The highway droned beneath the wheels of Bruce Wayne's car, an endless seam of asphalt laid over flint and gravel and the sweat of stubborn pioneers. Its surface shimmered with lakes of heat. Four hours ago he had crossed the state line into Kansas, and he was still in Kansas now. It felt like he might be in Kansas forever, trapped in the particular interminability of the Midwest, nothing but immense sky and sea-level hills. On the horizon he could see other vehicles on the road, distant mirages of glancing sunlight. It seemed unlikely that he'd ever get to where they were.
There was absolutely nothing to distract him here, only a vast panorama of corn, half-ripened and rippling in the lackluster breeze, or swathes of bluestem colonizing fields left otherwise fallow; the occasional tree swept into wind-shapes, or a grain elevator rising like a lonely tombstone against the skyline. It was incredible how quickly he'd learned to separate interesting scenery from boring scenery, and this was very boring scenery.
He missed the small towns and the bright flit of backyard laundry lines that he was tired of several hours back, but mostly he missed Gotham. There were no shadows in Kansas save for the one he cast.
There had been plenty of opportunities to turn home—he'd felt it constantly on the first stretch out of the city, the unrelenting draw of his mission and how unconscionable it was that he'd abandoned it. Every junction and interchange had tempted him to return. Dick could hold the ground for as long as was needed, but Gotham must always be Bruce's hill to die on.
His grip on the steering wheel whitened his knuckles; whenever he thought on it, every element of him became desperate to pull a handbrake turn, floor the gas and gun it back to the embrace of her streets to reaffirm his oath in blood. Instead, he drove himself onward.
In the days following the funeral, Bruce had decided how he was going to continue. His grief was inescapable, so he'd let it inhabit him wholly. His anger could be externalized. Gotham had always been able to take the full brunt of his rage. Predictably, Alfred had disagreed. They'd fought about it continuously. Bruce must have started winning at some point, because Alfred had played dirty to get the upper hand. There was no other reason for him to have brought Dick into it.
It had been a shock to see him again. He must have been at the funeral, but Bruce had barely registered any of the faces there, only their hands on his arm and the low murmur of their condolences. It had been a necessary step in enduring the ceremony with minimal outward sign of anything at all. His grief was not for anyone else to see.
There had been paparazzi at the cemetery gates. The only thing he remembered feeling that day was bitter, helpless anger.
He felt an echo of that now, stirred up and directionless. The sun glared relentlessly, reflecting off the hood ornament in bright flashes, and Bruce took it out on the visor, jerking it down. It helped about as much as he expected it to. The road markings flew beneath his wheels; the fields either side of him crawled by in distant parallax. He'd lost fourteen minutes and nineteen miles to highway hypnosis, and nothing had changed.
The power division of WayneTech could put some of this rolling expanse and unmitigated sunshine to good use. He managed to estimate the overall power output of a forty acre solar farm before his thoughts circled around on him like starving wolves.
He switched on the radio in an attempt to beat them back. The station was playing Kansas unironically. He switched it off again with more restraint than he felt.
"This isn't like you, Bruce," Dick had said, come to bother him as he raked through the smoldering ashes of the manor. He'd looked older than Bruce's last memory of him, his lingering teenaged softness given way to a sharp jaw and a day's stubble. One of his boys had lived to become a man, and Bruce had missed it happening. "You were never this reckless."
Violent, Bruce had heard, loud and clear.
"Things have changed," Bruce had told him. Death was his catalyst. He'd understood that for as long as he could remember. It would return to him again and again, taking a piece from him each time until his extraneous parts had been whittled away. All that would remain, in the end, was vengeance and grief, and he'd visit this upon all who deserved it.
That was something Dick should have known. But Dick had only pressed his lips together, stern in a way that was unfamiliar on his face. It could have been something he'd learned on duty with the Blüdhaven PD, but Bruce had recognized it as one of his own expressions turned back on him.
"I'm worried about you. So is Alfred, and I think he's right. You need time, Bruce. You need to take a break."
A sabbatical, Alfred had delicately called it. Bruce hadn't graced either of them with a response. Dick had waited for one anyway.
And while he'd waited, he'd put a hand on the manor's sooty brickwork. "God," he'd said. "Look at the place." His voice had unstrung itself, and Bruce had been unable to bear him any further.
Bruce's jaw ached. He consciously relaxed the tension in his face, only to forget and clench his teeth again as an intersection approached. He signaled and took an exit at speed without consideration or hesitation, off the interstate and onto a minor road, the kind that might eventually be designated a real name if anyone cared about it enough. The cornfields encroached, swaying ever closer to the car.
When he was a child, after his parents, he and Alfred had driven across the country. He hadn't wanted to, though he had been restless, discontent and disconsolate, haunting the manor's hallways because too many of the rooms were uninhabitable. Even there, his father's tobacco had still lingered, and his mother's sachet. He'd taken his meals in the kitchen, slept in a guest room. His own home was made strange in his new reality, so he'd made himself a stranger in it. Despite this, he had not wanted to leave for any amount of time. Even before the bats, before his mission, he had understood how deep into Gotham his roots were sunk.
Alfred had been the one to insist. In hindsight, perhaps he had been suffering the empty rooms as much as Bruce had.
"Some fresh air," he'd said. "A change of scenery."
The air had been fresh when it wasn't redolent of cattle. The scenery—incredibly boring.
Bruce regretted the memories this landscape stirred. He took a hand from the wheel to rub at his face.
They had made it halfway to California before the car had gotten a flat, stranding them on the outskirts of a town that was little more than some houses clustered around a crossroads. Bruce had sat in the sweltering shadows of the backseat while Alfred had changed the tire. It could have been a mile from here, or it could have been a hundred miles.
In the scrubby field across the road, a couple of boys had been playing baseball. They'd laughed and flailed and spent more time running after the ball than anything else. Whatever cares they might have had weren't important to them, not right then. Their biggest concerns were probably homework, pocket money, neglected chores.
Bruce had thought for a moment that maybe he'd like to play, too. His heart had fleetingly lifted at the idea.
The ball had eventually landed near the road—a pitch or a hit, Bruce couldn't remember, but the boys had come to collect it, eyeing the car curiously. They'd spotted him, sitting there in the shadows, and maybe they would have invited him to play if Bruce had been able to muster anything but a doleful stare.
Homework and pocket money, and whether they could get a ride to the state fair. Not anticipating the traction of rain-wet roof tiles underfoot or misjudging the velocity of a crowbar or learning that there was nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight.
His son, gone so young while he persisted still.
The understanding on Alfred's face when Bruce had said—okay. You win. I'm driving to California and back, see you in a week. That blow had landed with precision. He would have to apologize.
Bruce struck the steering wheel with the heel of his hand. Those boys would be his age now, with boys of their own whose only worries would be—
The car's temperature gauge climbed steadily. He flattened his foot, roaring along the road like he was the only man left on this earth, onto a bridge over a baked-dry riverbed and past what the summer had left of a placid lake, onward into the ecstatic blue sky. He felt insignificant, and for once he welcomed it. It made him want to cling to the earth with urgency instead of spinning off into oblivion. He turned the radio back on with a twist, cranked the volume high. DJ banter; an advertisement for Haviland's inaugural meteorite festival.
He glanced at the dash. The temperature gauge was in the red, now. He should pull over for a while and let the engine cool off, but instead he wound down the window and blasted the heater for as long as he could stand, trying to bleed off the worst of it, perspiring in the eddies of hot air. The fields streaked past, the clouds barely moved. The radio blared Journey, and his contempt was like pulling weeds, clearing his mind.
His shirt stuck to him like cling wrap. Eventually steam started lifting from the edges of the hood, and he pulled over, tires crunching over loose gravel as the car came to a standstill. All he could smell was baking asphalt and hot rubber. This had been inevitable, of course. Not his most responsible decision to ignore that fact, but if anyone deserved to spend some time at the side of the road in the ass-end of nowhere, sweating among the shriveled corn stalks and ditches full of bindweed, it was him.
He popped the hood and ducked back from the belch of steam. The radiator cap would be searing hot. It'd take a good hour for the engine to cool off enough for him to touch it, never mind refill the reservoir without cracking the block. Bruce ran a hand through his hair and loosened his shirt collar.
From the back seat, he fished out the newspaper he'd bought at the last gas station he passed through, the one with the sign saying LAST CHANCE FOR GAS 46 MILES and the eyebrow raise when he'd asked for a soda. He leaned against the radiating heat of his vehicle and shook the paper open. The contents were as moderate as the people, but it kept his mind occupied and his thoughts dampened. His phone was a much more adequate time-waster, but with it came emails and text messages. It would be enough to know they were there, intruding on his status bar.
The last motel, he'd spent an hour and forty-three minutes staring at the ceiling before getting up and back on the road. If he could bear the stifling interior of the car, he might be able to sleep.
Halfway through an article on the summer's wildfire threats, Bruce heard the rumble of an approaching vehicle and tilted the paper down. A mud-spattered blue pickup pulled up, driven by a youth in a baseball cap and a henley that had seen better days. He leaned his head out of the cab, resting his forearm along the open window.
"Hi there," he said, over the rough idle of the pickup's engine. "You need a hand with that?"
Great. Of all the nowhere at his disposal, Bruce had picked the nowhere with a good samaritan.
A bead of sweat trickled under the neckline of Bruce's shirt. He knew what he looked like. He might be dressed down, for him, but it wasn't a nitrate-scorched-dirt, rusting-wire-fence-on-a-lean kind of dressed down. He was an obvious city slicker in an inappropriate vehicle who was too stupid to keep his radiator topped up.
"I'm fine," he said.
"You're not local, are you?" the kid said. Despite Bruce's Gotham plates and the art of the Midwestern nicety, it appeared to be a genuine question, so Bruce bit back on his reflexive sarcasm.
"No. I just need to let her cool off and I'll be on my way." Bruce folded the paper, and then his arms.
"Want me to take a look anyway? Might be more than that, and no offense, but you don't look like you even know how to pump your own gas. I bet your radiator needs filled."
So much for politeness. The kid dismounted from the cab of his truck and took his hat off, tucking it into the back pocket of his jeans. Bruce gave him a habitual once-over as he approached: about six-one, two hundred pounds, two-ten maybe. Early to mid-twenties. Pleasing, if solemn face. Notably blue eyes. And, frankly, 'strapping farmboy' barely covered it. His shoulders were almost as broad as Bruce's.
He flashed Bruce a cautious smile, and then leaned to take a look under the Bentley's hood, one arm braced on the fender. "I'm Clark, by the way."
"I said I was fine, son."
Bruce had always been able to defend his privacy with a few terse words and, often, only his expression. He wasn't used to it not working. Still, the kid's heart seemed to be in the right place, and far be it from him to begrudge anyone trying to do a kindness.
"And I said I was Clark." He looked up and smiled again, wider this time, dimpled. "There a manners shortage out east?"
"Terminally so." Bruce returned his smile despite himself. And, since he might as well, he added, "I'm Bruce."
"Well, Bruce," Clark said. "You're running on empty."
Bruce could have told him that.
Clark reached a hand in toward to engine, and before Bruce could shout a caution, untwisted the cap. He leapt back with a whoop as a geyser of scalding water and clouds of steam erupted from the engine and came hissing down onto the asphalt.
"Cheese and mice," he said, almost like an afterthought, and jammed his hand into the pocket of his jeans without looking at it. He waved idly with his other, trying to dissipate the steam. "Still hot. Sorry. You looked like you'd been stopped longer."
A fair assumption considering the state of him, Bruce thought, as the steam sent a fresh wave of sweat breaking down his back and along his hairline. He ignored the commonplace discomfort of it in favor of the more lucid itch in his brain. It was odd, the way Clark had reacted to the incident. Only the slightest ruffle to his calm, no reverence for the danger he'd caused. No swearing, no dance of pain.
"That was dumb of me." Clark rubbed the back of his head with his other hand, talking more to himself than to Bruce. "Should've asked. See, this is how I get into trouble."
"Are you hurt?" Bruce gestured to the car. "If you burned yourself, I have a first aid kit in the—"
"I'm okay," Clark said, but he didn't take his hand out of his pocket. Another strange response, to have put it there. Most people instinctively clutched at their injuries to alleviate the pain, and Bruce was certain he'd seen the water gush over Clark's fingers in the moment before the steam had blanketed him. It must be agony.
