Clark Kent cleared his throat as he fastened his lapel microphone. “Good morning,” he said, looking out at the classroom full of Metropolis University students, many of them looking at their phones. “My name is Clark Kent, and I work for the Daily Planet. Some of you may have heard of me.” A variety of heads nodded, and Clark was pleased to see most of them start putting their phones away. “Professor Monette has asked me to talk to you today about the limits of First Amendment rights for the press, specifically the case of Cohen v. Cowles Media Company. Now, as you probably know, the basics of the case are that in 1982, Dan Cohen leaked information to the Minneapolis Star Tribune on a promise of confidentiality. The Star Tribune, however, revealed his name, and as a result he lost his job. He sued the--”
A hand went up in the back.
“Yes?” said Clark. “You had a question?”
The student lowered his hand. “Yeah,” he said. He was older than most of the other students, but he was wearing a backwards baseball cap and ripped jeans. His feet were propped up on the empty desk in front of him. “Is this gonna be on the test?” he drawled.
A beat of silence, and then a ripple of snickers swept through the room. Clark looked more closely at the student for a long moment, taking in the glint in his eyes and the sardonic tilt of his mouth. “That’s an excellent question, Mister…” He looked down on the roll as if searching for the student’s name.
“Caulfield. Harry Caulfield.”
Clark struggled not to raise an eyebrow. “I don’t see you on Professor Monette’s class list, Mister…. Caulfield.”
“I’m just auditing, but I thought it might be important to clarify whether this would be on the test or not.”
“I’m sure you have some informed opinions about Cohen v. Cowles Media Company,” Clark said.
“As a matter of fact…” The other students looked faintly surprised as their compatriot launched into a complex question about the potential influence the pending decision in Luthor v. Interstate Commerce Commission might have on source confidentiality. Fairly soon Clark and the student were embroiled in a rapid-fire argument about promissory estoppal versus issue estoppal, as well as the doctrine of waiver and its effects on freedom of the press. Caulfield even took his feet off the desk and leaned forward, waving his hands as he disagreed and brought up counterpoints from legal cases from the last couple of centuries.
By the time Clark wrapped up a passionate defense of the Interstate Commerce Commission, he looked at the clock and realized the class was close to done. Chagrined, he came back to himself and said sheepishly, “I’m sorry, that was--”
He stopped as a smattering of applause and laughter rose up from the rest of the students.
“In short, then, I guess this won’t be on the test,” Clark said, shrugging, to more laughter. “Are there any other questions?” he asked, giving Caulfield a significantly quelling glance. Caulfield leaned back in his seat again and grinned at him unrepentantly as he clarified some points that had come up during the debate and summarized the overall issues before dismissing the class. Much to his surprise, a few students came up to tell him how much they’d enjoyed the lecture.
“I’m sorry I got sidetracked,” Clark said to one of them, casting a quick glare at Caulfield, who had come to the front of the room and was perched on a desk, his arms crossed.
“No, it was really interesting,” the student said. “I learned a lot more this way, I think.”
See? said Caulfield’s black, sardonic eyebrows. Clark ignored his eyebrows.
“You know your stuff, professor,” Caulfield said out loud as the students wandered off to pack up their books. “Maybe you’d consider giving me some private lessons?” His voice was casual, but Clark noticed that his eyes were watchful as he strolled over to look closely at the podium Clark had been using.
“As if you’d need them,” Clark snorted. “You’re a very… precocious student, aren’t you?”
“Is it so weird to have a passion for estoppal?” He was examining the blackboard now, frowning at it.
“It’s pretty weird,” Clark said. The last students were out the door; Clark waited until it closed behind them, then said, “All right, I’ll bite: what are you doing in a Metropolis University classroom? I assume you didn’t just show up to debate journalism law with me.”
“No, but it was fun, wasn’t it?” Bruce Wayne said cheerfully, dropping the mannerisms that made him look ten years younger and whipping off the backwards baseball cap. “I probably shouldn’t have gotten involved, but I couldn’t resist.” He was taking apart one of the AV remotes, squinting at it. “The truth is, I’ve got reason to believe there may be an attempt on the life of the professor who has this room next, and I came to keep an eye on her. Bogdana Zorić, visiting history professor from Kasnia.”
“You’re a bit off your turf, though,” Clark said, keeping his voice mild so he didn’t sound territorial.
“Word on the street was that it was a Gotham criminal who’d possibly been hired for the hit. The Gagster.”
“Haven’t heard of them,” Clark admitted. “Joker ripoff?”
