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The Five Stages

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The ferry from Metropolis to Gotham City churns through the water, carrying tourists and commuters alike across the bay. Everyone else is huddled inside out of the cold, but Lois stands on the foredeck, the wind whipping her hair into her face, the salt in the air so thick she can taste it on her tongue. Even from this distance, Gotham looms larger than life, the towering skyscrapers all crowded together and jockeying for space, the gleaming steel towers and weathered stone buildings standing proudly side by side. A city rich in history and tradition, yet pushing for innovation at every turn. It's hard not to feel a little bit of awe, no matter how many times she's seen the skyline.

Normally, Lois relishes the opportunity to dive into the heart of what makes Gotham tick, to peel back some of the layers of its prickly and fiercely independent citizens. But then, normally, she's not called upon to write a bread and butter puff piece that is, quite frankly, beneath her talents. By all rights, she should be seething with resentment over the indignity of her assignment. But she can't summon the energy for anger. She can't summon the energy for much of anything these days.

Everyone tells her she'll start to heal when she's ready. That she needs to give it time, to give herself time, and go easy on herself and her emotions. They all mean so well, her friends and co-workers, even her own family. Even Martha Kent. But what none of them seem to understand is, she'd give everything she has in her possession to feel anything. Anything at all.

The first couple of weeks after the funeral had passed by in a blessed blur. Perry had told her to take as much time as she'd needed, but she'd gone right back to Metropolis and The Planet, after making sure Martha had everything she'd needed. And had quietly endured the murmurs of condolence from everyone, the offers for a drink, a meal, some company if she'd wanted it, whatever she'd needed, they were there for her. She'd quietly endured staff meetings and pitch meetings and waking up every morning to a side of the bed that's still too cold and ordering take out for one and the listless fog that envelops her like a shroud –

It's exhausting.

Every single thing about the last seven months has been exhausting. She's tired all the time, tired to her bones, tired in a way that no amount of sleep can vanquish. She's read up on her symptoms, knows it's depression, knows she should seek therapy or drugs or something, but the idea of picking up the phone to make the appointment or even clicking a few buttons on her computer, feels like an insurmountable task.

The ferry docks, and there's a mad scramble to exit, parents keeping a careful eye on their children, businessmen and women glued to their phones, couples chattering away with each other and trying to figure out where to go for lunch or what sites to see. Lois follows sedately behind, a wraith in a grey overcoat, part of the crowd but not of it. Her Uber driver thankfully seems to sense her mood, because he's quiet on the drive to her appointment, the soft jazz piping through the car speakers the only sound.

Once, she would have made small talk with the driver, would have gotten his life story, his hopes and dreams and ambitions, what scares him and keeps him up at night. But that curiosity about her fellow man has also deserted her, just one more casualty of Lex Luthor's uncontested megalomania and Doomsday's unfettered rage.

Clark would hate seeing what she's become in his absence. She wonders if he'd even recognize her these days – this pale, listless imitation of the woman he'd fallen in love with. The tenacious reporter, the fearless adventurer, the relentless seeker of truth and light – that person seems like a stranger now, as much of a stranger as the hollow-eyed specter now staring back at her in the mirror. These days, she counts it an accomplishment if she makes it through a night without tears. Wishing for anything more would be fruitless.

CONN-COM's Gotham headquarters is a 70-story beautifully constructed building in the heart of the financial district. Lois had done an interview with the architect – Vanessa Tulle – a few years back, on her revolutionary plans to reshape the look of the urban landscape, and had tied it into a larger piece on how the world's population continues to condense into increasingly crowded big cities and the global and economic ramifications of the mass exodus from rural areas. Today's interview with Mrs. Tulle would serve no such larger end: it's simply a lifestyle piece for the Sunday magazine, with a list of rote questions Lois could recite in her sleep.

But recite them she does, the superficial song and dance between reporter and subject one she knows too well not to do the steps. Mrs. Tulle, of course, knows all of the same steps, and the hour passes by pleasantly, if unremarkably, until they're saying their goodbyes.

"I see congratulations are in order," Mrs. Tulle says, warmly, as Lois offers her hand to shake. "I wish you both the best of luck in your life together."

Luck. Lois doesn't feel lucky. All of those old sayings and platitudes about how it's better to have loved and lost than not loved at all...they're so much bullshit. She wouldn't wish this pain on anyone, this unending agony of facing the rest of her life without the best part of herself, of being without the person who'd gotten every part of her on a molecular level. There's nothing lucky in screaming her rage and pain into her pillow every night, half-wishing she could suffocate herself along with the noise. There's nothing lucky about how the sight of fried eggs over easy makes her stomach churn, how the smell of roses still triggers fresh bouts of tears, how she still sees a flash of red cape out of the corner of her eye when she lifts her head to the skies.

The weight of the loss presses down on her chest anew, forcing the air from her lungs. She has to get out, away from the walls closing in on her, suffocating her where she stands. She mumbles something, she's not sure what, then fumbles for her bag and coat, and all but runs out of the room and down the hall. Her eyes are mercifully dry, but she can't breathe, she needs air, she needs space, she needs –

She stumbles out of the elevator into the lobby and collides with a solid brick wall of a chest. Firm hands steady her, set her gently back on her feet, and when she looks up, it's to see Bruce Wayne staring down at her. His suit is perfectly tailored, his hair perfectly swept off his forehead, and what looks like a small army of assistants is behind him, trailing after him like a pack of devoted dogs.

