“Clark,” Lois says with great sincerity. “I love you, but what the fuck.”
Clark looks at her face, painfully earnest, then back to the card of paint chips in his hand. “So you don’t like them?”
Lois groans. “No, I just don’t understand why you care. Your apartment is a shithole, I don’t see how,” she grabs a paint chip at random “Steel grey mist is going to help you.” She gives Clark a withering look. “Steel grey mist, really?”
Clark can feel a flush bloom across his cheeks, and he snatches the chip back from her, a hair too fast for anyone else. “I didn’t pick the name.”
“But you did pick the paint chip.”
Clark scowls, and wonders if anyone would notice if he set the whole set of them alight with a glare. They’re in the middle of bullpen, so probably yes. “It needs to be right.”
Louis gives him the same baffled, helpless look she’s given him since he started this entire apartment project. “Why? You’ve never cared before. I once found week old takeout in your fridge.” That’s probably the least of what she’s found in his apartment, and she was kind enough not to mention any of the different blood stains she’s helped him clean, so Clark just shrugs helplessly.
“I don’t know, Lois. It just does. It needs to be perfect.”
And while he sometimes like to mess with Lois, he’s all too serious now. He can’t explain it, the explicable drive to remodel the apartment, to repaint and repair and reshape the entire place until it’s perfect, until it screams of him, and the apartment itself is a worthy gift to offer—
Lois searches his face, and whatever she reads there makes her soften. “Okay.”
“Okay?” Clark repeats.
Lois makes a show of slugging him on the arm. All show, because she barely makes contact, anything harder would hurt her more than him. “Yeah, Smallville. Okay. I’ll help you on your quest to better living.” She grips his hand, the paint chips bending between their palms. “Clark. I will be your Marie Condo.”
“Your Queer Eye-”
“Your Tim Allen on Home Improvement.”
“I’m starting to regret this,” Clark says, with sincerity.
Lois gives him her sharks grin, the one that makes lawyers cry and turns politicians into jello. “Oh, I’m counting on that.” She reaches out and pulls the crumpled paint chips from his hands. “Let’s start with paint colors.” She flips through them, putting some aside, pausing occasionally to give him a judgmental look. “Superman Red, really?”
“It’s a good color!”
Lois puts it in what Clark suspects is the ‘no’ pile, and keeps sorting.
When she’s done, there are three piles that she identifies as ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘maybe.’
“The ‘yes’s’ are also maybe’s.” She says. “Since you can’t use all of them anyway. The maybe pile is colors that are eh, but might work on your apartment.”
He glances that the reject pile and pulls a paintchip out. “I like this one.”
Lois takes it and gives him a withering look. “Batarang Black. No, Clark.”
“There is no world, on any planet, where it is socially acceptable for a grown man to paint his apartment black. It is acceptable for sketchy clubs and emo teenagers, and that is it.” She puts it back into the reject pile, and pushes the yes pile towards him. “These will be good for primary colors. I think this pile,” she indicates the maybes, “will only work for accent colors, they’re too bold otherwise.”
Clark sighs. He had asked for her help, afterall, he’d known what he was getting into. The yes pile is all neutral shades, off-whites and pale greys. “This is still a lot.”
Lois rolls her eyes. “Well, Jesus, Smallville, I’m not doing all the work. You’ll have to get samples and test them at your apartment, see if it works with the light and the furniture.” She thinks about it for a moment. “You probably want to burn your couch.”
Clark gives her a dirty look, and she just smiles at him and takes a long sip of her coffee.
Clark does end up taking Lois’ advice, because he doesn’t have any other option. He keeps getting himself stuck on loops of indecision, pouring over the paintchips, trying to find one that is perfect. He inevitably leaves the Home Depot on Saturday with twelve paint samples in a low tray, each one carefully labeled and dotted. He has monitor duty scheduled for leave later, but no plans for the rest of the day, and he wants to get started as soon as possible.
It is immediately apparent that Lois was, irritatingly, correct. Some of the colors that had looked good on the paint chips looks terrible when he actually puts it on the wall, and some of the ones that he would have thought would look terrible somehow work in the apartment.
By the time he has to report to the League headquarters, he’s narrowed it down to three possible wall colors and five accent colors. It’s not as much progress as he would like, but it’s down from the seemingly impossible task he had started out with.
The League headquarters are quiet when he gets there, the place almost deserted. It doesn’t surprise him. For a bunch of crime fighting vigilantes, most of the League members have surprisingly active social lives. Out of all of them, Clark is probably the least social of the whole group, especially if one doesn’t count the events for the paper Perry makes him cover every time Clark misses a deadline.
He’s supposed to have Monitor duty with Hal this evening, and he’s already bracing himself to hear about whatever exciting life event Hal is missing out on for having to work on a Saturday night. He can tell before the door to the Monitor room is even open that it’s not Hal waiting inside. In the uniform, Hal always throws off a faint green light and smells faintly of ozone. The monitor room is entirely dark except for the screens themselves, and the smell that hits his nose is deep and rich and hits him like a strike to the solarplexes.
At some point, Bruce’s scene, leather and musk and expensive aftershave, won’t effect him so strongly. After years of being friends with Bruce, he should be used to it by now, but each time is like the first time.
Bruce spins in his chair to face him, unnecessarily dramatic, and Clark resists the urge to roll his eyes. “Superman. You’re late.”
Clark doesn’t even bother looking at his watch. He knows this game, has played it for years. “I’m on time. You’re just early.”
Bruce’s mouth turns up, the faintest hint of a smile. “Early is on time. On time is late.”
Clark pulls out the other chair in the room and sits. “Must be rough, not having super speed.”
Bruce gives him a baleful look. “It’s a burden, but I perservere.”
A quick scan of the monitors shows nothing more than the usual activity, and he lets himself turn in to face Bruce as well. “You’re a real hero, B.”
Bruce turns back to the screens, but not fast enough to hide the quicksilver smile that flashes across his face. “So they tell me.”
Clark grins, and turns back to his own screens. They’ve been doing this for years, it’s easy enough to get into the particular unfocus of watching the monitors, to watch all the screens together, to open up his hearing to pick up signals from every corner of the world.
He doesn’t usually share this job with Bruce. In the beginning, their relationship was too tempestuous to risk being confined in such a small space together, and once the League grew, it didn;t make sense to have both of them tied up simultaneously. Neither of them usually pair with Wonder Woman either, for much the same reason.
Still, he’d had a different kind of practice at shutting out the unique tambre of Bruce’s heart, the rhythm of his breaths, the scent of his aftershave. It shouldn’t be any harder now than usual, but his brain keeps wandering back to it. Bruce is not quite a distraction, not when Clark is like this, wide open and attentive, but an ever present hum that is impossible to ignore, as overwhelming and everpresent as the thunder of Niagara Falls.
He almost comes out of his skin when he feels a hand in wrist, searing hot. Out of focus as he is, so tuned into things so far away, the sudden hold of the present is almost too much. He can feel every whirl of Bruce’s fingerprints—he took of the gloves, why—and can feel Bruce’s pulse as strong as if he held Bruce’s heart on his palm.
He comes back to himself in a startling jolt, the monitors turning back into individual screens, the hum of the world fading away. “Huh?”
