Chapter 1: Fair Play
There were some things that Bruce avoided talking about. Like how bad the injuries he shrugged off actually were. Or how he hated having to be Bruce capital-W Wayne sometimes, like when he was at parties and the girls who thought biting him was cute kept trying to get him into a corner.
And then there were the things that he kept to himself, that he hoped to god not even Alfred suspected. Like the many, many times between the death of his parents and the first time he put on the cowl when he’d thought that a pistol might be the better way to go. Or the exact, dangerous details of some of the tighter missions he’d been on.
Or how sometimes he couldn’t help but imagine Clark without a shirt on.
Because this was how the world worked:
Clark had Lois, a relationship that would always hover just below vows. Bruce would dally around with Selina or Diana (the closest thing to a girl Clark) or whatever the flavor of the month was, because he had never expected to have a marriageable life anyway. And then he got Clark as a friend, nothing more and nothing less. And that was how things were.
“Hey, I’ve got to talk to you.” Clark grabbed him before he left the meeting. They were the last ones in the conference room. Clark leaned against the table, always at ease, like he practiced it, for godssakes. Bruce just stood by the door and waited for him to continue.
“Well?” he asked, finally, because Clark obviously wanted it.
An effortless smile. “What would you think of me asking Lois to marry me?”
He was lucky that he had an former actor for a father figure and years of carefully cultivated facial expressions, because it let him had a solid few seconds of blankness instead of surprise. He was also very, very lucky that Clark was probably too excited to be watching his vitals. All he could manage to say was, “When did you decide to get engaged?”
Clark shrugged, and Bruce tried not to see that he looked just a bit hurt at Bruce’s lack of enthusiasm. “I haven’t bought a ring or anything. Or thought about how I’m going to do it. But we’ve been dating for a long time, and it’s pretty serious. And its not like I want to date for the rest of my life.”
He tried to let the rational part of his brain take over. There was no ring. There was nothing set in stone yet. He realized that Clark was still giving him that hopeful, expectant look. Bruce couldn’t fake a smile, not when he wasn’t being Wayne, but he could at least push himself into a semi-decent friend mode. Head tilt. Uncross your arms. Open body language. “Of course! It’s sounds great, Clark. Though you want to plan it perfectly…”
Clark nodded, expression brightening again like an eager puppy. Bruce swallowed, and silently begged him not to ask when he knew was inevitable. “So…um…you want to help me out with this? You are my slightly cranky best friend after all—” Clark tossed him a smile at that. “—I think it’s your traditional duty to help me get successfully married. And you dated her. I will be taking full advantage of your expertise.”
Deep breath. He was so tempted to say no, that he was far too busy to help Clark woo his girlfriend. But how could he deny that smile? And had he honestly thought that choir-boy Clark was going to be content with a girlfriend forever? That the easy way of still having the possibility be there, even if he knew it would never happen, would last? “Yeah. Of course.”
“Awesome.” Clark touched his shoulder, and Bruce made himself not freeze up. “Also—Lois wants to have everybody over for pizza and cards next Tuesday. You in?”
“Sure,” he said, again, and hoped he didn’t sound brain-dead. He and Clark walked out together.
Tuesday night. He’d managed to avoid Clark for four days, on the premise of being wrapped up in a serial killer case. But he’d made a commitment, and so there he was at Clark’s apartment with a bottle of wine (more expensive than anything Clark could afford, and chose by Alfred) and flowers for the damnable Lois. From the voices inside he could tell that he was the last one to show.
Lois and Diana threw open the door at his knock. Diana relieved him of the wine and Lois took the flowers. They’d become fast friends after the formation of the Justice League. He didn’t really know if he liked two of his ex-girlfriends hanging around together. Lois reached out to take his coat. “Clark thought you weren’t coming. Fashionably late, huh?”
In truth he hadn’t known if he was going to come. He’d dallied well into the evening at Wayne Enterprises—filling out paperwork his secretary could’ve done, bugging Lucius about stupid R&D projects, and generally wasting as much time as possible.
Until finally he was sitting at his desk and it hit him: After Clark got married, there would be no more long nights working on Javelin blueprints together, no more of Clark coming down to the Cave to drag him into the sunlight for coffee or ice cream. If it wasn’t going to stay, he had to take what he could get before it ended.
Bruce followed Lois into the kitchen. Diana and Shayera were there, too. Everyone else was in the living room, playing a sloppy game of blackjack. Lois had cartons of ice cream and toppings on the counter, and she shoved a spoon at him. “Here. The pizza’s late and so were you, so you get to help me serve up ice cream.”
He took the spoon without complaint and dished out chocolate for Diana and John and himself. Lois served strawberry and vanilla--strawberry for Shayera and Wally, and then she went on to vanilla.
“Clark likes strawberry,” Bruce said, absentmindedly, and heard Lois pause to reopen the carton.
“He didn’t tell me.” She scooped out a third pink bowl.
But a dangerous idea was building in his head. His hand lingered over the last bowl of ice cream.
I know him better than you do.
He took a good look at Lois. Short hair, strong hands from always typing, and a scrape on her wrist from her penchant to get herself into trouble. She wasn’t one of those girls who would break if their boyfriend decided it wasn’t working out. Say he had three months between now and Clark buying a ring. Three month was plenty of time to make Clark realize that it was Bruce he loved.
Lois gave him an odd glance and he just smiled back at her. Game on.
Chapter 2: Games of Chance
Bruce puts into motion his plans, using poker.
The problem was, of course, that he couldn’t just walk in and pour his heart out to Clark. What would he say? “Hey, all these years we’ve been friends, I’ve been secretly hoping you’ll kiss me”?
Yeah, that’d work. And secretly, he couldn’t just take Clark. Lois was a good person. He wasn’t. If it were Clark’s choice, honestly and truly, he wouldn’t feel an ounce of guilt. But he wasn’t quite selfish enough (as much as he wished he was) to just steal him.
There was another problem, and that was that he was very good at seducing insipid society girls (and boys, not that Clark knew that. Maybe it would’ve made things easier), not Kansas farm-boys who he actually respected. He couldn’t give Clark a pair of diamond cufflinks and have him in bed an hour later.
“Hey, Bruce, blackjack!” Clark grabbed him by the elbow and saw the two bowls of ice cream in his hands. “Is the strawberry mine?”
“Yep.” Bruce handed it over, Chocolate sauce and cherries, just as Clark liked. Their hands brushed, and then he was being led into the living room and pushed onto the couch.
“Deal.” Clark said, holding out a deck of cards. Bruce obeyed, shuffling and dealing out to the others. He usually abstained anyway, on the basis that he couldn’t stop himself from counting cards. Poker chips were scattered across the floor—everyone grabbed a handful of random colors. They played for a while. Clark sucked at it.
After four hands Bruce handed the deck off to John and slipped down to the floor, on his stomach next to Clark. He reached over and took his chips.
“Hey!” Clark said, though playfully.
“Consider me the others’ handicap,” Bruce replied, and immediately won the next bet.
“You’re cheating.” Clark tried to grab the chips. Bruce smacked his hand away. Shayera rolled her eyes at them.
“I’m smart,” Bruce said, and doubled their chips before passing them back to Clark. “That’s hardly cheating. It’s evolution.”
Clark snorted and Bruce watched him play another hand. They were sitting on the floor so close that their shoulders were pressed together. Usually he’d pull away, because he wasn’t good with social interaction, no matter how good he was at resisting temptation.
This time he let it go. Clark—whether it was due to Kryptonian psychology or just Ma Kent’s parenting—had the lowest sense of personal space of anyone Bruce had ever met. While the cards moved Clark had shifted and his hand was resting against Bruce’s.
He’d resisted this for seven years—he could certainly do it for one more night.
The next day he started making plans. If there was one thing Bruce was good at, it was analytics. He had years of behavioral studies under his belt. It was a simple matter to apply it to interpersonal relations rather than criminology.
He spent twenty minutes calculating the exact length a friendly touch could last and then added anther two seconds to make it lingering. He tried to recall what Nightwing had said about “normal person dating.”
Alfred interrupted him at three in the morning with a plate of cookies and sweet, hot tea. “I presume you would like some refreshments for your brooding time, sir?”
Bruce ignored the Brit-snark and took two of the cookies. Heavenly (the secret to all of Martha Wayne’s famous baked goods was that they had in actuality been Alfred’s baked goods).
Alfred peered at the computer, which was currently scanning the text of a Harlequin romance for relevant keywords. “This is certainly an…interesting project, sir. May I ask what for?”
“A study of social interaction.” Which was technically true. Alfred didn’t need to know just what sort of social interaction, or just what Bruce hoped to apply it to. If he failed, and Clark went with Lois, then he could just go back to fooling around with Selina and Alfred would never have to know.
But of course Alfred was too sharp for that. He merely smiled and set the tray of cookies down next to the keyboard. “Perhaps if there is someone you have your eye on, Master Bruce, you should bring them some of these cookies instead of trying to puzzle out an algorithm. In my experience, people are not determined by calculus.”
Bruce gave Alfred his best blank stare. The butler just smiled again and left him.
Clark had monitor duty the next day, along with Wally. Bruce tracked Flash down and “kindly” offered to take his shift, even throwing in a “Why don’t you go to the movies or something?” just to get the kid out of there.
“What are you doing here?” Clark asked, when Bruce took the chair next to him.
“Wally had some other stuff to do, so I offered to take his shift.” Bruce slid a plate and a mug across the desk. “Here. Alfred made cookies and I made tea.”
Clark bit into a cookie, took a swallow of the tea, and smiled. “You actually cooked me something. I’m amazed.”
“It was tea. Hardly rocket science.” Bruce leaned back in his chair, just slightly, to watch Clark’s profile. Strong muscles, though not bulky and ugly like a bodybuilder’s. Wholesome, that was the word. Everything about Clark was wholesome. He smelled like fresh hay (not, of course, that Bruce had ever deliberately put himself in situations where he was close enough to Clark to dissect his scent) and had those farmboy cornflower eyes.
“Alfred is lovely,” Clark said, biting into a second cookie and getting chocolate smudged on his lower lip.
“You ought to come over sometime. Alfred enjoys cooking for people who appreciate him.” Bruce tried to make himself sound nonchalant.