"Mr...Mr. Wayne." It takes her two tries to get out the words. She can't stop shaking.

"Ms. Lane." His voice is low, mellifluous, perfectly pitched. "Are you alright?"

She starts to nod out of habit, then stops. Is she alright? A question she's been asked daily since Clark was killed, and normally the tight smile and short 'I'm fine' would have already been out of her mouth, the subject changed as quickly as possible. But the words stay locked in her throat, trapped like butterfly wings against a net. She can't make her limbs work, can't force her feet to move. She can't do it anymore.

Between them, Clark's shadow looms as large as a canyon, and as small as that crooked smile he used to get when he was amused and trying desperately not to show it.

Doubtless, he'd be hiding his laughter behind his hand if he could see the two of them, Lois thinks. She has no idea what the protocol is, or what she should say or how to act. She and Bruce hadn't seen each other since the funeral, hadn't stayed in touch beyond Bruce's brief text right after, telling her if she ever needed anything to call, and her simple reply of thanks, but she was doing fine, and not to worry about her.

"Um." Dimly, she's aware that they still have an audience. Polite smiles on polite faces, none of whom know or would even care about the enormity of the weight dragging her down. A weight that traps her in place, her vaulted vocabulary smothered under the bloody, writhing mess that used to be her heart.

Bruce's face undergoes a rapid set of changes, so fast she thinks even Clark would have had trouble discerning them all, then it settles into mild solicitousness. "I believe you're just the person to save me from my accountants, Ms. Lane," he says, then continues without waiting for an answer, "would you like to join me for a drink, I'm sure I spotted a bar…now, if you'll all excuse us…" The last bit is said to his entourage, most of whom simply roll their eyes. He just clasps her elbow, light but firm, and leads her away from the elevator banks and towards the small bar on the opposite end of the lobby.

The second they're out of sight of his people, he drops his hand and pins her in place instead with the force of his gaze. "Is everything okay?" This time, it's said with urgency, all traces of polite flirtation wiped from his face.

"What?" She feels stupid, clumsy, off-balance. Of course everything's not okay, he knows that better than anyone –

"You're in Gotham," Bruce continues, with that same intent stare. "Is everything okay? Do you need any assistance?"

He thinks she's here because she's in trouble. That she needs...help. Which, he's not wrong, except in all of the ways he is. The part of her not buried in a family plot in Kansas bristles at the idea that she's some damsel in distress in need of a rescue, but the rest of her is oddly touched. Touched that Bruce would care enough to come to her aid, unasked, if she'd needed it.

She manages something she hopes resembles a smile and shakes her head. "I just finished interviewing Vanessa Tulle – lifestyle piece I could have done over the phone, but Perry seemed to think the change of scenery would do me some good."

"Oh. Well, I..." He rocks back slightly on his heels. "I read your article on the Arab Art exhibit at the Cultural Museum. It was good."

"No, it wasn't," she says, wryly. "But thank you for trying."

Clark really would be laughing full-tilt at them by now. The feared Gotham Bat and a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter, both floundering like fish washed up on a beach. What a pair they are, none of his usual charm or her usual bluster on display. How the mighty have fallen, she thinks, and isn't sure if she means herself or Bruce.

"I'm sorry. You deserve...better," he says, raising his hand and lowering it like he's not quite sure how to fill the space between them.

"Better than what?" she asks, tilting her head.

He opens his mouth, then shrugs, and offers another abashed, charming smile, one that lifts the weight from his shoulders and makes him look a decade younger. "Would you like to join me for a drink?" he asks instead, gesturing behind him to the bar.

She should head home. She has a ferry to catch and an article to write and she and Bruce Wayne have no reason in the world to have a drink together. No reason to even be in the same space. No reason at all, except for the Clark-shaped hole between them.

"Sure," she replies, "but only if you're buying."

He gives a slight laugh. "Of course."

He orders while she finds them a table, a two-seater tucked away behind a column, and she watches as he weaves his way around the other tables and towards her, balancing two tumblers in his hands. For someone so large and imposing, there's an innate grace in his movements, a fluidity that seems to be second nature. But then, he'd have to be more limber than most to swing his way across Gotham's rooftops the way he does.

He sets both glasses down and takes the seat across from her. "Wasn't sure what you'd like, but you seem like a whiskey person," he says, and pushes one of the drinks her way.

"Good guess," she replies, and offers a silent toast before taking the first sip. The burn is a smooth one, the taste of peat and oak lingering on her tongue. Of course Bruce Wayne would order the good stuff.

"How are you?" he asks, leaning in, studying her like he can see all the way down into the depths of her abyss. "Really."

