Title: Once He Had Believed
Rating: Adult, NC-17
Length: 2874 words
Spoilers: set two years prior to DKR
Warnings: slash, angst, possibly dark, no fisticuffs
Disclaimer: Not mine, seriously. All belongs to DC Comics.
Summary: Clark leaves a message. Bruce returns the call. They do this all the time.
Halfway through a small brokers' meeting, Bruce notices the blinking light on his answering machine. He's staring out the window into the side garden, gazebo and rose bushes, pretending to be bored out of habit. Bruce no longer needs to play the addle-brain, but he's tired and the routine of the time before...well, just before, is automatic. The phone didn't ring, all calls forwarded to the machine for the duration of the meeting.
The silent metronome of that red light punctuates the rest of the meeting. A beacon, a warning, a silent alarm.
It's about that time again so he knows what voice he'll hear when he presses play. So when the meeting concludes, he ignores it, choosing instead to go work out in his home gym, all equipment in the west wing and no longer down hidden stairs. He showers.
Late afternoon finds him wandering the hallway, a glass of scotch in hand. He starts early these days, drinks for real and increasing habit. He mostly drinks alone. The light, a distant thing, beckons. The office door ajar.
He presses play, listens. His voice. He drinks his scotch, neat and warm.
"Bruce, hey, it's Clark. Just thought I'd let you know I'll be out of town for a few days, a week at the most."
Of course Clark's going out of town. That's the only time he calls. Every damn time, the same thing.
Twice, Bruce has managed to erase the message, not pick up the phone. This afternoon will not be the third. Clark answers on the second ring. Neither of them bother to say hello.
"What time can you be up?" is all Bruce says.
"I'll be on the 7:15," is all Clark says in return.
Bruce waits by his car in the parking lot of the train station. Clark never flies domestic. It's summer and the Gotham air is soaked in sweat, commuters dashing home to their televisions and dogs. Bruce refuses the melodrama of the platform, the lobby of route maps and vending machines. Clark emerges from the station doors, garment bag slung over his shoulder. He spots Bruce and smiles.
Bruce is already reaching for his keys, Clark almost at the car, when Clark says, tilting his head just so, "Hold on a sec." That second sees only the garment bag on the hood, a whoosh of air, chipped paint on the car. The next second sees Clark picking the bag back up and silently buffing that small spot away, smoothing the dent from the hanger where it fell.
Bruce doesn't ask, but Clark says, "Mugging," anyway in explanation. At the downturn of Bruce's mouth, he says, "No one saw, Bruce."
Bruce only opens the driver's side door, starts the engine before Clark has fastened his seatbelt. No one saw, but he's sure Clark left inadvertent evidence, damage. He's too big not to. One life is nothing against hundreds, thousands. Bruce keeps score. He's been keeping score for years. They pull out of the parking lot.
Anyone else and Bruce would suggest they stop by a bar first. Before, well, just before, Clark would have flustered, ordered a coke, sucked on the cherry before pulling it off the stem. Today, Clark would waltz in right beside Bruce, order a shot of Jack, lean his elbow on the bar. Bruce knows this. Their circles overlap more closely than they used to. Certain elements in Washington won't trust a man that doesn't drink and Clark has always been trustworthy.
They pull into the manor drive. Bruce leaves the keys in the car for Alfred.
"Mister Kent," Alfred says in the entryway. "Your bag." Clark protests, the same old song and dance. Alfred wins and disappears up the stairs, holding the bag aloft.
"Have you eaten?" Bruce says. He always says this.
"I had dinner at the station." Clark always says this too.
There's a plate of home fries warming in the oven. Alfred will bring them into the drawing room later.
Clark stands at the window of said drawing room. "It's always so peaceful here," he says. He's wearing his glasses. His arm braces against the window frame and he leans his head down. They're on the eastern side of the house and so the last few rays of sun, a Michaelangelo effect, illuminate Clark, make him glow more than he already does just by existing.
Bruce doesn't say anything, just watches. He's on his second scotch already.
"Pour me one too," Clark says, not turning, not raising his head. "Please," he adds. Clark still says please and thank you for everything.
Bruce doesn't bother to say, 'Who are you trying to impress, Clark?' That's not what this is about. He goes to the decanter, pours a second glass. He walks over to the window. Clark's free hand takes the glass. He smiles. He looks at Bruce for a second, silent, then two more. "We could start early," he says.
Bruce just shakes his head, walks away. He's not nearly drunk enough yet.
Clark sighs, sips his drink. "Game?" he says, nodding to the chess table. They always do this too. Bruce pulls out a chair, sits. He plays white of course. They no longer draw pawns. Bruce needs the offensive advantage. Clark stopped pretending he couldn't play years ago. Each match requires concentration.
"No clock," Bruce says. Clark only nods, sets his drink on the table.
Four moves in, his gambit, Bruce says, "So where were you this time?"
Clark takes the pawn, but now Bruce has position. "Santa Prisca," he says.
