Clark wakes up in his grave.
It's dark, but not too uncomfortable. Clark likes to breathe, but he doesn't need to do it very often; the air's stale and close, but there's more than enough of it for him. And the coffin is—wow, really nice. Clark wonders vaguely whether Mom will be able to get a refund for it, once he's climbed out of it.
Bearing that hazy thought in mind, he doesn't shove a hand through the lid. He waits a while, tests himself against the weight above him, waits a while more. The strength would be coming back faster if he could get a little sunshine down here, but Zod generously proved that doesn't make the whole difference—Earth's air by itself helps.
Once he can, he pushes the lid up a couple inches. He's not a hundred percent yet, but he's strong enough to compress the dirt just outside the coffin sideways, to make himself space and then squeeze out that way. He closes the lid behind him, takes a second to pack the dirt right above him down—up?—so it'll stop breaking off in clumps and falling on his face, and then switches over to x-ray. The dirt's mostly dark, some larger stones showing up whiter, and beyond that—
Beyond that, there's someone kneeling at his grave.
Rules out using the heat vision to blast his way up, Clark thinks dimly, squinting through the ground. Who is that? He's past the point of letting himself think it's Dad, even for a second; and it's not Pete either. No glasses. (And Pete's never broken anything but the one ankle—with this person, Clark can see at least a dozen thick uneven calluses, places where fractures have grown over with new bone.)
Well. Whoever they are, they're about to get one hell of a surprise.
They notice, because of course they do: even with human hearing, Clark's digging must start to get audible once he's less than a foot from the surface. The person stands and takes an uncertain step back, something falling from their grip with a soft sound Clark's hearing just barely catches. And then Clark grits his teeth and shoves, and his hand breaks through.
And, God, the sunlight is like—the sunlight's like nothing Clark's ever felt before, like water after forty days of desert. Clark's covered in dirt and sweat, just about as tired as he's ever been (as tired as he's probably capable of); the suit they buried him in is musty and dank and giving way at the seams; but he forces that hand out of the ground and the sun hits it, and suddenly he feels like he could do anything. Suddenly he feels brand new.
The person—man—says, "Jesus," and Clark can't help it, he laughs into the dirt that's still over his face—and then has to spit a bunch of grit off his tongue. Amazingly, the guy doesn't panic or run away screaming, even though Clark's bursting out of the ground like a B-movie zombie. He kneels down and grabs Clark's hand, and plunges his other hand into the soil beside Clark's wrist.
With the sunlight soaking into Clark, he could probably have done the rest himself, but between him and the guy it's easier. Clark gets his other hand up and they widen the hole Clark's made, the guy ripping sod up and tossing it away, until Clark can see—
Mr. Wayne—Mr. Wayne, and what on earth is a billionaire business-owner Clark argued with at a party doing at his graveside?—goes still, staring down at Clark. For the span of a breath, his face is perfectly, unnervingly opaque, as unreadable as if he were wearing a mask.
And then he blinks and swallows and says, "I—met your mother, after what happened in Metropolis. Mr. Kent, do you—would it be better if you were in the sun?"
Well, that answers the question of how much he knows about Superman. Clark reaches up out of the hole, and Mr. Wayne clasps his hand. Clark can push himself up from here, of course he can; but people usually like him better if he lets them help him with things like this. "You're helping me climb out of my grave," he says. "Call me Clark."
Clark doesn't have to do as much of it himself as he'd expected; Mr. Wayne's pretty strong for somebody who wears a suit that expensive. With one sharp heave, Clark makes it over the lip of the hole, and then he settles onto his knees and tips his head back. The air, the sunshine, all of it feels amazing, and every second Clark spends soaking it in pushes the exhaustion further and further away.
"Stay there," he hears Mr. Wayne say, "I'll call Martha, just—stay there," and Clark kneels there next to his own grave and smiles down at the grass.
He takes one deep breath, another, and then starts gently brushing the dirt off his burial suit; and when he turns to get one shoulder, he's met with the sight of his headstone. His headstone, with a rose that must be from Lois, and a bouquet of lilies from the garden at the farm—that's Mom, and God, that must have been so hard for her after Dad, having to go out there alone and pick twice as many.
But there are wildflowers, too, Clark sees. A handful of them; all dried out, now, and pulled out of the cemetery vase as though—
As though Bruce Wayne had been about to replace them with the new handful he'd brought, which is scattered over the ground a foot away: where he dropped it when Clark surprised him.
Huh, Clark thinks. That's a nice gesture to make for a dead stranger, even one who's Superman. Doesn't seem much like Mr. Wayne, with his suits and his corporate espionage, his unreadable smile; but then Clark doesn't know him that well, after all.
endearments & compliments.
The bomb takes out three-quarters of a high-rise—residential, not in any way a high-value target. A random act of destruction; or at least that's what they think at first. And then while Clark is bracing a buckling girder across his shoulders, he hears Diana's voice in his ear, over the little radios Batman's given them both: "It was a distraction."
"A distraction?" Clark says, grimacing; the metal keeps bending under his hands, part of the building's on fire and it's starting to heat up. All the superstrength in the world won't help him keep this building stable if the structure itself can't hold up.
"Don't worry," Diana adds, cool. "I've got it," and then she grunts a little and there's a yell and a thump somewhere off on her end of the radio.
Clark adjusts his grip on the girder and lets out a breath. This kind of situation is exactly why they've joined forces, formed this—League thing they're doing, and Clark had seen that it was a good idea right away. The first time he'd put the suit back on after coming back from the dead, they'd found him: Diana had explained, Batman at her shoulder, and Clark had known immediately that he wanted to be part of it. At the most basic level, Luthor wouldn't have been able to turn him and Batman against each other if they'd just—known each other, talked sometimes, shared information. And Batman and Clark and Diana had worked well together against not-really-Zod-anymore, once they'd decided to help each other. Plus—
Plus this way, Clark's not carrying it all.
