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the warmest and most ardent of colours

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“How wonderful yellow is. It stands for the sun.”
- Vincent Van Gogh

1 // block.

Bruce doesn’t stop to smell the roses. There are places he needs to be, people he needs to meet, things he needs to do, and that means moving from point A to point B in a brisk, straight line. Maximum efficiency. No distractions.

When he’d left Gotham, he’d given an airheaded statement to the press about doing some world travel to “find himself”. No one had questioned him. Bruce had evidently lost his spark, given that he hadn’t produced a single painting to display at his dead mother’s Institute of Art in two years. Plus, he kept wandering out of homes in bathrobes that were distinctly not his own. As far as the public was concerned, Martha Wayne’s prodigal son was as lost as night was dark.

The public would be surprised to learn, then, that Bruce knows exactly where he’s headed.

Currently, he’s in Italy.

He’s come to Florence to learn a couple specialized skills. Each skill he masters brings him closer to the goal he’s held in his heart for years, but hasn’t had the capability to act on.

If he were one to stop and look around, there are any number of things in Florence’s Piazza del Duomo Bruce might be taken by. Elaborate facades of multicoloured stone. Intricate windows and statues of Italian saints. Tents full of postcards, trinkets, leather handbags, and woven scarves.

No one here is in a hurry, but everyone here is moving in one direction or another. Vendors shuffle from one side of their tables to the other, accepting change and replacing items in displays. Tourists travel in waves across the square, cameras flashing, wallets at the ready, wrinkled walking tour maps clutched in sweaty hands.

As the hordes of visitors and locals on lunch break move through Bruce’s peripheral vision, his eyes come to rest on the only other person here who is sitting still. The man is perched on the steps of the Florence Cathedral, so unmoving he might be mistaken for a statue if he were painted bronze.

There is something distinctly unusual about his stillness.

His arms are folded across his knees, his head tilted forward as he rests his weight on his elbows—a perfectly symmetrical Le Penseur, if Rodin’s iconic sculpture had worn cargo shorts and a faded blue t-shirt. His eyes are closed.

A group of tourists in matching garish pink shirts migrate into Bruce’s line of sight, blocking the man from view.

He should keep going. He has an appointment this evening in a different part of the city. He has a reason to be elsewhere—and yet, his feet have ground to a halt.

The neon pink sea parts. The man in the blue shirt is still there.

It’s a hot day in Florence. Bruce had only brought a few items with him to Italy, and most of them had been left behind in his rented villa this afternoon. If he required something he didn't have, he could improvise or buy a new one.

Today, he’d left his sketchpad at the villa, along with his drawing materials. Pens were liable to leak in pockets, and the sketchpad was too unwieldy to lug around in the summer heat. Especially because Bruce did not actually expect to want to sketch at any point during his supposed vacation.

He had hoped, of course. When he’d given his statement, it hadn’t been entirely a lie. A small, secret part of him just wants to stop and keep trying until he’s created something his mother would be proud of.

Still, Bruce is a realist. Even a global artistic hub—the birthplace of the Renaissance, according to some academics—seems an unlikely cure for months of art block.

For his other endeavor, Bruce has been training himself to pay attention. Observation, deduction—the skills of great detectives. Eliminating the impossible; accepting that whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

He’d come here not to renew his passion for art, but rather to stoke the fire that fuels his need to bring justice to Gotham City. It’s improbable that once he’d stopped looking for inspiration and started seeking out a path to vigilantism, he’d finally want to draw—

—and yet, it’s not impossible.

Bruce has been to dozens of countries. Hundreds of cities. And now, here, bathed in radiant sunlight hundreds of miles from the ever-present gloom of Gotham, Bruce feels the way Vermeer must have felt when he found that girl with the pearl earring, or when Van Gogh looked in the mirror with those bandages on his head after he’d tried to cut off his own ear. It feels like a compulsion; a need. He has to record the image of this statue-still man sitting on the stone steps of the Florence Cathedral, because if he does not, no one else will ever see what he does right now in this instant.

