Knocking on the front door got Clark Kent out of bed, where he’d been lounging, reading a conspiracy thriller much more slowly than he had to and munching on honey roasted peanuts he didn’t actually need.
The knocking wasn’t loud but it was persistent and evenly timed. There was no rush of the raps on the door with his slow approach, no slowing as he approached the entrance to his apartment.
He didn’t need the peephole; he just looked straight through the door.
Clark couldn’t have been more surprised if the Pope had been standing on the doormat outside.
It was Bruce Wayne.
He unhooked the chain lock and yanked the door open.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded, as Bruce nodded wearily in greeting and stepped past him without invitation into the apartment. He turned to track Bruce’s progress and Bruce sniffled.
“Are you…what’s going on? Are you crying?”
“Calm down, Clark,” Bruce said irritably. “It’s just a cold.”
“What happened? Are you okay?”
Clark followed him deeper into the living room, where Bruce sat down on the couch and leaned back. He seemed to think better of it and stretched out instead.
“I’m fine,” Bruce mumbled against the couch arm. “Just tired.”
He did look kind of sick. It did nothing to soothe Clark’s worry.
“What are you doing in Metropolis? At—” Clark glanced through the wall at the kitchen clock, “—two in the morning?”
“Is there a better time to be in Metropolis? The whole city’s as bright as a damn Christmas tree no matter what time it is,” Bruce grumbled. “Besides, you don’t sleep.”
“I don’t need to sleep,” Clark clarified. “Doesn’t mean I don’t. I mean, I’m not complaining that you’re here, gosh, no, if you need help, my door is always open…”
“It was locked,” Bruce answered. “With a chain lock, I might add. That you definitely do not need.”
Clark frowned and fought off the wave of annoyance that swelled up. “Appearances. You of all people should—anyway, that’s a figure of speech. You know it’s a figure of speech, why do you always do this. It makes me feel like my third grade teacher.” He rubbed the back of his neck, remembering and trying not to.
“Were you sleeping?” Bruce asked, flipping over onto his back. “Did I ‘wake’ you?”
He didn’t actually make finger quotes but he did something with his face that made the implication clear, and his fingers twitched.
“No,” Clark admitted after a moment’s consideration. “No, I was reading.”
Bruce sat up again and dropped his head back on the couch. “I can’t breathe when I lie down.” He sniffled and then coughed.
“Did something…happen?” Clark asked, hesitating a little. He didn’t like rushing him but Bruce had a habit of taking a long time to get around to admitting anything personal. Work, he could be blunt about— his own life? It was like pulling teeth sometimes.
“No,” Bruce said.
“Then…” Clark trailed off, not wanting to sound unwelcoming.
“Why am I in Metropolis at two in the morning?”
“Why are you here, like this, at two in the morning?” Clark blurted out. “Metropolis in, well, in your you-know-what, I can understand. You’ve never been good at keeping your nose out of other people’s business. I usually find out halfway through you breaking bones in my city, but you aren’t. You’re sitting here instead.”
“My business,” Bruce said slowly, opening one eye to look at him, “has a bad habit of leaving my city and I follow it. But I’m not here on business.”
“Obviously,” Clark scoffed. “Otherwise, you would have started barking orders at me as soon as you got here. So now I’m getting more and more worried and you still won’t tell me what’s going on. Is everyone okay? Did somebody die? Did somebody disappear?”
“If either of those were true, do you think I’d be here?” Bruce closed his eyes again and coughed.
“You aren’t giving me much to go on!” Clark yelled, throwing his arms in the air.
“You’re hovering,” Bruce said without looking.
“I’m not hovering, I’m worried—” Clark cut himself off mid-yell and glanced down at his socked feet, suspended several inches above the carpet. He was literally hovering.
Slowly, he touched back down on the ground and ran a hand through his hair.
“Will you please just tell me what’s going on? Is there anything I can do to help? If you really didn’t want to explain anything, why didn’t you just go to your apartment? Don’t you have one in Metropolis?”
Clark decided a cautious but friendly approach was best, and moved forward to sit on the coffee table near the couch. Bruce sneezed and groaned.
“I have apartment buildings,” Bruce said. “That are full of tenants. And a hotel. But checking in would mean using my name and dealing with reporters or checking in with an alias and frankly, I don’t have the energy. I thought I was coming here as a friend, not for an interview.”
Clark blinked at him.
“I’m not…” He blinked again. “Darn it, Bruce, I’m not interviewing you. I’m asking…” He took a breath. “Do you…do you know what friendship is? Like, do you comprehend how it functions?”
“I assumed it was where I could crash on your couch and not receive the third degree for it,” Bruce said, drawing his legs up onto the couch and wrapping his arms around them. He sniffled and it was a miserable, thick sound.
