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Third Wheel

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"I'm going to be the one stuck with this fucking article, I can already tell."

Clark did not look particularly sympathetic to Lois' plight. He rarely did. "What makes you so sure?"

"You couldn't write a celebrity puff piece if you tried," she said. "Just-The-Facts Kent, here to discuss the latest gossip with a list of citations three feet long and an aside about the latest studies on monogamous behavior in bonobos."

"Bonobos aren't usually monogamous."

"See? That's exactly what I mean." The wind on the tarmac picked up again, blew her hair directly into her face. She tried in vain to keep it from sticking to her lipstick. "Oh, fuck this." She turned around so that the wind would blow her hair in a more flattering direction, crossing her arms and scowling at Clark as if that would wipe the smile off his face. "Let me know when they open up the plane."

"I'd be happy to pick up some of your other stories, if you'd like." Deliberately baiting her while pretending he was being considerate.

"Like hell you will," she said.

"You've got something that good?"

"Don't even try it," she warned. "If you think you can scoop me on this, you've got another thing coming. This isn't the kind of lead you can just pull out of your ass." A bribery scandal like this came along maybe once a decade, if that. And she had an aide in the senator's office with a guilty conscience. Every journalist's dream. But she couldn't take it to Perry until she actually had something, and she couldn't get anything to show him while she was working on other stories. It was an ouroboros of bullshit.

"I don't know why you assume that's where I get all my leads," he said. "It's not going to do you much good if you're busy trying to spin a story out of Bruce Wayne existing within city limits."

"I'm not wasting my time kissing his ass," she said with a roll of her eyes. "Powerful men are my bread and fucking butter. I'll shake his hand, I'll ask him some questions, I'll extrapolate into an article about how he's well-meaning but naive, or a shallow manwhore, or a spoiled prettyboy, or—"

Clark had a look. His hand was on his chin, nodding thoughtfully, his eyes never leaving her face.

There was something behind her that he was trying not to look at. He didn't want her to know about it.

"—a really nice, kind, forgiving person who's really very interesting—"

"I liked the other ones better," said a voice right behind her, confirming all of her worst fears. Clark was just lucky she couldn't set things on fire with her eyes like Superman, because he'd have been fucked. Clark would have looked convincingly surprised if she hadn't known him better. If she turned around, not only would she need to face her mistake, but she was going to get a face full of hair while she was at it. Insult, meet injury. "Don't tell me you're done," he said. "I wanted to hear more about how pretty I am."

Nothing to it but to do it. She ran her hands quickly over her hair to gather it over her shoulder, holding it out of her face so she could spin on her heel. "I am so sorry for the misunderstanding," she began. She tried to remain standing where she was instead of backing up, even though he'd turned out to be much closer than she'd expected. Not distant, just kind of quiet. Taller than he looked in pictures, cliché though it was.

"You don't think I'm pretty?" he asked. "I'm hurt."

Pretty wasn't the word for what Bruce Wayne looked like. Hair a charcoal color, not gray but a light black. Angular in a blocky sort of a way, heavy brows and his mouth a wide line softer than the rest of his face. Odd angles in his nose, subtle but present, the telltale signs of having broken at least once and probably more.

Old-fashioned. That was the word. Handsome, definitely handsome, but the kind of handsome that looked more at home in black and white.

"I think there was some context that you may have missed out on, which may have lead you to believe that my statements were..."

His expression was neutral. Diplomatic. Not disinterested, but not interested, either.

"... I may have been talking shit," she admitted. Bruce smiled, practiced symmetry and perfect teeth, familiar from press releases. But it didn't quite come through in pictures, the way it never went further than his mouth. It made him look absent, not all there. She looked over his shoulder toward the plane—the door still closed. "How did you...?"

"Hm?" Bruce looked back over his shoulder. The other members of the press had not yet noticed him, for the same reason she and Clark hadn't noticed his approach. "Oh, that's for the executives. I never take that. I brought my own." He jerked his head to the right, and she looked where he indicated, to where airport staff were taking care of a Cessna.

Lois sighed. "Of course you did."

"I've always wanted to learn how to fly," Clark said, sounding impressed.

"You should," Bruce said. "It's fun."

"It always seemed like it would be."

"At any rate," Bruce said, and he held out his hand toward Lois. "I'm Bruce Wayne," he introduced, no small amount of irony in his tone. "And you are?"

She accepted his handshake, surprised by the callouses on his hands. They made sense for a notorious adrenaline junkie, but they felt incongruous on a billionaire. "Lois Lane," she said, and with her other hand she held up her press pass, gestured to Clark. "This is Clark Kent. We're with the Daily Planet." Her hair started to get picked up by the wind again, and she caught it as soon as Bruce had let her go, hoping he wouldn't notice. Would putting it up with a pencil be unprofessional? Probably.

"They sent two of you?" Bruce asked, shaking Clark's hand. Lois tried not to make it obvious that she was watching them. Clark, she knew, was not the type to try and establish dominance with a handshake. She'd seen more than one person try and fail to crush his fingers to prove some kind of point. Bruce, however, was as polite with Clark as he'd been with Lois.

It wasn't a test, exactly. But it was sort of a test.

