Bruce Wayne knew a handful of phrases in about half a dozen foreign languages, but he didn't really speak any of them. That much was public knowledge. He'd joke about how exasperated teachers at his fancy private school had done their very best to teach young Bruce French and German, but the only things he managed in French were to order food and compliment beautiful women, and in German he couldn't even do that. Good thing I've always preferred to do it the French way, right?
He'd quote some clichéd Russian saying at a business partner at yet another high society party, his pronunciation so atrocious that even Clark, who had only picked up a few words of Russian on his travels, winced in sympathy. And then he'd wink, apologise, and explain that he once spent an entire weekend with a ballerina from the Bolshoi, but that sentence was the only thing she'd taught him. At least in the linguistic department, she did show me a few other things I'd never seen before …
He knew a little Italian, with an equally thick American accent, just a few words I picked up from my tailor, delightful little man, his family has been in the business for generations – I've probably been to Italy more often than he has, but then I don't have an Italian wife to cook for me, I actually have to fly over there to get proper Italian food. He could say “welcome” and “so delighted to meet you” in a few more languages, always with such a charming smile on his lips that all those businessmen and celebrities and politicians he met somehow managed not to roll their eyes at him.
Like most things about Bruce Wayne's public persona, Clark found it utterly obnoxious. He didn't bother to think much about it, though. Most people weren't good with languages, and it was hardly as if Clark was a linguistic genius. Most people just didn't rub their lack of knowledge into everyone else's face the way Bruce Wayne did.
It took a few months of working together for Clark to realise that, as with so many things, Batman was an entirely different matter. He got his first glimpse at that when he asked Bruce to assist him with a case he was pursuing: a mob boss was smuggling something of great value into Metropolis and Clark had reasons to suspect it was kryptonite. Remembering the effects kryptonite had on him all too well, he didn't want to be caught red-handed. That was how he found himself at the Metropolis docks one cold April night with the Bat by his side, realising very quickly that while there didn't seem to be any kryptonite nearby, they were facing an entirely different problem. The crew hired for the smuggling was Chinese, and super-hearing or not Clark didn't understand a single word they were saying.
Batman remained unfazed and shot a tiny bug down onto the ship. He had to have an earpiece under the cowl and at first Clark suspected that it was equipped with some kind of translating device, but the only sounds that reached Bruce's ear were the same ones Clark could hear down on the boat.
“You speak Mandarin?” Clark wasn't able to keep the disbelief out of his voice. He knew just enough about the language to know how difficult it was to learn, but the Bat merely scoffed at him from underneath his cowl as if Clark had asked him if he could tie his shoes.
“We need to wait,” he just said after listening to the jumbled chatter for another minute. “Their buyer won't be here until midnight.”
The second time, Bruce actually needed Superman's help. Of course he hadn't admitted that, in fact it had been Alfred who had called Clark. Bruce had gone undercover as a Russian arms dealer, meeting up with his cover's counterparts in Gotham. His cover story was airtight, he insisted, they were just making him wait out of principle before he got to meet their suppliers. But while it made sense for an arms dealer to know how to defend himself within reason, he still couldn't be quite as competent as the Bat, so having Superman on standby should things go south seemed prudent. At least Alfred thought so, even if Bruce clearly regarded Superman's presence as entirely unnecessary.
That was how Clark found himself hovering above the rooftops of Gotham's underbelly, trying not to get too distracted by all the grime and crime around him while he listened to Bruce drink and gamble and chat with a group of Russian lowlifes. He'd known better than to voice his doubts about the seemingly idiotic plan of having someone whose Russian seemed limited to a commonplace saying or two pass himself off as a native speaker, assuming that Bruce had some ace up his sleeve, and yet he still found himself surprised when he had to listen very closely to pick Bruce's voice out from the group. To Clark's untrained ear, Bruce's Russian sounded flawless. Much more importantly, it seemed to sound just as convincing to the half dozen Russians he shared a gambling table with for several nights before he finally got the information he needed, without any need for an intervention by Superman.
Clark most definitely wasn't surprised that Bruce sent him back to Metropolis with a curt growl and barely concealed annoyance – and of course without a word of thanks – as soon as he had his intel. Of course the Bat didn't need or want any help taking down an entire arms dealing operation, and Clark was still too taken aback to insist.
After that, once he knew to look for it, the examples kept piling up. He saw Bruce Wayne at a charity gala, chatting to a stunning redhead who seemed mostly interested in telling him about that time she'd modelled for Valentino, and while Clark once would have dismissed that as Bruce cultivating his image, he noticed now that he was standing quite close to a group of Japanese businessmen. Not remarkable by itself, except that Bruce somehow managed to stay in their general vicinity for the entire evening – flirting with a different model a bit later, laughing with the mayor, then complimenting the rich widow who'd organised the event. A week later Clark read about a stack of incriminating files the Bat had left on Commissioner Gordon's desk, tying the local branch of a Japanese business tycoon to a recently indicted Gotham politician.
Not much later he was allowed down into the Cave to find Bruce listening to Ukrainian surveillance tapes while he changed out of the Batsuit. On another night he saw him watching the news in German while he worked on a fake passport for yet another cover identity, and one time he wasn't even entirely sure what language the documents lying on Bruce's desk were in. He wondered briefly if Bruce might be messing with him, but Bruce would probably consider it an unnecessary risk to make an ally believe he spoke a language he didn't actually understand. And Bruce, that much Clark was starting to realise, was all about efficiency.
He still refrained from commenting on the whole thing, knowing how attached Bruce was to his secrets. Clark's access to the Cave was tenuous enough as it was and he didn't want to have it revoked by prying – tenuous meaning that he was only ever allowed in while Bruce could keep an eye on him, not that he seemed to need more than a fraction of his concentration to know where exactly Clark was at any given time and what he was looking at.
So of course Bruce also noticed the time Clark glanced down at a stack of Spanish transcripts on one of the desks, his curiosity fuelled by the fact that for once he might actually understand what these particular files were about, even if he had to rely mostly on his high school Spanish.
“Something on your mind?” Bruce's voice was sharp and Clark winced, feeling irrationally guilty even though he knew that Bruce, in his endless paranoia, would have no doubt locked those documents away if he hadn't wanted Clark to see them.
“Nothing,” he answered too quickly. Bruce turned around on that monstrosity of a chair to face him. He was wearing a smartly tailored suit – Clark wondered if it was from his “delightful little Italian tailor” – but the look on his face was all Bat. That piercing, unrelenting stare that had nothing in common with Bruce Wayne's vapid, absent look. Like he already knew more about you than you did yourself and planned to find out everything else there was. Clark swallowed. “It's just … How many languages do you speak?”
Bruce smirked, knowingly, and Clark realised he'd been waiting for that question for some time.
“Speak or understand?” he asked as if that was a distinction normal people had to make. He turned back to the computer screens, eyes once more scanning the feeds from several surveillance cameras.
“Either. Both?” Clark counted the ones he knew of in his head and already wondered how any man could keep those straight without ever mixing them up, and that was without taking into account the time it would have taken to learn the grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation of each one. It would have been an impressive feat for someone who had dedicated their life to nothing but studying languages – for someone who had to have spent years of his life training to fight, it seemed downright impossible.
Bruce seemed to think about it for a few moments, but then Clark realised that he'd merely disovered a suspect on one of his feeds and was now switching around between the cameras to see where he'd come from. Only then did he apparently remember that he hadn't answered Clark's question yet.
“As many as I need to.”
It was no answer at all, obfuscating and infuriating like everything about Bruce once you scratched away the veneer of Bruce Wayne, and Clark had to fight the urge to roll his eyes. But even in his annoyance he realised that he would have believed any answer, no matter how ridiculous or unlikely, Bruce could have given him.
By the time the news reported on the Bat's most recent nightly excursions, they were already over. Clark had been working late on an article when his eyes caught the word “Batman” on his news feed; it was 3 am and there wasn't much of a story yet, just a few pictures. Bruce was incredibly good at avoiding security cameras – or more likely, Clark suspected, making sure the security cameras just happened not to work when he was there – but even he couldn't avoid all of them, especially when he got into what seemed to have been a larger altercation that night.
Most of the time Clark did his best to ignore what was going on in Gotham – the Bat had made it very clear that he didn't want Superman snooping around in his city, so unless there was a large fire or anything of the sort, Clark stayed away. So he wasn't sure what exactly Bruce had been up to over the past few weeks during which they hadn't seen each other, but the few seconds of footage he found of the Batmobile racing through a narrow street were – worrying. The armoured car looked decidedly battered, the vague news coverage mentioned something about a drug and weapons smuggling ring, and Clark couldn't help but wonder if Bruce had come out of this as battered as his car.
