The batarang struck the gleaming chrome of the robot’s chest and clung there for a moment, beeping, before going off with an EMP whump that caused the robot to fizzle and fall over. Superman punched another robot and sent its head spinning off in a shower of sparks. “I think we’ve got it under control!” Batman heard him yell back over his shoulder.
Then he heard Wonder Woman call out, “More on the way!” and he pressed his shoulder blades more securely against Superman’s, bracing himself.
Just another day in the Justice League.
But not just another day, Batman thought sourly, hurling another batarang. Not just another day at all. Because tonight should have been the night that Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent got together for a Gray Ghost marathon. Tonight should have been the night that that they had something that might be a first date.
No, it definitely was a date, Bruce reminded himself as he pivoted out of the way of a falling robot. Superman moved with him as naturally as breathing, keeping his back covered, hurling punches and heat vision left and right. It was a date, and he knew that because he’d been hacking into the Fortress computers and reading Clark’s diaries, so he was perfectly aware Clark considered it a date.
Even mid-battle, he felt a twinge of discomfort ruffle his conscience at the thought. He still wasn’t exactly sure how it had happened--okay, Clark had asked him to test the security of the Fortress and he had come across Clark’s audio and video diary entries, that much was clear. But that didn’t explain why he had started listening and watching them obsessively; it didn’t explain why he had started doing little favors inspired by Clark’s entries. Just little things, hardly worth mentioning. Tiny little things.
“Watch yourself!” Superman snapped, and Bruce realized that Clark had grabbed a robotic arm out of the air just before it could snatch Batman off the ground.
“I can handle myself!” Batman snarled back without thinking, and heard Superman’s snort.
The robots finally stopped coming, and it was a good thing, because Batman was finding himself distracted.
“Little” favors like redesigning the satellite towers, or finding out-of-print books Clark was nostalgic about, or scouring Ebay until he found a copy of Clark’s childhood bike, and coming up with an excuse to let him “find” it.
Batman took a deep, gulping breath. His heart was pounding.
He had finally closed the loophole and reset all the passwords, but not before it had dawned on him that he had violated Clark’s privacy and meddled in his life for no better reason than it made Bruce feel good.
“All clear. Good work,” said the Martian Manhunter’s voice in his head. “Cincinnati is safe.”
And now Clark had invited him on a date, which Bruce knew was a date because he had been reading Clark’s private journals.
“What did you say?” Superman said.
“I said…” Bruce considered lying, then decided it wasn’t worth it. “I said ‘I don’t deserve this.’”
“I’ll say,” said Clark, kicking at a fallen sputtering robot in a manner that would have been “petulant” if it were not being done by Superman. “We’re going to have to spend all night cleaning up after this mess. Our Gray Ghost marathon is shot. Nothing ever goes smoothly, does it?” He sighed, glaring down at the sparking, oil-leaking debris. Then he brightened, looking at Batman. “Shall we try again tomorrow?” He smiled, and it was Clark’s shy smile, not the gleaming, assured smile of the Man of Steel. “I was really looking forward to it.”
He didn’t deserve this.
“Tomorrow it is,” Batman said.
“You really did bring your pajamas.” Clark--clad in plaid flannel, because of course he was--sounded delighted as Bruce emerged from the bathroom in his royal-blue silk pajamas.
“I said we’d make it a sleepover, didn’t I? As long as nothing goes wrong tonight.” Bruce looked around the room, then gingerly sat down at the end of Clark’s bed.
“Well, if something does go wrong, I can have you out of them in a jiffy,” said Clark. His brain seemed to catch up to his words and he looked flustered. “...And into your suit, of course. Is what I mean.” He looked around a bit wildly and pounced on the DVD sitting on the cabinet at the foot of the bed. “Look at this.” He held it up: The Complete Gray Ghost Collection, Volume 1. “Can you believe they finally released it?”
“Barely,” said Bruce, although of course he could, because the lawyers of Wayne Enterprises had worked for three solid months to get the rights cleared up. Just another “little favor” that he was reaping the benefits of.
Clark slipped the DVD into the television against the wall at the foot of the bed, then fell backwards onto the bed, causing Bruce’s side to jump alarmingly. “Okay,” he said. “Okay, okay, okay. I want to focus on this.”
