Bruce likes to keep tabs on people. He likes to be in the know of what’s going on, and he likes to have updated files on all the League members. It’s for safety, the sake of being thorough, and - alright, to appease some of his paranoia.
That doesn’t mean he gets into situations like this on purpose.
Reasonably, he should turn the monitor off. This is clearly a private moment, but... but . Bruce keeps listening.
“It is clear to me that while we may cling to each other out of a sense of profound kinship and perhaps a sense of loneliness, “ - Christ , this can’t really be happening - “I find it to be an unsatisfactory substitute for true love.” Diana is saying, voice echoing in the overly silent room.
Bruce holds his breath, irrationally fearing he’ll be heard. He has a creeping sensation due to the look on Clark’s face that this is a shock to Clark as much as it is to himself. Clark and Diana had seemed so... good .
“It can’t have escaped your notice that there are others in my life who have expressed a desire to share more with me, and I cannot say I don’t also hold interest in the possibilities.”
Steve Trevor? flashes through Bruce’s mind and he wonders if it does for Clark as well.
“And there are others in your life as well that I think you hold more interest for. Do not think,” Diana pauses to cradle her hand against Clark’s cheek for a brief touch, “That I have not cherished every moment we have had together. It has meant the world to me to know I am not alone; but we may still share that without being obligated to this type of relationship.
“In a way, it has created even more loneliness, because we are the only two in our world. I do not wish it to be so. I intend to let others in - you should do the same, Clark.”
This is a little much, a little bit too intimate for Bruce to escape the guilt nagging at him for overhearing; but something in the expression on Clark’s face makes him hone in, unable to turn away.
He tunes out the rest of the conversation, a minor act of respect for them he can pay as he continues invading their privacy, but he takes special note of their expressions. Neither of them look upset, and they are behaving familiarly with each other, as though something big and unexpected hadn’t just passed.
Diana somehow looks a little happier than she had when she had gone in, and Bruce can’t quite begrudge her for it; but Clark, smiling a little as if to comfort Diana even though it should be the other way around in this situation, well...there’s something that blinks out in his eyes, just for a moment.
Bruce can admit to himself he is not the most qualified of people to gauge emotion, but even he can tell something seems a little shattered in Clark.
That fascinates him.
He’s so focused on Clark he fails to register the door sliding open behind him in the monitor room, or process the fact that Diana had slipped out of the room from Clark over a minute ago.
“I doubt there’s much else to see.” comes an amused voice behind him.
He can’t say he’s not relieved that she doesn’t sound angry. An angry Diana is a force even he can’t reckon with.
“You knew I was watching?”
A small smile quirks up on one side of her mouth, hinting at mischief. “I may have timed our conversation so it would happen this way.”
Bruce’s eyebrows knit together behind his mask because he knows she can’t see them.
“I knew you were going to find out, one way or another,” She says, unconcerned, like she had managed to read his confused expression anyway, “And I’d rather take the shortcut of you seeing things firsthand, rather than have you pry in a way that might cause pain.”
Bruce resists shifting in his seat at the inferred chastization.
“Besides,” she adds with her smile broadening into her cursed, I’m-wiser-than-you smirk that she undoubtedly dons unconsciously, “It would not hurt for Clark to have someone watching over him now.”
Bruce says nothing, but finds himself shifting back towards the monitor where Clark has gone from standing to crouched against the wall, letting his bravado go to lean his head into his arms.
Bruce doesn’t want to admit to putting more time into observing Clark after that, except...he has. There’s more information to be offered by watching him, he reasons, and Clark being the most powered among them - as well as the elected leader - means there’s all the more risk if he becomes unstable.
But he’s nothing like Bruce expects.
What Bruce expects is for Clark to become depressed, withdrawn, perhaps even angry. What he sees is quite literally the opposite - Clark seems to take Diana’s words to heart, and he reaches out to more League members than ever. He spends more time at their base, more time talking one-on-one, and getting information from people with ten times the ease by just asking as Bruce would by investigating the very same things.
And yet, there is something off. For all that Clark seems to be increasing his social endeavors, Bruce finds a suspicious lack of information about Clark at all. It leaves him confounded, as Clark seems to be more and more capable of rendering him these days.
It’s the reporter in him, Bruce figures. He spins just about every conversation exactly how he wants it, and that seems to be consistently in the region of “not about Clark.”
Bruce wants to know why. He wants to go interrupt just about every conversation Clark has to knock the other person on the head and say “What about Clark?”
He wants to knock Clark on the head and say “It’s okay to think about yourself for once.”
That’s why, when a few weeks later they first make contact with J’onn, Bruce doesn’t hesitate to push Clark his way.
The telepathy is off-putting at first, their initial exposure being an uncontrolled and desperate attempt, pain-filled through the noise of spiraling pleas for help. But in that connection, the link being broad and haphazard, Bruce can also sense, for the briefest of moments, Clark’s mind.
He feels a sting, a depth of loneliness that he never fathomed for someone as well loved as Clark. For anyone other than himself .
And he he senses it mirrored in their new friend, the profound sadness that comes with the loss of one’s people, of being the only one left, that flashes so intensely.
The recognition in Clark’s head rings brightly, drawing him towards J’onn willingly as though a moth towards a flame. He doesn’t hesitate to accept Bruce’s suggestion of a friendly drop by in his new Earth home a few weeks later, after the incident.
Bruce feels irrationally pleased with himself for managing to get Clark to approach someone he can’t shield his inner thoughts from.
Clark’s relationship with J’onn after that becomes an intriguing thing, surpassing even his continuing relationship with Diana.
Bruce considers this a feat, seeing as at one point, there had been a highly entertaining incident where Diana had managed to lecture Clark about the full history of Amazonian views on non-monogamy before propositioning him with the continuation their sexual relationship as friends .
Seeing the corn-fed, Kansas farm-boy color as brightly as his cape and stutter out a very hesitant decline had been almost funny enough for Bruce to crack a smile.
But with J’onn, there is something more somber between them. Clark still doesn’t speak much, but Bruce suspects there is much discussed that no one but the two of them can ever hear.
There is also a great deal of what he would call “brooding,” and can’t he just hear Hal’s voice in the back of his head, mocking them for encroaching on Bruce’s trademarked MO. He punches imaginary Hal and frowns at the image on his monitor, Clark and J’onn staring out a window into the broad expanse of space, silent and radiating melancholy.
Clark and J’onn have clearly found something in each other, but Bruce can also surmise that Clark hasn’t found something specific he clearly needs in him. If anything, he spends more time being openly morose; and he still hasn’t truly grown any closer to anyone else around him.
If Bruce needs any more evidence that Clark isn’t alright and isn’t getting better, he watches him an hour later traipse into his room with an armful of brown paper bags.
There are no sleeping quarters cameras installed, (something Bruce has been sorely tempted to rectify,) so he spends the rest of his monitor duty being uncharacteristically fidgety, repeatedly turning back to the image of a still hallway that displays Clark’s closed door.
When Shayera heads in to take over the monitors, Bruce doesn’t quite think before he finds himself marching towards that very hall.
By the time he catches himself, he’s already there, hand poised to knock.
But why is he here?
He has no interest in revealing to Clark that he’s all but been stalking him for months, since his breakup. Doesn’t want to admit that he’s suspecting him of any kind of incompetence, because honestly it’s not about that anymore.
Bruce is concerned , and he doesn’t really have an excuse as to why.
He pushes his cowl back, sighs, and slips in the door anyway, silent and unannounced; because his concern overpowers his hesitations, and if all else fails, he can pass it off as curiosity. He did just see the team leader with a constitution of steel bring a large stock of liquor into his private quarters.
He feels slightly bewildered at the sight that greets him, bottles strewn every which way - most of them empty. Despite the evidence, he somehow still hadn’t conceived of Clark actually trying to drink it all.
Clark registers his presence a fraction too late, and he must have been absorbed in his thoughts because there is no way Bruce is buying that he’s really inebriated enough to not hear him - much less to the point of being slow.
“I thought your Kryptonian metabolism didn’t allow you to get drunk?”
“It doesn’t,” Clark says, sounding defensive. “It’s the principle of the thing, drinking. Fit my mood. Also a little bit of an experiment. It didn’t work, but I kept drinking. You probably understand.”
Clark likely meant that about the experimentation part, but it could have been taken very differently and Bruce can see him realize his blunder a second later as he visibly bites his tongue.
“Sorry, I’m just rambling.” He amends before Bruce can react.
Bruce just grunts, moving forward around a few empty bottles.
“So, ah…” Clark tries, tangibly exuding an aura of awkward and looking put on the spot, “Is there something you needed?”
Bruce takes another step towards him, and Clark looks like he wants to take one back from Bruce in kind. Even with his cowl off, Bruce knows he makes an imposing figure; more than he had when they had first met, at any rate. He’s still a little surprised, though.
“Someone,” Bruce says, measured, eyes scanning around the rest of Clark’s room and processing each thing, thoughts cast back to Diana’s words to him, “might have implied it would be prudent to have you checked in on. My first impression here is that it was not undue.”
“Oh.” Clark responds, blankly. “I’m not....I haven’t been causing problems, have I?”
Bruce cocks his head, scrutinizing Clark far more intently than he appears to be used to in such close proximity, because he hunches back a little. “Why is that your first assumption, rather than someone just being concerned for you?” He asks.
Clark’s mouth twitches, but he swallows the obvious urge to frown. “Unless it was J’onn or Diana, I don’t-”
“You really don’t see how you’re valued by the rest of the team, do you?” Bruce observes, his musings finally being aired, and it’s not even spoken like a question.
Clark lets himself frown this time. “I know they value me, as a leader, and a fighter; but none of them really know me well enough to be concerned about me personally.”
Bruce hums; an acknowledgement, but not an agreement.
“You’re probably by far the most caring one of us all, I don’t see why they wouldn’t care about you in kind.”
Clark scoffs. “No more than you are, so I don’t see your point.”
Bruce levels a disbelieving stare, and Clark breaks it to roll his eyes. “You pay for every little thing, from all our conveniences, to suit repair and over-budgeting. Just because you aren’t chatty or, god forbid, touchy-feely, doesn’t mean you’re uncaring.”
Bruce was unprepared for that insight, enough that he feels a little thrown. He moves himself further into Clark’s space as he searches for his response, finding the darkest corner, shadowed by the tilt of a lamp, and leans back with his arms crossed over his chest.
Clark snorts as he notices this, and Bruce elects to ignore him.
“People care more about being chatty. What I do is in the background, insignificant.” Bruce waves his hand in a dismissive gesture. “You touch people’s lives personally. You remember birthdays, relatives, you make them feel important by remembering. It makes an impact.”
“You remember all those things too.” Clark points out.
“But I don’t make a point of it. Most of the people I have information about, I’m not involved with personally.” Bruce rebuts, and leans fractionally towards Clark, more determined to have him comprehend.
“Now, what I’m really curious about is why you don’t seem to view your relationships as reciprocal? It’s a rather pessimistic take for someone like you.”
