It takes a while for Batman and Superman to work things out, once Clark comes back from the dead.
It's not because Clark is angry about it. Far from it, actually. Bruce's reaction to Superman is about what Clark had expected—if Bruce is paranoid for it, then so was Dad, for thinking people who weren't paranoid would still react that way. Objectively speaking, Bruce's concerns have a lot of merit: Clark intends to always do the right thing, to never use his powers to cause harm; but that doesn't mean he'll be able to, and a road to hell paved by Superman's good intentions would be a thirty-five-lane superhighway. Clark gets it.
And in his own way, he wasn't any better. He hadn't tried to talk to Batman, hadn't bothered to track Bruce down and have it out even after he'd realized they were one and the same. He has superspeed—the first time the effects of Bruce's kryptonite shells wore off, he could have taken advantage, pinned Bruce down, explained that Luthor had Mom and was using them against each other. But he'd decided to punch Bruce in the face instead. He'd wanted to, by then, and he'd given in to that want instead of—
Instead of doing the right thing. So maybe Bruce wasn't wrong to be worried about him.
But they'd worked around it to take down Zod together, even if Clark died a little bit while they were at it. And then Clark comes back and—
He's not even sure exactly what he was expecting. That fifteen minutes fighting on the same side had balanced out fifteen minutes of smashing each other into sinks. That they could—respect each other, maybe, even if they didn't like each other. They barely knew each other well enough to do either, not really, but it had felt for a minute like they could get there. Bruce had fired that last shell at Zod just in time for Clark to run him through: perfect, like they'd planned it beforehand. Like they understood each other.
But Clark comes back and it's like none of that ever happened. Bruce Wayne is a smug, smarmy jackass, but Clark almost prefers him to Batman. If nothing else, some of the time it's actually Clark's job to push Bruce, to press him, to point out when he's being stupid. Superman has to try to work with Batman sincerely, no matter how unforgivingly monosyllabic he gets.
As far as Clark can tell, Bruce Wayne is one kind of jerk who spends a lot of time pretending to be another kind of jerk, even if Clark's not entirely sure which flavor is the pretense. And that's pretty much all there is to say about him.
They do reach kind of a balancing point eventually. They have to: the Justice League is important to both of them—or at least Clark assumes Batman wouldn't keep showing up otherwise—and in its early stages they can't afford to be seen at odds with each other. Especially not after the thing where Clark died while Bruce and Diana were right there. Thankfully the media seems to have left the question of where the kryptonite spear came from pretty much alone, but Clark can guess where people's minds might go if the cracks ever start to show.
Clark tries to be careful not to overstep, which helps. Gotham is Batman's; Superman doesn't intervene within its city limits unless asked. And at first, Bruce doesn't ask—but even he doesn't place his own pride above other people's safety. There are some problems Clark really is the best solution for.
"You know I wouldn't ask if it weren't really important," Bruce says, leaning toward Clark on one casual elbow, half his mouth tilting up into that slick Wayne smile. And it may be Clark Kent who's been invited up to his office; but it's Superman he's asking.
So: "Certainly," Clark says coolly, instead of the dozen other things he'd rather say to Bruce. "I'm willing to trust your judgment in this instance, Mr. Wayne."
Which is actually sort of true: Bruce doesn't like Clark any more than Clark likes him, which means he wouldn't ask if it weren't really important. Not exactly the kind of trust Clark wants to be able to put in Bruce—but it'll do in a pinch.
And today apparently is a pinch, because Bruce doesn't immediately make Clark regret having said it. He looks at Clark oddly, almost searchingly, for a long moment. And then he leans back in his ridiculously squishy desk chair, links his hands behind his head, and says, "Then I suppose I'll see you at seven, Mr. Kent."
It's only in retrospect that Clark realizes that's how it started.
At the time, the thought doesn't even cross his mind. Part of the reason Bruce asked him at all was because this event—a gallery opening—is something Clark Kent could reasonably be seen at without raising eyebrows, unlike some of the more exclusive parties Bruce Wayne attends. And they don't do anything particularly strange.
In fact, everything goes fine. No supervillains crash through the roof partway through; no one tries to hold the place up or take hostages. Bruce has reason to believe there's something going on behind the scenes, but in the next building over—and he's uncertain enough about who might be backing the activity, if there is any, that he doesn't want to actually go in. He doesn't even want to risk leaving any trace of Batman's monitoring tech. Which means he needs Clark to do a quick scan with the x-ray vision. That's all.
It's just that the easiest way to get uninterrupted time to do that is by heading off to the bathroom. The simplest way for Clark to be sure he doesn't miss anything is for Bruce to be there with him: to tell him what to look for, to ask him to describe one thing or another in more detail. And it's only going to take five minutes, ten at the most—it's not worth breaking out the earpieces for that, especially on the off chance their chatter might get picked up.
It doesn't even occur to him that anybody might have noticed, or that they'd think twice about it if they did. He finishes the check, Bruce hmms to himself and doesn't say anything about whatever conclusions he's drawing from what Clark's told him, and then they unjam the door and leave. Clark flashes a quick apologetic smile at the guy who was stuck outside waiting—he's looking at Clark and Bruce with narrowed eyes, one eyebrow climbing. Clark hopes he hasn't been there too long.
And then Clark heads back out to the party, and decides he might as well try a couple more hors-d'oeuvres while he's here.
And it isn't—it doesn't even happen all that often. It's not like they're walking out of mens' bathrooms together twice a week or anything. Once, Bruce needs Clark's superhearing to eavesdrop on a meeting he can't get near, so they spend a little while standing together in a curtained alcove, voices low in between bouts of silence. Another time, he gets injured in an explosion; the easiest way to get him out of it and maintain Bruce Wayne's plausible deniability is for Clark to speed off for a suit from Alfred, and then help an extremely drunk Bruce Wayne get home from a nightclub three blocks over. He's a reporter, it's not that weird for him to occasionally be in the same place as a celebrity. He figures nobody will care.
At first it's just mildly annoying. People start taking pictures of them more often. Which would worry Clark more except that it's always when they're full-on civilians, and he and Bruce aren't doing anything in the photos but standing next to each other. Clark can't even figure out why anyone's bothering, although he assumes it's because of Bruce—Wayne Enterprises hasn't been doing anything front-page-worthy, at least not when the front page is the Planet's, but Clark studiously avoids instances of "Wayne" in the society pages, or pretty much anywhere online. And sometimes there's an uptick, people's eyes following Bruce more closely and that kind of thing, after a particularly vicious gossip piece. That's all Clark can come up with.
So, in the end, the penny doesn't drop until it's way, way too late. By the time anyone actually says anything to Clark about it, it's because one of the pictures has already made its way to some gossip site.
Clark hasn't even seen it yet when he steps into the lobby of the Planet building. But the first words out of Cat Grant's mouth when he passes her open office door on the way in are, "Congratulations, Kent. I can't even decide which one of you is out of the other's league."
Clark skids to a stop and has to back up to stick his head in and blink at her. "What?"
Cat's eyes narrow. "Don't tell me you haven't seen it yet," she says, but Clark's blank expression must say exactly that. "Well, in that case, just don't shoot the messenger, hmm?" She types something and then swivels her monitor around so it faces the doorway; and Clark is confronted with a full 1920 x 1080 of his own pleasantly bewildered face, Bruce's camera-ready smile, and a bunch of bright red circles that helpfully highlight Bruce's arm around Clark's shoulders—Bruce's thumb dipping just inside Clark's collar—Clark's fingers at Bruce's hip. (Photoshop, Clark thinks. He'd kept his hand at Bruce's waist in a perfectly reasonable spot, he's sure of it.)
And above it, there's a 72-point headline, which strikes Clark as just a little excessive: BRUCE WAYNE'S NEW SQUEEZE?!
He stares at it helplessly, feeling heat that he's suddenly absolutely sure Cat can see start to creep up his throat. He just—he can't even figure out what to say, it's too ridiculous. He doesn't even like Bruce. Bruce doesn't even like him. That's—it isn't—
"No comment?" Cat suggests sweetly.
"I'm not asking you," she clarifies, "I'm telling you. You tried to brush this guy off with something about an interview, Clark. Everybody knows you don't hold interviews in nightclubs. Arrange them, sure; butter somebody's publicist up, okay; have a conversation on the record?" She makes a dubious face. "And I know Perry doesn't have any pieces on Bruce Wayne lined up. Next time? Just say 'no comment'."
"I—I didn't—that picture is from days ago," Clark tries.
Cat is unmoved. "Just practice it in the mirror," she calls after him as he flees. "'No comment.' 'No comment!' 'No comment.' Two hours, tops. You'll get the hang of it!"
If nothing else, that horrifying conversation does prepare him for what's waiting when he gets to his own desk—which is a giant printout of the same picture, hearts drawn around the edges, that can only have been obtained by forcing the copier in the upstairs hallway to actually cough up a tabloid-size sheet without jamming. "Inappropriate use of office resources, Ron," Clark says loudly, trying to match the tone Perry would use; but the wide-eyed innocent face Ron gives him in response makes Lois giggle, and, all right, it is kind of funny. Ludicrous, even—as if Clark and Bruce would ever, right? Clark huffs half a laugh to himself, and carefully tapes the printout to the back of his own monitor so it's the first thing anyone sees when they look toward his desk.
And that settles the whole thing pretty well—at least until Bruce ruins everything right before lunch.
To be fair to Bruce, which Clark is sometimes able to convince himself to do, he was probably in a meeting or something in the morning, and then went straight to this talk show's taping. There's every chance he hasn't seen the picture, whereas presumably some intern turned it up while googling around to fact-check and dutifully passed everything along to the host. He couldn't have expected the question, couldn't know the context, and he handles it exactly the way Clark would have expected Bruce Wayne to handle it.
But that doesn't mean Clark's gut sinks any less when Ron checks his phone a little after eleven and suddenly laughs.
"What?" he hears Lois ask.
"Clark's secret boyfriend is on TV," Ron says, pointedly loud.
"He is not my secret boyfriend," Clark says patiently, but Ron's already found the right channel's website, the right show, and started streaming it. His speakers aren't that great—but of course to Clark they might as well be surround-sound.
"—seems you've been spotted several times recently with Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent," the host is saying, and to her credit she's being matter-of-fact about it, friendly, instead of salacious. "You aren't usually big Metropolis news, Mr. Wayne—"
"Bruce, please," Bruce interrupts, flashing her that too-bright smile. "And let me ask you a question right back, Moira—well, two: can we get a visual aid up here?"
"Oh my god," Clark hears himself say faintly.
Moira, naturally, is prepared for this, or was anticipating something like it—Clark wonders how she'd originally been planning to segue to projecting a massive picture of Clark up on the back wall of the studio. Sweet Jesus.
"Perfect, perfect," Bruce says, and then steeples his fingers and looks across them at Moira. "Now take a look at that and tell me the truth. Wouldn't you give Clark Kent as many private interviews as he wanted?"
His voice does something—something terrible, something very, very bad and wrong, everything Moira's carefully didn't do earlier—with the words private interview, and it's impossible to miss. There's some kind of reaction from the studio audience, but Clark finds he can barely hear it over Lois and Ron both going, "Oooooh," and Ron slapping his thigh, cackling.
That's when Clark first starts to think it could become a problem.
It's not as though it was inevitable. If it had just been the photo by itself, or Bruce being ridiculous and glib and a dick in isolation, everything probably would've just blown over.
But the photo and the interview answer put together gives the whole thing legs. It makes people feel like they're—like they're on to something, like there actually is something there to be on to. Clark starts getting phone calls that are more about looking to interview him than his own interview requests getting back to him, and the entire internet finds his Planet work e-mail, which results in a horrifying conversation with IT about how to handle his filtering now that he's getting ten times as many messages and doesn't want to answer any of them. He doesn't even get to yell at Bruce over it: this week of all weeks, there aren't any major disasters for the League to deal with, which Clark should be happier about; and Clark showing up at Bruce's office isn't going to do anything but make all this worse.
It stops being anything like funny the Tuesday after the talk show airs. There's actually a photographer waiting for Clark outside the Planet in the morning, which is just so—everyone's supposed to look at Superman, that's the whole point. That's the only way for Clark to get to be himself the rest of the time, and it's almost frightening to have that start to fall apart.
He manages to be polite, to smile while he brushes past her without slowing, but it makes him feel cornered in a way he can't shake. Which means Ron doesn't even have to say anything more substantial than "Left the honeymoon phase yet, loverboy?" to earn a glare so fierce Clark's vision actually gets a little red.
He catches himself before anything can heat up, carefully squeezes his eyes shut; but he can't stop himself from snapping, "Will you all just shut up."
"Hey, whoa," Ron says, and he's kind enough to say it easily, without any rancor of his own. "Sorry, Kent, sorry. Guess that photographer out front really got after you, huh?"
Clark sighs. The rosy tinge is gone, so he lets himself open his eyes again and look up, and Ron's gazing down at him with amiable sympathy. "Yeah, she did," Clark lies, because he feels gotten-after, even if it's not really the photographer's fault.
"And I think we can all agree nobody does annoying like reporters," Ron says.
"Some more than others," Clark says pointedly. But he offers Ron a smile after, and Ron grins at him and then claps him gently on the shoulder.
Once Ron's gone, Clark lets his head drop and presses his thumbs into his temples—with a little of the strength applied, just enough that it actually creates some real pressure against his skull. He blows out a deliberate breath and rolls his shoulders out; and when he looks up again, Lois is watching him.
She doesn't pounce right away. Her reporter's instincts are better honed than that, Clark assumes. She waits instead, lets him calm down and get a little work done; and then at half past noon a hand appears between Clark and the blank white screen where the human interest piece Perry wants by Thursday is supposed to be.
"Earth to Clark?" Lois says, waving it a little bit; and Clark stops blinking at it stupidly and makes a face at her.
"Always with the alien jokes," he says.
"They're so much funnier when I make them about you," she says, "and you're the only one who knows it. Who else am I supposed to tell them to?" She tilts her head and looks at him fondly for a second, and then crosses her arms and adds, "Come on. I'm taking you out to lunch."
"I think you're supposed to ask," Clark says, "not issue an ultimatum," but it's a feeble protest when he's already getting out of his chair.
It doesn't occur to him until they're already on the street outside that maybe going out to lunch isn't the best way to minimize his visibility. But the photographer from the morning is gone, and when he glances over his shoulder, Lois says, "There are still plenty of people more interesting than Clark Kent to follow around. We aren't going to get mobbed."
"No, of course," Clark says, pressing a hand to his eyes. "Sorry."
"You're stressed," Lois says. "I understand. You don't want people looking too closely."
Clark grimaces and darts a glance at her face: she's been so much better than he deserves about the whole Superman thing, especially considering he'd died on her for a while there. When he'd first come back, she'd calmly agreed to help him lie to Perry about his death being faked; and then she'd given him his ring back and hadn't spoken to him for a month. Not because she was angry, or at least not exactly, but she'd needed the space.
They're better now—but it took time, and the last thing Clark wants to do is bury her in more Superman problems.
But she looks back at him, clear-eyed and steady, and says, "Come on. I know just the place. We'll get sandwiches the size of your head and you can tell me all about it."
The sandwiches are the size of Clark's head, pretty much, and there's also cookies about eight inches across. They're both a lot more attractive to Clark than trying to figure out how to talk about Bruce without making any references to Batman that he shouldn't, and Lois doesn't push. She waits until both sandwiches have vanished and Clark has half a cookie in his mouth before she takes matters into her own hands and says, "It was hard for me."
Clark raises an eyebrow inquiringly.
"You dying," Lois obligingly clarifies. "I loved you—I mean, I still do, but I really loved you, and then you were just gone. Which I realize wasn't great for you either," she adds quickly, "but it didn't sound like you were actually around for that much of it—"
"No," Clark agrees, once he's managed to swallow without choking. Most of what he remembers about being dead is a lot like being asleep. It hadn't even really hurt that much, by the time he was actually conscious; his body had had to get through a lot of the healing already just to make it possible for him to wake up that far.
"But we've worked all that out now, you and me," Lois says, and puts a hand over his on the table. "I mean, I feel like we have, anyway. So I do mean it, Clark: you can tell me all about it. I know there aren't a lot of people you can go to who know everything. If you need someone to talk to about your—uh, your hobby—it doesn't bother me.
"And it wouldn't bother me, you and—and Mr. Wayne—" She stops and wrinkles her nose, not seeming to notice that Clark's gazing at her with dawning horror. "That just sounds weird now. Can I call him Bruce?"
"... I'm sure he wouldn't mind," Clark says feebly, and then puts the other half of the cookie in his mouth before he can make this any worse.
The thing is, it's actually the explanation that causes the fewest problems. It doesn't seem right to just tell Lois that Bruce is Batman—not without at least letting Bruce know about it before Clark does it, and of course Bruce knowing about it before Clark does it would lead to Bruce doing absolutely everything in his power to prevent it. They've just barely gotten to the point where Bruce actually seems reasonably comfortable working with Superman when he needs to. Clark's not eager to send them back to square one by exposing his secret identity without his permission, even if it's only to one person.
And Lois isn't just anybody. She knows as well as Cat does that there aren't any major Wayne stories in the Planet's pipeline—that if there were they'd probably go through Cat anyway, even if she did end up delegating some of the legwork to Clark.
And if the interview excuse won't hold water, and Clark can't tell her it's not exactly Bruce Wayne he's been spending time around—what's left? Somehow, inexplicably, he's genuinely ended up in a place where "Bruce Wayne's my secret boyfriend" is the answer that makes the most sense.
God help him.
He's almost managed to talk himself into accepting it by the time they get back to the office, helped along by a gentle reminder from Lois that he'd rather have people taking photos of him because they've realized he's dating Bruce than because they've realized he's Superman. Which is completely true, even if she's working from an inaccurate premise. It's not the brightest silver lining Clark's ever seen, but it's there, and it does make him feel a little steadier on his feet.
And then they get up to the bullpen, and Perry's standing next to Clark's desk.
"Kent! My office, now."
"Everything's going to be fine," Lois says sunnily, patting Clark on the shoulder, and then she callously leaves him to his fate.
He follows Perry to his office with a grim sense of rising dread. He can't imagine what Perry wants—surely someone taking a photo of you touching Bruce Wayne a little too much can't actually qualify as any kind of professional misconduct? But if it's not about Bruce, then that means Clark's missing something, because he can't come up with any other reason why Perry would want to talk to him—
—with the door shut. Clark watches Perry close it behind him and can't help swallowing. That can't be good, can it?
"Sit down, sit down, quit looming at me."
"Yes, sir," Clark says quickly, and sits.
Perry leans against the edge of the desk instead of sitting down, too—which makes him the one who's looming, on the one hand, but also makes Clark feel less like he's just been called into the principal's office.
"Substantiating a claim is important to me, Kent," Perry begins, "professionally speaking. I like breaking stories; I don't like leaping to conclusions."
"Yes, sir," Clark agrees.
"That said, it's come to my attention that it may in fact be time to ask this. Are you involved with Bruce Wayne?"
For a second Clark can't do anything but stare at him. Has the entire world lost its mind? Is Clark having some kind of extremely extended nightmare? Why on earth would Perry care—
"Because if you are," Perry adds, "I need to make sure you aren't assigned to cover anything related to him. Or to Wayne Enterprises in general. Especially if you're going to go public, though frankly I'm inclined to do it either way, just to keep our noses clean. I like my house in order, Kent."
