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as to which may be the true

Chapter Text

 

 

"No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true."

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne


 

 

It isn't difficult to go on in the wake of Superman's death.

Sometimes Bruce feels like it should be. Considering his hand in things, that he'd let himself be so readily manipulated into doing Lex Luthor's dirty work, it should have taken him apart. It should have burned him down to the ground.

But instead—instead it remakes him. Bruce Wayne steps up to help with the reconstruction, Metropolis scarred all over again by the opening round of Superman's fight with Zod and Stryker's Island a burned-out husk; and Batman stands at Clark Kent's grave and rediscovers what it means to have purpose. He hadn't been willing to listen at the time, but Alfred had been right: he had felt helpless, helpless and hopeless—and when nothing he did mattered, when nothing he tried ever seemed to make a difference, the knowledge of Superman's single weakness had been like a gift. Killing Superman had been the one thing left, the one thing that maybe only Bruce could even do—

And then everything had changed. It hadn't been at Batman's hand, but Superman had died anyway, and Bruce had watched it happen and had understood. Superman had died and Bruce hadn't, and the second chance Clark had given him couldn't be wasted, couldn't. Clark had given them all a second chance. Bruce had had him pinned to the ground, had had a boot on his chest and a kryptonite edge pressed to his throat, and Clark had still asked him for help—had still, after everything he'd seen of Batman, believed that there was someone under that cowl who would save his mother.

(Bruce occasionally wonders how exactly Clark had thought that would go. He might have known something about the "Gotham Bat", he'd been a reporter—he might have noticed the pattern, civilians always left untouched. He might have known Bruce would want to save an innocent hostage from men with guns. But he hadn't—he hadn't said Stop or Wait, hadn't said Let me. Just Find him. Just Save Martha. Like he only wanted Bruce to agree to do it, like Bruce's word was worth anything to him; like he thought Bruce would maybe nod, shove the spear the rest of the way through his neck, and then go zipping off to rescue Martha Kent.

Sometimes Bruce is grateful for it, this idea that Clark had in a certain sense trusted him, even at that moment. But sometimes he can't help seeing it another way. Sometimes it looks to him like it was more that Clark had counted on there being a line: like he'd assumed Bruce cared plenty about human life, and it was just that Clark didn't qualify.

Sometimes he wishes he could tell himself Clark had been wrong.)

And now Clark's gone.

But what he built before he went remains. Bruce and Diana are unquestionably stronger together than they would have been apart—Diana has raw power, the wisdom to wield it, but she doesn't know their twinned cities the way Bruce does. The last time she'd stepped in to try to sort out a human mess, it had been in the middle of a war; and for all the horror of the trenches, that had still been the kind of war with rules, fronts, uniforms, not the shadowy systematic rot of organized crime. There are ways for Bruce to help her. And being able to call on someone who can lift him with one hand isn't exactly a drawback for Batman.

Metropolis and Gotham are stronger, too, drawn together by the disaster zone between them. Deciding what to do about Stryker's, where to begin, is a joint effort; so is mourning Superman. He wasn't just Metropolis's hero, not really, and Bruce can't claim to be surprised that his highly-publicized death wipes the worst remains of Luthor's smear campaign away. Nobody likes speaking ill of the dead.

Which actually makes things much easier. Visiting Superman's memorial regularly is exactly the kind of overchoreographed, performative show of thoughtfulness that people expect from Bruce Wayne. (Keeping it up for more than a few months is going to be an issue, potentially. But all Bruce needs to do is make a couple public missteps, start an ugly rumor, and then he can probably pass it off as a publicist's ongoing effort to rehabilitate his image.) He can make his usual trip to see his parents and then swing out to Metropolis, can stand over the engraved granite and look down at it for a few minutes before he adds his own handful of flowers to the pile.

And it is a pile. Almost six months now and whole bouquets are still coming, bright and boundless, spilling over the benches, the grass, the walkways. Bruce didn't know Clark well, not really, but he thinks Clark would have liked it. No statue, no gold leaf, nothing imposing or severe. Just half an acre of flowers, left again and again by people who want to remember him.

Bruce Wayne wouldn't kneel down. But Bruce can at least close his eyes, bow his head. He's found a sort of peace in this—nothing he deserves, but it's there anyway. Clark is gone. Bruce can't fix that, can't get him back, can't even ask for his forgiveness. But he can do better. He can reach out and he can try harder and he can do better.

That's probably all Clark ever wanted from him anyway.

 

 

He can't stand at Superman's memorial all afternoon. He gives himself another minute, breathes in the smell of ten thousand cut flowers; and then he steps away and heads back to the car. He'd already intended to go by one of the Metropolis offices today—that will take, mm, perhaps a couple of hours at the pace Bruce Wayne ought to work—

His phone buzzes, and he almost starts to reach for the wrong pocket. But Bruce Wayne's personal phone has a loud annoying ringtone carefully chosen from the week's top forty. It's Bruce's own that's on silent.

He's expecting to see that it's Diana, but he still looks before he answers. Which is good, because it's not Diana.

It's Martha Kent.

He feels himself frown just a little. He gave her this number, of course, but no matter how many times he assures her that she could never be bothering him, she's almost always careful to stick to nights, weekends. Some part of him had silently expected her to—to do something with the fact that she knows Bruce Wayne so personally. But she never asks him for anything.

So it's a surprise when he accepts the call, lifts the phone to his ear, and hears her say, "Bruce—Bruce, I'm sorry, I wasn't sure—can you or, or Diana, could you—"

"Martha," Bruce says quickly, "Martha, slow down," because she sounds—awful, breathless, her voice scratched up somehow like maybe she's been crying. And sometimes she does when she's on the phone with him, but not like this.

"Sorry," she says again, "I'm sorry," and then she drags in a short hitching breath. "I—I don't know what to do, I don't know what—"

"Just tell me what's happened," and Bruce finds himself sliding toward one of his Batman voices—the calm, level one he deploys for victims, children, the people who need his help.

And he learned how to use that tone for a reason; it does make a difference. Martha inhales again, lets it out a little more steadily, and then she says the last thing Bruce was ever, ever expecting to hear: "Clark is standing on my porch."

 

 

Bruce stops moving.

It's not the smart reaction, but for one long whited-out moment he can't force himself past it. And some small corner of his brain is still ticking away, coolly assessing—it's all right. Bruce Wayne can get bad news sometimes in public, something surprising or stressful. It's for the best, even, to have an explanation to point to if he's going to have to jet off to Kansas in ten minutes.

And he is. No matter what's happening—whether Martha Kent's been drugged, is ill, or is having some kind of breakdown, some grief-fueled hallucinatory event; whether whatever is out there on her porch looking like Clark Kent is a hologram, another Luthor-driven constructed Kryptonian body, something that's picked Clark Kent's corpse up like a glove and put it on, or—

or—

Whatever it is, Bruce reminds himself, she shouldn't drive it off and she shouldn't make it panic. She needs to go along with it, to seem like she isn't suspicious; and putting all the worst possibilities in her head will only make that harder for her. Bruce can't help her until he gets there. And if it is something evil, if it feels found out, it might just tear right through the wall and break her in half.

"All right," he says aloud, and Martha sucks in another shuddering breath on the other end of the line. "All right, is he—what is he doing?"

"Nothing," Martha whispers, "nothing, he's just—he's—god, Bruce, he's covered in dirt. He looks confused, it's like he's half-asleep—"

And then, faint, somewhere beyond her, Bruce hears someone say, "Mom?"

Drugging, illness, and hallucination can be eliminated, he tells himself, and ignores the stuttered leap of his heart: this is the beginning of about forty-five different horror movies in three or four languages. Just because it sounds bewildered, helpless—just because it sounds like Clark—

"Mother Mary," Martha says, very low.

She must move, she must be walking toward the door; the second soft, "Mom?" is louder.

"Clark—Clark, honey, it's okay," she says, mouth tilted away from the phone, and then, to Bruce, "Oh, god, tell me I can let him in. Tell me this isn't—"

So she's already thought of some of the worst things. If it intended to hurt you right away, it would just have broken down the door and done it, Bruce doesn't say. "It's all right, let him in," he tells her instead. "He's—I'm sure he's disoriented. Try to find a place inside the house with a lot of sunlight."

That's what she would do if it were really Clark. Not that she needs him to tell her that; except maybe she does, right now, because something that looks like her dead son is standing outside her screen door asking for help. "All right," she says, "all right. And you'll come?"

Bruce is ten steps away from the car. The Batplane's long since been repaired, and he has standing permission from Martha to set it down in the back field if he uses it to visit; plus driving time, and it won't be kind to underestimate—

"Forty-five minutes," he says, and doesn't wait for the driver, opens the car door himself. "I'll be there."

 

 

He manages to shave a good five minutes off that estimate—no mean feat, considering how hard he'd already been planning to push the Batplane to get to Kansas that fast.

From outside, the house looks normal. Bruce hadn't quite had a hand to his phone for the entire flight, but not for lack of trying. He hadn't been able to shake the thought of Martha calling again, panicked, when the thing finally did turn on her—of sitting in the Batplane's nigh-impenetrable shell, engines screaming but still too slow, and listening to her die—

But from outside, the house looks normal. There are no holes in the walls, the roof. The windows are intact.

There's dirt on the front porch.

Bruce doesn't let himself try to decide whether it matches his memory of the color, the texture, of the dirt that had been shoveled over Clark's coffin. He steps over it and raps once, sharp, on the frame of the screen door, and he doesn't wait for Martha to answer before he opens it. (For all he knows, she can't.)

But she's there when he walks inside—right there. She put Clark on the sofa where the afternoon sun has just begun to slant in, and then knelt down beside him. She turned her head at the knock and she's staring at Bruce, a hand pressed over her mouth, her face caught somewhere between reckless joy and complete bewilderment. "Bruce," she whispers, between her fingers, because—

Because it's Clark.

He is covered in dirt: it's smeared dark along his hands, his arms, where the suit he was buried in has torn. He looks awful, pale, sallow in the way kryptonite can make him—except Martha's wiped his face carefully clean and the sun's soaking into him almost visibly. (For all Bruce knows, it's not an optical illusion or a trick of the light. Clark might literally be glowing a little bit where the sunlight's touching him.)