Despite this, as far as degree of suffering went, Clark was not the one losing here. Bruce's interest seized upon this like a preying raptor.
It took a great deal of mental discipline to hold up against the reality of physical harm. Learning to climb a knife ladder in Nanda Parbat had taught him that. The level of mastery required over his own body had been phenomenal—an acute awareness of every aspect of his balance and weight and the amount of force that he exerted upon the world in any given moment—but what had come hardest was learning to set the pain aside whenever he'd failed.
Clark was demonstrating minimal discomfort. How and why would a kid in the middle of nowhere have learned pain suppression techniques?
All of his red flags were hoisted, and he welcomed the familiar mechanisms of his mistrust. Something new for his subconscious to churn over, instead of iterating on his grief.
Bruce turned to him. "You must have caught some of it. Show me your hand."
Clark grimaced, then tried to pretend he had been squinting against the sun.
"Please," Bruce said, in the same register he used with employees he was ninety percent certain had fucked something up. No repercussions, it said. He just needed to know. "I'd hate to think you were injured trying to do me a favor."
Clark sighed. "It's okay, I'm alright," he repeated, but took his hand out of his pocket. He turned it palm up and then down again. His skin was even and golden, not even slightly pink, never mind reddened or blistering. "See?"
"I see." Bruce caught Clark's hand in his and turned it to inspect it again, gently pressing between his knuckles so his fingers splayed. There wasn't a scrape or scratch on him, either. Not so much as a hangnail. These were not the hands of a man who hauled haystacks around all day, even if his arms were. His skin felt hot, as though he had been scalded after all—though dry. Not at all like Bruce's clammy palms.
Bruce looked at him, eyebrows arched. The V of skin at the neck of Clark's henley was as red as any sunburn.
"I got lucky, I guess." Clark reclaimed his hand with awkward courteousness. He ran his thumb over his knuckles and then tucked the hand back into his pocket. The grin on his face looked pinned there.
There had been rumors that Bruce had dismissed out of hand, low-level internet buzz about so-called metahumans gleaned from the usual dubious channels. He'd chalked it up to embellishment and over-enthusiastic speculation bounced around in an echo chamber—that's how it worked with the Bat, and he was often mentioned in the same breath—but this cast things in a different light. Bruce intended to find out the whys and wherefores, but for all his amiability, Clark seemed a little spooked. Pushing the matter might not be his best course of action.
"You sure did," Bruce said pleasantly, as though he'd already put the incident out of his mind.
Clark's grin relaxed into something less uneasy. He reached up to scrub at the nape of his neck, and Bruce took the opportunity to examine the flex of tendons in his wrist, the pull of muscle in his forearm. There didn't appear to be anything markedly unusual about his physiology, save that it was impressive. Despite the reddened skin at his neck, he didn't seem to be sweating much, but that could be acclimation. Nothing unexpected in his microexpressions and body language other than a slight awkwardness. Maybe he'd expected his good deed for the day to be a quick fix, not a performance.
Bruce sucked his lip in thought.
"I'm not keeping you, am I?" he asked when Clark cleared his throat and fidgeted with his watchstrap. "You probably have better things to do."
Clark shrugged and the red crept further up his neck. "Uh, no, it's okay," he said. "I mean, call me provincial, but we don't get a lot of strangers through here. Especially not from the coast."
"We generally expire before we get this far inland." Bruce wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and cast his sweat into the dirt. The summer's dog days bit hard out here.
Clark laughed, a pleasant low roll from deep in his chest. "I guess it's pretty hot today, huh," he said. "You must be a hardier variety—oh, hey, I've got—"
He let whatever he was going to say meander off as he started up and back to his vehicle. He pulled the door open and leaned into the cab, stretching over the driver's seat and into the passenger-side footwell. There was a pause, and his shoulders rose as though he were taking a deep breath.
He emerged with a bottle of water and leaned next to Bruce again. Their elbows brushed as Clark pressed it to his face briefly, then he cracked the lid off, took a long swallow, and held it out to Bruce. The casual friendliness of it caught Bruce off guard, and he spent a hapless few seconds staring at the bottle. Clark's outstretched arm faltered, and so did his smile, perhaps realizing that it wasn't a done thing with strangers, at least not where Bruce was from.
Bruce took the bottle before Clark's smile could fade completely. It was colder than he expected, the plastic firm and beaded with moisture. Maybe Clark had a cooler of melting drugstore ice in the footwell. The hot wind ruffled his hair as he sipped, and he considered upending the rest of the bottle over himself. It wouldn't leave his shirt much worse off than it already was.
"How's business in the city?" Clark asked, obviously trying to smooth over the awkwardness of the drink-sharing with an equally awkward piece of stock smalltalk, adjusted for his audience. Unfortunately for him, back home was the last thing Bruce wanted to talk about. He handed the bottle back to Clark.
Clark frowned at it briefly, then licked his lips and brought it to his mouth.
"I'm taking a break so I don't have to think about that for a while." Bruce found himself watching the slow bob of Clark's throat as he drank; the perfect angle of his jaw.
Right, he thought with mild consternation. He knew what this was. He didn't consider himself particularly attracted to one gender over another, insofar as he considered it at all, but that didn't mean he couldn't be caught off-guard when it happened. He would manage this the way he usually did: by ignoring it.
"Oh, sure, sorry." Clark wiped at his mouth, still wet and tipped into a self-deprecating grin. "Okay then—what brought you to Smallville?"
"Nothing. I was just passing through. I'm headed to California."
"I hate to break it to you, but you're a little off track. You wanted to stay on the 400."
"I was looking for some less boring scenery."
"I hate to break it to you," Clark said again, and followed it up with that laugh of his. Bruce found himself smiling in response. "So, Gotham."
So much for nipping that conversational path in the bud. "Born and bred," Bruce said, with what he assumed was the requisite amount of pride.
"I heard it's nice there."
"No, you didn't."
"No, I didn't," Clark conceded easily.
He smiled a lot. Usually Bruce mistrusted that in a person. When people smiled around him, it was often in discomfort or fear, but Clark no longer seemed troubled with either. Despite his earlier peculiarity he was obviously content to shoot the breeze at the side of the road with a stranger.
Clark looked out over the cornfield, shading his eyes from the sun with one large hand. "It sounds like an interesting place."
Something in his inflection made Bruce tense up. He hoped this wasn't about to go the way he thought it was. He could feel the prickle of his skin at the idea. Or—that could be his sweat drying. The heat of the day had little interest in abating, even this late in the afternoon.
"I heard a rumor you guys had a demon protecting the city." Clark extended his index fingers and held them up to his head. His shadow stretched over the blacktop: a bat.
There it was. Bruce took an even breath. He probably sounded long-suffering. It'd do.
"It's not a rumor," he said. "It's a myth."
"Well, yeah. Of course."
Clark seemed slightly crestfallen, playing off Bruce's dismissal with almost enough casualness, but not quite. He wanted to believe in the Bat. Bruce felt uncomfortable in his skin in a way that had little to do with his sweaty clothing.
He had almost brought the Suit. He had wanted to. It could have been sitting in the trunk, fifteen hundred miles from the battle and only a breath away.
Clark shrugged. "Demons aren't real. But people are. You can't tell me there's not something going on there, even if it's—if it sounds like whoever's doing it is, I don't know. Superhuman."
Jesus, the hope in his voice. He wanted to believe in the Bat.
"Maybe," Bruce said, making minimal effort to sound like he agreed. He pushed himself upright and stepped away from the car. He needed some space all of a sudden.
"So, uh, what's in California?" Clark asked.
Bruce let the ambient cicada song fill the silence while he tried to think of a way to explain and to not explain.
"Nothing," he said in the end.
"So why are you driving—sorry." Clark rubbed at the back of his neck. "That's rude. I don't mean to pry, I'm just curious."
"I recently lost someone close to me," Bruce said in a fit of honesty that he immediately regretted. His unsorted emotions crowded him into saying more. "I wanted to get away. Clear my head."
He raked back his hair and came to rest against the car again. The heat sank into his bones and melted them; he felt unsteady on his feet. He leaned back against the bodywork, hot metal through the thin cotton of his shirt. Christ, this place was hell.
"Oh." Clark's face softened with sympathy. He lifted his hand as though he wanted to place it on Bruce's forearm, like the mourners at the funeral had—well-meaning but inconsiderate of his personal boundaries—but then thought better of it. He made a fist and pressed it against his thigh. "I'm—I'm real sorry to hear that."
"Thank you," Bruce said automatically. He tipped his head up to the pristine sky. A northern harrier circled overhead. He closed his eyes and the sun painted his vision red and gold through his eyelids.
"It's rough," Clark said, after a while. "I know it. I lost my pa some years back. Still hurts, but it gets easier, I promise."
Bruce could tell him that sometimes, it really doesn't. He took a deep breath as subtly as he could.
It might be good to talk about this to someone who understood, yet didn't share the monumental weight of it all, or who he hadn't paid for the privilege of listening to him. It might be acceptable to leave this small bundle of pain with someone he'd never see again, and who couldn't be further saddened by it as they came to learn his history of loss.
"My son," he said. His voice did not crack.
"Oh—god, I am so sorry." Clark sounded shocked. Nobody else had sounded shocked. Everyone who knew—maybe they had thought it an inevitability. Everyone who didn't, well. A difficult kid, and put into the care of Bruce Wayne, of all people?
Bruce's throat tightened. "It's okay," he said, a breathtaking lie that served in the absence of anything else. He glanced over at Clark and smiled thinly to show that he meant it anyway.
"Is your—" Bruce followed Clark's gaze to his left hand, the bare ring finger. "You came out here alone?"
Bruce said, "I adopted."
That seemed to reassure Clark more than anything else, like Bruce sharing this detail was somehow an expression of trust. If Clark had reached a conclusion as to why someone like Bruce—obviously wealthy, not unattractive, his forties on the horizon—might still be unattached, it apparently didn't warrant comment. He merely nodded, then folded his arms, flattening his hands against his ribs.
"When Pa was—after he was killed," he said, "it took a long time for me to even think about making peace with it. It's ten years, soon. There's always gonna be a part of me that'll cling to the blame, but it does get easier. Year on year."
"Killed?" The word hung in the air like a pearl.
Bruce didn't know if Clark was the kind of man to carry the world's burdens on his shoulders—to pit himself against nature and find himself answerable for its wrath—but he could believe it. He seemed inclined to hold himself responsible for the welfare of anyone he encountered, including the most surly of strangers.
"Then it can't have been your fault," he said.
Clark pressed his mouth into a line. "We were arguing, right before. I never got the chance to say I was sorry."
"Trust me. That would have been a formality," Bruce said. "What could you have been fighting about that he wouldn't have forgiven you for?"
Clark was quiet for a spell. A dry breeze picked up, rustling through the fields. "You're right, it was nothing important," he eventually said. He gave a light, forced laugh. "Dumbest thing, but I still don't agree with him."
"That doesn't sound dumb to me," Bruce said. "Sounds like you have conviction."
Clark unfolded his arms and gave a diffident shrug. "I guess it's nice, when I go ahead and do what I feel is right and I can still hear him lecturing me about consequences, telling that godawful story about the horses—" He shook himself suddenly and clapped his hands, once, loud in the stillness of the day. "Okay, let's put her going."
Bruce stood back, taking an inconspicuous moment to center himself while Clark dove under the hood. He half expected things to be hot still, but Clark twisted the radiator cap off without spectacle this time, and when Bruce placed a hand on the engine, it was cold, the radiator moist with condensation.
"Hey, pass me that water? And there's some coolant in the back of my truck, I'm guessing you've got none."
"Yes, sir," Bruce drawled, and Clark snorted a laugh.
Bruce fetched the bottle and the gallon container of blue liquid from the flatbed and let him top up the fluids. Took barely a minute of course, all basic maintenance he could do in his sleep, but it gave Bruce a moment to think and observe.
Clark's henley rode up as he leaned over, baring the small of his back.
For god's sake. Bruce got into the car, leaving the door open and pushing the passenger side ajar in the vain hope of a crossbreeze. It was sweltering, the smell of the hot leather upholstery and his own body cloyingly strong, mingling with greasy metal and something like ozone from the engine.
