“Stop,” Clark says when he can’t look at them anymore.
The show’s almost over, anyway, or at least that’s the excuse he’s giving himself. Funerals are a lot like wedding ceremonies in that regard. It doesn’t matter who’s getting buried or married, there’s only so long you can drag a wedding or a funeral out, even on video.
Still, stop was probably the wrong word to use. Off would have been a better choice. If he’d said off the screen would be clear instead of frozen on the same faces he doesn’t want to see and can’t look away from.
He thinks the clarity of the picture is part of what makes it so terrible and so compelling at the same time. The Fortress enhanced the original recording and the image quality is lifelike enough that he almost believes he’d feel the angular heat of Diana’s shoulder, the slick slide of John’s dress uniform if he reached out.
From a photographer’s perspective, it’s a great shot, one Jimmy might take. The Justice League is standing in a half circle around an open grave in front of a monument surmounted by a giant El symbol. A respectful distance away, crowds of humans and non-humans alike are packed so tightly together it’s hard to tell if they’re standing on grass, asphalt, concrete, or air.
The League has just lowered a red-draped coffin into the ground and stepped back, bowing their heads as the camera pans, taking in the monument and the rest of the mourners, his parents and Lois and Kara front and center. Then the focus pans back to those other faces he knows and loves, a too close for comfort close-up of shared pain, and Clark sees and hears everything.
The vid doesn’t have a soundtrack, just silence backdropped by the distant sounds of the city, but before the mute function engages he hears the suppressed hitch of Diana and Shayera’s breathing. The muted click of Flash swallowing over and over.
He hears his mother crying quietly while his father tries not to.
If overwhelming grief is the measure of a successful wake, then Savage was right. It’s a lovely funeral. Two weeks after the reports of Superman’s death proved greatly exaggerated, the limited run DVD is already a collector’s item, the few legitimate copies left selling on uPay for thousands of dollars.
According to Lois, the bootleg is worth almost as much.
Clark hasn’t asked the Fortress for its source; part of him thinks it might be important, but the rest of him feels disconnected, disassociated from both the event and its repercussions. He’s felt that way about a lot of things since he got back, felt… weird.
Some part of him believes it is weird, and wrong, hearing voices other than his own or Savage’s. Not being weighed down by red sun gravity.
Even at the farm something felt off, but he chalked it up to emotional tension at first. Figuring out how to apologize to his parents for not really dying, for being gone but not gone, for scaring years they couldn’t afford to lose off their lives wasn’t easy; the strain of interrupted grief followed them around the whole time he was there, an unwelcome and invisible guest who wouldn’t leave. It wasn’t until he was back in Metropolis, breathing in the stale air of his shut-up apartment that Clark realized he, not anyone’s emotions or actions, was the out of place thing.
It took him less than a week to leave the city, flying away from Lois’s relief and Jimmy’s smiles like a cowed bully ducking a beating. He’s not going to kid himself about his reasons; he wanted space, plain and simple. Had needed the Fortress’s emptiness to fill his ears and his mind with cold silence the same way he’d needed food and oxygen and sleep under the red rays of Savage’s future sun.
Is this how Bruce feels every day when he goes down the cave, shedding his daylight skin for Batman’s shadows? Does his chest tighten until he’s sure he won’t breathe easily if he can’t layer Nomex and Kevlar between himself and the world? Does he need the inhuman sounds of the cave the way Clark needs the shifting creak of ice and snow?
Clark is starting to think he does. He feels like he’s pulling the metaphorical cowl off the man inside the suit from inside his own mind, dragging every similarity, every difference between them out of the shadows and into the sunlight.
The most basic and important difference is, Clark already knows his agoraphobic panic attacks won’t last. They’ll fade with the remnants of Savage’s future, but Bruce’s isolation is cultivated and habitual, like Batman’s scowl or Brucie’s smile, and Bruce doesn’t willingly let go of anything. He wouldn’t know how, even if he wanted to.
Opening his eyes, Clark focuses on the empty gap between Diana and Flash, just wide enough for a pair of broad, black-covered shoulders to fill. He wonders if Alfred or Tim offered Bruce’s excuses. Batman wouldn’t have made the effort, although someone probably commed to find out if he was coming or not. Clark can just imagine how that conversation went.
So, about that memorial on Sunday, the one for Superman? Red cape, red S on his chest, died a couple of weeks ago?
I have work to do. Batman out.