She thinks, for half a second, about lying. She and Bruce Wayne are strangers, or as close to it as two people in their unique circumstance can be. They know nothing about each other, and she owes him nothing in return. After all, he'd tried his damnedest to kill Clark, and had very nearly succeeded. That he'd stopped in time and fought alongside Clark instead, that he'd rescued Martha Kent and paid for Clark's funeral...well, at best, it makes them an odd sort of bedfellows, bound together by tragedy. It certainly doesn't make them friends.

But, maybe, that makes him the perfect person to talk to. She won't have to carefully choose every word around him. "The truth is, I'm exhausted," she finally answers, meeting his earnestness with her own. "I'm tired all the time. And every time I think about going through another day, another week...another year...I want to throw myself off the roof of The Planet."

How is she supposed to live the rest of her life with this – this shadow blocking out all of the light? She's not strong enough to survive. Humans aren't meant to live without the sun.

He nods, and takes a drink. He doesn't remotely seem surprised by her answer. "I'm guessing all of the op-eds and think pieces on –" his voice catches " – on Superman and his death, they probably don't help."

"Honestly, those..." She waves a hand in the air. "I could give a fuck about the world mourning Superman. Let them have him. They don't... they don't know." She takes a shaky breath, presses her lips together. She can't articulate it. How could she? How could she explain to the man who'd once thought that Superman needed to be put down because of the threat he'd thought Clark represented, that she doesn't care about all of the platitudes and the articles, the talking heads and so-called experts, parading themselves like they could ever understand the true magnitude of what's been lost.

But he just nods again, and his gaze softens. "The world had Superman. You had Clark. And it's Clark you miss."

"Yes." She stares at him in surprise. "How did you...?"

"I know a little something about what that feels like, is all," he tells her, with a terrible sort of pity in the golden depths of his eyes.

Belatedly, she remembers his parents, murdered and almost immediately martyred, turned by the press and politicians into symbols, the inability by the police to apprehend their killer proof of Gotham's corruption and Gotham's rot. Remembers his youngest son, Jason, and how his mysterious death had turned into tabloid fodder about Bruce's hedonistic lifestyle and whether the ultra-wealthy could ever be fit parents and if adoption laws should be changed to prevent more tragedies. Yes, Lois thinks, Bruce Wayne would know something about mourning the life of a loved one in private while the rest of the world rages into a pointless debate about the meaning of that loved one's death.

"Does anything – am I going to be numb like this forever?" she asks, and steels herself for the answer, although she's not sure why.

"No," he says, studying the amber of the whiskey like it holds the secrets to the universe. "And when the numbness wears off, you'll wish you had it back. Drinking helps," he continues, clinking their glasses together, "until it doesn't. Throwing yourself into work also helps, until it doesn't. Sleeping with any available warm body also helps –"

"Until it doesn't," she finishes, with a rueful smile. "And dressing up like a Gothic nightmare and hunting down criminals? Does that still help?"

"The jury's out on that one." He pats her hand, and his lips twist again in that same painful approximation of a grin. "But I wouldn't recommend it as a coping mechanism."

She looks down – his fingers are rough with nicks and scars, the hands of a boxer or a fighter. So unlike Clark's. Clark's hands had always been smooth, so gentle, always so gentle. Always so aware of the enormous power he'd wielded. Always so aware that he might look and feel and sound like any other human, but he had always been so much more than that. A symbol of hope, a hero, an angel.

And, still, for all his unimaginable power, mortal just like everyone else.

"Do you have alcohol at your house, Mr. Wayne?" she asks, abruptly.

"Yes?" He draws the word out like a question.

"Good." She polishes off her glass and sets it on the table with a dull thunk before getting up. "We're going back to your place to empty out your liquor cabinet."

He jerks to his feet as well, a reflexive action, but makes no other move. "That's probably not a good idea."

She arches an eyebrow. "Are you saying no?"

"No, I'm saying that I have a lot of alcohol at my house, Ms. Lane." His lips quirk up, the warmth finally reaching his eyes. "Drinking me dry might be too much of a challenge, even for two very determined people."

He's giving her a polite out, she knows this. Knows, and she should take it, she should say her goodbyes and go. There's still no reason for her to be here. None, except, for the first time in months, she wants to be. And maybe it's a mistake, but she'll chance it.

"Well, we'll never know until we try, will we," she replies, putting the ball back in his court.

He takes his phone out of his pocket and holds it up to his ear. His gaze never leaves hers. "Alfred," he says, after a moment, "I'm going to need you to cancel the rest of my appointments, and my dinner with Senator Murphy. I'll be staying in tonight."

He stays silent for another moment, listening to whatever it is this Alfred is saying in response, then says his goodbyes and puts the phone back in his pocket. Then he gestures out to her in a courtly half-bow. "After you," he says.

This is a terrible idea. But, somehow, she thinks Clark would approve.

Bruce drives them to his house, the car some low-slung Italian beauty, all sleek lines and torque, and he handles the wheel and the winding roads like a professional race car driver. The sun sets slowly over the forest-lined hills, fighting the incoming twilight every inch of the way. They don't speak until he pulls into the garage and shuts off the engine. The house – what she can see of it – seems to rise from the lake like an oasis, the glass and wood and chrome reflecting off the water, giving it the illusion of a floating palace. It's beautiful, in a cold sort of way.