And he's alive. Even as Bruce looks, Clark tilts his face a little further into the light; his throat bobs as he swallows, and then he pulls in a breath so full it makes the seams of that moldering suit tear a little bit at the sides, the shoulders. And Clark doesn't need to breathe, Bruce is pretty sure. But right now he wants to, he's reveling in the ability. After this long, the air left in his coffin couldn't have amounted to much—

Clark blinks his eyes open, turns his head—he must have heard the knock, too, but maybe he hadn't realized what it meant, if he's as disoriented as Martha said he was. And then he looks at Bruce, and Bruce realizes the moment their eyes meet that it was a huge mistake to come here.

"Mr—Mr. Wayne?" Clark says. "I don't, um—what are you doing here?"

Good question, Bruce thinks.

"Sorry, that was rude," Clark adds blearily, "sorry," and Martha reaches out to touch his arm.

"Shh," she says, "it's all right, I—I'm sure Mr. Wayne won't hold it against you." She looks up at Bruce, and her gaze is uncertain: she'd forgotten too. She'd forgotten Clark didn't know.

Which is understandable. She's known the truth almost as long as Clark's been dead. Together, he and Diana had brought her Clark's body, before the government could swoop in for it the way they had Zod's. But Luthor had kidnapped her: she hadn't had a way to get herself back to Kansas, let alone a corpse. She hadn't even had anywhere to stay, and Diana Prince had nothing in Metropolis except a hotel room she'd already checked out of. The only answer had been the lake house.

So Martha had discovered Batman and Bruce Wayne both on the same day, and learned they were each other just hours after. She'd known it every time she'd seen him; every time they'd talked since, she'd remembered to ask after Alfred, after Diana, to say she'd seen Batman on the news and was he sure he was all right. And in the rush of finding Clark alive—it would have been more surprising if she had remembered.

It's Bruce's failure that grates. He should have realized.

They can't even be sure how much Clark remembers about the day he died. And the last thing he needs right now is to know that the man who tried to kill him is standing over him in his mother's house.

Bruce can't ask Martha to lie to her son. But he meets her eyes and holds them, hoping she realizes why this is necessary, as he says easily, "I'm not exactly Lex Luthor's favorite person myself, Mr. Kent—your mother wasn't the only person he took hostage during that little meltdown of his." And to explain why she would call him, he just has to tell the truth. "There were some logistical issues I helped her sort out, after everything." He smiles down at Clark a little too brightly. "Zod's body got sold to LexCorp and cut up. Yours didn't. I'm the reason why."

He's expecting Clark to flinch a bit, to find the way Bruce has said this unpleasant—to, on a gut level, dislike Bruce Wayne just a little more than he thinks he should, from this moment forward. But maybe he's overestimated how well Clark is processing: Clark blinks at him twice, swallows, and then says faintly, "Then I guess I owe you one." He swallows again, and then his gaze swivels back to Martha. "And—Lois? Is she all right? Where is she?"

"Oh, honey," Martha says gently, and takes one of Clark's dirt-streaked hands. "It was so hard for her, after you were gone. She came to see you all the time, but she couldn't bear it forever. She needed a break. She's in South Korea for another three months—but we can call her, and—"

"South Korea?" Clark says, bewildered. "When did she—I, I," and then he swallows again and whispers, "How long was I dead?"

Christ.

Martha's throat is working now; she says, very low, "A while, sweetheart—a while," and presses her forehead to the back of Clark's hand. She needs a moment. Bruce knows her well enough now to guess that the last thing she wants to do is sob all over Clark while he's still helpless, disoriented.

So: "Beg pardon," he says, interrupting—verbally and physically, stepping forward to break the visual line between them. "But I imagine you'd like to get clean, Mr. Kent. And get out of that suit, considering how long you've been wearing it."

"I've," Martha says, and then presses the back of one wrist to her mouth, sucks in a long breath through her nose and lets it out, before she can finish: "I've got some of your things still boxed up in the basement. And we'll need more water, and towels," she adds. She squeezes Clark's hand and then grabs for the washcloth she must have used on his face, and steps out toward the kitchen.

Clark watches her go, looking shaken; but when he turns that helpless blue stare on Bruce, all he says is, "You tell me, Mr. Wayne, if she can't. How long have I been wearing this suit?"

 

 

Bruce does tell him. Bruce tells him everything. It's the least he can do for Martha, answering all Clark's smaller questions, filling in everything Martha's been struggling to move past alone without making her dig it all up again. Except it's dug itself up, Bruce supposes, and then doesn't let himself imagine how long it had taken Clark to do, weak as he is. (And that's another thing that should be dealt with, when Bruce gets a chance to place a call to Alfred. Nobody else visiting that graveyard should see whatever hole Clark left on his way out.)

The answers are easy enough to give. Five months, nearly six. Lois really is fine. What Clark did worked; he stopped the destruction, Zod didn't get up again afterward and keep going. Metropolis is still a little the worse for wear, but not the way Clark remembers. Stryker's Island no longer looks like it got firebombed. Lex Luthor is in prison, though LexCorp's managed to stagger on without him. The Daily Planet is fine, everyone who works there is fine. "In fact," Bruce adds, "they did a very impressive feature on Superman a week or two afterward." He makes a face, inconsiderate, because Bruce Wayne would. "Little hagiographic for my taste—but then that's the second time you've saved Metropolis from being the epicenter of global destruction, so I suppose I can't blame them."

Clark blinks twice and clears his throat. "And Superman, um—"

"Died very, very publicly," Bruce fills in. "There were already a couple news helicopters close enough to Stryker's to catch it. Lovely ceremony over an empty coffin in Arlington. I'm sure there's plenty of footage, if you'd like to—"

"No," Clark says unsteadily, "no, that's—I—no."

Bruce shrugs, because it makes no difference to Bruce Wayne. "I imagine his adoring public would be thrilled to see him again," he says, "but there's no rush."

"No—?"

Of course it hasn't occurred to Clark, Bruce thinks. Always so goddamn eager to shoulder every weight. "No one knows you're back," he says aloud, and shrugs again. "At least not until you put on the uniform and somebody sees you. You might as well take your time, Mr. Kent. Doesn't look like you're up to it at the moment anyway," he adds, with a significant glance along Clark's body, the way he's draped limply over the sofa.

"Not really," Clark admits, voice rough, letting his head tip sideways a little further into the sunshine.

He's closed his eyes again; his face has relaxed in it, peaceful, still glowing faintly gold like—like maybe Bruce was right to call it hagiography: like he really is a saint. He's right there, alive, whole, and that's the last thing Bruce ever deserved to get to see in this lifetime.

It's almost spellbinding, and Bruce doesn't realize how far it's drawn him in until Clark drags in a breath, closes his hands into fists against the tops of his thighs, and says, "And what about—what about Batman?"

"That whackjob?" Bruce says steadily, without hesitation. "He's still around, I think. Kind of a surprise, him living through something that killed you, but then again the man's a coward. Wouldn't swoop around in the dark like that if he weren't. Very model of a modern vigilante, isn't he?"

Clark's face—Clark's face does something entirely understandable, Bruce thinks. He does remember Batman trying to kill him, then. That's good: even if he had sustained some kind of brain damage during the fight or by being dead, his Kryptonian physiology seems to have dealt with it thoroughly. Fuzzy or failed memory is one of the most basic signs of head trauma that there is. Not that Kryptonians necessarily suffer the same symptoms as humans, of course, but in the absence of any other framework for making an evaluation, it will have to do.

"Luthor was manipulating us," Clark says—or rather tells himself, Bruce thinks, trying to sound convincing, trying to remind himself to believe it.

"Luthor was manipulating you, yes," Bruce says. "That's why he took your mother. There's no reason to think—"

But Clark's already shaking his head. Already pulling himself together—already prepared to be generous beyond all reason. "No, he—he saved Mom. He must have." He blinks and then squints up at Bruce. "And you must have seen him, if you were there."

Damn. Bruce can't rewrite that; Martha won't lie about it. If Clark asks her whether Batman got her out, she'll say yes.

"I was, but not for that part," he says aloud. "All I know is the men watching me were called away, and the next time the door opened, it was your mother. That woman's awfully good with knots."

Clark doesn't get distracted. "Then he did," he says unsteadily. "I asked him to and he did, and I can't pretend that doesn't count for anything." His hands are still in fists; but he bites his lip and then adds, "And I don't know whether Luthor did anything to him. Set him up somehow or baited him, or—or who knows what."

And oh, Bruce wants to tell Clark exactly how wrong he is: that Lex Luthor hadn't had to do a damn thing to him except tell him exactly what he'd wanted to hear, that he'd swallowed it all from hook to sinker without a second thought. That Batman is the absolute last person Clark should be willing to make excuses for.

But he can't.

Martha saves him from having to scrape together a reply—she comes back in before he can even open his mouth. She has a stack of clean clothes pinned under one elbow, two towels under the other, and a bowl of water in one hand; and in the other hand is a phone. "It should be just about morning where Lois is," she says softly, and then smiles a little. "And that woman's always been an early riser."

Clark stares at her, and then at the phone, and he's looking at it like it's a chunk of kryptonite.

"Her number's already in here," Martha adds. "I'll just explain what's happened, honey, and then you can talk to her." She sets the bowl of water down. And then she tosses Bruce a glance, a little nod toward the porch. She's not wrong: he should go. Clark's forgotten about him entirely, still looking at the phone, and there might not be a better moment for Bruce to bow out.

So Bruce nods back, and goes.

 

 

With no one looking, he can indulge in a moment's indecision. He should take off before Clark can get a hold of himself, before he absorbs enough sun and breathes enough air for all his strengths and powers to come back completely—if nothing else, there's still a chance that if Bruce goes right now, Clark genuinely won't hear the Batplane. But—

But Martha's the one who called him here. Martha wanted his help. He shouldn't leave without at least talking to her, making sure she's all right. And she can't handle everything from here by herself. If nothing else, getting a legal declaration of death reversed could prove difficult—but a few consultants from Wayne Enterprises will almost certainly make that easier. He should at least bring it up, so she'll be prepared for it when matters get a little more urgent. (Thankfully, he does own the Daily Planet; if nothing else, he can ensure that Clark Kent won't have any trouble getting his job back, even after being dead for half a year.)

He pauses on the front walk, looks out across the flat Kansas fields and makes a deal with himself: a minute, that's how long he'll wait, just in case Martha wanted him to, and then—

"Bruce."

He turns around.

Martha did want him to; he can see that the moment he looks at her. "Bruce," she says again, and in a rush she comes down the front steps and grabs for his hands.