Bruce grimaced. “Not exactly. Anyway, I thought I’d better look into it, and I wanted to make sure her classroom was safe. It was sheer coincidence that I ran into Substitute Teacher Clark Kent here.”
“I’m actually working on a story myself,” Clark admitted. “Missing Metropolis U. student. He was taking a class from Professor Monette, who’s a friend of mine. She shared what she knew about the case in exchange for a lecture on the case of the week.” He grinned ruefully at Bruce. “I hope the students don’t complain about the results.”
“You were riveting,” Bruce said with that special inflection that made it impossible to tell if he were being sarcastic or sincere. “I hope you got some good leads.”
Clark shrugged. “Good student, but seemed stressed lately. She had a feeling he was homesick. Nothing too out of the ordinary.”
“Well, thanks for all your insight!” Bruce said abruptly. Clark blinked as Bruce put the backwards baseball cap back on and seemed to shed a handful of years, turning back into a college student. Then the door opened and he realized the next class’s students were starting to filter in. “I learned so much today. You’re a fantastic teacher.”
“Thank you, Mr. Caulfield,” Clark said. Then, unable to resist, he added: “Be cool. Stay in school.”
Bruce’s eyeroll followed him out of the classroom.
The door in front of him was painted black, with Pandora’s written on it in gold paint. Bruce adjusted his trilby to shade his face more thoroughly and pushed open the door, making his way into the shop. The floor was highly waxed wood, the lights warm and friendly. To the right were a selection of harnesses and leashes; to the left were massage oils and lube.
The lecture with Professor Zorić had gone off without a hitch, and Nightwing reported that their suspect hadn’t even left Gotham. Bruce felt a moment of irritation as he examined a particularly high-quality metal cock ring: were his sources that far off?
“Can I… help you?” said a diffident voice at his elbow. A familiar voice. Bruce turned around and tipped his trilby up to get a better look, and they both froze.
Bruce recovered his equilibrium first. “As a matter of fact,” he said, “I hope you can.”
“I hope so as well,” Clark Kent said from behind a pair of round gold glasses. He had odd blond streaks in his hair that made him look like a very different person.
“I was looking for a particular ball gag,” Bruce said. “It’s a Scott Paul design, the half-moon gag.”
“Yes, of course,” Clark said smoothly. “Right over here.”
He led Bruce to a different corner of the store, where Bruce picked up a variety of gags and made a big show of comparing them. “These are pretty expensive,” Bruce said. “Have you sold any of them recently?” He put just enough weight on the question to tip off Clark that this--and not the relative merits of ball versus bit gags--was the point of his visit.
Clark raised an eyebrow at him. “They’re not for just anyone, sir. Only the truly discerning buy Scott Paul.”
“Well, there’s no reason to get snotty about it,” Bruce said pleasantly. “You can’t expect to make sales if you get uppity with the customers.”
Clark almost smiled, then managed to stifle it. “We haven’t sold any Scott Paul gags since I started working here, which was four days ago,” he said in much more his normal voice.
“Damn,” Bruce muttered. “Okay. That’s good to know.” He took in Clark’s quizzical expression and smiled. “When do you get off work?”
Clark put a hand to his chest, miming astonishment at the forwardess of this customer, then said “I’ll be done in about a half hour.”
“Get coffee with me after?”
Clark beamed. “I’d be delighted.”
The store was mostly empty, so Bruce decided to kill those thirty minutes by ambling around and requiring Clark to explain different gear to him. “I’ve heard very positive things about these black leather butt plugs,” Clark said, picking one up and holding it in front of him. He looked deadly serious, but there was a tilt to his mouth that hinted at a struggle not to laugh.
“These look much more interesting,” Bruce said, picking up a steel-blue dildo and reading the description. “Oh, made from Kryptonian material! How fascinating!”
Clark coughed. “I would never accuse one of our producers of false advertising, but I’m not certain this particular dildo is actually of alien design.”
“A pity,” said Bruce. “But perhaps you have something... super-sized for me?”
Clark fumbled the butt plug; Bruce caught it before it hit the ground. Clark cast him a reproachful look, then rallied and said “We may have something in the store that would satisfy you.”
“I’m sure you do,” Bruce said.
Clark looked equal parts flustered and amused as he began to give Bruce the grand tour of the shop. By the time they were done, Bruce had assembled an impressive assortment of toys: a “super-sized” dildo, but also some ankle cuffs, a spreader bar, and a Wartenberg pinwheel.
