"I'm serious, Ma. Just be nice."
"I'm always nice."
Jonathan laughed, but stopped when Martha glared at him. He returned his attention to his coffee and his book rather than contradict his wife's sweet nature. Clark had bought him an ereader, but his father simply couldn't resist cheap thrift store paperbacks. He also did not seem to feel any shame regarding how many of them featured shirtless cowboys on the cover.
"If I drag him out here and he ends up getting interrogated about his business practices, he's going to sulk for a month. At least." Clark had his hands around a mug of cocoa, but he'd been neglecting it long enough that all his marshmallows had melted.
"You're really winning me over, you know, telling me all about your sulky friend." She was scrubbing the dishes she'd made in the process of making the cookies now in the oven, even though Clark had bought her a dishwasher. Unless there were enough dishes to fill the thing, she never used it.
"You know that's not what I meant," he sighed.
"I know, I know. I'll be nice. Where do you think he'll want to sleep? Upside-down in the barn?"
"Maybe," he said, and Martha laughed. "We can put a mattress in my room. He'll want Diana to have the guest room, I know that for sure." Clark looked down at his cocoa to reheat it, a difficult-to-explain tightening in the backs of his eye sockets.
"I assume I need to be nice to her, too."
"I'm not as worried about that," he said. "Everyone loves Diana. I don't know if anyone's really done Christmas with her, yet. She seemed excited about it."
"Aww." Martha grabbed a towel to dry her hands, checked the time and grabbed an oven mitt. "I hope we don't disappoint her."
"These are for guests," Martha warned as she set the cookie sheet on top of the stove to cool. "Don't either of you go trying to steal some."
"Are you accusing Superman of theft?" Clark teased.
She pulled off the oven mitt, reached out to ruffle his hair. "I am accusing Clark Kent of being a little pig is what I'm doing. I'm still mad about those cupcakes."
"Ma, I was eleven."
"I'll be mad as long as I want to be mad." She kissed the top of his head. "I'm going upstairs to make sure the guest room's fit to be seen, don't think I won't know if you try to be sneaky."
"Sneaky isn't my thing." He sipped at his cocoa as his mother left the kitchen, and tried not to feel nervous. It was less that he was worried what his friends would think of his parents, and more the reverse. Insofar as Bruce could be said to be anyone's friend. More of a grudging coworker, but that was close enough to friends where Bruce was concerned.
"You know," Jonathan said, eyes still on his book, "you can always invite your friend Lois over."
Clark stared at the foam of melted marshmallow on top of his drink. "She's got her own family to celebrate with."
"It doesn't have to be for Christmas."
He made a weak attempt at a smile. "I don't think she'd be particularly interested in coming out to Kansas."
"Not even for Superman?"
"Not for Clark Kent." That might have come out a little more bitter than he'd meant it to. He sipped at his cocoa, as if that would make it sweeter.
"Still not planning to tell her?"
"Huh." Despite his apparent inattention, Clark knew his father's focus was actually on the conversation. It was just the way Jonathan was, always seeming half elsewhere. Secretly, he was interested to see what happened when Bruce met him. "Don't trust her?"
"It isn't like that."
"I don't think she'd tell anyone."
"There's more to trust than keeping secrets, kiddo."
Clark started heating his cocoa again, not for any reason except that he could. "I know." He stopped when it started to boil.
"When I was a kid," Jonathan began, before stopping. "Lord, what an old man thing to say." He set down his book with a look of disgust. "Should I just quit while I'm ahead?"
This time Clark's smile was real. "You know I love your old man stories." He told them so rarely, after all. Especially from any point when he could have been called a kid. Clark had only a patchwork image of his father before he'd been a father, patchier the further back it went, built mostly of scraps dropped in non sequiturs and stories told by his mother.
He knew enough to know there was a reason he didn't know his grandparents. He didn't blame Jonathan for not talking about it much. But he still cherished the times that he did.
Jonathan sighed. "I wasn't a kid-kid, mind, but I was a kid. Before I met Martha, I was dating this girl — I liked her a lot, but I had a problem. Me and my health troubles, you know. Felt like I couldn't be myself until I dealt with it. Growing up real religious, it takes a long time to be able to shake that feeling. Secrets are second nature in a house like that. But I was on my own for the first time, I loved her, I felt like the world was my oyster. So I told her." He sighed again, took off his glasses to wipe them against his shirt. "She didn't take it well. Don't blame her for it, necessarily, but it ended the whole thing right there. She didn't see it as me having a problem, just that I was a problem. That was a hell of a thing to have happen, opening myself up only to find out the person supposed to love me best didn't love the real me at all. Felt like dying, if I'm honest." He was very matter-of-fact about it, now, with so many years between him and her. He slid his glasses back on, adjusted them to see if he'd managed to get the dirt off.