"Not exactly the family mansion I was expecting," she remarks. The Waynes are old, old money, one of the founding families of the region, with a bluer bloodline than the Kennedys and their fingers in almost every aspect of U.S. industry, from real estate to banking to energy. She'd thought the Wayne estate would be some sprawling monstrosity, steeped in history and secrets, much like Gotham itself.

"The manor burned down a few years ago," he says, curt, but not cruel. "Didn't seem worth rebuilding for one person."

There's a story there, one that she'd normally chase down like the bloodhound she used to be, but all she does is wait for him to get out of the car, then open her door to offer his hand, a gentleman to the end. She hadn't come here tonight for an exposé or for a byline. She's still not entirely sure why she's here, but she thinks it might have something to do with the way Bruce hasn't treated her. Like she's some broken, trembling thing in need of repair.

Their footsteps crunch on the gravel as he leads her to the front door and unlocks it with a palm print, then ushers her inside. The interior is an open floor plan, every room bleeding into the next, with high ceilings and tastefully bland furniture. There's nothing of the Bruce she knows in this space, only billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. She wonders how he can stand to live so thorough a lie, that he would allow it to follow him into his own home. She wonders how the burden of it doesn't drive him mad.

Then she remembers the truth about who he is and what he's capable of, and doesn't wonder at all.

He takes off his coat and suit jacket and tosses both carelessly along the back of a chair on his way to the immaculately-set bar. "What's your poison?" he asks, as he unbuttons and rolls his sleeves up to the elbow.

"Surprise me," she says, and kicks off her heels and her own coat before wandering around the living room, her fingers trailing along the spines of the books above the fireplace. Quite a few of them aren't in English, and she wonders if that's something else that's for show or if he's read them all.

"Here." She half-turns and Bruce presses a glass filled with rich golden liquid – the same color of his eyes – into her grasp. "Thought we'd move to the thirty-year-old stuff for this round," he says, with a smirk that shows off laugh lines around his mouth. Then he looks down at her hands and the amusement slides off his face, a pensive look taking over.

She follows his gaze to her ring – Clark's ring – her own personal talisman and albatross, and drops to the sofa in front of the fireplace. "He never asked, you know."

Bruce sits next to her, but keeps a respectable distance between them. "That doesn't look like a ring a man buys for the hell of it."

"He was going to, according to his mother," she says, studying the diamond. "But this...she gave it to me after. He'd mailed it to her so I wouldn't find it, I guess – didn't even insure the package," she adds, the laugh liquid and wrong. "But that's the sort of trusting soul he was at heart, you know, even after everything he'd seen..."

"I'm sorry," he replies, painfully gentle. "I know it's the coldest of comforts, but I wish I'd –"

"Don't." She shakes her head, sharp, a rebuke. "I know what you're going to say already, and don't. I didn't come here for your guilt."

She should hate him, she knows that. She should blame Bruce for Clark's death – at least, partially. Maybe if Clark hadn't been so preoccupied with fighting off Batman's attack, or maybe if he hadn't been weakened already by all of the kryptonite Bruce had doused him with, he might've survived Doomsday's onslaught. But hating Bruce won't bring Clark back. And Lois knows she has her own responsibility about what had happened that night – she'd fucked up just as much as Bruce had, and she hadn't even had his excuse. He and Clark had both been expertly manipulated by Lex Luthor, as had the rest of the world, and Lois didn't have the energy to castigate Bruce for it. Whatever burden Bruce carries for his part of what happened, that's his cross to bear, just as she knows she'll guard hers with all of the jealousy of an insecure lover. It's the last part of Clark she has left.

"Alright," he says, after a moment. "That's fair."

"So..." She looks around the room again, noting the clean lines and all of the glass and open space. "How do you...I mean, where do you go to...change? Before you, uh, go out at night?" She didn't figure he'd have the Batsuit hanging next to his Brionis or Armanis or anything, but he'd have to have somewhere nearby.

His brows scrunch then smooth out on a chuckle. "Oh, there's...I have a...well, I have a place."

"A place, huh?" She wonders what he'd been about to say. "Can I see it? If it's not too much trouble," she adds. She doesn't want to compromise him, but she has to admit she's curious about how the Bat of Gotham operates.

"No, it's." He stops, shakes his head. "No, you deserve to know." He climbs gracefully to his feet, and holds out a hand. "Come on. Bring the glass. You'll probably need it."

She'd expected a secret room, maybe, or a hidden closet, but instead, Bruce leads her to his bedroom. She eyes the massive bed with an amused look. "Please don't tell me this is some elaborate ploy to get girls alone."

He laughs, genuine and deep-throated. "No, generally all of the zeros in my bank account do the trick just fine."

"I'm guessing your jawline and the way you fill out a suit has nothing to do with it." It feels good to tease him, the gentle ribbing that's been missing from her life for so many months.

"I have a very good tailor," he responds, then kneels and presses his hand to the wood floor. "Hold still."

"Hold...oh," she says, startled, when the ground gives way beneath their feet. The section of the floor is...well, an elevator platform of sorts. "Your...place? It's underground?"

