"No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true." —The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
"No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true."
—The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
It isn't difficult to go on in the wake of Superman's death.
Sometimes Bruce feels like it should be. Considering his hand in things, that he'd let himself be so readily manipulated into doing Lex Luthor's dirty work, it should have taken him apart. It should have burned him down to the ground.
But instead—instead it remakes him. Bruce Wayne steps up to help with the reconstruction, Metropolis scarred all over again by the opening round of Superman's fight with Zod and Stryker's Island a burned-out husk; and Batman stands at Clark Kent's grave and rediscovers what it means to have purpose. He hadn't been willing to listen at the time, but Alfred had been right: he had felt helpless, helpless and hopeless—and when nothing he did mattered, when nothing he tried ever seemed to make a difference, the knowledge of Superman's single weakness had been like a gift. Killing Superman had been the one thing left, the one thing that maybe only Bruce could even do—
And then everything had changed. It hadn't been at Batman's hand, but Superman had died anyway, and Bruce had watched it happen and had understood. Superman had died and Bruce hadn't, and the second chance Clark had given him couldn't be wasted, couldn't. Clark had given them all a second chance. Bruce had had him pinned to the ground, had had a boot on his chest and a kryptonite edge pressed to his throat, and Clark had still asked him for help—had still, after everything he'd seen of Batman, believed that there was someone under that cowl who would save his mother.
(Bruce occasionally wonders how exactly Clark had thought that would go. He might have known something about the "Gotham Bat", he'd been a reporter—he might have noticed the pattern, civilians always left untouched. He might have known Bruce would want to save an innocent hostage from men with guns. But he hadn't—he hadn't said Stop or Wait, hadn't said Let me. Just Find him. Just Save Martha. Like he only wanted Bruce to agree to do it, like Bruce's word was worth anything to him; like he thought Bruce would maybe nod, shove the spear the rest of the way through his neck, and then go zipping off to rescue Martha Kent.
Sometimes Bruce is grateful for it, this idea that Clark had in a certain sense trusted him, even at that moment. But sometimes he can't help seeing it another way. Sometimes it looks to him like it was more that Clark had counted on there being a line: like he'd assumed Bruce cared plenty about human life, and it was just that Clark didn't qualify.
Sometimes he wishes he could tell himself Clark had been wrong.)
And now Clark's gone.
But what he built before he went remains. Bruce and Diana are unquestionably stronger together than they would have been apart—Diana has raw power, the wisdom to wield it, but she doesn't know their twinned cities the way Bruce does. The last time she'd stepped in to try to sort out a human mess, it had been in the middle of a war; and for all the horror of the trenches, that had still been the kind of war with rules, fronts, uniforms, not the shadowy systematic rot of organized crime. There are ways for Bruce to help her. And being able to call on someone who can lift him with one hand isn't exactly a drawback for Batman.
Metropolis and Gotham are stronger, too, drawn together by the disaster zone between them. Deciding what to do about Stryker's, where to begin, is a joint effort; so is mourning Superman. He wasn't just Metropolis's hero, not really, and Bruce can't claim to be surprised that his highly-publicized death wipes the worst remains of Luthor's smear campaign away. Nobody likes speaking ill of the dead.
Which actually makes things much easier. Visiting Superman's memorial regularly is exactly the kind of overchoreographed, performative show of thoughtfulness that people expect from Bruce Wayne. (Keeping it up for more than a few months is going to be an issue, potentially. But all Bruce needs to do is make a couple public missteps, start an ugly rumor, and then he can probably pass it off as a publicist's ongoing effort to rehabilitate his image.) He can make his usual trip to see his parents and then swing out to Metropolis, can stand over the engraved granite and look down at it for a few minutes before he adds his own handful of flowers to the pile.
And it is a pile. Almost six months now and whole bouquets are still coming, bright and boundless, spilling over the benches, the grass, the walkways. Bruce didn't know Clark well, not really, but he thinks Clark would have liked it. No statue, no gold leaf, nothing imposing or severe. Just half an acre of flowers, left again and again by people who want to remember him.
Bruce Wayne wouldn't kneel down. But Bruce can at least close his eyes, bow his head. He's found a sort of peace in this—nothing he deserves, but it's there anyway. Clark is gone. Bruce can't fix that, can't get him back, can't even ask for his forgiveness. But he can do better. He can reach out and he can try harder and he can do better.
That's probably all Clark ever wanted from him anyway.
He can't stand at Superman's memorial all afternoon. He gives himself another minute, breathes in the smell of ten thousand cut flowers; and then he steps away and heads back to the car. He'd already intended to go by one of the Metropolis offices today—that will take, mm, perhaps a couple of hours at the pace Bruce Wayne ought to work—
His phone buzzes, and he almost starts to reach for the wrong pocket. But Bruce Wayne's personal phone has a loud annoying ringtone carefully chosen from the week's top forty. It's Bruce's own that's on silent.
He's expecting to see that it's Diana, but he still looks before he answers. Which is good, because it's not Diana.
It's Martha Kent.
He feels himself frown just a little. He gave her this number, of course, but no matter how many times he assures her that she could never be bothering him, she's almost always careful to stick to nights, weekends. Some part of him had silently expected her to—to do something with the fact that she knows Bruce Wayne so personally. But she never asks him for anything.
So it's a surprise when he accepts the call, lifts the phone to his ear, and hears her say, "Bruce—Bruce, I'm sorry, I wasn't sure—can you or, or Diana, could you—"
"Martha," Bruce says quickly, "Martha, slow down," because she sounds—awful, breathless, her voice scratched up somehow like maybe she's been crying. And sometimes she does when she's on the phone with him, but not like this.
"Sorry," she says again, "I'm sorry," and then she drags in a short hitching breath. "I—I don't know what to do, I don't know what—"
"Just tell me what's happened," and Bruce finds himself sliding toward one of his Batman voices—the calm, level one he deploys for victims, children, the people who need his help.
And he learned how to use that tone for a reason; it does make a difference. Martha inhales again, lets it out a little more steadily, and then she says the last thing Bruce was ever, ever expecting to hear: "Clark is standing on my porch."
Bruce stops moving.
It's not the smart reaction, but for one long whited-out moment he can't force himself past it. And some small corner of his brain is still ticking away, coolly assessing—it's all right. Bruce Wayne can get bad news sometimes in public, something surprising or stressful. It's for the best, even, to have an explanation to point to if he's going to have to jet off to Kansas in ten minutes.
And he is. No matter what's happening—whether Martha Kent's been drugged, is ill, or is having some kind of breakdown, some grief-fueled hallucinatory event; whether whatever is out there on her porch looking like Clark Kent is a hologram, another Luthor-driven constructed Kryptonian body, something that's picked Clark Kent's corpse up like a glove and put it on, or—
Whatever it is, Bruce reminds himself, she shouldn't drive it off and she shouldn't make it panic. She needs to go along with it, to seem like she isn't suspicious; and putting all the worst possibilities in her head will only make that harder for her. Bruce can't help her until he gets there. And if it is something evil, if it feels found out, it might just tear right through the wall and break her in half.
"All right," he says aloud, and Martha sucks in another shuddering breath on the other end of the line. "All right, is he—what is he doing?"
"Nothing," Martha whispers, "nothing, he's just—he's—god, Bruce, he's covered in dirt. He looks confused, it's like he's half-asleep—"
And then, faint, somewhere beyond her, Bruce hears someone say, "Mom?"
Drugging, illness, and hallucination can be eliminated, he tells himself, and ignores the stuttered leap of his heart: this is the beginning of about forty-five different horror movies in three or four languages. Just because it sounds bewildered, helpless—just because it sounds like Clark—
"Mother Mary," Martha says, very low.
She must move, she must be walking toward the door; the second soft, "Mom?" is louder.
"Clark—Clark, honey, it's okay," she says, mouth tilted away from the phone, and then, to Bruce, "Oh, god, tell me I can let him in. Tell me this isn't—"
So she's already thought of some of the worst things. If it intended to hurt you right away, it would just have broken down the door and done it, Bruce doesn't say. "It's all right, let him in," he tells her instead. "He's—I'm sure he's disoriented. Try to find a place inside the house with a lot of sunlight."
That's what she would do if it were really Clark. Not that she needs him to tell her that; except maybe she does, right now, because something that looks like her dead son is standing outside her screen door asking for help. "All right," she says, "all right. And you'll come?"
Bruce is ten steps away from the car. The Batplane's long since been repaired, and he has standing permission from Martha to set it down in the back field if he uses it to visit; plus driving time, and it won't be kind to underestimate—
"Forty-five minutes," he says, and doesn't wait for the driver, opens the car door himself. "I'll be there."
He manages to shave a good five minutes off that estimate—no mean feat, considering how hard he'd already been planning to push the Batplane to get to Kansas that fast.
From outside, the house looks normal. Bruce hadn't quite had a hand to his phone for the entire flight, but not for lack of trying. He hadn't been able to shake the thought of Martha calling again, panicked, when the thing finally did turn on her—of sitting in the Batplane's nigh-impenetrable shell, engines screaming but still too slow, and listening to her die—
But from outside, the house looks normal. There are no holes in the walls, the roof. The windows are intact.
There's dirt on the front porch.
Bruce doesn't let himself try to decide whether it matches his memory of the color, the texture, of the dirt that had been shoveled over Clark's coffin. He steps over it and raps once, sharp, on the frame of the screen door, and he doesn't wait for Martha to answer before he opens it. (For all he knows, she can't.)
But she's there when he walks inside—right there. She put Clark on the sofa where the afternoon sun has just begun to slant in, and then knelt down beside him. She turned her head at the knock and she's staring at Bruce, a hand pressed over her mouth, her face caught somewhere between reckless joy and complete bewilderment. "Bruce," she whispers, between her fingers, because—
Because it's Clark.
He is covered in dirt: it's smeared dark along his hands, his arms, where the suit he was buried in has torn. He looks awful, pale, sallow in the way kryptonite can make him—except Martha's wiped his face carefully clean and the sun's soaking into him almost visibly. (For all Bruce knows, it's not an optical illusion or a trick of the light. Clark might literally be glowing a little bit where the sunlight's touching him.)
And he's alive. Even as Bruce looks, Clark tilts his face a little further into the light; his throat bobs as he swallows, and then he pulls in a breath so full it makes the seams of that moldering suit tear a little bit at the sides, the shoulders. And Clark doesn't need to breathe, Bruce is pretty sure. But right now he wants to, he's reveling in the ability. After this long, the air left in his coffin couldn't have amounted to much—
Clark blinks his eyes open, turns his head—he must have heard the knock, too, but maybe he hadn't realized what it meant, if he's as disoriented as Martha said he was. And then he looks at Bruce, and Bruce realizes the moment their eyes meet that it was a huge mistake to come here.
"Mr—Mr. Wayne?" Clark says. "I don't, um—what are you doing here?"
Good question, Bruce thinks.
"Sorry, that was rude," Clark adds blearily, "sorry," and Martha reaches out to touch his arm.
"Shh," she says, "it's all right, I—I'm sure Mr. Wayne won't hold it against you." She looks up at Bruce, and her gaze is uncertain: she'd forgotten too. She'd forgotten Clark didn't know.
Which is understandable. She's known the truth almost as long as Clark's been dead. Together, he and Diana had brought her Clark's body, before the government could swoop in for it the way they had Zod's. But Luthor had kidnapped her: she hadn't had a way to get herself back to Kansas, let alone a corpse. She hadn't even had anywhere to stay, and Diana Prince had nothing in Metropolis except a hotel room she'd already checked out of. The only answer had been the lake house.
So Martha had discovered Batman and Bruce Wayne both on the same day, and learned they were each other just hours after. She'd known it every time she'd seen him; every time they'd talked since, she'd remembered to ask after Alfred, after Diana, to say she'd seen Batman on the news and was he sure he was all right. And in the rush of finding Clark alive—it would have been more surprising if she had remembered.
It's Bruce's failure that grates. He should have realized.
They can't even be sure how much Clark remembers about the day he died. And the last thing he needs right now is to know that the man who tried to kill him is standing over him in his mother's house.
Bruce can't ask Martha to lie to her son. But he meets her eyes and holds them, hoping she realizes why this is necessary, as he says easily, "I'm not exactly Lex Luthor's favorite person myself, Mr. Kent—your mother wasn't the only person he took hostage during that little meltdown of his." And to explain why she would call him, he just has to tell the truth. "There were some logistical issues I helped her sort out, after everything." He smiles down at Clark a little too brightly. "Zod's body got sold to LexCorp and cut up. Yours didn't. I'm the reason why."
He's expecting Clark to flinch a bit, to find the way Bruce has said this unpleasant—to, on a gut level, dislike Bruce Wayne just a little more than he thinks he should, from this moment forward. But maybe he's overestimated how well Clark is processing: Clark blinks at him twice, swallows, and then says faintly, "Then I guess I owe you one." He swallows again, and then his gaze swivels back to Martha. "And—Lois? Is she all right? Where is she?"
"Oh, honey," Martha says gently, and takes one of Clark's dirt-streaked hands. "It was so hard for her, after you were gone. She came to see you all the time, but she couldn't bear it forever. She needed a break. She's in South Korea for another three months—but we can call her, and—"
"South Korea?" Clark says, bewildered. "When did she—I, I," and then he swallows again and whispers, "How long was I dead?"
Martha's throat is working now; she says, very low, "A while, sweetheart—a while," and presses her forehead to the back of Clark's hand. She needs a moment. Bruce knows her well enough now to guess that the last thing she wants to do is sob all over Clark while he's still helpless, disoriented.
So: "Beg pardon," he says, interrupting—verbally and physically, stepping forward to break the visual line between them. "But I imagine you'd like to get clean, Mr. Kent. And get out of that suit, considering how long you've been wearing it."
"I've," Martha says, and then presses the back of one wrist to her mouth, sucks in a long breath through her nose and lets it out, before she can finish: "I've got some of your things still boxed up in the basement. And we'll need more water, and towels," she adds. She squeezes Clark's hand and then grabs for the washcloth she must have used on his face, and steps out toward the kitchen.
Clark watches her go, looking shaken; but when he turns that helpless blue stare on Bruce, all he says is, "You tell me, Mr. Wayne, if she can't. How long have I been wearing this suit?"
Bruce does tell him. Bruce tells him everything. It's the least he can do for Martha, answering all Clark's smaller questions, filling in everything Martha's been struggling to move past alone without making her dig it all up again. Except it's dug itself up, Bruce supposes, and then doesn't let himself imagine how long it had taken Clark to do, weak as he is. (And that's another thing that should be dealt with, when Bruce gets a chance to place a call to Alfred. Nobody else visiting that graveyard should see whatever hole Clark left on his way out.)
The answers are easy enough to give. Five months, nearly six. Lois really is fine. What Clark did worked; he stopped the destruction, Zod didn't get up again afterward and keep going. Metropolis is still a little the worse for wear, but not the way Clark remembers. Stryker's Island no longer looks like it got firebombed. Lex Luthor is in prison, though LexCorp's managed to stagger on without him. The Daily Planet is fine, everyone who works there is fine. "In fact," Bruce adds, "they did a very impressive feature on Superman a week or two afterward." He makes a face, inconsiderate, because Bruce Wayne would. "Little hagiographic for my taste—but then that's the second time you've saved Metropolis from being the epicenter of global destruction, so I suppose I can't blame them."
Clark blinks twice and clears his throat. "And Superman, um—"
"Died very, very publicly," Bruce fills in. "There were already a couple news helicopters close enough to Stryker's to catch it. Lovely ceremony over an empty coffin in Arlington. I'm sure there's plenty of footage, if you'd like to—"
"No," Clark says unsteadily, "no, that's—I—no."
Bruce shrugs, because it makes no difference to Bruce Wayne. "I imagine his adoring public would be thrilled to see him again," he says, "but there's no rush."
Of course it hasn't occurred to Clark, Bruce thinks. Always so goddamn eager to shoulder every weight. "No one knows you're back," he says aloud, and shrugs again. "At least not until you put on the uniform and somebody sees you. You might as well take your time, Mr. Kent. Doesn't look like you're up to it at the moment anyway," he adds, with a significant glance along Clark's body, the way he's draped limply over the sofa.
"Not really," Clark admits, voice rough, letting his head tip sideways a little further into the sunshine.
He's closed his eyes again; his face has relaxed in it, peaceful, still glowing faintly gold like—like maybe Bruce was right to call it hagiography: like he really is a saint. He's right there, alive, whole, and that's the last thing Bruce ever deserved to get to see in this lifetime.
It's almost spellbinding, and Bruce doesn't realize how far it's drawn him in until Clark drags in a breath, closes his hands into fists against the tops of his thighs, and says, "And what about—what about Batman?"
"That whackjob?" Bruce says steadily, without hesitation. "He's still around, I think. Kind of a surprise, him living through something that killed you, but then again the man's a coward. Wouldn't swoop around in the dark like that if he weren't. Very model of a modern vigilante, isn't he?"
Clark's face—Clark's face does something entirely understandable, Bruce thinks. He does remember Batman trying to kill him, then. That's good: even if he had sustained some kind of brain damage during the fight or by being dead, his Kryptonian physiology seems to have dealt with it thoroughly. Fuzzy or failed memory is one of the most basic signs of head trauma that there is. Not that Kryptonians necessarily suffer the same symptoms as humans, of course, but in the absence of any other framework for making an evaluation, it will have to do.
"Luthor was manipulating us," Clark says—or rather tells himself, Bruce thinks, trying to sound convincing, trying to remind himself to believe it.
"Luthor was manipulating you, yes," Bruce says. "That's why he took your mother. There's no reason to think—"
But Clark's already shaking his head. Already pulling himself together—already prepared to be generous beyond all reason. "No, he—he saved Mom. He must have." He blinks and then squints up at Bruce. "And you must have seen him, if you were there."
Damn. Bruce can't rewrite that; Martha won't lie about it. If Clark asks her whether Batman got her out, she'll say yes.
"I was, but not for that part," he says aloud. "All I know is the men watching me were called away, and the next time the door opened, it was your mother. That woman's awfully good with knots."
Clark doesn't get distracted. "Then he did," he says unsteadily. "I asked him to and he did, and I can't pretend that doesn't count for anything." His hands are still in fists; but he bites his lip and then adds, "And I don't know whether Luthor did anything to him. Set him up somehow or baited him, or—or who knows what."
And oh, Bruce wants to tell Clark exactly how wrong he is: that Lex Luthor hadn't had to do a damn thing to him except tell him exactly what he'd wanted to hear, that he'd swallowed it all from hook to sinker without a second thought. That Batman is the absolute last person Clark should be willing to make excuses for.
But he can't.
Martha saves him from having to scrape together a reply—she comes back in before he can even open his mouth. She has a stack of clean clothes pinned under one elbow, two towels under the other, and a bowl of water in one hand; and in the other hand is a phone. "It should be just about morning where Lois is," she says softly, and then smiles a little. "And that woman's always been an early riser."
Clark stares at her, and then at the phone, and he's looking at it like it's a chunk of kryptonite.
"Her number's already in here," Martha adds. "I'll just explain what's happened, honey, and then you can talk to her." She sets the bowl of water down. And then she tosses Bruce a glance, a little nod toward the porch. She's not wrong: he should go. Clark's forgotten about him entirely, still looking at the phone, and there might not be a better moment for Bruce to bow out.
So Bruce nods back, and goes.
With no one looking, he can indulge in a moment's indecision. He should take off before Clark can get a hold of himself, before he absorbs enough sun and breathes enough air for all his strengths and powers to come back completely—if nothing else, there's still a chance that if Bruce goes right now, Clark genuinely won't hear the Batplane. But—
But Martha's the one who called him here. Martha wanted his help. He shouldn't leave without at least talking to her, making sure she's all right. And she can't handle everything from here by herself. If nothing else, getting a legal declaration of death reversed could prove difficult—but a few consultants from Wayne Enterprises will almost certainly make that easier. He should at least bring it up, so she'll be prepared for it when matters get a little more urgent. (Thankfully, he does own the Daily Planet; if nothing else, he can ensure that Clark Kent won't have any trouble getting his job back, even after being dead for half a year.)
He pauses on the front walk, looks out across the flat Kansas fields and makes a deal with himself: a minute, that's how long he'll wait, just in case Martha wanted him to, and then—
He turns around.
Martha did want him to; he can see that the moment he looks at her. "Bruce," she says again, and in a rush she comes down the front steps and grabs for his hands.
There's a pause then—she doesn't speak, looking down instead, but her grip is so tight Bruce almost can't tell her hands are shaking. "Martha," he says carefully, and she blows out a long breath and then shakes her head.
"My god," she says, "my god. I thought I might be—I don't know. But you saw him too—"
"He's real," Bruce says.
"My god," she says again, and then laughs, sharp and a little wild. "Oh, listen to me—tell me to get a grip already."
"You've got a pretty good one," Bruce tells her, making a face like a small wince; and she looks at him blankly for a moment and then all at once eases up on his hands.
(She doesn't let go, though.)
"Oh, oh, I'm sorry," she says, and laughs again. "I'm so sorry."
"I've had worse," Bruce says.
"No, I—not just for that," and then Martha hesitates and lowers her voice. "I am sorry, Bruce, really. I wasn't thinking when I called you—"
"I don't mind, Martha, I've told you: I want you to call me—"
"—about your identity, I mean," she clarifies over him, and that makes Bruce go quiet. "I wasn't thinking about how it would look to Clark. And I know you want all that to stay a secret. I didn't mean to make that harder for you." She pauses for a second, and then she must see something in his face, because she adds, "Don't worry, Lois picked up. I promise you, he's not listening to anything but what's on the other end of that phone."
And she's right, no doubt. "It's fine," Bruce says. "He seemed to believe the cover story I gave him. I'm sorry to put you in this position, but if you can—at least not deny it, if he asks—"
"Of course," Martha says instantly. "But if he does decide to be Superman again, to work with you and Diana, you'll tell him."
She isn't asking—because to her, Bruce thinks, it doesn't seem like much of a question. Bruce and Diana know each other's identities, and they both know Clark's, too. It would be strange, lopsided, to forcibly keep him out of the loop.
But that's only because she isn't thinking it through.
"He's going to need my help," Bruce explains gently.
"No, not as Superman. As Clark. He was declared dead," Bruce reminds her. "That needs to be reversed."
"Bruce," Martha says.
"I have to straighten things out at the Planet. There must be a way to open up a position for him. And his tenancy—"
"Bruce," Martha says.
"There's no reason he needs to know until everything is sorted out," Bruce says. It's common sense.
"Bruce," Martha repeats.
She's looking at him oddly—softly. He's not sure why. He hasn't said anything that warrants it.
"You didn't kill him," she says, very low.
"I know that," Bruce says.
He does. He's reviewed it a thousand times in his head, a thousand more times with the collected footage from the helicopters. He even has Diana's recollections, safely voice-recorded, after he'd explained to her that it would be useful for tactical analysis. The kryptonite shell Bruce had fired at that last instant had been necessary: it had weakened Zod at precisely the right moment. Compared to the amount of kryptonite on the end of the spear, it's unlikely that what had reached Clark had been the critical factor—that Clark would have been less impalable to the exact degree necessary without it. Clark had chosen to take up the spear, had known what it would do to him. In point of fact, he'd had a pretty exact idea what it would do, given that Bruce had shoved it into his face not half an hour beforehand. It's possible that the experience even helped him brace himself for it, and made it easier for him to withstand its effects long enough to reach Zod. Bruce hadn't killed Clark at all.
He'd just tried to. He'd just walked right into Luthor's trap; he'd just allowed himself to be manipulated in ways that had made it impossible for Superman to collaborate with him until it was too late. If they'd been aware of the true threat, there's no doubt in Bruce's mind that he and Diana and Clark together could have defeated Zod without losing anyone. And he could have ensured they'd get the chance to try. But he'd wasted his time masterminding ways to destroy Clark instead.
Bruce hadn't killed Clark, no. But he might as well have.
"He just doesn't know you," Martha says kindly. "Once he does, once you explain, he'll understand."
"You of all people should know it isn't that easy," Bruce says.
It's something of a low blow; but Martha doesn't flinch. "I didn't say it would be easy," she says, calm, "and I didn't say it wouldn't take time." She's still got hold of his hands: she squeezes. "You're right, I hated you at first, when you told me what you'd done—but it didn't last. I don't see how it could have, after everything else. And it won't with Clark, either. You told the truth back then: you are a friend of my son's. You've already proven that to me. And my son will be a friend of yours, too, Bruce, if you let him."
She's a kind woman, Martha Kent. Generous. It seems to run in the family. Which means Bruce needs to be careful. My son will be a friend of yours, if you let him. And she isn't wrong, after all: Bruce has ample proof that, given the opportunity, Clark will wholeheartedly make the worst choice available to him regardless of the cost to himself.
(Which surely means that Bruce—as a friend—should make every effort to stop him.)
"For all the good it will do him," Bruce says aloud, wry, because jokes are typically the least uncomfortable way to tell the truth.
But Martha doesn't let it slide that easily. She smiles at him and squeezes his hands again. "It's done me plenty," she says without hesitation, and she's about to add something else when the sound of the screen door creaking open stops her.
She and Bruce both turn.
It's Clark. He's stepped out onto the porch, barefooted, and the suit is gone, traded for a shirt and sweats, but there's still dark streaks of dirt along his arms, ground into the skin along the backs of his knuckles. He's holding the phone, but not to his ear—it's silent now, dark, and he's staring down at it.
"She cried," he says unsteadily. "But she—she's not coming back. This assignment is important to her, and she needs some time."
He recites this like he's memorized it, like it's something he was sitting in there repeating to himself for five minutes before he came out here and told them—and maybe he was.
"Oh, sweetheart," Martha says, and finally lets go of Bruce so she can step away and take the phone from Clark's hands. "You have to understand, it's been months—"
"Yeah," Clark says. He's looking down at his empty fingers, now that the phone is gone: his palms are still dirty, too. "Yeah. I guess it has."
It proves to be the perfect moment for Bruce to make his escape. Martha helps Clark back inside, clucking gently about washing his hands, hadn't she raised him better than that—she glances over her shoulder at Bruce, quick, and nods once before she lets the screen door fall shut behind her. That's his cue. She's on his side about his identity as Batman, at least for now; Clark is distracted, and even if he does catch the sound of the Batplane leaving, Martha will cover for Bruce as best she can.
And Bruce needs to go, because he has a lot of work to do.
Once he's in the air again, he engages the autopilot and then finds his hand on his phone. He has no idea what's involved in reversing a certification of death in Metropolis—he doesn't even know whether city law differs from state or federal when it comes to this kind of thing. Maybe all it will take is a judge's ruling, if they have enough evidence. Not that Clark has a birth certificate, obviously. Bruce isn't sure whether the Kents ever even legally adopted him, but he must have some kind of official identification or he'd never have been able to enter the Smallville school system, let alone rent the apartment he'd been keeping in Metropolis before he died.
Probably best if they can avoid even bringing up the possibility of a DNA test.
He should do some preliminary research before he gets in touch with the Wayne Enterprises legal department about it. It's a good thing Bruce Wayne has already been seen in public more than once with Martha Kent, that Clark Kent's employment at a Wayne Entertainment company is a matter of record—doing them a favor won't be coming out of nowhere. Of course the official story will have to be that the coffin in Smallville was empty. They're lucky Clark was impaled; Martha had erred on the side of caution, not wanting anyone to notice anything amiss, and hadn't held any sort of viewing at the service before the funeral. Only a few people actually know there was a body in there, and that can be handled. Bruce won't let a detail that minor get in the way of sorting this out.
The cover had been, of course, that hapless reporter Clark Kent, out and about on a Metropolis evening, had tragically been caught in the crossfire during the fight. They can't pretend to have pulled him out of the rubble on Stryker's Island after all this time, but a head injury, amnesia, some disoriented wandering and a few months as a John Doe—no, it shouldn't be difficult to account for that side of things.
And as for Superman, it's actually for the best if Clark takes a little while to suit up again. The more time separating Clark Kent's return from the dead and Superman's mysterious resurrection, the better. And Bruce—Bruce should call Diana. She needs to know what's happened. Even if Clark decides not to reclaim Superman's mantle, some other alien enemy of his could scan the planet and find his lifesigns, come looking. The Justice League is more of an idea than a reality right now, but whether Clark ever becomes a part of it or not, that's the kind of thing it will need to be ready to deal with. Bruce should call Diana.
He presses his hands against the Batplane's control board until they've stopped shaking. Adrenaline—from being prepared for the worst, from the surprise of it all. Nothing unusual. Bruce just needs to let it work its way out of his system.
Diana must not be busy: she picks up right away, even though she doesn't know what there could be to pick up for. "Trouble?" she says.
"No," Bruce says, and then for a strange sharp moment his throat constricts. He knows what he wants to tell her—that Clark is alive and that Superman might be; that despite seeming wholly himself, it's still possible that someone has done this to Clark for a reason: implanted him with physical or mental triggers of some kind, altered him in ways they need to keep an eye out for.
But none of it will come out. He stares at the Batplane controls and breathes into the phone, and braces himself to shove past whatever the hell is wrong with him—
"Bruce?" Diana says, low, gentle.
And that's enough: the logjam is broken. "Clark's alive," Bruce says.
It would be perfectly understandable to ask whether he's sure, but Diana doesn't do it. She knows he wouldn't have called, wouldn't have said it like that, unless he were. "And he's all right," she says instead, after a moment.
"As far as I was able to determine," Bruce tells her. "Of course I'll keep you informed if I learn otherwise."
"Of course," Diana agrees. "Bruce—"
It's requiring more concentration than it should for him to keep his voice level. It doesn't matter why; it only matters that the degree of effort involved is unsustainable. This phone call needs to end right now.
"I'm sorry, Diana, I have to go."
Kindly, she takes him at his word. "Thank you for telling me," she says simply, and she's the one who hangs up first.
The path ahead of him is clear. Call Legal, make an appointment; obtain all the relevant documentation there is from Martha, from the Planet's HR department, from the necessary authorities; decide where and when Clark might have fallen into the water on the day of the fight, where a John Doe with a head wound needs to have washed up. He knows what needs to be done, and he'll do it. And in the end, it won't make any difference if he had to stare down at his hands, at the phone, and force himself to take long slow breaths for three and a half minutes first.
By the time he lands under the lake, he's arranged a meeting with Legal, and all publicly available official documents that so much as mention Clark Kent's name have begun downloading themselves onto the servers in the Cave. Fortunately, he doesn't need to wait for anyone on the HR staff to get back to him—he already has access to the internal files of Wayne Entertainment and its subsidiaries, and it's easy enough to start running a search remotely. The results might even be there by the time he gets to the computers—
"Master Wayne. What a pleasant surprise."
