The Arcadia Hotel wasn't the Library of Metropolis, but the event itself was similar enough. The same tastefully understated decorations, the same lack of understatement in the women's gowns and jewellery, the same expensively tailored suit on the men, the same fake smiles over cocktails and champagne glasses. One of Metropolis' biggest companies was organising a charity gala to collect money for orphanages, at the kind of hotel Clark Kent would have never set a foot in if not for his job. The lack of a barely coherent speech by a lunatic who, as it had later turned out, wanted to murder him was a plus compared to the last time he had attended an event like this, but other than that Clark found the whole thing just as dull.
He'd tried to keep his mind off the other man he had met at the last gala of this kind Perry had sent him to. Superman already spent enough time worrying and thinking about him, so Clark Kent most certainly didn't need him in his life as well. And yet just as he was considering going home, half the heads in the large hall turned when Bruce Wayne showed up, fashionably late, wearing a bespoke black suit that did little to hide the breadth of his shoulders. Knowing what he knew now it boggled Clark's mind that anyone believed that Bruce Wayne was simply so vain he worked out a lot. He looked larger than life to Clark's observing eyes, not merely towering over people, but downright dwarfing them. He watched Bruce make his way through the crowd, shaking hands and flashing quick smiles at people, a bit of small talk and perfunctory flirting while he barely touched the champagne in his glass.
He moved slowly, languidly, in a way he never did when Clark, when Superman saw him. The Bat had a terrifying, coiled grace to him, and the Bruce Clark had spent the occasional evening in the Cave with moved with a slightly less aggressive version of that same strong efficiency. Bruce Wayne sauntered. It looked effortless, carefree, when Clark had no doubt that every step caused him pain.
They'd spent all of last night fighting their way through rows and rows of laser-shooting robots in a warehouse that belonged to a subsidiary of Lex Corps, and even with some help from Diana and Barry – Bruce had kept himself busy while Clark had been six foot under, and clearly been doing a much better job befriending them than he had with Clark – the sun had been rising by the time they'd wrapped up. Bruce had barely managed to hide his exhaustion, three of his ribs were broken – Clark had checked after he'd heard the Bat get thrown into a brick wall behind him – and his left arm had been bleeding profusely. He hadn't bothered with a sling tonight. Clark had seen Bruce Wayne in public before, even though he hadn't known yet who he was, and he knew that the slowness of his movements now was merely an affectation, part of his act, rather than a concession to the broken bones and torn muscles in his body.
Clark still considered leaving; he had no use for Bruce Wayne, and Bruce Wayne had no use for him. But this was the first time they saw each other again in public, and there was a part of Clark that was intrigued. Another part was suspicious of Bruce's motives for showing up when he clearly needed a few days' rest, and yet another was grudgingly worried about him.
It was almost midnight by the time he found an opening to talk to him.
“Mr Wayne,” he said and offered his hand. Bruce turned and looked at him, his lips quirking up in that approximation of a smile he kept for people he didn't want to talk to. It had only been months since they'd last looked at each other like this, months since Clark had thought Bruce Wayne was nothing but the smarmy, careless billionaire people took him to be, before Bruce had tried to kill him, before Bruce had saved his mother's life, before Bruce had been there when Clark had crawled out of the ground, weak and disoriented and with nowhere else to go. He knew him better now, as much as he thought Bruce ever let people know him, but Bruce Wayne was still that same sleek, untouchable façade.
“Ah, Daily Planet, right?” Bruce said and took his hand.
“Clark Kent, yes,” Clark said and tried not to be too annoyed by the act. He wondered if Bruce too was thinking of their first meeting. Clark had actually been wearing the same suit he was wearing now, if with a different shirt. Bruce of course was not, even if the differences weren't immediately obvious – but his black tie looked silkier, his shirt had just a hint of a pattern in the fabric even though it was as deep black as his suit, his collar pin had a slightly different ornament at the ends. Clark's senses always had a tendency to pick up more details than were entirely necessary. Or maybe it was because he'd spent the past weeks staring at Bruce at every opportunity he got and he wanted to notice those details about him.
“I knew that,” Bruce said, in a tone that implied that he didn't really.
“I didn't expect you to show up here in person, Mr Wayne,” Clark said, keeping his voice even, and that got him a frown that looked at least somewhat genuine.
“Wayne Foundations helped organise the event, as I'm sure you know. I was told I had to come.”
“Care to answer a few questions in that case?”