Sure, Clark decides. Why not? That’s probably what Bruce said, word for word, right before he pulled up his cowl and went out to fight crime like he does every night. He guesses he could consider it a tribute if he wanted to, the only kind Bruce would give a fellow crimefighter. But he knows better. The only reasons Bruce wouldn’t go out to fight crime would be his own death or debilitating physical impairment, and option number two is open to debate.
Clark looks down at his hand, curled into a loose fist on the console. After two weeks of yellow sun, the scars are almost gone. He remembers, though. How the deep claw marks itched and buckled into puckered lines. How good it felt to scratch the last of the scabs away from the pinkish skin underneath.
He remembers how it felt when he tore loose a scab that wasn’t ready to come off: painful but sickeningly satisfying. Staring at the space between Flash and Diana feels a lot like that, and Clark can’t stop staring any more than he could stop scratching.
It would be great if he were better at distracting himself, like Flash distracts himself just by existing, or at blowing off steam with a sparring partner the way Diana and Shayera do. He’d like to bring his fist down on the console like John does on the conference table when he’s frustrated or emphasizing a point. He wishes he could have that small human release without the Kryptonian damage his surroundings would take if he was irresponsible enough to give in to his frustration.
But what is Superman if not responsibility personified? Sometimes even Clark can’t stand the guy.
“Damn it,” he says quietly, forcing his fingers to uncurl, pressing his palm down flat against the console. Two weeks ago the crystalline surface would have cut cold into his bare skin; today it barely tingles. “Screen off.”
And his fingers are curling in again and he is cold, somewhere, even if his nerve endings can’t detect it. He knows before he speaks exactly how much he’s going to regret asking what he’s about to ask.
“Get me all available print, image and video files for Batman and Bruce Wayne, dates eleven-twenty-nine through one-twelve, Earth standard calendar.”
Regret, Clark knows from long experience, isn’t cold. It’s blue heat, the precision glare Bruce is sure to nail him with if he ever finds out.
There isn’t much in the way of news files – not on the Batman, not for such a relatively short period of time – but Clark expects that. Bruce hasn’t kept his identity secret for so long by making Batman media accessible. What he doesn’t expect is the lack of corresponding media coverage for Bruce Wayne, who he sometimes thinks exists solely for the sake of the spotlight.
He was busy. Someone had to pick up your slack. He ignores the faint surge of hope he buried years ago under hard realism, and starts in on the news files.
It takes him under a minute to skim the handful of articles containing vague references to Bat sightings. In addition to the Interrogator’s usual rumors of vampirism and mutated genetic experiments, there’s a new origin theory slash psych profile offered by Oprah’s pet pop psychologist, plus three dryly factual accounts of Scarecrow’s recent takedown from three different sources. The GCPD reports aren’t much more enlightening, and the few photos available are so blurred they’re not worth enhancing.
There’s also a single vid file from one of the Watchtower’s dirtside feeds. Clark leaves it for last. He expects the content will be as unsatisfying as the photos, so the clear footage of Batman approaching his grave in Metropolis takes him by surprise.
“Stop.” The buzz in his ears has nothing to do with the low level background noise he’s spent half his life tuning out, and everything to do with guilt.
Telling himself Bruce would do the same thing if their positions were reversed doesn’t help. Guilt doesn’t stop him from saying, “Play.”
After rewind fifteen he loses count of how many times he watches the clip, stopping it on the same two interrupted words each time, replaying it knowing Bruce will never finish his sentence. But hope is like both of them: really hard to kill.
Around rewind maybe thirty-something, he lets the clip play through. He doesn’t find out what caused the explosion until much later. His name is barely out of Bruce’s mouth before he’s halfway to Gotham.
Because Gotham is Batman’s shadow and Clark is pretty sure he’ll get an exploding batarang in the face if he hijacks the bat signal, he cheats. And then he winces, but he doesn’t let himself flinch away from the word, or from knowing that cheating is exactly what Bruce would call Clark using his superhearing to interrupt Batman’s busy crimefighting schedule for his own selfish reasons.
Bruce doesn’t look up when he lands next to him on a rooftop as gothic as the batsuit, but he does lower his binoculars and say, dryly, “Do I need to start using the cardio sync again?”
Clark is grateful for the question. If Bruce really didn’t want him here, he wouldn’t have said anything. “I don’t know why you thought you had to use it in the first place.”
“The same reason I don’t wear a red cape. Come down or go home.”
