Time moves strangely when you've been dead.
It's not just in the parts that Clark missed—the way the seasons have turned without him, cold winds and dark evenings transmuted to a late golden summer overnight. Not just in the sheer volume of media surrounding the Doomsday catastrophe, miles of column inches and none of them written by him. Or the way his ma's hair has a few more grays, how her face is a little more lined, and knowing his absence is what put them there.
It's in the parts that are happening now, as well. He's recuperating steadily, now that the initial shock of his revival is wearing off. His body's slowed regeneration is laboriously repairing the gnarls of scar tissue over his heart, but it's taking months where once it would have been minutes. Sometimes, when he's restless and can't sleep, he thinks he can still feel the faintest pull of scarring on his cheek.
(There's scarring elsewhere now, too, fresh and tender. Lois' voice over a long-distance line, sobs blown out to static even as she apologizes in that firm way she has. She couldn't stand still, she says, and Clark can only tell her that he understands, that he's glad she kept going and repaired her heart, and paced out the borders of a new life. She wouldn't be his Lois if she hadn't.)
The days are endless and unremarkable when they aren't crushingly morose; often they slide into each other, one sun-dappled evening after the next, a vaguely nostalgic mundane life. His days are spent helping out on the farm, and the nights spent gradually depleting a stack of newspapers. He's catching up with the world slowly, but it doesn't feel like the world is catching up with him.
Except whenever Bruce Wayne comes to visit: a somber figure cut dark against the endless blue of the Kansas sky. To see that Clark's keeping okay, he says, but Clark can read between those lines well enough. Bruce talks about what's happening in Gotham and Metropolis and sometimes shares a few of his case notes. Ostensibly so that Clark can fill in some of the less obvious blanks that the newspapers leave, but Clark knows it's part olive branch, part lure. Bruce is giving him a glimpse into the comprehensive, systematic, exhaustive and exhausting gravity well of his life.
It's difficult to reconcile the Bat's ruthless methodology with the man he first encountered in full socialite swing. It must take a lot of self-control to appear to have so little, and it makes Clark's head hurt at first.
Sometimes Bruce talks about the new heroes. They were drawn out in the wake of Superman's death like moths to a funeral pyre. He doesn't say it outright, but Bruce wants Clark to join them. Clark can sense his frustration—and he understands it, understands that he is trying to assemble a team that remains resolutely incomplete while Clark is held here in this melancholy, also incomplete.
Clark is frustrated, too.
Today, Bruce agrees to have dinner with them. He calls his ma Mrs. Kent, again, and Ma tells him to call her Martha, again. Clark has to take her aside and gently ask her to stop, because he's learned that Bruce has several degrees of unreadable and the one that blanks his face so utterly is by far the worst.
"When are you going to come back?" Bruce eventually asks, ankle crossed over one knee, fresh-mown grass clinging to the hem of his pants. The late evening breeze rustles the fields of young corn, susurration winding its way back to where they sit on the porch.
Clark rolls his empty lemonade glass between his palms. The ice clinks delicately. "Seems kind of pointless while I'm still essentially normal."
"So you're just going to mope around here forever?" Bruce takes a sip of his coffee and then looks up at the darkening sky, at the emerging firmament of stars. His profile is cast in the warm light spilling out from the kitchen window.
Clark is beginning to anticipate Bruce's brand of baiting, but even if he can see it, that doesn't mean he can help himself. "I'm not moping," he says, "I'm introspecting."
Bruce's mouth quirks into a half-smile, face still turned skyward. "You know there's more you could be doing."
"Are you telling me to get a job?" He might be joking, but the uncertainty of his future keeps threatening to hit home. All of his documents belong to a dead man, and he's not sure what to do about that yet. It is kind of alienating.
"I'm not telling you to do anything. I just want to keep you on point. I think you need to learn to protect yourself."
"I don't think that's necessary." Clark crunches an ice cube between his teeth. "When I'm back, I mean, I'm back."
Bruce's smile has vanished. He places his coffee mug down abruptly. "And next time? What then?"
"It won't happen again."
"Clark." Bruce gets to his feet, the old wooden bench complaining as his weight shifts. He stands in front of Clark, arms folded. "It'll happen again."
Clark heart thumps, hard. He takes a deep breath through his nose and feels the tight pull of healing muscle in his chest.
"There's more kryptonite out there. When the Superman returns, there's going to be an all-star battle royale in the criminal underworld. Every megalomaniacal freak will want a piece of it so they can get a piece of you. And some of them will manage. They'll weaponize it and won't hesitate to use it against you, and when that happens I will not have you flailing around like an idiot."
Bruce unfolds his arms and gestures for Clark to get up with upturned palms. "Like an idiot. You're all brute force, no technique."
Clark grins ruefully at him, shaking his head. Being strong is one thing, that's just how he is. Learning to genuinely fight is something else entirely. He doesn't want to be a weapon, and he doesn't know how to explain that to someone like Bruce.
He stands anyway. Bruce drops his hands to his sides, looking all the world like a harmless civilian in an expensive suit. "Do your best, Clark," he says.
Clark sighs, rolls his shoulders, takes a half-hearted swing and greets the decking with his face for his troubles. Bruce is as fast as he is uncompromising. The blunt pressure of his knee presses into the middle of Clark's spine, his hand wide on the nape of his neck. The other pins one of Clark's wrist to the boards. His arm is trapped under him, squashed between his chest and the deck. A resurging memory of Bruce's armored weight threatens him into stillness.
"It's not just about you," Bruce says in his ear, voice low and even. Clark doesn't need to be able to hear his heartbeat to know it hasn't accelerated even a fraction. "You need to consider your team. I need to trust that you can have my back in any scenario, even when things have gone to hell and it's down to the wire."
"So, what you're saying is—ow." Clark's voice is hoarse. His lungs feel crushed, burning as though full of gas. An unpleasant shiver crawls its way down his spine. "I'm basically a liability waiting to happen."
"Pretty much." The porch creaks, and the weight on Clark's back eases off; his ribs and chest ache with the sudden relief. Bruce dusts off his knees, then offers Clark a hand up. "But I can change that. Think about it, please."
Clark accepts, and if Bruce notices his hands are shaking, he is grateful that he doesn't mention it—though Bruce doesn't release him right away, even when he's back on his feet. Instead, he clasps his other hand over Clark's, like a handshake. Steadying. Clark discovers that he was wrong about his heart rate, but only a little.
The kitchen window cracks open and Bruce lets his hand drop, as casual as you like. Ma leans out, her sleeves rolled up over her elbows and flour on her cheek. "There's pie on the table, if you boys are done tussling."
"He's a nice man," his ma says later on that evening. Bruce has taken his leave and the night is still, just the comforting groan of the house settling, the hum of the AC and the slosh and rattle of plates in the sink. She passes Clark another dish to dry. "Has a way about him."
Clark thinks about that, shuffles his preconceptions about Bruce in with what he's come to know over the past few months, and tries to be diplomatic. "He's trying to be a good man, I think," he says, stacking the plate. "But I'm not sure I'd call him nice."
"Clark," his ma says, not without reproach.
He plucks the last dish from her hands and dries it vigorously. Bruce spent some time here while he was gone, he knows that much. Clark assumes it was some kind of atonement. He hopes that his ma doesn't wonder at it, nor feel indebted by it. (He ignores the inexplicable envy that, technically, his mother has known Bruce longer than he has.)
"Well, I like him," she says firmly, drying off a handful of cutlery. "And I think maybe you should listen to him, sweetheart."
"Mom," Clark says. "Were you eavesdropping?"
"Oh, I was just wondering what the all the kerfuffle was." She hitches the dish towel over her shoulder so she can stroke Clark's hair with both hands, the sides of his face. "But, you know, a change of scenery might be a good thing. Maybe stop spending so much time up here, don't you think?" She taps him on the forehead.
"Bruce talked you into this, didn't he?"
She smiles gently, cups his face in her hands and stands on her toes. He leans so she can plant a kiss on his forehead. "I love you, Clark. And after everything that's happened, I'm the luckiest mother on this planet to have you standing in my kitchen again. But that doesn't mean I get to keep you here. This isn't all of who you are."
Clark smiles at her and folds her into a hug, his eyes closed. Everything is safe and familiar, and Clark's heart aches with it.
"I know you want to help." She squeezes him tightly. "So go and help, Clark."
The next time Bruce Wayne pays a visit, Clark has a duffel packed.
Bruce has a private jet chartered from a local airfield. Clark's used to flying, but usually either of his own volition or bundled into coach for work. The interior of the jet is something else, almost appallingly luxurious, all plush leather upholstery and more legroom than he'll ever need. There's even a minibar.
Bruce doesn't say much, just settles into the seat adjacent, checks his watch and fishes a pair of headphones out of his pocket. He looks tired. Lines of tension around his mouth and shadows under his eyes almost dark enough to be bruises. "Flight's about three hours," he says. "Hope you brought a book."
"Didn't you have some sort of hi-tech stealth plane thing?" Clark asks. "Isn't that faster?"
Bruce shakes at the cables, untangling them. "It is, considerably. Kind of conspicuous for Smallville, though. I wouldn't want to leave crop circles." He thumbs a headphone into one ear. "Besides, I don't like to push my luck with the FAA. It's a bit inconvenient, but a flight's good for catching up on a little research."
By 'catching up on research', he apparently means 'sleeping', seat reclined and eyes closed as he listens to his player. Clark gets snatches of a voice over the resonant hum of the airplane engines, tinny intonations in a language he can't even identify, much less understand.
Clark's book sits in his lap, unread. He tries to drift for a while, but instead finds himself studying Bruce's hand, at rest on this thigh. His fingernails are tidy but his knuckles are livid with old bruising, and there's a lacework of scars on the few inches of forearm below his loosened shirtcuff. Clark wonders how much worse it would look under his enhanced vision, whether his bones are a mess of fused breaks and fractures.
"Stop staring," Bruce says without even opening his eyes, the weary rasp of his voice rolling into the plane's ambient vibrations.
It's dark when they begin the approach into Archie Goodwin International, Gotham spread out below them like a tar pit. There's a car waiting for them outside, along with a straight-backed man who looks just as tired as Bruce does.
"Welcome back, Master Bruce," the man says crisply, popping open the trunk to stow Bruce's case.
"Alfred," Bruce says, warmth bleeding into his weariness. He gestures at Clark. "Clark Kent."
Alfred nods to Clark and then holds out his hand. Clark realizes a moment into the handshake that he was probably indicating for Clark to pass his duffel. He seems more pleased than taken aback, though, and Clark finds that he can't be embarrassed about it.
"And welcome home to you, too, Mr. Kent," Alfred says.
Alfred and Bruce have a murmured conversation as they drive, the rhythm of it drifting into the back seat of the car. From what Clark can hear, they're discussing a case, going over leads. It might be those cryptic snatches of words or the traveling or the time of night, but everything feels a little surreal. It's gone midnight when they finally arrive at Bruce's home, via an unlit road banked by fields and forest, past the looming husk of Wayne Manor.
Apparently, Bruce lives in a glass and steel monstrosity that is as contemporary as Clark's farmhouse is traditional. The expanse of polished floor, the sparsity of the decor, and the darkness pressing against the huge windows make Clark feel utterly exposed, and he wonders how Bruce can tolerate it.
"Living room, kitchen," Bruce says, gesturing as he sheds his suit jacket. "Bathroom's en suite. Help yourself to whatever you find. If there's anything in particular you need, Alfred can pick it up for you."
The bedroom at least is more private than the rest of the house, though no less pitiless in its modernity. Bruce snaps on a lamp and dumps Clark's bag on top of the comforter. Something's off about this, and it takes a second for Clark's tired brain to catch on. There's a half-empty glass of water on the nightstand, a can of deodorant. A bottle of medication.
"This is your room."
Bruce pauses, then sets about loosening his tie. "The sheets are fresh this morning," he says, as though that's the problem.
"Uh." Clark clears his throat. "I could take a guest room?"
Bruce raises an eyebrow at him. "My guest quarters are in the middle of an extensive renovation." He whips his tie the rest of the way off and turns to leave.
"Bruce," Clark says helplessly. He knew that the situation here was likely to get intense and probably a little weird, but he's only been here five minutes and this is already way beyond what he was expecting. Neither of them have even thrown a punch yet. He desperately hopes he doesn't look as uncomfortable as he feels. "Where will you sleep?"
"Don't worry about it," Bruce tells him, then smiles, suddenly wolfish. "I usually have business that needs attending."
Ultimately it feels like far too intimate a transgression to sleep in Bruce's bed, even if it seems like he barely sleeps in it himself, so Clark drags a blanket through and settles on the couch in front of the baffling excuse for a fireplace, closing his eyes against the blank windows that reflect like mirrors. It occurs to him that this might be some elaborate head game on Bruce's part, but if so, he can't discern the purpose of it. Trust building, or boundary testing? Is this the expected response? Or is he just overthinking things?
It feels like he'll never sleep with the way his mind keeps picking it over, but he must have drifted off because he's awakened by the sound of deliberately heavy footsteps. He senses a figure leaning over him in the faint pre-dawn.
"I know my hospitality falls a little short of Smallville standards," Bruce says, a dry amusement riding along with the usual gruffness, "but you could try to be a more gracious guest. Time to get up."
Clark rubs at his eyes, then blearily fumbles at his wrist to check the time. "It's four-thirty in the morning," he says.
"It's five-thirty," Bruce says. "You forgot to adjust your watch. Aren't you used to being up at the crack of dawn, farmboy?"
Clark grumbles noncommittally.
"Ten minutes, then meet me downstairs."
"... there's a downstairs?"
There is, in fact, more downstairs than there is up. Bruce slides away a veneered panel in the bedroom and taps a sequence into a digital pad, and what Clark thought was an integrated wardrobe folds aside to reveal a utilitarian stairwell, complete with industrial-grade steel-tread staircase. A series of striplights flicker on, spilling their hard light into the bedroom.
It illuminates Bruce, standing there in full Bat regalia, sans cowl. It's one hell of a juxtaposition: Bruce Wayne's face above all that form-fitting armor, no trim three-piece suit to disguise the cut of his physique. It almost makes it harder to accept as reality. Clark feels like he needs to touch the edge of the uniform where it contacts Bruce's neck and bridge the two identities with his fingertips.
(It makes it easier to accept that this is no longer the hulking monster that tried to end him in the rain.)
He stops that train of thought as soon as he realizes it, stuffs both of his hands into his sweatpants pockets and covers by adopting an impressed expression—easily done, because he is kind of impressed, actually. "Very James Bond," he says. "Very Batman."
Bruce casts him a lukewarm glance. Clark parries with the sunniest smile he can muster this side of dawn.
He's led down, then along a cavernous tunnel constructed from blocks of reinforced concrete, steel grating underfoot, all meticulously fabricated and borderline sterile until it dramatically cleaves into natural rock outcroppings. Bruce strides on ahead while Clark stops to stare up at the cavernous space, into the dark pockets that the utilitarian uplighting can't quite chase away.
"Wow," he says, turning on the spot, squinting into the shadows. The dark is when he misses his enhanced eyesight the most; he can make out something indistinct fluttering in the gloom, but only barely. He takes a wild, wild guess at what it might be. "Are there actually bats up there?"
Bruce's footfalls scuff to a halt. "It's possible," he says after a moment.
"Wow," Clark says again under his breath, and picks up again at Bruce's impatient jerk of his head.
The rest of Bruce's lair has the same aesthetic, all glass-clad hard surfaces and severe angles that cling to the irregular undulation of the cave walls, cantilevered steel beams supported by the bedrock. There's some kind of workshop up in the mezzanine, but apparently that's not part of the tour—and nor is the graffitied uniform entombed in glass at the foot of the stairs. Bruce must have to walk past it every time he comes down here, grief like a millstone around his neck, too heavy to carry, too huge to leave behind.
Clark wonders where the kryptonite spear is.
They pass the Batmobile—battered and smeared with salty residue; when Clark flattens his palm on the hood, the metal is still warm—and Alfred, in a pair of grimy overalls, paging through screenfuls of diagnostics.
"I see you didn't manage to keep out of the bay this time," he says to Bruce.
"Not through lack of trying."
"I find that very hard to believe, sir." He swipes across his tablet screen. "I'm sending this to your desktop so you can read it later and think about what you've done."
"Thanks, Alfred," Bruce says with easy sincerity. "What would I do without you?"
"A great deal more vehicle maintenance, for a start."
Clark remembers now: the voice in Bruce's ear at Luthor's gala. He and Alfred are a team—one that's long been established, that much is obvious—and now Clark is going to be part of a team as well. He's blindsided by how keenly he wants it. The idea has tapped into a wellspring of longing he didn't realize was there.
He wants to know Bruce like that, he thinks, watching him animated in conversation. He wants that kind of trust, and to be allowed a measure of his burden.
This bit of cave is apparently a gym, if the mats on the floor, the racks of weights and the punchbag are anything to go by. The sledgehammer and the tractor tire are more of a mystery, but Clark doesn't want to ask.
He stands in the center of the cavern, shoulders back, chin up. Bruce paces around him, looking him over like he's a prize mule at the state fair. Not for the first time, Clark wonders why his life persists in being quite so weird.
"You have good posture." Bruce unclips his cape as he circles, letting it crumple onto the floor. It drops like there are lead weights stitched into the hem. Clark wouldn't be surprised if that's actually the case. "And you're in excellent physical shape."
"Thank you," Clark says, erring on the side of flattered.
"But you didn't work for it. Did you." It is unequivocally not a question. "You didn't sweat."
"I," Clark says. There's no reason why he should feel abashed by this. He slightly resents the criticism. "I didn't have to."
"Hm. This is going to be a challenge." Bruce stops his pacing and brings himself into Clark's personal space. Clark hadn't really noticed that Bruce is a touch taller than him, but he's feeling it now.
"I didn't think it would be easy." Clark offers him a lopsided grin and a quirked eyebrow. "So, when do we stop the macho posturing and get down to business?"
Bruce smiles back at him and claps both his hands on Clark's shoulders in something that reads as camaraderie. That lasts approximately two seconds before Bruce presses his hip against Clark's, twists, and through some bullshit manipulation of physics, puts him flat on his back. It drives the air out of him like he's been slugged in the gut.
Bruce gets down on one knee, his arm slung casually across his thigh. "I'm not just going to teach you how to win a fight, Clark. I have to teach you how to survive when you lose one. How to take a hit, how to fall. You need discipline and you need fearlessness. Never being afraid isn't the same as being brave."
"That sounds familiar." Clark sits up, runs a hand through his hair. Maybe not the best time to poke at this sore spot, but his feelings are as human as the next guy's. "What was it… 'you're not brave, men are brave'?"
Clark expects Bruce to go blank or hard-eyed, but instead there is the barest flinch. He gives his head a small shake. "Not my finest moment."
Clark sees the guilt shadowing his face and realizes he has no use for it. "Apology accepted," he says gently, getting to his feet and offering Bruce a hand up—not that he needs it. Clark is gratified that he accepts anyway.
Then he tries catching Bruce's calf with his own, attempting to pivot the man's weight on his hip and—Bruce turns in his hold, slams him back down onto the mat and immediately pins him with a straddle, pressing his wrists to the floor either side of his head.
"Amateur," Bruce growls, thighs tense against Clark's flanks. Clark can feel his own pulse where Bruce's grip is tight on his wrists.
"Well," Clark says, a little breathless, trying not to laugh with it.
"Getting ahead of yourself. Points for trying, though."
Apparently, amateurs like Clark have to start at the very beginning, which doesn't involve much beyond repeatedly throwing himself onto the gym mat. Bruce demonstrates a series of rolls for him, dropping down and the gliding back to his feet effortlessly, every motion a fluid extension of the last. He makes it look incredibly easy.
Clark discovers pretty quickly that it is not. In fact, it's more hard work than falling over has any right to be.
"It's called ukemi," Bruce informs him, patiently guiding Clark on how to turn out correctly: when to land on his back or shoulder; when to break his fall with his hands; how to roll onto his feet quickly, if not smoothly. "The art of falling. It is critical for minimizing vulnerability, and probably the most important thing you'll learn here."
And boy, is Bruce determined that he's going to learn. After who knows how many hours of graceless tumbling, Clark lies splayed out on the mat, panting hard while sweat collects in a variety of uncomfortable places.
"Up," Bruce says. "One more time."
"Nope." Every part of Clark's body is rebelling; he is hurting in muscles he didn't even know he had. Bruce Wayne was definitely a sadistic gym teacher in a previous life. "Can't."
"Yes, you can," Bruce repeats, in a tone that brooks no argument. "Once more, Clark."
Clark takes a deep breath, sighs it out again and then wobbles to his feet. He hasn't felt so wrung out since those indistinct first few days after his return, a lethargic weight that clings to his limbs and settles an ache deep in his bones.