"I, uh," Clark says, and then, with spotless honesty, "We haven't really talked about it, sir."
Perry stares at him for a moment, gimlet-eyed, and then relents with a sniff. "Let me be clear," he says briskly. "I don't care who you're dating, or how many buildings he's got named after him. I care whether you're going to walk all over our internal ethics standards, and I care about my deadlines. Speaking of which—"
Clark leaves Perry's office feeling mildly dazed, but also weirdly better. Perry hadn't pressed him, had accepted his completely noncommittal answer, was as matter-of-fact about the prospect of Clark dating Bruce as the prospect of Clark not dating Bruce. Lois was right about lunch, nobody had come up to him or taken a picture or even looked at him too long. Maybe it still might all just blow over, even if it takes a little longer than he'd hoped. Maybe he can get through this without even—without even mentioning it to Bruce, without it even mattering.
He manages to keep letting himself think that up until his walk home.
It's a little worse than lunchtime right off the bat: several different people visibly notice him on the way, and Clark can't help grimacing a little as he picks up the false shutter sound from somebody's phone across the street.
And that's actually why it happens—he focuses on the hearing for a moment, checking for any more of them, and that's just enough to let him catch the half-swallowed scream coming from a few blocks further away. He jerks toward it reflexively, and then catches himself before he can actually step into traffic; he'd be the only one who walked out of that intact. And he's got the suit on underneath his work clothes, but—but there are half a dozen people looking at him right now, a camera still pointed at him. He can't just superspeed away. He has to find an alley or something, has to step out of view—
It only takes him ten or fifteen extra seconds to get away from all the eyes on him, ducking around a corner and then zooming away. But that's enough time for the man who cried out to get stabbed in the struggle. The mugger didn't even mean to do it, Clark can tell that just by looking at him—but only once he gets there. Only once he wraps his hand around the knife blade, fifteen seconds too late.
The wound's not going to be fatal, but that's just luck. And Clark could handle the light mockery from Ron, Lois's sympathetic gaze—even the photographer, once he'd gotten a little perspective. But if this stupid gossipy thing makes it harder for Clark to be Superman? He's got to figure out how to make it go away.
There's nothing else for it. He does need to talk to Bruce.
It takes another week for Superman to end up in the same place as Batman, and by then Clark's definitely grateful for it—the staring and the picture-taking have only gotten worse. Basically every day Cat can greet him with a completely new massive photo of his own face, deer-eyed and hapless, and more and more invasive speculation about whether he and Bruce are actually dating, or Clark is just—
("His boytoy," Cat had repeated mercilessly. "That's—"
"No, no," Clark had said hurriedly, "thanks, I—I know what it means," and then he'd made a break for it before she could read any further.)
This time it's actually Superman who needs Batman's help: the super senses are great for a lot of things, but Clark can't keep an ear on everything that's happening in every LexCorp building at once. If nothing else, he does need to sleep. But considering that Luthor's last big idea had left Clark six feet under for longer than he wants to think about, he can't really afford to not know what Luthor is up to, either.
Luckily, there's some LexCorp offices in Gotham, so Clark actually has some reason to think Bruce will lend a hand. (Not that Clark thinks Bruce would kill him, these days, or would help Luthor do it. But if—if Batman decided it was for the best, in that clear-eyed stone-faced way he has; if he didn't help Luthor, but maybe just didn't stop him either—
It's uncomfortably easy to imagine, which is why Clark mostly doesn't let himself go there.)
So he meets Batman on a rooftop, overlooking one of LexCorp's industrial parks, and carefully broaches the subject of Bruce maybe doing a little extra monitoring. Just, if he happens to have sensors of some kind that Luthor might not detect, or can hack himself a back door into some of LexCorp's less secure servers.
And at first Clark thinks he hasn't done it carefully enough, because Batman turns to look at him sharply and doesn't say anything for a moment.
But then: "Should be possible," he allows, slow, and Clark can't tell whether it's actually grudging or it just sounds like it when it's said in Batman's growl. "The information can be pulled together into a report for you—Mondays?"
"Like—next Monday?" Clark says, startled. "You'll have it set up that fast?"
Batman looks away. "Do you want the reports or not," he says, and it's not really a question.
"Yes," Clark says quickly. "Yes, thank you. Thanks."
Batman doesn't say anything back—Clark briefly tries to imagine a friendly "You're welcome" in his modulated voice, and almost laughs out loud—but he does kind of nod stiffly.
Not the best warm-up act for the most awkward conversation in the world, Clark thinks, but not the worst. "There's something else I need to talk to you about," he blurts, before he can talk himself out of it; and Batman—winces? Moves, anyway, short and sharp, and to no purpose that Clark can see, which is unusual for Batman.
"So they're asking you about it, too," Batman says grimly, without even waiting for Clark to elaborate.
And—Clark blinks. It's turned into a genuine mess for him, sure, but that's because he's never been worth a story before in his life, at least not as Clark Kent. Bruce has been in the papers here and there basically since he was a kid—Clark hadn't really thought this would be more than a blip on his radar. A few more flashes in Bruce's face; one or two new questions added to the storm that get shouted at him after Wayne Enterprises press conferences; but nothing really out of the ordinary.
But Bruce's choice of words says otherwise. "And you—haven't been able to get them to stop," Clark hazards.
"Denial hasn't proven effective," Batman says, which, yeah, that's fair, considering how the media tends to work. A blanket "that's not what happened" without a convincing alternate explanation is the kind of thing that makes Perry slam a fist into his desk and say Dig deeper, Kent!
But surely Bruce has had to weather something like this before. "Then what is effective?" Clark says.
"Constructing an appealing narrative supported by the evidence," Batman says, "except they've beaten us to it,"—and it's Batman's voice, but the words are all Bruce Wayne. Which captures the weirdness of this entire interaction in a nutshell, Clark thinks: Superman is on a roof in Gotham at midnight, earnestly listening to Batman's social media advice. "Or removing the evidence."
"You mean—" Clark says, catching up, and then balks. "You're not leaving the League. And neither am I, not over this. We're—we're better when we're working together, you know that," because they are: he might have died, but so had Zod, and that would never have happened without Bruce, without Diana. And if either one of them needs the other but—but second-guesses, doesn't ask, just because of this circus, and then something happens—
"It's that," Batman says, "or stop denying it."
"Stop—oh." Clark swallows, and decides to start small. "Will that, uh. Will that help?"
Batman tilts his head a little, silent, and then looks away again; Clark can't help wishing he could see Bruce's face, just for a second. "In the short term, it'll get a lot worse—and then we'll hit saturation. That's what will make it yesterday's news. If it will cause problems for you—"
"No, no, it's—everybody at work thinks we already are," Clark admits. "Perry took me aside the other day to tell me if he's going to fire me for anything, it'll be for being late with the Mont-Simard piece, not for being Bruce Wayne's arm-candy." He clears his throat. "What about you?"
"The stock might take a small hit; nothing serious." Batman pauses, and then something in his voice changes, somewhere behind the modulator: "This is far from the most damaging thing the shareholders have ever seen Bruce Wayne do. You're actually a cut above his usual type."
It takes Clark aback somehow, hearing it, though he can't pinpoint why. Maybe it's just that it feels sort of—cold, hearing Bruce slot "Clark Kent, Daily Planet reporter" into the lineup and measure him out.
But that's what everyone else will do. Really, Bruce is almost doing him a favor, preparing him for it.
"Okay," Clark says aloud. "All—all right, then."
Batman doesn't answer; he just zips out a grappling line and drops away into the dark.
It doesn't feel like anything's really been decided; they didn't even—they didn't even say the word "dating", let alone preceded by, "So, okay, we're definitely going to pretend to be—" After a day or two, Clark starts to second-guess himself about whether the conversation was even real. Maybe he'd chickened out; maybe the increasingly dubious memory is just what he wishes had happened.
But then, the next time they end up in close quarters in civilian clothes, Bruce meets his eyes and Clark knows he didn't imagine a damn thing. Bruce raises an eyebrow and doesn't say anything; and that's not much to go on, but he's Batman, he must have a plan, so Clark nods.
And in the end it's perfectly simple. They don't rush the exit, that time—they don't make it look like they're trying not to get caught. Bruce smiles and leans in and waits until they've definitely been noticed, until someone's already leveled a smartphone at them and the red light is steady, before he takes his hand off Clark's arm.
That's all. It's not so bad. Nothing Clark can't handle.
Except of course it can't stay that way. For all that he tries not to absorb much of Bruce Wayne's popular image, Clark is still well aware of the pattern his relationships have tended to fall into, and they don't involve Bruce keeping his hands on people's arms fifteen seconds too long.
But Bruce is—Bruce is actually really considerate about the whole thing, in a weird way. He doesn't just dive into slipping Clark tongue every time they're within fifty feet of each other, or ferrying him around in limos half-dressed, or—whatever else. He eases them into it instead, just a step at a time.
Clark, newly aware that Bruce has been dogged about this at least as much as he has, guiltily googles and finds more video than he'd expected: Bruce had never made a joke like at the talk show again, had looked at the cameras with dismissive smirks and said things like, "I assure you, Mr. Kent has better taste." But nothing he'd tried had stopped him from getting a half-dozen followups every time.
And now that Clark knows what Bruce has been doing, it's easy to see how his tack has changed since the roof. He smiles at the questions before he brushes them off—less like he thinks the person asking is stupid, and more like he's someone with a secret he's happy about. (Clark had realized Bruce was a good actor, even if he'd never been sure whether it was Batman or Bruce Wayne who was the act. But Bruce is—Bruce is a really good actor.) He says things more like, "Don't jump the gun, he hasn't said yes yet," and, "Clark's not that kind of girl—but I'm wearing him down," with terrible sleazy winks tacked on at the end.
In response, like magic, the gossip blogs start to change their tone. Or most of them do, anyway. It's like before they were trying to kind of—punish Bruce for lying to them, thinking he could trick them; but now that he's conceding, letting them in on it, they just seem pleased to have something to talk about. People stop trying to catch Clark before they can lose sight of him and start smiling, waving, before they take his photo. It only seems polite to smile back, and before he knows it, Cat's greeting pictures in the morning turn more flattering. And while the speculation about Clark's past dating history seems really excessive, he finds that he actually prefers six detailed paragraphs attempting to gauge the exact shape of his ass over the posts that baldly asked readers to weigh in on whether he was just using Bruce for his money.
Even if the former leads to Cat shouting things like, "—a perfect Kansas peach, Kent!" down the hallway after him.
Ron starts giving him crap for it again, of course, and so does Lois; but it's easier to take their fond hassling when it's—when it's on purpose. Clark rolling his eyes and turning vaguely red and trying not to look at the shirtless picture of Bruce Wayne that Lois has made into his desktop background are all just part of the plan.
And it's not all Bruce for long. Clark does his part, of course. Wayne Enterprises holds a ground-breaking ceremony for their newest building going up in Metropolis, and Perry gives the story to Lois—and then Clark goes anyway. When someone notices, because he can pretty much count on that these days, it's the easiest thing in the world to duck his head and clear his throat and say, "No, I'm—I'm not here for the Planet, I'm just—uh—"
Bruce notices him about halfway through the event, and—and does a good job pretending to be pleased, Clark thinks. His face lights up, he abandons the conversation he was partway through with a laugh and a handshake and doesn't look away from Clark. And Clark braces himself for—for he doesn't know what, struggling to imagine what Bruce might do: hug him? Grope him, more like, or—or kiss him, even—
(Bruce doesn't do anything but keep a hand on Clark's elbow, stand a little too close, and keep smiling. By the time the party's over, Clark's teeth ache with waiting.)
In fact, Bruce refuses to rush it so hard that that actually becomes a spectacle of its own. He starts—sending Clark things, flowers and good wine, weirdly excellent lunch for the entire Daily Planet office. "Your boyfriend is awesome," Ron tells Clark sincerely, mouth still half-full of a piece of lightly-toasted bruschetta with tomatoes, olives, prosciutto. He makes a noise as he finishes chewing, and then his eyelids kind of flutter as he swallows. "Seriously, when you're finished with him? Point him my way."
It's nothing like what Clark's been expecting. Definitely not Batman's brusque goal-oriented focus, but not really Bruce Wayne's brand of slick ostentation either—it is ostentatious, of course, but also kind of—courteous? Or—Clark's not sure how to quantify it, exactly. He just knows that thinking about it for too long makes him feel like the ground's gone unsteady under him.
He can't track Batman down just to ask him why he's giving Clark so many presents. And crying wolf, or manufacturing some kind of crisis just to get Batman to come around—one of those is a bad idea, and the other is just stupid.
But then it occurs to Clark: he doesn't need to. The whole reason they're doing this to themselves is because they need an explanation for why they're seen together sometimes out of uniform. Clark doesn't have to have an excuse, doesn't need to be Superman. He can just walk right up to Bruce's office building—and Bruce can't even make him go away without setting off a dozen TROUBLE IN PARADISE??? taglines. It's perfect.
Clark knows where Bruce spends most of his day—so does Diana, because Bruce had wanted both of them to be able to find him in an emergency situation without having to shake down half a dozen skyscrapers. And the receptionist clearly recognizes Clark, even though Clark's only been here about twice, and never when Bruce wasn't expecting him: his eyebrows start to go up before he catches himself and puts on a professional smile, and he calls Clark "Mr. Kent" before Clark even has a chance to introduce himself.
But he also buzzes up to Bruce without hesitating or feeding Clark any lines about Mr. Wayne's prior appointments. And when he says Clark's name into the phone, Clark can hear the breath Bruce draws on the other end of the line. "By all means, send him up," Bruce says, and his tone is teetering on the edge of implying filthy, filthy things; Clark shuts the hearing back down immediately, but he can feel his ears going red.
He decides not to think about what the receptionist is going to imagine is happening in Bruce's office.
Bruce is waiting for him with one eyebrow raised, his hands loosely clasped over a tablet that's playing a muted video of what looks like some kind of press conference at the UN, and the whole skyline of Gotham stretches out behind him through the plate glass, Metropolis gleaming faintly in the distance.
"A personal visit? You shouldn't have," he says. "You could have just sent another thank-you note. I think Alfred's been getting them individually framed."
"You mean you don't just have an intern shred them?" Clark says, which, whoops, comes out a little more hostile than he meant it to.
Bruce goes still. In partial profile like that, backlit, his facial features are briefly difficult to pick out; for a moment it's like Clark's looking at Batman instead.
And then Bruce swivels his chair just enough so he's looking straight at Clark, and says, "Is there a problem?"
"I—no," Clark says, because you haven't kissed me yet but I know you're going to is a totally inappropriate answer. "You weren't wrong about it getting worse to start with. And I know you warned me about that, but shouldn't we just—I mean, is all the stuff really helping?"
Bruce looks at him expressionlessly, and then leans back in that stupid chair, one forearm propped against the gleaming edge of the desk—shining mahogany, which somehow makes it even harder for Clark to drag his eyes away from the crisp white lines of Bruce's half-rolled sleeve.
"The longer it lasts," Bruce says flatly, "the more boring it gets. And, as I believe I mentioned: you're a cut above my usual, Clark."
Which, he did say that before, Clark recalls, but it—it sounds different like this: my usual, instead of his, maybe; and Clark. And it just—is different, looking Bruce right in the face like this. No cowl, no darkness, no Batman dispassionately talking about Bruce Wayne like he's a third person entirely. As distant as Bruce's voice is—
Or—or as distant as Bruce is making his voice, Clark thinks. Because, after all, Bruce is a really good actor.
"Which means," Clark prompts carefully.
Bruce glances away, spreads his hands. "I've dated a lot of people," he says. "People I could use—people who could use me. People who understood what they were getting into, who were happy to trade me their time and company on a limited basis for whatever it was they wanted: money, jewelry, a couple rides in a limo, and," he adds, with a brief sharp smirk at Clark, "some very good sex."
Clark can't help clearing his throat, but he doesn't let himself look away. He knows perfectly well that Bruce has had sex with a lot of people. It's not anything worth being uncomfortable about. "But?"
"But," and Bruce looks away again; disinterested, Clark would think, except he keeps talking, so maybe—maybe it's something else. "But that's not going to be the case with you. It won't fly, not if anyone spends five minutes looking you up. And definitely not after the internet got a hold of those pictures of you waving politely at the paparazzi."
"One of them waved first," Clark tries to explain.
Bruce gives him a flat stare. "As I said. You're a cut above my usual, and everyone can tell—which means I must not be dating you for my usual reasons. I must think of you differently than I think of anyone I've dated in the past. I told you we needed to construct an appealing narrative." And this time he's still looking at Clark, voice so coolly disengaged he might as well be reading the phone book, when he says, "I have to have fallen hard, Clark. It doesn't make sense any other way."
It's silent after he says it—silent for too long, Clark realizes, and manages to scrape up a faint, "Right, of course," from somewhere. It does fit, after all: that's the groundwork Bruce has been laying, Clark can see it now. Joking about Clark's good taste, about Clark being a different kind of girl; moving slowly, none of the usual PDA splashed all over the tabloids, steadily ordering flowers over and over. Setting up something long-term.
Because—because the longer it lasts, the more boring it gets. And the tabloids want a scandal, not office lunches and arm-touching.
"Of course," Clark says again, more steadily. "Right. I—sorry. Thank you," and then before he can fumble anything else out, he turns and heads for the door.
Bruce doesn't keep the parking brake on forever, of course. After another week, they actually start going on dates.
They also defeat two supervillains, a massive army of cyborgs that comes marching through a dimensional rift over the water between Metropolis and Gotham, and some kind of fast-growing alien fungus that causes vivid and disorienting hallucinations. But the dating is harder to accept as a day-to-day fact of Clark's life. Preventing villainy and destruction is getting increasingly normal. Dating Bruce is—dating Bruce is a lot of things, and none of them are easy to get used to.
Embarrassing, for one. Deeply, deeply awkward. Bruce wasn't kidding: the photographers swarm in the beginning, and there's no avoiding them, though at least they don't actually follow Bruce and Clark inside. The first date is outright terrible—Clark looks incredibly out of place, but he's pretty sure it's not that he picked the wrong suit so much as that he doesn't own a suit that would fit in somewhere like this. Bruce's face says he agrees, and the maître d' is wearing an expression that suggests that Clark's only setting foot inside because everyone knows Bruce Wayne is waiting for him.
Never have so many people so intently watched Clark try to choke down a plate of linguine without getting sauce on his shirt.
(Bruce sends a suit before the next time—well, four of them, actually. Clark's a little afraid to put them on in case he rips something, but they fit as though Bruce had actually had Clark frogmarched to a tailor for them. Clark wonders about this briefly, and then decides that Batman probably has detailed 3-D scans of him and Diana, and leaves it at that.)
"Difficult" would also be accurate, and "complicated" begins to scratch the surface. Bruce Wayne's schedule is, of course, hell—if he weren't so willing to blow off international meetings without notice, they'd probably never go on any dates at all. But Clark can't quite bring himself to be sorry about that one, because—well.
It probably only happens because Bruce is very tired; but the day after the cyborgs, Bruce says offhandedly that he didn't have to be at that meeting with Samsung, and—
"Are you serious?" Clark blurts.