It’s a reproachful statement, and Bruce hopes nothing else leaks out in his tone, none of the understanding or interest that has colored his thought processes about it all this time. He doesn’t need Clark to know that he’s been pondering this for much longer than this current conversation.
“It’s not about my perception of people, I don’t think poorly of them.” Clark insists, a little affronted. “It’s just...I’ve tried to make it that way, I guess. I know a hundred things about each person for every one real thing they know about me.”
“I hate to break it to you,” Bruce drawls, a bit disappointed in Clark’s obliviousness, “but being both distant and a paragon of hero worship doesn’t make people dislike you, or even feel like they should . If anything, it gives them room to project, fill in the blanks, and fall in love even more. Trust me,” he finishes with as much of a Brucie smirk as he can conjure up. “I do know this much when it comes to the mechanics of being a celebrity.”
Clark clenches his teeth. “I don’t want people to dislike me. It’s not about that. I’m not like…” He trails off, eyes going wide.
You, hangs unspoken in the air between them, the clear conclusion of Clark’s unintentional accusation.
Bruce’s smirk slides a little, morphs somehow without really moving at all, until it’s no longer Brucie Wayne, but something far more self deprecating. The art of his smirk is highly practiced, but smiling like he hates himself has been second nature for as long as he can remember.
“Despite what the idle gossip of the average Gotham bachelorette might lead you to believe, I’m not exactly an expert on personal relations. It’s...one of my many shortcomings.” Bruce is sullen, and his awareness narrows in, the room fading from his attention, which turns entirely inwards on himself.
“I’ve had many people in my life, despite what I’ve probably deserved. I’ve had just as many slip away from me, due to my own mistakes and incompetence. Even now, I have a son who can’t seem to decide if he hates me or not, and I’m not sure what else I can do to stop hurting him.”
Bruce takes a deep breath, and his hands flex the scantest bit, a small, controlled movement. He blames the constant litany of “open up, talk to someone, tell the truth,” that’s been projecting in his head at Clark all these weeks for his sudden inability to keep his information to himself.
Clark looks like he’s holding his breath, waiting for Bruce to continue. It’s more than he’s probably heard Bruce speak all together in a month - when it wasn’t a speech for a League meeting - and the idea of Batman opening up to him is likely a little absurd.
“I never intended to drive people away. I never wanted to be disliked . I thought I was behaving in their best interests, to protect them. And then I hurt them anyway.”
Bruce wants to shrivel up, wants to sink further back into the darkness of the room, because he has never been this honest with someone else. Somehow Clark just draws it out, this intangible magic about him, making Bruce want to keep talking, for all that he doesn’t.
Clark - scanning Bruce’s face with an expression of vague trepidation - is clearly looking for him to take the opportunity of this moment of intimacy, to turn it into a lecture, to give meaning to the sudden and inexplicable display of openness; but Bruce doesn’t give it. He leaves his testament hanging there, for Clark to interpret at his own will.
After a moment, Clark’s features relax, appreciation leaking through.
“My Ma and Pa drilled it into me that I had to keep everything about myself a secret.” Clark spills, unprompted. He looks like he wants to eat his own words, but he continues.
“At first it was for my own protection, my secret. But then it was about protecting the people in my life, and how much danger they would be in if they knew.”
“Is that why you don’t pursue a closer relationship to Lois Lane?” Bruce interrupts, curiosity getting the better of him.
Clark swallows thickly. “The times I….when I wasn’t as careful as I should been, people got hurt. It wasn’t theoretical. It’s amazing what that can do to shape your behavior, that kind of responsibility. Lying and acting became habitual.
“Lois...she can’t ever know who I am, and I’ll just keep lying to protect her. She deserves better than that. It’s why Diana and I had so many...issues. She just never understood all of the hiding, and it drove us apart. I can’t do that to someone else.”
Clark’s voice has steadily grown quieter as he speaks, as if trying to reach the point of inaudibility to stop himself from betraying his every instinct. Bruce strains himself forward as much as he can while keeping his movement imperceptible, determined not to miss a thing.
“When you spoke my name in the street when we first met, that was the first time anyone since my childhood had known the truth. In fact, you were the first for a few of my other secrets as well; you were the only one outside of my parents for a long time who knew about kryptonite.”
That strikes Bruce with something new, unnameable. That must mean something, he thinks, but he can’t put his finger on what, exactly. He considers Clark again, shoving his own feelings about it all aside to try to assess those of the man before him.
“You aren’t accustomed to sharing willingly.” Bruce states, and Clark looks away, turning his face towards the window because Bruce has likely already seen more than he ever intended for him, or anyone else to.
“Neither am I," Bruce assures him, a show of solidarity in this land of mutually unexplored territory, by touching his hand to Clark’s where it’s clenched around the arm of his chair. He can see the stiffening of Clark’s muscles in surprise, keeping himself from jumping.
He backs up quickly and retreats out the door before Clark has the chance to turn his head back around, super-speed be damned.
Bruce hadn’t really considered that moment the start of anything in particular - hadn’t intended to repeat it, hadn’t had some vision of suddenly inserting himself into Clark’s life - and yet it seems to be out of his hands.
They hadn’t been particularly distant before, but Bruce had always felt a little out of place around Clark. Bruce never went out of his way to put space between them...he simply, coincidentally, found reasons to not be around Clark for any extended period of time. Or anyone else from the League, for that matter.
Now though, Clark seems to seek him out, in unexpected hours, finding him in what he had once thought of as secret places.
He doesn’t tell Clark to stop though, or that he minds, because...he doesn’t.
Much to Bruce’s surprise, Clark is excellent company. Not in the same way he is for others, playing up what they want to hear, being kind and generous. Not that Clark isn’t all those things, but he’s also straightforward with Bruce.
It’s like Bruce has given him some sort of permission, flipped some sort of switch, and Clark is like a faucet; and if Clark needs Bruce to maintain some sense of normalcy, some balance in his life, Bruce is more than satisfied to provide.
Clark has always stood for the best among them, to Bruce; he considers Clark to be representative of everything good that should come from humanity - not like some of the rest of them. Not like himself , tainted with too much darkness, too much jaded cynicism and brutal detachment.
And the man hardly fails to rise to that standard. If he can offer back something, anything , it feels almost like a duty; not that it’s something he would feel disinclined to supply if it were otherwise.
Their situation is far from one-sided, however, with Bruce often finding his typically solitary act backed up by some incredibly useful skills and, at times, valued insight. Insight that some might fail to offer Bruce out of intimidation, purely via Bruce’s reputation for biting heads off over the slightest of criticisms.
But Bruce welcomes some of the honesty, Clark being one of the few people not too terrified to actually give it to him; for holding to his opinions with some actual backbone. It’s refreshing, and...liberating, in its own way. It allows him to feel no particular pressure to hold himself back from Clark.
It’s only natural that such a mutually beneficial arrangement holds some sort of gravity for them, and Bruce senses them both circling inwards towards each other, constantly. More and more, it seems like one of them is always within range of the other, somehow.
Save his own family, he’s never spent this much time with a single person. That kind of thing...he’s always feared it. He’s good at recognizing patterns, and a powerful consistent in his life is that he always drives everyone away, unless they get hurt before he even has the chance.
With that precedent, he expects to feel wary, reluctant; but it doesn’t happen. He feels the pull of Clark, the magnetic attraction that makes him want to draw in as close to Clark as possible, tantalizing with the possibilities of more than he’s ever had the privilege of considering before.
Something in the back of his head blares warning bells about fostering that kind of dependency, but for once in his life he doesn’t utilize his excuse.
He thinks of Dick in Bludhaven, of Jason who doesn’t speak to him, of Barbara who visits even less than she used to; of Tim who spends more time with the Titans than at home, and now Damian, who has communicated that he’s clearly operating under doubts of Bruce’s affection.
He wants to break the pattern.
Defying expectations, that one moment changed everything.
“Bruce, when you invited me over to your place for the first time, I thought it would be…in any capacity other than this.”
“Did you really expect crime in Gotham to take a break just so we could chat over lunch?”
“No, but I did expect you to take off the cowl after you finished fighting. You know, at the dinner table .”
Bruce hums, voice coming out deeper and gravelly through the headpiece, and then he takes a sip of coffee, as casually as he can. There’s only a split second of silence before Tim breaks it with a small snicker.
Clark tilts his head questioningly, confused about what he finds so funny, before he flicks his eyes, growing a fraction wider as he does, back to Bruce’s face.
Dammit . He forgot to hide his own smirk.
“You-You’re-” Clark splutters, “You’re fucking with me!”
Tim mocks a gasp. “The beloved Man of Steel, cursing around children? The scandal!” He dramatically throws his hand over his forehead in an imitation of a fainting damsel.
Clark’s lips twitch a little over the melodrama. “I hardly think you count as a child anymore,” he says, which Bruce wants to protest because Tim is sixteen , but he doesn’t.
“Oh, no. Of course not.” Tim agrees with Clark. “I meant the little twerp spying from above the cabinets up there.”
Tim throws his thumb in the direction over Clark’s head, and Bruce is momentarily caught off guard as Damian flings himself forward with a howl, eyes glinting in rage as he directs his landing at Tim.
Bruce hadn’t detected him there. He’ll have to commend him on his progress later.
Not now, though, because Damian is pulling at Tim’s hair and yelling at him, something along the lines of “how dare you implicate that I am a child,” and “you are a failure to this family for betraying the bat code and giving away my position!”
Clark’s eyebrows raise and he glances worriedly at Bruce as if to ask, should we intervene?
Bruce manages to hold back the amusement from his face this time. “If Tim wanted to, he could have Damian restrained in under ten seconds. This is play for them.”
Clark’s eyebrows manage to climb even higher towards his hairline as he looks on with a shake of his head, and Bruce raises his coffee cup again to bury his third emerging smile of the day.
When his boys clear the house after dinner, a few hours later - Damian out to patrol with a visiting Dick, and Tim departing for the Titan’s tower - Bruce escorts Clark into his personal lounge.
“I have to thank you.” He starts, pulling out a decanter from behind a desk. “Not that they would admit it, but Dick and Tim undoubtedly dropped by just to catch Superman visiting. I haven’t seen all of them together in...too long.”
Another smile plays around the edges of Bruce’s mouth, but he doesn’t bother to suppress it because there’s nothing honest about it, voice tinted with regret as he adds: “Maybe if I invite Diana, Jason would stop by too.”
He goes silent as an old photograph on the wall commands his attention, one of him and his parents. He and Jason looked surprisingly alike at that age.
A hand lands heavy on his shoulder, drawing him from his reverie. “Sorry,” he coughs, shaking himself. He moves towards his tray of glasses and tosses a teasing glance back towards Clark, in an effort to lighten the mood.
“I suppose we know from experience now that it wouldn’t be useful to offer you one of these?”
Clark shrugs. “I don’t mind the taste of brandy,” he admits, eyeing the expanse of the rest of Bruce’s collection on display.
“Why, Clark, I would have taken you for a whiskey man!”