The binoculars go back up. Clark crouches down, self-consciously curling his cape around him. He hates how off-kilter Gotham always makes him feel; like Bizarro in Metropolis, Superman in Gotham sticks out like a sore thumb. Superman in Gotham just doesn’t work.
“Metropolis not enough for you tonight?” Bruce murmurs, making Clark wonder if he finally talked J’onn into giving him telepathic training. He shifts in place, bringing his hip into alignment with Clark’s; beneath the heavy chemical and metal odors of the suit he smells warm and a little sweaty: he smells like he’s been hitting people. And since this is Bruce, probably enjoying it.
Clark breathes as shallowly as he can get away with. If he stopped altogether, Bruce would notice. “I’m keeping my ears open.”
It’s just one more line item in Bruce’s long list of annoying habits. Wordless sounds that could mean a million things, and probably do, all of them derogatory. And Clark knows better but he’s never been able to leave well enough alone, not when it comes to Bruce. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
For the moment it takes Bruce to stow his binoculars, his thigh is pressed the length of Clark’s thigh. Clark’s breath catches. He stays very still, and Bruce is right there, until he’s not. He’s standing, moving away, and Clark has to turn his head, needs to follow him with his eyes because he can’t think beyond the warm pressure that isn’t there anymore.
“It means we’re done,” Bruce says as he pulls out his grapple. “I know where Joker is.”
It’s ridiculous to use superspeed in this situation, but if he hadn’t, Bruce’s arm wouldn’t be going rigid under his hand. Batman would already be gone. “I’ll give you a lift,” Clark offers, and the tight muscle under his hand turns to stone.
Thin moonlight glances off Batman’s lenses as he tilts his head, winking like silver cat’s eyes in the dark. “Between you and me? I hate that.”
The grapple arcs out, dividing the air between skyscrapers. Clark’s hand drops, empty, to his side.
For three perfect seconds, he gives himself the pleasure of watching Bruce fly. And then he follows.
The Joker, Bruce tells him over the comm, is using the old Ace Chemicals factory on the outskirts of town as his headquarters, and tonight is the anniversary of their first fight. It’s not a matter of him being up to something but of what he’s up to. And, understatement of the millennium, Batman doesn’t like surprises.
During the eight minutes it takes Bruce to drive from Midtown to the factory, Clark flies above the rooftops in the batmobile’s wake and thinks about bad timing, good intentions, and the road to hell. When Bruce landed beside the car, Clark had clenched his jaw to keep from offering to carry him again, which is probably the smartest decision he’s made all day. Batman is never happy, but for whatever reason, his hostility quotient is off the charts tonight.
“I should have known,” Bruce says as Clark follows him up the C’s massive arch. “He dragged Ryder into it last year.”
Clark settles next to him on the top curve, reminding himself not to cross his arms. “Ryder?”
“Old news.” The look on Bruce’s face suggests he’d briefly forgotten about Clark. His mouth is a flat line of disapproval. “Still here?”
It’s a trap, not a question. Clark’s already filled his stupidity quotient for the year, and he… really doesn’t want to know what that expression means.
The corner of Bruce’s mouth twitches. Once. “I don’t have time for games. What do you want?”
It seems straightforward enough, which means it definitely isn’t. “Reciprocation,” Clark hears himself say, one more stupidity unit for the balance. Or maybe not.
Because Bruce wasn’t expecting that. Inside the frame of the cowl, his mouth loosens just enough… “What are you talking about?”
“Answer a question for me,” Clark says, “and I’ll answer yours.” And then he crosses his arms because Gotham or not, he’s still Superman.
The cape hides everything, but Clark can hear Bruce’s gauntlets creaking. He could look through the cape to the fists clenched behind it, but he doesn’t need to.
“Ask,” Bruce growls. Don’t expect an answer, Clark hears.
“I’ll miss…” More creaking. The cape shudders, and Clark is looking at Bruce’s blank, blank face. “Finish it,” Clark says, and waits.
Inside the factory, heavy machinery grinds to life. Somewhere close, the Joker is speaking, laughing, going to kill someone. The last two will never be any kind of sane, but if Clark wanted them to, the words would make nominal sense. Bruce’s breathing is the only sound he’s prepared to accept. It’s the only plausible sound.
“You peeked,” Bruce says. And the game changes.