His teeth gleam white as they make their descent belowground. "Can't be a proper Batman without a cave."

"A cave? Are you serious?" she asks, as they come to a halt and step off the platform.

She turns in a slow circle, taking in the breadth of what she can see – the cement and glass structure is at least two stories, and is definitely inside of a cave of some sort. There's a wall of sophisticated looking computer screens to the side that wouldn't look out of place at NASA, the machinery strewn across multiple tables is tech unlike anything she's seen, the full gym further down the hall seems to be complete with equipment she can't even name. She'd expected something nice, certainly, but this is...

"It's..." She has no words. What word could encompass what she's seeing? Magnificent? Terrifying? Awe-inspiring? "How did you build this without anyone noticing? How did you get all of this equipment down here?" she asks, instead. It somehow seems safer to turn the questions back towards practical matters.

He leans against one of the pillars, his look what could only be described of as fond. Indulgent. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you –"

"Try me," she interrupts. Her fingers itch for her notebook and pen.

"I designed the structure myself and had a crew brought in from Kuala Lumpur to build it – they were blindfolded coming to and from the site every day. Paid them all in cash, so no paper trail, three year's salary for two months work."

"You're right, I don't believe you." But she smiles so he knows she's joking. In fact, it all sounds very plausible. Paranoid, but then he'd have every reason to be. "And all of the equipment?"

"Shipped in bits and pieces, through various shell companies, but I built most of it."

"You...built..." She can't wrap her head around it. "What about the" – she gestures towards the glass wall and the lower level, where the car is sitting at the end of a long ramp and the fighter jet looms in the hangar – "transportation?"

Probing him, questioning him...it feels good, like regaining a part of her she'd thought she'd lost forever.

This time his shrug is a little more assured. "Believe it or not, the car and the jet were easier to build than figuring out the armor of the suits."

"Of course," she muses, fascinated. She'd known Bruce had unheralded depths – after all, he'd known enough about chemistry and biology to weaponize the kryptonite, and to create the spear that had ultimately killed Doomsday – but this...this is... Once again, her vocabulary seems inadequate. "Yet you never graduated college." He'd gotten kicked out of more than one university, if she remembers right.

"I had a different sort of education."

"Clearly," she replies, just as dry. "So, you know electronics enough to build a state of the art computer bank from scratch, enough about combustible engines and engineering to build one-of-a-kind vehicles also from scratch, enough about weapons to build non-lethal ones that still incapacitate your opponents, enough about fighting to –"

"Is there a question in any of this?" He's still smiling, but nothing about his stance suggests he's relaxed.

"Mr. Wayne, I have enough questions to keep us both here a week and I doubt I'd even scratch the surface of what makes you tick."

"It's Bruce. And, I doubt even Diana would have that kind of time, and I'm pretty sure she's immortal."

There's a warning here – step over this line at your own risk. It's a line she might've bulldozed over at any other time, back when blowing past barriers had been her calling in life. But that person – the one she used to be – wouldn't even be here under normal circumstances. And Bruce has respected her boundaries. She owes him the same courtesy.

She turns instead to the monitors, and takes a careful, small sip of her drink. "What do these do?"

He stands beside her, again keeping that same distance between them. "Right now, I've got an algorithm in place to keep track of certain criminal activities, certain persons of interests. Monitoring phones, street and traffic cams, bank accounts –"

"I'm counting at least ten different civil rights violations before we even get to anything else."

"I never claimed not to be a criminal myself, Ms. Lane," Bruce replies, and now the warmth is back in his voice.

"You may as well call me Lois." She taps at another screen, this one showing handwritten notes and scribbles, most of which look like another language or some form of shorthand. "What's this?"

"Scans of Alexander Luthor's journals." If he notices her shudder, he's kind enough not to mention it. "I've spent the last few months trying to decipher what they mean and what he was working on, how he was able to create Doomsday and how he knew so much about Kryptonian technology, and how to harness it."

"Why does it matter?" The last Kryptonian is dead, is what she doesn't say. She doesn't need to.

"Because there's another war coming. And we need to be prepared."

Another war. She shudders again, ice cold tendrils trailing along her spine. "What makes you so sure?"

He turns to her, studies her for a long time. She wonders what it is he's searching for – whatever it is, he doesn't seem to have found it, because his face shutters and his lips flatten out. "Just a feeling I have, that's all," he finally says, then pivots on his heel. "I think I could use a refill, how about you."

Part of her wants to press Bruce for more information – Clark would have expected her to dig in her heels, to make Bruce tell her the truth. If there's another war coming...if the world is once again at risk...shouldn't the people have the right to know?

But she's seen firsthand how stubborn Bruce can be when he's convinced he's right about something, and she knows, deep down, that no amount of pressure will get Bruce to tell her anything he doesn't want her to know. And why should he trust her with whatever this new threat is – it's not like she can do anything to stop it. She's not Bruce or Diana, with hard-won skills or extra-human gifts. She's not Clark, with his awe-inspiring power or his rock-solid faith. And no matter how much either she or Bruce would wish otherwise, Clark's not coming back to save the day.

