After, after Doomsday, after Superman’s funeral, after Clark Kent’s funeral, Bruce researched.
After, after it was all said and done, and dead and buried, Bruce Wayne set off on a journey to learn all that he could of Clark Joseph Kent, the man behind the demigod alien he had once hated, had once feared.
The motivation for it started simply enough. It stemmed from the snippets of a life he had inadvertently overheard when he attended Clark’s funeral in his hometown, from the people who knew Clark Kent before he became Superman – even if they didn’t make the connection between Clark and Superman. He heard about little slices of Clark’s life, of how Clark was a little odd but always good-hearted. He looked up school reports and testimonials, ignoring the dubious legality of what he was doing. It was something he should’ve done in the first place, when he and the rest of the world had first learned of the existence of Superman.
He should never have gone in to the situation deliberately blind to the possibility that Superman had a human, civilian identity. He should have left no stone unturned in his bid to learn more about the Superman, even if it meant that he could possibly learn something that would humanize the alien to him when Bruce was mired in the darkest depths of his despair and the need for vengeance. He had made himself conveniently blind to the truth, all to soothe the insidious, toxic anger that had established itself in his heart, because it made it easy.
By telling himself that the Superman wasn’t human, it had made it easy to ignore the few rules that he’d set for himself to ensure that he didn’t cross the line from vigilante to villain. That, ultimately, was his fatal flaw.
It was perhaps, too little, too late, but it was his way of honoring the fallen hero, the man who was more human than Bruce ever was and ever would be. If nothing else, Bruce was a master at preserving memories and never letting go, evident in the way Jason’s Robin suit was immortalized in Batman’s cave – a stark reminder of what his failures always wrought.
But seeking to learn about Clark Kent, to truly know him posthumously, well… it was also Bruce’s way of atoning. To learn about the man who he had plotted to murder – and unquestioningly, had he succeeded, it would’ve been premeditated murder of the first degree, to learn about the life that he had callously ignored in favor of his rabid pursuit of what he had thought was right, what he had thought fit his worldview. Never again would Bruce make this mistake, to prioritize convenience over truth. The life of Clark Kent which he was learning about now, after his death, would be a constant reminder for Bruce.
In contrast, the hope that had been rekindled within him because of Superman, because of Clark’s noble sacrifice, burned strongly in the darkness that clouded his heart. Humanity had never had trouble starting petty, pointless conflicts, had never needed an external source to provoke the appearance of evil, and Bruce had lost sight of the good inherent in people in the long years of working alone, trying to clean up Gotham even as he lost more to the cause than he’d probably gained. But Clark, like the symbol on his suit, had cut through the darkness like a ray of guiding light, and Bruce could finally see hope.
It was perhaps inevitable, and ironically fitting, that he would end up falling for Clark Joseph Kent. An alien more human than any man he knew, who had impacted Bruce’s life in so many different ways merely by existing, and then even more so by dying.
Yet it was probably safer this way. Everything that Bruce touched with love seemed to break (except for Alfred it seemed, but even so, Bruce was forever waiting for – and dreading the day – the other shoe to drop). Dick’s falling out with him and then hightailing it out of Gotham was probably a rare stroke of luck, and that Bruce had never chased him down to bring him back was now fortuitous in hindsight no matter how much he missed the young man. But that fortune hadn’t extended to Jason, a boy he should never have taken in after the mess of the situation with Dick. At the very least, he should never have allowed Jason to become another Robin. All it had ultimately achieved was to get Jason brutally killed.
So, that Clark had died before he could be thus affected by Bruce’s curse? It was probably a mercy. There were always worse things than death.
Nevertheless, all of that didn’t happen overnight. It was a slow, steady fall, and there was enough time for Bruce to realize what was happening. He could’ve stopped it, perhaps. He had caught the signs early on and could’ve nipped them cold in the bud. But it felt like keeping a part of Clark with him always, undeserving as he was, and well… Bruce Wayne had never been known to be anything but self-serving, and Bruce, in this, didn’t have it in him to be selfless. So, it stayed with him, this slowly blooming love for a man he’d tried to kill and almost succeeded, a man he’d only started to truly know after his death…
After, after it all, Bruce Wayne fell in love with Clark Kent, and that was that.