"This kind of sucks," he says.
"You'll get used to it." Bruce presses the heel of his hand against Clark's shoulder, correcting his stance. He keeps doing that, and his touch startles Clark's pulse into a quickness each time, low-key fight or flight that he can't seem to get a handle on. "Okay. Meet the mat."
Clark takes a couple of seconds to collect himself, which is apparently a couple of seconds too long for Bruce. There's a hand on his wrist; his arm is twisted and then the world tilts. He has enough time to think that maybe Bruce enjoys throwing him around a little too much, then his back impacts the mat. He exhales sharply, rolls with the momentum and feels the reflexive shift of his body as it makes minute, instinctive adjustments for angle and velocity, muscle memory already dictating where he should put his hands, when to push off against the ground.
"Huh," Clark says. He's come to rest in a crouch, primed to spring upright if he could find a scrap of wherewithal.
"Good," Bruce says. He sounds pleased, and Clark feels an unbidden swell of pride. "Now we're getting somewhere."
It's mid-afternoon by the time they resurface in the lakehouse. Alfred has left them a platter of food and a jug of ice water; Bruce pours himself a glass and demolishes a sandwich before disappearing again. Clark takes the opportunity to sit on the couch and zone out for a while until it occurs to him that he should probably have showered before imposing upon his host's no doubt grossly expensive furniture.
He's staggered to his feet and is checking for incriminating patches on the upholstery when Bruce sweeps back into the room. He's dressed in a navy suit and groomed to precision, moving with an easy swagger that's more Wayne than Clark's seen him since that first time.
"You'll have to excuse me," he says, fastening his watch. "I have a meeting in an hour, and then some—" he makes a vague hand gesture, "—some other things to take care of."
Clark doesn't envy Bruce that at all. He feels exhausted just thinking about doing anything else today. "Don't you ever stop?" he asks.
Bruce's fingers pause on the strap of his watch. "And do what?"
Clark shrugs. Technically, he meant it as a rhetorical question. He changes the subject instead. "Mind if I shower?"
"You don't need to ask permission. And fix yourself a protein shake," Bruce says, eyeing Clark as he limps toward the bedroom. "You'll thank yourself for it in the morning."
"I don't think I'll be thanking anyone for anything in the morning," Clark says. "Jeez."
Using Bruce's shower doesn't seem quite as intrusive as sleeping in his bed, but despite the explicit permission, it's a close thing. The bathroom basin is impractically tiny so he almost considers washing in the kitchen sink, but besides being raised with better manners than that, he's already failed to ingratiate himself—and also he wouldn't want to risk Alfred walking in on a spectacle.
He finally decides that he's being ridiculous and strips himself down. The shower has far too many dials, but through trial and error and one particularly icy drenching, Clark figures out which one controls the water and which one is the temperature. (And, incidentally, which one is the radio and which one is the police scanner.) The water pounds down on his shoulders with satisfying pressure, just hot enough to stand.
It's a little unnerving to be pushed like this, and to feel it so acutely. When he's been accustomed to lifting ton weights like nothing or casually backstroking through the mesosphere or eating a Hot Pocket direct from the microwave, realizing his hard physical limits—never mind hitting them—is something of a shock.
He knows Bruce's limits must be similarly restricted by his physiology, and yet—
Bruce is a very determined man. Clark tips his head back and lets the water sluice over him. He forgot to bring soap, he realizes. He casts about for a bar, but the only thing in the shower cubicle is a bottle of body wash.
He pictures Bruce stepping up close to guide him through a fall and catching his own scent on Clark's skin, and it is maybe a warning that he has no idea how Bruce would react to that. His own reaction to the thought isn't any more reassuring. He shuts off the shower with haste.
Clark spends the rest of the afternoon reading the same page of his book about three dozen times, then once the sun is done refracting itself through the lakehouse windows and dips below the horizon, decides to nap. His blanket has been folded into a precise square and set on the couch, so he figures he may as well.
He wakes to his feet being shoved off the edge of the couch. "Hey," he says, voice thick and bleary with sleep.
The cushions dip, and he hears the clink of wine glasses. "Hi," Bruce says. He clicks on a lamp, and Clark blinks as they're enveloped in a sphere of warm light, shadows chased against the lakehouse glass. "Sorry if I woke you up."
"No, you're not," Clark says.
"Heh." Bruce loosens his tie with one hand, sets the wine down with the other. "Well. If you slept in the bed I—"
"Yeah, I know. And thank you for that, but." Clark rubs at his eyes. Maybe sleeping in the living room is perhaps more of a trespass than he first thought. "Listen, I should book a hotel, or something."
"It's more practical for you to stay here."
"I feel like I'm intruding."
Bruce falls silent for a moment, eyes dark in the diffuse light. Clark watches a muscle in his jaw tense. "You're not. Besides, someone's bound to notice you coming and going. I don't want the press speculating over the why."
Clark takes a short breath. "Or the who. That would be difficult."
"For you more than me, but yes," Bruce says. "You're not just a pretty face, Kent. Drink?"
"I, um." Clark tries to decide how to interpret that and in the meantime pretends the look on his face is because he's caught sight of the date on the wine label. "It would be wasted on me."
Bruce's expression remains still. There's a muted ring as the bottleneck touches the glass, the soft glug of pouring wine. "Suit yourself," he says, though there's no bite to it, just a deep weariness.
Bruce says nothing, just exhales hard and then takes a long sip.
Clark doesn't know what Bruce has on his plate, but he could clearly use a break—he can't have slept since the flight over, and Clark's not entirely convinced that he did even then. Insisting that he takes the bed is obviously a non-starter, so leaving him the couch is the least Clark can do. He shuffles to his feet, leaving the blanket behind.
"I'm just going to, uh." He gestures vaguely. "Good night, Bruce."
Bruce raises the glass to him in a silent toast.
At the threshold, Clark glances back. He half-expects him to be lounging against the couch, legs spread and glass dangling from his fingers like the consummate playboy he so easily projects, but there's no audience for that act here. He's leaning over his knees, glass clasped between both hands.
The sheets smell of laundry detergent and nothing more.
Clark lies sleeplessly in Bruce's bed and, for the first time since he came back from the dead, wonders what in the sweet hell is up with himself.
Clark's not sure if it's the siren call of frying bacon that wakes him, or if it was the long, raucous growl that his stomach is still making even as he rolls out of bed. He showers as quickly as he can (hesitantly uses a dab of the body wash; does not think about how familiar the scent is already), pulls on jeans and a clean shirt despite his shoulders' strenuous objections, and then does his best to make the bed up exactly as he found it, with limited success. Hospital corners are not in his repertoire.
Clark follows his nose into the kitchen. "Good afternoon, sir," Alfred says, at command of the stove in shirtsleeves and an apron, deftly agitating the contents of a skillet. It smells transcendent. "How do you like your eggs?"
"Afternoon?" Clark turns to look out over the lake. There's no morning fog rising from the water; the sun is directly overhead, sloping through the low clouds. It's almost perplexing, and he wonders if he earned this lazy morning or if it's a holdover from the odd tension of last night. It doesn't seem like Bruce to go easy on him, though he'd buy it as an avoidance tactic.
"Master Bruce sends his apologies," Alfred says, as if reading his mind. "Something came up."
Clark pulls a stool up to the counter and fends off a weird little jolt of disappointment. "Things come up a lot with him, huh," he says, as Alfred sets a plate in front of him and heaps on a generous serving of crisp bacon.
"He does tend to keep his hands somewhat full." A stack of toast materializes, along with a glass of orange juice (freshly squeezed), a mug of coffee (phenomenally strong) and a folded newspaper, while Clark becomes increasingly awkward about being waited upon. "Your eggs, Mr. Kent?"
"You don't have to do that, Alfred," Clark says. "I really don't mind making my own food."
"That as may be, but it's on Master Bruce's orders."
"Oh. Well, wouldn't want to get you into trouble." Clark flashes him a grin around a mouthful of toast. "Over easy, then. But! You have to call me Clark, and let me wash up. Those are my terms."
"Oof. You drive a hard bargain." Alfred's smile is small but genuine, and Clark decides that he likes him a lot.
Clark flips open the paper as he eats—it's the Gotham Gazette, naturally—and there's Bruce, glowering below the fold. It's a candid shot of him on the steps of his company's building, jacket unfastened and hair just slightly unruly. Clark doesn't believe for a second he was caught unawares, but his stomach drops anyway.
WAYNE INDUSTRIES TECH LEAKS, the headline declares. CEO SCRAMBLES TO SAVE FACE.
"Like I said." Alfred slides a couple of fried eggs onto Clark's plate. "He has his hands full. Though, I hasten to add, it's not as bad as it looks."
"I don't know," Clark says as he scans the article. He thinks about Bruce's tired face, the tension in his shoulders. "It looks pretty bad." Apparently some prototype WayneTech has shown up on the black market and filtered onto the streets—not weaponry, because there is none to leak—but security and surveillance devices. Hugely embarrassing, even for Wayne's dubious boardroom reputation.
He knows that all of Bruce's slips are deliberate, planned—for every public demonstration of incompetence, Bruce has contingencies rolling into place. But this time is different, and there's something excruciating about the display of fallibility.
"It's mostly under control," Alfred says. "The media got wind of it late in the day. The leak has already been identified and dealt with, and a few more broken links shaken out of the company at that. Master Bruce just needs to prostrate himself in front of the shareholders for a while, and then all should be well."
Clark can imagine how much Bruce is not enjoying that. "And the tech?"
"Merely a case of, ah, reacquiring it. Not difficult, per se, just time-consuming."
And Clark knows that if had an ounce of his powers back, he could help. He could pick out a particular broadcast frequency, pinpoint the equipment and have it in Bruce's hands before he could blink. But he doesn't, and he can't, and it's not a great feeling.
He helps Alfred with the dishes as promised, which Alfred seems to find endlessly amusing for some reason. Clark figures it's because the coffee has kicked in and he's jittering with the over-caffeination. It's a new sensation and one he doesn't care for—he holds his hands out flat in front of him and tries to get them to stop shaking through sheer force of will.
"Hmm. Might I suggest a constitutional, Master Clark?" Alfred says, stowing the last of the cutlery away.
Clark laughs. "Probably a good idea." It would do to loosen up a bit, as well as work off the shakes. A bit of fresh air and whatever passes for sunshine in Gotham definitely holds some appeal.
"Indeed. While you do that, I have some errands to run. Is there anything you need?"
"I could use some soap," Clark says. Then he has an idea—and pauses for a moment to second-guess himself, but decides to cave to his impulse instead. It can't do any harm. "And whatever Bruce's favorite dessert is."
Worst-case scenario, he'll have to eat it himself.
Clark jogs along the gravel-strewn road parallel to the lake. It feels good, the sun on his shoulders and the steady rhythm of his own footfalls, his heartbeat and his breathing. It's no Kansas summer, or even a Metropolis one, but he can feel the ache lifting out of his body, transmuting into something bearable.
By the time he has to stop and catch his breath, he finds he's not far from the ruins of Wayne Manor.
The closer Clark gets the more oppressive its broken bones become, and with it a compulsion to see more. He finds himself drawn through the long grass and wildflowers, up into the cool interior. The daylight has been cut away here, laying open the shadows.
Clark turns slowly, taking in the wreckage under the tepid slats of sun: the shattered columns and soot-stained stone; charred beams collapsed against the floor; soda cans and fast food wrappers and graffiti spidering over the walls. Its dilapidation reminds him of the docks. If he closes his eyes, he can almost hear the metallic grind of armor, and almost remember the taste of his own blood.
He crouches to track his fingers through the grime. No doubt there was polished marble tile under here, once. Luxurious rugs, wood-paneled walls and chandeliers overhead; host to a hundred soirées, spaces imprinted with the memory of generations upon generations. Gone, now. Left to decay. Seems like Bruce is determined to be the last of his line.
When Clark turns back to the entrance he's there, silhouetted in the doorway. Bruce, his hands in his pockets, the hem of his wool coat shifting in the breeze. "You shouldn't be here," he says, voice hollow and echoing in the gloom. "It's haunted."
Clark is pretty sure it's not the building that's haunted. "Lucky I don't believe in ghosts, then," he says, picking his way out through the rubble.
Bruce threatens him with another session of nothing but ukemi, but after a while he is apparently satisfied with Clark's progress. Clark has decided this must be the case because the Bat isn't one for pity, regardless of how many pathetic whimpering noises his victim might be making.
"Okay, enough. Let's move on to something else," Bruce says, after Clark turns a backward roll push up and sticks the landing with a loud groan. Bruce rubs his forehead and mutters something under his breath.
"Headache?" Clark asks.
"You could say that." He links his fingers and stretches his arms above his head, muscles bunching and pulling under his thin black t-shirt. Clark had maybe stared a bit when he came down to the cave in bare feet and judo pants and that tee, hair slicked back and wet from the shower, but that's because he's never actually seen more of Bruce than his hands and his face.
He has a lot of scars.
"Clark," Bruce says, snapping his fingers. "Get your head in the game, son."
"Sorry, sorry." Clark gives himself a mental shake and tries to stop pondering the bruise on Bruce's collarbone. This somehow gets harder when Bruce rolls his shoulders and stretches again. "What, uh. What are we doing?"
"Kata," he says. "Watch me closely."
"Okay, no problem." Maybe a little too enthusiastic, there. Clark smiles sheepishly.
Bruce shoots him an unreadable look and then drops smoothly into a ready stance, knees bent, hands fisted. He flows through a series of forms and strikes, stepping and turning with a precise grace, and it's familiar from any number of movies with karate training montages that Clark watched as a kid.
"I know you're thinking it," Bruce says, sweeping to a standstill and bowing. "So get it out of your system."
Clark grins. "Wax on, wax off, Daniel-san."
"That was even worse than I thought it would be." Bruce shakes his head, then returns to his first stance. "Terrible. Okay, now you try. Move along with me."
Clark does his best to mirror him as he goes through the techniques—downward block, lunging punch, rising block—and he feels like he's doing okay once he gets the transition between stances down, but Bruce stops him and makes him hold his current form.
"Like the falls you learned," he says, and adjusts the position of Clark's arm with gentle pressure on his biceps, "these techniques will become second nature, embedded in your procedural memory. So, let's make sure we do this right."
"Sure," Clark says, Bruce's hand in the small of his back. Just encouraging him to lean forward a touch, no big deal. Then on his knee, turning his thigh slightly.
Then on Clark's chin, angling his head up so he can see how Bruce is staring at him. Maybe he should feel pinned by it, stripped down and vulnerable under his critical gaze.
"There," Bruce murmurs and he's satisfied with something, Clark can tell that much. "Perfect."
Dinner is waiting from them when they're done, a casserole dish of beef bourguignon kept warm in the oven. Bruce serves it up over instant mashed potatoes, which makes Clark feel a little better about asking for ketchup. The look on Bruce's face is entertaining enough.
He sits at the glass-topped table in the corner of the living room, carefully moving aside Bruce's laptop and tablet and a pile of miscellaneous corporate reports. Bruce opts to hold his plate in one hand and pace about, as though sitting down to eat with Clark would constitute some kind of social contract that he is cautious about signing off on.
"I read the paper today," Clark says, once they are done with the food and the scrape of cutlery isn't there to cover the silence any more.
Bruce makes an uninterested noise, leaning over Clark's shoulder to pick up his dish. He disappears to make a racket in the kitchen, rattling the dishwasher as he loads it with the plates. The dishwasher. Of course—the place is kitted out, it's only Clark who would wash up by hand. He's glad Alfred seemed to find it charming and not foolish.
Then there's the soft vacuum-suck of the refrigerator door opening, and a long pause.
"You really need to be liked," Bruce says, just loud enough for Clark to hear. "Don't you."
Clark says nothing. When Bruce reappears, he's got a bottle of wine and glasses—two, again—and a wedge of chocolate cake. He sets the lot of it on the coffee table. "Come over here," he says. There's nothing in his voice; no admonition but no pleasure either, just a carefully manicured neutrality.
Clark opts to sit a safe arm's length away.
The wine isn't of an eye-watering vintage this time—it's from this decade, even. Clark suspects that was a deliberate choice. He watches Bruce pour it, and continues to watch him as he frowns at the cake, nudging the base of his glass with his fingertips, aligning it to some invisible metric.
"Clark," Bruce says finally, and picks up his glass. He takes a long draw and sets it back haphazardly. "What is it you expect from me?"
Clark gamely gives the question due consideration, and on reaching no safe conclusion, asks, "What do you mean?"
You know what I mean, Bruce's expression says.
"It's just cake, Bruce. Don't overthink it."
"Like I said, I read the paper. Alfred told me the rest. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you don't strike me as the kind of guy who does anything nice for himself, despite all this—" Clark sweeps his hand, encompassing Bruce's wealth, the extravagant façade, "—even when things suck. So I thought I would. That's it, that's my motive."
Clark is taken unawares when Bruce breaks into a grin, wide enough to touch his eyes. It's brief and he catches himself quickly—and he's still staring at the damn cake like it's booby-trapped—but something eases in his posture, some subtle shift in his guard that seems to change everything about him. "You are something else, Clark Kent," he says.
"So I've been told," Clark says, dry.
Bruce slides the plate toward himself with one finger. "You know, it's hard to reconcile the idea I had of you," he says, "the concept, the abstract—"
"—the threat," Bruce says, a little tightly. "With who you actually are. I thought I had a handle on it, visiting your mother, being privy to your life that way, but that's got nothing on actually being around you. You are unbearably kind, Clark. I keep my distance and you crack jokes. I give you my bed and you take the couch. I tried to kill you, once. And you bring me cake."
"You said you were sorry."
Bruce exhales and rubs at an eyebrow with his thumb. "You're going to be trouble."
"That's the last thing I want to be."
"And that's the problem," Bruce says, slicing into the cake with the edge of his fork. "What happens when you want to please the wrong person?"
"Are you the wrong person?"
The forkful of cake hovers near Bruce's mouth. "That's not what I said."
"It was implied."
Bruce takes the mouthful and gestures with the fork. "No. You inferred it, and incorrectly."
"So, you're the right person. I should listen to you."
"Also the wrong inference."
"But not one you'd be unhappy with."
That startles a laugh out of him. He puts the fork down. "Trouble."
"So I've been told," Clark says again.
Bruce finally turns and looks at him. There's an energy to his face, the one Clark sees when they're down in the cave, when he's more Bat than Wayne—or whoever he is when he's caught between the extremes.
"You value loyalty," Clark says. "That's why the leak hit you so hard."
"Loyalty is earned, not bought." Bruce picks up his fork again and eats more cake almost absently. He frowns. "He was with me for almost eight years. I misstepped somewhere."
"Loyalty can't be bought," Clark says, "but a facsimile can. Someone just outbid you."
"That's not your failing, Bruce."
"Are you my voice of reason now?"
"I don't know, are you being unreasonable?"
Bruce laughs again: a low, velvety sound, nothing like the sharp bray he makes for the soundbites. Clark thinks he could get used to it, and the way it makes him want to laugh along with him. They lapse into silence for a while.
"Is the cake good?" Clark asks.
"It's my favorite." There's half left. Bruce balances the fork on the rim of the plate and offers it to Clark.
"Oh, no. Thank you."
"Too many carbs," Bruce says.
"Like you're not running on a permanent caloric deficit. Just eat it."
"That would make you happy, wouldn't it," Bruce says, combative but for the way the fork is already halfway to his mouth. His eyes are closed in anticipation. Clark has a pressing impulse to do something about that, but he isn't certain what, so he waits, and it passes.
"I will, if you at least try the wine this time."
"Are you trying to get me drunk, Mister Wayne?" Clark asks. He feels buoyed by Bruce's receptiveness, a warmth unfurling inside his chest. He's seen a few different sides of him, now, and he think he likes this one the best. Probably because he wasn't expecting it.
Bruce raises an eyebrow. "I'd hope it would take more than one glass, Mister Kent."
Alcohol has no effect on him when he's at full strength, and he's been hesitant to try it in his current state. He has never been drunk before. Bruce evidently figures that out just as he's about to explain, because he takes the glass and drinks it himself.
It becomes routine: an early-morning start, ukemi and kata to warm up, and then Bruce brings new techniques into play. Sometimes it's more karate; advanced techniques that fold into the routines he already knows. Sometimes it's judo; grappling and pins that involve such physicality that Clark regularly has to call a timeout just to catch his breath. On occasion, it's tai chi.
"Really?" Clark asks, drawing his arm over his head in a long arc. "Isn't this for old people?"
"It's useful. Focuses the mind. It's basically meditation," Bruce replies. "Everything I teach you is useful."
"How many martial arts do you know, anyway?"
"A hundred twenty-seven."
Clark laughs. They he stops laughing, because it's inevitably true. "And you were trained by ninjas, right?" he says, half-joking.