There’s a hint of Brucie leaking into his jovial tone, and Bruce internally presses the breaks. It’s hard to gauge his behavior, catering towards others when he’s being anyone other than Brucie Wayne; and god, doesn’t that just say something about him that he had wanted to leave unrealized in a dark corner somewhere?
Clark notices, judging by the look in his eye; but he takes the comment and the glass handed to him with all the graceful tact of a reporter who knows when to say something, and when he can get more by saying nothing. He makes no comment.
Bruce exhales, because now he feels obligated to repay Clark with an explanation.
“It’s easy to lose yourself when you’re always playing a different part.”
“I know a little something about that.” Clark says, and it suddenly makes the sharing easier for Bruce, that sense of camaraderie.
Bruce still shakes his head. “I don’t ever really have the opportunity to find myself in-between. My alter ego is not myself, and any moment I’m not him, Batman is needed.”
Clark’s hand finds his shoulder once again, squeezing as if to restate his point. “Trust me, I do know.”
He retreats a step or two, seemingly considering something.
“My name isn’t really Clark Kent.” He reveals, finally, and...huh.
“Legally, it is.” Bruce says, as if defending the fact that Clark has information that he doesn’t, personal or not.
Clark chuckles under his breath. “It’s not the name my parents gave to me. My birth parents, I mean. My name is Kal, of the house of El.”
“Kal-El,” Bruce says, tasting it on his tongue. It fits pleasantly, and he finds himself wanting to speak it again.
“Clark may be my recognized name, and who I grew up as, but a lot of him is drummed up to hide the parts of Superman that leak through. Kal is the real me, and he doesn’t exist, wholly, outside of my fortress.”
“ I don’t exist outside of this manor.” Bruce says, raising his glass. “A toast then, to the poor, nonexistent bastards, confined to their sprawling castles.”
Clark raises his as well, wry humor playing across his features.
The rest of the evening passes with relative ease, banter and conversation trading with little to no stilted breaks from Bruce’s end, not for lack of his natural ability making an effort.
Clark simply bears the incredible gift of knowing exactly how to approach a slightly misplaced phrase or an ill-fitting comment, and wave at the potentially awkward moment as it passes on by.
Later that night, Clark leaves the manor and Bruce with the dawning realization that he’s never quite enjoyed himself in the presence of another peer like he has with Clark; and likewise, Clark seems to be in a much better place than he has previously. That thought alone lifts his spirits a good deal more.
Bruce doesn’t want to analyze the fact that Clark makes him feel a lot happier than he has in a while, because that carries an implication that makes him sound...other than happy before.
It shouldn’t matter, because he hasn’t put a lot of concern over his own happiness before - but something about focusing on Clark’s has put a shift in his priorities.
There’s another Bruce in his head, sounding a lot more like Batman, admonishing him over it, cautioning the dangers. He’s operated the way he has all this time for a reason.
But he still can’t make himself care, in the face of a Daily Planet dubbed, “dazzling” Superman grin, knowing he’s the one who put it there.
It feels worth it.
Bruce should have known better. Does know better; and putting his guard down is what got them in this situation.
The situation being him, tied up, little more than a useless bystander while the bastion of hope for an entire planet crumbles to the ground, a shard of green protruding from his side, gasping for breath as Mannheim chokes him ruthlessly, a sickly sheen coming from his bizarre armor, weakening Clark more by the second.
Poison Ivy is the one that has Bruce restrained, and Lex Luthor, the third surprise member of this unpredictable team-up, has taken to the skies in one of his many blimps, blocking out as much of the sun from Clark as he can. Goddamn blimps, of all things.
It probably takes no more than thirty seconds for Diana and Barry to arrive, free him, and knock Mannheim back into a nearby building side while the rest of the League takes on Intergang; but those thirty seconds feel so much longer for all his fruitless straining against the vines, filled with less thought and more sheer, unreasonable panic.
He shouts for Superman and his voice breaks, the desperation almost drawing him from the weird haze that’s fogged his head ever since he got in proximity to Ivy, because he registers how uncharacteristic and out of his control it is.
It doesn’t clear it though, because his heart feels like it seizes when Clark responds - drawing a ragged breath as he locks eyes with Bruce - trying to communicate something that Bruce can’t decipher.
Bruce thrashes more, even as it causes the vines to tighten, because his brain is demanding that he needs to be there, he needs to save Clark, Clark can’t die , he can’t -
Then all at once the League is there, and Clark is sucking in air deeply while Bruce’s limbs regain movement; but the sky is shaded and Clark still has a piece of kryptonite piercing his skin, so Bruce doesn’t feel any better.
Moving faster than even Barry had seemed to, Bruce is at his side and is plucking the shard out, tossing it, without looking, in the direction it seems it can disappear the furthest into. Clark should be okay then, and he knows he needs to focus his attention on either Luthor or Ivy; but it doesn’t seem to matter.
He draws Clark to sitting position and pulls him close, hands on either side of his head. He feels the rise and fall of Clark’s chest against his body, and he doesn’t let go because he needs to feel it, to be sure.
As Clark breathes against him, his hands find his shoulders; either in reassurance or support, it’s hard to tell.
There’s a crackle over their comms, and Barry’s voice cuts through the noise around them, jarring. “Holy shit , are Batman and Superman hugging? ”
Bruce comes to himself a little, enough to grimace, but not enough to let Clark go. “Poison Ivy....got something in my system.” He grits out in lieu of defense, hardly able to form the sentence through the battery of other things battling their way out of his lungs, begging for him to whisper them in Clark’s ear.
Clark snorts into his shoulder. “I feel so touched by your genuine concern for me.”
Bruce gently combs his hands through Clark’s hair, pushing it further away from his face, comforting. “I care very deeply, Kal.” he says without choosing to, which makes him scowl again and grunt.
Clark’s eyes widen marginally, but he smiles.
“I know,” He says as a balloon crashes behind them into an empty lot, a glittering trident puncturing the top.
A beam of sun falls onto Clark, and then another, a sea of gold spilling forth and lighting him up, a hazy shine coming from behind and wrapping around him, embracing him, pouring strength back into his arms. Bruce can’t tear his eyes away from the vision of a halo around his head.
“It seems like they have everything well in control,” Clark punctuates with a nod towards where Diana is punching Mannheim into the ground, effectively creating a crater as she goes. “We should probably get some medical attention, somewhere they can at least look at whatever Ivy did to you.”
He doesn’t find it within himself to argue, because Clark is the one who suggested it. He shakes his head in acquiescence, and Clark simply tightens his grip and takes off into the sky.
Bruce clings a little bit closer and tells himself it’s just because he can feel that Clark isn’t back to full power yet.
When the results of the tests have come back in, they reveal that Ivy’s “toxins” weren’t really toxic at all, and hardly did anything in the way of influence, beyond the stripping of inhibitions.
“Not too far off from being drunk,” the man in the lab coat says offhandedly, “Except without a lot of the side effects, and it targets the particular area of the brain that would amplify your emotions.”
Clark tries to catch Bruce’s eye and inclines his head, but he finds he can’t meet the look and turns away.
He’s anticipating the inevitable confrontation, knowing that Clark will start that conversation, because he can’t hide it all of what happened behind Ivy, can’t excuse -
Clark hums. “That was an odd team-up, those three. What are the odds of them having so much kryptonite on hand in the middle of Gotham?”
Bruce winces at the question in the tone, not ready to admit the answer. He can’t say Very high, seeing as I found them in the first place while trying to track down a black market lead on a large supply in transit, and got so focused on acquiring it myself that I failed to detect the predictable trap being laid for you, foolproof because they knew I would both let it into the city to get my hands on it, then effectively function as bait for you.
Instead he says “It was about you, so obviously they would have it on hand. It’s Luthor, after all.” He keeps himself turned away from Clark and begins putting pieces of his armor back on.
Clark’s eyes narrow. “They went after me...in Gotham?”
“They wanted to recruit Ivy.” He justifies, simply.
Clark scoffs. “I think they wanted you, too, and knew kryptonite was as good a lure for you as you ended up being for me.”
Bruce pauses, glove half on. “Maybe.” he allows.
Clark crosses his arms, voice raising. “Bruce, I’m not stupid. You’re not stupid. You and I both know you’ve been looking into kryptonite. We both know what happened here.”
Bruce hisses. “What do you want me to say, Clark? That I made a mistake? It happens. Do you want me to apologize? I’m not infallible. I was doing it for you , anyway; why else would I be doing something like that?”
Bruce wants to take it back, and thinks absently that perhaps Ivy’s effect hadn’t completely worn off because that was a little more revealing than he intended.
Clark looks a little off kilter, and his hands fall to his sides. “I - I don’t know. I just….I don’t like seeing you trapped when there’s nothing I can do about it, is all. It makes me react…strongly” Clark admits, and the honesty in that, the implications it carries, makes Bruce feel the need to run about a million miles away.
Bruce swallows through the tightness gathering in his throat. “My mistake wasn’t trying to gather kryptonite, it was allowing you into my city. This would never have happened if I had stuck to my own rules.”
Clark looks thrown, blown back under the force of the declaration.
“I allowed sentiment to determine my decisions. I have never allowed metas in my city, and now you know why. This kind of trouble isn’t worth it.”
The look that evokes is not dissimilar to a kicked puppy, but only for the barest of moments; then Clark squares his jaw, hurt reflected only by the glint in his eyes. “Fine. I’ll leave then.”
Bruce steels himself against the icy rush that sends through his veins. It’s for the better, he tells himself. It’s for Clark.
“So,” Tim initiates, dangling his foot off the side of the weight bench where he’s perched, “I heard something interesting from Wally, who may or may not have heard it first from a super secret, super speedy insider.”
Jason is standing beside him, casually draped against the same machine, and he gives a snicker and a nudge of his elbow at Tim’s rib cage.
Bruce’s focus would be on the fact that they’re both actually there, except it’s more pressingly occupied by the deviousness in Tim’s tone.
Damian’s head pops up from behind a monitor. “Dropping by just to gossip now, Drake?”
“Oh, it’s not just any gossip.” Tim promises, and Bruce is actually dreading what is about to come out of his mouth, if Jason’s sadistic smile is anything to go by.
Tim doesn’t speak though, and instead unfurls a newspaper - next morning’s print, probably nicked by Jason - headline blaring: SUPERMAN AND BATMAN CAUGHT IN INTIMATE EMBRACE, BOTH FLY OFF INTO THE SUNSET; NEW POWER COUPLE ON THE HORIZON?
“Normally I would pass it off as typical tabloid fodder, given the kind of rag this is, except I have my confirmation from a pretty credible source, and I happen to know for a fact that the same night this supposedly took place, Ivy was arrested, and you sent your suit straight into decontamination.”
Jason’s smiling like the cat who got the cream, undoubtedly the one who put Tim up to this, and Bruce raises a challenging brow, as if to say “is that all?”
“Both your source and the tabloids are equally prone to over-exaggeration.”
“So you’re saying that even under Ivy’s influence, you had no inclination collapse into Superman’s, big, beefy arms? I mean look, no shame, B; I would in a heartbeat, even without any of her special stuff.” Jason counters.
