The first time hardly counts at all.
Bruce doesn't mean anything by it. His day-to-day work typically involves longer-term investigations. And he does, in some sense, enjoy them; clues clicking into place one after another, every inch of focus he can bring to bear applied to the task, those quicksilver moments of inspiration that render it all in sudden satisfying clarity. But there's an undeniable appeal to simpler problems, too. Problems that are barely problems at all: problems that are easy to fix.
He doesn't intend to overhear Barry and Clark in conversation. He isn't even eavesdropping, not in any meaningful sense. The Hall has a kitchen, because Barry's metabolic needs ensure that he's hungry at any and every hour. Bruce had decided that it was, in a sense, a matter of ensuring the team as a whole was as well-equipped as possible, to guarantee Barry an unlimited source of calories.
Bruce is washing up; the clatter of dishes and clink of silverware must be audible in the lounge across the hall where Barry and Clark are seated. And, in turn, Barry's and Clark's voices, at a conversational volume, are audible to him.
Barry is explaining something to Clark. Bruce realizes after the first three minutes that the subject of discussion is in fact an elaborate ranking system Barry has devised for snack foods, weighting crucial values such as taste, sugar content, and "commitment to coloration not found in nature". He indulges in casting a glance toward the ceiling; but he can feel an urge to twitch lingering in the corners of his mouth.
He lets the words roll by him, no longer truly listening so much as simply aware of the sound. Clark laughs, once and then again; it's good to hear. Bruce attempts not to dwell on it in any greater detail than that.
And then suddenly Barry's voice rises.
"—your favorite? Seriously?"
"Look," Clark says, mild, mock-defensive, "we can't all have systems. I'm not saying they're the best snack ever invented, I'm just saying I like them. Practically lived off them," he amends after a moment, "when I was a kid, for a couple years there. It's been a long time, but I still get a hankering for them every now and then."
"But chocolate teddy grahams," Barry says, in a marveling sort of tone. "They're the color of their actual ingredients! I don't even know what to do with you, seriously."
Clark laughs again. "They're good, that's all I'm saying." He pauses for a moment, and when he speaks again, his voice is softer, a little wistful. "They remind me of home. They—taste like it, I guess." And then he clears his throat, and adds, wryer, "I stole three boxes from the pantry once and ate them all in a row. My ma thought I was going to be sick."
"Well, all right," Barry allows, "that's a kind of commitment I can respect," and then there's a sound Bruce recognizes belatedly as the soft smack of a high-five.
It's nothing. It doesn't matter. Clark has probably forgotten he even said it.
But when Bruce puts together next month's order to restock the Hall's supplies, he hesitates over it for a long moment, and then adds a case of chocolate teddy graham crackers.
He doesn't expect anything to come of it. He's not at the Hall when Clark discovers their existence, but he infers that it happened when he spots an open box on the officially-designated "snack shelf" (so labeled, in fact, by a pair of Post-Its in two different colors, one for each word, in Barry's slanting all-caps).
And Clark certainly doesn't seem displeased, given the rate at which the boxes begin to disappear. He also doesn't seem interested in confronting Bruce about it. And of course he must know Bruce is still handling the Hall's major purchases himself, but perhaps he assumes Barry is responsible for this particular indulgence, or that Barry asked Bruce directly and Bruce went along.
Bruce isn't looking for a thank-you. If anything, the thought makes his chest tighten uneasily. If Clark had thought he was, had assumed he did it in order to secure himself Clark's gratitude—
It isn't like that. In point of fact, he should have thought to do something like this months ago, should have sent around a request for each member of the League to make a list of minor comforts, gustatory or otherwise, that they would appreciate having at the Hall.
He'll draft something next week.
It was one time. A whim. He doesn't intend to keep doing it.
It's just that every now and then, certain opportunities present themselves. There was never supposed to be a second time; but there is. A second time, and then a third, a fourth.