Bruce lets himself grimace before he wipes the expression away and turns around. He hadn't told Alfred much of anything when he'd left—there hadn't been much of anything to tell, at that point, since he still hadn't been sure that whatever was standing on Martha's porch was really Clark. But Alfred never likes it when Bruce goes charging off without a word of explanation, Master Wayne, and as your butler I've no grounds to object, but as your head of security I simply cannot abide—
"Sorry, Alfred," he says.
Alfred's eyebrows go up. "An unprompted apology," he observes slowly, as though to himself, and then addresses Bruce with a conscientious air: "Have you been struck on the head, sir, or merely drugged?"
Both, Bruce almost says. "Clark Kent is alive," he tells Alfred instead, and it should be irritating to have to explain it again—repeating himself like a parrot every ten minutes, Clark's alive! Clark's alive!
It's the kind of thing he never let himself so much as imagine, while Clark was gone. Clark had been dead; every implication of that fact, every choice Bruce had made because of it, had been predicated on the idea that the situation was fundamentally unalterable. It was something that needed to be accepted, a weight that couldn't be set down and couldn't be handed off. Considering all the ways in which the battle could have gone differently—that was tactical. That would help Bruce make quicker, clearer decisions in any similar situations in the future. Idiotic daydreams about Clark just—reappearing, recovering? Utterly without merit. Clark had been dead. What had been important had been figuring out how to bear it, how to integrate what Bruce had been taught by it into his actions following it. Pretending it hadn't happened or could be undone was pointless, and Bruce simply hadn't permitted himself to be so wasteful.
Now it's true. It's true and Bruce can say it all day long and it will stay true. Hell, there's a solid chance it will still be true tomorrow morning, if Clark doesn't drop dead again overnight—which is possible, but even Bruce can't convince himself it's especially likely. He hadn't gotten a look at the skin of Clark's chest, but even with a shirt on, it had been clear that there wasn't a hole in Clark anymore; if that's due to external intervention, then yes, perhaps it had been done quickly and could be undone as quickly. But if it was Clark's own healing factor, if it's the result of a long slow process of repair that's been at work since he died, then it's likely it would take trauma equivalent to the original injury to reverse it. And Zod is gone. Bruce retrieved the kryptonite, it's boxed up in lead two levels away. Lex Luthor is in prison. The confluence of factors that brought Clark down is about as unlikely to reoccur as anyone could ask for.
He glances at Alfred—who's looking back, face carefully blank, and hasn't said a word.
"He is," Bruce says, abruptly able to guess why. (He can't even resent it. A surprising number of Gotham villains favor hallucinogenic attacks of various kinds; it's hardly implausible.) "Call Martha yourself. I'm sure she'd put him on the line for you, at least if he's still awake."
"I'll take your word for it, Master Wayne, for the moment," Alfred says, and his expression doesn't change but Bruce sees the way the line of his shoulders eases. "But, if I may ask—how?"
Bruce can't restrain a snort. "How does Clark do anything? He recovered from a nuclear explosion in about five minutes. In retrospect," Bruce adds, "it was foolish to assume death would have a more permanent effect than anything else."
"When you put it that way," Alfred concedes. "And you're—all right, sir?"
As if Bruce is able to quantify it that neatly.
On the one hand—he can't pretend it's anything but a relief. Especially not to Alfred, not in a way Alfred would believe. (Alfred was there for the worst of it, in the immediate aftermath. Alfred—saw.) He had fixated on the resignation of it all, had buried himself in it about as far under as Clark's body had been: Clark was dead, and Bruce could have prevented it but had chosen not to, and there was nothing he could do about any of that afterward except find a way to live with it. The worst mistake he'd ever made, because he'd made it—with Jason, at the absolute least Bruce hadn't been the one to hand the Joker the crowbar. And now it's fixed. Miraculously undone, the terrible and unforgivable consequence erased. Not that the mistake qualifies as unmade; but Clark isn't paying the price for it in a box underground anymore. Bruce can't be anything but grateful for that.
It isn't that he's sorry Clark's alive. Of course he isn't. It's just that it's—it's almost bewildering. Bruce has made something of a study of failure, penitence, regret. He's learned how to brace against their slow persistent pull; he's familiar with their mass, their particular gravity. He'd known what he was facing, after Clark's death. He'd seen the path laid out before him and he'd been prepared to walk it. There had even been a grim kind of comfort in understanding what was coming—in being aware that, plus or minus a few degrees of pitch or elevation, this was how he would feel for the rest of his life.
And now all that has changed.
Clark is alive.
"I'm fine," he says aloud, and smiles a little, claps Alfred on the shoulder as he passes. "I'll be in the Cave if you need me."
He'll figure out what they have to do and where to begin, how to start the ball rolling, and if there's anything he needs from Martha, he can go back for it tomorrow.
(Without the Batplane.)
Honestly, Clark's glad to have the phone taken away from him—glad for Mom's gentle hands on his arms, steering him back to the sofa. Somebody's got to be in charge of him right now, and he's not sure he's up to it.
Physically, he's definitely starting to feel better, although that's not saying much. But he's not any more clearheaded now than he was in the cemetery. He's worse, even: he'd been so out of it at first that there hadn't been any room to spare for thinking. He'd needed every ounce of concentration he could muster just to keep himself moving, to put one foot in front of the other. The house, Mom—he'd needed to get to them, and that had been the only thing he'd cared about.
He hadn't noticed the leaves. Six months—it had been autumn when he'd died.
It isn't autumn anymore.
"There, now," Mom says, and guides him down; he sits, automatic, and the sun hits him again, and he can't help turning his face into it. "You just stay there—I'll get the rest of this dirt off, honey, and then you should rest."
"Okay," he says, and he manages to drag a smile out from somewhere for her before he closes his eyes.
It is good to be clean—mostly—and comfortable. No denying that. The coffin had been cushioned, but the padding had rotted away a little, and it had been so small—
Not that there's any point in thinking about that. He'd gotten out, and he's fine.
It's just he can't stop himself, he keeps circling it like a drain: six months. Six months. The fight was the last thing that happened to him, and he remembers it like it was yesterday. It was yesterday, he can't help thinking, because there's nothing else he can place in between it and right now—but it was six months ago. It was six months ago; the leaves have changed, Lois is in South Korea, and everything he owns is in boxes in Mom's basement. Everything is different, except for Clark.
For Clark it was yesterday.
"All right," Mom is saying, giving the backs of his knuckles one more swipe with the washcloth, and Clark pries an eye open in time to see her smile at him. For a second he's about to ask her what's wrong, why the line of her mouth is so unsteady. But that would be stupid. He knows what's wrong—he was dead, and now he isn't. For her it's been a long time, long enough that she must have thought she was done crying over him.
"Thanks, Mom," he says, but it comes out weird and slurred. He can't get his eyes to open any further, can't even imagine standing up again—
"You just rest," Mom repeats, from what Clark finds has somehow become a really long way away. "I know you're not used to feeling tired, sweetheart, but it's all right. I'll be here when you wake up."
She pauses and then there's something else, a sound Clark can't make sense of anymore, a quick warm brush against his forehead, and then it's all gone.
It's dark and he can't see. He tries, automatic, to switch to x-ray—to switch to the laser-vision, even, which destroys stuff but also usually makes a lot of light; except it doesn't. Nothing happens. It stays dark.
It's dark and he can't see, and he also can't move. He's in something, some kind of—box, and it's close and moldering and the air is stale. He doesn't want to be inside it anymore. And deciding that is all it usually takes: he's Superman. He has superstrength, he can fly. On some level, helplessness is beyond him. He always has a choice.
Except he sets his hands against the side of the box and pushes, and it doesn't move. It's not that he isn't pushing hard—for one mindless, panicked moment, he shoves at it with everything he has, until the muscles in his arms and back are straining. He shoves at it until he hurts, and that's a kind of effort he never ever has to make, but nothing is happening, nothing—he can't get out—
Clark hurtles off the couch and just barely manages to stop before he hits the far wall; it is dark, but not so dark that he can't see, and there's no box—no coffin, because that's what it had been. The wall's right in front of him, and he presses his hands against it just enough to make the wood creak. He could break it if he wanted to. He could. He's fine.
He stares at the backs of his fingers and breathes. His heart's pounding—and not because it has to. Digging himself out of his grave is the only time he can remember exerting himself enough to force it to. But it's never mattered that he's physically Superman. He's still weak in all the other ways humans are; and he's always liked that about himself, always reminded himself of it at the times when he's felt the most alien.
But he does kind of wish right now that Kryptonians didn't feel fear.
It isn't even just about the nightmare. It would be easier if it were: a bad dream's easy enough to dispel. There wasn't any moonlight reflecting off any coffee tables, in the dream; there weren't any family portraits lined up inside the coffin. Clark could hardly move at all, let alone cross the room to sit back down on the sofa. None of it was real, and everything around him right now that is real serves as a reminder of that.
What he can't wake up from is the six months that are missing. And the reminders of that are just as present: Mom's changed, turned quieter, tired in a way that's almost frightening; and Lois is on the other side of the world; and Superman's dead. Clark got buried and mourned and cried over, and then—left behind. Everything had moved on around him, and he'd just lain down there, untouched.
Dad had always been afraid that he'd never find a—a place for himself, that he'd never find a way to fit in. But after fighting Zod the first time around, it had felt like he finally had. Everyone had known about Superman, and almost none of them had hated him; Lois had known and had loved him, Clark himself, which was more than Clark had ever really been convinced he could hope for. He'd had a job, an apartment, a life, just like anyone else. He'd built himself somewhere he belonged.
Now it's all gone. Now he's as unmoored as if he were still sneaking through strangers' backyards to steal their laundry, as if he were still some faceless truck-stop waiter whose name nobody knew unless they bothered reading it off the pin on his apron.
He hears his own breath catch as if it's somebody else's, and he doesn't even bother raising his hands to press them to his face. He sits there in the dimness and he's—he feels—
He feels fucked up. He thinks it with an almost vicious energy, words he hardly ever says: he feels fucked up. He feels helpless, mindless; he wants to run, to sprint outside and fly away, except he'll never be able to do it fast enough to get away from this feeling. He'll never be able to do it fast enough to leave himself behind.
He's managed to talk himself into something kind of like calm by morning. Surely it'll just plain take time to get over. He came back from the dead yesterday. There's still a little grave dirt under his nails. There isn't exactly anybody he can ask about this, but presumably a little disorientation's only to be expected. Mom's still herself in all the ways that count. Lois is only a phone call away—and once Clark's sure his speed and flight are both back to 100%, she'll be even closer than that, no matter how long she decides to stay in South Korea. It'll take time, and work, and probably it won't be easy, but he can get through this.
And, apparently, Bruce Wayne.
Clark's not expecting it at all. He doesn't know how long he's sitting there on the couch, but it's long enough for the light to change, blue to gray to gold. Luckily he's not so far into his own head that he doesn't hear it when Mom gets up; and by the time she comes downstairs, he's in the kitchen with the skillet, apron on because he knows it will make her laugh, making eggs.
He smiles at her, and she says, "Clark," in a wobbly voice and then puts both hands over her mouth.
"Hey, hey," he says, because it's easy enough to guess what she's thinking. And he'd rather let the eggs burn a little than let her keep thinking it, so he steps away from the stove to put his arms around her. "It's okay. You didn't dream it, Mom, I'm here. I'm fine."
It sounds a little more true out loud than it did in his head. Good sign, he hopes.
"I'm fine," he says again, squeezing her shoulders, and she laughs through her fingers—her eyes are bright but she isn't crying, and that's a good sign, too—
And his powers are definitely coming back: even a human might have been able to hear Mom through the quiet of the house, but now she's up, the eggs are sizzling, all the circuitry in the stove is humming with heat, and he still catches a footstep past it.
"Oh," Mom says, "oh, it's probably Bruce."
Bruce? Clark stares at her. Had she been calling the billionaire CEO of Wayne Enterprises by his first name yesterday, too? Clark can't remember.
Honestly, he'd almost started thinking he'd made that up: the memory of Mr. Wayne standing over him is so hazy, and a lot of yesterday feels weird and thin and disconnected. Mr. Wayne had been the one to tell Clark what had happened while he'd been gone, that was right—at the time it had felt almost like a voiceover, Mr. Wayne just a borrowed face for an unidentifiable narrator.
But it must have been real. The footsteps keep coming, across the yard and up the stairs, and when Mom opens the door, it actually is Mr. Wayne who smiles at her and comes inside.
"Good morning, Martha," he says easily, and Mom smiles back at him like this is totally normal and waves him in.
"Come in, come in—have you eaten?"
"On the way," Mr. Wayne confirms, "never fear. I apologize; I do hate to talk business this early in the morning, but it isn't the kind of thing that will wait."
"What isn't?" Clark says, and then hopes belatedly it didn't come out too rude. It's just that he can't think of any business Bruce Wayne would have with Mom, let alone business urgent enough that he made it to Kansas in time for breakfast.
"Why," Mr. Wayne says, breezy, "bringing you back to life, of course."
He lays it out for Mom over the eggs, once Clark's finished serving them up. He doesn't dwell too heavily on the details; his attitude is conversational and matter-of-fact, and all told he's acting like he helps people get themselves undeclared dead every day.
It's—it's great. Clark's a little surprised by how glad he is, but the more he thinks about it the more he realizes he shouldn't be. Mr. Wayne's casual attitude might have bugged him any other day. But right now it's the perfect antidote to everything that had snuck up on Clark in the middle of the night: as if he expects nothing less than to be able to slot Clark right back into place—as if Clark has a place, as if he ought to be able to get it back; as if Mr. Wayne's never thought otherwise. Clark had figured Mom called him yesterday because he was kind of a friend. He'd helped her with Clark's body before and he knew about Superman, and she probably hadn't been sure who else to call. But maybe she'd known he would do this. Maybe she'd known that Mr. Wayne's response to Clark rising from the grave would be to spend the night working out a strategy for how to make him real again.
"—and the bottom line is, a court order should do it, if we can get the paper trail set up," Mr. Wayne is saying as Clark scrapes together his last forkful of eggs.
"Oh, that's wonderful, Bruce," Mom says, "thank you," and she leans in and actually kisses his cheek before standing to take Clark's plate. "All Clark's papers and things are in the basement," she adds over her shoulder, moving toward the kitchen. "I'll go see if I can find them, just give me ten minutes."
And then she's gone.
Clark doesn't know what to say except, "Thank you," again, because Mr. Wayne should hear it from him, too—with everything he's doing, words aren't really enough, but Clark's not sure what else—
"Please," Mr. Wayne says, with a dismissive flick of the fingers. "Don't talk yourself into giving me too much credit, Mr. Kent. The point of being a billionaire is getting to pay other people to do this kind of work for you."
He leans back in the chair after he says it, and smiles at Clark like—Clark's not sure what to call that look, but it strikes precisely the wrong note, so easy and unconcerned it's almost unfeeling. Clark only just manages not to frown at Mr. Wayne for it, because that would still be rude. He did get all this arranged, even if he delegated everything that required actual effort to his employees.
"Well, thank you anyway," Clark makes himself say.
Mr. Wayne's eyes narrow, and then he looks at Clark, raises an eyebrow, and—
It's easily the slowest, most gratuitous onceover Clark's ever gotten. There's something almost pointed about it, even unkind, like he wants it to make Clark uncomfortable. It shoves Clark off-balance with a vengeance: surely Mr. Wayne doesn't mean it like that—it's—it's inappropriate, isn't it, staring that way at somebody who was dead yesterday? He can't possibly—
"Doesn't seem like you've had any trouble getting back on your feet. You're looking—much better today." Mr. Wayne pauses for a single sharp, mocking beat, and then adds, "Nice apron."
Clark hopes faintly that his face doesn't look as red as it feels. For an instant, he's wavering somewhere close to anger. It was a long unpleasant night for him, and Mr. Wayne was around for the end of that phone call with Lois yesterday—he knows exactly how completely Clark's life has fallen apart, whether Clark's looking better today or not.
But it's a sunny morning, and the eggs were pretty good, and Clark made Mom smile. And Mr. Wayne also knows that it's Superman who's sitting across from him, wearing a blue-and-white gingham apron tied on with a lopsided bow. Clark can't really blame him for seeing the humor in it.
Plus, the other reason Mr. Wayne is aware of how completely Clark's life has fallen apart is because he's taking it on himself to help put it back together.
So Clark doesn't snap. "It's my mother's," he says instead, evenly, and goes ahead and flashes Mr. Wayne a hint of a smile. "But I'll be sure to pass your compliments along, Mr. Wayne."
Something about Mr. Wayne's face changes. Clark couldn't have picked it out until he saw the lack of it: some kind of tension, a bitterness or weariness, or maybe both. Whatever it is, it recedes, and Mr. Wayne's grin could almost be called bright. If also kind of smug. "Bruce," he says, and then, with a wink, "If I'm going to keep hitting on you at inappropriate moments, you should call me Bruce."
Things get easier. Clark's starting to think Mom felt quiet and tired to him at first just because—just because that's what it had been like for her while Clark was dead. She is the same in all the ways that matter: her smiles stop being so thin and bright, and she keeps on hugging him every morning but slowly eases up, doesn't hang on so long after. A week, and she starts humming sometimes—two more, and she's singing while she gardens again, absent easy Ramones drifting up from the corner by the back porch where she's decided to put in some hostas. She's starting to believe he's not going anywhere.
The neighbors come by, and it's as good a test for his cover story as anything; Clark practices talking about his head injury, a few vague words about what it was like to have amnesia. (It's not that hard: he practically does have it, with those six months he can't remember hanging over him.) He calls Lois almost every day, and it's bad at first, difficult—she doesn't know what to say to him, what to ask him, and every time he opens his mouth he's struggling not to let, "Please come back," be what comes out. She said she wanted to complete the assignment she's on for the Planet, and he's not going to make that harder for her if he can help it.
(He has to keep reminding himself. Six months. Six months. He's still the person who wanted to give her a ring, because that was yesterday for him; but what that means to her is sitting in his dark, silent room in a black dress, Mom handing her a package with a dim sad smile. For her, it's not a good memory—it's something she's been trying to get over. It's something she's been trying to forget.)
Things get easier; but they don't get easy. At first, Mom had been scrupulously careful not to mention Clark's death—and it's good that she's more comfortable now, it really is. It can't be a bad thing that she's stopped acting like bringing it up was some kind of jinx that would put him back in the ground. It's just that the more she starts to talk about things that happened while Clark was dead, the harder it is to ignore it. People she met; conversations she had; recipes she tried, giving herself a reason to enjoy eating dinner alone, with no one to please but herself. Clark's glad when Lois stops sounding like she's about to cry every time she answers the phone, but listening to her talk about South Korea, about how her correspondence pieces for Perry have been coming together, about maritime borders and diplomacy and Chinese trade agreements—
It's everything he missed, all the space the world's traveled without him. And they'd stop in a second if he asked, but they shouldn't have to. They aren't doing anything wrong; but they've traveled on without him, too, and every time he remembers that it's a whole separate punch in the gut.
Which is why it turns out to be kind of great that there's also Bruce.
Clark shouldn't like Bruce. There are actually plenty of times when he doesn't, and not even for the reasons he'd expected—he'd absorbed a basic picture of Bruce Wayne from the papers, the television, bits and pieces he's heard or read somewhere. He'd figured on disliking Bruce for being careless, easy, not unpleasant but ultimately flat underneath.
But Bruce is—Bruce is cynical, bitingly so, in ways that make Clark feel almost defensive. He delivers the lines with a smile, but that doesn't make them any less bitter: "That's the way it works, Clark." "That's how business is done, Clark." "That's all that kept you off a lab table, Clark." He doesn't seem to care how it sounds, how it will make Clark feel. He doesn't seem to care about much of anything.
Except, of course, for how he's spending a whole lot of time and money almost literally saving Clark's life.
Clark can admit that his ability to manipulate the system is impressive, if nothing else. The problem of coming back from the dead turns out to be a thorny one; Clark can't help feeling like just standing in front of a judge and having his pulse taken should be enough, but apparently that's not how it works. So Bruce keeps on dropping by with his briefcase full of ridiculously complicated paperwork, legal filings, endless documentation, getting Clark to sign things or walking him through the adjustments to the cover story as it becomes official reality—
"These are fake," Clark says, staring down at the hospital intake form, at the sign-out sheet agreeing that he'd been released on his own recognizance.
"Extremely," Bruce agrees.
"This can't possibly be legal."
Bruce sighs through his nose. "Will you just sign it?"
Clark doesn't reach for the pen Bruce is holding out. "Bruce—"
"Wayne Enterprises is responsible for any malfeasance here," Bruce says, "not you. You're an employee, or at least you will be again soon. Coercion will be an argument even a public defender could make successfully—"
"Public defenders do important work," Clark says.
"Oh, yes, do tell," Bruce drawls insincerely.
"And they're not any more or less likely to be shortsighted, illogical jerks than billionaires," Clark observes, without heat. "Bruce, you're doing all this for me. If there are going to be consequences, they have to fall on me, too."
He doesn't know why that makes Bruce's gaze get so—so black, what prompts the flash of grim tension across Bruce's face before Bruce looks away. "I'm only doing it for you because you died, Clark, and if you want to blame anyone for that, blame—"
"—Luthor," Clark finishes, "I know." He's thought about it some, about whether he could've done something different or kept Luthor from getting Zod's body. But when he'd brought it up aloud, Mom had shut that line of conversation down pretty quickly: If you don't quit talking like that, you're not getting one single solitary slice of this pie. You did the best you could, and I don't want to hear another word.
Bruce is silent for a beat. "You said it, not me," he murmurs, very evenly, and then sits forward. "I picked this hospital because it's located in the right general area, but also because it's right in the middle of trying to make the conversion to a digital filing system. It was easy to get these forms, and it'll be easy to toss them in as part of the shuffle—anyone who doesn't remember filing them or notices the backdating will just assume it was an oversight. The risk is minimal." He raises an eyebrow.
Clark takes the pen and looks down at the sheet. "Tell me about the hospital," he says.
"No one's going to ask, Clark—"
"Just in case," Clark says. "Just so I've got it straight. What room did you put me in?"
And Bruce talks a great game about the guys in Legal, how complicated they're making everything, that for once they're earning their overtime. But he doesn't even have to look down at the rest of the papers before he says, "203."
So he is paying attention, at least a little bit. This matters to him.
Clark's just not sure why.
So: it's easier with Bruce because he gives Clark something else to think about. When Clark's busy being frustrated and telling him to stop being so snide, or trying to figure out exactly what the hell his problem is, that means Clark isn't thinking about the dark, or a box, or Mom spending Christmas alone.
And it's easier with Bruce because he's a stranger—there's nothing about him Clark is supposed to know already. Except for that party at Luthor's, but Clark remembers that. Clark remembers that Bruce is flippant, that he donates to charities even when all he can say about their missions is "Books." And that Luthor maybe had a better reason to kidnap him than Mom realizes, given that he was doing something at that party he needed a hidden radio for. Corporate espionage, maybe. Which is obviously not good; but if Clark had to pick, he'd rather Wayne Enterprises came out on top of that particular commercial slapfight.
Probably the best thing about Bruce is that he doesn't know Clark either. He knows about Superman, because he helped Mom, and he must have listened to her talk about Clark at least a little bit afterward, but that's all. There's nothing in particular he expects Clark to do or be, no way Clark always used to act around him that he's spent six months without.
Which means Clark doesn't have to be careful with him. With Mom and Lois, Clark's already put them through so much just by dying that he can't—he can't do anything but smile and say he's fine, can't let himself get away with less than chuckling into the phone and saying goodbye in a hearty, pleasant kind of way. If they think he's too quiet or too sharp, if he says he hasn't slept well, they'll ask. And what can he tell them? What could they do about it?
But Bruce doesn't ask. He does notice the days when Clark is off, Clark's pretty sure. It's just all he does about it is say there's only three more forms to sign. Or lean back in his chair and make rude comments about whatever courthouse secretary got drunk at lunch and then typed this thing up, until Clark can't stand it anymore and has to say something. Clark's probably just deluding himself, but it feels a little bit like Bruce understands: like he's saying, You're right, what's happened to you isn't the kind of thing anyone can fix. Like maybe Clark will keep on being kind of messed up about this for a while, and maybe that's okay.
If he's being generous with himself, then that's why he says it.
If he's not, there are plenty of other reasons. He's selfish. He wants to say it, and he wants somebody else to hear it and understand. And he doesn't care what Bruce thinks of him, to just the right degree—Bruce's opinion of Clark already seems to be just about in the basement, anyway, if he believes even half the stuff he lets come out of his mouth. So there isn't much to lose.
He could have made enough of an effort to keep it from happening, but that's the thing: he's stopped putting in that kind of effort around Bruce. So he's not really listening, and of course Bruce notices, and Clark says, "Sorry—I," and then it just slips out. "I'm tired."
Bruce's eyebrows go up. "I thought that was one of the few things you weren't physically capable of," he says, and with only a little bit of a leer. (Which, given what a perfect opening that was, actually qualifies as considerate when it's coming from Bruce.)
"That might have been the wrong word," Clark concedes. "I—" and then he stalls out, helpless. He thinks his heartrate might have actually picked up a little. He hasn't started being Superman again yet, but sometimes he really wants to—sometimes that seems so much easier. Superman is perfect, unbreakable, inscrutable. Certain.
Sometimes that's simpler than being Clark.
He risks a glance across the table at Bruce; and Bruce is frowning at him a little, but he hasn't told Clark to shut up. And he would if he wanted to, Clark's pretty sure, probably using a lot of innuendo to do it—which is another reason why it's him Clark's talking to about this. Mom, Lois, they would have to listen, would do it just to be kind. If Bruce doesn't want to hear this, he'll say so.
It's just hard to know where to start.
"When I was fighting Zod—the first time, I mean," Clark clarifies, "I was on his ship while it was still in space, and I ended up outside it."
"Of course you did," Bruce murmurs.
But he still hasn't told Clark to stop. So Clark wets his lips and drags in a breath and doesn't. "And I—you have to understand: with my hearing, quiet is always relative. There's still a noise somewhere if I just listen hard enough—a fly in the window or a mouse in the grass, or somebody's heartbeat. But up there it was—"
He shakes his head. It's still so hard to find the right words for it, even after all this time.
"I've never heard that kind of silence. The whole earth was hanging there in front of me, turning, and I was—I was outside it. Just drifting up there alone."
Even now the memory's still so vivid that it takes him a second to shake it off.
But he pulls himself together and adds, "And when it happened, it was fine. I needed it, in the middle of all that. I just—since I came back, I feel like that all the time. Like the world's out there moving and I'm somewhere else watching it, waiting for it to stop long enough for me to get back on."
He waits for Bruce to tell him how stupid that is; or, worse, that that's just how the world works—Congratulations, Clark, welcome to the human condition. But Bruce doesn't say that. Bruce doesn't say anything.
Clark clears his throat. "It's probably—I mean, I'm sure it's just a matter of time—"
Clark looks up.
Bruce is staring at him. For a long moment, his face is so utterly altered he might as well be a different person: he looks sad and resigned and sorry, and also a little like he wants to say he understands. Which is—Bruce has never seemed to care much about understanding anyone other than himself.
"Of course, I've never died before," he adds, wry, looking away, "so you should probably take this with a grain of salt. But—" He pauses; and his voice has gone much quieter when he says, "Things like that will change you. Sometimes you can't change back."
Oh, god. Clark could smack himself—he hadn't even thought about it, but the Waynes, of course: Bruce had watched his parents die, and if anything in the world could change a person—
"Then again, sometimes you just need a new perspective."
Clark blinks. "What?"
And in nothing more than the space of that blink, it's astounding how different Bruce looks. He's raised his eyebrows, amused, relaxed, untouched. "You've been treading water, Clark," he says sagely, any hint of that quiet solemnity completely gone. He gets out his gleaming phone, which probably costs about as much as the farmhouse, and then tilts his head and smiles in that odd sharp way he has. "Maybe it's time to swim a little. There's a party tonight—Alfred?" and now he's talking into the phone. "There's a party tonight, right?"
Even without superhearing, Clark would probably have caught the longsuffering sigh that comes through the phone. "Yes, Master Wayne, I believe you do indeed have an engagement scheduled—"
"See? There you go," Bruce says to Clark, and hangs up the call without even saying goodbye first.
"But I—I don't have, um—" The nicest suit I own is the one they buried me in, except he probably shouldn't say that.
"Oh," and there's that smile again, like something Clark could cut himself on. "I'm sure I can get you sorted out in plenty of time."
Clark's expecting something to prevent this from happening. It's—it's just too ridiculous. He's not actually going to end up at some sort of exclusive Gotham billionaire event, riding Bruce Wayne's coattails past security. Defying physics is easy enough, but some things are still impossible.
Except Mom doesn't stop it. When she steps into the kitchen a minute later and Bruce tells her he's going to borrow Clark for the evening, she just touches his arm and smiles. "Oh, I think that's wonderful," she says, and then, to Clark, "Do you good to get out of this house for a while, honey."
There's no excuse he can come up with, either: Bruce knows perfectly well that Clark doesn't have any other plans, wasn't intending to go anywhere or do anything—
Which, when you think about it like that, maybe means that Mom has a point.
But he still feels like he's getting away with something, somehow, when he gets in Bruce's car. It's a weird kind of surprise when nobody stops him on the airfield, when there isn't someone waiting inside Bruce's jet to look him up and down and tell him there's been a mistake. It seems like somebody should, like it's just a matter of time before the universe notices that Clark shouldn't be doing this and rights itself.
Except he gets in the jet with Bruce, and it takes off instead of stalling. And then Bruce raises an eyebrow at him and says, "Surely Clark Kent always buckles his seatbelt."
"Wh—oh," Clark says, "right." He didn't think the weird fancy seats in here had them, but a little bit of feeling around and his does indeed turn up. He pulls it across his lap—because Bruce is right, Superman doesn't need a seatbelt, but Clark Kent's supposed to be as concerned for his personal safety as anyone.
But he can't quite take the last step and buckle it.
"Bruce, I'm not sure this is a good idea."
Bruce stares at him for a long moment, unreadably, and then glances down at his phone. "Well, Alfred will be sorry to hear that."
Clark blinks. "What?"
"Alfred," Bruce repeats. "Who's in the middle of spending several hours personally herding my tailor through a rush job altering a suit sized for—"
"He knew where I was," Bruce says. "He knew why I was asking. And, morbid as it may be, he does in fact have your measurements somewhere." He smiles, and it's the shiny one again, the one with the sharp edges. "We didn't want the coffin to be too small."
He's joking—black humor, it's funny—
(—it's dark, it's dark and he can't see, and it's going to happen the same way it always does, he's going to push and nothing will happen, but he can't not set his hands to the wood—he can't stand it, he can't, he has to get out—)
Clark drags in a breath and opens his eyes—when had he closed them?—and he can see just fine, because there's light all over the place in here. He can see the backs of his hands, the stark straining knuckles; except only half of them, because Bruce's hand is covering the other half.