He still hesitated for a small while. Bruce didn't take kindly to any suggestion that he was less than invulnerable, that he was weaker than Clark or Diana, that he might ever need help. Still, Clark decided that it couldn't hurt to fly over to Gotham, check in on him from afar and just disappear again if Bruce didn't need any assistance. Bruce would never have to know.
It was always easy to find Bruce's heartbeat – so distinctively slow, steady, powerful – and to his relief Bruce already seemed to be back at the lake house, or rather in the caves underneath, by the time Clark got there. He seemed to be fine, his heartbeat strong, and any minor injuries he might have would be tended to by Alfred. He clearly didn't need any further help.
Clark found that he didn't want to leave.
He spent another five minutes just listening to Bruce's heartbeat, to his steps down in the Cave, the clatter of metal, wondering what he was doing, but refraining from looking through the walls. It wasn't as if Bruce would know, but Clark still would have felt guilty about invading his privacy without a good reason.
He really should have just left, he thought as he touched down and knocked on the door. Clark could hear voices inside, and then Alfred opened the door, the look on his face as unsurprised as ever.
“Ah, Mister Kent, please come in.”
Alfred moved to take his coat, which made Clark feel about as weird as Alfred bringing him drinks as if Clark wasn't perfectly capable of going to the kitchen himself. He shrugged out of it awkwardly and remembered why he usually preferred to come here as Superman – Alfred never tried to take his cape – but as odd as flying in his normal clothes felt, he would have felt even stranger about changing into his suit just to check in on Bruce. It would have felt too much like suiting up for a fight, and he much preferred reminding Bruce every now and then that he was human.
The lake house was as impersonally neat as ever. Clark suspected that was what having a butler did to a place. He moved to adjust his glasses, a nervous habit at this point, before he remembered that he'd left them at home.
“Is, er, is Bruce in? I mean, I know he's in, but can I see him?”
“Certainly. Though I can't vouch for how welcoming he will be, he already complained about you coming here to 'snoop around', but, well, he didn't tell me to send you away.”
Clark bit back a smile at Alfred's dry tone – he didn't think anyone else talked to, or about, Bruce the way Alfred did, as if Bruce being the most frustratingly extraordinary man in the world was just another annoying eccentricity Alfred put up with. He'd long given up on being surprised that, before opening the door, Alfred had already checked the front door cameras and asked Bruce whether or not he should let Superman in.
“Thanks, Alfred.” He followed Alfred to the secret door that led down to the cave, and looked away while he typed in the pass code, even though he knew that Alfred's fingerprints were also needed to open the door. Of course Clark could have simply punched through the wall, but that was besides the point. Clark's smile didn't last past the stairs, wilting as always when he passed the glass case. He knew better than to mention it to Bruce, or to Alfred, and yet he hoped against hope every time to find it covered. He didn't understand why Bruce tortured himself with that sight every day, but then he didn't understand a lot of things Bruce did.
Bruce wasn't on the mezzanine of the Cave, so Clark went further down, following the clattering of metal and the steady heartbeat. The air was thick with the smell of motor oil and sweat, with just a hint of blood and disinfectant mixed in. He found Bruce stretched out underneath the jacked up Batmobile, only his legs visible in black sweatpants and work boots. Somehow Clark had expected him to be still in the Suit.
“What do you want, Kent?” Bruce snapped before Clark had time to take a closer look.
Someone is in a good mood. Clark felt weird talking to Bruce's feet so he bent over and peered underneath the car. He caught a glimpse at bare arms and a wrench; Bruce hadn't even stopped working.
“Saw you on the news,” he said casually, doing his best not to sound concerned. It was easy enough, seeing that Bruce was apparently no more than a bit bruised up, even if his car looked like like someone had taken a flame thrower to it.
“If you're here to lecture me, I'm not in the mood.”
“Okay.” Clark paused before he added, “If I don't lecture you, can I stay?” A non-committal grunt from underneath the car, and Clark was glad Bruce couldn't see his smile. He watched Bruce work for another minute, his hands moving quickly.
“I thought Alfred did most of the engineering and tinkering around here,” Clark said eventually. He was still not entirely over the time he'd seen Alfred in an overall, which he'd been wearing over a three-piece suit. He wasn't sure if that was an English thing or a butler thing, or just Alfred being secretly every bit as eccentric as “Master Bruce” was.
“We both do.” There was a fresh bandage on Bruce's left arm, slightly bloodied, and Bruce grunted when he tried to … Clark couldn't quite see from this angle what exactly Bruce was doing, but it seemed to take considerable force.
“I could give you a hand, you know? I know how to fix a car.”
Bruce actually laughed at him, but then he said, “Fine”, and moved a little to the side.
Clark wasn't exactly wearing the kinds of clothes he wanted covered in grease, but he didn't know how to ask Bruce if he had any spare work clothes lying around. Bruce probably would have laughed at him again, so Clark simply joined him underneath the car, and realised two things.
One, that he hadn't been this close to Bruce since they had fought each other. And two, that he'd never seen Bruce so … undressed. Most of the time he saw him in the Batsuit, and if not that then in a three-piece suit that still covered most of his body. Seeing his hands and his face already felt oddly intimate at times. He'd never seen Bruce's bare arms – thick muscle under pale, heavily scarred skin, covered in ugly bruises just where the sleeve of his t-shirt ended. He'd never seen Bruce's collarbones, the small dip between them where a few drops of sweat had gathered. He'd seen Bruce's face shining with sweat, yes, but not with a black smear of grease over his cheekbone, and not so – up close. He only realised he was staring when Bruce cleared his throat and raised an eyebrow.
“Right,” Clark said and looked up – and realised why Bruce had laughed. Clark knew how to fix a car, true, but the Batmobile didn't really look like any car he'd ever seen. For one it seemed a whole lot more … complicated.
“Did you build this thing yourself?” He didn't quite manage to keep the awe out of his voice.
“You didn't think I bought it on ebay, did you?” Bruce snorted. “I combined various bits and pieces, mostly from military vehicles, and upgraded them in many cases. If you want to make yourself useful, you can unbend this part here.”
Clark narrowed his eyes, found the large metal band that, even without knowing what things should look like, certainly looked out of place. He wondered what Bruce had driven over to get the underside of his car so bent out of shape, but asking about that would probably have counted as “lecturing”. Instead he just followed Bruce's instructions to bend it back the way it used to be.
Bruce was curt, efficient, but also unfailingly clear in his instructions. He had Clark bend things so spare his injured arm, made Clark lift the odd bit here or there while he worked on the more intricate pieces of machinery. After they were done with the car's underside, they moved to the bent and dented hood. Bruce never spared a glance at any blueprints or manuals, he seemed to know every wire, every cable, every tiny part by heart. Clark followed as best he could, but for obvious reasons some parts of the car didn't seem to serve any purpose a normal car needed, and Clark wasn't exactly up to date on military-grade technology.
Watching Bruce work was almost hypnotising, the quick, sure movements of his hands, the concentrated frown on his face, the way his lips twitched in disapproval every now and then. He didn't mumble to himself, only spoke when telling Clark what to do, but sometimes he scoffed in frustration, grunted once or twice in pain when he put too much pressure on his injured arm.
A few times his slick fingers brushed over Clark's hands to push them to where he needed them, adjusted Clark's grip, shoved his fingers slightly to the side when they were in his way. Every touch was as firm and precise on Clark's skin as it was on the machinery he worked on, and his skin was so warm. Clark only realised then that Bruce had never actually touched him before without gloves on. It shouldn't made him flush as much as it did. It shouldn't have made him flush at all.
He didn't know how long they kept working, but by the time Bruce stepped back from the hood and Clark finally focused on something other than his hands, he could hear birds singing outside. At least two hours then, if not three. The car still looked rather scratched and worse for wear on the outside, but the actual damage seemed fixed.
“That was fast,” Bruce said. He sounded surprised and … pleased? His hair was plastered to his head, and it only occurred to Clark now that Bruce had to be exhausted – he'd spent half the night fighting before Clark had even arrived – but he was almost smiling. He picked up a towel from the floor to clean his face and hands, but he only ended up smearing the oil from his cheekbone down to his chin. Clark had to catch himself before touching him and trying to rub it off.