He pressed play and Bruce felt both of them inhale as the familiar haunting strains of the Gray Ghost’s opening music filled Clark’s apartment and the first episode, “The Azure Plague,” began.
They watched the first ten episodes in one rapturous gulp, saying little. Bruce had been afraid that his memories of the show had been rose-tinted with nostalgia and re-watching would be agony, but no: they were moody, atmospheric, well-paced and plotted. “The Azure Plague,” “The Man in the Silken Shoes,” “Programmed for Death”--they were all good, and Bruce sneaked small glances at Clark’s face, limned in the light of old stories, and tried to ignore both the regret and the need gripping his heart.
Finally, Clark hit pause. It was slightly after midnight. “Oh,” he sighed. “I have to admit I was afraid--”
“--Me too,” said Bruce.
“But they’re not!” Clark said. “They’re--”
“--really good. They are,” Bruce said, and for a moment they were two young boys smiling at each other, lost in tales of mystery and suspense.
Clark bounced slightly on the bed. “I’m just so happy,” he said. “Lately so many little things have been going right for me. It’s been amazing.” He beamed at Bruce. “How was your day?”
“Not bad,” said Bruce slowly, reluctant to come back from the spell of the show. “To be honest, one of the better ones. Nothing went drastically wrong in Gotham, no critical emergencies, no mass poisonings, no serial killings. A nice quiet day.”
Clark looked at him for a moment. “You don’t look happy about it.”
Bruce grimaced. “Clark, I’m sure you’re the same way--when I look back on a day, I always see the chances I missed, not the things that went well. I found that kidnapped child in only three hours, but for those three hours she was scared. If only I could have done it in one, or better, stopped it from happening at all. And then, because I was finding the child, Bruce Wayne was late to a meeting of the Wayne Foundation and as a result, Ella Perkins-Fitzwilliam took umbrage and will not be donating to the Gotham Library.”
“That was petty of her,” said Clark.
Bruce shrugged. “But if I had been there on time…” He sighed and went on. “As usual there’s a litany of small things I could have done better. I forgot it was the anniversary of the day Dick came to live with me until just a few hours ago. I sent him a text, but I should have said something over breakfast. Just...all those small failures.”
Clark was looking at him oddly. “You worry about these things too much.”
“That’s right,” said Bruce. “I forgot, you’re the master of not sweating the small stuff.”
Clark bowed slightly from his sitting position, charmingly incongruous in his plaid pajamas. “Touché,” he murmured.
Bruce shrugged again. “I should be grateful. Only a day without any catastrophic failures gives me space to think about all the little failures, after all. But what I wouldn’t give to have just one day where everything went right, where I knew I had done everything I could and didn’t have a single regret.”
“Well, at least today has ended well, right?” Clark was looking at him almost expectantly, almost hopefully. Bruce could just lean in and--
He swallowed hard and patted Clark’s hand in a comradely fashion. “This was great. Thank you.”
Clark’s anticipation took on a tinge of puzzlement. “My pleasure. Really.”
Tell him. Just tell him! Bruce’s brain screamed. Tell him you can’t bring yourself to kiss him because you read years of his diaries and used them to manipulate his life like a demented puppetmaster--
He yawned instead, stretching elaborately. “Let’s watch a few more episodes. The next one is ‘The Dragon’s Teeth,’ I remember it scared me to death as a little kid.”
Clark smiled, and Bruce tried not to notice the smudge of disappointment in it. “No way,” he said. “‘The Curse of Dead Man’s Cove’ is so much scarier.”
“Well, let’s watch them both and see who’s right,” Bruce said, grabbing the remote.
Bruce was right (of course), and Clark eventually had to laughingly admit it. They watched the Gray Ghost and his adventures until Bruce was yawning for real, unable to keep his eyes open. It was such a luxury to just fall asleep naturally, not grabbing a nap here and there, he thought fuzzily as his eyes slid closed halfway through ‘Lorelei the Leopard Woman.’
The last thing he was aware of as he slipped into sleep was a soft touch on his forehead, almost as if--impossible as that seemed--Clark were pressing a kiss there.
