The Downsides to a Secret Identity - liodain (2024)

Chapter 1

Chapter Text

Clark Kent ducks through the front doors of the Daily Planet building, chased in by a brisk wind that slaps his raincoat lapels into his face. It's been equally merciless with his hair; he attempts to make himself presentable with one hand, juggling his coffee and lanyard and satchel with the other. In the process he almost runs headlong into most of the bullpen, who have gathered around the old brass globe in the foyer.

Lois sidles up beside him, shouldering Lombard out of the way. "I know it's all part of your thing, but you don't have to be late every morning," she says, stealing his coffee.

"I slept through my alarm." Some of Clark's foibles are an act, but the poor timekeeping is all him; his internal clock has never fallen into sync with the rest of the world. "What's going on?"

She lifts the lid, sniffs the coffee, wrinkles her nose then hands it back to him. "Caramel macchiato again, honestly? Well, at least you're wearing a tie today."

The crowd briefly parts, and Clark catches a glimpse of Perry in a viselike grip-and-grin with a man in a slick business suit and an intimidatingly friendly smile. Jimmy's knelt in front of them. His camera flash bounces off their teeth.

"Oh, right. The new investor thing." Clark squints in thought. "Was there something we were supposed to do for this?"

"Be professional at best and presentable at worst," Lois says. She straightens his tie and almost goes for his hair before thinking better of it and brushing something off his shoulder instead. "I told you, didn't I? You're a damn idiot—"

"—for getting into print media in the era of internet clickbait? A few times, yeah." He grins at her. "What can I say, you were an inspiration."

"That'll stop working on me eventually."

"Then I'll really be in trouble." Clark makes a final attempt to tame the persistent lick of hair that always wants to curl over his forehead. "But I guess not as much trouble as the paper if it doesn't reel in a sugar daddy."

First a buyout, then the layoffs, probably. There's been an uptick in daily sales thanks to their Superman coverage, but it's not sustainable according to management, and definitely not enough to offset the extensive structural repair work the Planet's building needed after the—after the disaster.

Lois stares at him. He can't discern what her face is trying to do, and he suspect she's not certain either. She covers her mouth. "I can't believe you just said that about Bruce Wayne," she says.

"Wait, that's Bruce Wayne...?" Clark ignores her snort of laughter and turns on his heel to take another look at the guy.

"All right, people," Perry bellows. "I don't pay you because I like to look at you all day—yes, Ms. Grant, even you. To work, please!"

Wayne stands on Perry's left, politely ignoring his robust managerial techniques. His hands are in the pockets of his slacks, body half-turned as he looks up at the burnished globe. His face is familiar, kind of—Clark might have seen the austere frown and the silver temples twice or thrice, but hadn't made the connection to a name.

Perry claps his hands and the interns bound off like startled gazelles. The veterans amble back upstairs and into the newsroom at a more leisurely pace, where a half-dozen unattended desk phones bleat insistently.

Clark's phone isn't one of them, so he wiggles his mouse until his desktop lurches zombie-like out of its Windows XP screensaver fugue, and, out of curiosity, taps Bruce Wayne's name into the search bar. He gets a startling mix of tragedy and obscenity for his trouble, and decides he should probably do this on his own time, or at the very least in an incognito window.

One of the more somber results glares accusingly at him. WAYNE TOWER DEVASTATED. His mood takes a nosedive.

It's been tough, these first few months in Metropolis. It's a city dismantled by catastrophe, and its people all hold the trauma close to their bones. In the cape, he's spent days at a time without sleep or rest, instead helping to clear the city. Tons upon tons of rubble, compressed into unnatural denseness or melted or practically gravel, and rebar and girders and asphalt and cars and furniture and sometimes a body. It goes on and on for as far as the eye can see. A mass grave of final breaths and buried dreams; a tundra of concrete and mangled metal and the detritus of daily life. Heaping piles of trash. Cinder blocks returned to cement ash. A shifting archipelago forever altering the topography of the city, and its memory.

It feels as though he's barely making a difference, like the city will always be a crater.

And at the epicenter is Centennial Park. It's called Heroes Park now, or something like that. There's some controversy over the punctuation. It's named for the citizens that he failed to save, but it's his statue—Superman's statue—that dominates one end, and the scout ship the other. The tributes that Metropolis has laid before him are humbling, but he can't help but feel that their gratitude is misplaced.

He likes to look at it as much as he likes to see the more personal tributes to the fallen, all the sorrowful ephemera scattered throughout the city: flowers tied to a buckled railing; an epitaph scrawled like graffiti on a wall of fused bricks; a soft toy atop a cairn of broken concrete and protruding rebar. It makes his heart ache, and guilt lodge bitterly in his throat.

There were forty-one adults and eight children killed in the collapse of Wayne Tower. He's read the article before.

"Earth to Clark." Lois taps the lens of his glasses with her pen.

"Sorry," Clark says. "I was miles away."

"If you need that to be a literal thing, sooner is better than later. Perry's giving Wayne the grand tour." She slips her bag off her shoulder onto Clark's desk and roots through it. "Hey, could I ask you to backfield something for me real quick? I've got a flight to catch so if you could throw it at the copy desk once you're done I'll owe you one." She drops a flashdrive into his shirt pocket without waiting for a response.

"That the Hanford exposé?" he asks, fishing it out again.

"That's it. He wouldn't spill who his buyer was, but he might sing once his court date rolls around. I'm going to be embedded in Nairomi for a while, but if you want to pick up my slack in the meantime you have my blessing. I figure it's a subject close to your heart."

"A little too close for comfort," Clark says. "Thanks. I'd like to take a look into it."

He plugs in the flashdrive. There's a document named hanford_final2_corr(3).docx, and a folder called amazonwishlistbackup which has over two hundred files of web cruft in it. He assumes that details of her sources are somewhere in the midst of its storm of metadata.

At the far end of the bullpen, the elevator dings.

"Oops," Lois says, shouldering her bag again. "Showtime. I'm going to beat a graceful retreat, schmoozing gives me hives."

"Keep out of trouble. Holler if you need me, okay?"

"You're a sweetheart." Lois plants one on his cheek and reaches over to close his browser window for him.

*

Bruce isn't fond of newsrooms. By definition, they contain a high concentration of the worst kind of busybodies: the kind that get paid for it. Thus, buying a newspaper wasn't something that's featured on his bucket list until recently. Any other struggling paper wouldn't have changed that, but the Planet is of specific interest to him, having cornered the market on Superman exclusives.

That, and LexCorp has also been sniffing around. There's never been any love lost between the Waynes and the Luthors, and while Bruce wouldn't admit to polishing a small but perfectly-formed grudge, there is some pleasure to be taken in swiping the city's foremost news publication from under Lex Luthor's nose.

Just desserts after LexCorp made a play for the Wayne Financial lot before the dust had even settled. It doesn't matter how many lawyers made smooth assurances that it was unintentional—that LexCorp had been acquiring property en masse as a way to buoy the city's economy in the aftermath of Black Zero—Bruce refuses to be placated. Lex Sr. had never liked him having a base of operations in Metropolis, and he will assume that Junior inherited his distaste.

When Bruce rebuilds, he is going to make sure his signage is visible from the LexCorp Tower penthouse offices. Petty, for sure, and something he'll happily own in the unlikely event that anyone asks.

"I confess, I'm surprised you're considering the Planet after already contributing so much to the rescue fund," White says. "Not that we aren't grateful, but Gotham alone must be all kinds of hell on your pocketbook."

"She's worth every penny, even if it feels like good money after bad a lot of the time," Bruce says. "I guess I have a soft spot for cities in need."

A redhead stops for a word with White and to introduce herself. The Lois Lane, apparently—she has a firm handshake and a manner about her that tells Bruce she'd happily flay him given half a chance.

He wonders if he might have propositioned her at some point, or if she'd just worked the society beat in the early 00s. Bruce Wayne stopped being interesting to the press after he hit the big four-zero and finally started getting his life together, but his reputation as a playboy is embedded into the population's general consciousness.

He turns to watch her leave. It's a reflex he trained himself into long before he let his public face mellow, but it's more like a bad habit these days.

"One of my best reporters," White says pointedly. "I'm sure you're familiar with her work."

She'd broken the story about the Superman, albeit in a roundabout fashion. Scoop of the century. Bruce has pored over every one of her articles on the alien.

"Didn't she write that thing about the dress?" he says.

"The dress?"

"You know, the dress. The blue and black one. Or was it gold and—"

"No," White says, friendly, but more tolerant than patient. He wants to save his paper, but he can accomplish that with investors who are less tiresome than Bruce. "You might have us confused with Facebook." He extends his arm, encouraging Bruce to walk down the middle of the bullpen. It's the most direct route to his office and also gives the staff an opportunity to gawk at him as he passes.

One of the stringers is less than discreet about his staring. If looks could kill. Bruce winks at him, and his back goes ramrod straight.

"Kent," White hisses at him, but the guy lifts his chin receptively as though White had been trying to get his attention and not deflect it. White stifles a sigh, and stops at the stringer—Kent's—desk. "What is it?"

"Um, Lois left me a piece to look over but she didn't say when it was due." Bruce catches a glimpse of some of the text as Kent scrolls through the document. A word jumps out at him: Kryptonian.

"You're her personal line editor now?" White says, then visibly gives up. "The deadline is always yesterday, you know that."

"I owed her a favor. Sorry, chief."

Bruce clears his throat. "Kent, is it?" he says. "How about you show me some tricks of the trade." He thrusts out his hand. Kent looks at it with faint reluctance and doesn't quite get to shaking it before Bruce turns back to White. "You don't mind, do you?"

"Not at all." White turns his eye onto Kent. Best goddamn behavior, that look says, and possibly: keep your foot out of your mouth. "Show Mr. Wayne what you're working on."

Bruce, having dished out plenty of veiled and not-so-veiled cautions in his time, pretends he hasn't noticed the exchange. Kent looks put-upon but shuffles his notes aside when Bruce comes to sit on the edge of his desk.

He leans in. "I always wanted to own a newspaper," he confides, sotto voce.

"Well, here's your chance," Kent says after slightly too long a pause, and flashes Bruce a tight smile. Bruce has the feeling he's about to get an idiot's guide to QuarkXPress.

Bruce grins back, something halfway contrite. "I'm sorry, was she your girlfriend?"

"She doesn't have to be my girlfriend for me to find that disrespectful, Mr. Wayne," Kent says. "Lois is a good friend of mine."

"Ah," he says knowingly. About defensive enough for there to have been something between them, perhaps, but not any more. "You're single, then?"

Kent has wide shoulders and nice hands, and a pleasing if serious face that Bruce lets himself openly appreciate. He's left the worst of his shock tactics behind, but social boundaries are still something he deliberately pushes. The last thing he wants is people getting too comfortable with him.

Kent, to his credit, looks unperturbed. "I'm married to the job. Justice and truth are demanding mistresses."

There's only an elevated eyebrow to indicate that he's less than serious, and even then, Bruce isn't certain. Either way, he might be charmed.

"I wouldn't know, I've never worked a day in my life," he says with well-dressed disregard for his audience. It's demonstrably a lie, despite his lounging all over Kent's desk, but that doesn't mean it's not as obnoxious as he intends.

Kent's laugh is adequately polite. "I'm sure that investment meetings count as work."

Bruce has no qualms about ignoring his unsubtle hint with an equal lack of tact. "I suppose that they do," he says, "especially when there aren't any refreshments. What's your story about?"

"You know, Perry is probably waiting for you."

"I got that," Bruce says. Christ.

Kent purses his lips, then says, "It's not my work. Lois discovered that Hanford Technologies sold salvaged Kryptonian artifacts instead of handing them over to the authorities like they should have. I'm just checking her grammar. It'll probably run tomorrow. I'm sure you won't mind picking up a paper if you want to know more."

Bruce feigns some feigned interest. He'd heard there was some alien tech floating about, but Mark Hanford had been arrested before the Bat could have a quiet word. He's already at a disadvantage operating in Metropolis and had resigned himself to some tedious legwork just to get a name to go on—but he might have just lucked into an effective shortcut. No need to be delicate about it, either. Bruce Wayne's approach to smalltalk is as straightforward as his approach to flirting.

"Oh, really. Who bought the tech? That's got to be some neat stuff."

Kent stops coddling the zigzags in the opening paragraph to level a skeptical look at him instead, then shrugs. He's got nothing or he's not feeling charitable about it, but either way, he's not swayed by any of the capital Bruce holds. Then he opens his mouth, closes it, and Bruce watches with pleasure as Kent's journalistic pride takes the reins. It seems he's green enough that his idealism is largely untarnished, which is appealing, if typical.

"I'm going to pitch a follow up on that," Kent says. "We don't know what was sold, but best case scenario is that they're extraterrestrial alloys. Whatever it is, it'll inevitably be weaponized."

Bruce hears his unspoken concern: the extraterrestrial alloys will be weaponized against the Superman. Wouldn't do to have their golden goose cooked. From a business perspective, it's reassuring to know the Planet and its staff are proactive in protecting their interests.

From a personal one, if there is a chance that this tech has any kind of efficacy against the alien, then finding it just became the Bat's top priority.

"Sounds like a Pulitzer waiting to happen," Bruce says. "I'm rooting for you."

Kent laughs—this time more self-deprecating than the performative courteousness of earlier. A gentle thaw. "I don't know about that," he says, and pushes his glasses up his nose. Bruce considers flirting in earnest. Kent seems like the kind of person who appreciates earnestness.

He should go see White, and then the wingtips in management to formalize his interest. Instead, he formalizes a different interest and says, "So, I didn't catch your answer. Are you free for coffee sometime?"

"Ah, no, thank you, Mr. Wayne," Kent says. "Sorry."

"I've been turned down far less politely. Don't worry about it."

"You might have better luck with the intern pool," Kent suggests.

Bruce can't tell if he's trying to soften his rebuff or if it's a masterstroke of passive-aggression. Either way, he admires his audacity. "Luck has nothing to do with it," he says, standing up and adjusting his jacket. He extends his hand. "Keep up the good work, Mr. Kent."

Kent can hold his own in a handshake, and Bruce's knuckles are still sore from a night on the town. He stifles a wince.

"Thank you," Kent says mildly. "I will."

Bruce turns and heads to White's office, and it somehow feels as though he's left his back wide open.

*

Clark has trouble keeping focus for the rest of the day. Wayne rubbed him the wrong way for a whole spectrum of reasons, but Clark is a reporter. He deals with complacent, dissolute men in positions of power on a frequent basis.

Admittedly, he's not used to them flirting with him. He knows it was all a power play: the aggressive eye contact, the smile that was no more genuine than his pleasantries, perfectly tailored to let Clark know his place. He should just file Wayne under 'smug asshole' and be done with it, but his indignation won't stop gnawing at him.

He sighs and sits back in his chair, then sets about distracting himself by trying to untangle one of the more egregious run-on sentences in Lois' Hanford piece. Clark learned very quickly that good spelling was not a prerequisite for being a good journalist. It doesn't take long before he reaches whatever the grammatical equivalent of semantic satiation is and literally can't tell if a sentence makes sense or not. He decides it's in good enough shape to sling in the direction of the edit queue.

Today has kind of gotten away from him. He can't seem to get comfortable enough at his desk to work on the fact-check his own assignment needs, and finds himself looking at his watch every few minutes. Usually a sign that he needs to get out on the street, knock on a few doors. There's scope for follow-up interviews with Hanford's staff, see if they drop any crumbs.

He feels like flying tonight—the unbound wind in his hair and cape, the city laid out beneath him in streams of light.

*

Clark tumbles into the sky and takes in the glittering expanse of Metropolis from above even its tallest skyscraper. From up here it's easy to see the break in the street lamps and office lights starting around midtown: a wide streak of unlit roads and the buckshot-scatter of empty buildings. Some are cocooned in scaffold and plastic sheets, mostly around the void that is Centennial Park.

The scout ship at the far end of the park is an entirely different beast. It's lit up with stadium lights like a lodestar in the dark parts of the cityscape. In the negative space between the floodlight beams, Clark sees a flicker of movement.

He descends slowly, a distance away. He can sense some vital signs but not with any clarity—the breathing and heartbeat he can pick up on is dampened and muddy, blurred the way they tend to be around the ship. There are often scientists working inside the vessel during the day and occasionally into the evening. They usually don't stay this late. And they definitely don't slide between the shadows like that.

Clark lands a street away, near the twisted girders and hanging wires of a half-demolished office building. He'd shifted debris from here only a few days ago; it's a spot that the grab-trucks and diggers can't get into easily. Honest work, or as honest as it can get for for someone whose hands won't bleed or lungs won't burn with cement dust, who won't ache, deep in his bones, the next morning.

He approaches the ship on foot with the same trepidation he always does. He'd been so overjoyed to find it the first time. It makes him physically ill to be near it now, knowing the remnants of his world tried to use it to destroy this one. He can't even bear it long enough to find out if Jor-El haunts it still. He assumes it's a psychosomatic thing, but that doesn't make it any less insurmountable, or any less upsetting.

It sits there in the park, as much a monument to his failure as the statue is supposed to be to his triumph.

A silhouette flickers against the containment tent that quarantines the ship, split into triplicate by the directional lighting. Clark frowns, immediately cautious. He's pretty sure whoever cast it is wearing a cape.

He scans the area—there, again, a dart of movement. Somebody is skirting the circumference of the ship, just barely avoiding the security in place. He is definitely wearing a cape, and some kind of protective headgear that Clark's vision can't penetrate. The figure turns and is crisply outlined for a fraction of a second before he ducks and covers, and now Clark recognizes him.

The Bat of Gotham, here?

He could go and confront him, ask what he thinks he's doing snooping around in Metropolis, but Clark's curiosity is piqued. There are any number of rumors about him: he's a neighborhood myth, except when he's the subject of a citywide dragnet. He's a metahuman, except when he's a demon, summoned in a sacrificial frenzy by Gotham's founding fathers centuries ago. Some say he's inhuman in his methods, that he brands his targets like cattle. But then again, they also say that he's a vampire.

Nope, Clark thinks, definitely just a guy. He's toting some bleeding-edge military-grade gear and there's enough circuitry in his cowl that it's no wonder Clark's x-ray keeps failing, but everything else about him—the imprecations muttered under his breath, the way he slightly favors his left leg, the tang of his perspiration beneath the nano-engineered kevlar-plate armor—is resolutely human.

The reality of his existence is encouraging, even if he isn't anything as exotic as people say.

Clark watches him prowl an inch too close to the ship's security perimeter and trigger a silent alarm that's not so silent to Clark. The Bat glances at his wrist and, apparently having detected it as well, somersaults into obscurity before a pair of armed security come to investigate.

It actually takes Clark a moment to locate him again—seems like the dampening effect isn't entirely the ship's doing—but he hears a report and the expulsion of gas from a canister, and gets sights on him grappling up the sheer face of one of the more intact office blocks nearby. He settles up there at the lip of the rooftop, hunkering down in a swathe of drapery, a neo-gothic anomaly backlit among what's left of Metropolis' art deco façades.

He's probably not going to get a better opportunity to introduce himself. Clark lifts himself off the cracked sidewalk and up into the sky again, and takes a moment to consider his entrance. Something equally dramatic, perhaps, a joke they could share from the outset.

Clark drifts for a second in the inky night, the chill air rippling his cape. From the outset—as though he's already decided that they will be a team. His anticipation surges; he has the sense that something radical is in his hands.

*

Bruce slides his thumb over the edge of his gauntlet and terminates the pattern of vibrations at his wrist. The haptic feedback tells him that he triggered two separate alarms while trying to get near enough to tunnel into the site's security protocols. A mistake that doesn't kill him is an opportunity to learn. He can use this failure to refine his next attempt.

Frustration mounts in him. He vents it with a long hiss of breath. The modulator makes it sound like rainfall, and he wishes he were back in Gotham.

He's three days into his temporary relocation as he tends to WE business and although he had been at ground zero as the buildings thundered down, he is only barely beginning to comprehend the scale of the damage. He remembers how the dust rose into the afternoon sky and noise that was so intense it was a full-body experience. He remembers most of all the morning after: the beginning of a new, strange, terrifying world.

He'd always felt exposed in Metropolis with its wide boulevards and glossy buildings, the well-lit streets and avenues that haven't even so much as heard of a grimy brick alleyway, but now, among the ruins, there's an abundance of places to hide. Fury rushes in on him as though the frustration he expelled had left a vacuum. It's impossible to think upon the Superman and the consequences of his unfettered power without feeling this way.

He's spent most of the night chasing his tail, no closer to getting a lead on the Kryptonian tech than when he started. Every scrap of Hanford's data infrastructure has been seized by the authorities; breaking into the premises had been a long shot that hadn't paid off. So was putting the fear into key members of staff he'd hunted down. Or ex-staff, as one righteously informed him. All plead ignorance.

There is scant recourse, but the Superman must be checked and he's made it his responsibility to find a way to do it. The tech and the ship are his most immediate options at present, then whatever he might find in the ass-end of Kansas, and failing that, at the secondary incursion site in the Indian Ocean, a kilometer off the coast of the Maldives.

It would be inconvenient for everyone if Bruce Wayne were to take a vacation. If the rest doesn't pan out, the Maldives are definitely on the table.

He regrets leaning so hard into arrogance with Kent; he may have revealed some information of use if Bruce had handled him correctly—but it's pointless to pick that apart now. He runs a quick ready check on his gear and prepares to made a second recon pass, when a change in the air pressure makes his ears crackle.

Bruce draws himself to his feet and brings himself face-to-face with the limitless potential of the Superman.

The alien floats before Bruce, treading air, his cape streaming lavishly behind him. His arms are folded in an aggressive and intimidating demand for respect.

"Hi there," he says, and smiles.

An atavistic panic claws at Bruce's ribcage. He crushes it down before it can break free. "What are you doing here," he says.

"I live here." The Superman relaxes his stance, half turning with lazy grace and glancing at the ship in the park below. "What about you? Something caught your interest?"

"My interests are none of your concern."

Bruce takes a step back as the alien lands with an unsettling weightlessness; he barely disturbs the gravel that scatters the rooftop. So, he is capable of care and control. He merely fails to exercise it when it's most important.

"Okay, but just imagine I'm curious," the Superman says.

He seems amused at Bruce's reticence, or perhaps at his stymied attempt to gain access to the Kryptonian craft. The Superman, of course, could fly down there and walk right inside. Even if the security detail wanted to stop him, they couldn't. Human beings, armed or otherwise, are no obstacle to him. For all of his training and discipline and skill, his armor and technology, the limits he pushes, the Superman could break Bruce where he stands with no more effort than the average person expends on swatting an insect.

If he were inclined to answer, Bruce would not be able to disguise the starkness of his anger.

"Alright then," the alien says, unfazed by Bruce's towering silence. He can walk through walls, after all. "I have a concern. Are you here to make trouble?"

Even expressing caution, he is disorientingly friendly, a gloss of benevolence over an engine of destruction. Bruce understands suddenly why Metropolis has raised a monument to him—how it's possible that, despite laying waste to their homes and livelihoods and their families, people could love him.

"No," Bruce says evenly.

The Superman nods. There's nothing to indicate that he thinks Bruce is lying, which means Bruce can add a sense of foreboding to this parade of unwelcome emotional experiences. Could a being of such awesome power truly be this naïve?

"Oh, huh," the Superman says. "Now I hear you."

Bruce's shoulders stiffen. "What?" he says. For a delirious moment he wonders if he can read minds, then dismisses the thought. If he could, no doubt he'd have a lot more to say to him than this.

"I thought it was the ship—it does something strange to my hearing. But it's your gear, isn't it? I couldn't get a good handle on you until your pulse kicked up there." The Superman says this brightly, as though he hasn't just revealed that he can read the minutiae of Bruce's physiology like an open book.

The biodampening measures in the suit are grievously inadequate.

He falls back on some autogenic training instead and returns himself to a relaxed baseline, even if he's not as calm as he'd like. At least this hasn't been a one-sided exchange of information: the ship affects the Superman in some fashion.

"It's impressive. Did you design it yourself?" the alien says, still ignoring Bruce's ongoing lack of response. Maybe he just likes the sound of his own voice. If he were a human being, he would perhaps have had the grace to start feeling embarrassed. Instead he gestures at Bruce's chest and says, "I like your, uh, symbol. The bat. Suits you."

And now Bruce understands. It's not naïvety, and his trepidation is misplaced. The alien is trying to reassure him, soothing him as though he's a frightened animal. He's taking a step towards him right now, holding out his hand, and even two decades of intense street brawling haven't prepared Bruce for this ice-cold flood of adrenaline.

"Oh, no. Look, I just want to—" the Superman says, and then jerks his head to one side, staring out over the city. "—damn. Sorry."

He takes a step back and shoots into the sky with enough force to whip Bruce's cape around his face.

Bruce looks up in time to see the Superman haloed by the moon, then he splits it with a vapor trail, vanishing with a sonic boom that Bruce feels in his back teeth.

He's left with too much unchanneled adrenaline and the knowledge that the Superman had intended to touch him, that it's only happenstance that he left before he did, that there's nothing Bruce could have done to stop him if he hadn't. He is struck with profound sense of despair: the realization that what he knows is not enough for what he needs to do.

He drops into a crouch and stays there for a while with his hand folded into a fist, knuckles against his mouth, letting the adrenaline disperse and thinking. Then he heads in the direction of the Daily Planet building.

*

Kent isn't so sloppy that he'd leave a flashdrive in his desktop at work. Bruce's syndication feed spits out notifications in the cowl's retinal display as he leaves the bullpen: the Superman is in Dhaka, aiding victims of a flash flood. He locates HR, rifles through their files and extracts Kent's home address.

