Soft clods of dirt are still falling from his fingertips when his mother makes the call. Clark can hear her crystal-clear, even over the hush of the shower and two floors down, ten feet of air and two feet of wall.
He’s here, she’s saying, a shake in her voice. Clark knows who she’s calling. He’s come back to us. He’s home.
Lois doesn’t come. Nobody comes. And Clark stays, long after he should do. There’s still that selfsame voice in his head, that itch, that low, unsettling fear that his absence is condemning someone to suffering, to death; Clark can’t explain why he doesn’t listen. Everything just seems slow, sludgy. Distant. Like he’s watching himself on a movie screen. Fixing up the house, helping in the field. His body doesn’t even have the decency to be clumsy, out of use.
There’s no scar, no mark. He’s good as new. Sometimes, Clark mashes the crux of his palm against the spot like he’s got heartburn, like he’s clutching at pearls, but any discomfort is phantom. Like an itch in a severed limb.
His nightmares aren’t of the box, of the tangy taste of grave dirt, of hearing, feeling his bones reknit; they’re of Bruce. A weird and fictitious mix, a heady blend of invention and reality, green glow and red blood and the fear in his electric, inhuman eye when Clark, free from the Kryptonite, had repelled his fisted hand.
The woman shows up first, the one he doesn’t know. She holds herself like she’s carved out of marble, and there’s something unsettling about the reality of her, of just how permanent, inescapable, inexorable her existence feels. She sits against the powder-blue sky like a landmark at the end of the drive, like a mountain wrought up from the earth itself or the moon hanging up above them. But she smiles, and she shakes his hand, and she has a name just like everybody else.
They aren’t allowed to sit on the porch; Clark’s meant to be dead. They sit out back instead, staring at the endless rows of corn like they might hold some truth to the universe neither of them knows.
“We didn’t have a chance before at a proper introduction,” Diana says. “I was so glad to learn that you were no longer dead.”
Clark smiles. “You say that like it happens to you often.”
“Less than I’d hope.” Diana slides him a look, swirls the tea round in her glass. To Clark it’s sickly, oversweet. “You are missed,” she says, quietly, and holds up a hand when he flinches. “I understand; I once walked away from what they’re asking of you. But please, if nothing else, call Bruce. It would help him greatly to hear from you.”
Clark frowns. “Bruce Wayne? He sent you?”
“Nobody sends me anywhere,” Diana replies, a little sharply. “And if anything, he’d have told me not to come. To leave you alone, or at least until you were ready for our company.” She stands, brushes something nonexistent from her plain summer dress, and hands him a world-ending smile. “I was honest, before. I wanted to meet you properly.”
Clark nods once. She’s right; he knows it. He’s got good reason to go, no reason to stay. He watches her walk to the corner of the house, tilt her face up into the lazy southern sunset, and something settles in his chest like sediment. “Diana?” he calls, and she looks back at him. “I can do better than a phonecall.”
Lois has moved. Something in that breaks Clark’s heart; but it’s been eighteen months, give or take, since they put him in the ground. Almost as long as they’d even been together.
Lois has changed. To him it’s obvious; there’s something different, something in her eyes, in the lightness of her touch when she hugs him close and breathes out against his chest. They should fit, he knows. They don’t. Clark doesn’t wish to be overdramatic, but that hurts almost more than being stabbed in the chest.
“Are you happy?” Clark asks. Of all the months he’s missed, to him it’s the thing that matters most.
For a moment, Lois doesn’t answer. “I am,” she says eventually, her voice soft, eyes heavy with guilt. “I haven’t been. Diana’s been a help.”
“She sure is something,” Clark admits. His own voice sounds like an echo, like a distant, half-remembered beat. “That’s – good, though. That you are. I’m glad.”
She’s still wearing the ring; but it’s on her middle finger, on the wrong hand. It’s something of a summary, even if it makes his heart ache. He understands, now, why she didn’t come; why him rising from the grave is asking her to deconstruct something in herself, something she’s poured out heart and soul to make. It’s almost cruel.
“I thought about it a lot, whether you ended up there because of me,” Lois says, quietly. She’s staring at her hands, speaking too calmly and too swiftly for him to interrupt. “And – you didn’t. I know that. It isn’t that simple.” She smiles at him, ersatz and grief-soaked, takes hold of his hand. Runs the pad of her thumb over his skin, and the soft jolt he always used to feel with her touch is still unavoidably there. “But the decision you made, to do what you did – you made me a part of that. And I can’t live with it, Clark. With that guilt. Not again.”
It’s kind, Clark thinks, even as something unnameable splinters in his chest. God, she’s too kind. Too good. “Lois,” he says, with a voice like breaking glass, and she lets him kiss him, almost to prove her point. He died so that she might live; and that’s exactly what she’s done. Breathed in, breathed out, and – through seemingly unending pain, and grief, and loneliness, and fear – moved on. He can’t blame her for that.
Clark’s never been here, to this house by the lake. He’s never believed it before, all the times he’s heard water described as black, but here it almost feels like Bruce has changed the nature of the elements themselves just to fit in with his palette.
It’s quiet here; Clark can see why you’d, he’d, like it. It’s the stillness that bothers him. Like the dead weight of air in high summer, but without the comforting warmth.
“He isn’t in,” Alfred says once he opens the door, even as he’s ushering Clark through. “There’s been an incident in the city.”
Clark briefly fights a spasm of guilt. “Nothing serious, I hope?”
“Breakout from Arkham. Dr. Crane. He’s a specialist in neurotoxins – I’ll have trouble convincing Mr. Wayne you’re really here at all until the morning. Well, his morning, your early afternoon.” The look on Alfred’s face is unmistakably placid, but to Clark it somehow seems calculating. “If you’re not planning to fly south for the night you’re welcome to a room. Goodness knows we have plenty.”
Clark hesitates. He did promise Diana; and something makes him admit, however begrudgingly, that he won’t have the guts to come back again. “Alright.”
It’s a little after six when Clark wakes. He can hear them even before he opens his eyes, the slow scudding of their two heartbeats. He knows instantly which one belongs to Bruce, finds himself listening to the sound, far closer than he has any reason to; then he winces, shakes his head, and pushes the desire away with the last lick of drowsiness. He just misses Lois. The sound of her heart, the soft cadence of her voice. The thought of her makes his teeth ache.
They’re in the kitchen, Alfred at the stove and Bruce leant up against the breakfast bar, dressed incongruous in a tee-shirt and sweats. It’s deceptively simple; Clark wryly suspects they cost more together than his apartment did for a month.
It still comes as a shock, seeing him. Bruce looks so – ordinary. Well, perhaps not ordinary, but certainly harmless. And yet there sits someone who would brand a man and call it justice.
“You’re up early,” Clark says. The glare Bruce gives him is decidedly flat.
Alfred grins. “He didn’t sleep. Give him ten minutes and two espressos before expecting anything remotely resembling conversation.”
Clark leans against the bar, resists the urge to drum his fingers on the countertop. “Diana says you’ve been looking out for my mother,” Clark says, quietly. “You didn’t have to.”
Glued to his tablet, Bruce nudges forward a package on the counter. “How’s your British accent?”
Clark glances at Alfred, but he seems utterly riveted by the status of the eggs in the skillet. “I’m sorry?”
“Clark Kent died,” Bruce says. Clark thumbs open the envelope and lets its contents spill out onto the counter; passport, driving licence, a handful of bills. A key to somewhere. A property deed. “You need a new identity. England has the added benefit of you not needing to learn a language.” He pauses. “So would Australia, I suppose.”
“You bought me a house?” Clark says, incredulous.
“It’s an apartment,” Bruce corrects. Tone idle, eyes still on the screen. “In England they call them flats.”
The final thing is a work ID. Consultant systems manager, Clark reads, and is none the wiser for it. He doesn’t recognise the name of the corporation; owned, he assumes, by Wayne Industries.
Bruce notices his hesitation. “Reporters live to remember faces and chase stories,” he says, and his voice, however faint the change, suddenly seems painfully kind. “And you’re a dead man walking. You can’t be a journalist.”
It’s a punch to the gut. Clark taps the card against the counter, traces the smooth edge of it with his thumb. Bruce is right; he knows it. That doesn’t make the weight of it any easier to breathe around. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever really done,” Clark admits.
Bruce’s mouth cracks upwards. “You have a very understanding boss,” he says. Beside them, Alfred audibly snorts. “You’ll do fine.”