And instead of laughing at him or making some smug remark about what a rube he is, Bruce gives him an unexpectedly thin smile. "I'm an idiot, Clark," he says. "Odds are they'll be glad I'm not there."
He rubs a thumb against his temple and then suddenly laughs, makes a joke—but it's not enough to erase Clark's memory of his face in that one instant. And yeah, Clark kind of thinks Bruce is a sleazeball; but he also knows that Bruce is Batman—that Bruce is physically and mentally skilled in astonishing ways, that he regularly risks his life helping the League take down the biggest threats on the planet. He might be a dick, but that doesn't mean he's foolish, and it definitely doesn't mean he's incompetent.
But everybody else—everybody else doesn't know that. Everybody else thinks Bruce Wayne actually is just a jackass in a really expensive suit.
And suddenly Clark can't not break into whatever clever offhand remark Bruce is making next to say, "Don't do that."
Bruce breaks off and raises his eyebrows, like he doesn't know what Clark is talking about.
But Clark is unaccountably sure that he does, and doesn't relent. "I know better," he adds, looking Bruce in the eye; and Bruce stares at him and draws in a breath, opens his mouth and says—
—nothing, because the car starts to slow, and Bruce turns over his shoulder to lower the barrier and ask the driver a question. But it doesn't matter. Clark knows what he saw.
That date gets interrupted anyway, because halfway through Clark hears someone scream, and then opens up more and is instantly surrounded by the low roar of the fire that caused it. But even that is—is almost easy: all he has to do is stiffen in his seat, and Bruce's eyes are on him; and he leans in and says, "Bruce," and Bruce waves him off.
"Go," Bruce says, "go on," and then smiles, and it's not the pinched smile from the car but it's not the big gleaming Bruce Wayne one either. "You're supposed to be playing hard-to-get anyway."
And possibly it's the thing that happened in the car that makes Clark say, "I wouldn't play games with you, Bruce. I'm not that kind of girl either." (He gets up and heads for the restroom before Bruce can answer—it's an emergency, after all. And he should be able to speed out the back from there.)
Really, Clark's schedule is the problem almost as often as Bruce's, especially because he can't get out of being Superman the way Bruce can dodge a meeting. And even "complicated" doesn't really do justice to the time they both make it to the restaurant in one piece, Clark actually in the right suit (after Bruce had looked at him last time and sadly muttered, "Hopeless—with that tie you should have worn the midnight blue—"), and then the place promptly gets held up by three extremely angry people with very large guns.
Clark is, of course, invulnerable. But he tries extra hard not to let himself get shot anywhere that night. The best drycleaning in the world won't fix bullet holes; and he—he's starting to think that he liked the look in Bruce's eyes, when Bruce first saw him walk in.
So: dating Bruce is a lot of things. And Clark finds, to his dismay, that one of those things is "amazing". Which is—Clark tries to keep his head on straight (ha), to not let himself get carried away, but it's all so—so much. And it's all so good.
The food is always terrifyingly expensive, which Clark knows because they don't even print the prices on the menus most of the time; but it's also always fantastic. Bruce takes him to places that kind of freak him out on the outside, but once they get in and sit down it's always in some perfect quiet corner booth, some tiny table for two next to a wall so nobody can make an excuse to pass them and sneak photos. And that's not even getting into before the dinners—they go to the ballet, which Clark finds exceptionally beautiful, or a show Clark's pretty sure has been sold out for weeks; or once, totally unprompted, the aquarium, which should almost certainly be beneath Bruce's standards but somehow isn't. ("See?" he says to Clark halfway through, while they're staring, transfixed, at a stargazer's goofy flat face. "You're far from the weirdest thing on this planet.")
Of course, for all Clark knows, Bruce plans things like that, too—deliberately shows up at places with ten-dollar admission in his gazillion-dollar suits, just because he can. That's the kind of thing Bruce does. And he's still slick, glib, too sharp and too bright and always on, on, on, but he's also—he's funny sometimes, quick and wry when Clark least expects it. He's rude, but only to people like him; he never snaps at servers or valets over a spill or a wait. On the fourth date he sends his salad back over some miniscule complaint so many times Clark starts to get uncomfortable—but the tip he leaves that time must add up to at least half the bill. (He tells Clark to head out to the car before he does it; but tinted windows, the breadth of the restaurant, the candlelit dimness, aren't really a match for Superman's vision. The only thing Clark doesn't know is why Bruce didn't want to do it in front of him.) He ladles on the innuendo, of course, and makes remarks that are just this side of lewd, but it's—it's always just enough for Clark to snort at, never so much that Clark wants to get away.
None of it makes Clark want to get away. Somehow, impossibly, it's—it's wonderful, it works. It's better than Clark could ever have thought to imagine; and sometimes afterward, alone in his apartment, he stares at the ceiling with his tie undone and wonders why that thought makes his throat hurt.
But for all that he's picked up the pace a little, Bruce still doesn't kiss Clark until the sixth date.
Clark begins to think something's up almost right away. Bruce is different from the start, though Clark's not sure how to measure it: a certain intensity to his face, or maybe the way his gaze follows Clark from the second Clark gets into the car with him. He leans back into the limo seat and looks at Clark with dark eyes, the barest hint of amusement slanting the line of his mouth; and now Clark's looking at his mouth, oops.
Clark clears his throat and glances deliberately out the window. "Where to this time?"
"I thought perhaps modern dance," Bruce says, in his smoothest, warmest Wayne voice—and he's doing it on purpose, Clark knows that, which makes it even more annoying that Clark finds himself wanting to lean toward it. Jesus. He absolutely cannot afford to let Bruce Wayne start messing with his head.
"Modern dance," Clark repeats, inane.
Bruce shrugs, an easy shift of the shoulders—the line of the suit obscures it a little, Clark thinks dimly, but of course he knows what they look like anyway, Bruce's shoulders: Batman's been sprayed with acid at least twice, has had to disassemble the body armor around his undersuit, and why is that what Clark's thinking about right now—
"You seemed to enjoy the ballet."
Clark blinks. "Yes, I did." He hesitates, but—but there's no reason not to say it, is there? "That's very thoughtful. I—thank you."
And that, of all things, seems to trip Bruce up, a brief instant of total stillness like a hitch in his step—but then he smiles at Clark smugly and relaxes back into the seat. So maybe it was just Clark's imagination.
"No need to thank me, Clark," Bruce says, and then, voice dipping, "At least not until we're somewhere a little more private."
Typical, Clark thinks sourly, but that doesn't stop the heat rising into his face. "You're terrible," he tells Bruce. It doesn't come out nearly as flat as he wanted it to.
Bruce smiles, and still—still—doesn't look away. "And yet you're still here, in my car, wearing—" and oh, here it comes: Clark tries not to squirm under the scorchingly thorough onceover— "a very, very nice suit. So I must be doing something right."
"Oh my god," Clark mutters, and steadfastly ignores Bruce's melodramatic wince when he sticks a finger into his collar and tugs to loosen it. Somehow it's always really hot in Bruce's cars.
The performance is a reprieve in more ways than one. Bruce is merciful, he doesn't just stare at Clark through the entire thing the way he was in the car; and truthfully, it's absorbing enough that Clark can let everything else fade into the background. He's not even sure what the name of the troupe is, and it's not as though he's any kind of expert, but to his untrained eyes the dancing is spellbinding—wrenching in its intensity, sharp and loud and desperate right up until it all breaks open for an unexpected moment of quiet grace. It pulls him in so completely that he's almost disoriented when the stage empties and the lights come back up.
He sits back in his seat and breathes while people file out around him; and Bruce—
Bruce doesn't rush him. Clark expects him to make a joke, to tell Clark that if he takes any longer they're going to miss their reservation. But Bruce doesn't say anything until Clark finally turns to look at him; and then all he does is smile, just a little, and say, "You liked it."
"Yes," Clark says.
"Good," Bruce says, low, and then abruptly stands, raising an eyebrow and holding out one hand like Clark is a princess he's helping out of a carriage. "But if you take any longer, we're going to miss our reservation."
Of course. Clark grins helplessly at his knees, shakes his head, and then he stands up, too; and he pointedly doesn't take Bruce's hand, but he doesn't shake it off when Bruce settles it at the small of his back, either.
After all, it's not going to hurt anything, Clark reminds himself. Maybe if they're lucky, somebody in the lobby will take a picture.
By the time they reach the restaurant, Bruce is turned up to eleven again. Clark can barely even remember what they get, and it's possible he lets Bruce order for him; it seems like the only thing in his brain is the look in Bruce's eyes when he holds out a mouthful, the way he lets Clark wrap a hand around his on the fork but then doesn't actually yield it.
"Try it," Bruce murmurs, and the tone of his voice fills Clark's gut with something Clark would really, really like to call anxiety. The angle of his mouth turns just a little wicked, and then he adds, "You'll like it. I promise."
Jesus, Clark thinks, sweet hopscotching Jesus, but there's nothing else for it: it seems weird and rude to just—leave the fork hanging there, and Clark's not going to use the strength on Bruce over this. It's just food, Clark tells himself; and he closes his eyes while he ducks down to close his mouth around the tines, but it doesn't matter. He can hardly taste it for picturing the expression on Bruce's face.
And anxiety is definitely not the word for what it does to him to sit back up and open his eyes again only to watch Bruce watch him swallow.
He clears his throat and then drains half his water-glass in one pull.
(It doesn't occur to him for another couple minutes that he never actually told Bruce what he thought of the food. But Bruce doesn't seem to mind.)
The entire dinner passes almost in a haze. They talk about something, Clark's pretty sure, but all his attempts to start a fight are twisted around into banter instead, or else Bruce somehow manages to reply with outrageously ridiculous compliments that only make Clark laugh. And Clark can't concentrate well enough to keep trying, because Bruce keeps—keeps touching him, brushing their hands together when he passes Clark things, wrapping his fingers around Clark's the same way Clark did to him earlier when Clark belatedly offers Bruce a taste of his own meal.
And Clark's not an idiot. He realizes this is the Bruce Wayne Show he's getting, one hundred percent grade A extra-dark. It's just that knowing what it is doesn't stop it from working. There absolutely is a tiny cynical part of Clark's brain wondering how many people Bruce has used this or that line on before, whether he prefers the swoons he usually gets to Clark's snorting—whether Clark would be able to tell if he did. But it's slowly drowned out by the accumulating touches of Bruce's hands, by the almost narcotic intensity of having Bruce Wayne's completely undivided attention, by the heavy simmering feeling of being—not half-hard, quite, but maybe a quarter, right on the edge of getting somewhere, in suit pants Bruce bought for him in the first place.
(Clark had already realized this was starting to get to him in ways he hadn't anticipated. But the sixth date is the first time he understands: when this comes apart, when this ends, it's—it might actually hurt.)
Bruce kindly waits until Clark's swallowed the last of his extremely good glass of wine to say, in the same warm, intent tone he's been using all evening, "I'm going to kiss you by the doors."
To his credit, Clark thinks, he manages not to startle too much. "What?"
"I'm going to kiss you by the doors," Bruce repeats, unapologetic. "In the entryway. We can't put it off very much longer. We haven't been interrupted, you haven't had to leave early—it's a good night for it."
It's like the flip side of the night on the roof: Bruce Wayne's talking, but the words are Batman. Strategy, tactics, planning.
(Clark wishes vaguely that that made more of a difference to his dick, but he's starting to discover that it doesn't.)
"Outside is where we'd kiss if we were putting on a show," Bruce says.
"Oh," Clark mutters, "of course."
"You go and wait for me," Bruce says, still in that same low heated tone; in case anyone's trying to eavesdrop, Clark realizes, close enough to hear that but not the actual words. "I'll take care of the bill and then catch up to you. We'll talk quietly for a second, and then I'll kiss you—close enough to the doors for somebody to catch a partial. That's the best we can do."
It should bother Clark a little, probably, to hear it laid out step-by-step like a sports play. But he's looking at Bruce Wayne and listening to Batman, and it's like the combination, knowing both of them, lets him see what Bruce really means. That's the best we can do—Bruce is trying to find a balance, to make this as painless as possible. Give the media a decent kiss without forcing Clark to fake it really publicly: half-shielded by the restaurant doors, a glimpse instead of a full frontal.
It's kind, is what it is; so when Clark stands up, he lets himself touch Bruce's hand and say, "Thank you," before he walks away.
Batman's plans usually work; this one's no different. Clark waits just inside the restaurant doors—they're wood and glass, enough that he can see the crowd of photographers outside, which means they can also see him. He wonders whether Bruce timed all this, had Alfred call someone to tip them off so they'd be waiting. Probably.
The footsteps that come up behind him then are Bruce's; he wastes a second wondering why he's so sure, whether it's the heartbeat and breathing he's recognizing, or maybe the faint scent of Bruce's cologne, or it's just that he actually has learned what Italian leather and custom soles sound like.
And then he turns around, and Bruce is—Bruce is right there. Bruce is close and stepping closer, lifting one hand to settle his fingertips against Clark's throat, his thumb against the line of Clark's jaw. "This is so trite you should probably slap me," he murmurs, "but you have the most astonishing eyes."
He doesn't even give Clark a chance to reply. He just leans in, and Clark's eyes close before he can stop them.
Bruce starts slow: one brief hot brush, another; and then a firmer press of mouths. It's—they're—they really are kissing, and the thought, the fact of it, makes Clark breathe in sharply—makes him part his lips, in other words, and that's the beginning of the end.
Clark almost wishes, after, that he could tell himself it had done nothing for him and mean it—that knowing Bruce was doing it all for show had ruined it before it began, and allowed the whole thing to leave Clark cold.
But it doesn't. Bruce is good at this, endlessly good: his mouth is hot and his tongue is clever, and the way he uses his teeth, God. And surely he's doing all this on purpose, but the way it feels, the way he starts out so light and sweet and then presses deeper, a sudden desperate plunge like he can't stop himself, before easing back again—
When it's over, all Clark can think is that he wants another. He wants another and another and another, he wants to drag Bruce back and shove him into a wall and—
He opens his eyes, and a flash goes off—not the first, surely, just the first Clark's noticed. (Clark can't stop himself from tracking down the picture later: the photographer caught the two of them just staring at each other, intent, too close, the barest shine of wetness on Clark's lower lip.) Bruce turns and laughs, pushes the restaurant door open and shields his eyes, just barely in time for the flurry of followups, popping white lights strobing across his face; and then he smiles at Clark, smug and sly and Wayne straight through, and leads him toward the car.
The way Clark feels after the sixth date is basically a red flag the size of Superman's cape. (And that's without factoring in the terrible frantic way he jerks himself off five minutes after Bruce drops him off at his apartment, thinking of what could have happened in that restaurant entryway if he hadn't let Bruce step away from him. He tries to remind himself afterward how annoying Bruce is, how much Clark hates that smirky thing he does with his face—but now that thought segues into what it would be like to kiss the expression off him. Which is somewhat less than helpful.)
It doesn't matter that barely anything has happened: the whole point is that it won't keep being barely anything. This is just the beginning. And if "barely anything" is more than Clark can manage without losing his mind, letting it get worse is really not going to help. Clark might even have talked himself into telling Bruce they need to pull the plug, "barely anything" or not, except—
Except it really has made everything else easier. Now that the media knows they can catch him with Bruce in public properly, that this thing is going to keep happening where they can see it, they stop staking out Clark's apartment, and they hardly bother coming around the Planet building. They only tried to catch Clark by himself because they had no idea when they might be able to catch him with Bruce. And the increase in more—um, interesting photos, since he and Bruce started actually going on dates, means fewer people feel the need to whip out a smartphone every time Clark passes them on the street.
So he doesn't tell Bruce they need to stop. When Bruce asks him out to lunch a day later, he agrees; when he arrives, Bruce stands up and smiles, leans in, and Clark closes his eyes and lets Bruce kiss him again: brief, light, fond.
(It's almost worse that way. It's almost harder to remember it's not real. Batman's always so dour, so stern and silent, and Bruce so frustrating—Clark hadn't thought it could possibly be an issue. Clark hadn't known to brace himself against this, hadn't known there would be anything to fight; and now he's starting to think he's already lost.)
He opens his eyes and smiles back at Bruce, helpless, and somewhere nearby a shutter clicks.
It even quiets things down at work. Ron still calls Clark "loverboy" every once in a while, but he's been dating Bruce for almost a month now—there's not a lot more mileage to get out of it. Cat scrutinizes every single one of what feels like three hundred pictures of that first stupid kiss, some of them remarkably high-quality given that they were taken through glass, and to Clark's surprise declares them "pretty classy, Kent, nice going." She glances at him and adds, "Wayne's not really known for that. I think you're a good influence."
It was Bruce's idea, Clark can't say. Bruce set it up that way, he knew what he was doing, he's—he's more thoughtful than you're giving him credit for—
"Thanks," he tells her instead, looking away. "I hope so."
Lois says almost the same thing later, clicking through a gallery of them with Clark trying to look like he's not looking over her shoulder. (He's not sure how well it's working.) "And that was the first time?" she asks, pausing on one.
He should say no. He should tell her it's been ages, that that was just the first one anybody managed to catch. But it was the first time, and he—he wants someone to know it besides him and Bruce. "Yeah," Clark says.
"Wow," she says. "After six dates? I'm starting to feel like I moved a little fast, just laying one on you after you saved my life. Suddenly that seems very bold and direct."
And it isn't—her tone isn't mean or anything, she's just teasing, but Clark finds himself saying, "Well, I wasn't—I didn't make it easy for him." As if Bruce needs defending—but it's true, in a way. Clark had showed up at that ground-breaking, sure, but that's the most he's done to help: Bruce has made all the arrangements, picked all their dates, paid every time. Clark could have grabbed him outside any one of the places they've gone and kissed him first—but he hadn't. He waited for it instead. He's let himself make this into something Bruce is doing to him, as if he isn't equally responsible for getting them into this mess—
"You said no more alien jokes," Lois is saying, "but I promise you, 'space cadet' is what I would call anyone who zoned out on me like—"
"What?" Clark says belatedly.
"Oh, you're back," she says brightly. "I was just telling you—Clark, some of these are actually really sweet. To be honest," she adds confidingly, "I didn't think there'd be any photos of you and Bruce Wayne you could show to your mother. But these three are kind of 'prom date' more than anything—"
She stops there. She must have noticed the look on Clark's face.
"Oh, no. Please tell me you haven't forgotten to tell—"
"Oh my god," Clark says faintly. "My mother."
He runs to Smallville that evening. (There's no point trying to put it off: with the superspeed, he can't claim he doesn't have time to make the trip, or that there's too much traffic. Sometimes having superpowers only makes things harder.) He has no idea what he's going to say, how to explain to Mom—it should be simple, she already knows about Batman, but he can't decide whether it will be harder to tell her he's lying or to lie to her.
The run only gives him about three minutes to think about it, but he takes as long as he can outside—grabs the broom off the porch and halfheartedly sweeps the front walk, and then wipes his feet on the mat about eighteen times. Surely it'll be harder to lie to her, he decides. As if he could, really. She's seen enough of Bruce Wayne, knows what Batman does; she'd never in a million years believe that Clark would—
"You are actually going to come in, right?"
He looks up: Mom's pushed the screen door halfway open and is raising an eyebrow at him, face full of fond mockery.