“You're filthy,” he said instead, smiled a little at him. For once things felt so easy between them, maybe because they'd actually managed to work together without arguing even once. Somehow teasing Bruce seemed appropriate. Bruce's lips twitched and he threw the towel at Clark.
“You're one to talk. You need a shower before you can show up at your day job, Mr Kent.” Friendly teasing, a world away from how he'd snapped Clark's name when he had arrived.
Clark looked down at himself. His hands were as filthy as Bruce's and his clothes were very definitely ruined. He shrugged.
“I have to go home and change anyway.” His smile faded when his gaze fell on Bruce's arm: the bandage was soaked through with blood. Without thinking about it Clark reached out, put his hand gently on Bruce's elbow. “You're bleeding again.”
Within the blink of an eye Bruce seemed to shut down completely, the friendly look in his eyes replaced by his usual glare, the smile turned into a sneer. Clark could have slapped himself for saying anything when he knew how prickly Bruce was, how much he hated showing any vulnerability, but how was Clark supposed to just ignore something like this? He held on when Bruce tried to shrug off his hand.
“I can change the dressing, Bruce, there's really no need to wake Alfred for this.” He was almost pleading, but Bruce still yanked his arm free, and Clark let him go before he hurt himself more.
“I think I'll manage that on my own.” Bruce sneered as if Clark had somehow insulted him. Clark wanted to shake him, ask him what he thought he had to prove to anyone when he was so brilliant, so skilled, so good at so many things Clark barely even dabbled in. As if the fact that he could bleed somehow invalidated all that. But Clark was starting to learn that there was only so far one should push Bruce in one day, so he backed off.
“Okay. I … I can show myself out.”
Bruce had turned aside, he was rubbing rather ineffectively at the grease on his hands, clearly just waiting for Clark to leave him alone.
“You know, if you ever need me to do some heavy lifting again, I'd be happy to help,” Clark said and gave him a last tentative smile. He didn't expect much in return, but to his surprise Bruce actually met his eyes for a moment and nodded.
“That did go faster than usual,” he admitted again. Clark figured it was about as close as Bruce got to saying “thank you”. Infuriating, as always, but then he'd let Clark in to begin with, had let Clark help him, hadn't even snapped at him when Clark hadn't known immediately what Bruce wanted.
No matter how much Bruce was still frowning by the time Clark left, he decided to count tonight as a victory.
Most of the time Bruce Wayne and Batman were two entirely separate entities, antithetical in every possible way. Bruce Wayne smiled a lot and talked even more, the Bat scowled and was frustratingly taciturn. Bruce Wayne was a charming fop with no useful skills to speak of, the Bat was devastatingly competent in more areas than Clark could count. Bruce Wayne was easily excitable, the Bat was a stoic. Bruce Wayne was a people's person, the Bat was an abrasive loner and, most of the time, not particularly pleasant to be around.
There was only one area, and a very unlikely one at that, in which they resembled each other – when it came to children. Even if Clark didn't know it for the longest time.
Maybe it was that even Bruce didn't have it in him to be Bruce Wayne at wide-eyed, lonely children when he visited an orphanage he'd funded. Maybe it was that nobody would have trouble believing that even a vapid, arrogant billionaire had a soft spot for children who shared the same fate he had suffered as a little boy. After all it was public record that Bruce had even adopted two orphans when he'd been younger. Clark didn't believe that even Bruce was cynical enough to use those unfortunate children for nothing but good PR and conversation pieces, and in this one instance Bruce's interest seemed actually genuine.
And for a long time Clark thought that Bruce Wayne's uncharacteristic gentleness with children in no way compromised his secret identity. Everyone knew that Batman was curt, gruff, brutal. The least gentle person one could imagine.
That's what Clark had thought.
Most times when he saw Bruce suited up, they were battling some kind of extraterrestrial or metahuman threat, or fighting perfectly common but still powerful criminals. Clark didn't even see the Bat interact with a child until – until that night when they finally found a black market lab Clark had been investigating for weeks. They didn't know who was behind the whole operation yet, only that whoever ran the place been producing – and testing – some kinds of drugs and chemicals in an abandoned factory on the outskirts of Metropolis.
Children had been disappearing for weeks, which was how Clark had first got wind of the operation, and their main priority while taking down the lab had been to get those kids to safety. Things being what they were, between Clark and Diana and whatever the hell those security robots they were facing had been, the factory had still ended up pretty much in shambles.
Afterwards both Clark and Bruce were combing through the half-ruined building, to see if they'd missed anyone. Clark picked up a fluttering, too fast heartbeat – a child, and a scared one at that. And right beside it the steady thump of Bruce's heart. Clark sped up, figuring that no frightened, traumatised child should have to deal with a man who put fear into the hearts of Gotham's most hardened criminals. He turned a corner to find a little boy cowering behind a fallen arch. No more than six years old, curly black hair, dark eyes. He was crying and his face looked more hollowed out than on the picture Clark remembered, but this had to be Terry Young, one of the most recent disappearances. The Bat was sitting on the floor next to him and shot Clark an venomous glare.
“Stay back,” he growled quietly. “You're scaring him.”
Clark only noticed then that the little boy was looking up at him with wide, terrified eyes. Part of him wanted to protest – Superman wasn't scary, Superman helped people – but then he realised that the last time that boy had probably seen him, lasers had been shooting out of Clark's eyes. Judging by the look of the room, Clark's heat vision might well have been what had destroyed this part of the building. So Clark fell back to the unhinged door of the room to give the boy space, but he didn't leave. He was curious, and the rest of the factory was quiet – they'd got everyone out in time and Clark wasn't needed elsewhere for now.
“He's not going to hurt you,” Bruce said to the boy. His voice modulator was still on, that same guttural growl Clark was used to, but even so his tone sounded much softer than usual. And then Bruce added, “He's a friend. You're safe now.”
Clark didn't think – no, Clark was absolutely sure that Bruce had never, ever referred to them as friends. He barely even allowed himself to think of Bruce that way, since he could just about imagine how much Bruce would bristle at the suggestion.
“He looks scary,” the boy said, his voice small and hoarse from crying.
“Someone needs to scare off the bad guys,” Bruce said with the smallest quirk of his lips, as if that wasn't his job. “That looks like it hurts.”
He'd raised his gloved hand to point at the cut over the boy's eyebrow. As far as Clark could tell, it wasn't serious, but like most head injuries it was bleeding profusely. Bruce's movement was deliberately slow, carefully designed, Clark realised belatedly, not to startle or threaten the boy.
“Is it okay if I have a look?”
The boy hesitated, but then he nodded, sat still while Bruce produced a cotton pad and disinfectant from one of the countless pockets on his belt so he could carefully dab the blood away. The same precision in his movements Clark had grown used to from him, but so much slower, gentler. Reassuring. A stark contrast with that frowning black cowl, and yet the boy seemed not one bit intimidated by him. Clark could hear his frightened heartbeat slow down a bit.
“You'll be all right,” Bruce commented after a moment. “But you're going to need stitches.”
“I hate stitches,” the boy replied, his tone already closer to that of a regular unwilling child than of someone who'd just been held captive in a drug lab for two weeks. Clark half expected Bruce to make some callous remark about how the boy should stop whining and man up, but instead he shrugged briefly.
“Everyone does.” Bruce turned himself to the side so the boy could glance at his arm, the tear through the black body armour, crusted with blood. “I'm going to need stitches, too.”
The boy looked a little sceptical about that, but he seemed solely focused on Batman now rather than on the destruction around them, or on whatever memories he'd accumulated in the two weeks he'd spent in this place.
“We're going to get you down to a doctor in a moment, but do you think you can answer a few questions for me first?”
For a moment Clark wanted to get annoyed that Bruce prioritised their investigation over getting this child out of here, but then Bruce could probably see as well as he did that the boy didn't need immediate medical attention. And Clark could hear the brouhaha down by the street, the sirens, the emergency services, the press and the cameras and the curious bystanders, and he figured that a few minutes longer up here might actually be less stressful for the boy.
Terry seemed to think about it for a moment before he bit his lip, stubborn determination despite the tears, and nodded again. Bruce's tone was calm and unassuming when he started asking, free of any demand, of any threat. Simple questions that wouldn't overwhelm him, if he'd seen any faces, if he could describe any of the men who'd brought him here, if he'd ever heard them use any names, but he never asked them like he thought the boy was stupid.