Clark picks up the key. Most of this could’ve been knocked up in one night, he supposes; but this suggests forethought. Then again, he wouldn’t put it past Bruce Wayne to have a dozen apartments in a hundred cities just waiting to be used or passed on. “I didn’t come here for this.”
Bruce finally looks up. “The suit?”
Clark shakes his head. “No.” Bruce is locked into his tablet again; Clark is old enough to recognise a dismissal. “It doesn’t matter. Thanks.”
Bruce shrugs. “Anytime.”
RETURN OF THE SUPERMAN, the headline says. Plenty similar have been and gone before, prompted by anything from preternatural phenomena to supposed sightings of flying men; but here, front page of a reputable broadsheet, color photograph wedged between black text, gives unavoidable proof.
A man has risen from the dead. There’ve been three mass suicides already. Judgment Day, the cults say. The Day of Reckoning is come. Fire and brimstone, Revelations chapter and verse.
Bruce has slightly more parochial matters of concern. There’s nothing to say that Dr. Crane’s disappearance has anything at all to do with the re-emergence of the Joker; but Bruce, to whatever end, has a hunch. Historically speaking, his hunches are good, but this time it’s all he’s got.
“Are you any further forward with Ms Weston?” Alfred asks, sat at his workstation, tweezing bullets and buffing ricochets.
“It’s Mrs Lazenby now, actually,” Bruce murmurs, keying up Gotham CPD’s CCTV. Elisha, his current source in the mayor’s office, unknowingly tipped him off about Crane three days earlier. “I’m having dinner with her and her husband on Tuesday.”
Alfred’s mouth thins into something like a smile. “Congratulations to the happy couple, I’m sure.”
A soft ping and a flash in the corner of the monitor; Clark’s home. It’s five past five, UK time. Driven half by paranoia and half by something he’d rather not name, Bruce brings up the feed just in time to see Clark pulling his shirt off. Bruce tries, and fails, to pretend his mouth doesn’t run dry. Jesus. Surely Diana can’t be the only one of them sculpted out of clay.
“If you’ve finished ogling your colleagues,” Alfred says blandly, “You do have a board meeting to attend.”
“I’m not ogling anything, he’s the one getting naked in front of the security camera.” Bruce straightens up, winces at the kink in his neck. “Are he and Lois still a thing?”
Alfred slides him a look. His doomed attempt at casual must’ve failed, then. “Ms Prince says not.”
Bruce frowns. “Are Diana and Lois a thing?”
“Why don’t you install a camera in her living room and find out for yourself?”
“Very funny.” Bruce clears the screen. “Keep an eye on Gordon for me. I’ll try to be back by nine.”
Sunday night sees the end of Bruce’s patience. He’s traced something, a half-wrought message with localised encryption, to the headquarters of a steel magnate in downtown Gotham; and tonight the interior design studio next door is hosting their annual backslapping. It shouldn’t matter too much that Bruce Wayne is technically lacking an invitation.
The company’s security is reasonably hi-spec, and despite what Alfred insists Bruce doesn’t by habit do things the hard way. There’s one wall in the basement that’s just a brick shell, janitor’s closet on one side and mailroom overspill on the other, and it’s easy enough for Bruce to slip away from the limelight and blow a man-sized hole in the wall to duck through.
Too easy, of course. Bruce only gets ten seconds with this unwelcome and unsettling thought, frozen the other side of the mailroom door, before there’s a hiss by his temple and something sour, cloying, and swamplike explodes three inches from his slowly closing mouth.
Oh, shit, Bruce thinks, eloquently. Then every light in the corridor goes out.
Time passes in flashes. The press of the wall, cold against his fingertips, jerks loose from under him and throws him to the ground. Think, he’s screaming at himself, even as every nerve in his body seems to wind tight with terror. Think, for fuck’s sake, think.
It’s the smell that hits him first. He’d know it after decades, after centuries, at the turn of the universe, at end of the world. Even as he’s thinking it’s not possible, Bruce can’t remember why.
The dark around him doesn’t answer. Bruce staggers forward, lurching and unsteady; black hands morph up from the concrete floor and drag him to his knees. The floor transforms into a writhing, bloodcurdling hive, and Bruce closes his eyes, scrabbles forward half-blind and half-desperate, clawing out with his senses. His palm connects with something; cold metal, a staircase spiralling away. Laughter pulls at the edge of his hearing, distant but unmistakably –
– up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up –
Rooftop. The city stretches out both ways. He’s got to be here, Bruce thinks, even as the shadows lurch at him and the sky seems overbright. There’s nowhere for him to go. Jesus, kid, answer me. I’m here. It’s me.
Not quite nowhere, Bruce thinks. He’s at the edge, horizon rippling and fetid, eyes straining desperate for a flash of black. He’s not up here; that much is certain. He must be –
The wind tugs at his ankles, and a voice whispers jump.
So Bruce jumps.
He never hits the ground. Triumphantly, miraculously, like something out of a fairytale the Superman is there, swooping to his rescue. They set down on a fire escape two blocks east, and Bruce is probably most embarrassed by the way his knees instantly buckle beneath him. “Easy,” Clark murmurs. Shaken and desperate for solid ground, Bruce still feels somehow punchdrunk at the bracketing weight of his, Clark’s, arms. “Here. Lean on me.”
Guiltily, dejectedly, Bruce acquiesces. He can feel himself shivering; aftereffects of the drug, he supposes. Or perhaps the fall. “What are you doing here?”
“Alfred called,” Clark says. Bruce suspects his voice is only steadied by a decidedly manufactured calm. “You’ve been off comms for over an hour. I only just got here in time.”
“Jesus,” Bruce mutters. “The press are going to love this.” It’ll be suicide attempt or drunken rampage; either way, stock is going to soar or plummet tomorrow morning. There’s irony in that somewhere, he thinks.
Clark’s mouth thins. It’s so similar to Alfred’s favorite expression that Bruce has to swallow back a laugh. “I’m taking you home.”
“Clark Kent,” Bruce murmurs, “I never thought you’d ask,” and dizzy, slurring, and crippled with slowly-rising nausea, he firmly and wholeheartedly blacks out.
Perhaps investigating an unknown building alone, after dark, without backup, while pursuing a man made famous for manufacturing neurotoxins, wasn’t Bruce Wayne’s smartest move. Still, as Alfred is keen to remind him, in the great categories of fuckups he’s managed in his short and often melodramatic life it probably doesn’t rank in the top ten.
It’s unlikely they knew he was coming; more likely that he stumbled with surprising efficiency onto something he wasn’t meant to, and that something was guarded by a weapon of Dr. Crane’s concoction. The lead is dead, in any case. Bruce knows with grim certainty the whole building will have been cleared moments after he tried to take a nosedive off the roof. He’s back to Mrs Lazenby, dinner at the Rialto, and attempting to seduce a married couple like an excerpt from mediocre pornography. It does, at least, come with the added benefit of maintaining Bruce Wayne’s reputation, something he now finds unbelievably dull.
It’s funny, Bruce thinks, as he’s half-heartedly preening in the mirror, fixing his cuffs. In all the years he’s done this, he’s always found he dreads a rough night on Gotham’s rooftops far less than any evening he spends in this tux.
He knows he makes a mess of the bow tie by the way Alfred zeroes in from across the room. It’s a considerable skill of his, the way he can make so simple an action both delicate and brusque. “Master Kent called by,” Alfred says, a little thinly.
Bruce frowns. “Again?”
“He’s worried about you.” Alfred finishes with a flourish, dutifully smoothing down Bruce’s pristine lapels. “You threw yourself off a building the day before yesterday and you haven’t told him why.”
Bruce rolls his eyes. “Tell him I’m fine,” he mutters, shrugging on his coat. “We gain nothing from him worrying.”
“He’d fret less if you rang him yourself.”
“Tomorrow,” Bruce lies, the efficiency characteristic; the look Alfred gives him is nothing short of scornful. He knows full well that Alfred is only half-concealing a desire for them to discuss Clark Kent, and Bruce is trying, and presumably failing, to hide the fact he’d literally rather eat live rats. He palms him off with a half-hearted grin. “Don’t wait up.”
There are some benefits to this charade, Bruce thinks. Both Elisha Lazenby and her husband Caleb are beyond stunning, and there are few people in the world able to combine quite so neatly this mix of business and pleasure. He’s lazing between them, Elisha’s fingers carding through his hair and Caleb’s tracing circles at the base of his spine, and so long as Bruce ignores the ersatz nature of his own idle smile he can chase some mindless contentment in it.