"So when I met Marty… well. I'd learned to keep my fool mouth shut by then. I was still better off than I'd been back with the church, that's what I told myself. Your ma, though, she could always tell I wasn't happy. Could tell I was hiding things from her, but she didn't pry. Might've been older by then, but we were still a couple of runaways at heart, living in the city and taking what we could get. And I went a long time keeping my secrets. Long, long time. I knew she was different, I was sure she was, but I didn't tell her anyway. Long as I didn't tell her, she'd never have a chance to prove me wrong. Didn't want to give her a chance to disappoint me, figured false hope was better than none." Clark felt his stomach twist with something like recognition, tried to ignore it.
"Wish I could tell you I was brave — if I'm teaching life lessons, seems like that'd be a better one. But it was Marty that took a leap of faith, figured me out and asked if I wanted help. Don't know if I ever would have told her, otherwise. Wasn't even mad that I hadn't trusted her with it. My problem was her problem, and we'd work on it together. It was everything I'd ever wanted, us against the world, and I'm still not sure what I did to deserve it. Might not have. Might not still. But if I could do it all over, I'd have told her a lot sooner." Jonathan looked at what remained of his coffee, debating whether to make more. "That's all I'm going to say about it."
They were quiet a while as Clark waited for the lump in his throat to subside. He could hear his mother upstairs, humming as she changed out the sheets in the guest room for nicer ones. "There's two things a person can think when they find out," he said finally. "It's either: Superman is actually Clark Kent. Or, it's: Clark Kent is actually Superman."
"And she could go either way."
"Basically." He shrugged, as if it was of no consequence. "We're not really anything. Not really. It's more of a game. Rearranging a puzzle while she tries to put it together." He frowned. "It's more fun than that makes it sound."
"Is it? Fun, I mean. For you."
His smile was faint. "Yeah. I think so, yeah." That felt like damning with faint praise, but he couldn't think of a better word for it. A dance where the lead kept changing.
Depending on what suit he wore, their relationship was completely different, and he couldn't decide which he preferred. He made her laugh when he was Clark. She trusted him more, but only because she thought she had him figured out. Superman was a mystery to be solved, and he suspected sometimes that she didn't really want to. Maybe for the same reason he didn't want to let her. Didn't want him to disappoint her.
Now there was a thought.
"She's never boring," he said finally, which really seemed no better than calling her fun.
Jonathan smiled and picked his book back up. "As long as you're happy, kiddo." He looked over Clark's shoulder at the stove. "Think those cookies are cool enough to eat?"
Clark leaned back in his chair, further than he should have been able to without falling over, and reached for one. "Clark! Don't you dare!" He froze. He looked through the walls, and confirmed that his mother was still upstairs in the guest bedroom, boxing up some of the clutter that had found its way in there.
Jonathan sighed. "It was worth a try."
Bruce was primarily in Kansas for Alfred's sake.
Dick had decided he wanted to spend the holidays with his new team. Bruce couldn't fault him for that. He'd have been perfectly happy not to bother with any festivities at all. He'd told Alfred more times than he could count that it was alright for him to take a vacation, visit old friends and relax. But the man refused to leave Bruce home alone at Christmas.
Thus: Kansas. The nearest airport, which wasn't near at all. A rental car, driving through a snowy landscape with a minimum of visual interest. The occasional barn.
It might have been relaxing, but the stillness made him anxious. Inactivity felt wrong, wrong like being able to see the horizon without a city skyline in the way. Somewhere that wasn't here, something was happening, and there was nothing he could do about it. Technically, that was always true. But usually he was at least doing something.
He had no expectation of enjoying himself. It wasn't anyone's fault. It just was what it was.
Fortunately, he was very good at pretending to enjoy himself. He might not be able to fool the living lie detectors, but Clark's parents deserved a nice holiday.
The Kents' farm had a driveway long enough to be a road. It was no wonder they'd managed to hide an alien in a place like this. Who would ever think to look? Even if they wanted to, they'd need binoculars. Clark was waiting by the porch as Bruce pulled in. It was strange to see him with neither suit nor glasses. An unfamiliar space between both identities.
"You made it!" Clark sounded entirely too pleased.
"I said I would."
"I know you did." Bruce resented the implication, regardless of its accuracy. Rather than acknowledge it, he circled the car to open the trunk. "Bruce, that is — I told you that you didn't have to bring presents."
"You did," Bruce agreed. Without asking, Clark started to help unpack the car. Bruce didn't protest.
"I hope you didn't spend too much."
"You did literally the opposite of what I told you."
"I'm a loose cannon." Clark lead the way inside, and Bruce followed.
"Did you put lead foil around these boxes?"
"The fact that you can tell means I was justified."
Their parade toward the living room did not go unnoticed by Clark's parents. "Oh good Lord." Bruce had never actually met them before. Mrs. Kent was both older and younger than he'd expected. He wasn't sure what he'd expected. Someone wider, softer around the edges.
"Hello, Mrs. Kent."