Up close Bruce looked tired. There was a sharp glint in his eyes, the kind he got from staying up too long, trying to blink his exhaustion away. He had deep circles underneath them – expertly covered, Clark noticed, just like the faint bruise on Bruce's cheekbone, but Clark's vision saw right through that. He couldn't resist the urge to glance down through Bruce's suit and his skin, to the broken ribs on his left side, the dark spots where his arm was covered in bruises. Bruce was a master at hiding any pain or discomfort, but Clark could hear that his breathing was somewhat laboured, as if he had trouble keeping it as slow and even as usual.
So he added with a smile, “Maybe outside? I'd like to clear my head and you've been trying to avoid the mayor since you arrived.”
This time there was actual humour in the twitching of Bruce's lips and he shrugged.
“I'm afraid you've seen right through me,” he said, but he came along, even let his fingers brush over Clark's elbow on the way out. The hotel had a large garden, all but a private park for well paying guests, and the main event hall led right out into it. There were still a few people – smokers mostly – standing around on the terrace just outside, but once they'd stepped underneath the old oak trees they were alone, the crowd silenced to a murmur. The branches threw shadows over Bruce's face, covered his eyes for half a second before he shifted again into the moonlight. It only made him look paler.
“What are you doing here, Bruce?” Clark asked, dropping the pretence. For a moment he saw Bruce Wayne flicker over Bruce's face again, like the image on an old television just before you turned it off. But Bruce seemed to be too tired for his own charade.
“I told you,” he said, as if most of what Bruce Wayne said wasn't bullshit. Clark almost pushed, but then he bit his tongue when he remembered just what this gala was for – and just why Bruce might actually care enough to show his face and talk people into being a bit more generous with their donations. He looked down.
“You're hurt, though.” It wasn't a question, not when he could see all the places in which Bruce was coming apart, all the soft spots and vulnerabilities. Nothing about the Bat had felt vulnerable when they had fought – not the edges of his armour or the lines of his frowning cowl, not his harsh voice or the unrelenting strength of his punches. Fighting him, there had been no opening to exploit, no weakness or softness for Clark's fists to find. But fighting by his side had made Clark realise just how human Bruce was – that there was soft flesh under the blackness of his suit, fragile skin that had been ripped open and scarred and ripped open again a thousand times. The realisation had filled him with surprise at first, then awe when he truly understood just how much of a risk Bruce was taking every night, and finally a nauseating fear that one day someone would find the opening Clark hadn't, someone who wouldn't be afraid to claw into it and rip Bruce to pieces.
“Shouldn't you be resting?” he pressed on when Bruce said nothing. At some point he must have stepped closer, he realised only then, or maybe Bruce had, and either way they were breathing the same cool night air, warmed between their lips.
“I have work to do,” Bruce replied like that made his body's needs irrelevant. As far as he was concerned, it probably did. Clark had always known that Bruce was not a particularly kind man. He'd merely failed to realise that there was nobody he was less kind to than himself. “Both here and later tonight in Gotham.”
“You're going out like this?” Clark frowned and took Bruce's arm without thinking about it, his hand unerringly finding the large bruise on Bruce's biceps, pressing down just enough to remind Bruce of his injury without actually hurting him.
There was no reply, not in words at least. No reassurance that he wouldn't, or even that he'd be careful. The Bat answered to nobody, that much Clark had had more than enough time to understand. Even Alfred, most likely the only person Bruce listened to at least on occasion, rarely managed to talk him out of anything – he hadn't been able to stop Bruce from going after Superman, he most certainly wasn't going to keep him from throwing himself into the next fight with a few broken ribs and an arm that only seemed to be held together by haematomas.
There was no reply, but Bruce leant in closer until his lips brushed over Clark's, more the promise of a kiss than a kiss in itself. Clark gasped into it in surprise, but he still reacted before Bruce managed to pull away entirely. He got his hand into Bruce's hair so he could hold him in place and kissed him harder, kissed him with every bit of want he'd so valiantly pushed down for weeks and months, and Bruce groaned against his lips like Clark was sucking the air out of his lungs.
He wasn't smiling when their lips parted a minute later, but he made a low, content sound in the back of his throat that made Clark smile.
“Let me help,” Clark said quietly before he could think about it, and saw the brief look of contentment fade off Bruce's face.
“I don't need your help,” Bruce said. But he was still right where he'd been before, didn't turn and disappear into the darkness like he did every time he wanted to avoid a confrontation. “But if you're still awake in the morning hours … you know where I live.”
It took Bruce another ten minutes to leave, and by the end of those, Clark had no doubt that he wasn't going to sleep tonight.