There's a pause then—she doesn't speak, looking down instead, but her grip is so tight Bruce almost can't tell her hands are shaking. "Martha," he says carefully, and she blows out a long breath and then shakes her head.

"My god," she says, "my god. I thought I might be—I don't know. But you saw him too—"

"He's real," Bruce says.

"My god," she says again, and then laughs, sharp and a little wild. "Oh, listen to me—tell me to get a grip already."

"You've got a pretty good one," Bruce tells her, making a face like a small wince; and she looks at him blankly for a moment and then all at once eases up on his hands.

(She doesn't let go, though.)

"Oh, oh, I'm sorry," she says, and laughs again. "I'm so sorry."

"I've had worse," Bruce says.

"No, I—not just for that," and then Martha hesitates and lowers her voice. "I am sorry, Bruce, really. I wasn't thinking when I called you—"

"I don't mind, Martha, I've told you: I want you to call me—"

"—about your identity, I mean," she clarifies over him, and that makes Bruce go quiet. "I wasn't thinking about how it would look to Clark. And I know you want all that to stay a secret. I didn't mean to make that harder for you." She pauses for a second, and then she must see something in his face, because she adds, "Don't worry, Lois picked up. I promise you, he's not listening to anything but what's on the other end of that phone."

And she's right, no doubt. "It's fine," Bruce says. "He seemed to believe the cover story I gave him. I'm sorry to put you in this position, but if you can—at least not deny it, if he asks—"

"Of course," Martha says instantly. "But if he does decide to be Superman again, to work with you and Diana, you'll tell him."

She isn't asking—because to her, Bruce thinks, it doesn't seem like much of a question. Bruce and Diana know each other's identities, and they both know Clark's, too. It would be strange, lopsided, to forcibly keep him out of the loop.

But that's only because she isn't thinking it through.

"He's going to need my help," Bruce explains gently.

"Of course—"

"No, not as Superman. As Clark. He was declared dead," Bruce reminds her. "That needs to be reversed."

"Bruce," Martha says.

"I have to straighten things out at the Planet. There must be a way to open up a position for him. And his tenancy—"

"Bruce," Martha says.

"There's no reason he needs to know until everything is sorted out," Bruce says. It's common sense.

"Bruce," Martha repeats.

She's looking at him oddly—softly. He's not sure why. He hasn't said anything that warrants it.

"You didn't kill him," she says, very low.

"I know that," Bruce says.

He does. He's reviewed it a thousand times in his head, a thousand more times with the collected footage from the helicopters. He even has Diana's recollections, safely voice-recorded, after he'd explained to her that it would be useful for tactical analysis. The kryptonite shell Bruce had fired at that last instant had been necessary: it had weakened Zod at precisely the right moment. Compared to the amount of kryptonite on the end of the spear, it's unlikely that what had reached Clark had been the critical factor—that Clark would have been less impalable to the exact degree necessary without it. Clark had chosen to take up the spear, had known what it would do to him. In point of fact, he'd had a pretty exact idea what it would do, given that Bruce had shoved it into his face not half an hour beforehand. It's possible that the experience even helped him brace himself for it, and made it easier for him to withstand its effects long enough to reach Zod. Bruce hadn't killed Clark at all.

He'd just tried to. He'd just walked right into Luthor's trap; he'd just allowed himself to be manipulated in ways that had made it impossible for Superman to collaborate with him until it was too late. If they'd been aware of the true threat, there's no doubt in Bruce's mind that he and Diana and Clark together could have defeated Zod without losing anyone. And he could have ensured they'd get the chance to try. But he'd wasted his time masterminding ways to destroy Clark instead.

Bruce hadn't killed Clark, no. But he might as well have.

"He just doesn't know you," Martha says kindly. "Once he does, once you explain, he'll understand."

"You of all people should know it isn't that easy," Bruce says.

It's something of a low blow; but Martha doesn't flinch. "I didn't say it would be easy," she says, calm, "and I didn't say it wouldn't take time." She's still got hold of his hands: she squeezes. "You're right, I hated you at first, when you told me what you'd done—but it didn't last. I don't see how it could have, after everything else. And it won't with Clark, either. You told the truth back then: you are a friend of my son's. You've already proven that to me. And my son will be a friend of yours, too, Bruce, if you let him."

She's a kind woman, Martha Kent. Generous. It seems to run in the family. Which means Bruce needs to be careful. My son will be a friend of yours, if you let him. And she isn't wrong, after all: Bruce has ample proof that, given the opportunity, Clark will wholeheartedly make the worst choice available to him regardless of the cost to himself.

(Which surely means that Bruce—as a friend—should make every effort to stop him.)

"For all the good it will do him," Bruce says aloud, wry, because jokes are typically the least uncomfortable way to tell the truth.

But Martha doesn't let it slide that easily. She smiles at him and squeezes his hands again. "It's done me plenty," she says without hesitation, and she's about to add something else when the sound of the screen door creaking open stops her.

She and Bruce both turn.

It's Clark. He's stepped out onto the porch, barefooted, and the suit is gone, traded for a shirt and sweats, but there's still dark streaks of dirt along his arms, ground into the skin along the backs of his knuckles. He's holding the phone, but not to his ear—it's silent now, dark, and he's staring down at it.

"She cried," he says unsteadily. "But she—she's not coming back. This assignment is important to her, and she needs some time."

He recites this like he's memorized it, like it's something he was sitting in there repeating to himself for five minutes before he came out here and told them—and maybe he was.

"Oh, sweetheart," Martha says, and finally lets go of Bruce so she can step away and take the phone from Clark's hands. "You have to understand, it's been months—"

"Yeah," Clark says. He's looking down at his empty fingers, now that the phone is gone: his palms are still dirty, too. "Yeah. I guess it has."

 

 

It proves to be the perfect moment for Bruce to make his escape. Martha helps Clark back inside, clucking gently about washing his hands, hadn't she raised him better than that—she glances over her shoulder at Bruce, quick, and nods once before she lets the screen door fall shut behind her. That's his cue. She's on his side about his identity as Batman, at least for now; Clark is distracted, and even if he does catch the sound of the Batplane leaving, Martha will cover for Bruce as best she can.

And Bruce needs to go, because he has a lot of work to do.

 

 

Once he's in the air again, he engages the autopilot and then finds his hand on his phone. He has no idea what's involved in reversing a certification of death in Metropolis—he doesn't even know whether city law differs from state or federal when it comes to this kind of thing. Maybe all it will take is a judge's ruling, if they have enough evidence. Not that Clark has a birth certificate, obviously. Bruce isn't sure whether the Kents ever even legally adopted him, but he must have some kind of official identification or he'd never have been able to enter the Smallville school system, let alone rent the apartment he'd been keeping in Metropolis before he died.

Probably best if they can avoid even bringing up the possibility of a DNA test.

He should do some preliminary research before he gets in touch with the Wayne Enterprises legal department about it. It's a good thing Bruce Wayne has already been seen in public more than once with Martha Kent, that Clark Kent's employment at a Wayne Entertainment company is a matter of record—doing them a favor won't be coming out of nowhere. Of course the official story will have to be that the coffin in Smallville was empty. They're lucky Clark was impaled; Martha had erred on the side of caution, not wanting anyone to notice anything amiss, and hadn't held any sort of viewing at the service before the funeral. Only a few people actually know there was a body in there, and that can be handled. Bruce won't let a detail that minor get in the way of sorting this out.

The cover had been, of course, that hapless reporter Clark Kent, out and about on a Metropolis evening, had tragically been caught in the crossfire during the fight. They can't pretend to have pulled him out of the rubble on Stryker's Island after all this time, but a head injury, amnesia, some disoriented wandering and a few months as a John Doe—no, it shouldn't be difficult to account for that side of things.

And as for Superman, it's actually for the best if Clark takes a little while to suit up again. The more time separating Clark Kent's return from the dead and Superman's mysterious resurrection, the better. And Bruce—Bruce should call Diana. She needs to know what's happened. Even if Clark decides not to reclaim Superman's mantle, some other alien enemy of his could scan the planet and find his lifesigns, come looking. The Justice League is more of an idea than a reality right now, but whether Clark ever becomes a part of it or not, that's the kind of thing it will need to be ready to deal with. Bruce should call Diana.

He presses his hands against the Batplane's control board until they've stopped shaking. Adrenaline—from being prepared for the worst, from the surprise of it all. Nothing unusual. Bruce just needs to let it work its way out of his system.

Diana must not be busy: she picks up right away, even though she doesn't know what there could be to pick up for. "Trouble?" she says.

"No," Bruce says, and then for a strange sharp moment his throat constricts. He knows what he wants to tell her—that Clark is alive and that Superman might be; that despite seeming wholly himself, it's still possible that someone has done this to Clark for a reason: implanted him with physical or mental triggers of some kind, altered him in ways they need to keep an eye out for.

But none of it will come out. He stares at the Batplane controls and breathes into the phone, and braces himself to shove past whatever the hell is wrong with him—

"Bruce?" Diana says, low, gentle.

And that's enough: the logjam is broken. "Clark's alive," Bruce says.

(Clark's alive.)

(Clark's alive.)

It would be perfectly understandable to ask whether he's sure, but Diana doesn't do it. She knows he wouldn't have called, wouldn't have said it like that, unless he were. "And he's all right," she says instead, after a moment.

"As far as I was able to determine," Bruce tells her. "Of course I'll keep you informed if I learn otherwise."

"Of course," Diana agrees. "Bruce—"

It's requiring more concentration than it should for him to keep his voice level. It doesn't matter why; it only matters that the degree of effort involved is unsustainable. This phone call needs to end right now.

"I'm sorry, Diana, I have to go."

Kindly, she takes him at his word. "Thank you for telling me," she says simply, and she's the one who hangs up first.

The path ahead of him is clear. Call Legal, make an appointment; obtain all the relevant documentation there is from Martha, from the Planet's HR department, from the necessary authorities; decide where and when Clark might have fallen into the water on the day of the fight, where a John Doe with a head wound needs to have washed up. He knows what needs to be done, and he'll do it. And in the end, it won't make any difference if he had to stare down at his hands, at the phone, and force himself to take long slow breaths for three and a half minutes first.

 

 

By the time he lands under the lake, he's arranged a meeting with Legal, and all publicly available official documents that so much as mention Clark Kent's name have begun downloading themselves onto the servers in the Cave. Fortunately, he doesn't need to wait for anyone on the HR staff to get back to him—he already has access to the internal files of Wayne Entertainment and its subsidiaries, and it's easy enough to start running a search remotely. The results might even be there by the time he gets to the computers—

"Master Wayne. What a pleasant surprise."