Clark remembered reading an article once, written by a retired police detective, about how hard it was to get accurate witness statements from children, especially children who'd lived through traumatic events. How easy it was to overwhelm them or accidentally lead them into saying what the questioning police officer wanted to hear.
Bruce probably could have taught classes on how to get detailed, accurate witness statements from children under ten. And he was so careful about it. Gentle even. When tears welled up in the boy's eyes, Bruce relented, shushed him softly. He didn't hug him, just offered an arm and – to Clark's surprise Terry all but threw himself at the Bat. Wrapped his short arms around his neck while Bruce held him close, carefully angling his body and his arms so as to keep the sharp edges of his body armour away from the boy's skin. He stroked his hair, a light, soothing touch despite the fact that he was still wearing heavy gloves.
“It's okay,” he mumbled. “You did great. What you just told me will help us find these people, make sure they don't hurt anyone else.”
Clark watched in disbelief and fascination. Bruce Wayne was kind to children when he met them, especially orphans, but still in a somewhat distant, too smooth way. This felt far more genuine, almost raw. Like a glimpse at what lay underneath the masks of both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Bruce met Clark's eyes over the boy's shoulder, and the look on his face was one of barely restrained fury, even as his hand on the boy's hair was unfailingly gentle. It lasted only for a moment before he turned his attention back to the boy, who was straightening up a little, wiping at his eyes.
“Sorry,” he said, clearly trying to be brave. “My dad says boys don't cry.”
“I think when your dad sees you again today, he's going to cry, too.”
Clark felt his chest tighten, thinking back of his own father, and then – then it struck him that Bruce had lost a son, that Bruce never got to cry tears of joy at having him back, but only tears of sorrow at his funeral. It was hard to imagine Bruce crying at all, even though he must have, but seeing what he saw now, seeing the way Bruce ruffled Terry's hair one last time before he rose, the way Bruce didn't even flinch when the little boy took his hand firmly in his, Clark realised for the first time the enormous loss that Bruce had lived through. Not just the guilt and shame of failing the boy who'd fought by his side, symbolised by the bloodied suit he insisted on keeping in the Cave, but the incurable sorrow of a father who'd buried his son.
“Superman here is going to fly you down to an ambulance.” The mention of his name tore Clark out of his thoughts. He hadn't even noticed that Bruce and the boy had walked over to him. “It'll be safer than if I carry you over the rubble.”
The boy looked up at Clark, fear mixing with scepticism in his still wet eyes, then glanced back up at Bruce. “Are you sure about that?”
“I'm sure,” Bruce said, but he didn't push him, waited patiently until Terry let go of his hand and made another step towards Superman. Clark gave him the best reassuring smile he could muster before he picked him up, exchanged a brief look with Bruce and took off. He delivered the boy to the emergency services, made sure he was being taken care of before he returned to the factory. Bruce had already moved to a mostly intact office two floors up and was rifling through files now, eyes quickly scanning the documents. He didn't even acknowledge Clark's return.
A few months ago, Clark would have left it at that and found some other way to make himself useful. But since then he'd spent more time with Bruce, and, well, if Bruce referred to him as his friend, even if just to reassure a child, Clark had every intention of taking that as an invitation to talk to him more.
“I didn't know you were good with children,” he said. It wasn't really what he meant – or rather, it was a part of it, but the fact that Batman was good with children should have been as unsurprising as that he excelled at frightening criminals into telling him what he wanted to know or that Bruce Wayne could charm people and cajole them into just about anything. Sometimes it seemed as if Bruce had perfected every skill he could possibly need some day. And yet, despite Bruce's careful questioning, Clark didn't feel like he had merely witnessed another one of Batman's skills. This hadn't been Batman coldly manipulating another person to get what he wanted.
But there was no way of saying that this was the most human Clark had seen him since their first fight, since Bruce had promised him to save his mother in a voice that had erased every doubt in Clark's mind. He'd promised to save her, and Clark had believed him not because of his skills and strength, but because he had so obviously cared. It wasn't something Clark had let himself dwell on too much since his return, and maybe he should have.
But what he said was “I didn't know you were good with children”, and Bruce didn't even glance up from the file cabinet, only replied with a a low huff.
“The paramedics are patching Terry up, and the other kids, too. Their parents are being called.” Another non-committal grunt, but then Clark wasn't telling Bruce anything that wasn't painfully obvious. Clark was quiet for a moment, then asked, “Do you think he's going to be okay? Him and the others?”
At that Bruce finally stilled and looked up. He seemed to consider the question for a minute before he met Clark's eyes, the look in them quiet and thoughtful.
“I don't know,” he said eventually. For a moment he looked like he wanted to say more, but thought better of it. Instead he set his jaw and turned back to the file cabinet. “It's not up to us. All we can do is find out who's behind this, if there are more labs like this one.”
What you just told me will help us find these people, make sure they don't hurt anyone else.
Clark felt that tightness in his chest again. He'd spent years thinking the Bat merely hunted criminals to see them punished, to make sure they got what they deserved for their crimes. Somehow it had never occurred to him to look at the other side of this – that Bruce did what he did because he cared about the victims of those criminals. That he wasn't merely driven by an abstract ideal of justice, but by wanting innocent people not to get hurt. By wanting to spare other people the horror of burying their murdered parents, their murdered son. It should have been so obvious that it was probably a credit to both masks Bruce liked to wear that Clark hadn't seen it earlier.
Of course he wasn't going to comment on any of it, not when he was aware of how much Bruce would hate it that Clark felt like he knew him better now. With a smile tugging at his lips, Clark stepped closer to Bruce and let his hand hover near his elbow.
“What is it with you and that left arm?” The annoyance on Bruce's face only made his smile widen. But it was Bruce's normal level of grumpiness, not that sudden complete withdrawal Clark remembered too well from the last time. “You do need stitches, you know? You're going to bleed all over those files.”
Bruce seemed to consider this and then asked, a lot more cooperative than Clark had hoped for, “If I let you stitch me up, are you going to shut up and let me work?” He also hadn't expected this particular suggestion. He opened his mouth to argue that there were other people better suited to patching Bruce up, but then Bruce was hardly going to risk some paramedics getting a sample of his blood, nor was he going to waste time flying back to Gotham to have Alfred tend to his wounds. It was either Clark helping him out or Bruce continuing to bleed unnecessarily, and that was no choice at all.
“Okay.” He grinned, feeling a little reckless. “I can't promise I'm as good with bats as you are with children, though.”
The look Bruce gave him was thunderous to the point where Clark half expected Bruce to change his mind and simply go back to work, but instead he sat down on the only not overturned chair, his hands going once more for the first-aid items in his belt.
“You really, really aren't.”
And maybe Clark wasn't, but he still thought he might be wearing Bruce down.
4. Escape Artistry
A crippling wave of nausea rolled over him the moment he regained consciousness, his heart was thumping in his chest as if it wanted to break out of it, and his lungs screamed when he tried to gasp for air. Kryptonite. Even though he was still so dizzy he couldn't even remember where he was, he knew that much. There was nothing else in the world that could do this to him.
“Kal!” There was more urgency in that voice now, or maybe the fog around Clark's mind was slowly lifting. His head hurt and something wet was running over his face. It took him another moment to realise that the voice was Bruce's – no, Batman's. His heartbeat was there, too, quieter than usual, but every bit as slow and steady as always. Even fainter were other heartbeats, somewhere further away. His senses were not completely gone then. He forced himself to open his eyes, unsurprised to find the room bathed in a sickly green glow.
He was tied to a chair, heavy chains around his wrists and his legs, and a lump of kryptonite about the size of his fist sat on the floor by the door, just out of his reach even if he hadn't been tied up. The room looked like the broom closet of some warehouse, small and windowless and damp. When he turned his head, he found the Bat tied to a similar chair next to him, his wrists handcuffed and further secured with rope, with more rope wrapped around his arms and his chest, even his legs. A small part of Clark felt irrationally offended that they'd apparently thought it necessary to tie Batman up more securely than Superman, but then Clark was the only one affected by the kryptonite.
Bruce was still fully suited up, including the cowl. Clark was a bit surprised that their captors – corporate security, he started to remember, military-trained, guarding the facility he and Bruce had broken into – hadn't tried to take it off. Or more likely they'd tried and not managed – if Bruce had successfully kept his identity a secret for twenty years, he must have some safeguards in place to protect it even when he was unconscious or tied up.