Over the next few months, Bruce kept himself busy with all sorts of research and various investigations, looking into Luthor’s half-insane ramblings of a beacon being lit on Earth, and trying to track down the other metahumans from Luthor’s files. He made enquiries into obtaining a rare World War I photograph and then had it sent over to Diana’s office at the Louvre once he had procured it. Though he’d said in his letter that he would like to hear the story from Diana herself, he had, in his need for information, conducted a cursory search of the people in that old photo. Nothing as extensively detailed as what he now had on Clark, but enough to glean the identity of Steve Trevor and deduce his relationship with Diana.
He also kept an eye out on Clark’s loved ones: Martha Kent and Lois Lane. He made sure they were safe, but he kept himself at a distance. He hadn’t been sure if Lois had figured it out, had connected Bruce Wayne to Batman, but he figured that as, at the very least, an accomplice to Clark’s murder, he should not be showing himself to Clark’s mother and almost-fiancée. Even if it would make learning about who Clark Kent really was a lot easier and from the best sources there were… but no. He did not. Would not.
(Bruce had considered it carefully, over the course of one long night with a bottle of whiskey as his sole companion. Learning about Clark from the two people who loved him most in this world would no doubt hit his dried-up husk of a heart right where it hurt the most. Their recollections of Clark would make him more acutely aware of just what he had robbed the world of in his unfounded vendetta. It would be a justified punishment for himself. But he was only harsh and unforgiving if it meant he would be the only one to get hurt. Making Martha Kent and Lois Lane claw open their still-too-fresh wounds for the sake of his own self-flagellation was not something he would ever do.)
So, he had only helped once, subtly, in ways that wouldn’t be traced back to Bruce Wayne, with the monetary aspects of Clark’s funeral. Otherwise, he kept a watchful eye on the two women, but did not actively interfere. He would protect them from afar, but he would not subject them to his presence any more than it was necessary.
It was never necessary for Bruce Wayne or Batman to be seen.
If it helped a little, just a little, to not have to be in the presence of Lois Lane, the woman whom Clark had loved dearly, had given up his life to save… that was just pure happenstance.
(He wasn’t jealous. He had no right to be jealous. But contrary to Alfred’s frequent muttering impeachments, Bruce also wasn’t a masochist.)
Later, when he had had no choice but to contact Diana once more because of another alien threat to the Earth, and then set about to recruit the remaining metahumans from Luthor’s files, he was beset with a bout of reluctance. He knew that it had to be done, knew that he couldn’t let the world that Clark had died to save be taken again. An invasion was coming, was already here according to Diana, and without Clark, the rest of them had to step up.
He refused to let the world fall, and in part, it was a conviction that came from himself, the part of him that made him take up being a vigilante in the first place. But there was also another part of him, a part that strongly balked at failing Clark yet again. Especially when he had promised not to fail Clark in death, not like he had in life.
The feelings of reluctance didn’t fade, however, and had in fact gotten stronger when he found himself having to recruit Barry Allen, one of the youngest of the metahumans from Luthor’s files. Something about Barry reminded Bruce of Dick solely from the videos and pictures Luthor had and from the background check Alfred had run, the two young men also were almost the same age. Then when they’d finally met in person, that impression had only grown stronger. Both Barry and Dick had this brightness to them, and just as how Dick had watched tragedy befall his parents, the same went for Barry, and yet somehow, they both hadn’t allowed despair and darkness to consume them. Not like how it had happened with Bruce himself.
So, it ached something fierce that he had to drag Barry into this, to fight for the Earth just because he had somehow gotten superspeed through a stroke of sheer dumb luck. But Bruce had had no choice… or perhaps he did. But it was still easier to ask a stranger whom he didn’t know very well (even if it was one he was beginning to warm up to in a paternal way that was already ringing all sorts of alarm bells in Bruce’s head), than to reach out to Dick and pull him away from relative safety.
It was probably a good thing that the recruitment of Victor Stone (who was just a little older than Jason would’ve been if… If.) had been left in Diana’s hands. Bruce wasn’t quite sure he had it in him to recruit two young men into possibly giving their life up for the world.
It was a crazy idea. He knew. He didn’t need Diana nor Arthur to tell him that.