“Oh, heck,” Clark said, wishing he could use stronger words without tasting his ma’s soap on his tongue. “Let me, an actual alien, explain regular human friendship to you. You knock on my door in the middle of the night— which you did, instead of letting yourself in through a window, which I appreciate— and when I open the door and ask, ‘What’s wrong, Bruce?’ you don’t insult me, you give me an answer.
“You can say things like, ‘My girlfriend broke up with me,’ or ‘I’ve had a bad week,’ or ‘my son won’t stop fighting with me.’”
Clark finished and sat back a little.
“What if I don’t want to talk about it?” Bruce asked, sounding more congested by the second.
“Then you say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it right now but I need a break.’”
“I don’t want to talk about it right now, but I need a break,” Bruce answered, a faint smile on his lips despite the cough that preceded it and then the second that followed it.
“You are an ass,” Clark said bluntly, swallowing the memory-taste of soap. “Here. We’ll play 20 Questions. You do know the basic rules of a social game, right?”
“Is it a girl?” Clark ventured.
“Yes. And no.”
“That’s not how you—” He sighed. “Alright. Does it have to do with life at home?”
“Yes and no.”
“You are terrible at this,” Clark exclaimed.
“I didn’t agree to play,” Bruce said. “I said the thing that was supposed to get you to leave me alone. You told me what to say and I said it. It’s not my fault you have insatiable curiosity.”
“Insatiable!” Clark threw both hands in the air. He was hovering again and he didn’t care. “Aside from the fact that I’m a reporter and it’s in my blood, how would you know it’s insatiable? You haven’t given me anything to sate it with! Maybe I would leave you alone if you gave me even half of a decent answer.”
In answer, Bruce coughed. Except he didn’t stop coughing, he kept coughing until he’d uncurled his legs and bent forward, struggling to catch his breath.
Clark was back with a glass of water in a heartbeat. When Bruce lifted his head, eyes rimmed red and teary, Clark gave him an apologetic smile with the drink.
“Sorry,” Clark said. “You actually are sick, aren’t you?”
Bruce sipped the water and sank back against the couch. He suddenly looked every inch as miserable as he sounded.
The linen closet was full of quilts Martha Kent had made over the years, including one worn soft and covered with blue fabric and tiny silver-gray rockets. Clark handed it to Bruce before sitting back down, this time on the other end of the couch.
“I’m sorry,” Clark said, cleaning his glasses with the hem of his Daily Planet t-shirt. “I’m grilling you and not giving you any space. I am concerned but if nobody’s dying, it can wait. What do you need? Anything?”
“Sleep,” Bruce replied. “I’ve spent a damn week trying to get rid of this cold. Selina’s pissed because I told her I’d come over and then accidentally fell asleep in the Batmobile for the whole night, and it wasn’t even good sleep, and now Jason keeps knocking on my door to do occupancy checks every hour. I’m starting to suspect Alfred switched the cold medication with placebos and forgot to switch them back, after the last time I tried self-medicating and took twice the dosage and scared him because I slept for nine straight hours, but I can’t ask him without offending him and if I take one to do a chemical test he’ll notice.”
Bruce sniffled again and finished the water, then wrapped the quilt around his shoulders.
“I just want to sleep,” he repeated. “And I can’t because I can’t breathe when I lie down.”
“That was literally all I was asking,” Clark said, relieved. He considered telling him it was far more than he’d expected but he didn’t want to shoot himself in the foot for next time Bruce felt communicative. “I’m sorry. Why all the way here, though? Why not another one of your hideouts in Gotham, grab some cold medication from a drugstore?”
And Clark Kent watched as Bruce Wayne shrank down a bit into the couch and fiddled with the edge of the quilt.
“This is a nice quilt,” Bruce said.
“You didn’t want to be alone,” Clark said aloud before he could think better of it. Bruce shot him a death glare. It was as stony a look as he’d ever gotten in the cowl. “How’d you get here, anyway?” Clark asked hastily. “You didn’t drive in that shape, did you?”
“I flew,” Bruce mumbled. “The jet’s on the roof. It’s cloaked.”
“I think Lois left some medicine here,” Clark said, standing to go hunt through bathroom cabinets. “You’re lucky I was here tonight,” he called back through the hall. “I’m at her place half the time anymore.”
“How’s that going?” Bruce asked when Clark returned to the living room with a box of orange capsules.
Clark flipped the box back and forth looking for an expiration date. “Are you asking me a personal question about life outside of work?” he asked, finding the stamped numbers. They were a month shy of the given date.
“I am trying,” Bruce said stiffly from beneath the quilt, “to be a good friend.” He held a hand out and Clark tore off one of the bubble packs of pills to throw into the waiting palm from across the living room floor. Bruce caught it.