“Meaning people who actually eat his cooking, rather than drinking wheatgrass juice because it’s healthier.” Clark gave him a pointed look before splitting the last cookie and holding half out to him. “Though how you get the ten thousand calories you burn a day through eating weeds I’ll never know.”
Bruce ate the half cookie and they sat next to each other in companionable silence for a while. Finally, he worked up a sniff of courage and asked, “Are you worried? About getting engaged?”
Clark paused, a pause that gave him the smallest slip of hope. “Well, yeah. It’s a big step. Spending the rest of my life with someone…its huge. The biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and the scariest—and that includes fighting Darkseid.” They both grinned at that. “But I really do love her.”
The bite of cookie was hard in Bruce’s mouth. That wasn’t what he’d wanted. He felt a small twinge of guilt, because Clark looked just content right now. He was probably imagining Lois’s white dress, and the cake, and the honeymoon where he’d sweep her up to a hotel room on the beach. And Bruce (a manipulative bastard, as Clark so aptly called him whenever they got into a real argument) was scheming to break it up.
Clark turned to him, eyes light. “I guess if it doesn’t work out, I can always hang out with you more, and take whatever beautiful women you decide you’re done with. At least until they start to scare me.”
"Yeah, the only reason you hang out with me is because I can hook you up.” Bruce swallowed the last bite of chocolate and cake, and made it sound like a joke. “As soon as you get married Lois’ll be the other half of the World’s Finest. Also, you have a melted chocolate chip on your lip.”
Clark laughed, because another one of Bruce’s talents was making the most truthful things he said sound like he was being sarcastic. Then Clark pulled out his wallet (because, of course, keeping a handkerchief in your pocket was déclassé but not having one at all was just silly) and Bruce saw that the first picture in it was him and Lois with their arms wrapped around each other.
or an instant, he thought I should just give up.
It would easier. But he was a stubborn sonofabitch (said Alfred, when they argued) and god help him, he wanted that affection that Clark showed Lois turned to him. And if she didn’t even known him well enough to know which ice cream flavor he liked—
“You’ve been acting oddly.” Clark interrupted it before his head could go and finish that fantasy.
“What?” He was lucky he had a mask. The blush would’ve given it away.
“Lois and Diana were commenting on it too. You keeping going silent.” Clark tilted his head, so cute. “Don’t tell me you’re puzzling out cold fusion in there.”
"Sorry.” Bruce rubbed his eyes, because suddenly he felt cold and tired. “Just haven’t slept in awhile. And I’ve almost cracked cold fusion.”
Maybe that joke was a little too out of character. Clark patted him on the shoulder. “You ought to stop with the four-day crimefighting sprees. I’m an alien and I sleep more often than that.”
Bruce shrugged. “After this shift. Promise.”
“You’d better.” Clark wagged his finger in mock reproach. “Or I’ll set Alfred on you.”
They both watched the screens for a while. It was a quiet night. Wally had a forest fire in Mongolia contained. Vigilante and Shining Knight had taken down a mutant biker gang intent on stealing every Harley Davidson in the Tristate Area (Bruce didn’t really want to know the story behind that one). Green Lantern and Vixen were the only others up in the Watchtower, but they were off somewhere doing god-knows-what.
“Are you doing anything two Sundays from now?”
“No.” Oh, goody. Now Clark probably wanted to go ring shopping. Bruce sighed to himself. But if he pulled out of pre-best-man/rich friend duties it wouldn’t make Clark favorably disposed towards him. “Why?”
“It’s Arbor Day,” Clark said; because that was totally a holiday that everyone celebrated. Seeing that this wasn’t enough of an explanation, he continued: “Ma is backing a bunch of pies to celebrate. Now, I wouldn’t dare ask you to socialize twice in as many weeks, but this is a slight break at least. We could go ring shopping in town and then home for apple pie. Or cherry. Or coconut cream.”
“Sure.” Bruce cut him off before he could list all of Ma Kent’s pie varieties. “I’ll buy lunch.”
“I can pay for my own lunch.” Clark gave him a look.
“I own the Planet. You paying is basically just me transferring money between pockets.” He switched tracks before Clark’s eyebrows could furrow any more. “And anyways, can’t I treat you for sort-of-maybe working up the balls to make your girlfriend an honest woman?”
Clark socked him in the arm, just before Weather Wizard launched an attack on New York. The conversation turned from potential marriage to putting together a strike team. Though honestly, it was Weather Wizard, so they could have just sent Gypsy and Vibe and the whole thing would be over in sixty seconds. But Bruce kept it going as long as he could.
Chapter 3: Emotional Manipulation
They ended up seeing each other much sooner than two weeks from then, but unfortunately it was because Gorilla Grodd, Star Sapphire, and Metallo decided they wanted to try and destroy Metropolis. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash beamed down.
The villains seemed to have no goal other than wanton destruction. Another harebrained ‘kill Superman’ scheme, Bruce suspected. He was seriously getting tired of those.
The battle started out well. Star Sapphire had already knocked down a few buildings. Luckily, the firefighters had gotten everyone out. Diana took out Gorilla Grodd pretty quick (he hadn’t been the same since Flash addled his brains). Clark went after Sapphire, while Wally and Diana took on Metallo.
Bruce was about to leap up a building to help Clark when he heard maniacal laughter (didn’t supervillains know they were clichés?) coming from the blown-out main floor of an apartment complex. He pulled out a batarang and eased in through the back door. The laugher—giggling, really—was coming from the furnace room.
He turned the corner and saw the fourth villain, one they hadn’t even suspected: Plastique. She was just the perfect mix of crazy, mean, and sneaky. Currently, she had two bricks of C4 by her feet and a mess of wires that led to a contraption he couldn’t even begin to puzzle out.
“Plastique!” he leapt at her, but she was as smooth as an explosion and slipped sideways. They skittered across the floor of shattered glass. She lobbed a miniature stick of dynamite at him. He snatched it out of mid-air and tossed it behind the janitor’s desk. It exploded and showered him with splinters, but it was better than losing a hand.
She laughed again. The belts slung around her waist and across her shoulders were packed with explosives. Long range, she had the advantage. He had to get closer, where she couldn’t blow him up without it being a suicide bombing.
He flipped over a broken beam (not good—this complex was thirty stories tall and he didn’t want it coming down on his head) and grabbed her by the wrist. She might be fast, but he was stronger by far and had her arm behind her back in seconds, putting all that pressure on the shoulder joint.
She yelled and tried to stab his foot with her two-inch stiletto heels, but there was a reason his boots had a layer of Kevlar. Some C-list villain with fancy purple shoes wasn’t going to disable him by stomping.
“What is that?” He dragged her back towards the device.
She looked at her creation, mouth curling into a thin smile of either pride or sarcasm, he couldn’t tell which. He was starting to pick out the separate elements—explosives packed at the heart, a coiled gut of rubber-coated wires, and two separate detonators—but not quickly enough to be able to disarm it. Her teeth glinted in the dusty light of the furnace room. “That? Oh, it’s only got a little bit left.”
“What?” And then he saw it—a silent time. Damn, he’d gotten too used to colorful crazies with big ticking bombs. Plastique was just smart enough and just suicidal enough to keep him here while the countdown ran. They had fifteen seconds.
Clark was right—he should have gotten more sleep.
Thirteen seconds. He grabbed Plastique by the shoulders, not caring to be gentle anymore and hauled her away from it. Not enough time to stop it. Not enough time to get out of the building.
He yanked a pair of handcuffs from his belt and snapped one cuff around Plastique’s left wrist. Ten seconds.
There was an alcove up ahead. Room enough for one. He clapped the other cuff around a nice, thick pipe in the alcove and ran for the other side of the room where there was cover.
He was not nearly close enough. The blast hit him sideways and he smashed into the concrete floor. His shoulder popped. His mouth was full of dust and his ears were ringing and he couldn’t move because a two-ton ceiling beam was pinning him to the ground. He opened his eyes and saw his own blood speckled in the grit. When his lungs finally decided to resume breathing the oxygen went pounding through his skull like it was trying to kill him. Everything was dark. Plastique was cursing violently somewhere in the distance. Thank god he’d remembered to cut her belts.
Maybe he blacked out, because when he opened his eyes again there was sunlight streaming through the dust and familiar red boots a few inches from his face. His vision blurred in and out. The weight of the beam lifted of him, but he still didn’t feel like moving.
Clark touched his shoulder. “Batman?”
“Give me a minute.” The room swam.
Clark slid his arms under him. “The building’s going down. And you have a concussion.”
He was about to say that it wasn’t the worst he’d had, but then something metal groaned. Clark scooped him up and then they were airborne, hovering thirty stories up while the unfinished apartment complex collapsed in on itself.
Down below, Diana was hauling Plastique into a metahuman containment van. He put his head against Clark’s shoulder, and could almost feel the x-ray vision running across him.
“Dislocated shoulder, too,” Clark said, softly.
“Shut up. My head hurts.” In reality, it was less of pain and more of the fact that he felt like if he looked down he was going to throw up on those red shoes. Ordinarily, he would growl and Clark would set him down, and he’d fight through it. But right now he’d rather stay warm and safe above the remains of the battle.
He let Clark fly them both back down to the Javelin.
And he found himself in the midst of lying down in his Watchtower room. Apparently he was concussed enough lose hours of time. His arm was in a sling, so he must’ve been to the medbay. They’d given him drugs, too, because his shoulder wasn’t on fire.
Clark was sitting on the edge of the bed, his hand resting on Bruce’s good arm. Bruce had woken up midsentence. “—so you’re all right?”
Clark’s brow furrowed, just a little. He slowed down, like he was speaking to someone who wasn’t all there, which Bruce supposed he wasn’t. “I’m leaving—Lois and I are going out to dinner—are you going to be fine? I know transporters and concussions don’t mix.”
“I’ll be okay.” So long as he lay still and didn’t think too much about where Clark was going after this. He closed his eyes because the light was starting to hurt and he felt Clark get up from the bed. “Clark. Wait.”
Clark paused. Bruce squished the tiny Alfred-voice in his head that said Don’t be emotionally manipulative and opened his eyes about as much as he could. “Can you get me a glass of water? Please?”
Clark’s expression softened. He filled a glass and set it on the nightstand, before he reached down and tousled Bruce’s hair, just gently. “I’ll stop in after dinner, okay? Get some rest.”