Clark shunted the hood down and slapped it. "Okay," he called.
No real choice here. Start the car, give thanks, raise a hand in farewell. Any reason to stick around would be contrived, suspect. Bruce twisted the key in the ignition. The engine turned over with a cough but failed to start, and cranked progressively slower the more he tried.
The check engine light lit up.
The dangers of a classic car. He should have brought the Murciélago, but it had been the Bentley that first time. It'd had to be the Bentley.
He could narrow it down to a few things that might be wrong here: worn spark plugs; discharging battery; improper fuel/air mixture. Mostly things that needed spare parts. Academic—it was mostly things that would undermine his façade of gentle incompetence if he were to get on and fix them just like that.
Bruce summoned a groan and braced his forehead on the steering wheel, absolutely ignoring the lightness in his chest as Clark leaned down by the window, forearm resting on the roof of the car, fingers tap-tapping.
"Probably a spark plug burned out," he said after a moment.
"What the hell is a spark plug?"
"Never mind. I guess you don't have any spares."
Bruce sat back and shrugged in supreme indifference.
"There's probably some in the barn someplace. I could go fetch em, and—hey, did you eat? Ma always makes enough for seconds, it's no big deal if you want to come with."
Bruce's choices were limited. He could ask Clark to fetch the spark plugs, which would be an imposition on top of the kindness he'd already shown, and might not even be the problem. He could call for emergency vehicle recovery, which might take hours. He could sleep on it and figure it out in the morning.
But his aim was, ideally, to be in a position to learn more about this man.
"Hey, c'mon, grab your bag," Clark said. "If I can't find the plugs I'll drop you at the Motel 6. That's all Smallville's got, but it's not like you can get a decent night's sleep in your car.
"Oh, ye of little faith," Bruce said, and then pretended to fold under the weight of Clark's hospitality. "You're very generous. Okay. Just let me throw on a fresh shirt first. I can do respectable."
"Yeah," Clark said. "That one's, uh."
Sticking to him. Clark politely looked off at where the road hit its vanishing point, but Bruce turned his back to strip down anyway. The burns on his shoulder were healing badly; they might have needed a graft after all.
He dug through his duffel. Black probably wasn't the best choice and Alfred would have his head if he ever discovered he wasn't about to wear anything under it in this climate, but the shirt was dry, at least for the time being. He stuffed his damp button-down and undershirt into the corner of the trunk and pulled the fresh one over his shoulders, rolled up the sleeves and, for all the good it seemed to do, liberally reapplied his anti-perspirant.
Bruce turned as he buttoned up, in time to catch Clark's hasty glance away, the abashed half-smile in profile. He was, Bruce observed with careful detachment, uncannily beautiful.
He hoisted his duffel from the trunk and, at the behest of Clark's slow grin and exaggerated arm sweep, climbed up into the passenger side of the truck.
Clark lived about twenty minutes from where Bruce had broken down. He drove at a maddeningly steady pace, a notch under the limit, broad hands spread over the wheel. The local radio blabbered at an irritating volume, just below comprehensible but not quiet enough to ignore completely. Dusk swept in as they drove. It felt strange to be moving without being the one at the wheel. He had to press at his eyes more than once, lulled by the truck's vibrations and snatches of music.
They approached a white farmhouse, almost incidental amid the vast swathes of corn. It was set among a half-dozen outbuildings which, with bucolic inevitability, included a red barn. The road's blacktop crumbled away to gravel as they neared, and then gravel pressed into to dirt. The truck's mediocre suspension rattled Bruce's teeth in his head. They trundled past a mailbox, the name scoured off by sun and wind, and the radio garbled and faded in and out as though someone was twisting it through the bands. The reception disintegrated completely as they pulled in, and Clark turned it off with casual habit.
They came in through the back of the house. "Hey, Ma," Clark called as he pushed the screen door open. The aroma of home cooking hit Bruce square in the stomach, which growled irritably and clutched around the remnants of its gas station sandwich. Clark shot him a grin over his shoulder as though he'd heard it.
"Don't let the door slam," a woman's voice called out.
Bruce followed Clark into the kitchen. It was a traditional affair: cream cabinetry and a multicolored tile backsplash, oak countertops with tannin stains—and an unusual scalloped finish on some of the edges, like fingerprints pressed into clay. An overstuffed pinboard, magnets and photographs on the refrigerator. A homely, lived-in space.
The woman at the stove was stirring a pot of what smelled like chili con carne. An ageing golden retriever made a beeline toward Bruce, tail wagging low. Bruce subtly deflected his snout from his crotch.
"Shelby, no," Clark said absently. Undeterred, Shelby continued nosing, then abruptly lost interest and clicked his way out of the kitchen and into the back of the house. Clark leaned and planted a kiss on the woman's cheek. "I brought a friend for dinner, hope you don't mind. Did you feed the chickens yet?"
"Clark, honey, what did I tell you about—well, hello." Clark's mother, presumably, balanced the wooden spoon across the top of the pot and turned to give Bruce a shrewd once-over, hands on her hips. "You're from out of town," she said matter-of-factly.
"So I've been told." Bruce extended his hand. "I had some car trouble. Clark stopped to help me out."
"Back in a few minutes," Clark said, letting the door slam.
"He's a kind boy," the woman said with a good-natured wince. She wiped her fingers on a tea cloth before giving Bruce's hand a firm shake. "But he can be bullheaded. I hope he didn't twist your arm too bad. I'm Martha, by the by."
It was always the inconsequential things that would slip past his guard. He'd learned to mitigate it decades ago, but circumstances left him tender and unprepared. Bruce summoned a coughing fit to cover himself.
"Oh now, goodness, what's all that about," Martha said. "Are you alright?" She grasped Bruce's shoulder and guided him to the table to sit down. Bruce let her, for appearances sake if not for his own.
"Fine," he managed. "A little dehydrated, that's all. We've been out in the sun a while."
"It's been a scorcher, ain't it?" Martha said. "Let me get you a drink—oh, damn my manners, what do they call you?"
"Bruce." He offered her what he hoped was a calm smile. "A glass of water would be great, thank you. Martha."
"Of course." She drew him a tumbler as she talked, and topped it up with some ice. "If you'd like to stay for dinner, Bruce, you're quite welcome. Did your car get fixed?" She pushed up onto her toes and leaned on the countertop, craning her neck to look out of the kitchen window.
"No," Bruce said. The water was welcome, even if he wasn't as parched as he'd implied. He crunched an ice cube and let it melt on his tongue.
"No," she echoed, with a commiserating click of her tongue. "Well, it's getting late, and the motel is a ways out. The guest room is full of all kinds of junk, but there's a couch in the den you can take. It ain't fancy, but it's comfortable."
Bruce was spared from having to make a response, or deciding what his response should be, by his phone loudly vibrating in his pocket. Martha glanced over at him; she looked altogether more surprised about it than he would have expected.
"Ah—one moment, excuse me," he said, and stepped outside to take the call. The heat rushed up to meet him once again, even with dusk creeping across the sky and the setting sun a bowl of fire on the horizon.
"Alfred," he said.
Alfred's voice was a digital burble.
"You're breaking up." Bruce took the phone away from his ear briefly to check the signal. One bar. It should be better than that, even here in the middle of nowhere. He walked further out into the open. "Alfred?"
Another garbled message, but it wasn't the underwater marbling of bad reception. It had a strange melodious edge, rhythmic pulsing harmonics, and it seemed to get worse the further he got from the house—or the nearer he got to the barn. He took a few more steps into its proximity and caught one distinct 'Sir?' before the last bar of reception gave out and the call terminated itself. No service, and curious static on the screen. He attempted to dial again anyway.
"Due to temporary service difficulties, we are unable to connect your call at this time," a vapidly cheerful voice relayed. "Please try again later."
Martha was serving up dinner when he returned. Clark had rejoined her, setting out plates and cutlery and squares of paper napkins. "I'm surprised you could get any calls through at all," Martha said, heaping rice onto a plate and handing it to Bruce as he came to sit. "The reception has gotten so bad over the last year or two."
Clark pulled a face: welcome to the sticks.
"My network has excellent satellite coverage," Bruce said. In the next moment, his phone chimed with an email. Apparently the data transfer was more robust than actual phone calls. He held the device under the table and thumbed the message open.
I trust your journey has been safe and free from altercations thus far.
I called to update you on Master Dick's progress with Mr. Nygma's marvellous scavenger hunt, but it appears you're in a signal black spot. I found that most unusual, considering the extent of your hardware, so I took the liberty of attempting to isolate the cause of the interference.
The problem, as you'll see, is quite literally astronomical. Data following.
Bruce frowned and slid his phone back into his pocket. This was something he'd rather read over in private. And, he supposed, not at the dinner table.
"So." Martha set the pot of chili in the middle of the table. She used potholders, Bruce noted. "Help yourself, Bruce—so, since you're staying the night, you might as well have a beer?"
Bruce raised an eyebrow at the uptalk. Clark was loading a soft tortilla with studied nonchalance, bottle of Bud perspiring slowly at his elbow. He shrugged. "Making up the couch is less hassle than driving you into town."
So much for getting the spark plugs tonight. It wasn't often that anyone tried to railroad him like this. It was almost endearing. Bruce made a hesitant sound to see if they would press their advantage. Martha simply planted a beer in front of him.
"Or I could clear a space in the guest room," Clark said hastily. "It wouldn't be too much trouble."
Bruce shook his head, saluted with his beer and took a swig. Decision made. "Couch would be great," he said. "I've slept in worse places."
"Like what." The corner of Clark's mouth lifted as he reached for the guac. "A three-star hotel?"
"Clark," Martha said in honest admonishment, but she was laughing, too.
Bruce had long perfected the art of smiling believably, even if he didn't need to pretend in this instance. Bruce Wayne was used to people making jokes at his expense. He wondered when they'd catch on. That is, if they hadn't already and were merely humoring him out of politeness.
"I traveled a lot when I was younger," he said. This would invariably find him being coerced into anecdotes, but that might not be a bad thing. He'd half-finished his beer already, and only a forkful of chili. "Ever slept in a tree?"
"Now, you can't say a thing like that and not tell us about it," Martha said.
It was easy to wax lyrical about hiking in the Himalayas and watching the dawn break over the mountains (he omitted some incidental details, like being barefoot and bare-chested and on the verge of hypothermia); harpooning pirarucu surrounded by the lush verdancy of the Amazon rainforest (rations long gone, waiting for night so he could adjust his bearings via the stars); the unreal quality of St. Petersburg's white nights (seventy-three hours without sleep, hallucinations creeping at the edge of his vision); the religious experience that was scaling Uluru at sundown (the promise of taipan antivenom if he made it to the summit before full dark).
And, of course, drunken stories from Prague, drunken stories from Hong Kong, drunken stories from Tel Aviv (and, "Would you like another beer?" Martha asked).
He was halfway through bullshitting a story about getting lost in the Catacombes de Paris—complete with the occasional risqué interjection en Français just to be insufferable—when Martha stifled a yawn.
"I'm sorry to miss the end of this one, Bruce, but I assume you found your way out," she said, getting to her feet. "It's about time I took myself upstairs. I got the breakfast shift tomorrow." To Clark she said, "Be quiet when you come up."
"Like a mouse," Clark said as she leaned down to hug him goodnight.
And then Bruce was alone with Clark again, and unaccountably tense about it, despite spending most of the afternoon in his company. Maybe because of his casual teasing earlier, or maybe because with a beer in his hand and arm slung over the back of his chair, he'd shed some of his winsomeness.
Clark rested an elbow on the table and propped his chin in his palm. "Funny," he said. "I'd been thinking lately that I'd like to travel."
"I recommend it." Bruce grasped for some suitable condescension and came up painfully banal instead. "It's a good way to find yourself."
A small frown set a crease in Clark's forehead, so brief that Bruce would have missed it if he'd blinked. "I hope so."
Clark showed him where to find the bathroom, and then to his room, off the downstairs hallway. There was a loose floorboard outside the door and to the right that creaked as Clark stood on it, rocking once onto his heels. "Well, g'night," he said. "If you need anything, just—just knock. I'm upstairs on the left. If you need anything."