"Clark," Bruce says again, so low and quiet and patient he doesn't sound like himself at all.
"Sorry," Clark manages. "I'm—sorry, I'm fine."
He blinks once, twice, and then makes himself look up, and Bruce almost doesn't look like himself either: his face is serious, as calm and still as his tone, a lake without any ripples.
(His eyes are kind of—soft. Clark hadn't really known they could do that.)
"You will be," he says, like him saying it makes it true.
And he's Bruce Wayne, Clark thinks, so probably that's usually all it takes.
He waits another beat, and then sits back, hand lifting away. And his voice is back to normal when he says, "Trust me, Clark, a little distraction for an evening is just what you need. And you wouldn't want all Alfred's hard work to go to waste, would you?"
And—well, he's not wrong. "No," Clark concedes.
Which is what Bruce expected: he smiles. "I realize it's nothing you haven't seen before," Bruce adds, "but do try to sit back and enjoy the flight."
Presumably Bruce has property all over Gotham—and Metropolis, for that matter—and Clark has no idea exactly where they end up. It's the penthouse of some building that's either a really nice hotel, or else an apartment building so expensive it could pass for a hotel to the eyes of somebody from Smallville; and it's a ridiculous number of floors, but the elevator is astoundingly fast. The outer wall is glass: Gotham at sunset drops away from them like they're flying, red and gold and shadowed.
When it stops, Clark lets Bruce wave him out first and then immediately feels like he should step back in, because he's doing the carpeting a disservice by walking on it. "Um, Bruce, this is really—"
"Ah, Master Wayne," says the voice from over Bruce's phone, and then somebody—Alfred, Clark reminds himself—sweeps into the entryway with a crinkle of plastic, from the garment bag draped over his arm. "And Master Kent! A pleasure to meet you."
"Thanks, you too," Clark says automatically, and then cringes a little at how casual it sounds; but Alfred's smile is warm anyway, so he must not mind too much.
"Apologies in advance for the fit," Alfred says, sounding deeply aggrieved, and then he hands Clark the garment bag: the nicest suit Clark's seen in real life by miles, except maybe for the ones Bruce wears when he comes to the house. "I assure you it is the best that could be done on such short notice—"
"No, please, I'm sure it's fine," Clark says instantly. "It's amazing, really. Thank you."
Alfred's eyebrows rise. "Good lord," he murmurs. "I begin to see why Master Wayne was so—"
"Alfred," Bruce says, so sharp Clark wants to apologize; but then Alfred's used to Bruce, he must be, because he only sighs a little through his nose.
"So sorry, sir, won't happen again," he says, pointedly rote, without looking away from Clark. And then he bows slightly and adds, "You are very much welcome, Master Kent, to the suit and to the suite, and if you require any assistance, please don't hesitate to ask. A selection of matching ties is hanging in the west bathroom."
Alfred, it appears, is a master of understatement. The suit fits perfectly, at least as far as Clark can tell, and the ties aren't alone: there's a shining pair of men's dress shoes, a frankly intimidating selection of colognes in glittering bottles, and an array of cufflinks Clark's a little terrified to put into his sleeves. If he loses one of those down a bathroom drain, he might as well just mail Bruce his next ten new Planet paychecks directly. Sweet Jesus.
(And yet it seems kind of wrong to wear a suit this nice without any. Clark tries to pick the plainest ones, no diamonds or anything, but they're probably still—like, solid white gold or something, god. Clark doesn't even want to know.)
The colognes actually aren't quite what Clark was expecting. They're as well-made as everything else, he's sure, but—but most of them are off one way or another, too many competing notes in one, the musk way too heavy in another. Which might be his nose: he's never been sure whether he has supersmell, too, and it hasn't been an appealing thing to try to test.
He doesn't even have to open any of them. He just stands in front of the line of them and breathes in, and it takes him a moment to pick the scents apart, but none of them are really—
No, wait. Which one is that? He breathes in again and then leans over the row of bottles, but it isn't any of them.
He opens his eyes, frowning, and then glances down at the cabinets below the sink.
The bottle he finds, after about thirty seconds of feeling around, looks pretty much like the others except that it's barely been used. Clark would put it back, but it has been opened. Just not very often. And he's not sure why, because it's nice: subtler, not quite so many moving parts; smoke, Clark thinks, and leather, and something sharper, a bright edge—citrus, maybe?
Even if Clark didn't like it the best, it seems like it's the one he's least likely to go wrong with, light enough that putting too much on won't be a disaster.
In the end, it's actually the tie that thwarts him. He manages not to fumble the cufflinks into the sink, and the shoes fit just as well as the suit, and he doesn't spill cologne all over his shirt. But the tie—maybe it's because the suit fits so well, but he can't get it to lie right. Either his knots are all coming out lopsided, or else the ruler-perfect evenness of the lapels is just making it look like it.
He blows out a frustrated breath, and listens: he's missed his chance to get Alfred's help without Bruce noticing, it sounds like, because Bruce is already back out by the entryway. Of course, he also probably didn't take fifteen minutes to pick a pair of cufflinks.
Bruce is going to make fun of him, definitely; use the opportunity to flirt, almost certainly.
But odds are he's also going to be able to get the tie tied on the first try.
Clark leaves the tie dangling around his neck, half-tangled—not that Bruce needs any help mocking him, but—
But Bruce's smiles so often seem planned, deployed. He could stand to be surprised by something funny a little more often.
And it works: when Clark comes around the edge of the doorframe and says, "Bruce," a little plaintively, Bruce turns and sees him and for a second just grins, smug and spontaneous.
Then—of course—he lets his eyes wander down Clark, and very, very leisurely, back up—
"At least you know how to clean up all right," Bruce says, and then takes a second glance down toward Clark's collar. "Even if you can't tie a tie."
"I can," Clark says, "that's the thing. I just can't do it up to this suit's standards. I'm pretty sure," he adds, confiding, "that if I'd messed it up one more time, the whole thing would have just crawled off me in protest."
He only realizes how it sounds after it's already come out of his mouth; but it's not his fault, he thinks. Every third thing Bruce says is a come-on. And of course he doesn't mean any of it, but it's—sometimes it's hard not to reply in kind. That's all.
Bruce raises an eyebrow. "Not that I'd mind seeing that," he murmurs, "but let's try to do a little better," and then he steps over toward Clark, a hand already out for the tie.
He's in Clark's space; it's impossible for Clark to not know that Bruce picked one of the colognes he himself had rejected. Doesn't suit him, Clark thinks. It's not awful, it's just—a little too heavy, a little too sweet. He should have chosen something more like the one that was under the sink—
And he's close enough to know that Clark did. His fingertips land, a dashed line of heat just to the side of Clark's buttons, thumb and forefinger catching what's left of the knot Clark was halfway through undoing; and then he breathes in and his gaze flicks abruptly up to Clark's face, his eyes wide and clear and dark.
"I found it in the cabinet," Clark says, a little too quickly—he didn't do anything wrong. No one said the cabinets were off limits. And even if Bruce is angry, the worst that'll happen is he'll tell Clark to leave. There's nothing to be afraid of.
(But, for some reason, Clark's heart is still pounding.)
"I liked it," he adds, and then can't do anything but watch, helpless, waiting to see what Bruce will do.
The answer is: stare at Clark for one long slow beat, lips parted ever so slightly, before his gaze leaps away again. "Good choice," he says, bland; and then he pauses for a second and curls his hand around the tie, knuckles brushing Clark's collar. "And on second thought—" and he pulls, the hiss of silk like faraway rain— "no tie."
Clark glances down. It's a three-piece suit—is that even allowed? "No tie?"
He looks up again, and maybe he shouldn't have: Bruce is so close, one side of his mouth slanting up, fingers hot at the base of Clark's throat—
Bruce thumbs precisely one button open. "No tie," he confirms, very low, and steps away.
It's easy enough to let it go unremarked, right then—Bruce tosses the tie onto one of the sofas, and Clark automatically asks him whether Alfred's going to have to pick that up later and earns a sharp wry smile.
And it's tempting to just ignore the whole incident. Bruce has been hitting on Clark since Day 1, pretty much, and it's never been an issue—he hasn't let a lack of response slow him down, even if he also hasn't pushed on the rare occasions when Clark accidentally flirts back.
Besides, Clark's never asked him to stop.
It's—it's nice, is the thing. It's just like all the other vaguely annoying things about Bruce: when Clark's rolling his eyes and turning red at Bruce's suggestive turns of phrase, that means he isn't staring out the window thinking about the silence of space, the muffled quiet of being buried. He hasn't asked Bruce to stop because he doesn't want Bruce to stop. But—
But Bruce could have kissed him.
That's the thought that had been about to crystallize, before Bruce had moved away. The whole picture hadn't quite come together for Clark in the moment. He hadn't managed to add it all up: the too-quick throb of his heart, the sudden tingling awareness he'd had of his own skin—of Bruce's face, of Bruce's hand; the way everything had abruptly felt warm and close and quiet.
In the moment, he'd been a step behind. But for all that Clark's vision is probably way better than 20/20, hindsight is still capable of doing him some good.
They say goodbye to Alfred and take the elevator back down—with Gotham painted in shades of indigo now, just starting to come alive with lights—and Clark thinks about it. Bruce has a car brought around, because that's what he does when he wants to go places, and he's telling Clark something about where they're going, whose event it is, but Clark's only barely listening; he's thinking about it.
And then they get in the car, and Clark looks out the window and thinks about it.
Bruce could have kissed him.
He tries to imagine it, and it's startlingly difficult: he knows what Bruce looks like when he's smiling, flirtatious, leering, but it's hard to make the leap from there to actually doing anything about it. Maybe—maybe at that moment when he'd caught Clark's cologne, when his gaze had leapt up like that, his eyes so dark; had he swayed in a little bit? Or—
Or does Clark just wish he had?
Clark swallows, and tries to resist the urge to glance across the car. Thank god Bruce has his phone out—he's not expecting conversation out of Clark for the ride.
Does he wish Bruce had leaned in? If Bruce had kissed him, what would he have done?
He and Lois aren't still together anywhere except as a fading shadow in his own head—at least not until she gets back from Seoul, not until they have a chance to talk everything out for real. It'll take time for them to make it back to being in the same place, literally and figuratively, and that's if they decide they're even up to trying again.
So—so if Bruce had kissed him, if Clark hadn't moved away from it—that would have been all right. It wouldn't have been anything anyone needed to feel bad about. If Bruce had kissed him, he could have held still for it, could have closed his eyes and let it happen; could even have kissed back.
And that would have surprised Bruce, Clark thinks. He finds himself grinning a little into the tinted window, because this version of things, he can imagine: Bruce making fun of him, mocking him in that half-disdainful way he has, leaning in to up the ante—assuming Clark would pull back in plenty of time, would shove him away and ask what the hell he was doing, when instead—
The car starts to slow. "Ah, here we are," Bruce says, tucking the phone away again; and his tailor must do something special with the inner pockets, Clark thinks, because it doesn't disrupt the line of his suit at all when he's done. "It's a time-honored strategy for forgetting your troubles, Clark: dress up and help yourself to a lot of very expensive liquor in a room full of people who probably don't like you."
"I shouldn't have agreed to this," Clark tells him. "I can't even get drunk," but when the car door opens, he doesn't hesitate to get out.
"Here" turns out to be a museum. Apparently a lot of private donations went into the exhibit that's about to open, and this gala is being held as something of a thank-you.
And there absolutely is someone out front with a list—but Bruce swans past the guy easily, Clark at his elbow and a smile on his face, and nobody stops him.
The space is enormous, beautiful, and even if everyone here is exactly as awful as Bruce said they were, Clark's still glad he came. The museum is one of those vast stone buildings that's scattered around the oldest sections of Gotham, gleaming marble everywhere, and it's to Bruce's tailor's credit that Clark doesn't feel underdressed, surrounded by all these glittering people in their ridiculously expensive clothes. Clark wouldn't want to come to something like this every night—and maybe Bruce is so sharp about it precisely because he sometimes has to—but it's a lovely thing to see.
"There you go," Bruce says, depositing a sparkling flute of champagne in Clark's hand, "and there I go," and he snags a second one for himself before the server has passed him entirely. "And yes, you don't have to repeat yourself: you can't get drunk. Verisimilitude, Clark."
"I don't even like the way it tastes," Clark admits—which is true, but he makes himself take a sip anyway. Verisimilitude.
It shouldn't help as much as it does, standing with Bruce in the middle of a room full of people he doesn't know. But he is in the middle, just about, standing right under the huge shining chandelier: he's in the middle of it and they're all moving around him, close enough to touch.
In retrospect, as much as he loves the farmhouse, it's possible Smallville wasn't a great place to try to fight with feeling isolated and set aside and alone.
He doesn't know anyone, but it doesn't matter. He's not supposed to. He stays at Bruce's shoulder, smiles when people look at him, and makes smalltalk here and there when Bruce gets into some deeper conversation with a businessperson or politician. One of the things Clark always loved best about being Superman—aside from being able to save lives, obviously—was just getting to meet people, learning even a little bit about someone he might otherwise never have known; and he hasn't been Superman in weeks.
Which, it had been nice at first, realizing that nobody expected him back and he could take his time. But he thinks he's starting to miss it.
"Another glass, sir?"
"Oh—I, um," Clark says, and then watches with resignation as the champagne he'd painstakingly whittled down to half-full is whisked out of his hand and replaced. "Thank you," he tells the server, smiling, and then glances around for Bruce.
Who hasn't gone far. He hasn't really wandered away from Clark at all, even though he never looks like he's paying much attention to where Clark is. "I thought you might be here," he's saying to a tall woman in a striking dark blue gown, leaning to kiss her hand while she waits with a studied sort of patience, just a hint of amusement in the lines around her mouth—
And then her gaze slides past him to Clark, and her eyes widen just a touch, her chin coming up.
"I did tell you," Bruce murmurs to her, and then turns. "Clark, this is Diana Prince. She ... helped me and your mother with a few things, afterward. Diana Prince, Clark Kent."
Diana keeps looking at Bruce for a long moment, face unreadable; and Bruce looks back and then raises an eyebrow. Diana's jaw tenses for a split second—but when she does finally turn to Clark, her smile is brilliant. "Clark," she says warmly.
She reaches out and it makes him freeze for a second, uncertain—is she expecting him to kiss her hand, too?—but all she does is take his hands and squeeze them, still beaming.
"I'm so glad to see you're all right," she adds, and then breaks off to laugh. "I'm sorry, this must seem so odd coming from a stranger. Bruce told me about what happened to you, about your injury and your memory?"
"Oh, of course he did," Clark says, and then, on a whim, "Busybody."
He judged right: Diana grins. "You have no idea," she tells him, very wry.
The conversation with Diana is the first time all evening that Bruce goes more than about five feet away. He watches them work their way through a few more pleasantries with an odd little smile on his face, and then claps them both on the shoulder and tells them to enjoy themselves.
"It will be easier if you aren't hanging over us like a vulture in dress shoes," Diana observes, and waves him away. "Go on, will you?" and then, pointedly, "I promise not to tell him the truth about how awful you are."
"All right, all right," Bruce says, hands raised defensively, and goes.
"Now," Diana says, turning back to Clark, "I know more about you than you do about me, so you should be asking all the questions—but I'm afraid you must let me have just one to start with. Are you all right?"
As if the answer to that one doesn't change every day, Clark thinks. But he smiles when he thinks it, and that means that maybe Bruce gave him today's answer back on the plane. "I will be, I think."
Diana looks at him seriously—the answer does matter to her—and then says, "I'm glad." And she is: he can see it in the softness around her eyes, the way she holds his gaze so steadily. He doesn't even know her, but while he was gone, she got to know him; she learned to care about him, somehow, even when he wasn't there. Which should be weird, but Clark can't bring himself to mind.
"Thank you," he says, and then has to clear his throat. "My turn now. Bruce mentioned that you know my mother?"
"Yes," Diana says instantly. "Yes, I was also in Metropolis on the day of the battle," and Clark likes how she says that: her word choice, the battle, and her calm even tone, not hesitating or dancing around anything. "I knew Bruce already, and when I learned what had happened, I—came to help him. And your mother, in the end." She smiles. "You know this already, but she's a good woman, the best. I wish it hadn't happened the way it did, for your sake," she adds, "but I could never be sorry to have met her."
And it's—it's the first time Clark's ever thought about it like that: like maybe some good came out of it all. He mostly hasn't let himself dwell on what it was like to die, because he doesn't want to have one of those little freakouts around Mom. And when he does think about it, it's all—fire and lightning, rubble, the awful sick feeling of touching kryptonite and the sound his bones had made as they broke.
But the idea that it hadn't just been an end, that some things had also started that day, is new. That Mom had lost him, but had found Bruce and Diana, that it had brought them together and let them help each other; that it hadn't all just been destruction.
"I'm not sorry, either," Clark says aloud, and when Diana reaches out to squeeze his hand again, he squeezes back.
It's a good evening. A great evening—Clark almost causes a scene by literally floating with the lightness of it, until he catches himself and eases his heels back down onto the floor. He was telling Bruce the truth, he can't get drunk, but if this is how people feel when they're drunk then Clark can understand why they chase after it sometimes. Diana is kind and easy to talk to, even though she holds herself like a queen, and when the night starts to wind down, Clark skips the hand entirely and kisses her on the cheek instead.
"So you got along all right," Bruce says, dry, from somewhere over Clark's shoulder.
Clark turns and smiles at him, and god, he must look like an idiot, but he just can't help it: he feels so—so alive, so whole and glad and not alone, and every part of that is pretty much down to Bruce. Bruce, who's rude and bitter and ungenerous—except for all the time and money and effort he's spending on putting Clark's life back in order. Bruce, who's ostentatious and wears the wrong cologne and—and touched Clark's throat not three hours ago.
Bruce, who could have kissed him.
Clark thinks it and looks at him and it's like a live wire, the nearness of him, the idea that Clark could close that space any moment and just—
—well, all right, go outside and get back in Bruce's car, first. Bruce says goodnight to Diana quietly, and then to ten or twelve other people really loudly, and then Clark takes his arm and he turns and raises an eyebrow.
"What?" Clark says, and blinks innocently. "Don't I meet your standards for arm candy?"
Bruce looks away, almost a shake of the head, and then wets his lower lip, and Clark only just manages to yank his gaze up in time when Bruce looks back at him to say, "Oh, I think it's safe to say you exceed them, Clark."
He doesn't shake Clark's hand off his arm, not in the museum and not outside. When they get in the car, Clark goes for the near seat instead of the opposite, and Bruce doesn't even give him a hard time.
"So what are you going to do," Clark says once the car is moving, "bundle me back onto the jet?"
"I should," Bruce says, but then he glances at his watch and makes a face.
"Seems a little late for that," Clark says, because it's easy enough to see Bruce is thinking it.
Bruce looks at him, the slant of his mouth full of amusement. "Why, Clark," he says, "are you angling to get invited up for coffee? I don't suppose caffeine has any more of an effect on you than champagne does."
"No," Clark says, "but it tastes better."
Bruce raises an eyebrow.
"With about six creams and six sugars," Clark concedes.
"Dear god," Bruce murmurs, and then, very soberly, "Whatever you do, don't say that to Alfred."
Clark laughs, and that's the moment when he just—lets go. He lets himself lean back into the leather seat and think about Bruce's mouth, all its curves and angles; about himself undoing one of Bruce's buttons, and then another and another and another, and relishes the electricity of imagining it with Bruce not even a foot away.
He lets himself look at Bruce in the elevator: the perfect clean lines of him, the width of his shoulders, Gotham's lights blue and yellow and gold on his face. And he lets himself not feel bad about it. He doesn't know how all this is going to shake out, with Lois and his job and Superman, with everything. But somehow Bruce Wayne has turned out to be the one person who's staying in step with him after everything else has run on ahead. And Clark likes him, and wants him, and that's okay.
So he doesn't waste any more time second-guessing himself, once the elevator dings. He steps out, and Bruce steps out, and the doors swish closed behind them; and then Clark turns around and catches Bruce's face in his hands and kisses him.
Bruce isn't often taken by surprise. But, he finds himself thinking dimly, if anyone could then it would be Superman, wouldn't it?
He had expected Clark to like the museum, and to like everyone he met—it was mass attention that Clark seemed to be uncomfortable with, as Superman; he liked people just fine when he could actually talk to each of them face-to-face. Bruce had known Diana would be there because she'd worked with the museum as a consultant, authenticating antiquities. And he'd expected her to like Clark exactly as much as she had.
(Which is good. Clark will be unhappy, when he finds out who Bruce is and what he's done, when he realizes how much Bruce has lied to him—and the lies of omission alone are uncountable by now, when every moment they're together without Bruce explaining himself constitutes another, and another, and another. He'll feel betrayed, angry, hurt; but he'll still be Superman. There will still need to be someone he can call on, and Batman can't be that person.
But Diana can. Diana was in public, and Clark evidently failed to recognize her on his own—but if Superman does return, meets Wonder Woman again somewhere other than the middle of a haze of ash and debris ten minutes before his death, he will. And Diana won't have any reason to prevent it.
Diana will only have lied once. Diana will be forgivable.)
It had all worked out exactly the way it was supposed to, everything according to plan—or at least not diverging far enough from it to cause a problem. There had always been a chance that it would run too late for Bruce to suit up afterward for patrol, especially if he couldn't send Clark on his way in time.
But Clark kissing him in the penthouse entryway hadn't been among the contingencies he'd prepared for.
Fortunately, the hitch it causes doesn't last more than a moment, because there isn't much of a decision to make. Bruce Wayne isn't known for weighing consequences. When people kiss him, Bruce Wayne doesn't blink. Bruce Wayne just kisses back.
Clark makes a noise somewhere in his throat and then eases free far enough to murmur, breathless, "Sorry, I—I should have led with 'thank you' or something there first. I didn't mean to just—"
Bruce Wayne wouldn't mind. "Luckily for you," Bruce says, letting his voice scrape a little, "I've got plenty of practice controlling my terror of being kissed by unbearably attractive men."
Clark laughs, and when he leans in a second time the kiss is hardly more than a brush, his mouth too wide with smiling for anything else. "Is that so," he says, so close Bruce can feel the words almost as well as he can hear them.
He doesn't sound like someone looking for an out; but Bruce should give him one anyway. "I'll admit," Bruce tells him, "this wasn't how I was expecting this evening to end."
Clark leans back just a little. It's so dim in here that his eyes ought to be gray at best, and yet that steady, unhesitating gaze is blue as sky. "But you don't mind, I hope," he says, the corners of his mouth still curving up.
"No." Bruce Wayne doesn't. "But if you want to say thank you, you can just say it. No need to go the extra mile."
Clark's eyebrows go up. "I wouldn't sleep with you for that," he says slowly. "I mean, I am grateful, but I just—I just wanted to—"
Ah. The thank-you would have been a thank you for a wonderful evening, I enjoyed myself—it helped, then. It helped, and Clark is feeling good about himself and his life for the first time in a while, and there's no one around but Bruce to share that feeling with. And it's Clark: generous beyond all reason.
It's also sex: Bruce Wayne wouldn't say no.
(That Bruce finds he doesn't want to say no isn't a mark against the idea. That would be giving it too much weight. Bruce's wants are neither a negative factor nor a positive one; they are not relevant to the assessment at all. That Clark's hands are warm and strong against Bruce's face—that his thigh touched Bruce's in the car and Bruce nearly shivered—that Bruce had never wanted to come back to the penthouse alone in the first place—
None of that is afforded any significance. That's the point of objectivity.)
And that's—that must be why Clark is asking. He had a good time and he wants to keep enjoying himself, and he's in a penthouse suite with Bruce Wayne. With the number of times Bruce has come on to him, it's no surprise that the idea would occur to Clark, that he might say to himself why not?
"Relax," Bruce says aloud, "there's no interview. Wanting to is all the qualification you need."
He grins at Clark, lets his eyes get heavy and leans in. Clark's mouth is still half-open on a laugh, and the laugh becomes a gasp when Bruce bites down just a little on his lip—Bruce slides a hand under Clark's suit jacket and tugs him nearer, and, oh, he needs to be careful; Clark is so hot and so pliant, Christ, letting Bruce yank him around like he couldn't throw Bruce through the wall if he wanted to. And the way he smells—
(Bruce Wayne's taste in colognes needs to be a little louche, too musky or too fruity or too dark, too much one way or another. The devil's in the details, and Bruce can't afford to get sloppy.
But Clark doesn't smell like Bruce Wayne. Clark found the bottle under the sink, the one that almost never comes out; Clark smells like Bruce.)
Together they manage to work their way to one of the sofas without knocking anything over. Clark tilts Bruce's face just how he wants it and holds him there, kisses Bruce like—like he's been thinking about it, like he'd spent time imagining how he'd wanted to do it. And maybe he has: he's so eager for it all, so honest; not hiding the shudder when Bruce slides a hand down over the slant of his hip, his ass, breaking away to breathe shakily into the side of Bruce's throat.
"Come on," Bruce murmurs to him, "let's get comfortable," and he eases down to sit on the sofa in front of Clark and then hooks two fingers in each of Clark's front belt loops. "So you've done this before?"
"I thought you said there wasn't an interview," Clark says with a grin, sliding his hands up Bruce's arms to his shoulders, wrapping one around the back of Bruce's neck like maybe he's thinking about Bruce sucking him off.
Which Bruce can't blame him for, considering their relative positions.
"Just checking," Bruce says, light.
Clark shrugs one shoulder and then bites his lip. "A few times. Always—um, pretty fast. And mostly not with anybody who knew. It was back when I was kind of hiding," he elaborates, "so not with anybody more than once, actually. Except for Lois."
And of course this isn't anything like with Lois. Clark and Lois were in love.
"So I haven't done anything, uh, complicated," Clark concludes.
"Oh, I'm happy to keep it simple," Bruce says, and frees one hand to slide it up the length of Clark's dick through his pants. Clark's hard enough that the outline's very, very clear, and his response is dizzying: he gasps sharply, breath catching into a helpless noise in the back of his throat, and his eyes fall shut, his whole body swaying in toward Bruce with an artless eagerness. "So what exactly am I going to find down here?"
"I, um," Clark says, swallowing, eyes still closed; and then he manages to blink them open and adds, "What?"
"Tentacles?" Bruce says. "Spines? Two—or even three—"
"No," Clark says, evidently having caught Bruce's drift. "No, god, nothing like that. Jesus, Bruce—"
"Hmm. Pity," Bruce tells him. "Not that I can't work with it, of course. Just another one of life's little disappointments." He gives Clark a considering look, and then eases his hand partway back down over Clark's dick and listens to Clark's throat click. "Well, all right, one of life's nicely generous disappointments."
"You are such a jerk," Clark says, low and warm and glad, and pushes Bruce's hand out of the way to lean down and kiss him again.
It takes a couple minutes—Clark's easily distracted by Bruce's mouth, it seems—but Bruce snakes a hand down to the back of one knee, the other, and coaxes Clark onto the sofa, kneeling over Bruce's thighs. One more tug and Clark falls into Bruce, all the glorious blazing weight of him; Bruce wraps an arm around the small of his back to hold him and then grinds up into him, and Clark makes a low torn sound and jerks helplessly, fingers digging into Bruce's shoulders. He pulls away, but not very far: presses his temple to Bruce's and says, "Oh, god, Bruce," and then deliberately rolls his hips down.
The drag of it, even through their slacks, is a kick of sparking heat up and down Bruce's spine; he finds his head dropping forward, his arm tightening around Clark's back, all of him trying to surge up into Clark—at total cross-purposes with the hand working at Clark's buttons. "Oh, god, yourself," he says, and it comes out a little more breathlessly than he wanted it to, but then he finally finally gets Clark's pants open and he doesn't care how he sounds anymore.
It's for the best that they're doing this mostly clothed, lights off—he really hadn't planned on this, all his Batman scars and marks are right there under this dress shirt. And getting a hand on Clark's cock is almost as good as getting a look at it, hot and hard and just starting to get a little slick—
Clark cries out, and for a second Bruce thinks it was somehow in pain, because he says, "Wait, wait, stop," right after—but he catches Bruce's hand before Bruce can yank it away completely and adds, "No, it's—I just didn't want to, uh," and he shifts back a little and reaches down himself for Bruce's belt. "You too, come on. You too."
They get in each other's way once, twice, and Clark tips his head back and laughs; but they manage in the end. Bruce feels a weird moment of something almost like apprehension, embarrassment: Superman, that bastion of more-than-human ultra-perfection, is looking at his dick—looking at it and can probably see it, even in this dimness, and god, he hadn't even considered that Clark could look right through Bruce's shirt if he wanted to—
But he wouldn't. Clark keeps his powers minimal unless he has a reason. And he's not looking for ways to catch Bruce out or trip him up, because he doesn't know there's anything to be caught out for or tripped up on. He doesn't know Bruce is lying to him.
"Bruce?" Clark says.
Bruce blinks up at him. His arm is still around Clark, but his other hand is on Clark's chest, holding him just a little away; when had that happened? And Bruce has stopped moving, so Clark's stopped too, looking down at him with patience, puzzlement, a tinge of concern.
And Bruce can't tell him any of the things he's thinking: not how unbearably good this is, not how many ways he's dreamed this, not how selfishly glad he is that Clark decided to kiss him in the entryway instead of just going home to Kansas and leaving Bruce here alone. Clark isn't sleeping with Bruce. He's sleeping with Bruce Wayne, and for Bruce Wayne this is a fun evening that's ending better than he could have expected.
"You really are unbearably attractive," Bruce says instead, and curls his mouth into a smirk when Clark grins at him. He slides a hand into Clark's hair and drags him down for a kiss, because Bruce Wayne thinks kissing is fun and isn't worried about how it will make him feel or what it will mean; and he licks into Clark's mouth and bites into that soft lower lip again, and then wraps his hand around both of them and can practically taste the sound Clark makes.
The feeling of Clark's hips rutting up toward Bruce's hand, of his cock pushing up through Bruce's fingers—it's too much, so good Bruce can hardly stand it, and it seems like hardly any time at all before he feels his own thighs starting to tense and shake. Clark is wound tight over him, curved like a bow, not so much kissing him anymore as just breathing shakily into Bruce's mouth, cheek hot against Bruce's; and then he groans deep in his chest, once and then again, and wraps his own hand around Bruce's between them—
Bruce squeezes his eyes shut and comes in flares of light, in aching waves, so close his mouth catches against Clark's as he shudders—and Clark holds onto him and says, "Bruce, oh—my god, you—Bruce," and then comes himself, hot and gasping, trembling with it.
They sit there and catch their breath, and when Bruce opens his eyes again Clark is smiling at him, a hand gentle on his cheek. "So, um, I don't know about you," Clark says, glancing down, "but I could certainly use a shower."