He lives in a fifth-floor walkup on Clinton. There's no answer when Bruce remotely activates the door buzzer. One bed, kitchenette, not much in the way of personal touches except for the knitted afghan throw over the couch, a framed photograph of his parents and a dog, and a lumpy handmade papier-mâché rooster on the bookcase. It doesn't look as though he's lived here long. Not long enough to realize that his window doesn't sit flush in its frame. Not that it'd be any trouble to jimmy it open either way.

Kent's laptop sits on the coffee table, charging, and next to it is the flashdrive. Bruce tucks it into his belt and then leaves the same way he arrived.

*

"I wasn't expecting you back so soon." Alfred looks up from where he's sitting at his workbench with a cup of coffee and a sandwich crust, a newspaper resting over his crossed leg. "I'd have prepared you some supper."

Bruce ignores his stomach's enthusiasm at the idea and instead raises an eyebrow at the tangle of wiring that has yet to be coaxed into the prototype armored cowl. "Should I be making you account for your hours, Alfred?"

"Only if you can account for yours as well, sir. You know you've a groundbreaking ceremony to attend first thing."

"That's Thursday. LexCorp bullsh*t."

"Yes. You have one Thursday, and one tomorrow morning."

Bruce grumbles wordlessly, peeling off his gloves. He appreciates that Alfred considers this a duty of care, but that doesn't mean it's not irritating. "I'm just here to look at some files," he says, leaning over his desk to slot the flashdrive home. He doesn't mention that he's missing Gotham's dark side-streets and neon arcades, the way the rain shatters the surface of its puddles.

"Ah. The downfall of many a bored CEO." Alfred returns to his paper. "Is your laptop broken?"

Bruce ignores him in favor of skimming Lane's Hanford draft. He finds nothing useful for his purposes, which is to be expected from a piece intended for public consumption, except for one small but critical detail. It wasn't only the alien hardware that was peddled on the darknet. It was schematics, too. He corrects a dangling modifier and accepts all tracked changes, then closes the file.

The folder full of garbage css and htm files is endearingly nineties as far as amateur infosec goes, but Bruce has seen less effective approaches. He sets a focused crawler on it that pulls out everything that looks promising. Once he threshes out the false positives along with the authors, actors and musicians—Christ, Lane has appalling taste—he's left with something to go on. URLs, usernames, data that might be key words or contact numbers.

"So, how are you finding Metropolis?" Alfred says in his relentless dedication to smalltalk. He has, at least, returned to tinkering on the cowl.

"Civilized," Bruce says. He fogs some bitcoin and takes a dive into the seedier corners of the internet. The marketplace he's looking for apparently specializes in prototype military arms and armor, and he knows what to take note of now—the shibboleths that indicate that there's something out of the ordinary on the table. He selects the schematics and demands a physical handover, tacking an extra zero onto his offer as incentive. "Protected."

Alfred pauses in his attempt to pry a microchip out of the cowl's circuitry and stares at him over the rim of his glasses.

"The Superman," Bruce begins. The evaporated terror of his encounter rains down on him again. He has to get up and pace.

"Ah, here we go."

"He's decided that Metropolis is his city."

"Much like Gotham is yours?"

"Nothing like that. Gotham has always been mine to protect. What grand mandate does he have—"

"The same one you do, sir."

"I grew up here," Bruce says. "My family—Gotham's in my blood and in my bones. I've given my entire life to her streets. What about him? Does he even bleed? What possible loyalty could he have to the people of Metropolis, or anywhere? And they welcome him—they honor him, rely on him to save them, even though he brought this destruction raining down on their heads and could do so again at any moment."

"It's ever been mankind's folly to depend on the whim of unreliable gods."

"The world can't afford for him to be unreliable. We can't afford anything less than his unconditional loyalty, and depending on that is always going to be fool's wager."

Alfred places his screwdriver down onto the workbench. "What are you saying, Master Bruce?"

Bruce rubs at his eyes with his thumb. It's been a testing night. "I don't know," he says. "All I know is he's not something the world should have blind faith in, and that we should be prepared for a worst-case scenario. Always. There are already thousands of people dead. That's an undeniable fact, and—"

"And there would have been thousands more, billions more, had he not intervened. And you and I would not be having this conversation because we would be among them."

"Specious framing, Alfred."

Alfred says nothing to that; instead he flicks on one of the monitors and pages to a live news feed. The Bangladeshi flood and the Superman, above it all. A divine myth, an avatar of destruction.

"Hypothetically, even if he isn't a threat—hypothetically—" he says to Alfred's silent, sarcastic agreement. "Who's to say more of his kind won't come from the stars at any time. I need to know how to stop him. Them. I need a kill switch. Something that will work with absolute certainty. It might be the only thing that stands between the human race and complete annihilation."

"Last time, the only thing that stood between the human race and complete annihilation was him. We owe him that, sir."

"I don't owe him anything when his existence endangered us in the first place," Bruce insists. "He didn't appear out of nowhere. You remember the broadcast. He lived among us, he infiltrated. He's a scout gone native—"

"What I remember is that Lois Lane found him by following a string of nothing but good deeds."

"Even when he's doing good, he razes half a city. He's as dangerous an ally as he is an enemy—imagine what he could do if he doesn't have our best interests at heart. And now I'm on his radar, and I'm barely any closer to finding a way to anticipate him, never mind counteract him." Bruce drags his cowl back on. His voice drops into the Bat's rough digital grind. "Dark days are coming, Alfred. I have to keep them at bay any way I can."

Alfred's mouth thins. "How did you lose your way so thoroughly?" he asks. "How is this going to end, Bruce?"

Enough of this; enough of Alfred's proselytising. It won't be dawn for hours. Plenty of time for him to head into the cauldron of Gotham's underworld and connect his fist to somebody's face in a meaningful fashion. There's always another trafficker, always another smuggler, another dealer or thief or vandal, always reports of a fight or a fire or gunshots heard.

Twenty years ago he thought he could heal this city of her thousand tiny cuts. Now he knows he was only ever going to have her blood on his hands. He owes the rest of the world more than that.

*

Clark is woken up by his phone buzzing on his nightstand. It's the early hours; too early for dawn to sneak in through the crack in the curtains. He fumbles his messages open to find that even autocorrect gives up in the face of Lois' texting: things movig re Hanford, ctct wants to meet told him Im awol so expecting u

He squints bleary-eyed at the message, and his phone vibrates with another while he works on deciphering it. Maybe he's still asleep. He read somewhere that it's difficult to read when you're dreaming.

big $$$ involved, be cool. Gotham 6 30 weds mrn, njoy

And then a string of emoji he hopes contain no actual meaning. Clark groans and lets his phone fall onto his face. It buzzes again.

wait what time is it there?? sry ilu ok xxx

*

A hard wind blows off the North Atlantic, bringing with it a gray pall of rain. It drenches the crumbling coastal batteries that have been absorbed into Gotham's seafront architecture. Below the rusting warehouses, the ocean thunders and booms against the sea wall, a low roar that resonates in Bruce's gut.

Dawn curdles on the horizon. Gulls squall and circle. From his vantage atop the old grain exchange building, Bruce has a clear view of the more contemporary, equally abandoned building opposite. Regeneration attempts didn't take here at the river mouth, not least because it reeks unfashionably of decaying seaweed. A row of half-completed low-rise offices sit on the waterfront, the bare steel frames in sympathy with the gantry cranes and container terminals.

He's here because Clark Kent is. Bruce spotted him not long ago, hurrying down the esplanade with his collar up against the haze of cold rain. Presumably he's meeting a suspect individual. Their interests currently intersect, so there is a nonzero chance it's the same suspect individual the Bat is after. He anticipates some resistance, but if Kent is as difficult with the Bat as he was with Bruce Wayne, he has more license to be less patient.

Two blinks brings up the time in the cowl's retinal display. Already past the agreed rendezvous, and still not a sniff of their mutual friend.

He waits another two minutes, then sends out a line.

*

Clark checks Lois' message once more even though he knows he's got the details straight, then hikes up to the garage's second-last level as instructed, shaking rainwater out of his hair as he goes. There are tatters of faded police tape over the ramp up to rooftop and the stairwell access has a stale piss-stink to it. Despite the slick new buildings he passed in the business district, these things seem more true to Gotham's nature.

While he waits for his contact to show, the rain turns to sleet that blows sideways into the garage. Clark takes refuge behind one of its many squat concrete pillars. He doesn't feel the cold per se, but nobody enjoys being pelted by icewater at a forty-five degree angle.

By a quarter of seven he assumes he's been ditched. He sighs and pulls at the lapels of his raincoat, preparing to once again brave the miserable weather, when he hears the unspooling of a grapnel wire and soon after the scuff of a boot on the building's wall.

It seems unlikely that his contact would rappel in. He glances through the concrete pillar. The Bat's armor is a bright mass of bounced x-ray.

Clark hadn't expected to run into him again quite so soon. Or at all, where his day job was concerned. That may have been naïve of him, considering he's been poking around the seedier parts of Gotham, but he has a chance to make a better impression here. Maybe he could not embarrass himself by gushing about his outfit again.

"Are you lost?" a dark voice says.

Clark emerges from behind the pillar. The Bat is standing on an exterior wall between concrete mullions, his cape surging against the murky yellow sky.

"No, but I think my lead is," Clark says. "I hope you didn't scare him off."

"My lead, you mean." His tone is markedly different. Clark wouldn't go as far as to call him amiable, but certainly far less abrasive even when he's apparently accusing him of something. This could be because he thinks he's talking to a civilian, or because he's on his own turf this time, or both. Things might get a little more prickly once the Bat realizes Clark is a journalist. He certainly hasn't forgone his air of menace.

The Bat steps down from the wall, holstering his grapnel as he does. Slabs of shadow glide over him as he moves. His body language insists that he is not a threat: shoulders rounded; hands in view and open; palms visible, held low and relaxed.

There's somehow more fidelity to him than there was to the hunched gargoyle he was poking at last night. Clark is hit with the full impact of his aestheticized fear in one stomach-dropping instant. He's not afraid—not in the way he understands it—but his blood begins to rush as the Bat approaches him. He licks his lips and hopes it looks like a nervous tic.

"So, you're real, then," he says. "At least that's something, if my lead isn't going to shake out."

"If this is what passes for news these days," the Bat says, a purl of self-satisfaction making its way into his voice beneath the layers of digital adjustment. He must already have an idea of who Clark is. He doesn't seem to care.

He's right, though: 'Batman Spotted in Gotham' isn't a story with meat on its bones, and Perry's tolerance for forteana is still remarkably low.

Clark is cautiously optimistic, but not imprudent enough to offer his hand when he says, "Clark Kent, Daily Planet. I've heard a lot about you."

"Very diplomatic. Why are you here, Mr. Kent."

"Like I said. Following a lead."

"Be more specific."

Clark laughs, a sharp noise that echoes in the garage's empty space, and smooths his damp hair away from his forehead. Absurdly, he might be sweating a bit. "Why are you here?"

The Bat takes a long, thoughtful breath; it crackles like static. "Darknet arms dealing ring. Thought your man could be its weak link."

Trust is a currency, and Clark might believe the Bat is giving something expensive away here if it were the whole truth. They both know that the arms in question are Kryptonian, but the Bat doesn't know that Clark's interests are personal, and he doesn't know that Clark knows his interests don't stop at shutting down a smuggling operation. He's been snooping around the scout ship for a reason, even if Clark doesn't know what that reason is yet.

There's an obvious conclusion to be drawn. It's one that Clark doesn't care for in the least, but he'll give him the benefit of the doubt until the evidence firms up a little. It's not like he can't stop him whenever he likes. It's just a matter of how clean it'll be.

The Bat will fight like a beast, if it comes down to it. That is something Clark has no illusions over.

"I have concerns over his whereabouts," the Bat says. "My line to him is convoluted. Can you do better?"

"I can."

There is a pause during which an air of expectancy develops. The Bat tilts his head slightly.

Oh. Clark makes an ambivalent noise.

"I have the means to find him faster," the Bat says. Which isn't strictly true, but he doesn't know that. Though, he is less concerned about the legalities of his work, which tends to speed things up. Clark likes to maintain a certain ethical standard.

Besides, if Clark tells him, the Bat will owe him one. Journalism has its own complex economy of favors, and with a little judiciousness, a year's supply of Danishes and a standing promise to spell check, Lois might forgive him. This is incredibly tempting. If they could establish a rapport, or even a genuine trust—

"Right." Clark should not be feeling giddy about this. "Hypothetically, if I agree, what can you offer in exchange?"

"The satisfaction of knowing you've done the right thing."

Clark struggles to maintain his professionalism, but a smile breaks through. "I can get that by rescuing a cat out of a tree. What else have you got?"

"Mercenary." The Bat says this with a hint of warmth. Merely responding to Clark's grinning, or taking off the accusatory edge. Assuming anything more than that would be unwise.

"Fair," Clark says. "Don't you think?"

"How about this: I find him, extract what I need, and pass the information on to you."

"Or you might just vanish into the night. I need more than your word."

The Bat pauses a moment. "I could share what intel I already have," he says slowly.

"Unredacted?"

The Bat thins his mouth. It's not an answer.

Clark imagines he's wearing a similar expression. "Okay. But don't expect a cupcake if all you bring me is crumbs."

"Tomorrow night." The Bat steps back; the oily shadows of the garage swim over him.

"Wait," Clark says, in a baseless impulse to make him stay a little longer. "What if I need to be in touch?"

The Bat pauses a moment. "There's a lantern on top of the old GCPD building. Go turn it on."

"I'm not going to come all the way to Gotham in the rain and turn on a flashlight in the hope you'll show up when I need you to," Clark says. "If you could see your way clear to it, I'd rather send a text."

"Hm." The Bat stares at him for an uncomfortably long moment, then thumbs one of his belt pouches open.

"I'll leave you out of my story." Clark lets go of any designs he had on writing about this, and finds he's not as disappointed as he thought he'd be. "I'm not invested in chasing Gotham's boogeyman out of his closet. You'd be deep background."

At that, the Bat seems to reach a decision and plucks a device from his belt. It's smaller than a dime, matte black—an earpiece of some sort. He holds it out and Clark accepts it on the flat of his palm.

"Use it only if you must. If you try to trace anything I will terminate its channel and consider our agreement void. Understand?"

"Perfectly." Clark assumes there's a tracker in it, and resolves to never have it on him when he's wearing the cape. The idea that the Bat could hunt him down at any point when he's in civvies, though—that holds an appeal that he doesn't want to look at too closely. He doesn't need to spend that much time in abandoned alleyways.

"Mention me if you want," the Bat says. "In your article. Don't need the publicity, but it's not my problem if you want to put your credibility in the firing line."

"Maybe I will after all." It's barely a bluff. It worked for Lois, but Perry would throw it in the trash then put him on the sports desk for a month. Or on the society beat.

The Bat accepts it with indifference and takes a step back to dissolve into the garage's dense shadows. Just a man in a suit, Clark reminds himself, as he departs so silently that all Clark hears is the wind lifting his cape and the muted thump of his heart.

**

Chapter 2

Chapter Text

The early fall wind sweeps through the plaza, fluttering the coats and scarves of those gathered in the square. Most of the rubble has been cleared away here—expediently, in comparison to the rest of the city, and it's apparent why. Bruce lingers at the back of the crowd and watches the proceedings with a cup of mediocre coffee and a cynical eye. He's been to more groundbreaking ceremonies than he has hairline fractures. If the invitation had been extended by anyone else, he'd have brushed it off with a tone-deaf excuse or forgotten about it entirely.

Luthor, though, he's been all over the news lately. His message is predominantly one of optimism, looking onward and upward as Metropolis is restored, how this is an opportunity for business growth in the community, the future is brighter than ever, et cetera. Empty corporate calories. That's not what Bruce is here for.

Recently he's said some—not provocative, exactly, not controversial things about the Superman, but he's skirted the issue in a way that's caught Bruce's attention. He hasn't done much to disguise his disdain.

Today he's building a library.

"To me, Metropolis is not a disaster area or a financial risk," Luthor says from his podium. The breeze agitates his hair and whisks his sports coat about. For this public appearance he's chosen to wear a Metropolis Monarchs tee and vintage Nikes. Bruce dislikes him immensely. "Despite the tragedy all around us, it holds the same exciting potential it always has. Metropolis is the City of Tomorrow, and to me, that means a seamless union of technology and architecture, of the future and today, of—"

In the crowd that ranges from puzzled to stultified, Bruce spots a familiar face. He sidles over and places a hand on Kent's shoulder in a gesture of familiarity that is wholly unearned, and sets his smile to stun.

Kent starts at his touch but quickly regains his composure. "Mr. Wayne," he says, in precisely the manner of someone who has been buttonholed in public by somebody they'd rather not talk to. He turns just enough that Bruce's hand slides off his shoulder.

In truth, Bruce isn't in the mood for his moodiness. The fact that he will give the Bat the time of day and yet he's standoffish with Bruce Wayne, who has been precision-designed to be easily, if grudgingly, liked, is ridiculous in a way that pisses Bruce off. Partly because, as much as he'd like to lay this at Kent's feet, he only has himself to blame, but mostly because he's discovered he actively wants Kent's attention. Bruce wants him to ask questions so he can deflect them, wants to push the boundaries of his cordiality, wants to find out what makes him tick.

"How are you enjoying Lex's speech so far?" he asks.

"Oh, uh." Kent pushes his glasses up his nose. His tone is polite, almost. "It's, yeah. Interesting."

"—in the hour of Metropolis' need, I am here. I bring with me healing, yes indeed, but I also bring ambition—"

"The people-watching is interesting. This—" Bruce nods in Luthor's direction, "is a train wreck." He takes a sip of his lukewarm coffee and pretends he doesn't notice the look Kent is giving him.

A flurry of shutter snaps drifts from the informal photo pit as Luthor spreads his arms high and wide. "It’s past time for a radical rethink—"

"I figured this was normal for techno-managerial wunderkinder." Kent turns back to his notepad and jots something in shorthand. "At least he's not reading his cue cards in the wrong order."

Bruce takes that jab in the spirit it's intended, which is to say Kent is trying to embarrass him into leaving. So he's going to stay, even if it's because he won't have his ego so drastically underestimated.

"Why do you think he's still here?" he says instead.

"Sorry?"

"Luthor. A lot of business pulled out of Metropolis after the attack. The old LexCorp was all about heavy machinery and petrochemicals, but Junior here isn't a traditionalist, or even nostalgic. He's got long-term global investments and eminently portable technological projects. He has the capital to move wherever he likes, so why stay here?"

"Maybe because he lives here," Kent says. But then he clicks his pen a couple of times and tucks it behind his ear. Finally, his undivided attention. The wind has shocked his cheeks and nose a pale pink. "What are you implying?"

"Nothing," Bruce says. "Just making conversation." That, at least, is true.

"I don't think so." Kent is more interrogational about this than Bruce would like. "Is there something about LexCorp's holdings I should be looking into?"

Reporters. Bruce stifles a sigh. "I don't know, why don't you have a dig around and tell me what you find."

Kent pauses. "You're not very subtle, Mr. Wayne," he says.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Bruce replies smartly. He's actually got minimal interest in Luthor's corporate doings but it's the kind of bullsh*t that's undetectable beneath the layers of the rest of his bullsh*t, and it keeps Kent here, looking at him. "I suppose you already have your hands full with your alien—what was it? Illegal ray guns?"

"That's yet to be determined. Oh, Lois' piece ran this morning," he says with earnest pride, "did you read it?"

"I don't read anything before midday and without at least two cups of coffee in me. Speaking of—"

Kent looks like he meant to grimace but is sabotaged by the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. Flattered, then, that Bruce is still trying it, but also irritated. "I'm working right now," he says. "Trying to work."

"Later, then? You can fill me in on your investigation. I'm sure you've got a hot tip."

"I do have a promising lead, but there's not a conversation in it," Kent says, heroically ignoring the barrage of entendres. He lifts a hand and briefly touches the breast of his coat. Underneath the waxed canvas would be his shirt pocket, where he must be keeping the communicator the Bat gave to him last night.

Bruce's own communicator is snug in his ear. He could activate it with a touch and Kent's would chime. He'd have to find an excuse to duck aside and tap it home, then he'd hear Bruce's voice split, present here in the square and an intimate echo in his ear.

It's untethering, how thin this boundary is. Bruce checks himself. He has no idea what he's doing here. There is absolutely no reason to be gracelessly ingratiating himself with Kent when the Bat can get everything he needs from him, and with more dignity.

Clark smiles out over the crowd, and then turns it on Bruce.

Christ.

"If you've got more to say about LexCorp, though—I'll buy you a coffee," he says. "There's some kind of a holdup with his new headquarters? If I remember rightly it should've been finished weeks ago."

"I can only speak to what I've heard, and what I hear is that the HVAC isn't up to code."

Which does sound like bullsh*t, but Bruce had taken a look when the building plans and permits were first filed as a matter of professional curiosity. Between that and industry gossip, he'd pieced together that Luthor was employing a system of LexCorp's own design. Not solely HVAC; it was supposed to incorporate some kind of clean energy setup. Pioneering, groundbreaking, untested, in the middle of a city that's already been rocked by disaster. Strip away the inside baseball and that's why he's failed to cut a ribbon on it.

Now that he's giving it more than a cursory thought, it doesn't sit right with him. Even the most stringent of building inspectors has a price or a limit, and Luthor is not above throwing his money or weight around to get a project out of R&D any more than Bruce is.

So, some degree of actual bullsh*t, but not bullsh*t that's relevant to anything or anyone. Except, possibly, a reporter.

"Really," Kent says. "That's unconvincingly mundane."

"It's very embarrassing for him, I expect."

As if to undermine Bruce's point entirely, Luthor's speech takes an abrupt and inexplicable tangent away from the Friends of Metropolis Library and into Jungian theory. He's practically vibrating with energy, moving as though he's liable to break into a calisthenics drill at any moment. His personal assistant gazes into the middle distance.

Then, with a thump of the microphone and a brief whine of feedback, he gets back on-script.

"Mm—but I digress. All around us is evidence of what alien beings can do," he says, encompassing Metropolis and its fractured buildings and shattered lives with a perfunctory sweep of his arm. "Let's not forget that humans can be pretty impressive in their own right."

Kent's body language closes up; his face goes tight for a moment as though harboring a private emotion. Maybe he's not as fond of the Superman and his massive destructive power as the rest of his colleagues. Or maybe he's sensitive to the mildest criticism of him, leveled however obliquely. Bruce finds it difficult to get a read on him.

"Well, I think I've heard all I need to," he says. He retrieves his pen from behind his ear and pushes it into the spiral binding of his pad. "Enjoy the rest of the ceremony, Mr. Wayne."

Bruce catches his arm before he can leave. "Not going to pester me for a pull quote before you go?"

Whatever tension had Kent in its grip a moment ago has relaxed its hold enough for him to joke. "I have one," he says. He clears his throat and reads off his notepad. " 'This is a train wreck'."

"I would like," Bruce says, "to retroactively declare that off the record."

"You have know it doesn't work that way."

Bruce conjures a dismayed, beseeching expression. He has to stretch it almost to caricature before Kent cracks.

"Is this how you sweet-talk all the reporters? No wonder your search results are, uh, what they are."

"No. Usually I buy them coffee and sometimes breakfast," Bruce says. "You Googled me?"

"Scoping out the new boss before—aha. Ha."

"Gentle request that you don't quote me."

"Jeez, you're—" Kent laughs, short but genuine, and Bruce feels a rush of satisfaction at it. "All right. I wasn't really going to, anyway."

Bruce drops Kent's arm before it becomes entirely impolite instead of only mostly. Despite the way he holds himself, he is remarkably solid under those layers of plaid; Bruce reins in his desire to investigate further. Around them, the spectators begin to move, slowly milling out of the square. He missed the point at which Luthor had stopped speaking; he's currently posing for the photographers with one foot on a shovel speared into the waterlogged soil. His personal assistant seems to have perked up despite her heels constantly sinking into the mud.

"A pleasure, Mr. Wayne," Kent says. He sounds halfway to meaning it, though he might just be distracted by Luthor, who has tipped his his hard hat to a rakish angle and is resting a fist on one hip.

"Likewise, Mr. Kent. I look forward to reading a firsthand account of the morning."

"You were here."

"Not in spirit."

Kent laughs again as he packs away his notepad. They let the crowd carry them along as they leave, incidentally rubbing elbows until Bruce detours to deposit his empty coffee cup in the trash. When he turns back, Kent has vanished.

*

The quick-fading violet of a Gotham dusk refracts through the windows of the lakehouse, chased out by a starless night. Alfred dogs Bruce's heels as he strips back to himself, collecting jacket and tie and cufflinks as they're shed in his wake.

"It was fine, made smalltalk, didn't offend anyone important," Bruce tells him.

"Hmm. Better luck next time," Alfred says, returning Bruce Wayne's accoutrements to their rightful places. Bruce has managed to avoid the brunt of his silent treatment by staying in Metropolis, so now he gets the sharp edge of his tongue instead. It's the more fun part of their fights, for a given value of fun.

At his computer, Bruce leans back in his chair and takes a long breath, and then pans for data on LexCorp. Nothing presents itself immediately, but a different name draws his attention: Hanford Technologies again, turning up like a bad penny.

It's in the process of being acquired by a holding company. More specifically, by an unconsolidated associate company of a subsidiary of an affiliate of a holding company. They're all unfamiliar names; overseas joint ventures and small-stakes businesses, until he works his way up the pyramid and strikes gold: LexCorp sitting pretty at the top.

LexCorp has a history of growing its base through acquisitions. It seems Hanford Technologies has become of interest. So much interest that Luthor doesn't want anyone else to know about it without putting in some effort. It's a recent legal filing, something that's not filtered through to public knowledge and perhaps never will, if done quietly enough.