“Things are going great,” Clark said, putting the rest of the box on the coffee table. “She’s out of town tonight. Do you want some tea or coffee?”
“Coffee,” Bruce said, after swallowing the pills with the rest of the glass of water. “No. Tea. No, coffee. What kind of tea?”
“Did you just audibly struggle with a decision?” Clark asked, his worry taking a sharp dive into more worried. “It’s mango passionfruit, I think. Maybe some Lipton.”
Bruce coughed before he answered. “Neither of those things are tea. Coffee.”
“The passionfruit is really good with honey.”
The look Bruce gave him was one of controlled exasperation but his pallor made it look more simply pained. “Coffee, Clark. Please.”
“Coffee,” Clark repeated. “Want to watch something?”
He headed for the kitchen expecting this offer to be met with a refusal. If Bruce wanted to sit on his couch, cough, and brood, that was fine with him; he’d just get his book back out. But he wasn’t going to settle for giving up from the get-go.
“Yes,” Bruce said from the living room. “And no.”
“Would you please stop answering questions like that?” Clark ducked his head back into the room after peeling a coffee filter off the stack in the cabinet. “I’ll narrow it down for you. My stack of library loans is on the shelf beside the couch. If you don’t like anything there, just pick something you’re in the mood for and we’ll find it somehow.”
There was muttering in response while Clark measured coffee, and then a begrudging but plain sigh. Even without giving it extra focus, he could hear the sound of DVD cases being sorted through.
When he went back with two mugs, Bruce was sitting in the same spot on the couch but the TV was on and a menu-screen was loaded and muted.
“Master and Commander! I keep putting that one off,” Clark said. “Lois isn’t interested.”
“It’s overdue,” Bruce said. He was nearly buried in quilt. “By a week.”
“Renewed it online,” Clark said with a grin. He handed him one of the mugs, which Bruce snaked a hand out from the blanket to accept. “But thanks.”
Clark sat and kicked his feet up on the coffee table and waited. He guessed Bruce had the remote because he couldn’t see it anywhere but Bruce made no move to start the film.
After another minute of silence, Clark listened first for heart rate and then sneaked a sideways glance. Bruce was frowning at the coffee like his mind was somewhere else entirely and other than a cough, he was completely still. Finally, right before Clark decided to ask again if he was alright, Bruce took a sip of coffee and looked up at the TV screen.
“You’re a better friend than I deserve,” he said quietly.
“Is that on or off the record?” Clark asked, with a warm smile. It got a slight smile out of Bruce in return, who pointed the remote at the screen.
“Off. Appearances. You understand.”
The movie began and the camera was still panning over ocean water when Clark spoke again.
“If we had a ship, who would be captain and who would be first mate?”
“This is about a captain and a surgeon,” Bruce answered between sips of coffee. He seemed to be coughing less.
“I know. But captain and first mate. Who’d be who?”
“We don’t have a ship. I have some ships, but I’m the owner not the captain.”
Clark sighed and rolled his eyes. “Theoretically.”
“Theoretically,” Bruce echoed. He coughed, hard enough that he sat forward a bit and held his coffee out to the side. When the coughing eased up, he sagged backward with an annoyed groan. “Are we commercial or military?”
“Hm,” Clark considered. “Military?”
“Are you guessing your theoretical career? This is lacking the decisiveness necessary in a captain. Are we American or British Navy? Or other?”
“American,” Clark said more decidedly.
“Then I’m not captain, either. I’m a conscientious objector. If anything, I’m the surgeon.”
“You’re a conscientious objector?” Clark exclaimed, turning his entire upper body to face Bruce on the couch. “You shattered a villain’s jawbone and clavicle the last time we fought together.”
“In my theoretical life, I’m a less violent man,” Bruce replied evenly with his eyes on the screen. “And I’m still not required to carry a firearm.”
“Oh,” Clark said softly, feeling small. He sat back on the couch and watched the ship come on screen. “Sorry.”
“Hn. It’s fine,” Bruce said. “Commercial, then. What century?”
Clark chuckled into his mug. “This was supposed to be a simple question. A fun question.”
“Are you not having fun.” Bruce’s eyes smiled in a way that didn’t change the set of his mouth. Clark thought it might be one of the most genuine expressions of mirth he’d ever seen from him, even with the sniffling and coughing.
“Modern,” Clark decided. “I like technology.”
“I give you one of my ships. We’re both captains.”
“That wasn’t my question. Theoretically, you don’t own any ships. You’re looking for a job. You have experience. Maybe a union card, do they still have those? We’re both hired. Who’s captain and who’s first mate?”
“We’re deckhands,” Bruce answered. “They just hired us. There are too many variables to know what would happen in the next five years.”