"Thank you for your help today, Clark." Bruce gave him a companionable pat on the shoulder. He was warm through the cotton of his shirt. "Sleep well."
"Yeah, and you."
The den wasn't used often, evident in the barest layer of dust on the kindling set in the fireplace, the tarnish on the horse brass decorating the mantel. The couch was a little musty and a lot doggy, but overall the room was cosy and dim, and more pleasant than a dozen places Bruce had slept that he could recount easily off the top of his head. More, if he cared to give it thought.
He stripped down, conscious of how there was something uniquely uncomfortable about undressing in a stranger's home, no matter how hospitable they might be, but the evening was so warm he had little choice in the matter. He cracked the window open before retiring to the couch and its patchwork quilt.
The phone's screen lit the room with a sterile white glow. He swiped open the file Alfred had sent him, and closed his eyes while it downloaded at speeds that would make a 2400-baud modem laugh. The traveling in conjunction with the heat of the day and keeping up a reasonable level of sociability had sapped him. He could let himself wallow in his tiredness now, assured a better night's sleep than in a paper-walled motel or in the rear seats of his car.
He only realized he had drifted when his phone vibrated on his chest. His status bar told him it was 1:39 a.m.; a few days away from his routine and already his body clock was shot to hell. He tapped the file open with some irritation.
It was mostly numerical data, difficult to parse in the unformatted blocks his lesser-used utilities tended to regurgitate, but a series of ICRS coordinates caught his eye.
He sat up. There was something causing interference alright. A signal was being broadcast nearby—one that penetrated well beyond the Kuiper belt.
Martha kept the key to the back door on a hook by the frame, mounted above the marker lines annotated Clark age 7, Clark age 8, Clark age 9. If he didn't think it would be gratingly paternalistic of him Bruce might give her a lecture on home security, but in this instance he was glad it wasn't squirreled away into a drawer, or, god forbid, on a keyring in her purse.
As he unlocked the door, Shelby whuffed and raised his head. "Good boy," Bruce whispered. His tail thumped, and appeased, he settled back down to his gentle flatulating.
The night was lit by a waxing moon; the Milky Way was a bright smear across the sky. Even now, the heat clung to him like a jealous lover. In the long stretch of the house's shadow, Bruce made his silent way across to the barn.
The padlock was old and slightly rusted but saw frequent enough use that it was oiled well. Bruce picked it with a paperclip from his back pocket. Inside, the flashlight on his phone illuminated the walls of the barn. They were lined with shelving racks and stacks of boxes. An upturned wheelbarrow sat in one corner amid crates of old power tools, cables spilling like guts. A container of drill bits and the skeletal remains of a socket wrench perched on top of a greasy pile of rags, on top of an engine block. The chaff, Bruce presumed, of everyday life around here.
He glanced at his phone and found his suspicions were warranted. No signal at all, and now there was shifting interference on the screen. Electromagnetic? Bruce frowned. Whatever is was, he was standing right on top of it.
He scraped at the floor with the toe of his shoe, and then stamped as firmly as he dared. He didn't know how the sound might carry out here. There was a tiny bit of give in the floor; a crust of dirt dislodged as it shifted under his weight. A straight edge, right down the center of the barn. A storm cellar.
Bruce crouched and ran his fingers along the seam and found a corner, and then another straight edge—halfway along which he found a hollow packed full of dirt. On excavation, it proved to contain a welded metal D-ring. Bruce looked up; a winch hung from the barn's rafters.
He hooked his fingers into the ring and pulled. The trapdoor barely budged.
From the barn's doorway, Bruce heard a scuff of boots. He froze.
"What are you doing out here?"
Clark's voice was level except for the thread of uncertainty that ran through it.
"I thought I heard something." Bruce slowly got to his feet. He turned over a few stock excuses: a trapped animal? An intruder? but decided that bullshitting wasn't an option here. He was blatantly snooping, and lying about it would be an even poorer way to repay Clark's hospitality. "No, that's not true. Something is broadcasting a signal from beneath your barn. Did you know that?"
Clark stepped forward. The moonlight, or something else, turned him pale. "A signal?"
"It's what's obliterating any other radio frequency in the vicinity."
The look Clark gave him was picture-perfect confusion—brow slightly furrowed, lips pressed together—but something flickered under the surface, surging up despite the performance of bewilderment. An emotion Bruce had enough experience with to recognize in any of its myriad forms.
"It's why your reception sucks. Do you know what it is?" Bruce pressed.
"I really don't," Clark said. Anyone else might have put the strain in his voice down to being up in the early hours. Maybe even the hint of defensiveness, too. "How do you know all this?"
Bruce held his phone out toward Clark. It was making barely audible, staticky blips. Its screen was a mass of shifting pixels, a useless living mosaic. Clark took one look at it and shook his head, bemusement steadfastly fixed on his face.
He was hiding something. Bruce decided that sharing some very loose truths might be a good place to start teasing it out of him.
"I'm in telecommunications," Bruce said.
"Telecommunications," Clark repeated flatly.
"My phone should work. I was just trying to find out why it doesn't."
"In the middle of the night?"
If there was good reasoning for that, Bruce didn't know it. He let his affable veneer slip, just enough to be noticeable. Clark liked him well enough in the daylight, but the Bat sang more strongly in his veins come dark. He could trade on Clark's discomfort just as well. He took a step toward him. "How did you know I was out here?"
"I heard you get up." Clark held his ground. His voice took on an authoritative tone that Bruce wasn't entirely ready for. "Don't answer my question with a question, Bruce."
Bruce was pretty damn sure he hadn't made a sound.
Maybe Clark had been on the staircase. He'd know his own house well enough to move quietly, soft-footing over the problem stairs, breath held in the shadows as Bruce had crept out.
Clark, coming to him in the dead of night. What next—a soft rap at his door, no words, just warm hands and the old couch groaning under their weight? He could probably seduce his way out of this. Bruce's pulse kicked at the thought, and he admonished himself for the fancy. He was certain he'd have sensed somebody watching him, no matter how silent.
Though it was becoming startlingly clear that Clark could probably seduce him out of this, if he had the slightest clue.
"Bruce?" Clark said. His brow creased.
"What's under the barn?"
"You're still doing it."
"My questions are more interesting than my answers."
"Not from where I'm standing."
"I could ask some different ones. Don't think I haven't noticed your resilience."
There was a long pause. Clark was eerily still, a pre-Raphaelite statue in a threadbare t-shirt.
"Okay," he breathed, a shaky sigh of a word, and for a moment, Bruce thought he might be about to get a straight answer. "Okay, I dunno, maybe—Pa used to like ragchewing, EME, maybe it's—"
"You're not understanding," Bruce said. "This is an electromagnetic signal pulse into deep space. Not a goddamn ham radio."
Clark's eyes widened and he jolted as though he'd touched a live wire. "It's broadcasting into space? It's—why is it doing that? Is it—is it sending a message?"
"Is what," Bruce said slowly. "What's under the trapdoor?"
Clark frowned. "Bruce—who are you?" he said. "Are you from NASA?"
Bruce wondered why he sounded quite so terrified at the prospect of NASA.
"No, of course you're not, that's stupid," Clark said. His voice shook still. "So, what is it. Government? Spec ops? You have that look about you. Did they send you to—" He censored himself abruptly, a muscle in his jaw tightening. Whatever he was afraid of was getting the better of him, pushing him headlong into distress.
Bruce felt a pang of sympathy, even as he worked it to his advantage. "Listen, Clark," he said, and laid a hand on his arm. Clark didn't flinch, but he shook his head as though fighting himself. "I'm nobody important, but I'm a nobody who can keep a secret."
One white lie, one shadowy truth; when his balance came due maybe this one wouldn't cost him.
Clark closed his eyes, teeth clenched behind the cupid's bow of his mouth. Bruce brushed the inside of his wrist with his thumb, and he seemed to come to a decision, collecting himself. He touched the back of Bruce's hand until he let go.
"Promise me you won't be scared," he said quietly.
"I don't frighten easily."
Clark nodded once more, firmly. He crouched down, took a deep breath and heaved half of the trapdoor wide open. He vaulted down into the crawlspace while Bruce spent a few seconds with his brain freewheeling and his heart beating hard in his throat, trying to estimate just how strong Clark must be, to be capable of doing that like it was nothing.
He had lit a storm lantern and was pulling away dust sheets as Bruce hopped down, uncovering a rounded, elaborately-tooled sculpture. Dust was gathered thick on its sinuous designs. Bruce ran his hand over it, revealing the oily metallic luster of its surface. It was unlike anything he'd encountered before.
"What is—" he said, then lost track of the rest of his question when he fully comprehended what he was looking at.
It wasn't a sculpture at all.
"I was adopted too," Clark said.
"I've been getting the lids off of jars for Ma since I was three." Clark rested his back against the structure—the craft, the space ship, palms flattened against its organic curves. "When I was eight, I accidentally bent up the jungle gym at school. Nobody could figure out what had happened."
Everything in Bruce's vast trove of knowledge told him that this was impossible, or at the least so improbable that it might as well be. He couldn't just shuffle around the natural order of things and slot this into his worldview like a puzzle piece he'd found under the couch. This was an entirely brand new fucking jigsaw, but he kept trying to force the pieces into a picture he recognized anyway.
There was absolutely an unearthliness to Clark, and it extended far beyond his looks.
He realized that Clark had come to the end of his story about hauling a school bus out of the river; part of an explanation that explained very little, and was looking at him with something like ruefulness, something like dismay. So far, Bruce had been nothing but silent about his revelation.
"Say something," Clark said.
"You're an alien."
"Say something more reassuring."
"Incredible," Bruce said flatly. The reality of it had yet to fully sink in, but he could feel it and of all its cosmic repercussions creeping up on him. It was going to be a doozy. He turned to the ship and laid a hand over a ripple on its surface. "Can I see inside? Promise not to touch anything."
If Clark was taken aback that Bruce appeared to be more interested in the ship than in him, he didn't show it. Bruce assumed he'd spent most of his life trying to avoid attention. Clark ran his hand along one of the bas relief swoops and the ship's canopy slid open silently—no hiss of hydraulics or grinding internal mechanisms. Bruce found he was holding his breath, as though expecting an unbreathable atmosphere to spill out.
"Want a leg up?" Clark said, and grasped Bruce's waist before he could say no. Bruce's held breath stuttered out at the contact of his hands, at the strength in his grip—and then Clark lifted him as effortlessly as he might lift a sack of wheat grain.
"Holy—" Bruce found himself hefted into what looked to be the ship's cockpit, and he scrambled to regain his equilibrium. It took a moment to fight back the startling rush of his blood, then he glared down at Clark and his impish grin. "That was not a leg up."
Clark shrugged up at him, serene in the face of his indignation. Then he bent his knee and, somehow, leapt up onto the ship from standing. He landed in a crouch on the cambered nose; it rocked slightly under him, then stilled. There wasn't room in the cockpit for the both of them, so he lowered himself into a sprawl, chin on his forearms, and watched Bruce watching him.
"Where are you from?" Bruce said.
"That's not what I meant."
"I know what you meant. What am I."
"That's exactly how I didn't want to put it, but alright. What are you?"
"I don't know," Clark said. "That's why I want to travel. If I landed here, maybe more of my—my people did, too." He paused. "Maybe I'm not alone. Maybe there's someone out there who can tell me about myself."
His brow furrowed, and the meager illumination from the lantern cast long shadows over his face. An urge rose in Bruce, a terrible impulse to reach out for him. He hunched over to inspect the ship's interior instead.
"I'm not certain if this was designed to function as a pilotable ship," he said, hovering his palm over where he'd expect the flight controls to be. If he were in any doubt over whether the craft was truly alien, a fount of silvery ball bearings leaped up to meet his hand. He instinctively jerked away. They settled back into dormancy with a liquid sigh. "Near as I can tell, it's more of an escape pod."
"Great. I was jettisoned from the mothership." There was a shuffling noise, and Clark leaned a little further into the cockpit. "Near as you can tell, huh? Six hours ago you didn't know what spark plugs were. You're not all you seem either, are you, Bruce?"
"Is anybody?" Bruce said distractedly. He brought his hand closer again, slowly, and the ball bearings swirled as though he'd realigned a magnetic current, jostling into a new, equally incomprehensible formation.