It's selfish to think that. He's never been the only person standing up against wrongdoing, not by a long shot. But if he'd been here by himself, if he'd been holding up this building and then—used his superhearing, something, and realized what Diana's already figured out, and had to make a choice—
(—if he'd saved his fields but drowned someone else's horses; that's what it always comes down to, Dad said it and Dad was never wrong—)
It's such a relief not to be alone anymore.
Clark can't use his speed too much—if he jostles the wrong thing while he's going that fast, the whole building might come down. But he can use it just enough to zip sideways for some rebar, a chunk of another girder that's buried under some rubble, and then get back into position before the part he was holding can do more than tip.
He braces everything as best he can. It won't hold forever, he thinks, but it should last long enough for him and Batman to get everybody out. He steps away, cocks his head to listen for anyone else stranded on the upper floors—and with his focus on his hearing, it's like Batman's standing right there when the low growl comes in over the radio: "There's another one."
"Another—?" Clark says, frowning, and then (past the crackle of flames, the screech of metal, the shouts and cries and screams, Batman's steady heartbeat) he hears it, doubled, through the radio and directly. The low regular beep of a countdown.
"A second bomb," Batman says. "You'd better get down here."
There's just over a minute on the clock when Clark gets down to the sub-basement, but you wouldn't know it by looking at Batman: he's crouched next to it, and when he glances up at Clark—
Well, all right, Clark can't see his face. (Could, if he looked through the cowl; but he doesn't. Batman doesn't need any more reasons not to trust him—and, knowing Batman, the thing's probably lead-lined anyway.) But his jawline's pretty expressionless. And his breathing, his heartbeat, haven't sped up at all.
"About time," he says, and then Clark steps forward and Batman's hand comes up, a warning. "I think there's kryptonite in it."
Of course there is. Diana'd said this was a distraction, and it was a distraction meant for the League—who'd try to set something like that up without getting their hands on some kryptonite first?
But Clark takes another step forward anyway, because Batman can't take care of this alone, and, yes, there it is: the nausea rising, the first electric jangle of pain.
Not a big piece, though, Clark decides, and that means maybe—
"I take it you can't speed it out of here."
"Wouldn't be the best idea," Clark agrees. He'd already been hesitant, and kryptonite tends to mess with his balance. And flying out, punching his way through the wall—that would be worse in a couple ways. He could go through the basement floor, underground; but he might not get far enough away in time when he's not at full strength, and there could be something even worse down there, a neighboring building's propane tank or a gas line, a subway tunnel.
But there's another way to handle it.
"Get to the other end of the room," Clark says.
Batman's chin tenses—probably would be a frown, but Clark can't see his eyebrows. "What are you going to—?"
Clark glances at the timer. Closing in on thirty seconds. "Get to the other end of the room. Or upstairs—"
"I'm not going to leave you down here—"
Oh. "You still don't trust me," Clark says.
Batman hesitates for a moment, gaze flickering over Clark's face; Clark can see his eyes move even with the cowl on.
"It isn't about that anymore."
Fifteen seconds. "You can't help me with this," Clark says. "Please, just—move away. As far as you can."
And Batman's stubborn, difficult, but he does have his priorities straight: when there's lives on the line, he listens.
Clark doesn't quite manage to catch all of it. He's just lucky the bomb's relatively small. Some of the blast escapes around his elbows, his wrists; but most of it is trapped exactly the way he intended.
It's nothing like the nuke—which is great, because Clark was really hoping to never have to do that ever again. But the nuke also had the courtesy to knock him out; he came to in time to feel a little bit of it, the tail end of the agony of his face reshaping itself, but the worst part passed him by.
The heat actually isn't as bad as the concussive force. The Capitol had been more heat than anything, and Clark had walked out of that inferno easily enough. But that explosion was different. Right now he's forcing a whole lot of energy to strike a very small surface area; and the laws of physics actually do apply to Clark, as long as the numbers are high enough.
Especially when there's kryptonite involved.
When it's over he lets himself uncurl again. What it did to his skull is the worst part, really—or rather waiting through the grinding pain while his skull undoes it. The shrapnel from the bomb's structure can't stay lodged in his face once his skin starts to reform, not even the shrapnel that glows green; the pieces are too small now to do anything but slow the healing down a little. He can feel them scrape free, sliding down his brow, his cheek, and falling to the floor. The uniform seems mostly intact when Clark runs a hand over it, and after a few more seconds his chest is, too. His knees, his thighs, are already fine.
His hearing's not damaged so much as it needs to kind of recalibrate somehow, but then it does, and—
"You idiot," Batman growls, "you have got to be kidding me," and Clark hears his knees hit the floor, feels the gloved hand come down carefully against his shoulder. "Superman?"
"I'm fine," Clark says, because he can: the holes in his lip and cheek have closed, and his throat has uncollapsed now. But the rest of his face—God, that hurts, and everything's still blackness— "My eyes—"
Clark can hear Batman swallow. But when he speaks, his tone's impressively dry. "Give them a second, boy scout."
"Okay," Clark says, sucking in a breath; and sure enough, a moment later something's changed, and Clark can blink them both open, fuzzy grayness resolving almost immediately into Batman's impassive not-quite-face.
"That was incredibly stupid," Batman adds, and holds out a hand to help Clark up.
Clark hasn't seen Bruce Wayne in several weeks, and he's not exactly unhappy about it. He hasn't spoken to Wayne in even longer—and he feels a little worse about that, because Mom had asked him to.
("He used to come by sometimes, when he had a chance," she'd said, arms folded, mouth pinched flat with worry. "And now it's been almost a month. I just don't know—"
"He's probably too busy doing the backstroke through a pool full of money, Mom," Clark had said; but Mom hadn't smiled—had looked at him sharply instead, almost like she was disappointed.
"You don't know him, Clark," she'd said. "He was—he was kind to me, while you were gone."
Which Clark would doubt except that Mom's never lied to him, and doesn't have any reason to do it for Wayne's sake. It's just that the pleasantest Clark's ever seen the guy was at the cemetery—the next time he was standing outside a press conference pontificating about corporate responsibility, right before turning around and clinking glasses with Morgan Edge, of all people; and the time after that he was crashing a charity event, clearly already drunk but nobody willing to throw him out.