“And if I’ve kept track of time correctly, you’re free to get some coffee with me now,” Bruce said as Clark rang up his purchases and put them in a discreet black bag.
“I am indeed,” Clark agreed, and soon the two of them were sitting and sipping coffee together across the street.
“You first,” Clark said after they settled into a quiet corner.
“No, you,” said Bruce. “Come on, I really think I deserve to know why you’re working at a sex toy shop, Clark.”
“What,” Clark said, “I can’t moonlight for a little extra cash?” He grinned at Bruce over the rim of his mug. “Okay, okay, it’s that missing student case again,” he said. “Seth Acevedo. The bus stop outside Pandora’s goes back to the suburb his parents live in. His parents say they haven’t seen him, but I’ve been checking the surveillance footage to see if I can find out if he actually went home or not. Maybe they don’t want him to be found.”
“And you’ve been there four days?”
Clark sighed. “You can’t watch surveillance tape at superspeed, Bruce. I’ve been scanning through it on my breaks, but no luck so far. Investigative journalism has its tedious sides.”
“I hardly think selling ankle cuffs to curious Gothamites counts as ‘tedious,’” Bruce said, earning himself an amused look.
“You’re the most excitement I’ve had,” Clark said, then turned slightly pink. “That didn’t come out quite right,” he muttered into his coffee.
“On the contrary,” Bruce said, arching an eyebrow. At Clark’s aggrieved look, he dropped the coyness and spoke directly again. “I, on the other hand, am here about that Kasnian professor and the threat on her life. You remember that I heard rumors that a Gotham rogue might have been hired for the job?”
Clark nodded. “The Gagster, if I rememb--oh,” he said abruptly. “Not a Joker ripoff. That kind of gag.”
“That kind of gag,” Bruce agreed. “He always likes to have a fresh gag for each victim, and it’s always a Scott Paul gag. He never travels with them, and Pandora’s is the only store that carries them in this area of Metropolis. But you say you haven’t sold any this week?”
“Not a one.”
Bruce sighed. “So that’s a dead end.”
Clark looked down at the dregs of his coffee, swirling them around in the bottom of the mug. “Why would someone want a Kasnian history professor dead?”
“The rebels trying to overthrow the government there have taken exception to her latest book, which is a history of the white nationalist movement that’s basically bankrolling the rebellion.” Bruce finished off his coffee and shrugged. “It looks like they’ve found someone else to do the job. Maybe the Gagster was too expensive for them.”
“So with the Gotham connection gone, I suppose your work here in Metropolis is done?”
Bruce looked at Clark, trying to figure out if that was hope or disappointment in his voice. And what either of those would mean.
“Technically, I suppose,” Bruce said slowly. “But I’ve gotten rather invested in this case. I think I’ll be keeping an eye on Professor Zorić, trying to get to the bottom of it.”
Clark looked satisfied. “I approve of anything that involves crushing white nationalists.” Then he grinned. “You didn’t have to buy all that stuff, you know. If you want, I can get you a refund.”
Bruce assembled a haughty look. “I beg your pardon, I have every intention of getting good use out of these items.”
“Bruce.” Shock, laughter, and something that might have been interest chased across Clark’s face in quick succession before he rallied and said, “I mean, I can see how you might use the cuffs and the wheel in your… work life, but…”
“Work and pleasure overlap so much for me, Clark,” said Bruce with an airy wave that left Clark sputtering. He stood up and leaned closer to Clark’s ear. “It’s just such a shame I don’t have a partner to stress-test them.”
Then he turned, tugged his trilby down over his eyes again, and sauntered out of the coffee shop before Clark could respond.
“I’m not sure this will work, Denis,” Clark said dubiously, looking in the mirror and touching his bushy white eyebrows.
“Nonsense,” Denis Olivier, internationally renowned restaurant critic for the Daily Planet, huffed. “Le Cinq is quite dimly lit. If you just sit up straight for a change--” He thumped at Clark’s back and Clark straightened his spine, “--you will pass for me just fine.”
“Won’t it mess up your review if I pretend to be you tonight?”
Denis shook his head dismissively. “I usually visit at least three times to get a well-rounded experience. And surely you cannot believe I would put a restaurant review above a person’s life?”
“We don’t know for sure that Seth Acevedo’s life is in danger,” Clark said.
“He has disappeared, that is never good,” Denis said. “And now you have this odd lead that he worked at Le Cinq for just one week before disappearing.” He shrugged. “So far few of your leads have panned out, no?”