"That was the plan," he agrees. "Mom, look, I'm really sorry, I just—"
"Oh, Clark," she says, and then—smiles? That seems awfully fast. Normally she'd make him squirm a little more over something like this. Clark moves tentatively to catch the edge of the screen door, and when he's got a hold of it, Mom steps away toward the kitchen, gesturing over her shoulder to him. "It's all right, I understand—Bruce is a very busy man."
"Y—es?" Clark says.
"Which I assume is why you haven't managed to bring him here for dinner yet," Mom fills in, before she plunges her hands back into the sink—she must have just started the washing-up when Clark arrived.
"Honestly, though, I'm glad," Mom says, raising her voice over the running water, the clink of dishes. "Not that I had to learn about it from the television, you understand," she adds, throwing a stern glance at Clark where he's frozen in the doorway. "You could have picked up a phone—but it was always going to be hard for you unless you found somebody who knows, and I know after Lois that list gets short. And Bruce—"
She pauses, shaking her head. (Clark wonders distantly when she'd started calling Bruce Bruce. Maybe she's been practicing since she found out.)
"Oh, I don't know. That man's always seemed so lonely to me."
"Lonely?" Clark says, startled in a whole different way. "Bruce Wayne?"
"I know he knows a lot of people," Mom says easily, as though Bruce Wayne's parties don't attract more people than probably even live in Smallville. "But I'm not sure that means a lot of people know him."
"I guess I hadn't thought about it that way," Clark says slowly. He'd gotten close, in the car that once: thinking how few people understood what Bruce was actually capable of, that he was more than a suit stuffed with dollar bills and a smirk on top. He just hadn't decided what it meant.
And now what is he supposed to say? You might not be wrong, but even if he is lonely, that isn't actually something I can fix? Funnily enough, I'm currently preventing him from finding someone else who could by making him look taken? And he'd been thinking lying to Mom would be hard. He hadn't imagined telling the truth could be harder.
"Mm. Now tell me when you're thinking you'll bring him by—next week?" Mom says. "And get over here and start drying." She fixes him with a narrow stare. "Don't think superspeed will get you out of this, either. You're not leaving this house without giving me a day and time."
And Superman possibly is more of a coward than people give him credit for: "Yes, ma'am," Clark says, ducking his head, and pulls a fresh dishtowel out of the drawer.
They decide on Friday. Travel time isn't a factor, Clark figures; he doesn't have to pretend to use a car around Bruce. But Mom doesn't want any morning meetings or anything hanging over Bruce's head, or any deadlines over Clark's, and that means Friday.
"I'm sure he'd clear his schedule for this anyway," Clark says, trying to guess what Bruce's actual boyfriend might say—and then it occurs to him that maybe Bruce won't. Maybe there's a reason he's been planning all their dates, besides Clark being a terrible fake boyfriend. Keeping this thing alive where the press can see them is hardly a good rationale for going to Clark's mom's house in Smallville for dinner. Really, it's the opposite: if Clark does fly them there, nobody can know they've gone or it'll raise questions.
And Clark finds himself almost hoping Bruce does come up with an excuse. Maybe he'll even make Clark regret asking—look disdainful at the prospect of going to some farm in the middle of nowhere, make some kind of rude joke about Mom's cooking.
Maybe he'll be enough of a jerk to make Clark stop thinking about kissing him again.
But when Clark does ask, Bruce doesn't beg off. Bruce isn't a jerk at all, in fact.
Clark goes to his office again—he could have called, but then he wouldn't have given himself a chance to get photographed outside Bruce's building. It's tactics. Batman would be proud.
And when he finally blurts it out, Bruce looks at him silently for a long second and then says, "It should work, if we take the jet."
"What? Bruce, we don't need the jet—"
Bruce raises an eyebrow and does that annoying thing where he leans back, lacing his hands behind his head, and oh, Clark really wishes that didn't draw Clark's eyes to his shoulders, to the gap of his unbuttoned collar, as irresistibly as it does. "You know that," Bruce says, "and I know that, but Clark Kent's mother's address is a matter of public record. Going to see your mother is a perfectly reasonable move at this stage, and the jet is a perfectly reasonable way to do it.
"I certainly could vanish for an evening and lie about it, to cover up having gone to Kansas with Superman, who I'm already lying about not knowing, to tell an entirely separate lie to your mother. But that's a little much even for me."
Which is fair, Clark supposes. "Fine, okay. We'll—we'll take the jet."
"Excellent," Bruce says, and gives him that Wayne smile. "Please tell your mother I'm looking forward to it."
Clark can't imagine any way in which this won't be a disaster—in fact, he spends the week imagining all the ways it will be. Bruce using his terrible ridiculous lines on Clark in front of Mom; Bruce casually resting a proprietary hand on Clark's knee under the dining room table; Bruce making thoughtless comparisons between Mom's cooking and some—some zillion-dollar steak he'd had in Paris last week, or something, looking around the place Clark still thinks of as home with barely-veiled disgust—
Maybe they can break up after this. That happens sometimes, right, when meeting somebody's parents goes badly? People break up over things like that, don't they? Clark thinks so. (In his extremely limited experience, when you've dated for this long, you break up with someone by dying in front of them—and staying dead long enough for them to mourn you, before you come back from the grave. And that probably only works the once.)
Maybe they can break up after this, and Clark will never have to look at Bruce ever again. That seems like a solid plan.
Bruce's jet only takes about an hour to get to Kansas, because of course Bruce Wayne can outfly any commercial airline. (Superman would still have been faster, though.) Clark can't help being braced for a spectacle, but the car that's waiting for them at the airfield—a private runway? They're not at any airport Clark recognizes—is actually pretty demure, for Bruce.
Bruce drives it himself, too, which is unusual. He doesn't ask Clark for directions, and he doesn't use the GPS, either. But then he probably looked it up beforehand. (He's Batman. He probably looked it up beforehand, decided on three or four alternate routes he could swap to in case they're tailed, and then drove all of them ten times in some kind of Bat-simulator in the Cave.)
Clark is silent for the whole drive, mentally preparing for the worst, and Bruce seems willing to leave him to it. Neither one of them says a word until Bruce brakes to a stop in the driveway and tells Clark, "Go on. I'll get the wine."
Clark hadn't known they'd brought wine. But he does know an escape route when he sees one. "Sure," he says, and makes a break for it.
Meeting Mom at the door is his last chance to fix this, to quit miring himself deeper in deceit and idiocy and Bruce. But he finds himself going in for a hug instead—a good long one, in case Bruce says something awful and Mom never wants to speak to Clark again—and then Mom's ushering him inside and somehow it's already too late.
"And where's Bruce? Don't tell me he couldn't make it—"
"No, no, he's just—"
"I'm right here, Mrs. Kent," Bruce says, catching the screen door with an elbow before it can swing shut behind Clark. He smiles, and it looks—it looks weird, quick and a little uncertain. (It looks—real, even.) "Clark said you were planning on fish, so I brought a white."
He holds the wine out like an offering; and it's probably ridiculously expensive, ridiculously good, but that's not enough to earn it Mom's attention.
"Bruce!" she says instead, warm. "How lovely to see you, it's been so long—"
Call me Martha is the next thing Clark expects to hear, and he's already wincing, wondering how Bruce is going to manage to parry that one—except Mom doesn't say it.
Instead she steps in close, ignoring the wine, and actually hugs Bruce; and Bruce falters, suddenly awkward, even after Clark carefully removes the bottle from his still-outstretched hand.
"I hope you know you don't need to wait for Clark to die again before you come by," Mom adds, wry, when she lets go.
That's right: Bruce had been at Clark's funeral. Obviously Clark hadn't known it at the time, and Mom had tried to tell him about it once—too soon after he'd come back. She hadn't gotten much further than the list of attendees before starting to cry. And Clark had been too busy comforting her to think it through then, but—how could Bruce even have known where to be? He'd saved Mom from Luthor's guys, and he'd told her who he was, and then she must have invited him.
And come by—Mom didn't mean the graveyard when she said that. Bruce had come by before? Here?
Clark clutches the wine bottle and listens to Bruce chuckling, apologizing to Mom for being too busy, and he tries to imagine it: Mom here in the farmhouse alone, all these empty rooms, nothing but bleak silence where Dad and Clark both used to be. And then a knock at the door, Bruce Wayne standing on the step and asking to come in. And Bruce can be considerate when he wants to be, Clark knows that now—he would have worked even harder at it for Mom than he has for Clark, too, because—
Because Bruce knows what it's like to lose a family.
"—give that here, Clark," Mom's saying, "let's open it now so it can breathe," and Clark automatically hands over the bottle, gaze meeting Bruce's over Mom's shoulder.
Bruce is—Bruce looks like he's a half-second away from offering to leave; from asking to, claiming he's forgotten a meeting and making his apologies. And Clark spent the whole trip wishing there were a good way to keep Bruce away from here, but suddenly he can't stand the idea. Suddenly that's the last thing he wants.
"Here," he finds himself saying, "here, let me—give me your jacket," and he steps forward, between Bruce and the door, to find a free hanger in the front closet.
"Come on, come in," Mom adds, taking Bruce by the elbow the moment the suit jacket's off, and now he's definitely not going anywhere.
Clark's surprised by how satisfying that thought is.
Dinner is wonderful. The fish is great—"Not quite as good as what your father used to catch on weekends," Mom says, with a wistful little smile, "but not bad."
And Bruce—there aren't any words for Bruce, Clark thinks, or at least none Clark's used to using. He does put his hand close to Clark's, and shoots Clark a wicked glance when their knees brush once, again, under the tiny dining room table; and then Mom says loudly from the kitchen, "You better not be getting indecent out there!"
"Mom," Clark squawks, and Bruce—Bruce laughs, not a low easy Bruce Wayne chuckle but an almost accidental-sounding snort.
Clark's still uneasy about the prospect of outright lying to Mom—letting her make assumptions and deliberately not correcting them is bad enough. But if Bruce says something blatantly untrue, how can Clark not back him up?
Except he doesn't. It must just be luck, but Mom doesn't ask him anything that would force the issue, and Bruce doesn't push it himself. He doesn't make any lewd remarks, not even milder ones; he doesn't tease or joke or give Clark his usual long heavy-lidded stares. Compared to what Clark is used to, in fact, Bruce barely puts on a show at all.
He's actually kind of—normal. Not that he isn't making an effort: he eats his fish with gusto, compliments everything from the sauce to the silverware, and even lets Mom serve him heaping seconds. "I've learned my lesson," he murmurs to Clark while she's dishing it up. "I skip lunch before I come to your mother's house. She always cooked like—"
He stops short, the smile sliding off his face.
"What?" Clark says.
And Bruce looks at him like—like Clark's not sure what, mouth pressed into a sharp line, eyes dark. "Like you were still there to eat it," he says, low, and then looks away, and his hand's pressed flat to the tabletop so tight his fingertips have gone white.
Mom comes back in, then, so Clark doesn't say anything; but he puts his hand over Bruce's on the table for a moment, even though no one's taking pictures.
Bruce is like that for the rest of the evening: not the grimness so much, but that—that openness stays with him. Bruce has never talked about Clark's death before, at least not where Clark can hear him; he's never stopped smiling on one of their dates, never been less than effortlessly smooth. But he's different here, somehow less opaque—enough to say things he didn't quite mean to say, to let cracks show where Clark hadn't realized he even had any.
Just how many times had he come to see Mom, anyway? Clark knew Mom had learned Bruce's identity, but he hadn't expected her to ask Bruce about Diana, to tease Bruce so easily, to smile at Bruce so fondly. She'd said it was lovely to see Bruce, but Clark's realizing it wasn't just a pleasantry: she'd meant it when she'd said it had been too long. She's—she's missed Bruce, Clark thinks, she cares about him and she's missed him. Clark hadn't even known she liked him.
And Bruce—Bruce has apparently told her all kinds of things. "I had Alfred choose the vintage," he admits, when he pours Mom her third glass; and Mom laughs like she knows who that is, looks at Bruce almost indulgently.
"Of course you did," she says, and pats the back of his hand before he sets the bottle down. "And I've been meaning to ask—did you solve that problem you were having with the grappling hooks?"
Clark feels like he's slid into some kind of alternate universe: his mom is making conversation about the contents of Batman's utility belt.
And, even more oddly—Batman is letting her.
He doesn't get the chance to ask Bruce about it until later. He doesn't want to do it in front of Mom—it would seem weird and confrontational, and if he and Bruce were actually dating, presumably he'd already know this stuff.
But once they're all so full even Bruce has to turn down another serving, Mom sends the two of them out to the back porch while she checks on the cheesecake. "Just to make sure it's cooled enough," she tells them, and then makes little shooing motions with her hands until they go.
"You realize she's probably going to cut that thing into thirds," Clark says, once they're outside; and Bruce makes a face.
"And here I'd hoped she might be merciful," he murmurs, and Clark can't help smiling.
It's a beautiful night, clear, the wide dark sky glimmering with stars and a breeze coming at them across the fields, the grass shushing faintly—at least to Clark's ears. He's not actually sure whether Bruce can hear it.
He sits down on the top step and looks up, and he waits for Bruce to sit, too, before he says, "So you and Mom know each other pretty well."
There's a small pause. But Bruce doesn't sound like he feels cornered when he says dryly, "You were dead for a while. You missed a few things."
"She told me that she'd met you," Clark concedes. "That she knew about you. She didn't say you'd visited that often while I was gone." He risks a glance, and something about the way Bruce looks—gazing off into the distance, face such a perfect picture of serene unconcern—makes him abruptly sure he's on to something. "And then you stopped."
Bruce doesn't say anything.
"When I came back," Clark adds, prodding.
Bruce is still for another moment, two—and then he shoots Clark a little smile. "I wouldn't lie to your mother, Clark." He pauses, and then amends wryly, "At least not about that. I am busy."
"I'm sure you are," Clark agrees. "And I'm sure you were equally busy while I was dead. You just didn't let it stop you then."
And maybe it's too direct; maybe Bruce is full and tired and not actually a robot, despite the impression Batman likes to give; maybe being back in the Kent house is throwing Bruce off more than he'd anticipated. Whatever the reason, Bruce doesn't manage to brush it off. Clark can almost see it happen: Bruce examining his cards, trying to decide which one to play, becoming grimly aware he's out of trumps.
Bruce's jaw goes tight—and that isn't right, that's not what Clark wants. He didn't bring this up because he wanted to make Bruce feel bad about it. "I don't mind if you're friends with my mother," Clark says quietly, and when Bruce's profile still doesn't ease, Clark leans over until their elbows bump. "She likes you—God knows why," Clark adds, and he's glad he did because it makes Bruce snort again, brings his gaze swinging around to Clark's face. "And I know you heard her. She'd love to see you any time you get a chance."
"I'll keep that in mind," Bruce says, and he does his best but can't quite manage to make it sound dismissive.
"Good," Clark says.
He doesn't know why he does it; he doesn't know why it seems like a good idea, like a thing that will be okay. Partly because they're still staring at each other, probably. And they're sitting close enough together for it, too. Bruce's face is half shadow and half starlight, but Clark thinks maybe this is the first time he's seeing it clearly in the ways that count. And it's so easy: all Clark has to do is lean forward and tilt his head a little to catch Bruce's mouth with his own.
The movement presses their near arms together from shoulder to elbow. Bruce doesn't startle so much as he just goes still. It feels strangely close, intimate, Bruce with the railing at his back and Clark in front of him, and all the vast space of the Kansas night around them secondary to the four inches of air between them, to the small almost-sound Bruce makes in his throat when Clark parts his lips—
"Cake's cut—looks like you two are already getting into something sweet, though, hm?"
Clark breaks away with a laugh, groaning, "Mom," helplessly and turning to look: Mom's propped the door open with her hip, and two plates of cheesecake are in her hands. The slices actually look pretty reasonable, Clark thinks, but maybe Mom's trying to be restrained, since Bruce forged his way so bravely through seconds at dinner.
"I didn't ask you over so I could not make fun of you, Clark," she says, shaking her head at him, and then she smiles down at Bruce and holds out the plates.
"Thank you, Mrs. Kent," Bruce says, taking one.
His expression looking back at Mom is so warm Clark might not have noticed anything, except that he turns away from her once he has the cake in his hand and it's gone: the change is so quick, so complete, that Clark double-takes in surprise. The motion must catch Bruce's eye, because he glances up from his cheesecake toward Clark. His face is—it's almost as good as Batman's cowl, Clark thinks, when it goes blank like that. And then he meets Clark's eyes and gives Clark a tiny nod.
For a half-second after Bruce looks away, Clark is completely bewildered. And then he replays that little nod in his head and understanding rolls through him, a sick slow wave of it.
Bruce thinks he heard Mom coming.
And why shouldn't he? Clark could have—Clark should have. Clark should have heard her, and that should have been why he kissed Bruce. There's—there isn't any reason for Clark to have done it otherwise, or at least not any reason Bruce will want to hear. Bruce is just pretending. And Clark's been letting Bruce make all the moves, because so far Bruce has been the best equipped to make them; but Bruce doesn't have superhearing, and that would have made this a perfectly reasonable moment for Clark to step up to the plate.
Bruce thinks he heard Mom coming; and Clark can't even imagine trying to correct him.
The cheesecake is probably really good—Mom's usually is. But Clark finds, after, that he can't really remember how it tasted.
When they're finished with dessert, Mom drags Clark back inside—"To help me wash up, like the loving son you are," she says, and then, chiding, "No, no, don't you dare, you're a guest," when Bruce starts to stand up too. "You sit, it's a lovely night. We'll only be a few minutes."
She has her own plate, and Clark takes Bruce's and follows her in. He feels like he should be talking, like on any other night he would be, but he can't come up with anything to say: it feels like the only thing in his head is the look on Bruce's face before Clark kissed him, the difference after.
Mom takes the plates from him and puts them in the sink. She turns the tap on, and Clark automatically reaches for where she keeps the dish soap, in the cabinet above the sink—but she doesn't get out the sponge. She turns and takes the soap out of his hands, and then she tilts her head and says, "Clark, sweetheart, what in the world are you doing?"
She sets the soap down on the counter, crosses her arms, and raises her eyebrows.
"Wait, you—you know?" Clark says. "I didn't think you'd buy it, but then—"
"Oh, honey," Mom says, "it's not that it's hard to believe. But I know what you look like when you don't want your picture taken. You think I couldn't tell when you started letting them do it on purpose? And God knows Bruce wouldn't take up with you lightly—splashing it all over the papers like this, making a big production out of it." She shakes her head, sighing. "Of course I know."
"But," Clark says, still three or four steps behind, "you wanted Bruce to come over, you—"
"Well, sure I did," Mom agrees. "I haven't seen hide nor hair of that man since you came back, except on the TV. Seemed like my best chance, if I could get him to make it part of one of his Batman plans."
She really did get to know Bruce pretty well, Clark thinks.
"But yes, I know." She stops and looks at him silently for a moment, lips pursed. "Or I thought I did, until I found you two kissing on my back porch."
Clark flinches. He can't help it. And in the split second before he looks away, he sees Mom's face change, a flash of something a little too much like pity for comfort.
"And I know you wouldn't do that just to try to fool me," Mom adds, soft.