“Didn’t mean to startle you,” Bruce says easily. It’s not an apology, but it never is, with him.
“You didn’t,” Clark lies, and he knows Bruce can tell, and that Bruce knows that he knows. Bruce smirks at him, and the feeling that flares in Clark’s gut calls sudden attention to the fact that Bruce still has a hand on his wrist. “What’s up?”
Bruce taps one finger on Clark’s arm, and Clark follows his gaze. There is a splash of grey paint on his write, standing in sharp contrast to his tan. Winterstorm Grey, if Clark isn’t mistaken. He raises an eyebrow at Clark.
“I was painting.”
Bruce waits for him to go on, and when Clark doesn’t, Bruce rocks back in his chair, his hand slipping off of Clark’s. Clark doesn’t feel cold even in the winter depths of Antarctica, but the path that Bruce’s fingers leave behind feels icey from the loss.
“I didn’t know you painted,” Bruce says mildly. Inviting an explanation.
“I don’t,” Clark says, and doesn’t offer one. He can’t explain it, even to himself, but it feels important, vitally important that Bruce not know about his apartment renovations. Bruce probably wouldn’t tease him over it, might even make a half-hearted offer to help, but.
Clark doesn’t even know the but. Just that Bruce can’t know, can’t see, until it’s done. Bruce can’t see the messy underbelly, the confused progress that Clark is making in fits and starts. When Bruce sees it, it has to be done. It has to be perfect.
“I assume Clark was painting. Not Superman?” It’s barely even a question, but Bruce’s voice tilts up at the end, just enough.
Clark hums in agreement, carefully turning back to the monitors.
He hears Bruce’s fingers, strong and nicely manicured, tap on the table, then Bruce says, “Superman shouldn’t have paint on him. You need to be more careful.”
“I came straight here,” Clark says mildly.
“I’ll wash next time.”
It’s enough of a concession, that there will be a next time, and Bruce takes just a split second to aknowlege it. Then. “I like the color.”
Clark can’t help the shiver of warmth, of satisfaction, that goes through him, and he’s glad to be facing the monitors, so that Bruce’s can’t see it.
The time passes easily between them, nothing major coming up on the screens. At one point, Dick swings by one the few cameras in Gotham and gives in a cheeky wave. They can see glimmers of light in Coastal City, telltale marks of Barry’s presence.
“I thought Hal was on monitor duty tonight,” Clark says.
“He had a date,” Bruce replies. Clark actually turns in his seat to look at him, a dramatic effect that Bruce misses by not looking away from his own bay.
“Hal had a date,” he repeats. “Hal Jordan.”
“Stranger things have been known to happen,” Bruce replies evenly.
“Not the least of which, you letting someone off monitor duty for a social life.”
Bruce’s shoulder twitch, the tiniest shrug. “I had the evening free.”
Clark can only stare at him, nonplussed by the sheer indignity of being fed a lie so big. “Even if Bruce Wayne didn’t have an engagement this evening, I doubt you were free.”
Bruce does turn to look at him now, swinging his chair around so they face one another. His face is perfectly bland. Too perfectly bland, the kind of expression he dons when truly and sincerely fucking with someone. “I live a very aimless life, Clark. I found myself utterly at loose ends.”
The use of his name almost rocks him back, when it’s always been Bruce who was so strict on no names in the Watchtower.
Clark feels himself start to smile, and can’t pull it back. “Well, gosh, Bruce. If you wanted to see me so bad, you could have just asked.”
He expect Bruce to laugh it off, to make an equally sarcastic rejoiner and change the subject, the way he always does when Clark teases him like this. Well, when Clark teases Batman like this. Sometimes, in public, Bruce Wayne will flirt back, will let his hands and eyes linger until Clark is the one who backs off, flustered and confused.
Instead, something warm unfurls in Bruce’s gaze, and he meets Clark’s eyes when he says, “Maybe next time I will.”
Bruce turns back to the monitors before Clark can dredge up a reply, and spends the rest of the evening smiling stupidly at the screens.
Clark paints the entire apartment Winter Storm gray. It takes him three days, with Lois dropping by to drink his beer and pointedly not help him paint.
“Can’t you just,” she cuts her hand through the air, indicating him flying.
Clark wipes his forehead with the back of his hand, a habit born of farm work under a hot Kansas sun that would have made any human sweat, and looks at the wall he’d just finished. The windows are carefully trimmed with painters tape, the furniture carefully covered with a tarp. He’d even gone over the seams with an edge brush— had floated a bit to get at the ceiling.
It was all his own work, his own time and effort. He could have just sped through it, could have dried each layer in seconds, could have literally flown through applying each coat, but it wouldn’t have given him this satisfaction. This is something that matters, something worth putting the time into, putting in real effort. It’s not much of a sacrifice, when everyone else on the planet does it like this, but it feels meaningful. It matters, that he could have done it more easily, and didn’t.
To Lois, he just say, “I could have, but I didn’t want to.” He takes a long draugt of the beer and then lets her steal it, leaning against the kitchen counter beside her. “What do you think?”
Lois actually looks the apartment over. “It looks nice, Smallville. Real nice.”
“Yeah. Classy.” She nudges him. “Not somewhere a hick like you should be living.”
Clark gives her his best country boy smile, guaranteed to make every press manager take him less seriously than anyone else in the press pool, and says “Well shucks, that’s awful kind of you. I thought maybe some barn wood, but we plum ran out.”
Lois snorts beer out her nose laughing. “Jesus Christ, Kent, never do that again.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re—no, that’s southern belle. I slipped into southern belle by accident,” he says, dropping the affectation.
“You ran out of barn wood?” Lois repeats.
“Plumb ran out,” Clark confirms. “The damndest thing.”
Lois laughs again, and lets her weight settle against his side. “Whatever you’re doing this for, I hope it works out.”
Clark doens’t say he hopes so too, but only because he doesn’t know what he’s doing this for, why it matters so much. It just does. He jostles her a little. “What do you think about an accent wall?”
He indicates the far wall, where his couch usually sits. It’s the only one one without a door or a window, stretching almost the whole length of the apartment.
“Hm,” Lois thinks it over, considering. “What color were you thinking?”
“How to you feel about Superman Red?” Lois elbows him in the side, even though she knows it doesn’t hurt him. “No? What about Truth, Justice and American Blue?”
“I thought you were serious about this!”
“I am!” Clark says, laughing. “I am, really.” He shifts enough so that Lois isn’t resting her full weight against his side, and goes to the pile of paint chips. “These are what I was thinking.”
Lois takes the pile. “You’ve added to it since I weeded out the weak.”
“I was already at the paint store.”
“Killin’ me, Smalls,” Lois says, spreading all the options out on the counter. Clark rests his forearms on the formica and nudges at the Superman Red he’d kept mostly as a joke. Lois slides it away from him. “No reds. They make a room look smaller, and your place doesn’t need the help.”
Clark makes a face, because Superman jokes aside, he had liked the look of some of the reds, especially the richer colors. It reminded him of Bruce’s parlor, of drinks by the fire, talking long into the evening.
“How do you feel about teal?” Lois asks. “Teal is very in this season.”
“Who are you?” Clark asks, looking at her with new respect.
“Shut the hell up,” Lois snaps. “I know things. Do you want my help or not.”