"You're as big as Clark," she said, sounding faintly offended. "He's an alien, what's your excuse?"
"My house has tall ceilings." He set his boxes down beside the ones Clark had already deposited beside the tree. It was a real tree covered in a rainbow of lights, the ornaments all mismatched. Bruce and Diana had their own stockings on the mantle, less worn than those that belonged to the Kents.
"Bruce, this is my mother. Ma, this is Bruce Wayne."
"You look smaller in pictures," she said, holding out a hand.
"So I've heard." He accepted the handshake with a well-practiced smile.
"Oh, no, don't do that," she said, making a face as she put her hands on her hips.
He blinked. "No?"
"It's…" She gestured vaguely, then snapped her fingers as she tried to find the word. "Johnny, what's that creepy thing?"
Jonathan Kent had not stood yet from where he sat in an easy chair, reading a book with a very floral cover. "Victorian-era porcelain dolls?" he suggested.
His wife huffed. "No — well, yes, but I mean the reason they're creepy."
"Yes!" She looked triumphant. "Uncanny valley, that's what it is."
"I probably should have warned you not to fake smiles around Ma," Clark said, apologetic.
"I'll try not to be creepy."
"It's Christmas, be as creepy as you want as long as you mean it." She'd turned her gaze back to her husband. "Johnny, get up and say hello, quit being rude."
"One second." Mr. Kent held up a hand, still reading, and Mrs. Kent rolled her eyes. "Sorry," he said as he set the book down. "It looked like they were finally going to kiss, but it was a false alarm. You know how it is."
Bruce did not. "That's always disappointing."
Clark's father was definitely shorter than he'd expected. About the same height as his wife, about as lean. Softer around the eyes. It was surprising that anyone believed they'd had a son so tall and broad and bronze. Even setting aside the other, more obvious problem.
"Clark takes after his grandmother," Jonathan said, unprompted, as they shook hands.
"They say it skips a generation," Bruce said.
"Clark said you'd want to give Diana the guest room," Mrs. Kent said, "so we put an air mattress in Clark's room. Is that okay? It's more comfortable than it sounds."
"The couch unfolds into a bed, but it's harder to fall asleep in the living room. And that mattress is awful, really."
"I'll take your word for it."
"If you'd rather share a room with Diana, just let us know."
Bruce kept his face carefully neutral.
"Ma," Clark scolded.
"What?" Mrs. Kent was not at all apologetic. "Obviously she'd have to be okay with it, too—"
"—but you are all adults and what you get up to is your business. You can all share a room, if you want! As long as you keep it down while I'm trying to sleep."
"Ma, please." Clark's voice was muffled by his hands, because he'd buried his face in them.
"We'll be careful not to wake you," Bruce assured her.
She patted him on the arm. "That's all I ask." She looked back to her son. "Will Diana be getting here soon, do you think?"
Clark frowned. "She should have been here first, actually. She said she was in town a couple of hours ago."
"She's driving?" Mrs. Kent seemed surprised.
"She doesn't like flying for extended periods," Clark explained. "Prefers to be grounded."
Diana of Themyscira might be flesh and blood, but she'd been made from clay. She didn't like being too far from the earth. An interesting personality quirk. Bruce hadn't examined it too closely.
Not because it wasn't worth examining. More because he did not care to be examined in return. She could, in theory, see into a man's soul. If it was true, he'd managed to avoid it thus far. He would rather continue to do so, if he could help it.
Staring into the abyss, et cetera.
"Maybe she got distracted by the scenery," Bruce suggested.
"She could have been," Clark said, a hint of defensiveness. "It's scenic."
"Clark," his mother said, "it's Kansas in winter. I wouldn't live here if I didn't love it, but that doesn't mean you have to lie about it."
Bruce felt a pull at his mouth. Clark looked toward the door — and probably through the door, as well as any walls between him and it. "There she is. I wonder what kept her?"
What had kept her, it turned out, was the locals. "I stopped for gas," she explained, "and when I told them I was here to visit you, they were very enthusiastic."
"Was it Troy's?" Clark asked.
"The sign said 'liquor' and the woman was named Dory."
"That's Troy's," Clark said with a nod. "Technically not Troy's anymore, but everyone still calls it Troy's."
Diana opened the back door of the car. "Well, Dory wanted me to give you this." She pulled out a dusty cardboard box filled with glass bottles and handed it off to him. His brow furrowed, and he balanced it on one hand so he could lift a bottle out of it. The contents were a bright red bordering pink, the label crude.
"What! I thought they stopped making these!"
"Dory said she found that box in the back and knew you'd want it."
As she got her luggage out of the trunk, Bruce left to grab his duffel bag from his car. He leaned against it and watched introductions from a distance. There was a lot more hugging than there'd been previous. Diana's bracelets could be seen under the sleeves of her sweater as she moved. He didn't think either Clark or Diana had any need to dress for warmth, but they'd done it anyway. He was the only person not wearing jeans. He almost felt overdressed.