The conspiratorial edge his voice has taken on is everything Bruce has ever taught him about maneuvering perps into unwitting confessions; he’s almost impressed.
Almost being the key word. Bruce arranges his face into careful neutrality and doesn’t indicate a response one way or another.
That doesn’t seem to suffice as the absence of an answer for his kids; Jason throws his head back in a laugh, Tim nods as though he’s been gifted confirmation to a theory, and Damian lets out a small, scandalized gasp.
“The alien, Father? Really?” He demands, disgusted curl of his lip wrinkling his nose.
“God, this is gold. ” Jason croons. “Batman and Superman, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-”
“If you humiliate Clark, he’ll likely not return for a visit to the manor.”
That quickly results in Tim slamming a hand over Jason’s mouth, and Bruce doesn’t even feel guilty over not telling him that he’d all but banned Clark from Gotham anyway.
Damian snorts. “Your manipulation of Drake’s foolish idolatry of the extra-terrestrial interloper shall not succeed in diverting my attention from the subject, Father. I disapprove entirely-”
Bruce raises a stern hand, and Damian quiets obediently
“Suit up for patrol, Robin, Red Robin. Hood,” Bruce barks, shift to code-names determinedly cutting off the topic, and indicates his head towards Jason’s bike.
Jason rolls his eyes. “Yeah, yeah,” he relents and finds his way back towards it as Damian twists his face into the semblance of someone who has just sucked on a lemon, containing whatever opinion he’d been about to express. Tim is silent as he obeys the implicit command.
Bruce spends nearly the entirety of their patrol mulling over what had transpired; it’s true that the paper will hold no credibility, and without a clear photo, might hardly make any waves in even avid rumor circles - but that has no guarantee of continuing to be their luck.
Bruce had dealt with the immediate issue in keeping Clark away, but not the underlying cause, and this misrepresentation of their relationship seals his suspicions on the matter; he has grown too close to Clark, and he’s let emotions cloud his judgement.
He’s always been a little on the edge of obsessive when it comes to people he cares for, and it’s always translated in the most negative of ways. Even with Clark out of Gotham, he feels too close, too threatening. If something like this were to happen again…the dangers outweigh any benefit he might have assigned their arrangement.
They need space, Bruce resolves. A lot more of it.
If Bruce was a religious man, he would say someone up there agreed with him; because not a week later, the League finds themselves in contact with a new alien race - a group of war-torn refugees, seeking a suitable planet to request asylum for the remaining few hundred survivors, Earth being the primary candidate.
There are some translation missteps, and one almost disastrous communication that muddles their ranking system and inadvertently offers insult, as well as many technical failings due to barely functioning equipment on their end; so Bruce comes to the conclusion that a political emissary needs to be deployed to ensure that everything gets handled smoothly.
Hal just so happens to be out of contact - out on his own mission for the Lantern Corps. - and Bruce tries not to leap too quickly at the opportunity.
“I move to nominate Superman as ambassador, acting on behalf of the League and in the interest of planet Earth.” Bruce announces to the gathering around the round table.
The look Clark shoots him can only really be described as dirty, but it morphs into one of betrayal as Diana pipes up, “Seconded.”
“Then we put it to a vote, barring any other nominations.” Bruce’s tone brooks no room for the argument of another, and everyone raises their hands in agreement. Bruce nods, and turns towards Clark.
“Do you accept this responsibility?”
Clark’s teeth are clenched, but he looks at Bruce like he’s issued a challenge and snaps, “Fine.”
Bruce tunes out the low pitched whistle coming from Arthur, and the muttered “Are Mom and Dad fighting?” from the direction of Ollie.
He watches Clark’s back as he turns from the room in a calm storm, and numbs himself to the wave of some emotion that washes over him, choosing to leave it unidentified.
It takes all of three days for that emotion to get a name, because it doesn’t stop nipping at Bruce’s heels, no matter how he kicks at it.
Logically, he can find no flaw in his actions, but that’s what he’s always hated about emotions; they are rarely reasonable.
Still, it manages to compel him to contact Clark, activating a one-way link on their comms, to find out if he can salvage any remnant of the...thing they had, at all.
He just doesn’t know what to say.
“An apology might be nice.” Clark intones testily, after a too-long stretch of silence from Bruce’s end of the communicator.
Bruce opens his mouth, but the words catch in his throat. The quietness goes on, and Clark sighs. “You must have called for a reason . I’m on a job; one you sent me on, I might add.”
“I-” Bruce starts, and he’s utterly bewildered. Why had he called? “I’m not sorry.”
“ God, you can be so insufferable, I can’t believe you-”
“I made the appropriate call for the objective benefit of everyone.”
“Don’t give me that.” Clark snarls. “What happened was that you decided to be a massive hypocrite, convincing me to spill my guts with some cleverly selected truths, and then you turned around and shoved me away the second you were subjected to a moment of honest to god vulnerability.”
“You’re speaking out of emotion, not objectivity.” Bruce deflects.
“You’re damn right I am!” Clark exclaims. “Which isn’t always a bad thing! Jesus, Bruce.” He can hear the anger leak out towards the end, a deep sigh punctuating his outburst, sounding resigned.
Bruce is upset - mostly with himself - and there’s a tug in his chest, looking for some sort of reconciliation. “I called because...I miss speaking with you,” he chokes out.
“Bruce…” Clark answers, and it’s entirely indecipherable what Clark is thinking. Bruce waits, irritably, for the follow up.
“I missed it too.” Clark finally finishes, and every muscle in Bruce’s body seems to relax at once.
“I wish I hadn’t left. It was an irresponsible rise to you; someone else easily could have done anything I’m doing out here, and I left Metropolis alone. I keep worrying about Lois.” Clark adds with a little mirthless laugh, knowing Bruce understands her tendencies to land herself in repeatedly perilous situations.
Guilt once again wracks through Bruce’s spine, and his hands clench into fists. “I’ll ask Diana to look in on her, and keep your city from burning down with a few weeks of your absence.”
It should have sounded like a joke, but instead it resembles something more like remorse.
“I’d really appreciate it.” Clark says.
“Anything, Kal.” Bruce responds, and he means it.
The mission doesn’t take much longer, two and a half weeks at most, but Bruce squeezes in a few entirely unnecessary calls nonetheless.
It’s not quite the same, an edge of hesitant wariness rounding Clark’s tone, cutting off some of his sentences shorter than they should be.
Bruce is determined to keep persevering, though; the guilt is slippery, sliding into different shapes as each conversation is conspicuously absent of their usual easy openness, morphing itself so he feels minimally mollified that they are speaking again, then driving home even sharper when he catches Clark swallowing back yet another thing he clearly wants to say.
He’s not insane enough to think anything will change by repeating the process, but he’s just unsure of what else to try, short of backtracking on everything he’s said.
Which is looking like the easier prospect the longer this extends, honestly. It doesn’t necessitate that he apologize, after all, just...give Clark a little ground.
“How about we meet up someplace in Gotham when you return?” Bruce offers, interrupting the scintillating lull in their last conversation.
Bruce can hear the blinding grin on the other end of the line, halfway across the damn galaxy.
“I’m free the monday after your scheduled arrival, if that goes unhindered.”
“ Deal .”
A single spoken word, and it feels more promising than any of their conversations in the last three days combined.
Clark’s return is treated to less enthusiasm than Bruce thinks is due, somewhere deep in the back of his mind; but Clark has, in reality, barely been away for two weeks, and most of the League goes much longer periods without seeing him at all.
Bruce is still waiting for him when he comes back, standing beside Victor as he prepares the boom tube to open on Clark’s side of space.
He’s not expecting anything himself, upon seeing Clark; maybe some tempering for the remaining little pool of guilt in his gut, by seeing him safe and back where he belongs.
That’s probably why he is unprepared for the utter lack of functionality that seizes his lungs when his gaze finally lands on him, mess of dark hair looking blown out of its usual pristine slick-back, cape fluttering behind him like the breeze was designed purely for this effect.
Clark’s grin is, as he’d been picturing it, bright and unrestrained; popping into place as soon as he glimpses Bruce’s stock-still form.
“B!” He pipes up, a little too high on the volume scale, and Bruce flinches as Clark comes barreling towards him.
It gets even harder to breathe when Clark encloses around him, squeezing, and Bruce doesn’t flail because he’s Batman, and Batman doesn’t flail; but he does throw his arm out to punch Clark on the shoulder until he releases his hug, shoving him a measure back when he does.
“Sorry,” Clark offers, nervous tick compelling him to rub his hand over the back of his neck. “Little excited to, ah, be home.”
Victor is hiding a smile to himself over to their left, and Bruce glares as he straightens his cape.
“It might be even more exciting to actually get there instead of loitering in a hallway,” he remarks dryly.
“Right.” Clark agrees, still beaming.
Bruce steps forward before he can catch himself mirroring it.
There’s muffled tittering behind his back, and Bruce squints. He swivels around, but everyone is sitting suspiciously to attention, silent.
He clears his throat in a way that they’ve all learned to infer as a warning, and continues his briefing.
He manages to get halfway through his summary of Clark’s relative success with brokering peaceful relations - and where that leaves the League standing as a political mediator - when a voice that’s identifiably Hal’s starts laughing again, under his breath.
Bruce grits his teeth and turns his head minutely enough that it won’t be perceived, but enough that he can catch Barry in his periphery, getting fist-bumped by Hal, Arthur looking distinctly entertained next to him.
“Flash.” He commands, with no indication that he’d seen anything, because technically, he hadn’t; he just knows Barry is responsible for something. The speedster cringes harshly, which sends satisfaction thrumming through Bruce.
“How the hell did you know?” Barry exclaims, zipping beside him before he can even blink.
Bruce sets his mouth even more straight, and with no hint of a joke, delivers: “I know everything.”
Barry gulps, so Bruce figures the line plays off, despite the gamble. Bruce snarls just to be sure.
“Sorry, Bats.” Barry yelps, snatching something off the back of Bruce’s cowl, where the neck meets his cape.
It’s a piece of paper, completely innocuous, save for the large bubble letters printed on the back: “JUST MARRIED,” and the crude crayon drawing of stick figures, one with bat ears, and the other with a red cape.
Bruce feels a bubbling irritation start growing hotter, but he reigns it in. He’s raised a nest of teenage boys, and this is par the course. He takes a deep breath, and lets some of his excessive anger ebb out with the exhale.
“Flash, I will require a written essay detailing what you think constitutes appropriate workplace behavior, delivered to me by no later than tomorrow. Three thousand word minimum.”
“Are you serious? A homework assignment?” Barry demands, indignant over the childish repercussion. “This is the Justice League, not the Titans!”
“Let the punishment fit the crime.” Bruce replies, crumbling the paper into a ball and tossing it back just a little too hard, causing it to bounce off Barry’s chest. “Feel free to continue behaving like a teenager if the Titans is really where you would rather be.”
Flash shirks back, conceding.
“You’d think making up with Supes might have lightened him up a little! It was just a joke.” Bruce catches, mumbled under Barry’s breath as he returns to his seat to receive a conciliatory pat from Hal.