Neither the Bat nor Bruce Wayne are in optimal positions to root out more information. The Bat might very well have a missing persons case on his hands; he anticipates that tracking down Kent's source is not going to be straightforward, even with a name and the information cascade that comes with it. There's a suspicion in the back of his mind which he sets aside before it can crystallize. He hasn't confirmed that the contact is missing for certain—he could have just bottled. Too soon to be drawing conclusions from circ*mstance.

As for Bruce Wayne, the thought of drunkenly pratfalling his way into Luthor's server rooms is profoundly tiring. And why suffer it when has someone to do his dirty work for him? He has been in two minds about handing over any genuine information to Kent, but since he's already inadvertently sowed some doubt over LexCorp's dealings today, he would be remiss to not take advantage of it. At worst, even if he comes up empty, Kent will have felt useful enough that it may legitimize their partnership in his eyes.

If they're fortunate, his digging will bear fruit. Bruce can keep tabs on his whereabouts as long as he keeps the communicator on him. If Kent upsets the wrong people in the course of his investigation things are liable to get sticky, and Bruce would like to know exactly where he is should he have to come swooping in to his rescue.

Not that he's inclined to romanticize the situation.

He considers coming clean to Kent about planting a tracker on him, then decides not to. If he's worth his salt he will have already figured it out, but if he hasn't, that might knock any trust Kent has put in him, and more importantly, his inclination to share. Bruce doesn't enjoy being four martinis deep and lost on the way to the bathroom so he'll keep it to himself for now—but if Kent asks, maybe he won't deny it.

*

Bruce arranges their rendezvous in a fresh location: on a rooftop of a decommissioned refinery that squats at the rotting end of the Amusem*nt Mile. The spot is beneath a water tower corroded full of holes; the wind funnels through it with a miserable howl. He chooses these meeting places with careful deliberation. Mostly for discretion, but melodrama gets to weigh in more often than not.

Kent is early—so early he's here before Bruce. He had to have climbed up one of the greasy ladders that flank the building, but his raincoat has escaped any noticable smirching. Either he's extremely careful or extremely lucky. Bruce will always take care over luck, but either will do in a pinch.

The rain pelts over the rooftop and rills in sheer waves down Bruce's cape, dripping off its weighted hem when they duck under the water tower to talk.

"Nice night." Kent frowns down at his hands where they're busy drying off his glasses. He blinks beads of moisture from his eyelashes. "Does it ever stop raining here?"

"Sometimes it hails."

Kent slides his glasses back onto his face and grins. "Anyone else know you have a sense of humor?"

"That's a lot of questions already."

"It's what reporters do. I have to admit, with the whole image surrounding you, the mythos—you're not what I expected."

"Just speeding you along on the disillusionment process," Bruce says. "What have you got for me?"

He moves farther into Kent's space. Kent doesn't shrink back; instead he leans into Bruce's shadow. Using him as a windbreak, Bruce thinks. Around them, the rain dashes down.

"A name, as agreed," Kent says. At this proximity, he has to tilt his chin up slightly to maintain eye contact. It makes him seem resolute. "What have you got?"

"Also a name." Still this cautious negotiation, circling to see who will forfeit their advantage first. He senses that they'll reach an impasse fast if one of them doesn't extend some degree of trust. He finds himself in a rare mood, so he says, "Hanford Technologies."

"I've heard that one."

"Here's another: LexCorp."

Kent's eyebrows go up. "Interesting. LexCorp is bailing Hanford out?"

"Not exactly. LexCorp is acquiring Hanford Tech wholesale. Assets and all."

Kent purses his lips and makes a thoughtful sound. His breath billows white in the midnight air between them. "That's twice today I've been pointed in the direction of LexCorp."

"If a coincidence is enough to deter you, I don't think we're going to get very far."

"Just an observation. Can't say I'm thrilled about sticking my nose into Luthor's business." Kent pauses, and his expression deepens into a worried frown. "He's been evasive when asked about Superman. I don't know what to make of him trying to get a hold of Kryptonian technology. I mean, it's in line with his business interests, but he's a wildcard. I don't have a good feeling about it."

Neither does Bruce. The last thing he wants is to find himself in an xenotechnological arms race against Luthor. While it would be no skin off his nose if he were to neutralize the Superman first, Bruce doesn't trust that he'd stop there. Both the Superman and his technology could be weaponized, LexCorp tenders for military contracts, and there's little difference between despots when your neck is under their boot.

"That feeling is the one you should trust," he says. "Just watch your six."

"Sure," Kent says, dismissively enough that Bruce wonders if Lane isn't the only one under the Superman's close protection—whether the alien would come to Kent's calls for help as swiftly as he would hers. As it stands he has no intention of making Kent feel unsafe, but it might be a way to summon the Superman directly to him, when it's time.

The thought creeps in him like a madness. His pulse breaks into a gallop.

Kent stares at him a moment. He flashes an unsure smile.

"Uh, my contact," he says. "I've still not heard from him, and he's dealing in sensitive information so I figure something—not great might have happened. He's not been home, his phone is off, or dead. Here's his address and number anyway; name's Bayer."

Bruce takes the torn-off page of foolscap, skims it, commits its contents to memory and tucks it into a belt capsule. His blood is still up, pounding. If he can find the contact, he can retrieve the schemata Bruce Wayne paid through the nose for, and more importantly, he can start tracing the whereabouts of the hardware.

It's about time he got a few moves ahead on this game board.

Kent is waiting on him for something. Maybe expecting a thank you, as though the Bat has not exempted himself from such mundane social exchanges. Bruce ducks out from under the water tower and takes a few steps to the lip of the refinery roof, readying his grapnel.

"Listen, I didn't mean it in a bad way," Kent says, following to his side. The deluging rain slicks his hair to his skull. His cheekbones shine. "About you not being what I expected." He places a hand over the grapnel's muzzle until Bruce lowers it.

There is an itch in the back of Bruce's brain that warns him that a misunderstanding may be underway. "Mr. Kent," he says.

Kent slides his hand over the grapnel and onto the rainsoaked leather of Bruce's wrist.

"It's Clark," he says. He looks as though he's about to say something further, his tongue against his teeth on the edge of a word and his eyes darting from Bruce's eyes to his mouth and back.

He won't give Bruce Wayne the time of day. However, the Bat—

Bruce takes a lungful of freezing air. He's not misunderstanding anything. He's diverted enough resources into keeping a lid on whatever it is about Kent that intrudes on his idle thoughts, and into the shallows of his sleep, that he hadn't let himself wholly register Kent's attraction. Nor had he parsed out just how many problems would arise as a result, how easily they could careen out of control, and so hadn't formulated any solutions or deflections or prepared even so much as an appropriate response.

Jesus, he's stirring in his protective cup just from Kent's touch. Definitely not an appropriate response. Every part of him wants to lean in and kiss him and from the way Kent is looking at him, that is exactly what he wants, too.

It's infuriating. He wants to shake him like a ragdoll and tell him to go fall in love with Wayne like everybody else.

"Clark," he says. "Let me be clear about my expectations."

"Your—oh, sorry," Clark says, as though he'd forgotten what he was about. It's convincing enough. He lets go of Bruce's wrist and the moment dies with a shiver. "Well, thanks for the tip-off. That's something for me to go on."

"You're welcome," Bruce says stiffly. He aims his grapnel again, this time without incident. He fires it into the night and leaves Clark behind him on the rain-battered rooftop.

*

Luthor either can't or won't conduct interviews in his unfinished tower, so Clark doesn't have the opportunity to win the bet he has with himself over what his office space looks like. He has good imaginary money on white, chrome and glass with not a lick of oiled mahogany in sight; a Lichtenstein print on one wall and a bobble-headed toy on his desk, or maybe a pinball machine or train set in the corner, so as to be endearing in his eccentricity if he falls short of relatable.

Instead he's in the penthouse atrium of the Park Metropolis Downtown, where everything is chrome and glass and white, not a lick of oiled mahogany to be seen, and Clark is made aware of the mudspatter on his pants and how beat-up his shoes are by a simple look from the doorman.

There's a Caffè Bene up here on the fifty-second floor. And a bowling alley. A private helipad on the roof. There's no reason for it except to intimidate.

Luthor's assistant, who is as sleek as the fixtures and has smiled continuously at him since he arrived but hasn't said anything more than 'hello', checks her tablet, steps forward and knocks on one of the master penthouse suite's double doors.

It opens, and Luthor pops his head out. "Who's there?" he asks with smile that teeters on the precipice of authenticity.

"Your three o'clock, Mr. Luthor," his assistant says.

"Ah, Mister Three O'Clock," Luthor says, opening the door wide. He's wearing two thirds of a white suit over a t-shirt, and jeans that probably cost more than Clark's apartment rent, with about as many pre-worn holes. "Mister, mister—sorry, who are you?"

"Mr. Kent," his assistant says.

"That's right. Clark Kent, Daily Planet." Clark holds out his hand. Luthor takes it. His grip is tentative and brief and when he lets go he looks like he wants to wipe his palm off on his jeans. Germaphobe, maybe. Clark's seen stranger idiosyncrasies in men like him.

"Ah! Daily Planet, of course, of course. They usually send Mr. Troupe. The Trouper. Pity, I was looking forward to another ingenuous description of all the luxury abound." He sweeps back his jacket and puts his hands on his hips, and gives Clark a once-over. His voice takes on a soft Midwestern affectation. "My, but you look like you'd be good at that, too. Thank you, Mercy."

Clark's accent is not distinct at all, and deliberately so. Luthor knows who Clark Kent is, and where he hails from. It's not a threat, except for the way Clark feels like it might be.

Mercy, still smiling, inclines her head and leaves via the elevator.

"Let me guess. You've been tasked with generating yet more words on LexCorp's restoration projects. The Planet doesn't like to challenge you, does it?" Luthor holds out an arm and hustles Clark into the suite. He bumps the door closed with his hip. "Ope."

"I get the feeling you'd like to, though." Brusque, perhaps, but Clark thinks Luthor is the kind of person who will let it roll off his back, for now. If there are to be repercussions for any of this, they'll come later.

The room is every bit as ridiculous as Clark had anticipated, from the thirty-foot wall of windows to the grand piano sitting on its own dais beneath a lead crystal chandelier. Luthor takes a step up to the piano, stops and then turns. "I live to challenge myself and others, Mr. Kent," he says, and, with a straight face, picks out the opening notes to Eye of the Tiger.

It might be permission, if it's not a joke. Clark follows his instincts. "In that case, I want to ask you about something other than the restoration efforts."

Luthor hits a major chord and then steps away from the piano and into Clark's space as the notes fade away. "Well, since you asked so polite." Again with the Midwestern drawl.

"If you don't mind, that is."

Luthor taps his chin with one narrow finger. "What I'd mind more is you not asking and instead making assumptions. So, what say we get those unvetted questions off that admirable chest of yours, and we can no-comment our way back to safer ground, hmm?"

He's grinning, but there's something about his inflection that Clark dislikes. He is conscious of his uniform beneath his clothes, the crest lying warm against his skin. For all his x-ray vision, Clark feels as though he's the one being seen through.

"I've heard that LexCorp has begun acquisition of Hanford Technologies," he says.

Luthor's grin folds up, his face creasing strangely. It takes Clark a moment to realize that it's because he is legitimately surprised—and that's because he was expecting to be asked about Superman.

"That," Luthor says, "is a statement, not a question. What are they teaching you at J-school these days?"

"How to gracefully rephrase," Clark says. "Is LexCorp acquiring Hanford Technologies, Mr. Luthor?"

"Lex," Luthor says. "Mr. Luthor was my father. Actually, Lex was also my father, but I do, all things being equal, which they are not, but that can't be helped, prefer it. To answer your question, technically, yes. Where did you hear this?"

That was an awful lot of air quotes. "I'm afraid I can't disclose my source," Clark says.

Luthor takes a half-dozen steps to the window, turns on his heel and takes a couple back towards Clark again. "Wayne." The name erupts from him like a vocal tic. "I saw you talking with Bruce Wayne, at the groundbreaking."

Clark frowns. "How would Bruce Wayne know?"

Luthor comes to a slow halt. He's probably no more still than the average human at rest, but the contrast to his usual constant motion is striking.

"That old cad," he says with sugary fondness. "That bounder, blundering around with his nose in his décolletage of the week. No, no, of course Bruce Wayne doesn't know a single solitary thing. Look at me, getting all up in a foofaraw over nothing. Yes: LexCorp is acquiring Hanford Technologies as a subsidiary. Our twentieth subsidiary, in fact. And that—" he claps his hands together, jerking back into activity, "is cause for celebration, don't you think, Mr. Kent?"

"It is a nice round number. With Mr. Hanford facing indictment for arms dealing and possibly treason, why did you decide to purchase the company? It doesn't have the best reputation right now."

"The quest for money and power," Luthor says, "and the dogged refusal to relinquish it at any cost is an institution in itself. Mark Hanford fell afoul of this, but I don't believe the company's employees deserve to be punished for the sins of their CEO."

"But the alien technology Hanford dealt in is of particular interest to you?"

"That is quite the leading question." Luthor makes the Family Feud buzzer noise. "No comment. Now, sit down and let me tell you all about Metropolis' new library. Do you have a pen? Of course you have a pen. Why wouldn't you have a pen?"

*

Bayer is a shift worker whose home address is a modest top-floor apartment on the south side of Metropolis, nestled in a nondescript lower-middle-class suburb. That makes Bruce's job slightly harder; there isn't the same density of CCTV outside of the city proper.

Still, he doubts Bayer was swiped from own his doorstep. Bruce establishes all possible routes from his home to the dockside parking garage, from his workplace to the garage, and then from his girlfriend's place just to be thorough, and elbows his way into municipal and private street monitoring feeds. He yanks the footage from all of the cameras on those routes at the estimated time of Bayer's disappearance, give or take a couple hours.

He has Bayer's ID tags, a smattering of photos from his Facebook page and an unflattering passport photograph taken six years ago to work from. Not ideal for his facial recognition software, but beggars can't be choosers. He feeds it into the application and watches as it picks out Bayer's facial landmarks and selects eigenface components, slowly building a profile. Then it's just a matter of running it against the footage.

He pours a cup of coffee and watches the screen until his eyes begin to hurt. He closes them, and to pass the time, considers the logistics of f*cking someone while wearing the suit.

It's a new scenario that, to his chagrin, gets him off quickly and reliably. As a rule, he doesn't have the inclination for elaborate masturbatory fantasies. He's only interested in meeting the functional need of his body, something that he administers with the same perfunctory attention as he does eating and sleeping. He should be glad to have stumbled on something so effective.

He clenches his fingers, then relaxes them, and slides both flat palms over his stomach and under his sweatpants, into the warm intersection of his groin. Already mostly hard; it's been at the back of his mind all day. He doesn't touch, just frames things with his thumbs and index fingers in a diamond, the rest curling into his thigh. His breathing slows.

No need to picture Clark Kent's upturned face and parted lips. Could be anyone's teeth scraping the armored leather at his neck. It doesn't have to be his hands Bruce is imagining, fingernails drawing over the textured weave of the suit, rasping across his biceps or shoulder blades or his inside leg, seeking out the microzippers, pressing on bruises as they pull him apart. Could be anyone's tongue licking along his co*ck, flushed and proud against the neutral gray of the Bat's uniform, feverish on a cold Gotham night.

Keep it anonymous. Don't fall into routine patterns of thinking.

Clark's hand resting on the Bat's glove. (A shiver of blue and red in his periphery; hands that can split a steel beam lengthways cuff his wrist.) The quick dart of tongue against Clark's lips before he asks a question. Bruce grunts. His co*ck jerks. The question doesn't come, but he does.

Bruce lets it wash over him and recede, leaving a faint sense of unease in its wake that he deftly boxes away. He gets up to blast himself off in the cave's decontamination unit. The evening has worn on far enough that he leaves his sweats in a pile after drying off and gets into the suit's compression underarmor instead.

In the meantime, his software has isolated Bayer to the best of its ability and spliced all of the relevant footage into a timeline for Bruce to scrub through. He skips to the end.

A fuzzy grayscale image of Bayer takes a side street a few blocks from the parking garage. A vehicle with a reflective blocker on its tags slowly turns in after him, and a few minutes later reverses out to face the direction it came from, and drives off.

He does not reappear on any CCTV footage from that point onward—but the vehicle does. He might not have plate numbers, but he has a make and model, and from the value of its grayscale paintwork, can narrow down its possible color. Bruce initiates a new search algorithm and tracks its progress to the docks.

*

It takes a few hours of scouring Tricorner Yards to hunt the vehicle down. Unlike the disused wharf and warehouses farther north along Gotham's coast, Tricorner is a busy working port, lit up and loud with the clamor of ratcheting chain and grinding metal and swearing, so he keeps things low-key, slacklining between the gantry cranes and towering stacks of freight containers high above the stevedores and the cargo transports.

The terminal lights chase the Bat's shadow over the dockside buildings. Eventually he finds the suspect vehicle parked in the narrow space between a warehouse wall and a rusted shipping container. He thumbs at his gauntlet and captures the registration with the cowl's optics. The trace comes up a few seconds later: the tags are temporary and expired, no further details.

He taps his gloves and fires an image of the tag back to the cave. "Alfred."

"Received. I'll see what I can scare up."

"Appreciated."

Thermal display suggests there are four men on the second floor of the adjacent building. One is sitting, the rest spread about the room, shifting from foot to foot or pacing. Either it's the world's unfriendliest coffee break, or it's this evening's entertainment. They're using unsecured short-range comms that are easy to intercept. Seems the plan is to stow Bayer on the next ship out to Yangshan.

"That seems somewhat harsh," Alfred remarks.

"Could be worse."

"Very true. It could've been Teesport."

Bruce sends up a line and ascends halfway up the building, halting alongside a window with sheets of newspaper taped over it. He braces his feet against the brickwork while he selects a flashbang grenade from his belt. Even a smoke bomb would be overkill for this grade of mercenary, but he doesn't feel like making things more difficult for himself than they have to be.

He breaks the window out with his elbow, pulls the pin and tosses it into the center of the room, waits for the flash then swings in boots-first while the mercs stumble about and shout at each other. He probably has ten to fifteen seconds before they start shooting blindly.

The first merc goes down with a swift elbow to the throat. The second is more resilient, and is either fast enough or lucky enough that Bruce's strike is glancing. He staggers back and slides a combat knife out of his boot, only to immediately squander his advantage by overextending himself trying to stab Bruce in the armpit.

Bruce grabs his arm, turns him over his hip and throws him into the third guy. He kicks the knife away and boots him in the stomach before he can get a handle on his spite, and then zip ties them to the radiator pipes.

A low groan comes from a man duct-taped to a chair. He's wide eyed and breathing hard through his nose. The decent part of Bruce knows that it's cruel, but the vengeful child in him can't help but enjoy making a grown man look as though he's about to wet himself.

"Mr. Bayer," Bruce asks.

The man nods.

Bruce leans over him and rips the tape away from his mouth. "Do you have the schematics."

"You gonna leave me here if I don't?" Bayer croaks.

"No," Bruce says, "but I hope that you do. I paid good money for them."

"You?" Bayer says. "sh*t, okay. They took all my stuff, but if you can get me home—"

Bruce turns away from him and paces to the window. "I need the 'wing," he says to Alfred. "You have my coordinates."

"If you're that hesitant to say it out loud in front of people, might I suggest you rethink your naming scheme."

"Just get it here," Bruce says.

"On its way," Alfred says. Bruce hears a bottle clink against the rim of a glass. "ETA, half a scotch."

"Thank you." He turns back to Bayer, batarang in hand, and slices the tape free from the chair. A lot of it remains attached to his forearms; Bruce leaves that be. If he needs incentive later, the threat of ripping it off might persuade him to cooperate. The average person has a weakness to the anticipation of pain.

The Batwing is hovering at the edge of the roof by the time they make it up top. Bruce stands astride the plane's wing and the rooftop, bridging the gap, but Bayer still has to be hauled bodily into the co*ckpit, swearing all the while. His hands shake so badly that Bruce has to lean over and buckle him in.

Half across the bay, he's evened out enough that Bruce can prod him a little. "The Kryptonian artifacts," he says, and in his periphery, Bayer goes immediately tense. "Who bought them."

"I don't know," Bayer says. "I—look, there's a string of of middlemen. I'm just a runner. I don't get to know these things."

"Okay, the schematics, then. You aren't selling on behalf of Hanford any more. Who are you selling for?"

Bayer picks at the tape on his arm and winces, and resolutely sticks to the fifth.

It's easier to get him out of the plane; by then Bruce's questioning has progressed him through all of the stages of fear and propelled him directly into to indignation. "You don't have a search warrant," he says as he fumbles his keys for the third time, Bruce waiting patiently for him to open up the roof access. "You have no right."

"You forfeited your right to complain when you started handling illicit goods."

"How can you be dressed like that and have such a stick up your ass at the same time." Bayer jiggles his key in the lock and shoulders the door open. Inside and down the stairwell, his apartment door is ajar.

Whoever turned it over will be long gone. "Wait here," Bruce tells him anyway, and pushes the front door open. The contents of a bookcase are strewn over the floor, the couch turned over and cushions knifed open. A computer and its dissected innards are laid out in the center of the room. He doesn't need to inventory its parts to know the hard drive is missing.

Kitchen, bathroom, master bedroom, all a mess; the contents of the wardrobes and cupboards and drawers pulled out and dumped. A pink blanket lies halfway into the narrow hallway, dragged out of the box-room.

"They got all my backups except the one inside the jar of pickles," Bayer says, coming up behind Bruce. His voice takes on a quiet horror. "sh*t, I'm supposed to have my kid next week. I can't have her stay here. Even if I get it cleaned up—no way. We can't stay here any more."

Bruce carries prepaid credit cards in his belt. It's less vulgar than handing over a roll of notes, and he's found that the people who need it are more inclined to accept it when they can't tell how much he's offering them. Based on what Bruce paid for the schematics, Bayer either gets a fraction of the cut, or most of it gets siphoned off into something other than quality of life improvements. Medical bills, child support, gambling debts; it's not Bruce's concern.

Bayer tosses him the flashdrive, swaddled in a ziploc and taped up. It smells faintly of vinegar and spices. "Here's your goddamn schematics. Hope they're worth it."

"I hope so too," Bruce says sincerely. He rights a chair and leaves a credit card on it. "Get out of town for a while. Take your kid to Disneyland. Think about what you're going to do with your life when you get back."

*

Clark is in the bathroom drying his hair off when he hears a faint chirp. It takes him a moment to register what it could be, but then dives through into the bedroom and for the nightstand, almost losing the towel tucked around his waist as he does.

The communicator chirps again as Clark taps it into his ear. It's an efficiently-engineered device, simple and intuitive, is definitely a tracker as suspected, and bluetooth enabled although Clark has had as much luck pairing it with his phone as any other bluetooth device he's owned.

He touches it with a fingertip and answers the call, then leaves dead air while he founders for an appropriate greeting. It doesn't seem right to say hi like he's picking up the phone, but he supposes it's no different in practicality.

"Uh, hi?" he says, just as the Bat says, "Mr. Kent," right in his ear, grinding like a bucket of rusty nails.

Oh, boy. Clark clutches his towel and sits on the edge of the bed.

"Hi," he says. "It's Clark."

"I know," the Bat says, and it's not even sarcasm. Clark grins to himself. "I found your guy."

"Tell me more."

"Get something to write with."

"Always on hand." Clark has no need to move from the bed; his memory is impeccable.

He closes his eyes and listens to the Bat talk. His contact is worse for wear but in a safehouse for now. The kidnappers are indisposed. It's the most words he's heard the Bat say all at once, but it's more like a bullet-pointed list than fluid sentences. Clark wonders if he's deliberately terse to disguise his everyday speech patterns, or if it's just how he is.

"I have the plates of the vehicle they used."

"Nice work," Clark says. "Hit me with the tag number. I'd like to try and get an ID on the owner, a rap sheet if possible, narrow down who might have hired them."

"I'll take care of it."

"No," Clark says. "This is my story, I need as much first-hand as I can get. Let me do my job."

"These are dangerous men, Clark."

"You're a dangerous man, too. It doesn't faze me."

"It should."

"Well," Clark says softly but firmly, "it doesn't."

There's a long silence. If he couldn't hear the clipped digital edge to the Bat's breathing, he might have thought he'd hung up.

Clark thinks about them on the rooftop, his hand come to rest on the Bat's wrist. The Bat had had no reason to wrestle his physical responses into submission like he had when Clark had approached him as Superman, and so Clark had been treated to the swift unfurling of his desire right beneath his fingertips.

It's mad to even be thinking about it. Is a little reciprocity all it takes for him to want to plunge headlong into someone? The Bat is a cipher: a hard shell of tactical armor, performance textiles and dubious morality. One that could have anyone inside it. Maybe that's the appeal for him. He's not a blank enough slate that Clark can project whoever he likes onto him, but there's still plenty left to the imagination.

"This isn't a game," the Bat says.

Clark bites his lip and gets himself back on track, sort of. "I'm not playing."

"Your safety is my responsibility. I can't let you—"

"Really, is it? Since when?" Clark says. "I'm wondering if that's the case or if you just have some unaddressed control issues."

There's a moment of nonplussed silence. "I didn't call you for an armchair psychoanalysis."

"No, you called to give me some information that you're reluctant to hand over in its entirety." Clark's smiling, and he makes sure the Bat can hear it. It earns him a long sigh.

"Fine." The Bat rattles off the temporary tag number. "Your funeral."

"Consider yourself invited. I'll keep you posted with what I find."

"There's more," the Bat says.