"If that's what you want to call it," Bruce says, matter-of-fact. "Watch your form. You've overextended."
It's been fifteen days and Bruce finally throws the first punch.
Clark turns and catches it on the side of his ribcage. It smarts but not too badly; Bruce is wearing padded gloves and had telegraphed his intent. That's not to say it isn't a shock, but he brings his guard up immediately in an inculcated response.
He blocks the second strike with his forearm, the impact jarring in his bones. Bruce doesn't look pleased nor displeased, just focused. Clark hisses out a quick breath. He has no gloves and is cautious about taking the offensive, so he tries to weave out of Bruce's range or block when he can't. Bruce keeps coming at him with fast jabs, quick enough that it's almost impossible to catch them all and after a while Clark is starting to feel tender. He will be bruised tomorrow—the novelty of that has yet to wear off, despite the pain.
(He stands in front of the mirror each evening and examines the blooming yellow-purple across his ribs, over his arms; the marks Bruce has left on him with mere throws and pins. There's something humbling about it.)
Eventually he anticipates a weakness in Bruce's guard—artificial, left there for Clark to find—and he shoulders in, sweeps Bruce's legs out from under him, and somersaults him over onto the mat. He immediately drops down, pinning Bruce bodily as he's been taught: one arm around the back of his neck, the other against his thigh, cinching the hold tight.
"Well done," Bruce says in his ear. He reaches with his free hand to grip the nape of Clark's neck. Clark feels his muscles tense and knows he could throw him off with minimal trouble, but he doesn't right away. "Tighten your grip next time."
Then he rolls them, slams Clark's back into the mat, and spreads over him while Clark gasps helplessly.
The lakehouse breeds a different kind of cabin fever to the farmhouse at home—it's all undirected energy now, instead of inertia and lassitude. Not boredom so much as the need to be doing something, a persistent innervation. So, Clark takes himself off for a run around the lake every day, first thing. Three kilometers, give or take, eleven minutes of crisp morning air and plenty of time for Bruce to get anything he might need from his bedroom. (This is their silently-agreed upon system now, after a couple of supremely awkward encounters.
And if Clark notices that Bruce sometimes transitions between living room and cave while Clark is sleeping, he doesn't feel the need to mention it.)
Today he is fleet, eating up the distance like it's nothing, like he's barely touching the ground, and when the lakehouse comes back into view on his return he can see the privacy glass is still frosted. He checks his watch—a good minute faster than this time last week. He is getting better, and quickly.
He paces onto the deck as he catches his breath. The glass remains opaque, so he swings his arms across his chest, over his head, stretches in a cooldown. It seems natural to extend that into practice—tai chi feels most appropriate, what with the breeze rippling across the lake and pushing into the trees, the distant scatter of birdsong. Part the wild horse's mane. White crane spreads its wings.
The glass clears abruptly—Clark can almost hear it, a sharp tick right on the edge of his perception, the staticky shift of an interrupted electrical current. He catches Bruce watching him in his periphery, a dark suit behind the mirror sheen of the windows, mingled with the reflections of the rustling trees.
Brush knee and step forward. Slow, calm, his heartbeat steadying. He hears the door to the lakehouse open and then close again, the creak of the deck. He turns, and can tell immediately that Bruce is already halfway in character: the semi-amused raise of his eyebrows is there, the edge of a smirk. Nothing as serious as a board meeting this morning, then.
"Who are you schmoozing with today?" Clark asks.
"Not your business." Bruce cups his palm under Clark's elbow, encouraging him to lift it slightly. Clark resists, making him press a touch harder. He's found that he's inclined to a little mischief when Bruce is being snippy with him. Not that it ever helps. "Clark," Bruce says, stern, and circles his wrist instead.
Clark grins insolently at him and deliberately lets his other shoulder drop. Of course, Bruce immediately tries to adjust his posture, one hand on his biceps—he can't seem to help himself, Clark's noticed. He tries to keep a straight face. It takes Bruce a second, then he gives a long-suffering shake of his head, lets his hands fall away.
"You're ridiculous," he says, over the gravel crunch of a cab approaching. He adjusts his jacket, straightens his cuffs, and then Bruce Wayne is in full effect. "We can dance later." He pats Clark on the cheek. "But first I have to go spill a couple martinis down myself."
"Drink some, too," Clark calls as he saunters away. "Give me a fighting chance!"
Clark kills an hour or so on the phone to his ma—she gives him the rundown on the latest news out of Smallville, which isn't all just gossip, of course, no, not at all—asks him if Gotham's discovered there's such thing as a sun, tells him she misses him. That last leaves a hollow in his chest, and she hears it.
"Maybe you should come for a visit soon," she says. "I'll make cheesecake."
Clark smiles into his phone. "Thanks, Mom. I'll run it by Bruce. See if he'll give me time off for good behavior."
"And how is Bruce?"
A bit less reserved since the chocolate cake incident, a little more receptive to Clark's goofing, but still distant, on the whole. Or detachedly friendly, like this morning, but with something simmering under the façade, walls up to keep it firmly in check. To say he blows hot and cold is an understatement.
She laughs on the other end of the line. "He's welcome, too. Lord knows that man needs to learn how to take a break."
"Yeah, good luck with that," Clark says.
He takes a quick shower, using one of the two identical bottles of body wash (thanks, Alfred, Clark thinks, just great, just wonderful). In the bedroom he's toweling off his hair, when something catches his attention—the sheets on the bed, pulled taut and crisply folded while he was out.
Except there's a faint impression in the middle, just something in the way the sheets are slightly creased, like—
Clark drops the towel and leans over, a knee on the mattress. Bruce's cologne rises up to meet him. It's strong, as though he applied it just before lying here. Clark needs to swallow suddenly and finds it difficult. His breath is doing something weird in his chest, and the hair along his arms is prickling. Bruce was lying here while he was out running. Why?
Not your business, he hears Bruce say, and maybe it's not a contact he's meeting. Not a business partner. Maybe it's a date. And he had to blow off some steam beforehand.
Clark steps back from the bed, and god, why is that so—
And now he's thinking of Bruce, doing that. Suit jacket open, shirt tugged loose, head tipped back—
He's blindsided by a knot of heat in his stomach, by the way his imagination chases the idea and fills in the negative space of the empty bed with what he wants to see. Clark lets his breath out in a sharp huff.
The excess energy he managed to work off during his run is suddenly back, firing through him like an adrenaline rush. The mats down in the cave are appealing right now—something to throw himself onto with as much force as necessary.
He slides back the veneer panel that conceals the entrance and the security panel blinks to life, the glowing green display demanding his credentials.
On the nightstand, Clark's phone buzzes.
Clark hesitates a moment, and after a few attempts thanks to his shaking hands, manages to reply.
Can I use the gym?
I'm kind of bored
There's no immediate response. Clark wanders into the kitchen and draws a glass of water, then drains it in a long swallow. His phone vibrates in his pocket. The message is an excessively long hashcode.
There's decryption software on my laptop.
Great, a scavenger hunt. He moves through into the living room, flips Bruce's laptop open and wakes it up. A blinking cursor stares back at him.
Your laptop needs a password
If he had his enhanced hearing, Clark is certain he would be able to hear Bruce's eyes rolling.
Clark, I'm in a meeting.
Clark imagines Bruce in an expensive restaurant with a nameless woman, all smiles and easy charm. Under the table, the arch of her foot might press against Bruce's ankle. Clark has no reason to feel jealous about that, but he hopes he actually is in a meeting, anyway.
Sorry to interrupt :^)
Don't emoticon at me.
Another long pause. Clark paces in a circuit around the living room.
Delete this message immediately:
In fact, delete this entire conversation.
Thanks, Bruce!! :^D
Clark's not sure how long he's down there. Long enough to work up a sweat on the punchbag; long enough to feel the ache in his arms and shoulders when he hits the mat, and for the burning tension in his body to subside. He's got to feeling pretty zen, in fact—right up until Bruce gets home.
He comes down to the cave still in his suit, shrugs off his jacket, kicks off his shoes and lunges straight into Clark, knocking him on his ass like it's nothing.
"Uff," Clark says, hauling up into a ready stance. "Hi."
Bruce just throws him a feral grin and rolls up his shirtsleeves.
"Really? You're going to spar in a four-thousand dollar suit?"
"It's been that kind of day."
Clark sidesteps, circling carefully as Bruce does the same. "Your date didn't go well, then?"
"Date?" Bruce says, and Clark takes advantage of his surprise, darting in to land a point on him. Bruce grunts and leisurely deflects his next blow, his brow drawn in a heavy frown. "I had wingtips in from Star City. R&D. No, I could have done without the interruptions."
"Did I make Bruce Wayne look unprofessional?" If Clark is teasing, it's only to stamp down on the irrational part of him that's relieved. He leans back and dodges Bruce's fist by bare millimeters. Not a date, then. So why—?
Bruce grabs at Clark's t-shirt; the seams pull, threads giving way with a sharp crackle just on the edge of Clark's hearing. He can smell Bruce's breath, thick with alcohol. He's not drunk—his speed and coordination can attest to that—but he's not exactly sober, either. He seems to be on the edge of some anger or other.
"No," Bruce says, "you just—"
And as Clark is about to try to sweep at the back of his knees, collapse him down and push his wrists against the mat—Bruce drops his guard, stands up straight and sighs, rolling his shoulders. "Let's just—" he says, and pushes his hand through his hair. "Let's not do this tonight. I need a coffee."
If Clark was thinking they'd retire upstairs and maybe Bruce would sit and offer some curt half-explanation over one exclusive arabica blend or another, then he obviously hadn't thought about it hard enough. If there are going to be curt half-explanations, apparently they're going to come in the mezzanine, where Bruce can direct most of his attention to the impenetrable array of data on his screens instead of at Clark.
Alfred looks up to greet them with a nod, and returns to tinkering at one of the benches. Clark wonders why Bruce didn't just get him to buzz Clark down if he was here all along—and then it sort of hits him side-on, that Bruce absolutely could have. And maybe Clark didn't realize what he was asking of him, to request unfettered access to the cave like that.
But, Bruce acquiesced. And it's rattled him. It's kind of fascinating and kind of awful.
Clark leans back against the desk. "So, who else knows the magic number?" he asks, even though he's already figured the answer. Maybe Bruce wasn't always this solitary, but he is now, if not by nature then by necessity.
(He thinks about the costume in its cold glass cage.)
"Just me. And Alfred." Bruce says, settling back into his chair. As if on cue, Alfred stations the soldering iron he was using and evacuates the area. Bruce exhales, long and steady as he clicks about on the screen. "And now, you."
Clark stops himself staring at his profile, the set of his mouth and the muscle tensing in his jaw. He's rearranged the floating windows on his desktop, and opened and closed the same few folders a half-dozen times.
"I forced your hand," Clark says.
"I could easily have said no."
"You should change the passcode."
"Don't tell me what to do, Clark," Bruce says, before Clark has even properly finished his sentence. He turns towards Clark slightly and stops messing with the windows for a moment. He flicks a glance over him. "No. I made a decision. It was probably overdue." And then, with something halfway to levity, "Don't make me regret it."
Clark grins at him. "I'll try to be respectful of your boundaries," he says. Easily done; he may have stumbled over them this afternoon, but usually they are firmly delineated and also approximately two feet thick, ten feet tall and constructed of steel-reinforced concrete. Not that Clark thinks Bruce has intimacy issues or anything.
"Possibly—" Clark is aware that he's about to push things back into super-awkward territory, but honestly, this is the best opening he's going to get for this. "Possibly more so than you are of mine."
Bruce's hand stills on the mouse. He looks sidelong at Clark. The frown pulling at his brow projects a vague confusion, but his shoulders have tensed. He knows exactly what Clark is talking about.
God, Clark thinks, and something flutters in his chest. You did, didn't you.
"It's my bedroom," Bruce says, defensive. He opens his mouth, and then apparently thinks better of whatever brute force dissembling he was going to attempt. He sighs, looks at his fingers arrayed over the keyboard. "I'll have Alfred change the sheets."
"No, it's fine," Clark says before he can catch himself—just knee-jerk politeness, that's all, a desire to not be any trouble, and he flushes immediately. Bruce stares at him, open speculation on his face while Clark flounders for a more appropriate response.
He's rescued by the reappearance of Alfred and a tray balanced with mugs and a French press. Bruce is still watching him as he takes a cup, but then he turns to Alfred and says, "Apparently, Ollie found a CS-1036 on his streets."
"Did he now," Alfred says, attention on the mugs as he pours.
"Mm. It was an excellent presentation, though a little unfair on his guys. I don't think they knew they were trying to pitch me my own tech." Bruce takes a sip of his coffee as it is. Clark reaches for the cream.
"Mr. Queen does like his practical jokes."
"He likes to get a rise out of me."
"In this instance, I suspect he succeeded," Alfred says.
Bruce ignores him. "But that's one cryptographic sequencer accounted for. I want the rest before anyone figures out how to reverse-engineer them—do you even like coffee?"
Clark pauses, sugar cube hovering. "Sure I do," he says, and drops it in with a plink. "Just not yours. So what's a cryptographic sequencer?"
"Something I'm developing for field research," Bruce says.
" 'Field research'." Clark manages the air quotes even with one hand wrapped around his mug.
"Don't do that," Bruce says, and pulls a schematic up on-screen. "It's a powerful decryption tool. I designed it to intercept broadcasts even on secure lines. One of the prototypes out there has significantly advanced hacking capabilities. It's imperative that they're all recovered."
Security and surveillance devices, the papers said. And then some, apparently. Clark leans in to take a closer look, not that he can make much of it. "They have RFID then, right?"
"Right," Bruce says. "But they're low-grade, the range is only a couple hundred meters. I've been sweeping Gotham for them, but they're very portable devices. Needle, haystack."
Night after night for weeks. It would exasperate even the most patient man. "Is there any way I can help?"
"There's nothing you can do that I'm not already doing myself."
"But there are things I could do, if you weren't doing them?"
Alfred, apparently a subtle warning system, takes himself upstairs again. Bruce turns his attention back to his screens. "Just leave this to me, please."
There's a frustration building that makes Clark want to press him on it, rally against his obstinacy, but maybe he's been pushy enough for today. No more poking the bear. He nods and pushes off from the desk.
"Clark," Bruce says. He reaches out as if to grab Clark's wrist, then thinks better of it at the last second. "Earlier. I didn't—there was nothing untoward. Happening. I was tired. But that's no excuse. It was ill-judged on my part. I'm sorry."
"I could smell your cologne," Clark says. It comes out less like the humorous observation he intended, what with his heart kicking against his ribcage.
Bruce goes tight-lipped—Clark watches his throat work—then his expression sharpens, his eyes narrowing. "How are you feeling?" he asks.
"I wasn't wearing cologne," Bruce says. "But there might have been some on my tie from the last time I wore it. How are you feeling, Clark."
Oh. Clark's eyes widen, and he thinks about how much easier it was to run this morning, ground flying under his feet—and things did seem a little crisper, a little more saturated even under Gotham's customarily overcast sky, and how he's been brimming with energy—
"Better," he says and it's almost unbearable, the relief bubbling up through him. It's still nothing like he should be or like he's used to, but he finds himself holding his breath and listening. If he can't hear the circuits firing in the computers or Alfred moving about upstairs or the steady drum of Bruce's heartbeat, he can almost sense them when he focuses, all the tiny elements tugging at the edge of his awareness. It's more than he's felt for months, and he has to sit back against the desk again for a moment.
"Looks like you'll have to start pulling your punches," Bruce says.
Clark can't sleep, and he's pretty certain it's not because of the coffee. His heart is pounding hard enough to vibrate against the mattress and no matter what he does, whenever he closes his eyes all he can smell is Bruce—his cologne, the damn body wash (that's actually probably Clark but it doesn't help to think that, doesn't help at all), and under it all that specific marker everyone has of their own, the natural scent of skin and sweat, and this one is recognizably his.
Bruce had lain here and he hadn't touched himself, but Clark… Clark is starting to think that he might. And maybe he should have seen this coming because they have spent a lot of time together with a lot of physical contact, and sometimes he thinks Bruce forgets himself and flirts more than he means to, and maybe Clark has been flirting back, too.
(Bruce is an attractive man, Clark can acknowledge that. The intimidating intelligence, the sharpness, the appealing charm that's all an act, except when it isn't. And he's—yes, he's handsome. Brutally so. Brutal in a lot of ways, but not like he used to be, now that he's tempered it with principle and compassion, and—
His skin is scarred, his mouth severe. He would be ferocious.
And he's down in the cave. If he came back up, would Clark hear him in time?
Would he want to?)
Clark is an awful house guest. His hand twitches against his abdomen, then he pushes under his briefs so he can cup himself and squeeze. He focuses as best he can while he strokes quickly, firmly, straining to hear any telltale movement and desperately choking back the noises caught in his throat. Is that Bruce's heartbeat he can hear, or just an echo of his own?
It doesn't take him long—not when he's already so wound up, and not when he starts remembering Bruce's hands on him in the gym, or imagining his mouth. So close, so quickly. Clark turns his face to the side, pressing into the pillow, and he pulls in a deep breath. He can almost taste—
He manages to kick the sheets down at the last moment, but he can't muffle the deep gasp that shakes out of him as he comes over his stomach.
(If he hears a footfall on steel tread, it must be his imagination; the entrance to the cave stays closed.)
He blinks up at the ceiling while his pulse winds down to something reasonable and his breathing evens out, and as the euphoria retreats he wonders, with gentle horror, how he's going to look Bruce in the eye tomorrow.
Clark's phone vibrates loudly on the nightstand and jolts him awake. He spares a few seconds to let last night sweep over him and settle into a nauseating ball in his stomach, then flails out an arm to catch it and blearily swipe at the screen until a message pops up.
Cave. Ten minutes.
"Jeez," Clark says, and rolls himself out of bed. "Morning to you too, Bruce."
The nausea settles into vague anxiety as he washes, and he finds himself over-analysing the text. It's abrupt—but Bruce is often abrupt. The full-points seem accusatory. Is this going to be a dressing-down? Clark is amazed at how much he can read into those three words. He's agonized less over his front-page ledes.
He's being ridiculous. Even if Bruce had seen him somehow, so what? He wouldn't know Clark was—that Clark was thinking of him.
He lets out a sharp breath then spares a brief glance at himself in the bathroom mirror, half-expecting the guilt to be stamped plainly across his features, but there's only the familiarity of his face reflected back in the steamed-up glass. His worried frown, his wet and tousled hair. His cheeks are maybe a little pink, but that could easily be from the heat of the shower. It's not evidence.
But then, he's not a detective.
Bruce evidently hasn't been back long—he's stripped off the Batsuit, but his hair is still flattened from the cowl and there's a smudge of greasepaint on one cheekbone. A fresh, angry bruise crawls from under his sweat-damp undershirt, over the swell of his biceps.
"Morning," he says, and throws a pair of sparring gloves at Clark. He catches them against his chest. "Get warmed up."
Clark runs through a series of stretches. He's still sore all over most days, but his body is generally used to the feeling now, and there's some satisfaction in it. It's a good kind of pain, even if it makes him acutely conscious of his vulnerability.
He sometimes wonders how Bruce handles it, whether there is ever a moment of doubt before he launches himself from a dozen stories up or into a room full of armed men or against a being orders of magnitude stronger than he could ever be—or if he is simply that undaunted by his own mortality. Sometimes when Clark thinks about the hard curl of Bruce's fingers in his hair and the pressure of his glove against his throat it feels like he's on the edge of understanding something, but—
He raises his arms above his head, arches his back, feels his joints pop and crackle. He shakes them out. Bruce watches him, arms folded.
"You're quiet." Bruce says. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." Incredible. Clark unfastens the gloves and tries not to look discomfited. The tear of the velcro straps echoes along the cavern walls. "I thought you liked quiet. How was tonight?"
If Bruce looks deeply unconvinced, at least he lets it go. "Some progress. I tracked a sequencer down in the Diamond District. Got a little ugly for a moment, but I can probably salvage it for parts." He flashes Clark a sly smile, clasps his fist in the palm of his hand, and bows.
Clark decides not to dwell on the fate of the hardware, as he's too busy narrowly dodging Bruce's first languid strike. He's adopted a boxing stance, something Clark hasn't dealt with before and the rhythm of it is keeping him slightly off-balance. He hops back, hoping to observe for a moment, and Bruce obliges him with a slow one-two caught easily on Clark's forearms.
"Keep your guard up," he says, nudges at Clark's elbow with the edge of his fist. "Higher."
He circles, light on the balls of his feet, and Clark turns to keep him squared. Bruce's eyes flash in the low light and he darts in, swift and clever. A firm hit against Clark's ribs, another deft on the side of his head that leaves him shaking off sparks; the rest he evades or deflects. Clark backs off to get some breathing room.
Bruce settles back on his heels and gestures for Clark to come at him.