Clark has to work late sometimes at the Planet. Being Superman means constant interruptions, and it isn't always easy for him to make up the time. And if Bruce should arrange a meal delivery, pre-paid, to the office, surely that's only reasonable. It's League business, in a sense, that's causing the problem. It's something Bruce has the right to take care of.
The only name he ever gives for the deliveries is Clark's. And if Clark suspects anything, he doesn't say so. Maybe he thinks it's Lois, or even Perry.
Clark and Diana commiserate once on comms over the difficulty of finding time to run simple domestic errands—because unearthly speed, the ability to leap multiple city blocks, isn't exactly useful when it's Clark Kent who's running out of pages in his notebook and needs a new one.
Bruce buys a dozen, has a neat stack placed in the Planet's supply cabinet and bribes Lois with coffee to leave one on Clark's desk. And not tell him where they came from, if he should ask.
(That part requires a secondary bribe of chocolate, and Lois gives him a long flat stare first that says he might be kidding himself, but he can't kid her.
Bruce carefully ignores it.)
Once, Clark comes to a League meeting with his brow drawn down a fraction; tension around his eyes, his mouth. Bruce's bland inquiry is met with a sheepish explanation that Clark can tell when the fluorescents in the Planet's office are about to need changing: six weeks ahead of time, they start to buzz in a way he struggles to filter out, and it takes a toll on his concentration. Not a headache. But the closest Superman can probably get to having one, under most circumstances.
Bruce decides to implement an energy-saving policy affecting all Wayne Enterprises offices and subsidiaries, including Wayne Entertainment, and within a month, the Planet office building and grounds staff have installed LED lighting instead.
That one is justifiable, just barely. It's a sound business decision that will result in reduced electrical costs, even if Clark inspired the timing.
So Bruce doesn't think of himself as having begun to toe a line. Not really.
Not until he finds himself on the phone with Martha Kent, attempting to explain why he wants to pay for the cost of her traveling to Metropolis for the weekend but doesn't want her to tell Clark he did it.
It felt logical when he thought of it. Clark has no other commitments this weekend; he mentioned as much during the most recent League meeting, at the usual point about fifteen minutes from a session's official end when their discussions inevitably devolve into personal chatter. He looked tired. Bruce knows Martha has surprised him with a visit at least once before, and that Clark had been delighted to see her. He also knows she can't afford to do it regularly. But he can fix that.
Martha, though, doesn't seem entirely convinced, and her pointed silence over the phone is surprisingly eloquent.
Bruce feels abruptly cornered.
"I see," she says at last. "Well, Lord knows I'd never turn down the chance to come see Clark—and you know it, too, or you wouldn't be trying that line on me."
"You're up to six dinners, you know," she adds, crisp and uncompromising.
Bruce grimaces. He and Martha have a standing contract that might as well be signed in blood: if he wants to pay for things, he has to let her feed him. The number of dinners required to even the score is more than proportionate to the cost, in Bruce's opinion, but Martha is remarkably difficult to argue with.
"Understood," he agrees.
"All right. I won't tell him. But if he asks," she warns, "I won't lie, either. I'll keep your name out of it. But if he wants an explanation, then a friend gave me a very generous gift."
Bruce closes his eyes.
"Thank you," he says quietly.
"Oh, honey," Martha says, more fondly than he deserves. "If you think I'm coming up there and you aren't stuck eating lunch with us at least one day, you've got another think coming."
Bruce huffs out a laugh, and dutifully agrees.
In retrospect, it takes longer than Bruce might have expected for matters to come to a head.
It doesn't seem to be Martha's visit that does it. He doesn't know what it is, couldn't guess; the list has gotten longer and longer, one entry at a time.
But there must be something. There must be a reason why Clark finally chooses to track Bruce down in his workroom at the Hall.
Bruce isn't surprised to hear footsteps. He isn't even surprised that they're Clark's. Clark often ends up gravitating toward anyone present within the Hall at the same time he is. He doesn't seem to like being alone.
