"—and I will destroy you—"
The sound of tearing metal briefly drowns out Steppenwolf's voice—which echoes, reverberates, from wherever he is behind Bruce. Bruce can't spare the attention to check. The deck of the ship lurches sharply underneath him, and he has to leap over one toppling support strut, roll clear of another before it can land. He must be almost there. He must be. The rest of the League can't hold off Steppenwolf forever, but they won't need to, as long as Bruce can find—
He allows himself to say it, half a test; but Clark is unresponsive. Clark is—Clark is restrained, a sickly greenish glow suggestive of the mechanism behind this feat, and he looks like he's a million miles away. His eyes are open, but he hasn't looked at Bruce, didn't so much as twitch at the sound of Bruce's voice. His mouth is open, too, ragged panting breaths just a little too evenly spaced. Like he's breathing through something, Bruce thinks, and it only takes him a moment to evaluate what.
The bands of metal locked around Clark's arms, his legs, his waist, aren't the only thing keeping him in place. He's—he's bolted in, gleaming black spikes of some alien material driven through both wrists, both ankles, and, with grim and exacting precision, into the space between two ribs.
Not just to hold him, but to hold him still: to keep him from doing anything to shift the position of the hand he's been forced to extend toward the mother box hovering beside him.
Bruce ignores the taste of bile rising at the back of his throat, and forces himself to focus on evaluating his options. There's no obvious mechanism by which the spikes can be removed quickly; but as soon as Clark is away from the kryptonite, the damage should undo itself. Even if the damage involves Bruce breaking his wrists to tear the spikes out sideways.
Bruce would do worse to get Clark out of here.
From a certain perspective, it's the mother box that's the most concerning. The box is doing something, Bruce can tell that much, but the light coming from it is more of a shimmer than the great blinding blaze of a fully-activated box. One side of it has—has opened, so to speak: the delicate metallic patterns have cracked apart, light leaking through, and something is extending out of it, silvery and glowing, twining through and around the curves of Clark's slack fingers.
Bruce has absolutely no way to tell what its purpose is, but under the circumstances he's not inclined to give that purpose the benefit of the doubt.
"—and he will kneel at my feet, he will be my creature, and you will tremble—"
Diana's war cry gives Bruce warning enough to let him dart out of the path of Steppenwolf's flail—apparently his choice of replacement for the axe Clark shattered last time around. It strikes the ship's wall over Bruce's head with a crunch as he skids away, and then a pair of parademons come buzzing over Steppenwolf's head and dive, reaching out with eager grasping hands for Bruce's arms.
Three quick blows send one to the deck beside him, insensate. Bruce slams his fist into the other to knock it off him, and just as it's gathering itself for another round, Arthur's trident sings out of nowhere and impales it against the strut behind it.
And then the trident's gone again, in a faint blue-white flicker. "You're welcome!" Barry yells, from another direction entirely, and Arthur's acknowledging grunt is almost drowned out by the flutter of a dozen more wings—
But Bruce can't let himself get distracted. He reorients: Clark, the box—Steppenwolf, and Diana's lariat is wound in a steadfast golden blaze around one of Steppenwolf's arms, a trailing loop just settling over the head of the flail to bind it to the handle. But he's reaching out with the other arm, in the direction of the box. Still bellowing, in that mineshaft of a voice, and straining to get to the box.
The ship bucks again, the deck shuddering under Bruce's boots, and Bruce has already started to move. Putting himself between Steppenwolf and the box—Steppenwolf and Clark—would be the height of stupidity. With or without a weapon, Steppenwolf is more than capable of crushing the Bat into highly-equipped bulletproof paste.
But Steppenwolf's fragmented monologues are more than enough to paint an unpleasant picture. He intends to use the box to do something to Clark—or to complete whatever it is that the box is already doing to Clark, issue an instruction or close a circuit. And Bruce, alone, has absolutely no hope of stopping him from doing so.
What he can do, however, is get there first.
A handful of seconds. That's all he needs. He can hear the snap of leathery wings behind him, Steppenwolf's distorted roar, and there's a discernable and increasing warmth—because they've struck the atmosphere, they must have, and this looming brick of a ship no longer has active shields and is hardly aerodynamic. All of it contributes to a certain insistent impression that hell itself is at his heels.
Which, in a sense, it is, because if anything happens to Superman—
(—to Clark, Clark, pinned out like a lab specimen, half-gutted, as if seeing him lying vacant-eyed with a hole punched through him once hadn't been enough—)
—Bruce has a feeling "hell" will become an increasingly accurate descriptor for the situation.
One stride, two, three, and he's past Clark, the box in reach. The side directly across from Clark's hand is open, too, he sees, dim scattered light spilling out, patterns arranging and rearranging themselves. He's not even sure what he intends to do once he has it—pull it away from Clark, hoping it won't do any damage? Throw the box to Victor, in the hope that he can shut it down? Or to Barry, because Bruce has every confidence that Barry's both willing and able to play one hell of a game of keep-away—
But whatever he does do with it once it's in his grasp, there's no time to hesitate: he hurls himself the last stride and a half, arm outstretched, and feels the pulse of textured metal shifting underneath his gloved palm.
And then everything explodes.
Or—does it? Bruce only knows he can't see, can't hear, that he's lost all sense of his body's position in space; he can't tell whether he's falling or standing, whether he's moving or still. He has the split-second impression of some kind of intense velocity, a vast distance abruptly crossed with such rapidity as to render that vastness strangely small, and he wonders if that's what it feels like to be Barry, and then—
He wakes in silence.
For the first stretched beat, there's an odd quality to it: Bruce has an indefinable sense that there had been a great deal of noise only a moment ago, that this silence is the sudden negative space left by its absence.
Steppenwolf, he thinks, and then he feels his body jerk, listens to himself gasp in a ragged breath, and oh. That's part of the reason the silence had felt so mufflingly complete. He hadn't been breathing.
His chest, his arms, his legs, ache fiercely—throbbing points of sharp pain that probably indicate severe bruising at the absolute least. He forces himself to blink, to breathe in slow and deep and steady, to make an evaluation. Nothing is broken so badly he can't stand. He should, therefore, get up.
This is a difficult and multi-step process. A quick roll to his feet is beyond him, at the moment, and not just because he has to lift one of the goddamn struts off himself first. If nothing else, it does give him the opportunity to make certain observations. He is still on the ship. Steppenwolf isn't, or Bruce would probably already be dead—and Bruce can almost, almost remember the sound, the rush of air, Steppenwolf's snarl of frustration and thwarted anger as he transported himself away. Just before the ship could crash, which Bruce suspects it has now done. And—
Clark. He doesn't say it; he's not confident the tightness of his throat would allow it. But for an instant, it's the only thing in his head—and, as if in response, what he can see of Clark's arm shifts the barest fraction.
Bruce forces himself to move with precision, and doesn't allow himself to stumble. The mother box is gone, which may be a problem depending on what it did, whether whatever effect it was exercising on Clark is still active. But, much more importantly, the crash broke half of Clark's restraints—and appears to have triggered some kind of automatic release for the other half.
Bruce evaluates the remaining obstacles. The support that had been suspending Clark has toppled, sloping at a drunken angle. He's bleeding freely from the punctures in his ankles, one wrist—the kryptonite is still much too close for him to heal. The other wrist is still trapped, the spike bent, and one of the spikes going through Clark's chest broke off near its base; the other withdrew correctly.
Bruce blinks, swallows, and centers himself. He's in pain, unsteady on his feet, and his head feels strange, light, his thoughts echoing in a too-large space—concussion probable. He acknowledges each of these things and sets them aside, and settles a hand carefully against Clark's ribs. As long as he pulls the spike straight outward, he shouldn't cause any additional damage, and once Clark is removed to a safe distance, he'll heal; there won't be time for him to bleed out.
Bruce tells himself this again, again, as his gloves grow stickier, wetter, and almost manages to believe it.
The wrist is easier. Bruce has recovered sufficient strength to force the mangled restraint sideways and pull the spike out. He doesn't have to break Clark's arm after all.
And after that it hardly qualifies as effort, to drag Clark out of the bay where Steppenwolf had secured him and into the ship's corridor. Bruce knows when he's gotten far enough; the flow of blood slows so much he can swipe it away and see the flesh knitting itself back together underneath.
He lowers Clark carefully to the floor and settles two fingers against his throat
(—just to be sure, just in case, and he's smearing Clark's own blood across Clark's skin in doing it, but oh, underneath that he can feel it: Clark, alive—)
and then there's a crackle in his ear. "Bruce?" Diana says, and before Bruce can even open his mouth to reply, Barry is there, in a rush of breeze.
"Found them!" Barry says, to Diana; and then, to Bruce, "Steppenwolf tubed on out of here, but he didn't take all the parademons with him, and Diana wanted me to go see if there was anything I could do about the whole, you know, ship falling out of the sky thing—which I pretty much couldn't, but I had enough time to sort of figure out how to read the displays? And then Victor did his whole techno-mind-meld thing, and—I guess the point is we didn't hit anything important on the way down. So that's good!" He pauses, and then, in one of those brief flickers of blue-white, is abruptly across from Bruce, kneeling by Clark's shoulder, instead of standing over them. "How's Clark?"
"He'll be fine," Bruce says, and as if in support of this statement, Clark grimaces a little—eyes still closed—and turns his head toward Bruce.
"Great!" Barry says. "Because that was incredibly gross, and also looked like it hurt."
And at that, Clark does crack an eye. "It did," he murmurs, and gingerly rotates one wrist, testing, before he lays a hand tentatively against his chest, over what is now a lot of blood, a hole in his uniform, and the perfectly whole skin underneath.
"And the box?" Bruce says.
"I believe the parademons took it," Diana says—and Bruce can hear her twice over, in his ear and echoing along the corridor. He twists, ignoring a lingering twinge in his chest, and yes, there she is, with Arthur at one shoulder and Victor at the other.
"The hull was breached," Victor adds. "In about sixteen places. Once Steppenwolf was gone, they swarmed for a minute and then just took off."
"Confused," Arthur offers. "Nobody giving orders anymore."
If the box did do something to Clark—will any other mother box be able to undo it? Or will they need the same one? They might be able to track it; but Bruce remembers how it looked just before he'd touched it, that dim glimmer. If it isn't fully active, it won't be throwing off the same kind of energy—
"We'll figure out another way, if we have to," Clark says, voice rough, easing himself up to a sitting position.
Bruce feels himself go utterly still.
"Uh, what?" Barry says.
"To find the box." Clark grimaces again, rubs unsteadily at the back of his neck, and only then looks up—at Barry, first, and then at Diana, Arthur, Victor—Bruce. "What?"
"It appears we have a problem," Bruce says.
A problem—as if they didn't already have about six, by Clark's count. He shakes his head and then has to brace himself against the wall for a second. Superman doesn't get injured like that very often. Clark's still not used to how much it can take out of him, to fix it. And however many hull breaches there might have been, none of them are in this hallway: there's no sunlight in here.
And maybe it's the injuries lingering, but maybe it isn't. There's—there's something strange about the way he feels, the cracked-open blurry sensation of space in his head. He has a sudden muddled impression of loudness, a cold sharp feeling so intense that he flinches and squints and presses a couple fingertips to his temple—but it's all inside. It's all—it's—is that Italian? Clark doesn't even know Italian, can only pick out chunks of shorter words in snatches—mi ritrovai per una selva oscura—1so where the hell is it coming from?
"Steppenwolf intended to render Superman harmless to him," Bruce is saying, tone cool, from where he's crouched at Clark's shoulder. "He was using the box to do it."
"But we stopped him," Barry says. "Right? I mean, whatever it was he had in mind, he didn't get the chance to do the thing. Because—well. He ran away. Which, I guess that is kind of weird. Why would he just leave like that?"
"He didn't," Bruce says.
—esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte—2
"There was a final step that needed to be undertaken. Whatever process he had begun, it hadn't been completed."
—tant' è amara che poco è più morte—3
"And it still isn't. Right? We stopped him—"
"We slowed him down," Bruce allows. "But the process itself wasn't terminated. That final step was achieved."
—ma poi ch'i' fui al piè d'un colle giunto—4
"Not by him." And then, as if it ought to mean something, as if any of this makes any sense: "I reached the box first."
—che m'avea di paura il cor compunto—5
Clark grits his teeth, closes his eyes and grinds a knuckle into his forehead. Bruce clearly has a point he's trying to make, and there's absolutely no good reason why he shouldn't just spit it out, instead of all this nonsense. "Bruce—"
"He intended to link his mind to yours," Bruce says.
And for a blissful moment, that stream of relentless Italian is gone. Clark blinks and looks up, meets Bruce's eyes; they stand out so clearly against the cowl, and not just the whites of them, literal, against all that black, but the expressiveness of Bruce's gaze, when the rest of his face is so thoroughly hidden.
And—wait. Wait a second. What?
"He intended—but you did," Clark says slowly. "You—we're—"
Bruce doesn't look away from Clark. "Did any of you hear me say anything about potential problems tracking the energy output of the mother box?"
"What? No. I mean, Clark said—oh," Barry says, sounding suddenly far away. "Oh, okay, I get you. You didn't say it, but Clark heard it and replied to it, because—oh. Oh. Uh—"
Clark swallows, hard, and can't quite figure out where to look. Above them, Arthur is arguing that Clark is right, there must be other ways to find the box, and Diana agreeing that if the parademons took it, they are hardly subtle prey; and then all at once there's a sudden bold-faced headline, blaring—
—uscito fuor del pelago a la riva, si volge a l'acqua perigliosa e guata—6
And Clark flinches again, helpless. "Will you please stop that?" he says aloud, rubbing absently at his forehead. "I can't think with you yelling whatever that is." As if he hadn't been having enough trouble getting his mind settled, after having a mother box feeling around inside of it. What is Bruce even doing? What's the Italian supposed to accomplish, except drowning out everything else inside Clark's head—?
He understands and feels himself react against the understanding in the same moment, the brief sharp stab of pain and startlement and sheer helpless unhappiness—Bruce is the one who flinches this time, jerking back a crouched half-step, and oh, god, that means he felt it. Clark bites his lip and hurriedly tries to focus, tries to concentrate on the things he should be thinking.
"It's fine," he says aloud, quickly. "It's fine, I understand. I realize this is going to cause us both some problems, and I know your privacy is important to you. I'll try not to do anything to jeopardize that if I can help it."
Bruce has settled into position again—further away now, Clark can't help noticing, a careful arm's-length of distance between them. "I appreciate the thought," he murmurs in that flat Batman growl, "but I'm not sure that's up to you." A moment's pause. "I'm responsible for this. I apologize. Reaching the box first was the only option open to me, in the moment."
And Clark's got no reason to doubt it. Bruce bows to nothing less than the direst necessity. That's why Clark's alive right now, after all. The rest of them argued about it, Barry's let that much slip; and Bruce hadn't fought to bring Superman back for Clark's sake, but for the world's. Because he had to—because as risky as it had been, he'd determined that it was necessary. Even if Bruce had known exactly what touching the box would do, he might still have done it, and it would've been because any other choice would lead to even less acceptable outcomes.
He'd never have permitted Steppenwolf's plans for Superman to succeed, whatever the cost to himself, however uncomfortable it might make him. Earth's survival means too much to him.
It makes perfect sense. Clark shouldn't have expected any less, from Bruce.
"No need," he makes himself say aloud. "It's not your fault—and I can guarantee I prefer you to Steppenwolf."
He aims half a smile at Bruce, and feels the rest of them ease, Diana's shoulders dropping and the lights in Victor's armor dimming as the situation is downgraded. This is unexpected, awkward, but Bruce and Clark won't come to blows over it; it doesn't qualify as an immediate threat to either of them, or the rest of the League.
Clark repeats this thought to himself, and ignores the way Bruce is still watching him. Not Italian, but it'll do for the moment.
"Well, okay," Barry says, "so if that's not going to be a problem right now—the thing is, we landed in the middle of the Pacific? And Victor wasn't kidding about how many holes there are in this ship."
Which, now that Clark thinks about it, he can hear the rush of water drawing nearer.
"Yeah, that's not really a problem either," Arthur says, giving his trident a lazy graceful spin.
Clark offers to go with Bruce back to the Cave. Just, if there are tests he wants to run, or samples he needs to take, or—
He falters at the look—the non-look—on Bruce's cowled face, and then silence and Italian stretch between them, until Bruce says, "That won't be necessary."
Necessary, Clark thinks bitterly. And then he remembers Bruce can probably feel him thinking it, and does his best to stop.
They reach the bay. Clark flies around at high speed for about fifteen seconds just in case, even though his uniform doesn't exactly seem to get wet the way most fabrics do, and then retrieves one of the sets of clothes he has stashed around Metropolis, with a pair of spare glasses perched on top. Clark Kent walks up to his apartment building, smiles at a neighbor, and tries to open his door with the wrong key before shaking his head at himself and choosing the right one.
And then Clark closes the door behind himself, and can't keep his mind quiet any longer.
He's almost certain the distance doesn't matter. Bruce is still as present to Clark as he was when they were two feet away from each other. Now that Clark knows what to look for, he can feel Bruce in there, vague impressions of tightly-controlled stillness, artificial motionlessness, and that endless rolling murmur of words Clark can't understand, io ch'era d'ubidir disideroso, non gliel celai, ma tutto gliel' apersi—7
Clark rubs his eyes, blows out a breath and drops onto his couch. He'll try to stay inside his own head, if he can. He will. But Bruce wasn't wrong: it's not really up to him. And if what Clark's feeling bothers Bruce, well—well, that's too bad, Clark thinks, with an edge of something that's almost defiance. Bruce is just going to have to put up with it until they figure out how to make this stop.
Clark doesn't know enough Kryptonian yet for anything else.
Besides, nothing Clark's thinking can possibly be a surprise to Bruce, anyway. After the day Clark has had, mother boxes and parademons, Steppenwolf appearing out of nowhere in a whirl of air to strap him into that thing—Clark swallows convulsively and runs his palms over the insides of his wrists, one at a time. Repeated exposure really hasn't warmed him to having holes drilled into him.