Clark stares down at the countertop, frozen; and then he draws in a breath and closes his eyes. He lets himself stall, checking on Bruce with the hearing—but Bruce hasn't moved, is still sitting on the porch steps, and his heartbeat is steady, which Clark's guessing it wouldn't be if he could hear what they were saying. And that's not likely anyway, with the tap running. Which maybe is why Mom turned it on.
"No," he makes himself say. "I didn't—I didn't do it for that." He presses a hand against the countertop and swallows. "I don't know why I did it."
"Clark," Mom says gently, and then nothing else, until Clark opens his eyes again and looks at her.
She's looking right back, of course—fond and a little sad, a little wistful.
"In my experience," she says, "if you're kissing somebody for no reason? It's because you've got the best reason there is."
Clark stares at her. That's not—he isn't— He drags in a breath, much too unsteadily, and looks away from her, shakes his head and forces out about a quarter of a laugh. "No, that's—it's not that, Mom, I swear. I just let myself—I just got carried away. It's not like that."
"I'll help you with the dishes, all right?" Clark interrupts. "And then we really should get going, it's—it's late."
He picks up the detergent again, reaches past Mom to fish around in the sink for the sponge, and still doesn't meet her eyes; he's being rude, he's being so rude, but he doesn't think he can bear to talk about this one single second longer.
And maybe Mom can tell, because she doesn't scold him. She's quiet for a moment, behind him. And then she lays a gentle hand against his shoulderblade and says, "All right—all right."
She heads out into the dining room after, to collect the rest of the dishes they left on the table; Clark has time to close his eyes, to suck in a couple ragged breaths, and still manage a neutral expression once she comes back.
The flight back to Gotham is—it's fine. Clark stares out a window into the dark and tries to think about nothing, and he mostly succeeds. The jet's big enough that he doesn't have to even look at Bruce if he doesn't want to; and Bruce cooperates spectacularly by picking a seat on the opposite end of the plane and immediately pulling a gleaming laptop out from somewhere. Coming from Bruce, the conspicuous inattention is like a neon sign: I AM GIVING YOU SPACE. Possibly with a smaller sign underneath, AND ALSO MYSELF—Bruce thinks he knows what was going on when Clark kissed him on the porch, everything's fine there, but going back to see Mom for the first time since Clark turned up alive still obviously threw him for a loop.
Clark's almost feeling calm by the time they land. In a fragile, glassy kind of way, but he'll take it. And then—
Then they leave the jet, and get into one of Bruce's damn cars.
It's not like the car Bruce drove to Mom's house—it's a limo, and not a stretch, which means the furthest Clark can get from Bruce is a diagonal, opposite seats. Facing each other, in other words; not directly, but it's not like on the plane, Bruce the sound of breathing and an occasional shift of weight but otherwise as good as not there. This is—Bruce is in the corner of Clark's eye no matter where Clark looks. Inescapable.
And it's all too easy for Clark to find himself right back on that porch. It's Gotham streetlights shining on Bruce's face now, not Kansas stars, but somehow Clark doesn't want to touch him any less for it—
God, he needs to get a grip. The porch was good luck, he should be glad Bruce thinks he was just doing his share. He can't rely on something like that happening again, someone turning up just in time to make his stupid impulses look like reasoned decisions. And Bruce—Bruce must've gone along with it because he actually trusts Clark. He trusts Clark, at least a little bit, which means the last thing Clark should be thinking about is exactly how far Bruce might go; how far Clark could get, how much he could get away with, if he—oh, God—if he leaned in first, told Bruce someone was there, and then—
"Stay the night."
Clark jerks in surprise, meets Bruce's eyes, and for a moment it's all twisted up in his head: Bruce isn't—Bruce can't possibly be saying he'll actually sleep with Clark because it somehow might get noticed if he didn't—and if he is then Clark has to say no, has to (please, God, let him say no)—
"It's late," Bruce adds, conversational. "The dinner going well is less interesting than the dinner going badly, and we'd only go our separate ways at this hour if the dinner had gone badly. Besides, all the better for us if you're seen leaving Gotham in the morning now and then."
Clark can't decide whether to feel horrified at himself or just abjectly grateful that Bruce isn't telepathic. "Do you—are you sure?" he says, once his voice starts working.
"Certainly," Bruce says. "One of the guestrooms will be fine, I've ensured that no one can get close enough to the lake house for an interior picture. And my car dropping you off at your apartment tomorrow will do wonders." And then, with a wry little smile, "Don't worry, Clark, your virtue's safe with me."
Which might be reassuring, Clark thinks distantly, except he's not sure he has any left to lose.
That's when Clark gives in.
The car rolls up to the lake house, and they get out. Clark looks at it—through it, and not even with the x-rays; he's never seen a place with so much plate glass—and thinks about being inside: in Bruce's house, Bruce's space, surrounded by Bruce's things, lying somewhere on another floor and helplessly listening to Bruce's heartbeat while he sleeps.
And that's it. He gives in. Bruce is still pretending—and Clark will keep pretending right next to him, for as long as Bruce decides they should spin this thing out, but he's not going to lie to himself. Even if he doesn't let himself name it, this thing he's feeling about Bruce is real, and it's not going to go away in a day or two, a week. It's not something he can scare off by telling himself Bruce is a jerk. And he has to acknowledge it. That's the only way he can keep a rein on it while they're doing this. He'll accept it, he'll get it under control, and whenever Bruce ends things, he'll—he'll walk away; and he'll live with it.
That'll have to be enough.
It's every bit as bad—every bit as good—as Clark had imagined. In a way, the lake house kind of is Bruce: sleek modern design above, glass and chrome and shining hardwood where everyone can see; the stark dim expanse of the Batcave unfolding underneath; and Bruce himself somewhere inside, temporarily inhabiting one or the other, or hidden between.
Alfred's the one who shows Clark to a bedroom he can use. Bruce says goodnight almost the moment they're inside the door, gives Clark a brief easy smile and then vanishes. And Clark doesn't let himself look around or through anything, he can guess Batman wouldn't appreciate that, but it's almost impossible not to keep an ear out.
So Clark thanks Alfred and smiles, and listens to Bruce's steps echoing around a concrete stairwell. Clark washes his face in the gleaming sink, brushes his teeth with the toiletries neatly laid out on the bathroom counter, and listens to Bruce sigh, to the arhythmic clatter and tap of a keyboard.
And then Clark lies down, still dressed, on the bed (the same size as Bruce's? Sheets the same brand—washed with the same detergent—would it smell the same? Except how could it, when this bed's never had Bruce lying in it—) and stares at the ceiling, and listens to Bruce. Tinkering, now, judging by the clank and scrape of metal, the hums and thunks and occasional absent curses; and the thought makes Clark's chest ache with something close to fondness. It's another of those impossible intersections between Bruce Wayne and Batman: picturing Bruce with a wrench in his hand and black grease on his fingers, with his sleeves rolled up, frowning grumpily down into the guts of the Batmobile in the small hours of a Saturday morning.
Just like Bruce with a half-full wineglass, talking to Clark's mother about the tensile strength of Batman's grappling hooks. Bruce Wayne's smile falling off his face at a reminder of Superman's death. Hell, that was how Clark had gotten into this mess in the first place: Batman had needed his help, so Bruce Wayne had asked him to come to a party.
And even now, even seeing where it leads, he knows with a bone-deep resignation that he would still say yes.
Bruce integrates the late nights, Clark's walk-of-shame mornings, into their schedule as readily as he's managed everything else. And Clark—
Clark adjusts. He learns to be comfortable with Alfred calling him "Master Kent" all the time. He pays closer attention, tries to keep things more even: he matches each time Bruce kisses him by kissing Bruce himself later, somewhere equally public. (He figures that's as good a way as any to make sure he's not doing it too often.) Now that they're—going steady, for lack of a better way to say it, Bruce usually sticks to light brushes; but sometimes when Clark kisses him first, he hangs on a little longer, switches to openmouthed without much warning. Clark doesn't ask why. (If he does, maybe Bruce will think he minds—maybe Bruce will stop.)
And he works a little harder. He surprises Bruce at his office now and then with lunch. He can't afford the kind of massive bouquets Bruce keeps landing on his desk at the Planet, but Bruce accepts his bright handfuls of carnations, three irises from Mom's garden, a single rose. (Pink. Clark doesn't even let himself pause in front of the red ones.) With the memory of the aquarium in mind, he's increasingly comfortable asking Bruce to come with him to things like Smallville's town fair; the boardwalk just outside Metropolis's city limits; a drive-in place he finds about a half-hour away that only shows movies old enough to be in black-and-white. And he doesn't startle anymore when Bruce leans in across a restaurant table, or the armrest between their seats during an intermission, and murmurs, "Stay the night."
Half the time what Bruce means by it is "there's League business to discuss", anyway. Clark learns his way around the Batcave, at least the upper levels, and they stay up sometimes discussing tactics, arguing about hypothetical ethical dilemmas. Clark sticks with the same guest bedroom every time, and after a few more nights it's practically Clark's, his clothes in the closet, his socks in the drawers. Just so he doesn't have to go back to his apartment in dirty clothes.
It's easy. Convenient. It solves a lot of problems. And it's never any use offering to leave, even though Clark could be back in his Metropolis apartment with about ten seconds of mild effort.
("I'm infatuated with you," Bruce tells the wall of the Batcave absently, frowning down at a gauntlet, the first time Clark tries. "I wouldn't let you out of bed until morning."
"... Right," Clark says, and then has to clear his throat.)
It's also a huge mistake, of course. Getting used to any of it is a terrible idea. Bruce scowling and distant over a table of blueprints isn't for Clark, doesn't belong to him and never will. Bruce barefoot in the morning, drinking disgustingly black coffee—attentive and smiling over breakfast, lunch, dinner—touching Clark easily, casually (but only when someone else is there, only when a stranger might be looking)—
None of it belongs to him. But he's going to lose it all no matter what he does, and he—he might as well enjoy it while he has it. He might as well be happy, for as long as it will last.
(It isn't that he thinks Bruce is actively uninterested. Clark's not unattractive—Moira, her talk show audience, and about two-thirds of the internet seem to pretty much agree on that—and Bruce has commented on it like it's a fact regularly enough that Clark's almost sure he's not lying about it. He's never reluctant to kiss or be kissed; his heartrate, his breathing, back up the idea that he enjoys it, at least to some degree.
It's just that Clark is—Clark is where he is when it comes to Bruce because he didn't know Bruce before. Not really. He's learned, slowly, that Bruce can be not only smarmy and obnoxious but seductive, charming—thoughtful, kind—uncertain, briefly unguarded, if only on special occasions. He's—he's discovered Bruce, a bit at a time, and the path he followed to do it shows how he got here. But Clark—
Clark's been the same person the whole time. Clark's been no one but himself for as long as Bruce has known him, and Bruce has never really seemed to like that guy much. It's probably a little better by now, granted. They've spent a lot of time together, all these fake dates, and odds are Bruce doesn't dislike Clark anymore.
But if he were going to fall in love, he'd have done it already. There's no secret part of Clark Bruce hasn't found, no hidden thing waiting that will suddenly open Bruce's eyes or cast Clark in a new light for him.
If he were going to fall in love, he'd have done it already; and there's no reason Clark can come up with for why he might do it now.)
Helpfully, the world doesn't put itself on hold for Clark's emotional crises. The League provides him with plenty of distractions.
Not even always supervillainous in nature—they end up helping with a lot of normal disasters, too. Clark's actually in the middle of staring at a display of calla lilies, wondering whether it's been long enough since the last batch of flowers or maybe he should wait a couple more days, when the television in the corner of the store decides for him.
It's so mundane, it's almost worse for it: a traffic accident downtown, except this was the kind of traffic accident that had involved a bus, twelve cars, an eighteen-wheeler, and a truck carrying a tank of something that—of course—really, really needs to not catch on fire. Diana's beaten Clark to the scene; she's smudged with black across the line of her shoulders where she must have been bracing or lifting something, and when he gets there she's prying a crushed car door open with a steady squeal of metal.
"Superman," she says, a moment before the door comes free—she tosses it to him and then reaches carefully for the bleeding woman in the car. "I don't know how long we have—we need to get everyone out of range of the tank truck, in case—"
"On it," Clark says, setting the crushed door aside, and he opens up the hearing as wide as it will go and flies up to x-ray the mess from above.
Batman gets there about a minute later—he must keep a spare Batsuit in his office, Clark thinks, there's no way he got to the Cave and then to Metropolis that fast. "Superman," Bruce says over the comms, and Clark shouldn't be so glad to hear Batman's low rough growl.
There's someone in this car, pinned by the dash—broken ribs, too, Clark can't rush it or he might puncture the guy's lung, but—
"There's still someone screaming in the bus," Clark says, "I can't—"
"Got it," Bruce says, and Clark lets out a breath and bends the front of the car just a little further.
"Sorry," he tells the guy, who's conscious even though he's bleeding from the head, and also probably in a lot of pain. "Almost got you—"
"Hey, no problem," the guy says shallowly—and he's doing great, not screaming or panicking, even though his legs are still trapped. "I'm not dead, I got Superman trying to make sure I stay that way—I'm doing pretty okay for a dude in a car wreck."
Clark huffs a laugh, and then holds the guy still with one hand and finishes bending the dash away with the other. "You're doing fantastic," he tells the guy, and eases him up and out of the passenger side, which is the top of the car right now.
There's two other people trapped in another sedan; and Diana's got the driver of the eighteen-wheeler, but there's four people, pedestrians, who got pinned by the trailer when it tipped over the parked cars at the side of the street. (One of them is already dead. Clark gets him out anyway.)
Clark's just turning to check for anyone else left in the central area, and that's when the tank finally explodes.
That's also when he realizes he doesn't actually know where Bruce is.
He freezes, stupidly, and the explosion hits him like—well, like a slap, at most, because he's Superman. But it's enough to get him moving again. Even he struggles to see through the wall of fire that comes after, but he only has to wait a moment for the worst of it to pass, flames ballooning out from what's left of the truck tank and then dying back.
The force of the blast made the end of the bus skid sideways with a screech, a scraping smash of glass; but behind the crackling fire, the noises of surprise and dismay from everyone further away in the street, Diana's quiet curse in Clark's ear—there's a cough.
Not Bruce, Clark thinks, it sounds wrong, but he scans the bus anyway and there's—there's two people in there, huddled close.
And—"Batman," one of them is saying breathlessly, "Batman, are you—? Oh—oh, god—"
Clark moves, that must be what happens; but it seems to him like the world just blurs around him and then he's there. The front of the bus is furthest away from the tanker, Bruce would have prioritized the rear end—but he'd still have come back for everyone if he could, and he hadn't been able to predict that the explosion would flip a car over the side of the bus—
Clark lifts it off, tears the bus's roof and side apart and peels the roof back, and the teenage girl Bruce has pinned against the lower side of the bus turns her face toward him and gasps, "Superman," before coughing again. "There was—there was a kid, I told him to get the kid first, and then he came back but I, I couldn't—"
"Shh, hey, it's okay," Clark says quickly, because he can see her better now; her face is smeared with grime, tears, and there's spatters of blood around her, a creeping pool of it beneath her arm. This side of the bus got dented in by something before the bus toppled over—the window had broken, caved in, and a bar from the frame has gone through the girl's shoulder. Bruce would have wanted to be careful, moving her—would have wanted to get everybody he could move more easily to safety first, and—
And then he'd come back, and the tank had exploded, and he'd covered her. He'd covered her, of course he had; and that's why there's two jagged pieces of metal sticking out of Bruce's lower back.
Clark can't figure out how to move either Bruce or the girl safely, so he moves the bus instead—he lifts it carefully over the cars around it, flies it past the wider circle of debris that's still burning, and then sets it back down where emergency services can actually get to it.
As it turns out, Bruce didn't actually get properly impaled. The shrapnel didn't go through him, didn't even manage to puncture a kidney. Bruce Wayne is going to get away with a particularly bad bout of flu that may or may not turn into walking pneumonia, depending on how Batman's recovery shakes out.
And Clark learns all this from Alfred, about eighteen hours later. Superman can't just—spend hours in a hospital, or looking over the shoulders of whatever private doctors get rushed in, or whatever setup Bruce has prepared for dealing with something like this. And Clark Kent can't start following Batman around—especially not now that he's publicly dating Bruce Wayne, ironically enough.
He can't—he can't do anything. He leaves, changes back into his civilian clothes, carefully retraces his steps to the flower shop; and he stands there and looks at the calla lilies until the place is about to close.
At least he's got a good excuse to buy them now.
There's no date; no car shows up. But in the end Clark goes to the lake house anyway. He can't stand the idea of spending one more second staring at the ceiling in his apartment, can't even fathom going to work. He needs to know what's happening, or he's going to lose his mind.
He calls in sick—and of course he's never done it before, but thankfully that only makes Perry more willing to assume he really does need the time. He calls Mom, too, before he leaves, and he doesn't even have to tell her anything—the second he says, "It's me," she draws in a sharp breath.
"Oh, Clark," she says, "I saw what happened—is he all right? Is it—"
"I don't know," Clark tells her, and his voice sounds strange even to him. "I don't—"
"All right," she says quickly, "all right. Go on. Just—just let me know if you need anything. Everything will be fine, honey."
And in the end, as always, Mom is right. Bruce has already been moved back to the lake house by the time Clark gets there—"It was difficult," Alfred acknowledges quietly, "but I believe we succeeded in completing the transfer without any breaches of security."
"Good," Clark manages, "that's—that's good," and then he finds himself sitting down abruptly, even though Superman's knees really shouldn't be capable of going weak.
"Indeed," Alfred agrees. He sits down himself and rubs one temple gently; it's the first time Clark can remember seeing him look tired. "And Master Wayne employs excellent private doctors. The staples—"
"—appear to be holding, there's no sign of infection, and Master Wayne is currently sleeping." Alfred pauses for a moment and then adds, "I suspect it will not be obvious; but I am nevertheless certain he will be glad to see you when he wakes, Master Kent."
"Clark," Clark says, because it never works but it'll make Alfred smile.
And it does. "As always, I obey," Alfred murmurs, and then, pointedly, "Master Kent," because sometimes he's nearly as much of a wiseass as Bruce.
So: Clark stays. He doesn't go in the room the doctors have set up for Bruce, not while Bruce is sleeping—he's not sure Bruce would be okay with that once he'd woken up. But he discovers that Alfred's made up the bed in his usual room with fresh sheets. (And Alfred worries about Bruce at least as much as Clark does; he was probably just trying to find small ways to keep himself busy, while the doctors were working. But he still had to have done it before Clark even arrived, like he expected it. And that's—that makes Clark feel uncomfortably obvious, embarrassed and grateful at the same time.)
He and Alfred eat a quiet lunch together, in the sympathetic silence of people who are thinking about the same thing and know it, and know neither one of them has anything new to say about it. Alfred made the food; so Clark uses a hint of superspeed to get to the sink first, and wins himself the right to wash up. Alfred doesn't even protest too hard.
And then, a little while before dinner, Bruce wakes up. And Alfred, like Mom, is always right: if Bruce is glad to see Clark there, it's awfully hard to tell.
"It's not necessary," is the first thing he says to Clark, flat, already pushing himself up a lot faster than Clark thinks he's supposed to.