But Bruce looks up from the worktable, and Clark's expression strikes him as unusual immediately. A peculiar combination of uncertain and serious, the grave stern lines his face so rarely acquires out of uniform.
And then Clark says quietly, "I—think we should talk."
Bruce waits carefully through the first cool rush of apprehension; steadies his breathing, keeps his expression neutral. "Of course," he agrees.
Clark knows. That's his first thought. Clark knows, and feels the need to tell Bruce he's pushed over a boundary with this. That it's too much, that the full weight of Bruce's attention is as always excessive. Or perhaps he'll demand to know whether it was all intended as some kind of protracted apology; whether Bruce is honestly foolish enough to believe that changing some lightbulbs is sufficient to make amends for his mistakes.
In that case, of course, Bruce will have an answer. It isn't, and he knows it isn't; he's fully prepared to acknowledge that it could never be enough.
If Clark wants him to explain himself—
It should be equally straightforward. He wanted to help. He wanted to make Clark's life easier. Easier, better, in whatever minor respects Bruce was able to control.
(Is that an improvement? Is that something Clark will want to hear? His death is in some sense attributable to Bruce's desire to be in control; to admit that he's still subject to the same impulses, with the same fundamental intensity, even if they're oriented in an entirely new direction—Christ, he can't say that—)
"I know it's you," Clark says, and then, unaccountably, ducks his head a little; his throat, his cheeks, have begun to flush pink. "I mean, that it's—that you've been doing all these things for me. The food, and the, um. The gifts. The lights; that was you, too, right?"
Bruce lowers his eyes, tacit acknowledgment.
"And Ma," Clark adds.
Bruce can't stop his gaze from snapping back up to Clark's face.
And Clark, bewilderingly, has started to smile just a little. "She didn't give you up," he says gently. "Not exactly. But she's got a—speaking way of saying 'a friend', when she tries."
Christ. She'd promised not to name him outright; but she hadn't promised to be subtle about it. Bruce rubs his mouth, wry. Rookie mistake, not to pin her down better.
"Anyway, I just—" Clark stops. "I just wanted to say—"
"Clark," Bruce interrupts, holding out a hand, sudden sharp foreboding.
But of course that isn't enough. "I just wanted to say 'thank you'," Clark insists, stubborn, unrepentant. "I know you didn't do it for that. I know you were just trying to be kind, in a—in a Bat way."
"A Bat way," Bruce repeats.
Clark's flush reaches his ears. "You know, all—secretly," he elaborates. "Creepily, in the dark, from behind a bank of monitors or something. But that isn't the point. The point is, I appreciate it. I appreciate it a lot, and I wanted you to know that. I didn't want you to think it didn't matter to me." He stops again, biting at his mouth. "It did. It does."
"Well, in that case," Bruce hears himself say, "you're—welcome." A wan and pitiful understatement, but it'll have to do. "And I suppose I should say in turn that if there's ever anything you need, you only have to ask. You don't have to wait around for me to notice and—Bat it," he allows.
And he can't even begin to guess why; it's only as much as Clark has ever deserved to hear from him. But for some reason, Clark's expression has gone odd and soft, warm.
"All right," Clark murmurs.
It isn't until a good half-hour after he's left, most of which Bruce spends staring at the space where he was, that Bruce realizes his own words could be interpreted as having implied he was going to keep doing it.
But if that's what Clark got out of it—well. He didn't look as though he minded.
Bruce was expecting to be asked to restrain himself. He was prepared to back off, to withdraw. To give Clark some space.
It didn't happen. But that's no reason to escalate. It would be irrational, to treat Clark's tacit permission as active encouragement.
But Clark knows it's him. He told Bruce as much. And in a sense, that does mean Bruce doesn't have to be as careful anymore.