So it's probably all right, if Clark's yelling discomfort and resignation almost as loudly as Bruce is yelling Italian. And Bruce is doing his best to pretend none of this is happening—he's not going to come poking around in Clark's head looking for reasons.
Not that he needs to. He knows it all already. He was there. He brought Clark back from the dead, sorted out the job and the apartment, made the Justice League and slotted Clark into place in the lineup. He's been more than generous. Hell, he bought a bank.
But none of that has ever meant he likes Clark. And, more to the point, none of that has ever meant he trusts Clark, either.
Clark closes his eyes, tips his head back against the couch and covers his face with his hands. It's so, so stupid—he's being so childish, so selfish, so unfair. Bruce hardly even knows him, and what Bruce does know is—what? That Superman could with relative ease be goaded into attacking someone he knew perfectly well was human, someone he could have damaged beyond repair; that Bruce brought Clark back from the dead for the sake of saving the world, only to have Clark grab him by the face and throw him into the side of a car. To Bruce, Clark's an asset, a heavy hitter, who's demonstrated that he's willing to stand beside the rest of the Justice League and defend Earth from equally heavy-hitting threats. They're teammates.
None of that implies that Bruce shouldn't mind that Clark suddenly has a window directly into his brain. That Clark has—has killed people, for the sake of the planet—that he killed himself—doesn't have anything to do with whether or not Bruce should be comfortable with Clark perceiving his every thought and feeling.
It's just that Clark can't talk his own wordless, unreasoning gut into agreeing with any of that. He remembers coming back, sort of. He remembers the moment he'd realized who it was who was there, why they felt and smelled and sounded so familiar. You won't let me live—you won't let me die. The frustration of it, that Bruce still wasn't satisfied, that even dying hadn't been good enough; what else did Bruce want from him? How many different ways was he going to have to prove himself to get Bruce to just—to just believe—
But that's stupid, and childish, and unfair. This happened in the first place because Bruce was trying to help him, because Bruce considered it so crucial to save Clark from Steppenwolf that he took an action with consequences he couldn't control. That has to count for something, coming from Bruce.
It doesn't amount to much, next to what Clark wants: next to Bruce's respect, his trust, his friendship; next to
(—that gaze, those eyes, the half-dried smear of blood just to one side of the hollow of Clark's throat—he hadn't been injured there, he was sure of that; Bruce had touched him—)
everything else Clark could, in all his thoughtless desperate greed, think to ask for. But Bruce isn't withholding those things just to—to hurt him, no matter how it feels. And—
They look out for each other. They try to be careful of each other. They're teammates. Clark has to figure out how to let that be enough.
It's a skill Bruce has cultivated over years of long practice, being able to maintain genuinely separate but simultaneous trains of thought—or, in this case, a train of thought and a recitation that can roll on in the back of his mind with only a fraction of his attention devoted to it.
Clark had been confused, disoriented, when he came to on the ship. He hadn't realized what was happening until it was explained to him, and he hadn't been paying any particular attention to Bruce before that. The easy unthinking way he'd replied aloud to Bruce's unspoken thought had said as much.
So it's entirely possible that he missed—or received only the vaguest impression of—that first stark bright moment of sharp-edged horror. Bruce had felt it and it had only been multiplied by his awareness that it might be perceptible to Clark; he had scrambled for something that could distract from it, and it was painfully appropriate that he should have found Dante at his fingertips. He had been thinking of hell at his heels, before.
And now it has caught up to him.
It had been disconcerting, to feel Clark's dismay and discontent so clearly. Bruce had been startled by its intensity. Clark hadn't—he hadn't looked half as upset as he'd felt. But Bruce can't claim to have been surprised in the least by the emotion itself.
In the months since Clark's resurrection, Clark has shown an unexpected willingness to interact with Bruce. To talk to him, to smile at him, to work alongside him—and possibly even to forgive him. None of which could have prepared Clark for the prospect of carrying Bruce around in the back of his mind, ever-present and inescapable. It's no wonder he was surprised, displeased. It's no wonder he was unhappy, when he realized the implications of the connection the mother box has forged between them.
Or—some of the implications, at least. Bruce dares to hope it will be possible to ensure that he remains ignorant of the remainder.
Though, of course, if Bruce isn't careful, Clark might very well be able to simply pluck it straight out of his mind. All of it: every ugly shadowed thing Bruce has so carefully chained away in the darkest corners of himself, the whole strangling mass of it that lurks there, where no one else should ever have been able to find it. And even if Clark never delves that deeply—Bruce has abruptly become thoroughly conscious of how much more there is that lies unburied. His panting pathetic hero-worship, the sick sad obviousness with which he'd fought Diana over Clark's revival or stood there watching Superman battle Steppenwolf—watching, staring, as if there weren't a half-dozen better things Batman might have been doing. Months' worth of helpless desperate fantasizing, the full and vivid range of it, from Superman's wrathful grip grinding his armor plates together to Clark's startled uncertain warmth, the whole bank?—
Bruce lives a life of precision. People who need to see Bruce Wayne are shown Bruce Wayne; in situations that call for Batman, Batman intervenes. The measurements are exact, the borders inviolate, and Bruce has their dimensions and extents duly memorized.
Perfection is out of his reach, as always. But he has deliberately and ruthlessly minimized the potential for an unexpected breach—or he had, once, and has lately redoubled his efforts, after the unforgivable lapse that had allowed Luthor to connect one with the other and manipulate him using the knowledge. And now—
Even Alfred has never possessed such wholly unfettered access to every single part of Bruce. And Alfred has, at times, courteously refrained from pressing, when he deems it wise—but Clark, through no fault of his own, might not be able to. In the same way that Bruce may not be able to avoid having the whole of himself laid out for Clark to see, Clark may not be able to avoid looking at it.
And that, Bruce thinks, is a circle of hell beyond description.
—ch'i' non lo scrivo, però ch'ogne parlar sarebbe poco—8
He knows he won't be able to get away with silence.
The Wayne Manor renovations are coming along well, but far from complete; Clark has nothing but his uniform, and Victor is his own equipment, but Diana, Arthur, and Barry are all still using the Cave as storage space. Which makes avoiding them somewhat difficult.
Barry keeps casting him quick uncertain glances, opening his mouth and then closing it and then opening it again; and ever since the moment Clark took off into the sky over the bay, Arthur has been watching him with those steady pale eyes.
But—of course—it's Diana who pulls him aside, before he can head upstairs. "Bruce," she says, fixing him with that patient look she gets when she knows he has a dislocated shoulder he's not telling her about. "Are you all right?"
"Of course," he says.
She's unmoved. "I know it must be—strange for you," she says delicately, "to have such a thing happen. To be joined in such a way."
Bruce looks away. "It'll take some getting used to," he allows, letting his tone slide toward wry, because misdirection is an art and he knows better than to try to lie to Diana outright. "But it's fine. I can handle it."
"You aren't the only one it happened to," Diana says.
"We can handle it," Bruce amends, and he has to be very careful not to let it come out snappish. It's already taking up so much of his concentration, keeping up the steady flow of Dante in the background, monitoring the inside of his head so thoroughly for anything trying to slide in Clark's direction. Maybe that's why "Clark is—" slips out before he can choke it off, why he has to scrabble for something else to say that isn't quel cammino ascoso intrammo a ritornar nel chiaro mondo—9"Clark is all right. He's at home," Bruce adds, suddenly aware that this is in fact the truth. "He's all right."
"I'm glad," Diana says simply, but she keeps watching him for a long moment afterward, with a look he can't quite parse.
But it is the truth. They can handle it, and Clark is all right. Bruce—Bruce would know if that weren't so. If there were anything wrong with Clark aside from something that sounds like a sigh in Bruce's head, a soft quiet discontent, Bruce would know it. He thinks back to waking on the ship, to the sharp pain in his ribs, his arms, his legs: the spike-bolts. That's where they'd been, in Clark, and Bruce had felt the hurt.
Diana steps away with a smile and doesn't keep him. Bruce walks upstairs with a head full of all the tests he wants to run, and it's perfect timing: he concludes the last canto of Inferno and allows himself to transition straight into Das Rheingold. Music is even lower-maintenance than rote recital, and Bruce will need the lion's share of his attention devoted to whatever results his self-examinations can turn up.
(It doesn't matter what he might have said. It doesn't matter that he told one truth and hid another. Clark is—
Clark is like a light, in Bruce's head. The place where he is, the sense of his presence, is—is a window thrown open in a shuttered half-burnt mansion, bright warmth shining hopefully into a vast dark place.
But it doesn't matter. Bruce will figure out how to undo this, and have his mind to himself again, and none of this has to touch Clark at all.)
Bruce leans back in his chair and sighs, rubbing tiredly at his eyes.
Nine hours have carried him from Das Rheingold through Die Walküre and straight into Siegfried, and he's staring down both the transition to Götterdämmerung and the looming inevitability of a conclusion he would rather not acknowledge.
Perhaps it had been foolish, but he'd been hoping against hope for some kind of—discernable mechanism behind the bond. Something that could be detected and dealt with, even without the mother box. A range of possibilities had seemed plausible, and some of them came conveniently matched with obvious solutions. Nanites in his system, in Clark's, paired and broadcasting; an EMP might have been enough to take care of it. Some sort of injection from those gleaming silver filaments, some kind of osmotic force sufficient to penetrate Bruce's gloves as easily as his skin—surely it could be flushed from their bodies one way or another, with time or fluids or some variation on dialysis.
But he's scanned and sampled and tested himself in every way he can think of, and nothing's shown itself. Obviously his brain function is deviating wildly from baseline, but he can't pinpoint the cause, can't trace those deviations back to an actionable origin.
He supposes he should have known it wouldn't be that easy. And at the very least, eliminating solutions that are not viable does technically qualify as some sort of progress.
"Perhaps a break, sir."
Bruce makes a face into his own palm, and then spins his chair around to take the cup of tea Alfred's holding out. When Alfred is mother-henning, sometimes giving in to his first few gentle sallies is enough to convince him not to escalate. At least for a while.
He takes a sip, demonstrative, eyebrows raised.
"Why, yes, Master Wayne," Alfred murmurs, "I do indeed observe your obedience and marvel. It's almost enough to make an old man think you might choose to sleep tonight of your own free will."
Bruce glances away.
"Almost," Alfred repeats.
"I have work to do, Alfred."
"I'm sure." Alfred waits a beat, and then sighs through his nose. "Do you truly expect to solve this problem tonight, sir?"
Bruce takes another sip of tea and looks at the monitors, all his test results and useless scans. "No," he says. "But I—need to try."
The weight of Alfred's gaze then is unmistakable. Need: Bruce has never used that word lightly. "Well," Alfred says slowly. "In that case, sir, might I be of any assistance?"
Bruce supposes a second pair of eyes wouldn't go amiss.
He gives Alfred the nod, and Alfred draws up a second chair, settles in beside him, and begins to review the results Bruce has already gone through anew. And Bruce—
Bruce stares grimly at the screen in front of him, and thinks about a clock ticking down. He knows from experience that he's capable of lasting at least 48 hours without suffering particularly deleterious effects, and 72 isn't out of the question. But beyond that, his judgment will be increasingly unreliable, and potentially to the point where sleep would no longer constitute a truly significant loss of control. Doing this—wielding the iron-fisted precision necessary to keep his own grasping crawling shadows out of Clark's mind, while at the same time distracting Clark well enough to keep Clark from looking too closely at his—requires a baseline level of focused concentration that may simply prove impossible to maintain, whether Bruce is conscious or not.
Dealing with this within 48 hours would be optimal. Within 72 would be acceptable. But there are only so many stimulants he can take; there's only so far he can push before he'll be compromised one way or another. And if he should fall asleep—
He knows his own mind. Clark lying in those restraints, slack-faced and unseeing, with bloody holes torn all over again through that goddamn Superman uniform—yes, Bruce has some idea what will be waiting for him, if he shuts his eyes and lets it come.
There are some things Wagner can't drown out. And it would be—optimal, if Clark were never forced to find out what they are.
Clark isn't too preoccupied to sleep. In fact, he can't shake the idea. Sleep, sleep, sleep. The thought won't leave him alone. Which, he decides, makes sense enough: a span of time where he doesn't have to think about any of this, where he won't be able to keep worrying at the corners of it; where he can't fall into the trap of feeling self-conscious about every single thing in his head, helplessly alert to Bruce's unavoidable presence.
Not that Bruce is looking. Clark thinks he can almost tell, can feel his way along the angled edges of Bruce's carefully-averted attention. But he's still there. And even with Mom, even when Clark had lived with Lois—no matter how comfortable you are together, it makes a difference, having somebody else around. It makes a difference, not being alone.
But if he's asleep, he doesn't think he'll be so excruciatingly aware of it. Even if his dreams are nothing but endless distorted opera, the Ride of the Valkyries on a loop—which, thanks for that, Bruce—it'll at least give him a break.
It works all right. Or at least he thinks it does. He has an impression of having woken at some point, that it had taken a little while to settle back to sleep. But his dreams, good or bad, weren't vivid enough to leave much of a mark, and overall it feels like it was a perfectly decent night's rest.
Or—it should have been. He doesn't think he can really call himself tired, without any kryptonite around. But he gets up, gets dressed, and he feels strange and slow, full of a vague background discomfort.
It might just be the aftereffects of spending so much time restrained, or healing so quickly afterward. It's probably not serious. He makes sure to eat something substantial for breakfast, and he gives himself a few minutes on the roof of the apartment building before he heads to the Planet office, soaking up some sun.
It doesn't help. The morning drags. There's a tightness creeping up into his neck, his jaw, that he can't shake, and he feels a frustration, an aimless dissatisfaction, dogging his heels. It gets so bad by midafternoon that he's actually started to see a red tinge at the edge of his vision, in the corners of his eyes. He tries to keep his mind on his work, take deep breaths and stay focused, and he just hopes whatever's wrong with him isn't spilling through to Bruce too badly.
He's almost glad when it happens: something in his head changes at the exact same moment his phone buzzes. A message from Victor, about a parademon sighting—and Bruce, Clark thinks. That's what it was, the thing that shifted. Bruce got the message, too.
He feels better, leaving the Planet behind and leaping into the sky. Not good, but better. The dissatisfaction's eased, now that he's—now that he's doing something.
The coordinates Victor sent take him to a bare flat chunk of Saskatchewan. He realizes halfway there, wind screaming, that he's just going; he should have called someone, should have arranged to meet the League at the Cave, even if he wanted to fly instead of riding in the Fox with the rest of them. But there's a sharp, driving urgency in the pit of his stomach, and he can't convince himself to turn around.
Wherever Victor picked up word of the sighting, it was accurate. Parademons are swarming over waves of tall grass, concentrated around—what is that? They're building something, Clark thinks, pausing a couple miles out to examine the structure with his vision. Metal bones, supporting something that's starting to grow into a tower; but it looks like scrap, bits and pieces they've collected from whatever small towns are closest. Clark's pretty sure he can see a refrigerator near the base, a couple of old TV sets and a rusty box spring.
And then Barry blows past him in a sparking whoosh. "Hey, slowpoke!" he yells, voice Dopplering so hard Clark's pretty sure it takes Superman's ears to even understand him.
Clark grins and hurls himself back into motion, quick enough to tag Barry's shoulderblade lightly before he swings around and throws himself up into a half-dozen parademons carrying a chunk of sheet metal.
It's easy to enjoy this. Whatever half-formed instinct the parademons are following—and it can't be more than that, Clark knows, because there's been zero indication that they have minds of their own in any real sense—they were driven to find themselves some space, to construct whatever the hell this is. Which means there's no one around, no risk of injuring civilians or causing collateral damage. Clark hears the hum of the Fox approaching, only a couple minutes behind, and it's everything he ever wanted: a whole team of people just like him, working together to keep the world safe.
Diana and Arthur leap out of the Fox with matching whoops, and Clark catches Victor's laugh over the rush of air as he flies up to catch a fleeing parademon's ankle and sling it to earth. And Bruce—
Clark reins himself in before he can trespass. Listening for Bruce's heartbeat, the soft sigh of his breath, the low scrape of his boots, isn't anything Clark wouldn't have done before. But Bruce is in his head, now, and Clark—Clark could reach for him there, too.
But he shouldn't. Bruce is still a never-ending stream of words Clark doesn't understand, and Clark has to respect that boundary. As well as he can, anyway, when a mother box tied their minds together.
He does glance over his shoulder, split-second. Just long enough to see Bruce, armored up and forbidding, framed for an instant in the Flying Fox's open bay. And inside him—
Inside him it's quiet, just for a moment. Like maybe Bruce set everything else aside to look for Clark, too.
And then Clark gets back to work.
This swarm isn't all the parademons who were in Steppenwolf's ship. There just aren't enough of them. Not that Clark was counting, at the time, but he remembers hearing them, the sound of their wings, their hisses and clicks and cries. There were a lot more of them, and this can't be all.
Which is good, because this swarm doesn't seem to have the mother box.
Victor can't feel it, isn't picking up its energies—and no matter how low-power a state it's in, if it were right here, he would know. Clark scans again, just to double-check that it isn't somewhere underneath the looming pile of the tower, but he can't pick out anything that looks like it's the right shape.
And then all at once he feels his jaw tense, his teeth gritting, and he makes a strangled sound and aims a sharp blow at the nearest chunk of scrap.
Which, of course, buckles around the shape of his fist, the tower shuddering with a groan of metal. He manages to pull the punch enough that the tower doesn't just topple entirely, but he—he doesn't want to; it's hard to make himself, all of him suddenly filled with hot intense frustration. They have to fix this, it's essential, and there's nothing here—
"Clark," Diana says, a careful hand on his shoulder, and Clark blinks and looks at it and then at her, and is dimly surprised to see her. Somehow he'd thought she was further away from him, but—but then he's not all that close to the Fox, is he? He's just confused.
"Sorry," he tells her. "Sorry, I just—I'm just—" Angry. Is he? Isn't he? He shakes his head, squeezes his eyes shut and makes himself lower his arm and step away from the tower.