Clark lets himself fall back onto the bed. "Go on," he says, careful to keep the relish he feels under control. The towel around his waist is fighting a losing battle. He's not as ashamed of himself as he ought to be, probably.

"Your guy didn't make the hardware exchange and doesn't know who did. He wouldn't spit out who handles the goods further up the chain. Had a sh*tty enough time these past few that I didn't want to try any gentle persuasion."

"That's considerate of you."

"You might have better luck. Friendlier face. Just letting you know there's more info to tap, but he's liable to vanish soon."

"Noted. Thanks. Hey, in the interest of fair exchange, I interviewed to Lex Luthor today. He confirmed to me that LexCorp has bought out Hanford Tech, and was extremely cagey when I asked him about the Kryptonian technology. Just—in case that's important for any reason."

Clark hears the rasp of the Bat dragging a gloved hand over his stubble.

"It might be," he says, then he terminates the call without so much as a goodnight, having dedicated his life to laconicism as well as the pursuit of justice, and abandoned all manners in the process.

"Well, g'night," Clark says to the static on the line. "Guess I'll just—"

He kicks his towel to the floor, then takes a moment to slip the earpiece out and set it aside, just in case. He's pretty sure the Bat has picked up on what kind of impropriety is playing out in the back of his mind every time they interact, but discretion is a virtue, as is not accidentally having phone sex with a work contact.

*

Bayer's address is on his laptop's hard drive, but while he's thinking about it, Clark checks the USB ports, then the pockets of his laptop bag. The pockets of his pants, shirt, coat, then the dish by the door that holds his keys and other miscellaneous junk, the bottom kitchen drawer, his nightstand drawer, his desk caddy, down the side of the couch, under the couch, under his bed, under the refrigerator, and then sits down and tries to figure out where in the hell Lois' flashdrive has gotten to.

**

Chapter 3

Chapter Text

Bayer is on the roof of his apartment when Clark drops in to see him; barefoot despite the frost, in sweatpants and smoking. He's got one arm in a sling and butterfly stitches over one cheek. Fresh cigarette butts scatter the ground next to a planter of neglected hellebores.

Clark sets down a couple meters away. Bayer takes a step back, catching his cigarette the moment before it drops out of his open mouth.

"Ah sh*t," he says to himself, exhaling a lungful of smoke. "Listen, Superman. It was nothing personal. I just do what I need to do to get by. I got a kid, and bills like—" He whistles, miming a tall, teetering stack. "Half of them are medical stuff from BeeZee Day, so I figure you could let me off the hook for that."

"I—" Clark says. The way the Bat had talked about him, he had the impression Bayer would be wary; he didn't anticipate a confession before he'd even opened his mouth. "How are you doing? That must have been an ordeal."

"It was frightening, man," Bayer says. "I was frightened for my life, and for my little girl, that I wouldn't be able to make it through for her. But yeah, I made it, thanks. Just." He gestures vaguely, and Clark takes in the empty beer bottles lined up on the windowsill, the shredded labels. "Trying to wind down so I can sleep."

"I get it. It's hard to make the inside of your head shut up sometimes."

"Yeah." Bayer laughs. "That and the f*cking nightmares, right? So, uh."

He trails off, taking a drag on his cigarette to fill the gap. He's obviously hesitant to ask what Clark wants or what he's doing here, and uncertain how to address him. Reverence doesn't seem his style, nor formality, nor, thankfully, the simple slow sentences some people adopt as though Superman couldn't fully understand their Earth language otherwise.

Clark imagines that he's wearing the glasses. His stance relaxes, shoulders sloping, arms loose to his sides. If he had pockets he'd put his hands in them. "I kinda need your help," he says. "I'd really like to talk to the person you moved the goods for."

Bayer is immediately more at ease. He leans back against the wall. "Nah, there's nobody else. It's just me."

"But you told the Bat—"

"Hey, look, don't judge me. I watched him take out three armed guys in less time than it takes me to sneeze. Then he took me home in his Bat-plane and Bat-rifled through my stuff and then bribed me with a theme park. I didn't want to get grilled on what I been selling where and who to. Who knows what might set that guy off next."

"Ah." Clark makes a face that he hopes is understanding without being too apologetic on the Bat's behalf. "Yeah, he knows how to be nice, but there's a disconnect between theory and practice sometimes."

"You actually know him? Okay, you know you don't have to hang out with that loony-tune just cause you got matching outfits, no offense. Get better friends."

"That's not as easy as you might think." Clark grins. "Listen, the Bat's got a lock on the schematics, but I need to know who has the Kryptonian hardware. It's a concern for me."

"I have transaction details, nothing else. Went through a whole bullsh*t song and dance with multiple drop points and everything. I didn't see who picked any of it up." He takes out his phone and taps through a few screens, then shows it to Clark. Coordinates and a cryptocurrency blockchain. "That's all I got."

"That's more than enough. Thank you."

"You want to, I dunno, write that down?"

"No, I'm good."

Bayer stares at him. "Jesus," he says.

Clark holds out his hand. Bayer grinds out his cigarette on the wall and reaches with his good hand to shake. He doesn't give it up straight away.

"Hey, you know when," he says, and his fingers convulse around Clark's hand. "When you were up there, trashing the city to stop those other aliens and the spaceship. Did you even think about us?"

Clark feels his jaw tighten. He looks up into the indifferent dark and its distant stars. "I could barely think at all," he says. Far too honest a thing to say to a civilian, but in his mind, the buildings crash into him and overwhelm everything. Haunting the past won't stop it from happening again exactly the same way every time, a uniquely immutable memory, but he revisits it often whether he wants to or not. "I'm sorry."

"Some heavy sh*t, right," Bayer says, and reaches for a fresh cigarette.

*

Clark, one elbow on the arm of his chair and chin on his fist, idly ignore-once-ing his way through a spell check while he daydreams, has a sudden sense of foreboding. A moment later, Perry's shadow falls across his desk.

"I don't know how you finagled this, Kent, and I'm not sure I want to, but I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Metropolis Grand ballroom, this Friday. Black tie. Best behavior." He drops a gilt-edged invitation onto Clark's keyboard.

Clark picks it up for a closer look. It's printed on a thick, embossed card stock that tells him he's going to be wildly out of his comfort zone. Please join us for hors d'oeuvres and co*cktails; 7 p.m.

*

It's suspiciously easy to connect the vehicle registration to a name, though the name itself is a blank slate, as if someone had generated it from a database of similarly uncanny-valley profiles. Jenine M. Grimaldi, 42, of Saint George, Utah, has a minor internet presence that sprang into existence seven months ago. Her LinkedIn suggests she's the managing director of a company, but investigation shows it's never traded. Her Facebook is locked down; her Twitter is political retweets and Markov chain-esque commentary. She has liked two things on YouTube: some funny cats, and a LexCorp presentation on renewable energy.

Clark leans back in his chair and rests his hands behind his head. It could be a coincidence. It's probably not a coincidence. He cracks his knuckles and starts in on the cryptocurrency angle instead.

What do you know—it belongs to Ms. Grimaldi's company. The thing about money is that it has to start or end somewhere legitimate. Somebody real is wearing Grimaldi's face, and Clark digs through account details and transactions and addresses and corporate reports that are barely comprehensible to him, until he unearths another name one too many times: Mercedes Graves.

He searches out that name instead, and this face—this face he recognizes.

*

It seemed prudent to keep closer tabs on Luthor since the Hanford acquisition came to light, and Bruce's due diligence pays off quickly. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has blocked an import license application made by LexCorp under the advisory of one Senator Finch.

Bruce knows that name well: she is chairperson of the committee tasked with investigating the Black Zero event, the Superman, the ethical ramifications of his actions and possibly his existence. His feelings on the committee are mixed. His feelings on Luthor are decidedly not. That it was Finch who blocked the import raises both questions and red flags, and he scans through the digitized documentation feverishly—what the hell was Luthor trying to import, and what does it have to do with the Superman?

In among the local port paperwork, he finds the export manifest from the Malé Port Authority, Maldives. That would be the port nearest to the ruins of the World Engine. According to the manifest, Luthor was attempting to bring an unidentified xenomineral into the States.

Bruce slams his hands flat on his desk and gets up to pace.

"Oh, dear. Did you lose at solitaire again?" Alfred asks from his workbench, where he is making a hobby out of tweaking the prototype cowl. This evening he's layering it with EMP shielding tape.

"Luthor's been grubbing for anything Kryptonian he can get his hands on," Bruce says. He runs both hands through his hair. "I don't trust him anywhere near as far as I could throw him. I need to find out what he's up to."

"Maybe that pleasant young investigative reporter you've befriended could help you out," Alfred says. Then, with all the authority of an éminence grise, "When is it you're going to invite him for dinner?"

"He's not fond of the wine and dine side of me," Bruce says. A union of technology and architecture. That's what Luthor had said at the groundbreaking. Bruce tries to backtrack through his memory of the morning and unearth some context for it, but all he finds there is Clark Kent and his patient smile and the sense memory of his arm under Bruce's hand. God damn it.

Maybe it's to do with the clean energy for LexCorp Tower. It doesn't make any kind of sense; if its already been knocked back with only terrestrial materials involved then there's no way in hell building control would sign off on something Kryptonian-driven. Not for all the bribes in the world. The outcry would be deafening.

Or, maybe—

Bruce pulls up his file on LexCorp Tower and swipes through endless blueprints and certification, water, electrics, sanitation, until he finds the energy proposal outline. The generator's output specs aren't out of the bounds of possibility, not with the extent of Luthor's resources, but they're also patently unsustainable for a building of this scope. Those plans had been greenlit, with the advisory that LexCorp Tower would be strictly prohibited from describing itself as a zero-energy building.

Technically, LexCorp Tower has been good to go for some time.

It's an additional system that's caused the spanner in the works; a feat of design beyond something the average construction engineer would have to deal with. It looks as though it's been ping-ponged around a number of departments before some enterprising individual made an executive decision and decided that if nobody could make head nor tail of it then it should probably be kiboshed.

As far as Bruce can tell, it's a fiendishly complicated tower array that's calibrated to emit an electrically-charged signal of some kind. Potentially, it's powerful enough to encompass the entirety of Metropolis and halfway over the bay. It's purpose is obfuscated in a dense layer of jargon that is doing its level best to make it look like a spectacularly overdesigned state-of-the-art weather station.

Bruce frowns and leans in, examining the exploded diagrams. It's not a signal it is designed to transmit. Not data or radio waves. It's intended to amplify some kind of radiation. The xenomineral's intended use.

"Luthor," Bruce says, "had planned to blanket the whole city with alien radiation."

Alfred looks concerned. "To what end?"

"Potentially? The Superman's."

"And you wouldn't have had to lift even a finger. A pity for you."

"No," Bruce says, the word echoing sharply off the flat surfaces of the workshop. He knows Alfred is being pointedly facetious—or has become so inured to Bruce's aggression lately that it's now a reflexive response—but that just means he needs to underscore this all the more firmly. "I would absolutely stop him."

"Ah. It's enemies all the way down." Alfred rips off a length of tape. "I miss the days when you had friends. Even an associate would be nice."

"He wanted to irradiate the entirety of Metropolis. We don't know the first thing about that mineral, Alfred. If it can take out a creature like the Superman, who knows what effect it could have on human beings. Christ, we could've been looking at decades of congenital defects, or radiation poisoning, or—or nothing left but Hiroshima shadows.

"If there's even the slightest chance that he would do this—could still do this—I have to approach it as though it's a certainty."

"Sir, meddling with an individual such as the Superman is one thing. Taking a swing at a business competitor is something entirely different. And, dare I say, not good PR."

"I won't have to do anything if I remove his motivation," Bruce says. He leans over his desk and pulls up Bayer's schematics, ignoring Alfred's disgusted sigh.

But Alfred, unlike the average butler, won't be dismissed. "I've never heard premeditated murder described quite like that before."

Bruce freezes. On his screen, the schematics continue to fly open.

"That's not my intention," he says. He's not certain if he buys his own lie, so Alfred certainly won't.

"Oh, do excuse me. All this talk of epistemic nightmares and kill switches—perhaps you've given me the wrong end of the stick. Not premeditated? Perhaps depraved-heart, then."

It wouldn't be murder, Bruce could say. Wouldn't even be manslaughter. He'd have to be a man, first. It's a tough one to swallow—the Superman is unmistakably a sapient being, even if he's not human—but Bruce is becoming accustomed to navigating such politics of truth with himself.

He can feel Alfred's stare burning into the back of his head.

The exploded views of the tech are phenomenal; Hanford's people know how to draw up an assembly, if nothing else. Bruce focuses intently on the details so as to better endure Alfred's withering disappointment, and finds that 'nothing else' may be applicable.

They are plainly weapons, despite their unappealingly organic design. Plasma carbine rifles. But a lot of the circuit diagrams are annotated with helpful notes like ??? or in R&D mats tbc. Looks like Hanford got rumbled before he could analyze the constituent xenomaterials and develop or synthesize workable equivalents.

It's apparent that Bruce has been pissing into the wind here.

So: touch base with Clark, see if he's got a lead on the extant weaponry, and then to the scout ship to mine it of its secrets.

*

Clark is waiting in a yellow shaft of streetlight, collar up and head down against the drizzling rain that's always more gentle on this city than it is on Gotham. The raincoat might make him look like a private detective straight from the cover of a pulp novel, perfectly fitting among the deco façades of downtown if perhaps he'd left the messenger bag at home, or could at least stop fidgeting with the strap.

"Come here," Bruce says at him from the neck of an unlit side street. It's too early in the evening for him to be loitering with intent. "Try to be subtle about it."

He is, but not subtle enough for Bruce's liking, which is an admittedly tall order. He clenches his fists so he isn't tempted to drag Clark more swiftly into the shadows like the night terror everyone thinks he is, glimpsed from the corner of the eye, there and then gone, taking his prey with him.

"Evening," Clark says, and smiles.

Like the sun, some things shouldn't be looked at head-on. Bruce turns his back and gestures for Clark to follow him, up a fire escape and onto yet another rooftop, this one a tar beach of old television aerials and an abandoned sunlounger, six storeys up.

"You ever do these things at ground level?" Clark asks, wiping flakes of paint and rust off his hands then putting his hands on his knees to bend over and catch his breath. "Or is it a kind of elaborate prank you like to play on us mortals of average physical fitness." He tests the integrity of the sunlounger and then sits on it.

Bruce remembers the unlikely solidity of Clark's arm when he'd caught him at the groundbreaking. A faint misgiving nudges at the back of his mind, but there is important business at hand, so he silences it for now.

"Okay, you might want to sit down, too. I'm pretty sure I know who has the hardware and the first set of schematics. Three guesses."

"Luthor," Bruce says with certainty.

"You got it. You won't be surprised to hear he's also behind the abduction. Well. The vehicle was registered to a dummy company owned by a fake identity that's financially linked to his personal assistant, though if she knows about it is anyone's guess. The only thing now is that second set of schematics, and finding out who paid for them."

"I have them," Bruce says.

Clark's face contorts. "You… confiscated them from the buyer?"

"I am the buyer," Bruce says.

The sunlounger creaks as Clark shifts his weight back. "Oh," he says.

"I was curious to see if there was anything I could use."

Clark looks up at him, consternation and suspicion both, and Bruce finds himself in the unlikely position of wanting to explain himself further.

"Armor. Compliance weaponry. Anything that will… boost my effectiveness."

"Oh," Clark says again, this time on a bluster of breath. "Makes—yeah, that makes sense. I mean, crime fighting isn't a competition, but things aren't like they used to be, are they? Of course you'd want to find an edge."

He looks as though a weight has been lifted from him, even as he so casually acknowledges how drastic a game-changer the Superman is. A shudder claws up Bruce's back.

"I'm not the only one," he says. "Luthor is obviously honing himself one, too. Got the hardware, got the schematics, took out the distribution. I think he was aiming to secure the market."

Clark rights himself from the sunlounger before it disintegrates entirely. "So, what do you think his aim is? Can he monetize this tech after all the black marketeering and kidnapping and god knows what else? Even if he reverse-engineered it to kingdom come, he'd be eviscerated if it ever came to light."

He paces to the edge of the rooftop. Bruce can practically hear him composing the exposé. Ultimately futile—it wouldn't be the first corporate scandal LexCorp has been embroiled in.

"Surely," Clark says, looking out of Metropolis' glimmering lights, "surely he's not going to go up against Superman. That'd be insane."

Bruce's heart hangs between beats. "It would."

Clark turns to him. "You know something more," he says decisively. "What is it?"

Bruce experiences a moment of uncertainty. If he tells Clark about what Luthor had planned, he could blow the whole thing wide open. He would undoubtedly get the Superman involved, and Luthor would be stopped—but the likelihood of Bruce securing the xenomineral would be tanked.

Luthor's plan is dead in the water, scuttled beneath the Indian Ocean. There's no danger in keeping it to himself. Once he has the xenomineral he can keep tabs, and if it looks as though Luthor is winding up to something, then he'll tip Clark off, and Clark can tell Lane, and Lane can sic her pet alien on him.

Clark has come to stand close to his side. "Hey, look. I'm good at my job. I know when someone is holding out on me," he says. "If there's something useful you know—"

"There's nothing else." Bruce knows how to make a lie ring true, but he must have already given something away, hit some false note that Clark is sensitive to. As far as Clark's concerned, Bruce is trying and failing to keep something close to his chest.

And as far as failures go, he'd rather allow this one. Clark wets his lips and prepares to ask another question, and Bruce kisses him.

Clark makes a surprised sound in his throat and flattens a hand against Bruce's shoulder, fingers curling in just slightly, whispering over the suit's texturing. His glasses bump against the nose of his cowl.

The kiss is brief and shallow and it runs Bruce through.

"Only that," he says.

Only Clark and his arresting charm. He sounds rough even with the cover the modulator affords him. This used to be easier. He used to misdirect this way all the time; not in this guise, but a mask is a mask. Christ, is it still a misdirect if it's something he wants?

His only recourse is to leave before the gravity of the moment can crush him. He puts a hand to his grapnel.

"Wait, wait." Clark drops his messenger bag and grabs at Bruce's cape, pivoting him. He's flushed and smiling brilliantly. "I wasn't ready." He rests his fingertips against Bruce's chin, turns his head and kisses him back. He's much less restrained about it.

This is an unmitigated disaster, Bruce thinks distantly. Clark wants to kiss completely the wrong person. But when he takes a step back, Bruce follows. He would let Clark lure him across the rooftop like that, with his smile and his hand on Bruce's face, but he's not taking it fast enough for his liking. So Bruce pushes him, kisses him, pushes and pushes until Clark is grinning with his back against the roof access door.

Bruce gets a hand under each thigh and lifts him. He goes up easily—surprisingly so, because Clark isn't a small man by any means, and thinking about that makes Bruce jerk against him and hike him farther up the door. He kisses his neck and jaw and nips at his earlobe; he gets a long low moan and no objection to this roughness, so Bruce crushes him against the door with his hips and chest and bites at his throat.

He's soft and blazing warmth, brimming with sweetness. Bruce wants to consume him.

Heat rolls off Clark like he's an open fire. His hands drag over the cowl and gather his cape in bunches, clinging as his heels press into the small of Bruce's back. They keep sliding down to dig into his ass. The cheap fabric of his slacks makes it hard to keep a respectable grip on him and so Bruce settles his feet back on the ground before he drops him. He really would like both hands free anyway, to touch him wherever he can.

Clark lets out a shaky gasp; his hands grope up along Bruce's arms and neck to find his face, fingernails raking over the suit. He holds Bruce like that, thumbs brushing over the stubble on his cheek and the delineation of the cowl, pressing insistent kisses onto him, his tongue sliding soft between Bruce's lips.

He sucks in a sharp breath through his nose when Bruce opens his raincoat. He seems eager enough to grind against Bruce's palm when he rubs it along the thick outline of his erection, but when his hands work their way up to his belt, Clark groans and pulls away.

"Just a minute," he says, catching Bruce's wrist before he can tug the buckle open. His glasses are askew, his hair a profusion of damp curls. He sags against the door, eyes closed, and swallows. "I mean, this is—" He exhales, laughs. "Nice. But we do need to talk a minute."

He makes an apologetic face. Bruce doesn't take Clark Kent to be some demure Midwestern boy who has never made it to second base on a first date, but that doesn't mean being manhandled then blown on a public rooftop by an anonymous man is necessarily in his comfort zone. Bruce takes a step back and gives him some breathing room.

"This was probably not—a great idea," Clark says eventually. His hand still rests on Bruce's shoulder, his thumb tracing a seam over and over. "I'm bending the Rosenthal rule as it is, and that's not even getting into all the reasons why this is a mess. Identity wise, I mean."

A part of Bruce clamors in torment, but his sexuality has so long been intrinsically caught up in unconscious circuits of abandon and denial, desire and resistance, that it resolves and silences itself quickly. The pragmatist in him can see this for the convenience it is: if Clark returns himself to arms length of his own volition then it means Bruce doesn't have to do it, and therefore there's no risk of injuring his pride or his feelings, or any danger that he'll withdraw his cooperation.

It doesn't change the fact that Bruce is still hard as hell, but he can deal with that on his own time.

"Sorry," Clark says. "It wouldn't be fair to ask you to disclose, because I'm—" he breaks off with a frustrated noise.

Bruce runs his thumb along the soft depression under his jaw and the unhappy line of his mouth, and Clark comes in for one final kiss, gentle as a sigh against his mouth.

"I get it," Bruce says. "And you're right, it wouldn't. I won't."

Clark bumps his forehead against the cowl's molded frown. "Thank you for that blunt honesty."

"Just trying to keep things professional."

"Right. I guess that's a hard-on for justice you have there."

"You have a lot of attitude for someone who's about to be tossed off a building."

"Whatever you need to do." Clark grins, then his face shifts into something verging on startlement. "Oh, almost forgot. Luthor's holding an impromptu celebration on Friday. He's going public with the Hanford acquisition after all. I've been invited, though I think it was mostly a passive-aggressive reaction to me forcing his hand."

Bruce could tell him that there's no such thing as impromptu when it comes to society soirées, but instead tilts his head in interest. Bruce Wayne has not received any such invitation, which could be an oversight but more likely a retaliatory snub for the Daily Planet proceedings. Whatever the reason, it's been a while since he's crashed a party.

"Not that you're going to take me up on the plus one." Clark clears his throat. "But if you think there's anything I could do—it's at the Met Grand, the ballroom."

"I'm sure you know how to eavesdrop." He straightens Clark's lapel, rights his glasses for him, and gets some space between them. The compulsion to keep touching him is strong.

Clark checks under the lapel he just straightened.

"If I wanted to bug you I'd use your phone," Bruce says. "You won't be wearing that coat anyway. I hope."

"I don't think I'm going to take fashion tips from you or your pointy ears." Clark retrieves his messenger bag and its scattered contents, grinning in a way that's a reasonable indication that he'd happily spend the rest of the night trading flirtatious barbs.

Bruce suppresses a smile of his own and unholsters his grapnel. Clark half-turns as he comes up behind him, raising his eyebrows as Bruce snakes an arm under his raincoat and around his waist, and grabs Clark's belt tightly.

"Wh—" he manages before Bruce jumps them both off the rooftop.

He fires the grapnel. Clark's raincoat flutters; he throws his arms around Bruce's neck as they swing in a deep parabola toward street level. There's enough time for Bruce to register that Clark isn't exactly deadweight hanging off of him, but they decelerate and their feet touch the pavement before he can investigate the thought further.

Clark stumbles back. "That was cool," he says, then blows out a breath. "Maybe a heads-up next time."

Bruce steadies him with a hand to his shoulder, but on the whole, Clark appears to be handling the unexpected drop fairly well. A keeper, then, Alfred might dryly suggest. Bruce is almost tempted to uncomplicate things and see if that assessment bears out, but he's never had enough faith in himself for that kind of leap.

"You weren't in any danger," he says.

"I know." Clark sounds strained, as though he finds something funny about Bruce's assurance and is trying not to laugh. Probably the adrenaline hitting him. Tonight has been excessive. "I should—I should go."

He makes no move to do so; he stands there with Bruce's hand on his shoulder, taking short breaths as though he's still winded.

Bruce leans in and Clark turns his face to him like a flower seeking the sun. Before he can close the distance and they find themselves kissing again, he fires out a line and slingshots skyward. Clark's sharp exclamation and then burst of laughter echoes up to him from the abandoned street.

*

Bruce follows him for a while, since his self-control has eloped with his discretion and left him to indulge this whim without shame. Clark stops at a crosswalk, turns to look up at him where he's balanced atop an ornamented buttress, and lifts his hand.

It's at this point Bruce decides that it's time to get back to work.

Centennial Park is a short distance away. He heads over to the dome of the scout ship and does a quick recon of the perimeter. Clear of unwanted guests at present, though the security presence on the ground is heightened for the time of the evening. He needs to settle down and watch the pattern of coming and goings until he establishes why the place is swarming. A visitor who is out of the ordinary seems likely. Some kind of specialist, or perhaps merely brass.

He selects a different vantage point this time, as though the previous spot holds bad luck. It proves to be a baseless superstition.

The Superman sails in on a foreign wind. He drifts above the ship for a minute, observing the men below, then turns with the slow grace of an astronaut in zero gravity and glides over to where Bruce is perched.

He alights next to him and crouches down almost companionably, mirroring his posture: fingertips on the lip of the building, watching the activity below. Bruce tries to tamp down his reflexive tension at so much uncontainable, devastating power sitting in his vicinity, but every muscle in his body has strung itself tight.

"Hi," the Superman says.

Bruce runs his tongue over the toothmark scars inside his lower lip. How should he respond to a greeting from a living cosmology in everyday form? Unnecessary antagonism seems reasonable. The problem with buttons marked 'do not push.'