“I was thinking about you earlier,” Elisha says, and when Bruce grins filthily she cuffs him with poor conviction. “Earlier earlier. You remember last time, when I was all tied up with creepy Crane? They just pulled him out of the river.”
Bruce looks bored, pushes himself up on his elbows to begin kissing a meandering, slow path from ribcage to thigh. “No shop talk,” he murmurs, flexing his hips back up into Caleb’s touch, humming his approval when he gets the message, slides his hand lower, little finger resting just shy of Bruce’s ass. “Not here.”
This, Bruce can do. With surprising, disquieting efficiency. So long as he gentles his mind, doesn’t let it wander, doesn’t think about –
“Oh my god,” Elisha says, but her hands are flat against him and she’s pushing him away, eyes wide, locked at the window to see – “Oh my god, Bruce, is that – ?”
Caleb’s hand stills. “Jesus Christ, it is.”
There should be claps of thunder, an atmospheric lightning flash; hanging in the sky like starlight, Clark is, as always, simultaneously the most beautiful and most terrible thing Bruce has ever seen. Bruce’s lungs seem to have liquefied inside his chest.
“One moment, please,” Bruce says hoarsely with barely achieved dispassion. Thank fucking Christ he had the presence of mind to put a bathrobe on the back of the bedroom door before he left that morning.
Clark’s still hovering on the veranda when Bruce finally makes it to the door. “Christ, Kent,” he hisses, white-knuckled and gripping overfirmly at his robe, “You can’t just show up here whenever you damn well please.” Bruce is less than pleased to find that the sight of Clark like this, hovering angel-like and clad in that suit, still instils in him a deep sense of dread.
Clark tilts his head. “Are you embarrassed?”
Bruce loses to a petty flush. “It’s none of your damn business what I am,” he snaps. He finds himself praying for an asteroid, some planet-wide catastrophe to avert Clark’s disconcerting calm stare.
“I’m not a bigot, Bruce,” Clark quietly replies. “Or a prude. Call me when you’ve sobered up.” Then he goes, as silently as he came, nothing but the soft snap of fabric in his tailwind.
Bruce never makes the call. If he’s honest, Clark never truly expected him to; but, with a grim inevitability, he’s become fixated on that moment. The horrible lurch in his gut when he’d seen Bruce fall, not knowing for half a heartbeat whether he’d get there fast enough to reach him. He should walk away from this, he knows. His loyalty is, if anything, to his mother; to Lois; to Diana, at a stretch. Bruce Wayne neither needs nor deserve his concern, but somewhere in this mess he’s managed to earn it. And Clark’s never been much good at turning from someone he might be able to aid.
Still, there’s room for some adjustment. Clark tries the house at a healthy mid-afternoon, hovers a little beyond eyesight to check how many heartbeats he can hear inside before landing. There’s only one in evidence, Alfred in the kitchen, but perhaps that could work in his favor. God knows he could use the advantage.
Alfred looks entirely unsurprised when he answers the door. “If you’re expecting an apology then frankly you might as well wait for the Horsemen to ride,” Alfred says, leading him inside, and though his voice is sharp he’s not altogether unkind. “Perhaps even more so than usual. He’s a little preoccupied of late.”
Clark shrugs. He figured as much. “Anything I should be aware of?”
“Nothing atypical for Gotham,” Alfred discloses, slowly. “But it’s the Joker. With the two of them it’s always personal.”
Clark frowns. “Can I help?”
Alfred regards him closely for a moment. “He won’t like it,” Alfred admits, just as Clark begins to fight the urge to fidget. “But I’m exceptionally good these days at doing things he doesn’t like. Besides, you could probably rip the damn door down if you really wanted.”
Clark grins. “I wouldn’t put it past him to put kryptonite in the hinges.”
“Me neither,” Alfred murmurs, sharing the smile. “Come on, then.”
The door Alfred leads him to is surprisingly low-tech, though Clark suspects he might find differently if he were to try it alone. There are stairs beyond, a long corridor, all in Bruce’s favorite grim color scheme, matte black and chrome. The room Alfred finally leads him to is surprisingly pragmatic; concrete, screens, and a sharpness to the air. It’s even brightly lit. The realisation that he’d apparently soaked up without question the fantastical rumors of the Gotham Bat slinking back to some fetid cave leaves Clark feeling slightly embarrassed.
There’s only one curio: the large glass case in the center of the room. “What’s that?”
“That’s why it’s personal,” Alfred answers vaguely, bypassing it entirely. If it’s less of an explanation than Clark would like, it’s probably more than he deserves. “We’ve been attempting to track the whereabouts of Dr. Crane. Master Bruce was slightly the worse for wear from one of his creations when you last bumped into him.”
Clark squints futilely at the profile Alfred’s assembled on the monitor. “Something about drugs?”
“Yes. Dr. Crane specialises in provoking emotion via neurotoxins. He’s especially good with rage,” Alfred murmurs. “And fear.”
Clark frowns. “How does the Joker fit into all this?”
“At the moment he doesn’t,” Alfred admits. “All we know is that things in Gotham tend to come in threes.”
Clark nods once; his mind is trapped back on that glass box, the monolith hanging tomblike over the room. It’s clearly a coffin by another name. He finds himself wondering where it was that Bruce kept his, Superman’s, suit. “He lost someone, didn’t he?” Clark says, quietly. Alfred goes entirely still. “I don’t need to – you don’t have to tell me who. Just.” Clark grits his teeth. “Was it because of me?”
Alfred looks at him. “No,” he says, at length. His voice is painfully kind.
Clark feels as though the weight of the universe itself has halved. He lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “Okay,” he says. “That’s – ” He clears his throat, refocuses his attention on the screen. “Neurotoxins?”
Alfred offers him the smallest smile. “Exactly so.”
Clark can’t make head or tail of the toxicology report, and apparently he makes a mess of the soldering Alfred gives him; he’s relegated to kitchen duty, given that Bruce, despite his protests to the contrary, does still need to eat. It takes all of Clark’s resolve not to look embarrassed when Bruce, immaculately clad in businesswear Armani, finds him in his sprawling kitchen with rolled-up sleeves and a loosely-tied apron. “Well, aren’t you a regular Martha Stewart,” Bruce says.
Clark throws him a look. “Apparently the fact I can shoot lazers from my eyes doesn’t qualify me to use your soldering iron,” Clark says, a little archly. “Alfred assured me you aren’t fussy.”
“Did he,” Bruce murmurs, amused, leaning on the edge of the counter. “Smells good. Have I got time for a shower?”
“Go ahead. I’ll plate up in ten.”
It’s not exactly haute cuisine, lamb shanks and jasmine rice, thrown together with whatever Clark could find in the kitchen; but he finds himself fussing, rearranging the plates, fidgeting with the angle of the skillet. Now that Bruce is home, he can’t exactly remember what it was that made him come here in the first place.
Bruce reappears just as he’s taking the food off the heat, steps in wordlessly to help him sort and serve. “I suppose I should apologize for showing up uninvited,” Clark says, settling down next to Bruce at the breakfast bar. “But I can’t exactly fit into your schedule if you don’t answer when I call.”
Bruce shrugs. “Been busy. Did you need something?”
“No.” Clark hesitates, resists the urge to fidget. “I suppose I was wondering if I could help.”
“With Crane? It’s in hand.”
“Is it,” Clark says, flatly. “So diving off a skyscraper was all part of the plan?”
Bruce’s breaths are slow and steady, each motion of his knife and fork perfectly and evenly matched. The artificial composure sets Clark’s nerves on edge. “Gotham CPD think they’ve found Crane’s body,” Bruce says.
Clark decides not to press his question. “And you think they’re wrong.”
“I think that if I were a notorious criminal who somehow managed to get out of Arkham, the first thing I’d do is fake my death.” Bruce sets down his fork briefly to run a hand through his hair; it’s the first spontaneous motion he’s made since he walked into the kitchen. Clark finds himself watching it almost fervently, trying to read essays in the angle of his hand, the speed of the gesture, the flicker of something unquantifiable in Bruce’s expression.
Clark looks down at his own plate. “So he’s trying to get out of Gotham?”
Bruce shrugs. “Possibly. But GPD aren’t going to waste time trying to catch a dead man, and he knows it.”