He hasn’t got a goddamn thing to draw with, but he does have his wallet.

Bruce purchases a postcard and a souvenir pen from one of the vendor stands. The pen is a clunky plastic ballpoint number with a stylized red iris and Florence’s Italian name, Firenze, written in script along its side. The postcard has a photograph of the Florence Cathedral printed on one side.

It will do.

The man in the blue shirt is still sitting on the cathedral steps. He hasn’t opened his eyes. Bruce is close enough now to see the hint of a frown creasing his forehead. Again, Bruce is struck by the strangeness of this scene. The man doesn’t appear to be a vagrant, nor a local. There is a sense of focus in his expression that suggests intense concentration. He has chosen to be here, quiet and alone, in the midst of one of the busiest piazzas in the city.

Most unusual of all, no one else passing through seems to have noticed he’s here. Families walk past him on their way to the cathedral entrance without casting questioning looks in his direction. A businesswoman in a black pencil skirt and three-inch heels nearly wipes out on the cobblestones in front of him as she crosses the square, but doesn’t spare a backward glance to see if he’d noticed her trip.

There are no benches here. It’s not a place for stopping long.

Bruce takes a seat on the curbside and rests the postcard on his thigh; a makeshift easel. The pen is the kind with a clicker, not a cap. He clicks it open.

The man on the steps opens his eyes. Just for a moment. Just long enough to look past a German couple taking cellphone pictures directly into Bruce’s face. The tiniest flicker of some emotion passes over his face. Bruce feels incredibly exposed, all of sudden. He doesn’t move. He doesn’t even breathe.

The man closes his eyes again.

Maybe he’s imagining it, but Bruce thinks that the man’s focused expression seems to soften. Less intensely in thought and more at peace.

When the man doesn’t show any signs of moving again, Bruce begins to draw.

Bruce draws for what feels like half an hour. He draws until he remembers he has an appointment to keep, on the other side of town. He stands and gives his stiff limbs a brief stretch.

He half-expects the man on the steps to open his eyes again as he clicks the pen shut again, but he doesn’t.

Bruce pockets the pen and postcard and leaves without a backward glance.

 

2 // chip.

The next day, Bruce signs up for an intensive five-day drawing and painting workshop.

It’s not that he really wants to, but the fact that he’d managed to draw anything at all meant that with a little work, he might at least be able to wrestle some images onto the page. Besides, he could be anywhere else in the world right now. Since he’s here, he might as well take advantage of these surroundings. It’s the rational, responsible thing to do.

On the first day in the studio, Bruce is stationed between a man with remarkably bad body odor and a teenager who spends the entire session having a hushed conversation with her boyfriend through a Bluetooth headset.

On the second day, he has a headache. It’s the sort that sits at the base of his skull, a dull ache that he would ignore under usual circumstances. Today, it eats away at his ability to concentrate and amplifies every scratch of charcoal on paper.

On the third day it rains, of course, because the plan had been to do plein air painting in the nearby countryside. Repeat day two.

On the fourth day, Bruce sets up on the opposite side of the room from his day one neighbours. The sun is shining. He’d brought along a large bottle of water and a small bottle of ibuprofen. He will endure two more days of this. When he returns to the Gotham Institute of Art empty-handed, he’ll be able to say that at least he gave it the college old try.

(Bruce didn't try particularly hard in college, but that’s neither here nor there.)

He sets up his palette as the rest of the class arrives. He’d gone out the night before to purchase an entirely new set of oils. A full paint box wasn’t something he’d brought with him to Europe.

When Bruce eventually looks up from his paints, the model is there.

Bruce does a double-take. So does the model.

It’s the man from the cathedral steps. Bruce averts his eyes, but not quickly enough to miss the smile of recognition that lifts the corners of the man’s mouth.

“Clark is going to pose for us today,” the instructor tells them in Italian. “We will have five hours with him.”