But instead of asking about that, all Clark managed was, “My head hurts.” His voice came out small and petulant. Bruce sneered underneath the cowl.
“You're bleeding. That's what happens to normal people when they get hit on the head.” Calculating eyes were scanning him, trying to assess, Clark assumed, the extent of his injuries. “How bad is it? The kryptonite?”
From anyone else that question would have expressed concern; Bruce was clearly trying to figure out whether or not Clark could get them out of here. He tested the chains, felt them give just the smallest bit, but not enough to get out of them. Next he tried to focus his vision, to see through the door, or even to burn a hole into it, but both is x-ray vision and his heat vision had deserted him for now. His chest still felt too tight. It wasn't as bad as breathing in the gasified kryptonite, but it was bad enough.
“It could be worse. I can still hear … a lot, but I can't get out of the chains.” He paused and listened, then added, “There are four guards just outside. And no cameras in this room.”
Bruce grunted, a non-committal sound that could have expressed gratitude for the information or annoyance that Clark wasn't of more use.
“How did these guys even get kryptonite?” Clark said, squirming on his chair to move it backwards, but the room was too small for him to get far enough away from the kryptonite.
“I suggest we investigate that once they're not in a position of killing us anymore,” Bruce said dryly. His modulated voice was perfectly even, his heartbeat a steady thump – as calm as when he was analysing video footage in the Cave, or flirting with models at a party. Not for the first time Clark wondered if Bruce was somehow immune to fear. Considering that this whole situation was starting to make Clark more than a little bit uneasy, Bruce's calm was almost irritating. He yanked on the chains in frustration, but all that achieved was to make his wrists smart.
“And how do you suggest we get out of here?” he asked.
“Already working on it.”
Clark narrowed his eyes, focused on Bruce again rather than on his own chains, and now that he had moved his chair a little he could see that Bruce's hands were indeed moving. Still caught in his heavy gauntlets, though he was twisting his right wrist now at an angle that looked painful even to Clark. After a moment he realised that Bruce was pressing his wrist against the back of the chair, again, and again, until a soft click resounded and the glove slid free from his hand, thumped to the ground. He stretched his fingers, curled them a few times before he opened the clasp of the second gauntlet more carefully. Bruce twisted something from the side of the gauntlet before he let it drop as well.
It was impressive that he'd managed that much, but Clark failed to see how that would help them in any way. There were still handcuffs and very, very tight rope between Bruce and doing anything at all about their predicament. He almost commented on that, but remained silent when he saw the focused, unfazed look in Bruce's eyes. And suddenly he remembered what Bruce had looked like back when they'd faced Doomsday, or when the kryptonite had worn off during his fight against Clark. Bruce wasn't immune to fear. He wasn't afraid because he was certain that he could get out of this.
A small black wire glistened between Bruce's fingers – a lock pick, Clark realised after a moment. Bruce kept a darn lock pick in his gauntlet. It barely took him a minute to open the handcuffs, his fingers moving with the unfaltering certainty of a man who'd done this a thousand times before, who didn't even need to see what he was doing. He dropped the lock pick and caught the handcuffs instead, used one of the opened cuffs to worry at one of the knots in the rope, loosening it enough for his fingers to work the first knot open.
If Clark had already been impressed watching Bruce repair the Batmobile, what he saw now filled him with something closer to awe. Bruce's fingers moved as precisely as any machine, bent and stretched at times in ways that made Clark feel a bit more nauseous (though that might have just been the kryptonite), working the knots open with a patient efficiency that was almost more staggering than his nimbleness. If the fact that his arms were tied uncomfortably behind his back and that he couldn't actually see what he was doing was slowing him down at all, Clark couldn't tell.
The kryptonite had messed with his sense of time, so he wasn't entirely sure how long it took Bruce to free his wrists, but he doubted it had been more than a few minutes. After that the remaining ropes seemed to be mere child's play to him.
“I didn't know you could do that,” Clark said when Bruce got up from the chair and rolled his shoulders briefly, as if being bound to a chair had been nothing but a minor inconvenience.
“I've been tied up before.” It was the Bat's voice, modulated and gruff, but Clark's brain very unhelpfully supplied him with the idea of Bruce Wayne saying those same words, with that flirtatious little smile of his. He blamed the kryptonite for making him so … scatter-brained, unable to focus on what mattered right now. Which certainly wasn't the warm brush of Bruce's fingertips against his wrists when the Bat knelt down behind him to get Clark out of his chains.
Clark shook his head and closed his eyes, trying to clear his head, but he still felt sick and disoriented. When he looked up again Bruce had put his gauntlets back on and was walking towards the door, where he picked up the kryptonite gingerly.
“Follow me once you've got your strength back.” That commanding tone that usually irritated Clark and half made him want to disobey for no other reason than to disabuse Bruce of the notion that he was in charge of him, but right now even standing up seemed like a challenge.
“You can't just go out there alone,” he still argued, although he had trouble coming up with an alternative. As long as they were locked in a small room with a lump of kryptonite, Clark wasn't going to be of any use.
The Bat glanced back at him over his shoulder and merely sneered, that same sneer he'd given Clark when Clark had shown up to help him earlier that night, and without bothering to answer he kicked the door from its hinges and stepped outside.
Screams, gunshots, the loud crash of bodies getting thrown into walls, and through it all Bruce's heartbeat barely picked up, a reassuring rhythm while Clark took a few deep breaths. By the time he felt his strength return at least partially, Bruce had already cleared half the building, and Clark easily cleaned up the rest. He still felt a bit dizzy and somewhat weaker than usual, but he knew that was nothing the first morning rays of sunlight couldn't fix.
Afterwards he found the Bat standing on the rooftop of a nearby skyscraper. Clark had actually expected Bruce to return to the Cave without another word, and the fact that Bruce was apparently waiting for him made him smile despite the lingering after-effects of the kryptonite. He didn't feel worse as he approached, so Bruce clearly hadn't brought the kryptonite up here. Clark kept hovering in the air just above him, knowing fully well that it'd annoy Bruce, but right now he enjoyed being able to fly too much.
“You got the information you needed?” Clark asked, because “thanks for not just taking off without saying goodbye” wouldn't have gone over well.
This way he got an affirmative grunt and an unsurprising glare, the latter most likely because Bruce hated looking up at him. Bruce had taken off his gauntlets again, and there was something oddly intimate about seeing his bare hands while the rest of his suit was still on.
It was all the answer Clark was going to get, he knew that. He had no idea just how much kryptonite Bruce had hoarded somewhere in that Cave of his – or possibly in other locations, given that Clark knew where the Cave was. The man was paranoid beyond reason, but somehow Clark still felt safer knowing that the kryptonite was in Bruce's hands than in the government's, let alone out there where anyone with a grudge against Superman and enough resources could apparently find it.
Clark finally touched down on the rooftop and stepped closer. Bruce was rubbing his fingers, and Clark noticed only now the numerous abrasions on his skin, red lines where the ropes had dug into his flesh, scratches where the rough cord had been dragged over his skin.
On pure instinct Clark took Bruce's hands in his, ignored the way Bruce tensed up, as if he still expected the worst from him. But even though he eyed him suspiciously, he didn't pull his hands away, held still as Clark ran his thumbs over Bruce's palms. A bit of blood had dried underneath Bruce's thumbnail where he must have ripped the skin open. For all their strength Bruce's hands looked downright fragile like this, marvellous and nimble and so very vulnerable. Not for the first time Clark wondered how Bruce could do any of the things he did without being terrified of hurting himself, of breaking his body beyond repair.
Being Superman wasn't always easy, but most of the time it was at least safe. Even on the rare occasions when someone did manage to hurt him, he'd heal; he'd even come back from the dead. Looking at Bruce, at the abrasions on his hands, remembering the countless scars he'd seen on him, the barely healed fractures in his bones, was a painful reminder that there was nothing safe about being Batman, even if it seemed like Bruce had trained for every possible contingency in the world.
“What?” Bruce snapped. Clark had been staring again, at Bruce's hands that miraculously still remained in his. He rubbed Bruce's fingers gently, massaged the abused joints.
“I always thought those escape artists in circuses were cheating somehow,” he said softly. Under the Bat's cowl, Bruce cracked a little smile.
“I'm sure some of them are.” His fingers twitched, but remained where they were. For a brief moment Clark felt reminded of a skittish animal that couldn't decide if it wanted to get petted more than it distrusted humans.
“What's so funny?” Bruce asked, but his tone was marginally less hostile than before.