“So what’s your plan?”
“Crane’s a known element,” Bruce answers. He’s nearly finished; Clark’s hardly had a bite. “He’s predictable, traceable, and he won’t have had time to develop chemicals as effective as the formulas we already know of. The Joker’s the real problem. Even if I caught him, I couldn’t make him talk.”
Something in this makes Clark feel queasy. “Well, I.” Clark clears his throat, shifts a little in his chair. “If you need an extra pair of hands in the workshop, or even out when you’re – ”
“Clark,” Bruce says, quietly. “Don’t.”
Clark looks across at him, feels his stomach drop. Bruce’s eyes are hard and cruel. “Gotham is my responsibility,” Bruce says. “Go save a cat out of a tree, write a pseudonymous puff piece about corporate espionage. Next time there’s a nuke needs punching into dust I’ll have you on speed dial.”
It’d be well within his rights, Clark thinks, to trash Bruce Wayne’s pristine, classy kitchen. The fork in his clenched fist is bent in half. “Are you done?”
Bruce inclines his head. “If you’ll excuse me.”
He shouldn’t have come, Clark thinks, watching Bruce retreat from the kitchen, his temper – save for the unfortunate fork – held just about in check. The tangle of all this, the mess at the heart of it, is neither his responsibility nor his fault. But stupidly, predictably, stubbornly, Clark has fallen foul of his worst weakness: hope.
He’d asked before, down in that windowless, sharp-aired room, dominated inescapably by its hanging coffin, whether Alfred worried that he and Diana might leave Bruce weak. “Quite the opposite,” Alfred had replied. “I think you – Ms Prince – I think the pair of you can bring him back.”
In all his years of play-acting as both Bruce Wayne and the Bat, Bruce has lost count of the times he’s ducked down these stairs to find Alfred waiting, scowling, and pissed with him. “Was that entirely necessary?” Alfred asks, voice prissy and thin.
Bruce throws him a look. “You don’t want him hurt any more than I do,” he mutters, settling down in front of the monitors. He wishes he weren’t half-watching Clark on the security cameras, still sitting in his kitchen. Trying in vain to decipher his mind by the look in his eye, the set of his jaw. He looks tired, and lonely, and small. It’s a good thing Bruce is used to feeling like a dick.
“Be that as it may,” Alfred continues, “I merely wondered if you’d considered the absurdity of telling Superman – ”
“Alfred,” Bruce interrupts, roughly. “I know what I’m doing.”
Alfred rolls his eyes, and, however grudgingly, shuts up. Still, the number of years they’ve spent working as one means there’s no need sometimes to fill a brittle silence; they both know what he’s thinking. Quietly, firmly, and correctly, that Bruce has been wrong before.
Lead number two is a storage facility in Midtown, tucked incongruously behind a pizzeria and a ramshackle dime store that never seems to be open. With dwindling patience for subtlety, Bruce breaks in the back door with only the lateness of the hour and his costumed reputation to protect him. He has a growing grim suspicion that someone, somewhere in Gotham’s underground is beginning to figure out how his kit works; his sonics have been off for a month. It isn’t the first time he’s swept a building with no intel and no plans, but he had spent time and effort developing that tech so that there might be a last.
“Wouldn’t it be incredibly useful,” Alfred says in his ear, acerbic as ever, “To have a friend who could oh, say, see through walls in this moment?”
Bruce doesn’t dignify this with an answer.
The vault at the end of the hall is already abandoned; traces of something luminescent still cling to the surfaces, made visible by the darklight of his screens. Bruce taps the corner of the desk once with his knuckle, mind thick with frustration. The most visible hallmark of the Joker; this irritating capacity to always be one step ahead, dooming Bruce forever to be snatching fistfuls of mist. To be chasing ghosts.
Weeks pass without any sign of Clark. The newspapers say the Superman is doing his earthly duty; his employees in the UK-based Smitts Incorporated tell him that Michael Godstow hasn’t turned up to work in months. Bruce knows what that’s like all too well, the moment when the secret, half-lived life warps from being the one in costume to the one not. It worries him, even as he knows he can’t allow it to. Worse: he’s isolated himself deliberately on the fundamental belief that it shouldn’t.
Diana is harder to dissuade, and thinks little of his less-than-subtle tactics for avoiding her. She corners him in the Cave when he’s fresh off a recon mission, adrenaline still curling clawlike round his bones, and he knows better than to ask how she got there. “Has Clark been here?” she asks.
Bruce decides, however futilely, to fake ignorance. “Not recently. Why?”
“He’s gone quiet on me,” she admits. Her eyes narrow. “Have you done something?”
Bruce gives her a withering look, heading for the deck of screens to pull up the last few months of gathered intel. “I have those files you asked for, the ones on North Alaska. You gonna tell me why you wanted them?”
“Maybe,” she says, a little archly, settling down to read; fine, Bruce thinks, and takes the excuse to shower. She’s gone from the monitors by the time he returns, and just as Bruce lets himself breathe out, lets the relief and the weariness push through him in waves, he spots her standing by the glass case instead. For all that he sees it every single day, there’s that familiar dull punch of loss when he spots it, the strange tug in the base of his gut, like reaching out with a phantom limb. Like tripping up on a nonexistent step.
“Does it help?” she asks as he draws level, an overcasual saunter to his stride. “To have him hanging over you like this.”
Bruce doesn’t answer. It should be easy to lie, Bruce thinks. To trivialise, to proselytize, to say what she wants to hear. But he can’t.
“Grief doesn’t have to make you weak, Bruce,” Diana says. Her voice is unbearably kind. “It can give you guidance. Give you strength.”
Bruce closes his eyes. “Would you change any of it?”
Diana is quiet for a moment. She is silent, and solemn, and achingly beautiful; with the soft light of the Cave reflected in her eyes, she seems more ethereal, unearthly than Clark has ever been. “Yes,” she admits, softly. “But I only wish we’d had more time.”
There’s a difference, Clark has found, between requirement and need. His body and his mind, alien as they are, don’t require much food or sleep; but he still needs both far more than he’d ever like to admit. The Superman hasn’t rested for seven days, Algeria to Australia to Georgia to Kenya to Romania to Chile, war and famine, accidents and catastrophes, and he’s beginning to suspect that Clark Kent – or what little of him still remains – is fading into memory.
Perhaps that’s for the best, he thinks, hovering somewhere in the troposphere, watching idly as satellites trace their silent way across the sky. Then Clark does what he always does when he isn’t sure what else to do; he goes home.
From the look on his mother’s face, she’s been expecting him. She feeds him, and clothes him, and hugs him, and takes hold of his hand as they sit on the back porch, skimming over the soft skin of his knuckles with her thumb. “I’m here,” she says, tenderly. “Talk to me.”
Clark closes his eyes. “I don’t even know where to begin.”
“Anything.” She squeezes his hand, smiles in a way that makes his chest ache. “Anything at all, sweetheart.”
“I miss her,” Clark says, hoarsely. “I miss her so much, Ma.”
His mother’s thumb is still moving in that steady, rhythmic back-and-forth; it brings with it the ghosts of childhood nightmares, of learning for the first time what it meant that he could see through walls. “Have you tried talking to her?”
“She wouldn’t – she mourned me,” Clark murmurs. “She let me go. I don’t want to hurt her even more.”
“Have you given her a choice?” Martha asks, ever so gently. “Or did you decide that for her?” Clark doesn’t answer. “I thought so. Give her a chance, sweetheart. I’m sure she’d still want to know you, even if you aren’t what you were before.”
“Alright,” Clark agrees, quietly. “I’ll try.”
Running off to Lois won’t solve everything. Losing her has unsteadied him; but losing his life, losing Clark Kent, has utterly uprooted him. And who does he have, in this new life of his? Bruce Wayne? The vigilante socialite who brands criminals in the name of justice. Clark knows there’s a good man at the heart of all of that; he’s just not sure whether there’s much to be gained by digging.
“I’ve been thinking about that man,” Martha says, sat beside him on the porch. Another day, another night, another round of hero worship and judgment calls, and Clark’s come here again. He doesn’t know where else to be. “He was in the news again today. The – Batman,” she clarifies, sounding almost embarrassed to say it aloud. “I didn’t think he was real until I met him.”
“He’s real,” Clark murmurs. “He’s just human. It’s all just – money. Smoke and mirrors.”