He chooses to return back to the task at hand instead of calling him out, but he functions on autopilot, mind otherwise occupied.
It had been just a harmless prank. He feels a faint prick of annoyance at himself over the strength of his reaction.
“ - Like a bat out of hell, I'll be gone when the morning comes...”
Bruce hears his phone ring out from his dresser top as he’s getting dressed the next day - pulling out an array of suits, because he’s planning on taking Clark somewhere fairly decent to make up to him - and he grumbles at the ringtone.
Meatloaf blares loudly, in slightly low quality, meaning Barbara must have messed with it again.
He answers without looking, occupied with comparing ties to his subtly striped button-up, and -
“Clark!” Bruce recognizes, pleasantly surprised. He’s working his cuff links onto his wrists, phone perched on his shoulder, pinned by his cheek. “Good timing, I was just going to call to tell you we’re going somewhere more upscale, so wear your good suit; you know, the blue one?”
“Ah, about that,” Clark says, sheepish and tinny in the speakers, “I ran into Lois today. It was Clark Kent’s first day back from his business trip too, and it turns out…..well, long story short, Lois met somebody and strong-armed me into meeting with them for lunch. When I told her I had a meeting with you instead, she just insisted we all go together.”
Bruce smiles a bit, already relaxed a little more into his Brucie persona in preparation for their public outing, permitting himself a bit of fond entertainment at Clark’s predictable submission in the face of a determined Lois Lane.
“It’s fine, Clark.” He reassures, reaching his hand up to grab the phone more securely. “I have a reservation for my usual table, which can accommodate four. Bring them along.”
“Thanks, Bruce.” Clark breathes, relieved.
Bruce deliberates between three different jackets for the next half hour before relenting and asking Alfred to choose for him.
When he finally arrives at the restaurant - a crystal-decked French place called “ L'Arpège,” well-renowned for their live musical accompaniments - he drops the keys to his Aston Martin in the gloved hands of a valet, and glances at his watch. Ten minutes behind schedule.
He saunters in the doors with the ease and swagger of a man who owns the place, or at the very least that of a man who knows he could if he wanted to. He spots his party standing to the side of the host, Lois looking suspicious, Clark bearing a fresh flush on his cheeks, and both angled towards an unknown, dark headed woman, speaking with the man in the bow-tie behind the booth.
He grins and strides over, smoothly inserting himself beside the woman. “Sorry for being late, did I miss anything?”
The woman stops speaking, and the host stands a little straighter, jerking out of his intimidated cower upon recognition. “Mister Wayne!”
“There was just a little mix up, they didn’t seem to believe we had reservations.” Clark says, placating, a hint of an apology as he nods his head in the direction of the host.
“That’s probably because I only made reservations for two,” Bruce says, eyes sliding in Lois’ direction, where she doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to look ashamed for her strong-armed intrusion. Rather, Bruce spots the glint of something else in her eyes, something...scheming, as she looks him over in what seems like assessment, and a hint of surprised approval.
Perhaps the waitstaff weren’t the only ones disbelieving of Clark’s engagement with him.
“But I’m sure there won’t be a problem seating everyone now, will there?” He responds, sounding far too pleasant to be sincere.
“Of course not, Mister Wayne!” The man says in a rush, bowing slightly. “Your usual table is ready; please, just this way?”
With that sorted, Bruce allows himself a moment to take in everyone, starting with Lois. She looks appropriately dressed, if just barely for the level of grandeur the place exudes - but it’s not uncomplimentary. She’s in something simple and black, meaning her personality will stand out all the more starkly against it, and she won’t draw attention to herself before she chooses to. A smart choice.
He turns his attention towards Clark, and he is - well, he took Bruce’s advice, and he’s donned his singular, non-off-the-rack suit, a blue two piece that Lois talked him into getting. It’s….very tailored, and Bruce once again has to question the competence of everyone around him, because Clark seems so very obvious, the blue highlighting his eyes with the same contrast as his Superman suit, accentuating every one of his curves. A thought wanders through the back of Bruce’s brain, questioning if Clark could pop the whole thing off just by flexing. It would be interesting to know.
Finally, he occupies himself with Lois’ new counterpart; she’s dressed much more flashy than Lois, in a red, off-shoulder number, accompanied by a modest display of glittering accessories, and a pair of half-rim glasses; but the mood lighting is too low to see much specifically about her features, and she’s turned away. Squinting and analyzing closer, Bruce feels something dawning on him, with her long, dark hair and unusual height; she almost appears to be -
“This is Diana.” Clark " introduces" them as they take their seats, sharing a look between himself and Diana. “Diana Prince. She met Lois a few weeks ago and apparently they hit it off.”
“Nice to meet you.” Bruce extends his hand, biting the inside of his cheek as he lays on a little extra charm, bringing her hand to his mouth for a brief peck when she gives it to him.
“Likewise, I’m sure,” she replies, smiling in a none-too-secretive manner.
Lois’ eyes are darting between the three of them, and Clark notices. “This table is nice, Bruce!” Clark diverts, a little too much enthusiasm over something so simple to quite play off as smooth.
Bruce resists the urge to roll his eyes. “That’s why I keep it reserved at all times. It’s Damian’s favorite place, and anything I can do to make him happy makes it easier for me!” He lays on thickly, his public woes of dealing with with an unexpected child being a hot topic at the presses, recently.
“Mmm, Father of the year.” Clark teases under his breath, and Bruce remains expressionless as he steps on Clark’s foot underneath the table. Diana, mid sip of her water, makes a small noise that’s muffled into the glass.
“So,” Lois prompts, blazing past his comment with an inquisitor’s fire ever burning beneath her gaze. “How did this happen?” She gestures between Bruce and Clark.
“Oh, you know…” Clark stumbles.
“At a party.” Bruce inserts. “He had been drinking a little too much and looked lonely. I was being hounded by a couple of attending board members and was looking for a distraction, and recognized him from previous press events. We struck up a conversation, and, well…” Bruce leans in a little towards Lois, as though he’s got a juicy secret. “He’s not really as boring as he looks, now is he?”
Clark’s smile freezes, murder behind his eyes, and he stomps on Bruce’s foot right back, a touch too hard. Bruce keeps himself from flinching.
Lois just throws her head back. “You’re not half as bad as I suspected!” She exclaims, amid a laugh, no hint of shame. “Most people don’t catch that about ol’ Smallville.”
“Hey!” Clark objects, affronted. “I don’t…look...boring…” His claim trails off as he’s treated to a trio of challenging eyes, all expressing varied forms of mock pity. His mouth slides into a pout and Lois just snorts.
“You were wearing two off-beige tones at once, just earlier today.” Diana points out, and Bruce gives Clark an apologetic clap on his back.
Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of their waiter, and they each put in an order before resuming, Clark deferring to Bruce’s recommendation from the entirely French menu, and Diana ordering for both herself and Lois.
“What about you two?” Bruce brings up, and Lois’ smile softens around the edges.
“She, uh….kind of came out of nowhere, swept me off my feet, so to speak.”
Diana meets her look, almost similarly as soft, and something clicks in the back of Bruce’s head, connecting Clark’s choice of phrase on the phone earlier.
“Ah.” he says, and Diana’s eyes flick to him, one eyebrow raising as if challenging him for approval.
Bruce raises his glass. “I’m always happy to see others find happiness. Life’s too short, and all that.”
Diana looks pleased with this statement, and she gently taps the rim of her glass against his. “Indeed.”
The next few hours pass more enjoyably than Bruce expects, for having to maintain Brucie the whole time, but it’s readily apparent why Clark cares for Lois.
His previous experience has always been with her investigative side, which really highlights all her most negative aspects; but she’s not just bold and nosy, she’s an admirable spitfire, and a good compliment for Clark’s mild-mannered persona. She’s also kind with Clark for as much as she can rib him, and Bruce appreciates her for it.
She carries herself with a similar independence and as strong a will as Diana, and Bruce can understand their interest in each other. Lois very well may be the strongest woman he’s met outside the less than normal side of his life.
They part with an easy air by the late evening, most of them slightly tipsy and laughing. Clark takes advantage of Bruce’s relaxation to pull him aside while they wait for the valets to return with their respective rides.
“Thank you for tonight, Bruce.”
“I owed it to you, you don’t have to thank me.” Bruce counters, reaching over to straighten Clark’s tie, which has gotten skewed, fingers trailing lightly downwards over the edges of his collar to smooth it.
“Still...” Clark breathes, warm air fanning over Bruce’s cheek.
Bruce catches sight of Diana and Lois over Clark’s shoulder, left to their own devices and currently backing towards the wall - oh, they’re kissing.
Seeing them, their proximity, brings sudden awareness to Bruce about his own with Clark. The two women break apart, and Diana meets his eye.
“Whoo, kiss him, Clark!” Lois cheers, ever so slightly slurred, and Clark lurches backwards.
“Very funny, Lois.” Clark laughs, easy and not at all looking like he is experiencing the same sharp, gnawing sensation that suddenly shoots through Bruce’s gut, a dread-filled clarity accompanied by a long buried sense of hunger.
Diana is staring right at him like she can see it.
He slides quickly into the seat of his car when it arrives, and pulls the door shut a little too hard; anything to escape that look.
He isn’t a fool. He’s knows there’s been...something, for a while now; but he’s also always been a master of denial, and as long as he could brush it all off as his particular brand of crazy, it had been so simple.
His emotions have always been irrational and...passionate, towards everyone, no matter what kind of emotions they happen to be; all it has meant up until now is a necessity for a tighter grasp on his control.
But this. This is not in his control. This has wildly spiraled from anything it was ever intended to be, anything it should be.
Superman is surrounded by the adoration of an entire world, countless masses of people in love with him; Bruce was never supposed to be one of them .
Dick once told him that he was as immature as all the rest of them, in his own way - his leading personal vice being avoidance.
Bruce disagreed, mainly upon the point that avoidance was something he considered to be a useful tool and not a personality flaw. His secondary reasoning was that he refused to admit to being avoidant, and his third was that his most condemning trait was clearly his stubbornness.
Bruce maintains all three points to this day.
If Dick were to ask him now, he would tell him that he is not avoiding his feelings, or Clark - he’s being stubborn about confrontation.
Semantics, Dick replies in his head.
But ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because Dick isn’t here; and neither is anyone else, for that matter. Bruce doesn’t need to justify himself.
It doesn’t stop him from running a list of excuses through his mind on repeat, though.
There is absolutely no way any kind of confrontation about his sudden, inappropriate inclinations will have any benefit. Clark is somewhat fresh from a failed relationship, and his recovery from it is what established their relationship. Bruce would only serve to make him uncomfortable - and foolishly get hurt in the process.
He had been the one to pursue Clark in their friendship - to have been given the rare insight into Clark, and to take it and twist it from the platonic context it was given in, to betray Clark’s understanding of their dynamic, to exploit and pervert how he sees Clark -
He may have some issues to work through.
The third, and best reason at the end of it all, is that Clark doesn’t deserve to be subjected to any of them.