Barry looks startled, eyes round and mouth flat, and Victor—Victor's all lit up, which probably means Clark set off his armor's threat assessment system again, even if it was just for a second. Arthur's watching Clark with narrowed eyes, before his gaze flicks over to Bruce. And Bruce—
Bruce looks fine. Impassive. Not that Clark can see much of anything except his chin, without looking through the cowl, but there's no hint of expression at the corners of that level, steady mouth, and under the armor his shoulders look even.
"We'll have to keep our eyes open for signs of other swarms," he says.
And Clark isn't getting anything from him at all. Is he? He searches inside himself and can't find anything that matches up to Bruce's face, his stance, that cool featureless internal landscape Clark had glimpsed yesterday through all that obscuring Dante, billowing like smoke.
But even if this is Clark, Bruce should be feeling it a little bit anyway, shouldn't he? Or has he figured out how to wall himself off against Clark's spillover?
He can't hold onto the thought long enough to wonder. Looking at Bruce makes it ten thousand times worse, whatever it is, and suddenly he's moving, Diana catching at his arm again, and she's saying something he can't hear over his own shouting. What is he even saying?
"—and the only thing you're ever going to do is make it worse, you know that," he catches, and jesus, jesus, what is he doing? He and Bruce might not be friends, but it's not because Clark doesn't want them to be, and this definitely isn't the right way to handle it— "you greedy, selfish hypocrite—"
He closes his eyes and grabs for Diana's hand, squeezes her fingers and with a monumental effort manages to bite his own tongue—literally, physically, to cut off the flow of words. He draws in one slow deep breath through his nose, another, and keeps holding onto Diana, who kindly doesn't shake free.
He's expecting Barry, maybe, cracking some kind of half-hearted joke. But it's Bruce who speaks, after an impossibly loud silence.
"Yes," he says, quiet and flat. "I do know that."
Clark doesn't open his eyes again until he hears Bruce turn, hears the thump of his boots against the Fox's bay floor—until he's sure it's safe.
He thanks Diana carefully, avoids meeting her eyes, and heads back to Metropolis the same way he came: alone. He goes back to the Planet building, but not inside it. Just over it, hovering, high enough that he's pretty sure no one can see him. And then he tips his head back and hangs there in the air, wind streaming past him, sky cool and blue and endless, until that awful hot rage starts to drain away.
It takes a long time. But gradually, slowly, it settles to a boil, a seethe, a slow resentful simmer. And when he finally feels like he has a handle on it, he knows exactly where he wants to go.
Bruce gave them all entry codes—and, more importantly, little keychain fobs disguising wireless code transmitters.
("A GDO!" Barry had said, beaming. And then, looking around at them all, "Garage door opener. You know? Gate, iris, and if you go through without a GDO you're an interplanetary pancake—wait, are you all actually too old for Stargate? Or, you know, too Kansas? That is so weird.")
So Clark Kent can walk up to the edge of the lake with a hand in his pocket, and after a second the water will part and let him in.
And of course Bruce must get some kind of notification when their codes are used. So he must know Clark is coming; he must have deliberately chosen to be elbow-deep in one leg of the Knightcrawler, when Clark finds him.
"Hi," Clark says.
Which is ridiculous, but then this whole situation is ridiculous. He didn't even have to come here; he could have just shoved all his shamefaced regret right into Bruce's head from across the bay. But that feels like cheating—like texting a thank-you instead of writing a note.
(Mom would agree with him, Clark's sure.)
Bruce doesn't turn around or look over. He just pauses, acknowledging, one long beat where those clever hands have gone still.
"I just wanted to say, about earlier? I'm sorry."
And that gets Clark another pause. "You're sorry," Bruce repeats, meditatively, to the Knightcrawler's leg panel.
"Yes," Clark says. "I didn't mean to—I shouldn't have said that. I shouldn't have shouted it, either. I don't know what came over me, but I'm—I'm not trying to make excuses. You didn't deserve that, and I'm sorry."
Bruce does turn, then: just his head, just enough to look over one clean white dress-shirt shoulder and meet Clark's eyes. "You really don't know."
"Don't know—?" Clark says, and then—
He doesn't even understand what's happening, for a second. Nothing about Bruce's face changes, nothing, and yet Clark can feel his own sheepish discomfort, his own mixed rue and resolve, and this is—this isn't anything like that. A sharp sick drop, a burst of bitterness at the back of his throat, the violet-black of a bruise.
Clark hasn't gotten one single word of a thought from Bruce all day, not in a language he can understand. But this isn't a thought—it's a feeling.
"Wait a minute. That was you?"
Bruce looks away again. "The connection appears to be operating on multiple levels," he tells the Knightcrawler blandly. "The conscious projection of thoughts is controllable to some degree, but not—"
"That was you. All of it?" Clark can't help asking, because—because jesus, that had felt terrible. Not just the anger, though that had been pretty overpowering, but all the shadowed undercurrents that had come along with it: the slow grinding frustration Clark had been struggling with all day, and the—the spite, the sheer dislike, with which he'd spat all that crap at Bruce.
At Bruce, Clark thinks again, more slowly. Because—because that's who Bruce had been angry with. He'd been standing there, stone-faced, no sign of it anywhere anyone else could see, and so goddamn angry with himself that feeling it secondhand had made Clark scream at him like that.
Clark looks at him. He's still poking around in the Knightcrawler's limb, as if Clark isn't even there, with a tool in his hand so specialized that there might not even be a word for it, and—
"What is that?" Clark asks at last, because the best he can do is guess that it might be one dialect or another of Chinese.
And an impression of the thought must have crossed over, because Bruce says, "Yes," before adding, "Dream of the Red Chamber. Not the whole thing, but the parts I know will last us for a while."
As if he thinks that's a reassurance Clark has been looking for. As if he thinks Clark prefers classic Chinese literature he can't follow to knowing what's actually going through Bruce's head.
"Okay," Clark says after a moment. "But you know you've done this section twice, right?" He thinks about going to sleep, knowing Bruce was still there—and waking up the same way. "Bruce, did you—have you slept at all?"
And for a moment, the recitation falters. It isn't like it was when Clark first woke up on Steppenwolf's ship, he knows what's going on now. And without the barrier of endless words, he can almost see Bruce rewinding, reviewing; he can feel the burst of rue-dismay-chagrin, can taste the salt of it. And his own half-formed thought—that even if he'd been wrong, Bruce stopping to check would still say something—drifts into the same space. He can feel Bruce perceiving it, share the reluctant acknowledgment, and then the words are back, but it's not Mandarin anymore—
"Don't tell me," Clark murmurs, "this is One Thousand and One Nights."
And that Bruce should switch to that after being nagged about his sleeping habits—Clark can't control the burst of amusement, doesn't want to. He's seen Bruce Wayne crack jokes; but he hadn't known to expect as much from this Bruce.
He realizes after a second that he'd closed his eyes, and blinks them open again. They'd been so utterly unnecessary for a minute there, with Bruce much closer than mere line-of-sight.
"I should try to find a copy in Farsi," Bruce says to the Knightcrawler. "Expand my repertoire."
"Clark," Bruce says evenly, and finally tosses Clark another one of those steady opaque glances. "I'm fine. I was doing research, I pulled an all-nighter; it happens. I'm still functioning adequately and capable of fulfilling my role with the League. If that changes, I'll suspend myself from active duty. You have nothing to worry about."
Bruce has made a misstep.
He doesn't know what it was, but he knows it happened. Somewhere, one word or another, or his tone, the way he said it—or, of course, something he's simply given away without intending it, without sufficient fucking ability to check himself.
(He's expended so much effort, over the course of his life, to bring himself to heel. To make sure people look at him and see precisely what he wants them to see, no more and no less. His stance, his expression, his attire; the way he holds himself, his manner of speech: under ordinary circumstances, they're more than sufficient to convey any impression he wants to give. He's capable of centering himself, of focusing on what is essential and wiping his mind clean—
His conscious mind, at least. He can put emotion aside, can ignore it, can contain it.
But apparently he's never quite figured out how not to feel it.)
He can't identify the mistake, but Clark doesn't seem to be trying to hide the consequence from him: Bruce can feel the blurry bright splash of a hunch, the slow wave of realization rolling in after.
"It's because of me, isn't it?" Clark says quietly. "It's because of this."
"It is," Clark says, and now he sounds sure.
And why shouldn't he? Bruce could try to lie to him—but it's more than likely that he would be able to tell, and without even intending any intrusion. He'd only have to want to look, he'd only have to try to, and he'd know.
It's almost funny, really, that Bruce should find himself once again dependent on Superman's restraint, goodwill, and bluntly intuitive sense of ethics.
At least he knows better than to discount them, this time around.
"So you're just—not going to sleep until we find that mother box? Are you serious?"
"Another solution may present itself," Bruce says. "Clark, I'm not flirting with sleep deprivation for the hell of it. For all we know, access to our unconscious minds during a simultaneous REM cycle will make this permanent."
"Yeah, I'm sure that was Steppenwolf's plan," Clark murmurs. "He'd have bound himself to my mind and then dreamed at me. You think his species has REM cycles?"
"Why not? It appears your species does," Bruce says flatly.
He's expecting Clark to snap back at him, to tell him to stop being such an asshole—he's angry with himself, fine, but he's already made Clark feel it all day. It's hardly fair for him to take it out on Clark externally, too.
But nothing happens, for one drawn-out beat of silence. And then Clark says, soft, "I guess I should have known. You never do anything unless you think you have to."
Surely that won't be all. Bruce stares into the Knightcrawler's cracked-open joint and sees nothing. He's bracing himself for multiple eventualities. For Clark to be frustrated with Bruce's stubbornness, his paranoia; for Clark to be angry with him—on Clark's own terms, this time—for insisting on carrying on this way when Bruce has already proven so blatantly unable to prevent the poisoned well of himself from brimming over. For Clark's disdain, or bewilderment, or exasperation. For Clark to reach directly into the heart of him, and pull out every word that's ever been brought to bear on the subject of Bruce and his pathological need for control.
But he waits, and what he feels inside himself, in that strange interior space that they now share, is—resignation. Resignation, deep and shadowed, welling up, a long slow way to drown.
He's done his best to avoid that place where they both are. He's tried not to touch it, not to look at it, to recite The Story of the Stone to it and otherwise stay at a distance from it. But now he can't help but turn to it—he can't help but lean a little closer, in there. Because it isn't just resignation, he thinks. Like Wagner, an opera, an orchestra, there's more than one note being played at once: resignation is the loudest, but there's a harmony beneath in a minor key, the tuning undeniably sour; bitterness, on a scraping sharp, and unhappiness, soft and drearily flat, somewhere below—
"—and I know you wouldn't risk the League over it, I do," Clark is saying quietly. "I didn't mean to make you think otherwise. Just—take care of yourself."
Bruce turns, and Clark isn't looking at him but then does—just a split-second glance, a single glimpse of those eyes, and then before Bruce can even open his mouth, Clark is gone.
(He'd lost that race with Barry. But not by much.)
Gone, but not gone, because of course he's still right there in Bruce's head.
Clark had slept, last night.
Clark had slept, and Bruce's suspicions had been confirmed. Conscious attention can to some degree affect what's shared, or at least what's most superficially presented at the connection's upper levels. When they're both awake, and doing their best not to look any deeper, a facsimile of some degree of privacy is possible. They aren't forced to audience each other's every thought. During the day, Clark had focused himself elsewhere, had gone about his usual routine without listening at the threshold of that wide-open door between them—and without shouting across it himself, for that matter. But when conscious attention is gone—
When Clark had been asleep, he had been—there. Relentlessly, he had been there. The soft drowsy presence of him could hardly be called invasive, but it had certainly been unignorable, blurry-edged and warm. Bruce had sat at his desk with ten monitors full of vital information in front of him, and had absorbed none of it. He'd been too busy feeling.
Because he could feel it all: every flicker of reaction to what seemed to have been mostly untroubled dreams. Delight, in a bright loud burst like laughter, settling into the murmur of curiosity, interest; meandering from there to stillness and then back to determination, muddled but insistent—a different dream, Bruce had thought at the time—
And then Clark had woken, thirsty. Clark had woken, had yawned and stretched and sleepily rubbed a hand across his bare sternum. And Bruce had jerked in his chair in the Cave and made himself look at the screen in front of him until the shapes on it were words again, and hadn't allowed himself to try to decide whether he'd been able to perceive the precise texture of Clark's chest hair.
Clark didn't seem to have noticed anything. Not last night, and not today. Even without a direct line into Clark's head, Bruce has no doubt Clark's apology would have been unmistakably sincere. I don't know what came over me. He hadn't been angry, hadn't felt he had any reason to be. He hadn't understood just how thoroughly justified he would have been not only in the emotion itself but in every word he'd hurled—selfish and greedy and hypocrite.
Bruce needs to figure out how to fix this as quickly as possible, and not for the sake of any abstracted concerns over secrecy or security. Not even for the sake of preserving whatever tentative working relationship he and Clark have managed to settle into.
He needs to figure out how to fix this, simply because doing so will permanently remove any temptation to let himself believe it might not be possible.
Because it is tempting. He's scoured himself repeatedly for any indication of a physical mechanism that can be reversed or turned off or removed, and has found none. Perhaps the mother box will be enough—if they can find it, if they can deactivate it, if the connection it created is actually dependent on its energy and not already a whole and separate construction.
Bruce has never liked "if"s very much.
What he'd said to Clark hadn't precisely been a lie. For all they know, shared sleep would affect the function of their joined minds in ways they don't understand. But—
But, for all they know, this already is permanent. For all they know, shared sleep won't do a damn thing that hasn't already been done—or that Bruce hasn't already done by so carelessly letting his own relentless anger seep into the back of Clark's mind for a good eighteen hours.
(Maybe it's a matter of usage, of intensity. Maybe they'll discover that it could have been broken, if Bruce had only been able to keep himself to himself.
Maybe he's already trapped Clark better than a dozen spiked kryptonite restraints ever could.)
Except if Bruce allows himself to think that—to feel the place where Clark is in his mind and believe, even for a moment, that he will never have to give this up—
(It wouldn't matter, then. It wouldn't matter if his lapses only multiplied from here, if he gave up every effort to hold himself back. Even if Clark knew everything, even if he understood that to touch the black roiling interior of Bruce like this was to tarnish himself irrevocably, even if he hated Bruce—
He wouldn't leave.
It would be wrong, it would be vile; he wouldn't be able to leave, he would hate it, it would be unconscionable to let it happen. Bruce would walk into the bay in a three-piece suit with lead-soled shoes before he'd sit back and let Clark stay chained to him forever against Clark's will.
But he wouldn't walk into the bay alone. Clark would be with him, even then. And in a terrible twisted way, Bruce can't help but find that thought almost appealing. Clark would be there; Clark would grasp his willingness to implement the only remaining solution, would perceive the true measure of all his many shades and flavors of guilt and regret. And it wouldn't be his fault. He wouldn't have had to say a word, wouldn't have had to choose to make Clark aware of those feelings—would not, in doing so, have implied that Clark ought to care about him or his actions or his state of mind.
He wouldn't have to do anything except make the right choice, except walk into the water. And Clark would be there, and Clark would know everything, and Bruce wouldn't be able to prevent either—would, for once, in this single respect, be absolved of all responsibility.
Appealing. That is, undeniably, the right word. Helplessly, profoundly appealing.
Which neatly illustrates the precise degree to which the inside of his head is a tripwired, landmined hellscape that should never have had another person in it in the first place.)
—he won't be able to bear it. It can't be permitted to happen that way. He can't allow himself to permit it to happen that way.
He trusts Clark with his mind. Restraint, goodwill, a bluntly intuitive sense of ethics. But
he doesn't trust himself with Clark's. He can't. They don't know enough about how the mother boxes work, about what Steppenwolf might have had in mind or what the long-term consequences might be, for Bruce to let down his guard.
Bruce already killed Clark once. Clark, in his head, is a light—a light that Bruce has managed to thoroughly extinguish before. And he's not going to let himself do it again.
Clark goes home. He eats something, even though he can't quite convince himself he feels hungry. He goes up to the roof of his building and just sits, watches the sun go down and tries not to think about the anxious unhappy weight in his chest.
Does that matter? Will Bruce feel it anyway? ... Or is it Bruce's, too? Clark closes his eyes and prods at it carefully. He'd thought he had a handle on all this, right after they'd made it back from the ship—he'd been able to sense that that strange feeling of stillness, interior motion so precisely suspended, had been Bruce and not him. But then—
But then he and Bruce had been feeling such different things, that time. He'd been upset, sick and sad and feeling sorry for himself, and then he'd become aware of that carefully deliberate steadiness. Easy enough to tell what didn't belong. And after that, Clark is starting to think Bruce's little linguistic world tour routine had distracted him even better than Bruce had intended. With the anger, it was—it had been easy to say to himself that the stream of Mandarin in his head was Bruce, that everything else must not be. After Steppenwolf and all, it hadn't seemed out of the question. Clark had felt that kind of roaring helpless rage on Black Zero, and after; when he fought Batman, and when he came back from the dead. It could have been him.
Every time Clark's felt it, it's eaten him up. He's never been able to stop himself from acting on it, even when he tries. Strange, to think that Bruce could feel it and just stand there all expressionless. Clark hadn't even considered the idea that it might be coming from him. It just hadn't seemed possible.
But this dull-edged discontent—this feels like Clark's, even if it's Bruce's too. And it certainly could be. Bruce isn't happy right now, he's made that perfectly clear. He's so unhappy about this that he hasn't slept for two days, because he thinks he can't. He thinks he needs to stay awake, or he won't be able to keep Clark out of his mind.
He probably hadn't lied. It certainly is possible that shared sleep could change something; they definitely don't know enough about what the mother box did to them to say one way or the other. But the way Bruce had talked about it, I'll suspend myself from active duty—he's thinking about this as something that might go on so long he'd be genuinely impaired by it, so long he'd have to stop being Batman for a while. Stop being Batman. He'd give that up, over this. Clark can't even get his head around it. There has to be something more behind it than Bruce being unwilling to take a calculated risk.
And Clark's pretty sure he knows what that something is.
(It appears your species does. That's how Bruce still thinks of him, then: an alien, an other, unknown.