The time after that, Clark hadn't spared him a glance. Best thing for everyone.
But Mom's eyes always got so dark when she talked about Clark's death, her face so tired; and if Wayne had made that even a little bit easier for her, then Clark owed him. After being reminded of that, Clark hadn't exactly been able to say no when she'd asked whether he saw Wayne sometimes at "those press things"—when she'd asked whether he could maybe let her know how he looked.
"That man doesn't get enough sleep," she'd added, shaking her head; as if Bruce Wayne's bed wasn't eight square feet of memory foam with silk sheets, Clark had thought, but he'd known better than to say it to Mom.)
But a glance around the room is enough for Clark to find him, and it can't exactly be called a surprise. This is where rich jerks visiting Metropolis go, when they want to blow their pocket change on more inebriants of various kinds than anyone should ever consume. That's the whole reason Clark is here—Perry's looking to run something on Tony Gallo and the casino he's building, and Clark thought maybe Gallo was the type to visit a place like this.
Wayne being around might even improve the odds: a lot of people try to make sure they are wherever Bruce Wayne is. And it's not like Clark has to talk to him. He'll tell Mom he saw the guy, that he looked—fine.
(Better than, really, with the collar of his shirt unbuttoned, sleeves rolled halfway up his forearms, shoulders loose, lopsided smile—
Better than fine, as in—as in very relaxed. Comfortable. Yeah. Mom'll be happy to hear that.)
Tony Gallo's a little harder to find than Wayne, but not much. Clark doesn't bother pretending to trip, or maneuvering Gallo into spilling a drink on him, or whatever other tricks there are; he needs Gallo to underestimate him, and the "wide-eyed unremarkable farmboy" routine only works if Clark keeps it up start to finish. Otherwise Gallo won't buy it.
Not that it's an easy sell either way.
At least Gallo's polite: he listens to Clark's introduction, waits for Clark to finish, and then says, "And you just want to give me a public forum to discuss it out of the goodness of your heart, is that it? No major exposés on corporate misconduct planned, I'm sure."
"If rumors of corporate misconduct are dogging you, Mr. Gallo, then perhaps you'd like an opportunity to put them to rest," Clark says, as sincerely as he can when he has to raise his voice over the low throb of the music. "I'm a reporter because I want people to be informed. It's your company, your casino, coming to Metropolis—you're the man I want to talk to about it. That's all."
Gallo's thinking it over, which is about as much as Clark could've hoped for. After a moment he turns to the bar and picks up two glasses, even though as far as Clark can tell he's neither ordered nor paid for them. "I suppose it's worth discussing, Mr. Kent—over a drink, perhaps?"
He holds out one glass, and Clark smiles at him and reaches for it. But it doesn't get more than halfway to his mouth before someone collides with him and knocks it all over the bar. Clark just barely catches the glass before it can smash, and he has to use a half-second of superspeed to do it.
"Whoo, sorry about that," says none other than—of course—Bruce Wayne; and then he shoots Clark the most annoying smile in the world. "Kent! Daily Planet! I own you, right? Or—" Wayne sways a little, frowning. "No, wait, it's the other guy, isn't it? Is that what we decided last time?"
"Call me Bruce," Wayne says, leaning even closer, and then his gaze moves past Clark to Gallo. "And Tony! How about that? Good to see you, man, I haven't seen you since—wow, since you got indicted, right?"
Clark risks a glance at Gallo, and his heart sinks: Gallo's face might as well be an ice sculpture, it's so frozen, and the vague good humor he'd begun extending toward Clark is completely gone.
"The third time," Wayne adds blithely. "Bet that was rough, huh?"
After five minutes, it becomes clear that Clark won't be getting anything out of Tony Gallo. After ten, Clark finally manages to lose Wayne, and after fifteen, he's out on the sidewalk trying fruitlessly to hail a cab.
But—of course—after twenty, Wayne's found him again. And then—
"A ride?" Clark repeats.
The incredulous way he says it doesn't seem to register. "Nobody dislikes me enough that they'd rather walk in this," Wayne says amiably, motioning vaguely toward the rain. "And look, here's the car! Perfect timing."
"Mr. Wayne," Clark says, exasperated, but he doesn't get any further before the car pulls up.
He could get away; but Wayne is heavy, is listing into him and has one big hand wrapped around Clark's arm, and Clark tries not to use the strength on civilians unless he absolutely has to.
The car's beautiful, because of course it is—inside and out, the whole nine yards: black and sleek, tinted windows, leather seats. It doesn't do much to soothe Clark's irritation.
"There," Wayne says, once the car door's closed behind them. "Now we can talk properly." He sits back and opens his hands, inviting. "I have the impression there's something you'd like to say to me."
"I have a job, Mr. Wayne," Clark snaps, "and I was trying to do it. Tony Gallo is incredibly difficult to corner, and that might have been my only chance—"
"He put something in your drink," Wayne says.
Clark shuts his mouth.
Wayne doesn't repeat himself—why should he? He knows how well Clark can hear. He's not even looking at Clark anymore; he's gazing out the tinted window, the light from the street falling in a smooth succession of green and blue and silver on his face, and he looks tired, almost bitter—
And not especially drunk, Clark thinks slowly.
Wayne flicks a glance at Clark and then back to the window. "Which wouldn't have affected you at all, I realize—but he thought it would. And if you'd drunk it and nothing happened," Wayne adds, "that could even have been worse. Tony might have started trying to find out why." He pauses, and then looks at Clark again, and doesn't even pretend to smile. "Your editor should choose your interview subjects a little more carefully, Mr. Kent."
Clark is trying to decide how to answer, but Wayne's timed everything perfectly, which Clark suddenly doesn't think is an accident: the car begins to slow almost the moment he's done speaking, and he adjusts his cuffs, smooths down his lapel, and then shifts forward just as the car comes to a stop.
The door opens and Wayne starts to step out, pausing just long enough to say dismissively, "The driver will take you wherever you'd like to go, Mr. Kent—"
He's not expecting Clark to catch his wrist. Clark can tell that by the half-second his eyes go wide, before the expression disappears. And there's something about that, about the way Bruce Wayne controls his face, a half-thought Clark once had about masks that he keeps coming back to—
"I thought I asked you to call me Clark," Clark says, very low.
