a rough scuffle and hoped that Clark was able to get away.

The thought was soon demolished by the Joker's evil sniggering, "Now, Now, Now... Bad puppies get smacked on the nose and a tighter collar."

As he tried to fumble with the ropes tightly binding Alfred to the insane bomb, Bruce was certain heard a muffled thud and was equally certain that it had probably come from the Joker using the poker that he probably still had in hand. Glancing up into Alfred's eyes, he saw the silent plea that he knew would have been in his own eyes were their positions reversed: "Leave me, save him" and denied the request with a quick shake of his head, demanding that Alfred cooperated with Bruce's attempts to untie him as the bomb's bizarre digital clock continued to tick away: 2 minutes 7 seconds and counting down.

As he approached, the Joker studied Clark's wilting posture for a second then doubled the long beaded chain again held it open to slip over the young man's head. He couldn't help but pausing to enjoy the neon glow of the beads and his own carved Joker amulet as he neared the bent figure. As he drew closer, the sight was made even more delicious by the thick glistening sweat that broke out on the young man and shined green under the necklace's internal light.
"Oh, I hate to give up such a pretty bauble," he crooned as he slipped it over the sweat-soaked curls, barely noticing the young man crumpling to the floor as he continued "but, for five million dollars, I can..."

"Go to hell." A harsh voice interrupted him.

"What?!?" Joker and his minions jerked spun around to identify the intruder.
"Oh. It's you." Joker growled as he identified the dark knight. Glancing up the stairs he shrugged and sing-songed, "Oh well, theories come and theories go... but in the end... I'll know. I'll know. And in the mean time the world will glow." Brought back to the present by Robin's growl... 'since when did robins growl', Joker shrugged, wishing he hadn't left his trick phone behind on the bed. 'Of course, Bruce Wayne wasn't Batman-far too flighty for that... Oh well,'
"Get 'em boys," he chuckled as he dragged his prize up by the hair. "You're coming with me."

After pulling most of the young man's bulk a few stumbling steps, he realized that it wouldn't work. Between them, Batman and Robin would make quick work of his boys and be up the stairs after him in a very few minutes. In fact, it was almost a surprise that they weren't after him already but perhaps they were finally getting a taste for a game of `bat and mouse'. Regardless, there was no way he had the time to drag the kid around, but taking the necklace off wasn't an option either... he saw what the boy did to eight of his men single handed, before the necklace. He was good enough to be Robin and that alone had fooled Joker into believing that Wayne and the boy were the caped creeps.

Curling his fist into the chain, Joker twisted until the glowing beads bit into the young man's throat. Still chuckling, he took a moment to savor the young man's futile attempts to release himself- alternating between trying to reach back for Joker's hands and clawing at the chain. Joker gave the chain another twist until the boy was openly gasping then bent down and lathed his tongue across the wide expanse of the boy's cheek tracing the impression of a very Joker-like smile across down his cheek, across his lips, up the other cheek and back. When he reached the blue-ing lips again, he couldn't resist tasting the young man's panic before he whispered into his mouth, "I'll catch you later," and used the chain to throw him to the side. Before Joker ran toward an opened balcony window, he took one last look to see whether the young man would be able to free himself from the chain. But like a good little piece of prey, the young man had fallen to the ground in shock, feebly scratching at his throat. `Oh, how he was going to enjoy playing with this one.'

Although, they were rapidly falling, the thirteen thugs were enjoying unexpected success. They had never landed so many blows against Batman, and Robin was clearly distracted between fighting and protecting his partner. Nevertheless, with time they all went down, and the last one had the pleasure- before his senses left- of seeing the Batman double over, clutching his upper thighs to steady himself, and gasping for air. As the Batman's head wagged in time with his gasping breaths, the thug noticed a gaping cut in the Batman's head gear that exposed a smooth pate beneath. The thug barely had time to think `the Bat's bald-No wonder he'd wear that freaky big-eared mask' before a yellow-gloved fist sent him reeling.

On instinct, Robin ran towards Batman to check his condition, but the bigger man waved him off- pointing him up the stairs toward Clark. As Robin neared the young man, Batman's eyes narrowed focusing on Clark's odd clawing until his friend's hands parted enough to show the green glowing beads.

"The necklace! Get it away from his throat." Batman gasped trying to stand upright.

Not wasting time to give him a dirty look, Robin quickly knelt by Clark, untwisted the chain so that it hung loosely around Clark's neck, then started to jump and run when he was stopped by the Batman's harsh voice.
"No, take it off completely, and get it away."