No wonder he can't stand the thought of staying like this, of having Clark in his head for one single moment longer than necessary.)
"It's fine," he tells the sky, lying back on the roof. "It's okay. I understand."
He does. And the least he can do is be reasonable about it, and take Bruce at his word. Trust him, even if he can't bring himself to trust Clark. And whether that's out of sheer contrariness, or—or because Clark wants to demonstrate it's possible, wants Bruce to know it, or even just the plain-old petty passive-aggressive desire to make a point out of it—Clark can't be be sure which.
But he has to try. Bruce says he knows where the line is, and
(—when has that ever been true? When has Bruce ever known when to stop?
Except that isn't fair. Once, at least. He'd made that spear, he'd set those traps—he'd cut Clark's cheek; but not, in the end, his throat—)
the least Clark can do is believe him.
It works, for another day or two.
Clark finds a radio station he doesn't mind too much, and makes sure it's playing on something he can hear as often as possible. It doesn't make for quite as big a roadblock as Bruce's strategy, but it gives him words, music, to fill his head with—and something to think about besides Bruce.
Besides Bruce, and besides the creeping fatigue trickling through the back of Clark's mind. Because that's definitely Bruce's. Before this, Clark had only the vaguest idea what it was like to be tired. He does sleep, because he can and because he likes to, because it gives him one more little thing in common with everybody else around him—but he probably doesn't need to. As long as he gets enough sunlight and no one's waving kryptonite at him, he's fine.
But Bruce is introducing him to a whole new spectrum, a vast rainbow of endlessly varied shades of exhaustion. And it can't feel all that unusual to him, but to Clark it's—it's almost frightening, the way it deepens so gradually, the way it makes him feel slow and weak and weighed-down. He goes and finds half a dozen parking meters with crooked posts he can bend straight again, just to remind himself that he can: it's not him, he isn't losing his powers or slowly dropping dead again by degrees. It's not him, it's Bruce.
(As if that's any better. As if it helps, to know that Bruce would rather feel like this than just—)
He lingers in the sunshine, that afternoon, like maybe a little of his own sense of physical well-being can make its way back across to Bruce. And he has to admit that in its own way, it's—it's almost sort of nice. Usually when he has a reason to be concerned about Bruce, there's nothing he can do about it. Bruce wouldn't take well to being checked up on, wouldn't want Clark asking after him and wouldn't answer if Clark did ask. But this way, it's—Clark just knows. He can't help but know, and Bruce can't even get mad at him for it.
Even the language thing isn't so bad; Clark's getting sort of used to it, and
(—it's like he can almost hear it in Bruce's voice, now, that close soft murmur; like Bruce is sitting beside him all day and—reading to him, or something, even if Clark can't understand the words—)
it doesn't bother him as much anymore. Having Bruce there all the time is—well, Clark thought it once already: it makes a difference, not being alone. Clark had compared it to having someone around in person, at first, but the longer it lasts, the more he starts to think it's not really like that at all. He'd been thinking of it in terms of having to be—to be conscious of himself, his actions, in a way he didn't have to when he was by himself; but this thing, this bond they have, is anchored so deep that the whole idea of self-editing, self-restraint, is laughable. Bruce hadn't let one ounce of that anger show on his face, had been so careful, and it hadn't mattered at all. Clark had felt it anyway.
So there's no need to worry about it. In a funny way, it's freeing. Clark can't help but be honest, in there; there's no other option. His concern is bleeding just as freely into the back of Bruce's mind as Bruce's tiredness is bleeding into his, and Bruce can't even dismiss it by claiming to be fine, because he knows as well as Clark does that he isn't.
They don't talk to each other. They don't exchange any actual thoughts on purpose—or, well, mostly they don't. Bruce slips, once, and answers a question Clark had idly marked as something to look up later; and Clark deliberately passes Bruce the sensation of sunshine on his face.
(He knows Bruce hasn't left the Cave all day. And Bruce feels wry, amused, when he does it, but not annoyed. Bruce can't even pretend to be annoyed, because Clark can already tell he isn't.)
But they're together the whole time anyway. Clark would almost be enjoying it, if it didn't also mean he could feel Bruce starting to come apart at the seams.
(Sometimes he thinks that's why he's getting a little more now, why Bruce is coming through more clearly. Bruce's concentration is faltering, that iron self-restraint finally failing him, the edges of his mind no longer as sharply defined. Not coming apart: being pulled apart, by this.
And then he gets a text—from Diana, this time—with a set of coordinates and the words Definitely not subtle prey, and—
He should be glad they've got another chance to fix this. He tells himself that, focuses on the part of him that is glad, and ignores everything else.
Clark beats Barry to the site, this time, and he's not surprised to see another tower rising: clumsy, a little lopsided, but further along in its construction, with a few smaller piles building up nearby. They're somewhere in the northeast of Iceland, a wide flat stretch of scrub and gravel between—well. Clark would call them mountains, but he's not sure they're all that high. They look like it, peaks above the treeline, but that's because there is no treeline, no trees at all.
This time the parademons have had to use more rock than metal—there's probably not quite as many dumpsters or construction sites to forage for scrap here as there were in Saskatchewan. They come at Clark with defensive hisses, and there's more of them this time. A lot more.
But Clark can freeze them, knock them out of the air, zap them with the laser vision. He's doing fine, right up until the Fox arrives.
He doesn't even have to turn and look. He lets his hearing blow wide, and he finds Diana, the creak of leather, the soft sound of her hand tightening around the grip of her shield; Barry murmuring, "You got this, you got this, you're sort of a superhero," to himself, the faint sharp smell of far-off lightning; the whisper of metal on metal, Victor shifting his weight, a crackle of circuits priming themselves; the clink of Arthur's glittering armor, a thunk of contact between his trident and the floor; and—
And nothing. Bruce isn't there.
He probably notified them. Clark would've seen it himself, if he hadn't been so busy breaking the sound barrier somewhere over the Atlantic. And Bruce is still there, Clark can tell as much, but for an instant—
For an instant, his stomach drops. For an instant, he's listening to all the empty space where Bruce isn't, and somewhere deep in the heart of himself, he's flooded with a sudden icy terror at the thought that it's so much worse than he understood, that this has broken Bruce irrevocably.
Terror—fear. And all at once a hundred pairs of glowing red eyes are fixed on him.
He's stronger than they are. He's faster. He's got two dozen different ways to take them down without even raising his fists. But for the first time, it doesn't matter. They have what they need—they've got a hook in him. All they have to do is pull.
He can't breathe, he can't see; he can feel them in there, splitting him open like a landed fish so it'll all spill out, a steaming feast they can pick through. His fear not just of this, of this connection and what it will do, what it has done—but of how it was made, Steppenwolf and mother boxes and power Clark doesn't understand, of kryptonite and spikes, the wet soft sound of being run through; of failure, of weakness, of coming up short—of loss he can't prevent, loss he can prevent but doesn't, of watching himself stand by while everything in him is screaming—and the oldest of them all, the deepest: an eternity of bleak endless rejection, the lightless soundless void of being alone—
It happens so fast Clark almost can't understand it, the whole inside of his head reorienting itself—because he thought they'd been connected, that he'd known what it was like to have Bruce in his head, but he was wrong. Bruce isn't there anymore, but here, here, right where Clark is, sweeping in like—like Batman. Because that's where he's really been, perched up on the edge of some far-off rooftop, present but distant, and now he's not. He's pressing in close, hot white attention swung around, urgent as a searchlight; no Italian, no Arabic, no Khmer, no fifteen-hour operas. Just Bruce, all of him, as much inside Clark's skin as Clark is.
Clark realizes, dimly, that he can hear himself gasping for air, that he's on the ground and shivering, seizing. It's—where the parademons have flayed Clark open, in there, it's not that Bruce can see it; it's just present to him, he knows it. And it's not that he's touching Clark, that he's laid hands on the wound, that it's healing up underneath his fingertips
(—like the ship, the ship, waking with blood on his throat where he hadn't bled, and Bruce's hands—Bruce shouldn't have touched him, it had been clear Clark would be all right, but the unreasoning bone-deep fear hadn't listened—no, no, it wasn't a bad thing; he'd been taking care of Clark, just like he is now—)
but Clark doesn't have any other way to think about it, any words for what it is. A stack of thought-impression-sensation: Bruce crouched over Clark in the Batsuit, cape flared (protectiveness); Bruce's hand on Clark's throat (relief), with the mirror-shadow of Bruce's boot on Clark's chest (guilt, guilt, guilt) trailing a half-step behind; Bruce's hands around the spear, the look on Lois's face (realization); Bruce standing in a graveyard in the wind, the cold (I shouldn't be here, I shouldn't have come, this isn't for me)—
And Clark, sense returning, grasps it all at once. Bruce had reacted, reflexive, stepping into him like this—he couldn't stop himself, when he'd felt that dizzying blast of terror from Clark. But he's remembered himself now; trespassing again, Christ, as if he hasn't already done enough—
Clark blinks, once and then again, and discovers he's looking into Diana's face: that she's kneeling beside him, Victor at her shoulder, Arthur smacking one last parademon away with a casual swing, Barry just flickering into place opposite, and Bruce—
—quoique ce détail ne touche en aucune manière au fond même de ce que nous avons à raconter, il n'est peut-être pas inutile, ne fût-ce que pour être exact en tout, d'indiquer ici— 10
"For crying out loud," Clark mutters.
"Are you all right?" Diana says.
"Went down like somebody hit you with a rock," Arthur calls, turning to stride closer.
"Well, not a rock," Barry says. "I mean, he's Superman. If you hit him with a rock, the rock breaks, right? Like, it would have to be a kryptonite-geode kind of rock—"
"A really big rock," Arthur offers placidly, in amendment.
Clark clears his throat and sits up. "I'm fine."
"Yeah?" Victor says. "Because you didn't seem fine."
"They were seriously swarming you there," Barry agrees, eyes wide and sincere. "All over you. And you weren't doing anything about it, just standing there with this look on your face like—well. It seemed bad."
"No, I'm—I'm okay," Clark says. "I—Bruce helped me."
Barry's eyebrows draw down sharply. "Uh, so I know the thing I just said about the rock, but are you sure you didn't hit your head on the way down? Because—oh! Oh, wait, you mean in your mind, Bruce helped you! Because of the thing! Okay, sure. That is so cool. And also weird."
"Yeah," Clark murmurs.
Except the weirdest thing about it was—Bruce hadn't regretted it, hadn't retreated away into himself so quickly, for his own sake. He'd done it for Clark's. Clark had thought he was doing all this, pushing himself and not sleeping and throwing up whatever walls he could, because he resented the intrusion of it, because he hated the idea of someone he didn't like or trust being so wholly connected to him.
But Clark had gotten a clear look at all of Bruce, for the first time since this started, and it hadn't felt like that at all. Which means Bruce is going to the lengths he's going to for some other reason entirely—some reason Clark doesn't know about.
Yet, Clark decides, and takes the hand Arthur offers to pull himself to his feet.
Clark is on his way.
Bruce can feel as much, despite his best efforts. Clark's determination is burnished, hammered, shining; feeling it is like looking at Diana's shield, at her knuckles around its grip and her steady stare over its edge.
At least this time he knows precisely where and how he erred. He has some hope of predicting Clark's response, and can therefore strategize in his turn.
Or he could, if there were any defense to be mustered.
In the moment, Clark had been grateful. Clark had been—glad of his presence.
(Dizzyingly so. Impossibly so. Brilliant with it, scintillating—he always is the brightest light Bruce ever sees, the blazing heart of a star, but this had been—
There aren't words for it. The nearest thing he can find to compare it to is the moment Clark had shared with him, how sunlight feels when Clark turns his face into it: every human thing, warmth and comfort and sheer sensory enjoyment, but beyond that a deeper contentment; being filled, renewed, having every dim tired corner of yourself come alive.
Bruce has been described by a lot of people as a lot of things, but typically not—comforting. And yet he had gone to Clark, and Clark had been comforted. Comforted, touched, even—was it possible?—pleased; and there was the way they'd flashed back together to Steppenwolf's ship, to the last time Bruce had let himself reach for something he shouldn't have. He hadn't thought Clark had noticed that small trespass, but he'd been wrong: Clark had noticed and had—
Hadn't minded. That's the most it's fair to say, and even that may be more wishful thinking than not. Parademons had been swarming him. He'd been injured, mentally if not physically, and disoriented. Bruce shouldn't take the contents of his mind at a moment like that as evidence of anything.)
But now that it's over, the crisis safely resolved, surely he's angry. Surely he's upset. After Bruce has spent the better part of a week screaming Wagner at him to keep him out of Bruce's head, while at the same time sloshing his own idiotic lack of restraint all over Clark right and left, to then go walking right into Clark's mind like that—without hesitation, as if he were entitled. Yes, Clark's undoubtedly going to have plenty to say about this.
And Bruce is prepared for that. He's not afraid of Clark's condemnation.
What he is afraid of, with a terrible dawning sense of self-awareness, is his own reaction to it.
Even when he'd barely been compromised at all, he hadn't been able to keep Clark from feeling his anger. He'd comprehensively failed to do so, in fact. And that was—two days ago? No, three. It must be three by now.
Bruce sighs through his nose and digs a thumb in at the dip of one temple, where his head is throbbing the most pointedly. He has the precise number of hours somewhere, he does; just—not to hand. But that he can't be sure he's remembering it correctly on his own is—it would worry him, if half a dozen other much more serious symptoms of sleep deprivation hadn't already made themselves known. The moment he began to suspect he'd started involuntarily sliding into microsleeps, he knew he couldn't suit up until this had resolved itself one way or another. If Batman lost the conscious control not only of his body but of all the equipment in the suit—no. It simply could not be risked.
Control is slipping away from him, if he ever had it in the first place. Control is slipping away from him, and Clark is on the way here to share his opinion of Bruce's most recent misjudgment in what will no doubt be exacting and excruciating detail, and it won't matter whether Bruce looks calm. It won't matter whether Bruce can sit patiently through it and keep his expression pleasant and quietly agree that he needs to do better.
It won't matter at all. Clark will be able to tell exactly how he feels about it anyway.
Bruce squeezes his eyes shut and tries to draw as far into himself as he can, fill his head with Hugo—as if he can drown Clark out with it instead of himself, as if it were possible to make himself forget what's coming.
—cette âme est pleine d'ombre, le péché s'y commet. Le coupable n'est pas celui qui y fait le péché, mais celui qui y a fait l'ombre—11 as if you couldn't be both, couldn't sin and be the shadow cast across your own soul, and maybe this wasn't the best book he could have chosen for this—
A rush of air, a distant noise, and he's out of time. That must be Clark, coming in for a landing one level down. And he isn't merciful, doesn't use the speed: his footsteps sound at a torturously ordinary pace, counting down one scuff at a time as he crosses the concrete and climbs the stairs.
"Bruce," he says.
At least he isn't shouting yet, Bruce thinks, and then turns in his chair.
Except Clark doesn't look angry, either. And he's a lot worse at that than Bruce. He doesn't look angry, he doesn't sound angry; he's standing by the stairs with something Bruce might almost call diffidence if that weren't ridiculous—as if he's not sure he's allowed to be there. But inside—
Inside, he's still all brazen and alight, the flash of setting sun off a raised shield.
He'd tucked his chin down a little, uncertain, but all at once it comes up, and his eyes go narrow—and Bruce has utterly lost the thread of Les Misérables, doesn't even remember dropping it, so it's entirely possible Clark just heard him think that.
The corner of Clark's mouth twitches, and he takes a step closer to Bruce. "Bruce," he says again, a little more comfortably. "Sorry, I should've thought—are you okay?"
Bruce stares at him. What the hell kind of question is that?
"I mean," Clark adds, "doing that—whatever you did for me earlier."
For him. For him, instead of to him.
"You're all right? You didn't hurt yourself?"
"I'm fine," Bruce says, automatic, and feels the slow cool rise of Clark's doubt spill over in the back of his head. "I am, Clark. That's what this connection is for."
He manages to stop himself before he can follow that thought to its conclusion—out loud, at least, and fuck, fuck, this is exactly why he shouldn't be doing this. He shouldn't be interacting with Clark at all. Once he realized he wouldn't be able to hold out, he should have secured a sedative. At least then he would be unconscious for this.
But Clark isn't stupid. He's the one who'd said before that Steppenwolf had hardly been planning to dream at him tyrannically; he can guess what would have happened as well as Bruce can. Steppenwolf wouldn't have been throwing up smokescreens or listening to the radio, thinking filler thoughts. He'd have torn right into Clark's mind the moment he was able. At the absolute least, Bruce was able to hold out for a few days before he did the same—
"Bruce," Clark says, and Bruce blinks and looks up; Clark's watching him, the barest suggestion of a frown forming in the dip of his brow.
Bruce swallows, blinks again, and looks away. He'd planned to offer this as penance, not reassurance—but penance doesn't seem to be what Clark is asking for.
"Clark. I'm all right," and at least it comes out creditably even. "It didn't—hurt, or whatever it is you're thinking. The link is working the way it's supposed to. Try it."
"Try it for yourself," Bruce repeats. What's the risk? Where's the harm? All his deepest secrets have already been offered up on a plate, and Clark hasn't made a grab for them. And all Clark has to do is reach in for a moment to understand that Bruce is telling the truth; even the briefest look around will surely be more than he wants to see. There's no reason to think he'll linger. And Bruce can't stay awake much longer in any case. At least this way Clark might be prepared for the worst of it, while Bruce still has a modicum of control over what's being pushed to the front.
He waits. Clark doesn't move—outside or inside.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes," Bruce tells him, and it isn't even a lie. It's only fair. It's reasonable, it's logical, it
(—god, god, it had been beautiful. Clark, in him and around him and through him, Clark Clark Clark: at all his deepest levels, his thoughts and his feelings and his mind, the brilliant sunlit flavor of his strength and generosity and unhesitating kindness—dimmed, of course, by the shadow of fear the parademons had cast across the inside of him, but—
—but Bruce had gone to him, and everywhere Bruce had passed, everywhere he touched, the light had come back. Of all the impossible things: Bruce, Bruce, had walked into a darkened place and left it brighter—)
doesn't matter if he wants it or can't bear it or has ten thousand other stupid reasons for allowing it. Clark will step close enough to learn that Bruce was right, to be reassured, and whatever else he sees or doesn't see, he'll step away again.