Bruce just nodded and closed his eyes and thanked whatever deity was listening that he appealed to Clark’s maternal instincts. He faded out to the soft click of the door falling shut.
Whatever Dr. Mid-Nite had given him, it certainly hadn’t been over-the-counter aspirin. He slept without dreaming, and woke up feeling cotton where his brain ought to be. And the pain was back.
“Did the drugs wear off?” Clark stepped through the door (damn superhearing). Bruce cared less about seduction right now and more about the fact that it was insanely difficult to keep a train of thought running in his head for more than a few seconds. He’d gone from the shock part of injury to the actual hurting part. Clark picked up a prescription bottle from the kitchen counter and tapped out two pills. Bruce sat up very slowly and sincerely hoped it was Vicodin.
He stood up—too quickly, it felt like a knife going through his skull. Clark caught his arm before he could crack his head again and eased him onto the couch before handing over the pills and water. Bruce took them without complaint and then pressed his temple against the arm of the couch because it felt better than sitting up.
Clark chuckled. “You’re really docile when you’re hurt, you know.”
He leaned down and brushed the hair out of Bruce’s eyes so he could see the bruises.
“’M fine,” Bruce said, even though he was lying on his side in the Watchtower with his eyes almost shut. “How was your date?”
Clark sat down on the couch next to him, and Bruce shifted over to put his head next to Clark’s knee. Clark reached down and stroked his hair. He let his eyes close—even if he was hurt, the affection felt good. He certainly wasn’t going to pass it up.
“It was good. We went to this little Italian place and she had just finished a piece on a Venezuelan gun smuggling ring so she was happy and I was happy.” Clark sighed a soft little breath. “I almost asked her then and there. But I don’t think she’d be as pleased with a guy with half a meatball on his shirt.”
“You really want to marry her, then?” It came out before Bruce could stop himself. Maybe he really was as concussed as Clark thought he was. Or maybe he was just an idiot.
“Of course.” Clark sounded startled, but not angry at least. “Why would you ask that?”
Bruce paused, searching for a phrase that would end this before he was in over his head. He settled on “You just ought to be sure. Don’t do something because you’ve got fairytale romances spinning in your head. I mean, you’ve only really dated two girls—Lana and her.”
“Well your method of trying every dish Gotham has to offer doesn’t seem to be producing results,” Clark replied, though not unkindly. “Why the sudden assurances?”
“Concussion,” Bruce muttered, now clinging to the dim hope that Clark would just let it go.
“Do you not want me to get married or something?” Clark sat down next to him on the couch. Bruce kept his eyes closed so he didn’t have to look at Clark and risk giving something away. But he could almost feel Clark smirking. “You know, we’ll still be friends after I get married. It’s not like I’ll suddenly be handcuffed to Lois.”
“I’m not worried about that,” Bruce said, which was still a truth.
“Uh-huh.” Clark started rubbing the sore spot between his shoulders. Bruce bit his lip, hard. “You keep giving me these looks like you’re counting down the days. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
Damn. Apparently he wasn’t as subtle as he thought. Luckily, Clark was about as naïve as he was good at hiding things. He just had to cut off the part of his brain that was telling him how good it felt to have Clark’s hands working across his back.
“You’re practically my brother.” Bruce could feel the x-ray vision again. He decided not to snap about it. Sometimes he didn’t mind Clark’s overprotectiveness—and he had to admit that he was acting out-of-character. “I’m not going to stop being your friend because I’ve got a wife, too.”
Bruce stayed silent, eyes closed. He wondered what Clark would think if he could see what was really inside his head. There probably wouldn’t be much talk of friendship then. He tried to even out his heartbeat, keep still, make like he was asleep. Clark must have bought it, because he tugged a blanket over Bruce and very quietly left.
One last thought passed through his mind before he actually let himself sleep: Nobody screwed their brother.
Chapter 4: Lunch Date
When they met up in the Metropolis shopping district, Clark couldn’t stop himself from smiling. He was grinning when Bruce walked up to him on the sidewalk, kept smiling as he said hello and stayed that way while they headed towards a cluster of jewelry stores on 2nd Street. Bruce tried to follow suit.
“How’s the arm?” Clark asked.
“Fine.” Well, his definition of fine. He’d ditched the sling but kept his hand tucked in his jacket pocket so he didn’t have to use it much. Clark saw right through that, but withheld comment. Mostly because he had his face pressed up against a glass window. “See something you like?”
“Gold? White gold? Platinum?” Clark spun around and grabbed Bruce’s good arm. “Help me. There’s like six different diamond shapes and I don’t know what any of them mean. I thought more stones was better, but apparently that’s not ‘modern.’ Tell me you can decipher all this.”
“Go with something classic.” Bruce swept open the door and opened his hands across the jewelry case. The pretty little shopgirl (definitely the idiot one—she smiled like that head was full of air and he knew those breasts were all silicon) tried to take over for her commission but he shooed her away. “Like an asscher, emerald, or oval cut. And Lois seems like a platinum kind of girl. She wears a lot of purple and black.”
“That narrows it down by half.” Clark surveyed the display case, with an expression equal parts baffled and overwhelmed.
“Three stones is a nice look.” He pointed to a particularly beautiful one—slim and with an emerald cut diamond and two smaller circle ones. It would look great on Lois’s slim fingers and wouldn’t get in the way of her writing. Clark smiled at it and Bruce hated him for it just a little bit.
“That’s a pretty one.” He was practically making nose prints on the glass. “So, does this mean jewelry knowledge is one of those things rich kids get inherently, like piano playing?”
Bruce chuckled to avoid the question. Clark asked the saleslady to show him the row of platinum rings. He picked each one up, examining it and asking Bruce questions that he didn’t wait for responses to. All Bruce did was step back and occasionally murmur something like “It’s nice” or “That looks like Lois.” And he thought that girls were supposed to go marriage-crazy.
After about half an hour of it, Clark told the saleslady he’d think about it. They repeated the ritual at three more stores and then Bruce suggested they stop for lunch because he was sick of rings.
“I want it to be just right,” Clark said, over plates of pasta. Bruce had to agree—Clark was being one picky sonofabitch. Then Clark’s eyes went down to his plate. “And they’re damned expensive. It had better be right.”
“I could—” Bruce began.
“You are not, I repeat not, going to help me in any way to pay for my girlfriend’s engagement ring.” Clark pointed his fork at Bruce. “Over my dead body.”
Bruce shrugged and dug into his spinach tortellini. Clark ate in silence for a few minutes, devouring his spaghetti and meatballs like a good farmboy. then looked at Bruce again. “Well, we’ve spent the morning talking about my love life—how’s it been going since you and Diana stopped doing your thing? Are you back with Selina?”
“No.” His appetite suddenly vanished. He pushed the tortellini around in the sauce. ”I don’t think I’m going to go back to that.”
Clark rolled his eyes. “The novelty’s worn off?”
“It’ll never work out,” Bruce replied. “It was just a flirtation. Its not like I was ever going to have a serious relationship with her.”
“I didn’t think you were interested in a serious relationship,” Clark noted through a mouthful of gluten and tomato, then smiled. That was not a good thing, not in this conversation. “Is there someone who’s made you rethink your stance on long term relationships?”
“What?” Good god. How on earth did they get here? His brain was screaming ‘Abort! Abort! Abort!” like a self-destruct alarm. It felt like his heart had fallen into his stomach.
Clark shoved his plate to the side and leaned in on the table. “There is, isn’t there?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Bruce shoved a piece of pasta in his mouth in the hopes that Clark would start back in on his own meal.
“I can hear your heartbeat, you know.” Clark’s grin widened. Bruce stared down at the table. “And it’s rising.”
“You’re crazy.” He felt himself start to sweat, and hid his hands in his lap in case they started shaking. “If you want romantic intrigue, go borrow one of Shayera’s Harlequin romances.”
“I don’t know why you’re being cagey about this,” Clark said, with a raised eyebrow like Bruce was the most ridiculous person he knew. “She can’t possibly be worse than Talia.”
“Talia was perfectly fine.” Bruce split another pasta with the side of his fork and speared it but his appetite was definitely gone. “It was her father that was the problem.”
“Right. So you don’t remember when you’re daddy-issues girlfriend broke into your cave and stole your top-secret plans to disable us should we ever go rogue?” Clark rolled his eyes again. “Because I recall my skin being turned translucent by a kryptonite isotope you created.”
“That—” Bruce suddenly felt the need to defend himself, even though he was so desperately glad that the conversation had turned away from his current love life to his former one. “—was quite a long time ago.”
“You seem to have a habit of getting into the most difficult relationships possible,” Clark said. “Reformed kleptomaniacs, domestic terrorists, suspicious reporters—I think you’re a danger junkie.”
Bruce settled for signaling for the check and giving Clark what Wally called “The Patented Batglare.” Clark didn’t say anything else, but he kept that annoying smile on.
Chapter 5: Kansas
In which Bruce goes to Kansas and encounters the ever-unflappable Mrs. Kent.
Around two hours later they landed in the Kents’ cornfield.
Voices floated out from the patio door, and Bruce could just see the wing of the Javelin through the door of the barn. They might have been the last of the Leaguers to show up for the cookout. Clark didn’t rush in to help Ma like he usually did—instead he walked even a bit more slowly than Bruce, to give himself time to hide his expression. Bruce couldn’t puzzle it out—what did he care if his mom knew something was up?
The patio door flew open and Lois bounded onto the deck with a platter of uncooked hotdogs and hamburger patties. “Bruce! Clark! You’re both unusually late.”
“We had some work to do.” Clark hugged her and kissed her cheek. Bruce sputtered, “Lois? Are you here?”
They both turned his way—he hadn’t meant it to come out quite so harshly. Clark cocked his head and Bruce nearly smacked himself for being so damn jumpy. “Why wouldn’t I bring Lois? She knows everybody.”
“I was just surprised to see you, that’s all.” Surprised—yes, that was the word. Certainly not jealous. No, he was not jealous in the slightest that Clark had wanted to bring her to a League gathering. The part of his brain that existed to torture him whispered It’s like they’re already married. He followed Lois and Clark into the house after squishing the thought.