"You're disturbing my air," he says.

"I'm going to ask you about this again," the Superman says. His body language may be doing a respectable impression of amiability, but his tone is not. He sounds almost disappointed, as though he had an expectation of the Bat that Bruce is currently failing to uphold. "What is it you want from the ship?"

"Nothing."

"Why are you watching the security detail, then?"

"I don't answer to you."

"Of course not," the Superman says easily. "Nobody does. I'm a stateless individual in perpetual danger of being accused of interventionism. No-one has to answer to me except out of politeness."

Bruce turns to stare at him. The Superman is looking out over the park, his profile backlit by the floodlights. He isn't certain whether this is disenchantment with figures of authority or a subservience to them, and doesn't know which is more dangerous to believe.

What he is certain about is that it's a dig at his manners. Bruce's anger draws inward as though trying to conserve its heat.

The Superman returns his look, openly taking in Bruce's flat mouth and tight jaw, his hand curled so tight on the edge of the building that his arm almost shakes with the strain of it.

"You don't have to be afraid of me," he says.

"I'm not."

"Good," the Superman says, after a noticeable pause. "Maybe we can find a middle ground, then. I think we could benefit from one another—"

Bruce would rather fling himself off a tall building than listen to the rest of that sentence. The option is available to him, so he does.

With a flick of his wrist his cape snaps rigid, and the air resistance slows his descent into something controlled; he dips in a tight circle around the ship. The Superman appears to have taken the hint and doesn't try to chase in his slipstream.

He's studied the security well enough that he is confident that he can gain ingress discreetly at this point, but the Superman's presence, the way he touches the boundaries of Bruce's reality, has him out of sorts. He lands in the churned grass starboard side, where on most nights security is thin.

Not tonight, of course. Tonight the patrol patterns are different and so there are two armed guards in tactical body armor standing in the mud. They spot him immediately; he's exposed against the stark white canopy of the ship's containment tent like an escaping convict in a prison spotlight. The haptic alarm embedded in his gauntlet vibrates frantically. His hand is around a smoke canister before they can finish raising their semi-automatics.

They shout for him to desist as he pulls the pin, for him to get on the ground with his arms behind his head as he vaults aside, tossing the canister at their feet. A plume of white smoke billows up and engulfs them. He wedges a micro-rebreather into his mouth and dives into it; he aims a sharp blow to the solar plexus of one guard and fires his grapnel into the other, then kicks out their knees so they can groan and cough on the ground.

A pair of laser sights jitter against the containment tent before he can zip-tie them. From the trajectory of the beams as they cut through the smoke, Bruce ascertains that there are a pair of gunmen stationed on one of the scaffolding rigs that encircle the ship's perimeter, housing the floodlights. His reconnaissance has been inadequate. The security is more fully equipped than he had reckoned.

The containment tent is punctured with an anemic ftt, half a meter from Bruce's head. He rolls on his shoulder and into a crouch and considers his next move. One of the guards has gotten back on his feet already; both of their radios are chattering frenetically. A second bullet thunks into the ground in front of him. At least one of the snipers has the general idea of his location even if they haven't managed to draw a bead on him. The sound of approaching helicopters slices through the chaos.

This is a complete wash. His best course of action would be to retreat before the smoke clears and try again tomorrow night, or whenever security has returned to its usual level. He's about to break for an unlit section of scaffold when the smoke cloud shifts and dips inward. For an instant he's completely exposed to the bitter night air and a shower of red dots, then he's yanked off his feet.

The rebreather jolts out of his mouth, his breath is shoved out of his lungs and his ears pop, and he finds himself on his back in the carcass of an open-plan office. Sheaves of mildewed paper scud across the floor. Bruce's anticipation of his death assumes a very specific shape.

The Superman hovers over him, glowing with fury.

*

It's a unique kind of frustration that has Clark hauling the Bat out of the fire by the scruff of his neck. He's not going to like it for a half-dozen reasons Clark can immediately think of, and probably two dozen more that haven't occurred to him yet but he would be brusquely informed of point-by-point if the Bat had any interest in actually talking to him.

Well, Clark's not all that impressed with him right now, either.

It's hard to believe this is the same man who had kissed him as though the world was ending only an hour or so before. It had felt like a good idea to kiss him back at the time. Now it just confuses things, makes it difficult to gauge how annoyed he should be, or how kind; whether his affection or disappointment falls outside the bounds of what is expected.

The ship's security communications snatch his attention briefly: —the Batman—Superman took Batman—status? Holy sh—are they working together?—No visual, repeat, we have lost visual—

Not a great look. Lois is going to lose it when she hears about this.

Clark selects one of the many empty office buildings and beelines them toward one on the upper floors, weaving past the scaffolding and protective plastic sheeting and through one of the countless unglazed windows.

The lingering acrid stink of the Bat's smokebomb is overpowering in the enclosed space. Clark tosses him to the carpet tile with careful carelessness.

The Bat rolls to a stop, then flattens his hands by his head, curls his spine, and springs up onto his feet. He drops into a low combat stance, a couple of bat-shaped blades held between his fingers. They both know how pointless it would be for him to fight, but maybe his pride demands that he tries.

Clark takes a deep breath, folds his arms and looks up at the ceiling until the heat behind his eyes abates. He settles his feet flat on the floor.

"If you want to get at Lex Luthor, there are better times and much better places," he says.

The Bat drops his fists. The bat-blades—batarangs?—vanish as though by sleight. "What."

"The ship," Clark say slowly. Had he not known? "Luthor's inside. That's what I wanted to talk to you about before you took off."

Outwardly the Bat doesn't seem moved beyond his initial surprise, but Clark has a deeper read on how unnerved he is; his heartbeat snarls like a cornered dog. "What makes you think I'm interested in Luthor," he says.

Cold as a Gotham night. Clark knows he can be more civil than this, and it's—god, there's something about the situation that makes Clark want to give himself away so he can yell at him properly. The downside of a secret identity. It's tempting, Clark has to admit, but in all likelihood it would make for a pyrrhic victory.

"Kent told you." A painful kind of wonder slips past the flatness of the Bat's voice modulator.

"He didn't tell me anything." It's the truth, technically, but so misleading it may as well be a lie. Talking about himself in the third person never stops feeling like the deception it is. "But both you and Luthor have been poking around the ship, and neither of you want to tell me why. You can imagine how I feel about that."

"You're wrong," the Bat says. "I don't know the first thing about how, or if, you feel."

Clark's used to being the other, the skew in the baseline, but it's not often he's depersonalized right to his face. The shock makes him recoil. "What do you mean 'if'," he asks, as though the Bat had been in any way unambiguous.

"Have you ever felt an ounce of pain in your life?" The Bat points a finger, and if he were anyone else, Clark suspects he'd be jabbing him in the chest. "Do you have any concept of what it is to a human being? What it does? You hurled your impervious self through our city and got up and walked away from the wreckage. The rest of us don't have that privilege. We have to live with our wounds and our dead."

The urge to explain himself rises in Clark's chest like a physical thing, the desire to insist that he had done everything he could, that he'd pushed himself to the limit of his abilities, but it would ring as hollow as he felt. He's spent too many long, sleepless hours wondering if it were truly the case.

Or he could say that he has wreckage of his own. The Bat must know that there's more to pain than the physical, but he has no doubt that self-centeredness would earn him no more grace than his excuses.

"I'm sorry," Clark says. It's as inadequate as it's always been. "If I could undo it all—if I could do it all again, I would. I'd make better decisions."

"That's not good enough," the Bat says.

Clark catches his tongue before an ill-considered retort can roll off it. "I know," he says instead. "But it's all I can offer. I don't know what else you want from me."

"Leave."

"... what?"

"Leave. Fly off into space, don't look back. Go back home. Take your war and your carnage with you."

"There's no war," Clark says. "Just me and a handful of insurgents that I cast into limbo. They're going nowhere, and neither am I. Krypton was destroyed. This is my home."

Even barely prying, Clark can sense the adrenaline shivering through the Bat, the prickle of it over his skin. Relief that Clark is the last of his kind, or fear that he is determined to stay?

"Then why did you stop them?" the Bat asks. "You could have subjugated the planet along with them. Conquered us in the name of Krypton."

It's such an insane question that Clark can't hold back his laugh. It's short and bitter, so at least the Bat won't think he's making light of anything. "Sure, I could have. But, you know, my mom would have been real disappointed in me."

There was also the matter of the codex, and Zod's lack of compunction in mulching him in pursuit of its Kryptonian genomes, but that's a conversation for another time, and preferably with someone qualified to deal with it.

"Your mother," the Bat says, flat, and Clark can see what he's thinking. He'd just confessed to being the last of his kind, and now here he is talking about family. "She's—"

"Human, yes. So was my dad. They raised me here, on Earth." He glances in the Bat's direction; his body language gives him no more insight to his feelings on this than the ongoing racket of his pulse. "And they raised me right. Krypton's way isn't mine, and trust me when I tell you that Zod wasn't interested in acculturation. I would have been as devastated as any human."

And that's all he's willing to say on the matter. The Bat clearly has a problem with him the size of a planet—perhaps he sees Clark's existence as some kind of metaphysical rebellion, and he the self-designated peacekeeper—but Clark doesn't know the extent of his ruthlessness, whether he'd take further elaboration as an invitation to hunt down the components of his civilian life.

He hopes it wouldn't extend to leveraging somebody's mother, but he has little inclination to find out. Faora-Ul's hand on Ma's neck had been enough for him. The rage that had sprung from him in that instant had been useful, but difficult to harness. The price had been Smallville's high street.

"Was," the Bat says. He paces close. Paper rustles under his boot; shadows drip off him as he steps into the ambient light of an empty window. "Your father. He's...?"

Four parents and only one left to show for himself. It gets Clark to wondering if Jor-El still inhabits the ship somewhere. He should try to endure the sickness it stirs in him long enough to coax him out somehow, to conserve that last remnant of somebody who loved him.

"Yes," Clark says. He doesn't want to risk moving closer to the Bat himself, for a number of reasons, so he comes to rest against one of the desks that are bunched up at the far end of the room. He arranges his cape as he speaks. "Before he died, he encouraged me to find out more about myself, and I did. The ship—it's my only connection to Krypton."

"And that's why you want me to stay away from it."

"Not exactly. If you're not after Luthor, then I think you want to use it to hurt me."

The Bat's mouth thins into a line.

"Am I right?"

His mouth compresses further.

Clark swallows a bitter disappointment. "Why?"

"Because you're an unknown quantity," the Bat says. "Because you break the laws that govern us. The ones we made for ourselves and the ones we thought were immutable. You've adjusted the boundaries of our universe. You shattered an entire city. We don't even know how to begin to trust you."

For all his obfuscations of 'we' and 'us', the Bat is airing some personal fears. "My appeal isn't universal," Clark says, "but most people are doing okay. Is it your instinct to hurt what you're afraid of? On a personal level, I mean."

"I'm not afraid of you."

"So you've said."

The Bat's heartbeat trips along; it's muted by his suit, but Clark knows what to listen for. He can hear him grinding his teeth, too. It could all be anger, but the tremors that sheet over him tell a different story. He is terrified, and he is forcing himself to be brave.

"Look," Clark says, soft but clear. "I'm just trying to do the right thing. Sometimes I do the wrong thing. Sometimes I don't know if what I've done is right or wrong, only that whatever it was, I did it because I didn't want anyone else to be hurt." Despair tightens his throat. "I managed Zod badly, I know that. He was out of control, and so was I, and god, so many—so many people paid for that. I'm so sorry. You're right to be afraid."

The Bat stares at him for a long moment. "You had absolutely no idea what you were doing." He sounds as incredulous as his voice changer will allow. "Did you."

"I only figured out I could fly a few days before," Clark says. He closes his eyes and sees streaks of debris in a sky as blue as a jaybird. His voice wants to shake, so he lets it. "I'd never flown in a city. Never really fought before, not like that. Much less in midair with someone like Zod."

He is telling the Bat this, exposing a clear vulnerability even though he's got designs of violence on him. Clark could tell himself it's an attempt to disarm him, to humanize himself in the Bat's eyes, but the truth is that his judgment is appalling. He shouldn't be expecting any sympathy here, never mind leniency.

"Unbelievable," the Bat mutters. "You collapsed half the city. You killed thousands of people with your carelessness. Thousands. With your power, that was a reckless, irresponsible—"

"I would love," Clark says. He can feel his patience fraying. There's only so much energy he has for for being mindful of the Bat's neuroses when it's a firmly one-sided consideration. "Love to spend the evening listening to you gripe about me to my face, but I think it's time you went back to Gotham."

The Bat raises his chin to him, as though expecting physical retaliation along with his words. "I'll decide when—"

"You'll go now or I'll take you back myself, and it won't be a dignified return," Clark says. "I'm giving you the option."

There's an unpleasant strain in the Bat, like the vibration of steel wire under tension, but he draws his grapnel and steps to a window without further argument.

*

The Batwing is cloaked on the roof of one of the many derelict skyscrapers. Bruce stops at the park on his way to it. If the Superman wants to expedite his departure then he won't have long, but he wants to order some of his more chaotic thoughts and he wants to do it here, in the shadow of his monument.

Bruce digs his fingers into the textured stone surface of the Superman's forearm and hoists himself up. The surface is slick and shining with rain, but it's broad and easy to traverse. There's still noise from the scout ship installation and so he doubts anyone will be interested in this end of the park.

He soft-foots it along the arm and into the palm of the statue's upturned hand. The immense face that stares down at him is blank and impassive. Bruce feels as though it's a poor likeness, though now that he's not in close proximity to the alien he finds he can't fix what he looks like in his mind's eye. Perhaps the sculptor encountered the same problem.

The Superman, he thinks, is not a human being with habits and comforts and neuroses. He lives on the cusp of infinity among the nameless stars in the infinitude of the universe, indifferent and unchanging.

Except, culturally, he's American. He grew up watching cartoons every Saturday morning and doing chores. He has a family. He's known joy and success and failure and loss. Everything he cares about is here, on Earth.

People assess probabilities incorrectly. They display confirmation bias, they test hypotheses inefficiently, they do not properly calibrate degrees of belief. They project their own opinions onto others, they allow prior knowledge to become implicated in deductive reasoning—

Bruce has to admit that, sometimes, he is no less susceptible to fallacies in his thinking than anyone else.

The more he stares at the statue, the more a trick of the light makes it look as though it's smiling. The shadows shift again under the headlights of a passing vehicle, and, unbidden, Bruce wonders if the Superman is afraid to be left alone with the things he has done. Whether he lives with an enduring terror that he will be the one to end the world as he knows it.

He thinks he knows the answer to that.

Possibly the only thing worse than discovering that there is no god: discovering that there is one, and that he may be as fallible as the rest of the human race.

*

Clark's enthusiasm for attending Luthor's gala was already a precarious thing, but the peak and then trough of last night's dealings with the Bat has set his ambient mood to an apathetic mope. It must be noticeable because Cat has just spent a solid five minutes chatting him up in the break area, something she hasn't done since his first week at the Planet.

The afternoon grinds on. Clark formulates and then discards any number of reasons he can't possibly deck himself out and make small talk with inebriated C-listers and logrolling politicians and other assorted partygoers this evening. There's not a single excuse Perry will buy.

So he scrubs himself up but not too much, pastes on a smile, wishes a fortifying drink was an option for him, and makes it to the hotel ballroom unfashionably on time.

There's no sign of Lex Luthor himself yet, but he's known to be eccentric when it comes to turning up to his own public functions. Not as bad as Bruce Wayne used to be, because at least Lex is sober when he does eventually show. Clark pinballs between clusters of guests, champagne flute clutched delicately to his chest, and tries to look vaguely at ease whenever anyone talks to him as though they know who he is—though nobody has addressed him by name yet, only introduced themselves, shaken his hand and moved on.

He filches some kind of hors d'oeuvre as the plate passes by, and when he looks up from dubiously inspecting a prosciutto-wrapped poached pear slice, is hit with both barrels by Bruce Wayne.

Clark wonders if merely thinking his name has the power to summon him. "Evening, Mr. Wayne," he says, trying to hide his dismay as Wayne guides him by the elbow through the throng of the party, moving as though he expects the crowd to part before them, which it does.

"What?" Wayne says. He wags a finger near his ear and speaks loudly over the acoustic murmur of the ballroom, the clink of glassware. "Sorry, it's just too loud in here. Don't you think it's too loud?"

That's his preamble to sweep them out of a tall glass door and onto a balcony. The gold voile drapes billow out in their wake.

"That's better," Wayne says. He gives Clark's hired tux the once-over. "I didn't expect to find you in a place like this, Mr. Kent. What a pleasant surprise."

"You're in Metropolis, Mr. Wayne. Cosmopolitanism is the order of the day."

Wayne leans back on the balustrade, drink dangling from his fingers. His chest rises as he takes a breath of the crisp winter air. "Bruce," he says.

"All right," Clark says.

"... may I call you Clark?"

"Whatever you like, Mr. Wayne."

Wayne looks at Clark as though he'd dashed the champagne from his glass. "Ouch," he says dryly.

He is performatively contrite and clearly undeterred. It's going to be a long evening if he's going to keep this up, and as far as Clark understands, Wayne is something of a trauma grab-bag, so he fervently hopes he doesn't have to resort to an emotional maiming to get him to leave him alone.

Wayne plucks the pear slice from Clark's fingers and eats it. "So, anyway. How's your article coming on?" he says with his mouth full.

Clark discovers that he's even less enthused at the prospect of discussing work than he is at deflecting Wayne's persistent flirting. "Fine," he says.

"Fine," Wayne says amiably. "Good. Super. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought we were getting on a little better than this last time we met."

The groundbreaking had been a more tolerable event to begin with, but he's not certain someone like Wayne will understand that. He's been immersed this kind of blue-blood organized backpatting all of his life. But—it could be that he's being uncharitable. Clark sighs and shifts his glasses up his face so he can rub his eyes with finger and thumb. "Yeah, sorry," he says. To his embarrassment, the words keep tumbling out. "I've had a difficult couple of days."

"And it's not fair of you to take it out on me," Wayne finishes for him with irrepressible arrogance, and takes a sip of his champagne. His hair has fallen out of its careful styling; Clark's not sure why he hadn't noticed that he's well on his way to drunk before now. "But that's okay, I forgive you."

"Magnanimous of you, thanks," Clark says into his glass.

"Most people don't know this about me, but I'm a good listener," Wayne says. "Well—I can nod my head in the right places and drink while you offload whatever's bothering you. I won't gossip, nobody would care."

Clark looks over at him. It's started to snow, the first flurry of the season; the flakes are gilt leaf in the light from the ballroom. Wayne glances sideways to meet Clark's eye, and his expression softens around the edges.

There's no way there's not a catch to this. Clark can't conceive to say what's truly on his mind, but he starts talking anyway. "First of all, I don't want to be here, it's awful," he says, and shakes his head and grins at Wayne's bark of laughter. "But mostly it's—it's kind of complicated. Let's just say that someone I was starting to care for a great deal, they, uh. They hurt me in a way I saw coming from a mile off, but I didn't do anything but stand there and hope that they'd hit the brakes. Surprise, they didn't."

Wayne frowns deeply, various degrees of puzzlement playing across his face as if he's trying to complete a jigsaw without a picture to work from. Clark's confused at his confusion, but when Wayne notices, his expression smooths out, possibly in an attempt to short-circuit their feedback loop of bewilderment.

"I... thought you were single," he says.

"Like I said, it's complicated."

"Well, you know what I like to do when things are complicated?" Wayne says. "Get dressed up nice, go to a party and try to land a billionaire."

"Sage advice." Clark comes to lean on the stone balustrade and looks out over the city's myriad lights. Bruce Wayne is more style than substance, but the occasional glimmer of self-awareness suggests that what little there is to him might not be entirely insufferable. Clark grins. "Thanks, Bruce," he says, and means it.

He hears Bruce shift in his periphery, and take a breath. "Would I be taking advantage of your broken heart," he says, "if I invited you home tonight?"

Clark smiles down at his hands, his fingers crooked around the base of his champagne flute where it rests on the balustrade. Well, now he can unmistakably say he's joined the ranks of people who have been propositioned by Bruce Wayne. It's an exclusive club consisting of the entirety of Gotham and half of Metropolis, if every rumor is to be believed.

"I appreciate that you're trying to make me feel better—" Clark begins.

"I'm not talking ice cream and a movie night," Bruce says. His brows arch. "I can do better than better."

Clark bites the inside of his mouth. It's not as though getting to know the Bat was ever truly on the table; all that could've been was no-strings, presumably filthy, sex. And Bruce is—well, not nice, exactly. But not unattractive by a considerable margin, and, as loath as Clark is to admit it, legitimately charming sometimes, even if it's by accident. All this could be is no-strings and presumably filthy sex, but at least he'll know what to call him in bed.

"Should you really be fraternizing with an employee like this?" Clark eventually asks.

"Absolutely not," Bruce says, though he doesn't seem to care a whit. "It's the height of unprofessionalism. But Wayne Enterprises has only made an an initial offer. At this point, we're entirely unaffiliated."

"And you want to—"

"Affiliate."

"With me."

"If you're open to it."

It's ridiculous that he's even considering this. There's every chance that Bruce will be his future boss; every morning would be a walk of shame to his desk.

"I can withdraw the offer at any time," Bruce says. "I'm not the only person who can save the Planet."

"Are you offering to not buy something in order to win my affections?"

"That's backwards isn't it? But I feel like I've been doing this all backwards from the start."

Clark knows he's telegraphing his indecision loud and clear, so it's no great surprise when Bruce rests a hand on his arm. He sighs, but his heart's not in it. "I would probably regret it," he says.

"Most people do." Bruce's hand travels from his biceps to the curve of his shoulder. "But most is not all. How do you feel about that?"

"I don't know," Clark says honestly. Bruce is about the same height as the Bat, he thinks. Broad shoulders like him, too, though that might be the cut of his suit. A thrill works its way up his spine, a shiver of suspense. He could find out.

He knows how he feels about that. Damn it all to hell.

So, apparently this is what Clark is doing tonight: hooking up with Bruce Wayne. And he's doing it because he's rebounding off an emotionally unavailable avatar of vengeance who wants to destroy him in more ways than one. It is irredeemably idiotic and he deserves everything he might get for this, but he is already anticipating the texture of Bruce's stubble between his shoulder blades.

Bruce leans into him, his hand tightening on his shoulder, the other resting in the small of Clark's back. The sound of the gala drops away, and Clark closes his eyes and lets Bruce press close. He can feel Bruce's blood thundering, the way he's controlling his breath and finally understands that it's never been merely an intimidation tactic or idle fun. Bruce is genuinely into him.

Maybe someone showing interest is all it takes for him, because it sends his own heart thumping. He draws a deep breath through his nose as Bruce's lips touch his; he catches a hint of alcohol, cologne and warm wool—and exactly the wrong amount of white phosphorus.

**

Chapter 4

Chapter Text

The stink of the Bat's smoke bomb strikes Clark like a warhead, and he pulls away from the kiss, dizzy with the shock of it. He drops his champagne glass. It bursts against the floor.

Bruce frowns and pouts, as anyone would expect of him. "What now," he says, flat.

"Um—" Clark's breath is caught in his throat and he can't seem to get it out. His hand clutches at the crook of Bruce's arm, and for a moment he can't tell if he's holding on too tightly. "You—"

"What's wrong?" Bruce sounds concerned now, rather than put out. He braces the arm that Clark's got fisted into his tux and guides him to lean against the stone balustrade. All the seductiveness has evaporated from him. "What do you need," he asks urgently, feeling over the pockets of Clark's jacket. "Epipen? An inhaler?"

Clark laughs and coughs at the same time. He catches Bruce's hands to stop him fondling his person for medical supplies. "Do I look asthmatic?" he says. "No, it's your smoke grenades. They have a very distinctive smell."

"Oh, is that what I've been drinking?" Bruce says, without missing a beat.

Clark stares at him. Bruce stares back, eyebrows raised, urbane, tipsy, and completely aware of what's going on. The Bat of Gotham, determined to have him however he can.

"You're really going to try it, huh." Clark stands up and tugs his jacket back into place. He takes a moment to try and pin down some of the things he's feeling, then gives it up as an exercise in frustration. Right, frustration. That's one of them.

While Clark knew the Bat was enigmatic by design, he'd thought he had the measure of Bruce Wayne. That he'd gleaned all he needed to know from his rakish smile, incorrigible flirting and personal loss; from his select tastes and cheerful solecisms and his public disgraces. All along, the Bat was this disaster of a man, a revenge tragedy in progress.

It makes perfect sense, in the respect that it makes no goddamn sense at all.

Bruce sighs in acceptance of his defeat. His face relaxes into a surly expression, and he's suddenly more at home in his skin than Clark's ever seen him. He realizes that this—the Bat and his extraordinary mission, this can only be the truth of him. Everything else is so much smokescreen.

"I thought we parted on reasonable terms," Bruce says. His voice is deeper, rougher. "Your terms, if I recall correctly. You decided that you suddenly didn't want—"

He stops so abruptly that Clark hears his teeth click. He drags at his hair with one hand and turns away from Clark. The fabric of his jacket stretches then bunches over his broad back as his other hand joins it.

"—because of identity issues. Christ. I've never used a smoke grenade near you. Not near Clark Kent."

He could attempt to deflect or deny, but Clark knows he's already given himself away as surely as if he'd lifted a yard from the marble balcony tiles or melted his champagne flute into a puddle, or removed his glasses. He's just stripped the Bat of his disguise, so he feels it would be both unfair and an insult to Bruce's intelligence to do that.

"No, you haven't."

Staggeringly foolish, as that seems to be the order of the day, but not unfair. Now they can both know exactly how they feel about one other.