Clark grimaced. “I’m afraid not.” He had finally found Seth on the surveillance tape of Pandora’s after five days--in which Seth stood on the curb, clearly irresolute, and watched as the bus pulled away. Then he’d walked off, his shoulders slumping, not to be seen again. Clark recognized the stride: that was a man who felt like home wasn’t his place any more. After seeing that tape and interviewing his parents, Clark felt like he was starting to get a feel for Seth Acevedo: a wary, defensive young man, eager to prove himself, unsure of his place in the world. Looking for something to give his life meaning. Had he found something? And if so, what?
“You are not going to give up on this,” Denis said gently. “Go. See if you can get the sous chef to talk to you.”
“What’s a sous chef?”
Denis grimaced at Clark’s appalling ignorance, but held his tongue. “At a restaurant like Le Cinq, there is a master chef. Then there are a variety of sous chefs, each in charge of a section of the kitchen. Your missing student worked briefly under a sous chef named Barre. Usually a sous chef would not serve a customer, but he usually serves me when I go there.” He patted Clark on the back. “Just enjoy the food, stay in the shadows, and ask your questions. Easy.”
“Right,” said Clark. “Easy.”
This is not easy, Clark thought, annoyed, as he leaned back in his dimly-lit booth and tried to look casual. The order had gone smoothly--luckily he could speak perfectly fluent French when he had to--and now he was waiting for his gratinée d’oignons and filet de chevreuil poivré to arrive. M. Barre hadn’t taken his order, but he would probably be bringing out the onion gratin and then Clark could ask him about any staff changes, maybe get him talking about the young student who’d been working for him last week…
“Your gratin, Monsieur Olivier,” said a quiet French-accented voice, and Clark looked up and smiled his thanks.
Then he stopped and squinted at the sous chef. Who was staring at him.
“Oh, for the love of God,” hissed Bruce in annoyance from behind a fake mustache, “why are you here?”
Rattled, Clark grabbed a fork from the five available options and took a bite of the onion gratin. “Oh,” he said in some surprise. “This is quite good.”
“Why are you surprised, sir?” Bruce said through a gleaming obsequious smile, his eyes glaring daggers. “Surely it cannot shock you that Le Cinq lives up to its excellent reputation.”
“Well…” said Clark, and knew that the memory of the time Bruce had managed to reduce tomato soup to some kind of inedible orange slime was hanging in the air between them.
“I will have you know, sir, that the quality of our food is due entirely to our very excellent staff. I am merely overseeing the planning tonight. And dealing with the Daily Planet’s restaurant critic,” he added in a lower voice. “Who I am specifically here to talk to.”
“Funny thing,” Clark said. “I am specifically here to talk to Tadeo Barr, the sous chef.”
They glared at each other for a long, fraught moment, and then Bruce’s mouth quirked into a smile. “It’s kind of like Gift of the Magi. If O. Henry wrote about disasters in undercover investigations instead of sentimental newlyweds.”
“It also has substantially more delicious onion gratin than Gift of the Magi,” Clark noted, taking another bite.
“Well,” sighed Bruce, “there’s nothing for it but to get through the evening, I guess.” He raised his voice to public levels again. “If Monsieur is happy with the gratin, wait until he tries the filet.” He kissed his fingers dramatically. “You shall be in raptures, I promise.”
“This is the second time recently you’ve hinted that you’d like to have me in raptures,” Clark said under his breath.
“And do you intend to take me up on it?”
Clark carefully did not choke on his sip of wine--a very fine Chablis that did wonders with the cheese and onions. Then he raised his voice again so nearby tables could hear him. “I hope the second course lives up to the first one, my good man.”
Bruce executed a bow that only looked ironic rather than deferential at very close range. “I’m certain it will, Monsieur Olivier.”
The meal was excellent all around, and Clark found himself wishing he could share it with Bruce rather than being served by him. But Bruce played the part of the nervous chef to perfection, flattering Monsieur Olivier’s taste, fetching him water, and basically hovering about as though his very livelihood depended on the opinion formed of this meal. They talked about their cases in an undertone now and then, but most of the evening they spent going through the charade they’d trapped themselves in.
“I do hope Monsieur found the canelés to his liking?” Bruce asked eventually as Clark wiped his mouth with his napkin and sighed.
“I might have preferred the proportion of vanilla to rum to be reversed,” Clark said thoughtfully. “But otherwise it was sublime.”
“I’m sorry you didn’t get to talk to your lead,” Bruce said under his breath.