Ma Kent was taking something out of the oven when they came in. She hugged her son and nodded to Bruce before pointing them out to the porch where the others had congregated in the shade. Diana smiled at Bruce—he returned it be felt his stomach twinge a little. How was he supposed to win over Clark if he couldn’t stop stringing Di along? She was, after all, a perfectly good woman. It wasn’t her fault that he wasn’t interested in more than a casual fling.
Ma came out and took a seat on the porch swing. Pa was out back, flipping burgers and hotdogs on the grill. Lois was sitting on the rail, Clark with his arm slung around her. John, J’onn and Shayera were at the end of the porch, deep in conversation. Wally paced up and down, flitting between people. Bruce hung back near the door, until Diana saw him and practically pulled him next to her.
“What were you and Clark working on?” she asked, quiet and with enough inflection to tell him she doubted the “work” part of that sentence. She nodded towards Clark and Lois. “They’ve gotten awfully serious lately. Got any news I can know?”
He could almost see the wedding bells ringing in her eyes, and just shook her head. Clark looked over at the two of them and smiled. Damn.
Lois was saying something about her next project—uncovering a Venezuela-Iran arms smuggling ring. Clark leaned in, listening to her laugh about greasing the palms of some low-class thugs to get into a mob nightclub.
Without thinking (he’d been doing that too often, and look where it had gotten him) he said, “If you bribe them, all you’re doing is adding to the coffers. Perpetuating it.”
Lois’s head snapped up. “Please. A few lowlifes like that? I think it’s worth exposing the bigger picture.”
Clark had his arm around her shoulders. They were effortless together. Bruce bristled, slipped a few feet away from Diana without even realizing it. Lois was still smiling, sipping the Coke in her hand. His tongue acted without him telling it to. “It’s not ethical. You can’t stop the big things if you’re all but encouraging the small ones.”
Lois laughed, though not entirely nicely. “You’ve been wearing the cowl too much, Bruce. Relax.”
He glared at her for that. “Didn’t they teach you journalistic ethics in grad school?”
Lois’s face went dark at that, like a sudden summer storm. That was one thing about dating a girl: you always knew how to push her buttons. Calling Lois ugly, a bitch, whatever, wouldn’t have bothered her. But calling into question her professional expertise? You’d have her roaring in no time.
It was not the wisest of moves. But then, Bruce had built his life upon dangerous and ill-advised decisions. So he just watched her slam her soda down on the rail and give him a look that said quite clearly said that she wasn’t messing around. Clark, obviously, was just confused by the gunshot-sudden change in atmosphere.
“I think I’ve got plenty of journalistic ethics, thank you very much.” The empty aluminum crunched inside her hand. “Terrorism is far more important that a couple hundred bucks to some thickheaded idiots who’ll get arrested next week anyway. And if Perry disagreed he wouldn’t publish it. He is the editor, after all.”
Bruce shrugged. “My paper, after all.”
Her eyes narrowed. “If you do one damn thing to kill my article, I swear to God…”
“No.” He crossed his arms; feigning nonchalance like this was all a fun joke. “Terrorism being important and all.”
Clark stood up, grabbed Bruce (and not by his good arm) and dragged him into the house. “I’m going to get a drink. Bruce, why don’t you come with me?” He leaned in once they were inside the house and hissed, “Would you cool it? Let’s try and not annoy my girlfriend, please.”
“Son!” Pa Kent walked up to them. Bruce and Clark broke apart, Clark going to hug his dad. “How’re things in Metropolis?”
“Pretty good actually.” Clark smiled. He was terribly bad at hiding things. When he was angry he burned, when he was happy he could barely contain it. He was possibly the most genuine person Bruce knew. “Let me grab a soda and then we can talk.”
“I’ll go get you one,” Bruce said, to escape another episode of Clark’s engagement excitement. He ducked into the kitchen and opened up the fridge, poking behind the beers for the cases of pop. He pulled out lemon-lime (Clark’s favorite. He wondered to himself if Lois knew that) and turned around to find Ma Kent standing two feet behind him.
“Put that down,” she said, gesturing to the can. “We need to have a little chat.”
Very few people knew that Ma Kent could be downright terrifying. Bruce set the can down on the counter and tried to act like he was completely in control here.
“Is that for Clark?” Ma asked, but barely gave him time to nod before continuing. “This between you and Lois sure seemed to turn on a dime back there.”
“A minor disagreement,” he said, trying to phrase it as mildly as possible. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to argue at your cookout.”
“Honey, you only talk like that when you’re hiding something.” Ma Kent moved away from the kitchen door so that Pa and Clark out in the living room couldn’t see them talking. A slick feeling ran down Bruce’s spine. Ma Kent was not the simple country woman he’d taken her for when they first met, after eight years he knew she was as sharp as any of the businessmen he dealt with in the boardroom.
“I know he’s planning to ask her to marry him,” she said. “My son can’t hide a thing. I’m guess that’s where you were this morning—I can’t imagine what you’d both be working on together for a whole five hours.”
He nodded, and kept his mouth shut because he had no idea where this was going and that scared him to no end.
“I don’t know why you’d be so annoyed with Lois. You did date each other after all—and from what I understand she broke up with you.” Wow. How much did Lois and Ma Kent talk? He started thinking very uncharitable things about Lois for telling Clark’s mom that. Ma was leaning against the counter, cleaning an apple on her apron. “Though I guess it must be something hard, seeing your best friend get ready to get married and all, after you’ve broken up with your last girlfriend.”
“I’m very happy for Clark,” Bruce said, though the words tasted like aluminum.
“Of course you are.” Ma’s eyes bore into him. “It’s not that you love him or anything.”
Bruce started, banging backwards into the island. Spoons clattered down off the rack. “I don’t—we’re friends—”
“You were perfectly nice to Lois, until Clark decided to make a serious commitment to her. Then you jumped on her seconds into a conversation.” Ma took a bite out of the apple. Bruce felt the blood rise to his face. “I suppose it could just be that you don’t have many true friends and you’re scared of losing the one’s you’ve got. But I don’t think so. You jump to do anything he asks of you and you give Lois a look to kill whenever he touches her.”
Bruce’s hands clenched. Through a dry mouth, he asked, “Are you going to tell him?”
“You and Lois are quite alike, you know.” Ma tossed out the apple core. It hit the trashcan with a dead, dull thunk. “You’re both driven, intelligent, and dedicated. Goodness, if Lois had a little more training and a little more tragedy I’m sure she’d fit right in with the Bats.”
Bruce didn’t say a thing. He didn’t know what he would’ve.
“Are you trying to win him over?”
“I…” it was hard to say. “…I want to.”
“How are you ever going to do that—” She cleaned the apple juice from her fingers in the sink. “—if you can barely admit it to me when I say it straight out?”
“I don’t know.” It was the truth. Unequivocally.
“You had better figure it out.” Her hands dropped to her sides. He felt like the barbells were slowly lifting off his shoulders. “I like you and I like Lois. I don’t doubt that Clark will end up with one of you. You have my blessing to try. But if you make him leave Lois, don’t you dare hurt him. Don’t you dare lose him this relationship without giving him another. I know you love him. But I also know you aren’t the best at relationships.”
“I won’t hurt him.” Another truth. “I promise.”
Ma Kent nodded, and Bruce felt half the tension run out of his back. God, the woman should be working in a dark room somewhere for the CIA. “I believe you. Go out there, now. Bring Clark that soda.”
Bruce grabbed the can off the counter (and almost dropped it; it was sweating in the summer heat) and walked into the living room. His legs felt like cooked spaghetti, like they did when he came back to the Cave after an especially long battle. Clark looked over when he entered; all he could do was plaster on a smile and hand over the soda. Clark took it with a thank you and they went back to the porch.
“What were you and Ma talking about?” he asked.
“Oh, you know.” For an instant, Bruce debated grabbing Clark by the jacket lapel and kissing him right then and there. It would make it simple, at least. “This and that.”
Chapter 6: Just That Obvious
The Kents called them out to the deck not long after. Bruce took a hamburger and a seat on the picnic bench between Clark and Diana. Lois seemed to have decided to forgive and forget—she tossed him a can of Coke and he nodded to her. Being around her gave him a bitter taste in his mouth, but it wasn’t doing anything but making Clark angry when Bruce snapped at her.
Clark gave him a grin, a ‘we both know something that they don’t’ smile, and looked over at Lois. Bruce took a bite of the burger so he didn’t respond. Diana touched his shoulder and started saying something about a new Art Deco cinema in Washington. He nodded when he heard pauses.
Ma Kent locked eyes with him, and subtly pointed her fork at Diana. Bruce looked down at his plate.
“Di,” he said. “Didn’t you say you went on a date with that…Trey…um…Trevor guy? How did that go?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She touched his arm. He looked at Mrs. Kent again. “He was nice, but I we didn’t really hit it off. I guess I didn’t really get how odd it was to have a relationship with someone when there’s the whole ‘secret identity’ thing between you.”
He turned to her. “You ought to give it another try. From what you told me you two would work great together.”
Her mouth opened just slightly—he could tell that this had been meant to make him jealous. The Princess may be a good diplomat, but he was by far the more experienced manipulator, and he could tell when someone was trying to play it back at him. Ordinarily he’d let it go on a little longer. But now he was playing all his cards.
And she deserved, after all these years of cat-and-mouse, for someone who wasn’t going to toy with her.
“You should,” he said again, even though he barely remembered who the heck Colonel Trevor was. But from the looks he was getting from Shayera, she at least approved of the guy. Diana couldn’t do any worse with him. “Seriously. He sounds nice.”
Diana now had a look on her face like he’d been replaced by a space alien. Or maybe that was a choked-down anger. “Maybe I will. He invited me out to a nice little Italian place.” She added plenty of emphasis on little.
“Sounds like it’s right up your alley.” He bit into his hamburger, and Diana went to say something else. Damn, did the woman never give up?
Clark looked across them, towards Shayera. “Didn’t you say that you were dating someone new as well?”
“You are?” Diana exclaimed, and at the speed that only twp gossipy superheroines could achieve they had dropped the topic of Bruce/Diana and had picked up Shayera/Some-guy-from-the-bar.
Clark sipped his soda. “What am I, your Prince Charming?”