“I have a pinterest board.”
“Oh, well, if you have a pinterest board.” Lois rolls her eyes. “Why didn’t you start with that? Show me what you’re working with in that empty spaceship you call a brain.”
“Uncalled for,” Clark mutters, fishing in his pocket for his phone.
Lois plucks it directly from his hands—“Hey!”—and keys in his passcode without asking. Sometimes, Lois terrifies him beyond what should be reasonable for a woman of her size. “This is what I’m talking about Kent!” she says, flipping through. “This is something we can work with!”
“Happy to help,” Clark grumbles, and settles into listen to her talk about color theory and what colors will ‘really make the room pop.’
Clark ends up picking a bright but not overwhelming shade of red called Robins Nest Red. He was leaning towards the color anyway, a few shades shy of burgundy, but the name makes it an easy choice. He likes the symmetry of it, and tries not to think too hard about why.
Clark is distracted when he comes down the hall to his apartment, but even that isn’t a good excuse. The Montgomery’s are fighting loud enough that Clark would be able to hear them even if he were human, his phone has been ringing the entire way up the stairs, and he can actually feel the tensile strength of his grocery bag giving way. All the super strength in the world won’t help if he can’t balance it right, and the bag about to break has eggs in it. To catch them, he’d probably end up dropping the bag with glass jars of marinara sauce.
He’s juggling the four bags of groceries, the keys to his door and his phone when he finally gets the lock undone, and all ends up being useless when he turns on the light and startles so badly at seeing Batman perched on the brand new couch that he ends up dropping all the groceries anyway.
He swears and slams the door shut before any of his neighbors can see his uninvited guest, then takes a moment to stare mournfully at what had been the next two weeks of meal prep. He’d broken the eggs and the marinara sauce, and cracked the milk bottle enough that it was starting to seep into the mess.
“Well done,” Bruce says sarcastically, and Clark scowls at him. It’s all reflex, years of sniping at Bruce ingrained into him, but then he processes the sight of Bruce on the new couch—black leather against black leather—and something in him goes startle-still.
The apartment isn’t ready. He’s not ready. Bruce wasn’t supposed to see it yet. He’s finished all the big parts; the paint, the kitchen, the furniture, but this wasn’t how it was supposed to go. He had to—Bruce had to be invited.
It sets Clark on edge, makes every hair stand up straight, because he’s not ready. He hadn’t even thought of way to present it, to show Bruce—and now Bruce is here.
He looks down the mess of groceries and feels himself go scarlet. It’s an uncomfortable, unfamiliar sensation, but it pairs with the sinking humiliation in his gut. It’s all wrong.
Clark watches in slow motion, literally, as Bruce blinks, the infinitesimal sweep of his eyelashes as Clark cleans up the mess, sopping up the marinara-egg-milk mess with the last of his paper towels and putting everything that can be salvaged away.
By the time Bruce is finished blinking, the kitchen is spotless again, and Clark runs nervous fingers through his hair.
Bruce just raises an eyebrow at him, unimpressed. It’s always remarkable how he manages to convey the expression even through the cowl.
“Why are you here?” Clark blurts, casting anxious glances around the apartment. It’s a clear improvement over the last time Bruce was here, almost exactly how Clark wants it, but the presentation, for Bruce to just walk in—
“One of the Joker’s men is going to smuggling a dangerous neurotoxin into Metropolis. In the interest of mutual cooperation, I thought you might join me on the stakeout.”
It’s a kinder offer than Bruce usually makes, namely because it’s an offer at all, and not a blank order. Clark knows, rationally, that Bruce is offering something else here, because Bruce never says one thing when he could say ten in the same breath, but Clark can’t get his mind to focus past Bruce in the apartment. He hasn’t even offered an opinion, hasn’t said whether or not he likes it.
Clark’s mind is going in circles. “Oh.” He swallows, trying to rally. “Is it urgent.”
Bruce doesn’t do anything as obvious as check his watch, but he somehow gives the impression of having done so. “Yes. That’s why I’m here. If you would suit up, we can go?”
That’s more like the Bruce that Clark is familiar with, all brusque impatience.
Through Bruce’s ear piece, Clark hears Alfred say something, tinny and distorted. He’s conditioned himself over the years not to listen in to those conversation. Bruce turns away to mutter a reply, then gives Clark an irritated look.
Clark takes the hint, rushing through the change into his uniform, doing another quick sweep of the apartment. Bruce still hasn’t said anything, why hasn’t he said anything?
“For a man with super speed, you can be remarkably slow,” Bruce says idly, examining something on one of his hand-helds. It can’t have been more than sixty seconds, Clark thinks. He feels on edge and anxious, tight with anticipation. He can’t make himself go through the motions—he knows that he needs to smile, roll his eyes, communicate in all the ways that he and Bruce have perfected over the years.
What bursts out is “What do you think of the apartment?” and then clamps his lips shut over the words. It feels wrong, even taboo, to ask Bruce so directly. If Bruce liked it, he would have said. A lack of an answer was just as clear.
Bruce doesn’t even look up from his screen, tapping something in with one hand. “I still don’t understand how to live in this shithole. Even on your salary you could afford nicer. Just the one window, really?”
And Clark just goes — numb. For a moment, it’s like what he imagines being dunked in icy water must feel like. Like a glacier. Like space, cold and unfeeling and vast and terrible.
Then Bruce looks up at him. “Coming?” he asks, and Clark forgets every word he’s ever known. His tongue feels like a lead weight in his mouth, and he has the same sick, nauseous feeling that comes from getting too close to Kryptonite.
And worse, he can’t explain to himself why. It feels like Bruce has reached in and scooped out his stomach, his heart, his lungs, and replaced it with ice, and he can’t even explain it to himself.
He forces himself to swallow around and overwhelming sense of grief, forces himself to nod. “Lead the way,” he says, and if his voice sounds choked, he doesn’t think that Bruce is paying enough attention to notice. Bruce gives him a kurt nod, slides the window open, and falls out into the night.
Clark takes a deep breath, then another, and follows.
He usually enjoys following Bruce through the city. It’s just another one of the games they play, in Gotham and Metropolis. Bruce has the advantage in Gotham, when he chooses to use it. His knowledge of the city, the readily available places for a grappling hook to take hold, and a surely unsafe amount of lead in every building means that if he’s trying to lose Clark, he usually can.
Metropolis gives Clark the advantage, the sleek glass and chrome offering fewer purchases, the smooth surfaces bouncing every one of Bruce’s noises back to him without even exerting himself. Bruce isn’t trying to lose him tonight, but he’s putting enough flourishes into his moves to tell Clark he’s in a good mood.
Clark can’t get into it, can’t reciprocate the way he should. The right thing, the path worn smooth with use and comfort, would be to play along, to fall back or speed up enough to put one of them ahead. He can’t find that kind of joy in him. Bruce’s words, the dismissive way he looked around at all of Clark’s hard work, at all that Clark has to offer, it stifles any other emotion within him.
Bruce lands at the dock with just a whisper of sound, coming to a stop in the dark shadows between shipping crates, and Clark settles down next to him between one breath and the next. When he can get himself to look at Bruce, Bruce is giving him a confused look from under the mask, brows furrowed.