He also knew how risky it could be. None of them had much, if any, experience with raising the dead. The only one of them who had actually died and then been brought back to life with alien technology was Victor. By observing Victor’s solemn personality, Bruce had the inkling that this was not how the young man was like before his death and subsequent resurrection. It stood to reason that the same could happen with Clark if he were resurrected. But it was also infinitely more dangerous with Clark if something went wrong. Bruce knew that.
He knew all of that, and it still was the best idea he had.
The five of them had barely been able to escape from Steppenwolf alive and keep the last remaining motherbox out of the alien conqueror’s clutches. From Diana’s tales of the last time Steppenwolf had made a bid for Earth, it had taken legions of armies, including gods and extra-terrestrial forces, to force his retreat. They did not have anywhere close to that level of power and unity now, and not enough time to even attempt to rally the rest of the world (human, Amazon, Atlantean) to take a stand against an alien invasion. The only person who could possibly level the playing field in the most expedient manner was Superman.
It had taken Clark’s death for Bruce to see the truth, but it rang even truer now: the world needed Superman, and the team needed Clark.
So even if it meant that there was only a one percent chance of success, Bruce would take it, would grasp it in both his hands and cling on to that hope for all it was worth. Even if it meant that he had to go behind the fledgling league he had been trying to establish with Diana’s help, he would do it.
(If there was a part of him that wanted Clark alive again for purely selfish reasons? Nobody needed to know about it. Besides, he would never even consider this idea if it were solely because of that… if nothing else, Clark didn’t deserve to be subject to Bruce again if there was nothing else at stake.)
But he wasn’t stupidly optimistic either. If Clark was truly not himself when he came back to life, then there needed to be contingency plans. From the way Diana had looked at him when he’d said that he had contingencies in place, well, he could certainly deduce what she thought those plans were. It had hurt a little, that she would still believe him to resort to violence from the get go, but he hadn’t given her cause to believe otherwise.
He had Alfred contact Lane, and even if this potentially meant giving up Batman’s secret identity to one of the sharpest investigative reporters in America, it would be worth it. Then he unearthed some of the Kryptonite he had left locked up in a lead-lined safe since Clark’s demise because although Bruce wanted to believe that it wouldn’t come down to this, he was still Batman and Batman planned for all eventualities. Including ones which he hated to contemplate.
The resurrection process went… Bruce wasn’t quite sure how to qualify it. It did work, and thus Clark was alive. For that, Bruce was endlessly grateful. But like things were wont to do whenever he had a hand in it, Clark did not come back… right. He wasn’t needlessly destructive, but he clearly had no clue about his own identity, nor of Diana’s. Bruce had been careful to not be seen right away by Clark, because if Clark wasn’t himself, he didn’t want to trigger the other man into remembering their last fight.
(Not the fight with Doomsday, but the one between them, when he had held the Kryptonite spear to Clark’s face and was just a breath away from committing premeditated murder and thought himself justified for doing so.)
Clark, revived, appeared entirely unaware of his human heritage, and more like the alien god that featured in Bruce’s worst nightmares. But at least, he wasn’t violent.
Until Victor’s alien cybernetics began to act up in reaction to Clark’s threat level and the rest of them had to work to contain a defensive, amnesic Superman who still packed a hell of a punch up against four metahumans, two of whom had actual combat experience.
A few tense moments later, Bruce didn’t know whether to be pleased or not that despite not recognizing Diana, Clark apparently remembered him. But judging by how he was currently struggling to breathe from the chokehold Clark had him in, well… it wasn’t exactly a pleasant recollection. Not that Bruce could blame him. They had probably spent longer actually fighting each other and viewing each other with animosity than they had working together to defeat Luthor’s Kryptonian-human hybrid monstrosity. Those minutes of collaboration against a greater threat wouldn’t have done anything to wipe out the fact that Bruce had held Clark down and was about to do more than just cut up his face with the Kryptonite spear.
“You won’t let me live; you won’t let me die.”
“The world needs you,” he managed to gasp out.
(I need you, a part of him cried out, and Bruce had never been so glad that Clark’s abilities did not extend to telepathy.)
“But it doesn’t need you.”
(No. It didn’t. It never did.)