Clark grins in response, wide and easy, and the puts himself on the offensive. He feels the sweat break over his shoulders as he pushes against Bruce's guard, but as much as he tries he can't land anything, each strike twisted away or swept to the side like it's nothing. Bruce goes easy on him, Clark knows that, but the gulf of experience between them still feels staggering.
He ducks suddenly, going to kick out Bruce's knee but Bruce is on him immediately, one hand on Clark's shoulder as he turns a handspring over him, twisting midair. His feet thud against the mat the same instant his arm goes around Clark's neck, dragging him back against his chest.
"Show off," Clark pants. Bruce laughs in his ear, a low rumble that makes the back of Clark's neck prickle. He swallows, hooks his hand into the crook of Bruce's elbow and tries to pull his arm away. "Alright, alright. I yield." He can hear the smile in his own voice.
Bruce resists his tugging, instead pushing him down so he's on his knees, bracing his other hand on the back of Clark's head. "Let's discuss chokeholds," he says, casual, as though he's talking about the weather. "I'm going to let you go now. Stay where you are."
His arm relaxes, sliding back over Clark's shoulder until only his hand is at Clark's throat, cupping over his larynx. His palm is hot and slightly clammy. Clark swallows again, throat jumping under his touch. When he inhales, he can smell Bruce's sweat and the sharp leather tang of the Batsuit. Faint notes of the body wash.
"There are two kinds of chokes: air, and blood," Bruce murmurs. His thumb moves slightly, brushing Clark's skin. "Air chokes are more dangerous, more painful, and less effective at rendering your opponent unconscious. There's no reason to use an air choke over a blood choke." He shifts his hand, fingers and thumb pressing gently against the arteries either side of Clark's throat, under his jaw, and there's no way, absolutely no way he can't feel Clark's pulse hammering.
Clark tries to let out a breath but finds that he can't. His chest feels constricted, his heart beating so hard it feels like it could fracture his ribs. He's not sure he can trust himself to do anything but listen.
"Blood chokes don't need much raw strength, and done right, can put your guy down in a matter of seconds. I'm going to apply a little pressure, so you know what it feels like. Tap out if it gets too much, okay?"
His fingertips dig into Clark's neck, pressing into the thunder of his blood. He feels lightheaded almost immediately, bright patterns sparking over his vision. Clark closes his eyes in an attempt to stop his head swimming, and finally that breath bursts out of him, shaky and loud; the pressure in his chest drops like a hot stone into his stomach.
He reaches back to pat Bruce's thigh twice. Bruce eases up right away, cups his throat again and Clark fervently hopes he reads the responsive shiver as relief and nothing else. There's not much he can do about being half-hard other than hunch over a bit, though. His sweatpants aren't particularly forgiving where that's concerned.
Bruce take a slow, deep breath, then abruptly takes his hand away. "Of course, it's better to use your forearm instead of fingers. Better leverage, quicker takedown, less trouble. Clark, don't worry about that. It happens. Adrenaline."
That spurs an embarrassed laugh out of him. "Yeah," he says. "Sorry."
Bruce shifts slightly. "I want you to try," he says, and knee-walks so he's kneeling in front. Clark peels off his gloves, brings his arm around and sandwiches Bruce's neck in the crook of his elbow. His pulse is steady. Clark tentatively rests his other hand on the back of Bruce's head, fingers rucking his dark hair. "That's right. Good. Now, lean back and squeeze."
Clark tries. A cold horror breaks over him and cascades down his back. Bruce is warm and vital against his chest. The fragile bones of his neck roll against his arm.
And there is screaming and the collapse of rubble. He feels the blistering heat of laser vision that is not his, smells burning concrete. He exhales and it comes out as a low, horrified groan. He can't. He cannot. He is trembling violently and he can't seem to stop and ground himself. Bruce doesn't move under his grip. "I—" he says, and his voice breaks. "I can't."
He feels the vibrations of Bruce's voice against his skin and drops his arm. He tries to pull away but Bruce has his hand, caught between his.
Clark's head is rushing, he can't get his breath to come evenly and the more he tries the worse it gets. The cave feels airless. Every inhale is like aspirating dust.
Bruce has him, one hand on his shoulder, the other clasped over Clark's knuckles. His palm is a firm pressure that might be reassuring if only Clark could feel anything but his jackhammering heart, the crashing in his head. He is unsteady, strangely weightless; he leans to brace his free hand against the cool vinyl of the mat.
He could shred it as easily as clothes or skin, as incidentally as he could break bones, snap them like dry autumn twigs. A thought intrudes, stark and ugly: he could crush Bruce's hand like it's nothing, crumple it like paper.
He knows how to not do that. His life has been one of measured interactions, care consciously taken until it became second nature to be gentle. He had no model for another of his kind. A sick shudder works up his spine. This might have worked. He might have been able to—
"Clark, listen to me," he hears Bruce say. "You're okay."
Clark is not certain that's true, but Bruce seems to have confidence in him. The hand on his shoulder moves to his hair, smoothing it back from his forehead. He watches sweat drip from the end of his nose and patter onto the mat, except when Bruce's hand moves from his hair to brush his cheek, he realizes it isn't sweat at all. His body convulses of its own accord.
Bruce murmurs his name again, oddly raw. Then, more solidly, "Deep breath. And let it out. Steady. That's right."
Clark can't figure out if he even needs to breathe, but it feels better once he starts. It gives him something to focus on, along with the predictable rhythm of Bruce's words. A mantra. He breaks into shivers as his head clears, skin bristling all over.
His jaw hurts, his teeth are aching. He has to consciously relax his face. The noise he makes when he does embarrasses him. "Sorry," he says, not quite above a whisper.
"Look at me." Bruce ducks his head down, gently encourages Clark to lift his chin with the edge of his hand. His brow is furrowed in concern, and Clark can't think that he's seen this expression before, not unalloyed with annoyance or frustration. "No sorries."
The only thing Clark can think to say is 'sorry' again, so he says nothing at all. He tries to smile.
Bruce makes a mangled sound, a half-word that he obviously thought better of at the last moment. He closes his eyes, squeezes them shut just for a second. Then he says, "I should get you some water."
Bruce makes him drink two full glasses, standing in the kitchen. His hand rests conspicuously on Clark's upper arm—on the way up from the cave it had been light against his back, then on his shoulder. He hasn't broken physical contact since Clark's… thing. While Clark deeply appreciates the grounding, he can feel Bruce's heat through his t-shirt, and that's not doing much for his equilibrium.
It's early still, fresh morning light streaming into the room. Disorienting, after the gloom of the cave. Time is strange, and Clark is suddenly, incredibly tired. His eyes hurt, his head hurts, his chest feels crushed and bruised. He drags both hands over his face.
"How are you doing?" Bruce asks. He finally lets go of Clark to fetch a pair of rocks glasses out of one cabinet, a lead crystal decanter out of another.
"It's not the best morning I've ever had," Clark says. He glances at the clock on the microwave. "Bruce, it's barely eight a.m."
"I know." Bruce pours them a generous measure of bourbon each, cut with a splash of water. "For today's self-defense class, we're moving on to Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms 101."
"Well, I think you've got that one locked down."
"Careful," Bruce says softly, dangerously. He presses a glass into Clark's hand, then guides him towards the living room, his hand once again on Clark's back, hot like a brand.
Clark leaves his drink on the coffee table and slumps onto the couch, lets his head roll back to stare at the ceiling. He lets out a long, unhappy sigh in a bid to feel better. It doesn't help much. His head feels light, his limbs leaden.
"Do you want to talk about what happened?" Bruce asks.
Bruce watches him, elbows resting on his thighs, hands loose between his knees. He seems to be waiting for something.
"I just—I thought I was done dealing with it," Clark hears himself say. "It's been a couple years now. It doesn't—I don't think about it."
Except when it pushes coarsely at the edge of his awareness, but he's learned to anticipate when that's going to happen—certain parts of the city, certain times of day when the light hits just so. A particular pitch of scream, a particular odor of burning dust. It always leaves him a little shaken up, a little depressed for a while, but it's usually manageable.
(It's much harder than being dead was, but Clark supposes it's because he wasn't around for most of that.)
Damn it. Disquiet keeps dragging its filthy fingers over him, stirring at his insides. He reaches for his drink, hesitates briefly before taking a sip. It's as unpleasant as anticipated, but it ignites a warmth in his chest that doesn't have its roots in either anguish or desire, and the relief of it is almost overwhelming. Clark closes his eyes.
"Things like this, they burrow into your psyche," Bruce says, "they're never gone, they just go dormant. They'll shape your whole life, if you let them."
Clark keeps his eyes firmly shut. He's not sure what expression Bruce is carrying, but he's certain even his most impassive face will be difficult to look at. Everyone knows the story: Bruce Wayne, the innocent child, witness to his parents' murder. Most people think they see that trauma in his philandering and drinking, in a lifetime of acting out, but Clark knows its true manifestation.
"I'm so tired of it," Clark says, and takes a long, deep breath. "I feel like I should be—I don't know. Better at it. But sometimes I can't shake it for days."
"In that regard, you're as human as anyone. It's all part of the condition." Clark hears him slide his glass on the table, then a tiny wet noise as he sips. "You get to suffer with the rest of us."
"Thanks, Bruce. You always know just what to say."
"I'm no psychiatrist."
"I hope not. I couldn't afford you."
Bruce laughs, quiet and brief over the clink of glass. Clark tilts his head, cracks an eye open to look at him. He's finished his drink and is pouring himself another.
"Don't you have places to go today?" Clark asks. "People to see?"
"Yes. My schedule is obscene."
"Do they mind if you turn up drunk?"
"They'd rather I didn't turn up at all." Bruce raises his eyebrows, flashes Clark the most obnoxious grin—and it almost physically hurts, the way it makes Clark's heart clench.
Clark's finished his fourth drink when Bruce cuts him off. The bourbon's become more palatable, but that's probably because he's drunk—alcohol warmth curling through him, making his face hot and his eyes heavy. It's not an unpleasant sensation.
"Okay," Bruce says, standing. "Time for a break, son."
From Clark's admittedly impaired perspective, he doesn't seem affected at all, and here's Clark, rambling at length about his childhood back in Kansas and the minute details of how he once spent a summer on a fishing trawler and a vastly inadequate description of how incredible it was the first time he flew. He wants to go on and tell Bruce how much he's enjoying their training together, but Bruce keeps shushing him.
Bruce holds out a hand so he can haul Clark off the couch. His head swims with the drastic altitude change. Moving is weird; he feels top-heavy, unstable. He leans on Bruce to keep his balance as they stumble through to the bedroom.
"Lightweight." Bruce sounds amused. Clark likes it when he sounds that way, when his voice turns so warm. He tells Bruce that. Bruce just tells him to hush again.
Clark finds himself tipped onto the bed, his sweats tugged off and then he's rolled under the crisp sheets. He's tired and fuzzy-headed and that's bliss, because his mind keeps sliding off anything it tries to think about. There's nothing but hazy sensory details and a room that keeps shifting slightly to the left.
The bed dips next to him and Bruce leans over. "Sleep it off," he says, "I'll come get you later."
Clark reaches up unsteadily, tries to touch Bruce's hair where it's fallen over his forehead. Bruce's expression changes, first a familiar furrow between his eyebrows, then it softens in a way that Clark can't quite grasp. Then his arm gets tired, so he lets it drop.
He closes his eyes, drifts away almost immediately but is pulled close to the surface again by a hand in his hair, knuckles brushing the crest of his cheek.
Waking up after drinking during the day goes like this: jolt yourself awake with your own snoring. Find it almost impossible to swallow, since your mouth is dryer than Kansas dirt at high noon. Crack one eye open and see your host and mentor silhouetted on the bed next to you, back against the headboard, legs crossed at the ankles, doused in sunset as he reads a newspaper.
Clark groans and rolls over to bury his face into a pillow.
"Evenin'," Bruce says, and swats Clark across the shoulders with the paper. There's something off about his voice that Clark can't place until he talks some more. "Listen, I gotta bounce. I got a tip about a fella who knows a guy, says he can hook me up with some sweet new tech. Top of the line, state of the art, hotter'n a dame in daisy dukes."
Clark props himself up on an elbow and stares, trying to figure out why Bruce has suddenly acquired a Jersey accent—and why he's wearing a garish plaid shirt under an ill-fitting suit. He quickly reaches the only logical conclusion.
"Am I still drunk?" he asks.
"You tell me, sport." Bruce bounces off the bed and—well, preens. He brushes the shoulders of his jacket, straightens the lapels and then runs both hands over his hair. It's slicked flat, shiny and unctuous. "How do I look?"
Clark blinks at him slowly. He's even got a fake moustache. It makes him look sleazy as hell, every inch the uncle nobody wants to invite to Thanksgiving. "Like a used car salesman," he says, a little dazedly. "Bruce, what—?"
"Who the hell is Bruce?" Bruce says, flattening his own name into something perfunctory, worthy of only half-assed derision.
Just when Clark thought things couldn't get any more ridiculous, Bruce unfolds a pair of aviators and pushes them on his face, flicks a match out of his pocket and grips it between his teeth. "And I'm outta here. Don't wait up, sweetheart."
Clark sits up, sheets crumpling around his waist. He knows his face must be almost comical with disbelief, but he can't seem to configure it into anything else. Bruce pauses in the doorway, slides his sunglasses down his nose and gives Clark a legitimate once-over, gaze crawling across his chest and stomach. Clark flushes despite himself.
"Nice," Bruce says, shoots him a pair of fingerguns and a wink, then turns on his heel and struts off, leaving Clark to wonder which one of them is having the mental breakdown.
By the time Clark's showered and raided the kitchen for coffee and breakfast—or supper as it may be, his body clock is inside-out—he's half convinced himself that he imagined the whole thing, an unanticipated interaction between alcohol and his physiology triggering some kind of bizarre hallucination.
Walking through the lingering cloud of Brut when he comes back through to the bedroom, however, cements it as an actual thing that actually happened to him.
"Wow," he says under his breath, and taps in the cave's access code.
He finds Alfred in the mezzanine, dismantling a grapnel gun atop a set of blueprints. He glances up and acknowledges Clark with a nod and a crisp 'good evening', almost goes back to his work, but something in Clark's face obviously catches his attention. "By your look of confoundment, I presume you've met Mr. Malone," he says. There's dry amusement in the set of his mouth.
"Do I want to know?" Clark settles on the other side of the bench.
"Most assuredly not. Hmm." Alfred ratchets out a length of wire rope, examines a frayed section, lets it snap back and then ejects the whole reel. "Although, if you ever have a free weekend, his rap sheet is quite the read. Very lurid."
"You're right," Clark says, "I don't want to know."
Alfred chuckles. He selects a different reel of cable—made of a different material entirely, by the look—and slots it into the grapnel gun. He lifts his glasses to squint as he feeds it through the levers and mechanisms. Clark watches him affix the claw with a deft series of knots then weld them together with a touch from a soldering iron.
"He gets through a lot of gear, huh," Clark says.
"Gotham's brickwork tends to come off worse as a rule, but yes. The cables have a very limited lifespan." Alfred drops his glasses back down onto his nose and screws the gun's casing back together. He hefts then readies it. "I'm trying him on a different line this time, monomolecular wire. Much more lightweight without sacrificing tensile strength, less likely to fray, or to put grooves in the statuary. Of course, I anticipate getting my ear twisted until the Bat gets accustomed to the feel of it."
He says 'the Bat' like he's talking about a recalcitrant child. Clark grins over it. "You're not the average butler, are you, Alfred."
"I've had to adapt to very particular set of circumstances, Mr. Kent," Alfred says, one eyebrow arched. He has also adapted a very particular way of deflecting questions, Clark notes.
"How long have you worked for him?" Clark asks.
"I didn't realize this was an interview." Alfred pauses, raises a finger. "To that I say a resounding 'no comment'."
Clark laughs. "I'm hardly going to write an exposé. I'm just curious."
"About me?" Alfred says, fixes Clark with a level stare. "Or about Master Bruce?"
"Both of you," Clark says, with a small pause that makes where his interest lies patently obvious to both of them.
Where Bruce is suspicious, Alfred is circumspect. "I've worked with him for a very long time," he says. "I've known him for even longer than that." He starts clearing off the workbench, folding up the schemata and returning his tools to their box. "And you know him well enough to understand why I'm inclined to keep the details to myself."
Clark bears the admonishment gracefully, aware that he may have tread close to a line. Instead of pushing it, and because he is genuinely curious, he asks, "Are you really a butler?"
"No," Alfred replies, "strictly speaking, I'm a valet."
"That's not what I meant."
"I know." Alfred smiles at him, small and firm, and Clark sees a reflection of Bruce's resolve in it. "You're asking if I have secrets. But you already know the answer to that. There's nobody on this Earth who doesn't have a secret."
"Oh, for sure," Clark says. "But I only want to know one: do you know how to fight?"
"I admire your determination," Alfred says the third time he wipes the floor with him. "But you really are awfully predictable, Master Clark."
Sparring with Alfred is even more frustrating than sparring with Bruce, because Alfred apparently feels even less compunction at flooring him in the most efficient manner possible. Clark had anticipated someone closer to his own skill level—someone slower, at least, considering his age—but more fool him. He rolls to his feet once again and makes himself raise his fists.
"Master Bruce has certainly schooled you well in formality and technical aptitude, but I fear he's neglecting a most crucial component of your combat training." Alfred tucks up a shirtcuff where it's slid down his arm.
"What's that?" Clark says, the last word uncontrolled as he whips to the side, attempting to turn Alfred's strike into a glancing blow. He's fast and he's vicious. Clark hops back a step, putting some space between them so he can correct his balance.
"Try hitting below the belt now and then," Alfred says, and steps in to knee Clark's thigh. It makes him yelp in pain. He can feel the bruise already, blossoming over the seizing muscle. "And I mean that quite literally. Take every cheap shot. The idea is to win, not to earn your opponent's respect. Don't waste your honor on those who have none."
"You best not be teaching my boy to fight dirty." And there's Bruce—still in his clownish getup, slouched against a steel piling. His hands are in his pockets, a matchstick tilted between his teeth. His body language bleeds between his personas, the Bat's predatory grace under the garish window-dressing. He reaches inside his jacket and tosses Alfred a sleek black device, long and narrow with beveled corners and a matte finish. "May I cut in?"
Alfred rolls his eyes and yanks off Bruce's fake moustache as though it's a band-aid. To Bruce's credit, he only flinches slightly. "By all means," Alfred says, retrieving his glasses from his vest pocket. "I'll get to analyzing this, shall I?"
"You're a star, pops," Bruce says, lifting his sunglasses to wink at him.
"Oh, for goodness sake," Alfred mutters. He spares Clark a look that says get out while you can, then takes his own advice and heads back up to the mezzanine.
Bruce waits until he's gone and then advances on Clark, fists up in a laughable I-Know-Kung-Fu farce. He smells like an ashtray.
"Okay," Clark says, and holds his hands up in surrender. "This is kind of weirding me out."
"It should," Bruce says, finally in his own voice instead of the grating nasal affectation. He relaxes into his regular stance, shedding the jacket and sunglasses. "Repulsive, isn't he. But his awfulness is proportional to his usefulness—tonight he reacquired a sequencer, and picked up a rumor that Gotham National Bank is scheduled for its bi-annual attempted robbery."
"Let me guess," Clark says. "They're going to hack the bank's vault systems using some recently-obtained prototype technology." He plucks the matchstick from between Bruce's teeth.
Bruce winks at him. "Exactamundo, kemo sabe."
"I know the how and the where," Bruce says, "I just don't know the when." He turns a baseball bat in wide circles with a flex of his wrist. Clark watches the supple glide of muscle in his shoulder as he brings it up ready, the shift of tendons in his forearms as he adjusts his grip. "Most guys will come at you like this—" he swings the bat in slow-motion, an arc at chest-height, "—or this." A jab, stomach. "Occasionally, this." Back of the knees.
"So, we're on a time limit now," Clark says, anticipating the next swing. He turns to catch the bat under his arm and attempts to twist it out of Bruce's grip by pushing his elbow up. Bruce clings to it stubbornly.
"You need to step inside the swing. Grab my arms, not the bat, or you'll end up with bruised ribs at best." Bruce pulls himself free and hands the bat to Clark. "And what's this 'we' business."
"I still want to help." Clark swings so Bruce can demonstrate again. He traps Clark's arms with his own, then torques Clark's hold until he's forced to let go. He catches the bat and flips it into his grip.
"A few weeks of training and you think you can take on the world. No. I've got everything under control."
Of course he does. He is never anything but in control. Clark wonders if he could persuade him to give a little up.
