Title: Focus Past the Pain
Pairing: Bruce/Clark, Clark/Lois implied
Rating: Teen, PG-13
Length: 2964 words
Spoilers: set somewhen prior to "52 Aftermath: The Four Horsemen #3"
Warnings: slash, violence, angst, odd humor, adultery (with permission)
Disclaimer: Not mine, seriously. All belongs to DC Comics.
A/N: Inspired by Batman's quote to Superman: Like I taught you. Focus past the pain.
Summary: Bruce decides Clark needs a lesson. They both learn something.
"I can't believe you haven't thought of this," Bruce says.
Thought of what? Clark's not a masochist. Not exactly. But there Bruce is on the mats in his cave holding the lead box that's supposed to be for emergencies only. Like when Clark loses it and decides screw humanity and maybe this alien overlord thing isn't such a bad idea after all. But he never does that on his own, all outside influence, and that's only happened once or twice. Okay, maybe three times.
So Clark just stands there and blinks.
Bruce lets out a noise that's something between a grunt and a sigh. "You need to train, prepare, Clark. You have no idea how to handle pain."
"I train," he says, crossing his arms. Already defensive and Bruce hasn't so much as opened the box.
"Not in any real sense," Bruce says.
And yeah, Bruce would say that. Clark has a special set of weights up at the Fortress, but that's just to pass the time. When he has it. And that's the thing. It's all on the job training—holding up bridges, pushing back landslides, changing the course of rivers. He's flown so far past the atmosphere, dangled in space, that his lungs panic. He's still affected by physics, no matter how powerful. He has limits; he's not an infinite being by any means. So yeah, he trains. But for Bruce, who wears all his scars like badges of courage, if it's not combat, it doesn't count. He probably sees him as a glorified construction worker.
So maybe Clark does have something to prove. "Okay," he says, "How do you want to do this?"
"Take off your shirt."
Clark's used to taking the occasional order from Bruce, so he doesn't say, "What?" until half the uniform's off and he's standing there in boots and tights.
Bruce smiles, all teeth, a grimace and so the Bat, despite the fact that he's just standing there barefoot in nothing but black drawstring sweatpants. "If we do this right," he says, "you'll bleed. Do you know how to bleed, Clark? Work your way past the sight of your own blood?"
Clark fights the impulse of self-preservation, to just get the hell out of there, get another shirt at home and leave Bruce with the souvenir. He just raises an eyebrow. "Aren't the mats new?" And he says this with a grin. You know, joke.
Bruce's eyes widen, and he says something that sounds remarkably like 'heh' to Clark. Because God forbid that Bruce actually laugh, especially at the lame things that Clark comes up with. "Well, you'll just have to break them in, won't you?"
"Aren't I lucky?" He moves forward, stands in front of Bruce. He breathes, sets his shoulders. "Let's do it."
The box opens. The first wave of nausea hits him. And then another. Stupid idea. Stupid. It hurts. His knees buckle and it takes everything he has not to fall.
And Bruce hits him. Hard. Right in the face. And keeps on hitting. Gets in a few gut punches and then kicks as Clark curls into a ball on the ground.
"Get up!" he snarls. "Be a goddamn man and get up." He kicks him again.
"Can't," Clark says, managing to rise, hands and knees. "Bruce, I...I'm going to hurl. I mean it."
Bruce crouches, grabs him by the hair, pulls until Clark is looking him in the eye. "Don't you dare. Swallow it back down." And his eyes, they're furious, disappointed. He lets go, shoves him back down. "At least try. Don't waste my time."
Okay, now he's pissed. Clark, wobbly, pulls himself to his knees and then his feet. Bad idea. The nausea's worse up here. The mat, now that was his friend. Nice mat. And look, he did bleed on it. Poor mat.
Bruce, now three feet away, only nods slightly. "Face your fear, Clark. Face your weakness."