His alarm went off. Still mostly-asleep, Bruce reached over and slapped it off with unerring accuracy.
Then he sat up and blinked in the early-morning sunrise, startled, looking at the clock.
His clock. Next to his bed. In the Manor.
But hadn’t he just been--
For a moment, he wondered if he had just imagined the night before. But then he realized that no, of course Clark had brought him back to the Manor after he fell asleep. That was the kind of thing he’d do.
There was a discreet tap on the door, and Alfred wafted in with a glass of orange juice. “Good morning, Master Bruce,” he said. “Your day is relatively clear on the official side of your engagement book. Only one meeting in the mid-afternoon, a Wayne Foundation meeting about funds for the library.”
Bruce took a sip of orange juice. “That was yesterday,” he said. “And yes, I was late, and yes, Mrs. Perkins-Fitzwilliams got angry and refused funds. Thanks for the reminder.”
A shadow of puzzlement crossed Alfred’s placid face. “No, sir. That meeting is scheduled for today.”
Bruce frowned at him for a moment. Then he grabbed his phone.
By the time he sat down at the breakfast table an hour later, he was fairly certain that he was experiencing some kind of temporal loop or anomaly. He wasn’t sure if it was magic-based or science-based--a quick scan for tachyons or other tell-tale quantum particles hadn’t turned anything up, but he didn’t feel comfortable concluding it was magic yet, either.
There were, of course, Justice League protocols for dealing with such things, neatly classified by level of risk. He had designed most of them himself. He estimated this to be only a green alert, based on the fact that nothing catastrophic at a global level had happened yesterday that seemed compelling to prevent. He took a bite of toast and chewed thoughtfully. He’d never been caught in a time loop before, though he’d heard Flash and Hawkgirl tell stories about their experiences.
He had something of an advantage over them, he suspected, since his response to confusing things was neither to try to do everything as fast as possible nor to hit the problem with a mace.
Dick burst into the room and grabbed three muffins, juggling them in the air for a moment. “Morning!” he announced.
“Mm,” Bruce said, still planning his day. Then he smiled at Dick. “Happy anniversary,” he said, and Dick beamed at him.
He rescued the kidnapped girl in only fifteen minutes this time, hurrying to the place he knew she was being held, but her tears still soaked Batman’s cape as he carried her out of the sewers. On the plus side, this meant he wasn’t late to the meeting of the Wayne Foundation, and Ella Perkins-Fitzwilliams ended up donating enough money to build a reading room in the new library. But there were other things that went wrong, of course: other small crises responded to inadequately, new things discovered in the course of the day.
Bruce was still busy making mental notes--time tables, flow charts, maps--when he got to Clark’s apartment that evening.
“You really did bring your pajamas,” Clark beamed as Bruce stepped out of the bathroom once more, looking (of course) exactly as pleased about it as he had last night.
“I promised it would be a sleepover,” Bruce said. “And I’m pretty sure we’re going to be crisis-free tonight.”
“We’d better,” Clark said fervently. “I feel like I’ve been waiting for this night forever.”
Bruce looked at Clark in his plaid flannels, smiling down at his Gray Ghost DVD like it was a long-lost Matisse, and considered telling him about the time loop. But if he did… they’d have to shift into superhero mode, they’d have to be Superman and Batman and try to puzzle this out, instead of Clark and Bruce watching a video together, chatting, just being comfortable...
“Let’s get this party started,” he said instead, grabbing the DVD from Clark.
It was the same episodes as last time, but somehow it was even better. He could relax, knowing they really were good now, and notice all the little details. The cigarette smoke hanging over everything. The way angles and framing were used as foreshadowing. How the light from the screen gleamed in Clark’s eyes and turned them an even more unearthly blue.
Clark turned and looked at him and smiled in pure delight. “They’re good,” he said, wondering.
“Yeah,” said Bruce, still staring at him. “They are.”
They stopped after “Curse of Dead Man’s Cove,” and Bruce stretched. “I should probably stop here,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll just fall asleep during ‘Lorelei the Leopard Woman.’ This was great,” he said, and meant it. Even if the loop repeated again tomorrow, it was good to know he could look forward to spending time with Clark at the end of it. “A good end to a decent day.”