Bruce slowly turns back around. Clark, in a gesture of respect, removes his glasses and stands up straight.

He was prepared for heat and force, but not so much the meteor impact that is Bruce's expression a split second before it calms into nothing. Clark may have underestimated just how much Bruce, and the Bat, had invested in him.

"I suppose you think this is funny," Bruce says.

Clark knows whatever advantage he'd gained in catching Bruce flat-footed is fast vanishing. He can sense the anger gathering in him, the uproar of his heartbeat that, apparently, Clark's been unconsciously attuning himself to.

And is experiencing something of an inappropriate Pavlovian response to, also. "Not particularly." He clears his throat. "I think we need to talk."

"I've said everything I want to say to you."

"You sure have." Clark is amiable in the face of the Bat's temper. It's not like he can say anything worse to him than he already has, so he adds, "But is there anything you'd like to revisit, now that we can be more open about things?"

"Very little."

"Bruce—"

"That's Mr. Wayne to you," Bruce says. "Son."

Not much worse, anyway. Clark's heart lurches sideways. He fumbles his glasses back on. "Come on. Please don't—"

"Don't what?" Bruce says, his voice rising. "Don't be angry? You can cover your universe-denting self in the trappings of mankind all you like—I see you. I see what you are and what you're capable of. Give me one reason why I shouldn't be angry, Superman."

Because that would make you a hypocrite, Batman, Clark should say, you're not the only one who's just had a face-slap of a revelation, but he can hear the murmur of guests inside the ballroom: on the balcony—is that Bruce?—sounds like someone's drunk already—making a scene as usual. He's more aware of the fragility of his disguise than he's ever been. All it would take to shatter it completely is for Bruce to raise his voice a little more, bring the entirety of the gala's attention down on him and give his contempt free rein.

And Clark Kent would have no choice but to disappear. He would have to remake himself someplace else, his time here in Metropolis just another failure in a lifetime spent trying to fit in.

A ball of fear tightens in his chest. He takes a deep breath, and then panics.

He pushes Bruce to the wall to one side of the balcony doors, out of the golden light of the ballroom and into the shadows, away from casual view. He moves fast and with meticulous gentleness, but as soon as he does it he realizes it was the wrong decision.

He has one hand in Bruce's lapel, the other around his wrist. Bruce's eyes glitter with a cold fury. His whole body is tremoring with it.

"Let go of me," he says, low and dangerous. He makes a fist; the tendons of his wrist flex against Clark's palm. His other bunches Clark's shirtfront, knuckles braced against Clark's collar bone.

"Look—we can't do this here. There are too many people," Clark says.

"Let," Bruce says through his teeth, "go."

He is phenomenally upset, judging by—well, everything, but if Clark's already messed this up as irreparably as he suspects, then he'll surrender to the petty part of him that wants revenge for the freefall stunt the Bat pulled on him. It won't fix anything, but it'll get them away from here.

"Heads up, we're going over," he says, then swings Bruce from the wall and topples the both of them off the balcony.

Bruce clutches at him in what can only be reflex, a small but startled exclamation shaken out of him. The streaming snow slants sideways, the skyline tips and rolls, and then Clark lands them at the perimeter of the hotel's grounds in the shadow of a towering leylandii hedge.

The murmur of a guest above: huh—nobody out here after all, and then the surreptitious tchk of a cigarette lighter.

He lets go. Bruce takes a step back and carefully smooths himself down.

Clark waits in this chasm of silence while he straightens his bow-tie and cuffs and fastens his jacket. Then Bruce throws his arms out wide, all open body language and viciousness in his eyes, and says with brittle cordiality, "Well, Mr. Kent, it's been a singular night."

Clark reminds himself that he's entitled to be more than a bit pissed off himself. "Oh, it's been swell," he says agreeably. "I can't believe you were hitting on me from all sides. Talk about hedging your bets."

"I wasn't." Bruce's anger simmers down long enough for him to be indignant. "Turns out you're the only person on the planet who's got the hots for the Bat. Christ, I should have known you were an alien on that evidence alone."

Clark suspects Bruce doesn't spend a lot of time on certain parts of the internet. He dips his chin and peers over his glasses. "He's something else. It's a real shame he wants to kill me."

After a beat, Bruce says, "I don't want that."

"Good to know. What is your plan, exactly?"

Bruce presses the heel of his hand to one shoulder and rolls it back. A stalling gesture, but he also subluxed it recently. With the grapnel, maybe. Without the suit and his cowl deflecting his vision, Clark can see every inch of the wear and tear he's put himself through over the years.

"It's a work in progress." Bruce sounds disgruntled at having nothing firm and being forced to admit it—a result of either habitual hypercompetence or macho posturing that being able to lay out exactly what he had in store for the Superman would've somehow been the more favorable option. Clark's just relieved he's got nothing.

"How do you feel about some constructive criticism?" Clark says.

" 'Constructive' is not a word I associate with you."

"That's fine, I have some regular criticism for you as well."

"Jesus." Bruce coughs out something almost like a laugh. "You'll want to brainstorm next."

"Sure. But first you should figure out what it is you want. Then we can figure out how to get there."

Bruce runs a hand back through his hair. He looks strikingly tired, weighed down by a mean kind of sorrow.

Clark takes a breath. "When someone is hurt badly," he says, "and keeps hurting, three things can happen. They fill up with hate, and they destroy everything around them. Or they fill up with sadness, and they destroy themselves. Or they fill up with justice, and they try to destroy everything that’s cruel in the world."

"And which one am I," Bruce asks wearily.

"They're not mutually exclusive," Clark says. "Which is why you worry me so much. But I think you're like me. I think you want to make the world a better place, or at least an easier one to live in. And I think, for a while, you thought I was cruel. I understand why you need a plan at all."

"You seem to think you know a lot about me."

"Your inconsistencies say a lot."

"I think you'll find I'm very consistent."

"I'm sure you believe that's true. Look—what I'm trying to say is, I'd rather be concerned about Luthor than about you." Clark takes his biggest risk of the evening thus far and clasps Bruce's shoulder. "Do you understand?"

Bruce's pulse doesn't go spiking out of bounds this time, but Clark's sure there's something about Luthor that Bruce isn't sharing. As frustrating as that is, it patently isn't the best moment for Clark to push him on it. He doubts it'll garner him even a diversionary kiss this time.

And, yep. Kissing Bruce is something he's still got significant interest in. He never stops learning about himself: who would have though that emotionally-distanced disillusionment would be his type.

"I need to think," Bruce says. He shrugs himself free of Clark's hand and walks away. Clark tries to walk with him, just—because he wants to and because he can't not. Bruce has the gravitational pull of a collapsing star. He halts and rounds on Clark almost immediately. "I need," he repeats, "to think."

"Okay." Clark holds up his hands and takes a step back. "I have your communicator still. If—if there's anything you want to salvage here."

Bruce's hands, held loose at his side, tense into fists and relax in turn. The evenness of his voice is a lie. "I know how to get your attention," he says.

*

Once he's out of Clark's line of sight—he is not out of Clark's line of sight, he can never be, nobody can ever be, out of Clark's line of sight—Bruce shrugs off his suit jacket and wraps it around a streetlamp. His bowtie goes into its pocket. Winter is taking a bite out of the city and Bruce feels its razor teeth through the cotton of his shirt but it doesn't bring the clarity he'd hoped for.

He needs to think, but his mind is in uproar, full-on rebellion. The Superman had touched him. He'd kissed him. Bruce had f*cking jerked off over him.

He'd touched his soft warm alien mouth to Bruce's, Bruce had slid his tongue between teeth that could split diamonds, and he'd revelled in every second of it. He'd let Bruce lift him and press against his body, pliable and compliant and receptive even though he must have known the Bat had nothing good in store for him.

Christ, why would he do that to himself.

Bruce fishes the communicator out of his pocket and taps it into his ear. The frequency of the channel's hum tells him the line is already open.

"Why would you do that."

"Uh," Clark says, after a pause, "narrow that down?"

"The Bat. You knew he had it in for the Superman, but you let him kiss you anyway."

"Can we stop doing the third-person thing? It's kind of weird."

"Don't avoid the question."

A fresh skim of snow is settling on the sidewalk. Bruce stops trudging a circle of footprints into it, picks a direction and starts walking.

"Because I wanted to," Clark says.

"Why?"

A laugh, light but sheepish. "Do I really have to spell it out? Because I like you. Why else?"

"A means of control," Bruce says. "Distraction, manipulation. Get the Bat invested in you on a personal level and then leverage it when—"

"You know," Clark says, "that says a lot more about you than it does about me."

Bruce pinches the bridge of his nose. He could be overthinking this, but—who would bare a soft spot by so brazenly admitting their affections? Clark, apparently, even though bullets don't bounce off his feelings the way they do off his skin. He's not trying to thwart the Bat's machinations or scare Bruce Wayne off with emotional sincerity, here. He's just—Bruce asked, and so he's sharing. Clark, in all his unvarnished earnestness, likes him. Simple as that.

And how often does that happen?

Bruce takes a deep breath of frigid air, enough to make his lungs ache. He is overthinking it. He brushes melting snow out of his hair and turns a corner onto Clinton street.

*

There's a knock on his door. Clark stares through it, and finds Bruce standing there. He hadn't told him where he lives at any point, but he's proven to make casual intrusiveness a habit so he doubts this fact has occurred to him. He's lost his jacket and bow-tie and his hair is messed up like he's spent the last two hours running his hands through it. He's doing exactly that when Clark opens up.

Another fact has also occurred to Clark, not unrelated to Bruce and thus the Bat knowing where he lives: this explains the mysterious disappearance of Lois's flashdrive. His casual intrusiveness extends to housebreaking and burglary, apparently.

He leans on the doorframe and eyes Bruce's untucked shirt. His sleeves are rolled up; his forearms are muscle and bone and bruises. He's a sneak thief, a brute, an inveterate criminal. There's nothing enticing about that, Clark tells himself. Especially not juxtaposed with his slick styling and affable rudeness.

"Where's the rest of your suit?" he says.

Bruce frowns. "I was overdressed for this."

"Alright. Did you bring a bottle, at least?"

Bruce looks baffled for a moment, then says, "Can I come in? Or do you want to do this where your neighbors can hear."

Clark steps back and sweeps his arm, inviting Bruce inside. He doesn't accept with any kind of humbleness, but strolls to the center of Clark's living room where he can take in the entirety of the place just by turning his head.

"Nothing you haven't seen before." Clark takes small satisfaction in the way Bruce's shoulders square up defensively. Before he can start dissembling, he says, "I'm halfway through fixing something to eat, but you can make yourself comfortable."

Clark goes into the kitchen, takes the pan off the stove and leans on the worktop for a moment, palms flat, arms straight. His heart is in his throat. All he can think about is the strong flex of the Bat's body beneath his armor when he'd lifted Clark and kissed him. Bruce had done that.

He takes a breath and schools his voice to evenness. "If there's anything you want to get off your chest, feel free to start," he calls through. "I can nod in the right places."

There's a long silence, during which Clark considers flash-boiling his pan of cooling pasta.

"I didn't know," Bruce says. He hasn't raised his voice. Maybe he finds it easier to pretend he's talking to himself. "That you were so completely a person."

Clark decides that he can't stomach dinner after all. In the living room, Bruce has plucked one of the few things from his bookshelf—the papier-mâché rooster. His expression either says exactly how ugly he thinks it is, or he saw the family photo sat next to it and is covering whatever emotion that stirs in him.

"I made that," Clark says.

"I can see why you took up writing."

"Thanks. I was eight, I think." He delicately extracts it from Bruce's grip. Their fingers brush; god help them both, he hears Bruce's breath hitch. "I'd started busting door handles and yanking drapes clean off their rails, bending things that no kid should be able to bend, especially not by accident."

"So you made a rooster," Bruce says doubtfully.

"I made dozens of them." Clark turns it over in his hands a few times. The tactile memory of crafting it returns to him in sunny fragments. Same old rooster: wonky beak; bits of newsprint showing through the paint; colors faded pale along one side from decades in the sun. "Ma said she wanted some tchotchkes for the farmer's market stall. So she got some balloons and pipe cleaners and showed me how to cover them in newspaper and flour glue until I had this whole army of malformed poultry."

Bruce's mouth bends in something that could be taken for amusem*nt. It's as though he's humoring a slightly boring dinner date but for the way he's hanging on every word.

"I popped a whole lot of balloons trying to smooth the paper down or attach the legs. But Ma told me to keep trying, so I kept on, and sure as dust in August, I could eventually make them without bursting a single one. I put my brush through a couple or caved in the whole thing when it came to painting, but by the time I was done it was second nature to handle them carefully."

"That was a charming story. Thank you for sharing."

"If I knew you were going to be a jerk about it, I wouldn't have bothered," Clark says mildly. He returns the rooster to its shelf, then folds his arms and stares at his ceiling while he tries to fend off a whirl of dissonance.

"You knew I'd be a jerk about it," Bruce says. "What's wrong."

"Nothing. It's just that you're Bruce Wayne."

"A minor defect in my character."

"I'll try not to hold it against you."

Bruce snorts. "You know, I resent this a lot. I don't often meet people I like."

"Well, in case you're wondering, it's not them, it's you."

"Yeah, working as intended." He sounds increasingly tired. Clark has a brief but acute insight into the nature of his isolation, how and why he's constructed it for himself. "I understand what you're trying to tell me," Bruce says. "The anecdote."

"Of course you do. But do you believe me?"

"That you've learned to contain yourself? That you're instinctively gentle? I don't know. You're not human. Why should you hold anything back?"

Clark holds out his hand. Bruce makes no move to take it, but Clark is patient and he is stubborn and he doesn't suffer muscle fatigue.

After a few more moments of caution, Bruce slides his palm against Clark's. "What—are we doing?"

Clark tightens his grip slightly, the normal, expected pressure of someone shaking hands, and Bruce tenses immediately.

"Hi," Clark says, and leans into his space. "I'm Clark. Good to meet you." Kind of corny, sure, but he's trying to make a point here. He relaxes his grip, releases it and rests the back of his hand in the palm of Bruce's instead. He listens to the quick thrum of Bruce's pulse and focuses on the contact of his skin, the warmth of it and its film of evaporated fear-sweat, the rough calluses and the faint lattice of old scars.

Bruce takes a deep, sighing breath and sweeps his thumb over Clark's palm. His shoulder slump. "You can tear girders apart with these," he says.

"Yes."

"One-handed."

"If the situation calls for it."

"Could crush a man. Pull him apart. Pulp him."

"Haven't tried, don't intend to."

"You touched my face."

"I did," Clark says.

A muscle in Bruce's jaw tightens. His thumb presses into the center of Clark's palm. Clark lets his hand curl inward around it in simple reflex.

"You could touch me again," Bruce says.

"I could?" It's unclear as to whether Bruce is inviting him or expressing dread. The tympanic thunder of his blood tells Clark nothing. "If you wanted me to."

What he does know is this isn't about the rest of the world any more. Perhaps this works for Bruce as a distillation of his concerns, a reduction to the essential. Something he can work through on his level, and having endured it, be reassured by it on a wider scale. If it's what Bruce needs to do in order to demythologize him, then he is happy to oblige.

"Can I?" Clark asks him.

Bruce swears under his breath, an imperfectly-crafted prayer, and takes Clark's face in both of his hands. Between that, the low, desperate noise he makes and the immediate demand of his mouth, Clark will take that as a firm yes.

He sinks into the kiss, strength in check and hands light on Bruce's biceps, keeping things measured and allowing him take the lead. Bruce rakes his lower lip with his teeth; his stubble grits against Clark's cheek as he coaxes their mouths open and pushes to get things deeper. Clark tries to keep another wave of dissonance from getting the better of him. He's been kissed like this before.

Bruce's hands slide from his face and down his chest, and then he shoves Clark, hard. Having no cause to anticipate that kind of reaction after that kind of kiss, Clark almost doesn't roll with it.

"Stop it." Bruce's face is tight with frustration. "You're being polite."

Clark's eyebrows go up. "How else am I supposed to—" he says, then something clicks. Bruce has been spoiling for a fight with him for god knows how long.

So he lifts Bruce by the front of his shirt, drags him over to the wall, and, throwing his security deposit to the wind, pushes him into it hard enough to make a dent. He'll have to apologize to his neighbors tomorrow, though he'd already assumed he would have to do that for one reason or another when Bruce had shown up at his door.

Bruce grunts. He has a face like fright, eyes wide and shining with something that isn't entirely lust, but he clasps his hands around Clark's and says, "Better."

He tries to pry his shirt from between Clark's fingers. The more he fails the harder he gets, a ridge of heat against Clark's thigh, and when Clark tears his dress shirt open he feels a distinct twitch.

There are more gouges in him than a butcher's block. Raised scars wind across the angles of his chest. They feel like rough-sewn thread beneath Clark's fingertips. Bruce's hands are fastened around his wrists, not trying to stop him or even guide him, just along for the ride as Clark runs his fingers over the strict composition of his musculature and its colorful bruising.

There's an intense calmness to him, but his heart is pounding so hard and fast that Clark can barely hear anything else.

He shakes Bruce's hands loose so he can take a hold of his wrists instead, an inversion that breaks Bruce out of his stillness in dramatic fashion. He thrashes, bucking up against the restraint of Clark's body like a panic instinct has overridden the thinking part of his brain. It startles Clark into trying to physically control him—he's half afraid Bruce will break a bone on him if he lets go, so he pins his shoulder with one hand and fastens his wrist to the wall with the other.

Which is when he realizes that this is close to what they were doing at the gala, and Bruce—he's orchestrated it flawlessly.

"Honestly?" Clark says, though he's not as surprised as he sounds.

Bruce's smile isn't fully realized enough to be abashed. "If I hadn't been so pissed at you, probably, yes."

He squeezes lightly; Bruce's wristbones roll under his grip. "I thought you liked to have the upper hand."

"Who says that I don't?"

*

There is no longer a separation between the sacred and the profane, and it renders Bruce's anger as powerless as a disarmed grenade. Superman, the beauty and terror of him, is still a problem—but he realizes now that it's a two-person problem, and that he's been trying to solve it single-handedly. It's more straightforward with Clark on board.

It's a conscious evolution of his feelings about the alien. The man. The scales have fallen from his eyes. No need to remain hung up on a losing fight.

Which means Bruce can set his concerns aside long enough to attempt to pry their bodies apart, wait for Clark to catch on and unpin him, and let him drop to his knees. As invigorating as being smashed into the drywall is, Clark is obviously tentative about going to town on him to any further degree. Bruce suspects he won't be developing any interesting bruises tomorrow, despite his best efforts.

Clark gazes down at him with a furrow in his brow. Honestly, it's as though nobody's ever knelt at his feet before. The muted glow from the street and the moon seeps into the room, limning the pristine angles of his face and the curl of his hair; his eyelashes cast long fans of shadow over his cheekbones. He smiles, cheeks slowly flushing.

"Please don't look at me while I suck your co*ck," Bruce says. It's difficult to admire him when he's so openly admiring Bruce back. "This isn't a staring contest."

Despite this perfectly reasonable request, Clark keeps looking at him as he unzips his fly. He's obviously trying to tone down his smile for Bruce's sake but it's like being caught in a river of light, and so Bruce is the one who looks away.

"I thought you were supposed to be charming."

Christ, his underwear is just as terrible a plaid as his shirts. Bruce is hopelessly lost.

"Smoke and mirrors." Bruce pops open the two small buttons and slides his hand into the placket of Clark's boxers. He's maybe two-thirds toward hard, uncut and already generously appointed. Bruce looks forward to adding jaw ache to the white noise of his body pain tomorrow. "It's all in the presentation."

He pulls Clark's co*ck out of his underwear and rests it on his palm; there, Clark's pulse flutters like a bird seeking flight, working him to a full erection. Superficially, there's nothing strange about this part of him any more than there is about the rest of him. Above average when it comes to being compelling to look at, perhaps, but nothing untoward. Bruce is sixty to seventy percent sure he's not disappointed.

"I'd say take a picture, but I know how often your cloud data gets leaked." Clark leans his forearms against the wall and looks down at him. His amusem*nt is palpable. "I have a measuring tape if you want to—oh."

Bruce is well-schooled in the art of vengeance, and sometimes, though not often, vengeance takes the form of a blowj*b. He works his lips over the head of Clark's co*ck. It has the anticipated effect: Clark stops smartmouthing him and lets loose a low groan instead. Bruce hears the crunch of his fingers in the drywall when he draws his mouth off and tongues the precome that wells from him. Plaster dust settles in Bruce's hair and on the back of his neck.

"Okay," Clark says breathlessly, and with the way his thighs tremble Bruce half-imagines he's never had this done to him before.

"Wait," Bruce says. "Have you never—"

"Of course I have." Clark insinuates a hand into Bruce's hair, torturing him with a soft touch. "Just not with someone who takes their time as much as you apparently like to."

Alright, not done with the smart mouth, then. Bruce grins up at him, a practised smile that slices like a shark's fin. Unimpressed, Clark gives up his death grip on the wall and gets one on Bruce's jaw instead, pushing his thumb into the corner of Bruce's mouth. Bruce bites it, hard. Clark's skin tastes bland and clean, is smooth and soft and has as much give to it as anyone else's, but no more—there's a tensile property to it that means Bruce's teeth sink in but don't penetrate.

Clark's response is a breathy laugh, like he can't believe his luck. God, Bruce never had a hope of containing him. Clark gradually presses his mouth open, thumb on his tongue, and Bruce lets his head loll back against the wall, relaxes his throat and—

—is suddenly on a bed. Clark's bed, sans his pants, bouncing to a standstill.

"Sorry." Clark says even as he's eagerly pulling his shirt off over his head. His abdominals tense and relax as he tosses it aside to land on Bruce's esrtwhile slacks. "I just thought this would be more comfortable."

"Comfort isn't my main priority," Bruce says.

That gives Clark pause. In a display of rhetorical brilliance worthy of a reporter of his caliber, he says, "Huh."

"But I suppose we're here now," Bruce concedes.

He spreads a hand on Clark's chest, the soft hair prickling against his palm, and Clark lets him ever so gently press him down against the mattress.

For a moment he's lost, foundering in the truth of who Clark is, the immensity of the power he has lying docile under his fingertips. He squeezes his eyes shut so hard that phosphenes dance in patterns. It takes Clark shifting politely to get his head back where it should be.

He rubs at his eyes with his free hand. "So. What do I need to know here," he says.

Clark leans up on his elbows. His body is lush curves of muscle and unblemished skin, flushed co*ck arching against his stomach. "I'm easy either way."

"That's—not what I meant, but good to know."

"Oh, you meant maybe... alien stuff."

"Alien stuff, yes."

"Nothing to report."

Bruce makes a mildly disappointed face.

Clark laughs, tilting his face up to kiss him. "We're not so different," he says. He can't have considered that he spends a lot of time trying to put people at ease where Bruce does the opposite. They both transcend the normative, sure, only Clark seeks it and is rejected. Bruce rejects it out of hand.

He sweeps his thumb over Clark's cheekbone, a ritualistic expression of affection that surprises them both.

"So, uh." Clark blinks slowly up at him. "Where were we?"

"Approximately here."

Bruce sits himself astride Clark's chest and leans forward, putting his ass in his face. Clark finds it as funny as Bruce expects, his full-throated laugh ringing off the walls of the room. It makes his abrupt lapse into silence when Bruce returns his mouth to his co*ck somewhat satisfying. He flattens his tongue behind the head as he works his hand up the length of him—the silky shift of a foreskin is not an entirely new experience, but enough to make Bruce want to take his time exploring.

Clark's hands run up the back of his bare thighs while he does, then between his splayed legs, cupping him though his boxer briefs. His thumbs stroke the fabric over his perineum and into the crease of his ass then press inward, a muted sensation through the cotton. Bruce jerks bodily.

"Wait. Have you never—" Clark says, and laughs again when Bruce thumps him with a heel.

The unselfconscious joy Clark takes in this is a stark contrast to the people Bruce Wayne brings to his bed. They're too focused on maintaining a conceit to be truly fun, and any laughter happens once he's out of earshot, or just on the periphery. God, sucking him off on a rooftop would have been a crime.

Here they can be more relaxed about it. Bruce circles the base of Clark's co*ck and squeezes as he gives him a long, slow lick upward. Clark sucks in a breath, and a satisfied sigh shakes out of him. He tugs at Bruce's boxer briefs. They pull tight along the seams, digging into Bruce's skin. His fingernails catch in the cotton and rip it, and then Bruce's co*ck is hanging free and heavy between his legs.

"Oh, oops," Clark says.

"That was my best underwear."

Clark noses at the inside of Bruce's thigh. "Right. Tell me you don't have a dozen identical pairs."

Bruce is spared from having to supply a lukewarm denial when Clark sucks one of his balls into his mouth. A brisk obscenity will have to suffice. He goes onto his elbows, Clark's co*ck pressed along his cheek while he lets the heat of it wash over him in ripples. A light nip of Clark's teeth as he draws back has Bruce in paroxysms of eroticized terror.

"Hey, everything okay up there?" Clark says. His hands glide over Bruce's thighs again, soaking his tremors.

"Fine." Bruce's voice is raw, broken like a dog's bark. "Good." He thrusts Clark into his mouth before he can comment on it, or so that he won't be expected to reply if he does. The head of Clark's co*ck bumps the back of his throat and the muscles in Clark's legs go taut. If he clenched his thighs together as he came, it would be enough to break Bruce's fingers, or his jaw, whichever happened to be between them at the time.