And Bruce could. In the strictest literal sense, certainly; and even in the dimness there's no mistaking the look on Clark's face, the invitation to get clean and then maybe get dirty again for a few minutes. Easy enough to imagine that look through the fall of water, Clark all wet and gleaming, curls sticking to his forehead—
But Clark can't see him with his shirt off.
"How about it?" Clark says.
And Bruce Wayne smiles at him and says, dismissive, "No, no, you go on. West bathroom should be fine—I'll take a look around and see if I can find you some towels."
It's not going to be an issue. Clark accepts Bruce's demurral easily enough; and Bruce knows exactly where Alfred keeps the spare towels, so he can spend ten minutes cleaning himself up and stripping down to just shirt and slacks, five minutes waiting for the sound of the water in the west bathroom to stop, and two minutes waiting to make sure it doesn't seem like he timed anything.
He could have tried to miss by two minutes going the other way. But then Clark might have invited him into the shower again.
(And Bruce doesn't trust himself to say no a second time.)
When Bruce raps out shave-and-a-haircut against the west bathroom door, Clark opens it, raises an eyebrow, and actually says, "Two bits."
"Oh, I think you could charge a little more for admission than that," Bruce says, tilting his head: Clark automatically positioned himself mostly behind the door, but Bruce still has a pretty good view of his chest—
"I'm not going to ask how much you'd pay," Clark says dryly, reaching for the towel on top of the pile Bruce is holding. "You'd just give me the most embarrassing answer you could think of." But it looks like Bruce doesn't have to; Clark's throat, his ears, the angles of his cheeks, have all pinked up, and it isn't just leftover heat from the shower.
(You know me so well. The natural response, but it stings even to think it.)
"In my defense, you're a lot of fun to embarrass," Bruce says, and smiles.
"I'm not sure that would hold up in court," Clark murmurs, as if to himself, and then turns away to secure the towel around his hips—giving Bruce a single tantalizing flash of his ass, and Bruce would bet he didn't even do it on purpose. God. "So," Clark is saying, "is this the part where I get bundled back onto the jet?"
He's teasing, except that when he glances back over his shoulder at Bruce, there's something uncertain around the edges of his mouth, the lines by his eyes. Always, um, pretty fast, Bruce recalls, and when it hadn't been fast it had been Lois—Clark's never had to try to work out whether he's staying the night somewhere, the answer always obvious one way or the other.
Which means it's up to Bruce to lay down some ground rules. Kicking Clark out the door says something just as vehement as dragging him back to the master bedroom in nothing but a towel, and vehemence isn't the right reaction here.
(Vehemence implies depth of feeling.)
"Up to you," Bruce says easily, and then tilts his head. "And I mean that, considering you could fly yourself back if you wanted to. If you don't want to—west bedroom's free." He leans in, one hand flat against the bathroom door, and catches Clark's chin with the other, tilts his face around for a kiss: hard without crossing the line into lingering, the solid contented kiss of someone who enjoyed himself but has no particular stake in this.
And then Bruce pulls away, smiles, and heads to the master bedroom alone.
That's the end of it. Clark stays for breakfast; Alfred manages to restrain himself from shooting Bruce more than one or two significant glances; and then Clark does fly back, taking off from the penthouse balcony in a blur.
Two days later, the paperwork's finally settled, the court order obtained. Clark Kent, legally alive, is re-employed at the Daily Planet's Metropolis bureau, and Bruce arranges for six months of back pay to be transferred to his newly-reopened bank account.
The apartment he'd been keeping with Lois has already been re-let, of course; the lease had been about to run out and Lois had been heading off to South Korea anyway, there'd been no point in renewing.
(Couldn't keep rattling around that place alone, that's how Martha had put it when she'd mentioned it to Bruce. And Bruce has never mastered the art of moving on, the lingering skeleton of the manor is testament enough to that; he can understand it, but only intellectually. If there had been a space he had shared with Clark while Clark was alive—
The only real question is whether he would have shut it up behind glass or started living there full-time.)
But Clark won't have any trouble finding another place, even if it does end up being in a Wayne Construction building.
And that's the end of it. There's no reason for Bruce to keep flying to Smallville, nothing else Clark needs from him. They'll see each other at Wayne Enterprises events, perhaps—at press conferences or newsworthy ribbon-cuttings. They'll be increasingly distant acquaintances who had a good evening together once, but there's nothing left for them to talk about. Bruce can't see it going any other way.
Which makes it a surprise—yet again, Bruce thinks ruefully—when he hears a knock on glass at the penthouse, and looks up to see Clark waving at him from the balcony.
"Hey," Clark says, when Bruce opens the balcony door and raises an eyebrow at him. "Uh, sorry—it seemed simpler than coming in the front?"
He smiles and ducks his head, as if he's shy—as if he's not just as overpowering like this as he is when he's Superman: glasses, plaid button-down, curls wild, grinning and pink-cheeked and windswept from flying. Out here it's doubly picture-perfect, the endless blue sky stretching out over him, the light a little more red than gold as the sun drops lower, Metropolis glittering behind him—
And that was the miscalculation, Bruce thinks dimly. Clark has his job back now; Clark's living and working in Metropolis. The distance between them, left alone, would naturally get wider. But Clark's not leaving it alone, because Clark's only seeing it as smaller than ever.
"For you, I'm sure it is," Bruce says aloud. "Something wrong?"
"No, no," Clark says, "nothing like that," and then he stops to hitch his glasses up his nose.
"They're having kind of a 'whoops, you weren't dead, welcome back' party for me at the Planet tonight, and I thought maybe if you didn't have anything lined up—or," Clark adds with a laugh, "anything you wanted to pretend you had lined up, to let me down easy—"
The worst part is, it's not even tactical. It's not even a trap. Bruce could smile at him ruefully, could say actually, I do have this meeting, and Clark would accept it—would believe him.
Would come back, and ask again.
Unless Bruce makes sure he doesn't. If he gives Clark the brushoff, provides the simplest, most unkind explanation—Clark, I'm an important man, I don't have time to waste on shit like this—Clark will leave and not come back. Bruce can guarantee himself that. And he should. Except—
Except if something does go wrong, if there is a problem with the paperwork or the job or an apartment, and Bruce has claimed not to care what happens to Clark anymore—what rationale would Bruce give for stepping in to fix it? What rationale would Clark have for letting him?
No. Better to say yes here and there, to allow Clark to remain as he is: at arm's length, no closer but also no farther. Close enough for Bruce to keep an eye on things, and far enough—
Far enough to minimize the damage.
"Unfortunately for you," Bruce says, dry, "I'm free as the proverbial bird."
Clark grins and takes his arm, grip firm and warm just above Bruce's elbow. "Funny you should say that."
"What are you—Clark, someone's going to see—Clark—"
"People really don't look up as often as you'd think," Clark says, once they've landed safely on the Planet's helicopter pad. "Especially if I don't break the sound barrier."
"Yes, I can see restraint's your middle name," Bruce murmurs.
"I'll give you more warning next time, promise," Clark says, and then dimples up, bright and irreverent. "You should have seen your face. Here, let me—"
He steps in close, slides a hand into Bruce's hair; for the first couple passes, he probably is actually trying to put it back in order, but then he slows. Bruce sees him swallow, and when his fingers come to rest, it's at the nape of Bruce's neck, his gaze flicking back and forth over Bruce's face.
"I'm sensing that some ulterior motives were behind this invitation," Bruce says, a little lower than he meant to.
Clark tilts his head, biting his lip like he knows how much Bruce wants the excuse to look at it, and then shrugs, easy. "I—liked how things worked out, last time."
"Wasn't a bad way to spend an evening," Bruce hears himself say, and Clark lets that smile shine out like sunlight, takes Bruce by the wrist, and leads him toward the rooftop door.
When the rest of the Planet's staff realizes exactly who's just walked into the office with Clark, there's an awkward quiet beat—but Bruce Wayne has no direct responsibility for Wayne Entertainment or any of its sub-properties. He smiles and waves a hand and says, "Relax, I'm off the clock myself," and after a moment they mostly turn their attention back to Clark.
As it turns out, Clark wasn't paraphrasing or anything: "Whoops, you weren't dead—welcome back!" is written on the cake, word-for-word, in loopy icing letters. Perry White carefully cuts Clark a piece with the exclamation point neatly centered, clears his throat, and says, "Glad you're okay, Kent."
"Thank you, sir."
Perry points the knife at him. "It's chocolate, and if you don't like it you're just going to have to live with it, because nobody else is taking home your whoops-you-weren't-dead leftovers."
"Understood, sir," Clark says.
Judging by the way he digs in, it won't be a issue—the noises he makes are—
(Bruce takes a piece of cake when Perry holds one out, just so he'll have something to do with his hands that isn't inappropriate.)
And Clark grins at Perry, laughs at Ron Troupe's zombie-Clark impression, accepts a hug from Cat Grant; but he never moves more than a few feet away from Bruce. He keeps looking at Bruce, too—at first just quick glances, like he's checking to make sure Bruce is still there. But they get longer, lingering, something dark and hot in his gaze, and it's not hard to guess what he's thinking about.
He gets shaken out of it each time someone comes over to touch him on the shoulder, to hug him and say how glad they are that he's all right; and he laughs, ducks his head, and goes just a little redder each time, half-guilty and flushed and smiling.
(By the time Clark makes his excuses and accepts what remains of the cake, it's not even foreboding anymore. Bruce knows, with something just a little too electric to qualify as resignation, what's going to happen when they leave.)
He tries to convince Clark that they should take a cab back, if only for the cake's sake; but Clark just laughs, wraps an arm around his waist and kisses him, and then lifts them both off the floor with his tongue still in Bruce's mouth. "Flying's faster," he murmurs in Bruce's ear, when he finally pulls away.
They don't take a cab.
It may be brief, but it's still a kind of torture, being pressed up against Clark's body like that, tucked close in the curve of his arm. The swing as Clark brings them around, down, and slows isn't unlike being on the end of a grappling line—so Bruce is careful to stumble a little on landing, like anyone unused to the sensation might.
"All right?" Clark says, and then, easily, "Just let me put the cake away—"
He blurs and is gone, and then is back again just that fast, in the span of one quick breath. He presses Bruce up against the balcony railing and kisses him again—
"Inside, come on," Bruce says when he gets the chance, reaching around Clark to open the balcony door; and Clark grins at him sheepishly and backs into the penthouse, drawing Bruce along by the lapels of his suit jacket.
"So," Clark says, clearing his throat. "Any—particular plans, this time?"
Bruce pretends to think about it, already busy with Clark's belt. "Well," he says, listening to Clark gasp as Bruce works a hand inside his waistband. "I was thinking that perhaps we might—" and he slides it carefully around, over Clark's hip, and then back, back, "expand your horizons a bit."
He doesn't actually push his fingertip in, but Clark still startles, surging forward into Bruce's thigh, breath catching. "O—Okay," Clark says, a little wobblier than before. "Okay, yes, let's do that."
"My pleasure, believe me," Bruce says, making sure the leer comes through in his voice; and Clark laughs against his jaw and then tugs him in for a kiss.
So Clark likes sleeping with Bruce Wayne enough to do it more than once. It's not a problem. It makes sense: Bruce is the only person within at least a thousand-mile radius who knows about Superman and is neither Lex Luthor nor Clark's mother. He's conveniently located, he never says no to a good time, and Clark can relax around him—can float, if he likes, can fly or use the speed or idly tell him the funny thing a woman fifteen floors below them just said over the phone.
And it's not as though Bruce has grounds to object. It's been very thoroughly established that Bruce Wayne finds Clark physically appealing; the relationship is firmly casual, as all Bruce Wayne's relationships are. And—
(if he can't admit it, he can't compensate for it)
—it saves Bruce the trouble of finding someone else, on the evenings when he doesn't want to sit in the Cave alone, eyes catching on Jason's uniform every time he turns around. Clark does keep a lid on his powers most of the time, Bruce has confirmed it indirectly in a dozen ways; but he also seems to keep an eye, or maybe an ear, on the penthouse. Three out of every four times Bruce ends up there, Clark's out on the balcony before long. And Bruce always lets him in.
The casual tone Bruce established the first time serves him well—enforcing it actually permits for a certain degree of spontaneity. If Clark had any expectation of being able to fuck Bruce naked, to take his time, it could never just happen; Bruce would need to prepare. He'd need to get out the precisely-shaded latex he uses when Bruce Wayne plans to let his shirt get unbuttoned, to glue it down and smooth over its edges, to apply concealer and powder to any bruises Bruce Wayne shouldn't have.
But handjobs, blowjobs, fingering, a little rough frottage, can all be done without posing significant risk. Bruce can even let Clark fuck him now and then, as long as Bruce's shirt stays on—as long as Clark doesn't try to shove Bruce's slacks down any further than mid-thigh, as long as Bruce hasn't recently injured his hips or lower back while on patrol.
And they're relatively well-matched. Of course Clark is capable of defying gravity—but the first time he doesn't and Bruce lifts him off the floor anyway, he makes a small startled noise and clutches at Bruce's shoulders.
(It was a mistake. Bruce hadn't thought; he'd just wanted—
But that's the kind of thing Bruce Wayne could conceivably be vain about. When Clark grips his arm and says unsteadily, "Bruce, you—you can—?" all Bruce has to do is smirk at him, is wink and hitch him up a little higher against the penthouse wall.
"We can't all be Superman, I admit it," he murmurs against Clark's throat. "But give me some credit: I still work out.")
It's not a problem. Bruce can handle it.
He doesn't even have to worry about how often to let it happen. He still has responsibilities—still has to go on patrol on a regular basis. It's not as though he's sitting in the penthouse waiting for Clark every night.
True, there are times when patrol yields next to nothing. The media hasn't caught more than a few glimpses of Diana yet, but Wonder Woman has already made an impact on the landscape of criminal pursuits in the wider Metropolis area. There are times when Bruce is left crouching on a rooftop in the quiet, with nothing to think about except whether Clark's listening for him right now in the penthouse and finding nothing—whether he's disappointed.
And then there are times when robotic prototypes come crashing out of closed-up LexCorp buildings.
Bruce is actually relatively impressed with this one: it's fast-moving and can climb well, which is a level of coordination he hadn't realized LexCorp had managed to achieve in robots of this size.
He catches up to it within moments, but the lead time means it's waiting for him—it tore a concrete piling out of this building somewhere on the way up, and it has good aim. He dodges, but only just, and he has to twist around and throw himself down against the roof of the building to do it. One of the thing's gripping arms closes around his chest even as he's bracing to push himself back up, and it lifts him and throws—
He's already got a hand at the utility belt for a grappling hook, but in the end he doesn't need it: before he can fall more than a dozen feet below the level of the roof, Diana catches him.
"Hello, stranger," she says into his ear, amused, and lands them both on the roof—she'd leapt from the shorter building next door, judging by the arc they take on the way.
"Good timing," Bruce tells her, and then hurls himself sideways in time to avoid the robot's next lunge.
She's wearing her cloak, the hood—they're still finding their feet, trying to work out exactly what they want the Justice League to be and do and stand for, and Diana had decided it was best to keep as low a profile as she could for a while. But it doesn't slow her down at all: Bruce shoots the line he would have used to save himself so that the hook goes into one of the robot's outstretched arms, pulling it sideways, and Diana takes the opportunity to dart in and rip a second arm off entirely.
"Do you know what happened?" Diana says to him loudly, over the creak of metal and hiss of sparks, as she punches the robot in what could be called its chest a couple of times.
"Power surge," Bruce says. "Building's one of the ones that shut down after Luthor went to jail. Apparently LexCorp didn't quite finish clearing out the basement."
"Careless," Diana assesses with a smile, and then crouches, leaps—plunges a hand straight through the paneling on the robot's side, and pulls a fistful of circuitboard and wire back out.
It's not quite enough to deactivate the robot completely, but she must have gotten something essential to its motive functions. It no longer seems able to compensate for the missing weight of its torn-off arm, or for the fact that another is immobilized, and it promptly keels over.
Diana lets the handful drop, and then—here it comes—looks over at Bruce, face lit in flashes as the robot keeps throwing off sprays of sparks, and says, "You still haven't told him yet."
It's Diana: Bruce allows himself to close his eyes. She's been bringing it up at regular intervals since the gala at the museum; and he's starting to think judgment would be easier to bear than her patience, her quiet understanding.
"He doesn't need to know," Bruce says. Somehow it comes out sounding thin, when he says it to Diana.
(She didn't use it tonight, but the lasso's still hanging at her waist.)
(It's not a lie.)
"You have to know you won't be able to keep it from him forever," Diana says. And Bruce would know how to respond if she sounded angry, but she doesn't.
And he won't be able to keep it from Clark forever. No matter how many possibilities he anticipates, how many exigencies he includes in his considerations, the universe has proven to him again and again that there is always something he will fail to account for. There is always something he won't realize until it's already too late.
"I know," Bruce agrees.
Diana looks at him a moment longer and then simply clasps his shoulder, just enough strength behind it that he can feel it clearly through the body armor. "Let's see if there are any more where this came from," she says, over the sound of the news helicopter that's already catching up with them; and Bruce nods and steps off the roof.
(He could tell Clark. Maybe.
Clark hasn't seen Batman since he came back—hasn't even asked about him again, not since that first day, or at least he hasn't asked Bruce. It's impossible to guess what he thinks, how he feels. If there were any reason to believe it wouldn't be a disaster, to think Clark might still accept his help as Bruce Wayne and work alongside him as Batman—
If it's going to go badly, then there's no point. Coming clean will only determine when the disaster strikes, not its magnitude; if Clark is moved to anger, the offense responsible is equal whether Bruce confesses to it or is discovered, and it cannot be undone, erased, or made up for. The lies may even overshadow the attempted murder, at this point, and what amends could Bruce ever make that would be to scale with either?
Bruce can't earn Clark's forgiveness, and it's appalling to think of asking for it—of prevailing on Clark to grant it where it's undeserved.
But if somehow it doesn't matter as much to Clark as that; if he's disconcerted and uncomfortable, but not, in the end, cut deeply enough for it to hurt—
Maybe. Bruce would consider it.)
The next night is a Clark night. Bruce hears him land on the balcony and wonders whether Clark can hear the helpless thump of his heart in reply; and then he stands and opens the balcony door and sees Clark's face.
"What's wrong?" he says, and Clark looks up.
"Oh—nothing like that," Clark says instantly, a little wide-eyed, and damn, damn. Bruce immediately moderates his expression. "I just," and then Clark bites his lip and looks away, out over the city below them. "I've just been thinking. About—being Superman again."
As if Bruce Wayne would have useful input. But then again, there's only two other people in the world Clark thinks he can talk to about this. (It would be three, if he knew Diana knew—but he doesn't. Not yet.) So perhaps it's not so surprising after all.
Bruce raises his eyebrows, makes a considering face, and then shrugs. "What's to think about?"
"I want to," Clark says, without preamble, and then he ducks his head and scrubs a hand through his hair with something that's not quite a laugh. "I almost wish I didn't. I feel like it would be easier to decide if I could be sure I wasn't deciding for the wrong reasons."
Bruce affects surprise. (It isn't difficult.) "Clark Kent, boy scout? The wrong reasons?"
"It was hard sometimes," Clark says, "but I do like helping people. And if I can do something and I choose not to—" He breaks off, shaking his head, eyes down. "I don't think I'm comfortable with that. I don't think I can be. But I—you were right."
"I'm right a lot of the time, Clark," Bruce tells him with a smirk. "You're going to need to be more specific."
Clark rolls his eyes, smacks Bruce's elbow with the back of one hand; and then his face goes sober again, close enough to the almost graven expression Superman uses that it makes Bruce want to look away. "Epicenter of global destruction," he says quietly. "That's what you said, and you were right. And—" He shakes his head again, jaw suddenly tight. "The only reason Zod ever came to this planet at all was because of me. The only reason Luthor brought him back was to take me out—that's why Batman—"
"You're asking me to believe Batman was making better calls than you were?" Bruce says, with the incredulous sneer the words deserve. "Do you have a bridge to sell me, too?"
"I pose a danger just by—" Clark begins, expression mulish, but he doesn't get any further before Bruce claps a hand over his mouth.
"Clark," Bruce says. "Trying to measure negative space is a fool's errand. If you'd never come to Earth, maybe Zod would have left us alone—so what? Luthor was never going to be a happy well-adjusted grocery clerk. A dozen worse things might have happened without you. Or a dozen better—though I'll tell you right now that I doubt it."
Over the edge of Bruce's hand, Clark's eyes change, go soft.
"You can't know," Bruce tells him, "nobody can. Don't play that game with yourself. You'll always lose."
Clark clears his throat, and wraps his fingers around Bruce's wrist, pushing just a little.
"Nope," Bruce says, and keeps his hand where it is. "Nod or shake. You want to help people?"
"You think you can do that best by being Superman?"
Clark is still for a moment, gaze flickering toward Bruce and away and then back again, but then—more slowly—he nods.
"Then be Superman," Bruce says. "And if you have to stop being Superman, stop." He takes a chance and moves his hand, curls it around the line of Clark's jaw instead, and Clark stays quiet. "You died saving us. You don't owe anybody anything you don't want to give."
It's hardly a thing Clark should be surprised to hear; but something strange and hard to read passes across his face, and then out of nowhere he crowds Bruce backward into the balcony door, and kisses him so hard Bruce spares half a thought to hope the glass will hold.
It's strangely easy, being with Bruce.
Clark feels almost bad for being surprised about that. It's just—it seems like it should go wrong somehow, because Clark's doing all this the wrong way: deciding to sleep with Bruce on the spur of the moment like that, only really learning to like him afterward. It's all backwards, and they still aren't even dating or anything.
But Clark's pretty sure they're friends. And if nothing else, he's confident that Bruce likes how he looks, that Bruce enjoys kissing him; that Bruce cares about him, in kind of a weird standoffish Bruce way. It makes him feel sort of guilty, but it's also kind of—freeing, to not worry too much about the rest of it. He keeps meaning to slow down, to take his time with Bruce a little bit more, but Bruce always shifts them up to the higher gears so fast, and once Bruce's hands are in his pants it's kind of hard to come up with any objections. Clark figures they'll get there in a few more weeks, when it isn't still so new and hot and overpowering.
And it's—it makes Clark feel anchored, real. It makes Clark feel alive.
He'd expected Bruce to have something to say about Clark maybe being Superman again. And he'd expected it to be blunt. He just hadn't expected it to be thoughtful, too—he hadn't expected it to be kind.
(They have sex on the floor that time, just inside the balcony door—which Clark manages to think he should be more embarrassed about, except he's got Bruce between his thighs and there's no space for embarrassment.
And then, very shortly, there's no space for thinking either.)
He doesn't want to rush into anything. The first time it hadn't been up to him, not really. Zod had forced the issue: he'd had to step out of the shadows whether he'd wanted to or not, with the fate of the world riding on it.
This time is different, though. He's been considering it for days—weeks, to be honest. He'd avoided the news at first, with guilty relief; it had felt petty and selfish to think it, but he'd been having enough trouble saving himself.
Except then things had started to get better. Bruce had happened to him, and the gala, and along the way somewhere he'd stopped having the dreams so often. And then he'd moved back to Metropolis and slotted right back into place at the Planet, and, well. It wasn't like he could keep up that deliberate ignorance when he was working at a paper. He'd started small, just his own assignments; and Perry had either guessed as much or else was trying to be careful with him, because the first few things he'd handed Clark had been human interest, nothing too hard-hitting.
But it had all started to filter back in, a bit at a time. And then he'd caught that headline about Batman.
Nothing major: something about a closed-down LexCorp building, some cutting-edge technology accidentally activated by an electrical fault. Batman caught at the scene, along with a mysterious cloaked figure nobody had gotten a good photo of, possibly the same new superhero who seemed to have moved onto the Metropolis scene after Superman's death—
Clark hadn't been able to stop himself from looking up more about it.
This time, Batman hadn't branded anyone. This time, there were two heroes working together, helping each other; and dying had kind of eclipsed it for a while, but Clark does remember those last ten minutes right beforehand, how good it had felt to not be standing between Earth and destruction alone. Luthor's gone, and Batman seems to actually be giving the concepts of "teamwork" and "not scarring people for life" a fair shake, which is definitely different.
So this time, maybe they can get it right.
Clark wants to try. And—god, it's ridiculous, but Bruce's good opinion, his confidence, his faith—it's like light from a yellow sun, it's lit Clark up so far he's stupid with it.
So he waits another day to let the glow fade, until he feels more clearheaded, until he can tell whether the doubt's going to creep back in.
As a last-ditch effort to make sure he isn't making a huge mistake, he brings it up with Lois the next time he calls. (When he'd tried to talk to Mom about it, she'd just asked him whether he'd talked to Bruce. He'd explained that he had, and told her what Bruce had said; and she'd smiled to herself, and then looked up and patted Clark's cheek and said, "Well, you already know I agree with him, honey.")
He catches himself holding his breath after he says it—the habits you can pick up from humans, he thinks, and almost laughs.
Except he can't, because on the other end of the line Lois is still worryingly quiet.
And then he hears her suck in a breath, and all at once she says, "Oh, Clark—"
"Lois," he says quickly, but then she laughs and he stops, blinking. "Lois?"
"Oh, god, I can't even tell you how happy I am to hear that," she says, and laughs again. "I know you weren't always sure about being Superman, but you loved helping people so much—you never wanted to talk about putting the cape away."
Clark scratches at the back of his neck, sheepish, even though Lois can't see him. She had tried to bring it up a couple times, when the press had started getting really bad—
(don't know if it's possible. For you to love me and be you)
—but he'd only ever tried to distract her from it.
"And then since you came back, you just—haven't said a word about it. I didn't think I should push," she adds, and then, confiding, "but I really wanted to, you have no idea. And now look! I didn't even have to. Oh, Clark, I'm so glad."
And she sounds it: her voice through the phone is warm, low and pleased. For a second, Clark opens up, and it's like she's standing right there in the room with him—her heartbeat, steady and sincere, and her breathing, another little half-laugh that's almost inaudible, the swish of her hair as she flicks a stray lock out of her face.
"Your timing's perfect, as usual," she says, and Clark blinks and is back in Metropolis, the sounds of the street outside coming into focus again, Lois at a distance beyond them.
"I've got something to tell you. Nothing's final yet, but I'm—I'm thinking about it, and it seemed like you should know."
The words by themselves are sort of foreboding, but her tone says more that she's trying to be careful than that anything is really wrong. "Yeah?" Clark prompts.
"Perry wants to keep a foreign correspondent in South Korea for at least another three months," Lois says. "And it doesn't have to be me—he offered me the chance to take a break and come back, he can send someone else here instead."
Clark closes his eyes. "But you want to," he says.
Lois hesitates, just for a beat. "I want to," she agrees. "I've made some great contacts, someone else would be starting from square one with a few of them. And you know I hate not getting the whole story, Smallville."
"I do," Clark says. He grips the phone a little tighter and waits for the desperation to hit him, the clawing squirming unsteady feeling of needing her to take it back—but it doesn't come. It doesn't come. "That's fantastic," he finds himself adding, and he means it without even having to work at it. "That's—Lois, that's wonderful, I'm so happy for you."
"We never said it, but I know I was thinking we would talk when I got back—"
"And we still will," Clark says, "don't worry." He'd never gotten around to the subject of visiting, somehow: and he'd told himself it was because he wasn't sure his powers were back, except that's not true anymore and he still hasn't done it. He'd been afraid, maybe—being told that she was gone had been awful, but still easier than seeing how far behind she'd left him.
But he's not afraid anymore.
"Until then—I'll come see you," he tells her. "Some weekend or something when you're free. Coffee. You can show me around Seoul."
"I think I can pencil you in somewhere," Lois murmurs, fond; and Clark chuckles into the phone and thinks that for all the time he's spent airborne, he's never felt so light.
Once he's hung up with Lois, he calls Mom—she must have the suit, he can't imagine where else it would be.
"Of course!" she says, sounding delighted just to hear him asking. "Of course. I didn't put it away with the rest of your things, it's on the other side of the basement," and he hears the creak of the basement door, a little curse when Mom barks her heel on the top step, before she adds absently, "Batman didn't bring it by until he'd gotten it repaired."
Clark almost drops the phone. "What?"
"Oh—" Mom says, breath catching oddly; and then she clears her throat. "That's right, I didn't tell you. The ship, it's back in Antarctica. Once I understood what had happened, with Mr. Luthor and everything, I asked them if they could get it away from the city before anybody else could try to study it—Batman and Wonder Woman, I mean."
Clark remembers the sword, the shield, that brilliant lasso; and the height's about right, on that cloaked figure from the pictures. He should've guessed. "Is that what they're calling her?"
"She told me it was as good a name as any," Mom says, conversational, a hint of a smile in her voice, like this had happened the last time she'd had Wonder Woman over for brunch. Clark finds himself shaking his head a little in amazement.
"And they did," Clark fills in.
"It got damaged," Mom says, "but it could still fly. And once I—once I cleaned you up, got you out of the suit, Batman took it. I don't know how he got the ship to do it, but he came back with it a week later and the," and then she pauses, breathes slow, so that when she goes on to say, "the hole was gone," it comes out level. "Ah, here it is," she adds, and then there's a scrape, a little grunt of effort, and she sighs.
"Great—thank you," Clark says.
"Of course," Mom tells him, warm. "Come pick it up, you can stay for dinner."
Once he has the suit again, every part of him knows it's only a matter of time. Mom wasn't wrong: the hole is gone. There aren't even any bloodstains, and when Clark pulls a little, testing and twisting, strength applied, he can't feel a weak spot. Whatever Batman did, it worked.
It makes him feel strange, tense, to think of coming face-to-face with Batman again. He should be able to get past this more easily—the day it had happened, he had, because a much bigger problem had been right there bellowing at them and there hadn't been time to waste being petty. And it's been months, even minus the six Clark is missing. He should be over it.
But somehow he isn't—
(it's dark; it's dark and he can't move and he's in something, some kind of box)
(he's under something, Batman's boot, and he can't breathe, can't get away)
(he pushes as hard as he can, but he can't get out)
—quite able to let go. It makes his heart kick up a little just thinking about it, makes his hands clench up 'til his knuckles go white.
Except he's Superman. Superman doesn't hold grudges; Superman works with people who are willing to work with him, because it's worth it if it will help save lives. That's what matters.
He has the suit and he's ready, anticipation vibrating over him like a shiver—and when, on his walk home from the Planet building, he sees four police cars, five, go screaming around a corner, he knows exactly what he's going to do.
It's almost like the city wants to help Clark find his feet: after two blocks he realizes what direction he's headed in, and sure enough, the cop cars are joining up with a perimeter the police have established around the good old First Metropolitan Bank. Clark had stopped—oh, it had to have been at least three or four attempted robberies there, before he'd died. He practically had a routine.