Bruce wonders how long Clark had sat unmoving in the piazza. Compared to any amount of time spent sitting on those stone steps, five hours in a padded chair would surely be a cakewalk.

The past three days had been almost entirely unproductive. It wasn’t that Bruce hadn’t drawn or painted anything; he’d generated pages and pages of sketches. None of them had captured anything significant or interesting, however. None of them had brought him a feeling of accomplishment. Half-started charcoal portraits—the shape of a face laid out and then never defined—now litter the floor of his rented villa. He could finish them out of dogged determination, probably, but it would be a waste of time. Those drawings aren’t worth his effort. Bruce isn’t a quitter, but he knows a waste of time when he sees one—especially when it tramples across the days he could have been using to pursue more concrete goals.

The apathy born of the past three days subsides as soon as Bruce lays down his first brushstroke.

Clark doesn’t look at him again. Bruce suspects that he won’t, for the entirety of the pose. Clark had demonstrated his proficiency as a model the other day. Some people shuffle around to keep comfortable and strike up conversations with the artists in front of them. This man is not one of those people. He remains as silent and still as he had before.

And yet it is a wholly different experience than before.

For one thing, Bruce is close enough to make out every line, every colour that defines the shape of Clark’s focused expression.

(His eyes are blue. Bruce hadn’t been able to see that yesterday.)

For another, there are no tour groups or t-shirts obstructing Bruce’s view of Clark’s admittedly impressive musculature. He is a beautiful man with some compelling, unnamed quality besides. Bruce is certain that behind that attractive face, there is someone a little bit unusual.

Painting Clark feels like trying to unravel his personality. Like if Bruce can only look at him for long enough, he’ll determine exactly who is—and even if he can’t solve him, the resulting artwork will be Bruce’s best approximation of a mystery.

Bruce paints like a madman. It feels like a prolonged sprint. He never gets stuck, never needs to take a moment to slow down, catch his breath, rehydrate—although he does, because he doesn’t need a third day of headache. It sweeps him up in a way he hasn’t experienced in months. Years, even. It’s an effortless translation, sight to touch, a language he had once been fluent in but had since let rust, even though it had always felt more natural to him than speaking. The low hum of the ventilation system fades to the background. Nothing exists except for Bruce and Clark and the image slowly taking form on Bruce’s canvas.

In front of him, for five hours, Clark sits in that nearly unnaturally still way. They break after every hour. During those periods, Clark gets up to have a drink of water. He still doesn’t look at Bruce.

When their five hours are up, Bruce has a painting.

It’s not perfect. It’s not even finished. But it’s the best thing Bruce has started in years.

Bruce cleans his brushes at the back of the studio. He’ll have to leave his canvas here overnight, he thinks, as he watches the cleaning solution turn brown. He’d rather bring it with him, but it’s too wet to transport and he doesn’t want to risk smearing the oil paint. He’s contemplating the logistics of carrying a three-by-four foot painting for half an hour through the streets of Florence when someone taps him on the shoulder.

“Hey,” Clark says, distinctly American, and directs a sunny grin right into Bruce’s face.

For a couple seconds, Bruce is unable to speak. He should have heard someone approach, and he hadn’t. The feeling of being startled is unfamiliar and concerning.

Clark’s face is devastatingly handsome up close.

“Thanks,” Bruce says. He frowns. The word feels awkward, hanging on its own. “For the session,” he clarifies. “You were very good.”

Clark smiles more. “You’re welcome.”

Bruce should leave. He should—go. He shouldn’t be talking to Clark. It will ruin the mystery of his portrait. Right? Surely, it—

“You’re very good, too,” Clark says, steamrolling over Bruce’s train of thought. “I like your portrait. It makes me feel kinda Mona Lisa. With a less enigmatic smile.”

Bruce thinks that Clark is plenty enigmatic.

“There’s a place around here that does great coffee,” Clark says.

Or maybe not so much. Maybe Bruce was right to want to dodge this conversation. “We’re in Italy,” he says, a little pointedly.