He could feel it, the way Clark’s hand around his neck and jaw tightened just that little bit more, as if contemplating how easy it would be to collapse Bruce’s trachea and crush the bones of his neck (from C6 to C7, a part of him noted, morbidly detached, already cataloging the extent of potential damage to his spine) into fine, fine dust if just a little more pressure was applied. If Clark just let go of his delicate control over his super-strength…
In another time, another situation, perhaps Bruce would’ve let it happen. Would’ve accepted whatever Clark wanted to do with him. To maim him, to torture him, to eventually kill him… but not today. The world was at stake, and it needed Superman. More importantly, it needed a Superman who was tempered by Clark Kent’s humanity. So, he couldn’t let Clark kill him even if he felt it were a justified reaction. Because if Clark killed him and then snapped back into the Clark Kent before his death and resurrection, it would surely break Clark, Clark who hadn’t wanted to kill Zod the first time around but had to do it in the end because Zod wouldn’t stop otherwise.
He choked out Alfred’s name loudly enough that the communicator would pick it up, knowing his butler would know what to do. Was, in all honesty, probably already on his way with Lane from the moment Clark burst out of the genesis chamber alive. Then, in true Alfred fashion of always being there right when he was needed, Bruce heard a car pull up and then there was a clatter of heels and-
He saw the moment Clark registered Lane’s voice, how Clark’s entire being went utterly still. Then slowly, to Bruce, ever so slowly, Clark turned his head to the side, to where Lane was standing.
Even through a slowly dwindling supply of oxygen, Bruce could see how all of Clark’s attention was focused on Lane, and only on her. He wasn’t even surprised that a split second later, he was being carelessly tossed aside like yesterday’s trash. Unfortunately, it still hadn’t been enough warning for him to roll with the landing and pain lanced through his battered body as he hit the ground at an awkward angle. The slightest movement of his left arm made his entire shoulder protest, and he knew that it was dislocated. Not that he could do anything about it at the moment as he was still trying to pull in deep breaths of much-needed air when his impact with the hard ground knocked most of the wind out of him.
Bruce closed his eyes and concentrated on regulating his breathing and heart rate, pushing aside the pains and aches of his protesting body. It had been only a short altercation, and he was already feeling worse than after round one with Steppenwolf, worse than even that very first time he’d seriously fought Clark. It only proved to him that even back then, even when they were at each other’s throats, it was likely that Clark had held back the full extent of his abilities. But he had suffered worse than a dislocated shoulder (much, much worse) and he had pushed past the physical pain to keep fighting on. There was no reason why he couldn’t do the same now.
No reason why the gust of air signalling Clark’s departure with Lane seemed to trigger a sharp burst of pain in his chest.
No reason at all.
There had been a moment during the lull after Clark had disappeared with Lane for a more private reunion in which Bruce wondered if the feelings he had unintentionally developed for the other man would disappear. They clearly had a lot of things to work out if Clark immediately attacking him post-resurrection was any indication, and it was always easy to build up a person, to put them on a pedestal after they were gone. Nobody liked to speak ill of the dead after all.
It was possible. Maybe not immediately, but still possible all the same.
It would also become a moot point if Bruce succeeded in his second insane plan of the week to draw away all the parademons at the cost of his own life. He wasn’t suicidal, even if Alfred would often claim otherwise, but it was a plan that would clear the rest of the League’s way to Steppenwolf.
Plus, as he had told Diana earlier, he could barely do all of this now. The multitude of minute pains and aches added up, much as he ignored them to the best of his ability on a day-to-day basis with the occasional aid in the form of prescription drugs. Add in the occasional more severe injury… well, he wasn’t getting any younger, and right now, he was still feeling sore from being manhandled by Clark – and to a lesser extent, Diana earlier, when he’d deliberately aimed for her sore spot – even though Diana had helped to pop his dislocated shoulder back in place.
At any rate, he didn’t think the League would lose much even if he did, in fact, die out here today. He’d planned for this eventuality, for his demise in the line of his vigilantism duty long before Superman’s appearance. When the idea of a League had struck him all those months ago, he had immediately made new plans and funneled away a portion of his wealth into funding it even after his death, amongst other plans and contingencies he already had had in place. Batman wasn’t crucial to the survival of the League. Perhaps they would even be better off without him as a member for he would most likely be the most controversial member in the current line-up. Diana, once she accepted that she was the most qualified to lead out of all of them (even if Arthur was supposedly the king of Atlantis), would make a far better leader, for all that the idea of the League came from Bruce. Maybe Bruce would be forcing her hand if he actually died, but well… Sometimes, Bruce didn’t play fair.