It reboots, resets, and while Clark is trying to get back on his virtual feet, the hand of fate scoops him up and dumps him flat on his tail on the sticky floor of a deserted Metropolis club. Bruce is standing in front of him waving a sliver of kryptonite in his face, and Clark can’t stop himself from cringing. He can’t keep from backing away.
Bruce’s tone is the same now as it was then. Clark likes it even less now than he did the first time, because Bruce doesn’t get to be self-righteous, not about this. Clark says, “Like you wouldn’t have done the same thing,” and it’s his anger pushing him past sense straight into regret, making him wish he hadn’t said anything even as he doubts his ability not to have said it.
Bruce just has this effect on him. It’s as if all the juvenile alpha male posturing he suppressed in high school was saving itself up for a rainy day, or maybe just waiting for him to meet Bruce Wayne. It wasn’t raining the night he met Batman, but after he’d displayed with all the finesse of a bull pawing the ground – and Bruce egging him on – it might as well have been.
“Touché,” Bruce says, and finally looks at Clark. The way his mouth abandons disapproval for something wry is different from Batman’s usual, but not completely new.
And Clark has to swallow a noise even Clark Kent would be embarrassed to make, because there’s no other way to stop himself from making it. Because it’s impossible for him not to respond to Bruce being Bruce.
Because he was wrong. He’s not back at the beginning of the Minotaur’s maze. He’s not the same person he used to be, and Bruce was never the person Clark used to think he was.
He starts to say Bruce’s name, but Bruce cuts him off. He says, “Later,” and he’s not looking at Clark anymore, crouched on the edge of the C, all of his focus turned downward.
Clark notices the increased vibrations then; their perch is shaking. The rumbling machine noises are growing louder by the second, Joker’s laughter soaring high and shrill over everything else.
When the factory roof bursts open Clark is in the air, Bruce in his arms, permission not requested, not granted… not necessary.
Bruce’s left boot is braced on Clark’s right foot. His arm is around Clark’s neck. Clark watches the Joker’s smiling balloon rise out of the factory’s ruins and breathes as deeply as he dares.
Bruce’s arm tightens for a fraction of a second.
Then he’s pulling out a grapple with his free hand, pointing it at the balloon. A rebreather grows out of his cowl, covering his nose and mouth. That’s new, Clark thinks distantly as Bruce says, “It’s gas of some kind. You get rid of the balloon. I’ll get Joker.”
That quickly, Clark’s arms are empty again.
“Happy anniversary, Bat Breath,” Joker calls from the balloon. “I didn’t spring for flowers, but I just know you’re going to love your present anyway. It’s to die for!”
Why does Bruce always get the smart mouths, Clark wonders. His own opponents usually lean more towards bombast than repartee.
Already, there’s a goon dangling from the gondola by the grace of a grapple and the seat of his pants. Bruce just kicked Joker’s rocket launcher overboard.
“No fair, that was brand new! Do I spend all my spare time trying to spoil your fun? Actually, come to think of it, I do. Never mind—ouch!”
So maybe pompous windbags aren’t such a bad deal after all. Clark swallows his sigh. He gives Bruce the few seconds he needs to get the clown and his goons clear before blowing the poisonous balloon and its empty gondola out to sea.
“My thanks for your assistance, Master Clark. An extra set of eyes and a steady pair of hands are always in good order, especially when one’s patient has already destroyed and then neglected to replace one’s medical restraints. Be still, Master Bruce, if you please. I would prefer not to be obliged to clean up any more blood than is necessary.” Alfred ties off the last suture as he finishes speaking. He wipes the surgical site clean first with a sterilized towel, then a pad soaked in antiseptic, before leaning in to inspect his handiwork.
“You’ll do,” he says after a moment, and Clark hears Bruce’s jaw relax. He eases his grip on Bruce’s wrists; Bruce’s fingers loosen around his own wrists in response.
“I can bandage him,” he tells Alfred, who snaps his gloves off one at a time, tosses them in a biohazard container and walks over to the sink. The rush of running water muffles his reply.
“Very well, sir. Perhaps he will give you less trouble, at that.”
Clark meets Bruce’s eyes, a little surprised by the self-mockery he sees there. “I wouldn’t bet on it,” he says as he reaches for the sterile pads. “He gave me plenty of trouble on the way here.” Mostly because Clark had insisted on driving the car and Bruce back to the cave.
They’d already dropped Joker and his crew off at Arkham and GCPD headquarters respectively. Clark had stayed to exchange a few words with the commissioner, but Bruce had left immediately. Clark caught up with him just as he landed beside the car, one hand starfished flat against shielded glass, the only thing keeping him from falling.