Clark ignores this. He’s still smiling. “I’ve been stopping there every day for breakfast. They bake some really nice bread, fresh every morning.”

Bruce stares at him.

“It’s in the Piazza del Duomo,” Clark says. When Bruce remains still as a dead fish, he pulls a baseball cap over his curls and starts to turn away—but before he goes, he adds: “There’s some patio seating.” His smile is absolutely worthy of Michelangelo. “Great view of the Florence Cathedral.”

 

3 // crack.

The day after he paints Clark, Bruce is tempted not to attend the fifth and final session. The group is finally making it outside for plein air painting, however, and the planned location is so close to the villa Bruce is renting in the outskirts of the city that he has no real excuse not to attend. Giving up a beautiful day in the countryside to sit at a cafe hoping to catch someone he doesn’t know and who may, in fact, not have been inviting him to breakfast at all—well, that would be irrational to say the least.

It is worth it. His work is a little more fluid today, as if practising to speak this language the day before had reignited his interest in and ability to speak it. He produces nothing gallery-worthy, but that’s not the point. This is merely exercise. The build-up to something bigger and more important.

The day after that, he goes to the cafe in the piazza for breakfast.

Bruce sits on the patio for a half hour. Clark doesn’t show. He was right, though: it does have a good view of the cathedral.

A strange feeling sets into the pit of Bruce’s stomach then. What if Clark had thought that Bruce had been drawing the cathedral the other day? What if he didn't see that Bruce had been drawing him? That—that would be a good thing. Wouldn’t it? Bruce should be relieved.

He’s not relieved, though. He feels distinctly disappointed.

As he’s leaving, he stops by the counter. “Excuse me,” he says. In Italian he continues: “Have you seen a tall American here? Blue eyes, curly hair, very attractive.”

The barista considers his question for a moment, and then shakes her head. She answers him in accented English. “No, I do not think so.” Bruce’s heart sinks further. “Were you supposed to meet her here? This is not always the best spot to be meeting someone. The piazza is so busy all of the time.”

“Oh,” Bruce says, caught off-guard. And then: “Oh!” He nearly laughs.“No—Clark is a man. He told me he regularly eats breakfast here.”

“Oh!” echoes the barista. She beams at him. “Actually, I do know who you are speaking of. But you missed him, I am afraid. He is here much earlier. If you try at eight, you will see him.”

It’s eleven now. Bruce had missed him, but Clark had been here.

“Thank you,” Bruce says gratefully. “I’ll be here tomorrow, then.”

*

“I heard that a tall, dark-haired, handsome American was looking for me yesterday,” Clark says, when Bruce sits down across from him. He sets the newspaper he’d been reading on the table and smiles. “Her words.”

Clark’s eyes are very bright. Although it’s an absurd reaction, Bruce has to look away. He turns his focus to Clark’s empty espresso cup. “Did you notice it costs nearly three times as much to drink this caffè sitting down?”

“I know. It’s a tourist trap.”

Bruce takes a sip of his cappuccino. “Seems to have worked.”

“I like being here. If I get up early enough, I can be around when they take the bread out of the oven. It’s an incredible smell. Comforting, too. Makes me feel at home.”

Nothing about this city reminds Bruce of home.

“Why did you invite me here?”

Clark shrugs. “You’re interesting.”

“Am I?”

“Yes. I’ve been practising… meditating. I’ve been getting pretty good at sensing what’s going on around me. I’m getting good at becoming invisible, too. You’re like me. You pay attention. Most people don’t. That’s interesting.”

“I’m an artist,” Bruce points out.

“You’re not like most artists, either.”

“And what does that mean, exactly?”

“There is so much to see here,” Clark says, gesturing to the bustling piazza with a little wave of his hand. “There are so many people passing through. There’s so much history and detail in these buildings. You looked past all of it and found the one thing that doesn’t belong.”

Bruce isn’t quite sure how to respond. He takes another sip of coffee.