"Well," Clark explained, "you're a very large man. It seemed like a two person job."

Lois could see an expression flit over Bruce's face that she'd seen many times before, though he hid it better than most. Trying to figure out if Clark had just implied what he had seemed to imply on purpose. Clark continued to look as oblivious as ever.

This really was not the time for Clark to be getting cute. She attempted to subtly jab her heel into the top of his foot, to no avail.

"Mr. Kent and I tend to have very different approaches as journalists," Lois corrected. "Our editor was unsure which would result in an article most appealing to the Daily Planet's readership."

"Ah." Bruce accepted this explanation, regardless of whether he really believed it. He tucked his hands back into his pockets. "And the angle for your pitch was going to be... ditzy himbo?"

She felt herself start to turn pink. "I hadn't decided on an angle yet," she said, choosing her words carefully, "because I wanted to meet you first."

"I admire your sense of caution," he said, and she thought his sense of humor might be even worse than Clark's. Maybe he deserved whatever article Kent might write about him. "I take it you weren't planning to write about my promiscuity, Mr. Kent?"

"I'm always willing to go where the facts lead me, Mr. Wayne," Clark said before Lois could stop him. That expression again, and she was going to need to intervene before one of the most powerful men in the country figured out he was being mocked by a hick.

"Mr. Kent prefers an exclusively objective approach," Lois said, and she hoped he appreciated just how much she was doing to cover his ass.

"Whereas Miss Lane is a strong believer in the importance of sharing her opinions with the world," Clark added.

He did not appreciate it, and was instead an ungrateful fuck begging to be murdered.

"I believe I've noticed that," Bruce said. "I've read some of your Superman interviews."

"Really?" She didn't mean to sound so surprised.

"Absolutely," he said. "Setting aside the fact that you get exclusives with a literal alien, your style is witty and creates a sense of intimacy with the subject. Your command of language is evocative. Is your hair bothering you?"

The extensive flattery and sudden pivot into an apparent non-sequitur had her briefly speechless. Since Clark was standing behind her, she couldn't see the way his eyebrows arched in surprise. "It's—thank you, I—no, sorry, it's just windier than I thought it would be."

"Huh." He considered this. "If you don't mind turning around and letting me touch your hair, I could fix that for you."

"You—I. Okay?" Her gears had all ground to a halt, because this had all gone sideways and upside-down in ways that they usually did not. Supervillains and explosions? She could handle that. She did handle that. The idle and attractive rich offering to do her hair? That was just bizarre.

Lois turned around and let her hair go, and now that she was facing Clark she tried to communicate with him using only her eyes. Also by silently mouthing what the fuck. Since Bruce could still see Clark's face, he could not respond. She really wished she could see what he was doing to her hair. Lois tried to point to her head where Clark but not Bruce could see, and mouthed what the fuck is this? The best Clark could do was adjust his glasses and look faintly baffled. Since this was his default state of being, it was no use to her at all.

"Mr. Kent," Bruce said, tone suggesting nothing at all amiss. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but did you write a six-part piece on prison gerrymandering recently?"

This time Lois could see him blinking in surprise, clearly caught off-guard. Usually Lois was the only one who could do that. He adjusted his glasses again, though they didn't need it. "That was on my blog last month," he confirmed.

At least she wasn't the only one getting blindsided.

"I knew I'd heard your name somewhere." This time Lois and Clark's eyes met, and they understood each other's silent gazes completely. They were saying: what the fuck.

Clark looked past both Lois and Bruce. "Looks like they're going to be realizing you're not on the plane in a minute."

Bruce's hands left her hair, and both of them turned to look over their shoulders at the center of attention. Executive employees of Wayne Enterprises had finally begun to disembark, each of them of some moderate interest to business publications and no one else. Lois ran a hand gently over her hair; had he braided it?

He'd braided it. Bruce Wayne had braided her hair. Could she include that in an article without seeming like she was bragging? She'd definitely be bragging, but she didn't want that to be obvious.

"I should get going before that guy from the Wall Street Journal can find me," Bruce said. He looked back to Lois. "How about I pick you up later and we go to dinner?" he suggested.

"... like an interview?" she asked.

"If that's what you want to call it," he said with a shrug. "I was planning to treat it like a date."

"Oh." Lois was... intrigued.

Bruce's eyes flicked upward for a scant half-second, just long enough to glimpse the look on Clark's face. Carefully neutral. It could hardly be called anger, but it was a mile away from genuine detachment. Neither acknowledged the moment, though both were aware of it.

"It would give me a chance to figure out that angle," Lois mused.

That faint curl of his mouth again as he reached into an inner pocket of his jacket, produced a card. Lois took it; not a business card, but a real and actual calling card, nothing but his name and a phone number. "Eight o'clock," he said. "Text me where you'd like me to pick you up. Dress formal, if you can. If you can't..." He shrugged again. "I can pay people not to care."

Lois considered the card in her hand. "I'll be looking forward to it," she said.

Bruce walked backward to keep facing them as he started to leave. "See you then. Pleasure meeting you, Mr. Kent."

"I'm sure," Clark murmured, and he sidled out of the way before Lois could elbow him in the ribs.