"I know it's neat," Clark said. "But please stop messing with it."
Bruce relented with raised hands. He had expected to find a certain amount of intuitiveness to the craft's systems, but as it stood, he'd be as likely to blast the barn to pieces as dial back the beacon's strength. There wasn't even anything here he could swipe and integrate into his own arsenal. He suspected the whole craft worked on a localized synergistic matrix, and any theft would leave him with nothing but a pocketful of inert spheres.
Bruce climbed up out of the cockpit and found Clark on the ground already, reaching up to him.
"This is somewhat emasculating, you realize," Bruce said as he felt those hands on his waist again, lifting him down. He gripped Clark's shoulders for balance. "I could have jumped."
"I didn't mean any disrespect." Clark sounded earnest, but didn't remove his hands from Bruce's person with any haste. His thumb brushed Bruce's hipbone as he let him go. "Come on. I want to show you something."
"What further wonders could the night possibly hold," Bruce said. He wasn't sure if he intended it to be sarcastic or suggestive, or if it was the lament of a man long since overwhelmed.
"It's what we fought over," Clark said, as they ambled between the rows of corn. The air was hot and smelled of things growing. "There's so much I could do to help people, but he thought the world would fear me, that I wasn't ready for it. That I should keep my head down and farm and that could be help enough, if I wanted it to be."
He took a corn leaf between finger and thumb and blew upon it. Frost patterned across its surface. He flicked it, and it burst into a cloud of icy particles.
"He was scared for you." Bruce touched the shattered edge of the leaf and brought the gathered moisture to his nose, his lips. Just water, cold and green.
Clark shrugged, hands in the pockets of his jeans. "Yeah, he was. And I told him he wasn't my real dad." He said it with a casualness that did nothing to hide the bleak regret in him. "So, in case you were wondering, asshole teenagers are definitely a universal constant."
"Clark." Bruce knew there was nothing he could offer here, but he felt compelled to try anyway. "He would have forgiven you."
"You keep saying that." Clark glanced at him. "I don't want his forgiveness. I just want him to know that I'm sorry."
That caught Bruce like a fist to his stomach. With the revelation of Clark's abilities, Bruce could read between the lines more clearly. There, he saw an echo of his own guilt: I could have saved him.
"It's not all of what keeps me here. I couldn't leave Ma on her own. But I can't hide forever, either. I keep slipping up. Even if I think I've found a limit to what I can do, something new can always ruin my day. When I first found out I could x-ray stuff—that was a pretty scary time. Skeletons everywhere."
Bruce felt the blood drain from his face. All this time he might have been laid bare to the bone, the Bat carved plainly in every notch and fracture, every pin and plate. "You can see—"
"Don't worry, I got a handle on it," Clark said. His friendly humor was back, along with his lopsided grin. "Your insides are your own private business."
Incredible strength, incredible endurance, ice on his breath. Gentle, compassionate, warm, and could see right through him.
"What else can you do?" Bruce asked. He sounded breathless to his own ears.
Clark's face lit up. "Watch."
He took his hands from his pockets and leaned back on one leg, then forward, as though limbering up. He took off in a half-dozen long-legged bounds—and leapt, clearing the corn. Bruce counted four full seconds before he heard the thump and rustle of him landing, only for him to reappear another handful of seconds later, soaring in an arc above the crops, a dark silhouette spread against the infinite scatter of stars.
Clark almost overbalanced, dropping a soft whoa as he came to a skidding halt next to Bruce. His heels left a long gouge in the soil. He laughed as he dusted himself down.
Variable density control, Bruce thought desperately. Localized selective gravity negation. But it was no good; the desire that he had been so carefully banking flared up and caught ablaze.
"Incredible," he said, but this time with an uncontainable awe that broke over him in existentially terrifying, breath-stealing waves. His voice was a mess. "You're incredible."
"You know what else." Clark stepped close and rested a tentative hand on Bruce's chest—just the fingertips, empty space under his palm and Bruce's heart trying to leap into it. "I can hear this."
"Then you know," Bruce said roughly. Too late to mediate himself. The game must have been up for some time.
"Mm-hm." Clark leaned in and paused for a moment. Long enough that Bruce could have stopped him. He absolutely should have, but he held his breath instead and let his eyes flutter closed. Clark softly kissed the corner of his mouth, his nose brushing Bruce's cheek.
Bruce brought a hand up. It caught in Clark's shirt. This wasn't exactly flirting in a gallery vestibule or letting an ingenue smear lipstick on his collar, but he shouldn't feel so wildly out of his depth. "Clark," he said, casting about and coming up with only the most inane of excuses. "I'm. Look, I'm thirty-six. And you're…"
"An alien?" There was patient smile on Clark's face.
Bruce might have estimated him at early twenties at first blush, but now he saw there was more weight to him than that would allow. A gravitas, hidden away behind his boyishness—or maybe he was the same guy from the side of the road, and the difference was all down to Bruce's drastically tilting perspective.
"What was that thing we used to do in high school?" Clark said. Bruce stayed quiet, this being a noticeable gap in his life experience. Clark made air quotes. " 'Rules for dating'. Half your age, plus seven?"
"Arithmetic doesn't stop it from being arbitrary," Bruce said, a little helplessly.
"Maybe, but we're still well within parameters. I'm twenty-seven, for your peace of mind." Clark smiled and pressed in to kiss him again, just as sweetly as the first time, but on the lips. And again, Bruce didn't stop him.
He remembered twenty-seven. By then he'd been molded in Gotham's image, and what his heart had wanted was screaming violence. What Clark wanted now, with his unsure smile and fingers alighting on Bruce's face, was more typical. He could lead Clark in among the corn, lay him down and absorb the warmth of the dirt into himself, and the warmth of Clark's hands, his mouth, his body.
Bruce made a fist in Clark's shirt collar and tried to stop himself from drawing the kiss out for longer. He mostly succeeded. "You know I was just trying to let you down gently," he said.
"I know, I know," Clark replied, whispering, his face bright despite Bruce's best attempts to bring things back to reality. "You're just passing through, you're gone tomorrow. But I didn't want to let you get away with it that easy."
In his lifetime of making middling to bad decisions, this wasn't one of Bruce's worst, but he'd done notably better. He didn't have the time nor the resources for attachments, but this—didn't have to be an attachment. This could be a brief indulgence. A moment of unguarded selfishness. He was a man who could have everything, but he so rarely got what he wanted.
(And if Clark ever followed his heart and became the force for good he wanted to be, maybe he'd follow it back to Bruce in the process. If he sought out the Bat, maybe they could come to an understanding. He'd be a formidable ally.
Or: if he ever needed to direct the press away from a lapse in Bruce Wayne's behavior, the most cynical part of him reasoned, he would make for a suitable distraction. He suppressed that thought ruthlessly.)
Bruce curled an arm around his waist and pulled him in—Clark let himself be pulled in—and kissed him back, slowly and unapologetically, as though he had time for this, as though he wasn't going to pick up and leave tomorrow. As though this was something he deserved. Clark made small, rapt sounds and pushed in against him like he couldn't get close enough, and every time he did Bruce couldn't help but dig his fingers into Clark's hair, tip his head and kiss him some more. He sometimes wondered at the depths of his own self-sabotage.
"If that's letting me down gently," Clark said as they pulled apart, barely. "If that—" His exhale broke against Bruce's lips. "That wasn't fair."
"You're right, it wasn't. I'm sorry."
"No, you're not."
"No, not really."
"Might as well do it again, then," Clark said as he pulled him back in, and this time he was the one being unfair, keeping things soft and light.
His restraint was a tangible thing until Bruce groaned against his mouth, amused frustration that made Clark buckle with swiftly escalating intensity, one hand on the back of Bruce's neck holding him this side of too tight, the other digging into his shoulder—and with that, another revelation settled over him. Clark could take his wrists and his grip would be iron. Clark could keep him here. Clark could pin him down in the dry Kansas dirt, and there wouldn't be a damn thing Bruce could do to stop him.
He wouldn't, but he could. God—
"Okay," Bruce breathed, before this could get any further out of hand. "We should get back."
"Yeah," Clark said, voice rough and a smile that really wasn’t fair, and Bruce thought: no words, just warm hands, the old couch groaning under their weight. He could go to his knees and feel Clark's thighs tense along his ribcage. The bruises he'd find there later might last for weeks.
Clark took his hand and led him out of the fields, back towards the farmhouse.
They kissed again in the doorway of the den, old boards creaking underfoot as Clark whispered 'shh,' first aghast and then suffused with quiet laughter, his thumb caught in the belt loop of Bruce's slacks. Bruce cupped his face in his hand and stroked the rise of his cheekbone, the dimple of his smile.
He fixed the moment in his memory, and then broke it.
"I need some sleep," he said, "or I'll wreck into the first ditch I see tomorrow."
Clark inclined his head so that their noses brushed. He nodded, seemingly in agreement even though one warm hand had slipped under Bruce's shirt. If he moved it an inch to the right, he'd find a long knotted scar, his souvenir from a near-evisceration. To the left, fresh nebulae of bruising.
"Yeah, that's. I mean, it'd be irresponsible to…"
"Rash." Bruce's breath came short, his eyes closed as he fought this conflict of desires. His thumb followed the angle of Clark's jaw, his chin. Clark's hand didn't move. "I couldn't."
"Then stay longer," Clark said.
If Clark had been a regular person, beautiful but ordinary—Bruce might have taken this further. And, the next morning, Bruce might have let him believe he'd taken advantage of a grieving man. A clean, cold severance.
"Because," Bruce said. He took Clark's wrist before he could undo him in more ways than one, and kissed him goodnight.
Bruce woke as Martha left for work. Clark was already up, leaning against the countertop and eating toast. He greeted Bruce with a lift of his eyebrows and the coffee carafe, and Bruce gave him a silent thumbs up. It was unsettlingly domestic, despite the way they couldn't seem to find the right thing to say to each other and so settled for nothing. Or maybe because of that.
Clark managed to make his toast last through Bruce's entire mugful of coffee, and halfway on the road back to Bruce's car, holding it in his mouth as he drove.
The Bentley didn't seem any worse for wear for its unscheduled stopover, save for a fine film of dust blown off the fields. Clark handed Bruce the spare plugs and he replaced the faulty one himself, no longer concerned about maintaining any kind of pretense as he held it up for inspection. It looked bent out of shape.
He slammed down the hood and leaned on it. Clark's hand came to rest between his shoulder blades, as warm as the early sun.
Bruce took a deep breath, and gave in.
He took his phone from his pocket and tapped in his pin incorrectly, and a second time. It vibrated then began the process of scrubbing its sim and initiating a factory reset. Reception was decent enough this far out that Alfred would get a warning alert. He'd explain on his way home.
And he was ready to go home now, he realized.
Bruce sat half-out of the car, door open against the gathering heat of the morning. He turned the key in the ignition. A not insignificant part of him hoped it would sputter and die, that he could reason himself into another day here in this scorching limbo, but the engine ground throatily and then roared to life.
"There we go," he said blandly. "Thanks."
"Hey." Bruce held his phone out to Clark. He accepted it tentatively, a puzzled frown breaking through the careful neutrality on his face. "I'll send you a contact number. You ever need anything, you call me, okay."
"Sure," Clark said again.
"And," Bruce added quietly, over the chug of the car engine. "Even if you don't need anything. If you just feel like, I don't know, sending me vacation pictures. Or a joke. Or whatever."
Clark nodded mutely. Bruce swung his legs into the footwell and pulled the door to with an anemic thud, and immediately wound the window so as to not suffocate. Clark leaned in and brushed his hand over Bruce's temple, where last month he'd found his first gray hairs. It should have felt over-familiar for their short acquaintance.
The morning breeze rustled the corn and Bruce was struck with an unlikely nostalgia for this place. The sun laid gold on gold over fields that rippled like the sea, and his heart constricted with longing.
It must have shown on his face. Clark caught him through the window in as tight an embrace as the angle would allow, and kissed his cheek.
"Drive safe," he said.