“I would argue,” he says eventually, “that ‘the one thing that doesn’t belong’ seems a description more applicable to myself than to you. You evidently have a routine here. I’m sure there are people in your everyday life who are quite glad to see you.”

“Maybe,” Clark says. But he sounds vague and unconvinced.

They sit in companionable silence for several minutes, watching the people go by.

“Did you finish your painting?” Clark asks.

“Not entirely.”

Clark looks at Bruce. “If you’d like to, I would pose for you.”

Bruce looks back at him with a small frown. “Why would you do that?”

Clark shrugs. “Because you’re good. I think you should finish it. I’d love to see it done.”

“Okay,” Bruce says, because it would be ridiculous to argue the offer. “That sounds… good.” Clark is right. He should finish it. It is good. “I’m renting a villa just out of town. I’ll write down how to get there.”

Clark looks amused. “You’ll give me your address before you give me your name?”

Oh.

“It’s Bruce.”

“Bruce,” Clark repeats. He directs another one of his sunny smiles in Bruce’s direction. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Bruce.”

 

4 // break.

The villa Bruce is renting in Florence is a quaint little home on a property lined with cypress trees. The walls had all been painted marigold yellow. The tiling is black and white and—for some reason—hexagonally shaped. The kitchen has a double-doored opening onto a patio lined with red brick.

Everything about this place is bright and airy and alive. It’s nothing like Wayne Manor, but Bruce likes it.

“Wow,” Clark says, impressed. “Nice place.”

“It’s very yellow. Would you like a glass of water?”

“Please.”

Clarks wanders out onto the patio while Bruce takes two glasses down from the cupboard. He had left the kitchen doors open earlier. It’s nice to feel the outdoor breeze at the dining table.

“Did you bring all of this with you?” Clark asks, facing the easel Bruce had set up—carefully, to avoid the unevenness of the crevices between the bricks—on the patio. “Or did you buy it here?”

“I bought it here.”

With no traces of paint of the wooden easel, it is very obviously new. Bruce feels a little too observed, the way Clark is looking at him now.

“I had assumed you came to Italy to paint,” Clark says.

“I did.”

“Okay.”

“It’s not the whole reason,” Bruce admits. Not that he owes Clark any sort of explanation. “But it’s a part.”

“Sure,” Clark says.

“I’m also taking lessons in ventriloquism and escape artistry.”

“That is just absurd enough to be believable.” Clark smiles. “See! I knew you were interesting.”

“If you say so.”

“I do,” Clark says, and takes his shirt off.

The midday sun makes his skin glow. Bruce’s breath catches in his throat.

“Where do you want me?” Clark asks.

“Uh.” Bruce shakes his head and tries to take the question seriously. It’s bright in the direct sunlight—very different lighting than he’d had inside the studio. “I’ll put up the patio umbrella.” It should balance the light a little bit, although it will alter the colours Bruce is seeing, too—the umbrella, like everything else about this house, is yellow. “You can sit underneath it.”

Clark grabs a patio chair and takes a seat while Bruce sets up the umbrella and then his painting and easel.

From there, it’s like they’re back in the studio. Clark sits perfectly still and doesn’t speak. Every now and then his eyes fall closed, like he’s so relaxed he could fall asleep in that wire chair. Standing to the side of the patio, Bruce builds up his painting. He works the warm yellow light into the highlights of Clark’s arms, chest, face. Clark is so bright and alive that capturing that warmth in a portrait is easy.

After a while, Bruce speaks first.

“I assume you didn't come to Italy to be a model.”

“It’s not the whole reason,” Clark says agreeably. He doesn’t turn.

“Why, then?”

“I’m also taking lessons in meditation and invisibility.”

Clark has no obligation to tell him the truth. Bruce wouldn’t demand it of him. But then—the answer is just absurd enough to be believable. Maybe Giovanni Zatara isn’t the only local teaching party tricks to foreigners.

Not that Bruce plans to bring these skills to any parties, unless they’re hosted by the underworld of Gotham.