He focuses his hearing past the crowd forming outside the barriers, the gasps and cries of, "It's Superman"—and he tries not to let himself get distracted. (They sound so glad to see him. They—they wanted him back.)
There have to be at least twenty thieves: well-organized gang, but then anybody who tries to take on the First Metropolitan typically has some kind of plan in mind. There's someone else inside, too, someone with a cape swishing after them, who hits hard but isn't killing—and, catching up to them, someone heavier, moving a little more sneakily, who looses grappling lines at things with soft thunks.
Batman. Batman and this Wonder Woman, and they probably don't need Superman's help today, but it's as good a time as any for them to learn he's alive.
The two of them work well together. Which isn't a surprise, if they've been fighting crime alongside each other the whole time Clark was dead, and it's nice to think Metropolis has been able to rely on them while Clark was gone. By the time he's caught up to them, half the thieves are down—automatic weapons fire is rattling harmlessly off Wonder Woman's gauntlets, until a shadow sweeps by overhead; a hiss of cable, and then the guns involved suddenly leap from their owners' hands. Clark takes the opportunity to walk up and smack both shooters into the wall beside them. Not through it or anything—just hard enough to knock the breath out of them, to make them slide to the floor and want to stay there.
And it's enough: they notice. Wonder Woman's wearing a hooded cloak, and Clark can't pick out her features—at least not without an effort that seems impolite if she's trying to keep her identity secret. But she turns to look at him and then away, and he catches the barest curve of a smiling mouth in the play of shadows over her face. And Batman—
Batman drops from the corner of the ceiling, entirely opposite where Clark had seen him last. For a split second, Clark's mindless—he feels himself start to move, so fast he must be blurring, every inch of him ready to grab that dark shape coming at him and slam it through the floor—
But he catches himself in time, reins it in. There's no need. Everything's fine. Nobody's trying to kill him right now.
(At least not yet.)
And Batman's not swinging at him, it turns out, but past him: a third shooter in black had been coming up behind Clark. Batman catches her in the midsection with those boots—
(cold hard pressure, suffocating, Clark's throat closing up helplessly underneath it, no air)
—and she's smashed backward into the wall with perfect precision, just enough to drop her. Clark takes a look, and her skull's not even cracked.
"Thanks," he makes himself say, even though she couldn't actually have hurt him.
Batman drops to the floor, the cable he swung on winding itself back up with a little zipping sound. He looks at Clark from under that cowl for a long moment, silent; and then he turns away, toward the sound of Wonder Woman making someone wish they'd just stayed in bed.
Well. He's just as talkative and friendly as Clark remembers. Nice to know some things haven't changed.
It only takes about three more minutes to neutralize the rest of the thieves, and the police and SWAT have already started moving in from the perimeter. Clark sets one more unconscious criminal down carefully next to the others, and then suddenly Wonder Woman's at his shoulder.
"Meet us on the roof," she murmurs, hand warm for just a moment on his arm, and then with a swish of that cloak, she's gone.
He waits a moment, listening, until his ears find the scrape of Batman's gloves against stone—he doesn't want Batman to surprise him again. This is supposed to be a new beginning; if Clark startles a second time and punches Batman off the side of the First Metropolitan, it's going to be a problem.
Even if it would also only be fair, considering Batman tried to kill him.
But Superman doesn't hold grudges. Superman is generous—Superman forgives.
(Superman doesn't have nightmares. Superman isn't afraid.)
He lets them get to the roof first: it seems appropriate. It's their turf now, in a way, and he's the new guy. He doesn't land until they're ready, waiting for him.
His feet touch down, and for a moment the two of them just look at him. And then Wonder Woman says, "Superman," pleased and—and almost familiar? Where else has Clark heard that voice, besides the day—?
She lifts one armored hand and pushes the hood back, down, to settle on her shoulders. And Clark's so surprised he can feel the impassive Superman face he's been using crack and give way; it's just Clark Kent in a red-and-blue suit who ends up staring at Diana Prince on the roof of the First Metropolitan.
He manages to quit gaping after a second, and darts a sidelong glance at Batman.
"He knows," Diana says.
Which means it's okay for Clark to burst out with, "Diana. You—" and then, all at once, he remembers what she said. "—were in Metropolis on the day of the battle."
"Just so," Diana agrees, the slant of her mouth gently amused. And then the smile slides away, and she looks at him seriously, soberly, eyes clear. "I apologize. The gala was—not the right place to talk about it."
"Of course," Clark says, "I understand." And he does. What is the right place, the right moment, to say you don't recognize me, but I watched you die once? If anything, he should be apologizing right back at her. But he'd only seen her that day for a few minutes: hair down, shield up, armored and dignified and focused. At the gala she'd looked so different. But she'd held herself the same way, Clark thinks. She has the same face. He should have known the moment he saw her smile.
And he'd met her at the gala at all because—
"Does Bruce know?" he says.
Batman doesn't move, exactly. But there's a—a shift around him or in him, just at the edge of Clark's perception; something about the way he was breathing, maybe, or some other sound that should have been inaudible, except Clark didn't close the hearing all the way back down earlier.
Diana's face changes, too, something wry in the flat press of her lips. "Yes," she says, "Bruce knows."
Which makes sense, of course. He'd been there with Mom, after all. And Batman had come for Mom, in the end, and she'd clearly talked to Wonder Woman too—probably right afterward. Bruce must still have been around for that part. No wonder he'd introduced them, Clark thinks, and abruptly wants to laugh. He must've gotten a kick out of that, knowing he was watching Superman and Wonder Woman clink glasses. The jackass.
Clark clears his throat. "And you work together," he says.
He does his best not to let it come out dubious (new beginning, new beginning). But he can't stop himself from shooting Batman another quick sharp look, and he's pretty sure Batman clocks it.
"We do," Diana says. "There are more out there like us, Superman, and it's our hope that we can—forge an alliance. A group of heroes, stronger together than any one of us would be alone. A ... Justice League."
The name's so—so blunt, so baldfaced, it ought to sound stupid. And probably it would, coming from anybody else. But Diana, with her chin high, her gaze steady, the light of sunset pouring red-gold across her face and casting her all in bronze and fire, larger than life—she says it and it sounds real, like a promise. She says it and it sounds like truth.
"And we'd be glad to have you join us," she concludes. "If you wish."
Us. Clark finds his gaze cutting sideways again. It all sounds too kind for Batman, doesn't it? Vowing cooperation, working hand-in-hand to save the day? A coward, Bruce had said, swooping around in the dark. And what could a man like that want with other heroes?
(—with his foot on Clark's throat, mask for a face, digging in with that kryptonite edge like he wants Clark in pain, wants Clark to die hurting—)
(—and Clark can't stop him—Clark can't move, Clark can't get out—)
But Mom's alive because of him. That has to count for something.
"And you agreed to this," he says to Batman, testing. To the concept in general—to asking Superman to be a part of it.
Batman stares at him for a long moment, unbending. "Yes," he says at last, in that low flat growl.
"You don't have to join the League to get our help," Diana says after a moment, "if you should find that you need it. You'll have our cooperation no matter what you decide. There are circumstances that could lead to the League raising arms against Superman," she admits, and Clark feels himself tense up all over—"as I hope the League would raise arms against me, were I to be controlled by an entity that wished to use me to do harm, or to otherwise act against my own chosen purpose in this world."
"Fair enough," Clark tells her.
"There will be no unilateral action taken against you," Diana promises. And then she tilts her head and smiles at him. "We won't try to kill you without talking to you about it first."
Clark can't help it: he grins. "Better terms than anybody else is offering," he says, and then looks at Batman. "And you agreed to that, too?"
"Yes," Batman says—right away this time, much faster than Clark had been expecting. He turns his head, giving Clark one perfect clear profile: facing straight into the sinking sun, light spilling all over him, as far out of the shadows as Clark has ever seen him. "Yes."
Clark looks at him, and then at Diana, and doesn't ask for time to think about it. He doesn't let himself. He trusts Diana, and—and he can learn to trust Batman, surely. If the League's going to have any chance of succeeding, then he needs to try, and he's Superman. He can't do less than his best.
"All right," he says. "Okay. You're—we're—a League of three, now."
Diana beams at him, brilliant, and reaches out to take his hand, just like she had at the gala. And Batman—
Batman looks at him silently. If he's got an expression on his face, Clark can't tell at all with the cowl in the way, everything but the mouth and chin covered. But he nods. And then he crosses half the roof in a rush, steps so quiet Clark has to bring the hearing back up a little bit to catch them; crouches down to get a hand on the stone edge; and drops away, out of sight.
He doesn't stop moving until he's back in the Cave again—until he's sure no one's followed him, no one's looking; until it's safe.
He could have waited, let Clark leave first and stayed behind with Diana. But if he had she'd only have pressed him again, asked him what the hell he thought he was doing, and he doesn't know what he would have said. He doesn't know what answer there could be.
He'd known Clark was thinking about suiting up again. Even if Clark hadn't asked for his opinion outright, he might have guessed. Clark is many things, but he's all those things as—as thoroughly as possible, as wholly and and as earnestly: on him even indecision, uncertainty, are unsubtle. He'd been thinking about it, and Bruce Wayne had told him to be selfish; and for Clark, being a hero is selfishness, because he wants to do it so badly. Abraham Lincoln, in a city of trapped pigs.
But knowing it was coming hadn't prepared him for it. There shouldn't have been anything to prepare for. It isn't as though he isn't perfectly well aware that Clark is alive, and the connection between Clark and Superman had come together for him even before Clark died, even before Martha had ever said aloud that her last name was Kent.
It hadn't just been Clark, this time. It had been Superman. Clark had never been the one who posed a danger, and in a certain sense it almost hadn't been Clark who'd died—or at least not in Bruce's eyes, not that day. And it was Superman who'd come back to life in front of him not an hour ago: suit and all, whole and real and right there in front of Bruce, without a mark on him.
Bruce tugs the cowl off, scrubs a gloved hand through his hair, and ruthlessly ignores whatever it is in his chest that's lurching.
(Clark Kent had come back to life. But Bruce—Bruce might still have managed to kill Superman; to kill whatever it was in Clark that made him choose to be Superman—
What a lopsided tradeoff that would have made. Clark's generosity, Clark's faith in humanity, Clark's hope, in all their supernova brilliance—gone dark. As if the single flame they'd relit in Bruce could be any kind of substitute.)
It had been—uncomfortable, the way Clark had looked at him. He could admit that. The flatness, the wariness; and the worst part was that Bruce couldn't tell himself it was undeserved.
But Clark had liked Diana. And when she'd let him see her face at last, he hadn't minded—hadn't held the deception against her. Of course it's different for Bruce, the degree of overlapping falsehoods, the longevity, by a factor that can at this point only be described using a logarithmic scale. Still, Clark's response to Diana can't possibly be categorized as a bad sign.
And he'd agreed to join the League. To make the League, because a League of two wasn't much to work with, and he'd done it even with Batman right there. That had gone so far beyond Bruce's expectations that it might even qualify as promising. After that conversation about suiting up again, Bruce had allowed himself to consider how it might go. The obvious choice had been Batman pledging to quit: to stay clear and then perhaps be permitted to work his way back in on probation, with Superman granted final veto power.
Bruce looks up. Alfred's tone suggests he's said it more than once, but that can't be right.
"Are you bleeding somewhere, sir?" Alfred says, raising an eyebrow. "Perhaps internally? Impaled. Herniating—"
"I'm fine, Alfred," Bruce says, flat.
"As you say, sir," Alfred agrees, very mild.
Which means, of course, that he's noticed something is off and doesn't plan to stop trying to figure out what it is. "We prevented a robbery at the First Metropolitan," Bruce says, and Alfred's already caught him; there's no reason to fight the urge to pause, to swallow. So Bruce allows himself not to bother. "With Superman's assistance."
Alfred had tilted his head, gazing off contemplatively into the middle distance, like a tutor waiting to hear a student's best-composed excuses—but his eyes snap back to Bruce at this, and he blinks twice, slow, and says, "Ah." He gives Bruce another conspicuous inspection, and adds, "Well. He doesn't appear to be holding a grudge, sir."
Bruce glances down at the cowl in his hand, the blank face crumpled by his grip. "No," Bruce says. "He doesn't."
Alfred's silent for a moment, long enough that the next thing Bruce expects to hear is a footstep as he moves away—but instead he says, low, "It can trip one up, can't it?"
"What?" Bruce says, looking up.
Alfred is looking right back at him, gaze odd and soft. "Forgiveness," he says.
Bruce doesn't reply.
(What is there to say?)
Alfred clears his throat. "And, if I may be so bold as to ask," he says—as if Bruce could stop him—"will Master Kent be made aware of the true complexity of the situation?"
Bruce feels his fingers tighten around the cowl and forces them to stop, tossing it deliberately away to land with a soft whump on one of the worktables. He doesn't need to look down to find the first catch, the one on the shoulder, to release the body armor—but he does it anyway. Alfred will let him get away with that small evasion, when he hears Bruce's answer.
"Get a car ready, please. I'll be spending tonight at the penthouse, Alfred."
"Yes, Master Wayne," Alfred murmurs, and it doesn't matter where Bruce is looking: he can hear Alfred's smile anyway.
Bruce has enough self-control not to pace.
It's the right time. Or—at least it's not the wrong time. This, perhaps, is the tipping point: the meeting between Superman and Batman is an obvious cue to confess, and the further behind Bruce leaves that opportunity, the worse it will look. Even if this isn't the best moment, there will never be a better one; it's all downhill from here.
It has to be tonight, or not at all.
(And of course "not at all" doesn't mean not at all. It only means—not voluntarily. Keeping this secret is dependent on chance and circumstance, on Clark's charity and forbearance and utter lack of suspicion. Neither set of factors is likely to accommodate Bruce forever.
Perhaps it's not revelation itself that will happen tonight or not at all, but rather a positive outcome. Bruce can almost, almost, see the path that leads to Clark's acceptance from here.
And if he turns aside, if he doesn't take it—
There won't be another.)
He starts to think he should have waited longer to come here, after taking the suit off—some days, Batman's demeanor is hard to shake, and the wire-tight tension of waiting isn't helping. When Clark does land on the balcony, it's more Batman than anyone else who goes still and looks up.
But Bruce makes sure it's Bruce Wayne who opens the balcony door.
Clark's smiling at him already; he takes the first step through the door Superman-fast, right into Bruce's arms before Bruce can so much as blink, and tugs him into a kiss, making a warm glad noise in his throat.
"So it went okay, then," Bruce murmurs, when he can.
Clark blinks at him, and then makes a sheepish face. "I guess we ended up on the news, didn't we?"
"The unexpected reappearance of Superman, alive and well?" Bruce says, very dry. "Yes, Clark, you ended up on the news."
Clark grins and ducks his head, pushing his glasses up his nose. "People were—happy to see me, out there," he admits; as if he'd thought anybody wouldn't be—as if his resurrection would be rejected, the wrong kind of miracle. And then he shakes his head and pokes Bruce in the shoulder. "But I've got a bone to pick with you, Mr. Wayne."
"You knew Diana was going to be at that gala, didn't you? You knew exactly what you were doing, introducing me to her." Clark smacks Bruce in the chest with the back of his hand, shaking his head again, chiding. "Jesus, Bruce!"
Bruce can't stop himself—he has to laugh. (He shouldn't; this is about what he's been keeping from Clark, the consequences of that deception, and no part of that is funny. But in this moment, Clark laughing in his arms, Bruce's mouth still tingling with kissing him—it feels like maybe it can be. It feels like everything might be all right anyway.) "I knew you'd like each other," he says, eyes wide, mock-earnest. "You have similar interests."
"You're awful," Clark tells him, dimpling, and then drags him in again—digs teeth into his lip for just a second before tonguing away the sting, a teasing little chastisement.
They stumble further into the penthouse together. Bruce had waited for Clark through twilight, not bothering with any lights, but the sky's almost black now, and the farther they get from the balcony door, the less Bruce can see—but it doesn't matter. He closes his eyes and kisses Clark back and hangs on. Clark won't steer him wrong—
For a breathless second he doesn't know what's happened: a rush of air and motion like falling, except Bruce is holding still; it's Clark who's vanished—
Bruce winces just a little, blinking into the illumination until his eyes can adjust.
"Sorry," Clark says, and Bruce can see him now, ten feet away, hand on the turn knob of the lamp he's just switched on. He smiles in a quick little flicker, not quite convincing. "Sorry, it was—dark."
Not that Superman couldn't see anyway, surely? Maybe he'd been thinking of Bruce—or maybe he just hadn't wanted to worry about it, to have to concentrate on it, when there were other things they could be doing instead.
Or maybe there's something wrong.
"It was," Bruce agrees easily, and then smirks. "And I do happen to prefer you well-lit."
(Well-lit—ideally, by yellow sunlight. Clark had died in the dark; the cloud of dust and debris thrown up by those missiles, by the destruction, had been covering the sky over Stryker's. Bruce has run simulations attempting to determine whether a sufficient quantity of direct sunshine throughout the fight would have kept him alive.
The results have mostly been inconclusive.)
Clark flushes a little, pink and flattered, and the smile gets steadier, his shoulders easing. "Well, here I am," he says.
If there is something wrong, what are the odds it has nothing to do with Superman's appearance? Not good, Bruce would guess. It will be a challenge to find the line between distracting Clark completely and turning the mood sour again; but Bruce can't not ask.
"There you are," Bruce says, and, with deliberate slowness, crosses the distance between them a step at a time. "So," step, "it went okay," step.
"Yeah," Clark says, "yes." Step. "They're starting this thing, this—organization for superheroes," step, "I—Diana's probably mentioned it to you—"
Step. "I believe she may have brought it up once," step, "or twice," step. "And you agreed to join up?" Step.
"Yes," Clark says firmly. "It's important. I think they could do a lot of good."
Such a perfectly Clark answer—Bruce reaches out even before he takes the last step, hands settling on Clark's hips, something gone so tight in his chest it feels like he might choke on it. He abruptly can't be sure what his voice might do; so he kisses Clark instead of speaking, sending one palm sliding on a gloriously slow path up over Clark's waist, his chest, the side of his throat.
And maybe there isn't anything wrong after all, because Clark presses in under that hand and makes a low unsteady sound into Bruce's mouth, fingers digging into Bruce's back.
But he—he had a purpose here—he has to—
"God, Bruce," Clark says, breaking away, getting his hands around and under Bruce's ass and just lifting without even a hitch. Of course the motion drags Bruce's dick, which was getting difficult enough to ignore already, torturously up and across Clark's; Bruce can't stop himself from jerking in Clark's arms at the sensation, arching helplessly closer. "God," Clark says again, "you—please tell me we can talk about this later—"
And—Bruce thinks it with a feeling that's difficult to quantify, relief or maybe freedom—they can. He can let this happen, can indulge both of them, can still tell Clark everything in plenty of time. It's all right. "We can talk about it later," he agrees, low, murmuring it against the line of Clark's jaw; and then, with all the systematic focus Batman can bring to bear, starts untucking Clark's shirt.
It would make one hell of a segue, but it would also stop them cold: Bruce still can't let Clark undress him.
(After, maybe. If he tells Clark and then—if Clark still wants to.)
But he's on a precipice and he feels like it—wide-open space in front of him, nothing holding him back; and what risk can there be of falling when you've got Superman under you?
So he doesn't stop at Clark's shirt buttons, Clark's fly. He undoes Clark's cuffs, too, slides each sleeve down over Clark's arms and hands with deliberate, exacting care, letting his fingers skim Clark's skin the whole way down; when he looks up again Clark is staring at him, eyes wide, mouth red and wet and open, hectic hot color rising in his face. "Bruce," he says, sounding breathless and surprised, "Bruce—"
"Clark," Bruce returns with a smirk, leaning in, "Clark," and kisses the angle of the jaw, the reddening cheek, that shining-soft lower lip.
He takes Clark's belt off, works his pants open, without having to ease up; but to actually get them out of the way he needs to move again. Clark kicked his shoes off on their way through the door, managed to toe one sock off before Bruce had tackled him onto the master bed—Bruce shifts away to tug off the other one, and tosses it over his shoulder before Clark can snatch it out of his hand.
"Bruce, Jesus, you shouldn't just throw my dirty socks onto—what is that?" Clark squints. "Porcelain? Some kind of priceless Tang dynasty—"
"—sock-holder," Bruce concludes, and Clark snorts and then tilts his head back onto the bedspread, laughing.
It's gratifying how quickly he stops when Bruce's hands land on his hips.
Bruce had a pretty good idea what Clark's cock would look like—he's felt the size, the shape, the weight of it; he knows exactly how hard it gets right before Clark comes, exactly how deeply Clark will groan if Bruce wraps his hand around it firmly and exactly how sharply Clark will gasp if Bruce teases him, runs his fingers up the underside just so, brushes the head of it lightly.
But he hasn't gotten to see it, until now. He hasn't gotten to see any of this—had been stuck only imagining how Clark's thighs might look bare and tensed and shaking, how the muscles might play across Clark's shoulders each time he bites his lip and clenches his fists and says Bruce's name.
And then says it again.
"I get it," Clark's saying, "you're enjoying the view," and a whole new flush works its way up his throat even as he laughs again. "But I vote you do something other than just look at me."
Bruce gives him a long considering stare. "Well, if you insist, Mr. Kent."
They've fucked before. That part's not new. Not that it isn't always a treat to slide one slick finger into Clark, two, three—not that Bruce hasn't had plenty of practice restraining himself before he can start trying to make Clark ask him for four. And he'll never, ever get tired of Clark's thighs under his hands, Clark's gasps in his ears; of the sheer indescribable sensation of driving into Clark an inch at a time, Clark's eyes squeezed shut and those big strong hands fisted in the sheets, in Bruce's shirt, like he's just trying to hang on for the ride.
But if the truth's going to come out—
Bruce Wayne wouldn't cradle Clark's face like that, wouldn't waste time running his hands over all the curves and angles of Clark's back and arms. But Bruce does it anyway. Bruce Wayne wouldn't fuck anybody this slowly, Bruce Wayne goes hard and gets his and is satisfied—but Bruce doesn't make himself stop pulling Clark's head up for kisses, or tracing a finger over the lines of Clark's mouth, the hollow of his throat, the shadowed dip and cut of muscle across his bare hips.
And Clark doesn't make him stop either. Clark lies there and lets him—the tacit permission would be staggering enough, but that's not all. Clark loves it. He comes once before Bruce's cock is even inside him, crying out almost in surprise. When Bruce eases him through it, kissing him, pressing close, he does get a hand in between them and say, "Bruce—your suit, you shouldn't—" half into Bruce's mouth.
But he laughs, bright and glad, when Bruce murmurs, "Fuck the suit." And he's Superman, he could shove Bruce off him whenever he wanted—but he doesn't. He pulls Bruce in like he's afraid Bruce is going to try to get up and leave in the middle; he opens up for Bruce's hands and mouth and cock without a moment's hesitation. He doesn't seem to care that Bruce is fucking him half-clothed, or if he does it's not because he finds it unappealing. He pushes back into Bruce's thrusts, clutching at Bruce's shoulders, eyes heavy-lidded, gasping unsteadily, and he lets Bruce take him apart.
The body is, undoubtedly, able, but perhaps the spirit is weak: Bruce isn't sure Clark can even get tired, but he certainly looks it. He lets Bruce clean him up afterward, moving only the bare minimum Bruce demands of him, pinked up and warm and smiling. When Bruce goes to shuck the suit jacket at last, to trade the slacks for sleep pants, he comes back to find Clark still completely naked and also solidly asleep.
In the master bed.
Well. As long as Bruce takes his cufflinks out, it'll be fine. He's slept in less comfortable things than dress shirts.
They'll talk about Batman when Clark wakes up.
In the moment he comes awake, he's not sure why it's happened. He doesn't hear anything, cracks an eye and doesn't see anything—no light turned on, nothing obvious that would have roused him. There's a faint shaft of moonlight coming in the side window, but it's not falling on Bruce's face, and won't for another couple hours.
He blinks twice and is awake anyway: there must have been something, and Batman doesn't shrug off unusual circumstances, doesn't chalk things up to chance or coincidence. It's always nothing, until it isn't.
A moment to take account (where he is, what he's wearing, whether he can fight in it if he needs to), and that's when he realizes the bed is shaking.
Trembling, to be precise, with transferred movement. It's Clark who's shaking.
For an inexcusably long moment, Bruce can only stare at him: he looks terrible, eyes screwed shut, expression strange and fixed, his whole body seized up tight like he's restrained. There's something awful, all wrong, about the angle his neck is at, the way his sleeping head is turned—
Bruce reaches for him, easing over—over him, above him; and all at once, in a snap that feels like it should be audible, he understands.
He recognizes that look. He recognizes how Clark is lying. He hadn't grasped what he was looking at, from the side. But from overhead—he's closed his eyes ten thousand times and seen this scrawled on the backs of them, recreated for himself again and again every line and slant and curve that makes up the excruciating grimace on Clark's face.
Clark is dreaming about Batman.
Bruce can practically see the moment the kryptonite blade comes down, the silent re-enactment of a furrow being carved into Clark's cheek—it's in the way Clark's expression shifts, the harrowed helpless wince of pain—
And he's just fucking sitting here watching.
He grabs Clark's arm, his shoulder, but Clark doesn't wake. "Clark," he says, and then again more loudly, squeezing hard, because it's not as though he'll do any damage—
(Not more than he's already done.)
The sound and the motion come at the same time, like Clark's wordless cry is what's shoved Bruce across the room; but then Bruce slams into the wall and Clark's arms slam into him, steel bars against his chest. The breath's knocked out of him and his ears are ringing, Clark's face an inch away: the skin around Clark's eyes is crawling with shadows, lines of them like rotting roots, which makes no sense when his eyes themselves are shining through the dark, red as coals—
"Oh, god," Clark says.
In an instant, the steel bars are gone. Clark stumbles back a step, hands pressed over his eyes—the glow leaks out between his fingers for a moment, but then he shakes his head, mutters something to himself, and it stops.
"Sorry, sorry. Jesus—Bruce—are you okay?" Suddenly his hands are all over, moving just a little faster than human-normal, feeling along Bruce's arms and shoulders, the back of his head—
"Fine," Bruce says. "I'm fine."
It's a little harder to see Clark's eyes now that they aren't glowing, but the moonlight's reflecting off the carpet just enough to show the look of relief on Clark's face.
"God, I'm sorry," he says again, hands soft now, relaxed against Bruce's chest. "I've never had that one before—"
Before. Christ, how many have you had? How often does this happen? Is this what you've been doing in the west bedroom by yourself, while I lie in here and—
"Seemed exciting," Bruce hears himself say.
"Usually it's just about the coffin," Clark says, quiet and shamed and sorry. "That one—that must have been—" He clears his throat and lets out a shaky breath. "I—haven't seen Batman since I came back. I didn't know that would happen."
As if he should have. As if he ought to have known, and been more careful to keep away from Bruce.
As if his worst nightmare weren't in bed next to him.
"It's fine," Clark says. "It's not really that bad, I just wasn't expecting it tonight." Lying, Bruce thinks, to the only person who'd believe it: himself. "It didn't happen like that," Clark adds, a little distantly, gaze somewhere else. "He wasn't there when they buried me. I don't know why—"
"Hey, hey, whoa," Bruce says, smiling, and puts his hands over the backs of Clark's. "Sorry, I'm going to have to take a rain check on the dream analysis. I've got a meeting in the morning—stay or go, whatever you want, but I need at least a little sleep."
His tone is easy and friendly, his expression warm: nothing Clark can find upsetting or object to. And Clark's generous. He won't make a fuss.
"Right, of course," Clark says, and then, "sorry," again, with a quick apologetic little smile. He hesitates and glances at the master bed, and then at Bruce, and a flicker of something crosses his face, so fast it's hard to read—disappointment? Dismay? One last helpless spasm of fear, thinking about Batman standing over him in his coffin— "I could use a drink of water. But I'll let you get back to bed," Clark adds, sliding one warm hand up to the back of Bruce's neck. "See you in the morning?"
"Of course," Bruce says, and leans in for a firm, pleasant, but ultimately dismissive kiss.
(There is no path out of this. There never was. He lost Clark weeks ago, months ago—he lost Clark before he ever met him, before Bruce learned how to look at him and see anything but the apocalypse.
There is no path out of this. Absolution was a pipe dream.
All that's left now is damage control.)
There's a robe in the west bathroom, Clark knows: Bruce's, so of course it's black and silky and feels embarrassingly good against bare skin. Clark gets it and then goes and fills himself that glass of water, and takes it out onto the balcony.
The moonlight by itself would probably be enough to let him shake off the last shreds of the dream—but there's also all the brilliant lights of Gotham below him, and even being a zillion floors high doesn't keep a few shouts and honks, loud laughter, someone singing, from drifting up to Superman's ears.
In the dream it had just been him and Batman. Half a memory, Batman shoving him down and cutting his face open, except this time he'd been shoving Clark down into the coffin, holding him in—he'd have finished with Clark and then closed it over him, and Clark wouldn't have been able to get out—
Clark reaches for the balcony railing (stretches his arm out in front of him; the coffin had been much too small for that) and takes a long cool sip of water, and makes himself breathe slow.
It was just luck he hadn't hurt Bruce. And he can't go back in, can't risk falling asleep in there again—next time he might smash Bruce through the wall instead of just into it, and Bruce is only human.
It's easy to forget that, with the way he can pick Clark up and move him, with how weak Clark sometimes feels under him or being touched by him. Earlier, god: how careful Bruce had been, how slow, easing Clark's shirt off like that, hands everywhere, his face and his eyes so intent—Clark had felt like he was falling, dying; like he was coming back to life again.
And then he'd rewarded Bruce for all that unexpected tenderness by throwing him across the room. A half-second of laser vision, and Clark could have killed him outright. Jesus. That can't happen again.
Which means he has to move past this thing with Batman. They're supposed to be part of a team, now, and Diana's clearly found a way to work with him—Clark needs to do the same. Batman saved Mom, and must have proven himself dependable enough to meet Diana's standards. There has to be something to the guy besides a growl, bad judgment, and a lot of black Kevlar. Clark just has to find out what it is.
And maybe once he does, he can sleep next to Bruce again sometime.
Bruce is a little weird in the morning, a little distant—Clark's kind of surprised that that's all. He doesn't flinch when Clark moves toward him, doesn't tense up under Clark's hands when Clark kisses him. So maybe he really isn't afraid.
(Maybe he just hasn't thought it through. Clark doesn't make mistakes very often, and definitely hadn't with Bruce until last night. Maybe he still doesn't realize what Clark could do to him without even trying.)
Clark's careful with him anyway. Bruce doesn't stay for breakfast, makes some excuse about not wanting to be late for that morning meeting—and it is an excuse, because he's never been a stickler for punctuality, but Clark doesn't mind. Bruce needs a little space, and that's okay. The thing that's not okay is Clark grabbing him and slamming him into a wall, not Bruce's reaction to it.