Not that it mattered. They'd only be staying a little over a day.
Diana glanced in his direction. That was his cue to follow them back inside. The house looked smaller in the context of this many people, though he knew that wasn't fair. This was a normal number of people for a normally-sized house.
"We'll let you give them the tour," Mrs. Kent said to Clark, moving out of the front hall with her husband in tow. Bruce was the only one with a coat that needed to be taken off, and Clark put it up for him. "We don't want to get in your way."
"You're not in our way, Mrs. Kent," Diana said, and he didn't think anyone would be scolding her for smiling. Even if she looked every inch the statue she'd been made as, clay skin and soft curls and dramatic features.
Uncanny valley. Not her, but him.
"You can call me Martha, you know," Mrs. Kent said.
It was just a name. Plenty of people had it. It really didn't matter at all. But Clark and Diana both looked at him, making it into a thing. Even if they tried to pretend that they hadn't.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Kent," Diana said, "but I don't think that I will."
Mrs. Kent looked at Bruce. "Oh!"
"It's fine, really," he began.
"Fishsticks, I didn't even think about that."
"It isn't a problem."
"All the same," Mrs. Kent insisted, "you go right on ahead being as formal as you like, I'll be in the living room trying not to embarrass myself if anyone needs me."
"That's… not necessary." But she'd already bustled off, and Bruce was left feeling as if he'd scattered the floor with eggshells just by existing.
He was usually very good at being sociable.
"Fishsticks?" Diana asked.
"Ma gets creative with her interjections." Clark had cleaned off one of the mysterious bottles so he could drink it. Bruce was curious to see if it was still any good. How long did carbonation even last in a glass bottle? "Come on, I'll show you the guest room." They followed him up the narrow stairway, pictures along the wall of young Clark and younger Kents.
"This'll be your room, Diana," Clark said, opening the door to the left of the stairs and standing aside so she could get by. Bruce remained in the hallway.
"It's lovely," Diana assured him. Bruce thought she'd have said that no matter what. There was a frame across the hall filled with old polaroids assembled into a collage. The white borders had been scrawled on with permanent marker, dates and words that may have been names or may have been places. Faces, buildings, occasional crowds. He thought he could guess what word had been scribbled out in front of 'Nixon', a blurry picture centered around a fire. There were a lot of scribbled out words, actually.
"Is it still good?" Diana asked, and Bruce looked over to see Clark nodding mid-drink.
"Want to try it?" Clark asked, offering her the bottle. Diana accepted, but took only the smallest sip before making a face and holding it at arm's length.
"Is that how it's supposed to taste?" she demanded. She looked horrified. Bruce's mouth twitched.
Clark laughed. "Yes! It's great! You don't like it?"
"That," she said, disgusted, "is pure sugar."
"You say that like it's a bad thing."
"I don't think they have that brand in Gotham," Bruce said, examining the label at a distance. Tuckers Straw'berry Cream. That was a very oddly misplaced apostrophe.
"I don't think they have it anywhere," Clark sighed. "Never saw it anywhere except Troy's. Supposed to have been local, I think it was just some guy Troy knew. It was always my favorite."
"Dory told me," Diana said, smiling again. Her smiles weren't rare. She still managed to make them feel like it.
"Alright, well — bathroom's right over there, I'm going to show Bruce where he'll be and let you get settled."
"Thank you, Clark. I'll probably join you in a minute, if that's okay." She'd set her larger bag onto the bed, and unzipped it to reveal that it was full of presents she'd need to unpack. Clark's insistence that no one bring gifts continued to go unheeded, much to the surprise of no one.
"Yeah, that's fine." Clark looked to Bruce for confirmation, and he nodded. "So," he said as he lead the way, "we're going to be over here, and for the record, I moved out when I was eighteen and it's not like I've bothered to redecorate since then. That means you don't get to say anything about it."
"I'm not agreeing to that."
Clark sighed dramatically as he opened the door and lead Bruce inside. "I'm sorry we don't have anything better than an air mattress. I've been petitioning for a bunk bed for twenty years now, but I keep getting vetoed."
"It's fine," Bruce said, dropping his bag beside it. "I've slept on worse. You wouldn't have let me take the top bunk, anyway."
"I absolutely would," Clark said. "Give you a chance to feel tall."
Like most childhood bedrooms, it was mostly empty, stripped of anything that Clark would have wanted to keep. "A Hubble deep space poster and a map of Middle Earth."
"I had very diverse interests," Clark said, setting his drink down on the desk.
"Did any of them involve girls?"
"Hey, Lana was way more into Lord of the Rings than I was. And you're the one who recognized a map of Middle Earth."
"I'm sure you had nothing but original Rembrandts and pictures of yachts."
Bruce considered it. "I'm not sure if I had anything on my walls, actually. I'd have to ask Alfred." He glanced at Clark. "Don't give me that look."
"I don't have a look." He had a look.