Bruce lets himself grimace before he wipes the expression away and turns around. He hadn't told Alfred much of anything when he'd left—there hadn't been much of anything to tell, at that point, since he still hadn't been sure that whatever was standing on Martha's porch was really Clark. But Alfred never likes it when Bruce goes charging off without a word of explanation, Master Wayne, and as your butler I've no grounds to object, but as your head of security I simply cannot abide—

"Sorry, Alfred," he says.

Alfred's eyebrows go up. "An unprompted apology," he observes slowly, as though to himself, and then addresses Bruce with a conscientious air: "Have you been struck on the head, sir, or merely drugged?"

Both, Bruce almost says. "Clark Kent is alive," he tells Alfred instead, and it should be irritating to have to explain it again—repeating himself like a parrot every ten minutes, Clark's alive! Clark's alive!

It's the kind of thing he never let himself so much as imagine, while Clark was gone. Clark had been dead; every implication of that fact, every choice Bruce had made because of it, had been predicated on the idea that the situation was fundamentally unalterable. It was something that needed to be accepted, a weight that couldn't be set down and couldn't be handed off. Considering all the ways in which the battle could have gone differently—that was tactical. That would help Bruce make quicker, clearer decisions in any similar situations in the future. Idiotic daydreams about Clark just—reappearing, recovering? Utterly without merit. Clark had been dead. What had been important had been figuring out how to bear it, how to integrate what Bruce had been taught by it into his actions following it. Pretending it hadn't happened or could be undone was pointless, and Bruce simply hadn't permitted himself to be so wasteful.

But now—

Now it's true. It's true and Bruce can say it all day long and it will stay true. Hell, there's a solid chance it will still be true tomorrow morning, if Clark doesn't drop dead again overnight—which is possible, but even Bruce can't convince himself it's especially likely. He hadn't gotten a look at the skin of Clark's chest, but even with a shirt on, it had been clear that there wasn't a hole in Clark anymore; if that's due to external intervention, then yes, perhaps it had been done quickly and could be undone as quickly. But if it was Clark's own healing factor, if it's the result of a long slow process of repair that's been at work since he died, then it's likely it would take trauma equivalent to the original injury to reverse it. And Zod is gone. Bruce retrieved the kryptonite, it's boxed up in lead two levels away. Lex Luthor is in prison. The confluence of factors that brought Clark down is about as unlikely to reoccur as anyone could ask for.

He glances at Alfred—who's looking back, face carefully blank, and hasn't said a word.

"He is," Bruce says, abruptly able to guess why. (He can't even resent it. A surprising number of Gotham villains favor hallucinogenic attacks of various kinds; it's hardly implausible.) "Call Martha yourself. I'm sure she'd put him on the line for you, at least if he's still awake."

"I'll take your word for it, Master Wayne, for the moment," Alfred says, and his expression doesn't change but Bruce sees the way the line of his shoulders eases. "But, if I may ask—how?"

Bruce can't restrain a snort. "How does Clark do anything? He recovered from a nuclear explosion in about five minutes. In retrospect," Bruce adds, "it was foolish to assume death would have a more permanent effect than anything else."

"When you put it that way," Alfred concedes. "And you're—all right, sir?"

As if Bruce is able to quantify it that neatly.

On the one hand—he can't pretend it's anything but a relief. Especially not to Alfred, not in a way Alfred would believe. (Alfred was there for the worst of it, in the immediate aftermath. Alfred—saw.) He had fixated on the resignation of it all, had buried himself in it about as far under as Clark's body had been: Clark was dead, and Bruce could have prevented it but had chosen not to, and there was nothing he could do about any of that afterward except find a way to live with it. The worst mistake he'd ever made, because he'd made it—with Jason, at the absolute least Bruce hadn't been the one to hand the Joker the crowbar. And now it's fixed. Miraculously undone, the terrible and unforgivable consequence erased. Not that the mistake qualifies as unmade; but Clark isn't paying the price for it in a box underground anymore. Bruce can't be anything but grateful for that.

But—

It isn't that he's sorry Clark's alive. Of course he isn't. It's just that it's—it's almost bewildering. Bruce has made something of a study of failure, penitence, regret. He's learned how to brace against their slow persistent pull; he's familiar with their mass, their particular gravity. He'd known what he was facing, after Clark's death. He'd seen the path laid out before him and he'd been prepared to walk it. There had even been a grim kind of comfort in understanding what was coming—in being aware that, plus or minus a few degrees of pitch or elevation, this was how he would feel for the rest of his life.

And now all that has changed.

Clark is alive.

"I'm fine," he says aloud, and smiles a little, claps Alfred on the shoulder as he passes. "I'll be in the Cave if you need me."

He'll figure out what they have to do and where to begin, how to start the ball rolling, and if there's anything he needs from Martha, he can go back for it tomorrow.

(Without the Batplane.)

 

 


 

 

Honestly, Clark's glad to have the phone taken away from him—glad for Mom's gentle hands on his arms, steering him back to the sofa. Somebody's got to be in charge of him right now, and he's not sure he's up to it.

Physically, he's definitely starting to feel better, although that's not saying much. But he's not any more clearheaded now than he was in the cemetery. He's worse, even: he'd been so out of it at first that there hadn't been any room to spare for thinking. He'd needed every ounce of concentration he could muster just to keep himself moving, to put one foot in front of the other. The house, Mom—he'd needed to get to them, and that had been the only thing he'd cared about.

He hadn't noticed the leaves. Six months—it had been autumn when he'd died.

It isn't autumn anymore.

"There, now," Mom says, and guides him down; he sits, automatic, and the sun hits him again, and he can't help turning his face into it. "You just stay there—I'll get the rest of this dirt off, honey, and then you should rest."

"Okay," he says, and he manages to drag a smile out from somewhere for her before he closes his eyes.

It is good to be clean—mostly—and comfortable. No denying that. The coffin had been cushioned, but the padding had rotted away a little, and it had been so small

Not that there's any point in thinking about that. He'd gotten out, and he's fine.

It's just he can't stop himself, he keeps circling it like a drain: six months. Six months. The fight was the last thing that happened to him, and he remembers it like it was yesterday. It was yesterday, he can't help thinking, because there's nothing else he can place in between it and right now—but it was six months ago. It was six months ago; the leaves have changed, Lois is in South Korea, and everything he owns is in boxes in Mom's basement. Everything is different, except for Clark.

For Clark it was yesterday.

"All right," Mom is saying, giving the backs of his knuckles one more swipe with the washcloth, and Clark pries an eye open in time to see her smile at him. For a second he's about to ask her what's wrong, why the line of her mouth is so unsteady. But that would be stupid. He knows what's wrong—he was dead, and now he isn't. For her it's been a long time, long enough that she must have thought she was done crying over him.

"Thanks, Mom," he says, but it comes out weird and slurred. He can't get his eyes to open any further, can't even imagine standing up again—

"You just rest," Mom repeats, from what Clark finds has somehow become a really long way away. "I know you're not used to feeling tired, sweetheart, but it's all right. I'll be here when you wake up."

She pauses and then there's something else, a sound Clark can't make sense of anymore, a quick warm brush against his forehead, and then it's all gone.

 

 

It's dark.

It's dark and he can't see. He tries, automatic, to switch to x-ray—to switch to the laser-vision, even, which destroys stuff but also usually makes a lot of light; except it doesn't. Nothing happens. It stays dark.

It's dark and he can't see, and he also can't move. He's in something, some kind of—box, and it's close and moldering and the air is stale. He doesn't want to be inside it anymore. And deciding that is all it usually takes: he's Superman. He has superstrength, he can fly. On some level, helplessness is beyond him. He always has a choice.

Except he sets his hands against the side of the box and pushes, and it doesn't move. It's not that he isn't pushing hard—for one mindless, panicked moment, he shoves at it with everything he has, until the muscles in his arms and back are straining. He shoves at it until he hurts, and that's a kind of effort he never ever has to make, but nothing is happening, nothing—he can't get out

Clark hurtles off the couch and just barely manages to stop before he hits the far wall; it is dark, but not so dark that he can't see, and there's no box—no coffin, because that's what it had been. The wall's right in front of him, and he presses his hands against it just enough to make the wood creak. He could break it if he wanted to. He could. He's fine.

He stares at the backs of his fingers and breathes. His heart's pounding—and not because it has to. Digging himself out of his grave is the only time he can remember exerting himself enough to force it to. But it's never mattered that he's physically Superman. He's still weak in all the other ways humans are; and he's always liked that about himself, always reminded himself of it at the times when he's felt the most alien.

But he does kind of wish right now that Kryptonians didn't feel fear.

It isn't even just about the nightmare. It would be easier if it were: a bad dream's easy enough to dispel. There wasn't any moonlight reflecting off any coffee tables, in the dream; there weren't any family portraits lined up inside the coffin. Clark could hardly move at all, let alone cross the room to sit back down on the sofa. None of it was real, and everything around him right now that is real serves as a reminder of that.

What he can't wake up from is the six months that are missing. And the reminders of that are just as present: Mom's changed, turned quieter, tired in a way that's almost frightening; and Lois is on the other side of the world; and Superman's dead. Clark got buried and mourned and cried over, and then—left behind. Everything had moved on around him, and he'd just lain down there, untouched.

Dad had always been afraid that he'd never find a—a place for himself, that he'd never find a way to fit in. But after fighting Zod the first time around, it had felt like he finally had. Everyone had known about Superman, and almost none of them had hated him; Lois had known and had loved him, Clark himself, which was more than Clark had ever really been convinced he could hope for. He'd had a job, an apartment, a life, just like anyone else. He'd built himself somewhere he belonged.

But now—

Now it's all gone. Now he's as unmoored as if he were still sneaking through strangers' backyards to steal their laundry, as if he were still some faceless truck-stop waiter whose name nobody knew unless they bothered reading it off the pin on his apron.

He hears his own breath catch as if it's somebody else's, and he doesn't even bother raising his hands to press them to his face. He sits there in the dimness and he's—he feels—

He feels fucked up. He thinks it with an almost vicious energy, words he hardly ever says: he feels fucked up. He feels helpless, mindless; he wants to run, to sprint outside and fly away, except he'll never be able to do it fast enough to get away from this feeling. He'll never be able to do it fast enough to leave himself behind.