Because that's when he thought it: at the cemetery, half out of his head, covered in grave dirt.
That was the first time he'd failed to understand Bruce, and it seems he hasn't gotten any better at it since. Bruce Wayne is vapid, thoughtless, selfish—except when he brings handpicked wildflowers to the graves of men he's never met. Bruce Wayne is arrogant, a drunkard—except when he sees something drop into a glass from halfway across a dark room, and neatly disposes of it by making a spectacle of himself in front of a reporter who doesn't like him.
A reporter whose deepest secret he knows. And has known for months, without spilling a word of it as far as Clark can tell.
They stare at each other, and then it's like—it's like using the vision, except Clark doesn't see muscles or bones. Instead he sees, with sudden perfect clarity, what's coming: something about Bruce's face telegraphs it to him, the stillness around the eyes or the smile that fails to reach them.
So it doesn't surprise him when what comes out of Bruce's mouth is, "Yes. And I asked you to call me Bruce, Mr. Kent; but we don't always get what we ask for." The tone is soft, but not any less unkind for it. Deliberate, Clark thinks, and that's why it doesn't make him angry—this time he realizes Bruce wants it to.
Bruce pulls out of Clark's grip and steps out into the rain, closes the car door behind him; and the driver has to lower the barrier and ask twice before Clark gets a grip and tells him where to go.
Clark is the first one on the scene.
He's not the fastest hero in the League anymore, not since they recruited Barry, but Barry's still outside with Diana. The Scarecrow's locked up, they're certain of that, which means this is some kind of copycat group; and Barry and the lasso are a pretty good combination for crowd control, when people are scared out of their minds by things that aren't real. They'd all agreed that Clark should be the one to go in—that he could find Batman the fastest, that any leftover chemical compounds still contaminating the building were least likely to affect him.
It's just a warehouse up top, but a maze of basement levels have been built underneath—as if the place needed to be creepier, Clark thinks. A quick scan shows him stairs, pipes, railings, doorknobs; and then there, down there, skeletons in a room, four standing and one strapped to a table—except a restraint has given way, a fist is flying out—
Clark speeds his way down—and he does it carefully, sure, because who knows what else is stored down here? If he breaks down a wall with the wrong vat of chemicals on the other side, he could cause an even worse problem than the one they're solving. But he's still inhumanly fast.
In the end, it only takes him the span of five blows landing to reach the room: he knows that because he hears them fall. He also hears the thuds, a crack of bone, a bitten-off cry; and then he's there, he tears the door open—
There are four people on the ground.
Clark pauses to listen and they've all got heartbeats, a little fast but regular, so they should be all right for the moment. He swaps back to x-ray for a second, and yes, the fifth skeleton is still here—beyond an open door, at the other end of the room, and the head is blazing a familiar opaque white: the lead lining in Batman's cowl.
And Batman's heartbeat—Clark frowns. For a second he can't find it, even though it should be just as easy to hear as the others. And then he realizes it's because he's accidentally ignored it. He's discounted everything that's not the steady low pulse he's used to; but there's four heartbeats that belong to the unconscious people on the floor, and a fifth—
A fifth that's pounding out a hurried staccato, at least twice as fast as Clark was expecting. Clark glances at the metal table, the torn restraints, and then at the floor: there's one empty syringe still rotating slowly where it toppled, and another, half-full, cracked and leaking onto the cement.
They've already dosed him. Whatever's affecting the mob outside was aerosolized; either this is something else, probably worse, or it's the same thing but refined, concentrated by the injection.
Clark crosses the room, carefully stepping over the unconscious bodies on the floor, and the closer he gets the easier it is to tell how wrong everything is. Even setting the heartrate aside, Batman's breath is coming in ragged gasps; and the last thing Clark ever thought he'd hear in Batman's growling voice is this desperate wild muttering: "—can't breathe, I can't breathe—"
"Batman," Clark says cautiously, but Batman doesn't seem to hear him—he reaches the doorway and Batman's still facing half away from him, the line of his shoulders tight as wire and singing with tension.
"—God, I can't breathe—"
In the end Clark doesn't even have time to look away before the cowl comes off.
Well, he could've done it with the speed, but only if he'd known it was coming. Only if he'd expected it. And Batman is always so careful. It takes Clark a second to even figure out what Batman's doing—it's so uncharacteristic, the way his hand scrabbles for the back of his head, the way his arm is shaking.
And then Batman's fingers clench, and in one sharp tug the cowl's just gone; and even from the side, Clark knows that face.
"Bruce," Clark says blankly.
For a moment, it's like everything stands still—and maybe it does, maybe Clark's brain is just as capable of superspeed as the rest of him. He stares at Bruce Wayne's face over Batman's body armor and it's almost disorienting, double vision: Bruce Wayne leveling a kryptonite spear in Clark's face? Batman at Clark's grave with flowers? Wayne in some pinstriped suit with a flute of champagne, leaning over a bomb—Batman at a club in Metropolis, smiling and loose and knocking over Clark's drink—
Except Batman had been there, Clark thinks. Wayne had knocked the drink over—because Batman had seen Tony Gallo put something in it. And it hadn't quite been Wayne in the car afterward, Clark had noticed that even at the time; but it hadn't quite been Batman either.
So maybe—maybe that's not the right way to think about it. Maybe he's not looking at one or the other.
"Bruce," Clark says again, deliberate, and this time Bruce hears it.
He whirls around like Clark's surprised him, and now Clark can see why he took the cowl off one-handed—the other hand has a knife in it, something he must have taken off one of the people who was holding him. And he's pointing it at Clark.
That would be enough all by itself to tell Clark how bad it is: Batman would never try to hold off Superman with a knife. But he looks—Jesus, he looks terrible. He's pale, sweating, blinking too much; he keeps squeezing his eyes shut, shaking his head in tight sideways jerks, and the hand with the knife in it is trembling just as badly as his other arm was.