"You and Diana do realize I'm a grown man capable of taking care of myself, right." Bruce asked.
"As if you'd ever let us forget it." That still sounded very patronizing.
"I'm older than you are. You don't have to keep checking to make sure I'm not sad."
"Diana is older than you, does she get to check?"
"You can both safely assume that I am fine unless told otherwise."
"But you have such a sensitive soul," Clark said, and Bruce shook his head. "Sometimes you look like you're not telling us what's on your mind. Like right now. You look like you could use a hug. Do you need a hug, Bruce?"
"I don't." Bruce had a vague hope that if he kept his tone neutral rather than irritated, Clark would drop it.
It did not work. Clark was already spreading his arms. "I feel like I should give you a hug just to be safe."
He was not going to give him the satisfaction of leaving the room to escape. "Clark, I know where to find significant amounts of Kryptonite."
"That sounds like something that someone who needs a hug would say."
He crossed his arms over his chest. It would be physically impossible for any hugs to be mutual. "I can say very authoritatively that it does not."
Bruce was being hugged. He remained stock-still and ramrod straight, arms crossed and face expressionless.
"Clark. Let me go."
"Let's just enjoy the moment."
"I am not enjoying the moment."
"Give it a couple minutes."
"We are not staying like this for a couple minutes."
Diana cleared her throat in the doorway. Bruce shut his eyes, and would have rubbed at his temples if Clark had not trapped his arms. "Should I leave you two alone?" she asked.
"Please help." Bruce's flat affect made her laugh.
"Get in here Diana, let's make it a group hug."
"Clark," Bruce said, "please don't give your mother ideas."
Clark finally let Bruce go, but only because he was laughing. Diana had covered her mouth with her fingers.
"I leave you alone for five minutes and I miss out on hugs," Diana sighed.
"You two are free to hug each other whenever the mood strikes," Bruce said.
"That isn't the same," she said, hand on her hip.
"You only like hugs when there's the potential to break ribs?"
"I would be very gentle," she assured him.
"That won't be necessary."
"You don't want me to be gentle?" She didn't have to sound so intrigued about it.
"You know that isn't what I meant."
Her grin was not as reassuring as she wanted it to be. "You know I would never hug you without your consent."
"See, Clark?" he said, gesturing to her. "Why can't you be more like Diana."
"I can try," Clark said, "but I'm not sure I'll be able to find the boots in my size."
Jonathan had been very insistent that no one ruin their appetites, as he was making a quite frankly ludicrous amount of spinach-and-artichoke baked macaroni and cheese.
Despite this, Mrs. Kent was nibbling on cookies as they sat in the living room. Diana had already eaten two. Clark had been given the job of digging through the closet to find a suitable board game.
"Have a cookie," Mrs. Kent suggested, pushing the plate closer to Bruce's side of the couch. "Maybe it'll cheer you up."
"Wouldn't want to get too cheered," he reminded her. "I might smile again."
"Don't be silly," she chided. "It's just the fake smiles, makes you look like you just found out your exes are dating."
"I can see how that would be a problem."
"I should hope so."
"Some people think I have a nice smile," Bruce said. "Some of them even smile for a living." Which in theory made them experts.
Mrs. Kent raised an eyebrow. "Bruce. Can I be honest?"
"I don't see why you should stop now."
She reached out to pat him gently on the shoulder. "I don't think those people care about you very much."
He considered this. He considered, also, that Mrs. Kent was far from the first person to ask him to stop smiling. "Probably not, no," he conceded.
"Cookie?" she suggested again, holding the plate up for him. This time he took one, and she looked satisfied.
Clark sighed as he surveyed the contents of the closet, scratching the back of his head. "I'm not sure we have any games you guys would know," he admitted.
"We've mostly got flea market, yard sale stuff," his mother clarified. "It's all very old-fashioned."
"I'm much older than you are," Diana reminded her.
"Maybe," Mrs. Kent said, as if it were not an objective fact. "But I don't know that they have many old board games where you're from, either."
"True. What about card games?"
"I don't play those with Clark," she said with a slight sniff of displeasure.
"Ma, I don't cheat at cards."
"Then find me a deck with lead in the middle of the cards. It shouldn't make any difference to you."
Bruce made a mental note to see if that was possible. "As long as I don't have to play Monopoly," he said. Clark whipped his head around as if Bruce had just said something horribly offensive.
"Did Marty buy another Monopoly board?" Jonathan demanded, poking his head into the living room. How he had heard them was a mystery, since he was still wearing a very large pair of headphones. Mrs. Kent had insisted on it, as she did not share his affection for Top 40 stations. Bruce could hear the bass from where he was sitting.
Mrs. Kent huffed. "No, we were just having a conversation."
He disappeared back into the kitchen with a, "Thank god."
Diana was leaning forward, resting her chin on her palms with a smile. "I feel like there's a story there."
Mrs. Kent scoffed, waving away the notion. "I'm not that bad."