 

 

He's managed to talk himself into something kind of like calm by morning. Surely it'll just plain take time to get over. He came back from the dead yesterday. There's still a little grave dirt under his nails. There isn't exactly anybody he can ask about this, but presumably a little disorientation's only to be expected. Mom's still herself in all the ways that count. Lois is only a phone call away—and once Clark's sure his speed and flight are both back to 100%, she'll be even closer than that, no matter how long she decides to stay in South Korea. It'll take time, and work, and probably it won't be easy, but he can get through this.

Time. Work.

And, apparently, Bruce Wayne.

 

 

Clark's not expecting it at all. He doesn't know how long he's sitting there on the couch, but it's long enough for the light to change, blue to gray to gold. Luckily he's not so far into his own head that he doesn't hear it when Mom gets up; and by the time she comes downstairs, he's in the kitchen with the skillet, apron on because he knows it will make her laugh, making eggs.

He smiles at her, and she says, "Clark," in a wobbly voice and then puts both hands over her mouth.

"Hey, hey," he says, because it's easy enough to guess what she's thinking. And he'd rather let the eggs burn a little than let her keep thinking it, so he steps away from the stove to put his arms around her. "It's okay. You didn't dream it, Mom, I'm here. I'm fine."

It sounds a little more true out loud than it did in his head. Good sign, he hopes.

"I'm fine," he says again, squeezing her shoulders, and she laughs through her fingers—her eyes are bright but she isn't crying, and that's a good sign, too—

And his powers are definitely coming back: even a human might have been able to hear Mom through the quiet of the house, but now she's up, the eggs are sizzling, all the circuitry in the stove is humming with heat, and he still catches a footstep past it.

"Somebody's here."

"Oh," Mom says, "oh, it's probably Bruce."

Bruce? Clark stares at her. Had she been calling the billionaire CEO of Wayne Enterprises by his first name yesterday, too? Clark can't remember.

Honestly, he'd almost started thinking he'd made that up: the memory of Mr. Wayne standing over him is so hazy, and a lot of yesterday feels weird and thin and disconnected. Mr. Wayne had been the one to tell Clark what had happened while he'd been gone, that was right—at the time it had felt almost like a voiceover, Mr. Wayne just a borrowed face for an unidentifiable narrator.

But it must have been real. The footsteps keep coming, across the yard and up the stairs, and when Mom opens the door, it actually is Mr. Wayne who smiles at her and comes inside.

"Good morning, Martha," he says easily, and Mom smiles back at him like this is totally normal and waves him in.

"Come in, come in—have you eaten?"

"On the way," Mr. Wayne confirms, "never fear. I apologize; I do hate to talk business this early in the morning, but it isn't the kind of thing that will wait."

"What isn't?" Clark says, and then hopes belatedly it didn't come out too rude. It's just that he can't think of any business Bruce Wayne would have with Mom, let alone business urgent enough that he made it to Kansas in time for breakfast.

"Why," Mr. Wayne says, breezy, "bringing you back to life, of course."

 

 

He lays it out for Mom over the eggs, once Clark's finished serving them up. He doesn't dwell too heavily on the details; his attitude is conversational and matter-of-fact, and all told he's acting like he helps people get themselves undeclared dead every day.

It's—it's great. Clark's a little surprised by how glad he is, but the more he thinks about it the more he realizes he shouldn't be. Mr. Wayne's casual attitude might have bugged him any other day. But right now it's the perfect antidote to everything that had snuck up on Clark in the middle of the night: as if he expects nothing less than to be able to slot Clark right back into place—as if Clark has a place, as if he ought to be able to get it back; as if Mr. Wayne's never thought otherwise. Clark had figured Mom called him yesterday because he was kind of a friend. He'd helped her with Clark's body before and he knew about Superman, and she probably hadn't been sure who else to call. But maybe she'd known he would do this. Maybe she'd known that Mr. Wayne's response to Clark rising from the grave would be to spend the night working out a strategy for how to make him real again.

"—and the bottom line is, a court order should do it, if we can get the paper trail set up," Mr. Wayne is saying as Clark scrapes together his last forkful of eggs.

"Oh, that's wonderful, Bruce," Mom says, "thank you," and she leans in and actually kisses his cheek before standing to take Clark's plate. "All Clark's papers and things are in the basement," she adds over her shoulder, moving toward the kitchen. "I'll go see if I can find them, just give me ten minutes."

And then she's gone.

Clark doesn't know what to say except, "Thank you," again, because Mr. Wayne should hear it from him, too—with everything he's doing, words aren't really enough, but Clark's not sure what else—

"Please," Mr. Wayne says, with a dismissive flick of the fingers. "Don't talk yourself into giving me too much credit, Mr. Kent. The point of being a billionaire is getting to pay other people to do this kind of work for you."

He leans back in the chair after he says it, and smiles at Clark like—Clark's not sure what to call that look, but it strikes precisely the wrong note, so easy and unconcerned it's almost unfeeling. Clark only just manages not to frown at Mr. Wayne for it, because that would still be rude. He did get all this arranged, even if he delegated everything that required actual effort to his employees.

"Well, thank you anyway," Clark makes himself say.

Mr. Wayne's eyes narrow, and then he looks at Clark, raises an eyebrow, and—

It's easily the slowest, most gratuitous onceover Clark's ever gotten. There's something almost pointed about it, even unkind, like he wants it to make Clark uncomfortable. It shoves Clark off-balance with a vengeance: surely Mr. Wayne doesn't mean it like that—it's—it's inappropriate, isn't it, staring that way at somebody who was dead yesterday? He can't possibly—

"Doesn't seem like you've had any trouble getting back on your feet. You're looking—much better today." Mr. Wayne pauses for a single sharp, mocking beat, and then adds, "Nice apron."

Clark hopes faintly that his face doesn't look as red as it feels. For an instant, he's wavering somewhere close to anger. It was a long unpleasant night for him, and Mr. Wayne was around for the end of that phone call with Lois yesterday—he knows exactly how completely Clark's life has fallen apart, whether Clark's looking better today or not.

But it's a sunny morning, and the eggs were pretty good, and Clark made Mom smile. And Mr. Wayne also knows that it's Superman who's sitting across from him, wearing a blue-and-white gingham apron tied on with a lopsided bow. Clark can't really blame him for seeing the humor in it.

Plus, the other reason Mr. Wayne is aware of how completely Clark's life has fallen apart is because he's taking it on himself to help put it back together.

So Clark doesn't snap. "It's my mother's," he says instead, evenly, and goes ahead and flashes Mr. Wayne a hint of a smile. "But I'll be sure to pass your compliments along, Mr. Wayne."

Something about Mr. Wayne's face changes. Clark couldn't have picked it out until he saw the lack of it: some kind of tension, a bitterness or weariness, or maybe both. Whatever it is, it recedes, and Mr. Wayne's grin could almost be called bright. If also kind of smug. "Bruce," he says, and then, with a wink, "If I'm going to keep hitting on you at inappropriate moments, you should call me Bruce."

 

 

Things get easier. Clark's starting to think Mom felt quiet and tired to him at first just because—just because that's what it had been like for her while Clark was dead. She is the same in all the ways that matter: her smiles stop being so thin and bright, and she keeps on hugging him every morning but slowly eases up, doesn't hang on so long after. A week, and she starts humming sometimes—two more, and she's singing while she gardens again, absent easy Ramones drifting up from the corner by the back porch where she's decided to put in some hostas. She's starting to believe he's not going anywhere.

The neighbors come by, and it's as good a test for his cover story as anything; Clark practices talking about his head injury, a few vague words about what it was like to have amnesia. (It's not that hard: he practically does have it, with those six months he can't remember hanging over him.) He calls Lois almost every day, and it's bad at first, difficult—she doesn't know what to say to him, what to ask him, and every time he opens his mouth he's struggling not to let, "Please come back," be what comes out. She said she wanted to complete the assignment she's on for the Planet, and he's not going to make that harder for her if he can help it.

(He has to keep reminding himself. Six months. Six months. He's still the person who wanted to give her a ring, because that was yesterday for him; but what that means to her is sitting in his dark, silent room in a black dress, Mom handing her a package with a dim sad smile. For her, it's not a good memory—it's something she's been trying to get over. It's something she's been trying to forget.)

Things get easier; but they don't get easy. At first, Mom had been scrupulously careful not to mention Clark's death—and it's good that she's more comfortable now, it really is. It can't be a bad thing that she's stopped acting like bringing it up was some kind of jinx that would put him back in the ground. It's just that the more she starts to talk about things that happened while Clark was dead, the harder it is to ignore it. People she met; conversations she had; recipes she tried, giving herself a reason to enjoy eating dinner alone, with no one to please but herself. Clark's glad when Lois stops sounding like she's about to cry every time she answers the phone, but listening to her talk about South Korea, about how her correspondence pieces for Perry have been coming together, about maritime borders and diplomacy and Chinese trade agreements—

It's everything he missed, all the space the world's traveled without him. And they'd stop in a second if he asked, but they shouldn't have to. They aren't doing anything wrong; but they've traveled on without him, too, and every time he remembers that it's a whole separate punch in the gut.

Which is why it turns out to be kind of great that there's also Bruce.

 

 

Clark shouldn't like Bruce. There are actually plenty of times when he doesn't, and not even for the reasons he'd expected—he'd absorbed a basic picture of Bruce Wayne from the papers, the television, bits and pieces he's heard or read somewhere. He'd figured on disliking Bruce for being careless, easy, not unpleasant but ultimately flat underneath.

But Bruce is—Bruce is cynical, bitingly so, in ways that make Clark feel almost defensive. He delivers the lines with a smile, but that doesn't make them any less bitter: "That's the way it works, Clark." "That's how business is done, Clark." "That's all that kept you off a lab table, Clark." He doesn't seem to care how it sounds, how it will make Clark feel. He doesn't seem to care about much of anything.

Except, of course, for how he's spending a whole lot of time and money almost literally saving Clark's life.

Clark can admit that his ability to manipulate the system is impressive, if nothing else. The problem of coming back from the dead turns out to be a thorny one; Clark can't help feeling like just standing in front of a judge and having his pulse taken should be enough, but apparently that's not how it works. So Bruce keeps on dropping by with his briefcase full of ridiculously complicated paperwork, legal filings, endless documentation, getting Clark to sign things or walking him through the adjustments to the cover story as it becomes official reality—

"These are fake," Clark says, staring down at the hospital intake form, at the sign-out sheet agreeing that he'd been released on his own recognizance.

"Extremely," Bruce agrees.