Twenty minutes later Bruce stopped at a gas station. He sat with his hands on the wheel for some long minutes, then reached beneath the passenger seat and detached his emergency phone from where it was duct-taped to the underside. The first message went to Alfred to let him know he was returning, and that his other device hadn't been compromised. The second message went to said uncompromised device, after he'd spent an inordinately long time deciding what it should be.
In the end he decided on a line of corn, with the little alien emoji tucked in the middle. Clark's response was an immediate and fervent Are you for real?? and, a few seconds later, a heart. A few minutes after that, Thank you, I didn't know if the phone was meant be an expensive brushoff.
I wouldn't, Bruce replied. It was a sour lie, but not one that Clark had to taste.
Healing came slowly and in stolen pieces, in small moments like a vase of gathered wildflowers or a first edition on Bruce's nightstand, and in less small ones, like the glass case in the Cave. It ebbed and flowed as it always had. Some nights he feared for the resilience of his heart, but the sun always rose on him whether he liked it or not. The world kept turning with indifference.
Clark kept in erratic contact—whenever he was away from the beacon's radius, he'd send a Hey 8^) or a snap of the wheat harvest, or a random comment about the weather that was without fail a pretext for asking Bruce about his day. In return, he didn't assume that Bruce would be uninterested in the minutiae of country life, and there was something refreshing about that.
Bruce sent him pictures of seagulls on the docks; fireworks at New Year; and once, daringly, a Gotham midsummer night from one of his highest perches.
Sometimes his phone would ping at three in the morning, and Bruce knew Clark must be out in the fields. Sorry I know its late, maybe you'll get this when you wake up, and sometimes at three in the morning, after an evening keeping up appearances with a beautiful but unstimulating date, or shaking the parasites from Gotham's underbelly, he'd send It's okay, I couldn't sleep either right back.
So hey, turns out I can shoot lasers out of my eyes
I can't tell if you're joking or not.
Often he thought of traveling back out there, just for a weekend, but his sense of the place was braided so tightly with remembered pain that he wasn't certain he could do so and return unscathed. Some wounds reopen with the slightest disturbance.
Good night, Shelb
He was a good dog.
"I have a confession to make," Clark said one night, voice soft over the line. Bruce could hear the trudge of his footsteps over uneven ground, the rustle of the breeze through vegetation, distant irrigators and the ever-present cicadas: this was the baseline hum of their conversations, worn into a comforting familiarity.
"You sabotaged my car," Bruce said.
Clark's footfalls halted. "You knew?"
Bruce wedged his phone between his ear and shoulder to pull on a gauntlet. "It occurred to me later. You realize that inviting me to stay the night would have been a less Machiavellian way to go about things."
Clark made a blown-out fuzzy sound down the line. "Machiavellian. Bruce, I'm not in the habit of propositioning strangers. That's not why I did it." A pause, and the crunch of dry grass again. "Besides, I didn't want to be too forward."
"Oh, and manhandling me into your space rocket was the height of—"
"Okay, okay." Clark interrupted him with a laugh. "Listen, you looked like you hadn't slept in a week and weren't planning on it anytime soon."
"Blacking out at the wheel doesn't count."
Bruce made an ambivalent noise. He could picture Clark shaking his head. If he spoke, Bruce would hear the grin in his voice. Clark's prodding was sometimes earnest, sometimes mulish, and often couched in amusement at his workaholic tendencies—ones that Bruce had taken pains to imply. He hadn't corrected Clark's assumption that he was still at the office tonight.
At first he'd intended to recontextualize his exhaustion as something separate from his grief and had stumbled into a truth in the process, but if Clark understood that he was a bereaved man throwing himself into his work, it hadn't ever stopped him from poking fun.
"Speaking of sleep," Bruce said, hefting the cowl. "I should get home."
"Oh shoot, sorry—I always forget it's later there."
"Almost midnight." He fastened his belt one-handed; the locking mechanism engaged its anti-tamper countermeasures with a muted click and a whirr.
There was a pause at the other end of the line. "What are you wearing?" Clark asked—puzzled rather than playful, and Bruce scowled to himself. It had proven difficult to accurately assess Clark's abilities, and all too easy for him to underestimate them.
He slipped smoothly into a time-tested defense. "Wouldn't you like to know," he said, and relaxed when Clark breathed a laugh.
"I guess I'll just have to use my imagination," Clark said, and this time there was no mistaking the tease to it. "Have a good night, Bruce."
One morning in early spring, Bruce opened his messages to find a picture of the sun rising over the Himalayas.
More over the next eighteen months: Stonehenge, Sacsayhuamán, Nazca, Puma Punku, Baalbek, Easter Island—and one final picture from Giza, captioned: I don't think that aliens built em.
Whatever it is you're doing, Bruce sent, be careful.
More careful than this.
I lost my temper
Time to move on.
Way ahead of you
Did the guy deserve it?
I dunno, maybe
Getting my sea-legs
Clark had grown himself a scruffy beard and layered on wool knits and oiled cotton, a hat pulled tight over his ears, eyes turned down and away from the phone's camera. He made a moderately convincing greenhorn crabber, save for his self-deprecating smile. Behind him sprawled the distinct topography of Dutch Harbor.
Something's drawing me north
And then, like a raindrop striking the ocean, he vanished.
Bruce didn't think much of it at first. Life on the sea probably reordered Clark's priorities fairly rapidly. But a week became a month became six months, and while Bruce had always been able to thread his hope through the smallest eyelet, sometimes it began to fray.
Six months became a year, the inexorable march of time drilling his city through the seasons—and then one night in May, a military satcom that Bruce kept tapped as a matter of course lit up hot, DARPA and U.S. Northcom exchanging chatter at a frantic rate. Something going on with Ellesmere Island, an anomaly buried in Miocenic ice that they'd begun carefully excavating, right before it excavated itself, proceeded to violate three discrete sovereign airspaces and then dropped off-radar.
And Bruce knew.
He was innervated by this sudden direction offered him, adrenaline firing through him as he suited up. There would be nothing for him to find on Ellesmere save for a melting crevasse and some panicked military scientists, but if he could pick up the ship's trail—and he believed it was a ship, dismissing talk of a Soviet submarine with all the contempt it deserved—if he could pick up the ship's trail—
In the Batwing, he set the flight plan and lifted off, switching to autopilot once he hit cruising altitude. He intended to settle into something that passed for sleep in the interim, but instead he found his phone in one hand, navigating to his messages. The last one he'd sent lingered uncomfortably at the end of the screen, I think of you often, the silence both before and after like a tacit dismissal. Well, what goes around.
(He had been slightly drunk when he'd sent it, but not drunk enough for that to be an excuse.)
Your new ride's turning heads, he sent, as though they were mid-conversation. He didn't expect a response, and so couldn't be disappointed when none came.
He followed the trajectory of the ship based on the timestamps and co-ords of the various ATCs' attempts to hail it. That got him as far as a northerly coast on the Greenland ice sheet, but after that he was in the rough. He skimmed low over the tundra, hoping for some indication of the craft's passage; a trench of melted ice, maybe, or—
A sonic boom rocked the Batwing, triggering a couple of minor alarms that he quickly silenced. The onboard system pinged the source of the shockwave, and Bruce banked sharply to center the bogey on the radar, homing in fast, snow flurrying over the Batwing's windshield. On approach, he got a visual on what could only be the Ellesmere craft, and came in to land.
It seemed unlikely that it was the source of the sonic boom. It had been stationary long enough for snow to gather up its sides, smothering the familiar organic tooling on its hull.
Bruce left the Batwing like an oil stain on the ice, its bodywork ticking as it rapidly cooled. He approached the Ellesmere craft slowly and with some caution, boots not as silent as he'd like as they sank into the crisp snow. His cape luffed in the brisk wind, and the scrim of driving snow stung his lower face. He felt deeply conspicuous in his dark armor.
He trudged around the craft, hoping the entrance would be obvious, which it was—a circular airlock, maybe twelve feet in diameter and free of snow. He brushed against its elaborate whorls with his gloved hand, and then tugged the gauntlet off to try with bare skin. The metal was unpleasant at these temperatures, but he remembered the way Clark had activated the escape pod hatch; the idle caress of his hand.
The airlock remained sealed. Perhaps keyed to a biological imprimatur that he lacked.
Bruce inspected the perimeter of the airlock and could find no obvious mechanism to interfere with. He couldn't even get a batarang between the tight seal of the doors themselves. He thought for a moment. The Bat might have brought himself here of his own volition, keeping his interests in mind, but there was no explanation for Bruce Wayne in this context.
Damn it. He couldn't turn back without trying.
"Clark," he said, his breath clouding in the air.
He was met with nothing but the Arctic chill.
Again, nothing but wind and snow. Bruce reluctantly considered the possibility that Clark wasn't here at all, and that the ship had moved itself after some external, or internal, threshold had been reached. Damn it.
He slogged back to the Batwing and registered the coordinates. The dash displays jumped and banded; if he had any doubts that the ship originated on Clark's planet, they were settled. It must be sending up its own beacon. He'd be wise to keep his eyes in the sky trained on this spot.
The snow was thickening into a blizzard as he took off back to Gotham.
Bruce found himself in a holding pattern for the next few days; a familiar comedown as the promise of a new lead dwindled into nothing. The progress of his ongoing cases went some way to alleviating the frustration, but he still found himself restless, regularly extending his patrol of the city until daybreak.
Alfred let his disapproval be known via tasteless or worse liquid breakfasts, and not-so-oblique comments about the minimum hours of sleep required of a human being in order to reasonably function. This morning, Bruce roundly ignored the latter and threw back the former as he woke his screens up. One of his browsers was pointed at Glen Woodburn's blog.
"I know you still have your doubts, but the joke's wearing thin," he said, pushing the glass across the desk and away from him. The remains of its contents began to congeal instantly.
"On the contrary," Alfred said. "As galling as it may seem, this time I might be eating my words."
"Hope they're not too bitter for you." Bruce skimmed the article on his screen. He caught a few key phrases: an object trapped in the glacier; did not originate on Earth; and, repeatedly, rescuer. Not Woodburn's usual conspiracist muckraking this time. He had been right, goddamnit. Clark had been at Ellesmere. The thought that they might have barely missed one another burned him so hard that he had to get up and pace.
Still, Clark had found another clue to his heritage, and buried in twenty-thousand year old ice, no less. Bruce had to hand it to him, that would have taken some good investigative work. He felt a vicarious satisfaction in that.
He came back to his desk to read through the article again, more slowly. The source was anonymous and was likely to remain so—even if the writing was solid and professional, the subject matter was less than credible. He set an algorithm to it, parsing out characteristic word strings and running them against his vast repository of press articles. He'd get a list of likely candidates out of it eventually.
Which turned out to be academic. Woodburn sold Lois Lane out a few days later, in the wake of an honest-to-god terrifying extraterrestrial broadcast. It hijacked every device on the planet capable of receiving its message, including the half-dozen monitors Bruce was utilizing at the time.
The Cave lights went first, which elicited a mild curse but didn't immediately warrant his attention. But a few second later when the secondary generators failed to kick in and his screens started flickering, Bruce frowned and sat up in his chair. He had almost seven petaflops of processing power that would burn itself out quickly if his cooling systems went down.
"Master Bruce." Alfred, wiping his hands on his overalls as he hiked up to the mezzanine, probably winding up to some remark about the power bill. Whatever tinkering he'd been doing on the car had been interrupted by the outage; the Cave below was ink-dark.
"What's the—" Bruce said, but was interrupted by a sharp crack from his system, like static discharging. The displays banded, geometric glyphs emerging from and then swiftly eaten by electromagnetic noise. His keyboard was unresponsive but he hit the record keybind, holding out slim hope that he could capture whatever the hell this was and extract something useful from it.
The static resolved into words: you are not alone.
"A friend of your friend?" Alfred said softly as a humanoid face emerged, shadowy and deformed by screen tearing, identifying itself as General Zod. It demanded that the leaders of Earth surrender someone named Kal-El into his custody.
Premonition tracked its cold fingers up Bruce's spine. "I have a feeling," he said, "that this friend of my friend is our enemy."
"The fate of your planet," Zod intoned, "rests in your hands."
He ferreted out Lane's direct line. His first half-dozen attempts got the busy signal, but finally it rang on and was picked up. There was a second or two of office noise; casual chatter, the clack of keyboards, other phones ringing, and then a thoroughly fed up-sounding woman said, "Lois Lane's desk."