“Well, I’m sorry you didn’t get to talk to yours, too. But the meal truly was delicious, and I enjoyed spending the evening with you, odd as that may seem.”
Bruce blinked. “I enjoyed it too,” he said. “Though I think you’re 100% wrong about the rum in the canelés.”
I know this isn’t exactly SOP, but I talked to Denis later and he said that yes, he’d gotten some weird telephone calls lately after he reviewed a Kasnian restaurant in Metropolis. Odd harassing calls demanding to know about the artwork on the walls--he’d mentioned them in his review, a triptych of landscapes with a castle, and the caller seemed obsessively interested in them. He didn’t recall them well enough to satisfy his mysterious stalker, however. Thought you might want to know.
Clark attached a map to the Kasnian restaurant Denis had reviewed and hit send, smiling to himself. At the instant he clicked, a new mail came in--from Bruce Wayne. Frowning, Clark opened it.
After our disastrous evening, I decided to be the bigger man and see if I could get the information you were unable to. People were pretty reluctant to talk, but it seems your missing student was involved in something shady, some kind of protection racket. He’d been sent as the message boy to shake down the owner of Le Cinq--my guess is some kind of hazing/testing ritual, see if he could follow orders, get him further into whatever organized crime group he was in. The owner was very unwilling to talk, but I got the impression Seth had passed the test.
I know this can’t be encouraging news, and I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings. However, I helped you, so you owe me.
Clark rolled his eyes and moved the mail into the folder related to the case, then drummed his fingers on the desk for a while before sighing and picking up the phone again.
“You’re pretty good, man.” Sierra Wong, the lead singer and guitarist of Auditory Mayhem, nodded approvingly at Bruce.
“Thanks,” Bruce said. He played another quick riff on the bass guitar, feeling the strings trembling beneath his fingers. It had been decades since he’d played. “Hope I can keep up.”
“Well, we’d take you even if you couldn’t, to be honest,” said Janae, the drummer, setting up the hi-hat cymbals. “Having our bassist quit and losing our keyboardist just before our biggest gig so far--” She sighed. “We’re lucky to find anyone on such short notice.”
“Your keyboardist, too?” Bruce was sneaking looks around the Blue Boar, but it was one of those dark restaurants with lots of little dead-end corners, and he couldn’t see everything. Only known members of the Kasnian community were able to get seats in this restaurant, and Bruce had been planning his break-in when Alfred had informed him that a help wanted ad in the Daily Planet might be just the ticket to get in. Now Bruce just needed to get a good enough look around to see if he could figure out what about that triptych of paintings had gotten the restaurant critic in trouble.
“Yeah, it’s…” The lead singer bit her lip as she set up a microphone. “He dropped off the face of the earth about two weeks ago. We haven’t been able to get in touch with him at all.”
“You sound worried.”
“Well, it’s not like Seth to just vanish. He’s not a flake.” Behind her, Janae looked down at her drums, forehead creasing in worry.
Bruce felt an odd sinking feeling in his stomach. “Seth?”
“Yeah, he’s--” She broke off as someone slipped through the service door and started to walk toward them. “Hey! Are you our substitute keyboardist?”
The newcomer had a scar down one side of his face and his hair slicked back, but Bruce knew the blue of his eyes immediately. He stopped when he spotted the band, then seemed to gather himself with a visible effort and came forward. “I hope so. Pleased to meet you. I’m Gregg Winwood,” he said, holding his hand out to Bruce.
“I’m the bassist,” Bruce said as he took it.
“I’d gathered,” Clark said, laughter dancing in his eyes as he flicked a glance down at the guitar in Bruce’s hands. “And you are…”
“Cliff,” Bruce sighed. “Cliff Claypool.”
“Well, Cliff, shall we see if we can help Auditory Mayhem get through this gig?”
Shaking his head in resignation, Bruce strummed the opening chords to “Strangers in the Night,” and Clark laughed, picking out the melody on the keyboard. Sierra smiled and stepped to the mic, crooning the opening lines: “Strangers in the night, exchanging glances. Wondering in the night, what were the chances…”
“I’m not sure why they hired a metal band to play jazz standards,” Janae said as they finished a quick riff on Sinatra. “But adding a couple of old guys like you for the night could be really useful. Uh, no offense,” she added quickly.
“None taken,” Clark said. “This could be fun.”