Bruce already knows this. Clark never says where he's going, just where he's been. Three weeks ago, his answer had been Qurac. "I hear it's lovely this time of year," Bruce says.
"It's not." Clark brings out his knight. "We were right outside the capital and..." His voice trails off but picks up again. "They were just kids, Bruce. Couldn't have been more than fourteen."
Bruce moves his bishop, a black diagonal, striking distance. "I'm sure you served your country well," he says.
Not taking the bait, Clark castles. "I wish you'd stop saying that." He picks up his scotch, drinks the whole thing down, looks at the board.
Bruce pulls the bishop back two squares, two possibilities now. "You called me," he says. "You must want to hear it."
"I don't have anyplace else to go," he says. He moves, a defensive attack.
"I'm sure I'm not your first choice." Bruce takes the knight.
Clark looks up from the board. "I wouldn't say that."
Bruce's hand hovers, hesitates. "More fool you, then."
Sighing, the corners of his mouth twitch. "Always. According to you."
They finish the rest of the game in silence. Clark mates him in fifteen moves.
Clark leans against the back of the couch, one leg dangling. "I don't know what you expect me to do," he says.
Bruce is on the last of his third scotch. "Manitoba's pulse crops are up two percent this year, farm boy. And despite what you've always said, you love Paris.
"We've already talked about this," Clark says. "There are at least forty-two extradition treaties that I know of. I'm not about to put a whole country at risk."
Bruce sloshes his drink, gesturing. "Then go sit in your fortress. Wait it out."
"I could, but..." He doesn't finish. Instead, he moves around the couch, sits, polishes off the last of his fries.
Bruce just huffs, and glass now empty, gets his fourth scotch. "What? Your parents aren't getting any younger. You're going to put them in the ground in the next year or so and you know it. Lois is married. Lana too for that matter. Diana made her trip back to paradise. They've got absolutely no one to play hostage with."
Clark twists, both elbows on the couch back, chin resting on his hands. "They do," he says.
Bruce lets the insinuation hang in the air, twist and fall on the ground. He's drunk enough to reply. "Well," he says. "I'm retired. We were never really partners. The media made that one up all on their own. And we're certainly not friends."
Closing his eyes briefly, he says, "They know we're not."
"Problem solved then."
Clark ignores this. "They know we're not friends, Bruce."
Neither of them say anything for a while. Bruce finally sinks into the armchair. "You look tired, Clark. Go to bed."
Clark only nods, rises. At the door, over his shoulder, he says, "You staying up?"
"I have things to do," Bruce says. He's only halfway through the glass.
These things consist of avoiding the library and watching television. Bruce thumbs the remote, finally turning it off. Almost two hours have passed so it's safe to go upstairs. He's drunk.
He goes into the master bedroom, changes into his robe. He will not go out in the hallway. He will go to bed.
He's out in the hallway. The guest room door is ajar, the room beyond dark. He walks down the hall, pauses by the door. One of these nights he will pass by this door, ignore it altogether. That night is not tonight. He stands in the doorway.
Clark is in bed, his bare shoulders visible above the blanket, face turned away. There's a book on the nightstand, his glasses on top of that. Clark shifts, rolls, head against the pillow and eyes wide open. He says nothing. Bruce steps over the threshold, sits on the edge of the bed.
"How long have we been doing this?" he says. A rhetorical question, but Clark answers anyway.
"Fifteen years." A small smile, but his eyes don't light up. "Give or take."
Fifteen years. Farther back than Jason, the subcommittees, back when there had been such a thing as justice. Back when Bruce cared about such things. Back when Bruce cared.
Clark had stood by the monitors in the cave, prattling something about Lois, how she had moved on. He wouldn't shut up. Bruce had turned, determined to make him do so. They ended up with uniforms half undone, on the floor, a fumbled frottage, Clark's eyes wide with shock. Bruce couldn't say that his eyes weren't the same. Clark's cape serving as blanket beneath and Bruce's blanket above. They didn't kiss.
The next time they did. And the time after that.
Bruce now pulls the blanket back slowly, until it's well past Clark's knees. He's completely nude. If Clark still wears those ridiculous pajamas, he never wears them here. Bruce just sits there and looks. He unties the sash on his robe, lets it fall to the floor. He's already erect and Clark is rising. Soon Clark pushes himself up, wraps a hand around Bruce's neck and pulls him down.
Bruce finds Clark's mouth, already grinding against him. They're done speaking, all cues nonverbal, subtle. Clark's hands go back to the headboard when Bruce moves down, takes him in his mouth. Sometimes, that's all there is, just Bruce doing this and Clark returning the favor. And that's enough, more than enough. But tonight, he pulls away. Bruce's hand grips and Clark turns over, hips rising off the bed. He reaches for the nightstand and soon he's driving into Clark, Clark yielding and bucking back, hands grasping the sheets.