Looking back down, Robin realized that Clark still wasn't breathing easily and cringed at the thought that the Joker might have crushed Clark's windpipe. If that was the case, taking the necklace off wouldn't make that much of a difference, but the Batman may have been right... the additional weight of the necklace certainly wouldn't improve the situation. Gently slipping his fingers under the chain, he lifted it off over Clark's head and watched curiously as Clark's breathing improved enough that he could gasp, "bomb".

Patting Clark's shoulder, Robin reassured him with a nod toward Batman, "he'll take care of you." Without another word, he jumped and ran upstairs to help Bruce and Alfred. As Batman replaced Robin at Clark's side, the young man looked up in awe and tentatively reached out to touch the scar above his lip.
"L-Lexx?" Clark's voice was still scratchy and rough, but Lex had to gulp at the affection, longing, and awe that he heard in his friend's tone.

"Are they alive up there?" he asked as he heard a nearby door give way under Robin's shoulder. Although, he was certain that they were from the sound of muted voices, he wasn't ready to address what he heard in Clark's tone and wanted to steer their reactions to safe subjects. Cupping his hands under Clark's shoulders, Lex braced himself to lift his friend as he watched the young man narrow his eyes like he was scanning the second floor. `Could he be?'
It wasn't the first time that Lex suspected Clark's vision might be extraordinary, but it really wasn't the time to discuss it. But, his question was answered with out his persistence, when he heard Clark's sharp intake of breath as the young man struggled to his feet.

"Clark?"

"T-that's not it," Clark gasped his voice barely audible, "they're working on the wrong bomb..." Leaning against Lex's shoulder, Clark seemed to draw on his strength then throw himself forward up the stairs. In a moment, he disappeared around the corner and returned carrying a surprised Alfred with Bruce and Robin trailing behind. Handing Alfred off to Lex, he turned back before anyone could say a word and disappeared down the hall again. Stunned, Lex watched the strange clock in Alfred's lap reach 0:00.

As it did, Joker's vile sing-songy voice filled the room again - singing:
"Oh, My sunshine, my pretty sunshine,How much I love it when skies go grey, You'll never know, dears, how much I hate you, Till my sunsh-iiii-ne burns you awaaaay."

As the voice dissolved into the Joker's trademark cackle, a brilliant flare of light swept down the hall illuminating the manor in a blinding glare as the throbbing percussion of Joker's bomb shook the mansion's foundations. Staring alternately between Robin, Batman, and Alfred, in shock. Finally, when he looked back... Lex noticed Robin's empty hands.

"Where's the necklace? Damn it. Where is it?" his grip on Robin's collar lifted the young man off the ground.

Ground Zero

Bruce wrapped his hand around Lex's wrist and forced Lex's arm to drop until Robin's feet touched the ground before he gave the wrist a sharp twist breaking Lex's hold on Robin's throat.

"This isn't what you want." He admonished, using his hold to propel his friend down the corridor ahead of him. With his shocked response broken, Lex turned and ran down the hall. After a brief glance reassured Bruce of Robin's continued health, he followed Lex, leaving his partner to extricate Alfred from the ropes binding him to the Joker's bizarre alarm clock. As he watched Lex jerk to a stop at the scorched remnants of the broken door, he tried again to reconcile Clark and Lex's friendship- this time through the perspective of three months exposure to the intense young man.

After so many other losses and setbacks, Bruce didn't know how Lex could stand one more, particularly if Bruce accurately assessed the nature of their relationship. While he was certain that the two men, his two friends, were in love with each other, he was equally certain that neither man recognized the relationship for more than a close friendship. How they could have missed it, he wasn't certain but thought that their age difference had been a distracting factor for several years until they had become so accustomed to the 'best' friend-ship that they missed the relationship's true import. So naturally, true to form, for both Lex's and his own life, Bruce thought, before their love could be discovered the cosmos had to turn itself upside down to tear them apart-- even inviting the Joker's worst on their star-crossed love.

Reaching Lex, who still stood transfixed by whatever he saw within the destroyed room, Bruce immediately regretted sending him ahead. From the intensity of the flare that they had witnessed from the staircase and the scorched doorway, Bruce couldn't imagine that there would even be much left to see. Nevertheless, Lex should not have been forced to deal with the aftermath of Clark's needless sacrifice. Clark's choice to run back into the room after everyone had been evacuated from the general vicinity made no sense, although Bruce suspected that the young man might have intended to throw the bomb out the window or something similar without realizing how close it was to detonation. As it was, even knowing Clark a much shorter time than Lex had, Bruce was certain that he would be haunted by this loss for some time to come. Bruce paused beside his friend, regretting his failure to anticipate and prevent Lionel's collusion with the Joker, as he studied his friend's trembling profile and wondered how one apologized for breaking such a trust.