Bruce starts another slow swing, one-handed this time. Clark sets his jaw, ignores everything Bruce just showed him and wills himself to move. The air splits around him, relinquishing its drag, and Clark has a moment to appreciate Bruce's eyes widening a fraction when he grabs his wrist. He should use Bruce's own momentum to somersault him over onto the mat. Instead he flicks the baseball bat away, trips Bruce backwards over his leg and catches him by the front of his t-shirt.
"Actually," Clark says, "grabbing the Bat works."
"Clark." Bruce braces one hand in the crook of Clark's arm. His voice is flat with admonition, though whether for the pun or the move, Clark isn't sure.
Clark hears the rushing of his blood, a faint uptick in his heart rate before his powers begin to ebb again, then his muscles are suddenly straining under Bruce's weight, shaking with the effort of keeping him dipped. "Damn," Clark says, tight, and the corner of Bruce's mouth curls.
Bruce throws himself to the side, pushing off against Clark's body as well as the floor and—Clark finds he doesn't stagger back from the force of it, another swell of power anchoring him firm to the mat. Feedback rushes in on him as Bruce twists away: threads pulling around his fist, the shearing of fabric; Bruce's sharp intake of breath as the material pulls taut and the seams press into his flesh; the peal of the shirt ripping. Tiny droplets of moisture spatter Clark's skin: perspiration sent arcing from Bruce's body as he moves.
Bruce tumbles across the mat, a roll into a handspring into a one-handed cartwheel. "Okay," he says, as he straightens up. He strips off the remains of his t-shirt and fingers the tear thoughtfully. His skin is bright in the low light of the cave, his eyes dark. "Estimate your strength and speed right now."
Heightened, compared to the average human, but still a far cry from what he's used to. "About… thirty percent of normal, maybe?"
"Intermittent. I need to focus."
"I haven't tried. Still feels risky."
"Hmm." Bruce is thinking something over, evident in a small frown, the way he's turned his eyes to the side. He's being assessed, Clark thinks. Bruce is determining if he can beat him.
Clark grins, wide and reckless, because he can run with this. "Gloves off," he says to Bruce. "Whoever falls first, loses. If I win, you take me along on the bank bust."
Bruce raises his eyebrows. "And if you lose?"
Clark shrugs at him, then lets his eyes drop briefly over Bruce's bare chest. He can pick out every filament of scar tissue, from the old, gnarled wound in his shoulder to the pale seam of a knife-slice at his hip. He meets his eyes again. "Your choice of forfeit."
"If," Bruce says. His tongue darts out to wet his lower lip. "And only if you win, and you prove to my satisfaction that you won't get yourself injured or worse, I might consider it."
"That's good enough for me."
Clark flashes him a bright smile, drops into a fighting stance and raises his chin in invitation.
Bruce whips around him like wind through grass, throws a couple of open-palmed strikes—and then knocks Clark off-balance when he steps past and grabs at the hem of his t-shirt. Clark has a moment to wonder what on Earth he is doing, then he tugs it sharply, makes Clark half-turn with it and brace for a strike on the follow-up. It doesn't come. Bruce just bounces on his toes, feints to get Clark to back off, and then repeats the cycle again: jab, dart, yank.
After the fifth time, Clark pulls the damn thing off over his head, throws it into a corner.
Bruce's mouth twitches and his hands drop subtly, the slightest flicker of distraction.
Clark seizes the opening, pushing in to connect a right cross—and as he swings he can feel he's got it wrong in his eagerness: too swift, far too much force behind it. It's enough to break bones. His heart jolts and he tries to pull back in the barest fraction of a second he has left, but it doesn't feel like it's going be enough—
His fist connects.
Clark feels the impact up his arm, the dull slap of flesh and the grind of bone and teeth under his knuckles. Bruce's head jerks to the side and his body twists. He goes to his knees on the mat.
"Jesus, Bruce." Clark kneels down. His hand hovers at Bruce's shoulder. "God, I'm sorry, I—are you okay?"
Bruce grunts, pulling a face as he pushes at his teeth with his tongue. "Everything's still where it should be," he says. There's blood on his lips. He wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand.
Clark goes to touch his face. Bruce pushes his hand away. "Let me see," Clark says, insistent. His stomach keeps turning, a sick flip every time the moment of impact repeats in his head. Bruce glares at him, then his expression eases and he relents, grudgingly. Clark catches his face in his palm and squints, concentrating hard.
Bruce is clenching his jaw tight and the inside of his cheek has a nasty gash, but he's telling the truth—no breaks or fractures or loose teeth. A low throb sets up in the front of Clark's skull as he blinks his wavering x-ray vision away.
"You punch like a grade schooler," Bruce says.
Clark is done checking him over, but he can't quite manage to take his hand away. Bruce's skin is warm. His stubble prickles Clark's palm. "You saw it coming."
"Before you did." Bruce gently takes his wrist, his thumb against Clark's quick pulse, and shifts his hand away. "Not soon enough to avoid it, but enough to roll with it."
He pats Clark's shoulder, picks himself up and gestures for Clark to do the same.
"What?" he says to Clark's doubtful expression. "You didn't think you'd won, did you?"
Clark wipes his damp hair from his forehead and considers throwing the match. Anticipating Bruce's next move as well as maintaining his heightened strength and speed is quickly taking its toll, and Bruce is clearly toying with him now—if he hasn't been all along—barely winded to Clark's heavy-limbed exhaustion.
He's let Clark throw and pin him over and over, only to twist free with ease every time, his sweat-slicked skin sliding against Clark's, all heat and friction and borderline indecency. Each time Clark has to bite the inside of his cheek and think about his least favorite farmyard chores. One more attempt. If Clark can't keep him down this time, he'll throw in the towel—and then go have a very long, very cold shower. He waits for Bruce to come at him again, soaks one jab, manages to deflect another, and considers whether he has the reserves to try this. If he is fast enough he might be able to—
Bruce's next salvo of blows come in unexpectedly low, then he braces his shoulder against Clark's chest and swipes his feet out from under him, dropping with him to the mat so he can't roll, two hundred-something pounds of solid muscle applied with direct force. Clark grunts and grabs at him, fingers slipping and leaving fading pale marks on his skin.
Bruce straddles his hips and leans over him to hold his wrists down. Clark arches under him, his feet on the ground and hips pushing up against his dense weight. He's not trying to dislodge him, not really. Clark is beat, wrung out, done. He only wants to feel Bruce pressed against him, just for a moment, an attempt to scratch this insane itch.
And Bruce, he's—oh. Clark can feel him alright, firm and heavy in his sweats, which is way more than Clark had bargained for. Bruce just stares ahead and takes a short, clipped breath when Clark shifts against him. Whatever his intentions, Clark's left him absolutely no way of hiding it. Not that Clark is in a much better state now, pulse throbbing erratic and heavy while his heart tries to decide whether it wants to stop dead or hit double-time. His exhale, when it comes, is shaky.
"Are you getting off on this?" he says, not accusatory so much as breathless with disbelief.
And why is he so surprised? Bruce on his bed when he could have used the couch. Bruce correcting his stance, hands lingering every time. A half-remembered touch to his face. Malone's hungry stare.
His hands are trembling. He can't even tell whether it's from exhaustion or anticipation or both.
"Clark," Bruce says. "I'm not made of stone." Any reproval he might be attempting is lost when his voice drops out, rough. He lets Clark pull a hand free and then lets him take his chin and angle his face down to him. There's a tightness around his eyes and in the line of his mouth, and a bruise developing on his jaw.
"I don't know," Clark says, drawing him down closer. Their noses brush. He allows a small, cautious grin and he knows his face must be red because he can feel it, heat breaking over him in waves. "You feel pretty rock solid to me."
"Jesus Christ," Bruce says on a rush of breath, and Clark can tell whatever tension is holding him in check is stretched to breaking point. Bruce pushes a hand into Clark's hair, pulls his head back with it, sparking sharp pinpricks across his scalp. His thighs tense. Bruce breathes across his throat. "Okay, you win. You win, Clark. You win."
Clark's blood is a red wash, crashing in his ears as Bruce stretches over him and rolls his hips forward in one long, slow drag. Clark's underwear is coarse with sweat, the friction just on the right side of uncomfortable, and if he wasn't utterly hard before then he definitely is now. He groans and digs his fingers into the thick muscle of Bruce's shoulders, pulling him down to bring their bodies tighter together. He feels like he can't get close enough, every inch of contact is somehow still not enough and Clark is untethered by how much he needs this.
How it's Bruce, only Bruce, and how he seems to want him back just as hard and just as desperately. No more masks to obfuscate his desire, all pretenses stripped away.
Bruce adjusts his grip in Clark's hair, loosening his fingers only to push them deep again, tugging at the roots. Clark gasps and arches his back, shoulders braced on the mat, and for the first time he finds some value in his vulnerability, that maybe a little sharpness is what he needs. His neck is bared; Bruce catches it with his free hand and strokes the length of it with the flat of his palm, damp skin clinging, his fingertips coming to rest in the hollow between his collarbones.
"God," Bruce murmurs, "Clark." One sounds more reverent than the other.
He leans in and kisses the knot of Clark's throat, the soft touch of his lips and the graze of stubble at first, but then he scrapes his teeth over Clark's skin, fastening into a hard suck. Clark makes a lost noise and swallows; Bruce's mouth rides along with it before releasing him.
"Look at you," Bruce says into the corner of Clark's jaw. Clark just lets out a breathless laugh and turns his face into Bruce's hair, lets one hand trail from his shoulder into the small of his back, urging him onward. Bruce rumbles wordlessly against his shoulder and moves against him, leisurely but deliberate, each thrust pushing Clark down until the mat beneath them has no more give.
It's overwhelming, the heat of Bruce's body and the sticky, vital press of his skin. Clark can hear the tachycardiac pounding of his heart, the tiny noise he makes on each exhale, the crinkle of the vinyl mat. He can feel the irregularity of his scars as their chests slide together, and against his cheek, how the gray at Bruce's temples is coarser than the rest of his hair. He can taste the salt of Bruce's perspiration in the air, smell the warm note of it threaded in his hair and under that, the fougère of his body wash.
"Bruce," he says, desperation making his voice waver. A familiar liquid heat is coiling tight in his stomach, overstimulation driving him recklessly toward orgasm. He squeezes his eyes shut. "I'm gonna—I can't—"
He feels Bruce peel away, pushing himself up to brace both hands either side of Clark's head. "Then don't," he says, without faltering in his slow, slow rhythm, wearing at him with all the patience of the ocean. "Look at me." A shift of his weight, mat settling unevenly, then Bruce brushes his knuckles against Clark's cheek, solid and real to the faint counterpart in Clark's sense-memory. "Clark, look at me."
Clark opens his eyes, finds Bruce staring down at him with the startling intensity he usually reserves for an intricate problem, or when he wants his own way and he wants it uncontested. His hair is damp and clinging to his forehead, his mouth tensed with anticipation, spreading into a small, captivated smile as Clark struggles with his next breath, jerks against him, coming hard enough to make fractals spark at the edges of his vision. It soaks his sweats, and Bruce smears it between them as he moves.
"Hnh." Bruce stops to drag his fingers through it. "Is that—do you always…?"
"...yeah," Clark says, once he can find his voice again. Maybe he should have given Bruce a heads up, but he can't seem to feel embarrassed about it, for once. He lets his head loll back onto the mat and curls his fingers around Bruce's wrist, guides his wet fingers to his mouth so he can lick at the tips. "I'm kind of messy. Sorry."
"Ah," Bruce says, as though he's just figured something out, then he swears under his breath, tucks his forehead against Clark's shoulder and goes utterly still. Clark hears the wild spike of his heartbeat, feels his muscles draw tight. He pulses heavily, once, twice, and groans.
He steadies Bruce while he sinks down on top of him in a controlled collapse, letting his fingers roam over the back of his neck and down his spine, over a shoulder blade. He traces out the curved edge of an old knife wound, thumbs an indentation that's all that remains of a bullet hole, maps out the history of Bruce's body and all the stories he'll never tell.
"You're still hard," Bruce says, most of the way up the steps to the bedroom, where Bruce has paused to push Clark against the wall and scrape his teeth over his jaw. Clark clings to Bruce's shoulders and tries not to notice that they haven't kissed yet.
"That's—" Clark says, and sucks a breath in through his nose when Bruce rests his hand over Clark's dick, tracing out the shape of him through the damp material of his sweatpants. "That's normal, too. Takes, um. Takes a few."
"A few," Bruce echoes, makes a face like he can't decide if that's a gift or a curse—it's something Clark is ambivalent on, depending on the circumstances. Today he's feeling a little dizzy at the prospect. Bruce rubs his knuckles along the underside of Clark's length, through the fabric. "How rapidly can you...? Are you still sensitive?"
"Kind of." Enough that even a light touch is electric. Clark arches into his hand and tilts his head to chase the warmth of Bruce's breath on his lips.
"Could you come again, right now?" Bruce whispers, and there's a shade of something like awe in his voice. "Would it be good?"
He can and he will, if Bruce keeps touching him like this, talking like this. And it would, God. It would. "So many questions," Clark says instead. "Ever the detective."
Bruce laughs, short but rich, and brushes his nose against Clark's face. Then they're moving again, stumbling into the half-dark of the bedroom, lacework shadows cast over them by the trees outside.
The AC is on, chill air raising goosebumps along Clark's arms and making him shiver even with the close press of Bruce's body. He is feeling more uncomfortable by the moment, sweats clinging to him and leaving a mess when they tumble onto the bed together. He edges away from Bruce, enough to gesture down at himself and make a disgusted noise. "Your sheets."
"Don't worry about it," Bruce says. He moves to kneel, inching Clark's sweatpants and underwear off him one small tug at a time. He tosses them into a corner then stretches one arm out to comb his fingers through Clark's hair, then rests that hand on his sternum for a moment, over his heart. He looks Clark over, subtle gradations of lust phasing across his features, then he bends to kiss the jut of Clark's hipbone. "You are filthy, though," he says, approvingly.
"Won't be necessary." Bruce pushes between Clark's knees, encourages him to spread his thighs wide by stroking his hands up the inside of his legs. His thumbs trail either side of Clark's dick, but don't touch at all. "Later," he amends, then ducks down.
Clark's breath catches when Bruce slides his tongue up his inner thigh, into the crook of his leg and then presses behind his balls, indecently hot strokes over the sensitive skin there. Bruce's fingers follow in his tongue's wake, passing over his ass, dipping gently against Clark's—against him. A new wave of arousal crashes over him, and he feels stupid with lust. God, he wants—
"Bruce," he says. It comes out a little needier than he intended.
"Can I?" Bruce says, teasing gently, finger slick with—Clark knows what he's slick with, and it takes everything he has not to pull Bruce over him, grab his hips and grind up against his solid frame, bone and muscle and heat and—
"God, yes," he groans, and then Bruce presses firmly with his finger until Clark gives around him, waking a shock of sensation that ebbs and spreads in tendrils of warmth. "Fuck." Clark grabs at the sheets and rolls against Bruce's hand, pushing him deeper.
"Steady," Bruce murmurs, "take it slow." He pins him with a hand on his stomach, resting feather-light. Then, with almost clinical fascination, says, "I don't think I've heard you swear before."
"That's probably because," Clark manages, "you've not done this to me before, either."
"I'm enamored with the correlation." Bruce slides his finger out in a torturously slow move, and if this is something he learned for his Wayne shtick, Clark isn't going to complain this time. Mostly because he's too busy trying to remember how to form a basic thought.
"I bet you... are," he pants, losing his grip on the last syllable as Bruce adds a second finger and pushes back in at an even more glacial pace, like that should even be possible. Then he leans over Clark and shifts the angle, the look on his face borderline predatory as he curls his fingers just so. Clark swears again, as much performance as pure impulse this time, even if the jerk of his hips is beyond his control. The noise Bruce makes and the determined thrust of his hand is his reward.
The ache in Clark's muscles has settled outside of his consciousness, leaving nothing but pleasure, uncomplicated and direct, just the stress of Bruce's knuckles against his skin, the pads of his fingers stroking inside him, his quiet words of encouragement, his curious observations, the questions that Clark's in no state to answer: you're so responsive, Clark, does that feel good? I don't think you've done this before, am I right?
He is almost incoherently hard now, blood-heavy and tight with it, babbling, yes yes, it's good. Bruce turns his wrist and finally picks up a steady rhythm—gentle out, brisk in, sometimes slower, sometimes firmer, sometimes with a twist of his fingers that makes Clark clench his jaw and jerk his hips and press his tongue behind his teeth. He feels the wet slip of precome beading against his stomach, welling out of him along with his uncontrollable soft noises. When he tries to stroke himself for a little relief, Bruce pushes his hand aside.
"Please." Clark arches his back, physical entreaty to go with his words. "Touch me?"
"I am touching you," Bruce says, and Clark clenches around his fingers at the stern rumble of his voice. "You can come just from this. Can't you." It's not a question, exactly.
Clark shudders and tries to keep his breathing even, timing it with the rhythm of Bruce's fingers, the constancy of his heartbeat.
"Just a little more," Bruce says, a little too breathless to be matter-of-fact. "I know you can take it. God, you're—" He presses in another sure finger, stretching him wider, making him fuller—and that's Clark's limit, when the next slide and push of Bruce's hand becomes too much for him to last any longer.
"Bruce," he gasps urgently, his body folding around that first intense wave like a jackknife, but whatever followup thought he had is gone.
"That's it," Bruce says in his ear. He touches Clark's face, thumb mapping over his cheekbone, his jaw, his lips. "That's it. Come on."
Clark turns into Bruce's palm and does as he's told, tightening around him while he goes into colorfully explicit detail on precisely what he'd like to do to Clark, how good he is, what a disgraceful mess he's making. It seems to last forever, tiny aftershocks shaking Clark's body even after the main event has passed, and he's left sticky and wet, trembling with exhaustion.
Bruce settles alongside him, propped on one elbow. He looks immensely pleased with himself.
"You're obscene," Clark informs him, once he can get his mouth around the words.
"You shouldn't believe everything you read," Bruce says, "but give due consideration to what might have its roots in the truth." He leans in, then hesitates. Clark waits, expectant and then impatient and then a little queasy, and finally closes the gap himself. He kisses him, just a soft press of his lips, borderline chaste.
Bruce sighs and rests his forehead against Clark's. "Tired?"
"Mm. Think my power's out again."
"Sleep," Bruce suggests. He runs a hand over Clark's stomach, then pauses to examine the evidence he has collected. "Hm. Okay. Shower, then sleep."
Water hisses against the tile, white noise like a spring downpour luring Clark into a strange headspace—vivid and delicate, hazy yet fine-grained. He rests against the shining wall, outside of the main force of the shower, soaking in the deflected spray instead. On the other side of the fogged glass, Bruce is shedding his sweatpants. His legs are thick, strong, muscles defined in chiaroscuro that shift languidly as he moves.
When he joins him the shower, Clark touches his bare hip and then the contour of his thigh, and Bruce looks at him with such raw affection that his chest aches. He encourages Clark to step under the spray with quiet words and a gentle hand. Water comes pattering down onto him, shifting points of pressure alongside Bruce's fingers where they're curled against his neck, holding him steady. He leans his forehead against Bruce's shoulder and kisses his wet skin. His hands seem a natural fit to Bruce's waist.
He lets Bruce sluice him down, one broad hand moving between them to lather up his chest and stomach, foam cascading down his thighs and dissolving under rivulets of water. He's methodical and efficient with it at first, but then turns quickly to long, slow caresses that make Clark arch against him, makes him lift his head and nose into his neck.
The air is humid, thick with steam. He can feel Bruce, firm against his thigh, twitching when Clark licks at the edge of his jaw; he tastes clean warm water and salt-sweat, the rough texture of Bruce's stubble. Clark thinks he might like to go to his knees and feel his pulse in his mouth, heavy on his tongue. He wonders if he could make Bruce groan again, if he would need to brace himself on the glossy tiles, if his thighs would shake under Clark's hands.
Water collects in the dip of Bruce's collarbone and spills over his chest, bright trails in the valleys of his musculature. When he raises his arms to soap Clark's hair, his topography shifts, sending the water tracking along new paths. Clark wants to follow it down, but Bruce's hands are still in his hair and even his lightest touch keeps Clark in thrall.
He turns his face to Bruce's, a silent request that goes unanswered. He's intent on his task, Clark thinks, but the man won't have missed such an open plea. Bruce guides Clark's head back, rinsing his hair under the spray, and kisses the base of his throat instead.
The sun blasts through the lakehouse windows, one of Gotham's muggy heatwaves rolling in across the water. The AC hums and clicks, its cool air skimming across Clark's back. He wakes to voices, fading in and out of his awareness. When he turns over, the bed next to him is empty, sheets rumpled. His body is lax with a bone-deep satisfaction, but Bruce's absence leaves him vaguely uneasy.
He closes his eyes and listens: faint organic noises, food being prepared; the clink of glassware.