Clark caught the smell first. “You’re bleeding.”
Some nothing. It had sheered through the cape, the suit, and Bruce. Clark traced the tear with careful fingers. “It’s a four inch slice.”
Bruce. Right. “So I’m driving.”
But not before Bruce had wasted another minute and more blood than he could afford to. Finally Clark had said, “You can unlock the car and hate me later, or I can fly you and you can hate me now.” Bruce had unlocked the car.
And now Clark’s pretty sure they’ve arrived at the hating him portion of the evening. He fully expects Bruce to use the current situation to get some of his own back. He expects him to remind Clark that he’s not human, tell him he should more careful with fragile human flesh. He expects a lecture on bandaging sutured wounds, complete with a critique of his own substandard efforts.
He gets the tense silence of Bruce’s clenched jaw instead. He finishes smoothing the pad into place before he looks down. Bruce’s knuckles are white.
He would have been gentle, whatever Bruce had said or done. He’s not vindictive. His relief at seeing the color coming back to Bruce’s hands and face still feels out of proportion to the situation.
“Sir,” Alfred says as Clark severs the dangling ends of the bandages with his heat vision. Clark raises his head and smiles.
Alfred holds Clark’s cape up. Clark used it most recently as a temporary bandage: it’s saturated with Bruce’s blood. “If you’d care to wait, I shall clean this for you,” Alfred says. He glances at the bloodstains with frowning disapproval, as though he considers Bruce’s blood as ill-behaved as the man it came from.
Clark glances at Bruce. When there’s nothing but a raised eyebrow forthcoming from that quarter, he turns back to Alfred. “Thanks, but I don’t want to put you to the trouble.”
And now he knows where Bruce got the eyebrow habit from. “It’s no trouble, sir, I assure you. If it was—” a significant look is directed Bruce’s way “—I would not have remained so long in service here.”
Bruce picks that moment to interrupt. “You might as well stay,” he tells Clark. “If he’s offering to do your laundry it’s as good as done.”
Clark looks helplessly from Bruce to Alfred, caught in the undertow of equal and equally opposed willpowers. Bruce takes the opportunity to push himself up onto one elbow. Eyes shut, mouth pulled in tight, he goes still, swaying slightly in place. When he stops swaying he opens his eyes and glares at Alfred. “What did you give me?”
“Local anesthetic only, sir, as your standing order dictates. I suppose you will refuse anything else, also as per the usual.” Alfred still sounds disapproving, but also resigned. He picks up Bruce’s uniform shirt and walks toward the stairs, Superman’s and Batman’s capes mingling, overlapping the crook of his arm. He’s rolling his sleeves down as he climbs, and he speaks over his shoulder, one last dart aimed at Bruce. “Do be careful with yourself for the next few hours, won’t you?”
The clock slides shut behind him.
Clark turns back to Bruce, who’s sitting all the way up, supporting himself on braced hands. Guilt prickles in his temples and at his throat, unwanted but expected. “I should have gone with you.”
Bruce’s snort is frankly derisive. “Close quarters. You’d have been in the way.”
“In your way, you mean.” He watches him slide off the table and reach for the new uniform shirt Alfred left lying on one of the cots. He doesn’t even try keeping him in the med bay: Bruce only stays down when he decides to.
“You know, you can’t ignore me forever,” he says as he follows him out onto the central landing. “We work together.”
“Not recently.” Bruce stands between his chair and the computer console and reaches for the touch pad. “I’m part time and you’re almost two months behind.” He glances sideways at Clark. “Were two months behind. Who’s on duty tonight?”
Clark has to think about it. The rotation’s changed twice since he got back. “Hawkgirl. Kara’s keeping an eye on Metropolis. I… had some things to take care of at the Fortress.”
“So you thought you’d stop by for a chat on your way home?” The look Bruce gives him is as derisive as the snort, but Clark moved beyond frustration and out the other side of aggravation several hours ago. He’s not quite past caring what Bruce thinks, but he’s getting there.
“You can call it whatever you want,” he snaps. “I prefer talk, but chat works too.” He raises his hand, meaning to rub the back of his neck, but it’s streaked with dried blood: he can’t even see what’s left of his scars. He lets it clench shut on the fallout from one more scar he didn’t prevent and thinks about leaving now before he says or does something he can't take back. “Damn it.”