"Master Wayne," Alfred says, "I believe the doctors intended for you to—"
"This shouldn't have happened at all," Bruce interrupts, switching targets. "The suit I keep at the office needs to be lighter than the patrol suit, I was prepared for that, but I can't be worrying about shrapnel if I'm going to keep—"
"Master Wayne, sir," Alfred says, in a tone of deep patience, "if you think I am going to permit you to so much as look at the workshop today, then you are still so thoroughly drugged that you cannot legally be allowed to operate heavy machinery."
Bruce locks gazes with him. Alfred raises an eyebrow; and after a long moment, Bruce eases back down onto his side with a sharp sigh through his nose.
"And as regards Master Kent's presence," Alfred continues, more quietly, "if he cannot remain here by your invitation, then he will remain by mine. I imagine it will be quite a struggle to prevent you from risking your recovery in a wide and inventive variety of idiotic ways, and I expect I shall greatly appreciate his assistance in winning it."
He bows to Bruce without a visible hint of irony, and then catches Clark's eyes on the way out—Clark gives him a small nod. If Alfred needs an ally in the fight to keep Bruce from popping his staples out, then he's got one.
And Bruce may have given up on arguing with Alfred, but apparently that won't stop him from trying to talk Clark around: "It's not necessary," he says again, once the sound of Alfred's steps has faded.
"Maybe not," Clark says agreeably, and doesn't move, which makes Bruce frown briefly. He doesn't understand, Clark thinks—unlike Bruce, Clark's never needed to convince himself things are necessary before he does them anyway.
(Kissing Bruce on Mom's back porch is proof enough of that.)
"There's no good reason for it," Bruce insists, a little hoarse. "As far as anyone else is concerned, it's a flu, Clark," and the idiot's already started trying to get up again—
"A really, really bad flu," Clark says. "Besides, I'm in love with you."
Bruce's gaze snaps to him; nothing about his face changes, but he stops pushing himself up.
"That's the narrative, remember?" Clark adds, with more confidence than he feels. "I'm in love with you. And I'd—I'd stay, if you were that sick. I'd stick around to look after you, at least until you were feeling better."
Bruce just looks at him silently. And then, eventually, his eyes flick away. "I suppose I'm not exactly in a position to throw you out," he murmurs, dry.
"No, not exactly," and Clark strives to keep his tone conversational instead of smug. "Now lie down, you look awful."
It's not a lie: Bruce does look awful, tired and hollow-eyed, face tense and drawn with pain. He probably is still a little bit drugged, too, which means he'll feel even worse when the painkillers actually finish wearing off. And Clark wouldn't put it past him to refuse to take more, even on medical advice. Just to make this as difficult as possible for everyone.
And maybe it's the drugs or maybe even that much was enough to tire him when he's like this, but either way Bruce does it, and his eyes are already closing. "That's a terrible thing to say," he murmurs, voice Wayne-charming, amused, even though it's started to waver a little. "For the record, Clark: you probably shouldn't say that to anybody you're in love with."
(Bruce is exhausted, injured, drugged; his eyes stay shut, his breathing levels out, and Clark's almost sure he's not faking. It's as safe as it will ever be to tell him softly, "Too late.")
That's about the easiest it is, of course. Once Bruce has improved to the point where he can sit and stand without posing a genuine physical risk to himself, he's a completely abysmal patient. Clark was right: he does hate pain medication. It's his incapacities that bother him, the fact that he's anything less than 100%—Batman never could stand to feel hobbled—but the constant, inescapable pain gives his frustration a vicious edge. He doesn't like needing help, doesn't like to lean on Clark; but sometimes he has to, and every time Clark is there.
(Before the injury, he didn't ever—he didn't really touch Bruce, not while they were in the house. Sometimes he's so glad to get to, now, that he starts to feel guilty. But he tries to imagine what it would be like, him back in Metropolis alone, Bruce struggling around the lake house and snapping at Alfred and hurt; and he can't regret it.
Even if he is enjoying it more than he should.)
It doesn't help that Bruce isn't sleeping properly. Clark discovers this on the fourth night, waking blearily at the sound of what he figures out is Bruce three floors away, trying to catch a tool before it can slide off the workbench next to him and making a small sharp sound when the movement is too much.
He doesn't think Bruce will appreciate being confronted about it, so after a moment's indecision, he lies back down.
But the next time, he wakes right when Bruce first slides out of bed—and it's undeniably embarrassing that he's tuning into Bruce that closely, but he decided he was going to be honest with himself: he's not sorry. Especially not when it means he can cut Bruce off before Bruce gets more than one floor into the Cave.
"You really should try to rest."
And it's a sign of how far down the injury has worn Bruce, Clark thinks, that that startles him. Not much—or Bruce is still good at covering for that kind of thing, even tired and distracted, even at this hour. But his head comes up just a little too fast, his gaze is just a little too sharp, for Clark not to have surprised him.
Plus he's still got an arm wrapped around himself, and a hand pressed to his side where Clark is fully aware the staples start. He almost never lets himself do that around Clark or Alfred.
"I realize you're not going to listen," Clark adds, and holds out one glass of water, keeping the other for himself. "But I feel like somehow Alfred would be able to tell if I had the chance and didn't say it, and he'd judge me for it."
"God forbid," Bruce says solemnly, and takes the glass.
"I get extra bacon in my morning omelet if I tell him what your heartrate is," Clark says. "We have a system and it works for us."
"My own paramour," Bruce murmurs, "an enemy agent," and he shakes his head, expression exaggeratedly betrayed, before he takes a sip.
He's sitting on the floor next to the stairs, back against the wall—for support, and Clark shouldn't draw attention to that unless he wants to annoy Bruce. Besides, if he sits next to Bruce, there's only one thing they'll be looking at. So he sits on the bottom step instead, and waits.
"I'm all right," Bruce says, after a second sip.
Clark waits some more.
"I was—I couldn't get comfortable," Bruce concedes; and it's not as though Batman can't deploy the silent treatment with the best of them, Clark thinks, so Bruce must not mind telling him too much.
"Sure," Clark says aloud. "And you figured exerting yourself until you strained your injuries a little would fix that. Seems reasonable."
Bruce exhales sharply, not quite a laugh. "If someone told you I was a reasonable man, Clark, they were lying." He settles back a little more firmly against the wall, eases his hand away from the staples.
And then, Clark sees with a lurch, he looks up past Clark, and his face turns grim.
But Bruce apparently isn't willing to let himself be distracted, not tonight. "Don't tell me you haven't noticed it," he murmurs, flat.
Clark swallows. Of course he has, it'd be ridiculous to claim otherwise: the stairs down into the Cave are worked around it, everything about the space is oriented toward it. It's the focus and the frontispiece and completely impossible to ignore. And it wouldn't be that way unless Bruce wanted it like that, but it's—it's almost brutal, in a way Clark is starting to think Bruce mostly only is toward himself. His worst mistake, the thing that hurts him most, deliberately and permanently exposed so he can never forget, never move on; so he can keep stringing himself up for it, every time he walks past it. God, it makes Clark sick to think about—but he doesn't have the right to tell Bruce that.
And he's a reporter. He knows who wore that uniform, whose laughter is scrawled across it. He looked it up. He knows what happened.
"I have," Clark admits. "Bruce, you don't have to tell me—"
"You should know," Bruce says. "I shouldn't—you should know."
God. The last thing Clark wants to be is another way for Bruce to punish himself; but he can't figure out how to say that in a way Bruce will listen to, and then it's too late. Bruce is already talking.
"I failed him," Bruce says quietly. "I could have killed the man who killed him before it ever happened. But I chose not to. I chose inaction—I placed my own honor, my private moral code, above the potential cost of that man's future decisions." He pauses, looking away, and then with careful deliberateness sets the glass down; and when his empty hand settles again onto his thigh, it's a fist, white-knuckled. "And then." He pauses again, uncharacteristic, and swallows. "And then you—"
"Bruce," Clark says, because suddenly he's pretty sure he sees where this is going; but Bruce shakes his head and holds out a hand. He's still not looking at Clark.
"Let me," he says. "Just let me—I didn't want to make that mistake again. And the cost of inaction with you felt—" He shakes his head again. "Incalculable."
He stops again, struggling—struggling in a really Bruce way, silently, carefully contained; but Clark can tell anyway, because he knows where to look these days. And he wants to tell Bruce to stop, not to worry about it, to go back upstairs and sleep, except maybe that won't help. Maybe this is something Bruce needs to say.
And if Bruce needs to say it, then the least Clark can do is hear it.
"I didn't realize," Bruce says slowly, "that the cost of action would be, too. I thought I had learned my lesson, that I knew how not to be wrong about this, but I—"
His jaw works; he looks at the wall, drags a breath in and lets it out.
And then he says, "I didn't understand, not until it was too late. You died too. I—no matter what I do, someone dies who shouldn't."
Clark looks down at his own glass and swirls the water around absently. He licks his lip, trying to think what to say, and then finds himself biting it, because—
Because he knows what to say. He knows exactly what to say.
He sets his glass down next to Bruce's, and now he understands why Bruce did it: he doesn't want to break it, and he might if he's still holding it while he talks about this.
"If you'd been there," he starts slowly, "when he died, you'd—you would have done something."
He risks a glance: Bruce has closed his eyes, bowed his head, but that doesn't mean he's not listening. "Yes," Bruce says.
"But you weren't," Clark says carefully. "You were—you regret not having acted earlier, but at the moment he died, there was nothing you could have done to stop it. And you couldn't have done anything about me, either. We wouldn't have won if you hadn't tried to kill me. We needed the kryptonite, nothing else would have worked—"
"Diana could have handled the spear," Bruce says flatly, "I could have handled the spear—"
"You wouldn't have lived through that either," Clark says, shaking his head. "I was—I got impaled, Bruce, Diana wouldn't have survived that and neither would you. And there wasn't time to hand it off anyway. Besides, I'm—I'm fine." And he is. He likes the dark a little less now; he dreams sometimes about looking down, finding a hole in his chest, that sudden understanding of what it means to need to breathe and not be able to. The pain. But Diana or Bruce—odds are they would've been dead, really dead. Clark died, but then he got better. He's fine. There's absolutely nothing he can regret about that, no better way that fight could have ended. He's glad it was him.
But that's not actually the point.
Clark looks at the wall—at the display case, now that it feels like he can, and the joke is on him, isn't it? He squeezes his eyes shut and makes himself say it: "When my father died, I was there."
Bruce is silent. So much so that Clark actually opens up a little to make sure he's still there.
"I was—I was right there. I was watching. And I could have—I'm Superman. There's nothing I can't do, nothing I couldn't have done—" He has to stop and swallow, suck in air, and it sounds more like a gasp than it should.
"Clark," Bruce says, but Clark doesn't want to hear it. He doesn't want to listen to Bruce try to make him feel better about this.
"And he wanted me not to, but I didn't have to listen. I had a choice. I was scared and I didn't know what to do, I didn't want anyone to see me, and I was—I was selfish. I was selfish and I let him die." Clark shakes his head and can't stop himself from pressing the back of one hand against his mouth—just for a second, just to help him get a grip. He doesn't have the right to cry. He waits until he's pretty sure his voice won't crack; but it's still tight, hoarse, when he tells Bruce, "Whatever you did or didn't do for me, for Jason—you would have, if you could. You're a good man, Bruce. And you—you weren't wrong to think I wouldn't be—"
"Clark," Bruce says again, low, much closer than Clark had expected. A hand comes up against the side of Clark's face, warm and solid and strong, and Clark keeps his eyes shut but can't help curling his fingers around Bruce's wrist.
Bruce moves. This time Clark's listening: the legs of Bruce's sweatpants brush each other, Clark's knee, and his bare feet shuffle on the concrete; the angle of his arm changes, too. He sits down beside Clark, close, and pulls—turns Clark's head, and in the end Clark's weak. He can't refuse the invitation, can't not turn his face into Bruce's shoulder.
Clark's not sure how long it lasts. Bruce's hand shifts to the back of his neck at some point, but other than that they don't move. Clark isn't—he's not crying, he can't. He just stays where he is and breathes Bruce's air, listens to his heart, and they sit there together and hold each other up.
Sooner or later, though, his brain starts working again. This is—Bruce is being so kind, so patient with him, especially coming right after he's explained to Bruce that he maybe doesn't deserve that. But this is kind of weird, and Bruce is tired and in pain; Clark shouldn't be making him sit awake on metal stairs at two in the morning, soothing Clark's hurt feelings, when they started out talking about Bruce's bad memories in the first place.
(At least Bruce learned from his. This only goes to show: Clark's exactly as selfish as he ever was.)
So Clark takes a deep breath, and then makes himself pull away a little, blinks his eyes open and clears his throat and says, "Sorry—"
"Don't be," Bruce says, very low. And then—
Then he tips Clark's face up, knuckles gentle under Clark's chin, and kisses him.
It's not—there's nothing strange about it, it's nothing Bruce hasn't done dozens of times already. Clark would probably be better off if he didn't know how Bruce's mouth felt, hadn't measured the exact curve of the lower lip with his tongue a few too many times; unfortunately for him, though, he does and he has, and it's all excruciatingly familiar.
But Clark freezes beneath it anyway, because there is one thing that's different: this time, there's no one looking.
For one extraordinary moment, Bruce stays where he is, and Clark can catalogue it all—the warmth of him, the closeness; the symmetry, the two of them and a set of stairs and a dark sky somewhere over them; the perfect unbroken stillness of the utterly empty Cave around them, no Mom coming out of the kitchen with cake and no flashes snapping through a restaurant door, not one single goddamn shutter clicking anywhere.
And then, before Clark can even get it together enough to touch Bruce back, it's over.
"Bruce," Clark says, wanting to ask him to—to wait, to come back; but Bruce is already standing, turning away to retrieve his glass of water from the floor and then facing Clark again with an easy smile.
"You have nothing to apologize for, Clark," he says, "not to me."
"Thank you," Clark says automatically, wrongfooted. Did he—was that—he hadn't hallucinated or something, had he? He hadn't imagined it, he couldn't have; he wouldn't have, he hasn't let himself go there, because that's a terrible idea when he's staying in Bruce's house.
But Bruce isn't looking at Clark like Clark's someone he kissed just because he wanted to. His face is nothing but friendly, pleasant, as he passes Clark on the bottom step and knocks a hand lightly against Clark's shoulder. "And you win this round," he tells Clark, "I'll go back to bed. Though I can't promise I'll sleep."
"Alfred and I grade on a curve," Clark manages.
Bruce grins at him and then heads on up the stairs, further; and Clark listens to the sound of his feet crossing polished hardwood, lets out a breath, and tries to decide what the hell just happened.
Bruce doesn't make it easy.
It should be simpler somehow, Clark can't help thinking. He'd imagined that Bruce choosing to kiss him like that would be the impossible thing. But it's talking about it that's impossible. What Bruce had done afterward, being so strange and casual—Clark hadn't seen it for what it was, at the time. Clark hadn't known it would be so hard to come back from.
Bruce has been severe, taciturn, as Batman, and obnoxious and excessive as Bruce Wayne; he's turned the charm up, turned it down, flipped the switch between sleazy and stoic. But he's never put this much effort into sheer featurelessness.
He still needs a little help from Clark over the next few days, especially in the evenings when the pain has gotten bad. But even when they're eating dinner right across from each other, even when Clark's got an arm around his back to help him to bed, he manages to somehow not be there. He says all the right things, smiles ruefully when he asks Clark for a hand, doesn't snap or get impatient. He's the least difficult, most congenial version of himself, nothing real in it at all, and Clark has no idea how to get him to cut it out.
And it isn't—Clark can't figure out what he means by it. Even setting the kiss aside, no matter what Bruce had intended by it, he still isn't sure he understands. Remembering what he'd said himself, how he'd let Bruce comfort him, makes him feel sharp-edged and brittle, a little sick. And Bruce had said nearly as much. To Clark, even—if Clark had had to say what he'd said right to Dad's face, he'd be even more of a mess after than he already is.
And Clark is a mess. Bruce has to know that—has to know that it would be okay if he were a mess, too.
But he isn't. He's got a grip. He's in control. He's all right; he's making that about as aggressively clear as he possibly could.
So maybe—as ever—it's just Clark.
And Clark might have kept thinking that, except Bruce starts acting different outside the house, too.
Obviously it takes longer to show. It's not until the end of the second week that the staples get taken out (not at Bruce's own hand with a pair of needlenose pliers, though it's a close thing at one point). And it's only afterwards that Bruce is comfortable enough to start making public appearances at places other than his office. (Much as they frustrated him, Clark figures, and much as he'd rather have acted like he was perfectly fine, he couldn't have risked anyone noticing or taken the chance that he'd tear them open in public. You don't get surgical staples for the flu.)
And once they're going out again, he's as dizzying as ever. Maybe even more so, Clark thinks ruefully. The worst thing about having fallen for Bruce so hard is that seeing Bruce's abrasive, stubborn, self-blaming side hasn't done a damn thing to make him less attractive.
At first he thinks that accounts for it. Bruce isn't actually different; it's just that being out with him now, after that conversation on the stairs, feels different to Clark. Bruce can Wayne as hard as he wants, but he can't wipe that memory away, and even when he's being his most outrageous a small quiet part of Clark is aching for him.
But other than that, everything seems normal at first. Or normal for a date with Bruce, at least. They go to a film premiere, at an enormous gleaming theatre right in the middle of downtown Metropolis—and Bruce Wayne is probably the most famous person there, but there's still an actual honest-to-God red carpet and everything. Bruce spends the movie murmuring sharp dry commentary into Clark's ear until Clark can't stop snickering, and then—
Then Bruce kisses him outside. He doesn't make eye contact beforehand, and it's not the brief warm brush Clark would've been expecting if he'd been expecting anything. He just reaches out—to straighten Clark's shirt, Clark's thinking, or pick off a bit of lint, and so Clark holds still for it. And then what Bruce actually does is thumb the button at the hollow of Clark's throat open, slide his hand inside Clark's collar; Clark sucks in a breath, startled, even as Bruce's hand is still moving, and Bruce catches his half-open mouth and—well. Bruce has never been in the habit of wasting opportunities.
And compared to the worst Bruce Wayne tabloid-level debauchery Clark had been trying not to think about when they'd started all this, it's nothing. But compared to what Bruce has been doing, to the casual distance he's been keeping—the hand he allows to drift up the length of Clark's back is practically pornography.
(Clark's dick certainly seems to think so.)
"Wh—Bruce," Clark says, breathless, when he finally can. But Bruce is already turning away, slipping a bill into the valet's hand with a grin and stepping off the curb toward the car.
"Don't dawdle, Clark, we have places to be," he says, tossing a careless smile over his shoulder, and all the superpowers in the world can't make Clark anything but helpless to follow.
He drags Clark in after dinner, too—Clark mostly just tries to hang on—and then breaks away and says easily, "See you tomorrow."
"I—what?" Clark manages, still reeling.
Bruce smiles at him and leans in, and it's just like that very first night they'd kissed, the gaping mismatch between the low hot tone of Bruce's voice and the actual words he's saying. "I've officially recovered from the flu, Clark. The car will take you back to your apartment," and then, that simply, he's walking away.
That quiet disinvitation from the lake house only makes everything even more disorienting. Not that Bruce is really being unfair—he isn't hurt anymore, and it's his house; Clark can't just keep living in it indefinitely.