"—not just another poor sod you've convinced that your bottomless well is the one they should toss their penny into." Alfred. He sounds angry. "You can't fob him off when you get tired of him like you do the hopeful young starlets."
No—not just angry. Furious. And Clark can take a wild guess as to who the mystery subject is. His stomach does a slow, nauseating flip, and suddenly he wonders at the way Bruce touched him last night, how fascinated he seemed—whether that was meant to make things less intimate, not more.
"I'm warning you, Alfred." Bruce, calm and quiet and also furious. "Drop it."
When Alfred speaks again, the anger is more restrained. "Very well. In that case, I have things that need attending. I trust you can make your own breakfast, Mr. Wayne."
"Don't 'Alfred' me. You want to keep him under your thumb, I understand that. And you know fine well that this is an appalling way to go about it. You use people harder than you need to, Bruce, and I'm not looking forward to damage control when it all comes down around your ears this time."
"That's not the plan any more. That's— Alfred." Bruce takes a sharp, quick breath, fortifying. His heart skips its next beat. "That is not what is happening here. So save the preemptive 'I told you so'."
There's a taut silence. Under his own racing heart, Clark can hear the lap of lakewater against the deck, the rustle of leaves and the distant twittering of birds in the forest, the world carrying on incidentally while Clark's head spins. As for Bruce, he must be holding his breath.
Then comes Alfred's incredulous tut. "Oh, Bruce," he says, with razor-edged affection. "You stupid, stupid man."
Clark stops listening there, goes back over the conversation to make sure he understood it right. It wouldn't be difficult to get the wrong end of the stick, not with Bruce and the way he often says more with his silence than he does with his words, but the more Clark turns it over in his head, the less that seems possible. If anything, it's Alfred's disbelief that cements it.
He sits himself on the edge of the bed and stays there for a while. He tries to center himself, settling the leap of his heart and the way his blood is singing in him—though he has less success when it comes to not grinning like a dumbass. Bruce.
In the quiet, he hears the front door open and close. He goes to see which one of them won the battle of attrition this time.
It's Bruce, looking tired as is standard, and a little shell-shocked, which is not so much. He's in a pale blue shirt, sleeves rolled up and an unfastened tie draped around his neck, busy loading the blender with whey powder and miscellaneous greenery. He looks up as Clark comes into the kitchen; his eyes sharpen, his face shifting into something more guarded.
He deliberately hits the button when Clark opens his mouth, even if all he was going to say was good morning, at least to start with. He can be astonishingly petulant. Clark folds his arms and waits for him to get over himself.
Eventually Bruce lays off, once his dubious breakfast is pulverized to his satisfaction and it's obvious that Clark isn't just going to go away. "How much did you hear?" he asks, wariness in his narrowed eyes and the cant of his shoulders.
"Most of it."
His mouth presses into a grim line. "How much do you believe?"
Clark shrugs. "Most of it," he says again, and rests back against the countertop. "But especially the part about you being stupid."
Bruce sighs and scrubs at his hair, then leans over on his elbows next to him, shirt stretching over his back. He glances at Clark side-on, his face as hard as granite. This is something that Clark hasn't seen in him before: alarm so tightly-controlled as to be almost nothing, but alarm nonetheless.
"You should be more concerned," Bruce says.
"About what—that this was all a plan so you could keep an eye on me?" Clark raises his eyebrows. "That it's some overly-elaborate obedience training? Who would have thought that a hypercompetent micromanager like you would try to push someone around. What a startling revelation. Look, here's my astonished face."
Bruce's carefully-structured expression collapses. "Jesus. Are you always like this the next morning?"
"Only after the Bruce Wayne Experience," Clark says. "TM."
That makes him turn pale. He almost looks ill with it. He pushes up off the counter. "That's not funny," he says. "That's not funny. Last night. That wasn't—"
"I know. Sorry." He reaches to tug at Bruce's collar, starched fabric playing between his finger and thumb as he flips it against his neck. Bruce tips his chin up obediently. "But you're right—I probably should be angry at you, or at least worried about what kind of plans and contingencies you've made to keep me in check, but it's not like it's unprecedented. It's not like I'm surprised."
"I got that," Bruce says, gruff, and he thumbs at Clark's jawline. The fondness of it makes Clark smile.
"And if I'm not concerned all that much, well." He tugs the ends of Bruce's tie to the appropriate lengths, then crosses it over itself, fastening it with a sloppy half-windsor. He folds the collar down again and smooths it; his hands rest there as he looks Bruce in the eye. "Maybe it's because you're not the only one who's stupid."
Bruce's throat works. Then, slowly, he leans in. Clark can sense the moment he almost backs off again; he can almost feel the crushing certainty of it—but then he doesn't. Bruce kisses him.
Gentle at first, with the morning light against Clark's eyelids and Bruce's heat radiant against his palms. Clark's breath catches, lips parting, drawing in with a soft sound and his hands on Bruce's shoulders. Bruce just makes his own fierce noise against Clark's open mouth, turning hungry like he can't find any other way to be, tipping Clark's chin with his fingertips to seek fuller contact. He dips his tongue, slides it against Clark's, and when he pulls away it's warm and slow, Clark's lower lip drawn between his teeth, more an extension of the kiss than the end of it.
"I was supposed to make sure you wouldn't be a problem," Bruce says, despairing and breathless, pushing Clark against the countertop with his hips, which is about the only thing keeping Clark upright. One hand clutches at Clark's waist, bunching the fabric of his shirt. He's shaking, barely discernible tremors. "All I've done is made us both vulnerable. Tactically, it's idiotic. The worst idea I've ever had."
"This from a guy who dresses like a giant bat and hurls himself off tall buildings," Clark says, and can't help himself; he noses in to kiss him again, quick and soft. "I'm almost offended."
"See, this is what I'm talking about. You're incorrigible." He strokes at Clark's hair, twisting the curls through his fingers, the push of his body transmuting into an embrace, all hard planes under rich cotton, folding around Clark. He takes a deep, steady breath. "I had no chance. God, you smell good."
"I smell like you," Clark says, and pulls him in tight. "Narcissist."
Bruce is due at Wayne Enterprises this morning; apparently it takes considerable time and effort to offset his own deliberate stumbles and arrogant showboating. One more ball in his elaborate juggling routine, steps to keep the company ticking over and to make sure his staff have some degree of respect for him, despite being a one-man PR catastrophe.
When Clark suggests that he may be his own worst enemy, Bruce's only response is a caustic look.
So Clark sits on the bed with one leg folded under him and watches Bruce pull the persona together—vest, cufflinks, jacket, smirk. It's a subtle but striking transformation, just the slightest shift in his posture, in the superficial openness of his face. All Clark can think about is dismantling it again, piece by piece.
(The fact that he hasn't fixed Clark's amateurish job with the tie makes his chest feel tight.)
He only realizes how quiet he's been when Bruce asks, "What's eating you?"
"Nothing," Clark says, with a shrug. He watches Bruce comb his hair into place and then tug his shirtcuffs down over his wrists, and changes his mind about brushing it off. "You're good at hiding."
Bruce tilts his chin at Clark, invitation for him to elaborate.
"When did you, um—" Clark says. It isn't important; he's just curious—that, and thinking about it stirs a particular thrill that he finds himself hungry for. "How long?"
Bruce steps up to him, leans one hand on the bed, the other on the crook of Clark's knee. From the look of him, Clark expects a boorish Wayne response, but Bruce just ducks in, drops a kiss on the bridge of Clark's nose and says, "I'll see you later."
It's a beautiful day, the sun burning off the worst of Gotham's cloudbanks and letting the summer heat gather in the air. Clark relaxes out on the deck in one of the slowly disintegrating loungers and watches the remaining white shreds of cloud get teased out by the breeze.
It's too warm for flannel and jeans, so he's taken it upon himself to be borderline invasive and dug a pair of shorts and an undershirt from Bruce's wardrobe. Both black, with amusing predictability. Clark finds he's mildly disappointed that they only smell of detergent, but when he closes his eyes and lets the recent events wash over him, he thinks maybe that's a small mercy. It's overwhelming enough even with the hazy quality the night has taken on, especially where it's shot through with bolts of visceral, tactile memory. Clark has to stop and hold his breath whenever he thinks about it.
(It doesn't escape him that the man who had once used everything in his arsenal to drive him to his knees could now do so with a single glance or a soft word.)
He groans quietly and turns onto his front, lets the sun kiss his spine. He must have drifted into sleep—he didn't get that much rest, after all—because he wakes to a shadow cast over him and the clink of ice against a glass.
"May I interest you in some iced tea, Master Clark?"
Clark squints up at Alfred's silhouette. "Mm?"
"It's passion fruit," Alfred says, arch. He sets the glass down next to the lounger.
"Thanks," Clark says. He feels his face heat, a sharp prickle under the warmth he has absorbed from the sun. He can't quite bring himself to make eye contact. He sits himself up, feet on the deck, and scrubs one hand through his hair. "Um—"
Alfred tugs the leg of his pants and sits himself on the adjacent lounger. He leans forward, hands clasped between his knees. "It seems that Master Bruce is quite taken with you," he says. There's no judgment there, just Alfred's usual shrewd understatement. He watches Clark, sharp behind the horn-rimmed glasses.
Clark is conscious that Alfred has been the one looking out for Bruce all these years. It'd be naive to think it's as straightforward as a father-son kind of relationship, even a thorny one, but it suddenly makes him nervous—and a little annoyed at himself, that he wants Alfred's approval in this.
He remembers, all of a sudden, that Ma has invited him and Bruce back home, and feels that pressure twofold.
"Yeah, uh." He rubs at the back of his neck, smiles self-deprecatingly. "I got that impression."
"And full force, no doubt," Alfred says, infinitely dry. "I trust you are prepared for his inevitable nonsense."
"I've managed so far." And yeah, Clark has, mostly—but he's pretty sure that's not what Alfred is talking about.
Alfred just offers him an opaque smile and stands, touching Clark's arm. "You're a good influence on him. Eventually, he will try to make you believe otherwise. Don't let him."
Clark doesn't let himself wonder how many people Alfred might have given this speech to. While Bruce Wayne's tabloid-worthy relationships were no doubt as much a fabrication as any other part of his persona, he must have gotten close to some of them. If nothing else, the sheer force of numbers makes it a reasonable bet.
"This is all very ominous," he says.
"That is his middle name," Alfred says, then adds, with mannered disdain, "amongst other things."
Clark's sunsoaked and drowsy, feels like he could almost get fat from it, the way it sinks into his bones and brims up inside him. It feels like all the aches and bruises are lifting from his skin. He's shed the undershirt and left it in a clinging damp pile on the deck, next to the glass full of half-melted ice cubes. He can track the gradual passage of the sun even with his eyes closed, gauged by the angle and intensity of its rays on his bare back. It's just him, the wide arc of the sky, the gentle lap of the lake beneath the deck—and someone else's breathing. He keeps his eyes closed and his smile where it is.
There's a liquid noise, the ring of the glass, and Clark catches on a second before it happens. Despite that, he can't help the involuntary jerk when the sliver of ice alights between his shoulder blades, body snapping into rigidity as it trails into the small of his back. Clark gasps and twists onto his side, water trickling off him, already warming.
"You look like you've had a busy day," Bruce says, sultry Gotham Brahmin in a light register, laid on thick to the point of parody. When he crouches next to the lounger, his expression is jejune, caddish. Clark doesn't trust it one bit.
"You're being that guy," he tells Bruce. "Don't be that guy."
Bruce raises his eyebrows, nothing but bland curiosity, ready to lose interest at a moment's notice. "And which guy is that?"
Clark feels a stab of frustration. Bruce's mask is paper-thin; it shouldn't work anywhere near as well as it does, especially not now, but it's somehow hard to get past it. He is extremely good at hiding. "The first time I met you—" Clark says, by way of explanation, trying to lift the edges.
"Mm, yes," Bruce says, deadpan. "Our eyes met across a crowded room."
Clark snorts and allows him a tolerant smile. He decides to play along for now, affecting the slightly bored tone of someone who's told the same story a hundred times. "It was a bright, crisp evening and the stars were aligned just so. I hated you on sight. You couldn't stop checking me out—"
"You hated me? Really? I didn't—I did not get that vibe from you." And there's the quick turn of his mouth, engineered to be completely infuriating. "All those friendly aspersions you were casting my way..."
"You were an asshole." Clark's smile becomes a grin. "And you persisted—"
"My. You've got a dirty mouth, Kansas."
"—persisted in being an asshole right up to the line. I've got to say, I admire your dedication to the role."
And just like that, Wayne's swagger evaporates and it's just Bruce kneeling next to him, getting dirt on his expensive slacks. He takes a deep breath, not quite a sigh. "I don't have to try very hard," he says, the slick marble of his public voice crushed back into gravel.
Clark catches a finger in the V of his jacket. "I think you have a kind heart."
"I think you feel that way about every person you meet, Clark."
Clark half shrugs. It's not too far from the truth—he believes there's some good in everyone, no matter how deeply buried—but that doesn't mean Bruce is somehow exempt, or that Clark's love is somehow devalued just because it's vast. He's about to try explain that when Bruce slips his thumb into the waistband of his shorts and snaps the elastic against Clark's back.
"Are these mine?" he says, and Clark's throat tightens at the tone of his voice, the delicate break in it.
"Okay," Bruce says. "Come with me."
Bruce has tremendous self-restraint, except when he doesn't. He drags Clark through to the bedroom, a hand on his wrist and Clark almost tripping over his own feet to keep up. Alfred's long-suffering 'good grief' is cut short as Bruce kicks the door closed behind them.
He wastes no time in pressing Clark up against one of the huge windows; Clark's skin squeals against it and leaves a sweaty smear on the glass. His skull makes a hollow sound when he tips his head back a bit too hard. Bruce is on his knees, mouthing at him through the sleek synthetic fabric of the shorts, one hand working its way up the leg, hitching it up Clark's thigh. He's a little desperate with it, like maybe he's been thinking about it all day.
"Did you," Clark says, "did you—ah," and then whatever coy smalltalk he's trying to initiate is sent skittering out of his head when Bruce tugs down the waistband and draws Clark into his mouth. He jerks helplessly but Bruce holds him fast, a palm pushing against his hip as he goes deep around him. The other slides further up the inside of his thigh, still under the shorts, and squeezes at the base of Clark's dick.
Clark's pulse thrums in his ears. He feels like he's glowing; today has been nothing but decadent warmth, and now—and now Bruce is doing something outrageous with his tongue, sending rills of heat through his veins. Clark pets his hair, a clumsy warning. "Bruce."
Bruce pulls back and slips Clark out of his mouth, and in an impressively lewd maneuver, leaves the head of Clark's dick resting on his lower lip. He's not smirking, there's no trace of the playboy here, just Bruce's grave intensity and a confident, unashamed hedonism that is not part of any act. This is something he wants to do, so he's doing it. He stares up at Clark, eyes glittering, and waits.
Clark endures that look for the span of two breaths and five heartbeats and then loses it over Bruce's lips. It's so brashly pornographic he can barely stand to watch it happen, especially when it drips onto Bruce's shirt collar.
Bruce just tilts his head back and swallows, darting his tongue into the corner of his mouth and then across his lower lip. He pulls an exaggeratedly disgusted face, and Clark laughs and hauls him up onto his feet—it's easy, like he doesn't weigh anything, like Clark's the strongest man in the world—and kisses him, kisses the taste of himself, kisses the smile that curves against Bruce's lips.
"Are you busy?" he says, and hooks two fingers into the knot of Bruce's tie, "because I think I owe you."
The sun is setting, its retreat tearing the sky open into long red gashes, pouring into the lake and turning the water into stirred blood. Bruce's bedroom is doused in it; Bruce himself is cast in shadow where Clark stands between him and the window. He's unfastened Bruce's tie and placed it neatly on the dresser, eased his jacket from his shoulders, and is slowly slipping the buttons of his shirt.
"I said I wasn't busy right now," Bruce says, and the fact that he sounds impatient instead of seductive is somehow more appealing. "But I don't actually have all week."
Clark just smiles sunnily and returns to his exploration. Every new button opens Bruce's shirt up wider, revealing more scars—each of which needs to be mapped, first with fingers then with lips, and in the case of the gnarled mess on his shoulder, with the graze of Clark's teeth. It's testament to Bruce's resilience that he's still standing upright, considering the noises he made at that.
Bruce's fingers brush Clark's shoulders, down his arms. "Come on," he says as Clark unfastens the last button. "Clark."
"Don't be pushy," Clark says, mouth pressed to the sliver of shiny skin above Bruce's navel. He's not really sure what his plan is here, only that he wants to take all of Bruce's pieces and lay them out in plain view: not just the cotton and silk and gabardine, but the bone and muscle and pale, pale scars; his grit and his grief and his abiding passion, Gotham in his blood like a curse. He wants to know Bruce like he knows himself.
He wonders if Bruce feels the same about him, whether he's parsing Clark Kent out into a schematic diagram, or into a battle plan—or whether he finds everything he needs worn plainly on Clark's sleeve.
"You're killing me here," Bruce says, as Clark slips the shirt from him and turns him around so he can work his way up Bruce's back, mouth at the abrasions and welts and the stormclouds of bruising. Turnabout is fair play, he wants to say, but for all the forgiveness he has, he can't quite joke about that yet.
Clark presses his lips to the scattershot pucker of scarring at the base of his neck, and slides his palm across the front of his slacks. Bruce clenches his teeth and rocks his hips forward, and Clark takes his hand back only long enough to unfasten his belt and push him down onto the bed—one leg behind Bruce's calf, and then a simple case of gravity.
Bruce grins at that, then his head falls back as Clark tugs at his underwear, baring his neck so that Clark can spread his hand across the curve of his throat and feel the vibration of his voice, come on, touch me. The groan when Clark tightens his hand around him, when he presses the flat of his tongue over Bruce's nipple, when he bites at the juncture of his neck and shoulder. He comes quickly enough that it would be embarrassing if he weren't so defenseless with it—he makes a sudden, startled sound, his body flexing, pushing into Clark's hand.
He breathes, and Clark breathes with him, and Bruce hooks an arm across his shoulder and pulls Clark down on top of him.
"So. Gotham National put in a security maint request with WayneTech today," Bruce says, one heavy thigh casually wedged between Clark's. His hair is a mess, licked up at the side. "They reported some anomalies on their system logs. Nothing as serious as a breach, but definitely some activity beyond the usual."
Clark can forgive Bruce's unusual idea of pillowtalk, just for the way he turns keen when he talks shop—gets that sharp, analytical look to his face. "Like someone's testing it?" he asks.
"Mm. Probing in order to calibrate their own device. I got a technician on it immediately, patched in a new layer of security protocols. Next time they try, they'll find themselves back at square one." He pauses. "I should be running the data. I want to be out there tonight."
"So what's stopping you?"
"Beats me." Bruce swings out of bed and onto his feet. He glances back at Clark, one corner of his mouth drawn up. Clark can't help but smile back, and maybe surreptitiously appreciate his back muscles when he rolls his shoulders and pulls on some pants.
"There you are," Bruce mutters. "Amateurs." He rattles off some keyboard commands and a stream of data overflows into a new window; he scrolls through it quickly and then pushes back off the desk, chair wheeling. "Nothing I didn't already know. The patch I deployed will hold up fine if this is the level they're operating at."
"So what now, stake the bank out until they show up to give it their best shot?" Clark leans back against the desk, ankles crossed. He can sense the ambient temperature of the cave is on the cool side, but it's not bothering him despite the lack of a shirt. He feels luminous. Bruce seems similarly unaffected, and Clark wonders if he's accustomed to stalking around down here half-nude.
"I already have surveillance up, but—" Bruce frowns. He taps at his mouth with one finger, then turns back to his keyboard. "I have an idea." More machine-gun typing, Bruce's face set in a narrow scowl of concentration as he composes a page full of code apparently out of thin air.
"What's this?" Clark leans in and tries to make some sense of it, but it's all nonsense to him. He can't even pick out anything that might be an array or a variable string. He doesn't doubt that the entire language is custom, though at this point he wouldn't put it past Bruce to be able to hammer out machine code on a whim.
"Sh." Bruce's typing slows, but he addresses Clark without pausing or even sparing him a glance. "Find me a sequencer."
Right. Bat mode engaged, evidently. Clark pokes around the workbenches—some of Bruce's toys are laid out with all their complex guts unraveled, along with a spare pair of glasses and a half-empty coffee cup forgotten in a nest of wiring. For all of his air of disapproval, Alfred is one hell of an enabler. Near that, he spies a number of the smooth black cases similar to the one Matches handed over to Alfred a few nights ago, stacked next to a stripboard prototype and few boxes of electronic components. He grabs one of them.
"Hook it up," Bruce tells him. "Turn it on."
Clark has an exciting premonition of all the fights they are going to have in the future, and how many of them are going to start with Bruce bossing him around like this. In this instance he's not sure if he wants to take Bruce down a peg or if he wants to be ordered right back into bed again, but that's beside the point.