He doesn’t say anything though, for which Clark is grateful. He doesn’t think he could handle kindness right now, when he can’t even explain to himself why Bruce’s reaction had cut so deep. He’d thought they’d been working towards something together, that they were on the same page.
He hadn’t even known he had been hoping for anything, been expecting anything, until he’s faced with the sudden and unexpected lack of it.
“Shipment is expected within the next two hours,” Bruce says, settling himself at the edge of the shipping crate with his binoculars. “Drug dealers aren’t known for punctuality,” he gives Clark a wry look, pausing as if expecting an answer. When Clark doesn’t offer one, Bruce continues. “There was, however, the outside possibility that they would be early. I hope you don’t mind waiting.”
Habit almost forces the words ‘Of course not,’ out of Clark’s mouth, but he closes his lips around them. He usually loves the quiet stakeouts, his sharp hearing and Bruce’s binoculars on lookout as they talk softly, the conversation spinning out between them. Now, he just wants to go home—to his apartment, with all the work he’d done, which Bruce hadn’t liked, had rejected—
“It’s fine,” he says, and he can hear the flat tone of his voice. Bruce gives him another look, sideways and subtle to anyone who doesn’t know him as well as Clark does, but after a beat, he turns his attention back to the docks.
Clark settles his back against the other shipping container. At this end of the dock, the crates are stacked in pillars that vary from one to four crates tall. They’re settled in the valley between two higher pillars. It’s easy to tilt his head back, close his eyes, and shut out everything as he listens.
Two dock workers commiserate about their kids—one about to leave for college, the other just out of diapers. Three ships on the water, two freighters, fully staffed and legit. One yacht, where he can hear a champagne bottle pop. No sound of smugglers.
Clark taps his fingers on the crate again, feels the reverberations under his legs. He hates the docks. Almost all shipping containers are old enough to have been painted with lead paint, and it chips off in flakes that leaves his vision spotty and inconsistent. He only ever comes here with Bruce, or as Clark Kent.
“How has work been this week?” Bruce asks, an hour in. Clark’s eyes fly open, and he can’t help the way his entire body jolts. Bruce, as a rule, does not make small talk. Not with anyone he knows and trusts. Anyone who knows who he really is. He’ll indulge Clark or Dick in it on occasion, but never invites it.
“Fine.” After a beat, when Bruce doesn’t reply, Clark adds, “Busy.”
He’d rushed through the day, to get home and work on the apartment before patrols, to get enough time in before Superman would be needed. The thought it makes humiliation flare up in his stomach. It’s only good midwestern manners that forces the “You?” from this throat.
Bruce makes a low hum that sounds like agreement. “Damian got detention.”
“Again?” Clark asks by rote. He doesn’t want to have this conversation, doesn’t want to act like everything is normal. Except that, for Bruce, everything is. He hadn’t really rejected Clark, had no idea that Clark had been harboring a hopeless crush.
“At least there were no knives involved this time.” Another sideways look, inviting a smile.
Clark can hear the sound of another ship, and he turns his head to the water. “Incoming.”
The fight, such as it is, is quick and efficient. Clark helps Bruce dispose of the toxin, and they leave the Joker’s men tied for the police to find. It’s more Bruce’s style than Clark’s, when he would usually take them straight to the precinct, but it’s Bruce’s message to the Joker and Clark doesn’t get in the way of that fight when he can avoid it.
He goes to take off, and Bruce calls out to him, enough to stop him in place. Bruce has always had that kind of power over him, even before Clark knew what it meant.
“You said, the next time I wanted to see you, I should ask,” Bruce says. His mouth is quirked, a true expression under Batman’s mask, startlingly vulnerable. And Clark—Clark can’t do this right now.
“I.” He swallows. He doesn’t know what Bruce is asking. He’d thought he knew, when Bruce had said it at the Headquarters, but the certainty that had sustained him is gone. I still don’t understand how you live in this shithole. “I can’t,” Clark says, and means it.
Bruce’s expression falters, ever so slight, and Clark doesn’t know what it means, what any of it means. He takes off before Bruce can say anything else, and he doesn’t look back.
Clark is still numb when he gets home, but stepping into the apartment feels like a punch to the gut. All of the work he’s been putting in seems like way too much, the grey walls oppressively dark, the red accent garishly bold. Of course Bruce hadn’t liked it, hadn’t seen anything worthwhile—anything worth loving—in this mess.
The paintings on the wall are too plain; boring and drab. In contrast, the black couch comes on too strong, overwhelming the rest of the room, washing it out. He’d wanted it to be perfect, something where Bruce could feel at him, could want to come home to.
The idea seems laughable now, as though Clark could ever turn this apartment—shithole—into a place Bruce could want.
He fights back a scream that he can feel in the back of his throat. He wants to tear this place apart, rend it the ground, erase all of his presumption, but—
But the thought of truly destroying it feels like it might ruin him. Like it make fully break what is now only cracked.
Instead, he takes a deep breath, then another. He doesn’t need breath, but it’s soothing, the rhymthmic rise and fall of his own chest, the feel of the air in his lungs, the sound that he’s come to associate with life, the sound that every human makes, paired with the beat of their heart to reassure him that they’re alive, alive, alive.
Clark is alive, if he’s still breathing. He can get past this. There is no reason it should matter. It’s nothing Bruce hasn’t teasingly said about his ties or his hair or his car. There’s no reason for it to cut like this. It was just words, and it doesn’t matter. He can’t let it matter.
Lois takes one look at him in the office the next day and blanches.
“Are you sick?” she asks, reaching out like she means to put her hand on his head. He steps back, and her hand falls to her side.
“I’m fine.” It’s not entirely a lie. He’s fine. He’s able to keep moving, keep breathing. He is functional. He’s fine.
Lois watches him throughout the day, not even trying to be subtle about it. Clark tries to ignore her, to concentrate on the article he’s supposed to be writing on the Mayor, but it’s hard. For the first time in their friendship, Lois’ gaze feels intrusive, uncomfortable.
Clark feels splayed open and raw, and he thinks any prolongued stare would make him feel like this, but it’s worse with Lois, who knows him as well as anyone can. (Anyone but Bruce, who had seem the heart of him and hadn’t—)
“Do you want me to come by the apartment later?” Lois asks, not even pretending to do her own work anymore.
Clark fights a flinch at the mention of his apartment, and Lois catches on the movement.
“No, thank you,” Clark forces out, and it comes out like sandpaper. Lois frowns at him, her expression careful, as though he is some fragile thing that needs coddling.
Whatever she reads in his face, Lois backs off, returns to her own desk and her own work. She lets Clark slip out at the end of the day without calling after him, and Clark can’t even tell if he’s grateful or not.
Clark hadn’t realized how much a part of him Bruce had become until he’s no longer there. The evenings spent on communicators, talking. The space after a League meeting, when the two of them linger, the conversation or silences both coming easy. The visits to the Manor, watching Bruce banter with the boys.
His visits to the Manor. Never Bruce’s visits to Metropolis. Even when Bruce was in town, he brought Clark up to one of his penthouse apartments, looking out over the city. Maybe Clark should have seen it earlier, Bruce’s disdain of his— Clark’s brain shies away from the thought. There isn’t a word that can put together what his apartment was, not house or home, nothing that feels big enough.