But Clark still ends up there half the time, the evenings Bruce deems it appropriate. And that he has to wait for Bruce to ask, that he never knows where he's going to be for the night—and he doesn't even know what to hope for. Bruce's amiable, mirror-bright politeness whenever they're alone together makes Clark feel like an intruder, where two weeks of Bruce only putting up with him because of Alfred somehow hadn't. And it's turning into a slow kind of torture to have Bruce all over him outside and then giving him a friendly smile, moving away, the second they get inside. Compared to that, Clark's own dark, empty apartment is almost a relief.
(Which means Clark probably ought to like the nights he ends up there better than he does.)
He's got as much of Bruce as he's ever had—more, even, with how Bruce keeps kissing him, touching him, settling his hands farther and farther up Clark's thighs when they're next to each other in theaters or booths. But it feels like Bruce is slipping through his fingers somehow anyway, and that's—
That's why Clark lets him.
It turns into some kind of weird awful game of chicken. Which sounds ridiculous, but Clark doesn't know what else to compare it to. Bruce has been the one putting all the distance between them in private, but for some reason he seems to want Clark to be the one to do it in public. He pushes and he presses and his gaze is on Clark every time: watching, gauging, checking for a reaction. Waiting to be shoved away. He's trying to find a line Clark won't let him cross.
Which means it was only ever a matter of time before he learned there aren't any.
(Once Clark's pretty sure they almost fix it—it, this, whatever the hell has gone wrong. Bruce has paused for a second to push Clark up against the side of the car, and Clark kind of wants to apologize to the driver but it's going to have to wait until Bruce lets him have his tongue back.
And then, out of nowhere, without so much as a warning rumble of thunder, it abruptly starts to rain.
Heavy fat drops spatter across their faces, and even Bruce can't keep kissing someone through that—Clark sputters and pulls away, careful not to dent the car's frame when he shifts back, and then he lifts a hand to shield his eyes, squints up into the storm and can't help laughing. Mom had threatened to turn the hose on him and Lana once, after she'd caught them in the hayloft a few too many times; and the sky over Metropolis has certainly gotten an eyeful of him and Bruce lately—
He looks back down at Bruce, still grinning. But for once—for the first time in days—Bruce isn't smiling. He's just sort of staring at Clark; his mouth is red and his eyelashes are sticking together in clumps, and he looks wet and a little cold and—and maybe sort of lost.
Clark feels his own smile slide away too. "Bruce," he says quietly, but even that's too much: Bruce drags in a breath, swallows, and then the smile is back. Not as bad as usual, Clark thinks, but a little too sly in its angles, a little too sure of itself.
"I don't suppose this means you'll let me get you out of those wet clothes," he says, shifting a little closer; and it makes something in Clark's chest feel like it's cracking, weird and sad and hollow, to know with so much certainty that he doesn't mean it. He can't, not when his face looked the way it did two seconds ago.
But saying so isn't in the script. And Bruce wouldn't thank him for ad-libbing.
"I'll consider it," Clark says instead, and lets Bruce open the door for him, and gets in.)
It's the symphony that does it.
Well, no, it's not the symphony—it's Bruce. It's every little thing he does, from helping Clark into the car with way more extended contact than is necessary all the way to guiding Clark toward their seats with a hand much, much lower on Clark's back than he's ever gone before.
But the symphony doesn't help. It's some kind of special event, a nice round anniversary of the founding of Metropolis and Gotham's shared orchestra; the space they're using for the performance is enormous, the seats lush and soft, and they announce right at the beginning that there will be no intermission.
Which means that when Bruce's hand finds Clark's knee, about five seconds after the lights go down, there won't be any escape.
By dint of an effort worthy of Superman, Clark manages to concentrate pretty well for the first movement or so. There's a heavy hot feeling settling into him just at the pressure of Bruce's palm, the relentless awareness that there's only Clark's suit pants between skin and skin—but it's not that bad. He can still keep his eyes open, he can still hear the music, and maybe he swallows a few too many times, but nobody's counting.
And then Bruce shifts a little in his seat, rearranges himself, and when his hand's settled back into place, it's maybe an inch higher. That's when Clark starts to lose his mind.
Something happens, some particularly interesting musical motif, and Bruce leans forward; his hand shifts, fingers brushing across the skin on the inside of Clark's leg, and Jesus, how can any motion that small feel that good? A buildup, a thunderous impressive crescendo, and when it's over Bruce sits back again, satisfied—the jackass, Clark thinks blurrily, because somehow his hand's slid even higher, and "satisfied" is the absolute last word Clark feels able to use. And then Bruce moves again; this time Clark can't stop the breath from rushing out of him audibly, and in the dim faraway corner of his eye, he sees Bruce's head turn.
Crap, Clark thinks—oh, crap, and then Bruce is leaning in, saying in that deep near-Batman murmur, "Ah—enjoying the performance, I see."
"Bruce," Clark whispers, helpless, not daring to do anything but stare straight ahead.
And he swears he can feel Bruce's lip touch the hinge of his jaw—just for a second, barely catching against Clark's skin—when he says, "Only another hour. You can last that long, can't you?" And then, even lower: "I bet you can."
Clark doesn't remember anything else about the music after that. Things happen in front of him, bows sway and drums pound and brasses blare, and the performance is probably excellent; but Clark doesn't see any of it. He shuts his eyes at least three times without meaning to, but even when they're open, he's sightless. There's nothing in the world except for Bruce, Bruce and his stupid hand.
And it's so—he doesn't even touch Clark, not in any way that's actually illegal in public. His palm's slid all the way up Clark's thigh by the time the symphony is over, but all he's doing is stroking his thumb gently back and forth across two square inches on the outside of Clark's leg.
There's nothing indecent about that except the way Clark's shuddering under it.
When the lights come back up, Clark stands as soon as he can get his wobbling legs to cooperate, and is dimly grateful for two things: that he wore a suit jacket that actually fits him instead of one of his old too-short ones, and that he skipped the tie this time. He doesn't need to breathe, but somehow he still can't get enough air.
He hangs on to Bruce's wrist—it's stupid to keep touching Bruce right now, but he honest-to-God might not be able to find his way out of this building otherwise. There's someone in the lobby that Bruce knows; Clark's pretty sure he manages to smile at the right time, to keep his mouth shut and look vaguely interested until they can move away, but he can't be sure.
He can't be sure of anything, except that his hand's around Bruce's wrist and it's not enough.
They have to wait for the car to come around for them. Bruce walks him off to one side of the entryway and then kisses him the way he's starting to get used to: abrupt and hot, delving deep, unfairly easy to melt into. But the knee he angles between Clark's—that's new. Clark can't help but surge against the pressure, as mild as it is; and Bruce makes a rough sharp sound into his mouth and jerks backward.
"Sorry," Clark says, and then grimaces at how breathless he sounds—his face feels like it must be red as a brick, and he's not sure whether he's vibrating with superspeed or just trembling. "Sorry, I didn't mean—I wasn't—"
Bruce is staring at him. A tiny frown furrows his brow, just for a second.
And then he tilts his head, gaze flicking down Clark's chest, lower, and then back up, and—and his eyes go heavy, oh, and he leans in much, much too close, and says softly, "Stay the night, Clark."
Clark feels his eyes go wide and can't help swallowing. "You—really?"
"Really," Bruce murmurs, and slides a hand underneath Clark's jacket, eases it over the small of his back and then lower. "Why not?" and, oh, there's something dangerous about that sharp-edged smile, something Clark needs to be careful of. And there's so many reasons why not that Clark could make a list: Bruce kissed him and hasn't talked to him since, not in any way that means anything; Bruce confided in him and then shoved him away, and Clark still doesn't know why. Clark is in love with Bruce, and Bruce—Bruce maybe thinks Clark is pretty, maybe considers him a friend. (Maybe did—maybe doesn't anymore, after whatever went wrong in the stairwell, and surely this can only make that worse.) But—
But it's Bruce. It's Bruce, and even before Clark opens his mouth, he knows he's not going to say no.
Bruce is on him before the car door's even closed properly. Clark spares half a thought for the driver—her name's Lillian, he's pretty sure, which he only just got out of her last week, and he's going to have so much trouble looking her in the eye next time (if there is a next time; if he ever sees her again, if Bruce ever lets Clark anywhere near him after this)—
And then it's all driven flat out of his head by Bruce. For a second it's like Bruce can't decide what to do first. Which is ridiculous, Batman doesn't do anything without a plan; but Bruce starts shoving at Clark's suit jacket with one hand, pushing it half off his shoulders without even undoing the button first, and catches Clark's face with the other, tilts him up and into a deep breathless kiss. It's harder to keep up than Clark expects it to be—he finds his own hands wandering back again and again to Bruce's face, his throat, the line of his shoulders, instead of staying on task. By the time they've pulled up outside the lake house, Clark's jacket is shoved under a seat somewhere and his shirt's unbuttoned, untucked; he has to hold it closed himself when they get out. He's only managed to wrinkle Bruce's suit, to ruck up his collar.
Well, and apparently suck a startlingly dark bruise into existence just under Bruce's jaw, though he can't quite remember when it happened. But that doesn't really count.
Lillian holds the car door open for them and restrains herself to a tiny smirk, which only widens into a grin when Clark ducks his head and says, "Uh, sorry—sorry about that—" Thankfully, the house itself is dark, silent; Alfred must have already retired for the night.
Beyond that, Clark doesn't have eyes for it—not for any of it, not for the house, not for the path they stumble through it, and barely even for Bruce's bed beyond the first quick impression: wide frame, dark bedcovers—how Bruce will look against them—
"Hang on," Bruce says, catching Clark's waist before Clark can pass him. "Here, let's get this off—"
"You first," Clark tells him, and Bruce looks at him with sudden hot intensity before glancing down at himself and chuckling.
"Fair's fair," he concedes. Clark only has to shrug his shirt off—Bruce has to undo his cufflinks, unbutton his suit jacket, ease it off those Batman shoulders. (Clark has the fleeting thought that he'd honestly be almost as happy to watch Bruce get dressed as get undressed. Sweet Jesus.)
"Bruce," Clark murmurs, reaching for him; but Bruce catches Clark's hand with his own instead of letting Clark touch him, moves Clark's arm out to the side.
"Oh, look at you," he says, low, appreciative—and the way his gaze flicks over Clark is appreciative, too, even with nothing but moonlight to see by. (It does maybe linger, Clark thinks, on—on where there was a hole, once. But there's only unmarked skin there now, a whorl of dark hair, and after a moment Bruce moves on.)
And if it feels a little distant, well, he tugs Clark in right after. The way he drags his tongue along Clark's lip isn't enough to distract from the sensation of him—God—yanking purposefully at Clark's belt, the heel of his hand brushing the head of Clark's cock through cloth once, twice—
Clark makes a helpless noise and clutches at him, and Bruce laughs into Clark's mouth and holds him there, keeps kissing him, while he does the same for himself and skims his own slacks down onehanded. What little he's got on underneath is black and form-fitted in a way that makes Clark's mouth go dry; but he hardly gets a chance to look, to even see.
"Bruce," he says again, breaking away, leaning back a little so Bruce can't immediately pull him back in. Bruce is hard, hard and naked and right in front of him, and even having the light off couldn't stop him from looking, if Bruce would just give him a second—
He'd settle for touching, even; but he only manages one brush of his hand against slick hot skin before—"Hold on, hold on," Bruce says, fingers briefly tight around Clark's wrist. "Now who's being unfair?" Which, yeah, okay, Clark's underwear hasn't gone anywhere.
"Right, sorry," he says, laughing. He actually gasps a little when he pulls the waistband away from his skin—which is embarrassing, but he's been hard a lot longer than Bruce has, and the fabric's gone damp, is sticking to him. It's a relief to get it off.
"There we go," Bruce says approvingly, and kisses him again, deep for the briefest moment before lightening back into a tease. And then he grins and pushes on Clark's shoulder to turn him around, to guide him down onto the bed on his front.
Which isn't a bad way to do this as far as Clark knows, though admittedly he's working off theory more than practice. He's pretty sure it'll work out almost any way as long as everybody's on the same page. But Clark's on a page where he'd rather take a minute to touch Bruce, where he wants to look at him all over. "Bruce—"
"Don't go anywhere," Bruce adds, moving away. It's only for a moment—he's just reaching over to get what's probably a ludicrously expensive tube out of the bedside drawer.
"Wait a second—just let me," Clark says, starting to turn over, but he doesn't get far before Bruce stops him.
"No need," Bruce says, and it's—it's weird somehow, Clark thinks, something off in a way Clark can't quite pinpoint. "You're perfect like this."
"Bruce," Clark tries, shifting his hips again.
"Don't get greedy, Clark," Bruce says, still all strange—his tone is warm, almost amused. But that doesn't match up to the unyielding tension of the hand he's pressed against Clark's back, with the way his heartbeat's thundering in Clark's ears. "I think you'll like this just fine—and we can try it any way you want later."
He says it low and easy, a little wicked, and it's—it's awful. Clark feels a sudden chill, something bitter and raw and unpleasant clawing up through him. It's wrong. It's all wrong, it's—it's Bruce Wayne, last name included; but Clark can't figure out how to say he wants just-Bruce instead, and his throat closes up, aching with the lack of words. And Bruce—Bruce knows who Clark is, he knows who's pinned underneath him. Which means that hard hand on Clark's back isn't a demand. It can't be. He has no hope of actually holding Clark down, if Clark chooses not to go along.
So what Bruce is really doing is asking. And if he's asking, if this is the way he wants it to be—surely Clark can bear it.
It'll probably be all right anyway. Bruce is good at this kind of thing; and so is Bruce Wayne, no doubt. If Clark hates it, then that's for the best. He won't have to talk himself out of doing it again. Besides, it's—
It's the closest Clark's going to get to what he actually wants.
So he swallows and closes his eyes and stays how Bruce has put him: face-down, turned away. Bruce isn't all that careful, getting Clark ready, but then again there's no reason he should be. He can't actually hurt Clark, after all. And it's not right to call it impersonal—how can it be when they're naked together, when so much of their bare skin is touching? Clark's just overstating things. He's tense, a little nervous, starting to exaggerate everything in his own head because of it. It's fine.
(It's just that it feels almost—mechanical, maybe, how Bruce systematically works his way in, the perfect stutterless drive of his hips. Like Bruce isn't enjoying it either. Which is ridiculous, obviously. If Bruce weren't still hard they wouldn't have gotten this far anyway, and Bruce is the one who decided—)
Bruce slows a little, right then. Clark takes the opportunity to push himself up further on his elbows; to suck in a breath, hoping it will ease the low sick feeling in his gut, and Bruce—Bruce maybe hears it? His hand softens a little against Clark's back, at least, and then he moves it suddenly up Clark's spine, the quick sweeping heat of it enough to give Clark a rush of goosebumps. He can't help gasping a little at the sensation, and Bruce slows down even more, smooths his fingers over the arc of Clark's shoulderblade and—
—and stops moving. Stops entirely: he goes perfectly still over Clark, even his breath held, nothing but that drumming heartbeat.
"Clark," Bruce says, sharp, cracking.
Clark goes still himself for a moment, uncertain, and then he shifts a little and Bruce is—Bruce is gone just like that, pulling out completely. Clark hesitates for a second. Bruce has made himself pretty clear, but Clark—Clark has to turn over; how can he figure out what's gone wrong otherwise? And something's definitely changed, because Bruce is helping him now instead of stopping him, clutching at his hip, his arm, looking down at him with an expression Clark doesn't understand.
"I—I'm sorry," Bruce says.
Bruce's voice is so changed, the words so clipped and clumsy, and it's so far from what Clark was expecting to hear that he almost can't understand it. He stares at Bruce uncomprehendingly for a second too long, and Bruce shakes his head in one quick jerk and starts moving away, off the bed—
"No, wait," Clark says quickly, "wait, Bruce—"
"—sorry, I'm—I—I'm so—"
"No, no, it's—it's okay," because it is. Because no matter what part of all this Bruce is trying to apologize for, neither one of them is injured and they're both still here, and anything else can be fixed. Clark reaches out, blurring even to his own eyes, and Bruce can't evade that—Clark catches him by one wrist, the other forearm, and hangs on, and Bruce stops trying to move away. "It's okay, you don't have to—it's okay."
"Clark," Bruce says again, and it comes out weird but not the same kind of weird as before—breathless this time, scraped out.
"It's okay," Clark tells him, more quietly, and this time Bruce listens to him.
He must: that's the only reason he'd yield like he does under Clark's hands. He's looking at Clark, eyes wide and dark and searching—they're face-to-face, now, and that's all Clark wanted anyway.
"It's okay, Bruce, come on," Clark murmurs, barely hearing himself, carefully easing Bruce closer; and Bruce sways in toward Clark like he's falling and kisses him.
In the end, Bruce didn't lie. They do try it the way Clark wants. Bruce hooks his arm around Clark's neck and Clark reaches up and settles his hands against Bruce's back, and they trade long, slow, aching kisses like they're never going to stop, like they have all the time in the world. They kiss for so long Clark's lips start to feel a little tingly, and Bruce's must be sore as anything—his whole mouth's gone red in a way that fills Clark with something hungry, greedy, when he manages to pull away from Bruce long enough to see.
And they've—they've been rolling their hips together, cocks sliding against each other in a slow simmering drag, heat without urgency; but when Clark hauls Bruce back down this time, he does it a little harder. He tugs Bruce in close, slides his tongue eagerly into Bruce's mouth as deep as he can get it—and Bruce jerks against him, makes a soft low sound, and that's what finally makes Clark rock upward in return with purpose.
It's so good it feels like they should be throwing sparks by it, like the room should be lighting up around them. Clark doesn't need to breathe but finds himself breaking away to gasp anyway, clutching at Bruce's shoulders harder than he should, driving helplessly up, closer, closer—
And then suddenly Bruce is shuddering, uncontrolled—clinging with sudden intensity, panting openmouthed against the side of Clark's throat, a desperate noise muffled into Clark's skin, and that's all Clark can stand. He comes in a rush of heat and red light, holding on, curving into Bruce in a helpless cresting wave.
Even once the aftershocks have faded, Bruce only relaxes against him. His face is turned into Clark's shoulder, he's breathing hard, but he doesn't move away. And Clark—
Clark slides a hand into his hair, wraps the other around his wrist, and doesn't let go.
It isn't enough. In the morning, Bruce is gone.
Clark wishes he were surprised.
But he wakes up in Bruce's bed, sunlight pouring in, and even before he blinks his eyes open, he knows perfectly well that there's no one there. He can't even fool himself the way humans do, pretending that maybe Bruce is just downstairs or in the shower; his hearing yields nothing but Alfred, moving easily around the kitchen. (And Clark has stretched it far enough to catch the wind in the trees outside, a few drops of dew scattering from the leaves and falling.)
Bruce is gone. And it would have been more surprising if he hadn't been.
Clark lies there and stares at the wall, watches the light creep across it. It's the weekend, he has nowhere to be—nowhere he wants to be, either, except here; but everything's gone wrong and he can't stay. Everything's gone wrong and he has no idea what to do about it, and he has to leave.
He gets up. His clothes are still everywhere—Bruce must have had to step over them to get out. Clark wonders distantly whether he hesitated at all.
It's hard to imagine he did.
Clark's suit jacket is still somewhere on the floor in the car, probably. But then it's one of the ones Bruce got for him—it's technically Bruce's anyway. He can keep it.
