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a line in the sand

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Clark had to wait until, appropriately enough, Bruce was on his way back from escorting Damian out of the gala to speak to him privately.

Alright, maybe he was lying in wait. But still, here was Clark, by one of the little balconies out from the tall french windows. And here was Bruce, a little preoccupied, a little more serious than he would let himself be, with the gathering.

“Bruce. Bruce,” he said softly.

Bruce turned with a start. “Clark? What are you doing out here? Come on, let’s go back to the gala.”

Clark shook his head. “Just a moment? I want the quiet for a moment.”

And that was all it took. “Alright,” Bruce agreed, stepping out onto the balcony. He looked out into the cool night, and Clark had to wonder. First, the first-name basis. And now, stepping aside to talk to him, after Clark had seen him rebuff reporters and socialites without a second thought. And, now. If Clark was going to send them right back to square one.

He shook his head a little, dislodging his unquiet, and stepped out after him.

Bruce had turned to face him, leaning back with his hands on the iron balustrade to his sides. Open, but Clark could see the inquiry in his eyes.

“It’s about Damian,” and Clark plowed on through Bruce’s question. “He’s your son, isn’t he?”

“He will be,” Bruce corrected without missing a beat. But the looseness was gone from his posture, even with his hands still light on the rail behind him.

“Your son, Bruce. For real, isn’t he,” Clark said softly, not looking down.

For a moment, neither of them moved. And wasn’t that enough of an answer, itself.

Bruce finally let out a harsh breath, crossing his arms. “I’m not answering that. He’s a boy. He’s eleven years old, and you already want to know his life’s story? Christ, Kent,” he looked away, over the dark lawn, and Clark felt his stomach twist. “I thought you, of all people, might have some respect for someone’s privacy.” He pushed himself sharply off the balustrade, and Clark had to put himself in front of him, before Bruce stepped back into the bright hall.

“I don’t mean it like that! Like anything,” he said quickly. He chose his next words carefully. “Bruce. I’m asking as Clark, not the Planet. And I’m only asking because I didn’t want to hide from you that I knew. You’re pretending he’s just your ward to the whole world, and I didn’t want to lie like that.”

For a moment, he was sure it wasn’t enough. That he’d finally found the line and crossed it, intruding just too far into Bruce’s personal life. This wasn’t his place. Bruce held his eye, shoulders tight. A long beat, and then, somehow, Bruce deflated.

“You’re something else, Clark,” and Clark wouldn’t’ve known what to say if Bruce hadn’t gone on. “He is. My son, by blood, and everything but the law. But it’s complicated.”

Clark had to smile, just a bit. “When isn’t your life? Much less your sons’ lives.”

Bruce leaned back on the balustrade, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Really, never.” He looked up at Clark and opened his mouth, but Clark beat him to it.

“Of course I haven’t told anyone, and I won’t.” he found himself pacing a bit, in the narrow balcony. “This is your family, Bruce. These are your kids, of course I wouldn’t step in to make their lives hell. You all put up with too much of that already, and no one deserves that attention in the first place.”

Bruce didn’t say anything. Clark slowly turned to lean back against the balcony next to him, still watching him.

“What told you?” Bruce asked softly. “That he’s not like his brothers? Because you’re smart, Clark, too damn sharp. But if you could see it, someone else can, and I really don’t want that sort of investigation on my hands.”

“Nothing told me,” Clark shook his head. “Nothing someone who doesn’t know you and know how you are with them would see.”

“And you know me, and them?” Bruce’s voice was light, but Clark’s ears burned for some reason.

“I do, yeah. You’re worried about him, differently than you do the others. And it’s not just because he’s young. Like you care, but you’re also scared of something. You love him, and you’re trying to adopt him. What would you be most worried about? Losing him. To whom, then?”

“His mother.” Bruce’s voice was still soft, but the tension was back in his shoulders, the line of his back.

Clark turned to look at him, still leaning a hip against the ironwork. “She’s around, then? Where is she, where’s Damian been for the last decade? Is she really going to want him back?”

Bruce didn’t look at him. “She is. And I don’t know where she’s been hiding him. We hadn’t been in contact, and I preferred it that way. Not that I don’t want Damian in my life, I just -.”

He broke off, and Clark frowned. “But you don’t want her in your life. Or Damian’s, if you’re his only official parent.”

Bruce shook his head before answering, rolling his shoulders back against the tension that kept accumulating. “I don’t. I don’t want that on our plates. Best-case scenario, we’d see Bruce Wayne’s Secret Lovechild Returns headlines and clickbait. And that’s still more than I’d want. And Damian sure as hell doesn’t deserve any drama.”

“Of course not,” Clark nodded. “But she’s been quiet so far. Hasn’t she?”

“She has,” Bruce agreed. “But I don’t trust her. She’s had him for ten years, I don’t see her just handing him over without a fuss.” Bruce looked up at Clark, from his uncharacteristic slouch. “She’s letting me have him. Because she knows I can’t say no.” He took a sharp breath and looked away again. “And now she’ll have the upper hand. Forever. She’s never going to be gone.”

Clark had never heard Bruce sound like that. It took him a silent moment to realise that Bruce, of all people, was afraid. Of this woman, the mother of his child. It didn’t feel right.

“Bruce,” he asked slowly. “Who is she? What do you mean, leverage? I mean, who uses a kid as -”

“She would.” Bruce cut him off. “I’m not putting anything past her, alright? Maybe I’m sounding unhinged to you, but Clark.” He took a breath. “Trust me on this.”

Clark nodded slowly. “I will. But I know I’m missing things. Can I just as-”

“You can’t,” Bruce didn’t let him finish the question, pushing sharply off the rail to stand up straight. “You can’t, because I’m not having that conversation. I’m not having that talk. You asked your first question, and you were right, and that’s all I can give you. Alright? You’ve had your curiosity for the night, so don’t push it.”

Clark realised he’d pulled back a pace, as Bruce’s words turned clipped and unforgiving. There was the line he hadn’t been able to see earlier, now bright in the light of the bridges Bruce was willing to burn for his and his family’s privacy. And that was fair. More than fair, when Clark wasn’t even sure he was ready for the rest of the story.

So he capitulated, put his hands up between them. “I won’t. I shouldn’t’ve pried. I didn’t mean to stir things up.”

For a moment, he wasn’t sure it was enough. But then Bruce sagged, the fight bleeding out of him.

“Christ, Clark,” and there wasn’t any of the animosity from earlier, when he said it this time. “You’ve got to be the last person for me to be taking things out on.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Clark said quickly. “Really.”

“Still.” And Bruce was quiet for another long second, watching Clark. Then he looked away and shook his head at something, at nothing. “I need to go back in. Play host.”

“Of course. I’m keeping you from it all, from the -”

This time, Bruce cut him off with a hand on his shoulder. Clark froze, words deserting him. Bruce’s hand was warm through his jacket, steadying him. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, voice soft in the night. “Not when you’re always right.”

And then he was gone, back into the light and hubbub. Leaving Clark with more questions than he began with.