Closing his hand on Lex's shoulder, he finally turned to stare into the room and said, "Don't Lex. We can..."

The tableau before him was astonishing and seemed like an image that could have only been described in an armageddon novel.

Bitter tendrils of smoke rose from the nearly molten carpet to join an acrid fog that was quickly filling the room. The bed, curtains, and furniture were being rapidly consumed by open flames. Red-gold flames jumped and licked the paint on every wall causing it pop and crackle dropping flakes that fell like feathers until they ignited and devoured themselves in the heat rising from the carpet. The stained glass arch above the window was casting an eerie pale red light (through it's suddenly sporadically sun-bleached panes) coloring the accumulating smoke, which hung from the ceiling like thick tufts of insulation.
Scanning the room, he searched for even the barest traces of their friend, but was hardly surprised that he could spot nothing: no ash, charred remains, or even broken windows to hint at a possible escape. It would have been impossible, but until Lex saw for himself... there might have still been the barest hope lingering... a hope, which even now Bruce was trying to swallow down the bitterness of loosing... until Lex stilled under his hand and pointed before turning and running back down the hall. In all honesty, Bruce couldn't blame him for running-- particularly not when it was taking such a monumental effort to turn and focus where Lex had pointed. And Bruce was not unaccustomed with the sight of dead bodies, in fact, he had seen far more than he had ever wanted to and knew that the sight of this one would scar him as few others (barring his parents) had.

But even when he had focused, it still took close to a minute for Bruce to recognize what Lex had spotted. In the farthest corner, at the back of a barely two inch gap between the wall and a burning wing chair, he finally discerned a burning swath of maroon leaning into the corner behind the chair. What was remarkable or even worth notice of this maroon swath was that as it was being consumed in flames, it was revealing patches of honey-gold skin.

Before he was aware of it, Lex passed him running through the molten carpet to spray the wingback and burning figure with fire retardant foam then shoving the wingback away and bending to pick up the tightly huddled figure. With some difficulty he lifted the body and carried it out of the smoke filled room.

Evac.

Following Bruce to the nearest elevator linked with the batcaves, Lex found it too difficult to even look down at the impossibly light figure that he carried, still wound in a tight fetal curl, until he laid Clark on to the treatment bed and stepped back for a full appraisal. What he saw was unimaginable... considering the state of the room above. Nevertheless, while Clark's clothing was falling to the bed in charred tatters, what Lex could see of his skin seemed intact if somewhat sunburned. His chest was rising and falling, although shallowly, in a regular and steady pattern, and when Lex checked for Clark's pulse at his throat-- he easily located the thready drumbeat.

But as he drew his hand back, Lex's relieved sigh faltered as the first sign of damage appeared. As his hand lightly brushed several locks of Clark's ash coated hair, they disintegrated leaving patches of bare scalp in their place. A second tentative touch brushed away larger patches, and an instinctive wipe cleared a palm's-width area of Clark's raw pink scalp. Finally, it sunk in that Clark's hair wasn't ash coated-- it was ash. Without requesting it, Lex found a soft wash cloth being pressed into his hand by Alfred and a large basin of fresh water appeared by his elbow. Looking up gratefully, he finally realized that Bruce and Dick were no longer present.

"They are extinguishing the... sitting room, Sir." Alfred answered as he began to gently uncurl Clark's limbs and lift away the charred clothing-- with a light silk sheet at his side on the treatment bed to preserve Clark's modesty when it became necessary. It made Lex curious about how many times Alfred may have performed a similar service for Bruce or Dick when they were so badly injured, but he quickly turned to his task-- hoping to finish it before Clark came to. Lex could empathize with the familiar shock of waking to find that he had lost his hair, but could not imagine how traumatic it would be for Clark if he had to watch the once-ebony locks dissolve under his fingertips. He was finding it difficult enough to watch and couldn't bear the feel of the cloth between his fingers and the remaining strands. There was no way of knowing for certain, he supposed, whether this would be the last time he would have the chance to touch Clark's hair, but he wasn't going to miss the chance if it was. So, touch by touch, he brushed away Clark's hair, eyebrows, and lashes then gently soothed his raw and blistering scalp with the cool wash cloth.