“What?” Bruce nearly jumped out of his seat. Oh god, if Ma had told Clark, he was going to run from this damnable picnic and never ever ever come out of the Cave again.
“Well I am always saving you.” Clark grinned. “From getting shot by Toyman, getting blown up by the Joker, from heroic suicide-by-Watchtower…and apparently from tenacious Amazonian ex-girlfriends.”
“Oh.” Bruce’s heart stopped trying to break free of his ribcage, and he forced a laugh. “Ha.”
Shayera had been thinking something over. It had been almost a week since the Kents’ picnic. She and Diana had talked afterward, and Diana for the first time since the Gorilla City incident had said, “I think it’s over, Shayera. Completely.”
Shayera, for her part, actually found herself agreeing. A month ago there was no way she should have said that the Batman/Wonder Woman whatever-it-was would have ended in anything other than death or a shotgun wedding.
And then Bruce had practically told Diana to go off and marry Steve Trevor for all he cared.
She may not have been a detective back on Thanagar, but she had been a spy, and this warranted further investigation. So she got her lunch in the cafeteria that day and took a seat where she could watch the Clark/Diana/Bruce trifecta two tables over.
Poor Diana. She leaned towards Bruce without even realizing it, touched his arm, and all he gave her was a vague smile. The girl would really have to let go of this crush sooner rather than later. At least this time Bruce was truly letting her go nicely and not turning her away so harshly that it was all she could do was come right back like a boomerang, convinced it was his issues rather than his indifference.
Clark said something. Both Diana and Bruce laughed. Well that was odd. She munched on her lasagna as she watched them. It was Diana in the left seat, Bruce in the middle, and Clark on the right at the square table.
Another odd thing. Usually it was Diana in the middle (when she and Bruce were together) or Clark in the middle (when they were fighting). Most of the oddness seemed to be centered on Bruce this time, if only for the fact that he was usually so damned consistent in his dark broodiness.
“What’s up?” John sat down next to her.
“Oh, not much.” Clark dropped his napkin. Bruce nearly tossed aside his own fork to reach down and grab it for him. Something clicked in her brain—an epiphany than suddenly explained a heck of a lot of the past eight years. “My god, it’s like a bad romantic comedy.”
“What?” John gave her a strange look. “You dating life not going well?”
“Oh, not you.” Shayera debated for a minute whether or not she should tell him, then decided that she had to have somebody else see this too. And it wasn’t like John was Wally. She pointed across to the other table, discreetly of course. “Them. We’ve got a love square in the Founders.”
“What?” John stared at the others’ table. “Clark, Bruce, and Diana? Are Bruce and Diana back together again? Because it seemed kind of final this time. Not that it hasn’t before.”
“No.” Shayera tilted her fork at Bruce and Diana. Clark was passing Bruce a copy of the monitor duty schedule; Bruce touched his arm just like Diana had done to him. “Look. Diana loves Bruce. Clark loves Lois. And Bruce loves Clark.”
“You’re insane,” John said. “I’ve known Bruce from before the JLA began. He does not have a thing for Clark. He’s slept with more women than I’ve even met.”
“Exactly! The more I look at it the more perfectly it fits.” Shayera put down her fork. “Who have Bruce’s major girlfriends been? Selina, Diana, and Talia al Ghul. Three of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. And somehow he’s never put a ring on any of those fingers. Most of the guys I know would be proposing on the first date.”
John hesitated. “Well, he is obsessive. Nothing comes in the way of the mission, and all that.”
“I heard from Clark that Ras al Ghul offered to give him control of the entire League of Assassins and Talia’s hand.” Shayera leaned forward. “He could have turned that into an army of Batmen to fight crime in every major city in the world.”
John opened his mouth, then closed it again. “That’s still not evidence. I’m not trying to be stereotypical here, but Bruce doesn’t exactly fit the gay profile. Especially the part about dating guys.”
“He could be bi. Or really, really closeted. He does live with his eighty-year-old father figure. Can’t be doing too many sketchy things.” Shayera gave the trinity’s table another look. “Or maybe Clark is his exception. You have to admit, they are very, very close. And Diana told me once that Bruce used to help her pick out what jewelry to wear when they went on dates.”
“Okay, they are together a lot. Bruce probably spends more time with Clark than he does anyone else outside of the Batfamily.” John also had to admit that Bruce had quite stunning fashion sense. “But I can’t see him being worried over Alfred—I’m sure the old man would be nothing but thrilled if Bruce settled down. And Clark, at least, is totally straight. He’s dated what, two girls? And he seems ready to pop the question to Lois any day now.”
“Clark’s irrelevant. Bruce is the one with the crush.” Shayera watched the word Lois form on Clark’s mouth, and the smile slip on Bruce’s face. That was a little sad. Maybe she’d watched Brokeback Mountain too many times, but she could just imagine Bruce secretly pining after Clark for years…
That was it. She had to set them up.
“You do not have a nice look on your face.” John noted. “What on earth are you planning, woman?”
“Nothing,” Shayera said, and gave him a sweet little smile. Bruce, Clark, and Diana got up from their table. She swept the last bite of lasagna into her mouth and waved goodbye to John. “See you later. There’s something I’ve got to do.”
Then she went after Bruce.
Bruce was about to start his monitor duty shift when someone grabbed his sleeve.
“Hi,” Shayera said. “You busy? I’ve got a strange question.”
“I’ve got monitor duty.” And no time for her. Especially after that lunch, when Diana still wouldn’t take a hint and Clark did nothing but talk about Lois. Goddamn Lois. He’d dated the girl and he was really starting to hate her.
“That’s fine.” She swept open the door and walked in first. He rolled his eyes and followed. Maybe she’d smashed another computer when she’d gotten frustrated. God knew he’d had to fix plenty of those.
The door closed behind them. He took his seat and logged into the computer. “All right. What do you want?”
Shayera sat backwards on the seat, chine resting on the back of it “What’s up with you and Clark?”
“What?” He was barely listening to her, more involved in watching to see if a Californian forest fire got out of hand.
“Do you have a thing for Clark?” Shayera looked him straight in the eyes.
Bruce’s hands involuntarily squeezed into fists. It took him a good three seconds to force them to resume typing. “I don’t know how you would think that.”
“Any denial is kind of moot, since you’re turning pretty red.” Shayera leaned back against the table. “Am I the only one who’s noticed this?”
“No. Mrs. Kent did.”
“His mom?” Shayera’s jaw dropped. “What did she say?”
"She said that she didn’t care who Clark ended up with so long as—“ Maybe he didn’t want to reveal that last part. “Well, that was about it.”
“Man, you’re transparent.” Shayera seemed to be enjoying this. “So she basically gave you permission? When are you going to tell Clark?”
“I’m not.” He glued his eyes to the screen. Unfortunately, the firefighters seemed to have everything under control.
“Oh, do tell,” Shayera said in a tone that made it obvious she thought he was crazy.
“He’s picking out engagement rings. Do you thinks it’s going to go over well if I just walk up and announce that…” he broke off. “I thought maybe if I could win him over, he’d come to the conclusion that Lois wasn’t right on his own.”
Shayera rubbed her eyes. “Yeah, that always works. Especially after, what? A decade of quite platonic friendship?”
“So it’s better to hint and hint until Clark skips off into the sunset to marry Lois?” Shayera sighed. It was like bad rom-com. “Is your reputation as a statistical genius overblown, or have you just never had to actually pursue a romantic interest before?”
“I’d rather have him marry Lois and not hate me,” Bruce said, “than have this all blow up in my face.”
Shayera sighed. “Diana was right, you can be cute sometimes.”
Bruce gave her a look.
“All right, forget I said that.” Shayera held up your hands. “And I’ll keep your secret if you agree to something.”
Bruce stared up and the ceiling and wondered how on earth he got into these situations. “What?”
Shayera smiled. “I’m going to help you get him.”
Chapter 7: Endgame
Bruce stopped at the door to Clark’s apartment building and had a very tiny, momentary panic attack. He’d only begrudgingly agreed to this plan, after Shayera pointed out that so far he’d struck out on every count. Not surprisingly, he found it exponentially harder to turn on the confidence and charisma when it was for someone he actually liked.
Shayera had watched him have a very small panic attack (and, he suspected, been highly amused by it) before telling him to ditch the tie. Then she’d given him the oh-so-helpful and not at all offensive advice to “try and act like a human.” Which, now that he was thinking about it while waiting for Clark, was doubly as offensive seeing as how she herself didn’t have a speck of human genes.
“So what made you decide to be social today?” Clark asked, while they walked to the Italian restaurant (medium-sized, not a chain, dimly but not that dimly lit) Bruce had picked.
“I’m trying to prove I’m a nice person.” Bruce tried to give a smile that felt liked it looked more scary than anything else. He should’ve done a practice run. His only hope was that Clark wasn’t idly scanning his vitals right now, because he didn’t want to explain the jacked-up heart rate.
They got to the restaurant and got a booth in a very far back corner (Clark did sort of raise an eyebrow at the fact that Bruce had gotten a reservation). The waiter came by with menus—Bruce handed them right back.
“I’ll have Merlot, and he’ll have a Cherry Coke,” he said. “And for entrees it’ll be the seafood linguini and spaghetti and meatballs.”
Clark stared at him. Bruce did his best to act cool. “Were you going to order something different?”
“No, that was it.” Clark smiled and shook his head. “Guess you do know me pretty well. This is a new idiosyncrasy, though.”
“I’m full of surprises.” Bruce smiled back. The panic had subsided. “And all you ever order at Italian places is spaghetti and meatballs. Farmboys’ meal of choice. Hardly a case for The World’s Greatest Detective.”
Clark laughed at that one. “Honestly, I think I’m done trying to figure you out. Just go with it and break with convention, I suppose?”
Bruce jumped at the line, then Clark’s actual meaning kicked in. Maybe he should’ve had wine before coming, to quell the paranoia. “Since when is taking someone you like out to lunch breaking convention?”
“If I had a dollar for every time I heard the line ‘I’m too busy’ from you,” Clark said, with a look that spoke to how amusing he found all of this to be, “I’d be richer than you and Lex combined.”
“I told you; I’m a nice person.” Bruce was quite happy to accept his glass of red wine from the waiter. “Best get used to it.”
“I could.” Clark twirled freshly-delivered noodles around his fork and chewed the mouthful. “Heck, with food like this, I could just kiss you.”