“And balls,” Martha points out, somewhat chidingly. “I doubt anyone could do it. And he was good to me, you know, while you were gone. Him and Diana both.”
“I’m glad,” Clark says, slowly. He can’t help but wonder whether this is the cause for his hesitation; that everything else aside, he owes Bruce Wayne forever for Martha Kent’s life. The thought makes him instantly uneasy. “He’s – complicated.”
Martha snorts. “He sure is that,” she murmurs wryly. “Are you still working with him?”
“Sometimes,” Clark admits. “He’s about as good at collaborating as you might expect.”
She looks at him, curious. “With good reason, I’m guessing.”
Clark doesn’t know much, and there are some secrets that aren’t even his to keep; but he’s not an idiot. “He lost someone,” Clark agrees, quietly. “I don’t know – he won’t say. But I think it was his son.”
His mother goes silent for a while. “It’s a unique thing, to lose a child,” she says, in time. The grief still heavy in her voice makes Clark’s chest ache. “A terrible thing. Lesser things have destroyed lesser men.”
Clark closes his eyes, shakes his head. “This world is such a mess.”
“That much I know is true.” She takes hold of, squeezes his hand. “I can’t tell you whether he’s worth your time, sweetheart,” she says, her insight, as ever, uncanny. “You have to judge that for yourself. Just remember you don’t owe him anything. Any of us. And do what you feel is right.”
Clark smiles, opens his eyes, gently brushes his fingers through a kink in her hair. “I owe you everything,” he says, his sincerity painful, absolute. “Imagine who I’d be without you.”
Clark can’t settle on an answer, can’t decide. Clark reroutes storms, destroys atom bombs, throws himself into burning buildings; but in the end there’s only one conclusion he can come to. He’ll never forgive himself if he doesn’t try.
So Clark returns, goes back to that house by the lake, finds a way into the Cave that isn’t – quite – ripping the door off its hinges. He finds Bruce hunched by the monitor, looking half his size and twice his age, and something in Clark’s chest thumps at the sight of him. “I won’t let you shut yourself off like this,” Clark says.
Bruce swivels in his chair. He doesn’t look pleased to see him. “You won’t let me?” he repeats, incredulous and scathing. There’s a delicate line, Clark thinks, between Batman and Bruce Wayne. He wonders how close he can get to it.
“Do none of us get a say in this?” Clark asks, walking closer. He can hear the steady rhythm of Bruce’s heartbeat, that ever-constant thud-thud, thud-thud. “Or do you and your billions of dollars automatically always know better?”
Bruce tilts his head. “So you’d force yourself on me,” he says, voice soft, tone cruel. “Knowing full well I couldn’t stop you.”
Clark’s jaw clenches. He’s playing you, Clark thinks; like a fucking drum. He just wishes he were better at ignoring it. “Of course I wouldn’t.”
“Then go,” Bruce answers, not missing a beat. “I don’t know how to make it plainer to you that I don’t want you here.”
For once, the steadiness of Bruce’s pulse is a dead giveaway. “Bullshit,” Clark says, and kisses him.
Bruce doesn’t move. The moment comes, and goes, and Clark pulls away to find – nothing. A blank face, a mass of emptiness.
“Are you done?” Bruce asks. His face is hard and cold. The choice of words hits harder than a punch.
“I don’t understand,” Clark says, after a pause. His voice is dull. “What you’re trying to achieve.”
Bruce doesn’t answer. Enough, Clark thinks. Enough. There are too many people in the world wishing for his help for him to waste a moment more on Bruce Wayne.
There’s a building on fire in Midtown. The Superman goes, beautiful and terrible, all things to all men. The Superman reaches out with indestructible hands and saves the shivering, frightened forms of those inside, swept up en masse from the wreckage.
The Superman gets hit in the face with a canister of gas, and all around him is the cloying green glow of kryptonite.
Bruce understands the moment he sees it. Two plus two, and the Joker’s managed what Luthor couldn’t; he’s weaponized Superman. Only difference is he’s been considerably less specific in his target.
Diana beats the Bat there, gleaming armour and shining shield invulnerable in the face of Clark’s newfound, fear-drenched malice. Clark has already managed to flatten a third of downtown Gotham. “Pin him down,” Bruce says, as he manages, however briefly, to draw level. “There’s an antidote.”
There’s no time for him to clarify; a sickly bright beam of red announces Clark’s rearrival, and the force throws them meters apart across the shattered concrete. Clark smashes two sedan cars over Diana’s head, and Bruce is cheered to see her looking nothing more than pissed when she stands up again; then they shoot off together into the atmosphere, godlike slugs of fists and shrieks of light, and it’s all Bruce can do to keep up with them. Déjà vu, Bruce thinks, with more amusement than irritation.
Diana finally gets Clark to the ground somewhere in the Financial District, and the mayhem slams on between torn steel beams and shattered piles of glass. This burst of familiarity is decidedly less welcome than the last. Diana’s wrapped herself around him, legs around his hips and arms thrown across his chest, and Clark, too panicked to think clearly, is slamming himself backwards into anything he can in an attempt to dislodge her. Bruce can’t help but wonder what he sees; what Crane’s madness has transformed the city into for him to fight it so fiercely, what hellish vision Diana represents. What Bruce will look like to him.
Enough. Diana gets Clark back to ground level, punches a crater the size of a double-decker in the center of the parking lot, and Bruce has just the right split second to get beside her in time. She grins at him, thick with adrenaline and battle-rage; and then Clark goes absolutely still. “Bruce?” he asks, voice tight and frightened.
Oh jesus, Bruce thinks, as something thumps hard inside his chest. “Clark,” Bruce answers, overly gentle. “It’s alright, we’ve got you.”
Clark’s face contorts in terror. “I can see – ”
“It’s okay,” Bruce says, hoarsely. He rests his hand on Clark’s face, watches in disbelief as it calms him. “Hey, it’s okay. We’ve got you. Close your eyes.”
Immediately, unbelievably, Clark does. Bruce is too jaded to consider the victory; it’s the time he needs to stab him with a hypodermic edged with kryptonite, enough sedative in it to floor half a herd of elephants. To his absolute relief, Clark goes rigid, shudders, and slumps unceremoniously into unconsciousness.
Diana instantly gentles. “How did you know that would work?” she asks, a little short for breath.
Bruce gives her a heavy look. “I didn’t,” he admits. “Let’s get him home.”
Given how little he knows about Kryptonian biology, Bruce holds off on his regular antidotes; so long as the sedative lasts, there’s greater efficiency in using Clark’s bloodwork to synthesise something bespoke. It’s possibly even overkill, with Clark’s preternatural skill of restoration, but Bruce Wayne has never been a man to do things by halves. Besides, it’s a chance to get his hands on Clark’s genetics. Bruce might be going soft on the Superman, but he’s not stupid.
Clark, it seems, has other ideas. He comes round faster than Bruce expects, laid out on the purpose-built stone bench in the Cave; so swiftly that Bruce, feeling the bottom of drop out of his stomach, wonders whether he should perhaps have dug back into his own supply of kryptonite. Too close to retreat, Bruce grits his teeth and stands his ground. “Hey,” he says, watching Clark closely when he stirs. “You okay?”
Clark winces a little, pushing himself up. “Is it over?”
“I think so,” Bruce says, with audible relief. “You gonna hurl?”
Clark shakes his head. It’s closer than he’d like, the urge Bruce gets; to reach out, run his fingers over Clark’s skin. “Stay sat,” Bruce says, gently. “I’ll get you some water.”
Somewhat to his surprise, Clark does as he’s told. He’s smaller than Bruce on the wide marble bench, his feet not quite touching the ground. He kicks his heels the way Jason used to do. “Here,” Bruce says quietly, passing him the glass.
Clark takes it, drains it, and sets it down. For a moment, neither of them speaks; eventually, heavily, Clark asks, “What did I do?”
The twisted guilt in it is nearly enough to make Bruce’s heart break. “Clark,” Bruce says, gently. “Don’t.”
The look Clark throws him is vicious. “You gonna try and tell me it wasn’t my fault?”
“It wasn’t,” Bruce answers, instant and resolute. “Clark, it wasn’t.”
Clark doesn’t answer. He breathes in, breathes out, runs a hand through his hair. Watching him shoulder the blame, the guilt, is the worst thing Bruce has ever seen. To think, there was a time when Bruce thought the Superman couldn’t possibly be brave. How fucking lonely it must be, Bruce thinks. The weight of that power, that responsibility. How doesn’t it drive him mad?