And as the days pass, Clark realizes just how much of their friendship Clark had led. Bruce doesn’t call, because he never calls. He doesn’t visit, because he never visits, not outside of League business.
It aches, pain layering on top of pain, and at least this one he understands.
Clark misses it, misses Bruce. He reaches for his communicator, and lets his hand drop when the thought of Bruce’s voice makes something inside him flinch away. He just needs more time; another day, another week.
The place where his affection for Bruce lives feels coated in ice, numbed over but painful to the touch. The hope he had is gone, and he can’t seem to dig deep enough to find it again. Whatever joy that had always sustained him in Bruce’s presence is missing, and he can’t get it back.
He needs time to mourn that hope, the future he thought they were building together. It isn’t Bruce’s fault that Clark had misunderstood, and it isn’t Bruce’s fault that Clark wants more than Bruce can give him.
Thinking that, knowing that, is still easier to bear than seeing Bruce.
Clark has braced himself to see Bruce again, to smile and nod like everything is normal, because there is no reason that it shouldn’t be.
The first League meeting after that disasterous night with Bruce is awkward, and Clark knows that it’s his own fault. He can hear the pauses in the conversation at points where the should be jumping in, can tell the queues that would normally prompt them, but it feels like he registers them a hair too slow, and every response comes out stilted and flat. He feels like he’s working off a script he barely knows, with nothing to tether him back to the conversation.
He can feel Bruce’s eyes on him when he leaves, but Bruce doesn’t say anything. Clark knows he shouldn’t feel disappointed, but he is anyway.
It doesn’t stop hurting, doesn’t thaw to reality. His affection for Bruce lives inside him as a chunk of ice, painful and aching. Seeing Bruce only makes it flair up, pain pushing past numbness to remind him that he was an idiot, that he expected too much. He can’t look at Bruce without getting that same nauseous feeling of humiliation, the brazenness of asking Bruce about the apartment, the cruelty of Bruce’s reply. The horror of hearing what Bruce really though about his— he always cuts the thought off.
Worst of all, Bruce acts as if nothing had happened. It only drives home the irrationality of Clark’s feelings, because he knows that nothing has happened. It’s all in his head—in his heart—and Bruce has no way of knowing how the very foundation of their relationship has shifted under Clark’s feet.
But Clark has never been able to force his emotions to comply with logic, and it still hurts to look at Bruce.
It gets easier, each time. Easier to meet Bruce’s eyes, to hear his voice. He can fake it better, the smiles, the laughs. The banter they’ve both become accustomed to, as comfortable as a well-worn boot.
He shouldn’t be surprised when the comes in for Monitor duty and finds Bruce at the second chair instead of Diana, but he is. He stops dead in the doorway, reeling from it. Bruce up from the monitors, and it could be any other time they’ve done this, but it’s not.
Clark forces a smile on his, forces his voice to be light. He can rend a mountain, can touch the moon, stand unburdened in the deepest part of the ocean. He can do this.
“Don’t tell me Wonder Woman had a date as well,” he says, taking the open seat.
“No,” Bruce says. He hasn’t looked backed to the monitors, is still watching Clark’s face with a fixed attention. Clark had always loved having the full weight of Bruce’s attention, an honor few had experienced and even fewer could truly understand.
Now, he feels like a butterfly pinned to a card, a specimen to study with the unfeeling gaze of a scientist.
Clark pauses, waiting for Bruce to continue, to offer an explanation for his presence, for Diana’s absence, but nothing comes. After a moment, Clark turns his attention to the monitors, and feels relief heavy on his skin when Bruce does the same.
Silences between the two of them have never been awkward, not even in the beginning, but Clark is now acutely aware of every move Bruce makes, every shift in posture, every breath drawn in and let out. The aftershave is stronger in his nose than usual- Bruce must have just shaved, no sign of the shadow that usually darkened his jaw by this time of day.
The silence is heavy, tense, and Clark can’t bring himself to break it.
“You’ll be pleased to know that Damian has gone a whole week without detention,” Bruce says, abruptly enough that Clark startles, his hand spasming against the desk.
“A whole week?” Clark says. He knows what his tone should be, but has no idea if it lands. No idea what his face might be doing. He keeps his eyes on the monitor. “Is that a record for him?”
“Short by three days. If he makes it to two full weeks, he gets ice cream.”
The startles a laugh out of Clark, involuntary and unexpected. The thought of Damian being bribed with something as ordinary, as childish, as ice cream is oddly charming. He wonders if Bruce was bribed this way when he was young. Out of the corner of his eyes, he can see Bruce’s mouth twitch, satisfaction and joy in the tiny incriments of his mouth. Clark has made a study of that mouth, knows the meaning of every twit and dip.
The thought forces the grin off of his face. He has no right to Bruce’s moods, to his mouth.
Silence falls again, and Clark wonders if Bruce is waiting for Clark to pick the conversation up, as he usually does. Clark carries their conversations, and it never felt like a burden until now. It never felt like he did it because Bruce didn’t want to, but it’s a thought he can’t shake from his mind. He stays quiet.
“I saw your piece in the paper,” Bruce offers after another minute, and Clark flounders in unfamiliar waters. Bruce can be kind, has asked after his work before, or called attention to a particularly good article, but he tucks the complements and comments into other conversations, hides them around the edges of other thoughts. He never offers them wholecloth.
“Thank you.” Clark hesitates. He should ask Bruce about his day, his week, but it’s like he can’t even remember how it used to be easy. How he could always draw Bruce into idle conversation. “How is Dick?”
“Good,” Bruce replies, and the banality of it hits Clark between the ribs. The thought that he might never be able to move past this, to have Bruce back at his side, in his life, his friendship as steady and reliable as the ground itself.
“He’s staying at the Manor this weekend.” Bruce says, and its like a tidal wave of - something (something like grief, like loss, like pain) sweeps over Clark and erodes that stable ground beneath him.
Of course, the mansion. The sheer magnitude of his own arrogance, his presumption, at wanting to offer a home to Bruce fucking Wayne, who has a mansion and a manservant and children to support. What could Clark’s apartment possibly have to offer, in the face of all that. What value could his -shithole- small and outdated apartment possible have.
Clark takes a deep breath, another. With breath, he is alive. Alive, he can move past this. He turns back to the monitors, afraid that Bruce can read him as easily as he can read Bruce— as he thought he could read Bruce.
Bruce makes a small noise, almost a sigh, almost something else, but he doesn’t say anything else for the rest of monitor duty.
Clark is relieved, and horrified at being relieved, when it ends. Bruce stands as Clark does, catching his elbow. The touch burns, a brand against the frozen parts inside of Clark. Bruce knows as well as Clark that the touch won’t hold him, but that isn’t the point of it.
“Clark,” Bruce says, and it strikes Clark the same way it had the last time Bruce said it, unfamiliar and intimate in the recycled air of the Headquarters. But this time it doesn’t thrill, it feels unbearable now, and Clark wants to curl himself around it, pretend that this is something he can have.
Bruce’s sharp eyes don’t miss a moment, and he takes his hand off of Clark with careful precision. “Clark,” he says again, more intimate still, “If I did something,”
Clark fights down a wave of shame, of horror, at the thought of trying to explain to Bruce what exactly he has done, why it bothers him so much.