Bruce paused, fork halfway to his plate. The image of Clark leaning over the table, pulling him close…he let it play for just a fraction of a second. This was going beautifully. Perfectly. Maybe Shayera was right. He ought to just tell Clark, right now, while they were both happy in such a small restaurant booth—“I’ve got something to show you.” Clark was grinning, ear to ear like the Cheshire cat. “Don’t get pissed at me for doing it without you, okay?”
He pulled a ring box from his pocket, opened it, and set it on the table. It was the three-stone ring they’d seen on the day of the Kents’ picnic.
It felt like the air had been stolen from his lungs. A hard, dizzying kind of pain. The soft light got trapped in the ring and made it sparkle like a chunk of winter ice. His hand was frozen above his plate, and he couldn’t quite figure out how to breathe.
“You bought the ring.” At least it came out sounding flat, and not like he couldn’t swallow.
“Won’t it look good on her?” Clark was glowing.
“It will.” Bruce could see it. Lois, radiant in a white dress. And he would have to stand up there, and hand Clark that goddamn ring to put on her finger, and smile all through it. “You made a great choice.”
“Thanks.” Clark turned the box back towards him, almost lost in the stones. Then his head snapped back up. “So I know this is kind of implicit already, but I thought I’d make it official: you want to be my best man?”
“Of course. I’d love to,” he said. Of course. He managed to put a piece of shrimp in his mouth, chew and swallow. It tasted like sand. “Would you excuse me for a minute?”
Then he walked into the bathroom without feeling his legs, put his head against the mirror, and wondered how the hell he’d ever thought this would work.
Shayera gave him a weak speech about how, until Clark had actually proposed to Lois, they weren’t engaged. But Bruce knew boys from Kansas didn’t drop four grand on a ring if they could be swayed from the course. And even he had to admit that Clark looked so very happy.
He was done. Shayera suggested that he give it another shot, ask Clark somewhere with lots of alcohol involved and confess everything. It wasn’t going to happen. If there was one thing Bruce was good at when it came to Clark, it was keeping his mouth shut. Not the other way around.
Only now, every time he looked at Clark he felt like he was trying to drink boiling water.
So here he was, eating a sandwich with Diana in the cafeteria, because at least she wanted him. If only he could switch it around and have her as the committed best friend and have Clark love him even half as much as she did now.
“Hey guys!” Clark plunked down his tray (grilled cheese and tomato soup, of course. Same thing every Tuesday he’d been on the Watchtower. Bruce knew) right next to his. Bruce resisted the urge to get up, dump his lunch, and walk right out. He hadn’t slept in three days and didn’t want to deal with this.
“Hey, Clark.” Diana passed him over the monitor duty schedule, for his signature.
Bruce nodded at him and then kept his eyes on his tray. He had half a bowl of minestrone left. Estimating fifteen seconds per bite, he had at least five minutes left of this conversation.
Evidently he missed some point from Clark, because the next thing Diana said was, “Ignore him, he’s been quiet today.”
“Thinking about his mysterious girlfriend, probably.” Clark nudged him in the shoulder. Bruce both wanted to strangle him and jump into his lap.
“What’s this?” Diana asked. “You’ve got a girlfriend I don’t know about?”
“No.” He increased his pace to ten seconds per bite.
“Hence the mysterious part. Apparently its not Selina, Talia, or—well—you.” Clark and Diana both looked at him. Bruce felt like the temperature was ratcheting up, one degree at a time. “He won’t tell me who she is.”
“Because she doesn’t exist.” Right now he was kind of wishing Clark didn’t, either. It would be nice to not think about him for a while.
“Right.” Clark chuckled. “You’re completely single for the first time since I’ve known you. No squeezes for Bruce Wayne, no anyone on the side for you, no neither-here-nor-there flirtations? Really? Come on, Bruce, play straight with us. Who is she?”
“Goddamnit!” He had enough—he stood up and grabbed his tray off the table. “I don’t have a girlfriend, I don’t have an interest in one, and I wish that you would shut the fuck up about it.”
“Jesus, calm down.” Clark held his hands up. “I was just teasing. I tell you about my love life. I don’t see what’s wrong about taking an interest in yours.”
“Just forget it.” Bruce threw his tray on the conveyor belt. “I’m just tired. Forget it, okay?”
He didn’t look back at Clark, just left for patrol hoping some goon could punch him in the face hard enough to erase the fact that he was in love with a guy who would never want him back.
Chapter 8: King of Hearts
Bruce avoided Clark. He knew he shouldn’t have—it wasn’t Clark’s fault, after all. And he had no idea why his future best man was suddenly ducking around corners whenever he appeared and never answered his calls. Eventually, Bruce would have to put on a bachelor party and have Alfred choose a suit.
He was just going to put it off as long as he could.
Clark caught Diana after her monitor duty shift. He didn’t know who else to ask—he’d run through everything from the past two months in his head and couldn’t figure it out by himself. “Do you know if Bruce is angry with me?”
“He hasn’t said anything to me.” She looked up from the papers she was holding. “Why do you think he is? He’s not one to get upset over stupid stuff, and I think you’d know if you’d done something egregious.”
“I think I would too.” They walked together down the hallway. “But it seems like he’s avoiding me.”
“You could just ask him,” Diana said.
“Because that works so well.” Clark sighed. “Maybe I will. If I actually see him. We were supposed to have monitor duty together yesterday but somehow he got Wally to do it. Seriously, the only time I even caught a glimpse of him was his cape disappearing into his room.”
“You’re sure you don’t know what you did?” Diana stopped in the middle of the hall. “Because that kind of silent treatment is like the top level of his responses.”
“I literally have no idea.” Clark shook his head. “It’s weird. One minute we were getting along great and then the next he won’t talk to me. Do you think I seriously pissed him off when I asked about his non-girlfriend?”
Diana laughed. “You can probably already extrapolate from his past ones what she’s like. He does have type.”
“Tall, dark-haired, propensities towards secret identities?” Clark asked.
Diana shrugged. “Pretty much describes me, I guess, and Selina and Talia. So based on that he’s dating Huntress.”
“Dear lord, no wonder he’s keeping it a secret.” They both laughed, and then almost ran into Shayera as she came around the corner carrying a box of computer parts. Clark stopped her. “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to know anything about Bruce, would you?”
“Why?” Her eyes slid down to the box.
“He’s been avoiding Clark and neither of us know why,” Diana said. “Though he is apparently touchy about his new girlfriend.”
Shayera shrugged, shifting from foot to foot like she really had to get moving. “I wouldn’t know. It’s not like Bruce and I hang out like the three of you do. Heck, Clark, you two are together so much that I thought you were dating.”
There was an uncomfortable beat before Clark laughed at that. “Yeah, right.”
“Oh, come on,” Shayera smiled, and started trying to edge around them. “Opposites attract, you know. And you two sure are together a lot. Heck, sometimes Bruce finishes your sentences. Practically one step short of a couple.”
Diana looked at him. “He is your work wife.”
“Great.” Clark shook his head. “So I’ve ticked off my fake spouse?”
“Yep.” Shayera moved the box to her other arm and continued on her way. “You really ought to fix that.”
“She’s right,” Clark said to Diana. “I think Wally talked him into coming to that party he’s putting on next week. Maybe I can catch him then.”
“If he doesn’t decide to revoke Wally’s party-throwing rights,” Diana replied, but smiled. “Well, good luck. And you’re bringing Lois, right? I haven’t seen her in awhile.”
“She’ll be there.” Clark turned towards the monitor bay, fingering the ring box in his pocket and thinking about Wally’s party would be very good indeed.
Four days later, Bruce was in his dormitory room on the Watchtower, trying to make up imaginary work so he could avoid going to Wally’s party. Currently, that meant sitting on the bed, updating the member database with everyone’s most recent missions. He didn’t know what he’d been thinking when he’d agreed to it (or for that matter, when he’d turned a blind eye to the not-quite-21 Wally lugging six bottles of vodka off the transporter). Actually, he did, because Wally had asked the hour before he was going to have lunch with Clark.
And look how lovely that had gone.
He’d promised to come (mostly to stop Supergirl and Stargirl from sneaking off with a bowl of spiked punch) but now he was thinking he’ much rather go on patrol and be able to break some thug’s bones. Stress relief, after all.
Someone knocked on the door.
Which meant it was Clark, of course, since everyone else used the doorbells. Apparently an impolite act in Kansas. And because it was Clark, who doubtlessly already knew he was here, he couldn’t just avoid the issue. He hit the button on his comlink and the door hissed opened.
“Hi!” Clark plunked himself down beside Bruce. “What are you doing?”
“Updating the database.” Bruce glanced over at him for just a second. Clark was wearing the sports jacket he’d gotten him for his 30th birthday (because the cut showed off just how tall he was, and the color went with his eyes. He’d said that Alfred picked it). Bruce jumped back to the screen. “Shouldn’t you be at Wally’s thing?”
“So should you.” He heard Clark pause. “Listen—did I do something wrong?”
“What do you mean?” Bruce kept his eyes glued to the screen and tried to increase his typing speed to give the impression that he really was very busy.
The mattress shifted as Clark leaned back against the wall. “It…well, it just seems like you’ve been avoiding me lately.”
His hands froze for a split second. It took all his brainpower to even out his breathing pattern so Clark wouldn’t be able to tell anything was up. “You didn’t do anything. I’ve just been under pressure lately—things have been heating up in Gotham lately. I—didn’t mean to avoid you.”
“I’ve offered to take patrol for you.” Clark put his arm around him. Tingles ran down his back. “You could take me up on that. But I am sorry if I crossed a line with the girlfriend thing.”
“I don’t have a girlfriend. I swear.” Bruce said, hoping this would put an end to it. But Clark seemed to catch that he was avoiding part of that topic. Bruce groaned, inwardly.
Clark gave him a sly look. “Is this the first girl who hasn’t thrown herself into your lap?”
It was much closer to the truth than Bruce wanted to admit. But he didn’t have anything to come back with so he just refocused on the database and tried to settle his voice. “You’re imagining things.”