“Decent?” Clark raised an eyebrow. “That’s kind of lukewarm.”
Bruce chuckled. “I missed some opportunities, didn’t get everything perfect. Nothing major. You know how it is. Maybe tomorrow will be even better,” he said.
“I hope so,” said Clark, and there was an affectionate warmth in it that made Bruce blink. “Tonight could get even better, too,” he added.
“I--” Bruce cut off, feeling awkward. If anything intimate happened tonight, and time looped back again… He didn’t want to remember it if Clark didn’t. “Tonight’s been perfect already, Clark,” he said, and watched the avid look in Clark’s eyes fade to affectionate patience.
At least tell him about the diaries! At least tell him what you did!
Bruce stretched and punched Clark lightly on the shoulder. “I’m going to get some sleep,” he said, lying down and turning away.
As he drifted off to sleep, he felt once more that gentle touch on his forehead, like a benediction.
The alarm woke him up, and he could immediately tell from the slant of sunlight touching his closed eyelids that he was back in the Manor. He stretched and sighed, but there was more hope in it than melancholy. A chance to get a day just right.
What more had he ever wanted, really?
It wasn’t even notably different from what he usually spent his days doing, even--it was just more organized and more focused. Dick and Alfred didn’t find it out of the ordinary that he had a strict timetable to follow, or that he seemed intently focused, or surprisingly aware of what was going to happen. Just...Bruce being Bruce, apparently.
“Have to run,” Bruce said, jumping to his feet after wolfing down his breakfast. “I’ve only got twenty minutes to prevent that traffic jam on Eighth Street, and then I’m hoping to pick Jessica up at the playground before Zsasz does.”
“Right,” said Dick, his eyebrows raised only slightly.
“Good luck, sir,” said Alfred.
“Oh, and happy anniversary, Dick,” said Bruce, pausing only a second to enjoy his smile.
“Do you think maybe we could… start watching at ‘Lorelei the Leopard Woman’?”
“Start at episode ten?” Clark shrugged. “Sure, I guess.”
Bruce wrestled with his conscience for a moment, then finally decided that he had to tell Clark something. And since he wasn’t willing to confess about the diaries, this was easier. “The truth is, I’m caught in a temporal anomaly. Some kind of time loop. This is my third time through, so I’ve seen the first nine episodes twice.”
“A temporal--” Clark looked slightly alarmed. “Do you know what’s causing it?”
“I haven’t been able to get good readings. I’m thinking it’s magic rather than science-based. If it repeats too many more times, I promise I’ll call in Dr. Fate or Zatanna, one of the experts.”
Now Clark looked exasperated. “You haven’t told anyone else,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“You’re the first one I’ve told,” Bruce said.
“If it happens again, you could just call me up in the morning and let me help, you know. Or someone else, if not me.”
“You’re not going to, are you.” Clark sighed at the look on Bruce’s face. “For God’s sake, Bruce, I’ll--”
Bruce grabbed his hand. “Clark,” he said urgently. “I know you’re going to suggest the Fortress tech can figure it out, but-- Hear me out. It’s not hurting anyone, as far as I can tell. And it’s--” He paused, grimaced. “Look, the chance to get an entire day right, it’s… an opportunity I can’t pass up. I want to be able to do it on my own. I think I can do it on my own.” He tightened his grip on Clark’s hand slightly, as if he had any power to make a super-strong Kryptonian stay. “I promise I’ll ask you for help if it looks like I can’t break it. But for now, a whole day spent getting things right, and then coming here and having a quiet evening with you… it’s not something I’m panicking over.”
Clark looked into his face for a long time, then some tension seemed to go out of him. “All right,” he said. “But only if you promise--”
Bruce held up a pinky. “Pinky promise,” he said solemnly.
Clark laughed out loud, throwing his head back. Then he linked pinkies with him and shook.
“Now, can we get back to ‘Grey Ghost’?” said Bruce.
“This episode was Pete’s favorite,” Clark said as Lorelei the Leopard Woman appeared, lounging on a branch in “the exotic Amazon.”
Clark’s smile at him was without a doubt flirtatious. “I had more of a crush on Cody Rutherford, the playboy millionaire in ‘The Black Pearl of Sekhmet.’”