Clark takes a deep, trembling breath. His hips tilt as he lifts his shoulders up off the bed, filling Bruce's throat in the process, nothing but thick flesh and musk where Bruce's nose is squashed into the crease of his groin. His arms go around Bruce's legs and he pull him down against his mouth. His co*ck drags back out of Bruce's throat as he relaxes flat again, and Bruce groans with it, a low vibration that has Clark muffling his gasps against Bruce's skin. He spreads his hands over Bruce's ass, thumbs and tongue working over him in small circles, massaging and pressing lightly inward until Bruce loses his patience and pushes roughly back onto him, driving his thumb in knuckle-deep.

"Okay, impatient," Clark says, but he takes a hint. He switches to a finger, and then two, licks and f*cks Bruce with them slowly; it's as though he doesn't quite believe Bruce's remark about comfort, but doesn't disbelieve him enough to locate any lube. The friction of his skin is only incidentally rough but it's enough for Bruce. God, more than enough. He writhes on Clark's fingers until the angle's just right, the depth. Clark either intuits this, or Bruce gave it away with a reedy gasp, and he does—something, the pads of his fingers pressed directly against Bruce's prostate, a brief, almost vicious jackhammering of vibration and pressure that has Bruce shouting as he's shunted headlong into org*sm, coming in long, forceful clenches. He's pretty sure he makes less noise when he gets stabbed.

"f*ck, jesus," he says breathlessly, and lets his arms give out and collapse him onto his side. "No alien stuff, my ass."

"Give me a moment to parse that," Clark says. "No, alien! Stuff my—" He bites his lip.

Bruce’s eyebrows go up. "You're most of the way there. Commit to the joke, I'll respect you more."

Clark laughs and flushes and doesn’t commit. "Do you do afterglow?" he says. "What does it take to short circuit you?"

"You have the opportunity to do some empirical research here." Bruce rolls over and kisses his thigh.

He works his way up until Clark's co*ck brushes his cheek, and then against his lips, where he can strain his mouth wide around him and slide him across his tongue. He shifts on his elbow to find the best angle, until Clark nudges into the back of his throat with a small jerk of his hips and a tiny breathy gasp. He strokes the curve of Bruce's head, fingers ruffling his hair and then tightening in it, and gratification curls through Bruce, blasting away his post-org*smic haze, when Clark starts shallowly f*cking his mouth. Bruce can take him. Bruce can handle anything he throws at him.

The days when he might've been able to go another round already are long behind him, but the grip Clark has in his hair and his restricted breath are satisfaction enough. He swallows around Clark's co*ck, head swimming, and Clark muffles a groan against his leg. His breath is hot against Bruce's skin, damp, his mouth open. Sometimes he has the presence of mind to kiss the inside of Bruce's thigh, or lick the softening length of his co*ck, but mostly he's panting. His leg muscles begin to shudder on each inward thrust. Bruce curls his hand around his balls; they're drawn up, throbbing against his palm. When he squeezes lightly, Clark takes a sharp inhale and tightens his fist in Bruce hair, holding him still as he comes across his tongue and down his throat.

He draws out slowly. Bruce gives him some teeth and relishes in the oversensitive shivers that wrings out of him. He doesn't taste particularly remarkable. An expected bitterness, though Bruce wouldn't make any assumptions about his eating habits from it.

His scalp tingles when Clark releases him. Bruce feels a brief blanket of pressure against his skin, and the bedsprings creak under a localized shift of gravity. Clark brings them face-to-face with a lazy midair turn.

"Hey," he says.

He's practically glowing. Bruce can't find it in himself to be difficult, but habit dictates that he turn his back.

Clark doesn't take it as any kind of rejection. He settles in behind Bruce, one arm flung around his waist. "I think I figured out how to deal with you," he says, "but maybe that's enough for now."

For now. "Is that so."

Clark presses his face to the back of Bruce's neck, nuzzling and sighing as though he expects them to fall asleep together. Bruce rolls over, casts his arm out for his slacks and fishes his phone from a pocket. Behind him, Clark slumps onto his front as he fires off a brief and incriminatingly vague check-in to Alfred.

"You know, this kind of thing is why you're single," Clark says face-down into his pillow.

"I'm single because it's inconvenient not to be."

Alfred's immediate reply vibrates his phone with reproval. He doesn't bother opening the message; what he can see of the push notification is enough. He'd intended to return to Centennial Park later this evening, but that is no longer something he'll be able to do with any degree of secrecy, tonight or any other night. He takes a breath. Nothing for it.

"I want to go check out the ship," he says.

"The—what? Right now? Why?"

"Your scout ship, yes, right now, and because Luthor is up to something that might compromise your safety and the safety of Metropolis."

Clark sits up. "What?" he says again, less confused and more irked. "I knew it. God damn it—you were holding out on me."

Bruce makes a quick check of his ethical barometer to see if he can smooth this over with a lie, or if a stormy conversation is necessary. He sighs.

"Okay. Fill me in," Clark says. "Now."

Bruce strips off the tattered remains of his underwear. This doesn't seem an appropriate time to ask if he can borrow some spares, so he resigns himself to going commando in a pair of bespoke Zegna slacks.

"Now, Batman."

Clark's eyes flash like dichroic glass. Bruce shivers, his skin raising in goosebumps. He's confident that Clark wouldn't turn on him so readily: he seems unhappy, but not betrayed. Stalling would be a valid tactic in this scenario, though it would be a poor start, or end, to things.

"He tried and failed to import a radioactive mineral that was formed by the World Engine. Significant risk that it's harmful to you, and possibly humans as well. He was going to use it to turn Metropolis into a no-fly zone."

"He was going to irradiate Metropolis and you didn't think you'd mention—"

"The idea of what is in the public interest is relative. This fell outside of Clark Kent's remit."

"In your opinion, maybe. My remit means I need to know about this kind of thing, Bruce! Why didn't you—" He pales. "Oh, right. I get it."

Bruce ignores the sick turn of his stomach and shrugs on his shirt. He focuses his attention on fastening each button from the bottom upward, and not Clark's face.

"You wanted the mineral for yourself. If you got me involved, you thought I'd tip Superman off."

"Can't say I was wrong." He casts about and discovers that he has no idea where his socks are.

"And now you want to go to the ship to… what, to see if it can locate more for you? And you want me to help you do it. You're a piece of work, you know that?"

"I don't want it any more," Bruce says quietly. "But Luthor does. I'm under the impression that getting near the ship affects you, and not in a good way. Am I right?"

Clark takes a deep breath, lets it out again and then offers a naked and heartfelt, "Well, sh*t."

*

Clark is beginning to come to terms with the reality of dealing with the Bat, and that it's going to be the mother of all rollercoaster rides until they get both the current crisis, and themselves, straightened out.

If they ever do. It seems like deceit is at the core of Bruce's personality as much as his drive for justice. Mistruth, untruth, half-truths and lies; they're all necessary to maintain his Janus-faced existence. Clark should only believe so much of what he says. Does he still want the mineral? Could he still want it, after tonight? It's difficult to imagine he does, and dangerous to hope that he doesn't.

He drifts for a while in the cool night currents, skin still tingling and bright with aftershocks. He's showered, but he can still smell Bruce on himself. It makes him all too conscious of his heart. Vulnerability is inherent to the human condition, but is no means exclusive to it.

They're to meet in the office building they'd tussled in earlier, as per Bruce's instruction. Clark heads there now to wait. Through the unglazed window and flaps of plastic sheeting, he can see the bright lights of the scout ship site below. There's the tug of nausea in his stomach, a faint ache in his temple.

"Superman."

The voice is unmodulated. Clark is treated to the visual non-sequitur of Bruce Wayne wearing the Bat's skin, with nothing to demarcate the border of his identities.

Oh, Clark thinks. Have mercy.

"Mr. Wayne," he says.

Bruce offers a select noise from his vocabulary of grunts and pulls his cowl into place. He thumbs at his jaw. When he speaks again, it's with a low digital overlay and static fraying the edge of his voice.

"Ready?"

Clark grins. "When you are."

*

Bruce had gathered everything he could on the scout ship post-BZ, which didn't amount to much more than a collection of blurry phone pics, and reams of baseless speculation on its propulsion engines that never managed to break significantly from any of Earth's technological models. The upshot of it is that Bruce knows what the ship looks like on the outside, and that's all.

It's just as skin-crawlingly organic on the inside, as it happens, though he's not certain if it's the disquieting unearthly ambience that is giving him the horrors, or if it's residual discomfort over the fact that Clark got them in here by walking up to the containment site entrance under a battery of hundred-lux floodlights and politely asking. Security opened up for him with the same deferential enthusiasm that a doorman at an exclusive nightclub would show to Bruce Wayne.

"This way," Clark says, and leads him down a corridor that resembles nothing so much as the inside of an intestinal tract. Bruce tamps down the unwelcome urge to drag his hand along the wall's ridged contours.

It goes on interminably. "What's the GRT on this thing?" he asks.

Clark shrugs. "It's big," he says.

The security at the entrance to what Bruce presumes is the ship's bridge is slightly less amenable. The guard on duty takes one look at him and rests her hand on her gun. Bruce tenses.

"Superman. Sorry, I can't let you go any farther."

"I only need a minute," Clark says. He takes a step forward, entreaty in his body language. "I want to take a look at the liquid geo display."

"Whatever that is, you don't have the clearance." The guard's attention flicks between Clark's upturned hands and the Bat's scowl. Things may be about to escalate; Bruce shifts his center of balance.

Clark smiles apologetically. "Ship?"

An atonal hum bends the air, felt as much as heard. It licks at Bruce's eardrums and he full-body shudders. The guard seems similarly distressed, judging by her expression. It intensifies into louder but significantly less unpleasant static, and then abruptly gives way to a delicate chiming voice.

"Kal, son of Jor, House of El, guild status: searching. Guild unassigned. Conferring status: searching. Kal, son of Jor, House of El has full clearance as honorary adherent to the Thinker's Guild, status as conferred by both maternal and paternal assignation."

Interesting. Bruce stows this information away for future inspection.

"Thank you." Clark wipes a cheekbone with the back of his hand. It's uncharacteristic enough that Bruce is concerned; whatever it is about the ship that bothers him is taking effect.

"Great. Well. It's difficult to argue with that," the guard says. Bruce assumes she's about to try, and so is unsurprised when she nods at him. "He doesn't, though."

"He's with me."

The ship chimes again. "Clearance granted."

The guard's communications crackle to life: hey, what woke the ship up? There's more fuzz as the rest of the security detail check in with their speculation. She sighs and depresses the button on her radio. "This is Alvarez. Yeah, it was Superman, and Bat… man. They're here at the bridge. Over."

There's an explosion of excited chatter, and Alvarez closes her eyes in long-suffering defeat. The door apertures open behind her in a way that Bruce tries and fails to not compare to a sphincter, and she waves them in.

*

The bridge is scattered with research team cruft. Bruce picks his way through it and over the thick trails of cabling, both terrestrial and Kryptonian, as does Clark, instead of floating. He's sweating visibly now, skin gleaming under the ship's burnishing light.

"You let them poke around in here?" Bruce picks up a tablet that's perched on the ergonomic swirl of some part of the ship that may or may not be important. He thumbs through its diagnostics. He doesn't have enough context to make sense of it, so he surreptitiously sets a leech running. He can take a closer look at his leisure.

"I didn't have much choice. There's no precedent for extraterrestrial salvage rights, so the courts fell back on maritime law. I couldn't afford the salvor reward, so it seemed like the only gracious thing to do."

Bruce stares levelly at him until he looks as embarrassed as he should. "It's yours, Kal."

"First of all, if it's mine, it becomes an uninsured vehicle that's been illegally parked on state property for months, and I can't afford that either. Secondly, I don't know how I feel about you calling me that." He steps over a thick wad of cabling, sways and rights himself with a hand on the ship's fluted interior.

"How are you holding up."

"I'm holding. Ship? Activate the liquid geo display."

Displaced air buffets Bruce's cape and a screen of shimmering silver materializes in front of him. Finally, something that doesn't remind him of viscera. It seems to be a multitude of ball-bearings held in magnetic suspension, or perhaps an alien element with superficially similar qualities to mercury. Bruce touches it with his fingertips and it ripples. For all its resemblance to an executive desk toy, it's actually quite beautiful.

"Give me a visual of everyone who's accessed the ship in the past forty-eight hours."

The component parts of the screen vibrate and shift with a gentle susurration, and impressions of a half-dozen humanoid forms emerge like they've been pressed into a pinscreen. Luthor is the only one Bruce recognizes; the rest must be the research team and security complement.

Clark's jaw tenses. "Show me what this guy was up to," he says, and dashes his hand through Luthor's image. The ship chimes an affirmative and the matrix scatters the other figures, reforming another blank-eyed facsimile of Luthor which immediately departs the bridge like the White Rabbit down a particularly unsettling hole.

"Hmm," Bruce says.

Clark just jerks his head and follows on its heels. Whatever technology powers the liquid geo projection extends throughout the entire ship. They chase the facsimile through a long wind of corridor and one or two chambers of indeterminate function. It slows now and then for a few seconds, gesturing, and Bruce realizes they're witnessing one side of the conversation Luthor had with whoever had escorted him. Attempting to lipread is mostly useless; while an astonishing technological feat, the liquid geo lacks enough fidelity to distinguish lexical neighbors.

He looks over at Clark. He's walking as though there's a ton weight across his shoulders. His breathing is increasingly labored. Bruce catches his cape and draws him to a halt. "It's getting worse."

Clark licks his lips and swallows. "It's—rough going. It's better if I can keep moving."

"Get outside. I'll—"

"No," Clark says. "Thank you. Let's keep—let's keep moving."

Bruce is beginning to recognize that particular set of his jaw, the line between his brows and the hundred and one ways they'll start an argument in years to come. "Stubborn," he says.

"I prefer 'determined'." Clark carefully extracts his cape from between Bruce's fingers. The fabric falls back around him in extraordinary ripples. He keeps a hold of Bruce's hand for a lingering moment; his skin is pale against the scuffed leather of Bruce's gauntlet.

They catch up to Luthor's image as he enters the chamber at the terminus of the corridor. Clark walks through him and the projection disperses.

The chamber is unlike any of the others Bruce has seen thus far, though just as regrettable. Thick strings of organic matter hang from its cavernous ceiling, suspended in a limpid fluid that's retained behind a vast wall that may be glass, or just as likely some kind of energy field. The matter is swollen with podlike growths. It reminds him of seaweed, which is a refreshing, if not particularly appealing, change. A number of octopoid beings glide through the fluid, sleek and silvery, tending the pods with prehensile tentacles. More liquid geo constructs, perhaps modeled on fauna native to Krypton.

Some of the pods have shriveled and spurs of crystalline growth have burst from their husks. The fluid must be under enough pressure to be a supersaturated solution, though saturated with what, Bruce couldn't hazard. The crystals are green and fluorescent; the chamber is illuminated by their unsanitary glow. Similar, less well-formed crystals glimmer in the chamber's walls, seeded in the organic folds. Bruce discreetly scrapes a sample while Clark frowns up at the pod-things. He tips it into a belt capsule. The glow bothers him enough that he selects one with lead shielding.

"This isn't right," Clark says.

Bruce catches him under the arms just as he begins to crumple. "Not optimal," he agrees. He hauls Clark up to lean against the ship's wall instead of on him. He's heavy, and Bruce is tired. "I've seen enough. Time to go."

Clark's brow furrows deeper. He pulls himself towards upright, clinging to Bruce's arms. Sweat is collecting in the hollow of his throat. "One more thing. There's—there's something else I need here."

Bruce pinches the back of Clark's hand. He flinches and twitches it away, bewilderment flickering across his face. He's vulnerable like this. Easily hurt. The knowledge that Luthor has a sample of this xenomineral in his possession infuses Bruce with burning urgency. "Whatever it is, it can wait," he says. "Don't ignore what your body's telling you."

"Heh," Clark says. Then, "The first time I came here, I activated a projection of my—my biological father. An imprint he'd made of himself in Krypton's last days. His device was destroyed but I don't know if—I'm hoping he's still in the ship's memory cache."

It's sentiment, but one Bruce couldn't ever begrudge him. This kind of thing, it's precious. He slings an arm around Clark's waist, hauling him more solidly to his feet. "Make it quick," he says.

"Ship," Clark says. "Is Jor-El present? Don't—" He glances at Bruce. "Don't initialize, please."

"Affirmative," the ship replies. Tension melts out of Clark's frame. Bruce has to lean forward to rebalance his weight.

"Create a command key with his protocol. Is it possible to configure it to work with terrestrial devices?"

"Unknown," the ship replies.

"Please try."

"Processing."

The ship makes the same unnerving hum as earlier. It feels to Bruce as though his eustachian tubes are being stuffed with dry, squeaking cotton wool. He swallows repeatedly until his hearing stops crackling, though his teeth remain on edge.

"I think she took a bit of damage during… during," Clark confides. His words round off and scatter.

One of the octopoid drones hovers in front of them, flagrantly violating gravitational law as casually as Clark does. It generates yet another tentacle and slowly extrudes a small object from the center of itself. Bruce feels himself grimace.

The drone offers the object to Clark, who accepts it on the flat of his palm. "Thank you," he says, half to the drone, half to Bruce.

**

Chapter 5

Chapter Text

Clark's head clears as they move away from the chamber. The numb burn that had settled into his bones pours away, and his knuckles stop aching from the tight grip he has on the command key.

Bruce notices when he stops dragging his feet. He relaxes the arm he'd braced around Clark's back. It felt strange to have it there; Clark isn't accustomed to needing physical support. The only time he'd felt similar to this was when he'd gone with Zod, and foundered as the ship had established a Kryptonian atmosphere. Then, he'd not been in a position to be helped.

"Glad I don't have to carry you out of here. Bad for your rep," Bruce says.

"And your back."

"Hmph," Bruce says, but he seems relieved that Clark is clear-minded enough to rib him. "The crystals—their effect attenuates rapidly?"

They're in the last stretch of corridor before the airlock to outside. Clark rolls his shoulders back and takes a deep breath. A bead of sweat trickles between his shoulder blades, but he no longer feels like throwing up. Bruce's hand has insinuated itself beneath Clark's cape to rest in the small of his back. "Seems to," he says. "But I wasn't exposed for long."

The night is crisp and clear, sharp pin-pricks of stars in a cloudless sky. As they leave, Clark sketches a rough salute at the security guard, who returns it with all earnestness. Bruce ignores him and his smothered grin, and is ignored in return. The Bat looks surreal under the floodlights, like a nightmare dragged into broad daylight. Some things are more frightening when they operate in the dark.

The Earth clings to him more determinedly than usual, but he gains flight with a little effort. The residual influence of the mineral makes it feel as though he's swimming through molasses. He treads air a foot from the ground. "Luthor's tower, then."

Bruce grapples onto a rooftop. Clark leaps up to meet him there, and sticks the landing with assurance if not grace.

"That's where I'm going," Bruce says. "As for you—"

"Don't tell me you're trying to bench me for my own safety."

"I'm benching you because you're a liability." Bruce slides a device from his belt and pokes at it; Clark hears the distant tear of a jet engine. Of course. LexCorp Tower is on the other side of town, and the Bat is nothing if not expedient about things. "The last thing I need is you keeling over because Luthor waved a crystal at you."

"I have some feedback on your plan so far."

"It's not up for debate," Bruce says. "I don't want you under my feet. Literally or otherwise."

"But," Clark says. He wonders how much of this domineering unilateralism Bruce expects him to tolerate, because it's not a lot. "I'm not on board with taking a backseat, so unless you swiped some of the bad stuff back there, you can't stop me."

"I know," Bruce says, neutrally enough that Clark doesn't know how to read it. His back and shoulders are tensed. "But you're aware of the stakes. I had hoped you would take them seriously."

"Thing is, I thought the stakes were all of Metropolis, until you walked into a chamber full of an allegedly radioactive mineral without even flinching. It's not so high as that, is it? It's not the city. It's—it's only me."

Bruce doesn't answer immediately. He's watching the sky. "We saw Luthor's projection walk right in there unprotected," he says. "If it affects humans at all, it must be after prolonged exposure. It's vastly more effective on Kryptonians."

Which only barely addresses Clark's point. He's quickly learning the degree of semiotic analysis required in interpreting Bruce's words and actions. There's reading between the lines, there's understanding things that haven't been committed to paper at all, and then there's the things he says almost, but not quite, outright. Clark should not be Bruce's chief concern in this.

"But we don't know for sure," he says. "What Luthor's planning to do with it, there could be all kinds of unexpected results."

Bruce's mouth goes tight. "One result is eminently predictable."

They're interrupted from what is shaping up to be a frustratingly circular argument by a sleek aircraft gliding into view. It spirals around the rooftop, descending until it hovers at the lip of the building. If the iron-ball paint finish isn't a giveaway that it belongs to the Bat, its styling certainly is. A quick scan shows Clark that it's unmanned. Had Bruce flown it here remotely while they were bickering?

An unfamiliar voice from Bruce's earpiece answers his question. Your chariot awaits, it says in crisp RP. Disengaging drone mode.

Bruce doesn't acknowledge verbally, though he taps his earpiece.

Oh, like that, is it? You know I wouldn't ask you introduce him to me until after at least the third fracas. I've been burned by your commitment issues one time too many.

"Who's that?" Clark asks.

Bruce looks hunted. "Not now," he says, and leaps with confidence from the rooftop onto the aircraft's wing, and then vaults into the co*ckpit. This is a man who has fooled people into believing he can barely drink a martini without spilling it down himself.

Clark floats on an uprush of fondness and follows on the plane's tail.

*

Superman is a blip on the Batwing's MFD; he follows a short distance behind and below, weaving between Metropolis' skyscrapers instead of soaring over them. If he weren't on task, Bruce might consider pushing the Batwing's low-altitude maneuverability and leading Clark on a chase. Or, more likely, Clark would lead him.

The streets reel out below him in ribbons of light. From his perspective, LexCorp Tower dominates the skyline. He lands in its shadow.

According to the blueprints, the assemblage Luthor's engineered is on the roof. There are a number of pylons up there, their extremities blinking with aviation warning lights. Doesn't necessarily mean that's where the mineral will be, though he'd put reasonable money on all his operations being secured on the penthouse floors.

Clark lands next to him. Their shoulders touch. "I bet it's wall-to-wall chrome and white marble in there," he says.

"Polished concrete, probably," Bruce says absently. "I'll let you know."

"That's okay, I can see for myself."

"From here."

Rain blows in from the east, cracking against the Bat's armor and the rooftop; the more time he spends here the worse its weather seems to get. He can hear Clark sigh even over its relentless battering. "I could fly into the building and take out the whole top floor," he says.

"I'm sure your committee would have a lot to say about that."

"Probably."

"Clark, I've been operating outside of the law for twenty years. Concerns for your safety aside, you can't take liberties the way I do. Everyone knows the Bat is a bully, but you're held to more stringent ideals. An unprovoked attack on LexCorp isn't an option for you."

"You really know how to suck the fun out of everything," Clark says, but he's grinning. "Okay. You have a point."

"Of course I do," Bruce says. "So, his setup is on the top floor."

"Looks like it. A server bank kicking out a lot of heat, enough wiring that it's difficult to see anything clearly. A void—something encased in lead. Probably the mineral."

"You can't see through lead?"

"Uh," Clark says, which Bruce will take as a yes. "Anyway, hardly any personnel. A half dozen or so warm bodies."

"Good. Thank you. I'm going to scout it out," Bruce says. "Stay on comms." He sends out a line and Clark's affirmative comes into his ear a moment later, mid-glide.

*

Bruce grapples onto the side of the LexCorp Tower with minor difficulty. It's in keeping with Metropolis' modernized aesthetic, which means its all curves and smooth surfaces and the flying buttresses are few and far between. He may have sympathy for the city's plight but that doesn't mean he has to like the place. It's unlikely the windows are alarmed this high up. He latches his grapnel two floors down from the penthouse and fetches a pair of suction cups from his belt, adhering himself to the building while he slices two layers of glazing out of its aluminum frame. The rain dashes down around him and over the glass.

He slips inside what proves to be a conference room, and a quick scan with the cowl's optics pinpoints a security camera in the corridor outside. He taps his gauntlet and activates a scrambling signal to blind it.

"Ow," Clark says in his ear.

"Not even dogs can hear that," Bruce murmurs. He shakes the rain off his cape and takes a look down the corridor. Very little scope for hiding himself, ceiling aside. If Luthor's security is worth its salt, someone will be along soon to check why the camera feed turned to snow. "Nearby units?"

"One approaching your position, one holding steady on the other side of the building. Two people, I mean units, the next floor up, and two more in the penthouse, in a large room on the north side."

Bruce pushes the door wide open. He hears approaching footfalls that hasten as the guard notices the movement. A radio channel hisses open and he steps into the room taser-first; Bruce grabs his wrist and twists until he drops it, tears his radio from the shoulder of his body armor and turns him face-first into the wall with enough force to wind him, and from the sound of it, break his nose.

While the guard is gasping wetly, Bruce crushes the radio with his heel then sends it and the taser skittering along the floor with a kick. He zip-ties his hands behind his back, then he turns him and lets him gently slide down the wall.

"Oh, fuh," the guard says.

Bruce holds a finger up to his lips: shh. It's usually enough to make them worry about what he might do if they don't keep quiet. He binds the guy's ankles and leaves him to his predicament. He'll be more likely to caterpillar off if he's brave enough to go looking for help, rather than start shouting two minutes after Bruce leaves the room.

"That was restrained," Clark comments. Bruce ignores him.

There are two sets of elevators in an intersection between some glass-fronted office spaces; the Bat's silhouette looms dark in their reflective walls. Beyond that, there's a set of maintenance stairs. Bruce takes them two at a time, past another set of double doors and then into a warren of narrow service corridors.

"You're close," Clark says.