“Are you staying long?” Bruce asks.

“No. It’s almost time to move on.”

Clark’s answer hangs in the quiet of the Italian countryside for a few minutes. And then:

“Do you think you’ll be able to finish your painting today?”

Bruce sets his brush down. The pristineness of the new easel is already ruined. “It’s done now.”

Slowly, Clark turns to face him. “Can I see?”

“Please do.”

Clark crosses the patio and comes to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Bruce. He contemplates the canvas quietly for a moment, and then a smile spreads across his face.

“Wow.”

“I’m glad you like it.”

“It’s amazing, Bruce. I look…” Clark trails off pensively. Bruce waits for Clark to continue without prompting him. When Clark does, his words are careful. “I’ve spent my whole life trying to avoid being seen. I thought that people would be afraid of what they saw. But you…” Clark looks from the portrait—his own face and body limned with sunlight—to Bruce. “You looked at me, and you painted me like this.”

“What is it that you think people will see?”

Clark smiles. A sadder Mona Lisa.

“I should go,” he says.

“You don’t have to.”

Bruce doesn’t know how Clark will respond, and for a moment, it looks like Clark doesn’t either. He freezes where he stands. His t-shirt is still draped across the back of the wire chair.

“If you want… dinner?” Bruce tries.

Clark looks amused. “Dinner,” he repeats.

“Unless you have a prior commitment to meditation?”

“I don’t,” Clark says. He moves to stand in between Bruce and the painting, and places a hand on Bruce’s shoulder. “Thank you.”

Bruce feels as still as Clark had been when he’d first spotted him on the cathedral steps.

“I should be thanking you. It’s been months since I finished a painting.”

“I’m happy I could help,” Clark says, genuine.

“So… dinner?”

“About dinner,” Clark says, his other hand coming to rest on Bruce’s cheek. “Maybe we could stay in?”

Bruce looks into Clark’s bright eyes. He is still a mystery, and yet—Bruce feels like he has known him his entire life. “Okay,” he agrees. “Let’s stay in.”

“Perfect,” Clark says, and leans in to kiss him.

 

5 // shatter.

When Bruce wakes in the morning, Clark is gone. He’d left a note on the pillow next to Bruce. “Prior commitment to meditation” it reads, followed by an address.

In the kitchen, Bruce hits a button for a caffè. He’s not entirely sure what each symbol on the espresso machine indicates; it spits out an americano. He hadn’t bothered getting dressed yet. The hexagonal tiles are cold against his bare feet, except by the window where the sun has already warmed everything within reach. He sips his Italian approximation of American coffee at the glass dining table.

Clark’s portrait leans against the opposite wall. In the morning light, the colours seem more vivid.

Bruce had never used so much yellow in a painting before.

The address leads him to a third-floor apartment near the Piazza del Duomo. Like many of these old buildings, there are lots of stairs and no elevators. Bruce doesn’t mind.

Clark is quick to answer the door when Bruce knocks. He leads them into the kitchen. It’s very different from Bruce’s villa. Other than the mint-green cabinets, everything is either white or hardwood. The smell of freshly ground coffee beans overwhelms the apartment.

“I’m making breakfast,” Clark says. “Have you eaten?”

“I had a coffee.”

“If you want some more, I put espresso in the pancakes.” With a smile, Clark gestures for Bruce to sit. The kitchen table faces a window with a stunning view of one of Florence’s many bell towers.

The pancakes are good. Clark serves them with butter and a mascarpone spread he says a neighbour had gifted him.

“I’ve been eating a lot of pancakes,” Clark tells him. “They remind me of my childhood. Easy, too. I normally have them plain. Sometimes with blueberries or chocolate chips. I wanted to do something different today.”

“What’s special about today?”

When Clark doesn’t have a cheeky response about having a guest over, Bruce realizes the answer.

“You’re leaving.”

“My lease is up today. The new tenant will be here soon. I was supposed to have my stuff out last night, except I wasn’t here.”