Alfred maybe has supersenses of his own: he doesn't interrupt Clark at any point during the process of dressing, but appears just as Clark's finished rolling up his second sleeve. "Good morning, Master Kent."
He says it so gently there's no way he doesn't know, no way he hasn't figured out exactly what's happened. And that should be desperately embarrassing, but Clark mostly just feels sort of tired.
"Good morning, Alfred," he says automatically, managing half a smile; and Alfred's expression is so kind and sorry that it doesn't feel strange to add, "He's gone, isn't he?"
"Yes," Alfred says, very low.
And Clark knew that already, but it still means something to hear it from someone else, to say it out loud. He draws in a long slow breath, lets it out, and finds himself staring down helplessly at his own bare feet. (Socks—he'd had socks, hadn't he? Where had those managed to end up?)
"Come have breakfast, Master Kent."
"No," Clark says, "no," and he flashes Alfred another little smile and hopes Alfred's kindness will extend to pretending to believe it. God, he should have just run for it—Alfred might not even have noticed the breeze he'd leave by passing, if he'd chosen his route carefully enough. "No, thank you, but I—I'd better go—"
Alfred lets him run out of words, lets the silence stretch for a moment; and then he crosses the space between them in two quick steps and touches Clark's elbow. "Come have breakfast, Master Kent," he says again.
Clark swallows and meets his eyes. "Okay."
Alfred also seems to have sensed that Clark has no interest in anything complex or substantial—the pancakes he serves up look like something Mom might make, except for the picture-perfect round edges. As hard as it is to picture him soberly flipping them in the lake house's terrifyingly clean kitchen.
He eats one himself, even though Clark's pretty sure he must've had breakfast already. It feels almost easy for a few minutes: quiet, not uncomfortable, the sun still shining in wide warm stripes across the floor, the table, their plates. Clark's not all that hungry, but the pancakes still taste good, and there's strawberries too, in a little glass bowl Alfred has positioned so that it's very precisely equidistant between his seat and Clark's.
And then Alfred swallows a bite of pancake and looks up at Clark, for the first time since they sat down, and says, "He is making a mistake."
Clark manages not to choke on half a strawberry. "Oh, I—uh—"
"He is," Alfred repeats, and then adds, contemplative, "I can't say whether he will figure it out. But however Master Wayne chooses to deal with this—or to fail to deal with it, as the case may be—there is something you should know: you will always, always be welcome here. As, indeed, you will always be welcome in any building to which I possess the keys."
His voice is warm and a little droll, and the words startle Clark into half of a laugh, a short quick breath out the nose.
And this is going to be bad, with Bruce. Clark has no doubt about that. But—hey, he's been impaled through the chest, and he's all right.
Maybe he really will survive this.
"Thank you, Alfred," he says.
Alfred smiles. "You're welcome, Master Kent."
"Clark," Clark says softly.
And Alfred looks at him for a long moment and then says, gentle, "Clark." He waits a beat; and then he points his fork at Clark and adds, "Just this once, you understand. Don't start thinking you've won."
"Never, Master Pennyworth," Clark assures him.
Alfred's face speaks of pure, boundless horror. "Oh, sweet Mother of God, never do that again."
Wherever Bruce has gone, whatever it is he's doing, he wouldn't have left like that if he wanted Clark to be there when he came back. So Clark doesn't linger long enough to force Alfred to make him lunch, too.
The weekend's not a loss, at least. He goes back to his apartment, cleans up a little—does errands, because he hadn't really bothered to restock the fridge properly after those weeks at the lake house. He makes a run to Mom's, speeds through a handful of comfortingly familiar old farm chores and then sits on the step with her and drinks a tall cool glass of lemonade. If she notices that he seems off (and it's Mom: she does), she must guess that it has something to do with Bruce, and she's kind to him; she smiles, ruffles his hair, and doesn't ask.
On Monday, he goes into work about an hour and a half earlier than usual. Not because anything's worse, not because there's anything to worry about—just because he can't sleep, and lying awake listening to the clock tick felt silly. He might as well get something done.
There's a few other people there already, because the Planet building is almost never completely empty. But once he reaches his desk, he might as well be alone: there's nothing but the morning fog outside the windows, the tap of keys as he types, and the low distant hum of Metropolis being Metropolis. He does some research he's been putting off, and pulls together a list of contacts to try at a more reasonable hour, plus a good six hundred words based off the notes he took at that press conference with the city chief of police.
It's actually kind of nice. Peaceful. He lifts his head when Cat Grant comes in and finds himself smiling at her for real.
Which lasts right up until she stares back at him and says, "Oh—Clark. I'm so sorry."
She shows him the photos in her office. And it's not—he's not surprised. He understands what Bruce is doing, he's pretty sure. He can look at them with objective eyes. Bruce is leaning in for all of them; is touching both of the dark-haired women a little too much, hands a little too far above the knees to look innocent; doesn't seem to have actually kissed the blond man, but has his hand cupped around the back of his neck, is feeding him a line or telling him a joke with his lips almost touching the guy's ear. Nothing conclusive, and yet still enough to draw conclusions.
It's strategic, Clark thinks. Bruce has made a decision, is sending a message—that's all.
It doesn't really help.
Cat looks up at him after the last one, unusually grave. "You didn't know," she summarizes.
"I—had an inkling," Clark says, quiet.
Because he had, hadn't he? Bruce had been trying to find a line, but maybe Clark had found one instead—had found one and had shoved Bruce full-tilt over it. And this is Bruce telling him: no further. This is Bruce saying that they need to stop.
It's fair to think Bruce should have talked to him about it first—isn't it? Or is Clark just telling himself that because he wants Bruce to have talked to him?
Not that it matters now. It's done.
It's lucky he came in early—the reporters start arriving not too long after Cat, Clark can see them from the window. More of them than there ever were, even right before the first date: the dinner going well is less interesting than the dinner going badly, Clark remembers, and this is the worst things have ever gone.
Everybody in the office is weird. They're all trying to be careful with him. Even Ron looks at him gently, talks quietly around him, like a loud noise might hurt him.
By lunch he's so sick of it he can't stand it anymore, and he escapes up to the roof. That's where Lois finds him.
He hears her coming and braces himself for even more smothering sympathy, but he should have known better. Lois wouldn't. Instead she comes up to him where he's sitting, back against the low wall that runs around the roof's edge, and sits down next to him. "Are you two—is it over?" she asks after a moment.
"I think he's made his opinion pretty clear," Clark says, without looking up, and then, because he can say it when it's Lois, "Please, I—I don't want to talk about it."
"What do you want to do?" she says.
Clark closes his eyes, rubs a hand across his face. He couldn't sleep earlier, but now he feels so tired. "Just sit for a while."
"Okay," she says—as though that's reasonable, as though he's not acting like a kid getting dumped for the first time. He lets himself glance at her, and she catches him at it and smiles, small but real. "Do you have to do it alone?"
"No," he allows; and she puts a hand over his on his knee and stays.
He's not sure how long they sit there, but it must be at least half an hour. Lois doesn't get impatient, doesn't even seem to need to shift position—then again, Clark thinks, they met for the first time in Antarctica. She's probably sat for much longer times in much less comfortable places than the roof of the Planet building.
"Was there somebody to do this for you?" He doesn't realize he's decided to say it out loud until he hears it come out of his mouth, and rushes to clarify, "After I—after what happened."
Lois smiles and pats his hand. "Sure," she says. "Lucy. And your mom." She hesitates, and then adds slowly, "And, well—Bruce, actually."
"He stopped by a few times while I was at the house with your mother." She shrugs a shoulder. "I don't think he ever meant to catch me there, but sometimes we just—went to see her at the same time. I didn't even know he knew you, the first time it happened, but your mom explained everything."
Clark wonders distantly what Mom had come up with.
"And he was really—I don't know. He was really thoughtful. Really kind. Not that he's not being a dick to you today," Lois adds, "because he is. Cat probably showed you that statement he released: 'not answering any questions about my personal life', as if it's ever bothered him before. I totally do have plenty of mean things to say about him right now—"
"No," Clark says, "no, it's—" and he can't tell her everything, he knows that, but surely it's safe enough to say, "It's not what it looks like, with the pictures. He didn't do anything. He's just—he's just telling me what he wants me to do."
"Mmhmm," and Lois's tone is dubious but Clark can't blame her, because it kind of does sound like Clark's just making excuses.
And maybe he is. Bruce wants to stop pretending to date Clark, which is—which is fine, Clark can live with that. But Bruce is thoughtful, sometimes; Bruce can be kind, almost unbearably so. Mom loves him. And Clark—
Clark doesn't want to lose him. Even if Bruce never kisses him, never touches him, ever again—that was never all of it. Clark liked getting to know him, learning how to be around him. And for all he knows, if Bruce gets his way it's only ever going to be Superman and Batman from here on out.
Clark closes his eyes and lets his head drop back into the wall. (A little bit too hard: there's a crunch, and a dusting of concrete bits skitters down his back.)
Lois squeezes his hand. "Well," she says, "I'm repeating myself, but—what do you want to do?"
"I don't know," Clark says, hoarse; and Lois squeezes his hand again and stays silent.
The afternoon passes in long weird dollops, excruciatingly slow until suddenly an hour's gone by, and then another, another. Lois stops by Clark's desk at the end of the day, touches his wrist as he's shrugging his jacket on. "I'd offer to walk out with you," she says, wry, "except I'm guessing that wouldn't really help."
"No," Clark agrees grimly. It's briefly satisfying to imagine, in a really petty way—but he's pretty sure he knows what he'd be saying to Bruce by doing that, and it's not something he actually wants to say.
"Good luck," Lois adds. "Good luck with all of it."
"Thanks," Clark says, and then she goes, and he braces himself to run the gauntlet alone.
Strictly in terms of numbers, he's dealt with more reporters as Superman, but that doesn't make it any easier. (He supposes he could have used the speed, or flown from the roof. But that would have felt a little more like running away than he was comfortable with.)
They move toward the door when they see him coming, and he has to push a bit to make his way through the crowd of them—carefully, of course. He's upset and they're here to get pictures of it, it's frustrating; but they're just doing their jobs, and he can't go tossing people around for that.
"No comment," he says, rote, into the buzz of questions. Cat'll be proud. "No comment—excuse me, thank you; no comment."
"Mr. Kent—! Mr. Kent, have you and Bruce Wayne separated?"
He should just keep saying no comment—or, better yet, he should say yes. That's what Bruce wants, after all; that's why he's done what he's done, and of course he'd follow up with his awful coy Bruce Wayne thing and leave it to Clark to—
To construct the narrative.
Clark draws a slow breath, wondering whether he's really got it in him to pull this off. What Bruce wants him to do is clear as anything—but that doesn't mean Clark has to do it. And it's not that he's trying to trap Bruce, or force him into a corner; but Lois had asked Clark what he wanted, and—
And he wants a lot of things, more than he can list. But at the heart of it all, Clark just wants to talk to Bruce. He just wants to make sure they're all right, or at least might be able to get there, even after everything. And Bruce has accidentally handed him the means to make it happen.
(Make it part of one of his Batman plans—there are worse playbooks to steal from than Mom's, Clark thinks.)
For someone with so many secrets, he's never actually been any good at lying. But he doesn't have to, does he? He can just—tell the truth.
He turns around to face the woman who asked, and shoots her a self-conscious little smile; all he has to do is hold it through a few flashes to make sure it'll get seen. "No," he says, "we haven't," because they haven't—they were never together properly in the first place, were they? So they can't have separated now. "Bruce is only human," also true. "He's made mistakes, but so have I—who hasn't?" and no one could call that a lie. "I'm not going to try to tell you those photos don't bother me. They do," because that's a lie only in the sense that it's a staggering understatement. "But I care about him, and I'm confident that we can work this out like adults." He smiles again, hoping it looks like the smile of someone self-aware, capable, resilient, and gives the reporter a little nod. "Any other questions?"
"—and I'm confident we can work this out like adults," the tiny upside-down Clark on Bruce's tablet screen says; and then Bruce taps with one finger and the video pauses, and Bruce's office is abruptly silent.
Clark does his best not to let it rattle him. He looks Bruce in the eye, unwavering, and raises his eyebrows. "I know what I said, Bruce. I was there."
"You have to see you're only dragging this out," Bruce says, raising an eyebrow right back. "This doesn't have to become a problem, Clark. I realize I should have let you know before I moved forward with the exit strategy, and I apologize for that. But this," and he flicks a finger toward the tablet screen, "is only going to complicate things."
The words are measured; the tone is conversational, matter-of-fact. There's even a hint of humor in it—as though Bruce is being friendly, gently pointing out that Clark's made a misstep, expecting Clark to acknowledge it with a laugh and then ask him for advice.
Not exactly what Clark was hoping for. But they're in the same room, at least. That's something.
"Maybe I don't mind complicated things," Clark tells him.
Bruce has the nerve to look at him incredulously. "There's no advantage to it. The media deals best with simplicity, with dynamics that are easy to follow. Those pictures make me the bad guy, and no one's asking you to forgive me.
"This is the out, Clark," Bruce adds calmly. "Take it."
An out—an excuse. Another one. They've been piling them up, him and Bruce, finding reasons to say things they don't mean, or mean things they don't say; or say things they do mean and then treat them like lies. At the idea of doing it again, Clark feels something almost like anger. But not quite: it's clearer, steadier, and makes it suddenly easy to say, "Who said I wanted one?"
And Bruce—Bruce's eyes narrow. The tiniest of frowns flickers across his face before he shakes his head a little and sighs. Dismissive, mildly frustrated, as if to say he's not sure why Clark's being so difficult about this. "Look," he says carefully. "This can't—this can't possibly be making you happy."
"Wh—of course it's not making me happy," Clark says, bewildered. "I'm pretty sure you're not happy either, and I—that's the last thing I want. If that video really is going to cause you problems, then I'm sorry about that. It's—I—I only ever wanted you to be happy."
The second it leaves his mouth, he realizes what a weirdly revealing thing it is to say and grimaces, his face going hot. But Bruce doesn't mock him for it. Bruce looks at him and says nothing, and his expression isn't saying anything either, every inch of him cool, sharp, and somehow very, very far away.
"And if ending this will do that," Clark adds a little more quietly, "then I will. I just—" He bites his lip. Maybe it's the wrong thing to say, but what can it hurt at this point? "I just wanted to talk to you about it first, I guess." He draws in a breath and then lets it out, feeling suddenly tired again. He did want to talk to Bruce, and—and he has. Bruce didn't have him thrown out of the building; and he isn't pretending not to know why Clark is here; and he's being polite, courteous, which isn't what Clark wants from him but is a place to start. That needs to be good enough. "Sorry. Sorry, I'll go—"
"I was cruel to you," Bruce interrupts, before Clark can even turn. His tone is still casual—but his gaze is hard, uncompromising, his eyes clear. "I know that. I slept with you and then I left, I didn't come back, and I didn't tell you what I was going to do before I did it. I hurt you and I did it on purpose. I don't see what there could be to discuss."
And that, of all things, is what makes Clark pause. Because—because yes, Bruce had done it on purpose. Bruce had done it with purpose, for a purpose. And what could that purpose have been?
"You were making it easier for me," Clark says slowly.
Bruce has already turned his attention back to his desk, his tablet; and he doesn't move, doesn't look at Clark, but he's listening anyway. Clark is certain of it.
"You were—you were making it easier for me. You wanted me to walk away, you—you wanted me to want to walk away." Except that doesn't really make more sense, does it? "You have to know you didn't need to do it that way. If you wanted to end this, you could've just—"
"No," Bruce says.
Bruce still hasn't moved, except to raise his head, and he still isn't looking at Clark, either: he's gazing off somewhere into the middle distance, expression perfect and placid.
But Bruce, Clark reminds himself, is a really good actor.
And then his jaw works, and he swallows, and he does look at Clark; and "placid" isn't the word for his face anymore.
"No," Bruce says again. "I couldn't have."
"Bruce," Clark begins, because that's—that's ridiculous, that's nonsensical. Bruce could have sent Clark away whenever he wanted to. He's talking like Clark's the only one who could have ended things; but he could have broken up with Clark just as easily as Clark could have broken up with him—
And then Clark stops, mouth partway open, as something in his chest flips over almost painfully. As easily as Clark could have broken up with him; except Clark hadn't. Not through any of it—not after the kissing, not after the sex, not any of the dozen times he'd told himself that he really, really should, if only for the sake of his own sanity. Not even after Bruce had been his most unkind, when it should have been the easiest: because—
Because even then, the truth is that leaving Bruce still hadn't been easy at all.
Bruce had given him a dozen reasons to, a hundred, but Clark had had a better reason not to. Clark had had the best reason there is. And he'd—he hadn't ever imagined that Bruce might be in love with him, too, hadn't thought it was possible. But, miraculously, Bruce has as good as said it. I couldn't—coming from him, of all people, who'd gone down to the Batcave workshop with staples in his back, who was a billionaire all day and a superhero all night, who worked and worried and blamed himself and never ever stopped, never let himself fail at anything if he could help it; who was a stubborn, frustrating, uncommunicative dick—and a good man.
Clark startles himself by laughing—himself and Bruce, who looks like he's not sure whether he needs to buzz for security or for an ambulance. "Clark—"
"Bruce," he says, and it comes out disgustingly tender, but he can't bring himself to be embarrassed about it. Bruce is standing with his hands pressed flat against his desk; but they come away easily enough when Clark takes them. They're a little cold, Clark thinks. But he can fix that, if Bruce will let him.
And now Bruce looks like he's thinking about erring on the side of the ambulance.
Clark can't help it: he laughs again, and ducks down to press his forehead briefly against Bruce's knuckles before he looks up at Bruce again and smiles. "Bruce, you realize why we're having this argument, right? I mean, why I'm here at all?"
Bruce stares at him silently, eyes narrowing.
"You did make it easy," Clark tells him, feeling merciful, "as easy as you could. You gave me the out, because you couldn't make yourself take it. But look at me, Bruce. Look where I am." And surely, surely if he puts it in Bruce's own terms, Bruce can't fail to understand him. So he looks down at their joined hands and then, careful, explains: "I couldn't make myself take it either."
It doesn't sound like it should be enough. But Clark knows what he's saying—and so does Bruce. He must, because he sucks in a sharp breath; which might have been too quiet for anyone but Clark to catch, but Clark's there and he catches it. And then—then he can hear Bruce's heart start pounding, too.
"Clark," Bruce says. His voice has gone flat and he's looking away, withdrawing in the half-dozen small ways he's able to control.
Except he doesn't try to pull his hands back.
"Bruce," Clark says, and doesn't let go either. "I want to stay with you. For real."
And that makes Bruce look at him again. Bruce's expression has gone back to empty, wiped clean; but his gaze is flicking back and forth across Clark's face. Looking for something, something he wants to find there, even if it's despite himself. That's all Clark needs to see.
"This is a bad idea," Bruce says, very low.
"Maybe," Clark agrees, but he can't stop himself from smiling. "I want to stay with you anyway."
And Bruce swallows, and tightens his hands in Clark's, and then something new ripples across his face: something a little like anger and a little like longing, and maybe a little like hope. After a moment he does shake one hand loose, but only so he can lean over and wrap it around the nape of Clark's neck. And then he tugs Clark forward across the desk and into a kiss—a kiss, Clark thinks dazedly, that absolutely nobody is watching.