(And if Clark hadn't seen Bruce genuinely overwhelmed, he might be a little worried about that whole control-and-manipulate thing he'd been considering.)
As it is, Clark decides that he's stubborn enough that he won't let it pass without comment, and adopts a deferential tone, all office intern. "Of course, Mr. Wayne. Right away, Mr. Wayne." It earns him an entertainingly scathing look, and he didn't even lay it on that thick. He volleys with a placid smile. Passive-aggressive, sure. Effective? Debatable.
"Sorry," Bruce says, sounding anything but. "Please, and thank you." He gives his keyboard a final strike on the return key, then laces his fingers and turns his palms outward in a long stretch that pulls at the sinewy muscle of his forearms.
It's absolutely calculated. Clark gravitates to him anyway. "Jerk," he says, quiet and fond.
"I've been called worse." Bruce's screen begins a stop-start flurry of output, compiling the program. He tilts his head a fraction and his eyes glint in the sterile glow. He reaches to extract a USB cable from somewhere behind the monitors and hands it to Clark. "Hook it up," he says. The please is still silent, but more present—he doesn't pass up the opportunity to let their fingers brush.
And, of course, Clark's aware that Bruce doesn't need his help to plug in a cable. Terseness aside, he appreciates Bruce's effort to loop him in. He slots the connector home and a blue LED, recessed into one of the beveled edges, blinks on. When he flips the device open it lights up with a sleek GUI, dominated by the WayneTech logo. "Okay," he says.
Bruce initiates his program then glances over at Clark. "Tell me what it's doing."
"Not much." Clark twirls his finger, mime approximating the idle animation in the corner of the screen. "Thinking, I guess."
Bruce grunts. He looks over his code and amends it. He mutters something under his breath that sounds suspiciously like semicolons, every damn time, then sets it compiling again.
"Okay," he says. "Now?"
The sequencer's screen dies.
"Oh. Uh-oh," Clark says, and swipes his fingers over it in an attempt to wake it up. No luck, so he runs his fingers around its edges in search of a button that might do something. Unplugs and re-plugs the cable. Shakes it a little. Even after the full extent of his technological troubleshooting, it remains resolutely dead. "I think it might be—"
"Yup." Clark turns the device over to Bruce; tens of thousands of dollars worth of useless plastic and glass. It makes him feel a little sick. "Sorry."
Bruce observes it blankly for a moment, then breaks into a grin, sharp enough to cut. "Excellent."
As far as Clark understands it, the plan is this: the Bat will break into Gotham National Bank's main server room, update the firmware on their security, and anyone attempting to interact with the system at any branch using an uncleared WayneTech-branded device will find it rendered inoperative. His computer will log when it happens, intercept the nearest municipal CCTV feed, and leave him free to round up the perpetrators at his leisure. Added bonus: no further risk of a heist going off with WayneTech's electronic signature left all over it. His reputation has suffered more than the requisite, lately.
Unsurprisingly, Clark doesn't factor into these proceedings at all.
"No," Bruce says.
"You need me to watch your back," Clark says. "I know you've done your fair share of B&E but come on, it's a bank—"
"I don't need you to do that."
"What if they decide to rob the place while you're inside? If I'm there to give you a heads up—"
"I can handle it." Bruce flattens his hand to the palm reader; the Batsuit is revealed, looming in the downlit alcove, the cowl a hollow void. Clark stares at it, momentarily derailed. He's acutely conscious of the second empty costume at his back.
He gives himself a quick shake. "I know, but—"
"Clark," Bruce says. "No."
"Okay," Clark says, sighing. "Alright. At least—just let me take a walk around the block while you do your thing. It feels like forever since I was in a city." If he sounds wistful, he doesn't mean to. Gotham would never be his first choice, but he does miss it—being among other people, part of a teeming whole. To listen to the buildings around him and hear a hundred heartbeats echoing back.
Bruce turns to him, incredulous. "You're going to take a stroll around Gotham. Alone. In the early hours. I thought you wanted to help, not give me more work."
"I won't get into trouble," Clark tells him. "It's a good neighborhood, right?"
Bruce actually pinches the bridge of his nose.
"Besides," Clark says, sensing weakness. He plays his trump card while he still has the chance. "We had a deal."
Bruce takes a long breath, lets it out. "Get out of here," he says. "Go get dressed."
Clark's back in the cave in fifteen. Bruce is in uniform from the neck down, and Clark vividly remembers his first night here, the surreality of seeing Bruce like this, how it had made him want—
He reaches out and strokes his thumb across Bruce's neck, and over the dense weave of the Bat's skin. The cave lights throw his face into stark shadow, but Clark senses his eyes drift closed. His heart thrums, chest rising steadily in even breaths.
He curls his fingers around Clark's hand; cool, dry leather and a steel grip. He turns it palm up and drops a tiny device into it. Clark watches, rapt as he pulls up the cowl.
"Communicator," the Bat says, his voice like a landslide. "Only use it if you need to."
The Bat drives like the devil is on his tail—exhilaratingly reckless but with such fine precision that Clark can almost enjoy it. Almost. He keeps a very careful grip on the upholstery either side of his knees as Bruce downshifts and floors the accelerator, engine roaring, and they're catapulted down the roads into Gotham proper.
They burn over the island's bridges, deep into the heart of Diamond. If Clark hadn't already suspected that Bruce might be showing off, the completely unnecessary handbrake turn into a side alley would have clued him in fast.
"Well," Clark says once his bones have rattled to a stop, a little breathless. "Thanks for the ride."
Bruce's mouth is narrow beneath the shadow of his cowl. The door locks pop open. He grabs Clark's arm when he's halfway out of the vehicle. "Watch yourself," he says in his modulated growl. "Metropolis on a bad day has nothing on Gotham when she's good."
"I hear you," Clark says, straightening up. The night is warm, stored summer heat radiating from the city's sooty brickwork. He can smell ozone and burning rubber, fast food somewhere. There's the low, steady drum of a nightclub beat, percussive jazz from someplace else. He can hear the fizz of a neon sign as it flickers through its rainbow colors. Bruce smells sharp, like adrenaline.
Bruce hops out, advances on him where he stands. "I mean it," he says. "If you find trouble, don't be a hero."
"That," Clark says, and pushes subtly against the bounds of gravity until he is a few inches from the gravel-strewn sidewalk, a few inches taller than Bruce. "Will be difficult."
"Not in civvies," Bruce says, and wraps his hands in Clark's jacket, pulling him down. "Feet on the ground, flyboy."
Clark looks up at the sky, takes a deep draught of the sticky Gotham air and decides that he disagrees wholeheartedly with that sentiment. Whether Bruce notices his gleeful grin and recognizes it as a warning he doesn't know, because he's already hooked an arm around his waist and propelled them skyward, wind resistance tearing at his clothes and making Bruce's cape snap and flutter.
Bruce flattens himself to Clark's chest, hands still fisted in his jacket. He makes a noise that starts off like Clark's name and ends as though all the breath's been pushed out of his lungs.
It is intoxicating, the lights and sounds and smells that have woven themselves back into the tapestry of Clark's subconscious, ready to be tugged to the fore when he needs them. He wants to revel in it, grasp at each bright filament in turn and somehow share the brilliance of it all with Bruce. He grips him tight, turns in a lazy arch and watches the skyline slant; the drone of the night-time traffic stretches in a Doppler shift.
Bruce isn't enamored, apparently—he braces his forearm against Clark's collarbone and pushes away, arcing into a twisting dive, a graceful freefall that's interrupted by the whine of grapnel wire slicing the air. He swings in a deep parabola that lands him atop one of the tall buttresses of a nearby building and crouches there, as formidable as any of Gotham's gargoyles.
Snarling as much as one, too. Clark drifts in front of him, hands tucked into his jacket pockets, and smiles amiably. The Bat is terrifying, but Clark's seen what lives beneath its leathery skin. He's exactly as intimidating as he'd have everyone believe, but Clark is far from afraid.
"Don't," Bruce says, "ever do that again." The whites of his eyes are bright in the gloom and his pulse is slightly elevated, but he doesn't think Bruce is afraid, either. But nor is it an attraction thing—he's wound too tight, voice clipped. Maybe a flagrant display of power was not Clark's wisest choice, even if it was rooted in joy.
"Not even if you're plummeting to the ground from five hundred feet up?" he asks, keeping things playful as best he can.
"Not a likely occurrence."
"Okay. How about if you're in a building that's about to explode?"
"Also doesn't happen as much as you'd think."
"Really? Huh. How about if…" He taps his chin, thinking. "You've been flung into orbit by a supervillain, or flung yourself there trying to stop them."
"Where are you digging up these scenarios? Jesus, Clark." Bruce's sufferance filtered through the Bat's digital growl is probably funnier than it should be.
"I dunno." Clark shrugs, grinning. "Personal experience? I just want more specificity on 'don't ever'. I don't need you reading me the riot act because I didn't intuit the exception to your rule."
"I thought I was very specific."
Clark leans himself against the building next to Bruce, arms folded and shoulder brushing the warm stonework. "You've been doing this alone for a long time, I get it," he says. And maybe he doesn't know the half of it, not really, but he knows enough—the planning, the contingencies, the white-knuckled control; it's going to be hard for Bruce to delegate, to break decades of ingrained habit and learn to trust in someone other than himself. "But that won't be the case going forward. You know that I—the rest of us, we'll want to help. And the others aren't, um. Invested in you. The same way I am. It won't do much for morale if you rebuff them every time."
Bruce stares at him. The cowl is always glowering, of course, but his vexation is plain in the downturn of his mouth. Clark is sure he's going to argue the point like the eminently stubborn man he is, but he just echoes, "Invested," and shifts his balance. Then he sighs, tension dropping out of his shoulders, his fingers uncurling from their anchor on the stone buttress. "Clark," he says, slowly. "I expect discretion. Don't be an idiot about this."
"I'll take care not to besmirch your reputation." Clark flashes him a smile and bobs on an eddy of air, slowly spirals upward. There's the plaintive wail of an untended infant two blocks over. He can smell street food somewhere. "So," he calls down. "Meet you at the Batmobile in—?"
"I'm patrolling once I've taken care of business at the National. I presume you can get yourself home." Bruce freezes. "—back," he amends. He readies the grapnel gun, aims.
"Right," Clark says, laughing. "Very discreet."
Bruce swoops away without a word. His silhouette scythes through the light pollution, neon haloing the edge of his cape, and then he's gone, subsumed by the city's shadows. Home, Clark thinks, and closes his eyes, tracks the measured beat of his heart for a moment—catches him muttering under his breath: trouble.
Clark presses a finger to the device at his ear. "I heard that."
The comm buzzes to life, distorted by high velocity. "You were meant to."
Thunder rolls through the muggy air and the clouds upend their lot. Gotham smells like rotting newspaper under the warm rain, dank and earthy. Clark casts himself out over the city, throwing his senses open to the nightlife, listening everywhere the rain falls. It doesn't take long to find trouble; this city eats her own as a matter of course.
In a blind alley several blocks away there are raised voices, the scrape of turned wood on blacktop. Clark focuses his vision, sees a group of figures—a half-dozen young teens, squabbling amongst themselves. One of them has a baseball bat and another is on the ground, curled over his leg.
(He keeps Bruce in his periphery, a now-familiar constant: steady pulse and calculated breaths, the hum of his suit's biometric feedback. Near him, he hears the electronic whir of tech being deployed, and the soft pip of the bank's security system abruptly ceases.)
He sets down a little way from the mouth of the alleyway, schools his body language into something disarming. He can't be Superman here, not yet—but he doesn't need to be. These are kids, not criminals.
"Hey," Clark says. He barely raises his voice but it still resonates off the brick walls in a way that makes him wince. "Everything okay over there?"
There's a beat of stillness, a delayed panic response and then they shout and scatter, pelting out of the alley and dodging around Clark. He half spins in mild bemusement and watches them go, their sneakers splashing through the sidewalk's oilslick puddles.
Looks like they forgot someone, though. The boy looks up at him, eyes wide and shining. He's clutching at his calf.
"Your friends were in a hurry," Clark says, crouches down next to him. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," the kid says, regarding Clark warily, which is fair enough considering the circumstances. He wipes at his eyes and nose with the sleeve of his hoodie and pulls himself to his feet, fingers hooked in the chain link fence that terminates the alley. "Just an accident."
"You wanna tell me what happened?" Clark takes a quick look at his leg—nothing fractured, but he's going to have an impressive bruise to show off. One of other kids obviously took a whack at him.
"Nah, I'm good, mister. You're from out of town, right?"
"You could say that." Clark grins at him, lopsided. "Anyone I can call?"
"No!" the kid says, and Clark thinks he would have heard his heart jolt even without his enhanced senses. "No, I don't live far. I'm just gonna get h—home. Ow." He keeps his weight on his good leg, rests his foot gingerly on the pavement.
"Listen," Clark says. "I know I'm some strange guy talking to a kid in an alley in Gotham in the middle of the night—" and he pauses to wonder when he got so stupid. It's one thing to do this with hope emblazoned across his chest, another thing entirely as a civilian. "—but if you want to hitch a ride, I'll take you home."
"Like hell am I getting in a car."
Good kid. Smart kid.
"No car," Clark says, turns around and hikes his thumb over his shoulder. "Hup."
The kid—Nate—lives a couple blocks over and apparently all it takes is a little kindness to open the floodgates. He likes science and wants to be a paleontologist, his brother shares his comic books and his friend has a temper problem, but it's not his fault. Clark hitches him up in a piggyback as he yatters on, keeping his arms loose so he can slip free anytime he wants. He tells him to scream blue murder if he feels like he has to.
"Shut up, man," Nate says, after about the fifth time Clark asks if he's okay. "What are you, some kinda boy scout?"
"Something like that," Clark says, laughing. "So, what's the deal with your buddies?"
"Nothing." Clark feels Nate tense up. "I was batting but hit too hard and the ball went over the fence and Rick got pissed cos it was his ball. Hey, I live over there."
"Right," Clark says, veers over to the building Nate points out. "Play a lot of baseball in the middle of the night?"
"Yeah, we do." Nate cackles, and Clark realizes he might be younger than he thought—he's tall, rangy, but probably no more than thirteen. "Mom doesn't let me hang out with them."
Clark takes them up the stoop. "Probably a reason for that—hey, lay off." Nate's grabbed a handful of his hair, reining him in like he's a pony.
"Not in the front door," he says urgently, and tilts Clark's head back.
Clark follows his direction; on the third floor a window is propped open with a book. There's no fire escape, just a cast-iron downspout running parallel. "You climb down that?" Clark asks.
"Okay, well," Clark takes a deep breath. He could pretend to shimmy up, but that would be a hard sell even without a kid on his back. Best to be up front about this, and return the trust the boy has shown him. It's not like he remembered his glasses, anyway. "Listen. Can you keep a secret?"
"Sure," Nate says. "If you're gonna keep mine." There's a grin in his voice.
"Scout's honor," Clark says. His feet leave the ground. "Okay, hold on tight!"
Nate makes a high, shocked noise and his arms tighten around Clark's shoulders. "Holy shit," he whispers. The pure astonishment in his voice makes Clark's heart clench and his chest flutter with longing. He's missed this—not the reverence or the suspicion from the world at large, but being able to touch a person's life, and have them reach out and touch right back.
He draws abreast of the window and turns to let Nate park his butt on the sill. "Are we good?" he asks.
"It's you." Nate lunges to catch Clark around his neck, almost tipping himself off the ledge. Clark catches him and lets him squeeze in a tight hug. "I knew you weren't really dead," he whispers fiercely. "I knew it."
"Well, technically," Clark says, then thinks better of it. He puts a finger to his lips. "I have to stay incognito for a little while. Think you can keep this quiet for me?"
"Yeah!" Nate's eyes are wide and bright. He mirror's Clark's gesture, finger on lips. "Your secret's safe with me, Superman," he says, with youthful solemnity. Then, with equally solemn resignation, "Nobody will believe me, anyway."
Clark flies up, up, past Gotham's perpetual cloudbank, shedding the mist of rain and the cloying humidity, and breathing in the sharp, clear air. He closes his eyes and hears the even beat of Bruce's pulse, the zip of his grapnel wire. Must have wrapped everything up at the bank. He touches his finger to his ear.
"Bruce," he says.
"I saw," Bruce replies, a low growl in his ear that makes his breath catch. And—he saw, huh. Maybe the comm is also a tracker. He wouldn't be particularly surprised to learn that, or to find that Bruce was lurking atop a nearby building while he goofed around with Nate. "That was rash, Clark."
"I know." And Clark smiles to himself, because Bruce might be chiding him, but there's an underlying warmth to it. "I'm going to need my suit," he says. He takes a breath. "Did they—do you know—is it, um, buried?"
There is a long pause. Clark turns a lazy somersault while he waits, cool currents ruffling his hair.
"No," Bruce eventually says. "I have it."
Clark makes a pitstop back in the alleyway and finds the ball, sinking into in a heap of trash that's banked against a wall like snow. It looks like it's seen better days, leather the color of old ivory and layers of grime settled into the stitching. He tosses it idly from hand to hand, focusing his hearing until he picks out the particular timbre of a baseball bat dragging against the sidewalk.
He lands a street over and walks the rest, for the sake of Bruce's blood pressure.
He has a fast word with Rick and company, gathered around a shuttered storefront. Rick drops the bat to catch the ball two-handed; he presses it against his chest for a moment before letting his hands unfurl, like a child who's caught a butterfly. He looks back up at Clark and if his expression isn't quite grateful, it's close.
The kid's got a few bruises of his own.
Apparently it's not return fire from Nate or anything like that. While Rick glowers, one of his friends drawls in a sing-song Gothamite accent like it's half a joke, half too uncomfortable to be serious about: it was his dad, it was his dad.
Nate's still awake when Clark taps gently on his window to ask him about his buddy.
Clark touches down at the lakehouse a little after three in the morning. He has a moment of indecision once he realizes he has no way back into the cave via whatever elaborate means that constitute the lake airlock. Nor, in fact, the more straightforward process of the front door.
He can hardly wrench it off its hinges or walk through the plate glass, so here he stands, Superman, the Last Son of Krypton, protector of Earth, stymied by a five-lever sashlock. He almost activates his comm but he can all too easily imagine Bruce's dry response: just push the doorbell, Clark.
So he does—and to his relief there's Alfred, wrapped in an unseasonable overcoat and preparing to leave. He opens the door, and gestures Clark inside with a nod of his head.
"Master Clark," he says warmly. "I trust you've had an edifying night stomping around in Gotham's gutters."
"It's a fascinating city," Clark says with careful diplomacy, then catches himself on the pointed end of Alfred's comment and sees about taking his shoes off. "Bruce is still out doing his thing."
"She has an allure all of her own," Alfred says, with a twist to his mouth. "And speaking of which, I hazard that Master Bruce won't be home for some hours. There are various surveillance feeds up in the cave, should you feel like tracking his progress." He pauses. "And a bottle of single malt, for when you simply can't endure it any more."
Clark knows he must look a little wide-eyed at that, because Alfred gives him the broadest smile Clark's ever seen from him, and pats him on the shoulder.
"Goodnight, my boy," he says, and heads towards his vehicle. He stops, half-turns. "Oh, and Master Clark?" he calls, voice crisp in the summer night air. "It's good to see you're feeling yourself again."
Alfred is right: this is bleak viewing. Clark had only really come down to the cave to leave a note on Bruce's keyboard in case he fell asleep before he returned, but he caught sight of a fluttering cape in one of the half-dozen rotating video feeds and it grabbed his attention like a sprung steel trap. That's alarming in a different way, how easily he's snared. And Bruce thinks Clark is the one who's trouble.
He quickly figures out that bringing a window into focus stops it cycling between cameras, and he tracks Bruce that way. He follows him around the half-shadows at a strange, silent slant, watches him interrupt a bag-snatcher and break up a street brawl—a dark figure that blurs through the frame and in its wake leaves its targets scrambling in terror.
Those scenes are familiar, that kind of grainy footage still used to be ten-a-penny a decade ago, the architecture of an urban legend, repro'd to death under headlines asking, GOTHAM BAT: MAN OR MYTH?
But now he's vanished from the feeds, and that's gotten Clark on edge because he knows the most dangerous crimes don't happen where cameras can see them. That's when he's going after the parasites that cling to Gotham's midnight underbelly, the real bloodsuckers: the trafficking rings, the drug lords, the killers for hire.
He could find Bruce at a moment's notice and could be at his side between the ticks of a second hand, but he knows he wouldn't be thanked for it at all. Bruce wanting him is different from Bruce needing him. Bruce has spent half his life doing this. He is more than capable of taking care of himself.