"This can't possibly be legal."

Bruce sighs through his nose. "Will you just sign it?"

Clark doesn't reach for the pen Bruce is holding out. "Bruce—"

"Wayne Enterprises is responsible for any malfeasance here," Bruce says, "not you. You're an employee, or at least you will be again soon. Coercion will be an argument even a public defender could make successfully—"

"Public defenders do important work," Clark says.

"Oh, yes, do tell," Bruce drawls insincerely.

"And they're not any more or less likely to be shortsighted, illogical jerks than billionaires," Clark observes, without heat. "Bruce, you're doing all this for me. If there are going to be consequences, they have to fall on me, too."

He doesn't know why that makes Bruce's gaze get so—so black, what prompts the flash of grim tension across Bruce's face before Bruce looks away. "I'm only doing it for you because you died, Clark, and if you want to blame anyone for that, blame—"

"—Luthor," Clark finishes, "I know." He's thought about it some, about whether he could've done something different or kept Luthor from getting Zod's body. But when he'd brought it up aloud, Mom had shut that line of conversation down pretty quickly: If you don't quit talking like that, you're not getting one single solitary slice of this pie. You did the best you could, and I don't want to hear another word.

Bruce is silent for a beat. "You said it, not me," he murmurs, very evenly, and then sits forward. "I picked this hospital because it's located in the right general area, but also because it's right in the middle of trying to make the conversion to a digital filing system. It was easy to get these forms, and it'll be easy to toss them in as part of the shuffle—anyone who doesn't remember filing them or notices the backdating will just assume it was an oversight. The risk is minimal." He raises an eyebrow.

Clark takes the pen and looks down at the sheet. "Tell me about the hospital," he says.

"No one's going to ask, Clark—"

"Just in case," Clark says. "Just so I've got it straight. What room did you put me in?"

And Bruce talks a great game about the guys in Legal, how complicated they're making everything, that for once they're earning their overtime. But he doesn't even have to look down at the rest of the papers before he says, "203."

So he is paying attention, at least a little bit. This matters to him.

Clark's just not sure why.

 

 

So: it's easier with Bruce because he gives Clark something else to think about. When Clark's busy being frustrated and telling him to stop being so snide, or trying to figure out exactly what the hell his problem is, that means Clark isn't thinking about the dark, or a box, or Mom spending Christmas alone.

And it's easier with Bruce because he's a stranger—there's nothing about him Clark is supposed to know already. Except for that party at Luthor's, but Clark remembers that. Clark remembers that Bruce is flippant, that he donates to charities even when all he can say about their missions is "Books." And that Luthor maybe had a better reason to kidnap him than Mom realizes, given that he was doing something at that party he needed a hidden radio for. Corporate espionage, maybe. Which is obviously not good; but if Clark had to pick, he'd rather Wayne Enterprises came out on top of that particular commercial slapfight.

Probably the best thing about Bruce is that he doesn't know Clark either. He knows about Superman, because he helped Mom, and he must have listened to her talk about Clark at least a little bit afterward, but that's all. There's nothing in particular he expects Clark to do or be, no way Clark always used to act around him that he's spent six months without.

Which means Clark doesn't have to be careful with him. With Mom and Lois, Clark's already put them through so much just by dying that he can't—he can't do anything but smile and say he's fine, can't let himself get away with less than chuckling into the phone and saying goodbye in a hearty, pleasant kind of way. If they think he's too quiet or too sharp, if he says he hasn't slept well, they'll ask. And what can he tell them? What could they do about it?

But Bruce doesn't ask. He does notice the days when Clark is off, Clark's pretty sure. It's just all he does about it is say there's only three more forms to sign. Or lean back in his chair and make rude comments about whatever courthouse secretary got drunk at lunch and then typed this thing up, until Clark can't stand it anymore and has to say something. Clark's probably just deluding himself, but it feels a little bit like Bruce understands: like he's saying, You're right, what's happened to you isn't the kind of thing anyone can fix. Like maybe Clark will keep on being kind of messed up about this for a while, and maybe that's okay.

If he's being generous with himself, then that's why he says it.

 

 

If he's not, there are plenty of other reasons. He's selfish. He wants to say it, and he wants somebody else to hear it and understand. And he doesn't care what Bruce thinks of him, to just the right degree—Bruce's opinion of Clark already seems to be just about in the basement, anyway, if he believes even half the stuff he lets come out of his mouth. So there isn't much to lose.

He could have made enough of an effort to keep it from happening, but that's the thing: he's stopped putting in that kind of effort around Bruce. So he's not really listening, and of course Bruce notices, and Clark says, "Sorry—I," and then it just slips out. "I'm tired."

Bruce's eyebrows go up. "I thought that was one of the few things you weren't physically capable of," he says, and with only a little bit of a leer. (Which, given what a perfect opening that was, actually qualifies as considerate when it's coming from Bruce.)

"That might have been the wrong word," Clark concedes. "I—" and then he stalls out, helpless. He thinks his heartrate might have actually picked up a little. He hasn't started being Superman again yet, but sometimes he really wants to—sometimes that seems so much easier. Superman is perfect, unbreakable, inscrutable. Certain.

Sometimes that's simpler than being Clark.

He risks a glance across the table at Bruce; and Bruce is frowning at him a little, but he hasn't told Clark to shut up. And he would if he wanted to, Clark's pretty sure, probably using a lot of innuendo to do it—which is another reason why it's him Clark's talking to about this. Mom, Lois, they would have to listen, would do it just to be kind. If Bruce doesn't want to hear this, he'll say so.

It's just hard to know where to start.

"When I was fighting Zod—the first time, I mean," Clark clarifies, "I was on his ship while it was still in space, and I ended up outside it."

"Of course you did," Bruce murmurs.

But he still hasn't told Clark to stop. So Clark wets his lips and drags in a breath and doesn't. "And I—you have to understand: with my hearing, quiet is always relative. There's still a noise somewhere if I just listen hard enough—a fly in the window or a mouse in the grass, or somebody's heartbeat. But up there it was—"

He shakes his head. It's still so hard to find the right words for it, even after all this time.

"I've never heard that kind of silence. The whole earth was hanging there in front of me, turning, and I was—I was outside it. Just drifting up there alone."

Even now the memory's still so vivid that it takes him a second to shake it off.

But he pulls himself together and adds, "And when it happened, it was fine. I needed it, in the middle of all that. I just—since I came back, I feel like that all the time. Like the world's out there moving and I'm somewhere else watching it, waiting for it to stop long enough for me to get back on."

He waits for Bruce to tell him how stupid that is; or, worse, that that's just how the world works—Congratulations, Clark, welcome to the human condition. But Bruce doesn't say that. Bruce doesn't say anything.

Clark clears his throat. "It's probably—I mean, I'm sure it's just a matter of time—"

"Maybe."

Clark looks up.

Bruce is staring at him. For a long moment, his face is so utterly altered he might as well be a different person: he looks sad and resigned and sorry, and also a little like he wants to say he understands. Which is—Bruce has never seemed to care much about understanding anyone other than himself.

"Of course, I've never died before," he adds, wry, looking away, "so you should probably take this with a grain of salt. But—" He pauses; and his voice has gone much quieter when he says, "Things like that will change you. Sometimes you can't change back."

Oh, god. Clark could smack himself—he hadn't even thought about it, but the Waynes, of course: Bruce had watched his parents die, and if anything in the world could change a person—

"Then again, sometimes you just need a new perspective."

Clark blinks. "What?"

And in nothing more than the space of that blink, it's astounding how different Bruce looks. He's raised his eyebrows, amused, relaxed, untouched. "You've been treading water, Clark," he says sagely, any hint of that quiet solemnity completely gone. He gets out his gleaming phone, which probably costs about as much as the farmhouse, and then tilts his head and smiles in that odd sharp way he has. "Maybe it's time to swim a little. There's a party tonight—Alfred?" and now he's talking into the phone. "There's a party tonight, right?"

Even without superhearing, Clark would probably have caught the longsuffering sigh that comes through the phone. "Yes, Master Wayne, I believe you do indeed have an engagement scheduled—"

"See? There you go," Bruce says to Clark, and hangs up the call without even saying goodbye first.

"But I—I don't have, um—" The nicest suit I own is the one they buried me in, except he probably shouldn't say that.

"Oh," and there's that smile again, like something Clark could cut himself on. "I'm sure I can get you sorted out in plenty of time."

 

 

Clark's expecting something to prevent this from happening. It's—it's just too ridiculous. He's not actually going to end up at some sort of exclusive Gotham billionaire event, riding Bruce Wayne's coattails past security. Defying physics is easy enough, but some things are still impossible.

Except Mom doesn't stop it. When she steps into the kitchen a minute later and Bruce tells her he's going to borrow Clark for the evening, she just touches his arm and smiles. "Oh, I think that's wonderful," she says, and then, to Clark, "Do you good to get out of this house for a while, honey."

There's no excuse he can come up with, either: Bruce knows perfectly well that Clark doesn't have any other plans, wasn't intending to go anywhere or do anything—

Which, when you think about it like that, maybe means that Mom has a point.

But he still feels like he's getting away with something, somehow, when he gets in Bruce's car. It's a weird kind of surprise when nobody stops him on the airfield, when there isn't someone waiting inside Bruce's jet to look him up and down and tell him there's been a mistake. It seems like somebody should, like it's just a matter of time before the universe notices that Clark shouldn't be doing this and rights itself.

Except he gets in the jet with Bruce, and it takes off instead of stalling. And then Bruce raises an eyebrow at him and says, "Surely Clark Kent always buckles his seatbelt."

"Wh—oh," Clark says, "right." He didn't think the weird fancy seats in here had them, but a little bit of feeling around and his does indeed turn up. He pulls it across his lap—because Bruce is right, Superman doesn't need a seatbelt, but Clark Kent's supposed to be as concerned for his personal safety as anyone.

But he can't quite take the last step and buckle it.

"Bruce, I'm not sure this is a good idea."

Bruce stares at him for a long moment, unreadably, and then glances down at his phone. "Well, Alfred will be sorry to hear that."

Clark blinks. "What?"

"Alfred," Bruce repeats. "Who's in the middle of spending several hours personally herding my tailor through a rush job altering a suit sized for—"

"Are you—kidding?"

"He knew where I was," Bruce says. "He knew why I was asking. And, morbid as it may be, he does in fact have your measurements somewhere." He smiles, and it's the shiny one again, the one with the sharp edges. "We didn't want the coffin to be too small."