Clark curled his fingers lightly around Bruce's to keep him from retreating. “Nothing.” He made himself meet Bruce's eyes. “Just … thank you. For getting us out of there.”
“Good thing we don't all rely on super strength,” Bruce said, but his sneer was only half-hearted. And when he finally pulled his hands out of Clark's grasp, he let them slowly slide over his palm, the touch lingering and deliberate and dizzying.
Clark was still standing there and staring by the time Bruce had already put on his gauntlets again and turned away, his armour carefully hiding any injury or weakness. His hand was already on his grappling gun when Clark called after him, “Bruce.”
That earned him an irritated glare, as always when Clark called the Bat by his name, even though they both knew that no one was around to hear it.
“Is there anything you can't do?”
Bruce seemed to think about that for a moment. Then he said, “Fly”, shot the grappling hook into the next building, and was gone.
Rationally Clark knew that the caves underneath the lake house were not in fact endless, and yet months after Bruce had first allowed him into this sanctum there still seemed to be parts of it Clark had never seen. He'd been tempted more than once to have a look around, to at least let his x-ray vision sweep through the walls, but he doubted Bruce would have appreciated him snooping.
He knew about the large cave in which Bruce kept a few earlier iterations of his car as well as a few bikes. He knew about the small medical bay where Alfred regularly patched Bruce up, because one time Bruce had insisted on talking to Clark about whatever case he'd been working on then even while he was bleeding all over his butler's hands. He knew that Bruce had a bathroom down in the Cave so he wouldn't have to bring the Bat's sweat and blood up into Bruce Wayne's lake house. He even knew about the workshop where Bruce and Alfred tinkered with anything that was too big for the mezzanine, and which doubled as a gym – filled with weights and chains and workout benches, a faint smell of sweat clinging in the air no matter how thoroughly Alfred cleaned the place. Clark always had trouble gauging just how strong or fast normal people were, but even he could tell that the weights Bruce seemed to train with regularly were impressively heavy for someone with no super strength.
This was where he'd expected Bruce to be when Alfred had let him down into the Cave with a brief explanation that “Master Bruce was working up a bit of a sweat”. Clark had offered to wait upstairs, but Alfred insisted Bruce wouldn't mind. He didn't have much of a good reason to visit Bruce; the only update he had to give him on the smuggler ring that split its activities between Gotham and Metropolis and which they'd been tracking together for a few weeks was that they'd been laying low recently.
But the weights were lying in their place and the air didn't smell like anyone had been working out here recently, so Clark let his senses wander until he found Bruce's heartbeat and his steady, but slightly accelerated breathing. He followed yet another tunnel until he reached a cave that looked like a more conventional gym than Bruce's odd assortment of chains and tyres: the walls were still unhewn, rough stone, but there were gym mats on the floor and several gymnastics apparatus, a pommel horse and parallel bars and two rings hanging high from their metal frame.
It was the pommel horse Bruce was currently on, his hands – or sometimes just one hand – on the grips as he slowly rotated around them, his legs perfectly stretched. He wasn't wearing anything more than black shorts, the rest of his skin bared, and Clark couldn't help but stop short and stare. He didn't know enough about gymnastics to name even half the exercises Bruce was doing, but the perfect control he had over his body was obvious, the measured, deliberate nature of every movement. It took Clark a moment to notice that Bruce had blindfolded himself, relying entirely on his sense of balance, and yet his hands were sure and steady every time they moved on the grips or the body of the pommel horse.
If he noticed Clark at all, he didn't show it. Clark considered saying something or at least clearing his throat, but he didn't want to break Bruce's concentration – at least that's what he tried to tell himself, as if Bruce's concentration wasn't all but unbreakable. He'd never seen him this undressed – at most he'd seen his arms and his shoulders, but now his eyes roamed over the long lines of Bruce's legs, the thick muscles of his thighs and the perfect definition of his calves, his strong pectorals and abs that looked every bit as defined as Clark's own. His back was a chiselled study in anatomy, and his whole skin bore countless scars and bruises. Purple bloomed over his ribs, an almost healed cut was still glaring red along his spine, white scar tissue covered one shoulder. There was a bandage around his elbow and another one on his upper thigh, but the injuries didn't seem to impede him in any way. Clark had trouble imagining the kind of physical control one would need for movements this precise, this controlled – he doubted that he would have been able to do half of it without cheating gravity a little bit.
Bruce sped up his rotations, working through faster motions, and his breathing became a bit laboured at this point. Sweat gleamed on his chest and his back, dripped from his skin with every movement. In the end he pulled himself up into a slow handstand, his arms already straight while he pulled his legs slowly into the air, completing the movement with a low grunt, before he held the position. It had been one thing to know that Bruce needed such perfect control over his body to be as good a fighter as he was; it was another to see that control displayed so openly in front of his eyes, without the suit or the cape encumbering Bruce's movements or hiding them from Clark's sight. There was more to this than mere strength, as much as Bruce's muscles strained from the effort; Clark could see years of training in every movement, and more agility and flexibility than seemed entirely natural for a man past forty.
Clark watched the sweat roll from the base of his spine up to his shoulder blades. Bruce must have been at it for a while, because his skin was glistening, his heartbeat as fast as Clark had only ever heard it get in long fights that pushed Bruce to the limits of his endurance. He stayed in that perfectly straight handstand until his muscles started to shake, and still maintained enough control to lower himself down as slowly as he'd pulled himself up before he jumped to the floor.
He looked in Clark's direction as if he could see through the blindfold, and even before Bruce pulled it off Clark realised that Bruce had been aware of his presence the entire time. His eyes were dark and unreadable, and for all their intensity Clark had to try hard to look into them, not to let his gaze catch on that large burn scar on Bruce's left shoulder, on how hard his nipples were in the cold air of the Cave, on the sweat pooling in the dip of his collarbones.
“I didn't want to interrupt you,” he said when Bruce had walked over to him and still remained quiet. “Alfred said you were down here. If this is a bad time …”
“It's fine.” Bruce didn't sound breathless, and his heartbeat was already slowing down. Clark listened to it like it was a mumbled poem he was desperately trying to catch the words of. His eyes kept wandering to the sharp definition of Bruce's muscles, to the bruises that marred his side – Clark let himself look through them and found Bruce's ribs unbroken, but covered in countless lines from old breaks. He could read Bruce's body like a book of old injuries and healed fractures, scarred flesh and angry bruises mottling pale skin.
“How do you do this?” he found himself saying, his hand halfway to Bruce's side before he stopped himself. He thought of the unbearable pain of the kryptonite spear slicing his cheek open, of the agony of Doomsday's claw burying itself in his chest. Humans healed so very slowly, and with so many old and recent wounds Bruce had to be in constant pain. Bruce didn't stir, stayed right where he was, and didn't flinch when Clark finally brought his fingers to a dark purple bruise on his side, barely brushing the skin. “Aren't you in pain?”
“This is nothing,” Bruce said, and it wasn't bravado this time, not like when his shoulder had been bleeding so badly he'd even agreed to let Clark stitch him up. That wound had healed by now, but the scar was still fresh and red. “You get used to pain the same way you can get used to anything. It's merely a matter of discipline.”
Clark remembered the first time his x-ray vision had started up, how hard it had been to get used to that, to control it, and how easily he could do it now. If he could ignore that much sensory input, maybe Bruce could ignore the pain of bruises and broken bones – it seemed impossible, but so much about Bruce did.
“Right,” he said, fingertips still resting on the bruise. “What about the blindfold?”
“You can't rely on your eyes if you want to make darkness your ally,” Bruce said, an almost sly smile playing around the corner of his mouth. “And it's a good balance exercise.”
Clark shook his head in disbelief. Bruce's skin felt clammy under his fingers, the sweat already cooling on his flesh. Clark couldn't keep himself from looking at him, into him – it was much easier to resist that urge when fabric covered Bruce's body, but seeing him so bared before his eyes stripped away Clark's restraint. He thought of Bruce's bleeding, abraded hands after they'd worked their way through ropes and handcuffs, he thought of how vulnerable and fragile they had seemed to him then. There was nothing vulnerable about Bruce's bare body, about the steel cords of his muscles and the angry glare of his bruises. Every scar seemed to Clark like a testament to Bruce's will power, as if pure rage and determination were enough to knit torn flesh back together.
But even as distracted as he was, he didn't fail to realise that Bruce allowed him to stare, just like he suffered the touch of Clark's fingertips against his side. A minute passed, or maybe two, and he'd focused so completely on the sound of Bruce's heartbeat that Bruce's voice seemed far away at first.