He hears Clark's indrawn breath first, and then feels it, that sense of presence; and it's going to go away again. Surely it's going to go away. Clark won't want to stay long enough to—
Clark blinks, looking perturbed, and Bruce can feel his curiosity, mild apprehension, uncertainty; and then all at once he lets out a jawcracking yawn.
(Oh, of course: has he ever yawned before? Interesting, that Kryptonians should share the reflex—and maybe Clark has caught himself yawning when other people yawn, contagious, but hasn't ever been moved to do it on his own.)
"Jesus, Bruce," Clark says through the tail end of it, squinting. "You really need to sleep."
And he hasn't moved away, hasn't stepped clear of Bruce again and turned that interior gaze aside. Bruce is filled with his wide-eyed warm attention, cautious and uncertain, fingertips feeling gently through the dark.
And of course the first thing they bump into is the icy prickling edge of Bruce's apprehension.
Clark's reaction is wordless, immediate: hushed dismay like an indrawn breath, a flickering trail of thoughts as visible to Bruce as Bruce's must be to him. Bruce still doesn't want to sleep? Is it—did something happen while Clark was asleep? And Bruce doesn't even get the chance to flash them both into the middle of his half-formed sense memory of touching Clark's chest (Clark touching his own chest, but Bruce had felt it anyway; it had been Bruce's touch, too, just for an instant) because instead his hand is—their hands are—
A neck breaking; Bruce knows the sound but hasn't ever felt it, the jerk and the crack, the stillness after. Something under his feet, the unfamiliar texture of—bones, dozens of them, skulls, a barren field covered over with them—
—is that what he got? Did Clark make him see that? Is he angry? He should be; Clark should have thought of it sooner, it was—he should have known. After Black Zero, after he came back, he'd had nightmares for months, and being taken by Steppenwolf like that must have started them up again. Out of the two of them, Clark's the one who doesn't need to sleep; he should've realized it would be like that, should've been more careful.
He wants to apologize, except that's pointless. Isn't it? Bruce is in here with him, can already feel the whole muddle of uncertainty-regret-shame, and Clark can't express it better by trying to talk about it.
And Bruce—oh, he shouldn't, he shouldn't, and yet there's no way to stop it. There's no gap to step into, none of the space he's used to having between his emotions and what shows on his face, nowhere to pause and intervene. His confusion-understanding-rejection is instantaneous: that's not it.
He's just lucky that Clark interrupts before he can draw them both down fully into his sickeningly rosy-warm perception of what it had been like to feel Clark sleeping, curiosity firing bright all anew. What could it be? The array of options Clark has been considering is flared out in front of Bruce like a hand of cards, and is that—Clark thought Bruce didn't want Clark in Bruce's head? Clark shouldn't want Clark in Bruce's head, Clark should be running in the opposite direction—
And then, for a single strange moment, they're caught. Trapped, suspended, in the conflict between two utterly incompatible thought-impression constructs. Bruce doesn't even know how to describe it, like doubled vision in his mind's eye: because he knows which thought he's having, a half-sketched mental image of Wayne Manor
(—and it's improving now, brighter, cleaner; it'll be ready for the League soon. But somewhere in his heart, it will always stand just as it was: that crumbling, shadowy, ruined shell, and what better metaphor could there be? What is Bruce, what has he ever been, except the blackened remains left after everything else has burned down—)
and the wordless assessment that Clark can't possibly look at that and want to go inside. But Clark is—it takes a moment for Bruce to even parse the image, blue-shadowed ice and furious red light; but it isn't just a picture, it's a memory, and all at once the context is inescapable.
It's the ship. The Kryptonian ship, at the moment Clark had found it. Three hundred feet of ice, but Clark had melted through it at last, and everything he'd ever wanted to know and understand had been right there behind it waiting for him.
Bruce huffs a laugh through his nose. As if that makes any kind of sense. Bruce is three hundred feet of ice, sure; three hundred feet of ice with three hundred more feet of ice behind it, and nothing to be done with it but freeze to death.
It's been seconds, if that, since Clark spoke. Bruce glances up at him wryly, expecting Clark to perceive and understand his grim amusement, to share it.
But Clark is already watching him, unsmiling, and his gaze is strange and searching. "Bruce," he says again, quietly—and aloud, even though they've just proven conclusively that he doesn't need to. "Bruce, come on. It's all right. Go to sleep."
Bruce really must be feeling it, going all this time—what is it, now, a hundred hours? A hundred and thirty?—without sleeping. Clark can tell not just because he can feel it, too, but because Bruce doesn't seem to be paying any attention to the fact that Clark's following him until they're already at the top of the stairs.
It's hard to be sure. Even with the connection, it's hard to be sure. Bruce's mind is so—so vast, so quick, so intense. These days Clark's a lot more aware of what a jumble his own thoughts actually are. Sure, they're words sometimes. But more often they're just sort of half-formed impressions, a string of images and memories and references, concepts held suspended without any need to figure out how to articulate them before he moves on to the next.
And Bruce is—Bruce seems to be thinking at least six things at any given moment, feeling two or three more. Like running water, a dozen different ripples catching the light at once, and a moment later a dozen others, never the same river twice.
Right now, Bruce is exhausted, sure. But he's also off-balance, somewhere deeper; off-balance and moving cautiously because of it, even warily. There's some kind of mistake he's trying desperately not to make, and if he'd just hold still in there for a second, Clark might be able to get a good enough look at it to figure out what it is—
He blinks and catches himself a half-step from walking into Bruce's back. It's so easy to get lost in that interior space, now that he's—almost, sort of, maybe—allowed to take a look around.
Bruce has come to a stop at the top of the stairs, and turned to look over his shoulder. And his expression is utterly bland, featureless, but inside—inside, he's suddenly been washed through with apprehension, green and unripened, sour, so strong it makes Clark's heartbeat kick hard for a second.
(Or was that Bruce's, too?)
"Planning to tuck me in?" Bruce says, and his tone is light. As if Clark's going to buy that. He thinks it, deliberately loud, and he can tell Bruce hears it by the way Bruce's gaze flicks away, the slow blue-tinged rue that wells up.
And maybe he's right, maybe it is weird for Clark to have assumed, except— "Bruce," Clark says aloud. "It doesn't matter where I am," and he gestures helplessly to himself, his physical self, and then to his head. "I'll still be in bed with you."
There's no way for Bruce to misunderstand what he actually meant, given that Bruce knows exactly what he's thinking. But it still doesn't—sound quite right, when he says it like that. Clark swallows and feels awkward heat start to climb his throat, his jaw. Maybe he should leave. Except—
Except he said it because it's true. Even if he goes right now, flies back across the bay to Metropolis and turns the radio on so loud even Superman can't hear past it, a part of him is still going to be wherever Bruce is. A part of him is still going to be there when Bruce slides between his sheets and drifts off—and god, is that ever hard to imagine. Batman's so exacting, so vigilant, so unrelenting. It's almost impossible to picture Bruce with his eyes shut, his face slack.
And of course Bruce must be able to tell he's trying. Clark clears his throat and looks up. It's kind of fascinating, honestly. Bruce's expression really is just as inscrutable as ever. But now Clark can feel exactly what's going on behind it, the quick sequential flicker of doubt-uncertainty-foreboding-exhaustion-resignation that Bruce is flashing through. It makes it so much easier to be patient, to wait Bruce out without frustration or resentment.
In fact, what Clark's feeling right now is mostly warmth. Warmth, and something that might be the first unfurling bloom of fondness, around the edges of the lingering embarrassment.
He realizes it and feels Bruce realizing it in the same moment, and grimaces as the embarrassment kicks itself back up a notch. He's expecting irritation, maybe disdain—or maybe no reaction at all, maybe Bruce will just think Clark is stupid and rosy about everybody and move on. But instead he gets—what is that?
Clark closes his eyes for a second, just to help himself pick it apart. It's almost the same as before, but not quite: doubt, again, and uncertainty, foreboding—exhaustion, but different, deeper, and—sorrow—?
He looks up, startled. Bruce hasn't moved, and Clark discovers to his own distant surprise that he himself has reached out unthinkingly, not just in there but with his actual hand. He watches his own fingertips brush Bruce's crisp white sleeve, catch the fabric, and Bruce is just standing there, looking back at him.
He doesn't look sad. He doesn't look much of anything. And yet he is, Clark knows it. But it's a little harder to pick out the reason why. Because Clark isn't angry with him? Because Clark likes being able to understand him, even if it won't last?
"Come on," Clark hears himself say, and he curves a hand around Bruce's elbow and doesn't let go.
The lake house is interesting, and pretty, but also frankly kind of stupid. It's just such a ridiculous design for a house. There's no rooms, no doors, everything just sort of placed to present the idea of a room with hardly any walls in between. Bruce's bed is just—there, and for once there actually is a wall but it doesn't even cross the whole house, ending a good arm's length shy of the glass on either side. So much glass, and there's something almost ironic about Bruce surrounding himself with all this endless transparency when he's the most opaque person Clark knows.
Plus it must be a pain in the ass to clean.
"It isn't that bad," Bruce murmurs, pausing at the edge of the bed. "Alfred developed a sprayable fluid for it that he's very pleased with."
Clark looks at him. He's poised, steady, but only on the outside. The apprehension's so strong now that Clark is almost sick with it, and jesus, what the hell is it about this that's making Batman feel like that? It's just Clark.
"Bruce," Clark says, and tightens his fingers around Bruce's elbow—squeezes, just a little, and then starts to slide them down Bruce's forearm.
"Clark—" and Bruce has grabbed his wrist, his tone flat, a warning in it, but Clark's not going to—he just wants to—
He keeps moving his hand, and Bruce is still holding his wrist but doesn't quite stop him. He unbuttons Bruce's cuff, and Bruce still doesn't stop him; and then he has to break Bruce's grip, slowly, to reach the other cuff, and Bruce doesn't stop him from doing that either.
Then Bruce's tie—because of course Bruce put one on and tied it perfectly, even while so sleep-deprived he's probably hallucinating. Clark keeps his eyes on the knot as he picks it apart, doesn't dare let his gaze wander up to Bruce's face, and he's so conscious of their—their closeness, his hands, the texture of the tie under his fingertips, the lines of Bruce's chest, that maybe he's not thinking about Bruce's mouth hard enough for Bruce to notice it.
He slides the tie carefully free of Bruce's shirt-collar, and that sick heavy feeling in Clark's—Bruce's—gut is blurring now, its edges overtaken by something tentative and warm, a light sweet taste at the back of Clark's mouth—
Clark's attention is Bruce's attention; Clark noticing it makes Bruce notice it, too, and Clark flinches helplessly away from the sudden bitter recrimination that blots it all black as a shadow. "Wait," he says quickly, "wait, don't—it's okay. Whatever it is. I won't hold it against you."
And that gets him a mingled rush of muted cynicism (you shouldn't make promises you might not be able to keep) and something almost—wistful? (if anyone could forgive me this, it would be you, wouldn't it—)
He still has Bruce's tie in his hands. He closes his fingers around it and deliberately clears his mind, thinks of nothing at all except Bruce's shoes. And after a second, Bruce lowers his eyes and sinks to the edge of the bed.
He's going to pry them off himself, Clark can feel his intent even before he tilts one foot to settle the heel against the ball of the other. He isn't expecting Clark to sling the loose tie around his own neck and drop to his knees.
And that flush of stupid reckless heat must be Clark's, it must be, but there's no way Bruce can't feel it. Clark swallows and closes his eyes and reaches for Bruce's shoe—and he doesn't miss, which he realizes after a second isn't just down to Superman's hearing or Clark's own aim. Bruce's eyes are still open and he knows where his feet are, and that means Clark does, too.
Bruce jerks, startled, when Clark doesn't stop at the shoes but slides a hand up his calf, looking for the edge of his sock. And it's not—it's not words, as such, just a sudden swift exchange of impressions.
It's fine, you don't have to—
—it's not fine, don't be ridiculous. Who sleeps with socks on?
—Bruce, come on—
Clark discovers he's grinning helplessly at Bruce's knee as he tugs Bruce's sock off, and Bruce nudges him unthinkingly with the bare foot (Clark knows, can feel the moment he realizes what he's done and his fierce frustration with the loss of judgment, impulse control—so you do need to sleep, Clark tosses in snidely, just to make him stop yelling at himself) and then leans down to yank the other off.
The movement brings him nearer, and suddenly their faces are almost on a level. Clark squeezing his eyes shut tighter isn't any help when he can smell Bruce—
He jerks to his feet and turns away, and concentrates on sliding his own shoes off, his own socks after. But then he's done. No tie or cuffs for him, he's only wearing a t-shirt. He's got a lot less armor to take off.
It's just an idle thought. But he stops and thinks it again more slowly and then looks up, and Bruce is looking back at him.
(And isn't that always true? Batman's suit—even when it isn't covered in a metal shell, it's got so many parts and pieces, so much damage to absorb or turn aside. Clark only ever needs the one layer, cloth, even if it is technologically-advanced alien cloth. But Bruce can't get away with that. Bruce needs a thousand different kinds of defenses, because—
Because underneath it all, Bruce is so vulnerable. Because underneath it all, Bruce is so very easy to hurt.)
"Come on," Clark says to him gently.
He rounds the bed, and—is it that he thinks he can feel Bruce's eyes on him, or that he actually does know where Bruce is looking? It feels weird and staged, like he's in a play, as he lifts up the covers with Bruce staring at him like that; and then Bruce stands all at once, lifts his own corner and gets in, and they lie down.
Bruce settles on his side, his back to Clark, but of course it doesn't matter. Clark can feel the harp-string tension in him, the doubling and redoubling self-consciousness and recrimination. A nightmare of an observer effect, self-conscious about being self-conscious, recriminating himself for being recriminating where Clark can see it.
Which is, of course, ridiculous, because there's nowhere in him Clark can't see. And nowhere in Clark that he can't see, if he looks. Like this, allowed in, opened up, there's nothing hidden for the simple reason that there's nowhere to hide it. And that should bother Clark, because he's already proven he's got plenty of cause for embarrassment
(—as if he could go to his knees in front of Bruce and not think of—jesus, that had been so stupid—)
but instead he thinks it and all he feels is—
The sudden intensity of Bruce's attention, in there, is impossible to miss: reaching out to take hold, carefully, of what Clark's just handed him, to turn it over and examine it.
Relief? Bruce is startled, uncomprehending. He can't understand how Clark could possibly be glad about this.
And god, it's just so easy, being able to tell him everything without having to figure out how to say any of it. Clark can just—share it, shove the whole armful of remembered moments and impressions into Bruce's hands and let him pick through them. The constant, relentless self-monitoring he has to do, every single second he isn't with the League. Always having to make sure he isn't moving too fast, hearing or seeing anything he can't explain, that he isn't too strong. That if he stubs his toe loudly enough to make somebody look over, then he needs to wince; that if he spills hot coffee on his hand and someone sees, he has to go run cold water on it, wrap it up in paper towel, pretend that it hurts, until they're gone. Ten thousand different things that could give him away, and he'd only have to slip up once—especially now that people know about Superman, now that there's a two to put two together with.
Superman, and in some ways that isn't any better. Superman is an ideal, someone for people to look up to. Clark can use his powers when he's Superman, sure. But the price is that he can't—he can't be Clark anymore. He can't be petty, can't get snappish, can't be rude or have a bad day or just not want to go out. People need saving, it's life-or-death; Clark can't possibly weigh that against the way they stare at him, their rapt attention, all that smotheringly worshipful admiration, and find it wanting. He could never justify it. He—he couldn't call himself Superman, if he let himself be that selfish. But Superman sets the bar so high; and Clark can fly, but only literally.
And now he doesn't have to choose. He can't. Bruce just gets it all, unfiltered, and Clark can't blame himself for failing to keep it from him because it's just plain out of his hands. Clark is, for once, in this single respect, absolved of all responsibility—
Clark blinks up at the ceiling, startled. That wasn't him. Or—it was, but it wasn't; the same thought in a different flavor.
The room is dark. The house is silent. Bruce is lying beside him, still facing away, unmoving. But he's not asleep, they're not asleep, and in that space inside them, Clark looks and finally sees, and there's not one single thing Bruce can do to prevent it.
It is a relief. A relief Bruce has been forcing himself not to grab after this whole time, while Clark was sitting in there next to him doing exactly the same thing, and Clark laughs and wipes his wet face, his stinging eyes, and stretches out his arm: settles one palm against the broad strong angle of Bruce's shoulderblade. It's too much and not enough, nothing compared to what's happening inside their heads
(—what words are there for it? Who else in the world has ever done this? Has ever known and been known, like this—has ever reached so perfect and whole and complete an understanding?
Who else in the world has ever been less alone?)
and yet Clark can't help but catch his breath at the sudden coruscating bloom of colors in Bruce's head when Clark touches him, just before Bruce's exhaustion finally drags them both under.
They do dream.
In all the scenarios Bruce had envisioned, as he'd scrabbled for solutions with increasing desperation, Clark had been awake. Awake, aware, and unable to do anything to escape the full scope of Bruce's mind, unleashed.
But Clark is in his head. Bruce invited him in, and he doesn't make a single move to leave. He felt Bruce's tiredness, he followed Bruce upstairs and got into Bruce's bed. And when Bruce finally slides into sleep, Clark is still there. Bruce isn't alone—literally, abstractly, or in any other respect.
They sleep, and they dream, and they do it together.
It doesn't work the way Bruce had anticipated. The two of them, together, it—it changes the quality of the dreams, the way they feel—even the way they happen. Bruce does dream of the ship, of clutching Clark's slack arms with hands covered in Clark's blood. And then all at once he's not on the ship anymore but at the port, kneeling over a version of Clark with a much, much bigger hole in his chest—
—and then they're in the genesis pool, and it's Clark's dream, Clark's sensations, how it felt to come abruptly alive in that weird clinging fluid, and this isn't how it happened but somehow Bruce is still kneeling over him, grip tight on his wet arms, gazing down at him with a look on his face like—
And then they're somewhere Bruce has never been, a vast expanse of white, and he looks at his hands and drops to a knee, sets his fist against the ice, and flies.