This time it was Clark's turn to scoff. "You made Pa cry."
"Tch! Don't say that like it's hard. He cried when the Spice Girls broke up."
"Didn't everyone?" Bruce asked, and Mrs. Kent laughed. His mouth twitched, and he grabbed another cookie.
"Besides, Clark," she added, "you're the one that used to use two pieces. At least I followed the rules."
Clark looked indignant. "If you put the Scottie on the cannon, it becomes a dog on a unicycle. That's one piece."
"Don't say it like it like that's a rule," she said. "He even tried putting the top hat on it, once," she added to Bruce.
Bruce swallowed his cookie. "Unbelievable," he said.
"Thank you, Bruce," she said, and Clark glared at him.
"I can't believe you," Clark said, and Bruce shrugged. "And after we shared a moment earlier."
"Oh, don't say anymore, I don't want to know," Mrs. Kent said, recoiling and looking ready to cover her ears.
"I did not consent to that moment."
"It was a hug!" Clark protested, throwing his hands up, as Diana tried to smother a giggle fit. "It was just a hug, Ma. Honestly. I'm your son, what are you even accusing me of here."
"That's not better!" Mrs. Kent insisted. "You can't just go around hugging people without their permission. Respect Bruce's right to set boundaries."
Bruce had turned his head so that she couldn't see the upward curl of his mouth, lips pressed into a thin line, but Clark could see it just fine. "What happened to being a grown man capable of taking care of himself?" Clark asked.
"I have a sensitive soul," Bruce reminded him. Diana hiccuped a laugh, and Bruce looked without meaning to at where she was curled up in Jonathan's chair. Their eyes met for a half-second, contact that felt tangible, magnetic. Not least because she had very expressive eyes, the palest shade of blue; she could say a lot with just a look. He couldn't tell if she had that effect on everyone. He wasn't going to ask. Bruce pulled his gaze back to Clark, safer territory.
"Let's just play halma," Mrs. Kent suggested.
"You're only saying that because you always win at halma."
"You let me."
"I really don't."
"We can do teams! You and Diana versus me and Bruce."
"Why does Bruce get to be on your team?" Despite his tone, Clark did not seem genuinely hurt.
"He's already sitting next to me." She patted Bruce's knee as Clark pulled the box down from inside the closet. "Clark and I will play a round first so you two can see how to play, that sound alright?"
"Sure you don't want Diana on your team?" Bruce asked. "More evenly distribute the superhumans?"
"Don't sell yourself short," she chided. "Just because my son's smart doesn't mean he's any good at strategy. Sorry, Diana."
"Why are you apologizing to her?" Clark asked.
"That's alright, Mrs. Kent," Diana assured her. "If we were both as good as I am, it wouldn't be fair to Bruce."
Both men narrowed their eyes at Diana as Mrs. Kent cackled.
Rather than pull up a chair, Clark sat on the floor beside the coffee table, across from his mother. "I'm not that bad at strategy," he insisted as he set up the board.
"We had to stop playing chess because you gave up whenever you lost a pawn," Mrs. Kent reminded him.
"I was nine!"
"Do you just not like games you can't win by having powers?" Bruce asked, raising an eyebrow.
"You don't need powers to be good at poker," he said. He sat back once the board was ready, waiting for his mother to make the first move. She moved her first piece, and he moved his; they kept going in quick succession, neither of them seeming to take much time to think about the moves they were making. It was more impressive from Mrs. Kent. Clark could think even faster than he could move, and he was capable of breaking the sound barrier. It wasn't hard to see how the game worked. Trying to trade places with their pieces, they could only move one square unless they were jumping others. A variation on checkers, though in this one no pieces were lost.
Which made sense, if losing pawns was all it took to make young Clark quit.
"You used to count cards," Mrs. Kent accused.
"Not on purpose. And that's not a power. I didn't even have powers, yet."
"Did you not?" Diana asked. She moved to sit on the floor beside Clark to watch the board.
"Those came later," he explained, as he moved a piece that would allow his mother to jump five times. He frowned when she did exactly that. "High school."
"The worst possible time for a boy to get super speed," Mrs. Kent said, blocking off the only useful move Clark could have made.
"Not like it did me any good," Clark said. "You banned me from using super speed to do chores to teach me the value of work. Which made no sense, incidentally—" Mrs. Kent started laughing again, and Bruce found himself watching Diana as she watched mother and son.
"Is that what I told you?" Mrs. Kent asked. "Lord, you were sixteen, I was just trying to get you out of the house and doing something with your hands. Tissues don't grow on trees. Well, they do, sort of, but — you know what I mean."
Clark stopped playing to cover his face with both hands. "Ma," he said, muffled, "you can't just say that in front of people."
"What?" She was no more abashed than she'd been when she'd insinuated they might wake her with orgies in the night. "It's not like you're the only one here to have ever been a teenager. You were a teenager, once, weren't you?" This last was directed to Diana, who was trying to interpret Clark's horror. His ears had turned red.