“Asking you questions,” Clark said, giving Bruce a hard look, “is like trying to train a stubborn horse. We just go in circles for hours and I can never tell if I’m making any progress.”
“You’re trying to train me?” Bruce sounded offended, but Clark couldn’t tell if it was real or not.
“Let’s just watch the movie,” Clark mumbled grumpily. “I try so hard to be nice.”
“You would be Aubrey,” Bruce said a moment later. “I prefer being in control but I lack the optimism. It would be bad for morale.”
“I flunked high school band,” Clark said, with a note of apology. Bruce raised his eyebrows. “I don’t know why that seemed relevant. Don’t they play violin in this?”
“How did you flunk band?”
“I broke the drums. And a trumpet. Didn’t know my own strength. It’s funnier now than it was then.” Clark snapped his mouth shut and fought down the wave of delayed embarrassment.
“It’s violin and cello,” Bruce said not long after. “And thank you, for the coffee.”
They lapsed into comfortable silence and watched the movie, occasional coughing or sniffling from Bruce the only other sound in the room.
“Are you hungry?” Clark asked during a lull in the film, suddenly realizing that he perhaps should have asked this much, much sooner.
“No,” Bruce answered sleepily.
Clark looked over to find Bruce already half asleep with his head back on the top of the couch. The empty coffee mug was resting, balanced, on his knee and Clark lifted it off.
He let the movie play out anyway, afraid of rousing Bruce with the sudden absence of noise, and then returned to his bedroom and book.
Other than coughing, the living room was quiet all through the morning and Clark got ready and left for work without Bruce waking. He left a note clipped under a magnet on the fridge and checked his phone five times while out chasing stories and hauling people from burning cars.
When he did return during a lunch break, his concern mounting, he found Bruce still asleep but now sprawled out on the couch.
He was still there when Clark called it a day at the office and returned home for the night, after a detour to save half a dozen people trapped an old elevator and two more from a fall onto subway tracks.
Clark was tempted to just leave him alone but after listening to heart rate and breathing for a few seconds, he prodded Bruce’s shoulder instead. He stepped back a little in case Bruce sat up fighting, but he just grumbled into the quilt halfway over his head and blinked.
“Hey,” Clark said. “I hate to wake you up, but maybe you should drink something. You sound dehydrated.”
“What time is it?” Bruce asked, rubbing his eyes and sitting up.
“A little after nine.”
Bruce glanced at Clark, back in office clothes instead of the suit, and yawned. “Morning?”
“Night,” Clark said. “Want dinner? I’ll order pizza. Or wonton soup.”
Bruce was digging in his pocket for his phone, looking close to alarmed, but the tension drained out of him when he saw the screen.
“Soup sounds great,” he said with another yawn. “And then I can get out of your way.”
“You’re still feeling pretty sick if you’re actually warning me that you’re going to leave,” Clark said, with a lopsided grin. “You can stay another night if you need it. I’ll order Chinese.”
There was a take-out menu in a kitchen junk drawer he went to dig out and behind him, Bruce was standing and stretching.
“I would leave right now, just for that,” Bruce called after him with another sniffle, “but I feel like death warmed over.”
“On the bright side,” Clark said, searching the flier for a phone number, “I won’t catch anything.”
“Don’t gloat, Clark,” Bruce said, filling up a glass of water from the tap. He handed Clark a credit card while the line was ringing. “I’ll pay for the food.”
“Who is…” Clark squinted at the card, “‘Michael Coen?’”
“The man buying dinner,” Bruce answered, filling the glass at the tap again. “And avoiding the shitstorm of sensationalist journalism when Bruce Wayne’s credit card pays for take-out delivered to reporter Clark Kent’s apartment.”
“They wouldn’t,” Clark said, mouth hanging open. Someone picking up the other end interrupted whatever he was going to say and Bruce patted him on the shoulder in passing.
“They would. Let Michael buy dinner.”
Thirty minutes later, a man delivered brown bags of wonton soup and egg rolls and fried rice to Clark Kent’s apartment, accepted his tip, and left.
Clark plunked the bags down on the coffee table and nudged the cold medicine toward Bruce, who pried two out of the packaging without taking his eyes off the screen.
“If we were stranded in space,” Clark ventured.
“No,” Bruce said. “No.”
“Just if,” Clark insisted. “And say I didn’t have powers.”
“We’d die. Be quiet. I’m watching this.”
Clark grinned and opened a fortune cookie. “Look. It says I’m going to ‘enjoy good health.’”
Bruce closed his eyes and sighed through his teeth. “Are you trying to get rid of me? Because I can just go.”
“No, no,” Clark said, amused. “Maybe it was supposed to be yours. Enjoy your soup.”
Bruce grumbled and ate the soup, but Clark could see the smile creasing the corners of his eyes.