“I can’t imagine you have much stuff.”

“I don’t,” Clark agrees. Bruce follows his sideways glance to the doorway that separates the kitchen from the rest of the apartment. A single bag sits forlornly against the wooden baseboards.

“Where will you go next?”

“Onward.” At Bruce’s raised eyebrow, Clark smiles apologetically. “I honestly haven’t decided.”

“When will you go home?”

Clark looks out the window at the surrounding neighbourhood. A thoughtful frown creases his forehead. Bruce is reminded of how he looked at the cathedral: focused, but peaceful.

“I’m not sure I have a home,” Clark admits. “I’m kind of hoping I’ll find one.”

The morning sun streaming through the kitchen illuminates Clark’s face. He is the brightest thing in this room.

“You will.”

Bruce hesitates for a moment and then removes the postcard from the pocket of his slacks. He slides it across the table to Clark.

Clark gives him a puzzled look.

“I think you should have this,” Bruce says.

The glossy photo of the Florence Cathedral shines white against the dark table. Clark flips it over.

“Bruce, I—are you sure you don’t want to keep it?”

“When I saw you in the piazza, I hadn’t drawn anything worth looking at in months. It’s been years since I felt this way about… art. You told me you’re concerned that if people see who you are, they’ll be afraid. I want you to have this to remind you of how you look to someone else.”

Clark examines the drawing. It’s hasty. It’s unplanned. It perfectly captures the afternoon that, in an Italian plaza teeming with tourists, two unusual people crossed paths for the very first time.

“I’d give you the painting and keep the postcard,” Bruce tells him, “but it’s not exactly travel-sized.”

Wordlessly, Clark smiles and places a hand over Bruce’s where it rests on the kitchen table. They both look to the window for several minutes, enjoying the Italian breeze drifting inside, until a clock chimes somewhere nearby.

“You should get going,” Bruce says quietly.

“I should,” Clark agrees.

He stands and retrieves his bag. The postcard goes inside, protected from the elements with a strategically folded t-shirt.

Together, they take the staircase back down to the street. When they reach the sidewalk, they come to a halt.

Clark puts his hands in his pockets. “You’re really incredible, Bruce. I’m glad to have met you.” He wiggles the bag draped over his shoulder with an elbow. “I won’t forget this.”

“Safe travels, Clark,” Bruce says.

“You too.”

And then Clark is moving onward, and Bruce has no choice but to go the other way.

He’s seen so many cities, now. He’s been all over Europe, Africa, Asia, South America. No place he’s visited is quite like home.

It’s finally time to go back.

 

6 // coalesce. one year later.

Bruce straightens his tie in the mirror of his limousine. “How do I look, Alfred?”

“Dashing, Master Wayne.” Alfred gives him a hopeful look. “Perhaps you’ll allow me to bring your additional accoutrements back to the Manor? It appears that the Institute has arranged quite the gala in your honour. It could be fun to stay.”

Bruce smiles wryly. “I still want to patrol later.”

“You may rather want to take the night off, sir.”

“Hmm,” Bruce says noncommittally. “Would you leave the car around back? I’ll get my things later.”

Alfred huffs out a sound of defeat. “Very well. Do try to enjoy yourself, Master Wayne.”

“Thanks, Alfred.” Bruce grins. “You’re the best. I’ll see you when I get home.”

When Bruce exits the car, he is greeted immediately by dozens of flashing lights. The cameras follow him along the walkway to the gallery, crowding his personal space. People cheer and catcall, shout out questions and demand comments.

In the midst of all the commotion, someone remains perfectly still and calm.

Beyond the swarm of press passes and art fanatics, one man sits alone on the steps of the Institute. None of the blinding camera flashes reach him. In the gloomy Gotham evening, only a single yellow streetlight illuminates his face.

As Bruce meets his eye, Clark smiles and waves.

For one stunned moment, Bruce stops in his tracks.

His answering grin makes the front page of six different publications.