There are certain things he's always wanted to do for Clark that could never have made it onto the list before; there would have been no way to conceal his involvement, no possible effort that would have preserved plausible deniability. But now—
He feels emboldened to the point of stupidity. He can't stop himself. He'd perceived a line, and he'd thought he'd crossed it. And some part of him, he suspects, is still looking for it: wants to fix its position correctly, having temporarily lost sight of it.
Because it must be there. There must be a point beyond which Clark will call a stop to it, a limit to the things Bruce will be permitted to get away with.
And he'll find it, sooner or later.
So: he takes Clark out to lunch, buys him dinner, without the pretense of delivery; without any cover for it at all, an unfamiliar thrill in allowing himself to be so painfully transparent. Books Clark has mentioned an interest in appear on the shelves in the Hall's lounge—Clark notices every time, and seems to make a point of smiling up at Bruce over the pages later.
It isn't often that they find themselves with a block of time where they're genuinely unlikely to be interrupted. But on the rare occasions that it happens, Clark is an easy sell on almost any genre of movie, any variety of live performance showing downtown in either Metropolis or Gotham of an evening.
(The opportunity to relax and let himself be entertained is good for him, Bruce decides. He—smiles more.)
Bruce escalates, one deliberate step at a time. And Clark doesn't stop him, lets him and lets him and lets him.
It's going to have to come to an end sooner or later. But apparently not yet.
The thing with Clark's apartment is actually a relatively minor indulgence, on Bruce's personal scale.
Taking Clark out to dinner, just because he wants to, just because he can, is a luxury. Giving Clark things just to make Clark smile at him is pure self-gratification.
But then Clark's apartment apparently develops a mold problem that's going to require weeks' worth of renovation, not only to identify and fix the underlying moisture issue, but to rip out all the affected walls and flooring and replace it.
Clark needs somewhere to stay. A hotel would be a wildly unnecessary expenditure, especially on Clark Kent's salary. The Hall would be a reasonable temporary solution—rooms are prepared to permit any of them to stay overnight as required—except for the finagling that's called for in order to prevent anyone from seeing Clark Kent entering or departing from the property; and as long as Clark's going to have to offer the explanation that he's staying with a friend, there's no reason not to make it the truth.
Bruce owns or leases at least a dozen different properties in Metropolis alone, never mind Gotham or the greater metro area. And there's absolutely no good reason why Clark shouldn't make use of one of them.
It's an entirely reasonable suggestion. A solution to a legitimate problem. Even if Bruce hadn't made an undeniably addictive habit out of giving Clark things he likes, he'd probably have made the same offer.
But Clark ducks his head and frowns, hunches up his shoulders, when Bruce says it, and it's not hard to tell he's about to say no.
"I don't think—I mean, thank you for—"
"Clark," Bruce says, before Clark can actually pick up any steam. "It isn't an imposition. I could house half of Smallville if the need arose."
But that just makes Clark's brow furrow harder. "I appreciate it, Bruce. I do."
"But," Bruce prompts, when Clark hesitates, and then decides to try a new tack. "You'd stay with a friend who'd offered up their sofa, wouldn't you?"
"Yes," Clark agrees slowly.
"Well, you are."
"Except my friend is Bruce Wayne," Clark says, wry, "so the sofa is a penthouse suite." He bites his lip, and shakes his head. "Look, I get why you think it's the same. But it doesn't feel the same to me. It's—it's too much."
And if he'd objected on the grounds of logic, Bruce would have generated another dozen analogies, would have argued him in circles. But no rational assessment of the facts can possibly stand up to Clark's most sincerely-held feelings.
Bruce sighs through his nose. "All right," he says. "The lake house, then."
"I'm staying there right now. You'd just be—a guest." Bruce pauses, deliberate. "You still won't be sleeping on a sofa, if you consider that part non-negotiable—"
And it works: Clark laughs. He rubs at the back of his neck, after, and there's something about the tilt of his head, the pink heat that's bloomed across his cheeks, that strikes Bruce as oddly shy. "Okay," he concedes after a second. "Okay. The—the lake house, then. Thank you."