Bruce can’t go long without running into Clark even when he tries, as a mere hazard of their line of work. Odds are, he’ll see Clark again before he can even process that Bruce is acting any differently.
Especially when Luthor gets involved.
Perhaps it had been an oversight to not call Clark in the first place regarding a Luthor matter, but what’s done is done.
Now he’s at a bit of a disadvantage, on Luthor’s terf - a Lex Corp. building in a remote location, halfway between Gotham and Metropolis - and Bruce had gravely miscalculated. He’d underestimated Luthor, planning on running simple recon on his own; and had, as backup, been prepared to wrangle the man and his host of security personnel, if required.
He’d planned on finding Luthor’s off the records, less than legal kryptonite extradition operation.
He hadn’t planned on the building being a temporary base of operations for Luthor’s next overachieving attempt at a megalomaniac’s convention - with him sitting pretty at the head of the table.
Bruce knows he can take Luthor, knows he can take one or two more present - Riddler, Captain Cold, Scarecrow, maybe - But there’s eight in total, and he can’t fight more than two of them at once without diverting his attention too much, leaving six others with an opportunistic advantage.
They don’t leave him with the option of a tactical retreat - Gorilla Grodd’s massive form comes between him and the way he had come in, so he takes to the rafters, knocking a few lights off as he goes by, shattering the bulbs in a spray of sparks.
“Don’t damage the property!” Luthor hisses at the lot of them, and at least half of them pull back their weapons - all the ones not native to Gotham.
Bruce dodges a few half-decent swipes and shots, but he knows he’s a bat in a cage and it’s only a matter of time, as he arches into the air and drops a few smoke canisters.
He drops to the floor and neutralizes three of them in the chaos - as many nerve toxin darts as he has in his belt - but a machine ticks on, and there’s a fan blowing away his cover, leaving him exposed and now without the high ground.
Riddler is circling him with a wide berth, twirling his cane, and he can hear the footsteps of Cheetah clicking on the hard floor behind him.
Bruce lunges, never one for relying on defensive maneuvers, and he takes Riddler down with an elbow to the gut. He launches a batarang over his shoulder and hears a satisfactory clang! As they ricochet off a pair of claws.
He’s raising his fist to deliver a blow to Riddler’s head, knock him clean out, aware of Cheetah’s position and the time it will take her to reach him, when he registers the third presence, a second too late.
Captain Cold is raising his gun at him, and Bruce becomes too preoccupied with dodging that he loses track of Cheetah.
A fatal misstep, he thinks, as a slice rips across the throat of his cowl, accompanied by a feral growl.
There’s blood. A lot of it, and not all of it flowing outward; there’s a sticky, metallic flavor in his mouth, pooling into his lungs, strangling his airflow.
He falls backward, hits a wall as his head tilts up, just in time to see the roof of the building come buckling in.
There’s a flash of red, outraged cries that quickly turn into fear, and Bruce can see on the edges of blurry vision, a few dark outlines of people beating a hasty retreat.
Luthor is still there, standing in furious indignation, and then right in front of him appears Clark, hovering, eyes still glowing with threat. His gaze turns, catches sight of Bruce, and his throat mimics Bruce’s; clenching, not breathing.
He turns, leaves his back to Luthor - leaves his back to Luthor - and speeds to Bruce’s side. Clark is all over him, stripping away the shredded bits around his neck to see the source of the blood flow, hands searching out any other places for injury, because Bruce has no voice to tell him that there is nothing else. Bruce has no movement either, until a cough finds its way up his chest, wet and thick, and he can feel the blood dribbling from his lips.
Clark’s eyes flash red again for a moment, and he looks both concernedly panicked and fiercely angry. “No.” he whispers, but with enough conviction that Bruce wonders if his body will obey the command of Superman and just stop dying . It’s an amusing thought.
But nothing about the situation is amusing. Clark is looking increasingly distressed, and he’s inching closer, one hand pressing to staunch the blood flow, the other cupping his cowl.
“Bruce, stay with me. You
” And it’s not Superman in front of an escaping Luthor, hovering over Batman; it’s Clark, pleading with him like a man, a disturbingly
man facing something he deems more important than his arch-enemy. His eyes are wet, and his breath,
that comes so easy, damn him,
is puffing on Bruce’s face, feeling increasingly warmer as Bruce grows colder.
Bruce manages enough energy to reach a hand up and he fists the suit right over the S , trying to both comfort Clark and tell him he still has a job to do. It only serves to wring a sob from him, his hand pressing tighter around Bruce’s neck as his face drifts even closer.
Clark begins muttering prayers that sound an awful lot like begging to an empty sky, as though he actually believes there is a power higher than himself out there that he can bargain with.
The pressure at his neck is a little more than any normal person could apply, and Bruce feels the flow of blood lessen to the point that he’s not drowning immediately. He tries to find his voice, hacking and gurgling.
“Clark….stop…” he sounds faint and breathless, and he curses that implication of weakness, even as he’s bleeding out onto the floor. He tries to finish what he wants to say, but the words don’t come, so he raises his hand to reach Clark’s eyes, to get him to register what he wants.
His hand doesn’t obey. It’s weak and his coordination is imperfect, and it falls on Clark’s cheek. Clark’s eyes are wide and stunned through his tears, impossibly blue and as beautiful as Bruce had thought they were from the moment he first noticed them.
He can feel what little strength he has slipping from him as his hand falls away, and he grits his teeth. He needs Clark to understand and stop blubbering, or he is going to die.
He opens his mouth to try talking again, but it won’t come out; and now his own brain is like a broken record, with Clark’s face so close to his own, repeating that this could be that last time he ever sees him, that this could be goodbye - Bruce miraculously finds the strength to surge the remaining inch between their mouths.
It doesn’t taste like goodbye. It tastes like strength, it tastes like a will to go on.
He falls back and takes a breath as deep as he can, and pushes his voice out. “Heat vision...cauterize.”
Clark’s eyes are blown wide already, but they look a little wilder at his words. “The pain….” he trails off, in warning; but there’s resignation in his tone too, because he realizes there is no other option. Bruce knows the pain might be enough to send him into shock and become its own threat, especially with his already significant blood loss, but he’s going to have to bear it.
Clark looks like he’s steadying himself. “If you… if this….if I….” he can’t seem to finish the sentence, but Bruce gets the gist of it. If this fails to save him, Clark is going to be crippled by guilt for his own involvement, even though Bruce is already dying.
For that reason alone, Bruce steels himself with the resolve not to die. Clark’s eyes go a bright red, and the rest of the world goes black for Bruce.
When he comes to again, he’s in a white room, smelling of antiseptic and medical, immaculate cleanliness.
There is a hand clutching his left, and he follows it up the arm to see Dick, leaning over his bed at an angle, as though he had suddenly dropped asleep without meaning to. He probably had, and it makes Bruce’s lip quirk to the side even though he feels like he shouldn’t have the energy to manage it. He almost doesn’t believe he’s there.
There’s movement at his side, and he manages to cast his gaze over without moving his neck, to find Damian curled up where his legs are, head pressed against his ribs. His right hand finds itself petting back the short, black fringes of hair that are tickling his arm.
Alfred is likewise sleeping, though much more composed and sitting straight backed in a chair at the foot of the hospital bed; and Alfred wonders where he learned it, he thinks wryly.
The room is fairly dark, but the curtains have been left open and the moon is bright enough to illuminate the boys and cast shadows about the room, leaving one long one hanging over the bed from the very tall body occupying the space in the door frame.
Bruce travels it up to find a set of glinting eyes, hidden behind fake, plastic frames, paired with a purposefully messy mop of black curls, and artfully innocuous smile that carries just a little too much authentic fondness to keep Bruce’s breath from catching in his throat for the scantest of seconds in surprise.
Their eyes meet, and the moment feels surreal. The entire events of the encounter almost do as well, dancing on the edges of his memories with the image of Clark’s face pressed so close to his, as he looks at the blue shadows playing across the same face in his doorway.
He feels Dick’s hand tighten in his, as he no doubt is dreaming of something, head twitching minutely, and Bruce is struck with a sudden sense of domestic content and…. family, despite being injured and in a hospital room.
What strikes all the more sharply is the desire to tell Clark to come in with the rest of them, to tell him he belongs there, too.
His mouth stays shut, but he hopes his gaze communicates what he wants it to.
Bruce almost counts the trauma to his vocal chords as a blessing - a three week healing period that renders him temporarily mute.
So they don’t talk about it, because Bruce can’t.
Clark sticks around the whole time, cheerfully ignoring Bruce’s written notes to “ get out of my city,” and being helpful - forcing Bruce to comply with the doctor’s (and Alfred’s) orders - and otherwise making a general nuisance of himself.
Bruce still plays it by ear, cautious even though Clark is behaving like nothing’s happened, ducking out of every situation that might allow for Clark to raise some questions or, god forbid, accusations he can’t actually voice a counter to. It takes him until the two week mark to fully let his guard down
He should have known better.
Clark takes advantage of the first time Bruce allows them to be alone together again, dropping his book and the pretense of reading it to take quick strides over to where Bruce is standing, trapping him between his body and the wall.
Bruce’s throat works, fighting the urge to make any kind of sound at all. He doesn’t cower - he has
cowered - but the lurking form of Clark, casting a full length shadow over him, makes him wish like hell he had somewhere else to go, make a
. He doesn’t want to hear whatever Clark is going to say, doesn’t want to-
Clark doesn’t say anything, because he kisses him instead.
Bruce, he - he doesn’t know how to react. His mind is running a thousand thoughts a second, mostly whirling around “what the hell is this?”
Is Clark...mocking him? Pitying him? Trying to inexplicably get something from him by manipulating his desires?
But all of those things are ridiculous, because it’s Clark.
And what Clark has been needing is intimacy. He lost the one person with whom he had it, causing Bruce to become the next closest in both literal and emotional proximity, fostering a relationship that Clark substituted for what he really wanted with Diana, or even Lois. Then Bruce had kissed him, and now...now Clark it putting Bruce in the next space that Diana left empty, because he is still lonely, still craving that closeness.
Bruce is too selfish to do anything other than play along, so he doesn’t even entertain the idea.
His body reacts instinctively, in any case, meeting Clark with a frantic shove, lips moving responsively, in tandem with Clark’s.
Clark has a grip around his waist, tight enough it’s only on this side of bruising. Bruce opens his mouth, inviting Clark in further, letting him take . Clark groans, vibrations through his exploratory tongue filling Bruce’s mouth. He presses Bruce even tighter against himself, and Bruce’s hands fly up to land on Clark’s biceps. His hands grow more adventurous, leaving Bruce’s shirt untucked and rucked up over his unbuttoned pants only a moment later.
His chest is heaving, growing more breathless as Clark moves to the side of his face, then travels down his neck, teasing him with the light scrape of teeth right over his jugular, before turning it right back into a kiss, open mouthed and hot. Bruce has never wished for a voice more.