Clark gets to his feet. There’s that thing growing between the two of them again, thick in the air; that sentiment. Clark, stood close, staring up at him like he hasn’t yet made up his mind, like he’s a judgment yet to be called. Don’t, Bruce thinks, jaw clenched, eyes fixed on the nearby, omnipresent screen. And then, almost dejectedly: do.
Clark doesn’t. He smiles emptily, thanks Bruce under his breath, and walks away.
Bruce lets him go.
I wish we’d had more time, he hears. Alone, back where he began, in the heavy silence of the Cave.
Clark, voice tight with terror – Bruce? –
You’ve been wrong before.
“I don’t want you here,” Clark says, coldly. “This is my home.”
Bruce doesn’t answer. He looks like a scolded child, hunched in a stupidly warm overcoat against the Kansas air, and Clark wishes it didn’t make something soften in his chest. “Bruce,” Clark says, a little gentler. “What do you want?”
For a moment there’s only the noise of everything else; his mother prepping vegetables in the kitchen. Near-silent wind through the endless fields of grass. The inexorable thud-thud, thud-thud of Bruce’s heart, to Clark, by now, a sailor-dooming siren call. “I told you before,” Bruce says, at last, “That Gotham was my responsibility.” Clark goes still; Bruce, seeing the growing rage in his expression, quickly raises his hand. “I was wrong, okay? That’s what I’m – I was wrong. This wouldn’t have happened if I’d let you help.”
Clark’s jaw clenches. “I have no interest in listening to you reproach yourself.”
“No,” Bruce agrees, a little bleakly. “I suppose what I mean is – ” He stops. “I just didn’t want you near it,” he adds, eventually. “Gotham. I know what it’s like.”
Clark tilts his head. “I’m not a child, Bruce. I can make a choice.”
Bruce shrugs. “I know that.”
Do you? Clark wonders. “You really think Gotham has a monopoly on evil?”
“I think – ” Bruce breaks off, runs a hand across his face. “Clark. I fucked up, alright? I’m trying to apologize.”
Well, Clark thinks, almost absently. That’s something. “So you’re done feeling sorry for yourself?” he asks, coolly.
The look Bruce gives him is flat, half irritation, half resignation. It’s probably less than he deserves. “I’m done pretending you can’t be helpful,” Bruce admits, slowly. “That it’s productive to ignore you.”
“What if I don’t want to be helpful?” Clark asks, a little archly, and instantly regrets it; he’s forgotten far too swiftly how the two of them first met, death thick in the air and Bruce’s boot on his neck. “Not like that,” he clarifies, hastily. “I meant – what if being helpful doesn’t feel like enough?”
Bruce goes quiet. It gives Clark the chance to look, to think; how tired he seems, how small. There’s hope, Clark decides, in the fact he’s standing here at all. “You asked me once what I was trying to achieve,” Bruce answers, eventually. “I guess it’s more a matter of what I was trying to avoid.”
I frighten him, Clark thinks, quietly. All of this does. Not without reason, given everything he’s lost; but it’s no reason not to persevere, not to try. Clark has tried, of course, and the result was more than a little humiliating. And yet –
I think the pair of you can bring him back.
It’s in his nature, Clark supposes, to leap without looking. And to keep doing so; however reckless, however foolish. He takes a step closer, watches unyielding as Bruce stiffens, as something not unlike panic flickers across his face. “Really?” Bruce asks, his voice rough. “Despite – ?”
“Yes,” Clark says, painfully sincere. “All of it.” Clark leans up, slides a hand against Bruce’s neck, and kisses him. After centuries, after aeons, with drunken overcaution Bruce puts his hand on Clark’s hip and kisses back.
To Bruce’s apparent disbelief, the world doesn’t end when Clark pulls away. “There hasn’t really ever been anyone,” Bruce says, after a moment, hoarse and more than a little uneven. He won’t meet Clark’s eye. “Other than Alfred. Other than – ”
He seemingly can’t, won’t finish. Clark’s face softens. “What was his name?”
For a moment, Bruce doesn’t answer. “Jason,” Bruce says, in time, and when he looks at him the grief almost seems eternal. “His name was Jason.”
The room itself is miserably sparse. Spartan, if Clark was feeling kind; he isn’t. “Do you actually sleep in here?”
“No,” Bruce admits, a smile in his voice. They’re stood either side of the kingsize bed, Bruce making slow work of his cuffs across it. “You don’t like it?”
Clark throws him a look. “It’s very gray.”
“I’ll repaint it in your honor,” Bruce says dryly, setting down his cufflinks on the nightstand. “Red, white, and blue?”
“Funny.” He watches Bruce’s fingers pop the top button, kink and pull loose his tie, feels the zip of arousal deep down to the base of his gut when he sees the full slope of Bruce’s neck. “You want a hand with that?”
“Generally I find I can manage,” Bruce answers wryly, toeing off his shoes, and even without the extra height of them he still stands taller. Clark wistfully decides, here and now at least, that hovering above him isn’t worth it to prove the point. Bruce pauses, two buttons down. “Is there anything I should know?”
“No,” Clark says; finds, to his embarrassment, that his voice is already rough.
Bruce tilts his head. “Then come here,” he murmurs, and Clark, as if hypnotised, instantly does. Bruce skims his knuckles down the front of Clark’s shirt, gentle and perfectly steady, pausing at the hemline to kiss him again. It’s deliberate and lazy, precise and slow, and he catches between them the soft noise of pleasure Clark makes when Bruce finally slides his hand underneath Clark’s shirt.
It’s not that it’s unpleasant; but frankly, Clark has had enough of Bruce’s preternatural control. He pushes Bruce’s hands away, hooks Bruce’s legs around his hips, and shoves him up against the nearest wall. Spiderwebs crackle through the plaster; Clark grins viciously at the way Bruce’s eyes go dark. “Sweet Jesus, farmboy – ” Bruce begins, and then huffs out a sharp breath when he bites down just below Bruce’s jaw. “ – don’t rip the shirt.”
Clark gives him a look, and, with exaggerated care, begins on each button one by one. Bruce’s breath echoes around them, level and measured, even as Clark’s fingers brush his skin. There are fewer scars than Clark expected, but more than he’d like to find; he glances up to find Bruce watching him, his face carefully blank. Bruce hands him an empty smile. “It’s nice not to think up some bullshit about heliskiing,” he says. Clark suspects the delivery is less facetious than he’d hoped.
Clark kisses him, softer than he has before, runs a hand down Bruce’s chest. “You know,” Clark says, quietly, “You won’t be able to stop – ”
“Clark,” Bruce interrupts, gently. Much as Clark once didn’t think him capable of sincerity, he seems suitably heartfelt. “I’ll say something.”
Clark nods, pushes his face ever briefly into Bruce’s neck. Jesus, this close it’s like nothing else, the warmth of him. Bruce can mask his heartbeat all he fucking likes; but Clark can smell him, the sweat and the lust and the pleasure, the sound of nerves firing, of blood shifting and moving underneath his skin.
“Let me down,” Bruce says quietly, and Clark does, with extraordinary gentleness. Bruce’s hand palms him through his jeans, impossibly hot, and Clark gasps, feels his hips buck into it. He’s already too fug-headed, too desperate to think clear; so Clark does what he wants and chases it, grinds down against Bruce’s hand, hears the way his own breath catches as pleasure begins to tighten underneath his skin. “Stop,” Bruce says, and Clark does, even as the roughness in Bruce’s voice makes him shudder. “Get on the bed.”
This, however, Clark elects to ignore. He kisses Bruce instead, takes his sweet time in pushing off Bruce’s shirt, tugging off his own over his head, raking his nails a little down Bruce’s spine, down the center of Bruce’s chest. Chasing in vain that hitch in breath, in heartbeat, to prove he’s getting somewhere, even as the warmth of Bruce’s cock pressed hard between them is evidence in itself. All the while, trying to prove the point: he’ll do what he’s told, but not without reason.
Eventually, Clark concedes defeat, kicks off his jeans and lies back against the bedspread, propped up on his elbows. Your move, he almost wants to say, but stops himself at Bruce’s expression; for all that he’s a blank slate, it’s the closest Clark’s ever seen him to looking desperate. It makes Clark’s mouth run dry.