The first few days are fine.
It's a pleasure, even. Clark's presence in his space with such consistency—seeing him first thing in the morning, messy-haired and blinking; or hearing him late at night, shuffling toward the guest bedroom, shoulders cracking as he stretches—isn't something Bruce can imagine being inclined to complain about.
And that consistency is precisely the reason it's so easy to detect it, when Clark's demeanor begins to change.
He isn't angry, isn't upset. They don't fight. A gradual, creeping tension, that's all. Clark gets cautious, too polite. Bruce can't figure out what's bothering him, and the longer it carries on, the less inclined he is to ask; it starts to take on the feeling of live but unexploded ordnance.
Maybe this, he can't help but think, is the line he's been looking for. Maybe Clark can perceive that for all that Bruce had meant the invitation sincerely, there's a soft secret part of him that's far too mindlessly pleased to have landed himself Clark's company to this kind of extent—that's constantly eager to imbue Clark's presence in the lake house with weight it doesn't have, no matter how sternly Bruce shoves it down.
And the last thing Bruce has ever wanted with any of this is to make Clark uncomfortable.
The evening he finally forces himself to broach the subject and reiterate the offer of the penthouse, he's certain for an instant that he's misunderstood everything—that the moment Clark had found that first box of chocolate teddy grahams, the moment he'd realized it was Bruce, he'd felt it all impossible to refuse; that Bruce has made a series of foolish mistakes that have finally added up to more weight than even Superman can carry.
But all Clark says, when at last he stops staring silently down at the table between them, is, "I'm sorry."
"Sorry," Bruce repeats cautiously, leadingly.
Clark closes his eyes, rubs his hands across his face. "God. I shouldn't—I shouldn't have said yes. I shouldn't have said yes, and I'm sorry. I just—" He stops and shakes his head, and presses the heels of his palms against his eyes. "I just wanted to."
"I shouldn't have let you keep on doing all this for me. I knew it was too much; it was already too much. I just didn't want to say anything," Clark admits, unsteady and confessional. "It was stupid and selfish, but I didn't want to say anything. I was—I liked it."
"Clark," Bruce says, and leans in, reaches out across the table to rest a tentative hand against the back of Clark's wrist. "You were supposed to."
Clark finally lowers his hands. The smile he aims at Bruce is small and slanting, wry. "Not this much," he says quietly, and then bites his lip. "I always thought—I thought you'd stop. I thought you'd get tired of it, sooner or later. I couldn't see what you were getting out of it. But it wasn't going to last forever, and as long as you were willing to do it, I wanted you to. It was selfish," he says again, and lowers his head, rubbing a thumb across the bridge of his nose.
And it feels impossible, in that moment, to do anything but—but give him what he must want: a confession in return. The truth.
"I thought I wouldn't have to stop," Bruce makes himself say. "I thought you were going to make me."
Clark's head snaps up. His hand is still half-raised, hanging in the air; his eyes are wide, startled, endlessly blue.
"I wanted to give you things you wanted, even if—even if you didn't want them from me. I knew it would add up eventually. I knew you were going to get tired of it, of letting me indulge myself like that. But—"
"Bruce," Clark says.
He's still staring. But then something flickers across his face, something Bruce recognizes distantly as determination.
"Bruce, you're an idiot. I am, too," he adds, before Bruce can muster any objection to his description, and then he's—he stands, reaches out across the table; tilts Bruce's face up toward him, steady, and kisses him.
Bruce is stunned still a moment too long—tries belatedly to make up for it, and then Clark laughs against his mouth, eases away. Kisses him again, again, brief light brushes; Bruce tries to hold him, linger, but he's smiling too much.
And then he turns Bruce's face, skims a kiss against his cheek, his ear. "Bruce," he murmurs, quiet as a secret. "Guess what I want next."