Bruce’s eyes search his face, and he takes another small step back, putting more distance between him and Clark. “Nevermind.” Bruce turns his face away before Clark can read the expression on it. “It’s nothing.”
Clark waits, trying to take a deep breath without breathing in too much of the inoxicating smell of Bruce’s aftershave, but when Bruce doesn’t say anything, he turns away.
Clark doesn’t find out that Kara is back in the country until they run into one another. Literally. They’re both distracted, and both of them too used to acting more clumsy than average, and it’s just bad luck when they connect. Kara bounces off his chest and he catches her in sheer reflex, but can’t figure out a plausible way to save her coffee.
Kara looks down at her blouse, a pale pink already staining brown. “Well, fuck.”
He can already, faintly, see the El shield showing through the wet fabric, and he offers her his jacket. “When did you get back?”
His jacket, already too big on him, practically swims on her. She rolls up the sleeves and gives him the sunny grin that he’s missed more than he expected. “Just two weeks ago. Can you believe Cat is already sending me out of the city?”
“She must trust you, if she’s sending you this far out already,” Clark replies. “I think I have some of Lois’s shirts back at the apartment, if you want?”
Kara pulls his jacket closer around her, enough that it wraps more like a robe than a suit jacket. “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.” She slugs him on the arm, and it’s weird and comforting to actually feel the blow. “But what have you been up to? Di says you’ve been a total downer lately.”
Clark makes a face. He can only guess what the rest of the League has been saying about him. He attends the meetings, shows up for the rare group fight, and doesn’t have the energy for much more. It’s stupid, and childish, and it’s all worse because he can’t explain it even to himself.
“Nothing interesting. Same old, same old.” He and Kara exchange a wry glance at that, but she knows as well as he does that even the extraordinary can become routine. “Tell me more about Themyscira.” She’d been gone almost three months, as much time as Cat would permit her to have off. He can’t imagine what kind of excuse she’d given.
“Oh, you know, same old, same old,” she parrots back at him, and he laughs. The sound startles him, and he wonders if it’s really been so long since he laughed.
“Seriously, how was it? Did you learn what you wanted?”
“I got my ass kicked,” she says, delighted. “It was amazing!”
It doesn’t take much prompting to get her to tell him all about it, training with the Amazons, actually learning proper fighting stances and real combat.
Clark feels a rush of guilt. It was the sort of thing he should have helped her with, the way that Bruce had helped him. Bruce had a red-sun room set up at the Manor just so Clark could learn how to throw a punch. He could have introduced her to Dick or Tim, not left her to muddle through it alone.
But then, she’d had to learn the same lessons he did. The only way to really understand that super strength wasn’t everything was the hard way. She wouldn’t have listened.
The conversation takes them all the way to the door of his apartment, and he hesitates. He hasn’t had anyone over in over a month, not since Bruce—
But she needs a shirt, and she’s family. He can’t justify not letting her in, or making her stand in the hallway while he looks for one of Lois’s old blouses.
He takes a deep breath, and unlocks the door. It feels vulnerable and raw, showing her the apartment. It’s not what it had been for Bruce—he’d gotten rid of the stupid couch, and some of the cheaper pieces of art—but it still has touches of his redecoration. He hadn’t been able to paint over the walls, and now it feels like he’s papered his feelings over them instead, like every emotion is shouting from the Robin’s Nest Red accent wall.
He’s expecting Kara to react like Lois had, before, with indifference, or even like Bruce, with disdain.
He’s not expecting the way that Kara claps both hands over her mouth and stares around the apartment with wide eyes. “Oh, Clark!”
Clark closes the door behind him as Kara rounds on him. “Clark, it’s beautiful!”
It’s a mess. He hasn’t taken care of it like he should have, and the living room is devoid of furniture, a barren wasteland that felt all too appropriate. But still, something in him goes warm and pleased at her words. That someone sees what he’s done, appreciates it. “It’s nothing.”
“It’s amazing!” Kara wanders up to some of the art he’d kept, a canvas painted by a local artist. It’s abstract, reds and golds in bold strokes, but he liked looking at it. “You didn’t tell me you were building a Bower!”
Something about the way she says it, an inflection, a lilt to her voice, clues him into the fact that Bower is a Kryptonian word.
“Your Bower!” Kara gestures around her, at the apartment he’d poured so much love and time—and paint—into. “This, your, your Bower! Who is it for? Do I know them?” She all but bounces over to him, delight pouring off of her. It fades with whatever she reads in his face. “Clark?”
She looks worried, and Clark is getting so tired of worrying people. He dredges up a smile, but Kara just looks more concerned.
“This is a Bower, isn’t it?” she looks around.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Oh, Kal.” The sympathy in Kara’s voice makes him flinch. She only ever calls him Kal when they talk about Krypton.
“Don’t.” Don’t look at me like that, he wants to say, but holds it back. Kara doesn’t deserve that. He takes a deep breath. “What is a Bower?”
“Bower,” Kara says, correcting his pronunciation, and Clark fights a scowl. “Sorry. A Bower is like, like a home? But also a symbol of being an adult? It’s just, it’s hard to explain. It was such an ingrained part of Krypton. We never had words for it.”
“Like the difference between a house and a home?” Clark asks.
Kara frowns. “Yes? But not really. It’s a reflection of who you are. You pour your soul into a proper Bower. It’s an, an offering. Of yourself. When you’re ready to settle down.”
Clark looks around his apartment. The walls he had painted, slow and painstaking and loving. The art he had picked out with his own hands. The way it had felt when Bruce called it a shithole. He swallows around the lump it still brings to his throat. “So, it’s a coming of age thing?”
“No, it’s not, it’s a, a,” Kara snaps her fingers, searching. “Courting! It’s for courting.”
Clark stares at her. “Courting like, flowers?”
“Yes! Exactly like that! Well, except not really. All this Earth stuff, it’s culture. It doesn’t matter. Bowers aren’t like that. We’ve always built Bowers, back before the Records began. It’s a part of our DNA.” She reaches out and touches his hand. “Did you, ah, did you build this for someone?”
Clark pulls his hand away, unable to stand her sympathy. “I didn’t know,” he says. “I just, it had to be perfect.”
“Yeah,” she gives him a small smile. “It looks pretty perfect to me.”
“You’re just saying that.”
“It’s very you. That’s what matters.”
The words burst out before Clark can stop them. “He didn’t like it.”
“Oh, Clark.” Kara leans into his side, puts her head on his shoulder. He and Kara both run hotter than most people, and she’s a comforting warmth.
“I worked really hard on it. It was the best I could offer, and he didn’t even—it didn’t matter.”
Kara makes a low, wounded noise of sympathy, and its easy, after that, to lean his head against hers.
“I’m being fucking stupid. He didn’t know.”
“Neither did you,” she says, and it’s absurd that it’s this that almost makes tears well up, makes his throat go tight. “A rejection of your Bower, that’s,” she trails off. “It’s big. Bowers are serious. You don’t make them lightly, or easily. It’s worse than a rejected proposal. Humans throw those around like they mean nothing. And you wouldn’t have even known why it mattered.” She curls her arm around his waist. “I’m so sorry.”