He looked up as if caught and pulled his hand away immediately, only for Bruce to grab his wrist before Clark had even completed the movement. Even knowing that he could free himself without the slightest difficulty, Bruce's grip felt like a vice on his wrist.
“Are you going to tell me why you're here?” Bruce asked. The same smile was still clinging to his lips, a smile that was more Bruce Wayne than the Bat, smug and confident and asking for either a kiss or a fist. His hair curled at his temples, the grey streaks dark with sweat. Maybe it was better that Bruce maintained such a firm hold on his wrist, or Clark would have been tempted to swipe a bead of sweat from his temple, to run his fingers through Bruce's hair.
“I … I wanted to ask you if there has been any news about our case,” Clark said. He liked calling it their case simply because it invariably made Bruce bristle at the idea that he needed Clark's help to solve it. “I'm concerned about how quiet things have been in Metropolis. I doubt they're just laying low, so they must have focused their activities on Gotham. And I know you hate it when I snoop around 'your city' without invitation.”
Bruce didn't look like he bought Clark's flimsy excuse any more than Clark had expected him to, for all that everything he'd said was technically true.
“You could have called me to ask that,” Bruce said. Clark didn't tell him that he'd thought about that, too, in the middle of the night mostly, lying awake in bed and thinking about Bruce's hands, about the intimacy of hearing his voice without the modulator, that he'd fantasised more than once about calling Bruce under as thin a pretence as this was and let his voice wash over him, and he sure as hell didn't tell him that he'd touched himself thinking about just that, that he'd imagined Bruce growling quiet instructions at him, telling him just what he wanted him to do. God, Bruce probably would be good at that, too, would find just the right words to pick Clark apart at the seams.
“I'm always curious what you're up to,” Clark admitted when he remembered to reply. It was as much a confession as he could muster, and less embarrassing than the alternatives. He was painfully aware of Bruce's thumb pressing against the inside of his wrist, of Bruce feeling his pulse at the same time as Clark could hear his. It would have been nice to imagine them synched, but Clark's was almost twice as fast, and he could only be grateful that Bruce couldn't hear his heart race in his chest.
The moment lasted, stretched out, until Clark thought Bruce would have to do something, anything to break the palpable tension between them, but then he merely let go of Clark as if nothing had happened, turned away from him and picked a towel up from a nearby bench to wipe the sweat off his face.
“I actually do have some news,” he said, his voice all business, the smile gone from his face. “One of my surveillance cameras caught something interesting last night. I'll show you.”
Without waiting for a reply he took off towards the same tunnels Clark had come through earlier, bare feet soundless on the cold stone. He had to be aware of the way his shorts were clinging to his skin with every step, the way his back muscles shifted when he rubbed at his hair with the towel. He had to be aware that Clark hadn't been able to take his eyes off him since he'd arrived, and that meant – that meant that Bruce was doing this on purpose. It seemed like such an obvious realisation when nothing Bruce ever did was not deliberate, but Clark still felt as if he'd finally seen clear through impregnable fog for the first time that night.
He didn't bother to hide his smile when he followed Bruce.
Men like Bruce Wayne didn't need to know a thing about the art of seduction. Their bank accounts did the seducing for them, and while Clark had never seen the appeal of wealth for its own sake, for all those stunning young women flocking to Bruce Wayne and men like him at every gala and every extravagant party, money and power still seemed to be attractive enough to make up for anything else.
Of course, looking like Bruce Wayne probably helped as well, to facilitate those women's decision which rich man to try their charms on. Between his sharp cheekbones, his thick hair, and his broad shoulders on one side, and the fact that he was one of the richest men in America – and still unmarried – on the other, Bruce didn't have to lift a finger, or even a corner of his mouth, to have gorgeous women and men fall all over themselves to get into his good graces and his bed.
And most of the time he didn't bother to make an effort, as far as Clark could tell on those rare occasions that he saw Bruce Wayne in his natural habitat. His smiles never quite reached his eyes, there was always something absent-minded and distracted about him, like he wasn't really listening to whoever he was talking to, his compliments were sleazy and superficial, and he excelled at appearing like he'd had a few drinks too many. If he was quite honest, Clark found it impressively off-putting. Even knowing who Bruce was, even wanting Bruce as much as he did, this particular mask of his was like an ice-cold shower.
Yet it was a mask, and like all of Bruce's masks, it was quite versatile and flexible. There were variations to Bruce Wayne, like an acting master class showcasing subtle differences to the same character. Clark doubted anyone else really noticed, or if they did, they probably blamed it on just how much alcohol Bruce had had that night, or whether he was feeling particularly eccentric. But whenever Clark found himself in the same room as Bruce Wayne, his eyes were inevitably drawn to him, and he ended up spending more time watching Bruce than covering whatever story Perry wanted him to write about.
Bruce Wayne didn't need to seduce, most of the time, but that didn't mean that he wasn't good at it. He didn't bother for his exchangeable dates, for the eye candy on his arm, for the politician whose hand he shook while pretending not to listen to them. But then there were people he wanted something from – rich widows he talked into being a little bit more generous with that charity check, but without letting on how much he truly cared; businessmen whom he needed to slip up and tell him some piece of information the Bat needed, but without ever letting them notice what he was after; society girls whose most recent affair was a politician about whose habits the Bat needed to know more. And suddenly, under that bored, easily distracted façade of Bruce Wayne, there was a charm that was every bit as fake and every bit as convincing as everything else about him.
Suddenly he never failed to make eye contact, kept his intense gaze on the person he was speaking to before glancing away at just the right moment to keep things interesting. Suddenly his smiles were warm and interested, his feigned drunkenness was amiable and charming rather than obnoxious, his compliments still over-the-top, but smooth and delivered with such brazen conviction that people lapped them up like they'd been dying of thirst. It was still Bruce Wayne, playboy and billionaire, mercurial and insufferable and a bit too much of everything, but suddenly played with the charisma of a world-class actor rather than by an amateur.
It was fascinating to watch, like seeing the secrets behind a stage magician's tricks. And everyone knew that a magic trick didn't work on you anymore once you knew about the hidden strings and the marked cards and the secret pockets.
“Mr Kent, wasn't it?”
The voice was like smoky whiskey and sent a prickle up Clark's spine. Bruce Wayne's voice was higher than Bruce's, languid and less forceful, entirely like a different person's. But this voice, though a tad deeper and rougher, still wasn't Bruce's real voice. This was Bruce Wayne on the prowl.
Clark made sure to school his features before he turned around, feigning surprise as if he hadn't recognised the voice. Bruce looked nothing short of perfect, the lines of his suit impeccably crisp, the collar pin gleaming below a perfectly symmetrical Windsor, the grey in his hair and the wrinkles around his eyes when he smiled only accentuating how damn handsome he was. He was holding two glasses of champagne and put one into Clark's hand with such absolute certainty that Clark would take it that Clark's fingers closed around it before he'd even realised it. He did realise, however, that Bruce's fingers lingered for a second longer than necessary, brushing against Clark's. Bruce Wayne could have done that by accident. Bruce never would.
“Mr Wayne,” Clark said belatedly. “Are you sure you didn't get lost?”
Bruce flashed him a smile, that brief quirk of his lips, but with an added warmth in his eyes that Clark had never before seen on Bruce Wayne's face, at least not directed at him.
“Maybe I'm trying to get lost,” he said conspiratorially. “Everyone seems to want something from me tonight.”
“So you come talk to a journalist?” Clark frowned. He enjoyed watching Bruce's games from afar every now and then, but he had no desire to be drawn into them. Bruce's devotion to his public persona was impressive, sometimes even entertaining to watch, but exhausting to engage with.
“Ar least you're usually direct about what you want,” Bruce said with only a whisper of an innuendo and raised his glass in salute, and Clark found himself mirroring the gesture and clinking their glasses together. He didn't know a lot about champagne, but it tasted good in that smooth, balanced way cheap sparkling wines lacked. Bruce didn't take his eyes off him while he drank, as if he'd suddenly found something particularly interesting about Clark's face. After a sip he added, “To be honest, I'm tired of all the artifice and fake smiles tonight, and you, Mr Kent, never fail to give me your most honest glare.”
It was a staggering pile of bullshit coming from the man who was all artifice and fake smiles, and it was exactly what Clark Kent most likely wanted to hear at an event such as this. A magician playing his cards – even knowing what he was doing, it was hard not to admire the skill of his nimble fingers.