"I was," Diana confirmed.
"See?" she said. "No point being shy about it. Don't know where you get this puritanical streak from, it's certainly not me." Clark dragged his hands down his face, resumed moving game pieces in ill-advised directions. He was still blushing. "You should have seen him when it came time for The Talk, I thought he was going to jump out the window. And he couldn't fly yet, so you know it was serious."
"That was the least helpful The Talk in the history of The Talk."
"I did my best! All I know's the birds and the bees, for all I knew you were an iguana."
"It took three hours. I counted. There were diagrams. You brought homework."
Bruce was surprised to see Diana pull her phone out of her pocket in the middle of this fascinating exchange, more surprised when his pocket buzzed. He pulled out his own phone, opened up the secure messaging app that had alerted him.
JoeyBee: There are a lot of idioms going around that I'm not clear on
JoeyBee: I assume I get the gist from context but I'd like to be sure
JoeyBee: I don't want to embarrass myself later
Bruce glanced up from his phone. Definitely Diana. Definitely waiting for a reply. Clark and his mother were having an argument about Our Bodies, Ourselves.
6625211850: I don't remember giving you my info.
JoeyBee: I got it from Dick last time I was in Gotham
JoeyBee: He warned me you don't text
6625211850: I don't.
That had been months ago. Many months ago. He wasn't sure what to make of that fact. That she was trying to save it for emergencies?
6625211850: You know you could probably just ask Clark.
JoeyBee: I don't want to interrupt
6625211850: The birds and the bees are a euphemism for sex.
6625211850: "The talk" is a talk about sex.
6625211850: Do you want etymologies, or do you think you're good?
Diana looked up from her phone. Bruce raised an eyebrow at her. They both glanced toward the ongoing argument, then back to their phones.
JoeyBee: Why not flowers and bees?
JoeyBee: Birds and bees have nothing to do with each other
6625211850: They have other traits that lend themselves well to metaphor.
JoeyBee: How does the iguana factor into this
6625211850: Clark is an alien.
6625211850: In theory he is neither bird nor bee.
6625211850: I have not confirmed this theory, nor will I.
JoeyBee: Thank you for the clarification
Diana set her phone down in her lap. That should have been the end of the conversation.
6625211850: Aren't you a telepath?
6625211850: Why did you have to message me?
JoeyBee: As opposed to direct mental contact?
JoeyBee: Without my lariat, it requires physical contact and an open mind
JoeyBee: A willingness to by touched both physically and mentally
JoeyBee: I was respecting your right to set boundaries
Bruce looked up at Diana's small, impish smile. He hadn't actually been aware of that limitation. It was comforting, in a way, to think that she couldn't get into his mind without his permission. Without tying him up. That part was less comforting.
6625211850: I appreciate the consideration.
JoeyBee: You know, in this context your use of a full stop makes you seem terse
6625211850: I know.
6625211850: Was I supposed to recognize your username?
6625211850: Because if I hadn't seen you messaging me, I wouldn't have.
JoeyBee: I guess I didn't think of that
6625211850: Why not just WonderWoman?
JoeyBee: That was taken
JoeyBee: So was WanderWoman
JoeyBee: Barry said a good technique was to combine things you like
Barry's username was SciencePizza. She should not have been taking advice from Barry. About anything.
6625211850: So, bees.
JoeyBee: °bee°~ bzz bzz
JoeyBee: And baby kangaroos
JoeyBee: There is no emoji for those
JoeyBee: It is a grevious oversight
6625211850: I can see that.
There were times that the warrior princess of Themyscira confounded him utterly.
"Can I not make any moves?" Clark asked his mother.
"You can't," Mrs. Kent said, apologetic. She clapped her hands together. "Should we set the board for four players?" she asked, looking to Bruce and Diana. Both of whom hid their phones with a vague sense of guilt.
"Certainly, Mrs. Kent," Diana said.
Clark added new pieces and reset the old at lightning speed. "I'll try not to hold you back too much," he said to Diana, sounding resigned.
She smiled. "Oh, Clark." The smile disappeared. "I'm going to be telling you what to move and where."
"… that's probably for the best."
Mrs. Kent looked thrilled. "Isn't this exciting, Bruce?"
He could see out the corner of his eye where Diana had risen to kneel on the floor, preparing herself for war.
"Truly," Bruce deadpanned, "I have never felt so alive."
The game had ended in a contentious tie, made less contentious by the fact that dinner was ready. Diana was grateful that they'd gone through the trouble of making something vegetarian to accommodate her; she knew very well that it was not the standard when it came to American meals. The table had only four chairs, so Clark had found another that did not quite match.