“He doesn’t know why I’m upset with him.” He laughs, a wet, broken sound. “I didn’t know why. I should apologize.” Kara hesitates, long enough that he pulls away to look at her. “What?”
“Nothing. It’s just. If he didn’t even like your Bower, is he really, I mean. Does it really matter? It’s not just an apartment, it’s a reflection of your soul.”
Strangely, her hesitation makes it easier. He does owe Bruce an apology. Maybe not an explanation, not ever, but something. Kara spent her formative years on Krypton. If it’s as ingrained in the culture, in the DNA, as she says, it makes sense that she can’t see past it. But Clark is as much human as he is Kryptonian. He’s never wanted to define himself by his alien parts, and this won’t be any different.
“We’ll see,” he says neutrally. Kara looks up at him, and he knows she doesn’t believe him. She doesn’t say anything though, just gives him a small smile, and tugs him into a hug. It’s hard enough that he feels it in his ribs, and it’s perfect.
Clark hasn’t been by the Manor since Bruce rejected his Bower,(he’s been using those words, unnatural though they feel, because he has to remind himself of what actually happened, force himself past his misconceptions,) and standing on the doorstep makes his heart race, his stomach drop. He never feels as human as he does around Bruce.
He’s spent over a week just trying to build up to it, to figure out what to say to Bruce, what kind of explanation he can give that Bruce will accept, but won’t leave Clark stripped open. He takes another deep breath, and raises his hand to knock.
The door pulls open before his fist can land, and one look at Alfred’s face reveals it for the power move it really is, depriving him of the agency of knocking, revealing that Alfred knows he was there the whole time. He doesn’t know what Alfred has heard or assumed, but it’s can’t be anything too flattering.
Clark takes a deep breath. “Good morning. Is, ah, is Bruce home?” It’s something of a peace offering. Clark knows that Bruce is home. Alfred knows that Clark knows. And they both know that Clark will have to accept whatever answer Alfred gives him.
Alfred studies him for a long moment, until Clark is sure that Alfred will slam the door in his face. Clark is braced for it, ready, when Alfred swings the door open and gestures Clark inside. “I’ll let him know you’re here,” is all he says. As though Bruce doesn’t already know.
Alfred leaves Clark standing in the entryway, feeling as though he should have a hat in his hands, nervously twisting it back and forth. He’d agonized about what to wear, torn between one of Clark Kent’s suits, or showing up in uniform, or even one of the very few suits Bruce had gotten him, the ones that actually fit.
In the end, Clark had wanted to be comfortable, wanted to be his most true self before Bruce, not Clark Kent, not Superman, but just Clark. Someone else might take his dark jeans and flannel shirt as a slight, but he trusts that Bruce will understand. They haven’t strayed that far from the path.
Clark turns towards Bruce’s voice, as helpless before it as he always is. Bruce must have been in the workshop, because he’s wearing his own version of casual clothes, grease staining his fingernails. It’ll be gone before he ever leaves the house. It feels like Bruce is showing his truest self as well, the person between Bruce Wayne and Batman. “Bruce.” He can’t help what his voice does, doesn’t miss the way Bruce’s expression flickers at the sound, but he doesn’t know what it means.
There’s a long pause as neither of them speak, Clark soaking in the sight of Bruce before him, trying to shove away the remnants of pain- it didn’t mean what you thought it did— and Bruce just watching Clark, waiting.
Things with Bruce get better; day by day, moment by moment. Clark still can’t bear to fix up his own apartment, to repaint the walls, or put any of the art back up, or even replace the leather couch he’d had to throw out, but it’s been easier to spend the time at the Manor.
He doesn’t think he would have noticed if if not for their forced separation, but Bruce initiates more than he ever used to. Often, Clark will find himself reaching for his communicator, only to find it already chiming. Bruce invites him to the Manor for training, suggests dinner after League meetings, prompts Clark into conversations more easily than they ever have before.
It’s the sort of thing that might have given him cause to hope before, when every moment felt charged with meaning, and their touches lingered. But even though he’s not angry at Bruce, even though he knows why he was upset, and knows he should be able to reason past it, he won’t let himself read anything into Bruce’s words.
He can’t trust his own judgement, his own senses anymore. He had been so sure that Bruce had rejected him, on the social cues of a species Clark had never truly been a part of. How can he be so sure that the other signs he had seen were real either? How much of it was his own treacherous heart, his own stupid dreams, projecting onto Bruce.
Now, without that hope to sustain him, he can’t remember why he ever thought Bruce would be interested, what he might have to offer a man like Bruce Wayne. Brave, intelligent, kind; what could Clark Kent offer. The guise of Superman might entice anyone else, but Bruce was a superhero in his own right, had nothing to be impressed with when Clark was only doing what anyone would do, given his powers.
Bruce, with no powers and no invulnerability, was the real hero. What did Clark risk, really? Nothing, while Bruce put his life on the line every night.
And, the truth was that Clark Kent was boring. Even if Superman did impress, soon that fools gold gilding would wear away, revealing the truth; that Clark Kent was just a farmer’s son from Kansas. A quiet reporter who preferred a night in with a good book.
Clark shakes his head, shakes the thoughts away. He never used to think like this, always felt so sure of his place in Bruce’s life, and Bruce’s place in his. It’s like everything he used to know has fallen away, and he can’t reason it back into place. He knows, knows, that nothing has really changed. That Bruce doesn’t see him any differently then he did last month, last year. If only he could make himself believe it.
“Sorry. Gathering wool. What were you saying?”
Bruce’s mouth ticks, the faintest reaction to anything Clark says that hints towards midwester, though woolgathering barely counts outside the circles that Bruce runs in. “Nothing important. What were you thinking about?”
Clark shrugs, uncomfortable. “Nothing important,” he repeats back.
Bruce leans back in his chair, idly swishing his whiskey in the glass. “I highly doubt that.” The firelight catches on his sharp cheekbones, the shadowed underside of his jaw, and he is so infinitely lovely that Clark’s throat aches with it.
“Work,” Clark says when Bruce continues to wait for him. “Just thinking of the next article I’m writing.”
“Hm.” He can’t tell if Bruce believes him or not, but at least he doesn’t try to prompt him for more details. Instead, the silence falls between them again, warm and comfortable. Clark really does have a deadline coming up, but he gets evenings like this so rarely, he can’t pass up the chance to indulge.
Absently, he traces his fingers over the stretch fabric of the armchair. The fabric feels unusually plush under his fingers, the cushion bringing back perfectly under his fingers. He takes a moment, assessing, and the entire chair feels different. He has a tendency to shut out physical sensation when he can, it was too easy to get lost in the small things, but when he unfurls his sense, the chair surrounds him.
The chairs at the Wayne Manor have always been comfortable, but these chairs have been in the family for generations, always pointing to the fire. Bruce had confessed to watching his parents by this same fire, to reading a book at his mothers feet while his parents say, sipping whiskey and talking.
Visually, it’s the same chair, and Clark doesn’t know if anyone else would notice, but he can’t help but rub his palms over the arms, to let his weight settle deeper into the chair. The chair smells faintly of pine—not synthetic and chemical, but genuinely like pine, like a fresh Christmas tree. He feels unaccountable cat like, wanting to burrow his way deeper into the chair and never leave.