It keeps happening like that, old familiar despair intercut with places Bruce has never been, fields and sunlight, a kitchen Bruce doesn't recognize. And then a nightmare that isn't Bruce's, coughing up blood and falling to his—their—someone's knees, a floor made up of empty eye sockets, the sudden ominous darkness of a stormcloud overhead, a—a tornado—
Bruce comes half-awake. The lake house settles into place around him. Still night; but then the sun had only just set when they first came upstairs, so there's no telling how long they've been sleeping.
And in the quiet, the dark stillness, it's so treacherously easy to shift and turn into Clark, to settle against Clark's shoulder and slide a foot between Clark's ankles—to never even open his eyes all the way, to let himself pretend that this is allowed to happen.
(Clark touched him first. Clark wanted to touch him. Bruce would never have believed it, except—
Except he can't not. He knows; he could feel it for himself.)
He lies there, greedy and desperate and too goddamn tired to stop himself, and soaks it up. He can tell when Clark starts to surface a little—the soft-edged chalk-smudged impressions of warmth, comfort, the nightmare's dissolution, and then the slow dawning awareness of Bruce himself, the vague memory of where Clark is and how he got there. And this, this is only going to make it worse: feeling Clark's own consciousness of Bruce's weight, his heat, his closeness, and the sheer blurry pleasure he takes in finding Bruce there, just before he shifts to sling his arm around Bruce's shoulder, fingers curling lazily against the back of Bruce's neck.
He hadn't lied, earlier. Not that he'd spoken any of it aloud, but Bruce had seen it in his mind, the awkward shuffle around the question inevitably raised by deliberately spending the night in Bruce Wayne's bed. Clark hadn't meant anything by any of it, not like that. He hadn't done this because he wanted to fuck Bruce.
A day ago, Bruce would have called the very idea laughable. And yet here, now, in this dark silent room, Bruce hears as if from a distance his own breath catching. Because there is a lazy simmering heat in the idle meandering of Clark's mind—in the thought-impression-memory of his fingertips against Bruce's tie and shirt-collar, the way he'd brushed Bruce's hands and forearms as he'd unbuttoned Bruce's cuffs. In the way he's spinning out, with a distant prickle of electricity, how it would have looked if Bruce hadn't moved; if he'd still been standing, if Clark had reached for something other than his shoes, when Clark had gone down on his knees—
On his knees.
Bruce's eyes snap open. He stares at the shadowed hollow of Clark's throat two inches away and doesn't see it.
Clark is already sinking away from him again, too drowsy to do more than feel faint bewilderment in Bruce's direction before he's drifted back to sleep.
Which is good. It means Bruce doesn't have to respond.
Clark was right after all, to think of the ship. Bruce lies there, silent in the blackness, and feels himself ice over.
He does doze off again, eventually. He sleeps longer than he normally would, longer than he should, but still wakes before Clark does.
He blinks his way back into awareness, and then spends a long moment just looking across the pillows at Clark's sleeping face, warm light striping the walls, the floor, the sheets. Clark's hair is wilder than Bruce has ever seen it, loose curls rumpled, expression placid; he's moved, they both have, but his arm is still draped across Bruce, fingertips trailing bright warmth along the faint curve of Bruce's waist.
Not far, in fact, from the lower edge of Bruce's dress shirt where it's come untucked. It won't hurt anything for Bruce to allow himself the pretense, just for a minute. To leave the illusion intact: a world where Bruce could shift and stretch and let the shirt ride up that last critical inch, where he could let Clark touch him and let himself enjoy it; where he could kiss Clark awake and Clark would allow it, would smile into it and slide that hand luxuriously up the line of Bruce's back—and then break away and tell him how terrible his morning breath tastes to Superman, and laugh. Where that would be all right.
Bruce feels his throat close up tight. Ah. He was wrong: it does hurt, a little.
He eases out from underneath Clark's arm without touching Clark anywhere else, and leaves.
By the time he feels Clark wake up, breakfast is ready, and so is Bruce. The first thing he'd done had been to call off Alfred; they won't need a spectator for this, and Bruce is capable of making a decent batch of pancakes unsupervised, no matter what Alfred thinks. Clark's standards are probably going to be more generous toward him than Alfred's, anyway.
He lays everything out, butter and syrup and sliced strawberries. (He does at least have the self-preservation to not put whipped cream anywhere where Clark could see it or touch it or lick it off of anything. That's the absolute last thing he needs this morning.) He sets two places, seats himself, and decides on a facial expression: placid, calm, not warm but not unfriendly.
It occupies the time, and there's something soothing about strategizing, planning, executing. But that's all that can be said for it, because all the stage-setting in the world is, of course, useless. Clark rounds the corner of the bedroom wall frowning and running an absent hand through his hair, and the first thing he says is, "Okay, what's wrong?"
Bruce gestures to the plate across from him.
Clark's mouth tightens; and Bruce can feel a hot spark of frustration go off inside him. But of course Clark can feel him right back—can tell he's almost hoping for it, and Clark's brow dips, frustration swept aside for mingled puzzlement-exasperation-warmth (always so goddamn difficult, but god help me, I still—), before he sighs a little through his nose and obediently takes the open seat.
He picks up his fork, cuts himself a bite of pancake. But he doesn't take his eyes off Bruce.
"Just tell me. I know I could look," Clark adds carefully, "but there's always so much, and I don't want to—misunderstand."
Which is fair, Bruce thinks, because whatever he's getting from Bruce right now, it's probably so hopelessly self-contradictory Clark can't even guess where to start unraveling it.
He looks down at his own plate, spears half a strawberry, and says evenly, "How much do you remember, after Steppenwolf took you?"
A nauseating whirl of imagery; Bruce braces himself against the edge of the table, and Clark swallows and says, "Once I was—secured? Not a lot. I don't know. I knew you had arrived. The League, I mean, and then—you. I remember the noise, the parademons, Steppenwolf yelling. Bruce, what does this have to do with—?"
Bruce closes his eyes. "Do you remember what he said?"
It's so strange, the way he can still tell exactly what Clark is doing: staring at him, with a slow sick feeling starting to stir low in his gut. "He was threatening you, threatening the world. Something about what he was going to do with me, that you were all going to die screaming, that kind of thing. Bruce—"
And Bruce doesn't have to say it: he can just remember, and Clark remembers with him. Steppenwolf's furious snarling face, that thunderous voice. —he will kneel before me—
"No. No, no—come on, Bruce—"
—he will be my creature—
"You can't be serious! You aren't mind-controlling me—"
Bruce breathes in slowly, and forces his tone to remain calm. "How do you know?"
He makes himself look up. Clark is still staring at him, mouth twisting, eyes fierce; and he could yell at Bruce, he's about half an inch away from it, except all at once the urge transforms itself into stern bronze determination. "Because I've wanted to go down on my knees for you for months now," he tells Bruce quietly. "But you aren't going to believe that, are you?"
Bruce doesn't have to reply aloud. Clark already knows the answer—would have even without the connection, Bruce is suddenly sure.
He wouldn't be surprised if Clark were angry. Even if he is influencing Clark's behavior; or perhaps especially if he's influencing Clark's behavior. He already compelled Clark to yell at him once—he should have known then, should have realized Clark's actions might not be a matter of emotional transfer alone. It was impossibly short-sighted of him not to have realized this earlier, not to have understood the true potential for disaster. He'd thought it himself, Clark had said it aloud: Steppenwolf hadn't been intending to sit back admiring Clark's mind from a distance. He'd have reached in and taken hold of it—the way Bruce no doubt has managed to do, even without specifically intending it.
(Clark had touched him. Undressed him, if only partially. Climbed into his bed, for Christ's sake—Bruce should have known the second Clark had suggested it, pushed for it. He should have realized instantly that something wasn't right.
He should have known he could only ruin this.)
Clark flinches, sudden and full-bodied, and his fork clatters down against the edge of his plate. "Bruce," he says, half-extending a hand; and then he pauses and shakes his head, and Bruce feels something that's almost—amusement? Sour, ragged along its edges, but distinct. And Clark does laugh a moment later, a soft huff of breath, and then brings both hands up to rub at his face instead. "I should've known."
Should've known? Should've known what? That he couldn't trust Bruce not to subconsciously take advantage of the opportunity—
"No, no, jesus," Clark says aloud, reaching out again—palms out, this time, entreating. "Jesus, Bruce, that's not what I meant. It's just that you're—you're always so—"
He hesitates, leaving a blank that Bruce can't help but try to fill in on his own. The possibilities suggest themselves immediately: difficult? Forceful? Controlling—
"Unhappy," Clark says firmly, shaking his head again; and then his face softens, his mouth slanting uncertainly, eyes huge and blue and hopelessly intent. "Bruce," he says again, quiet. "You're always so unhappy."
Bruce sits there and looks at Clark across the sunlit table, the perfect steaming stack of pancakes, and says nothing.
Not that he has to. Clark's been in his head for the better part of a week, now, and he's starting to learn his way around. He's starting to understand a lot of things he hadn't understood before.
"I get it," he tells Bruce—and then can't help but shake his head and laugh at the immediate, silent upswell of doubt. "I do. You let me in, you have to know that I—I can see it," but of course that doesn't help, only turns Bruce's mind grim with creeping shadows, sour with regret. Clark tries shoving all of his own—his own comprehension, earnest and bone-deep sympathy, in there; because he does understand, on a level so profound that there's just no room for anger or frustration. He feels what Bruce is feeling, remembers what Bruce remembers, can look right down the long line of choices and actions and consequences that have combined to make Bruce the precise version of himself who'd react exactly this way at this moment.
(He's even a little relieved. Just—that it really hadn't been him, that he hadn't been the problem. Or at least not the way he'd thought: Bruce is afraid, yeah, but for him, not of him.
After everything they've tried to do to each other, that's about the last thing Clark was expecting.)
"I get it," Clark repeats. How could he not? All the agony and failure, the death and loss, the way Bruce just keeps piling it all onto himself instead of letting go—it's the easiest thing in the world, really, to understand how all that weight presses down on him. How he measures everything in terms of it: that bad outcomes are real, that he knows it by how they add to his burden; that good outcomes are meaningless, insubstantial, beside all the endless miles of clanking chain he's dragging.
"And you're used to it. You think that's how it should be. But last night didn't hurt. Last night this started to look like maybe it wasn't a problem after all. It made you happy, even if it was just for a little while, and that's why you don't trust it. That's," Clark adds slowly, "why you don't trust me."
He looks at Bruce's expressionless face, the carefully-staged spread of pancakes. If he'd come in here and found Bruce like this on any other day, when he couldn't feel Bruce's dread and apprehension and dim frigid self-disgust from the other end of the house—what would he have thought? What would he have done? He's suddenly defiantly glad for the goddamn mother box, for having been given the x-ray vision to see through this kind of wall just as well as any other. The next time they see Steppenwolf, Clark's going to tell him "thank you" before punching him into next Tuesday.
He lets the bright fierce determination inside him overflow, flash-flood all the way to the high-water mark, so Bruce can't possibly pretend to miss it; and he leans in over the table and says softly, "I'm glad you brought me back, Bruce. I'm glad I didn't stay dead, and that I'm okay, and that I could help you defeat Steppenwolf and save the world. I'm glad that we're in each other's heads like this, that you can't stop me from understanding you. I want to be the exception that doesn't follow your stupid rules. I want to be the thing that proves you wrong."
He doesn't know what he's expecting. For Bruce to argue with him, maybe, to feel resentful or impatient, to use a lot of short sharp words to try to explain to him how wrong he is.
But Bruce just looks at him for a long moment. He swallows; his mouth parts; and then he closes it again without saying anything, and squeezes his eyes shut.
Doing that looks strange on him, weird and vulnerable, and Clark reaches across the table at the same moment that he reaches out in there, palm settling across the knotted line of Bruce's knuckles just as he gets a good enough look to realize what's wrong.
What Clark said is—Bruce wants that, too. That's the problem.
Clark huffs half a laugh, aloud, and doesn't let go of Bruce's hand. It's kind of appropriate that Bruce is clogged with enough catch-22s to choke on.
"I guess you want me to want to eat these pancakes, too," he says, and waits for Bruce to open his eyes again before carefully cracking half a smile. "Well, too bad: I do."
Bruce stares at him. "Clark," he says, low, strained. "You can't—" and then he cuts himself off and Clark can tell exactly why, can follow every strand of the knot he's tying himself into: can't possibly be all right with this, except he might be if Bruce is making him be all right with it. And oh, what an old familiar rut, what a well-worn and routine agony it is, that everything should be suspect, that nothing can be trusted. Clark's hand on Bruce's—but Bruce wants it there, after all. Bruce is already addicted to the treacherous joy of Clark's kindness, his patience, his understanding; is desperate for his lack of censure, his forgiveness, his heedless and freely-given closeness. Which Bruce both does and doesn't have, if Clark only thinks he's giving freely of it—and maybe Bruce is compelling that, too, is subconsciously forcing Clark not to believe Bruce is responsible even though all the evidence suggests as much—
"Bruce," Clark interrupts, just to stem the tide a little. "I know you aren't going to listen to anything I say right now, especially not the stuff you want to hear. But I'm not upset. You aren't doing anything to me at all. I told you, it's been months for me. I knew I wanted you already." He hangs on grimly through Bruce's immediate internal rejection of the whole idea, sharp as a shove, and says again, "And I still do. I never stopped. You—" and jesus, it's so easy to give up on the words, to just let Bruce see it. Coming back, that gut-deep recognition Bruce had stirred in him even while he was still half out of his head. Trying to step carefully, to make it clear to Bruce that he understood the terms of his revival, and Bruce's short I don't—not, an unexpected and unlooked-for olive branch, the disproportionate gladness Clark had felt over it.
He'd thought he just wanted Bruce to like him, at first. The Justice League was new, and had been three-quarters formed even without Clark—who knew whether he'd really fit, whether he'd help it last or blow it apart? But if he and Bruce could find a way to work with each other, surely it had a chance. That was all.
But then he'd gotten weird, fixated on it. Noticing every time Bruce touched him, counting the instances, tallying; watching Bruce all the time, for any sign it was about to happen again. Listening for Bruce at night, lying in his bed and sorting through the nighttime sounds of Gotham all the way across the bay, just to find the soft scrape of boot-soles on rooftops, Alfred's voice low and tinny through a communicator. Finally, eventually, realizing what he was doing and making himself put it aside, because it was stupid to dwell on it—except when he couldn't stand it anymore, couldn't shake a glimpse of the line of Bruce's back or a quick wry glance Bruce had shot him; had to give in, alone in the dark, and kick off the sheets, wrap a hand around himself, and wish—
Somewhere far away, Clark hears his breath catch. It isn't coming from him, the sudden rush of imagined sensations, impressions, Bruce's hand on his face pulling him in and Bruce's fingertips smoothing along the line of his cheek—where he'd bled, once; and that spirals off suddenly into the dark, a fight, Clark's face twisted in anger, his throat under Bruce's fingertips—
—then? That early?—
—then, and earlier still, and Christ, Clark, don't look at this, you weren't supposed to ever have to look at this—
But I want to, Clark can't say, because of course Bruce won't listen.
Clark blinks, swallowing hard, and it feels impossible that after all that they're just sitting at the table over plates of cooling pancakes.
Bruce's eyes are still closed, his mouth twisting, as though he's in pain.
(As though. He is; Clark can feel as much.)
"Clark," he says, very low.
"I know. It's okay," Clark interrupts. "I know you're about to ask me to leave, and I will. And it won't be because you're making me—I know I can't prove it to you right now, but I want to say it, just so you'll remember it that way later.
"And I want you to remember this, too: I meant it. You aren't making me think or feel anything. You aren't making me do anything I didn't already want to do. And one way or another, I'm going to figure out how to make you understand that. I'm going to say all this to you again, and next time you're going to believe it."
And he's sure about it, solid, seated deep as bedrock. But Bruce is filled with an equally solid determination not to let Clark make a mistake, not to let him come to ruin over this—which would be ridiculous, infuriating, if only he couldn't tell how earnestly Bruce means it.
Jesus. And Bruce had somehow thought Clark would want him less, after this. For all the ways Bruce is basically a genius, Clark thinks distantly, he's also kind of an idiot.
"I promise," he says quietly. "I promise. You'll believe it." He lets himself squeeze Bruce's hand, just once; and then he speeds away, air and light and color smearing around him, before he can do anything stupid.
Of course there isn't really any distance he can get from Bruce, not in the ways that matter most. But Metropolis is—it feels full of Bruce, Clark's eyes catching on every Wayne building from the bay to his apartment, knowing Bruce was three blocks over from here on Black Zero, that he'd seen Clark above him in person for the first time then and Clark hadn't even
(—then, and earlier still, and just how early did that mean? Surely not that first moment, not on that terrible day; but how soon after? Bruce had seen him as a threat to be put down, had hated everything he'd represented, and had still thought of Clark's hands on him and wanted it—)
known, hadn't had the slightest idea, and this really isn't helping at all.
Clark walks to his apartment building, and then keeps walking; and then, when he's a little further away, he runs. And then he runs, because there's only one place he ever wants to go when he doesn't know what else to do.
Mom doesn't even look surprised to see him—it's earlier in Kansas than it was in Gotham, she's only just finishing her breakfast out on the porch, and she finishes swallowing the sip of water she was partway through before she sets the glass down and says, "Hi, honey."
"Hi, Mom," Clark says, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek, and she tilts her face up for it with a smile.
He asks her how she is, how everything's going. No, there hasn't been any trouble with the bank; yes, she's found that last box she'd misplaced during the move back in. He lets himself relax into the sweet familiarity of morning at the farmhouse, the way the light falls, the smells, the sounds, and he hopes some of that feeling of comfort is trickling across to Bruce.