He's not a young man anymore and the scotch has taken its toll. He's only good for the once. But he's not a young man anymore so he can last, last long enough to pull Clark up so they're on their knees, last long enough so that he can mouth Clark's neck, grip his hair and turn him for a kiss. Clark moans into it.
And for a minute, two, five, this is all there is—the incredible heat, Clark's mouth, the increasing creak of the bed. Nothing exists beyond this room.
Clark stiffens, grabs the headboard again, and it's over, for both of them, as Bruce grips Clark's shoulders, hands then sliding down to his hips, breath evening out. He pulls away. Clark reaches down, pulls up the blanket. They both end up staring at the ceiling.
In a minute, they'll take turns using the bathroom, clean up. Bruce uses that minute to face Clark, run a hand along his arm. They still don't speak. Clark rises, silent, closes the bathroom door behind him. Bruce should slip down the hall and use his own, but the door is too far away.
It's his turn and he uses the bathroom quickly, runs a glass of water from the tap. He opens the medicine cabinet, finds the near-empty aspirin bottle, empties it by two more. He returns to the bed, puts the water glass on the nightstand.
"One of these days," he says, "that damn door is going to stay open all night."
Clark, head on the pillow, gives him a soft smile. "It's your house."
Bruce starts to say something, but Clark doesn't let him. Instead, Clark leans in, kissing him in earnest. It's late, Bruce is tired and still a bit drunk. He could fall asleep to this. He has before. But just as he's drifting off, Clark pulls back, only slightly, runs a hand through Bruce's hair, thumb along his face.
Yes, Clark, I'm getting old. And you're not.
"You're going to be fifty this year," Bruce says, a tired whisper. They shouldn't remember each other's birthdays, but they do. Bruce is fifty-three and looks it. One of these days, that phone won't ring. And for the sixth time in as many months, he almost asks Clark to move in. For the sixth time in as many months, he doesn't. They'd kill each other within three days.
"What's for breakfast?" Clark says, adjusting so that he's nestled against Bruce's open arm.
"Belgian waffles." Alfred, humming in the kitchen, always makes these when Clark stays over. Bruce will sit at the breakfast table, hungover and irritable, taking only coffee. Clark will leave. Alfred will sigh, quite dramatically, as he clears the dishes, complain obliquely about the empty house. The house, always nearly empty now, will seem emptier.
"I might be able to stretch it until tomorrow afternoon, the day after," Clark says into Bruce's shoulder. Bruce doesn't tell him not to. Of course, it's more about Clark's reluctance toward his destination rather than a reluctance to leave. Duty has become a four letter word.
Wherever they'll be tomorrow afternoon or the next day, at some point, Clark will pause, whisper, "I need to leave." And then he'll be gone. Clark never flies domestic, but he always flies international.
"I can still hear them, Bruce. Everywhere. Sometimes they still say my name." Clark holds on, tight, the words a horrible whisper against his neck.
"Clark," he says, "Stop talking." The words come out harsh. He means them to. If Clark comes here for absolution, consolation, then he's come to the wrong place.
"I have to, Bruce!" Clark had said eight years ago.
"You don't have to do anything, Clark," Bruce had said. He'd walked away then. But he picked up the phone when it rang two months later.
Clark says nothing, falls silent. Bruce moves his hand from Clark's shoulder to his hair, pets it soothingly. Clark's always cried easily, much to Bruce's irritation. Every disaster, atrocity, and Clark would be crying. Sometimes even when he was just happy. Bruce waits for it now, but Clark doesn't. He hasn't seen Clark cry in eight years. Soon, Clark's breathing evens out, asleep.
Bruce leans slightly down, kisses him on the forehead, the kiss one would give a lover, a child. The kiss of death, a promise. For the past two years, he's been accruing small amounts of kryptonite on the black market, having it synthesized. He won't have enough for a lethal dose for another year or two. But when he does, he'll do it here, this room where Clark will be the most trusting, vulnerable. He'll put them both out of their misery. Yes, both, for Clark won't go gently into that good night. He's sure to struggle, take Bruce with him.
For now, the phone will ring and Bruce will answer. For now, they'll sleep in this room.
Clark shifts, throws a sleep heavy arm around him. Bruce stays where he is. This is the longest physical relationship, the most consistent, that Bruce has ever had. He's used to this. He drifts off.
And Bruce is in the cowl again. They're all there, the Justice League. Diana, Hal, Barry, the others. They're in the middle of a fight, but Bruce can't make out the menace. Whatever it is, it's big. He barks out an order, runs. Runs right off the roof of a building. Bruce reaches for his grappling hook. He should make the connection, the final leap, easily. He misses and he falls.
Clark swoops in, grabs him before he hits the ground. He's grinning. "Got you," he says.
Bruce is confused. He sees that grin all the time. It's annoying. He hasn't seen it in eight years. He misses it.
Of course Superman saves the day. Superman always saves the day.
Once, even though he resented it, once, Bruce had believed it too.