When he finally looked up from his task it was to stare in shock at what Alfred's efforts had revealed: the melted slag of Joker's phone/bomb wrapped in and around Clark's swelling fingers where he had wrapped himself around it. As Lex watched, Alfred skillfully glided a delicate laser over the fused plastic, cutting it away in small sections as he carefully excavated Clark's fingers. Lex only too happy to be Alfred's assistant in the process and studiously removed each falling piece to the tray Alfred had ready. They barely had the last piece dealt with when Dick's exclamation startled them.

"Holy Shit." He flushed under Alfred's stern regard, but continued, "He...it looks almost like he threw himself on it... or something."

"It would appear so." Alfred answered when Lex stayed silent.

"But, that's crazy. That thing toasted everything in the room... he should have been charbroiled, too."

"Then, how would you explain this?" Alfred gestured to the burn patterns on Clark's outstretched body and pulled the sheet back far enough that Dick could see the patches where Clark's hands or arms had even marginally protected the rest of his body from the bomb's intense flare.

The patterns running outward across his chest and stomach told an almost unbelievable tale that they couldn't contradict. The worst burns were across his stomach- where he had clutched the phone to his waist, where his arms had wrapped around it, and where his fingers had clutched its ends. His arms had given some protection to his lower chest and thighs so that there were two paler pink arm-with stripes dividing the broad patches of blistering skin. By all rights, the intense flare should have and could have done worse, but instead was channeled out between his fingrs and up between his knees and shoulders- leaving behind raw, red, swollen skin where the light slipped through his fingers and blasted his face.

Setting aside the laser torch and tray, Alfred handed Dick another wash-cloth, picked one up himself, and urged... "For Master Clark's comfort, this should be accomplished before he wakes up."

"Too la-ate." Clark breathed painfully, astonishing both Lex and Dick, who had been ready to suggest that he probably wouldn't wake up anytime soon.
"Clark!" Their chorus was joined by a fourth as Batman stalked into the treatment and recovery room.

Clark's squinting eyes passed quickly between Bruce and Lex-- easily discerning which costumed man was his best friend.

"L..ex," his breath seemed no more able to support the word -- than he could support his arm when he tried to lift his hand and touch the scar on Lex's lip in answer to Lex's unvoiced question. "You... scared off... the Joker." His throaty statement sounded all the more awed for its raspy-ness.

Glancing his acknowledgment to Bruce, Lex corrected, "Batman's reputation scared him off..." but Bruce quickly interrupted: "You carried it off well enough that he bought it, Lex. Take credit where it's due."
Gesturing to the far side of the room with his chin, Bruce finished, "I need to speak to you for a moment."

When they were alone...

"Lex, he has to go. Do you have anywhere else that you can take him?"
"Yes, I've been working on it for several weeks know, in case Lionel..."
"Good, as soon as you can move him, get him out of here and come back. We need to talk."

"Bruce?"

"Lex... He can't stay here. By all rights, he should have died up there, but he didn't, and now..."

In all honesty, Lex agreed; his father knew where Clark was and it wasn't safe for Clark to stay, but the reason Bruce gave, or more precisely the way Bruce said that Clark should have died upstairs immediately angered him.

"And now...What!?! I seem to remember that you're alive because of what he did."

"That's not the issue."

"Isn't it?"

"Look, Lex, he has both Joker and Lionel to contend with...It's not safe. Lionel's men are still waiting out front and would have probably been in here by now if word hadn't gotten out that Batman showed up. Speaking of which..."
Without a backward glance or greeting to Clark, Bruce gestured to Dick and left the room after announcing: "Alfred, take them in the limo to the airfield and use the stealth plane to escort them wherever Lex desires. Be ready to go in ten minutes; we'll create a distraction and when Gordon arrives - we'll announce that Bruce Wayne and his ward have been terribly upset by the event and are planning an extended vacation to recuperate.

Stifling his irritation, Lex immediately returned to Clark's side hoping that Clark had not noticed Bruce's rude detachment; but, of course, Clark had and had also recognized its cause.

"What I did...what I...that I...wasn't hurt - as badly as he expected - frightens him? Doesn't it?" Clark asked quietly.

Alfred almost instantly managed a smooth and tactful response:"Master Clark, don't take it personally, Sir. Master Bruce does not... adjust well... to being helpless. Once he has... worked off his frustration, he will undoubtedly be back to normal."

Alfred might have been more convincing if he had met either Clark's or Lex's eyes, but neither felt comfortable pressing the issue- so the three lapsed into silence as they prepared Clark for a second narrow escape.

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