Bruce makes some noise, caught too deep in his throat for Clark to interpret, but Clark’s eyes snap open, and he’s abruptly aware of just how deep he’s sunk into the chair. He can feel his face flushing, embarrassed, expecting Bruce to tease.
But Bruce is just watching him, eyes warm, mouth fond. There is something that Clark might call pride in the set of his jaw, and satisfaction in the set of his shoulders, and Clark can’t imagine why.
It’s embarrassing how long it takes Clark to actually notice anything different. He’s concentrating on not letting what Kryptonian instincts he has about Bruce, and the Manor, overwhelm him, and on the genuine pleasure of being around Bruce regularly again that he misses all the subtle signs.
It takes seeing one of his mom’s quilts thrown over the back of the couch in the living room before Clark catches on. He’d only been passing by the room, looking for the extra pair of glasses he’d taken off last time and forgotten to retrieve, but his sense had snagged at him as he went by.
Clark had honed his senses enough that the knowledge that something was off hit him before the actual sense did. It took him a moment to even realize what was making his pulse race, what his mind was already seeking out. It was the mix of two overly-familiar scents, each as familiar to him as his own, but so rarely together.
In pausing, his eyes caught on the bright color, out of place on the black couch, and he hardly remembered stepping forward, only realized when he felt the soft fabric under his fingers.
His mothers was never the best quilter, would never earn a place in the state fair, or sell her designs for money, but she did well enough to keep her family warm in the winter, and she said that was enough. This quilt was clearly one of hers, the simple charm of the interlocking squares, the bold colors and pale pastels. The soft flannel underside, perfect for colder nights but miserable in the summer, and she refused any fabric that breathed properly.
It wasn’t one of the quilts he’d seen a hundred times around the house in varying stages of unravelling, the corners all soft and frayed. This one was new, still smelled of the farm, like grass and her peony perfume, and like the oakey, aged smell of the Mansion.
Clark knows when Bruce appears in the doorway even though he doesn’t hear him. Senses him maybe. Aware of Bruce like a planet to the sun.
He looks up, and he isn’t sure what face he’s making, is only aware of the feel of flanel and cotton under his fingers.
“I’m going to have to ask her for another one,” Bruce says, affecting a wry tone that’s betrayed by the look in his eyes. “Damian has laid claim to this one. It was supposed to go-” he cuts himself off. “Maybe,” he hesitates, licking his lips absently, ”maybe it’s better if I show you.”
“Show me what?” Clark asks.
Bruce doesn’t answer, just turns and moves down the hall, expecting Clark to follow. Clark shakes his head, wanting to be frustrated at Bruce’s familiar highhandedness and just managing to feel fond.
He puts the quilt back on the couch, fights to urge to take it with him, along with all the things it could mean, and follows Bruce.
It takes a few turns before Clark realizes that Bruce is taking him further into the Mansion then he’s ever been before. He’s seen almost every inch of the place, dragged hither and yon by three generations of Robin’s, and there is only one room in the Manor he’s never been near.
His breath is coming fast even before Bruce swings open the door to his bedroom.
Clark doesn’t know what to expect, but his knees almost buckle with the shock of what greets him.
The grandeur of the room doesn’t surprise him, the vastness of space, or the way the bed could comfortably fit the entire Justice League.
The room is a comfortable mismatch of styles. The sleek modernism shows at least one room in the house that Bruce had felt comfortable changing, but it’s thrown off by a rustic wooden chest at the foot of the bed, the kind Clark had grown up with.
The carpet is plush underfoot, and Clark can feel the newness of it in the chemical smell that has yet to fade, factory fresh. There are a hundred other touches; small tchotkes that Bruce had always teased Clark for, art that Clark almost recognises up on the wall. On the dresser, framed photos of the kids, of Clark with the kids, of Clark and Bruce together. And, on one wall, the article that had earned Clark a Pulitzer nomination is framed.
And, worst off all, the far wall is painted Robin’s Nest Red.
“Bruce?” His voice comes out weak and faded, and he’s never felt as human now as he does now.
“I built it for you,” Bruce says, and the words strike Clark between the ribs, painful and aching and wonderful in one blow.
He had put the possibility of it out of his head, and he fights against his own common sense- that Bruce doesn’t know what he’s saying, that it can’t mean the same to a human as it does to him.
But Clark knows Bruce, and even if he doesn’t know the full meaning of those words, there is nothing platonic in the gesture. In retrofitting his bedroom to suit Clark.
“I’m sorry that I rejected your Bower,” Bruce says, and Clark gasps for breath. “I didn’t know, and I had other things on my mind.” His mouth twists bitterly. “It’s no excuse. I should have seen that you were—it doesn’t matter. You built—” Bruce falters, and steps foward, close enough that he can take Clark’s hands. His throat bobs as he swallows. “Clark, what you built—”
“It’s okay,” Clark says, still unsure and confused, but reacting instinctively to Bruce’s discomfort.
Bruce shakes his head. “It’s not. I hurt you. That was obvious, even when I didn’t know why.”
Clark swallows around the burning in his throat, and he tries to pull his hands away, but Bruce won’t let him. Or, Bruce doesn’t go, and Clark can’t bring himself to force it. “Bruce, I understand. I know it’s not, that I’m not—”
“No, you don’t. Fuck. I’m trying to. Clark, what you built was beautiful. It was, it was a place I would be happy to—honored to live in. I’m sorry I said otherwise.”
“Bruce,” Clark says, desperate now. “What are you trying to say?”
Bruce’s hands tighten on his, then release. “I love you. Clark Kent, Kal-El, Superman. In every iteration, in any mask. I know you, and I love you. And I hope you can understand why I can’t move into your Bower. But I,” he has to stop and take a deep breath, and Clark matches him, feeling breathless and dizzy himself.
“Clark. I offer you my Bower, my hearth and home. Come, and be sheltered. Stay, and be warm. Live, and be loved.”
“Bruce,” Clark says, and uses their joined grips to pull Bruce towards him, to kiss him with all the relief and desperation that the past months have built into him. Bruce kisses back, matching him in passion, pushing against Clark as he always does, neither of them ceding an inch.
Bruce pulls away first. “Is that a yes?”
Clark laughs, “God, yes. Of course it’s a yes.”
Bruce kisses him, and Clark can feel the smile against his lips. It’s wonderful and intoxicating. “It’s just hard to tell,” Bruce says after a moment. “You didn’t give the traditional reply.”
Clark shakes his head. “I don’t know the traditional reply. I don’t- how did you know it?”
“As I understand it, Kara told Conner. Connor, for reasons I’m trying very hard not to think about, told Tim. And Tim very casually dropped it into morning conversation about a month ago.”
“Casually,” Clark repeats.
“Very. So, I may have happened to have access to some of your Kryptonian records-”
“-a generous description of you hacking my Fortress-”
“-and I, well. Things made a bit more sense.” Bruce raises a hand to cup Clark’s jaw, so tender Clark can barely stand it, barely believe it comes from Bruce Wayne.
But then, Bruce has always gone after his goals, headfirst and straightforward, not letting things like fear get in the way. Why should love be any different.
“I would be honored to live in your Bower,” Clark says, trying for ceremony, to match the somber phrasing of Bruce’s offer.
“Close enough,” Bruce says, and Clark leans in to kiss the smile off of his mouth.