Twice in one day. Ma would have him on indefinite dish duty.
Bruce seems to find his slip up amusing. His voice is back to normal, low and husky with laughter. “Your vocabulary is degenerating, Kent. Should I ask Alfred for some soap?”
“Why don’t you mind your own business, Wayne?” Clark can do arrogance as well as Bruce can. Well, Superman can. He glares the length of his nose one more time, rises a couple of feet off the ground and flies back to the med bay to wash his hands, Bruce’s startled laugh short and sharp in his ears.
He comes back with damp skin and hair (ducked his head under the faucet) and renewed determination. Bruce is back in the cowl, a fresh cape overflowing his chair. He’s in front of the computer talking to Shayera.
She says, “That’s fine, I’m on all weekend,” then she sees Clark and breaks off, her intent expression breaking up into shards of apparent pleasure. “Superman!”
“Hi,” Clark says. Smiling at her is never hard: there’s a lovely, incredibly gentle person behind her fierce exterior, and Clark is always glad to see her. She returns his smile, seeming just as glad to see him, but Clark can also see her confusion.
“Is everything… all right?” she asks. If it was anyone but Shayera, he’d say she sounded tentative. She keeps glancing at Bruce, then at Clark, then at Bruce again like she’s having a hard time understanding why both of them would be in the cave.
She’s not the only one, Clark thinks, then has to swallow a laugh. “It’s fine,” he tells her. “Nothing Batman can’t handle.”
“I’m sure,” she says, and she doesn’t bother to hide her amusement as she looks back and forth between them again. “I guess I’ll see both of you this weekend?”
Justice League quarterly meeting. He’d forgotten, but it’s as good an excuse as any to corner Bruce. “We’ll be there,” he says.
“See you then. Hawkgirl out.”
“We?” Bruce says as soon as the connection dies. “I didn’t know you were in charge of my social schedule.”
Clark folds his arms and hopes stern goes all right with wet hair. “League business is hardly a social event.”
“Neither is patrol.”
“Fine,” Clark says. “But you’re done for the night and this isn’t an official visit. Do you want to talk or dance around the subject some more?”
Bruce pushes the cowl back as he stands, sliding past Clark, a quick, snaking twist of movement Clark can’t follow without speeding up enough to match it. Bruce isn’t moving like a man who just had surgery, although that doesn’t mean much. Clark’s seen him take down Apokoliptic nightmares twice his size with half his ribs broken.
“You weren’t supposed to see that,” he says, his back to Clark again. He’s bent over an evidence table, sorting samples of what looks like clay.
Clark walks around to the other side and leans in, the metal edge creasing his palms. “You shouldn’t have put a feed there, then.”
The plasglass slide in Bruce’s gauntlet cracks. He puts it down and picks up another one. “That’s not the point.”
“Then what is?” The table creaks. Bruce is looking at Clark’s hands and Clark looks down, following his gaze; he’s left his mark, all right, ten imprints the shape and size of his fingers. Straightening, he pushes away, turns his back before Bruce can, but his cape is gone and his shoulders feel naked, too obvious without it.
The space between his shoulderblades is hot ash. Bruce’s glare is burning it away. The Case is in his direct line of sight.
“So it’s against the rules to tell me anything unless I’m dead? I think it’s pretty unfair to expect me to wait for open communication until the next vengeful psychopath decides to send me into another dimension.”
That’s what he intends to say. It’s what he starts to say, what he would have said if Bruce hadn’t jerked him around, cutting him off mid-sentence and fisting the front of his suit in his gauntlet. His fingers clench tight, yanking Clark in until they’re almost nose to nose. “You idiot,” he bites out. “It should never have happened. None of it.”
Bruce isn’t detached. He isn’t disinterested. He’s angry and hiding it, or he was hiding it. Not anymore. “He used us to get to you,” he growls. “He used me.”
Superman’s uniform is almost impossible to wrinkle. Somehow, Batman’s fist is managing it.
“You flew into the blast because you didn’t trust me to get myself and Diana out of the way in time.”
Bruce’s jaw is clenched; Clark hears the grind of his teeth as he pulls him even closer and shakes him once, a hard jerk that would rattle any normal human and most metas as well.
“Don’t ever.” Shake. “Be that stupid again.” Shake.
Creaking gloves, rigid mouth. Breath exhaled in warm pulses over Clark’s skin, and when he tries to think about something besides Bruce’s mouth, he just ends up opening his own: “I’ll make you a deal.”