"Ms. Lane." Bruce paced the Cave as he talked, pushing one hand into his hair. She had been effusive about Clark and his heroism. It made him cautious. "I'd like to talk to you about—"
"Oh, I'm not Lois," the woman said. "Lois is, uh, busy."
"You're not—who am I speaking to, please?"
"Jenny. Hello, Jenny. Listen, I need to talk to Lois Lane. Can you tell me—"
"Yeah, you and everybody else, pal. Take a number."
Bruce pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth to the count of three, then spoke evenly. "Could you let her know Bruce Wayne called, please. I'd like to speak with her at her earliest convenience." After brief consideration he added, "It's about a mutual friend."
"... oh," Jenny said. Her laugh was light but somewhat nervous. "Would you like to leave a message, Mr. Wayne? Or if you'd rather leave your number, I'll—"
"My number, hmm." Bruce forced a playful bounce into the words. "That's okay, she probably has my details in her Rolodex."
"Yeah, probably? I'll let her know you're after her, when she's—you know. Here."
"Thank you, Jenny."
"Sure thing, Mr. Wayne."
Bruce heard her take the phone from her ear and call out, Hey Steve, what's a Rolo— as she hung up.
That same afternoon, a skirmish broke out in Smallville, and Bruce's tapped military satcoms burst into activity again. Troops mobilized to engage multiple targets and at least one chopper destroyed—at one point a frantic danger-close broadcast had Bruce's nails digging into his palms. Consistent mention of a 'Big Blue'. It quickly became apparent that it was a codename referring to Clark. From what Bruce could tell, he was not keeping things in hand.
Bruce thumbed through Clark's messages until he found the one he was looking for: a landline number. Just in case, Clark's accompanying text said, though Bruce doubted this was the scale of emergency he had been expecting when he'd entrusted it to him.
He dialled and it rang, and rang; today was not a day for people answering their goddamn phones. He was about to quit and redial when Martha finally picked up. She sounded harried and impatient, and likely would have done so even if she'd bothered with a greeting. "Who's speaking?"
"It's—" Bruce paused a moment. Would she remember him, a brief guest at her dinner table half a decade ago? He didn't know how much Clark would have told her, whether he'd mentioned Bruce to her in passing, sustaining that memory. "I'm—a friend of your son's," he said.
"Is that right. Well, I know all of my son's friends, and I don't know you," Martha said firmly. "Good day to you now." There was a rattle and a click as she hung up.
Well, then. Bruce let his breath out in a long exhale.
Things were obviously fraught at the farm. Could be crawling with military operatives trying to keep a lid on things. It was possible Martha had been instructed to do the same, but it was more likely she was being fiercely protective of her own volition. That would make it close to impossible to get Clark's attention through her.
Bruce's next step was to schedule short-notice meetings with Kord Industries and LexCorp. There was no question that things were escalating, and Wayne Enterprises held no military contracts by design. If he wanted more detailed intel to act upon, he'd need to get some heavy-hitters on-side.
But somehow, between the lakehouse and Gotham, an alien incursion happened.
An immense spacecraft made planetfall in the Indian Ocean: an unambiguous declaration of intent. Its twin appeared soon after, hovering over Metropolis, and began its conquest with the obliteration of an entire city block.
Alfred had a bird waiting for him by the time he arrived in Gotham. He made brief apologies to Kord's rep—Luthor's was yet to confirm, much less arrive—and was in Metropolis less than twenty minutes later. In his ear, Alfred relayed what information he could; some details tallied with the military chatter, some didn't. He vaguely registered a flagged message from Jack on his phone: WAYNE FINANCIAL EVACUATED.
He shed his jacket, loosened his tie and hit the ground running.
A commandeered jeep got him from the docks into the city center, through a neatly-gridded gauntlet of gas mains explosions and falling chunks of masonry and what couldn't possibly have been an F-35, until he hit a sudden roadblock of civilians with no apparent self-preservation instinct. Their faces were turned to the sky in a stupor.
Bruce got out of his vehicle and followed their gaze. He caught a glimpse of two figures, red and blue and black, streaking through the air—flying—and tracked their angled descent through the atmosphere and then, with unimpeded gracefulness, through six stories of skyscraper and out of the other side. Glass and brick exploded outward like blood from a slit artery.
It was one of the most stunning things Bruce had ever seen, and one of the most terrifying.
Clark—God, Clark, after so long, and Bruce had no time to be transfixed. He was running roughshod through Metropolis, trying to restrain his foe—Zod?—in an inexpert grapple. Bruce could see the franticness in his movements, the desperation. He was neither strategist nor tactician and the city was suffering for it.
He could only watch, heart beating hard in his throat, as Zod spun Clark by his cape—a cape, for god's sake—and flung him into the rippling glass of Wayne Financial's headquarters. Moments later a dripping, incandescent beam lashed outward, its ferocious heat severing the corner of the building. The dry stench of vaporized concrete stung Bruce's nose.
He could barely comprehend the scale of the destruction. Contemplating the casualties would be paralyzing. Wayne Financial sloughed into the street with a noise that was louder than thunder. Debris pelted down around him; dust roiled over the shining glass fronts of downtown Metropolis. It blotted out the sky and turned midday into gloaming.
Over it all the alien craft hung, the vast throb of its engines reverberating in the marrow of Bruce's bones. It was a driving, sonorous pulse that stirred a primal terror in him, skittering over his hindbrain like spider's legs, but if there was one flaw in himself that Bruce had learned to harness, it was fear.
He ran into the dust storm.
Lightning cracked across the sky, and above him, the craft shuddered. There was a violent change in air pressure. The people around him stirred as though emerging from a fugue. Bruce filled his lungs and shoulder-checked a man into motion and the rest began to follow, first stumbling and then running.
"Get out of here!" he yelled. "Move! Keep moving!"
All but a young girl; tear-stained and dust-streaked, turning in confusion, her face contorted into sheer fright, the kind that only children could manage. Somebody's daughter, somebody's child, her cornsilk hair lifting with static.
Another building crumbled around him, its constituent parts rendered weightless and then slammed into the ground, and Bruce stared down the inevitability of his own death. It might not be meaningful or even rational, but it was cleaner than he could have dared hope.
He plunged into the corona of the beam and hauled the girl up under his arm. When he tried to sprint them to safety, it felt as though the beam's pull would flay the meat from his bones. He managed three paces, maybe four, before he was driven to his knees. It was every sweaty, claustrophobic nightmare made real—he was powerless to run fast enough, punch hard enough, scream loud enough.
"Come on," Bruce gasped as a gravitational wave flattened a vehicle a few feet behind him, rolling it out like dough. His diaphragm rose up against his lungs and forced the breath out of him. "Come on, Clark. Come on."
He huddled over the girl, pressed his face to the top of her head and tried to calm her terrified gulping. The asphalt fractured and floated up, suspended there like time had stopped.
"It's okay," he said hoarsely; helpless, meaningless words that were physically difficult. She clutched at his tie and vest. "It'll be okay."
Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, Lorenz's butterfly beat its wings.
Mortar fell to the earth around them—and stayed there. There was a brief, unbearable sensation of no pressure at all. Bruce dragged in a breath and braced himself for the next pulse, for the debris to lift again and for the crush in his lungs, but it didn't come. Nor on his next breath, or the one after that. He realized he was panting hard. When he was next forced to take stock of his mortality, perhaps he would remember this moment as consolation.
In the fire-torn sky above, the Black Zero shrieked like a dying animal, hemorrhaged lightning that seared itself white-hot into Bruce's retinal memory, and then, in a breath-stealing flood of ozone, compressed itself into nothing.
Summer stifled Gotham with a heatwave; the implacable sun baked the sidewalks and blasted the city's shadows into hiding. Bruce broke a sweat just passing between his car and office, and memory stirred in his veins. He stopped for a moment, stood and let the heat roll over him, and then forged onward.
The foyer of his building was dim and cool; lurid bright afterimages from the street danced across his vision as the air conditioning lifted the closeness away. He stepped into the elevator and touched a thumb to his cufflink, grounding himself as an unwelcome melancholy reverberated in him. It was a chord from a familiar song, the sense of having lost something irretrievably.
He tried to shake it off, irritated at himself. There was no reason he couldn't try Martha again now that things had quietened down, for a given value of quiet. Or, alternatively, there were any number of kidnapping opportunities for Bruce Wayne. If he could machinate one with minimal disruption but maximum exposure, it might garner the Superman's attention—
Stupid. He could scale the tallest building in Metropolis and just yell for him if he was going to be undignified about it. Sometimes thinking on Clark, his easy smile and pleasant voice, was like taking a dull razor to his nerves.
The elevator reached his floor with a soft bing.
His office felt more austere than usual; a long stretch of minimalist space, blinds dropped against the morning sun, their slatted shadows cast over the precise arrangement of his desk. Bruce drew them open one by one, dust motes catching golden as the sun streamed in. It helped about as much as he expected it to.
Work for the morning was prosaic but necessary, just enough of it to distract him from his own heavy mood. Emails to field, project leads wanting to touch base or feed it back or conversate about going forward. One or two dotted lines to sign on, and a video conference in which he was mostly ignored, so he pleased himself for the duration by prying into a shell company that had been implicated in the Bat's current case.
The disaster in Metropolis didn't have to be his business but he made it his anyway, apportioning foundation funds to the relief efforts, federal works, rebuilding plans. He had no interest in staking further territory there, but he'd been meaning to wriggle a finger into the chokehold Luthor had on the city as a matter of course.
Moreso, now that there was a chunk of extraterrestrial technology nestled in the heart of it.
He closed his eyes, playing a pen through his fingers. The craft had sheared through reinforced concrete and rolled steel like wire through clay. The roar of the collapsing buildings filled his memory; choking dust and the denseness of gravity in his bones, pressing him against the earth.
Clark had in no way been similarly bound. Bruce's nightmares were seeded with the knowledge that the Superman was inestimably more powerful than he could have imagined. Could, if he wanted to, raze the planet until there was nothing left but dust and sand and ash. Bruce knew Clark better than that—but he also knew himself. In another time, with his mind in a different place, this might have set him on a troubling path.
His speakerphone requested his attention with a pip. "Mr. Wayne?" his PA said. "Your one o'clock is here."
A reporter, come to mine him for pull-quotes. Bruce set his pen down and leaned back in his chair. "Thanks, Grace. Send him in."
There had been a flurry of interest since the WayneComm satellite array was disrupted and it became apparent just how many services directly or indirectly relied on its network. (And, of course, because it'd been the Superman who'd trashed it.) As far as publicity went, it was expensive, inconvenient and irritating. This would be the fifth interview in a fortnight. The others he'd delegated, but as the Daily Planet was the paper running each and every last Superman scoop—and was one of the few publications to be consistently positive about him—Bruce had his reasons to take this one personally. It wasn't Lois Lane herself, she of the mysterious article, and then she of the equally infamous candid, caught up in the Superman's embrace while the city smouldered around them, but that was probably for the best.
Bruce couldn't say how it made him feel, but six years was a long time for anybody to nurse an infatuation. He hadn't heard from Clark in so long, it wasn't all that unexpected. Bruce had far more reason to be enraptured by Clark than vice versa, and that dull acceptance sat in him like a leaden weight. It'd been there for a long time now, anchoring him in his solitude.
There was a knock and then the turn of his door handle. The Planet's reporter edged into the room, head down as he fumbled through his messenger bag. He clutched a voice recorder and a notepad in one hand, though was still in need of a pen, if the frantic patting of his pockets was any indication.
"Mr. Kent," Bruce said patiently.
"Please excuse me. Ah, there," Kent said, at last locating a pen in his shapeless slacks. He looked up. "Sorry, Mr—"
Bruce took a breath sharp enough to cut. Kent's thick-framed glasses were probably a good disguise, but they could only ever have fooled Bruce for a second.
"Wayne," Clark Kent said, incredulity raising his voice half an octave. "You were Bruce Wayne?"
"Still am," Bruce said faintly. On reflection, it was improbable that he'd ever be found in a cornfield in Kansas. He felt an honest smile tug at his mouth and let it be. "Clark. It's good to see you."