"Don't—don't," Bruce says sharply, and then shuts his eyes again and swallows. His voice sounds strange and ragged without Batman's modulated microphone—though the part where he's drugged out of his mind probably isn't helping him steady it. "Stay where you are—"
"It's just me, Bruce," Clark tries.
Bruce opens his eyes again and blinks once, twice, shakes his head in that odd sharp way. "Superman," he murmurs, and doesn't lower the knife.
Clark takes one step forward, and then another. There's no reason not to. That knife can't hurt him, and they really need to get out of here before anybody else sees Batman with his cowl off.
"Stop," Bruce says, loud again.
Another step. "Bruce—"
"Stop," Bruce says, and then for a moment it's like his mind clears: his gaze turns focused, almost normal for Batman, and flicks from Clark's face to the House of El insignia—
And then Bruce neatly flips the knife in his hand, and presses the edge against his own throat.
Clark freezes where he is.
Even superspeed won't help now—if he startles Bruce too badly, if he's not quite fast enough—
He can't take the chance. All he can do is stand there and watch Bruce, who's swallowing twice, quick; whose eyes have wandered off to one side of Clark to—to something that isn't there, Clark thinks, heart sinking, but Bruce is staring at that patch of nothing with a horrified kind of fascination.
And then Bruce screws his eyes shut again, weird and deliberate. Does he—does he know he's hallucinating? Does he think he's hallucinating Clark, too?
"Bruce, it's me," Clark says, which is stupid but he can't think of anything else. Is there anything that could be convincing? Anything Bruce's own mind couldn't be making up? Telling Bruce a secret he doesn't already know won't make a difference if Bruce can't confirm it independently. And telling Bruce anything he does already know is pointless.
But Bruce, of course, is ten steps ahead of him. "Hit me," Bruce says.
Clark blinks. "What?"
"Hit me," Bruce repeats. "If you're real, you can. Whatever they gave me is—" He breaks off, jerking his head again; he's still breathing in near-gasps, his heart is still hammering away in Clark's ears, but he keeps his eyes shut and Clark can see him setting it aside, forcing himself to concentrate. "You can knock me out, take me somewhere and restrain me properly until it wears off. But I can't—you have to—"
"You have to lower the knife," Clark says, as gently as he can.
That makes Bruce open his eyes; and he's still blinking furiously, but he looks at Clark's face this time, not off to either side. "What?"
Clark hesitates. Bruce is trying his hardest to be rational about this, but underneath that the drug is doing what it was designed for. He's terrified. And the knife is the only thing he has to help him control that, the only thing that's making him feel like he can defend himself from what he's seeing. Asking him to set it down is—well. Stupid, if Clark's talking to Batman; and almost cruel besides, if you add in Bruce. But if there's any way to just—to just get him to move it away from himself, just for an instant— "I'm not going to risk it, Bruce, I can't. You have to lower the knife."
Bruce stares at him silently. His jaw works, and for an instant he wavers the wrong way: a thin red line appears under the blade, one drop of blood sliding down the side of his throat.
And then he closes his eyes, bites his lip, and lets go of the knife; and before it can even hit the ground, Clark's got a thumb at Bruce's neck. A squeeze, and Bruce goes limp.
Clark carefully puts the cowl back on before he carries Bruce outside.
The League's patrol goes well—it goes great, to be honest. The heavy hitters they get now that they're organized, together, are worse than the middleweights who used to dog Bruce's heels, or Barry's. But they also pop up a lot less frequently.
Clark had told himself he should save asking for after patrol; and then it's so quiet he ends up chatting with Arthur and forgets about it completely. It's only afterward, halfway back to his apartment, that he remembers.
He stops partway through a crosswalk. Is it worth turning around? Bruce is probably already back in Gotham—
A loud honk makes the decision for him: without thinking, Clark raises an apologetic hand to the driver and backs out of the car's way, and when he gets back onto the curb, it's easy enough to keep going.
He takes off from Metropolis's waterfront, Gotham gleaming dimly in front of him through the dusk. He could be at the lake house within about ten seconds if he really pushed himself; but it's a nice day and he doesn't hear any aircraft closer than about fifteen minutes out. He can afford to take his time.
When he lands, he deliberately comes down close enough to trigger a proximity alert, but not close enough to set off the full-on alarms. (He learned his lesson about that last time around: no landing on Bruce's roof.) He walks the rest of the way, and Alfred's waiting at the door by the time Clark gets to it.
"Sir," Alfred says, and manages to make the single syllable sound wry and warm at the same time. (He's the only person who can call Clark that without it making Clark feel vaguely uncomfortable.)
"Hi, Alfred. Is—um—"
"Master Wayne is downstairs," Alfred says.
Clark hesitates. He hasn't actually been in the Batcave—he knows it's there, Bruce has been a little easier about dropping hints like that now that the whole League knows who he is. (He'd told Barry, Arthur, Victor, the next time the League had been together; Diana, of course, had already known. Clark's the only one Bruce didn't tell by choice—and Clark tries not to let that sting, but sometimes it doesn't work.)
And they—they haven't really talked. Clark brought Bruce here under Diana's direction, and she'd been the one to call ahead to Alfred; Clark had stuck around to help until the worse of it had passed, until Alfred had told him there was nothing left to do. And then the next time he'd seen Bruce, Bruce had been—what? Clark still can't quite put his finger on it: he hadn't ignored Clark, certainly hadn't been rude or cruel, nothing Clark could confront him over. Just—far away somehow. Remote. Like Clark learning his secret, being able to put the pieces of him together, had put more distance between them instead of less.
But now Alfred's looking at Clark sagely and extending a hand toward the stairs. And it's Alfred, who knows Bruce better than anyone—maybe even better than Bruce does.
"He won't mind, sir," Alfred says quietly.
Clark manages half a laugh. "Oh, he might."
Alfred pauses for a moment, considering, and concedes, "He might." But then he looks at Clark and smiles, just a little. "Go down anyway, sir."
"Cave" seems like the wrong word, at least for the part that's right under the lake house: the walls are concrete, sure, but that's just a backdrop for a whole lot of gleaming metal and glass, and there's light everywhere.