Bruce’s eyes narrow to almost nothing, thin slits of blue burning the way only green should. “You don’t make deals.”
“Neither do you,” Clark says, and kisses him.
He tastes Bruce’s surprise, his half open mouth, the quick hitch in his breathing, and his own fear. Bruce’s eyes are open, blue black looking back wide into Clark’s eyes across the bridge of their mouths. Clark can’t read the expression in them, and then Bruce’s lashes dip, hiding everything, and Clark loses track of everything but Bruce’s mouth. He loses control of the kiss, and he doesn’t care.
Because Bruce is kissing him back.
Not just kissing him, mouths touching, skin pressed against skin. That’s too uncomplicated, too easy for what Bruce is doing, opening Clark up with his lips and his tongue and his hands at the small of Clark’s back and on the arch of his throat, pushing him back, back, back until he’s bent back and over something, open.
He opens his eyes. He can’t remember closing them. Bruce’s hands are braced on either side of his head, pressed flat against the roof of the car like Clark’s pressed flat against the side. “This is the definition of stupid,” Bruce says. Clark stares at his mouth.
He says, “Okay,” and he leans forward, and Bruce shoves him back into place.
Clark blinks and the cave gets see-through. Alfred is coming out of a room on the second floor of the manor, closing the door behind him, and then Clark blinks again and there’s just Bruce, which is all he wanted anyway. “Why not?”
Bruce looks at him like he’s an idiot. He pushes away from the car, turns his back on Clark again and walks away.
Clark stays in his sprawl. He likes the indignity of looking like Superman while he’s acting like Clark. He likes that Bruce likes him undignified enough to want him this way, and besides, the batmobile is surprisingly comfortable. “I know what I’d miss,” he says.
Bruce stops walking.
Clark keeps talking. “There are a lot of things I’d miss. There were a lot of things I did miss. For a while, I was sure I was never going to make it home. Try eternity with Savage and his monster cockroaches on for size. For what it’s worth, Toyman got his revenge, even if it wasn’t what he had in mind.”
Bruce’s shoulders are granite. His hands are fists.
Clark tries to stifle the wistful note he can feel working its way into his voice. Success is negligible. “Bruce. I know—”
“No, you don’t,” Bruce cuts him off with his tone more than the slash of his hand. He turns his head, and his eyes don’t shoot laser beams, but sometimes they look like they should. “If you did you wouldn’t have started this.”
“Now who’s being stupid?”
It turns Bruce all the way around. Gets him back where Clark wants him, six inches away and furious. His hands slam down on Clark’s shoulders, fingers digging in, making Clark wish bruises were something he could have. “What do you want from me?”
Contusions shaped like your fingerprints. Your mouth and hands and your body, and god, yes, your paranoid, stubborn, infuriating, incredible mind. Everything you never show anyone, everything you show everyone, everything in between.
But he’ll settle for honesty.
“This is the deal,” he says. “I don’t expect anything. You don’t lie to me about anything. If you can’t tell me, fine. But don’t lie about it.” He doesn’t understand why Bruce starts laughing. He loves the dip of Bruce’s forehead down to the support of his shoulder, even if he’s not sure why he has it.
He’s a little worried that Bruce sounds more like he’s choking than laughing.
Bruce’s shoulders shake, shuddering under Clark’s hands, and Clark tentatively curls one hand around the back of his neck. He says, “Hey.” And then Bruce isn’t laughing anymore.
This time, Bruce kisses him. It’s quick and hard and the noise Clark makes when Bruce pulls away as quickly as he pulled Clark toward him is going to embarrass Clark for a few months at least.
Bruce lets go of him and steps back, but he’s not retreating. He’s opening one of the pockets of his utility belt and pulling something out. A strip of fabric, torn and red—
Clark follows him, stepping away from the car. He automatically takes the fraying piece of his cape Bruce holds out to him and frowns at it, turns it over in his hands and stretches it out as far as it will go.
“That’s how I knew,” Bruce says.
Clark blinks at him, confused. “What?”
“That you weren’t dead. That was the only thing left, and it was severed cleanly. There was no residue on it, no sign of matter conversion.”
Clark looks back down at the scrap of red in his hands. He stands there holding it, staring at it until Bruce reaches out and takes it away. Clark looks up into his eyes as he tucks it back into his belt.