He's joking—black humor, it's funny—

(—it's dark, it's dark and he can't see, and it's going to happen the same way it always does, he's going to push and nothing will happen, but he can't not set his hands to the wood—he can't stand it, he can't, he has to get out—)

"Clark."

Clark drags in a breath and opens his eyes—when had he closed them?—and he can see just fine, because there's light all over the place in here. He can see the backs of his hands, the stark straining knuckles; except only half of them, because Bruce's hand is covering the other half.

"Clark," Bruce says again, so low and quiet and patient he doesn't sound like himself at all.

"Sorry," Clark manages. "I'm—sorry, I'm fine."

He blinks once, twice, and then makes himself look up, and Bruce almost doesn't look like himself either: his face is serious, as calm and still as his tone, a lake without any ripples.

(His eyes are kind of—soft. Clark hadn't really known they could do that.)

"You will be," he says, like him saying it makes it true.

And he's Bruce Wayne, Clark thinks, so probably that's usually all it takes.

He waits another beat, and then sits back, hand lifting away. And his voice is back to normal when he says, "Trust me, Clark, a little distraction for an evening is just what you need. And you wouldn't want all Alfred's hard work to go to waste, would you?"

And—well, he's not wrong. "No," Clark concedes.

Which is what Bruce expected: he smiles. "I realize it's nothing you haven't seen before," Bruce adds, "but do try to sit back and enjoy the flight."

 

 

Presumably Bruce has property all over Gotham—and Metropolis, for that matter—and Clark has no idea exactly where they end up. It's the penthouse of some building that's either a really nice hotel, or else an apartment building so expensive it could pass for a hotel to the eyes of somebody from Smallville; and it's a ridiculous number of floors, but the elevator is astoundingly fast. The outer wall is glass: Gotham at sunset drops away from them like they're flying, red and gold and shadowed.

When it stops, Clark lets Bruce wave him out first and then immediately feels like he should step back in, because he's doing the carpeting a disservice by walking on it. "Um, Bruce, this is really—"

"Ah, Master Wayne," says the voice from over Bruce's phone, and then somebody—Alfred, Clark reminds himself—sweeps into the entryway with a crinkle of plastic, from the garment bag draped over his arm. "And Master Kent! A pleasure to meet you."

"Thanks, you too," Clark says automatically, and then cringes a little at how casual it sounds; but Alfred's smile is warm anyway, so he must not mind too much.

"Apologies in advance for the fit," Alfred says, sounding deeply aggrieved, and then he hands Clark the garment bag: the nicest suit Clark's seen in real life by miles, except maybe for the ones Bruce wears when he comes to the house. "I assure you it is the best that could be done on such short notice—"

"No, please, I'm sure it's fine," Clark says instantly. "It's amazing, really. Thank you."

Alfred's eyebrows rise. "Good lord," he murmurs. "I begin to see why Master Wayne was so—"

"Alfred," Bruce says, so sharp Clark wants to apologize; but then Alfred's used to Bruce, he must be, because he only sighs a little through his nose.

"So sorry, sir, won't happen again," he says, pointedly rote, without looking away from Clark. And then he bows slightly and adds, "You are very much welcome, Master Kent, to the suit and to the suite, and if you require any assistance, please don't hesitate to ask. A selection of matching ties is hanging in the west bathroom."

 

 

Alfred, it appears, is a master of understatement. The suit fits perfectly, at least as far as Clark can tell, and the ties aren't alone: there's a shining pair of men's dress shoes, a frankly intimidating selection of colognes in glittering bottles, and an array of cufflinks Clark's a little terrified to put into his sleeves. If he loses one of those down a bathroom drain, he might as well just mail Bruce his next ten new Planet paychecks directly. Sweet Jesus.

(And yet it seems kind of wrong to wear a suit this nice without any. Clark tries to pick the plainest ones, no diamonds or anything, but they're probably still—like, solid white gold or something, god. Clark doesn't even want to know.)

The colognes actually aren't quite what Clark was expecting. They're as well-made as everything else, he's sure, but—but most of them are off one way or another, too many competing notes in one, the musk way too heavy in another. Which might be his nose: he's never been sure whether he has supersmell, too, and it hasn't been an appealing thing to try to test.

He doesn't even have to open any of them. He just stands in front of the line of them and breathes in, and it takes him a moment to pick the scents apart, but none of them are really—

No, wait. Which one is that? He breathes in again and then leans over the row of bottles, but it isn't any of them.

He opens his eyes, frowning, and then glances down at the cabinets below the sink.

The bottle he finds, after about thirty seconds of feeling around, looks pretty much like the others except that it's barely been used. Clark would put it back, but it has been opened. Just not very often. And he's not sure why, because it's nice: subtler, not quite so many moving parts; smoke, Clark thinks, and leather, and something sharper, a bright edge—citrus, maybe?

Even if Clark didn't like it the best, it seems like it's the one he's least likely to go wrong with, light enough that putting too much on won't be a disaster.

In the end, it's actually the tie that thwarts him. He manages not to fumble the cufflinks into the sink, and the shoes fit just as well as the suit, and he doesn't spill cologne all over his shirt. But the tie—maybe it's because the suit fits so well, but he can't get it to lie right. Either his knots are all coming out lopsided, or else the ruler-perfect evenness of the lapels is just making it look like it.

He blows out a frustrated breath, and listens: he's missed his chance to get Alfred's help without Bruce noticing, it sounds like, because Bruce is already back out by the entryway. Of course, he also probably didn't take fifteen minutes to pick a pair of cufflinks.

Bruce is going to make fun of him, definitely; use the opportunity to flirt, almost certainly.

But odds are he's also going to be able to get the tie tied on the first try.

(Damn him.)

 

 

Clark leaves the tie dangling around his neck, half-tangled—not that Bruce needs any help mocking him, but—

But Bruce's smiles so often seem planned, deployed. He could stand to be surprised by something funny a little more often.

And it works: when Clark comes around the edge of the doorframe and says, "Bruce," a little plaintively, Bruce turns and sees him and for a second just grins, smug and spontaneous.

Then—of course—he lets his eyes wander down Clark, and very, very leisurely, back up—

"At least you know how to clean up all right," Bruce says, and then takes a second glance down toward Clark's collar. "Even if you can't tie a tie."

"I can," Clark says, "that's the thing. I just can't do it up to this suit's standards. I'm pretty sure," he adds, confiding, "that if I'd messed it up one more time, the whole thing would have just crawled off me in protest."

He only realizes how it sounds after it's already come out of his mouth; but it's not his fault, he thinks. Every third thing Bruce says is a come-on. And of course he doesn't mean any of it, but it's—sometimes it's hard not to reply in kind. That's all.

Bruce raises an eyebrow. "Not that I'd mind seeing that," he murmurs, "but let's try to do a little better," and then he steps over toward Clark, a hand already out for the tie.

He's in Clark's space; it's impossible for Clark to not know that Bruce picked one of the colognes he himself had rejected. Doesn't suit him, Clark thinks. It's not awful, it's just—a little too heavy, a little too sweet. He should have chosen something more like the one that was under the sink—

And he's close enough to know that Clark did. His fingertips land, a dashed line of heat just to the side of Clark's buttons, thumb and forefinger catching what's left of the knot Clark was halfway through undoing; and then he breathes in and his gaze flicks abruptly up to Clark's face, his eyes wide and clear and dark.

"I found it in the cabinet," Clark says, a little too quickly—he didn't do anything wrong. No one said the cabinets were off limits. And even if Bruce is angry, the worst that'll happen is he'll tell Clark to leave. There's nothing to be afraid of.

(But, for some reason, Clark's heart is still pounding.)

"I liked it," he adds, and then can't do anything but watch, helpless, waiting to see what Bruce will do.

The answer is: stare at Clark for one long slow beat, lips parted ever so slightly, before his gaze leaps away again. "Good choice," he says, bland; and then he pauses for a second and curls his hand around the tie, knuckles brushing Clark's collar. "And on second thought—" and he pulls, the hiss of silk like faraway rain— "no tie."

Clark glances down. It's a three-piece suit—is that even allowed? "No tie?"

He looks up again, and maybe he shouldn't have: Bruce is so close, one side of his mouth slanting up, fingers hot at the base of Clark's throat—

Bruce thumbs precisely one button open. "No tie," he confirms, very low, and steps away.

 

 

It's easy enough to let it go unremarked, right then—Bruce tosses the tie onto one of the sofas, and Clark automatically asks him whether Alfred's going to have to pick that up later and earns a sharp wry smile.

And it's tempting to just ignore the whole incident. Bruce has been hitting on Clark since Day 1, pretty much, and it's never been an issue—he hasn't let a lack of response slow him down, even if he also hasn't pushed on the rare occasions when Clark accidentally flirts back.

Besides, Clark's never asked him to stop.

It's—it's nice, is the thing. It's just like all the other vaguely annoying things about Bruce: when Clark's rolling his eyes and turning red at Bruce's suggestive turns of phrase, that means he isn't staring out the window thinking about the silence of space, the muffled quiet of being buried. He hasn't asked Bruce to stop because he doesn't want Bruce to stop. But—

But Bruce could have kissed him.

That's the thought that had been about to crystallize, before Bruce had moved away. The whole picture hadn't quite come together for Clark in the moment. He hadn't managed to add it all up: the too-quick throb of his heart, the sudden tingling awareness he'd had of his own skin—of Bruce's face, of Bruce's hand; the way everything had abruptly felt warm and close and quiet.

In the moment, he'd been a step behind. But for all that Clark's vision is probably way better than 20/20, hindsight is still capable of doing him some good.

 

 

They say goodbye to Alfred and take the elevator back down—with Gotham painted in shades of indigo now, just starting to come alive with lights—and Clark thinks about it. Bruce has a car brought around, because that's what he does when he wants to go places, and he's telling Clark something about where they're going, whose event it is, but Clark's only barely listening; he's thinking about it.

And then they get in the car, and Clark looks out the window and thinks about it.

Bruce could have kissed him.

He tries to imagine it, and it's startlingly difficult: he knows what Bruce looks like when he's smiling, flirtatious, leering, but it's hard to make the leap from there to actually doing anything about it. Maybe—maybe at that moment when he'd caught Clark's cologne, when his gaze had leapt up like that, his eyes so dark; had he swayed in a little bit? Or—

Or does Clark just wish he had?