Besides, it's going to work out just fine. Clark is about to have to give Bruce some space anyway, because he couldn't spend tonight at the penthouse even if Bruce invited him to.
He's got a Batman to find.
It's weird to suit up at night. Not that Clark hasn't stopped disasters at all hours, when he needs to—but tonight is quiet and he's going out anyway.
In the end, Batman isn't as hard to track down as Clark might have feared. Clark doesn't have to worry about searching Metropolis for him, because as far as Clark can tell, he only crosses the bay when Wonder Woman needs him to. And: tonight is quiet. There's nothing going on that would draw Batman out of Gotham.
So Clark flies out over the water and listens. Anything will do—the characteristic hiss-thunk of Batman's grappling lines, some lone heartbeat way up on the corner of a building where no one but Batman should be sitting at this hour—
Or a thud, cries of pain and surprise, the grunt and wheeze of someone getting the breath knocked out of them. Either it's Batman, or someone else is beating up ten people at once.
One way or the other, Superman probably ought to drop in.
After a moment's consideration, Clark goes ahead and presses through the sound barrier: just for a moment, just enough to force a quick deep boom. He has the impression that Batman doesn't care for surprises. Probably best to give him a little warning.
Then again, maybe not—when Clark lands, eight criminals are already on the floor of the warehouse, and Batman promptly throws the ninth right at him.
"Whoa," Clark says, and catches the guy; letting him just hit Clark head-on, at that speed, would be about as kind as stepping out of the way so he met the cement. Instead Clark grabs onto him and then swings around with him, the motion of the turn absorbing the velocity, until it's safe to press in a little at the throat, a short harmless choke, and let him drop.
Should he consider that a gesture, Batman letting him help? Or—
Yeah, probably not, Clark thinks, as he turns back around and is met with the tenth. He has to duck and then use a touch of superspeed to catch up, so he can guide the dude safely down to the floor. And that one was already unconscious.
Which means—Clark glances up from the body. It's dark in here, but x-ray doesn't show any sign of Batman either, not inside. A distraction.
He wants to talk to Batman. But he supposes he should have realized that wouldn't mean Batman would want to talk back.
He catches up to Batman about thirty seconds later, almost all the way up the side of the taller neighboring building. It's actually pretty impressive how fast he is. He might be in the 99th percentile, but he's still working within the limits of a normal human body.
"Not much good at taking a hint, are you," Batman says, in that low dark voice, before Clark can even open his mouth.
Don't rise to the bait. "Not really," Clark agrees. He keeps his tone cool, level, and tries to sound gracious when he says, "Speaking as your teammate, I think we need to—"
"You don't know what necessity means," Batman growls. "I need to finish climbing—" and he does, catching one last handhold and then propelling himself upward in a burst. Clark can't even work out how, but he twists in the air, cape swirling around him, and manages to land facing Clark, in a shadowy crouch on the corner of the roof. "—and you need to get out of my city. Now."
He doesn't even sound out of breath. Clark would think it was the modulator filtering it out; except when he stretches his hearing beyond it, catches the soft rasp of Batman's breathing, it's as regular as if he were just walking down the street—
And Clark needs to cut that out. If Batman gets even a hint that Clark's using the supersenses on him that closely, he'll probably shoot Clark in the face with kryptonite again.
"The Justice League—" Clark tries.
"League or no League," Batman says, "Gotham's mine. Get out."
He sounds like he means it, Clark thinks. And if Clark stays here anyway, keeps badgering him—what will that do? It won't make him more cooperative or more likely to listen. Somebody needs to be the one to bend, and Clark knew already it wasn't going to be Batman.
As your teammate, he'd said. But if he doesn't listen to Batman, doesn't respect what matters to him, then what kind of teammate is he? And they have to start somewhere.
"Okay," Clark says, raising his hands palm-out, giving in. "All right. Sorry. I—didn't mean to interfere."
Batman huffs, skeptical, but doesn't leave—he stays there on the roof, watching, as Clark drifts up and away.
Probably just to make sure Clark doesn't turn around. He's going to need to find a new angle to approach this from.
He doesn't get any bright ideas, but he does get lucky: when he steps out of the Planet building a couple days later, Diana Prince is waiting for him.
"Clark!" she says, and when he jerks and looks around, she waves. She's as impeccably put together as she was at the gala, though of course her clothes are a little more everyday, earrings gleaming and hair up in sort of a plaited twist. For a second Clark almost balks at the idea of walking up to her like this, plaid flannel and all; but when he does, she smiles and doesn't hesitate to take his elbow.
"Diana—what a pleasant surprise. I, uh, I didn't—"
She laughs, and then squeezes his arm and leans in and says, "Relax, Clark, it's all right. Plenty of people saw us get introduced at the gala. We're friends."
That's right—god, he's been so twisted up about Batman he'd almost forgotten. "Right," he says, and blows out a breath.
She pats him on the back of the hand, and then guides him into a walking pace along the street. "I was just talking to your mother the other day, and she mentioned she'd told you what happened to," and Diana delicately clears her throat before saying, "the yacht."
The—? Oh, the ship. "Right, of course."
"As it turns out, there's been a bit of a snarl with the paperwork. Do you have time today to sort it out?"
Clark thinks. He should still be back in plenty of time to go see Bruce tonight, unless there's something really wrong—and if there were something really wrong, Diana would have chosen a different way to let him know. "Sure," he says.
"Wonderful," Diana says, and then, without looking away from his face, turns them abruptly into the next alleyway. "Then let's be on our way."
"What—oh," Clark says, "sure," and glances back out: but no one's looking, so it's safe for them to take off.
Diana looks as much at ease standing on the ice of Antarctica outside an alien ship as she had on the sidewalk in Metropolis. She walks up to the scout vessel; and Clark's not sure what he's expecting to happen when she touches the side, but it isn't the smooth voice saying, "Welcome. Would you like to resume command of the ship?"
"I would," Diana says, and it opens for her.
She glances back at Clark.
"Wow. That's—definitely more than I ever got it to do for me." Not that he'd had much of a chance to interact with it without Jor-El—Father?—the Jor-El program smoothing the way for him. He'd never learned what the ship's default interface was like; he'd taken the Jor-El projection when he left, and then there had been the crash. And Clark Kent hadn't been able to afford to get caught poking around Kryptonian anything. Somebody might have started asking why he was so interested.
"It took some trial and error," Diana confesses with a grin. "We had—some trouble getting it to listen to us, after Luthor was taken away."
"He—resumed command of the ship?"
"He took command of it," Diana says, serious now, running a hand along the inside of the hull like she wants to soothe the ship's bad memories away. "It was already confused, damaged. It wanted a commander; and then he required it to disobey its own internal guidelines, bringing General Zod back like that in the genesis chamber. It was—I suppose I should say disordered," she admits, "but I want to say distraught."
"But you got it here."
"Yes. We had to—discuss some things with it first. But it permitted me to accept command in the end, once it understood that Luthor wasn't coming back." She shoots Clark a small smile and then touches a panel, and oh, he recognizes what's on the other side of the door: the command deck. "And it should let me transfer control to you, now that you're back to receive it."
They step in together, and the floor—ripples a little under Clark's feet, in that way Kryptonian things seem to have of coming apart and then forming themselves back together.
And it's stupid, that that's where his head goes, but at the same time he's had Batman on the brain for two days straight. So maybe it's not that surprising that he opens his mouth and finds himself saying, "You were the commander."
"But Batman used the ship. Batman repaired my—I mean, the Superman suit."
"He did," Diana confirms. "He agreed that command should fall to me. He did need my authorization before the ship would follow his instructions, but I was able to give it by satellite radio."
"He didn't take it?" It seems bizarre. Somebody who'd believed the worst of Clark, thought his abilities were a threat, just—letting someone else have full control of something as powerful as the ship? After seeing what the genesis chamber was capable of—
"He saw what Luthor did with it," Diana says. "Clark, you have to understand: what he feared in you he also fears profoundly in himself."
Clark can't help shaking his head, disbelieving. He remembers a lot of things about that fight, but not Batman's fear—if anything, the lack of it had been the striking thing. Batman had been human, going up against Superman, and yet he'd hardly flinched. "And you're sure we're talking about the same Batman."
Diana's silent for a long moment. And then she says, very low, "Fear makes people quick to judgment. Quick to violence. But you know that already, Clark. Isn't that why you killed General Zod the first time? Because you feared what he would do otherwise?"
"I—sort of," Clark admits, and then shakes his head again, closing his eyes for a second against the memory of Zod's neck under his hands, the sound of it. "But that doesn't have anything to do with Batman."
Diana looks at him, and then—for a second he thinks she just has an itch or something, ungraceful as that sounds, the way she tucks a finger under the edge of the slim belt at her waist. But when she pulls her hand back out, there's something wound through her fingers, gleaming gold.
(Clark eyes the belt. It doesn't look anywhere near wide enough to hide the entire length of the lasso, which apparently is wrapped around Diana's waist underneath it. Then again: magic.)
"I'm not lying—"
"I didn't say you were," Diana says, very gently. "But I think perhaps you aren't sure exactly what the truth is."
With the lasso across her palm, she holds out her hand; and after a second Clark takes it. It's Diana. There's nothing to worry about.
"I was upset," he tells her baldly, and the lasso makes the words come so easily: less a forced confession than a relief. "Those pictures of my mom that Luthor had, it was—and I tried to talk to Batman first, but he just wouldn't listen to me.
"And he was right there. I couldn't hit Luthor; but I could hit him. I did hit him. I could have stopped, but I didn't want to, because I was—"
—angry. That's what he's going to say, that's how the sentence ends: I was angry. Angry, and Clark is thinking it when he opens his mouth, but somehow that's not what comes out.
"—afraid." And this is the flip side of the relief the lasso offers—once the dam's broken, you can't be sure how much will flood out. "I was afraid. I didn't want to stop hurting him. I told myself it was all right, that I knew where to draw the line, that I would stop anyway when it came down to it. But with me it would only take one mistake. Every single time I touched him, I could have killed him," and he doesn't even know whether he's talking about Batman or about Bruce—
"You didn't," Diana says, low and steady and sure, and eases her hand out of Clark's, and the lasso with it. "He's all right."
Nothing's compelling Clark anymore. But he says it anyway: "He doesn't trust me. He shouldn't. I was doing the wrong thing and I knew it, and I did it anyway."
Diana doesn't hesitate; that's not the right word. She pauses, precise and deliberate. And then she says, "It was important to him, fixing your suit. It meant something to him to do that—for your mother's sake, but also for yours. He regrets what happened to you, Clark, and in his own way he tried to make what amends he could. There's no reason you can't do the same." She reaches out again—not with the lasso, this time, but just to touch him. Just to hold his hand. "I told you that the thing he feared in you, he fears in himself. Maybe I should have said that the thing he condemned in you, he feared in himself; and maybe you're a little more like him than you realize."
She isn't wrong. Once the ship's accepted Clark as its commander, they fly back to Metropolis through the sunset; and then Clark goes back to his apartment and digs out one folder in particular from Mom's boxes.
He'd never gotten the chance to pull together that exposé he'd wanted to run on Batman. But all the material he'd collected for it is still here—Mom had packed it up, or Lois, and put it away in the farmhouse basement with the rest of his things. Photos, clippings from the odd past article that had popped up in the Gotham Gazette, printouts of city files and tables of crime statistics, his own scribbled notes.
He flips through it all slowly, a piece at a time. He remembers how it had felt, collecting it: that certainty, that determination, that fiery righteousness. Batman was doing bad things, wrong things, and—
(—and I knew it, and I did it anyway—)
And had to have known it; and had been doing them anyway.
It had been so easy to hate him for it—to be sure about it, unwavering, absolute. But that had been before half the country had started to believe Clark had murdered everyone in Nairomi, before Clark himself had begun to think he really had let that bomb go off through his own carelessness. Certainty had been comfortable: Batman being wrong and Clark being right had been straightforward, clear-cut. Clark hadn't had to worry about whether he was doing a good thing, whether he was making the right choice—he hadn't had to think about whether he was causing more problems than he was solving, or hurting someone who didn't deserve to be hurt. He hadn't had to be afraid of himself.
He gets to the end of the file, flips it all back over so he's at the front again. On top is a picture cut out of the newspaper, clipped onto a photo from the M.E. at the prison: that bat-shaped brand on Cesar Santos's chest.
Does Batman regret that, too?
Maybe it's time to find out.
(Clark passes the penthouse on his way to Gotham. And he's been trying to give Bruce a little room to breathe; but he still can't keep himself from pausing to listen before he flies past.
Nothing. That makes three nights in a row Bruce hasn't even been in the penthouse. Maybe it's caught up to him now—the nightmare, and what Clark did to him because of it. Maybe he's staying away so he doesn't have to see Clark—
Or maybe he's on a business trip. Maybe he's unexpectedly had to work a couple nights. Clark needs to focus on Batman right now, and not build this thing with Bruce up in his head so it looks worse than it is.)
He lands in an alley, diving around the side of an awning, and then he dusts himself off and starts walking. Part of the problem last time, he's starting to think, is that he'd shown up as Superman—as though he did intend to interfere with Batman's work, as though it were somehow League business. And it is, in a way, but mostly it's their business.
He's hoping Batman will mind a little less if Clark Kent comes to Gotham instead.
It's a nice night. He finds himself humming a little bit as he walks, pushing his glasses up his nose and then squinting up at the stars, which are just coming out: there's a big bright one, the tint of light coming from it just a little blue, blocked out by the corner of a tall building and then visible again, and then blocked. Clark catches sight of it again, absently stepping sideways a little so the guy behind him on the sidewalk can go around—
Clark had just thought the guy was in a hurry. But no: he was trying to catch up to Clark, and now he has a hand on Clark's shoulder and something pressing into Clark's back at about kidney level. Clark obediently holds still, lifting his hands to show the guy there's nothing in them, and tries to figure out what it is—mouth of a gun? The end of a length of pipe? It's surprisingly hard to tell through his jacket.
And then the guy, shaky, presses harder, and Clark feels the jacket part under it. Knife. Definitely a knife.
"Just don't move," the guy repeats. "All I want is, like, a wallet, okay? You give me that, we're good—you're out a few bucks, you got some credit cards to cancel, but nobody dies and nobody gets life in prison. Good for me, good for you. Understand?"
"Sure," Clark says, and then wonders whether he should have screamed instead.
But maybe there aren't a lot of good reasons for people to shout Don't move! in Gotham at night, because apparently that's enough.
Batman drops onto the sidewalk ahead of them in a rush of air and shadows, and the loudest thing about it is the swish of his cape—does he practice that? Does he go home and keep the boots on and just jump off of stuff over and over, until he can land quietly enough to meet his own standards?
He's tense, ready for trouble, which makes it easy to see the exact moment when he realizes who he's looking at. His shoulders go back and his chin comes up, and it's probably inaudible to the mugger, but Clark can hear the irritated huff of breath.
And Batman probably can't hear the mugger hiss, "Oh, shit," as well as Clark can. But he can definitely hear the guy say, "Look, don't come any closer. I will totally kill him," as he jerks Clark toward himself and shoves the knife a little harder against Clark's back.
"I don't think you will," Batman says, flat.
"What, you saying I'm not serious, here? Because I am completely serious, man—uh, Batman—"
"Let me rephrase," Batman says. "I don't think you can."
The guy's grip loosens a little, his indignant focus for a moment all on Batman. Clark blurs out from under his arm, and takes a second to carefully wrap his hand around the knife before he slows down again, so that when the guy startles—
—he doesn't hurt himself with it.
"Sorry," Clark tells him, "I actually don't have my wallet with me. But, uh," and he sticks his free hand in his pocket and feels around. "I've got a couple twenties?"
The guy stares at him, blinking, and then at the dollar bills. He makes a grab for them, seeming almost surprised when Clark doesn't pull them back, and for a second it's like he can't decide what to do. He tugs a little on the knife, watching almost curiously as it stubbornly fails to go through or into Clark's hand; and then he tugs on the bills and successfully comes away with them, and that seems to settle it.
"Okay, then," he says slowly. "You keep the knife, and you have yourself a nice conversation with your buddy Batman, and I'll just—leave."
"Okay," Clark agrees, genial, and watches him back away a few steps before he turns and starts to jog, still shooting bewildered glances at Clark over his shoulder.
And—miraculously—Batman's still there when Clark turns back around.
"It's actually a nice knife," Clark tells him, and flips it demonstratively in his hand. He's not that good with knives, outside what Mom's taught him in the kitchen, but this one seems to have a pretty good balance to it.
He tosses it to Batman, underhand, hilt first; and even with Superman's night vision, he can't quite see what Batman does to make it vanish. "What are you doing here," Batman says, and it's definitely not a question.
Clark answers it anyway. "I just want to talk to you."
Batman seems unmoved. "What is there to talk about?"
Clark stares at him. "... That thing where we tried to kill each other?"
"It's over. You agreed to work with the League. There's nothing else to say."
He sounds steady, confident, which is fascinating considering he's also incredibly wrong. "Really? That's good enough for you?" Clark prods. "Because I don't want to just agree. If we're really going to work together, I want us to trust each other—to be able to depend on each other. I think that matters."
Batman doesn't answer with anything but stern silence.
But he also doesn't climb away up the side of the nearest building. That must count for something.
And Clark had a point he wanted to make. Right. "I'm guessing you know by now that Luthor went to a lot of effort to make me look bad to you. I assume he was doing something pretty similar to make you look bad to me. But Cesar Santos—"
The first test: inconclusive. Batman doesn't ask for clarification, doesn't say Who? But he doesn't fill in the pause Clark leaves after, so maybe he doesn't remember after all.
"One of the criminals you branded," Clark elaborates, just in case; and he sticks a hand in his jacket pocket and pulls out the M.E.'s photo. "The one who died. The death was Luthor, but the rest wasn't, was it? You did that."
Clark waits a moment, but he doesn't go on. Which is fine. Clark can play this game. "Why?"
Batman looks away—or the cowl does, at least. At this angle it's hard to see his eyes clearly.
And then he looks back at Clark, and says, "Because I didn't care that I shouldn't." The dark head tilts. "Still want to work with me?"
He means it as a jab; but Clark can't help smiling. That was the second test.
"But you do care now."
"You haven't done it since then," Clark tells him—he already knows, obviously, but he needs to know that Clark knows, too. "I checked." The photo wasn't the only thing in his jacket pocket: he pulls out the handful of clippings, the befores from his folder and the afters he just spent a half-hour cutting out, with his own notes around the edges in Sharpie. "Seventeen of them—Santos was the eighteenth—and then you just stopped. Better part of a year, now, and not one single writeup about you even mentions branding, never mind another picture like this." He flutters the photo of Santos's chest in Batman's direction. "It does matter to you, to not do things that are wrong.
"What you did to Santos was a mistake; and you know it, and you haven't made it again. And what you—what you tried to do to me was a mistake, too. But you took care of my mother. You fixed my suit. You know it was a mistake, and you aren't going to make it again.
"So," Clark concludes, "I think I can work with you just fine."
"You don't know what you're talking about," Batman says, but for once it comes out sounding almost gentle.
"Yes, I do," Clark says. Dad, Zod, Batman—the nightmare with Bruce. Clark's made all kinds of mistakes. "I do. I do things wrong all the time. But I try not to do them again. You keep on—saying five words at a time and not looking me in the eye, whatever you want to do. That's fine. But you're part of a team with me now, and I'm not going to believe the worst of you anymore. I can do better than that, and so can you."
Batman is silent for a long time, but Clark doesn't mind. It's a nice night, after all.
And then he does say, very quietly, "You're wrong. But I'll try to make sure you don't suffer for it."
And then—of course—quick as anything, he leaps for the cornice just above him, swings up and over the edge of the molding in a sweep of blackness, and is gone.
He needs to break things off with Clark. He does. He can see that clear as daylight. Letting this go on any longer is a mistake and he knows it—
(—and you aren't going to make it again. It does matter to you, to not do things that are wrong—)
—but it's so hard to know where to begin. Bruce has always had an eye for tactics, a habit of planning things down to the smallest detail; but this, he can't figure out. This, he's stumbling through as if blindfolded. And he's starting to realize that if he had the self-control he needs to get him out of this, he wouldn't have gotten into it in the first place.
Meditation, deprivation, years of study and struggle and simple suffering, have rendered him capable of ignoring or compensating for all kinds of bodily needs or outright injuries. Batman is thrown off a building on Tuesday, struck right on the join between two plates of body armor with a length of pipe on Wednesday—but the thing that hits him hard, the thing that sends him mindlessly fleeing back to the Cave on Thursday, is that quiet conversation with Clark.
Batman is still successfully keeping Clark at a distance. But Bruce's judgment, Bruce's margin of error, are paying for it: Clark was tentative with Bruce Wayne the morning after the nightmare, hasn't come back to the penthouse since, and Bruce discovers, terrifyingly, that he can't stand it.
He has no strategy for fighting this kind of weakness in himself. He's never needed one before. But for the first time he can remember, the strict application of willpower is utterly failing him. It's addiction, unconquerable impulse, an endless raw hunger clawing out a hollow in him that he has no way to fill.
(How can the sensation of emptiness weigh so much?)
He should be glad Clark has suddenly put Bruce Wayne at arm's length, but he isn't.
He doesn't go out on patrol on Friday. He goes to the penthouse, and he stands out on the balcony when the sun gets low, and he turns his face into the wind and says, "Clark."
And whatever Bruce Wayne did wrong, Clark does still have an ear on the penthouse. Seeing that blur in the air, watching it slow and pull up close and resolve itself into Clark, adjusting his glasses with a tentative smile—
In that moment, it's almost like Clark does forgive him.
(Except, of course, he doesn't.
He doesn't know he needs to. He doesn't know Bruce Wayne's done anything that needs forgiving; and once he does know, he's not going to want to.)
He should let Clark stay uncertain, unsure. He shouldn't smile at him so warmly, shouldn't reach out over the balcony railing for him with such helpless panting eagerness. But he's still not sure why Clark's acting so strange—and if it's because he suspects something, even subconsciously, then Bruce has to cajole him out of it. There's no other solution.
(Except breaking it off; except sending him away; except telling him and then watching him leave on his own. But those aren't solutions.
Solutions need to be possible. Solutions need to be things Bruce is certain he's capable of.)
"I think I was starting to forget what you looked like," Bruce Wayne says with a smirk, hands sliding up Clark's forearms. A joke, just a joke, because it's only been three days.
(A joke—because Bruce can picture Clark's face too easily, does it too often, to forget one single thing about it.)
"I was in the neighborhood yesterday," Clark says, leaning in to put his arms around Bruce's neck even though he's still on the wrong side of the balcony railing, standing on nothing. "Didn't see you, though."
Must have been just a little too late. Bruce had convinced himself not to wait for Clark all night, not if Clark wasn't going to show yet again—to go on patrol instead, since he'd skipped it too many times already. "Work," Bruce says dismissively, something in his chest easing at the weight of Clark's arms on his shoulders, the sheer undeniable reality of Clark right in front of him.
Clark grins at him. "How very responsible of you, Mr. Wayne," he murmurs, tilting his head; and then, quite literally, he sweeps Bruce off his feet.
In point of fact, Clark is multiple hackneyed romantic turns of phrase made real. Bruce's head spins—along with the rest of him—as Clark drags their mouths together and barrel-rolls them in the air at the same moment; it's too fast for Bruce to even feel the absence, but he must lift a hand away for an instant to open the balcony door. Bruce catalogs the impressions as they come, freeze-framed bursts: the rush of air around them, the brief billowed shape of the drapes being blown aside, the light rollercoaster lurch of his gut as they slow again, as Clark settles them to rest on the sofa—
Convenient. Clark can fly sideways, so they're already prone.
And it's so easy to let go. Clark's underneath, but Bruce doesn't have to be careful—it's not as though he can't take Bruce's weight. Bruce can close his eyes and relax into Clark, the heat and the steady solid mass of him, can bite into Clark's lip and shove his hands into Clark's hair and just kiss him and kiss him. It doesn't feel like it's been three days; it feels like it's been three months, three years—
It happens precisely because he's not expecting it. Because he's allowed himself to get distracted, to sink so far into the sensation of touching Clark again that he utterly loses track of what Clark's doing, where his hands are.
He's still Batman. He can control himself well enough not to make a noise. But the reflexive tension, the flinch, follows the pain so closely—and Bruce's mind is too far away to slip in between.
Wednesday, the pipe: a bruised rib, with accompanying contusions just starting to bloom purple over it. Far enough to the side that he should have been fine; except Clark's unbuttoned his shirt all the way, shoved it off one shoulder before running his hand down Bruce's side.
It's just luck he picked the right shoulder instead of the left.
Clark breaks away, and Bruce had been so impatient—there's still plenty of light left, the sun not even done setting. Clark would be able to get a good look at it even if he weren't Superman.
"Jesus, Bruce," Clark says, wincing in sympathy; he probably doesn't even know what a bruise feels like, but he does at least understand pain.
(The look on his face when Bruce had set that spear to his cheek and cut—)
And then something begins to come over his face, and Bruce braces himself—except it isn't confusion or suspicion, isn't anger.
It's a slow, cold, dawning fear.
"Jesus, Bruce," Clark whispers, staring up at him. "Did I do that?"
For a long moment, Bruce can't even process the question in a way that makes sense. Did Clark do what? Touch the bruise? The answer is obviously yes, or they wouldn't even be having this conversation—
That's when it hits him.
One of Clark's elbows had landed there, or near enough, when he'd slammed Bruce into the bedroom wall.
He hadn't done any damage. Bruce's back had been a little sore afterward, a little stiff; he'd stretched for a minute or two longer than usual before heading out on patrol, and hadn't thought any more about it. Clark hadn't hurt him. And for all that he's aware of exactly what Superman is capable of, he's never worried that Clark would.
Which is probably one of the glaring reasons why he'd somehow managed to miss this.
This is—this is everything he could possibly have asked for, above and beyond the perfect way to explain away the bruising. Not half an hour ago, he'd been standing around wondering to himself why Clark had been acting strangely, keeping his distance with Bruce, and telling himself in the same breath that he couldn't see his way clear to bringing this thing between them to an end, that Batman for once had no plan. And now one's been dropped in his lap—has been sitting there waiting for him to notice it since the night Clark had that dream.
If Bruce tells him the bruise was his fault, Clark won't question it. Clark's afraid of hurting him, and has had that worry eating at him for three days, and now here it is writ large in front of him. It's a blow he won't recover from easily, something he won't be able to set aside or move past—something that could make him decide to leave Bruce Wayne entirely without Bruce even needing to push the issue, whether he wants to keep sleeping with Bruce or not.
All Bruce has to do is say yes.
Clark's still staring at him, with a sick stricken look like nothing kryptonite has ever put on his face, a tremor in that invulnerable hand as he freezes with it just an inch shy of Bruce's rib, right over the spot where purple deepens to something more like black.
"No," Bruce says. "No, it wasn't you. You didn't do that, Clark, it's okay."
Clark heaves in a breath, fast and shuddering, and then a slower one; and then he closes his eyes and rubs a hand over his face. "God. Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," Bruce tells him.
Clark tugs him down and kisses him again, more gently, and then pushes Bruce up and away just a little to ask, "Is it weird to say I'm glad? What did happen—are your ribs okay?"
"I'm fine, I swear," Bruce says, leaning down to press his forehead against Clark's. "Polo happened."
"Polo," Bruce repeats. "Bored rich people, horses, really really big mallets—"
"Are you serious?" Clark says, mouth twitching, like he's not sure whether he's allowed to laugh.
Bruce affects an insulted look. "Hey, you get some heiress a little tipsy, put her up on one of those ponies and give her a four-foot-long hammer, she can do some real damage. A stray swing from one of those things at a canter is nothing to sneeze at, Mr. Kent."
That does it: Clark cracks a grin, and then tilts his head back into the arm of the sofa and laughs. A decent enough distraction—but that was a close call. Tonight's not a night to gamble.
"And now that the mood's been killed stone-dead," Bruce says dryly, shrugging the dress shirt back on over his bared shoulder, "I suppose I might as well ask. Have you eaten?"
"I feel like I should make some kind of joke about trying mouth-to-mouth resuscitation before we give up hope," Clark muses, settling his hands onto Bruce's hips; but then he ducks his head and admits, "No."
"Dinner, then," Bruce says. "We'll order in. What are you in the mood for? Steak?"
"... Do steak places do delivery?"
"When I ask them to, they do," Bruce tells Clark, with an arrogant little wink; and Clark laughs and then, in a rush, one hand careful at the back of Bruce's head, tilts his hips and topples them both onto the floor.
In the end, it takes another fifteen minutes for Bruce to actually get to the phone.
Clark's not sure what's wrong.
Frankly he almost wishes it were a League problem, something he could solve with a little of Superman's strength or a quick blast of the laser vision—something Diana could lop in half with her sword.
But everything with the League is actually fine. The sighting of Superman at the bank has obviously raised their visibility, and now that there's more than two people involved, it makes sense for them to ramp things up, go a little more public. Which is good, as it turns out, because it's not long before somebody in some kind of weird armor appears over Gotham yelling about time travel and blasting things with a really loud pulse gun. Clark can't decide which is weirder: that, or the fact that Batman actually asks for their help dealing with it.
And when they get there, everything goes fine, too. Diana is steady, agelessly calm—and Clark struggles a little to manage the sound coming from that gun, but Diana takes its pulses right on her shield and doesn't flinch. And Batman—well. He's still not really saying more than ten words to Clark at a time. But this time around, eight of those words get used to point out the armor's likeliest weak point. Clark'll take it.
Clark does get in Diana's way once; and Batman gets knocked backward off a roof so hard Clark almost breaks away from the fight to dive for him, until that good old hiss-thunk registers through the background noise. But overall, they really do manage to function as a team, just like they did before Clark died—and presumably with a little more practice together, they'll only get better.
So everything to do with the League is actually great.
The problem, whatever it is, is with Bruce.
It's not that he doesn't believe Bruce, about the bruise and everything. Bruce had told him he hadn't done that and had meant it. But Bruce also—he changes, and Clark's not sure what else could have caused it.
Clark had thought—well. He supposes he shouldn't be surprised if the nightmare set things back a little bit. But it had felt like they were—they were getting somewhere that night, they were inching that much closer to becoming something. The way Bruce had touched him, undressed him, lingered over him; god, he's squirming just remembering it. First it had surprised the hell out of him, because they'd never—they hadn't done it that way before. And then it had—
Having sex with Bruce has always been easy and fun, and Clark has always liked it. Even back when he'd felt kind of guilty about it—that had been because he'd liked it so much. He hadn't been able to convince himself to stop, even though a part of him had still felt like nothing was a real relationship unless it happened the same way he and Lois had happened, followed all the same steps.