Finally he catches a glimpse again—a quick turn around a corner, just a shadow on top of more shadows, but the violent angles of him are unmistakable. Clark slowly uncurls himself from the soft leather of the chair.
He settles on the couch upstairs, rolling his head back to rest his eyes for just a moment and let the day's events wind through him. He finds himself in the midst of whirling lights and a warm rain, the freedom of clouds. Do birds dream of flight, or of the earth turning beneath their feet?
It could be hours or only minutes later that he awakens to a figure leaning over him, edges bleeding out in the pre-dawn light. He has a distinct flash of deja-vu.
"I thought we'd gotten over this," Bruce says, voice gravelly with the hour. "You're welcome to my bed."
Clark looks up at him and lets a smile break through his sleepiness. He extends a hand in lieu of an answer. Bruce takes it—but instead of pulling him up onto his feet, he settles his knees either side of Clark's lap and slowly collapses against his chest. He's heavy, still in armor; he smells like rain and blood and ozone. Clark pushes the cowl back and kisses the taste of the city from his lips.
Bruce strips off his gauntlets to lace their fingers, pressing Clark's hand to the couch by his head. Outside, the sun breaches the horizon and lures the short summer night into the limbo of dawn. Bruce seems unreal in this liminal space, with the thick texture of his suit under Clark's fingertips and the first pale touch of sunlight in his hair. His cape hushes around them.
Bruce breathes deep, rests his forehead against Clark's. "Too tired to sleep," he says, with the kind of unguarded frankness that exhaustion brings. "My bones ache." He doesn't complain about any other pain, but he groans as he gives his body over to gravity and tips himself sideways off Clark, sprawling out onto the rest of the couch.
"Make yourself comfortable," Clark says, since Bruce is already doing just that, settling his head on Clark's lap almost like it's the most natural thing in the world—almost, but for the conscious way he arranges himself, as though it's something he's seen, but not done often, or at all.
Something digs into Clark's thigh: part of the cowl. Ears, probably. He could shift around, but he thinks Bruce might take the opportunity disappear himself. The kevlar won't bruise as much as that.
"It is my couch," Bruce tells him, eyes closed. His shoulders curve against the outside of Clark's leg. "Despite the claim you've apparently staked. What's with the kid, Clark?"
"Nothing. Just needed a helping hand."
"And the address?"
"Mm? Oh." The scrap of paper on his keyboard. "Different kid, different problem. Got a dad who's quick with his fists."
Bruce's eyes flick open only for them to sharpen and narrow. "So you thought you'd pass that one over to me." There is a careful lack of inflection to his words.
"It's your city." Clark lets his hand rest in the center of Bruce's chest, over the spread of his insignia. "And in this case, I think your approach would be more effective than a few polite words from a guy who may or may not be Superman."
"Thought you didn't approve of my methods."
"I'm not asking you to hurt anyone. Just… gently encourage him to rethink his choices."
"Okay." Bruce exhales, weary, but when he speaks again he is not grudging with it. "I'll handle it. Since I'm already the bad cop."
"Thank you, Bruce," Clark says, quiet. He's not sure if he's just asked a favor, but either way he's pretty sure Bruce won't want anything in return. For his part, Bruce settles back into silence, eyes closed again, and starts to relax by painfully tiny increments.
Later, Bruce is almost asleep—deep, sluggish breaths, slowed pulse and Clark's all but there with him, early morning warmth on his face and the distant hum of the world coming alive lulling him under, when Bruce starts them both back into wakefulness. "How did you get in? Alfred?" he murmurs, lifting his head.
"I'll get you a key." Said casually, matter-of-fact. A purely logistical decision, of course, now that Clark's flying freely again, except for the way that every muscle in his body has gone tense.
And now Clark is as wide awake as he's ever been, and definitely as surprised. "I can't stay here forever," he says. It's the first thing to cross his mind and he blurts it out like he's forgotten that sometimes he has to be as mindful with his words as he is with his strength. It's lacking all nuance of what he feels, mostly because he's not sure how to sort through what's suddenly going on in his heart—but too late for that. Bruce is already pulling away, sitting up to look at him, his face schooled into perfect stillness.
"I need my life back," Clark says gently in an attempt to explain. "I miss being… I miss being Clark Kent, you know, that guy with a job and an apartment and who isn't dead."
"I wasn't asking you to move in with me, Clark," Bruce says. And the blankness might have broken into a smirk that is vintage Wayne, perennial bachelor, can't-tie-me-down, but the way he speaks is brittle to the point of developing cracks. "I was just hoping you'd stay until you're trained up to my satisfaction, that's all."
If there's anything Clark knows about Bruce, it's that he's exacting. It would take years for Clark to be good enough. He might never be good enough. The implication is like being in freefall; a force against his chest. He thinks, a little deliriously, that he's lucky he doesn't need to breathe all that much.
"But it's fine," Bruce is saying, standing up. There's stiffness in him when he moves over to the windows, injury or age or wounded pride. "I understand. I'll have Alfred to look into your paperwork, see if we can patch together a cover story that's not too contrived." He turns to face out over the lake as if he's watching the morning fog lift, then says with such precisely measured needling that Clark almost laughs: "It'll be nice to have the place to myself again."
"Hey." Clark glides across the stone floor, settles next to him, barefoot. He addresses Bruce's reflection in the glass. "Don't be like that."
Bruce sighs and turns to look at him, head tilted and eyebrows up, clearly supposed to convey that this is, in fact, what he is like, and to not expect any better. He manages to sustain it for an entire three seconds before the expression falters. "Clark—"
"Mom's invited me home to dinner," Clark interrupts. "She wants you to come." Then adds, emphatically, "I want you to come."
Bruce hesitates, caught in some indecision as though it's something that requires more than a simple binary response, then he says, "I'm not the kind of guy you take home to your mother, Clark. The fact we've already met notwithstanding."
"That's a pity. She'll be real disappointed." He doesn't quite give him the puppy-dog look, but it's a near thing. Maybe it's shameless of him, but Bruce is not a man who's easily manipulated; it's not like it'll actually work. So he leans in, as though to share a secret. "She thinks you're a nice man."
"Clark," Bruce says again, and Clark suspects that he has misjudged the level of his persuasiveness. "Okay, that is low, Kent. Especially from you."
Ma hugs him like he's just returned from the dead, and he laughs and pretends that she's crushing his ribs. Then he surprises her into loud whoops that startle the chickens when he spins her around and lifts them both off the ground. Her gardening hat flies off and her hair fans out.
"Clark!" Her face shines with delight, and when Clark sets her back on the ground, she catches his face in both hands and makes him bend over so she can kiss his forehead. "Oh my goodness—did you fly here?" she asks in gleefully conspiratorial tones.
Bruce clears his throat, and Ma turns the full force of her smile on him instead, even if she keeps Clark's face squished between her hands. "He's keeping a low profile for now, Mrs. Kent."
"He wouldn't let me carry him," Clark stage-whispers, and Ma makes a serious, stern face—oh no, no, of course not. Bruce tries to maintain a little dignity in the face of their mischief by pretending to check his smartphone, but Clark doesn't miss the brief upturn at the corner of his mouth. He has no doubt Bruce's revenge will be as swift as it is merciless.
Dinner is cheerful, cosy. Clark sits back in his chair and lets the familiarity wash over him; the rattle of cooking pots and the rich aroma of roast chicken and gravy thick in the air. Bruce sits opposite him, tie loosened and throat bared, his face a little pink either from the heat in the kitchen or the glass of red wine or both.
For once he doesn't look like he's running through case notes behind the veneer—he's laughing genuinely as mom finishes an anecdote Clark's heard a hundred times: the one where he fell into old Shuster's millpond wearing a cable-knit sweater and trailed home sulking with the sleeves stretched out past his knees. Clark catches his eye and smiles at him, unabashedly fond.
The smile Bruce returns is easy, but Clark sees that he's woken a tension beneath the openness; his fingers move on the stem of his wine glass, then flatten to the table and he keeps wetting his lips as though he's about to say something.
From his pocket, his phone chimes insistently and he leans up off the chair to grab it, then lets out a breath that sounds like a pressure release more than anything else. He excuses himself and goes to take the call on the porch.
"So, how is it going with you two?" his ma asks, taking the opportunity for a little mother-son time between the two of them. She leans over, gathering up the dishes. "Is he teaching you all of his superheroing secrets?"
"Um," Clark says, and he can feel his color rising. "Well, he demonstrated how to infiltrate the criminal underworld while dressed like a Goodwill consignment."
"Ah, all the important life skills," she says, with a smile. She pauses, stack of plates in her hands, and raises an eyebrow at Clark's creeping blush. "And is that all, baby boy?"
Clark grimaces at the tablecloth. It doesn't feel like a big deal—he's turned out more unusual than the average kid, and his parents have never shown him anything but the utmost love—but there is a flutter of uncertainty, still. It does his ma a huge disservice, so he meets her eyes and is honest as his self-consciousness allows. "We have... a thing."
"Oh," she says, one hand on her hip while the sink fills, and Clark knows that tone, in a way. His stomach hits some turbulence. "Well, Clark. I can't say I'm not disappointed."
"Really?" he says, meek in the face of her apparent disapproval, even though he can see she's trying not to smile; she's yanking him along so he trips neatly into whatever she's got set up. It doesn't stop his cheeks from burning.
"Such a shame," she continues, sliding the dishes into the soapy water. "Bruce is quite the looker. I really thought he was starting to come round to me. And there you go, stealing him out from under my nose." She sighs, shakes her head. Then, with her very best amateur dramatics: "My own son."
Even though he knew something was coming, that was a little further out of left field than he was anticipating—not to mention horrifying on any number of levels. "Mom, no," he says, and she throws her head back and laughs at him.
"Come on, Clark. I might be old, but I ain't dead," she says. "Your face. What a picture!"
"And rest assured," Bruce says from the doorway, hands in the pockets of his slacks. He turns a devastating smile in his ma's direction. "You almost managed to persuade me. Cake like that doesn't happen every day."
"Oh my god—" Vengeance is apparently served cold, on the best china and with lashings of cream. Clark can't decide if he needs to cover his eyes or his ears; he settles for his mouth. "I'm scarred for life, now. You both realize this," he says, muffled.
Bruce just rests his hand in the small of Clark's back, and if he doesn't kiss him, he at least looks like he wants to.
"Well, I'm very happy for you both," his mom manages, once she's stopped laughing so much she has to wipe at the corners of her eyes. "Even if it means no grandchildren for me, I suppose."
Just a hint too wistful to be a proper joke. "Sorry, Ma," Clark begins, just at the same time as Bruce lands his killing blow. He says, utterly deadpan: "There's always adoption."
He looks on, smug, as Clark almost chokes on his own tongue.
It's some time in the early hours, and Clark flies up onto the Kent farmhouse roof. He alights delicately and settles against the warm slate, while Bruce insists on rolling up his shirtsleeves and scaling the porch before throwing himself into some elaborate parkour to get past the eaves and up onto the roof proper. He manages it almost silently, which is impressive, and without detaching the rickety guttering, which is even more so.
He sits himself next to Clark and pulls the throat of his shirt open a button wider. His eyes are bright in the moonlight, as luminous as the spread of the Milky Way above them.
"I used to come up here a lot as a kid," Clark tells him, shoulder pressed to his. "I'd spend hours just staring at the sky." He looks up there now, can see ribbons of space debris caught in gravitational slipstreams; the dust of a comet's tail; a distant solar storm.
Bruce tips his head back, the night breeze stirring his hair. "You can't see them in the city. All the stars. Not like this." Maybe he means to say that they're beautiful, or maybe beauty looks like something else to Bruce.
"Yeah," Clark says. He can't help but feel mournful for that kid, lost in the dead of night, wondering which one of the numberless stars he came from. It was a long time before he discovered that any remaining light from Krypton—from its destruction—would have struck the earth before he did. "I was trying to decide which one was mine. I thought I'd know it, you know. When I saw it."
"And did you find it?" Bruce murmurs. "Which one?"
No, he could say. It's gone. "I'm sitting on it," he says instead.
Bruce nods at that like it's a satisfying answer and leans more heavily against him for a moment. If he's sensed the forlorn turn to Clark's mood, he doesn't mention it, just turns the conversation on a dime instead. "Get your phone out."
"Oh, is it selfie time?"
Bruce has an extensive and nuanced range of annoyed expressions. Clark decides he's going to start cataloguing them.
Grinning, he retrieves his phone from his pocket and obediently holds it out, but Bruce doesn't take it. Instead he taps it with his own sleek model. It makes a series of satisfied chirps, and when Clark inspects his screen there's a new icon bouncing there, another variation on the WayneTech logo. He swipes it and is presented with a series of names and mugshots. He shoots Bruce a questioning look.
"Our would-be heisters," Bruce says. "We got a bite earlier this evening, the facial recognition's come in."
"Oh? What's this 'we' business?"
Bruce's mouth slants. "Apparently the Bat has been relegated to family counselor, so I thought perhaps Superman would like to start pulling his weight. Plus, it would be prudent to get him back in the public eye as soon as possible. The more time between his return and Clark Kent's, the better." He frowns slightly. "It's a nice straightforward bust, should make a good headline."
All very methodical, if a little distancing in the way Bruce has laid it out. Clark takes a deep breath and nods.
"Just this once," Bruce continues. His voice drops into a tar-black growl. "After that, you keep to your city and stay out of mine. Understand?"
He's not unwelcome, but there are rules. Clark understands.
He moves on top of Bruce in the filtered moonlight, slow and quiet because the thought of making the bedsprings squeak stirs a kind of adolescent mortification in him. Bruce's thighs shake under him, every ounce of his restraint channeled into staying still while Clark works him inside, panting into his mouth with each tight slip.
Bruce throws his head back and bares his teeth when he comes. After, he turns his face to Clark's neck and breathes his name, over and over.
Bruce says Clark's name over and over—first stern, then angry, then finally something dangerously close to pleading. Clark bends him, holds his body in tension, makes his teeth clench and every muscle stand proud. He is exquisite.
"God," Bruce says, strained. His head is back, and Clark can see a faint notch of scarring under his chin. Sweat trickles down his neck. Clark makes him wait, just until his composure starts to fray. Then he shifts his balance and turns his wrist, just so.
Clark throws him onto the mat.
Coming back from the dead is a tedious and complicated exercise in bureaucracy, if Alfred's irritated tongue-clicking and the number of things Bruce has asked him to sign are any indication. It's weeks later when his documents are finally in order.
It's been weeks of the world's eyes being on him again, plastered all over the headlines, crest and cape and deeply uncomfortable religious allusions.
Weeks of Bruce coming at him like a bull at a red rag, like he's trying to bruise him any way he can—sometimes a brutal session on the mats, sometimes just the sharp side of his tongue. Sometimes, in bed, with Bruce bracing a foot against the floor for leverage.
(Bruce is not good at letting people go. People he cares about, they have a habit of leaving or dying. As far Clark can tell, he holds the dubious privilege of doing both.
"Anywhere in the world, Bruce," he says, in a misguided attempt at reassurance. "I'm only ever a moment away."
It only makes him bridle. "I don't need you at my beck and call, Clark.")
Over the remains of dinner, Bruce hands him a manila envelope without ceremony. "Everything you need should be there," he says, watching Clark's face. "On the whole, it's more legit than your birth certificate."
"Not that it's a high bar." He smiles, but it's hard not to feel counterfeit sometimes. It must show, because Bruce stops looking at him.
"Open it," Bruce suggests, and turns to his tablet.
Clark knows he's probably only doing a sudoku puzzle. As far as defense mechanisms go, Bruce has more sophisticated ones. So Clark shakes out the envelope and spreads the documents out on the tabletop, and takes a look through his new old life. Old new life. Whichever. Something catches his eye.
"My press pass?"
"Mm." Bruce doesn't look up. "Alfred did his best impression of an officious clerk—trust me when I tell you that's not much of a stretch for him—and spoke to Perry White. He's glad to hear you're okay."
"Well, apparently he said you've used up your vacation time for the next twenty years, but the sentiment was there. Guess you've got your job back, Mr. Clark Kent, Daily Planet."
"That's—that's great." It's finally starting to feel real, everything slotting back into place. He knows Alfred and Bruce have worked diligently to engineer all these pieces, to make sure they all fit precisely, and he doesn't know how to begin to show his gratitude. And all at once he can't stop grinning. It's going to be strange after so long in limbo, but the promise of a familiar routine and a normal life, for a given value of normal—it's a huge comfort. Somewhere to retreat to, now that he's donned the cape again.
"Thank you," he says. It sounds breathtakingly inadequate.
Bruce half-acknowledges it with a twitch of his mouth. He flattens his tablet against the table and slides it in front of him. "What are your thoughts on this place?" he says, then gets up to pace about, coffee in hand.
An apartment in one of the more sought-after areas of Metropolis. Spacious penthouse, two beds, roof garden and a river view. Ostentatious to a fault. "Looks spectacular," Clark says, "and vastly beyond my means." He scrolls through the rest of the places Bruce has selected. "Bruce, there's no way I can afford any of these."
"You don't have to. Just say the word."
"My Ikea bookshelves would devalue the entire neighborhood."
"I'll get you new furniture."
"Bruce, no." Clark sighs in frustration. "I can't live in your clover."
"You could. It'd be easy."
"It would be suspect."
"Hm." Bruce pauses. When all else fails, appeal to the paranoid detective. "Alright," he says crisply, and Clark realizes with sinking certainty that wherever he ends up, Bruce will buy the building. For someone with such stringent boundaries, he can have a startlingly hard time with other people's.
Clark rests his elbows on the table and then his face in his hands. He could pretend that he's overwhelmed by Bruce's generosity—and it's not like he isn't, but they both know it's weighed more heavily than that.
"You're a difficult man, Bruce," he says. It only half-sounds like a complaint.
"You have a gift for understatement." Bruce encourages Clark's hands aside to replace them with his own. Clark pushes his fingers into Bruce's hair instead, and leans in. He tastes like his coffee, bitter and warm. "Don't you know a grand gesture when you see one?"
"Superman. Where the hell are you?" Bruce snarls in his ear. There's a tinny explosion, the rattle of blown masonry falling, Diana's battle cry.
"Sri Lanka," Clark says. "Why?"
A low mutter. "How soon can you get back? Got an—" Screeching, feedback harsh enough to make Clark flinch, and the whicker of a batarang. "—an interdimensional situation, here."
"Tuesdays, huh. Be there in a jiffy, B."
"This is what, three hundred square feet?" Bruce turns, hands in his wool overcoat, surveying the place as though he expects it to double in size at his command. The westering fall sun paints the walls a rich gold and catches the metal at his collar and cuffs as he moves. "I wish you'd picked a place with a balcony."
The kettle has boiled and he was supposed to be looking for the mugs, but Clark is distracted. Bruce is distracting. The suit and silk tie, polished oxfords that cost more than the security deposit, straight from a meeting but not sounding like Wayne. He sounds like himself, deep voice echoing in Clark's half-unpacked, definitely bigger than three hundred square feet, thanks, apartment.
"Why," Clark says, checking the same box for the third time. "To make it easier for you to sneak in?"
Bruce's expression says: well, obviously.
Clark gives up on making coffee and instead takes the spare key off his fob. He sends it glinting through the air towards Bruce, who catches it one handed. He doesn't even look at it. "I don't need this," he says.
"I know." Clark shrugs. "Consider it a token. Or, you know, for if you ever want to act like a normal person and use the front door."
Bruce snorts. Then he glances at the key nestled in his palm, and back up at Clark. "So," he says, and apparently decides that's good enough.
Clark breathes deeply and gets the scent of pine disinfectant and the dust from his furniture. Bruce's cologne, in the air and in Clark's clothes. He doesn't know why it's now of all times that the enormity of this is hitting him—whether it's Bruce's luxury juxtaposed with the tired decor, knowing that he would look even more incongruous as the Bat, or anticipating him at his kitchen bar of a morning, relaxed and disheveled and just as strange. He only knows that he can't manage the rampant affection in his voice, nor the wide, wide smile.
"Alfred already gave me one to your place," he says. "And made me promise to stop by for breakfast now and then. And, I believe—" he steps closer, tilts his head, "—there's still the matter of my training."
"Ah, that's right." Bruce shrugs his coat off and slings it on the couch without regard; it lands over Clark's duffel. "Just because you're out from under my feet doesn't mean you're out of my hair."
"Right," Clark echoes, as Bruce walks him backwards, out of the living room. Footsteps like a heartbeat; steady, familiar. His ankles hit the futon. "I'm thinking once a week, at least. Three hour sessions—"
Bruce leans into him as they kiss and shifts closer, the pressure of his hip against Clark's, the slip of gabardine over denim. Bruce's thigh, the easy twist of his body, and Clark pivots. He's good enough to break the hold and counter. Or he could resist gravity, turn under Bruce's hands and right himself.
But in the end, he just lets himself fall.