Clark swallows, and tries to resist the urge to glance across the car. Thank god Bruce has his phone out—he's not expecting conversation out of Clark for the ride.

Does he wish Bruce had leaned in? If Bruce had kissed him, what would he have done?

He and Lois aren't still together anywhere except as a fading shadow in his own head—at least not until she gets back from Seoul, not until they have a chance to talk everything out for real. It'll take time for them to make it back to being in the same place, literally and figuratively, and that's if they decide they're even up to trying again.

So—so if Bruce had kissed him, if Clark hadn't moved away from it—that would have been all right. It wouldn't have been anything anyone needed to feel bad about. If Bruce had kissed him, he could have held still for it, could have closed his eyes and let it happen; could even have kissed back.

And that would have surprised Bruce, Clark thinks. He finds himself grinning a little into the tinted window, because this version of things, he can imagine: Bruce making fun of him, mocking him in that half-disdainful way he has, leaning in to up the ante—assuming Clark would pull back in plenty of time, would shove him away and ask what the hell he was doing, when instead—

instead—

The car starts to slow. "Ah, here we are," Bruce says, tucking the phone away again; and his tailor must do something special with the inner pockets, Clark thinks, because it doesn't disrupt the line of his suit at all when he's done. "It's a time-honored strategy for forgetting your troubles, Clark: dress up and help yourself to a lot of very expensive liquor in a room full of people who probably don't like you."

"I shouldn't have agreed to this," Clark tells him. "I can't even get drunk," but when the car door opens, he doesn't hesitate to get out.

 

 

"Here" turns out to be a museum. Apparently a lot of private donations went into the exhibit that's about to open, and this gala is being held as something of a thank-you.

And there absolutely is someone out front with a list—but Bruce swans past the guy easily, Clark at his elbow and a smile on his face, and nobody stops him.

The space is enormous, beautiful, and even if everyone here is exactly as awful as Bruce said they were, Clark's still glad he came. The museum is one of those vast stone buildings that's scattered around the oldest sections of Gotham, gleaming marble everywhere, and it's to Bruce's tailor's credit that Clark doesn't feel underdressed, surrounded by all these glittering people in their ridiculously expensive clothes. Clark wouldn't want to come to something like this every night—and maybe Bruce is so sharp about it precisely because he sometimes has to—but it's a lovely thing to see.

"There you go," Bruce says, depositing a sparkling flute of champagne in Clark's hand, "and there I go," and he snags a second one for himself before the server has passed him entirely. "And yes, you don't have to repeat yourself: you can't get drunk. Verisimilitude, Clark."

"I don't even like the way it tastes," Clark admits—which is true, but he makes himself take a sip anyway. Verisimilitude.

It shouldn't help as much as it does, standing with Bruce in the middle of a room full of people he doesn't know. But he is in the middle, just about, standing right under the huge shining chandelier: he's in the middle of it and they're all moving around him, close enough to touch.

In retrospect, as much as he loves the farmhouse, it's possible Smallville wasn't a great place to try to fight with feeling isolated and set aside and alone.

He doesn't know anyone, but it doesn't matter. He's not supposed to. He stays at Bruce's shoulder, smiles when people look at him, and makes smalltalk here and there when Bruce gets into some deeper conversation with a businessperson or politician. One of the things Clark always loved best about being Superman—aside from being able to save lives, obviously—was just getting to meet people, learning even a little bit about someone he might otherwise never have known; and he hasn't been Superman in weeks.

Which, it had been nice at first, realizing that nobody expected him back and he could take his time. But he thinks he's starting to miss it.

"Another glass, sir?"

"Oh—I, um," Clark says, and then watches with resignation as the champagne he'd painstakingly whittled down to half-full is whisked out of his hand and replaced. "Thank you," he tells the server, smiling, and then glances around for Bruce.

Who hasn't gone far. He hasn't really wandered away from Clark at all, even though he never looks like he's paying much attention to where Clark is. "I thought you might be here," he's saying to a tall woman in a striking dark blue gown, leaning to kiss her hand while she waits with a studied sort of patience, just a hint of amusement in the lines around her mouth—

And then her gaze slides past him to Clark, and her eyes widen just a touch, her chin coming up.

"I did tell you," Bruce murmurs to her, and then turns. "Clark, this is Diana Prince. She ... helped me and your mother with a few things, afterward. Diana Prince, Clark Kent."

Diana keeps looking at Bruce for a long moment, face unreadable; and Bruce looks back and then raises an eyebrow. Diana's jaw tenses for a split second—but when she does finally turn to Clark, her smile is brilliant. "Clark," she says warmly.

She reaches out and it makes him freeze for a second, uncertain—is she expecting him to kiss her hand, too?—but all she does is take his hands and squeeze them, still beaming.

"I'm so glad to see you're all right," she adds, and then breaks off to laugh. "I'm sorry, this must seem so odd coming from a stranger. Bruce told me about what happened to you, about your injury and your memory?"

"Oh, of course he did," Clark says, and then, on a whim, "Busybody."

He judged right: Diana grins. "You have no idea," she tells him, very wry.

 

 

The conversation with Diana is the first time all evening that Bruce goes more than about five feet away. He watches them work their way through a few more pleasantries with an odd little smile on his face, and then claps them both on the shoulder and tells them to enjoy themselves.

"It will be easier if you aren't hanging over us like a vulture in dress shoes," Diana observes, and waves him away. "Go on, will you?" and then, pointedly, "I promise not to tell him the truth about how awful you are."

"All right, all right," Bruce says, hands raised defensively, and goes.

"Now," Diana says, turning back to Clark, "I know more about you than you do about me, so you should be asking all the questions—but I'm afraid you must let me have just one to start with. Are you all right?"

As if the answer to that one doesn't change every day, Clark thinks. But he smiles when he thinks it, and that means that maybe Bruce gave him today's answer back on the plane. "I will be, I think."

Diana looks at him seriously—the answer does matter to her—and then says, "I'm glad." And she is: he can see it in the softness around her eyes, the way she holds his gaze so steadily. He doesn't even know her, but while he was gone, she got to know him; she learned to care about him, somehow, even when he wasn't there. Which should be weird, but Clark can't bring himself to mind.

"Thank you," he says, and then has to clear his throat. "My turn now. Bruce mentioned that you know my mother?"

"Yes," Diana says instantly. "Yes, I was also in Metropolis on the day of the battle," and Clark likes how she says that: her word choice, the battle, and her calm even tone, not hesitating or dancing around anything. "I knew Bruce already, and when I learned what had happened, I—came to help him. And your mother, in the end." She smiles. "You know this already, but she's a good woman, the best. I wish it hadn't happened the way it did, for your sake," she adds, "but I could never be sorry to have met her."

And it's—it's the first time Clark's ever thought about it like that: like maybe some good came out of it all. He mostly hasn't let himself dwell on what it was like to die, because he doesn't want to have one of those little freakouts around Mom. And when he does think about it, it's all—fire and lightning, rubble, the awful sick feeling of touching kryptonite and the sound his bones had made as they broke.

But the idea that it hadn't just been an end, that some things had also started that day, is new. That Mom had lost him, but had found Bruce and Diana, that it had brought them together and let them help each other; that it hadn't all just been destruction.

"I'm not sorry, either," Clark says aloud, and when Diana reaches out to squeeze his hand again, he squeezes back.

 

 

It's a good evening. A great evening—Clark almost causes a scene by literally floating with the lightness of it, until he catches himself and eases his heels back down onto the floor. He was telling Bruce the truth, he can't get drunk, but if this is how people feel when they're drunk then Clark can understand why they chase after it sometimes. Diana is kind and easy to talk to, even though she holds herself like a queen, and when the night starts to wind down, Clark skips the hand entirely and kisses her on the cheek instead.

"So you got along all right," Bruce says, dry, from somewhere over Clark's shoulder.

Clark turns and smiles at him, and god, he must look like an idiot, but he just can't help it: he feels so—so alive, so whole and glad and not alone, and every part of that is pretty much down to Bruce. Bruce, who's rude and bitter and ungenerous—except for all the time and money and effort he's spending on putting Clark's life back in order. Bruce, who's ostentatious and wears the wrong cologne and—and touched Clark's throat not three hours ago.

Bruce, who could have kissed him.

Clark thinks it and looks at him and it's like a live wire, the nearness of him, the idea that Clark could close that space any moment and just—

—well, all right, go outside and get back in Bruce's car, first. Bruce says goodnight to Diana quietly, and then to ten or twelve other people really loudly, and then Clark takes his arm and he turns and raises an eyebrow.

"What?" Clark says, and blinks innocently. "Don't I meet your standards for arm candy?"

Bruce looks away, almost a shake of the head, and then wets his lower lip, and Clark only just manages to yank his gaze up in time when Bruce looks back at him to say, "Oh, I think it's safe to say you exceed them, Clark."

 

 

He doesn't shake Clark's hand off his arm, not in the museum and not outside. When they get in the car, Clark goes for the near seat instead of the opposite, and Bruce doesn't even give him a hard time.

"So what are you going to do," Clark says once the car is moving, "bundle me back onto the jet?"

"I should," Bruce says, but then he glances at his watch and makes a face.

"Seems a little late for that," Clark says, because it's easy enough to see Bruce is thinking it.

Bruce looks at him, the slant of his mouth full of amusement. "Why, Clark," he says, "are you angling to get invited up for coffee? I don't suppose caffeine has any more of an effect on you than champagne does."

"No," Clark says, "but it tastes better."

Bruce raises an eyebrow.

"With about six creams and six sugars," Clark concedes.

"Dear god," Bruce murmurs, and then, very soberly, "Whatever you do, don't say that to Alfred."

Clark laughs, and that's the moment when he just—lets go. He lets himself lean back into the leather seat and think about Bruce's mouth, all its curves and angles; about himself undoing one of Bruce's buttons, and then another and another and another, and relishes the electricity of imagining it with Bruce not even a foot away.

He lets himself look at Bruce in the elevator: the perfect clean lines of him, the width of his shoulders, Gotham's lights blue and yellow and gold on his face. And he lets himself not feel bad about it. He doesn't know how all this is going to shake out, with Lois and his job and Superman, with everything. But somehow Bruce Wayne has turned out to be the one person who's staying in step with him after everything else has run on ahead. And Clark likes him, and wants him, and that's okay.

So he doesn't waste any more time second-guessing himself, once the elevator dings. He steps out, and Bruce steps out, and the doors swish closed behind them; and then Clark turns around and catches Bruce's face in his hands and kisses him.