“Wouldn't want to disappoint you then,” Clark said and kept frowning at Bruce over the rim of the glass, but after a moment he couldn't quite bite back a smile. He didn't like Bruce Wayne, neither the sleazy nor the charming side of him, but it was so rare to see Bruce smile that even Bruce Wayne's smiles would do in a pinch.
Bruce took him by the elbow, his broad hand warm and steady, the bruises on his knuckles Clark still remembered so vividly long healed, but Clark allowed himself a peek at his bones, the countless micro-fractures of his training, incongruous under the immaculate black cuff.
“Let's get some fresh air,” he said, like that was something Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent did. For a moment Clark was startled at the familiarity that went so against Bruce's insistence to keep their identities firmly separate, but then he remembered that he'd seen Bruce do this with other people – treating them as equals even when they weren't, because it flattered them and put them at ease. Bruce Wayne created the illusion of familiarity by simply pretending it was already there. It made Clark wonder what the hell Bruce was up to. Maybe he needed to talk about something League-related and was trying to get Superman alone discreetly, so he came along with a shrug.
“Sure. Maybe I can get a quote out of you after all that champagne.”
Bruce's hand stayed stubbornly on Clark's elbow, despite a half-hearted attempt to shrug it off. He seemed to know where he was going – of course he did – manoeuvring easily through the crowd of the rich and famous, his fingers pressing lightly into Clark's arm. Clark was too aware of every one of them, of the heat of their touch, far warmer than they had any right to be through the fabric of Clark's jacket and shirt. He tended to think of his sense of touch as less hyper-developed than his other senses, but maybe it was just that he almost continuously clamped down on it to keep himself from getting overwhelmed. Or maybe it wasn't him, maybe it was Bruce and the confident way his hand moved from Clark's elbow to the small of his back as soon as they'd cleared the main crowd and steered towards the roof terrace. Bruce touched like he'd already been given permission to, like the usual rules didn't apply to him. In an odd way it reminded Clark of the Bat.
The terrace was surprisingly empty, and knowing Bruce Clark couldn't help but wonder if this too had been planned ahead of time, a whispered word here and a bribe to a waiter there, not like anyone would bat an eyelash at Bruce Wayne wanting the pretence of privacy for his indiscretions. It didn't change the fact that the view over Metropolis was spectacular, even for someone who regularly saw the city from above. Bruce led him all the way to the railing and a bit to the side, so they weren't in direct line of sight of the large glass doors that led back into the main hall. It wasn't dark, not in a city like Metropolis, but it was as secluded as any place could be at this kind of event.
Bruce's hand still hadn't left the small of Clark's back. If all of this had only been an act to get Clark alone, there was no reason to keep it up anymore.
“Quite the view, isn't it?” Bruce said after another sip of champagne, his eyes never leaving Clark's face as he spoke. A trite compliment, but his voice was still like needle pricks all the way down Clark's spine, from the base of his neck to the warm touch of Bruce's hand, and his eyes seemed almost hypnotic, making it so very hard to look away.
But if this was a game, Clark was quite capable of playing along. So he leant in closer, so close that he wouldn't have needed his heightened senses to smell Bruce's warm cologne, though he did cheat a little to smell the familiar scent of his skin underneath, of leather and disinfectant and the cool air of the Cave. As if the Bat was lurking right beneath Bruce's skin, as if the only thing to be found under that charming mask was a black cowl. Clark swallowed when he realised that a few seconds had passed already, and quickly mouthed against Bruce's ear, “Are we being watched?”
Bruce turned his head just so until his cheek brushed against Clark's.
“No,” he said softly, for Clark's ears only – still Bruce Wayne's voice, but Bruce would have taken the opportunity to warn him if it had been necessary. He was so close that Clark could feel the muscles in his cheek twitch when he smiled. “Why, would you like that?”
Bruce was still playing with him even without an audience, and what the hell was the point of that when Clark could see right through his act? He didn't know if the brazenness of it angered him more or the fact that it still worked, that Bruce's closeness still made his heart race in his chest and his hand feel so shaky that he had to put his glass down on the balustrade for fear of crushing it.
“Stop it,” he said. He'd been sure they'd moved past this, after all the times he'd got to see the real Bruce, or at least as close as he thought he'd ever get, raw and vulnerable and actually honest with him. Getting this shallow reflexion of him again was downright insulting.
There was a moment's hesitation when Bruce pulled back, his hand sliding to Clark's side, its touch only fleeting now. A hint of that honesty Clark had missed flickered in his eyes, in the way his smile faltered for a split second like he wasn't entirely sure what Clark wanted him to stop doing. Maybe it was a game and Clark would regret this in just a moment. Or maybe Bruce had merely tried to use Bruce Wayne's skills to get what he wanted.
His hands free Clark turned towards him, took the glass from Bruce's fingers and then stepped closer, crowding him back against the balustrade. Bruce inched backwards, more acquiescing than he'd be under any other mask, a shadow of suspicion under his expectant smile.
“Did you really think you could seduce me, Bruce?” he asked, and this time Bruce's eyes definitely hardened. Clark didn't feel like being merciful just yet. “Did you think you'd smile a little and get me a glass of champagne on a roof top and flatter me and then I'd swoon? Is that how you pictured this?”
“I'm not sure it's physically possible for you to swoon, Clark,” Bruce said dryly.
“The point is,” Clark stepped closer until there as nowhere left for Bruce to go, and once again Bruce's body seemed warmer against his than it really should, “and I want you to understand this,” he put his hand on Bruce's hip, cupped his chin with the other, felt how tense Bruce was even though he didn't stop Clark, “I'm not doing this because of anything you did tonight.”
His lips were on Bruce's the instant he stopped speaking, not giving Bruce a chance to reply. For a moment there was no reaction and Clark half worried that he'd gone too far – not so much that he'd done something Bruce didn't want, but that Bruce might not like not getting to do it on his own terms. But then Bruce returned the kiss, not languidly, not teasingly, but with a rawness that took Clark aback. He wasn't the slightest bit surprised that Bruce was a good kisser, though, that his lips were soft and his teeth just sharp enough to draw a gasp from Clark when they grazed his bottom lip; he wasn't surprised that Bruce's hand found the back of his neck with an unfaltering certainty, as if he already knew the touch would make Clark surge against him.
Clark kissed him until he could feel Bruce's heartbeat pick up in his chest, until he felt a barely restrained moan against his lips, until Bruce was as hard as Clark was. He pulled back just enough to let their lips part, still breathing the air that left Bruce's lips. His hand had moved from Bruce's chin to his hair, finally touching it after months of imagining how it would feel under his fingers, thick and surprisingly soft, and Bruce seemed surprisingly willing to let Clark touch it. Clark pressed a light kiss against the corner of Bruce's mouth, felt it quirk up underneath his lips. Not one of Bruce Wayne's smiles, that one, the mask discarded the moment Bruce had decided to kiss him back.
Bruce's lips brushed over Clark's cheek up to Clark's temple, before he said quietly, “What makes you think I only started seducing you tonight?”
Clark only stared at him in disbelief for a moment, not sure if he wanted to laugh or be offended. Of course Bruce would try to turn this to his advantage even now – of course Bruce would still think there was any advantage to be had. He tightened his grip on Bruce's hair, enough to elicit a low gasp.
“Because you could have had this weeks ago,” months ago, really, “without any further seduction necessary. And you wouldn't have misjudged the situation so badly, would you?”
“Maybe I was waiting for you to catch on,” Bruce said, but he barely bothered to sound convinced of that himself. He seemed distracted now, by Clark's hand in his hair, by the firm pressure of Clark's body against his – not pretend distracted like Bruce Wayne, rather like he'd got distracted from being Bruce Wayne. Clark leant in to kiss the side of his neck, bared by the grip he maintained on Bruce's hair, and laughed softly against his warm skin. He half considered arguing with him, but then they'd still be at that by the time the sun would rise, considering Bruce's inability not to have the last word.
So he wrapped his arm around Bruce's waist instead, lifted him easily up onto the edge of the balustrade and sent one of the ridiculously expensive champagne glasses tumbling down thirty floors. Bruce's thighs pressed against his sides even as Bruce looked like he wanted to mind being manhandled, but then he rocked lightly against Clark when Clark tightened his grip around him.
“Well, I caught on,” Clark said and kissed him again. This time Bruce didn't argue.