“Ah,” said Bruce. “Well, he was certainly quite striking, with those chiseled features.”
“And that gorgeous black hair,” Clark added.
They looked at each other for some time, Lorelei the Leopard Woman quite forgotten.
Clark’s mouth formed a sudden “oh” of silent realization. “You’re not going to kiss me because of the time loop,” he said.
“Well, that and other reasons,” Bruce said. “None of which are that I don’t want to,” he added hastily. “I want to. A lot.”
“Hm,” said Clark. “I can live with that for now. I can probably even live with it again tomorrow.” His grin was mischievous and sultry at the same time, something surely only Superman could pull off. “But I don’t think I’ll willing to live with it forever.”
“You won’t have to,” Bruce said. “I’ll get this figured out in no time and we’ll be able to move forward again.”
Clark leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his forehead, and Bruce was too startled to respond at all. “I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
From there on in, it was just a matter of getting all the timing correct: communicating with the correct people in the correct order, being in the right place at the right time. It took Bruce another week to get everything exactly right, and by the last few repetitions there was a sort of clockwork pleasure to it. He managed to isolate and focus on a mere one hundred factors that most efficiently forestalled various crises, anti-entropy radiating outward like precise quivers of a butterfly’s wings. For example, he discovered that making sure Jessica’s mother’s coffee order was done correctly the first time meant that both Jessica’s kidnapping and a major traffic accident later in the day were headed off at the pass. Admittedly, this meant infiltrating CelestialDollars and posing as a barista for fifteen minutes, but it was definitely worth it. By the end of the week, Ella Perkins-Fitzwilliams’s pledge went up from a dedicated reading room to an entire wing of the new library once Bruce discovered she particularly liked red carnations. Jessica not only wasn’t kidnapped, the nice barista at CelestialDollars gave her a free hot cocoa and she had the best day ever. Jim Gordon received an anonymous tip and thus managed to find and close a loophole in some tricky paperwork, ensuring the Mad Hatter would stay in Arkham longer.
And every night Bruce watched “The Gray Ghost” with Clark, and enjoyed being with him at the end of the day. Sometimes he told Clark about the time loop, but most of the time he didn't bother, skipping Clark’s exasperated response and just relaxing, flirting and learning more about Clark’s particular preferences and desires, making mental notes. By the time they got to that first kiss, he figured, he was going to be an expert in Clark Kent.
But he could never quite nerve himself up to mention the hacked diaries.
Bruce burst into Clark’s apartment, unable to keep the smile from his face. Clark stared at him and his eyebrows went up as he took in Bruce’s grin.
“Ah,” Clark said. “I must alert the Justice League; clearly this is Clayface. Or a White Martian. Or I’m having some very vivid dream in which Bruce Wayne seems happy.”
“Clark,” Bruce said, holding up a finger, “I do not care how snarky you are, for at last, Gotham and I have had the perfect day: disasters averted, crises solved, catastrophes eliminated. My city, my fine Kryptonian friend, has just had one blissfully mundane day, free of agony and death and misery. Oh, the small pains and griefs of life continued: I’m not quite so obsessed as to think I could prevent every paper cut or broken heart. But the day was, I believe, as painless as is mortally possible to make it. Why should I not be pleased? I have finally had a day in which I got everything right, in which I let no one down, and no one was caused pain or grief due to my failure. I could ask for nothing more in my life.”
Clark was still staring at him, blinking hard. “Bruce,” he said.
“And now I am here to watch ‘The Gray Ghost’ with my friend, secure in the knowledge that my day was perfect and that I finally, truly deserve this time with you, that I… That I…”
Bruce heard his own voice trail off as he looked at Clark. Then he sighed.
“No,” he said.
“No?” echoed Clark.
“No, my day wasn’t perfect. And I don’t deserve it,” said Bruce. “Not yet.” He squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, and met Clark’s eyes. “You know how you asked me to check the security on the Fortress now and then? Random incursions to see if there were coding flaws?”
“Sure,” said Clark. “But I don’t see how--”
“Well, I found one,” Bruce said. “A long time ago. It gave me access to all of your diaries. The audio recordings. The video recorders.” Clark’s eyes widened as he went on: “And I didn’t close the loophole. I read all of your diaries.”