That was an understatement so spectacular that Alfred must have felt it.
"But Bruce Wayne's an idiot." Clark took the half-dozen paces over to the chair by Bruce's desk and sat down without invitation. "I thought you said you were nobody. I thought you said you were in telecommunications." He seemed more incensed by one of these things than the rest.
"I have my fingers in a lot of pies. I understand you already introduced yourself to one of my satellites."
"Sure did," Clark said, and covered his mouth. The he uncovered it, and laughed, and said, "Bruce," in such wondering tones that Bruce wanted to grab his ugly plaid shirt in both hands and pull him over his desk, do nothing more but kiss him again, finally.
But that would be presumptuous.
Instead, he flattened his hands against his desk and said, "So, a journalist?"
"I like it. I'm decent at it. It's rewarding. And it gets me to where the action is without raising too many eyebrows," Clark said. On the heels of that and on a tangent Bruce completely failed to follow, he said, "I'm so sorry, I lost the phone you gave me."
"Mm." Bruce was familiar with the whoops-lost-your-number routine. "What happened to it?"
"I think it melted and then fell into the ocean."
Well, that was a new one on him, and ridiculous enough to be the truth. It sounded like a story Bruce could look forward to rolling his eyes at.
"I didn't have your number anywhere. I didn't know how to—how to get back in touch." Clark swallowed and took a quick breath, then laughed softly. "I didn't think I'd ever see you again."
"When you stopped returning my messages—" Bruce paused to consider which card he was about to tip. "What I mean is, I saw that you met someone."
"Yeah, you and the rest of the world," Clark said, endlessly sheepish. "It didn't last too long."
"Why not? She seemed nice." Bruce wasn't certain that faint praise was worth the effort it took to muster, but it seemed sporting to try.
"Same reason as ever, I guess."
"Because you're an alien," Bruce hazarded.
"Wow, straight for the jugular," Clark said. "Have mercy."
"You do have—" Bruce gestured. "I mean, are there compatibility issues?"
"Are you asking what I think you're asking?" Clark looked genuinely entertained by the idea that any part of him might be something other than human. "No, uh. I saved her life and she helped me when I was up to my neck, but—I couldn't have done it without her, but afterwards we just kinda, I don't know. Cooled off. That's all. We're friends."
Bruce slid his hands into his pockets and, with carefully-measured nonchalance, came to lean on Clark's side of the desk. He wanted desperately to pry, and knew exactly the reason. He should err on the side of self-respect in this instance.
"You didn't tell me you could fly," he said instead.
"You saw that, huh."
"It was difficult to miss. Much like the WayneComm-7."
Clark looked only moderately embarrassed. "You still have six others, right?"
"That's hardly the point."
"I—" Clark smiled and shook his head. "You know, I pitched this article so I could learn more about what kind of mess I'd made, and figure out if there was any way I could help fix it."
"Fix it," Bruce echoed. "Have you ever put millions of dollars of equipment into geosynchronous orbit?"
"I took it out of orbit, how hard can it be to put it back? Let me know when you're good to launch."
Bruce rubbed at his eyebrow. It could have been a joke, but Clark was entirely willing and more than capable. "I was being facetious."
"I know. I can't do that kind of favor for a private entity. I'm enough of a legislative nightmare as it is, apparently."
"That's putting it mildly. You've always been a game-changer, Clark."
Clark must have heard the wistfulness in that, because he looked at Bruce as though he knew every stray, and not-so-stray, thought that he'd had about him over the years. Bruce had the feeling he might as well have blurted out I missed you and had done with it. His heart beat so hard in his chest it almost hurt.
It'd be hours before the sun struck a golden angle and glared between the buildings opposite. It would have been easier if Clark had come here later, then he'd have reason to turn away and pull the blinds down. As it was, he could only meet Clark's gaze and endure it as best he could.
"So." Clark cleared his throat. At least he knew when a subject needed changing, even if he couldn't be subtle about it. "What do you think of the cape?"
It was ostensibly a serious question, apart from the way he was unable to keep a straight face.
"Garish," Bruce said. "What were you thinking?"
"It's the costume of my people. Are you disrespecting my culture?"
"I could choose less benign things to take issue with."
That was more pointed than he'd intended, and Clark still wore his heart on his sleeve as completely as he did when Bruce first met him. He'll have to learn to moderate that, Bruce thought, as devastation slowly broke across his face.
"I did what I could under the circumstances," Clark said, "I wasn't prepared for any of it."
Bruce heard the struggle in him, the fear that he hadn't been able to do enough, as helpless in the air as Bruce had been on the ground. Not for the first time, Bruce thought that he could learn a great deal from the Bat. He found the idea agreeable in the abstract, though imagining the intimacy of trusting Clark with the most fundamental part of him, the way Clark had trusted him—it wasn't unconscionable, but not comfortable either.
He thought about fighting back to back with him, cutting through their foes like twin blades, and quietly contained the idea before it could unspool further.
"I'm sorry," Bruce said. "Your people. They weren't what you'd hoped for, were they."
Bruce watched a muscle tighten in Clark's jaw, the hard swallow. Metropolis was still cracked open and bleeding, full of walking wounded. Nobody in the city had escaped unscathed. To see that every day, inhabiting the monument to his failure—to know it, to understand the blood on his hands and to feel it hurt—Bruce knew the pound-force per square inch that kind of stress exerted on a person, and while the Superman might be physically invulnerable, his heart was anything but.
Clark rubbed his face with both hands, pushing his glasses up to his forehead. "No," he said, muffled into his palms. "They weren't what I'd hoped for at all. They wanted to destroy everything I cared about. Zod forced me—he forced me to—"
He took his hands from his face with a sigh. His glasses dropped back onto his nose; he nudged them into place with a knuckle.
"You did the right thing," Bruce said. "Coming forward, making yourself known. It can't have been an easy decision."
Clark shook his head. "That's not what I meant," he said. He closed his eyes briefly, a quick breath and he squared his shoulders. "It wasn't hard for long. Intervention—it's what lies at the heart of justice. The willingness for someone to stand up for what is good and right. I was the only one who could stand up to them. So I did."
If Bruce had been wise enough to exercise any emotional restraint when it came to this man, then he'd have forfeited it in that moment.
"And now I'm all that's left. I don't want to say it's for the best, but—maybe it's for the best. I just wish. I wish it had been different."
Bruce turned the chair so he could lean over him, his hands braced on the chair's armrests. He knew how it was to cling to what the heart so desperately wanted, as though being bereft enough could change the impossible. Doing anything else often felt like a betrayal.
He couldn't tell Clark that it was going to be okay, but he could tell him this, with all the attendant hypocrisy. "It gets easier." He touched Clark's wrist. "I promise. And remember, being the last of a line doesn't mean you have to be alone."
"I'm not alone," Clark said. "I know. I'm just wallowing in the cosmic irony of it all." He did look at Bruce then, and his expression softened into fondness. He reached up to glide his fingertips over the silver at Bruce's temple. "Look at you, old man. What are you now, fifty?"
"Less of that," Bruce said, even as he felt the years that had slipped by stretch long and dim behind him. Time wears away, draws its lines. He bit down on that sorrow before it could choke him, and instead, carefully slid the glasses from Clark's face. His eyes were as Bruce remembered; as warm as the midday sun over Kansas, bluer than its sky.
Anything else he'd try to say would only get lost in translation. They might be afflicted with similar wounds, but Bruce had never been adept at this kind of care.
Clark brushed his thumb over the corner of Bruce's mouth, and Bruce's grief was a live thing again, just for an instant, but long enough that the sudden release from the intensity of it made him grip Clark so tightly his hands hurt.
He smiled, and Bruce kissed him as though he might leave tomorrow. And then again, slowly, drawn out and intent as though he might never leave. And again, surging upright and pulling Clark to his feet along with him, pressing into his warm strength, trying to chase the bittersweetness from his own heart.
Clark's response was a soft-voiced sigh, Bruce's name somewhere in it. His hands touched Bruce's face, his hair, slid beneath his suit jacket into the small of his back, pulling him in and in—and then to his face once again, fingers tracing Bruce's cheekbone, unspoken but understood: I missed you, too.
"Problem," he managed to say between one kiss and the next. "I don't think I can use any of this for my article."
"Just hack something together from the press release."
Clark drew back, mock indignation in the set of his brow. "Have a little respect for my craft, Mr. Wayne."
"Have some yourself," Bruce said in his ear, low. "This is a flagrant breach of journalistic ethics. You shouldn't be writing a damn thing about me."
"Shoot. You're right," Clark said. He was laughing, but aghast. "This was not what I expected when I came here today. Thanks so much for scuttling my—oh jeez, how am I going to explain this to—"
He stopped abruptly and raised his head; the sun poured over him through the windows, over the strong cord of his neck, the perfect angle of his jaw.
Unable to resist, Bruce put a hand to his cheek.
"I have to go," Clark said, turning into it. "I—sorry, I have to."
"Go. I'll talk to White," Bruce said. "The far window isn't overlooked." A narrower pane, nestled in the L of the building; for the Bat's convenience, though rarely used.
"Thanks," Clark said, and kissed Bruce's palm. He pulled his tie loose; steel blue glistened at the throat of his shirt. "Thank you. Bruce, I—"
"I know. Me too. Go."
And he was gone in the space between breaths. Bruce fished his phone out of his pocket, one hand on the window as he watched a bright figure angle through the sky.
He dialled, and paced until Perry White answered. "As a matter of fact, you can help me," Bruce said. He picked up Clark's glasses where they had been abandoned on his desk. "This reporter you sent my way—Kent, that's right. He's a menace."
The Superman caught up to the Bat that night in an anonymous alleyway a klick into the Bowery; a tableau of trash cans, rusting fire escape and graffiti, the flutter of abandoned fast food wrappers under his boots. The Bat was examining a bullet lodged low in the brickwork when he detected a subtle change in the quality of the night.
The Bat bore himself to full height from his crouch, drew his cape around his shoulders, and willed himself into stillness.
The Superman landed solidly, rippling the rainbow-slick surfaces of the alleyway's puddles. He strode up to him with an assured smile, cape bannering behind him with uncanny weightlessness, and stopped just short of toe-to-toe. He was strong lines and powerful sweeps of muscle, and up close, the suit left even less to the imagination than the Bat had anticipated. It was jeweled with wet Gotham air. He held his chin higher than Clark did, his spine straighter. With a little refinement, it'd be good.
The Superman studied him for a moment, and then folded his arms. "The Bat of Gotham," he said. His voice was confident in its authority but resonant with warmth, at odds with the dismal rain that fell around them. "I'd heard you were a myth."
The Bat had taken the necessary precautions. His cowl was lined with lead. He had augmented the suit itself with metal thread designed to bounce and distort x-rays.
And because he had no choice but to see the worst potential in people, he had acquired on the black market—with significant financial cost, protracted pass-agg from LexCorp's R&D, and a lot of explaining to Alfred—an illegally imported xenomineral that was untested and untried but alleged to strip the Superman of his powers.
He'd had every intention, as though it wasn't an inevitability. Pointless. For all of Clark's talents, the one he had for undermining Bruce's impulse control was going to be the most dangerous. Silently, he held out his hand. Clark unfolded his arms and took it cautiously, as though he expected the Bat to disperse into nothing but shadows at first contact. When it became apparent that wasn't going to happen, he gave it a firm shake.
"More of a rumor," Bruce said.
Clark paused. The crease of his brow deepened. For an instant, Bruce wished that he could call the words back before the memory shook loose, as though he wouldn't find himself in this position a dozen times, a hundred, every time they met until finally he'd have give this piece of himself away. As though Clark wouldn't figure it out the instant he persuaded Bruce into his bed. And he would, easily, soon. It was better done now, given freely, entrusted to his safekeeping.
Clark laughed; a breathless, delighted sound, his eyebrows heading skyward.
"Oh," he said, bringing his hand to settle on Bruce's chest. His fingertips spread over the Bat's symbol; Bruce's heart thundered beneath his palm. "That explains some things."
Bruce could interrogate him about that later. For now, a smile was breaking over Clark's face, wide and bright. Bruce leaned into it, felt the gentle pressure of Clark's hand, the brush of his lips, and let it wash over him like the heat of a Kansas summer day.