Clark pulls back, eyes half lidded, and Bruce doesn’t think before he reaches out to grab at him and haul him right back in. Clark smiles, softly, and pulls Bruce with him in the direction he’s backing towards.
His knees hit the edge of a sofa, and Clark turns them around, guiding Bruce down into the sinking embrace of the cushions, wrapped up in his arms.
Sex with Clark is nothing like he might have conceived of, and yet everything he could have imagined.
Clark is impossibly gentle in his possession of immense power, a casual display of control that hits a button Bruce never knew he even had.
He takes his time, thoughtful of Bruce in a way he’s rarely seen in another partner. He plays to Bruce’s reactions, the tiny slips of his own control that get through. He touches Bruce with a quiet reverence, and everywhere his hand meets his skin feels like a brand.
It’s an experience Bruce knows he is going to designate as “pivotal,” because he can’t quite fathom turning back from here.
So he doesn’t. He kisses Clark back with as much fervor as has been boiling inside him, the secret of his truth burning behind his lips as he takes and gets taken, everything he wants so badly right at his fingertips, and still impossibly out of his reach.
He’ll let Clark have absolutely everything, if he wants it. Everything except the confession that sits - heavy in his chest - with the burden of its potential to damage, to ruin it all.
Clark can’t know that Bruce is in love with him.
Maintaining a secret like that is trouble, it turns out, even for the Batman; especially when Clark holds no similar reservations.
Just like when Bruce began their friendship, Clark behaves like he’s been given a green light and he approaches Bruce like they have joint custody over his personal space. He’s a very physical man - Bruce imagines if he’d been literally anyone other than himself, he might have known just how much so before now.
Clark also has the unfortunate, cursed ability to read his body like a map. This means that no amount of scowling or stiffened shoulders are going to override the sound of his elevated heartbeat in Clark’s ears, will hide the truth of what Clark makes him feel.
Just as everything with Clark seems to inevitably become, Bruce is powerless against it; against the sheer force of Clark, bright and beautiful and smiling like the world is all right again, or his own damned heart and traitorous brain, stripping him of the will to enforce control in the first place.
Sex with Clark changes from a bittersweet, one time lapse in Bruce’s judgement, to an unexpected constant. Bruce, for all his conflicting feelings, can’t find it within himself to even regret it.
Not with Clark’s mouth, hot and heavy, on his pulse point.
Not with his knee shoving up between his legs, a teasing, promising pressure.
Not even when Bruce remembers that they’re in a supply closet in a Wayne Enterprises building, and he has a meeting in ten minutes.
“Clark,” Bruce huffs, halfway to a laugh, lightly pushing at the over-enthusiastic man. “Don’t be ridiculous, this is - I’m standing in a bucket, and I don’t have time.”
Clark grins, pressing it into Bruce’s skin, and Bruce resists a shiver. “You didn’t seem like you minded when you dragged us both in here in the first place.”
“To talk .” Bruce counters. “There’s nowhere else unmonitored in this whole damn building, where anything we said wouldn’t immediately become a hot topic at the water coolers.”
“Mmmm, so the both of us just disappearing into a broom closet isn’t going to mean anything to a bunch of bored, office employees? Whatever you say.”
Bruce grunts but refuses to say anything to that. “You were the one who called and said you wanted to talk.”
Clark’s grin sobers up, and he nervously takes a step back. “Right, that.”
Bruce looks at him quizzically.
“It’s nothing big , it’s just...My parents flew in.”
Bruce waits patiently for Clark to make a point
“...And I want you to come meet them.” Clark prompts, like Bruce should have assumed that.
Clark sighs. “They don’t actually believe I’m taking care of myself, which is why they’re here in the first place; seeing as I didn’t even tell them about Diana and me, that includes having anyone else in my life.
“I don’t know why they think I’m this sad, helpless, lonely person, but I’d bet it has something to do with their ideas about the city sucking the life out of people. ” He elaborates with a roll of his eyes.
Bruce smirks. “You were ineffectively trying to give yourself alcohol poisoning just a few months ago.”
Clark glares. “And now I’m not. Will you please just come?”
Bruce leans back, arms crossed and expression still pasted on to hide the nervous clench in his stomach, brain on a cycle of meeting the parents, I’m fucking their son, this is so wrong, does he realize? while he pretends to mull it over.
Clark’s blinking his ridiculous doe-eyes at him, big like they get when he really wants something, the asshole.
“Fine.” Bruce relents. Clark letting someone else into this part of his life is a step for him, and Bruce wouldn’t deny him that.
“It’s so nice to see Clark finally bringing someone around!” Martha says, setting a plate in front of Bruce.
Bruce would have normally offered a practiced Brucie smile in return, but he doesn’t even need to. The comfort of a mother comes as naturally from this woman as heat from a fire, and Bruce finds his features relaxing out of something other than an obligation for politeness.
So this is where Clark learned it.
“He didn’t always used to be like this, all solitary. It’s these cold, city-folk mindsets getting to him, I swear.” She says, and Clark meets his eyes from across the room with an I told you so look; when Bruce grins, he turns it conspiratorial with a nod of agreement, so Martha won’t suspect that he’s amused at her expense instead of Clark’s.
“Our house used to be full of Clark’s of special friends. There used to be so many. First there was Lana. Lovely girl, lived next door.”
Clark’s first love, Bruce recognizes.
“She'll come over once in a while, not...Not like Pete Ross.” Jon adds in, taking a sip of coffee. “I mean, he was there every day. I always wondered about that boy.”
Bruce bites his tongue, thinking that’s because he was Clark’s first boyfriend and he never told you, or about their falling out.
“Well, then there was the girl on the swim team. Laurel, Laura...um...Lori. Lori Lemaris.” Martha continues, and Clark blushes when Bruce raises his eyebrows towards him.
“I remember her. She was quite a catch.” Jon says.
“Pa!” Clark exclaims, having enough.
“Clark's right, maybe we shouldn't talk about her. I am serving halibut.” Martha jibes, and it eases the slight tension.
“Besides, that’s not the kind of thing to bring up now , clearly.” Martha continues, patting Bruce’s hand. “Despite never meeting you, we’ve heard far more about you than any of the others!” She says like it’s supposed to be reassuring, though Bruce has no idea why.
Unless…wait. Oh. Oh.
You knew this was a bad idea, Bruce, and you still came.
Bruce lets out a stifled chuckle, and waits for Clark to correct his mother’s perception, but it doesn’t happen. The conversation changes, and within a moment it’s too awkward to try to backpedal.
Bruce spends the rest of the evening growing increasingly agitated, knowing what Clark’s parents are thinking, a layer of bitterness like needles under his skin because a piece of him wishes so badly they were right .
He excuses himself shortly after dinner with a claim of urgent business, and Clark ushers him to the sidewalk with a frown on his face to wait for Alfred to pull the car around.
“You didn’t have to come if you didn’t want to,” Clark says, pouting now.
“I did want to come.” Bruce responds.
“But you were in no hurry to stay.” Clark refutes.
“I don’t do well in situations like that. You know how I get when I feel cornered, it was only a matter of time before I said something offensive.”
“Situations like what? ” Clark asks, clearly confused. “You have Wayne social gatherings all the time, you’re not incapable.”
“Not where I’m meeting the parents of the man I’m fucking! It’s hard to maintain anything when I know what they’re thinking.” Bruce grouses as Alfred and the car pull up.
“You could have at least told them we weren’t dating,” He adds, pulling the door open before the vehicle is fully stopped.
There’s a flash of something on Clark’s face, but it’s gone fast. Bruce has the distinct impression he’s said something to hurt Clark, but he can’t see where. Nothing he’s said is incorrect.
As Alfred turns the block corner, Bruce resolutely doesn’t turn back to look at Clark, standing alone under the streetlight on the corner; he promptly regrets it, because looking forward he catches Alfred’s disapproving stare in the rear view mirror.
“That seemed rather unnecessary,” Alfred tuts, and Bruce crosses his arms and grumps.
“What exactly do you mean by that?”
“Nothing at all, Sir.” Alfred sighs, turning onto the highway.
Bruce doesn’t sleep well that night. Despite exhausting himself, perhaps even more than usual on patrol, he’s restless, seeing the pinch in Clark’s expression behind his eyelids every time they close.
He drags himself up at the first light of dawn and looks up a number on his cell.
“Bruce?” Comes Diana’s curious voice after the second ring. “You’re calling awfully early for a non emergency, but I assume you would use a communicator if this was business.”
“I think I might have fucked up.” He blurts.
“Clark?” Diana asks, and Bruce frowns at his predictability.
“I met his parents last night,” He explains.
“ And, they seemed to operating under the false assumption that Clark and I are...a couple.”
There’s a pause on the other end of the line. “You aren’t?” Diana asks finally, a little quiet, and then “Nevermind; more importantly, what did you say? ”
“I told Clark he should have corrected them,” Bruce says, absently, more focused on the fact that Diana apparently had shared the Kent’s misconception. “Clark looked - I said the wrong thing, clearly.”
“Oh, Bruce. ” Diana sighs, a disappointed sound of sympathy. “Please tell me you know how you messed up.”
Bruce juts his jaw forward, displeased at not being the most aware person in this situation. “If I did I wouldn’t be calling you at...six fifteen a.m.”
There’s a rustle coming through the speaker that sounds like maybe Diana is shaking her head at him.
“Bruce, tell me you haven’t been stringing him along this whole time,” Diana asks, suddenly sharp. “Tell me he’s not another one of your...temporary interests, at least.”
“Never,” Bruce barks, a bite of anger at the very idea. “It’s just - it feels like it got out of control. I was just trying to - to - comfort him, I suppose; and he needed so much more than that and I was surprisingly weak in the face of it all, and now-”
“You love him.” Diana finishes, speaks aloud the words Bruce wouldn’t have had the courage to.
Bruce doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t need to. Diana knows.
He sags into the frame of his window, running a hand through his hair before drawing it over his forehead to pinch the bridge of his nose.
“What do I do?”
Diana hums. “Have you had a clear conversation about anything regarding either of your feelings?”
Bruce spends a moment considering all the times he’s assumed Clark’s mindset and concealed his own, and affords himself a sense of exasperation, exhaling audibly into the phone.
“I think you know what you need to do.” Diana adds, finally.
In the end, Bruce might have to admit avoidance, because he can’t even call; he texts.
Clark doesn’t give him quarter, as per usual, so Bruce’s phone rings not ten seconds after he hits send.
“What did you mean?” Clark asks, almost breathy.
“I meant that I think we need to talk, which I said succinctly enough.” He can hear Clark’s mouth opening to comment on how they are already talking, so he clarifies, “Face to face.”
Clark doesn’t snap up the offer as quickly as Bruce expects, and his tongue darts out over his dry lips. “You pick the place.”
There’s a dry laugh on the other end. “Alright. There’s this little place I know, it’s nice...well, not nice, but you might like it. It’s in Hob’s Bay, I’ll just send you the-”
“Clark,” Bruce interrupts. “I’ll be there.”
The plan, Bruce thinks, is honesty .
His goal from the start was to keep from alienating Clark in the same way he has everyone else - and he seems well on to that path while he keeps doing the same thing.