Clark grinned at him. He had awfully straight teeth for someone who’d never had braces. Bruce wondered if all Kryptonians were genetically perfect or if Clark had just gotten all the good genes. Or maybe he was just biased, seeing as how he was insanely tempted to cross the six inches between them and kiss Clark full on the mouth. “Sure, Bruce. Whatever you say.” Then he paused, like he was debating something. "You're my friend. And I've found someone I'm happy with--I just want you to be happy to. And now I promise to stop being sappy before you get more annoyed with me."
Bruce huffed at him; Clark just smiled again and stood up. “Are you coming out of your mini-Cave after you finish that?”
“Yeah.” He supposed he had to. “Shouldn’t take me that much longer.”
“Good.” Clark stood up from the bed. He swung his hands like he was nervous about something. There was a twitchy grin on his face. After a second he patted his pocket and leaned back towards Bruce like he wanted him to pick up on something. “I think I’m going to ask her tonight.”
“Oh.” He couldn’t quite focus on the computer screen—suddenly the lines went blurry. His teeth grit together hard enough to feel them squeak against each other. But he’d gotten so much practice in forcing a smile that it was hellishly easy, even now. “That’s nice. I’m sure she’ll be thrilled.” I’m happy for you was too much of a stretch.
Clark was too excited to notice the weird pitch in his voice. The Kryptonian just nodded and went backwards towards the door. His hand was on his pocket, like he was wishing luck on it.
It was only a twelve-foot walk from the bed to the door, but Bruce watched him do it in slow motion. It was like standing in front of a tsunami—with each step Clark took towards the door and towards the inevitable, Bruce saw the wave looming ever taller, ready to crash over him. The feeling was akin to ever-larger rocks being stacked on his chest.
He had always known this was the most likely outcome. Perhaps he just hadn’t accepted it.
Clark took the last step (towards the door that led to the future where Bruce would have to watch him marry Lois and have children, and slowly lose him) and reached out for the knob.
Bruce’s mouth seized his last option without informing his brain. “Clark. Wait.”
Clark’s hand fell back from the knob. The door stayed closed. He turned back to Bruce.
No retreat now. Bruce met his eyes. “Please don’t marry Lois.”
Chapter 9: All In
“What?” Clark stared at him.
Bruce closed the laptop and pushed it aside, just to give his hands something to do and to hide them shaking. He had to swallow before he could answer. “Please don’t marry her, Clark.”
Clark sat down on the desk chair—fell into it, really. He clasped his hands on his lap. At least he hadn’t yelled. Or walked out. Small blessings. But this serious look that Bruce was getting was no ray of sunshine either. “Why?”
Bruce looked down at the carpet. When he’d been building the Watchtower, he’d picked brown-grey, because it hid stains and was about as basic as possible. Now he wished he’d chosen something more distracting, or at least a color that would prompt an answer to his mouth. One that didn’t result in Clark storming out.
“Did something happen?” Clark asked, quietly. Bruce could see the gears in his head spinning—Bruce and Lois had dated, after all, did he know something that Clark didn’t.
“No, I—” Bruce tried. His voice faltered out. He focused on the soft sounds of the desk chair creaking and Clark breathing, out and in.
Then Clark stood up, a bit of a knowing smile on his face. He sat back down next to Bruce, putting an arm around his shoulders like a kindly older brother. “This is why we can’t have all our talks when you’re concussed. We’re still going to be friends after I get married. I promise.”
Bruce crossed his arms over his stomach, because a colony of butterflies had suddenly hatched there, and looked anywhere but at Clark. If he did he was either going to run from the room or freeze up completely.
“What is it?” Clark’s hand moved from his shoulder to his back.
Bruce closed his eyes. Clark was right—if he got married it wouldn’t be the end of the world. It would mean less of this but he didn’t have to risk losing him for good. “Never mind. Just—never mind. You should ask her; you’ll be great together.”
“No, out with it.” Clark was dead serious now, any hint of teasing erased. He perched on the edge of the bed with his legs crossed. “I’m serious. If I told you not to marry Diana you sure as hell would want to know why.”
“I’m not going to ask Diana to marry me.” Bruce found that if you stared at the carpeting long enough the random grains began to move into whirls and spirals.
“That’s beside the point.” Clark’s voice rose a fraction, which for him was the normal person’s equivalent of ten decibels.
Bruce took a deep breath. Clark’s eyebrows went up. Damn, he was listening. Bruce tried to form the sentence You should take me instead of her but it failed. Instead he went for leading, hoping that Clark would pick up this thread and fill in the pieces himself. And he certainly hoped that he didn’t sound as miserable as he felt. “Alfred didn’t pick out that jacket. I did.”
Clark looked down at himself, and back up in confusion. “Okay.”
“It makes you look cute.” Now he was just sounding creepy. Or schizophrenic, by the way he couldn’t stick straight on one topic of conversation. And he had just called Clark cute. God. “I mean…”
Clark was sitting back against the wall now, just watching him with a mix of interest, disbelief, and slight annoyance at his refusal to get to the point.
Going in circles wasn’t going to work. It hadn’t worked for almost a decade. Bruce gave himself a slim second to debate what might have happened if they’d had this talk years ago, before Lois knew about the secret identity and before Clark bought a ring. Then he did the conversational equivalent of jumping in with a stick of dynamite. “I like us being together.” It came out sounding like someone had their hand around his neck.
Clark froze. A tectonically slow change came over his face. His eyes got just a little bit wider, and Bruce could practically see the pieces of the equation falling into place inside his head.
At least he didn’t walk right out, which was all that Bruce had been silently asking for. Instead he just stayed where he was, but didn’t get an inch closer. Softly, he asked, “How long has this been going on?”
Bruce realized he was biting his nails, and twined his fingers together instead. “Do you remember when the Riddler, Poison Ivy, and Parasite teamed up with a bunch of S.T.A.R. Labs tech and almost succeeded in killing us both?”
Clark stared at him for a full thirty seconds before responding. “That was probably seven years ago.”
Bruce nodded. “Almost eight, now.”
“And you never said anything?” Clark ran a hand through his hair. Somehow, he still didn’t sound angry. Bruce let himself relax. “In eight years? What about Selina? Or Diana?”
“Diana’s a lot like you,” Bruce said. “I know. I shouldn’t have. I just…” His mouth went dry. “I was okay with us being friends.”
“Until I wanted to commit to Lois.” Clark finished for him. “A yellow sun doesn’t give me telepathy, Bruce.”
Bruce looked at him. Clark didn’t have his arms crossed, no frown or pursed lips. A touch of surprise, yes, but even with all the years he had spent studying body language Bruce couldn’t find a hint of anger in Clark’s. He started entertaining the notion that this was actually possible, and at the end of this he would have Clark’s arms wrapped around him instead of the chill air of an empty dorm room.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and meant it. “I should’ve asked you before. I just—I didn’t want to scare you off. But don’t you see—we would be good together, Kal.”
Clark nodded, barely.
Bruce took his chance in both hands, because that was all the encouragement he needed. He leaned forward on the bed, towards Clark. He’d been waiting almost a decade for this, long years of watching from afar and not being able to touch, and his body moved almost without his consent to bridge the few inches between them—
--and Clark laid a hand on his chest to stop him. Not pushing him away, but stopping him dead.
Clark’s blue eyes were painfully clear. He had on one of those small smiles that you hand someone before you tell them there’s been a death. “I’m marrying Lois.”
His brain couldn’t compute it. For a minute the words sounded like a foreign language, and when they hit it felt like being in a train wreck. Bruce fell back against the opposite wall.
He shook his head. “But—Clark…”
“You’re my best friend,” Clark said, his voice soft like he was trying to make this as easy as possible. “I would trust you with everything. Yes, I love you. But I know you too well to want to spend my life with you.”
The breath turned to water in Bruce’s chest.
Clark reached out and brushed a stray lock of hair away from Bruce’s eyes. Bruce felt like he’d become marble, cold and unresponsive, and he knew he’d fucked it up this time. “I’ve seen you push away every person you care about. You’re obsessive, Bruce, to the point where I don’t think you can see when you’re killing yourself. You’ve got two boys who see you as their father and yet you treat them and everyone else like soldiers.”
It was a surreal sort of pain. He had known that Clark knew him inside and out; he hadn’t realized it meant that he could so easily be skinned alive.
The next part had the cadence of a poem, as Clark was trying to make this as simple as swallowing bitter medicine. As if it would be all better in the end. “You don’t know how to handle people. Look how long it took us to get here, and even now you can’t say you love me. Like you can’t get close to anyone, because you’re too focused or too bitter or too afraid, and so you throw away every chance you have to make yourself happy.”
Bruce couldn’t make a sound.
Clark tilted his head for one last sad smile, and then he shifted off the bed. “I think you’re broken, sweetheart.”
This hurt worse than anything the Joker ever could have done to him with a knife.
“I’m sorry.” And he knew that Clark meant it, because Clark was the most honest person he knew. “I just don’t think I can live that way.”
And then he opened the door, and left.
Chapter 10: Forfeit
Here it is, the last chapter! Thanks to everyone who has commented on or given kudos to this story.
It took Bruce twenty minutes to pull himself off the bed and another ten to gather up the composure to go to Wally’s party. He only did it because he’d promised, and if he were being truthful with himself because he hoped that showing up and acting like nothing happened would make this whole bundle of stupidity blow over quickly. Then maybe he and Clark could return to their default friendzone setting.
He walked into the party, grabbed a cup of punch like he didn’t know it was spiked, and immediately afterward caught sight of Clark and Lois, sitting very close on a couch and laughing with Diana. He sipped the punch and was happy for the vodka.
“Didn’t go well?” Shayera appeared at his elbow. An evil little voice in his head said he ought to strangle her for suggesting that anything good could come of telling Clark that he’d been fantasizing about him for eight years.
Instead of that, he just dug his nails into the Styrofoam cup and shook his head. “He’s going to ask her.”
“Wait—did you tell him you want him?” Shayera asked, with the look of a middle schooler who’d just gotten ahold of a juicy piece of gossip. All women were the same, human or alien. “You guys were talking for at least twenty minutes. What did he say?”
The artificial fruit flavor turned sour in his mouth. He could still hear Clark’s voice echoing the unvarnished truth. You’re broken. Enough that he didn’t know how to be around people, and enough that Clark wouldn’t take him no matter if he were wanted or not.