"Bruce?" Clark says, and gets no answer; but then there's a clang, and Clark's hearing zeroes in and finds Bruce's heartbeat.
Clark gets to the bottom of the stairs, catches sight of the display case—looks away as soon as he parses the first unevenly painted "HA", because he knows what that means and that's a line he shouldn't try to cross before Bruce lets him.
(If Bruce ever lets him.)
Another, quieter clang and two small thuds lead Clark further into the Cave and toward a side room. And then he rounds a corner and is met with—Bruce's back.
Bruce's bare back.
It's strange: he's seen Bruce Wayne shirtless a dozen times, a hundred, in hastily-taken photos outside clubs and shaky smartphone videos. But Bruce holds himself so differently when he's—when he's Wayneing, so to speak. When he does that, his every motion is a casual invitation to look, and they're all equally easy for Clark to ignore.
But Batman's body is a piece of machinery, a tool—always covered, because that's how it will function best, and not attended to beyond that except when it fails him. Or at least not when Clark's around, though he supposes Bruce must tend to it in their off-time—
Like he is now. The stance is all Batman, feet and shoulders squared, no effort wasted; nothing like the way Bruce Wayne leans and slouches, makes you want to slant into his space. And somehow that makes the bare shoulders seem barer, the long (long) line of the back more naked. Bruce Wayne is a performance, planned. The scars get concealed, the old wounds hidden away, everything carefully prepared to be seen. But this Bruce isn't like that at all—this Bruce is Bruce, uncovered; and Clark's raised a hand unthinkingly to touch even before he glances down Bruce's side—
"Jesus, Bruce, did that happen today?"
Bruce doesn't startle, exactly. He turns sharply, and the wrench in his far hand is half-raised—he's doing something to the body armor, Clark sees, pieces of it spread out across the table in front of him and one section still on, wrapped partway around the far side of his torso.
"Clark," he says, and the wrench is set down.
"Sorry, sorry," Clark says quickly, "I—Alfred told me you were down here."
"Ah," Bruce says, expressionless.
And there's the distance again. Not even anger, dismay, irritation. Just empty space. Clark hasn't had a good reason to cross it when Bruce so obviously doesn't want him to—not until today.
"Let me look at it."
Bruce frowns, just a brief furrow of the brow, and then glances down, as if he'd somehow forgotten about the massive purple-black bruise across his side. "Nothing's broken," he says.
"Let me look at it anyway," Clark says.
Bruce stares at him for a long moment, unmoving; and then all at once he gives in. Which sounds more dramatic than it is, when all he does is lower his eyes, lift his near arm out of the way—except that is dramatic, for Bruce.
It only takes a glance with the x-ray vision to see that Bruce is right: underneath the bruise his ribs are perfectly fine, not even cracked. Clark lets out a breath.
"As I said," Bruce murmurs.
"Nothing's broken," Clark admits, and then he flips back to normal vision and watches himself set a hand against Bruce's back, right along the near edge of the bruise.
Bruce tenses underneath it. Clark can feel him do it, can hear him inhale sharply. And Clark should pull his hand back and apologize, he knows he should. But—
But this is the closest he's been to Bruce in weeks, and he finds he doesn't want it to end.
"Does it hurt?"
"It's just a bruise—"
"Does it hurt?" Clark says again, more quietly.
Bruce is still for a moment; and then he sighs through his nose and meets Clark's eyes again. "Not much."
Which means yes, Clark thinks. "We haven't talked about it," he blurts, because that's definitely the best way to start this conversation. Good God.
Bruce is kind to him: he doesn't pretend not to know what Clark means by that. But he does look away. "What is there to—"
"I'm sorry," Clark interrupts, because he has to—he can't let Bruce shut this down or redirect, and if Bruce keeps talking that's exactly what will happen. "I'm sorry I found out that way, that wasn't—I didn't want it to happen like that. I'm sorry you didn't get to decide whether to tell me. But I'm—" He sucks in a breath and steels himself, because if this really makes Bruce angry, Clark won't have the first clue how to fix it. But he can't not say it; and he can't lie, not about this. "I'm not sorry I was there. I'm not sorry I could help you when you needed it. And I'm—I'm not sorry I know you better now, I'm not sorry I understand you better. I'm glad."
He loses the ability to look Bruce in the face partway through, and by the end he's talking to Bruce's elbow. But then he's done, and it's silent; Bruce doesn't reply, is perfectly still under Clark's hand—which, whoops, he definitely should've taken that off Bruce's back at least thirty seconds ago. He'll just do it now. Subtly.
He clears his throat and risks a glance up. Bruce is staring at him again, eyes narrowed, almost impassive—but only almost. One side of his mouth has softened into something that isn't quite a smile, but is even less anything else. "That won't last," he says; but it comes out sort of rueful, not exactly the dire warning Clark suspects Bruce intended it to be.
"Well, it's true right now," Clark says, and then clears his throat again and takes a small step back. Maybe that will make it feel less like Bruce's shoulders are taking up his entire field of vision. "I just can't believe my mother knew before I did."
He means that as a way to lighten things, to take the conversation somewhere a little easier to navigate; but it makes Bruce grimace instead, a quick unhappy flicker of expression. "I didn't think it would matter," Bruce admits, and then, so low Clark has to bring the hearing up to catch it, "We thought you were gone."
"And then I came busting up out of the ground," Clark finishes for him. "I get it." And speaking of Mom, before he can forget again— "By the way, she, uh. She's—I mean, if you aren't doing anything else, she—" Bruce's eyebrows have started to rise; Clark tells himself to get a grip and just spit it out. "She wants you over for Thanksgiving. And Alfred, of course. Both of you."
And maybe it's because Clark really does understand him better, or maybe it's because the conversation's softened Bruce up enough that Bruce is letting him; but either way, it's like Clark can almost see him thinking. That he should refuse—that it wouldn't be hard to come up with something polite—that he could send something instead, a centerpiece or wine, pie, bread, something appropriate—Alfred will know—
"You don't have to come," Clark says into the pause. "But if you want to, then I hope you will."