He didn’t know if he should’ve been surprised when, suddenly, the rest of the League appeared, joining him in taking down the parademons even when that had not been the plan. He didn’t need the rest of them telling him that this change in plan was because of Diana’s orders – he’d already guessed. Still, it warmed a tiny part of his heart, and it had nothing to do with how he’d sort of expected that Diana would take to leadership if given the right push (and look, Bruce didn’t even need to die for it to happen, things were already looking up).
In the end, it had come down to Clark showing up in the nick of time to turn the tide in their favor. It was such an abrupt turn from when he was first resurrected that Bruce felt like he was getting emotional whiplash. First, from the way his traitorous heart soared at Clark’s reappearance in full Superman regalia (and no, there absolutely wasn’t a tinge of possessiveness to that feeling, even if Bruce recognized the suit as the one he’d mended and then cosseted away in the Cave, a secret twin to Jason’s). Then, from how positively incandescent Clark was with his smile and good cheer, so at odds with all of their previous encounters.
Bruce had fallen for Clark when all he knew of him was through second and even third-hand accounts, all of which had failed spectacularly at encompassing how bright Clark in real life could actually be when he wasn’t bogged down by deliberately incited hate and flame wars. He had liked seeing how despite all odds, despite all the obstacles in Clark’s way (how human Clark was with his struggles and fears, how Clark was imperfect and flawed but not in the ways that Bruce had initially feared), Clark had persevered.
Now, coming face-to-face with Clark reborn and in his right mind… Bruce hadn’t realized just how long he had been looking for the light at the end of the tunnel that was the path he had set himself on all those years ago until it was now blinding him in the form of Superman, in the form of Clark Kent. It hit him then, that he wasn’t going to be able to cut himself free of Clark. He would always, in some way, love Clark, and nothing was going to be able to change that.
“I knew you didn’t bring me back because you liked me,” Clark commented, a smile that Bruce in no way deserved turning up the corners of his perfect lips.
It was both the teasing tone and that damnable smile that made Bruce stutter, something that hadn’t happened to him in a long while, be it as himself, Bruce Wayne or the Bat.
“I don’t… not…”
It was a small blessing that Alfred remained silent and professional over the comms. But Bruce had no doubt that Alfred was doing his dignified British butler equivalent of facepalming at Bruce’s teenager-with-a-crush behavior back in the Cave and would likely never let Bruce live it down for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, he had never been gladder that this was all happening in the middle of a crisis, and that they soon had to turn their attention back onto separating the motherboxes while keeping Steppenwolf and his parademon army away until it was too late.
That little loss of composure wouldn’t ping anyone else’s radar except for Alfred’s, and that was the only silver lining in this situation. He could allow himself this one show of weakness, this one show of loss of control. Just this once. More than this, he would run the risk of it being obvious to Diana and there were already enough things about him that she knew or had inferred without this fruitless love being another one of them.
(He didn’t think he could stand it. He neither needed, nor wanted, her pity.)
After, after Steppenwolf’s defeat, after the world learnt of the new Justice League, Bruce kept himself busy.
After, after press conferences as the Bat as part of the League, after press conferences as Bruce Wayne in support of the League, Bruce found time to help sort out the life of one Clark Joseph Kent.
It wasn’t difficult to find out that Kent farm had been repossessed by the bank, and it was even less complicated to buy out the very same bank so that he could return Clark and Martha’s home to them. Problems that could be resolved with money were of no issue to Bruce, and this was the least that he could do for all he had put the Kent family through.
Visiting Clark as they were moving back into the farmhouse, though, was a bit of a whim. Bruce certainly didn’t need to be there, but he had wanted to. At the very least, he had wanted to see Clark again, as purely Clark Kent from Smallville, Kansas. He wanted to see the man he had learnt about posthumously, and had now been, miraculously, granted another chance to learn about the man first-hand. It was hard to keep away, and Bruce, when it truly mattered, found that he didn’t quite have the level of impulse control that Batman was supposedly renowned for.
“How did you get the house back from the bank?” Clark asked, as they walked side-by-side towards the farmhouse, towards Clark’s childhood home.