Shock gleamed in Clark’s eyes, and Bruce could see him rummaging through his memories of his diaries as horror started to replace the shock. Bruce gritted his teeth and went on in a rush:
“I used them to try and make your days better. I found things that I could turn into little presents to you. I--found you that book. I got ‘Gray Ghost’ put onto DVD. I only finally closed the loophole right after I accepted our date tonight.” He looked down at his feet suddenly, unable to keep meeting Clark’s eyes. “It was a violation of your privacy. It was creepy and wrong and I’m sorry. My only excuse is that I am madly in love with you, and that’s not an excuse at all, I know.” He glared at his feet. Stupid feet. “And now, even though I am ashamed and angry at myself and you’re probably furious, now this day is truly perfect.”
There was a long, difficult silence in which Bruce heard Clark swallow hard.
And then Clark started to laugh.
He staggered to the side and then fell over, ending up floating on his side, shaking with helpless laughter and beaming at Bruce. This was not in any way the response Bruce had expected, so he found himself scowling sullenly at Clark--ridiculous, floating, erratic, unpredictable Clark, lying in the air and smiling at him. Clark Kent, the one thing he could never plan for or schedule or control.
He loved him so much it actually made his ribs ache, he realized.
“Oh,” Clark managed through a whoop as Bruce glared at him. “Oh Bruce.”
“You should be angry,” Bruce said accusingly.
“And I was!” Clark said, righting himself. “For a second. But I promise not to stay angry at you if you promise not to get too angry when I tell you what I did.”
Bruce blinked. “What?”
“I…” Bruce paused and turned Clark’s confession over in his mind, trying to decide what to say about it. Eventually the sheer scientific silliness of it all demanded attention the most. “I don’t think you can turn back time by reversing the rotation of the earth, Clark. I just don’t think that’s how it works.” The understatement of that was so boggling he wasn’t sure what else to say.
Clark shrugged. “The Fortress explained it to me with a lot of quantum physics, but I can only tell you that from my perspective, it feels like I’m rewinding the earth’s rotation.”
“And by kissing me on the forehead each night you rendered me immune to the amnesiatic effects of this...improbable time reversal.”
Clark shrugged again. “The Fortress had some things to say about brain chemistry and synaptic function. All I can say is it works.”
Bruce stared at him, feeling the tactician and strategist in his asserting itself. “But this could change everything, Clark! The Justice League can--”
He stopped short as Clark shook his head. “Don’t you think I would have told you if it was that useful? But…” He waved his hands vaguely. “The overall level of happiness and misery in the world stays pretty much the same if I do it. Everything evens out. If I prevent a huge disaster, it just means...something else awful will happen that I can’t prevent.” A shadow crossed his face, and Bruce couldn’t bring himself to ask for the details of how he learned that. “If there had been a catastrophe in Gotham, I wouldn’t have dared. But since it was just the usual unpleasantness…” Clark sighed, looking away from Bruce. “You said you wished you could just have one day where you did everything the best you could and didn’t fail at anything. I just… wanted you to have that. And I knew it was a gift only I could give you. One day with no regrets.”
He looked at Bruce and smiled, nervous and unsure.
“So… you violated my privacy and read my diaries. I violated the space-time continuum. If I’m lucky, we’ll call it even.”
Bruce couldn’t help but laugh, a small huff of sound. “Look at us,” he said. “We’re quite the pair.”
A look of delight flickered across Clark’s face. “I hope so.”
“And you remember all of those repeated days?”
“I lived them all with you.”
Bruce took a step closer. “So you’ve watched all those episodes with me over and over again?”
“And you watched me refrain from kissing you every single nightbecause I didn’t want to be the only one to remember it?”
Clark raised an eyebrow. “In all fairness, I was also refraining from kissing you. And it wasn’t easy.”
“Well,” said Bruce, taking Clark’s flannel pajama lapels in his hands. “I say we skip the ‘Gray Ghost’ marathon tonight and go straight to the kissing, then. Make up for lost time.”
“No regrets,” whispered Clark in agreement as he brought his mouth to Bruce’s.