And Bruce looks at him and says—says right out loud, where Clark can hear him—"We'd be glad to."
(basically everything he does, despite his best efforts.)
They take Bruce Wayne because they can: because no matter how much he varies the times and the days of his visits, if you stake out the Wayne mausoleum carefully enough, you'll catch him eventually.
Bruce can't even bring himself to regret it. He'd rather be kidnapped now and then than stop visiting his parents. If that's the price, he can accept it.
The worst thing about it isn't that he feels stupid anyway. It isn't that they've clearly been planning this for months, and he somehow missed any chatter. It isn't that they hit him, that they ziptie him; it isn't even that they let him see their faces, which means they aren't planning to let him go after they get whatever they can squeeze out of Lucius Fox for him.
It's that there's nothing he can do about any of it, because he doesn't have his damn suit.
Batman's body armor just isn't the kind of thing Bruce can fit underneath his day-to-day business clothes, not even with extremely expensive custom tailoring. And he'd been thinking of that as a positive, mostly—that kind of thing leaves a paper trail, and if anyone had been looking, that would definitely qualify as a clue connecting him with Batman. Bruce Wayne is as unremarkable as it's possible for a billionaire to be all day long; and then he goes back to the Cave and suits up and becomes Batman. And most of the time, that distinct separation is for the best.
Just not today.
Even without any of his equipment, of course, he's good enough to handle three. Maybe four, if none of them manage to get a decent bead on him with their guns within the first three seconds. But there's nine of them at least, and without grappling lines, batarangs, the armor, it gets harder and harder to come up with a way to pull it off.
Not to mention he'd then be stuck explaining how exactly Bruce Wayne had taken out nine heavily-armed men without dying. Because—maybe for the pressure it'll put on Lucius—these geniuses have already contacted the press.
Which means that without even knowing it, they've trapped him as well as any supervillain could. He's going to have to keep being useless, harmless Bruce Wayne, unless something happens that changes the stakes.
"—and no ransom demand has yet been made," a pleasant newswoman is saying tinnily from the tall one's smartphone screen. "But three images confirmed to be of Bruce Wayne have been released—"
"All right, all right, that's enough," says the blond one, and the tall one obediently shuts off the sound. "We'll give Fox a half-hour to get back to us, like we said, and then—"
The end of the word gets lost in a low pounding sound; the blond one goes silent and glances out the front of the van, further toward the city.
Toward Gotham—toward the docks, toward Metropolis, and toward, Bruce thinks with sudden clarity, the echoes of a goddamn sonic boom.
For a split second, he's so angry he can barely see straight; but he takes a slow breath, lets it out, and then pastes on Bruce Wayne's smug smile. Better start laying the groundwork.
"As much as I'll hate for this little adventure of ours to get cut short, I think that might be my ride."
Superman doesn't waste time: it only takes about thirty more seconds before the sides of the van's roof suddenly dimple inward with a crunch. Blond Guy hits the gas, but it doesn't do any good once the van's wheels lift off the ground. Superman flies them up to a rooftop, balancing the van carefully off one corner of the building, and tells the kidnappers to let Bruce get out or he'll let go. Which is a blatantly empty threat, coming from Superman, but then again they're pretty high up. The kidnappers turn out not to be gambling men.
Bruce grins at Superman sunnily, throws a wink sideways at Blond Guy, and then knee-walks up the slight angle of the van's floor until he can climb out the back. The kidnappers can't see his face anymore, which means it's safe to let it fall into the grim lines Bruce wants to direct at Clark; and the wind up here will snatch the words away before they can hear him say, "You really shouldn't have done this."
"You know, most people are happier to see me," Clark tells him, unfazed. And then he hauls the van safely onto the roof with one hand and reaches around to snap the ziptie around Bruce's wrists with the other.
Naturally, a news helicopter catches the whole thing.
They might still have gotten through it without actually having to talk to the press, except that Clark has to deliver the van to Gordon—and also carefully unscrunch the metal around the doors so they can be opened again. It only makes sense for him to take Bruce with him, so Bruce can provide the police with a statement and agree to file charges; and by the time they get out of the station, there's a crowd of reporters waiting for them.
The photos are going to be a problem all by themselves. And for all that he's one of them, Clark's never understood how to talk to reporters—and Superman's image won't let him brush them off the way Bruce Wayne can, anyway.
Maybe if Bruce just goes. "Thanks for the lift," he tries, and starts pushing away down the station steps; but of course Clark catches his arm, because Clark has never known when to quit.
"Let me take you back to your building," Clark says, earnest.
"That's really not necessary—"
"—you say you're friends with Bruce Wayne, Superman?" rises clear of the hum of questions being thrown at them, and of course that's the one that manages to catch Clark's attention.
"We weren't personally acquainted before today, ma'am," Clark says, which is technically true, and would have been fine if he'd been able to resist adding, "Which is a shame, considering all Mr. Wayne has done for this fine city."
Christ. "You're going to make me blush," Bruce says, in as smarmily dickish a Bruce Wayne tone as he can manage.
But of course the reporter doesn't let it go. "No doubt you're aware of Mr. Wayne's unsavory history with—"
She stops when Clark frowns—and who could blame her? With the suit and the perfect Superman face, it's as sudden and thunderous as the wrath of God; except it's Clark, which makes it more like the gentle, chiding disappointment of God, because He knows you're better than that. "I'm sure you're not suggesting Mr. Wayne should be weighed and measured, ma'am, or that you expect me to find him wanting. Everyone deserves to be saved."
It should be laugh-out-loud trite; but coming from Clark, somehow all it does is silence the questions, the clicking shutters. Only for a second, but that's long enough for Bruce to mutter, "Just get us out of here."
And of course Clark hears it, even if no one else does. "Excuse me, ma'am, but Mr. Wayne has a lot of work to do," and with one more polite smile, Clark catches Bruce around the waist and lifts off.
That's also technically true, but Clark doesn't take him to a Wayne Enterprises office building—he takes Bruce back to the manor grounds instead, though thankfully not to the mausoleum. That wouldn't have helped Bruce keep a level head.