His mouth is doing its twitching, almost-smiling thing. “Unequivocal enough for you?”
Clark’s gaze drops briefly to the belt. “Yeah,” he says. “I think so.”
Bruce pulls the cowl back down. “Be sure,” he says, and then he turns around and stalks back over to the computer, cape flaring, bleeding out into the rest of the cave’s shadows.
Clark starts to follow him and ends up stumbling, staggering back into the car’s support. He’s tired, he realizes, surprised. He tries to remember the last time he slept and surprise rolls over into disbelief as he counts back the days, arriving at Tuesday last week.
“It’s almost two-hundred,” Bruce’s voice echoes towards him. “You can use one of the cots.”
Clark scrubs a hand over his eyes and tries to think. “I’ve been gone…” How long? “Two days. Have to—get back. Soon.”
“I’ll wake you when I go upstairs. Lie down, Kent. If you leave now and pass out in the air, I won’t come get you.”
“I know,” Clark laughs. “My hero.” He thinks Bruce laughs too. He’s not sure. The echoes are tricky, even for his ears.
He can’t bring himself to care, though, because he’s only got enough energy to fly himself back to the med bay. All non-necessary functions are shutting down, and caring is optional.
Clarks drops face first onto the first cot he comes to, and just for a while, he stops caring about anything.
He wakes up on his back with two sun lamps turned full force on him and the imprint of someone’s mouth still warm on his. The rest of him registers different kinds of warmth in other places. Someone else, or maybe the same someone, draped his freshly laundered cape over him while he was out of it.
Clark sits up, pulling the cape on as he does: it smells clean. It smells like Bruce. He shrugs it into place and flies out into the main cavern in search of the source. Who is in front of his computer, cowl and scowl both firmly in place.
“Did you just kiss me?” Clark asks.
Bruce doesn’t turn around or stop typing. He doesn’t answer. Clark decides it’s his way of following through on the deal. He won’t admit to kissing Clark, but he’s not going to deny it, either.
“Livewire and Metallo escaped an hour ago,” he tells Clark. “Flash and Diana are tracking them, if you can call following two clear lines of destruction tracking. They're not hiding.”
The chair back is smooth and cool under Clark’s hand. Bruce hits something on the console and the screen divides into moving pictures—fifty-something channels and Livewire and Metallo are what’s on.
Bruce leans back in the chair, elbows on the armrests, fingers joined. If Clark moved his hand an inch to the left, he’d find out if the cowl’s ears are as sharp as he’s always believed.
“Metallo was last seen in Boston, but Livewire’s headed home. If you leave now, you’ll get there first.”
Clark grins at the back of Bruce’s pointy head. “Trying to get rid of me?”
Clark resists the urge to stick his tongue out. He says, “Try not to tear yourself open again. I’ll see you this weekend." He leaves fast, before Bruce can answer. The truth is what you believe it is, until it incontrovertibly isn’t.
Carefully not listening to anything, Clark flies out of the cave into the reddish arms of dawn and stops short, hovering midair. Afraid, if only for the moment it takes him to realize his fear, of letting the light touch him.
He remembers, apropos of nothing, that it’s morning and Bruce hasn’t slept at all. And then he laughs, out loud, because if his life ever stops being atypical, the shock will probably do what Mongul couldn’t. Atypical is his normal.
It’s crazies with green hair who think poison laughing gas makes for great practical jokes. A best friend who sleeps during the day when he sleeps at all, and likes bats better than the humans he protects. It’s instinctive fear of red sunlight, even when it’s an optical illusion instead of the wrong kind of radiation, and deadly green rock that used to be his home planet.
Normal is a city he needs more than it needs him. Metropolis got by before Superman or Clark Kent. It’ll do fine after they’re gone. Which is comforting, but doesn’t absolve Clark of his responsibilities. Which means no more hiding in the Fortress, waiting for a hypothetical resolution to a problem that doesn’t really exist.
Clark closes his eyes and rises, straight up into the path of the sun’s rays. He turns slowly in place, a game of blind man’s bluff for one, and when he can feel the pull of home he stops turning, stops moving and opens his eyes. Leslie's laughter is static crackle, riding the power lines all the way back to Metropolis.
Superman can't listen for the entire universe. He can’t see forever, just close enough to know it's there.
Bruce is at his back, always. The sun is warm on his face. Clark flies out of Gotham, leaving nothing behind.
He doesn’t have to. He’s taking everything he needs with him.