“Bruce,” Clark says, quietly, pleadingly. He watches, frozen, as Bruce slides down his zipper, pops open his fly; when he takes himself in hand, his mouth slackens and his eyes go wide. Clark swallows back a whine, fingers clenched in the bedspread, tight enough to tear. “Bruce, please.”
Bruce nods once, shakes clear his head. He tugs in the slightest breath; then he breathes out, lets himself go, kicks off his pants, and settles himself down across Clark’s thighs. “You beg far too easily,” he murmurs, dipping down to bite at Clark’s chest. His hand finds Clark’s cock again, knuckles grazing down the length of it, and even the gentlest pressure makes Clark suck in a breath. “We’ll have to work on that.”
The promise makes Clark’s head spin. “Bruce,” he says again, urgent and desperate, even as Bruce begins to jerk him, fingers slack and pace achingly slow. “Bruce, please, Bruce – ”
Bruce, unhurried and steady, continues moving his hand at a glacial pace, even as Clark squirms. “Some day,” Bruce murmurs, after what feels like aeons, “I’ll have you here on your back for hours. Open you up bit by bit, see how long it takes to – ”
Clark gasps, arches his back, and comes, hips snapping up to meet Bruce’s tightening hand. “Oh, fuck, oh, fuck.”
Bruce stalls, eyebrows raised. “That was – I didn’t realize – ”
“Don’t stop,” Clark slurs out, fucking up into Bruce’s palm, still hard and ready. “Fuck, Bruce, don’t stop.”
“Jesus,” Bruce says, a little hoarsely, and Clark whines, oversensitive and frantic. He flips them, pushes Bruce into the bed and takes Bruce’s cock into his hand; in that moment, the world begins and ends for him in the way this makes Bruce shudder. Bruce’s hand finds its way into Clark’s hair, grips hard and fast and desperate. “I can’t match you,” he murmurs, wry and a little hysterical, and Clark can hear it, the moan Bruce swallows back when he ups his pace, caught at the crux of his throat. “I – ”
Clark bites at his neck again, tastes the fresh sweat on Bruce’s skin. “C’mon,” he murmurs, aligning their hips, moaning at the feel of Bruce’s cock against his as he takes them both in hand. It’s gathering again already, that hot zip of pleasure with every stroke, low and heavy and desperate at the base of his gut; but he’s determined with every inch of him to get Bruce off first.
It’s a slow and subtle thing, watching the way the pleasure steals through Bruce. Milimeter fractions in the wideness of Bruce’s eyes, milliseconds in the sluggishness of how he blinks, and even as he breathes without trip or hesitation there’s a rasp to the edge of it that’s driving Clark out of his fucking mind. Jesus, if Bruce wants to teach him patience, surely it’s Clark’s job to try and strip it back out of Bruce. Perhaps they can meet in the middle somewhere, Clark thinks, and the thought is nearly enough to make him smile.
“Clark,” Bruce says, suddenly, fingers tightening in Clark’s hair. “Clark – ”
“Yeah,” Clark breathes, tightening his fingers, quickening his pace. “C’mon – want to see – ”
Bruce comes, eyes rolling back, mouth slack and panting even as he lets out nothing louder than a grunt. For Clark, resolute in remembering every detail, it seems to last for centuries; every tiny flicker of muscle, the roar of Bruce’s heartbeat in his chest. To him, minute as it seems, it’s a fucking symphony.
Eventually, finally, Bruce slumps back. His breaths are steadying, evening out; he’s already clawing back control. By the time Bruce opens his eyes again, they’re cool and clear. He runs a steady hand down Clark’s stomach, thumbs at the head of Clark’s dick, makes him shiver. “You want me to – ?”
“Please,” Clark says, hoarsely. It’s more difficult, as it always is, more urgent and more distant, tension winding through his body far tighter than he can stand. Bruce’s hand, slick and tight and firm around him, seems to never be fast enough, sharp enough, blunt enough; it almost hurts, the ache of it, building at what seems to be the very base of him. “Oh god,” Clark says, tight through his teeth. “Bruce, I – ”
“C’mon,” Bruce says softly, and Clark groans, arches his back, fucks into Bruce’s fist, the noise thick and desperate, inches from a sob. “Clark, I’ve got you.”
Clark looks down at him, wrecked and dizzy and desperate; and Bruce smiles, a tiny, unbelievable thing. God, fuck, he can’t hold out against it. It’s too much, all of it, the softness in Bruce’s eyes, the sharp, perfected rhythm of his hand. It’s unrelenting, merciless, dragging something half inhuman out from inside him when he finally, viciously comes again, shouted out helplessly into the still night air.
Clark falls forward, sprawls out across Bruce’s chest. Bruce’s hands are gentle in his hair; the smell of him is searing, all-pervading. His mouth is almost painfully soft against Clark’s skin. “Jesus,” Clark says, eventually. “That was something.”
Bruce snorts. “No kidding,” he murmurs. Despite a certain roughness to his voice, even here, now, after all this there’s an unmistakable tension to Bruce’s body, Bruce’s mind. Clark doesn’t want to lie here wondering how long he has before Bruce’s restiveness forces him to move; he straightens up himself instead, kisses Bruce lazily on the way, as if to prove a point. Clark feels his hair fall forward onto his forehead as he sits back across Bruce’s hips, and Bruce, hands shifted to rest on Clark’s thighs, gives him the most incredulous look. “You look like something from a calendar.”
Clark grins. “Says you, Mr Heliskiing,” he answers wryly; but there’s something in Bruce’s face that makes him quieten, makes him still. Clark knows what he’s looking for, what it is he hasn’t found. “I know,” Clark says softly, resisting the urge to push his palm against his chest for the hundredth time and check. “I thought there would be one too.”
Bruce looks away. “Shower,” he replies blandly, after a beat, and Clark shuffles off him to collapse back onto the bed, too lazy and contented to follow. Besides, he thinks, somewhat dazedly. It’s a hell of a view.
Bruce pauses at his side before he goes, slides his fingers idly through Clark’s sweat-soaked hair. “You smell amazing when you come,” Clark says up at him, almost drunkenly. He frowns. “Is that weird?”
“A little,” Bruce admits, with that tiny, sloping smirk. “But I can do weird. Weird is good.”
“Ow,” Clark says indignantly, just as the needle slides in. It’s more surprise than anything; he just still isn’t used to it. It’s strange, having to adjust. Three whole decades without such a fundamental sensation, and here it is after all that wondering. So simple and yet so complex.
“Don’t be such a baby,” Bruce murmurs, waiting for the vial of blood to fill. “And don’t squirm. I don’t have much of this stuff to spare.”
“I didn’t realize you still had any,” Clark says idly, dutifully holding still. They’re close enough for Clark to catch it, the exact moment when unease creeps steadily up through Bruce’s frame. To Bruce, paranoia is practically a reflex. “Hey,” Clark says, gently; Bruce, characteristically stoic, is doggedly avoiding his eye. “I want you to have it. That mess with Crane – ” Clark breathes in, forces out a smile. “There might be a time when it’s your only chance to stop me.”
Bruce doesn’t reply. He takes away the needle, silently hands Clark a band-aid and a cotton ball before crossing to the workbench, back firmly turned to Clark. So much gained, Clark thinks, as the silence stretches on between them; and still this. “Listen,” Clark says, quietly. “I won’t say no more secrets. That isn’t fair. But after all this – ” He pauses, adds a sliver of humor to his voice. “Well. I’d like to think you can talk to me.”
Bruce glances back at Clark. There’s that little vial still cradled in his fingertips; Clark hopes against hope Bruce sees it for the sign of trust it is. He nods once, and, unpleasant as the thought is, Clark can’t help but sense it’s tinged with defeat. “I don’t hear a question.”
“Bruce,” Clark says, almost despairingly. “I’m not trying to trip you up.”
Bruce says nothing. Something or other flashes up on the screen, too fast for Clark to catch; his attention is on Bruce, his eyes tracing the slope of Bruce’s shoulders, the turn of his neck, the faint bruising where Clark left a bite. “I should get going,” Bruce replies.
Clark tilts his head, surprised. “You got somewhere to be?”
“Board meeting.” Bruce finishes with the monitor, turns round to look at him. “Despite what you’ve read, I don’t actually spend all day lazing around in bed with supermodels.”