Who's he talking to? Clark's faced down the K before. And he's always in the thick of it, rushes in, no matter what the odds are. But this is Bruce so maybe he is holding back, pulling that desperate lunge away. He could hurt him, even now, not control the punch. His fist clenches. "Don't," he says. "You have no idea what I can do."
"Then do it. Don't take time to threaten. You're getting weaker by the minute."
Clark lunges. And misses. Somehow Bruce sidestepped him. On his knees again, he groans, "That's not fair."
"Fair?" And this time, Bruce does laugh. "Your opponent isn't going to play fair, Clark. And neither should you."
Clark's eyes burn and he twists until he's staring at the smoke rising near Bruce's feet. He swipes out his arm, takes Bruce out at the knee. Bruce falls, springs back up.
"Good boy," he says. Like Clark's a dog. And then he kicks him like one until Clark is lying face up on the mat, looking up at some perturbed bats interrupted from their beauty sleep. Another wave of nausea hits him and he has to take a deep breath just to keep from throwing up.
"Focus past the pain, Clark." Bruce may only be inches away or a mile. His voice a distant thing, a tunnel away. "Focus."
Clark breathes. The pain swirls around him. He focuses. At least enough to get some words out.
"I really don't like you right now," he says. Doesn't Bruce have more important things to do than beat the crap out of him? "Do you get off on this?"
Bruce shatters through that tunnel, suddenly on top of him, eyes wild and heartbeat thundering. He grips him by the shoulders, hard, almost gouging. He leans in. "It's not anyone's job to like me," he whispers, teeth gritted. "And it's none of your damn business what I do or do not get off on."
Clark's focused. He focused before he said anything. The pain swirls around him, but he's found the center, free and quiet. He suddenly pushes up, punches, rolls, until he's the one on top of Bruce. "Gotcha," he says, grinning. "I didn't play fair."
Now Bruce is the one bleeding, a trickle of blood from his mouth. That mouth twitches, and a surprised smile flickers. "I didn't think you had it in you," he says. "That's enough for today."
Clark shakes his head in disbelief, laughs. "Today? You mean there's more?" Suddenly aware that he's still kneeling on top of Bruce, he rolls off. "I need...I need to go sit down." He staggers off to the monitors, sits against the cool metal side.
Bruce rises, silent, and closes the box. Clark breathes, closes his eyes for a minute. Only opening them again when Bruce sits beside him, hands him a water bottle. Bruce drinks from his own, runs his hand through his hair.
Taking a sidelong glance, Bruce says, "You can leave the shirt off until the bruising fades."
That's fine by Clark. He's not much with the moving right now anyway. He drinks, closes his eyes again. There's that joke. You know, what's the best thing about hitting yourself on the head with a hammer? It feels great when you stop. And that's how he feels right now, the pain pulling away, the healing. It's a dirty kind of bliss. He sighs, leans into Bruce, who stiffens. Clark keeps on leaning, not caring that Bruce is a sweaty mess. He still smells like shower gel and aftershave underneath all that. Bruce relaxes, puts a tentative arm around him. He shifts so that Clark's face falls into his neck. Clark sighs and stays there.
Clark feels the voice, rough, lips in his hair, hand squeezing his shoulder. "I'm here for you, Clark."
Clark blinks, so close to that neck that his eyelashes flutter across it. The pulse point so close that it would take no effort to reach it at all. Less effort, in fact, than not reaching. His lips brush it, salt and surprise.
"You need to go," Bruce says. But he doesn't release Clark's shoulder. He does lift his chin, arch his neck slightly. Clark runs his mouth and breath along it, an inch, maybe two. Even if he were human, he'd be able to smell Bruce's arousal.
"Clark, you need to go." Bruce's voice more urgent, approaching command.
"I'm fine where I am." And he is. The endorphins, pain-free and flying now, limbs languid and singing, are fine right here. This spot. He mouths Bruce's neck, following the pulse, barely controlled, a reined-in gallop.