Clark was dressed in flannel, looking very much like he belonged in midwestern America. If Bruce didn’t know who he was, didn’t know that underneath the glasses and the overabundance of plaid was Superman, he would not have looked twice at this man. Okay, perhaps that was a lie, because even as Clark Kent from Smallville, Clark was still gorgeous in the strapping farm boy way. But he would not have thought that there was so much more to Clark beyond first impressions. In stark contrast, Bruce was in one of his customary Bruce Wayne suits. It was plainly obvious that Bruce did not belong here. He was one of the elite rich, and even if he weren’t recognized to be that Bruce Wayne, he still stood out here in working class America. He didn’t belong here, even though he was of Earth and Clark was the alien. But it gladdened him that Clark did have a place to call home on Earth, a place and people he was obviously deeply attached to emotionally.
(If a part of that was motivated by how, even now, he still couldn’t entirely stop perceiving Clark as a potential threat, it didn’t make the rest of his feelings towards Clark any less valid, any less good-intentioned. Bruce had found that recently, he seemed to be doing things that were driven purely by this compelling need to have Clark happy and alive and present…)
“I bought the bank,” he replied honestly.
Perhaps too honestly, if Clark’s look of utter shock was anything to go by.
Bruce supposed that even god-like alien men couldn’t get their heads around the concept of buying out an entire bank as a logical and expedient method of getting things done. Especially if they’d lived amongst the common masses for all of their life here on Earth. He should’ve been used to it though. The way he perceived life and problems differed from most people he’d encountered even if you discounted his childhood trauma that made him pursue vigilantism as a secret full-time career. But here, out in the midwestern countryside, Bruce once again felt, acutely, the overwhelmingly deep chasm of differences between him and Clark.
But he didn’t regret what he did, not any of it. It was the right thing to do, getting back the house and the farm for Martha and Clark. Even if he did end up using more extreme methods in the eyes of most people. But as he told Clark, buying things to solve problems was kind of a reflex for him by now. At least these were the problems that money could solve. And even if it weren’t, if it were to help Clark, Bruce was already quietly resigned to the certainty that he would pour in all of his effort to do it anyway, and it would likely be a long time before Bruce could find the limits to his willingness to assist Clark.
For Clark’s sake, however, it was probably best if he tried to curb himself as far as possible. Bruce didn’t think he could stop being Clark’s friend even if he still felt that it was the wisest course of action – he was in too deep now. Plus, now that the Justice League was beginning to be acknowledged by governments worldwide, he would have to work closely with Clark, who’d kind of become the unofficial leader – in the media’s eyes at least. They hadn’t really sorted out leadership issues between him, Clark and Diana yet.
Nevertheless, he could watch himself, keep things strictly platonic between him and Clark. Not that it would be particularly difficult, for he could tell that Clark and Lane’s romance was burning strong, perhaps even stronger now that they’d been blessedly reunited after separation by death. That knowledge was more than sufficient to make him keep an acceptably friendly distance between himself and Clark (he truly wasn’t a masochist, thank you very much, Alfred). Bruce was also certain that Clark didn’t know enough of the real Bruce yet to discern Bruce’s true feelings through his actions. Regardless of that small silver lining, the thought he had seriously entertained about buying out the Daily Planet so that it would be easier to get Clark his job back definitely could not happen now. Not with how Clark had reacted to Bruce admitting to buying a bank to give him his house back and it would, unquestionably, be impossible to keep his name and Wayne Enterprises out of the media if the Daily Planet were to be bought over.
But he could still help, at the very least, to get Clark’s human identity back. If Victor was willing to lend a hand too, the whole process would go a lot smoother – and be much more secure – than even the best of Bruce’s solo efforts. This was something that friends could and would do for each other if they had the means to; this wouldn’t be overstepping.
(It shouldn’t lead to anyone thinking anything was amiss, even if Bruce was beginning to suspect that Diana might have already seen through some of his actions to what they truly meant. But Diana was discreet, and she wouldn’t interfere. That was all Bruce could hope for.)
He and Clark would continue to develop their friendship, and it would only be a friendship. Bruce would bury his attraction, secrete away the non-platonic aspects of the love he felt for Clark deep, deep inside of him, like he did with so many other impractical and unattainable hopes and wishes. Life would go on, as it always did.
It would be fine. He would be fine.
After, after it all, Bruce Wayne was still hopelessly in love with Clark Kent, and that was that.