All his reasoning and, alright, evasiveness, needs to go out the window. He needs to bite the bullet and tell him .
He’s determined enough he’s muted his comm - Clark has an ear out for emergencies anyway, and Bruce sacrificed his position on the current look out team to make his appointment with Clark.
As if that doesn’t speak enough about everything he means without words.
The place gets an eyebrow raise from Bruce. “This is a little downscale for Bruce Wayne.”
Clark looks sheepish. “Sorry, Jimmy loves this place.”
As Bruce slides into his seat, Clark shifts nervously. Bruce realizes how on edge Clark must be, given his vagueness over the phone towards the nature of their meet-up, and he internally curses.
He inhales deeply, steadying his nerves. Better to get it over with, like ripping off a bandage. He opens his mouth -
“I think I’ve treated you wrong.” Clark blurts.
Bruce’s mouth snaps shut. What?
“I-” Clark continues, running a hand through his hair. “I feel like I’ve taken advantage of you. You’ve been...oh, I don’t even have the words. You filled up a gaping hole in my life that I didn’t think could be fixed. It felt so...so... natural . I thought I didn’t even need words, and then you…kissed me, and I jumped to conclusions and never did anything the proper way ‘round.”
Bruce’s mind has come to a stuttering halt, trying to process what Clark is telling him.
“I never realized how it might look from your end, never saying anything and kind of just pushing. I don’t know if you even want to hear it from me now, but I need to tell you. You need to know that I -”
Clark cuts off with an alarmed expression, while internally Bruce feels frozen.
“There’s an emergency - they’re trying to contact you on your comm.”
That does the trick; Bruce jolts out of his stunned standstill and flips on the switch behind his ear, the crackling screams and booming impacts of concrete filtering through it immediately as Diana cries his name, sounding like she’s barely hanging on.
“He took us down in moments; I’m the only one left, and now he’s heading towards Metropolis.”
“Copy that, we’re both -” Bruce cuts off when he turns towards Clark, because his seat is vacant and spinning like it was just emptied at an incredible speed. A piece of paper flutters onto the table.
“On the way,” he assures, reaching for the paper. He unfolds it, carefully, and pretends there isn’t a slight tremor in his fingers as he does.
In a somewhat haphazard scrawl there are large letters, looping the words, “I love you.”
Bruce chases after in the Batplane as fast as he can, but he’s markedly behind. There’s smoke and smoldering remains of buildings already as he heads further into Metropolis, a trail of damage leading right to the fight.
By the time he arrives at the main event, Clark is being tossed onto a bridge, and he’s got multiple visible injuries, however small. Whatever Bruce had expected, it hadn’t quite been this.
He sees Clark ignore the monster to dart for a woman trapped in her car, so Bruce intercepts to buy time, shooting from the plane’s weapon system.
It pays him no heed, and simply targets Clark again, ripping him through another vehicle and barraging him with a flurry of fists at a level of power Bruce has never witnessed before. Clark hits back in kind, and the two slide down one side of the bridge, trading blows as Bruce tries to oversee a few vehicle evacuations, half an eye cast worriedly towards them.
Only seconds pass, and the thing manages to throw Clark into the wall of an arch. When Clark takes more than a second to recover, Bruce’s heart lodges in his throat.
You damn fool, what are you doing?! Get up! Get up right now and I swear I’ll tell you when this is all over -
Clark is too slow, and it brings its foot down, slamming it into him over and over, until the very foundations of the bridge start to shiver and crack.
Wires begin to snap, and Bruce knows he has to remain focused on helping people rather than helping Clark, despite every inch of him pleading otherwise.
Clark doesn’t lose time, and utilizes the materials crashing around him to tie the beast up, securing extra wires to pin him against the more stable side of the bridge.
Clark’s panting pretty heavily, and Bruce feels a wave of unease as he clears more crushed and abandoned cars from the exit pathway.
It doesn’t stay tied long. It pulls at its bonds, further damaging the stability of the bridge, this time causing concrete to fall away beneath the feet of innocent civilians.
Bruce spots a toddler, running down the opposite direction, and he doesn’t hesitate; he pops the top of the plane and shoots out a grapple, swooping towards the child to scoop him up.
There’s a groan above his head, and Bruce flinches as a piece of the arch comes loose above their heads. He braces for impact, only to find himself in tact and in familiar blue arms, protected from the debris as brown clouds of dust settle around them.
Bruce sends the kid running back to his mother, and spares a thankful glance at Clark, wiping at a small blood trail on his cheek.
“He won’t stay detained for long.” Bruce warns, and Clark nods and takes off.
He doesn’t even make it back before the thing is free, picking up a large boat as if it weighs nothing, and hurls it at Clark.
Bruce grapples back to the stationary plane, wincing at the sight. Clark spins it right back, but it doesn’t even flinch him. It works as a distraction though, and Clark takes advantage to speed past and get a grip on the long, white mane that trails behind it, fisting it and pulling down, knocking away a whole section of the bridge along with them both, down into the river.
They come shooting back up, out of the water beneath the bridge, and the monster sends them hurtling right back towards the city. Bruce speeds the plane along behind, barely managing to keep them in sight until Clark hits the ground.
There’s a crater below him, and he’s clearly struggling to recover. Bruce has to remind himself to breathe properly, feeling his sense of unease magnify under the weight of his sudden doubts of Clark’s abilities against this monstrous thing.
Without noticing, he’s flown too close, and the monster looks up and spots him, howling in rage, distracted while Clark lays still beneath him.
Instead of panic for himself, all Bruce can think is Get up, Clark, don’t you dare.
A meaty claw lands on Clark’s boot, and then Bruce allows himself to panic. It pulls its arm back and throws, Clark’s body careening towards the plane at a speed he can’t maneuver away from, knocking into a wing and sending him into a spiral.
He pulls at the controls, but it does nothing to slow the downward rotation he’s on. His eyes squeeze shut, once more prepared for impact; but instead he feels the slight jarring of a landing, and opens them to see his plane neatly settled on a roof.
He doesn’t hesitate to pop himself out, meeting Clark, who is breathing hard, and looking even more worse for wear as he props himself up. He tries to stand straight, but stumbles, and Bruce jerks forward to catch him before he can drop all the way.
“You need my help,” Bruce observes, but Clark shakes his head, weary but stubborn.
“You can’t do this alone,” Bruce insists. “It’s suicide.”
“It would be suicide for you to try and help, this thing is beyond your abilities.” Clark rebuts, and Bruce wants to yell, wants to shake him by the shoulders because he can’t let Clark do this. Not now. Not before he -
“I can’t be worried about myself and you; you need to get to safety so I can stay focused.”
Bruce can’t argue with that, though his jaw locks into place in frustration.
The thing spots them in the distance, and comes charging before he’s got time time to even try, much less blink. Clark peels from his side, summoning up a chunk of metal from somewhere he props up like a bat, swinging and bashing it as far as he can from them.
Bruce loses his line of sight as Clark follows him up into the clouds, but before long a trail of fire comes blazing back down, the brute punching away at Clark from above.
When they hit ground, it’s explosive; Bruce has to duck out of the way from a large blast of heat and rubble, and when he makes it around the corner, there is an even larger crater than before.
They both climb their way out, Clark more bloodied, with his suit in even worse tatters; the beast looks relatively unscathed.
The monster gets to Bruce first, and grips him by the juncture of his neck and shoulder before throwing him. Bruce feels the wind get knocked from him, but he’s landed in Clark’s arms for the third time that day, rather than hitting the side of the badly damaged skyscraper that Clark has dented instead.
Clark groans like he’s running on fumes and hurting badly, but there’s still resolution in his eyes; they meet Bruce’s for a reassuring second before he’s gone again.
Bruce grunts, feels the protesting of his ribs - which have definitely been broken by now, but he powers through on adrenaline and manages to drag his feet into following behind.
They both disappear inside and building, and Bruce can’t be sure what happens inside, but before he’s in range, a power surge shoots out, wind forcing Bruce down to his knees, as the whole building comes apart.
They’re still trading blows, and Bruce tries to stagger back to his feet as the monster gets a more solid punch in, knocking Clark down. He coughs and trembles as it grabs Clark by the head and wraps his cape around his neck, pulling tight before the entire thing tears away.
The noise Clark makes is enough to send pinpricks into Bruce’s eyes, and he grits his teeth, unable to watch on any more.
He pulls out a batarang and aims it with as much force as he can muster, but all it does is serve to get attention drawn to himself.
Still, he thinks as the thing stalks forward, spiked protrusions extending even further in murderous promise with every step, if he can buy Clark the extra time, it’ll be worth it.
He can see Clark’s eyes, trying to find the strength to raise himself off the ground, and he can see the monster, raising a weaponized fist, preparing to pierce right through him. He straightens his spine, ready for the inevitable.
There’s a shout. An agonized, desperate yell, and Clark is speeding towards them both with an expression of pure fury and determination.
The beast turns, but only in time for Clark’s fist to collide with his face, twisting its neck with a sickly crack, to an undeniably fatal angle.
It happens so fast, Bruce’s human eyes can’t even see it; but by the time he does, by the time he spots that spiked arm he’d barely been saved from, it’s soaked in red and falling away from Clark’s chest, a sickening sound to compliment the bile rising in Bruce’s throat as Clark slumps into the mess beneath him.
Bruce slides himself down the rubble, scrambling as quickly as he can towards Clark’s prone form.
“Kal!” he cries, pulling his head into his lap. “Kal!”
No, no. This can’t be happening.
Clark wheezes. “Is it dead?”
Save your breath.
“Yes,” Bruce confirms, throat clogged with more emotion than dust. “You did it, you saved everyone.”
At what cost?
Clark’s eyes are drooping, and Bruce feels everything fading away, whiting out into a deafening tone of world-shattering despair.
“No,” Clark mumbles, voice fading. “You’re the one who...saved me.”
I didn’t, I couldn’t do a damn thing, and now you’re -
Clark’s hand falters, and it falls away from where he was extending it, limp. His eyes fall shut, and Bruce can only cling tighter.
No! Not now! You never knew, I never got to tell you -
He shakes Clark, tests his fingers at his pulse, but there’s nothing.
“Kal,” Bruce whispers, body stiff in shock and denial. “Kal, please.”
There is no response, and the stiffness seeps right out of Bruce; he collapses over Clark’s body, unable to bear his own weight.
“I love you,” he says, finally, some manic thought in the back of his mind that Clark still needs to hear it, that he still can.
“I love you,” he says again, growing louder. “I love you, I love you,” he repeats, until they devolve into indecipherable sobs, hunched over Clark’s immobile form.
“I love you,” he calms into whispers, into the dark and the eerie, dead silence of the city, as the tattered remains of an S marked, blood-red cape flutters in the wind, where it’s caught on a pole protruding from a marble cornerstone.
“I love you,” he confesses, for every time he hadn’t when he should have, when he’d thought it, felt it. For every time Clark hadn’t known.
Now that he’ll never know.
“I love you,” He says one last time, like one last goodbye.