(He can't quite tell for sure. Bruce is focusing as hard as he can on other things, poring over scans and readouts, and frantically ignoring the corner of his own brain caught on a loop of Clark what did you do Clark how can you fix this Clark figure this out Clark you can't let him Clark—)
Clark blinks and looks up: Mom is watching him, lips pursed, one eyebrow raised. And then, without looking away from him, she digs her spoon sharply into the last quarter of the grapefruit on her plate, neatly carving it open, and says, "Not that I'm not glad to see you, but I get the feeling there might just be a little something on your mind."
Clark feels an abrupt sense of kinship with the grapefruit.
"Trouble sleeping again?" Mom prompts gently. "I know you got away from that bastard all right," and Clark can't help but laugh; he's told Mom Steppenwolf's name, but she refuses to use it. Ever since Russia, he's been that bastard every time. "—but that kind of thing isn't always so easy to shake off. Not that you need me to tell you that, sweetheart—"
"No, it's—" Clark stops and rubs a hand across his face, trying to decide where to start. "I didn't tell you everything, Ma, there was—something else happened."
And it sounds ridiculous, more than ridiculous, but then Mom's used to that coming from Clark. She sits and listens to all of it: the mother box, the link, the way he and Bruce had tried to ignore it. Bruce's idea of a solid strategy for dealing with it, the books and the operas and the not-sleeping. The parademons—
"—and that's how they work. Whatever you're afraid of, they find it. They drag it up, you can't think about anything else. And you know—" Clark looks at Mom and then away, and swallows. "You know I've always been afraid of being alone."
Mom squeezes his hand. "I know," she says, soft.
Clark closes his eyes. "But I wasn't," he lets himself say. "Mom—I wasn't. Bruce was right there. He came for me, I was—I couldn't have been alone. Bruce was with me. He is with me, right now." And Clark hadn't quite known it, hadn't quite let himself, but when he hears himself say it like that, he's—he realizes all at once where that leads. "And I like it. I don't want it to stop. It's not something I want to fix."
"But Bruce doesn't feel that way about it?" Mom says, after a moment.
Clark snorts helplessly, scrubs at his eyes and then looks up at her, and he can feel the corners of his mouth twisting wryly. "He thinks it's hurting me. He thinks he's figured out how it works, that it's doing something to me." He pauses for a second and thinks about it, and then adds slowly, "But even before that, he thought it would hurt me just to be—touching him. Just having him around."
And something crosses Mom's face then that makes Clark swallow hard.
"You think he's right?"
"No," Mom says instantly, "no, Clark," and she settles a careful hand against his face, warm and steady. "If you say it helped you, I believe you. Whatever this is, it sounds complicated. But sometimes complicated things are good things—sometimes they're the best things. All right?" She stops, and doesn't look away, doesn't move, until he nods; and then she leans in to press a firm kiss to his forehead. "But I can't help thinking about it from his side, honey, and if it were me, if I thought somehow I were hurting you just being near you? Even for a minute, even for a second—oh, I couldn't stand it." She shakes her head, bites her lip, and she's got both hands against his face now, eyes wide and wet, and Clark hadn't expected— "I couldn't stand it," she whispers again. "Do you understand? I'd do anything to stop it."
And Clark closes his eyes and thinks about it
(—"and the only thing you're ever going to do is make it worse, you know that—"
"I do know that.")
(—Stop being Batman. He'd give that up, over this—)
(—if anyone could forgive me this, it would be you, wouldn't it—)
and is pretty sure he knows exactly what she means.
After Clark leaves, Bruce finishes eating. It's not that he feels hungry; but the pancakes are there and it would be a waste to throw them out, and he can sit in the sunlight and fill his mind with the sensation, the taste, which is the next best thing to not thinking anything at all.
He can feel Clark, but they're—they're separate again, or at least more than they had been. If he allows himself to wonder, he finds he does know where Clark is, can bring forward the faintest sensory echo of a wooden railing underneath Clark's palm, Martha Kent's hair against his—Clark's—cheek as she leans in to hug him—Clark—
Stop it, Bruce tells himself. He calmly picks up the last slice of strawberry, and thinks about nothing but the taste, the sweetness of the juice, the texture of the flesh against his teeth; and then he stands up and goes downstairs.
He finds something to concentrate on. It doesn't matter what it is. It only matters that his attention is on it, that other concerns fall away, that it keeps him from—
That it keeps him from thinking about what he wants.
(As if that were even possible. As if he had any hope of stopping himself.
He'd thought it would never matter. As long as he could keep it to himself, shut away—he'd never have said anything. He'd never have done anything. No one would ever have known. But now—
Even if they do fix this before Bruce can cause any irreparable harm, Clark's going to remember it. Clark's going to remember everything he saw and felt inside of Bruce, and there won't be any pretending otherwise.
And Bruce shouldn't have the goddamn nerve to be relieved—)
He manages to keep at it for a couple of hours, and if half his mind is still spinning its wheels over Clark, it's at least doing it relatively quietly.
But he suspects that's only because Clark, too, is occupied. And it's a suspicion that's borne out by the fact that as soon as he feels Clark's attention return to him, he's lost. The words on the screens in front of him simply can't demand his focus next to the sensation of Clark reaching for him, sidling with cautious care into that wide-open space inside him.
And Bruce is aware, from a distance, that his body has just shivered helplessly—because it's like last night, the way he'd felt when Clark's hand had eased into place against his back, the reckless and heedless pleasure of it. Except now he knows better than to let himself enjoy it; now he understands why Clark is doing it, that it's only one more symptom of his own sick fucking desperation—
But that's not the only reason he's been acting like this, is it?
The thought is Clark's: intent, gentle, inexorable. He's moving with purpose. Something about whatever he did this morning, whatever conversation he had with Martha, has brought him back here to Bruce
(—and it's not that Bruce is trying to hear it, but I couldn't stand it, I'd do anything to stop it is running on a quiet loop somewhere in the back of Clark's head—)
to find something. But what?
Bruce has every argument Clark didn't let him make this morning lined up, the clean and gleaming lines and angles of logic above and the shadows they cast tangling below, the dark clinging morass of guilt and self-censure and resignation—but Clark picks them up only to set them carefully to one side. That's not what he's looking for. And Bruce catches the reason, now: that was only this morning. Bruce has been trying to push him away, keep him out, for a lot longer.
And Bruce is running with this theory of his about Steppenwolf, about how the bond works, not just because there's a modicum of evidence for it but because it fits. Because it makes some kind of inherent sense to him on a whole different level, that this should carry with it some intrinsic harm—
Clark's startled, by Bruce's immediate agreement with that thought; it's easy to tell. His bafflement is almost charming, in its artless sincerity. And of course Clark can tell how Bruce is reacting to it, is even more bewildered by that, but—who is he kidding? Bruce's first gut reaction to Clark's existence had been to try to kill him. With a side of holding him down and fucking him, as they're both now excruciatingly well aware. Has he somehow managed not to associate Bruce with unprovoked and disproportionate violence coming from unexpected directions? What, in all their acquaintance with each other to date, has given Clark the impression that Bruce is in any way predisposed to alleviate pain rather than cause it?
Clark may or may not actually be frowning; but the feeling that motivates a frown is coming through loud and clear. What? Why should that be? Bruce's first gut reaction to Clark's existence formed on a day when Clark blitzed into Metropolis out of nowhere, completely failed to stop a hundred skyscrapers from coming down, and then murdered somebody.
(—a neck breaking; Bruce knows the sound but hasn't ever felt it, the jerk and the crack—)
How has Bruce managed not to associate Clark with unprovoked and disproportionate violence, with pain, with death?
(and Bruce is abruptly fumbling, reaching to scrape together some way to explain it, some way to make Clark understand; because it does make sense, it does, it's—it's fact, inarguable, fundamental, true)
—Clark is better. Clark is—Clark is better. Clark is kind, generous, merciful; it isn't even deliberate. Clark's so unthinking, so reflexive, in the exercise of his better nature that it just—is him. He's brilliant with it, shining.
He's a light. Bright warmth, in a vast dark place.
(Bruce had managed not to say it to Diana, days ago. But it doesn't matter whether he says it or not, with Clark.)
And of course that brings with it some natural corollaries. It's only to be expected. But Clark is—Clark is digging through them with sudden intensity, dismay, something approaching horror. As if he's taken aback; as if it makes no sense to him to reach the entirely reasonable conclusion that no one like that is remotely likely to find merit or worth or value in Bruce.
It's no struggle, to lay it out for him so he can see for himself. It's not that Bruce has nothing to offer the Justice League. If that were true, Bruce would already have removed himself from their company. It's not that Bruce can't be useful or contribute meaningfully as Clark's associate, or teammate, or even as a friend. But it isn't realistic to push further. There's a simple and concrete limit to the number of things Bruce has that Clark needs, or is ever likely to want.
Bruce would never have said anything. He'd never have done anything. The relief he feels at the thought that Clark knows is a double-edged sword: yes, pretense will be impossible after this—but Clark's inevitable discomfort around Bruce, once the bond's coercive effects have faded, will probably weigh on them both at least as heavily, in time. Bruce will have to renew the effort at some point, and carry on long enough to allow Clark to assume that he's moved on; Clark may even ask, and Bruce will have to be prepared to look at him with placid friendliness and smile, and say of course, Clark, don't worry—it was never anything serious—
—no. No. No, Bruce, it's not going to be like that. Are you kidding me?
It's not a problem, Clark—
It's not a—what the hell. You are so full of shit, and Clark's insistent thought-impression is half a dozen things at once: outraged, bewildered, frustrated, pained, and all of it flooded through with soft translucent sorrow. Which transmutes, as so many things seem to do when they come into contact with the alchemical miracle of Clark Kent, into slowly brightening light, dawning determination. That's never going to happen, do you understand? Even after this stops, I'm—I'm not leaving you alone. I'm not going to let you be alone.
Bruce squeezes his eyes shut, and doesn't even try to prevent Clark from feeling the bitter resignation filling him. Of course Clark is saying that, now. Of course that's how Clark feels.
That's what Bruce has always wanted most, all along.
A small chime sounds, and Bruce blinks and reaches for his phone where it's lying on the desk. Clark is still there, behind his eyes, as he reads the message on it—from Victor.
I think we've got them this time. Look familiar?
And the coordinates do look familiar, Bruce realizes, with Clark in silent agreement, a moment before his phone chimes again. A contribution from Barry: a map of the northern hemisphere, with sprawling arrows scrawled across it in bright red. From a point in the Pacific Ocean, near the west coast of the United States, to Canada, to Iceland, to—Russia.
E.T. PHONE HOME, Barry adds a second later, and the bright burst of amusement from Clark, loud as a laugh, makes the corner of Bruce's mouth twitch.
Clark actually comes to the hangar with the rest of them this time, instead of just flying off by himself. And it's been a while, Bruce realizes, since the two of them have actually been in the same place with the rest of the League. It's—hard to remember that, when as far as they're concerned they've been together every second since Steppenwolf. But the last time was Saskatchewan, which hadn't exactly been their best moment, and—
And no one else knows what's happened since. It takes Bruce a moment to understand why Barry's glancing at him so apprehensively right before Clark arrives, why Diana and Arthur are watching him with near-identical steady stares; why Victor is very casually powering down his armor a bit at a time, as if running a quick diagnostic.
But he and Clark haven't stepped away from each other at all, this time. His realization is Clark's, and Clark's grinning as he comes in for a landing. He claps Barry on the shoulder and says aloud, "It's okay, we're fine."
—except for the thing where you're being a stubborn jackass who thinks he knows everything, but I'm sure I don't need to tell them that—
Bruce snorts and shakes his head, and Barry looks back and forth between them and then starts to smile.
"Yes," Bruce says.
Because it is, in some sense, true. Clark is still troubled by Bruce's convictions; Bruce's convictions remain steadfast, alongside a vague sense of contempt for his own subconscious.
(He knows he's right about this—but at the same time, he can't keep himself from making Clark insist that he's wrong? Christ, how shameless can he get?)
But the bond's compulsions don't seem to be affecting that much of Clark's behavior. Even if Bruce had feared that they were—Clark went to visit his mother this morning. If Martha Kent hadn't noticed anything wrong, then Clark couldn't be deviating too far from his baseline, at least in areas unrelated to his conduct toward Bruce.
(Bruce has never wanted Clark artificially agreeable, mindlessly obedient—has never wanted him to be anything other than wholly himself. Except in the single crucial respect that Clark, if wholly himself, could not plausibly want Bruce the way Bruce so helplessly wishes he did—)
The touch of a gentle hand draws Bruce's attention; except it wasn't a physical touch, because he looks up and Clark is at the other end of the Flying Fox's bay, watching him silently. Because they understand each other, now, even if they can't agree. They understand each other better than anyone else ever has or ever will, and that sensation will never find its equal.
Barry had been exactly right: the parademons, following whatever vague swarming instincts are left to them without their master, have made their way to the only place on Earth that's at all familiar to them. Bruce should have guessed sooner. Looking down at it all from above, the vast central structure where they'd fought Steppenwolf and the curves and arcs of those vinelike arms reaching away, the resemblance is unmistakable. The tower the parademons had been building in Saskatchewan, and the crude piles they'd added around it in Iceland—they'd been trying to reconstruct this landscape, trying to make themselves feel at home.
The observation gives Clark a little pang, and Bruce glances toward him and raises an eyebrow. Just—funny, Clark decides, looking back at him. What is it about Earth, anyway, that every new batch of aliens that comes along seems to want to remake it in their image? Clark likes it just the way it is, dammit. It doesn't need to make itself better for him; and Bruce can't miss the undertone to that thought, narrows his eyes, as Clark adopts a blandly innocent expression and looks away.
And it's—it's like that the whole time. The Fox swoops into position under Victor's easy guidance, and even as Bruce drops from the bay, considering possible tactics, Clark's still with him. Clark's listening, watching—understanding why Bruce wanted to come in so close to the main structure, to give himself something to grapple onto, and silently offering to throw Bruce into the air if that would help—
Clark's mental image of the results makes Bruce grin, even as he slews sideways to duck a parademon's blow and whirls to deal one of his own. And then a blast from Clark's eyes zaps another parademon that was winging toward Bruce's back before Bruce can even ask. It's—it's easy, it makes everything easy. Clark can see and hear so much, can react so quickly; and they're joined so completely, now that they're both allowing it, that Bruce can—can almost leave himself, let his own body settle in place unattended for an instant to call Clark's attention to the pair of parademons about to drop onto Arthur from above, to help him decide what to do about it and how, and still get back behind his own eyes in time to watch the blur of Clark slinging himself through the air.
It's almost enough to distract Bruce from their actual purpose here.
Until, of course, there's a sudden flare of light, and then Victor shouts, "It's here!"
The box. Bruce turns his own head, unthinking, but looks through Clark's eyes; Clark is already scanning for it with his vision, and yes, there it is. In the central structure, where Steppenwolf had once insisted they all be brought—and perhaps some remnant of that instruction is lingering, in the parademons. A perfect cube, strangely unassuming in size: definitely the box.
Victor's reaching out, armor limned with light—forming a remote connection. Barry looks at him, sizes up the approximate direction he's oriented in, and then flickers away. There's probably a little trial-and-error involved, but when Bruce uses his own eyes, it's a fraction of a second before he's back, the mother box clutched carefully in his hands. "Man," he says, "these are not as heavy as they look. Uh—it's okay that I'm holding this, right? I'm not going to make Superman's head explode, or—"
"You're not going to make Superman's head explode," Victor agrees blandly, dimming a little.
"Great! Because I really don't want to be the guy who made Superman's head explode," Barry confesses. "Although, I mean, I guess we've got the box now, so maybe we could still put him back together. Again. But—"
"We should take it back to the Cave," Bruce hears himself say. It's only reasonable. The box is glimmering in a familiar way, but the sides are closed, inert; do they need to return it to the state it was in when the bond formed? Or turn it off? Or will a different procedure entirely be required to deconstruct what it built?
Barry hesitates for a second, and then looks at him. Bruce doesn't reach for the box.
"Sure, boss-man," Barry says, ducking his head, and then is gone, faint smell of ozone in his wake.
Clark is still standing there. Bruce doesn't look at him before turning back toward the Fox.
(Not that it matters one way or the other. Clark is, inevitably, right there with him anyway.)
Clark stands quietly in the Fox's bay the whole way back, and tries not to look at the mother box.
It's good that they managed to track it down—just getting it out of the parademons' hands, securing it before Steppenwolf can come back for it, is important in and of itself. Even if there weren't anything else they wanted to do with it.
It's just that there isn't anything else Clark wants to do with it. He sighs and rubs at his face, and then catches Barry's concerned look and manages to pin on a smile until Barry glances away again.
He told Mom the truth, before. Yeah, this situation has been weird and complicated and caused a bunch of problems, but—
But complicated things can be good things; complicated things can be the best things. The bond's become more important to Clark than he'd ever have guessed it would, and getting rid of it is about the last thing he wants to do. Even beyond all the ways it's helped him understand Bruce better, everything he's learned from it—he wants to wrap his hand around it and hang on just out of sheer selfish want, childish singlemindedness.
(He's always been strange. He's always been set apart. He didn't have to know why he was the way he was to know that it needed to be kept secret, that he needed to hold himself back just a little all the time. Even with Lois, it was—old habits die hard. He'd been shut up inside himself alone for so long. He didn't know how else to be.
But then Bruce got shoved in there with him, and he didn't know how much he needed that until it happened—he didn't know how much he'd love that until it happened, and now that it has, he never ever wants it to stop—)
But that wouldn't be right. It wouldn't be fair. He can't make Bruce stay like this when Bruce doesn't want to. Bruce is still thinking of this as a problem that needs fixing, and now they have the solution. That's all there is to it.
He closes his eyes and doesn't open them again until the Fox settles into place in the hangar.
For a moment, no one else is moving either—not even Barry, though Clark can still hear his heart, distinctive and rabbit-fast. And then Victor says gently, "You need me to stick around?"
Clark lifts his head and locks eyes with Bruce, standing at the other end of the bay.
"No," Bruce says, and then looks away to nod at Victor. "We'll see how far we can get by ourselves."