But after Clark had finished being surprised about the way Bruce was touching him, he'd found that it struck him somewhere deep: Bruce being that careful and slow, that tender. He'd found himself thinking for the first time that he could fall in love with Bruce—and then, afterward, still hot and dazed and shuddering with it, that maybe he already had.
And now there's something wrong.
If that night hadn't happened, Clark might not even have noticed. At least not right away. But now that he's felt that sense of something larger between them, that sudden profound potential, it's easy to tell that Bruce is trying to stifle it.
Not that he's obvious about it. He's just—building a distance into all this, creating a gap where there's never been one before. He doesn't reach for Clark right away, doesn't lean into him as readily; smirks more, but smiles less. Clark doesn't find him waiting in the penthouse anymore: instead he's on the phone, on his laptop, busy, his mind somewhere else.
And afterward—the first couple times, Clark had gone to the west bedroom on his own, unwilling to push things when for all he knew he would wake up having hurled Bruce out the window. But he doesn't have another nightmare—hasn't, since that talk with Batman on the sidewalk. And he tells Bruce as much; and then, the night after, he deliberately misses his cue to get up, and pretends to fall asleep in the master bed instead.
Bruce doesn't lie back down, doesn't stay. He goes to the west bedroom instead, and leaves Clark there in the dark.
He gets weird, brusque, dismissive. He never lets Clark unbutton his shirt again—and sometimes it's hard not to think that all this must be about the bruise somehow, because Clark's not sure what else could be behind it. The nightmare seems more likely, but the timing doesn't match up. Does it? Bruce had been normal that evening—at least for Bruce—until Clark had gotten his shirt halfway off. Hadn't he? Or maybe it's been going on longer than that. Clark tries to remember another time when he'd been focused enough to get Bruce out of his clothes, and can't do it—maybe Bruce has some kind of issue with being stripped down by someone else but doesn't like to talk about it, and has been trying not to make a big deal out of it. Clark can't come up with anything else.
He'd thought at first, with a sick cold feeling, that Bruce maybe wanted to call things off, or at least was working up to it. Sometimes he still does think so. Except—
Except when he touches Bruce, kisses Bruce, it all stops. However far away from the balcony Bruce is when Clark arrives, however frustrated he sounds talking into the phone—once Clark gets a hand on him, gets an arm around his back or rubs a thumb up over his jaw, everything feels almost like it's fine again. Bruce kisses him harder now, if anything, longer, more deeply; one time they don't actually have sex at all, they just kiss on the sofa for—for hours, it must be, for longer than Clark's ever kissed anyone.
But then Bruce will get out of reach, will withdraw in that indefinable way, and everything will go off-kilter again. Clark doesn't know what to do about it except reach for him harder, hold on all the tighter—but that won't work forever.
(A tornado, he can't help thinking, would almost have been easier. He's older now, he understands himself better; if Bruce tried to wave him off like Dad had, he'd ignore it. He could close his hands around Bruce and not let go, and that's all it would take. That's all he'd have to do to fix it.
If Clark really were God the way Luthor had kept saying, he'd have made sure relationships functioned as predictably as physics.)
Diana Prince does something—or maybe whoever's behind Batman's cowl does—and what the Justice League did in Gotham is news under precisely that name, a big splashy profile on each of them making the rounds. The photos of Diana and Clark are pretty blurry, and there's only a smeared half-image of something that could be Batman moving along a roofline, but put together, it lines things up pretty convincingly. Half of it is taken up with SUPERMAN RESURRECTED—not much had actually come out of the incident at the First Metropolitan but some bad smartphone video on the 24-hour news and a lot of clickbait. Way more people saw the fight in Gotham.
And maybe it's because of the publicity—maybe claiming to be organized, prepared, makes them more tempting. Maybe it's coincidence. But one way or another, a whole bunch of Justice-League-sized problems seem to come right out of the woodwork.
"I thought you two had already taken care of these things," Clark says, punching a robot into the two others behind it hard enough that all three of them fall down.
"So did I," Diana says, and then she pauses to swing the shield around and down, cutting neatly through a robot's arm with the edge. "But I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. Why should Luthor have satisfied himself with only one building full of malfunctioning robots, when he could have two?"
"It's true," Clark admits. "Of all the things I remember about that guy, his sense of restraint isn't high on the list."
He catches another robot just starting to lunge at him and heaves it overhead and around, into—but very carefully not through—the wall of the building next to them. It strikes almost high enough along the side to knock a second robot off where it's started to climb up.
Almost. But not quite.
"Go on," Diana says, and throws him a grin over her shoulder before driving her sword into a robot so far that it comes out the other side. "I can hold the street for a minute or two without you."
It's a pleasure to lift off, to get to use at least one power fully—they've been trying to handle the robots without causing too much extra damage, focusing more on keeping the situation contained than on fighting quickly.
Batman is already three-quarters of the way up the building next door; which is taller, so he's actually at about the same height as the roof Clark and the robot are headed for.
"How did you get up here faster than it did?" Clark says into the radio.
(Batman had insisted. Super senses were all well and good, but it didn't matter how well Clark and Diana could hear him if he couldn't hear their replies.)
"I had a head start," Batman says, and then, almost to himself, "They seem to like roofs."
"And that could be important—"
Clark lands on the roof, and the robot goes for him all at once: metal clanging, gyros whirring somewhere inside it, electrical connections snapping and hissing and vibrating.
So he almost doesn't hear Batman say, low and sharp, "Scope."
"What?" Clark says, holding one of the robot's grappling arms out of the way while he tries to remember what Batman had said about their power sources. Under the panel with the grille, right?
"Scope," Batman says.
For a second Clark's hearing blows wide, an almost reflexive attempt to figure out what the hell Batman's talking about; and mixed in with the whole sudden glorious rush of sound, there is something unusual: the lightest, gentlest little click, off up somewhere where nobody should be, where no one else is except one person—
And then it's like he hears it all at once. The flat sharp crack, and the thud, the impact itself and then a shudderingly loud echo, when Clark is listening like this, as Batman hits the roof.
The panel's already come away in Clark's hand, another moment and the robot is down—but it's a moment too long. Batman came tearing through the air at a desperate flat angle, not straight along the line of the roof but rather cutting across a corner, and at the speed he's going, there's not enough roof left for him to skid to a stop. Clark sees one gloved hand fly out, and then he drops, and Clark's already in the air.
At first he thinks it's worry, the way he's shaky when they land—the way he wobbled in the air, how hard he had to concentrate to come down without his feet going through the pavement by mistake.
But then he sets Batman down, kneeling over him, and Batman shoves him; and Clark is about to yell at him to just let Clark help already, and that's when he catches a glimmer of green.
He just stares for a second, catching up: the robot leading him away, and—and scope, Batman had said, like a rifle scope, like a sniper scope, and a kryptonite bullet—?
There's a crash somewhere, and Clark's ready to ignore it except a moment later he realizes that it was the last robot dropping at Diana's hand. "What happened?" she says, kneeling into place across from Clark, clear concerned gaze on Batman's face.
"Bullet," Batman says. "Kryptonite."
(At least he's not any more generous with his words for Diana than for Clark. Very even-handed of him.)
"Lodged in the rib," he adds.
"Did you get shot on purpose?" Clark demands. If this is Batman's idea of a "sorry I tried to murder you" present—
"Not worse than any other bullet," Batman says. "Not for me."
"I could have dodged it—"
"And let it hit someone in the building across the street?" Batman murmurs.
"—or caught it—"
"All right, all right," Diana says, and then reaches out: blood is seeping out of Batman's armor in a steady dark trickle, a faint green light flickering out here and there underneath. She presses her hand over it, pushing down harder than any human could. And under the cowl, Batman's chin goes white and tense; but no blood leaks out from under Diana's hand. "I think it would be best if you weren't carrying him, Clark," she adds, working her free hand around and under Batman's shoulders.
And Clark wants to argue—it's not that much kryptonite; it might have made a mess if it had hit him, but buried in Batman's side like that, he can hardly even feel it, and he's less than a foot away.
But Batman just saved him, and the last thing Clark should be doing about that is taking the risk of dropping him.
"Okay," Clark says. "Okay. I'll—uh, clean up these robot bits. Wait for the police."
"The fun part," Diana agrees, gentle.
Clark looks down at her hand, at Batman's blood on her knuckles; and then at the cowl, the dark eyes. That blank face still makes him think of nightmares—but there's somebody under it who just got shot for him. "Thank you," Clark says, touching Batman's shoulder. And then he gets up and turns away and makes himself not watch, not listen, as they leave.
Diana very politely doesn't tell him he's an idiot. Alfred probably does at some point, but his biting commentary goes mostly unappreciated; Bruce lies there and keeps his hands relaxed, breathes calm and smooth and slow when Diana has to step in to pull that gleaming green bullet free of the bone, and stares at the ceiling. He should be thinking about the shooter, whoever had been waiting up there for Superman, the robots. But there's only one thing in his head.
He can't let Clark touch him.
Bruce Wayne can be struck by a stray polo mallet, but he can't get shot out of nowhere; and there's absolutely no way Clark won't notice. There's a bullet wound in Bruce's side and his rib is cracked, if not fully fractured—it'll take weeks to heal. Bruce Wayne can't disappear for that long, and doesn't even need to: he can handle the demands of his position at Wayne Enterprises like this without too much trouble, and skipping a few meetings, ignoring a few invitations, just makes him look appropriately rude and unreliable. None of that is a problem.
The only problem is Clark.
And there's no short-term solution. Whether Bruce allows Alfred to talk him into using medication or not—either he'll be drugged, judgment in tatters, unfit for company, or else the pain will be dogging him with every step, every movement. Even he can't act that away. Even at his absolute best, he couldn't, and he's no longer at his best with Clark in any case.
Diana seems to have reached the same conclusion. When she's got the bullet out—a little superstrength was enough to ease it loose—she moves out of Alfred's way to let him start cleaning up. Which means she's free to step around to the other side of the table, take Bruce's hand, and say quietly, "He has to be told."
Ominous words, coming from an Amazon who favors action over hesitation. "But you won't tell him."
Diana's mouth goes flat. "I made a promise," she agrees slowly, "and I won't break it. The truth shouldn't come from me—because it needs to come from you, Bruce."
"It will," Bruce says, because he does recognize the inevitability of it. He does. But if he can only figure out how best to manage it, how best to control it— "But this isn't the right time."
"Bruce," Diana says, as if that's a sentence in itself; and then she squeezes his hand. "Bruce, for some things—there is no right time. There is only a moment when you know it will be your choice, and a moment when it will not be. And if you don't find one yourself, then the other will find you, and you won't be ready for it."
Bruce closes his eyes.
He can practically feel the glance Diana and Alfred exchange over him. And then Alfred clears his throat and touches Bruce's side just above the gauze, and says, "There's quite an impressive hole in you, Master Wayne. I realize you don't enjoy resting, but I would advise it for the moment."
"Thank you, Alfred," Bruce says.
Whatever they think of it, the path ahead of him is perfectly clear. Telling Clark now would be—Batman was just shot, in an effort to save Superman from worse. Having lied to Clark for weeks, months, and then telling him now, at the precise moment when he's most likely to feel like he owes Batman something; as if that bullet were a chip to bargain with, as if Clark's gratitude could be cashed in on. The thought alone puts a sick sour taste in the back of Bruce's throat.
(Clark will be angry. Clark will be right to be angry. Leashing that anger with a chain of a gauge as heavy as obligation—because Clark wants to do what's right, Clark doesn't want to be unfair; anyone who's spent five minutes with him knows this about him—would be almost as unforgivable a manipulation as the lying itself.
Almost as unforgivable: except Clark would forgive it, for someone who'd put themselves between him and a sniper's rifle. That's exactly why Bruce can't let him.)
Bruce has already started laying the groundwork, because Batman might be salvageable but Bruce Wayne was never going to come out of this clean. And he's already well aware that Bruce Wayne has to be the asshole—this can't be an amicable, no-fault kind of proceeding. He'd already known he would have to break things off in a way that gave Clark no reason to look back, nothing to regret; just a dickbag ex-hookup he was better off without.
Given today's events, the timetable will have to be accelerated. That's all.
Clark is a creature of habit; it makes him predictable. It's easy enough to ensure that Bruce Wayne is in the middle of a conversation on the phone when he arrives. And he's considerate—of course he is. He doesn't just barge in, doesn't make noise or insist on Bruce's attention.
But acknowledging that isn't how this plays out. Bruce laughs into the phone, and then shoots Clark a quick sharp glance, a grimace: divorcing one as clearly as possible from the other, making it obvious that the second reaction is for Clark alone. He puts out a hand, too, to hold Clark at bay, as if finishing the conversation is what's more important to him. Two more quick, meaningless responses, and then all Bruce has to do is follow his own self-imposed stage directions. He glances again at Clark, flattens his mouth, makes a little considering face, and says into the phone, "Actually, Jerry, hold on—I'll call you back. Five minutes. Yeah, of course, you too."
He swipes off the phone without looking down at it, and balances his expression carefully: not harried, Bruce Wayne doesn't work hard enough for that. Petulant; frustrated; inconvenienced.
"This is the third time in a week, Clark—"
"Sorry," Clark says instantly, with a small smile. He's realized Bruce is in an off mood, and is trying not to make it worse.
For all the good it'll do him.
"I didn't mean to interrupt or anything. I don't mind waiting—or, uh," he adds, having no trouble interpreting the flicker that crosses Bruce's face, "I can come back?"
Bruce pauses like he's considering it, and then shakes his head quick. "No, no," he says, and then stops and sighs, like he's trying to figure out how to start.
(He isn't, of course. Bruce knows how this goes, plus or minus a little improvisation here and there. He's had it worked out for days now.)
"Look, it was nice for a while, okay? But this is starting to add up to more trouble than it's worth."
Clark had started moving toward him; but he stops after a step, brow furrowing. "This," he repeats slowly.
Bruce waves a hand between them, vague and careless. "You know. You. This. It's been great, it's been fun—and you have some extremely enjoyable assets, don't get me wrong—"
It's been a while since Bruce Wayne has been deliberately crass in Clark's direction—at least while standing apart from him, not touching him, and with that obnoxious showman's voice instead of flirtatious, fond. Clark doesn't quite rear back from it; but he shifts his weight uncomfortably, away from Bruce instead of toward him, and there's a dark embarrassed red creeping up the sides of his throat.
"—but you know how it goes," Bruce continues over his shoulder, turning away to set the phone down on an end table. "You try something new, you like it, but after a while it just gets sort of boring."
He looks back around, and Clark is looking back at him, uncertain. Still hoping he's somehow misunderstood this. "Boring," he echoes, and then shakes his head and takes another step, reaching out. "Bruce—"
(Clark can't touch him. He'll never be able to get this out if—Clark can't touch him—)
"What," Bruce says, affecting surprise, "one last hurrah for old times' sake? Didn't think that was your style, Clark. We'll have to make it quick, I have a dinner with a couple shareholders at—"
"One last—no," Clark says, and now, finally, anger is surfacing, bubbling up through the bewilderment.
(Forgiveness is what Bruce wants. He can admit that. But anger—anger's what he's earned. Anger is what's coming to him; and he has no one to blame but himself.)
"Suit yourself," Bruce says easily, as if it makes no difference.
Clark stares at him like—like Bruce is someone he's never seen before, like he's found a stranger looking out at him from Bruce's face. His gaze flicks over Bruce's expression, his relaxed stance, and then in a sudden cut sideways, to the phone. "Five minutes," he says.
Bruce shrugs, and checks his watch. "And look, it only took two and a half. Guess I overestimated."
"No," Clark says, very low. The flush is gone; he just looks pale now. "No. I think maybe I did." He takes one slow breath in, lets it out, and then says at a more normal volume, "Sorry for interrupting that phone call. I hope it wasn't too big an inconvenience."
He doesn't leave Bruce any time to answer: a rush of air, that muffled boom, and he's just gone.
He didn't close the balcony door behind him. Bruce looks out after him. The sky is blue and endless, and suddenly seems particularly far away.
A quick press of one hand under the suit jacket confirms what Bruce had been suspecting—he pulls it back out with a smear of red across the palm. He's bled through Alfred's bandage.
No wonder it hurts so much. Open wounds always do.
Of course, Clark is also stubborn. There's still a chance he could come back, wanting more answers or demanding a proper explanation. Bruce strategizes, decides what to say, what will be most likely to have the right effect; and he works his way steadily through Bruce Wayne's days in the office, and then heads back to the lake house to listen to Alfred scold him for overdoing it.
(He doesn't go back to the penthouse.)
He can dodge a lot of Bruce Wayne's commitments, but not all of them. He picks and chooses which ones to follow through with as tactically as possible: a charity dinner is a little too public to risk when he's still regularly discovering that he's bled through his shirt again. But a CEO doing a little publicity tour of the newest Wayne Technologies facility? It's his own turf; he can slip away if he needs to, and anyone who sees anything they shouldn't will be his employee anyway. A much more acceptable gamble to take.
Except, as gambles go, it turns out to be a pretty boring one. The technical manager has dumbed things down so far for Bruce Wayne's sake that her descriptions of the current projects being tackled by her staff are almost meaningless.
(She does hesitate a couple times, though, which implies that she actually knows the more complex explanation and is forcing herself not to give it. That's promising.)
Even Bruce Wayne probably can't get away with spinning around in his chair.
"Mmhmm," Bruce says instead, and after another two minutes, "Yes, I see," and then "Mmhmm," again; and then they finally get up. She smiles at him with professional coolness, and starts guiding him across the hall to head downstairs to the labs.
And that's when the first man with a gun appears.
Bruce Wayne can't react the way Batman would. But he can grab the manager's arm and pull her toward him, get his shoulder in front of her—the bravado of a man who's more impressed with himself than he should be. "On the floor," the man with the gun is yelling, "on the floor, now," and Bruce gets down carefully onto his knees and takes account of the information already available. The radio clipped on by the man's shoulder is the most important thing, because it means he's not alone. He hasn't just snapped and gone charging into an office building out of nowhere—this is some kind of organized effort to take the building.
And Bruce can only think of one reason why anyone would want to.
"Miranda, right?" he murmurs to the manager.
She gives him kind of a hairy eyeball; he smiles as engagingly as he can when he's got his hands up and somebody is waving a semi-automatic around twenty feet away, and after a second she says, "Yes, Mr. Wayne, that's right."
"Hi there," he says. "I have a confession to make: I wasn't really listening earlier. By any chance, is this the subdivision of Wayne Technologies that got tapped to liaise with Commissioner Gordon?"
"Uh—yes, Mr. Wayne, it is," Miranda says gamely.
"To contain those runaway LexCorp robots they've been seizing," Bruce elaborates.
Miranda's gaze cuts sideways to the gunman, and then back to Bruce. She may have caught his drift. "Yes, they're—most of them are downstairs. The Gotham PD evidence locker wasn't—"
"—secure enough, yes. I think somebody briefed me." Even from prison, Luthor just can't stop pulling strings: he must have heard about Superman, returned from the grave. And Batman had been his Plan A, Zod his Plan B—a kryptonite bullet, his Plan C. The piece Bruce had taken from him must not have been the only one he'd had retrieved from the ocean; just the largest.
(Had that sniper of his been crouched somewhere on Stryker's? Hidden in plain sight on one of those circling news helicopters? If they'd won the battle without losing Clark, would he just have gotten shot down in front of them instead?)
The robots had probably been an accident the first time—that electrical fault. Superman hadn't even shown up in public anywhere yet. There wouldn't have been any point to it. But the second time, they'd been bait. Bruce and Diana had showed up to deal with them once, that had been in the news; and Superman had joined up with them to form the League. What easier way to get him back out in uniform, at exactly the place and time you wanted him?
Bruce takes a deep breath, a second, and tries to stretch just a little, testing, as unobtrusively as possible. A spike of pain there, and—there. Not an optimal range of motion; but probably enough.
"On the floor," the guy is still yelling. "All the way down! On your stomachs, hands behind your heads—if your face isn't in that carpet in ten seconds I'm going to stand on it, understand me?"
"Yes, Mr. Wayne?"
"You seem like a great technical manager," Bruce tells her, "and I really don't want to have to replace you. Do what he says, lie down, and try not to get shot. Okay?"
"Okay," Miranda says, admirably steady. "And you—what are you going to do?"
"I'm going to tell you to please not ask me that," Bruce says, with a wink. "And one other thing, if you would: close your eyes."
Overestimated. That's a good word. Neutral. Clark hadn't made an idiot out of himself, hadn't completely lost perspective, hadn't let himself get carried away thinking—thinking things he had no business thinking.
He'd just overestimated. Literally: he'd thought there was more than there was.
Being angry is easy; he does that for a couple days. It wasn't that Bruce had really given him the wrong impression, technically—he'd never said they were dating, or implied commitment in so many words. And even if they had both agreed they were starting to get serious, it would still have been fair for Bruce to stop Clark, to tell him if it wasn't working and say he just wasn't interested anymore.
But the way he did it is—Clark had at least thought they were friends, for crying out loud. If he'd ever imagined it, he would have thought Bruce would—what? Set aside a little time for it: be waiting for Clark instead of on the phone when he arrived, knowing what was coming; sit down with him and explain, saying things like—
—the spark is gone, or I just can't see this going anywhere. Maybe even with a companionable I still care about you—you know that, right? tossed in there for flavor.
Take more than five minutes out of his day over it.
As it is, it had been about a half-step up from a text message. Clark might have preferred a text, even; that way he wouldn't have had to look at Bruce's face while he said it, wouldn't have had to hear the words in his voice.
So: Clark is angry. And he rides the righteous wave of Well, fuck you too, Bruce! for a good satisfying while—until, of course, it curls in on itself and crashes, foams up over the shore of him, slides away.
Then he's mostly just tired; sad, and sorry, and wistfully heartsore. Bruce had been having particularly good sex, is all, that evening before the nightmare—but it's easy to forget that, easy to stare at the ceiling and flip back through the memories, the sensations, and ache with helpless quiet bitterness. God, it had been so good; and Bruce hadn't been bored yet, not that night—not with the way he'd looked at Clark.
He gets sick of himself for going back to it again and again, for remembering how thoroughly Bruce kissed or how warmly he'd smiled as if it meant anything. It hadn't, Bruce had made that perfectly clear—or it had, maybe, but didn't anymore. And really, it's a good thing that Bruce broke it off before Clark could—do anything, or—or say anything—
Considering how awful he feels, and that it's Bruce's fault, he really shouldn't miss Bruce as much as he does.
(Some people think kryptonite is the only thing in the world capable of hurting Superman.)
(Sometimes Clark wishes they were right.)
The righteous anger was kind of a boost to Clark's productivity. But now that it's burned itself out, he ends up staring at his monitor more often than not, absorbing the shapes of words he isn't actually reading; telling himself to forget about it, that Bruce undoubtedly has—that he's just going to need time to get over it, that he needs to stop thinking about what could have happened if he'd reached out and grabbed Bruce's arm and really had gone for that "last hurrah"—
All told, Ron has to lean over and tap him on the arm twice, raise his eyebrows, and point before Clark realizes his desk phone is ringing.
"Oh, uh—" Clark clears his throat and picks up. "Kent, Daily Planet."
"Clark," Diana says, warm.
"Diana," and god, it's such a relief to find himself smiling without having to work at it.
"If you aren't already busy, I was hoping perhaps you'd like to get lunch?"
As if maybe she knows, Diana doesn't pick one of the high-flying places Bruce likes—liked—to eat at. It's a neighborhood restaurant instead, the kind of place with TVs mounted in the corners of the room and a bar wrapping around part of one wall. But when Clark spots her and waves, she looks at him and smiles: no trace of pity or sympathy, just bright, pleased.
Bruce hasn't told her anything, then. Clark can't decide whether that's a kindness or something that should make him angry all over again.
It feels like more of a kindness, he has to admit—at least at first. Diana doesn't make fun of him for ordering about three plates' worth of food; she laughs and gets two entrees herself, plus mozzarella sticks. "My home doesn't have quite so many fried things," she tells Clark, putting two in her mouth at once; and then, around them, contentedly: "I love them."
And if she knew, she wouldn't have said it. She'd have been calm and quiet and serious, and given him good advice—she wouldn't laugh, wouldn't point her fork at him warningly when he takes a mozzarella stick for himself. She'd ask him how he was, dig it all back up, instead of telling him about her work: that she'd been invited to evaluate a collection of antiques, three-quarters junk. "And then at the very back, a real pelike! Genuine, perfectly preserved, and I recognized it right away. I knew the woman who made it—of course I couldn't tell him that," she adds, "but it was so good to see some of her work again." She smiles at him, and then leans in and says a little lower, confessional, "I chose this job because I knew I could do it; but I hadn't realized how good it would be to see these other things like me, that have made it all this time."
Clark thinks about how it had felt to see the ship that had brought him here, when Dad had finally showed him—to blast through the last of that ice in Antarctica and realize just what he might be looking at. It's about distance for him, not time, but— "Yeah," he says aloud, and smiles back. "I know what you mean."
When their main dishes arrive, they're quieter for a few minutes, just eating. The way they both can hear, it's no surprise that they catch the low murmur of the nearest TV saying something about Wayne Technologies, flashing a picture of the logo. Clark glances at it and so does Diana, and it's also no surprise that the next thing she says is, "By the way, have you spoken to Bruce recently?"
She doesn't know. She doesn't, Clark reminds himself, but all of a sudden that feels like a punch instead of a comfort: that everything Clark had started to want had come apart, this huge thing about his life overturned—because it was huge to him, even if it hadn't been to Bruce—and it hasn't left a mark, didn't even shake the ground when it fell. Diana has no idea.
"Yeah, you could say that," Clark tells her, and it's a sudden sharp embarrassment to feel his eyes sting, his face going hot. "It—wasn't a good conversation."
Diana frowns for an instant, but of course her face goes soft, kind, as she reaches across the table and grabs his hand and says, "Clark—"
And then she freezes. Her grip abruptly tightens—it's a good thing she's got Superman's fingers in her hand instead of the table, Clark thinks, and then suddenly the words filter in for him, too:
"—taken over by unidentified gunmen, but we don't know whether—yes? I'm sorry, I—we're just now receiving this, ladies and gentlemen. Breaking news, we do in fact have confirmation that Bruce Wayne is inside the building—"
Clark feels rather than hears his own breath catch, because for a second there seems to be something wrong with his ears.
(Apparently Bruce wasn't kidding: "boring" really isn't his style.)
He fumbles his free hand down to his pocket, to the League radio, and presses the little button on the side. Batman shouldn't be fighting with a bullet wound, but who knows what he'll think if Clark and Diana go Leagueing off without telling him what they're doing—
"He won't answer," Diana says, flat, her gaze still fixed on the television.
Clark hesitates. Somehow he hadn't gotten the impression that a gunshot wound would keep Batman from having the radio on pretty much 24/7.
He looks up and meets Diana's eyes.
"He won't answer," she says, more gently, "and we need to go."
"Right," Clark says, and at the exact same time, as if they'd counted down, they stand.
They don't have much trouble getting inside the Wayne Technologies facility, once they arrive. Admittedly, Batman's armor usually holds up just fine; but after seeing him get shot like that—it's nice, Clark thinks, to be going in as a team made up solely of people bullets bounce off of. Especially when the problem is a lot of twitchy guys with semi-automatics.
The reports from police and SWAT put most of the action somewhere in the lower levels, but there's also hostages collected on a few of the upper floors. Diana, with a tilt of the chin, makes it clear she's going up. So Clark heads down.
Parts of the stairwell are kind of creepy, dark except for the flashing of some kind of alarm light. But Clark can x-ray down through the staircase and get the drop on anyone with a gun in their hands, easy as pie, and—
Aha: through the floor, he can see what they're here for. Those LexCorp robots—and Wayne Enterprises does have a history of consulting for the Gotham PD. LexCorp itself hadn't been capable of containing those things when they activated themselves. Stands to reason the PD would need a little help.
He frowns at the stairs two, three, four levels below him. There absolutely are people with guns at the landings; or there were, except someone's already taken them out. None of them are dead, but they're sprawled out on the concrete, unmoving. There are five or six more on the bottom level, already in the basement lab, but—
Something moves, all the way down there, and one of the guys with guns yelps and starts shooting—that's all Clark needs. The stairs pass in a strobing blur of red light and gray shadows, and then Clark bursts through the last door at the end, and—
Clark almost yells for him, seeing him there, except it's—
He only even recognized Bruce because he came in at a split second where Bruce's face was turned partway toward him. Bruce has caught one man's gun and smashed him in the face with it, braced himself with two hands against the man's chest so he can kick out and catch another one around the shoulders with his knees. One impossibly strong twist of his waist, his hips, and the second man flips over, gun flying out of his hands, crying out. A third man's just taking aim; Bruce still has the first man's gun in his grip, and he yanks it loose and throws it at the third man, strikes him in the head with a dull thunk and sends him toppling to the floor.
Two more are already on the ground. He—he must have done that while Clark was on his way down the stairs—?
"Not going to take the shot?" Bruce says quietly, to—
To the last man. He hasn't seen Clark yet.
"You weren't supposed to be here, Wayne," the last man says, "but our instructions were pretty clear. Apparently Luthor's got something specific in mind for you."
Bruce turns, kicks out and catches the last man in the thigh, lands a blow to his shoulder; and then, over the man's head as he staggers back, that's when Bruce sees Clark.
Sees Superman, standing there and staring at him openmouthed, completely unhelpfully—Christ, Clark needs to get a grip—
The last man powers himself back up and drives his foot into Bruce's side with a crack, and Bruce—Bruce just folds over it, face twisting, terribly and unnervingly silent, and lands on the floor on his knees. The things he was doing before, he's—he's more than capable, but he doesn't get up; he doesn't seem able to. He wraps an arm around himself and tries to breathe in, and Clark can hear him fail, can practically feel it—and all in all, Bruce never sees the butt of the guy's gun coming.
It smashes into the side of Bruce's head with a sick flat sound. And Clark is halfway across the room from them, except somehow he finds he's already close enough to catch the guy's arm before he can swing the gun down a second time. "Oh, shit," the guy says, almost blankly, when he sees who's got hold of him; and then Clark tosses him into a wall.
Bruce is on the floor, but he still has a heartbeat. Clark kneels down and grabs at his suit jacket, eases him onto his back, and there's—there's blood on Clark's hands, where is it coming from? He shoves the suit jacket out of the way, yanks Bruce's shirt open with a clatter of buttons; funny he's only getting to do that now, huh—
For a second, he can't do anything but stare. Bruce is bleeding, but it's—it's through a bandage that's already there. A fresh red stain is welling up through layers of gauze somebody very carefully taped down, over—
Lodged in the rib.