"Well, I'm not!" Bruce stands, stalks over to the front side of the station, puts both hands on the desk, back to Clark. The bare taut shoulders an accusation.
Clark brings up his knees, rocks a little, then stands. "Bruce, I'm sor--"
The accusing back speaks. "Superman always saves the day. And Clark Kent does not cheat on his wife. Go home, Clark. Get out of my cave."
Clark doesn't go, doesn't retrieve his shirt. He places the water bottle down on the desk beside the white knuckles of Bruce's hand.
Bruce whirls around. "Fine. Maybe I do get off on it. Will you just go so I can jerk off in peace?"
"Bruce, it's okay." He says this calm, soothing, a gentling down.
"Okay? Did the kryptonite fry your brain? You're married, for God's sake! You, of all people, do not do this." There's anger, yes, but it hasn't strangled the arousal.
Bruce doesn't move as Clark steps forward. He should have mentioned this before. But he hadn't, too embarrassed at being wrong, that it was one-sided, an inappropriate reaction to the tentative friendship, so rare from Bruce to anyone, that he offered Clark. "We've talked about it," he says. "She thinks it's funny. I have permission." He pauses, not for effect, but to admit it. All of it. "If we do."
Bruce laughs, a bark only, rubs a hand on his face. "How could you want this?" he says. "You're rainbows and puppies and everyone adores you. I'm..." His voice trails off, but Clark's known Bruce long enough to finish the rest for him. The real Bruce, not the caricature. The awkward and abrasive one, the one who feels deeply and locks it all away.
Disgusting. Broken. Alone.
"You're not disgusting, Bruce. Nobody pushes me like you do."
"I just got a hard-on from hurting you! I set you up, Clark. There's nothing normal about that."
"That's not what this is about." Part of it, maybe. A certain part of Bruce will always be attached to pain.
Bruce just snorts, daring him to contradict.
"You don't like to see me get hurt. You like to see me get better."
Bingo. Bruce's eyes widen and he looks away. And that's really it. Bruce never allows himself to be tender except when people are hurt. He softens then, opens, only closing when they're strong enough to walk away.
"You died," he says softly. "You weren't strong enough. You need to be strong. Just two more sec--"
"People die, Bruce."
Bruce manages to loom then, glare, all hard edges, any softness falling away. "Not you, you selfish bastard. You had yourself a nice long nap, leaving the rest of us to deal with everything."
"You had a tough year." Secretly, Clark's glad he missed it. He doesn't know if he could bear to see Bruce broken, bound to a bed and then a chair. In pain and helpless, fuming, while others took on the role of the Bat.
"This isn't about me," Bruce says.
"Isn't it?" Clark takes the risk, reaches out, touches the side of Bruce's face. Bruce allows it for a second, then two, but grabs Clark's wrist.
"Don't." That's all he says. He manages to push Clark's hand a few millimeters away, so that only Clark's free electrons can make that leap, touch.
"I did what I had to, Bruce. You can't ask any more of me than that."
"Yes. Yes, I can." He doesn't release his grip. Clark doesn't push or pull away.
"Then ask me something else." Clark leans in slightly, just two inches, his body an unspoken question.
"Were you afraid?"
Bruce's hand is still hard on his wrist. It's not a soft question, a tentative one. The air in the cave is cold, cloying, although that's just an illusion, this moment hovering. He hears the almost silent hum of the ventilation system. Clark feels like he's standing in front of the Sphinx, an impossible riddle. Bruce's eyes give him no answer, no tells. Afraid of what, exactly? Afraid of dying? Afraid of Bruce?
"Yes and no," he says, calm, but a trickle of sweat rolls down his back.
"That's not an answer." Bruce neither stiffens nor relaxes, implacably still. "You can't have it both ways."
"Then don't ask me two questions and pretend they're one," he says. He cheats. The tips of his fingers curl, dip down, trace Bruce's cheek.
Bruce only answers with a shiver that would have been imperceptible to anyone else.