"I guess I did promise to drink you dry," she says, and knows she's made the right choice when Bruce lets out an amused snort.

"Yes, you did."

They take the platform back up into the house, and she wanders the living room while Bruce refreshes their drinks. She stops at the bookcase again, studies the titles a little more closely this time. The ones in English run the gamut, from biographies to scientific journals to books on psychology and physics. All of them, she assumes, research for his real job as the Batman, even the ones written in other languages.

"How many of these have you read?" she asks, tapping at one of the spines. It looks like it's in Russian, maybe, or another Cyrillic-based language.

"Still trying to figure me out?" Bruce asks, mild this time.

"No." She shakes her head. She's not sure she could figure him out in another ten lifetimes. She's not sure she'd want to. "I'm just curious."

He regards her for another moment, then sighs. "I've read all of them." It's as much of an apology for earlier as she knows she's going to get.

"I guess I can't say I'm surprised." She sinks to the floor in front of the sofa, stretching her legs in front of her. "You think you could start a fire? It's a little cold in here."

"Sure," he says, and busies himself with lighting the kindling, and then closing the grate. The wood crackles, the flames dancing merrily, but the newly added warmth does nothing to dispel the chill in her heart. She's beginning to think she'll never be warm again.

He settles beside her, and hands her back her glass. They drink in silence for a handful of minutes. Sitting here like this is comfortable, in an odd sort of way, and that's not something she ever thought she'd say about Bruce Wayne.

"How many languages did Clark speak?" he asks, his patrician profile limned by the fire.

"Clark?" Her laughter surprises her, bubbles up from a place she'd thought long since buried. "He could barely speak enough Spanish to talk to the janitorial crew of the Planet."

"But, I thought –" His brows scrunch in confusion. "How did he know where to go to...help? In other countries, I mean, if he couldn't understand what people were saying?"

"Cries for help are pretty much the same in any language," she replies, remembering the night she'd asked that exact question, and Clark's fumblingly sincere response. "Also, he could sense panic."

"He could...sense panic." Bruce glances at her, skeptical. "Like...a homing beacon?"

"Kind of. He could also read heartbeats. That's how he knew whenever I was...in danger," she adds, because he may as well know the entire truth.

"Fascinating," Bruce murmurs, and shakes his head. "I spent so much time focused on his abilities in terms of threat deterrent that I never considered what other gifts he might have had."

"There was a lot you two didn't know about each other."

"Well, we probably would have hated each other. I've been told I'm not the easiest person to get along with," he replies, but Lois can hear the wistfulness in his voice. That longing for What Might Have Been.

"I think you're wrong about that," she replies. Clark would have been just as fascinated by Bruce as she is, she knows that as sure as she knows her own name. Clark would have wanted to pick apart Bruce's psyche, to understand him, to know what had made him choose to fight crime when anyone else in his position would have simply lived off their trust fund and maybe given to the odd charity. They should have had that chance, she thinks, angry with Lex all over again for what he'd stolen. They should have been able to get to know each other, to become a true team – but they hadn't. And no amount of wishing would change things.

"You know, it's funny, but I keep thinking that...there should be a line on the horizon." Her fingers tighten on her glass. "And I keep – I keep thinking, if I can just get there...if I can swim to that shore..."

"Then the ground won't shift and swallow you," Bruce finishes, hushed and oh-so-careful.

Her throat clogs even as she nods. God, she's so sick of crying. "But I never get there."

"I'm not sure that horizon really exists, if it makes you feel better."

"I know, I just..." Impatiently, she swipes at her cheeks. "I just...I'm not used to having a problem I can't solve. I feel like I should be working my way through the grieving process by now, but I'm still stuck right where I was when Clark first died, and I hate it."

"You know that's a fallacy right."

"What's that?"

"There's no such thing as the five stages of grief," Bruce explains, with a shrug. "After Kubler-Ross published her study, there were quite a few subsequent papers written about her methodology, and no one's been able to replicate her results about how people grieve. Now, you may think you feel all of the so-called stages, but sometimes it's all at once, or sometimes not in any discernible order or sometimes it's because –"

She places a hand over his mouth, and takes some small comfort in his genuine start of surprise. "Bruce," she says, not unkindly. "Shut up."

He nods, gently, and she removes her hand. If her fingers tingle a little from the contact, that's between her and her conscience and no one else. She'll take it over the numbness any day of the week.

"I'm sorry," he says, and offers a half-smile. "Bad habit. I think I've gotten too used to only having Alfred for company."

Abruptly, she's reminded again of all he's lost over the years. He's got to be a mess of patched over scars on the inside, every one of them infected and painful to the touch. Is this what she has to look forward to? Soul-deep loneliness even among a crowd, nightmares every time she closes her eyes, the nagging feeling that it should have been her that died that night, and the terrible relief mixed with an equally terrible guilt that it wasn't.

How can anyone carry all of that and still retain even a sliver of sanity?

"How does it not drive you crazy?" she asks.

He laughs, ugly and raw, and beautiful because of it. "Who says it hasn't? Look at how I've chosen to work through my grief and tell me I'm not just as insane as the criminals I hunt."