"Okay," Barry says, and then glances down at the box—still in his hands. He'd looked at Bruce and then at the rest of the bay, and had clearly decided that not leaving a mother box to rattle around during the flight was the best way to avoid having Batman glare at him. "I'll just—set this down somewhere safe, then." He flickers off, and reappears, box gone, on the floor of the hangar a few strides away from the Fox. "Well, uh. Good luck?"
"Thanks," Clark says, and doesn't take his eyes off Bruce.
Arthur claps Bruce on the shoulder; Clark can feel the impact for himself. "Try not to do anything stupid," he murmurs, to Bruce, and then he glances at Clark, looks at him for a long second, and just nods once, abruptly serious.
Diana is closer to Clark than to Bruce, and she doesn't say anything to either of them—only touches the back of Clark's hand as she passes and smiles at him, small but brilliant, in a way that makes him feel suddenly steadier on his feet. And Bruce—
Bruce just looks at him and then away again, silent. The grim certainty inside him is like bile at the back of Clark's throat: that this has to happen, it has to, and that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. This will be one more weight for Bruce to shoulder, one more consequence to endure.
"Ten minutes?" Clark says aloud, instead of arguing.
And it won't take Bruce ten minutes to get the suit off, not if he doesn't want it to; but he just nods, and then steps away.
The thing is—
The thing is, there's nothing to say.
Clark takes about fifteen seconds to change out of his own uniform, zipping across the bay and back, and then sits in the Cave and looks at the mother box, hands clasped, elbows on his knees, for nine minutes and forty-five seconds. It feels like he should be doing something, but there's—there's no arguments to make, nothing to tell Bruce, nothing he needs the time to figure out how to say. Bruce knows it all already, or will the moment he goes looking for it. He's just not going to listen to any of it, because he thinks Clark is compromised.
Clark lets out a long slow breath and rubs his eyes.
God. He shouldn't hate the idea so much. He's made it more than thirty perfectly decent years of his life without being joined mentally and emotionally to anybody. He's barely even had time to get used to having this; he can get used to not having it again. Pretty soon he probably won't even remember what it was like. What's so great about it, anyway? What has this been except a pain in his ass? Getting all of Bruce's exhaustion and irrational anger, having to put up with his stubbornness and his paranoia, with the bonus experience of actively disagreeing with him 24/7 instead of just when they're face-to-face.
Undoing it will just make things go back to normal. The idea that he's going to have his mind to himself again should make him happy. People aren't supposed to be able to just—share themselves like that, perceive and understand and accept the whole of someone else and be perceived and understood and accepted in their turn. He should be glad to think he'll be himself again, individual, separate. It shouldn't feel like a prison sentence; solitary confinement, trapped alone in all the dark clinging space inside his skin with no one to hear him—
(—an eternity of bleak endless rejection, the lightless soundless void—)
"Clark," Bruce says quietly, and Clark jerks, stands and wipes hastily at his wet face. Bruce must have felt all that, but—but in a minute it won't matter.
None of it matters. Because the point at the heart of all this is simple: if the bond stays, Bruce will never trust him. Bruce will never believe that Clark's acting of his own free will, that Bruce isn't—hurting him. And Clark can't let it stay that way.
He clears his throat, sets his jaw, and steps toward the table. The mother box is sitting in the middle of it, looking deceptively ordinary but for the tiny flickers of light escaping here and there around its edges, and Clark reaches for it and it—opens. Metal shifts and slides, delicate fractals reorganizing themselves, a distinct glow spilling out. It looks a lot like it did last time, except the whole process is probably going to be a little more comfortable when Clark's not impaled in place by spikes.
"So if I just—let it look at me," Clark says aloud, "and then ask it, will that be enough?"
Bruce doesn't say anything.
Clark doesn't want to look at him. But when he reaches inside himself instead, past the whole maelstrom of everything he's feeling on his own, what he finds doesn't make any sense.
He blinks and then does look, and Bruce is staring back at him: mouth half-open, eyes wide, brows just beginning to draw down into what would have been a frown.
And all at once, Clark understands.
"You wanted me to say no."
Bruce closes his mouth and swallows. It's not that he'd wanted it, or at least not just that. He'd expected it. He'd been ready for it; he'd been prepared, with all the weary resignation in his heart, to deal with it. Because he knew the bond needed breaking, he'd been arguing as much this entire time—and yet he was equally well aware that somewhere deep and wordless and greedy, that was the last thing he wanted. And how else would that manifest, except in Clark? That's how this appears to work; all the other evidence suggests as much. Clark's the one who's been acting on all Bruce's most selfish desires, by—
—what? Clark laughs aloud, sharp, and it sounds strange in the otherwise silent room. By what? By touching Bruce? Sleeping in his bed? Taking off his tie? Caring about him? Bruce doesn't have to mind-control Clark to get those things, Clark does them already—or at least the ones he can get away with, and he would have done the rest a thousand times a day if he'd only known Bruce would let him.
On the outside, Bruce squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head, throws out a hand in instant unthinking denial—no. No, stop, please stop saying it, I'll forget—
—I'll forget that it's not true. I'm not like you, you can't trust me. I'll let myself pretend—
And Clark can't just see it or hear it but can feel it, on every possible level: colliding certainties, mutual contradiction. Because Bruce is sure this isn't all right, that he can't possibly touch Clark like this and not leave a stain, to exactly the same degree that he's sure Clark could not, could not, feel what he does of his own volition. This bond has to be responsible for Clark's behavior, it's the only way to reconcile Clark's actions with reality; except that if it were then Clark would have refused, would never have agreed that this can't be permitted to last—
—precisely because Bruce desperately wants it to. Clark laughs again, helpless, eyes stinging, because of course Bruce is just as hopelessly weird as he is; of course Bruce is fucked up in exactly the right ways to like this as much as Clark does. They'd shared it, even, in Bruce's bed—how many lies each of them is always telling, what a relief it is to lose the option. Clark just hadn't realized how far it went.
But then Bruce has never settled for less than matching up to Superman in every respect, has he?
"Bruce," Clark says aloud, hoarse and uneven.
"No. No, Clark, don't—"
"Bruce, please," Clark says. He still has his hand half-extended toward the box. He turns, moves, reaches for Bruce instead; dares to curl his fingers around Bruce's wrist, and feels Bruce shudder—inside, outside, everywhere. "Please, just let me—"
Because Bruce is casting around, out of sheer desperate reflex, for strategems, tactics. Something hateful to say, something cruel to do—insult Mom (but Clark would know he doesn't mean it), hit Clark (but he'd only break his own hand), dig out that good old kryptonite blade (he'd collected it after Doomsday, couldn't have let anyone else get their hands on it—as if there were anyone Clark had less reason to trust than Bruce himself, but he'd needed to know no one else would be able to hurt Clark again); anything, anything, to make Clark stop looking at him like—
—like what, Bruce? Like what? How am I looking at you?
—like that, damn you. Your face, your eyes, I can't stand it—you think you want me? Fine, go ahead and fuck me, then, get it out of your system; but don't try to tell me that you—
And suddenly they're both unmoored, swept up in a dizzy-hot spiral: the memory is Bruce's, and yet it's of Clark's thoughts, the way they'd wandered that night as he drifted in and out of sleep. How it had felt to lie against him; to wake in the morning and think of kissing him, of rolling over underneath his hands in that sunny bed and pressing him down into the mattress, of hearing him laugh.
Clark discovers, distantly, that he's gasping, gulping down air—that his heart is hammering, even though they still aren't touching anywhere except Clark's hand on Bruce's wrist.
"Bruce," he says. And he says it with his mouth, with his voice, with his whole self, reaching for Bruce with his hands at the same time as he does it in his head: for the sheer selfish joy of experiencing the rose-gold sunrise-wide burst of light in Bruce's mind when Clark finally, finally kisses him.
—Bruce, I do; I do, I do—
Bruce goes still against Clark's mouth, under his hands. The wrong reaction, of course: he needs to—he should shove Clark away, he shouldn't let this—
Clark makes a ragged sound in the back of his throat, brings a hand up to settle it tentatively along the line of Bruce's jaw. He's a wild mix of things, a flare of unreasoning joy almost enough to overpower the unsteady desperation, sick swooping uncertainty. He knows Bruce is thinking about pushing him off, making him stop. He's braced for it, ready.
(—because this is how it always works, for Clark: there's always a price. He always has to prove himself, kill or die or bleed—something, there's always something, he never gets what he wants without paying for it. He was always going to have to give this up. He was always going to have to stand here and ask the box to tear the best thing he's ever had out of him by the roots, just to get Bruce to listen to him—)
Bruce squeezes his eyes shut and doesn't move. It's not that he wants to lose this; it's not that he's ever going to regret securing himself the memory of Clark's mouth against his, the soft scrape of Clark's fingertips across his cheek, all Clark's warm strength pressed up so close against him. But he—he can't reconcile this with—it's not possible, that Clark should—
Bruce blinks, and his whole field of vision is Clark's blurred face, half-focused slant of nose, the plane from cheekbone to jaw, the tender curve of—is Clark smiling at him?
(Strange, that he hadn't noticed Clark had stopped kissing him. But then Clark feels the same inside right now as he had with his mouth on Bruce. As if it doesn't make a difference where he is or what he's doing; as if—
—as if it's something that will last—)
"Bruce," Clark murmurs again, almost against Bruce's mouth, and then one of those steady warm hands slides just far enough to curl around the nape of Bruce's neck, tip him in and bring their foreheads together. "I know you're going to be shocked to hear it, but it has to be said. You're overthinking this."
And Bruce can't help but huff out a bitter little laugh, even though he—he can tell it isn't just a joke. Clark's saying it with wry affection, warmth, understanding, sorrow; with perfect comprehension of what Bruce is thinking and why, everything about him that makes it so difficult for him to let this happen. He must have made Clark do this, nothing else makes any sense—
—but then he'd thought it himself, hadn't he, that Clark seemed the same in every other way? Clark smooths his fingers along the line of Bruce's jaw and draws the memory forward at the same time, the moment where Bruce had acknowledged his influence couldn't have altered Clark so terribly if Martha hadn't noticed.
Doesn't disprove anything. Inconclusive.
Doesn't prove anything either, Clark insists, pressing closer, burning hotter; blue-shadowed ice and furious red light, and when has three hundred feet of ice ever stopped Superman? Let's start small: I showed you, didn't I, how long I've been thinking about this? That memory—you've never even considered the possibility. You've never imagined me lying awake at night longing for you. You couldn't have put that in my head—
And Bruce shudders half out of Clark's grip, as if in the half-hearted hope of escape from the inevitable conclusion, because—no, he hadn't; he'd never let himself. He can't deny it and he can't pretend otherwise. Clark can already tell.
The fierce wave of Clark's insistence catches Bruce up, lifts him off his feet, and it's not just insistence but desperation, too. Clark wants him to believe this, wants it so badly it aches, and Bruce would never have imagined that, either. And for a split second—
—if it really were possible—
Bruce hears himself make a small sharp sound. His hands have been hovering, half-suspended, extended toward Clark without touching him, held back; but now he lets himself tug Clark in even closer, grip his jaw and tilt, catch that generous mouth and drag his teeth against the soft open lower lip.
Clark gasps and surges against him—inside and out, and for a moment Bruce can't tell which sensations are where. The rush of delight, hot bright desire, hope and pleasure and shy gladness, is just as present as the solid lines of Clark's thighs against his, their bumping knees, Clark's fingers curling through Bruce's hair.
You believe me yet?
Bruce tenses helplessly, feels his hands tighten, and Christ, he wishes he could shake the certainty that Clark is even now slipping through his fingers—
No. The answer is unmissable, it's all of him, his whole mind brimming over with it; but it sounds soft as a sigh even to him, hardly the thunderous graven commandment it should be.
But you want to. You want to, and Clark smiles against Bruce's mouth, laughs, so sudden Bruce ends up just licking the bright line of his teeth for a second.
"That's okay," Clark says aloud, gentle, and he keeps his hands where they are and presses one kiss, another, to Bruce's cheek. "That's okay. All right? It's okay."
Bruce swallows and hangs on, and doesn't tell him he's wrong.
Clark doesn't speed them up the stairs.
Bruce finds himself obscurely grateful for it. It gives him a little more time to—to try to figure out how to allow this to happen, how to permit something so nonsensical and incomprehensible to carry him along without pinning it down and forcing it to explain itself to his satisfaction.
(Causes, effects, the chains that connect one to the other and each individual factor making up the links—and it's so dangerous not to know what they are, to let them go unrecognized and undefined, to relinquish any hope of controlling the outcome—)
The first few times Clark catches him on a landing and pulls him close, Bruce has to fight not to shy away from his hands, his mouth, all the unfamiliar blazing-hot emotion lighting him up from the inside-out. But he can feel other things alongside it.
Clark is afraid, too. Afraid of asking too much, being too much—wanting more than it's right to expect, too alien and too needy and too desperate—and he doesn't want Bruce to know it, doesn't want to burden him with it, but can't stop whispering it into Bruce's head anyway.
It only makes Bruce kiss him harder. By the time they reach the house, they've stopped bothering to try to take their hands off each other, stumbling up the stairs with greedy hands shoved up each other's shirts, mouths hot and tender. Bruce yanks at Clark's belt, tugs it free with a clank of protest from the buckle, and Clark gasps into his mouth and then sucks sharply on his tongue, dragging an uneven sound from the back of Bruce's throat.
And fuck, it's—it's Clark's tongue, too, Clark's throat—Bruce's belt, someone's open hand skimming the dip of someone else's back and damned if Bruce knows whose. There's a wild and unpredictable electricity building up between them, touching and being touched so simultaneously, the wordless improvisation of instant shared decision and sensation; Bruce tenses his thighs, or maybe he tenses Clark's, or maybe Clark tenses his own and Bruce just feels it, and buttons go flying—Bruce's, almost certainly, but did he pull his shirt open or did Clark? A trailing hand up the line of a bare chest, or tight around a waist, or maybe both at once—and then someone dips below a waistband, fingers against hot damp skin, around a cock, and both of them cry out—
The intensity of it is indescribable—Bruce can't hold all this, his own arousal and Clark's at the same time, the incandescent doubled brilliance flooding high, everything scored with light. He—they—grip close, tighten their shuddering fingers and squeeze their eyes shut and are lost.
He doesn't know how long it takes for him to settle back into his skin and blink his eyes open, but when he does Clark is looking back at him from two inches away, flushed and dazed and just beginning to dimple sheepishly at one corner of his mouth. "Jesus, Bruce," he murmurs, gaze hot and dark on Bruce's face, and then he glances down and laughs.
They're a mess. It really had been Bruce's buttons scattering behind them on the floor; his dress shirt is still on one of his shoulders, pushed half off the other, and he has a vague sense memory of having sucked at least two of those marks into a collarbone, but—but it must have been Clark doing it to him. Clark's shirt is still on, too, rucked up all the way to bare his chest, jeans tugged wide, looking like the best kind of pornography: cock red and wet and still curved high against his belly, even though Bruce's hand is sticky with the evidence that that orgasm was at least half his. But it was half Bruce's, too, because he can feel as much, damp and uncomfortable in the slacks he never unfastened—
"How about we try that again," Clark says, low, "and this time I actually get your pants off?"
Bruce glances down and then lets his gaze travel back up, leisurely, and—and, god, he can feel it just the way Clark can, both of them shivering helplessly. He can feel the impulse a split second before Clark gives in to it, catching Bruce's wrist and lifting that dripping hand until Clark can slide his tongue between two of Bruce's fingers and lick—
And there's no possible way that Bruce can be hard again, except that he is. He feels like he is, but it must just be Clark, Kryptonian stamina—and it's also Clark, maybe, who's thinking in dazed half-remembered sensations of the floor against his knees, of looking up at Bruce; but Bruce is the one who drops, a rough eager sound caught in the back of his throat.
Even as his knees land, Clark's already planning to pull him back up—but Bruce leans in without hesitating, and then Clark is gasping at the sensation of thick hot weight on his tongue—Bruce's tongue—Christ—
It's too much, it's too much; Bruce is already halfway behind Clark's eyes, ruthlessly pressing his hips backward into the wall even though Clark—Bruce—isn't holding him there, because he can't—he can't let himself—fuck, fuck, and Clark jerks and shudders and grabs at Bruce's shoulders, pushes him back just far enough to slide unsteadily to the floor in front of him, because Clark had—they had—almost lost it again, just like that.
"Your pants, Bruce," Clark says, sweet and scolding. And then his gaze catches on Bruce's mouth—even redder, now, and Bruce has no idea which one of them moves first, but he's the one who skids backward until they come up against the side of the bed.
It takes two or three more false starts for them to actually get onto it; and then Clark does get Bruce's slacks off, skims admiring palms along the muscles of Bruce's thighs and the line of his ass, digs his fingers in and jerks against Bruce and comes again, and Bruce is dragged along behind him in the undertow, doing his best to radiate a dim dazed disapproval. At this rate, they're never actually going to fuck—and Clark curls around him, hands everywhere, laughing, bright and breathless.
Practice makes perfect: it's Clark's giddy exhausted thought, but Bruce gropes around half-heartedly and can't find anything to counter it with, except that—
Except that nothing could be more perfect than this.
Clark goes still against him, then, brightening with cautious hope. Still, still, so cautious; don't ask too much, don't push, you don't work the way other people do and you need to be careful with them—
Bruce keeps his hands where they are, holds on to him, and casts back for a memory: the rumble of a wall cracking, the crash of a shattering sink; the crunch of metal under Bruce's back. You haven't exactly made a habit out of being careful with me, Clark. Why start now?
As if Clark could exercise care, in this: as if there were any way for him to dim the brilliant rosy light filling him up, the vast shining tangle of—of what he's feeling for Bruce, blinding and undeniable.
As if Bruce weren't feeling it back. And Bruce can't bring himself to name it, doesn't want to touch it or look at it or breathe on it, knows he'll be up nights torturing himself with the thought that one day it will vanish, but—
But it's there right now, it is; every inch of Bruce is singing with it. And there's nothing to be done about it but pull Clark in closer, press their mouths together, and believe.