"I mostly felt stupid," he says. "Embarrassed, angry. I fought it, inside. I'd won the battle, but I wasn't ready. Not really. It hurt. I don't know what you want me to say."
Bruce swallows. "I think you do."
Clark sighs, lets his thumb rub that cheekbone, gently. "Yes, I'd do it again. It'll happen again. Someday. That's what we do."
That may not be the answer Bruce wants, but it's the one he gets. And it'll be Bruce too. Tonight, tomorrow, sometime in the not distant enough future. He's not going to slip in the bathtub. There's not enough cosmic irony in this life for that one. He'll be out there and just two seconds too slow. Bam, the bad guys win. There'll be an extra memorial case in the cave with Bruce's suit, Tim standing in front of it and putting on the cowl for the first time. Bruce Wayne will die, but Batman will live on. And some other poor kid with an impossible smile will stumble into the vacuum left by Robin's absence.
One of them will go first. And Clark's died once already so the odds aren't all on Bruce. Clark will be a wreck if he's the one left breathing. He knows that much.
So now to answer the second question. "No," he says.
Bruce's hand must be hurting by now. "Be more specific."
"I'm not afraid of you."
It's the wrong answer and the right one. Bruce lets go, takes Clark's face in both hands. "You should be." A shadow lifts from his eyes and settles again. "We can't do this."
And why not? He's Superman. He eats impossible for breakfast. He leans in and Bruce doesn't stop him. Just a small kiss, but the damage is done. Clark smiles, feels the glow light up his face. He's solar-powered, battery-operated, environmentally friendly even in this dark place.
"Come on," he says, grabbing Bruce's hand to pull him over to the mats.
But Bruce plants his feet. "We need to shower first."
Oh. Right. He still has flecks of blood on his chin and he's probably Stinky McNasty right now. Not letting go of Bruce's hand, he changes direction toward the shower stall by the medical bay.
Bruce lets go of his hand, turns his back, heads toward the stairs.
Upstairs. Meaning the master bath and then the master bed. And suddenly, Clark is afraid. Well, not afraid, but he feels that adrenaline surge just the same. He wants to say he doesn't get it. Bruce sleeps around. A lot. But as far as Clark can tell, only Bruce sleeps in that monster of a bed. A handful of discreet guests, maybe, have ever been in it.
Bruce turns at the top of the stairs. "Well," he says, "Come up or get out." He looks angry, but it's not the steady beat of fury that Clark hears, but the faint staccato of fear. He floats up, touches down on the landing without a sound.
"Don't kid yourself, Clark," he says. "You don't do casual."
"But that's all you do." Anything more would interfere with the mission. Gotham comes first for Bruce. It always has. Just as Metropolis, the world, does for Clark. If nothing else, that's what they get about each other. Besides, Clark's a pain in the ass. Bruce wouldn't want him for anything more than a quick release and back to business. That's why this is perfect for Bruce. Perfect for Lois. And if it's not so perfect for Clark, well, he'll just have that leftover impossible from breakfast and keep it to himself.
Bruce just stares at him. "Jesus, are you really that stupid?"
Clark's mouth just opens and closes. Okay, Bruce isn't really a people person. But he's just adding insult to some barely healed injury here. That focus? Yeah, somewhere orbiting Saturn right now.
But Bruce isn't smirking, grimacing, stern, any of his normal expressions. He looks a little bit lost too. He pulls Clark in, kisses him hard, pulls away. "We're not friends, Clark. We haven't been for a while."
What? Oh. He means...Yeah, that word that neither of them is going to say now. Yet. Ever. But all that, just without the sex stuff.
Bruce turns, opens the door to the library. But he stops, breathes, braces his shoulders as if preparing for battle or rejection. Not turning back, he says, "This is cheating, Clark. Live with it or don't."
A million gears spinning in his head, Clark answers in two seconds. "With," he says.
The next second, they're a blur up the stairs.