Bruce makes a noise that Clark will probably accept as an acknowledgement.

He ratchets off the grilled front of a maintenance tunnel. Luthor would hold little threat on a physical level, even armed—his suit is ballistics-resistant at mid-range and the cowl at point-blank—but Bruce is keenly aware that Luthor has Kryptonian weaponry and minimal self-restraint. He'd seen footage of the battle in Smallville, where the plasma discharge had sheared off chunks of shop fronts, through glass and brick and steel alike. He'll take any advantage he can get, and that includes ambushing him from an air duct.

It's been a while since he's commando-crawled in a tight space. He has been less than discreet for long enough that it's a trial. He grunts, altogether more conscious of the worn cartilage in his joints than he'd like.

"I'm pouring one out for your knees."

Bruce grins savagely at nothing.

Then, softly, Clark says, "You know, I'm not sure everything you do is totally appropriate, but I admire your determination. Your drive. Until the ship, and—and Zod, I didn't know how to direct myself. I had a lot of uncertainty."

Forced into a waiting pattern of alienation and anxiety, his talents and abilities suspended between the poles of constantly deferred hope on one end and ever-present fear on the other. Bruce grunts again. "Not the time," he says flatly, rather than bring up the coercive control Gotham and her restless ghosts exercise over him.

"I hate this, for future reference. Standing by and watching."

"Noted."

Finally, the server room. Another grill unbolted and caught, and stashed quietly back in the tunnel. Bruce lands light-footed between the racks and flattens his back against the wall to one side of the door. If he recalls the floorplan correctly, there's one more corridor, and then an open-plan space of unspecified purpose, most likely Luthor's office.

If Luthor is in there and catches him with the blast from a Kryptonian rifle, he'll evaporate like spit on a hot skillet.

"You're clear," Clark says. A hesitant breath. "Bruce—"

"Not now." Bruce thumbs a flashbang grenade from his belt and creeps into the corridor. He sees the doors to Luthor's office are propped wide open as he approaches. Having just used this trick himself, Bruce is both cautious and irritated. "Any other entrances to this room?"

"Nope. If you want me to make one for you, just say the word."

"I would prefer that you exercise a little more subtlety," Bruce mutters.

"Ironic," Luthor says, stepping into the corridor. He's aiming a handgun. "Coming from a man dressed like that. Are you going to skulk around out there all night, or are you going to come in?"

Bruce draws himself up and squares his shoulders. "Stay where you are and be quiet," he subvocalizes, and hopes that Clark won't argue with him for once. He hears an explosive, frustrated breath, but nothing more.

The weapon Luthor is pointing at him is distinctly non-Kryptonian. It's a Five-seven; while not as immediately deadly, with the right ammo it can pierce even the Bat's body armor. If Luthor were farther away, Bruce would risk attempting to disarm him, but at it stands he's liable to take a gut shot. He remains cautious and irritated, and adjusts his grip on the grenade.

"Put it down," Luthor says tolerantly, as though he's talking to a dog that's stolen a sneaker.

Bruce crouches slowly, both hands held where Luthor can see them, and places the canister on the floor. No great loss; he has more in his belt. There'll be a lower-risk opening soon. Luthor is distractible by nature, so he will be amenable for now.

"There we go, there we… go. Good decision, well done. Because you're not the one who's faster than a speeding bullet, now, are you?" This delivered with a singsong cadence and a wag of the gun barrel that makes Bruce clench his teeth.

"What's that got to do with anything."

"Oh, come now." Luthor flings one arm over Bruce's shoulders in companionable farce, and with the other, wedges the gun into his armpit. Bruce refuses to flinch. "You've been keeping some out-of-this-world company lately. Stellar enough to make even Bruce Wayne jealous, I'll warrant."

He lets Luthor guide them into the office space. It's predominantly chrome and polished concrete. Luthor's assistant is behind a white swoop of desk, lounging to the extent the Le Corbusier armchair will allow. There's a small box at her elbow.

"This is Mercy, my right hand. Any inkling of nonsense from you, and she's under strict instruction to let loose her dead man's switch. There'll be Kryptonite oozing into every crevice of the city before you can say 'mean and green'."

Mercy politely inclines her head and lifts her hand, in which she holds a device that could very well be a dead man's switch, or could be anything at all.

Luthor squeezes Bruce's shoulder. "My, you're carrying a lot of tension. Have you considered a spa day?"

Bruce fixes Luthor with a dark look, and he laughs. Luthor has frequently made a show of being slightly unhinged, but beyond the hummingbird demeanor there's nothing but calculation in his eyes. Bruce can't take the chance that he's not bluffing.

"You know, at first it was infuriating. Infuriating. I've been playing the long game. Do you know how difficult it is to agitate a little-known East African republic into civil uprising without anyone noticing what you're doing? Harder than it looks! All a waste of time, except for getting Ms. Lane out of the country and, thereby, her nose out of the Hanford side of things."

Luthor smiles expectantly, a cue for Bruce to press him for further details. Bruce waits him out. He knows a monologuer when he has to listen to one.

"Because!" Luthor says, after holding out for eleven excruciating seconds. "It turns out that I was up a blind alley on that one. Oh, quite the misdirect. Who would have though, you and him, he and you—so much animosity on your part, ripe for exploitation, a powder keg of hurt feelings and murderous intent just waiting for the big reveal to light the touchpaper... boom! But, alas, no. Exasperation. Wall to wall."

Luthor tugs the gun from Bruce's armpit and taps it against the bat symbol, then steps back and brings it to bear.

"But then, then I realized something. I didn't need Lane. I didn't even need to bother dear old Martha."

Bruce stares down the bore of the gun. Memory tears into him; he is frozen for critical seconds as the pearls rain down.

"Ugly, isn't it," Luthor remarks, tilting the gun to examine its matte polymer finish. "I don't like them either. I was planning on something a little more avant garde, but you brought the deadline up. I didn't get to grow so much as a flesh mat." He sighs with theatrical wistfulness.

Bruce can't find anything to connect his mother's name to what is happening here, so he forces down the tormenting guilt of his survival so that it can't sabotage him. It can come back and gnaw at him later. "Sorry to disappoint," he says.

"Mm, life happens. Well, sadly not, in this instance. But I digress. The point is, what I have here is a silver bullet." Luthor runs the gun barrel along the seam of the cowl. It makes the barest sound, but Bruce realizes—even if it weren't close to his earpiece, Clark would have heard it as clear as day.

Luthor angles the gun as though to slot it under Bruce's chin. Bruce tenses in anticipation; an attempt at a disarm here will likely result in the firearm being discharged. The grace period between grabbing Luthor's wrist and the gun being fired is slim, involves unknown variables like trigger sensitivity, Luthor's reflexes and reaction to sudden movement. The angle and proximity of the firearm even if these variables are favorable means the possibility of—

"You can relax," Luthor says. "It isn't meant for you.

The air bends under pressure and then breaks as an approaching projectile shatters the sound barrier. Bruce has enough time to swear under his breath before the ceiling bows and then caves in, and Superman plunges into the room in a shower of debris.

"You're just bait."

Luthor turns on his heel, takes aim, and fires.

*

The first bullet glides past Clark's head; he turns to watch it fly. It's a green-tipped round, its velocity rippling the air around it. He hears the casing bounce off the floor.

The second hits his shoulder. He's used to the sensation of a bullet impacting his skin, but he's less familiar with how it feels when it keeps going. The sudden pain freezes him, the force of it jolts him back.

In the second it takes to process this, the third bullet strikes him in square in the chest.

*

Bruce has handled a lot of guns: he can field strip most firearms in under thirty seconds. He disarms Luthor with prejudice, who falls onto his ass and then spiders away. The handgun's component parts clatter to the floor. A faint glow spreads across its polished surface, emanating from the magazine.

The mineral. The rounds are—

He looks up in time to see Clark go to his knees, a nonplussed frown on his face. Blood spreads in the gold field of his crest, delineating the curve of the S, until the surface tension breaks and it spills down his front. Not so long ago, this was what Bruce had wanted. Now, though, his panicked heart wedges itself in his throat as he watches the trickle of blood meander down Clark's chest. Language lacks words to express his offence, to truly condemn this kind of demolition of a person.

"A shard of a dead world," Luthor announces, where he's regaining his feet with the assistance of the desk. "It's a versatile mineral. Myriad fascinating properties. Mercy?"

Mercy holds her switch high, and then drops it. It bounces off the desk and shatters on the floor.

Clark's jaw tenses. Bruce doesn't hold his breath so much as bite down on it.

Nothing happens. Either the effect isn't instantaneous, or Luthor's machine—

"Oops," Luthor says. He puts his hands on his hips and blows a strand of hair out of his face. "Sadly, its molecular structure is complex beyond even my estimations. The array was never going to work. Nonsense, nonsense. So! I guess I have no choice but to turn myself in."

Bruce glances over at Clark. He's bleeding heavily, but not unconscious where a human being would be. Seems unaffected by hydrostatic shock. He's staring at Luthor and his eyes—they're dripping. Not with tears or blood; he must be trying to use his heat vision, but the mineral, the Kryptonite, has stunted his powers. The skin around his eyes smolders. Plasma runs down his cheeks in glowing rivulets and trickles onto the floor.

But Bruce can't allow his concern to cloud his judgment. Luthor first, and then Clark.

Luthor has lost patience with his remorseful act already. He picks up the box on the desk and tips out the contents. Green glowing crystals scatter across the floor. He crushes them underfoot into hundreds of fragments, and then makes a break for it. Mercy is already nowhere to be found.

*

Clark is suspended in a hazy state of shock. The floor under his fingers is hard and doesn't give when he presses against it in his attempts to regain his feet. Gravity refuses to relinquish its hold on him, dragging his head down and drawing his blood into a puddle on the floor.

It's difficult to breathe. It's difficult for his heart to beat. His arms give up on him and he slumps down onto his front.

He can hear Luthor talking. A desperate fury infuses him, but he still feels lightheaded, unable to focus. Luthor was going to execute Bruce, he reminds himself, hoping to condense his free-floating anger into some kind of action. His cheeks feel wet and hot.

Then the room lights up a nauseating green, and Clark snaps back into himself. Pain erupts through him like there's acid in his veins. It feels like he's aspirating fluid; his lungs bubble as he struggles to gasp in air. His body is raw where it contacts the slick surface of the floor, bright cold points in his shoulder and chest where his suit is torn.

Someone touches his face. Bruce. The soft leather of his gauntlet brushes Clark's wrist and his neck, and then his thumb presses Clark's mouth open. Checking his airway is clear, he thinks distantly. As though that's going to help when he's full of holes.

"Ow," he mumbles. His voice sounds cavernous to him, like he's deep underwater.

"Not funny," Bruce says, as though he's extracting the words from between his back teeth. He unholsters his grapnel, aims it at the window and shatters it. The glass comes down with a noise like afternoon hail, cubes of it pinging off the floor and scattering. "I told you to stay back. Christ—what did you expect to happen here?"

"Not... getting shot," Clark manages. Then, with more determination, "You not getting shot."

"Occupational hazard," Bruce says. Clark fills in the blanks: get used to it. Glass crunches underfoot. The Kryptonite has unsharpened Clark's senses thoroughly enough that he can't pick out the beat of Bruce's heart over his own erratic pulse. He hopes he's as calm as he sounds. Unfortunately, the mineral's effect is not comprehensive enough to take the edge off the sound of glass being scraped over concrete. Clark's skin crawls and shudders at its screeching as Bruce sweeps it out into the night air, the fragments of Kryptonite along with it.

His head feels somewhat clearer immediately—he can hear the battering rain, Bruce's fast breathing, the chop of a helicopter on the roof. "Luthor," he says.

"We can pick him up in our own time. He's not difficult to find." Bruce crouches by Clark, working a hand under him to turn him over. He cradles the back of Clark's skull as he does it, then lays him on his own bunched-up cape. "Alfred, I need the Batwing up on the penthouse floor of LexCorp Tower. North-side window is out."

My goodness, you said it out loud. It must be serious.

A roll of white gauze lands on Clark's chest. Bruce presses it over the entry wounds, then encourages Clark to hold it in place. He pulls off his gauntlet and touches the back of his hand to Clark's cheek and forehead. "Doesn't look like you're in shock," he says. "Neither were through-and-throughs. There's Kryptonite in your body. Not a lot, but you aren't healing."

"Yeah, noticed." Clark's bled through the gauze already; his fingers are sticky with it. Bruce layers more on top. If he breathes too deeply he can feel the rounds shift inside him, vicious darts of pain that make his head spin and his heart palpitate.

"How are you feeling."

Clark closes his eyes and thinks about that for a moment. "Perforated," he says.

An exasperated exhale. "Do the bullets need to come out right now, Clark."

"I probably… won't be dying imminently."

From the street below he can hear traffic noises, approaching sirens.

Bruce nods, and the muscles in his face relax slightly. "Then I'd rather do it someplace safer. Can you stand?"

"Might need a hand up." Clark sounds dreamy even to himself. "I think I lost some blood."

"Looks to be the case," Bruce says agreeably.

He pushes Clark into sitting upright, then laboriously gets him up onto his feet. Clark tries his best to help, but he has the impression that he's being more of a hindrance. The Bat's aircraft—the Batwing, apparently—hovers at the blown-out window. There are granules of Kryptonite among the glass, its toxic glow refracting through the broken shards. Clark feels it keenly when he stands on them. Bruce's arm tightens around his waist when his knees start to buckle, and then he's being lifted, hauled up over Bruce's shoulders and into a carry.

*

Bruce circles LexCorp tower and takes a moment to deploy the Batwing's tow cables. He snags the pylons mounted atop the building and accelerates, yanking them free. They swing below the craft, bent and tangled like coathangers; he sends them scudding into the harbor on his way over to Gotham.

Satisfying, but not particularly effective—the real danger is in the research Luthor has gathered. He glances over at Clark, face set in a determined, concentrated frown as he holds his bandages in place with one hand, and braces himself on the dash with the other. He's left sticky prints over most of the co*ckpit.

It's imperative for Bruce to return and clear the Kryptonite shards from the street. He will revisit the server banks with a leech and some heavy-duty magnets at the same time, because there's only one person who needs to know how to exert this much power over the Superman, and that is him.

*

Alfred has the operating table ready when he comes in to land. Clark has lapsed into semi-consciousness; his bleeding has slowed but not stopped. The inside of the co*ckpit reeks of it.

Bruce hefts him out of the passenger seat and onto a gurney, with Alfred's assistance.

"I suppose I should be grateful that your dates thus far haven't involved more than the expected amount of blood," Alfred says. "It was only a matter of time, I suppose."

"Oh," Clark says, in a moment of lucidity. "Hello. It's you. Are you Bruce's—" His brow furrows. Bruce holds his breath and waits to see how he'll complete this particular thought. "Friend."

"Allegedly," Alfred says, glancing Bruce's way. "I'm sure it'll be a pleasure to meet you once you're not leaking."

"Yeah," Clark says. "Sorry about, uh, about your floor."

"I like him already," Alfred says to Bruce.

"You would. On three."

They settle Clark onto the operating table. His cloak gets in the way. There seems to be a lot of it, and beautifully weighty. It slinks off whatever surface Bruce tries to pile it on, so in the end he just lets it hang off the side of the table.

He pushes the cowl back and draws the lights down to take a close look at Clark's damage. There's no respite from a society that pushes illusions of immortality to compensate for the mortality nobody can face, and Clark might be the ultimate poster boy for that, but even he can't endure everything. His blood is drying; it flakes under Bruce's fingertips.

He had taken the suit as some kind of kevlar-nanocarbon weave much like his own—an assumption he'd had neither the desire nor reason to examine until now—but of course, it's something as alien as Clark himself. It's shrunk away from the entry wounds like snow melts around a piece of grit. At least he won't have to figure out how to take the damn thing off. There are no zippers or fastenings as far as he can tell.

The bullets themselves are difficult to see. Clark's body has attempted to regenerate around them and only partially succeeded. He scrubs up, snaps on nitrile gloves and swabs the sites—Clark hisses—and Alfred hands him a scalpel and fine-point forceps.

He starts with the shoulder wound. The forceps don't have enough movement to grip the bullet beneath Clark's partially-healed skin, and he's still resilient enough that the scalpel blade breaks when Bruce attempts to make an incision.

"Well," Alfred says. "Quite a conundrum."

"Not really." Bruce moves around the table and leans over, close enough to brush his nose to Clark's. His spit is like paste in his mouth. "I'm sorry," he murmurs, briefly cupping his jaw. "I'll make this quick."

"What?" Clark croaks, and then visibly pales. His shoulders tense, and his back makes a perfect arch off the table.

"Steady—Alfred, hold him." All of the Kryptonite went off the side of the building, but he still has the sample from the scout ship. Bruce tips it on the instrument tray and flattens a hand over Clark's stomach until he stops thrashing, and starts taking deep unsteady breaths instead. Bruce is surprised at first, then fascinated, and a touch alarmed to find that his wounds have reopened. He can pluck the bullets out like he's playing a game of Operation.

They clatter into the emesis basin. Bruce tosses the Kryptonite shard in with them, and Alfred hastens the lot of it away to the armory vault.

Clark lets out one long, pained groan and smacks the table with the palm of his hand, leaving a dent, and then struggles upright. He's sweating, his face flushed and hair damp at the roots, curling against his forehead. His eyes squeeze shut, and Bruce watches, rapt and possibly offended, as his wounds knit, his skin smoothing into flawlessness.

He also swears, quite a lot. Bruce enjoys it with the knowledge that he's likely the only person to ever hear this particular combination of words come out of the Superman's mouth.

Clark pulls his suit away from his mended chest and pokes a finger through the hole. "Darn it," he says.

"I expected it to do that itself," Bruce says.

"It will. Once it recovers from the Kryptonite."

Pointed enough to put a few holes in Bruce. Trepidation twists its way to the surface. He helps Clark to his feet, and Clark lets him even though he doesn't need any help at all.

Bruce takes a breath.

"Later," Clark says. His face is drawn. He's depleted, sallow like a month without sun. Maybe he did need the assist after all. "I'm tired. Let's—let's do this later."

"Later," Bruce says. Hopefully later enough that he can gird himself for the inevitably arduous conversation. In the meantime, Clark is leaning heavily against him, so Bruce brings his arms around his shoulders, his hands gathering in his hair. Clark finds his mouth, nosing in for a slack kiss, sighing into it with equal parts exhaustion and contentment.

Bruce stops kissing him eventually, only to press his mouth against the pulse in his throat instead, to feel it beat sure and strong.

**

"—a constant awareness of your personal distress," Clark says. "Coping strategies for said distress: stunted emotional intelligence, emotional unavailability and, uh, dubiously-constructive tension-reducing behaviors. A lot of your intellectual weaponry is trained on your own self-image. You feel like every moment you're not doing something, you're letting someone down. But you can't do everything all the time. So."

"So?"

"So, come back to bed," Clark says. The sheets tangle around his knees. A knife of sunlight bisects his chest.

As if he hadn't just pulled Bruce apart like he'd been slow-cooked. Roasted, if you like. "Your concept of seduction leaves a lot to be desired, Kent." Bruce selects a tie and a clip. He's already wearing a vest, but when it comes to tedious brunch meetings, he aims to be as overdressed as his salad inevitably will be.

"I could throw you off a building, if you'd prefer."

"I would."

Clark laughs, and then falls silent. Bruce turns as he fastens his cuffs and finds he's propped on one elbow, watching him. It's been two days, and he's not returned home except for a change of clothes. His presence triggers profound questions that Bruce isn't certain he wants to know the answers to, but Alfred certainly does.

"It's in the vault," Bruce says. They've been putting this off, but if he's about to spend a couple hours being bored by executive chit-chat, he may as well give himself something substantial to pick apart while he pretends to be listening. "Lead box with your name on it."

The shard he'd salvaged from the ship, and the pieces he'd scoured from the street. He's left alone the rest of the crystals growing in the ship's embryonic chamber; the few he's managed to surreptitiously harvest have begun to reform already, which entirely defeats the purpose of removing them.

They'll have to be dealt with, though. Maybe he can poison the water somehow.

"Can't say you never get me anything." Clark swings his legs over the edge of the bed, bare feet flat on the tile. His hands clasp between his knees. "I don't like that you have it," he says, with an uncomfortable frankness which, Bruce is beginning to understand, is just how he is.

He pauses mid-four-in-hand. "I wouldn't like not having it," he says, and then immediately, as if on a compulsion, "Do you want it?"

"What?"

"Do you want it."

"I, no. No, thank you." Clark takes a deep breath. "I don't like that you have it, but that doesn't mean—No. I still think you should keep it."

*

"And literally overnight the militia just—vanished. Got into their jeeps and pulled out. Nobody knows why the f*ck, so I'm three weeks in and my embedment just became a vacation."

"You're allowed a vacation now and then," Clark says, and holds the phone away from his ear at Lois's response. "Okay, but lis—listen. Lois. Lo."

"... And I swear to god, Clark, it's four hours until our flight out and if Jimmy tells me one more dumb thing like, 'Hey, Lois, did you know strap-on backward is no parts?' I won't be responsible— "

Clark sits forward on the couch. The sky reflects off Bruce's polished glass coffee table, a pale, crisp blue. Outside, the clouds cast their shadows over the lake in slow procession. "You still have a story: it was set up."

"What? What was—what?"

Bruce wanders in behind him while he talks, shirt sleeves rolled up. "The occupation, the agitators. Some auxiliary part of—god, I don't even know what his plan was. I'm still putting things together."

"Who? Spit it out, Clark."

"Luthor," Clark tells her. "We short-circuited some kind of elaborate revenge fantasy he had underway."

There's a sizeable pause, then Lois pares it down to the core of the issue and asks, "Who's we?"

Bruce rests his hands on Clark's shoulders and squeezes.

"Uh. Just this... guy I know," Clark says. He leans back and glances up at Bruce, eyebrows raised. Bruce holds up a bullet casing between finger and thumb.

"Uh huh. Okay, so it's the Batman and you're embarrassed for some reason, so you've probably got a thing for him. Tell me more about Luthor's scheming. You know nothing will stick, right? I like to speak truth to unchecked corporate power so I've thrown a lot at him over the years. He's Teflon-coated."

"He's in Belize," Bruce says.

"Oh, hey. I have to go. How about we get drinks and I fill you in when you get back," Clark says. "Safe journey, Lo."

"Belize sounds nice," Lois says. "I know that voice."

"... bye, Lois."

"I'm just saying, it's nice this time of year. Oh my god, is that—"

"Drinks, later. I'll tell you almost everything. Bye, Lois!"

"You know, it is nice this time of year," Bruce says. He heads to the cave entrance, slides back the hidden panel and thumbs the biometric lock.

"Not on a reporter's wage, it isn't." Clark locks his phone and pockets it, following on his heels. "What's that?"

"This," Bruce says, and juggles the casing from hand to hand, "is what Luthor used to shoot you." His voice echoes in the poured concrete stairwell.

Clark drifts down behind him. He can sense the path of the sun even twenty feet underground, but the cave sometimes feels like flying into an eclipse. He shivers. "Great. Maybe you should get it suspended in a resin block. Souvenir."

"It's also not made from any known Earth metal." He tosses it at Clark; he catches it one-handed and holds it in the cave's uplighting. It has a strange luster that reminds him of his ship.

"He… melted down the weapons?"

"One of them, at least. Safe to assume there are another two doing the rounds in his R&D labs. Maybe he wasn't confident that the Kryptonite would be enough."

"More fool him," Clark murmurs. He places the casing on one of Alfred's many workstations, among offcuts of wire and nubs of solder. Junk.

When he looks back around, Bruce has climbed up to the mezzanine and roused his computer, instating himself in his hideous ergonomic office chair. Clark follows him up and sits on the corner of his desk, where he splits his attention between Bruce's stern profile and the data flitting across his screens. In the aftermath they've gone from cautious touching to all the touching they could do, but just being near him like this is novelty enough to feel like an indulgence.

Clark pokes the thick muscle of Bruce's arm. "How was brunch?"

"The salad was overdressed, and the Planet acquisition fell through."

Bruce taps at his keyboard. Clark recognizes what he's working on—it's data he lifted from from the ship's research team. He's managed to 3D print a cable that fits the ship's approximation of a micro-usb slot, but so far the command key has been difficult about transferring its contents into his computer's systems. He's been spending a great deal of time on it, apparently confident to the extent that he's built a prototype cave-wide holographic projector in preparation.

He'd told Clark all this with a one-shouldered shrug, as if snatching Jor-El from the trailing ends of infinity is just something he's doing on a whim, and nothing more.

"Oh," Clark says, "well. Pity, I heard that Bruce Wayne always wanted to own a newspaper."

"It's a tragedy. One of White's old friends had a—let's say, an unexpected windfall, and tendered a better offer," Bruce says. He's doing a moderately good job of looking disappointed. "Guess we'll remain unaffiliated."

"Good. Now you have absolutely no grounds on which to boss me around."

"I'm taller than you and better at looming," Bruce says.

"If only that were a metric for success."

Bruce's mouth turns up at one corner; a veneer of polished executive over the grit to his core. "So, Mr. Kent. I never did get you that coffee."

"I think I might finally be able to make time for you, Mr. Wayne."

"Breakfast?"

"Don't push your luck."

"Dinner, then. Cochinita pibil on the rim of the Great Blue Hole. We should stay for a long weekend. You'd look incredible in the water there."

Clark's eyebrows climb. Self-care is generally not in Bruce's vocabulary. "And?"

"And for dessert, some subtle intimidation."

Honestly, it's enough to fill his heart. Clark's grin is unbounded. "All right," he says. "You talked me into it."

"Finally," Bruce says.

***

The Downsides to a Secret Identity - liodain (2024)

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