"Clark also put on a cape and uniform to help people and fight crime," she reminds him. "Do you think he was crazy?"

"Maybe?" He drains his glass, then sets it down. A drop of sweat rolls down his temple to his neck. "Maybe we're all a little bit crazy to think we can leave the world a better place than how we found it. Maybe we're just fooling ourselves that anything will ever change."

God, Clark should be here. He'd know exactly what to say. He'd know how to counter the despair in Bruce's voice, how to temper it with faith and optimism and that core belief that humanity is worth it. She doesn't know how to do this without him. She's not enough on her own.

"Maybe we are," she finally says. "Maybe we're just tilting at windmills out there, but that doesn't mean we give up, right?" The question is as much for her as for Bruce.

He huffs out a laugh. "Did you just unironically quote Don Quixote at me?"

She bumps his shoulder, companionably. "Careful now, I don't think billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is supposed to know who Don Quixote is."

"He's a DJ in Vegas, right?" he answers, with that quicksilver, crooked grin that lights up his entire face, and she's leaning forward to taste it before she even realizes she's moved.

He stiffens, and she pulls back a fraction to meet his wary look, her own gaze steady. "Is that a no?" she asks, softly. He's not a man she would ever choose had circumstances been different, but had circumstances been different, she never would have known what kind of man Bruce Wayne is. They have so much in common, despite their obvious differences. And here, with him tonight, that Clark-shaped hole inside her doesn't feel quite as large.

"Are you...?" He twists, raises his hands up to her shoulders before lowering them into fists at his sides. Then he goes so still he could be made of marble, but she's close enough to feel the rapid flutter of his heart, to hear the shaky inhale when he takes his next breath. "Lois, are you sure you want...?"

It's not explicit consent, but she understands instinctively that it's as close as Bruce will allow himself to get. "Stop talking, Bruce," she says, and dives back in, licks into his mouth, this time without any hesitation. She wants this. Just for tonight, she wants to feel again.

Time stretches, infinite and wide, and then, with a small noise and a lurch forward, bringing their bodies into full contact, Bruce kisses her back. There's no finesse to it, no seduction, but the raw need of it lights a fire inside her she thought had been extinguished. They tumble to the floor together, hands clumsily seeking under clothing, each kiss impatient and desperate.

He grins in triumph when he gets the clasp to her bra unhooked, then groans, the sound punched out of him, when she shoves her hand under his waistband to close her fingers around his length. "I have...bed," he bites out, sucking at the hollow of her throat as his thumbs rub across her already hard and aching nipples.

"Next round," she promises, and rolls them over until he's on top of her, the sheer size of him blocking the light from the fire, casting them both in shadow.

"Next round," he echoes, and then closes the distance between them, words no longer needed.

***

Lois wakes by degrees – sunlight hits her face and she's warm, warmer than she's been in a long time, her body aching pleasantly, a solid body pressed against her back and a muscled arm draped over her middle. "Clark," she murmurs, barely an exhale, then freezes when the person behind her does.

Shit. Not Clark. Bruce. She'd spent the night with Bruce.

"Bruce, I –" She twists, even as she can feel him pulling away, and throws her arm across his chest to keep him from leaving. "Wait."

He stops, looking up at her through those weary, wary eyes, and she stumbles once again under the weight of their combined grief. Her shoulders are nowhere near strong enough for this.

"I don't regret it," she says, pushing tangled hair out of her face. "I need you to understand that. I don't regret it."

"Okay?" he says, his tone far too polite, considering that they're both naked and in his bed.

"I mean" – she blows out a sharp breath, fumbles for words that used to come so easy, "I'm not saying I want to do it again – you were great, no complaints, it's not about that – but –"

"I know," he says, with a small, tired smile that actually, thankfully, reaches his eyes. "For the record, I don't regret it either, but I'm also not interested in a repeat."

"Okay," she says, inanely, after a minute, because she has to say something, the awkwardness right now is too much. "That's...I'm glad."

"So, we're...we're good?" he asks, feeling out each word like he's not sure of their meaning.

Christ, what a pair they make, both of them frozen in place, too afraid to move, lest they upset this delicate balance they've got between them. She's not sure which of them is worse off. She's not sure it matters. She's not sure anything matters, in the end.

Maybe they are both fractured and wounded in ways both visible and not. Maybe last night had been a mistake, both of them seeking that illusory sense of completeness, both so desperate to feel something for a few precious hours. Maybe she really is a hypocrite, because she doesn't regret it, not a single moment.

But how could she say any of that? I'm glad it was you. I'm not sorry it happened. If it had to be anyone, Clark would forgive me doing this with a friend, someone who knows –

But Clark's not here to forgive her or to cast judgement. Clark's not here, and he doesn't get a say in this. She misses him like a limb, like a lung, but she can't give him this power over the rest of her life. She is stronger than this. She has to be.

Because Clark hadn't given his life to save hers – hers and Bruce's and countless others – for her to wallow forever. He'd made his choice. It's well past time she made hers.

Time seems to stand still as they lie like that, both looking at each other, and seeing God knows what, before they both hear the front door opening, and heavy footsteps walking across the floor a second later.