It actually was fun, Bruce was forced to admit after the first set. The regular members of Auditory Mayhem were quite skilled and flexible, with a wide repertoire of songs they knew; they fielded requests from the appreciative patrons and played everything from Benny Goodman to the Beatles to Nirvana. Bruce had to struggle to keep up now and then, and he could tell Clark was having problems too, but they got by. Not bad considering he probably learned how to play his instrument this afternoon, Bruce thought. He scanned the walls when he could, listening to Clark ask gently leading questions about their missing keyboardist between sets, probing for information about Seth and his mood lately.
Finally, during a break, he found them: three small paintings arranged in a triangle in a dark corner. The center one was the ruins of a castle above a river, crumbling pale gray stone framed with willows. The one on the left had a stag drinking from what seemed to be the same river, and the one on the right had a doe gazing upward at the painting of the castle. Competent artwork, if amateur, Bruce thought, just as a heavy hand came down on his shoulder.
He turned to see a surprisingly large waiter looking at him. Not smiling, not frowning, just looking. “May I help you?” the waiter said in Kasnian-accented English.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Bruce said. “I’m with the band. I was looking for the restroom.”
The waiter grunted and pointed in the opposite direction. Bruce took the hint and got out of the way.
“I think I’ve got what I need,” Bruce muttered to Clark as he rejoined the band.
“Me too, actually,” said Clark.
“So I guess we don’t need to be here anymore,” Bruce said.
“I guess not,” said Clark.
A reflective pause followed.
“But it would be poor form to duck out on Sierra and Janae, don’t you think?” Bruce said.
“Oh, absolutely,” Clark agreed almost before the words were out of his mouth. “Plus,” he added sheepishly after a moment, “I’m having fun.”
“Hmph,” said Bruce in a manner that he hoped expressed his disdain for the idea of having fun while on a case. Clark’s smile as he headed back to the keyboard suggested his success had been only partial at best.
Clark twirled his brush between his fingers, looking around the community center meeting room at the other art students. They were making small talk or getting their paints together, and none of them seemed particularly likely targets for an assassination attempt. Yet somehow Clark couldn’t doubt the sincerity in Janae’s eyes when she had met him after the gig to talk about Seth.
“He’s a good kid, I like him, but he’s in way over his head,” she had said, sitting on the park bench, staring out at the empty playground. She’d paused, then repeated: “Way over his head.”
“I’m trying to help him,” Clark said quietly.
“I believe you,” she said, but still hesitated.
“I know he’s involved with some group that was involved in extortion. Worse than that?”
She swallowed. “A lot worse. He’s… he’s been bragging lately about being involved in some biker gang. How tough they are, how cool they are. Then he started to have doubts, but he didn’t seem to know how to...get out, you know?”
“He was really upset the last time I saw him. Trying to hide it, trying to be all macho. But he told me they were asking him to do something really dangerous. He didn’t say specifically, but…” She looked at Clark directly for the first time. “I’m pretty sure it involved having someone killed.”
Clark saw again in his mind’s eye the worry etched on her face as he looked around the room. Seth Acevedo had signed up for this class at the last minute, and Clark couldn’t come up with a single good reason why a young man who’d gotten embroiled in a skinhead biker gang would suddenly be taking an art lesson at a community center. It seemed, all things considered, unlikely that he’d be thinking about line work right now. On a hunch, Clark had signed up for the last slot in the class, and here he was, trying to look like he knew a thing about art.
He was going to look particularly foolish if Seth didn’t even show up.
The art teacher--a tiny woman with dark ringlets around her smiling face--entered the room and started to talk about today’s lesson, which appeared to be “life drawing.” Clark looked around the room, trying to take a guess at whose life might need protecting: the teacher? The elderly man in the bright blue cardigan? The woman with her hair in a tight bun, frowning at her easel?
“...practice studying the human form involves, of course, working with the human form,” the teacher was saying. “So this week we have a model you’ll be working from. Everyone, say hi to Derek,” she said as a man wearing a loose robe emerged from behind a screen.
“Derek” smiled and nodded at everyone politely, and with no ceremony or coyness, took off the robe.
Clark dropped his pencil.
Bruce glanced over at him, only the slightest quirk in his eyebrows betraying any emotion beyond “mild interest.” He folded the robe and sat down on the stool in the middle of the room, completely nude.
Clark picked up his pencil and discovered he didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with it. He peeked over the easel at Bruce. No one else seemed particularly rattled by the sight of Bruce Wayne sitting without a stitch on in the middle of the room. He’d barely even bothered to disguise himself, Clark thought with a mix of awe and irritation. He’d put in contacts that turned his eyes from ice-blue to hazel, and he’d combed his dark hair forward instead of keeping it severely slicked back. But mostly he appeared to be counting on the fact that no one was going to assume that their male model was actually Bruce Wayne, playboy billionaire.