Martha and Jonathan sat together, of course, and Clark sat beside them. That left Bruce and Diana beside each other at the table, and it was remarkable how little elbow room he needed when he put his mind to it. Maybe contortion was among his many and varied skills. She spread her own elbows out to take up as much room as she could ever need, just to see if he'd notice. If he did, he didn't show it. She might have gone so far as to sprawl out if it wouldn't have been a difficult thing to explain to the Kents.
Or maybe 'I was trying to irritate Bruce' would be explanation enough. It seemed good enough for Clark.
"This is very good, Mr. Kent," she said between bites. Bruce nodded his agreement.
"Glad you think so," Jonathan said. "How's a goat cheese and squash pie sound for tomorrow?"
Diana was in the middle of another bite, so she covered her mouth with her hand to speak. "Fantastic."
"Good," he said, "because I already made the pie crusts." Martha snorted. "I was going to be in trouble if you said anything else, I'm not sure why I asked."
"I'll be taking care of the goose," Martha said. "If you're a vegetarian because you like animals, you should know this goose was a real jerk." Diana giggled. "I'm not kidding, she was an awful bird. Absolute worst. Keeping her alive until Christmas was the hard part."
Clark looked thoughtful. "I'm not convinced there's such a thing as a nice goose," he said. "Or any kind of waterfowl."
"He just thinks that because a swan chased him into a tree when he was six," Martha said to everyone and no one.
"If you really wanted to strike fear into the hearts of criminals," Clark said, pointing his fork at Bruce, "you'd dress up like a swan."
"I considered it," Bruce said. "I scrapped it because the feathers were too high-maintenance."
Diana was pretty sure that was a joke. It was hard to tell, sometimes. One of these days she would accidentally laugh when he was being serious and offend him horribly. She was hoping it would get easier with practice. She'd enjoyed messaging him earlier. A private conversation, something they did not often have. Or ever. She didn't know why she enjoyed it so much, when he always had to make everything so difficult. Though that may have been an answer in and of itself. She didn't know if he would respond, if she messaged him again when they were back to their lives. She might not try.
"Speaking of costumes," Martha said, "Diana—"
"Ma," Clark said, a warning.
"I'm not judging!" Martha insisted. "I'm genuinely curious. When I was a kid they taught us Amazons wore pants and cut off one breast, clearly they had some bad intel."
"I… don't know where the breast thing came from," Diana said. "But it has long been tradition among my people that when traveling in the world of men, we wear whatever is least likely to get us confused for a man. In the time of the Greeks, trousers were considered quite feminine."
"Aaaaah." Martha nodded. "Spite."
"Yes. And unlike some people, I do have several costumes. Some are more comfortable than others, but sometimes I just…"
"Want to wear a red bustier?" Martha suggested.
"I can sympathize with that," Martha said, and Jonathan raised an eyebrow. She caught his expression out of the corner of her eye, nudged him under the table to get him to behave. It was, Diana thought, extraordinarily cute. They were such a lovely couple, so very in love still; not long in the life of an Amazon, and yet it felt like an achievement. It was no wonder they had raised a boy into Superman, in a house so full of love. It reminded her of home.
"In my defense," Clark said, "I do have a couple of different costumes. I just like to be consistent, is all."
They both looked at Bruce. Bruce did not sigh, but he came very close to it. "Would it make you feel better if I wore my business casual cape next time."
"Not good enough," Diana said. "I won't be satisfied until you have a hole in your costume shaped like a bat." Clark choked on his drink.
"A hole," Bruce repeated, "in my bulletproof suit."
"Yes." Diana felt like she was improving her poker face. Clark was still trying not to spit out his drink. "You're very unlikely to get shot there, anyway. And it will distract your enemies."
"I would find that very distracting," Clark agreed, still sounding a bit strained.
"Bat-shaped hole in the chest," Bruce repeated. "Any other notes? As long as we're workshopping this."
She'd thought for sure that would get him to make some kind of face. Any kind at all, really. He was much better at this than her. She hummed thoughtfully as she took another bite of her dinner. "Sleeveless," she decided.
"Really," Bruce asked. "No gloves, nothing?"
"No, keep the gloves. I just think you should show off your biceps more."
Bruce's first concession to the absurdity of the conversation was to look down at his own arm. It was even larger than Diana's, and that was saying something. Then he looked up at her, one eyebrow raised. She fluttered her eyelashes to denote innocence.
"You do recall that I'm not bulletproof," he said, as if her suggestion had been even remotely serious. Though if he did start wearing an alternate costume—
"I'm not saying it would be appropriate for every mission," she said, continuing the farce. "But sometimes, surely, you could stand to dress more like… Aquaman?"
"He seems like a bad role model," Bruce said, "since about half the time he doesn't actually finish getting dressed."
"Yes," Diana agreed. "Exactly."
"I'm starting to think you don't have my best interests at heart."
"I never said that I did."
"Do these kinds of conversations happen often in your line of work?" Martha asked her son.
"Conversations about skimpier Batman costumes? Yes. Too often. And yet he never listens."
"What can I say," Bruce shrugged. "I'm shy."