"That'll be Alfred," Bruce explains, when Lois gives him a wide-eyed look. "My butler, but more like a second in command. Don't worry, he's seen a lot worse than this."

"That's not at all comforting," she replies, just as a distinguished older gentleman comes into view and stops short at the foot of the bed.

"Morning, Alfred," Bruce says, like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. Like the sight of him with a strange woman in his bed is a daily occurrence. (And maybe it is, for all she knows. Bruce presumably has a reputation as a womanizer for a reason.)

"Good morning, Master Wayne," Alfred replies, then his gaze rests on Lois. Who's still halfway on top of Bruce, a thin sheet all that's protecting her modesty and what's left of her pride. "Will you be staying for breakfast, Ms. Lane?" he asks – oh God, he knows exactly who she is – as perfectly polite as he can be. Like Lois is an old friend of the family who'd spent the night in the guest room, instead of a stranger lying naked on top of his employer, with a satisfying soreness between her thighs, stubble burn on her neck and chest and points lower, and the sense memory of rough kisses on her lips.

She glances down at Bruce, who gives a one-shouldered shrug and half-grin...and, like a goddamn tsunami, the absurdity of the situation – of her entire fucking life – just hits her. "S-sure," she manages, then bends over, the laughter bubbling out of her, slightly hysterical, but genuine.

Bruce just reaches out and rubs a comforting hand along her back. He doesn't try to stop her, and she's thankful for it, thankful to her bones that she's allowed to fall apart in whatever the hell manner she sees fit, and no one here will judge her for it. She laughs until she starts hiccuping, laughs until her sides ache, laughs until she slumps over, and Bruce catches her to his side, close and secure in those strong arms that have meted out so much violence, and yet hold her with such gentleness.

"I'm a mess," she sighs, but she doesn't pull away. Alfred's no longer in the room – maybe she'd scared him off (not very likely, considering who he works for) or maybe he'd realized she hadn't needed another witness to her self-destruction (more likely) and had trusted Bruce to handle it if Lois had truly fallen apart.

"I know," Bruce replies, mercifully not giving her a bullshit platitude.

"I'm never getting over him, am I?" She turns her face up to meet him, beseeching, selfishly wishing he'd lie to her, but so grateful that he seems to respect her well enough not to try.

As expected, Bruce shakes his head. "No," he says, in the softest voice she's ever heard. "You learn to function around the hole, but it'll always be there. And sometimes, you're going to forget and fall right into it. But...when that happens...I want you to remember that you have...people."

"People, huh?" She thinks she's got a better handle on Bruce now – at least, well enough to know what he doesn't say is just as important, if not more so, than what he does. "Thank you," she tells him, and scrubs a hand over her face. "I keep thinking he'd hate seeing me like this."

"For what it's worth, I doubt he'd be any better if things were reversed," Bruce says, and keeps rubbing soothing circles up and down her spine. "And even if he was, there's no wrong way to –" He stops, lets out a wry chuckle. "Well, there are better ways than others, but – for what it's worth – I think you're doing okay."

"It's worth a lot." Which isn't something she could have ever heard herself saying, not even twenty-four hours ago. "How bad were you?" she asks, quietly.

"Pretty bad," he tells her, and again, she hears what he's not saying just as clear. At least he's been able to work out some of his grief and rage on the criminals of Gotham, although that has to be cold comfort most of the time. She knows a little bit about how that feels. Yes, Clark had sacrificed himself for the greater good, to save the world, but she'd still rather he'd chosen a life with her, no matter what the cost.

Somehow, she thinks, if she were to confess this to Bruce, he'd understand exactly what she means.

"I'm sorry," she offers, after a moment, and means it in ways she's not sure she could ever articulate. Maybe they are both lost and fucked up, but at least they're not alone. That has to count for something.

"Me too." He hugs her to him for one more minute, presses a soft kiss to her forehead, then eases away. "Did you want the first shower?"

She waits for the shivering to start, but the warmth doesn't leave her. "Yeah, that'd be nice, thanks," she tells him, and climbs out of the bed on wobbly feet.

"And, um, Lois?"

She turns, sees him still propped up on the pillows with the sheets rumpled beneath him. Alone in a way he shouldn't be, not after everything he's also sacrificed. He deserves so much more. They both do.

"Yes?"

"Whenever you're ready – and only if you're ready..." He offers that disarming half-smirk, half-grin that lifts the years and weariness from his face. "I may have some work for you. Real work."

"What kind of real work?" she asks.

"The Lex Luthor kind," he replies, and, oh, she thinks, he means with the journals. "I could use a tenacious reporter who knows how to get answers."

It's an olive branch and a promise. Whenever you're ready. She's not there, not yet, but she can see the sun trying to break through the clouds. She might never get back the person she used to be before Clark died, but time – like life – moves forward, not backward. She should probably start going in that direction, for Clark's sake, if nothing else. He might not be here anymore to save the world, but that doesn't mean it's unprotected. It doesn't mean she gets to sit on the sidelines forever while others step up to the plate.

"I'm listening," she says, and meets Bruce's smile with her own.

***