Also that very few people were going to be looking closely at his face, Clark had to admit to himself. There were a lot of impressive muscles and sinews on display, after all, a lot of scars that wound around limbs like vines or etched skin with a delicate filigree of past pain. The character revealed in the body belied the blank handsomeness of the face, and Clark couldn’t blame anyone for becoming engrossed in looking at the way the light touched it, at the way it moved slightly with his breath, at--
Slightly behind him, the teacher cleared her throat. “I’m looking forward to seeing your style, Mr. Wyeth,” she said to Clark. “Just as soon as you begin.”
Clark saw Bruce’s mouth tilt into a very slight smile as he fumbled for his pencils, stammering an apology. On a whim, he tried to capture the curve of that smile with a few quick lines before moving on to the neck and the curve of the spine winding downward. It was minimalistic, but… he tilted his head, looking at it. He kind of liked it.
And then the art was forgotten as the door flew open and Seth Acevedo burst into the studio, looking wild-eyed and panicked. “Professor Zorić!” he gasped, and made a beeline for the woman with the bun, who looked startled.
Several things happened very quickly.
Clark dropped his pencil, hurled his easel aside, and jumped forward to get between Seth and his target.
At the same time, “Derek” leaped off his stool and tackled Seth before he could get across the room.
People shrieked, the art teacher yelled something, art supplies went clattering to the floor all across the studio.
A moment of shocked silence fell in which everyone stared at the newcomer being held down by the nude model. Bruce wrenched Seth’s hands behind his back and Seth whined in pain, then blurted out “I wasn’t going to do nothing, man! I came to warn her, I fucking swear!”
“Are you all right, Professor?” Clark asked the woman who had to be Bogdana Zorić, Kasnian history professor at Metropolis University. She nodded shakily.
Bruce, still wearing not a thing and seeming entirely unselfconscious about it, was checking Seth for weapons. After a moment, he stood up and put his bare foot squarely in the small of Seth’s back, then reached over and grabbed his robe to gather around himself.
He looked over at Clark. “Found your missing student,” he said with a shrug.
“Well,” said Clark, “I foiled the attempt on your professor’s life.”
“Debatable,” said Bruce, but he was smiling.
Later, as the police were wrapping up interviewing the witnesses and “Derek” had long since vanished, Clark noticed that his little sketch had disappeared in the chaos as well.
Bruce heaved a sigh of relief as the customer left the shop without ever actually making a decision. The remorseful Seth Acevedo had told them everything he knew about the connections between the Kasnian nationalist terrorist group and the skinhead biker gang--how the Kasnians had asked the bikers for help in assassinating Professor Zorić in return for a large shipment of guns; how this was supposed to be the beginning of a “fruitful relationship.” Bruce and Clark had told him to report back that the hit had been made.
The final handover of the guns was about to take place in the dark alley behind this store. Bruce had paid off the owner to let him work here today, but luckily business had been slow.
Putting up a “Back in fifteen minutes” sign, he slipped over to the store next door.
The bells on the door jingled and Clark looked up from a vase overflowing with daisies and sunflowers to give Bruce a smile. Not that Bruce would ever admit it, but it made for a… relatively charming sight. Relatively charming enough that his heartbeat picked up annoyingly. “This is actually fun,” Clark said. “I always like things that challenge me that my powers can’t help with. Super-speed would just hurt the flowers, so I have to go slow and rely on my own aesthetic ability. What do you think?” He spread his hands on either side of the vase, beaming.
“Hm,” said Bruce. “Could use more green.”
Clark’s face fell slightly. “You think so?” He grabbed a few ferns and added them to the mix. “So what was the deal with the paintings in the Kasnian restaurant, anyway? Who was making the threatening phone calls to Denis?”
Bruce picked up a daisy and spun it in his fingers. “They weren’t threats, as it turned out. They were actually from Professor Zorić herself. The castle in the paintings is claimed as the cradle of the nationalist movement in Kasnia, the historical birthplace of the pure and noble yadda yadda yadda.” He waved the daisy about until Clark plucked it from his hand to put into the arrangement. “The stag and the doe represent the men and women of the movement, they’re classic symbols of nationalism in Kasnia. When Denis mentioned them Zorić realized there was a chance it was a hint that the restaurant was a cover for the terrorists, and she was trying to get more details from him so she could go to the authorities.”