“Too bad,” Clark murmurs. He isn’t sure if it’s Bruce’s stance, or the desk, or the sight of his profile in the soft light of the screens, but Clark finds himself thinking that he’d really like to get over there on his knees and suck him off. Something of it must translate to his expression; Bruce moves towards him, slow, even steps until they’re a meter or so apart, close enough for Clark to hook his ankle round Bruce’s calf and pull him in. Bruce’s chest is warm through his shirt, butter-soft cotton, and when he leans down to kiss him his fingers almost feel like a brand, hot and firm against Clark’s neck.
Eventually, Bruce pulls away. He looks irritatingly composed. “I really do have to go,” he murmurs, but his thumb slowly traces the slide of Clark’s lip, almost resentful. He’s been promised a next time, Clark supposes. However nebulously. It’s more than he might’ve hoped.
It would be a sign of trust for Bruce to leave him down here, if Clark had a hope in hell of getting anything out of his machines. And then, of course, there’s Alfred, hovering inexorably out of sight, as convention dictates. Clark watches in silence as Alfred bustles into the space that Bruce had previously occupied, fixing and tidying; the habit of a lifetime, Clark supposes. He’s resisting the urge to run his fingers across his own skin, ghosting the aftermath of Bruce’s touch.
Alfred pauses in his pottering and slides him a look. “A word of advice, if you’ll permit it,” Alfred says; Clark shakes away the cobwebs, nods his assent. “There will come a time when he realises what you mean to him,” he adds. “And then he will do everything in his power to destroy it.”
For a moment, Clark doesn’t answer. “Is that what happened with Jason?” he asks, eventually.
If Alfred is surprised by the question, by the revelation of Clark’s awareness, he doesn’t show it. “No,” Alfred admits, quietly. “But he wishes that it had.”
“The first apartment I moved to had a balcony,” Lois says. There’s no sadness in her voice; she looks peaceful, and calm, and free. “I kept having these dreams where I’d wake up in the middle of the night to find you standing there. Waiting for me.”
Clark doesn’t answer. He’s been putting off coming back here, even though he promised his mother that he would. Clark wonders if this is why; that he’d known he’d find her happy. That it would hurt as much as it helped.
Lois smiles at him. “I’m glad you came,” she says. She reaches out, takes hold of his hand; the warmth in it makes his chest ache. “I’ve been hoping you would.”
“I didn’t want to make it hard for you,” Clark answers, quietly. They’re sat at opposite ends of her sofa, her feet in his lap; the casual intimacy betrays a lack of awkwardness on her part that Clark wished he shared. “But the truth is I don’t think I can be myself without you.”
She sets down her glass. “I think you can,” she answers, gently. “Or I think you could. But I also think you don’t have to. I’m here if you want me to be.”
“I do,” Clark confesses, hoarse, reluctant.
Lois smiles. “Good,” she replies, tightening her hand around his. “Then we’ll figure it out together.”
There’ve been no sightings of the Superman; silence in the skies, since he flattened downtown Gotham. There’s still some instinct in Bruce that tinges the edge of relief into his concern, but he’s no longer sure why. Whether it’s the knowledge that Clark is out of danger, or that the world, however briefly, is safe from Clark.
Bruce sees no need to follow that thought. His priority, as it always has been, is to eliminate Crane. And if he happens to know that Clark isn’t in his firing line, then – well. It’s an added advantage.
Alfred appears at his elbow, squinting somewhat myopically at the screen. “No progress?” Alfred asks thinly, and Bruce shakes his head, shrugs. “Well, Henderson called to reschedule your seven-thirty to Thursday,” he continues, settling down at the desk. “I’m making risotto for dinner and your dry-cleaning is in the closet in the hallway.”
There’s something hiding in Alfred’s tone, a question to be begged. “And?” Bruce prompts, a little tetchily.
Alfred slides him a look. “Master Kent is upstairs,” he answers, and pauses with visible amusement to watch the panic flit across Bruce’s face. “I thought I’d remind you that he can see through walls and hear your heartbeat from a hundred miles away,” he adds, irritatingly chipper. “In case you were thinking of avoiding him.”
Bruce grits his teeth. “I’m not.”
“Good,” Alfred replies blandly. “He’s on the porch.”
It’s hardly a taxing request, to walk up that single flight of stairs and down the corridor beyond; and yet Bruce finds his legs feel like lead. He has to take a moment, stood the other side of the living room door, to calm himself down, keep his pulse in check. Not, of course, that this would be hidden from Clark, if he chose to see.
There, after all, is the problem; that one day Clark could look at him and realize that Bruce is everything he ever feared the Batman might be.
Bruce opens the door. Sure enough, there Clark is, solid against the dying light, squinting out into the horizon. He’s sat back in one of the lounge chairs out on the deck; he hasn’t even come inside. The back door is left ajar, carrying through into the house the heavy smell of the evening, dank water and fresh-crunched leaves. “You know,” Bruce says, leaning up in the doorway, “Diana just invites herself down.”
Clark shrugs. “Figured you were busy,” he says, eyes still on the fading line of trees. Bruce can’t help but wonder for the hundredth time what Clark sees; what it would be like to register the world with that kind of excruciating perfection. “And I needed someplace quiet to think.”
“I thought you saved that for the troposphere,” Bruce replies, with manufactured breeziness. He could go anywhere, Bruce thinks. Do anything. And yet he’s come back here, to be near him. To sit on his porch and think. It scares the shit out of him. “I’m working on Crane,” Bruce admits, a little guiltily. “If that’s what’s got you rattled.”
Clark shakes his head. “Something Alfred said,” Clark confesses quietly, slowly, and grim, white-hot fear drops heavily into Bruce’s stomach. “He seems to think that someday you’ll decide I’m no longer worth the risk.” Clark looks up at him. “Is he wrong?”
Fuck. Bruce tries and fails to regain control over himself, the thump of his heartbeat, the push-pull of his breath. It should be instinct; it usually is. But instinct gets blown away, standing this close to Clark. It always has done. Throat locked tight with dread, Bruce can’t even fucking speak. “So what’s this,” he manages, eventually. He tries for flippant; he gets bitter, frightened, hoarse. “A pre-emptive strike?”
“No,” Clark instantly replies. “I don’t want that.” He pushes himself out of the chair; earnestness, fondness, desire shine right out of him in a way that makes Bruce’s chest ache. “I can’t change you,” Clark murmurs, somehow almost mournful in his tone. “If that’s the way you think. About the world, about me.” Clark sucks in a breath and looks at him, really fucking looks, eyes steady and full of hope. “The way I see it, the only thing I can do is ask that you’ll – talk to me. If it ever happens. That you won’t just let me go.”
Bruce can’t hold his gaze. “I,” Bruce says, and can’t continue. No wisecracks, no intelligent philosophies fall neatly into mind. Standing there, mouthing desperately at air, humbled and shaken and everything in between, Bruce does the only thing he can think to do; he swallows his fear, and his grief, and his anger, and his dread, and he nods.
Clark’s sudden smile is like sunlight incarnate. “Bruce,” Clark breathes, and kisses him, soft fingers in his hair, a hand gentle at his waist, firm against his skin.
This is it, Bruce thinks, his head spinning, heart hammering in his chest. Until now, he was somehow blind to it; he couldn’t see its shape. This, here, is what they can be. The two of them together; a steady, ceaseless anchor. Clark for him and him for Clark. Inexorable. Unshakable.
The night is biblical with Gotham rain. It’s heavy enough to dissuade the pettiest of criminals and the more small-minded of the socialites; but the Bat, ever-eager, ever-present, is out hunting.
Bruce shifts a little on the rooftop. The building before him is dark and quiet, rattling with the sound of the storm. There are no lights on, no signs of life; but Bruce knows the peacefulness is ersatz. Half intel, half intuition, wholly the product of two long decades of this thankless, never-ending duty.
Bruce hesitates. He tilts his head up towards the sky, and wonders; then, quietly, under his breath and against his better judgment, he says, “Clark?”
There’s no answer. Bruce, increasingly embarrassed, refocuses on the building below and hopes that Alfred won’t mock him for it; then there’s a whipcrack bang above him, like the sky itself has split in two, and the Superman himself drops down beside him with a thud.
The sight of him is still eerie, still sets Bruce’s teeth on edge; but at least he now has both the capacity and the reason to ignore it. He watches, ostensibly impassive, as Clark straightens up. “Got eyes on Crane,” Bruce says. “Figured you might be interested.”
Clark smiles; there’s something vicious about it. He tilts his head, holds out his hand, and says, with a glint in his eye, “Lead on.”