Bruce bears the flight, the close pressure of Clark's arm, with grim resignation, and the second Clark sets him down, he moves away. "You really shouldn't have done that," he says, because apparently Clark didn't hear him the first time.
And it doesn't seem to get through this time, either. Clark just looks at him and says, "Why not?"
"Any association between Bruce Wayne and Superman is dangerous for both of us," Bruce says, and allows himself the over-precise enunciation of an irritated man, because he shouldn't have to spell this out. "Superman and Batman are both part of the League. If you start spending too much time around my civilian identity—"
"I save a lot of people, Bruce," Clark says. "Nobody's used it as a reason to accuse any of them of being Batman so far."
Another technically true thing. "You need to be more careful," Bruce says anyway, because that's also true.
It should make Clark angry, being scolded like that. But it doesn't. Instead he frowns again, crossing his arms, and looks at Bruce; and then he says slowly, "If you don't want to come to Thanksgiving, you don't have to."
It's such a ridiculous thing to say that Bruce almost laughs. Thanksgiving's going to be a mistake, Bruce is well aware of that, but on a solely personal scale. Bruce consciously considered what going into a family home, sitting at a table with Clark and Martha Kent, and eating a holiday dinner would cost him, and decided to agree anyway.
Today's been a mistake on a completely different level.
He shakes his head and then glances up—Clark is still watching him, eyes narrowed, and after a long quiet moment says, "No—no, that's the wrong thing, isn't it?"
"Is it about the reporter?" Clark barrels on. "I'm sorry I had to—I mean, it was the truth, in a way, at least about Superman and Bruce Wayne. If she'd known what she was actually asking, you know I would have said yes."
He says it like that helps, like he thinks that fixes the problem. Bruce can't stop himself from grimacing. "That's the last thing you should be saying in public, Clark."
And Clark looks—Clark looks utterly confused. "What? Why?"
"Why?" Bruce repeats. "Because people respect Superman—"
"Half the press still hates me—"
"—they admire Superman—"
"—and the other half just wants a picture—"
"—and they should," Bruce snaps. "They should. But they can't if he starts spending time around—"
"Around what?" Clark says, when Bruce breaks off. His tone is soft; but his gaze is sharp, inescapable. "Around you?"
Bruce looks away. Clark's talking like that isn't the point of Bruce Wayne—as if he isn't constructed entirely out of unadmirable things, as if he isn't specifically designed to prevent anyone worth respect from respecting him.
"But Batman is all right—"
"That isn't the same," Bruce says, because it isn't. He'd never have formed any kind of partnership that was just between Batman and Superman—nothing would have kept Superman's motives more firmly in question than that. The League works because it's not Batman's, because it becomes less about Batman with each new hero they find. That's what makes it viable.
"No," Clark murmurs, "I guess it isn't. He and Superman are both just part of the League. That doesn't make Superman look worse, it makes Superman look better: he's just trying to find a way to work with someone like Batman. But getting too close to Bruce Wayne—that could drag me down. Is that it?"
It's logic. He doesn't need Bruce to tell him he's right. Bruce keeps looking away and doesn't say anything.
"Bruce," Clark says, and then there's a swish of air, of motion—the superspeed, Bruce thinks, and by the time he thinks it Clark already has a hand on his face, fingertips light against his jaw, turning his head.
He's not using the strength at all. Bruce gives in anyway.
"Bruce," Clark repeats, more quietly. "I'm not worried about being dragged down," and his gaze, his tone, are nothing but sober when he adds, very seriously, "I can fly."
For a half-second, Bruce is bewildered; and then all he wants to do is roll his eyes. "For Christ's sake, Clark," he tries to snap, but Clark has already started to laugh, is smiling at him like the sun coming out. Clark isn't listening anymore—if he ever was listening at all.
"I don't care about that," Clark is saying. "I want to be your friend, and I want people to see me doing it." He shakes his head, still halfway to grinning. "I want you to let them understand why I would. I—I want—" and then he cuts himself off, swallowing, and his eyes go wide. The sharp breath he draws says he's just realized how close to Bruce he's standing; his gaze jumps back and forth across Bruce's face once, twice, and then briefly down to Bruce's mouth before leaping hurriedly back up.
It's obviously the first time he's thought about it, or at least the first time it's really come together for him. It should scare him—it still scares Bruce sometimes, when he lets it. But Clark's not Bruce. Clark's Superman, Bruce thinks distantly; he doesn't back down. Not even from things that could destroy him.
"I—I, um," he says instead, uncertain, and then he stops himself again and settles for moving his hand: not just brushing Bruce's jaw anymore, but his fingers sliding into Bruce's hair, his palm warm against Bruce's throat, his thumb just barely touching the corner of Bruce's mouth.
Bruce should step away. If he did, Clark wouldn't stop him—wouldn't dream of it. (He could. Of course he could. He could break Bruce's neck before Bruce even knew what was happening. The only thing that's stopping him—and stopping him where armies, tanks, even nuclear bombs wouldn't be able to—is that it will never occur to him. That even if it did, he'd never do it.)
But Clark's started smiling at him again, slow and warm, almost more than Bruce can stand to look at; and Clark's right there, touching his face, so close and so bright and so unhesitatingly glad. Bruce should stop him, and could—just needs to say any one of a dozen things, casually unleash one of a hundred petty cruelties. Superman's invulnerable, but Clark really, really isn't. It would take a little time to make Clark genuinely hate him again, but it could be done. At the very least, he could get Clark to let go of him, to move away. He could get Clark to stop looking at him like that. (He could make it so Clark never looked at him like that again.) And yet—
And yet Clark—Clark wants Bruce. He as good as said so. And Bruce, God help him, wants to let him.
It's as if Clark can hear him, even though telepathy is maybe the one superpower in the world he doesn't have; Bruce realizes with a jolt that he's murmuring, "Let me—let me," as he moves nearer, as if he can somehow tell what Bruce is fighting with. As if he really does know Bruce that well.
And that thought is terrifying; but not terrifying enough to keep Bruce's hands where they are instead of rising helplessly to Clark's shoulders. Not terrifying enough to keep Bruce from kissing him back.