Clark nodded absently, still focused on the flowers. “Better?” he asked, indicating the fern-framed daisies.
“I’d hate to damage Lien’s reputation by doing subpar work,” Clark said.
“At least you’re just arranging flowers, not altering someone’s skin for all eternity,” Bruce said.
Clark laughed, moving on to a bouquet of white roses. “I assume you’ve managed to talk any potential customers out of getting tattoos?”
Bruce nodded. “Some were thinking it over, but I was very discouraging. I’ll have to put some money in the till to make up for the lost business.”
“These are impressive,” Clark said, using one of his rosebuds to tap the back of Bruce’s hand. He trailed the flower up Bruce’s arm, tracing the elaborate loops and whorls that embraced his forearms. Bruce repressed a shiver. “I’d swear they were real if you hadn’t told me otherwise.”
“Nothing but the best fake tattoos for my most important case,” Bruce said.
“I almost wish I could be your customer,” Clark said. “I could get a nice bat-tattoo. There seems something very intimate about letting someone mark your skin like that.”
Bruce’s mouth was dry. “The needles would just break on your skin,” he said.
Clark laughed softly. “It’s true. But then, you never needed needles to get under my skin,” he said. He lifted the white rosebud and slipped it behind Bruce’s ear. “And I’m beginning to think you marked me as yours long ago.”
His fingers touched the shell of Bruce’s ear and Bruce swallowed hard. “Clark--” he said.
And of course that’s when the surveillance he’d put on the back alley went off as the Kasnian nationalists and the biker skinheads arrived for their arms deal.
Things were going smoothly, the transfer seemed to be going off without a hitch--so Bruce was able to savor the looks of shock on their faces as Batman and Superman descended upon them. There was a smattering of gunfire, and three of the Kasnian nationalists tried to make a break for it through the flower shop, but Batman chased them down before they could reach the far door.
Superman came flying through the door a minute later, his look of distress shifting into relief as he took in Batman trussing up the terrorists. “I was worried,” he said.
Batman frowned. “I’m not sure if I’m touched or offended.”
“--that the store might get trashed,” Superman went on gravely. “I should have known you’d manage it without breaking a single stem.”
“Confession: this guy actually knocked some baby’s breath off the counter and stepped on it,” Batman said, tightening the ties on one captive’s arms. “Sorry. I should have been more careful.”
Superman smiled. “I’m going to get the bikers to the police along with the recording. I’ll let you take care of the Kasnians.” He picked the white rosebud up from the counter where Bruce had dropped it to change into costume. “Consider this a thank-you for being so considerate.”
Batman took the rose from Superman with an eyeroll that could be seen even through the cowl.
He waited until Superman was well out of sight before slipping it into his utility belt.
The corner coffee shop was crowded the next morning. Clark rubbed his eyes and scrolled through Twitter and a dozen text messages from the Flash as he waited in line. By the time he’d gotten back from dropping the bikers off at the Metropolis police station last night, Batman was gone and only the Kasnian terrorists had remained, trussed up and glaring, with their hair liberally festooned with baby’s breath. Oh well, Clark thought. They’d cross paths again eventually, of course, and--
“May I take your order, sir?” A pleasant baritone broke into his thoughts and Clark looked up at the barista, shook his head and smiled.
“Don’t you know my order already?”
“You usually go with the dark roast with extra cream, right?” Bruce was already making it, so Clark didn’t bother to confirm it. “Your name?”
Bruce started scribbling on the cup.
“No, not Kal. Clark.”
“Ohhh.” Bruce scribbled the wrong name out. “Got it.”
Clark wandered over to pickup and watched Bruce bustling around, making his coffee. Glancing around to make sure no one was listening, he said under his breath, “So what brings you to the barista biz? Coffee embezzlement? Money laundering in the latte?”
“Actually…” Bruce put the last of the cream in the coffee and slid it across the counter to Clark. He propped his chin on his hand and met Clark’s eyes. “I was hoping this would be a funny and charming way to officially ask you out on a date.”
“You went undercover as a barista just to ask me out on a date?”
“Is that unusual?” Bruce looked thoughtful. “Sometimes I lose track of what normal people do in situations like this.”
“It’s unusual.” Clark took a sip of his coffee. It was delicious, of course. “But then, we’re both pretty unusual.”
“Is that a yes?” For just a moment, all the guarded irony fell away and Bruce looked ridiculously hopeful.
Clark leaned across the counter and kissed him, and it was far more delicious than the coffee. “That’s a yes,” he whispered as the customers applauded.