Shayera must have read the look on his face, because she touched his shoulder and moved on to talk to John. He’d been to plenty of cocktail parties full of stupid people he didn’t know, and yet he’d never felt more lonely and awkward next to a table of cheap alcohol.
He would’ve gone and talked to Diana—always his fallback—but she was over there, with them, and probably didn’t want to spend much more time with the man she’d wasted five years on anyway. Lois was running her hand through Clark’s hair like a compulsion by the time he was on his second cup of punch. Clark leaned toward her, but looked ever so slightly uncomfortable. His eyes flicked to Bruce just once—good old Clark, still worrying about offending him.
Bruce so easily could have gone over and ripped Lois’s hand off of Clark, damn the stares, damn the consequences—he put his cup down before that started sounding like a good idea.
Every few minutes Clark reached over to his pocket, like he was finally going to step over the precipice. It would’ve been the perfect time—surrounded by friends, just enough alcohol, Christmas lights strung up to make it a festival. But the ring never appeared.
Eventually Bruce made sure that Wally had seen him actually make an appearance, and then took a teleporter back to the relative safety of the Cave.
If Clark wasn’t a telepath, then at least Alfred apparently was. Bruce was down in the Cave for no more than half and hour before the butler appeared with a pot of tea and a plate of steaming chocolate-chip-walnut cookies. Bruce looked down at them—it was Alfred’s sympathy recipe. God forbid he and Ma had been talking again.
He bit into a cookie. It crumbled in his mouth beautifully, perfect as always, but he couldn’t taste the sweetness. Even his tongue was numb.
"Trouble with Ms. Prince, Master Bruce?” Alfred asked, as he busied himself with dusting off the Batcomputer’s spare monitors.
“No,” Bruce replied, and ate another cookie with the dim hope that it would act something like a tranquilizer.
“Forgive me, sir, I could have sworn this was one of your romantic broodings.” Alfred tucked away the dustrag and began meticulously picking crumbs from the keyboard. Bruce started running surveillance footage from Gotham’s major crime areas, even though what he wanted to be doing was watching replays of the Justice League’s battles, seeing Clark swooping down to knock Sinestro off the Empire State Building, powerful and majestic….this grainy black and white was not holding his attention. Worse, Alfred had noticed. “Ah. Someone else, then?”
“I’d rather not discuss it.” What the hell would he say? Just to get to the hard part of the story he’d have to explain far more than he wanted to. “Nothing’s going to happen.”
Alfred took a cookie for himself and sighed at his ward. “We can’t win them all, sir, no matter how much we may want it. Now drink your tea before it gets cold.”
Bruce poured himself a cup, added the cream and sugar, and finish the pretense of putting the porcelain to his lips. Mercifully, Alfred took the tray and left him in the Cave with his thoughts. They were dark indeed, but at least he didn’t have to put on a show of acting like he was being productive.
He could still feel Clark’s hand against his chest, cutting off any possibility of a happy ending. And sitting in the leather chair with the sounds of dull wings flapping in the darkness, he had to admit that Clark deserved far more than him. Lois was a good woman—she was strong and sharp where Clark could be overly nice, a hands-on reporter where he was a researcher. They fit together like puzzle pieces.
And it would be his fault if Clark didn’t marry the woman who was perfect for him.
Bruce hotwired the buzzer on Clark’s apartment building so he could get in without having to call up. He’d fix it later—if he had to take the long walk up six flights of stairs with Clark already knowing he was there, he’d lose his nerve.
Clark opened the door after the second knock. Apparently he was too polite to use the x-ray vision, because he almost jumped when he saw Bruce standing in the doorway.
“Hi. I—ah—I was meaning to talk to you,” he said, and stepped back. “Um. Would you like to come in?”
“No, that’s all right. I’m only going to be here for a minute.” Bruce kept his hands in his pockets to keep himself from ripping away at his nails. The silence hung in the air. “You should marry her, Clark.”
Clark stared at him.
“You were going to ask her last night and you didn’t. But you should.” His hands clenched into fists, like they were trying to hold on to this last chance. He forced them to release. “You’re perfect for each other.”
“Bruce…” Clark began, looking almost startled.
“Let me finish.” Bruce didn’t add This is already hard enough. “I can see how much you want each other.” The next part took a deep breath. “I love you but you deserve someone who can be there for you and who actually knows how to act like a human and who isn’t irreparably screwed up.”
“Bruce—” Clark started again, doubtlessly about to say something comforting.
“Please.” If Clark stopped him now, he would turn and run back down the stairs. He was quickly losing what stores of confidence he’d had to build up to get here. “You have to go ask her. It’s your happy ending. And if you still want me, I’d be honored to be your best man. Anyway—” He could barely hold the smile. “—you’ll have really cute kids.”
“Goddamnit, Bruce.” Clark grabbed him by the shoulders. Bruce stopped because any swearing from Superman was a novelty. “Shut up for a second.”
Bruce’s mouth snapped shut.
“You’re not irreparable,” Clark said, softly. “And I’m sorry, for what I said to you.”
“You were right about everything. And I shouldn’t have gotten between you two.” Bruce looked down. Their feet—his in leather business shoes, Clark wearing blue socks that Lois had gotten him for Christmas—were separated by the line in carpet between the hallway and the living room. “I meant it all—you and Lois are great together.”
“We work well together.” Clark rubbed his hands together. Bruce glanced down the hallway—this would be a difficult conversation to explain to any passing neighbors. Or maybe he was just looking for an excuse to leave and go lick his wounds. “But I was wrong. There’s a reason they call us the World’s Finest.”
If he hadn’t known what cardiac arrest actually felt like, he would’ve sworn that his heart stopped beating in that instant.
“Lois is a lovely woman,” Clark continued, reaching across to tip Bruce’s chin up so they were eye-to-eye again. “And there are so many things I admire in her—its why I asked her out and why we kept dating. I was going to ask her last night. I was. But I couldn’t.”
He looked down, like he was the one who ought to be ashamed over something. “I don’t know—we came home after the party and were sitting on the couch and you know what she said?” He smiled softly, and faraway. “She said that there was a point where she thought that there was something going on between the two of us. And all I could think was, ‘Even my girlfriend sees it.’”
Now it was Clark’s turn to look away. “There’s nothing that can replace going through hell together. And we do that every damn day. God—I really screwed this up, didn’t I?”
Bruce’s brain must have decided that this was a hallucination, because it wouldn’t let him believe it. Instead it kept bringing up the Black Mercy, a fatal dose of Joker toxin…any other explanation besides reality.
Clark smiled. “Is this what it takes to make Batman lost for words?”
“You want to be with me?” It came out in a whisper, like if he spoke too loudly he’d shatter the illusion.
Clark nodded, as if he were trying to be silent too.
Elation. He wanted to throw his arms around Clark right then and there. And yet he couldn’t—because suddenly his fingernails were pressed into his palms and oh god he would’ve liked to hit Clark just as mush as he wanted to strip off his stupid thrift store suit. Instead of jumping at either he pressed his hands to his sides and tried very hard to keep his head. “You don’t get to do this. Christ, Clark, you don’t get to change your mind in a goddamn day.”
“I know.” Clark crossed his arms around himself.
“Next Tuesday are you going to realize that this was a mistake? That you were right and you magically make me into the type of person who goes on movie dates and you into the type of person who can accept that?” His voice rose an octave. He tried to bite it back. “This is not all my fault, either. I know I don’t show things well and I know that I don’t know how to handle people but I am not the only one who kept things secret for eight years. This was not all me.”
Clark nodded. “I know. It’s not. And its stupid, but I was nervous already and all I could see was the things that could go wrong. But I promise, I won’t leave after a week. This is what I want.”
Who was he kidding? He couldn’t stay angry. But still, his mouth went and betrayed him: “I promised your mom I wouldn’t mess you up.”
Clark laughed at that, so thankfully that it was like a dam breaking. And the idea that this was real was beginning to be more acceptable. “Ma likes to protect me—but I think some things are worth taking risks for.”
Bruce let himself breathe.
Clark took his hands. Their fingers twined together like they were going to skip off down the hall (this was an unfortunate vision to get halfway through a serious conversation. Bruce bit his tongue to keep from chuckling and wondered if he’d been spending too much time with Wally. That, or he was high on adrenaline) or break into a rendition of some Broadway song. “You have to promise me something.”
And Bruce thought: This is actually happening. “Okay.” He didn’t add: anything.
“I don’t want to be pushed away,” Clark said. When he was especially earnest about something he tilted his head oh-so-slightly left and didn’t blink, which had a tendency to make his eyes look more teal than sky blue. This was not an appropriate time for these observations, but Bruce decided that he was going to let himself get lost in it. “For better or for worse. No locking me out, or hiding in the Cave when something’s wrong, or spending days on a mission without at least leaving a note.”
Bruce nodded, wanting desperately to have more contact than their clasped hands.
Clark looked at him like he didn’t believe him. In his defense, he had had nothing but eight years of white lies and half-truths.
“I’m—” he tried for honesty. “—not very good at this.”
Clark laughed at that. And then before it registered in Bruce’s head, Clark had bent down and pressed a kiss against his mouth. Electricity ran down his spine and set off fireworks in his curiously empty skull. He’d fantasized this moment so many times that he was having a hard time believing it was anything but a dream, but then Clark’s arm wrapped around his back and the weight was enough solidity to kick him out of his dazedness.
He grabbed Clark’s hair and pulled him down. He’d waited eight goddamn years; he certainly wasn’t going to waste another second.
Clark’s mouth was dangerously close to his ear. “You know, Diana called you my work wife.”
“That’s not going to work out,” Bruce said, “I can’t cook.”
“I’ll teach you,” Clark replied, like this was a logical conclusion, while his thin fingers traced up and down the tense muscles in Bruce’s back. Damn—who would’ve known that the Kryptonian with his hand-knit sweaters would be so good at this? “Then I can come home to you in an apron making cupcakes.”
“Kinky.” All right, the logical part of his brain was utterly shot now. ”And also very gay, Clark.”
Clark grinned against his cheek. “It was a joke.”
“So was that.”
Clark stepped back and looked him in the eyes, completely serious. “We will have to work on that too.”
It took all of Bruce’s self-control to wait until he’d hauled Clark into his apartment to tear off that idiotically complicated suit.