The armor adds some bulk, Clark thinks distantly. Changes the way Batman's lines add up, alters his proportions here and there. But the hole, the place where Diana had pressed down her hand, that feeble green glint—Clark had seen it. Clark had seen that wound, had seen exactly where it lay on Batman's body.
And now he's looking at it again.
(—man's a coward. Wouldn't swoop around in the dark like that—)
(—asking me to believe Batman was making better calls than you—)
(You don't know what you're talking about.)
Clark becomes aware that there's some kind of clatter behind him, someone on the stairs. He drags his gaze away from Bruce—Batman—Bruce, just in time to see Diana step through the doorway and then go still.
"You knew," he says, because she had to: friends with Bruce, working with Batman; being the one to carry Batman away after the shooting, because Bruce wouldn't have let Clark do it; the way she'd looked at Bruce, that funny sharp glance, when he'd introduced her to Clark at that party—
And he'd known what he was doing. He'd known about Diana, known Clark was Superman, all along. Clark had thought it was funny.
Joke's on him, as it turns out.
"Yes," Diana says quietly. "And—Clark, I am sorry, but—"
Right. This isn't the time. Clark clears his throat and looks down, and discovers he's still clutching Bruce; and he can't decide what he wants to do more, throw Bruce across the room or hold on harder, hold on so tight Bruce can't slide loose with some glib story and a smile, so tight Bruce has to tell him the truth.
He x-rays Bruce instead.
"Neck's fine," he tells Diana, and it comes out only a little unsteady. "Back's fine. That rib—the shot cracked it?"
"It's broken," Clark says, "and another one above it," and that had been from that last kick, Christ, it had landed in exactly the wrong spot; no wonder Bruce hadn't been able to get up right away. "Neither of them punctured the lung, though."
Diana lets out a sharp breath, and is silent for a moment; and then she takes another careful step. "I can take him—"
"No, no, it's—I'll do it," Clark tells her. "I'll do it."
"All right," she agrees, as easily as if she'd meant to suggest that all along. "I'll let Alfred know you're coming."
Because, of course, Alfred must have known too. Clark closes his eyes. Bruce brought him back from the dead—Bruce helped put him there. Bruce took a bullet for him—Bruce—
(Bruce hurt him worse than the gunshot ever would have.)
"Thank you," Clark says to Diana, automatic, distant; and he pulls the suit jacket closed again, Bruce's blood sticky between his fingers, and picks Bruce carefully up off the floor.
Time passes around Bruce almost without touching him. The moments of greatest awareness are also the moments where the throb in his head, his side, are the most acute; he tries to hang on to them anyway, but mostly only manages brief eye contact with Alfred—a squeeze of Diana's hand—the knowledge that he's moving, that sunlight is falling on his face, someone else bearing his weight—before it all slides away from him again and leaves him in the dark.
The damage wasn't that bad. But he's not thinking clearly enough to realize that he shouldn't be having so much trouble, that he must have been medicated somehow, until after the medication wears off.
Which it does, eventually: he blinks himself awake on an indrawn breath in a room he doesn't recognize, propped up on an impressive array of pillows. The shades are drawn—presumably as a concession to the concussion he undoubtedly has—and the bed is comfortable, if also a little softer than Bruce prefers. Not Wayne property; but someone's arranged things with an eye to his care.
And perhaps he's not quite as clearheaded as he'd like to think. There's a mobile hanging from the ceiling, stars and planets bobbing gently around each other, the motion slow enough to keep nausea at bay. And Bruce discovers he can't actually be sure how long he's been staring at it before a sound at the door finally jolts him out of it.
Not that it makes much difference, he thinks distantly, because he ends up staring just as stupidly at Martha Kent, as she steps inside with a tray and then pushes the door shut again behind her with one foot. What is she doing here? Or—what is Bruce doing in Smallville?
She doesn't seem surprised that he's awake; she just smiles at him and says, "How are you feeling?"
"Fine," Bruce says, smiling back. His head is still aching in slow persistent waves, and the ribs, the gunshot, make it difficult to breathe deeply. But it's still not a lie. He's had much, much worse.
Martha's mouth quirks, but she doesn't say anything, not until she's crossed the room and set the tray down on the bedside table. "There's nothing to worry about," she tells him. "You can take all the time you need. You're—on vacation on a private island somewhere, I think, or—" She waves a hand. "Alfred knows the details. And you couldn't get spotted in Metropolis, or have people coming in and out of the lake house all the time. So I told Clark he'd better just bring you here."
For a second it doesn't register, not really. And then Bruce feels it swing into him, slow and solid as a wrecking ball: he doesn't quite remember the blow that did all this to him, but he remembers what he was doing right beforehand, and if Clark was there, if Clark had been the one to find him—
He drags his gaze away from Martha and swallows once, twice.
(There's the nausea. Delayed reaction, no doubt; he shouldn't have spent so long looking at the mobile moving.)
There's still a chance, he tells himself. And then he looks back up and Martha touches his hand, and says, very gently, "He knows."
This was always going to happen. It was inevitable, and what is inevitable can't rightly be greeted with shock, dismay, discomfort. There was all the time in the world to prepare, after all. "He won't be angry with you," Bruce says, because surely that will be the first thing on Martha's mind. "Not for long. You only kept it from him because I asked you to—he'll know who to blame."
"He shouldn't be blaming anyone," Martha says quietly, squeezing Bruce's hand, and her gaze has gone dark and sad. "Bruce—"
"I should have explained a long time ago. I realize that. He's upset with me and he should be." Bruce had absolutely had the opportunity, before they'd ever slept together; it was just that it hadn't seemed necessary, then. He hadn't been sure Clark would ever even encounter Batman again, and it might easily never have mattered. And then it had become necessary just as rapidly as it had become impossible, and Bruce had turned his attention to the task of bracing himself to bear the consequences.
(He'd almost looked forward to it, in a way. Absolution was far too much to ask from Clark, who'd given Bruce so many unearned gifts already, and yet—he'll understand, Martha had said, and just because she should have been wrong, that hadn't meant she was. If Clark had offered forgiveness—
If Clark had offered forgiveness, Bruce would have been too selfish to refuse it.
If nothing else, it should now no longer be possible for that mistake to be made; and the elimination of a potential source of error is always a relief.)
"Bruce," Martha repeats, and squeezes his hand again. "Please, please tell me that you know you don't need to burn this down and salt the earth. You can still fix this—"
Bruce doesn't laugh by an effort of will alone; he closes his eyes instead. "You don't know what I said to him," he tells her, very low. "You don't know what I did."
There's silence for a moment. And then Martha says, "He didn't want to bring the tray up himself. But he told me you were awake; he was listening for it." She waits a beat, letting him turn that over, and then pats his wrist, adds, "Go on, eat something—please," and stands.
The tray's contents are all very simple, easy to swallow: soft toast, soup, tea with honey. Bruce can't claim that any of it appeals to him at the moment, but he makes an effort.
(It would be harder not to. Martha never asks him for anything.)
He picks over it all a bit at a time, his careful spoonfuls of soup gradually settling to room temperature; and the light leaking around the edges of the window shades turns warm with sundown and then cool with dusk. His head stops feeling so heavy, so unsteady, on his neck—and the throb of it eases a little, or perhaps he grows more used to it.
Either way, he's able to concentrate well enough to hear when there's a step on the stair.
He sets down his spoon, the teacup, settling everything back on the tray just as it was when Martha brought it up; and he carefully fights the urge to climb out the window. He could do it, even like this—and he wants to, with the kind of animal intensity that makes coyotes gnaw their own limbs off, the sensation of being trapped so much harder to bear than mere pain. But it wouldn't do any good.
Clark opens the door, steps through and closes it behind him, with unnecessary care—he only looks up at Bruce when he can't avoid it anymore. He doesn't smile; his face is perfectly calm, his expression precisely measured.
"Feeling better?" he says, after a moment.
"Yes," Bruce says. "Please thank your mother for allowing me to stay in her house."
Clark stares at him for a beat; his eyes narrow, his jaw working, and then he looks at the wall and shakes his head. When he does open his mouth to reply, his tongue ends up pressed against his upper teeth, like he's trying not to spit out the first angry thing that pops into his head—in the end, what does come out is, "Are you serious? That's the thing you want to say?"
There are a lot of things Bruce wants to say. It's just that most of them would be, at this point, purposeless. "It seemed like the most important one."
"The most—Christ, Bruce, what is wrong with you? You got shot for me, but you'd rather insult our whole relationship to my face than tell me who the hell you even are—"
Bruce tries to resist the urge to rub at his head, even though its pounding has picked up a notch again. Why is Clark dragging all that up? Surely he has to understand that Bruce's response can't change—
Maybe he just needs to hear it again, needs to be sure.
"We weren't in a relationship," Bruce says.
"We were sleeping together and we saw each other like five times a week," Clark says firmly. "There isn't anything else I'm going to call it. You might not have been serious about it, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there. When I—" and his throat, his cheekbones, color up beautifully, but he soldiers on through it. "I didn't know, but you did. After I kissed you—why did you even do it? You had to know it was only going to make this worse."
The script. Just stick to the script. "It was convenient."
And it shouldn't be a surprise, but somehow Clark manages to look struck—like even after everything Bruce has done to him, he still expected better. "What?"
"It was convenient. You wanted to, it was worth a go, you had assets. We've been over this, Clark—"
Clark is staring at Bruce like he can't believe what he's hearing, the edge of a dark thunderous anger beginning to furrow his brow.
And then, so suddenly Bruce can't compensate for the shift, like he doesn't believe what he's hearing. "Bullshit," he says softly.
"Excuse me?" Stall, stall—
"You heard me," Clark says, still quiet. "Stop it."
"I don't know what you—"
"Stop it. Stop it, for Christ's sake, just stop lying to me," and now Clark is practically shouting; but then he catches himself, chest heaving, breath shuddering through him, and shakes his head again, and when he says, "Please," it's gone back to being soft. When Bruce doesn't answer right away, something close to cruelty flashes across his face—he adds, sharp, "If you don't think you can do it, I'm sure Diana would lend me the lasso."
(All choice removed, all responsibility in other hands; no decisions and no calculations. Nothing but the questions and the answers, perfect freedom hidden within the inescapable compulsion to say exactly what he feels—everything he feels, all the words trapped at the heart of him spilling out and out and out like blood—)
It would ruin everything. But he owes Clark that much, if Clark's truly moved to ask for it.
"I'm sure she would," Bruce hears himself say.
And encouragement, of all things, is what makes Clark falter. Physically, for a moment, as he wavers backward with an uncertain look on his face. And then emotionally, as all signs of anger drain out of him; he crosses the room, never looking away from Bruce, and sits down on the edge of the bed. "I don't want it," he says. "And I don't need it, if you'll just—just tell me. Because bullshit, it was convenient. It wasn't convenient, it was stupid—I almost got your shirt off half a dozen times, and if I had I would have seen the scars, and then what would you have told me? That bruise. You got that as Batman, didn't you?" And his eyes go narrow again as he adds, "If you didn't want me to find out, letting me fuck you three times a week was about the stupidest thing you could possibly have done—"
"It doesn't matter," Bruce says.
(Clark did ask him not to lie.)
"It doesn't matter," Bruce explains. "You gave me your trust—both of me—and I betrayed it. I can't undo that, and I can't make up for it, and there is no conceivable reason why you should forgive me."
Somehow he's stopped Clark short again. (Why can't he ever manage that when he's actually trying to?)
Clark is looking at him like he's a badly-cut puzzle piece, like Clark is trying to understand what sort of shape his edges could possibly make that might fit into the rest of the picture. And then he reaches out and puts one hand on Bruce's knee, over the blanket, and says, "How about because I want to? Forgiveness isn't something you earn, Bruce—if you'd earned it then there wouldn't be anything left to forgive, there wouldn't be any need for it. We'd just be even.
"This thing with us, it matters to me. I don't want to let it fall apart and walk away. I don't want to never talk to you again, to never be around you again. I want to—" He stops and huffs out half a laugh. "Well, I want to be mad at you for a while, but I got some of that out of the way while we were waiting for the swelling in your brain to go down. I just want to understand—"
And then he stops again, chin coming up; and Bruce watches with resignation as something like comprehension dawns across his face.
"But you didn't think I would."
Clark pauses, like he thinks Bruce might reply.
But there's nothing to say.
"Is that it?" Clark presses. "You just said you didn't think I could forgive you; you never have, have you? Once you'd started to lie to me," and he's saying it slower and slower, damning, every word a nail pinning Bruce in place, "that was it. There was no way out. I was always going to leave you for it—whether you let it go on or you stopped it, whether you told me or I found out on my own." Clark pauses again, and then, deliberate and belated, echoes: "It didn't matter. It—Jesus, Bruce—"
Bruce looks away; his head is killing him, sustained eye contact with Clark evidently just as inadvisable as bright light. It still doesn't matter. Whatever Clark thinks he understands, getting the hell out of his life was the best decision Bruce could have made, and Bruce has the strength of will to bear it out, he does—
Clark's reaching out for him, inescapable—except all at once he stops, head turning, and says, "Someone's here."
"Upstairs," Clark adds, to Diana, and only realizes when Bruce tenses that Bruce doesn't understand why. "Sorry, I—it's Diana, I was telling her where we are. She's coming up."
"So I can call him an idiot to his face," Diana murmurs under her breath, about forty feet away, and Clark can't help smiling.
Not that he isn't still angry with Bruce. He's—he's so angry with Bruce. But the days where he hadn't been able to actually let it out at Bruce had been good for him: by now, he's not so angry that his brain isn't working. If they'd tried to have that conversation any sooner, he'd never have figured anything out—he'd have yelled himself hoarse and then walked away without any idea what had really been happening. But they didn't; and he didn't; and he thinks maybe, just barely, the full picture is starting to come into focus.
(For one awful moment, he almost had believed it. You wanted to—that had been the really scary part. Because he can see now, knowing what he knows, that Bruce had felt some kind of responsibility toward Clark; showing up like that the second Mom had called him, and taking all that time to put Clark's life back together; hearing what dying had done to him and then taking him out to the gala right after, trying to help him figure out how to be alive again.
And then Clark had kissed him, and—what had Bruce been thinking? Clark hadn't been able to guess for himself, while Bruce was unconscious. Everything he'd considered as a rationale had felt equally implausible. And then Bruce had woken up and had said worth a go, had said you wanted to, and abruptly it had seemed all too likely that he'd thought he owed Clark something; that he'd gone along just because Clark had asked him for it, because he hadn't felt like he could justify saying no—
That's a worse nightmare than any dream Clark ever had about Batman.)
The thing is that half of everything Bruce says is crap. Maybe three-quarters. And he could have tied Clark in knots with it, except that Clark's gotten better at noticing what Bruce isn't saying. Because it was stupid of him to sleep with Clark—it really, really was, and Bruce has told all kinds of other lies but hasn't once tried to argue that point. It was stupid, and he'd done it anyway; Batman had done it anyway, endlessly calculating and maximally efficient Batman—and wasn't that a head trip? That under Batman's stern mask, behind that terse growl, was someone who'd clutched Clark to him on the penthouse sofa and made helpless pleading noises when Clark slid three fingers into—
Diana opens the bedroom door and smiles: warmly at Clark, and then, a little more measured, at Bruce. "You're looking much better than the last time I saw you," she tells Bruce, and then, gently, "I'm glad you're all right."
Bruce doesn't seem to know what to say to that.
"Please allow me to tell you how impressed I am," she adds, this time to Clark, "that you haven't punched him in the head."
"Thanks," Clark says. "I'm impressed too, now that you mention it."
Diana's mouth twitches; and then she looks from him to Bruce and tilts her head. "Since we're all here, we're all awake, and we all now know exactly who we're talking to, I thought perhaps we should discuss the future of the League sooner rather than later."
The future of the—?
"I see no reason why it shouldn't continue to function exactly as it has," Diana says, eyes fixed on Bruce; and then her gaze cuts sideways for just a moment to Clark, and all at once he gets it.
Bruce likes to burn things down—likes to stare at their scorched bones and make memorials out of them, likes to put what's left of them behind glass where no one can touch them and tell himself stories about how he ruined them. He hadn't talked to Superman, he'd stolen a giant piece of kryptonite and made a deadly weapon out of it. He hadn't been able to see a way out of what he was doing with Clark, and he'd set fire to it. He likes clean breaks, or if not clean then at least complete. He doesn't do half-measures.
And now Diana thinks he's going to try to quit the League; and she's probably not wrong.
"Really," Bruce says.
"We can make it contingent on Superman's approval, if you like," Diana says, deceptively conversational.
And Clark has to wait a beat, two, three. But Bruce is tired and in pain and human, and even he can't control himself perfectly. He tries to keep his gaze on Diana, but in the end it flicks helplessly to Clark.
Luckily, Clark's pretty sure he knows what he wants to say. Or—not what he wants to say right now; but what he wants to have said at this moment, looking back. What he will want to have said, once the anger's all melted away. "You didn't tell me right away because you didn't need to—because there wasn't any reason to. And then there was a reason to, but you still decided you couldn't. You still decided that confiding that to me was going to cause more problems than it was ever going to solve.
"And I don't want it to be like that. I said I wanted us to be able to depend on each other—to be able to trust each other. I said that even when the only thing I knew about you was that you'd tried to kill me, and also maybe darned the hole in my suit shut while I was dead." He reaches out to put his hand back on Bruce's knee. "You think that got less true just because I know who I'm saying it to?"
"What," Bruce says, sharp, "you think you're going to be able to trust me more now that you know exactly how many lies—"
And that's Bruce trying to make him angry again. "I think I can trust you more now that I know the truth," Clark says firmly. "Besides, that's one really big thing you can't ever lie to me about again." He hesitates for a second, and then lets himself shrug. "If you're asking me if I should—I have no idea. But I want to, so I'm going to try. Once I stop feeling like I'd rather punch you in the head," he adds.
Bruce—of course—doesn't look relieved or pleased. He looks upset. There's more dismay visible on his face now, Clark thinks, than there had been when he'd looked at Clark and said suit yourself with a fresh bullet wound and a cracked rib hidden under his clothes.
And Clark must be in love, god help him, or that wouldn't hit as hard as it does: that after deliberately deceiving Clark twice over for months, the thing that's finally troubling Bruce is the idea that no one's going to hurt him for it.
"You want to remain part of the League?" Diana says.
Bruce is still staring at Clark when he says, "I—"
"I'm not asking whether you think you should," Diana interrupts, and Bruce finally looks at her instead. "I'm asking whether you want to."
Bruce is silent for a long moment; and then, very low, he says, "Yes."
Like a confession of wrongdoing, like something he wishes he could take back—but he says it, and Diana nods. "All right," she says, solemn, all Wonder Woman. And then she sits down on the bed next to Clark and leans around to put a hand on Bruce's ankle, a companion to Clark's on his knee. "Not that it matters, for the moment, since I'm given to understand Alfred has hidden all your equipment. Somehow he seems to have the impression that you might still try to fly back to Gotham and go on patrol, even with broken ribs and a head injury."
"How ridiculous," Clark murmurs, and then grins at Diana over his shoulder.
Diana only stays for half an hour—at least on purpose. Clark suspects it'll probably take her another twenty minutes to successfully turn down the invitation Mom's going to give her to join them for dinner. Bruce doesn't say very much; but then again his head is probably aching fit to split.
He doesn't try to hold Diana off when she leans in to kiss his cheek before she leaves.
But once the door's closed behind her, Clark says, "Bruce," and Bruce looks away.
"I'm tired," he says quietly.
And the last thing Clark can trust is his own judgment when it comes to Bruce; but it sounds true, he can't help thinking. It sounds true.
Besides, Bruce isn't going anywhere. Even if he somehow manages to dodge Clark until he's recovered completely, Batman's still part of the League—and thank god for Diana. Whatever else he tries, he can't just cut himself neatly out of Clark's life and disappear. Not anymore.
"All right," Clark says, easy. "I'm—I won't spy on you or anything, but. If you need something, you can just say my name. I'll hear you."
Of course Bruce doesn't do it. Clark should have expected that.
But he's hearing what Bruce doesn't say, too, these days. He checks in now and then, brings Bruce some of Mom's trays and comes back to take them away after, and carefully leaves Bruce alone in between. He kind of wants to yell at Bruce some more, for a day or two, except he doesn't: he just wants Bruce to listen to him. He just wants Bruce to—to explain himself, to let Clark understand what the hell he thought he'd been doing. Which parts had been real, which parts hadn't—
(Some of it was—surely, surely, even Bruce isn't that good a liar. And the things he'd said the day he kicked Clark out; he'd had the bullet wound to hide, Clark knows that now. But—)
—whether he'd meant any of it.
But Bruce isn't stupid, for all that he did a lot of stupid things. He knows what Clark wants, he has to; Clark can see in his face that he's waiting to be cornered again, and that's exactly what keeps Clark from doing it.
Until, in the end, Clark can't stand it anymore.
He tries to be strategic about it: he tries to be like Bruce. Just talking is—Bruce can probably still tie Clark in knots that way, if Clark lets him. So the approach Clark would normally use won't work. He has to do something Bruce isn't expecting and hasn't already prepared fifteen different plans to deal with. He has to try coming at this from a new perspective.
He gets his chance after another day, when he brings up dinner. Bruce is moving around a little, though he's under serious Mom-enforced restrictions until they're sure one of those ribs isn't going to end up in his lung. But he still sits to eat, and he must be in more pain than he's letting on. He grimaces partway down, and Clark catches his shoulder and helps ease him back against the pillows.
"Careful," Clark says, and smiles at Bruce; and then he braces himself and slides his hand from Bruce's shoulder and down, fingers trailing over Bruce's collarbone—
Bruce catches his wrist almost instantly, his gaze snapping to Clark's face, eyes dark and wary.
"What?" Clark says, and does his best to sound honestly surprised. "You said it was convenient—it's still convenient. Because I wanted to; well," and oh, it's going to come out a little too wistful, a little too true, but Clark lets it: "I still want to." He makes himself keep smiling. "What, it's not worth a go—"
"No," Bruce says.
"Didn't you enjoy yourself?" And Clark can't keep the smile on for that, he can't, but it ends up not mattering—Bruce looks away.
"Why not?" Clark says, and he doesn't have to force that one out. What's different? What was okay about Bruce Wayne that isn't okay about this Bruce, quiet and bruised-up and serious—that wasn't okay about Batman?
(Why did Clark only ever get the chance to get to know one of them?)
"You—know why not," Bruce says, very soft. "You have to know."
Clark goes still. That's not what he was expecting. What exactly does Bruce think is so obvious?
"Tell me anyway," he tries, more gently this time. "I understand why you said it didn't matter, Bruce, I do, but I—it mattered to me. It does matter, it—" He's the one who has to look away, then; but he swallows and makes himself look back up. "That's why I'm angry at all, Bruce. That's why it hurt."
Bruce is silent for a moment. "I didn't intend that," he says at last.
It's the wrong time for it, but oh, that makes Clark snort. "Right," he says, "right, you were going to fix that with the thing where you'd make me think you were a worthless asshole so I wouldn't care if I never saw you again. That was a great idea."
Bruce draws in a slow breath—and then he lets it out without saying anything, eyes down, his hand still wrapped tight around Clark's arm.
"Look, if it just didn't mean anything to you at all, that would be one thing—"
"It mattered," Bruce says.
He forces it out, a sharp heft of effort like he's throwing a stone, and Clark's so surprised to hear it that he stops short.
"All of it," Bruce adds, almost stumbling over the words. "It—mattered. I wanted you there; I wanted you there all the time, I wanted you to know and not leave—I wanted to, I, when you had nightmares—but I was the nightmares. I was—you just didn't know—"
He's gone pale, forced himself still under Clark's hand, and Clark's never seen him look so much in pain. Clark wanted to hear it; but not like this, this jagged cracking litany of regret and failure and missed chances—he finds his voice somehow, says, "Bruce, Bruce, hey—"
"I wanted not to have let you die," Bruce adds, so low even Clark almost doesn't catch it, and closes his eyes.
"Hey," Clark says again, even gentler—why, why is he still being gentle?—and he leaves that one hand solid and warm against Bruce's chest but touches Bruce's face, his mouth, with the other.
Bruce obediently falls silent.
"You didn't, you didn't," Clark murmurs, "I'm fine. I'm fine, Bruce. I came back."
Bruce's eyes are still closed, but it doesn't matter. He can feel Clark moving closer, the heat of him as he leans in, the barest pressure behind that hand on Bruce's cheek—and it's the worst idea in the world, Bruce knows that.
But he's never been a particularly strong man. Not in the ways that matter.
He stays where he is and he lets Clark touch him; and when Clark says it again, "I came back," and leans in even further, kisses him, Bruce lets that happen too. It's careful, slow, closemouthed, but Bruce loses himself in it anyway.
He only comes out of it when Clark starts to ease back a little, and then it's—he's utterly without control, mindless, desperate, feeling his own hands come up to grab at Clark; like he has to, before Clark has a chance to get away—
He doesn't realize he's actually started to shove Clark's shirt up until Clark catches his hands and pulls away, saying, "No, hey, you're still hurt. I don't want to make it worse."
That's what finally makes Bruce open his eyes: that's what's wrong with this picture, according to Clark?
Clark's looking back at him, still close enough that Bruce is breathing his air, and his gaze is nothing but soft, kind. "There's no rush," he says, "okay? There's no rush," and then he—
He kisses Bruce again, a brief gentle brush, and again.
"I mean, I'm still mad at you," he adds, face sober; but then the expression cracks apart into a smile. "Don't get the wrong idea, here. I'm so mad at you," and then he kisses just the corner of Bruce's mouth, his cheek, like he can't help it. Like he wants to. "But I think we can wait on trying out make-up sex until nobody has any broken bones. Just—talk to me. Please. Just talk to me."
Make-up sex with broken bones would be easier. But Bruce doesn't tell him that.
He takes a slow breath, instead, and braces himself. And then he says, "What do you want to know?"
For a long moment, Clark just looks at him. Bruce can't begin to guess what he's thinking. That he would touch Bruce at all, that he shows every sign of intending to keep doing it, so far exceeds Bruce's expectations that they're completely off the edge of the map. What he wants to ask first—where to begin. Whether it's even worth the effort to try; whether he can believe any answer Bruce does give him—
But Clark doesn't get up and go, and he doesn't change his mind. He hitches himself further onto the bed, and says, "How about I tell you the best guess I have, and—" He hesitates, and then smiles again, and slides one hand up over Bruce's mouth: just the way Bruce had done to him, when he'd come to the penthouse wanting to talk about being Superman. "Nod or shake?"
Clark's mouth quirks; and then all humor drops off his face. He wets his lips, opens his mouth, closes it again. And then he says, tentative, "You were—different, that one night."
He doesn't have to specify further.
"Were you—" Clark hesitates and bites his lip. "You were thinking about it, weren't you?" he rephrases, slowly. "About telling me."
It takes Bruce longer than it should. But Clark's patient, watching him without frustration, hand gentle against Bruce's face, and in the end Bruce nods.
"And then," Clark adds, gaze sliding to the middle distance, clearly thinking it through; except all at once his eyes leap back to Bruce, wide, sudden comprehension blooming bright across his face. "Oh," he says, hardly more than a breath, and closes his eyes, shakes his head, before looking at Bruce again. "Oh," he says again, and then, very quietly, "I understand."
Bruce hadn't realized how much he'd tensed up, the ache in his side throbbing sharp, until it all drained out of him.
"And—Bruce Wayne has bad taste in cologne," Clark murmurs.
Clark's gaze turns intent. "But you don't."
Bruce doesn't move. He can't let himself go tense again, Clark will feel that; except his heart kicks up, out of his control, and no doubt Clark can hear it. It's—too much, too close—
"Never mind," Clark says, "never mind," soothing, like he's talking to something small and scared instead of the man who tried to kill him. "It's okay. I know the answer now."
He smiles, mild and careful, the barest curve of that generous mouth. When he speaks again, his tone's lighter—deliberately so, Bruce thinks, easing out of dangerous territory.
"Just one more thing, then."
Bruce raises his eyebrows.
"And you have to tell me the truth," Clark warns, before narrowing his eyes. "Do you even play polo?"
Bruce looks at him very seriously and nods.
Clark huffs a breath out through his nose, half a laugh, and grins. "Really?"
And that requires a better answer: Bruce reaches up and eases Clark's hand off his mouth, just far enough to let him say, "Of course. It's good for your balance, your reflexes, your aim. Essential part of Batman's training regimen—" and that's as far as he gets before Clark drowns him out, laughing.
The sun wakes Bruce.
It's crept around the edges of the drapes, and the narrowest sliver is falling right on Bruce's face. And he squints into it, braced—but it doesn't hurt his head at all.
Nothing hurts, in fact. He's been sleeping on his back, mostly, but he's on his side right now; the uninjured side, of course, and he can force that good old ache to rise up in the other one if he shifts. But lying still—he feels almost normal.
And once he blinks the white-gold blaze away, he sees Clark.
They had talked for a little longer while Bruce had worked his way through the tray Clark had brought up; not about anything of genuine consequence, but it hadn't felt like wasted time. And then Bruce had started to fall asleep—it was far too easy to do, on a bed with Clark—and Clark had told him that it was all right, that it was late anyway. Bruce had assumed he'd leave.
But he hadn't.
He's still there. He's lying on his side, too, facing Bruce, over the covers instead of under. His face is utterly relaxed, the angle precisely right for that slice of sunlight to limn the upper curve of his cheekbone, a single tousled curl just over his ear; and he's sprawled out easily, legs and arms akimbo, warm steady weight nudging up against Bruce here and there. One of his hands is flung out sideways across the pillow, wrist upturned, fingers bent—like maybe he'd touched Bruce's face, Bruce's hair, one last time just before he fell asleep.
Bruce killed him and fucked him and lied to him, and he's come back every time, he's come back and he's stayed. And if all that isn't enough to keep him away—
Bruce just looks at him, for a long time; looks at him and feels the want build up, that deep slow tide Bruce keeps finding himself so helpless against. And then he lets himself reach out—lets himself slide his hand into Clark's where it lies on the pillow.
If everything Bruce has already done to him isn't enough to convince Clark this is a bad idea, then maybe all that's left is to make sure he doesn't regret it. Wearing nothing but Bruce Wayne's face had ultimately been a failure; and wearing only Batman's the rest of the time hadn't worked any better. Maybe all that's left is to try something new.
Clark wakes slowly. A twitch of the eyelids, a change in his breathing, a shift in his weight—and surely he doesn't need to sleep the way humans do, Bruce thinks, but he seems to enjoy it just as much as anyone.
But at last his eyes blink open, and after a moment they focus on Bruce's face; and then, without hesitation, Clark smiles. "Hey, Bruce," he murmurs, gravelly with morning.
"Hey," Bruce says quietly, squeezing Clark's hand. And then he draws in a slow breath, laces his fingers through Clark's, and is himself.